UPDATE: The winner of two books by Cat Adams + a series poster is tinatre! Please email your addy to contests(AT)knightagency.net.
Today, Cat Adams* continues our Holiday Extravaganza with a retelling of "It's a Wonderful Life." The author is giving away Books 1 & 2 in her Blood Singer series, BLOOD SONG and SIREN SONG, to one lucky winner, along with a series poster. Leave a comment sharing something "wonderful" about your life a la George Bailey, or something you're grateful for this holiday season to enter. The winner will be announced tomorrow morning.
One of my favorite Christmas traditions is the showing of “It's a Wonderful Life.” Yes, it's an old movie, and a little cheesy. But I truly believe each one of us makes more of a difference than we know in this world and in the lives of others. SO, my choice was easy. Celia Graves gets to find out that despite how it may appear, she has “A Wonderful Life.”
For those following the series, this will give you a sneak peek at things to come in the next two books as this story takes place after them. Enjoy! ;)
"A Wonderful Life"
By Cat Adams*
“Are you sure it's all right?” Dawna's voice on the phone was worried. I knew she couldn't see me here, parked in front of my Gran's old house, but she knew something was wrong. Perceptive of her. Dammit.
I forced a smile into my voice as I answered. “Don't be an idiot. Of course it's all right. I mean, Chris bought you tickets to Hawaii for Christmas. No one is going to give you a bad time about going. Not Ron, and certainly not me. GO. Have fun. Bring me back a lei.”
I didn't make a crack about it being the only “lay” I'd be getting. I was pretty sure I wouldn't be able to pull the joke off. The two men in my life were both pissed off at me for the moment. Maybe for more than the moment. I figured Bruno was headed to the east coast to spend Christmas with his family and hadn't invited me. Creede . . . well, who knew where Creede was. But he'd delivered a sort-of ultimatum about making up my mind before roaring off in his new Lamborghini.
“Celia?” Dawna's voice brought me back to the present. Apparently I'd missed something. I'd been doing that quite a bit lately.
“Sorry. Sorry. Got distracted.”
“I said my mom asked me to invite you to Christmas dinner with the family.”
Oh Lord. Um, wow. Nice of her. Really. But no. Oh, so no. It's always awkward when you're celebrating a family holiday with a family that isn't your own. But Dawna's family is huge, ethnic, noisy, and I couldn't even imagine . . . no, I didn't want to imagine how that would go. “Dawna, that's very sweet, but I have other plans.”
“Mnnn hnnn. Sure you do.” She didn't believe me for an instant. She knows me too well.
“But I really appreciate it. Be sure to tell her that.”
“I will. But what are you doing tomorrow?”
Oh crap. Leave it to her to call me on the lie. Think quick, Graves. Come up with something. “I'm going to midnight mass at St. Lucia's. Matty's going to be officiating.” Matteo DeLucca was the brother of my on-again-but-currently-off-again boyfriend Bruno. Matt hadn't liked me much when we were younger, but we'd gotten a lot closer in the past year or so. “Then a big breakfast and a lazy day watching all those cheesy Christmas movies on the tube.”
Pathetic. I know. But it was the best I could come up with on such short notice. And hey, it beat the hell out of the truth---saying I was going to lie around crying and feeling sorry for myself.
“Are you going to call your Gran?”
Ouch. There it was. She'd finally decided to address the elephant in the room.
“Gran doesn't want to hear from me Dawna. She's made that abundantly clear.”
“She's an idiot. You're her granddaughter. And it's Christmas. Families need to be together at Christmas. It's time for you both to bury the hatchet.”
I sighed. I wanted to. Lord how I wanted to. But Gran was having none of it. She blamed me for Mom being back in prison. Mom blamed me for “killing my sister” although how I was supposed to prevent the kidnapping was anyone's guess. On the other hand, preventing my sister's ghost from overshadowing another little girl---a little girl who'd lived in the house in front of me up until a couple of weeks ago was my fault. “It's not going to happen, Dawna.”
