Something is not right at Wild Moon Ranch...
Keira Kelly has settled in with handsome Adam Walker, but happy-ever-after is not so easy when your vampire lover seems determined to deny his true nature. With Adam starving himself of blood and growing weak, Keira needs to work out how to persuade him to take care of himself, something she's fi nding diffi cult to do -- even with the advice of her brother Tucker, a millennium-old ex-Viking shapeshifter. And people have started disappearing in the Rio Seco area, making Keira worry about what this could mean, both for her friends in Rio Seco and to the community she and Adam have been creating at the ranch. But her investigation only seems to bring more trouble, especially when a clue leads her to an abandoned cemetery that Keira knew well when she was younger...one that has always been extremely important to her magical family. Evil is defi nitely walking once again in the Texas Hill Country. Can Keira discover where the danger lies...before danger discovers her?
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September 27, 2009
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Excerpt from Blood Bargain by Maria Lima
The sound was more than a thought, less than a whisper.
I don't know how, but I heard the insistence behind the words and I knew they were meant for me.
The sound faded, even less distinct than before. I strained to hear more.
The last hissing sibilant was drowned out by the sound of a door shutting upstairs. I heard a shuffle of movement, then muffled steps descending the thickly carpeted staircase.
"Tucker?" My own voice sounded overloud to my ears.
Adam appeared at the bottom of the bedroom staircase holding two open bottles of wine in his left hand, each suspended by the neck. His right hand cradled two wine stems, each two-thirds filled, the red liquid gleaming in the low light.
He was dressed in his usual casual elegance -- black silk dress shirt, sleeves rolled back to reveal muscular forearms, collar open to show a small V of pale skin at the neck, shirt tucked into finely woven custom-tailored black slacks. His feet were bare, owing to his habit of removing his shoes at the front door. Adam told me once he liked to feel the textures of the carpets, the fine grain of the hardwood floors, the cool of the tiles as he walked. Occasionally, he'd spend entire nights free of footwear, even outdoors.
He paused on the final stair, giving me a small nod and a smile, lifting both hands. "I'm sorry I'm a bit later than I intended," he said, stepping down. "Did you -- " Adam stumbled a little; jutting his elbows out, as he tried to regain balance without spilling the wine. He seemed to waver a moment, then stilled and sank slowly to his knees, sitting back on his heels, arms held carefully in front, keeping the bottles and glasses steady.
"Adam!" I scrambled towards him. I'd been reading in bed the past couple of hours, having decided -- since he was working late -- I'd skip my usual meal at the Inn's restaurant, have a snack at the house and curl up with a good book. "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine, Keira. Seem to have slipped on the last step." He turned his head to look at the stair, mouth twisting a little, then he shook his head and with the distinctive liquid grace that vampires have, he rose to his feet, still holding bottles and glasses.
The fall surprised me a little -- it was so unusual for any supernatural to lose balance and slip like that. But it was probably nothing. He was carrying two bottles and two glasses. He'd done a damned good job of keeping them upright, too.
There was no evidence of spillage, except for a single blood-red drop of wine sliding down the side of one glass. We both watched its slow progression as it followed the curve, went down the stem, then slid across the pale skin of the back of Adam's wrist.
He caught my gaze and without a word, extended his wrist to me, the dark drop of clear red poised, shimmering on the pulse point against the outline of blue veins beneath. I reached to cup his hand, two fingers extended underneath the offered wrist, holding it steady.
I held Adam's gaze as I bent my head, inhaling the wine's bouquet, deep notes of darkest red-purple woven through with hints of smoky oak and cedar. The scent of Adam's skin lay beneath, soft spice and coolness, with a hint of nutmeg and --
Something else. My nostrils flared. Mingled with the wine, underneath the liquid -- blood. Not Adam's, not the living rich scent of life, but concentrated, a heavier weight of ironmetalcopper infusing the liquid. The aroma of Adam's own blood lurked under this, beneath his skin, pulsing, heat growing as I drew closer. My own pulse quickened as the scent reached the back of my throat.
