A free excerpt from Gifted: the Dark Forgotten
Here’s an early holiday treat for readers: the first chapter of Gifted: the Dark Forgotten.
Gifted is available in KU and paperback, and here is the link that should take you to shopping bliss wherever you are in the world. Happy reading!
Good evening, listeners, this is your night hostess and favorite pussycat, Errata Jones, coming to you from CSUP, the radio station that puts the super in supernatural. It’s frosty tonight on the glorious University of Fairview campus with only four more shopping days until Santa Claws stuffs your stockings.
Four days and four nights until the moment of truth? That hardly seems enough time to wallow in all the gift-giving, party-going, eggnog-drinking mayhem, much less to watch all those sentimental holiday specials. But don’t fret, my pets, the Yuletide season is an endurance event, not a sprint. Pace yourselves. There’s still New Year’s Eve to get through.
Alessandro Caravelli, vampire, closed the door before the damp December wind chilled him straight through to his bones. There were things he liked about winter—more darkness, less suntan envy—but none of his kind appreciated the cold.
As sheriff of Fairview, he’d been out keeping order among the town’s supernatural citizens. He’d taken the early shift, leaving a contingent of hellhounds to finish out the night. It was almost midnight now, still early enough to enjoy some family time in his largely nocturnal household. Hanging his sword on a hook by the door—it was old school but still the most efficient weapon against things that went bump in the night—he dropped his car keys in the tray on the hall table. A stack of mail waited there—junk, bills, a few seasonal cards. Nobody sent actual letters anymore unless they were—like him—from a time that thought the printing press would never catch on.
Instinctively, he drifted toward the warm, sweetly scented kitchen, mail in hand. There, his partner stood icing festive fangs on a tiny gingerbread bat.
“Hello, sweetheart.” He kissed her, tasting sugar and spice on her lips.
“Hi,” she said, leaning against him. For a moment, they simply drank each other in.
Holly Carver was a witch, part-time student, professional ghost buster, and the center of Alessandro’s universe. She was also, via an exceptional bit of magic he barely understood, the mother of their daughter. Currently, little Robin—wearing flannel pajamas covered with tiny pink werewolves—was wrapped around Holly’s knee like a squid. She was just over a year old and toddling, if lurching from one handhold to another qualified as such. Alessandro dropped the mail on the wooden table in the corner and picked up his child, tucking her into the crook of his arm. Squeaking in delight, Robin grabbed a handful of his hair and gave it a sharp tug.
He sat, shifting to balance Robin on his knee. She had her mother’s green eyes and dimpled smile, not to mention her formidable will. Pulling his daughter close, he rested his chin on top of her soft hair and watched Holly baking. Her dark hair was pulled back in a ponytail, her elfin features flushed from the heat of the oven behind her. There was a smear of icing on her cheekbone.
It was the perfect domestic scene, despite the strangeness of it—a vampire and a witch playing house in a neighborhood largely populated by supernatural beings. The university town of Fairview had seen more strange things than even conspiracy theorists could dream up.
“How was your evening?” Holly asked, icing the last of the gingerbread bats.
Alessandro made a noncommittal noise. Having remained still for exactly two seconds, Robin was squirming again. He tried to straighten the bow in her wispy blond hair, which seemed to delight her. No sooner had he tied the ribbon than she pulled it free again. It was becoming a fabulous game—at least to her—and he was reconsidering the ethics of hypnotizing his own child into a submissive trance.
“I ran into Ashe today,” Holly said, picking up the conversational burden. “She was asking whether we’d heard from Darak or his friends.”
“Should I be nervous when your vampire-slaying sister asks after a pack of rogue vampires?” he asked dryly.
“I don’t know. I think they had a few things in common.” She shuffled the cookie trays, turning her attention to the next decorating job. There were freshly baked ghosts and broomsticks and little werewolves in mid-howl. She began putting tiny silver balls at the tip of each of the wolves’ Santa hats.
“They are both members of Homicidal Mercenaries Anonymous?”
Holly gave him a withering look. “Ashe is retired.”
