Previously published in the HEX ON THE BEACH anthology with authors Kelley Armstrong and Melissa Marr.
Vampire Cat Crawfield is experiencing a new role as a mother. Turns out, trying to manage a perfect domestic life for her daughter is more…challenging than Cat ever imagined. Since things have finally quieted down in the undead world, her husband, Bones, suggests that Cat recharge by spending a girls-only getaway with her best friend, Denise.
Cat and Denise intend to spend the week doing nothing more than dancing, drinking, and sightseeing. Unfortunately, they stumble across a deadly summer solstice ritual performed by powerful witches who have no intention of letting their uninvited guests live to reveal what they saw. Will this girls-only getaway turn out to be the last vacation – ever! – for Cat and Denise?
Excerpt from A Grave Girls’ Getaway. Copyright © 2021 Jeaniene Frost. All rights reserved
I was not spying on my daughter. I wasn’t.
Sure, I was flying to the spot in the woods where Katie was, but that wasn’t to avoid her hearing my footsteps. It was just…convenience. If you came from a line of flight-capable Master vamps like I did, would you dirty your shoes by trudging through the dirt and leaves?
And sure, I was avoiding branches that would snap in a telltale way if I got too close, but that didn’t prove anything. Why ruin the natural sounds of the forest?
Okay, fine, my slowing down and ducking behind a tree when I glimpsed Katie was incriminating, but why couldn’t a mother enjoy a few private moments admiring her recently discovered daughter? Katie was lovely, with auburn-colored hair, the same dark gray eyes as mine, skin like sunlight on snow, and an uncommon gracefulness that was on full display as she danced among the trees.
If I still breathed, my breath would have caught as I watched her. I’d had her in my life less than three years, so I didn’t have the memories most parents had of watching their babies coo in the crib, or laugh for the first time, or take their first steps, but I could watch Katie dance now, and it was indescribably beautiful. No prima ballerina had Katie’s grace, precision, or speed.
And that was why we still had to keep her hidden. Those traits would reveal that Katie wasn’t fully human. Mixed species people might be legal now, but Katie’s particular blend of species had almost caused two undead wars before.
I was about to call out to her when she suddenly turned a pirouette into a roundhouse kick that leveled a nearby birch tree. Another spinning combination took out a larger spruce to her left, and then a ferocious roll-and-kick combo felled three evergreens in a row. As the coup de grâce, she ripped the stump of the nearest toppled evergreen out of the ground, and then held it up by its roots as if the stump were a decapitated head.
Dammit! Katie wasn’t out here secretly dancing. She was practicing killing. Again.
I knew something was up with all her recent “walks.” That’s why I was spying on her—and yes, I had known all along that I was spying. Don’t judge; motherhood was still very new and overwhelming to me. Hell, I hadn’t even known I was a mother until a few years ago, when I found out that—while I was unconscious—my eggs had been harvested, fertilized, and implanted into a surrogate. Sound impossible? So does a half-vampire working for a secret branch of Homeland Security that polices murderously misbehaving members of the undead society, but that was my old job. Unbeknownst to me, I’d also been a guinea pig for a shadowy government official who’d been trying to create a paranormal super soldier. He’d succeeded with Katie, and though she was only ten years old, all the growth hormones they’d pumped into her meant that she looked several years older. The worst part, though, was by the time I found her she’d already racked up a body count that would do a hardened mercenary proud.
I’d spent the last few years trying to undo the brutal tutelage Katie had received when she was the government’s secret weapon, hoping that with time, she would forget much of her early years. My husband, Bones, and I had given Katie as normal a life as we could, especially considering that we were both vampires hiding out from the vampire world because of Katie’s unique combination of species.
We thought we’d been making progress with Katie, yet here she was practicing killing people again despite being told that killing was wrong. Did she think I couldn’t protect her? Or did…did she miss killing people?
If she were human, I could read her mind and know the answer, but Katie was inhuman enough for her thoughts to be locked away. That left me guessing, and I couldn’t come up with any innocent reason for what she was doing. Despair pricked me. Maybe I hadn’t given Katie enough “normal” to help undo the massive psychological damage done to her. Was that why she was reverting back to her old behaviors?
My lips tightened as I shoved my despair aside. If my daughter needed more normal in order to break free from her horrifying past, then fine. I’d deliver an ass-ton of it.
Later, I gripped my knife so hard that my knuckles whitened. I’d been in many battles before, but seldom had my nerves been stretched this tight.
“You’d better be worth it,” I said to my prey.
One hard slice later, my hopes shattered. “Mother…fudger!” I swore, altering the curse just in time.
