Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Halloween Love Covenant Style - Excerpt and More from Love Shadows!!

It's here - Halloween....and my gift to you is an extended excerpt from book four of my Love Covenant series from Evernight Publishing.  If you're not familiar, the Love Covenant series (Love Tattoo, Love Scars, Love Knots, and Love Shadows) chronicles my two-hundred year old Irish born vampire, the sexy and stunning Will  Brennan and his Texas lady, Cara Riley (Brennan).  I chose this excerpt because it deals with Halloween....so here we go but first the cover:

As a kid, Halloween ranked up there as one of my favorite little holidays.  The big ones were Christmas and the Fourth of July but Halloween had its own place carved out at the end of October.  Dressing up in some costume that Mama made for me in grade school delighted me.  The one I remember most was that little French girl from the storybooks, Madeline.  I think I had a store bought costume no more than once, preferring to be creative and make my own with a little adult help.  I loved going from house to house, the familiar homes made all magic in the dark, and fooling them that I was a stranger.  We came home with pillow cases of candy and any tricks we played were minor, fun not destructive.
               Now that I counted among the living dead, Halloween wasn’t so fun any longer.  It’s not that the day is evil or anything – it’s not.  Will calls it Samhain Eve in ancient Irish tradition and his grasp of it is better than most Americans.  For the early Celtics, Samhain represented the first day of a new year and on the eve of that, they believed that the barrier between the spirit world and the physical one stood open so that the dead could roam.
               What I didn’t like about it is that with everybody, adults down to tiny tots in strollers, are made up like some kind of ghost, ghoul, goblin, or vampire, it’s hard to tell who really is paranormal and who is not.  Will says I’ll become better at telling real from the faux.  He can tell them apart but then he’s had a lot more experience with such things. Halloween grew up into some kind of huge party while I went from being a kid to an adult and it’s wild.  
               On cue, Seamus rolled into town and down our drive in the last hours of October 30.  We’d spent the weeks since we came back from Branson keeping closer to home than usual.  I couldn’t help it but when we were out and I saw anyone tall with long blonde hair, I freaked out for a few seconds.  So far not anyone I saw had been the blonde vampire but Will picked up on my anxiety and without ever saying a thing, just made things easy for me by hanging around the house.   We went to Beale Street several times and searched out donors when we needed them but I enjoyed the quiet home life with my darling.  Those autumn nights in our moon room or out on the wide front porch if it wasn’t too cold were wonderful.
               I imagined a Halloween night when we sat in our moon room, drinking sweet red Moscato wine with Seamus or in the parlor before the fire.   I planned a traditional Irish Halloween meal with the potato cakes the Irish call ‘boxty’, colcannon which is a cabbage, potato and onion dish, barm brack or fruit filled bread and of course soul cakes.  Despite the name, soul cakes are really like sugar cookies with spice and raisins but Will loved them.  I looked forward to staying in, far away from the crowds and the craziness. But then, as he’d promised, Seamus came to visit two weeks after we got home from Branson. It wasn’t his first trip but we always took him out to show him the sights and sounds of Memphis so I filed away my plans for an Irish Halloween until next year. Seamus’ presence changed everything. It always did, no matter how many times he came to stay with us.              That first night, we headed down to Beale Street so we could treat Seamus to a burger at Dyer’s Hamburgers and then crawl the famous street listening to the blues.   Like just about every other vampire I’d seen or met so far, my brother-in-law loved Beale Street.  Hell, even that wicked and evil bitch Sallie Hawkins did.  So within the hour he arrived, after the reunion, we were on the way into Memphis.   
               More people were out than usual and we had to park a couple of blocks away, and then walk.  As we strolled toward Beale Street, a lot of heads turned to stare.  Will and I alone always manage to attract some attention.   Part of that is just because vampires have a charisma that people sense and part of it is that Will is just so damn good looking that women can’t help but look.  Add another man who looks enough like him to be his damn twin – and after centuries of being undead their five year age difference doesn’t matter – and we draw even more notice.
