The bite before christma.., p.11
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       The Bite Before Christmas, p.11

         Part #15.50 of Argeneau series by Lynsay Sands


  Shock washed over Bones's face. Wraith seemed more urbane, even with a knife protruding from his chest.

  "Lies," Bones finally said. "My mother had no other children aside from me. "

  "She didn't," was Wraith's reply. "Your father did. "

  Bones still looked thunderstruck, but his grip didn't loosen. "My mum was a whore. There's no way she could've known who my father was. "

  "Your mother was Penelope Ann Maynard, who did indeed become a whore. But not until after she bore the Duke of Rutland's illegitimate son. That son was raised in a London whorehouse and sentenced to deportation for thievery in 1789. He died in the New South Wales penal colonies a year later, but he didn't stay dead. " Wraith's gaze slid to the man behind him. "Any of this sound familiar to you?"

  Each word hammered into Bones like physical blows, I could tell from the emotions weaving into my subconscious. While I'd heard the story of Bones's past, it wasn't common knowledge, and Wraith had been spot-on with the dates and details. Plus, there was the resemblance. Both men had those high, chiseled cheekbones, thick brows, full yet firm mouths, and tall, proudly arrogant stances. Bones was a brown-eyed brunet and Wraith a blue-eyed blond, but if Wraith dyed his hair and got dark contacts, even a casual observer could guess they were related. Half-brothers, if what Wraith said was true.

  "Close, but my mother's surname was Russell, not Maynard," Bones stated. "And neither she nor any of the women I grew up with even hinted that they knew who my father was. Now, over two hundred years later, you expect me to believe this tale of dukes and you being my long-lost brother?" His arm tightened around Wraith's neck. "Sorry, mate. I don't. "

  "I . . . ave . . . oof. " The words were garbled from the pressure Bones put on the vampire's throat.

  "Proof?" Bones asked, loosening his grip.

  Wraith managed a nod. "If you stop throttling me, I'll show you. "

  Fabian followed us at a discreet distance as we walked down the winding gravel road that led to the bottom of the hill. If Wraith noticed the ghost flitting above the tree tops, he didn't comment. In fact, he seemed relaxed. Cheerful even, but I didn't let down my guard. I'd had people smile the whole time they attempted to kill me, so a jolly disposition might indicate good intentions if you were Santa Claus, but the same didn't go for vampires.

  "How did you find my house?" Bones asked. He also hadn't lost an inch of his wariness, as the currents swirling around him indicated.

  "I followed you from the hotel," Wraith replied.

  I stopped short. "You're admitting you're the asshole who carved up Annette?" Brother-in-law or not, he'd pay if he was.

  Wraith sighed. "I rescued Annette by chasing that vampire off. Didn't catch him, though. By the time I returned to check on her, you were loading her into the car, and the lot of you looked angry enough to kill first and ask questions later. "

  Ian had said he'd heard a vampire when he first arrived. He'd thought it was the perpetrator fleeing the scene, but could it have been Wraith chasing after the real attacker?

  "If that's true, why wouldn't Annette mention you when we arrived? And more importantly, where were you when some sod was painting the walls with her blood?"

  Wraith cast a sideways glance at the flatness in Bones's tone. He wouldn't need to be linked to his emotions to know that Bones didn't believe this version of events.

  "I was on my way to see her. You can check her mobile; the call she received right before she was attacked was me telling her I was running late. When I arrived, I heard something odd. Her door was unlocked, so I entered in time to see someone dash out the window. After checking that Annette was still alive, I chased him. As for why she didn't mention me, I can only guess it was due to a misguided attempt to keep the surprise. "

  "What surprise?" Bones and I asked in unison.

  "That you have a brother," Wraith replied softly. "The news was to be Annette's birthday present to you. "

  Even with their similarity in appearance, it still seemed impossible to think that Wraith was Bones's brother. From the disbelief threading into my subconscious, Bones felt the same way.

  "This vampire you chased, did you get a good look at him? Happen to recognize him?" I asked, changing the subject.

  "Sorry, never seen him before. The only thing I can tell you is that he had dark hair and could fly like the wind. "

  A brunet vampire who could fly. That narrowed it down to at least ten thousand-not much help at all. We were almost at the bottom of the hill. Up ahead, a Buick was parked on the side of the road, its lights off.

