One of my favorite Christmas cookie scenes can be found in the first book of my Children of Night vampire series, In the Dark…
When you live forever, a few mistakes are bound to happen.
Vampire Conrad Quintano has been around for centuries — long enough to know falling for a human is a terrible idea. Much less falling for adventure-seeking hippie Desert Rose and agreeing to raise her babies.
Raised in virtual isolation, Marc and Julie Fischer have never known their unique status in the world. But once they’re in San Francisco, the family reunion is nothing like they anticipated and they’re thrust into a world they’re completely unprepared for.
Holding her breath, Suzanne went up on her toes, her arm stretched out as far as it would reach, to hang yet another sparkling ornament on the tree. Her hand hovered over the branch tip. She released the hook and smiled as the tiny, silver bell swayed safely in place. Relaxing again, she took a deep breath. The scent of pine was so strong it nearly knocked her off the ladder.
She loved Christmas—all the shiny, bright wonder of it. Familiar carols playing on the stereo. The cool taste of peppermint tingling on her lips. The sugar and spiciness of gingerbread cookies still warm from the oven mixing with the buttery fragrance of freshly made popcorn. And, this year, she was going to have the best Christmas ever. There could be no doubt about that.
Cocking her head to the side, she admired her handiwork, or as much of it as she could see from this angle. The tree was so big it was impossible to take it all in at a glance, so big that, even standing on the top of the stepladder, she still couldn’t reach the highest branches. That meant the placing of the final star would have to be done by someone else, by Conrad, she hoped, as her mind started spinning a happy little fantasy.
They would stand on the ladder together, his arm around her shoulders, and after he’d affixed the star to the top-most branch he’d turn to her with love in his eyes and a smile on his lips. “Merry Christmas,” he’d whisper as he bent to kiss her…and outside the house, in the dark, star-filled San Francisco night, it would begin to snow…
Well, maybe someday. Or, then again, maybe not. What were the odds, really?
From inside the room—where it was almost as dark as night—came a long, low, furious rumble to distract her from her thoughts. Words she didn’t know, yet whose meaning couldn’t be more clear, spilled in a seemingly endless stream from Armand’s lips.
“You know what’s funny?” she said as she turned to face him. “Even in French, cursing still sounds like cursing.”
Eyes narrowed, he glowered at her, glancing up from where he sat on the floor surrounded by the string of lights he’d been attempting to fix. Most of the exterior decorations were already in place when this string had inexplicably gone out and the workmen, unable to discover the problem, had returned it to Armand in its present condition: a dark, tangled seaweed-looking mass. That had been almost an hour ago.
“This is all your doing,” Armand growled, sounding so much like Conrad, she had to laugh.
“I know,” she said, unable to keep from ginning. It was for her—all for her—that Conrad, that Armand, that all of them, were doing this. The tree, the tinsel, the cookies, the lights—all because she said she wanted it. And she wasn’t about to feel the least bit sorry about that, either.
Armand watched her for a moment longer, his expression softening until he was smiling too. “Well then, don’t you think the least you could do is come down here and help me straighten this mess out?”
“All right.” She jumped down from the ladder, grabbed the plate of cookies from the side table, then seated herself across from him, with the bulk of the lights—and the plate piled high with gingerbread—on the floor between them. “Now, what do you need me to do?”
“If you can get started on the knots, I’ll try and figure out which of these bulbs has gone bad,” he suggested.
She nodded and they settled to work. “I still can’t believe Conrad is really going through with this,” she said, sighing happily as her hands picked at the raveled cord. She still wanted to pinch herself every time she thought about it, just to make sure she wasn’t dreaming.
“Oui.” Armand nodded, his voice preoccupied. “Neither can the rest of us.”
She glanced up at that. “You don’t think he’ll change his mind about the party, do you?” She really hoped he wouldn’t. She was looking forward to it more than she had anything in a very long time. She’d hate to be disappointed.
A small frown creased Armand’s brow. “He gave you his word, didn’t he?”
“Well, then you have nothing to fear.”
She nodded again, hugging the happy thought close to her heart. Conrad would never go back on his word to her. Isn’t that what Armand had just implied? Who, in her life, had she ever been able to say that about? No one. Ever. “I’ve been thinking about what I should give him for a present.”
Armand snickered. “How about more of what you’ve already been giving him? I’m sure he’d like that.”