A stifled laugh behind me increased my ire. I whirled to see my mother turning away with her hand covering her traitorously twitching lips.
“I told you to take the turkey out half an hour ago,” Justina murmured.
Yes, well, the meat thermometer hadn’t registered 165 degrees then, and the recipe said poultry had to be cooked to at least 165 degrees. I gave the meat thermometer an evil look. Either it was broken, or it was possessed by the spirit of a vengeful chef bent on destroying my attempts at a nice family dinner. Hey, stranger things had happened.
“Sorry. Dinner’s going to suck, but on the bright side, no one’s getting salmonella from this burnt offering.”
“You’re all vampires, and I’m not fully human, so salmonella can’t harm any of us,” Katie replied. Her tone was faintly quizzical, as if she was trying to hide her surprise that I hadn’t figured that out for myself.
“I know, honey,” I said gently. “I was making a joke.”
“Ah,” she said. Then, she smiled a little too wide. “Of course. Your joke was very entertaining!”
Now I was the one smiling. Despite Katie’s many skills, she had yet to master lying. It was almost comforting.
“Don’t fret,” Bones replied, getting up and moving into the kitchen. “That bird will do nicely with the right roux. Give me a few minutes, Kitten.”
I left the kitchen, defeated by it once again. No matter how many recipes I tried, I still couldn’t cook to save my life.
Bones began whisking the pan drippings while adding wine, spices, flour, and other ingredients. Soon, the aroma was heavenly. His roux, or gravy, as we Americans called it, was so good that it made even the overcooked turkey delicious.
By the end of dinner, I would have called tonight a success, except for what Katie said after taking her plate to the sink: “I’m going for a walk in the woods.”
Granted, ten o’clock at night might be well past bedtime for a human child, but for a household of vampires, it was barely evening. Also, our nearest neighbor was several acres away in this stretch of forested land in Mission, British Columbia, Canada, so she was safe. Still, I tensed.
Going for a walk, my ass!
I had to handle this. I just wasn’t sure how to do so yet.
“Fine, but don’t be gone too long.”
I waited until I couldn’t hear Katie’s footsteps anymore before I said, “She’s up to no good out there.”
My mother’s eyes widened. “She isn’t smoking, is she?”
“I wish,” I replied with feeling.
Justina gave me an appalled glance. My wave dismissed it.
“That would at least be an expected form of pre-teen rebellion. She’s sneaking off to practice killing.”
Saying it out loud made it more real. Guilt, grief, and rage scalded me with its usual toxic mixture. I saved Katie from the human monsters that had held her captive, so why couldn’t I save her from the horrible things she’d learned from them?
“You’ve been spying on her?” Bones sounded more surprised by that than he was by hearing of Katie’s activities.
“I prefer ‘practicing attentive parenting,’” I muttered.
His look plainly said, Who are you bullshitting?
I threw up my hands. “Fine! Spying on her is messed up, but that’s hardly our main concern, is it?”
“Kitten, we told Katie it was wrong to kill anyone who wasn’t trying to harm her, but we never told her that she couldn’t still train.”
My eyes widened. “Isn’t that focusing on the letter of the law while ignoring the intent?”
“Maybe training is just familiar to her?” my mother said.
Justina, the excuse-making, indulgent grandmother? Never would’ve pegged her for that, but here she was, showing Katie more understanding for her trial slaughters than she’d shown me my entire childhood.
“She wasn’t just shadowboxing, Mom. She was kicking trees in half and then decapitating their fallen stumps.”
And appearing to enjoy it. That worried me the most. Had she enjoyed killing people in her former life?
Bones didn’t look concerned. For a second, something flashed across his face that looked traitorously like approval.
“Oh, come on,” I snapped. “She’s just a child!”
His dark brown eyes seemed to stare into my soul. “Yes, but she’s no ordinary child, and you know it. So, what’s really bothering you about this, Kitten?”
“I keep screwing things up with her!”
The words burst from me while emotions that I tried not to think about, let alone show, exploded free like a cork shooting out of a shaken-up champagne bottle.
“I wasn’t there for the first seven years of her life when she was experimented on and forced into becoming a killer,” I said, trying to regain control. “Now? What sort of mother am I? I can’t cook, I keep dropping f-bombs, I could barely stitch the tear in her favorite pants, and, oh yeah, I’m spying on her.”
My mother stood, not appearing to notice that she upended her chair with her fast, jerky movements.
“You love your daughter as she is.” Her voice vibrated, and I was shocked to see her eyes shine with unshed tears. I could count on one hand the number of times I’d seen my mother cry.
