#BlackFriday: Christmas Past, Christmas Future by Joey W. Hill

Joey W HillIt’s that time…Black Friday is here and we’re discussing the season with Joey W. Hill’s Cai and Rand from Vampire’s Soul.

Loss left them only rage…Until they found each other…

Cai doesn’t want to be with anyone. He doesn’t want a damn servant, he doesn’t want to be associated with damn vampires. Rand just wants to forget his human side, stay in his wolf form and find a satisfying and hopefully violent, bloody way to bring it all to an end.

But when a young female vampire’s life is at stake, the Vampire Council drafts Cai to enter a dark world he never wanted to visit again. Rand is too honorable to let him go alone, and the only way that can work is if he’s Cai’s fully marked servant, bound to the vampire for all eternity.

So fate decides these two lost souls need each other. Even if they have to tear each other apart to figure it out.

If Christmas Past, Christmas Future gets your interest, make sure you check out the first book in the Vampire Queen series, The Vampire Queen’s Servant.
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Christmas Past, Christmas Future

“It’s a smorgasbord,” Cai remarked. “I could take down a half-dozen and drain them dry, and no one would notice. They’d just trample the bodies and keep on going. I’d give you half of them to eat when I was done with them, by the way. It is the season of giving.”

He sat on the silver-painted concrete wall which overlooked a large fountain in the mall’s center courtyard. The perimeter of the fountain had been festooned with colorful autumn foliage. As Cai watched the hordes of people surging through the mall like a turbulent sea, his wolf-shifter, Rand, leaned against the same wall, his arms crossed. His broad shoulder brushed Cai’s jeans, the faded denim molded to his thigh. “Explain to me again, why we’re here?” Rand asked.

“Because I want to get you a vampire squeaky toy for Christmas,” Cai replied. “I need to know which color you like best. Why are you surly about the crowds? You’re the pack animal. I’m the solitary vampire.”

“Pack, yes. A mob rioting over designer mittens marked seventy percent off? No.”

“Ooh. I could use some new mittens. Ice-blue, to match my eyes.”

Rand sighed and hiked himself up on the wall with his muscular arms, sitting hip to hip with Cai. Cai appreciated the proximity, the heat of their flesh quickly permeating cloth, and turned to look at his shifter’s profile. Rand’s long, thick brown hair was tied back. A conservative and wise decision, since, when it was loose, he tended to attract even more attention. Now more than ever, with the mall cinema showing the Justice League movie, featuring the striking Jason Momoa, who had the same build and temptingly touchable mane of hair. Rand’s jeans clung in all the right places from hip to thigh, and his short-sleeved button-down shirt strained over his broad shoulders as he gripped the edge of the wall and canted forward, studying the pool below them with deep set brown eyes. The color and intelligent light contained within the steady irises reminded Cai of the copper and silver tossed coinage in the pool.

“I’m not sure if we’re supposed to be up here,” Rand said.

“Probably not, but the security guard doing the rounds is female. I think she’s cutting us some slack in the hopes that you’ll fuck her brains out behind the pilgrim and turkey topiary.”

Rand nodded absently. Cai bit back a smile, even as his brow furrowed, and he took a closer look at his wolf’s mental state. Rand was keeping a laser eye on everything happening around them, the line of his spine a little too straight. Since vampires could read the thoughts and emotions of their servants, Cai could tell the male wasn’t nervous, not exactly. He’d just rather be in the forest. Cai didn’t blame him. This amount of people was a little too much. And though he’d joked about it, he probably shouldn’t stay here much longer, either. The pulse of anyone coming within twenty feet of him was starting to sound like a dinner bell. But if he could pull Rand off somewhere quiet and take some blood from his servant, that would help.

An interesting thought. He imagined taking Rand into a dressing room at one of the department stores, putting his mouth to his throat, pinning him against the wall…

Rand turned and looked at him, their faces so close a strand of his hair that had escaped the binding brushed Cai’s nose. “We just did that before we left the house,” the shifter noted.

“Not the feeding part. It’s a great excuse to do it all again.”

He leaned in and tasted Rand’s mouth, scoring the full bottom lip with his fang. Rand let out a noise that was close to a growl and heated Cai’s blood. He eased back. Wouldn’t do to attract too much attention. Particularly since they were in Atlanta as a guest of Lady Lyssa, head of the Vampire Council.

“That’s what I meant,” Rand said. “Not why we’re here at the mall, but why we’re here in Atlanta.”

The comment proved he was listening in on Cai’s thoughts as well. Cai shrugged. “When the Council head says show up, it’s a good idea to show. No burning bridges.”

“You love to burn bridges. You carry a lighter, just so you never miss an opportunity.”

“Whatever. She offered free food.”

“You consume blood. I’m your servant. I supply it.”

Cai sighed. “You’re just being pissy because I’m considering her offer to be an emissary to the Trads.”

“No.” Rand shook his head and pinned him with his piercing Boy Scout look. “I’m mad because you’re considering doing it without me.”

Cai frowned. “Yeah. Because it went so well for you last time we had a run-in with the survivalist vampire fringe. How long did you have that limp?”

“You told me Goddard was a vicious anomaly, even among Trads,” Rand pointed out, ignoring the question. “And I think Lyssa assumes we’re a package deal. You get on people’s nerves. I settle them. We’re a balanced negotiating team.”

“Instigator and peacemaker?”

“Every good diplomatic team needs some of both,” Rand said.

“Not your fight. Or your species.”

Anger flashed through Rand’s eyes, revealing a more turbulent morass of emotions than Cai had realized. “You’re my fight. On too many levels, sometimes.” The shifter dropped off the wall and stalked away.

Cai shook his head, cursed. Then he pushed off the wall, landing lithely among some of the autumn-color silk ferns, and followed the male out into the considerable amount of foot traffic. Cai added a little hair-raising danger to his aura, a new talent he was playing with, but apparently one he hadn’t honed enough. A meager few people shifted unconsciously out of his way. However, apparently nothing short of a shotgun blast could break up ambling groups of obliviously chatting women and their clusters of shopping bags, causing ten-foot-wide barriers to forward progress.

Cai reminded himself that showing his fangs wouldn’t be a good idea, nor using vampire speed to pinball his way through the crowds. Fortunately, Rand had the same impediments, so Cai was able to catch up with him at a GameStop. Rand was staring at a display of video games in the window, probably considering gifts for Fane’s kids. The shifter family that lived in the West Virginia mountains had recently helped save their asses, so Cai might chip in on that gift.

But as he drew closer, Cai saw Rand wasn’t really looking at the display as much as staring blindly at it. It didn’t take being in his head to know he’d pissed the guy off. Fucking fuck. He hadn’t wanted to do that, but damn it. The guy mattered to him. A lot. And though Cai was starting to realize—in a pretty terrifying way—that his life was way better with Rand in it, he’d go without that just to keep him around. Meaning alive and on the planet.

Cai realized he was standing at Rand’s shoulder, staring in the window with him, neither of them really seeing what was there. Great, now they could be an annoying impediment for others trying to get past them, or see the display. There was some satisfaction in that, but not enough to balance the way Rand not being happy made Cai feel. He tried a conciliatory approach.

“When I said we came here for the free food, I was thinking of you. I know you like Lyssa’s cook.”

Rand raised his head, stared at him. “Fine,” Cai said shortly. “If I do this stupid-ass emissary thing, I will let you come and be stupid with me. Maybe. Okay?”

“You don’t ‘let’ me do anything,” Rand said.

Cai took the challenge for what it was and leaned in, baring fangs. “Want to bet? I’ll ‘let’ you suck my cock here and now, you keep pushing it.”

Rand snorted at that. He turned away, leaned against the wall and crossed his arms. Continued to look at Cai. Cai wasn’t going to say anything more, but words started to come out of his mouth. He really needed to shut up, but he hadn’t fixed it.

“I don’t want to put you in harm’s way again. You’ve been in harm’s way enough.”

“So have you.” The gold flecks in Rand’s deep blue eyes gleamed, and Cai picked up the emotions behind them this time. Rand didn’t want Cai going without him, for the mirror reason Cai didn’t want him to go. They were watching out for each other. A still relatively new and humbling feeling for Cai, that reciprocity.

Rand spoke again, evenly. “It could be argued we both deserve to settle down in some suburb house with a picket fence. Where the most exciting thing in our lives is the annual homeowners’ association meeting.”

“That’s worse than any psycho Trad. Don’t scare the shit out of me.”

A tiny smile tugged at Rand’s lips. “I don’t want you to think I’m unhappy to be here. I do like the Egyptian cotton towels Lyssa keeps in her guest bathrooms.”

