Merry Christmas!


Merry Christmas everyone! Hope you’re enjoying the festivities, and perhaps raising a toast to honour Nerissa Naughton’s birthday tomorrow! (Hmm, or perhaps that’s just me?)

But just in case the thought of brussel sprouts isn’t making you swoon with excitement, how about curling up with my very own short story collection? Yep, that’s right, my short story collection The Ghosts’ Feast is on Amazon, along with the FIRST TWO novels in The Breathing Ghosts  Series. With stories of vengeful vampires, purple eyed witches, partying in a decadent Venetian palazzo, murder, revenge, desire and even a cameo from Henry the VIII, it’s far better than those novelty socks your Nan got you!

So if you fancy injecting a little bit of vampiric glamour into your life, why not try it? Here’s what people have been saying about The Breathing Ghosts Series on Amazon:

‘This author always delivers…’

‘Intelligent yet inviting’

‘The historical details are brilliant’


‘Give me the next book- NOW!’


And if you’re yearning for more vampire books in your stocking, why not try the sequel to The Breathing GhostsThe Blood Witching? Macabre, menacing and magical, Nerissa‘s quest to destroy her ex-lover, Angelica, is one that you won’t forget!

And if you’re already a fan (or curious for even more,) why not check out my new Christmas-themed short story?

So fire up your Kindles, sip your hot chocolate, sit back in front of the fire, and get ready to read! The mad, bad and very dangerous world of The Breathing Ghosts is waiting for you…happy holidays!

Images via sproutaesthetics on Tumblr



‘Nerissa Naughton’s Christmas’: My Christmas short story is BACK!!

Hi everyone!

Hope you’re having a wonderful Christmas! I’m thrilled to bring back my new Christmas-themed short story, (copyright Eleanor Keane) set in the Victorian era, and featuring the Naughton family of vampires (yes, vampires!)  from my The Breathing Ghosts Series, and some of your other favourite characters!  Featuring plenty of humour and descriptions of a true Victorian Christmas, (not to mention a few surprises) I really hope you’ll like it.

So without further do, here is the story! I hope you all enjoy it, and enjoy the rest of the festive season! (Please have fun, relax, stay safe and drink responsibly!)😀

‘Nerissa Naughton’s Christmas’

Copyright Eleanor Keane, December 2015. All Rights reserved.

December 24th, England, c. late 1800s

“So,” Nathaniel Naughton began tentatively, “It’s Christmas Eve. Aren’t you even excited?”
His cousin, Nerissa, scowled, and rubbed at her eyes. The ornate silver ring on her knuckle flashed in the guttering light of the candelabra on the table. “No,” she said sulkily; leaning back in her chair and propping her legs on the dining-table, causing her mound of purple wool skirts and petticoats to rise alarmingly over her bony ankles. She wore flat faded black kidskin boots trimmed with braided purple ribbon. They led to the plethora of skirts, which she now angrily brushed out of the way, and to a matching dark purple bodice tightly fastened over navy sleeves. On her elbow was a dried speck of red blood.
“Why should I be?” she said huffily, breathing out with difficulty as her corset chafed against her ribs. “It’s not like vampires even believe in God or Christ- why do we celebrate it?”
Nathaniel shrugged carelessly. “Oh, many reasons. I suppose it helps to blend in with the mortals a much as possible, and Christmas does have considerable perks in itself, you know- food, family, presents, the possibility of snow…” He glanced at the mullioned windows of Naughton Manor’s imposing Great Hall, already glazed with frost. “I do love snow,” he said, his voice tinged with unusual whimsy. As if on cue, a faint snow began to dust the windowpanes like sugar.
“Snow that Lucian and Sebastian will no doubt try to pelt me with, or slip down the back of my neck, or kick into my face, or pile on top of my favourite jacket. They’re a nightmare,” Nerissa muttered, referring to the most wayward of her four brothers. Her fangs peeked out over her thin, often humourless mouth. “Besides, our family will likely spend the whole day bickering and squabbling. You know what we’re like. Last year, Julian caused a blazing row between him and Nico, arguing that goose was better than turkey. Mama eventually had to restrain Nico by holding him down and threatening to use the thumbscrews on him.”
Nathaniel sighed, and plucked absentmindedly at the necktie around his cravat, loosening it. “Aunt Virginie does love those thumbscrews- but it might be a bit much to use them on actual members of her own family. Besides, nothing is better than turkey,” he added firmly. “Julian is only saying that because he loves to fret. He’s just as much of a troublemaker as Lucian or Sebastian, he just hides it with his fancy manners and his long words. He thinks he has to be so sophisticated and clever because he’s the second-eldest after Nico, but he just comes across as though he has a poker stuck up his–”
“Arctic regions?” Nerissa suggested playfully, gesturing to the chill wind gusting outside. Nathaniel smiled thinly, flashing his fangs over lips already chapped with the cold. Nerissa clicked her fingers, and a flicker of black light danced across her fingertips. Fire immediately sprang up in the stone grate behind the grand dining-table, filling the hall with much-needed warmth. Nathaniel gave a grateful sigh.
“Look, you’re just upset because Angelica is well…you know…” he began tentatively.
“Mad? Deranged? Out of her wits? Oh, and currently incarcerated in Bedlam?” Bedlam was the nickname for the most well-known asylum in England. After a spate of increasingly bizarre and dangerous incidents- culminating in some particularly gruesome murders- Nerissa’s long-time lover, the vampire Angelica Blackthorne, had been placed there so as not to endanger others.
“I visited her there yesterday,” Nerissa said sullenly. “It was not…” she struggled to find the right words.”Not a pleasant experience,” she said finally. “Angelica is still very…fragile at the moment. It’s best that she stays…where she is. This will be our first Christmas apart, though.”
Nathaniel fell silent for a moment. “I’m so sorry to hear that,” he said eventually, but with sincerity. “But surely…I mean, what about Dolly’s sister, Gwendoline?” Dolly was Nathaniel’s current lover- a vampire renowned for her china doll beauty, her love of anything pink and feminine, her wicked chain smoking habit and her penchant for swearing like a sailor. Needless to say, Nathaniel was completely enamoured. Virginie also like Dolly- which was unusual in itself- but then again, Dolly was always good for a gossip, and wasn’t averse to sharing her style tips, either. In return, Virginie was fond of lending Dolly her hats.
“I’m collecting Dolly later, she’s spending Christmas with us,” Nathaniel added. “Perhaps Gwendoline could come along, and take your mind off…unfortunate events?”
Nerissa didn’t say anything.
“Look, you and Gwendoline were very close not so long ago…”
“It was a fling…”
“She made you laugh,” Nathaniel said solemnly. “She was good to have around. You miss her- you know you do.”
“I miss Angelica. But she’s in the asylum, and I can’t even talk to her properly. I can’t even touch her.”
“I’m sorry about Angelica, but…”
“I don’t want to talk about her,” Nerissa snapped. “And as for Gwendoline, it was just a fling, and now she’s busy redecorating her new home, Fairlawn Grange. She is apparently caught up with builders and contracts and suppliers from overseas, and won’t be available until the Spring.” She bit her lip.
“It’s not as though I don’t care about you,” Nathaniel pointed out. “I’m not saying all of this to upset you or to be condescending- I want you to be happy. You’ve been through such a trying time. You must be lonely, I understand…”
“I’m not lonely, and Angie can’t help being mad!” Nerissa growled. “She’ll be well again soon, she just needs…time.”
“You deserve better than her, though” Nathaniel said softly. “She may be mad, but she still treated you cruelly.”
“I’m not discussing it,” Nerissa said sullenly. Nathaniel glanced at the murderous look on his cousin’s face, and wisely fell silent.

At that point, two tall, slim vampires with an identical shock of black hair strode into the hall. They were so similar they could only be twins- Lucian and Sebastian, the youngest boys of the Naughton family. One of them had hoisted a gigantic fir tree over his shoulder as easily as if it was made of foam. The heady scent of pine followed in his wake. The other carried a bushel of tree ornaments, some made out of marbled Venetian glass, some from cut crystal. Most were delicately painted ceramic reindeer, stars, flowers and birds, but some were also skulls and panthers, the Naughton family symbol.
A brightly-coloured robin fell out of one of Lucian’s hands, and veered towards the flagstone floor, but with a lazy wave of Nathaniel’s hand it froze, mid-descent, and zoomed back upwards, floating in the air as if it were real. With a swishing movement, Nathaniel made the rest of the ornaments float from the vampire’s arms and dangle in the air, forming a paper-chain of glittering, glinting objects.
“Christmas tree time!” Lucian boomed, loud enough to make the great hall echo. His dark eyes glittered with mischief. “Come on, Nerissa, don’t look so bloody mournful- are you going to help me decorate it?”

Nerissa rolled her eyes, and pulled out the pins from her glossy black hair, removing a hair piece that had been twisted to look like curls. She glared at it and tossed it into the fire, shaking out her hair, which was naturally as straight as a ruler. The fake hair piece sizzled in indignation as it caught alight, emitting a cloud of putrid black smoke.
“That feels better,” she sighed, combing through the knots in her hair, which hung to her waist. “I don’t know why Mama insists I wear such horrid things. Fake hair itches dreadfully.”
“You must wear it because apparently it’s the very height of decorum,” Lucian drawled, “to have your hair resemble a wedding cake.”
Nerissa watched with narrowed eyes as he deposited the fir tree in the corner of the hall, setting it down with ease. With a click of his fingers, glowing spheres of blue and purple light flickered within the tree’s branches.
“That looks pretty, Lucian,” Nathaniel called out. Lucian grinned openly, patting down the creases in his red velvet blazer. It only made his icy-white skin seem even paler. “Sebastian, it’s your turn,” he said airily. The other twin, Sebastian, rolled up the sleeves of his own jacket and waved his hands as though performing a magic trick.

Christmas ornaments zoomed from the air to the tree, looping themselves within the folds of the branches, from top to bottom. Navy and violet ribbons snaked from his wrists and coiled themselves around each twig. Nerissa watched, seemingly unimpressed, as Nathaniel conjured up handfuls of crystallized ginger, fruit cake and even miniature mince pies, that immediately lined up like tin soldiers and nestled themselves within the cradling branches of the tree. Each one hung from its own hook of ribbon, encrusted with sugar and currants. He turned, obviously pleased with himself, towards Nerissa. “Are you sure you don’t want to help- even a tiny bit?”
He reached up and snapped off a piece of marzipan.

A smile tugged at the corners of Nerissa’s mouth. Without speaking, she opened up her palm towards the tree, the lines on her pale palm as dark as cartography lines. Black light wavered in and around her fingers, and her rings- the beloved silver rings she always wore- slipped off her fingers and hung like jewels from the tree: a cat, a sword, a skull with a rose in it’s mouth, a lily, a fox with emerald flecks for eyes, a snake, a withered tree, and a plaited band studded with tiny crescent moons and stars. The only one still on her hand was the one inherited from her mother- an antique, priceless sapphire the size of a gobstopper, which her mother had apparently received from Henry the VIII. The ring glowed with an almost prescient light, and suddenly the tree was alight with thousands of tiny replica sapphires, winking like vivid sea-blue eyes. She grinned as a mince pie fell from its ribbon hook and into her open hand. Her eyes rested on Nathaniel, as if daring him to challenge her, and she took a massive bite out of it, spilling crumbs over her bodice.
“The best I’ve done yet,” Nathaniel said proudly. “I improved the recipe from last year.”
“Not bad,” she said, her mouth full of pie. “Would be better with more sugar,” she added, but she still smiled.
Sebastian whistled at the tree. “You’ve really outdone yourself this year, sister.”
“That tree looks positively outrageous,” Lucian chimed in, eager not to be left out.
“Good,” Nerissa said to them, “I like being outrageous.” She brushed away crumbs from her mouth with the back of her hand.
The twins giggled at her reply. They still retained a puppy-like charm, even despite their mischief-making. Nerissa couldn’t help but like them, even when they were being a nightmare.

