A Very Vampy Christmas (Love at Stake #2.5)

Chapter 6

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Pierce cursed under his breath. "She didn't erase just herself. She erased everything!"

"I'm sorry, man." Durand lowered his head. "I told her that eye of newt was too much."

"And you really don't know where she is?" Maggie considered slipping inside his mind to see if he spoke the truth.

"She left before the hurricane. Met some bigwig from Hollywood who said he'd make her a star." Durand scowled. "She left me to clean everything up. Left me all alone to work this damned store."

Pierce's laugh sounded pained. "Sounds like a great gal. I'm glad I don't remember her." He strode toward the front door.

Maggie started toward the door, but something prickled at her senses. She was missing something. She slowed to a stop and glanced back at Durand. "Who's the little girl in the photo?"

He gulped. "Don't know what you're talking about."

"The little girl in the photo, standing next to Desiree." Maggie wandered back toward Durand. "Who is she?"

"She—she's a cousin. We have so many." He grabbed a ring of keys from under the counter. "I need to lock up now."

Maggie focused her thoughts and concentrated on Durand's bald head. With a swoosh, she invaded his mind.

He gasped and stumbled back. The key ring fell and hit the floor with a jangle. Maggie walked toward him as she sifted through the images in his mind.

Durand retreated till he bumped into the back wall. "Oh, God. You're one of the nightwalkers."

"Then you know what we can do," Maggie whispered. She scoured his mind, finding images of Desiree with a baby.

"Damn." Durand glanced at Pierce. "You're one, too? That's how you picked me up." He grabbed ajar from the shelf behind him and poured a line of red dust along the counter.

Instantly, Maggie was shut out of his head. How had he managed that? "Who is the little girl?"

Pierce joined her. "Tell us the truth, Durand."

Durand lifted his chin. "You can't make me talk. You can't cross the brick dust, even with your minds. You can't hurt me."

"And you can't hide from us forever," Pierce growled. "Show me that photo."

"Damn." Durand shifted from one foot to another. "Desiree is always causing me trouble. You won't hurt her?"

"I have no interest in your sister," Pierce said softly. "Show me the photo."

With a resigned sigh, Durand handed Pierce the photo frame. "The little girl is named Lucy."

Maggie peered at the photo. "She's beautiful."

Pierce stroked a thumb gently over the little girl's face. Her facial features were very much like his. "Am I the father?"

Durand grimaced. "Yes, you are."

Back at the warehouse, Maggie was relieved to find that Colbert had installed two bathrooms on the second floor—one for males and one for females. As she showered, her thoughts centered on Don Orlando. Make that Pierce. Pierce O'Callahan who had a beautiful little girl named Lucy.

Her heart twisted. Oh, how she had wanted children! But it was impossible with a womb that was literally dead during the day. She lowered her head under the nozzle and let hot water pound on her. How could she be so selfish? She should be happy for Pierce. She turned off the water and toweled herself dry. After all, this had been the purpose of her mission, right? To discover his true identity and hopefully, find his family? She should be happy. Then why did she feel like crying?

Maggie removed her winter pajamas from her tote bag and put them on. Then, she combed her wet hair, grabbed her tote, and headed for the cot Colbert had assigned her.

She spotted Pierce with damp hair from his recent shower, seated at the computer and looking at something Ian had discovered on the Internet. Ian was standing nearby, talking to Giselle. He leaned close and whispered in her ear. Suddenly, she stepped back and slapped him.

Maggie gasped. Other Vamps exchanged amused grins.

"I do not consort with children!" Giselle stomped toward the ladies' restroom.

Maggie stepped aside to let her pass, then dashed toward Ian. "Are you all right?"

He shrugged like he didn't care, though his reddened face indicated differently. " 'Tis always the same. Either they're no' interested because they think I'm a child, or they are interested because they think I'm a child, which is even worse."

"I'm so sorry," Maggie murmured.

