It’s B&B owner Charlene Morris’s second Halloween in Salem, Massachusetts, and one she won’t soon forget when a self-proclaimed vampire is murdered . . .
Charlene’s bed and breakfast is fully booked with guests wanting to experience Salem’s wildest holiday—especially the annual Witch Ball, held at the historic Hawthorne Hotel. At the dance, actual witch and winery owner Brandy Flint has her back up over her daughter Serenity’s new beau—it’s bad enough he’s a decade older, he also claims to be a vampire from Romania.
As for Charlene, with handsome ghost Dr. Jack Strathmore haunting her B&B, she has developed an open mind regarding the supernatural. But her mind is blown when the clock strikes midnight, the lights flare and dim, and the vampire vanishes—leaving behind only his cape and a wooden stake with a thick red substance on the sharp tip. The next morning, a naked man washes up on the shore with a hole punched through his chest, and Detective Sam Holden has a homicide on his hands. Now Charlene and Jack must put their heads together to find out who staged the trick to stake a vampire . . .
Release date: August 24, 2021
Publisher: Kensington Books
Print pages: 304
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Mrs. Morris and the Vampire
“Boo!” Charlene said into Brandy’s ear. Cool air wafted toward her—a break from the hot crush at her back.
Brandy, stunning as ever, wore a sexy Little Red Riding Hood number that made Charlene’s Southern belle seem very overdressed. “See them?”
“My daughter and her new boyfriend. Alaric.”
Charlene squinted across the Victorian upholstered furniture and spied Serenity Flint in intimate conversation with a striking man. Ebony hair, dark brows, chiseled jaw, full, sensuous mouth. He had his fingers on her wrist, caressing. Black-and-purple velvet capes cloaked their bodies.
“Is it wrong that I hate him?” Brandy whispered.
Charlene hid her smile behind her antebellum-era lace fan. Unlike last Halloween when she’d worn jeans and cat earrings, this year she’d gotten into the Salem Samhain spirit. She was even a judge at the annual witch ball.
“Hate might be a strong word,” Charlene temporized. She and Brandy stood shoulder to shoulder. They’d become friends in the past year since Charlene had moved to Salem to run her bed-and-breakfast. Flint’s Vineyard supplied her house wine.
“It’s not just the age difference—he’s at least fifteen years older, though gorgeous. I’ll give him his due.” Brandy, her auburn hair a hint darker than her daughter’s, scrutinized the couple on the couch. “He’s a fraud. A liar. Yet Serenity is blind to it.”
“A liar?” Charlene tightened her grip on her fan.
“He claims to be a vampire.”
Charlene chuckled but stopped when she realized that her friend was serious. “Oh.” She eyed Alaric over her lace. His face, hands, and throat were moon-white. “He’s certainly pale enough.”
“It’s not the least bit amusing. My daughter is an intelligent witch and should be able to penetrate his illusion.” Brandy sniffed and drank the wicked brew punch created in the hotel bar that smelled like sangria, served in a plastic pumpkin. “I wish she and Dru had never broken up. He really cared for her.” She laughed at herself. “To be fair, I never dated anybody that my mother approved of either.”
“Jared had my father’s stamp of approval and he eventually won Mom over—but we loved each other from the start.” Charlene turned from Serenity and Alaric to the ballroom of dancers. The clock on the wall read ten, and the king and queen of the witch ball would be announced at midnight. “How long have they been dating?”
“Alaric moved here from New Orleans two weeks ago and they’ve been inseparable. He told her that he wants her to be at his side for eternity. Can you believe that romantic nonsense? Serenity’s eating it up with a spoon. None of my husbands made me that starry-eyed.” She swirled the frozen-grape eyeballs in her drink. “I know they’re up to something, but Serenity’s being very secretive. It’s not like her.”
“Are you close?” Charlene folded her fan.
“Of my three kids, we’re the tightest.” Brandy bopped her black heel to the music. “I caught her going through our family’s books on the craft from the nineteenth century. She hasn’t cared about that since she was a tween and decided to be a modern witch. It’s his doing.”
“Have you spent time with him?”
“He refuses invitations to the house.”
That didn’t sound good. “Why did he move? New Orleans seems like a better fit with the constant nightlife.”
“Alaric claims Serenity drew him to Salem—she’s his soul mate and they’re destined for each other. He wants to build a select vampire coven here with Serenity as his queen.” Brandy rolled her emerald eyes.
“I thought witches had covens.”
“Vampires too, according to the movies. I remain unconvinced.”