The wide oak doors of the hall flung open, and in strode the tall, imposing figure of Nerissa’s mother, flanked by her two elder sons and her husband. Virginie Naughton, known throughout London and beyond as a famous beauty, had dressed both for the occasion and the cold weather; in a mink-lined cape, cobalt velvet skirts that brushed the floor and a fur muff that completely encased her almost doll-like hands. Her darker than dark hair was bundled into a sophisticated mass of curls- without the need for any fake hair pieces- and looked, much to Nerissa’s envy, nothing like a wedding cake. It was topped with a tiny bonnet trimmed with glossy dyed-blue feathers, and a lace veil that skimmed her chin but did nothing to conceal the intensity of her eyes, which were unforgivingly black. They scanned the room, taking in every detail with almost clinical attention, and fell eventually on Nerissa, with her hair unbound and trailing past her shoulders. She gave a theatrical sigh. Sensing the challenge, Nerissa’s eyes narrowed, and lingered on her mother’s hat.
“Mama, you look splendid, as usual- but please tell why you are wearing a hat indoors? It is not quite the done thing, you know. You have told me so yourself often enough.” The cut-glass words sounded strange in her naturally husky voice- polite but insincere, like the Big Bad Wolf taunting Red Riding Hood. Her mother did not look amused.
“I am wearing a hat because I have just come from outside. I was helping your father clear snow from the path. He says it is man’s work, I say women do ‘men’s work’ twice as fast and with less complaining. We almost disagreed, before he realized I was right.”
“Invariably right, my love,” her husband, Nicholas, said, kissing her on the cheek. “Learn from me, boys- women are always right. That is the secret to a happy marriage.”
Virginie slid the muff off her fingers and clicked them, hard enough to send the sound reverberating through the hall. A spark of black light flared from her fingertips, so bright and quick it felt like a slap to Nerissa, who involuntarily stepped back. Nathaniel shielded his eyes with his hand, and when he looked again, Virginie’s hat had disappeared, replaced by a cluster of blue flowers pinned into her hair.

Virginie’s elder sons strode in beside her. They shared the same haughty features and black wiry hair as their parents, except that their father was taller than any of them, broader and more muscular. Nicholas Naughton was many things- warrior, orator, diplomat, and fighter, and yet above all he was the centuries-old patriarch of the Naughton family, and power seemed to seep from his every pore. With his muscular arms and lean frame, he looked as though he would be better suited to carrying a broadsword or an axe, and yet he marched behind his wife carrying what an armful of trailing ivy. His eldest son, Nico, looked uncannily like his father and namesake, except that his mouth was thinner and his ears more elfin, half-hidden behind a mass of black curls. His brother, Julian, on the other hand, looked more hawk-like, with knife-sharp cheekbones, long, thin hands and lips that were seemingly always on the verge of sneering.

Virginie eyed the tree, newly decorated by Lucian, Sebastian, Nerissa and Nathaniel, with distaste. “That tree looks awful,” she said in her slow French-tinged accent.
“It looks superb,” Lucian said wistfully. “Nerissa’s best effort by far. And Nathaniel’s mince pies are good, too- help yourself.”
“No, thank you,” said Julian, the second eldest, dressed in a neat, austere black suit and green tie. “I’d rather not spoil my appetite before the goose.”
“Turkey,” the other brother, Nico, said automatically. “Turkey is better.”
“Oh, do stop, both you of you,” Virginie snapped, in a tone that brooked no argument. “We’re having goose this year, and that is final.”
Nico looked crestfallen. “But why?”
“Because we’re understaffed in the kitchen this year, and the cook, Mrs. Philips, wants to stick to more traditional fare. She thinks it may be easier, and I am inclined to agree with her.”
“But I like turkey,” Nico said sulkily. “I’ll have a word with Dulcie…”
“That’s Mrs. Philips to you!” Virginie snapped, her eyes ablaze once more with sudden fury. She gave him a look that would have made mortal men wet themselves and run away whimpering. Instead, Nico bravely met her gaze.
“I’ve always called her Dulcie. She likes it.”
At this, Lucian and Sebastian immediately collapsed into a fit of giggles. Even Nathaniel smirked, albeit behind his hand. It was well known in the Naughton household that Nico had a penchant for seducing and breaking the hearts of the servant girls, Mrs. Dulcie Philips being no exception. Now she was a portly, red-cheeked wife and grandmother in her fifties and no temptation for him; but when she was a young kitchen girl she had caught his eye with her tumbling red curls and wide, open laugh, and ever since then she had a soft spot for him. Nico would often sneak down into the kitchens at night and charm Mrs. Philips into giving him an extra slice of cake or two. It drove his mother mad.
“Why are we so understaffed?” the elder Nicholas Naughton said, clearly keen to change the subject before his wife exploded.
“Mrs. Philips has had to let go of one of the serving girls. She was caught drinking some of the kitchen brandy that was reserved for our Christmas pudding,” Virginie said, her tone cutting.
Lucian and Sebastian both sniggered at the same time. Virginie threw them another one of her infamous evil looks, and then wiped her hands on her dress, tutting.
“So,” she said abruptly, as Sebastian’s sniggers faded away, “that concludes that subject. I’ll talk no more about it. Nico, you are not going to speak to Mrs. Philips about this under any circumstances- the poor woman has enough to deal with tonight.”
Nico scowled, and muttered something that sounded very much like ‘itch.’

Clearly choosing to ignore this, Virginie looked expectantly at her husband, one hand placed haughtily on her hip. Nicholas Naughton whispered a few words and the ivy in his arms floated upwards and draped itself over the dark wood beams that criss-crossed the vaulted ceiling. His lips moved again, and golden firefly-like lights glowed within their slick, scalloped leaves. Virginie flicked her fingers, and a soft flurry of snow drifted down from the eaves, onto the upturned faces of her children.
“There,” she said, “that’s better.” She looked softly at her husband, and for a moment she looked no longer formidable, but merely beautiful.
Lucian gave a little gasp of delight, his eyes as large and round as an owl’s. He held up his palms to catch some of the drifting snow, and immediately flung it down his twin brother’s collar. Sebastian screeched, and launched himself at Lucian, ruffling his hair with the heel of his palm.
“Get off, get off!” Lucian cried, wincing as his hair became freckled with more and more snow. Nathaniel laughed, his eyes dancing with mirth, and even their father couldn’t suppress a smile. Only Nerissa seemed despondent- she kicked her heel against the flagstones and looked bored, even as the magical snow fell silently onto the back of her hand, clutched within her lap. Virginie caught her look, and Nerissa promptly turned her gaze to the floor, biting her lip.
“Nico, I challenge you,” Nerissa said quickly, a little too quickly.
“Challenge me to what?” her eldest brother said, his tone aloof. He kept his eyes on Lucian and Sebastian, who were now chasing each other around the hall, skidding and sliding on the snow-wet flagstones.
“The annual Naughton Christmas poker game,” she said.

Julian looked aghast. “Mama!” he said, his normally low voice now barely above a whine, “you cannot condone your children gambling like this! It’s irresponsible!”
Virginie waved a hand dismissively. “Oh, let them do what they want, they’ll do it anyway, even with your censoriousness.”
“That’s another way of Mama saying, ‘you’re being a buffoon’,” Lucian said under his breath, digging Julian in the ribs.
“Or a muttonhead,” Sebastian chimed in.
“Or a bore…”
“Boys,” Virginie snapped, “I will not have you insult your brother like that. Apologize, please.” Lucian and Sebastian flushed, and looked down at their feet. “Sorry, Julian,” they intoned dully.
Julian ignored them, turning instead to face his mother. His face was a mask of outrage. “Mama, I do not care for Lucian and Sebastian’s antics,” he said haughtily, “they can insult me all they like, it makes no difference to me. But every year Nico and Nerissa play this silly frivolous poker game, and end up drunk, incapacitated, and debauched.”
“Sounds like fun to me,” Nerissa muttered.
“And they fritter away half of our fortune,” Julian added.
“Hardly,” Nicholas interrupted, “considering all the money we do have. We’re the richest vampire family in Britain, Julian, and have been for centuries.” He smiled smugly. “Besides, you spend so little that a little overspending on their behalf is hardly going to bankrupt us. Perhaps you could take a leaf out of their book and indulge in a little leisure time yourself. It is Christmas after all.”
Julian looked incensed-this was clearly not the reaction he’d been hoping for. He made a growling sound in the back of his throat, and started to pace along the floor. Lucian looked at him thoughtfully, his head cocked to one side. “I was just wondering- what is it that you most enjoy about Christmas, Julian? There must be something that you approve of. It sounds like you don’t enjoy it at all. It sounds as though you hate it.”
Julian looked at him with round, surprised eyes. He stopped pacing. Even Nerissa looked taken back. After a long, tense moment, Julian eventually said: “Not at all. I just enjoy different things. Every year I look forward to sitting down in my favourite chair by the fire with a nice glass of fresh blood, a mince pie, and my copy of Mr. Dicken’s A Christmas Carol.”
“A Christmas Carol? Isn’t that the little penny chapbook that mortals love so much?”
Julian shrugged. “I like the way Mr. Dickens writes his characters, and the way he writes about London. It’s almost as though London is a character itself. My edition has seen better days, though. I need to get a new copy for next year.”
“Hardly antics to wake the dead, though. Anything else?” Lucian pressed.
Julian thought again, chewing on his lip with a fang, and then spoke. “I occasionally like to listen to carol-singers.”
Lucian raised an eyebrow. “But we don’t believe in God, or Christ, or any of the things they sing about.”
“Of course not- but it doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy the sound of their voices.” Julian sighed wearily. “Look, this is all highly irrelevant to my point- what I was trying to say is, Mama is clearly condoning wastefulness and profligate spending. Do not tell me I’m being too extreme in my views, either. You know I have a fair point- last year Nico and Nerissa ended up buying a circus monkey who was trained to deal cards. How can you possibly approve of that?” He began to pace again, his hands in his pockets.
“We miss Felipe,” Sebastian said glumly. “I managed to teach him how to light my pipe for me and fetch my tobacco. He made such funny chirping noises. Lucian liked to give him baths, and comb his fur.” Lucian nodded beside him. Their mother looked at them both with unusual softness.
“I know you miss the monkey, dears,” she sighed, “but we had to get rid of Felipe- he was riddled with fleas.”
“And a wild rabid animal!” Julian all but shouted.
“You’re only being horrible about Felipe because he tried to get amorous with your shoe!” Sebastian shot at his brother.
“He also had an unfortunate habit of um…having little accidents on the hems of my dresses and capes too,” Virginie muttered.
“That is quite beside the point,” Julian said archly, “the point is, every year Nico and Nerissa play poker, and every year it ends in chaos, with debauchery, licentiousness and those ridiculous forfeits.” He made another scoffing noise, and Lucian looked very much as if he longed to throttle him. Even Nicholas rolled his eyes.
“And, for the record, I would like to point out that that monkey of yours quite ruined my shoe,” he added huffily, “and I won’t even mention what he did to my favourite scarf.”
“You’re just being mean-spirited because Nico and Nerissa never include you,” Lucian spat.
“I simply cannot think of a reason why,” Nico muttered. “Julian is so delightful.” He turned to Nerissa. “Let’s ignore Julian, and go ahead with it anyway. It’s what we always do- besides, perhaps we could get a new monkey for the twins.”
Lucian clapped his hands, beaming like a child. “We could call him Felipo!”
“No,” Nerissa said, as the twin’s faces simultaneously fell. “Let’s do something different this year.” She thought for a moment, studying Julian’s face and his downcast eyes, and then smiled. “If you win- as you usually bloody do- my forfeit is this- we go to London and I buy something really hideous from store. Something I’d never otherwise want to even touch. You know, like one of those simpering portraits of a kitten eating a cake or something.”
“Fine. And if I miraculously somehow lose?”
Nerissa smiled thinly. “Then you have to spend the rest of Christmas Eve with Julian. You know- together. The whole night. Just you and him.”
Nico’s jaw dropped. He looked aghast. In fact, he continued to look aghast for several more moments until Lucian prodded him sharply in the side. “Deal,” he said eventually, through gritted teeth. “But you know that I always win, Nerissa. This time will be no exception.”
Nerissa rolled her eyes. With a flash of black light, a deck of playing cards appeared in her hand. “Oh, I don’t think so,” Nerissa said with a sly smile. “Lucian and Sebastian have been instructing me as to your various poker ‘tells’, and now I’m sure I can read you like a book. This time, you’re going to lose, Nico. I can guarantee it. Poker is now my game.”


Just a few hours later, Nerissa stood ankle-deep in the snow of London, scowling.
Nico stood beside her, decked out in a top hat, navy coat, navy scarf and holding a cane topped with the bone china head of a snarling panther. He was currently using it to carve out rude shapes in the snow around his boots.
“I still can’t believe you lost to me so quickly,” he sniggered, as his cane scraped the icy cobblestones. Nerissa glared at him, her eyes boiling over with a fury hot enough to scorch the snow. Nico winced.
“Sore loser, are we?”
“Shut up. Let’s just go to the nearest store so I can buy something that the twins can embarrass me about.”
Nico let out a howl of laughter. “Nerissa, you’re the worst poker player I know.”
Nerissa turned her back on him sharply, feeling her cheeks burn with sudden, unusual embarrassment. Determined to hide it from Nico, she lifted her head, squared her shoulders and marched off down the Strand. Her voluminous skirts scraped through the slush, and she could feel hairpins digging into her scalp from where her hair tugged to be free.

