New Year's Eve, one year before
Even though they were in the basement, Denise could still hear the sounds of battle outside. She didn't know what had attacked them, but they couldn't be human, not for Cat to look so scared when she'd ordered them downstairs. If she was frightened, then they should all be afraid.
Crashing noises above made Denise gasp. Randy's arm tightened around her. "It'll be okay."
His face said he believed otherwise. So did Denise. But she smiled, trying to convince her husband she believed the lie, if only to make him feel better.
His arm eased off her. "I'm going upstairs to help look for it."
It was the object that had drawn these creatures, whatever they were, to this house in the middle of icy nowhere. If it could be found and destroyed, the attack would stop.
Five years ago, Denise wouldn't have believed in vampires, ghouls, or objects possessing supernatural powers. Now because she'd chosen to spend the New Year with her half-vampire best friend in a house filled with things the average person didn't believe in, she and Randy would probably die.
"You can't go up there, it's too dangerous," Denise protested.
"I won't go outside, but I can help look in the house."
Denise knew finding it was the only chance any of them had. "I'll go with you."
"Stay here. The kids are scared."
Denise looked to the faces huddled in the far corner of the basement room, eyes wide with fear. Former runaways or homeless kids who lived with the vampires, their rent paid in blood donations. The only other adult in the room was Justina, and even her normally imperious expression was tremulous.
"I'll stay," Denise said at last. "Be careful. Come right back if those things get any closer."
Randy gave her a quick kiss. "I will. Promise."
"I love you," she called out as he flung open the door.
He smiled. "Love you, too."
He went out the door and Denise locked it behind him. It was the last time she saw Randy alive.
"I think Amber was murdered."
Denise gaped at her cousin. She was well into her third margarita, but she couldn't have misheard him. Maybe we shouldn't have gone to a bar after the funeral. Still, Paul had said he wasn't up to sitting another shiva. His mother and sister had just died within a month of each other. If getting a drink made Paul feel better, who cared what they were supposed to do?
"But the doctors said it was her heart."
"I know what they said," Paul growled. "The police didn't believe me, either. But the day before she died, Amber told me she thought she was being followed. She was twenty-three, Denise. Who has a heart attack at twenty-three?"
"Your mother just died of a heart attack," Denise reminded him softly. "Heart disease can be hereditary. It's rare for someone as young as Amber to have heart problems, true, but your sister was under a lot of stress - "
"No more than me now," Paul cut her off bitterly. "You saying I might be next?"
The thought was so awful Denise didn't even want to contemplate it. "I'm sure you're fine, but it wouldn't hurt to get checked out."
Paul leaned forward, glancing around before he spoke. "I think I'm being followed, too." His voice was barely a whisper.
Denise paused. For months after Randy's death, she'd thought every shadow was something sinister waiting to pounce on her. Even over a year later, she still hadn't totally managed to shake that feeling. Now her aunt and her cousin had died within a month of each other, and Paul also seemed to think death loomed right behind him. Was that a normal part of the grieving process? To feel that when death took someone close to you, it was coming after you next?
"Do you want to stay at my house for a few days?" she asked. "I could use the company."
Actually Denise preferred being alone, but Paul didn't know that. The careful investing Randy had done disappeared in the stock market crash, leaving her with just enough to bury him and to put a down payment on a new home, away from most of her family. Her parents meant well, but in their concern, they'd tried to take over her life. At work, Denise kept herself distant from her co-workers, and the seclusion had helped this past long, hard year as she dealt with Randy's death.
Still, if staying with her helped Paul through the initial shock of his double loss, she'd gladly give up her solitude.
Her cousin looked relieved. "Yeah. If that's okay."
Denise signaled for the bartender. "Of course. Let's head to my house before I have any more drinks. You've already had too many, so we'll take my car and pick up yours in the morning."
"I can drive," Paul argued.
Denise glared at him. "Not tonight."
Paul shrugged. Denise was glad he didn't fight it. She'd hate herself if Paul got in an accident after going out drinking with her. Aside from her parents, he was the closest family she had left.
She took care of the check over Paul's objections and they went out into the parking lot. After that incident three months ago, Denise made sure to park in a well-lit area as close to the bar's entrance as possible. As a further precaution, even though Paul walked with her, she kept her hand on the repellent spray dangling from her key chain. She had two of those; one filled with pepper spray, the other with silver nitrate. Humans weren't the only ones who liked to attack at night.
"The guest room is small, but there's a TV in it," Denise said as they reached her car. "You want to - "
Her voice cut off in a scream as Paul was jerked back, a man appearing out of nowhere behind him. Paul tried to scream, too, but an arm tight across his throat prevented him. The stranger's eyes seemed to burn as they looked from Denise to her cousin.
"Another one," he hissed, placing his fist across Paul's chest.
Denise screamed as loud as she could, raising her pepper spray and sending a burst of liquid in the man's face. He didn't even blink, but Paul's eyes swelled shut as some of it hit him.
"Somebody, help!" Denise shouted again, spraying until the container was empty. The man didn't even budge while Paul's face began to turn blue.
She grabbed the silver nitrate next, unloading its contents in four frantic bursts. The man did blink at that, but in apparent surprise. Then he laughed.
"Silver? How interesting."
Denise was out of weapons and the man hadn't loosened his hold by a fraction. Panicked, she balled her fists and flung herself at him - only to fall to the ground a moment later on top of her cousin.
"What's going on out there?" someone from the bar called out.