Charlene lived with a ghost for a roommate, so she wasn’t so quick to judge. She couldn’t wait to discuss vampires with Jack once she got home. “I’ve seen Dracula —the one with Anthony Hopkins.” She’d been fourteen and it had scared her so much she’d avoided the Interview with the Vampire craze a few years later.
“Do you see how she stares into his eyes?” Brandy’s nostrils flared and her body tensed. “She’s practically sitting on his lap, for Goddess’s sake.”
Serenity was very, very close to Alaric. “Aren’t vampires supposed to have alluring powers?” The pair smoldered with sensuality.
Brandy gestured toward the ballroom, waving her pumpkin. “There are two hundred people at this ball tonight, and a quarter of them are dressed as vampires. He’s as real as they are. Plastic teeth and all.”
Charlene swayed her hips to the beat and studied the throng of costumed dancers as “Black Magic Woman” by Santana played—the cover band kept to the Halloween theme. “Makes it easier to pick a winner for best costume. What do you think of the Dalmatians over there by the punch bowl?” Chloe and Braydon Chesterfield had flown in from New York yesterday with their elaborate costumes in special luggage.
Brandy sucked the last of her drink through a green straw. “Cute. Guests of yours?”
“Yeah . . . this has been on their bucket list.” Charlene watched over all of her guests to ensure they had fun. But how could they not? This was Halloween in Salem.
“You have to be impartial, Charlene.” Brandy tapped her toes, dancing in place.
“I will! They went all out, though.” Charlene realized that Brandy was by herself. “Where’s Theo?”
Shadows crossed Brandy’s face. “We parted ways, romantically. We’re still friends and business partners in the vineyard.”
“Are you all right?”
“My choice. Listen, I can’t watch that train wreck on the love seat anymore—if they start taking their clothes off, would you dump some cold punch over them?” Brandy, slender body rocking, moved into the gyrating mass of dancers, pumpkin cup high.
A tall man with dark hair in a bright-yellow zoot suit immediately swung her toward him. Brandy tossed her head back and reveled in the attention.
Charlene was tempted to get a drink—a nice glass of red from the bar—and stepped away from the door, when Stephanos Landis, the second of three judges for the ball, joined her.
“There you are! I had some thoughts . . .” Stephanos trailed off as he noticed Alaric and Serenity on the love seat, exchanging a passionate kiss. He raised his brow. “Tantric energy shines bright around them. Good mojo for a witch. That’s not Dru, is it?”
“No. Serenity’s new boyfriend. Alaric.” She didn’t mention his claim to be a real vampire or that Brandy heartily disapproved. “Thanks for asking me to judge tonight. I can’t believe all the different costumes! My favorite so far is the eight-foot alien.”
Stephanos held up his palm. “Don’t tell me. We need to be impartial.”
“Sorry.” She covered her face with her open fan.
“Your costume’s lovely. Too bad judges can’t enter, or you’d rack up some votes.”
“Minnie helped me with the curls”—Charlene patted her elaborate do—“and Avery with the dress.” She never would have managed without her housekeeper or her teenage employee. “Yours is amazing too.”
Stephanos was decked out in seventeenth-century Pilgrim attire, complete with brass buckles on his shoes. In his seventies, he was very handsome and also a member of the local witch community with Brandy, and Brandy’s mother, Evelyn.
“My thanks.” Stephanos bowed. “What are your thoughts of the band? This is the first year we’ve had them. Now that you’re part of the Halloween committee, we’ll discuss whether or not to hire them again.”
She warmed at being included. “So far, they’ve kept to the theme while ensuring everybody’s groovin’ on the dance floor.” The Santana song segued into “Love Potion No. 9” by the Clovers.
“I agree.” Stephanos snuck a glance at Serenity and Alaric. Serenity snuggled on Alaric’s lap, her arm around his shoulders, nose to nose. He ducked his head to hide a smile. “Lucas does too.”
“Where is he?” Lucas Evergreen was the third judge and also a witch, though not as powerful as Stephanos or the Flints. He owned a bookstore by the wharf that specialized in witchcraft and local talent.
“Over by the photo booth.”
Charlene craned her head across the partiers to where a pirate with a parrot was getting his picture taken at the photo station with two fairies as Lucas untangled their wings. He wore a ninja costume.
There were as many witches as vampires and the other half was a mix. Some folks had gone to a lot of effort to win one of two five-hundred-dollar prizes and the king and queen of the witch ball title.
“How can we possibly pick the winners?”
“It’s our solemn duty to choose the best.” Stephanos winked at her. “You’ll do fine. Now, I’m off to ask Evelyn to dance.”
