Christmas With... Susan Illene + Giveaway!
An Unexpected Gift
By Susan Illene
The sun set hours ago and all Brandi could think about was getting home safely. Not many people braved the streets at nine o’clock on Christmas Eve and certainly not in this weather. Her headlights fought to penetrate the heavy snow swirling in front of her car. She was used to this kind of thing after living in Alaska her whole life, but this blizzard was worse than most. It reminded her of a previous storm—one she did not want to relive again.
Brandi gripped the steering wheel harder as her vehicle briefly lost traction on the road. Conditions were getting worse and she still had several miles to go. How was she ever going to make it? If she’d had the money to replace her tires, she would have, but funds had been tight lately. That was the whole reason why she was coming home so late. She’d worked overtime at the mall in the hopes of catching up on her bills.
A porch light glowed up ahead at a recently built tavern. The place could have come straight out of the Middle Ages with its white-washed walls, dark-wood trim, and a thatched roof that somehow defied all types of weather. It sat on the outskirts of Fairbanks. Brandi had passed it a hundred times, but she’d never had any desire to stop there. Something about the tavern didn’t sit right with her. The place had an otherworldly quality to it that couldn’t be normal.
Tonight, though, it stood out like a beacon—a refuge where she could wait for the winter storm to pass. Any reservations she might have had about the tavern were dwarfed by her need to get off the road. Brandi pulled her car into the lot, managing to find an empty space without too much snow packing it. She zipped her coat up to her neck and pulled her hood over her head before pushing the door open. A cold rush of wind hit her face as soon as she got out and snow stung her eyes. Shivering, she hurried for the entrance. Bars usually weren’t her scene, but she’d make an exception tonight.
Warmth greeted her when Brandi stepped inside. She stomped the snow off her boots on the welcome mat and took a look around. Two large, lit fireplaces set at each end of the tavern made it feel cozy, along with a full house of patrons. The interior appeared just as old-fashioned as the exterior: the same white-washed walls and wooden trim as well as heavy beams running across the ceiling. Most of the lighting came from lanterns set on the tables and concealed electric lights behind the bar.
Her nose twitched at the myriad of scents—wood-smoke, beer, and sweat. There was also a hint of pine coming from the Christmas tree near the door. Overall, the atmosphere was jovial as friends talked and laughed with each other.
Brandi felt awkward and out of place. She avoided meeting anyone’s eyes as she searched for somewhere to sit. All the tables were taken and though she caught a few offers to join others, she ignored them. The voices sounded friendly enough, but something wasn’t quite right. Some sixth sense that told her that she didn’t belong and should leave.
She told herself it was only because she’d avoided being in social settings for so long that she’d forgotten what it was like. Not because she might have seen a flash of overly-sharp teeth on one man or pointed ears on another. If not for the weather, she might have run out of there right then. Instead, she headed for an empty stool near the end of the bar. The storm would pass in an hour and then she could go. She just had to keep calm and avoid drawing attention until then.
A bartender with a thick beard and eyes that reminded her of a wolf appeared to take her order. She managed to mumble a request for whatever was on tap. A moment later he brought her an overflowing mug of room-temperature ale. Brandi grimaced as she sipped it, but she didn’t dare complain.
“You’re a brave little mortal to come in here alone.” This came from a dark-haired man sitting in the next stool over.
She froze. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You’ll find out soon enough.”
Before Brandi could question him further, he took his drink and left for a nearby table where two women sat. It was then she realized a few too many people were staring at her. Some of them had eyes far too dark to be human. Others stood out because of the vibe of danger surrounding them.
Dear God, had she just walked into a supernatural bar? Ever since sups had made themselves public, Brandi had made a point of avoiding them, but tonight she’d been too tired and scared of the roads to worry about it. Why hadn’t she listened to her instincts when she’d first come into the place?
A tall blond woman who carried herself like she was ready for battle any minute headed toward Brandi. She had the urge to shrink into herself, but she kept her back straight and met the woman’s eyes. They were dark without a hint of color. The kind she’d heard vampires had. It was only her long blond hair falling loosely to her waist that softened her features. Brandi’s hair was almost the exact same shade, but she kept hers cut to shoulder length.
