Pierce ducked behind the SUV. Maggie screamed.
"Sweet Jesus!" The man ran down the steps, then halted abruptly before reaching the ground. "Pierce, are you okay?"
An older, thin woman dashed onto the porch. "Patrick, what the hell are you doing? So help me, if you shoot Bob, I'll—"
"No!" Patrick pointed at the SUV. "It's Pierce! He's back!"
"What?" The woman stared at the SUV, her mouth agape.
Pierce straightened and gave a small wave. "Hi."
"Pierce!" the woman screeched. She turned back to Patrick and shoved him. "You shot at your own brother?"
"I didn't mean to. It was an accident."
"I'm okay. Really." Pierce headed toward the porch.
The woman charged down the steps and threw her arms around him. "Pierce! You're alive!"
Sorta. This didn't seem like the best time to dwell on undead details. He returned the woman's hug. "Mother?"
She pushed back with a confused look. "I ain't your Ma."
"Oh, sorry." He stepped back.
"Don't you remember me? I'm your Aunt Betty."
"Ah, it's nice to meet you. You see, I have—"
"Well, I never." Aunt Betty planted her fists on her hips and glared at him. "First, you run off without a word to anyone, leaving us here in the lurch for five long years, and now, you act like you don't even know us. Of all the high-falutin'—"
"I have amnesia!"
His brother gasped.
His aunt scrunched up her long thin nose. "Is that like milk of Magnesia?"
"No, Aunt Betty," Patrick muttered. "Amnesia. It means he can't remember anything."
Maggie exited the SUV. "It's true. Pierce has suffered from amnesia for almost five years."
Aunt Betty narrowed her eyes. "And who the devil are you?"
Pierce wrapped an arm around Maggie's shoulders. "This is my good friend, Maggie O'Brian."
"Humph." Aunt Betty sniffed. "You remember her name."
Patrick opened the front door and yelled, "Ma! Pierce is back!" He let the door slam shut and waited on the porch.
Pierce wondered if there was bad blood between him and his brother. Patrick hadn't even bothered to shake his hand. "Are we twins?"
Aunt Betty snorted. "Don't you know you're the oldest?"
"He has amnesia," Patrick reminded her. "You're three years older than me, Pierce, though you sure don't look like it."
Of course. When he'd become undead, he'd stopped aging.
A short, dark-haired woman ran onto the porch and gasped when she saw Pierce. "Santa Maria!" She dashed down the stairs. "Pierce Alejandro! I thought I'd never see you again." She pulled him into an embrace and burst into tears.
Pierce Alejandro? He gave Maggie a shocked look over his mother's head. He was part Hispanic, after all. Maggie grinned.
He patted his mother's back. "You are my mother, right?"
"Clam." She stepped back. "You don't remember?"
"He has amnesia," Patrick yelled from the porch.
His mother looked confused. "You don't remember us at all?"
"No, that's why I was gone for so long. I only found out yesterday that my name's Pierce O'Callahan."
His mother looked even more confused. "Then who were you before?"
"He doesn't remember!" Patrick shouted. "He has amnesia!"
"Actually, I do remember the last four and a half years. It's everything before that's a total blank."
Aunt Betty scowled at him. "So you've been cavortin' around the countryside while we were here starvin' to death?"
"We're not starving!" His mother protested, then gave Pierce another hug. "Don't worry, pobrecito. You're home, and now, everything will be fine."
He patted his mother on the back. He was beginning to suspect they did expect him to save the ranch. But how could he when he remembered nothing about ranching?
"Y'all had better come in," Patrick yelled from the porch. "It's not safe out there."
Pierce reached for Maggie's hand. "Mother, I'd like you to meet Maggie O'Brian. She's been helping me find out who I am. Without her, I would have never made it home."
Maggie's eyes glistened with tears. "I was happy to help."
His mother grabbed her in a tight hug. "Thank you, thank you. You are an angel to bring my son back to me."