This wasn't my wine that spilled, but his. Wine laced with blood extracts. Animal blood, not human, drawn from living donors, the procedure inflicting no more pain than a vet's blood test. Inhaling the rich aroma, I closed my eyes, confused, not certain of his intent.
"Are you sure?" I whispered, opening my eyes to look up at Adam, watching his face.
He held my gaze, expression frozen in a neutrality held by the strongest of wills. A test, then? A challenge? What was he doing?
An eternal heartbeat, two, then the briefest hint of a nod as a word I barely heard escaped his lips. "Yes."
I closed my eyes again, letting myself get lost in the heady scent, then licked the crimson globule from his wrist.
The taste expanded in my mouth, stronger than a single drop should be, dark red oakironblood flavor exploding, catching me off guard. I swallowed and straightened, opening my eyes to look at Adam.
"Not what you were expecting?" He'd dropped tight neutrality for a composed amusement, any hint of emotion still hidden behind the mask.
"Not," I answered, stepping back, letting go his wrist and taking the correct glass from his hand. I had to force myself to imitate his dispassionate detachment. We obviously weren't going where I thought we were with his little display of whatever it was.
I took a sip of my own wine, to mask my confusion. The once heady Torre di Pietra Petite Syrah, a favorite, now tasted flat, less real by comparison. I'd never tasted the special blood-laced wine before. Ever since I'd moved in, our nightly wine had become a ritual; Adam would either return from his office up at the Inn with a couple of bottles, one for each of us, or -- if Adam had elected to stay in and work from home that night -- one of the Inn's waitstaff would deliver the wine. The ritual never varied. The bottles would already be decorked and ready to pour. Adam would pour a glass for me, then one for himself. We'd clink a wordless toast then enjoy, usually sipping in silence.
I'd come to think that Adam drinking his blood wine with me was his way of letting me in, letting me be a part of his life, part of the private side of Adam Walker.
"What was that in aid of?" I asked, finally gaining enough control to speak.
Adam set the wine bottles down on a small table, then took a sip from his own glass before he spoke. "A thought," he said. "Simply that." He sipped again. "You called out for Tucker?" he asked.
Avoiding the subject, Adam Walker? I thought. So that's the way he's playing this. A thought, indeed. More like a whim that turned out to be less whimsical than he'd expected.
"I did," I answered. "Before I heard you upstairs, I was reading and I thought I heard a voice calling me. It said, 'come here,' then I heard it say 'sis.' Tucker wasn't here, was he?"
"He was not."
"I don't think I'd dozed off," I said, "but maybe...no, I'm pretty sure I was awake. Maybe I should call Tucker and see if something's wrong."
Adam's hand on my forearm stopped me. "I wouldn't do that if I were you."
"I don't think your brother would appreciate the interruption."
"I'm sorry -- what?"
Adam's expression, accompanied by the raising of his right eyebrow, could only be called a smirk.
"Interrupt what? You know? How could you possibly know?" My mind zoomed to a place I didn't particularly want to go -- to where my brother and his lover were doing things I wish Adam and I were doing. Except Adam and I hadn't been doing anything in that area for more days than I cared to count, which is one of the reasons I'd been so confused about the whole spilled wine thing.
"Niko is tied to me by blood and bond," he answered. "When you called Tucker's name, I instinctively -- "
"Holy crap, you can read Niko's mind?"
He laughed. "No, not exactly. I can sense many things, strong emotion being the...shall we say, loudest. I don't think either Tucker or Niko would welcome your phone call."
Chalk that up to Vampire Lesson #694. I'd been with Adam for a few months. Some days, I felt as if I knew everything there was to know about him; evidently, this wasn't one of those days.
Of course, learning about each other was par for our particular course. When Adam found out last year that I was as supernatural as he was -- more so, actually, because I'd been born that way -- he'd been as interested in my abilities as I was in his. Problem was, I wasn't sure what those abilities were quite yet. Like a child entering adolescence, I was beginning my own Change, moving into what would eventually be my nature: weather witch, healer, shapeshifter, necromancer. Odds were, since my father and all six of my elder brothers were shifters, I'd be joining them, but that wasn't a given. My own experience so far remained completely out of the realm of the usual. Six months ago, I started having visions and feeling the power surges that heralded Changing -- some twenty years ahead of schedule. My omniscient double-great-granny -- the matriarch of our clan -- figured it out long before I did and sent my brother to watch over me. So far, my body failed to follow any sort of normal pattern. By now, I should be Changed. Six months after onset, I still experienced the odd surge of power, but nothing more. No wonder I was hearing things.