               Will says if I paid more attention myself, I’d see that I get more than my fair share of observation and that men stare after me like hungry hounds outside a butcher shop window.  I guess it could be true – it’s just not something that I think about much.   Maybe I’d see it more if I didn’t have a mate at my side but when I’m with Will, the world is big enough without searching the boundaries.
               At Dyer’s, customers crowded almost every table but we managed to find one and squeeze into it.  The Triple Triples tasted as good as always and we talked over the noise.  Seamus updated us on the Branson scene and I felt flattered when he shared that quite a few customers asked when I might return.   
               “You should come in December, Cara,” he said as he munched a hand cut fry.  “I’ve got a headliner, the one I went to see in Springfield when you were visiting.   She sings quite well but her thing is vintage 1950’s songs like Jingle Bell Rock and Rocking Around The Christmas Tree.  Audiences eat that up but you could do some traditional Irish songs like 
The Wexford Carol and Curoo, Curoo, the Carol of the Birds.  Or even Christmas In Killarney.
Or you’ve got the fine voice for the old songs like What Child Is This, Sing We Now of Christmas, or God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.”
               His invitation tempted.  “I don’t know, Seamus, maybe.”
               I could see myself up on his stage wearing a red gown this time, festive for the season but I’d have to think about it and see what Will thought.  I couldn’t tell now – he wore his bland public face, an inscrutable one.   I doubted he would mind if I wanted to do it and whether we celebrated our Christmas at home, down in Rusk or in Branson, I knew we’d spend it with Seamus.  
               “Think about it but don’t take too long to decide,” Seamus said. “Will, if you’d sing with her, a duet would be grand.”
               Will laughed, his mask slipping enough that I could see how much he enjoyed being with his brother again. “Aye, it might.  Let’s get Halloween out of the way before we talk Christmas.  Did you want to go to BB King’s too or what?”
               “Anywhere we can hear some blues,” Seamus said, “and get a drink.”
               “Then let’s go,” Will said, “Cara wants a Walk Me Down.”
               I did so I smiled and we headed back outside where the night shifted from being just cool to downright cold.  I hadn’t worn a jacket or sweater but now I shivered just a little so when we started down Beale Street, Will wrapped an arm around me to keep me warm.  Contrary to popular belief, even though we are cold blooded compared to your basic human, vamps can and do feel chilled.
               “Thanks,” I mumbled. Although Will lacked the kind of body heat humans radiate like a wood stove, his touch always warms me with a sensual fire.  Halfway there, I stiffened because I caught a glimpse of someone tall and blonde ahead of us.  What I could see of the man’s stride had that marching gait that the vampire who toyed with me in Branson displayed.  I didn’t want to ruin the evening when I couldn’t tell for sure so I tried to keep my eye on this one until I could tell for sure but as we moved through the crowds, I lost sight of him.
               I felt much better after a couple of Walk Me Downs, that potent favorite of mine that combined multiple kinds of booze into a drink that could knock most people on their rear.  We settled in at BB King’s and I sat within Will’s embrace.  I would have forgotten all about the man on the street, the blonde, except I saw him again across the crowded venue.   He paused, looked right at me, and I trembled because it was the vamp I’d dubbed Mr. Blonde for want of a better name.  
               “Are you still cold, Cara?” Will asked, his voice gentle.
               “No,” I said, ready to point out the vampire and then he blended into the crowd to vanish out of sight.  I felt the tension that stiffened Will and I decided not to trouble my husband, to let him enjoy his brother’s visit.  Seeing Mr. Blonde again had to be a fluke, a onetime thing that wouldn’t happen again so it couldn’t be the same vampire.  After all I ran across him in Branson and this was Memphis so what were the odds? I figured I was just being a little paranoid so I tried to let go of the idea.  “I mean, yes, I’m cold.”
