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Authors: Susan Krinard,Theresa Meyers,Linda Thomas-Sundstrom

Holiday with a Vampire 4

BOOK: Holiday with a Vampire 4
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Don’t be afraid to snuggle up with these sexy, immortal heroes.
They will weave their way into your fantasies and spice up your cold winter
nights.

Halfway to Dawn by Susan Krinard

Amid a supernatural war between the races, can Fiona, captain
of the human special forces, and Kain, a compelling fugitive from the vampire
army, risk working together to attain peace
on
earth?

The Gift by Theresa Meyers

All Cullen McCormack wants for Christmas is the missing locket
that holds the key to his immortality. But will Angelica, the woman who now
flaunts it about her exquisite neck, also claim his vampire heart?

Bright Star by Linda
Thomas-Sundstrom

Immortal Dylan McCay has vowed to protect the secret origins of
his species at all costs—until he meets Savannah, a passionate astronomer on
the brink of discovering the elusive Christmas Star….

Plus, enjoy a special novella included in this book from
New York Times
bestselling author
Heather
Graham

The
Gatekeeper
,
the thrilling prequel to the epic new
quartet The Keepers: L.A.

Praise for the novels of Susan Krinard

“Susan Krinard was born to write romance.”
—New York Times
bestselling author Amanda Quick

“A master of atmosphere and description.”
—Library Journal

Praise for Theresa Meyers

“This is an original and well-written story with a fascinating mythology and wonderfully complex characters.”
—RT Book Reviews
on
The Half-Breed Vampire

Praise for Linda Thomas-Sundstrom

“Linda Thomas-Sundstrom’s well-written, action-packed novel will keep readers entertained from start to finish….A compelling page-turner!”
—RT Book Reviews
on
Guardian of the Night

SUSAN KRINARD

has written and published more than fourteen novels and written stories for a number of anthologies, and her Harlequin HQN novel
Lord of the Beasts
appeared on the
New York
Times
bestseller list. Susan makes her home in New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment, with her husband, Serge, their dogs, Freya, Nahla and Cagney, and their cat, Jefferson.

THERESA MEYERS

was selected in 2005 as a finalist in for the American Title II contest, the
American Idol
of books. She is married to the first man she dated and currently lives in a Victorian house on a minifarm in the Pacific Northwest with their children, a large assortment of animals and an out-of-control herb garden. You can find her online at her website at
www.theresameyers.com
, on Twitter at
www.twitter.com/Theresa_Meyers
or on Facebook at
www.facebook.com/TheresaMeyersAuthor
.

LINDA THOMAS-SUNDSTROM

author of contemporary and historical paranormal romance novels, writes for Harlequin Nocturne. She lives in the West, juggling teaching, writing, family and caring for a big stretch of land. Visit Linda at her website,
www.lindathomas-sundstrom.com
, and the Nocturne Authors’ website,
www.nocturneauthors.com
.

HOLIDAY WITH
A VAMPIRE 4

Susan Krinard,
Theresa Meyers and
Linda Thomas-Sundstrom

Dear Reader,

As we prepare to ring in the New Year, we have some exciting
news to share with you. Starting in January, Harlequin Nocturne is unveiling a
brand-new look that’s a fresh take on our paranormal covers.

Our stories still feature powerful, mysterious alpha male
heroes facing life-or-death situations as they battle for the heroine’s love.
But we will be increasing the page count to allow for a wider breadth of story,
subplots and heightened sensual and sexual tension.

New York Times
bestselling author
Heather Graham gets Nocturne off to a great start with the launch of the
thrilling new miniseries
The Keepers: L.A.
And
Rhyannon Byrd returns with another title in her popular
Bloodrunners series
about a pack of very alpha wolves.

So don’t miss out on your favorite series. Look for the newly
repackaged Nocturne titles starting in January wherever you buy books.

In the meantime, be sure to look for this month’s reads:
Holiday with a Vampire 4
by Susan Krinard,
Theresa Meyers and Linda Thomas-Sundstrom and
Sentinels:
Kodiak
Chained
by Doranna Durgin.

Happy reading,

Ann Leslie Tuttle

Senior Editor

Halfway to Dawn

Susan Krinard

Prologue

The War began with the Awakening

T
he first Opiri—those beings that folklore called vampires—had arisen at the dawn of human civilization. Creatures of darkness, the Opiri were nevertheless unlike the legends in many respects. They were not supernatural creatures but a distinct humanoid species with a severe intolerance to sunlight, a dietary need for human blood, indefinitely long life spans, exceptional strength and speed, and senses as keen as those of a true predator.

The first true Opiri civilization arose at the time of the Egyptian First Dynasty when the eldest among them, known as Bloodmasters and Bloodlords, began to convert members of the human population to serve as vassals. Along with vassals, the Freebloods—possessing neither masters nor vassals of their own—made up the larger part of this society, which adhered to a rigid caste system.

