Christmas Eve, 1998
The wind was blowing just hard enough to make walking difficult, especially since the sidewalks were frozen from an earlier rain. Huddled in his leather jacket, Nick silently cursed Amanda, the weather, and the Paris merchants as he attempted to quickly reach the front door of The Sanctuary. He hated the fact that Amanda had charmed him into running an errand for her when she knew perfectly well that they didn't need another bottle of wine.
He sighed, aware he'd allowed himself to be manipulated. In his heart, he knew there wasn't anything he wouldn't do for her. He'd kept the secret of her Immortality since he'd learned of it, which had resulted in having to lie to his friends. He'd killed for her; had even traveled halfway around the world in an attempt to avenge what he had believed to be her final death. His honor, his loyalty, and his life were hers to command, although Nick tried to rationalize the silent commitment as nothing more than what he'd give any other close friend. Nick knew that Amanda was aware of the depth of his friendship, and returned it in equal measure. Still, he often felt as if he was a mushroom, for there was a lot about her he didn't know, and quite a bit that he was certain she'd lied about. Today, that knowledge had struck him particularly deeply as they had stood in the club, watching the patrons celebrate Christmas. When she'd turned to him and suggested he get a bottle of wine, he'd almost been glad to escape.
He'd heard Amanda's laughter as she'd spent the morning chatting with friends. Her joy had only sunk in the knowledge that Nick was essentially alone in the city. Bert, his erstwhile employer, had headed back to the States some weeks previously, and left him in charge of running his European operations. While Nick had met the people who would be working for him, he'd chosen to keep the relationships strictly professional. Some part of him recognized he didn't want to have to explain his relationship with Amanda, aware that he had yet to put into words just where she fit in his life.
With the exception of Amanda, everyone Nick knew and cared about was back in Torago. The life he'd left behind him wasn't enough of one to go back to, amounting to little more than a townhouse he'd owned for some time now and an antique motorcycle he'd been restoring for nearly as long as he'd owned the house. At the moment, though, anything seemed more appealing than slipping and sliding his way back to the club, which was what he was currently doing.
It was Christmas. As a cop, he'd been usually too busy to notice the event as little more than an invitation for all the weirdoes and sickos to emerge out of whatever caves they'd been hiding in like bears in the spring. If he and his partner managed any time off, they'd usually spent it with her family. Briefly, Nick considered calling to say hello... but they wouldn't be having a merry one this year. Not without Claudia, who had taken a bullet for a woman who couldn't die.
He sighed, feeling frustrated. It wasn't an unfamiliar feeling these days; being around Amanda left him feeling that way on more than one level. She had kissed him not too long ago... kissed him like she wanted much, much more than just a kiss that went on forever and lasted all too briefly. He'd kissed her back, and scared them both. As a result, they'd retreated back to their usual edged banter, the same kind of circular arguing that had been a trademark of their relationship.
If it was any other woman, we'd have settled this by now, Nick thought.
That's the problem, a voice in his head reminded him. Amanda isn't any other woman.
Yeah, she's twelve centuries old, he answered the internal voice.
He paused before digging out his keys to the back door and glanced down into the bag he carried. I hope she likes this, he thought, then almost immediately, followed it with, Why do I even bother trying to impress an immortal thief with my expertise in picking out a wine when I know she could probably tell me a story about when she was almost married to some vineyard owner back in the Middle Ages?
Abruptly, the door opened. "Well," the woman in question drawled, "are you going to stand there all night or are you coming in?"
"No," Nick retorted, "I'm in love with the cold." He stepped through the doorway and into the rear hallway leading to the kitchen on the left, the upstairs on the right. The sounds of the revelers in the club drifted back to him, the music assaulting him with its usual throbbing beat.
Ignoring her, he headed upstairs to his apartment above the club. She trailed behind him.
"Do you have nothing better to do?" he demanded, turning to face her the moment he swung open the door to his living room. "I thought you had a party to host." Impatiently, he pulled the bottle of wine out of the bag and thrust it at her. "Here."
A small smile played on her lips as she accepted the bottle. "Yes, there is a party in the club," she answered, "but I'm in the mood for something a little more intimate."
Nick narrowed his gaze as he backed into the room. "Whatever it is you want me to help you with, Amanda, I don't want any part of it."
Amanda stepped into the room and shut the door behind her. As the suite was soundproofed, the music from the club was instantly silenced.
