November 1, 2011
An Etherlin Novella
In the TIED WITH A BOW Holiday Anthology
(also featuring stories by Lora Leigh, Eileen Wilks, and Virginia Kantra)
#1 New York Times bestselling author Lora Leigh features the Breeds in her story. New York Times bestselling author Virginia Kantra brings a haunting tale of a fallen angel. USA Today bestselling author Eileen Wilks returns to the shapeshifing Lupi for another magical tale. National bestselling author Kimberly Frost introduces a new paranormal world of muses and vampires.
“First Light” by Kimberly Frost
Investigative reporter/muse aspirant Kate Devane has had recurring dreams of a gorgeous stranger ever since she found a battered, blood-spattered antique ring. When she comes upon the dream guy half-buried in the snow, she’s anxious to find out who he is. Unfortunately his memory’s a blank slate. He doesn’t know who he is…or why the world’s most dangerous creatures are hunting him.
Read an Excerpt
Snow fell through rising steam. Laughter and music from the New Year’s Eve celebration drifted from the house to the deck where Kate Devane, submerged to the shoulders in her hot tub, drank a brandy Alexander and watched a shooting star skid across the Colorado sky.
The thunk of a rock hitting the deck drew her gaze. She glanced at the smooth undisturbed mounds of snow and then up at the roof. Had it rolled from there? The night’s stillness seemed otherwise undisturbed. She rose and climbed from the water. She walked to the fallen object and crouched close. Not a rock. There were red drops splattered like a sunburst around an antique ring that was battered and crudely made. An ancient coin formed the ring’s top.
She peered into the dark sky, finding only stars and a sliver of moon. She lifted the ring, examining the dark brown metal dotted with crimson blood. This ring had a story, and she wanted to know it, just as she wanted to unravel all the world’s mysteries. She held the ring between her palms for a moment before trying it on. Sized for a man, it fit loosely on her left thumb, which tingled within its cool embrace.
Wind—because what else could it have been?—rustled the evergreens, and snow that had rested on the branches fell heavily to the ground. She followed the line of the deck rail, trying to see around the trees.
She walked to the steps. Muzzy-headed from too many New Year’s toasts, it took a few extra moments to don her ski boots and jacket. Steadying herself with the rail, she descended and wove through the trees. The snow shimmered like powdered sugar. With the house noise muted, she heard breathing. If she’d been thinking clearly, she would’ve slowed, but the night contained a secret and she wanted to share in it.
She thought him a boy at first. Panting, he rested on one knee like a knight about to be christened. When he looked up, she realized her mistake. The pale-as-moonlight hair made him look young, but his eyes were knowing. His face was so beautiful it reminded her briefly of Alissa the famous iceblond muse with whom Kate worked for inspiration. For a confused moment, Kate wondered where her camera was. She wanted to capture him the way he looked among the snow. Then she wondered what party he’d wandered away from and where he’d left his shirt.
Dazedly, her gaze traveled lower, and she saw that blood flowed lavishly over his marblewhite skin from a gash in his side. Her eyes widened, her heart kicking into a pounding rhythm.
“My God. You’re bleeding,” she said. “Come on. Come to my house, and I’ll call an ambulance.” Her eyes darted sidetoside, looking for signs of trouble that might want to put a large gash in her, too.
When she glanced back at the man, his smile was almost coy. His right hand caught her left one and raised it toward him, eyeing her thumb.
“Is it your ring? What happened to you?” she asked. When he didn’t answer, she added, “Were you at the Anderson’s party?” She gazed in the direction of her nearest neighbor’s house.
He moved with stunning speed, rising and spinning her so she faced away from him. From behind her, his right arm held her waist, his left pressed across her collarbone. She felt something prick her skin and realized that his left hand held a knife, the blade lying against the column of her throat. Her coat gaped open, exposing her skin. Ears buzzing, she tried to move.
From between the trees, a second man appeared in front of her. He was stunning in a different way from the first. His face lacked any traces of feminine beauty but was no less compelling. The moonlight shone like a spotlight on his bronze skin and on the damp golden brown waves skimming his shoulders. He too was bare-chested and bloody, with a dagger in hand, but he was taller and broader than the man at her back.
