Hope's Return

Promise Me - Book 13

by Tara Fox Hall

Devlin, Sarelle, and Lash begin their lives together on the cusp of the New Year, preparing for both the weddings of Terian and Sundown and Theo and Jenny. Even with their devotion to one another stronger than ever, the trio face many obstacles in melding their lives into one. Facing each other’s true nature leads to introspection, as well as healing for the lovers, even as vampire hunters, demons, and old friends invade their newly-formed sanctuary, determined to break them apart.



I craned my neck past the man lying next to me to see the clock on the hotel room wall. Damn, it was nearly six. If we were going to make it back in time for me to cook something for my daughter, Venus, Lash and I were going to have to leave soon. Still, I was hesitant to be the one to mention that our romantic hotel escapade was over already. We’d exhausted ourselves more than an hour earlier, more as a result of the emotional outpouring we’d shared than the passionate sex.

Lash had finally told me he loved me, not that I hadn’t already known that by his many affectionate actions over the last few years. But to finally hear the words pass his lips had meant the world to me, his confession one of the most romantic I’d ever received. He hadn’t used poetry or fancy words, just his honest feelings. Raw with passion, they had moved me to confess my own.

Afterward we’d fallen into an exhausted sleep together, our bodies entwined. When I’d awoken a few minutes ago, I’d found Lash in one of his quiet moods, gently and silently caressing me, hissing contentedly now and then.

“Is it true that as a rule, you don't like blondes?” I asked suddenly, looking over at him a little shyly.

The question seemed to startle him. He recovered, then hugged me. “You know I love you, that you’re my Mate,” he said affectionately.

By his tone, he wanted me to reassure him. “Of course.”

Lash sighed. “No, for a long time, I didn’t have anything to do with blondes. For a long, long time. Most of my life.”

There was obviously a story here and it was going to take longer to tell than the few minutes that we had left. “Do you want to tell me? You don’t have to.”

“I have no secrets from you, Mate,” Lash hissed in reply. “And I want it that way. But you may not want to hear the tale. It doesn’t have a happy ending.”

“If you want to tell it, I’ll listen.” I put my hand on his shoulder. “But wait until tonight, okay? We should get going—”

Lash rolled his eyes, making a move toward his clothes. “You’re right. Dev will hit the roof if his beloved Sar isn’t right where she’s supposed to be, at his beck and call.”

My temper flared, then I allowed that he was just teasing me. God knows Dev does tend to overreact. “That’s right, Mate. And we don’t need my father-figure demon appearing here either.”

“Fucking Titus,” Lash bitched, as he pulled on his jeans. “That’s all he needs to lose it, to see us here in bed together.”

“He’s been better lately, I told you,” I soothed as I slipped on my patchwork tan leather duster. “But you’re right, we need to get home. Let’s go check out.”

Lash finished belting on his weapons, and grabbed the keys, as I shouldered my purse. Despite his seeming grumpiness, I could tell Lash was in a good mood as we drove home. And I was too, I thought happily, as I reached over and grasped his hand in mine. He didn’t glance at me, or say anything. But his fingers moved slightly, opening under mine, allowing my fingers to interlock with his and hold comfortably.

* * * *

Later, after making some soup for V, and putting her to bed, I followed Lash upstairs.

Devlin was still feeding in the silver room, and I knew he’d be at least a few hours. So I got on my robe, and sat on the bed, expectant.

Lash didn’t say anything, so I decided to prime the pump. “Do you still want to tell me the story?”

“Sure,” Lash said roughly, “Wait here. I need to get us some wine, before I start.”

He was back in a few moments with two glasses, and a bottle of the Groom Shiraz. Uncorking it quickly, he poured us two glasses. “Where to begin,” Lash hissed softly, and then looked over at me, as if unsure how to start.

I tried to help, by telling him all I knew. “You were born in Florida, in the Everglades. Your mother was weresnake. You had brothers, sisters that were older, or younger?”

“I had an older brother,” Lash said quietly. “And seven younger sisters.”

Now I understood where the “all” had come from, when he’d spoken of his siblings.

“You’ve seen those sad dramas, where the hero lives in a ghetto, on the wrong side of the tracks?”

I nodded.

“We lived in a shack in the swamp. There was one room. It wasn’t bad, when I was young. There were only three of us. My mother and brother were both weresnake, like me. We mostly ate in snake form, and the swamp provided enough food, more than enough, really. But my mother wanted better for us, so when I was seven we moved to the nearest town.”