“I’ll steal a couple to take with us.” Cai sighed. “So we’re adrenaline junkies. Is that what you’re telling me? We’re ruined for a boring, routine life?”

“No.” Rand sobered. “We’ve seen what evil can do. Once you do that, you have to fight it, so it can’t hurt others the way it’s hurt you and yours.”

Cai grimaced. “You assume I’m considering the job for the greater good. Lyssa could be promising me a castle and a cushy boatload of money.”

“You don’t care about that. You like the forest. You steal what you need, and you take no more than that.”

“Hmm. Speaking of which, Windrunner would love that game.” Turning back to the window, Cai pointed to one that had a tall Fae-looking female on the cover, holding a sword almost bigger than herself.

“We don’t have to steal it,” Rand told him. “I brought money.”

Why the double use of the word “steal” in reference to himself should bug Cai, he didn’t know. It was only the truth, and a way of life he’d never really questioned…until now. Maybe because he’d been entertaining a crazy thought, like snagging Rand a gift for Christmas. If Rand was buying gifts, that made Cai feel like he was…cheating?

He shoved that thought away. Fortunately, Rand didn’t act like he’d heard it. Since Rand could read Cai’s mind almost as well as Cai could read his, they had an unspoken agreement not to tune in for just run-of-the-mill daily thought type stuff. That mind-reading ability was the second most unique thing about Rand. The first most unique thing was the shifter part. Cai had a quick flashback to the run they’d taken through the acreage behind Lyssa’s mansion last night. Rand as a huge, gorgeous black wolf, his powerful body gathering and leaping over any obstacles in his path, dodging and weaving with mesmerizing grace, keeping pace with Cai.

Yeah, he had a different kind of servant. Most human servants were, well, all human. And they couldn’t get into a vampire’s head unless he or she let them.

Cai told himself he didn’t have to steal a gift. He had some money, money he’d gone back and taken from Goddard’s underground bunker after that useless piece of shit’s ass had been toasted. And he’d fucking earned that money, for all the years he’d been under the guy’s boot. So he wasn’t going to feel guilty about that. Cai decided to change the subject. “Guess what? Uthe and the pointy-eared sidekick are here.”

“The ones we met in the desert? Lord Uthe, and the Fae Lord who was going to turn you into a rat for me to eat, if you kept shooting off your mouth?”

“Keldwyn was all talk. That twenty-foot aura of power vibration is just a good scam. But yes, the same cheerful pair. Small world; Uthe is Lyssa’s right hand guy on the Council. And, weirdly, he said I’d be good at the emissary thing. Vouched for me. Apparently, he’s the son of a Trad.”

Rand digested that. “Well, if he thinks the Trads can see reason, that’s helpful. Reassuring. Right?”

“Maybe.” Cai suddenly realized the whole emissary thing was a can of worms he didn’t want to talk about right now. The reason was kind of odd, but he said it out loud regardless. “Let’s talk about it another time. I’d rather just…be here.” With you. He didn’t say that part, but Rand caught it.

“All right.” Rand gave him a wry smile. “So, now you can tell me why we’re here. At the mall.”

“It’s customary, when you’re staying somewhere for the holidays, to get a gift for the hostess, right? Jacob gave me some ideas.”

Rand’s brows rose. “You’re buying a gift for Lady Lyssa?”

“Jacob didn’t recommend that. Particularly when my best idea was a motion detector vampire bobble-head she could put on her desk that would say, “I vwant to drink your blooood,” every time someone sat down in front of it. But he suggested I pick up something for their son Kane and his friend John, the kid that lives there with his majordomo grandfather. You know, kids and Christmas. I hear it’s a thing.”

* * *

The vampire was full of surprises today. As he absorbed the unexpected revelation and change of topic, Rand followed Cai away from the computer store, though he made a mental note to swing back before they left the mall, to get the game Cai had mentioned. He was right. Windrunner, the courageous young daughter of his friend Fane, would likely love such a game. He winced as, in front of the display table at the opening to a department store, a woman hit a man with her purse. He’d snatched a ceramic object from her that looked like a peace dove. The irony. He cocked his head at Cai, a sudden thought alarming him.

“You’re not just messing with her, aren’t you? Lady Lyssa. For the free food and towels. You’re not going to imply you’ll do the emissary thing, then blow her off after the holidays?”

“That is absolutely my plan. As long as I can figure out how to run faster than you.” Cai made a face at him. “You know the saying—I don’t need to run faster than the scary vampire queen who wants to eviscerate us. I just have to run faster than the guy next to me.”

“And it helps that the whole vampire-servant mortality link isn’t a two-way thing,” Rand observed. “If you die, I die, but if I die…”

“I just feel really bad about it.” Cai shoved him. “Seriously, of course I’m not fucking with her.”

Rand shook his head, but he was both relieved and unsettled to know the vampire was sincere in his reasons for coming to Atlanta. Relieved that he wasn’t being stupid enough to yank Lyssa’s chain—because Rand wasn’t kidding about that lighter thing when it came to Cai—unsettled because Rand still wasn’t entirely sure Cai wouldn’t try to undertake the task without him. Well, if he attempted that, the vampire would find out just how good a tracker Rand was.

Cai shot him a hard-to-read look, but didn’t say anything. They stopped in front of another store, this one the pet supply place, with animatronic dogs and cats in the display window. They were standing in snow drifts, wearing elf hats and shoes. Their heads lifted up, down and around, looking at an array of sparkling snowflakes suspended on streamers. But Rand noticed Cai’s attention had been caught by something else. A family walking out of the store, a little boy and girl chattering about things they wanted for Christmas to their smiling mother and father. Though some people here looked stressed and in a hurry, that wasn’t the case with this family. The father’s arm was around his wife’s waist, her hand clasped by the little girl as the little boy gestured in an excited way, dancing around them.

“When was the last time you celebrated Christmas?” Rand asked Cai impulsively. He immediately felt a flash of regret, realizing the question might be fraught with bad memories. Cai had been taken forcibly from his family at fifteen years old. He’d never seen them again, and he was two hundred now.

Cai didn’t look at him, his gaze still on the family as they moved away into the crowds. “It’s okay,” he said, though. “It doesn’t bother me, Rand. I’m just trying to remember.”

Rand wasn’t sure he believed him. While Cai read his thoughts directly, like words on a page, Rand deduced the vampire’s thoughts from feelings, and he sensed there was a complicated reaction to his question. Cai wasn’t lying to him—after so many years, time and Cai’s ability to detach would have cushioned any emotional fallout that Christmas could bring. But Rand knew there were things deep in Cai’s soul that were dark, hungry, lonely. Their being together had started to shed some light and warmth there, bringing back things Cai hadn’t remembered or embraced for some time. Perhaps specifically because Rand asked questions like these. At least, Rand hoped that was the case.

As he waited for Cai’s answer, he studied the male. It was never a chore. His vampire’s dark hair was getting a little long, brushing his collar and falling over his forehead. Beneath some of the unruly strands, his oddly still silver-blue eyes remained fixed on the track the family had taken away from the store. Before long, he’d ask Rand to trim his hair. Cai had always done it himself until Rand offered, and he’d been better pleased with the shifter’s skill, so now he always had Rand handle the task.

The silver-blue eyes slid over to him. “Maybe it’s not that. Maybe I just enjoy having my own manservant, like one of those aristocratic English dudes. Jacob gives Lyssa mani-pedis.”

“Wouldn’t hold your breath on that from me,” Rand advised. He shifted out of the way as a pack of teenagers buzzed by, talking like a flock of birds and sharing music videos on their phones. Cai pressed a little closer to the male’s side.

“If this really bugs you, being amid all the crazy, you don’t have to hang with me. I can meet you back at the house. Or you can go take a nap in the car. I can swing back and get the game for Windrunner. Just leave the money with me.”

Though it sounded like Cai hesitated before saying it, as if it bothered him to take money from Rand. Which Rand must be mistaken about, because there was no reason for the vampire to feel that way. Money was just money. Their life in the forest involved very little of it beyond what they needed for supplies, and Rand had plenty enough to cover the occasional gift.

Rand shook his head. “It’s okay. It’s just been awhile since I’ve been among so many at once. And as far as my question about Christmas, just forget it. You don’t have to answer it if it bothers you. I didn’t think about it.”

“You didn’t offend me, wolf. The last Christmas I celebrated was almost a hundred and eighty-five years ago.” Cai met his gaze. “I’m sure it’s far harder for you to think about your own last Christmas.”

It flashed through Rand’s mind. The piles of presents for all the kids. A tree decorated with handmade ornaments. Construction paper and popcorn chains, birdseed and sweet-smelling clove balls. Clay ornaments baked in the oven and painted in bright primary colors. The star on top had been a 3D rendering of wire, and in the center the kids had put a balled-up strand of lights. Mischa had done that. He loved to create anything with his hands and metal.