All around her, jostled throngs of people, their faces masked by an array of thick dark beards, upturned collars, fur stoles, and long ringleted hair carefully curled under their own velveteen bonnets. They smelt sweet but musty, the hollows of their collarbones damp with stale perfume, cologne and lavender water. Their eyes watered as a freezing gust of wind buffeted their clothes, their hands trembling inside their warm fur muffs and calfskin gloves; but their cheeks were rouged against the chill, and their arms were full of neatly-wrapped presents. Their soft, slightly pallid skin and fragile bones showed that they had never done a day’s honest work in their lives- the women could barely move underneath their vice-like corsets and hooped skirts. These were the well-to-do, wealthy and prosperous mortals her Mama plucked like defenceless chicks off the street, feeding from their blue-blooded throats and pearl-braceleted wrists. Their voices were as sharp as glass and nasal, their movements as clipped as automatons. They walked in orderly straight lines, carefully avoiding the carriages that trundled past like beetles, the horses sending puffs of steaming breath into the air. Occasionally the newspapers reported the disappearance of some lord or lady, some trophy wife or errant husband found with slashes in their neck and arms, their legs and sometimes even their feet, where veins ran between their toes like ink. But Virginie and her family were always careful-so careful- to deposit their bodies by the cool grey sludge of the Thames, where drunks, tramps and madmen usually slept; or in brothels, opium dens, or alleyways riddled with petty violence and crime. There would be an investigation, of course- prompted by some poor, abandoned window crying kittenish tears into a scented handkerchief- but it would ultimately be written off as a cautionary tale: a husband who had visited the wrong brothel and got tangled up in something he shouldn’t; a wife who stayed down the wrong alleyway while shopping. In a city like London, people went missing all the time, and not all the disappearances were due to a vampire’s thirst. The city just swallowed mortals up, in its gaping maw of smog and slime and noise and wealth and poverty, and they were never seen again.

Nerissa turned left, off the busy Strand and away from the neat stores and shops with their colourful, expensive displays, and down a narrow road flanked with pubs, squalid curio shops and a furrier selling squirrel skins for scarves. They were hung up outside the shop on a long chain like hunks of meat, swaying in the wind. Already they were flecked with snow and ice crystals. Nerissa walked steadily ahead, trying to ignore the smell. Here, just a little way off the Strand, the air smelt like sweat, blood and dirt, and was filled with a chorus of chattering, coughing, sneezing, cursing, and spluttering. A nearby factory oozed pitch smoke into an already-black night sky, completely obliterating any hope of stars. Raucous laughter from a nearby pub nearly made Nico jump as he followed behind her. Swarthy-faced men with dirt-streaked hands and clothes stood outside, their faces glowing as they cupped their fingers around lit pipes. One of them muttered something in Nerissa’s direction, and gave a laugh like a bark. His friends joined in, laughing so hard they sent ribbons of beer flying into the chill night air. Nico glared at him, and he immediately gave a yelp, dropped his pipe and clutched his hand.
“Gawd!” he yelled, wincing. “I bleedin’ burnt meself!”
“Thanks,” Nerissa said to Nico in an undertone.
“Not at all.”
“But I can take care of myself, you know.”
“Oh, I know- you were fascinated by those instructions that Mama wrote on ‘Disembowelment in Eight Easy Steps.’”
Nerissa nodded. “I found her hand-drawn illustrations particularly helpful. But it’s a far too elegant mode of death for someone like him. I’d prefer to use my hands.” She jerked her thumb towards the man, who immediately stumbled back as though he’d been punched in the face. Nerissa smiled.
“Why are you taking us to this old slum?” Nico said, a touch of dryness in his voice. Nerissa looked shifty. “There’s an excellent taxidermy store just over here…they have just acquired the most fascinating specimen of a three-eyed owl…”
“No,” Nico said firmly, “the forfeit was to force you to buy something you wouldn’t usually buy. And you love taxidermy. You’d fill the Manor from floor to rafters with it all if you could.”
“Not that much,” Nerissa said, struggling to keep the whine out of her voice. “I only like it because Mama hates it.”
Nico looked gravely at her. “You know that’s not true- I saw that stuffed kitten you bought last month.”
“Oh, fine, fine,” she growled, pouting in frustration. “Hair ribbons and pretty pink dresses it is, then. Spoilsport.”
“Good. If we just turn back here, we’ll reach the Strand again…” He took her arm and wheeled her around, dragging her backwards. Then Nico saw something that made him stop. He pointed, still clutching Nerissa’s arm with his free hand.
“Look over there- I think I’ve seen the very thing.”
Nerissa peered closer to where he pointed. “What- a tramp sitting in a gutter?”
“No, look closer!”
“The prostitute with the mole on her lip?” Nerissa grinned wickedly. “Oh, Nico, you are kind, but she’s not really my sort, you know?”
Nico dragged her forwards and jerked to a halt outside a squat building that seemed half-shop, half-hovel. A swinging sign gloved in grease and grime showed a purse overflowing with pennies. Once upon a time they had been gilt, but since then they had been dyed black by the fog and factory smoke. The prostitute with the mole on her lip lolled on the far wall, playing with her skirts. She gave Nerissa wink.
Nerissa eyed the shop sign. “A pawnbroker’s?”
Nico nodded. “Look in the window, and you’ll see it.”
Nerissa edged closer, and glanced inside. The window was thick with greyish-green muck through which vagrants had scored obscene drawings and swear words. Someone had rubbed away at patch, revealing a miserable assortment of items: a worn and faded bonnet, a patched jacket, a string of pearls that looked almost grey in the gloom; and a single china doll. It had a thatch of long, real golden hair, meticulously curled, and wore a short pink and white smock down to its jointed knees. Its eyes were as round, blue and blank as marbles, its mouth painted in a perfectly puckered Cupid’s bow. It had a long white scratch on its face, forked like a tree root on its red-spotted cheek, and one of its leather shoes was missing a buckle.
Nerissa glared at Nico. “The doll? Very amusing.”
“I’m serious,” Nico shot back. “It’s not something you would usually buy, is it?”
“Because it’s horrid.”
“A child would love it. Look at its pretty dress.” Nico was clearly enjoying this. Nerissa started to hate him.
“It’s still horrid.”
The two vampires heard a polite little cough behind them, and a snigger. They wheeled around, to see three very familiar faces behind them. Nerissa was irate.
“Julian! Lucian! Sebastian! Hell! What are you three doing here?”
The twins immediately burst into a fit of hysterics, jostling each other. “We couldn’t let you have all the fun!” Lucian said eventually, after their laughter died down.
“This is the best part of town!” Sebastian chimed in. “Who knows what trouble we could cause here?”
“And what are you doing here?” Nico asked Julian, looking at him in horror. Julian glanced about him, looking wary. “I came to keep an eye on the twins,” he said cagily. “Mama and Papa don’t know we’re all here. Someone had to make sure they don’t end up killing themselves. Or even worse- ruining my Christmas Eve.” He puffed out his chest proudly.
“He came to ruin our fun,” Sebastian said sulkily. As he spoke, the snow began to fall harder.
“Where’s Nathaniel?” Nerissa asked.
“He’s gone to Fairlawn Grange, to pick up Dolly,” Sebastian said. Lucian made squelching kisses noises behind his back, and the two burst into giggles once again.
Nerissa sighed. “Look, I’m just going to go into this shop, and then we’re going straight home…”
“No you’re not,” Julian said, his hands on his hips and a look of utter disdain on his face. “You told Nico earlier that you were planning to go to that public house where all the loose women gather, and then to that disreputable theatre where all the women divest themselves of their scanties and dance around…”
“Nico, hold me back before I throttle him,” Nerissa interrupted. The twins looked elated, and started to dance around in a circle. Nerissa sighed, and hurried inside the store, pulling Nico with her. A moment later she came back out, holding the doll upside down by the corner of her dress.
“I can’t believe I’ve just bought this bloody thing,” she muttered. “As soon as we get home, I’m throwing it in the fire.”