“Like you can talk.” I snorted. “Go. Have fun with Chris.”
“Oh, I intend to.” She sounded smug. “And I could be wrong . . .but.”
“You think he's going to propose?”
“I dunno.” She was excited and nervous. Her voice had this vibrato, like her whole body was quivering. “Maybe. He's acting kind of weird.”
“Dawna that's great!” I didn't have to fake the enthusiasm this time. Chris is a great guy. The two of them are good together. I laughed abruptly, thinking of the first time Bruno had proposed. He'd been so nervous he dropped the ring. It rolled into the hotel swimming pool and got stuck in the drain. Maybe we should've taken that as an omen.
“Go to Hawaii. Have fun. Do NOT worry about anything. Do not even THINK about worrying about me. I am fine.” Liar, liar, pants on fire.
“All right. I'll go. And I'll try not to worry. But you try not to brood. Promise.”
We ended the conversation shortly after that. Sliding my phone into my pocket I climbed out of the car and started up the walk. I needed to use the bathroom, and I might as well check to see how they'd left the place while I was at it.
Note to self. Empty houses are depressing (like I needed any help). It didn't look too bad from the outside. They'd left my grandmother's metal rocking chair and welcome mat because they'd “come with the house” along with the lawn set out in the back yard. But the interior was echoingly empty and sparkling clean. No dust bunny dared raise its whiskers. No sign, anywhere of the raucous, noisy life of a family and the memories from my own childhood had been dampened by painting and redecorating. (Oh yeah, and that whole, not speaking to the family thing.)
I used the facilities then came out to stand in the middle of the sunny living room and everything got blurry. I just stood there, tears streaming down my face. What was I going to do with the place? Hell, what was I doing with my life?
The doorbell rang.
I hurriedly wiped at my face with my sleeve and blew my nose with the remnant of the last tissue from the box in the bathroom before hurrying to the door. Looking through the beveled diamond shaped door window I was startled to see my great-aunt Lopaka. Nor was the Queen of the Sirens alone. She'd brought . . . Dottie?
Okay, that was just weird. I hurriedly pulled open the front door to let in my royal relative and the little old lady who worked at my office and was blessed (or cursed) with strong clairvoyant gifts. I wouldn't be able to offer them a seat. But knowing Dottie, they already knew that. Besides, she had a built in seat thing on her walker.
“Ladies.” I bowed my head in a gesture of respect to the queen then stepped aside to allow the two of them to enter. “This is unexpected.”
Lopaka let out a deep, ‘why are you surprised’ sigh. “I've told you before. I am aware when my people are in severe distress, particularly my family members.”
“Oh.” She had said that. About my mom. I hadn't really thought it would translate to the current situation. Oops. Bad enough to be miserable on your own without dragging the ruler of a freaking nation down in the dumps with you. “Sorry.”
“You, are depressed, and angry, hurt. And you have been asking yourself whether it would have been better, perhaps, if you had never been born.” Lopaka sounded thoroughly disgusted with the whole concept. Of course the sirens were telepaths. She'd probably gotten an “earful” as it were. I was a little miffed that she'd eavesdropped. Not that I'd say so. But if I wanted to throw a pity party, which I don't do often, shouldn't I get to? Just like everybody else?
“It is reasonable to be sad on occasion.” Lopaka said, “However, it is unhealthy to wallow in it.” She gave me a stern look. “So I decided to enlist your prophet. Combining our powers I can show you precisely what you need to see---what the world would be like if you'd never been born.”
Dottie turned her walker around and sat. Giving me a slightly guilty look she reached out and took Lopaka's hand.
And the world shifted sideways.
* * *
I was standing on the sidewalk outside of a house that was only somewhat recognizable as this one. My gran was on the porch in her chair. At least it looked like my gran, sort of. If gran would ever allow herself to stop eating, and taking care of her appearance. The old woman on the porch looked washed up, used and defeated.
