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All That Bleeds

Kimberly Frost - Author

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ISBN 9780425245804 | 336 pages | 03 Jan 2012 | Berkley | 6.49 x 4.29in | 18 - AND UP
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As the last heiress of the House of North, Alissa knows that striking up a secret friendship with a half-vampire enforcer is dangerous, but Merrick is a temptation she can't resist. But when Alissa is kidnapped, Merrick proves that he will do anything to protect the woman who tempts him with her very existence.

PROLOGUE

2007

I can’t believe this is happening, Alissa thought. She whirled around to face her bodyguard, Mr. Clark. His lean form was rigidly straight, his expression grim as she stepped forward.

“We can’t just stand by,” she said in a low voice with a quick glance around the house’s panic room: it had oatmeal-colored walls, a stocked refrigerator, plush couches, and a bathroom with a cavernous slate-tiled shower. A person could live in the panic room for quite a while, and certainly nothing, not even a demon, could get through the magically-reinforced steel walls that were as thick as those of a bank vault. Yes, safe and comfortable—if they were willing to ignore the slaughter happening in the rest of the house. The Arts & Innovation Benefit had turned into a nightmare. Mr. Clark had pulled her down the hall to safety before she’d realized what was happening.

Alissa took a deep breath. The sterile air had an almost metallic tang. She straightened to her full height and beckoned for Mr. Clark’s gun. He ignored her outstretched hand. She inched forward, her pink champagne Balenciaga gown swishing over the carpet.

Beyond the bodyguard’s shoulder, the giant screen showed the ballroom, where an enormous demon nearly eight feet tall was holding a roomful of humans hostage. Dead security officers littered the dance floor like discarded party favors. The greasy, gray-skinned demon yawned, its toothless mouth as wide as a cavern. Would he swallow his victim whole? Like a snake? He had no weapon, but with razor-sharp claws and inhuman strength, he didn’t need one.

How did the demon even cross into our world?

There had never been an incident like it in Alissa’s lifetime. Or even in her mother’s time. For the fifty-four years since the muses had inspired mankind to defeat the vampires during the Rising, the world had not tolerated supernatural threats. In the twenty-first century, no vampires existed and no demons rose. Humankind wrote the laws that ruled the world. And everyone had been safe. Until now.

“Mr. Clark, either go out and help those people or give me your gun so I can.” Her voice was as sharp as she could make it. She might only be twenty-one, but, as a daughter of the House of North, in a time of crisis she was prepared to lead. She kept her arms tight to her sides in hopes that he wouldn’t see them tremble.

“Unless Mr. Xenakis gives the order, that door doesn’t open until the creature is gone or dead,” Mr. Clark said.

Alissa narrowed her eyes. Dimitri Xenakis, the Etherlin Council’s president, would never give an order that would put her in danger, but he also wouldn’t have locked the panic room when so many other people were still outside.

“Mr. Xenakis isn’t here, but I know he would want us to help. Open the door. I’ll go out and distract the demon long enough for people to escape. You can get anyone into the panic room who’s too afraid or too slow to run.”

Mr. Clark folded his arms across his chest, his black tuxedo jacket revealing the slight bulge on his left side where his holstered gun was positioned. “You expect me to use you as bait?” he scoffed.

“Yes, because I expect us to do something,” she said, the irritation rising in her voice.

A flicker of movement drew her eyes to the screen. The creature attacked again. The red-violet eyes were wild. And merciless. The victim’s bloodied body fell to the creature’s feet. Alissa’s stomach churned, and she had to swallow against its rising contents.

Be strong! Don’t let Clark see weakness. She turned from the screen, clinging to her composure.

She pushed back a strand of hair that had come loose when she’d raced down the hall. “We have to do something,” she whispered.

“The silver and iron bullets bounced off it. The creature is invulnerable.” Mr. Clark shook his head. “I would still face him if you weren’t here, but you are. If I open the door and he catches the scent of your blood, he’ll be on you in seconds once I’m dead. You know a muse’s blood is irresistible to the Damned.” He paused. “Nothing but Mr. Xenakis’s direct order will make me open that door.”

“But the demon could stay until everyone is dead,” Alissa argued, holding out a hand to implore him. “We can’t wait. Please. You have to let me try.”

“No,” he said firmly. “Until more Etherlin Security officers arrive, it doesn’t make sense to engage it. This demon started its rampage in the Varden, and the ventala didn’t manage to kill it. ES needs to come out in force to defeat it.”

“It started in the Varden? I wonder if someone there raised the demon and then lost control of it. I guess that shouldn’t surprise me.”

The ventala so often displayed bad judgment. They were too driven by impulse and their thirst for trouble.

Mr. Clark shook his head in disgust. “We had our chance to rid the world of them. We blew it.”

Alissa frowned. “They are part human.”

“So what? I’m in favor of capital punishment for human sociopaths, and ventala—even generations down the line—are more like vampires than people. Natural born killers. Given the chance, they’d recreate the Rising. I guarantee it.”

She stiffened at the thought of another Rising. It had been one of the darkest times in human history. In the early 1950s after so many people had already died from the Spanish flu epidemic and in the world wars, shapeshifting vampires in bat form had envenomated and drained millions. Initially, people hadn’t realized that the bats were vampires. They’d thought that people were dying from a new type of plague for which bats were the vector.

Eventually, the truth was suspected as un-mutated vampires hunted in the wake of their shifting counterparts, but no weapons were effective against the predators. Human losses were massive. When the muses inspired the development of the V3 ammunition, humans finally began to fight back effectively.

Afterward, the tide of human fury had been boundless, and savvy vampires lacking the “Bat Plague” mutation had stopped hunting and tried aligning themselves with mankind by taking human lovers and having children with them. It hadn’t saved the vampires; it had only created a new race of bloodthirsty creatures for the world to contend with: ventala.