“You didn’t read the sign by the door, did you?” the female vampire asked.
“The sign?” She hadn’t noticed a sign, but she hadn’t been looking for one, either.
“Humans enter alone at their own risk.”
“Oh, I…” Brandi gave a panicked look to the front door. Could she possibly make it through the crowd without anyone stopping her? Patrons who’d appeared friendly when she’d first arrived now looked hungry. Very hungry.
“I’m Kariann,” the vampire said, giving her a smile that didn’t look quite as scary as the others.
“I’m Brandi,” she whispered.
“It’s nice to meet you, Brandi.” Kariann nodded her head. “I’m going to give you a break since it is Christmas and help you out.”
She swallowed. “Help me out? How?”
“If you want to be safe in here, you need a protector. I’ve got just the guy for the job.” Kariann’s eyes flashed with a hint of mischievous humor. There was a joke in there that Brandi had to be missing.
“I’ll just go.” She slid off her stool.
“Nonsense. You can’t leave in this weather.” Kariann took hold of Brandi’s arm and guided her toward the back corner of the room. “I’d feel guilty if something happened to you.”
“Yeah, because staying here with vampires and…other things is so safe,” Brandi said, dragging her feet in the hope it would slow Kariann down.
She’d escaped dying once before, but ever since then she’d been subconsciously waiting for round two. Not that she’d imagined getting killed by supernaturals. Her fears ran more toward winter storms and slick roads. Had she traded one kind of death for another?
“Don’t worry,” Kariann reassured her. “Part of my job is to keep the peace between humans and supernaturals. Just be glad you didn’t come on a different night when I wasn’t here.”
Brandi glanced down at the vamp’s hand on her arm. “Yeah, you’re very convincing.”
“Oh, good. You’ve got a little fire in you. That should help.”
They stopped in front of a small table where a solitary man sat. Long black hair hid his downturned face, but when he looked up, Brandi’s heart leaped into her throat. He was the most beautiful and frightening man she’d ever seen. He had pale skin with an olive tint, square jaw, large nose, and silver eyes that swirled in lazy movements like a snake’s. She had the impression he could kill her in two seconds flat and go on about his business without ever thinking of her again. Kariann wanted this guy to be her protector? She was doomed.
“This is Kerbasi,” she introduced. “He’s older than Babylon and cranky as hell, but if you stay with him no one will mess with you.”
“You can’t be serious.” Brandi would have felt safer standing in front of a speeding train. Hell, Kariann suddenly didn’t seem that bad—or any of the other patrons in the place for that matter.
“Exactly my thoughts,” Kerbasi said, scowling up at them. “I did not come here to babysit a human.”
“I’m not staying with him.” Brandi shook her head.
Kariann made an exasperated noise. “He’s forbidden from killing humans. No one else in this bar can say the same.”
“Is that supposed to make me feel better?” That was like handing someone a plate of food and promising it wasn’t poisoned. Except that once they brought the idea of poison up, there was no getting that thought out of one’s head.
A malevolent smile crossed Kerbasi’s face. “It’s not my ability to kill that people fear. It’s my ability to inflict pain over long periods of time without causing death that worries them.”
Brandi felt her knees turn weak. He was more than a little proud of himself for that.
Kariann leaned down until her nose practically touched his. “You are going to watch her, be nice to her, and make sure she gets home safe.”
His eyes narrowed. “I’ll do no such thing.”
“Yes, you will, or I swear by all that is holy I’ll fill your home with sex toys and tell everyone you’ve been visiting brothels.”
Brandi’s gaze ran between them. What kind of threat was that? She was rather certain there weren’t any brothels in Fairbanks, but it wasn’t like she’d ever had a reason to ask.
“You wouldn’t,” Kerbasi said through gritted teeth.
Kariann smiled. “You know I would. It might even be good for your image.”