As she spoke, she thought she heard someone give a gasp, and then a choked sob. Turning around, she saw a young girl sitting on kerb, with a pile of damp-looking matches in the soiled lap of her smock, which was far too small for her skinny legs. She wore an old wool bonnet over stringy brown hair, and there was a smudge of mud on her cheek. Nerissa realized she was looking at the doll and crying. With all her usual tact and diplomacy, she stalked over to the girl, crouched down as far as her much-hated corset would allow, and asked: “Why are you crying?”
The girl sniffed, and wiped her nose on the back of her hand. She couldn’t have been more than sixteen. “Because I’m sad, aren’t I?” she snivelled. “’Ardly clever, are you, lady?”
As she spoke, Nerissa saw that she was missing one of her teeth, and there was a sore at the corner of her mouth.
“Why are you sad?”
The girl shrugged, bit her lip, and then stared straight up at Nerissa. “Because you’ll be puttin’ that doll in the fire, won’t you? That’s what you jus’ said.”
Nerissa shrugged back. “What of it?”
“Well, she’ll be burning, won’t she? It’ll be a waste. No-one will be playing with her, or caring for her. Each day I sell these here matches, and each day I’ve been lookin’ in that shop and thinkin’ of the day I could save up enough money to buy some food, and maybe a new bonnet, and maybe that doll. If I could ‘ave that doll, I’d be rich indeed.” The girl sniffed, and looked at Nerissa with a mixture of anger, sadness and disdain. Her eyes- which were very blue- took in Nerissa’s warm cape, thick skirts and winter boots.
“Look lady, you is clearly rich, so why don’t you just go back to your nice rich warm house and take the doll and forget all about the likes of me? I’ve seen you lot, and how you wander around ‘ere, looking at all of us, laughing at us, saying ‘orrible things. You rich folk are all the same. You don’t need no matches. You ain’t nice. You think it’s all just a bit of fun. But for me, I’m here each bloody day, sellin’ matches, and I am dog-tired and ‘ungry and cold to the bone. I don’t need no rich lady’s pity, all I wanted was that bleedin’ doll. And maybe something to keep me warm. Now all of that is gone.”
The girl looked at her again, and Nerissa realized how thin her smock was, and saw how she shook with the cold. Her lips had a blue sheen to them, and there were dark circles under her eyes. She looked exhausted and near dead from the cold.
Something stirred within Nerissa’s heart. Her brothers sauntered up to her.
“Scrawny little thing, isn’t she?” Nico said, his voice not unkind.
“Piss off,” the girl shot back, but already some of the anger was ebbing from her eyes, replaced with sullen resignation. She shivered, and lit a match by striking it on the pavement. As Nerissa watched, the girl held it close to her face, trying to absorb as much of its warmth as possible. Tear tracks shimmered on her cheeks.
“Maybe we’re not as bad as what you think,” Julian said unexpectedly.
To Nerissa’s surprise, Julian crouched down, and held out a hand to the girl. She glared at him, biting her lip again to keep from shivering.
“If…if you’re one of those men…” she tried to growl, her voice breaking down as her teeth chattered.
“Take it,” Julian said softly, still holding out his hand. “I promise, I’m not going to hurt you. None of us are. We’re a family, you see- these are my brothers, Nico, Lucian and Sebastian, and this is my sister, Nerissa. Also known as Noelle, because she was born on Christmas Day.”
They each nodded at the girl in turn.
“We won’t harm you- we want to help you.”
The girl gasped as an icy gust of wind ruffled her hair. The light dimmed in her eyes, and her face turned an ashen grey colour.
“Please,” Julian said, with an urgency Nerissa hadn’t heard before. “Please just take it.”
Finally relenting, the girl took his hand, stretching out her bony arm with the last ounce of energy she had left. Julian squeezed it. Her hand seemed tiny and almost doll-like in his, her fingers coated with cuts and scratches and scabs. Her nails were bitten down to the quick. He squeezed her hand again, and pulled her gently to her feet. The matches in her lap scattered on the ground- the girl was so weak from the cold she hardly noticed. Nerissa thought for a moment she heard the sound of fingers clicking, and caught a glimpse of a black spark of light. Immediately, her teeth stopped chattering and her cheeks flushed with colour. Her knees stopped shaking, and a lustre returned to her eyes, which Nerissa could now see were a startling shade of blue.
“I feel…I feel warm,” the girl gasped, stroking at her arms and legs. “I don’t feel so cold…what have you done to me? Is this some form of magic?”
Julian put his hands safely back in his trouser pockets. “Surely it’s better to be warm than freezing to death?” he said simply.
The girl looked at him, wide-eyed and wonder-struck. “I don’t understand…I feel as though there’s a nice warm fire in front of me…I don’t feel so sleepy any more. Thank you,” she said suddenly, fixing her gaze on Julian. “I don’t know for the life of me how you did this, but it feels so much better.”
“Tell me, what is your name?” Julian asked. Nerissa threw him a warning look, but he ignored her.
The girl raised her hand to her face, stroking her own cheek, now rosy instead of hollow. A faint smile passed over her mouth.
“I don’t have no name,” she murmured, still smiling. She did a joyful little spin on the icy pavement, the warmth from her bare feet causing the snow around her to melt.
Nico looked aghast. “What? Surely you must have a name, child?”
The girl shrugged. “Maybe, maybe not. What’s a name to the likes of me? What have I ever wanted a name for?”
“Well, what do your mother and father call you?”
The girl shrugged again. “My dad got sent to the work’ouse and left me and my ma with nothing. He were never around much anyway to begin with. My ma used to sell matches before me, but the typhoid got ‘er last year.” The girl’s voice broke for a moment, and she gave a sniff. Wiping at her nose, she continued. “Before…before that she just called me ‘girl’, or sometimes ‘pet.’ The folks ’round ‘ere tend to call me ‘match girl,’ or ‘little match girl’, probably on account of me being so skinny.” A thought suddenly occurred to her, and her features screwed up in panic. She squatted down and began picking up the matches that had now fallen, damp and useless, into the wet snow.
“Oh, Gawd,” she muttered under her breath, “to throw these all away without thinking…who’ll want them now? Who’ll buy them now? I’ll have nothing, I’ll bleedin’ starve…”
Tears splattered onto the snow. Without hesitation, Julian took her arm and guided her to her feet once more.
“Stop that,” he said, and the girl stopped snivelling. “Leave them,” he said, and she duly dropped the sodden matches to the floor once more. Nerissa nudged him in the ribs. “Julian, what are you doing?” she hissed.
“I’m not leaving her like this!” he hissed back.
“She’s a mortal! Mortals die all the time!”
“I don’t care! I’m not leaving her here on the street like some abandoned dog! She’s a person, Nerissa!”
A look of panic came into Nerissa’s eyes. “Oh, no…no…Julian, we can help her with food and clothes, and find her a place to stay, but whatever you’re thinking of doing, don’t…Mama will kill you…”
“Mama doesn’t like waste,” Julian snapped back. “And to let her die here and now, on Christmas Eve, would be a waste. She’s coming with us, and that’s final.”
To Nerissa’s horror, he stepped in front of her, and asked the girl directly if she would like to return home with them. The girl’s mouth dropped open.
“What…” she mumbled, “like charity? Are you folks from some kind of missionary?”
Julian shook his head. “No…J just-I mean, we just want to help you. We live in a large manor house with a lot of servants, but we’re short staffed at the moment. Once we get you fed up and cared for properly, would you like to join our serving staff? You might make a good kitchen girl. Our cook, Mrs. Philips, is very nice.”
The girl was speechless. Nerissa and Nico looked dumbfounded. Lucian eventually cried, “But Julian! You’re the most self-absorbed, rigid, boring brother we know! You can’t suddenly turn into an all-round sensible, loving hero!” He rubbed at his face. “The world’s gone mad!”
A thought occurred to Nerissa. “Maybe,” she said tentatively, “what Julian really wants for Christmas is an ally- a friend- to talk to, without having to deal with you lot sniping at him all the time. Is that right, Julian?”
Julian flushed, and didn’t say anything.
“I thought so.” Nerissa turned to the girl. “Look, Julian may be a bit of a fusspot, but underneath all of that he’s hardworking and clever and–”
“And loyal, steadfast and sincere,” Sebastian interrupted. Nerissa looked at him, agog.
“What?” he said defensively. “You made Lucian and I feel bad. I was just trying to make him feel better.” He turned to Julian, who looked uncharacteristically sheepish. “Look, Julian, Lucian and I are sorry for the way we pick on you. You know we love you really. Nerissa does have a point- it’s unfair of us to always make fun of you and single you out. You deserve our respect as much as anyone else in our family.”
Julian gnawed at his bottom lip. “Well, I know I can be a bit of an irritant…and maybe I do go on about your spending and gambling too much…but maybe I was just jealous, and felt lonely. You are all so close, and I’m…well, I always feel as though I’m on the outside, looking in.” His words hung on the chill wind. Lucian blushed with shame. Even the match girl looked down at her feet, unsure of what to say. Eventually, Nico spoke up.
“Well, all that that stops tonight. Next time Nerissa and I go out, you’re very welcome to join us, and we swear we’ll all pick on you less. Naughtons are always stronger together, after all, and nothing is more important than family.” A glimmer of amusement sparked in his dark eyes. “I’ll even speak to Dulcie and Mama about this girl, if you like. I am Mama’s firstborn- she’s hardly going to disown me- and Dulcie never could resist me.” He batted his eyelashes coyly. Julian laughed suddenly, and it was a surprisingly bold cackle of a laugh. Some of the tension flooded from his face, and he looked instantly younger.
“You mean it?” the girl said, her eyes so round with hope they were almost owlish. “You’ll let me stay with you?” Nerissa looked at Julian, and then at the girl, long and hard. The girl was withered and frail from the harsh winds of winter, but there was still spirit in her eyes. She stood tall and unbroken, cutting a dignified figure, even in her ragged smock. Nerissa felt something inside lean towards her in sympathy, and perhaps in recognition. Finally, she nodded.
“Yes,” she said, as Julian smiled, “though only if our mother allows it. I warn you- she can be something of a battleaxe.”
The girl looked around. “I’m not sure…it might not be safe…you might all just be takin’ me for a fool…”
“Well, it’s got to be better than staying here, and turning into a block of ice?”
The girl thought for a moment. Eventually she nodded again. “Fine,” she said, almost defiantly. “I’ll give it a go. But I’ll not have no-one say it was because they took pity on me. If I’m coming with you, I’m working in your kitchen and payin’ me own way.” She tilted her chin proudly.
“This is the best Christmas ever!” Lucian crowed suddenly, punching his gloved fist in the air. Nerissa glanced at him warily. “What makes you say that?”
“Well, last year you nearly gave Mama a heart attack when you brought home Felipe…this year you’re bringing back a homeless girl! She’s going to be livid!” He grinned, showing very white, very pointed fangs. Luckily the girl didn’t notice. “She’ll never forgive us- it’ll be superb!”
Nerissa sighed. “You really need to find out what ‘superb’ means, Lucian.”
They all turned to leave, but Julian stopped in his tracks. “There’s just one thing to do first,” he said. He looked down at the girl, who just about reached his shoulders. “We need to give you a name. A proper name- not just ‘match girl.’”
The girl shook her head. “There’s no need…”
“Nonsense,” Julian said abruptly. “It’s Christmas, so it should be something festive. We’ve already got one Noelle, so that’s out of the question, but how about…” his brow creased in thought, and then his face lit up in realization. “I’ve got it! How about we call you Holly? Like that carol- the ‘Holly and the Ivy’?”
The girl fell silent for a moment, mulling it over. “Holly,” she said softly. “You know what? I like it.”
“Holly Hearth,” Julian said suddenly, “we’ll call you Holly Hearth, if you like. That way you’ll never be cold either, because you’ll always have a hearth with you.”
The girl gave Julian such a wide, open, honest grin, Nerissa felt some of the ice in her heart melt just from looking at it. “I like that even better,” she said.


“I cannot believe you have done this without consulting me first,” Virginie said stonily. Her arms were folded across her lovely dress, creasing the fabric. Her fingers dug into the sides of her waist. Her face was a stone mask of sheer fury.
“Nicholas!” she called, “Get the thumbscrews!”
“But, Mama…” Nico began, flailing a little under her gaze.
“We cannot just rescue any waif or stray we see, Nico! London is full to the brim with them- where would we stop? I’ll not have our home turn into a charity for fleabitten, homeless mortals!”
She started to pace the flagstone floor of the great hall, muttering to herself. Virginie and Nicholas Naughton had clearly continued decorating for Christmas whilst their children had been in London- the hall gleamed with the glow from a hundred white and red wax candles, stuck into the rafters, propped on the table and on the giant fir tree, which was now resplendent with even more ribbons and jewels. The floor underneath was littered with beautifully-wrapped presents, and ivy trailed along the mantelpiece, hung over the doorway and over the windows. Pinned to the mantelpiece were eight black velvet Christmas stockings, trimmed with white fur. Each had a different name stitched meticulously on it in silver thread. From the top of Nerissa’s, there peeked a small, carefully stuffed, three-eyed owl.

Tiny golden bells and star-shapes hung from the ceiling, catching the light from the fire that growled in the grate below. Snow was now falling thick and fast outside, blanketing the acres of lawn with shimmering white. From outside in the wide, open parlour, came a chorus of raucous laughter: Nerissa’s father was playing a game of Charades with her brothers- they’d asked Julian to join them, but he’d politely declined, saying that he’d rather read his book, but would join them in a game of Blind Man’s Bluff later.
Having abandoned charades in favour of racing his sons around the parlour, Nicholas Naughton had fortunately not heard his wife’s call for thumbscrews- and was now chasing the rest of Julian’s brothers around an antique chaise-longue. He adored his wife, but usually left Virginie to remonstrate and discipline her wayward children, as her temper was legendary, and her anger as fierce as a harpy’s. It was well known that just a simple glare could reduce a mortal man to a puddle of hysterical tears. Now Virginie paced to and fro, her eyes full of dangerous fire.
“Mama, you said yourself that we need a new kitchen girl…”
“Not some skinny half-starved whelp of a girl! Someone capable, someone experienced!” she yelled.
“She’ll learn fast…”
“She needs feeding, she needs caring for! She needs a good damn bath, Nico! I don’t care what you’ve persuaded Mrs. Philips to do, I’ll not allow it!”
“It was my idea, Mama,” Julian said, softly but solemnly, from where he sat in front of the fire with his hands curled in his lap. Virginie stared at him. “Your idea?”
“Yes. I take full responsibility. If you are to be angry with anyone, be angry with me, not Nico.”
Virginie stared at him, then sighed, and collapsed heavily into a chair. She dotted her forehead with a monogrammed handkerchief. “What will happen when you tell the girl that we’re all vampires, won’t you? All the rest of the serving staff know- even Mrs. Philips. It’ll get out eventually.”
“I know,” Julian sighed. “But we don’t have to worry about that yet.”
A small cough caught everyone’s attention. Standing in the doorway appeared a slim, pale-faced girl with her brown hair neatly combed and braided under a white mob cap. She wore a neat dark dress and plain brown shoes. Her cheeks were rosy and her blue eyes glittered. She smelt vaguely of roses. In her hands she held a silver tray with a cut-glass decanter on it.
“Excuse me, er, Ma’am?”
Virginie looked up. “What is it?” she snapped.
The girl did an awkward curtsey. “I’m Holly Hearth, ma’am. I’d be ever so grateful if you was to keep me as your kitchen girl, ma’am. Mrs. Philips, well, she gave me this dress and washed me with some nice soap that smelt of roses, and then fed me up. She’s been ever so nice. Everyone has, honest. I…I don’t want to go back to the streets, ma’am.” She bit her lip, and tentatively came forward. “I brought you some mulled wine. Mrs. Philips showed me how to make it.”
“You brought me wine?”
“I washed me hands first, ma’am. I swear.”
Virginie pointed to her children. “None of my children ever bring me wine. All they bring me is trouble.”
Holly shrugged awkwardly. Virginie beckoned her forward, and took a tiny sip of wine from the decanter she held out like a sacrifice to a vengeful god. She looked hard at Holly for what seemed to be a long, long time. Eventually she pursed her lips, and nodded. “I suppose your wine is passable,” she said with a small, knowing smile, “I suppose you can stay. But Mrs. Philips will have to train you up, that’s for certain. And take that dress off- no-one’s expecting you to work tonight, it’s Christmas Eve. The other staff will all join us at the high table later, for the meal. Go the servant’s quarters for now, and our housekeeper will see that you have a bed. Rest while you can.”
Holly gave a little leap for joy. “Oh, thank you, Ma’am. Thank all of you!” She looked over at Julian, and grinned. “Did you ‘ear that, Mister Julian? I can stay!”
“Marvellous,” Julian said. “Very good indeed.”
Her eyes rested on the book by his side.
“Oh, what’s that?”
“Hmm, this? Oh, it’s A Christmas Carol. One of my favourites.”
“Isn’t a carol some sort of song?”
“Yes, but this is a book. By Mr. Dickens. Would you like me to read it to you?”
Holly blushed. “Yes! I mean, thank you. I never got taught me letters.”
“Fine. I’ll read it to you in a minute. Go and put that wine down, and then we’ll begin.”
Holly rushed off, before either Virginie or Julian could change their mind.
Nerissa, who had been sitting opposite Julian, grinned wryly. “It looks like Julian has a friend,” she said.

