Thursday, 15 December 2016

The first chapter from Phantom Kiss (Chicagoland Vampires #12.5) by Chloe Neill


January 17, 2017
Merit, Ethan, and the rest of Cadogan House crew discover that not all undead creatures are kindred spirits…

Vampires generally aren’t afraid of things that go bump in the night, but Merit and Ethan are extra jumpy after a recent attack by a dark sorcerer. So when they learn that someone is messing with graves in Chicago’s cemeteries, stealing skulls and snatching souls, they fear their powerful foe might be back for even more magical vengeance.

But after a specter begins haunting Cadogan House—and targeting vampires— they realize they’re being taunted by an altogether different sort of monster. A ghoulish villain straight out of the Windy City’s urban legends is on the prowl— and he won’t stop until he’s killed again…

Chapter One

“There is no torture so sweet, no punishment so sublime, as the couple’s wedding shower.”
The tortured vampire, who was tall and chiseled enough to make Apollo weep with jealousy, stood beside me at the threshold of a mansion in Oak Park, Illinois.
The house belonged to my parents. In two months, the vampire would belong to me.
He wore a perfectly fitted dark suit, a crisp white shirt beneath. The top button was undone to reveal the silver drop that rested in the hollow of his throat. His hair was golden and fell to his shoulders, his eyes the green of flawless emeralds.
“You rule a House of vampires,” I reminded Ethan. “You’ve fought monsters, sorcerers, evil politicians. You can handle presents and party games for a couple of hours.”
The look of horror that widened his eyes was priceless. Not that I was thrilled about entering my parents’ house. No matter the occasion, being here felt like being corseted into a body that wasn’t quite my own. On the upside, at least I wasn’t going to be tortured alone. Ethan was my partner in crime.
His gaze narrowed. “You didn’t mention party games.”
“It was understood,” I said. “That’s the nature of a wedding shower. Just be glad it’s the only one you have to attend.”
We’d have a short engagement—only four months from the first ring to the second—and we were now only two months away from the ceremony. Since Ethan insisted on a dazzling wedding that would show off his bride-to-be—and who was I to argue with that?—the brief engagement meant a lot of planning and lead-in activities were compressed into a short time. That was one reason we’d opted for a single couple’s shower instead of the varied bridal variety.
Ethan arched a golden eyebrow, skimmed his hot gaze over the dark, swingy dress I’d paired with low black boots, the pearls at my neck, the dark hair I’d left loose around my shoulders. “You’ll owe me, Sentinel.” He leaned forward, lips at my ear. “And I mean to collect.”
Just as he’d intended, my blood went hot. “You’ll have plenty of time to collect after the party.” I swept past him, opened the door, and grinned back. “We are immortal, after all.”
My parents’ modernist home, a weird cube of concrete among Frank Lloyd Wright look-alikes, had been outfitted with white and silver streamers and paper lanterns that were unusually usual for a wedding shower. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad.
My mother, Meredith Merit, and my sister, Charlotte Corkburger, had organized the party. I’d given them a list of my friends, and they’d handpicked the rest of the invitees based on some complicated calculus they hadn’t fully explained to me but which had required a whiteboard, markers, and enough symbols to populate a spell book.
“Happy shower!” My mother walked toward us, two tall champagne flutes in hand. Charlotte stood in front of a long table covered with silver dishes and tiered trays of food. We both had our father’s dark hair, although hers were green to my blue. She glanced back and waved, and I did the same.
“Thank you, Mom,” I said, and took the flute, noted the crimson liquid it held did not look like champagne.
“Blood4You cocktail!” my mother said brightly.
Ethan took a sip and nodded, as if pleasantly surprised by the taste. “Very nice,” he said. “And the house looks lovely.” He flashed the Masterly smile that made all manner of human and supernatural folk weak in the knees.
“We had so much fun working with the party planner,” my mother said, hand on her chest.
“Planning a good event is a very satisfying process,” Ethan said, then slid me a glance. “In fact, I requested one of our vampires act as a social coordinator for the House.”
“It wasn’t a request,” I murmured. “It was a punishment.”
“Was it?” His expression was all innocence. “I must remember it differently.”
I just shook my head.
