The Night Before Christmas
Hot Toddy (multi-author series)
Dragon’s Watch, Book 1.5
Ebook ISBN: 1-59596-085-6
[ Christmas Shifter Romance, MF ]
The need and courage of the Ranger, Von, have rekindled interest in the affairs of Humanity within the breast of Pajja, the last of the Watchers. Von’s faith — and desperation — have brought Pajja’s mate, Omellain, back from the realm where she slumbered. Refugees gather at Camp David, searching for hope in a dying land. Now Von must make decisions that will affect humanity’s future, as well as her own. But for one night, Jackson vows to make her forget the responsibilities of command, and remember only what it is to be a woman, and his lover — a very special night — The Night Before Christmas.
’Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house…
Well, the night before the night before Christmas. Von swallowed hard. Nothing. Nothing stirring anywhere. She’d quit believing in Santa Claus years ago. Santa Claus and reindeer and Rescue Ops and all sorts of other fantasies. But she still believed in Recon, and Recon said there were survivors here.
“Come on, Von. Give it a chance. This has to be the right spot.”
She handed Jackson the megaphone. “You try it, then. I’m tired of wasting my voice.”
He shoved her playfully with the flat of his hand. “Scrooge.”
She crossed her arms over her chest, her Glock Model 45 cradled in her right hand. “Whatever.”
Taking the megaphone, he strode away from the helicopter, out into the open clearing, where he could be seen, should anyone be looking. “I’m Sergeant Jackson, U. N. A. S. Rangers, First Corps. We’re here to help you. We brought rations. MREs. We’ll leave them here for you. We’ve set up a survivor camp about ninety miles from here, at Camp David, Maryland. We have food. Clean drinking water. Medical care. All friendlies are welcome.”
Von’s grip on the pistol tightened as the trees rustled slightly near the far end of the clearing. An older man stepped out. He looked like — he looked feral. A veteran, she was sure from the way his eyes moved, searching the perimeter of the clearing. He carried a high-powered rifle and an ammo belt that held more clips than she had access to, here or back at camp.
His fatigue jacket looked to be late 20th century. Long silver-streaked hair pulled into a ponytail, feet moving soundlessly, he skirted the edge of the clearing, watching them, taking in, she was sure, every detail of their shabby chopper and their shabbier uniforms. “You don’t look like First Corps.”
Jackson laughed. “Hell, man, there ain’t but one Corps left.”
“There ain’t no Corps. There ain’t nothing left.”
Jackson stiffened, the smile leaving his face. “As long as there’s one Ranger left, there will always be a First Corps.”
The silver haired man just stared at him, like he was crazy. “What’re you doin’ here?”
Jackson nodded to Von, without ever taking his eyes off the older man. She moved to stand beside Jackson. Time for her to make her speech. “There are more of us left than you’d think. We’re bringing anyone we can find back to Camp David. We have crews working together. Sharing resources and talents. Hunting, foraging, trapping, fishing. Patrolling the camp to keep out hostiles. We have Recon teams going out every day in new directions, salvaging what technology is left, and looking for survivors.”
The man snorted. “Survivors.” The word held a lifetime of bitterness. “Is that what you call us.”
Jackson kept his voice calm, friendly even. For Jackson. “Hell, man, that’s all any of us are.” He walked over to the pile of supplies they’d unloaded from the chopper and knocked the stack over. Grabbing an MRE from the middle, he ripped it open and wolfed down a couple of quick bites. “Look, man. This stuff’s not great — hell, I’m not even sure what it is — but it’s safe, and there’s more. We’re here to help.”
“Who says we need your help?”
Von caught Jackson’s eye. Yeah. They’d both caught that we.
“Maybe you don’t. Maybe you already have better than what we can offer you. But this isn’t just about food. This is about something more than survival. We’re offering you and your people a safe place. As safe as we can make it. We’re trying to build something here. We don’t have much, but we’ll share what we can. Even wolves hunt in packs. People are pack animals. We have to band together if we’re going to survive. You look like you know your way around. We could use you.”
The man’s gaze traveled over the helicopter, then Jackson, then once again over Von. “I don’t recall bein’ all that social before. Can’t think of any good reason to be around more people now.”