               Will laughed, his real laugh, a wonderful musical sound that rang with a cheerful, ringing sound.  Mo anam cara, I think you’ve had too many Walk-Me-Downs.  We’ll go home in just a minute anyway.  It has to be getting late.”
               Seamus nodded.  “It is, Will, and I’m getting tired myself.  Let’s go before we cut it too close like that morning in Branson.”
                So we went home before the first fingers of dawn touched the sky and settled Seamus into his favorite guest room, one with an antique bed.  Although it wasn’t as large as ours, it had one of those tall headboards made of solid oak and he fancied it.  Then we retired to our room and in our own bed, Will reached out for me.
               “Are you still cold, Cara?” he asked, his breath soft against my face.  I could smell the alcohol from the drinks and the smoke of his many cigarillos. “Let me warm you up.”
               I answered him with my lips, latching onto his mouth with the finesse of clasping a delicate filigree chain yet with the strength of a snapping turtle.  I stroked his lips with mine, claiming my right and he responded with power.   He kissed me back until my head whirled and I appreciated the heavy bed beneath and above me, a stable place in a spinning world.  Bold as the highwayman he’d once been, he ran his hands over my body, awakening each nerve, notifying every cell of his need.  My want answered it and we came together, touching, stroking, biting, and even licking with the force of the mighty Mississippi River that flowed not so far away.
               His body moved over me like a raging floodtide, sweeping away my worries and leaving nothing but this sensual moment between us.   I felt my nipples harden even as my hand, stroking his cock, which strengthened in my grasp until it had the solid feel of stone.  Within, my body prepared for him by easing the passageway with wetness and as he fondled me from throat to my cleft, my body refused to wait.   I pushed upward until my body bumped against his and strained with the overwhelming need for release.  As our skins touched, our bodies savored the feel of one to another, Will’s patience eroded.   He drove into me with such speed and total impact that I crashed, my body dropping back against the mattress, helpless against his invasion.
               As the essence of his loving poured into me, I drowned in it, delighted in the immersion and opened to him, all defenses down.  At that second of total connection, I cried out, my voice a wordless shriek to express my overwhelming pleasure.   Will silenced me with his mouth, his tongue entering my mouth to move in the same rapid in and out sequence as his penis.  When I came, it happened with shuddering and with such total awareness that nothing outside this room that bed mattered.  I clung to him so that I wouldn’t fall into oblivion and he filled me even as he held me tight.
               Love flared between us, the emotion as potent and strong as the musk that filled the room around us from our physical pleasure.  We were one, body and soul, in those moments and together in a way that I’d never been with anyone else and would not ever be.  Such intimacy must be rare, I thought, as I lay wrapped in his flesh, his smell on my skin and I treasured it.
               To the east, morning must be breaking.   I could feel it now, a sense of danger, a feeling that my consciousness must soon fade to black and he knew it too.   I fumbled to throw a cover over us both and as I began to sink into that darkness, Will whispered,
               “Are you warm now, mo anam cara?”
               “Oh, yeah,” I whispered back, my lips making tiny baby kisses against the base of his throat.   I knew he liked it and his smile lit, tender, as we went to sleep together.
               When I roused, come nightfall, the bed stretched large and empty around me.  Will hadn’t been gone long and I could guess that wherever he was, he would be with Seamus.  I knew he wouldn’t leave without me so I took my time.   I enjoyed a long, leisurely bath complete with scented oil that left me feeling almost boneless.  Since this was Halloween, I figured we’d be staying home the way I’d planned.   But when I drifted downstairs, wearing nothing but a brocade dressing gown Will bought me last winter, barefooted, I found the brothers dressed to go out. Their dark heads leaned together as they sat talking in the flickering light of the fire I’d asked Malachi, Will’s faithful human servant, to light in the parlor but when I entered, without a sound, Will glanced up with a smile.
               “There you are, Cara.” He stretched out his hand to me and I crossed to him, my hand straying across his broad shoulders when I leaned down for a kiss.  He tasted of wine, not the Moscato that we both preferred but another vintage, tarter and less sweet.  “I was about to come up to find you.”