  "My car," Wraith said, nodding at it. Then he held out a set of keys. "The proof you seek is in the boot. "

  Bones didn't touch the keys, but a tight smile stretched his lips. "Don't think so. You open it. "

  Wraith snorted in a way that sounded very familiar. "Think I've wired it to explode? You're even more paranoid than your reputation. "

  "I'm also more impatient than my reputation," Bones replied coolly. "So get on with it. "

  With another noise of exasperation, Wraith set down his long stick and walked over to the back of the car. The trunk popped up without even a spark and Wraith pulled out a flat, sheet-draped, rectangular object.

  "Here," he said, holding it out to Bones. "I also have archives, but if this doesn't convince you, those won't either. "

  Bones took it and pulled the sheet away. It was a painting; old, from the state of the framing and the canvas, but I didn't need more than a single glance at the subject to let out a gasp.

  Bones said nothing, simply staring at the image of a man who bore an eerie resemblance to him, only his hair was corn-silk blond and he had lines around his mouth that looked too harsh to be caused by smiling. He wore a ruffled shirt and an embroidered coat with so many tassels, buttons, and braids that it looked like it could stand on its own. A jewel-handled dirk sticking out of his belt completed the image of extravagance, as if the arrogance in the man's expression wasn't clue enough that he'd been born to a life of luxury.

  "Meet the Duke of Rutland," Wraith said, his voice breaking the heavy silence. "In case his face isn't proof enough, records show that he was christened Crispin Phillip Arthur Russell, the Second. My human name was Crispin Phillip Arthur Russell, the Third. Same as yours. "

  I flashed to eight years ago, when I was still getting to know Bones and he told me the reason behind his real name.

  Merely a bit of fancy on my mum's part, since clearly she had no idea who my da was. Still, she thought adding numerals after my name would give me a bit of dignity. Poor sweet woman, ever reluctant to face reality . . .

  If the vampire standing across from us was correct, Bones's mother hadn't called him "the third" on a whim. She'd named him after the father he never knew he had.

  When Bones spoke, his voice was strained from the emotions I could feel him fighting to contain.

  "If you're my half-brother, that makes you over two hundred years old. If you knew of our ties, why, in all that time, did you never attempt to find me before now?"

  Wraith's smile was sad. "I didn't know until recently when I heard your real name from some warmongering ghouls. I thought it was a jest, but then I found a picture of you. Our resemblance was enough to get me digging into my family history. In some very old archives, I found mention of a sum my father paid to Viscount Maynard for reparations concerning the viscount's unwed pregnant daughter, Penelope. Then your name appeared in the Old Bailey trial transcripts, and your age matched how old the child would've been. If that plus our identical names wasn't enough, meeting you is. You look and act enough like my father to be his dark-haired ghost. "

  Something else swirled amidst the wariness in Bones's emotions, something so poignant it brought tears to my eyes. Hope. Was it really possible that after all this time, Bones had found a living member of his family? Wraith's real name, resemblance, and the portrait we
re damn compelling, not to mention the records Wraith cited could be easily authenticated. Plus, why would someone go to the trouble of lying about a family connection? Bones wasn't the type of person who'd appreciate being Punk'd.

  I linked my arm with his, hoping to help calm his whirling emotions. "You say Annette knew about this?"

  Wraith nodded. "I thought news such as this should be delivered in person, so I went looking for a member of your line who'd know your location. Once Annette was satisfied of my claims, we agreed to meet at the hotel, intending to arrive here together. "

  "As my present," Bones murmured, looking over Wraith with more curiosity than suspicion this time.

  A smile quirked Wraith's mouth. "Afraid I drew the line at tying a bow around myself. "

  The fictional detective Sherlock Holmes had said that once you eliminate the impossible, whatever was left, no matter how improbable, had to be the truth. It seemed unbelievable that the vampire standing across from us was Bones's brother, but so far the facts pointed to that very thing.

  "I know this may be rather startling," Wraith went on, still with that same lopsided half-smile. "Or you might not care. So much time has passed since our humanity that I understand if this news means little to you. If you'd rather I leave, I will, but I- I had hoped that perhaps we could get to know one another. "

  If I hadn't been touching Bones, I wouldn't have noticed the slight tremor that went through him when Wraith stumbled over those last words, showing a glimpse of vulnerability underneath that cocky exterior. Wraith might claim he'd be okay, but it seemed clear that a rebuff would wound him. As for Bones, I could tell he very much wanted to know more about this vampire who might be the only link to his long-lost human family.

  A gust of frigid wind blew Wraith's hair around his face, reminding me that we could continue this conversation in comfort instead of standing along the side of a road.

  I smiled at him. "Why don't we go back to the house? It's warmer there, and then I can congratulate Annette on her choice of a gift. She topped my present by a mile. "
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