Von snapped. “Is this what you want? Living like animals? We’re more than that. We’re humans. We have to remember what it means to be human. We have to teach the children, or everything we had, everything we were will be lost.”
The man eyed her warily. “You have children there?”
“Not a lot. So few women can conceive. Only the ones whose implants have failed. But there are a few. And there will be more. We have doctors trying to find a way to remove the implants.”
“Why Camp David? I’ve been there. Wasn’t nothing left. One of the first places the looters raided.”
“It’s defensible, and it’s still well above sea level. We have the chopper. We’re bringing in everything — and everyone — we can find from all over the East Coast. There are enough underground facilities to keep the civilians safe if we need to hole up.”
Von could tell he was tempted. She wavered, hesitant to play her last card. What the hell. “We have coffee.”
Something flared in his eyes, then died. “GI coffee. Whoopee.”
He licked his lips. “Sugar?”
Jackson laughed. “Oh yeah. We got sugar.”
“How do I know we can trust you?”
Von reached into her jacket — slowly — and extracted a small paper bag with the top rolled and crimped. She tossed it into the MREs, turning back to call over her shoulder as they retreated to the chopper. “You know where to find us.”
She didn’t bother to tell him she’d once thought Colombian coffee pure swill, too far beneath her to even attempt to drink. God, how the mighty have fallen. What she wouldn’t give for a cup of Puerto Rican coffee.
Jackson stopped behind her, so close she could feel the heat of him through her clothes. He brushed the hair from her face with his fingertips, running them gently over her scalp. The feel of his hands in her hair sent tingles down her spine. With a sigh, Von closed her eyes, leaning back into his touch, trusting him to support the weight of her head. Von wished she could purr in this form.
“They’ll come, Von.”
“I know. What other choice do they have?”
He leaned down to kiss her temple lightly. “You make it sound like we’re forcing them back into civilization.”
“Maybe not us, but they’re being forced, just the same.”
“We’re doing the best we can here. According to tonight’s reports, we have nine hundred and forty-seven people here, baby. We’re not a recovery center anymore. We’re a refugee camp. But you’ve made it more than that for these people. You’ve made it a new home. Don’t tear yourself up over things you can’t control.” His fingertips massaged in slow, rhythmic patterns, making it almost impossible to argue with him.
Still, there were fears she hadn’t dare voice aloud. “What if it doesn’t quit, Jackson? What if the water keeps rising? We’re only safe here until the water levels catch up with us.”
“What if it starts snowing in the morning? Relax, Von. Worry about what we can do, not what we can’t change. We’re as high up as we can get unless we change our base of operations to Denver. If the water catches up with us here we’ll build an ark.”
Von laughed, for the first time in ages, it seemed. “An ark.”
“Unless you come up with a better idea between now and then. We’ll have plenty of warning. The water isn’t rising that fast, and we’re a thousand feet above sea level.” He moved his hands down to her shoulders, starting gentle, then working deeper.
“An ark it is. I like your plan. We have some engineers in the ranks. If it doesn’t snow by spring we’ll have them design something. Something that will get us as far as Denver.”
The long, deep strokes of his massage spread down her arms. “Spring’s a long way off yet.”
Von felt her eyes drifting shut. “Mmmm. Yeah, I know.”
“I have a surprise for you.”
“You should have thought of that before you made me into a pile of mush. If it means moving, you’re out of luck.”
Laughing, Jackson scooped her up into his arms. Von let her head rest against his shoulder, her fingers caressing the tight muscles of his neck. He carried her effortlessly, as if she weighed nothing. She should argue, protest, but she didn’t want to. She hadn’t felt this relaxed in months. Instead she snuggled tighter into his arms, sliding the Glock’s holster to where it wouldn’t poke him in the ribs.
She was nearly asleep by the time he’d crossed the compound with her. Not that she’d paid attention to where he was headed, but the compound wasn’t really very big. He’d held her too long to be anywhere near the main camp. Besides, it was quiet here. Everywhere else there was the constant buzz of people. After so long in the field, the noise was wearing on her.
Jackson shifted her weight in his arms as he opened a door.
