A ringing phone at two in the morning never brought good news. Brenna Halliday bolted upright in bed, heart pounding as she stared at the illuminated face of her old-fashioned alarm clock. Certainly not in the wee hours before dawn on Christmas Day.
Worst case scenarios flashed through her mind.
Grandpa sprawled at the foot of the stairs beneath the scraggly pine he’d hauled in from the woods behind his cabin and decorated the day before. Not that anyone would have found him yet since he was so contrary about wearing his life alert button…
The jarring peal sounded again.
Dex? Had her little brother skidded on the icy roads and wrapped his car around a tree on the way home from a Christmas party? Surely he had more sense than to drink and drive. He wasn’t usually irresponsible…
When the phone shrilled a third time, surely louder and more strident than before, Brenna’s overstretched nerves threatened to snap. Flipping on the bedside lamp, she blinked at the harbinger of doom before reluctantly lifting the receiver to press the talk button.
“Hello.” Her voice croaked, dread nearly choking her.
“I have your dog. If you want him back…
The deep male voice faded as the blood roared in her ears. Not Grandpa or Dex, thank God, but bad enough. A ransom call for her baby? Her grip on the phone tightened as she forced herself to breathe.
“Hello? Is anyone there?” Annoyance registered in the sharp tone. “Are you the owner of a mixed-breed destruction machine named Rebel?”
“My dog’s name is Rebel. Who’s this?”
A glance toward her pet’s empty bed in the corner of the room confirmed Rebel wasn’t sleeping on his back with his paws waving in the air, as usual. Had he gone outside through his doggy door and been picked up by some stranger lurking near her home? He wasn’t exactly show dog quality…
“I don’t understand.” Tears threatened. “Why would you take my dog?”
“Take him?” The voice rose to a near shout. “Lady, you have one well-developed imagination. Why the hell would anyone want to take that mutt? Your oversized vandal burrowed his way onto my property then somehow squeezed through my dog door only to rip open all the gifts under the tree. I found him devouring a rawhide bone I bought for my dog, who I might add, is home where she belongs.”
Brenna slumped back against the pillows as relief filled her. Not dognapped, after all. Apparently Rebel had gone out on one of his midnight adventures. Again. Obviously, her dog was doing his best to live up to his name.
“Sorry about that. When a ringing phone wakes me up at two in the morning, I tend to think the worst.”
“You should be sorry. I called the number on his tag because I thought his owner might be worried and out looking for him.” The voice on the other end of the line crackled with disapproval. “Not at home in bed, sound asleep.”
She pushed tangled curls out of her face and suppressed a yawn. “Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. My bad. I wasn’t aware he snuck out. If you’ll give me your address, I’ll come pick him up and get him out of your hair.”
“He’s not in my hair. As I mentioned, he’s lying on a heap of wrapping paper under my tree.”
Had there been an actual hint of humor in his tone?
“Point taken. If it’ll make you feel better about Rebel’s bad behavior, even though it’s the middle of the night, I’ll rewrap the gifts for you. And I’ll buy your dog a new bone. In the meantime…”
“That won’t be necessary. Just come get your beast. I’m at 2200 Holly Drive. The house is down at the very end of the road…” His voice trailed off on a tired—or perhaps reluctant—sigh. “I’ll unlock the gates and turn on the outdoor lights for you.”
“I’m only a couple of houses away. I’ll be there in a few minutes.”
Brenna hung up the phone then scrambled out of bed to pull on the jeans and sweater she’d left in a heap on the carpet the evening before. Holy crap! Was she really going to get a peek at the mysterious occupant of the old Colonial behind its high brick wall at the end of her street? The place was practically a fortress. Since the previous owner had died nearly a year before, none of the neighbors at caught so much as a glimpse of the new inhabitant. Just a large, black SUV with smoked windows cruising in and out at infrequent intervals, mostly after dark. And the occasional sighting through the wrought iron gates of a Lhasa Apso racing across the front lawn, silky fur flying. Speculation over the owner’s identity ranged from a reclusive billionaire to a secret government witness to a vampire.
Brenna had been a fan of the vampire theory. A grim smile curved her lips as she paused in front of the mirror over her dresser to finger comb long dark curls into a semblance of order. However, since she’d just been invited into this man’s lair in the wee hours of the morning, she hoped she was wrong. Grabbing the flashlight she kept on the nightstand to combat frequent winter power outages, she headed to the mudroom to shove her feet into a pair of snow boots then shrugged on a down parka.
A blast of arctic cold slapped her in the face when she stepped outside. Not unexpected in December in Maine, but the frigid air stole her breath. Snowflakes sifted through the night sky to melt against her cheeks as she flashed the light beam on the icy stretch of road. In the distance, a multi-colored glow lit up the trees surrounding the big, old house. Head down as she picked up speed, it wasn’t long before she reached the gates and paused to stare. Twinkling Christmas lights decorated the three story white structure, outlining black shutters and glimmering in the bushes along the foundation.
Surely a vampire wouldn’t put up holiday lights. Would he? A breath escaped in a puff of white vapor.
“The gate’s unlocked.”
“What?” Eyes wide, Brenna nearly jumped out of her skin. She glanced up. The voice came through a speaker below a mounted camera. Great, the man behind the wall had been watching her every move. At least she hadn’t done anything to embarrass herself. “Okay, thanks.”
After pushing open the gate and stepping through, she let it swing shut behind her. The lock snapped into place with an ominous click. Snow dusted the drive leading to the house. She cast a quick look over her shoulder at the trail of footprints behind her. Was she a complete idiot to go looking for her dog in this stronghold in the middle of the night? Would the authorities find her decomposing body deep in the woods when the snow melted next spring? Reaching the front stoop, she took a breath and raised a shaking hand.
The door swung wide before she could knock. Light from a chandelier high overhead gleamed on the polished marble floor of the entry. The man standing before her wearing sweat pants with a rip in one knee seemed out of place…and time. She’d expected a tie and tails at the very least. Perhaps a black cape. Her gaze swept upward over a navy blue T-shirt clinging to a broad chest, past a strong jaw with a shadow of beard, over well-defined lips and a strong nose to a pair of laser blue eyes. Her mouth sagged open.
I hope you'll come back tomorrow for Part Two of Something Better!
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