Four of today’s most exciting paranormal authors take readers into the thrilling realm of vampires, immortals, and other supernatural beings with a thirst for illicit desire…
Ties That Bind by Nina Bangs
Cassie Tyler agrees to sub for her friend at the funeral home where she works. But she gets more than she bargained for when a group of men attack her and a vampire comes to her rescue. . .
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A ticking clock.
The creaks and groans of an old building settling.
A print of Edvard Munch’s The Scream hanging on a pale green wall.
They didn’t mean much individually. But as Cassie sat alone in the office of Eternal Rest Funeral Home listening to the tick tocks, the creaks and groans, and staring at the print . . . She took a deep breath and prayed for human contact before she did her own interpretation of The Scream.
Those creaks and groans? Definitely sounds of the dead rising, shuffling across the floor in the basement, coming for her. The ticking clock counted down the minutes before the walking dead crashed through the office door and tore her into bite-size bits.
Cassie shivered. Why had she agreed to sub for Felicity for even three minutes let alone three hours? She hated funeral parlors, hated the concept of putting dead bodies on display, hated dead bodies. For twenty-seven years she’d avoided going to a viewing—as a child with tantrums and as an adult with polite refusals.
Now, because her best friend had plied her with sobs and a giant guilt trip, she was here, by herself—not one other freaking person in the building except for dead guys—in the office of Eternal Rest. And it was getting dark outside.
She should have stood firm against Felicity’s begging. No one needed her here. She’d only answered the phone once in the last two hours. Fifteen minutes ago a woman had called to ask about her husband’s funeral. The woman had hung up with a huff of irritation when Cassie couldn’t help her.
Cassie’s heart did a giant ker-thump at the shrill sound of the doorbell. Get a grip. Zombies didn’t ring the bell.
The back entrance, the one with the very large doors that opened to allow very large things—definitely not thinking about what those were—to be carried in and out. She took gulping breaths and tried to calm her primal fears. But that was the problem with primal fears—they weren’t rational, and she couldn’t control them.
Cassie pushed to her feet and hurried toward—thank God—human interaction. As she yanked the doors open, and flipped on the outside light, she thought about shoving aside the man standing there and running like hell. Breathe, breathe. Fact: she could leave whenever she wanted. But then Mr. Garrity would fire Felicity. Fact: a live person stood not three feet from her. Her panic subsided.
“Can I help you?” She smiled as she took inventory. He looked around forty with thinning hair and an ordinary face. Cassie felt the rest of her fear slide away.
He didn’t sound too surprised that she was gone. Did her friend make a habit of skipping out on her job? “She had an emergency. She’ll be back in”—Cassie glanced at her watch—“an hour.” That’s all Cassie had to last. Sixty more minutes.
Felicity owed her big-time for this. No explanation, just a frantic call. Panic had ridden her voice as she’d begged Cassie to fill in for her. And no matter what, Mr. Garrity couldn’t find out that she was gone. She’d promised to leave the back door unlocked and then hung up.
Cassie had sat staring at the phone. What kind of emergency? It must’ve been serious from the sound of her friend’s voice. Her conscience pointed out that Felicity was allowing her to sleep in her spare room while Cassie searched for work. This small favor was the least she could do in return. Cassie wished her conscience would mind its own business. After about a half hour of mental hand-wringing, though, she’d temporarily beaten her fears into submission and headed out to spend a few hours in her personal nightmare.
“Does Mr. Garrity know you’re here?” He speared her with a hard stare.
Cassie had to protect Felicity’s job. She pasted on her most sincere expression. “Of course.” On the shades-of-gray scale, this lie was almost white. Her conscience subsided with a grumble.
The man nodded. “I do special jobs for Mr. Garrity. When a client wants a picture hand-etched onto a headstone, I’m the one who does it. Felicity probably told you that.”
“Uh, sure.” Felicity had told her nothing.
“I delivered one here this morning, but I have to make some minor changes.”