She rose shakily to her feet as I hurried forward. “You must be the new volunteer they've assigned me. I've already told them. I don't want their damned meals, with or without wheels. If I want to eat, I can cook. If I don't, then I won't have you wasting both of our time and good food by throwing it out. You can stop coming by here as of right now. Show your nose on my land again and I'll charge you with trespassing.”
I skidded to a halt. I knew I should say something, but I was utterly speechless. She didn't know me. I looked over my shoulder to stare wide-eyed at Lopaka, who stood serenely on the sidewalk.
“I told you to git! The only reason I'm not calling the cops right now is you remind me a little bit of my daughter.”
“Oh, they told you about her, did they? Well it won't do you any good trying to suck up to me by talking about her.” Her jaw thrust out defiantly, but there were tears in her eyes.
“Where is Lana? Is she coming here to spend Christmas with you?” I couldn't keep the hope from my voice. I'm not my mother's biggest fan, but the gran on the porch obviously needed help.
The tears overflowed. The old woman's voice was a hoarse croak. “She's dead. Years ago. And her baby girl with her.” She collapsed back into the rocker, shaking her head as if the memory was too much to bear.
“What happened?” I came forward and sat on the top porch step, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. For me it was. I've done it since childhood. And despite her earlier threats, Gran didn't react by calling the police. In fact, she didn't react much at all. She was too lost in her own painful memories.
“She couldn't help it. He left her, you see. Left her alone with little Ivy. She couldn't cope. Men just don't leave sirens. And Ivy's talent . . . well, it's hard having ghosts, around, let alone seeing buried and rotting creatures raise themselves up and follow your baby around. She couldn't handle it, my Lana. Couldn't cope.”
I knew this part of the story. “She started drinking.”
The old woman nodded.
“They ruled it an accident. But it wasn't.”
“She died with her. I'm alone now. Jeremy's gone; my Lana; even my grandbaby. Nobody cares about me. Not even me.” She pulled herself together and stood. “So you just go. Take your food and your pity and get off of my property. Right now.”
I stood, “Gran. . .”
“I'm not your Gran. I'm nobody's gran. You git. You hear me! GO!”
She was quivering with rage, rage brought on by my slip of the tongue in calling her by the name I'd used for her since childhood. I looked over my shoulder at Lopaka, seeking guidance. She signaled that it was time to leave.
“You'll call if you need anything?”
“I don't need anything from the likes of you missy. I can take care of myself.”
“You don't even want a ride to church?”
She snorted. “Like I'd go! God and me haven't been on speaking terms in years. Not since he took my Lana from me. You just go do whatever it is you do for somebody who wants your help. It sure won't be me.”
I didn't want to leave, but I couldn't stay. I couldn't help her if she wouldn't help herself. With a sinking feeling in my stomach I walked out to where Lopaka was waiting.
“Who would you like to see next?”
I didn't even hesitate. “Vicki.” My best friend had been murdered in connection with something that happened to me. If I hadn't been born, she must still be alive. That was worth seeing, if nothing else.
Lopaka didn't say a word. She took my hand, and with a rush of wind that blew back my hair and plastered my clothes to my body we moved away from the old woman on the porch that looked like my Gran, but wasn't.
We flew. I've had my share of flying dreams, but this . . . this was amazing. The stars whooshed by above, the lights of the city sparkled below. It was exhilarating and beautiful, right up until we approached . . . something.
It's hard to describe. There was no starlight, only the pulsing, flickering orange and red of flames refracted through a magical barrier that I could see wavering. From a distance I saw mages struggling in concert to reinforce the shield.
And then we were past it, plummeting toward the ground.
We landed in a cemetery. “We can't stay long. The rift is expanding again. And while this is not our reality, the demon that has sought you might use the image of it to intrude on our minds. I know this is necessary. But be quick about it.” She gestured in the direction of a beautiful white mausoleum behind a wrought iron gate. As I moved forward, the gate swung open of its own accord and I stepped through to examine the outer wall with its row of gleaming brass name plates.
“Vicki Cooper. 1983-2005.”
I turned to Lopaka, “How?”
“She was murdered by her lover for her inheritance. She made it look like an accident. The killer is now living in Europe, and plotting the same fate for an heiress there.”
