I glanced at my watch. Ten minutes to midnight. The vampire would be back soon, and despite hours of careful preparation, I wasn't ready for him.
A ghost's head popped through the wall, the rest of his body concealed by the wood barrier. He took one look around the room and a frown appeared on his filmy visage.
"You're not going to make it."
I yanked the wire through the hole I'd drilled into the ceiling's rafter, careful not to shift my weight too far or I'd fall off the ladder I was balanced on. Fabian was right, but I wasn't ready to concede defeat.
"When he pulls up, stall him."
"How am I supposed to do that?" he asked.
Good question. Unlike humans, vampires could see ghosts, but tended to ignore them as a general rule. While this vampire showed more respect to the corporeal-impaired, he still wouldn't stop to have a lengthy chat with one before entering his home.
"Can't you improvise? You know, make some loud pounding noises or cause the outer walls to bleed?"
The ghost shot me a look that said my witticism wasn't appreciated. "You watch too many movies, Cat."
Then Fabian vanished from sight, but not before I heard him muttering about unfair stereotypes.
I finished twisting together the wires along the ceiling. If all went well, as soon as the vampire came through that door, I'd use my remote transmitter to unload a surprise onto his head. Now, to set up the last of the contraptions I'd planned -
The unmistakable sound of a car approaching almost startled me into falling off the ladder. Damn it, the vampire was back! No time to rig any other devices. I barely had enough time to conceal myself.
I leapt off the ladder and carried it as noiselessly as I could to the closet. The last thing I needed was a bunch of metallic clanging to announce that something unusual was going on. Then I swept up the silver knives I'd left on the floor. It wouldn't do for the vampire to see those right off.
I'd just crouched behind one of the living-room chairs when I heard a car door shut and then Fabian's voice.
"You won't believe what I found around the edge of your property," the ghost announced. "A cave with prehistoric paintings inside it!"
I rolled my eyes. That was the best tactic Fabian could come up with? This was a vampire he was trying to stall. Not a paleontologist.
"Good on you," an English voice replied, sounding utterly disinterested. Booted footsteps came to the door, but then paused before going further. I sucked in a breath I no longer needed. No cars were in the driveway, but did the vampire sense that several people lurked out of sight, waiting to pounce on him as soon as he crossed that threshold?
"Fabian," that cultured voice said next. "Are you sure there isn't anything else you want to tell me?"
A hint of menace colored the vampire's tone. I could almost picture my friend quailing, but his reply was instant.
"No. Nothing else."
"All right," the vampire said after a pause. The knob turned. "Your exorcism if you're lying."
I stayed hidden behind the chair, a silver knife gripped in one hand and the remote transmitter in the other. When the sound of boots hit the wood floor inside the house, I pressed the button and leapt up at the same time.
Confetti unleashed from the ceiling onto the vampire's head. With a whiplike motion, I threw my knife and severed the ribbon holding closed a bag of balloons above him. Those floated down more slowly, and by the time the first one hit the floor, the vampires who'd been concealed in the other rooms had come out.
"Happy birthday," they called out in unison.
"It's not every day someone turns two hundred and forty-five," I added, kicking balloons aside as I made my way to the vampire in the doorway.
A slow smile spread across his features, changing them from gorgeous to heart-stopping. Of course, my heart had stopped beating - for the most part - over a year ago, so that was my normal condition.
"This is what you've been so secretive about lately?" Bones murmured, pulling me into his arms once I got close.
I brushed a dark curl from his ear. "They're not just here for your birthday, they're staying for the holidays, too. We're going to have a normal, old-fashioned Christmas for once. Oh, and don't exorcise Fabian; I made him try to stall you. If you were ten minutes later, I'd have had streamers set up, too."
His chuckle preceded the brush of lips against my cheek; a cool, teasing stroke that made me lean closer in instinctive need for more.
"Quite all right. I'm sure I'll find a use for them."
Knowing my husband, he'd find several uses for them, and at least one of those would make me blush.