He held up a few pointy tools she hadn’t noticed at first. She frowned. Why would he deliver the headstone here and not to the cemetery? “So you do custom work?” That was her, the queen of obvious.
He smiled for the first time. “Every headstone is one of a kind. Why don’t you get the keys to the basement rooms and meet me down there?”
“Keys?” She’d seen the elevator doors in the hallway right behind her, but Cassie had tried not to think about what lay beneath her feet. Not too successfully if she was imagining zombie attacks.
He’d stopped smiling. “The keys are in Felicity’s desk.”
“Right. Desk.” Something didn’t feel right. Cassie glanced past him to where he’d parked his small, unmarked delivery truck. Another man was climbing from the passenger side of the truck. Now this guy was scary, and big, but he was human and alive. Both points in his favor. She dismissed her feelings. This whole place spooked her.
The first man nodded toward his friend. “Forgot to introduce myself. I’m Tony and the big guy is Len. Takes size to handle the stones.”
“Hi.” Cassie smiled at both men. No way was she giving her name. If the funeral director got cranky because Felicity had called in random secretarial help while he was gone, Cassie didn’t want to be in the line of fire. “About those keys. Why don’t you wait here for a moment? I’ll find them and bring them right back.” She did not want to take that elevator anywhere.
“Can’t waste time waiting for you. I have someplace to be in twenty minutes. Besides, I might need your help.” Tony held her gaze. “Oh, and make sure you press the bottom button.”
Help? For what? Musical accompaniment? He could hack away at his tombstone in time with her chattering teeth. But she couldn’t think of an excuse that wouldn’t make her look like the giant wuss she really was.
The two men walked past her, heading for the elevator.
“Oh, um, do you know where Mr. Garrity is?” In fact, where anybody was? There hadn’t been one person in the place when she’d arrived. She refused to think about the nonliving that probably populated the basement.
Len answered her. “Mr. Garrity was also called away on an . . . emergency.” He seemed to think that was funny, because he smiled.
Cassie thought he had a sinister smile. Okay, maybe not. Her imagination was a terrible thing. Proof? Nonexistent zombies shambling down the hallway. To stop herself from babbling something that would get Felicity in trouble, she turned and walked back to the office.
On the way there, it occurred to her that the men wouldn’t save any time by making her bring the keys downstairs because they’d still have to wait for her to unlock the door. She shrugged the thought away.
Keys, keys . . . She found them in the top drawer of the desk. That part had been easy. Now for the tough part. She had to go back to the elevator, walk inside, and hit the down button.
By the time she reached the elevator, she’d almost made herself believe that this whole experience was a character-building event. She’d be stronger for having spent time at Eternal Rest. You are such a liar.
Inside the car, she had a choice of three unlabeled buttons. The funeral home was only one story, so that meant ground level and two levels below ground. Weird. She hit the bottom one. All the way down she tried to convince her heart it didn’t need to pump gallons of extra blood so she could handle a few minutes among the dead. Her heart didn’t believe her. It redoubled its efforts.
The elevator doors slid open, and Cassie stepped out. She was in a long wide hallway with closed doors lining both sides. Was this usual for a funeral home? The lights were a little too dim, the shadows a little too deep. Relieved, she saw Tony and Len waiting for her at the end of the hall in front of the door on the right.
Please, no bodies, no bodies, no bodies. Her legs felt rubbery by the time she reached the men. They moved aside so she could open the door. She was proud that her hand didn’t shake as she slipped the key labeled with the number eight into the lock and turned it. Cassie pushed the door open and then started to step aside.
After that, things happened too fast for her to react. Tony reached into the room and flipped on a light at the same time someone gave her a hard shove. She stumbled into the room, tripped over something on the floor, and went down hard on her hands and knees. She heard the door slam shut behind her.
She opened her mouth to scream. Then she looked down. The scream froze in her throat.
She was kneeling in a pool of blood—
And staring into Felicity’s sightless eyes.
Dead. Felicity was dead.
Cassie couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think.
