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Min's Vampire

Min’s Vampire

 

Stella Blaze

Copyright 2012, 2016

Previously published as Dark Surrender

Shakespir Edition

Edited by Nicole Bailey

 

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Shakespir.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

 

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Prologue

On the night her world ended, Katarina Boccherini flipped the “closed” sign over against the glass of the shop door and turned off the front window display lights. A lock of her wavy salt and pepper hair fell out of the bun she’d pulled it into and dropped to tickle her nose. Absently she pushed the hair back behind her ear and picked up some misplaced books to reshelve. She needed to balance the cash register and fill out the slip for the night deposit. She also wanted to check the online special orders and sweep the floor.

But by the goddess she was tired.

Running a magic shop was more work than anyone would guess. She felt lucky that both her girls, Min and Andy, had gone into the family business with her. She’d be thankful when they got back tomorrow from the supplier convention.

She went behind the counter to take a look at the sales ledger, and gazed for a moment at the photograph of her girls that hung on the wall right above the cash register. It showed the two of them arm in arm, smiling ludicrously, both so young, so beautiful.

My girls.

But she could feel the remnant energies, the mere shadow of a spell that still clung to the photograph, and it made her sad. It hid a secret, one that was now mixed in with all she loved most, which made it all the more important. Would she ever be able to tell them the truth? Or would they all be better off if the lie went on forever?

As if on cue her question was answered.

The door to the little shop blew open and banged against the wall, and the bell attached over it clanged madly. She turned and gasped, knowing the moment the cold, wintery air bit into her flesh that everything had just gone straight to hell. It was July, and the city of Augusta, Georgia was in the middle of a heatwave. That meant only one thing: she was coming.

Katarina turned to run. She cried out in surprise as she bumped into a display table with her hip. Jars of scented oils crashed onto the wooden floor. She stumbled but caught herself, her breath already showed in frosty, labored puffs. The air was so cold that the act of breathing hurt. She slipped through the beaded curtain and into the backroom. She slammed the heavy oak door shut and threw the deadbolt. The act of locking the door was the trigger for her extensive battlement of wards, and immediately she felt them spring into place, strong yet pliant, and lethal.

She’d no more taken one labored breath when the ice began to slide down the length of the door. The temperature in the room dropped as a gale of frozen air poured into the room from under the door. Katarina’s defenses hadn’t even slowed her down.

Should have known they wouldn’t. This was not her home. There was no threshold for the wards to feed from. She gulped in a lungful of air and backed up as the ice flow spread into the room and encroached on her fast.

Only one chance…they’ll need help. In a desperate rush she circled around her desk and reached into one of the drawers. She pulled out a silver dagger carved with ancient runes, a language no mortal was ever meant to read. In the gleam of the blade she saw the greenest eyes she’d ever seen looking back at her. A heartbeat later they were gone. She set it gingerly on the top of her desk and whispered one of her daughter’s names.

Min…”

She darted back around the desk and stood straight and tall as she steeled herself. She was ready to fight, but knew it would be pointless. She had to endure what was to come. And not tell the cold-hearted bitch a damn thing.

Frozen mist billowed from under the door. Soon the room was lousy with it, obscuring her sight. Frost formed on her lips and eyelashes. Out of the mist came a smooth, chillingly close voice. “This doesn’t have to be unpleasant.”

Katarina chuckled, though just the sound of that inhuman voice made her entire body shake uncontrollably. Maybe she was in shock; it had to be well below freezing in the little room.

The voice whispered in her ear. “I know you’ve helped hide it from me.” The voice fulfilled its angry potential, biting into her mind. “That you helped her hide it from me!”

Katarina recoiled in pain. “I-I don’t know what you’re talking about…I’m just a—”

“A witch!” the voice snapped, and glass jars all through the room shattered. Katarina covered her ears. “And in my cousin’s service.”

“I’m not—”

“I could make you mine,” the cold air taunted and blew against her body like rough, uninvited hands. “Force you into my service.”

The simple truth of that statement tore through her body, and nearly made her scream with panic. Gasping for breath she pushed away the thought that she could just give in and tell her what she wanted to know, that she could end it. That the months of hiding, of the pressure she’d lived with every day since she’d made the pact, could be over.

But just the thought of betraying one she loved so greatly filled her with fiery strength. She would never tell the bitch what she wanted to know. She would never betray her girls.

Never.

“I serve no one.” She held onto the table she’d backed into, and though she couldn’t see it, she knew everything that was displayed on it. She turned and reached out for a pot filled with cellophane wrapped, pastel-colored balls of bath salts. She swung back around and tried to pull off the cellophane wrapping when a hand materialized from the mist and grabbed her wrist. It pulled her arm up at a painful angle; so strong, so very strong.

She tried to free herself, but the hand only grasped her harder and became more solid as a shape materialized in the mist. A face came into sharp relief only inches from Katarina’s.

The Queen of Air and Darkness, Monarch of the Winter Court of the Sidhe, stood before her. Her long black hair was like writhing shadows; her lips were the color of frozen mulberries, and her skin as smooth and white as ice-coated snow. But it was her eyes—the pale blue of a winter sky, cold and inhuman, their irises vertical slits like a cat—that made her look monstrous.

Katarina pushed back the tears that welled up in her eyes and the screams that wanted to tear from her throat. She would give the faerie no such satisfaction. The disembodied face smiled, closed her eyes and pulled Katarina near.

A whimper escaped Katarina’s lips an instant before they came in contact with the Queen’s cold, blue lips. She tried to take in a breath, but instead what air she had in her lungs was sucked from them. Her body flash froze and her life force, her very soul, passed out through her lips.

All fell black, time stopped, and the world went away.

 

Chapter 1

Min rubbed her thumb and forefinger at her exhausted eyes, and closed yet another thick, overwritten and musty tome. She pushed the worn leather-bound book away. What was this, the third or the fourth book she’d read cover to cover this week? She was sick of these godforsaken books. The rancid, moldy smell, the abrasive feel of the pages, the endless, cryptic, utterly useless words they held, not one of them delivering the answers she required, or the cure she needed.

It was well past midnight already, and she needed to get back to the store early the next morning. Even though her sister, Andy, would open tomorrow, she still needed to contact the druid in Paraguay who had the copy of Pathways Through the Ethereal Mists up for bid on eBay. She needed it. Not to mention she needed to get on their supplier’s butt about how long it took for special orders to come in that month. It was ridiculous.

Another book sat inconspicuously not even an arm’s reach away, its cracked, green leather binding called out to her. It promised nothing, but there was always the chance that what she looked for, a cure for her mother at last, could be held within those tattered bindings.

Her body ached to go home, to fall into her bed and sleep. But her guilt was a force of nature. She needed to find out everything and anything that the book could tell her.

Just one more…

She’d reached out to pull the book to her when she heard a woman scream from outside the shop. Min rose, grabbed her coat, and rushed to the front door and pulled it open with a clamor of tiny bells. Well into January, the cold air bit into her flesh and forced her to hug her arms about her. She pulled her coat around her better and looked down to one end of the street—nothing. She turned the other way and a blonde in a long, thin, black trench coat ran into her. The blonde’s purse fell to the ground where its contents scattered over the concrete of the sidewalk.

“I’m so sorry,” the blonde sputtered.

Min was about to tell her to watch where she was going when she caught the look of terror etched across the woman’s face.

“Are you alright?”

The blonde was scared out of her wits, and when Min knelt to help her gather the spilled contents of her purse, she sensed a wave of nauseatingly cold energy moving in fast toward them.

Min let her power taste that cold energy—vampire.

 

*

 

For three hundred years Luca had given in to the monster within him. He let himself enjoy the slaughter, to revel in it. And that was all he was now: a killer. Then five months ago something called to him: first, the scent of blood so potent and delicious that his beast went wild with bloodlust; second, a whispered promise on the wind.

Peace…completeness…an end to your suffering.

He followed the elusive aroma across the country to Augusta, Georgia. The smell so intoxicating he could practically taste it. Once there, though, the smell went from permeating the entire city to vanishing altogether. Yet every time he tried to leave, the damnable scent would flare up again and his beast would hunt all the harder for its source.

Luca didn’t like this city. It was less populated than he preferred, and his prey less willing. He liked those humans who invite death to them, who call shadows and loss to hover around them like a shroud.

And he was hunting on that cold January night.

Luca heard the girl’s heartbeat quicken as she ran down the rain-slicked street. Her blonde hair was piled atop her head, whipping about like liquid fire; her high heels clicked a desperate rhythm as she ran away from him. She stank of fear—he didn’t blame her, she should be afraid.

Luca’s beast liked them that way.

It loved the taste of fear, how it lent spice to the blood. Fear imbued even the most mundane victim with the sweetest ambrosia. And the way adrenaline made the heart thump, one could drain a victim in seconds with no trouble at all.

The blonde was scared out of her wits and had been running for nearly two blocks. She was ripe with what he and his beast wanted most. And so young, barely twenty, her face smooth and lineless, her hair its true color, her body firm and supple and voluptuous. To take her would be a pleasure to treasure. But he knew he would feel remorse if he just ate her, sucking her dry in a flash to quench his hellish thirst.

He and his beast wanted to play with her first.

Maybe seduce her—maybe in her very own bed—her naked breasts heaving against his chest as he took her again and again. And then he’d feast on her love-swooned blood until every last decadent drop was his.

Or maybe he would just take her, hard and fast, fucking her forcibly until she surrendered in climax.

It would be so depraved that maybe, just maybe, that would wash away the lingering memories of that elusive blood. He hoped so.

He zigzagged from shadow to shadow, from doorways to behind lampposts, to even running alongside the frightened blonde. He bid his time and enjoyed the chase. He stood across the street when the blonde ran right into a raven-haired beauty, dropped her purse and sputtered apologies.

“I’m so sorry,” she said to the woman as she tried desperately to pick up her things and return them to her purse.

“No problem.” The woman’s voice was rich and dark, like coffee, and she had the faintest of European accents. She knelt, reached out and took hold of the blonde’s wrist. “Are you all right?”

The blonde jumped at her touch, on the verge of tears. “Someone’s after me…a man.” She shook her head and looked back over her shoulder again. “I think…I think he wants to kill me.”

“Kill you?” the woman said, her voice even.

She doesn’t believe her. The vampire smiled to himself.

The blonde shook her head again and her expression dropped. “I feel…really stupid. I saw this guy looking at me…looking like he wanted to…to eat me…and then I ran.” She gathered up the last of her things and stuffed them in her purse. She stood and looked the raven-haired woman in the eye. “I really thought he was chasing me.”

They both looked back down the street. The blonde laughed nervously and shrugged her shoulders. But the raven-haired one, she turned her head slowly, scanning the street, and then whipped her head around to focus her dark eyes on the vampire.

Luca smiled and nodded his head, impressed with the woman’s alertness, and suddenly seized with wanting her. Those dark brown eyes flickered golden with curiosity and intelligence. She would be a pleasure for the mind and the palate.

But then she tilted her head and smiled back at him, not as strangers do, especially in the pitch of night on a lonely street. Anyone with half a brain would be on edge, riddled with fear and paranoia—but not this woman. Her smile was as peaceful and solicitous as it was beautiful.

“Hungry tonight, are we…vampire?”

 

Chapter 2

Luca stood there stunned. Someone had recognized what he was. On sight! The beast in him wanted her. Badly. He stepped forward onto the street. The blonde girl saw him and screamed in terror. A moment later, the raven-haired woman grabbed her wrist again and jerked her out of her hysteria.

“Please be quiet. I’ve got enough to handle without you bleating your head off.”

“But it’s him!” the blonde screeched.

“I know that. Now if you say another word I’ll let him have you.” She sounded so calm, her dark eyes never leaving the vampire. Luca was impressed. A human who thought she could fight a vampire. And she was more than a little mean, telling the frightened blonde she’d let him have her.

Luca chuckled and strode a few paces toward them.

The blonde whined.

The raven-haired woman raised her hand up as if she was about to wave goodbye, and suddenly a fireball appeared. The flames licked the cool night air and flickered between orange, yellow and red.

A witch.

She threw the fireball at him and he jumped back. When it landed it left the patch of pavement where he’d been smoldering and cracked. He looked across the street and smiled at her. She smiled back.

This could be fun.

His beast howled its agreement.

“Leave now, vampire,” she said, “and I won’t destroy you.”

Nice touch. But witches, no matter how powerful, were still just human. And humans weren’t near quick enough for a seasoned vampire.

Before the witch could take her next breath he was across the street and had his hand around her throat, his fangs bared, ready to kill. But he didn’t want to kill her, not yet. There were so many games he could play with a witch. So much more he could take from her than a regular human.

A low hum of power radiated from her flesh into his hand, warm and comforting.

Maybe he would turn her, make her a vampire? He had never done that certain trick, not in all the years since his mistress had made him; her crazed eyes and silky high voice still haunted him three hundred years later.

Had he been alone long enough? Could this spitfire of a witch be diversion enough for another few millennia?

For now he would just show her his fangs, show her how defenseless she was against him, and wipe the glower off her exquisite face. Fear me, you foolish human. Give me what I want!

There was a searing pain in his chest, and the scent of burnt flesh—his flesh!

He lurched back away from the witch, beat out the flames that engulfed his shirt and left his chest and face burned. He looked up and saw the witch’s hand was on fire, like a torch, and her dark eyes blazed with golden power.

“That was…hot,” Luca said right before he jumped back again. Another fireball scorched the ground at his feet. “But are you just a one-trick pony?”

The witch’s eyebrows bunched and she bared her teeth. “Did you just call me a horse?”

Luca grinned. He’d pissed her off.

He heard the nearly undetectable sound of something large falling through the air. He bolted to the side just as a monolithic granite angel crashed to the ground, shattering into rubble the size of human heads. He looked across the street and saw a huge old church. Resourceful, this one—to pluck such a thing from its perch and brandish it with such accuracy.

Maybe he’d get more than just a good fight and a mouthwatering meal out of this one.

“You win, witch. I give up.” Luca held up his hands, turned and walked slowly away, listening to the witch’s even breaths, but failed to hear her heart. He touched the tender flesh of his chest that she had burned. The pain was comforting; a taste of what was to come.

A scent caught his attention—and the undivided attention of his beast. There was blood, still wet, no more than a drop, under his fingernail. I must have scratched her neck.

But then that scent kicked in, and his beast rose up, roaring with wanton hunger.

It was the blood that had drawn and beckoned him to this city; the blood that had kept his beast here, even when it wanted nothing more than to leave.

It was the witch…she was what he’d been looking for all along.

He took his finger into his mouth and licked and sucked the nectar from it. And though the beast inside him went crazy at the taste, something deep inside him sparked, just for a moment, an entity Luca didn’t know how to describe.

Something that brought joy, and terrible pain, with it. Something impossible.

But that flicker of flame vanished as quickly as it had come.

Next time, he told his beast, ducking down a dark alley. Next time more than just a taste!

 

Chapter 3

Min stood still as stone, the flesh of her palm still burning—the fireballs always gave pain along with their protection. She watched as the vampire swaggered down the street and disappeared into the night. Bastard!

She’d needed the adrenaline rush. After hours holed up in the shop, rummaging through those old texts, she had one hell of a headache, tired eyes and a crick in her neck. The close call with the gorgeous yet deadly vampire had washed away all her aches and pains.

She cringed just at the thought of what she’d done. As soon as she’d seen the vampire she should have taken the blonde and herself back into the shop and bolted the door. Not that that would’ve stopped him, but to go toe to toe with the creature on the open street had been sheer stupidity. What the hell was I thinking?

Truth-be-told she should have just let the vampire have the girl. It hadn’t been any of her business—she’d been walking around at night, defenseless…

No, no, no…no one asks to be attacked and eaten by a creature of a nightmare. She couldn’t have left her to fend for herself. It wasn’t like she stalked around the city with a cape, rescuing damsels in distress and little old ladies from the riff-raff scum of the earth. But she would be damned if she would let it happen right in front of her nose.

Not the smartest or safest way to live.

A flash of how fast he’d moved upon her slipped through her mind. He could have killed her, had her drained and been off hunting down Blondie before Min’s corpse even hit the concrete.

The feel of his touch, how something inside him had somehow connected with something in her, made her tremble. Every cell in her body wanted him, instantly, soulless demon or not.

She shook her head and tried to dislodge such stupidity.

Why had she gone for scorching the pavement when she should have gone for the kill? Her mother and grandmother had taught her better. Vampires were animals. Filthy, soulless, and single minded. If it wasn’t sex, it was food, gorging on blood when they weren’t committing carnal debauchery.

But this one was different. This one hadn’t killed her. He’d wanted to scare her. So he was one of those fiends that liked to play with their food before they ate it?

A moment of heated insanity welled up inside Min and made her pulse pound in her throat and her body tighten in all the wrong areas. She felt herself quiver just thinking how it might be to be with a vampire—all that preternatural strength…all that bloodthirsty passion.

“It would be wild,” she whispered to herself.

“Shit…” the blonde said from behind her.

Min had forgotten all about her. At least she’d obeyed and stayed quiet and out of the way while Min took care of the big bad vampire…

Yes, that’s right. He is the big bad vampire, and to play with such a thing is madness…suicide…what’s wrong with me? Min closed her eyes and took in a big breath, trying to gather her wits and center herself. Don’t be stupid! Don’t be stupid! Don’t be stupid!

But he’d been so mouthwateringly handsome…no, he’d been freaking beautiful. And the look on his face when she’d burned his chest and set him on fire? He hadn’t looked angry. He’d looked turned on. And that moment when he’d touched her? It was like electricity in her veins. There was something vaguely familiar about it, as if his touch had been…had been something she’d been waiting for. And now that he’d touched her, she wanted him to touch her again.

Min sighed, rolled her eyes and turned to face the bug-eyed blonde. “Why don’t I walk you home?”

The girl was alternating her terror-stricken eyes from where the vampire had vanished, to Min’s hands. “What was that? And what was he?” her tone was frightened, but a little pissy. That gained her points in Min’s book. Being able to get bitchy in the face of monstrous creatures of the night took guts.

Min turned back to the magic shop and locked the door, then waved her hands. “That was a fireball.” Then she shrugged in the vampire’s direction. “And he was a vampire.”

Blondie gulped as her eyes bulged out even further. “Oh!”

Min smiled. “Any more questions?” The blonde shook her head an adamant no. Min patted her on the shoulder and then headed her down the street, her eyes ever vigilant. “Well then, let’s get you home.”

 

*

 

His flesh had almost healed by the time Luca returned to his lair, changed his clothes, and then came back to pick up the witch’s trail. It still hurt, and it would until he woke completely rejuvenated the next night. He smiled at the little pain. It made him think of her.

He found them both still walking south on Vine Street. He could never get over how slow humans were. He himself could not pull up those long forgotten human moments. Everything after his transformation to vampire was crystal clear, if not painfully vivid. But his human life was lost to him. All but a few faded, dubious images remained.

He could hear their every word, though the blonde kept her mouth shut, and the witch was busy keeping an eye out for him. He could still hear the blonde’s heart inside her chest, racing still with fear. Its beat fluttered at every stray sound.

But he couldn’t hear the witch’s heart. She was human, he could smell that clear enough. But somehow her heartbeat was mute to him. He shook his head. Unimportant. What is important is following her home to watch her there. The better he knew her, the better he could hunt her, the better he’d be at seducing her when the time came.

 

*

 

Min stood at the door to the blonde’s apartment building. A rundown husk of a building, yet the walls were of stone, and the windows were good. It would keep its inhabitants warm and safe, if nothing else.

Blondie took her keys out of her purse and then hesitated before walking up the steps to the front door. “What if he’s waiting for me?”

“His kind can’t get in if they’re not invited.”

The blonde looked at Min mystified.

“Just don’t invite him in,” Min snapped. “You’ll be fine.”

The blonde shook her head and grasped the sleeve of Min’s jacket. “I saw what he can do.”

You have no idea…

“There’s no way I can defend myself against that.” She wouldn’t let go of Min’s sleeve.

Min reached out and pried the blonde’s hand from her jacket and then handed it back to her. “Just stay in at night for a week or two. By then I’ll have taken care of him.”

“But how can you know—”

“He’s after me now.” The prickling truth of what she’d just said froze Min to the core. What have I gotten myself into? “So, don’t worry. You’re safe. Just stay inside for a while and it’ll all blow over.”

“Really?” The blonde sounded so relieved.

I should belt you in the teeth right now! But instead Min said, as reassuringly as she could, “Really.”

The blonde threw her arms around Min and pulled her tight into an uncomfortable yet heartfelt embrace. Ah, cripes. Next she’ll be naming her cat after me!

 

*

 

The vampire watched as the witch left the blonde at her apartment building, watched as she strode quickly yet elegantly along the sidewalks. Her boots clicked neatly as she crossed streets. Her dark silk skirt billowed, and her long leather coat whipped behind her like a cloak. Her gait never lengthened, her pace never quickened. She wasn’t acting afraid. But, then again, she hadn’t stopped to call him out from the shadows, either.

Luca moved in behind her, maybe twenty feet back, and fell into step with her as she turned a corner and headed heedlessly down a long, dank stretch of urban jungle. He was not the only monster out that night: drug dealers, pimps, gangbangers, corrupt cops.

Luca picked up his pace. He wanted to reach out and shake her. It was fine for him to want to kill her; he was almost positive he was going to bring her back as one of the undead. He would have to work fast—ridicule her and dodge her fireballs…and anything else she could find to drop on his head.

But as he picked up his pace, so did she. Odd… He hadn’t expected her to bolt. She seemed so self-possessed and bold. Rushing away from a pursuer, even a killer vampire, didn’t seem like something she would do.

He started to run, using his preternatural speed to catch up to her. But still he could not overtake her. She didn’t seem to be running, merely walking at a normal gait. Luca stopped and listened. The witch’s breathing hadn’t quickened. And then he sniffed the air.

Nothing.

He stopped and gritted his teeth. No perfume, no flesh, no blood.

Whatever it was he’d chased, whatever it was that walked away from him even now, it wasn’t her.

A glamour! He chastised himself. This one is tricky…

 

Chapter 4

When Min got home she pulled her thick, oak front door closed and threw the latch, the dead bolt, and the chain. But it would take more than just that to keep a persistent vampire at bay. Sure, if you didn’t invite them into your home they couldn’t just come in. But they could throw things through windows—burning, smoking, poisonous, exploding things. And then your house would be on fire, and when you ran out to escape the flames, voila! They got you.

So she had to think up some protective spells, and quick. Maybe conjure up something big and mean and wolfy to play watchdog. Could she create a bulletproof, twenty-foot high wall around the house on the fly?

Maybe I should move?

But then she took a deep breath and sighed. She’d never leave this house. And no blasted vampire was going to drive her out of it either. After all, a twinge of excitement ignited in her heart, making the back of her neck itch, he’d look so good naked, up in my room, on my bed. Damn good.

You’re really going to do this—this astonishingly stupid thing—aren’t you?

Min stopped and looked about her, at the house she’d grown up in, the house she now lived in all alone…practically.

Yep, she was going to do it.

Min walked back to the kitchen and into the pantry. There, behind the Oreos and the belladonna, she found the family “Recipe Book,” otherwise known as the grimoire. Grandmother had called it her Cicatrix. But her mother had thought calling it a scar was nasty, so she renamed it the “Recipe Book.”

Min thought of it as her best friend, something that never let her down, that had taught her so much more than even her grandmother and mother, and that had saved her life on twenty-six separate occasions.

As she rubbed her neck and found a thin line of her own blood on her fingers, she was praying to the pestilent gods that tonight it would be twenty seven.

 

*

 

Luca doubled back to Vine Street, and then started off in the direction the witch had been headed before her glamour had led him astray. And at first he did smell the witch’s scent, her hot blood. But not even a block later he lost it, the trail going cold as his mind raced for an explanation.

Maybe she had magicks that could cloak her scent?

No. She would have used it all along, or might have doused her glamour with her scent to keep him running after her.

What she had done, Luca figured out just before he lost his mind, was double back herself. She’d led him in the wrong direction, and then she cast her charm, making him go the wrong way.

That would give her enough time to get home. Clever witch.

Once in her own home she would be safe. He could not enter unless she lost her mind and invited him in. But there were ways of getting around that. Luca smiled as he remembered throwing a bag full of live snakes in through the window of one hapless girl. How he’d caught one delectable widow’s son just before he made it to his mother’s door. He’d used the yowling child as bait, and the widow had run out heedlessly to save the boy.

Luca had eaten them both.

So, clever or not, Luca was sure that once he tracked this witch down, getting her back into the clear night air would be easy.

What was hard was going back to the cold trail to try and follow it again. No sooner had he caught a strong, fresh whiff of her, than the trail evaporated, and he was left brooding again.

He turned back around and slowly paced up the street until it came again. There was fear in that scent. And something else; pure, unadulterated lust. Luca licked his lips and inhaled deeply. He would have her, and tonight!

As if the scent of her blood was pulling him along by his nose, he slipped in through a side yard, over a gate, down a short, dark alley, and out onto a neighboring street. The scent became stronger, richer, and his strides came longer and faster. He was close. The scent saturated the very air and enfolded him in luscious torment.

 

*

 

The witch’s house sat on the corner of Temperance and Independence Avenues: a tall brownstone, with a wrought iron gate that surrounded its inadequate yard. The roof was pitched with gables, a widow’s walk and even a turret. There was a green man carved in stone affixed over the front door. A pagan touch, a mark of protection—but not from what Luca was.

He stood there in the shadows of a neighboring house and watched the witch, her unrushed, confident movements. She was simply getting ready to go to bed. He could see her in a second story window as she brushed her hair. He could have watched her for hours. Her every move was addictive to the eye.

Abruptly though, the witch peered out at him…from every window in the house. He felt a shudder of surprise ripple inside him. But he liked surprises. So he smiled and tipped his head to the cunning witch. He hadn’t taken his eyes from the building for more than a second, yet when he looked back there were twice as many windows aglow with light. And each boasted a lovely vision of the witch.

Fruitlessly Luca realized he didn’t know where the real windows were now. That would make forcing her out of the house far more problematic. Sneaky…very sneaky.

The image of the witch in the nearest downstairs window brought a telephone up to her ear.

Is she really calling the police? She can’t honestly believe they could do anything…except die. The thought of the witch showing such disregard for human life excited him.

A phone rang from about twenty feet behind where the vampire stood. He smiled at the witch—it was her turn to nod. He slowly turned to find a payphone directly behind him. Had it been there a moment ago? Was she powerful enough to conjure things out of thin air?

Probably not. His attention had been on watching her…or at least the image of her that she had wanted him to see, that he hadn’t noticed before. He strode carefully over to the phone and gently picked up the jangling receiver. Luca brought the device to his ear, yet said nothing.

When he turned back to the house all the windows were dark, except the one which held the phone-wielding witch.

“So what’s your name, vampire?” Her accent was thicker now. Obviously she’d pared it down to blend into this new world. But now that she was confronting an old evil, she let it flow freely.

“I’m known as Luca…but you can call me master.”

The witch’s laugh was robust and infectious, and she had the loveliest smile—so sweet, but her eyes rolled toward the ceiling.

“I’m sorry,” she chuckled. “I don’t mean to be insensitive, but you’re a complete ass!”

It shouldn’t have made him angry. He really wasn’t that thin skinned. But she was laughing at him. That overt slight made his blood burn in his veins.

“And your name?”

“Min,” she said.

“Well, Min…when I sink my teeth into your lovely neck, you won’t be laughing then. You’ll be begging for your life!”

The witch stopped laughing, but her radiant smile didn’t waver in the least. “Maybe…but I’d wager you don’t have the balls to make me do anything but laugh at you.”

The witch’s words stung. They made heat ripple off his cold skin. He hadn’t felt such a hunger for vengeance in so long he didn’t recognize it at first. She was baiting him, no doubt. But to his detriment, he was falling for it.

She shook her head slowly, that maddening smile still beamed through from the window.

“It’s too late,” she protested. “I’m already dressed for bed.” Luca noticed the witch was wearing a silky blue robe, cinched around the waist. Lace whispered its secret underneath. “But why don’t you come inside?”

“Come inside? Are you seriously—”

“Inviting you, a vampire, into my home? Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying. You’re invited to come in…” Suddenly there was the crackle of fireworks from somewhere to the vampire’s left. His eyes only averted for a moment, and seeing nothing he looked back to find that every window in the house had disappeared. All that remained was the hard, brown stone of bricks.

“That is,” she purred into the vampire’s ear…the wrong ear to come from the telephone receiver, “if you can get in.”

The connection went dead.

Luca shook his head wearily, yet he had a smile on his face. She had more tricks than he’d seen in any one witch before. She might be even trickier than his own psychotic sire. A part of him trembled as he thought of his old mistress. She drank him dry inside the church he had attended since birth—so much for the protection of his god. She had tucked him away after she’d forced the blood on him, hiding his corpse in a small crypt, where the prior occupant had long ago wasted away to dust. She woke him three nights later by dripping holy water on his bare chest.

She’d taken his virginity that night, his arms and legs chained to the altar as she gave him such great pleasure, and dealt him such terrible pain, dripping the acid-like water in time with her own undulating hips. From that night on, pain had been irrevocably linked to the pleasure of sex.

How many times had she cut him deep with a silver blade just as he’d climaxed? How many times had she branded him with a crucifix as she rode him to her own orgasm?

He gulped, but then felt a little thrill start to burn in his chest. It rose in intensity until he thought he would burst into flames. He could only hope the witch was so inclined, and so creative.

 

Chapter 5

To Luca’s frustration, not only were the windows of the witch’s house now gone, but so were the doors. He knew where the front door had been, but as he ran his hands over the unforgiving bricks of the outer walls of the house, he could not find it.

And that’s all he needed: a door he could smash to a thousand splintery pieces. Now that he had an invitation, all he needed was an entrance. Fangs fully extended, he seethed with aggravation. He had to get into the house. His thirst for the witch’s blood was excruciating.

As he circled the brownstone he sporadically beat his fists against the brick walls, and searched frantically for a windowpane he could break in through. But he found nothing but more infernal brick.

Ultimately, he stood once again across the street from the house and stared up from the shadows to where there should have been windows. He knew that if he did not enter the house before the sun rose, the next night the invitation would be lost. But if he could just get inside, even if he didn’t kill her, he would be free to enter anytime he wanted.

Of course, that was if he could find his way into the house for a second time…and since he wasn’t doing very well with that at the present, he wondered if he was being overly optimistic.

And what if the witch knew how to revoke the invitation? He had heard that it had happened a few times in the past, but truthfully he hadn’t put much stock into the rumors. Of course, until tonight, Luca had never once considered not killing his prey. Maybe those tales of revoked invitations had also been brought on because one of his brethren had wanted to turn his prey into his companion.

Maybe this is an omen? Luca rubbed the back of his neck. Ever since the moment he’d laid his hands on the witch’s creamy soft skin, he had felt an incredible burning at the back of his neck, right at the base of his skull. Maybe that was an omen too. And the way that electrical connection had been when he’d touched her. Not to mention the fact that the witch’s blood was what had lured him to the blasted city in the first place.

Luca’s attention came to rest high above where the windows had been, up on the gabled rooftop. There stood a large stone and brick chimney—and there wasn’t a bit of smoke wafting out to smudge the clear, black night sky.

Ah…just what I was looking for…

Luca, as with most vampires, was a very good climber. He had heard stories of vampires who could fly. But that, like so many powers and talents vampires were said to possess, was not found in most. His sire had had exceptional strength and mental powers that kept her more than safe from humans and other supernatural beings.

He scaled up the bricks of the brownstone, used a drainage gutter to flip up and over and landed on his feet high atop the roof. He stood there for a moment and half expected the witch to have rigged some sort of trap for him, or for the chimney, or the roof itself, to change its geography.

But nothing of the kind happened. Instead, Luca moved with silent speed to the lip of the chimney and took a long inhalation. No fire—thankfully—but he caught the intoxicating aroma of the witch, and her blood, drifting up to him.

Could be a trap…but then again, maybe the witch isn’t as sharp as she thinks. It would be hard for a human to consider all a vampire’s capacity for physicality. Sometimes even Luca was surprised by what he could manage to do.

Probable trap or no, the witch was just down the chimney, and the possibility of getting to her and taking her was more than he could pass up. As if he’d done it all of his many long years, Luca hopped up atop the lip of the chimney and swiftly descended the tight confines of the brick construct, and made not a sound. Moments later his feet found purchase in the empty hearth and with a dip at the waist Luca ducked out of the chimney and into the witch’s bedroom.

He was so excited he almost didn’t notice the pinprick feeling that shivered over his flesh, as if he’d walked through a spider web. He moved into the room, taking in the worn yet romantically antique furnishings, and the enormous four poster bed that took up an entire wall and stretched like a vast Roman arena dedicated to the battles of lust.

I must take her in that bed. The thought made his entire body ache. As he stood there and gazed dreamily down at the satin sheets and the feather pillows, and old fashion feather mattress, the witch sauntered out of what had to be a bathroom and crossed the room behind him. She took a seat on the antique loveseat and took a drink from a glass of red wine, as if the vampire wasn’t even present.

“You are either very brave, or incredibly stupid,” Luca said.

The witch looked up from her wine and made a haughty clucking with her tongue. “And you’re either the rudest vampire I’ve ever met, or…” She laughed. Again it made Luca’s blood boil in his veins. “No, I was right the first time. You are the rudest man—living or dead—I’ve ever met.”

Luca surged toward her, instinctively raising his hand to land a blow across her cheek, hard enough to not only take that glower from her pretty face, but to possibly knock her unconscious. That way he wouldn’t have to hear her quips, and he could have his way with her without her using her magicks against him.

In that moment he no longer considered bringing her over to be one of the undead. He wanted her dead. Dead dead.

With a playful purse of her lips the witch said, “Stop.” She didn’t even raise her voice, just said it as if she’d said hello. And to the vampire’s amazement he stopped in his tracks and stood stalk still, his body abruptly not his own. It was practically vibrating, waiting for her next order.

Luca shook his head and tried to force it from his mind, but there it stayed, the overwhelming desire to do exactly what she told him to do. He still wanted to kill her, wanted to beat her to a pulp, then lick the blood from every scrape and gash he visited upon her. But his body just stood there, not flinching a muscle…waiting.

She looked up at him with the biggest doe eyes, brown and drowning deep.

“So,” she cooed as she stood and moved toward the vampire, “do you want to play?”

 

*

 

Min entered her bedroom and caught sight of the vampire in her peripheral vision. Good. He does have half a brain. Well, not much more. Enough to find a way in, but not enough to know it’s all a trap.

She sashayed over to where she’d left her glass of wine then sat down on the loveseat. It was usually where she read each night before retiring to her bed. The book sitting on the marble-topped end table was Alice Hoffman’s Blue Diary. The monster-of-the-piece’s son had just chopped down an enormous apple tree. She’d wanted to return home to that book all day, but now she could scarcely remember why.

“You are either very brave, or incredibly stupid,” the vampire said to her. She liked that he was so arrogant. It made him more interesting.

Min looked up at the vampire and felt a surge of raw need course through her veins. She had never wanted a man more than she wanted this monster. Every molecule in her body was singing with that need. And that spark he’d set off inside her, with just that first touch, had smoldered and built until it felt like a bonfire was alight in her soul.

“And you’re either the rudest vampire I’ve ever met, or…” She laughed. And I wouldn’t change that a bit! “No, I was right the first time. You are the rudest man—living or dead—I’ve ever met.”

Immediately she recognized pure hatred infuse the vampire’s features, and with blurry speed he tore across the room toward her.

She was surprised how calm her voice was when she told him to stop. Not so surprisingly, he did. As if an invisible hand had caught hold of him and held him anchored to the spot, he stood still as a statue…at least from the neck down. His face was distended with effort as he tried to break free of his constraints and kill her.

She caught his eyes in her gaze, and as she stood to move toward him she felt a magnetic tug, some force pulling her toward him. She knew, deep down, that if she was smart—and didn’t want to die a gruesome, rather painful death—that she should stake the murderous fiend right then and there.

But instead the words, “So…do you want to play?” fell from her lips.

“Play?” the vampire spat at Min. “I’ll play with you! After I snap that pretty neck of yours, I’ll play with your—”

“Enough!” Min snapped and paced toward him. She felt an irrational stab of physical pain, that he really only wanted to kill her now…

“If you really don’t want to play, then I might as well tell you to…” Her face burned as she rummaged through her humiliation-stricken mind for something to scare the bastard with. “To burst into flame.”

And it did seem to scare him. His shoulders hunched and the life drained from his features.

He gulped. “You can’t just tell me to catch on fire.” He didn’t sound so sure though.

“You’re in no position to tell me what I can and can’t do.” Min pushed him, and he fell back a few paces. Obviously she didn’t have to verbally tell him to move. She could just move him manually without his consent.

Good to know.

“And,” Min practically purred, “I’ve got a box of matches right over there on the mantle, right above the —”

The vampire gasped. “Gris-gris.”

Min smiled and enjoyed the long, bitter silence that followed.

“Good,” she said as she moved to the fireplace and retrieved the box of matches from the mantle, “you know about gypsy magicks…necromancy and voodoo. Then I won’t have to waste any more of our fleeting time together trying to convince you that I’m in the driver’s seat here.” She stopped in front of him and stared into his feral, monstrous face. Fangs were one thing, but the bumpy forehead thing was not much of a turn on. “You’re just along for the ride.”

The vampire closed his eyes, defeated. “It was all a trap.”

Something hot flared deep within Min’s chest, warm enough to soften the cold edge of her hatred. “Well, yes. But I think you’ll like the kind of games I have planned.”

“If you’re going to kill me…” His eyes opened, and he looked down on Min with weary, jade green eyes. She had assumed they would be blue, since his hair was as golden as the sun. “Just get it over with.”

A sudden image swept over her, a memory of a vision she had a few months ago. Soon after they’d found her mother frozen in some sort of stasis, she’d been in the office at the shop. While she cleaned up she’d picked up a strange silver dagger from her mother’s desk. It had been carved with numerous ancient runes, a language she didn’t understand in the least. The moment she picked the thing up it had thrummed with power, and no sooner did she feel that power enter her, the damn blade of the dagger cut her. Not a deep cut, but her blood spilled over the blade well enough.

In that moment she’d fallen into a vision: as if on a distant shore a man waited, silent but intense. He wasn’t just waiting for her, he was hungering for her. And for a split second she saw his face in terrifying clarity, so close she could have touched it. “Come to me,” she had whispered.

A heartbeat later she once again sat at her mother’s desk in the magic shop. The silver dagger was gone. She hadn’t thought of that night even once since it had happened. It just hadn’t occurred to her to even try.

But looking into the vampire’s cruel green eyes, she just knew that he was the man in her vision. There was no question. But why would a soulless, murdering vampire appear in a vision?

Min closed her eyes and gave her head a little shake. We return you to the regularly scheduled program, already in progress. She let out a haughty breath. This vampire just isn’t getting it, is he?

“Take off your shirt, please.”

“What?” The vampire jerked, his face incredulous, but his hands immediately moved to unbutton, and then pull his black, long sleeved, silk dress shirt from where it was tucked into his slacks, and then off over his brawny shoulders.

The sight of his naked torso was enough to make Min sigh. But she wanted all of the arrogant vampire to appeal.

“Luca, was it? I could do without the fangs and bumpy forehead.”

And just like that, the vampire’s fangs retracted, and his monstrous expression turned young and smooth again. There was a softness to his manly features that only belonged to the young. He had not been more than twenty when he’d been turned a vampire.

Abruptly he smiled and looked confused…and a little drunk. And just as quickly Min’s breath abandoned her. She swooned.

He had the most beautiful dimples.

Yikes…

Evil dimples?

Min reached out a shaky hand and dragged it across the soft flesh of his chest, over the thick, hard muscles underneath. He was broad and strong before he died. She shivered. He must have been a farm boy.

The vampire took a sharp inhalation of breath, and then he moaned. Min’s other hand joined in and caressed slowly down over his pecs and then lower, over the rippling muscles of his stomach. She was intrigued that the burnt flesh of his chest was already completely healed. But from his gasp when she’d stroked that beautiful skin, he must still be able to feel the burn.

“I…I don’t usually fight like this…” the vampire said absently. Then, as Min’s hands smoothed over the hard bulge in his slacks, he breathlessly whimpered, “I just don’t…”

Min reached one of her hands up and hushed him with a finger over his soft, full lips.

“Just play along. That’s all you have to do.” She looked up into his eyes. “No biting, no trying to kill or hurt me. Just try and please me, nothing more.” She popped up on her tiptoes and pressed her lips gently against his. She waited patiently as he pressed his lips harder against hers, and then she licked up into his mouth.

Luca’s hands grasped her arms, his grip hard as he squeezed.

 

Chapter 6

He’d just moved his arms and now had the witch in his clutches. He felt a flicker of triumph radiate through his blood. She wasn’t as powerful or as tricky as she’d thought she was. If he could move his arms, then he could do whatever he wanted.

“Foolish witch, you’d drop your protections for mere carnal desire?” He smiled as he held her by her soft, silk-clad arms. “What is to keep me from killing you right now?”

He didn’t know what to expect from her. She was clearly deranged, so she might start laughing again—which would most assuredly seal her fate—or she might finally show the fear Luca wanted most from her.

But her expression of lust didn’t falter, neither did her voice, husky and dark with desire. “I’d like to see you try.”

Luca felt the heat of his contempt well up, hot as a poker, setting his blood to boil. He reared back and willed his fangs to extend, for his vampire face to come again. But nothing happened. He tried again, knowing that he should be able to change at will, yet still, he just stood there.

“Enough!” Luca roared. If he couldn’t drink her, he’d just strangle her to death, or maybe snap her pretty neck. But no matter how he tried to reach up to wring her neck, to crush her throat, his body would not respond, and he stood there motionless before the smirking witch.

“What have you done to me, witch?”

Min reached up and took his chin gently in her fingertips, pulling his gaze to hers. “I told you, lover,”—the vampire felt a little thrill having her call him by such an intimate expression—“you have to play by my rules, or you don’t get to play at all.”

She ran her hands over his chest again, brushing her fingertips over his small pink nipples. “And my rules are: no biting, no trying to hurt or kill me. All you can do is try to please me.” She leaned in and licked and kissed her way over the flesh of his pec, and nibbled at his nipple. “That’s all.”

Luca groaned at the feel of her teeth tugging at him. She sank her teeth in hard, making him flinch, but that just made his manhood harden in its confines. He snapped his head back as she took his nipple into her mouth and sucked hungrily, the warmth of her mouth intoxicating.

His arms could finally move, and he cradled the witch’s head as she sucked, his hands stroking her long raven hair.

Oh god! His mind clouded over with want and yearning. And even though his beast wanted nothing more than her blood to wash over his tongue, the absence of that option left him with simply the need to have her, even in just this way.

Her hands ran smoothly up his sides then down his back, until they slid down the back of his pants, cupping his bottom like she owned it. Infuriating…as if she thinks me already her possession!

She moved her lips up from his chest, over his clavicle and then up the side of his throat, licking and kissing him until she had his earlobe between her lips, her tongue and teeth working it, causing tiny sparks of pleasure to run like electricity through his body.

An instant later she was out of his arms and across the room, sitting on her loveseat, her legs crossed enticingly, sipping her glass of wine. Luca felt inexplicably drawn to her. Standing there half naked, all alone, was too excruciating a fate to live with.

She smiled with those luscious lips, setting her wine down and beckoned him with the crick of a finger.

The vampire moved to her, ready to hit his knees, to ravish her there and then on the little sofa, but the witch leaned up and took hold of his belt buckle, pulled it open and unzipped his fly.

He gasped and moaned as Min pushed her warm hand into his pants and took him into her grasp, gently tugging his turgid manhood out into the open, stroking it lightly and fondling it with her nimble fingers.

“You are beautiful, vampire.” She looked up the length of him, a wicked smile warm on her lips. “Every bit of you.” She ducked her head downward and he felt her take him into her mouth, warm and tight and wet. His body jerked, and his hips came forward as she took more and more of him past her pretty lips.

He knew he could not last long if she was going to do this to him. He was not accustomed to such a pleasure. Sure, he could fuck a woman—be it human or vampire—until she begged for him to stop, but he had never become used to a woman’s mouth feasting so hungrily on his sex. It was too much to bear, too much to last through.

He pulled the witch up from her position on the loveseat and pulled her lips from his cock. That barely stopped his impending climax. He held her out from him by the shoulders.

Her lips were the red of rubies, the flesh around them bruised and puffy. Those lips moved to ask a question, but he captured them with his own. He pulled her to him, her body pressed against him through its silk covering. His erection pressed tightly between his stomach and the bottom of her sternum. Each breath she took stroked his agitation all the more.

Luca plucked at the simple silk tie that kept the robe around her and pushed it from her shoulders. It fluttered to the floor. He roughed down the straps of her lacy gown from her shoulders, and it crashed silkily to the floor as well.

 

*

 

Standing naked before the vampire, Min felt his gaze caress down her body like the touch of an autumn breeze, cool just like his flesh. Even his manhood was cool to the touch. She’d been surprised that even that part of him was just room temperature. But once her tongue had tasted his exquisite flesh she’d been powerless not to feast on him. She’d never enjoyed that certain act as much as she had doing it to the vampire. Yet he had ended it so soon.

Must be a vampire thing…

Funny…and ironic…the vampire doesn’t like to be sucked…

Luca pressed against her with his entire body and made her fall backward onto the loveseat. The velvet upholstery caressed her back and bottom as he moved his smooth, broad body over the aching flesh of her front. She shuddered as he kissed her mouth and rubbed his tongue ardently against her own. Then he copied her technique and moved his mouth over her jaw and lingered over her neck—she held her breath, certain the spell she’d cast would hold, but still anxious having the vampire’s lips on her throat—then finally moved lower.

His lips kissed over the flesh of her breasts and his cold tongue worried her burning flesh, roughed at her hardening nipples.

“Oh goddess,” she whispered as he sucked on her ravenously. “Yes…yes…”

A heartbeat later his hands and mouth traversed down her ribcage, playing her very bones like a harp. He licked and flicked her bellybutton with his tongue, and then dropped his attentions to the fleshy mound of her sex. Min shivered as she felt his breath, cool and rough, pass over her hungry opening.

The vampire grasped Min from beneath. His cold hands squeezed her sensitive, bare bottom. His tongue ran slippery up into the soft folds of her sex and teased at her clitoris and her feminine lips.

Min gasped and felt a shocking wave of pleasure ripple through her body. Every muscle in her being was clenched. Her hips rolled as her thighs closed around the vampire’s head. His unruly hair tickled those thighs as his tongue and mouth brought her fully to orgasm not once but twice before he finally released her writhing sex from his rapturous torture.

He smiled as he cupped her breast with one hand, the other moving up from where it held the cheek of her ass. He thumbed the still wet entrance of her vagina. His lips were splotched red from effort, and shiny with her feminine juices.

The vampire had somehow removed his boots and slipped out of his pants. He leaned in and kissed Min—she could taste herself on his lips—then wrapped her arms and legs about him as he picked her up off the loveseat and carried her to the bed.

My bed, Min thought as he laid her gently onto the satin covers. A vampire in my bed…

The thought was as disturbing as it was titillating.

She looked into his eyes—they weren’t green anymore, they were blood red. The hunger for her blood must have been overwhelming. Surely if she hadn’t cast such a powerful spell that hunger would have broken through and she’d be his midnight snack. But she could feel that her magick was holding strong, and already the vampire was pushing his bloodlust back…or maybe the bloodlust was just leaking into his regular lust. Either way, he was shaking as he pulled her thighs apart again and pressed his naked, muscular body into the space her spread legs afforded. The vampire’s hardness pressed against the inside of her thigh, and then his weight shifted and it dug against her quivering sex.

Min’s body shuddered as it anticipated him pushing into her. Her entire body tingled with that prospect.

The vampire brought his hand to his lips and licked his palm with long, lingering licks, leaving it glistening with his spit. Reaching down he smeared his saliva over his thick endowment, stroking himself even harder as he stared hungrily into Min’s eyes.

What a gentleman…

He moved upon her and speared her mercilessly straight through with his fleshy spike. She moaned hoarsely as she felt the searing pain having something that large pushed into her caused. It had been a while since her last lover…a sliver of a memory of him flashed in her mind. How his hulking, muscular body had surged over hers, and how his thick manhood had made her cry out in ecstasy.

And as swiftly as the memory of him had invaded her thoughts, it turned cold—the fact that he’d chosen The Hunt over her had cut her to the core. Min closed her eyes and pushed hard at the thought and forced it back to the dark corner it always inhabited. She forced herself back to the present, the moment, the sensations the vampire’s body had caused to wash over her, stoking the fire within her back to life again.

When she opened her eyes again the vampire’s face looked absolutely blissful, his gorgeous young face imbued with an angelic quality. But when he opened those eyes they were still blood red, the beauty of the jade green eyes only a memory.

The vampire pulled himself in and out of her. Min gasped and moaned with rapture. And even as he stared into her eyes, his demonic red orbs burned into her like branding irons. She felt herself surrender as her body opened up and gave itself to him completely—monster or not.

Make me forget everything…

She reached out and grabbed the vampire by his face, her hands making a smacking sound, and pulled him to her. His expression flashed with surprise, but the moment she planted her kiss on his lips he moaned eagerly and began to feast upon her lips.

Min’s hands traveled over his body. She gripped the fleshy, tensing orbs of his buttocks as the vampire pumped in and out of her with renewed vigor. His body trembled as his hips rocked back and forth, stabbing his manhood into her with increasing force, and at desperate angles. He was losing control.

He cried out as he came, punching his hardness into her with the heat of his release. Min felt herself break apart with violent shudders. Her final climax welled up inside her and washed over her like a tidal wave.

The vampire broke off their kiss. His eyes were still stained the color of blood, and his expression was not of a man who’d just climaxed during sex. The vampire was still hungry. The mind-blowing sex had done nothing to slake his appetite.

Min could tell he was trying desperately to make his fangs come out. If he could, he would drink her dry, leaving nothing left. But Min’s spell held fast, and he soon realized how futile it was—which seemed to thoroughly piss the vampire off.

“Damn it to hell!” he hissed as he pulled himself from inside her and rolled away off the bed. Standing there completely naked, he threw his fist up in the air and cursed god and the heavens for their treachery. “What the fuck do you want from me?”

Min was enjoying the view. Ancient corpse or not, his fine young body jiggled in all the right places. The sight of him made her wish he were a mortal lover, not an undead homicidal demon.

But that is exactly what he is! a fierce voice thundered in her head. She knew exactly who it was, and she refused to see her grandmother’s spirit, or to acknowledge her. A filthy, soulless demon!

She communed with her grandmother on special occasions, even more often since her mother was in stasis. She was the reason Min knew that Katarina was not in the spirit realms.

That will be quite enough, she thought back at her grandmother’s ghostly voice.

“It’s time for you to take your leave, vampire.” Min gathered the bedsheet about her and padded across her bedroom and stopped for a brief moment to touch his bare shoulder. His eyes flickered with red fire, but his face seemed confused.

Min moved to the window and pulled it up with one hand. Smiling she said, “I’m revoking your invitation. Get out.”

As if something invisible were pulling him, the vampire awkwardly staggered to the window and ducked through it, stepping onto the roof outside. Min gathered up his clothes and tossed them through the threshold of the window.

“Thank you, vampire…I needed that.” She slid the window closed, threw the latch and locked it. She looked one last time at the naked, seething vampire before pulling the drapes shut.

 

Chapter 7

Luca stood on the shingled roof and stared, incensed, at the point where the witch had disappeared behind her curtain. The show was over, he was naked and still starving, and she was no doubt laughing in her bedroom—laughing at him!

Filthy, gypsy whore! he thought as he pulled his clothes on. I’ll rip her pretty throat out…gorge on her blood and snap every bone in her…in her luscious, beautiful body…starting with her neck!

His mind raced with all the things he wanted to do to her. Torture her, kill her, strangle her until she was at death’s door, then let her lovely neck go so she could revive…then do it all over again.

How dare any human think she could use me—a vampire—as a sex toy!

She will pay…I will kill her and every living thing in her retched life.

He was so angry, teeth gritted so hard, he could have broken a fang! Luca pulled on his boots and then his shirt, and plotted his revenge.

First her mother, and her grandmother (if the hag still lives), then any siblings or friends…her dog if she has one, and her physician…her pharmacist and lawyer…and most assuredly her boyfriend!

The thought of the witch…of Min, having a lover, a man who slept in her bed and fucked her in that bed…

He punched the stone wall of the house with the sudden fury that thought elicited in him. Another man having her? He would not allow it. She is mine now…

Below, a young man passed by across the street, practically in the very spot Luca had been occupying before the witch had invited him in…and began her little game.

Luca dropped from the roof and crossed the street without making a sound, and with such speed he fell into step beside the young man in an instant. The man was younger than Luca had been when he’d been changed, no more than a boy of eighteen. His flaxen hair was shaggy, and his flesh still moist from a shower, though some scents lingered: the rum he’d drunk, the girl he’d just been with. He too had just had sex, undoubtedly now on his way home to pass out in his own bed.

The freshness of the blood that pumped through his veins was irresistible. The young man turned and looked at Luca. A small, confused smile pulled at the sides of his mouth right before Luca reached out and pulled him into the shadow of a building, then sank his fangs into the boy’s straining throat. Luca held his victim with one hand against his heaving chest—he could feel the terrified flutter of his heart—one hand clamped over the boy’s mouth to muffle his screams. The glut of the boy’s blood rushed sweet and smooth over his tongue and quenched the hellish thirst the witch had ignited in him.

The boy tried to push Luca away, but Luca grabbed his arm and wrenched it away until it snapped.

As Luca drank, the boy’s body grew limp and his heart pounded out its final beats. He released his hold on him and let him crumple to the unforgiving pavement. Luca licked his lips and breathed in deep gulps of the night air. Though he didn’t need it, breathing had always given him solace, an almost physical comfort.

The boy was dead now, his body drained nearly completely of blood, his skin cold and grayish blue. Usually Luca would have already surged away through the city on the hunt for another kill. He always killed two or three a night. But for some unfathomable reason he stood there in the shadows and stared down at the boy he’d just killed. The endless possibilities, the man he could have become…all snuffed out by Luca’s hunger.

He did not feel badly for what he’d done—he never did. If anything he was always filled with the desire to go off and do it again, like an adrenaline rush, but so much the sweeter. Yet somehow he couldn’t tear his gaze away from the boy he’d murdered. Something was different, something was wrong. But whatever it was, be it emotion or something more mentally alarming, Luca could not guess.

But a compulsion emerged above everything else: the need to hide the body. To move it somewhere the witch would not learn of it.

Senseless…

Luca reluctantly leaned down and drew the boy’s corpse into his arms and slung him haphazardly over his shoulder, then moved with preternatural speed until he was on the other side of the city before he dropped the young man’s remains in the river. He stood on the shore and watched as the black waters churned the body around in its wake and the current ushered it off. The body finally sunk about a hundred feet from shore.

Why should I care if the witch finds out?

The vampire stood there by the shore, staring out into the night, pondering with great discomfort that very question.

 

*

 

Min woke to the sound of rain on her windowpane. She loved the sound of rain, always had. She could remember sitting on the front porch with her mother and little sister, all three of them silently rocking on the swing. The pattering of raindrops and the sounds of passing cars sluicing the rain-slicked streets were like a comforting symphony to them. It had been one of the few things in life that they all shared a love for.

Min rolled over on her back and stretching out her arms, back arched, she groaned contentedly—she was sore, but in a very good way. It had been far too long since she’d indulged in her physical desires. A voice deep inside growled that it wouldn’t be the last. His scent hit her then—she’d slept the whole night in it, a sweet, rich aroma that she would have associated with death, with vampire, but after last night it made her body heat up in pleasurable anticipation.

She clenched her mouth closed, as well as her eyes, and held her hands over them in horror. She’d invited a vampire into her house! Into her very bed! She cried out in frustration and rolled onto her side. Pangs of regret and guilt coincided with every little ache and pain her body told her about.

“I can never do that again,” she groaned.

But you can…but you will…

Min shot upright in bed, rubbed her eyes and then pulled her long hair back out of her face. She caught her reflection in the vanity across the room. She was naked, which she hadn’t been when she went to bed. She remembered slipping into a new, not nearly seductive nightgown before she shambled herself into her bed.

She looked down over the edge of the bed and found her discarded gown. She had the rawest of memories slide into place, dreams about the vampire, dreams in bathtubs and in haylofts, and one in a public restroom as others moved unsuspectingly outside the stall they occupied, as Min and the vampire silently pushed each other through climax after climax. It was no wonder, since she’d spent the night rolling around in his scent like a…it was just too humiliating to think of what it was like.

She pulled on her bathrobe and then bound her hair back in a ponytail with a hair band. She padded to the bathroom and splashed some cold water on her face, then made her way downstairs. On automatic pilot she started a pot of coffee. Feeling guilty or not, her stomach was rumbling obscenely, telling her she was starving. She got out some grapes and pre-sliced apples, and looked up to the box of bran flakes that she ate every morning without fail. They looked like little pieces of cardboard to her today.

She rejected them and opened the freezer. It was full of things Min would never ordinarily eat, but today she needed a treat, and a sugar fix, so she riffled through the gleaming boxes of frozen foods and pulled out waffles you cooked in the toaster, and a decadent egg, sausage and potato bowl that boasted sausage gravy and cheddar cheese. She decided she’d butter and syrup one waffle and then slather the second with the egg and sausage mix. She set out two plates, poured herself a cup of coffee, and waited for the toaster to pop, and the microwave to beep her breakfast’s readiness.

She was halfway through her meal, alternating between the two plates of food in front of her, when she heard the scrape of a key and the groan of the back door opening. In through the pantry trotted her younger sister, Andy, her hair a shock of auburn curls, face adorably feminine, and her smile infectiously beautiful. She bounced into the kitchen, slinging a heavy bag of books onto the floating island Min was eating at. She had been humming the theme music to Looney Toons when she abruptly stopped and took in the sight of her sister with apprehensive eyes. Her dark blue eyes had always made Min think of stars, as if they were begging for some great artist to paint them into their midnight blue canvas. She was wearing a tailored jacket and matching skirt, something you’d expect donned by a librarian. But no matter what she did with her hair, the unruly brown and red curls always countered that primness with an untamed air.

“You’re not dressed yet?”

Min nodded as she took a sip of her coffee. “Very observant of you.”

“And you’re eating breakfast! This is very unusual for you.”

Min glared at her. “I eat breakfast every day, Andy. Lunch and dinner too.”

Andy gave her a glare of her own.

“Okay, I might miss a dinner once in a while.”

“Liar. I know you don’t do anything but scour the books after I leave every night.” Min knew she didn’t mean the business logs, she meant the magick books she’d been reading nonstop for the last six months, eighteen…now nineteen days.

How sad was it that she knew so readily how long it had been?

“I see you’ve gotten into my private stash of goodies. How naughty of you.” Andy plucked the last hunk of the syrup-covered waffle from Min’s plate. “Speaking of the shop, not going into the store today?”

The shop. Min had forgotten all about it.

She and Andy ran a small magic shop on Hagherty Blvd…well, a bookstore upfront, but a magic shop for those with enough mystical ability to see that the enchanted, beaded curtain at its back wall wasn’t really just a wall. The veil wasn’t too powerful, but it kept the non magical shoppers out of the mystical side of the fence.

Usually both sisters worked the store, trading off which end they worked based on their moods. They did a brisk business. Close, but not too close, to both the local university and to two separate covens. One located on campus, the other no more than five blocks away in a rundown Victorian the group was slowly refurbishing.

The store had been their mother’s. They’d grown up cleaning shelves and learning the craft from her, and they both missed her more than they could say—so neither ever talked about it. They simply kept the store going, and Andy looked for old and forgotten texts every weekend, while Min poured over them every night, looking for a cure.

A cure. Guilt washed over Min as she looked at the bundle of books lying on the counter. She needed to ward off the house against the vampire she’d bedded last night. That was of vital importance. Without preparation, the vampire would most assuredly find a way through her protections, and then she’d be dead, or tortured, or even worse. So she couldn’t just fall into the books looking for what was never there. She would have to put them off.

She needed to have her protections bolstered and in place before nightfall. As she got up and poured herself another cup of coffee, she told herself that she wasn’t up for another fight tonight. But as her sore body moved to sit down again her mind flashed upon what she’d been doing that had made her so achy. The feel of his cold, smooth flesh, his hard muscles and even harder sex, how he had ground himself against and into her.

She shuddered and shook her head. When she looked up Andy was staring at her, a smile on her face.

“What?” Min snapped laconically.

“Nothing,” Andy taunted, leaning her elbows on the counter and getting that cloyingly romantic, moonstruck look on her face. “It just looks to me like you’re thinking scandalous thoughts this morning. Did you have a date last night?”

Min almost lied to her. She felt so ashamed, and yes, utterly moronic. But then she smiled and admitted, “Kind of.”

Andy perked up like a cartoon dog being offered a juicy steak. “Did he spend the night?”

Now that would be something…

Maybe a secret hidden compartment for daylight hours?

“No,” her sister said, cutting her off as she tried to speak, “you’d have him leave as soon as you were—”

“We’re through talking about this,” Min cut her off. She just couldn’t wrap her head around what she’d done, and talking about sex with her little sister wasn’t much less disturbing. “And you’ve got the store to run today.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah…take the fifth. But whatever you did—or with whom—you really, really should do it again.”

Min stood up and shooed Andy out through the pantry to the back door, assuring her, “I have way too much work to do to—”

“Plan any immoral liaisons?” Andy sang.

“Goodbye!” Min shoved Andy through the door, pushed it shut and threw the deadbolt. She had to smile at her sister’s choice of words—immoral liaisons—and the rabid enthusiasm she had for Min’s love life.

You really, really should do it again.

Now that was a terrible, dangerous idea. Stupid in fact. But the thought stayed with Min and warmed her as she retrieved the family Recipe Book from behind the Oreos, snagging the bag and taking it with her as she started searching out protective charms and spells.

The thought of doing it all again, and with the vampire, made her pulse race and her skin grow hot. She pushed the thought out of her mind. Not likely…well, almost completely unlikely. The hulking bag of books her sister had brought caught her eye. Andy had been gone over the weekend at a conference—actually a bacchanal—and had found them more books to work through. Min felt a pang of guilt as she reached out to take one and then pulled back. She needed to work on warding off the house. She needed more than just a few new tricks if she was going to keep a vampire—probably a royally pissed-off vampire—at bay.

And why is that? her guilt chided.

“Because I can’t mind my own business,” she answered. She just had to save that vacuous blonde last night. And she just had to invite a vampire into the house…for sex—no, for oh-my-god-I–can’t-even-stand sex! And because of that, the spell books on the table would have to wait. She had to force herself not to rush as she poured over the Recipe Book. She couldn’t afford to slap up shoddy castings. Second-rate magicks would just get her killed.

The guilt welled up inside her again, threatening to drown her.

For it meant Katarina, her mother, would have to wait, too.

 

Chapter 8

When Luca returned the next night he found the witch to be very resourceful. He’d expected maybe the same trick of having no windows or doors on the house, or maybe the chimney missing or sealed shut. He’d even imagined that there would be a vacant lot where the house had been. But she’d outdone his wildest dreams. There was neither a vacant lot nor an entrance-less house on that corner…for there was no corner.

He didn’t know if it was just a glamour that only he could see, or if she had made it so it bespelled everyone. The block she lived on no longer had a corner, and her house was gone. But it looked so real, and as he walked about it, he found even the payphone gone.

Night after night Luca returned and stared, and stalked, and scented the night air, never once finding the merest whiff of her scent. Not a flicker that anything of her had ever been there. Even when he knocked on the door to the other houses on the block—all the other houses—he found nothing but real live human beings. Somehow, someway, she was eluding him completely.

Vampires do not dream. Some say they have no souls, and thus no conscience to make them dream. But Luca knew he had a soul. It had punished him those first horrible months after the change; though no amount of guilt could keep the beast that prowled inside him from hunting, from cutting a swath of murder and blood across a continent. He also knew that that soul, that conscience, had not stirred for most of his three hundred years as a vampire. No, one didn’t lose their soul when you were made a vampire. It just slowly withered from lack of use. Oh, maybe god—if there was a god—maybe he slowly extracted your soul for each and every murder you committed. That would explain it in a metaphysical, theological way. And it would explain how sometimes he saw the perfect lack of a soul, one to mirror his own, when he would come across a truly vile murderer for his supper.

But now, every time he killed he felt worse and worse. Going out of his way just to hide the bodies, even when he was on the other side of the city from where the gypsy witch lived. And the worse he felt, the more the guilt welled up inside him, the more he thought he was losing his mind.

Had he ever really been caught in the beautiful witch’s trap? Had she had her way with him? Had she existed at all?

It was driving him mad.

He even caught the silly blonde Min had saved from his clutches walking alone on the street mere days later. He’d rushed her and pulled her into an alley. So silly, so stupid, so pathetic. Min had told her to stay inside at night. He had heard her tell her to stay in for the next couple of weeks. And yet there she was, wandering the streets, unprotected. And yet from the hysterical fear he smelled rolling off of her, she hadn’t thought she would run into him again. She wasn’t suicidal, not out flaunting her neck cleavage sitting on a tombstone in a stinking cemetery. No, she had just been out, with another female friend, and she had the smell of French food and wine still on her.

She was also tan. He could smell the sun on her skin as he leaned into her shivering, frightened body, and sank his fangs into her. He was so hungry, he always was. And though he tried to force himself to feed every night, it wasn’t the two or three a night he had made his usual diet. He was feeling all the weaker for it. What he needed to do was drain the witless blonde and then scare up another two…or more victims.

But instead of languishing in the wonderful, terror-spiced blood of the whimpering blonde, he began thinking of Min, and of how she had battled to save this one from him.

He pulled his teeth from her neck and looked down at her. She was pale again, and her lips were slack. She wasn’t to the point of passing out yet, but she was getting close. What on earth did Min see in this creature? Why in blazes had she risked herself to save this?

He moved away from her, suddenly unable to take her life, or any more of her blood. The blood in his mouth actually turned sour on his tongue. He left her crying, though still on her feet, in that dank, stinking alley, and rushed off to haunt Min’s street again, wishing, hoping for a sign that she had existed at all.

Now Luca stood exactly where he’d stood a week ago, staring where he knew the house should have been, except of course it wasn’t. He thought of the blonde he hadn’t killed. He hadn’t even drunk enough from the woman to quench his thirst. He needed to get this whole thing out of his system before he starved to death, or went crazy from the hunger. He’d seen it before. Scared, crazed creatures, so starved they could no longer pass for human, even with vampire wiles. They were nothing more than mindless monsters.

She’d called them revenants. His sire had shown them to him when he was young, when he was trying to live off the blood of animals, which no matter how much he drank left him just as hungry, and more crazed afterward. She’d shown them to him, being so very gentle—which was a thoroughly alien tact for her. And then she’d helped him find a victim, for he was utterly out of it, weakened and monstrous looking, unable to morph from the feral bumpy forehead and frothing fangs…and he was filthy! It had taken six feedings before his vampire face could be hidden again. He’d lost so much more control than he’d realized.

That night he’d pushed his conscience aside and never looked back for it.

Something, some sound pulled him from his reverie. It was the missing payphone ringing once more from behind him. He looked behind himself. The payphone was indeed back. When he turned back the house was back too, only one window showing light in it. It also had the witch staring out of it, phone in hand.

Luca smiled. He wasn’t crazy…or at least he hadn’t imagined the witch, or the sex…he may still be crazy though. He moved toward the payphone and snatched it from its cradle. “I thought you’d never show yourself again…”

Nothing. Not even breathing sounds.

“Tricky one you are.” Still nothing.

He turned and looked to the window, finding the expression on the witch’s face intriguing. Not only was there primal need there still, but something surprising—loneliness. He knew that one well. He’d felt it so completely after she had left him, abandoning him without any explanation. He felt the urge to say something utterly humiliating, and it slid from his lips before he could stop it. “I missed you.”

A smile crept over her lips, those luscious, red lips. And she laughed. “I really almost believe that, vampire.” He didn’t like her calling him that. She knew his name, she should use it. But he hadn’t used her name, and it was branded on his soul like it was burned there with a silver cross. “Min…please.”

There was a look on the witch’s face, fleeting but definitely there. Surprise, and then something deeper…had she missed him too?

Luca bit the inside of his cheek, the taste of his own blood not even enough to hold his attentions from her for long. Why was he feeling…anything? He was feeling such angst about what the witch thought…what Min thought, and about him. He shouldn’t be feeling like this. He should be feeling lust and hunger for her blood, and that was all. Actually, he should be angry still, ready to rip the woman’s throat out for having used him, holding him to her against his will. It was pathetic that one of his breed could’ve been so easily forced into servitude. But of course that service had been the best, most mind-blowing sex he’d ever experienced. Would he let her bespell him again? Or could he find a way around it this time and take her as she needed to be taken, as he burned to take her, as his beast craved.

“You may come in the front door this time, vampire.” The line went dead, and the window she had been in disappeared right before his eyes. Actually, all the windows, and the chimney faded away as if they had never existed. But the front door stood there, worn and sturdy, beckoning. She would no doubt have set her trap again over the threshold of that door. If he had any sense at all he would find another way in. If anything else, letting her have dominion over his body meant she could stake him at any time. He would have to be insane to let her bespell him again. But he walked carefully to the door, and without another thought in his head he reached for the doorknob.

 

*

 

Min had made good use of her week, reinforcing and expanding the wards around the house that same day, and using that night, and every free moment she had away from the shop since, to scour the tomes her sister had brought her. But no matter how engrossed she tried to be in the books—what was truly important—she still fantasized and daydreamed of the vampire, her Luca.

Ha, her Luca! Maybe she was crazier than she’d thought. Having the vampire come into her home, and then to let him go after she’d had her way with him—now that was truly the work of a lunatic. Maybe all the pressure that was on her shoulders, suddenly being the head of the family, was too much?

She’d been working so hard on learning all she could from the books, and working nearly as hard at trying not to think about Luca…no, the vampire! She had to stop thinking of him as a person. She had to think of him as what he truly was, a merciless, soulless killer. And then she read something in the Lydian grimoire that had to have been written by a deranged person, or at least a complete idiot.

It was a vague reference to the souls of humans being restored by using—contorting—the soul of a vampire to snag it from the ether.

She reread the passage, laughed—and the sound of it filled her with dread. It was the laugh of a mad woman. Vampires did not have souls, of this she was certain. She had killed enough of them, and her family had splayed enough of them over the last millennia, to know that as a fact.

She slammed the volume shut. Her shoulders had gone tight, a spill of curse words on the tip of her tongue. Her frustration was hot enough it felt like anger. And after she gave the old book a throw against the wall of the kitchen, that anger only doubled. She didn’t like it, but the anger felt much better than the frustration. She should throw things more often. What kind of idiot wrote such obvious fallacies? And what publisher, even back in ancient times, would have printed such garbage?

Well, she had only to look to the rather small self-help section she’d grudgingly put up at the store. Most of those authors didn’t know jack about human emotions or the humans that had them. She considered the whole genre a cruel cosmic joke. She wondered what, if anything, the authors with alphabet soup behind their names had degrees in: applied greeting card design, or more probable, creative writing.

Whichever it was, the fact that she’d wasted an entire night studying an obviously fraudulent book made her mad enough to scream. She wanted that long dead author there in front of her so she could shove that book straight up his ass!

She took in a great breath and let it out slowly. She needed to get this out of her system. She had another three books to start in on, and she needed to squeeze in about a week’s worth of balancing the books. Andy was great with the customers, and she kept the stocking and special orders flowing like a well-oiled machine. She just couldn’t stand or sit still long enough—and didn’t want to—to deal with long columns of ciphers all in a row. That had always been Min’s job, even when her mother had been there. Neither Andy nor Katarina had had the least bit of interest in the business side of the shop.

Thankfully they both had the talent for selling things. They just seemed to know exactly what a customer couldn’t live without.

Min scowled at the store’s ledger, lying innocently on the counter by her purse. She was so on edge her hands were balled up in fists and she had the sudden desire to throw the ledger across the room too. She needed some kind of release.

Her inner voice didn’t even say anything. It sounded more like a contented sigh, maybe a whimsical hum. Whatever it was, Min knew exactly what it was suggesting. There was a sexually insatiable vampire somewhere out there, and she’d already set gris-gris at every possible entrance to the house. That, added to the intricate and mightily effective wards and protection spells she decked the house out in, would allow her even more control over the vampire than she’d had the last time.

But it’s so stupid…so dangerous…you’re flirting with death…

She felt her shoulders tighten as her inner voice argued with her more sensible side.

But you own that fiend. You’ve already proven you can make him your sex toy. And what good is a toy unless you play with it?

But you shouldn’t have a sex toy that could kill you. Why would you want something like that?

Min felt her shoulders relax as she whispered, “But I do.”

That was when she decided it was time to let the vampire in again. She needed the break, and the sex, and…how pathetic was she…she actually missed the murderous fiend. And though she hadn’t looked outside, not even once, all these nights since she’d had him, she knew he’d been out there, waiting for her. She could feel him.

She’d tried to block it out, but now she simply opened herself up the slightest bit, and there he was, waiting for her.

She shouldn’t do this. It was so stupid. But she moved to the window, looked out, and there he was, exactly where he’d been waiting for her that first night.

 

Chapter 9

Again there was the feeling that Luca had passed through an electrified spider web. There had even been a small shock when he’d touched the doorknob as well. He knew immediately that her spell was stronger than it had been before. That by entering he would be giving up all control to her.

He entered anyway.

She was waiting for him, her face blank at first, then a little scared, but finally a smile bit through her mask. She had beautiful dimples surrounding that scarlet, pouty mouth. “Come in, vampire.”

Luca cringed at the word, at her referring to him only as vampire. “You know my name. And since I will have no free will at all while I’m here, at least have the mercy to call me by it.”

She seemed to ponder that, and she scowled at what she was thinking. Finally she said, “Fine. As you wish.” She stood there, just staring.

Finally he tested his restraints. He could walk, at least that much he could do without her telling him explicitly what to do. He reached out to touch her face when he got to her.

She looked up into his eyes. Her eyes were so dark, so drowning deep. But there was a flicker of gold in them, a flare of her power. “Same rules as last time, vam—Luca.”

“I cannot harm or kill you,” he said breathlessly, moving all the closer, “but only try to please you.”

She smiled. “Yes…do try.”

Min climbed the stairs leading to her room. She felt cold, tingly, even though the house was more than warm enough. Even though she wore only a thin, silken negligee, she shouldn’t be shivering. About halfway up the stairs it hit her. She was nervous…but nervous about what? If anything, her control over him would be even better than it was the other night. She’d taken her time with the ritual magicks, fashioned the gris-gris with care that hung from every possible entrée to her home—even the old coal chute that was quite too small for anyone, including a vampire, to fit through. And she’d been working to bolster the home’s natural and warded defenses. By inviting him into her home, and dropping the whammy on him this way, she’d assured his powerlessness against her.

So why was she so goddamn nervous?

“You can go ahead into the bedroom,” she said to the vampire as she passed by her door. “I’ll be there in a moment.”

She stepped into the bathroom in the hall and closed the door behind her, putting her weight against it. Her heart thumped hard in her chest. It was crazy, yes, the entire thing, what she had done, what she was going to do with this vampire, it was all thoroughly insane. To open her body to a soulless, demonic murderer was against so many natural laws, against her own up-until-then stubborn moral code. But there she was, after a full week of concerted effort and planning, she was about to take the vampire into her bed, again.

She felt a little lightheaded as she paced around the confines of the room. It was large as bathrooms went, but when your mind is racing, as are your feet, you need room, and the bathroom just wasn’t cutting it.

She could still change her mind, tell him to leave, revoke the invitation. Surely it really was just that simple. But that wouldn’t make her any safer. No, if she was going to do a one eighty on having him with her, then she shouldn’t just let him go. She should kill him. The sooner the better, her rational self advised. As he was, she could easily just order him to stand still, not to move a muscle, as she staked him. Yes, that would be the most efficient way to deal with him. And then she could go right back to her life, to hunting for a cure for her mother, and forget all about the lunacy of having an affair with a vampire.

Her hands were shaking when she turned on the cold water, letting it flow over her wrists, trying to quell the hellish heat that flashed under her skin, the heat that alternated with the stinging cold of her fear. And that was what she was, wasn’t she? She was afraid—afraid that the vampire would turn the tables on her and make her his slave, or kill her. Afraid his evil would infect her soul. Afraid of what her mother and sister would think if they ever found out.

Yes, the cold in her stomach and the sudden heat in her face told her that she was ashamed of what she was doing. But damn it, it was her life, this existence, and she would live it on her own terms.

Even if she couldn’t forgive herself for doing so later.

The hinges of the bathroom door squealed slightly as the vampire came into the bath, his green eyes flashing with hunger, his skin so luminously white, lips parted and full, begging to be kissed.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, as he moved closer.

