Once Upon a Hallow’s Eve

Chapter One

A lot can change in five years, but when dealing with centuries-old vampires, it’s best not to expect progress. Without the urgency of their own mortality, the undead beings don’t feel the need to keep up with the Jones’s, so to speak. Personally, I liked to shake things up from time to time, but as I stood in front of my childhood home, I remembered the trait was not at all genetic.

The Vaughn Estate was a sprawling time capsule with spires and stained glass windows, every inch a reminder of days gone by long ago. The row of Black Beauty rose bushes lining the iron fence at the front of the property were just starting to bloom, most of the buds still tight and almost ebony in color.

I passed through the gate and made my way up the front walk, my steps slow and deliberate. I had no doubt I was being watched, and refused to falter or show even a hint of weakness. Coming home after so many years was a nightmare come true, but I’d be damned if I’d let it show.

A pair of raven statues guarding either side of the front doors greeted me with skeptical stares.

“Hello, Ralph. Bartholomew,” I said, greeting my stony friends with a trace of a smile. The names were unofficial, bestowed upon them by a six-year-old version of myself, back when I used to daydream that some magic would come along and bring them to life. I’d laugh as they shook off their dull exteriors to reveal velvet feathers and glittering eyes. They would take me gently in their talons and together, we’d soar away on some faraway adventure.

It never happened of course, but that didn’t stop me from wishing. Now, the memory of adventures with imaginary friends struck me as sad, though inevitable. When your father is known for staking vampires first and asking questions second, you don’t tend to have a lot of playmates growing up.

Speaking of … if I dawdled much longer, I was going to be on the receiving end of that wrath.

I raised the heavy bronzed knocker and let it fall.

My eyes slid closed as the sound reverberated through the double wooden doors. I drew in a slow breath and on the exhale, told my stone-faced friends, “Wish me luck, guys. I have a feeling I’m going to need it.”

The door opened, and a woman appeared, her face as blank as the granite birds above. “Lady Vaughn,” she said, her tone cool, if not full-blown frosty, as she dipped her head and stepped back to allow me entrance. “We’ve been expecting you.”

“Oh, good,” I said. “Does that mean you baked some of my favorite cookies?”

She frowned. “I was told you had an … interesting sense of humor.”

I turned away, rolling my eyes as I took off my coat.

Welcome home.

Without ceremony, she took the coat from me and dumped it into the arms of a second woman. The petite woman wore all black and had a thin line tattooed around her wrist, marking her as a household servant. She took the garment without meeting my eyes.

Ignoring them, I sidestepped further into the house and let my gaze rove around the expansive foyer, taking in every detail. A tidal wave of memories washed over me, threatening to pull me under.

Just as with the exterior of the estate, not a thing was out of place in the mansion. A familiar tapestry covered the majority of the parquet flooring, leading to the foot of a sweeping staircase that led to the second level of the home. The mahogany walls were freshly polished, gleaming under the soft light of the crystal chandelier above our heads. The art gracing the walls was the same as it had been since I’d first been old enough to notice it.

Apparently Pinterest hadn’t spread to the far corners of the New York Haven of the supernatural world.

As I turned back to face the woman who’d answered the door, an anomaly caught my eye. A long table sat to the right of the staircase, as it always had. Two antique vases stood empty, but between them, something was missing.

It was a change so subtle that likely no one else would have noticed, but as soon as I spotted it, I couldn’t look away. It felt like being blasted with a Howitzer. My heart clenched as my mind’s eye automatically filled in the missing piece from memory. For as long as I could remember, there had always been a silver frame sitting between the two antiques displaying a family photograph: Baron and Baroness Vaughn bookending my sister Melanie and me.

It was gone, and a shiver ran through me, followed by a brief flash of sadness.

The statement couldn’t be louder or clearer: A family no longer lived here.

“Lord Vaughn is in his study,” the woman said, breaking through my thoughts. She’d started to climb the stairs but paused when she realized I wasn’t following. She cleared her throat. “Lady Vaughn?”