“I could kill you where you stand.”
The man with ancient eyes turned his attention to Brandi. He studied her in a way that made her think he could see every one of her secrets. Did he have that kind of power? She couldn’t begin to guess what kind of supernatural he might be. Her heart started beating so hard in her chest she suspected the entire room could hear it, even above the din. She stumbled back a step and bumped into another patron’s chair. The woman sitting there turned, her eyes darkening. Kariann growled at her and pulled Brandi away.
Kerbasi let out a martyred sigh and relaxed his shoulders. “Very well, but only because I find her interesting.”
“Good.” Kariann shoved Brandi into a chair. “Then I’m sure you two will get along just fine.”
The female vampire sauntered off without another word. Brandi avoided meeting Kerbasi’s gaze and stared at the table instead. There was a glass on it that looked like it only contained water. Why would he come to a bar if he wasn’t going to drink any alcohol?
“I don’t bite,” Kerbasi said after a few minutes passed. He sounded tired and bored.
Brandi hesitated. “Then what do you do?”
“Torture,” he paused to study his fingernails, “when the occasion calls for it.”
A shudder ran through her. “Is that supposed to make me feel better?”
He shrugged. “I prefer to focus my attention on supernaturals. Humans are too frail.”
Kariann appeared with a fresh mug of ale for Brandi. She set it down on the table and then smacked the back of Kerbasi’s head. “Stop scaring her, guardian. You’ve been out of the torture business since last year.”
He rose from his seat with a murderous expression. Brandi scraped her chair back. No way was she going to get between these two psychos. He took hold of Kariann’s arms and a moment later they both vanished in a bright flash of light.
The tavern became still and quiet. Not wanting to look but knowing she must, Brandi turned her head. Most of the patrons stared at her or whispered to their companions. Was this what it felt like to be cornered by predators? Before she could formulate a plan, a hand fell on her shoulder. It squeezed hard and jerked her from her chair.
“My friends told me coming to Fairbanks would be fun. It appears they were right,” said her assailant. She gaped at the pale face of a man with black eyes and sharp protruding fangs. He couldn’t have been much older than her at thirty, but since he was a vampire his looks might have been deceiving.
She kicked and flailed, but he was too strong for her. Nothing could break the grip he had on her arms. He must have had shins of steel too because he didn’t even flinch when her boots struck him. Brandi saw her life flashing before her eyes as he leaned down, moving his mouth toward her neck. She tried to stretch away and push at his chest, but he didn’t budge.
Then he caught her gaze and her muscles went limp. For reasons she couldn’t understand, she had no will to fight anymore. A tear slid down her cheek. It was over. Brandi didn’t have to worry about how or when she’d die anymore. She had her answer.
Just as the sharp points grazed her skin, she was jerked away. Kerbasi set her down next to him and took a step toward her assailant. His presence filled the room so completely that she couldn’t help staring at him. Were those wings starting to protrude out of his back? He also seemed much bigger than when he’d been sitting in his chair before. Brandi was tall for a woman, coming in at 5’10”. Kerbasi had to be around six and a half feet.
He reached out a hand and wrapped it around the vampire’s neck. “What do you think you are doing?”
“She was fair game,” the vamp replied.
Kerbasi jerked him closer. “You did not notice her sitting at my table?”
“You left,” he choked. “I thought you were done with her.”
Kerbasi’s gaze hardened. “You’re new to town, aren’t you?”
“What does that matter?”
“Only a fool would touch this woman while I was gone,” he paused to scan the room. “They might look at her, but no one here would be stupid enough to touch what I’ve sworn to protect.”
“Who..are you?” the vampire stammered.
Brandi noted his fangs had slid back into his gums. He might have been terrifying a minute ago, but now he looked like a teenage boy caught stealing. She could hardly blame him. Kerbasi was rather frightening and yet she couldn’t help feeling a small thrill that his anger was over concern for her. No one had ever defended her like that before.