“I know you don’t want to look like we’re taking privileges of rank or something, Von, but everyone’s building huts and houses. We need some downtime and a place of our own.”
Opening her eyes, Von gasped in surprise and delight. Brightly colored ribbons and bows decorated a small spruce tree in the corner of the cabin’s main room. The tree stood cattycorner to a fireplace with a small, cheerful fire. Despite the date, the temperatures had only dropped down to the low sixties at night. Still, the fire was warm, and welcoming. And… romantic. Strings of popcorn and berries adorned the little tree, too. And underneath its branches sat a small box, wrapped in red tissue paper. “Jackson, how did you…”
“Merry Christmas, baby.”
She hadn’t thought beyond the next meal, the next hunt, the next foraging party for days. Weeks. “I — I don’t have anything for you.”
He set her down on her feet. “Shut the door, Von. Leave the rest of the world to fend for itself tonight. That’s a good enough Christmas present for me.”
Smiling up at him, Von kicked the door shut. “What’s that I smell? What’cha got cooking there, Jackson? Something smells like cinnamon.”
“Why don’t you go look?”
Von took his hand, tugging him with her as she explored the small cabin. This was one of the original cabins, set up as an officer’s quarters, with a little kitchen area and a private bathroom. Stopping at the old porcelain sink, Von reached out to touch the cold water handle.
Jackson slipped an arm around her waist, bending to touch his lips to her temple. “The engineers have come in almost as handy as the plumbers. The generators at the waterfalls are back on line and producing enough hydroelectric power to get the basics back up — we have running water. Just cold so far, but the stove works. Natural gas, with wells on the property.”
Von wiggled her fingers under the water, mesmerized. “It’s real, isn’t it, Jackson? It’s not just a refugee camp. We’re starting over. This is going to be a real city.”
“It’s real, baby. You’re making it happen. This place was built to be self-sustaining. The ham radio guys have been scrounging parts to put a base station together. By next week we’ll be in touch with the rest of the world. If there is a rest of the world. But tonight there’s just us. You and me, and –”
“And a pot of cider. How did you manage that?”
“Salvage Ops found an orchard with a cold storage still intact down in West Virginia. Brought in a whole truckload of apple products. Course –”
“Oh my God!” Von choked, nearly spitting the cider back into the spoon.
“– it’s old. And hard.”
She turned in his arms to face him. “What are you doing, Jackson? Trying to get me drunk? You think I’ll be easier to seduce that way?”
He dipped a cup of cider for each of them. They sipped the hot liquor cautiously, their pelvises just brushing as he gazed down at her. There were questions in his eyes as he looked over the rim of his cup. “Do I need to seduce you, Von? Is that what you want?”
“A woman likes these things.”
“A man likes to know what he’s done, that his woman keeps finding ways to avoid him.”
Ah. So that was what this was all about. Well, she’d known she couldn’t put it off forever. “It’s not you, Jackson. You didn’t do anything. It’s just me.”
Jackson set his cup aside. Slipping his hands down to her ass, he pulled her hips tight against the unmistakable bulge at his crotch. “Talk to me, baby. We never seem to have time to talk anymore. Tell me what’s going on.”
Tears leaked from the corners of her eyes. Man, she hated crying. “I killed you, Jackson. I put a knife to your throat and watched your blood spill out over my blade. I can’t get that image out of my head. I killed you.”
“You saved me, baby. You saved my life.” Jackson turned them around, resting her ass against the kitchen counter. His hands free, he unbuttoned the urban camo fatigue shirt to expose his dark chocolate skin. He picked up her hand and touched her fingers to his throat.
Biting her lip, she abandoned the dregs of the cider to trace the place where the ugly knife wound should have been. Only a tiny, thin line of a scar remained. He’d healed almost perfectly. His cock jumped, and his hips pushed against her. She stared, trying to reconcile the warm, living flesh with her memories. “There was so much blood…”
“It’s OK, baby. No more blood. It’s all gone.”
Von whimpered, torn between the need to touch and the images in her mind.
“Close your eyes, Von. Don’t think. Don’t remember. Just feel.”
Feel… No scar tissue. No wound. Nothing but smooth, solid, soft as silk male skin.