The only store-bought thing on the tree had been those lights, and the dozen or so strands woven into the branches of the eight-foot pine. He and Dylef had put them on before the kids started decorating. He remembered the two of them getting tangled, laughing, Sheba teasing them about it when she brought them fresh-pressed, hot apple cider, spiced with cinnamon.

He tuned in to see Cai watching him with an unfathomable look. Cai didn’t give him crap about his memories of his mate Dylef, ever. Well, except the one time, when Cai’s Master side reared its head and made it clear Rand would only be thinking of him during sex.

Not a problem. Ever. Not because Rand hadn’t enjoyed sex with Dylef; it was just there was a big difference between their approaches. Dylef had been spontaneous, gentle, loving. He enjoyed rougher when Rand needed rougher, but he wasn’t likely to instigate it. Whereas Cai was all about the rough and the taking. Intense and emotional, too. Altogether overwhelming and yet addictive, in all the right ways.

“Glad to hear it.” Cai’s fingertips slid down Rand’s back, over his shirt but transmitting sensation that spread out through Rand’s lower back and over his buttocks beneath his jeans. “You’re giving me some ideas, here and now.” Then that touch turned into something else, something less physical. Cai’s grip on his waist, his fingers hooking into Rand’s belt loop, was a gesture of support, keeping him close, as the vampire leaned against the frame of the pet store window.

“I’m sorry I brought that up, Rand. In hindsight, we probably should have spent the holidays in the Syrian desert. Christmas doesn’t look any different from any other day there.”

“No, it’s good.” Rand turned his way a little. Cai’s hold on the loop tightened, fingers stroking him beneath the waistband, but again, it was more intimate than sexual. “It hurts,” Rand said slowly, “but thinking about it, there’s a good feeling to it, too. Our favorite part of Christmas was the night before Christmas. Otherwise known as Christmas Eve.”

“You don’t say. Think I’ve heard of that.”

Rand chuckled. “Ass. We’d gather around the tree with hot chocolate, listen to Christmas carols on the radio. The kids would fall asleep in a pile under the tree, looking up at the lights. Except Shy. She would be next to me, asleep with her head in my lap, or curled up against my side.”

His daughter. The runt of the litter, so to speak, so small-boned. She’d been sickly as a babe, but had grown into better health. However, she’d always had a certain fragility, which she’d balanced with a personality as large and bright as the sun.

Losing all of them in a horrific matter of moments had been indescribable, every voice and face forever imprinted on his soul. But hers in particular. The one who had gravitated to him the most, relied on him to help her feel safe and okay. Strong.

Rand jerked himself back to the present, knowing he was starting down a dark rabbit hole. But he also felt Cai’s hand overlap his where it was braced on the window ledge, and curled his fingers slightly under the vampire’s grip. “Quid pro quo,” Rand said quietly. “Tell me about one of your Christmases.”

Cai fell silent, again seeming to ponder the question. Though the pain might be fresher for Rand, just imagining Cai’s experience sent a spike of pain through Rand’s heart on his behalf, no matter how Cai dismissed his own feelings. Rand had never known a year without a Christmas or holiday celebration, except for the last two after losing his family. Whereas Cai had spent well over a century as a slave, then decades after that alone.

But thoughts of the past made Rand think of the present. Now he and Cai had each other. They hadn’t really talked about gifts, or how they’d celebrate Christmas. Or any holidays, for that matter.

“On Halloween, I’ll dress up as a vampire and you dress up as a werewolf,” Cai said absently. “Other than that, I haven’t made any hard and fast plans.”

It was weird. Being in one another’s heads, they should be an open book to one another. But sometimes Cai’s thoughts and feelings had a way of tangling up in a hard-to-interpret manner, like looking at a page where the words were clearly written down, but in a language Rand hadn’t yet fully learned how to read.

Cai gave him a sidelong glance. “Do you want to do the Christmas stuff? Decorate a tree, sing Christmas carols?”

“It doesn’t have to be something traditional like that. We used to go work Christmas Eve night at the homeless shelter. At midnight we’d go for a run as a pack.” Rand thought of that, him, Dylef and Sheba, the seven young, all of them running through the acres of forest-covered hills that backed up to their property. Dylef’s silver white fur gleaming in the moonlight, his gray eyes turned toward Rand as he overtook him, nipping his shoulder, the pups all cavorting and yipping, dodging in and out, bodies brushing one another. Pack. Family.

“Christmas morning we’d open one present apiece,” he continued, his voice a little less steady. “Then go do the clean-up at the local animal shelter to give the regular staff a break.” A poignant smile touched Rand’s lips. “A way to honor the season, helping bipeds and quadrupeds both. Afterwards, we’d have Christmas dinner at home and open presents when the meal was finished. Did your family do the traditional things?”

Cai ambled away from the pet store, moving to the railing that overlooked the wide opening providing a view of the mall’s lower level. There was a life-sized gingerbread style cottage down there, the double-doors of the front opening up to reveal a set with sleigh, a candy-cane striped North Pole, and a backdrop of a snowflake-filled sky. All for the purpose of taking photos with Santa.

The cottage was surrounded by potted poinsettia plants. Reservations were already being taken for the Santa meet-and-greets by a girl dressed like an elf. She was entering information on her tablet from a line of parents. From his and Cai’s vantage point on the second level, they could see the reindeer animatronic forms prancing on the roof of the gingerbread house. The creatures were connected by red and green strands of lights.

Rand leaned against the railing. A moment later his patience was at last rewarded, for Cai finally answered his question. “Observing Christmas was a little different back then. A lot of religious controversy existed about it. The Protestants thought it was Catholic bullshit. It was celebrated in some parts of Virginia, but it hadn’t really caught on generally, not the way we know it now. The places that were getting into the swing of it as a holiday were probably celebrating it for the same reason most people decide to declare a holiday – because it gives you a break from work and the daily grind. But then, Washington Irving wrote this story about St. Nicholas, and a poem was published soon after that, called A Visit from St. Nicholas.”

Cai moved toward a bench being vacated by a couple who’d finished sharing an ice cream cone. Rand took a seat beside him. When he stretched his arms out along the back of the bench, Cai didn’t seem averse to leaning back against one of them, or being close enough they were hip to hip again. Cai even laid a hand on Rand’s thigh. They touched for sex and Cai’s feeding—often one and the same event—quite frequently. But touching like this, intimate but not erotic, evidence of their affection and the bond they had, was still new enough that Rand got kind of a silly charge out of it.

Cai glanced toward him with an intent expression, but he continued his explanation. “Anyhow, seems like those two things together did the trick. It turned the focus to Christmas Eve and, even more importantly, to kids. That helped the religious folks get their panties out of a bunch. My father had taken a business trip to Boston and, when he returned, he brought home the paper that had the poem printed in it. He read it to us Christmas Eve night.” Cai’s lips twitched. “People who know about that poem now know it by its current name. ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. It became our tradition, my father reading that poem every Christmas Eve, before bedtime.”

Every Christmas Eve he’d had left with his parents, that was. He didn’t say that part aloud, but Rand picked it up. There’d only been a couple more years before he’d been taken.

“My mom would make a pudding,” Cai remembered. “The English version, like a cake. It had nuts in it, and dried fruits, and it smelled of cinnamon, some kind of spice. Her family was from Virginia, where, as I said, they weren’t as conflicted about the whole Christmas celebrating thing. She’d give both me and my father a gift she’d made. A shirt, a favorite pie. I’d do some kind of chore for her I didn’t usually do. He’d usually build something, like a shelf for her mementoes, or a new bin for the potatoes and vegetables.”

“What kind of chore?” Rand asked. He didn’t want Cai to stop talking, because it was rare Rand heard anything about Cai’s life before he became a vampire. He wondered if the details had always been in Cai’s head, ready to be called, or if they were being coaxed back into his memory from the question, such that they were almost as fresh and new to him as to Rand. He hoped so.

“Usually laundry. I think that was her least favorite chore, because she had to do it in a big tub we’d drag down to the creek. She’d bring me some bread and cheese in a cloth when I was almost done and sit next to me.  We’d skip stones together. She was even better at it than me or my father. She’d say ‘It’s not about strength. It’s patience and grace, respecting the beauty of the stone and water. And having a great wrist snap.”

Rand realized Cai’s eyes had become less focused, his mouth softer, not in its usual cynical twist. “I did the laundry for her once on her birthday, in the early summer. She was twenty-nine. Christ, I was fourteen. She had me when she was fifteen years old. She liked being barefoot,” he added quietly. “I remember us sitting hip to hip, her blue skirt to her ankles, her toes curling and uncurling as she leaned back on her arms, stroking my back now and then, while I ate the food. Normal stuff. I wonder…you never think it will ever be anything but normal. And stupid idiots that we are, we chafe at normal. Get bored.”