The gray wings she’d caught protruding from his back flared out, knocking several people and chairs over. They scooted away without a word. “I’m a guardian from Purgatory. True immortals know me for my ability to inflict endless pain on my victims. I gain great pleasure from it. Now who are you to question me?”
Though Brandi hadn’t thought it possible, the vampire grew paler. “Nobody. And I wasn’t going to kill her. I was playing by the rules and was only going to take a small drink.”
“Perhaps.” Kerbasi narrowed his eyes at the vampire. “But if you’re no one, it won’t matter if you die.”
Brandi couldn’t stand by any longer. She dug down deep until she found the well of courage that had been buried for far too long. She wouldn’t watch someone die on Christmas Eve—even if the vampire had tried to hurt her.
“Don’t kill him.” She touched Kerbasi’s arm.
The guardian glanced over at her, silver eyes swirling. “He cannot go unpunished.”
“No,” she agreed. The vamp had attacked her after all. “But he doesn’t need to die. I don’t want to be part of any more death.”
He let out a heavy sigh. “Very well.”
In a swift movement she barely caught, he snapped the vampire’s neck and let the body fall to the floor with a heavy thud.
“Dump him outside,” Kerbasi ordered two men. They didn’t hesitate to follow his instructions.
“That didn’t kill him?” Brandi asked, watching in horror as they carried the limp body away.
“No,” Kerbasi replied, settling comfortably back in his seat. His wings had disappeared again. “He’ll be back up and moving before dawn.”
That didn’t seem so bad, but there was still one other problem Brandi had noted. “Where’s Kariann?”
The female vampire was nowhere to be seen.
“Sit,” Kerbasi ordered.
Brandi dropped into her chair. “What did you do to her?”
“I took her home.” A corner of his mouth curled up. “It will take some time for her to return.”
Brandi probably should have left it at that, but curiosity got the better of her. He had disappeared into thin air, after all. “How? Did you teleport or something?”
“That is one way of describing it, though most of us call it flashing.”
Her brows knitted. “Is that something only guardians can do?”
“Anyone who is at least half-angel can do it.”
Brandi’s jaw dropped. “You’re an angel?”
“Not quite. There is a hierarchy, but I may one day rise to become one.”
She mulled that over. “I’m pretty certain you’re going to have to stop killing and torturing people if you want to reach that level.”
“You catch on quickly,” he said, perturbance in his tone.
Brandi had never believed in those sorts of things before supernaturals came out into the open. Even after they did, she had a hard time believing they were real. To her, it had all seemed like some sort of practical joke. Vampires, werewolves, fairies—they were the stuff of movies and legends. How could they have been around all this time and no one knew about it until this year?
“Right. And you left Purgatory to live in Alaska?” She couldn’t begin to imagine what Purgatory would be like, but if he was going for a vacation spot from there, Hawaii might have been a better choice. Or had he come here for some other reason?
“It is a long story.” He made a dismissive gesture. “I’d rather talk about you and what brought you to this place tonight.”
She shrugged. “The weather was too bad to drive home—and I’ve got nowhere else to be, anyway.”
“On that point, we are similar.”
“You don’t have any friends or family?” Brandi asked, cocking her head.
“Kariann is the closest thing I have to a friend, though I’m not certain I’d call her that. Most others find me intolerable.” His tone was indifferent, but his hunched shoulders told her a different story. There was a hint of vulnerability within him that he couldn’t quite hide. Did he behave the way he did to keep people at a distance? She’d been guilty of doing that herself.
Brandi felt some of the tension ease inside her. Whether you were human or supernatural, the world could still be a tough place. “I guess that’s another thing we have in common. No one wants to be around me, either.”
“Perhaps, but perhaps not.” He cocked his head and gave her a perceptive look. “I suspect your loneliness is by your own making.”
Brandi narrowed her eyes. “You don’t know anything about me.”
“Do not be so certain.” Kerbasi leaned forward, gazed deeply into her eyes and spoke in a low tone. “I know your parents died in a car accident—one in which you were the driver. It wasn’t your fault, but you blame yourself anyway and you’ve pushed everyone out of your life until there is no one left. Even with my vast experience, I doubt I could have made you more miserable. Quite an impressive feat.”