Maggie returned the woman's embrace.
"You must call me Dorotea," Pierce's mother announced. "And you are always welcome in my home. God bless you, child."
"Don't just stand there!" Patrick shouted from the porch. "Hurry, get in the house!"
There must be some kind of danger. Why else was his brother standing guard with a shotgun? Pierce led Maggie up the steps, following his mother and aunt. As soon as he reached the porch, his brother grabbed him in a bear hug.
"I'm so glad you're back." Patrick pounded him on the back.
Pierce grinned, relieved that he and his brother were on good terms after all. "What's the deal with the shotgun?"
"Nothing." Patrick slanted a nervous look toward his mother and aunt. "But you shouldn't be outside tonight."
Pierce exchanged a confused look with Maggie as they filed into the foyer. Then, they followed his mother and aunt into the living room on the right.
"Come, sit down." Dorotea gestured toward a long tan sofa with plump cushions.
Pierce and Maggie sat together on the couch. Patrick took a position next to the Christmas tree in front of the bay window. On the opposite wall, a large bookcase took up the whole wall, stuffed with books, knickknacks, and an old television. His mom and aunt sat across from him in two maroon wing-back chairs.
Maggie frowned at Patrick's gun. "Is there something wrong? We saw a strange creature on the road. Pierce almost hit it."
Aunt Betty jumped to her feet. "What kind of creature?"
"I'm not sure." Maggie twisted the cross-shaped ring on her little finger. "It was large and sorta wolfish looking."
"And you hit it?" Aunt Betty shrieked.
"No, no," Pierce assured her. "The animal was fine. It just gave us a shock."
"Oh." Aunt Betty sat back down, her face pale.
Patrick muttered a curse while gazing out the window.
"What's going on?" Pierce asked.
"You must be hungry." Dorotea stood and headed for the door. "I'll get you something to eat."
"No, thank you," Pierce replied. "We ate on the way."
Dorotea halted halfway to the door. "Something to drink?"
Maggie smiled. "We just finished some drinks in the car, but thank you very much."
"Oh." Dorotea returned to her chair. "So, tell me, Pierce. What have you been doing while you were gone?"
"I was in New York City."
"He's a famous actor," Maggie added.
Aunt Betty sniffed. "Not too famous. I've never seen him in anything."
"I play Don Orlando de Corazon on a soap opera on DVN."
"Oh, how wonderful!" Dorotea beamed at him. "I'm afraid we don't get that channel. We could never afford cable."
Pierce leaned forward, bracing his forearms on his knees. "Be honest with me. Is the ranch in trouble?"
His mother sighed. "We're having some difficult times, but it'll pass."
Patrick snorted. "It'll never pass."
Aunt Betty crossed her arms, frowning. "It ain't Bob's fault. He can't help it."
"Who's Bob?" Pierce asked.
"My husband, your uncle." Aunt Betty glared at him. "He taught you how to ride. Don't you remember anything?"
"Give him a break," Patrick growled. "He has amnesia."
"Well, I hope he remembers how to tend cattle." Aunt Betty glowered back. "What with you too afraid to leave the house."
Patrick stiffened. "I can't help it. It's the curse."
"Superstitious nonsense." Aunt Betty pursed her lips.
"A curse?" Pierce asked.
"Don't worry about it." Dorotea rushed over to Pierce and perched on the sofa arm next to him. "We're so grateful you're back. And just in time for Christmas!"
"I bet Pierce is too smart to believe in a curse," Aunt Betty muttered.
He wasn't so sure about that. After all, a potion from a voodoo priestess had wiped out his entire memory. "What curse?"
"A biting curse." Patrick lay his shotgun down on a deacon's bench against the wall. "Don't ever leave this house. If you do, I'm warning you, you'll get bitten."
Dorotea whispered loudly in Pierce's ear, "Your brother's afraid to leave the house."
"It's not fear." Patrick frowned at them all. "It's common sense. How did Dad die three years ago?"