A tremor rocked the house, and they looked up at the screen. A figure in black strode into the ballroom. He shrugged off a black duster coat, letting it drop in his wake without slowing his stride.

“Merrick,” Mr. Clark mumbled.

“Who’s Merrick?” Alissa asked, staring at the dark-haired man on the screen who wore sunglasses despite the late hour. He stopped about twenty feet from the creature, then slid a knife from the sheath on his hip. He was tall and broad, but the monster was enormous.

Mr. Clark leaned forward. “He can’t be serious. That blade looks like it’s made of ivory. It’ll crack long before it gets through a demon’s hide.”

Merrick’s lips moved, and Alissa bent over the controls and pressed a button to un-mute the surveillance system.

To the people, Merrick said, “Get out.” He nodded to the door, but when they inched toward it, the demon roared and they froze. “Go ahead,” Merrick said, even as the creature crouched, ready to attack them.

Merrick clucked his tongue, drawing the demon’s attention. “Come, Corthus. I’m your dance partner.”

“What’d he just say?” Mr. Clark asked.

Alissa blinked, realizing that Merrick had spoken to the creature in Latin. She’d translated his words in her head without thinking. “He’s goading the demon.”

“Not for long,” Mr. Clark said grimly.

Without warning, the demon sprang forward. Alissa gasped, her hand flying to her mouth. Merrick slid away, and the demon’s claws smashed a chair but didn’t get a piece of the man who continued to taunt him. As he fought, Merrick’s unflinching confidence and strength amazed her.

Nothing about his body had changed, but he moved like smoke, curling close and then away. The demon cocked its head and looked down. She saw it then, blackish fluid spraying from the demon’s side. Merrick’s blade had connected.

Merrick smiled at the demon’s startled expression. “Come on. That can’t be all you’ve got. I got up before noon to get here.”

The demon roared and charged again. Merrick slashed and arced away, his motions fluid, almost acrobatic. The demon crumpled, moaning. Its guttural voice protested in Latin. “Impossible,” it said.

“Apparently not,” Merrick replied. His weapon rested casually near his thigh for a moment before he struck again, sinking the blade into the demon’s skull.

Alissa recoiled, her hands in tight fists. The demon stilled.

He made that look easy when all the others couldn’t even wound it. Where did he come from?

Merrick shook his head at the demon as its simmering flesh rapidly rotted into a lumpy puddle on the floor. “Not much of a peach after all,” Merrick mumbled. He turned then and looked around at the bodies before he glanced up into the surveillance camera. He seemed to be staring directly at them, though with his sunglasses on it was impossible to tell for sure. The corner of his mouth curved up.

“You can come out now,” he mouthed.

She blushed, embarrassed that he’d guessed that someone was hiding.

“Bastard,” Mr. Clark grumbled.

“How could he know we’re in here?” she asked.

“He doesn’t. He’s just guessing,” Clark said, walking to the refrigerator at the back of the room. “It’s all over. Sit and have some water.”

“No,” she murmured.

Onscreen, Merrick turned and strolled to retrieve his coat.

Alissa strode to the door and unlocked it, then she darted out and down the corridor before Mr. Clark could stop her. The air from the ballroom smelled like asphalt and sulfur. She grimaced at the stench, but it faded as she reached the foyer.

Merrick seemed taller up close. At least six and a half feet.

Beautiful bone structure. Even obscured by whisker stubble, she could tell.

“Mr. Merrick,” she said breathlessly. He smelled spicy and masculine. Unaccountably delicious. She was almost overcome by the urge to touch him. Was it the adrenaline rush that made him seem so attractive? She extended her hand. “Please accept my thanks—”

Merrick’s warm hand closed around hers just as Mr. Clark’s voice boomed down the corridor. “No! Let her go, Merrick.”

With his free hand, Merrick slid his sunglasses down, revealing eyes so dark they seemed to have no color at all, as black and gorgeous as midnight.

“This is an unusual party. First, a demon. Now, an angel.”

“I’m not an angel.”

“Me either, as it turns out,” he said with a slow smile, then he opened his mouth slightly to touch the point of his tongue to the tip of a fang.

He’s ventala, she thought as fear sluiced through her veins. Alissa stiffened.

Apparently amused by her surprised reaction to his fangs, Merrick cocked a mocking eyebrow. Alissa tried to withdraw her hand, but he held it. She blinked as the muzzle of Mr. Clark’s gun appeared, pressing against Merrick’s temple.

“I accept your thanks, Miss—?” Merrick’s deep voice hummed over her skin. His breath smelled like mint leaves, making her breathe deeper.

It’s a trap. Everything about him lures in his prey.

“Miss North,” she said, trying to keep her voice steady as her heart beat a riot in her chest.

His gaze flicked to her neck. She wondered if he could see her pulse throbbing there. Would he sink those teeth into her throat? Bleed her dry? He might, but he seemed so in control of himself. How was that possible if the ventala were just animals in the face of a muse’s blood? She knew she should draw back from him, but she didn’t want to.

Innocence and mystery don’t last long in each other’s company. It was a quote she’d read long ago. She could taste its warning. Don’t forget what he is.

“V3 bullets, Merrick. Unless you’d like parts of your brain leaking out of the holes I put in your skull, you’ll let her go,” Mr. Clark said.

Alissa grimaced. She was grateful to have the bodyguard with her, but she didn’t want more violence. “This isn’t how the night should end, Mr. Clark. We’re in Mr. Merrick’s debt,” she said.

Merrick’s smile widened. “Beautiful manners to match the beautiful face.” His low voice sent a wave of heat through her. She was attracted to him. Still. Which was foolish and made her angry with herself.

“I bet your boarding school education was expensive,” Merrick said.