“Stop it!” Suzanne glared at him. “Can you be serious for a minute? I know this guy—an artist—he makes the most beautiful things out of stained glass. I can’t really afford that kind of thing but—if I could—do you think that’s something Conrad would like?”
Armand sighed. “Chérie, why are you worrying about this? You know he’ll like anything you give him, if for no other reason than because it comes from you.”
“I know.” All the same, she’d like to give him something he’d like for itself, as well. She’d like to give Armand a gift he’d like for its own sake too, for that matter, something he could look at every day and think of her. There were only two big problems with that idea. The first was money—she didn’t have any. The second was that she really didn’t know either of their tastes all that well, especially not Armand’s. She bit her lip and attempted to sound casual as she asked, “So, you know what I was thinking the other day? I was thinking how strange it is that, even with all the times I’ve been here, you’ve never once shown me your room.”
The bulb Armand was testing slipped from his fingers. He glanced up at her, his eyes wary. “My room? Why would I take you there?”
“Oh, I don’t know.” She smiled, still trying to sound like it was no big deal. “Maybe just ’cause I’m curious? What color is it, anyway?”
“Blue,” Armand replied, still staring at her oddly. “Mostly blue and, and white paneling. Again, why are you asking?”
Blue and white. Got it. “No reason. I just thought maybe I could see it someday. It sounds nice. Is it?”
“I…I think so. And, yes, perhaps…someday…you will see it. And then you can decide for yourself.”
“I’d like that.”
Color flooded Armand’s cheeks. He dropped his gaze to his hands and muttered, “Perhaps someday, after you and …I mean, if you…he…when…” He sighed, his voice trailing into silence. He shook his head. “Never mind.”
“What?” Suzanne prompted.
“Nothing. It’s a silly idea. It can never happen.”
“I told you. It’s nothing.”
“No, it’s not. Tell me. If I…what?”
A low, throbbing growl emerged from Armand’s throat. He lifted his head and met her gaze with eyes that seemed suddenly ready to devour her. The blood roared in her ears and if he said anything in answer to her question, she didn’t hear it.
I’d forgotten. Suzanne’s breath caught in her throat. With no clear thought in her head, she found herself leaning forward, as though drawn to Armand by some invisible force. I’d forgotten how beautiful he is. How did I forget that? She’d known it in the beginning. In those first few minutes of her very first visit here, almost two months earlier, it had been all she could think about…
Standing in the entranceway, awkward and uncertain, she gazed at her surroundings, trying hard to look like someone who might possibly belong there. Then their eyes met and her breath caught…
Just like now.
She’d wanted to turn and run when he headed toward her, his eyes never leaving her face, but she couldn’t move. She’d tried to look away, and found she couldn’t do that, either.
Not then, not now, not ever again, perhaps.
“Hello,” he’d said, smiling into her eyes as he took her hand, sending shivers of excitement clear down to her toes. “ Welcome. Please come in.”
And she went, just like now, with no thought in her head, no will to resist.
But, then…before she’d had time to accept more than one drink, before she’d learned much more than his name, Conrad had arrived. And she’d forgotten everything that had come before. Like all the mystery Armand’s smile seemed to hint at, that magical gleam in his eyes. Like how very attractive he was and how very attracted she was to him.
Once Conrad had come none of that mattered, none of it even existed anymore. He took her out into the garden and he kissed her and the world disappeared. And there was never any question of going back.
“This…is such…a bad…idea,” Armand half-groaned, half-whispered now. His eyes were hot on her face. His breath was a gentle breeze against her lips. Was it to himself he was speaking? Or to her? The lights and the cookies, forgotten on the floor between them, were in danger of being crushed as Suzanne continued on her unsteady, unstoppable trajectory, tilting closer and closer and closer, like a meteor trapped in a slow-motion collision course with his mouth. “We shouldn’t do this. We can’t do this.”
I know. But she was pretty sure they were going to, just the same. She was pretty sure that, in another minute, she’d be in Armand’s lap, her head thrown back, while the heat of his mouth seared her neck—which is not at all what she’d planned on doing tonight. I’m sorry. This isn’t what I want either. So then why was she doing it? Why couldn’t she stop?
“Bad idea,” Armand groaned again, still not pulling away. “Very. Bad. Idea.”