"Not even a private celebration?" She smiled coyly at him and gestured at the small living room.
Nick turned around slowly, seeing for the first time the changes she had made. Red candles glowed softly atop the corner tables that flanked the black sofa. A fresh pine wreath studded with cones and with a red pillar candle had been set on the coffee table. Two wine goblets and a selection of cheeses on a silver platter sat on the coffee table as well. The lights had been turned down low, and the sounds of traditional Christmas carols floated through the stereo, just loud enough to be heard.
"You could've gotten the wine from the bar," Nick accused, not wanting to let her know just how much the gesture meant to him. Fighting the urge to soften towards her, he watched her warily.
"I could have," she agreed, picking up a cork puller from one of the corner tables and deftly removing the cork from the wine bottle he'd bought for her. "But I needed you gone to do this."
She then set the wine aside to breathe, and Nick took the opportunity to strip off his jacket and to sit down. He was a little overwhelmed by her thoughtfulness, and unsure what deeper motive she concealed.
"Why?" he asked.
"Because you deserve a quiet Christmas, and I can give that to you." She smiled, and poured the wine. "Because I could see that you weren't enjoying yourself tonight, and you should be."
Still eyeing her guardedly, Nick accepted the goblet she handed him. "Give, Amanda. What scheme have you dreamt up now?"
Some of the light dimmed in her eyes at his words. "I'm hurt, Nick," she said, and this time, there was none of the teasing he was accustomed to hearing when she used that phrase.
"Sorry," he apologized quickly. "It's just – you lie all the time, Amanda. It's hard to tell when you're telling me something I can believe in."
She smiled ruefully, acknowledging the truth. "Tonight, I promise you: no lies." Gracefully, she seated herself on the sofa next to him.
His eyes widened and he looked at her skeptically. Rarely had she offered the opportunity for him to question her without automatically filtering it through a mental lie detector test. Her open expression made him reconsider his suspicion. Raising his glass, he toasted her. "To the Christmas spirit. May it live on within you."
She clinked her glass against his. "To the Christmas spirit," she agreed, and drank.
A moment of silence passed as Nick tried to think of something to say. Now that he knew she wasn't going to lie to him, he was stumped.
"What's your favorite Christmas memory?" Amanda asked, breaking the silence.
Nick smiled and relaxed into the sofa. "I was ten. It snowed really hard that year, snowed the entire week of Christmas, as a matter of fact. My brother and I built a snow fort."
"A snow fort?"
He nodded. "Built it so that it ran all around our trailer. Spent all day Christmas Eve making it, then reinforced it with more snow the next day. Mom gave us a silver garland to decorate it with; we pretended it was barbed wire. Damned thing didn't completely melt until April, we'd packed it with that much snow." He chuckled softly at the memory, and Amanda smiled at the images he conjured.
"It was one of the few times my brother and I weren't competing over something. Things were pretty good for us that year. Then my dad got laid off from the factory, and nothing was the same after that." He shrugged and reached absently for a wedge of cheese. Popping it into his mouth, he ate it and then took sip of his wine.
"The first Christmas I spent with Rebecca, my first teacher, was an interesting experience for me. I'd always seen Christmas as another day, another opportunity for me."
Nick snorted. "Somehow, that doesn't surprise me."
Amanda laughed. "Old habits die hard, Nick. I was in my thirties when I died and I'd been surviving off the streets ever since I could remember. I knew what Christmas was; it just didn't make any sense to me then." She smiled and shook her head. "I thought Rebecca was an angel when I woke up the first time. Then Christmas came, and I didn't understand why she was giving me more things when she'd already given me so much. I think that was the first time anyone had ever really shown me that some things didn't come with strings attached."
"Is Rebecca still alive?" Nick wondered. "She must've been some woman, if she had enough patience to try and teach you."
Amanda sighed sadly. "She died not too long ago. One of her students wanted the one thing Rebecca wouldn't give." Silently, she toasted Rebecca, then took a drink.
"And that was?"
"A key to a legend." A small smile played on her lips as she toyed with the crystal around her neck. "Tell me, Nick, if someone offered you a stone that would enable you to live forever, would you take it?"
"Not if it came with the price tag that you pay," he declared, shaking his head. "I don't know how you deal with this, Amanda. Teachers, lovers, old friends turning on you... and yet you go on as if the world is still your playground."