Yes, very expensive. And where did someone like you get educated? Charm school for killers? Her lips were dry, but she didn’t dare lick them. She wouldn’t tempt him. Her blood alone should have been a temptation that he couldn’t resist. And yet he did, standing there so calmly. How? With a gun pressed to his head, no less.

She swallowed slowly. “If you returned my hand, I think it would ease Mr. Clark’s mind.”

Merrick stared into her eyes. “Mr. Clark’s. Not yours, huh?” The corners of his mouth turned up in a mocking smile.

Be still. He’s toying with you.

“Too bad I was so late to the party, Miss North. If I’d gotten here earlier, I could’ve asked you to dance.” His dark gaze seemed to light her blood on fire.

“It wouldn’t have made a difference. No matter when you’d arrived, I would have had to say no.” She cleared her throat. “Let go of my hand, please,” she said more firmly.

“Not a peach to be had,” he murmured, letting her hand fall from his. He moved past her in an instant, leaving Mr. Clark’s gun pointing at empty air. When Clark noticed, he lowered it.

Relieved, and yet disappointed, Alissa turned to watch Merrick walk through the gaping hole that he’d blown in the front of the mansion to gain entry.

“Why did he come to save us if he’s one of them?” she asked.

“He didn’t come to save anyone here,” Mr. Clark said. “The demon was in the Varden last night, slaughtering them. Merrick came for vengeance. He’s an enforcer. A common killer.”

Alissa stared at the velvety darkness into which Merrick had disappeared. Certainly a killer, but not common.



Chapter 1

Spring 2012

A door slammed, assaulted by the wind that hissed through the house’s east wing. Strands of moonlight stretched toward Alissa’s ankles as she swept down the corridor. She wanted to check on her father one last time before leaving for the Xenakis party.

Her dad had worsened again, which she continued to conceal along with the fact that she was using her magic illegally to help him. If anyone found out, everything she’d worked for would be lost. And so would he.

No one knows, and no one will.

A lone leaf blew across the floor. She walked on, faster, hoping that this setback was temporary, caused by the upcoming anniversary of her mother’s death.

The memory of that day flashed in her mind and Alissa winced. She saw the steaming mug in her small hands. Her mother had been upset, so Alissa had made herbal tea for her. At twelve years old, Alissa already had a keen sense that being a muse involved nurturing the gentle parts of people, not only to foster their creativity but also to soothe their self-doubt. She liked to practice because she wanted to be as great a muse as her mother and grandmother.

Alissa had knocked softly on her mom’s door and announced herself before opening it. At first when she’d seen the dangling body, she hadn’t understood. The luminous limbs that had been sculpted and painted by countless artists hung limp and lifeless. The face that had graced hundreds of magazine covers was blue and swollen. Not a sound or a breath had escaped Alissa. She’d backed from the doorway and walked, trancelike, downstairs. Instinctively, she’d avoided her father, protective of her mother’s image even while in shock. She’d gone to the garage and found her mother’s driver and Etherlin Security bodyguard, Mr. Sorges. While they were home, he was always there, smoking, tinkering with the car, and occasionally cleaning firearms.

Alissa had told him in a shaky voice that her mother needed help, and he’d rushed inside, taking charge. As the house erupted, Alissa had sat silently in the garage, holding the cooling tea that would never be drunk.

The memory faded, and Alissa tapped on the door to her father’s suite of rooms. In the time before her mother died, he’d jokingly called them kingly accommodations. When Alissa had knocked as a child, he used to call out, “Enter the king’s chambers.” The laughter in his hearty voice had easily traveled through the solid oak doors. She remembered how much fun it had been to slip into his work sanctuary, which had been decorated with rich tapestries and ornately beaded pillows from Morocco and India. Colored scarves in jewel tones had been draped over the chairs and chaises, while netting and silks had dripped from the bed frame, creating an exotic hideaway for a child to play within.

Tonight her father didn’t answer when she knocked, which wasn’t unusual. He was often in his own world now. She pushed the door open and shivered at the gust of cold air. He had the balcony doors thrown wide. Pages blew over the barren floor where there had once been a Persian rug. So many of the room’s comforts and ornamentations had been torn to pieces and burned in her father’s fireplace, as though no matter how high the central heating was turned up, he could never quite get warm.

More than once his impromptu fires had nearly spread to the bedroom or the roof. Careless or intentional? Alissa wasn’t completely sure.

As she moved into the room, she frowned at not finding him. There were shards of broken glass in the corner and a sticky film of red wine. Her heart pounded like a horse thundering from the gate. Nothing congealed or thick. No blood, but how had he gotten the bottle? And had he done anything more with the broken glass?

She hurried across the bedroom and spotted him lying prostrate on the floor. Her heart nearly stopped. Alissa rushed to him and knelt, feeling his face. Still warm. Still breathing. She exhaled in relief, then noticed he’d used the wall as a canvas for poetry and ramblings. In his drunkenness, he’d knocked over his inkwell and dragged his fingers through it, creating a swirling black mess, like a sinister finger painting. She flushed, embarrassed by the work Mrs. Carlisle would have to do to clean it. The housekeeper wouldn’t enlist the help of the maids for fear that people would learn how unwell he still was. When she returned from the party, Alissa would try to clean most of it before Mrs. Carlisle arrived in the morning.

“Oh, Dad,” she said, gently nudging him.

He jerked awake. “Ah, Persephone’s twin,” he murmured, his eyes peering through strands of unwashed hair.

“There’s no Persephone. She was just a myth, remember?” Some legends were true. Some weren’t. Her father had difficulty keeping them straight in his mind.

“This dagger,” he said, brandishing his fountain pen near her throat and causing her to draw back. “Not sharper than a sword, but with a purpose as true as any.” He exhaled stale wine and she grimaced.

“Dad,” she said. “It’s cold on the floor. Get in bed.” She squeezed his forearm. “Please. I’m going to Calla and Dimitri’s. I can’t be late.”