She sucked in a sharp breath. “How could you possibly know all that?”
“Your mind is an open book to me,” he said, sitting back and giving her a piteous look. “Call it a gift or a curse, but I can discern almost anyone’s darkest secrets—should I choose to do so.”
She wouldn’t want that kind of gift. Dealing with her own problems was bad enough. Brandi stared down at her lap and took a shuddering breath. “I don’t deserve to be happy.”
She’d avoided talking to anyone about the accident that happened over two years ago. One that she’d survived and her parents didn’t. No matter how much her sister and friends tried to help her in the beginning, she’d pushed them away. They didn’t understand and she didn’t deserve their compassion.
Brandi had known the weather was bad that day—much like tonight. When her parents insisted they were braving it anyway, she’d offered to drive. Nothing could have stopped them from seeing their first grandchild born. She’d wanted to be there too, though she’d known it was risky.
While her older sister brought one life into the world, Brandi took two out. The car had slid off the road and sideways into a patch of trees. Her mother died instantly and her father during the drive in the ambulance. She saw her niece briefly while staying at the same hospital, but then she’d hid herself away. The guilt had been too much.
“Does anyone deserve happiness?” Kerbasi asked.
Brandi squeezed her eyes shut. Pain. Too much pain. “Good people do.”
“There was a time when your suffering would have pleased me,” Kerbasi muttered, “but I fear I’ve grown soft.”
She lifted her lids and glanced toward the window at the front of the tavern. The snow was letting up. “I should go.”
“To your home? That would be boring.”
For a moment, Brandi forgot her misery. “What do you care?”
“I certainly shouldn’t.” He took hold of her hands and gently brought her to her feet. “But perhaps neither of us should be alone tonight.”
A tingling feeling raced up her spine. “What are you…?”
Bright light flashed all around them and the bar disappeared. Wind rushed through her hair with a roaring sound and a kaleidoscope of colors zoomed past them. Were they traveling through some kind of vortex? The whooshing stopped almost as soon as it started. Brandi had to hold onto Kerbasi’s arms until everything stopped spinning. Then the frigid cold hit her. Brandi lifted her face and a fat flake of snow touched her forehead.
She shivered. “You brought me outside?”
“My apologies. I forget humans are more susceptible to the cold.” His silver eyes lit up and a moment later a bubble of heat enveloped them.
It startled her. This man packed some serious kinds of powers. It was scary and yet thrilling at the same time. Brandi took a cautious step back, grateful when the magical heat didn’t leave her. She took in her surroundings. She knew right away where he’d brought her. She’d visited this place enough times, especially as a child during the holidays.
Ice sculptures surrounded them in all sorts of shapes and sizes. There were reindeer, nativity scenes, polar bears, Christmas trees, and all sorts of other creations. Each of them was lit up with lights in various colors to make them appear almost mystical. She used to love this place. Had Kerbasi pulled those memories from her head, too?
“You brought us to the ice park in North Pole?” she asked incredulously. It wasn’t The North Pole, but rather a town near Fairbanks.
His lips lifted into a half-smile. “I discovered this place recently. No one else knows I come here at night after it is closed.”
She knitted her brows. “Why would you hide it?”
“I may have cultivated the impression among those who know me that I do not like Christmas—or its strange traditions.” He stopped before an ice castle, studying it. “I wouldn’t want to ruin that image.”
She followed him as he moved on to the next sculpture of a unicorn. “They think you’re a scrooge.”
Brandi could relate to that. She’d pretty much ignored all things Christmas since her parents died. Whenever people discussed it at work, she usually changed the subject or walked away. Even Christmas music was enough to make her want to run screaming. It was all she could do to survive working at the mall. If there’d been any other job available, she would have taken it. That was what she got for wrecking her old life.
“I suppose that is one way of putting it,” he replied. “We did not celebrate holidays in Purgatory. I had some difficulty adjusting when I first came here.”