She wanted to tell him to go away, to order him to leave, but she couldn’t. She wanted him close to her. That’s why she hadn’t made it an order when she’d told him to go into her room. That was why she wouldn’t tell him what to and what not to do. Deep down she wanted him to take her, to do what his carnal instincts told him to.

And as long as he couldn’t hurt or kill her, her plan would work out.

The best laid plans. Min sighed.

She was trying frantically to pull herself together when he touched her, just the barest of caresses, his fingers tracing over her shoulders, and then down her arms. She felt the heat of her want overtake the cold shudders of her fear and shame. Just that one touch had brought her to a full blaze of yearning need, need for the vampire…for Luca.

Damned if she couldn’t keep it straight in her mind. He was a freaking vampire, no matter how much she wanted him, he was not human! Thinking of him by his name, familiarizing him by using it, was just stupid—maybe lethally so.

No, not like this. She couldn’t let him take her when she needed him this much. Rational or not, it felt like this time, as she was, she would have no protection against him. Even though she had far more protections this time, she knew, deep down, that she wouldn’t use them. She would let him have her. Anything and everything, short of killing her.

Last time she’d been in complete control, and though it had been exactly what she’d needed, and it had been nearly the best sex she’d ever had in her life, it had been so controlled it had been close to masturbation.

Her mind flickered on a memory, the memory of him—the man who held the number one spot in that department, and still held a place in her heart—Günter.

The memory practically sizzled with how wild and uncontrolled it had been, under a crescent moon, against the trunk of a great, white, oak tree, in the middle of the forest. He’d smelled of earth and pine, the musk of wolf. And he’d brought her to ecstasy so many times that night, using his power, his preternaturally strong body—smooth and muscular, every inch of him hard as iron.

But he’d torn her heart, her very life, apart when he’d left. For The Hunt was more important. It was his life, his true love. And it had taken years for just the thought of him not to reopen those old wounds. The thought of him and what she’d gone through after he’d left still tore at her. But it was a pain she could bear.

She had told herself she never wanted to feel that way again. She’d vowed she would never let another man into her heart again. That was why she’d…the mere act of remembering what she’d done to herself, and with magick, crystallized the blood in her veins, freezing her to the bone.

The spell she’d cast that night, when she could take the pain of his leaving no longer, seemed like such a simple thing: warding her heart from new love. Like the wards on the house, it was a simple thing to do. But she had never tried such a thing, and it was so very dangerous. She’d kept her plans hidden from her mother and sister, and yet her mother knew the moment she’d seen her again, that she’d constructed a wall of magick around her heart. And that it would never let a new love in again.

That spell had lasted a good many years. She’d been able to ignore every single man who showed the least bit of interest, only now and then taking a man into her bed, and only for the sex. But now, it seemed, her wall of love stopping magick might be crumbling. The vampire’s hands held her arms firmly now, and though he was no warmer than room temperature, she felt heat building under her flesh where he held her.

Oh god, how she hungered for him.

His arms slowly slid around her and pulled her body into his. He was hard, pressing himself through the fabric of his pants against her backside. Min gulped as his mouth touched the back of her neck, causing all sorts of sensations to cascade down her spine and over her skin.

Min looked up to the mirror over the sink to find she stood alone in its reflection. She gasped as her cold fear made a return, clogging her throat. No, no…not like this. If she couldn’t see him in the mirror, she couldn’t ignore or delude herself that he wasn’t the monster he really was. She tried to pull away from him, but his arms squeezed tighter and held her in place against him.

“Please,” she breathed, trying to turn around, “in the bedroom.”

“Why?” His breath was cool against the back of her neck. “So you can pretend I’m something I’m not? That I’m just some human man?” He ran his hands down her body to the hem of her negligee. He leaned his weight in against her as he pulled that thin silk shroud up around her hips, exposing her bare bottom to the cool air of the bathroom. Min gasped as his chilly hands glided over the tender flesh he’d just bared.

“I’m a monster, Min.”

By the goddess, having him say her name made her feel like a compass. It gave her entire body a jolt, and made her heart…oh yes, it was indeed her magick-shrouded heart. It made her heart beat harder, faster, and only for him. Having him saying her name made him her true north, it was just as simple, as impossible, and inexorable as that.

“And you will bear witness to that fact.” He reached out with one hand and tapped a finger against the glass and silver of the mirror—his finger touching the mirror, but casting no reflection in it. “Even as I fuck the living hell out of you.”

He grasped one of her breasts with one hand, pulling her into him, as the other hand slid down her rib cage, then over her belly, making her gasp. Slowly his body slid down over hers, until he was kneeling, the side of his face rubbing against the bare, sensitive flesh of her bottom. His strong arms were wrapped around her waist, but then they receded, his hands finding purchase on her hips as his cold lips kissed and nuzzled those vulnerable orbs. Those cool, strong hands slid up onto her back and pressed down on her with urgent strength.

“Bend over the sink, and hold on.” Luca’s voice was rough with want.

Min hesitated, part of her not liking him telling her what to do, and despising the hands that were pressing against her, willing her to obey. But another part, one that felt feral and rampant with unquenchable heat, the part that wanted him to do to her what he willed, obliged his request, leaving her bent over in supplication, and trembling.

“Spread your legs for me, my Min.” His lips grazed the backs of her thighs as they spoke, and her body jerked in response. But she did as he commanded, and the moment she did she felt his hands grasp her bottom, pulling her apart as his lips slid up from below and kissed the feminine lips of her sex. Gently at first, but then his cold, wet tongue slid into her, lapping slowly, steadily. He parted her core with that talented tongue, all the while penetrating deeper and deeper into her, making her moan and writhe against the cold porcelain of the sink.

Heat rose up from inside her, searing hot and liquid, its fire pooling in her nether region, turning heavy and full, making her feel like she was about to burst. She came, shuddering and gasping, her hands twined around the twin faucets of that antique sink, one on one side for hot, one on the other side for cold.

“That’s it, baby,” Luca said as he extricated his tongue from her and kissed her thighs. “Come for me.”

Min’s entire body went into a spasm, her muscles clenched, her spine arched to present herself all the more to him.

He rose and she felt his hard sex press against her again, maddeningly close, but still separated from where she wanted it by those damned pants. She pressed her bottom back against him. “Please…” she pleaded, her voice breathless.

Min looked back over her shoulder and watched Luca pull his shirt off over his head, not bothering with the buttons, and heard the rustling of cloth, the clink of a belt buckle, and the working of a zipper. She couldn’t see his cock, but as he ground its cool, hard heft against her buttock she sighed with relief.

He is going to fuck me…

The eagerness of that thought, and of how her voice sounded when she was begging “Please…” made something in her head throb cold and shameful. She was literally begging this thing to fuck her. What the hell was wrong with her?

But then Luca pulled back his hips and in a single brutal move rammed himself up into her, splitting her open, forcing the walls of her sex to stretch and accommodate him. Min cried out, as did he, and before the exquisite sensation of being opened so violently had a chance to really register, Luca began pumping himself in and out of her, leveraging at her hips, moving her forward and back to meet his own thrusts.

Good god, this is so…

A shameful shiver cascaded up her spine, but was soon replaced by the searing heat of a welling orgasm.

Exactly what I need…

Holding onto her hips he battered his rock hard erection into her, his pace growing faster as his thrusts became harder. Oh god, it was too much. And then he leaned forward, wrapped his arms around her, and pulled her up off the sink. One hand slid down and rubbed wickedly at her sex as his cock slammed in and out of her. His other hand took her chin and drew her back for a kiss, their lips barely touching, his tongue licking at her teeth. And then he forced her to face the mirror, and the irrefutable fact that he was a vampire, not a man. She looked into that damned mirror and felt tears sting her eyes. But these were not tears of shame. Min felt something in her chest crumble, like a great wall falling to ruin, turning to sand, and with it the sense that something, something dangerous and probably very wrong, was surging into her, straight into her heart.

He’s in my heart…

Impossible.

But as she felt him pummel demandingly into her, felt his arms surround her, his mouth against her neck, she couldn’t deny it. Even staring at his lack of reflection, the image of only herself coming back at her, she knew they were now connected by more than just their bodies.

Min clenched her eyes and tried to push those thoughts away. Luca…no, the vampire—yes, the freaking soulless vampire—was making desperate sounds as he gasped and panted against the back of her neck.

Good. It would be over soon, and she could bury this new feeling deep in some shadowy corner of her soul and never look at it again. Maybe she’d ward her heart again. Dangerous or no, it was better than feeling this way for a dead thing. Maybe she would improve upon it too.

The vampire stopped, holding her to him, suddenly becoming the stillness that only a vampire can manage. It was like being held and penetrated by a statue. It made Min tremble.

What was wrong? Had her other spells fallen when the ward around her heart had as well? Was she about to be killed?

Slowly he pulled himself out of her, making her body ache and hunger at the emptiness that he left behind. He physically turned her around to face him. He was staring at her chest, and then he took hold of her negligee and dragged it up and over her head, leaving her completely naked, her nipples hardening in the cool of the bathroom’s air. Her heart pounded so fast, fear and dread…and rampant anticipation flooding her mind.

He leaned down and pressed his face to her chest, as if he were listening for something. And then he chuckled, and in an awed tone of voice rasped, “I can hear it. I can hear it beating now.”

He nuzzled his face into her cleavage, kissing and licking her breasts, nipping at her nipples. And then he righted himself, pushing his granite erection back into her, gasping as she hissed. His eyes were closed, as if in ecstasy, but when they opened, something so strange, so unexpected looked out at her that Min simply blinked and shook her head.

Luca picked her up, his cock planted firmly up in her, his hands wrapping her legs around his hips, then roughly cupped her ass as he walked them both out of the bathroom and into her bedroom. He lowered her to the bed, sliding out of her as he pulled off his shoes and his open pair of pants. With animal grace he crawled onto the bed and up on top of her, his body supple and beautiful, his manhood throbbing and hard.

But it was his eyes that Min couldn’t tear her gaze from. There was a light in them. A light she couldn’t believe was there. As he entered her again, this time staring into her eyes as he skewered her, she recognized for certain what it was.

His soul…

 

Chapter 10

Having Min bent over that sink had been a thing of beauty. Luca had enjoyed forcing her to do as he wanted, and she had tasted all the better for it—she had truly been afraid. But she could have stopped him. She could have ordered him to leave, to go back to the bedroom—hell, she could have told him to stake himself. With as much power as he’d felt in her binding spell, she probably really could have told him to burst into flames this time, and he would have, no match required.

But she hadn’t.

And though he felt himself losing his connection with a vital part of himself, the beast inside, he still enjoyed dominating her.

He’d feasted greedily at her nether lips, at her sex, making her squirm and buck. But as she came he felt the tide of her orgasm crash over him. He felt her orgasm inside him, overwhelming. He’d barely kept himself from falling to the floor and curling up in sated bliss at her feet.

God in heaven it was the most intoxicating feeling he’d had that century. It made him hunger for the witch’s blood all the more. If just the taste of her sex, and the feel of her orgasm could illicit so much from him, through him, he just knew the thick red liquid that pumped through her veins would be all the more powerful, all the more exhilarating.

He barely remembered taking off his shirt—it just seemed so urgent that he be naked with her—and before he knew it he was thrusting himself inside her. Not being a bit gentle, wanting to hear her moan and cry out as he fucked her.

He wanted her to cry out his name.

But she didn’t.

And that alone drove him instantly insane. He wanted her lips, her tongue, to wrap around his name. He needed her to scream it, to moan and to writhe as she called it out.

Not vampire. Luca.

But she didn’t. The sounds that escaped her lips were feral and maddened with lust and desire, and pain…but they were incoherent. He slammed himself into her all the harder for that.

Luca pulled her face up so she had to gaze at his nonexistent reflection, and know it was him fucking her, him making her body come time and again, that he had control over her.

But then he heard it. Faint at first, just a pulse, a murmur, but then it broke into a solid, perfect beat.

The beating of her heart.

“Min,” he said with awe, and as his words left him, he felt that heartbeat race and shift. It was beating for him. He grudgingly pulled his manhood out of her hot, tight embrace, feeling her shudder as he did so. He pulled her about, gently turning her to face him. He whipped the silken thing she wore up over her head so she was naked and shivering before him. Leaning down, he pressed his ear to her chest, feeling that lust-fevered flesh against his skin, hearing the urgent cadence of her heart. He had no idea why, before now, he hadn’t been able to hear it, but it was the most beautiful sound he had ever heard.

It called to him, pulsing and pounding out his name. She was all he could think about. And, for some unfathomable reason, he was not thinking even the slightest bit about the delicious red that flowed in her veins. He was truly thinking about, and only about, her. Min. His Min.

“I can hear it. I can hear it beating now.”

Mine.

Though he didn’t need to breathe, he felt his breath become labored as he rubbed his face against her breasts, licking and kissing and nipping at her tender, lovely flesh. He moved back into her, calling out in ecstasy as the succulent folds of her sex opened to receive him again. He buried his face in the aroma of her hair, and picked her up off the sink, wrapping her long, supple legs about his hips, crushing her round, perfect bottom in his hands. Moving heedlessly, he somehow navigated them back to her bedroom, laying her gently on her enormous bed, then removing his shoes and pants, wanting nothing between them as he made love to her.

He stopped and stared down at her, naked and quaking for him.

Made love? Luca could not remember once in his three hundred years thinking that phrase. It had always been just about sex and, of course, feeding. But never had he thought of love during any of it. Especially not with his maker. No, fear and hate, that was what he’d felt for Elaina.

But right that moment, as his preternatural body moved of its own accord, crawling onto the bed and up atop Min, pushing himself into her once again, he knew that he indeed felt it. He loved Min. And the thought, the knowledge of that, made something hot flicker inside him, something strange and alien…but somehow familiar. What had only been a spark moments ago now burned like a torch. It was engulfing him, overwhelming him, and he didn’t want to do a damned thing to stop it. It could burn him to a cinder, as long as he could stay with her.

Min’s hand flew out and slapped against his chest, her arm straight and strong, holding him away from her. That one move made that torch inside him flicker and shudder with pain. She was pushing him away.

Her eyes sharpened to slits, and she simply stared up at him.

No, no, no…she’d finally decided to be done with him. Somehow he’d displeased her. Or maybe she had just gotten hold of her sanity once more, and was now wondering why in god’s name she had a filthy, murdering monster like him in her bed.

Fear all but snuffed out the fire that had been burning inside him, but then she reached with both hands and grabbed him not too delicately by the sides of his face and pulled him down to her, into a burning, succulent kiss. The fire inside him rekindled and blazed like a bonfire, and he melted into Min’s embrace, their bodies becoming one, and somehow, in a way he couldn’t begin to describe, they became one in more than just that way as well.

 

*

 

When they were done and sated, Luca held Min to him, listening to her heart and her breathing slow, feeling her warm body soften and dissolve against his. When he closed his eyes, all he saw was her, and when he opened them, there she lay, soft and warm and his.

Mine.

He held her, not daring to breathe—thankfully he didn’t have to—and watched her as she dozed in his possessive embrace. His thoughts had been blessedly empty…that was, until he felt her slip into sleep. That was when the beast’s voice struck with its usual perfect timing. It was a master at knowing exactly when to speak, when to push its wants and desires, and somehow to make them feel and taste like one’s own.

If she is asleep…could you not bite her? The beast rumbled inside him. Could you not drink her blood, and then bring her over? Or, maybe you could just make a meal of her, kill her outright, extinguish her wondrous beauty—not just because she has power over you, but because to kill something so beautiful has its own pleasure?

Luca felt his teeth worrying at his gums, yearning to elongate, to become what he was meant to be: a monster, a killer.

Min breathed, nearly sighing with contentment, her lush, strong body so warm and soft against his, her expression so innocent. She was not innocent. She was good, yes, she was good. But she did not possess true innocence. But that didn’t make the innocent look on her beautiful face any less compelling or attractive to the beast inside him. The beast wanted blood, wanted violence and death. The beast looked upon his Min like a lion standing over a fresh kill. All hunger and possession.

Mine, Luca thought bitterly.

No, the monster inside him hissed. The witch is mine.

Luca could all too well see how exciting it would be to allow his beast to take over. Especially now that Min was asleep, her magicks would be unfocused—there still, lingering in the air—yet inanimate. They could have her exactly as they wanted her.

But Luca didn’t want Min as food. He didn’t want her to be dead, or an eternal slave to him. He wanted her exactly as she was: strong, powerful, good.

But no sooner did he think that than the beast clamped its primal will over Luca, holding his body in its control. Luca struggled to move, but couldn’t. He struggled to speak, to try and warn Min, to wake her, but that too was not happening. The beast had far more power over him than he had ever imagined. It was so very strong. Of course, Luca had never resisted the beast’s will before. He’d always obediently let himself be taken over, reveling in the release, throwing in his own twist to the beast’s hungers. They’d shared quite the partnership.

But now something burned inside him, something strong, something…something more powerful than the blasted, slathering beast inside him. Luca called to that part of himself and let it well up in his body, until its fire burned excruciatingly hot, but not just burning him but the beast as well.

As it writhed and screamed, Luca felt its absolute control over him waver and fade.

That was when Luca jerked his body, jerked it hard enough that Min woke with a start, and a “By the goddess!”

Min pulled away from him, and he felt the inert spell snap to attention again, pushing his raging and angry beast back down deep inside him. She looked up at Luca, and he could practically see the thoughts swirling in her head. That she’d let her guard down. That he could have taken her while she was dozing. She shook her head and pushed herself up and out of bed, away from him, wrapping a silken robe about her.

She was furious, that much he could feel—the heat of her anger coming off her in waves. But he wasn’t entirely sure she was angry with him.

He felt it when she shut herself down, as if she was suddenly standing behind an immense stone wall. He could see her, smell her, could practically taste her. But he couldn’t sense her.

But when had he started sensing her?

Finally she said, “Your invitation is now revoked…Luca. Come back in three nights’ time—”

“Three nights!” Luca shot up in bed, his body going tense with panic. “How can I—”

“Three nights,” Min said, the authority of an order in her voice. “I need time to…to recover. I’m not a demon or immortal.”

You’re not exactly human either, the beast growled.

Luca inhaled to protest. There is no way he could live without her for three days. She is the entire world to him now. To not look upon her, to not be able to touch her or taste her.

I’ll go mad…

Min’s expression turned softer, and for a moment Luca thought she was about to rescind his banishment. But then the cold steel returned to her eyes, the resolve…she has plans for him…he could nearly hear the thoughts swirling chaotically in her mind. And then the wall solidified once more, and he was cut off.

She leaned over, her silk robe falling open to show him the creamy goodness of her naked body. She pressed her lips to his, and then replaced her lips with her right index finger, making a hushing noise.

“Come to me in three days. Now go.”

Luca dressed quickly as she beckoned him to follow her, down the stairs and out the front door. “Three days…Luca. Be standing right here in three days, at this exact time.” And she closed the door behind her.

Without the least bit of struggle Luca walked away from Min’s house, and walked for nearly an hour before he felt the all encompassing hold she’d had on him dissolve. Which wasn’t right. He should have been free to rant and rave the moment he crossed the threshold of her home.

Somehow her power over him was stronger than just the gris-gris, or the spell it conveyed. But how? And why? And what the hell was happening to him?

Only a week ago he’d been a bloodthirsty creature of the night, and now he was a starving, soul-hampered sex toy to a gypsy witch. A goddamned mortal.

But she wasn’t just a mortal was she? No. No simple human could possess so much power. Sure, a mortal could become a mage, and gypsies had always had more power than most of those…but her power was too much, too overwhelming…too inhuman.

Of course most of her was human, mortal. But there had to be something else in her blood, or she wouldn’t have such strength. Only three things it could be. One, the blood of the divine. From a god or angel. And she didn’t smell of that. If she were of that lineage, just the touch of her skin would be hurtful to a creature of darkness, even in its most diluted state. Two, she has demon in her. That wouldn’t preclude she was evil, but he’d seen how brave she was when she had an innocent to save. No, no demon blood in her, none that he could tell. Plus those with demon ancestry usually had an aroma to them, one of ash and fire, sometimes even sulfur and brimstone.

That just left the fae. Damn hard, if not impossible for a lone vampire to kill, and excruciatingly irresistible to any such vampire, their scent alone, not to mention their blood! If that were the case, and it probably was, then that could explain some of the things he was feeling when he was with her…and when he wasn’t with her. Maybe his soul wasn’t really stirring at all. Maybe he was just feeling withdrawn, like a junky coming down from a drug-fueled high. That would make things so much the simpler. But as he stood and stared up into the cloudless night sky over Augusta, and scented the air, he knew it was more than just a chemical thing. Whatever had been stirred within him was strong enough to not only resist the beast inside him, but to push it back like a dog on a chain.

He pulled in a long, uneven breath and then tried to clear his mind. Though he could hardly wait for the three nights to pass, so he could go back to her and be hers alone…there was the chilling knowledge that she had plans for him. And from the cold, steel-like gleam in her eyes, it probably wasn’t going to be an enjoyable plan.

But he couldn’t even entertain the thought of not going back to her. She was his, and he was hers.

Three nights…three nights and then we will see.

 

Chapter 11

Min sat in her kitchen, her silk robe tied at her waist, the tome with the passage about the vampire with a soul in her lap, the thrill and chill of the possibility making her breathe too fast, her heart pound in her chest. Could it be possible? After all, she’d seen it with her own eyes. When he’d been inside her, on the bed, she’d looked up into those beautiful jade green eyes and had seen it. Shining like the light of a faint, distant star…the vampire’s soul.

It hadn’t been merely demonic fire, nor could it be glamour, for she had control over him and his powers once he passed her threshold. It had indeed been his soul. But how could a vampire have a soul? It was impossible.

She sat there perfectly still, but she was thinking furiously fast. Questions echoed, answered by other questions, all bouncing off each other, forming a cacophony of thoughts and feelings in her head.

However it had happened, it was exactly what she needed, just when she needed it. He had come right to her.

She needed time to think, time to research, and time to plan.

Over the next three days Min practically memorized every word the book had to say about using a vampire’s soul to pull another’s soul from the ether. Even one lost to the spirit world. The spell would find the soul, capture it and bring it back to her, to its host body.

Between the magic shop and her own supplies at the house, Min had almost all the ingredients she needed. She had to call in a few favors to find real Mongolian snapdragons, but luckily one of her customers, a member of the coven on campus and a professor of botany, had recently traveled to Europe and had brought back a cutting. It had flourished in her backyard, and had begun to bear fruit just that month. Resilient to the cold weather…but again, a Georgia winter wasn’t that much different than a European summer.

So she had everything she needed to bring back her mother’s soul, to restore her to life. She even had the impossible, a vampire with an honest to Hecate soul. And he was coming to her of his own volition too.

But there was a passage at the end of the spell that spoke to what would become of the vampire. And as she read that the ritual would steal the immortal life from him, ending all that he had or would be—it stopped Min in her tracks. This shouldn’t have bothered her. She had slain so many of his kind in her life. But then again, she had never taken one of his kind to her bed, or had such feeling for one…for any man, actually. And then there was the little matter of him having a soul. It was the entire reason for killing him, for using him in the spell, in the first place. But it also made it too much like sacrificing a human being. It was the divine spark that made us human. How could she just snuff it out?

But Min knew she had to. There just wasn’t another way. She’d been searching for months, her and her sister, and had found not a shred of information about what had happened to her mother. No, she loved her mother more than she would love anything else in this world or the next. She had to sacrifice him. She had no choice.

 

Chapter 12

The three days trudged by so slowly for Luca. He was starved. Since their second time together he couldn’t bear to even think of feeding off a human. He was ruined. She had ruined him. And though his beast couldn’t cajole him into feeding on those delicious, succulent humans scurrying all around him, it was trying its best to tempt him with the witch’s blood. Whispering in his ear how wondrous, how earth shatteringly delicious it would be to devour her the next time he had her in his arms.

His dreams, so shocking to finally dream after three hundred years, were of nothing but making love to Min. And in each and every dream he felt the hunger for her so searing hot, and with each dream the anticipation was all the worse. He knew what he was about to do, and loathed himself as much as he hungered for it. Every dream ended with him feasting on her neck, sucking her life force out of her very veins until there was nothing left beneath him but a flaccid, cold corpse.

The dreams scared him as much as they left him hungering for more. He hated himself, but as the three days ticked away he found himself feeling that same anticipation in the waking world. His beast was growing, its hunger almost overpowering his need for her. Was it love he felt? Could something like him even feel such a thing?

Maybe he should just let the beast have her, if it could indeed break through her magicks. At least then he could return to how he was before she came into his life. He’d been so blissfully happy; now he was miserable.

Miserable or not, pulling against his two hungers—that for her flesh, and that for her blood—he found himself standing on the witch’s doorstep, on the appointed night, as he’d been told. I am her faithful lapdog.

The beast inside him roared for her blood. It demanded vengeance for the witch possessing him so. But Luca swallowed that hatred, for there was something inside him, something outshining the terrible burning of his bloodlust. It was what it was, and though he couldn’t yet face it, he recognized the feeling. And though he hadn’t felt it since those long ago days when he was human, it was indeed love.

When Min at long last opened the door to him, the tension and warring emotions inside him simply evaporated. He gazed down upon her, utterly besotted by the sight of her, by the mere nearness of her proximity. He knew then and there he was hers. But even with this devoted feeling, the beast still called out to him, relentless, but seemingly farther away than was possible, like the distant howl of a wolf.

She didn’t smile. She didn’t look up into his eyes with her usual flirtatious manner. Her expression was so very careful, nearly blank, but for some telltale grave lines. She was hiding something. Luca knew he should be wary. It wasn’t safe to enter, and yet he moved forward when she invited him, and again, he felt the magicks that guarded the door, like electric sparks on his flesh.

She was dressed not in the silky robe, or a thin, wispy gown, as he had shredded the last time. But in funeral black: slacks and a blouse, and black leather boots. Her hair was pulled back from her face in a tight bun.

With a wave of her hand Min beckoned him to follow her. Walking straight to the stairs, Min didn’t even look back at him. Her shoulders were tight, and she smelled of fear and something else, something tangy, not as sweet as fear, something more complex…guilt maybe. The upstairs was dark except for the light from one burning candle. She led him right past her bedroom, its door closed, to the end of the hall and stopped at that doorway, resting her hand against its dark stained wood.

“Forgive me…” she whispered, “I have no choice.”

Luca felt something cold rolling out from under that door, something supremely evil. He didn’t want to go into that room. Every muscle in his body tensed, and he tried to turn and walk away. But Min had not told him he could leave her, so he stood and waited for her to open that door.

She walked into the room as if she couldn’t feel the pulsing, freezing evil contained within. She was a witch of light, and yet she couldn’t feel the malevolent presence in her own home? Had he been wrong? Was she indeed a dark sorceress, and communing with demons? If so, he was in grave trouble. A dark witch, a black one, lived to control things, to play with the living and the dead with gruesome results.

Min whispered a sibilant chant, and candles lit all over the room. A bedroom. An old woman was lying on the bed, the covers drawn up to her chest. Her face was so pale, and her hair so utterly white, he thought for a moment she was a statue. Her eyes were open and staring up at the ceiling.

“She is dead,” he said.

Min hissed. “No she’s not!” She moved over to the bed and sat alongside the pale woman. “She’s asleep…” she placed her hand over her mother’s frigid hand.

Luca gasped, grasping at his hand, staring down at it as if it were a snake. “She’s cold…colder than any ice…I think she is no longer in there.” He raised his eyes to meet Min’s.

She dropped her eyes from his gaze. When she spoke again, her voice shook frightfully. “You’re right. Her spirit is not inside her body. Something sucked the soul right out of her a little over six months ago. Put her in some kind of suspended animation. I’ve been hunting for a cure ever since.”

Luca saw a hard look overtake Min’s face. She stared at him with cold eyes, much like her sleeping mother’s. “But then a few days ago I found a spell, in the pages of an ancient tome. At first I thought it was just some crazy speculation.” She laughed, and she sounded quite mad—like Elaina sounded—but then she sobbed and just sounded scared and desperate.

“I mean, a vampire with a soul…” she turned away from him. “It’s just ridiculous!”

Luca felt his entire body stiffen. No. It can’t be. She can’t mean me. The little trifling spark in me? It couldn’t be counted as an actual soul.

“And then I saw it.” She whirled back around, her glistening eyes wide and frightened. “I saw a divine spark in your eyes. A besouled vampire—I knew it had to be fate.”

No, not fate. A fucking tragedy. Yes, of course his soul was still there. It was making him weaker and weaker by the day. But if Min was pinning her obviously deceased mother’s resurrection on his puny, weak little soul, then her prayers were doomed.

He opened his mouth to tell her just that, but she told him, “Don’t say a word, and stay where you are.” He stood there, mutely cursing to himself. It was going to be worse than he had ever imagined.

He looked about the room and saw a pentacle drawn in multicolored chalk on the gleaming hardwood floor, and a line of dried herbs and other ingredients, all gathered by a marble bowl, and a medicinal crusher sitting right alongside . Beside that lay a cruelly sharp, long dagger, shining silver. He wanted out of that room, but she had told him to stay where he was. It would end badly, whatever she was planning to do to him. He knew it would hurt, physically and metaphysically. And then it would hurt because he’d fail her. His puny soul wouldn’t be enough to work what magick she needed, and she would fall apart when it failed to revive her mother.

But then again, maybe it would work. If the magicks only needed but a spark, then maybe his soul might be sufficient. Maybe it was exactly what he needed. To finally be done with this needling, niggling spark. Yes, to finally be free of it, free to kill and feed without feeling anything but the hellish hunger inside him being sated once more.

He knew then and there, that the moment his soul was removed, he would try with all his strength to break the bonds the witch had put on him. He would kill her first. He would kill Min. And that thought made him sick. He wanted to rush to her and beg her not to do it. The mere thought of taking her life was too unimaginably terrible.

First, she lit a dried stick of sage, and walked around the room. The redolent smoke the herb gave off as it burned would cleanse the air of all bad and evil spirits and magicks. Unfortunately, it didn’t even touch the cold evil that permeated the room, the power Min could not sense.

When she’d finished the ritual cleansing, Min started the ceremony, obviously having memorized the spell beforehand. No reading from a book, not even any stuttered phrasing. Min knew exactly what she was doing. She pulverized the ingredients she added to the bowl, mixing drizzled oil that stank of cloves and blood. And finally she struck a match. The flame of which was queer black tipped with an eerie blue light. The bowl lit up inside, and dark, ominous black smoke began to spread through the room. Everything in Luca told him he needed to get out of that room. Even his beast knew nothing good was going to come of all this. Nothing but pain, maybe blood. Probably,and unfortunately, his. And just as he thought it, she reached for the knife and turned toward him.

“Give me your arm…”

He could tell she was about to say something else. He wished he knew what it was. He wished that she was about to call him by his name, but thought better of it. But then again, she might’ve just been about to call him vampire…and likewise had thought better of it. Either way, it was a kindness she didn’t say it, whatever it was. But part of him still desperately wanted to know.

As if he had absolutely no control over his body’s movements, he held out his arm to her. She unbuttoned the cuff of his silk shirt and pushed it up until his arm was bare and gleaming in the candlelight. And then she cut him, a long, shallow cut, letting the blood smear over the silver blade. Silver hurt, for a cut made with it healed only human fast. And it seared and burned every agonizing moment of that time. She took the blade and walked back to the burning bowl of ingredients. Chanting, she dripped his blood into the bowl and the black and blue flames turned green. The very green of his eyes. The smoke turned a dusty, rusted orange color, and the scent of his burning blood filled the room.

He hadn’t heard Latin being spoken since his sire had stolen him away from his church, from his life. He hadn’t dared to enter a house of god since. Though she had tried to get him to, it had been finally just too much for Elaina to ask of him. She could devise no torture so great that Luca would dare cross the threshold of any church. And he had never touched one of god’s people. No priests, no nuns, no monks, not even a vicar.

But now the gypsy witch, his Min, was reciting something in his long forgotten Latin. But it wasn’t all Latin. Many of the words he knew were nothing he had ever heard before. But when she spoke the word for soul, he felt something deep within him tug and burn. He called out as he hit his knees. The spark inside him couldn’t get out, but it wanted to, as if she were the Pied Piper and it a lowly rat. It was excruciating. He growled and howled as Min chanted with more and more force, calling his soul out to save her mother. Suddenly he knew every word she spoke, and with it he knew that she would get what she wanted, at least in part. She would get his soul, no doubt about it.

But then he felt a gust of winter cold wind. It was blowing in, cold and strong as any arctic wind, up under the bedroom door. And there was darkness in it. It muted out the orange smoke it came in contact with, it ate the candlelight, and it crawled across the floor, encroaching on Min. She didn’t see it coming, and Luca couldn’t even breathe, for he was now covered in the darkness: wet, freezing darkness, sticking to him, pulling him even further to the floor.

Then it finally struck out at her. She fell to the floor as well, and then her mother sat up and turned to look upon her. There was something, someone, looking out through those frosted blue eyes, predatory and evil. The smile that stretched across that face wasn’t human; it was as cold and calculating as any demon’s. And then he smelled it, full and strong and so very, very sweet. And what he smelled both excited him and sent the most horrible chill up and down his spine. It was a faerie. A Sidhe, from the smell of her. And it was a she…and she was monstrously powerful, to take him and the witch, and so easily take possession of the dormant mother, and all from a distance. They were being attacked by something high up in the Winter Court.

Unseelie.

She spoke, and the voice was bitter with frost, yet as smooth as silk. “Silly, arrogant gypsy…you could never fathom my power.”

That power struck out at Min, slamming her into the wall of the bedroom.

“But that doesn’t mean you can’t appreciate it.” Her mother’s corpse held up a hand and black light, if there was such a thing, burst from her palm and filled the room.

Min cried out as the blazing darkness engulfed her. It didn’t seem to be burning her, but she writhed and wailed as if it were eating the very flesh from her bones. The Sidhe’s voice laughed with fiendish delight as Min’s mother’s eyes glowed like blue moons in her skull. The room was so cold, and so full of Min’s cries for help, that Luca couldn’t stand it. He was frozen to the spot, helpless to defend her, his hands in fists, his fingernails cutting deep into the flesh of his palms.

But when Min finally fell to the floor, unconscious, the flames flickered and died, and the darkness seeped from the room in a quiet, orderly flow. The room was still cold, and the candles were snuffed out. And just as the sweet smell of Sidhe faded, Luca felt Min’s magical control over him evaporate. The cold, cruel voice of the faerie whispered in his ear. Now it’s your turn to play, vampire.

Moonlight streamed into the bedroom from an open window. Min lay on the floor, her limp, bloodied body framed beautifully in that cool, silver light. Inside, somewhere far from his mind, his beast called out, howling for Min’s blood.

Her body looked so warm and tempting, like the most delicious banquet he had ever imagined. So much of him wanted to take her, to glut himself at her neck, to end his servitude and his newfound pain and guilt. He knew right then that if he just let his beast take over again that he would never feel again. It would be so easy. He saw the outline of her breasts as she slept, and the pulse at her throat, but he pulled away.

The beast inside him howled incredulously, baying for the blood. He tried pushing the beast back, tried to walk away from Min’s bloodied, placid form. When he looked up he saw something that he’d never thought to see again. His reflection in Min’s vanity mirror. He hadn’t seen his reflection in three hundred years, and it was terrifying to see it now. Especially since it wasn’t really him. It looked like him, and was dressed like him, but there was blood trickling from the corner of his mouth down his chin. The image of him licked at it with his tongue and smiled at him, a knowing look on his face.

“Don’t waste this,” it said to him. “If you really don’t want her to die, you should bring her over. Then she would truly, always be ours, ours to hunt with, ours to fuck…and you know from Elaina that she would have to do as you command. That no matter where she was, she would have to come back and answer your call. She would be ours, forever.

Luca closed his eyes and balled up his fists until the bones creaked. “No,” he said to both his beast and to the image of himself in the mirror. He moved back to where Min was and scooped her up in his arms and carried her back to her bedroom, laying her down in her unmade bed. She was bleeding. Cuts and some nasty gashes on her hands, her forehead, and the side of her face where she hit the wall, looked poised on bruising.

If that filthy fae were there he would latch onto her throat and suck her dry. That would, after all, be the only way he would have a fighting chance against one of the Sidhe. Even if it had been one of their weaker lot, he’d have a hell of a time killing it by himself. But this creature was powerful. Maybe the most powerful.

A chilling and sobering thought. Most powerful or not, all Luca wanted to do was rip her throat out.

Luca pushed thoughts of vengeance out of his head. He ministered to the cuts and the soon to blossom bruises, easily finding first aid supplies in Min’s bathroom, and a bag of frozen peas in her freezer.

He sat there by the bed and waited. An hour went by, and just when he began to think she would not wake again, finally she stirred.

 

Chapter 13

Min woke to find her head a riot of pain. Nausea caught in her throat and she forced herself to swallow it. Then a wave of regret and disappointment washed through her. She’d been in the middle of the ceremony, she had felt that it was working, that somehow the soul of the vampire was calling to her mother’s, drawing it from wherever it was, back to her body, as a vampire can push a mortal to do just about anything, if they want to and don’t hunger to fight with them. But some love such violence. To use their vampire wiles takes the fun out of it for some.

She felt fear well up in her, the sight of her mother sitting up in bed with those frosted blue eyes, and that black flame in her hand. How much it had hurt as that power had shot out and beat her into the wall. She’d panicked as all had gone black…and now her head hurt and…

Her eyes shot open as she realized what had happened. She had passed out. Passed out alone with the vampire. Not Luca, but the vampire. She gasped in fear as she looked around the candle lit room—her bedroom. And there sitting in the chair in the corner, staring into her eyes, was the vampire.

Oh god, I’m at his mercy. Her wards may not depend on her being conscious, but the gris-gris hex she’d used was voodoo, and necromancy, and if she wasn’t awake to control it, it evaporated completely. She reached out with her senses and found nothing. She’d been unconscious too long. The magicks were gone, and she wouldn’t be able to use them upon him until he passed into the house again, and passed under one of the talismans.

But he didn’t have a triumphant smile on his face. He looked…relieved. And why hadn’t he taken her, killed her while she was out? Why hadn’t he bound and gagged her? She could still work magicks on him, and if she was lucky she might just be able to destroy him. Or maybe he wanted to play with her before he tried to kill her…or turn her into a soulless thing like him…but then, of course he did have a soul. If he sired her, would she have a soul too?

But when he finally spoke it wasn’t about any of the things racing through her head. “We really should get you to the hospital. You’ve hit your head pretty hard,”—Min could see herself being flung across the room and into the wall, a vision seen through his eyes. And then of her lying defenseless on the floor of her mother’s room. The hunger had been so strong in him—“and you’re still just human.” She blinked at him, and gulped—her mouth and throat were so dry. He reached out and handed her a glass of water, as if he’d read her mind. “And then we need to talk about what you tried to do to me.” Okay, there’s that other shoe I’ve been waiting on to drop. He’s still going to rip my throat out…well, after he gives me a tongue lashing for trying to sacrifice him to wake my mother. “I don’t pretend to understand the magicks you were doing, but I’m quite certain it wouldn’t have worked.”

Min scowled at him. “It would’ve worked. I mean, why else would fate send me that spell and the one vampire in-all-the-world to use for it?”

He got a cold, detached look on his face, his young, handsome features hardening. “All vampires have a soul, Min.”

No, they don’t!

“Yes, we do.” Min felt a stab of panic as the vampire answered her mental objection. “It tortures us when we’re first brought over, but the hunger helps us ignore it until it fades to only a memory. Once you get past that part you will never suffer from it again. You know the phrase, ‘Better, for lack of use.’” He looked so thoughtful sitting there. “Something about what has happened between us has reawakened mine.”

Min shook her head, but it made her nausea all the harder to ignore. “But it was working. I could feel it. A presence was in the room. My mother’s soul.”

“So that’s what she is to you? Your mother?” He looked to the door and Min got a brief chill. “Well, believe me, what animated your mother’s body wasn’t her ghost, or her spirit, or anything like that.”

“Alright, smart-guy! What was it?”

“The Sidhe.”

“The what?”

“The Sidhe…faeries…but not Tinkerbell, the kind that rule over the ethereal mists…”

Min just stared at him like he was crazy.

“You’ve had to have heard of them: The Summer and Winter Courts—Seelie and Unseelie.”

“You’re trying to tell me little faeries did that to my mother, and that they smacked me around upstairs like I was a piñata?” she laughed at him.

“You’re a gypsy, a witch. You can’t tell me you’ve never heard of them?”

“Faeries are just…the stuff of fairytales. That’s all.”

“No, they are most certainly real…and they aren’t little. At least the ones you’re dealing with aren’t. They’re also so strong they can smack a mightily powerful witch like you around, like a piñata, and not even be in the same room as you. They probably weren’t even in this world when they did it.”

Min waved him off, feeling like his words were simply madness. “How in the world would you know anything about such creatures, even if they did exist?”

Luca’s face turned from hard cold to almost winsome, a smile touching his lips, and then there was torment. She could suddenly feel his grief. And then Min was slammed with another vision: one of his memories.

An injured fae, a woman, and even injured he would never have been able to take her by himself. There had been half a dozen vampires, all so hungry for the creature’s blood, the scent of the faerie so powerful and alluring, intoxicating and absolutely irresistible. They had fallen upon her in concert, like ravening dogs. One had lost his head to her sword, but the other five sunk their teeth into her and drained her, though it took all their strength to subdue her, her strength finally faded as her blood was sucked away.

They drank her until she was stone cold and dry to the bone. Then they tore her body apart to get at what little was left inside her. It was terrible.

And all the while one of the vampires had Luca’s hand in hers. He loved her, hated and feared her, her glittering black eyes and pale skin—so beautiful and crazed.

Elaina. The name wafted into Min’s mind, cold and sharp. And she knew that this horrifying creature had made Luca into a vampire.

She ripped herself from the vision and she spoke the words that fell from Luca’s lips. “Hard to kill.” And she knew he enjoyed the thought of having killed the fae as much as he loathed himself for ending the life of something so powerful and beautiful.

She was suddenly frightened, for as he spoke again of the Summer and Winter Courts of the fae, and that he could tell just from the smell, and the feel of power, that whatever fae had been in her mother’s room, that it was one of the Winter Courts, the Unseelie Court.

But somehow, someway, it all seemed vaguely familiar. Like, as he spoke of it all, she realized she’d already heard it, knew it once. Yet as she listened, as she tried to pin down and touch those thoughts, they slipped away. As if something were obscuring those things from her mind’s eye. Magick, it had to be. But who had done it? Was it the same thing that had stolen her mother’s soul and life, or was it something else entirely?

Min felt the coldest of sensations trickle like the blood of a corpse down her spine. What else do I not remember? And for how long has this been going on?

After a fuzzy, dizzying moment, Min tried to stand on her own. She couldn’t even pull herself to sit up on the side of the bed. How hurt am I?

Min finally agreed to let Luca carry her to the hospital. Moving with his preternatural speed, they arrived only moments after he departed her home. He took her in, setting her oh so gently in a waiting room chair that seemed to magically become vacant, and he talked to the woman at the desk. For a moment the woman flatly told him to fill out the paperwork and they would get to her eventually. But then Min felt a twinge, something cold and dead, and then she realized that the vampire was pushing, glamouring the clerk. Abruptly she was smiling at him, and saying that she would have her in a bed in no time.

Min glared at him, ready to hit him, but as her stomach turned over—just sitting there was making her so very, very dizzy—she let it go. Maybe having him around wasn’t all bad. She cringed at the thought.

The nurses and the doctor seemed a little surprised that Min was in the bed she was. Obviously the desk woman had pulled a bit of clerical sleight of hand, but they shook it off and were quick on the pickup. Min was wheeled off to radiology, where they took some x-rays and a CT scan. Once back in the ER, the nurses cleaned and dressed her wounds, and the doctor breezed in, looked at the results for a couple moments, and declared that Min didn’t have a concussion. And that she was very lucky.

“How did you sustain these injuries?” He was looking over her chart, the one the clerk had dashed off so quickly. He was looking for the cause, and was noticeably irritated that it wasn’t there.

“She had a fender-bender with a fire hydrant,” Luca said, rolling his eyes in an intentionally irritated display. It made Min want to reach out and smack him.

The doctor looked down at her, a condescending smirk on his face. “Well, drive safely little lady.” And just like that he turned and disappeared through the curtain.

Min glared at Luca. “You’re not funny!”

Luca gave an elegant shrug that meant nothing and everything all at once. He grinned. “Get dressed and I’ll take you home.”

There were fresh clothes on the foot of the bed. And they were hers. He’d dashed back to her place and raided her wardrobe. Not that she wanted to put those clothes back on. She took them and tossed them in the trash. They reeked of dark magick, and of whatever it was that made the fae’s scent so distinctive. But it bugged her that he could so easily come and go from her home. She’d have to rescind his invitation when they got back to her place. She was almost certain that she should.

Yet Luca surprised her, having called a taxicab, and paying the driver—and not using even one of his preternatural powers—to drive them both back to her house. He let her decide she needed to hold onto his arm as she climbed the front steps up to the porch, but once they were in the house he scooped her dizzy form up into his arms and without so much as jarring her, took her upstairs to her room. She noticed that he’d closed the door to her mother’s room once again, as if it all hadn’t happened.

But it had, and no matter how long she lived Min would forever have the sight of her mother’s body possessed by that evil, dark force, burned into her memory.

She let him undress her, ever so gently, as he redressed her in a Betty Boop nightshirt that was her favorite. How he knew, she could only wonder. But it was her favorite because it was worn and comfortable—and as far from sexy as bed clothes could get. Another point, if not a creepy one, for the vampire’s scorecard.

Luca made to lay with her in the bed, but she put her hand against his chest. His expression turned hurt, but that look vanished almost instantly. Min smiled. “Your clothes reek of that faerie magick.”

His mouth made a perfect O.

“So take them off.”

He shed his shirt and pants in no time at all, looking so very graceful and beautiful as he did so. Far more beautiful and graceful than I will ever look doing such a thing.

He slid into bed with her, and to his credit, wasn’t even aroused. He just seemed to know that she needed the feel, the touch of his flesh against hers…just not sex. She needed to be held and comforted, and without another word Luca did exactly that.

Maybe being psychically connected to my vampire lover isn’t the worst thing on earth, Min thought right before she passed into a blessedly dreamless sleep.

 

Chapter 14

Min was only asleep less than an hour when her sister, Andy, burst into her bedroom, flinging open the drapes and brandishing a danish and black coffee. “Get out,” Min said.

She was lying on the side of her head where the contusion was and probably some nasty bruises by then. She could feel more bruises and scrapes on her back and hip. And her arm was sore as hell, too.

“Not a chance!” Andy growled, straightening her glasses and trying to pull a loose wave of auburn curls back into the twist she’d tried to impose on her feral tresses. “You’re not sticking me with this.”

“With what?” Min looked up, thoroughly confused and still in the heavy fog of both sleep deprivation and being pulled out of said insufficient sleep.

“The Winter Solstice…remember?” Andy had her hands on her hips, drumming her fingers with agitation. “It’s in two days and the sale we advertised in The Witch’s Cauldron starts today.”

“Damn…by the pestilent gods…” Min buried her face further into the pillow. “I know, I know.”

“Plus, there’s a freaking Renaissance Fair slash Sci-Fi convention just two blocks over at the Avery Center.”

Min looked up at her sister with fear. “You’re kidding.”

Andy glared at her with haughty exasperation, her dark blue suit jacket matching her eyes exactly. “Wish to blazes I was.”

“How did we miss that?”

“It was supposed to be all the way across town at the Capital Pavilion. But a last minute structural instability forced them to relocate.”

“Structural instability?” Min asked.

“Yeah, a freaking Humvee fell through the third floor to the second when they were setting up the Auto Show two weeks ago.”

Min pressed her face into the pillow again and groaned. She did remember seeing that in the paper. She just hadn’t put two and two together…not with everything that was happening with her mother…and Luca. “That’s what you get for having goblins perform the wards and blessings.”

“Might as well just offer up a fresh corpse to a pack of ghouls and then hand them hammers and hard hats,” Andy agreed.

Min smiled. Yes, they so could’ve done a better job. But she, as her mother and her mother before, had tried very hard to not attract too much attention to the family, or to magick as a whole. And though city governments didn’t advertise that they knew anything about the occult, the use of mystical forces for their benefit was common practice.

Min cringed when she let her mind drift back to the Winter Solstice Sale. Not only did they have real practitioners of the craft coming—a long-standing event since the store had been established nearly fifty years ago—but they’d be besieged by Trekkies, wanna-blessed-bes, and the Dungeons and Dragons crowd.

It would be worse than Valentine’s week. All those desperate unrequited human train wrecks wanting love potions before the big day, and then all those jilted, ticking time bombs looking for some magical vengeance afterward. The love potions were harmless. They actually had an herb in them that caused calmness. And unless the person had some actual preternatural ability, the voodoo dolls were just rag dolls too.

But Min and Andy always tried to read the customer’s aura first before selling the dolls. And the dark texts were secure behind the magick curtain. But as a sort of backup plan, they put a moratorium on their sale until two weeks after the big day. Better safe than…well, having hexed and cursed people running around with chaos and havoc strapped to their backs.

As Min pulled her stiff and sleep deprived body out of her nice warm bed, she groaned and cursed louder than she would have liked. That’s when Andy’s face dropped.

“Oh my freaking god! What the hell happened to you?”

Min had been so distracted by the Sci-Fi convention bad news that she’d forgotten that she had a bandage on her head. “Um…it’s just a scratch, really.”

Andy looked pale, staring at her sister with horror. She gulped. “There’s blood seeping through the…the bandage…” She was pointing at her own head and looking paler by the moment. “And all those b-b-bruises.”

Min saw she was trembling and looking woozy, so she got up and ushered her little sister into a chair before she fell down or passed out. Andy wouldn’t take her eyes off her sister’s forehead. Min snapped her fingers to try to get her to stop, to look her in the eye, but she had eyes only for the damage. When Min stood up straight again, the room spun—but just the once—so she trudged over to her vanity table and took a look at herself in the mirror.

Yee gads…and holy hell!!!

She looked like she’d been in a car wreck. The bandage at her temple had soaked through with blood, but it was dried. When she gently pulled it off she saw the wound was sealed with a decent scab. She would just have to shower and forgo washing her hair. She’d pull it back in a bun, or a ponytail, or have Andy braid it. She saw there were bruises down the side of her neck, and down her sore arm. She’d have to wear a turtleneck to cover that, and go heavy on the concealer to cover what was on her face.

Andy shot up out of the chair, her face florid with rage. “Who is he?” she barked, coming toward Min.

“Who’s who?” Min felt confusion mix with the dizziness and nausea.

“The guy. The guy from last week. He’s the one that did this to you, isn’t he?”

Dear goddess, she thinks it was a man…

“Andy, honey, it’s not—”

“I’ll kill that fucking son of a bitch!”

Min was shocked. Her sister never cursed. She was also as violent as Minnie Mouse. But the look in her sister’s eyes was scary. There was murder there, and a sudden dark intelligence. She may not be much of a practitioner of the craft, and casting had never seemed very important to her, but she was still Katarina’s daughter, and she knew more than her share of potent magicks.

Also, those dark blue eyes of hers were lightening, turning an eerie, icy blue.

“Andy, sweetie, calm down.”

“Are you going to tell me where Mr. Goodbar is hiding his coward’s ass, or do I have to scribe for him?”

“Whoa! Stop! No man did this to me…okay?”

Confusion flickered over Andy’s face, breaking up the anger that was so horrifying to see there. “Then what did?”

Min took a long, deep breath and held it. She hadn’t wanted to tell her sister any of it. How she thought she would be able to keep it from her she didn’t know, but she felt such a compulsion to keep Andy safe, she almost tried to tell her a lie anyhow. But just looking into those naïve eyes of hers, she just couldn’t do it.

“I tried to…to cure mom last night.”

Andy’s face turned questioning, and then her big blue eyes got round as saucers and she turned her head toward the door. Min could tell she was looking for their mother, and it broke her heart to see such desperation in Andy’s eyes. Those eyes had welled up with tears, but Andy choked them back, blinking them away, and turned from the door. “It didn’t work.” It wasn’t a question.

“You’re killing me, kid,” Min said, now beside her sister, gently putting her hands on the other woman’s shoulders.

Andy shrugged away her touch and paced over toward the window. “I’m not a kid! And why the hell didn’t you tell me you were doing this?”

“It was dangerous”—obviously, look again upon my face—“and you’re—”

“Not powerful enough? Not tough enough? Right?”

Min tried to say something to comfort her, but Andy started talking again…well, it was more like yelling.

“Don’t want to get stupid little Andy all upset, she might cry all over herself!”

“It’s not like that.”

“Really?” Andy said accusingly. “Mom always said that.”

“She did not.” Or at least Min hoped she never had. But there was a nagging little doubt in her mind.

“No, she’d never have said that,” Andy conceded. “But she did it anyways. Did you ever think that’s why I don’t have the power you two have? Maybe if you two would stop protecting me I wouldn’t be so useless to you.”

“You’re not useless…you—”

“I help run the shop, and I’m really gangbusters at tracking down old books for you.” She turned and stalked to the bedroom door. “Yeah, I’m freaking indispensible.”

Min couldn’t say anything to that. Katarina and she were both guilty of being powerfully overprotective of Andy. And yes, that overprotectiveness had stunted her metaphysical growth. It was all true.

Andy stopped at the door, her fingers gripping the blue glass knob. “I could’ve helped you last night.”

“Look at me. It didn’t go well.”

“But if I were there—”

“If you were there you would’ve—” Min stopped. She was about to say something very, very stupid. But it was too late.

“I would’ve gotten us both killed.” Andy just stared at where her hand gripped the doorknob. “That’s what you were about to say.”

Min sat back down on the bed, so tired, so hurt, and now feeling so very guilty. “You’re right.”

A few beats of silence spread out between them, and Andy took a few shallow breaths. “I’m not up to momentous mystical battles. But if you two had ever let me try the hard stuff, then maybe I wouldn’t be the liability I am.”

Min wanted to be able to say something to make it better, but there wasn’t anything to say. Andy was right, but she didn’t regret that she’d kept her safe all this time, she just didn’t.

“Go shower,” Andy said as she walked out of Min’s bedroom. “I’ll do your makeup when you’re dressed. I can—you’ll look like a freaking drag queen if you do it. Hells bells, you still use liquid concealer!” And she was gone.

Min sat on her bed, closing her eyes on her own horrific reflection in the vanity mirror. Why did hurting Andy feel worse than any of her bruises?

After the shower Min managed to get her pain-riddled arm into a turtleneck sweater. Andy came in with her brushes and little jars of mineral makeup. But first some Neosporin and a small flesh-colored band-aid, then she made quick work of brushing and then braiding her sister’s frizzy rat’s nest of hair until it was a nice loose style that accented her cheekbones and made her eyes look impossibly big.

When she started in with her brushes and mineral powders it only took a couple minutes, some mascara, some lip blush and gloss, and she declared Min “Rocky-chic!”

Min rolled her eyes then turned to the mirror again. Besides the little band-aid, she had never looked better. Min couldn’t see even a shadow of the bruising, and her skin really looked flawless. The hairstyle and the expert application of mascara and eye shadow really made her eyes pop. “Remind me to have you do my makeup for my next date.”

“And when would that be? I haven’t seen that blissfully happy look on your face since that first time.”

Min shook her head. Maybe she would’ve had that “blissfully happy look” if she hadn’t had so much to think about. “You ready to go?”

“Just one more thing.”

“What?” Min sounded so tired, even to herself. She took a double take at the intense look in her sister’s eyes.

“So the thing…whatever did that to mom…it was here last night?”

You can’t tell her…but god, the look on her face…

“In a way, yes.”

“And it’s tough?”

“Kicked my ass but good,” Min tried to smile.

Andy got a scared look on her face that melted almost immediately to determination. “Are we going to be able to beat it?”

Min was about to say, “I’ll beat it. You’re not going anywhere near it.” But she saw the look on her sister’s face. Andy needed more than anything right then to feel like she would be able to help. “We’re Boccherini women, aren’t we? We’ll beat the shit out of it in the end. We always do.” Min was surprised at how certain she sounded, for she certainly didn’t feel it.

 

Chapter 15

Exhausted from the sale, and the relentless conventioneers, Min came home and crashed on the couch. Her head aching, her body stiff—both demanding Motrin…and to never move again. It hadn’t been a completely unpleasant experience. Some old friends stopped by the sale, witches and practitioners of the craft she hadn’t seen in years, even a minor deity that usually only bothers to venture out of his lair once every ten years, and only on All Hollows Eve.

She was shocked to see him, and he bought some lavender bath salts…and funny enough, a small pewter likeness of himself. He thought it was cute. She had to agree. She’d always thought Ptah, the Egyptian God of Craftsmen had been extremely good looking.

Finally she had to ask why he was out and about, and he gave her the most salacious look.

“Because something big is coming.” He smiled wickedly as he leaned down and looked into Min’s eyes. It was only when he wanted you to that you realized he was not only a god, but mightily intimidating. Nearly seven feet tall, broader shouldered than two men, and brimming with supernatural strength. His eyes flashed silvery as he gazed deeply into her. Not a soul gaze, not merely a trick where it seems someone is looking into you, but the real thing. He was looking right into the core of who she was.

The Egyptians called it your secret name, to be able to see everything that you had been and were. A secret name was a very powerful and a very dangerous thing—especially in the hands of as wily a heavy hitter as an ancient Egyptian god.

“But you know all about that, don’t you?” he stood there, staring into Min’s eyes for maybe another ten seconds, and laughed as he straightened to his usual height. “Just remember Min, daughter of Katarina of the Boccherini Clan, there are things in this very store that can help you in most any task. All you have to do is use the right one.” And then he turned and majestically swept from the magic shop, his form fading into nothingness before he reached the front door.

Okay, that had been majorly creepy.

Min closed her eyes now, too tired to move or to get the Motrin she so desperately wanted. She’d use magick to summon the bottle of Motrin, but that would probably lead to a worse headache.

She listened to the wind outside, and to the stillness of the house. But she felt him. Luca was standing right beside her. It should have scared her. It should have at least made her flinch. But she sighed with relief as she reached out and touched his face an instant before her eyes opened.

“You’re hurting worse than yesterday.” He hadn’t made it a question.

“That happens,” Min replied. “Get your butt kicked, feel even worse the next day.”

Luca’s eyes looked so worried. Jeez, another one! Who’d have thought I’d see the same look in both my sister’s eyes and my vampire’s. She knew she couldn’t think like that, that he was her anything. But she did think that. Not that he was her lover, but her vampire, and that thought infused her immediately with such cool comfort.

Luca moved closer and very gently picked her up in his arms. He took her upstairs to her bedroom, helped her off with her clothes, and somehow just his touch took most of the pain out of her injured arm and shoulder. He took his shirt off too, and holding her bare flesh against his own cold, smooth skin made her muscles loosen, made the riot of pain in her head fade. He placed her in bed, enfolding her in his arms, planting chaste kisses on her face and over her shoulders as he held her.

Min finally drifted off to sleep. Not smart, she thought as he gently undid the braid of her hair with his nimble fingers, caressing away the pain as she faded into nothingness.

 

*

 

The dream had been strange and irritating—about five ninja hamsters and their Siamese Sensei. When he wasn’t trying to eat them, he taught them assassination martial arts style. When Min awoke she was calm and if anything, relieved to be out of her dream. To her surprise her shoulder was only marginally stiff, and all her other pains were just gone. She trudged, still rather tired, into the shower. She washed her hair, and then stood there under the spray of water until the hot water ran out. She wrapped herself up in a big fluffy towel and headed back into her bedroom. There she looked into the mirror and the gash in her head was now only a healing scratch, and the bruises were all but gone. They were only a shadow of what they should’ve been.

Shit…

What the hell was going on? How did she just suddenly heal those wounds like…like what? Like a vampire? No, not that fast…but still. Then she thought of how good Luca’s touch had felt last night, how it had eased her pain. And then she thought of how quickly his wounds had healed after she’d burned him that first night. Not instantaneously, no, he’d still felt them. And hers weren’t healed completely, but they were pretty miraculously faded and healed up. Had she somehow borrowed his ability to heal last night? And what the hell did that mean?

Min shivered. Creepy.

Arriving at work a half hour later, her sister looked at her appraisingly and asked, “Did you go out and by some mineral makeup? I mean, I can still kind of see a shadow of the bruise, but it looks tons better.”

Min didn’t get too close, because she wasn’t wearing any makeup. “Something like that.”

Andy raised her eyebrows. “Oh, you did some sort of glamour. I forgot you could do that.”

Min let her believe the glamour explanation. It was convenient and neat, and truthfully she didn’t know why she hadn’t thought of hiding her wounds that way in the first place. She silently kicked herself; she could have kept the entire episode from her sister.

Between the two-day sale and the Sci-Fi conventioneers, they were hit hard again—which strangely made Min start to feel better. Less sore, and even the shadow of a bruise she had was almost completely gone by closing time.

Andy told Min she should go home. “I can clean up.” Min made to object but Andy headed her off. “After all, we’re closed tomorrow—might as well rest those weary, old-lady bones.”

Min gave Andy’s smart assed words the dirty look they deserved, but she took her up on her offer, deciding to go home instead of clean and restock and place special orders over the laptop that hummed and sneered at her on the back counter of the storeroom.

She stopped and inhaled deeply when she got out of the shop. Freshly polluted city air was better than the stale, musty aroma of the shop any day. She walked down the street, but didn’t take her usual turn, and instead found herself wandering the streets, subconsciously trying to kill time…inwardly dreading going back to her home, where Luca was no doubt waiting for her.

It’s not like I didn’t know what he was…or is. Min felt the headache from the night before knock dimly, yet persistently in her head. It wanted to come back in and do a repeat performance.

And it’s not like I can stay away from home forever. Though it did sound tempting, to just cut and run, to never have to face her problems again. Maybe start over in a new city, a new state…hell, a new country. She stopped walking and shook the need to run from her body—the idea of taking the easy way out—out of her head. I’ll be damned if I’m going to let some bigwig faerie bitch and one lone vampire drive me from my home.

Not that Min believed Luca was a threat like the mysterious winter faerie was, but she really, really didn’t like having this kind of link to him. Every ounce of common sense she had screamed that she was in deep, deep shit. It also told her the only trustworthy vampire was a dead one.

But she knew she couldn’t just kill him. He’d surprised her, really surprised her, and now with how she’d healed so quickly; not vampire fast, but faster than any human had any business being able to do so. She hadn’t taken any of his blood, so there went the whole True Blood explanation. Could it just have been him being skin to skin with her? She really had felt so much better just from touching him. Or was there some sort of link? She stopped in her tracks as she remembered how he seemed to know what she was thinking and feeling.

Cripes! Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit!

Do I love him, or is it just some Jedi-vampire mind trick?

Whatever her subconscious might have answered, she stopped across the street from a familiar place. The bar, which was literally humming with human patrons, called to her. A drink was exactly what she needed. Maybe two or three. The sun was setting, and she somehow knew that Luca would be at her home soon. He wouldn’t be able to keep away. She found herself crossing the street, yet worrying if he’d fed enough as of late, and then shaking her head in disgust. Whether he had taken care of her or not, he was still a killer. Vampires didn’t just go to the blood bank and sip at a cup of O Negative like it was coffee. He was out there, probably right this minute, sinking his fangs into some poor innocent’s neck.

Min made her way through the throng of people and took a seat at the bar that happily just became vacant. She ordered a glass of cabernet and settled into her seat. And then she got the strangest feeling, that that had been exactly what he’d been doing. Not drinking his blood from the source, but from a plastic bag. She could practically feel how it had cost him, weakening him. And he had done it for her…

She called out to the bartender, changing her order to “Bourbon, neat.” Chugging it the instant it was placed in front of her, she ordered another before the bartender had a chance to get away. He gave her a hard look, but she just glared right back at him. She needed some medicinal reinforcements. Hell, she needed an entire bottle of reinforcements.

She was halfway through her second drink, her mind starting to loosen up, when Min felt a sudden rush of guilt; she had stopped thinking about her mother.

She gritted her teeth and squeezed her eyes shut, loathing herself. She shouldn’t be obsessing about the vampire, or anything that was happening with him. She should be thinking exclusively about what he’d told her, about the faeries. The Sidhe, he’d called them. How could they have done this to her mother? And how the hell hadn’t she remembered anything about them. Her mother had to have taught her about them.

Again, as she tried to focus on what had to have been in her memory about the fae, she simply couldn’t get hold of it, as it slipped and rushed away, out of her grasp.

It was fucking infuriating.

And then, just like that, she had the abrupt feeling someone was watching her. It made her body tighten, her heart thud and her breath catch in her throat. Was it the vampire? Or something that wanted to hurt her? Was she just being paranoid?

As she turned, she looked around the barroom. It was filled with every kind of human, from corporate suits to nurses in scrubs, even some brawny construction workers. But who she saw standing in the corner near the jukebox made every alarm in her body go off. And not all in a bad way.

He was a few inches taller than her, with thick, defined muscles a pro wrestler could only wish to obtain. His head was shaved clean and smooth. She could see some of his multiple tattoos running down his forearms. Intricate black blades, the sign of his pack, and their mission. Min knew he had no other tattoos, as she knew he had nearly insatiable appetites in the bedroom. He was able to use all his god given strength and body to the most erotic intent. As he moved toward her, Min could easily remember how his flesh and muscles felt as he moved against her, making her writhe against him like a feral animal.

Günter.

But those wonderfully distracting thoughts ended when she realized that he wasn’t there by accident. He belonged to a pack of werewolves that tracked and killed vampires. It was their quest and calling in life. It had been why he’d left her all those years ago, and it was the only reason he was back in the city now. He was there to hunt vampires. Which made perfect sense since the town was lousy with them. But then she had one probably waiting for her at home as she stood there.

I have to act like nothing is wrong, she thought as he sauntered over to her. And she had to think of a way to get Luca to leave town, at least until the pack moves to other hunting grounds. She focused, and smiled solicitously at Günter. She tried to eye him with some heat, instead of the cold suspicion she was really feeling. And he responded as she had hoped, with a sexy smile of his own. His skin was so tan, and he was so utterly alive. After being with the vampire she had somehow already become used to his coldness, the coolness of his touch, of his body, even of his cock. How he felt while he was inside her. And now she was remembering how warm—practically feverish—Günter had felt inside her. Werewolves always ran hotter than human.

And then he stopped, not quite close enough to kiss her, but close enough she could feel the heat and lycanthrope power flowing off of him. That energy suddenly spiked as he scented the air, looked remorseful for a moment, and almost apologetic. She thought for a moment he was going to say, “Sorry dear…have to run. I smell a big bad vampire that’s in need of being torn limb for limb.”

Looking very hard right at her, he moved in close enough for a kiss. But instead he breathed in her scent, long and deep, and the look on his face was just this side of hate.

“You stink of vampire, Min,” he said as his dark eyes sparked with golden light and then faded. “Why is that?”

Min hadn’t thought she smelled like Luca. She’d stood in the shower for almost an hour this morning, letting the water wash over her injuries. But she wasn’t a lycanthrope, and freaking Günter was. He could smell him on her still. She reached a shaky hand out and took another swallow of her drink. Think fast, sweet-cheeks. Why would you have vampire scent on you? And then she thought to use her shaking hands and the fact she was drinking hard liquor to her advantage. “I just got done slaying one, that’s all. Close call too. He was on me and nearly had me to rights when I slipped a silver blade into his ribs, then finished him off with—”

Günter smiled. “Let me guess. You charbroiled the fiend with your trademark fireballs.”

“That’s not my only line of defense,” Min said defensively, giving him a dirty look.

“Yeah, but if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.” He moved in closer, and very gently kissed her cheek, his lips hot against her skin, his body hard and full of promise as he pressed just so slightly against hers. Then he moved back and leaned against the bar. “You really should come out and hunt with us while we’re in town. It could be fun.”

“I thought the pack didn’t take civilians out with them; something about it being too dangerous to have humans getting in the way.”

“Yeah, but you were pretty capable back when I last saw you, and I can just tell you probably have all kinds of new tricks under your belt.”

Min smiled. Günter, master of the double entendre.

Min felt the heat of his attentions, how he still yearned for her. And deep down, Min still remembered how good he felt inside her, on top of her…under her and—she shook herself out of her sexual reverie. She couldn’t get sidestepped. She needed to keep her head on straight.

Her new lover might be a murdering vampire fiend, but he was her murdering vampire fiend.

Okay…that just wasn’t right. What a terrible thought to have. What’s wrong with me?

She needed to get out of there and back home. She needed to warn Luca. As much as she simply despised the thought of being parted from the vampire, a knot of anxiety formed in her stomach and her chest at just the thought of it, she needed to get him out of town. If Günter and his pack were in town, they would be out on the streets all the time, hunting for Luca’s kind.

Something just occurred to Min. “So how long will the pack be in town?”

He gave her a knowing, rather sensual look, and then smiled. “A couple of weeks. However long it takes to catch the vampire we followed to town.”

“Some vampire has been evading you?” Min hoped to hell it hadn’t been Luca, though he’d obviously been in town for a while. “That doesn’t sound like you.”

“Yeah, usually I’d agree. But this one, she’s tricky. She was murdering a half dozen innocents a night; real conspicuous. Not even draining her victims, just biting them, and snapping their necks, or tearing them in half, or other otherworldly mutilations. I’m surprised her own kind hasn’t tried to quiet her, but we picked up her trail in New Orleans, followed her through Atlanta, and now here. We really want her dead. But it’s not like she’s twisting around and all.”

“She’s keeping out of your grasp, though. She must be pretty slippery.”

“Yeah, but it’s like she’s heading somewhere special. A straight shot up the country, like she’s leading us somewhere.”

“A serial-murdering vampire. Sounds…like your usual vampire.”

Günter’s face hardened then fell. “She killed Marina.”

Min’s heart thudded in her chest. Marina…Günter’s little sister. She’d been tough and talented, and trained to be as deadly as a cobra. And Günter loved her more than the waking world. They’d both survived the same attack. Günter had killed the beast that made them werewolves with an axe, managing to sever its head, and then having the presence of mind to burn the body before he carried his sister three miles from their farm home to safety and a hospital. Their parents hadn’t survived.

“I’m so sorry.”

“The vampire gutted Marina’s mate, Christopher, and when she went after her she led her to a dead end and somehow…”

The moments of silence ticked by painfully slow. Min put her hand over his and he closed his eyes. He shook his head and pulled his hand from hers. “So be careful,” he said, his voice shifting back to its usual tone. “This one’s treacherous.”

He got this look on his face, and then looked her in the eye again. “The vamp you offed tonight, it wasn’t a female, black hair, bone white skin, black eyes…” Min was about to say no, her imaginary vampire kill had been a male, but then he said, “Goes by the name of Elaina?” And the bottom fell out of her stomach.

Elaina. The image of Luca’s maker flickered in her mind’s eye: jet black hair, bone white skin, and those scary black eyes. Shit!

And then she felt a stab of fear. She knew from Luca’s memories that Elaina could control him. She’d let him escape and then called him back to her. She pretty much owned him body and soul, when she wanted to. It wasn’t a freaking coincidence she was in town. She’d come here for him. It had to be why. But why had she drawn the werewolves into it?

Is she here to recruit Luca’s help in fighting off the werewolves? No, she could’ve zigzagged and left them still hunting for her. She’d led them in a straight line straight to him. She’d wanted them to follow her. And she wanted them out for vengeance. Why else take the effort to kill the pack leader’s sister? The murdering vampire had a plan.

But what was it?

She’d ask Luca, tell him what she knew before sending him away. He had to go, he just had to. But then again, why hadn’t Elaina just called for him if she wanted him? A flash of Luca’s memories entered her mind. She had chained him with silver, had burned crosses into his chest, and then slit him open with a silver dagger. She’d pushed her hand into his stomach and was reaching up through his ribcage, toward his heart.

“I’m going to crush it,” she said in the horrific memory. “Like you crushed my heart when you left me.”

Oh god… She was more than just a monster. She was crazy. Like serial killer, Jeffrey Dahmer, crazy.

“Min?” Günter was looking at her with worried eyes. “What’s wrong? You haven’t run into this vampire, have you?”

Min couldn’t seem to take in a breath to answer him.

He grabbed her hand. “We can protect you. We’ll put you and your…” he stopped, a strange look floating, almost glowing in his eyes, then he said, “family…somewhere safe until we hunt down this bitch.”

No, no, she couldn’t have Günter and his wolves nosing around her until she’d sent Luca away to safety. He had the wolves and his maker to hide from. And if Elaina had brought them to the city where she knew Luca was, then she had plans for them all.

God, things are going to hell.

Finally Min took a deep breath, and somehow made her body relax and her expression turn light. But that wasn’t the right expression either. It wasn’t what she would have felt during that moment, and she knew it. She had to figure out a reason she would have become so upset.

“No. The vampire I killed was male, blonde, young looking. And though it was a close one,” she took a deliberate gulp of her drink, “I left nothing of him. And he didn’t have anyone else with him.”

His face wore a worried look as Min continued. “And I think I’m just…I can’t believe Marina is dead.” That was the truth, it felt like a bad dream to her.

“Good,” he said, laying his hand on her shoulder. “I’d hate to think…even though we’re not anymore…I couldn’t bear the thought of losing you, too.”

Min stood up and kissed him gently on the lips. “Thank you for caring. But I’m careful, and I’ll just stay inside for the next couple of weeks. You’ll tell me when you get her, right?”

He looked a little taken aback. “I’ll leave word at your shop.”

Good. She left, feeling her heart thudding unpleasantly in her chest. She had to get home to Luca. He’d be there, waiting for her. She just knew it.

 

Chapter 16

When he woke, Luca had gone to Min’s house and waited inside for her. He wanted to see her, yearned to touch her. He felt so happy as he paced the hardwood floor of her living room, trying to envision the route she would take from the store to the house. But soon he began to worry. No matter what route he could propose, it was taking far too long. What if her injuries hadn’t healed, and what if they left her weak and ill, and…

What if they left her open to attack? Luca well knew he wasn’t the only dark, hungry creature in the city. Weakened, Min wouldn’t be able to put up much of a fight.

Instantly Luca rushed out and scented the air of the city. He paced, moving through the city with inhuman speed, only stopping to scent the air again and again. He had gone straight to Min’s darkened, empty shop, and had worked his way out. Her scent had been strong, but for some reason when she deviated from what was obviously her usual path, she smelled not only fainter, but different. Not quite afraid, and not quite angry.

But just at that moment he felt real fear, her fear, spiking in a hellish wave. But no visions came to him, no muddled thoughts. Just fear.

Finally he tracked her dimming scent to a small bar and grille that was filled to capacity. He looked in through one of its comically large windows and found Min holding the hand of another man. A muscular, good-looking man, and she rose off her bar stool and kissed him on the lips, soft and chaste, but there was an intimacy to it that struck him hard. He felt a flicker of a memory, of the two of them together, naked and making love in Min’s bed. He pulled away from that thought, staggering from the window of the bar.

Was what he felt like a weight pulling down on his chest his heart breaking? Could a thing that hadn’t beat in three hundred years really have the ability to break? He turned, the memory of Min kissing the strange man burning in his head like acid. He took off into the night.

 

*

 

Min rushed home, dropping her keys in haste as she tried to get her front door open. She felt such panic. What if Günter had followed her home? It was an unlikely thing, but still, he was above all things a ruthless hunter. He might have believed her story about why she smelled of vampire. But he would still think to check up on the story, especially since he was hunting the murdering vampire that took his sister’s life. In honesty, if she had told herself the tale she’d told Günter, she would have followed her too…no question.

Min looked about at her surroundings, the street, the bushes, the other houses neighboring her home, before she stepped into the house, checking to see if she could spot Günter hiding in plain sight. He was tricky and a master at The Hunt. Did she really think he’d be so sloppy as to let her see him as he trailed her?

And she didn’t, finding the street both silent and abandoned.

Unfortunately, that is exactly how she found the inside of her house too: empty and silent. He should have been there, waiting for her. She had been so certain where he’d be. Certain he’d been there before she’d decided to stop at the bar and garner Günter’s notice. She waited, trying to keep calm. But the longer she waited, the worse she felt, the more her mind began to play cruel tricks on her. She kept imagining Luca being chased by the wolves. And though a vampire was more than a match for most single wolves, Günter wasn’t your average wolf. He was alpha of his pack, and a highly trained assassin, hunter, and soldier. And that was another thing, he wasn’t a lone wolf, he was the master of a powerful and highly trained pack. He could fight and kill anything he came across, and had, until the elusive and maniacal Elaina.

Oh god, there was that too. Elaina was in the city, and Min knew from Luca’s memories that she was a monster, cruel and vicious, and insane. She had to warn him of her, too. He needed to hide, to leave the city.