“That blasted Hades. Red-eyed demon. I’ll cut him,” he said, slashing the air.

With more prodding, she got him to his feet and helped him stumble past his scarred writing desk. Once a beautiful piece from Shanghai, it had been a gift from a devoted reader. Now his admirers had scattered to the four winds—along with his sense.

She led him to the bed, ignoring his mumbled ravings.

“I’ll skewer his black heart. I’ll reclaim Persephone from the underworld.” He looked at his pen as Alissa tucked the blankets around him. “By your eyes, I can read your thoughts, and you’re right. Perfectly right. This dagger is not nearly sharp enough. It will take Excalibur, to be sure. Gather words for a crown of poetry to rest upon her head. The Lady of the Lake is not easily impressed. Not easily. Nor should any such as she be.” He closed his watery blue eyes, and Alissa slipped the pen from his grip.

“Rest,” she whispered, infusing her voice with persuasive power.

For a moment, his eyes flickered open and his gaze was clear. “Alissa?”

A smile spread across her face. She was grateful to have him back for even a moment. “Yes, Dad, it’s me.”

“Hello, Moonbeam,” he said, the smile in his voice.

“Hello.”

Then his lids drooped, like shades descending slowly to close out the night.

She set the pen on the bedside table and pressed a kiss to his ink-smudged forehead. “When I become the Wreath Muse, I’ll bring you all the way home,” she said, wanting it to be true.



The spray from the fountain left faint water marks on the sage green velvet of Alissa’s gown as she moved across the rose-scented courtyard. The dots of golden light gave everyone’s skin a creamy porcelain glow.

The soft hum of voices mixed with background music. Mozart’s lilting notes relaxed her. She stopped next to a table covered in Chantilly lace, pretending to admire it, while her attention was really on the large group of laughing friends across the courtyard.

Cerise Xenakis, her former best friend, held court at the center. Cerise’s dark hair gleamed in the candlelight. She wore a daring dress of white leather and pewter lace. From a distance it looked like lingerie, and Alissa had heard that Cerise had taken the dress from a music video she’d starred in for the Molly Times, one of the bands she inspired. The Molly Times’s debut album had gone platinum and had been nominated for three Grammy Awards.

Alissa swallowed hard, wondering to whose presentation the EC—the Etherlin Council—had given more votes: hers or Cerise’s. Among the people Cerise inspired, there were an Olympic gold medalist, a Heisman Trophy winner, a principal dancer with the San Francisco Ballet, and four multiplatinum musical artists. Among Alissa’s aspirants, her writers had won a Pulitzer, three National Book Awards, and two Academy Awards. Her scientific and engineering aspirants had published eighty-four scientific papers and generated nineteen patents, two of which Alissa had been included on. She had transferred her share in the patents to the Etherlin community trust. She was proud that her work on clean energy had generated eight million dollars over four years. That was four million more than she’d made modeling. She wanted to be respected and regarded as a muse of substance, but she was glad to have the modeling income for the community as well. She knew that with her combined earnings, she’d contributed more money to the trust than all the other current muses combined.

Alissa spotted Grant and nodded at him with a smile.

Grant Easton could sail around the world in rough winds, and the blond good looks he’d inherited from his grandfather made most women want to join him. Alissa actually had.

When he reached her side, he brushed his lips over her cheek in what was nearly a kiss. The public greeting was just like the man who’d given it to her: smooth, reserved, and appropriate. She wished that could be enough for her.

“I heard that you and your aspirants gave a great presentation on the desalination project. The council was really impressed.”

She beamed. “Were they? I’m so glad. I keep going over the voting members in my head, trying to convince myself that I have enough support. I’m glad that the vote’s only a few days away; the past few weeks have been so nerve-wracking.”

“Well, despite having two daughters in the running for the Wreath, Dimitri continues to be your staunchest supporter.”

“He considers me his third daughter. I’m very lucky in that respect. What else have you heard regarding where people are leaning?”

“I think if they voted today, you’d have it, but there are still lingering concerns about the past.”

“They can’t really be worried about my stability,” she said, frowning. “I’ve been completely solid my whole life.”

“You refuse security detail while in the Etherlin. People wonder why.”

“I’m not the only one. All the muses refuse it in the Etherlin. There’s no threat here. ES is the best.”

He smiled and inclined his head at the compliment to Etherlin Security. ES acted as both police force for the Etherlin and personal security for the muses. Since Grant had been in charge of ES for two years, the praise was directed at him, too.

“I’m sure things will work out the way they’re meant to for you, Alissa,” he said. “Speaking of the voting EC members, one of them wants you.”

She followed his gaze to Dimitri Xenakis, who raised a blunt-fingered hand to draw her over. He was a dark-haired bull of a man. Not very tall, but direct and powerful. In the early days after her mother’s death and her father’s breakdown, he was the best advisor and surrogate parent she could’ve wanted. But recently she’d become wary of his interest in her father’s recovery. He’d suggested more than once that her father might unknowingly be leeching some of her muse energy. A guilty tremor made Alissa’s muscles twitch. Her dad wasn’t leeching energy. She was giving it to him, a fact she couldn’t let anyone discover, since it would definitely cost her the Wreath if they did. Unfortunately, without her magic, Alissa was sure her father would spiral downward into a suicide attempt. She couldn’t bear the thought. He was the only family she had left.

“Are you coming?” she asked Grant as she nodded at Dimitri.

“No, I’ve got some reports to write tonight. I’m heading out soon.”

“All right,” she said, giving his arm a squeeze as she passed him.