“Yeah.” Rand’s own “normal” memories were there, right in the forefront, summoned by Cai’s. “Until you don’t have that anymore. Then, if you get anything like it again, it feels as precious as water in the desert.”

Cai returned to the present, a flash of darkness in his eyes. “Maybe not. Like we said, about the picket fence and all. Maybe that ruins us for the blessings of a normal life. More than we already are.”

He tipped his head to meet Rand’s gaze. Rand was worried he’d taken the vampire to a bad place after all, but then he felt an easing in his gut as a different expression took Cai’s features. “But we can still enjoy pieces of it,” the vampire said. “Maybe that’s really why we’re here. I liked the idea of hanging out in a mall with you. Grabbing a sandwich, that kind of thing.” His hand tightened on Rand’s thigh, then he stroked that column with his long-fingered hand. “But the non-boring stuff has its place, too. Come look at something at the tobacco shop with me, then we’ll grab you a sandwich.”

He rose and Rand joined him, catching up to walk side by side. They did some ambling of their own, Cai gesturing at things offered in the stores, threatening to swing back to the pet store to get that squeaky toy. Rand pointed out he already had a vampire squeaky toy to chew upon, and dodged Cai’s slap at his head with a laugh. Then, abruptly, Cai pushed him against the wall between two stores, framed his face in both hands and kissed him.

Rand hadn’t been expecting it, which just made the charge more potent. As Cai tasted his mouth, giving him a scrape of fangs, Rand vaguely heard a group of teens whistle and catcall. But then he had his hands on Cai’s waist, digging in, and didn’t really hear anything. He just inhaled Cai’s scent, his heat. His vampire had a lean but muscular body, terrifyingly resilient and an incomparable pleasure to explore, touch, taste.

Maybe Cai was right about that dressing room somewhere. Who cared that they’d done that only a couple hours ago?

And it wasn’t just sex driving that thought. Something about what Cai had shared, what Rand felt, being here with him, doing something “normal,” made him want to get closer. In a way they both excelled at.

Easing back, Cai curled his fist in Rand’s shirt front and gave him a little shake, hard to interpret. Then he was on the move again, leaving Rand to catch up. He couldn’t help noting Cai’s ass in his faded jeans was pretty much superior, just begging to be grabbed…or bitten. When he drew even with him, Cai sent him a sidelong glance. “Same goes, wolf,” he said. “But I’m in charge of the biting.” He curled his lip back from his one functioning fang, elongating it and his silver prosthetic one in a flash before they returned to normal and disappeared behind his sensuous smile. “Because my fangs are bigger.”

Rand snorted. “You wish.”

Though, as their banter continued, Rand realized with surprise he wasn’t feeling as unsettled by the press of people as before. Not just because of the kiss, but maybe they were both thinking about memories shared, the truth of their reflections, and how such things could root deep into the heart and never let go.

Don’t kid yourself. It was totally that kiss.

Rand chuckled and made a grab for Cai’s ass. The vampire sidestepped it as if he had eyes in the back of his head—or more like, eyes in Rand’s head. He also waited for Rand to come alongside him again and bumped against his body, an intriguingly affectionate gesture, before they headed into the tobacco shop.

It was a good thing Rand was feeling less freaked out by all the people, because the small shop was busy, particularly around the cash register. The owner not only sold elaborately carved pipes and smoking paraphernalia, but a wide variety of other hand-carved wooden items for someone looking for that unique Christmas gift. Returning to his earlier thought about exchanging gifts, Rand realized physical things would be a challenge for him and Cai. Right now, they had no permanent home, their immediate-need and very few belongings carried backpack-style. But he’d give it some thought. Perhaps he’d figure out something Cai would like, and hide the idea in a corner of his mind the vampire wouldn’t examine too closely so Rand could somewhat surprise him.

“I am un-surprisable,” Cai said. “It’s what makes me such a badass. Stay close.”

Rand could argue that point, but Cai was busy proving he could surprise Rand. He’d followed the vampire to the back of the store, but as they passed the curtain covering the employee-only stock area, Cai caught his arm and ducked behind it, pulling Rand with him so smoothly Rand was sure none of the staff busy up front had noticed.

As they moved down a corridor lined with boxes, Cai shifted his hold from Rand’s arm to clasp his hand, tugging him along as he turned left. The area was wide and long, apparently a connected storage facility for the shops all along this row of the mall. Recalling those that were adjacent to the tobacco shop, Rand remembered one of them was a vacant storefront, only used for special events. It was at the storage area behind that store that Cai drew Rand behind a tower of the boxes, marked Halloween.

“Appropriate in more ways than one,” Cai said, flashing fang again. “But also insurance that we won’t be disturbed.”

Yes, they did sexual things a lot, but whenever the moment came, Rand was always surprised to feel this narrowing of the world to the two of them, as if arousal and emotion formed an insulating cocoon around them and focused all his attention on the vampire.

As Cai sat down on a box, Rand could tell he was fully attuned to Rand’s thoughts, because his eyes, as hard to pin down as glittering ocean water, became more fixed on Rand, so that every feeling, every hint of body language, was being absorbed. Humor had been replaced by something far more serious and intense, and Cai tugged Rand between his spread knees by curling a finger in his belt loop again.

“On your knees, wolf,” he murmured. “I need a meal, and you’re the only taste I want.” But before Rand could decide whether to comply or offer a token resistance to arouse them both, Cai slid his hands from Rand’s waist into his back jeans pockets to grip, and bring him more solidly against Cai. “Lift your shirt,” the vampire growled.

When Rand complied, his stomach rippled from his indrawn breath as Cai dipped his head and teased the sectioned muscles with his lips, tongue playing around Rand’s navel. Then Cai’s fingers tangled in the tail of Rand’s hair, which had fallen forward on his shoulder. Cai wrapped it around his knuckles and exerted pressure.

“Knees, wolf,” the vampire murmured.

He wouldn’t make it a fight. Not this time. Not when what was between them already felt on the level of combustible heat. Slowly, Rand sank to his knees. He and Cai were pretty evenly matched in the strength department. In most of his earlier relationships, Rand had been the one to call the shots, though that had been an alpha wolf thing, not a Dom thing. He hadn’t really understood the difference until he was with Cai. And felt what belonging to a Master meant.

His vampire master.

That was another of the many things about Cai and their relationship that could still take Rand by surprise. Rand submitted to Cai in ways he never would have to another wolf-shifter, or a male of any other species.

“Love being in your head when you’re working shit out,” Cai said, leaning in close. He brushed his nose against Rand’s cheekbone, his lips touching the corner of Rand’s mouth, the top one curling back enough Rand felt the titillating graze of a fang. Cai still had a grip on his hair, and he pulled it to Rand’s opposite shoulder, baring his throat. Rand tilted his head, giving him greater access, that not-so-subtle act of surrender that could stoke the heat between them to blazing.

Sometimes Cai was slow when he bit, penetrating gradually, letting the pain unfurl and build. Other times he was quick, like a striking snake, where the pleasure came in so fast behind it that Rand didn’t register it as pain at all. Now though, Cai pressed his mouth to his artery, taking his time, teasing him with the points of his fangs as his hands wandered over Rand’s broad back, his shoulders, Cai’s fingers sliding into the short sleeves of his shirt to caress the flesh beneath.

“Cai,” Rand growled. Cai tightened his grip on him, keeping him still, and reinforced that in his mind.

Be still for me, wolf. Show your Master just how still you can be. I want to arouse you until you’ll beg…or fight.

Rand closed his eyes as Cai continued his teasing, his caressing. When he slid his hand into the waistband of Rand’s jeans, seeking and finding the rise of his buttock, Rand thought his blood might be reaching boiling point, and not just metaphorically.

If you can still summon up six-syllable words, it’s not fucking hot enough. Fuck, you have the best ass.

His vampire, whose favorite vocabulary word started with f and ended with ck. But that was okay. Rand was getting kind of used to it. Cai made a deeper furrow down the length of Rand’s throat with one fang. Moving to the pocket formed by Rand’s collar bones, he played there with his tongue. As he did, he yanked Rand’s head back further. Rand had his hands on the vampire’s thighs, gripping, gripping hard.

Cai put his other hand in between them, rubbing the heel of it against Rand’s steel erection.

