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    Vampire’s Ball

    Angela Knight

    ONE

    Christmas had come to Walsh Drive. Every house on the block was draped in swags of icicle lights that shone through the dancing swirl of snow. Firs, cedars, and pines stood framed in frosted windows, trimmed in glittering ornaments and twinkling lights. A plastic Santa waved from a neighbor’s yard, his recorded “Ho ho ho!” booming through the night, his painted face glowing.

    God, she hated Christmas.

    Kat Danilo pulled into her dark driveway, aching in every muscle. She’d taught three classes at the club today—two Healthy Groovin’ and one Kickbox to Fitness—and she was in desperate need of a long, hot soak and a cup of chamomile tea.

    After she made sure her mother was okay. Mary Danilo never did well this close to Christmas.

    One more week. All they had to do was get through one more week, and they’d be okay. There’d be dark days, yes, but at least there wouldn’t be Santas and Christmas trees everywhere you looked, triggering memories better left buried.

    Kat’s stomach balled into its accustomed knot when she got out of her little red Ford Focus. Snow crunched loudly underfoot as she approached the front door. Her hand shook in the act of unlocking the dead bolt, making the keys jingle. “Mom?” She swallowed and licked dry lips, tried for a sunny tone.

    “Mom, I’m home.”

    “In here, baby.” Her mother’s voice sounded bright, excited.

    Kat slumped in relief. It was going to be a good night. She blew out a breath and entered the foyer.

    The stranger rose as Kat walked into the living room. Shining blond hair curled around the woman’s shoulders, contrasting with a deep cobalt cable-knit sweater that accented the sapphire blue of her eyes.

    Dark jeans made the most of her impressive height and long legs. An athletic woman, Kat judged, fit and comfortable in her own skin.

    Mary stood too, a head shorter than the blonde, a certain jittery excitement in her tired eyes. “Kat, this is Grace du Lac. She’s your stepmother.”

    Kat froze. “I . . . don’t understand.”

    Mary gave her a smile that was a trifle too bright, a bit too wide. “She’s your father’s wife.” Kat rocked back on her heels and eyed Grace warily. The family dynamics here were potentially touchy, to say the least. As far as Kat knew, her father had been a drunken one-night stand shortly after Mary’s truly ugly divorce. Either the condom had broken, or too many rum and Cokes had blunted her mother’s sense of self-preservation. Either way, Kat had come along nine months later.

    “Lance met Mary long before our marriage,” Grace explained. There was not even a flicker of jealousy on her elegant features. She looked no older than Kat herself; apparently John Lance had a taste for cradle robbing.

    “Oh.” Kat slid her hands into her jacket pockets, struggling to figure out why the woman was here.

    “Has something happened to . . . my father?” It felt strange to say the words. “My father” was a phrase she’d rarely spoken.

    “Oh, no. He’s just on a mission. I was deputized to explain things.” Mission? “What things, exactly?” Kat took a step closer, studying Grace with a suspicion she didn’t bother to hide. “I’m sorry, but I don’t understand any of this. My mother tried to contact John after she realized she was pregnant, but he’d vanished off the face of the earth. We never heard a single word from him all the time I was growing up. Now you pop up twenty-six years later. Why now? What do you want?”

    “Sometimes I could kick my husband’s ass.” Grace shook her head in disgust. “The knights have always had a cavalier attitude toward their children.”

    “Knights? I thought his last name was Lance.”

    “Actually, it’s Lancelot du Lac, Knight of the Round Table.” Kat laughed, amused by the sarcastic image. The chuckle died as she gazed into Grace’s utterly serious eyes. Good God, the woman meant it. Is she some kind of nut?

    The blonde studied Kat for a long moment before her blue gaze hardened in resolution. “Time to quit stalling and get it over with.” She reached out and gently laid a hand against Kat’s cheek. Her palm felt seductively kind. Soothing.

    Frowning, Kat started to pull back, only to discover she couldn’t move. She opened her mouth to demand what the woman was doing.

    Which was when knowledge slammed into her brain in a hurricane of images, emotions, information that battered her senses until the room spun. She didn’t even feel herself hit the floor.

    Kat lay flat on her back, staring at the ceiling. Her aching head swam—which was no surprise, since her world had violently realigned in the last five minutes. She felt as if someone had picked up her brain and shaken it like a snow globe.

    “Kat!” Mary thumped to her knees beside her, eyes wide with panic. “Kat, are you all right?”

    “Fine,” she mumbled, an automatic lie instilled by years of soothing her mother’s fears. “ ’M fine, Mom.”

    A surprisingly strong hand closed over her forearm, pulled her easily into a sitting position. “You sure about that?” Grace knelt at her side, a frown of concern drawing her blond brows down. “I gave you the whole package. It’s a lot to deal with.”

    Kat stared at her. “You’re a witch.” It wasn’t possible, yet she knew it was true. The knowledge felt utterly solid, as if it were something she’d always known, observed, believed. Objects fall down instead of up. Grace du Lac is a witch with fantastic magical powers.

    “Yes.” Grace’s gaze didn’t even falter at the admission.

    “My father is one of the Knights of the Round Table. And he’s a vampire.” She took a deep breath.

    “And the reason you’re here is because I could become a witch too.” Grace nodded. “We could use someone like you right now. But that’s not my decision.” She rose, pulling Kat to her feet with an easy strength that was far from human. “Ridge is going to have to make that call.”

    Two Days Later

    He’d fought Nazi soldiers, communist spies, and demon-infected terrorists. Dealing with Kat Danilo should be a piece of cake. Yet somehow, Ridge Champion had an ugly feeling his newest mission wasn’t going to be that easy.

    Ridge pulled his Porsche 911 into the driveway of 344 Walsh Drive and switched off its rumbling engine. Ice-crusted snow crackled under his Armani loafers as he stepped out of the car. Striding up the curving brick walkway, he eyed the three-story Victorian. Snow was rare in Charlotte, North Carolina, yet icicles hung from the gray-trimmed eaves. The house’s wooden siding was as white as the landscape, and more snow dusted its steeply pitched black roof. A very pretty house, solidly middle-class.

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