Dimitri’s youngest daughter, Dorie, was at his side. When Alissa got close enough to see the sixteen-year-old, she was startled by the change in Dorie’s face. The girl had been born with her mother Calla’s proud Roman nose. Alissa had loved the distinctive look it gave her face, but apparently a plastic surgeon had whittled and sculpted it into something very different. Dorie’s new nose looked familiar, and Alissa realized with a start that she was seeing her own nose on the other girl’s face. Alissa maintained a blank expression, but cringed inwardly. There was always so much pressure to be the council’s idea of perfection. It could be overwhelming for someone so young. Alissa, who’d had to battle back from the shame and censure that surrounded her mother’s death, was well used to that pressure. She’d developed her own special way of coping. An illicit way.

She wrote letters to Merrick—and enjoyed it. There was the feeling, true or not, that she wouldn’t be able to shock him with anything she shared. That he could never condemn her for breaking a rule because he would inevitably have done worse in his life. It gave her an intoxicating sense of freedom, even though it was dangerous. She surreptitiously touched the Art Deco gold and enamel bracelet on her wrist, a gift from Merrick.

Initially, she’d thought writing to him would be a temporary thing, but she couldn’t seem to stop. Weeks would pass, and he would send her something, some gift. She would try to ignore it, but then in a weak moment, usually during the night, she went to her desk, unearthed her most elegant stationery, and drafted a letter. She often wrote for an entire hour. She never sent the first letters. They contained too much. She always wrote a second, milder, less revealing version that she actually sent. Except once. Once, she’d sent a first draft. She shivered, thinking of it. That letter had almost pushed them into territory where they could never venture. After the Merlot letter, as she referred to it in her mind, she’d stopped writing for almost six months, but then he’d sent flowers and she couldn’t resist acknowledging them. So the writing resumed. The truth was, she loved having a connection, however minor, with someone outside the confines of her own world.

“Hi, Alissa,” Dorie said. She pushed back a heavy curtain of black hair that had been highlighted with brassy copper streaks.

“Hello,” Alissa said, offering her a warm smile.

Dimitri kissed Alissa’s cheeks. “You look beautiful. You should wear that color to the meeting with the Ralph Lauren people.”

Alissa’s fingers tightened on the champagne flute in her hand. She hoped to be too busy for paid advertising campaigns soon. She hoped to be completely consumed with the Wreath Muse publicity tour and the obligations of the role.

Although there were three other muses officially in contention for the honor, realistically Cerise was the only one who could possibly edge out Alissa. As if on cue, the Act I waltz from Swan Lake began, and Cerise’s friends encouraged her to dance. She declined at first, then relented. Cerise didn’t have the willowy body of a ballerina, but no one could deny that when Cerise danced, she was a wonder to behold. Alissa kept her face blank, though her throat burned as it always did when she watched Cerise perform. A dance recital had ruined their childhood friendship, and Alissa had tried unsuccessfully to mend things between them for years afterward.

“She’s amazing, isn’t she, Papa?” Dorie asked.

“She dances well.”

“Will the Etherlin Council take a muse’s personal talents into consideration when voting?” Dorie asked. “Cerise sent the songs I wrote to a music producer. She thinks I’m talented enough to sell or record them.”

“The EC is aware of everything a muse accomplishes, but it’s more concerned with how well she inspires other people. Using the muse magic for personal gain and attention is a good way to not only get yourself taken out of the running for the Wreath, but also to be asked to leave the community.”

“I didn’t use muse magic! I write music in my spare time.”

“You could be using that spare time to study and come up with ways to help foster innovations in the world. You should look to Alissa’s example. She just finished her second degree.”

Alissa hated being drawn into Dimitri’s lecture. She knew he was just trying to motivate Dorie, which, if rumor served, Dorie needed. But the younger girl would certainly resent being negatively compared to Alissa.

“I probably study too much. I often have to fight the urge to collaborate,” Alissa said.

“There’s nothing wrong with collaborating if it enhances the inspiration you provide your aspirants,” Dimitri said.

“Alissa, how’s your father?” Dorie asked. “I was walking along the lake, and I saw him messing around in the flower beds. It looked like he was in his pajamas and digging with his hands,” she said, wrinkling her nose.

Alissa narrowed her eyes. “He’s doing well. He gardens sometimes to relax now that he’s writing again.”

“Writing? That’s good. Not with your help, though, I trust,” Dimitri said.

“No. It’s just exploratory writing and historical research, but it’s keeping him occupied, and he’s enjoying the process again.”

“Took him long enough,” Dorie muttered.

“Is that what you think?” Alissa demanded.

How dare Dorie, a girl with limited drive, criticize a man who’d once worked fifteen-hour days to write novels that had won major literary awards, a man whose work had sparked a political debate that led to a congressional hearing and changes in foreign policy. What did Dorie, a pampered teen barely past puberty, know about real pain? When Alissa’s mother had died, her father had lost his love and his muse in a single night, a loss so devastating it had tipped him into despair and madness. Her father’s current state wasn’t his fault. No one had warned him about the dangerous side of muse magic until it was too late.

“Dorie, go and see if Mrs. Rella needs anything,” Dimitri said curtly.

“Sure,” Dorie said, unperturbed. Her dark eyes bore into Alissa as she passed.

“I’m sorry if that remark hurt you,” he said with his characteristic bluntness.

Alissa didn’t answer.

“Maybe Richard should stay with us. You know what fans Calla and I are of his novels. She’ll be home in a few days, and she’d love to assist in his research and encourage his return to writing, which would allow you to concentrate on your own work.”

“I have it all under control. It’s the anniversary of Mom’s death soon, and we always spend that together.” She was sure the impending anniversary had caused her dad’s setback, and Alissa wasn’t going to let anyone see him until it passed.

If she got the Wreath, she might even be able to restore him to his former self. She longed for that and didn’t feel guilty about using a little magic for his sake. The loss of muse magic was what had destroyed him in the first place, so he was owed some consideration. Also, it was the only thing Alissa took for herself. With the exception of the few hours per year that she spent writing letters to Merrick, her entire life was consumed with her role as a muse. Often from the time she woke until the time she went to bed, she followed an agenda that was created to serve her aspirants, the Etherlin community, and mankind at large. I’m allowed to take care of my own father, too, she thought defiantly.

