“I can’t do this.”
“You can do this.”
Brigid closed her eyes and took a deep breath, pushing back the tickle of fire that teased beneath her skin. It was a constant struggle. Some said it always would be. It was why fire vampires were given a wide berth. How they often ended up killing themselves. Her mate, having no concerns for his own safety—or exhibiting a startling lack of caution—stood behind her, rubbing her shoulders to calm her down.
“Carwyn, I’m just… I’m not prepared for this kind of thing.”
“Were you prepared for the drug dealers in Dublin?” he asked. “Or vicious Russian-Mexican mobsters? Human traffickers in Copenhagen?”
She blew out a long breath. “So you’re saying if I fear for my safety I’ll be able to burn someone? Excellent.”
“Brigid, it’s a family Christmas dinner. If Cathy’s managed this long without killing anyone, then you’re more than capable of doing it too.”
She narrowed her eyes and looked at him in the mirror. He was wearing relatively formal dress for him. Dark grey slacks and a button down shirt. No tie. No jacket. The shirt was open at the neck, and the dusting of auburn hair across his muscled chest tempted her to avoid Christmas dinner for entirely different reasons than the ones she’d been claiming.
Three years together and she was still ridiculously, madly in love with him. The best man she’d ever known. Her fiercest protector. Her devoted lover. And the head of one of the largest clans of earth vampires in the Western hemisphere.
“What do you want for Christmas?” she asked for the thousandth time.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Nothing. I get too many presents as it is.”
“You receive tribute. That’s not the same as a present. I have to get you something.”
“I just do.”
Brigid had made Deirdre, her own sire and Carwyn’s daughter, draw her a family tree once. Between Carwyn’s eleven children, their mates, and their direct offspring, he was head of a clan that numbered well over seventy-five mature immortals, all of whom owed him their loyalty. That didn’t count the generations that followed. Or their mates. Or their offspring.
Her husband was an earth vampire of tremendous influence. A former Catholic priest with close ties to the English, Scottish and Irish vampire hierarchies, the Vatican, and various immortal powers in the Americas. He commanded respect, despite the ridiculous uniform of Hawaiian shirts he wore to tweak his opponents. No matter what he wore, when Carwyn spoke, both mortals and immortals listened.
And Brigid was a newly-turned former drug addict from Dublin.
He turned her around and waited for her to meet his eyes.
“What is this? Honestly, what’s going on, love?”
“Why couldn’t we just stay in Dublin like we usually do?”
“Because Guy was married this year and wanted to introduce his mate, Daniel is actually in the country, and Max and Cathy were able to drag Tavish to London.”
She grumbled, “If they could all come to London, I don’t see why they couldn’t come to Dublin.”
Carwyn laughed. “You’re so cross! It’s a good thing I find that wrinkle between your eyebrows adorable. And you know Deirdre tries not to antagonize Murphy. She’s more powerful than your boss, and she has a larger clan. A gathering of all our lot in his territory would make Murphy rightfully nervous.”
“Makes me rightfully nervous, too.”
“Aha,” Carwyn said, wrapping an arm around her waist to pull her closer. “And now we get to it. What are you nervous about?”
“I haven’t met all of them yet. What if they don’t like me?”
“You’re lovely,” he said, bending down to kiss the top of her head. “Bright. Fierce. And you have excellent taste in husbands.”
Brigid smiled as Carwyn tickled the nape of her neck. She still wore her dark hair in a pixie cut which he took great pleasure in running his fingers through at every opportunity. He was a tactile man who often joked he had a thousand years of near-celibacy to make up for.
She didn’t mind. She drank in his affection like water.
Or even better. Blood.
Brigid laid her ear against his chest and listened to his heart thump once.
“I don’t feel very… capable of all the family business,” she said. “It was always Ioan and Deirdre’s house. A few people. My aunt. And they all left me alone if I wanted it.”
“Do you imagine Guy and Luc will be asking you to recite poetry? Perhaps Mina will be quizzing you on plant genetics.”
“I’d forgotten about that.” Guy’s new mate was an agronomist working in the Netherlands on new biofuel technologies. “That’s why Tavish is coming, isn’t it? Another scientist to talk to?”
His hand was running up and down her back. Soothing her. Distracting her.
“Can I please burn someone if they annoy me too much? Maybe just Tavish or Cathy?”
He sighed. “Fine, but if you damage Gemma’s dining room table, you’re on your own.”
As luck would have it, Brigid was seated between Max, one of her favorite people in the world, and Terrance, Gemma’s husband, in the parlor before the formal meal. None of the vampires ate much, but enough humans were in attendance at Terry and Gemma’s luxurious Christmas party that they made a pretense of a formal meal.
Mostly, vampires drank. Blood. Whiskey. Wine. Brigid even saw a few human partners offering a discreet wrist for their companions.
Carwyn bounced around the room, since everyone wanted to speak with him, but Brigid ended up discussing security arraignments with Terry for the summit he was planning the following Fall.
“If we’re to get a handle on this bloody elixir business—” Terrance shot a grin at Gemma’s annoyed expression “sorry, luv—we’ve got to coordinate between those of us who’ve been targeted by the bastard distributing this shite.”
“I know you and Gemma had the incident in Spain, but what others can you confirm?” Brigid asked.
“If we’re only talking about our side of the Atlantic, there’s been challenges in Spain, the one in Dublin against Murphy that I’m pretending I know nothing about, and a rumor of one in Sweden.”
