Secret Santa
Page 1

 Sierra Dean

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Chapter One
I was stuck between a rock and a hard place. Literally.
A wall of solid limestone was digging into my back, and in front was a vampire trying his hardest to shove me through it. His arm was on my neck, jutting my chin upwards and grinding my scalp against the jagged rock.
I swatted at his arms, but he just laughed at me.
“Some assassin you are,” he mocked.
Oh, so we were going to play it below the belt? I was an expert at that. I thrust my knee up, driving it into his groin, and when he dropped his arm from the surprise, I dug my heel into his foot before smashing my elbow across his face. There was an audible crack of grinding bone when I connected with the delicate tissue of his nose.
Before he could respond—and it was only a matter of time—I bounded across the small space and looked for anything I could use to my advantage.
“Son of a bitch,” the vampire growled. “Did you have to break my nose?”
“I thought this was no-holds-barred.”
“I didn’t think you’d play dirty.”
I rose out of my fighting stance, lowering my fists, and walked over to the vampire, who was straightening the broken bones of his aquiline nose.
“You’ll heal. Don’t be such a pussy,” I taunted, but when he didn’t rise to the jab, I put a hand on his shoulder. “Holden?”
Holden Chancery, once my vampire liaison and council superior but now technically one of my flock, was crouched low to the ground, cupping his nose like a dramatic schoolgirl who’d been struck by a dodgeball. I wanted to tease him some more, but I had to be sure he was ready for it.
Since I’d been promoted to a seat on the Tribunal, I now had to worry about stuff like undeads’ feelings and the other day-to-day concerns of pulse-challenged Americans everywhere.
“I’m sorr—”
He grabbed my extended arm, locked the elbow and swept his leg out to knock my feet from under me. I landed flat on my back with a loud thud, and the breath was forced out of my lungs. Holden jumped on me, sitting on my stomach with one leg on either side of my ribs and well out of reach of my knees. My arm was still extended, and he grabbed my fist as I was swinging for a punch.
“Hmm. This feels familiar,” he said.
“Who’s playing dirty now?”
Holden leaned in close so his face was only inches away. “Do you want to play dirty?”
A thrill rocketed through me, but I kept my breathing even and my pulse stayed level. His brown eyes were fixed on me, waiting for some sort of invitation. A not-insignificant part of me wanted to give it to him, especially knowing how magnificent his kisses were, but I wasn’t free to indulge in what he was offering.
So I headbutted him.
He released his grip, and I squirmed out from under him and ran. He was hot on my heels, and when I was out of the tunnels I got as far as the winding stone staircase before he caught up with me. Strong arms locked on to my waist, and we both tumbled to the floor, where I narrowly avoided cracking my jaw on the bottom step. Before we had a chance to rise, someone grabbed Holden and someone else came to stand between us.
The vampire warden blocking Holden from me had fixed my former handler with a hard stare. Holden, for his part, looked ready to kill the guard who was holding the sentry’s arms behind his back.
“Wardens,” I snarled. “Stand down.”
The two guards looked at each other in silent debate over whether or not it was safe. I balled my hands on my hips and tried to look as menacing as a five-foot-four girl could. It was the power radiating off me that seemed to settle the matter for them. Holden was released, and the guards moved aside.
“Our apologies, Tribunal Leader Secret.”
The title made my blood run cold. This new job was going to take a lot of getting used to. I no longer faded into the background of the vampire council. Now I was in charge of it.
“Chancery will escort me to my next location,” I instructed.
“I—” One of the guards tried to argue, but I wasn’t having it.
“Look, we both know Sig will have me followed regardless. There’s no harm in the sentry walking with me.”
The guards nodded, and Holden and I left the council headquarters without further incident. It was bad enough I’d been taken off assassin duties, but now it seemed like I couldn’t brawl in the confines of the council without getting someone in trouble.
The building housing the council was in SoHo just off Green Street, and as luck would have it, my next meeting was only a few blocks south at Bloomingdale’s.
I tucked my arm through Holden’s as we walked together in the chilly winter air.
“Thanks for the fight,” I said to break up the uneasy silence.
“I feel so useless since Sig and Juan Carlos barred me from hunting rogues.”
“You’re more of a target now. We’ve talked about this.”
“I know.” I rested my head against his shoulder as we walked. “I’m just not used to standing by and watching the action. And none of these freelancers are worth shit when it comes to killing rogues.”