“When I bite you, you’re going to come, wolf. Because you’re going to be thinking about me penetrating you other places. Taking you to your hands and knees tonight in our room, covering you, biting your neck in a different way. I’ll use those Egyptian cotton towels, roll them up to give your knees a cushion because I don’t want you distracted from the right pain by the wrong kind. And then, when I’m done, you’ll let your wolf take over, and we’ll run in the forest together.”

Rand had no words. Cai’s skill with mouth, breath and touch, when he was intent like this, was a force that couldn’t be resisted, and right now Rand was low on will power. Cai’s teeth flashed, his dark eyes glittering, and he cupped his hand over Rand’s ass, fingers pressing deep into the seam and under, between his legs, sending another shot of sensation through him. Then Cai bit, his grip tightening as his teeth sank in, his muscular body pressing against Rand’s erection.

Hellfire, if the vampire hadn’t been right. Soon as his teeth started to sink in, Rand’s balls convulsed and his cock bucked in his jeans, his climax surging forth. He had a desperate moment to think it was a good thing he’d worn a shirt long enough to leave it untucked, and then he was groaning, leaning against Cai, his grip on the vampire’s shoulder bruising as he rocked against him, with him, Cai moving with his volatile writhing, whispering things to him that translated straight to Rand’s heart, as well as lower areas.

When he finally stopped, he was breathing hard and still clutching Cai’s shoulder, though his head had dropped so his forehead was pressed to it. Cai’s hand slid over his back, stroking, and it registered with Rand that Cai had his jaw resting against the top of his head. A surge of feeling came over him, something about all this Christmas and holiday stuff, the things Cai had said and not said. Driven by it, Rand turned, cupping the male’s jaw, and met his lips in a kiss that was emotionally hungry, pure need.

Cai stiffened in surprise, not expecting it, but not rejecting it, either. His arm banded around Rand’s waist as Rand shifted to a one-knee kneel, in order to take control of the kiss, framing Cai’s face and working that sensual, smartass mouth deep and rough.

When he pulled back, he was eye to eye with the vampire. “Maybe tonight, it’ll be me who takes you on your hands and knees, vampire. And you’ll beg or fight.” He slid back just an inch or two, and became more thoughtful, his hand caressing Cai’s brow, his temple, the longer strands of hair over his forehead. “Or maybe we’ll do neither. We’ll just be together, however it happens.”

“Maybe so.” Cai held his gaze. No promises, no quarter, but something far deeper happening beneath the surface. After a weighted long moment, the vampire drew a breath, his expression returning to the cocky bastard Rand knew…and loved. No sense in denying it. “So, you ready to stop dicking around and do some serious shopping?” Cai asked.

“Depends. Can I choose a root canal without anesthetic instead?”

“Such a grumpy lycanthrope. Come on. If you can help me pick out a gift or two without whining, I’ll get you a giant meatball sub. I might even use my weak-assed compulsion abilities and get them to give it to you raw.”

“Only if we get the chips and cookie meal deal with it.” And there was nothing weak about Cai’s compulsion abilities. They were getting stronger every day. Rand was living proof, on his knees in a back room, knees that weren’t quite steady after being taken right over the edge by that same vampire’s powers of persuasion.

Cai grinned. “Damn straight. Come on, wolf.”

* * *

Cai had said he wanted to go back to the pet store. As they worked their way through the crowds, Rand noted people tended to unconsciously step aside for the vampire, a couple shivers suggesting they felt a ghost walking over their grave. Considering the vampire could do exactly as he said, cut a bloody swathe through them if he so chose, it was an understandable reaction. Cai had grown a little better about seeing humans as something more than food, but there was still a big dose of untamed predator about him that someone sensitive to such vibes would pick up.

The pet store clerk, a young blond just this side of legal age, only had sensitivity to Cai’s looks, which made her tongue-tied a full ten seconds before she processed his question. Cai’s devastating smile at her discomfiture extended it another five.

“Uh, no sir. No vampire squeaky toys. Those were seasonal, so we only have them around Halloween. We have the Christmas stuff out, though.” She glanced toward Rand and lost her power of speech entirely until Cai cleared his throat. She gestured vaguely in the toy direction. “I can help you find what you’re looking for if you want…anything.”

“We’ll just browse. Thanks.”

As Cai sauntered over to that area, Rand joined him, watching as Cai fingered jingle bell collars and antler head bands. The vampire lifted one that was a combination of both—antlers with jingle bells on each of the felt prongs—and looked toward Rand, Rand snorted.

“Hope the hand trying to put that on my head can regenerate after I chew it off.”

Cai tsked. “No fun at all.” He placed the antlers on his own head and looked at Rand with a deadpan expression. “Does it make me look sexier?”

Rand couldn’t stop himself from smiling. “Just more of an idiot than usual. Lady Lyssa will love it. She’ll make you wear them 24/7.”

“Good point. They stay here.” Cai prudently returned them to the wall hook. “Hey, Lyssa’s kid has a cat. You were salivating over her the other day. I could get something for the little feline. Like a toy.” Moving over to the cat section, he lifted an object that looked like a short wand attached to a stretchy string, at the end of which was a ball of feathers and a bell. Cai snapped the wand like a whip and slanted Rand a glance. “Maybe we play with it first. This stick part would do a fine caning job.”

Rand vividly remembered the last time he’d submitted to a caning from Cai. And oddly, what he remembered most about it was the way Cai had pressed his lips to every welt on his ass afterward, and then had him spread his legs so he could reach other things with his clever mouth and tongue. The memory had him clearing his throat and Cai’s eyes glinting.

“A cat toy is better to give to an adult acquaintance,” Rand managed. “He loves the cat, but a kid wants something for himself. He’d see that as a gift for Whiskers, a whole separate thing. And I was not salivating over her. Much. That cat is in far more danger from Lyssa’s hell hounds.”

“Wolf hounds. You shouldn’t be pissy just because they have an unsettling breed name. And you were salivating over that cat. Please do not eat the pet of the vampire queen’s child. That would be bad.”

“Until recently, you pretty much consumed blood until your meal was done for. So you need the warning more. Don’t eat Jacob, her human servant. As bad as me killing the cat would be, that would be even worse.”

Cai grunted. “I think if you mess with either of her boys, you’re pretty much dead and fucked with a tire iron, hopefully in that order, so I think it’s best we take both suggestions to heart. I saw that cat sleeping in Lyssa’s lap yesterday evening, so she’s attached to it, too.”

Rand opened his mouth to reply, and then he froze. Surrounded by such a mass of humanity, cooked foods, and all the varieties of scented holiday merchandise, it was hard to distinguish one human from another. However, there was one scent they didn’t encounter too often in public places, and it was one Rand distinctly recognized. “There are other vampires here.”

* * *

Cai stopped what he was doing and turned so he was matching Rand’s stance, facing the entrance, all senses on alert. “Close?”

“Not on top of us, but not far. I just got a whiff amid everything else.”

“So maybe another vampire is shopping in one of Atlanta’s biggest malls. Vampires need Christmas gifts, too, right? It’s why we’re here, sort of.” But he stepped out of the store with Rand and stood in a flank-to-flank position, both of them listening, watching. Waiting.

“Coming closer,” Rand said. “Two of them. Female.”

Cai had tensed at the quantity, but at the gender, he relaxed somewhat. “Definitely shopping,” he said.

“Sexist.” Rand’s brow furrowed. “I think…I think we know them.” Then his gaze brightened and a smile wreathed his face. Right before Cai heard his servant’s name called out in a feminine squeal.

“Rand!”

Suddenly any concerns either of them had dissipated, replaced by a matching surge of what Cai couldn’t deny was true pleasure. Dovia came running through the crowd, only barely containing her vampire speed, and leaped into Rand’s already open arms. He swung her around as the young female vampire laughed in delight, her silken mass of red hair fanning out over her shoulders. When he set her on her feet, she immediately turned to Cai. Their hug was a little more reserved, but not by much, and when she eased back she held onto his forearm, his hand at her waist, and reached out to lay her other hand on Rand’s arm, forming a circle. “It’s so wonderful you all are in Atlanta. I’m here shopping with Anwyn.”

Some stiffness returned to Cai as Anwyn emerged from the crowd, but not because he thought the stunning sable-haired woman in perfectly fitted jeans and flowing blouse was going to pull a stake out of the festive Bath & Body Works bag over her arm. Though Cai had no doubt if she’d known she’d be running into him, Anwyn would have taken the time to drop one in her purse. As a Mistress and the owner of an upscale local BDSM club, Anwyn had all sorts of uncomfortable penetration tools at her disposal.

Okay, so the last time they’d seen one another, he had tried his best to kill her servant, Gideon. But he’d said he was sorry. Well, Rand had, and wasn’t it okay for vampires to have their servants do that kind of thing?

“Where’s your less pretty two-thirds?” Rand asked her, saving Cai from having to come up with a greeting Anwyn could ignore.