“Well, in any event, you’ll have fun tonight.”
That remained to be seen, but I’d give it my best shot. I looked around, scanning the faces I knew,and didn’t see my brother, Robert, or my father. “Robert and Dad aren’t here?”
My mother tried to hide her sudden wince, but not successfully. She traded it for a light smile that wasn’t any more convincing, and gestured offhandedly. “They’re at a real estate closing in New York. You know how they are.”
Maybe there’d been a closing. Or maybe my father was still my father, and my brother was still my brother. The former didn’t know how to deal with me. The latter was still angry because he believed I’d ruined the possibility of Merit Properties’ future business with Sorcha and Adrien Reed. Sorcha was a sorceress whose plan to control supernaturals we’d recently thwarted; Adrien was her entrepreneurial husband, dead by her own hand. Their own actions had led to their downfall—magically and economically. But since I was a supernatural, Robert blamed me.
“They are who they are,” I said, and tried a smile that wasn’t any better than hers. But I fixed it into place, because this night was about Ethan and love and celebration. It wasn’t about my brother’s petty and misguided tantrum.
When Ethan picked that moment to put a hand at my back, to remind me that he was beside me whatever other drama came our way, I felt better. We were who we were.
My mother slipped an arm into Ethan’s. “I have so many people to introduce you to! They’re dying to meet you, if you’ll excuse the pun.”
“It’s one of my favorite puns,” Ethan said with a smile. “I look forward to meeting more of Merit’s family. They always have such interesting stories to tell.”
I could feel the blood drain from my face. Maybe the couple’s shower hadn’t been such a good idea after all. “Let’s stick to recent history, please.” But Ethan just smiled.
“I know all the recent history,” he said. “It’s the rest I’m interested in.”
“We’ll be back!” my mother said lightly, then whisked him into the arms of her chattering friends.
I wasn’t alone for long.
“Merit!”
I looked back, found my blue-haired best friend—classically pretty, pale, and petite—moving through the crowd. Mallory Bell was escorted by her husband, Catcher. He was taller and buff, with pale skin and close-cropped hair that set off intense green eyes.
“Happy wedding shower,” she said, squeezing me in a hug. “The place looks great—for a concrete box.”
“That sums it up pretty well,” I said.
She snagged a flute of pretty pink juice from a waiter with a silver tray. “These are mango and dragon fruit. You should try one.”
I held up my blood cocktail, grinned at her. “I’ll try yours if you try mine.”
“Been there, done that.”
I tilted my head at her. “You have?”
She lifted a shoulder. “You had those bottles of Blood4You at the house.”
I’d shared Mallory’s Wicker Park home before moving into Cadogan House. I’d left partly because of my obligations as Sentinel and partly to avoid her and Catcher’s any-room-goes style of lovemaking. I’d vastly exceeded my personal quota of naked sorcerer sightings.
“I had a sip one night.” She wrinkled her nose. “It was not delightful.”
I was a vampire and I wouldn’t even call blood delightful. But as much as Blood4You’s marketing team tried to pretend otherwise, it wasn’t about the taste. It was about the need, the comfort, the satisfaction. However unsavory the practice might have been to humans, blood filled a vampire’s belly like nothing else did.
“To each her own,” Catcher said, glancing around. “Where’s your fiancĂ©?”
I gestured across the room to where he chatted with my grandfather, Chicago’s supernatural Ombudsman and Catcher’s employer.
The Ombudsman looked decidedly lived-in, with a slender ring of silver hair, a plaid shirt and trousers, and comfortable shoes. I loved my grandfather for many reasons, not the least of which was because the cop-turned-supernatural-investigator looked perfectly at home in his own skin.
My mother stood with them, a contrast in her sheath dress and Chanel pumps, diamonds glittering in her ears.
“Ethan cuts a fine form in those black suits of his,” Mallory said with a wink, earning a slightly narrowed stare from her husband. “But you’re the only control freak for me,” she said, putting a hand on his chest.
To each her own in love, too.
# # #
We chatted with relatives I hadn’t seen in years—and some I was pretty sure I’d never seen. There were pictures and canapĂ©s and handshakes with cousins thrice removed. But there were no party games, thank God. My mother and Charlotte had evidently given up trying to think a game that would have been appropriate for humans and a four-centuries-old vampire.