But deep down Min knew that even if she could hide Luca from Günter and his pack, that she could never hide him from Elaina. She had lived his memory of her calling him from halfway across the known world. He hadn’t even been able to feed, only able to rest when the sun rose and his body forced him to dig and scrabble into the earth. He hadn’t been able to stop until he stood in front of her. And she’d laughed, and she’d tortured him for days, keeping him starved and broken until he had thought he would lose his mind.

She paced the rooms of the downstairs desperately, mentally calling out to him again and again, just about to go out into the city and start searching for him, when finally she heard the front door creak open. Had she left it unlocked? She couldn’t remember. She tensed, listening for footsteps. If she heard the steps it was Günter, and she had failed at subterfuge completely. But as she listened, she heard nothing at all. Luca came into view, staring with terrible, haunted eyes at her in the dim light of the parlor. His eyes were filled with red blood tears, and Min was taken aback by the idea that a vampire would cry bloody tears. He looked about the room, closed his eyes as if listening to something, and then inhaled deeply. At last he turned from her, saying nothing.

“Where have you been?” Min said as she moved to him. “It’s not safe for you—”

His face flashed with red-hot anger as he rounded on her. “Where have I been?” He moved until he was leaning down, his beautiful mouth a vicious snarl. “Where have you been?”

“What do you mean? I’ve been waiting here for you.”

He laughed snidely. “Oh yes, I’m sure you’ve been beside yourself with worry.” His eyes had cleared, and were now balls of green flame. “How long, may I ask, were you with the werewolf?”

Min stared up into his eyes, feeling the blood drain from her face, and from her hands, turning them cold.

“Were you in his bed, or did you two just go into the back of that shitty little bar and screw in the restroom…maybe the mop closet?”

Min felt her breath begin to speed, as well as her pulse. “You were there? You saw us?”

“Thank you for not trying to deny it. How forthright.”

Min reached out and grabbed him, looking to the windows in the room, relieved nothing was staring in at them. “Did he see you? Please tell me he didn’t see you.” Her voice sounded so very desperate to her.

“Not that it would have mattered, but no, I left before either of you could notice me.”

Relief flooded into her blood, cooling the burn of fear, and soothing the rasping in her lungs. “Oh, thank the goddess.”

Luca pulled away from Min, glaring at her with disgusted eyes. “What, don’t want your wolf lover to know you’ve been fucking a vampire?”

“Yes!” she said too quickly, with far too much relief. Then she shook her head, “I mean no. No, he isn’t my lover…not anymore…but yes, I don’t want him to know about you. He can’t know about you.”

Luca was about to scream at her when she reached out and grabbed him again. “Günter isn’t just some werewolf, or ex-lover, he’s the Lord of The Hunt!”

Luca’s eyes cleared of his disbelief, and widened at the realization of what she’d just said. “Hunt? You mean like The Hunt they tell of in the old country?”

“The very same. And the man you saw me with tonight is the leader of The Hunt in this country. He’s very powerful, and skilled to destroy anything that gets in his way.”

Luca shook his head. “I can take care of myself. A pack of ravening dogs won’t be the end of me.”

“They’ve been destroying your kind for centuries. And they travel en masse. Once they pick up your trail they won’t stop until you’re dead.”

“I’m already dead,” he said cruelly. “Or haven’t you noticed yet?”

“But that’s not all.” Min felt a terrible jolt as the image of Elaina laughing with blood-tinted fangs flashed involuntarily through her mind.

Luca jerked back from her, gasping. His eyes turned wide with fear. He’d seen it too.

“Elaina,” they said in concert.

Luca strode over to the window and looked out into the night in silence.

“Günter and his men tracked her here. She killed his sister, Marina, and then led them straight here, straight to you.”

Luca looked to Min, his expression riddled with fear. “Why hasn’t she called for me?”

She could feel his fear—so powerful that he was consumed by it. She looked up and then pulled his face to hers, kissing him, trying to give him some comfort, something else to concentrate on. And it worked. Slowly that fear died, and his hunger for her took over. And it wasn’t the coldness of his bloodlust; it had heat to it, as if nothing else was alive within him except his need for her.

They moved from deep, wet kisses to pulling each other’s clothes off. Min became naked first, and he licked and suckled every sensitive part of her body, from her breasts to her belly, from the backs of her knees to the softness of her inner things, and then her quivering sex. Slowly he lapped at her opening, one hand clasped on her inner thigh, the other running gently over her body. He looked up at her as she tried not to scream, but gasped and writhed instead. He finally came up between her legs, hard and long and ready, and she seized his mouth with hers, tasting herself on his soft, cool lips. He thrust into her mercilessly, and she threw back her head as she finally screamed his name. He nuzzled at the silky flesh of her throat as he pushed in and out of her, harder and faster, until he was battering himself into her. She opened up to him, so wet, so very hot.

Min lost herself. Somehow her touch had soothed his fears, as his touch soothed the lingering pains in her body. When he climaxed inside her he fell onto her, his body sweating, though still cold, his breaths coming in gasps, though she knew he didn’t need to breathe at all. For a long moment he stayed there, his face pressed against her breasts, so very still. He looked up into her eyes, his own glittering with happiness, his smile so very young.

Min smiled back, befuddled. Besides the obvious rush of sexual euphoria, why was he suddenly so happy? But with his next deep, long kiss, Min no longer wondered, she just gave herself to him, heart and soul, not caring about what might happen, not giving a damn about the consequences of giving her heart away. She could no longer keep it from him.

Sated and exhausted, Luca gathered Min up in his arms and carried her upstairs to her bedroom, holding her in his arms until she fell asleep.

 

Chapter 17

Through all his fear over hearing of Elaina’s return for him, he still couldn’t get over the fact that he could hear Min’s heart. It pounded in her chest, every beat calling to him, pounding out its every throb for him. He didn’t know what it meant, but somehow, something inside him told him that Min loved him, she finally loved him—like pulled to like.

When she finally rolled away from him in her usually fitful sleep, he moved gently out of her bed and sat in the darkness of the night, watching over her, waiting for the inevitable dawn. He’d pulled on his clothes and when he looked up to the bedroom window, there stood Elaina.

A moment later, as lightning streaked the rainless sky, summer lightning, she disappeared. She wasn’t using her power over him. But just seeing her had been pull enough. Fearful or not, impending pain or no, she was his maker, and he needed to find out exactly what she was doing there, what her intentions were, and what she wanted with him. He hadn’t needed Min to tell him that she’d led the werewolves to town because of him. She was the slyest, craftiest immortal he’d ever met. If she hadn’t wanted the pack to follow her, they couldn’t have. So it had been her wish for them to.

And when he walked out of Min’s house and could still catch her scent in the air, it meant she was still close, and she was waiting for him. Oh god, it made him tremble. What would she do to him? Then the worst thought occurred to him. What would she force him to do?

That thought alone made him stop as he swept effortlessly over a ramshackle rooftop. If that was her game, to make him kill what…who was most important to him, then he could only do one thing. He had to run. And now.

But as he turned to go back the way he came, there she stood, beautiful, powerful, and still utterly insane. He could see it in the sparkle of those fearsome black eyes. She loved every moment of her twisted, tyrannical afterlife. The excitement in her eyes was unmistakable; whatever she’d been planning was about to be unleashed.

“You can’t run from me, my beautiful boy.” She drew closer, and he stood stock still, trying not to let her sense his fear, though he was sure she could smell it on him. She walked as if she were dancing to a tune only she could hear.

“I know.” His voice was harsh, the words clipped.

“Indeed you do.” She smiled that terrifying smile, the one she gave right before she’d strike, the one all her hapless victims saw right before their doom. The one he’d first seen the night she’d turned him, torturing him, taking him from god and life itself. “So, whatever deluded you enough to decide to run from me?”

“I wasn’t running.”

“Don’t lie to me, my beauty. It may have been a while, but I know you…I know that something has changed in you.”

Luca laughed. “Nothing has changed. I’m still the monster you made me into.”

“And since I made you, I know exactly how different you are now.” She stalked around him, her feet tapping lightly on the roof, her eyes never leaving his face. She reached out and touched him, and a shock of familiarity, of terror, struck Luca instantaneously. She laughed a good solid laugh that dissolved into maniacal giggles. “I can smell it on you…that, and I just saw it with my own eyes: you lying in a mortal’s bed, not fucking her, not feeding on her, but comforting her—taking comfort in her.” She stopped and looked up directly into his eyes. “Whatever are you thinking? As if there could ever be a happy ending between the two of you. She’s the heroine of the piece, and you’re the monster. Unless we’ve fallen into a Disney cartoon, the monster never gets the girl.”

“I’m not—”

“Yes you are, my beautiful boy. Somehow she has revived what I and three hundred years of the hunger had long killed!” Her voice cut like glass through his flesh. He knew he wasn’t in fact bleeding, but it hurt all the same. She hugged herself, looking momentarily confused, but then looked up at him, her frightened little girl eyes morphing back into the glittering nightmare they usually were. “But all is not lost.”

She stood there, silently gazing into Luca’s eyes, until he finally asked, “What do you want, Elaina?”

Virtuous concern bloomed in her expression, her eyes melting like the darkest chocolate. “To show you that you have choices, options; there are many options to your quandary.”

“You want to help me?” It was a trick. Some game she was playing, some fantasy that had wrapped itself around her mind like some fanatical silk.

“That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do,” she said simply. Amazingly her words tasted like truth.

He laughed, and it wasn’t a good sound. It was bitter and edging on this side of madness. He was ridiculing himself with that laugh, for even for a moment believing a word that passed her lips.

“You doubt me?” She turned from him and walked across the roof, swaying to that always playing song in her head. “I took you from your mortal life because death was already upon you.”

“What?”

She chuckled indulgently, as you would while admonishing a recalcitrant, though beloved, child. “You didn’t know? You would have been dead and rotting in the cemetery of that church I’d found you in within the week.”

“You can’t predict the future, that’s not one of your gifts.”

“But we can all smell the sweet smell of death in a human’s blood, wafting like the scent of carrion from their flesh.”

“You smelled death on me?”

“You had just exposed yourself to the plague, you silly fool. Caring for the poor and sick always has its price.”

“I would’ve died,” Luca whispered. “You’re sure?”

“You were already in the grips of the fever. Do you not remember?”

Luca shook his head, “My mortal life has faded from my grasp over the centuries.”

“As it has for us all: perfect recollection of everything from our change on, but our mortal memories slowly slip from our grasps. Sad, but comforting.” She smiled most wickedly at him. “I’d hate to remember what I was before I was given this gift. I would probably want to light myself on fire and perish right now.”

Luca couldn’t imagine what she’d been like as a human. Had she actually ever had a soul?

As if she could hear his thought, her smile turned almost sweet. “You’d be surprised.” She batted the subject away with the swipe of her hand. “As you’d be surprised to hear that I care about you more than any being I’ve ever met. You are the only food I ever turned, the only thing in the entirety of the mortal world I cared not to destroy. You should be flattered.”

Luca was silent. The fear of Elaina ever present, and now that she was right in front of him, he realized that he’d felt this fear all the years he’d been with her. It had not once abated, or faded. And he hadn’t really realized it until now, when that constant fear came back and refused to be quelled. But then he thought of what she had said, and he asked, “Then why me?”

“Haven’t I already said this?” she groused, clapping her hands together with impatience. “Because you were the one thing, the only thing—”

“No. What was it about me—what did you see in me that made me…essential?”

Elaina looked taken aback, surprise and then uncertainty flickering across her face. But then realization flowed into her eyes, a thorough certainty. The smile that passed over her lips, her features, and then into her eyes was almost human in its radiance.

“Because you were so good.”

“What?”

“There in your little church, cleaning the pews, lighting the candles, helping those who came to your door more than you would ever help yourself. I saw you were a man of total conviction.”

Luca had never thought of himself as a good man—not that he could remember. And since his change he saw himself as nothing but the worst kind of evil. A murderer, a rapist, a torturer of mankind…and he’d been so good at it—he’d enjoyed it, until recently.

“I knew that if I made you a vampire, that once I forced you to start killing, showed you the beauty and pleasure in the darkest, most titillating of tortures, that you would transfer that ferocious commitment to being a vampire.”

Luca’s head was spinning. “I don’t understand. It doesn’t make any sense. You made me a monster because I was so…”

Good.” She sang that one word with such delight. “Oh yes. I knew that you would surpass all my hopes. You would kill and wreak havoc wherever you trod, with perfect impunity.”

Impunity. That was how he had felt until recently. Until he’d been with Min. As if nothing could touch him. No matter how vial or sadistic the kill, no matter what hurt or torture he thought up, all he would ever feel during or after would be ecstasy.

And here Elaina was, telling him that had been her plan for him from the beginning.

She was suddenly beside him, her face so close to his, her lips so close to his ear that he could almost feel their silky flesh against him. “I made you to be the perfect evildoer,” she chuckled. “Without an ounce of compunction…someone in this wide world worse than me.”

Luca turned and glared at her. “I am not—”

“Of course you are.” She sighed, “At least you were.” She inhaled deeply through her nose, scenting the air around him, her hands playing lightly over his back and shoulders.

“And then I felt it. The instant it began to happen. I had no idea what could cause such a thing. After all, it is unheard of. But as you stand before me, I cannot deny it. Your soul has been awakened, reignited anew. I can see it in your eyes. Hell, I could smell it as soon as I got within sight of you. It’s not just lit, your soul is burning brightly.”

“I don’t know what has happened.”

“You don’t?” She wagged her finger at him, pursing her lips reproachfully. “But I think you do, my beautiful boy. I think you know very well what caused it…or at least whom.”

The fear rose up inside him, and Luca fought to keep his face, his body language, from showing it.

“The witch, the gypsy—I could smell that too. Filthy gypsy magick, so much worse than a Wiccan or even a white witch of the church. No, you had to get involved with a gypsy whore—”

“That is enough!” Luca roared.

Elaina smiled and stepped closer, the glee rancid in her features. She’d finally pressed the right buttons and gotten what she’d wanted: a reaction.

“Don’t call her that.”

“So gallant,” she clucked her tongue at him. “I wonder…if you could, would you turn and rend me right now? End me; destroy your creator, your savior? Kill me and dispose of my body, this body you have had in every possible way, dispose of it—of me—so that I would never darken you or your…lover’s door again?” She moved so close, her hand on Luca’s chest. “Could you do it, my sweet Luca, could you end me?”

Luca looked into Elaina’s eyes. The crazed fire was absent, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t there, waiting just behind her gaze to turn on him. The truth had blazed so easily into his heart: yes, he would end her in a heartbeat to keep Min out of her clutches. Min could handle herself, of course, but could she survive the attack of something as deranged and insane as Elaina?

Luca let his eyes drop, and he tried to fill them with sincerity as he spoke the lie. “No.” He looked up into her eyes. “I could not.”

She smiled, and absently scented the air again, her smile deepening with each passing second. “You’ve gotten so very good, my sweet. I can’t even smell the lie on you.” He took a breath to argue, to try and convince her, but she raised her hand to him and said, in that master tone that made his will fall to hers with immediate results. “Quiet.”

She paced around him, hands on hips. “But I don’t need to smell it on you. I’ve seen you with her. I’ve been watching you for almost a week now.”

A week. The thought of her spying on him, taking in all that he had done, all that he had done with Min, it turned his stomach.

“What I’ve seen is your selfless devotion to that witch.” She caught his gaze and the crazed fire was back. “I’m sorry, to your Min.”

Dear god, she knew her name.

“I’ve watched you fuck her. I’ve seen you turning away from those victims that would so easily nourish you, to go pandering at a human blood bank. What, have you been watching some silly teen movie, or some ridiculous television show? You are a vampire. You cannot just subsist on…leftovers. I know such technologies weren’t available for me to have taught you about them, but I’d have thought you’d have figured it out. I mean, just look at you. You’re so weak, and gaunt. I have not seen a vampire that made it through his first years this immediate before. It’s sickening.

“She has domesticated you, and she hasn’t even had to try. All she had to do was bat her pretty eyes and spread her legs, and you fell to your knees. Hell, she was holding you to her through magick, using necromancy to control you, to make you her bloody sex toy, and you just lapped it up like a big, dumb dog.” Her voice ricocheted into the night, again slicing metaphysically into Luca’s flesh. She looked up into his eyes, weary disgust in her gaze. “She was going to sacrifice you to a Sidhe.”

He turned, stunned that Elaina knew so very much. She couldn’t have been in the room, but she still knew.

“And still you grovel for her affections…even after the spell was broken. I had hoped that with it gone you would have regained some sense about you. But instead you played nursemaid to her. It was disgusting.”

The playfulness, the insane fire, all died away from her gaze, replaced with cool, clear nothingness. He knew the look. She was about to pull the trap, to do whatever horrific, terrible thing she had planned all along. And he knew from how she’d spoke just now about her, that she was going to do it to Min.

But the words that she spoke in a flat, detached voice shocked him. “I could order you to kill her.”

No. His mind reeled and he tried with all his strength, all his anger, to rip himself free of Elaina’s hold on him. He needed to break free. He needed to kill her and kill her now. But there was no way, no possible way.

“One word from me and you’ll bloody up that pretty little house—that soft, warm bed—with her. They’ll be finding pieces of her for weeks. And you’ll have every stinking moment of it to remember. I’ll be so very specific…hell, I might even take a seat and watch, giving you little adjustments like a movie director.

Luca looked to Elaina, beseeching her with his eyes, for he could not even open his lips to speak.

Elaina perched on the chimney of the house they were atop and daintily crossed her legs, her skirt slit high enough she showed a lot of slender, curving leg.

“But I won’t do any of that.”

He blinked at her.

She waved her hand in a permissive gesture. “Go ahead, you can speak now.”

“What…” he choked as her control over his tongue vanished. “What do you mean?”

“What I mean is I have no intention of killing your lady love.” She nonchalantly adjusted the sleeves of her dress. “I’m not going to make you do anything at all. In truth, I think I’m going to steal off into the night and lick my wounds. Your choosing her over me has cut me to the quick.” She said these things with a languid sarcasm, rolling her slender wrist with her words.

“I’ve hurt you?” he said with disbelief. Anger, hatred, cold and hot running sadism—he’d seen all these in her aspect—but never had he dreamed she could be hurt.

“Well, that is what I’m telling you. You’ve broken my heart.”

Luca felt a glacial surge run down his spine. Sarcasm or no, whether she was acting or no, there was truth to her words. He’d hurt her. He didn’t breathe, he didn’t move, he dared not even think too loudly. He had hurt her, and he couldn’t imagine that he could have really touched her in any such way. She thought of him as a possession, a consort when she wished it, and then as disposable when she didn’t. Anger, vengeance, rage, those were things she felt, and lashed out with wild abandon. But he had actually hurt her?

What would she do to avenge a wound as deep as that? The prospects were unthinkable.

But even more than he feared her, he felt sorrow. Not sorry for her, but guilty that he’d hurt her. It was insane, but he couldn’t shake it.

“I’m sorry,” he finally said.

“For what?”

“For hurting you.”

She laughed, playing it off with a wave of her hand. “I’ll live.”

It was the inflection of that one word that made him gulp.

“What have you done?”

“I’ve done nothing,” she said, looking with still, radiant eyes into his. “I’ve been hunted, without stop, by a pack of werewolves. They are a part of the great Hunt—a very old-fashioned concept in my opinion. And just before I came to your little city I slaughtered the leader of the pack’s sister. He is gunning for me in a hellbent push for vengeance.”

She smiled devilishly.

“I led them straight to your lover’s house. Their leader watched as you fucked her. He will kill her with you, you know.”

“They know each other. He would not kill her.”

Elaina thoughtfully stuck out her lower lip, tapping her chin with one crimson painted fingernail. “Maybe not,” she said winsomely. “But he’s so going to try and kill you. They all will, some two dozen werewolves, all lethally trained, and all with a pawn to leverage against you.”

“And what is that?”

“He may not wish to kill her just for being with you, but he has his sister’s death on his mind. He will see you as part of me, and he will readily use her to get to you.”

“As I said, Min can handle herself.”

“But she will be looking to protect you from him. She won’t think to protect herself.”

“He won’t hurt her. He can’t know I have anything to do with you.”

Elaina hopped down from atop the chimney and sidled over to him, leaning in and kissing him. Her cold lips so soft, the fresh taste of blood intoxicating on her lips. He tried to turn away, but she deepened the kiss, and the taste of the blood was too much to resist. He feasted at her mouth, pushing his tongue into her, trying to get at every last trace of the innocent’s blood. When she finally ended the kiss, breaking it off, she smiled and glanced to the right, pointedly leading him to look where her eyes were leading him. Günter and a squad of his men stood on a neighboring rooftop. And like Elaina had planned, he took the bait, his pack falling in around him, and then surging out to jump from rooftop to rooftop.

“New plan, my beautiful sweet boy,” Elaina purred, and then in the tone of a master order she said, “Go to sleep for one hour, lover.”

Luca tried to say something, but she spoke over him, too loudly for even him to hear his words, “Run, my love! I’ll hold them off!” And with that she pushed him off the roof. He pitched over the side and the world turned to black as he fell to the ground below.

 

Chapter 18

Min woke in her own bed, gasping for breath. She’d been dreaming, and it hadn’t been good. It had been horrifying. And somehow she already knew that it wasn’t just a dream. It had a completely different feeling to it, a taste that made her know, without a doubt, that it had been really happening. Luca had left her bed, followed his maker out to a rooftop where they spoke. He’d been so scared. And then she’d kissed him. And he’d responded to her kiss. She had seen it; she had freaking felt it. His hunger for both her and for the blood that tainted her lips. But then came Günter and his pack, and then Elaina had pushed him from the rooftop. Min woke as he’d blacked out. She knew the building they’d been arguing on. She knew where the alley was where he had fallen.

As she sat there, gasping for breath, she looked beside her and his side of the bed was empty. It hadn’t been a dream. He’d really been with Elaina, and now he was…she couldn’t think of it anymore. She pushed the thoughts that he could already be dead out of her mind. He’s a freaking vampire. Unless he fell on a wooden stake, or a silver blade, or into a vat of holy water, or into the freaking sun, then he’d live from a fall.

But Elaina’s last words came to her. “Sleep for one hour.” That meant that he would fall to the alley below, but not stir, not run away, he’d be completely defenseless.

Min pulled on some clothes, shoes and her coat, and set out to the alley. Halfway there it occurred to her. Out in the middle of the night with a homicidal, insane vampire thirsting for my blood, and a pack of werewolves to boot, and I don’t have any weapons…just my girlish charm and some magick. Could she hold it together enough to cast powerful enough hexes and charms to outwit all those foes?

She raised her hands in front of her and her hands gave a tremor before she could hold them steady. Shit, definitely not together enough. She walked on, but slower, her mind racing, frantically trying to grab some brilliant idea out of thin air. And just when she thought none would come she walked right up to the magic shop. Sometimes, she thought as she pulled the key to the shop’s front door from her pocket, I am incredibly dense.

 

*

 

Min missed the lock with the key a couple times, scratching the old key hole. She gritted her teeth and finally forced it into the lock, turned it and let herself into the shop. Already halfway through the store, she finally realized she hadn’t switched on the overhead lights. With a stamp of her foot and a sibilant phrase the candles usually just for decoration flashed and blazed to life and illuminated the store with a haunted quality. She stayed her course to the back of the store proper and whisked the beaded curtain impatiently out of her way.

Enchanted, the beaded curtain was fashioned from blue green globs of glass she and Andy had collected at the shores of the Dead Sea when they were children. As with the curtain, humans that were not magically inclined never saw the thousands of shimmering crystals scattered along the Dead Sea’s shores.

The candles in this room were already lit and she grabbed things she would need up in her arms as she moved through the displays and shelves. Holy water, a cross—just in case Elaina showed herself—wolves’ bane, a thick piece of yellow chalk, some silver powder and some thistle. The thistle and silver powder would help with any glamour she would need to do; the thistle to trick the wild thing inside the werewolves, and the silver powder to specifically work on the wolves.

She looked around the shop but couldn’t see anything else that would be of use to her. These were all defensive charms and ingredients for protection spells. She needed something offensive, something she could use as a weapon.

Then Min thought of some of the more dangerous objects they’d kept away from the general public—and their more supernatural clientele. She scrambled to the back of the store, moving quickly back the length of the long, skinny hall, taking the sudden right into the office she shared with her sister and mother.

She went right for the desk she and her sister shared, pulling a long, though subtle, sword from the wall behind the desk. It had been made with enough silver content to be deadly to a werewolf, yet was still hard enough to be deadly to almost anything else. Min swung its scabbard over her head and shoulders until it rested competently around her waist. She scrounged through her desk, not finding much that wasn’t a stapler, pens, a ridiculous amount of paper clips, and a plethora of tidy sales slips—the last week of sales slips, to be exact. They had turned over half the store inventory during the solstice sale and the Sci-Fi convention.

Then, reluctantly, she looked across the room at her mother’s desk. Unlike Min’s simple oak business desk, Katarina’s desk shined with high polished cherry wood and elegant carvings. She could be in the room for hours without really ever looking over to the desk. Not that she wished it gone. No, her sister and she had left it exactly as it was. Min had tried to dust it once, to put the small stack of letters that were on the desktop in a drawer, to straighten the three pens Katarina always had at hand. But she couldn’t. So after that she just left the desk alone. But now she walked over to it, and very cautiously sat down in her mother’s sleek yet comfortable swivel chair.

There was a thin layer of dust on everything on top of the desk. Apparently Andy had found the thought of dusting the desk unthinkable too. In fact, Min couldn’t remember Andy setting foot in the office at all since their mother’s disaster, opting instead to do her paperwork, or the ordering, from the stool behind the counter up front. She even employed a laptop computer—so very civilized, if not verging on technologically savvy.

Min placed her fingers on the intricate bronze handles of the center drawer. She felt no magick there, so her mother must not have felt anything contained within the drawer was dangerous or of importance enough to rate anyone stealing it. Inside the drawer Min found nothing but the usual clutter a desk might acquire over a few decades of use. There was a hairbrush and a lipstick—her mother’s favorite color—and a neatly folded monogrammed handkerchief. It was pearl white with a delicate fringe of lace. Min took it in her hand and brought it up to her face, inhaling deeply. It smelled of her mother’s perfume, and of sage (her mother’s favorite incense to burn. It cleansed the very air of dark energies.)

She put the handkerchief back and closed the drawer up tight. She went for a side drawer, and feeling yet again no wards, she opened it. Nothing of use, just some takeout menus, an old rolodex and a half-full box of tissues.

The bottom drawer on that side, though, did have a ward on it, one Min recognized. It was one they used often—easily put up, and easily dropped. With a mumbled phrase and a push of her will, the ward melted away in her fingers. In this drawer she found some interesting things: a talisman—one that made the bearer unnoticed (not invisible, just unnoticed)—a potion that caused light confusion when exposed to air, and a stink-slash-smoke bomb. If nothing else, if she got Luca away from the pack it might cover their tracks for a time.

But all of this, she had to admit, was pretty flimsy. Maybe if she were in her own house she could keep a pack of werewolves at bay. But she was going to have to face them out in the open city. There she had greatly reduced power, not to mention the long in place wards and counter measures of her home.

They would take her down in a few minutes. She’d be lucky to get herself away, not to mention their captive. She needed something with a lot more kick.

She remembered her mother showing her a few of the dangerous things she’d collected over the years. Some of it was inter-dimensional stuff. But Min remembered her mother showing her what she thought was just a Chinese finger-trap, but was in actuality a small vial of Dragon’s Breath. It would have only two or three good doses in it, but when aimed and ignited by a force of will, it could burn through anything.

Min went through the top side drawer on the other side of the desk, finding no ward and nothing inside of use. But in the bottom drawer on that side she did find some things that made her pause. This drawer was nearly bare compared with the middle drawer of the desk. This one held only three objects. A framed photograph of Min, Katarina and Andy looking happily into the lens of the camera, lay in the bottom of the drawer. It had been taken on Andy’s last birthday, her twenty-second, and they had celebrated at a small bistro in Oakland.

Atop the photo sat two pieces of origami. Min recognized them immediately, though she hadn’t seen them since she was a child, when she and Andy had folded them and presented them to their mother as birthday presents. Min had been nine and Andy would have been six. One was a blue paper dragon—Min’s creation—and she could still feel the sharp fire she had imbued the thing with on that day, for she had enchanted it to move, and to snap, and to puff smoke.

Andy’s had been a yellow bird—a hummingbird—and she had cajoled the thing to flit and streak across the room, fluttering and nattering close to their mother’s joyously beautiful face.

Katarina had loved the presents, because they had made them for her—especially since Min and Andy had done such a good job enchanting the things to life.

Min remembered, though Andy’s bird had been sweet and obedient, her blue paper dragon had been moody and bit.

Min let her hand hover over the two pieces of origami, feeling with her senses that neither piece had any magick left in them. No snapping dragon remained in the blue paper, and the hummingbird was just folded yellow paper. But Andy’s bird gave her an idea as to how to track down Luca and the pack, so she folded the thing up and slipped it into her pocket.

After looking through the remaining drawers of her mother’s desk, Min stood and glanced through some of the books her mother had collected on the shelves behind her desk. Tax journals sat beside murder mysteries, and magical histories covering the last four centuries. There was even a copy of a Chelsea Handler book, a slender volume of vulgarity her mother had read with unveiled disgust, though she could not wipe the smile the obscene woman’s words elicited from her face.

She remembered her mother having been working on a memory erasing conjuring, the book she’d used for referencing the spell sat askew on the shelf. The thought of making the werewolves simply forget that they had even seen Luca was most enticing. But she knew from her conversations with her mother, that using memory spells was tricky business, and unless you had the antidote on hand—and someone to administer it to you—you might want to sew your name into your clothes before you flirted with that most certain of disasters.

But then, of course, why had her mother been working on the spell in the first place?

Again, something flickered in the periphery of Min’s memory, and once again she couldn’t grasp hold of it before it darted off into the shadows of her mind. So freaking irritating! But she didn’t have time to ruminate over it. She needed to find more firepower. And she needed to find it fast. The werewolves weren’t just going to wait around patiently for her to show up.

Min sighed and rolled her eyes at the preposterousness of the wolf pack sitting on their thumbs. She was still way low on firepower. She spun around the room, looking about her trying to find what she was so obviously missing.

And then something caught her eye, gleaming from above her mother’s desk where it had hung for as long as she could remember, something she’d passed by so often, something that was just part of the background of the office. Until that moment, only a decoration, an artifact from the family’s rather sordid past. Something she’d forgotten. It glinted silvery in the dim light of the office, and Min reached up and took it from where it hung.

Would it still work? Holding its weight in her hands, she could feel its power just waiting to be unleashed, anxious to be put to work. Hungry.

Min raised an eyebrow and smiled. It was crazy, and stupid—old magick like it would have easily degraded, and using it could turn suicidal—but it could just work.

 

Chapter 19

The alley wasn’t hard to find. The moment Min had woken she’d known exactly where Luca had fallen. It was part of a long crisscross of alleys running between four near identical seven-story buildings. They housed everything from restaurants and coffee shops, to lawyers, accountants, a nail salon and a florist.

Andy had taken dance classes at a studio there when she was young.

The alley in question was directly behind the nail salon. Min found the alley deserted, and no sign of a struggle…unless you counted the small pool of blood that shimmered inhumanly in the light of the full moon, right beside a particularly putrid smelling dumpster. She knelt and dabbed her finger into the cold, black, shimmering substance, then drew it to her nose. She may not be a werewolf, but she knew the smell of vampire blood. She especially knew the sweet, near intoxicating scent of Luca.

In a few hours the sun would rise in the sky. Had the werewolves killed him, or would they use him as leverage, thinking that Elaina would come for him?

Min knew from Luca’s memories that that was a mistake. Elaina would not risk herself, not for him, especially if he’d picked Min over her. Min shook the knowledge that he loved her out of her mind. It was making her heart race and her breathing catch in her throat—not productive things and she had to concentrate. She knew already that Günter knew Luca was her lover. She just had to hope he wouldn’t try and kill her when she came to collect Luca from him. After all, he should just take her word that Luca, the vampire, wasn’t evil anymore.

Yeah, that would happen…

She had to get him back. But first she needed to know where they had taken him.

Well, she thought, I’ve got some blood—nothing’s more personal than that—so now’s the time to show some magical capability. Min pulled the chalk out of her pocket, and the origami hummingbird. She put the bird by the drops of blood, and then drew a small circle around them both. Extending her will out to it, the circle sealed with a silent pop of magick. She told the bird to wake, in the old language of her people, and when it stirred, stretching its wings and turning its head with rapid motions, she told it to, “Find the owner of this blood.”

The little bird chirped and hopped delicately over to and pecked at the pool of blood, drinking it. Min then reached down and broke the circle with her finger and a bit of will.

The bird fluttered into the air, faltered, and finally took off, zipping down the alley. Min took off at a dead run, her heart pounding in her chest, her eye never leaving the rocketing bird.

 

*

 

Luca woke to the sweet scent of maple trees and nearly fresh air—he could still hear cars passing along in the distance, so he knew before he opened his eyes he was still somewhere in the city. He also woke to the searing pain of silver chains biting, burning, into his flesh. He jerked against the chains, and though they were thin, they kept him in place well enough. If anything, the thinner chains cut more easily into the flesh, something a werewolf would know all too well. The silver in the chains would keep Luca from using his powers. No strength, no ability to glamour; he was screwed and in pain. And from the rough unyielding hulk of what he was chained to, he guessed it was a tree. A really big one, though with silver chains, a sapling would have held him just as well.

Another scent, rank and unmistakable, told him that he was surrounded by the pack of werewolves. He glanced around: those few in human form were armed with swords and other hunting finery. More than a dozen were already shifted into their beasts, and they were pissed, growling, their slathering jaws gaping to show off long, sharp teeth.

A woman cackled, and Luca looked to her. Her copper hair was long and curly, and framed her lean, angular face. Her mouth was full and sensuous, but those eyes, though lovely, held true insanity. Either that or she was a ravening bitch by nature. Either way, Luca cringed as she stalked closer to him.

“My, my, my…the pretty vampire has finally woke up.” She stopped only a foot from him, her eyes meeting his without a trace of fear, which either meant she really was crazy, or she knew that the silver chains would dampen his power to mentally push and glamour her. She pursed her lips. “About damn time.”

Luca tried again to pull at the silver chains, only causing himself even more pain as the chains cut deeper into him. He groaned and felt his stomach turn as he smelled his own flesh burning.

“Don’t worry, leech, with you alive and bleeding still, your whores will come for you soon enough. And when they do, the witch and the vampire die with you.”

Luca looked up into the woman’s eyes, his voice shattered, no more than a breathy groan. “I’ll kill you if you touch her!”

“Which one?” asked a man that the other werewolves parted to clear a path for. He was of average height, but everything else about him said power. Broad shoulders, a well-built body, coupled with the handsome, angular features of Eastern Europe. His head was shaved, and his dark eyes were sharp. “You’ll kill us if we touch her…but which her are you speaking of: the witch or the vampire?”

The woman moved around the man, her body language obvious—she wanted him, yearned for him. It might be part of the reason she was so crazed, for the man didn’t seem to register her even being there. A woman in love, a woman scorned, was always dangerous—preternatural strength or no.

“Which is it, vampire…Min or Elaina?”

Luca stayed perfectly still, not letting a bit of his inner reaction to Min’s name show through.

The werewolf smiled knowingly. “Ah, so you wish to protect the witch. Surprising.”

“Touch her and I will end you,” Luca said low and cold.

The werewolf looked amused. “Really?” He looked Luca up and down. “You’re bound in silver. Forgive me if I don’t see how you’re going to make good on any threat you make right now.”

Hate bubbled up inside Luca. Anger and panic, and his chest rumbled with it as he bared his fangs.

“Don’t worry, vampire. Though she has soiled her soul by taking a creature as of you into her bed, the pack has no quarrel with Min.”

“Günter…you can’t be serious!” the copper haired woman roared in an animalistic version of her own voice. She seemed on the verge of losing control, her human traits melting away before she even transformed. “She knew damn well her leech lover was in league with the vampire that killed Marina. She deserves the same fate as the vampires.”

Günter didn’t take his eyes from Luca’s. “Min will not be touched, Giselle. I have—”

“His whore is as guilty as he is. Her hands are as stained with Marina’s blood as—”

With lightning speed Günter turned and struck Giselle hard enough to flatten her to the ground. His eyes had turned wolf gold, and his teeth were bared as he glowered down upon her. “You’ll do well not to say her name again.”

Fear showed shivering in Giselle’s eyes.

“And as for Min, she has been a friend and ally to the pack for many years. Besides being a powerful witch and a well trained fighter, she—”

“She was your whore too!”

Something in Luca’s chest tore with grizzly pain as he realized Min had been with the werewolf. He’d believed her when she’d said…but she’d kept this back from him. It hurt, and he knew that it shouldn’t.

Günter’s eyes turned to molten amber, and his voice became chilled like smooth, glassy ice. “You are the only woman I’ve been with that was ever a whore, Giselle.”

She gasped and bowed her head as Günter turned back to Luca. She sobbed and then picked herself up off the ground. Those around her didn’t bother to look at her, they just stood and listened to their leader.

“But your Elaina will die with you. All we have to do is wait for her to turn up. And with such alluring bait as you, how can she resist?”

All too readily, Luca thought. The werewolf doesn’t know Elaina at all. She had been toying with them, stringing them along with murder and the need for vengeance, as she led them straight to him. Whatever they thought, she knew damn well the danger he was in, and she didn’t care. If anything, she’d orchestrated it.

“And once she does,” Günter continued, “we’ll capture her, and what’s left of her will meet the loving touch of dawn alongside you.”

A cheer erupted from the pack of werewolves, human voices mingling with feral wolf howls and growls. In that moment Luca hoped that his death would be enough to sate the werewolves thirst for vengeance, so they would stay away from Min. For he knew there wasn’t a chance in hell that Elaina would show her face, not to save him. Maybe she was somewhere close enough that she could watch. Now that sounded like Elaina.

Luca smiled to himself. Günter saw it and moved closer, peering into his eyes. Then with that lightening quickness from before, he belted Luca across the mouth. “Don’t be mistaken, you’ll see the light of day soon enough, vampire. If your mistress doesn’t come for you, then you’ll meet the sun and go to hell alone.”

He turned away from Luca and walked to the other side of the clearing, unsheathing a sword and swinging it absently as he moved. “As for Min, even though she has soiled her body and soul with you, once our business is through we will leave her in peace. I can only hope once you are but dust she will regain her sanity.” He turned and looked Luca in the eye. “Surely you have her in a spell, pushed or glamoured into a slavery of sorts.”

Luca laughed, feeling the chains dig further into his chest as he did so. He kept laughing through the pain, alternating with pained groans and grunts. He tasted his own blood from the punch the wolf had given him. It made the beast in him stir, though the silver chains kept it bound as tightly as they bound Luca. A thought came to him, that the last blood he’d taste in this world would be his own. It made the beast in him whimper and then scream with impotent rage.

“What’s so funny, vampire?” Günter stared with cool curiosity, holding the sharpness of his silver blade against his palm, smoke curling from where it touched his flesh.

“You don’t know Min as well as you think. She—” Luca fell silent. He realized with a cold surge that it would be better for Min if the wolves thought that she had indeed been pushed. That the big, bad vampire had taken her over and used her and that once he really was gone she would revert back to normal.

“What was that vampire?”

What looked like a yellow hummingbird fluttered into the clearing, but no sooner did Luca focus on it than it fell to the ground, just a crumpled piece of paper the wind was already blowing away.

Luca looked down to the cold earth beneath him. The grass he stood on was scorched black. They’d used this spot to execute vampires before. Luca felt a pounding of terror rush through him, cold and lonely, and utterly overwhelming. He’d just be the next to die here. A footnote in the packs long history. But then he closed his eyes and tried to hold onto one thought. If he stayed quiet and just let it happen, Min would be safe, and probably never know what had really happened. The thought of her safe and ignorant of his fate filled him with hope.

The winds changed and Luca caught the faint scent of what he wanted more than anything on this earth. Min. It had to be his imagination. But a moment later the entire pack stopped their howling and chanting to scent the air as well.

Günter growled and then called out into the night. “Come out, Min! We can all smell you.”

Her laughter fell through the air like rain, touching everything as it did, making Luca’s flesh tingle. From the look on Günter’s face he felt it too.

Min appeared on the opposite edge of the forest, tall and strong and lovely, her raven hair streaming like shadows as she stood in the coming wind. Her smile was crooked and beautiful. “Should’ve known I couldn’t sneak up on a pack of werewolves.”

They all turned toward her. Some crouched, practically thrumming with otherworldly tension, muscles jerking in anticipation of pouncing on her. But no one went for her.

Günter raised his sword. “We wish you no harm, Min. I know this creature has you under its thrall. Once we have him and his vampire mistress in an ashtray, we’ll leave you in peace.”

She laughed again, and it tickled at the back of Luca’s neck. “You really don’t know me at all, do you?” Min said thoughtfully. “Leave town now, and I’ll leave you the use of your legs.”

Günter smiled, and brandished his sword at her. “I don’t want to fight you.”

“Why? Afraid you’ll lose?”

There were snickers from the pack, sounds that should never have come from the gnarled teeth and lips of wolves.

“I could end up killing you,” Günter said, ignoring the pack’s taunts. “And I would forever regret that.”

“Right back at you, big boy.” She pulled a long, gleaming sword from her side. It shone in the moonlight with silver grace.

“Nice sword,” the werewolf said.

“All the better to kill you with, my dear.”

A near inaudible snick came from behind Luca, and he felt the silver chains loosen. He fell forward involuntarily, but a warm, familiar hand held him up. He opened his eyes, trying not to call out as the chains were pulled out of his flesh. Min stood before him, her eyes wild and scared, but her mouth set in a determined line. Luca couldn’t believe that not one of the pack of werewolves could not see, hear or smell that Min was setting him free. And then it hit him. Magicks. His beautiful gypsy witch had bespelled the entire pack. Just as she had sent him running after no more than a glamour the night they’d met, she had them all ready to fight a mirage.

She took Luca up under his arm and helped pull him from the clearing, dragging him on his weakened legs as fast as she could. Luca felt so weak. And his extremities ached so badly they could well have been broken. But he pushed himself to keep going, just touching Min made his battered body feel better.

There was a terrible, desperate screech. Luca looked back to see the female werewolf spring into the air and attack Min where her image stood. She passed right through her, not even disrupting the image as she did. The pack broke out in a chorus of howls, shaking their heads, and looking around themselves. All at once every wolf in the pack turned in Min and Luca’s direction. God, they’re not even a hundred yards away.

“Faster,” Min said in a hiss.

“Let them have me,” Luca said. “I can’t bear the thought of them hurting you.”

“Your faith in me is heartwarming,” Min said with irritation, pulling him along with her.

“You can’t take them in a fair fight.”

Min caught his eye with a sly sideways glance. “Who the hell said I was going to fight fair?”

Luca could hear the pack closing in on them, rushing down like a tidal wave of claws ripping through the earth, howls and growls and excited yips slicing through the night. Another heartbeat and they’d be upon them. He had to do something. He felt such panic and pain at the thought of Min being killed, and he believed that if he was dead she would be safe. He seized on the only choice he felt he had. He would push her away and turn back, letting the werewolf pack tear him apart. It was the only way.

Luca felt his body tense as he tried to get his arm from over her shoulder to behind her, so he could push her away from him. But Min stopped in her tracks, straightened and pushed Luca to the ground first.

He looked up at her. She had a haughty expression on her face and her hands on her hips. “Suicide? Kind of melodramatic, don’t you think vampire?”

Shit, she read my mind!

“Goes both ways, lover.” She pulled her sword from her hip and turned on the approaching werewolves, a ball of fire in her free hand. Luca gazed up at her and shuddered at the brave power radiating from her being. The pack ground to a halt, holding back, uncertain how to proceed.

Then Günter came, weaving through the pack, still in human form. “Stop this madness, Min. You can’t hope to win.”

Min sighed, her shoulders slumping. “You’re right,” she said, shaking her head in defeat. She dropped her sword to the ground with a metallic clanging, and the flames perished from her other hand. Luca sucked in a breath of pure disbelief. Even Günter looked shocked.

 

Chapter 20

Min about cracked up at the looks on all their faces. Even Günter, the great huntsman, he actually thought she was just going to surrender. She reached back over her shoulder and grabbed her secret weapon, what she’d pulled from the wall over her mother’s desk. The instant her fingers touched it she felt the power still there, waiting to be put to use, yearning to kill. As if it could sense that its prey was there for the taking. In the near full moon the shotgun flashed a tarnished silver. It looked as old fashioned as it was, though sleek and utilitarian in design, and it felt as solid in her hands… no, more solid than any weapon she had ever brandished.

And in less than a second she had it cocked and aimed squarely at Günter’s chest.

There was a beat of silence. Min could see the cool calculation in Günter’s eyes. He knew that a gun with silver bullets could indeed kill a werewolf, if you shot it enough times, and in the right places. But one shotgun against a pack of over a dozen such beasts was ridiculous. She could see it in his eyes, though; he knew there was something wrong.

The female werewolf he’d called Giselle laughed, still monstrous in only her human form. “Idiot witch!” She hurled herself toward Min, her hands suddenly transformed into long sharp claws.

Min didn’t hesitate; she shot the bitch. Silver hellfire burst from the gun, and shaved off both Giselle’s legs, dropping her to the ground where she writhed, cursed, and screamed hysterically. “You fucking shot my legs off!”

Min looked down on the fallen werewolf. “They’ll grow back, eventually.” She pointed the shotgun straight at the werewolf’s face. “Unless you prefer I end you right now?”

Günter looked down dispassionately upon Giselle’s wounds. “Her legs have been burned off.”

“Your point?” Min turned the gun on him.

“What the hell’s in that shotgun?”

“Not a thing.”

Günter sniffed the air. “Not silver?”

Min raised her brow to him. “No ammunition at all.”

He smiled slyly. “It’s the gun.”

Min let it glint briefly in the light of the moon, and then pointed it back at Günter. “A Bellini, and enchanted with pure hellfire. There’s a piece of a dragon’s tongue in the ammunition chamber, and a silver shard in the barrel. It never needs reloading. Was my great grandfather’s, and then my grandmother’s, and then my mother’s—now it’s mine.”

Günter stood there surrounded by his pack; the look on his face was thoughtful until his eyebrows rose with surprise. “So this is the Klashnov? The render of wolves.”

Min nodded and smiled.

“You never told me you descended from the wolf hunters.”

“What can I say? I like a little mystery.”

Günter smiled through his exacerbation, his hands on his hips as he threw back his head and laughed. “That weapon has killed more of my kind than anything in history, and you what, just had it mounted over the fireplace?”

“Something like that…so do you and yours walk away now, or do I really need to start tearing you apart?”

Günter’s smile turned hostile, but he didn’t move, didn’t say a word. Just stared into Min’s eyes.

Min cocked the shotgun, her finger pressed to the trigger, feeling the gun practically begging her to pull it, its hunger for more death pulsing into her. “Well, wolf, what will it be? I have an early morning, and this little stalemate is eating up my beauty sleep.”

Min could feel herself relax, holding the gun, ready to simply start slaughtering herself a pack of werewolves. She never felt such peace, such tranquility. Her willingness to kill made a shiver run up her spine. Part of her wanted Günter to attack. By the pestilent gods she hungered for it.

Günter slowly raised his hands and backed up a step. “You win, Min. We will leave the city immediately.” There were hisses and growls from the pack, but they all followed Günter’s lead and slowly backed away. “Just know I won’t soon forget this, Min. There will be retribution. And tell that vampire bitch—”

“Elaina isn’t with us, Günter,” Min interrupted him irritably. “You can chase her to the ends of the earth for all I care. Kill her, you have my blessing.”

“He is bound to her,” Günter growled. “I can smell it on him. She made him.”

Min smiled. “He won’t be, not if you kill her.”

“He is still a soulless monster.” He looked at her with such disbelief.

Min smiled. “No one’s perfect.”

Günter snorted, a rueful smile pushing the disgust from his features. “Yes, you snore.”

“I do not!” Min had to will herself not to pull the trigger.

Luca laughed, clutching at the wounds on his chest. “You do. It’s like a chainsaw.”

She shot both men with savage glares, not sure which one she wanted to shoot for real first.

“I could almost like him,” Günter said as he disappeared into the surrounding trees, laughing. “If the smell of him didn’t make me want to puke.” And he and his werewolves were gone.

“Goodbye, Günter,” Min whispered into the night. “Happy hunting.”

She stood there, quiet as the tomb, listening to the surrounding woods, to the sounds of cars encroaching from the city that surrounded the park, sending out her senses to check for any preternatural presence, until she was satisfied that the pack had indeed left.

She moved to Luca and helped him to his feet, but the sight of him lying there, bleeding from so many long tears in the flesh of his chest stopped her in her tracks. His wounds weren’t healing. “What’s wrong?”

Luca chuckled painfully as he pulled himself clumsily to his feet. “Silver heals almost human slow for vampires as well as shapeshifters. But it will heal, in time.”

 

*

 

Min took Luca home. After she warded her home from the werewolves with more than overkill, and blacked out the windows of her bedroom with blankets, she crawled into bed with him and shivered against his cold body. But finally fell asleep as she felt Luca fade from his body. Vampires really did just turn back into beautiful corpses when the sun came up. A tear fell from her eye to his smooth pale chest. But he would come back to her the next night.

 

*

 

When Luca came too, the sun had just set, the sky still had the slightest blue to it, and Elaina was standing, staring at him through the window with that maniacal smile on her face. He saw her lips move, but couldn’t hear her voice. But he didn’t have to. She was ordering him to the front door of the house. He rose from the bed that held Min, passed out of her room and down the hall, down the long staircase and then to the front door of the house—no control at all over his movements, just doing as Elaina commanded.

He opened the door and walked out onto the porch. He was naked, and Elaina chastised him; though, she was laughing as she did it. “Could you not take the time to pull on a pair of pants? My, my…you really do not have any resistance to me, do you?”

Luca wanted to resist her. He’d tried to pull himself from her control every step of the way, but as it had always been, he had no control over himself once his mistress gave him a command. He sucked in the night air, trying to stanch the fear that was welling up inside him, threatening to drown him. If Elaina didn’t just outright kill him there and then, she would most assuredly command him to go back into the house and kill Min. The thought made him tense all over, his blood turning cold as he desperately tried to break free. It became all the cooler as he saw the inevitable: that he was hers to control, no matter what she wanted him to do. He was but a slave to her whims, again.

But instead of giving Luca any further orders, Elaina started talking.

“It matters not how long it’s been since we last laid eyes on each other, or how so very long since we have enjoyed each other’s touch.” Her cold, hard, dainty hand slid down the flesh of his chest, brushing over the smooth skin, and digging into the wounds the silver chains had left behind. “I will always have absolute power over you, my Luca, and there is not a thing you can do about that. It is as unchangeable as the seasons, as the passing of time. It is finite.”

“What do you want, Elaina?” Luca asked, and then gasped as she pushed her finger into one of the gashes on his chest.

“I don’t want anything.” Her eyes flashed with heat as she pulled her fingers free of his flesh. That malicious insanity that had heralded Luca into this long, dark journey into the afterlife…his afterlife. She licked his blood from her fingers. She bared her teeth, her words heated with anger as she circled him. “If I’d wanted you, I would just take you. If I wanted you to gut your pretty little witch, you would rip her into as many pieces as I asked you to. And if I wished you to walk into the sun itself—” She moved in and pushed herself against him, her hands on his shoulders as she lunged toward him, until he could feel her cold breath on his cheek. Her white teeth opened as she moved in closer, as if she was going to take a bite out of him, and then she smiled and let her teeth snap closed with a clink worthy of a bear-trap. She backed away, giggling in a demented stream that bordered on musical. “Then you would be nothing but a mound of ash.”

She whirled about, as if dancing to music only she could hear, and then came to rest sitting delicately on the railing of Min’s porch. “All I wish to do is pass along a bit of knowledge to my only child. You know, give him some motherly advice.”

The tension seemed to melt from Elaina’s body and the volatile energy that was close to erupting from her just seemed to die, as if it had never been there to begin with. But Luca knew it was there, and would always be. It just showed itself when it wanted to.

“As I was telling you, no matter how long it has been, my power over you remains the same. No matter how powerful you may become, my control over you will continue, unchanged.” She stood again and slinked silkily over to him, her big black eyes glittering like a night sky filled with stars. “The lesson, my beautiful boy, is that everything has its limits, no matter how powerful it has become. You just have to figure out the boundaries.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Like your Min. She found the boundary the wolves could not cross or overcome. And tonight I’ve shown you your own boundary. Though I cannot force you to love me”—a flash of real pain flickered across her features—“I can force you to kill all that you do love.” She leaned against him and rested her cheek against his chest, right over his heart.

In a weary, sad whisper she asked, “What other situation, one in this very house, would you wish to find the boundary to?”

She’s crazy…what the hell…

Luca gasped, realization dawning on him as he looked down upon his creator. She smiled beatifically up at him, perfect understanding sizzling between them.

“Thank you,” Luca said breathlessly.

Elaina stepped back, her expression dimming as he gazed at her. Whatever she saw in him, she wasn’t sure she liked. “Just remember, no matter how powerful a thing is, they always have the same limitations, the same boundaries as any other of their kind.”

“The same weaknesses,” he said.

She bit her lip, moved to him and kissed him, moving her body against his. His body reacted to her, hardening. Was it fear or was it lust? He couldn’t tell. For the first time in their long history, he was grateful to his maker. The kiss deepened. She moved away. Looking at his hardness, she smiled.

“Such splendid attributes.” She looked him in the eye. “Enjoy your freedom, my beautiful boy. I’ll come for you when I hunger for you again.” And with a graceful turn she vanished into the night.

Standing there on the porch Luca could only hear his own breathing, slowly feeling the paralysis Elaina’s power over him caused, melt away in mere seconds. His mind was racing, things connecting, Elaina’s words touching on what he knew already about Min’s mother. He turned and rushed into the house, and up the stairs. He had work to do, and not much time to do it.

 

Chapter 21

Languishing in a rare dreamless sleep, Min finally awoke to the light of the full moon cascading through her bedroom window. She stretched and rolled over, finding herself alone, but not much caring. He was somewhere near, her Luca. It wasn’t that she felt him, it was more an assumption.

She took a few deep breaths and finally forced herself to crawl out of her nice, warm, comfortable bed, slipping into her silk bathrobe and padding barefoot to the door. As she walked she felt how sore she was. She’d been through quite a bit in the last week, and she’d be lucky if she wasn’t covered from head to toe with nasty black and purple bruises.

She almost turned to crawl back into bed, but she knew she still had things that needed to be done—no rest for the wicked…or at least not for her. She needed coffee, and lots of it. She puttered into the dimly lit hall. Maybe Luca would be waiting for her, in the kitchen, with coffee.

The moment she entered the hallway she knew something was wrong. She turned slowly, looking around her, her shoulders and spine straightening in alarm, until she found what was different. The door to her mother’s room was standing wide open.

Min’s heart lurched in her chest and she gasped in air. No, no, no, no, no…

She rushed into the room and flicked on the overhead light. Her mother was gone. Everything was as it always was, but her mother wasn’t there. Min whirled around and ran downstairs, calling Luca’s name, over and over. Someone had to have moved her mother…Luca had to have moved her. Katarina couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe, she was in suspended animation, a magical coma, and her soul was missing too.

When she clambered down the stairs the first thing she saw was that the front door was open.

“No,” she whispered, stopping, frozen in her tracks. The weight of what she had done was crushing. I let a monster into my house, into my bed. And now he has my mother. Her comatose, defenseless mother. No, no, no. It has to be a bad dream. She’d wake up screaming in just a moment. But she didn’t wake up. She stood there in her robe, the cold night wind roaring in through the open door, making her shiver.

She thought for a moment she would be sick. Then she thought she’d burst into tears. Her mother was dead by now. A vampire wouldn’t pass up a free, sleeping meal. A niggling little voice inside her said, But why didn’t he just kill her in her own bed? Min shook that thought off. She shook off all the thoughts that were threatening to overwhelm her. Even the guilt for bringing that monster into her house, into her mother’s very room.

Instead she found a purpose, and clung to it with everything she had. She raced upstairs, pulling on some clothes, gathering a few vampire-unfriendly objects. She tucked a cross and a silver dagger in her belt. Picking up a perfume bottle she checked her powers. She’d used a lot of mystical energy in the past few days, and she needed the certainty that her magick was still there and ready to back her up. They were stiff and hard to call up at first, as she floated the perfume bottle, and then shakily, the chest of drawers the bottle had been sitting on. But they were there, ready.

She grabbed a scribing crystal and a map and headed into her mother’s room. She’d use the crystal to locate her mother’s current location, and then use an enchantment she knew to form a glowing light on the page that would move with her mother.

At first nothing happened. Min was actually on her third recitation on the scribing spell when she realized her mistake. She’d been reaching out to find her mother. Maybe the wording and meaning was far too wide a request. After all, these things looked for specific things, and to look for her mother was to look for her spirit and soul, as well as her body. And there was nothing left to her mother right now other than her body. She’d already tried scribing for her mother’s soul and spirit to no avail. They hadn’t been in this world or the spirit world.

She was just about to clear her mind, to let the spell melt, and to start scribing for just her mother’s body, when the crystal moved, pulling her hand down hard as it fell on the map. Only three blocks over from where she knelt now.

She wasted no time thinking over the impossibility of her spell actually having worked. It had worked, and now she needed to act. She didn’t bother with the little moving light spell, her mother was too close. She just jumped to her feet, and ran down the stairs, forgoing her coat, or anything else, as she ran out of the house, leaving the door still wide open, and running down the street toward where the spell had indicated her mother lie. Only one thought interrupted her as she sprinted down the street, and the next. She was going to burn that vampire to a cinder. Love or not… and she almost stopped in her tracks, but shook off the thought and kept on running. Love or not, he was going to die for ever laying a hand on her mother. When she came to the place where the crystal had shown, she stopped momentarily to shake her head. It was a large, nondescript brick building; the sign above it read Charlemagne Meat Packing Plant.

Sudden images of what he could be doing to her mother flashed in her mind, hitting her as hard as a fist in the chest. But she all that out of her mind as she raced into the building, pulling out the cross and the silver dagger she’d put in her belt. It wasn’t a stake, but silver would kill him…as long as she used it to hack him into enough pieces.

Then she rounded a corner and had to duck past thick pieces of plastic. Once through, she was surrounded by hundreds, maybe thousands of naked, raw sides of beef. Her stomach turned, and she had to breathe deep and hard just to keep herself from throwing up. She moved through the crowding sides of beef. And with every stride, her anger rose. Before she knew it her hands started to burn. When she came to the end of the meat she saw Luca standing beside a huge steel door, leaning nonchalantly against a generically painted white wall. Min dropped the dagger to the ground, both her hands bursting into flame. She launched a ball of it at his feet and watched as he jumped and danced out of the flames, trying to keep himself from combusting.

She surged forward and brought up a gale of fire, holding it in a huge sizzling ball only inches from his face.

“Where is she? Where have taken my mother?” her voice crackled with power.

Luca’s face wasn’t frightened, and he wasn’t smiling in evil ecstasy either. The look on his face was devoted and …and…true.

“She’s in the cooler,” he said.

Min’s eyes widened and she moved to the door.

“Wait,” Luca called out, “she hasn’t been in there long enough.”

Min shot a torrent of flames at Luca that he barely had time to duck. She had never done anything with such force; the magicks simply blew like a gale through her hands. It left her hands burnt, but left her feeling so much better. Would’ve felt even better if I’d hit the bastard.

“Long enough for what?” Min said, breathlessly. “For her to die of hypothermia?” She reached out, her hands sizzling as she grasped hold of and then yanked open the heavy steel door of the cooler. It was old, and heavier than you’d see anywhere nowadays, lots of iron. Its hinges creaked and whined as it swung open.

Frozen mist wafted thick and obscuring from the cooler, and Min couldn’t see inside for a moment. The overhead light flickered and sputtered, and then finally died out. The only light came from the room she was standing in, and it barely illuminated anything but the fog rolling around inside the room. And then something moved.

In the middle of the room something stirred, and Min couldn’t…wouldn’t believe her eyes as she watched her mother sit up in the middle of the mist. Katarina breathed deeply and struggled for a moment to bring her legs over the edge of the boxes she lay on, and then stand up, wobbling on her feet and holding onto a steel shelf for balance. Before Min’s eyes Katarina’s ghostly white hair turned back to its usual salt and pepper, and her ice blue eyes reverted to the beautiful obsidian they once were. She looked to Min and smiled.

Min stumbled, her knees going out on her. But something caught her, keeping her from falling to the cold, ice-caked floor. Luca looked into her eyes as she shook her head in utter disbelief, and then she looked back to her mother, standing there so strong and alive once more. She stood back up on her own, pulling gently away from Luca, then rushed to her mother, pulling her to her in a savage embrace.

Her mother hugged her back, chuckling, and then telling her, “I’m an old woman…you’re going to break something on me.”

Min released her, and Katarina looked around her at the cooler. “Smart work, my little Devol. Using one of the fae’s only weaknesses to break the curse.”

Min shook her head, “What?”

Katarina raised her arm that wasn’t holding fast to her daughter, to indicate the giant freezer. “The room is lined in iron and steel. Her power was cut off for long enough that the curse just dissolved.” Her smile flickered with wicked satisfaction. “There’s a bit of her power she won’t be getting back.” And Katarina’s eyes flashed with a silvery light they had never before had.

She absorbed the spell’s energy. I didn’t know she could do that… Min felt a shiver of fear, and the look in her mother’s eyes had caused it.

“My daughter,” Katarina said with false politeness, her eyes fading back to their normal near black as they flicked to Luca and then back to Min. “What are you doing with a vampire?”

Min opened her mouth to speak, but there were just so many things to explain, to say. Too many.

Katarina gave her daughter a puzzled look, and then smiled, closing her eyes. Min felt a cool, tingling sensation on her arm where her mother’s hand held her. A heartbeat later Katarina’s eyes opened again, flashing fleetingly of that other, silver light. “A vampire with a soul? You’ve bedded a vampire with…oh, and they all have one? Well, who knew? No wait, it wasn’t just that he had one, your power awakened it.”

“My witchcraft?” Min asked, genuinely interested in the why and how.

Katarina smiled enigmatically. “No,” she looked to Luca. “I see I owe my recovery to you, vampire. For that I thank you.”

There was more of the tingling sensation on Min’s arm. It made her squirm, but she didn’t tell her mother to stop. But Katarina did let her go, as if something had burned her. Her face turned frightened, and she shook her head. “You fought the Winter Queen?” Her eyes were so wide, so glassy, Min wanted to grab her and tell her that everything was alright, but then her mother said, “Does she know about Andy?”

And just like that a mystical damn broke—no, it was more like a curtain that held back Min’s memories—it just disappeared like mist: evanescence. And Min knew two things at the same moment. One was that the mystical curtain that had kept her memories at bay had been put in place by her own mother. The other thing she knew was that her sister was in grave danger…and that she was not truly her sister.

 

Chapter 22

Andy strode through the little park that sat adjacent to her apartment building. She liked this time of night: no one around except her…and her tough little Jack Russell terrier, Brutus. But, of course, there was a certain other night-time dog-walker she ran into from time to time, and was hoping to run into again tonight.

Sam.

Tall, broad shouldered, wickedly handsome in that whole white knight sort of theme. Maybe it was the serious muscleage he was toting, or maybe it was the shoulder length red-brown hair he always had pulled back in a ponytail—whatever it was about him, he looked like a guy who could sweep a maiden off her feet…and then some.

Andy never knew when he and his part Great Dane, part Mastiff, Shylock, would be out in the park, seemingly waiting for her. One night she had been pretty sure that she’d caught him rehearsing asking her out, sitting on a swing and running lines to Shylock that were suspiciously close to romance movie ask-you-out-on-a-date lines. She’d cleared her throat to let him know she was there, and he’d practically fallen over backward off the swing. Somehow she thought that he’d lost his nerve after that, for he had failed to even try to ask her out. She already told herself that she’d tell him yes at the first hint of the request. But the words “will” or “would”, or “maybe we could” never left his lips.

So two weeks had gone by, and he’d been out of town—due to return tonight. He had said he was in law enforcement of some vague sort. From the look of him, and his huge, ferocious dog (who was such a baby he’d cowered when Brutus had trotted over and nipped at him right off the bat) it fit.

So Andy was there, pathetically hoping that he would be out and about, back from whatever vague business he was off on. It was freezing, even for the middle of February—Augusta, Georgia never got as cold as it was that night. Brutus had led her out through the monkey bars, over past the nearly overflowing trash bins, to the swing sets.

Yes, she’d thought, that’s exactly what I was thinking too. That she wished he would be there, right there, where she could talk to him…maybe go ahead and ask him out instead of waiting for him to build up the courage. But that was absurd! He was a big strapping guy, gorgeous, and in law enforcement…

And he was afraid of little old me?

Well, that was kind of appealing. The thought that he was shy, or at least felt enough about her that he got all nervous around her. Now that was a thought to warm the cockles of any young maiden’s heart. She took in a great lungful of the night’s cold air, and sighed…and then started to cough because the air had suddenly dropped twenty degrees colder than it had been only a breath before.

It had rained earlier in the evening, and there were puddles under the swings, where years of young feet had created shallow craters. Andy blinked as she watched the puddles freeze over, shimmering in the moonlight. The surface of the ice striated into grooves, making almost a web of Jack Frost on the outer rim of the puddle. As she walked closer, the ice turned black, like water on a moonless night.

Brutus sniffed at the puddles and then backed away growling. Andy reached down and scooped the little dog up in her arms, his chest vibrating in her hands.

And then Andy heard a voice. It sounded sweet, almost too kind and lovely to be real. And as her body responded, her feet moved her forward even as her mind told her that that sweet, kind voice was a lie. Even worse, it was a magical lie of some sort. She marched right over to that voice and looked down into that pitch black ice, and a face most unreal and beautiful stared back. Pale alabaster skin, frigidly blue eyes, and succulent lips the color of frozen mulberries. The face smiled and licked her lips, as if she was hungry, and Andy was a t-bone steak.

But then the face hissed in a most inhuman voice, looking over Andy’s shoulder with angry menace. A hand took hold of Andy’s shoulder and pulled her upright again. She turned, half expecting to see her handsome neighbor, but instead a beautiful stranger stood beside her, staring down into the dark puddle of ice.

Andy almost smiled, almost decided to play off her hallucination of the face in the ice and start flirting. After all, her white knight hadn’t bothered showing up yet, though she’d been out in the freezing park for almost…well, six minutes tops…but still. Why not indulge in a little flirtation with the inhumanly gorgeous man standing before her?

Brutus growled at the man before her, baring his teeth.

And in that moment it hit her: he was inhumanly gorgeous. Hell, his green eyes were practically glowing like flames in the relative darkness of the little park, and just the sight of him seemed to have a magnetic quality all its own—and no human male has ever had that good and pore-less of skin!

Oh crap…first frozen puddles start talking to me, and then a…a…

“Vampire!” the voice from the puddle hissed. “She is mine. Dare touch her and I will pound you into the ground!”

Andy rolled her eyes. “A vampire—of course you’re a freaking vampire!”

He looked to her as if she was crazy.

“What?” Andy shot back. “First I get hung up on a guy that’s too shy to ask me out, and now I’m being hit on by a freaking dead guy.”

The vampire got this look on his face, like he was appalled. “I’m not hitting on you,” he looked nervously around, and then back to Andy. “I’m here to—”

“Oh yes, to kill me. That’s what you vampires do. I feel so popular!”

He reached out and grabbed her by the shoulders. “I’m here to—”

The inhuman voice from the puddle screeched and interrupted him. “You’ll do nothing but die!”

The vampire roared in outrage. “Can’t either of you let me finish what I’m trying to say?”

With a crack like thunder the puddles under the swing set broke open, and huge spider creatures crawled out and started toward them, chittering menacingly.

Andy screamed and jumped back a heartbeat before one of the spider thingies caught a hold of her. The vampire grabbed her by the wrist and pulled her even further away from the oncoming spiders.

“I’m here to save you,” he said. But one of the spider things jumped on his back, and another three started to chase her across the park.

She started to run, but more spider creatures started crawling out of the puddles in that direction as well.

The vampire growled and roared, and one of the spider creatures made an agonized squeal as he slayed it.

And just like that the vampire stood beside her once more, a sword in his grip as he hacked away at a spider that was just about to jump on Andy’s leg. And that’s when Andy saw that he was carrying her sister’s sword.

“How did you get my sister’s sword?” she gasped.

“Min sent me to get you.”

“Yeah, sure,” Andy pushed him away. “My sister would’ve sent a vampire to save me…a blood sucking, soulless thing. Tell me another one.”

He gritted his teeth and let out a haughty sigh. Then he held out his hand as he simultaneously struck down another spider. In the palm of his hand gleamed Min’s ring. The one their mother had forged. An item of singular power: the ability to allow Min to teleport whoever wore the ring back home: in effect, pulling them to safety.

Originally it had been so that Katarina could teleport Min to safety. But their mother was still asleep, trapped somewhere that wasn’t her body.

Alone…

Funny thing—until that moment it had never occurred to her that her mother had never created a ring for her to wear. Maybe she was just one hundred percent certain that Andy would never get in any trouble. She looked around her at the ever-increasing horde of spider creatures encroaching about her, and then at the vampire standing before her, holding out her sister’s ring, offering her a direct path to safety.

Thoughts flashed and pitched through Andy’s fear and adrenaline-spiked brain, and her next thought just dropped from her lips.

“By the pestilent gods…are you my sister’s boyfriend?”

The vampire’s inhumanly handsome features softened, his eyebrows knitting with a half shrug of his shoulders—body language saying, Well…yeah.

“Get out of here!” Andy whispered in disbelief, not knowing herself if her excitement was from horror or happiness.

The vampire shook his head and pressed the ring into her palm. “We don’t have time for introductions right now. You need to put the ring on. They will pull—”

“Yeah, I know. They can pull me back home using the…did you just say ‘they’?”

This time the vampire lunged to the side, and spun, the portrait of skill and grace, and hacked an airborne spider thing in half. Andy squeaked. The vampire rolled his eyes, reached out and with preternatural swiftness took Brutus from her arms, and the ring from her palm and placed it on her middle finger.

Andy was about to repeat her question: They? and, What are you doing with my dog? But the sudden sensation of having your physical and spiritual self folded in on itself, and then sucked through a teeny-tiny straw, sort of took the breath she was about to speak with right out of her. For a nauseating, dizzying moment she shot through that tight, confined, crazy straw of energy, and in a handful of beats she appeared, whole and ready to throw up, in the living room of her sister’s house. Everything around her was a blur of colors as she fell forward, losing her balance and the starch in her legs. Two pairs of arms caught her and dragged her across the floor and deposited her on the old chintz couch. The upholstery was cool and familiar, and Andy let herself relax into the worn softness of the cushions. She blinked about ten times, and at last her sight began to clear. She looked up to see her sister looking down upon her, her expression filled with worry and concern, and a mirror image of that expression limned the face of her mother.

Andy gasped and felt the surge of shocked surprise jolt through her body. She shot up off the couch and threw herself into her mother’s arms.

“You’re awake…you’re really awake!”

Katarina’s arms enveloped Andy and she whispered comforting words, more instinctive sounds a mother would emit at any point in the last million or so years, to calm and soothe a child. She stroked Andy’s hair as she gently pulled her back onto the couch with her.

“It’s really you? You’re really awake?” Andy laughed and cried out, but then stiffened against the feel of her mother’s familiar arms. She pulled away and looked up to her sister. “This isn’t some trick? Not just some glamour or spell?”

Min shook her head and tried to bring a smile to her lips. “No, no. This is real…I swear to you.”

Andy’s hands shook as she reached out to her mother, hesitating for a moment, and then taking the older woman’s hands into her own. “But how?” her voice betrayed how enormous her joy was.

And why the hell isn’t Min overjoyed to have our mother back with us?

Katarina spoke, and her lightly accented voice was music to her daughter’s ears.

“It was all your sister’s vampire’s doing.” She looked up and rolled her eyes and sighed, then continued, “He figured out what was keeping me from reentering my body. That a thing’s magick was only as strong as its greatest weakness. He broke the Winter Queen’s spell using cold iron.” She looked to Min with troubled eyes. “Rather clever, that young man of yours…for a centuries-old, soulless vampire.” Her tone turned cool and harsh as her words played out.

Andy shot her mother a hard look. “Yeah, I just met the guy—and wow, what a looker—and since he just helped save my life, and apparently just gave my mother back her life, I’m going to cut the man some slack when it comes to the whole soulless thing.” She lifted her eyebrows, “I think we all should, don’t you, mother?”

Katarina looked nonplussed, but she nodded. Andy threw herself at her mother again, grasping the woman to her for dear life. Her voice choked with tears, “I never thought we’d get you back. Everything Min tried failed. And now…” she cried out with such joy. Words just failed to form anymore in her head.

“It’s alright now,” her mother cooed, stroking her fingers through Andy’s wild tangle of hair. “We’re not out of the woods yet, but we’re not stumbling around blindly anymore.”

What did that mean?

Mother,” Min’s voice was harsh and disapproving.

“Now Min…”

“No,” Min demanded. “We have to tell her. You have to tell her. We won’t have time enough soon, and she deserves to know.”

Andy pulled away from her mother’s embrace, looking at her face. It slowly changed expression, from one of cool detachment to worry. When she met Andy’s gaze, her eyes were beseeching.

“Know about what?”

Katarina took a deep breath, her lips parting as if she were about to speak, but she hesitated. “I’m so sorry for lying to you all this time.” She took her daughter’s face in her hands and then let go. “I’m not really your mother.”

There was such silence in the room. Andy shook her head. “Wow. Your bedside manner needs some work. Ever hear of tact?”

Katarina looked completely confused. Andy sighed and it was her turn to roll her eyes. It was a family trait…or so she’d thought until about thirty seconds ago.

“So you’re telling me I’m adopted?”

Katarina looked to Min, and Andy saw tears welling up in her sister’s eyes. Oh, this is going well.

“No,” Katarina finally said. “What I mean is…you were not born to me. You were not born to any woman.”

A question tried to form in Andy’s head, but her mother began to speak again before she could pin it down.

“Arianna, the Summer Queen of the Sidhe came to me. Her blood has run through the veins of our family from time in memoriam, so she used that link to…to call me to help her.

“She had a thing of power waiting on the other side of the Ethereal Mists. I didn’t understand what it was, precisely, but she needed my help in hiding it.” She took Andy’s hands in hers and peered deep into her eyes. “And the best way to hide something is to place it in plain sight.”

Andy wasn’t following her mother one bit. Why was she talking about the fae? Katarina had always told her daughters that the faerie people were just folk tales. Creatures of lore. And now she was talking about them like…well, like she knew them.

“Using my blood and my magicks, I helped the Queen mold that…the power…into a human being.”

Andy looked up to her sister, her mind jumbled and confused. She had thought they were talking about her. That Katarina was explaining how she—and then it hit her. Her mother was talking about her.

She saw it in her sister’s eyes. She knew too.

So it was true.

Andy pulled her gaze back to her mother and said, “So I’m not real?”

“Of course you’re real,” Katarina said, holding all the tighter to her daughter’s hands. “No matter where you came from, or how you came to be, you are as real as I am.”

Andy felt her entire body turn cold as her stomach bottomed out. She pulled her hands from her mother’s grasp and stood on wobbly legs.

“Real?” She staggered past her sister to the fireplace, wishing the flames of its fire would warm away the ice that was flowing in her veins. “Real…like one of your spells?”

“Well, yes, but much more. Since—”

“Since a faerie Queen pitched in, is that it? You made me into a real little girl, like some stupid Disney cartoon?”

“It wasn’t like that!” Katarina shot off the couch and tried to get nearer to her daughter, but Andy would have none of it, skirting around her and putting the couch they’d been seated on between them.

“I don’t know you,” she looked at her mother, her eyes burning, her breath coming in rapid, hoarse pulls. “How could you do this…how could you keep this from me? You’ve been lying to me my entire life!”

At that Min turned away and Andy watched her sob into her hands. Min was crying like…oh god, she hadn’t seen Min cry like that since the day they’d found Katarina, cold and lifeless on the floor of the magic shop. What could be worse than—dear goddess.

“When did you and this faerie Queen make me?” She could hear the sharpness in her voice, and didn’t care. Her mother was still hiding something from her, and she was going to hear the whole damned thing, and now. “How long ago did this happen?”

Now tears were filling her mother’s eyes. Katarina Boccherini never cried. She was a kind and loving mother, but she was also cast from freaking steel. But now she was crying…for the love of god!

“A little over a year ago.”

What? Just a year ago…

That wasn’t possible. She was twenty-four years old. She’d gone to college for business before going to work at the family magic shop. And before that there had been high school and junior high school, and…and…

But almost anything was possible when it came to magick, now wasn’t it? She may not have any real talent or knowledge of the craft, but her mother did. Who knew for certain what all her mother could do? Or her sister—

Andy wheeled around and shot Min a razor sharp glare. “Did you know?”