               “I took a bath,” I said, figuring he could guess that from what I wore and the scent of lavender that wafted around me in a cloud.  “Are you hungry?”
               “Aye, we’re starving,” Will commented as he ran one hand beneath the brocade to touch my flesh.   The chill of his fingers raised goose bumps on skin still heated from my bath. “I thought you’d come downstairs, dressed, mo chroi.”
               “I thought we might stay in tonight because it’s Halloween,” I said.  If he continued to caress me like that, we would be back up the stairs and into bed.  “I had Malachi get the stuff I’d need to make the barm brack, colcannon, soul cakes and the rest just in case you’d want the traditional dinner.”
               Will grinned at me, his lips curved upward with mischief.  He knew very well what I’d planned.  “That sounds good but we’ll have that tomorrow night, if you don’t mind.  I told Seamus we’d go down to Tunica if he’d like.  I’m feeling lucky.”
               “Are you?” If he was, then we’d go whether I liked it or not.   He sometimes got hunches, a little taste of the fey that his mother had or so he said.  When Will thought fortune would smile on him, it usually did.   As much money as he made from truck driving, which he did when he wanted, he could make far more in a single good night at the casinos.
               “I am.  I thought we’d start at Bally’s, eat at The Barn, and then go over to Fitz’s.”
               I glanced up at Seamus who nodded.  “It’s fine with me, Cara, but if you’d rather stay home, I don’t mind that either.  I thought I’d teach you how to carve a real jack-o-lantern out of a turnip if you have any.”
               I laughed.  “I’d love that and I do have a few turnips in the kitchen but Will wants to go gaming so we’ll go.  You can carve me up a turnip tomorrow.”
               Will withdrew his hand and looked at me, serious now.
               “Cara, if you don’t want to go, it’s fine.”
               Now that he’d invoked the glittering casinos of the Mississippi Delta, I wanted to go too.  I could just about taste my favorite steak and grilled shrimp at The Barn.  I loved, though,  if I said ‘no’, we’d stay home to suit me.
               “You convinced me.  Let me go change clothes.  Do you want me fancy or normal?”
               If I chose, it’d be blue jeans and a sweater but sometimes my beloved liked me in elegant evening clothing.  If he did, I’d doll up to the max, even cram my big old Texas toes into heels.
               Will cocked his head and looked me over like I was a Barbie Doll to dress.
               “Wear one of the short black dresses,” he said, after a few moments. “Wear your hair up, though.”
               Glad he hadn’t wanted me to wear the de la Renta again, I smiled.  “Why?”
               “I have a fancy to take it down again,” Will said with that wicked glimmer in his eyes that I loved so much. “Will you?”
                I nodded.  “Give me a half hour and I’ll be ready to go.”
               Thirty minutes later, dressed in a short black (of course) jersey sheath dress that draped in a way I thought looked Greek, feet in the tallest high heels I owned, and my hair brushed up into a confection of curls on top of my head, I came down the stairs with slow steps.   They both waited for me in the entry hall, Will and his brother, but Seamus flattered me with a wolf whistle.
               “You look lovely,” my brother-in-law said as I came off that last stair.          
               “She does,” Will said as if I wasn’t even present.  His eyes, though, told me how I looked, beautiful in his sight.   He took my hand and kissed it, his lips ticklish against my skin. “Will you be warm enough, mo anam cara?”
                  “I’ll have to be,” I said, “I don’t think my blue jean jacket goes with this.”
               Although I have a closet filled with fine clothing and a dresser well stocked with blue jeans, another with simple T-shirts, I lacked formal outerwear.   I had a couple of coats, several sweaters, a hooded sweatshirt, and a long denim duster but I just didn’t own the kind of garment that would look right with such haute couture.  Until I met Will and he started showering his bride – me – with the kind of expensive clothes most Texas girls just dream about unless they marry oil money or become a professional, I wore basic everyday clothing.  My handful of fancier evening dresses came from the sales rack at Dillard’s or Sears and Roebuck, nice but not really expensive stores.