“And I’m a vegetarian.”
Alessandro gave up on tidying his child and retrieved the stack of mail. He shuffled through it, pausing when he got to a large red envelope labeled in an elegant script. When he tore it open, he expected a fancy Christmas card. Instead, he found a formal invitation edged in gold and green. “Joe’s throwing a Christmas Eve party at his hotel and we’re on the guest list.”
He held up the invitation to show Holly, just out of reach of Robin’s grasping hands.
Holly pushed a lock of hair out of her eyes. “I knew he was up to something.”
Before he could ask how she knew, his phone buzzed, making Robin giggle. He pulled the device from his pocket and accepted the call without pausing to see who it was.
“Caravelli,” he said in his stern sheriff voice.
“It’s Perry,” said the caller.
Perry Baker was the son of the local Alpha werewolf. Pack Silvertail was filled with strong males, but Perry was the smart one. He taught computer science and knew his way around most spell books, which amounted to more or less the same thing in Alessandro’s mind. “What’s up?” he asked.
“You know how I volunteer to drive the bus for Aunt Margaret’s seniors’ home?” It was a casual question, but there was strain in the young werewolf’s voice.
In the background, Alessandro could hear a crash, shouts, and someone swearing. Over it all, Christmas carols warbled from a sound system. “Where are you? It sounds like a bikers’ holiday party.”
“I’m at the community center. I drove the Silvertail seniors out here for bingo night and some eggnog,” Perry said. “Unfortunately, things went sideways. I think we have your kind of problem.”
Which meant supernatural trouble. Alessandro rose from his chair, setting Robin down once more. Holly shot him a questioning glance, so he put the phone on speaker. “Go on.”
“I’m not sure, but I think it might be a minor demon. Or a possessed cartoon unicorn. One that really hates Christmas.”
“Say that again?”
“Don’t ask. Just come.”
By now, Alessandro was in the front hall. He put on his coat and retrieved his sword from the wall. Holly had followed, scooping Robin up on the way and setting the toddler on her hip.
“Do you need my help, too?” Holly asked the werewolf on the phone.
“I think I can take care of this one,” Perry said. “Besides, I know babysitters are hard to find at this hour. I just need someone to get these people out of here, so I can banish this thing.”
“Do you need supplies?” Holly asked. Worry flooded her expression.
“The center has an emergency kit with some basics, but I could use henbane and St. John’s wort. I’ve been consulting with Grandma Carver.”
A picture of Holly’s grandmother, feisty but frail enough to need two canes, made Alessandro grip the phone hard enough the plastic creaked. “She’s there?” he asked.
Holly stifled a groan, meeting his eyes. Of course the old witch—the term meant literally—would be at bingo night. The community center was only a block over from her apartment building, and Grandma liked to gamble.
“I’ll be right there.” Alessandro ended the call.
Holly went in search of the herbs Perry needed, working one-handed because Robin fussed every time her mom tried to set her down. “I should be there,” Holly said with a frown. “Perry’s good at what he does, but I have the most experience with demons.”
“Let me check out the situation,” Alessandro said. “Once the site is clear of civilians, you and I can always trade places if Perry can’t handle it.”
Holly nodded. She cuddled Robin, whose heavy eyelids were drooping. “Call me as soon as you can. I need to know you’re okay. Grandma, too.”
He smiled then, amused and still amazed that someone cared if he came home. He was the luckiest vampire on the planet, and he never took that for granted. He kissed Holly hard, his daughter gently, and left the house at a run.
His Thunderbird sat at the curb, a 1960s red two-door with custom chrome and smoked windows. It got him to the center in ten minutes. Alessandro parked behind a converted school bus with the logo of Pack Silvertail’s retirement home stenciled on the side. He got out of the car, retrieved his sword from the trunk, and paused to take stock of the scene before he ventured inside.
The community center was a single-story building made from sand-colored brick that looked gray in the dark. It housed a gymnasium, several recreation rooms, a small theater, and a cafeteria that faced the busy street. Both humans and non-humans used the facility, but only the nocturnal clients would be out this late. Christmas lights glowed along the roofline, reflecting in the puddles of rainwater on the street.
