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HOLIDAY GATHERINGS

Dark-Hunter Series, Book 13.5 (?)

Sherrilyn Kenyon

New Orleans

Sanctuary Bar Christmas

Aimee Peltier paused as she watched the gathering around her. This was the one day a year when Sanctuary officially closed. Even though very few members of their extended family and staff were Christian, they still took time to honor the holiday. To remember their own beliefs and to think back on those they'd loved and lost.

As the bar's name implied, this was the haven for were-animals, shapeshifters who were hunted by each other and by the humans. Her parents had set up the bar over a hundred years ago after Aimee's older brothers had been killed in the senseless war that divided her people from each other.

It had been her mother's solemn vow that no other mother would ever weep over the loss of a child if she could help it. But since then, her mother's view of what was right and what was wrong had shifted a bit. And in order to keep the peace here at the bar, her mother had made decisions that Aimee didn't always agree with.

But then mother-daughter disagreements were even older than the were-animals themselves.

The bar was dim, lit only by candles. Her brother Dev was at the counter, pouring drinks. He'd pulled his long, curly blond hair back into a pony tail while he joked with Colt and Angel, who were in human form, sitting on the stools in front of the bar, drinking beers.

Aimee's mother, Nicolette, was off to the side in human form as she played with Zar's bear cubs. There were several tigers, a jaguar, and bears lounging about or playfully fighting while others were in their human forms as they played cards, pool, or just hung out for the night.

"You feeling okay?"

She turned at the deep voice behind her to find Maxis standing there. Tall and gorgeous, he had dark blond hair and silvery-green eyes that shimmered in the dim light. Stunned, she had to blink twice just to make sure she wasn't imagining his presence. Maxis had come to Sanctuary severely wounded. One of the rare dragon Katagaria, he didn't mix with other groups easily. He preferred to stay isolated in the attic where he could sleep in dragon form and not be disturbed.

"What are you doing downstairs?"

Max folded his arms over his chest. "I felt your pain and was wondering what caused it."

His concern touched her deeply. It was true, watching the family around her made her ache for the one thing she wanted most.

Fang Kattalakis. A wolf who'd been half dead, he'd been brought here by his brother, and Aimee had nursed him back to health the same way she had Max. But unlike with Max, she'd fallen in love with Fang even though she knew there was no chance of there ever being anything between them.

If only she could convince her heart of that.

She offered Max a smile she knew was fake. "I'm okay."

"You're not okay, Aimee. You haven't been okay since the night Fang left."

She glanced about nervously. "Please keep your voice down…"

"Is this better?"

She could only hear his voice in her head. Nodding, she patted his arm. "I'll be fine, Max. Thank you for your concern, but you know me."

"I do know you, Aimee. And I know that solitude is a dungeon of spikes that pierces every layer of armor you try to build for it." He held his hand up so that she could see the tattoo he'd placed there in remembrance of his family. "I lost what meant most to me. Don't make the same mistake."

"But Fang and I aren't mates. There are no marks…"

"Neither were there marks for us. And still my heart is broken. Don't let the Fates rule your life. Sometimes we have to take responsibility for it ourselves."

He stepped back and swept his gaze around the others. "I don't like being here with these people and animals. I'm going to retire, but remember, courage is doing what we know is dangerous. It's risking our safety for a chance at something better. Don't let your fears shape your reality because no matter how cautious you are, someone or something always sneaks in the back door to manifest that fear. Better to face it and defeat it than to let it attack you unawares."

Before she could comment, he vanished.

Aimee stood there as she considered his words. He was right, but knowing something and acting on it were two entirely different things.

"What did he want?"

She hesitated at her father's question. Over seven feet in height, her father intimidated almost everyone who saw him. But not her. As his only daughter, Aimee knew he'd never harm her. "He was wishing me a Happy Holiday."

Her father smiled before he pulled her against him and kissed the top of her head. "You attract the strangest creatures."

"Is that such a bad thing?" She looked meaningfully at her brothers.

Her father laughed.

But his laughter didn't ease her. "Papa? Can I ask you something?"

He narrowed his gaze on her. "I'm not sure I like that tone of voice, but you can try."

Before she spoke, she glanced to where her mother played with the cubs. "Had you not been fated for Maman, would you have still stayed with her?"

His gaze turned dark. "Why do you ask?"

"Curiosity."

His expression hardened and she could see that her response didn't appease him. "Don't lie to me, Aimee. I can smell it on your skin. You're thinking of that wolf, aren't you?"

She looked away, unable to answer him. Not that he didn't already know.

Her father's eyes snapped fire at her. "He is not our kind."

And in her mind that changed nothing. "I know that, Papa. I tell it to myself every day."

"If you leave us for him, I don't know if Nicolette could handle it. Your mother can be harsh, but she does love you and she only wants what's best for all of us."

"I know."

He leaned down to whisper in her ear. "But this is your life, ma petite coeur. I will always be here for you."

Aimee closed her eyes as those words eased her heart. "Thank you, Papa. I love you."

"I love you, too. Now smile and join the party." He left her to speak to her brother Serre while Aimee felt suddenly out of place and she didn't know why. This was her home. These were her people and family, and yet…

She'd never experienced anything like this before and it made her ache.

"You okay, sis?"

She nodded at her brother Kyle as he paused by her side. "I have a headache starting."

"You want me to get something for you?"

She smiled at his youthful face. He was the most precious of all her siblings. "It's okay, baby. I think I'm going to lie down for a few minutes. Tell Maman that I'll be back down shortly."

"Okay."

She squeezed his arm before she made her way from the bar through the door that connected this building to the house where they all lived. It was eerily silent with everyone in the bar. This was the only time when the house was truly quiet.

Aimee made her way up to her room.

Pushing open the door, she paused as she caught a familiar scent.

Fang.

Her heart pounded as she slammed the door shut to look for him. But he wasn't here. She wanted to cry… at least until she realized his scent was still strong by her dresser.

She looked underneath a pile of papers to find a small box. Lifting it up, she inhaled the scent that was uniquely Fang's. How she missed him. Her eyes tearing, she unwrapped the gift and opened the box to find a small locket. It had a bear claw engraved around a diamond on the front. On the back was the paw of a wolf. But it was what was inside it that made her tears fall.

It was a piece of his fur. Aimee sobbed at the sight of it. Animals didn't give out things like this. With this fur, an enemy could track him through time.

     

 

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