“She’s here?” Charlene searched the crowd for Evelyn’s steel-gray hair.
“The rowan tree,” he said.
“Oh!” Silver-green leaves swayed from a sturdy brown trunk as she twisted her hips with rhythmic grace. “Who’s she dancing with?”
“Don’t know, but I’m going to cut in. That woman could write a book on tantric energy exchange.”
Charlene didn’t want to know more, so she waved at Stephanos with her fan and turned back to Serenity and Alaric.
In the past two minutes, they’d gone from canoodling to arguing. Serenity tossed Alaric’s pale hand from her knee and said in a raised tone, “For tonight? I told you, Alaric. I don’t share.”
Charlene took a single step closer to intervene if Serenity needed her help.
“Darling,” Alaric said smoothly, “it is a coven. We all share. Don’t be a child about this. Elisabeta has been with me a long time.”
Charlene’s ears perked. Elisabeta?
“I refuse to come in second!” Serenity stood, her auburn locks flowing down the black velvet cape.
“Nobody can be second to you, my love.” Alaric tugged her down to sit on his knee and stared into her eyes. “My queen. Trust me.”
“I don’t want to. No.”
Charlene could feel his magnetism as he poured it over Serenity—an invisible, yet powerful force. The young woman wilted beneath his kiss and he tucked her close to his body.
Was he mesmerizing her in some fashion? She bristled and agreed with Brandy that this man was no good.
Charlene left her post by the door and sashayed (thanks to the hooped skirt) over to the couple on the sofa, saying brightly, “Serenity! How are you?”
Serenity’s green eyes focused on Charlene and she smiled in recognition. They’d met a few times at the winery.
“Hi, Charlene. You could be Scarlett O’Hara.”
“Why fiddle-dee-dee—that was the idea, but don’t look too closely.” Charlene laughed and coyly fluttered her fan. “Lace and a glue gun cover a lot of mistakes.”
Serenity’s smile widened. “I won’t tell. Have you met Alaric? He’s just moved from New Orleans.”
Alaric schooled his features as he realized Charlene had disrupted his enchanted hold on Serenity. “Hello.” He offered his hand and his fingers were cold as ice. She dredged up what she remembered of vampires from watching Dracula. Cool skin—check. Pale, yep. Did he drink blood? Yuck. There were no musty castles here in Salem, so maybe he wouldn’t stay.
She released his grip before he noticed her shudder of distaste. “This is my first witch ball too. I moved from Chicago to operate a B and B.” Chuckling, she said, “I sure don’t miss the heavy snow.”
His full mouth firmed—no smile, no warmth in his gaze. His black velvet cloak with deep purple trim went perfectly over his fitted black slacks and a long-sleeved black shirt. Black leather boots encased his feet. “The old city has its charms, but I was ready for somewhere new.”
She understood and wondered what reason he had for needing a change. She’d lost her husband in a terrible accident and wanted a fresh start away from all their memories. Had he lost someone too?
Alaric clasped Serenity’s thigh in a possessive action. Her form-fitting silk dress had a plunging décolletage and a gem hung by a gold chain between her breasts.
“What a gorgeous piece.” Charlene pointed to the necklace. The dark-blue stone was round with a white center, framed in gold. “What is it?”
Serenity lifted the pendant. “A star sapphire.” She glanced at Alaric shyly. “A family heirloom. I love it.”
Charlene couldn’t even begin to imagine what such a gem might cost. And Alaric had only known Serenity two weeks? The hair on her arms rose in alarm.
Serenity tilted her head toward Alaric, as if seeking his approval.
Touching Serenity’s shoulder, Charlene drew her attention with a low laugh. “I saw your grandmother’s tree costume—she can really shake her leaves!”
Serenity rose in a swift motion. “Grandma’s dancing? Let’s go, Alaric. Less than two hours until midnight and your surprise.” She moved toward the ballroom.
Alaric winced and shot Charlene a glare. “Love, that was for your ears alone.”
“Ooops!” Serenity giggled like the twenty-five-year-old young lady she was and brushed her plum-and-black cape off her slender body. “I want to dance. Come on.”
She disappeared into the crowd, leaving Charlene with Alaric. He had no choice but to get up and follow his “soul mate” to the dance floor. This close, Charlene could see that his skin was porcelain smooth. No makeup.
“Pardon me,” he said, passing Charlene.
“Have fun. And good luck in the costume contest. Vampire suits you.”
He stopped and whirled, his cape settling at his sides. “This is no costume. I am a vampire.”