But after centuries of coexisting with humans in the ancient world, the Opiri, known as “Nightsiders” in the vernacular of the former United States, learned that they could not survive without decimating the human population, their most vital source of nourishment.

So, the Bloodlords and Bloodmasters gathered from all corners of the earth and sat in council. They determined that only time would provide them with what they required: a human population vast enough to meet their needs, but malleable and divided, ripe to fall under Opiri rule.

They built a vast network of underground chambers where they could never be discovered or disturbed, and all but the Bloodmasters retreated into a sleep humans would call death. They waited while the Bloodmasters roamed the earth and watched, preparing the way, patient and undying as human empires rose and fell.

At last, when the world was teeming with humans and filled with discord, the Bloodlords began to rouse those Opiri who slept. Thousands of so-called vampires emerged in every corner of the world, in every nation, hungry and eager to claim all the earth and conquer its inhabitants.

That was the Awakening, and it began the most terrible war in human history, a war not over territory or ancient hatreds but for survival. Thousands upon thousands of humans fell into death or serfdom or vassalage.

During those terrible years, Homo sapiens retreated into city-states called Enclaves, where they could maintain strong defenses and hold the Opiri at bay. The Opiri formed their own strongholds as the war raged on. Between human and Nightsider territories stretched the neutral zones, where ground troops struggled to claim scraps of land and ultimate victory.

The first Enclave established in California was centered on the city of San Francisco, encompassing Northern California’s remaining human population. The city-state established its own Enclave Defense and Intelligence, creating special military forces trained as scouts and agents capable of moving where regular troops could not.

In the sixth year of the Opiri-human war, leaders on both sides of the conflict arranged for secret negotiations. But they faced great opposition, and there was no guarantee that a truce, let alone a lasting peace, could ever be achieved.

—from the Introduction to
A Brief History of the Nightsider War, San Francisco Enclave

Chapter 1

No Man’s Land, Northern California

“A
re you warm enough, Ambassador Sandoval?” Fiona asked.

The ambassador’s dark eyes peered up at her from the shadow of his hood. “I’ll be fine,” he said, giving her a brave smile, though he was anything but a soldier. In fact, she doubted the wiry professorial man with the serious face and nervous glances had set foot outside the Enclave of San Francisco since the war began.

That was why she was here, she and her team. They had to get him to the rendezvous alive...and still human.

A wet, stinging wind probed her neck with icy fingers, trying to find a way inside her jacket. She pulled the zipper as high as it would go and exchanged glances with Joel and the other members of her Special Forces team. Their grim expressions mirrored her own.

This was the coldest December any of them could remember, one storm after another lashing a state once known for sunshine and warm winters. Waves of heavy rain, driven by gales strong enough to upend trees, turned the ground to icy mud, and nighttime temperatures were bitter enough to freeze even the toughest native plants.

Some said it was all because of the Awakening. Fiona had heard her own colleagues muttering about it back at Enclave Defense and Intelligence, hardened professional agents and soldiers who should have known better. The belief wasn’t rational; even the most powerful vampires didn’t have control over the weather.

But there wasn’t a lot of rationality going around where the bloodsuckers were concerned. They’d killed too many in their quest for dominance over all life on earth, leaving vast wastelands around them.

Wastelands like the one visible on the opposite side of the Carquinez Bridge. Once a thriving suburb of Vallejo, it was now a maze of overgrown streets and abandoned middle-class houses, schools empty of students, stores long since looted of anything valuable. The former residents of the homes—those who had survived the first Nightsider attacks—had fled, scattering to various refugee encampments and eventually to the Enclaves. Many more had been condemned to a life of slavery, taken as serfs by Bloodmasters or Bloodlords, the highest-ranking aristocracy in Nightsider society.

These days, you seldom saw Bloodmasters or Bloodlords on the battlefield. They had bound vassals and Freebloods—independent Nightsiders who chose their own loyalties—to do their fighting and increase their holdings for them.

But things were starting to fall apart on both sides of the conflict. Fiona knew firsthand that there were plenty of Bloodlords trying to set up their own little fiefdoms instead of working for ultimate victory, and thousands of Freebloods, singly or in gangs, seeking prey among their enemies with no regard to orders from above. Some Enclave scouts had seen Nightsider commanders using serfs as living shields, compelling human forces to abort attacks or kill their own kind.

But that meant the bloodsuckers were getting desperate. To throw serfs away was worse than setting a fortune in paper bills on fire. If no one could control the rogue Bloodlords and Freebloods...

Ultimately good for our side,
she thought.
And very bad for
us.

“Us” meaning, in this case, her team, soldiers cut off from their platoons, or other humans unfortunate enough to be out in No Man’s Land.

