Orphan Liam Ryan isn
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Seven days to Christmas
"Jingle bells, jingle bells," Winter sang under her breath.
Christmas was a week away, and a fresh new year hovered on the horizon, with its promise of new beginnings.
This was going to be her year. The year she took control, found a purpose ... made a difference, stopped frittering her life away. There was just one obstacle — a rather large and surly one — in her way.
She hesitated in the open doorway, and eyed the obstacle in question. Her dad was seated behind his desk, booted feet resting on the wooden surface, a half-empty bottle of scotch and a full glass in front of him. He was sorting through the mail, placing the letters into "naughty" and "nice" piles. His phone was tucked against his ear as he perused one letter, his heavy black brows drawing together as he listened to whoever was on the other side. After a minute, he ended the call, swore, screwed up the paper, and hurled it across the room. It hit Winter on the nose.
As it landed at her feet, she bent down automatically and picked it up, then sauntered into the room. She'd just be casual and ask him one more time. If he said no, then once the holidays were over, she'd go anyway, off into the world.
But she loved him and she wanted his blessing. And if she was honest — a good word from him would go a long way toward getting her dream career.
"So," she said, "have you thought any more about me getting a job?" He didn't even glance up. "You have a job. Go wrap some presents."
She rolled her eyes. "A proper job, Dad. I want to do something useful, something important."
She understood his attitude, really, she did. Her mom — an ice pixie her dad had met on a trip to the North Pole — had disappeared when Winter was four. Apparently, her mom had always been a little flighty, but honestly, if her dad had wanted "steady," he shouldn't have taken up with a pixie. After that, he'd brought Winter up on his own, which made him superprotective.
And okay, maybe she hadn't always been totally reliable — that was the pixie blood. She might have gotten into one or two scrapes over the years — maybe more than two — but she was past that stage. Pixies were notoriously late to mature — some of them never did — but she was twenty-six now, all grown up, and he still treated her like she was a kid with no sense. It was driving her crazy.
Each year, she asked nicely, and each year, he found a reason for her to stay. No more.
She sighed and crossed the room. Perching on the edge of the desk, she picked up his glass, took a sip of whisky, then fluttered her wings so the pile of letters stirred.
He glanced up with an exaggerated sigh, then focused his attention on her face. "What's that?"
"A nose ring. Cool, isn't it?"
"No. And what in Asgard's name have you done to your hair?" She'd cut her black hair so that it was level with the bottom of her pointed ears and put a crimson stripe through the front. Ready for a change, she was going for a Goth look, with lots of black eyeliner and dark red lipstick. She looked pretty cool, at least, she thought she did. Her last image makeover had been to wear sensible suits and heels, trying to look grown up and ... sensible. It hadn't impressed her dad and had bored her to death.
He studied her for a minute and she held her breath, waiting for him to blow. Instead, he grinned. "Suits you."
Winter sighed, then glanced down at the paper screwed up in her hands. She smoothed it out, and as she read the words, something twisted inside her.
Aw, poor Liam.
"Why not this one, Dad?" she asked.
He shrugged. "The kid's fifteen. Too old to believe in Father Christmas. And he swears too much."
She re-read the words, then stroked her fingertip over the splotches on the paper. "He was crying when he wrote this," she murmured. She could picture him, trying to sound tough and writing through his tears. Her heart broke for him.
"Yeah, boy needs to get a grip."
She snorted. "Ho, ho, ho. So much for the spirit of Christmas."
With his long dark hair pulled back into a ponytail and a black velvet patch covering his left eye, her dad looked nothing like a traditional plump, genial Father Christmas. But then, long ago, before mankind had decided to rename him and give him an image revamp, he'd been known as Odin. On Sleipnir, his eight-legged horse, he'd led the Wild Hunt across the skies at Yuletide, doling out presents to the deserving, and death to others. People tended to forget that.
But despite being a hard ass, she knew he hated it when he couldn't come through on the genuine cases.
"You can't give up, Dad, just because it's not as easy as giving an iPad. This one is important."
He scowled and filled his glass, then swallowed it in one gulp. "Hey, I tried," he said. "I looked into Liam's sob story. I even found his uncle. And to use the boy's favorite word — he's fucked. Little bastard might as well get used to being alone in the world."
"And why's that?"
"Because Uncle John works for the Order. I just had their HR department on the phone, confirming it. But as usual, they are not at liberty to disclose any further details."
Her ears perked up. From the time she was a little girl, she'd dreamed of working for the Order of the Shadow Accords, the organization that policed the supernatural world. If she got in there, she'd be doing something useful with her life. Something important.