"Okay, I guess I was dreaming," I said. "I doubt my brother is calling for me when he's...busy."
"I'm quite sure of that." Adam smiled and took another sip of his wine as he walked toward the bed. He picked up a copy of this week's edition of the Hill Country News from the nightstand, set the wine down and, as he started reading the paper, unbuttoned and shrugged off his shirt, then climbed onto the bed, the picture of domestic bliss, still reading.
"Hey," I said, walking to the bed, setting my own glass on the other nightstand and crawling across the mattress, settling in at his side. "The night's not all that old yet and I've still got a few hours before I need to meet with the realtor guy about the mortuary sale."
"The estate agent, yes. He sold it quickly, didn't he?" Adam said absently.
"Well, now that Marty's dead and my family's moved, no one really wanted to deal with it. I let the realtor do what he thought was best. It's not like the family needs a funeral home. I sign the final paperwork, around eight a.m. or so. Evidently realtors don't work at night."
Adam nodded, still intent on something he was reading. I had no idea what it could be, since most stories in the small town weekly were along the lines of what the week's school menu items would be and discussing area bond voting issues and whatnot.
"So you want to?" I snuggled closer to Adam. Hey, it didn't hurt to try. I wasn't sure why the recent lack, but I thought it was time to end the dry spell and from his action earlier, maybe he'd thought about it, too.
Adam looked at me over the newsprint, folded it carefully, took a pen and circled something before placing both on the bedside table on his side of the bed. "His side"...when had we chosen sides?
Six months ago, this thing between us was all "what the heck are you doing in my very obscure little redneck corner of the world?" Now, evidently, we had sides -- both of the bed and philosophically. We'd agreed to disagree on whether he should hunt for his blood fix -- especially since I mostly sided with his second-in-command Niko. I held the opinion that hunting was fine as long as you ate what you killed and in Adam's case and most of the vampires at the Wild Moon, they didn't even need to kill their prey: local fauna, carefully managed by Niko in his role as wildlife manager. Vampires may not need human blood but they do need blood to survive. Adam refused to hunt, but continued to subsist on the blood extract-laden wine, which I thought was a poor substitute. We managed to sublimate our difference of opinion most of the time. Tonight had been a bit fraught already, so I figured a little closeness couldn't hurt.
"What did you circle there? In the paper? You seemed so interested."
"Nothing...well, perhaps something," he corrected himself.
I made an attempt to emulate the slightly sardonic raised eyebrow that came so naturally to him. I failed miserably and probably looked somewhat demented. My eyebrows had never learned independent movement.
"It's a ranch," Adam said.
I sat up from my semi-recline and reached over him to snag the paper with my fingertips. I had a long reach, but it was a very big bed.
"Actually, it's an advertisement for a ranch for sale. I wish to buy it."
Again I tried for the raised brow. Again I failed.
"Ha. Funny. You own a ranch -- well, more of a fancy haven for vampires to hang out. You thinking of going native? Working cattle, riding horses?"
Now that was a picture indeed: Adam Walker, undead king of the local vampire tribe, long black hair, green eyes and pale skin, all decked out in faded jeans, Lucchese boots, western shirt and...oh my everloving overactive imagination...chaps. Jesus. I seriously needed either a cold shower or a hot vampire. Ten guesses as to which I preferred and the first nine don't even come close to counting.
I tossed the newspaper to the side and ran my hand up Adam's leg, the fine weave of his trousers smooth to my touch. I dropped my head to his shoulder, tasting his skin as I murmured, "What say we talk about ranch ads later? Let's spend the next couple of hours doing something a hell of a lot more interesting."