I swallowed hard. Blinked back tears. Poor Vicki.
“We must go. Now.” A panicked Lopaka appeared next to me and grabbed my hand. In an instant we were airborne, moving so fast that the wind was icy against my skin. I caught only a glimpse of the rift, but a glimpse was enough. I saw a familiar blond mage fighting to keep the barrier up, and saw him fail, to die at the claws of a lesser demon. John Creede---the John Creede of this reality---was dead. With him gone, without Bruno helping, the rift would expand exponentially. I didn’t even want to think what the end result would be.
It took long moments to get where we were going, even moving at such mind boggling speed. I was cold to the bone and shivering when we finally swooped down, and through the glass walls of a penthouse with a beautiful view of the New York skyline.
“We will not be visible or audible here. It's safer.”
I turned to ask what she meant, but the words caught in my throat as Bruno strode into the room, a giggling, brown-eyed toddler riding his shoulders. “Faster daddy, FASTER!” the little boy ordered.
A woman entered the room from a nearby hallway. She was beautiful, leggy and blonde, perfectly put together in that way some women have. Her clothes were expensive, with the right designer labels. And they were accented with just the right amount of jewelry. All of it was tasteful and discreet---except for the ring on her left hand. There was nothing discreet about that baby. It might be able to give Gibralter a run for the money. I was surprised she could lift her frigging hand. Still she managed it, reaching up to take the little boy from his father. “You're getting him wound up, and right before bedtime . . . again.”
“Sorry.” He gave her an apologetic peck on the cheek. “Be good for your momma, Matty. Get ready for bed.”
“Will you tell me a story?”
“Sorry bud. Not tonight. Your mom will have to cover for me.”
“Nope. No arguing. Go with your Mom.”
“You're going out?” She tried to sound calm about it, but there was a hint of something in her voice: fear, disapproval, maybe both.
“Business. Don't wait up.” He stood in the hallway, watching as she led the reluctant child by the hand into one of the rooms in back.
“I never do.”
* * *
We followed him downstairs, where a driver was waiting with the limo. The driver was heavily-armed, expensively dressed and stone faced. He was also as Italian as pasta. And while Uncle Sal might swear that the Italian Mafia is an invention of the media, this guy had “Mob” written all over him. In BIG, bold letters.
He drove. We rode with Bruno in back. He poured himself a scotch, neat. And as we moved through traffic I watched his body language change as the happy family man transitioned into something harder, colder, and infinitely more terrifying.
The car stopped. A moment later, there was a tap on the window, and the door opened. Bruno climbed out. He and the driver joined another pair of thugs on the dock next to a large motorboat. I could see there was something large and vaguely man-shaped on the floor covered by a tarp.
“Did he give you any trouble?” Bruno’s face was set in stone.
“Nah. Not really.” The shorter of the two men answered.
“He never even saw it comin'.” The second assured him with something approaching a chuckle.
“Good work.” Bruno congratulated them. “Now get lost.”
They didn't need to be told twice. Shorty handed the key to the boat to Bruno's driver and hustled with his friend to a midsized sedan they'd parked nearby. They were long gone by the time Bruno's driver had the boat headed out to open water and Bruno lifted the tarp to reveal a battered and bound cousin Joey.
“Hello Joe.” Bruno reached down, casually ripping the duct tape from Joey's mouth. Joe grunted with pain as a fair amount of skin and beard went with the tape. Bruno shook his head, not sadly, more with disgust.
“Did you really think you were going to get away with it?” Did you honestly believe I was that stupid?”
He didn't answer. Didn't argue. Didn't beg. He just stared at Bruno, his dark eyes black and beady in the moonlight. There was such hate in his expression it made me shudder to see it. I've known Joey for years, since the first time Bruno took me home to meet the family. God help me I like him. He's a thug, but he's part of Bruno's family. And as with the rest of the family, he and Bruno have always been close. They banter, they argue, but they like each other. All that was missing. This version of Joey was cold, hard, and deadly. He knew he'd lost, knew he was about to die, but he was giving no quarter.