Lash took a sip of wine, then continued. “It wasn’t bad. I wasn’t a social outcast, or anything. Most everyone was Spanish, or part Spanish, and it was a little town. We blended right in. My mother worked in an office, cleaning. She was smart, despite not having any schooling, and she wanted more for us, and for herself. She came home one day so happy. She’d applied for a job at a beachfront bed and breakfast, and she’d gotten it.”

Lash took another sip of wine. “That’s when things began to go badly. We moved to this coast town, and it was pure tourist. Rich tourist. White tourist.” His words were slurred with hissing noises, a sure sign of anger. “My brother got a job as a busboy at a local restaurant. And I got a job too, cleaning up after horses in the stable.”

It was a shock, thinking how long ago he was talking about. But Lash had been young at the turn of the century. It had to have been 1911 or so, from what I knew of his age. There weren’t many cars then, or TV and modern medicine, or even safe birth control or recorded music.

“I didn’t mind it. I have never minded working. And I had a lot of time for thinking.” Lash paused. “We learned to read and write there. I went to school for the first time. Despite that the teachers were pricks, and treated us like slaves, I learned everything I could. I loved to read. I spent most of my years from boy to young man reading, and working. I had a lot of friends in the small town. Here, I had none. Children sensed the snake in me, and they gave me a wide berth. But I’d grown up alone. I didn’t mind it. I had friends in the pages of my books. And I had my brother and mother.”

Lash sipped again. “I’ve had dirt kicked in my face before,” he hissed. “There’s more than one reason I dislike that Karate Kid movie V was watching tonight. It reminds me too much of the past.”

“Go on.”

“There was a boy, the son of the owner of the biggest hotel. He thought he owned me, along with his horses.” Lash looked off in the distance. “He was my age. He just got worse as he got older.”

Lash drank down his wine, finishing it. Then he poured himself another glass.

“You might have guessed he was tall, blond, and handsome, with bright blue eyes. Everything I wasn’t. That was back in the days when no one even pretended men were all equal, or even as equal as they are now. I was looked down on in that town for just being Spanish, never mind who I was, while he was the blond ideal of what all men should aspire to be.”

The bitterness in Lash’s voice was enough to choke on. Most likely, this explained where his hatred for Theo had come from.

“As you can probably guess, there was a girl.”

“I’m guessing she was blonde?”

“With hair a little lighter than yours, but just as long and wavy. She was a year younger than me. I was sixteen, the summer I met her. She’d come for the summer, with her parents. She was human, like everyone else in that stinking town. Her name was Tamara. Mara, for short.”

Lash paused, and downed his wine again. And again he refilled it.

At this rate, we’d go through a case of wine by the time the story was half over. “Was that when you met Dev?”

“No,” Lash said a little irritably. “That’s another story. You want to hear the rest or not?”

“Sorry. Please go on.”

“As I was saying, before I was interrupted—”

I thought about telling him he was being an ass, but knew he’d just get more irritated. Besides, I did want to hear the rest.

“—everyone was human, but my family and I. Until Jared Valeras came into town.”

I felt a shiver just in the way he said the name. There was fear in Lash’s voice, and I’d not heard that before, not ever. I knew this had to be his father, with that last name. Adopted father?

“As you might guess, he was weresnake too. He knew my mother for what she was on sight. She was your age then, about thirty-five or so.”

If Lash was sixteen years old then, that meant he’d been born when she was nineteen.

Lash caught my look, and nodded. “She was fifteen when she had my older brother, Franco. She was married to his father, a Florida water moccasin. I don’t know much about him, not his name or what he looked like. He was killed by a ’gator, while in snake form. He killed the ’gator with his snake poison, and made it home to die in her arms.” Lash paused. “I never knew him, I just heard the story from my brother, who saw him in snake form when he was only three. I didn’t know his name. She never told me it. But she would cry for him some nights, under the moon. And I’m getting off subject.”

Lash took a breath. “As I said, Jared knew my mother for what she was. In a day, he had her in his bed. I was angry when I found out, but I soon learned that she wasn’t there against her will. She cared for him, and he for her, that he’d known her years before. When I confronted him with a gun, I found out he was my father.”

Lash sounded almost relieved to have gotten to this part. “He’d come to find her, he said. He’d gone to where we used to live, saw we’d left the swamp, and tracked her to this town. He said he’d made her a promise sixteen years ago, and he was here to honor it. And he did. He married her that same week. As you might have guessed, he was cottonmouth, too. But he was Texas, not Florida.”

Lash said that as if it meant something. I nodded, making a mental note to ask Devlin about the apparent distinction.