               “It’s very cold out tonight,” Seamus said, “There’s a wind that cuts to the bone.”
               I would have thought he teased me but I could hear it, moaning beneath the eaves of the porch and blowing the dry leaves onto the porch with a crisp whisper.
               “You’d better wear something to stay warm,” Will told me.  His expression combined sweet innocence with guilt and so, forewarned, I wasn’t too surprised when he pulled a long, white box out from beneath the hall table.  “See if this might work, Cara.”
               I opened it, figuring it was some kind of evening wrap, maybe a shawl but when I realized what lay inside, I drew a hard breath, surprised, pleased, and even awed.
               A luxuriant black fox stole filled the box, soft and beautiful.  It looked like a spill of midnight shadows contained.  I touched it, marveling at the feel of it and then I looked up at Will, blinking back happy tears.   His grin told me he liked my reaction very much.
               “Do you like it then, mo anam cara?”
               Tenderness surged through me, combing with a rush of love for my Will that threatened to drown me.  If I let it, it would overwhelm me so much that I would be an emotional mess for the rest of the night so as I often do I hid my emotions behind my smart mouth.
               “Is the Alamo in Texas?” I countered. “You know I love it.  Will, it must have cost a fortune, as much as the de la Renta dress or more.”
               “Oh, it was more,” he said, with a cocky smile, “but you’re well worth it, woman.  I have ‘a heart to love and in that heart, courage to make love known’.  I just want you to know how very much I love you.”
               “I know that,” I said, choking on the tears I hadn’t avoided after all. “You don’t have to be a sugar daddy to convince me.”
                 He laughed, Seamus too but in those moments, all my attention focused on Will and Will alone.  The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”
               I sang him back a line from an old song, Silver Threads And Golden Needles that Linda Ronstadt and a lot of others did, “All I want’s the love you promised beneath the haloed moon.”
               He kissed me, then, his mouth sweet-tasting from the wine he’d drunk and whispered in my ear, “You have that, always, mo anam cara, that and more with all my heart.”
               A line from Gone With The Wind, my favorite book growing up popped into my head so I said it, wondering if he would know the reference, “You’ve always had my heart, you know, you cut your teeth on it.”
               Will laughed, a merry sound and kissed me again.  “All right, then Scarlett O’Hara, let’s go before my brother starves to death and all the Halloween ghosts show up on my doorstep.”
               “You knew it!” I exclaimed. “So you’ve read the book?”
               “Aye and seen the movie,” he said as he placed my new fox fur around my shoulders. “I may not see many movies, Cara, but the ones I see are always among the best.”
               “So are you,” I murmured but I didn’t think he heard me.
               Later, after all that happened, I realized that he did.
 Chapter Six
               Traffic snarled as soon as we rolled into Memphis proper with crowds out in full force for the holiday.  As we waited at numerous lights I tried to count how many kids in costume I saw in vehicles around us but I couldn’t keep up because there were just too many.   That brought back memories of my childhood Halloweens back in Rusk, far simpler and quieter than this.
               I liked trick or treating at the neighboring houses up and down our street.     I even enjoyed the “harvest parties” that they held at the Baptist church where they bobbed for apples and costumes couldn’t be anything scary which meant no monsters and no vampires.  By the time I was a teenager, though I didn’t go out begging for candy or to tame parties.   When I was sixteen, some of my friends and I snuck into Cedar Hill Cemetery to walk through after dark in answer to a dare, to prove that we weren’t afraid of ghosts.
                We didn’t see anything strange as we walked through the rows of graves, old and new but I remember that the night felt somehow charged with power to me.  That was my first inkling that Halloween, although not the devil’s birthday some church tracts claimed, had more substance than just fun.   I realized that night that this celebration had deep roots into ancient times and as we wandered in the dark, a cool breeze blowing my hair back from my face, I decided that maybe the dead or undead did walk among us that night.