Katarina walked between the two, shaking her head. “I had to place the spell on her as well.”

So it was spells all around.

“But Min was too strong to permanently change her memories. Once I released the spell, her memory returned.”

Min came up beside her mother, her eyes swollen and red, “So now I have both: all my original memories and those with you.”

“But that’s just magick!” Andy turned her back on them both. “It’s just tricks. Not real. Just like I’m not real!”

“It doesn’t work like that,” Katarina said, the sound of her voice coming closer. “Whatever you were before the Summer Queen and I…before we molded you, you were real. Not a thing of magick, but a naturally occurring power that came from this world, this universe. That makes you real. That, and…we used my blood to cast you with.”

Andy spun around to face the two women, hot tears running down her cheeks, making the room blur and pitch. “So I’m some experiment? You cooked me up like a batch of mystical cookies, and now what?” her breathing heaved and then stopped. “Why?”

“Because…” Katarina blinked, and then very slowly she shook her head. “The fae are not much for sharing their reasoning. I know she said she needed to hide you away from her nemesis: Sliva, the Winter Queen, the Queen of Air and Darkness.”

“Sliva…” Andy repeated the name. It even tasted cold on her tongue. She was about to say it again, but her mother raised a hand and hushed her.

“Never say a thing’s name more than twice, or you’ll call that thing to you.”

Andy’s mind whirled and turned in her skull, a rather dizzying experience. But suddenly it all came to a halt, and she felt her shoulders loosen. “So that’s who I saw in the frozen puddles in the park. Who sent those horrifying spider things after me, and…and who put you in a coma.”

Katarina nodded.

“So why hide me from her? I mean, she knows who I am now, what’s the point of trying to hide me? We might as well invite her in for some coffee; just let her have me.”

“We can’t!” Min and Katarina said in unison. Min continued, “We could never do that.”

Katarina patted Min’s hand as she walked closer to Andy. “If she gets her hands on you, she will devour you…” And that’s when Andy stopped hearing what her sister and mother were saying.

Andy had her back to them both, facing the mantel of the fireplace. She wanted to be anywhere on the face of the earth, anywhere but there. Her breath started to catch, and she couldn’t seem to get any air into her lungs.

Oh god, oh god, oh god…

It was all just crazy. It couldn’t be real. She had to have snapped, and this was some sort of psychotic nightmare. What did the shrinks on television call it: a dissociative break from reality? Maybe her entire life was just a hallucination? But then, that’s what they had been telling her, hadn’t they? A spell.

And then she finally really looked at what was right in front of her on the mantel. There between a blue and pink carnival glass vase from the 1940’s and a six-inch tall green marble geisha statue that predated the Ming Dynasty, sat a small, white and silver stone, worn smooth, longer than it was wide or high, and nearly cylindrical.

Andy hadn’t gone around to all those conventions and out of the way estate sales for nothing. She may not have the practical magical knowledge her sister and mother had, but she did now her magical artifacts. Shamlus stones were naturally occurring marbleized limestone quarried in the highlands of Scotland, and they had a singularly innate enchantment to them.

And that white and silver stone was a Shamlus stone.

Andy reached out and took it in her hand. Cold, smooth and hard in her hand, she held it tight and closed her eyes, pushing all her will into the stone. She felt it warm in her hand, and then she thought a word three times: Shamlus. Shamlus. Shamlus.

A tingling sensation spread over her flesh, covering her completely in the space of only a few heartbeats.

Her mother and sister gasped at the same moment, and her mother called out her name. But Andy didn’t even look back at them. She needed to get away from them—from all of it. So she ran for the door, clawing at the door locks and racing outside and through the darkened street. She just couldn’t stay there and hear another word. She needed to get away, to get out…to get anywhere they weren’t.

She had a vague feeling that things waited in the shadows, watching the house—watching for her. But the Shamlus stone must have done its job thoroughly, for nothing so much as stirred in the surrounding night.

A cold numbness settled in around her heart as she ran down the street. They had betrayed her. Her own kin…but then again, if the insane things they had told her were true, they weren’t even that to her. They were just…just…

No, they weren’t just anything—she was what wasn’t real. She was the no one.

Andy made very good time, for before she knew it the streets turned unfamiliar, and she knew without a doubt she was well away from her family—the word brought a jolt of intense anguish with it, as if a shard of ice were clogging one of the chambers of her heart. She had to wake up. She had to get out of this nightmare. It had to be a dream, it couldn’t be real…because nothing in her entire life had hurt an ounce as much as this did.

Her legs started to give out on her, and she slowed to a terrified, though weak, jog. Her body wanted to slow down desperately, but her mind was still racing, and she could no more stop and catch her breath than she could keep running.

She slowed down enough that she started looking around her and behind, seeing if anyone or anything was following her. She didn’t want to see them…to see Min nor Katarina, but a new riff of paranoia was starting to speak up. What if this wasn’t a dream? What if what they had said was indeed the truth?

But that was impossible.

But so was magick…and vampires and werewolves and…well, a million other things that she knew damned well were absolutely, unalterably real.

She ran into something while she was looking back over her shoulder. She jumped and cried out, pushing against and trying to push through whoever or whatever it was. She felt something cold and sharp cut into the palm of her hand, and reflexively she wrenched herself away from it, staggering across the sidewalk and backing up into a parked car.

The car’s alarm went off, wailing at a deafening pitch. It made her jump again as she swung around to find the black, high-end sedan blinking its lights at her, filling the night with lights and sounds galore. She whirled back to what she had run into, and found a wrought iron gate swinging in the night breeze, topped by sharp looking fleur-de-lis. She looked to her aching palm and found the flesh there torn and smudged with her blood.

Is this really blood? If I’m not real, then what is this stuff?

She looked from her bloodied palm, then to her other, and realized with a start that she had somehow lost the Shamlus stone. She turned round and round, looking over the pavement beneath her feet, but saw nothing.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” It was an angry male voice, and it spun Andy on her heel. He was leaning out the front door of the house she’d run into the fence of, and he had a cell phone and a baseball bat in his hand.

“I’m sorry…” Andy tried to say, but even she couldn’t hear her voice over the ruckus of the car alarm. The baseball bat wielding man sighed, and reached into the pocket of his robe, fumbling as he exchanged his cell phone for the alarm controller. With a queer beep like a sneeze, the alarm stopped, and she could hear the echo of it dissipate.

“I’m sorry,” she repeated. She pointed at his gate. “I accidentally ran into your gate, there, and it scared me. So I jumped back and ran into your car too.”

The man grumped and his shoulders loosened. He was a big man, with huge shoulders, tousled brown curling hair, and a five o’clock shadow you could use as a scouring pad. He ambled out of his house and toward the gate.

“You hurt?” he asked as he shut the gate.

“W-what?” Andy was distracted. Whether it was just paranoia or not, she felt like there were more than just human eyes watching her.

“You’re holding your hand. Did you get hurt?” The guy seemed genuinely concerned, which was at odds with his bruiser exterior.

Andy worked up a smile to placate him. “No. I just scared myself. I’m sorry to have bothered you.” And she started walking away, leaving behind the Shamlus stone and any protection it might have offered her.

Before she knew it, residential streets grew to more granite and steel buildings. She was approaching downtown, and even though it was late at night, there was a steady stream of traffic moving in every direction. She didn’t feel any safer though, until she began to run into pedestrians. People in cars can always just shut you out when you scream for help. At least with people out walking around, there was a one in ten chance someone would stop and help. At the very least there would be two out of ten that would be witness to your abduction, and one of those people would probably actually talk to the police…if they got to the scene before the witness got bored and left.

But why would they bother?

After all, wouldn’t they know, couldn’t they all tell, that she wasn’t like them. Andy remembered her mother swearing that she was indeed real. What was it she had said? Oh, yes. That whatever in the hell she and the fae Queen had formed her from, it had been naturally occurring in this universe. So that was great, just great. Maybe she had been formed out of some mystical mud…or maybe she had been a fae plant of some kind.

Either way, why hadn’t a human noticed this about her before?

Well, Min hadn’t noticed. And Min was attuned to the flow and ebb of magical forces…wasn’t she? Well, that was because Min had been affected by the spell that created her.

Andy wondered if she now looked different to Min? Maybe like an insect, or an alien, or whatever the hell they’d made her out of.

Oh god…what if she really had been made from some sort of magical bugs?

It made her flesh crawl.

 

Chapter 23

Min strode through the streets of Augusta armed for battle. She had an iron sword at her hip, two silver daggers, one strapped to each thigh, the Bellini shotgun she’d used on the werewolves strapped to her back, and a small arsenal of magical paraphernalia stuffed in a velvet sack, tied onto the scabbard of the sword.

Luca had gotten back to the house a few minutes after Andy’s grand escape, and they’d all three headed off to search the city for her. Not that Min expected to visually find her. She’d somehow taken the small, white and silver stone Min had gotten in Scotland ten years ago and used it to make herself disappear. Well, to turn invisible. So she was pretty sure that tracking her would be a fairly silly thing. All she could hope was that somehow she and Katarina would notice something out of place, or pick up on a magical aura, or that Luca would be able to sniff her out in the big, vast city.

Luca had gone east, and would swing up north, and then down south of the city. Katarina and Min had gone west and were going to mirror his search pattern.

They just had to find her. Andy wasn’t a skilled practitioner or spell caster. How she’d managed the disappearing act still had Min stumped. Maybe the stone was some sort of magical conduit that Min had neglected to identify. Clearly she needed to go through her personal belongings with a careful eye. If they all survived the night, maybe she’d have Andy look them over.

If they survived…

Min looked over to her mother, and couldn’t help feeling a wave of happiness pass through her. Their mother—her mother? No, she was their mother, and she was alive and well, and with her, looking better and better every minute she was awake. No matter what she’d withheld from them, it was still so wondrous that she was present again, not just some lifeless body, bereft of a soul and cold as marble to the touch.

And god help that treacherous faerie bitch if Min ever got her hands on her. Queen or not, Min was going to strangle her with her bare hands…or set her on fire and have herself a fae barbeque.

Suddenly her mother stopped and shuddered. Min thought for a moment maybe she sensed something, some clue as to where Andy had gone off to, but when Min came over to her, she saw her mother had broken down in tears.

Min gathered her mother in her arms and made the same sounds of comfort her mother had always made to soothe her and her sister. Stroking her long silver streaked hair.

“I’m so scared, Min. What if something happens to her? What if the Winter Queen’s forces have already seized her?”

“No, no…don’t even think that,” Min said, though those thoughts had already passed through her own mind. “If there had been any fae around the house, Luca would have smelled them when he was there. She’s probably just walking around, thinking. And with that invisibility spell of hers, she’s in absolutely no danger.”

But no spell is perfect. Min didn’t want to start thinking about what could be happening to her sister this very moment. Logically her mind told her that Andy really wasn’t her sister, no matter what false memories her mother and the fae had dumped into her mind. She remembered the real, Andy-free history of her family as well as the alternate reality of having a sister.

A memory of Min once telling her sister that she’d wished on a shooting star that she would have been an only child. Andy had been only seven, and had burst into livid tears. Guilt welled up red hot and sticky, and Min had to force herself to breathe.

“Luca will find her,” Min said, her voice sounding far surer than she felt. Please, by the goddess, let him find her.

 

*

 

Luca swept through the city, letting his nose lead him rather than his eyes. Min had already told him that her sister had gone all invisible, so looking for her with his peepers would be of no use. So he let her mild, clean scent lead him from Min’s house out into the night. She seemed to be headed toward downtown—but that was quite a stretch for a human on foot—but if she’d been running, and afraid, maybe not.

Thankfully Min’s little sister didn’t wear any kind of fancy, obtrusive perfume. So, even with her scent being so mild, he wasn’t having too hard a time following it. That was until that scent led him into a small, upscale neighborhood that seemed to appear like an oasis among all the midsized office buildings that were announcing he was getting closer to downtown and skyscrapers.

That’s where a cacophony of scents nearly made Luca lose her trail. It wasn’t just the inundation of human scents, because there were certainly too many in this small parcel of homes for him to weed out. No, there were other scents that practically screamed out to him. First was the redolent of musk of wild fae. They were not part of either the Winter or Summer Courts. But they still served the Courts to a point. There had been three, and their aromas were as far from humankind as he could imagine.

The other scent was pure Sidhe…and fucking familiar. It was the same scent he’d gotten a nose full of when Min had tried that spell on him, to try and bring her mother back to life. It was the thing that had come into Min’s very home, merely in shade form, and had kicked Min to the side like she was nothing.

The Winter Queen.

Well shit. As if things weren’t bad enough, now the big bad Min and her mother were trying to keep Andy from was already in town.

If she was physically in this realm—and by the overwhelmingly heady scent of her, she most certainly was—then he needed to find Andy, and now. There was absolutely no time to waste. If the Winter Queen was there, the only place on the planet she might be safe was in her family’s home.

That home’s threshold was strong with only Min’s magick to buffer it. But it hadn’t been able to hold the Queen back before. But Katarina had lit some rather odd shaped candles—that smelled like they were made out of belly fat of the Creature from the Black Lagoon—and had told he and Min that they were gifts from the Summer Queen. Reinforcements to her own rather powerful wards. They were to be used for exactly a time like this.

The flames had been green, purple and blue, and he could feel the energy they threw off like the heat from a fire. He wasn’t a hundred percent sure, but he was hoping they’d be strong enough to stop anything that was going to attack the house.

But that was before he knew the Winter Queen herself was coming to the party.

Of course, what good was a threshold when Andy was running all over town, her only defense invisibility. For as surely as he’d tracked her scent, so too could the wild fae, and the Queen.

He was about to leave the area, try to extricate himself from all the olfactory sensations, then try circling the area until he picked up her scent again—hopefully they hadn’t already caught her, for the Queen could have simply just opened a doorway back to her realm and taken Andy with her—when a breeze brought an odor so strong he could almost taste it.

Blood.

Before he could even tell himself to, he was across the street and touching the sharp point of a cast iron fleur-de-lis that stood sentinel atop a yard’s iron gate. He touched that point, and the blood was still fresh enough to be sticky. He brought it to his nose and took a long whiff. Andy, most assuredly. But it certainly wasn’t her naturally mild scent. Her blood was just full of power. Power that made the tiny patch of flesh he’d touched it with start to sizzle.

He wiped his finger against the iron gate, letting the nighttime moisture of dew help take the trace of blood from his burning flesh. Min had said Andy wasn’t human…and she hadn’t been kidding.

But that was a good thing, for now he could follow a scent that was far more redolent, one that literally burned the smell of fae right out of his nose.

 

Chapter 24

Andy was exhausted as she rounded a corner in downtown Augusta and found herself across the street from a small all-night diner. The place was the only light coming from the entire city block, and that illumination seemed to make the night warmer, softer. As if it weren’t the middle of winter.

Her mind had raced as her pace had gradually slowed, and her body shook from cold and weariness. The warm light seemed like a beacon. Watering some rather plentiful hanging baskets of mums and geraniums, a woman in a blue and pink waitress uniform looked over and smiled at Andy.

“I just started a fresh pot of coffee. Would you like a cup?”

It was the woman’s job to serve people food and drink, but for some reason Andy couldn’t fathom, her words felt more like an invitation than a sales pitch.

Andy nodded and started walking toward the waitress and the warm light of the diner. “I’d love some.”

“Good, good. It’s been one hell of a slow night.” The woman’s voice was lovely, with only the slightest of southern accents. She winked as she pushed through the door of the diner. “And I could use the company.”

Andy followed, and was comforted by the mingling scents of the diner: coffee and honey, bacon and pancakes, and powdered sugar. The waitress pointed out a booth that was halfway back the length of the restaurant, and right at the entrance to the server station.

Andy slid into the Naugahyde-covered seat and felt her body cry out in relief—to finally be off her feet. In a flash the woman was back with a cup and saucer in one hand, a pot of steaming, fresh coffee in the other. With practiced skill she turned the cup over on its saucer and filled it up. She placed a bowl of creamers beside the cup then asked if Andy was hungry.

The coffee smelled wonderful, but not only wasn’t Andy hungry, her stomach roiled just at the thought of drinking anything either. She gave the woman her best smile and shook her head. “Maybe later?”

“We’re open all night,” the waitress said with a beautiful smile, walking back to the server station to start rolling silverware into paper napkins. She hummed a tune Andy had never heard before as her graceful hands made quick work of her side work. The song didn’t sound like something current. Maybe an old folksong?

The diner felt warm enough, nearly too warm, but Andy still felt such a chill in her bones. As if they were wrought from nothing more than frigid solid pieces of water. Not to mention the arctic sensations that played in her stomach and clung around her heart. She ran a hand up under her eyes, rubbing away the threat of tears.

Andy sat, staring at the cup of coffee, holding it between her chilled hands, inhaling the aroma of the dark roast, but not taking even a sip. She just could not reconcile, couldn’t believe, that her mother and her sister had been lying to her for her entire life—well, for the last year, since that was in actuality her entire lifespan.

I’m not real.

Not real. What in the name of god did that even mean? Did it mean that she was only a magical construct? Something temporary, an illusion fashioned out of some sort of primordial mist? It made her chest hurt to even think it, but that was all she really had, wasn’t it? Her thoughts? For her family was not her family, and her life was a lie, and her memories…

She pushed that thought aside. Noting, nothing that had happened so far, not the spiders, or the wicked faerie Queen—not even her mother’s news about her origins—felt quite as horrid as the realization that everything she remembered was a lie. Not even a lie. They had never existed, they had never happened!

An hour ago she had been just a woman standing in a park, waiting for the man she had a crush on to come out and talk to her. And now she was…

“What the hell am I?” she said, closing her eyes and sniffling. The heat and burning of imminent tears started to form behind her eyes. She hated crying. It made her feel so ridiculous, so out of control.

“You’re a star,” the waitress said in her sweet voiced accent. Andy laughed, and blotted her eyes on her napkin, looking up to the waitress. She stood there with a pot of steaming hot coffee in her hand and that beatific smile on her face. She leaned over and refilled Andy’s suddenly empty cup.

Andy blinked at the cup, and the fact that it was empty, and then she looked up again at the waitress.

But the woman was no longer a waitress. The woman before her was stunning, probably the most beautiful creature Andy had ever beheld. Tall and voluptuous, with long waves of fiery red hair that flowed down her back to her hips, skin so pale yet so radiant, it literally looked kissed with sunlight. Her lips were full and pouty, the color of strawberries, and her eyes shone the radiant green of the rainforest—lush and so very, very deep. Inhuman vertically slit pupils accented those eyes. She smelled like a mix between a farmer’s market and a forest.

She wore a diaphanous green silk gown that matched her eyes, and though it covered every inch of her, it did nearly nothing to conceal her.

The only thing remaining of the waitress was the compassion in her eyes, tempered by a cool, eternal patience. She smiled more deeply, sliding into the booth seat opposite Andy. Andy looked around for anyone to call out to. But the diner was empty.

Something came to her out of the cacophony of terror that was her mind, something her mother had said. That one Queen had come to her, to press some great power into human form, and all just to keep it from the other Queen. The Queen of Winter, the beautiful, terrible creature she’d glimpsed in the frozen puddle. And though her coloring was all wrong, and this creature seemed to radiate heat not bitter cold, there was a striking similarity in the features of her face, and the features of what had glared back at her from in that frozen puddle of spidery craziness.

Andy gulped, that icy feeling spreading through her with renewed intensity. Seeing how bad things had gotten, and how quickly, this could only be the Queen that was hunting her. Which seemed consistent with the sort of day she was having.

Andy sighed, feeling her shoulders loosen. She didn’t have anywhere else to run, and no way of defending herself. “You must be the Queen that wants to kill me. Well, good, I’m sick of waiting around for it. Go ahead. Get. It. Over. With.”

The fae’s head snapped back and the most beautiful peel of silvery laughter came out of her mouth, like tiny bells. Sensations washed over Andy, as if someone was stroking feathers over her every nerve. Then the faerie Queen held her belly, the nonexistent thing that it was, and bore her startling green eyes into Andy once more. “I put a lot of effort into shaping you into this lovely form, I hardly think I want to destroy it.”

Andy’s eyes felt like they were about to pop right out of her skull. “You made me?”

“Yes my dear. Let me introduce myself. I am Arianna, Queen of Summer, of Light and Water. And I molded you into what you are.”

Andy jerked forward, the words tumbling out of her mouth before she could catch them. “What am I?”

“You’re human…well at least, for the most part. But I already told you what you were before your mother and I interceded.”

Andy just stared at her without comprehension.

“A star my dear. Well, a piece of one.” The fae woman glanced out the window of the diner and smiled secretly to herself. “I believe you came from Andromeda. That is why you are so named…Andy.” Just the way she said her name made an invisible string pull at her heart.

Andy sat back in the booth and clutched the napkin that was by her right hand. “No…that’s—”

“Impossible?” The Summer Queen waved her hand dismissively. “As if humans know anything about what is possible. They know not even the limits of their own world, yet they seek to find other worlds to be ignorant of as well.”

Andy felt her stomach lurch. “So I’m some sort of meteor? A big piece of space rock?”

“Heavens no,” the faerie chuckled, “you landed on this earth, but not in this world. You came to rest in Faerie, and once there you became what you were meant to be: living energy, pure radiant light.”

A sphere of some sort of energy, her mother had said.

“So I did the only thing I could do,” Arianna continued. “I transformed you into this form, and gave you guardians, a family to love and protect you.”

“But why? And why is the other Queen after me?”

“Both questions have the same answer. My cousin, Sliva, Queen of Winter, of Air and Darkness, well…she’s gone quite mad you see. Happens sometimes to the very old. But not usually one of our station. She’s family, and I love her…and I hate her. We’ve been battling for thousands of years, so it’s hard to keep a concise track, but it seems like forever. And every year we both win, and we both lose, and that keeps the balance of power between the two Courts. But as I said, she’s been driven insane, and she’s seething for more power.”

Arianna looked out the window of the diner again and sighed. “Why she’d ever want more power is beyond me. Our powers are so great already, one nearly has not enough things to put it into. But for the last few millennia she has been very active in trying to gain more power. Her dream is to someday plunge the world into one endless winter. As I said, crazy.

“Our powers were created equal, to make sure they canceled each other out. That is our purpose, that is our reason to exist. I am the beginning of things, and she is the end. She is the Queen of Winter, of Darkness and Air, and of the end of things. She does not create anything, only destroys and kills. I, on the other hand, am the Queen of beginnings, of creation.”

She fell silent, staring out the window, her warm, green eyes haunted.

“So, she’s looking for me, to…” Andy’s stomach churned and she felt nauseous.

“To devour you, yes,” Arianna said cheerfully. “She will take you into herself, to finally make herself more powerful than I, to upset forever the power of the Courts.”

“That’s why you hid me with my…”

“With your family, yes.” Her green eyes bore into Andy. “They are your family, I made you from them, molded you into their lives. Do they not feel like they belong to you, and you to them?”

Andy had to admit, they did feel like they were her family. And she felt as if she belonged with them. Even with the lies, they loved her, and she them. Actually, she wanted nothing more for them to show up right then and there.

“Alas, I think my dalliance in subterfuge has not been good enough, for my cousin searches this very moment to find you.” Arianna sounded almost bored, certainly not as if she were nervous about the Winter Queen finding her.

“Yeah, she found me in the park across the street from my apartment building.”

“It’s not your fault. I imagine I could have hidden you better. Maybe I could’ve made you into a blade of grass in a forest in the Ozarks, or one of the roses in that quaint little garden at your White House. My cousin may have never found you. But she has, and that’s…well,” Arianna’s eyes radiated with satisfaction, “that’s just marvelous.”

Andy blinked. Then she sat forward and looked upon the faerie Queen with bewilderment. “What?”

The Summer Queen gave a silent chuckle as she waved away the scorn in Andy’s voice.

“What I mean is I had to make the crazed old girl want you in the worst way. How else could I get her to ignore the fact that you are a star, a being of light?” She leaned forward and touched a single finger to the hand Andy still clutched the napkin in. That one touch was like being struck by lightning, like having every molecule in her body catch on fire at once, her mind turned on as if the rest of her life had just been some kind of fuzzy dream. Perfect clarity, and the roar of the most terrible, blinding power—and she liked it.

The Queen broke the contact, pulling back her hand, and the instant she did, Andy felt as if a part of her—no, not part of her, that she and the creature sitting across from her were one and the same.

Andy trembled, pulling her hand back and cradling it against her chest, her breathing suddenly rapid, her mind spinning, though her thoughts were nowhere near as clear or as brilliant as they were a moment ago.

Arianna sat back, and she too was breathing hard, her eyes glowing and wild. And she looked as if she were as disturbed as Andy had been.

She glanced at the hand she’d touched Andy with, and then clenched it into a shaking fist, drawing it under the tabletop of the booth. She took a few more ragged breaths, and then turned her gaze back upon Andy. Her eyes no longer glowed, but there was still that wild intensity.

“My cousin only sees that you are a thing of power, and that I am hiding you from her. That makes you absolutely irresistible to her.”

Andy had fallen back against the padded back of the booth, still clutching her hand to her. “So you want her to find me?”

“Of course,” Arianna said as if it were obvious.

But why the hell would you want that?” Andy’s words practically exploded from her lips.

The faerie Queen’s lips parted as she took in a breath, and just as she seemed about to say something, the bells that hung over the front door of the diner clanged, heralding someone’s entrance. Arianna looked to the door, and a slow, sweet sigh escaped her lips.

Andy turned to look too, startled by the interruption and the way the Queen had looked. There stood Min’s vampire, Luca—blonde, tall, pale and to-die-for gorgeous. The look on his face as he caught sight of Andy was one of huge relief. But that look was replaced a heartbeat later with a murderously angry one. He started toward the booth Andy and the Summer Queen were seated at, and suddenly she was filled with the terrifying thought that the faerie Queen might hurt or kill her sister’s beloved vampire.

She whipped her head around, a plea for the Queen not to hurt him on her tongue—but the Summer Queen of the fae was gone. Not even her scent remained.

The vampire suddenly stood beside her, looking down scornfully at her. Andy looked to him, and back to where the faerie Queen had been sitting, and she shuddered at the sudden change in her reality. Had she imagined what had just happened?

No. She certainly was not imagining any of that. It had been real, and she knew enough about magick and the Otherealm to know that it was most assuredly, and lethally real.

The vampire’s face screwed up until his shoulders shook, his hands held in fists at his sides. Then his voice exploded from his snarling lips. “Where the hell have you been?”

Andy gulped, looking fearfully up at the undead stranger that had only hours before saved her life. But then his words abruptly ticked her off.

Who does this bloodsucking fiend think he is?

His eyes were green globes of fire set into his handsome face, and she stared right back at him.

“Out. For. A. Walk,” she said evenly, then added, “Asshole.”

Luca’s flaming green eyes widened, and he growled like some sort of animal. But then those fiery eyes dimmed to their normal sparkling gemstones, and he started laughing. It was a delicious, touchable laugh that would be nearly infectiously irresistible—but he was laughing at her, and that just pissed her off even more.

Andy looked away, wishing she had a brick or a crucifix to throw at him. “Dick.”

That only made the vampire laugh harder. Bonelessly he poured himself into the booth, taking over the very spot the Summer Queen had vacated.

“It’s not safe for you out here.”

Ignoring the fact that a faerie Queen had just been there, Andy looked around at the empty diner and gave him the iciest of smiles. “That’s funny. Do you think I’m about to get attacked by a horde of coffee mugs?”

From the back came a clamor and Andy felt every muscle in her body tense. She glanced over at the vampire and found him pulling something sharp and deadly from inside his jacket, its sharp edge gleaming in the florescent lighting. He held perfectly still, his green eyes ablaze again, and focused on the door leading back to the kitchen area.

The swinging doors opened and a short, curvy middle-aged blonde appeared, laid eyes on the two of them and said, “Oh shit!”

Andy looked back to Luca, and magically the knife and his burning green eyes were gone. He didn’t look relaxed, but he didn’t look ready to kill anymore.

The waitress—Madge her name tag read—hustled over and snatched a pot of coffee from a burner on the huge, ancient looking industrial sized coffee brewer. Swiftly she came forward and said, “Sorry about that. I just stepped out for a ciggy. Coffee?”

Andy was about to say she already had some, but when she looked down her cup was not just empty but turned upside down on its saucer, untouched.

Guess my coffee split with the Summer Queen.

Andy and the vampire turned their cups over so the waitress could fill them.

“Can I get you two somethin’ to eat?” the waitress asked. “Henry, the cook, makes great waffles.”

“No, thank you,” Luca said with a dazzling smile. “We’re not staying that long.”

Andy shot him a look and gave the waitress a dazzling smile of her own. “That sounds great. I’ll have waffles with lots of butter. Thank you.”

The vampire glowered at her, but she couldn’t help but smile back at him.

“Nothin’ for you, honey?” The waitress looked like she was sensing the tension between the two.

“Coffee’s fine,” Luca said stiffly. “Thank you.”

When the waitress smiled and turned to go place her order with the kitchen, Luca shook his head. “We don’t have time for this. I talked to your sister and she says you need to get back to the house, immediately. It’s the only place where they can keep you safe.”

“Yeah, sure…they just want to keep me safe.” Andy cringed inwardly at how sharp her voice sounded. But the feeling behind that tone was no lie. “They aren’t even my—” she stopped. Good god it was hard to say. Her mother and her sister weren’t really her family. It was all just some elaborate, mystical joke. And now not only was she minus a family, but she had a faerie Queen from the bitch dimension and her hordes hunting her down like a dog.

Luca sighed and his brilliant green eyes softened. “So why does this faerie want you so badly?”

Oh…so Min and her mother were as tight lipped with him as they had been with her. Cover ups all around.

“And they aren’t what?” Luca’s expression was so concerned, so genuine, Andy felt—though his treating her like an object to protect was just so middle ages—that she could truly trust him. After all, he’d risked his own afterlife just to save her from a faerie Queen and her scourge.

So she told him, all of it. That six months ago Min and she had found their mother in the magic shop, in some sort of suspended animation, that they’d spent the last six months trying to cure her. That somehow her sister and he—and that was a whole other story she only had the cliff notes on—had somehow broken whatever spell that had kept her mother in that frozen stasis.

“And then came this faerie Queen named Sliva, the spiders,” she raised her brow at him, “a vampire, and I was suddenly sucked back to the house using that ring you brought me. And there was Min and mom…and mom was good as new and telling me I wasn’t real.” Not real. Andy trembled. “That I’m some sort of ball of energy that the Summer Queen helped them mold into human form.”

Andy paused. It just sounded so freaking insane, like some sort of schizophrenic nightmare.

“Plus mom was burdened with the task of keeping my origins secret and me safe.”

Luca raised his own eyebrows and shook his head. Looked like she wasn’t the only one to think the whole situation was a head scratcher.

Andy sighed and rolled her eyes. Might as well keep him up to date. “Then enters the Summer Queen posing as a waitress.”

Luca’s head snapped toward where the waitress had disappeared to place Andy’s order.

“No, no. That’s a real waitress. The faerie Queen took off when you came through the door. Well, not so much took off as simply vanished without a trace. Even took the coffee she’d poured me with her.”

Luca’s mouth was open, as if he was about to say something. Even the way his eyebrows were scrunched together made him look ready to say something. But nothing came out.

Andy cleared her throat, took a sip of her coffee, which was pretty good, and said, “So this faerie Queen told me I was…” She started laughing uncontrollably. It was too stupid, too insane to be true. To think that any of this was real, that any of it could be serious. It just couldn’t be. Andy pulled herself together and started to speak again.

“She said I was a fallen star, and that…that I was going to stop this Sliva from causing a permanent ice age.”

Andy took a breath. She was about to say she didn’t know what Sliva was going to do with her, but it couldn’t be anything good, when the vampire reached over and put his cold finger against her lips.

“You never want to say something’s name three times. It can call them to you.”

“Too late,” a smooth, dark voice purred from directly behind Luca.

Andy’s eyes snapped past Luca to the woman suddenly sitting in the booth behind them, her back to Luca. But in the blink of an eye the woman stood, turned and grabbed Luca by the back of the neck, and carelessly tossed him some odd fifty feet to the back wall of the diner. The vampire hit with a sickening crunch and fell to the floor.

Andy looked up at the woman and gasped. She was tall and built with a mix of sinewy grace and luscious curves. Her hair was long and loose, black as pitch, and writhed like snakes around her face. Her skin was impossibly white and as smooth as ice, and her smiling lips were a frozen blue-red. Her crisp blue eyes stared down upon Andy, their pupils inverted slits.

Andy’s breath came out in frozen puffs, the air so cold the moisture in it turned to sparkling dust and drifted around as wind began to blow through the restaurant.

“Finally,” the Queen of Air and Darkness said, “I have you all to myself.”

 

Chapter 25

The faerie had a hell of a throwing arm on her. Luca had to have been traveling at about eighty miles an hour when he’d hit the back wall of the grungy little greasy spoon. He’d hit hard enough that part of the wall crumbled on top of him when he hit the blue and yellow tiled floor. It took a second, but he shook off the impact and pushed himself off the floor and back to his feet. He pulled the sword and dagger from their scabbards and started back to where the faerie Queen still stood over Andy. The world pitched and he stumbled, but he didn’t fall.

“Get away from her, you faerie ice bitch!”

The Winter Queen barely even turned her head, but the smug, satisfied look on her face would have made anyone sick to their stomach.

“So gallant…” she said to Luca, “you should be commended.” She smiled and looked around her. “Kill him.”

As if they’d been hidden behind a curtain of invisibility, which they obviously had been, a cadre of twenty odd wild fae lurched out of nowhere and surged toward him. There were goblins, a goat-like gruff, a few elves with red eyes and pointy silver daggers, and one great green ogre—he looked like the Incredible Hulk, but with stripes of dried blood running over his arms and bare chest, and around his mouth.

They were all so very strong and quick, and though Luca was injured he smote three of their number in as many seconds, and barely kept to his feet when the gruff battered him in the chest with his horn-adorned billy goat head. But it was the ogre that really rang Luca’s bell, bashing him with a boulder-like fist that flattened him to the floor.

Luca looked up in time to see a shimmering, web-like portal open in the wall of the diner. It was night on the other side of the door, and there was nothing but the harsh whiteness of snow as far as the eye could see. The Winter Queen had hold of Andy by the wrist, and though she was pulling against and fighting the fae, the Queen simply dragged her along through the portal.

The ogre stamped his foot down on Luca’s chest, causing ribs to crack and the world to fade out for a moment. When his vision returned he just barely saw the portal snap shut, and just like that the bitter cold that had permeated the diner just evaporated. Drool from the ogre’s gaping maw dribbled down onto Luca’s face.

“Groth like tasty blood rats.” The ogre smiled with the most terrible dentition and pressed down with his anvil-sized foot, making bones in Luca snap and cave in. “They taste like humans if they’ve fed recently. Have you fed recently?”

Luca could take in no breath to answer, so he shoved the dagger still in his hand, to the hilt in the ogre’s calf, and flicked him the middle finger of his other.

The ogre roared in pain and rage, raised his foot for a beat, and then made to stomp down again, to crush what was left of Luca’s nearly flattened chest.

But just then Luca heard a small metallic click, one he remembered from the night before. The next thing he knew the ogre’s head exploded and rained chunks of gore and ogre brains all over the back wall of the diner.

Luca scrambled to pull himself out of the way of the ogre’s mammoth falling corpse. He made it by a fraction of a second—the floor shook, and the tiles shattered under the ogre’s weight.

Luca looked to the door to find Min standing there holding the smoldering barrels of the Bellini she’d used to back off the werewolves the night before. She looked like a dark goddess of The Hunt, or at least the sexiest pissed off witch Luca had ever seen. Her mother, Katarina, stood behind her, a double sided axe in her hands, and the same primal glint in her eyes as her daughter. They were there to kill whatever got in their way. Suddenly the small faerie army looked less than certain of their odds of winning.

The shotgun had worked with hellfire and silver. It had been built by her grandfather to hunt lycanthropes, and utilized a sliver of dragon’s tongue as its power source. To have blasted off the ogre’s head like that she must have added iron to the mix.

Quite effective.

Luca’s mouth twitched, and even though he was in mortal agony, he was smiling. If he could breathe he’d be laughing about then. The ribs that were crushed started to push back out and heal, as were the holes those broken ribs had torn in his lungs. Even for a vampire like himself that was unheard of healing. Ten times as fast as usual. But just the sight of his violently beautiful Min filled him with a hellish jolt of fiery strength. It was their connection—whatever it was inside her that had sparked and lit whatever now burned inside him.

He pulled himself to his feet and picked up the fallen sword. His first breath was torture, but it felt good to do it, even if technically he didn’t need to.

“You have great timing,” he wheezed, the taste of his own blood thick on his tongue.

Min raised an elegant eyebrow at him, her curvaceous lips a pleased smile. “Nobody lays a hand on my boyfriend…or a foot.”

Their eyes locked and for a long beat there was nothing but utter silence. And then one of the remaining goblins let out an inhuman cry and lunged for Min. She shut him up by blowing his misshapen, scaly, lop-eared head off his bony shoulders. With that the fight was on, and the remaining wild fae fought with bloodthirsty abandon. But between bursts of iron-laced hellfire, Luca’s slicing sword and Katarina’s ruthless precision with that double headed axe of hers, there was nothing but chunks of their enemies left a few moments later.

Luca looked up and saw Madge, the waitress, and what must have been the waffle slinging cook, Henry, peering out the oval Plexiglas peep holes in the twin swinging doors that led back to the kitchen area. A moment later they were gone. Most probably out the back exit.

Min met his eyes again, and he felt that sudden rush again, as if her mere presence was what animated his every fiber. It was love. It couldn’t be anything else. Love and whatever ethereal, metaphysical connection they now had.

Then Katarina gasped and said, “Where is Andy?”

Min’s eyes jerked away from his and she blinked hard. He could see her inwardly berating herself for not noticing sooner.

“That faerie bitch opened a portal in the wall,” he pointed and his shoulder popped back into place with a nasty, thumping crunch. “And she dragged Andy in with her. Looked like some sort of winter wonder hell. All darkness and snow.” He paused as he remembered something strange in the pitch black of the shadowy backdrop he’d seen. “I think I saw a huge mountain in the background. It was blacker than the night.”

Katarina choked back a mournful cry and fell down to her knees. Min turned and knelt beside her, wrapping the arm not holding the Bellini in it around her mother’s shoulders. “What is it? Where has she taken her?”

“To Winter’s Keep. It’s her seat of power in Faerie.” The older woman’s strength seemed to crumble as she fell against her daughter. “Our only hope was to keep the fight on this mortal plane. If she’s already crossed over, and into her own kingdom, we haven’t a chance of saving Andy.” Her eyes, the same chocolate brown as her daughter’s, gleamed with impending tears. “We’ve failed…” She shook and her expression melted into anguish. “She’s gone…she’s really gone.”

 

*

 

Min couldn’t breathe. Kneeling there on the tiled floor of the diner, her mother in her arms, she couldn’t believe what her mother was telling her. “What do you mean? We’re not going to just give up and let that bitch have her!”

Katarina’s mournful cries only became more strident. “Don’t you see? Don’t you see? We can’t fight Sliva at her power center.” She pulled Min down to look into her eyes. “We wouldn’t have a prayer even if she was just in Faerie. But at her stronghold nothing would have a chance…nothing…”

The bottom of Min’s stomach dropped out. Her mind and her lungs both locked up on her. No thought passed through her mind, and no air passed through her lips. She felt a pressure building in her chest, and was sure she’d throw up any second. She gulped and forced herself to take a breath.

This can’t be true…

Luca, blood covered and still limping, stood at her side and put his hand on her shoulder. His mere touch seemed to push back the rising panic inside her. It helped clear her head as well.

“It isn’t true,” he said, as if to answer the question she’d only voiced in her mind.

Min looked up and his eyes burned with green light. Not the vampire fire she’d seen before, but with actual light, a ghostly glow. She gasped and shuddered, but could not look away.

“Before you came Andy told me the Summer Queen came here and talked to her.”

“Arianna?” Katarina sputtered.

Luca nodded. “The Queen told Andy that only she could destroy the Winter Queen. That that was her true purpose.”

Min slowly stood up, pulling her mother to her feet. “So…this Summer Queen wanted the other Queen to find Andy?”

“Looks like. And it looks as if the Winter Queen took the bait.”

“What the devil are you two talking about?” Katarina demanded. “My daughter is going to die and you’re talking about faerie tricks!”

“No,” Luca said, his face somber, his eyes glowing with intensity. “We’re talking about why we need to go into Faerie and rescue your daughter. She isn’t going to die. She’s going to end the Winter Queen.”

Katarina laughed hysterically. “End the Winter Queen? My daughter is her prisoner. Any moment she’s going to…” She wobbled where she stood and Min caught hold of her, steadying her. She pulled herself together and regarded the vampire once more. “She’s her prisoner. Andy doesn’t have a chance against her, and neither do we.”

Luca looked to Min. The green light radiating from his eyes was more than hypnotic; it was full of power, full of hope. And full of life!

Min gasped as she realized what she was looking at. Somewhere inside Luca was a piece of Summer, a thrumming, very alive spark of the faerie magick of Summer.

“I know we don’t have a chance against the faerie Queen or her minions.” Luca said, as he picked up the cold iron sword he’d dropped in battle. The blade steamed as faerie blood sizzled down its blade. “But the Queen of Summer thinks Andy’s going to destroy the Queen of Winter. And I think…no, I know that we need to be there to watch her back. And to get her out of Faerie safely afterward.”

Katarina stepped closer to Luca, her eyes suspicious. “How could you know that?”

Min reached out and laid her hand on her mother’s shoulder. “I believe him, mother. I know it’s crazy. But it’s what we have to do.” She stepped in front of her mother and looked her in the eyes. “And even if we’re wrong, we can’t leave Andy there. We have to try. We have to go.”

Katarina’s breathing was labored and her eyes frightened and brimming with tears. But before Min’s eyes Katarina pulled herself together again, the fierce, iron determination Min was used to seeing in her mother solidified and she swiped the tears out of her eyes.

“So, what do we do next?” she asked.

Min looked to Luca. Every time she even laid eyes on him her strength built and grew. She returned her gaze to her mother and smiled. “We rip a freaking hole into Faerie, go in and take her back.”

 

Chapter 26

The little diner was utterly silent for a moment. Katarina’s eyes went from determined to hopeless again for a beat, but she shook that off. “So how are you going to do that? Did you specialize in trans-dimensional studies while I was asleep?”

Min felt her brows knit in on themselves. “No. But you know a few things about opening portals…and you were in cahoots with the Summer Queen. Didn’t she teach you anything?”

“Sure. She taught me how to lie to my daughters and to myself. And she helped build up the wards on our home. But no fae is going to show a mortal, even if there is fae blood running in their veins, how to cross over into Faerie.”

“But I’ve seen you open a portal to freaking Iceland,” Min said, not believing what was coming out of her mother’s mouth.

“That was a doorway to just another place on the same plane of existence…and it took me three weeks of prep work and over four hours of spell casting.”

“But—”

“It would possibly take years of research and weeks of gathering power just to attempt to open a door into the quaintest, friendliest part of Faerie. But we’re talking about the Otherealm, and Winter’s Keep as well. I don’t think there’s a witch on the planet with that kind of power.”

The steely intent Min had built up inside her faded away as her nerves started shaking again. She could plan a raid all she wanted. She could push and push until she broke, but if there wasn’t a way into where they needed to go…

“But let’s say,” Luca said, leaning against the side of the booth closest to Min, “hypothetically. If a witch powerful enough to open such a door was to try, where might they begin?”

Min shook her head. Dimensional magicks were not her forte.

She looked to her mother and saw a glimmer in her eyes. That meant she was onto something.

“Well,” Katarina said, “first you’d need to know where you were going. And know where that part of that world lined up with this one.”

Luca gestured with a wave of his hand to the open space between two booths. There was nothing special about it, just grungy wallpaper and a simple black and white clock.

“That’s where the Winter Queen opened her portal. Maybe that’s where we’d need to open ours.”

Katarina shook her head. “She could call up a portal to her home from just about anywhere. The laws of physics, even of magick, wouldn’t mean much to her, especially when she’s so connected to a place.”

“So what else would we need?” Luca asked, as if he’d already received all the answer he needed to question number one.

Katarina patted her face with a hand and scrunched up her eyes. “Well, after that we’d need something connected to the Otherealm…to the fae in particular. Having something from there would…”

The instant Katarina’s eyes snapped open and her expression flashed with excitement, Min felt something vibrate like a tuning fork in the breast pocket of her coat. The two women traded glances, and then Min reached into her pocket and pulled out the short silver dagger she’d found on her mother’s desk only weeks after she’d fallen into a coma. The dagger that had cut her. She hadn’t seen it since that day…but here it was, exactly when she most needed it.

It glinted in the brightly lit diner, and for a moment she could have sworn she saw the greenest eyes reflecting out from the blade.

Katarina crossed to her, and Min held the dagger out. “This is of faerie construct, isn’t it?”

Katarina bit her lower lip and took the dagger. “Better than that, daughter mine. This was given to me by Arianna herself. It was forged in the deepest part of Summer.” She whirled around and held her hands to her mouth. “But that would only get us to the heart of Summer, presuming we’d gather enough power to do the job.”

A thought sparked in her mind, and Min licked her lips. “When I first picked up the dagger, it cut me.”

Katarina stared at her. “It was only supposed to call an emissary to help you. It wasn’t supposed to harm you. Are you sure?”

Min glared at her mother. “I’m quite sure it cut me when I touched it.”

“No, I mean, are you sure it cut you? Are you certain you just didn’t cut yourself on it?”

Min thought back to that night. She’d been careful when she’d handled the blade, and she remembered that it hummed with a power the moment she picked it up. And then it had cut her.

“I’m certain of it.”

“Well then, it would seem the blade took payment in blood for its service, and took part of you into itself. That’s…interesting.”

Min reached out and took hold of her mother’s hand. “It’s more than that…it’s a freaking revelation!”

Her mother looked askance of her.

Min took a deep breath and pushed back the excitement that was building inside her. “You said that Arianna used you and me to shape Andy, right? Like a blueprint. That makes her connected to us in blood and every other way a family member would be. And that dagger is connected to Faerie.” She let go of her mother and strode over to the wall the Winter Queen had used to escape through. “That means the dagger is connected to both Faerie and me…” she turned and smiled at her mother. “And that means we can use it to get to Andy.”

Just then the dagger in Katarina’s hand started humming again, this time loud enough it was practically singing. She stared at it, as if it was speaking to her, and then she turned and walked over to the wall. Katarina held one hand out to the stained wallpapered wall and hissed out an oath in a language Min couldn’t place. The surface of the wall seemed to ripple, like a still pond when a rock is thrown into it.

Katarina took the silver dagger and slashed at the wall. A long line of darkness gleamed evil and cruel from the wall. Katarina stepped back and more sibilant words fell from her lips, not a one of them sounded human. She held the dagger in one hand, and with the other she reached out and made a grabbing motion, then wrenched her arm down and the wall under the dark cut the dagger had made fell away, leaving a gapping, howling hole into darkness and cold. There was nothing to see but pitch-black night, a silver moon that hung too low and too large, and treacherous looking snow. In the distance Min could see a mountain, one darker black than the night it was settled against.

Min gasped, something primal and scared as hell quaking within her. Staring at the tableau in front of her, she knew she should just turn around and run away. There was something overwhelmingly horrific about it. It was the same feeling she’d gotten when she’d gone to the museum as a child and stared up at the bones of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. It was just something that was imprinted on her from millions of years of evolution, something instinctual, the mechanism that told mankind what to stay away from if they wanted to live.

Min’s mother turned, and her eyes were no longer brown. They were the most striking green she had ever seen. At once Min knew that it was not her mother she was looking to. Someone else was in control, and somehow she knew instinctively that it was the Summer Queen. Anger flared inside Min. She didn’t care what the faerie Queen wanted. She would kill her if she harmed her mother.

Then one of those green eyes winked at her. “Child, I’m but borrowing your mother’s body. No harm will come to her. It’s just that you both needed…a little help to get the portal open. And truth be told, you haven’t a lot of time to waste.”

“What do you mean?” Fear clawed at her stomach.

“What I mean is that your sister is in great peril, and she needs to know you are trying to rescue her.”

“We’re not just going to try!” Min shouted defensively.

“In this case, my dear moppet, the thought is all that really matters. She needs to see you, to know you would and have risked your life to save her. That is what she needs to know.”

“You’re as crazy as the other one!” Min seethed. “Can’t you all, just once, not speak in riddles?”

“Of course not, my dear. It’s our gift and our curse. Now—” and she held the dagger out to Min, “this will help you once you’re in Faerie. Don’t let it out of your grasp.” She gestured with a wave of her arm to the howling darkness that waited on the other side of the portal. “It’s time to go. Your mother must stay here. That is the only way to keep the portal open.”

She waved her other arm and three very large creatures, all huge, slathering gray hounds with burning red eyes, crept out from nowhere to surround Katarina. “My pets will protect her while you are gone.”

She stared down at the dagger in her hand and waited for Min to take it.

Fear welled up in Min’s chest, cold and painful. But she pushed it back and reached out to take the blade.

The moment Min took it, it vibrated and she felt something powerful and white-hot surge into her.

Katarina blinked, and shook her head, and when she looked to Min again, her eyes were once more brown. She looked confused for a moment, but then she seemed to remember something. “You have to go now. I won’t be able to hold this opening forever.”

Min turned and looked to Luca, and then back to her mother. The huge hounds were there one moment, and invisible the next. But Min could feel them, their feral, powerful presence both disturbing and comforting. She knew without a doubt that almost nothing would get to her mother while they protected her.

She looked down to the dagger in her grasp, half expecting to see those green eyes again, but only the reflection of her own brown irises looked back at her.

Luca moved to her side. Blood stained his clothes and his flesh, but he stood there whole and strong. Already perfectly healed. He held out his hand to her, and she took it. She needed him, in every way she could imagine. And just the touch of his flesh to hers filled her aching body with strength, and soothed her troubled soul. He was a part of her, and her of him. She didn’t understand it, but that made it no less true. They held hands for a few beats, and then let go at the exact same time.

“Miles to go,” she whispered to him.

“And a faerie Queen to kill.” He raised his sword.

Min held out the hellfire Bellini to him. Something inside her told her she wouldn’t need it, she’d be too busy to use it, but that he’d need to use it as he fought beside her. He sheathed the iron sword and reached out and took the shotgun. It glinted wickedly in his hands, and his eyes flashed fiercely with green light.

“Ready?” he asked.

Not even a little. Min closed her eyes, forced back all the fear that was clamoring around the periphery of her mind, and then cracked her neck. “As I’ll ever be. Let’s go.”

 

*

 

At first it was just like walking through a door. There was only a slight difference in air pressure. But then the bitter, corrupting cold blew against them and stripped them of their strength. It was bone-crushing, soul-draining cold. Luca staggered. Min felt the life literally ripped out of her. Her head started spinning, and before she knew it she was on her knees, gasping for breath.

Just then the silver dagger in her grasp began to not only hum, it sang. The heat of a summer day flowed out of that dagger and into her, filling her instantly with more power than she had ever felt before. The freezing winter wind felt like no more than a warm tropical breeze. Immediately she knew this power was hers to command. It didn’t matter that it was borrowed, this was the Otherealm, Faerie, and this magick was strong here.

Somehow Min knew, as if she’d known it forever, that this power wasn’t enough to overcome winter—certainly not the Queen of all winter, in her enter of power.

But it was power enough that she knew she was going to charge on up to that foreboding dark mountain and blow a wrecking ball sized hole in it.

Luca gasped, and Min jerked her attention to him. He leaned against the lee of a great boulder, his face distended in pain, a crack had formed on his cheek. He was freezing solid.

Min rushed over and laid her bare hand against his face. As their flesh touched, she felt that endless warmth flow into him. Instantly his eyes blazed back to life, and he exhaled a heavy breath he must have been holding. Not that the vampire needed to breathe, but Min felt herself relax when he did.

He looked down to the dagger, and then back to her, the crack in his cheek had healed already. “Hell of an ace she gave you.”

Min smiled at him and leaned in to kiss him. A short, though satisfying kiss. “We’ll see how much good it does us when we try and break into…” she shook her head as she realized she wasn’t standing before the great mountain of Winter’s Keep.

“Where the hell are we?” Luca said.

Where the hell indeed?

It looked to be a wilderness of old growth and staggeringly large redwood trees. Yet they were all dead. There wasn’t a living thing in sight, only the tall, brittle corpses of what was once a great forest. And even with there being no foliage on the trees, she couldn’t see out to gauge where they might be. She let her witch sense stretch out from her, to feel for anything that might help, but this place had been void of life for so long it was empty.

Min let go of Luca’s hand. Somehow she knew that the dagger would keep him warm against the wicked cold simply because of their link. “I don’t know. I’ve never been to Faerie before.” She stroked her hand absently down the blade of the dagger, in a strangely familiar gesture.

“That,” a smoky, inhuman voice purred, “is why she sent me to help you.”

Min spun around, but found no one in sight besides Luca.

Did you hear that? she thought to Luca. She didn’t want anything that they couldn’t see able to hear what she said.

Luca nodded, his sword was drawn, and the Bellini glinted in the eerie moonlit night.

“Do not be frightened, mortal…and vampire,” the disembodied voice drawled. It sounded closer, which made Min’s flesh crawl. “As I said before, I am here to help you.”

“Aid usually doesn’t hide itself from those it is there to help,” Min said, thinking, It could be anywhere…but it has to be one of the fae. Iron will kill it.

As if it had been standing there the whole time, a sooty black cat appeared directly in front of them. Of course, calling it a cat was like calling a tyrannosaurus a lizard. Its billowing form was roughly the size of a bear, and it had enough muscles to be more gorilla than cat. But monstrously large or no, it moved with a grace most certainly feline. Its eyes glowed an iridescent silvery white, like the moon, and its body, though visible against the pitch night, seemed as insubstantial as smoke.

“May I introduce myself, oh heralded emissary of Summer,” the cat slithered rather than stalked, and it made no sound as it moved. Its maw full of sharp fangs were glacial white. “I am Graysyn, a shadow cat, and I am here to guide you undetected into Winter’s Keep.”

 

Chapter 27

Min looked to Luca. What the hell? Is this some sort of lame set up?

He kept his eyes on the shadow cat, but she knew he was listening to her thoughts. Send a bad guy disguised as an ally—solid bait for a trap. But…

She followed his line of logic. But why would the Winter Queen bother? This is her power center. Why not just send a brigade of her goons to lay waste to us?

Hear the cat out?

Min frowned. But the dagger the Summer Queen had given her gave her a gentle surge of power, of relief. And in that instant she understood.

“You’re a creature of Winter,” Min said to the shadow cat. “And yet in secret you serve Summer. Why?”

Luca didn’t interrupt, but he did stiffen his hold on the sword, ready to do battle.

The great cat’s moonlit eyes narrowed. “My Queen shares too much,” he growled in annoyance. “But as is our way, not enough for your human curiosity.” It stood still for a moment, staring at Min.

“Very well. I am technically one of the wild fae. I could have stayed unattached to either Court. But long ago I swore allegiance to Winter and its Queen. But she has grown unstable in her long, long reign. And now she seeks power enough to not just tip the balance of power, but to obliterate it for all time.”

“What’s the difference?” Min said, suspiciously.

The cat hissed. “The difference is eternity. It is one thing to cast the world into a winter a few centuries long. That has happened before. It destroys everything in the mortal world, frees up all that power, and lets it resettle. Sooner or later the powers balance out again.

“But the Queen of Winter is searching for power from outside this world, and power enough that the balance of power could never again be made.” The shadow cat’s shape shimmered, as if it were shivering. “Things would never change…again. And that would be more terrible than any death. For change is a part of nature, and the fae are part of nature, especially we wild fae. It would sooner or later wear us down, until we withered and were no more.”

The timbre of the cat’s voice was not just desperate, it was filled with sadness.

“So you’ve gone double agent, to help keep the status quo?”

Graysyn nodded, and his eyes flashed fiercely.

“Then how can we trust him?” Luca spat. “He’s already betrayed his own Queen.”

“You can’t,” Graysyn answered. The great cat’s fangs showed in what could only be described as a wicked sneer. “But I’m all you’ve got. I’m the only one there is to show you how to get to the mount of Winter’s Keep, not just as a guide, but undetected as well.”

 

*

 

The vampire was silent. Min stood in that silence and stared at the cat. Luca was letting her choose whether or not to trust the cat…and how far. She knew from what the dagger was telling her that the Summer Queen vouched for the thing…but was that enough? No fae was trustworthy, especially since they were the reason Andy was in this fix in the first place.

Min didn’t entirely understand how her baby sister, who had never showed much aptitude for magick, could be a threat to any of the fae, not to mention the Queen of Winter. But there they were, up to their knees in the hellish snow and ice of the Winter Court of the fae, and they were going to find her sister. She still had a hard time reconciling that she wasn’t going to be able to save her—that was what she did, what she was there for. That she was just there to show Andy that she would try…

How ridiculous!

But she would. She would try until her last breath to get to Andy…and hope the rest would work itself out like the Summer Queen thought it would. But if not, she’d die fighting.

“Fine,” Min said, and gripped tighter to the Summer Queen’s silver dagger. A surge of primal power flowed from it into her, and she smiled viciously at the cat. “But betray me, and I promise you you’ll burn first.”

The words had been all her, but her voice had rung with a subtle power, something wholly inhuman that was not. Graysyn cringed, his ears folding flat against his head, as if her voice hurt them.

“I understand,” he whispered.

“Good.” Suddenly Min found herself standing beside the shadow cat. She reached down and stroked an idle hand down the creature’s back, making it shudder in what looked both like pain and pleasure. “That’s my good cat.”

Min wasn’t in control, and she knew that she had to get it back immediately. She pushed the thoughts of the Summer Queen from her mind and walked over to Luca and touched him gently on the shoulder. Immediately she felt less like a part of a faerie Queen, and more like herself.

Thank god. She shuddered in relief. At least she knew how to keep the faerie at bay.

But she heard a voice laughing in the distance, somewhere in her mind.

I was just making a point to the cat. Only I can truly touch him. Did you not feel his essence, and not just a handful of smoke?

Min pushed harder, and the faerie Queen’s laughing voice faded to nothing.

Stay out of my head…I’m here to save Andy, not to serve you or to be your puppet!

There was a reluctant surge of humming power from the dagger in her grasp. No words, but Min knew the Queen understood.

Bitch… She turned and scowled at the shadow cat.

“Okay, take us to Winter’s Keep.”

 

*

 

They followed the shadow cat through the vast forest of frozen trees. The terrain was rough, not only strewn with rocks the size of skulls, but also full of jutting tree roots, some broken from other traveler’s gaits, but all ready to reach up and trip you. At some point Min realized they were not traveling on flat ground any longer. They were trekking across a downward slanting slope. Which didn’t make much sense: they were headed toward a mountain.

“Cat,” Min said, but the rest of her question went unsaid, for just then the forest of dead and frozen trees thinned and she saw exactly where they were. And all she could think was…

Ohgodohgodohgodohgod…

They stood on the edge of a cliff that looked over a huge valley that must have dipped a thousand feet or more—probably more—into a twisted shadowy nothingness. The wind howled and threatened to knock Min from her feet. And there, right across from them, but what was surely miles away, was the great black mountain Luca had told her about. Winter’s Keep. It was as stark and evil looking as anything she’d ever imagined.

She gulped, her mouth had turned dry, and her body, though still warmed by the power of Summer the dagger afforded her, shook with fear.

Min was afraid of heights. It was the only fear from childhood she had never been able to conquer. And when a fear has lasted that long, it was ingrained on one’s soul.

A physical jerk from her nervous system pushed her back and she fell in her haste to scramble back up the slope and grabbed for the first frozen tree she could find. The brittle wood whined at her ardent embrace, but thankfully held. All rational thought had left her, and she was sure she was screaming like a banshee.

I’m going to die…

 

*

 

Luca stared at the mountain of pitch-black stone they stood across the lethal drop from and wondered what trick the shadow cat had in mind. He hardened his grip around the hilt of the broad sword and prepared to decapitate the faerie creature if he dared move a muscle. But then he felt it, Min’s fear. It boiled up and spiked, and he turned to see her clamber up the grade of the mountain they were on, and fasten herself to the nearest tree.

Her fear was overwhelming, a psychic scream that made every muscle in his body tense. It tasted of stomach acid and bile, and made his legs shake for a moment. He felt her fear completely. Not a surprise, but that such a powerful and fearless warrior as she could hold such a menacing thing inside her was horrific.

He saw a flash of her memory, the first time she’d been touched by this fear…

She had been young and the world looked so large to her. On a dare from another child, one day she’d climbed a large cypress tree, and about twenty feet up, her feet slipped. For a moment all that held her from falling and certain death was her frantic grip on a smaller, weaker branch. It held just long enough for her to grab for the larger branch again before the weaker cracked off in her hand. Somehow she managed to wrap herself around that branch and close her eyes.

Something inside her had turned off that day. Her mother had had to come and get her. Somehow she’d pried Min’s limbs from the branch and gotten her down from the tree, but Min had never remembered any of it. All she remembered was holding onto that branch, and then much later holding onto her mother with the same helpless terror.

If she’d known then what she learned later, that fears left unchecked could choke the life from a person, she would have forced herself to face that one maddening fear. That a phobia like this could fester, even though you couldn’t feel it, into something insurmountable. Something that could get you killed.

The memory and Min’s inner thoughts simply stopped, and Luca felt her fear of falling cease. She was frozen, inside and out, by that fear. It had literally switched her off.

He approached her slowly, taking his time to talk to her, ignoring the impatient shadow cat and placing all his attention on the woman he loved. He had to do something to lessen the fear that held her, but what?

His instincts told him to touch her, so he did: first tentatively on the shoulder, and then another hand, this one on the nape of her neck, making skin on skin contact. She was warm, but that sense of connection, of a living electrical pulse was missing. He swallowed and ignored the doubts that flickered in his head. This was Min. The fiercest mortal he had ever met, the woman he loved. She would not lie down and die, she would fight.

And he would help her. It was what he was there for. To love and help her in every way he could.

Min? His thoughts echoed back to him, as if she were empty. But he knew she was still in there, somewhere. Can you hear me? Still nothing.

I know this is a lot to ask, but you have to push your fear away from you. You have no other choice. He tried to press some of his strength into her, as he had done before when she was injured after the Winter Queen had attacked her. But it wasn’t her body that needed repairing. He hissed in aggravation. But his touch had helped balance her not long ago, hadn’t it? His touch had helped her overcome so much already.

But that was just magick. This was something real, something that had been with her, every day since it had happened, and it was a tangible, immutable thing.

Then he thought of something else that was as much a part of her as anything else, if even more so.

“Andy needs you.” Over and over, as gently as he could, he repeated those words.

Slowly her blank, staring eyes closed, and she licked her lips. When her eyes opened again, tears streamed down her face and she shook violently.

“I can’t…” She held all the harder to the frozen tree she had attached herself to. “I c-can’t do this.”

Luca closed the distance between them until his lips were practically touching hers, her breath mingled with his. He looked deep into her big, brown eyes.

“Yeah…but we can.”

 

Chapter 28

Min blinked at her vampire. Luca’s eyes shined not only with the warm green of Summer’s magick, but with love. It made the cold, tight stranglehold of her fear loosen. He really loved her. He was so in love with her he was at her side as they marched most certainly to their deaths.

And he believed in her. She felt that from their connection. His belief and love for her throbbed and flowed into her from where his hand clasped the back of her neck. For what seemed like forever she’d held desperately tight to the frozen tree, and she’d been all alone. She hadn’t felt him, and hadn’t even been able to think of anything but how high up they were, as it had felt all those years ago to have almost fallen to her death from that blasted tree.

Why hadn’t she faced this fear before today? Was she growing feeble, or had her fear been so great that it was powerful enough to hide in plain sight?

Oh god, she was giving an emotion nefarious characteristics and sentient intelligence.

“I’ll be holding onto you the whole time,” Luca whispered. “I won’t let you fall.”

She believed him. But the roiling emotions of her fear seized her again, even through the warmth and power of their connection. It made her arms jerk and her stranglehold on the frozen tree intensified. Her eyes snapped shut.

Luca laughed. Not a kind chuckle. No, this was a mean, mocking little laugh. This laugh made her blood boil.

“Fine, fine…” he chortled in a mollifying tone. “I could carry you across. It’s not the first time I’ve had to rescue a damsel in distress.”

Anger ignited in Min’s chest and her eyes flew open. She felt the palm of her right hand burn and itch, power building there for a fireball.

“Who the hell do you think you are? I ought to burn you to a freaking cinder!”

He locked her gaze with his and slowly nodded. “There’s the Min I know.”

She was close to throwing a punch at his handsome face when it dawned on her. “You just pissed me off to get my mind off my fear, didn’t you?”

“Yep,” he made the word pop with humor. “Did it work?”

Min reached out and grabbed Luca by the collar of his bedraggled silk shirt, and pulled him into a brief though heated kiss. “Damn straight it did.”

She let go of him and turned to the seemingly endless chasm between where they were and the mount of Winter’s Keep, and the petulant shape of the shadow cat waiting on them.

“So how do we get down off this damned mountain and up the other?”

The shadow cat closed his eyes for a beat, and seemed to smile to himself. “We won’t be going down. We’re going across.”

“Across?” she asked. “Can a shadow cat sprout wings? Because I left my jet pack at home.”

In a tone one would use for the very young or mentally infirm, the cat said, “Many of the Sidhe, of the assorted faerie Courts, cannot fly. That is why the secret bridge was fashioned.”

Min laughed and made a show of looking over the cat’s head and back. “Bridge? I don’t see any bridge.”

“And why should you?” the cat said smoothly. “It wouldn’t be a secret if you could see it.”

Min looked nervously to the fathomless canyon and gulped. Luca walked past her to the edge of the cliff. He leaned down and picked up a handful of pebbles, then tossed them out in front of him. The pebbles fell swiftly into the pitch nothingness of the chasm and disappeared.

Luca stood and shook his head. “I was sure this was one of those Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade things.”

“No,” taunted the shadow cat. “It’s one of those you have to physically step out onto the expanse for it to solidify things.”

“Well, that sucks,” Luca growled. He turned back to Min. “So we have to trust this faerie—”

The shadow cat hissed, his fangs glowing sharp and white in the cold night.

“That there’s a bridge that stretches from this point to somewhere on Mount Crazy?” Luca continued. “Boy, our choices are getting better and better.”

The shadow cat cleared his throat indignantly. “If it will appease you, I shall go first. I would hardly throw myself off a cliff, now would I?”

“But you’re made out of smoke, you little kir.” Luca flicked his broad sword menacingly at the cat. “You could just float out there and we’d be none the wiser!”

A pulse of Summer heat radiated out from the dagger and into Min’s hand, and with it an idea.

Min walked over to the cat and reached out, taking a tuft of its shadowy form into her hand. It turned solid the instant she grasped it, and the cat moaned in what could have been pain or ecstasy. The cat peered up at her. He looked surprised.

“Now you’ll fall just like one of us.” She leered over the cat and showed him her teeth. The power of Summer burned in her veins, yet she could tell she was in full control. “So is there still an invisible bridge out there?”

The cat’s moon-glow eyes widened, but his gaze did not falter. “Yes, my lady. The bridge is there, and will take us to where you want to be.”

 

*

 

The first step should have been the hardest. Min held a death-grip on both Luca’s hand and the soft fur of the shadow cat. To her extreme displeasure, each step on the solid, though alarmingly invisible bridge was just as hard as the one before it. She didn’t look down…much. But even without seeing it, she couldn’t just ignore that she was walking over a thousand feet up—or that she had no idea how wide the bridge was, where it stopped, or how close she was from the edge.

Min shook her head and pulled her imagination back in check. All she needed to know was she was walking across a solid bridge, and that Luca was with her. Maybe that was why she wasn’t huddled in a little ball, shivering with her eyes clenched shut. Maybe it was his touch.

Though she knew the wind was blowing as hard as it had been on the mountain, since they had stepped foot on the invisible bridge she hadn’t felt the slightest breeze.

Guess the fae don’t like being blown off invisible bridges either.

Her heart was pounding excessively hard at the halfway mark, and only every ounce of will she had, kept her from running the last hundred feet to the dark mount of Winter’s Keep. But once there, she felt a little differently.

She’d thought her legs might give out, and she’d fall to the ground and hug and kiss it in the greatest relief of her life. But the instant her feet touched the terra firma of Winter’s Keep, the most profound sense of being in danger engulfed her. Her pounding heart sped up, her breathing came in gasping rasps, and she looked around her with such force she was sure her head would snap off.

But as the shadow cat had said, they were utterly alone, and it seemed that nothing and no one was able to see them. But still…

The shadow cat made a pained growl, and Min realized she had tightened her grip considerably. To elicit such a sound from a fae meant she was using some of the Summer Queens power. She let go of the cat’s hide, because she hadn’t meant to cause it pain, and because she certainly didn’t want to be using the Summer Queen’s powers for no good reason.

The shadow cat shook itself, as if it was wet, and then made a somewhat agonized sound. Again, Min could not tell if it was pleasure or pain. It prowled forward and swiped an insubstantial, though sharp looking, claw over the stone side of the mountain. Immediately the darker-than-night stone split open, and though there wasn’t any light emitted from inside of the crag, there were eerie green and red lights, almost like the veins of color in marble, and they throbbed, gently moved, and even changed shapes.

“My lady,” the cat pronounced, and looked over its shoulder to her, “here is the way you seek. This passage will lead us to the great hall. There you will find your sister, and the Queen.” The cat glided into the fissure.

Min wondered only for a moment why her sister would be held captive so close to the Queen, but the pulsing heat of Summer told her the answer.

She will keep her prize in sight of her own eyes; at least until she has taken what she wants from it.

Min shivered at the words that had floated through her mind. The Queen thought of her sister as nothing more than an object of power, something to own, to devour.

Luca gripped her hand all the harder, and then pulled away, taking both the shotgun and the sword in alternate hands, ready to fight.

Min gritted her teeth. Over my dead body.

Her grip of the silver faerie blade hardened, and she plunged into the dark fissure with sure, urgent strides.

 

*

 

The fissure didn’t lead in a straight shot. It curved and jutted from side to side, but Min got the definite feeling they were heading deeper and deeper into the mountain. The walls throbbed all the more brightly, so she could make out the shadow cat’s shape as it slithered before her. Luca moved backward and watched the way they’d come.

Then, with a jarring abruptness, they came upon a dead end. The wall before them was huge and solid, and carved with glyphs and runes—all symbols alien to Min. But one rune did come across to her loud and clear. It practically glowed as she stepped closer to it.

Summer shall not pass, it read.

Min shivered as the words passed through her mind and caused cold tingles of fear through her. Did this mean the power of Summer couldn’t come with her? Would she have to face the Winter Queen and her minions without any help at all?

The warmth of Summer flowed into her, at first pleasant, and then red hot. The weight of the dagger evaporated in her hand, scalding as its metal melted into her flesh. She looked down to her outstretched palm and a silver rune glowed in answer. It read, Go with thou, shall I.

Okay, that was weird. But as Min’s mind tried to wrap itself around what she was looking at, the power of Summer enveloped her, and she knew. The runes warding the Winter Queen’s center of power would keep out Summer’s eternal power, but it wasn’t designed to keep out a mortal. And even though Summer’s power flowed through her like water, she was still only a mortal.

“Open it, Graysyn.”

Luca changed his stance, so to see the way they were heading, his sword held to strike before them, the Bellini pointed to the rear. The shadow cat looked up with his smoky, moonlit eyes, and with a swipe of his claws the wall started to open.

It slid open silently, and the room it led to wasn’t so much lit as it glowed with moonlight. It was huge, with vaulted ceilings, and grand sculptures adorned its walls. Some were carved murals of battles past. Some were of goblins holding actual gems the size of human skulls in their grasps. Some were life-sized mermaids, parts of their bodies reaching out, beckoning. Sirens.

But the room was empty, and there wasn’t a door of exit anywhere in sight.

The shadow cat’s eyes flicked left and right, and it growled out a confused sound. And just as it started to fade and disappear, a net of silvery light lashed up out of the stone floor and caught it whole, wrapping around it and holding it painfully flat to the ground. The cat hissed and cried as the silver treads of the net dug into its form and seared its shadowy flesh.

Without any more warning, twenty shapes appeared around them as if they’d always been there. They’d been veiled so well, even the shadow cat hadn’t been able to tell.

Luca reached out and pulled Min back toward him, both the sword and the shotgun facing the sudden cadre of faeries.

“Betray our Queen, you have,” a tall, beautiful Sidhe man said, his long hair the white of snow, his eyes glowing golden. In his hands he held a long, menacing silver trident. His voice was deep and metallic, utterly inhuman. “For that, you shall pay for an eternity.”

He turned his cruel golden eyes upon Min and Luca, and the smile that formed on his face was not his own. Min knew this smile, and the voice that came next from the male’s lips was smooth and feminine, and absolutely crazed. The voice of the Winter Queen. “But you two, I think, will die now.” And she laughed, the sound like the tinkling of tiny bells, beautiful and painful all at once.

The assembled fae gave a cackle of glee and all of them surged forward at once.

 

Chapter 29

A goblin reached out for Min, but his lumpy knuckled claw fell off at the wrist as Luca severed it with a flick of his sword. The wound burned a hot green, and the creature shrieked in agony.

But that didn’t deter any of the others. The faeries moved on them like a tidal wave, and though Luca slew three more of their number before she could even breathe, Min knew he was sorely out matched. But then she took a breath—and the room stood still for a quivering moment. And without even thinking about it she took hold of the ogre closest to her, a huge beast probably twenty times her size, and smashed the creature into the wall to her left. It hit the great stone with a dull, wet thud, and she heard its thick bones crunch from the blow.

She spun back to the oncoming fae and they had barely even moved. Either time had slowed down or she was moving far faster than her usual. She backhanded a slimy creature with what looked like spider web encrusted antlers. It hit the floor like a load of bricks. And then there were six fae charging her all at once. Both her palms burned with fierce heat, and she lifted them as she moved forward. Flames so great it could have been the very fires of hell, erupted from her hands and leveled the charging fae. No, they weren’t knocked down by the magick fire, they were incinerated by it.

Luca at her back, Min moved forward with quick, clicking strides, blasting any creature that dared get in her way with the white-hot fire of Summer. Her blood blazed with the glory and power of it. It was nice to for once be the more powerful. Hell, the power she was wielding was more than anything she could imagine. It made her heart pound with unbidden longing. Somehow, deep inside, she wanted even more power.

Her steps faltered for only a moment, but she shook the greedy hunger from her like a watershed. This power wasn’t hers. If she started thinking it was hers to keep, then she would find herself owned body and soul by the devious faerie Queen who had started this whole mess.

And the bitch had, hadn’t she? Min made a note to take that up with her royal highness the very next time they met…if they ever met again. For with all the power surging through her at the moment, just looking at the far wall, and the double doors that were suddenly materializing before her, she knew without a doubt that power wouldn’t make a bit of difference.

She still hadn’t a chance in hell against the Queen of Winter on her home turf. Nobody did.

But she pushed through the gilded door all the same, making the not-quite-formed entrance crack as she pitted her new strength against it. The doors swung open, overly dramatic as the hinges whined their displeasure, and Min saw a room ten times the size of the previous chamber, ceiling rising out of sight, walls an icy black, yet sparkling with their own kind of fae light.

The room was filled not only with a ghastly assortment of many different, and rather nauseatingly gruesome faeries, but also some of the most beautiful men and women Min had ever laid eyes on. And they were all looking at her, all calm, all absolutely certain of what was going to happen next.

Min looked forward to the front of the great room. There, on a raised altar, was an enormous throne. It sparkled like diamonds, but was most certainly ice, and the cascades of ice rose up and up and up, as far as the eye could see. A chilling, beautiful thing. But as Min looked harder, the ice had shapes in it; bodies, nude and held in the throes of ecstasy and agony. Some human, many obviously not. All, Min just seemed to know, were not just sculptures. They had been real, alive…and even now, they still were.

She saw a woman, by far the most beautiful creature in the room, standing over the kneeling, shuddering form of her sister. Andy was held to the spot by long silver shackles, and she was sickly pale and crying.

The Queen turned and a brilliant smile parted her lovely, blue lips. Her teeth were stark white, and as her mouth opened more, her red, red tongue curled with pleasure.

“Oh look, my little star, your sister comes to the rescue.” She turned back to Andy and grabbed a handful of her hair, jerking her face to see Min. Her eyes were swollen and red, and she was obviously scared out of her mind. But the moment she laid eyes on her sister, a surge of hope, of utter love and gratefulness filled them. And then very distinctly, the glow of defiance.