“Yes, I heard. From a coven in New Orleans.” Charlene refused to blink as he pinned her with his dark eyes—he needed to know that Serenity had friends and loved ones around her.
“Do not mock what you don’t understand.” He dove into the crowd.
Charlene rubbed her bare arms, a little spooked by his adamant declaration.
Salem on October 31 was famous for its parties, witches, and supposed paranormal activities. She had friends who believed it to be the most haunted city in the world. She lived with Dr. Jack Strathmore, spectral resident of her mansion, where he’d been murdered. Who was she to say that vampires weren’t real?
She followed Alaric into the room. Music boomed around them as the party raved. Her guests, Gabriel and Emma LaFleur from Georgia, were Raggedy Andy and Raggedy Ann. Olivia and Andrew Patterson had gone the witch route, as had her single female guest, Celeste Devries. Malena and Judd Hernandez decided not to match—Malena was a naughty nurse, and Judd, a pretty scary Frankenstein. Tommy Ramirez and Joey Tuft, both friends with Celeste, wore baseball costumes. Celeste ignored her guys in favor of a lanky vampire with sharp features and sexy steps.
Charlene chatted for a second with Chloe, wishing she could nominate their Dalmatian costumes, then passed Brandy as she headed toward the photo booth and the punch bowl. She never had gotten her drink.
“Hey!” Brandy called. “Charlene. Meet Orpheus.”
Orpheus? Brandy was still cutting a rug with the beautiful guy in the zoot suit. He had swarthy skin, thick dark hair, and a thousand-watt smile. “Hello.”
“He swears it’s his real name.” Brandy teased the man, who took it with good graces—as he should. Brandy was his visual equal in every way. “Let’s get more punch. That’s where you were headed, right?”
Charlene nodded and maneuvered through the crowd to the long table with a large punch bowl surrounded by plastic pumpkins.
“May I?” Orpheus asked in a Southern drawl that made Charlene think of the bayou, swamps, and crocodiles. He ladled punch into cups and handed one to Brandy, and then Charlene, before serving himself.
“Thank you.” Charlene drank, the tart sangria quenching her thirst.
Brandy emptied her pumpkin and held it out to Orpheus for a refill. He laughingly obliged. “I have a flask, if you’d like somethin’ stronger.”
“Now, where are you from with manners like that?” Brandy flirted.
“New Orleans.” He half bowed.
Brandy scowled and searched the crowd. “Do you know Alaric?” She pointed her pumpkin toward Alaric and Serenity. A pretty woman of about thirty-five, also pale, with black curly hair, moved like a succubus around Alaric, touching him, kissing him.
Charlene’s heart sank as Serenity allowed the other woman into the circle.
Brandy’s eyes blazed. “Who is that tramp?”
Orpheus offered Brandy the flask, which she accepted, downing a quick shot, her focus on her daughter, the woman, and Alaric.
Charlene figured now was not the time to explain the scene she’d witnessed in the lobby. “Let’s have lunch tomorrow, Brandy.”
Brandy arched her brow but gave a nod. The ballroom door smacked open hard enough to shake the wall.
“Oh no. Dru.” Brandy stepped into the multitude, dragging Charlene by the hand. Orpheus remained by the punch.
Dru Ormand, Serenity’s ex-boyfriend, swayed and grasped the wall to steady himself, searching the room. He wore jeans, a black T-shirt, and no jacket, though it was chilly fall weather outside. His brown hair was rumpled and he smelled like whiskey.
Dru spied the rowan tree and headed in that direction. He halted abruptly when he saw Alaric, Serenity, and the other woman dancing provocatively. “Serenity!” Charging into the middle of the trio, he shoved Alaric backward and stood protectively in front of Serenity.
“What are you doing, Dru?” Serenity tugged on his shoulder.
Dru shook her off. “Stay away from her!” he yelled at Alaric.
“She’s mine, boy,” Alaric said with a sneer.
Dru hauled back his clenched fist and punched Alaric in the face. Alaric righted himself and brought his finger to his lip. His eyes smoldered. “That was a mistake.”
Serenity jumped between them, pulling Dru toward the exit. “You’re drunk!” she shouted. “Stop it.”
“He’s a freak, Serenity. I went to his place.”
Alaric lunged for Dru. “You broke into my home? You’ll pay for that transgression.”
“You’re not a vampire,” Dru told Alaric, then turned to Serenity, pleading, “He’s just a dude. Bleeds the same as the rest of us. I busted his lip.”
Alaric flicked his tongue to the corner of his mouth.
