We hope you enjoy this special holiday treat from our friend Elise Faber, author of Phoenix Rising
It was really hard to keep a secret from someone who could read her mind.
Daughtry walked down the halls of the Colony, taking in the bright — almost three-dimensional — murals decorating the walls.
They came in a full spectrum of colors. Crashing blue and green waves and gorgeous orangey-red sunsets combined with a violet swathe that was her own magic’s contribution. The purple lines would disappear into the murals, be absorbed into the infrastructure and help to the power of the Colony as a whole.
Together the entire visual experience should have been an ugly cacophony. Instead, it was familiar and warm and… home.
“I miss you,” came Cody’s mental voice.
“You’re supposed to be leaving me alone,” she responded tersely.
Cody was too in tune with her emotions — being that their minds were permanently linked together — to be hurt by her snapped-out response. Instead, he laughed, the mental chuckle and his blip of amusement making her lips quirk despite herself.
“Pick my present yet?” he thought.
Her mouth pulled down into a scowl at the reminder. “You’re not going to get one at this rate.”
“Not hardly,” she countered and turned the corner into the next hall. Cody was supposed to be on patrol that evening, leaving her free to figure out the perfect Christmas gift.
The task was difficult. What did she get someone who’d been around nearly ten decades?
“Why haven’t you left yet?” she asked instead of focusing on the fact that she had absolutely zero good ideas for his present.
A flood of warmth and love and affection inundated her mind along the bond, leaving her feeling as though she was clad in a comfortable old sweatshirt. “Trying to get rid of me?” Cody thought.
A smile curled her lips as she turned down the hall that led to the infirmary and her present-choosing-backup, Suz.
She loved the man. The protective, green-eyed, possessive-as-heck man who was ingrained into her very soul.
“Yes, actually,” she thought with false annoyance. “Your patrol, remember? My shopping, yes?”
“I remember.” Cody paused, his mind against hers going suddenly serious. “You know I don’t care about the present, right? I spent too long alone. The best gift I could ever hope for was finding you.”
Daughtry’s inner girl went “aww” at the statement, but she shook off the heart-melting words and straightened her spine.
This was her chance to have an actual Christmas. One where she didn’t feel ostracized and alone, one where she could exchange something more than meaningless sentiments and impersonal presents.
But first she needed a gift for Cody. The perfect expression of how deeply she’d come to care for him. He was sewn into her very being, her soul, her magic—
“I know all of that,” he thought, his mental voice gentle. “And I don’t need the perfect gift. I just need you.”
For a second Daughtry almost let go of her fantasy — it wasn’t like she was naïve enough to expect everything to be without fault.
She just wanted it to.
“I love you,” Cody thought with a sigh, having no doubt heard the conclusion she’d reached. “And there. I just emailed you my wish list.”
It only took a second for her to pull it up on her phone, to scan the four items on the online retailer’s site.
“Electric socks?” she thought. “Bullets? Dumb bells? A comb? You have got to be kidding me.”
His mental shrug traversed the bond. “I need those things.” A pause. “And the electric socks will keep my feet warm while I’m patrolling.”
Men. For real. At times they were just ridiculous.
“I love you,” she thought. “But now it’s time for you to go.”
Daughtry sensed that Cody wanted to say something else but whatever it was, he tucked the thought into the back of his brain. She didn’t search for it — just let it stay hidden.
Sharing a mental bond wasn’t the easiest thing. In fact, holding tight to a modicum of privacy was as necessary as breathing. It balanced their relationship, made it full instead of overwhelming.
So rather than push — even though she was curious — she let the glimmer of Cody’s thoughts go.
“I love you too, cowgirl,” he thought to her. “If you need me, I’ll always be there.”
With the familiar parting words, she felt Cody retreat back into his own consciousness and focus on preparing for the ten-hour patrol he was about to undertake.
Letting the bond fall into her subconscious, Daughtry focused ahead of her, halting before the door to the infirmary and doing a quick calculation in her mind.
Her salary as Suz’s — the resident healer’s — assistant hadn’t made her rich, but the money was Daughtry’s and she’d put in the sweat and tears to earn it.
Not that she didn’t have money at her disposal.
In fact, Cody had put her on all of his accounts, including credit cards and checking and savings. But Daughtry didn’t feel right about buying something for him with his own money.
Maybe it was stupid, but it meant more to her to give him something that she’d worked hard for.
Even if it was electric socks.
With a sigh, she swiped her finger over the ‘Buy All’ button and then set up the purchase so that it would be mailed to one of the random P.O. Boxes the Rengalla had set up across the country. With teleports in their ranks, it was nothing to pop over to Seattle or New York, or even Calgary to pick up a package.
And that way they didn’t have random humans stumbling upon the Colony. It was safer to retrieve items than to risk allowing strangers in or near their home. Anyone who showed up without permission was treated as the enemy.