Ethan and I had made the rounds, talking with Mallory and Catcher, with Margot, the House’s vampiric chef (and our wedding caterer), with Lindsey, my closest vampire friend and a House guard, and with Luc, the House’s guard captain and Lindsey’s beau.
Malik, Ethan’s second-in-command, had volunteered to stay at Cadogan and keep things running while we were gone. We had promised to bring him a slice of cake but weren’t entirely sure if the “cake” my mother had ordered would count. It was less pastry than edible sculpture—a tall and wriggling three- dimensional heart made of a dozen layers of beet-stained gelatin. My mother loved edgy, modern cuisine as much as she loved edgy, modern architecture.
We’ll go by Portillo’s on the way home, Ethan said as we looked it over. That should satisfy Malik.
I wasn’t about to argue with that. Portillo’s had the best cake shakes in Chicago.
We’d requested no gifts and had offered suggestions for charitable donations for the guests who were
determined to give something. But we still received beautifully wrapped presents, including two fancy toasters, a set of expensive towels, and a dozen crystal champagne flutes. Very generous of the thrice- removed cousins, if unnecessary.
I’m certain there are several shelters in town that would be thrilled to have these, Ethan said when I opened Toaster Number Three.
Excellent plan, I said, and I smiled at the small, wizened woman who’d given it to us. She was a great-aunt on my father’s side—my paternal grandmother’s sister—and looked to be nearly immortal herself. “Thank you, Aunt Sarah. What a thoughtful gift,” I said as my mother added the toaster to the growing pile.
When the last gift was distributed and we’d thanked two dozen people for their generosity, Great- Aunt Sarah came forward again.
“There are lazy, no-good vampires living down the street from me,” she pronounced.
We stared at her.
My mother, smile firmly in place, took Sarah’s elbow. “Sarah, I’m certain that’s not an appropriate thing to say at a party.”
Or anywhere else, I silently added. But Sarah intended to have her say.
“Up at all hours of the night, sleeping all day. Taking advantage of the system is what that is. Probably taking plenty of government handouts.”
Since Sarah lived on her late husband’s earnings and hadn’t worked a day in her life, I didn’t think she was in much of a position to judge our work ethic.
“Sarah,” my mother said again, more firmly this time, and tried to tug the woman away. “You’re being a bit rude.”
More than a bit, I thought, and slid my gaze to Ethan, watched him work to bite back the bitter words he undoubtedly wanted to say to this ignorant woman. He’d hold his tongue out of consideration for me, for the circumstances. Fortunately, I didn’t feel the same restriction.
“I’m not sure why you’re here,” I said when Sarah refused to move, her chin lifted in defiance. “You clearly don’t respect us, yet you’ve accepted my mother’s invitation and her hospitality. You’ve come into her house with prejudice and hatred, and you’ve spilled your vitriol in her home. That’s fantastically rude.”
Sarah’s mouth opened, forming a perfect O of shock in the silence that followed my statement. She probably wasn’t used to being challenged. Too bad for her, because I wasn’t done.
“As is common knowledge, which you’re apparently choosing to ignore, vampires are allergic to sunlight. They are nocturnal, and their existence isn’t limited to what you do or don’t see of them. To answer the second accusation, vampires aren’t entitled to government assistance because we aren’t human. So it’s literally impossible that your neighbors are receiving ‘handouts.’”
Splotches of color rose on Sarah’s cheeks. She opened her mouth to respond, but I held up a finger. “You’ve said your piece; I’ll say mine. If you want to be prejudiced and hateful, you might as well own it. Don’t make excuses based on incorrect information.”
“Well,” my mother said a moment later, the word echoing across the quiet room, and looked at Sarah. “I believe it’s time for you to go.” Skilled as an entertainer of guests, my mother sounded perfectly pleasant.
“I am here, and I have been generous, and I am appalled by this treatment. Joshua will hear about what’s gone on here today.”
“He’ll certainly hear about it from me,” my mother said.
Sarah shuffled through the crowd, disappearing toward the front of the house.
There were undoubtedly guests who agreed with me, but they hadn’t spoken up. To my mind, that was as good as condoning her behavior. While it was unlikely she’d change her opinion, I’d still fight the good fight.
Sometimes, that was the best thing—and the only thing—you could do.



 
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