I tore my eyes away from the phantom photograph and muttered an apology. We went up the stairs and down the hallway of the east wing. The woman kept a brisk pace as we walked, not giving me a chance to look around. Nonetheless, I glanced in every open doorway, and the pile of memories became more and more crushing with every step. Every room held some reminder of the past, some good. Most not.

“You may wait here,” the woman told me, stopping a few paces away from my father’s study. “Lord Vaughn will let you know when he is available. He’s been made aware of your arrival.”

I’ll just bet he has. I forced a serene smile, as though I weren’t being led to the lion’s den, and the woman continued down the hall and slipped out of sight around a corner that led to a back staircase. Only the nervous tapping of my heels against the polished wood floors broke the eerie silence in the hallway, and I began to fidget. My fingers worked together, then apart, only to twist around each other again. Minutes ticked along, each feeling like an hour. I fussed with my heather-grey sweater, picking at minuscule pilling around the hem, all while keeping an eye on the door of my father’s study.

A strange war raged inside me. Part of me willed the door to open because I wanted to face my fate and get it over with. Just rip off the Band-Aid and face the consequences I’d avoided for the last five years. The other part of my brain was firing off alarm bells, telling me to run and never look back.

Not that I had a choice. I knew it. Everyone in the mansion around me knew it too. Six weeks before, I’d come home from a late night out with friends to the manor where I’d been living. There was an envelope waiting for me bearing the Vaughn family crest in deep purple wax. Terror and dread had washed over me before I’d even opened it. My father, the Baron of the East, was summoning me home after a five-year exile across the country. A summons wasn’t an optional thing. If I hadn’t complied, he would have sent a pack of his boot-licking minions after me, and they wouldn’t have given up until they had me.

No, it was either hold my head high and return on my own, or be dragged home kicking and screaming.

I knew which option my father would prefer, and if he was thinking what I thought he was, I would need all the advantage I could muster.

Footsteps sounded and my spine went stiff.

“Lacey!” A loud whisper carried down the hall.

Recognition blurred with surprise as I turned to find a willowy brunette running toward me.

“Jupe! What are you doing here?” I asked, matching her grin. It almost felt foreign on my face, being the first time I’d genuinely smiled since receiving the summons.

Jupiter Reed, my oldest friend and confidant, reached me within a few strides, her long legs easily gobbling up the length of the hallway. She pulled me into a tight embrace, and as my eyes squeezed shut, a tear slipped between my lashes. “I can’t believe you’re here right now!”

“Of course I’m here! I had to see you.” She pulled back, holding me at arms’ length for a moment. I reached up and swiped away the renegade tear.

Jupiter was still smiling as she looked me over. “You look incredible! Wherever you’ve been, it was obviously good for you.”

A familiar pang of guilt bit into me. I hated that I hadn’t been able to communicate with my one true friend all those years away, but it had been necessary. The only one I told where I was going was my Aunt Gemma. She helped me get out of the haven the night my father’s rage threatened to engulf the mansion in flames. I’d run far and fast and hadn’t told anyone where I was heading. Once I settled in the tiny community of Beechwood Harbor, a coastal town in Washington State, I reached out to my aunt to tell her I was safe. We kept in touch over the years. She kept me updated with the goings on of the Eastern Court and sent me money every few months.

In portions of my letters to my aunt, I’d asked her to find a way to pass on well wishes to Jupiter, but couldn’t risk sending her correspondence directly. My father knew we were close and would have had her watched closely for any signs she was involved in my disappearance. I hadn’t wanted to get her tangled up in any kind of trouble; I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself. Aunt Gemma could handle herself when it came to dealing with my father, though. She was his sister by blood and held a large part of his territory under her control. If she needed leverage to get out of hot water, she’d find it.

I wasn’t entirely sure how my father had finally managed to track me down, but I knew it wasn’t my aunt’s doing. Over the years in Washington, I’d grown close to a group of other vampires and figured that one of them had said the wrong thing to the wrong person, and word filtered back to the east.