“Captain Donnelly,” Commander Joel Goodman said in a low voice, coming up beside her. “Chen and Patterson say we’re clear to proceed. No sign of rogues or any recent action in the area.”

Fiona nodded acknowledgment, by no means set at ease. Bloodsuckers had a way of popping up when you least expected it. And while it was only morning and the team would have a good eight hours of travel time, daylight was no guarantee of safety. Just because the Opiri had come out of their hidden caverns only six years ago didn’t mean they were backward. Or stupid. The Bloodmasters had seen to that.

Less than a week until Christmas,
she thought, giving the hand signal to proceed. Last year she’d spent the holidays with her family, her father and cousins, nieces, aunts and uncles, stealing a little peace from the long days and weeks and months of war. She’d made the most of it, laughing and singing carols and enjoying every precious moment.

This year she would have to hold the celebration in her heart. Traveling only by day and at their current pace, they would be lucky to make Sacramento by New Year’s.

Maybe that was an exaggeration. But if they were attacked and pinned down...

One day at a time,
she reminded herself.
One hour.
That was the way to survive. And she not only intended to survive but make sure Sandoval, his aide and every member of her team survived, as well.

* * *

Kane paused to listen, his head cocked to one side as something moved in the low brush.

An animal,
he thought. Fox, by the smell of it. They generally fled when they scented an Opir, though only the most desperate vassal or Freeblood would stoop to taking blood from a beast, and then only in the final stages of starvation.

“What’s up, guv?” Alfie asked, his gruff voice loud in the near silence.

“Nothing,” Kane said. “False alarm.”

Alfie scratched his ribs under his black fatigue jacket, his ugly face relaxing in the sheer bliss of relieving an itch. Not that Opiri, even vassals, would be bitten by the mosquitoes that frequented the expanses of marsh north of what had once been known as Grizzly Bay. Vampire blood was as good as the most potent insect repellent for keeping other bloodsuckers at a distance.

“Penny fer yer thoughts, guv,” Alfie said.

“Estimating how much farther to the bay,” Kane said, staring south through the frigid darkness. They had been following a rough southwestern course since they’d gone beyond the Opiri perimeter, well past the zone they had been assigned to scout. They’d been moving quickly, making good time as they headed toward open water, and the chance to find a boat and a quicker road to freedom.

Freedom.
It had been a word without meaning for Kane since he’d died at the Battle of the Somme over a century ago. Died on a muddy field in France, his rifle still in his hand, and been resurrected into a new life of horror and bondage.

In some ways it had not been unlike the life he’d had before. His heart still beat. His body was still warm. He could still sleep, and sometimes even eat the foods humans took for granted.

But in every other respect it had been a nightmare, scavenging and hunting on battlefields instead of fighting on them. Hunting for blood.

It had been many years before he’d been able to accept what he had become, and between his conversion and that acceptance he had fought with everything that was in him to escape.

But there had been no escape from the fate to which he had been condemned. His Sire was not merely a Bloodlord, capable of converting any human into a vampire, but a Bloodmaster—one of the most ancient and powerful Opiri, those who had lived out the centuries awake and aware, while the rest of the vampire breed slept the deep sleep of hibernation in hidden catacombs under the earth. Erastos had been alive when Athens ruled Greece, when Genghis Khan had conquered the better part of Eurasia, during the awakening of the
Renaissance and the grand birth of the Enlightenment.

And he had been walking the battlefields of the First World War when he had swept Kane and Alfie Palmer out of death and into eternal vassalage.

“Yer broodin’ again, Yank,” Alfie chided, nudging Kane’s shoulder. “We better get a move on.”

Good-humored as Alfie’s warning was, the Englishman reminded Kane how much they both had to lose if they were caught. Every day their bond with Erastos grew a little weaker, but their only hope was to put as much distance between themselves and the Bloodmaster as possible. Erastos had been much distracted by the current war, but he would never willingly let one of his vassals slip the leash—least of all two of the Opiri’s most valuable scouts.

It had been during the course of their scouting that Kane had become convinced that prolonged physical separation from their Sire was the key to freedom—separation and raw determination. The breaking of the bond was painful, a bone-deep wrenching of brain and gut that had nothing to do with human emotion.

And then there was the hunger. Ever present, sapping their strength, inexorably slowing their pace a little more every day.

Kane was grateful that they hadn’t run into any humans. Partly that had been by design; he didn’t want to face the temptation, not until neither he nor Alfie had a choice. They had subsisted on the blood of animals, but it did no more than keep them alive. What they would do once they reached the Pacific Coast remained a question Kane knew better than to dwell on.