I moved aside to let Bones get enveloped in well-wishes from our guests. In addition to Fabian and his equally transparent girlfriend floating above the room, Bones's best friend, Spade, was here. So was Ian, the vampire who sired Bones; Mencheres, his young-looking vampire version of a grandfather; his girlfriend, Kira; and my best friend, Denise. She was the only one in the room with a heartbeat, making her seem human to anyone who didn't know better. Our guest list was small, because inviting everyone Bones knew for an extended birthday/holiday bash would require me renting a football stadium. Therefore, only Bones's closest companions were present.
Well, all except one.
"Anybody heard from Annette?" I whispered to Denise when she left Bones's side and returned to mine.
She shook her head. "Spade tried her twenty minutes ago, but she didn't answer her cell."
"Wonder what's keeping her."
Annette might not be my favorite person, considering her previous, centuries-long "friends with benefits" relationship with Bones, but she'd be last on the list of people I'd expect to skip his birthday party. Her ties with Bones went all the way back to when both of them were human, and in fairness, Annette seemed to have accepted that her position in his life was now firmly in the "friends without benefits" category.
"She flew in from London to be here," Denise noted. "Seems odd that she'd decide a thirty-minute car commute was too much."
"What's this?" Bones asked, making his way over.
I waved a hand, not wanting to spoil the festive mood. "Nothing. Annette must be running behind."
"Some bloke rang her right before we left the hotel. She said she'd catch up with us," Spade said, coming to stand behind Denise. With his great height, her head was barely even with his shoulders, but neither of them seemed to mind. Black hair spilled across his face as he leaned down to kiss her neck.
"Why am I the only one without someone to snog?" Ian muttered, giving me an accusatory glance. "Knew I should've brought a date."
"You didn't get to bring a date because the type of girl you'd pick would want to liven things up with a group orgy before cutting the cake," I pointed out.
His smile was shameless. "Exactly."
I rolled my eyes. "Deal with not being the center of slutty attention for once, Ian. It'll do you good."
"No it won't," he said, shuddering as if in horror. "Think I'll go to the hotel and see what's taking Annette."
Denise snorted. "Way to make do with who's available."
I bit back my laugh with difficulty. Denise's opinion of Ian - and Annette - was even worse than my own, but that didn't make her wrong. Still, out of respect for both of them being Bones's friends, I contained my snicker.
Far from being offended, Ian archly rose his brows. "Just following the American adage about turning a frown upside-down."
Mencheres, ever the tactful one, chose that moment to glide over. "Perhaps we should turn our attention to gifts."
Bones clapped Ian on the back. "Don't take too long, mate."
"I'll try to limit myself to an hour," Ian replied with a straight face.
"Pig," I couldn't help but mutter. Hey, I'd tried to rein myself in! If vampires could still get diseases, I'd wish a festering case of herpes on him, but I suppose it was a good thing that Ian's ability to carry or transmit STDs died with his humanity.
Ian left, chuckling to himself the whole time.
Bones's arm slid across my shoulders, his fingers stroking my flesh along the way. I'd worn a backless halter dress, because I knew he wouldn't be able to resist that bare expanse of skin, and I was right. Heat spilled over my emotions in its own caress as Bones dropped his shields so I could access his feelings. The tie that existed between us wasn't only forged in love. It was also the blood-deep, eternal link between a vampire and their sire. Bones had changed me from a half-vampire into a mostly-full one, and ever since, I could tap into his emotions like they were an extension of my own. There had been some serious drawbacks to my changing over, but I'd do it again just to have that level of intimacy between us.
Of course, that wasn't the only undead perk. The ability to heal instantly, fly, and mesmerize people didn't suck, either.
"Do you know how lovely you look?" he asked, his voice deepening in timber. Hints of glowing green appeared in his dark brown eyes, a visual cue of his appreciation.
I leaned in to whisper my reply. "Tell me later, when everyone's gone."