They continued through the park, pausing before each ice carving. Neither of them spoke for a while. They just soaked in the peace and quiet that the night had to offer. She studied Kerbasi’s profile, noting a slight softening of his features as he took in a group of sculptures with children playing. There was something tragic about him. Even back in the bar where it was crowded with people he’d seemed so completely alone. Had he ever experienced love or true friendship?
“What was it like for you as a child?”
“Me? A child?” He let out a bark of laughter. “I came into the world exactly as you see me now. There is no childhood for guardians or angels.”
“That’s…sad.” She didn’t know what else to say. It wasn’t something Brandi had ever considered before.
His shoulders stiffened. “Do not pity me. I cannot miss what I’ve never had. You are the one who has suffered true loss. It is worse to have something precious taken from you.”
She thought of her family and her eyes moistened. “Maybe, but at least I know how good life can be. There’s a chance I can find something like that again.”
“You’d have to forgive yourself first.”
Brandi couldn’t argue with him there. She had no idea if she could ever get past her parents’ deaths. “So what is your excuse? What is stopping you from having a life now?”
“My time on Earth is finite.” He expelled a heavy breath, fogging the air. “There is little point in getting attached to anyone.”
“Why did they send you here?”
The minutes stretched into an uncomfortable silence before he finally spoke. “To find my humanity.”
Brandi’s feet crunched in the snow as she moved closer to him. “Have you found it yet?”
“How would I know?” he asked, exasperation in his voice.
“When you don’t feel lonely anymore and find peace within yourself.”
His gaze met hers. “I suppose we are two of a kind after all.”
She didn’t know this man well, but she felt a kinship with him. Two lost souls trying to find their way in a world where they didn’t quite fit. Maybe it was crazy. Maybe it was wishful thinking. Yet Brandi couldn’t help wondering if she was meant to meet Kerbasi now, in this time and place.
“I’ll help you if you help me,” she said, taking his hand.
He gazed down at their linked hands and then up to her face. Was he searching her mind to see if her offer was genuine? Could he learn to trust her? Could she learn to trust him? Brandi was frightened by the prospect of what she’d just suggested, but it was also the first time she’d truly felt alive in a long time. If she could help him heal, maybe she could heal, too.
“I shall consider it,” he answered.
She ducked her head, feeling embarrassed. He probably thought she was crazy and he’d be right. It had been so long since she’d talked to anyone that she wasn’t thinking straight. The loneliness had finally gotten to her so that even a supernatural known for torture didn’t seem that bad. Yet she truly felt there was a good man underneath the hardened exterior. She hoped he could see that in her mind.
“Don’t.” Kerbasi took hold of her chin. “You do not know me well enough to make any opinion.”
“Come, I have one more place I would take you,” he interrupted.
Once again, bright light flashed around them and they traveled through the vortex. When her feet settled beneath her, she found herself standing on a porch in front of a familiar house. The curtains were partially open from the front window and she could see a family inside. They sat gathered together on their couch watching a movie. Between two parents there was a little girl with ringlets of blond hair surrounding her face. She was beautiful and perfect—even more so than Brandi had imagined.
A lump rose in her throat. “This is my sister’s house.”
“She’s in there thinking of you now. I can hear her thoughts.” Kerbasi gently rubbed Brandi’s cheek. “Don’t let another year go by without the people you love.”
She wrapped her arms around the guardian and hugged him tightly. “Thank you.”
“Show me how it is done and perhaps I’ll learn from you,” he said, breaking away from her and taking a step back.
“Will I see you again?” She could see it in his eyes that he’d resigned himself to letting her go. She was surprised by how much she didn’t want him to leave.
“Take care of yourself, Brandi.”
There was no flash of light this time. Kerbasi simply disappeared. He might not be an angel, but he’d been her guardian on Christmas Eve. She could only hope she’d see him again someday. He deserved to heal as much as her.
Brandi took a few moments to collect herself before knocking on the door. When her sister opened it, she knew everything was going to be alright. They were hugging and crying before either got a word out.