 

*

 

Andy could not believe her eyes. I’m not alone…

Min was there. Min had come for her. Min was aglow with fae power, and as pissed off and dangerous looking as Andy had ever seen her. The vampire was behind her, his back pressed against Min’s, a broad sword in one hand, and the family Bellini in the other.

She hadn’t a hope that anyone would, or even could come for her. She’d read long ago that there were very few ways any mortal, witch or no, could make their way into Faerie. And to make it to the heart of Faerie, to the heart of Winter…

But there stood her courageous sister, and though it was impossible she had come, the moment their eyes met, Andy felt a surge of something more than hope, more than gratefulness. She felt loved. Her sister loved her enough to lay down her own life to save her.

She really wasn’t alone.

“You’re an idiot,” Andy sobbed, but a smile pulled at her lips.

Silence spread through the gargantuan chamber, and Min’s eyes softened as she looked at her sister. “I couldn’t just leave you with her, now could I?”

And then Min’s eyes hardened again and glowed an unnatural green. “Okay, bitch. Let her go and I won’t wipe the floor with you!”

The Winter Queen smiled and let go of Andy’s hair, causing her balance to shift and she fell over to the floor. By the time she regained her kneeling position the faerie Queen was slithering down the stairs leading to Min, and frigid darkness seemed to gather around her, like spider webs.

No…

 

*

 

Min didn’t wait for the faerie Queen to attack; she started throwing the hell hot flares of fire at her the second she started down the stairs. The Queen stopped for the briefest of moments, having caught the great lance of flame in her hand. She held it, as if examining it, and then snuffed it out by closing her hand. She laughed and started forward again, not hurrying one bit.

Min kept throwing the flames. Maybe the closer she got, the more Summer’s power would work. But she knew that was just wishful thinking. But that didn’t mean she couldn’t throw every ounce of heat Summer had implanted in her at the bitch.

But the more she threw at her, the more easily, it seemed, the Winter Queen swatted it away. And the closer the Queen got, the colder the air felt. For the first time since first entering Faerie, Min felt everything in her start to be chewed and blown away by the bone crushing cold of Winter.

It wasn’t that Summer had abandoned her, it just wasn’t enough. Having the Winter Queen so close was overwhelming Summer completely.

Min let out an involuntary scream as the Winter Queen reached out her snow white, blue nailed hand toward her face. Luca turned in a flash and the hand he held the iron sword in flashed to take off the Queen’s head. But the Queen was oh so much faster than Luca, and with a single light touch Luca halted, his hand turning to ice, and his entire body freezing solid in no more than a heartbeat. His breath came out in a cloudy gasp and died before he could say another word.

Min’s heart stopped beating as she watched her lover be turned into an ice sculpture…would that kill a vampire? And in an instant she felt her own fiery anger well up within her. That emotion joined with the fire of Summer, and she raised her hand, the one with the silver rune emblazoned upon it, to Sliva’s heart.

But again the faerie Queen was too fast, and she clamped her far hand on Min’s wrist, and the other rose dramatically, the perfect flesh turning to a cold, crystalline claw, which slashed down and cut into Min’s palm.

Good god it hurt. It wasn’t just the wound though, Min knew. It was the fact that Sliva was gouging out the power of Summer from her as well. And even though it was only borrowed power, it had been wrapped around her very soul, rooted deep into her very being. It felt as if the faerie were scraping out her very life force with that diamond-like claw.

Min screamed and thrashed against the faerie Queen, but it didn’t even make the Queen wobble in the slightest. She felt herself fading as the Queen’s icy fingers found what they had been looking for, and clasped around it.

She knew in that moment that if the Queen pried the power of Summer from her like that, it would most certainly kill her. And in that moment she knew, just knew—she had failed her sister completely.

 

Chapter 30

Andy pulled with all her strength against the bonds that held her to the spot, but to no avail. She would not be able to help her sister at all. The Summer Queen’s words, that she was the only thing that could stop Sliva, had been a crock. Tears ran down her face as she listened to Min’s agonized cries. The Winter Queen was tearing the very life out of her. And there wasn’t a thing she could…

Then something hit her in the face: one very interesting fact. The Winter Queen had had her in her possession for what seemed like hours, and yet she hadn’t consumed her.

Why not?

She could hurt her, but she hadn’t just devoured her as Andy had imagined her doing. If anything, the Queen had…she had been trying to force Andy into allowing her to do so. She’d been doing nothing but trying to make Andy give up.

And hadn’t she been so very close to doing that? To giving in to the heartless, evil bitch? But that was until she’d laid eyes on her sister; her sister who was going to die at the Winter Queens hand. Who was going to die any moment.

But what had the Summer Queen said? That this had all been a trick. To make her cousin want her in the worst way, to make her want her so much that…

That she forgot I was a being of light.

Adrenaline rushed through her veins and she screamed her next word with such intensity, the walls of the throne-room all but shook. “Stop!”

Every set of eyes in the chamber turned toward her, including the Winter Queen’s. That’s all this had been, more trickery. Sliva was using Min to push her into giving up.

Was there no freaking end to faerie treachery?

Andy let her emotions flow. She was very much afraid for her sister’s life. And she allowed all that fear and worry to choke her now, to make her words as pathetic as possible.

“I give up…I give up. Please, you can do whatever you want with me…just d-don’t hurt her!”

 

*

 

Sliva closed her eyes as Andy spoke, as if she were listening to the most divine music. Satisfaction filled the chilling beauty of her face. Min shuddered as she realized what she’d done. The Queen hadn’t been able to eat Andy’s power. That’s why she’d been torturing her, to make her give in. And now…

And now her sister was going to give her exactly what she’d wanted.

To save me…

No…

Min tried to tell her sister not to give up, to not let the faerie bitch touch her. But Sliva twisted her fingers into Min’s hand all the harder, and all that escaped Min’s lips were agonized screams. The words in her head liquefied into those feral cries.

“You give yourself to me to do as I wish?” Sliva’s voice was hard, and sharp as a scalpel.

“Yes,” Andy blurted, breathing hard, her voice cracked and hoarse. “Anything you want. Just let my sister live.”

Sliva looked down upon Min, for she was a limp weight now, held up only by the faerie Queen’s arm, and the hand that was magically penetrating her own.

“Your offer is most satisfactory…I accept.”

Sliva released her hold on Min, extracting her hand from hers. Min fell to the floor, at the feet of her frozen vampire, and she tried pulling in breath enough to call out to her sister, but when she rolled over she saw the Winter Queen was already by Andy’s side.

Andy stood, the silver manacles that had held her to the floor now gone, she stood staring into Sliva’s eyes as the faerie Queen crept closer. Like a great snake that had captured a mouse with its gaze.

Sliva reached out and touched Andy’s shoulder, the serpentine smile on her face widened, her eyes bulged with excitement.

No, no, no…run Andy, run! But the pain the faerie Queen had caused her had sapped so much of Min’s strength, she could hardly pull in breath—speaking was out of her grasp.

As if she could read Min’s mind, Andy turned and glanced at her, all fear gone, a knowing grin spreading across her pretty pink lips.

And she winked.

 

*

 

Andy knew the moment Sliva touched her that this insane plan of hers was going to work. Unlike before, when the faerie Queen touched her, she could feel a dark power begin to bite down on her, it was painful and smothering.

And it was exactly what she needed: a way in.

Before, Andy had felt nothing but fear and hopelessness. But now she was filled with heart-stopping hope, and with joy. Joy that her sister had truly loved her after all. And joy that she was about to save both of their lives.

She turned toward the dark faerie Queen and slapped her hands up on either side of her face. Gleefully she pressed her lips to the ice-cold lips of the Winter Queen, and everything turned blindingly bright.

 

Chapter 31

Min gasped. She could feel the sudden reaction the moment her sister laid her lips on the Winter Queen. It was as if water had splashed against a red skillet, but a million times stronger. She heard a scream of agony, so alien and blood curdling she had to cover her ears. As did every fae in the huge chamber. The next thing she knew the room exploded with the most brilliant, retina burning light. A light so powerful, that came in such thunderous waves, Min felt it like a scorching wind over her skin.

Min rolled away, for the light was so bright that even closing her eyes wasn’t enough. Oh god, am I going to die anyway? Is this the price for saving my sister?

If it was, then she would embrace it with open arms.

A moment later the light receded. There wasn’t a sound, only Min’s labored breathing and her heart pounding in her ears. She blinked her eyes open. They hurt, and she had one hell of a headache, but the sight she saw made her gasp and try to pull herself up from the ground. Luca was kneeling by her side, alive, and no longer frozen like a statue.

But her arms and legs weren’t cooperating. They were still weak from the brutal pain she’d withstood at the faerie Queen’s hand. Luca scooped her up and pulled her to him, and to her feet in the blink of an eye. She kissed him. And it felt so right. He was hers and always would be.

And then she felt a stab of the most horrifying angst. Andy…

She whirled around, wishing suddenly she had a sword in her hand, or the Bellini.

Andy stood all alone before the great ice throne, black dust floated in motes through the still air. Andy glowed still, and her face was radiant with joy. Min had never seen her look so happy.

Of course no one else in that chamber looked happy in the least; the fae who weren’t reaching for silver swords, were moving back from the glowing form of her sister, cowering.

Andy’s expression slowly changed; the joyousness in her turned into a hard little smile. She turned from Min and looked around her at the assembled Sidhe lords. And as she did, the glow about her intensified, and the fae with their swords drawn, backed away quickly. They held arms and literal shields up to protect their eyes. And there was a strange smoldering, a pitch black smoke, roiling off of every single faerie in the room. There were agonized moans, and some dropped to the ground, rolling in on themselves like a ball.

The radiance around Andy rose to a crescendo, and then slowly subsided until she was merely glowing again. Min had never seen a god or goddess before—at least not one in the glory of their power—but the anger-powered glower her little sister was casting down from the throne dais was as close to one as she ever wanted to witness again. The icy throne at her back shimmered with multiple rainbows and cascading lights like the Aurora Borealis.

Andy stalked from the throne, glaring viciously at every Sidhe she saw. They—every single one of them—looked down in submission as she passed them. Min’s sister had obviously made her point. Don’t screw with me.

Andy’s smile returned when she was about a yard away from her sister, as radiant as ever.

“Wow,” Min mouthed to her.

Andy suddenly froze in place, her eyes going wide, and then filling with a faraway look. Min could practically see the gears in her head turning, and a gleam flared in her eyes. Or more precisely, her irises turned to glittering diamonds, imbued with their own light.

She turned and glared once more at the Sidhe lords. They all seemed to shrink under her scrutiny.

“Your Queen’s power is not lost to you. I’m sure you can feel it in the air.”

A few brave souls nodded in agreement.

“Soon that power will choose one of you as the next ruler of the Unseelie Court. So let me make this perfectly clear right here and now.” Andy moved slowly toward the mass of faeries like a predator, and the herd scattered and shifted position in reflexive response.

“I have no plans to ever set foot in Faerie again, or to interfere in the affairs of either Court.” She stopped in the dead center of the room and looked about her with a ferocious intensity. When she spoke again the power of her voice made the ancient stone of the chamber walls shake and dust and pieces of rubble fell from the vaulted ceiling. “But if any of you bitches comes anywhere near me and mine again, I’ll come back here and burn every single one of you to a fucking cinder!”

The fae just stood there, frozen in fear, staring at Min’s little sister like she was the devil herself.

Andy cocked her head to the side, a haughty expression making her face look mean as hell. “I’m sorry, I’m not looking for silent fear here. What I want right here and now is for all accounted to swear that they will never come near or bother in any way me or mine again.” She rubbed her hands together and sizzling flashes of light hissed between her touching flesh.

A long moment of silence stretched out. “Swear it!” Andy snarled.

The Sidhe lords fell into a bowing stance before Andy, and they all said, in a frightened murmur of English and fae, that they so swore it.

Min could feel the thrum of magick as so many powerful beings made a promise. The energies that washed over the room were intoxicating and rich. It made her swoon, and made the warm power of Summer that still lay within her stand up and take notice. She thought she could almost hear the tinkling laughter of the Summer Queen.

That almost sound sobered Min up fast.

That bitch!

They were so going to have a talk after all this was over…but on second thought, looking at her sister, healthy and whole, and Luca…maybe she would just let it go. If storming the stronghold of a faerie Queen had taught her nothing else, it was that she was egregiously outmatched.

Andy turned to Min and smiled. “I don’t think any of these guys will cause us any more trouble.”

Luca snorted. “You think?”

“Yeah, sister mine,” Min said as she pulled Andy to her in a fierce embrace, “you stomped on them real good.” She laughed. “I can’t wait to see mom’s face when you tell her what you did.”

Andy’s face suddenly turned serious. “Where is she? Is she alright?”

“She’s fine,” Min said, holding onto Andy’s hand. “She got possessed by the Summer Queen for a minute, opened a gateway here, and has been holding it open from the other side.”

“Oh.” Andy looked surprised, and then leered at Min. “I bet she just loved the being possessed part.”

“I imagine it was the highlight of this whole operation for her.”

Min and Andy broke out in full-throated laughter. Luca looked on with just a hint of an impatient scowl. “Speaking of the porthole, Katarina said she wouldn’t be able to hold it open forever. And I doubt anyone will want to go back the way we came.”

Min looked behind her at the anteroom they’d entered through. It was empty, except for some charred mounds of faerie, and the glowing, empty net of moonlight that the shadow cat had been imprisoned in.

Graysyn had apparently escaped.

She groaned at the thought of crossing over that damn invisible bridge again. And then the cool, collected voice of the Summer Queen spoke in Min’s head.

If you will forgive, I know a much easier, quicker route you could take to get back to your world…

Min rolled her eyes and tapped her foot impatiently.

Is there an extra price for this favor?

Min could practically sense the evil bitch smile.

Shall we call this even? You did me a great service, and now I’m returning that favor.

Not even close to even…but I really don’t want to go over that bridge again. Fine! Even.

Min felt a sudden warming in her chest, and then in her head. Somehow she just knew that if she turned and walked out of the throne room, and down a hall that only opened when you touched the hand of the mermaid frozen in the wall, that at the end of that corridor was a balcony.

Min opened the silver and glass door that led out to the balcony, and there, swirling in lurid, living color was a porthole. The swirling stopped for a moment and showed an image of Katarina sitting in a chair facing the porthole, effort making creases in her face.

“Mom!” Andy and Min blurted at the same time. They grabbed each other’s hand, and then Min reached back and took hold of Luca’s hand. They moved to the porthole and stepped through.

 

*

 

Just passing back into their own world felt like the weight of the world had fallen off Min’s shoulders. She sighed and drew in a giant breath.

Katarina’s eyes shot open, and she laughed one perfect “Ha!” and then flung herself up out of the chair and toward her daughters. She looked weak, and older than she had when they had left, but that didn’t stop her from getting to her daughters.

“Oh my precious girls…I was so…” her voice cracked from strain, and she began to sob uncontrollably. But, to Min’s immense relief, they were sobs of joy. “I can’t believe you did it.” She kissed Min on the cheek. “You brought her back to us.”

“Well,” Min said, pushing back her own tears, “your little girl did most of the heavy lifting. You should have seen her. Really scary.”

Andy laughed. “Yeah right! You should have seen this one storm into the stronghold of the Winter Queen, the fires of hell blazing out of her freaking hands. It was amazing.”

“But you should have seen yourself—”

“Ladies?” Luca interrupted. “There will be plenty of time to tell the whole tale, but for now I suggest we move this to your house, and to those nifty wards you’ve told me about.”

Min smiled, and was about to pull her vampire into a deep, rhapsodic kiss, when she abruptly realized that there was an object in her hand—the silver fae dagger from the Summer Queen. She opened her hand and looked down upon it, just as one of the Summer Queen’s huge hounds appeared from under the veil it had been hiding under.

The hound’s eyes glowed a sinister red, and it opened its great, fanged mouth and stared silently at Min.

“R-right,” Min stammered, and very slowly set the dagger into the hound’s gapping maw. And just like that, the beast disappeared behind the veil again. There were no sounds of it moving across the tiled floor of the diner, but the door to the outside banged open, the bell over it ringing harshly.

Min reached out and kissed her vampire, breathless and exhilarated, and exhausted. He tasted so very good. “Let’s go home.”

 

Chapter 32

They talked for hours. Not much came from Andy’s lips about what happened to her before Min showed up at Winter’s Keep, but what she did talk about came in excited bursts. She’d been so unbelievably happy to see Min. She had given up, but just seeing her sister, knowing how much she had to have gone through just to get there—it had ironed her flagging will. It was the reason why she could have done what she’d done.

“So how did you know…know that you could destroy her like that?” Katarina asked, shaking her head.

“I knew Min needed help…and I remembered the Summer Queen telling me how hard she had worked to make the Winter Queen want to have me. And she had said that it had worked so well that the Winter Queen had forgotten that I was a being of light.

“Plus the Queen couldn’t feed on me until I allowed her to. That had to mean something. So I just rolled the dice.”

“It was amazing,” Min yawned. She felt happy. The tension in her shoulders had relaxed away as her vampire held her close. She wanted nothing more than to fall asleep there and then, in her lover’s arms.

Andy cleared her throat and winked at Katarina. Their mother didn’t look thrilled to have a vampire in the house, but since he had just helped save both of her daughter’s lives, it seemed she was going to work around it.

“Looks like we could all use a little shut eye.” She caught Min in the crosshairs of her mighty gaze. “I think we all need sleep.”

In other words, Min translated, no fooling around. She nodded her head. “Yes ma’am.” There would be plenty of time in the morning to blow her mother’s mind with tales of hot vampire sex. She led the way upstairs, pulling Luca along. When they were finally alone in her room, he helped Min undress, kissing her sore flesh at every visible bruise, and before she knew it she was lying in bed, the covers pulled up around her, her vampire naked beside her, pulling her up against him as she fell fast into sleep.

 

*

 

Andy felt warm and safe in her old room. Her mother was well again, and it only seemed right that she was back under the same roof as her mother and sister. But a couple of hours later she was still lying in her old bed, wide awake.

Why can’t I sleep?

Because this isn’t who you are anymore.

She punched her pillow and scrunched up her eyes. She was so tired. Vaporizing a faerie Queen really took it out of you. But she just couldn’t relax completely. Part of her, a very big part of her, wanted to be home, and this just wasn’t home anymore.

Her little dog looked up with worried doggy eyes from where he lay on the bed beside her. Andy rumpled his little furry ears, and then pulled herself up out of bed and got dressed again.

She gathered up Brutus, who was quivering with excitement, and called for a cab. The taxi company called a couple of minutes before the cab would arrive. Standing all alone, even on a well lit street, made Andy’s nerves stand on end. She turned and looked down the street to find nothing. Then she turned the other way and about jumped out of her skin. Min’s vampire, Luca, was standing there silently, looking across the street.

“This is really stupid of you.”

She scowled at him and then turned to face away from him. “My cab should be here any minute. You should go back to Min.”

He shook his head ever so slightly. “Min would want me here, with you.”

“I can’t sleep, okay? I thought, since none of the fae would be coming near me for a very long time that it would be safe to go home, to my own bed.”

“I get that.” The vampire stood unbelievably still for a moment, not breathing, not blinking. He was like a statue, literally. “But I can’t let you travel there alone.”

Andy glared at him menacingly. “I’m not going back in—”

“I’ll ride with you, and make sure you’re safe.”

“Oh,” Andy said, the anger dying from her like a snuffed out candle. “Uh, thanks.”

The cab pulled up a moment later, and Andy and the vampire got in. It wasn’t much of a drive, and thankfully the vampire didn’t feel too chatty. But Andy finally found herself babbling, about how she understood now why her mother had kept this from her, but that it still kind of pissed her off. And she was glad that Min had him, but “If you ever hurt her, I-I…I’ll…”

Luca looked at her nonplussed.

“I’ll make what I did to the Winter Queen look like a bad sunburn. We clear?”

A smirk played on the edges of the vampire’s lips. “Crystal.”

Andy turned away, shaking her head, but a smile was pulling at the sides of her mouth. She liked the vampire. It was hard not to like someone that had literally risked life and limb to help save you. You’d be a sorry piece of work if you didn’t.

Finally the cab arrived in front of Andy’s house. She sighed as she looked up at the huge granite edifice. There were lights on here and there, but mostly the apartment building was asleep. It was well after midnight, after all.

Andy pulled her dog closer to her and looked over to the little park where she usually walked him. It was usually dimly lit, but the moon was full and illuminated everything until it practically sparkled.

That’s how she saw that Sam was sitting there at the lone picnic table, his big beast of a dog by his side. Her heart leapt up into her throat, and then she felt a surge of adrenaline. She wanted to go talk to him in the worst way. And since he was just sitting there, it seemed that he might be waiting for her too.

“I thought you were going up to your apartment?” the vampire asked. And then he looked over to where Andy’s eyes were focused. “Oh, I see.” And then he gave a little laugh. Not an unkind sound, just amused. “Well, he seems safe enough.”

Andy glanced at him, not really knowing if he’d meant that last as a small insult, or whether he meant it. In truth she didn’t care. She just wanted to get to her not-so-secret crush. The dark creatures and monsters of the world would just have to find someone else to hassle for a little while. She had plans.

She got out of the cab and set Brutus on the ground. She listened to the cab drive off as she and Brutus walked quickly toward the park. She must have been walking pretty quietly, because Sam was muttering to himself, and didn’t seem to know she was approaching.

But Shylock noticed, and whined affectionately when he spied her coming.

Sam turned, the look on his face turning from surprised to happy in a heartbeat. But she saw that something long and shiny had been in his hand, and now wasn’t. Just that fast.

He stood and was about to say something, but just didn’t seem able to do so. It was comical, and endearing, and a couple of days ago it might have been disastrous. If he’d gotten tongue tied, then her nerves would’ve jumbled, and she would’ve been tongue tied too. Or worse, she might have started babbling. But instead she smiled and said, “Waiting for me?”

His handsome Anglo Saxon face blushed, and a guilty smile lit up his face. She loved his smile. It was boyish yet masculine at the same time. It didn’t hurt that it belonged to such a great-looking man.

He had broad shoulders, a well-muscled body, and straight brown hair long enough to brush his shoulders. Not to mention his hazel eyes. They changed with his mood, or what he was looking at. And as he looked at her they changed from a cool blue to a radiant green.

“Yeah…I missed you last night. I was home but you weren’t.”

Andy didn’t take her eyes from his, just shrugged. “I had a family thing across town. Stayed overnight with my mother and sister.”

A relieved look shown on his face, for just a moment, and then he covered it up with a hasty smile. “Good, I mean, it’s good you get along well with your family. Family’s important.”

Absently he rubbed his hand over his mouth, obviously thinking over what he was going to say next. But Andy noticed something peculiar. A ring, old and gold, and topped off with a ruby and diamond insignia. She’d seen this emblem before, in books, and had always thought they were either remnants of a forgotten time, or simply fiction.

But standing across from Sam, the moon shining down upon them, she knew he wasn’t just some pretender. The light made him shine just a little more than anything else. An inner light she had somehow ignored up until then.

Faith.

No, he was the real deal. An honest to goodness Knight of the Cross.

Andy gasped as this realization hit her brain. She was a star—or a piece of one—fallen to earth and was now human. Well, human with a bunch of unknown powers. And she had a huge crush on her neighbor…and he was a freaking Holy Knight of the Cross, a crusader, a fist of god.

“What’s wrong?” Sam’s expression had turned alarmed.

Andy realized she’d been holding her breath. She let it out, took another deep breath and smiled, more to herself.

Any other day this might have all been too much for her to handle. But today, after the couple of days she’d had, it just didn’t seem like that big of a deal.

She walked past Sam and sat down at the picnic table, letting Brutus pounce around on his leash.

“Nothing,” she said. She decided to let him tell her about his real job in his own time. She knew that secrets were tricky things, and that they were usually kept for a good reason. She leaned back against the wood of the table and extended her arm to point at the bench left beside her.

“Want to sit and talk for a bit?”

Sam’s face lit up again, and he quickly sat down beside her. “So,” he said, “do you come here often?”

Andy laughed. “All the time. I like the swings the best.”

 

***End***

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Better Off Dead

A Lucy Hart DEATHDEALER Novel

*

Stella Blaze

 

Copyright 2012, 2016

Previously published as Last Rites

Shakespir Edition

 

Edited by Stephanie T. Lott (aka Bibliophile)

 

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Shakespir.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

 

Chapter 1

 

SOMETHING glinted out in the cool September night and caught Lucy Hart’s eye. She peered out the large picture window over the kitchen sink and scanned the area between the swimming pool and the cabana house. Just trees and perfectly manicured privacy hedges, and a cluster of swaying hibiscus.

Speaking of perfectly manicured, she spotted a chip in her own manicure—she would need to duck out on second period study hall to get it repaired. She’d go before school but her nail salon didn’t open its doors until nine.

She gazed out the window again to the thicket surrounding the back yard. She had always been able to see extremely well in the dark. Just some freak genetic quirk—handy in haunted houses on Halloween, or when rolling blackouts intruded on California life.

“Weird…” she said as she turned her attention to her near empty can of diet Coke.

“Talk about weird!” Tara exclaimed dramatically. She had scarlet and gold paint not only speckled on her nails, in her golden blond hair, but smeared on her white Sketchers and a smudge on her cheek. “Did you see Kara Strom today at lunch? She was totally trying to move her skanky butt in on Drew!”

She rolled her eyes as she gulped the last of her diet Coke, tossed it in the trash can and retrieved another cold can from the refrigerator. “Sorry, didn’t see your name monogrammed on the boy.”

Tara made that little noise, like she was choking on a peanut, and she knew she’d pressed the right button to get her off the subject. She certainly wasn’t going to spend twenty minutes listening to Tara vent about a boy she had only gone to one minor dance with. It wasn’t even a formal. And since Tara was her number two on the cheer squad, she had pressing business to discuss before she went upstairs to the more entertaining possibility waiting in her bedroom.

“Everything cleaned up?” She pulled her long mahogany tresses back in a casual ponytail and tied it back with a silver hair-band.

Tara shook the unhappy look off her face and replaced it with a sycophantic smile. “Yep. I got all the paint off your mom’s floor, the other girls took the banners to the gymnasium for tomorrow, and I took everything else out to the trash.”

The entire cheer squad had been there creating lavish, cloyingly spirited banners for the pep rally at the end of school tomorrow. She had supervised while the other girls had done all the painting and cutting and hot-glue gunning. Tara had supervised, and obviously participated in, the cleanup while she changed into her nightshirt.

“Did you tell Mellissa she’s on probation?” Lucy asked. “She has to cut ten pounds. Her skirt is starting to ride up and everything.”

She watched the naughty smile spread across Tara’s lips. “She was in tears. Maybe we should tell her fifteen pounds, see if we can’t make her into an Olsen twin.” She giggled wickedly.

She ran her finger over the outside of her diet Coke can, picking up the condensation on her fingertip. “She’s not the only one who needs to trim a few pounds. I’ve still got knee marks on my back from this afternoon’s practice…Tara!”

“Me?” She made that little choking sound again, and she sniffled. The color drained from her face. “But I’m the smallest girl on the team.”

Which she was, thus she was always the apex of their cheerleader pyramids. And since by size Lucy was on the very next level, she knew without a doubt that somewhere on that birdlike frame Tara had packed on some pounds.

“I expect you to lose it by next week’s game.” Lucy gently ushered Tara from the kitchen and pushed her down the hall to the foyer, and the front door. “So that means a dry bran muffin for breakfast, a tuna salad sandwich on wheat for lunch, and a salad with light dressing on the side for dinner. Got it?”

Tara’s intake of breath rattled. “I will… I promise.”

Lucy smiled. It was just too easy to manipulate people.

“Okay, good. Then I’ll see you in first period and we can go over exactly how much you need to lose. Night-night!” She shut the door in Tara’s face, turned on her heel and returned to the kitchen. She let her mind wander upstairs to where her boyfriend waited in her bedroom.

She’d just changed into her Stanford nightshirt when Jeff had knocked on her window, teetering perilously from a trellis of bougainvillea. The nightshirt was just an oversized men’s Stanford embossed T-shirt her daddy had picked up at his last class reunion. It was his alma mater, and he wanted her to matriculate there as well.

Her grades were excellent, and she had quite the resume of extracurricular activities—and since her father was an alumnus of their law school, and rich as sin, she felt she was a shoe in.

She’d left Jeff alone so he could deliberate whether he wanted to do as she commanded, or leave the way he came: through the window, and without even a kiss goodnight. She was certain he would obey—when it came right down to it, guys always conceded. Their pride almost never precluded them from embarrassing acts of degradation, especially if they were horny.

She grabbed her diet Coke and her phone, and right before she clicked off the kitchen lights she glanced out the window again. A dark figure stood by the privacy hedge, billowing in the Santa Anna winds like a pitch black swath of night. It was so much darker than anything else. She shivered as her hand touched something soft.

She gasped and jerked her gaze to what she’d touched. Her mother’s orange tabby cat purred up at her from his perch on the counter by the light switch. His green eyes sparkled, begging her for attention.

“Tigger!” She turned back to the window and found the yard vacant once more. She looked harder, held her breath then slowly let it out as relief spread through her. Nothing or no one looked back.

She shook her head and gave the tabby a quick scratch from behind his ears down his back, and then clicked off the lights.

Weird the things you think you see when you look out into darkness.

Heading upstairs she passed by her door, purposely wanting to say good night to her parents before they decided to knock on her door and ruin her little boyfriend fashion show. She couldn’t dim the grin that thought gave her as she leaned against the doorframe of her parents’ bedroom. It was huge, even bigger than her room—and the master bathroom was to die for.

She’d asked them…well… back when she was twelve she’d demanded they swap rooms with her, but that was one of the few things her father, Adam Hart, would not budge on.

“Turning in?” her mother said in her singsong voice, a tennis equipment catalogue spread in her lap. Tennis and its many very expensive accessories were her mother’s most recent obsession. Lucy cringed every time she saw her mother’s fuller figure packed into some little white tennis dress.

She should try black…it’s always slimming, and out in the hot sun it might just help her burn off some weight.

She gave her mother an innocent smile and said, “Me sleepy… yawn…” and brought her hand up to pantomime quelling an actual yawn.

Her father stepped out of the master bath and his face lit up—as usual—the instant he looked at her. He’d taken off his suit jacket, but still had his tie on, which meant he had some briefs or something lawyerly to look over before he turned in.

That meant she would need to keep Jeff quiet. She’d had Jeff in her bedroom before without incident. The bathroom and a linen closet were both positioned between their room and hers. With her door shut nothing much could be heard.

Her father stepped up and pecked her affectionately on the cheek. “Good night, my little girl.”

She pretended his calling her a little girl still, even though she was a senior in high school, was gross—but secretly she loved it every time he said it.

And she loved his aftershave—Lagerfeld—and she inhaled a long whiff of it before she blew her mother a kiss and retreated down the hall to her room.

She passed by her brother Seth’s closed door. The sign tacked to the door read to “KEEP OUT!” and she found it infinitely easy to honor his request. They hadn’t had anything in common besides their parents since she was thirteen.

Excitement bubbled through her veins as she turned the doorknob and let herself into her room. She leaned against the door and it shut with a click. Her eyes widened and her breath caught as she took in the sight before her.

On the fly, she took the opportunity to bring her cell phone up while he wasn’t looking and snap a picture. She licked her lips as she clicked the button, taking the picture. Though ridiculous looking, the sight of Jeff Haas in her bedroom naked, except for the short, green and blue plaid Catholic-school-girl skirt she’d coerced him into wearing, was starting to turn her on.

Guys will let you do anything to them if they think it is foreplay.

“What are you doing with that?” Jeff said when he caught sight of her.

She froze for a moment before she said, “Tara texted me.” And since they exchanged texts roughly every half-hour, she silently blessed plausibility and routine.

Jeff’s expression lightened, but then his brow furrowed. Oh no, he’s having an actual thought.

“But it didn’t ring.”

She held up the razor-thin device and gave it a dainty shake. “Got it on vibrate.”

He suddenly had that “Oh” expression on his handsome face. Flimsy excuse bought, thank god.

I wonder… will he fall for it again when I ask him to kiss my Zac Efron poster? That would be a hilarious shot to text everyone when she ultimately tired of stringing him along and broke up with him. She wasn’t about to sleep with him, not now or ever.

She was saving herself for when she married a multimillionaire, a prince, or for her senior year in college. By then she’d know whether she would be a kept woman, or if she’d be the one doing the keeping. She had plans: places to go, things to buy.

But if he’s a good boy, he might make it to second or third base in that get up. She’d told him to ditch the underwear, and she was now dying to see if he had. An “accidental” grope would tell her.

Jeff was captain of the football team in the fall and captain of the wrestling team in the winter. To say he was buff would be a waste of the language. Jeff’s shoulders were huge, broad, and marble hard, as was his smooth, hairless chest, and bulging arms. All of it wrapped up in the dreamiest tan skin. A strict diet of cheddar-chili fries, cheeseburgers and pizza had failed to obscure his washboard stomach with even the thinnest layer of fat.

His hair was short and brown, and could never, ever be messed up—she’d tried, in earnest. And with a face like his you’d think he wouldn’t have to play dress-up just to get some action. This, most of all, amused her. Jeff Haas could have any girl in the school, and yet there he was, letting her degrade and humiliate him, all for the chance to get in her pants.

Well, he is in my skirt, or at least my mother’s skirt from when she actually was a Catholic school girl. What more did he really expect tonight? Jeff really looked great shirtless, and his legs were not only strong but rather shapely, accented by a thin dusting of brown hair.

She had to give herself snaps. Not two weeks into her senior year and she had the captain of the football team in naughty school-girl drag.

She could feel heat rise up under her skin and lick up her spine and ribcage. Her cheeks burned. She looked into the mirror of her vanity; she was starting to blush. She smiled into the mirror. Ever since she could remember, the mirror had always been her friend: she had yet to find one that wasn’t.

“Oh, dude…” She looked up to see that Jeff had caught his reflection in the looking glass, and from the panic in his eyes he didn’t like the view.

Just then two men with guns drawn and bulletproof vests with FBI emblazoned on them smashed through her bedroom door. Their guns were big, sinisterly shiny, and pointed right at her.

She shrieked and dropped her cell phone, and shot up out of her chair.

The two agents moved in forcing Lucy and Jeff back to the opposite wall.

“I wasn’t really going to have sex with him…,” she blurted. “I swear!”

From behind her Jeff muttered, “Oh shit…”

The two FBI agents shot Jeff an ugly, disgusted glance, both agents moving their big shiny firearms between Jeff and Lucy. They seemed unable to discern which was more of a threat: the muscular, nearly naked seventeen-year-old boy in the skirt, or the girl who’d gotten him into it.

“I can’t believe you’re going to arrest me for maybe having sex.” She shook her head, as tears welled up in her eyes. “It’s so unfair!”

Thoughts rushed through her head, none making much sense, a few making her want to throw up. Then suddenly she screamed a hysterical, “Daddy!”

The agents gave each other a look, and then one shook his head bitterly as he pressed the button of his walkie-talkie. “The girl has been found, and there’s an unidentified teenaged male… will detain both until told otherwise.”

The other agent, with silver hair at his temples, told Jeff, “Son, put some clothes on.” And Jeff leapt at the chance to get out of the skirt. Thankfully he pulled his jeans on under the mini skirt before pulling the skirt off. Hopping around, he tried to stuff himself into his jeans.

Her head began to spin, her breathing quickened…she was starting to hyperventilate. Get a hold of yourself…

Jeff was buttoning his fly when Lucy’s mother gave out a blood-curdling scream, and they both turned to the bedroom door.

Her mother’s screams turned to sobs of crying, and suddenly her father appeared in the hall by her doorway, his arms handcuffed behind his back, and another FBI agent pulled him to a halt in front of her door. His usually perfectly pressed clothes were rumpled, the shoulder of his silk dress shirt was torn, and buttons had popped off. A thin line of blood ran down his chin from his mouth.

She stared with bewildered eyes at her father, not able to comprehend why the FBI was taking him away in handcuffs. He looked in through her door, his face angry one moment and then horror-stricken the next. He looked on the verge of tears—but then he caught sight of Jeff, still standing there, still shirtless, with his jeans still open.

Her father’s gaze turned steely, and red hot anger jerked back into his eyes. All he said was “Lucy…” The anger and disappointment in his voice was staggering.

It said: You’re not my good little girl. Not you! Not anymore…

She couldn’t move, couldn’t speak; she couldn’t even breathe. She just stood there, staring at the angry stranger who had replaced her father. A moment later another FBI agent joined the one with her father, and together they pushed him down the hallway in front of them.

Her panicked scream made Jeff and the two FBI agents flinch. She ran toward her bedroom door, but one of the agents grabbed her around the waist and kept her anchored to the spot as she cried out, “No, Daddy… no!”

She didn’t know how many times she blubbered and bawled this, or how long the agent held her. She finally got control enough of herself to say, “Please… I have to see him. I have to explain.” I have to tell him nothing happened. Please, please, please!

“Miss,” the other agent said and lowered his firearm. “He’s already gone.”

Gone? The word echoed in her head as her human restraint slowly let her go, and then sat her down on her bed like a rag doll.

He’s gone… he’s just gone… Daddy’s gone…

She pulled her knees up to her chest and pushed her face into them. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d sat like this. When she was younger she’d sit like this when she was upset or unsure of herself. But she hadn’t let those thoughts touch her in so long. Those feelings were so foreign, and so suddenly painful, that she shuddered when she finally took a breath. The hot rivulets of her tears cascaded effortlessly down her face, yet she refused to utter a single sound.

She did not register it when the agents sent Jeff away, or when they searched through her room, checked the air conditioning vents, and pawed through her private bathroom. She also didn’t realize when they’d left her sitting on her bed in her room. She sat there with her tear-wet cheek pressed against her knee, alone.

 

*

 

Across town, high above the city in a building still being built, Delia waited for him. Standing at the edge of the scaffolding she peered out into the night. Nothing separated her from the winds that whipped through her long blonde hair. She did not turn as he approached, yet he was certain she knew he was there.

Gabriel strode toward her, breathing heavily from the climb—the service elevator was disabled when the construction crew vacated for the night. He ignored the sinking feeling that threatened to plummet him to his death, and moved up behind her. He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her against him.

“Why always so high, Delia?” he said breathily. “Are you trying to kill me?”

He could tell she was smiling. “Testing you, maybe… or maybe I’m testing your love.”

He gave a little bark of laughter. “How much more must you test that? By now you should know how much I want you.” He turned her around and gazed into her cool blue eyes. Her arms were bare, her flesh cold to his touch. He hadn’t gotten used to that enough to ignore it. But someday he hoped he would.

She purposely closed her eyes. “Want and love are not the same thing.”

Gabriel’s hands moved up and caressed her face, and then gently pulled her to him. When their lips made contact a cool thrill sparked through his entire body. She gasped as she fell forward, against his broad chest. Even through the shirt he wore he could feel the chill of her touch. He kissed her long and true. There was no other woman on earth he desired, only her.

Delia pushed away from him and held a hand to her lips, the other outstretched to keep him at arm’s length. “As I said, want and love are different.”

Gabriel took hold of her wrist and pressed her hand against his chest, right where his heart pounded with strong, hard beats. “I love you… you know that!”

Her eyes glinted coldly as she appraised him with her gaze. “But we’re stuck.”

“Don’t start that again. I love you. I’ve proven that time and time again. I defy my own family to be with you.”

Delia hissed. “They know nothing of us being together. How is that defiance? It’s cowardice!”

Gabriel still had her hand held to his heart. “Does this heart beat the song of a coward?”

Her eyes bored cold and brutal into him. “But your heart can’t tell your family about me. Only you can tell them how much you love me.” She glared at him, not blinking. “That you choose me.”

Gabriel groaned and shook his head. “And what would happen if I did? What would happen if either of our families found out about us?” He gently took hold of her chin and drew her face up until her eyes met his. “If they had even a clue, there would be war, and you know it.”

“We could make them see!” Her eyes flashed haughtily. “Change their minds.”

“Our families? Changing their minds after all this time? The word impossible comes to mind.”

“You won’t even consider it?” She pushed away from him. “Even if it was the only way we could be together?”

“I think about us being together every day.” He pulled her to him again, buried his face in the cool, smooth flesh of her neck and inhaled her intoxicating scent. “And I want nothing more than to tell my parents about us.” He sighed, conflict storming inside him. “Being in love should be a happy thing, something to celebrate. Not something to hide at all costs.”

“If we were brave we would tell them, force them to accept us.”

“Because that worked so well for Romeo and Juliet.”

Delia’s laughter was bitter as it rattled in her chest. She pushed away from him again and rolled her eyes. “I would have to fall for a freaking bookworm.”

Gabriel held out his hands beseechingly.

“I am a warrior,” Delia said flatly. “In six centuries I have neither run from a battle, nor hidden who I was. I am vampire. The strongest warrior of my people, and they would listen to me.”

“But would your father?” he said.

Delia’s expression faltered as Gabriel continued.

“He’s King, not you. Would he listen to another word you said if you told him I was your man?”

For a brief moment Gabriel thought he had gotten through to her. But then her back straightened and the steely resolve returned to her features. “He would listen to me. I would make him listen.”

“He’d kill me,” Gabriel groused. “Then he would probably execute you. Mingling of the species is against vampire sovereign law. Not even he could change that edict.”

“Coward!” she spat, her expression menacing.

“If there was a way,” Gabriel said, “you know I would do anything to be with you.”

Delia’s eyes snapped open wide and then sparkled as a smile flashed across her face.

“What?” He asked cautiously.

Her gaze flitted away from him, darting here and there as she seemed to be chasing a tantalizing thought. She raised her hand; fingers outstretched, and then clasped them shut as if she’d seized a thought out of thin air. “I have an idea.”

Gabriel stared at her for a few beats. “And would you like to share this idea?”

Delia’s gaze darted back to him, brimming with excitement. “No… not yet.” She turned and strode away from him, looking back at him over her shoulder as she came to the edge of the scaffolding. “But soon…”

She stepped off the ledge and disappeared out of sight. Gabriel groaned and gritted his teeth and looked up in exasperation. He hated when she did that. He was certain she would land on her feet, unscathed, but he hated when she willfully tossed herself from such heights.

“Show off!”

 

Chapter 2

 

THE ALARM bleated a call that could easily wake the dead. Lucy rolled over and squinted at the clock. She’d managed to sleep through twenty minutes of its racket, yet didn’t feel a bit rested. What she did feel was sore and old. She pulled herself up in bed and turned the evil alarm clock off instead of punching it, hard—the damned thing had cost her twenty-three ninety-five, plus tax. She looked around at what had been her bedroom for the last six months and once again felt poor.

Sore and old and poor… life was good.

It was a room in her Gram’s house, actually the room her mother had grown up in. It had one little window, which she had forgotten to draw the curtains on, so now the afternoon sun was making the generic white walls glow like halogen floodlights. Her private bathroom had been bigger than this room.

She kicked off the covers and stumbled over a pair of black Dr. Scholl’s sneakers, and then walked gingerly on her always aching feet to the Smallest Closet in the World!

Of course, she was reminded, as she opened its door to the half-dozen mix-and-match Wal-Mart sales rack outfits that comprised her entire wardrobe, that she really didn’t need the space.

When the FBI and the IRS had returned to Lucy’s family’s house three days after they’d taken her father into custody, it hadn’t been to tell them why they’d taken him—though they’d found out at the arraignment that he was charged with money laundering, tax evasion, extortion and, on a horrifying side note, immigrant slave labor trafficking.

No, they came for the house, the cars (including her red Mustang) and then went room by room and took anything of value. In her case she lost absolutely everything. Every piece of jewelry, cell phone, and every item of clothing and pair of shoes—even her damn socks had been designer label. She got off with the tank-top/sweatpants ensemble she’d been wearing only because she was trying to work off some of her worry on the treadmill in the home gym.

They also froze all of her father’s assets, so all her mother left with was three hundred dollars in cash, no mode of transportation, and a suitcase of clothes that were deemed to have no value.

On the other hand, Lucy’s brother Seth left the house with almost everything he owned, including some of his video games.

She stood out on the sidewalk in front of their five-hundred-thousand-dollar Spanish villa style house with her mother and brother, waiting for the taxicab an agent had taken pity on them and called.

Her mother, Lila, had had two choices as she’d stood there waiting for the taxi. They could have probably afforded to stay in a fleabag hotel overnight, and then they’d be flat broke in the morning. Or, they could take a cab to the bus station and buy three tickets to her grandmother’s place in Four Corners—a tiny town about an hour east of their home in San Bernardino.

Standing in her bedroom in Four Corners, California, she took in the blue and yellow uniform that hung in her closet (replete with a tacky sun visor emblazoned with The Golden Arches) and was reminded again that she worked at McDonald’s.

Her father had rolled over on his law partners, to secure a ten-year prison sentence served in a minimum-security facility. But that deal hadn’t included Uncle Sam returning any of her father’s assets to the family, so her mother was now a cocktail waitress in nearby Barstow, and Lucy had to take the bus just to get to work every day.

That alone had been an all too humbling experience, and the only thing she clung to now was the hope that one day she’d be able to buy herself a used piece-of-shit car. That way she could drive herself to McDonald’s for the next ten to twenty years.

Dreams of marrying a multimillionaire or going to a good college had gone up in smoke months ago when she’d first taken the bus to work, had missed her stop, then had scrubbed a public toilet as her initiation into the fast food service industry. She had felt that her life had gone down that toilet the instant she’d flushed it.

And now, as she pulled her uniform on (amazingly Gram always seemed to be able to get the grease stains, and most importantly, the smell of McDonald’s out of her uniform), her heart sank and shrank in her chest.

Today was her eighteenth birthday.

Happy Birthday!!!

As she pulled her still long, yet not nearly as radiant, hair back in a tight ponytail, she considered for the hundredth time just calling off. But truthfully she had nothing else to do, and no one to do it with. She had no friends to go out with. She’d gone from teen queen to a complete nobody in her new high school—the new girl with a mean chip on her shoulder and discount clothes on her back. Her mother was working her usual Saturday night shift, and her grandmother was busy at a church bake sale. So calling off would mean being completely alone on her birthday.

And anyway, she had already seen the ugly truth: her life was pretty much over, and working on her birthday was just one more thing she’d have to get used to.

She trudged downstairs and poured herself a cup of coffee from the pot her grandmother had made fresh before she’d gone out. She was tempted to just drink it black. There would be no more apropos symbolic gesture for the turn her life had taken. But the mere thought of coffee without cream and sugar made her want to gag. So she made her coffee just as she always did—some milk and three sugars—and stood leaning against the worn metal and Formica kitchen counter, taking in the tattered yet spotless old kitchen, and the lonely silence of the house. Even her loser brother had friends in Four Corners, and he was staying the night with one of them as she sipped her coffee.

Another thing she’d lost that he hadn’t.

 

*

 

The bus ride from San Bernardino to Four Corners had only been the first of many trips she had taken on a bus. Though all buses looked alike, they certainly didn’t smell alike. Some smelled of feet and body odor. Some smelled of industrial strength air freshener (the driver’s halfhearted attempt at masking the stench. But that usually just made the bus smell like lilac scented gym socks).

But there was one driver—her name was Shirley—who actually kept her bus spotless, and Lucy always took a seat close to the front on the days she’d catch her bus.

Shirley talked to anyone and everyone, her curiosity seemingly boundless. The best part for Lucy, though, was that Shirley would just let you sit there in silence as she happily drove and chatted up others. Yet somehow she made you feel as if you were in on the conversation.

Today Lucy caught Shirley’s bus and she happily took her usual seat, fading into the scenery as Shirley told a rather old man with a wrinkled radish for a nose that her petunias were shriveling on the vine. “It’s just not natural,” she continued, pushing a large frizzy strand of her red hair out of her eyes. “I water them three times a week. I even have one of those Miracle-Gro attachment doohickeys.”

Mr. Radish Nose scratched his ginormous red nose and then asked, “Are they in direct sunlight?”

“Well, of course they are!” Shirley smiled. “I read the packet the seeds came in.”

“Well, that’s true for out east. But for the climate out here the sun’s just too harsh. And though pretty and hearty, those things fare better in the shade in these parts.”

Shirley made a little humph noise, and then straightened her shoulders. “Makes sense.” She smiled into her rearview mirror at Mr. Radish Nose. “I’m off in two days, so I’ll go ahead and transplant them to the other side of the house. There’s a good shady spot right beneath my kitchen window.”

Mr. Radish Nose nodded his head in agreement.

Lucy smiled and caught Shirley’s bright green eyes looking at her. “Gotta work on your birthday, huh?”

Lucy’s jaw dropped and she shook her head. “How did you…?”

Shirley smiled knowingly as she smoothed her dark red hair back again into the little flip she’d styled it into. “When you’ve been doing this as long as I have, you can just tell. And the look on your face invariably means it’s your birthday, and you have to work.”

“You’re amazing. You should be on TV.”

Shirley gave a honking laugh. “I’d sure as blazes be better at it than that god awful Dr Phil.” She shook her shoulders with a chill. Lucy knew what would come next. “And that Oprah’s gotta know there’s a studio apartment waiting for her in hell for exposing the world to that lunatic.”

Shirley hated Dr. Phil with every ounce of her rather substantial, curvy body.

She pulled the bus over and said, “This is your stop, birthday girl.” And sure enough, as Lucy got out of her seat, waved goodbye to Shirley and then half tripped down the three little steps of the bus, there she stood under the Golden Arches.

She sighed. “Now my birthday is complete.”

 

*

 

McDonald’s was bombarded with customers, and not the usual Saturday night crowd. This was pure chaos and mayhem, and at first Lucy was glad for it. The busier it was, the faster the time would fly by. But her assignment tonight (the grill) had her stuck over a hundred patties of scorched meat, and her hands and arms got burnt by the overly sizzling grease.

When it’s really busy, management will turn up the heat on the grill—to hell with corporate’s rules and regulations for the cooking of their prized beef patties. Management just wanted the burgers done and out the door with the customer.

End of story.

About an hour into this hot, smelly mess of special meat, she was coated with sweat and grease, and she had all sorts of tiny red welts all over her arms.

“Lucy!” Greg, her night shift manager yelled, though he was standing right beside her.

She looked up at him unenthusiastically—she no longer jumped in surprise at his all-too-often sudden outbursts. “Yeah, Greg?”

Greg was on the cusp of turning thirty, his hair was starting to recede, and he always looked like he was constipated. “Go to the cooler and get two containers of the Special Sauce…” He plucked the spatula from her hand. “I’ll watch the grill.”

“Okay.” She turned and started to walk away when Greg hollered again.

“Grab a bag of sandwich lettuce too.”

She nodded her head and waved that she’d heard him, but she didn’t bother to look back at him. She stayed close to the wall as she navigated further back into the bowels of the fast food restaurant. Twenty-three workers ran around like computer animated chickens with their heads chopped off, with no rhyme or reason, and just barely missed running right into each other.

She yanked open the cooler door, almost getting bowled over by an acne pocked kid named Gibson, and then slipped into the cool, clammy embrace of the walk-in cooler. If it wasn’t for the smell—an overtaxed refrigeration unit, fresh and rotting vegetables and fruits, the grease that coated every square inch of the store, and of course the mildew of refrigeration moistened cardboard boxes—she would enjoy the temperature dip.

Plus the unit itself made a white noise that blocked out all other noises. So it was kind of peaceful.

She stood there for a lovely moment and let the cold envelope her—and forgot that she was this Lucy now, and let a flash of her old life, the old radiant and amazing Lucy, warm her. She tried not to take a breath. This lasted for exactly ten seconds, and then she had to take one. That alone snapped her back to reality, and she started to move toward the shelves she needed to pull stock from.

First the bag of leaf lettuce. In most McDonald’s stores even the lettuce is pre-shredded and the tomatoes pre-sliced. All so everything about the burgers you buy are exactly like the burgers you get in any other McDonald’s, anywhere you go.

Gram had said it’s called the Socialization of America. That it’s a real thing, and that’s why it’s taught in almost every college in the land. But since she wasn’t going to college… or anywhere else… she’d decided not to give the lettuce and tomatoes at McDonalds much thought.

The large plastic tubs of Special Sauce were only around five pounds apiece, yet they were not only physically cumbersome, but always rather slick and hard to hold onto.

She set down the bag of lettuce, picked up two jars of sauce—arranging them so her arms and her chest were holding them snugly in a pincer—and then grabbed the lettuce again. She pushed against the cooler door, yet it didn’t give a bit.

Nothing unusual. The door was notorious for sticking. So she put some muscle into pushing against it, but it still wouldn’t budge.

Shit! I’m so not getting trapped in the walk in cooler on my freaking birthday! I’m… she pushed against the big metal door with all her might… Just… she pushed again, really putting her back into it… Not!

The door swung open and she stumbled out, her arms full and her feet suddenly slipping-sliding beneath her. She skated and spun across the floor, amazingly missing all the other McDonald’s workers, and crashed with a rather loud thud into the opposite wall. Her feet slipped out from under her and she dropped to the fetid tile floor with a sickening crunch.

 

*

 

“Hey, Lucy… wake up!” The guy’s voice was so familiar, yet it felt as if she hadn’t heard it in years. Her eyes snapped open—Jeff Haas knelt over her. His smile was wide and his eyes so pretty and happy to see her. Then she realized she was laying on the ground… correction, on the tiled floor of Mrs. Henderson’s Spanish class, and everyone from her old school—her old life—was clustered around her. Afternoon sunlight drizzled in sparkling rays through the large unadorned windows. The light played against Jeff’s cheek and made his eyelashes shine.

She felt tears well up in her eyes. She was so glad to see them all and the looks of worry etched on their faces. Had that all been just a bad dream?

“Sorry, Lucy,” Jeff said, running his fingers softly over her forehead. “I was just trying to surprise you for your birthday. You kinda jumped and fell down when you saw it.”

“Saw what?” She was so confused, and her head was spinning.

“Your gift.” Jeff’s smile was so bright and warm she couldn’t help but smile back at him.

Mrs. Henderson prodded her way through the assembled students and stooped down to look her hard in the eye. “The school nurse is on her way, and she’s called your father.”

“Daddy?” The thought of him coming there made her heart tap-dance in her chest. There was nothing she wanted more than to see him. That realization, that he was on his way, made it undeniably true. All of that—the FBI/incarceration/moving to Gram’s/working at McDonald’s mess—had really all only been a really horrible, really annoying dream. And now that she thought of it, her head really did hurt. She’d probably hit it when she fell.

“See, Lucy. Everything’s fine. Your dad’s on his way, and it’s still your birthday.” Jeff’s wide smile turned shy and his brow did that sexy furrow thing it does when he’s unsure of himself. “So, you ready for your gift?”

“Presents!” She chimed as she sat up fast and felt her head throb with a burning pain. “Are you kidding? I’m all about the presents.”

“Okay,” Jeff said, and then turned and grabbed up something in his arms. When he turned back to her, Lucy cooed sweetly. In his arms was the cutest little golden retriever puppy. It was one of the few things she’d never been allowed to have. Her father was allergic.

But her smile hastily faded as she really looked at the little golden bundle of boundless joyful energy. It was dead. Not only was it dead, but it was missing an eye and blood was dried in a thick line from its mouth all the way across its chest.

But it was looking right at her, panting with its little puppy tongue hanging out, and its tail wagging.

“How do you like your gift?” Jeff said.

 

*

 

Lucy clawed and screamed her way out of the dream, her eyes opened wide and her head scalded with pain. She reached up to hold her head, but then her arm joined in on the pain-a-palooza. She was pressed up against the stained stucco wall, the greasy tiles cold and hard against her body.

At first everything else was a blur. Odd shapes hovered around her, and she heard voices. They were all talking about her. The only thing that was clear was a blackness that snaked around the periphery of her blurred vision. It faded into the din as she heard someone say, “I saw her come barreling out of the cooler.”

“Yeah, well, I think she was stuck in there,” said someone else. “I’ve had that happen before.”

“And don’t forget Brad and his pickle mishap. That shit was all over the floor.”

Gradually everything came into focus, and she felt cold and sticky, on top of the pain in her head, shoulder, and arm. There was a tangy, sweet, totally nauseating smell. She looked down at herself and saw she was covered in special sauce. It dripped from her hands, was splattered over the black slacks she’d bought on sale at Wal-Mart, and had plastered her McDonald’s polo shirt to her chest. She knew without looking that it was dripping from her chin, and a glob ran cold and wet down the lobe of her right ear.

“Shit Lucy!” Greg stood over her, eyes wide and his hands on his hips. He looked pissed. “Look at the mess you made.”

The pain in her head turned to a hot annoyance as she looked up slowly into Greg’s eyes. “Mess I made?” Her voice was low and strangely even sounding. “You sent me after too many things at once—”

“You should’ve made two—”

“I got stuck in there because you never had the latch on the door fixed, and I slipped because there was—” She looked over to the floor in front of the walk-in cooler. There were even some pickle slices shining green against the sandstone red tile. “Pickle juice on the floor!”

When she looked back up at Greg she saw him gulp.

She was about to point her finger at him and tell him her father’s lawyers were going to sue the shit out of him, and McDonald’s, and the company that designed such a faulty latch, when the pain in her arm suddenly sparked to life again and raged like a bonfire. It sapped her words out of her head and replaced them with raw pain.

There was a long, cold silence, and then Greg said, “We’ll call an ambulance to take you to County.” His voice was thin and very polite.

A hospital! And doctors and tests and needles and…

“I’m fine!” she snapped, and Greg’s head jerked back at the force of her words. Seeing the sudden effect of her voice, she forced a fake smile on her face and pulled herself—though cringing at the nagging pain—up off the tile floor.

“I’m fine,” she said again, this time with smooth sweetness. All she wanted was to get the hell out of there, and go home. Her birthday had already been heinous enough; she’d rather not tempt fate anymore. And she wasn’t about to spend the night in the emergency room.

“I don’t know.” Greg was returning to form. And once Greg got it into his head about something, he always forced the issue. His beady eyes squinted down at her. “I think you should go to the hospital and get checked out.”

“I… am… fine!” That annoyed heat was back in her voice as she rounded on Greg, and practically spit each word at him. “I didn’t black out,”—which was a lie—“so I don’t need to go to a hospital!”

Her voice ricocheted off the walls like a shotgun blast. Greg’s eyes bugged out and then he cleared his throat. “You’ll have to sign a waiver,” he croaked.

“Fine… whatever.” She shifted her weight and almost fell back into the wall. She was dizzy, yet still on her feet… with the help of her hand gripping the wall. “Can you call my Gram to come drive me home?”

No way was she making it to the bus stop, not to mention all the way home, like this.

 

*

 

People whirled by in blurred colors and shapes as Lucy sat alone in the booth closest to the side entrance. That’s where Gram would pick her up. It wasn’t the main entrance to McDonald’s, so it was where the least amount of people could see her.

The globs of special sauce on her chin and ear were easy enough to remove. She’d tried unsuccessfully to clean the special sauce from her shirt; the goop had soaked into the fabric. She could have asked if someone had a shirt they could loan her, but she was so tired, and her arm was throbbing incessantly. She sat in the booth and shivered as the air conditioning made the special sauce cold on her chest.

She was glad though. Glad that at least that that had been the worst of it. Her birthday had delivered pain and degradation in spades. Now all there was to do was go home and take a long hot shower, and then crawl into bed.

One of the blurs of movement stopped right in front of her, and she looked up to see a beautiful couple in a lover’s embrace, kissing like it was the end of a big budget romantic comedy.

She closed her eyes. At least someone’s getting it right. But when she opened her eyes again they stared down at her with mirrored expressions of revulsion on their faces.

Their faces… so familiar… oh crap!

Lucy’s ex-boyfriend, Jeff Haas, and her ex-best friend, Tara Minger, stood clutching each other, the looks of shock and horror clear and nightmarish on their faces. But Tara didn’t remain shocked for long. And with a practiced and horribly malicious smile, she held her perfectly manicured hand to her chest—the chest that had magically grown two cup sizes in six months, and clad in a thin silk sweater that looked like it had been woven onto her body by the demented monks of Playboy magazine.

“Lucy Hart… is that really you?” She turned her head and made with a faux embarrassed bat of her eyes lashes. “Omigod! I so thought you were just some homeless person.”

Cold tingles ran down her arms, and her heart literally fluttered in horror. The only thing that warmed her was the burning sensation that had bloomed across her face. She took a breath, ready to say something, but then she got a look at Jeff.

Jeff’s face wasn’t cruel, like Tara’s. No, the look on Jeff’s face knocked the air out of Lucy’s lungs and made each beat of her heart painful. It was pity she saw in her ex-boyfriend’s eyes. And as he looked away from her and then slowly shuffled away to the ordering counter, she could well imagine what he was thinking.

How did she let herself get like that?

I can’t believe I wanted to sleep with that.

Thank god I didn’t… oh thank god…

Tara stood there, lean and strong and so well dressed. Her hand on her hip, her long shiny blonde hair tossed with practiced perfection as she pursed her lips.

“Lots has happened since you left.” She gave a happy little laugh. “Did you really have to leave town on a freaking bus?”

Lucy felt the weight of the world pushing down on her, and that at any moment she would be pulverized into the vinyl seat of the booth. Please, she prayed, tears welling up in her eyes. Pulverize me now…

“Oh well,” Tara chirped. “Back to the real world. I’m captain of the cheer squad now, and we’re so ready to go to state. I mean, I’m not knocking your leadership skills, but I know this is going to be our best year ever!” The manic cheerleader intensity in her voice spiraled in the air and practically dripped sparklers and confetti. But then her voice dropped to a smooth, robust growl.

“And if you didn’t catch the show, Jeff’s mine now.”

Even though she hadn’t let herself contemplate Jeff in months, she felt this horrible pang of despair at Tara’s words, and the cruel curl of her freshly glossed lips.

She gritted her teeth and forced down the sob that was trying like hell to burst free from her lips.

We were friends… how can you be so mean?

She learned that from the master, an inner voice said. You reap what you sow.

Tara leaned down closer to Lucy and the friendly smile evaporated. “And unlike you, I take care of my man’s needs.” Her eyes sparkled and the curl came back to her lips—she was enjoying herself.

Tara’s voice pitched into a dangerous whisper. “And I’ve been taking care of his needs since the night your daddy got arrested.”

Lucy stared hard into Tara’s eyes, and the heat in her face moved suddenly to inside her head. She sat up and glared into Tara’s big, pretty eyes.

“Well then, he’s all yours,” she moved forward until their faces were almost touching. “But did he tell you what I had him doing when the FBI crashed the party?”

Tara’s eyes opened wide and her mouth turned into a grim line. “What do you mean?” She stood up straight again and glowered down at her.

“Just… if Jeff really is yours, then he’ll tell you what we were doing that night.” She smiled even though her head throbbed and her arm screamed for mercy. “And if he really is all yours, then he’ll let you do it to him, too.”

Tara huffed and folded her arms over her surgically enhanced chest. “Why would I want to play one of your tired old games? I already said I’m satisfying all his needs.”

Lucy leaned back, exhausted but feeling the old satisfaction she’d get from manipulating other’s lives. “Well, every need but… that one.”

Raw anger drew a hard blank stare on Tara’s face. It made Lucy feel just a tiny bit better. Impoverished, working at McDonald’s, covered in special sauce, she could still knock someone down a peg or two. But then Tara’s smile came back, and it wasn’t fake. She was suddenly very happy.

“Too bad your convict father left you so high and dry you have to work in a grease pit like this.” She flipped her golden locks as she turned to walk over to where Jeff stood mute, and still red-faced embarrassed. “You used to be so pretty.” She stopped and slowly peered over her shoulder at Lucy, her smile brilliant. “Have a nice life, you dumpster-diving freak!”

 

*

 

Gabriel hadn’t slept much all week. He had entirely too much on his plate, and far too many concerns whirled around in his mind. Ever since Delia concocted her plan, things had gone all wrong. The instant she unveiled her scheme to him, to hire some woman to play the part of his secret fiancée, his mother declared that she knew he was hiding something—and she correctly guessed that it was a girl.

Thus, procuring a false fiancée became not just an insane idea, but seemingly their only option.

But Gabriel didn’t have the contacts or the expertise in such covert, dishonest, and probably illegal enterprises. That was why he’d hesitantly enlisted the aid of his most trusted advisor and friend, his Uncle Dante.

Though Dante was his father’s brother, he had always taken Gabriel’s side in matters, even encouraging his brother to relinquish the CEO position at Enoch Industries to Gabriel in the last year. When Dante had inadvertently found out about Delia, he’d raged at Gabriel for such poor judgment, and for endangering everyone he held dear, including Delia.

He was also a lawyer, Gabriel’s lawyer, not to mention the head of Enoch Industries legal division, so covert wrangling and deception were nothing new to him.

Yet above all else, Dante was his uncle, and his closest ally.

That said… he was currently having a hard time overlooking his uncle’s abrupt loss of his senses. He hadn’t expected Dante to go out trolling for potential brides-to-be, but he had never imagined he would recruit someone of such low character as a subcontractor.

“Francis?” Gabriel groused, his gaze burning a hole through his uncle. “Of all the scum-of-the-earth degenerates you could have reached out to, you picked him?”

They were in Dante’s office at Enoch industries. The walls were painted a warm brown that was almost a peach. The furnishings were antique art deco, with clean lines carved out of rich woods. And though not cluttered, the entire room was used—photos of family and friends, Dante’s law degree, Chamber of Commerce awards, a few pieces of avant-garde art, even a pewter wolf sitting on its haunches, muzzle raised as if baying at the moon.

Dante raised one eyebrow in mock surprise. “He is loyal to me.”

“Loyal! Are you joking? My entire life I have heard about him cheating on his wife, cheating on his taxes, and every other possible dubious act. I just can’t believe he isn’t in prison yet.”

“You confuse loyalty to one’s spouse with loyalty brought on by fear.”

It was Gabriel’s turn to raise an eyebrow. “What does that mean?”

Unflappable and smooth as usual, Dante smiled and spread his hands out. “Just that committing dalliances in your marriage has little to do with how reliable you are to those you fear.”

“Fear… Francis fears you?” Gabriel was astonished. Certainly his uncle was of the most dangerous breeds of attorneys—a real shark—but how that mental prowess translated to being able to intimidate a bottom feeder like Francis was unclear.

“Believe me,” Dante mussed, “between what I know about him, and how I have… punished him in the past, he will do anything I tell him to.”

A chill ran up Gabriel’s spine as he stared into Dante’s eyes. Obviously there was still much he didn’t know about his uncle. And from the cool satisfaction in his voice as he came right out and said he’d “punished” Francis, he wasn’t anxious to find out what he was missing. The image of his uncle wielding a whip or a switchblade made the hair on the back of his neck stand up.

Gabriel cleared his throat and finally looked away from his uncle. “I just hope he can find a viable candidate. She will have to be cultured as well as beautiful.”

“And she’ll have to be a good actress.”

Gabriel laughed bitterly. “Because pretending to be my fiancée will be such an unpleasant experience.”

“That too,” Dante replied, apparently not getting the sarcasm in his nephew’s voice. Or maybe he actually believed playing the part of Gabriel’s fiancée would be an arduous task. “But mostly to fool the rest of the family… specifically your mother and father.”

The two men locked gazes for a moment, and then grumbled: “Especially her.”

 

Chapter 3

 

LUCY DIDN’T remember when she got up out of the booth and left McDonald’s, or walked through the parking lot and out to the highway. She only noticed her hands were clutched to the metal guardrail when she heard her grandmother’s worry-stricken voice.

“Lucy! What are you doing out here?”

Lucy turned toward the road. Her grandmother had pulled over on the shoulder of the highway, and was already climbing out of her car, her worn terry cloth robe and flannel gown billowing in the wind. The mere sight of her made tears fill Lucy’s eyes and run hot and reckless down her face. The sobs she’d been holding back burst from her lips as her grandmother pulled her from the guardrail and into her arms.

“It’s alright, Lucybean… you’re alright… I’m here.”

Lucy buried her face in her grandmother’s soft shoulder and felt all the strength drain from her arms and legs.

I’m going to die… I’m going to die…

With her heart breaking yet again, feeling the weight of the world pressed down on her chest, she wished that she would just die.

But she didn’t.

As her grandmother stroked her back and slowly maneuvered Lucy over to and then into the passenger seat of the ancient white Oldsmobile, the weight on her chest lessened, as did the pain that radiated through her entire body.

For an instant she glanced back to where she’d stood by the guardrail. The dark figure was there again, its shadowy form flickered as it drifted toward the car. But just then Gram gunned the Oldsmobile’s engine, leaving the dark apparition in the dust.

By the time her grandmother drove them home she’d forgotten about the phantom, forgotten about her injured body and her crushed pride. She literally felt nothing at all. Her tears had dried up, her head and arm no longer hurt, and her breathing was slow and steady.

Too slow.

And it wasn’t just the pain that was gone, Lucy was numb, even in her head, she thought of absolutely nothing.

The only thing she felt was relief when she saw Gram’s white clapboard house appear through the car window. Though rundown and shabby outside—the white paint was peeling and the roof sagged some in the middle—Lucy only felt truly safe once she was inside. As if the house itself repelled the horrors and pain that followed Lucy everywhere she went.

Her grandmother’s kitchen made her feel warm. It smelled sweet and inviting. On the scarred kitchen table sat a round, simply decorated double layer white cake with pink roses and fancy filigree adorning the edges.

Lucy felt her mouth fall open. It was beautiful, and smelled so good.

“Did you make this?” Lucy said, her voice wavering. She couldn’t believe that anyone had made a cake… not one this beautiful. All her birthday cakes had been store bought, with heavy cream icing, themed with whatever her current obsession was that year, or had her picture airbrushed over the top.

But this cake was handmade, just for her. Her name swirled across the top in fancy letters, and happy birthday in smaller script below. A party candle shaped like the number eighteen stood alone from the top of the cake.

“Don’t be too impressed,” Her grandmother said, striking a match and touching it to the candle’s wick. “I used to decorate cakes for a living… oh, about a hundred years ago.”

Lucy couldn’t help smiling. Her grandmother never tried to hide her age—she wore it proudly, like a badge for all to see.

“It’s gorgeous.” Lucy closed her eyes and took a deep breath through her nose. The aroma was intoxicating. “No cake has ever smelled this good.”

“Well then, make a wish and blow out the candle,” Gram said. “Then we can have us a piece.”

Lucy was suddenly torn from the wondrous scent of the cake, her attention splintered off in a million directions. There were too many things to wish for. Too many things she wished had never happened. One—the night of her father’s arrest—burned somewhere deep in the back of her mind. She would not look back there, or call it forward to her anymore. That memory hurt too much. Like how remembering who she used to be hurt too much.

No, wishing for the impossible is stupid. She took a breath, and it crackled in her lungs. She closed her eyes. If I just had one thing that was mine… something to remind me of who I used to be…

She blew, one short puff of air, and the candle went out, a small wisp of smoke rising from the tiny ember before it burned out.

“Happy birthday, Lucybean!” her grandmother said, swooping down and kissing her cheek, hugging her around the back of her shoulders. Lucy leaned into her grandmother’s warmth. After a soothing moment, her grandmother stood and strode across the kitchen and opened a cabinet, pulling out two small plates. “Time for cake.”

Lucy watched as her grandmother cut the cake, not a tremor or tremble in her skilled hands, slicing off two perfect looking pieces. The two women sat there, smiling at each other for a moment before digging into the cake. The taste was better than the smell, if that was even possible. The icing had buttery lemon zest to it, delicate yet refreshing as ice cream on Lucy’s tongue. The cake burst with oranges and white chocolate… and something else… the something else had some kick to it.

“What’s in the cake?” Lucy smiled as she licked her fork clean.

Her grandmother got this look on her face—false innocence and shock. “Whatever do you mean?”

“I mean this cake is spiked.” Lucy raised her eyebrow at her grandmother, and then took another big bite of the cake.

Her grandmother primly blotted her lips with her napkin and grinned wickedly.

“You are eighteen, after all…” She pursed her lips and then smiled wide, her face practically glowing. “And I’ve had a bottle of Grand Marnier in the cabinet since… ” Her brow furrowed in contemplation. “Well, let’s just say, a while.”

Lucy couldn’t believe her grandmother was suddenly modest about her age. There must be something else to it, something a little lurid, or scandalous, or both.

Lucy chewed the delicious, if potent, cake and smiled to herself. Finally, something nice was happening on her birthday.

“I almost forgot,” her grandmother chimed. “Your gifts!”

A fleeting moment of dread passed through her body. Remembering the dream she’d had… well, the nightmare she’d had, when she was knocked out at McDonald’s. The not so dead, dead puppy dream.

Your gift…

Lucy shuddered.

Her grandmother was already up and back with a pretty red and pink gift bag, a small badly wrapped present, and two other boxes with silvery wrapping.

As long as there was nothing with a wagging tail in the bag, she would be happy.

Her grandmother handed her the bag first. Under the pink tissue paper Lucy found a card with a big heart on it, and Tweety Bird swinging on its perch in the middle of it.

It was from her mother, and there was a twenty dollar bill tucked into the card.

Sorry I’m not there. Had to pick up a double.

Love you sweet girl.

Mom.

Lucy set down the card and the money, and then reached back into the bag. At the bottom was a pair of four inch, pink leather Jimmy Choo knockoffs. But they made Lucy smile. They were heels, and girly and something like what she wore when she used to go out on dates.

“There’s something else in there.” Her grandmother gave the bag a playful shake.

Lucy reached into the pink tissue paper again and found a small cell phone.

“It’s one of those pre-paid phones. There’s over three hundred minutes on there. Your brother turned it on for us…” She halted. Part of this gift was from her too.

Lucy should’ve known that her mother wouldn’t think to get her something practical.

“Turned it on for Lila, I mean.” Having her grandmother call her mother Lila never failed to shock her. Her father had always called her Elle.

Daddy…

She was certain neither of the two remaining presents were from him. He hadn’t called, written, or asked about her the entire six months since his arrest. And the last time she’d seen him in court, he’d completely ignored her.

Lucy shook the memory of him as he walked out of the courtroom, in the custody of bailiffs and an FBI agent, from her mind. How her heart had stopped beating, and she’d dug her fingernails into her palms until they’d bled.

Anything not to cry.

Next was the badly wrapped present—from her brother, Seth. Under the wrinkled paper was a CD she used to have—Kelly Clarkson. It had “Behind These Hazel Eyes” on it.

So he knows me enough to know my favorite song… She was surprised. Too bad I don’t own a CD player anymore.

Finally came the two silvery boxes—one long and slim, the other a bigger, almost weightless box. Both were undoubtedly from her grandmother.

Lucy tore into the thin package first, and under the box lid she found a perfectly faded pair of vintage Calvin Klein jeans.

“Maggie down at Fashion Again helped me find these. I asked what was the… most chic thing she had for a girl your age.”

Lucy leaned over and kissed her grandmother on the cheek. “Thank you. They’re perfect.” She noticed that they were her size… her size now, with the five pounds of Big Macs and French fries on her hips and ass—an unwanted bonus from her job.

She willed what that meant out of her thoughts. Who cared what size she was? No one anymore.

She reached for the second package and tore into it, wanting something to do with her hands as she tried to push all the thoughts out of her head before they made her head too heavy and she couldn’t hold it up anymore.

She opened the box and looked down at the small, fuzzy, key lime green teddy bear that looked up at her with his arms outstretched. She gasped as her memory caught up with her eyes. The familiar amber glass eyes, the cute little upturned snout, the small green heart in the middle of its chest.

As Lucy scooped it out of the box, its soft, soft fur caressed her fingers. “Mr. Gordo…” she whispered.

“I forgot you even left him here, back… well, whenever it was.”

Third grade. I was eight.

“Found it in my cedar chest a couple weeks back… I thought you’d like to have it back.”

Lucy didn’t realize she was crying until she felt her tears splash as they fell on her hands, and onto the green bear’s soft fur.

“Lucybean—” her grandmother tried to say more, but Lucy jumped up, gave her a quick kiss on the cheek, and then ran up the stairs, her vision a blur. She bolted into her little room and pushed the door closed with all her weight. She stood there as she swiped at her eyes and tried to catch her breath.

But the mere sight of her bed—her grandmother had made it up fresh with faded yellow sheets and a good heavy blanket—made the tears flow harder, and her breath come in gulps and gasps. The world pressed down on her again, threatening to grind her into dust. She staggered toward the bed and then tentatively lay down, letting her beaten and bruised body slowly sink into the soft old mattress.

As she wept into Mr. Gordo’s soft green fur, she prayed that weight would crush her. Please… take all this pain away.

 

*

 

It was almost a nice way to wake up… almost. Gentle morning light spilled through the curtains on her window, amber and yellow that warmed the room. Lucy’s eyes were sore as she opened them, her vision fuzzy as she blinked. She had big time cotton mouth, and as she licked her parched lips she tasted her grandmother’s icing, just a hint. But then she turned her head to look at her alarm clock. Her head, her neck, her shoulder ,and arm, all ignited in a fiery chorus of pain. Her good hand shot up to hold her head and she felt something soft and fluffy against her forehead. She pulled her hand away and looked at Mr. Gordo.