“I’ve missed you so much, Jupe,” I said, blinking back the tears. “I’m sorry I wasn’t able to get in touch all this time. Did my aunt ever pass on my letters?”

Jupiter nodded. “She did. And don’t worry, I understand why you had to do it that way. Please don’t cry, Lacey. You’ll just make me cry, and you know I’m allergic to waterproof mascara!”

I sputtered a laugh, and the tears fell anyway.

She encircled me for another embrace. “I’m just glad that you’re finally back.”

“You’ll forgive me if I can’t say the same,” I replied, giving my father’s door a withering glance.

“I will.” Jupiter laughed softly and released me. She slipped her hands into the pockets of her black skinny jeans and rocked back on the heels of her canvas flats. “It hasn’t been the same around here without you, you know.”

“Quieter, I imagine.” The joke didn’t quite land. Instead, a shadow passed over Jupiter’s face. “I was just—” I stopped short, realizing the reason for her change in expression.

The door to my father’s study was open.

Gulp.

I drew in a long breath through my nose, forcing a smile on the exhale. “Guess that’s my cue. I’ll come find you afterward, okay?”

She nodded but I knew my smile wasn’t fooling her.

A guard appeared in the doorway. He was a carbon copy of all my father’s guards: tall, broad shouldered, clean cut, and likely didn’t have more than two free-forming thoughts cycling around between his ears. “Lady Vaughn, the Baron is ready to speak with you.”

“Marvelous,” I muttered under my breath.

Resigned, I pivoted on my heel and marched through the doorway, leaving Jupiter behind. The guard announced my presence and then stepped aside, giving me a glimpse of my father, seated at his desk.

He didn’t bother to stand up. Of course not.

Ice-blue eyes met mine. The one trait we shared, though I preferred to think of mine as more jewel-toned than glacial. His jaw was set in a firm line and though his lips weren’t turned down, they also weren’t willing to offer anything remotely close to a smile either.

“You’re late,” he said, his tone more bored than impatient.

I scoffed and stalked past the guard. “Nice to see you, too, Father.”

Lord Geoffrey Vaughn bristled, a cold smile on his face as he leaned back in his chair. Some might wrongly assume he was relaxed, based on his posture alone, but I knew better. His every muscle would be taut, ready to spring into action. My father could be midway through a hot stone massage, breathing in fresh lavender while listening to a harpist and still be capable of tearing someone’s head off in the blink of an eye.  Literally.

He practically purred as he replied, “Perhaps you would have received a warmer welcome had you seen fit to return home of your own accord.”

“Perhaps.” With feigned indifference, I dropped into one of the spindly chairs across from him and draped one leg over the other. “Since you’ve decided to eschew the pleasantries, let’s get to the point. Why am I here?”

“This is your home, Lacey. This is where you belong.” My father continued to smile, but there wasn’t a drop of warmth behind it. Anger radiated from him, humming just below the surface.

“Did it ever cross your mind that maybe I was happier on my own?”

His eyes narrowed. “This isn’t about your happiness, Lacey.”

“Clearly,” I muttered.

He slammed his palms against the desk and I flinched. “I see your time away hasn’t curbed that tongue of yours. Perhaps I was wrong to let you run off to that fishing town.” He shoved up from his chair in order to lean across the desk until his eyes were inches from mine. “Make no mistake, daughter, I’m not opposed to other forms of punishments if you’re hell-bent on proving this one did not work. ”

My teeth clenched together as I fought off the shiver skating up my spine. “If I recall, my exile was self-chosen. You didn’t even know where I was until a few weeks ago.”

“I’ve known where you were for three years now,” he spat, his eyes thinning into snakelike slits. “With a single word, I could have had you dragged back by your hair.”

“Gee, and you wonder why I left,” I snarled.

He pushed off the desk and stood to his full height, looking down his nose at me. “I don’t have to wonder why you left, Lacey. I know full well that you ran away to save your own skin! If it weren’t for your mother, I’d have you in a cell right now. But no, she told me to let you sow some wild oats and get it out of your system!” He cursed under his breath and turned his back to me.