Pierce stood and patted him on the shoulder. "It's my fault. I should have warned you. Giselle is Colbert's woman. She would have slapped any guy who made a pass at her, no matter what his age."

"Oh." Ian straightened his shoulders. "Thank you."

Maggie smiled at Pierce, grateful for his attempt at making Ian feel better.

Ian took a deep breath. "Let's get back to business. I have confirmed that Pierce O'Callahan won the bareback riding competition at the Fort Worth rodeo in 1999."

Maggie gave Pierce a stunned look. "That's impressive."

He shrugged. "I don't remember it."

"And I've located the O'Callahan ranch in Texas," Ian continued. " 'Tis about an hour's drive south of Dallas, so tomorrow night, we'll teleport to Dallas. The coven there is expecting us, and they've agreed to let Pierce borrow a car so he can drive to the ranch. Do ye remember how to drive?"

"I don't know." Pierce ran a hand through his damp hair, frowning.

"Ye'll probably remember once ye're behind the wheel," Ian said.

This was it, Maggie thought. No wonder she felt like crying. Tomorrow night, Pierce would drive to his family's ranch, and they'd welcome him back with open arms. Her job would be over. She would return to New York alone.

"Ian, could you help me find my daughter?" Pierce asked.

"Of course," Ian replied.

"I'm going to bed. Good night." Maggie wandered toward her cot while Pierce and Ian made plans to find the missing Lucy. She passed the coven's Christmas tree, noting the gaily wrapped presents underneath. And she felt all alone.

She settled onto her cot. Pierce no longer needed her. He had a daughter and a family. She snuggled deeper under her blankets. The sun must be close to rising. She could already feel the pull of death-sleep. Around the room, Vamps settled into their cots and turned off their bedside lamps. The only light left was the white star on top of the Christmas tree.

"Do you mind if I move closer?" Pierce whispered.

She rolled over to see him pushing his cot next to hers.

"I can't thank you enough, Maggie." He eased into his cot and pulled the blanket up to his waist. He dragged his shirt over his head and tossed it to the foot of his cot. His shoulders were broad, not that she was looking. The light was too dim. She had to squint to make out the brown, curly hair on his chest.

"You do have chest hair. Is brown your natural hair color?"

"Yes." He stretched out on his cot. "Corky thought I'd look sexier with my hair dyed black and a huge amount of chest hair."

Maggie yawned, feeling another tug from the encroaching death-sleep. "Corky's silly. I like you just the way you are." Correction: I love you.

"You're an angel, Maggie." He reached across to her cot and clasped her hand. "You've given me my life back. And a purpose for living. I know now what I need to do. I need to find my family and daughter."

And there was no mention of her in his lofty goal. Maggie withdrew her hand. "I'm very happy for you." She rolled over so he wouldn't see the tears in her eyes.

For once, Maggie welcomed the painless oblivion of death-sleep.

Chapter 5

Pierce slanted a worried look at Maggie who sat in the passenger seat of the SUV he'd borrowed from the Dallas coven. She'd hardly spoken the entire trip, except to read Ian's directions or consult the map of Texas in her lap. Something was bothering her, he could feel it, but he didn't know what.

He checked the rearview mirror. For the last twenty minutes, they'd traveled alone on this Farm Road. "How much farther to go?"

She picked up Ian's directions. Thanks to a full moon and her superior Vamp vision, she was able to read. "We should be coming up on County Road Three any minute now. Once we turn right there, we'll be on the O'Callahan ranch."

"Great." Pierce reached between the bucket seats and opened the small ice chest. "We'd better eat first."

"Okay." She retrieved a cold bottle of Chocolood.

He opened a bottle of synthetic blood type O. "Cheers."

She didn't respond, just sipped her Chocolood and gazed out the window.

What the hell was wrong? Pierce guzzled down half his bottle, then plunked it into the cupholder. "Maggie, are you disappointed that I turned out to be a rodeo cowboy from Texas?"

"No. I—I'm very happy for you."