At least you’re here…

Lucy set him down on her bed, and then pulled herself up until she was sitting with her legs dangling off the side. She still had on her Dr. Scholl’s. When the throbbing in her arm and shoulder cooled, and the room stopped spinning, she took a deep breath.

Something stinks!

And suddenly she realized it was her.

The special sauce…

Lucy groaned as she pushed off the bed with her good arm and stood, wobbly on her feet. Her head started to spin again, and the rest of her body ached. She trudged to her bedroom door, pulled it open and walked slowly down the hall, her hand braced against the hall wall every so many steps—her head was really threatening to fall right off her poor tortured neck.

Then, just a few feet from the bathroom door, she felt the bottom of her stomach give out, and then heave. Lucy ran through the open doorway and hit her knees in front of the toilet. A gush of vomit leapt up out of her and made a sickening splash as Lucy’s hands gripped the cold porcelain of the toilet.

Lucy hated throwing up. Her mind always screamed for someone to help her, to call an ambulance, for she was always certain she was going to die. But for the first time ever those thoughts didn’t even occur to her.

I’m eighteen. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and reached with her sore arm, and through the pain pressed down on the toilet’s handle and flushed. I can handle throwing up all by myself.

Lucy was tempted to just lie down on the cool linoleum and curl up in a little ball, maybe curl up around the bottom of the toilet, just in case she had to puke again. But it was Sunday, and she wasn’t off on Sundays. That meant she would have to go back to McDonald’s, back to her disgrace. The thought was almost more than she could bear.

Maybe I’ll just call off? She pulled herself to her feet holding on to the nearby sink. I don’t think they’ll really be expecting me… hell, I don’t even think I’m in shape even to get on the bus…

Her mind lost the thread of what she was thinking. She was peering into the ancient oval mirror bolted to the wall over the sink. Even with fuzzy patches, and more than a few streaks where the silver backing had peeled over time, she had a perfectly clear view of herself in that mirror. And the view wasn’t good.

She took a deep, shuddering breath as she tried to comprehend that the girl in the mirror was her.

The girl looking back at her didn’t resemble her in the least. Never mind the tacky blue polo shirt plastered to her, sticky and cold with special sauce. This girl had some major problems. Her hair was a greasy, tangled mess. The ends were fried at least an inch, her lustrous mane of mahogany hair now a mousy, faded-out brown, caused by sun damage and no central air, unfiltered tap water, and supermarket hair product.

Her skin was pale and sallow, and not only were her eyes bloodshot, but they had ugly dark circles under them. And there on her chin, puffy and red, with a volcanic looking white head, pulsed her very first zit. She’d been going to a dermatologist since she was twelve; she’d thought she would always be immune.

As she pried her gaze from that horrid pimple, she gapped as she realized she wasn’t just five pounds overweight. No. She was at least ten pounds—which was absurd, especially after she’d just barfed up half her bodyweight. Yet, as she turned and gazed at herself in the mirror, she couldn’t deny it. Her flat belly was gone. Her perfect, perky—real—breasts had lost their perk, and were actually starting to sag. She turned and looked to her rear end. The ass she used to put a finger to and make a sizzle sound through her teeth about, just drooped—large enough that her cheap black slacks seemed on the verge of splitting.

Whatever little strength she had left drained out the bottom of her feet. She leaned against the sink, her arms holding her up, but just barely, and tried to breathe. But every time she looked into the mirror she just couldn’t take in any breath. Her eyes started to burn again, and tears welled up in them.

This isn’t me… She gripped the edge of the sink. This can’t be me…

Despair flowed cold and dark through her veins. It was almost welcome, that cold. At least it was making her feel numb, whereas the sight of herself in the mirror was making her nauseous, and the burning in her head down through her arm was enough to make her scream. She wanted that cold despair to wash over her, make her pass out, make her vanish from sight, from the world.

This can’t be me…

Then who is it? whispered a mean little voice in her head. Who’s this disgusting, pathetic creature staring back at you from the mirror?

The voice cackled with cruel delight. I thought you’ve never met a mirror that didn’t like you? This one, it’s safe to say, hates your guts!

She something flared in her head. Not the wicked ache and pain, nor the dizziness from before. No, this was different. This was hot and sharp, and wonderfully familiar. This was her getting pissed.

That heat bloomed with utter annoyance, and a red slash of anger, as it traveled down through her body to her chest, and then radiated through her cold, aching limbs, replacing the chill of despair in its wake.

She looked down at her hands, the chipped, uneven nails, the gnarled cuticles, the grit and gunk embedded underneath. Lucy clenched her teeth as she balled up her hands into fists, and then beat them down hard on the sink counter, staring with utter hatred at the personal-grooming-impaired girl in the mirror.

That’s. Not. Me.

The mean little voice in her head started to say something, but Lucy clamped her mind down on it.

Get out of my head, you stupid, fat, ugly cow!

Lucy pulled off the band that held her hair back in a ponytail. Then gently she pulled the special sauce gooped polo shirt off over her head, and holding it out in front of her for a moment of contemplation, she pressed her foot down on the pedal of the small, lidded trashcan and tossed the thing in, letting the metal lid drop with an emancipating clang.

She kicked off the Dr. Scholl’s and then stripped off the black slacks, and her under-things. She crawled into the shower and let the hot water cascade over her sore, tired body. It felt better than good. Lucy couldn’t remember the last time she’d just stood under the rejuvenating hot spray of a shower, with no time constraint. Usually someone was knocking on the door, telling her to hurry up. Or she was dashing around, trying to make her bus, so she could get to work on time.

But as she stood under that water now, a thought started materializing in her mind, like mist turning to a blazing neon sign—a huge, blinking Times Square sized sign. Lucy could practically hear the low, deep buzz that sign emitted every time it crackled to life.

And it read: I QUIT!

I quit…

The thought just echoed in her mind, the thought turning from a mere whisper to the chant of a Super Bowl stadium crowd.

“I quit,” the words passed her lips, and then her eyes snapped open with surprise. “I quit!” Those words seemed to shimmer like silver, and then sparkle and shine like a really good, really expensive diamond. The kind she’d hinted about to her father for a graduation present. In her mind, Lucy could see that diamond hanging on a sleek platinum chain, twinkling like a star against her skin. Not her skin now, but the radiant, creamy flesh she used to have.

And the diamond’s fiery gleam pulsed with the two words that throbbed in her head.

I quit… I quit… I quit…

The weight that had been on her shoulders for the last six months, the pressure that had almost snuffed her out completely only a few hours ago, lifted like… like magic. Lucy breathed in the sweet, warm air of the shower. She raised her hot-water-soothed arms up in the air as she took another, and then another deep, wondrous breath. Lucy screamed—screamed long and loud, a joyous, powerful scream. And then she felt the corner of her mouth catch in an unfamiliar twinge.

She was smiling.

She was also thinking. Thinking very hard and very fast. She turned and grabbed the shampoo bottle from the rack and started lathering her hair in earnest. The faster she thought, the easier those thoughts seemed to weave together, thoughts latching onto other thoughts, memories of seemingly incidental snippets of information entwining with her long abandoned hopes and dreams.

If she wanted her old life back, then she’d have to take it back herself.

All of this spun itself into a plan. And the plan, if she did say so herself, was pretty damn good.

 

Chapter 4

 

LUCY’S HAIR was still wet, and though she was dressed in a cheap T-shirt and a pair of sweats, she felt like a million bucks. She’d washed and scrubbed herself until not a trace of McDonald’s—or its special sauce—was on her. Also the hot water finally ran cold.

She’d gone into her mother’s room and rifled through her drawers until she found what she was looking for: a business card.

Gram was at church, but she’d left her presents neatly stacked on the kitchen table, right next to her birthday cake. A spotless glass dome sat atop the pedestal holding the cake.

A piece of paper had her grandmother’s handwriting on it.

Lucybean,

Called you off from work today.

Rest!

Love, Gram

Cool… I can QUIT tomorrow.

She was suddenly starved. Her stomach growled as memories of her grandmother’s divine cake floated through her mind. So she fetched a plate, a knife and a fork, then hacked herself off a very large piece of cake. Even the next day the thing smelled like heaven, and as she took a bite it tasted just as good… no, better than it had the night before. Now it tasted like freedom. Now it tasted like having her old life back, and getting back her dreams.

Having money again. Regaining her dimmed yet still abundant beauty. And going to a good university, and from there having the life she’d always envisioned for herself. To own her own multimillion dollar cosmetics line. Maybe even branch out to movies, music and TV. She, Lucy Hart, would be queen of her own, huge, fabulous world.

The image of her in a gorgeous Dior gown, on the arm of some handsome A-List movie-stud, gliding across the red carpet of the Grammys, the Oscars, and fashion week in Paris, glowed and sparkled in her head.

It’s going to be… spectacular. She licked the last of the miraculous lemon cream icing from the tines of her fork.

But do I know what I’m doing?

She glanced down at the business card she’d filched from her mother’s room. Frank C Luvici. “The C stands for Crook,” her father used to say about his lawyer.

Lucy remembered that when he’d come to the house, he always wore expensive though tacky suits, and smelled of Brut cologne. His hair was always slicked straight back, and when he smiled at her it always seemed he was undressing her with his eyes.

He had really rancid breath too.

He was scum. And she hadn’t seen him since her father’s sentencing hearing. He’d gotten her father a cushy stint in a minimal security prison—practically a holiday resort with armed guards. So scum or not, he had to be good. And a good attorney, especially a dirty, greasy weasel like Luvici, would’ve not only gotten a sweetheart of a deal for his client, but he would’ve hidden some of his client’s assets, so he would at least get paid while his client rotted in jail.

Lucy had watched a Law & Order or two, and since her father had been a high class lawyer, the five hundred dollars an hour kind, she’d picked up a thing or two just being around him.

She grasped the business card in her hand and flicked it around with her fingers, noting the “Home Phone” scrawled on the back. Sure, if Daddy—she cringed just thinking the word. If Daddy has any money at all hidden—for like when he gets out and starts his new life without us!—then his snake of a lawyer would know what rock—or Cayman Island, or Swiss bank account—it would be hidden under.

“But why would he help me?” Lucy mumbled as she sifted through everything she could remember about one Frank C. Luvici. A dirty piece-of-crap lawyer like that… well, any lawyer, crooked or respectable, would only help you for three reasons. If you can pay, if it’ll make great PR for him (which equals more clients and billable hours), or…

Lucy pinned the card down to her grandmother’s weathered kitchen table with her index finger, digging her uneven, dull nail into the C as her mind snapped on the little nugget of memory she was looking for.

They only help for money, good press… or blackmail. Lucy smiled as her plan formed in her head.

She wouldn’t be calling him at home. No. She remembered her father used to say that Luvici was so greedy he went into the office even on Sundays. That, and he liked to bang his weekend secretary—the one his wife had never seen—after putting in his billable hours, and before trekking out to the golf course for a quick nine holes.

Lucy knew something very interesting about Frank C. Luvici. A couple very interesting “somethings.”

Leverage over your opponent can be as easy as the element of surprise, her father had told her often, and Lucy had used that strategy against upstart wannabees, teachers who were trying to take her down a peg—which never worked out well for them—and against embittered ex-boyfriends. So Lucy knew it worked, and she’d already practiced it in a real life setting.

He’d also said, Always have a back-up plan for negotiations. A nice, fat killer of a second surprise.

Lucy tapped her finger against the business card until there was a notch under that stupid C.

She knew what her first piece of leverage would be. And she knew the schtupping your secretary thing would make a pretty good plan B. But this was a lawyer. He breathed, ate, and slept slippery, weasely moves. She needed something that would knock him flat. Something that would put him in the way of not only legal detriment, but bodily harm.

Something candy-apple red shimmered in her mind, a memory that she’d all but forgotten. And she smiled as she ran upstairs to get dressed. She’d have to get moving if she was going to get the jump on her prey.

 

*

 

Gabriel was on edge. Delia didn’t understand what was taking so long finding a suitable fake fiancée. Uncle Dante was being aloof about Cousin Francis’s progress on said subject. And his mother was sniffing around him like a freaking bloodhound. He was staying later at the office to steer clear of her.

All this was making him start to feel like a caged animal. Or at the very least, like one being hunted, hunted slowly by a predator that knew it didn’t need to hurry, that its prey would be all the more appetizing after a long chase.

And what was worse, Dante wasn’t answering his calls, which was a first. Dante was punctual, never absent, and always at his beck and call. So why was he suddenly not returning his phone calls? It had only been a few hours, yet his imagination had started running hard and fast. He imagined his mother chaining Dante to the wall of her kitchen, and torturing him with a red hot poker.

The thought alone made him want to claw his eyes out, yet there it was. Only a few hours out of touch and he was already contemplating the worst. He breathed in harshly, and then tried to push all thoughts out of his head. He needed to center himself. Being undone by his fear would help nothing. He needed to stay calm and together. There would be a perfectly simple, banal explanation for his uncle’s absence.

When Dante pushed through Gabriel’s office door, looking not only tired but rumpled, Gabriel jumped to his feet and went to the older man. “What’s happened?”

“Your mother,” Dante said, pulling out a linen handkerchief and blotting the beads of sweat on his brow. Gabriel had never seen his uncle sweat before, not even on the few occasions where he joined the family for the hunt.

“Shit! What did she do to you? Does she know?”

Dante gracefully lowered himself into the chair in front of Gabriel’s desk, but the sudden jerk of his head to face Gabriel was the only thing that seemed startled about Dante.

“What are you talking about? She knows absolutely nothing of our dealings.” His tone was cold, and Gabriel got the distinct impression that he was affronted by the mere idea he’d been rolled by anyone, let alone Gabriel’s mother. “She had me held captive in her kitchen—” Gabriel shook his head, trying not to picture his uncle chained to the wall again. “She’s really lost it when it comes to your father’s retirement.”

“Retirement?” Gabriel felt his body relax as the tension melted from his muscles.

“Yes, Vivian thinks your father is still spending far too much time at the company, and she wants to know why.”

“Why?”

“With a Masters in finance from Columbia and another in business, I’d hoped you’d have better questions to ask me.” Dante sounded pissy.

“Oh, I just…”

“She wants to know, is the time he’s spending here warranted, or just superfluous? If he’s needed, then what are we—as in you and I—doing wrong? And if he’s not needed, then is it simply habit or over protective behavior, or is he hiding something more covert and lecherous, or…” The look on Dante’s face was lugubrious.

“There’s a possibility worse than Father having an affair?”

Dante nodded. “She’s afraid he’s tired of her.”

“What?” Gabriel jumped back out of the chair he’d finally just sat in. “She thinks he’s tired of her?”

“She thinks he’s using the company as a way to avoid her. She’s as human as the rest of us. She has her own inner demons.”

Gabriel had never considered his mother to be insecure in the least. She’d always been as strong as… well, she was a force onto herself. It never seemed to faze her that her husband spent laborious hours at work. And she was never weeping, or even moping around the house, waiting for him to come home. She was always busy with the country club, or arranging her family’s futures. She didn’t even seem ruffled when either of her sons had gone off to college for four years or more.

And now she was being anxious about her marriage?

“What gives?”

Dante raised his eyebrows. “What gives is that she obviously had plans for when your father retired, and those plans have fallen far short of what she’d expected.” Which made sense. Vivian Enoch had planned everything out for the family so well, that she even planned on giving his brother Micah a few years to sow his wild oats before he fell in line.

“How bad is it?”

Dante finally looked flustered. “My phone rang too many times while I was with her. She fed it down the trash compactor.”

That alone made him wince. His mother was stern and unflappable. To do something so out of character meant she was at the end of her rope. And the thought of that made Gabriel cringe.

“We have to get your father to spend more time with her,” Dante said. “Before she has a meltdown.”

“You really think Mom would lose it?”

Dante’s expression was stone cold serious. “I think we don’t want to find out.”

Gabriel gulped, but then a smile spread across his face. “At least, with her paranoid about Dad’s free time, she won’t be scrutinizing me and my love life so much.”

“No.” Dante shook his head. “She’s still brow beating me about this secret paramour of yours.”

Gabriel flopped down into the chair behind his desk again, deflated. “Call Francis and light a fire under him.”

 

*

 

Lucy used her mother’s flat iron to tame her still fly-away tresses. She even used her mother’s makeup. Cheap stuff from Wal-Mart, of course, but since she hadn’t bothered buying her own, she had to make do. She burgled her mother’s room again, this time taking a faux silk blouse that her mother wore to waitress in. It was ‘ho-ish and almost too big in the bust, but Lucy tucked it into the vintage Calvin Kleins, and finished the look off with the rip-off Jimmy Choo heels.

She looked in the bathroom mirror to check her makeup, and decided she didn’t look bad at all. It’s a start. But she didn’t check out her ass. Hopefully, I’ll still be hot enough to throw that perv Luvic off balance.

She grabbed her driver’s license and the two hundred and fifty dollars she’d managed to save from working at McDonald’s, and stuck it in the front pocket of her jeans. Walking to the bus stop seemed much easier. She naturally walked better in heels, and for the first time since they’d moved to the sleepy, crappy little town of Four Corners, she felt like her old self again. Not the dowdy, plain Jane who tried to stay faded into the scenery.

No.

She walked down the street with her old swagger, her posture perfect, her bright hazel eyes meeting the eye of everyone she passed by. Her smile grew with every step, becoming luminous and beautiful. She noticed every man—young, old, or downright ancient—smiled at her with puppy-dog interest. She could feel their stares as they turned to watch her walk away.

Good, I’ve still got it. Always best to go into battle with your weapons sharp.

Lucy stood leaning against the bus stop sign, going over in her head what she’d say to the scumbag lawyer. A bus stopped in front of her, its brakes whining from wear. The door opened with a creak and Shirley peering down at her from the driver’s seat. She smiled but there was no recognition in her expression.

“You gettin’ on, sweet thing? I’ve got a schedule…” Shirley’s eyes widened as Lucy stepped up the stairs and fed a dollar fifty in quarters to the toll machine.

“Oh—my—goodness… Mary and Joseph!”

“Hey, Shirley.” Lucy smiled and took a seat up front, right across from her.

Shirley turned in her seat and just shook her head. “I didn’t even recognize you, baby girl.”

“It’s just a little makeup.”

“Shit!” Shirley whooped. Her green eyes jerked as she took in the sight of Lucy. “It’s a hell of a lot more than a little makeup. You look like a completely different person.”

This made Lucy smile more than anything. She wanted to be another person. She wanted to be who she used to be.

“You wearing that to work?”

Lucy shook her head. “Off today.”

“Then where in God’s creation are you goin’?”

“San Bernardino,” Lucy pursed her lips as a thought occurred to her, and Shirley‘s eyebrows knitted in consternation. “You wouldn’t happen to know when the next bus runs there, would you?”

 

*

 

Things ran smoothly. No more than ten minutes after Shirley left her off at the bus terminal, Lucy boarded the bus to San Bernardino. It wasn’t crowded, so she had an hour to sit and think, without anyone trying to strike up a conversation with her.

Every so many miles there would be a sign, counting down the miles to journey’s end. At first those miles were trudging down far too slow. It made Lucy feel more and more impatient. But by the time the signs started ticking down from fifty, Lucy started getting nervous. Butterflies from hell fluttered in her stomach, and her mouth felt as dry as the bottom of Death Valley.

But why am I getting nervous? she thought, chewing absently on one of her ragged nails. I can do this. That sleaze bag is toast. After I’m done with him…

But as each mile marker declared San Bernardino closer and closer, her nervous stomach, and her fidgeting hands got worse and worse.

Get a grip! Lucy pinned her shaking hands under her arms. This is nothing. I can do this… I’m going to do this…

It’s illegal, the mean little voice whispered.

So? Lucy shot back. So is what he’s been up to. Otherwise I wouldn’t be going to blackmail him with it.

Yeah, but… Lucy held her breath, waiting for the mean little voice to finish. What if he decides to pay you off with a bullet in the brain?

Lucy’s entire body turned cold, every molecule in her stiffening.

A bullet in the brain…

She closed her eyes and forced herself to breathe. Sure, he’s a crooked lawyer, probably deals with thugs and hoods and… and gangsters? Lucy gulped at the thought of any of those kinds of people. But murder? He’s a lawyer, not a hit-man.

Lucy finally relaxed enough to shift in her seat and crack her aching neck. Her arm and head were starting to hurt again too.

He’s like Daddy. Lucy scrunched her eyes closed at how wrong those words felt rolling around in her brain. He’s just a cheap, tacky version of… of him. Yeah, sure. He’s immoral and should be in jail with Daddy, but that doesn’t mean he’d…

“Kill me…” Even as she said it, she couldn’t dispel the uneasiness, the uncertainty. Sure Daddy cheated the IRS, and probably his clients. And he more than likely really did deal in slave labor. Lucy still couldn’t wrap her heart and mind around the fact that her father had sold PEOPLE. But Daddy couldn’t have… he just couldn’t kill someone. So crooked Frank Luvici wouldn’t either.

Of course he wouldn’t, princess.

Lucy was getting pretty sick of that mean little voice.

 

Chapter 5

 

THE AIR smelled better, richer, the sun was warmer, and just being back in her home town… correction, the city, made every step Lucy took better. Her nerves were still there, but after she stopped at Starbucks for the first non-fat caramel-mocha latte she’d had in six months, and took that first, heavenly mouthful as the taste burst on her tongue, a surge of absolute certainty rose in her.

She would get what she wanted. There was no two ways about it.

She was going to win.

Luvici’s office was on the third floor of a rundown brownstone building. The elevator creaked and hadn’t been cleaned in about a gazillion years, but it was better than huffing it up three flights of stairs.

Lucy wanted to look and feel calm and beautiful when she went in to blackmail Luvici. She didn’t want to be breathless, sweating, and worn out.

Plus, Luvici might like the whole sweaty thing way too much.

The foamed glass door had Luvici Law Offices in faded, peeling gold lettering. The door wasn’t locked, so Lucy took a deep breath and walked through the door, flashing the young, blonde, bubble butted—and probably headed—secretary one of her most stunning smiles.

The blonde’s smile was sweet, but her eyes gave away a little So, what do you want? attitude.

Lucy started to sidetrack around the secretary. “I just need a moment of Mr. Luvici’s time.”

Unexpectedly the blonde maneuvered herself between Lucy and Luvici’s door. “Sure, Miss. But Frank… I mean, Mr. Luvici, is booked all day.” She put her hands on her hips, and Lucy could see that she was going to give her more than a little problem. Could Lucy just push past her? The blonde’s smile was still Snow White perfect, but her eyes had a hard edge to them.

“But it’s important.”

“If it’s that important, then you’ll need to make an appointment.” Obviously this wasn’t her first time rebuffing solicitors from her boss’s door. “I think he has an opening in about two weeks.”

Lucy put her hands on her hips and glared at the woman. Well, might as well throw out surprise number one.

Lucy put her hands up in mock surrender and then sashayed over to a small bank of waiting-room chairs lining the opposite wall. Sitting down, she crossed her legs and shot the blonde her best smile.

“Miss, I don’t think you—”

“I didn’t catch your name,” Lucy cut across her.

“W-what?”

“Your name? I don’t remember asking. It was rude of me.”

The blonde got a startled expression on her face, making her smile falter. Without the smile she looked five, maybe ten years older. That alone could be why she was boning a schmuck like Luvici.

She pushed away the thought of how her own looks had faltered, and in only six months time.

“Darla,” she mumbled before plastering a mere shadow of her former smile back on her face. “My name is Darla.”

“Well, Darla. Would you be so kind as to tell Mr. Luvici that Scarlet Jones is waiting for him?”

Darla shifted uneasily on her four inch, absolutely lovely Italian leather heels. Lucy could see the gears spinning around in the blonde’s head. She recognized the name, but couldn’t quite place it. “Scarlet Jones?”

Lucy leaned back in the chair, making herself comfortable. “Yes. That’s the name. I’m sure Mr. Luvici will want to see me.”

Darla opened her mouth to say something, but Lucy cut her off with a smile and a, “Thank you so very much.”

The secretary turned and wandered back to her desk, looking very confused, her brain straining to put the name together with what information she’d forgotten. It was like watching a science fiction movie robot short circuit.

Almost in slow motion Darla leaned over her desk and pressed down on the phone’s intercom button. “Franky… I mean, ah…Mr. Luvici? There’s a Scarlet Jones here to see you.”

There was a thud from the direction of his office. A big one. Like the sound of a body, or a bowling ball hitting the floor. Darla rushed over to the office door and swung it wide open. She gasped.

Luvici was on his butt on the floor, about a dozen papers scattered around him, his leather swivel chair rotated by itself about a foot behind him. Luvici’s mouth was still slack jawed, a stunned gaze on his grizzled face.

And then recognition dawned over that ugly face, and an even uglier smile curled on his lips as he took in the sight of Lucy and her denim clad legs.

“Lucy Hart. My, my… you’ve grown up so very, very nicely.” He heaved himself up off the floor and brushed off his knees and pudgy bottom. “Sorry about that, I misheard what Darla here said.” He squinted his beady brown eyes at his secretary.

“Nope,” Darla said, shrugging her shoulders and squatting primly in her way-too-tight skirt and started picking up the papers Luvici had dropped. “She said her name was Scarlet Jones.”

Luvici turned and squinted his little weasel eyes at Lucy now, clearly not liking the turn things had suddenly taken. He was over forty years old, had a full head of shortly clipped blond and gray hair, broad shoulders and a sagging chest that melted into a pronounced belly. And though he was tall, and the shoulders and hair should’ve given the illusion of stature, his cheap rumpled dress shirt and tie made him look low rent.

But he did have pretty blue eyes, and if his smile wasn’t so lecherous, he’d be handsome.

Lucy forced a beatific smile on her face as she said, “Sure did, Franky. I really need to talk to you. Alone.” Lucy let her eyes flash to Darla, and then meaningfully back to him.

Luvici didn’t look happy. Actually, he looked ill, and every second he stood there, squinting malignantly at Lucy, the redder his face got. Finally he let out a big sigh and raked a hand across the back of his neck.

“Sure thing. I always have time for Adam Hart’s little girl.”

Lucy stood up, closed her eyes for a second before walking into Luvici’s office. She swung her hips as she walked, making sure he didn’t miss it.

By the time she turned around, Luvici was pushing Darla out the door, slamming it shut on his own thumb. He cursed under his breath as he put his injured digit in his mouth.

He hurt himself because he couldn’t keep his eyes off me. Lucy smiled with triumph. She sat slowly, letting him get a real long look. Maybe this won’t be as hard as I thought.

The office reeked of cigarette smoke and vinyl office furniture. Luvici’s desk was big, clunky, and made of painted green aluminum. Tacky, much like Luvici himself. Dust motes fluttered through the streams of sunlight coming through the window.

He came around to his side of the desk and watched as Lucy crossed her legs again. His grimy tongue slithered out from his mouth and licked his cracked lips.

“So, little Lucy Hart… whatever can I do for you?”

First, never say my name again.

“I so totally need your help… the teensiest little favor.” She batted her eyelashes at him.

“And what would that be?” He leaned back in his leather chair, and was, as usual, undressing Lucy with his eyes.

Lucy quelled a shiver of revulsion and instead met his lecherous eyes with a cool gaze. “I need some of Daddy’s money.”

Luvici just sat there, his expression never changing. “Money?”

“Yes, I need some of the money you hid for Daddy. I’ve got lots of stuff to get before I go to college. And then there’s tuition money, new clothes… and a car.”

Luvici raised his hand to stop her. “I’m sorry, Lucy, but what money are you talking about?”

She leaned forward conspiratorially. “You know. The money you saved from the IRS. The money you hid… somewhere for Daddy… for when he gets out.”

She didn’t know how to tell if he was lying. He was a professional liar, with a college education in advanced treachery, and had probably interned a few summers in double dealing. But as he shook his head and looked at her, she knew all too well what was etched on his face: pity.

Lucy bit her lip. In the last six months she’d seen enough pity in people’s eyes to last her ten life times.

“He doesn’t have any hidden money, does he?”

“No,” Luvici said, smiling with the most infuriating empathy. “They were thorough. Seized everything he had before they even arrested him.”

“I see.” Lucy felt like her chest was about to collapse. All her renewed hopes and dreams were starting to fall apart around her like little black snowflakes, making her vision cloud up. She shook her head, refusing to tear up again. She was done crying.

If there isn’t any of Daddy’s money, then there’s always his…

She looked Luvici straight in the eye. “Blackmail is such an ugly word.”

This got his eyebrows to furrow. “I didn’t say anything about blackmail.”

“I know,” Lucy said, “but since I’m about to blackmail you, I thought I’d bring it up.”

“You’re going to blackmail me?” Luvici practically chuckled.

“Scarlet Jones would probably love to learn how you skimmed an extra thirty percent off every contract you drew up for her construction consortium.”

Luvici smiled. It wasn’t a friendly or generous smile. It made him look like a hungry, feral animal. She felt her flesh crawl, yet she pushed herself on.

“I remember Daddy saying Ms. Jones had a nasty reputation for reeking bloody vengeance on people that cross her.”

Luvici raised both hands, mimicking the gesture Lucy had used on Darla. But he did it better.

“Yes. If I had it to do over again, I would’ve heeded the rumors about Scarlet.” He sighed sadly. “Beautiful creature, but so bloodthirsty.”

“Then you can see—”

“That’s why I’ve already made restitution—and then some—to Ms. Jones.”

Lucy sat there in a moment of shocked silence. “What?”

“You see, your father already used that one on me. That’s the only reason I defended him. Friendship doesn’t go far in the real world. Just—”

“Cash and good PR,” Lucy finished for him absently.

“You sound just like your father, sweet-meats. Too bad you think just like him too. But slower.” He reached into a drawer and Lucy jumped as he pulled something out. She was sure it would be a gun, or a knife, or a really big gun. But it turned out to be a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. He leaned back as he tapped out a smoke and then lit it up and drew in one, two, three deep drags from it.

“Would you like one?” He held out the pack to Lucy.

Lucy grimaced. “A world of no.”

“So, you see, I made sure no one else could use that one against me again. And in the process, now I’m tapped out. I couldn’t pay you anything even if I wanted to.” He looked Lucy squarely in the eyes, and then winked. “Not that I want to.”

Lucy reached into the folds of silk that clung about her breasts. This got Luvici’s undivided attention. The smile fell right off his face, replaced by a sudden rush of ruddy lust. Even his ears were turning red. Her fingers brushed across the cheap vanilla paper, and she caught it between her fingers, extricating Luvici’s business card from her cleavage.

She held it up, turning it so he could see the back of the card. “Has your home number on here. Wonder what the wife would think if I told her about hot little Darla out there?”

If anything, Luvici seemed to enjoy what she’d just threatened him with. His smile turned down right grotesque.

“Knock yourself out.” He said, “My wife doesn’t care if I screw every woman in California, as long as it’s not her.”

Lucy gasped a convincing “Oh…” Though, truthfully, she hadn’t expected him to care. The bit about Darla was just the set up. The real hook was just around the corner.

“So, if you’re quite finished with this little extortion scheme, I’ve got work to do.” He was just starting to stand up, his big, gnarled paws on his desk as his arms labored to pry him out of the leather chair.

“Think she’ll care about Kenny Fry?”

Luvici froze. His expression didn’t change, but Lucy could see something pass behind his eyes. “Kenny who?”

Okay, Lucy. Nice and steady.

“You know, Kenny Fry. He’s in my class, well… what used to be my class. He was some kind of football hero. Had a full ride to UCLA before he was even a junior, took the team to state two years in a row before he got injured. Tore his knee right up.”

“I’m sorry, Lucy. I really don’t—”

“You represented his family when they sued the hospital and doctors that couldn’t fix his knee.” It was Lucy’s turn to wink at Luvici. “Daddy said you tried every dirty trick you knew to get that family some money.”

“Well… yes, I remember now. I tried my best. But we lost.”

She leaned back into her chair and sighed. “Yet somehow Kenny’s been riding around in a spanking new, candy-apple red Camaro all year long.”

“I have no idea how he’s paid for all that. I just hope he isn’t doing anything illegal.” Luvici tried to sound disapproving.

“I don’t think he’s the one doing something illegal.”

Luvici stood, his face red again, this time with rage. “If you think you can just come in here and accuse me of… of…”

“You know,” Lucy chirped conversationally, “Kenny turns seventeen next month.”

Luvici’s skin turned pale and sweat broke out instantly on his forehead and upper lip. He mopped a hand over his forehead as he sat back down, and he stammered repeatedly before he finally got out, “But he’s your age. He’s a senior. Seniors in high school are eighteen.”

Lucy shrugged. She had him…

“I’m eighteen, sure. But that’s the funny thing about the United States Educational System. I was born a month too late, so I couldn’t start Kindergarten until the next year. Where Kenny, he was born a month earlier, the next year. So he started a whole year before he should’ve.

Luvici was practically the color of chalk, and his hand shook as he rubbed the back of his neck over and over again.

“He’s really…”

“Sixteen? Yeah.” Lucy pursed her lips and nodded her head helpfully. “Jailbait.”

Luvici shook his head.

“I mean, your wife might be tolerant of… you know, things like Darla. But if you were ever implicated in a child molestation case…”

“Wait just a goddamn minute!”

“Well, I’m sure she could handle the shame, the scandal. I’m sure she’d be just fine with her friends at the country club whispering behind her back.”

Luvici was turning green, and he was holding his head in his hands.

Time for the kill.

“And I’m sure Caroline’s father would be thrilled to hear about this.”

Luvici’s head shot up, his blood-shot eyes boring into Lucy.

“Caroline’s father is Ramon Castelli, right? The Ramon Castelli?”

Ramon Castelli wasn’t just Luvici’s father-in-law, he was a real live, fit you with cement shoes gangster.

Lucy was about to suggest ways Ramon might “thank” Luvici when the greasy lawyer said: “Okay, you win.”

Lucy leaned back in her chair. “I win?”

“You win, Miss Hart. Anything…” His hands were shaking. “I’ll do anything at all. Just don’t…”

Cool. “Okay, then. What I want is enough money to go to a good school, purchase a great new wardrobe—fall, summer, and spring—and a car. I was thinking something flashy yet economical on gas… maybe a hybrid.”

Luvici started chuckling mirthlessly. He chuckled long enough to peeve Lucy off again.

“What’s so funny?”

“You.”

Lucy squared her shoulders. “Why am I so funny to you?”

“Well shit!” He slammed his fist down on his desk, making Lucy jump. “I told you before, I’m tapped out. Broke. It took everything I had to pay back that psycho Scarlet.”

“Oh…” Lucy genuinely felt confused. “But you said anything at all.”

“I meant as in legal representation. I thought—maybe—you’d want to try to get your precious Daddy out of jail. Maybe sue someone over something.”

Does that mean you didn’t do everything you could for him? The thought was like holding a red hot, double edged sword. On one hand, she was instantly angry he hadn’t done right by her father. On the other hand, her father didn’t give a damn about her… not anymore. So why was she letting herself get upset over him?

Lucy closed her eyes, shook her head and took in a long, slow breath. Get this crap out of your head! You can’t give up this easy…

Sure you can, the mean little voice chimed in. I’m sure you can just go back to McDonald’s tomorrow. Things will be just like they were, like nothing ever happened.

Lucy wished the mean little voice was real, as in something or someone she could reach out and strangle.

That wonderful heat bloomed in her head again, the heat that ignited whenever she got really annoyed. It made everything sharper, more focused—and it made her feel strong.

“Fine. No cash, no problem.”

Luvici’s eyes got round with surprise. “No problem?”

“Nope. None at all.”

Luvici let out a breath and slumped in his chair with relief. That lasted three seconds.

“But since you’re offering me your legal services in more of a barter/blackmail scenario, then you’ll need to find me some sort of deal.”

“A deal?” His eyes darkened as he started to understand he wasn’t out of the woods yet.

“Yeah, a nice fat deal. Maybe… I don’t know…” Lucy really didn’t know. She’d planned out the whole blackmail the shyster lawyer routine, but she wasn’t a legal eagle. What kind of deal would get her the money she needed, but didn’t involve actual work, or something unimaginably dangerous?

Then she thought of something she’d read about online. Something she’d thought was not only a tacky piece of petty crime, but that seemed to involve no actual work at all.

Perfect.

“I’d like you to set me up one of those arranged marriages. You know, where I marry a rich, illegal alien for a big-fat-hefty sum of money… and then six months later we get divorced.”

She could literally see the gears twirling around in Luvici’s head. There might just be more than a hamster on an exercise wheel in there…

“That’s something I don’t usually delve into.”

“But you have some experience in the matter?” Lucy was suddenly sitting on the edge of her seat. She could just make out the sparkling diamond at the end of the tunnel. “That’s something you could set up for me?”

Luvici nodded. “Sure,” he said, reaching for the cigarette he’d set down when they started talking. It had burned out already. He picked up his pack and tapped out another one. His hands were still shaking as he sparked it up, but after one enormous inhalation a sort of calm settled around him.

“I just don’t think you realize all that goes into one of these arrangements.”

Pregnant pause. She had to prompt Luvici to continue. “As in?”

“Well, for starters, the Immigration Department is a real bitch about this sort of thing anymore. They’ll put you through the ringer. They’ll investigate every aspect of you and your groom’s lives, including family, friends, and work acquaintances.”

The family thing struck a fairly dissonant chord for Lucy. How on earth would she explain this to her grandmother? Gram will kill me…

“And the penalty for trying to pull this over on the U.S. Government and failing is steep. Five years imprisonment and a fine…” He let that hang in the air for a moment. Lucy felt her mouth go dry. Prison? She’d be just like her father.

Luvici continued. “Then there’s the mandatory two years you’d have to be married, and living as man and wife with this would-be suitor.”

“WHAT?” Lucy’s voice exploded from her mouth. “Did you say two years?”

Luvici gave her a shrug and raised his eyebrows. “Two years is the mandatory minimum. Plus you’ll have to go through the fed’s scrutiny for that entire time.”

Two years… The thought made Lucy’s stomach churn. That’s a hell of a long time to pretend to be married to a stranger. And even if I could make my family believe it…

“So, how much are we talking about here? Payment wise. It would have to be a lot, right?”

Luvici bit his lip as he mentally calculated. “I’d say… somewhere between fifty to sixty thousand dollars.”

There was a zero missing in that figure. Lucy wanted to go to a good school, the kind that ran around a quarter of a million dollars to graduate from. Not to mention she wanted to have nice things: great clothes, an apartment with a view, and a new car.

Fifty or sixty grand would only get her to a state college, in a dorm, with a used car. She wouldn’t even have enough to guarantee she finished.

“The lump sum of that would be paid only after the two year…” Luvici paused, obviously trying to come up with a better word than the one on the tip of his tongue.

“Sentence?” Lucy finished for him. It was the word that was on the tip of her tongue too.

“There would be some small disbursements, but the balance would be withheld until the end.”

“Peachy,” Lucy fumed. “So I sit around playing Little Wifey for two years before I’d get to even start my life?”

“Breaking the law isn’t as easy as it sounds.” Luvici snubbed his cigarette out in the ashtray, and then cracked his knuckles. “And don’t forget, one little slip up and Immigration will bend you over until your knees bend both ways.”

Ewwwww! So freaking gross… “Thanks for the visual.”

Darla’s nasal voice buzzed over the intercom.

“Mr. Enoch is on line one.”

For a moment Luvici looked down at the phone console on his desk like it was a snake ready to bite him. Seconds ticked by.

“Franky? Did you hear me?” Darla shrieked. “You know I hate talking with that guy!”

Luvici smashed the intercom button with his meaty forefinger. “I freaking heard you!” he barked. Lucy could’ve sworn he growled like an animal as he picked up the receiver and pushed the button for line one. “Dante, I was just going to…”

The blood drained from Luvici’s face again. If anything, he was even paler than when Lucy had brought up Kenny Fry and Luvici’s father-in-law.

“I know,” Luvici croaked, hand shaking as he reached for his smokes again. “It’s just… you can’t find that kind of girl just standing on the street corner. If you could, then I’d have a freaking chorus line of them for him to choose from.”

Lucy didn’t hear the voice on the other end yell or scream, but whatever it was saying to Luvici was making him shimmer green. Even his eyes seemed to be trembling in their sockets.

And then he looked at Lucy. He looked downright surprised to see her. Whoever it was on the phone must’ve been scary enough to make Luvici forget what he’d been doing.

I really, really never want to meet someone like that.

And then Luvici’s eyes got that sharp, shark-like glint to them again, and his cracked lips peeled back into a rather disturbing smile. “I think I might just have what you’re looking for. Can I call you back?” Luvici listened to the voice on the line, looking fairly anxious. “Sure, I can put you on speaker phone.”

With the press of a button Luvici set the receiver on the console and said, “You’re on speaker, sir.”

“My name is Dante Enoch,” a most cultured voice spoke. “Whom am I addressing?”

Luvici gestured for Lucy to speak.

“Lucy Hart,” she almost choked. Then with a quick little cough she said it again. “I’m Lucy Hart.”

“Well, Miss. Hart. I’m an attorney, and I represent the Enoch family’s interests.”

The man’s brittle yet refined voice made the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. Great, another lawyer…

She looked to Luvici and mouthed, “Who?”

Luvici shook his head with annoyance. “Enoch Incorporated has its hands in almost every type of business you can think of. It’s a multi—”

Dante’s voice cut across Luvici with an edge of warning. “Let’s just say the family is well off.”

She wagged a chastising finger at Luvici, mouthing “Bad boy.”

I wonder if they have one of their “hands” in the cosmetics industry. The diamond sparkled in her mind’s eye.

“What I am looking for, Miss Hart, is a suitable young lady to play a part of sorts. Have you had any acting experience?”

“Sure,” Lucy said to the chilling disembodied voice. “I was the lead in the last three end-of-year productions: Clueless, Bring It On, and Rent.

“You can sing?” Dante asked.

“Nope.”

“Uh-huh.” His sigh had a definite edge of disappointment. “Any other experience?”

“Well, I have had boyfriends, and they all believed I would sleep with them. But not one actually got to.”

Luvici groaned and his head fell into his hands again.

“Fascinating, Miss Hart. I can’t wait to meet you.”

The feeling’s not mutual, creepy lawyer guy.

“Francis…”

Francis? Lucy couldn’t stop the smile from blooming across her lips. Luvici shot her his middle finger.

“Yes, Mr. Enoch.”

“The usual place, in let’s say… an hour?”

Luvici gulped and shot Lucy a look of horror, looking her over from head to toe. “Of course. No problem, sir.”

“Don’t be late.” The line went dead.

“Shit!” Luvici growled. He kept looking Lucy up and down. “Shit! Shit! Shit!”

“So you’re meeting this guy in an hour?”

Luvici shot out of his chair and grabbed his rumpled jacket from a coat rack in the corner.

“Not just me. We’re meeting them.”

It was Lucy’s turn to gulp. I really don’t want to meet this guy. Then Luvici’s words caught up with her. “Them?”

Luvici held open the door and gestured with his free hand emphatically for her to get up and get out the door. “You’re the one who said you wanted an arranged marriage kind of deal.”

“Sure, but—” Lucy was on her feet and Luvici was shoving her out the door and past Darla.

“I’ll be gone for the rest of the afternoon,” he barked at a wide-eyed Darla. “Reschedule all my appointments.”

“Do you want me to wait for you?” Darla’s shrill, laser beam voice suddenly dripped with heat and honey. Doe eyed, she smiled with what looked like genuine affection. Either the chick was one hell of an actress, or she had it bad for her schmuck of a boss.

Luvici stopped and looked at her, his eyes turning soft, his breathing slowing—even his meaty head cocked ever so slightly to the side. “This could take a while. But yeah, would you mind waiting for me?”

Lucy felt like she was watching a real live Life Time romance of the week movie. And then she remembered that Luvici, the schmuck, had a wife at home—whether she was waiting for him with open arms and pot roast, or not.

Yuck…

“I’ll wait,” Darla said enthusiastically. “I’ve got loads of filing to catch up on.”

Luvici smiled, kind of laughed once under his breath, then turned and dragged Lucy out of the office by the arm.

 

Chapter 6

 

“LET ME GO!” Lucy hollered, grabbing hold of the knob of a passing office door for leverage. Four inch heels were never good for putting on the brakes. Luvici looked back at her. His eyes had turned back to their previous glaring mode. “We have to hurry, princess.”

Okay, that’s it! Now he’s calling me that too…

“Get off me, you freaking troglodyte!”

Luvici let go of her arm like she’d burnt him. He rounded on her and stood there, practically nose to nose with her. His breath was making Lucy’s eyes water, but she wouldn’t back down. This guy was just a big bully, and after all, who’s the one doing the blackmailing around here?

“I—am—not—a—caveman!” He looked so pissed Lucy thought he was going to strike her. “I went to Stanford, just like your old man.” Suddenly his face seemed to crumble, and she saw that his eyes were getting glassy.

“Are you going to cry?”

“NO!” Luvici roared. But his face was starting to look like he was indeed getting ready to cry.

I really don’t need a blubbering fool right now.

“I’m not a caveman, the missing link, or a freaking giant…” His hands were out, palms up, beseeching. “I’m just big boned, for crying out loud!”

Lucy shook her head, and then switched to nodding in agreement. “Sure… I totally see that.”

“Then why’d you say that?” The hurt in his eyes made Lucy cringe. Where was the nasty, lecherous weasel who was checking her out just ten minutes ago?

“Everyone said that,” he grumbled. College… even my goddamn wife calls me a Cyclops!”

“Oh.” Lucy couldn’t help but feel sorry for him. Okay, his eyes were a little close together, but with a little creative eyebrow plucking…

A tear was threatening to leak out of his left eye. Lucy couldn’t take it if he started to cry now.

“So, where is this place, where we’re meeting creepy phone guy?”

Luvici got back that annoyed look on his face. I can handle annoyed, just not weepy.

“We don’t call Mr. Enoch creepy phone guy. So remember that. He’s rich and powerful… hell, the entire family’s rich and powerful. They all work for the company. Hell, they are the freaking company.”

“Okay, okay.” Lucy put up her hands in surrender. “He’s now only known as Mr. Enoch. So where are we going? And why were you in such a hurry?”

This prompted Luvici to check his watch, groaning and swearing under his breath as he gestured again for me to walk.

“We’re meeting Mr. Enoch and his nephew at Caulderon’s.”

Lucy smiled. Her father had taken her there the day she’d passed her driver’s license exam. And he’d said they’d go again when she got accepted to Stanford. It was expensive. They didn’t even serve tap water, only fancy French and Italian stuff with bubbles.

“Excellent!” she chimed.

Luvici started moving down the street with some real speed. Now that he wasn’t dragging Lucy behind him, she suddenly had a hard time keeping up with him.

“Caulderon’s is just a couple blocks away,” Lucy yelled after him. “Why are you in such a rush?”

He stopped abruptly and turned to face her again. Looking down at her he said, “We have to dress you.”

Dress me? But I’m not naked…

But then it hit her. Jeans and a frumpy top weren’t going to impress people who were rich and powerful, or that frequented Caulderon’s. And then Lucy remembered that creepy phone guy—er… Mr. Enoch—had said he was looking for a “suitable young lady.”

Definitely, I need something else to wear.

With a sudden desperate tug at her heart she realized she didn’t have enough money to even buy underwear in the shops they were passing, especially not a dress.

“I can’t afford these shops,” Lucy said, grabbing hold of Luvici’s wrist as he jerked her toward a boutique’s entrance.

Luvici rolled his eyes. “It’s on me, kid.”

“Thought you were broke?” she groused, stopping in her tracks, hands on hips.

“I can’t afford your little blackmail scheme, but I can tote the bill for a dress.” He looked down at Lucy’s shoes. “Maybe we can find something that will go with those shoes.”

Maybe, she thought as she followed Luvici into the boutique. Lucy had to stop. She turned and breathed in the scents: designer clothes, Italian leather, silk, Egyptian cotton. And all of it new…

She suddenly felt a little light headed.

“Lucy!” Luvici shouted, tearing her out of her reverie. “Get in here.”

He was holding open the door to a changing room.

She stood there and just stared at the big man.

“Get in here and strip.” he said. “I’ll pick something out.”

Lucy shook her head. There was no way this overgrown slouch could pick out something pretty, refined, and appropriate. Just look at Darla.

Luvici caught her by the arm and shoved her into the five by five, mirror clad changing room. “How are you going to pick me out something?”

Silence.

“I mean, not that I’m doubting your fashion sense,” But, oh god I am. Look at the way you dress. “You don’t even know what size I am!”

Suddenly something flew over the changing room door and dangled from Luvici’s meaty fingers until Lucy finally reached out and took it. It was a dress, ivory colored silk with a delicate pattern of exotic flowers. Gold thread was woven into the fabric. And low and behold, it was her size.

I hate that everyone seems to know what size I am now!

But just touching the soft, soft silk, and holding it up against her, looking in the full-length mirror in front of her, she couldn’t deny the big oaf had incredible taste.

“Thanks… Frank.”

“You’re welcome. Now try it on.” Lucy could hear him pacing outside the little room. “If we hurry, we can get you manicured and your hair done… maybe some demure makeup.”

Lucy had to agree. Her makeup was overdone. She’d been aiming for sultry with a side of dangerous. But that didn’t go well with the dress. And her hair and nails really needed work.

He had a good eye.

“And please tell me those shoes match the dress.”

Lucy looked down at her shoes and smiled. “Perfectly. Where did you get such a good eye?” Then Lucy remembered that Luvici liked girls and guys. There had to be some gay/bi-sexual fashion gene in there, somewhere.

There was a long silence, but just as she started pulling off her top Luvici started talking.

“I was going to be an art major, in college.”

“You’re an artist?” She couldn’t keep the surprise out of her voice.

“Not good enough to be a professional… but I really wanted to own a gallery someday.” She heard him chuckle unhappily to himself. “But the family—my father—insisted I go to law school.”

She recognized the edge to Luvici’s voice. His father hadn’t approved of him, and it still cut him like a knife. She could relate.

She slipped into the dress, easily zipping herself up, then inspected her reflection in the panorama of the mirrored walls. The dress was a knock out: elegant, yet fresh and young.

Lucy came out into the store with a flourish, turning in a grand gesture, smiling up at Luvici.

“Not bad.” He handed his charge card to the rather intimidated looking sales clerk.

Moments later he was ushering Lucy into a small beauty parlor with oriental decor, and an all oriental staff.

He walked right up to the gorgeous woman standing behind the counter. Her hair was like black glass, not a fly away or split end anywhere, and her skin was flawless.

“Ming Na… my friend here needs a mani-pedi, a trim, style—maybe a twist—and makeup.” Luvici gave the woman that raised eyebrow look Lucy already hated.

“Sure thing Luvici,” The woman sounded like she hated that look too. “Why don’t you ever bring in that secretary of yours? She needs a lot more work than this one does.”

Luvici smiled. “I like Darla just the way she is. Now can you hurry? We’ve got…” He looked down at his watch. “Forty-five minutes.”

“It’ll cost you, dog.” Lucy almost didn’t catch the “dog” reference. She’d said it so matter-of-factly. Lucy suddenly wondered how many women Luvici was cavorting with. Or was he just that infamous?

The woman named Ming Na whisked Lucy back to the sinks and scrubbed her hair with the most enticing smelling shampoo. Exotic essences of flowers and fruit enveloped Lucy’s senses. Then she ushered her into a salon chair, and as she snipped away all of Lucy’s damaged ends, two other women started work on her hands and feet.

“No fake nails!” Lucy and Luvici said simultaneously.

“Just make them even, and match the dress,” Luvici finished.

By the time they were done, her nails and toenails shone a lovely pale pink, and her hair had been flat-ironed to perfection. It was almost as glassy as her hairdresser’s. Two minutes later Ming Na had washed and moisturized her face, and was already making quick work of Lucy’s makeup.

As she walked out of the salon, Lucy had to admit, besides being ten pounds overweight, and wearing designer rip off shoes, she’d possibly never looked so good.

Finally, Lucy sighed to herself with relief as she looked in the salon mirror. Mirrors love me again.

 

*

 

Walking into Caulderon’s, Lucy felt more than good, she felt fabulous. She hadn’t felt pretty in a very long time, and now she felt absolutely beautiful. No. She felt stunning and gorgeous, and she knew without a doubt that every head in the restaurant was turning to look at her.

She felt the self-confidence return to her step. She suddenly felt powerful.

Luvici stopped at the maître d’s podium, and after only a moment’s pause to take in Luvici, the host’s face turned warm and inviting as he beckoned them into the restaurant.

The place seemed larger to Lucy, now. Even though she’d only been here once, she’d taken it all in with an air of entitlement. Now, she knew that your life could be changed, leveled to dirt and mud—and special sauce—so now she was taking everything in with much more care, savoring the moment.

But something in Lucy decided she didn’t like the way she was feeling. An expensive dress, a quickie salon experience and getting to enter a high priced eatery weren’t things she had ever imagined she would be thankful for.

What’s wrong with me?

Luckily, Lucy didn’t have time to ponder this. In seconds the host had shown them to what was most certainly the best table in the house. Center stage, two waiters and two assistant waiters stood like sentinels, waiting to act on their customer’s every command and wish.

Okay, this is nice, Lucy thought as one of the wait staff pulled out her seat and then gently pushed it in once she sat down.

Lucy was so taken with this formality that she almost didn’t notice the two men who had stood to greet her. They were still standing, looking down on her with matching looks of mild irritation.

Lucy shot up out of her chair, and thankfully didn’t knock anything over in her haste.

“I’m so sorry,” Lucy said, suddenly feeling clumsy and rude—though she wasn’t quite sure why.

The older man spoke, extending his hand, “Not at all.” It was creepy phone guy, a.k.a Mr. Enoch. “I’m afraid I should be more… flexible. Regrettably, I’m old and set in my ways. Please forgive me, Miss Hart.”

Okay, his voice may still be kind of creepy. She took his rather warm hand, but he really couldn’t be any more handsome and ingratiating. She could well imagine him holding court with royalty, and she was sure he and Shirley would get along perfectly.

She smiled to herself just thinking of Shirley chatting him up on her bus. The idea was preposterous.

Mr. Enoch released her hand, giving her a tiny dip of his silver haired head in salute. Then he turned to the other man at the table.

Wow! Lucy thought, looking up into his handsome, dark featured face. Dark chocolate brown eyes you could get lost in. His lips were kissably thick, with just a touch of pink. And his bone structure was perfect; Prince charming in the flesh. Not to mention how his suit was tailored to hug his lithe body to utter perfection. The chocolate and caramel in the suit only accentuated his dark skin and hair.

Oh, and his eyes—drowning deep. Can’t get over those eyes.

But then she noticed the look on the handsome younger man’s face. It was a look she’d never seen coming from a man. Usually men looked at her with admiration and longing. She was used to that. But this guy, he looked at her with clear disdain. Lucy had never had a perfect stranger look at her with such pure contempt.

“This is my nephew, Gabriel Enoch,” Mr. Enoch said, introducing them. “Gabriel, this is Lucy Hart.”

Lucy beamed her brightest smile at him, thinking that maybe he was uncertain of her, or that he was just shy. She offered him her hand.

He looked at it as if he didn’t know if her hand was clean enough to touch. Obsessive Compulsive disorder? There were no less than six kids in her old school who had extreme cases of the illness. She almost sighed with empathy. Those kids were a mess, and miserable as all get out.

But then Gabriel Enoch reached out and took her hand. He was hot. Not as in visually appealing, which he was. His hand, his flesh, was hot to the touch. He shook her hand and then suddenly let it go, looking at his own hand as if it had been infected or something.

“She won’t work,” he said to Dante Enoch.

“Gabriel?” The lawyer’s voice was smooth as silk, but there was irritation there too.

“It won’t work. She’s so…” He was glaring at Lucy with loathing.

“She’s beautiful,” Dante tried to finish for his nephew.

“Shallow and greedy, I’d say.”

Luvici cut in. “She comes from a good family. That is what you were looking for.”

“Not that good,” Gabriel said. “Not if she’d do this for money.”

Both lawyers stood there with shocked expressions on their faces. Gabriel turned to Dante. “I’m sorry, Uncle, but I have things I need to take care of.”

Lucy knew she should have been hurt. Any other girl in the world would have been pushed to tears by the words that fell from Gabriel Enoch’s lips. But she wasn’t like any of those girls. She’d already had every kind of degradation visited upon her in the last six months. She needed this, no matter what kind of jerk she had to work with.

Lucy blocked his escape by walking up to him and laying one of her freshly manicured hands on his chest. The gesture was intimate, as was the smile that she knew would bring out her dimples. This made Gabriel gulp, which was good. It meant she had his full attention.

“I might be shallow and greedy, and I may be the sort of girl that would do…” she gave him a slow, dismissive up and down look, “this for money. But you need this just as much as I do.”

He scoffed.

“Come on, Gabe…” His eyes flashed angrily at Lucy nicknaming him. Interesting. “What is it anyways?”

“What is what?”

Lucy noted how his irritated tone suddenly shot down in volume.

“Well, from your lack of an accent, I’d say you don’t need a fiancée for immigration purposes, so this all has to do with the object of your affections.”

Gabriel scowled, anger glowing in his gaze.

“So what’s the what? Is your family racist or something, so you can’t bring your non-Anglo Saxon girlfriend home to meet the folks? Or…” Lucy laughed and rolled her eyes. “I get it. I get it.” She sat down and took a sip of the ice cold bubbling water that sat at her place setting. “I’m going to be your beard.”

“You’re going to be his what?” Dante looked completely confused.

“His beard,” Lucy answered. She looked up into Gabriel’s scorching gaze. “So you’re gay and you don’t want your family to know. Well, I wouldn’t have guessed. Course, it’s hard to tell nowadays.”

“I’m not gay,” Gabriel said flatly.

“Not that it’s any of my business, but I think trying to hide that kind of thing from your folks isn’t good for you.”

Gabriel looked taken aback.

“I mean, stress like that can ruin your complexion. Not to mention put lines on your face before their time.”

“You have no idea what you’re talking about.” Gabriel shook his head and Lucy saw that his fists were balled up. “I’m not gay. But there’s nothing wrong with being so.” He shot her through with his eyes. “Only low people still find homosexuality something to hate or be embarrassed about.”

Whoa… this guy is serious as a heart attack, Lucy smiled. More interesting. And kind of likable, if you ignore the whole “low people” barb.

But, Lucy peered up at Gabriel Enoch’s exasperated face, I like yanking his chain.

“So, Gabe… then your family’s a bunch of bigots?”

The look on Gabriel’s face turned downright scary. He bent down, one of his fists on the table, lowering his face to mere inches from Lucy’s. “My family is none of your goddamn business.”

Lucy felt a stab of fear. But instead of leaning away from him, she leaned toward him, her smile still in place but her eyes turning cold. That wonderful annoyed heat was building in her head again. It was such a relief, how that feeling seemed to clear her head and make her calm. Well, calm wasn’t quite the word for it.

Determined maybe? That heat seemed to let her see where she was supposed to go, what she wanted, and what she needed to do to get it.

“Then my family and my motives are none of your goddamn business either. And I’m not a prostitute, so quit looking at me like I am!”

A smile flickered across his lips. There was something, suddenly, passing through the air between them. Something sinister or simply a trick of hormones, whatever it was made Lucy’s toes curl and the back of her neck tingle.

He smells so good…

But he is such a jerk!

The heat evaporated from Gabriel’s expression as he straightened to his full height. He was smiling and shaking his head. Lucy didn’t like his smile. She liked him better when she was pissing him off.

“She’ll do,” he told his uncle, and then he nodded to Lucy as he started to walk away.

“Gabriel?” Dante said. “Where are you going? There is much to discuss.”

Gabriel spoke as he walked to the door: “You know the terms we need. I’m certain you can handle things from here.”

And with that Gabriel Enoch was gone out the front door, disappearing into the bright Californian daylight.

Luvici sat down and pawed through the menu. Dante turned and looked at Lucy. She couldn’t stop smiling. Had she passed the test? What came next? She was seeing the sparkling diamond at the end of her journey again. And this time, it was twice as big as before.

Dante sat down, shaking his head and then looked up at his lunch guests with a weary look in his eyes. That look extinguished when Luvici called out an order for a bottle of Chateau Margaux 1995, and an appetizer of oysters.

“Very well, Francis.” Luvici glared at Dante, but didn’t say anything back. “Shall we order? Then we can talk business?”

“Fine by me.” Luvici went on to order a huge and exurbanite meal. French onion soup and a Cesar salad—as if his breath needed any help being disgusting. Then he ordered a porterhouse steak (rare) with provolone cheese and scampi shrimp on top. Throw in a baked potato with butter, sour cream, bacon bits and chives, and Lucy thought she was going to throw up if she was going to have to watch him eat all that.

But since this was her fantasy restaurant, she wanted to order something really good. She’d been eating mostly her grandmother’s cooking and McDonald’s, so eating at a high class eatery was an event.

Her mouth watered as she looked over the choices. Everything on the menu looked good, especially since there weren’t any prices on it. Maybe a combo platter of a little of everything… maybe the size of the table?

Then she thought of how she hated feeling so thankful for being there. Being like that, feeling that way, it just made her mad. How had she gotten this far down?

“I’ll have the grilled chicken and a spring leaf salad with honey mustard dressing on the side.” She was going to trim down to her old size—she’d just decided. And she was going to demand weekly trips to this very restaurant in their negotiations. That way she’d get over this whole “thankful for things” phase.

 

*

 

Negotiations went well until Luvici asked for too little money. Why he’d decided to low ball the other lawyer made no sense to Lucy. All she could think was, That’s not enough. That’s not even half what I need.

“I’m sorry Mr. Enoch,” she interrupted, “but Frank misunderstood what amount I require to do this… bit of acting.” This made Luvici flinch, and made Dante squint at Lucy like she was out of her mind. “I need at least three hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars. And that’s just at the end of the job. What I need now is a charge card for shopping.”

“Shopping?” Dante squinted even harder at her.

“Shopping… you know? Every young woman’s favorite past time. I need a whole new wardrobe… that is if you want Gabriel’s parents to believe I come from a good family. I imagine since you’re their lawyer that you’ll keep my father’s legal problems, and my family’s money problems, from them. You’d handle that sort of investigation for them, right?”

“Well, yes…” Dante said, looking surprised.

“So, I’ll need to shop to pull off the rest of it. And I’ll need use of a car.”

The look on Dante’s face was wide-eyed surrender. Lucy had to smile.

“Well, I can’t be expected to take the bus to go shopping, or to go wherever it is I’ll end up having to go during this hoax.”

“This isn’t just some childish prank, Miss Hart.” Dante’s tone was scolding, and his expression could be taken as the beginnings of a heart attack. He looked stressed and weary as hell. “This is a very important, very serious matter. Gabriel’s father… everyone in the family must be convinced that you are Gabriel’s betrothed.”

Lucy leaned forward and instinctively took Dante’s still very warm hand and smiled reassuringly. “I can do this. I promise. I’ll make even you think that I’m in love with that arrogant jerk. So no worries, okay?”

A sudden understanding passed between them. They knew that they needed each other, and that they would both uphold their part of the deal.

“Done,” Dante said pulling his hand gently from Lucy’s and straightening his tie and suit. “Three hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars at service end, use of a car, and a credit card for shopping purposes.”

“And some mad money.”

“Mad money?”

“And a cell phone. I’ll run through the minutes on this thing in no time.” She held up her little pre-paid phone and waved it at Dante.

“Maybe you’d like a computer too,” Dante said wearily, yet with definite sarcasm.

“No,” Lucy said, sticking out her lower lip, thinking. “Just make it an iPhone. Then I can do whatever I need, internet wise, through that.”

Luvici coughed and turned away in his seat so Dante wouldn’t notice he was laughing.

Dante smiled as Luvici’s oysters, salad and soup arrived. Then he turned that smile on Lucy. “Gabriel is going to have his hands full with you, isn’t he?”

 

Chapter 7

 

HIS SPIRITS high, Gabriel returned to Enoch Industries and threw himself into his work. He fired off e-mails, made phone conferences, even let his assistant, Laurel, schedule a lunch with his mother. He felt good about the girl he’d chosen to be his red herring fiancée. She was shrewd and devious, and thought fast on her feet. He always respected a goal oriented person.

Lucy Hart had been attractive, yet too young. He’d loathed her on sight. No one so juvenile and clearly narcissistic would be capable of pulling off such an intricate, important deceit. Yet in the brief time he’d spent in her presence she’d shown she was skilled in a wide range of nefarious behaviors. He’d wanted to kill her where she stood when she’d insulted his family. But just watching her shift gears from hostile to beguilingly seductive, and then to shrewdly perceptive, convinced him that she was the girl for the job. Young or not, shallow and money hungry, he could tell she would stop at nothing to achieve her goal.

He would use his lunch with his mother to tell her about his secret fiancée. He would have to be careful, though. He would have to be deliberately vague. He would need to keep his mother in the dark until they’d had time to get their stories straight.

He sat in his office and stared out the window as the last hint of daylight receded from the sky. There had been a moment, as brief as it was confusing, when Lucy had placed her hand on his chest. It had been a simple gesture, used merely to get his attention and to halt his leaving, yet such a feeling had washed through him. It was like he’d suddenly woken up, snapped to by some sort of pleasurable jolt. It had ended the moment she’d removed her hand, but the feeling lingered—it still lingered.

He returned his attention to his laptop and dismissed thoughts of Lucy Hart from his mind and started typing a reply to a distributer from Indiana.

He felt his Blackberry vibrate in his pants pocket and retrieved it. It was a text from Delia. He smiled, welcoming his yearning for her, letting it push aside everything else he had been contemplating. She wanted him to meet her.

“When and where?” He typed with his thumbs, a smile spreading across his lips.

“Funeral Peak. I’ll be waiting.”

Gabriel knew where that was. Again with the heights! She never tired of making him face his greatest fear. Funeral Peak was a mountain overlooking Death Valley National Park. Delia would no doubt scale the sheer cliff on the southern side. He would need to ascend the other side of the craggy mountain until he reached the highest mesa. He’d been there once before. It had been the first time they’d kissed.

 

*

 

The road leading to Death Valley National Park was nearly clear of traffic, and Gabriel made good time. He refused to speed, though he came perilously close. He left his car at the base of the mountain, and then jogged swiftly up the steep incline. He side stepped boulders and then finally slowed when the ground pitched at too steep an angle to keep running. Now he would have to climb, and this he hated more than anything.

But being with Delia was worth it. He took off his tie and dress shirt, throwing them over a dead, spindly tree. He scrambled easily up the first third of the climb, but then it began to rain. Nothing heavy, and there was no wind, but it made the earth and rock he clung to slippery, and that made his fear of falling all the more potent.

By the time he made it to the topmost mesa he was soaked with rain and sweat, and his arms and legs were shaking from effort and fear. Breathing heavily he strode toward the edge of the cliff, to where he knew Delia would be awaiting him. A boulder shorn flat like a tabletop sat mere feet from the edge of the cliff. Gabriel gasped, his eyes widening with surprise and lust. Delia lounged naked on the stone tablet, the rain pattering off her ivory white flesh, her eyes closed, expression at peace.

Gabriel approached, heat throbbing through his body, making his flesh burn. Delia turned her head and opened her eyes. A smile stole across her lips and her blue eyes sparkled mischievously. “I thought you weren’t coming.”

He stopped, towering over her naked form, mesmerized. He reached out a hand and stroked the cold flesh of her cheek, and then trailed his hand down her neck, over her supple breasts—she arched her back and moaned. As his hand moved even lower, gliding over her ribcage, and then down her smooth belly, Delia leaned up and kissed him, drawing his lips to hers.

He gasped as she raked her nails over his shoulder, making him bleed.

 

*

 

The two lay naked under a now clear sky, the stars and a crescent moon made their skin glow in the dark. Wrapped in each other’s arms, Delia rested her head against Gabriel’s chest and listened to the hypnotic beating of his heart. She had never had a heartbeat. Gabriel having one had always fascinated her.

“Tell me about this girl you’ve found… is she pretty?”

Gabriel chuckled, his chest expanding and jerking with the effort. She loved the feel of his body, especially at times like this, when it moved unexpectedly. So alive.

“Jealous?”

Delia stabbed her finger into his stomach, making him groan.

“Okay, okay! You’re above petty things like jealousy… and gratuitous violence.”

“You think that was violent?” She looked up into his eyes and fought off the craving for him, and the yearning to just melt into those fathomlessly deep brown eyes of his. “See what happens if you say she’s prettier than me.”

“Not even close.” He leaned in and kissed her, tasting warm and alive.

After Delia nestled back into the muscles of his chest, Gabriel continued. “She seems to possess the attributes that will impress my family. And she’s shallow, manipulative, and a complete gold digger.”

“She will fit in well with your family.”

Gabriel sighed and pulled her tighter to him. “I’m going to ignore that one.”

She smiled and inhaled the delicious aroma of his naked flesh.

“But she is goal oriented, and she has prowess when it comes to acting out a part and manipulation. I truly believe she’ll be able to play her role more than well enough to fool my family.”

“Good,” Delia whispered, though the feeling the thought of someone else being at his side made her feel anything but.

“And once she’s in place and my family is no longer so fixated on finding me a mate, we’ll be free to be together.”

“Ironic how you need to get married to someone else so we can spend more time together.” She could hear the bitterness in her own words.

Gabriel looped his forefinger under her chin and pulled her face up to his. “This was your idea.”

She closed her eyes and pushed back the sudden wetness and burning. “I know, I know. It’s just…” She pushed all the crazy thoughts out of her mind. She would do anything to be with Gabriel. Anything.

She looked deep into his eyes again. “It’s nothing.” But there was something there. Something new and uninvited. It was a feeling. That feeling that comes when you just know things are going all wrong. She pulled herself up on top of Gabriel, their bare skins sliding with the remnants of the fallen rain. She straddled him, pushing her hands hard into the muscles of his smooth chest, making him groan.

She stared into his eyes. If there was something wrong, wouldn’t she be able to see it in his eyes? But his eyes were filled with his usual longing for her. But was it love? She needed more than anything to believe that indeed it was. For if she didn’t have his love, then what did she have?

 

*

 

Lucy slept deep and hard that night. Her dreams were of shopping in boutiques and huge high-class shopping Meccas, of driving something sleek, expensive, and midnight blue (a new color for a new life) and receiving acceptance letters from every university she’d applied to. Even Stanford—that one had come in a golden envelope and the words glittered magically as she read them.

She woke the next morning still sore but filled with purpose. Luvici was to pick her up shortly after she left for school. He was to park three blocks away so that her grandmother and mother wouldn’t suspect.

Her mother was still asleep—the late shift always took it out of her. Lucy’s grandmother made her breakfast, and Lucy picked at it, only taking a bite or two when her grandmother was looking. She poured herself a cup of coffee after discarding the rest of her food in the trash. If she didn’t eat it, she wouldn’t have to work it off later. She would put off starting her workout regime until her shoulder had healed, but she would start dieting in earnest now.

She would miss her grandmother’s cooking. Her own mother had only been a microwave kind of cook. If it wasn’t for the full time cook her father had employed year round Lucy would have never known there was such a thing as place settings and silverware. Also, having a cook meant that when Lucy had started eating low-fat, low-carb, the cook simply prepared something different for her.

But her Gram’s cooking was special. Though full of fat and sugar and salt, it was also filled with love.

Lucy grabbed her book bag and gave her grandmother a kiss as she made to leave.

“Do you work tonight?” her grandmother asked, catching her at the door.

“Oh, ummm… yes. So don’t wait up for me.” Lucy kissed her grandmother again. She didn’t like lying to her, however she would be doing things in preparation for her new job, so she actually wasn’t lying.

Sure you’re not, Princess.

Five minutes later Lucy found Luvici parked in a sweet, shiny red convertible. He had on a pair of shades and was leaning back in the driver’s seat soaking up some rays. He looked happy… too damn happy. Lucy stood there just staring at him. Sure, he’s really feeling that financial crunch.

Finally she got into the passenger’s side seat, wanting nothing more than to slap him good. All that feeling sorry for him—finding he had layers, like some rumpled puppy/onion cross breed—was gone. She was going to hold her tongue, at least until Luvici drove her into San Bernardino, so she could pick up the car Dante Enoch had waiting for her, and of course the credit card. She would try not to be too late to school. But she absolutely wanted to break the card in.

She was wondering what kind of car Dante would pick out for her. Probably something practical; he seemed a very practical man. But he was elegant too. Whatever it was, it would be elegant. That, at least, was a comfort.

Luvici hadn’t moved a muscle. Was he asleep? Lucy finally took a breath to tell him to wake up, but ended up saying what was really going through her head. “I thought you said you were broke?” She looked to him and saw a smile slide across his face. Jerk… “I don’t call having this as a second car being financially strapped.”

“What would you call it, then?” Luvici was looking downright smug behind his sunglasses.

“I’d call it a mid-life crisis. Darla, Kenny… this shiny new penis shaped car. Looks like someone’s feeling over the hill, trying to regain some of his lost youth.” Luvici still had that irritating smile on his face. “What would you call it?”

Luvici held out a set of keys in Lucy’s direction without actually looking at her. “I’d call this penis shaped midlife crisis yours.” He gave them a shake and the keys jingled merrily, sparkling new in the sunlight.

“Mine?” Lucy felt tingly all over. Suddenly she started looking around at the sleek lines of the car, how the red paint blazed in the sun, at the soft as butter tan leather seats.

“All you have to do is drive me back to my office and you’re free to rack up all the speeding tickets you want.”

Lucy smiled. “What makes you so sure I won’t just take off and leave you in the dust?”

“My unwavering belief in human decency,” Luvici said.

Lucy snorted.

“And I have your credit card in my wallet. And you don’t get that until I’m safely deposited at my office.”

Lucy reached out and took the keys form Luvici. “I was just kidding. I’d never just ditch you.”

“Sure you wouldn’t.” He didn’t sound as if he believed her.

Lucy got out of the car and headed over to the driver’s side. Luvici awkwardly crab walked over the gearshift and plopped into the passenger seat. Lucy was surprised the man could move like that. She was sure from his belly that he hadn’t done exercise of any kind for over a decade. Unless you counted boffing Darla and Kenny as exercise, then maybe he was fitter than he looked.

“Where’s the trust?” Lucy slid in behind the wheel and turned the engine over with a wicked roar.

“Just don’t kill us, okay Hart?”

Lucy smiled at him calling her “Hart.” It was funny and made her almost like him. Almost.

 

*

 

A credit card through Enoch Industries, in her name, and a spanking new iPhone came with the car. And after Lucy left Luvici in a cloud of dust at the curb of his office building, she decided an impromptu ditch day to break in the credit card was in order. Every boutique on the main drag of San Bernardino was calling her name. She chose a store that was new—since she wasn’t really in the mood to run into one of her former girlfriends—and the shop really did look promising. Gucci and Prada adorned the front windows.

Lucy parked the shiny new convertible, closing the top and locking the doors… something she’d never done with her own car. She just thought that if anyone actually did anything to it, Daddy would buy her a new one. Now she knew Daddy wasn’t buying her anything, anytime soon. And though the car wasn’t technically hers, it felt like it was. She felt a little swoon of happiness as she hit the car alarm, admiring her own reflection coming from the polished-to-perfection paint-job.

Like it was a movie, Lucy turned dramatically to face the front of the boutique. Get ready salespeople, I come bearing platinum!

And as soon as she flashed the platinum credit card she was suddenly barraged by three pathologically cheerful salesladies. In no time at all they brought her a plethora of dresses, shoes, lingerie, silk tops, and designer jeans. She’d stacked up some promising pieces for reconsideration… and the sales staff was bringing her more with blurry speed. They had even offered her champagne—a platinum card must make everyone look older than they are.

But for no apparent reason Lucy suddenly felt tired… depressed… like somehow finally getting to shop was—unbelievably—disappointing. Usually she’d had already decided on twenty different items and would be effortlessly picking out more. But she only had five things piled up, and nothing was looking good to her, even though she knew they were beautiful, and they’d be even more gorgeous on her.

What the hell is wrong with me?

And then she saw a couple girls pass by the front windows of the shop, both laughing, both laden with shopping bags.

Am I lonely?

The thought was really disturbing. She hadn’t felt lonely, not even after she’d lost all her friends and found herself incarcerated in Four Corners. She’d felt betrayed and angry, but never lonely.

Lucy asked the sales women for a breather. “I just need to make a phone call. Won’t take but a minute.”

“Of course,” the lead saleswoman said, ushering the other clerks away with a terse clap of her hands.

Lucy sat there, holding her phone. She couldn’t call anyone she knew. Her old friends were out of the question… and her family couldn’t know about what she was up to. Lucy hit the phonebook option on her new phone and found the numbers for Dante and Gabriel Enoch, and Enoch Industries already programmed in. Lucy couldn’t picture Dante or Gabriel standing around helping her spend their money on a heap of designer clothes.

