Josef returns home for Christmas and brings a surprise with him
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London – 1843
At the rate Millie was devouring A Christmas Carol she’d run out of book by the end of the day. Her copy was signed by Dickens, courtesy of an encounter with The Reaper in a dark alley.
Josef had made Mary and Merry brightly painted wooden trains big enough to sit their stuffed animals on with trucks they could put things in. They were pushing them round the books Bran and I had stack liked buildings. Merry had made Patches a paper hat because everyone knew train drivers wore hats and Mary was pushing her train round and going, ‘chugga-chugga, chugga-chugga, poop, poop’. Bran and I were playing too; he was grinning with such energy people who used to call him an ‘old man’ wouldn’t have recognised him.
I smiled at the thought of how far we’d come since the night I kicked him in the balls and stole his pocketbook.
‘You can’t play trains if you don’t push your train, Mummy,’ Mary said. ‘Unless your train is having a nap.’ She frowned. ‘It must be tiring being a train.’
‘Your pappy distracted me,’ I replied.
‘Stop distracting Mummy, Pappy, it’s naughty,’ Mary said.
‘I wasn’t doing anything, did you see me doing anything?’ he said, tickling her.
She squirmed and laughed then went on the offensive and tickled him back. He tipped over and she jumped on him.
‘Save me from the tiny terror, Charlotte,’ Bran said as they wrestled.
Merry stopped, she made Patches climb off the train and change the signals then carried on round Mary and Bran. He was at risk of getting himself kicked in the balls again so lifted Mary off him.
‘I was winning,’ Mary said.
‘It’s Christmas,’ I whispered. ‘You have to let your pappy win sometimes.’
Bran lay on the floor as if he’d been defeated.
‘Do you think the prince needs the princess to kiss him awake?’ I asked.
Mary covered her eyes. ‘Kissing is disguising.’
‘Don’t you want goodnight kisses anymore?’
‘That’s proper kisses. The way you and Pappy kiss is yucky,’ she replied.
Merry pushed her train into Bran’s side. ‘Wake up, Pappy.’
Bran opened one eye and whispered, ‘I’m very old, I need my beauty sleep.’
‘Time to get up then,’ I said.
Bran grinned at me.
‘Stop making kissy faces,’ Mary said, wriggling about.
I put her down and she and Merry set about exploring train land. I got down on my knees beside Bran. ‘I you have any more beauty sleep you’ll hurt my eyes, Chuckaboo.’ I curled my hand around the back of Bran’s head and gave him a soft kiss to a chorus of ‘yuck’.
The front door rattled open.
‘Hello?’ Josef called.
‘Uncle Sef.’ Merry grabbed Patches and her train and hurried out into the hallway.
Mary followed, trying not to drop the train tucked under her arm. I leaned down to give Bran another kiss.
‘Mummy! There’s a babby!’ Mary shrieked.
‘I’ll roast his bloody chestnuts,’ I muttered.
‘Someone’s in trouble,’ Millie said under her breath and turned the page of her book.
In the hallway Merry was hugging her toys and scowling at the tiny boy peeking out from behind Josef’s legs. The boy was chewing the nose of a carved wolf, he couldn’t have been older than Mary was when we adopted the children.
The ever ready Mrs Stapleton had appeared and grabbed Mary before she knocked the boy over in her excitement.
‘Auntie Lia, I want to play with the babby!’ Mary said, stretching out her arms as if she could grab him from a distance.
‘You’re scaring him,’ Mrs Stapleton said.
Mary put her arms down. ‘Sorry, babby.’
‘I came to apologise,’ Josef said and put his hand on the boy’s head. ‘This is Edward.’
Edward’s gaze latched onto Bran. He eyed the rest of us then tottered out from behind Josef. He stopped in front of Bran and looked up at him.
Bran crouched down. ‘Hello, Edward. Are you a bit scared?’
Edward sucked his wolf’s nose, giving Bran careful consideration, then poked his nose. ‘Boop.’
Merry narrowed her eyes at Edward.
Bran grinned at Edward, tapped his nose and said, ‘Boop.’
Edward giggled, put one arm out to him, and flexed his little fingers. Bran lifted him up and he snuggled into Bran’s chest as if it was the safest place in the world.
‘He’s so sweet,’ Mary whispered loudly.
I grabbed Josef by the arm. ‘I need to talk to your uncle.’ I dragged Josef into Bran’s study and slammed the door. ‘What were you thinking?’
‘I came to apologise and –‘
‘From outside your brain it looks like you brought a child and offered him up as an apology present like he’s a bloody puppy.’
‘When you put it like that –‘
‘I don’t want excuses. At least one of these problems could’ve been avoided if you’d apologised sooner.’
‘Avoiding problems?’ he snapped. ‘I went away for a few weeks and you topple a Coven Master. The Council is looking at you.’
I grabbed the nearest book and threw it.
He snatched the book out of the air and tossed it on Bran’s desk. ‘Throw a bloody tantrum.’
I hurled another book, he caught it. ‘You can’t just show up with random children, this isn’t a bloody orphanage.’
He chucked the book on the desk. ‘So you’ll send him away?’
‘You know we won’t. That’s why you did it.’ I reached for another book and the holly pinned to the bookcase wilted.
He grabbed my shoulders and pulled me to face him. ‘You’re the only people I trust.’