My shoulder kiss turned into a neck nuzzle. I moved my hand further up his thigh, across his bare belly and up his chest. Under my touch, his skin was cool at first, his natural temperature heating up as the energy between us built. I wasn't sure if this was magick or something else. It didn't matter.
We'd started having sex a couple of months ago. I'd been willing to go for it right away. My initial reluctance when I knew him in England had been due to the fact I'd thought he was human. When I discovered differently, I was ready to act on the attraction.
But Adam was old-fashioned. He'd wanted to woo me, to court me. So for four months following Adam's arrival in Rio Seco and my cousin Marty's brutal murder, Adam played the suitor.
He'd started with traditional standards, a single rose, elegant dinners at fine restaurants in Austin or San Antonio and then, bit by bit upped the stakes, no pun intended. I'd enjoyed every decadent minute of it.
By week six of the sweet onslaught, I'd been ready to lay down an ultimatum to get laid, but then he pulled out all the stops and handed me an envelope with tickets...tickets to a three week holiday in a remote vampire encampment at the Arctic Circle during the height of polar night. We'd spent the greater part of the time in bed...not sleeping.
When we got back to Rio Seco, I hadn't even bothered to go back to my own house. I'd taken all my luggage and gone straight to the Wild Moon Ranch and Adam's place. When I asked for closet space, he'd looked at me, seemed about to ask a question, but then shrugged and bowed to the inevitable. I'd been there ever since.
The sex was great, the company even better. Adam would spend a few hours a night doing ranch and other vampire business. I'd amuse myself, something I'd managed to do for two long years babysitting Marty. Compared to that, this was cake...with sprinkles on it.
I smiled against Adam's skin, remembering how hard he'd worked, how earnest he'd been to make a good impression. He was definitely different from any of my previous liaisons.
My neck nuzzle turned into a kiss, deep, intense and oh, yes, most definitely a prelude to much, much more. I slid over, moving on top of Adam, letting my hands, my body, show him exactly how much he'd come to mean to me. How much I wanted...
Our skin heated with the contact, the energy growing, building, generated by two supernatural people letting down all their walls. Adam reciprocated, his hands skimming my sides, wrapping around my back, his legs twining with mine. Yes.
I needed more -- more skin, less clothing. I sat up with a moan, hands scrambling to take off my T-shirt. Adam's hands tangled with mine as he pushed my hands to the side, grabbed the neck of the cotton tee and ripped it down the middle, pushing the pieces off me. We were both sitting up now, my legs wrapped around his hips, only the thin cotton of my panties and his trousers keeping us apart.
I bent my head to his, losing myself in another kiss, taking, demanding, needing to connect. I threw my head back as the heat rose, gasping with the need to breathe.
A low growl issued from Adam's throat as he bent his head, lips to my neck, mouthing, nuzzling, tasting, then nipping a little, teasing me.
"Yes." I arched in pleasure as I hissed the word, palming the back of his head and pressing it to me.
His lips moved against my skin as he licked me again. I felt a sudden scrape, then a sharp pressure/pain.
Finally, I thought. Finally.
Adam's fingers dug into my back, slid into fists as a huge shudder gripped his body. He froze then, every muscle stone. He didn't pull away, didn't continue.
I kept silent, waiting. I knew what he'd nearly done.
After a moment...an eternity...during which the only sound in the room was our mutual harsh breathing, Adam lifted his hands from my back, placed them on my biceps with a gentle stroke. His head dropped to his chest with a huge exhalation.
"What?" I whispered. There had been a word buried in his sigh.
I pulled away a little, brought my hands up to cradle his face.
With a visible effort, he dropped his hands to his thighs, shuddered again and with a deep intake and release of breath forcibly relaxed.
"No." The word hung out there, bald and blunt.
I blinked, not sure I understood.
"What do you mean, 'no'?"
Adam slid back and off the bed, moving about three feet away. His erection was still visible through the thin fabric.
I scrambled to join him, to confront him. I was sure we looked a sight, both of us half naked, still flushed with arousal, except mine was quickly turning to anger. Damn it all, I was going to get to the bottom of this. He simply could not keep ignoring me.
As I opened my mouth to speak, the not-so-dulcet tones of my cell phone rang.