"You don't sound happy. I thought you'd like an Irish boy. I'm the sort of guy you could take home to meet your parents."

"Except that my parents died over a hundred years ago. And they would never approve of anyone who's undead. Even me."

"I'm sorry they rejected you. You—you never told me how you were transformed."

She sipped from her drink, refusing to look at him. "Here's the turn." She pointed at a narrow road up ahead.

"I hope you can tell me sometime." He hoped her transformation hadn't been a violent one. He wanted her to be able to trust and love. But he could wait till she was ready. That was one good thing about being a Vamp. He could wait a hundred years if he needed to.

He turned the SUV onto the County Road. Ian had been right. Once he sat behind the wheel, his driving skills had come back. He looked around the countryside, and a surge of pride swept through him. They were now on O'Callahan land.

"I was a volunteer with the Salvation Army," Maggie whispered. "We went into a bad area by the docks, and I got separated from the others. Night fell, and I was lost."

Pierce turned toward her. "You were attacked?"

"It was more like—" She gasped.

He looked forward and flinched. Something had dashed into the road. He stomped on the brake.

Maggie screamed. They screeched to a halt just as a large animal leaped into the thick brush on the right.

Pierce sat still for a while, waiting for his heart to stop pounding. "What the hell was that?"

Maggie took a deep breath. "I thought you were going to hit it."

He eased the SUV forward and spotted movement by a large oak tree. "Look! There it is!"

He'd seen the wolflike animal run on four legs, but now, it reared up on its hind legs and howled at the moon.

"It's huge," Maggie whispered.

The shaggy animal dropped to all fours and loped away.

Pierce shook his head. He could have sworn there were no wolves in this part of Texas. He drove forward, keeping an eye out for wild animals. A fence began on the left side of the road, the planks in sore need of a fresh coat of paint. Two brick columns flanked a narrow road. A rusty wrought-iron arch connected the two columns. Across the arch were two words—O'CALLAHAN RANCH.

This was it. Home. He turned onto the driveway and spotted a house at the end of the long drive.

It was a large, white Victorian with dark shutters and a three-story turreted tower on the left. The rest of the second floor was topped with a gabled roof. Lights from a Christmas tree twinkled in the wide bay window on the right. Steps led up to the front door and a wraparound porch. The whole house sat on top of a partially visible basement. Even in the moonlight, Pierce could tell the house needed a coat of paint, and one of the shutters was hanging crooked.

A sudden, dreadful feeling came over him that the ranch had suffered because of his disappearance. Would his family be angry when he reappeared after five years?

"It's beautiful," Maggie whispered.

She liked it? That was a relief. "You're okay with how this is turning out? I mean, me being a rodeo cowboy from Texas?"

"With a secret baby?" She glanced at him with a smile. "You know, it sounds like something from a DVN soap opera. And Pierce is a perfect name for a vampire. Very fangish."

"Yeah." He stopped in front of the house and studied the rundown building. "Maybe I get to save the ranch."

"Or maybe you're a long-lost prince from Europe."

He snorted as he removed the keys from the ignition. "Or maybe my father is actually an Arabian sheikh in hiding."

Maggie laughed. "And I bet you have an evil twin."

Right at that moment, the front door slammed open and a tall man strode onto the porch.

Maggie gasped. "Sweet Mary! He looks just like you."

A twin? Pierce's mouth fell open.

The man whisked a shotgun up to his shoulder and shouted, "Get the hell out of here!"

An evil twin? Pierce exchanged a shocked look with Maggie. "Duck down and stay low." He reached for the door handle.

"What are you doing?" Maggie scrunched down in her seat. "He'll shoot you."

"I don't think he can kill me." Pierce eased open the door. Though it would hurt like hell.

"I told you to go away!" The man cocked the shotgun.

"Wait!" Pierce edged around the front of the SUV. The headlights had yet to go off, so he stood in the pool of light. "Don't you know me?"

The man stumbled back with a gasp. The shotgun fell from his hands and discharged with a loud ka-boom.


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