“Mmmm. That feels so good. I’ve missed having you touch me.”
Touch… oh yeah. She’d loved touching him. Awkwardly, tentatively, she ran her hands over his chest. Everything was where it belonged. She leaned in, stretching to reach him, kissing the place where she’d held the knife. She could feel the flutter of his pulse under her tongue as she ran it across his throat. Could feel the low groan that stole from his chest, as well.
Jackson. Her Jackson. So warm, so alive. So patient. He didn’t push her. He’d told her what he wanted, what he needed, shown her, given her a safe, quiet place to be alone with him, but he didn’t push.
All that sheer male brawn, 6’ 4” of him, waiting. Well, she’d never been much on waiting, herself. She liked sex, after all. And she particularly liked it with Jackson. They’d been together for a long time. She knew every inch of him, every rippling muscle, every sweet little spot where —
“Oh, Jesus Christ, woman!” He shivered and jerked beneath her lips.
Yeah. Just like that. She swirled her tongue around the tiny dent over his breastbone, then moved on to the other nipple, circling, tasting. Sucking it into her mouth, she created a vacuum, letting the hard little bud stretch to reach her teasing tongue.
“Oh, fuck.” His hips thrust against her, his cock threatening to burst from the restraining fabric. A shudder tore through him, making the chest beneath her mouth tremble.
“You said fuck. So, OK, let’s fuck.”
Jackson burst out in a roar of laughter. “You are such an incurable romantic.”
“I am, you know. But you bring out the animal in me. You make me want to shift, and lick you all over, until you can’t stand it, and you just have to fuck me, right this second.”
“No.” He leaned down to brush his lips against hers. “I’ve had the cat. She’s a horny bitch, always sticking her tail in my face. Always wanting it right here, right now. She gets what she wants, too, ‘cause no tomcat can resist the smell of that pussy. But this time, the man in me wants the woman. My woman.”
It was hard, not shifting, not sinking her claws into the soft skin of his belly to tussle with him on the floor, biting his ears. The cat gave her room to play, room to hide. Well, maybe she’d hidden long enough. Von slipped under his arm and stepped back, holding out her hands. “Come on. Your woman saw something underneath the Christmas tree. Looked a lot like a bedroll.”
“Somebody laid it out there. Thought we might need it.”
Tugging him by the hand, though she felt a tad foolish, Von pulled him back to the Christmas tree. He’d gone to a lot of work, cleaning out the cabin, setting up the tree, making the little house smell like Christmas. Maybe she should have downed a couple more cups of cider. It was strong enough…
No. She didn’t need to be buzzed. Didn’t want anything dulling her senses. Truth be told, she needed this as much as Jackson did. She closed her eyes, standing with him in front of the tree. “Is that mistletoe hanging up there?”
“I think so. Not really sure what mistletoe looks like, but it’s green, and it smells good.”
“It’ll do. Kiss me.”
He pulled her back against the broad expanse of his chest, one arm around her shoulders, the other lifting her ass till her feet were off the floor, twining her legs around his waist as she tried to get closer to him. God he was hot. The nervous twitch fought with the giddy sensuality of having this big, macho man wrapped around her. Or maybe she was wrapped around him. His soft, warm lips covered hers, his tongue licking the seam of her lips, asking entrance, and she forgot who was doing the wrapping.
Oh God. She’d forgotten. The cats didn’t kiss, but the man did. He kissed like a satyr. Soft lips, hard tongue, twisting, tasting, shredding her fortifications, finding her last defenses to tear them down, claiming the place that was his in her body and in her heart.
Too much. Too many senses on overload. The feel of him, hot and hard and smooth, chocolate skin on fire beneath her fingertips. The smell of him. Clean skin on warm body with a powerful musk that was uniquely his. Her cat senses, never completely dulled, even as a human, could have picked him out in a crowd of hundreds had she been blindfolded. The taste of him. Sweet. So sweet, and yet salty at the same time. She wanted more. She wanted it all.
She pulled at his ass, her hands moving almost without her permission, trying to pull his fine, large cock closer. She was going to explode. Combust. If he didn’t do something soon…
“Fuck me, Jackson. Man. Cat. It doesn’t matter. Just fuck me.”