“All right,” Dimitri said. “Let us know if you need help with anything.”

She smiled and squeezed his forearm. “Thank you, Dimitri.”

He nodded and excused himself. She relaxed her shoulders and slipped into the house through the French doors. Passing the lilac damask drapes framing the arched window, she maneuvered around the three-foot-tall flower arrangement sitting on a white-stone pedestal. She set her empty champagne flute on a sterling silver tray for soiled dishes, and then turned to the servant standing at the front door.

“If you have a moment, I’d like my wrap,” she said.

“Of course,” he said with a smile, then walked to the closet. A moment later, he held aloft the ivory shawl that was intricately embroidered with gold. She stepped forward and let him slip it around her shoulders.

“It’s quite a lovely piece,” he said.

“Yes,” she said, cursing the faint blush that rose in her cheeks. Another gift from Merrick that she shouldn’t have kept. She wondered what he was doing tonight. Probably something disreputable. Since he seemed to know her taste and always sent beautiful and thoughtful gifts, it was hard not to romanticize him. She had to remind herself that violence lurked under his charming generosity. “Thank you,” she said.

“Would you like the car called?”

“Oh no,” she said. “It’s a beautiful night. I’ll walk.”

“Very good, Miss North,” he said, opening the front door.

The clanging of the gate drew her gaze. A group that included Cerise and Dorie had come out of the yard, apparently going for a stroll. Alissa waited for them to pass before she left the house.

When she was beyond the edge of Xenakis property, she cut down one of the cobbled paths to the lakeside promenade. It was a shorter walk home, and a prettier one. The lake was like glass, moonlight reflecting off its placid surface. She paused to stare at the water. The Etherlin was the most beautiful place on Earth. They were lucky to have built their community in such a stunning place.

A shadow crept over the water. She looked up at the huge full moon. No clouds had drifted across it.

Strange, she thought, her gaze returning to the path, which seemed to darken in front of her. She began walking again, noticing that the night had grown colder, a chill seeping under her skin.

What is it? What do I sense?

She trod lightly but quickly. The silence became oppressive. Her breath quickened, and she dampened her lips. Something slithered around her ankle, and she stumbled, crying out. She landed on the grass, her heart hammering. Black magic as bleak and frozen as a snowcap surrounded her, but that couldn’t be. Not within the purity of the Etherlin.

She yanked at the hem of her dress to be certain there was no snake crawling up her leg. Finding nothing tangled in her skirt or limbs, she clambered to her feet and jerked her head to look over her shoulder.

A cloaked figure rushed toward her.

There wasn’t time to react.

“Velvet Sting”

(An Etherlin holiday story featuring characters from All That Bleeds)

By: Kimberly Frost

Under sparkling crystal-studded wreaths, red velvet ropes enclosed the staging area where the Etherlin muses prepared to give their speeches during an awards presentation. Inspiration Mall, already thick with holiday shoppers, overflowed with people who in some cases had traveled thousands of miles after being selected from an international lottery system to attend. Muses were inspiration made flesh; they had a magical quality to their voices that could inspire listeners to change their lives and rise to new heights that they never thought possible.

Alissa North, the muse of science and literature, had given hundreds of interviews and speeches over the years. She still had the occasional butterflies when stepping onstage before a large crowd, but at the moment she wasn’t nervous. She was distracted. Passing through strands of gold garland, she moved closer to where the assistant director of Etherlin Security was talking to a man in tight jeans and a black leather jacket. The man had mentioned a name that always got Alissa’s attention…Merrick.

Merrick was ventala—a human-vampire half-breed—and a syndicate enforcer whom Alissa should never have met. But the extremely handsome and charismatic Merrick had once trespassed in the Etherlin to slay a demon, and since that night when he’d saved countless lives including hers, she’d been a little obsessed with the man.

Now this weasel in a leather jacket seemed to be helping Etherlin Security lay a trap for Merrick.

“Listen, if you don’t want him buying that property, you better arrest him today. He doesn’t normally come here. Merrick’s tailor delivers his designer suits to Merrick’s penthouse personally. I don’t know why the hell Merrick’s coming out in the middle of the Christmas rush and this circus you guys are staging, but it’s a golden opportunity for you to take him. Usually no one knows where he’ll be and he’s turned his building into a fortress.”

Merrick’s coming here to see me, she realized.

For the past three years, he’d flirted with her by secretly sending her gifts. She’d told him she couldn’t accept his presents, but she’d done so in a series of progressively longer letters that she sent him in secret—letters that held a bit of flirtation from her side. Yes, against all good judgment, one of the Etherlin muses was partaking in a clandestine correspondence with a member of the fallen. If the Etherlin Council found out, it would ruin Alissa’s life.

She eavesdropped on the man in the leather jacket and with her muse sense she heard more than nervousness in his tone. She heard deceit.

“I’ll testify, but after that I have to disappear. I want the money transferred to my account in advance. And you’d better be sure you’ve got your end set up because if he gets out, he’ll kill me for ly—for helping you.”

He’d almost said “for lying.” She waited for the assistant director, who’d surely heard the slip too, to interrogate him, to press the man until he confessed that he was going to lie to convict Merrick so he could get paid what was likely a large sum of money.

Merrick was an infamous enforcer. She had no illusions about him, but from what she could glean, he killed creatures that needed killing, dangerous creatures that preyed upon human beings.

“We’re ready to take him into custody,” the assistant director said.

“I’m glad. I thought you might balk at doing it on the day of a muse event.”

“We’ll do it quietly. The tailor wasn’t particularly cooperative, but he couldn’t argue with a court order.”