As Holly darted out the door, three figures walked in- Nathaniel was arm-in-arm with a tall blonde woman with the startlingly black eyes of a vampire. She wore a gaudily bright cherry-pink dress and cropped jacket, a hat topped with a profusion of roses, and a white fur stole. Behind her walked another woman, similarly pale and with the same black eyes, except that her hair was not blonde, but dark red. It looked almost bloody in the flickering light of the candles. Where the other woman wore pink, she wore festive green, and a tartan ribbon around her long throat.
“Dolly,” Nerissa said to the woman in pink. “I’m glad you’re here.” She leapt up and embraced her, but kept her eyes on the woman in green.
“Gwendoline,” she said finally, turning to her. “I wasn’t…I didn’t know you were coming.”
“Fairlawn Grange needs renovation work, but the plumbing has been a nightmare, and I no longer have hot water or a working kitchen. Your mother heard about my plight, and kindly invited me,” Gwendoline said. “I hope you do not mind? She said you might be in need of some company. And well, I hoped that…um, well, maybe you’d like to spend Christmas with me? But if not, then of course…er…” she broke off awkwardly.
“You arranged this?” Nerissa asked her mother. Virginie smiled. “Consider it your birthday present.”
“Thank you,” Nerissa said, as she felt some of her loneliness lift.
Virginie waved her hand in dismissal. “Gwendoline’s very sweet- she and Dolly can stay here for as long as they like. Hopefully now you’ll stop looking so miserable.”
Nerissa gave Gwendoline a quick kiss on the cheek. “Why would I? I’m sure this will be a merry Christmas now, after all.”


Hours later, the games of charades, snapdragon and Blind Man’s Bluff had ended, the goose and plum pudding had been devoured, pints of mulled wine had been drunk, toasts had been delivered, and- most memorably- Julian had been hoisted onto a very drunken Nico’s shoulders, declared ‘Best Second-Eldest Brother Ever’ and been paraded around the hall, as Lucian and Sebastian cheered.
Now Nerissa crept out of bed, and glided silently down to the servants’ quarters. She eventually found Holly’s room, and carefully opened the door to find her tucked up under a thick coverlet on a plain iron bedstead, fast asleep. A small white candle on a cabinet by the bed had long since burnt down to nothing. She put a hand in her pocket of her nightgown, and pulled out the doll she had bought earlier. Placing it on the girl’s pillow, Nerissa whispered, “Merry Christmas, Holly,” and tiptoed back upstairs to her room, where Gwendoline lay half asleep. Her hair, now loose and unbraided, fell across her pillow like a red silk handkerchief.
“Where did you go?” she asked, her voice still thick with sleep. Nerissa shut the door and climbed into bed. “Oh, I just had one last present to give,” she said, “now go back to sleep.”
Gwendoline nudged her face deeper into the pillow, and gently took Nerissa’s hand in hers.

Far over the snow-covered lawns, Nerissa heard the bells toll for Midnight Mass, coming from the local church. Gwendoline heard them too, and smiled sleepily, her eyelids drifting closed.
“Happy Birthday,” she whispered.
Despite herself- despite Angelica, and loneliness, and everything she and Angelica had endured together- Nerissa smiled back.


Image from picturesque-aesthetics via Tumblr

Character of the Month for #Transgender Awareness Week: Dolly from ‘The Blood Witching’

Please note: this review is a repost from August 2014 for my regular ‘Character of the Month’ series on this blog, and is in honour of Transgender Awareness Week 2017

I’d see her clothes and hair, and then look with disgust and confusion at my own plain, woollen clothes, at my own cropped hair, my flat chest, my spindly legs and arms. The thing between my legs like a hideous lump. It seemed wrong, somehow. Surely I should be the one in the bedroom, looking into the spotted looking-glass, combing and curling my hair, pinching my cheeks, feeling gowns flow over my curves. But I had none. I was bereft, and barren, and hollow. – Extract from ‘The Ghosts’ Feast’, copyright Eleanor Keane.

In honour of the publication of The Ghosts’ Feast, for this month’s Character of the Month I have chosen a character from The Ghosts’ Feast. Coquettish, compassionate and sometimes cryptic, Dolly is very much a vampire with a difference.

When we first meet Dolly in The Ghosts’ Feast, she is a young, neglected boy with burgeoning homosexual inclinations, a love of fairy stories and a fondness for his mother’s clothes and jewellery. The crux of this obsession is Dolly’s mother’s corset, a frivolous but oh-so-important second skin that provides all the allure of femininity beneath its silken laces.

But, for poor Dolly, the real tragedy is that in the 1800s both homosexuality and transvestism was a dangerous taboo, and trans-sexuality was nothing short of a fantasy for many young people struggling with their birth-gender. Up until 1861, the penalty for homosexuality was punishable by death, and male homosexual acts were still punishable by imprisonment. (In fact, homosexual acts were only officially decriminalized in 1967, through the Sexual Offences Act.)

This world of repression, oppression, ignorance and misery is the world Dolly inherits. Biology, not psychology, really is destiny, and man and all his mighty maleness is king. Our young hero/heroine is trapped within a hated male body, with only the thin second skin of a dress, pearls and dainty shoes to act as a barrier against violence, prejudice and hatred. No matter how long Dolly grows her hair or how many times she steps into her mother’s dainty shoes, she still cannot change the male body into which she was born.

But all is not lost, for Dolly is more than just a victim- she is a survivor, a rebel, and a fighter. Her naturally androgynous looks make her something of a siren in London’s grubby backstreets, and by the time her story ends we see her born again from the ashes of an old life, with a new name and a new sense of power.

Firmly content to stand alone in high heels and frothy floral dresses, Dolly is never afraid to be herself, even in spite of horrific and sustained adversity. After fighting tooth, nail, claw and fang, Dolly ultimately chooses something much more beautiful, much happier, and much more different for herself.

It is her story which (hopefully) proves that- no matter what skin or body we are born into- it is what we choose to put in our minds and in our hearts that truly set us apart.

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HAPPY HALLOWEEN! My special Halloween short story is BACK!!


Back by frightfully public demand, special Halloween short story rises again from the grave, to bring you frights, delights, and a VERY familiar character from my own series of novels, The Breathing Ghosts Series! Enjoy!

Blood Portrait– A Breathing Ghosts short story for Halloween

Copyright Eleanor Keane, October 2014. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Original work by Eleanor Keane- not for redistribution, theft, copyright or editing in any way.

CURIO: /ˈkjʊərɪˌəʊ/ noun (pl) curios.

1.any unusual article, object of art, etc., valued as a curiosity.

Poor stranger. You say you want to know my story. You’ve heard it’s a horror tale of vampires and ghouls, and just the very rumour of it intrigues you, rather than warns you away. You lean closer, eager to catch every word. You see me shrink back, and you wonder if I will tell you at all- if I will ever find the words to describe what happened to me that night, all those years ago.
Well, the rub is not knowing whether I should tell you, but how I should start. Once I begin, there’s no going back, and the cork will be pulled from the demon in the bottle, and nothing will coax the demon back in. Words scrape dry in my mouth, but I press on. It’s Halloween, after all- maybe, finally, the time has come to tell my story. Perhaps I should say that it all began on a ‘dark and stormy night’, with leaves swirling in thick Gothic mists, all around a ruined castle on a craggy hill. Perhaps I could say that bats were swarming about me, as I ran for my life through a moonlit graveyard. Wolves, jagged lightning, haunted castles- it’s all been done before, of course, by far better storytellers than I, and besides, it wouldn’t be the truth. What really happened was far more horrific than any bloodsucking bat or bogeyman conjured up by some writer with an overactive imagination. What really happened will haunt me until my days are ended, and there are no more Halloweens.

Crowley Manor, despite its extravagantly Gothic name, was actually your normal, run-of- the-mill girls’ boarding school, shoved in the middle of nowhere on a dark, rainswept down that no one ever hiked. Whitewashed walls, staircases gloved in cement and cracked, peeling paint, doors plastered with signs advertising clubs, societies and events that no one ever wanted to go to. The upper landings were a maze of warren-like dormitories, steel bed frames and thick double-glazed windows that you could steam up and write on, even in summer. It was always cold, and there was always some kind of mould growing in every classroom. The place smelled like chalk, dust and girls’ cheap, sweet perfume, and beneath it all was the thin faint scent of despair. Its name came from the Victorian manor house that had squatted in its place, abandoned and forgotten, until it was bulldozed down- gargoyles, stained glass and all- to make way for a rabble of proud, prepubescent girls that didn’t once think to care. The only things that were salvaged from the Manor were a handful of dusty oil paintings in heavy gold frames, featuring a succession of pale, bored-looking women with their hair like piles of whipped cream on their heads, and their necks throttled with pearls, and a group of perfectly preserved baby skeletons inside glass jars, pickled in some sort of eerie greenish liquid. They were left over from the Manor’s previous owner, who was some kind of scientist, and were lined up like skittles along the worn shelves of the laboratory block.
I hated their bald, gleaming skulls and their pitiless eye sockets and yet at the same time they fascinated me. I used to draw them, over and over again in my sketchbooks, and sometimes I used to dream that they’d come alive at night, and turn their bulbous heads to stare at me.

At that time in my life, I had nothing but the Manor to depend on- and it proved no comfort whatsoever. My father had died in a car crash, and my mother had died from flu one nasty winter, leaving me only a pittance- barely enough my cover my school fees and uniform costs for the Manor itself, let alone the silly little things that would have made me popular- lipstick, fashion magazines, CDs, you know the type of thing. Stupid stuff that means nothing now, but then meant everything. All the other girls would strut around the Manor on the weekends in mini skirts, denim jackets and diamante chokers, brushing each other’s hair, giggling and giggling and giggling until I thought my head would burst from the sound. Or else they’d catch the coach and leave the Manor for the day, trotting into town to spend their pocket money on fast food and videos that they’d watch in the dormitory when I tried to sleep, in between endless runs of Top of the Pops. I didn’t have any pocket money, so I had to make do with cast-offs from the nearest charity shop- old jumpers, cardigans, tights and skirts that were either too long or too short, showing off my knobbly knees and matchstick arms. The only thing I had which I actually liked was an old brooch that my mother had left me- it had been passed down from generation to generation, and was a miniature of a smiling, pale faced man with a shock of black hair.

He looked princely somehow, almost regal. His black eyes were filled with a lazy, arrogant power, but I always found him handsome. Occasionally at night, when the others had been cruel, or when I couldn’t sleep, I’d reach for the brooch and stroke his face, fantasizing that one day he’d walk up to the school and rescue me, but then, other nights, I imagined his eyes gleaming, pinning me to the spot. I was both repelled and fascinated by him. I used to fasten the brooch on the inside of my jacket so the others wouldn’t see, but somehow I still felt as though he- or at least his presence- escaped. Mere fabric couldn’t contain him, and I’d have nightmares of him stepping bodily out of the brooch, and coming towards me with his hands like claws. I’d wake up to find myself in my nightdress, on the upping landing of my dormitory, with my foot hovering above the top step, and my arms outstretched, fingers clutched around the brooch. The other girls used to whisper and point at me, and wonder why I was always wandering about, with my unseeing eyes like marbles, rolling in their sockets, and my slow, steady feet moving towards the stairs. Trying to escape.

