The bite before christma.., p.19
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       The Bite Before Christmas, p.19

         Part #15.50 of Argeneau series by Lynsay Sands


  Ian and I had just made it back to our hotel room when Fabian appeared without so much as a chill in the air to warn of his presence.

  "Where have you been? I've been waiting for hours!"

  "Sorry I'm late for curfew, Mom," I mocked, then stilled at his expression. "What happened?"

  The ghost looked so stricken I thought my knees might buckle. Was it Bones? Oh God, if something happened to him. . .

  "Cat, you have been disowned," Fabian said.

  I waited a beat, but he didn't follow that up with anything else. Amidst my overwhelming relief that no one was dead, I was confused. Especially when Ian muttered, "Bugger," the same way someone else would say "fuck. "

  "Um, I haven't talked to my mother in two weeks, but we left things on good terms, and though my uncle and I aren't speaking at the moment, I don't think-"

  "He means Crispin cut you off from his line," Ian interrupted, shooting me a look filled with grimness and pity.

  That jelly-kneed feeling returned with a vengeance. I sat down, trying to absorb the information without doing anything ridiculous, like crying.

  It wasn't fear that made my emotions reel with this news, though Bones cutting me off from his line was considered a worse punishment than execution, in the vampire world. It left me on the lowest level of undead society, fair game for anyone who wanted to mete out cruelty without chance of repercussions. No, that's not what upset me the most. It was the knowledge that this was the closest Bones could come to divorcing me. Under vampire law, we would be married until one of us was all the way dead, but this was his public statement that I meant less than nothing to him. Hell, Mencheres hadn't even cut off his former wife, Patra, before she died, and she'd been trying to kill him.

  "You know this isn't Crispin," Ian said. He sat next to me and patted my leg in a kindly fashion. "Wraith should hope we find the demon who branded him. He'd die easier under that bloke's hand than under Crispin's when he's back to himself and hears of this. "

  "I know. " My voice was thick, because I did know that, but the knowledge that Wraith's spell could force Bones to do this meant it truly had taken over every part of him. What if we couldn't reverse the spell to get him back? That question was more terrifying than any danger this proclamation put me in.

  Fabian fluttered over, doing his own version of a sympathetic pat by brushing his hands through my shoulders.

  "I'm afraid there's more. After he declared you to be cut off, he designated Wraith to assume Mastership of his line should anything befall him. "

  I bolted up so fast that my upper body was briefly sheathed inside the ghost. "Sonofabitch! We've been wondering why Wraith would go through all this trouble to bewitch everyone, but the fucker must be doing it for power! If Bones dies, then Wraith slides into his place, ruling not only Bones's line, but co-ruling one of the largest and strongest lines in the vampire nation with Mencheres. "

  Oh, the slippery bastard! Wraith could never get in a position of such power through force. Bones would crush him in a fight, not to mention if he didn't, Mencheres would. But put the demonic whammy on both men's minds, plus on the closest members of their inner circle, and Wraith would be sitting pretty just as soon as Bones had a lethal accident.

  Which, I had no doubt, Wraith intended to happen soon.

  "This changes who we need to bring to Balchezek," I said, pacing. "It's gotta be Bones. "

  We'd originally decided to snatch Annette. With her lower power level and lack of a spouse to watch over her, she would've been easier to rescue-or kidnap, as she wouldn't want to go. But though Bones was stronger than me or Ian, I couldn't sit back and hope Wraith would wait for us to outmaneuver him before he killed Bones to put the last piece of his plan into place.

  Ian sighed. "And here I was really looking forward to it being Annette. "

  "Don't chicken out now," I warned him.

  He shot me a measured look as he stood. "I told you once before: Crispin is one of the few people I'd fight to keep from harm, even at the cost of my own life. Tomorrow, I'll prove it. "

  I stared at him, noting the hard line of his jaw and the uncompromising gleam in his vibrant turquoise gaze.

  "You do that, and I take back every nasty thing I've ever said about you. "

  He grinned, his mood changing from serious to wicked in an instant. "Why? I'm all those things and more. "

  I shook my head. Ian was more proud of his depravity than anyone I'd met, but if he helped me pull Bones out from under four bespelled vampires and one demonically-enhanced vamp, I'd shower him with prostitutes and porn while swearing he was an angel.

  However, Mencheres could decapitate us with his mind, and on my best day I couldn't take Bones in a fight, so neither of us might live through tomorrow. We were going up against our friends and loved ones, which made us operate under the constraint of not killing anyone. It didn't take a crystal ball to know that with Wraith's spell pulling their strings, we wouldn't be shown the same consideration.

  Oh well. Time to ante up on that " 'til death do us part" section of my vows. Living forever sounded boring anyway.

  I strode up the gravel road that led to my house. Bare tree limbs swayed in the breeze and the air was crisp enough to see my breath, if I had any. Today was aptly referred to as Black Friday, when malls and Walmarts became bargain war zones for holiday shoppers hunting for the best deals. My war zone consisted of a steep wooded hill with two picturesque cabins at the top of it; my coveted prize the brown-haired vampire who'd publicly disowned me.

  I knew when my presence was detected by the sudden hush of conversation in the main house above. Fine. Wraith's voice had been grating on my nerves anyhow.

  "Honey, I'm home!" I called out loudly, quickening my pace.

  By the time I reached the top of the hill, the front door was open and Wraith stood framed in it. My face stretched into a smile that felt more like a sneer. No need to pretend I was under his demonic thrall anymore.

  "Well, hi there, bro. Couldja send the hubby on out?"

  "You are not welcome here, Cat," he said, as if he owned the place.

  "Au contraire, my good man. Cut off or not, I'm still Bones's legal wife, and vampire law states that wherever one spouse is, the other automatically has an invitation, too. So either send Bones out, or I'm coming in. "

  The bottom of my black jacket rustled in the cold wind, but not the top. That was too weighted down with weapons. Wraith had either heard enough about my reputation to guess that, or he could tell from my expression that "no" wasn't an acceptable answer to me. He disappeared inside the house, and seconds later, another vampire came out, but not the one I was here for.

  Mencheres stood in the doorway, his Egyptian features schooled into hard, unreadable planes. It only took one look into his eyes to know that Wraith had ordered him to kill me.
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