               Although I always believed in some measure of supernatural creatures, it wasn’t until I became one I learned most are real.  Will taught me about shifters – humans possessing the ability to transform into animals or other creatures.  He’d told me about other things too, bean sidhes, werewolves, creatures I’d never heard about.  Some call them monsters but I prefer to just think of them as things of the night.
               Now I was one of the latter but as we walked out of our home, I felt that same sort of prickling magic in the wind.  An ethereal feeling floated through the air with presence and a sense of power.  I sensed it and with some latent pagan gene hidden deep I almost feared it.  I thought of that Shakespeare verse that Will quoted when he first realized that Sallie Hawkins trailed after him, the evil English woman that made both him and Seamus into vampires, by the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.  I trembled, both remembering and from the strange foreboding I felt.
               I pulled my new fox wrap tighter around me, glad of the warmth and even happier that Will’s love surrounded me with such strength.  I slid just a little closer to Will and he patted my leg.
               At Bally’s, the casino that resembled some turn of the century farmhouse, we parked and entered.  Most of the time, I appreciate the faux cuteness but that night, instead of reminding me of home sweet home, I found myself thinking about spook houses.  I never did like them, those Halloween attractions heavy on gore and guaranteed to scare the britches off anyone.  I couldn’t say why Bally’s made me think of that except it was Halloween after all.  Well, that it did have a Gothic look that could be unsettling.
               In The Barn, Will and his brother ordered the famous T-bones that are just shy of being a full two pounds each and I asked for Surf and Turf, a sirloin steak paired with grilled shrimp that are delicious.   As we waited for our food, we shared an appetizer and talked.   At a back corner table, I relaxed, comfortable with the company.  I liked the pseudo country look too, a mixture of hanging green plants, rustic wood, and even a wagon wheel.  I draped my fox over the back of my chair so that I wouldn’t drip part of my dinner on it.
               Will grasped my hand across the table and held it, listening to Seamus talk Branson theater gossip.  Unlike Will, who even now lived within a small circle and remained outside the loop, Seamus knew everyone.  He didn’t just live in Branson - he was part of it all in a way that Will never would be even if he moved there and stayed twenty years.  Until I came into Will’s life, Malachi ranked as the one person he had any familiarity with.  Out on the road, he might talk and joke with other truckers.  Down on Beale Street, he might exchange a few words here or there.  But he’d been a loner, wandering on the edge of society.   Some of that self-imposed isolation stemmed from his feelings that as a vampire he had become evil and unworthy, more from a fear of detection.  
               With me, from that first night, Will let down his barriers but until then, he spent lonely centuries apart from anyone he could call family.  After we were together and married, he let my family inside his circle too.   Even now, he kept his near and dear close, everyone else at arm’s length.  I could understand that; it provided him with safety for many years.  Now that Seamus and he found one another, he had that relationship too and I could tell, with joy, how that gave him positive energy.
               Seamus probably had been just as alone when he went home and there he kept apart but out in his world, he hobnobbed with a lot of people, a social butterfly.  Right now, I listened as he waxed fine and long how his humble theater compared with some of the big ones.
               “I like my place,” he told Will, “it’s small and off the Strip which can be both good and bad.  I get enough crowds though to make some money but the big entertainers hardly recognize that Brennan’s Irish Stage even exists.”
               “Does that matter to you?”
               Seamus shook his head. “No, it really doesn’t.  I like what I have and it’ll be easy enough to turn over someday when I decide it’s time to go.   You should see some of the other theaters, though.  They’re like palaces.”
               Will snorted but he smiled too. “I saw the one where we found you.  ‘Twas fancy enough.”
               “Some are grander than that.  Shoji Tobuchi’s theater has restrooms fit for a sultan, Will, with imported marble, gold fixtures, chandeliers and more.”
               “Who’s he when he’s at home?” Will asked, unimpressed.
               I jumped into the conversation. “He’s a Japanese violinist and he’s damn good.”