Dorotea sighed. "He was bitten by a rattlesnake several miles from home. Pobrecito. He didn't make it home in time."
"I'm sorry." Pierce patted his mother's hand.
"And what happened to Uncle Bob and Rosalinda?" Patrick continued. "I'll tell you what. They were bitten!"
"Who's Rosalinda?" Pierce asked.
"Your sister." Dorotea frowned at him. "You don't remember her, either?"
"For God's sake, the guy has amnesia!" Patrick raised his hands in frustration.
"Sorry." Dorotea smoothed back Pierce's hair. "I keep forgetting." Suddenly, she removed her hand. "Santa Maria. Is it contagious?"
"No," Pierce assured her. "You're perfectly safe."
Patrick snorted. "Yeah, as long as we don't get bitten."
Pierce exchanged a worried look with Maggie. This was probably not the best time to admit they were vampires. "Where is Rosalinda? I'd like to meet her."
"She's gone… out," Dorotea mumbled.
"She'll be fine," Aunt Betty whispered. "She always makes it back home."
Patrick grabbed the shotgun and went back to the window. "We always stay up on nights like this."
What the hell was going on? "Where is she?" Pierce asked.
Dorotea shrugged, then her face brightened. "It's so wonderful to have you back for Christmas! Surely, things have turned around now, and God is blessing us."
Pierce glanced at the clock on the bookcase. Four-fifteen A.M. It would take an hour to drive back to Dallas. "Well, actually, we need to be going."
"No!" Dorotea stood. "You must stay for Christmas! And forever! There's no place like home. We won't let you leave."
"I'm really sorry," Maggie ventured, "but Pierce needs to give me a ride back."
"Nonsense!" Dorotea circled the coffee table to sit next to Maggie. "You must stay, too. You're the angel who brought my son back to me. You'll always be welcome in our house."
Maggie blinked. "Thank you. Thank you so much." She gave Pierce an apprehensive look.
He figured she was worried about finding a place for their daily death-sleep. The Dallas coven's underground headquarters would be much safer. "I'd better take you back." Her face paled. Were those tears in her eyes? Dammit, he'd said the wrong thing.
"You cannot go!" Dorotea stood once more.
"His daughter!" Aunt Betty jumped to her feet. "He must stay to see his daughter."
Pierce's mouth fell open. "My—my daughter? She's here?"
"Yes!" Dorotea grinned. "Can you bring her down, Betty?"
"Of course. Just a minute." Aunt Betty dashed into the foyer. Her steps pounded up the stairs.
Dorotea clasped her hands together at her ample bosom. "She's sound asleep, waiting for Santa Claus to come. But an even greater miracle has happened! Her father has come home." She frowned as Pierce rose to his feet. "You don't know you have a child? Shame on you. I raised you better than that."
"For God's sake!" Patrick shouted. "He has amnesia!"
"No, I do know about Lucy," Pierce confessed. "But I only found out last night. And I thought she was with her mother."
Dorotea grimaced. "That terrible woman. She doesn't deserve Lucy. She dropped off la pobrecita like an unwanted gato. Just because the man she was with didn't want a child."
Maggie gasped. "That's horrible!"
"I know." Dorotea cocked her head when steps sounded on the stairs. She held a finger to her lips. "We never talk about it in front of Lucy."
"Of course not." Pierce moved toward the foyer, anxious to meet his daughter for the first time. His heart leaped up his throat when he saw her on the stairs. Her curly black hair was disheveled, her big brown eyes drooped with sleepiness, her mouth was plugged with two fingers, and her Sesame Street pajamas were twisted askew. He'd never seen a more beautiful child in his life. His heart filled till it was heavy with love, then settled back into his chest with a sense of contentment.
Maggie and Lucy. He loved the most precious girls in the world.
Aunt Betty helped the sleepy little girl down the stairs. "We all adore her." Even Betty's pinched, narrow face had softened. "She's brought joy back into this house."