Oh, if only I’d known- I would have thrown that brooch away, or buried it in the soil with all my other dead hopes.
I don’t want to whine, but I never really felt as though I fit in with anyone at the Manor- although it was probably my fault, as I’ve always been anachronistic- I pronounce my ‘T’s, clip my vowels and drink tea with my little finger sticking out. I like long, elegant words, games of Scrabble and those Persian cats with the squashed-up faces. I hate computers and I work in a library, where my day-to-day uniform is knee-length skirts and polonecks- always polonecks, even in August, although there is a far darker reason for that. I know I’m hardly cool, hip or fashionable, but at least I’m clever. Looking back, I probably would have been alright at one of those fictional ladies’ finishing academies you can read about in ‘50s novels, where you’re trained to walk properly and talk like the queen. But in the Cool Britannia ‘90s, it just made me an oddball, a relic from another era. It didn’t help that I preferred classical music to Blur, Pulp and Oasis, that I didn’t watch chick flicks and chose to while away my time practicing the piano or reading the Classics. (I liked to roll their long, luxurious names around on my tongue like chocolates- Aristophanes, Sophocles, Aeschylus, Antigone.)

Of course, the other girls laughed at me, teased me and called me names. I suppose it was inevitable with the sleepwalking, but no-one laughed at me more than Danielle, the most popular girl at the Manor, who used to scowl at my hum-drum mousy brown hair and hand-me-down clothes, and rake an elegant hand through her own glossy, chestnut locks; and Natalie, her best friend and crony, whose father was a hot-shot lawyer. She wore a gold necklace he’d given her for her birthday, and her rosebud mouth was full of words like awesome, lame, and pathetic. That one she usually directed at me.
Things changed one Halloween, when a new girl was introduced to the Manor. She went by the name of Nellie- presumably short for Ellen- and she had long, straight blonde hair and quick, dark eyes like the eyes of the man on my brooch. She soon fell in league with Danielle and Natalie, and she spent her dinnertime with them that night. She even borrowed their notes on geometry. But a few times that evening, I sensed her watching me, only to lift my head and see her with her nose stuck in a book, or frantically scribbling. I was too shy to say hello, and this continued until midnight that very night, where Danielle and Natalie dragged me- sleepy and groggy- out of bed and down to the laboratory block.

The night was chill, and I wore only my nightdress, which seemed somehow very clingy. I was more aware than ever of my flat chest and sticky-out knees. If this was to be a prank, I hoped it would end soon. “Come on, clever clogs, it’ll be fun!” Natalie insisted, fingering the gold chain around her neck.
“You do want to be our friend, don’t you?” Danielle coaxed, her eyes glinting. “I mean, surely you do want to be cool?”
Nellie said nothing, but I felt her hand on my back, propelling me gently along. “I want to go back to sleep,” I mumbled, rubbing my eyes and trying to sound indignant, when really I was curious, and more than a little afraid.
“But its Halloween,” Danielle persisted. “It’s time for an adventure! It’s time to get scared out of our wits!”
“I’m good, thanks,” I muttered sarkily. Danielle tutted, and slid a hairslide from her ponytail. With a few twists and turns, the lock to one of the laboratory doors clicked, and she pushed it open slowly, deliberately making it creak.
“Woo-oooo….” Natalie said, giggling. Nellie still said nothing, but I thought I could see something like amusement in her eyes. Within, the laboratory was dark, musty and shrouded in shadows, but I could already see the whitish-yellow of the skeletons in the jars. Danielle flicked a switch, and the overhead strip lights came on. Nellie winced, but remained silent. She perched on the end of one lab bench, and looked at me intently, as though waiting for something. Her eyes flickered momentarily, on my brooch, which I pinned to the collar of my nightdress for fear of the others stealing it.
“What do you want from me?” I demanded, shifting my weight from foot to foot. The floor felt dusty underneath me, and somehow sticky.
Danielle grinned at me, showing row upon row of very white teeth. “We want you to tell us a horror story,” she said, sitting down next to Nellie and resting her arm around her shoulders. “We’ve heard rumours about you and that brooch you always wear. We heard you got it from a graveyard- that you dug it up.” She breathed the last words, unable to contain her excitement.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said stiffly, folding my arms over my chest. The thin material of my nightdress bunched and creased along my elbows like lines on a map, leading to nowhere.
“Sure you do,” Natalie said, a thin smile cutting across her mouth. “You talk in your sleep, you know. Every night we have to put up with you tossing and turning, moaning and groaning about your creepy little brooch. As if it wasn’t bad enough with your weirdo sleepwalking, too.”
I flushed, and Natalie knew she’d got me. “Oh, we know about your precious brooch,” she insisted. “What, you think we don’t have eyes?”
“You mumble about it all the time,” Danielle chimed in. “Something about a carriage, and a woman, and a graveyard…”
“There was no graveyard,” I blurted out, without thinking.
“Aha, got you!” Danielle shouted, pointing at me. I shriveled inside with embarrassment and humiliation. “I don’t understand…”

“Oh come off it, clever clogs,” Natalie scoffed. “Isn’t it obvious? We want you to tell us the bloody story, don’t we? We’re going to sit here and listen to it all, from start to finish. It must be a pretty good story if you’re dreaming about it every night. Who knew you had such an imagination?”
“I won’t,” I replied. “It’s all nonsense anyway. Just mumbo-jumbo.”
“Well, it won’t matter if you tell us then, will it?” Danielle said. I looked at her, and saw no pity or kindness in her big, bright eyes, only shrewdness and malice. I raised my hand to the brooch pinned to my collar. It felt like an albatross around my neck, as hard and unyielding as a piece of rock.
“If you don’t tell us, we’ll just have to burn these,” Natalie said. She reached into the satchel slung over her shoulder, and took out a heap of books. They were instantly familiar to me, with their old, marbled pages and dogeared calfskin bindings. They, like the skulls in the bottles and the old portraits, were relics from the original Crowley Manor, and they were all on the subject I most loved- the Classics. I’d spent hours poring through them, gently turning page after page. Who knew how much they were worth- probably hundreds, even in those years- and yet to me they were priceless.
“Or perhaps we’ll just rip them apart, from cover to cover,” Natalie added, cupping her mouth to stifle a giggle. My eyes flickered to Nellie, and for a moment I could have sworn that she scowled at Natalie. But then I blinked, and the scowl was gone, the girl’s expression impassive. My attention return to the books. Natalie ran her finger across the cover of one of them, and I gulped. I could already feel beads of sweat breaking out along my forehead and underarms.
“But I have nothing to tell you… I don’t know what you’re talking about…” Even as I tried to say the excuses, they shrivelled up and blew away into nothingness, like dead leaves. Silently cringing, I lowered myself onto a stool.
“Okay” I said eventually. My voice felt and sounded as heavy as a lead weight. “If I tell you, you have to promise never to tell anyone else.”
Danielle and Natalie nodded solemnly, but I knew that they were clearly lying. I ignored them nonetheless, knowing I had no choice. I just couldn’t bear to see my beloved books go up in flames.

“Very well,” I said, sounding at once haughty and about ninety years old. Natalie smirked, and I already knew she was memorizing my way of speech and my mannerisms to perform for the rest of the class later on.
“My mother told me this story,” I explained, ignoring her, “and her mother before that, and her mother before that, and so on, and so on.”
“Get to the scary stuff,” Danielle said, a hint of a whine in her voice. “This stuff is lame- what is it, a history lecture?”
Natalie stifled a yawn, but Nellie leaned forward, as silent as the grave, though her every limb was taut and sharp with eagerness.
“What I’m trying to say is- this brooch is an heirloom,” I said impatiently. “It has real history…and it’s also reminds me that once, many many years ago, my great-great-great grandmother Eliza met a…well, she met something truly evil.”
Danielle and Natalie breathed a collective ‘Ooooh!’ and drummed their hands on their knees in excitement.

“One night, Eliza, her friend Maria and her chaperone- an elderly bachelor cousin…”
“Bachelor- that’s a single person right?” Natalie asked. I sighed silently, and carried on. “All three of them were all journeying home after a ball held on the local country estate. Everything was going smoothly, when they heard a woman cry for help. Looking out of the carriage window, my great-great-great grandmother Eliza saw a beautiful young woman with long, curling black hair, pale skin and dark, dark eyes. She was running by the side of the road in a fancy, expensive evening dress, waving a red handkerchief and trying to flag them down.”
The woman’s eerie appearance had been drilled into me so many times by my mother and grandmother, as part of some sort of bizarre family tradition, and yet it still made me shudder to speak of it.
“She looked helpless and lost, and when Eliza asked her what was the matter, she said that one of her carriage’s wheels had hit a rock and come loose, sending her careering into a ditch. She was all on her own- she said her chaperone had been taken ill during the ball, and had been forced to return home- and she was desperate, so Eliza offered to give her a lift. The woman thanked her, and introduced herself. Her name was Virginia, and she wore this brooch as a miniature around her throat on a black velvet choker. When Eliza asked who the man in the miniature was, Virginia told her it was her husband, who had died years ago. She hopped into the carriage, and they trundled off in the direction of my great-great-great grandmother’s village.”

“This sounds like bloody Jane Austen,” Danielle sniffed. I ignored her. My palms already felt sweaty and hot, because- unlike Danielle- I knew what happened next in the story.
“As they continued on, the moon rose in the sky, illuminating Virginia’s pale skin. She was so pale, she looked almost sickly, and her hands were wrapped tightly around her handkerchief. Her eyes were black as night and as huge as marbles, the pupils a strange silver colour. Her fingers moved, and Eliza saw that the handkerchief wasn’t red at all, but wet and red- it had been soaked in blood.”
Danielle grinned, and clapped her hands. “Now we get to the exciting part!”
“‘Why, Virginia, have you cut yourself?’ my great-great-great grandmother’s friend, Marie, cried. ‘That handkerchief is covered in blood!’ At this, Virginia turned and snarled, looking suddenly feral. ‘Yes, blood!’ she cried. ‘The blood of my last victim!’
‘To their horror, the women saw sharp, glistening fangs slide out from the woman’s gums, and over her top lip. It was then that Eliza knew that Virginia was a vampire. Before anyone could move or even scream, the woman- the creature- leaned forward and bit the throat of Eliza’s chaperone. He was elderly, and died instantly, and in great pain. There was lots of blood,” I added, for dramatic effect. Seeing Danielle turn slightly green, I suppressed an inner smirk, and carried on, embellishing the story until even Nellie seemed rapt.

“She lunged at Marie, Eliza’s friend, and sank her fangs into her neck, drinking her blood until there was none left, and the lovely miniature around her neck was stained with red. She crawled like a spider to the carriage reins, and slid them around the throat of the driver, garotting him until he fell back against his seat, lifeless. The carriage veered into a tree, and the horses whinnied and reared, sensing danger.”
I looked up and saw Danielle and Natalie leaning closer, clearly enthralled. I bit my lip.
“The vampire woman sniffed the air, and looked around for Eliza. Terrified for her life, Eliza tried to flee the carriage, but Virginia grabbed her and pulled her back. Eliza fought with all her might, biting, scratching, and kicking, but seizing upon nothing but the miniature, which she managed to rip from the vampire’s neck. Eventually, the vampire pulled away and laughed. ‘You have spirit!’ she said. ‘Just for that, I’ll let you live.’ So Eliza was the only one to escape the vampire that night. She ran frantically to her village, still clutching the miniature, and tried to tell people what she’d seen, but they thought her carriage had somehow crashed, and that the crash had made her delirious. In time, she learned not to speak of what had happened, but the miniature- and its story- was passed down from daughter to daughter, right down to me.”

“Is that it?” Danielle said, sneering. “Is that all? We wanted to be really scared! That was laughable!” To prove her point even further, she tossed her head back and let out a snicker. Her hand flew to her throat, pressing over the thin gold chain that she always wore. I though I caught a glimpse of a tiny gold crucifix dangling from it. My mouth dropped open in shock at her reaction. That story had been my family’s blackest secret for years-decades-centuries, it had been the memory that my great-great-grandmother had prayed for salvation from. And here was Danielle, laughing and sniggering at it, because it didn’t meet her guts-and-gore expectations? Natalie joined in, her laugh higher than Danielle’s, and somehow even more annoying. It made me feel sick to my stomach just to look at them both. I curled my hands into fists by side, willing myself not to smack them. My body was still shaking with fear and adrenaline- I felt as though I could snap at any “Honestly, what moment.
a liar!” Natalie cried, brushing at tears streaming down her cheeks. “That story was lame!”