“I failed to do that with you when you were growing up, and it almost killed you. Don’t worry about the other stuff. Keep loving your daughter unconditionally, Catherine, and unlike me, you’ll always be a wonderful mother.”
With that, she left. Moments later, I heard her car start, and then the spin of gravel as she pulled away.
“Your mum is right.”
Bones’s statement broke the silence. I turned toward him, a humorless smile tugging my mouth.
“You and my mom agreeing? Is it the apocalypse again?”
He smiled back although his gaze was serious. “Hope not, but still, she’s right. You’d see it, too, if you weren’t so busy punishing yourself for what happened to Katie before we found her.”
Damn Bones. He always cut to the heart of matters, and worse, he frequently used logic as his scalpel.
“I know I’m not responsible for what was done to Katie, but I feel like I am,” I admitted. “Maybe, deep down, Katie feels that way, too? Maybe that’s why she’s acting out this way?”
Bones let out a soft snort. “Kitten, Katie isn’t doing this because she blames you for what happened to her.”
Bones gave me an unfathomable look. “Ask her, but not now. Ask her after you’ve had a mental break from trying to make up for every evil deed that someone else committed against her. That way, you’ll be able to truly hear her answer.”
“How do you propose I get this cleansing mental break?” I said with a wry scoff. “Give myself a lobotomy?”
His lip curled. “Those don’t work on vampires, so we’ll go with the more effective option of going on a getaway.”
I waited, but he didn’t follow up with ‘just kidding!’ “You think I’ll stop worrying about Katie if we’re off somewhere where neither of us can make sure that she’s okay?”
“’Course not,” he replied in an easygoing tone. “That’s why I’ll be staying behind, and you’ll go.”
I laughed. He only arched a brow.
“I’m quite serious. Denise was just saying it’s been too long since she’s seen you. I’m sure she’d love the chance to catch up, and Charles can certainly spare her for a week.”
Charles was Bones’s best friend, just like Denise was mine. I hadn’t seen her in several months, and I missed her, but…
“I can’t just up and leave. Katie—”
“Will be fine,” Bones interrupted. “I’ll be here, your mum and Tate are right down the road, and your uncle still floats by frequently though the spectral sod thinks I don’t know it.”
“That sounds great, but…uh…”
“Can’t imagine doing something solely for yourself?” Bones let out a knowing grunt. “Like most good mums, you’re too focused on everyone else, and now you’re burnt out from taking on too much. Time to recharge, luv. You deserve it. I’ll miss you, but we both know you won’t relax unless I’m here with Katie, so ring Denise and tell her you’re inviting her to a girls-only getaway. She’ll love it.”
I had no doubt. I kind of loved it, too, even if I had already started to think of a hundred reasons why I shouldn’t do it. Still, I hadn’t had a vacation in…God, several years.
“Fine. I’ll call Denise.”
“Call her later. Now, we’re making the most of Katie being out of the house. Have to give you a good reason to miss me, don’t I?”
He gave me a heated glance while a far hotter emotion slid through my subconscious, suffusing me with tantalizing sensations. He’d changed me into a full vampire, and that bond meant I felt his emotions as if they were my own—if he wanted me to. He wanted me to now, and when he grabbed me, his low laugh teased my lips before his mouth covered mine.
I barely noticed the blur of household fixtures as Bones flew us out of the kitchen and up the stairs. When we reached our bedroom, the door closed behind us on its own, and my clothes came off without either of us touching them.
Cooking wasn’t the only thing Bones excelled at. He’d also become a fairly powerful telekinetic, and he’d expanded his abilities far beyond moving simple objects with his mind. My moan turned into a gasp as both his hands and his power slid over me, caressing and teasing with knowing, skillful touches. Then my gasps turned into cries when his mouth replaced his hands, and his tongue shot honeyed fire through my veins.
I writhed beneath him, too caught up to say more than a panted “Now!” as I tried to pull him up from between my thighs.
His laugh hit my flesh like an erotic brush of feathers.
“Not yet, Kitten. I did say you needed some ‘you’ time, didn’t I? Let me get back to work on that…”
By the time I left on my trip, I was feeling far less guilty. Katie seemed to look forward to having some one-on-one time with Bones. In fact, they’d both all but shoved me out the door. I mused on that as I waited for Denise. Maybe in my attempt to be an attentive mom, I’d been smothering Katie? How did anyone manage to raise a kid without constantly screwing up?
I turned to see a beautiful woman with long, mahogany-colored hair and hazel eyes running across the hotel lobby toward me. I barely had a second to brace myself before Denise launched herself at me. Her momentum swung us in a circle, and I found myself breathing in her familiar scent of honey and jasmine as I hugged her back.