Unhooking his canteen, Kane shook it to determine how much water was left. They were both running low, and the water around them was unpalatable even to Opiri. Lack of blood made it even more necessary to stay hydrated, but they were nearly at the point where access to fresh water would no longer make any difference to their survival.

Nodding to his friend, Kane plunged into the half-frozen mud and pushed his way forward. Alfie pulled his tattered scarf higher around his scarred chin and followed in Kane’s footsteps. Small, hard pellets of snow blew into Kane’s face. It was like the winter of 1914 all over again.

“Sometimes I think I’d rather be back on the Western Front,” Alfie said, flapping his arms around his chest to keep warm. “What I wouldn’t give fer a good cuppa.”

Or a flask of whiskey, Kane thought. As if alcohol would do either of them any good. Still, he grinned in answer to Alfie’s comment and reminded himself that things could be worse. They could be fighting with their fellow vassals on the front lines of this seemingly endless war, fighting for a cause they both despised.

He and Alfie went south and west through the long night, crossing fallow fields and broken fences, pausing to rest only when the cramps in their bellies and muscles grew too much to bear. Then they stopped wherever they could find dry ground beneath the bare branches of a lone tree, or under the fallen roof of an isolated, abandoned farmhouse.

Kane could smell the bay before they reached one of the sloughs that wound a tortured path through the marshes, heading toward open water. The birds that lived in the marsh—heron and killdeer, rail and duck—huddled with heads tucked under wings or among the brown reeds, waiting for the coming of dawn. Somehow Kane and Alfie found the will to move faster, their boots breaking a thin crust of ice with every step.

“Only a li’l over an ’our left, I reckon,” Alfie remarked. “Better find a place ta ’ole up before sunrise.”

He was right. Some of the legends about vampires were no more than myth, but this one was all too true. The first rays of the sun to strike an Opir would cause third-degree burns. Even with the protection of heavy clothing, a few minutes of exposure could do more damage than standing in the middle of a raging fire, and another few would cause injuries beyond any vampire’s ability to heal.

Kane surveyed the area. There was a house tucked in a small valley among the brown, oak-studded hills to the west, on the other side of an abandoned highway. He had wanted to avoid the crumbling paved roads, though he and Alfie were nearly as exposed crossing the wetlands. It was instinct more than sense, but he had spent too long letting instinct guide him to abandon it now.

“There,” he said, gesturing toward the house.

“It’ll do as good as any,” Alfie said, and they set off again. Soon they were on the road, the hills looming ahead of them. They were halfway across when Kane heard the sounds of struggle, coming from the south and around a bend in the highway.

Without thinking, he dropped flat onto his belly. Alfie fell beside him.

“Rogues?” the Englishman whispered.

“And humans,” Kane said, as the scent came to him on the stiff, chilly wind.

Alfie sniffed loudly. “If there was any Opiri scouts out ’ere, we’d know it. But ’umans, this far from the Enclave?”

“The only humans who would be this far into No Man’s Land would be Special Forces or Enclave scouts,” Kane said. “I count at least a dozen humans and almost as many rogues.”

“Bloody ’ell,” Alfie swore. He eyed Kane warily. “If them ’umans is so stupid, we don’t need ta get involved.”

Alfie was right. And yet...

“Yer goin’ anyway,” Alfie said with cheerful resignation. “Ya can’t resist a chance ta take down a few o’ them filthy blighters.” He shifted the rifle over his shoulder. “Come ta that, neither can I.”

Kane almost smiled. As usual, he and Alfie were in perfect accord. “We’ll have to go up the hill and around, come down on them from above,” he said. “We may not make it before daylight, but the rogues will have to get under cover soon. Maybe we can take them out when they’re least expecting it. And if there are any humans left alive...”

He didn’t have to finish. Enclave Special Forces might be tough and well trained, but generally even the best of them was no match for a rogue head-to-head.

Rising to a crouch, Kane ran across the highway to the overgrown verge that stretched to the foot of the hills. Dry ground crunched beneath his sodden boots. Immediately he started up the nearest hill, passing to the left of the farmhouse they’d chosen to wait out the day.

The humans didn’t have much time left.

* * *

The attack had come without warning, an hour before dawn. One of the forward scouts was dead before Fiona had her M28 in her hands.

They all knew about the rogues, of course. The sixth year of the war had seen their numbers double. No amount of discipline or punishment could hold Freeblood troops together for so long without heavy losses—not only of lives but of loyalty.

This band was on the edge of starvation. Fiona could see it in their wild eyes and gaunt faces as she, Joel Goodman, Johnson and Li Chen took up their places around Ambassador—and Senator—Sandoval and prepared to defend him and his aide. The others, outfitted with infrared visors, met the rogues with bullets aimed for the hearts and heads of their enemies, the only parts of a bloodsucker’s body vulnerable to fatal damage.

BOOK: Holiday with a Vampire 4
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