In the past, the Order's main purpose had been to ensure that the earth wasn't destroyed in the periodic wars that broke out between the demons and the Fae. That was exciting enough, but there were some major changes going on at the Order right now — they were getting ready to come out of the closet and reveal to humanity that monsters really did exist. She wanted to be part of that.
Of course the Order mainly employed vampires, but Piers Lamont, who was the big boss over there, was a friend of her dad's and a sort of honorary uncle to her. She'd known him all her life and he'd said he would give her a job, but only if her father agreed. Up until now, that hadn't happened.
"Did you talk to Piers?" she asked.
"Wasn't available. But you know how secretive those bastards are. Liam will likely never hear from his uncle again. Poor kid."
Yeah. He'd keep waiting for his uncle to show up, only it would never happen. Winter understood how hard it was to lose someone and never know what had become of them. She'd spent years wavering between believing her mother was dead, and believing she just didn't care. Both scenarios hurt unbearably.
She had an idea. "I bet I could do it."
"Get Liam his uncle for Christmas."
He studied her for a moment, then shook his head. "They'll never go for it. Human employees of the Order always give up their families. You know that."
"Maybe that's the way it worked in the past. But things are changing. I could try."
"Then it's no loss, is it? Come on, Dad, you know you want this. And the Order is probably the safest place on the planet for me to work. What can go wrong?"
He stroked his beard as he considered the idea. She clamped her lips shut; if she pushed him too hard, he'd go the other way. But she was already planning the logistics of her trip to London in her head. Finally, his eye narrowed under his bushy brow. "And what do you get out of it?" She fluttered her wings and widened her eyes. "Just the pleasure of making a poor orphan boy happy at Christmas."
He raised a skeptical eyebrow. "And ...?"
She shrugged. "And your blessing when I ask for a job with the Order."
Six days to Christmas
If Ryan had hoped to make a clean getaway, he was shit out of luck. He came out of the elevator to find Piers Lamont leaning against the wall opposite, arms folded across his chest. Obviously, he was lying in wait for Ryan, looking like some sort of rock star with his streaky blond hair pulled back in a ponytail, his long leather coat, and designer sunglasses.
"I do not need a goddamned babysitter," Ryan snapped before Piers could bring up the subject again. Christ, after months of his every move being watched, he just wanted some alone time. Was that too much to ask for?
He shoved his hands in his pockets and stalked away, making a beeline for the smoky glass doors that led out onto the main street. He'd only gone a couple of steps when his skin prickled between his shoulder blades. Gritting his teeth, he came to a halt and swung around to glare at Piers. "And will you stop fucking watching me like I'm some sort of time bomb?"
"You know you're not supposed to leave the building alone," Piers said, his tone so reasonable it put Ryan's teeth on edge. "Anyway," he continued, "it's the company Christmas party. I thought you might like to join me."
The actual Order was staffed mainly by vampires, with a few other supernatural beings. But the same building housed a legitimate company, SA International, which acted as the Order's interface with the human world. The company employed a large number of humans — most of whom knew nothing of the true nature of their employer or the existence of the Order. Ryan had zero interest in attending their Christmas party. "You're kidding me, right?"
"No. It's time to get yourself in the festive spirit, my friend."
Never going to happen.
What a crappy time of year. Always had been, and that was unlikely to change now.
But he was guessing this was some sort of test, to see how he managed in a crowd of happy people. To see if listening to "Jingle Bells" one more time made him spontaneously fucking combust.
He scowled, ran his hand through his hair, and finally heaved a huge, exaggerated sigh. If he was going to explode, perhaps it was better to find out now. "Lead on," he muttered, then shoved his hands deeper into his pockets and followed Piers across the marble reception area of the SA building, to a set of big double doors that led to the main meeting room.
Inside, the room had been decorated for the party, with thousands of silver lights that made his eyes hurt. It was packed with people, mostly humans, all in party wear. And dammit, fucking "Jingle Bells" was playing.
"Who's a grumpy vampire," Piers said, nudging him farther into the room. "It's supposed to be the season of goodwill. Where's your happy face?"
Just because Piers was happy, he expected everyone else to be as well. Not that Ryan was unhappy. He just wasn't wandering around with an inane grin on his face as Piers would have obviously liked.
He breathed in the mingled scents of food, flowers, perfumes, and sweat, and beneath those, the sweet lure of warm blood. For a moment, his gums ached, but he pushed the feelings away with ease. These people weren't food, they were co-workers.
Glancing up, he found Piers watching him expectantly. "What?" he growled.