“Totally pathetic,” Danielle agreed. “You really had us going there for a moment, but what do you think we are, idiots?”
“No, no” I said quickly- a little too quickly. Danielle’s eyes narrowed. Befoee I could stop her, she scooped up my precious books in both her arms, and began to saunter away from me. Her bespoke leather shoes made hard clack-clack sounds on the wooden floor. I ran to her, and tried to seize the books from her, grabbing her arm and yanking her back, harder than I even thought I could. She gave an angry little yelp and pushed me back with her one free hand, her fingernails leaving angry red crescents in my bare arm.
“Ugh, let go of me, you little cow!” she snarled, and marched to the door. “Come on Nat, Nellie, we’re leaving,” she said, all haughtiness and arrogance.
“Smell you later,” Natalie called out, and bounded to the door, an ugly grin on her face. I felt thunder-struck, a maelstrom of differing emotions that threatened to gobble me whole- anger, resentment, shock, fear, even a little illicit thrill at knowing that the two most popular bullies in the school had listened, in awe, to me- even for just a couple of minutes. For those minutes, I’d known what it was like to be popular, and they had wrenched it from me.
I heard the door slam behind me, so hard that the panes of glass in its frame rattled. I pounded on it furiously, but they’d already locked it- they’d locked me in the laboratory, with the dust and the cold and the skeletons and the chemicals- for a whole night. My blood seemed to freeze in my body. I ran my hands through my hair, trying to figure out what to do- and then I saw her.

Nellie hadn’t left with the other girls. For some reason she’d stayed, and now she sat calmly on one of the benches, facing me. She seemed taller somehow, without them in her shadow, and she was toying with the expensive-looking rings on her fingers. I wondered how I’d never noticed them before- they were silvery in the moonlight, and wrought into strange, almost fantastical shapes: a cat, a tiny sword, a skull with a rose in its open mouth…
“Good evening,” she said smoothly, and I realized it was the first time I’d ever properly heard her speak. Despite myself and my horrible situation, I was intrigued. Her blonde hair looked so soft it almost seemed to glisten, like molten gold, and her eyes were large and heavy-lidded. She seemed inexplicably much older than fifteen- she looked more like twenty-five, with her height and her long, lean limbs.
“That was an interesting story,” she said, in the same measured tone. Her eyes flickered to my brooch appraisingly. “Most illuminating.”
“It was nothing,” I mumbled, searching for an excuse. “You heard the others- I made it all up. I’m very good at lying.”
“No, I’m the liar,” the girl said, standing up in one single move. She slid towards me with an almost feline grace. “I’m not who you think I am, and I know that what you told me tonight was true. Every single word.”

“Is that it?” Danielle said, sneering. “Is that all? We wanted to be really scared! That was laughable!” To prove her point even further, she tossed her head back and let out a snicker. Her hand flew to her throat, pressing over the thin gold chain that she always wore. I though I caught a glimpse of a tiny gold crucifix dangling from it. My mouth dropped open in shock at her reaction. That story had been my family’s blackest secret for years-decades-centuries, it had been the memory that my great-great-grandmother had prayed for salvation from. And here was Danielle, laughing and sniggering at it, because it didn’t meet her guts-and-gore expectations? Natalie joined in, her laugh higher than Danielle’s, and somehow even more annoying. It made me feel sick to my stomach just to look at them both. I curled my hands into fists by side, willing myself not to smack them. My body was still shaking with fear and adrenaline- I felt as though I could snap at any moment.
“Honestly, what a liar!” Natalie cried, brushing at tears streaming down her cheeks. “That story was lame!”
“Totally pathetic,” Danielle agreed. “You really had us going there for a moment, but what do you think we are, idiots?”
“No, no” I said quickly- a little too quickly. Danielle’s eyes narrowed. Befoee I could stop her, she scooped up my precious books in both her arms, and began to saunter away from me. Her bespoke leather shoes made hard clack-clack sounds on the wooden floor. I ran to her, and tried to seize the books from her, grabbing her arm and yanking her back, harder than I even thought I could. She gave an angry little yelp and pushed me back with her one free hand, her fingernails leaving angry red crescents in my bare arm.
“Ugh, let go of me, you little cow!” she snarled, and marched to the door. “Come on Nat, Nellie, we’re leaving,” she said, all haughtiness and arrogance.
“Smell you later,” Natalie called out, and bounded to the door, an ugly grin on her face. I felt thunder-struck, a maelstrom of differing emotions that threatened to gobble me whole- anger, resentment, shock, fear, even a little illicit thrill at knowing that the two most popular bullies in the school had listened, in awe, to me- even for just a couple of minutes. For those minutes, I’d known what it was like to be popular, and they had wrenched it from me.
I heard the door slam behind me, so hard that the panes of glass in its frame rattled. I pounded on it furiously, but they’d already locked it- they’d locked me in the laboratory, with the dust and the cold and the skeletons and the chemicals- for a whole night. My blood seemed to freeze in my body. I ran my hands through my hair, trying to figure out what to do- and then I saw her.
Nellie hadn’t left with the other girls. For some reason she’d stayed, and now she sat calmly on one of the benches, facing me. She seemed taller somehow, without them in her shadow, and she was toying with the expensive-looking rings on her fingers. I wondered how I’d never noticed them before- they were silvery in the moonlight, and wrought into strange, almost fanstastical shapes: a cat, a tiny sword, a skull with a rose in its open mouth…
“Good evening,” she said smoothly, and I realized it was the first time I’d ever properly heard her speak. Despite myself and my horrible situation, I was intrigued. Her blonde hair looked so soft it almost seemed to glisten, like molten gold, and her eyes were large and heavy-lidded. She seemed inexplicably much older than fifteen- she looked more like twenty-five, with her height and her long, lean limbs.
“That was an interesting story,” she said, in the same measured tone. Her eyes flickered to my brooch appraisingly. “Most illuminating.”
“It was nothing,” I mumbled, searching for an excuse. “You heard the others- I made it all up. I’m very good at lying.”
“No, I’m the liar,” the girl said, standing up in one single move. She slid towards me with an almost feline grace. “I’m not who you think I am, and I know that what you told me tonight was true. Every single word.”

“My name isn’t even Nellie- it’s Noelle Naughton,” she said, her eyes flashing like chips of jet. “But you may call me Nerissa. Everyone does- except for my mother, of course.”
“Hasn’t it hit you yet?” she said quickly, scanning my blank, confused expression. “Haven’t you realized what I am?” Her pointed words rooted around in my mind, and all too quickly I remember my great-great-great grandmother’s story.
I staggered back in shock. “You- you can’t be- you’re just a schoolgirl like me!”
Nerissa pouted. “Clearly I’m not,” she said, a little tartly. With a wave of her hand, her hair melted from gold into poker-straight, gleaming black. I was stunned by the change- for a moment I could have sworn that a flash of black light had burst from her fingertips. I clutched at the bench for support, my hands rubbing at the scored, grubby wood.
“You can’t be a…a vampire!” That word, that hideous word, bubbled up in my throat and came out as a screech. Nerissa looked faintly bemused. “Ah, but I am,” she said, with a casual shrug. “Blood-drinker, night-walker, life-stealer, call me what you will, it all means the same.” She strode over to the jarred skeletons, and bent down, moving closer and closer until the tip of her nose brushed against the cloudy glass. “Exquisite,” she muttered, and brushed her finger along the glass, from top to bottom, almost like a lover. A draught blew under the laboratory door, and I shuddered. “What do you want with me?” I cried, trying my best to sound defiant, even though I was petrified, and the vampire knew it. Nerissa’s eyes flickered to the brooch held tightly in my clammy fist.

“I want that brooch,” she said firmly, and there was a note of command in her voice that I hadn’t heard before. It made something within me want to shrivel and cry.
“Why?” I said, my voice cracking. “It’s just…just a curio. It’d be worthless to you, but it’s the only thing I’ve got left of my parents…”
“It’s the one of the only things I’ve got of my parents,” Nerissa interrupted. “I’ve been watching you for some time, and I recognized the brooch immediately. The whole school was rife with rumours that you were mad and hallucinating- did you know that? It wasn’t hard to track you down. The brooch belonged to my mother, and shows my father, her husband. My parents are…are dead.” She said the last word with obvious difficulty. “They died recently- all too recently, in fact, and anything I can take to preserve their memory I will take. It’s far from worthless to me.”
My brow knitted. “Then…then your mother was Virginia? And her husband- she said her husband had died…”
“She lied, of course,” Nerissa said. “It was just a cover story she told to string along her victims. In reality, my father was waiting close behind, along with my brothers. After your ancestor Eliza fled, they attacked the carriage and finished what was left of the feast. Oh, and just for the record, she preferred the name Virginie to Virginia. She was actually French.”
I put my hand on my stomach to hold down the bile threatening to overhwelm me. “You can’t do this…you can’t take it…” In a flash, she was on me, her long, sharp hands straining to prise the brooch from my grasp. I yelled and squirmed and twisted like an eel.
“I won’t let you take it!” I screamed, thinking of my own parents, Eliza, and the story that had been unspooled throughout my whole life. “I won’t let it be parted from me!” Nerissa stopped fighting me, and took a step back, disentangling herself from me with ease. She looked at me quizzically, and then a small, cruel smile played across her lips. “Fine,” she said, “I’ll make sure you’re never parted from it again.” Slowly and calmly, she reached a hand toward me, and touched me gently on the collarbone. Her finger felt surprisingly warm, and she smelt heavily of patchouli, and some other scent I couldn’t quite grasp. Surprisingly, I was no longer afraid- only excited. I felt the brush of her hand on my skin, and instinctively closed my eyes, preparing for a bite, but when I opened them she was by the door, with my beloved family heirloom in her hand, and a skeleton jar under one arm. She was gazing at the portrait on it with an odd mix of affection and reverence. “Papa,” she whispered, just loud enough for me hear. She caught me looking at her, and grinned, revealing her fangs. She gestured to the dusty jar under her arm. “Don’t mind if I keep this, do you? I think it’s rather curious.”
I think I screamed then, but by the time I reached the door she had already gone, taking my brooch with me. The only thing left to signal her presence was the open laboratory door, swinging gently in a cool, wintry draught.

The next day was like a nightmare made flesh. I woke up in my own bed in the first grey rays of dawn, instinctively knowing that something was wrong. All around me, other girls were sobbing and moaning. Natalie had been found dead in her bed earlier that morning, with her neck slashed to ribbons. Danielle had been found on the bare floor by her side, her eyes wide and her mouth forever frozen in a rictus of shock. The coroner said she had died of fright, and put Natalie’s case down as murder, though they never found out who did it. I knew though- I knew all along. All the Halloween decorations were taken down after that, and candle-lit vigils were held in front of their smiling, shining photographs. It made the London news, and the local news as well. Crowley Manor closed after that, and the building was soon demolished. The skeletons in their jars were all crushed to fragments. No collectors dared to even want them. The place, and all that had happened there, was cursed- just like me.

Because that wasn’t the worst thing that happened to me, oh no. There was an old cracked mirror in our dorm, stained with lipstick smears and covered with Post-Its. I remember clambering shakily out of bed and walking over to the mirror after the forensic team that taken their bodies away. I nearly screamed when I saw what Nerissa had done to me- there, on my collarbone, as clear and black as a tattoo, was a permanent outline of the brooch I had loved and lost- burned right into my skin. It was intricate in its detail, and completely indelible. I still have it now. It never hurts or itches, but it’s always there, like a second heart. It shows up under thin summer dresses, pajamas and silk. Wondering why I’m forced to wear polo necks in the summer? Well, now you know.

And do you know what the really odd thing is? Sometimes at night, when I’m lying alone in my bed, unable to sleep, I trace my fingers over that inky black outline, and remember the vampire’s touch. Sometimes, just sometimes, it almost feels pleasant, and then I wake up, with my room filled with the scent of patchouli, and fresh tears on my face.

-Image via Tumblr

A ‘Breathing Ghosts’ Halloween for chills and thrills!

HAPPY HALLOWEEN, my fangtastic followers! I’m still writing furiously away on a BRAND NEW supernatural YA novel, and also the THIRD NOVEL in ‘The Breathing Ghosts Series’ (ooh, exciting!) and will keep you all updated, have no fear! In the meantime, why not try out some of these spooky, scintillating and spine-tingling events and ideas to make your Halloween frightfully good?😛

1. If you’re feeling brave enough, visit Ordsall Hall, a historic family home said to be haunted by a mysterious ‘White Lady’…and there’s a whole load of other ‘haunted’ houses in and around Britain, listed here

2. Check out the Metropolitan Museum’s Pinterest board (‘Wicked Works‘) for eerie images of witches, skulls and a whole host of demons…

3. Make Halloween-themed skull cupcakes for little (and not so little) monsters to enjoy….Or, if that’s not enough for your spooky sweet tooth, why not go the whole hog and create an entire skull cake?