Anwyn’s blue-green eyes that should have belonged to a mermaid moved from him over to Rand, and her expression noticeably relaxed. “Where else? They’re in the sporting goods store, probably drooling over ninja throwing stars, flame throwers and assault rifles, things like that. Peace on earth, good will toward Smith & Wesson.”

An appreciation for advanced weaponry. One of the many reasons that Cai had reluctantly started to like Gideon, and his other vampire master, the quiet and lethal Daegan. Gideon belonged to both Daegan and Anwyn, a triangle that seemed to work for them.

“I’m surprised we ran into each other,” Rand ventured, and Anwyn smiled.

“Not by chance. Daegan knew you were here pretty much from the time we arrived.  Scoped you out, saw it was you, and then let me and Dovia know where you were so she could come see you.”

She glanced toward Cai and this time they exchanged a perfunctory nod. Not unfriendly, but definitely not the level of Dovia’s greeting. The young female vampire caught it and looked toward Rand, the question in her brown eyes.

“Cai tried to kill Gideon,” Rand said. “They’ve reconciled over it. Mostly. Anwyn is still thinking it over.”

“When did he…oh. Before you found me.”

Rand nodded. A shadow passed over them, a reminder of the past, but it couldn’t hold them. In trendy-looking black high heeled boots, a cashmere sweater and knee length designer skirt, Dovia looked every inch the wealthy, confident 20-something drop-dead gorgeous vampire female she was, not the terrified victim who’d been kidnapped and abused by Goddard and his Trad thugs.

“Well, I’m glad you didn’t decide to kill him in retaliation before they came and rescued me,” Dovia told Anwyn.

“Like she could,” Cai said, not willing to let his pride be trampled. “Fledgling females.” An equally true statement about Anwyn as well as Dovia, since Anwyn was a recently made vampire. Both women were well below the age of a mature vampire like himself.

Mature? Rand thought. In what universe?

Shut up.

Dovia gave him a dubious look. “Yeah, but Anwyn’s a fledgling with a servant who’s a former vampire hunter, and her mate is the scariest vampire alive. No offense, because you and Rand are amazing, but I think you’d be toast.”

“Daegan’s not scarier than Lyssa,” Cai said. “And Lyssa likes me. She might get mildly miffed if I was dead.”

“Plus, there’s his servant,” Rand put in. “No vampire can stand up to a shifter.”

Cai scoffed. “So you say.”

Anwyn’s lips twitched, and Dovia smiled.

“Are you going to be at Lyssa’s party tonight?” Dovia said, changing the subject. “She invited us.”

They had been invited to attend, but Cai had been hedging on it. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to spend the evening among Council vampires, even if it was only Lyssa’s inner circle. As he’d hinted to his servant, he’d been thinking that he and Rand would go for a run in one of Atlanta’s forested parks, probably Stone Mountain. They had some good memories to revisit there.

Rand read that from his head, because Cai saw total approval with the idea. Not only for what they might do to one another amid acres of late night privacy, but because of the quiet. But he also saw in Rand’s mind that they could easily go to the party for a couple hours and still work in the other. His shifter, always the polite one.

“I hope you will,” Dovia said, perhaps reading their faces in the exchange. “Even if just for a while. Christmas is about being with friends and family, after all.” She brightened. “Plus, I’ve heard they have the servants do an annual Christmas carol sing-off. Naked.”

Cai raised his brows. “How long have they been doing that?”

“Since last year,” Anwyn supplied. “But apparently it was so successful, they’re making it a tradition.”

Cai turned toward Rand, grinning. “If there’s going to be naked Christmas caroling, it might not be so bad after all.”

I’ve changed my mind, his shifter thought darkly. Let’s skip the party.

“That’s at the full Council thing,” Anwyn said. “Lord Uthe, Lord Mason and Lady Danny will be there, but not so much as ‘Council’. This get-together is for the people Lyssa considers family.”

Her expression suggested she wondered how Cai and Rand had qualified, but she didn’t ask. Which was good, because Cai had no idea, either. He’d assumed they’d been invited to discuss the emissary thing, but after hearing Anwyn’s description of the guest list, it had him wondering.

“The kids will also be there; Kane and John, and Farida, Mason and Jessica’s daughter,” Anwyn finished. “So all that suggests it will be a more PG-rated night.”

“Disappointing. But even so.” Dovia looked between them expectantly. “Will you be there?”

Cai nodded. He might be able to say no to Lady Lyssa, but neither he nor Rand could say no to the young vampire with whom they’d endured so much.

“We’ll be there. Even if it’s just for a little while.”

* * *

After the women left them, Rand told Cai he had somewhere he wanted to go on his own and not to peek into his head. Whether the vampire would heed him or not, Rand tried his best not to think of what he was doing, even as he was doing it, and fortunately he only had to make that work for a few minutes. He quickly found what he wanted, and then rejoined Cai at the fountain. He found the vampire hadn’t been idle, either. Cai had a fussy looking gift bag with festive green-and-white striped tissue paper peeking out of it, as well as another bag from the toy store. He also had the promised meatball sandwich for Rand. “Couldn’t get them to do raw,” Cai said. “Something about health codes.”

“Smells great. That’s fine. What’s in the bags?” Rand asked.

Cai had returned to the tobacco store, for he showed Rand a pretty carved wooden hair comb from the fussy bag. The toy store bag held a trio of paper bird gliders. A falcon, a crow, and an eagle. “Figured I’d just put these on the mantle. Stocking stuffers for Kane, John and Jacob. They might get a kick out of putting them together and flying them. And the comb’s something I thought Lyssa would like in her hair. It’s not fancy or anything, but it’s got these gargoyles engraved in it. She seems to like gargoyles, and she’s always pinning back her hair with something, since she’s got miles of it.”

“Cool. Those are good choices.” Rand took a bite of the meatball sub. “Hell, that’s not bad,” he said, and offered Cai a bite, since he could eat small amounts of things that weren’t blood. The vampire wrapped his hand over Rand’s to steady the sandwich and nodded agreement before he pointed to the bag by Rand’s side.

“What’s that?”

“Something for you. For both of us, really. Want it now, or shall I wrap it and put it under the Christmas tree?”

Surprise sparked in Cai’s gaze, and something else. Rand poignantly realized the expression was an echo of what a kid might feel, one who hadn’t expected there to be a present under the tree for him, but then finding out there would be. But Cai being Cai, he lifted a shoulder and projected nonchalance. “Whichever makes you happiest.”

“Well, you do say delayed gratification is the best.” Rand took another bite of the sandwich and devoted his attention to more people watching. He could feel Cai’s energy vibrating next to him and he unsuccessfully hid a grin as the vampire huffed out a breath.

“Fine. Show it to me.”

“No, no, I don’t want to spoil the surprise. And—” Rand laughed as Cai snatched the bag. Having anticipated it, Rand neatly stole it back in the same fluid motion. “Okay, okay. At least let me hand it to you. The civilized way of gift-giving.”

“I’ve seen the commercials. Kids descend on gifts like piranha.”

“But you are not a child. Most of the time.” Rand fended off a punch and slid the bag under his butt to keep it from being nabbed again as he wrapped up the remainder of his sandwich.

“If you got me glassware, I’m going to be pissed. Unless I get to pick the splinters out of your ass.”

Rand elbowed him and pulled the bag free again, reaching in to remove the contents. He felt the vampire’s attention on him as he brought the gift into view.

A Victorian-style illustrated copy of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.

As he put it in Cai’s hands, Cai stared down at it, his fingers sliding over the spine and edge. His emotions did that confusing tangle thing, but this time Rand picked up enough to lay a hand on his shoulder, his fingers caressing. “I know we’re kind of new to this,” he said slowly. “And we’re not really sure how to create a tradition with one another, because the past couple Christmases for me, and the past hundred or so for you, have been horrific at worst, or a non-entity at best.”

Cai raised his head, met his eyes. Said nothing. But what he was feeling was far more vocal. He wasn’t sure what to feel, Rand could tell, so he kept talking, in the same calm tone.

“But it leaves a hole. I know it does. I feel it, in both of us. It’s like Dovia said. It’s the time of year for family, whomever you call family. To be together, to celebrate what we have. I have you,” he added softly. “I am thankful for that. I want to celebrate the holiday with you. Doesn’t have to be a big thing. It can start with one tradition.” He tapped the book’s slick hard cover. “I thought maybe Christmas Eve, we could find our way into one of the dozen rooms Lyssa has with a fireplace and read it.”

Rand wouldn’t say it aloud, but he could imagine it. Him sitting on a rug before the fire, Cai stretched out, head in Rand’s lap, Rand’s hand sliding through his dark, silky hair while he read the poem aloud.

