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Authors: Sharon Ashwood

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Ravenous

BOOK: Ravenous
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Ravenous

By

Sharon Ashwood

SIGNET ECLIPSE

Published by New American Library, a division of

Penguin Group (USA) Inc.. 375 Hudson Street.

New York. New York 10014. USA

Penguin Group (Canada). 90 Eglinton Avenue East. Suite 700. Toronto.

Ontario M4P 2Y3. Canada (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.)

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Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd.)

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Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty.) Ltd.. 24 Sturdee Avenue.

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Penguin Books Ltd.. Registered Offices:

80 Strand. London WC2R 0RL. England

First published by Signet Eclipse, an imprint of New American Library, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

First Printing. February 2009

Copyright © Naomi Lester, 2009

All rights reserved

SIGNET ECLIPSE and logo are trademarks of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

Printed in the United States of America

PUBLISHERS NOTE

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party Web sites or their content.

For those who kept asking whatever happened

to the story about the vampire, the demon, and the mouse.

Here you go.

Prologue

Being the evil Undead wasn't fun anymore. For one thing, it was increasingly hard to get a library card.

Even borrowing a book required identification. The same applied to finding an apartment, renting a movie, or leasing a car. Sure, in the old days there was the whole vampire mind-control thing, but now the world was one big bar code. Just try hypnotizing a computer.

In the end, it was easier to give in than to hide an entire subpopulation from the electronic age. The vampires—along with werewolves, gargoyles, and the ever-unpopular ghouls—emerged into the public eye at the turn of the century. While Y2K alarmists had predicted millennial upheaval, they sure hadn't seen this one coming.

In fact, they hadn't seen anything yet.

Three Sisters Agency

Specializing in removal of

Hauntings
*
Poltergeists
*
Unwanted Imps

Keep your house happy, healthy, and human-friendly!

Best in the Pacific Northwest!

Holly Carver, Registered Witch

Chapter 1

"Why didn't you say you were calling about the old Flanders place?" Holly's words were hushed in the street's empty darkness.

Steve Raglan, her client, pulled off his cap and scratched the back of his head, the gesture sheepish yet defiant. "Would it have made a difference?"

"I'd have changed my quote."

"Thought so."

"Uh-huh. I'm not giving a final cost estimate until I see inside." She let a smidgen of rising anxiety color her voice. "Why exactly did you buy this place?"

He didn't answer.

From where they stood at the curb, the streetlights showed enough of the property to work up a good case of dread. Three stories of Victorian elegance had crumbled to Gothic cliché. The house should have fit into the commercial bustle at the edge of the Fairview campus, where century-old homes served as offices, cafes or studios, but it sat vacant. During business hours, the area had a Bohemian charm. This place… not so much. Not in broad daylight, and especially not at night.

Gables and dormers sprouted at odd angles from the roof, black against the moon-hazed clouds. Pillars framed the shadowed maw of the entryway, and plywood covered an upstairs window like an eye patch. A real character place, all right.

"So," said Raglan, sounding a bit nervous himself, "can you kick its haunted butt?"

Holly choked down a wash of irritation. She was a witch, not a SWAT team. "I'll have to go in and take a look around." She loved most of her job, but she hated house work, and that didn't mean dusting. Some old places were smart, and neutralizing them was a dangerous, tricky business. They wanted to make you dinner in all the wrong ways. Lucky for Raglan, she needed tuition money. Badly. Tomorrow was the deadline to pay.

The chill September air was heavy with the tang of the ocean. Wind rustled the chestnut trees that lined the cramped street, sending an early fall of leaves scuttling along the gutters. The sound made Holly twitch, her nerves playing games. If she'd had more time, she would have come back to do the job when it was bright and sunny.

"Just pull its plug. I can't close the sale with it going all Amityville on the buyers," Raglan said. Fortyish, he wore a fretful expression, a plaid flannel shirt, and sweatpants with a rip in one thigh. Crossing his arms, he leaned like limp celery against his white SUV.

She had to ask again. "So why on earth
did
you buy this house?"

Raglan peeled himself off the door of the vehicle, taking a hesitant step toward the property. "It was on the market real cheap. One of those Phi Beta Feta Cheese frats was looking for a place. Thought I could fix it up for next to nothing and flip it to them. They don't care about looks, as long as there's plenty of room for a kegger."