“And you think this summit will actually work?” The air around Brigid grew heated with her excitement and Terry leaned back.
“If I can get your boss and his allies here, that would go a long way toward making it any kind of success. He’ll bring the Scandinavians. I can bring in the Spanish. Between me, Murphy, and Oleg in Russia—”
“You’ve convinced Oleg to attend?”
“I’m working on it. If we can pool at least some of our intelligence, I think we’d be able to find who’s moving this.”
Brigid shook her head. “You need Mary Hamilton in Belfast.”
“She hates Murphy with a passion.” Brigid sighed and shook her head. Paused. “But maybe… Not me. A friend. She avoids politics, but I might be able to guilt her into helping.”
“Look at you,” Terry said with a grin. “Wielding guilt like the weapon it is. The Father is rubbing off on you.”
She elbowed Terry. “You’ve got to stop calling him that.”
“Ah, Brig, Carwyn is used to me being an ass.” Terry reached out and grabbed his mate’s hand as she tried to walk past. “That’s what Gemma loves about me, after all.”
“It most certainly is not,” Gemma said. “How are you, Brigid? Please tell me the two of you aren’t talking about work.”
Both Terry and Brigid sealed their mouths shut.
“Hopeless!” Gemma said. “I finally organize something for our entire family—”
“Deirdre isn’t here,” Brigid said.
“That’s because Gem didn’t want the parlor destroyed when she and Cathy tried to kill each other,” Terry said.
Brigid stifled a grin. “Neither is Gus, Isabel, or Clara.”
“I still say six of the eleven of us…” Gemma’s eyes clouded. “The ten of us, I mean. Six out of ten is a victory.”
Terry’s hand wrapped around Gemma’s waist, and she saw the man’s normally gruff expression fade. He kissed his wife’s shoulder.
“All right, Gem?”
“Fine.” Gemma reached over and grabbed Brigid’s hand.
“It’s always harder at the holidays, isn’t it?”
A hundred years could pass, and Brigid would still miss Ioan, Carwyn’s oldest son, Gemma’s oldest sibling, and the one man Brigid had trusted as a child.
“Yes.” She nodded. “Holidays.”
“Why the long faces?” She felt Carwyn at her back. He leaned down, kissed her, and lifted her to her feet.
Her husband looked down, tilting her chin up so their eyes met. He knew. He always knew. He could read her mood like it was written across her forehead. He saw, and his eyes grew sad. A wistful smile touched his lips.
“I love you,” Brigid blurted out. “I don’t tell you enough, but I do.”
He kissed her. Right in front of his clan, God, and everyone. A head-spinning kiss that went on far longer than was polite. She heard rude encouragements shouted in French between scattered laughter.
Brigid’s skin heated, but Carwyn worked his magic through their shared blood, pressing his hand against the skin at the small of her back and drawing the heat from her body and into his. It was a powerful rush when they were intimate. A meeting more elemental than physical. A melding of energy. A meeting of minds. Her blood raced. Her heart pounded.
When Carwyn finally pulled away, he was grinning.
“I love you, too. Shall we head in to dinner?”
Brigid surveyed the table as the meal wound down. Gemma had surrendered the head of the table to Daniel, the youngest of Carwyn’s children, who was regaling his oldest sister and most of Terry’s senior staff with tales of wild mountaineering adventures.
Cathy and Terry chatted—more than likely about work—to their right.
Tavish and Mina had their heads together across from them, probably debating something scientific.
Across the table from Carwyn and Brigid, the two French siblings debated something about a rugby tournament with Max.
And Brigid was happy to watch. Carwyn’s family appeared content to let her slip into the clan at her own pace. Maybe next year, she’d feel a bit more comfortable around them. Or maybe it would be five years. Ten.
It didn’t matter, did it? She had time. And they gave her the kindness of space.
“Wondering how you became part of the mad, bloodsucking Brady Bunch?” Carwyn asked, sliding into the chair next to her.
“Oh no. I know exactly how I got here. Hormones and a weakness for red-headed men.”
Carwyn broke into a laugh and Brigid did an internal dance. Her husband was always the one making others laugh. She loved it when she could be the one to amuse him. Carwyn rested his chin on her shoulder and glanced around the room.
“It’s a nice family, isn’t it, love?”
She reached up to brush a hand over his smooth jaw. He’d shaved for the holidays, and she missed his scruff.
“It’s a marvelous family. Amazing.”
“Not a bad thing to spend a millennium building, is it?”
She turned to him. “Far better than a tower or monument. You built love. Respect. Safety.”
“You make me sound like a superhero,” he said. “I’m not. Just a man. I make more than my share of mistakes.”
“And your willingness to admit that is why they love you,” she said. “And just one of the reasons I do.”
She felt a satisfied rumble in his chest as he pulled her closer. His left hand threaded through hers, the cool of his gold wedding band clicking against the one she wore for him.
They were simple. No diamonds or embellishments. Just an inscription on the inside: Love is as strong as fire.
The fire still burned beneath her skin. It was a nightly challenge. But one Brigid knew she would never face alone.
“You know, I was wrong,” he said.
“I am a superhero.”
She stifled a smile. “Wearing a bright green hula-printed cape.”
Carwyn let our a small gasp.
“I know what I want for Christmas!”
Copyright © 2014 Elizabeth Hunter