His laugh was low and promising. "That I will, Kitten."
We went into the next room, where a pile of presents awaited. Vampires had been called many things, but "stingy" usually wasn't among them. Bones had barely made a dent in opening his gifts before his cell phone rang. He glanced at the number with a chuckle.
"Ian, don't tell me you and Annette are too occupied to return," he said in lieu of a hello.
Supernatural hearing meant that I picked up every word of Ian's clipped reply.
"You need to get over here. Now."
Bones and I were the only ones to enter the resort. The rest of our group stayed in the parking lot, keeping watch to make sure events didn't go from bad to worse with an ambush. Most people at the inn were sleeping this time of night, which I was grateful for. No intrusive chatter barraging my mind thanks to my unwanted ability to overhear humans' thoughts. Just the softer hum from dreams, which was as easy to tune out as your average background noise.
Once I followed Bones inside the Appalachian suite Annette had rented, however, the tranquil atmosphere shattered. Crimson streaked the walls, wood floors, and, in heavier quantities, the mattress. From the scent, it was Annette's blood, not someone else's. I expected the room to show signs of a fierce struggle, but not a stick of furniture seemed out of place.
Ian stood in the far corner of the room, his normally mocking countenance drawn into harsh lines of anger.
"In there," he said, jerking his head at the closed bathroom door.
Bones reached it in three long strides, but I hesitated. Ian hadn't told us if Annette was alive, just said to get here immediately. If Annette's body waited on the other side of that door, maybe I should give Bones a minute alone. She was the first vampire he'd ever made; her death would hit him hard. But even as I braced myself to comfort him, I heard a feminine, chiding voice.
"Really, Crispin, you shouldn't have come. You're missing your own party."
My brows shot up. Aside from calling Bones by his human name, which only a handful of people did, those upper-crust British tones identified the speaker as Annette. So much for her being dead. Hell, she didn't even sound fazed, as if her blood wasn't decorating the room in enough quantities to make it look like the inside of a slaughterhouse.
"I'm missing my own party? Have you lost your wits?" Bones asked her, echoing my own thoughts.
The door opened and Annette appeared. She wore only a robe, her strawberry-blond hair wet from what I guessed was a recent shower. This was one of the rare occasions I'd seen her without her face perfectly made up or her hair styled to the nines, and it made her look more vulnerable. Less like the undead bombshell who'd tried to scare me off when we first met, and more like a woman who seemed on the verge of tears despite her unfaltering smile.
"What a state this room is in," she said, letting out an embarrassed little laugh.
"Annette." Bones grasped her shoulders and forced her to look at him. "Who hurt you?"
Her hands fluttered on his arms, as if she wanted to push him away but didn't dare. "I don't know. I've never seen him before."
Bones studied the room, no doubt picking up nuances that even my battle-practiced gaze had missed. Two hundred years as an undead hit man made him formidable when it came to noticing incriminating details. Annette remained silent, the faint lines on her face deeper from her frown.
"You're lying," Bones finally said. "No forced entry on the doors, no signs of jimmying, so you let him in. Then you didn't struggle when he cut you, didn't wake the other guests with cries for help, and didn't call me though your bloody fingerprints are on your mobile. Ian, did you see who it was?"
"No, but I think I scared the sod off," Ian replied. "The window was open, and I heard something too fast to be human dashing away from the balcony, but I stayed with her instead of giving chase."
That surprised me. Ian loved few things more than a nasty brawl. Annette must be one of the few people he cared about, for him to be responsible by protecting her and calling for backup instead of indulging in a murderous game of hide-and-seek.
Though undead healing abilities meant there wasn't a scratch on her now, sometime after the others left to come to my house, at least one vampire had shown up and tortured the hell out of Annette. What made no sense was why she wouldn't tell us who it was, if Bones was right and she knew. Aside from the scent of blood, a harsh aroma hung in the room, a pungent combination of chemicals that seared my nose when I took in a breath. No use trying to determine her attacker by scent.