Suzanne fell another half inch closer, her lips parting like flower petals begging for the bee’s sweet sting. It is. You’re right. I’m sorry. But I just can’t help myself…
The slamming of the front door broke the spell. They both startled, breathing hard, staring at each other in alarm. What was that? What just happened here? Suzanne straightened up, blinking stupidly, still feeling flattened by it…whatever it was. She was shaking. Could not stop shaking. What did he do? What did he just nearly do to me?
“Listen to me,” Armand whispered urgently. “That never happened. Do you hear me? Never. Nothing happened. And it must never happen again.”
Suzanne nodded. No, of course it hadn’t. It couldn’t have happened, could it? I don’t even know what he’s talking about. And, in the next instant, even the memory of it was gone, vanished, as though it had never been.
She picked up the string of lights and blinked at it in confusion, wondering how she’d come to drop it in the first place. How odd. It was as though she were just coming back from a very strange trip. If she hadn’t made the cookies herself she might be wondering what was in them.
“Armand?” a woman’s posh British accent called out imperiously. Rapid footsteps, loud as gunshots, pattered across the tiled floor of the foyer. “Armand, where are you?”
“Georgia?” Armand jumped to his feet to greet the woman as she appeared in the doorway. “I-I mean, Lady Lancaster, it’s so good to see you again.”
“Ah, there you are.” Tugging a wide-brimmed mink hat from her head, the woman swept into the room, her matching fur coat swirling ’round her ankles. She was tall, aristocratic, perfect in every way, Suzanne couldn’t help thinking, just like a blonde Mary Poppins, only a lot more fashionably dressed. “My dear boy,” she said as she tossed her hat on a chair. “Will you please be so good as to tell me what is going on here today? There are men outside the house stringing lights in the trees and…oh…dear…Gawd. You’ve one in the house, as well?”
“It’s a Christmas tree,” Suzanne explained, still sizing the woman up. She was very beautiful, she supposed, if you liked dishwater blondes with flawless complexions. Her hair was streaked several shades of gold, from tawny to very light to slightly darker than the palomino mink that still enveloped her. “Because, you know, it’s almost Christmas.”
“Thank you,” the woman murmured, smiling coolly. “You’ve been most helpful. I’m sure I would never have been able to make the connection on my own.”
“Is Conrad expecting you?” Armand asked, brow furrowing. “I’m sure I don’t remember his telling me you were arriving today.”
“What’s this now?” The woman’s perfect eyebrows rose. “Are we become so formal I cannot drop in on my sire unannounced?”
“No. Of course not. It’s just that we’ve all been so busy preparing for the Christmas party that I thought, perhaps—”
“A Christmas party? Conrad? Are you mad? Why on earth would he do something like that?”
“Because I asked him to,” Suzanne replied, suddenly very conscious of her bare feet, her patched jeans, her uncombed hair. Why would Conrad even bother with me, if he could have her? She shouldn’t care. She already knew what she had with Conrad was nothing permanent, didn’t she? But she really hated the idea that this woman might somehow influence him to change his mind about the party.
“Because you asked him to?” Eyes like lavender blue ice bored into hers. “Well, that explains everything, doesn’t it? And who might you be?”
“Desert Rose is a…a recent acquaintance,” Armand answered, coming to her rescue. His smile, and the tiny wink he gave her, warmed away a little of the chill Suzanne was feeling as he continued with the introductions. “Chérie, this is Lady Lancaster one of Conrad’s…ah, cousins.”
I’ll just bet she is, Suzanne thought, watching as the blonde’s eyes widened in disbelief.
“And where is dear cousin Conrad?” she asked, smiling at Armand with poisonous sweetness. “I would so love to have a word with him right now.”
Suzanne shrugged. “Oh, he’s still in bed.” She picked up one of the gingerbread women from the plate on the floor and bit off her head. “When I got up he told me to try and keep things quiet down here. He said he didn’t want to be bothered until at least midnight. Not by anyone.”
Armand winced. He frowned sharply in Suzanne’s direction, then turned back to the blonde. “You must be so tired from your trip, Lady Lancaster,” he murmured in soothing tones. “Why don’t you let me show you to your room?”
“Later perhaps.” The ice blonde’s eyes gleamed with a hard, metallic sheen as she sloughed out of her coat, revealing a lavender tweed Chanel suit and a long string of pearls as white as her teeth. She threw the coat on the chair with her hat, and pushed Armand aside. “First, I simply must have something to eat,” she said as she advanced on Suzanne.