In Cai’s mind and heart, Rand didn’t read rejection of the idea. Instead, Cai returned the book to the bag. Rand wasn’t sure how to interpret that move until Cai stretched out his leg in an intriguing way in the snug denim, and dug into his pocket. What he pulled out of it was small enough to conceal in his grasp, but he reached out, gripped Rand’s wrist and dropped the item into his palm. “The woodcarving guy also does leather tanning. Free range, happy cows apparently. Well, happy until they’re dead, way before their natural lifespan. I thought about wrapping it up, giving it to you as a gift, but that kind of felt like a little too much.”

The vampire shook his head. “Just being here at Lyssa’s during the holiday, that’s a pretty huge step. If I’d known she was inviting us as holiday guests, not just to talk about the emissary thing, I’d probably have dodged it. Can’t figure out why she would have invited us if it wasn’t about that, but from what Anwyn said, it sounds like she did.

Rand considered it. “Maybe she thought you needed to see how Council vampires are at their best, to help convince you. But she doesn’t seem like that. I think you made an impression on her, and not a bad one, despite your best efforts. Maybe she feels maternal toward you.”

“You’re trying to scare me again.”

Rand chuckled, and subsided. There was no telling why Lyssa had invited them, because the thousand-year-old queen was as mysterious as the universe itself. He looked down at what Cai had placed in his hand. It was a bracelet, a series of thin leather straps strung with pewter and red jasper beads. There were two wooden carvings threaded onto it as well. Carvings that looked like sharp canine teeth. Or fangs.

Cai lifted a shoulder. “Figured it was kind of smartass, but didn’t mean it that way. Just liked the look of it. And since one of my fangs isn’t real,” he bared the silver one, with its skull and crossbones etching on the top part of the tooth, “it felt kind of appropriate.”

“I like it,” Rand said, and meant it. He extended the bracelet, his heart full. “Want to put it on me, or prefer to watch me struggle over that tiny clasp with my big fingers?”

“Well, that would be fun, but I’ll do it.” Cai unlatched it and bent his head to the task. Though Cai’s expression had remained neutral, Rand could feel a sort of half-suppressed…gladness from him, that Rand had liked the gift.

Just for the record, Cai thought, I like what you can do with those big fingers.

As Cai fastened the bracelet around Rand’s thick wrist, Rand leaned forward and pressed his lips to the top of the vampire’s head. Cai stilled, and Rand cupped his hand around the side of his Master’s throat, spreading his fingers out there and along his shoulder. Cai stayed still, curiously, as Rand stroked, turning his head to rub his face against the dark hair, his temple, brushing his ear with his lips. It was a wolfish gesture of affection, and Cai’s hand came up, circled Rand’s wrist below the bracelet, holding on until Rand finished, lifting his head. Only then did Cai do the same, the two of them eye to eye.

“So, you like it.” Cai said, an odd tone to his voice.

“I do. Very much. Thanks.”

Cai eased back, and nodded toward the book. “I like your idea. For reading that. Let’s be sure to do it. It feels…” A harsh half-chuckle came from him and he looked away. “Up until these few minutes, it felt too difficult, you know. Like going through the motions wasn’t worth it, because it wouldn’t feel real. I don’t remember what Christmas is supposed to feel like. But whatever this just was, and this,” he touched the top of the book, “feels right.”

“Yeah, it does. You know what else will feel real?”

Cai shook his head and Rand slid his grip from his shoulder to his biceps, enjoying the muscle in the male’s arm. Leaner than his own, but every bit as strong. Most days. Except the days Rand could kick his ass.

“Yeah, you wish,” Cai said. “When we get back to Lyssa’s, I’ll prove you wrong on that.”

“Look forward to it. Going to need a workout after I get through Ingram’s kitchen. He and John were baking enough cookies to send to a Third World country.” Rand tightened his fingers. “What else will feel real is waking up Christmas night, next to you.”

He remembered going to bed with Dylef late on Christmas Day night, after all the celebrating was done and the kids were exhausted. He laid there with Dylef, long after his mate had succumbed to slumber, and just listened. Listened to his heartbeat, knowing that it was connected to Dylef’s, the others in the house, his family. Watching the stars sparkle through the sky roof, he felt the true richness and value of what Christmas was about settle into him, give him contentment, send him to dreams.

He wanted that this Christmas. He wanted to fall into sleep in the arms—and with his arms around—the one about whom he cared the most. Feel that Christmas miracle.

“I’m not anyone’s Christmas miracle,” Cai said, his voice a little rough. Trying to act casual, even as Rand felt a lot of other things pumping off him. “That’s way over the top. The meatball sub is making you mushy.”

“You know only raw meat makes me sentimental,” Rand said. The vampire didn’t have to validate what Rand knew was the truth. “Let’s call you the best Christmas gift I’ve gotten in some time.”

“Yeah, well. You didn’t get any gifts the past two years, so that’s not saying much. I’m the one getting the best Christmas gift I’ve received in quite a while.”

“And you haven’t received Christmas gifts in over a hundred and eighty years,” Rand pointed out. Then he sobered, and touched Cai’s jaw. “You are my gift. So shut the hell up and don’t disagree. Master.”

Cai swallowed and looked away, but he took Rand’s hand, squeezed it hard. “Fine. Stubborn-assed, sentimental wolf.”

Rand smiled and went back to the sandwich. He studied the bracelet as he ate, and was content. It might not be the best Christmas they’d ever spend together, but it would be the one that would start putting it back together, on the foundation that made every Christmas what it should be.

Love.

* * *

WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT CAI AND RAND? Our vampire/shifter duo are the heroes of Joey W. Hill’s book Vampire’s Soul, a Vampire Queen series novel. To read Chapter One (or have it read to you in audio by the author), view a book trailer, read a blurb, or find buy links, go to her website here. All books in the Vampire Queen series are likewise available at her website. Happy holidays!
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Contest Details

Thank you Joey for taking part in Literary Escapism’s Black Friday!

To enter the giveaway, you can either leave your own question or specific comment from reading the story, or answer this question: What would you give Cai and Rand for Christmas?

Joey will choose a winner by December 26th for a $25 Amazon Gift certificate and 2 ebooks of your choice from her current titles!

Have you checked out the other Black Friday contests yet? Check out the Master List to see all the Black Friday giveaways. All Black Friday contests will remain open until December 31st unless otherwise stated. All giveaways are subject to LE’s Giveaway Policy.

Here is your daily question: What would you give Cai and Rand for Christmas? Remember, you must answer the question in order to be entered in all LE contests.
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Meet Joey W. Hill!

Joey W. Hill writes about vampires, mermaids, boardroom executives, cops, witches, angels, simple housemaids…pretty much wherever inspiration takes her. She’s penned over forty acclaimed titles and six award-winning series, and been awarded the RT Book Reviews Career Achievement Award for Erotica. But she’s especially proud and humbled to have won the support and enthusiasm of a wonderful, widely diverse readership.

Contact Info: Website | Facebook | Twitter | GoodReads | Amazon | Pinterest | Fan Forum

Want to purchase Joey’s novels?
Vampire Queen

  1. The Vampire Queen’s Servant
  2. The Mark of the Vampire Queen
  3. A Vampire’s Claim
  4. Beloved Vampire
  5. Vampire Mistress
  6. Vampire Trinity
  7. Vampire Instinct
  8. Bound by the Vampire Queen
  9. Taken by a Vampire
  10. The Scientific Method
  11. Nightfall
  12. Elusive Hero
  13. Night’s Templar
  14. Vampire’s Soul

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About Jackie 3252 Articles
I am a 30-something SAHM with two adorable boys and a supportive husband who is very tolerant of my reading addiction. I love to read and easily go through about a dozen books a month – well I did before I had kids. Now, not so much. After my first son was born, I began to take my hobby of reviewing a little more serious and started Literary Escapism to help with my sanity. I love to discuss the fabulous novels I’ve read and meeting all the wonderful people in the book blogging community has been amazing.

50 Comments

  1. It is difficult to find a gift for these two who have nothing but each other. So I think simple is best. Christmas is celebrated in the dark of the year, not in the spring when the Christ child was probably born. We send our trust and faith into the darkness that the light will return. Cai can’t venture into the daylight but he can celebrate light in the dark…So I would gift them a special candle that can glow while they read the Christmas poem.

  2. I wouldn’t know what to choose… they seem to have everything.
    I’m curious, how do you decorate your home for the holidays?