And they had enemies. Treacherous ones.
The Dalshie wouldn’t fail to exploit any avenue of attack — black magic or not — and their strength, instant healing, and a complete lack of morality made for a devastating foe.
Hence the patrols and the shield that surrounded the Colony.
Daughtry opened the door to the infirmary and walked down the hallway within to Suz’s office, wondering what Morgan would say when he found out that he’d be teleporting to Dallas for electric socks.
Cody’s fellow LexTal and elite warrior would no doubt have a plethora of complaints and/or snarky comments about the task.
“What’s so funny?” Suz asked, surprising Daughtry.
She hadn’t realized she’d reached the doctor’s office. “Nothing,” Daughtry said. “Just thinking about Morgan’s reaction when I ask him to pick up Cody’s present.”
Suz was smiling until Daughtry mentioned the word ‘present’, then the doctor frowned. “You’re not still on that, are you?”
Daughtry sighed. “All I need to do is find the perfect thing.”
“There is no ‘perfect’ thing.”
“This is real life, Suz. And normal people want things. Why can’t Cody have a video game obsession or love board games or something?” she asked, pulling out her phone and opening the list, then showing the screen to Suz. “You know what he wants? Electric socks and bullets!”
“It’s not funny!” Daughtry snapped. Pausing, she blew out a breath. “Okay, it’s a little funny. I just—“ she stopped for a second then ended up blurting out the truth anyway. “What if I screw up our first Christmas together?”
“Then you’ll only have a thousand more chances to get it right,” Suz said dryly.
That was what she got for expecting sympathy. “Suz,” Daughtry began.
The doctor put up her hand. “Dee, you know I love you. But you need to chill about this holiday thing.”
“What ‘holiday thing?’ ” came Tyler’s question from behind Daughtry’s shoulder. She whirled and saw the tall blue-eyed, mocha-skinned man leaning against the doorframe, his arms crossed over his chest.
“Present-Gate,” Suz said.
Tyler rolled his eyes and addressed Suz instead of Daughtry. “She’s still on that?”
“Guys!” Daughtry said, pushed to her feet. “It’s important.”
“Really,” Tyler said. “It’s not.”
A wave of heat made Daughtry’s cheeks flush and, embarrassingly, her eyes filled with tears.
Stupid pointless emotions, she thought, clenching her jaw and trying to force back the ridiculous wetness.
Tyler’s face sobered. “Aw, Dee, I’m sorry.” His voice soft and near her ear as he wrapped her in his arms. “I shouldn’t have made fun of you.”
“You’re right,” she said with a sniff. “It’s not important.”
Tyler released her then turned her to face him. “It’s important to you,” he said. “Which means that it’s important to me.”
“Here,” Suz said and tugged Daughtry over to one of the chairs in front of her desk. “I’m sorry, too. I took it too far.”
“Don’t say ‘fine,’ ” the doctor said firmly. “It’s not fine. We’re your friends and I don’t want you hurt. Feelings, physically, or otherwise.”
“You should know better than to argue with the doc,” Tyler interrupted as he took the seat next to Daughtry. He clapped his hands together and grinned at what was no doubt a perturbed expression on her face. “Now let’s get to work.”
“Doing what?” she asked.
“Figuring out the perfect present for your stubborn-as-hell bondmate.”
Two hours later, Daughtry, Suz, Tyler, and a called-in-John sat around a pile of phones, tablets, and discarded plates. They were no closer to finding the right gift for Cody but they’d spent the last hours laughing until Daughtry’s abs and cheeks cramped with exhaustion.
“Seriously, who would have thought Cody would be so difficult?” Suz asked, polishing off the last slice of pizza.
“I knew,” Tyler muttered. Everyone burst out laughing. Daughtry joined in, unable to deny her contentment.
This was what she thought the holidays should be about. Laughter and love. Togetherness and teasing. Daughtry might not have a family, but she had her friends and she had Cody.
And that was when she knew.
The perfect gift for Cody had been right in front of her the entire time.
Throwing her arms around each one of her friends in turn, she rushed from the infirmary and out into the halls.
Because Daughtry had a plan to execute.
By Christmas Eve, everything was set.
The smell of popcorn filled the air. It was a rich, buttery scent that made Daughtry’s stomach growl.
Glancing around the softly lit room, she couldn’t help but sigh in happiness. Their quarters — very nice normally, though a little austere — had been transformed. It was cozy, the candles scattered on top of the desk and dressers, the shelves and side tables giving the space a pretty glow.
John and Tyler had helped her push the bed against the wall and the open floor was covered with blankets and pillows. In the middle of the mass of cushiness was a small basket filled with Cody’s favorite snacks.
He loved any type of sour candy and though Daughtry had snuck in a few pieces of chocolate — it was sacrilege to go without the delicious substance — the bulk of the basket was about her bondmate.