The boat stopped. We were miles from shore. No land was visible. The only light was star and moonlight reflecting off of the dark mirrored surface of the water.
The driver killed the boat's engines and walked back to stand next to Bruno. The night was quiet except for the soft lapping of water against the hull of the boat and Joey's harsh breathing.
“I could've had Eddie do this, or one of the others.” Bruno said conversationally. “But, this is family. I wanted to look you in the eye. See for myself, hear whatever you had to say. I figured I owe Sal's memory at least that much.”
“Screw you.” Joey spat a wad of saliva onto the deck next to Bruno's feet and was rewarded by a kick to the ribs from the driver that made me wince and half-lifted Joey off of the floor.
Bruno reached out his right hand. He uttered words I’d only read in books. A magical curse so vicious, so violent that only the blackest of the dark mages used it. Murder by magic would allow a jury to issue the ultimate punishment against my former fiance. The death sentence . . . if he was ever caught. We winked off of the boat before I had to see Joey's death.
* * *
I found myself standing in the middle of an empty living room, tears streaming down my cheeks while Lopaka spoke.
“Bruno didn't stay and finish college. Without you here, he was unhappy, didn't make friends with any of the other students. Instead he went back east, joined Uncle Sal in the family business. Joey had always expected to take over when Sal passed on. But the same ruthlessness that makes Bruno a world-class mage in this reality drove him to the top in the family business as well. And without you in his life his . . . moral compass . . . got buried by his ambition.”
I couldn't speak. There simply were no words. It was Dottie who broke the silence.
“There's more. The World Series game was a blood bath. Lopaka lost her crown to Eirene and her mother. And I . . .” she choked up and snuffled before continuing, “I'm okay I suppose, in assisted living. But Minnie the Mouser . . . she gets torn apart by dogs.” She wiped at her eyes with a tissue she'd pulled from a little bag she'd had hanging from her walker. “I know it seems silly, what with everything else we've seen. But . . .”
But she loves that cat. For that matter, so do I.
“Have you seen enough?” Lopaka asked.
I nodded. Still unable to speak.
“Good. Then I will take your prophet back to the office where she can reassure herself as to the well being of her cat.”
Dottie rose and turned her walker around. “Yes. I think I’d like that.” She moved slowly toward the door. It was obvious that the vision had worn her out. Even Lopaka was looking weary.
They'd barely reached the door when there was a firm knock and the sound of voices. The door opened to reveal a crowd on the porch. Kevin was dragging a huge Christmas tree, helped or hindered by Amy and El Jefe. Emma had a picnic basket. And Bruno was there with Matty. My Bruno. Not the hard-eyed killer of the boat, but a world-class mage and better-than-average lounge singer. He and Matty started belting out Christmas carols the minute the door was open.
Lopaka and Dottie stepped aside as the crowd trooped in, and slipped out while my new guests were each hugging me in turn.
“How?” I turned in a slow bewildered circle as the group bustled around me, setting up the tree, fetching the plastic lawn furniture from the back yard and laying out a veritable feast.
“The Queen.” El Jefe answered, smiling. “She thought it at us. Said you needed company.” He turned to Bruno. “You were supposed to bring the decorations.”
“And I did.” Bruno reached into his pocket, withdrawing a sprig of mistletoe with a flourish. He held it over our heads and proceeded to kiss me breathless.
“They're here!” Emma called from her spot at the front door. “He did it!”
The kiss wound down, and Bruno slid an arm around me, steering me in the direction of the front door. “Better him than me. She still hasn't forgiven me for our first break-up, let alone the last one!”
I wasn't sure what he meant until I looked out the front door. Creede's car was parked right in front of mine. He was holding open the passenger door for my Gran to climb out.
Merry Christmas Everyone.
And a Blessed and Happy New Year.
*Cat Adams is the psuedonym for Cie Adams and Cathy Clamp. Cathy Clamp is not a Knight Agency client.
Labels: holiday week