He dug in his pocket and handed her a fold of bills. "Here's your deposit."

Prompt payment—heck,
advance
payment—was unprecedented, un-Raglanish behavior. She usually had to beg. Holly stared at the money, not sure what to say, but she took it.
He's worried. He's never worried
. Then again, this was his first rogue house. Before this he'd only ever called her to bust plain old ghosts.

He looked her up and down. "So, don't you have any, like, gear? Equipment?"

"Don't need much for this kind of job." She saw herself through his eyes—a short woman, mid-twenties, in jeans and sneakers, who drove a rusty old Hyundai. No magic wand, no ray guns, no
Men in Black
couture. Well, house busting—house taming… whatever—wasn't like in the movies. Tech toys weren't going to help.

She did have one prop. Holly pulled an elastic from the pocket of her windbreaker and scraped her long brown hair into a ponytail. The elastic was her uniform. When the hair was back, she was working.

"Surely you knew the Flanders house has a history of incidents," she said. "The real estate companies have to disclose when a property has… um… issues." Holly eyeballed the place, eerily certain it was eyeballing her back. As far as she knew, Raglan was the first to hire someone to de-spook this house. No one else had stuck around long enough to pony up the cash.

Not a good sign.

Maybe next summer I should try dishwashing for tuition money.

Raglan blew out his cheeks in a sigh, fiddling with a thread on his cuff. "I thought the whole haunted thing wouldn't matter. The kids from the fraternity thought it was cool. Silly bastards. The sale was all but a done deal up until yesterday."

Holly walked up to the fence and put one hand on the carved gatepost. The flaking paint felt rough on her fingers, the wood beneath crumbly with age. The house had a bad attitude, but still the neglect made her sad. The old place had been built from magic by a clan of witches, just like Holly's ancestors had built her home.

Houses like these were part of the family, halfway to sentience. They lived on the free-floating vitality that surrounded any busy witch household—the life, the activity, and especially the magic. It was that energy that kept them conscious. Take it away, and the result was a slow decline until they were nothing more than wood and brick.

Reports of abandoned, half-sentient houses came up every few years. Centuries of persecution, combined with a low birth rate, had taken their toll on the witches. There were only a dozen clans left in all of North America, most with a scant handful of survivors. As their population dwindled, their houses perished, too. Most of these old, dying places were just restless, but a few turned bad, fighting to survive.

Like this one. Only its designation as a historical landmark had saved it from demolition.

Holly's pity mixed with a lick of fear. A gentle tugging was trying to urge her through the gate. Gusts of chittering whispers draped over her body like an invisible shawl. A caress, of sorts. The mad old place was inviting her in, embracing her.

Come in, little girl So lively, so sweet.

A starved house would drain power from any living person, leaving them tired and achy. A magic user, especially a witch, was much more vulnerable. They had so much more to take.

A flush prickled Holly's skin as her heart sped up, filling her mouth with the coppery taste of fright. The strain of keeping still, resisting the whispers, made her teeth hurt.

Come in, little girl
. The path to the front door was just flagstones buried in moss and weeds, but to Holly's sight it glowed. It was the one path, the only important route she would ever take.
Follow it and everything will be better. You'll be coming home at last. Holly, my dear, come to me
.

Holly pulled her hand off the post, putting a few paces between her feet and the property line. Sweat plastered her shirt to her back.

She felt the touch of a hand on her sleeve, but she didn't jump. That particular pressure, the curve of those fingers, was familiar, expected. Instead her heart skittered with a roller-coaster swoop of bad-for-you pleasure.

"I didn't hear you arrive," she said, turning and looking up.

Alessandro Caravelli was about six foot two, most of that long, lean legs. Curling wheat-blond hair fell past his shoulders, framing a long, strong-boned face that made Holly dream of fallen angels. The leather coat he wore had the scuffed, squashable look of an old favorite.

"I think the house had you." His voice still held faint traces of his native Italian, a slight warmth in the vowels. "I called your name, but you didn't hear me. I was crushed."

"Your ego's hardier than that."

"You make me sound conceited."

"You're a vampire. You're in a league of your own."

"True, and so is my ego." Alessandro gave a close-lipped smile that both invested meaning and denied it.