She tucked one leg up underneath her and settled back on the sofa, looking unusually pensive. "A friend of mine is... well, let's just say that he was already very old when I met him outside Versailles after I stole Marie Antoinette's crown," she informed Nick quietly. "Until recently, he spent a great deal of time hiding away from the world. He was sick of the fighting, sick of the loss, sick of seeing all the same changes happening with all the same results. You know what? He wasn't really living. He was going through the motions. I'd rather not live like that."
"So you cause trouble instead."
She grinned. "Not always. Sometimes it comes looking for me. You know that."
He slanted a look at her as he took another sip of wine. "Let me guess, your Christmas wish is for peace in the new year," he teased her.
"Absolutely. One of these days, it'll come true." She saluted him with her glass, took a sip, then set the glass down on the coffee table. "So what do you wish for, Nick?"
"You." The admission was out of his mouth before he could stop it.
Amanda looked at him disbelievingly. "Really, Nick?"
Realizing what he'd said, Nick closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Opening them, he set his wine glass on the table and studied her carefully. The candlelight glinted off her blonder-than-blonde hair and made the hollows in her elegant face more prominent. She'd chosen a simply cut red cocktail dress that accentuated her slender body. Yet more than her physical beauty amazed him. She was the bad girl that his mother had warned him about: the one who would break his heart and leave him lonely. Her ethics were not his own, and yet she still lived by a code of honor he was struggling to understand. If he was inclined to believe in magic, Nick would say that she had cast a spell on him and made him forget all the reasons why being involved with her was a dangerous thing. Nothing would change the fact that she had become his obsession, his reason for living in Paris, his only need.
"Even if you drive me crazy," he admitted.
"But?" she prompted, hearing the reluctance in his voice.
"I don't know what to think just yet," Nick confessed. "My whole life has been turned upside down in the past six months because of you. I thought you were dead, then I discovered you weren't, and now– Now I find myself thinking how beautiful you look in candlelight, and I think about how easy it would be to forget and forgive you for every half-truth you've ever told me."
Amanda smiled. Then she leaned forward and kissed him gently, as if they had all the time in the world to figure out the attraction that had been the undercurrent to their relationship from the start.
Desire flashed through him, hot, urgent, needy. Nick fought the urge to deepen the kiss, to lose himself in the sweet promise of her body. He knew it wouldn't solve anything; rather, it would only add to the tumble of confused thoughts and feelings assailing him. Her fingers felt warm on his shoulders while the space between their bodies seemed to be an ocean.
Still, Amanda continued to press her lips against his. Memory of their last kiss flashed through him, and the reserve he felt suddenly seemed ridiculous. Yet he continued to hold himself back. Some instinct for self-preservation he didn't know he had kept him from responding. He didn't want to be just another lover in a long line of others, and he was very much afraid that he would go to his grave loving her more than anyone he had ever known. Selfishly, he wanted to be the last lover she would ever have, the one she would never forget no matter how long she lived.
He felt Amanda's lips curve into a smile and she drew back. "I don't suppose you'd like to pretend that we've just met and you don't know anything about me except this attraction?" she offered.
Nick shook his head slowly. "I'm not into casual affairs," he told her.
"I know," she replied quietly. Her steady gaze bore into him in silent expectation as the very air around them seemed suddenly electrified.
Staring into her dark eyes, he felt as if he stood at a crossroads, with either path representing a decision he could not take back. His heart seemed weighted with a nameless emotion. There was nothing reasonable about his feelings for Amanda; everything he felt was an extreme of some kind. It would be too easy to get lost in her, to take what she was so willingly offering tonight, to pretend that the confusion inside of him could be erased by a night of passion, but he knew differently. The realization made him ache with sadness.
He fought the feeling, hearing the construction of the roadblock in his head as surely as he'd swerved past it, brakes squealing in protest. Surely it's not forever, he thought desperately, even as he knew, somehow, that it was.
The longing washed over him, and he closed the distance between them, taking possession of her lips in a kiss that attempted to say everything he couldn't bring himself to say. He wanted so much to love her that it felt like reason was twisting a knife in his gut. The strain of holding back pulled at him.
Her hands rose to press against either side of his face, causing him to go still. She took advantage of his momentary surprise to counter his forceful passion with gentleness. Easing back slightly, she nipped at his lower lip, causing him to part his mouth. Slipping her tongue inside, she proceeded to trace the outline of his mouth. A shiver rippled through him as desire electrified him. Impatiently, he crushed her to him again to recapture her lips in a more demanding kiss.