“He’s going to prove it, Dru. You’ll see.” Serenity left Dru to stand by Alaric. Alaric kissed her deeply.
Dru groaned and allowed Stephanos to lead him toward the door. “Let’s go, son. I’ll call you a cab.”
Evelyn removed the mask of bark from her face. “Sleep it off, Dru. Things will be brighter in the morning.”
“How can you take his side, Grandma?” Serenity put her hands on her hips. “You don’t understand. I love Alaric. I love him.” Her voice tripped.
“I love him too,” the other woman said, putting her arm through Serenity’s.
Lucas urged the band to play and the partiers danced like Dru’s interruption never happened. Stephanos brushed by Charlene, ushering the ex-boyfriend to the lobby.
Charlene had met him once with Serenity at the vineyard. Whiskey wafted off the kid like he’d slept in a keg.
“I’ve called a ride for you.” Stephanos clapped Dru on the shoulder.
“I love Serenity,” Dru slurred. “That guy’s an old creeper. Ain’t no such thing as vampires. I went into his house, Stephanos, and he has blood in the fridge. No lie. Where did it come from? If he’s a real vamp, why does he have it stored like that?”
Charlene tensed, thinking she must have heard wrong.
“We’ll straighten it out later, Dru.” Stephanos’s jaw clenched with concern and he glanced into the ballroom.
Dru bowed his head. “He’s rich and promised to take her traveling all over the world. How can I compete with that? I’ll kill him for stealing her away!”
“Hush, now.” Stephanos led Dru out to the street.
“Charlene!” Celeste, flanked by Tommy and Joey, called for her. “Come take a picture in the photo booth with us. I want to remember this night forever.”
Charlene allowed herself to be pulled toward the picture station, noting the time when Stephanos returned to speak with Evelyn. Eleven o’clock. Only one hour left to choose a king and queen.
Halfway to the booth, Celeste released Charlene to dance to “Zombie” by the Cranberries. “My favorite!” Celeste screeched.
Laughing, Charlene let her go and spent the next half hour studying the dancers and their costumes. A whoopee cushion, a serial killer, and the pirate with the stuffed parrot were a few of her faves. At eleven-thirty, Lucas, Stephanos, and Charlene escaped to the hotel bar to cast their votes for king and queen.
“I say the alien as king and the Aphrodite for queen. She’s six feet of stunning.” Lucas tapped the bar top. “Charlene?”
“The alien is phenomenal. The pirate’s really great too,” Charlene said. “That parrot on his shoulder seems real.”
“The pirate is a local author who’s won before.” Lucas drank his beer. “Patrick.”
“Oh.” Charlene set her fan down. “Aphrodite is good too, but what about the rowan tree?”
“What a tree!” Stephanos reflected.
“Evelyn has also won before—maybe we should give others a chance to wear the crown?” Lucas suggested.
Charlene sipped her glass of red she’d finally had time to order. “Let me look again.” She brought her wine and peeked into the ballroom.
There were the Dalmatians, Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy. Witchy Celeste, dancing with the baseball players, and her lanky vampire, the naughty nurse spanking her Frankenstein. Charlene hoped they didn’t regret that in the morning.
Brandy and Orpheus were skilled dance partners. Serenity and Alaric remained chest to chest as if it were a slow number and not rock and roll. Elisabeta pirouetted in their periphery, her gaze locked on them in a way that gave Charlene the creeps.
Aphrodite had long blond hair and a shield that she’d put just a touch more work into compared to the silvery leaves on the rowan tree. The alien definitely had more detail to his costume than the pirate.
Charlene returned to the bar, knowing they were making the right choices. “I vote for Aphrodite and the alien.”
“What a king and queen!” Lucas rubbed his hands together.
The three judges went into the ballroom at ten minutes till midnight. Lucas joined the band to borrow the microphone, and Stephanos stood with Charlene just a few feet away, near the door.
The music stopped and people booed at the interruption of getting their groove on.
“It’s time to announce our king and queen,” Lucas said. “Each will win five hundred dollars.”
Alaric and his female friend, Elisabeta, took advantage of the quiet to clear the center of the ballroom. The vampire who had danced with Celeste used a wooden stake to form a shape on the floor around Alaric.
“A pentagram,” Brandy whispered, clutching Charlene’s arm. Orpheus was across the room by the band, his gaze intent on Alaric. Had he ever answered Brandy about knowing him?
“What’s going on?” Lucas rattled the microphone.
“Some of you doubt my power!” Alaric’s voice echoed theatrically around the room. “I w. . .
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