Three years ago, he'd come to work for the Order — as a human liaison for the newly formed Committee for the Integration of Mankind and ... well, everything else. With the existence of modern day technology, the Order had come to realize it was only a matter of time before humanity became aware that monsters were actually real. And they'd decided that they'd prefer that to happen under their control.
Everything had been going fine until twelve months ago. He'd been planning to spend Christmas with his sister and nephew. He hadn't spent any time with them since he'd come to work for the Order — it was against the rules. But Sally had called him and asked if they could meet. She'd sounded ... worried, and he hadn't been able to deny her. His sister had done her best for him after their mother had left when Ryan was only eight, and he owed her. So he'd argued for a special dispensation.
It had been a waste of time. The visit had never happened, because he'd been attacked and mortally wounded by a pack of werewolves. He should have died. Except his friends from the Order had gotten to him in time, and Piers had changed him into a vampire instead.
He was grateful he wasn't dead. But still, it was all a little fucked up.
Apparently, under normal circumstances, a vampire would never change someone who'd been bitten by a werewolf. It was totally against the rules. Because people who are attacked by werewolves and don't die, turn into ... werewolves. Which meant he had the potential to be a werewolf and a vampire. A fucking furry bloodsucker. It didn't bear thinking about. So he tried not to. But because the combination had never been seen before, and there was nothing to compare him to, it made everyone a little jumpy.
He was like some deep, dark secret locked in the cellar ... literally, in fact, for the first six months. It was only recently that they'd trusted him enough to allow him back to work and only under strict observation. The rest of the committee was taking turns watching him. Waiting for something bad to happen. Except now they were all going away for the Christmas holidays. And they weren't happy about leaving him alone.
He blew out his breath and eased the tension from his muscles. "I understand," he said. "You don't trust me. None of you do. But it's driving me goddamn crazy."
"We can't afford anything to go wrong right now," Piers said. "We're at a delicate stage in the negotiations."
Piers' soothing tone made Ryan's hackles rise. He didn't want to be soothed. "I get it. The last thing we need right now is any weird supernatural shit going down. But honest, I'm in control."
Piers looked him up and down, his eyes narrowed as though he could see inside him. "Maybe. But you see, that's part of the problem. You're only a year old. The fact is, you shouldn't be in control. Nowhere near it. You should be going through the blood-crazed-ripping-peoples'-throats-out-and-draining-them-dry period right now."
"Sorry." He tried for sarcasm, but Piers clearly wasn't impressed. He tried again. "Would it make you any happier if I ate someone? Kiss them under the mistletoe perhaps. Lull them into a false sense of security and then tear their throats out. Prove what a well-adjusted little vampire I am."
It was a measure of how fucked up Ryan's life was that Piers seriously considered the question. "It might," he said. "But then there's the fact that you aren't just a vampire."
Yeah, that was the crux of the matter. No one knew quite what to expect of him.
If he closed his eyes, he saw feral eyes, fangs, felt the slash of claws. Inside him something stirred, warmth where there had only been cold for so long. He opened his eyes, dismissing the sensation. He was not going there. If he was in denial, so be it.
Up until now, he hadn't shifted. General consensus was that since vampires were stronger, his vampire side must be subduing his werewolf side. And if he had any say in it, that was the way things were going to stay. He quite liked being a vampire. It was sort of cool. He was super strong, might get to live forever, and given time, he'd be able to go into peoples' minds and control them, as well as other stuff he was only just learning about. But no way did he want to turn furry once a month. Or have anything to do with those asshole werewolves.
Piers shook his head and sighed. "I'm going to have to cancel my trip. Roz will be disappointed, but with everyone else away, I can't risk leaving you alone."
"You're kidding me, right?"
"Roz really wants this trip. She told me."
"She wants you alive more."
He smirked. "I thought I was already dead."
"Believe me, you could be deader. And you know what would happen then?"
"Nope." But he was sure he was going to find out.
"I would get a whole lot of grief from Roz."
Roz was Piers' wife and Ryan's friend. He and Roz went way back. Back to when he'd worked for the Metropolitan police and she'd come to him with information about a missing person that she couldn't have possibly known. But then, Roz was a witch. They'd been friends ever since and she'd helped him on other cases after that first one. It was due to Roz that he'd gotten mixed up with the Order in the first place and ended up working for Piers. He didn't hold it against her — most of the time.
"I'll be good. I won't leave the building. I —"
"I suppose we could lock you in the holding cells for the holidays. But that will hardly put you in the festive spirit."
A shudder ran through him at the thought of being confined in a small cell. He'd become slightly claustrophobic over the last few months. It was a good thing no one expected him to sleep in a coffin.
Excerpted from "Bittersweet Christmas"
Copyright © 2017 Nina Croft.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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