The lighter one pressed his hips against her bottom. Through the thin material of her swimsuit, his erection probed her. Startled, she jerked forward.
Ugh! What the hell?
“Let go of me,” she snapped, trying to squirm free as he whispered foreign words in her ear. “I said let go of me, you creep!”
The bronze one narrowed gold-flecked brown eyes and gave a sharp jerk of his head at the one behind her. The wrist over her collarbone slid down slowly toward her chest, the tip of the dagger snagging and cutting her bikini strap. The blade peeled the material away from her breast.
She cursed, struggling to escape, and the knife nicked her skin. The slice stung, then burned. She froze and sucked in a breath.
The bronze one scowled and clenched his jaw, his liquid brown eyes capturing her gaze. “He thinks to taunt me with your naked beauty, but no distraction will prevent me from avenging every injury he visits upon you and on those who came before.”
Her jaw dropped. “What? I don’t know what’s going on, but I don’t want to be part of it,” she said.
The bronze one moved too fast for her eyes to follow, but suddenly they were fighting and she was caught between them, pinned in place by their battling bodies. She could do nothing, not even breathe.
“Stop!” she screamed, and sat bolt upright. Panting and shaken, her mind raced.
A damn dream, she realized. Just a nightmare!
Her eyes darted around the room, finding the familiar . . . her Christmas tree strung with white lights and covered with plump bulbs, the wrapped gifts beneath it, the scent of gingerbread and vanilla icing.
Harry Connick Jr. crooned carols, and an empty wineglass sat next to the stack of photographs she’d been reviewing for inclusion in the article she’d been working on. The door to the deck was closed, bolted. She wore a navy nightshirt and thick socks, not a wet bikini.
Her galloping heart faltered, and she pushed back her sweat-dampened hair.
“More dreams of him and that ring,” she murmured, trying to shake off a sense of foreboding as her heart churned.
The dreams are getting closer together. She rubbed her arms.
In college, she’d found an antique ring while walking through a deserted section of campus. She’d felt compelled to slide the crude ring on, and it had circled her thumb possessively as she studied it. The ring’s raised feature had been a coin capturing the image of a long-dead Roman emperor, and there’d been a deep scratch scoring the coin’s face, as if someone had tried to X the emperor out.
Only after she’d stared for a long time did the realization dawn that the grit on the ring wasn’t dirt. It was dried blood. She’d taken the ring off, but she couldn’t bring herself to simply turn it in to campus security’s Lost and Found collection.
Being a journalism major, she’d investigated, trying to determine how the ring had been lost and by whom. There had been no recent fights or assaults, no missing persons, and no inquiries or postings about a lost ring.
“It’s like this ring fell from the sky,” she’d told a friend, and the image stuck. Kate pictured it falling and landing with a thunk. She saw the fresh blood on its surface explode outward into tiny flecks as it struck the ground. The vision was so vivid that at moments she could almost believe she’d seen the ring fall rather than having found it on the ground while walking.
Then, three days after she’d discovered the ring, it disappeared from her dorm room and she’d begun dreaming about the bronze-skinned man. Often she dreamed of him standing on rooftops or swooping through the air. He either wore the ring or dropped it.
Sometimes in her dreams, he wasn’t alone; she was in his arms. They kissed in places she’d never been. And in one deeply erotic dream, he made love to her on a mountain ridge under an amber sky.That dream left her twisted in her sheets, aching for him, and she woke breathless.
Recently, the dreams had taken a darker turn. There were scenes of him fighting with another man, the one with white-blond hair and alabaster skin. She was often caught in the middle. What the hell does it all mean? she wondered.
The memories of her dreams of the bronze man haunted her by day and chased her by night. Over the years, she’d triedto put a name to his face. She’d looked through thousands of student photos and had asked questions on message boards and alumni loops. No leads ever panned out. The man was a ghost. A ghost who lived in her subconscious and tantalized her.A mystery that could not be solved, but would not fade. For someone like Kate, it was torture.