She moaned. The sound might as well had been a cold bucket of water snapping him back to reality.
We can't do this. Kissing isn't going to change anything.
Breaking the kiss, he buried his face against her throat, feeling her shudder in his arms and feeling none too steady himself.
"It's not enough," he whispered hoarsely. "I don't want to be alone when you're gone, Amanda. I know you'll probably live a hell of lot longer than me, but when Korda came along and almost took your head, I realized that your life may end tomorrow just like mine could and I – I couldn't deal with it. In fifty years when I'm old and gray, will you still want to be around me? I'd like to think that making love with you would change things, but I don't know if it would be enough for me."
She wrapped her arms more tightly around him. "Can't we take each day as it comes?" she pleaded gently. "Can't we just believe that forever is as long as we want it to be?"
Nick closed his eyes. "I'm trying, damn it, but I like having a plan. I like to know where and how I'm going before I get there."
"Very little in life is guaranteed, Nick," she reminded him.
"Don't you get it?" Nick opened his eyes and stared at her. "Believe me, Amanda, I've been attracted to you since we met. But it's not as simple as that."
"Are you sure about that?" Amanda returned, her voice calm.
Whatever he would've said to that was interrupted by a knock on the door.
Nick shook his head. Amanda pulled away from him, breaking their embrace, leaving him feeling strangely bereft. He told himself it was necessary because he had to go open the door in order to answer it, but still he found himself wishing it could have continued.
Pulling the door open slightly, he found Gaston, the club's assistant manager, standing on the opposite side of the door.
"Sorry to interrupt you, Mr. Wolfe," Gaston spoke in French, "but there is a gentleman downstairs looking for Miss Amanda."
Nick glanced back at Amanda, seeing the familiar tightening of her expression. Without being told, he knew that whoever was here to see her was Immortal. He looked back at the wiry, Caucasian man who stood waiting for his instructions.
"Tell whoever it is that he's welcome to the hospitality of the bar," Nick ordered, speaking French as he knew Gaston did not speak English well. "Get his name, but tell him that Amanda is not leaving Holy Ground tonight. Use those words; he'll understand."
"As you wish, Mr. Wolfe."
"And Gaston?" Nick added just before the younger man could turn away.
"If we get disturbed the remainder of the night, it better be because the place is burning down. Do you understand?"
"Yes, Mr. Wolfe."
With that handled, Nick shut the heavy oak door. He walked over to Amanda and, taking her hands, pulled her to her feet. She rose gracefully with the movement and watched him with amused eyes.
"It's Christmas," he groused. "Don't you people honor holy days as well as Holy Ground?"
Amanda chuckled softly. "Some of us do," she allowed. "Not everyone." She slipped her arms around his waist. "But I don't think you're really interested in knowing that."
"No," he growled. "I'm not."
She smiled. "Do I take your words to Gaston to mean what I think they do?" she inquired.
He shook his head slowly and pursed his lips. "I could be just, you know, doing what annoys you the most and trying to protect you."
She pretended to consider this. "You could be," she agreed. She closed the distance between their mouths, but did not touch. "Then again, who's going to protect me from you?"
He cocked his head slightly, pondering the question. "Guess that would have to be me, then."
That said, he slipped out of her embrace. Just when she started to pout, he picked her up and carried her to his bedroom.
"Nick!" she shrieked as he dumped her on the bed like a sack of potatoes, then fell atop her. "Get off of me!"
"Okay," he agreed, rising.
"No! Come back here!" she protested.
Half on the bed, half off, he quirked an eyebrow at her. "Make up your mind, Amanda. Which is it?"
"You– you–" she sputtered.
Chuckling, he shifted position so that she was again trapped underneath him. Then he started tickling her.
"Nick!" she cried out in between helpless giggles. "This means war!"
"So much for peace on earth, goodwill to men," Nick drawled, then gasped as she managed to elbow him in the stomach.
"Goodwill?! I'll show you goodwill!" Amanda declared defiantly, then used the distraction of his temporary pain to shove him on his back. She then began to retaliate in earnest.
Laughing, the pair engaged in a tickle war that didn't stop until both of them collapsed in exhaustion. Still fully clothed, they fell asleep right where they lay, with Nick loosely holding Amanda close.