Holly pressed his hand where it rested on her sleeve, keeping the gesture light. Her pulse skipped at the coolness of his skin. Touching him was like petting a tiger or a wolf, fascinating but fearsome. Full of deadly secrets.

Some thrills were bad news. Working with a vampire was chancy enough; anything more would be insane. Besides, she already had a boyfriend—one who didn't bite. Still, that didn't stop the occasional soft-focus fantasy about Alessandro, involving satin sheets and whipped cream.

"So, this is the big, bad house on the menu," she said.
There goes the food imagery again
.

Dark as it was, Alessandro still wore shades. Now he slid them off, folding them with a flick of his wrist. The gesture was smooth as the swipe of a cat's paw, revealing eyes the same gold-shot brown as Baltic amber. He studied the Flanders property for a long moment, his face somber. Even after a year's acquaintance, he wasn't easy to read.

"Is this going to be difficult?" he said at last.

"No cakewalk. Raglan actually paid me the deposit already. He's afraid."

The sound of a car door opening made them both turn around. Raglan was standing by Alessandro's vehicle, peering in through the driver's side. The car was a sixties American dream machine, a red two-door T-Bird with custom chrome and smoked windows. Holly felt Alessandro coil like a startled cat. Where the car was concerned, he didn't share well.

The round headlights blinked on and off in an impertinent wink as Raglan fiddled with the dash. Alessandro always left the thing unlocked and half the time never removed the keys. To the vampire way of thinking, the car was his. No one would dare touch it. Until now he had been correct.

Raglan backed out of the car and slammed the door. "Sweet ride." Tension rolled off him as he skipped away from the car and gave a sheepish grin. He was acting out like a nervous little kid.

Alessandro made a sound just this side of a snarl.

Holly gripped his arm. "Not now. I need this job."

"Only for you," he said in a voice that whispered of cold, dead places. "But if he touches her again, he's dead."

Raglan cleared his throat. "Is this your partner? Pleased to meet you." He drew near but warily kept Holly between him and the vampire.

Alessandro gave an evil smile, but Holly poked him before he could speak.

Oblivious, Raglan cast a glance at the house, and his expression went from strained to about-to-implode. "So, what now? Can you get started?"

"I'd like to check one thing first. You mentioned that something happened yesterday, something that made you call me," she said. "Can you tell us what, exactly? We need the specifics."

"Yeah, well, like I was saying, yesterday things went wrong." Raglan's voice shook.

Foreboding fondled the nape of Holly's neck.

Raglan hesitated a beat before going on, shutting his eyes. "From what I hear, four frat boys went in late yesterday afternoon for an end-of-vacation party. Not supposed to, because the final papers aren't signed yet, but they forced a window. Wanted to start christening the place, I guess. They never came out."

"Maybe they're still in there, sleeping it off?" Holly said hopefully. She knew denial was pointless, but it was traditional. Someone had to do it.

Raglan shook his head. "There's more to it than that. The police have already been around asking questions."

"The police?" Holly said, startled.

"They went through the house this afternoon, but didn't find a thing. The cops were spooked as hell, but there was no sign of the boys. That's when I called you."

"I can't help you if this is an open police investigation! Not without their permission."

"Please, Ms. Carver." Raglan wiped his mouth with the back of his sleeve, as if he was fighting nausea. "I'll never sell this place. I don't even dare go in it!"

A spike of anger took her breath away. Her voice turned to granite. "You didn't tell me any of this on the phone."

Raglan went on. "Two more went in this morning, some of the professors who were supposed to be, uh, academic sponsors for the fraternity. They never came out either. The department heads called the dean to complain."

"Six people have disappeared inside that house? Since yesterday?
You couldn't have mentioned this on the phone
?" She felt Alessandro's hand on her back, steadying her.

Raglan sucked in air, as though he'd forgotten to breathe for a while. "Ms. Carver, you've got to get those people out of there."

"You're right," said Holly, her voice thick.
The house is hungry
.

"Two questions, Raglan," asked Alessandro, his voice quiet and chill. "How did the department heads know what happened? Who called the police?"

"Witnesses," Raglan replied. "Neighbors saw the kids climbing in through the window. And then there was the screaming."

BOOK: Ravenous
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