She’d begun to imagine that the ring had some sort of supernatural power, which initially had seemed ridiculous, but then she’d wondered, Why not? Magic existed. Muses and vampires proved that—although the vampires were all gone now, and the magic wielded by the muses was subtle and led to great things like Pulitzer Prizes rather than to unsettling recurring dreams that always left her wanting more. More information. And more of him.
Determined to photograph the sunrise from a new vantage, Kate washed down a breakfast taco with milk and pulled on her ski jacket. She adjusted her camera strap and hung it from her neck, then clicked her boots closed. She took a deep breath as she stepped out onto the deck, bracing herself. The cold clean air startled her lungs in the best possible way.
Once on her skis, she set out at a brisk pace, thinking about the upcoming night. As an aspirant—a human chosen to receive muse attention and magic—she would attend the muses’ exclusive holiday party. It was an invitation coveted by most of the world, and she’d been excited about it for months. This was her chance to celebrate her and Alissa’s accomplishments. With Alissa’s help, Kate had won awards and climbed to the top of her profession in seven short years.
Dawn’s first light emerged, and Kate slowed to a stop. She raised her camera and trained the lens in different directions. So often, she chose the mountains for a backdrop, but this morning she wanted the endless expanse of snow stretched over what in summer was a field of yellow wildflowers.
She popped out of her skis and lowered herself to rest her knee on the trail. The contours of the drifted snow were even more breathtaking from the new angle. Finding her shot, she waited for stronger light and saw a beam of it. She chased it with her camera, centering it within the frame. As her finger depressed the button, she paused. Something disturbed the snow’s perfect lines. She zoomed in, and her breath caught when she realized it was a hand, pale and unmoving.
She shuddered, lowering her camera. Shocked, a part of her wanted to return home and call the police, but the investigative reporter within her moved of its own accord. She dropped the camera against her chest, not even bothering to cover the lens. She snapped her boots back into her skis and pointed them off the trail.
Her legs glided back and forth in a steady rhythm; she was determined to learn who was dead and halfburied in the snow.
When she was only a few feet away, she noticed that there were no tracks around the body. She came to a stop next to the wintry crater that held him. The folds of snow cradled him like billowing fabric.
“Oh my God,” she said, forgetting to breathe when she realized who it was.
Frosted strands of brown hair clung to his neck and shoulders. Her body trembled.
It can’t be.
No, this is wrong—he can’t be dead, she thought frantically, staring at his handsome lifeless face. Her heart squeezed tight in her chest. All those dreams . . . all those moments . . . I was supposed to meet him, not find his body.
Her eyes misted. I was supposed to have . . . What? A violent passion that consumed her? Something that would rival her love for her work? Yes. She had wanted something epic with this man.
Wait! This—this is a dream. It’s a nightmare! she thought desperately. With trembling fingers she touched his outstretched hand, finding it cool as frost.
His hand twitched.
She gasped, recoiling in shock, then dropped to her knees next to him. He opened his eyes, the dark hazel reflecting the light. They sharpened, focusing on her. As he began to move, his skin seemed to visibly warm, color emerging.
Wait. What? she thought, her initial anxiety easing to relief but also confusion. What was happening?
“It’s freezing out here,” she mumbled. “Are you . . . Can you stand?”
He moved with precision and strength, coming to his feet without any evidence of stiffness or pain. He cleared his throat.
“What happened to you?” She studied his odd clothes. Thin boots, a loose linen shirt, and pants that laced in the front as if he were considering a life of piracy on the high seas. Had he been in some Christmas pageant before stopping in the field?
He put a hand to the back of his head and rubbed it. His fingers came away wet with melted snow. He looked around.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
He seemed perplexed. Could he be foreign?
“Do you speak English?”
“Yes, I understand you,” he said, squinting at the horizon.
“Tell me your name.”
He paused, then said, “I would if I knew it.”
Her brows rose. “What do you mean?”
“I don’t remember . . . anything.”