Alissa’s heart thumped faster. They already had a warrant.

“I hope you’ve got enough guys. Merrick’s no pushover.”

“We’re aware of Merrick’s skills.”

“I’m just saying—”

“We’re Etherlin Security, Dykstra, and even Merrick’s not invincible. When he enters the store, we’ll take him.”

Alissa licked her lips and pressed a firm hand to the front of her champagne-colored coat dress right under her ribs. The pressure achieved the desired effect; it focused her energy.

She glanced at all the personal assistants, event planners, and helpers that were assembled. Her eyes darted to the armed bodyguards standing at attention and to the throngs of people lining every area surrounding the stage. There was no way she could slip away to warn Merrick herself. And it would be insanely risky to try to get a message to him.

If he’s coming today because you’ll be here, then you’re indirectly part of this set-up. Can you live with that if they railroad him into a guilty verdict on some trumped up charge? What if he gets a death sentence?

Her stomach knotted, and her fists clenched.

She strode to the table where her purse and presentation notes were sitting atop a gold-and-emerald tablecloth. She opened her white leather portfolio and flipped through the sheath of heavy bond paper. She wanted a sheet without the monogram of her initials at the top. If they took Merrick into custody, she couldn’t afford for her stationery to be found on his person.

If they capture him… This is ill advised. How will I even get a note to him? I’m being foolish. He can take care of himself.

A memory flashed in her mind, and she saw him fighting with the eight-foot-tall demon with its dagger-sharp claws and superhuman strength. He’d defeated that monster. He’d made it look easy.

She paused for a moment. Yes, of course he could take care of himself. She’d seen with her own eyes how amazing he was at that.

But they’d laid a trap for him that he wasn’t expecting. Merrick was usually as elusive as smoke, but today ES knew exactly where he would be and she was the reason he’d be in a position to be arrested.

Naturally, she couldn’t know for sure that he was coming to the mall to see her, but she felt it. Her sixth sense told her so, and she trusted it.

She sat and wrote a few words on the blank sheet of snowy white paper, then sealed it in an envelope and folded it into a palm-sized square. She feigned reviewing her speech in case anyone was watching her. After a few moments, she walked to the dressing area. It was the one place she could expect privacy.

Beckoning one of the teenage errand girls who was helping her assistant, she waited. Alissa had talked to the girl, Carrie, earlier and knew she was a devoted fan.

Carrie darted forward. “Yes, Miss North? How can I help?”

Alissa bent and whispered to the girl. Alissa infused her voice with persuasive power and placed the paper into Carrie’s hand, giving her explicit instructions.

“If anyone asks, you’re getting me a peppermint hot cocoa,” Alissa said, slipping the gold drop earrings from her lobes. “These are for you to wear when you’re working on your application to Stanford.”

The girl stared at her, speechless.

“This is the year you start chasing your dream. Don’t hesitate. You can do it. You’ll write the best essays you’ve ever written,” Alissa said, pressing the earrings into Carrie’s palm on top of the note.

“You don’t have to give me anything, Miss North. It’s been so great just meeting you!” Carrie gushed. “I want to help you. Whatever you need—”

Alissa squeezed the girl’s arm and smiled. “We’ll help each other. Go,” Alissa said.

The girl nodded and with a determined expression slipped around the barrier and past the velvet rope.

All right, it’s out of my hands.

* * *

It was like Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Except no one was drunk and it was so bright that even his dark sunglasses couldn’t completely shield Merrick’s eyes.

He threaded through the crowd. ES had every entrance and exit covered, so to enter Inspiration Mall he had to pass through the metal detectors. Which was why the gun he carried wasn’t made of metal and neither was the knife. Wood and plastic. Expensive and not what he preferred, but he never went anywhere unarmed. Especially not into the heart of Etherlin Security.

A crowded mall at midday? Full of men who wanted him dead or in jail? This wasn’t a smart play. He glanced at the red exit sign.

You could be sitting at your desk in a room that defies daylight, drinking a scotch lime and reading letters she sent you personally.

As if on cue, he turned a corner and saw a fifteen-foot-tall poster of Alissa North’s beautiful face. Yeah, he could be in his penthouse, but she wouldn’t be there in the flesh and he wouldn’t get to hear her muse voice. This was the place for that. And his tailor, Nardo, would have scotch for him. Merrick routinely spent fifteen-thousand dollars on a suit. If he’d allowed it, Nardo would’ve had him over for Christmas dinner. But there was only one person in the world whose company Merrick coveted, and she was scheduled to take the stage in thirty minutes.

Merrick cut through the crowd. Whether it was because he was tall and menacing or whether some of them recognized him, Merrick didn’t know, but people parted to allow him to pass. Until a brunette with a dusting of light brown freckles which made her look twelve years old moved directly into his path.

He stared at her, waiting. He’d had his share of women over the years, and he knew when a bold one was pursuing him. This teenager in her wool sweater and slacks wasn’t. She had another purpose.

Shifting nervously, she stepped forward. “Are you—can I ask your name?”

“Why would you want to do that?” he asked in a low voice. She needed to pluck up her courage and get on with things. He had places to be.

Her hair moved when she turned her head to look around, and he recognized the gold earrings dangling from her ears. He’d seen Alissa North wearing them more than once in press photos.

“Nice earrings,” he said.

The girl blushed. “Yeah, I’m working the muse event. She asked me to do her a favor and insisted I take them. She’s really generous.”

“My name, it’s Merrick,” he said.

She looked around once more, stepped closer to block anyone’s view of their hands, and slipped paper into his palm. “She said you should read it before you shop anywhere,” she blurted in a whisper and then hurried away.

He strode to a corridor without a view, knowing it wouldn’t be as crowded. With his back to the wall and shadowed by a large column wrapped in red bows, he opened the folded paper. He recognized the handwriting.

