For fans of holiday stories with a tinge of gothic, look no further than A VERY GOTHIC CHRISTMAS! In this chilling excerpt from Christine Feehan’s short story, AFTER THE MUSIC, Jessica Fitzpatrick is determined to keep her twin wards safe… but the very place she brings them just might be the most dangerous one of all. Read on for more!
Jessica Fitzpatrick woke up screaming, her heart pounding out a rhythm of terror. Fear was a living, breathing entity in the darkness of her room. The weight of it crushed her, held her helpless; she was unable to move. She could taste it in her mouth, and feel it coursing through her bloodstream. Around her, the air seemed so thick that her lungs burned for oxygen. She knew something monstrous was stirring deep in the bowels of the earth. For a moment she lay frozen, her ears straining to hear the murmur of voices rising and falling, chanting words in an ancient tongue that should never be spoken. Red, glowing eyes searched through the darkness, summoning her, beckoning her closer. She felt the power of those eyes as they neared, focused on her, and came ever closer. Her own eyes flew open, the need to flee was paramount in her mind.
The entire room lurched, flinging her from the narrow bunk to the floor. At once the cold air brought her out of her nightmare and into the realization that they were not safe in their beds at home, but in the cabin of a wildly pitching boat in the middle of a ferocious storm. The craft, tossed from wave to powerful wave, was taking a pounding.
Jessica scrambled to her feet, gripping the edge of the bunk as she dragged herself toward the two children, Tara and Trevor Wentworth, who clung together, their faces pale and frightened. Tara screamed, her terrified gaze locked on Jessica. Jessica managed to make it halfway to the twins before the next wild bucking sent her to floor again.
“Trevor, get your life jacket back on this minute!” She reached them by crawling on her hands and knees, and then curled a supporting arm around each of them. “Don’t be afraid, we’ll be fine.”
The boat rose on a wave, teetered and slid fast, tossing the three of them in all directions. Salt water poured in a torrent onto the deck and raced down the steps into the cabin, covering the floor with an inch of ice-cold water. Tara screamed, and clutched at her brother’s arm, desperately trying to help him buckle his life jacket. “It’s him. He’s doing this, he’s trying to kill us.” Jessica gasped, horrified. “Tara! Nobody controls the weather. It’s a storm. Plain and simple, just a storm. Captain Long will get us safely to the island.”
“He’s hideous. A monster. And I don’t want to go.” Tara covered her face with her hands and sobbed. “I want to go home. Please take me home, Jessie.”
Jessica tested Trevor’s life jacket to make certain he was safe. “Don’t talk that way, Tara. Trev, stay here with Tara while I go see what I can do to help.” She had to shout to make herself heard in the howling wind and booming sea.
Tara flung herself into Jessica’s arms. “Don’t leave me—we’ll die. I just know it—we’re all going to die just like Mama Rita did.”
Trevor wrapped his arms around his twin sister. “No, we’re not, sis, don’t cry. Captain Long has been in terrible storms before, lots of them,” he assured. He looked up at Jessica with his piercing blue eyes. “Right, Jessie?”
“You’re exactly right, Trevor,” she agreed. Jessica had a firm hold on the banister and began to make her way up the stairs to the deck.
Rain fell in sheets; black clouds churned and boiled in the sky. The wind rose to an eerie shriek. Jessica held her breath, watched as Long struggled to navigate the boat through the heavier waves, taking them ever closer to the island. It seemed the age-old struggle between man and nature. Slowly, through the sheets of rain, the solid mass of the island began to take shape. Salt water sprayed and foamed off the rocks but the sea was calmer as they approached the shore. She knew it was only the captain’s knowledge of the region and his expertise that allowed him to guide the craft to the dock in the terrible storm.
The rain was pouring from the sky. The clouds were so black and heavy overhead that the night seemed unrelentingly dark. Yet Jessica caught glimpses of the moon, an eerie sight with the swirling black of the clouds veiling its light.
“Let’s go, Jessie,” Captain Long yelled. “Bring up the kids and your luggage. I want you off this boat now.” The words were nearly lost in the ferocity of the storm, but his frantic beckoning was plain.
She hurried, tossing Trevor most of the packs while she helped Tara up the stairs and across the slippery deck. Captain Long lifted Tara to the dock before aiding Trevor to shore. He caught Jessica’s arm in a tight grip and pulled her close so he could be heard. “I don’t like this—Jess, I hope he’s expecting you. Once I leave you, you’re stuck. You know he isn’t the most pleasant man.”
“Don’t worry,” she patted his arm, her stomach churning. “I’ll call if we need you. Are you certain you don’t want to stay overnight?”
“I’ll feel safer out there,” he gestured toward the water.
Jessica waved him off and turned to look up at the island while she waited to get her land legs back. It had been seven years since she’d last been to the island. Her memories of it were the things of nightmares. Looking up toward the ridge, she half expected to see a fiery inferno, with red and orange flames towering to the skies, but there was only the black night and the rain. The house that once had sat at the top of the cliff overlooking the ocean was long gone, reduced to a pile of ashes.
In the dark, the vegetation was daunting, a foreboding sight. The weak rays of light from the cloud-covered moon were mottled as they fell across the ground, creating a strange, unnatural pattern. The island was wild with heavy timber and thick with brush; the wind set the trees and bushes dancing in a macabre fashion. Naked branches bowed and scraped together with a grating sound. Heavy evergreens whirled madly, sending sharp needles flying through the air.
Resolutely, Jessica took a deep breath and picked up her pack, handing Trevor a flashlight to lead the way. “Come on, kids, let’s go see your father.”