“Things got better after that, for a few years. Jared was good to us, even to my brother, a child not his own. My mother became manager of her own restaurant. She loved it, to not have to clean, or to be a servant, to wear pretty dresses and jewelry, to have respect for the first time in her life. She got a lot of respect, being his wife. As his son, I did too. It was so good, to walk down the street, and feel like I was somebody, that for the first time I belonged there. And no one dared even look at me crossways.” Lash sounded almost happy, but there was bitterness in his tone, too. His father wasn’t some blueblood; he forced acceptance of himself and his new family, something Lash resented even as he enjoyed it.

“My brother was old enough to work, my father said. He set Franco up in his business, as one of his assistants. By now you’ve probably guessed, his wealth didn’t come from an honest means.”

My guess is some kind of organized crime. “Yes.”

“He saw I was smart, so he got me a tutor, and also began training me in his job. Extortion mostly, but some loansharking, prostitution, gambling, some drugs, and running some alcohol. Not the muscle end—the business end, the kind that most movies never talk about because it’s meetings, not anything exciting. He didn’t want me to be a thug, or ‘fodder for the streets,’ he said. He knew that the men that made money and lived to enjoy it usually weren’t the ones holding the guns, but the ones who sent them. He also knew Prohibition meant a greater demand for alcohol than there had been when it was legal, and he’d already set up factories to have an alcohol supply to sell. He taught me that a man does whatever he can to protect the things he loves, though he never said those words. I never saw him tell my mother he loved her, or that he cared about her, but I knew it, from the way he treated her, and the way she looked at him. As you might guess, I never saw him cry, either—” He paused for a moment, looking into space. “Sorry, I’m getting off track again.”

Saying that how he felt about what had happened mattered much more to me than a concise outline of events would only make him clam up. I nodded again.

Lash drank a little more, and began anew.

“Jared worked for a gangster, a man I knew only as ‘The Dane.’ He was good at what he did, and so we enjoyed a happy time. No one bothered us, and things were good. That girl, Tamara, she noticed me, for the first time. She went out with me on dates, and though she wouldn’t let me, um…be intimate with her, she told me she would be mine, that she wanted to be with me. I went to my father, and he gave me his blessing, that I could ask her to be mine, if I wanted to.” Lash’s tone was very sad now, and I reached out and hugged him.

“But he said I had to change her, if I was with her. That it could be her will, or against her will, but that was the one condition he expected of me. That it didn’t work for humans and weres, especially with snakes, and he wasn’t going to have me find that out the hard way.”

Lash took a deep breath.

“The night I finally got the courage, and told her what I was…it was the night everything went to shit.”

Lash was trembling slightly, not speaking. I put my arms around him and held him. “You are loved as you are,” I whispered, hugging him to me. “It doesn’t matter that she couldn’t accept you.”

“You don’t understand,” Lash replied. “She accepted me, when I told her what I was. She said she would change, Sar. She wanted to be with me enough. I told her that I’d change her the following night, and I was so happy. I went to my mother, and she was happy for me, and so was my brother. That night, he told us he was getting promoted. He would be moving to New York, to run a section of it. My mother, while not exactly pleased at the news, trusted my father that her eldest son wouldn’t be hurt. She had an interest in trusting him; she was pregnant and would deliver in a few months. I’d thought she was just filling out more, because for the first time with my father in the picture, we had plenty to eat that wasn’t just protein, and she didn’t have to skimp on her own food, to feed us.”

I wanted desperately to know what had happened, but I also didn’t want to know, seeing him so upset.

“You’ve been there yourself,” Lash said regretfully, looking into my eyes. “You go to sleep, and the world is one way. When you wake up, it’s a nightmare that just gets worse and worse.”

“I have, Mate. Go on.” My words came out brittle with worry. I cleared my throat, telling myself this was past, and to relax already.

“My brother left that day, and he was killed his first day in New York as a message to my father. They cut off his head, and some other things, and sent them to my father. I saw what was left of him. I happened to be the one who found the packages...”

Packages, plural. God. I hugged him hard and said nothing.

“That blond ass, the one who wanted my girl, he found out what I was, and what Mara and I were planning. He got a potion from a local alchemist with an ax to grind against me and dosed me, locking me in my animal form. Then he showed her what I was: a snake, not the werewolf she had somehow imagined. She ran from me, horrified. I bit that bastard, and killed him, but it didn’t matter. She wouldn’t see me, when I came to her house. She never saw me again. She went crazy soon after, and was sent away North to a sanitarium. She wouldn’t stop raving about monster snakes sent from Hell to steal her soul.”

"Hopes Return" by Tara Fox Hall


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