Avoid Zeroga’s today. It’s a trap.

Take care.

He rubbed a thumb over his lower lip, pocketed the letter and glanced around. The smart move would be to walk out the nearby exit, but he’d woken before noon to hear Alissa North give a speech. Besides he didn’t run from trouble. He wondered what was waiting for him in Nardo’s store.

Still, he wouldn’t ignore a note from her. The hand resting against his gun slid up to press the breast pocket that contained the message. Alissa North had been worried about him and had risked discovery to warn him.

She is protecting you. Merry Christmas, Merrick, he thought and smiled. Yeah, he definitely wasn’t in a rush to go. When his reason for being at Inspiration Mall left, he would, too. Not before.

* * *

Days later, sitting in Hallmark, her favorite café, Alissa couldn’t concentrate on the manuscript she was reviewing. Her mind kept returning to Inspiration Mall where she’d spotted Merrick leaning against a column on the third floor walkway…watching her. His handsome face and very dark eyes haunted her even now. She wished she could see him again.

That day had progressed without incident. Merrick had gotten her message and despite his delay in leaving the mall, evaded arrest. He’d actually stayed for her entire speech and as she gave out awards for best essay and best short story by a high school, college, and post-graduate student, she’d worried that ES would notice Merrick and attempt to take him into custody. So though she’d wanted to stare directly at him while she spoke, she’d done her best not to look up at the third floor.

Seven days had passed since the event, and Dykstra the informant had since disappeared. Whether he’d decided to leave to avoid potential trouble with Merrick or whether Merrick had realized that the man posed a threat and had eliminated him, Alissa would never know and, if the latter, didn’t want to.

She still wasn’t completely comfortable with her decision to protect Merrick from Etherlin Security, although if they were going to arrest him, the charges needed to be accurate and ES needed to capture Merrick when he wasn’t coming to an event because of her. Under normal circumstances, she wouldn’t have felt compelled to help him; Merrick would be on his own to face any charges against him, she told herself.

She poured a second cup of Italian Roast coffee from the small French Press that rested on her table. She raised the porcelain cup and took a sip as a Pead’s Florists delivery truck parked on the street outside Hallmark.

Her heartbeat thumped a bit faster. Merrick, who wasn’t allowed to pass the Etherlin walls himself, often sent her anonymous gifts using Pead’s. The deliveries always came when she was out of her house where she could receive them without her household staff intercepting them.

She recognized the young man. He’d made discreet deliveries before. She set down her cup and watched him amble into the restaurant. He was neatly dressed in a crisp white shirt and dark trousers, but his boots had been battered by the Colorado winter and his shaggy hair needed a trim. Though he and she were probably the same age, he looked young and earnest as he approached her table and she doubted she did. Despite being in her early twenties, she’d already spent years mentoring the brilliant and the talented. She was at the top of her rare and celebrated field. Fame and an aloofness born of harboring secrets separated her from most people. Seeing the collection of white and lavender roses in silver tissue paper, she thought, the circumstances of my life separate me from most people, but not from Merrick who doesn’t care that it’s perilous for a ventala to maintain a relationship with a muse. And I shouldn’t be pleased by his attitude. If we’re not very careful…

The boy waited for her to acknowledge him.

“Hello,” she said, offering him a smile.

He nodded and stepped forward. He leaned down and set the flowers on the table, murmuring, “There’s a note and something else wrapped inside. Have a good day.”

“Just a moment,” she said, reaching for her purse, but by the time she opened it he was already halfway to the door. He never lingers for a tip. She guessed one had been included when the order had been placed and that the young man’s orders were to leave immediately after delivering the package. That was the way Merrick always did things when it came to contacting her. Careful, calculating, and devastatingly smooth.

She glanced around as she inhaled the flowers’ lush fragrance. People smiled as they watched her. She set the flowers on her lap and continued drinking her coffee, glancing pointedly at the manuscript pages, signaling to everyone that she was continuing with her work and there was nothing important to see.

Eventually she slipped her fingers among the stems and felt the card and small box. She silently pried them free and unwrapped them on her lap under the cover of the linen tablecloth.

She slid the card amongst the manuscript pages and opened to it. She read the note, warmth spreading through her.

Replacements for the ones you left at Inspiration Mall. -M

The thud of her heart echoed in her ears. She flipped open the small jewelry box and after a sip of coffee leaned slightly back in her seat to look down into the box. Resting on white velvet was a pair of diamond-and-aquamarine earrings that must have cost a fortune. She fingered the sparkling gems.

You can’t keep them, she thought, glancing at the ornate design. The antique earrings suited her taste perfectly. They were completely her style, closely matching a pendant she wore often.

Merrick knows what I like. And he takes the time to find it.

You still shouldn’t keep them, she thought, but the fact that the exquisite gift had come from him made her want to keep it close to her. Closer than he’d ever be to her in the flesh. Wasn’t maintaining a wall between them enough distance?

They would be perfect with the silver dress I’m wearing on New Year’s Eve. I could wear them that night and then sell them and donate the proceeds to charity as I’ve done in the past with his gifts.

She closed the box and held it tight in her hands, her fingers locked around it as if she held all that she wanted from Merrick within them.

Or I could have them valued and donate an equal amount of money to charity, but keep the earrings. He saved my life once and I thanked him. Now I’ve protected him, and these are what he sent to thank me.

If I hold onto them, no one will ever know except me, she thought, sliding closer to danger with every passing moment. Her pulse thrummed and her skin tingled at the thought of building another small bridge between herself and Merrick.

I won’t wear them out. I’ll just have them as a keepsake.

She licked her lips, knowing she should absolutely give up the earrings. But also that she never would.

As is often the case, Mr. Merrick, where you dare, you win. Though I’ll never admit that to anyone. Especially not to you.

Be well and Happy New Year.


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