Luvici’s number was programmed in too. And not just his office phone number. It had to be his cell. He’d been pushy on their one shopping excursion, but he’d been good company, and he had great fashion instincts. Lucy bit her lip, weighing her options—but since she had none, the process accelerated right into her clicking his name and him picking up on the second ring.

“Did you burn a hole in the credit card already?”

“Funny,” Lucy had to smile. He was really funny. “I haven’t actually bought anything yet.”

“What’s up?”

Lucy suddenly felt really stupid. She should enjoy spending money on herself. This was something she was really good at. “I’m not having any fun,” she confessed. “I used to do most of my shopping with my girlfriends… but they’re not my friends anymore… not that they ever really were.”—What am I saying? He isn’t my freaking shrink!—“It’s just…” She just couldn’t say it aloud.

“You’re lonely?” Luvici asked.

“Yeah…” She bit her lip again, and then asked in a tone far too desperate for comfort, “Can you come and shop with me?”

“Me?”

“Yeah, you… you were great yesterday, and I feel like I’m sinking here.”

Silence. Then Luvici chuckled. “I’m swamped right now, but I know the perfect someone to be your shopping buddy. Where are you?”

Lucy told him her location, and Luvici told her to sit tight, “She’ll be there in ten minutes.” Then he hung up.

Lucy suddenly wondered who “she” would be. She was praying it wouldn’t be Darla. Pretty woman, but she had a tacky edge that just wouldn’t be conducive to shopping anywhere other than Victoria’s Secret.

Ten minutes turned to twenty, and Lucy was about to just buy the meager pile of clothing she’d picked and call it a day. Even sitting in class wouldn’t be so grueling. At least there she was used to being ignored… though that might change now that she was getting back her mojo… and her looks.

Suddenly a gorgeous young woman in her early twenties breezed through the doors of the boutique, shot the nervous looking saleswomen with a commanding, brilliant smile, and then turned that smile on Lucy.

“I hear you need someone to help you spend the Enoch family fortune?”

Lucy smiled back. “Some of it, at least.”

“As long as you spend enough to make Dante’s head explode, I’m in.” Her expression was priceless. She was wicked and funny, and Lucy liked her immediately.

“I take it you don’t like Dante?”

“Oh, I love the old goat… don’t tell him, he’d never let me live it down…”

Lucy suddenly felt a blush running up to her face. “You love Dante?” The thought of Dante as a sugar daddy to this very young beauty was enough to make Lucy gag.

“Yeah, I kind of have to… he’s my father.”

Oh… that’s better. So I’m going to spend Enoch money with a member of the family.

“I’m Elaina, by the way. Elaina Enoch.” She brushed her stunning ebony tresses over her shoulder and extended her hand to Lucy.

“Lucy Hart.” They shook hands. Elaina’s manicure was gorgeous, as were the rings on her fingers and the bracelets dangling from her wrists.

“I know,” she said, then turned to the saleswomen, “We’ll see everything again, and I’d kill for a Bloody Mary.” Turning her attention back to Lucy she said, “Everyone in the family has heard about you.”

“Really?” Lucy tired not to let her surprise show. They’d only worked out the deal the day before, and already there was press going through the family about it.

“Of course. You can’t have the Al—” Elaina coughed, “the next head of the company marrying just any Lolita he sinks his teeth into… no offense. There will be plenty of scrutiny on you, and not all of it will be as pleasant as our little shopping date here will be.”

Lucy suddenly realized that she should be acting the part of Gabriel’s moon-eyed fiancée. Had she already blown it?

“Well, I know it’s kind of fast, but… but I’m really in love with Gabe… I mean Gabriel. He’s just so…”

Elaina was looking at her like she was telling the most hilarious joke. “First thing you have to do is come up with a plausible, if not absolutely sickeningly romantic story to float with the family. I’m surprised daddy didn’t already give you one.”

Lucy just stared slack jawed.

“But, it’ll be better if you come up with the details yourself. Dante has no imagination, and he’s so unromantic. I’m surprised my mother hasn’t divorced him yet.”

Just then a salesclerk brought Elaina the Bloody Mary she’d ordered, and Lucy could see a legion of saleswomen lined up with at least two items a piece in their hands. They were practically salivating.

“Anytime you’re ready, Miss Enoch.” The lady practically bowed to Elaina.

Lucy was impressed. This chick must shop like a maniac!

“Give us another sixty seconds, then bring over the first wave… and keep them coming.” She turned back to Lucy. “Just remember to tell the story the same, over and over… details are important, and the more romantic and gushy the better. The Enoch family have weak stomachs when it comes to sticky sweet love shit.” She took a healthy chug off her Bloody Mary before she sat down beside Lucy on the leather loveseat.

“And don’t forget to tell Gabriel… I mean, Gabe—that’s so cute!—all the details. It might make him want to throw up, but his story is going to have to match up with yours.”

“You’re really good at all this, aren’t you?” Lucy said as the first fleet of designer dresses flew in for their inspection.

Elaina pointed at a stunning blue silk number with intricate bead work on the hem and neck line. It practically screamed Valentino. “I love that. It would drape beautifully with your knock-out shoulders.”

Lucy looked at the dress and had to admit it was gorgeous. She nodded her agreement.

“And yes.” Elaina winked. “I’m very good at keeping the truth from the family. I’m just surprised Daddy didn’t ask for my help earlier.”

She smiled as Elaina plucked another dress—Armani—and a lovely pair of silver Prada mules from the stream of merchandise. “They really should have.”

She and Elaina cut a swath through four more boutiques, stopping only long enough for a quick lunch at a restaurant that would never take walk in customers, but the moment they laid eyes on Elaina they were bumped to the top of the list and were seated and had drinks within three minutes.

She felt downright miserly compared with this chick. Even at her best she only hit two stores a day, and though many stores catered to her, they practically fell over themselves trying to please Elaina.

She couldn’t imagine how much money Elaina spent to deserve such devotion. Elaina, the goddess of the shopping expedition.

They had just begun to shop in the fifth boutique when they started talking about Gabriel. Lucy confided that even with his great looks, his personality was sorely lacking. Elaina cackled.

“And I bet he loves you calling him Gabe!”

“Probably not, but he deserves it.”

“He does, doesn’t he?” Elaina laughed, but then sighed. “But with a girlfriend like Delia…” And immediately she looked like she regretted saying the name.

“That’s her name, Delia?”

Rolling her eyes, “Yep, that’s her. Can’t stand her myself, and I just can’t see what he sees in her… but love is blind, I guess.”

Lucy leaned in, very interested. “So what’s the what? Why is he hiding her from his folks?”

Elaina tilted her head and gave Lucy a long, hard look. “Let’s just say that Delia would never be accepted into the family.”

Well, Lucy thought. Maybe the family is a bit more bigoted than Gabriel would have me believe. Lucy decided she wouldn’t say this to Elaina.

“Is it a Romeo and Juliet sort of thing? Feuding families and bad blood?”

Elaina smiled ruefully as she repeated, “Bad blood…” She seemed to be rolling the words around on her tongue, trying out the taste of them. Then she smiled. “Something like that, yes.”

But then her head turned toward the large front windows and her smile evaporated. “Remember I said you needed to come up with a better story about you and Gabriel?”

Lucy smiled nervously as she turned to see what Elaina was looking at. Two tall, rather curvaceous women were standing on the sidewalk in front of the boutique, peering in through the window. They were both dressed in elegant clothes; one in pants and a dark blue silk button down blouse, the other in a short, form fitting yellow dress. They stood side by side, both with their purses in the crook of one arm, the other arm bent with the hand on their hip. And they both had their heads tilted slightly, vicious smiles spreading across their faces.

“Well, get ready for your first performance,” Elaina whispered as the two women entered the shop and made a beeline right to where Lucy and Elaina stood.

“What a coincidence!” the one in the pants chirped. “Elaina, we were just talking about how we haven’t even met Gabriel’s new bride-to-be.” The two women looked over at Lucy with twin expressions of excitement and expectancy.

Elaina moved perceptibly closer to Lucy and beamed a killer smile at the two women. “Of course. Well, this is Gabriel’s girl: Lucy Hart.” She placed her hands on Lucy’s shoulders protectively, flashing her dazzling smile at Lucy for a beat. Lucy was suddenly very glad Elaina was so close. “And these are my cousins: Sophie and Olivia Enoch.” They nodded as she said their names—so pants was Sophie, and the dress was Olivia. Elaina squeezed Lucy’s shoulders. “They’re my Uncle Remy’s children with his third wife.”

That mustn’t have gone over well with the two sisters, since their smiles dimmed and more than a hint of anger flared in their eyes. They were really quite similar, not only in looks (both having caramel brown hair and dark blue eyes) but the way they reacted to things.

“A pretty name for a pretty girl,” Olivia said, extending her hand for Lucy to shake. Her grip was firm, for a moment, and then she let go and frowned.

“Gabriel is a lucky man,” Sophie said, her smile and eyes dismissive as they took Lucy in. “She’s so…” Lucy could’ve sworn she’d sniffed the air. “Tender.”

“Well,” Elaina interjected, “I’m afraid I have a pressing appointment and Lucy here is going to be late for a date with her fiancé. So you will excuse us.” She then looked around and wrinkled her nose at the merchandise hanging on racks throughout the boutique.

“This place really didn’t have anything to offer us anyway. Just some leftovers from last season, and a slew of prostitute wear.” She beamed her stunning smile at the sisters and shrugged. “So we’ll leave you two to it.”

As Sophie and Olivia’s expressions fell and turned rather pissy, Elaina steered Lucy around the two and out the front door of the shop. Twenty very speedy strides later Elaina burst into peals of laughter, giving Lucy a big hug as they moved down the street.

“Now that was fun!”

 

Chapter 8

 

ALONE in his office at Enoch Industries, Gabriel answered an e-mail to a computer component supplier in Malaysia: they would need to double their previous order for this quarter. When he proofread the message, then hit send, he checked his inbox, found nothing new, so he closed his laptop. Looking around his desk, all he saw was a crystal pen holder, his phone, and the brilliant shine of his black enamel desk.

This had always been the best part of his day. Even in high school and college, once he’d gotten every last bit of work done, he felt an immense sense of peace. Nothing orbiting on the periphery of his thoughts—that was how he liked everything, which explained the Spartan furnishings he’d chosen for his office. Gabriel didn’t like distractions of any kind. Single minded was what he knew people thought of him, but he knew that to keep track of such a large company as Enoch Industries you needed a clear mind. Otherwise things could get ugly fast.

But it would be nice to have a photograph of her on his desk.

The thought left him momentarily breathless. Honestly, he knew that could never happen. Even if he tried to… Delia was renowned, as was her family, quite notoriously so. It would start a war, and though he would gladly give up anything to be with her… war would be unthinkable.

He was about to hit the intercom button and tell his assistant, Laurel, that she could go home. He’d wrap things up before heading off to the gym and then home. But just as he was about to touch the button Laurel’s cheery little voice sang through the intercom and announced that his uncle Dante wanted a word.

“Send him in,” Gabriel said as he got up out of his chair and moved in front of his desk to greet the older man.

Dante was swift and almost beat him to the front of the desk.

“So, how did things go?” Gabriel invited Dante to sit with a wave of his hand, and then took a seat on the edge of his desk. “I presume you worked out the details.”

“Well, someone had to.” Dante’s voice wasn’t unkind, but he did seem a little put out.

“Uncle, I’ve been swamped here all week. And I knew I could trust you to negotiate the most efficient deal.” Gabriel felt uneasy at the look his uncle had on his face. “What kind of deal did you work out, uncle?”

“Let’s just say,” Dante spread his hands out, a gesture Gabriel knew meant Dante was confounded, “from the way the girl negotiates for herself, she should be well worth the trouble.”

Trouble? “You mean she didn’t let Luvici do the talking?”

“Not once money came into the conversation. She obviously thought Francis was under appreciating her worth.” He smiled wryly as he shook his elegant head. “It really was good to see such… gumption in someone of her generation.”

“If you can equate gold digging with gumption,” Gabriel scoffed, “then sure, she’s a catch.”

“I’m just saying, if she’s that persuasive and convincing, then she should be in her element when it comes to fooling your parents… and your Uncle Remy.” Dante scowled as he checked his watch. “He’d love nothing more than to discredit you… and you father. He is second in line.”

“Not with Micah and me in the picture. More like fourth in line.”

“Fine. But he still would cherish the opportunity to disgrace you, especially so publically. Delia is a very dangerous liability—”

“Delia is the woman I’m in love with!” Gabriel cut across his uncle. “That hardly makes her a disgrace!”

But Gabriel’s glower diminished at the weary look in his uncle’s eyes.

“Don’t delude yourself,” Dante said as he stood to leave. He clasped his nephew around the shoulders, his hands warm but firm. “Whether this bit of subterfuge succeeds or not, she will never be accepted by the family. And for as long as you keep this relationship going, then you will be vulnerable.”

Before he left the room he turned back to Gabriel. “By the way, you should procure a picture of Miss Hart and display it on your desk. It will look more than a little strange not to.”

Gabriel grimaced, feeling like he was choking on his own heart as he fought not to howl with the pain. “Of course, Uncle,” he said. “Good idea.”

Dante left the room. He hadn’t brought anything into the room, but Gabriel suddenly felt his office was cluttered with thoughts he was indeed lending a blind eye to. He just couldn’t see a world without Delia in it. And if he had to lie to his parents, and so many more, and if he had to pretend to be involved with an opportunistic grifter like Lucy Hart, he would gladly do so. Anything not to lose Delia…

 

*

 

Life at Four Corners High School became much more interesting. With Lucy’s far superior and sexier wardrobe, and the return of her well-coifed and manicured beauty, what also returned to Lucy was the attention of her fellow man… and, unfortunately, her fellow women.

Guys followed her around between classes, swarmed around her at her locker like flies. Some would do all sorts of wild things to get her attention. Mock grappling matches, cursing—belittling each other’s characters, athletic prowess, and manhoods. This she kind of enjoyed. She’d missed having constant male attention.

In contrast, she disliked the attention she now received from the female populace at Four Corners High. Back at her old school, she’d been the queen bee of every aspect of her high school society. Cheer Squad Captain, Student Body President (which she’d won by a landslide—apparently a landslide of fearful, sycophantic, and rather hateful subjects) she was dating the captain of the football and wrestling squad (same guy,) and she’d been crowned Homecoming Queen only a few days before her father had been arrested for tax evasion and immigrant slave trafficking. All the popular girls had groveled at her Jimmy Choos—though she now knew they’d both feared and hated her—and all other girls had fled at the sight of her—more fear and hatred.

But at Four Corners, her sudden appearance upgrade had caused an aftershock of overtly hateful girls, in all social brackets. The Goth chicks made nasty hissing sounds, and threw little wads of paper at Lucy’s head. The art chicks and the brain-trust girls joined forces and filled the girl’s restrooms with derogatory artwork (resplendent with nasty remarks scrolled underneath) and some rather clever math equations slandering Lucy with statistics of her obvious whoredome, and estimates of how buoyant her “Fake Tits” were.

The cheerleaders were more subtle. They leered and sneered, made mean little quips whenever Lucy passed by, and even tried slamming her against a bank of lockers once. They’d tried, but Lucy was well versed (to her now reluctant horror) in cheerleader war strategies.

There had been two of them—the rest of the squad was watching from a safe distance. Their first mistake was they stalked behind Lucy for far too long. By the time they decided to make their move, Lucy had made them and had her counter attack all ready. A fake toward the lockers and a quick side step, then a well-practiced “accidental bump” maneuver she’d mastered her freshman year, and the two pompom shakers crash landed into their own trap with two incredibly loud crashes. One got a sprained ankle, the other a bloody nose. And Lucy flitted to safety without a scratch, and without anyone but the now seething cheer squad any the wiser.

Seething or not, the little incident made the pompom mafia keep their distance, and even though the rest of the feminine cliques in school still trash talked her, they didn’t bother her physically.

Lucy had gone from non-existent to infamous in just a matter of days. And she’d been especially taken aback by the reason. She’d overheard, while obscured in a stall in the girl’s restroom, that “That new Lucy girl is such a bitch! I mean, where the hell did she even come from?”

Lucy sat there confused for a moment as the two verbally degraded her. Lucy wasn’t new. She’d been going to Four Corners for almost seven months. And then it hit her.

No one had even noticed me before, she cringed. And I mean no one.

When the trash talking cheerleaders left Lucy emerged from the stall and gave herself a long look in the mirror. Her old self was back in place as if she’d never left, making Lucy wonder where the Lucy she’d been for the last six months had gone. Were they the same person, or should she be mourning her loss?

Meet the once invisible, now bright and shiny and hated me.

How did I ever get through high school like this?

 

*

 

Getting to quit McDonald’s and not having her family know was a blessing. It afforded her the necessary spare time to drive to San Bernardino every day, do some essential shopping, then have dinner with Gabriel in his very large, very cold office.

Not that the room was cold, literally. It was just the décor. And since Gabriel was always late, held up with business meetings and phone calls and e-mails and text messages, Lucy had quickly become intimate with his office.

A sleek black desk was neatly stacked with file folders and a laptop. No pictures—except for the one of Lucy that he’d snapped with her standing by the window of his office, and had printed and slapped into a generic black plastic frame his secretary, Laurel, had found in stock in the supply cabinet. Lucy liked the photo. The window had bathed her in a most flattering light, and the confusion that he wanted a picture of her had conjured in her had lent a kind of innocence to her expression that Lucy had never seen in a picture of herself before. She just couldn’t stop looking at it. She wondered if Gabriel ever looked at it. It was on his desk… but Gabriel was always on the move. A hands-on kind of CEO, Gabriel was always checking on things in the company personally.

So Lucy, having passed bored while waiting for Gabriel in his office, took it upon herself to change the cheap black plastic frame with a sleek, chic pure silver frame that she charged to her Enoch Industries charge card.

Unfortunately, the rest of the office was just as cold and impersonal. Expensive, though glacially boring, black leather chairs finished the minimalistic extent of furnishings. Well, there was a matching black leather couch, and compared to the stiff confines of the chairs, it was a comfy alternative.

That was where she spent most of her time waiting on Gabriel to show up. She did her homework, down loaded songs to her iPhone, and stared at the few framed photographs on Gabriel’s walls.

At first Lucy had discounted them for business contacts, like trophies. She’d seen those kinds of pictures hanging in the offices of every Lawyer her father had worked with… including her father’s office. Only one photo had sat on his desk, and that was one of the whole family, posed in their living room, groomed to the nines, photographed by a professional and airbrushed to perfection. She’d known Seth had had a zit on that day, yet it was missing when the photo showed up on her Daddy’s desk.

But boredom leads to curiosity, and before she knew it Lucy was examining the collection of wall memorabilia. To her relief and amusement, they weren’t just the typical family and business acquaintance photos. The people in the shots were dressed casually—including Gabriel in the few he was actually in—and they all looked ridiculously happy. Not posed, but like you took a candid snap shot at a really fun party where everybody knows everyone, and they all like each other.

She’d heard of such parties, but had long ago chalked them up to legend and Hollywood fantasy. But the people who were in Gabriel’s pictures were different. Whether his family or his friends (she was surprised he had any,) these people were having the best time, and they all seemed to really adore Gabriel.

Looking harder at the shots with Gabriel in them, she was startled at how little that person seemed to resemble the all-business all-the-time business suit clad man she’d gotten to really loath in the last few days.

She was standing on the couch, balancing herself with both hands against the wall, peering wide eyed and entranced at a particularly strange shot of a shirtless Gabriel—she couldn’t get over how beautiful and unbelievably well built he was… and the deep dark tan he had didn’t hurt either—leaning against the railing of a sail boat. On one side of him was a gorgeous young woman in a bikini top and cut off denim shorts. Lucy recognized her as her shopping partner for the last week, Elaina. On the other side of Gabriel was another stunning specimen of young male erotic fantasy. At least four inches taller, lighter complexioned, yet sporting his own wonderfully tanned, shirtless torso, the other guy had longer, shaggier hair that obscured some of his face, and a smile that just radiated playfulness. He had his arm draped over Gabriel’s shoulders.

Lucy had discounted her original assumption that Gabriel was gay when Elaina had let slip about his girlfriend Delia. But just seeing the two very happy, smoking hot guys in such a pose, she couldn’t help speculating again.

“You’re going to fall.” Lucy jerked with the shock of hearing Gabriel’s voice coming from right behind her. She’d slipped her high heels off when she’d mounted the leather couch, and when she whirled around her feet slipped and she fell over into Gabriel’s arms.

He held her steady, his face only inches from hers, but he didn’t seem the least bit disturbed.

Glacial really is the word to describe him.

Lucy, on the other hand, was feeling her pulse rate start to take off, feeling the dense musculature of Gabriel’s chest through his alarmingly conservative silk dress shirt. He even smelled good.

His gaze never wavered as he gently set her down on her bare feet, then gave only the faintest of smiles as he moved to his desk and hit the intercom.

“Laurel, has my order from Szechuan Garden arrived?”

“Yes, Mr. Enoch. Should I bring it in?”

“Yes please…” He gave Lucy a sly sort of look. “And could you scrounge up a step ladder? Lucy is finding some parts of my office vertically challenging.”

“Of course.”

Lucy felt herself blush with embarrassment. Vertically challenged! “You’re just too tall,” she retorted lamely.

“Obviously.” Gabriel moved over to her again, his smile becoming a little more evident. He reached up over the couch and took the photograph Lucy had been admiring from the wall and handed to Lucy.

“You know Elaina.” Lucy nodded. “And that big lug next to me is my brother, Micah.”

“Brother…” Okay, Lucy thought. This family has a very nice gene pool, so far. Then a pissy snit came over her. “Don’t you think telling me you have a brother would be a good idea?”

“Truthfully, I pretend he doesn’t exist.”

Lucy snorted. Gabe has a sense of humor?

“I just mean, he’s younger and really immature, and ever since I took over the CEO position from my father, he’s been pissed with me.”

“Because he’s jealous?” she asked.

Gabriel actually laughed, and Lucy stared at him in stunned silence.

“No, he wants nothing to do with the family business…” Gabriel’s features softened as he seemed to fall into his own thoughts. “He just misses…” He looked to Lucy embarrassed. “He misses how things were before I graduated college and…”

“Became a tight-assed corporate shark?” Lucy offered.

Gabriel grimaced. “Yes, that’s it exactly.”

Lucy enjoyed getting a reaction out of Gabriel, even a snarky one. She looked at the picture in her hands again, and felt sorry for Gabriel and his brother. Especially his brother.

“He just misses having a playmate,” Gabriel said bitterly.

Lucy locked her gaze on Gabriel’s face, really looking at him. “He misses his brother.”

They stood there for a moment in a strange, comfortable silence.

Gabriel shook his head and took the photo out of Lucy’s hands and replaced it on the wall, centering it perfectly. “When did you get all insightful?” he said when he turned back to Lucy and gave her a surprisingly wide smile. But his eyes were still leery.

“Oh, I’ve got loads of exceptional qualities,” Lucy said, backing away from him and feigning interest in the huge bag of Chinese food Laurel had just brought in and placed on Gabriel’s desk. She also had a shiny red metal step stool in her other hand.

“Will this do?” Laurel asked, holding it up for Lucy and Gabriel’s inspection.

Gabriel looked to Lucy and raised his eyebrows.

“Y-yes,” Lucy stammered. “Thank you very much.”

Laurel left the red stool right beside the black leather couch. It was by far the brightest thing in the room, and just looking at it filled Lucy with an odd sense of triumph.

 

*

 

Lucy didn’t want to look like a tanning bed reject, and she didn’t want that overdone Malibu Barbie bronze. But she did want to get rid of the unhealthy pallor that working at McDonald’s for the last six months had given her. She hadn’t realized it, but going to school, and going to work, and not hanging out with any friends had really given her no time to actually spend in the sun. And she loved having a nice tan.

Lying out in the sun made her feel like her life battery was recharging, like her body and soul were filled with sunlight and she was gleaming with its energy. She’d missed it. Screw it if it wasn’t good for her. The very air she breathed probably wasn’t good for her. Of course, looking about her at the bright, clear periwinkle sky of Four Corners, California, she had to admit that there wasn’t really any poisonous smog rolling overhead. It was really quite beautiful. There was even a thicket of trees, the beginning of a forest, right at the edge of her backyard. It was actually at the edge of every backyard on the block, but Lucy liked to think that it was more part of her backyard than anyone else’s.

Lucy was lying out on a beach towel in the back yard, wearing a cute little pink and yellow bikini she’d picked up on her last shopping trip with Elaina. That and the most gorgeous leather coat, blood red with Italian silk lining. It came down just to the tops of her thighs, with a sweet matching belt. She looked like a freaking spy in that coat. Like Angelina Jolie in Mr. and Mrs. Smith… no, thinking back on it, she actually looked better. She looked like the absolute—accept no substitutes—goddess of spies.

Lucy regretfully tied the straps of her bikini top around her again. She hated tan lines, especially if she was going to be wearing anything revealing. She was careful she was securely covered before she turned over—no need to be giving the neighbors a free show.

She adjusted her straps and put on her new pair of sunglasses. Just looking through the amber lenses made the world so much prettier. They weren’t even designer eyewear, yet they were elegant looking, and the moment she’d put them on and looked through them, she’d loved them. Things that would be just too dark through black or gray shades popped out under the amber tones. She sipped her green tea and checked the time on her iPhone. Twenty more minutes and she’d head in. No need frying on her first day out.

There was another week before the engagement party. She was just glad she didn’t have to meet the parents beforehand—which was actually kind of strange. Not that Lucy had met many of her ex-boyfriends’ parents. Usually she’d get tired of them and would have tactfully dumped them before any such meeting would be discussed. But Lucy had seen plenty of romantic movies where there was the whole meeting the future in-laws thing. And it did strike Lucy as odd that she wouldn’t be meeting the parents until the engagement party.

Of course, if she thought it was odd, she could just imagine what they were thinking. But maybe they were just strange, or archaically traditional. Maybe they could remember the days when marriages were arranged and you didn’t meet your spouse until the day of the wedding.

The mere thought made Lucy shiver. How horrible to have to go through such an agonizing wait, just to meet the person you had to spend the rest of your life with. She was surprised there weren’t more cases of brides-to-bes falling over dead from heart-attacks, just from the stress such a thing would cause.

No wonder they came up with divorce.

Just then she heard an odd scraping sound. At first it came from far off, but then she realized it was getting closer, and from the street in front of her grandmother’s house. She looked up and saw the most amazing sight coming her way. A driveway led back to the white picket fence surrounding the back yard. On the other side of the fence was a matching driveway, but no fence bisecting their yard. Skating toward Lucy on the other side of the fence was a girl about Lucy’s age… but that was the only similarity.

This girl was on silver and black rollerblades. Blue and yellow striped socks came up to her knees, black tights under a blue and yellow catholic school girl skirt—much like the one Lucy had gotten Jeff Haas to don right before her father’s unfortunate run in with the law—and the craziest pink T-shirt Lucy had ever seen. It said “Bad Kitty!” and had a blue cartoon cat licking its bloody front paws. The rest of the T-shirt had the little feline’s bloody paw prints all over it.

And that was just her clothes. She had pink and blue eye shadow on, too much eyeliner and mascara, and the red of her lips matched the bloody paw prints on her shirt perfectly. The hair… jet black striped with hot pink, braided into two long ponytails that trailed from the top of her head down to her shoulders.

Before her life had imploded, Lucy might have… no, she probably would have been cruel and dismissive, making fun of this girl to her disciples on the cheer squad… but she didn’t have any disciples anymore. Hell, she didn’t even have any friends anymore, and if the last seven months had taught her anything it was that all those friends she thought she’d had weren’t her friends at all.

That thought alone made a cool loneliness crawl across her flesh—even with the eighty-five degree sun she was sunbathing beneath. Just looking at this girl, in her ridiculous get up, with her ears plugged into her mp3 player, dancing as she twirled around on her skates with uninhibited joy, made Lucy wonder how anyone could be so happy.

Before she knew it Lucy was slipping on a pair of shorts and a T-shirt and was padding barefoot across the lawn to the peeling white picket fence that separated the two properties.

“Hey there!” Lucy called out over the fence.

The girl didn’t hear her, spinning with her hands held over her head, her plaid skirt swirling like a cyclone. Lucy couldn’t help but smile. And, though for the life of her she couldn’t understand why, she felt a twinge of envy. Had Lucy really ever been that happy? Even back before the FBI, courtrooms, and special sauce?

Suddenly the girl stopped twirling, her bright green eyes locked on Lucy and her mouth fell open in a surprised O. But that only lasted two seconds. The shocked expression melted into a broad, lovely smile, as radiant as the morning sunrise. The kind of smile you expected on fairy princesses in Disney movies.

A small, brilliant cut diamond glittered in her right nostril, making her all the more fairy-like.

With a quick little wink, and then a yank of the earphones, she extended her hand. Nails painted half pink, half black. Silver bracelets dangled from her wrists. “I’m Abbey. Abbey Adams.” Her handshake was strong, not the limp wristed high class handshake of the privileged. This was a handshake that meant it. She rolled her eyes, tossing her head back toward the house behind her. “I live with my grandma, too.”

“How’d you…?”

Abbey shrugged. “Sorry… small town. And your grandma Lillian is friends with my grandma Donna May.”

“Oh, that makes sense.” Lucy gave Abbey another long up and down glance. “I love that outfit.”

“No, you don’t,” Abbey said with the same sweet, brilliant smile as before.

A laugh burst from Lucy’s lips. “You’re right. I don’t, but I’ve got to respect the commitment… to personal fashion, I mean.”

Abbey spun once on her skates as if showing off her look. “Don’t worry. Loads of people think I’m due to be committed somewhere with rubber rooms and a Thorazine drip.”

“And straightjackets?” Lucy suddenly felt the blood rush up to her face. She hadn’t meant to say that. And now she was sure that this new possible friend would think she was just a mean bitch. Lucy opened her mouth to say something, but Abbey smiled that wonderful smile and twirled again.

“Don’t need to go anywhere for that!” She reached out and grabbed Lucy’s hand and dragged her over to a picnic table under a tree, the kind with barely any paint left on it anymore. “Got my own hanging in my closet upstairs.”

An image of Abbey flashed in Lucy’s mind: Abbey twirling around on her rollerblades, mascara running crazily down her face, wrapped from the waist up by a straightjacket, a cadre of white clad orderlies chasing after her.

Lucy tried to shake the vision from her mind, and tried to change the subject.

“So, what were you listening to back there?” Whatever it had been, the music had really made her happy.

“Bad Romance, by Lady Gaga.”

“Oh…” Lucy hadn’t meant to sound so disappointed. She had just wished they had something in common. Lucy hadn’t given Lady Gage even a second glance. Her personal fashion was truly deranged.

“So I take it you don’t go for Lady G, huh? More of a Kelly Clarkson type?”

Lucy knew she should be put off by this girl presuming about her. Presume much? But the chick was right. Behind These Hazel Eyes had been her ring tone… and she used to play Walk Away when she was getting ready for a hot date. “She’s totally valid. A great voice and she writes some of her own songs.”

Abbey just sat there, her lips pulled tight over her teeth, yet a wide grin was breaking across her face. “Fine, fine. Clarkson’s not just the Idol freak. She’s…” She put her hands up to her head like she was receiving a vision. “She’s valid.”

Now she’s just poking fun at me. “I like Pink too.” Which Lucy did. Pink rocked both musically and fashion-wise.

Abbey’s sweet smile morphed into a wicked grin. Lucy was sure little horns were about to sprout from her scalp. “I love Pink!” Abbey pulled the earphone cord out of her mp3 player as her thumbs scrolled through her song menu. A moment later Pink was singing that she had just lost her husband, and she didn’t know where he went.

The little mp3 player must’ve been jacked up, because it sounded more like a boom-box than the usual tinny sound hand held devices had. Even with her skates on, Abbey climbed onto the top of the picnic table and started dancing to the music.

Lucy just sat there and smiled as she watched Abbey go to town. A moment later Abbey grabbed Lucy by the hand and hauled her up on the table with her and against her better judgment Lucy fell into dancing with Abbey, not caring who saw.

Of course, right on cue Lucy heard her brother laugh. She looked down to find him staring up at her and Abbey with triumphant, mean little eyes: regrettably, he had hazel eyes too. His hair was the same shade of mahogany brown as Lucy’s, but he kept it in a greasy, sloppy shag cut that almost covered his eyes. He was wearing his usual uniform of worn jeans and a worn T-shirt, with the faded, peeling logo of some long defunct punk rock band across the chest.

Maybe Abbey and he would get along, which wasn’t exactly the way she wanted this new friendship to go.

“What the hell are you two freaks doing?” he chuckled cruelly.

So much for the two of them getting along.

Abbey shot him through with an acid gaze, and then she jumped off the picnic table and landed on the cracked cement of the driveway, just inches from where Seth stood. His mouth fell open, as did Lucy’s. Abbey had landed without a slip or a bobble. Perfect balance—she must live in those roller blades!

Seth gulped as Abbey looked down on him like an angry punk rock goddess, her hands balled in fists on her hips. Seth’s eyes bugged out when she smiled.

“Glass houses,” Abbey said in a sing-song voice.

“W-what?” Seth stammered.

“Well, you just called us freaks.”

“He’s just my creepy little br—” Lucy tried to say, but Abbey cut across her.

“You’ve heard that casting stones when you live in a glass house isn’t smart?”

“I’m not a—”

“Freak?” Abbey finished for him. “Then what are you?” She rolled forward, making him scamper backwards, tripping over his own feet.

“I’m just… just…”

“Just a kid with a big bad secret?”

Lucy stepped down from her perch on the picnic table and walked toward the two of them. The look on her brother’s face was bothering her. He suddenly looked terrified.

“What are you talking about?” he said, his voice cracking.

“You know. That secret you’ve been praying no one would find out about. The one you’ve been praying would just go away.”

“You don’t know shit!” Seth sounded angry now instead of scared. Lucy was about to tell Abbey to let it go, but then Abbey looked around at the air around Seth’s head like she was reading something only she could see. The smile that crossed her lips wasn’t pleasant at all. Her hand came up and she snatched something from the air, her eyes closing as delight radiated all over her face.

“Josh,” Abbey said rapturously.

Seth turned so white the freckles on his cheeks and nose stood out like ink.

Abbey opened her eyes and smiled down at Seth, genuine empathy in her eyes. “He doesn’t even know, does he?”

Seth started shaking his head violently.

“More like he doesn’t even know you exist, right stone-boy?”

Seth looked about to puke when he spun around and ran for the house like he was being chased by a pack of wolves.

When the back door slammed shut behind him, Abbey turned and smiled her beautiful, brilliant smile again. “Sorry,” she said. “I just can’t stand people calling me a freak.”

“Yeah,” Lucy said, still looking after Seth with amazement. “I got that.”

“Funny thing to get bent out of shape about,” Abbey said as she rolled toward the picnic table again. “Especially when you dress and look like this.” She flourished her hands around her indicating her ensemble.

Lucy just stood there, still shocked to see her brother looking so afraid, and the actual gist of the conversation Abbey and he had just had. Was Seth gay?

Lucy looked at Abbey and shook her head. “Are you some sort of psychic or something?”

“Witch, actually.”

“Oh.” She was starting to feel pretty stupid saying that over and over.

“But I didn’t need any magic powers to see through him.”

“Really?” Lucy shook her head again and looked after her brother again. “I had no idea.”

“Sometimes strangers can see things clearer than people close to you.” Abbey’s expression turned, only for a moment, very sad. “And he had Josh’s name written on the inside of his palm, with a heart framing it.”

Lucy raised an eyebrow, smiling. “So, you’re a grifter?” Lucy had always wanted to use that word in conversation.

Abbey shot her a cocky smile. “I’ve picked up a lot just watching people at school, on the bus… wherever I am. One good thing about not having any friends, you get to really pay attention to those around you.”

Lucy sighed. “Too bad. Having a witch as a friend could come in handy.”

Abbey set a level gaze at Lucy, the smile drifting from her face. “You must think I’m crazy. There can’t really be witches… magic… it’s just too crazy…”

“I didn’t say that.” Lucy plopped back down on the picnic table. “I’m just saying it’s not stupid or lame to believe in stuff. I’m sure witches and a ton of other things are actually real… except for the Easter Bunny.”

Abbey snorted. “And Santa Claus.” She plopped down on the picnic bench right beside Lucy. “They’re both just capitalistic propaganda.”

Lucy smiled, remembering back to a certain Christmas present she found under the foot of her bed when she was eight. A present that no one in the world knew she wanted: a harmonica. Her mother wrapped everything in glossy paper with sparkly ribbons and bows. That package was covered in plain red paper, no bows or ribbons. She’d known immediately that it had come from Santa Claus.

“No. There really is a Santa Claus.”

Abbey looked at her like she was crazy now, and then shook her head. “Okay, there’s a Santa Claus.”

Lucy smiled. “But definitely no Easter Bunny. A giant Bunny hiding candy and pastel colored hardboiled eggs around the house. It’s just too creepy!”

They nodded their heads in agreement.

 

Chapter 9

 

THOUGH it had been almost two years since Gabriel walked the scarred wood of the docks, and breathed the salty air of the sea, it still felt like home. And with hardly a second thought he wound his way through the maze of the marina. He and his brother had never liked the sanitized country club docks. It was here in the real world of those who spent their lives on boats that they had found their place.

And with a rush of sadness Gabriel realized his brother was still free—yet he’d left him to be alone. He’d abandoned him.

He picked out the gleaming red mast of The Belt-Buckle. Micah had thought up the name, and Gabriel had been so drawn into their new, short-lived freedom that he had agreed.

A forty-foot wooden sailboat called The Belt-Buckle…it still made Gabriel smile. Mostly because he knew his horn-dog of a younger brother well enough that he knew he used the ship’s name as a pickup line, and that it worked with eerie consistency.

Gabriel turned the corner and saw the boat for the first time in forever, and the longing for the sea, and for his brother’s company tore at him. But then he caught sight of his brother, shirtless of course, saying goodbye to his latest conquest.

A redhead—Gabriel remembered Micah had always wanted a redhead—with short cropped, spiky hair, maybe four inches or more shorter than Micah, and built thinner and sleeker than his hulking brother. The redhead was shirtless also, and his shoulders and arms were speckled with light freckles.

Micah grabbed the redhead and pulled him to him in a startlingly deep, passionate kiss. That surprised Gabriel. Usually when the bedroom antics were at an end, his brother wanted mostly to be alone again. Now he seemed to be begging, with his entire body, for the redhead to stay… or at least to come back soon.

After a good two minutes of blocking out and erasing the memory of his brother’s vigorous use of his tongue, Gabriel finally saw the redhead stagger off the boat and drunkenly make his way down the dock in the opposite direction. Gabriel and Micah met eyes at the exact same instant, and both shared a rueful smile.

“Well fuck me, if it isn’t the elusive corporate shark!” Gabriel winced at his brother and Lucy using the exact same words. “Didn’t think I’d ever see you here again.”

Gabriel walked over to the side of the boat and squinted up into the afternoon sun at his hulking brother. “So can I come aboard?”

Micah scowled and tilted his head. “It is your boat too… or did you forget that?”

Gabriel smiled as Micah held out his massive hand to him, yanking Gabriel up onto the deck like he was just some stuffed toy. Micah gave him a big grizzly-bear hug, then held him at arm’s length for a moment, his eyes happy—Lucy had been right… he was missing me.

“I can’t fucking believe you’re here, bro.” And Micah crushed him to him again.

Gabriel was having trouble breathing, but he instantly felt the comfort and bond being close to his brother invoked—the feel of him, the smell… the colossally juvenile essence of his brother.

A burning seared the backs of his eyeballs, and he blinked back an unwelcomed wetness. He wasn’t fooling himself. He’d missed his brother all too much, too.

“Wanna beer?” Micah chortled when he let Gabriel out of his crushing embrace and gave him a playful, painful swipe in the arm.

“Sure,” Gabriel said, rubbing his now numb arm as he followed his brother to the cabin, where the beers lived.

When Micah opened the fridge Gabriel’s mouth fell open. There was a whole shelf of food—real food: vegetables, steaks, cheeses, and even some fruit—right in the middle of all the frosty bottles of beer. Gabriel’s jaw dropped.

Micah didn’t cook, microwave, slice, stir, or even make the occasional sandwich. He ordered in, or ate out.

Micah cleared his throat, and then wrangled two beers from the top shelf. He closed the door and shoved a beer into Gabriel’s gut, making him wince. Gabriel was about to say something, something rude and probably about Micah turning into Martha Stewart since he’d moved out, but then he caught sight of what was sitting by the sink in the galley.

A plate rack with a draining board under it. And in the rack, clean, sparkling dishes. Gabriel’s eyes bugged out.

“What the hell’s going on?”

Micah took a gulp of his beer and sauntered back toward the deck, ignoring Gabriel’s question.

“Micah!” Gabriel followed his brother out onto the deck, but not before he caught a look at Gabriel’s bed—it had been made, not a wrinkle in sight.

Micah was already standing at the bow of the ship when Gabriel caught up with him. He was shaking his head and stammering. Gabriel was about to smack him in the back of the head when Micah said: “I love him.”

The air blew right out of Gabriel’s chest, and he felt his entire body sag. It was as if Micah was speaking to him in Chinese, and he’d grown an extra head.

Gabriel stood there, shocked and silent, for over a minute. He didn’t know what to say, and what’s more, he couldn’t force the words out of his mouth. Finally he said, “The redhead?”

Gabriel Smiled shyly. “Ian. Ian Granger. He’s a doctor and he has a sweet little boat on the other side of the docks.”

“Oh.” Gabriel tried mulling this over in his head. His horn-dog, perpetual bachelor brother was in love. And with a doctor? Micah wasn’t known for his thinking, so it must be true that opposites attract.

“At least Mom will be happy. You know, about him being a doctor.”

Micah snorted and took another pull from his beer.

“So, you… cook for him?”

Micah spit out the beer he had in his mouth and turned outraged eyes on his brother.

Gabriel smiled as he pushed that button again. “I mean, it’s great that you’re the little woman in the relationship.” He ducked just as Micah threw a punch at his nose.

“Asshole! Ian does the cooking.”

“Right, right… I’m sure he does the dishes too.”

Micah’s expression didn’t change, but there was a change in his eyes, something minute that anyone but his brother might not have picked up on. But Gabriel read it like the bluff it was.

“You do the dishes… really?”

“He makes me help.” Micah’s tone was a little bitter.

“I like this Ian already. When are you bringing him to dinner with the family?” Gabriel sounded cocky, and he knew just the thought of going to a family dinner filled his brother with dread. That’s why he so seldom attended one.

But there was a smirk on Micah’s lips, and a glint in his eyes. “About the time you bring your fiancée to one.”

Shit, he knows. “How did you find out? And who else knows?”

“The hyena twins made sure every single person in the family knows about your girl.”

Gabriel closed his eyes and gritted his teeth. If Sophie and Olivia knew, that meant that his Uncle Remy knew. He was just looking for a way to bring Gabriel down. He hoped Dante would be careful not to paint too pristine a picture with the background check. Nothing like no flaws to make someone look suspicious.

“So what’s she like?”

“Like?” It hadn’t been the question Gabriel had been expecting from his brother. Maybe Is she good in bed, or does she have a website on Go-Daddy.com?

“Yeah, bro, what’s this Lucy of yours like?” He moved in on his brother, getting right in his face with a shit-eating grin plastered on his face.

Gabriel shook his head and turned away from him, suddenly lost in thought. It wasn’t that she wasn’t great. He really liked her spunk… no, her moxie. And her determination and practically preternatural gift for getting what she wanted had earned her a great amount of respect in his book. But none of that was anything he could say about the woman he was supposed to be in love with.

But then there was a flash, a fresh, recent memory that whispered through his brain like a silk ribbon in a breeze. The way he felt when they were talking in his office. Her bluntness. Her way of drawing out things from him that he kept hidden, close to the vest, even from Delia…

“She’s a surprise.” Gabriel thought about those words for a moment, smiling to himself as his thoughts about Lucy did indeed surprise him. Just the thought of her felt so fresh and cool and comforting, so welcomed. And her smile…

“That’s it? She’s a surprise?” Micah sounded bewildered, yet there was humor in his tone.

Gabriel tried to push the thoughts of Lucy and her smile out of his mind. He couldn’t be having those kinds of thoughts about her. He was in love with Delia!

Finally he looked to his brother and said, more than a little ruefully, “She keeps surprising me.”

“Okay, big brother with the stoic vibe. Now you’re surprising me.” Micah patted Gabriel’s arm, their eyes met, and for one excruciating moment Gabriel wanted to tell his younger brother everything.

He closed his eyes, taking in a long, hungry breath of the ocean breeze. More than anything, right then, Gabriel wanted to stay right where he was. He missed the sea. He missed living on the boat, just hauling up anchor and heading out into the vast nothingness of the ocean. To be able to go anywhere you wanted, or all the way around the world—all on one tank of gas.

And he missed having his brother with him. For so long they’d been inseparable. Especially after college, when Gabriel didn’t know whether or not he really wanted to go into his field of choice. But then their father had offered him the CEO position, and though he was reticent, the honor of it was overwhelming.

But honor or not, being so close to the ocean, and with his brother again, was pulling him apart inside. He’d always been able to tell his brother all his problems. And now he was standing right in front of him and couldn’t tell him anything.

It sucked!

“I’ve got to go,” Gabriel said, handing his half full bottle of beer to Micah, then hastily making his way toward the dock.

“But you haven’t finished your beer!” Micah groused. Gabriel waved him off without looking back. But then Micah said something that stopped him in his tracks. “And you haven’t told me why there’s female vampire scent all over you.”

 

*

 

Gabriel stopped with his hands gripping the cool metal of the rail. He was gritting his teeth and seriously contemplating lying to his brother. After all, maybe he was just bluffing. Gabriel hadn’t been with Delia in almost a week.

“I mean, really! I’m the best tracker in the family, probably on the continent, and you didn’t think I’d smell that?”

Shit…

“Is that why you’ve been avoiding me?”

“I haven’t been avoiding you. I’ve been busy—”

“Busy boning a vampire?” Micah’s eyes flashed, the beast in him looking out through his eyes for an instant.

Gabriel shook his head. “I ran into a couple a few nights ago. We fought and—”

“Bullshit! My gift—besides being beautiful and athletic as hell—is my nose. And I smell horny vampire… a female, horny vampire.”

“Micah.”

“So fess up, bro.” His eyes were back to normal—back to just being Micah again. “You know you can trust me with your secrets.”

And Gabriel knew he could, he really could. “But some secrets are deadly.” If either of the families found out about him and Delia, there would be war, and they might both lose their heads.

Micah wriggled his eyebrows. “Danger’s my middle name.”

Gabriel laughed, and it made his chest hurt in a really good way. “I thought your middle name was Linus?”

“You know what I meant.” Micah’s voice was turning into a husky growl.

“And I can’t remember… were you named after Mom’s great uncle, or after the Peanuts character?”

“So are you going to tell me about your undead lady love before or after I kick your ass?”

They looked each other in the eye for a long beat, both no longer joking around. “What do you want to know?”

 

*

 

“I’m not eating that.” Lucy felt sick to her stomach just thinking about it. And to her horror, it had smelled and looked really good. But she had asked what it was, which usually didn’t matter. Gabriel wasn’t one for eating gross food. There was always some kind of meat in what he ordered for their office dinners, and usually the savory sauces and the sources of the food spanned a multitude of cultures.

But when Gabriel had said “Lamb Curry,” Lucy had envisioned Mary’s Little Lamb, and then the adorable lamb that she had held during a Christmas pageant when she was nine years old. She’d wanted her father to buy it for her, the fleece was so soft, and it had licked sugar cubes out of her hand.

But Adam Hart would not abide a farm animal in his house or on his property. Pets of any kind had been one of the few things he had denied Lucy and her brother.

And that’s all she could think about as Gabriel set out two high-end disposable plates on the coffee table he had brought in when it turned out they spent most of their dinner meetings lounging on the big black leather couch. She’d felt pretty good that he’d added furniture to his office just for her. But she would not be touching the baby lamb he was now spooning out over the white rice that formed a base on the bottom of each plate.

It really did smell good, and she’d skipped lunch, opting to spend her break having her nails done at a local, though excellent, nail salon. They now gleamed with an incredible crimson orange, and shimmered with tiny gold hearts. She’d missed getting manicures, and that sense of whimsy she’d had about her nails. But right at that moment, Lucy was missing lunch most of all. Maybe she should just call out for a pizza, maybe some of that divine manicotti they’d devoured the night before?

But then Gabriel pulled out from the take out bag something wrapped up in aluminum foil, and as he unwrapped it, steam rose into the air and the rich scent of garlic bread engulfed her senses.

“This is called naan bread,” Gabriel said as he pulled a piece of the delicious smelling flat bread from the pack. Holding it in his hand he ladled the lamb/rice mixture onto the bread in big spoonfuls, wrapped it up fajita style then brought it up to his lips and took a huge bite.

The look of utter bliss that took over Gabriel’s face would usually have creeped Lucy out. But she was starving. It didn’t help either, the look on his face as he chewed up his lamb/rice fajita and swallowed—sighing rapturously before shooting Lucy with a maniacal smile then taking another big bite.

Lucy’s stomach actually growled.

“Come on Lucy… you’re hungry, or at least your stomach’s hungry—and I know you really want to.” Gabriel was practically laughing as he spoke, his deep brown eyes electrified with mischievous taunting.

Lucy groaned in defeat as she sat down on the couch and grabbed herself a piece of naan bread, then shoveled as much of Mary’s Little Lamb onto it as she could, rolled it up and took a big old honking bite.

It was good. No, it was incredible. Spicy and rich, the meat had this juicy, tender quality, the sauce was to die for, and the rice and flat bread added a wonderful texture to the whole thing. She took another bite before she’d even swallowed her first.

“See?” Gabriel said with a smug expression on his handsome face.

“I hate you,” Lucy mumbled through a mouthful of absolute bliss.

After wolfing down every last bit of the lamb curry, they settled back into the couch and put their feet up on the new—doubtlessly expensive—coffee table. Lucy spotted the little red step stool sitting under the last photo she’d been examining whilst waiting for Gabriel.

Strangely enough, the length of time she spent waiting for Gabriel each day had drastically started to dwindle. Today she’d only been perched barefoot on the stool for a few moments, the total wait time since she’d set foot in the office was just under five minutes now. A far cry from the first week’s usual half hour.

“So,” Lucy said, lazily raising her arm up to point at the photo in question. “What is that?”

Gabriel looked to where she was pointing, got an unreadable look on his face for a moment, smiling guiltily. He even started to blush.

“That’s… well, you see…” Gabriel squirmed in his seat then turned his entire body around so he could face Lucy completely. “My brother and I have this… tradition.”

Lucy couldn’t help it, she was smiling. She could tell this was going to be one hell of a good story. All the stories that involved Gabriel’s brother, Micah, were hysterical.

“We bet on things.”

Silence.

“Like?” Lucy prompted him.

“Well… sometimes it’s just sporting events: horse racing, college football games, that Ultimate Cage Fighter show.”

“Okay,”

“That’s usually just a money bet. But sometimes we actually bet on who can…” He stopped and stared at Lucy, and she could see in his eyes that he was editing what he was about to tell her. He did that a lot, especially when they’d discussed his family, but never when they’d talked about the photos and his friends, or his brother. But he was doing it right now.

“You know, who can run faster—sometimes we spar, like fighting.”

Lucy looked back over her shoulder at the photo of the two of them on the boat. “You fight your brother, the giant?” She chuckled. “I’m sure that goes well.”

Gabriel let his head loll back on the couch, and Lucy found herself looking very slowly down the length of him. He always took his jacket off when they ate, and his silk dress shirt that night was ivory. As he leaned back it melded to his body most enticingly.

“I win… sometimes. But on that occasion,”—he nodded his head toward the photo in question—“I lost big time.”

“So the picture is because… you lost the bet,” Lucy said. “And I imagine its placement in your office is significant?”

“Very.” Gabriel rolled off the couch and over to the photo, plucking it from the wall and returning to the couch, plopping down on it in a very non-Gabriel way. His every move was usually so careful and graceful. “There’s a third part to the bet, though.”

“Mmmm…” Lucy was getting excited, looking at the strange piece of art being displayed in the photo. This story was shaping up nicely.

The artful design was actually kind of funny looking. It seemed like a coat of arms. Except… well, besides the crossed swords and the detailed outline of the shield itself, what was displayed in the center of the design made Lucy giggle for a good thirty seconds before she got a hold of herself.

“Is that—are they…doing what I think they’re doing?”

“Yes,” Gabriel said, turning his head away as he scratched the back of his ear. “That’s two… wolves…”

“Screwing,” Lucy shrieked with laughter.

“I was going to say mating.”

“And I was going to say two werewolves screwing doggy style!” She fell over on her side on the couch, melting into peals of laughter and holding the framed photo to her chest and tried to catch her breath.

“They’re wolves,” Gabriel said, looking like a kid getting caught with his hand in the cookie jar.

Lucy practically barked out a snide laugh at Gabriel’s protest. “I’ve seen wolves,” she said, holding her stomach as she raised the photo up to her face to get a better look. “Wolves don’t have human torsos, especially muscular He-Man chests. And look!” She pointed at the photo. Gabriel tried to grab it from her, but she scooted away as she fingered the point of interest on the picture.

“This right here. The… wolf on top has definite clawed hands! He’s got one… well, wrapped around the other wolf’s… torso, and the other is holding on to his shoulder… for, um… leverage?”

Gabriel sighed unhappily. “Well, I was drunk when I—” and then he just stopped, leaning back on the couch and crossing his arms over his chest.

Lucy gave him a curious glance, and then she held the photograph out away from her, taking the entire image in from a distance, then bringing it back trombone-style and noticed something interesting about the texture of the “canvas” the werewolf mating coat of arms was stenciled on.

“Is that a freckle?”

Gabriel groaned and threw his brawny arm up over his face. “I said I was drunk, for the bet and the… the—”

“Tattoo!” Lucy howled joyously. “This is a tattoo, isn’t it? That’s the third part of the bet.” Lucy reached over and pulled Gabriel’s arm from obscuring his face. He looked to her pleadingly.

“A framed photograph, prominently displayed in your office, of a lewd tattoo on your—” She stopped and turned to shoot Gabriel with a wrinkle of her eyebrows. “Gabriel… where exactly on you is this tattoo?” She shook the photograph in her hand for emphasis.

“You don’t want to know.” He looked into her eyes and she felt a little shudder, like how she felt when she fantasized about stealing Brad Pitt form Angelina.

She shook that feeling out of her mind. It was preposterous. She hated this guy…well, she didn’t exactly hate him, not anymore, but he was still a condescending pain in her ass.

“Yeah, I do want to know.”

He smiled ruefully to himself, and as he shook his head he leaned away from Lucy and pointed down behind him to the back of his slacks. It took a second, but then Lucy realized he was pointing to his butt, and she suddenly realized with a squeak, and then more riotous laughter, that she was holding a photograph of a tattoo on Gabriel’s ass.

“It’s not funny.” His face was sobering up as he leaned his head back. “And leave it to Micah to get me into the tattoo parlor and snap a picture of it while I was still… inebriated.”

“You must’ve been wasted,” Lucy said, handing the picture back to him, using her thumb and forefinger like it was something yucky. “But I’ve got to give you credit for actually sticking to the terms of that drunken bet.”

“Thanks.”

“I just can’t wait to meet your brother!”

 

Chapter 10

 

THE WEEK before the engagement party passed far too quickly for Gabriel. His confidence in Lucy had grown considerably, yet he still felt anxious about her meeting his family. Would they fall for their act? Could he convince them he was in love with the girl? He wasn’t worried about Lucy’s performance: she was showing herself to be an incredible actress. And the story she’d concocted about the way they’d met had been genius.

It went like this:

They’d literally run into each other in the entrance of the Szechuan Garden. He had knocked her down, accidentally, and she had thought he was a complete jerk. He’d helped her up, and was unsuccessfully trying to apologize when she’d kicked him in the shin and took off down the street, absently leaving behind her takeout order.

He’d scooped up the bag and rushed after her. “Like a creepy stalker,” Lucy had said. “He followed me to my car and invited me to join him in the park to split the bag of takeout food I’d left behind. What an arrogant pig!”

But somehow Gabriel had convinced her he was harmless, and by the time they’d gorged on the contents of the bag, which strangely had two fortune cookies in it (a romantic touch that made Gabriel want to gag,) they began to talk, and so was the beginning of their courtship.

He had to admire how she’d effortlessly organized some tidbits about him into an actual romantic scenario. Obviously the imagination of the average American high school senior was alive and well. Must’ve been the glut of cable television, practically how-to programs for those who wanted to rule the world through treachery.

Either way, it was impressive, yet deceptively simple and easy to remember. And even though Lucy was unabashedly greedy, Gabriel was finding her rather easy to like. He still couldn’t believe he’d told her about the tattoo. He had never told anyone that story, even though he displayed the photograph in his office. But somehow, he just seemed to want to tell Lucy things.

Actually, he hadn’t even told the whole truth of the tattoo to Delia… and she’d seen the real thing, not just a picture.

What did that mean? The question left him sitting alone in his office, in the dim light of evening, wondering what the hell was he really doing? Was he just confused by trying to act the part of Lucy’s fiancé? Or was there something he didn’t understand, something right there in front of him, so obvious it should be as big as a billboard, but somehow he just couldn’t see it?

And if what he was feeling wasn’t just an after effect of an act, if it was something real and tangible… well then what?

Had it changed the way he felt about Delia?

No. As he leaned into the leather couch in his office he knew for a fact that it hadn’t changed the way he felt about Delia. But somehow he just knew that the way he was feeling toward Lucy was so far different than what he felt for Delia that he should be ashamed. He should feel guilt ridden and wretched. Except thinking about Lucy didn’t make him feel anything but good.

No, not just good. He felt like he was overheating when he thought about Lucy. He felt like every molecule in his body was vibrating fast enough that he could just explode. And then there was how his mind felt around her. His usually cool, confident thought processes snagged and tripped clumsily around her… and he really didn’t seem to mind.

What the hell was happening to him?

He looked at his watch and saw the time. It was only an hour before the engagement party. He needed to shower and change into his tuxedo. Laurel had it hanging on the back of his office door with a little note tacked to the clingy plastic sleeve.

Congratulations Boss. Lucy’s great!

He smiled as he plucked the note from the dry-cleaning bag. Lucy really was great. But did that mean anything?

He grabbed the tux and started for the gym locker-room. He needed to get ready. And, deep down, he wanted to look good for Lucy.

 

*

 

After close to four weeks of preparation Lucy was appalled that she was actually nervous the night of the engagement party. Especially since there was no reason to be nervous… well, no real reason anyway.

Between her fashion sense and Elaina’s elegant advice, she was sure her clothes were beyond reproach. And since she’d been dieting for the last month, and back on her exercise routine—now that the shoulder injury from her horrid days at McDonald’s was just a memory—she’d lost the extra ten pounds she’d been carrying around. Even without the aid of her dermatologist her skin was back to its usual lustrous, blemish-free self.

Red is so my color, Lucy thought as she gazed appreciatively at herself in the full-length mirror she’d installed in her room. The dress she’d picked for the engagement party was a very deep, dark red silk, cut to show some cleavage—but not that much— and formfitting enough to show off her newly regained figure. The hem came a little over the knee with a slit up the thigh. She loved the dress with its perfect little silk straps and a skirt that felt daring and elegant at the same time.

The dress was truly romantic. It would be something she would wear herself, if one day she was actually going to tie the knot.

That thought made her a little sad. Wasn’t this real? Did it not count? And if it did count, did it count against the years of happiness she would have waiting for her on the other side of this little arrangement?

Shit! she thought, pulling her hair up in a lovely twist on the top of her head. Her hair was also back to its old manageable self. If anything, it looked a little better than it had.

Lucy stared at herself in the mirror and willed herself to stop thinking about it. It didn’t matter if this counted or not. This was a means to an end… the end of her life of poverty, which—though short lived—had been both excruciating and humiliating.

No. Fake engagement or phony marriage, this was the means. It would buy her back her life and a chance at happiness after high school—no matter how bad her father had screwed things up for them.

Lucy slipped on the yummy pair of matching red Italian leather shoes Elaina had found for her at a boutique two hours away. She was now ready. Ready to meet her future in-laws, and the family—the rather large family, from all reports—she’d only seen so far in pictures and heard of via word of mouth from Elaina, Dante, and Mr. Excitement himself, Gabe.

She still called him that even though he gave her the evil eye every time, and even though he threatened to expose her relationship with Mr. Gordo. She knew, though, that he wouldn’t expose Mr. Gordo. That was just a bit of verbose idle threatening. Actually, Lucy got the feeling that Gabe was starting to warm up to her. After many long dinners in his huge office at Enoch Industries, going over his past—where he went to school, college, grad school (he didn’t seem old enough to have done all of that, but he had the diplomas and the way about him.)

Lucy had seen that way in her father, a graduate of Stanford himself. She also saw it in Dante. All three were extremely well educated, and had a natural affinity for the work they did.

She looked at her reflection once more in the full-length mirror. Gabriel will like the way I look… right? She shook the question off. Of course he’d like the way she looked. She looked freaking sensational!

Though Gabe seemed rather cold and detached for his age, it was part of what was making him interesting to Lucy. There was nothing on this earth that was more boring than listening to a nerd talk for hours on end about his life. “I went to MIT; didn’t make one friend, never had a single date. Then I went to work for Microsoft; never made one friend, never had a single date. Then I built myself an android girlfriend, her name was Heather. She didn’t like me either.”

But talking with Gabe wasn’t boring. He was actually passionate about the family business. And he obviously had as many friends as he had family members. His office was lined with their photos. She’d seen smaller graduating classes from high schools.

Maybe she was a much older woman, this inappropriate lady love of his? Not an old hag, no… just maybe a cougar. That was an interesting thought.

I can’t bring home my girlfriend because she graduated the same year as my mom.

Lucy smiled as she got into her shiny new car. She didn’t like having to park it so far away from the house. But better the inconvenient walk than explaining to her mom and grandmother how she’d gotten it. Sooner or later, she supposed, she would have to break the news to her family. After all, there would be the wedding, and the wedding announcement.

Suddenly, as she turned the key in the ignition, she had a horrifying thought.

Would there be an engagement announcement in the paper?

Crap!

But maybe the announcement would only be in the papers in San Bernardino? Yeah, but what if one of Mom’s old friends calls her up to congratulate her on her daughter’s good fortune. Marrying up in the world.

Lucy’s head swam with terrible thoughts as she sat there, the car purring in idle. She pulled out her phone and called Gabe. He picked up on the third ring.

“Is there going to be an announcement in the paper?”

“Lucy?” She could hear people in the background—more than just a few. It sounded like a prom.

“Yes, it’s me. Now tell me there’s not going to be something in the paper about all this. If so, I’ve got some major damage control to do when I get home tonight.”

“Calm down, calm down! My family is pretty private, so no, there won’t be any announcements.”

Lucy let out a long, slow breath. So she was safe… for now.

“Are you on your way? People are arriving already.”

“Sure… I’m on my way.”

“How long will you be?” He sounded anxious, and then Lucy heard why.

“Hey, Gabriel!” A nasally woman’s voice rang through the connection. “Where is this fiancée we’ve all been hearing about?”

“I’m talking to her right now, Aunt Junipa…” Junipa? “She’ll be here any time now.”

“That’s marvelous. Everyone is salivating to meet her.”

Lucy suddenly felt like the main course at a banquet. This night was going to be rough.

“So when are you going to be here?” Gabe asked again in a whisper.

How am I going to tell him I’m just getting on the freeway? She stamped her foot down on the gas and the hot little sports car took off like a rocket. As long as she was going too fast for the police to see her as she passed by, then things would be fine… right?

Riiight…

“Half an hour… give or take.”

 

*

 

Smoke rolled out from the tires as Lucy skidded the car to a halt in front of the La Companion Refectory: yet another, very exclusive, very large dining venue. She remembered Gabe saying that they had rented out the entire place. Suddenly Lucy wondered how many people were going to be there.

A valet jogged out to the car and opened the door for her. He offered his hand to assist her, but she smiled and said, “No thanks.” She swung her legs free of the car and smoothed the hem of her dress as she stood. The valet was young, a bit older than Lucy, and he made a little breathy whistle as he took in the sight of her.

Excellent, Lucy thought. I’ve still got it. Then she thought, Pig…

A doorman ushered her through the front doors, and standing there in a freshly pressed black linen suit stood Frank Luvici. Not only was the suit tailored and wrinkle free, but his shoes shone and his hair was neatly slicked back. “Nice driving. I can smell the burnt rubber from here.”

Lucy smiled. Only a few weeks ago Luvici had made her ill. But since then he’d grown on her like some sort of likable mold. She gave him a wide eyed once over.

“Who knew you could clean up?” She winked at him. “Who’d you borrow the suit from?”

Luvici gave her a lopsided grin then offered her his arm. “Funny.” He led her past what could only be described as three human Rottweilers. They were all in matching tuxedoes, and they had the same body types—muscular to the point they had no necks.

The muscle in the middle moved to open another set of doors.

“Everybody’s been waiting for you,” Luvici said. “The family’s been practically drooling with anticipation.”

“I heard.” Lucy smiled at the way both Gabe and Luvici had described the family’s anticipation. Lucy looked up at Luvici. “So what are you doing here, looking all dapper?”

“Dapper, really?”

Lucy nodded. “You look fantastic.”

“Well, I couldn’t miss you meeting the family. It’s just one of those things, like train wrecks and reality television.”

Lucy rolled her eyes at him. “Very funny.”

“And I kind of have to be here. You can’t get out of a family event.” He nodded toward the doors as they opened to an immense ballroom. “Especially not ours.”

“Oh,” Lucy said, her eyes widening for real this time. But her attention was torn away from Luvici a moment later.

The ballroom was decorated with wild flowers, roses, orchids, and lilies. Candlelight made the room sparkle and glow. Huge crystal chandeliers hung from the vaulted gold inlayed ceiling, and the walls echoed the same theme, gold encrusted walls and long, elegant inset mirrors. Carved vines and flowers and angels shimmered from the gold.

The parquet floor was deep mahogany and polished to a dazzling sheen. But no sooner did Lucy take in the grandeur of the place than she realized that the three hundred or so elegantly dressed partygoers were all suddenly staring right at her.

She gulped.

“The natives look hungry.” Luvici dove right on into the crowd of Gabe’s family, pulling her along, introducing her to a couple dozen aunts and uncles, nephews, nieces, great aunts, great uncles (one an older, more distinguished version of Luvici: his father.) Lucy felt as if she were being twirled around in an ever quickening dance. Before she knew it everything turned into a blur. She didn’t even notice when Luvici was replaced by Dante.

Dante looked, if possible, even more regal and handsome than before. She’d seen him a few times when she’d gone to see Gabe at Enoch Industries, and they’d talked often on the phone. He’d filled in some of the gaps in Gabe’s history.

But even with Gabe and Dante hand feeding her facts and crucial events from Gabe’s past, she still felt there was something huge missing. Something that just made the picture they had painted not quite mesh. If Gabe’s life had been a jigsaw puzzle Lucy knew she would never be able to finish it.

Too many pieces missing.

Fun…

Abruptly Lucy found herself standing before Gabe and the most elegant, beautiful middle-aged couple she had ever seen. The man was a larger, broad shouldered version on Gabe, with long graying hair swept back from his face in thick waves, just long enough to touch his collar. The woman had long golden blonde hair pilled in exquisite curls on the top of her head. Her dress was vintage Dior, silver silk, and hugged her rather lithe body to perfection. She was stunning.

The parents, Lucy thought with a mental gasp. If Dante had looked like royalty, these two were certainly the King and Queen. Lucy felt underdressed, outclassed and yearning to have a few months more time to prepare herself… or reinvent herself.

But that wasn’t happening. You didn’t get do-overs in real life. So she took a deep breath and offered her hand to Mr. and Mrs. Enoch.

“So,” Mr. Enoch said, smiling broadly. “This is the young lady who has captured my son’s heart.” He bowed and kissed Lucy’s hand. When he straightened back up he said, “I am Jonas Enoch, and this is my wife, Vivian.”

Vivian Enoch smiled as she took Lucy’s hand and gently shook it. A beautiful warm smile was in place, but her eyes were cold and searching… questioning. She obviously didn’t believe her son had eyes for Lucy. That or she simply didn’t think Lucy was good enough for him.

Either way, the coldness in Vivian Enoch’s eyes made the annoyed heat ignite in Lucy’s head. Where only a moment ago Lucy had felt she was over her head, and drowning in the varied richness and elegance of the Enoch family, now Vivian Enoch’s chilly gaze filled Lucy with that good old feeling of Who does this bitch think she is?

Nice, Lucy thought as Mrs. Enoch released her hand and gave her a flat, cold glare. She hasn’t said a word and I’m calling her a bitch…

“Lacey,” she said intentionally, rubbing the fingers of the hand Lucy had just shaken like something sticky had rubbed off. “I’ve been dying to meet you.” She gave Gabe a rather chilly smile too. “Gabriel has absolutely refused to bring you to the house. I can’t for the life of me understand why.” Her gaze returned to Lucy. “You’re just… stunning.”

Oblivious to his wife’s obvious dislike for Lucy, Jonas Enoch held out his arm to Lucy, asking, “May this old man have the first dance?” He was addressing both Lucy and Gabriel.

“Of course,” Gabriel said. He looked at Lucy as he always did. Friendly, yet distant, as if he expected her to pick her nose, or break out in hillbilly song.

At least now I know where he gets it from, Lucy shuddered. That cool way of making you feel like you’re below him, and he’s slumming it just talking to you. Good old Mom.

“I’d love to,” Lucy said, smiling at Jonas with genuine warmth. She didn’t spare a second glance for Vivian. She would have to ask him someday why he’d married a woman like her. But for the moment she let herself take in the thrill of being the object of everyone’s attention as Jonas Enoch lead her out onto the dance floor.

There was a small orchestra by the dance floor, and their music just seemed to flow through the room like water in a stream, as if it had been playing the entire time: a waltz. Lucy had heard it in a movie once. Mozart or Chopin or someone dead long before the advent of electricity, or the hair dryer, or anything else Lucy found instrumental to everyday life. But the music was beautiful, and Jonas Enoch was an amazingly graceful dancer, twirling her around the floor, yet never pushing so fast that she could not keep up.

She suddenly realized that Jonas Enoch’s hands were hot, just like Gabriel’s and Dante’s were.

Jonas caught Lucy’s eyes in his gaze and smiled. “So what are your intentions for my son, young lady?”

Direct. Maybe he wasn’t as affable as she’d thought.

“What do you mean?” Lucy said, stalling for time, trying to get the more calculating and clever part of her brain to take over.

“What I mean is no one has even heard of you before a couple of weeks ago. Where has he been hiding you, and what has he been doing with you?”

Okay, now we’re talking. Lucy hit Jonas Enoch with her million dollar smile. This guy is sharp, and no amount of guile and complement is going to placate or fool him. So Lucy decided to go for the honest approach… kind of.

“Well, we haven’t really known each other much longer than that.” Lucy smiled up at Jonas as if to say, that’s that, and Jonas gave her the expression of being unimpressed she was looking for. “Well,” she continued, “Gabe really wants to go further… if you get the drift, and I told him flat out that I wasn’t about to sleep with him until there was a huge rock on my finger and a big old honking checking account at my disposal.”

For a moment Jonas Enoch looked as if he were going to turn red as a fire hydrant, and then his handsome expression relaxed and he chuckled. “You’re good… you really had me going there.”

Lucy beamed her best smile up at Jonas then felt something warm slide up inside her chest, something that made her heart start to thump in her chest. And suddenly she just started talking. Not really to Jonas, not really to anybody, maybe just to herself.

“There’s just something about him… Gabe, you know?”

Jonas nodded and took a breath to say something, but Lucy just kept talking.

“It’s like, most of the time he drives me crazy. He’s so freaking bossy and anal, and he’s just such a jerk sometimes… but then sometimes when we’re alone, and he’s talking, telling some stupid, pointless story about college, or boating, or whatever… I just can’t take my eyes off him.”

“Love is strange sometimes.” Jonas looked a little confused. Obviously he hadn’t expected his future daughter in law to bad mouth her betrothed at the engagement party. “Truth be told, I spent most of my youth hating my wife.”

Lucy looked up at him with shocked eyes. Was he really saying this?

“Vivian was my best friend’s little sister. A real snob, even though we were both from wealthy families, both going back…” He coughed, and then smiled at Lucy as if he were just remembering she was there. “Let’s just say, she had no place looking down her pretty little nose at me… but that didn’t stop her. And then one night, at the party for her brother’s graduation, we just started talking… mostly about her brother…” The look on his face was as if he were remembering the most wonderful night ever. “And then right before I left she pulled me aside, onto a balcony overlooking the King… er, I mean a garden, and right there and then she kissed me.”

“Oh…” Lucy whispered. She felt like she was melting inside. “That’s so romantic.”

“Yes, it was very romantic. And then she slapped me and wouldn’t talk to me for three weeks.”

“How did you get her back?” She felt her breath coming more and more rapidly. She just had to know.

“Well, she waited for a hunter’s moon, and when our two families were in the forest, she lured me onto a mountain and, well…” Jonas’ face blushed beautifully. “She jumped me.”

Lucy laughed as her own face flushed hot just thinking about it. Cold as ice Vivian jumping big old Jonas’ bones.

“That’s our little secret,” he said tensely. “If Vivian ever even suspected I told you—”

“She’d jump your ass, but not in a good way?”

“Exactly.”

Suddenly a large, gorgeous young man deftly lifted Lucy’s hand from Jonas’ and spun her around and out of her dance partner’s arms.

“Micah!” Jonas said, chuckling again. Jonas had a great laugh. “Be careful with your brother’s fiancée.”

Lucy’s eyes snapped wide open with surprise. Looking up at the tall, handsome man who was spinning her around the dance floor with blurry speed, she could see a little resemblance to Gabe…something about the eyes and the set of the mouth, but truthfully he was a taller, broader version of his father.

Where did these huge beautiful men come from? Lucy was used to maybe six foot tall quarterbacks, the occasional six three basketball player. But Jonas and Micah were enormous.

“I’ve been dying to meet Gabe’s brother.” Lucy started to feel a little dizzy as Micah twirled them a path through the crush of dancers.

Suddenly Micah spun her around and deposited Lucy, dizzy and breathing heavily, onto a marble bench on a veranda. The view of the city was beautiful. She looked up at Micah and saw the most mischievous smile.

Crap! Lucy was flashing back to Jonas’ story: the balcony, the kiss. What the hell was going on? Was she going to have to defend herself from a big meaty Viking of a future brother-in-law? She would’ve worn something more athletic if she’d known.

Micah plopped down on the bench beside her, throwing one of his muscular, tuxedo clad arms over her shoulder. He smelled like a forest… no, a wild garden? And she could see, even though his suit was very expensive and stylish, he was wearing it completely rumpled, as if he’d been partying in it for days. Even his longish dark blond hair was tucked haphazardly behind his ears.

“I’m surprised he mentioned me. We don’t see eye to eye on most things. He’s more business minded, and I’m the…” he stopped, staring out into the night, searching for the right word.

“The screw up of the family?” Just taking a shot in the dark here.

“The warrior type, I was going to say.”

Warrior? “So you’re into hostile takeovers?”

Micah snorted. “War is always hostile.”

“You’re in the armed forces?” Lucy asked with more disbelief than she’d intended. Micah just didn’t strike her as the soldier type.

“Not exactly, but you’ll find out soon enough.” A song sprang from the open door to the ballroom. It was fast and very vibrant, and a chorus of applause erupted from the room of dancers and party guests. Micah winked. “Time to get you back inside. The natives are just dying to get a piece of you.”

Micah jumped up and pulled Lucy along to the doors. This can’t be good.

 

Chapter 11

 

THERE WAS NO ESCAPE. Every person in the room was forming a huge circle, all eyes seemingly on Lucy. Across the way, looking very uncomfortable was Gabriel. But uncomfortable or not, he looked great. Handsome, beautiful, sexy…

Lucy shook her head, trying to catch her breath as her heart raced on with ferocious speed. Why was she feeling like this? Weeks had gone by and the most she’d felt for this man was irritation, loathing, and a touch of pity. And now she was feeling like her flesh was going to burst into flame every time she looked at him.

I must be a better actress than I thought. This must be what it’s like with method actors. It’ll pass… just go with it for now… it’s just a job… nothing more.

Suddenly Gabriel caught her attention from across the room. The heated charge to his gaze was anything but professional. And for a horrible moment Lucy felt naked and exposed, and as if they were the only two people in the room. And then the person on either side of her grabbed her by the hand. One was Micah; he leaned down and said into her ear, “This isn’t hard to learn. Just follow everybody’s lead, and try not to impale anyone’s feet with those heels… especially mine.”