Vaguely surprised, Suzanne picked up the plate of gingerbread and extended it toward her. “Did you want a cookie?”
“Georgia, no,” Armand said, almost tripping over the tangled lights in his haste to get between the two women. “Stop, please. You can’t!”
“I can’t?” A very unladylike snarl lifted the lady’s lips as she turned on him. Cold fire raged in her eyes. “Why, Armand, are you saying you don’t wish to share your snack with me? How very ungallant.”
Armand shook his head. His voice coming out half strangled, he answered, “Conrad’s snack, Georgia, not mine. And, no, he’s…he’s not been in a very sharing mood of late.”
“What?” Georgia’s eyes widened. “Are you serious?”
“Oui. Very much so.”
Puzzled, Suzanne glanced at them both. “I really don’t think Conrad will care if she has a cookie, Armand. It’s not like he’s going to eat them. You were there when he said he doesn’t care for gingerbread. Remember?” She looked sadly at the plate, at all the happy sugar faces smiling back at her. And, if he’d only said something earlier, I’d have been glad to make some other kind of cookie.
“Cookies?” Georgia sounded confused. Suzanne looked up again to find the other woman regarding her curiously. “How sweet. Tell me, did you make those yourself?”
Suzanne nodded. “Well, mostly. Armand helped.”
“Did he?” Georgia arched one eyebrow at him. “You bake, Armand? I’m astonished.”
“Oui. I astonish myself, at times.”
“Try one,” Suzanne insisted. “They’re good.”
Georgia shook her head. “No. Thank you, just the same. I’m afraid I share my…cousin’s tastes. For many things.”
“Georgia, please,” Armand begged softly. “Please let me find you something else to eat.”
“Oh, no.” Georgia waved the suggestion off and started back toward the door. “No worries, darling. Don’t be so silly. I wouldn’t dream of disarranging any of Conrad’s little schemes. I know better than that, I hope. Anyway, I can see you must have your hands quite full already. I’m sure I can locate everything I need on my own.” She picked up her coat and hat and then turned back to add, “That is…I trust there are no other surprises awaiting me?”
Armand shook his head. He watched her leave then collapsed onto the floor, looking so very tired Suzanne was worried for him.
“Are you all right?” she asked as he heaved a deep sigh. “Do you want a cookie?”
“No, I’m fine,” he murmured, staring absently at the lights. “I just…have a lot of things on my mind right now, that’s all.”
Yeah, Suzanne thought, and I bet they’re all wearing fur. “So, have you known her long?”
“Georgia? Just a few years. Of course, she and Conrad have known each other for much longer.”
Longer, Suzanne wondered, or better? “What was that thing she called Conrad—her sire? Isn’t that like what you call a king, or something? Why would she call him that?”
“Why?” Armand frowned. “Well, um…because she’s British,” he answered, finally seeming to shake off his strange mood. He reached for the string of bulbs. “And, you know what they say about British humor, chérie, don’t you? You really can’t appreciate it unless you’re British yourself.”
“I guess.” Suzanne bit off a gingerbread leg and thought about it some more. “And is she really a lady?”
“Yes.” Armand nodded, still testing bulbs to no avail. “The title was her husband’s, I believe.”
Suzanne felt her sprits rise. “Oh, yeah? So, she’s married?”
“Was. She’s widowed now.”
“Oh.” Suzanne ate another piece of gingerbread, and part of a candied cherry, and sighed again. “That’s too bad.”
Armand glanced up at that, grinning at her. “Jealous?”
“No,” Suzanne insisted, cheeks flaming hotly. “Of course not. I was just saying it’s a shame her husband died.”
Armand said nothing, but his smile said he didn’t believe her.
“Why did she have to come here now?” Suzanne finally demanded. “I wanted this Christmas to be so perfect and now… Armand, what if she makes him change his mind?”
Armand shook his head. “No one makes Conrad do anything he doesn’t want to do.”
“It could still happen though, couldn’t it? If he…if he likes her better.”
“Listen to me for a minute, chérie.” Armand reached forward and squeezed her hand. “What Conrad has with you is something he will never have with Georgia. It doesn’t matter if you don’t understand that, because he does. So there’s nothing for you to worry about. Do you hear me?”
Suzanne nodded. But there was still a lot to worry about all the same, wasn’t there? Things like fur coats and pearl necklaces and tweed suits that cost the Earth. How could she ever hope to compete with anything like that?