               “So he’s a fiddler, then?”
               “Aye,” Seamus said, dropping into his brother’s habit.  “But he would never play at a ceildh back home.  He has fresh orchids every day in the ladies’ room, Will, and uses real violets to scent the place pretty.  I’ve never seen anything quite like it.  And the men’s room is just as fine.”
               “I imagine that the smells are the same, no matter how fancy the surroundings,” Will commented in a dry voice that made me laugh aloud.   He was right, a rose by any other name smells as sweet and an outhouse, no matter how fancy, is just an outhouse.  “What other wonders do they have in Branson town?”
                Seamus missed the slight sarcasm in his brother’s voice. “Oh, there’s plenty to see and do.  If I had my days, I’d see more of it.  There’s a place called Shepherd of the Hills where long ago someone came from the city and liked it so much he wrote a book about what happened.  They have a play and a farm with log cabins.  I haven’t been to any of it but last year at Christmas time, I went up in their tower and it was amazing.  There are two levels and you can see for miles.  You two should come in December and see it.”
               “We might,” Will said, “And here’s our food.”
               My steak tasted tender, melted across my tongue the way good beef should and the grilled shrimp were delicious.   I enjoyed the fried okra, one of my two side dishes as much as anything but I couldn’t get Will to eat it.   Like true Irishman, both he and his brother chose potatoes for both sides.  When we finished dinner, I felt almost too full to move but Will wrapped me in my new fox fur and we headed out in the casino.
               I’d almost forgotten that it was Halloween in the comfortable restaurant but out there, I couldn’t forget.  Half the gamblers wore costumes or were done up in elaborate make-up.  We moved through the crowds as they parted as if Will carried Moses’ staff in hand and I noticed clowns, old fashioned gangsters in pin striped suits and fedoras, Roaring Twenties flappers, cowboys, law enforcement officers, witches, and more.   Maybe it’s just because I am one but the would-be vampires just looked cheesy as hell and awful.  Midway across the gambling floor, Will and Seamus flanked me, drawing nearer as if to ward off evil.   I frowned at that, wary without warning of some unknown, unseen threat.
               “Stay close, Cara,” Will said as he linked his arm through mine.  With a toss of his head, he indicated Seamus should move in close on the other side. 
               “What’s wrong?”
               “There are a lot of shifters here tonight,” he said, sounding grim.  “I don’t begrudge them the chance to come out among the public on the one night that they can pass but this many could mean trouble.  There’s too many for it to be just chance.  If anything happens, if just one of them should shift without warning, it’ll be chaos or a fight.  Either one will be bad.”
               I tried to see if I could tell the difference between a shifter, any stray vampires, and humans.  I identified a few vamps, two of which gave me a slight wave of acknowledgement to show they made me for what I was too.  I couldn’t pick a single shapeshifter out of the people, though, so I asked Will, “How can you tell?”
               Seamus, now holding my other arm so that the three of us appeared to be on the verge of dancing down the Yellow Brick Road in Oz at any moment, answered me, “I can smell them.”
               “Aye, I do too.” Will said. “Don’t you get the reek of them in your nose, mo chroi?”
               At first I didn’t and then it hit me.   A stench that reminded me of going to the zoo filled my nose with animal musk.  The rank odor made me want to sick up the dinner I’d just eaten but I managed to keep it down.  That smell mingled with the other smells usual to the casino, the after shave and perfumes, the scent of soap, tobacco, beer and alcohol, food from the various dining establishments.  Once I caught it, I had a hard time understanding why I didn’t smell it in the first place.
               “You’re too new at this life,” Will said, answering my question before I even asked it.  He had a knack for that.  Sometimes it could be annoying as fire ants biting your toes but just now, I liked it.   “I doubt you ever smelled it before, not when you knew what it was.”
               That made sense but I had another question. “What are they? Are they wolves or bears or dogs or what?”
               My overall knowledge of shape shifting creatures was limited and it showed.
