So later this week, I’m releasing my first ever self-published e-book, Tender Bites. It’s an anthology of vampire romance stories, some historical, some contemporary – kind of my private stock of vamp swoon. As I’m doing the last little tweaks of pulling it together, I thought it might be fun to feature a snack-size nibble of each story here on the blogness, a sneaky-peek for my nears & dears.
“The Haunting of Goody Crum” is probably the sweetest vampire story I’ve ever written. Since it begins with the gruesome aftermath of a Native American raid on a Puritan settler’s cabin, that might sound kind of strange, but those of you who know me probably won’t be surprised. Trust me, this vampire, Wil, has a soft, mushy center that shows up in a big way before the end.
North American Wilderness, 1757
The vampire smelled the fire as soon as he came out of the ground, cured pine logs burned down to smoky embers under the unmistakable pig-stench of cooked or cooking human flesh. He turned his face up to the wind like a wolf, his senses honing in on the smell as he moved silently through the trees. The last tribe he had seen had been days ago – Pawnee, he thought, though he had chosen not to approach their fires. Since returning to the forest from the more subtle wilds of Europe, this death spirit had preferred to do his talking in the dark.
He saw the clearing well before he entered it, but the sheer size of it made him stumble in amazement. For more than half a mile ahead, every tree was gone, cut down to ankle-high stumps. The fire smell was stronger, and even in the dark he could see a thick column of gray smoke rising from the other side of the blank space in the woods.
Then he smelled the living blood. The scent called to him; the heartbeat pounded in his ears like a war drum, dancing through the frozen marrow of his bones. He broke into a run. This had become his favorite way to hunt this endless wilderness, running through the dark, scooping up his prey with no words passed, no pause for breath or prayer. Sometimes he even took them into the sky in a hawk-like swoop, dropping their empty bodies back into the black woods far below as he flew, never looking into their faces. Sometimes he stayed on the earth, praying over the dead in the native fashion, thanking them for the lives they had given up as if they’d had a choice. It had begun as a joke, a mockery of his prey, the silent warriors who prided themselves on running as swift and silent as the deer they hunted. But since his return from so-called civilization, he had begun to take it seriously, to crave the wild ceremony of the hunt almost as much as he did its crimson fruit.
The heartbeat was coming from the center of the burning stench. As he drew closer, the smell of rot turned his stomach. He stopped at the glowing embers that represented all that was left of what had been a fair-sized cabin, English or Français. That explained the stumps, he thought. The Europeans encroached further into the woods every year, but he had never encountered settlers so far inland before. He was running out of places to hide.
But whoever had lived here wouldn’t be writing home for reinforcements any time soon. The war party had made certain of that. He found no sign of bodies in the wreck of the cabin itself, but the smell could not be denied. Maybe they ate the settlers, he thought, dropping gracefully to a crouch as he moved around the edge of the fire, moving closer to the source of the rotten smell and the ever-beckoning heartbeat. Some tribes had been known to turn cannibal for a good cause, and so much the better for him. Demon he might be, but not even God could fault him for feeding himself on a cannibal left behind.
But the heart wasn’t native, and it wasn’t the heart of a warrior. Another fire was burning itself out just at the edge of the trees behind the ruined cabin. Strung over it was a gruesome bit of native art the vampire didn’t need to see any more closely to recognize. As a human, he had been a Viking marauder; he had been a vampire for centuries since. But what the red men could think of to do to the corpses of their enemies still never ceased to amaze him. This man had been flayed and gutted, probably alive, before being strung up to roast. Nothing was left of his hair or his face, but a few burned rags of clothing still clung to his half-consumed flesh and bloody bones.
A living, breathing, sobbing woman was crouched on the ground nearby. She was praying in English, snatches of the Our Father and bits of rubbish he didn’t recognize, the guttural singsong of the Puritans. She seemed to be trying to tear up the sod with her fingers as she prayed. Her back was turned to the horror over the fire, but the stench must have made her stomach roll. Just take her, the vampire scolded himself. What do you care if she’s praying? She’s crazy, run mad with shock—to end her misery would be a kindness. He lunged toward her without a sound, the wolf springing out of the darkness—
Then she looked up.