We stared at each other, breathing heavily.
‘A man tried to sell him to me,’ Josef said. ‘I objected.’
I closed my eyes and pushed my anger into a box before I accidentally zapped him with my magic. If I zapped him I’d rather it was on purpose, not because I was angry at a man who was already dead. The workhouse had sold me, I knew what Edward had been saved from.
Josef massaged my shoulders, easing the tension from my muscles with gentle fingers. I leaned into his touch. It helped.
‘I can’t find his family,’ he said. ‘Werewolves are pack beings.’
I opened my eyes. ‘Werewolves?’
‘If he’s alone then there’s nobody coming for him.’
I gave him a look. Being able to make me angry didn’t mean he could play my emotions like a weepy violin.
He leaned in. ‘I am so sorry that I keep making a mess of everything, I just…’ He looked towards the ceiling in a very Branish gesture. ‘I didn’t make these sorts of messes before I met you.’
‘No-one pointed out when you did, you mean,’ I said. ‘Why couldn’t you just come and apologise Bran to begin with? I know you can, I’ve heard you do it.’
He sighed and I tasted whiskey on his breath. ‘And where do I start apologising?’ he asked. ‘Not protecting him when he was human? Or trying to steal you from him?’ He touched my face. ‘Misjudging you is no excuse. You’re the best thing that has ever happened to him, that’s one of the reasons I love you.’ He stooped as if he was going to kiss me then stopped, perhaps remembering the last time he kissed me I belted him across the face and now I was a vampire it might hurt.
He withdrew. ‘If I’d ignored you like I did his other lovers, I wouldn’t have fallen in love with you.’
‘You’re an arsehole,’ I said.
‘I love your strength, your intelligence, your amazing breasts.’ He glanced down. ‘I’m not joking from this angle they’re incredible. Is that a new corset?’
I rolled my eyes. ‘We’re too alike, you and I.’
‘Alike?’ he asked.
‘Sometimes our urge to protect people overrides our better judgement.’
‘Like declaring war on the local Coven Master?’ He smiled. ‘Although “declaring war” implies you didn’t decimate him.’ He traced my jaw. ‘The Council isn’t happy. You need me.’ He closed his eyes. ‘I didn’t mean it like that.’
I could’ve argued but, if I was going to antagonise powerful vampires, having the oldest vampire in the country at my back was a smart move.
I put my hands over his where they rested on my shoulders. ‘If you’d asked we wouldn’t have said no.’ I didn’t need to ask Bran, it had been love at first boop. ‘Just… learn to ask.’
‘I’m so used to people following my lead I…’ He frowned. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘Stop saying sorry to me and apologise to Bran. Properly.’
He leaned in again.
‘If you kiss me you’ll get a knee to the balls.’
He grinned. ‘I’d be disappointed if I didn’t.’
I frowned at him. ‘It’s not just you and I that have things in common, is it?’
‘Depends what you’re implying.’
I clasped his jaw. ‘Don’t play coy with me, Sef, it doesn’t suit.’
His fangs extended, canines and the teeth on either side, a bite designed to tear flesh and shred sinew. I caressed his canine with my thumb, the sharpness drew blood. He put his hand over mine, held my gaze and licked the blood away. I inhaled his arousal, rolling the sweetness of it over my tongue. He bent towards me, easing in, watching for a slap. His power pulsed beneath his skin, warming mine. I rose up on my toes.
Mary burst in.
Josef stepped away.
‘Mummy, can we build a snowman? He can’t have my scarf but I’ve got coal for his eyes.’ She held out two chunks of coal, which might’ve been less than her coating of coal dust.
Bran strode with a sleepy Edward on one hip, Merry on the other, and no more arms to catch Mary with. His gaze flicked between Josef and I. He was certain I loved him but part of him was still afraid I’d leave for Josef. Everyone left Bran.
‘Why was Uncle Sef making kissy faces at you?’ Mary asked, tugging my dress and leaving black smears.
‘Because he’s silly.’ I picked her up and stepped close to Bran. ‘You look like a sleepy little fella,’ I said to Edward. ‘Do you want a nap?’
Edward shook his head and turned his face into Bran’s chest. I could concur that snuggling against Bran was the safest place to take a nap. Merry scowled at Edward.
‘Are you going to kiss Uncle Sef like you do Pappy?’ Mary asked. ‘Won’t your face get sore?’
I wasn’t sure if she meant beards were scratchy or she had strange ideas about ‘grown-up’ kisses.
Before I could reply she continued, ‘Why don’t you kiss Uncle Sef? It’s like you’re married, you live together and you’re bestest friends.’
‘Best friends don’t kiss each other.’ As far as I knew.
‘You told Pappy he was your bestest friend and you kiss him lots and lots.’
I opened my mouth then closed it again.
Josef snorted. ‘Mary will outsmart us all.’
‘I’m clever, Mummy told me so,’ she said. ‘It’s growed-ups that’s silly.’
Josef bent close to me and whispered to Mary, ‘That’s very true.’
Bran eyed Josef, jaw tense. There was no such thing as a private conversation in a vampire household, if we were all speaking the same language. Josef met Bran’s gaze and stepped back.
They’d been friends for seven centuries, falling out over me would be ridiculous. I wouldn’t let them.
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