               Will chuckled but without much mirth, “There are all kinds here tonight, all of those and more.  I smell cats, house and wild, swine, snake shifters, some birds, and I think even a lion or leopard or two.  I told you they are many and I don’t know why.”
               I didn’t know what to say as I tried to imagine some of the people I saw gambling, play the slot machines or at the table as snakes or pigs or cats or crows.  I stretched my imagination to do it and I really didn’t like the images that I conjured up.  My ability to read Will’s mind grew almost daily and I knew that although he didn’t know the answer, he had some ideas.  “Why do you think they’re here?”
               He sighed, “It may just be an outing for Halloween time or it could be some kind of fight brewing.  I’m no expert on shifters, leannĂ¡n but I’ve heard that some kinds hate the others and vice versa.  If they have rivalries like humans, they could start a fight and I’d rather not be here if one breaks out.   We can handle ourselves but it could get nasty.”
               “I agree, Will,” Seamus added from the other side of me. “We had our meal so let’s go over to Fitz’s.”
               That worked for me, too, so we pressed onward.  Just as we almost reached the exit, a man leaned forward so that he blocked our way.  I saw the spots that were covering his face and the whiskers, cat not man style, which extended from near his mouth.   He growled, low and fierce in his throat at us and although it startled me, I reacted.  For the first time in a public place since I became a creature of the night, a vampire, I bared my fangs at him and snarled.  At the sound, I felt both brothers stiffen, muscles taut.  Seamus opened his own mouth wide and hissed, an evil eerie sound and Will, fangs showing, stared at the shifting leopard with menace.
               “Get out of the way,” he said in a cold, dead voice that wouldn’t accept any opposition.
               “And if I don’t, vampire?” the creature asked.  I noticed that his hands were becoming claws and that his fingernails no longer resembled human ones.
               “Then I’ll break your back and drink your blood,” Will said, “Do you want to try?”
               With a faint whine that reminded me of a lost kitty out in the night, it turned away and we went outside into the cold, crisp night air.  I released the breath I’d been holding and Will stopped in his long stride.
               “Are you all right?”
               I nodded, “Yeah, I’m fine, just a little shook up.  I’ve never experienced anything like that.”
               “Do you want to go on to Fitz’s?” Will asked.  I knew if I said no, he would take me straight home but I’m tougher than that.  If I can kill a 500 year old bitch vampire that threatened my Will, I could finish up a night of gaming.
               “Sure, honey.  Let’s go.”
               In the car, as I scooted closer to him, he fired up a cigarillo and turned his head to scrutinize me.  Those deep blue eyes touched my soul every time he looked at me and I guess I satisfied him that I meant it.  We left Bally’s and headed for Fitzgerald’s.  That mock Irish castle and all appeared less foreboding than the gothic farmhouse but crowds filled all the gaming rooms too.  As we walked through, I touched Will’s arm, a silent question and he turned to me.
               “There’s a few, here and there, but nothing like Bally’s.  Seamus, what do you want to play?”
               “Twenty-one,” his brother said, his face lighting up like the Fourth of July night sky.  “Are you game for it too?”
               “I am.  Cara, darlin’, will you join us?”
               “Sure.” For now, my inner creepy crawlies were gone but I didn’t want to stray far from Will’s strong arms and his brother’s fierce air of protection.
                 I didn’t play, just watched because I’ve never been very lucky at gambling.  Will always gives me plenty of money to play but I seldom win.  So I stood at the side of the table, between them.  Will’s face grew sober with intent; he could play hard but he almost always won.  After thirty minutes or so, I needed to make a pit stop so I touched his sleeve and whispered in his ear.  He nodded.
               “Mind yourself, mo anam cara.”
               “I will, honey and I won’t be gone long.”
               His eyes never left the table or the dealer but he said, “If you are, I’ll come find you.
Bi' curamach, leannĂ¡n.”
               That Irish phrase came close enough to English that I understand and I nodded, with a smile. “I promise I’ll be careful, Will.”

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