“You’ll never think anyone did it as well as you.”
“Are you disagreeing?”
“As much as it might be detrimental to my long-term health to question the opinions of a Tribunal leader…” he elbowed me in the ribs, “…I think some of these freelancers make up for what they lack in experience by bringing a modicum of subtlety to their work.”
“I resent that. I’m going to suggest to Sig we have you killed.”
Holden shrugged, but when I looked up he was smiling. “You’d have to save me all over again.”
“Pff. I learned my lesson last time. It’s not worth the effort.”
We came to a stop outside the department store, and Holden stared at me for a long moment. When I opened my mouth to speak, he dipped his head. I turned my face at the last second and his kiss caught my cheek, but there was no hiding the new jump in my pulse.
“Secret,” he whispered.
“They’re watching.”
Whenever I was in highly visible public areas, especially when I was going to and from the council, I had protection. Just because I couldn’t see them all the time, didn’t mean they weren’t there. Sig originally planned to have me followed all the time, but I’d put a stop to that plot before he could put it into action. I already had one permanent werewolf guard living in my house, and I was never alone for long, so I’d whittled my warden detail down to the bare minimum to appease the Tribunal leader. This close to the council headquarters, they’d still be trailing me, and if they were watching, my actions would be reported back to Sig. I didn’t need them to see anything that could be held against me.
Holden straightened and took a step backwards, bowing his head with stiff propriety. Then he vanished before I had a chance to say anything else.
But what else was there to say?
Chapter Two
A sharp elbow jabbed into my ribs, and a wave of anxiety wafted over me. The smell of worry and anger radiated through the vaulted room, and the object in my hands was wrenched away before I had time to react.
“Hey,” I protested, making a grab to retrieve my stolen property.
“You snooze you lose,” countered the chubby blonde who had snatched my leather gloves.
“Yeah, but those are my gloves.” The supple black leather smiled at me from her sweaty fist. The Louis Vuitton gloves had been an early Christmas gift from my boyfriend, Lucas, and I’d be damned if a pushy Midtown housewife was going to make off with them.
She must have thought they were a hot-ticket gift item and I was just too stubborn to let her buy the last pair. She was totally oblivious to the fact that she was actually stealing my property.
The woman sneered and said, “Looks like they’re mine now. Possession is nine-tenths of—”
“The law?” Mercedes Castilla came to stand next to me, flashing her NYPD badge at my portly nemesis.
The woman’s cheeks flushed an unattractive shade of red, and she handed my gloves back. I put them in my purse and stroked the 9mm SIG handgun hidden within. Mustn’t kill humans, I reminded myself, and withdrew my fingers.
The woman vanished into the feverish din of the Bloomingdale’s crowd without so much as an apology. Mercedes touched my elbow, angling me away from the cashmere scarves as she pocketed her badge.
“Every year I need to use it at least twice.” She shook her head and chuckled. “Christmas in this city should come with riot gear.”
We negotiated our way through the seething mass of bodies until we reached the watch counter. The rows of Rolex and TAG Heuer timepieces were dazzling under the cleverly positioned lights. The price tags were what had my heart beating faster, though.
“Thirty-five-hundred dollars?” I stared at a silver and black TAG Heuer Aquaracer. It seemed to be chanting I belong on Lucas’s wrist. I couldn’t argue with it. The watch definitely suited the werewolf king of the East Coast and his sleek billionaire style. I, however, didn’t have the disposable income available to a Fortune 500 real-estate mogul.
I ran my fingertips over the cool glass and gave the watch a forlorn final glance.
“What do you buy a billionaire for Christmas?” I grumbled. Eight words I never thought I’d fit together in a sentence.
Mercedes smirked but checked her phone for the seven-hundredth time since we’d gotten here.
“Okay, Cedes, seriously. Either you’re having a scandalous affair via your cell phone, or something is up.”
“Sorry, sorry. We’ve got an insane workload right now. With all these dead bodies popping up around the city lately, I’ve been working overtime every night. I’m exhausted and there’s no end in sight.”
“What bodies?” I stood up straight and focused on her face. Corpses weren’t exactly unheard of in a city this size, but enough of them to raise police attention was worth hearing about.
“Still full of blood,” she added, forcing a weak smile. Well, at least we knew it wasn’t vampires. “Some of them do have small, ragged holes in the back of their heads, though. Frigging gross.”