She caught what I was doing and laughed. “You’re smelling me, aren’t you?”
I grinned, sheepish. “Sorry, but hey, at least I didn’t give you an exploratory bite, too.”
She snorted. “I’m not your brand, remember?”
No, she wasn’t. Because of my funky half-breed lineage, I was the only vampire who didn’t drink human blood. Instead, I fed from other vampires, not that most of my kind knew that. That’s why I had a couple bags of Bones’s blood packed in with my clothes. Sure, I could eat real food, but it didn’t nourish or strengthen me the way vampire blood did.
Denise gave me a wide grin. “I’m so glad you’re really here! I kept thinking some emergency would make you cancel.”
I fought a wince. I’d cancelled lots of plans with her in the past several years. Guess that made me a bad friend in addition to my questionable mothering abilities. In my defense, someone had usually been trying to kill me during all the times I’d cancelled. Fighting off an attempted murderer was hardly a “the more, the merrier!” type of occasion.
“Nope. I’m here, and we’re going to have so much fun.”
“You bet, and look at this place!”
She waved at the sumptuous lobby, where the huge domed ceiling hung like a crown over the ornately designed floor. All that paled next to the magnificent views of the Pacific Ocean through the many windows. The Ritz Carlton at Half Moon Bay sprawled on top of steep bluffs like a modern version of a medieval castle. Only a narrow strip of beach ran between those bluffs and the surf, and further up that sandy stretch, there were tide pools that would soon be swallowed up by the incoming high tide.
“The ocean in front of us, and redwood forests behind us,” Denise continued. “Plus, the clubs in San Francisco are only half an hour away. This is perfect! I wasn’t expecting this, to be honest.” She paused to grin again when I squirmed, and then teased, “Bones picked this place out, didn’t he?”
Denise knew my thriftiness would never allow me to splurge like this, even if I thought it was perfect, too.
“Of course he did.”
She laughed. “I’ll compliment him on his taste later. Now, let’s get dressed in something fabulous. Tomorrow, we’re hiking in the redwoods or going horseback riding on the beach, but tonight, we’re shutting down the clubs.”
I couldn’t remember the last time I’d gone to a club just to have fun. Mostly, I went clubbing to hunt and kill vampires. Tonight, though, all I’d be a danger to were gin and tonics.
“Sounds great, and if you like this, wait until you see our rooms. We have our own mini cottage on the beach.”
Denise groaned in mock ecstasy. I grinned as I made a mental note to call Bones later and thank him. Maybe he was right, and this break was just what I needed. I already felt better, and the night hadn’t even begun yet.
Several hours later, Denise and I walked down the beach, both of us holding our shoes instead of wearing them. The foamy surf came closer, threatening to soak our feet. Our hotel was still a few miles ahead, but we’d chosen to walk since it was such a lovely night. Still, the incoming tide might force us to change that plan.
It wouldn’t be the first time we’d changed our plans tonight. So much for shutting down the clubs. We hadn’t even lasted until midnight before both of us decided to head back. Even now, Denise shook her head, bemused.
“Were clubs always that loud? I could hardly hear a word you said, and damn, were we the only ones not high? I swear, I saw twenty pill handoffs at that last place, and some of those kids looked like teenagers!”
I let out an amused sniff. “They weren’t. They only looked that young because we’re getting older.”
“Thirties is not old,” she said at once.
“Of course it isn’t, but it’s old enough to admit when we’re not having a good time versus staying and faking it.”
She shook her head. “I don’t get it. I used to love dancing all night. Now? My feet hurt, my ears are ringing, and I want to curl up on the couch and order dessert from room service.”
I laughed. “That sounds great to me, too.”
Denise gave me a wry grin. “I’m still kinda human, but you’re a vampire. What’s your excuse for crapping out early?”
“Spending time with you,” I replied. “Like you said, it was too loud to talk before, and I’ve missed you.”
“I’ve missed you, too.”
We kept walking, chatting with an openness we hadn’t managed in a while. Calls, texts, and video chats were great, but they didn’t beat the joy of being together.
Soon, we reached what was left of the tide pools. I slowed my stride to avoid slipping, and then caught Denise’s shoulder when she almost stumbled on the uneven rock.
“Want to head back to the street and call a Lyft?” I asked.
“Or you could fly us over these,” she pointed out.
I could, but vampires had kept their existence hidden from humanity because we avoided public displays of power. Still, it was pitch dark, and the nearest hotel was a good mile away. I sent my senses outward. Nope, I didn’t hear anyone else along the beach…Wait. I strained my senses more.