Although the cafeteria was dark, the lights were on in the activity room to the right of the front door, turning the foil banner across the window that said “Happy Holidays” into a wavering silhouette. His vampire hearing caught the carols piping through the building’s PA system. “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” floated in an otherwise-silent night. For an instant, he wondered if the crisis had resolved.
Then a metal chair flew through the window, spilling glass, light, and screams into the street. The chair bounced, soaring several yards into the air before crashing to the ground and skidding across the road. Bolting toward the center, he sprang up the steps and yanked open the door—only to recoil. The stink of a moldering grave rolled over him, mixed with the cloying sweetness of cakes and candy. He bared his teeth and slid inside, his footfalls silent.
The double doors to the activity room stood open to his right. Alessandro stopped to one side of the entrance, pressed close to the wall, and then peered inside. He’d learned long ago not to leap into a danger zone without looking first, even though he itched to barge in, sword flashing.
His first glimpse was of rows of folding tables with stacking chairs lined up behind them. A few of the tables had toppled over. Bingo cards and daubers littered the floor. At the front of the room, a machine tumbled balls inside a glass globe, but the caller was cowering on the floor, arms folded over his balding head. Alessandro recognized him as an employee of the center, but couldn’t remember his name. No one was speaking—the babble he’d heard over the phone was gone. Even the screams audible from the street had fallen silent.
The Silvertail seniors huddled at the far end next to an artificial tree, Perry’s aunt Margaret guarding them like the Alpha she’d once been. Most were the wolves who had come on the bus—easy to spot since a few were furrier than normal, no doubt due to stress. There were also a handful of hellhounds, a scowling demi-fae, and a few elderly witches. He searched until he found Holly’s grandmother. He’d known Hazel Carver since she’d been Holly’s age, and needed her to be safe. He finally found her at the edge of the group, and she seemed unhurt. A knot inside him released.
But where was the enemy? An eerie stillness froze the scene like the tableau inside a snow globe, silent except for the bland music. He scanned again, this time noticing a table with coffee and cookies along the far wall, the treats as yet untouched. And then the metal coffee urn began to shudder and float upward, the cord straining a moment before it pulled free of the wall plug. A spatter of coffee slopped onto the floor as it rose. Alessandro slipped inside the doorway to watch as it drifted to the ceiling like an iron filing to a magnet.
And there, circling around the overhead light fixture, was a cloud of rainbow mist. It swirled like a miniature cyclone, swatches of pink, blue, and mauve sparkling like a toy from Robin’s closet. Around the edges of the cloud, slime trickled down the walls, leaving streaks of glitter on the worn industrial paint. He suddenly understood Perry’s reference to unicorns, but the playfulness of the entity ended there. This was the source of the unholy stink, and the coffee urn wasn’t the only metal object caught in its spinning current. Two more stacking chairs and a floor lamp spun around the ceiling as well, whirling so fast he could barely see them. The sight explained the chair that had broken the window—it had probably spun out of control like a crazy comet.
Time for action. Perry was nowhere in sight, but Alessandro wasn’t about to wait any longer. He got two strides into the room before he sensed the entity take notice of him. It was like a brush of cold fingers as foul as its stink—as if something had reached from Alessandro’s own abandoned grave to drag him back. He spun with a snarl, baring fangs, but there was no face, no form to confront.
All the same, the thing hurled the coffee urn. Alessandro ducked, his reflexes saving him. The urn smashed against the wall, punching a hole in the drywall and spraying scalding coffee throughout the room. The man on the floor howled in pain.
“Get up,” Alessandro ordered.
“I can’t,” the man replied, his voice ragged with terror.
Wasting no more words, Alessandro grabbed him by the collar and dragged him to his feet, half-tossing him toward the relative safety of the others. Then he drew his sword, not because it would do him any good against whatever this was, but because it showed he meant business.
“What do you want?” he demanded of the mass of stinking sparkles.
“A white Christmas,” it rasped with the withered whisper of the dead.