She didn’t see her best friend sprawled on that floor, didn’t see the girl she’d shared notes with in school, the woman who’d comforted her when she’d lost her job. Cassie only saw—
A dead body. She was kneeling next to a dead body. Whimpering, she scooted backward, still on her hands and knees. The blood smeared, sticky on her hands, soaking into her jeans.
Never get it out, never get it out. Panicked, she knelt up and tried to wipe her hands on her top.
“Gee, looks like your friend had more of an emergency than she expected.” Tony’s voice.
His soft laughter jerked her back to some level of sanity. Scrambling to her feet, she whirled to face the two men standing in front of the only door.
She still couldn’t force any sound from her locked throat muscles, clenched teeth. But she didn’t need to, because Tony had plenty to say.
“Mr. Garrity got a call on his cell phone from a Mrs. Hodges. She was really upset that you couldn’t help her when she called. Said the regular woman was a lot more efficient.” He took a step toward her.
Cassie backed up a step, her eyes riveted on what he held in his hand. The long pointed tool now looked exactly like what it was—a weapon.
“This really upset Mr. Garrity. See, no one should’ve been here to answer any phones. And since he was tied up with his . . . emergency, he asked us to take care of the problem. Lucky that we live close by.”
She was going to die. Just like Felicity. She’d be lying in a pool of her own blood staring at the ceiling. Funny, the thought of dying didn’t paralyze her with fear. It was just the bodies. It had always been the bodies.
“Why?” She forced the one word past lips that felt numb. Not much, but it was at least a start. Don’t look at the body, don’t look, don’t look, don’t look.
Tony shrugged. “No need to know all the details. Besides, I was telling the truth about that appointment. Let’s just say your friend found something she wasn’t supposed to find and was running off to give it to someone we didn’t want to have it. So we stopped her.” He smiled. “Now we’re going to stop you.”
She saw the intention in his eyes as he started toward her. Survive. That’s all that mattered. Weapon. There had to be something. Panicked, she bumped into a table beside her. An empty glass sitting near the edge fell to the floor and shattered. Without thinking, she crouched and picked up the largest shard.
Len chuckled. “Looks like the little girl thinks she can defend herself.”
Tony wasn’t laughing. He launched himself at her, ready to bury the tool’s point in her heart. Then she’d be just a body, a body, a . . .
No! Cassie reacted. Lessons learned from years of modern dance kicked in. She might not have the talent to be a professional dancer, but she knew the moves.
Leaping into the air, she spun away from Tony’s charge. At the same time she slashed at him with her glass shard. She was too terrified to aim. But she’d hurt him. She’d felt the resistance of the glass digging into his flesh.
Sobbing, she whirled to fend off another charge. A charge that didn’t come.
Silence filled the room. Then she heard Len cursing. Glancing down, she saw Tony sprawled on the floor. Saw the moment he died, his throat sliced open. Saw the blood pouring from the wound. The body. She dropped the bloodstained shard.
Nothing to protect yourself with now. The thought floated around in her mind, for the moment overwhelmed by the coppery scent of blood and the memory of the glass cutting, ripping, ending a life.
She supposed she was lucky then that Len didn’t attack her right away. Forcing herself to think instead of just feel, she looked at him.
But he wasn’t watching her. He was staring past her at . . . She turned.
The horrors never ended. A transparent coffin rested on another table. A man’s body lay inside. He was naked, and his pale skin gleamed under the ceiling light. Someone had set a headstone beside the table. Only two things about the stone registered.
A sick mind had created that image. It was an etching of the man in his coffin with thick chains wrapped around almost every inch of his body. A huge padlock trapped the man inside. The etched lock almost seemed to glow.
And a name. Ethan.
“You stupid bitch! You killed the binder.”
Cassie had never heard that much fear in any person’s voice. A binder? What was a—
The man in the coffin turned his head. He opened his eyes and stared at her. Eyes with no pupils, no white, just solid black.
She stopped breathing.
Len screamed, a high keening sound filled with unspeakable terror. He threw himself toward the closed door.
The coffin shattered.