I didn’t have a doubt that my mother had been the one who saved me. As angry as she would have been at my disappearance, she wouldn’t have allowed a hair on my head to be harmed. She’d already lost one daughter and she would fight like hell to keep the one she had left.

“Oh, please!” I said, scowling. “You were relieved … happy, even, to have me out of the way these past few years. You didn’t want me around, serving as a walking, talking reminder of my defiance. It was better for you to have me gone, especially when you could spin the story and make yourself out to be the one who’d sent me away.”

“I’m not stupid,” I continued as he paced. “Why do you think I left the way I did? No spectacle, long speech, or public outburst. You could claim the decision was yours and retain your image of absolute judgement.”

Lord Vaughn turned around, his eyes narrowed at me.

I sneered up at him as the anxiety that flooded my veins shifted, turning into a unstoppable geyser. “There’s only two reasons you’ve summoned me back. Either you’re finally going to auction me off to the highest bidder, or”—I paused for a flicker of a moment as the words formed on my tongue—“you found some way around needing me to produce an heir, and have now decided to publicly execute me.”

Surprise registered in his eyes. Under any other circumstances, I would have relished in the thrill of saying something that stopped him cold. As it was, I felt sick.

Execute you?” he said, his tone too quiet. “What makes you think I would kill you?”

I swallowed hard and dug my nails into the palms of my hands, tucked away out of his sight. The sharp pain kept me focused and stopped the swell of emotions from boiling over. Flicking my eyes upward, I dared to meet his. “Melanie.”

My father went still Not even blinking.

The sound of her name flicked a barb of pain through my gut. Pricking at a wound that hadn’t—would never—heal.

The stunned look on my father’s face melted away and his cold smile returned, though less wide than before. He retook his seat and calmly steepled his spidery hands together. “Ah, yes. Well, as you’ve already pointed out, I am dependent upon you to produce the heir to House Vaughn. So, despite your involvement in Melanie’s disgrace and the shameful way you acted during your previous betrothal, I have little choice but to offer you one more chance to fulfill your obligation to this family.”

I braced myself, already knowing what was coming next.

“You will marry a lord and take your rightful place in the Court. When the time comes, you will have a bornling of your own and be given a territory to govern.”

“Just what every little vampire dreams of,” I said, my voice tart. “And if I don’t want to be a pawn in your little game?”

Leaning forward, his eyes narrowed. “You can be whatever piece you wish, but you will play the game to completion. I can assure you, if you are to be exhiled again, it won’t involve sandy beaches and beauty pageants.”

Heat scorched every inch of my skin. I wanted to snarl, to curse, to throw things or flash my fangs at him.

Calmly, he sat back in his chair and depressed a button on the corner of his desk. Half a second later, the door of the study opened and the guard lumbered back into the room. I hadn’t even registered he’d left.

“Lady Vaughn would like to retire to her room,” my father said, his voice false and cheery. “She’s had a very long day of travel and needs to rest up for the gala tonight.”

I squinted at him. “Gala?”

He smiled again, all of his gleaming teeth on display. “Oh, did I forget to mention it? We’re having a little homecoming party in your honor. Everyone from the Court will be in attendance. They’re all dying to hear my special announcement.”

The guard reached for my elbow and I rose, jerking it away.

“Jerrod will see you safely to your quarters,” my father replied, apparently not about to call off his goon.

“I know the way,” I bit back. “I don’t need an escort.”

“Humor me,” he replied, nodding at the guard.

A vise-like grip encircled my elbow. The guard stared at me, menace in his eyes.

“I’m not going anywhere until your goon stops manhandling me!”  I growled.

My father flashed his teeth, his fangs weren’t extended, but the gleaming canines were on purposeful display. His eyes darkened as he glared up at me. “Lacey, consider this your official—and only—warning. If even one thing goes wrong tonight, not even your mother will be able to protect you.”

With that, he waved his hand and the guard dragged me from the room.