“Cowgirl?” Cody asked across the bond. “Are you home?”
Daughtry’s heart did a strong pitter-pat and she had a moment of panic. Cody would like this. But would he love it?
Shaking off the worry, she straightened the bow across her chest and responded. “I’m home,” she thought. “I missed you.”
“Me too.” His mind took on a sinful edge that made her thighs clench. “I’ll hurry.”
About ten minutes later, Daughtry heard the lock at the front of their quarters click. The door slid open, a triangle of light appearing on the hardwood floor.
“Cowgirl?” Cody called.
“Here,” she answered.
“What’s—?” Footsteps echoed down the narrow corridor that led from the entryway to their bedroom.
Her eyes were locked on the doorway, so she witnessed the exact moment that Cody saw the room’s transformation.
Emotions slid down the bond. Tenderness and love, affection and longing and — when his gaze took in what she was wearing — heat.
“What’s this?” he asked, his voice huskier than normal.
Gesturing for him to sit down beside her, Daughtry waited for Cody to take off his boots and sink to the floor next to her. His hair was slightly darkened — still damp from a shower he must have taken in the LexTals’ locker room.
When he’d gotten comfortable next her, Cody brought his hand up to cup her cheek. She leaned into the warmth; into the touch that made her soul sing with pleasure
“This is your present,” she murmured.
Cody studied the shiny green ribbon on her chest, his eyes darkening in pleasure and his lips — sinful and lush — quirking. “Now that is the best present I could have asked for.” He reached for her, his mind rubbing against hers in a way that made it hard for her to concentrate.
Daughtry could sense his desire and it ramped her own until her heart pounded and the place between her legs throbbed.
His fingers pushed down the narrow strap of the lacy black negligée she wore, threatening to make the garment fall from her shoulders. She soaked in the touch, loving the feel of his work-roughened fingers tracing random circular patterns on her skin. It wasn’t until his fingers had dipped lower — almost to her breasts — that she remembered there was more to his gift than just herself.
“Wait,” she murmured, breathless, her hands shaking, her body aching with need.
“Mmm,” Cody said, his lips pressing against her body. His tongue joined the party, the hot tip darting out to moisten her heated skin.
It was hard to concentrate, but Daughtry managed to extricate herself long enough to grab the thin, wrapped package.
She shoved it into Cody’s hands, almost laughing at the disgruntled expression on his face. But he dutifully opened the package.
A laugh burst out of him when he saw what was inside.
“Mama Mia?” he asked.
Her shoulders lifted in a casual shrug. “It was the only Meryl Streep movie you didn’t have.”
His eyes narrowed. “Did you tell the guys?”
“You mean about your not-so-secret addiction to chick flicks?” Daughtry bit her lip to hold back her smile.
Cody growled and she stretched over to kiss him.
“No,” she murmured, a minute later. “I didn’t tell anyone.”
His arms banded around her. “I love you,” he said, then his lips descended to take her mouth in a kiss that was as scorching as it was sweet.
They were both gasping when he pulled back, reached into the pocket of his jacket, and set a small package in Daughtry’s fingers.
His hands rested on her waist as she fumbled with the red and green plaid wrapping paper. Finally, she managed to get it open.
“Oh Cody,” she murmured.
Intertwined strands of glowing metal were woven together, forming a bracelet. They were emerald and violet like hers and Cody’s magic, a visual representation of the way the bond appeared in their minds.
Plaited together, the intricate braid was beautiful, the illuminated threads at once delicate and strong.
Cody slid it from the box and gently clasped it around her wrist. “Do you like it?” he asked.
Tilting her head in, she pressed a kiss to his cheek, his jaw, his lips. “I love it.”
“Good.” His hands slid into her hair and he slanted his mouth across hers, stealing a hot, soul-melting, kiss. And not a moment later, she was flat on her back, the negligée discarded, her naked skin chilled.
“You won’t be cold for long,” he said, rolling atop of her.
Afterward, when they lay spent and satisfied in each other’s arms, Daughtry couldn’t hold back her smile.
“Merry Christmas,” she murmured, the words as lazy as her lax body.
Cody chuckled and repeated the sentiment. A minute later, his mind took on a mischievous edge. “You know you’ve created a new tradition, right?”
She frowned as he sat up then laughed when he plunked the DVD into the player and gathered her in his arms.
“Chick Flick Christmas?” she asked.
And as the night turned to morning, as dawn broke and the sun began to rise, Daughtry knew for the first time in her life that she wouldn’t be lonely on Christmas.
Despite moonlighting as a zookeeper and then a dog trainer, Elise decided that the only mammals she wanted to work with were her dark and sexy heroes and heroines. She inherited her love of reading from her mother and grandmother who dutifully kept stacks of romances where her teenaged fingers could easily pilfer them. She lives in Northern California with her three dogs, two energetic (read crazy) boys, and her awesome (see prior comment) husband.