There. Someone was in the caves tucked into the bluffs bordering the beach and the sea. If I were human, I wouldn’t have heard the low murmur of voices that almost blended with the sounds of the surf, and I really wouldn’t have caught the new tang to the air before the sea spray snatched it away.
Still, that brief, sharp, new scent was unmistakable, especially to a vampire.
“Earth to Cat,” Denise began.
I pressed a finger to my lips in the universal gesture for silence. Then, I leaned in and whispered, “Stay here. Something’s wrong,” against her ear.
Maybe that blood was from a normal crime, or maybe I wasn’t the only person out here with supernaturally great hearing.
I flew toward the sounds and the smell of blood.
At first, I was confused when I reached the spot where the scent and sounds were strongest. Nothing but smooth, unbroken cliff wall met my gaze. Where was the entrance? There had to be one, and…what was that? A new, stronger wave had swept seawater all the way up to the cliff. It stopped everywhere except in one spot, where the water somehow disappeared into the rock.
I tried to touch that spot, and like the water, my hand vanished as it appeared to go through the wall of stone. I pulled it out and did it again. Same result, only this time, I concentrated and felt cool air coming from the side where I could no longer see my hand.
This part of the wall wasn’t real. It was glamour, the term for a magical mirage. To use this, someone really didn’t want their bloodletting interrupted.
I felt around until I found the rest of the entrance. Then, I squeezed into the hidden cave. Once inside, the glamour disappeared, revealing a narrow passageway. The smell of blood pointed my way, as did the sounds that I realized were chants in an unfamiliar language. Now, I caught snatches of thoughts, too.
…can’t be happening…oh God, no…no, please, stop!
Chanting, pleas, magic, and blood—never a good combination.
I kept going, ducking when a new, flickering light appeared after a sharp bend in the tunnel. I could pick out several voices from the chants, and underneath them, the ominous sounds of grunts, as if someone was trying to scream and couldn’t.
I pulled a knife from its sheath beneath my skirt. Since I found out at sixteen that silver through the heart killed vampires, I’d never left home without one. I’d barely palmed the silver blade when icy water soaked me to the ankles.
The incoming tide had reached the cave. This whole place would be underwater soon. I might be beyond drowning, but whoever was bleeding wasn’t.
Fuck being stealthy. It wasn’t my style, anyway.
“Housekeeping!” I sang out, and flew around the corner.
Nine hooded heads jerked up. The robed figures all appeared to be women, and four of them were vampires. Weak ones, if their auras could be trusted. Must be why I hadn’t felt their energy before now. Strong vampires usually gave off vibes like an electrical current.
“Get out,” a vampire with hair as red as my own snapped.
Torchlight revealed runes and other ancient markings drawn onto the cave walls. The women were standing around a pentagram that had a gagged, panicked boy inside it. He couldn’t have been more than seventeen, and runes had been carved onto his chest, leaving bloody trails running down his body. No surprise, the mental pleas I’d overhead were coming from him.
“Hell no,” I said, pissed for more reasons than their clear intention to murder this kid. “Less than a year after magic’s been declared legal, you bitches are doing a ritual sacrifice of a teenager? First, that’s evil, and second, are you trying to give the vampire council a reason to ban magic again? Innocent witches did not fight so hard for freedom from persecution for you selfish schmucks to fuck it up this way!”
The redhead wasn’t the only one giving me an incredulous look. Guess the last thing they expected was a lecture, but magic wasn’t the only thing that the vampire council had recently declared to be legal. Mixed species people like Katie were now legal, too, and it wasn’t a stretch to assume that if one law got overturned because of assholes like these witches, the other law would get overturned, too.
“We obey no earthly council,” the redheaded vampire hissed. “And you have sealed your fate, intruder. Now, we will have two sacrifices to give our goddess instead of one.”
Oh, she’d picked the wrong girl on the wrong night. Anticipation thrummed through me. Hiding with Katie had retired me from my former ass-kicking lifestyle, and I hadn’t realized how much I missed it until now.
More water rushed around my ankles. It was now up to the bloody boy’s cheek since they had him restrained to the cave floor. He flailed, the stench of his fear almost choking.
Don’t worry, kid. You’re not dying on my watch.
I snapped his restraints with a single, concentrated thought. One perk of being a freaky vampire who fed from other vampires was that I temporarily absorbed any powers the other vampire had. Bones was my favorite food, and since he was telekinetic, I had some of that power, too. I wasn’t nearly as good at it as he was, but small, inanimate objects were easy.
“What?” the redheaded leader said in shock.
I gave her a nasty smile. “Yeah, and that’s not all I’ve got.”