4. Fancy a few dried llama fetuses to ward off bad luck? Or maybe you want to stock up on owl feathers or frogs? Head to Bolivia’s very own Witches’ Market for all your ghoulish goodies!

5. Curl up with popcorn and watch feminist horror movies, courtesy of Bitch Magazine.

6. Or, you are more of a bookworm than a movie-watcher, why not try one (or maybe all!) of these chilling reads instead? Here are a few of my picks:

The Vampire Lestat by Anne Rice

The Bloody Chamber (short stories) by one of my favourite-authors-of-all-time, Angela Carter (I particularly recommend the short stories ‘Wolf-Alice’, ‘The Snow Child’ and ‘The Lady of The House of Love’)

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind (also see my ‘The Scent of a Vampire’ article for more information on Suskind’s work!)

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Drawing Blood by another one of my favourite horror authors, Poppy Z. Brite

Reflections of a Vampire by Eileen Cadman (an ebook)

-Poems and stories by the master of terror, Mr. Edgar Allan Poe

-and…of course…my own novel, The Breathing Ghosts, and my short story collection, The Ghosts’ Feast, for extra vampire delights!

For more bookish suggestions, why not check out my new top 7 books for Halloween?

Enjoy!  MWA HA HAAAAA!!! ;D


All images (apart from my special Breathing Ghosts pumpkin!) are via Tumblr

Top 5 Books for Black History Month

As October is Black History Month in the UK, I thought I’d support and celebrate the ongoing legacy and value of black history by doing a list of my ‘top books’ for Black History Month. I hope you find them as inspirational, moving and rewarding as I do- there are so many amazing BAME writers out there it’s hard to narrow it down to five, so I should give a special shout out for influential, incredible writers, poets, thinkers and activists such as Toni Morrison, Angela Davis, Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, Zora Neale Hurston, and Langston Hughes, among many, many others. and So, without further ado, here is the list:

1.’The Hate U Give’ by Angie Thomas 

Blurb from 

Sixteen-year-old Starr lives in two worlds: the poor neighbourhood where she was born and raised and her posh high school in the suburbs. The uneasy balance between them is shattered when Starr is the only witness to the fatal shooting of her unarmed best friend, Khalil, by a police officer. Now what Starr says could destroy her community. It could also get her killed. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, this is a powerful and gripping YA novel about one girl’s struggle for justice.


If you haven’t heard of this book, where have you been? This is a powerful, moving and touching story of how Starr’s life gets radically turned upside down after the shooting of her unarmed black friend, Khalil, and how she never gives up the fight for justice. It’s not an easy read- it’s poignant, raw, incredibly sad in places but ultimately incredibly powerful, and inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, current politics, the serious effect of casual and not-so-casual racism and police brutality in America. Highly recommended, and I’m so glad it’s going to be turned into a movie.

2. ‘Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance’ by Barack Obama 

Blurb from

An international bestseller which has sold over a million copies in the UK, Dreams From My Father is a refreshing, revealing portrait of a young man asking big questions about identity and belonging.

The son of a black African father and a white American mother, President Obama recounts an emotional odyssey. He retraces the migration of his mother’s family from Kansas to Hawaii, then to his childhood home in Indonesia. Finally he travels to Kenya, where he confronts the bitter truth of his father’s life and at last reconciles his divided inheritance.


It goes without saying that Obama will ALWAYS be my President. This is a lyrical, inspirational, moving and highly detailed autobiography from a man as inspirational as his tale. Tracing the unique journey of not only Obama from Hawaii to Indonesia to America and beyond, but also his father and mother, this is an autobiography that will lift you up and remind you of the value of life.


3. ‘Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge’ by Erica Armstrong Dunbar

Blurb from

A startling and eye-opening look into America’s First Family, Never Caught is the powerful narrative of Ona Judge, George and Martha Washington’s runaway slave who risked everything to escape the nation’s capital and reach freedom.

When George Washington was elected president, he reluctantly left his beloved Mount Vernon to serve in Philadelphia, the temporary seat of the nation’s capital. In setting up his household he took Tobias Lear, his celebrated secretary and eight slaves, including Ona Judge, about whom little has been written. As he grew accustomed to Northern ways, there was one change he couldn’t get his arms around: Pennsylvania law required enslaved people be set free after six months of residency in the state. Rather than comply, Washington decided to circumvent the law. Every six months he sent the slaves back down south just as the clock was about to expire.

Though Ona Judge lived a life of relative comfort, the few pleasantries she was afforded were nothing compared to freedom, a glimpse of which she encountered first-hand in Philadelphia. So, when the opportunity presented itself, Judge left everything she knew to escape to New England. Yet freedom would not come without its costs.

At just twenty-two-years-old, Ona became the subject of an intense manhunt led by George Washington, who used his political and personal contacts to recapture his property.

With impeccable research, historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar weaves a powerful tale and offers fascinating new scholarship on how one young woman risked it all to gain freedom from the famous founding father.


Piecing together contemporary sources relating to the real-life escape of George Washington’s house slave, Ona Judge, this is a fascinating account of how the brave, resourceful and resilient Ona Judge made her escape from the confines of the President’s own home as a fugitive. Even though she risked everything- including death- to escape, Judge fought for her freedom, and even gave interviews to tell her tale. Professor Erica Armstrong Dunbar is the Charles and Mary Beard Professor of History at Rutgers University, and in 2011, Professor Dunbar was appointed the first director of the Program in African American History at the Library Company of Philadelphia. Here, her knowledge, insight and expertise really come to the fore in a moving and compelling book. History lovers might also like her first book, ‘A Fragile Freedom: African American Women and Emancipation in the Antebellum City.

4. ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ by Maya Angelou

Blurb from

In this first of five volumes of autobiography, poet Maya Angelou recounts a youth filled with disappointment, frustration, tragedy, and finally hard-won independence. Sent at a young age to live with her grandmother in Arkansas, Angelou learned a great deal from this exceptional woman and the tightly knit black community there. These very lessons carried her throughout the hardships she endured later in life, including a tragic occurrence while visiting her mother in St. Louis and her formative years spent in California–where an unwanted pregnancy changed her life forever. Marvelously told, with Angelou’s “gift for language and observation,” this “remarkable autobiography by an equally remarkable black woman from Arkansas captures, indelibly, a world of which most Americans are shamefully ignorant.”


This list just wouldn’t be complete without something from the late, great Dr. Maya Angelou. Uplifting, unique,funny, moving and inspiring, this memoir of Angelou’s early years does not shy away from issues such as racism, cruelty, neglect and rape, but does so with a lightness of touch that perfectly brings to mind the voice of Angelou’s child self.

5. ‘Invisible Man’ by Ralph Ellison

Blurb from

Invisible Man is a milestone in American literature, a book that has continued to engage readers since its appearance in 1952. A first novel by an unknown writer, it remained on the bestseller list for sixteen weeks, won the National Book Award for fiction, and established Ralph Ellison as one of the key writers of the century. The nameless narrator of the novel describes growing up in a black community in the South, attending a Negro college from which he is expelled, moving to New York and becoming the chief spokesman of the Harlem branch of “the Brotherhood”, and retreating amid violence and confusion to the basement lair of the Invisible Man he imagines himself to be.


Not to be confused with the H.G Wells classic, this is a fearless and at times searing look at life as a black man in the harsh, brutal environment of 1950s America, steeped in casual racism and injustice. The nameless narrator goes on a journey to find that justice, and his journey takes him from the South to Harlem, where he becomes involved with an activist group called ‘The Brotherhood,’ and eventually a life on the outskirts of society, living as the eponymous ‘invisible man.’ Despite facing countless obstacles, the narrator’s determination to never give up is inspiring.

Repost: A Tribute to Sophie Lancaster

Image result for sophie lancaster foundation

Please note: this is a repost from 2015. I am reposting it to help publicize Murdered For Being Different, a sensitive, thought provoking and nuanced BBC3 dramatization of the vicious real-life attack on Sophie Lancaster and her boyfriend, Robert, as well as their relationship. I am a supporter of the S.O.P.H.I.E. Foundation, but I should also point out that I do not have any personal connections to Sophie or her family. This post was written with the permission of the S.O.P.H.I.E Foundation. Murdered for Being Different is available to watch now on BBC3 iPlayer.

Rob paints wings on Sophie’s back

A scene from Murdered for Being Different, where Rob  (Nico Mirallegro) paints wings on Sophie’s (Abigail Lawrie’s) back, after telling her: ‘You’re an angel. You need wings.’ Photograph: Des Willie/BBC.

Original post:

I have decided to write about a cause very close to my heart- the Sophie Lancaster (S.O.P.H.I.E) Foundation. I feel very strongly about the work and aims of this  Foundation- which is also a registered charity- as it sprang up from the mindless, and mindlessly cruel, senseless and evil murder of a young girl in 2007. A young girl who had the  ambition, drive and imagination of any other young girl, but who was killed simply because she looked ‘different.’ Her name was Sophie Lancaster, and she and her boyfriend were set upon by a gang of youths in a park, just because they dressed in a ‘Goth’ style. She was attacked after trying to defend her boyfriend, and later died from her injuries. Regular readers of this blog- and of my series- will know that I have a major Goth-identified character within my novels. I have also written posts on Goth style, (here, for instance,) read books on Goth culture, and explored alternative lifestyles and subcultures through my writing. I have included links to the S.O.P.H.I.E Foundation- as well as links on Gothic subcultures– on my official website, and I wear my own S.O.P.H.I.E wristband with pride. I  truly believe that people should be able to express themselves how they want, and identify how they want- be it through clothes, makeup, music, culture, religion, belief, or way of being, as long as it is not harmful or offensive to others. This is a belief that I hold dear, and it makes Sophie’s callous, brutal death all the more shocking to me.

 I, and surely many other young people, remember exactly where I was when I read about Sophie’s murder- a bit like how other people recall where they were, and what they were doing, at the time of the assassination of Kennedy, or when John Lennon was shot. It made national news. For me, it had the same world-rocking gravitas, the same sickening gut-clenching horror. (I was sitting on a train at the time.) I was still a student, with dreams of my own, course deadlines, essays to write, friends, family who loved me- just like Sophie. And I remember how shocked and disgusted I felt reading the details of her murder. I was utterly heartbroken.
‘How can such a thing happen?’ I wondered. ‘How could someone be capable of such a thing?’ The sad, sad truth is, it does happen- whether it’s a young gay man, hurt in a homophobic attack, someone brutalized by a racist thug, or an elderly pensioner mugged. People ARE capable. There seems to be no limit as to how much other human beings can hurt and harm other human beings.
All we can do is try to make sure that Sophie did not die in vain. That her most unnecessary death can give birth to a most necessary cause- to end hate crime, once and for all. And to make sure that Sophie leaves a legacy that can- and hopefully will- change society for the better. The Sophie Lancaster Foundation has already done so much. Money raised through fundraising events, donations and the purchases of special S.O.P.H.I.E wristbands and other items goes towards setting up workshops in educational institutions across the UK. These workshops will explain about Sophie’s life and legacy, and inform young people about the dangers of hate crime. S.O.P.H.I.E itself is an acronym for the Foundation’s ultimate goal- to ‘Stamp Out Prejudice, Hatred and Intolerance Everywhere’ and Sophie’s mother, Sylvia, was awarded an OBE for her tireless efforts to make this a reality. (She is now on the Hate Crime Advisory Board for the UK.) Sophie’s murderers are in jail.
 In the wake of her death, there has been a novel based her murder (‘Hate’ by Alan Gibbons, aimed at children and young adults,) and a play (‘Black Roses’ by Simon Armitage, which has been performed at the Southbank.) Numerous alternative singers and performers have shown their support for S.O.P.H.I.E, and Courtney Love has even worn a S.O.P.H.I.E wristband live on TV.  Makeup company Ilamasqua have brought out a special ‘S.O.P.H.I.E’ makeup range, with proceeds going to fund the campaign. In 2009, the Bloodstock Festival named one of their stages after Sophie. Of course, none of this can bring Sophie back, but at least it means that she will never be forgotten.
There is no doubt in my mind that Sophie was a bright, beautiful, and very much loved human being. Support the Foundation today, and make sure that we end hate crime once and for all.
Please click here to find out more about the Foundation, and how you can donate, and buy a wristband and other merchandise here (with proceeds going towards the Foundation.)
Rest in peace, Sophie.