    • Aly, they do seem to have the thing they need most, each other (beaming). I love to put out all my Christmas stuff each year. I’ve had years I’ve been busy and thought “Ugh, I don’t have time for that”, but soon as I start doing it, I love it. We have a tree in the living room covered in ornaments and lights. There are two lit up reindeer and spiral tree in front, colored lights strung over the garage and front shrubs. My mother had a standing wooden snowman and “cat” snowman that my husband made, and those get set up as well. I have a bunch of holiday stuffed animals and figurines that go all over the house, along with silk poinsettias. And of course holiday static clings for all the bathroom mirrors! But the most important thing, beyond some items that have been with my family for some time, is the tree. I love to sit in the living room at night, with no lights on but the tree, and watch Christmas movies.

    • Lol…Bri, that would be awesome! I can see Cai trying on Rand the “shsh!” noise cesar always uses to command a dog’s attention. Rand would take his revenge during the Buffy marathon, noting how hot Angel is (grin).

      • You thought along the lines I thought of when the Dog Whisperer popped into my head and for Buffy The Vampire Slayer I thought Spike would be more along the lines of who to tease Cai with if not in looks than in attitude/swagger lol. Were I to know such characters better I’d have a better grasp of what to get them for their second Christmas. However, from what I have gathered about them I thought both of them would get a kick out of this (although Cai would probably have either a love or hate relationship with BTVS) and it’s the thought that counts, right? :)

        • Bri, it’s funny – when I talked about Angel, I also thought about Spike and his smartass behavior. He and Cai would probably have gotten along great, and driven Angel insane, lol. But I think the reason I specifically thought of Angel first was that awesome episode where the bad guy had all sorts of BDSM toys on his wall, like paddles and whips, and Angel grabbed one of the paddles to help knock him out. Right after which, he twirled it in his hand and declared “I have absolutely NO problem spanking men.” It was awesome.

  3. I’d love a way to get them a picture (wooden carving) of them together with their families a silhouette in the background.

    • Elizabeth, that’s a very wonderful gift. I think that would mean a great deal to both of them. And even though they are currently always on the move, I expect they WOULD find a way to carry that. :>

  4. I certainly don’t have any magic powers, but I would wish them an eternity together to make wonderful memories that mean more to the heart when you have that special someone to share them with.

  5. Cai and Rand already have the best gift- one another. A gift for them would be acceptance and love of a new family; not to replace, but to build new and bring them peace.

    • Marcy, another good expression of what means the most in life – love. I like that Cai never makes Rand feel guilty about thinking of Dylef, as if he knows that there is space in Rand’s heart for them both.

  6. I’m headed off to bed and will be doing some work tomorrow, but I’ll check in at least once a day between now and giveaway time to answer comments, questions, and just enjoy your responses!

  7. I would get matching tree of life necklaces with birthstones from their families, on back it would have the infinity sign engulfed in flames.

    • Reanna, I like that! I could actually imagine Dovia having something like that made for them, after making note of what Rand’s third mark “brands” are, and making deceptively casual inquiries about each of their families. Excellent gift.

  8. Loved the Christmas story, both interesting and loveable characters. P.s. Can the characters stop attacking adorable Gideon :).

    • Lol…Suzanne, Gideon is blinking in horror, saying “Adorable? Adorable!? Kittens are adorable. Muppets are adorable. God, I’m losing my edge. I need to go eviscerate something.” Grin. Seriously, so glad you loved the story! And Gideon is safe and sound, despite his and Cai’s volatile introduction. It’s tough being the world’s most successful vampire hunter now converted to willing vampire servant in the the thick of vampire society. :>

  9. It doesn’t sound like Cai and Rand need anything material; it does sound like they could use some peace of mind and heart, and the chance to experience and even wallow in the joy they can have together. May the season bring them the recognition of what they share and also open their eyes and hearts to those around them who can give them love and support and a sense of belonging.

    Lovely story, Joey!

    • Thank you, flchen! I think it’s wonderful how many of the comments here have reached a similar conclusion, that Cai and Rand have the greatest gift possible, their love for one another; now they have a lifetime to explore its challenges and bliss. “Wallow in the joy” – I love that!

  10. Joey, only you and your amazing imagination would think leather comes from “free range, happy cows.” That was priceless. What Cai and Rand need are Christmas stockings, otherwise reading “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” seems rather pointless. Thanks for this jewel of a gift to us.

    • Lol…Teri, as a vegetarian and animal rights person, it’s always been hard for me to put leather in my stories without some kind of caveat (grin). The stockings are a great point and gift! So glad you loved the story.

  11. I would give them a cottage in the woods, surrounded by national forestry. It’s time that they begin creating a home together … a physical one … that they can return to after their “visits” with the trads. A place that is their sanctuary, where they can continue to build this incredible relationship and keep their own set of Egyptian towels. These two continue to move me in ways I can’t truly explain, and I want to give them something, solid, that is just for the two of them.

    • Kimberly, what a wonderful thought. Thank you! They have both drifted for so long, Cai in particular. I think he might initially feel antsy at the idea of having one place that’s home, but since Rand has experience with making a home with family, hopefully he can help Cai see the benefits. And as you pointed out, they’ll be traveling so much to handle the Trads, that might help fulfill his need to move around, enough to balance the time they’re at “home”.

  12. Ms. Joey Hill is an amazing writer. Her creativity and character building makes reading her works memorable and unique. For the Cai and Rand present I would give them each a photo of the entire party group with Lyssa and all as a reminder they are important family.

    • Toni, thank you so much for those wonderful compliments. We’ll have to send a text to Jacob, tell him to be sure and arrange for Ingram to take a picture with someone’s phone or camera (grin). And I think you hit the nail on the head of the main reason Lyssa invited him. I think she knows he needs that sense of being part of a family/community. :>

  13. Always a joy to catch up with our book friends! I’m very happy to read Dovia is recovering. Also, Cai and Rand seem to be settling into their own pairing! I’ll look forward to seeing how they manage dealing with the trads. Lady Lyssa is brilliant in knowing who will be just right for the job at hand. Thank you Joey, for the lovely gift of their Christmas story!

    • Dotty, you’re so welcome! It’s also lovely to hear from our book reading friends (grin). Always a pleasure to “hear” your voice. Glad you enjoyed the story. And you’re right about Lyssa. I’ll bet she never had any doubt that she’d hear from Cai again about that, but then with her being over 1000 years old, I’d expect her to be a good judge of character.

  14. I would probably give Rand that squeaky vampire and Cai a stuffed wolf as a joke.
    I absolutely love the story. Thank you for always writing something special for Christmas.

  15. a visitor pass to the national parks so they can “run”. Sounds like they’ve already got everything they want :) Thanks for the awesome story!

    • Erin, what a great idea! They do love their parks, and when they have to be in places with lots of human habitation, they always seek out the nearest park to get some breathing room. :> And you’re very welcome. Thanks for reading it!

  16. I would gift them a session in Lady Anwyns Dungeon and double team them with Lord Kelwyn and Lord Uthe

  17. I would wish Cai and Rand peace and joy and an eternity with each other. Thank you for another wonderful peek into the lives of these amazing characters!

    • Christi, you’re so very welcome! And thank you! That’s a wonderful wish, one I wish for all those out there who have discovered love with a significant other. :>

  18. Thank you for another lovely Christmas vignette, Joey! How do you find the time to write this time of year? I’d like to give Cai and Rand each a hug – or two – along with a couple hundred acres of wildlands far from the madding crowd.

    • Shari, you’re welcome, and I appreciate the kind comment! Lol – I would have loved to give you all my usual novella-length vignette, but this was the best I could do with other project and family demands. You’re right – it’s a hard time of year to get anything done! I think Cai and Rand would very much like your gift! Just watch Cai on the hugs. Rand says he can get very handsy (grin). I told him most of us probably wouldn’t mind that – from either of them!

    • Leni, I was just telling someone that a throw blanket is always a good gift. Who CAN’T use a nice warm and fuzzy blanket? And if they have someone with whom to cuddle beneath it, all the better. Though Cai looked horrified by the word “cuddle”. I’m sure he’ll think of a more manly word, though one that means the same thing (grin).

  19. Thank you, everyone, for reading Cai and Rand’s Christmas story, and coming up with such wonderful gift ideas! As I’ve read them over the past couple weeks, I’ve been so pleased with how many of them not only reinforce the relationship growing between these two, but also reflect the true meaning of Christmas and gift giving. I hope everyone had a wonderful Christmas, filled with that same spirit. Though I wish I could give all of you a prize, my winner is…Elizabeth Schultz!! Elizabeth, email me at storywitch@storywitch.com, and we’ll get the details of your prize worked out. Look forward to seeing everyone online in the year to come. Many blessings to you all in 2018! And thank you so much, Jackie, for holding this fabulous Black Friday event annually. So glad I could participate this year!

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