“I’ll try,” Lucy mumbled. She could do this. She was a former cheer squad captain, and she’d taken ballet for almost ten years. She could handle some sort of folk dance.

“Oh, and one more thing,” Micah said as everyone moved slowly to the right. “He must really like you if he lets you call him Gabe.”

“I just started calling him that because I knew he didn’t like it,” she confessed.

“Nobody gets to call him that… well, I do when I’m looking for a fight, but that’s usually when he goes all Mighty Mouse on me.”

“Mighty Mouse?”

Micah smiled wickedly, and then the crowd really started to move. Lucy found herself having to concentrate to keep up. And then the music spiraled and everyone separated, weaving in and out of each other. Someone caught Lucy’s hand and pulled her into the fray, and with a confused laugh she fell into step and zigzagged her way through the dance. Now and then everyone stopped and the man next to her twirled her around, and then the whole thing started again… but a little faster.

Everyone was having a hell of a good time, including Lucy. And without even noticing it, she’d instantly fallen in love with the entire Enoch clan. She saw Micah fly by, and then she was suddenly dancing with Luvici. His face was rosy and he was sweating, but he looked happier than she’d ever seen him. Obviously being with his family did that to him.

Lucy felt a short, sharp pang of misery as she flashed on the last time she’d danced with her father. It was at a stuffy old Christmas party almost two years ago, but she could recall that moment with utter clarity. The way he’d smelled, the room, the song, the way he smiled at her and told her what a beautiful young lady she’d become. “His little girl.”

With a brutal jerk Lucy was back in Luvici’s arms, and she felt like she was about to start crying. Luvici picked her up and spun her around once, setting her down effortlessly, and making her squeal with unintended delight. And then just as suddenly he swung her around and she crashed right into a man’s broad, tuxedo-clad chest. The music stopped and the room fell instantly silent.

Lucy looked up and found Gabe looking down at her. He wasn’t smiling, and he didn’t look particularly happy, but he was looking at her like he wanted to devour her. The heat in those brown eyes was enough to burn down a house, and now that she was staring into those beautiful eyes, she felt like she was drowning in them. Her hands were against his chest, feeling his breath heave in and out of him.

She felt a twinge of fear… what was she doing? What was he doing? Was this just part of the act, or was that lusty look really coming from him?

She stepped back.

Suddenly the room erupted in a wave of boos and cat calls. The room was vibrating with the Enoch clan’s bottled up energy. But Lucy still couldn’t take her eyes from Gabriel’s. She could stand there forever and stare into those melted chocolate eyes.

“Kiss her!” a voice that could only be Micah hollered. A short burst of laughter, whistles and applause broke out. And then more voices started to chant. “Kiss her! Kiss her! Kiss her!”

Gabriel gazed down at her with genuine affection, his mouth curling on one side in a crooked smile. “We’ve been set up.”

Lucy peeled her gaze from Gabe’s eyes, taking in the fact that every pair of eyes in the room was anxiously waiting for them to kiss. She caught sight of Jonas and Vivian, and Vivian looked like she would’ve bet her best jewels that they weren’t going to be able to do it. Or was that a look of disgust, like when you take a bite of spoiled shrimp?

“We didn’t practice this,” Lucy whispered. We really should’ve practiced this! We didn’t even talk about it. How stupid are we?

The roar of a ballroom full of people whooping and clapping their hands and stomping their feet ricocheted around the room. Were some of the guests actually howling?

Lucy’s startled gaze swept the room, giving her a slight dizzy feeling as she turned her attention back to Gabriel. Abruptly the crowd fell silent, as if they were in their own little bubble. All she knew was that Gabriel was suddenly the most beautiful man in the world, and she could feel herself falling into his dark, hungry eyes.

Gabriel reached out and took hold of her shoulders, his hands gentle yet scalding hot, his palms burning her bare shoulders. His breathing came hard and fast through his mouth, the look on his face was actual hunger, which just amazed Lucy, made her feel like her heart was about to ignite in flames. Gabriel looked not only hungry for her, but downright shocked.

Happily shocked? Lucy wondered.

But she didn’t have to wonder long. Gabriel’s hands slid from her shoulders as he pulled her to him, the cool smooth fabric of his suit sliding against Lucy’s flesh, giving her goose bumps and making her gasp. The feel of his strong, muscular body as he wrapped his arms around her and crushed her against him made her tremble.

Oh… my… god…

And then his lips captured hers. Smooth soft lips and a most indescribably delectable taste engulfed Lucy’s senses. A shock, a current, a freaking lightning bolt surged between and through and around them. Gabriel’s arms pulled tight around her, clasping her to him—her own arms entwining about his neck

Okay, this is nice…

Standing there, being kissed by a man she couldn’t stand a few weeks ago, she forgot her own name, why she was there, or that there was even one other person on the face of the earth besides him. Him. No longer Gabriel, no longer Gabe (just to annoy him), but him…

Lucy felt every molecule in her body move toward Gabriel, wanting nothing more than to get closer to him. Some white hot flame had been ignited inside her chest, in her head, at her core, and she could feel it searing her from the inside, hotter even than Gabriel’s touch or even his lips against hers.

The only sound Lucy could hear was her own heartbeat clamoring in her head, its rhythm thudding in her chest. She could feel Gabriel’s heart beating through his chest against her own.

They’re almost in sync. And that little thought tore Lucy from the seemingly endless rapture she’d found in Gabriel’s arms, and she pushed away from him and gasped for breath as their lips parted. Her entire body shook and her legs wobbled as she tried to pull away from him.

I hate this guy! She clenched her eyes shut. It’s all just a job, a way to get my life and future back. That’s it… that’s all!

And yet when she opened her eyes, she noticed the way Gabriel stared at her, how his arms still clung to her.

The world pushed back in on them as Gabriel’s family rushed toward them, cries of relief and happiness replacing the silence, and Lucy found herself surrounded by legions of partygoers, all of them kissing her cheek and giving her heartfelt hugs. Gabriel was besieged by slaps on the shoulders, handshakes, and smiling/crying women congratulating him with more kisses and hugs.

Inexplicably Lucy felt like she was about to burst into tears. She was so confused. What the hell just happened? Why did she feel so shitty about all these people congratulating her?

And… why do I care so much for all these strangers?

If any of them knew, they would hate me…

She saw Gabriel through the crowd. He looked happy. He never looks happy! What the hell’s going on here? She caught sight of his eyes, and there it was again, the one thing she hadn’t ever expected to see in his eyes: need, want, adoration… love?

No…

Lucy turned away as tears spilled from her eyes, rolling in streams down her cheeks.

I have to get out of here…

Lucy tried to move through the crowd without causing a scene, but she knew that if she didn’t get away from them all she was going to fall apart. She couldn’t let anyone see her like that. She refused.

She took some deep breaths, swiped the tears from her eyes and plastered a smile on her face. She pushed urgently through the throng of party guests until she saw an EXIT sign glowing red in the distance. It seemed to take forever, but she finally made it through to the mahogany wood door, grabbed the knob and thankfully found it unlocked.

 

*

 

The cool night air felt good on Lucy’s skin, and even though it was rancid with the aromas of garbage and decay, breathing it in helped steady her as she stepped haltingly out into the alley behind the club. She let the door click shut, cutting off the ebb and flow of the celebration, leaving her in peace and silence. The only sound was her breathing and the click and scrape of her heels on the cracked pavement of the alley.

I’ve so screwed this all to hell… Lucy held her hands to her face. Her flesh was so cold. What was I thinking?

Lucy expected her bitchy inner voice to chime in with her two cents, but instead she was struck by a terrible, potent feeling.

She didn’t know how she knew, she just knew—something was there. She felt it. Somewhere in the darkness that surrounded her, something was watching her. She looked around her and backed up toward the door a step.

I’m going to die… she heard an inner voice say. That’s comforting. Another voice said, Quiet… can you feel that?

She could feel it. It was cold and dead and absolutely wanted to kill her. And no sooner did she think this, than it rushed upon her, unstoppable. A flash of golden blonde hair and the whitest teeth—or were they fangs? It grabbed her by the throat, picked her up in the air and slammed her back against the cold bricks of the wall.

As her feet dangled in thin air she fought to take a breath. She tried to pry the hand from her throat, but it was so strong. She looked down and felt an instant shock. Staring up at her, eyes frosty blue, long blonde hair blazing in the wind, stood a girl no older than she, and not a bit bigger. Her lips peeled back to bare the whitest set of fangs.

A fire erupted in Lucy’s head—she was pissed. What does this chick think she’s doing? She grabbed hold of the girl’s wrist and glared down at her. Let me go!

For just a moment Lucy felt something prickle across her skin, then it seemed to flow into fang chick’s wrist.

The girl’s arm shook, and she lowered her captive about six inches before pushing her back up into the air. The look on her face was still seething bitch, but something flickered in her eyes, if only for an instant.

Lucy locked her gaze on the girl’s cold blue eyes. Another surge, a much stronger one flowed from Lucy into the girl. The annoyed burning in her skull was almost painful. Get your filthy hands off me!

When the blonde girl set her down they shared the same look of deep shock. They staggered away from each other, the blonde shaking her head as Lucy fell back against the wall, gasping up the foul air of the alley.

This really can’t be happening. Lucy held her hand to her aching throat and used the other to hold herself up against the side of the building. But then she looked over at the blonde, and sure enough she had fangs still—not an optical illusion and not Lucy’s imagination getting away from her in a dark alley.

The blonde hissed. “What the hell did you just do to me?” She looked like she’d just tasted something disgusting. “I can’t believe you used magic against me!” The blonde came a step closer, a cruel smile on her face. “Two can play at that game.” She closed her eyes, holding her hands out, looking for a moment like a bleached blonde, really skinny Buddha. That was until she opened her eyes and they were blood red. No pupil, no whites, just a liquid pool of blood red shimmering in the darkened alley.

Immediately Lucy felt something crawl across her flesh, grabbing at her arms, wrapping around her throat, making goose flesh pop up all over her body. But that’s all that happened, just the feeling that something was crawling over her, trying to grab hold of her, and it was radiating from fang chick.

The blonde shook her head as her arms dropped back to her sides. She shrieked her anger and lunged at Lucy, hurtling toward her with terrifying speed.

“No!” Lucy gasped. Her back was pressed against the cold bricks of the wall again. “Stop!”

Fang chick stopped on the spot, as if she’d hit a wall, falling to the pavement. She looked up at Lucy, furious. Her eyes glowed a demonic red.

Unfortunately Lucy hit her knees too. When the blonde was halted she’d felt another charge shoot out of her. And with that her legs went out from under her. She felt so weak she was having a hard time just holding herself upright as she knelt on the parched pavement of the alley.

The blonde stood back up and looked down on Lucy with a pleased smile spreading across her face. “You’re draining, whore!”

Lucy felt the heat rekindle inside her skull. She didn’t like being called names. Especially whore—she was still a virgin, for pity’s sake.

“It might take me a moment or two to get to you,” fang chick growled, “but you’ll be dead a hell of a lot longer.” She charged Lucy again, fangs bared, her face contorted and twisted with hate.

“Stop!” Lucy said, holding her hand out, feeling the burning in her head move down her arm and out through her fingertips. The blonde stopped in her tracks again, but this time she kept pressing, as if she were pushing against a wall. Lucy could feel the last of her strength fade, both her hands now desperately trying to hold her up from the ground. She felt the blonde’s hand grab hold of the back of her neck, pulling her up by her hair and tossing her back against the wall.

For just an instant Lucy was staring into those cold blue eyes again, and the voice in her head didn’t have to say anything: she knew she was dead.

Out of nowhere a man’s hand came out of the darkness, grabbed the blonde’s shoulder and yanked her off Lucy. Lucy didn’t know what was more fantastic or impossible. The blonde flew backward through the air, landing gracefully on top of a dumpster. She stood there, her hands on her hips, her chilly eyes looked hurt but still angry. That was pretty unbelievable.

What was even more unbelievable was who’d thrown her: Gabriel stood there in his good suit, his appearance hadn’t changed much in the last few minutes, but there was something changed about him.

He felt dangerous.

“Delia, what the hell are you doing?” he growled.

Delia? Lucy’s eyes bugged out until they felt like they ready to pop right out of their sockets. Oh, the actual girlfriend. Lucy shook her head. Does Gabe know he’s dating a vampire?

Okay, you just said she’s a vampire! A vampire? It can’t be…

“Don’t act thick!” Delia’s voice was harsh and metallic, her eyes blazed like sapphire blue fire. “It doesn’t suit you.”

“This was your idea, remember? You thought that if I had a fake wife, then we could be together… in secret.”

Delia crouched as if she were about to pounce on Gabriel. Lucy was afraid she might hurt him. She wanted to stand up and protect him, but she could barely keep herself from falling to the ground.

“Your whore is mine to kill.” Delia flung herself at Lucy again. Gabriel caught hold of her in mid-air and pinned her to him.

“Nothing happened!” Gabriel shouted in her face, holding her by the wrists.

“I can smell you on her…” She took a long, angry sniff of him. “And her on you… you kissed her, you asshole!”

Almost effortlessly she flung Gabriel away from her and into a garbage dumpster.

Lucy shrieked in horror—he can’t be dead—but before she could pull herself to her feet Gabriel was back on his feet and leaping across the alley. He grabbed Delia by both shoulders as he pulled her away from Lucy. They pushed and pulled at each other and fell to the cold pavement of the alley. Delia struck Gabriel and he sailed down the alley, hitting hard, yet rolling onto all fours, his face now straining with anger, a snarl ripping through his bared teeth.

He’s not a vampire… Lucy knew that. She was flashing back to him standing in the sunlight with her, numerous times.

“I won’t let you hurt her…” Lucy could swear she saw his body ripple, stretching the fabric of his suit. “She was just playing her part, as was I.”

“You’re siding with the blood sack?” Her expression held revulsion and shock as she walked closer to him. “You really are just a dog!” She charged him, her hands now fists as she streaked forward and rammed right into him, flipping them both over.

Suddenly Gabriel’s form shifted, expanding as he flipped over atop Delia, his suit shredding away from him as a giant wolf took his place. No, not a wolf. It was too big. Almost twice the size Gabriel had been, and from the neck down it was shaped almost like a human… except for the pitch black fur, and the giant sharp looking claws.

Nope, not a vampire.

And unbelievably Delia grabbed the wolf around the neck and picked him up and threw him off her. She sprang to her feet and raced after him. They collided with a sickening crunch.

Lucy was still trying to pick herself up off the pavement when someone pulled her up by her armpits and set her gently against a particularly warm, soft wall. She looked up and Micah grinned down at her—he was the wall she was leaning against.

“You okay?”

“What’s going on?” She looked over to where the wolf and Delia were fighting, crashing into dumpsters, breaking windows.

“Yeah,” Micah said wistfully as they both watched the battle. “They really need to get a room.”

Dante Enoch was now on the other side of her. He stared disapprovingly at the skirmishing lovers. “Just typical.”

Lucy took a long, slow breath, and then shook her head in confusion. “So vampires and werewolves… they’re real?”

“And much more, Ms. Hart,” Dante murmured.

Micah chimed in happily. “And our two species have been enemies for thousands of years—”

“It’s not that simple,” Dante said, his gaze still on Gabriel and Delia. “We’ve enjoyed two centuries of peace. A truce, if you would. And if either King found out of this, war would be inevitable.”

“And that would be—” Micah stopped in mid-sentence, Dante’s stern gaze making him gulp and choose an obviously more serious last word. “Bad… it would be bad.”

Out of nowhere a man appeared beside Micah. He was pale and blond, with cool blue eyes and the most expressionless face. His hair was slicked back from his face, and was long enough to be in a ponytail that fell halfway down his back.

Without having to ask, Lucy knew he was a vampire too. She could feel the same cold dead feeling radiating from him as from Delia.

“Your sister and Gabriel are making a mess out of this alley.” Micah was chuckling as he said it.

“Yes, Vin,” Dante said stiffly, as if speaking to the vampire was a hardship. “Would you be so kind as to rein Delia in?”

The blond vampire slid a cold glance Dante’s way, and then walked confidently over to the battling couple. He waited a beat as they pushed away from each other, and before they had a chance to latch onto each other again he put himself between the two. He held a hand up to warn off the werewolf, and then he turned to his sister.

“You have to stop this.”

“Mind your own business!” She tried to move past him, but he kept himself in front of her.

“Think, Delia. You’re fighting your lover.”

The word lover struck Lucy quite literally in the heart. She’d never thought one word could cause her actual physical pain, but there it was. One little word, not even a very long one, and she felt it stab through her like a knife. She forced herself to take a deep, painful breath—it felt as if the knife in her heart was really there—and then she let it out.

Tears burnt at the backs of her eyes, threatening to fill her eyes with their hot wetness. But Lucy clamped her eyes shut on them. She would not start crying, not for something so impossibly wrong. It had been just a job—being Gabriel’s fiancée, a means to an end—and she needed to get back to thinking that way, to believing it.

Vin’s voice cut through Lucy’s reverie. “What if you hurt him?”

“He’s… he’s…” Delia was pointing at Gabriel. Her blue eyes welled up with tears, her harsh voice faltering as she looked from her brother to Gabriel. At least she had a real reason to be crying.

“And her!” She was now thrusting her finger in Lucy’s direction, and even though she was still crying, the hatred in those watery blue eyes was scorching.

“But he’s in love with you, Delia.”

Lucy hadn’t noticed, but Gabriel had shifted back to his human form, and now he was moving to Vin’s side, his face full of affection, his eyes beseeching.

Lucy suddenly looked away, embarrassed: Gabriel was naked, not a stitch of clothing on him, just a thin sheen of sweat that made his skin glisten, and made every curve and cut of his body stand out.

“I’m only doing this for you.” Gabriel’s voice was rough and thick.

Delia sobbed into her hands. “I know, I know. I just didn’t realize…”

“That I’d have to act the part of an engaged man?” Gabriel walked steadily toward her until he had her shoulders in his hands—just as he’d held Lucy’s only a few minutes ago.

Delia crumpled into his bare arms and buried her face into the flesh of his chest. “I didn’t realize it would hurt so much.”

“Freaking love birds!” Micah growled with a smile on his handsome face.

“We should leave them alone,” Dante said.

Lucy looked over to Delia and Gabriel. He held her in his arms, whispering things to her, stroking her golden hair. Most of him was obscured by Delia’s body pressing against his, but his shoulders and chest were luminous in their nakedness.

Lucy’s gaze flicked over to Vin and she was surprised to find he was staring right at her, his blue eyes not a bit cold—he was looking at her as if he wanted to eat her.

Which he just might want to… Lucy turned as Dante and Micah helped her walk, each lending her an arm. Which was good. Her legs were like rubber, and her knees kept knocking.

“So,” Lucy said as she walked along between the two werewolves, desperately trying to push the bewildering tangle of emotions out of her head. “Is there anyone that doesn’t know about this little…?”

“Shit storm?” Micah chortled.

“Arrangement?” Dante corrected.

“Yeah…that.”

“Well,” Dante said. “Gabriel’s parents, and of course, Delia’s.”

“And anyone who might want Gabriel dead.” Micah seemed to ponder this. “You’d be surprised how many.”

Lucy felt the pressure and tension evaporate when they stepped out of the cramped little alley and stepped out onto the sidewalk in front of La Companion Refectory. A sly north wind blew around and through them, making Lucy feel unaccountably better. She gently pulled her arms free of Dante’s and Micah’s grasp. “I’m going to need more money,” she announced. She looked right into Dante’s light brown eyes. “That alright with you?”

Dante and Micah exchanged a smile as Dante nodded. “You might just be the right girl for this job after all.”

 

Chapter 12

 

LUCY sat in the dim light that shone from the small wall lamp over the stove. It had red roosters on its shade. Her coffee had turned cold long ago, yet she still held the cup in her hand. Her arm lay limply against the waxy plastic of the tablecloth covering her grandmother’s kitchen table. Too many things drifted and raced and throbbed in her head. Each thought sizzled with its own heat, pulled at her with its own weight.

There was the kiss: the feel, the taste and scent of that memory, when Gabriel had held her and kissed her in front of his entire family. It hadn’t felt like just part of the act, the game. But it was connected to the little spectacle in the alley. How she’d almost been killed. How his real lady love had nearly strangled her to death. Maybe she was even going to tear her throat out? That’s what vampires did, wasn’t it?

And Lucy couldn’t blame her. She wasn’t really anything to Gabriel, not anything real, and she felt jealousy flaring hot and unwanted in her soul, in her heart—all for a man she really didn’t know. No, she couldn’t blame the vampire for her reaction.

She actually smelt Lucy on Gabriel, and the other way around—and she’d been able to smell their want, their lust for each other.

Creepy!

Lucy shook her head, sitting there in the dim warmth of the kitchen. She felt so safe in her grandmother’s kitchen. She wanted her to be there with her, more than anything, so she could tell her about the crazy, horrific things that had been happening to her. But she couldn’t.

For one thing how could she tell her sainted grandmother there were such things as werewolves and vampires… and who knew what else?

Gram would lock me up for sure.

But then a really terrifying thought crossed Lucy’s mind, sending a chill up her spine and making her stomach sink to her buttery Italian leather heels: I’d have to tell her that the werewolf was my fiancé…

Hell no! Lucy would rather face a battalion of love scorned vampires than have to tell her grandmother that she had been engaged for the last month… and hiding it, and lying about it… and that she was being paid to do so.

Nope. Gram would kill me for sure. Repeatedly.

She finally got up and poured the cold coffee out into the sink, washed the mug and set it on the drain-board to dry. She dried her hands on a dishtowel and then noticed she was still wearing the red silk dress. There was amazingly little damage from her violent encounter with the vampire. A smudge here, a beveling in the threading there, but overall the dress could be mended, and after dry cleaning it would be as good as new. But did she really want to wear it again? It had seemed so beautiful and romantic looking, and she’d felt so wonderful in it, like she was in a chic, modern-day fairytale. But after what had happened to her while she was wearing it, she wasn’t so sure anymore—the monsters in the fairytale being real made the tale less alluring.

She had to smile though. This has to be the most expensive dress anyone’s ever washed dishes in.

 

*

 

The next morning Lucy was yanked out of a perfectly lovely, if not erotic, dream about Gabriel… and the blond vampire Vin… awoken by her grandmother’s angry voice.

“Lucinda Marie Hart! Why is there the scent of a vampire on your dirty clothes?” She was holding the dress Lucy had been wearing the night before. Lucy silently thanked god that her grandmother hadn’t asked how she’d paid for the dress—but then she realized her grandmother was interrogating her about there being vampire scent on her clothes.

Gram wrinkled her nose and held the dress even farther away from her. “And werewolf?”

Oh crap! Lucy hadn’t devised a plan for getting through this. Her grandmother was going to kill her. And when gram told her mother, Lila was going to hit the roof. I’ll be grounded for eternity.

But you’re eighteen, a voice said. But just then something momentous dawned on her.

“Gram, how can you smell that on my clothes?”

Gram suddenly got this look on her face of complete shock, as if now she was the one in trouble. Yet just as abruptly her grandmother’s expression changed and the two women fixed each other with the same hard stare. For sixty long seconds they glared at each other.

Gram finally spoke.

“Your mother’s gone already, and Seth is gulping down his breakfast as we speak. So if you take a long shower,” she held the dirty clothing out from her as far as she could as she turned to leave, “then we can talk.”

Lucy just sat there on her bed, staring opened mouth at the open door to her room. What the hell? Then she gave herself a cursory sniff. Did she really just tell me I stink?

 

*

 

After a long hot shower, Lucy changed into a pair of jeans and cute little pink tank top with lips drawn in red glitter across it. Taking a reinforcing breath she headed down stairs to have it out with her grandmother. She still couldn’t get over her grandmother being able to smell vampires and werewolves. And how does she know about vampires and werewolves, either?

Gram poured Lucy a cup of coffee and already had a plate filled with eggs, sausage, and fried potatoes. Lucy wasn’t going to eat it, but she really was starving, so she grudgingly sat down and took a few hasty bites, and washed them down with the coffee her grandmother had just handed her.

Then she started.

“How the hell can you smell vampires and werewolves? I was up close and personal with them and didn’t smell a thing.” Lucy’s grandmother took a breath, about to speak, but Lucy cut across her. “No, no! What I really want to know is how do you even know they exist?”

Gram stared her down, and Lucy could feel herself losing ground in the conversation fast.

“What I’d like to know, before I tell you anything, young lady, is why you were in their company in the first place?”

“Oh, um…” Lucy hadn’t thought up a good excuse for that yet. She gulped and then nervously took another sip of her coffee. What’s a good reason to be in the company of monsters? By the time she said, “I just ran into them last night,” her grandmother already had a look of total disbelief on her face.

“Okay, I knew the werewolf from before…” she hesitated, trying to think of a better, more benign excuse, but this wasn’t one of her back stabbing acolytes back in San Bernardino. This was her grandmother, who was the only person in her entire family who truly loved her. She couldn’t just lie to her. And Lucy was getting the distinct impression that her grandmother knew a hell of a lot more about this new and exciting world of monsters than she was letting on.

Lucy was in over her head, and since she knew nothing of these things before last night, she decided the truth would not only be the easiest path, but would yield the most gain. Gram could help her… maybe.

“I’ve known the werewolf for four weeks,”

“Is he your boyfriend?”

Lucy shook her head. Her words came in a fast, furious wave. “We’re engaged, and no, it’s not a for real kind of thing, it’s just a business arrangement, and I didn’t know he was a… and then there was this blonde bitch, she’s the… vampire.”—it still felt weird saying the words vampire and werewolf out loud— “Turns out she’s the one he should be engaged to, but since they’re different species, their families wouldn’t take it too well. I really just thought he was gay or something, and needed me to be his beard. That was until the vampire tried killing me. I knew she was one, you know, a vampire, right off. And then Gabe came out of the restaurant and wolfed-out and stopped her.”

Lucy halted. The scene from the alley flashed before her eyes, and with it the rollercoaster ride her emotions had taken her on—one moment feeling like she was falling for Gabe, the next moment she was terrified the blonde vampire chick was going to kill her, then confusion and fear as Gabe came to her rescue and she saw him change into his wolf form. It was just too much to sort through.

And then there was the way he was with psycho Delia. How could he be in love with a nut-job monster like her?

Monsters of a feather, her bitchy inner voice jibed.

Her grandmother just sat there staring.

“Oh, and we were at the engagement party when all this happened. Not in the restaurant, but in the alley behind it.”

Gram cleared her throat and then very calmly asked “Engagement?”

“It’s just for show, though no one can know that it’s all fake and all.” The way Gram was staring at her, Lucy just couldn’t stop the heedless stream of words from coming out of her mouth. “I’m getting paid a lot of money to be his fake fiancée. A ton, actually. Enough that I’ll be able to go to any college I want.”

Gram just stared at her, her expression unwavering.

“So I can get my future back!” Lucy almost screamed.

Gram rolled her eyes, picked up her coffee cup and took a long, leisurely drink, seeming to savor the taste of her coffee as she contemplated everything Lucy had just confessed.

“You’re telling me, then, that you entered into a fabricated engagement, to supplement your life style,”—she didn’t miss much, did she?—“and to ensure your future education. And now you’ve found yourself not only in league with werewolves, but a vampire wants you dead?”

“Yep, that’s about it.” Lucy tried to smile away how much trouble that sounded like.

“And if it weren’t for your fake fiancé, you’d be dead?”

“Yeah… okay, that sounds really bad but it’s not as bad as…” Her grandmother was giving her the “cut the crap” look. Lucy lowered her head in defeat. “Yes… probably.”

Gram shook her head and was about to speak, but Lucy said, “I mean, Gabe pulled her away, and they fought it out, but…” How can I say this and not sound completely crazy? But then again, vampires and werewolves being real was pretty crazy to start with. “I think I kind of forced her to let me go. I mean, I just told her to let me go. Actually I couldn’t even talk! I thought for her to let me go, and then suddenly she just did.”

“She let go of you?” Gram suddenly looked very interested.

“Yeah… she looked as shocked about it as I was.” Lucy looked away as she replayed what had happened. “It was like something… some force coming out of me was holding her back. It really did a number on me. I’m still beat.”

Lucy’s grandmother smiled.

“Do you know what this all means?” Lucy asked, feeling apprehensive because her grandmother was smiling like a maniacal Cheshire cat.

“I think I do,” she said, standing up and retrieving her purse, her prescription sunglasses, and her car keys. “But I think we need to road test it first.”

Lucy frowned as she followed her grandmother out the back door. “Road test what?”

 

*

 

Gram drives like a snail, Lucy thought. It was the second time she’d driven with her grandmother, but she had been in a crying mini-coma the last time, covered in special sauce, and teetering on the edge of disaster. She didn’t remember her grandmother driving so slowly, and the way she kept looking over to the side of the road… Lucy wondered if her grandmother could see any more. Was she looking for an exit?

If Lucy had known her grandmother drove like this on the interstate, she would’ve insisted she had driven—maybe she would’ve surprised her grandmother with the red convertible?

Suddenly Gram swerved over to the shoulder of the road and stopped. She’d kicked up a cloud of dust and made the brakes squeal as she brought the huge old car to a lurching halt.

“We’re here,” she chimed and fixed her sunglasses in the rearview mirror.

Lucy looked around her, peering through the windshield and the windows with confusion. “This is the side of a highway.”

“Indeed,” Gram said, “the perfect place for a little experiment.”

Lucy didn’t like the way her grandmother said “experiment.” “Do I have to pick up litter or something… some kind of punishment for keeping things from you?”

“No, dear, this isn’t your punishment.”

Okay, that didn’t sound good.

“I just want to see what happens.” She turned and smiled encouragingly at Lucy. “Just get out and stand there for a minute.”

Lucy could feel a grimace slide over her face. “You’re totally going ditch me, aren’t you?”

Gram frowned. “Ditch you?”

“You know,” Lucy sighed. “Leave me out here to walk home.”

Gram raised an eyebrow and smiled wickedly. “That isn’t your punishment either. So stop worrying about it. Right now I just need you to stand over there.” She pointed to the guardrail.

“Okay,” Lucy said. If she leaves me out here I’m so going to put Nair in her shampoo!

Lucy opened the car door and got out, shutting it behind her. She looked around and didn’t see anything, except a small blond pile of road-kill. She looked back to her grandmother. “Now what?”

“Just wait there. I’m going to drive up about fifty feet. Just don’t move, alright?”

Lucy shrugged as her grandmother moved the car away. This has to be the lamest practical joke I’ve ever seen. She hoped her grandmother hadn’t just snapped. The stress from having Lucy and her family living with her hadn’t seemed to take a toll, but then adding vampires and werewolves to the mix had to have its own impact.

Gram got out of the car and gave Lucy a little wave.

After a moment or two of the only sounds were the passing cars and the wind they caused. Lucy rubbed at her eyes. The dry air was starting to irritate them. “What are we looking for?” Lucy yelled to her grandmother.

“We’re waiting.” Gram hollered back.

“Waiting for what?” Lucy called, but then she saw her grandmother was holding her hand up over her eyes like a visor. She was looking at something, and it had to be behind Lucy. Lucy gulped and turned to look.

Nothing.

Just open road, sand, and oncoming traffic. Then Lucy heard panting. She looked down, and peering up at her was a golden retriever, just a puppy, and he was wagging his little puppy tail and panting with his little puppy tongue out. His eyes were full of excitement.

Well, one of his eyes was, the other drooped out of its socket, and there was dried blood smeared from its neck down its chest.

Lucy screamed and took off running toward Gram and the car. Gram had her hands clasped over her chest, a crazy look of pride on her face.

“Drive!” Lucy screamed. Gram just stood there, smiling like a lunatic, watching Lucy scramble over to the car, yank the door open and throw herself into the passenger seat. “Get in here and drive!”

Lucy’s grandmother started laughing, looking happier and happier.

Lucy looked back and could see the little bundle of dead dog dragging itself after her. She could hear it whimpering and yapping for her to come back.

“Now old woman… or I’m going to drive off without you!”

Gram cackled and held up her hand. The car keys were dangling from her index finger.

“Please…” Lucy whimpered, feeling like she was on the verge of tears and a nervous breakdown.

Gram rolled her eyes and said, “Alright.” She slid into the driver’s seat and started the car. A moment later they were speeding out into traffic, making motorists swerve to miss them.

“Don’t kill us!” Lucy said. But she felt better as they shot down the highway. She looked out the back window again and saw the puppy fall over. Somehow she just knew the poor little guy was dead again. “What the hell did you do to that thing?”

Gram scoffed. “You mean, what did you do to that unfortunate canine? That’s what you want to know.”

Lucy felt a nauseating chill well up inside her. “I did that?”

Gram looked over at Lucy, and abruptly her expression changed to worry. “You look so pale.”

Lucy ran her hands down over either the side of her face. “Oh, I wonder why?”

“Just breathe…,” her grandmother said, turning off the interstate and then pulling onto the ramp leading back the way they’d came. “I’ll explain everything when we get back home.”

Lucy was okay with that. She didn’t think she could stomach an explanation right then, not with the car moving and the image of that poor little dead dog still so fresh in her mind.

 

Chapter 13

 

GRAM poured them both some homemade lemonade and set out some sugar cookies she’d baked just the day before. They were coated with pink and yellow sugar crystals, and they smelled of citrus.

“I’m shocked your brother left any,” Gram said. “He usually eats cookies as fast as I can bake them.”

Lucy knew the cookies were delicious—she just couldn’t bring herself to touch one. Her stomach was just so twisted in knots still. But she did take a few sips of the lemonade. As usual it was a perfect mixture of sweet and sour.

Finally she looked to her grandmother and said the first thing that came into her mind. “We’re cursed, right? The whole family has got some sort of curse on it… makes everything turn to crap, right?” Lucy stopped and then felt tears burning at her eyes, ready to well up and trickle down her cheeks. “Or is it just me?”

“Lucybean, sweetheart… there’s nothing wrong with you, and you are certainly not cursed,” she said the last word with prolonged scorn. Lucy looked up into her grandmother’s smiling eyes. “You’ve been blessed.”

“Blessed!” Lucy sat forward, tears streaming down her face, her voice harsh. “Having road-kill coming to life and wanting to play isn’t a friggin’ gift! It’s a freaking catastrophe!”

“What you did is called necromancy. And it is what you are… you’re a necromancer.”

“I’m not anything!” Lucy said incredulously, pushing back from the table and standing up. She folded her arms around herself as she turned away from her grandmother, her nails biting into her flesh. “I’m certainly not a… whatever you just said.”

“A necromancer.”

“I’m not… and stop saying that!” She turned, beseechingly saying, “I can’t be… it’s just so disgusting.”

Gram looked upon her granddaughter with love and empathy. “Necromancy is a powerful gift.” She stood and put her hands on Lucy’s shoulders. “It’s your gift.”

Gift? Suddenly she remembered something. Just a sliver of a dream, and then the image of Jeff Haas holding a dead puppy in his arms, saying it was her gift. Lucy looked up into her grandmother’s gaze and felt a shock as she backed away from her.

“I dreamed about this.”

Gram’s expression grew concerned. “You’ve dreamed about this?” She held out her hands, “This moment in the kitchen?”

“No,” Lucy shook her head and turned toward the window over the sink, staring out into the backyard. “Not this. Just…” She turned back to her grandmother. “I dreamed about the dog. The one on the side of the road, but it wasn’t there. It was back at my old school.” Lucy could feel the same terror she’d felt in her dream, circling around her, practically touching her flesh. “And my ex-boyfriend was giving the puppy to me for my birthday.” She looked right at her grandmother. “He said it was my gift.”

“A prophetic dream,” Gram said, “Impressive… anything else?”

“What do you mean?” Lucy said, incensed. “Isn’t that enough?” And then she looked at her grandmother with accusing eyes. “Did you know this was going to happen to me?”

“I always knew there was a chance. But your mother kept insisting that you had no talent.”

“That’s harsh.”

“Dark talent, Lucybean. Lila swore that you were like her. She never showed the slightest mystical or preternatural ability. I never felt it from her, and truthfully I didn’t feel anything coming off you… until today.”

“Lucky me.”

“Yes… lucky you!” Gram sounded angry. “If it wasn’t for your gift, that vampire last night would’ve had you for dinner… literally.”

Lucy couldn’t argue with that. Delia would’ve sucked her dry, or at the very least snapped her neck. Lucy shook her head—the thought was just so disturbing. Being dead, killed… it suddenly felt far too real a possibility for comfort.

“Okay. It saved my life… but why me?”

“The gift passes from generation to generation. My sister and I both had it. Unfortunately your mother didn’t. And I’m fairly positive your brother won’t get it.”

Random thought, “If that’s because he’s a guy, don’t be so sure. He’s…” Should I let his secret out? “He’s not your typical teenage boy.”

“Uh-huh…” Gram said. “You mean, since he’s homosexual, he might get it?”

Oh crap! “I didn’t say that he was…” Gram was giving her a hard look. “Okay… but I didn’t tell you, okay?”

“Deal. But no, that has nothing to do with it. I just don’t feel anything in him.”

“But you said you didn’t feel anything coming off me either.”

Gram frowned, and then clucked her tongue. “Good point. We’ll both have to keep an eye on him. No telling what kind of trouble a boy like him can get into with this power.” She smiled. “Though, I would love to see him being chased around by a zombie.”

“Gram!”

“Just a little one.” A mischievous smile manifested on Gram’s lips.

“You know he has a phobia of little people?” Lucy said.

“Seriously?” She chuckled, covering her mouth with her hand.

“Ever since he was five. Unlocked the parental controls on the cable and lost it when he flipped onto one of those leprechaun movies.”

“Leprechauns?” Gram said, her expression sobering. “You’re not joking, are you?”

“It was a thing.” Lucy waved it away with her hand. “Now he avoids the Wizard of Oz and The Lord of the Rings like the plague.”

A goofy grin spread across Gram’s face, turning into a smile, and then she just cracked up.

“You wouldn’t think it was so funny when he freaks out at the mall when he sees a little person. It’s embarrassing as hell.”

Gram whooped, holding her belly. “What about little kids? Does he freak out over them too?”

“No. Just little grownups.” Lucy’s face fell. “Now, about all this dead-shit stuff.”

“Language, Lucybean.”

“Sorry, but I don’t want dead things coming to life and attacking me.”

“They won’t attack you. They won’t do much of anything unless you tell them to… as long as you practice controlling your power.”

Lucy shot a finger up into her grandmother’s face. “There, I knew it! There’s always a nasty catch… just like in the movies.”

“Lucy, dear, don’t worry. We’ll take some time over the next few weeks and I’ll teach you to control you power.”

“Even better, why don’t you take them away? You’ve gotta know a way.”

“Lucy.” Gram sounded so serious. “No one and nothing can take this from you. It’s a gift and you need to embrace it.”

Lucy made a disgusted face. “Gross.”

“Gross or not, seems you’re going to need it.”

Lucy frowned.

“It’s already saved your life. It will again.”

 

*

 

Gram gave Lucy a small, though rather thick book to read. The cover was so faded and worn Lucy couldn’t make out the title, but the title page was more than clear enough to make Lucy’s skin crawl.

A Guide to Necromancy: Harnessing Your Affinity and Power Over the Dead, Calling Spirits, Animating Corpses, Fashioning Assorted Body Parts Into Zombies, and Taking Death Into You.

Lucy dropped the book on the kitchen table when she read that last part. The thought of putting zombies together from spare parts was bad enough, but taking death into her. That wasn’t happening.

“Taking death into you?”

“That one’s a little advanced, but seeing how strong you power is right out of the box, as they say, I’ll have to teach it to you soon. It’s pretty much the ability to draw strength and power from the dead.”

“No offense, but I don’t want to draw anything from the dead. I just want to keep them from following me around, okay?”

“Lucy,” Gram’s voice went weary, “this isn’t something you can control enough to quell. Once the power activates it doesn’t just go dormant, even if you don’t consciously use it, it reaches out on its own and works its magic.”

“Magic?”

“Yes. What we do is a form of magic. A darker, older, and far more primal magic than your common witch would practice… but magic all the same. And magic is what makes vampires live, and werewolves… werewolves. It’s in everything supernatural.”

“Fine, but I really don’t want to do anything with dead things.”

Gram shrugged. “Either you master your power through use, or you ignore it and it reaches out and does things on its own. And you won’t be able to control what it does, or what it brings.”

Lucy felt a chill as she waited for her grandmother to continue. She knew there was more.

“And if you can’t control what your power brings forth, then it might end up killing you. It might even kill others.”

Yep, Lucy gulped. There was more. Must stop asking questions!

“Anyhow,” Gram said, flipping through the book. “This volume has a lot to teach you. And even though you find it repulsive, necromancy has helped this family more than you know.

“After your grandfather passed, I was a single mother with a mortgage and a five-year-old little girl to support. So I waited tables at a little diner by day, and made extra money at night raising spirits and animating corpses.”

“Ewww! Now that’s disgusting!”

“It paid off this house and kept my family fed without public assistance or having to marry a man just for support. To me, that’s more than reason enough to have done it.”

“Do you still…”

“No. My power has faded quite a bit over the last decade or so. So it’s good that my child is grown.”

“But why would anyone want to bring the dead back to life?”

“Well,” she said matter-of-factly, “there are as many reasons for it as there are hearts to want it: to ask forgiveness, to say good bye, to find out if the deceased was cheating, or where they hid the insurance policy or the family fortune.”

“Sounds horrible.” Lucy shivered just thinking about it.

“It is.” Gram reached out and took her granddaughter’s hand. “And we animate the dead. We don’t bring them back to life. No matter how life-like they may seem, they are dead.”

“So, the vampire chick—Delia—she’s dead?”

“Technically,” Gram said, looking up to the kitchen’s stucco ceiling, contemplating. “Yes, vampires are dead. They were living, but they die when they are made vampire. Takes longer than you’d think, sometimes more than a week. And then a magic, somewhat like what we use to animate the dead, fills them with something very near life, but just as far removed from life too. Even the pure-bloods.”

“Pure-bloods?”

“That’s a vampire or werewolf that was born that way. There always has to be one or both parents already affected.”

Lucy thought on that for a moment.

“So that’s why I could tell her to let me go.” It started to make a sense that really wasn’t. But it did explain why she’d obeyed, and why each time Lucy had done it she’d felt the life drain out of her. She still felt pretty exhausted, and that was after a solid eight hours of sleep.

“That’s what’s confusing,” Lucy’s grandmother said. “I’ve never heard of a necromancer having any power over a vampire before. It’s interesting.”

“Interesting? Try disturbing.” Lucy drained her coffee mug a bit. “But in the handy sort of way.”

“Indeed.” Her grandmother regarded her with a stern gaze. “And that brings me to how and why you’ve placed yourself in harm’s way?”

“I didn’t do anything to that vamp-chick,” Lucy said, incensed.

Gram raised her eyebrows dramatically. “Didn’t you, dear? You’re voluntarily playing the role of her lover’s fiancée.”

“It was her idea… or so I’ve heard.”

“Yes, but even if she weren’t a supernatural being, she would still have a hard time once she started realizing what all that involved.”

Lucy had to admit, once Gabriel had pulled Delia away from her and she’d heard the resulting angry exchange—and had witnessed the naked (ha, ha) emotional connection the two shared, she actually had kind of understood. And when a vampire can smell the guy you just kissed on you, you can’t really imagine you’d get away with it.

It all just felt so damn confusing.

“I didn’t mean to hurt her…” Lucy looked to her grandmother beseechingly. “And I didn’t want to lie to you.”

“What’s done is done,” Gram said, “but I do want to know why you’ve done all this?”

Tell the truth? Why not? Lucy didn’t have anything more to hide from her grandmother.

“I wanted my old life back.” Just saying the words made a wave of relief fall over her. “I know that’s just shallow and I should be grateful for, well… grateful for everything… but…”

“You don’t feel like yourself anymore.”

Lucy looked to her grandmother, surprised. Did she really understand?

“You don’t recognize yourself anymore, and without those things you used to take for granted, you don’t feel the same inside.” Gram stood up from the table and moved to pour herself another cup of coffee. “I get that. I felt that way after your mother was born. I loved her more than life itself, but having to give up so many things, and my freedom, all to take care of this little baby… it was a shock to my identity. And then Marshal died, and I had to give up even more of myself just to survive.”

Lucy suddenly felt so stupid. She was complaining about losing a car, a line of credit, and her wardrobe. Her grandmother had lost most of her life to fate.

Another reason to be weary of love. Even now, just the word elicited a little shock through her spine.

She could feel tears threatening to spill from her eyes, but she blinked them back. “It wasn’t just the way those things made me feel.” She felt so low, complaining to a woman who’d sacrificed so much for her family—yet she was the only person in the world right then who understood, or even cared to understand how Lucy felt.

“Ever since Daddy was arrested, and we moved here… I’ve felt… no, I know that I’ve lost the future I’d envisioned for myself.” She couldn’t help it as bitter tears fell from her eyes, rolling down her cheeks. “It’s stupid, and… and really selfish…”

Gram had taken her seat at the kitchen table again, reached out and took hold of Lucy’s hand. “No, no child. Mourning those things isn’t stupid or selfish. Those things were as much a part of you as the color of your eyes. And losing your future would devastate anyone.” Gram pulled a small pack of tissues from her pocket and handed them to Lucy. “I’m just sorry you didn’t come to me with this. We would’ve thought of someway. And I don’t like you being involved in an enterprise of this nature. Even without the vampires and werewolves—which you should’ve avoided—trying to pull a con-job on others is always a good way to get hurt.”

“I know that… now. But at the time it seemed the best way.”

“The easiest way, you mean.”

Oh god, she hates me… is she going to tell me I have to stop? I can’t stop. I need this…

“But that’s neither here nor there. What we need to do now is get you through the path you’ve chosen.”

“Really?” Lucy said with too much hopefulness.

“Well, if you think one vampire having it out for you is bad, imagine having her family, and the werewolves having it out for you too.”

Lucy gulped at the thought. She had no idea what Delia’s family were like, but Lucy suddenly had a sinister image of Gabriel’s very large family all wolfing-out and surrounding her. The thought that had entered her mind right after the kiss last night, that if they only knew she was playing them, they’d all hate her. The fact that she’d fallen in love with them immediately coupled with the thought of them turning all fangs and claws, and coming after her for retribution, made her stomach flip over.

“The thought hadn’t occurred to you until now, had it?”

Lucy shot her grandmother with an irritated look. “You’re just so comforting right now.”

They both laughed, even though it didn’t seem to relieve the sick feeling in Lucy’s stomach.

“So, as I was saying, first thing we have to do is keep you moving down the path you’ve chosen… without getting you killed.”

“Again with the comforting words.”

“That means I’ll be expecting him for dinner tonight. Shall we say at six?”

“Expecting who?”

“Why, your werewolf of course.”

Lucy couldn’t believe the cheery expression on her grandmother’s face. “You want me to bring my fiancé—that mom knows nothing about—to dinner?” She lifted her hands and then let them fall to the surface of the table with a disgruntled thump. “Are you crazy?”

Gram looked even more bemused by her granddaughter’s displeasure. “Crazy is such a misunderstood term. I like to think that I march to the beat of my own drummer.” She raised her eyebrows again. “And yes, that’s exactly what I want you to do.”

Lucy shook her head in disbelief. “I don’t even know if he can come… he’s always busy with—”

“I didn’t ask you if he was busy,” her grandmother said in a stern, flat tone. “I said you two will be here for dinner, tonight, at six. Am—I—Clear?”

Lucy gulped. Her grandmother was getting scary. “Yes ma’am.” Lucy was still confused about one thing. “But what about mom and Seth?”

“Your mother is working a double tonight, and your brother is staying over at his… friend’s house. So it will be just you, me, and your wolf.”

My wolf… Lucy felt a warmth bloom in her chest. Gabe being mine…

Lucy closed her eyes tight on the idea. Just the thought of what would happen if psycho-vamp-girl got wind that Lucy was really starting to feel something for Gabriel made her queasy stomach churn even faster.

 

Chapter 14

 

IT HAD TAKEN GABRIEL almost all night to calm Delia down. She was frantic, one moment seeming to believe what he told her, the next she was seething with jealousy and the desire to go kill Lucy.

That thought had affected him far more than he’d been counting on. Sure, it was important to keep Lucy alive and well. Not only instrumental to Delia and his pulling the wool over his parent’s eyes, but she was actually a pretty good person. Even with the gold digging and shallow attachment to high end possessions, she had this quality about her.

At first he’d assumed it was just a meeting of minds. He was completely goal oriented, and even though Lucy’s goals only aligned with his through their little arrangement, he had been truly impressed by her commitment and determination.

And then there was the engagement party and that damn kiss.

Not that it had gone badly. No, not a bit. Their kiss had been more than just convincing… it had been heart-stoppingly real. At least on Gabriel’s part.

He’d felt drawn to her the moment his eyes had taken her in. The blood red dress, the way she moved through the room and how she’d effortlessly charmed everyone… including him.

Sitting back in his chair at Enoch Industries, Gabriel felt guilt and shame mix with the lust he felt for Lucy.

How could he want two women at the same time? What kind of man was he? He wasn’t that kind of guy. No, he certainly hadn’t been. Ever since the night he’d met Delia he’d wanted and loved only her.

But then she had that crazy idea, though it sounded plausible at first. Even though sooner or later someone unsympathetic in the family would have found out and the whole thing would’ve exploded in their faces. Looking back now, maybe it was all just the very worst idea ever.

And now, even though he’d said all those comforting things to Delia, he knew he’d lied. Even though he felt the same about her, his newfound adoration for Lucy was something too powerful to deny.

And he hadn’t been able to give Delia what she’d most wanted. After they’d left the alley, Gabriel had taken her back to her apartment. She’d tried to get him into bed with her, yet he had convinced her that he needed to get back to the party, to smooth the family’s ruffled feathers over him ducking out on the party.

And truthfully, he had wanted to see Lucy again. He wanted it so much that he couldn’t disguise it. He only hoped that Delia wouldn’t pick up on it.

He needed time to think, to weigh what he felt and what he knew, and to figure out what the hell he was doing and going to do. He needed to figure out what he really felt for both Delia and Lucy, and he needed to do it before he saw either one of them again. He couldn’t keep doing this, hurting them and keeping them in the dark. Not that Lucy was in the dark. She’d been a little cold when he returned to the party, but that had only lasted so long. By the time she’d left they were starting to look at each other in that infuriatingly infatuated way again.

He’d wanted to follow her home, to grab her and hold her and kiss her beautiful, pouty lips. But he hadn’t. He’d gone home and tried his best to get some sleep. But what he’d dreamed of fitfully was all Lucy, and he’d woken more than once hungering for her to be beside him, to be in his arms.

Laurel’s voice sang over the intercom. “Your fiancée, line one.”

Gabriel snatched the receiver up so fast he almost dropped it. All his thoughts of trying to distance himself from Lucy until he’d figured things out flew out the window as he said, breathlessly, “Lucy? What can I do for you?”

 

*

 

To Lucy’s utter amazement Gabriel not only sounded happy to hear from her, he jumped at the chance to come to her grandmother’s for dinner. Lucy had a confusing moment where she envisioned Gabe as a cute little puppy, wagging its little puppy tail, and then said puppy morphed into a huge, fur and fang and claws and bulging muscles werewolf. The image was as unsettling as it was exciting.

And then Lucy broke the news that her grandmother knew about him being a werewolf. “And I kind of told her about Delia… and our little arrangement.”

She heard Gabe’s breath hiss through the connection. “You told her!”

“She kind of could smell you and Delia on my clothes.”

“She could smell us?”

“Yeah, and she knew right off what you were, so since the… since the wolf was out of the bag, I sort of just spilled my guts.”

“How was she able to smell us? And how did she know?”

“Long story.” She still wondered about that herself. Would she be able to do that little trick someday? “It’s a thing. So can you still come? I don’t think she’ll take a no on this.”

Lucy couldn’t believe it, but Gabriel laughed. “I wouldn’t miss it. Your grandmother sounds intriguing… and I…” His sudden silence wasn’t very long, but it did have Lucy straining to hear what he said next. “And I’ve been thinking about you.”

Okay… sound the alarms! This wasn’t good. Even though Lucy had been thinking about him all day too, the fact that he was returning the favor made Lucy feel like the earth was shaking beneath her feet. Her heart was thumping fast, and she had a delightful tingling running its way up and down her spine. Yet the feeling that she was stealing something, another woman’s love, it filled her with a clash of guilt.

“Well…” Lucy found herself speechless, even with all the things swirling in her head, things that she wanted to say, things she should say, things that if she had a conscience at all she would say—that he still had a girlfriend.

Still…

Just having that word in that thought made Lucy feel even worse.

“Well Gram will be anxious to meet you. I told you six o’clock, right?”

Gabriel paused before he answered. “You did.”

“Okay then, I’ll see you then.” And Lucy hit the end button on her phone. That wasn’t a bit awkward. Not a bit.

 

*

 

Lucy knew she shouldn’t be so happy that Gabriel was driving all the way to Four Corners just to see her, but she couldn’t deny the thrill that thought evoked in her. Also she couldn’t deny that there was a big goofy smile plastered on her face the entire time she spent getting ready. The effort she put into choosing the right outfit, shoes, makeup and what earrings she’d where—the same pair she had on last night… the same perfume too—said she was way too eager to see him again.

Guilt splashed cold water on her face every time thoughts of Gabe made her a little too happy. She kept trying to remind herself that only a day ago she hadn’t liked Gabriel at all. The thought that she would actually be feeling something warm and gushy for him twenty-four hours later would’ve made her laugh.

But that was yesterday. Unfortunately, Lucy hadn’t felt this sinking, overwhelming guilt yesterday either. Two new, nearly equally matched intense emotions thundered in her head, her chest, and belly, and roiled just under her flesh. It wasn’t funny.

Lucy found herself sitting out on the front porch, trying to inhale enough fresh air to drown out her conflicting emotions. It wasn’t working. She checked her watch: it was twenty minutes after six—He’s late, she thought with more than a little annoyance.

Rich or werewolf or amazingly hot… where does he get off making me wait?

The annoyed feeling was so nostalgically welcome that Lucy embraced it with open arms, and reveled in how it made her feel. A bit of the old Lucy…the entitled Lucy.

And then a really expensive looking car rolled down the block toward Lucy’s house: a midnight blue Jaguar XP. It swung into the vacant space at the front of the house. Lucy wasn’t surprised to see Gabriel climb out of the driver’s seat. What did surprise her was how her annoyance with him vanished in the blink of an eye, replaced instead with an intense, rather enjoyable tingling that played up her spine, settled in the back of her neck, and then started to give off heat.

She stood and watched Gabriel throw on his sport jacket, and walk up the sidewalk to the porch steps. The look in his eyes as he looked up at Lucy didn’t help at all. There was definite heat, and hunger in those dark, melted chocolate eyes. And he was very happy to see her. She knew the look well, and would never have thought Gabriel would ever be beaming it at her. But she also wouldn’t have imagined that that look would make her skin turn hot enough to make her yearn for a bucket of ice.

Wonder if he’d rub some ice over my skin? Lucy found Gabriel smiling up at her, and she suddenly wanted to be the one rubbing ice over his flesh. Or maybe my tongue…

“Am I late?” he finally asked.

Lucy shook her head, feeling a little dizzy as she stared into his eyes. “Gram just put the rolls in the oven, so you’re… good.”

He licked his lips, unconsciously, but it made Lucy’s knees shake. She wanted to taste those lips again, and the look on his face said he was thinking the same thing. She was in trouble and sinking fast.

And then an annoying thought crossed her mind. Sure, they had that one really hot kiss, and it was just last night… and he’d risked his rather pretty hide to save her from his homicidal girlfriend—but how could he be looking at her the way he was, after what he’d said to Delia? They weren’t just words, but a declaration of love.

At least they should have been. They had sounded so sincere. They had felt so true when he’d said them to Delia. So true and so real that Lucy had felt the sting of jealousy. And yet there he was, looking at Lucy with just as much affection—maybe more?—and she found herself wondering what kind of guy could… could… the mere act of trying to identify the lecherous way he was behaving towards both of them was pissing her off.

What kind of ass is this guy? What kind of man could profess his love to one girl and the next day be giving another girl the eye? What kind of man is he?

She turned in a huff and walked back into the house, leaving him standing there at the bottom of the porch stairs. She hoped that he couldn’t enter the house without an invitation, even if he wasn’t a vampire, and she really didn’t know if that bit of Buffy folklore was true, but she hoped it was.

“He’s here, Gram!” she hollered toward the kitchen, heading up the stairs. She was no longer in the mood to look pretty for Gabriel Enoch. She yanked and pulled her dress off and then slid into the pair of jeans she’d been wearing earlier and slipped on a pair of flip-flops. Maybe the slapping sound they made when she walked would piss Gabriel off!

Then Lucy rummaged through her closet until she found what she was looking for: her Team Edward T-shirt. Pulling it on over her head she smiled naughtily at the implication, checking out the effect appraisingly in her full length mirror. She pulled her hair back into a casual ponytail.

There, she looked at herself in the mirror. Let him get all excited about this.

 

*

 

Lucy padded down the stairs, her flip-flops making their most spectacularly irritating sounds. She was certain if Gabriel was in the house, he’d probably be in the living room. That’s where guys like him lounged. And that’s where her sainted grandmother would insist on him relaxing while she finished preparing dinner. So, Lucy headed straight for the kitchen. Maybe she could still talk her grandmother into fixing sloppy-joes.

But when she walked into her grandmother’s warm, well-worn kitchen she found Gabriel at the kitchen sink, his sport coat hanging on the back of a kitchen chair, the sleeves of his hundred dollar silk dress-shirt rolled-up, doing dishes. He was chatting with her grandmother about some bizarre historical fact about the town of Four Corners, while Lilly was mixing up her homemade gravy.

Lucy noticed how really happy they seemed, just standing there talking. She then noticed the stunning arrangement of daisies, columbine, and tiger lilies sitting in the center of her grandmother’s table, in her best crystal vase. Lucy hadn’t noticed he was holding flowers. They couldn’t have been for her—he would’ve given them to her as soon as he saw her standing there.

Now, looking at the arrangement, she had a good feeling that he’d bought them precisely for her grandmother. Wild flowers were her favorite, especially those three kinds. So he’d come with gifts to placate her grandmother. And, to Lucy’s horror, it seemed to be working.

Lucy gave herself a mental head slap and tried to shake off her animosity. She really shouldn’t be trying to make her grandmother dislike Gabriel. No matter how she felt about him—and truthfully, those feelings were changing every time she turned around. She’d practically fallen over into his arms when he walked up to the porch, and then not twenty seconds later she’d wanted to slug him… or maybe key his car. But now, looking at how great he was being with her grandmother, she was starting to feel all warm and tingly about him again.

She even thought about turning around and going back upstairs to change back into her previous ensemble. Yet just then her grandmother turned around and saw her standing there and said, “Well, there you are! I had to…” She took a good look at Lucy’s clothes, and her words came out in slow erratic bursts as she looked Lucy over. “Well, I… had to let… Mr. Enoch here in… but I could have sworn you were waiting for him on the porch.”

“I was,” Lucy said in a flat tone. Gabriel turned his head enough to flash Lucy a quizzical smile, and there was some heat in his gaze.

“Oh,” Gram said as she shook her head. Obviously trying to figure out why Lucy had changed her clothes was more than she was up for. She turned and beamed a wide, brilliant smile at Gabriel.

“Now stop washing those dishes. Dinner’s ready to be served.” She strained the gravy she’d been mixing into a gravy boat and held it out to Gabriel. “If you want to help, take this out for me and place it on the dining room table. There are hot pads already down. Just put it on top of one.”

Gabriel dried his hands on a dishtowel then took the gravy boat out of Lillian’s hands, walking off to the dining room.

“What a nice young man.” Lucy stood there in stunned silence as she watched her grandmother fan herself with a small cutting board. She was flushed and looked about ten years younger.

“Oh my god… Gram!”

“What?” Lillian said, giving Lucy a surprised glance at her outburst, then turning her attentions back in the direction Gabriel had taken.

“You’re not seriously drooling over my… my…”—well, what exactly was he?—“my fake fiancé?”

Gram scoffed, but she was still fanning herself. “I’m old, not dead.”

“This evening could not be more disturbing.” Lucy took a glass from the cupboard then poured herself some pink lemonade from the fridge.

“So you’re disturbed by him.” It wasn’t a question. “Is it him, or what he is?”

“You’re not helping.” Lucy put the cold glass to her forehead and breathed. She just needed a minute to think.

“I could send him to the store two blocks over for some milk. That would take him at least five, ten minutes.” She was just a little too pleased with herself.

Lucy shot her a scathing look. “I’m fine. He can stay. And you can quit with the interrogation.”

Gram just grinned. That grin said way too many things, in Lucy’s opinion.

Dinner was great. Gram had outdone herself: braised beef roast, glazed carrots, string beans, garlic mashed potatoes made from scratch, and fresh baked rolls. Lucy noticed that Gabriel had two helpings of everything. She could tell from her grandmother’s expression that that pleased her plenty.

Conversation was surprisingly light. Just about the weather, some more about Four Corner’s suddenly fascinating history, and a couple questions about where his family came from originally: Both his parents’ families came from Romania, having immigrated to the west two generations before Gabriel was born.

Lucy thought about the little story Jonas Enoch had told her about how he and Gabriel’s mother had fallen in love. She couldn’t imagine what their parents were like. She just couldn’t picture it. Vivian Enoch had seemed like she was born the way she was—fully formed and cold as ice.

Gram had Lucy help her clear the dinner plates, insisting Gabriel remain seated while they brought out coffee and dessert—a magnificent chocolate-chocolate cake. It wasn’t until they’d finished eating the last bites of their desserts that Gram dropped all pretenses and dropped the other shoe, so to speak.

“So wolf.” Gabriel looked up from his coffee and met Gram’s gaze. They both looked very serious. Lucy was just about to interrupt when her grandmother continued. “How far, exactly, are you prepared to go with this?”

Gabriel almost smiled, tilting his head as he studied Lucy’s grandmother.

“I see you’re committed to this ruse—pulling the wool over your family’s eyes—just so you can be with your vampire lover.” She sat forward in her chair just enough that Lucy thought she was going to throw something. “What I’m wondering is, are you just as committed to keeping my granddaughter safe?”

Gabriel’s brown eyes softened. “I will let nothing and no one hurt Lucy.”

No small thrill swam up into Lucy, like a bird taking flight in her chest, hearing him pledge himself to her safety.

“Does that mean protecting her from your creature-of-the-night girlfriend too?” Gram said pointedly.

Gabriel didn’t move a muscle. He didn’t even seem to be breathing. But his entire body seemed to sag almost imperceptibly. But Lucy noticed, and her heart sank with the sting his silence evoked in her.

She closed her eyes and these thoughts rushed through her mind. What was I thinking? Why did I think he’d choose me over her? Why the hell is Gram dragging all this up in the first place? And finally: Why am I falling in love with a man like this?

Lucy opened her eyes when she heard Gabriel’s halting answer.

“I don’t want to hurt Delia… I never planned on… on having these feelings for Lucy…” He closed his eyes this time, just for a moment, but Lucy could tell he was being torn up inside. Conflict made his youthful features appear much older than he was. “I’m just not ready to… to choose. I never thought I would be having these feelings for two people, not at the same time… and I never expected to feel like this for a human.”

What a prince…

But another part of Lucy was hanging onto every word like they were the lyrics to her favorite freaking song.

“But will you protect my daughter from harm—even if that danger comes from your beloved? I think she deserves to know that you will keep her safe, since she is technically your employee, and obviously more than that from the look on you handsome face… and the kiss she told me you two shared last night.” Gabriel suddenly blushed. “You know, at the engagement party I wasn’t invited to.”

Lucy rolled her eyes. Gram is never going to let me live that down, is she?

Gabriel’s gaze stayed on Lucy’s grandmother for what seemed like forever, and then it moved to Lucy. “I pledge my life to her safety.” Lucy felt a knot of nervous tension build in her stomach. “I will not let anyone or anything harm her. This I swear.”

Lucy gulped as she felt her face flush this time. Her hands were shaking as she nervously fumbled with her empty coffee cup.

“Well, now,” Gram chirped as she stood and picked up her cup and the empty plates. “Now that that’s all settled, I think I’ll go to bed… let you two have some private time to… talk.” She moved from the room with a graceful speed that didn’t seem natural.

But Lucy didn’t take time to ponder her grandmother’s other-natured-ness. She already had someone with a definite otherness sitting right across from her, and the way Gabriel was looking at her, she felt like a doe being hunted by the big bad wolf. Or was that Little Red Riding Hood?

She could swear the expression on his face was saying, “I wonder what she would taste like?”

Lucy stood up, bumping the dining room table hard enough with her knee to cause a sharp pain shoot through her entire leg. Good work, Grace. Nothing looks better than limping away to safety. Lucy suddenly flashed back to a Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom moment where a silver wolf pounced on a fleeing fluffy white bunny, jaws clamping down on the rabbit’s soft fur, the life evaporating immediately from the poor thing’s entire body.

How tempting would she look if she tried limping away? Lucy hoped he’d filled up on her grandmother’s cooking. She turned and tried not to hobble as she beat a steady path toward the front door. She needed some air. And what better way to get him to leave than to lure him outside?

It worked… a little too well. He moved to follow her so quickly that he ended up holding the door open for her as she exited to the porch. Lucy gasped, feeling a quick, startled jolt crackle through her body. She forced herself to breathe, and she forced herself to keep walking. She gulped the cool evening air as she moved toward the porch railing. She had to keep it together. He’d said he had feelings for her, which made her feel like she was going to burst into lustful flames any moment. But there was the other part, the part where he couldn’t choose between her and the vampire.

That really shook her to the core. Of course he’d known Delia far longer, and he did love her—Lucy had a front-row-center seat for that fact—but he’d said he would protect her from Delia, no matter what. And that made her feel even more confused. On the one hand he would risk his life for her. But he was risking her life so he could be with his vampire girlfriend. Not to mention Lucy still had a huge honking problem with him being in love, or whatever he was feeling for her, with two women.

That alone makes him… Lucy couldn’t decide on the right word: a letch, a jerk, a monster?—he already was one of those. Or did it simply mean he was a man?

“Penny for your thoughts,” Gabriel said, standing mere inches away from her. She turned and saw the concern darkening his features again.

“I don’t think you really want to know.”

He let out a breath, and that breath tickled the side of Lucy’s neck, making her shiver enjoyably.

This is just a job, she tried to tell herself. No matter what, what she wanted more than anything was to get her old life back. Right?

Gabe took hold of her shoulders and turned her to face him.

Riiight…

“Why are you always touching me?” She sounded suddenly very tired. “It’s nice, but it confuses me.”

Gabriel’s expression changed from concerned to a rather wicked smile. “So you like when I touch you?”

Crap! Did I just say that? Lucy shook her head.

“So, you don’t like it when I touch you.”

“No. I mean yes! Oh, I don’t know what—”

Just then Gabriel leaned in, pushing her bottom up against the porch railing, then very slowly he lowered his face until their lips were practically touching. He whispered softly, his lips grazing hers. “Did you like it when I kissed you last night?”

Lucy’s head was swimming, and her heart was pounding hard in her chest—the chest heaving with excited breath, pressed against Gabriel’s very broad, very warm chest.

“Yes,” she said breathlessly.

“Would you like me to do it again?” he asked, yet he didn’t get an answer; at least not a verbal one. Lucy threw her arms around his neck and crushed her lips against his, pulling him against her, their combined weight making the railing of the old porch creak. All of a sudden Lucy wasn’t thinking about Gabriel belonging to someone else, she forgot that only moments ago she’d been pissed at him, and that among other things, his words in the dining room had also hurt. She didn’t care about anything except how good Gabriel tasted, how wonderful his lips felt against her own, not to mention how having his body pressed against hers felt. There wasn’t a word to describe that, at least not one Lucy could think of.

Inside, Lucy had been ready for him to kiss her, even though moments before she had been literally running from the prospect. She hadn’t expected to attack him with her lips. It didn’t make sense. She never did things like that. She never had to—guys usually couldn’t help themselves, so they always made the first move. But just being so close to Gabriel, having his lips so close, his scent enveloping her senses so completely—and he shouldn’t have been teasing her like that!

There was a lot of movement: hands roaming, lips sliding, tongues searching and tasting and rubbing together… and then there was the way his body moved against hers. It made her shudder.

Gabriel pulled himself away first, pushing Lucy back by the shoulders, disconnecting their lips and putting a sudden, very unwelcome distance between them.

“We have to stop,” he groaned between gasps of air.

That was… nice… Lucy was about to ask why they had to stop, yet when she opened her eyes and looked into his eyes she saw not only red hot longing there, but also something lurking, sliding behind his eyes and peering out hungrily at her: the wolf.

“Maybe you’re right,” she croaked. Part of her wanted to go further, to have his beast come out to play, to devour her. But most of her was terrified and wanted to run back in the house and lock the door. Does Gram have a shotgun in the house? Maybe some silver bullets?

Gabriel’s eyes cooled off and he took another step back, letting go of Lucy’s shoulders. She felt a shiver as a cool wind whipped around her, taking away all the heat Gabriel had generated. He suddenly looked really hurt. “You’re scared of me.”

Lucy shook her head, wanting suddenly to deny it, but she was shaking and her voice cracked when she tried to speak.

“I’m sorry Luce,” he said, rubbing the back of his neck. “I’m not doing any of this right.”

Lucy liked him calling her Luce. It made a welcome warmth spread from her heart out into the rest of her body. “I don’t know what the hell I’m doing here either.” She moved toward him and wrapped her arms up under his arms, hugging herself against his still heaving chest, just inhaling him and listening to the beating of his heart. “So, don’t feel too bad.”

“Actually,” Gabriel whispered, “I feel pretty good.”

Lucy smiled at the compliment and snuggled her cheek against the warm silk covering his chest. “You do feel pretty good.”

He laughed, and Lucy liked the way it sounded, and how he felt in her arms as his torso lurched—the muscles there quivering as they contracted and relaxed. Finally, after a long still moment of enjoying their embrace, Gabriel said he really should leave, that he had an early meeting in the morning. Reluctantly, Lucy let him go and watched as he moved away, looking more awkward than she’d ever seen him as he rubbed the back of his neck in consternation. He stumbled as he took to the porch steps, and caught himself on the railing and jumped back up on the porch.

“I forgot my jacket.” He was grinning and blushing beautifully. “Oh, and I have something for you.” He dashed through the screen door, and amazingly enough he was back at the door with his sport coat in hand before the door had slammed shut.

Okay, Lucy shivered. Super human strength and [speed—this is just getting more disturbing.
__]Gabe reached into the breast pocket of his jacket and removed a long thin box. “I brought you a present.”

“I love presents,” she said, practically vibrating with excitement. It was an eight by two inch black velvet box. A necklace? Lucy guessed, but then he opened it and she had to look really hard to identify what was inside: a knife. Correction, a six inch, shiny and sharp as hell looking blade with a liquidy looking mother of pearl handle.

“I can already tell you I have nothing that will go with that,” Lucy said. Gabriel looked confused. “Sorry, bad joke. So you’re giving me a weapon for a present?”

“Actually,” Gabriel plucked the blade from the box and then pulled something that looked suspiciously like a silk and lace g-string from underneath—a very tiny, nearly non-existent one at that. “This is a two part gift.”

“Call it a present!” Lucy snapped unexpectedly. She flashed back to the last gift she’d received—raising a dead dog on the side of the interstate. Gabriel was looking at her uncertainly. “I just don’t like that word. You know, ‘gift’.” She took a deep breath and plastered a smile on her face. “It’s a thing.” And now he thinks I’m crazy…

Gabriel continued with a confused little smile on his lips. “It’s almost pure silver—with just enough iron to keep it from breaking. More than pure enough to incapacitate and even kill most supernatural beings. Werewolves, vamps,”—It kills vampires? Lucy looked at the blade again with renewed interest—“Shifters, demons… well, most of the things that you might run into while you’re in my company… except fairies.”

“Fairies!” Lucy laughed. “You mean I have to be afraid of Tinkerbell?”

“The kind that forge weapons like this one?” Gabriel moved the blade in his hand so the moonlight glinted from its blade. “Yeah, those kinds of fairies are human sized, as strong as, if not stronger than, most monsters, and they’re very hard to kill. Only a pure iron sword wielded with enormous strength and skill would do the trick.”

Lucy didn’t like the way his eyes gleamed as he said that. Had he fought a fairy? If so, he’d obviously enjoyed it. She tried not to feel scared all over again, but she couldn’t help it.

She clamped her attention on what else was in Gabriel’s hands. She took his hand, not wanting to touch the lacey little garment, but found touching Gabriel’s hot flesh more than distracting. She played it off though, even though he was looking down into her eyes with undisguised hunger.

“I don’t know if this is some sacred ceremonial g-string thingy, but you can just count me out on wearing it.”

Gabriel laughed one harsh bark. “No… no…” he said, “the blade is for protection. This is for concealment. It’s a sheath.” He slid the knife into the thin, lacey sheath and then gently took Lucy’s arm and tied the thing to her forearm. His fingers tickled her as he tied the little straps.

“So much for concealment,” Lucy said holding her arm up to show Gabriel. But then the sheath and the blade shimmered, there was a slight tingling sensation, and then it just disappeared. Lucy gasped and ran her hand over where it had been. She felt nothing.

“That thing didn’t just melt into me, did it?”

Gabriel raised his eyebrows. “Interesting guess… but no. Both were made by fairies, and both have their own magical qualities. The blade itself has an enchantment that brings it back to the sheath if it is lost—either in battle or by accident… or if it was stolen. But that’s only if you still possess the sheath.”

He took her hand, and ran his other hand over the flesh of her forearm. “The sheath obviously has a concealment charm. Not just invisibility. It truly disappears completely when worn, and no one will know it’s there—you won’t even be able to tell it’s there—until you call to it.”

“I’m going to call it to me?”

“Either verbally or mentally.”

The sensations Gabriel’s fingers were causing as they stroked the flesh of Lucy’s forearm were starting to make her squirm with pleasure. She pulled her arm from his grasp, gulping, taking a deep breath and then stepping back a step.

“So, does it have a name?”

“As long as you wear the sheath, whatever you call it, it will appear. It will know what you mean.”

Lucy held up her arm, turning it so she could see where it had been. She smiled. “Mr. Winkie, come to me.” Immediately she felt it, but she still couldn’t see it. She shot Gabriel with a questioning look, her hand finding the still invisible sheath.

“Until you withdraw the weapon, it will only be detectable to you.”

She grasped the handle of the blade and pulled it out. Instantly it flashed back to its shiny, menacingly sharp prior form. And the sheath was now visible too. She held the blade in her hand, and even though she didn’t know how to use it, it really did feel like it was made for her.

“Wicked,” she said, catching her reflection in the polished silver. “I usually never wear silver—white gold and platinum are more my style—but this is… gorgeous.”

“I’ll teach you how to use it later. But you could still do some damage with it.” Gabriel’s face fell a little, and Lucy could tell he was torn for some reason. And then she realized he’d just given her something that could kill his girlfriend.

It made everything more complicated, and way too serious. Lucy slid the blade back into the sheath, and the moment her fingers lost contact the sheath and knife evaporated again in a shimmer, and with a tiny tingle.

Gabriel was looking at her arm, and she could tell he wanted to reach out and touch her again. She wanted him to, god, did she want him to touch her again, but she was afraid they wouldn’t be able to stop touching each other if he did. And she was still feeling a little too much like the entrée… or maybe the dessert.

Gabriel looked like he was trying to mentally shake a thought out of his head, and when he looked up into Lucy’s eyes again he looked more in control—cool, calm, not remotely ready to devour her. “I should go.”

Lucy nodded agreement and watched as Gabriel slowly moved away from her, his gaze staying with her until he descended the porch steps and began walking toward the street. Suddenly he stopped and looked back up at Lucy.

“Nice T-shirt, by the way.”

Lucy looked down at the Team Edward shirt she’d worn out of spite and cringed.

Crap!

Gabriel turned and headed out to the street. A moment later his pretty midnight blue Jaguar roared to life and sped down the road and out of sight.

Lucy let out the breath she hadn’t know she was holding, and felt her body relax. She was relieved he had left, but she was disappointed too. She brought her hand to her face, feeling the heat where she’d been blushing non-stop for the last hour or so, and let her finger play across her lips—where his lips had been. She walked slowly into the house. No, my life isn’t complicated at all.

 

Chapter 15

 

LUCY stretched out on her bed. Not that it was anywhere near as soft as her old mattress, but now, after all these months, it was her bed. It was such a relief to know, no matter what she was going through, had gone through, or what kind of monster was trying to kill her, that her bed in her room—and this little room in her grandmother’s house was now truly her room—was a true refuge. Often she fell deeply asleep the instant her head touched the pillow.

But not this night.

This night there came a tap at her bedroom window. Lucy’s first thought, Delia…

But both Gabe and Vin had promised her that Delia was incapacitated. So the cold shiver that passed through her body was just needless worry. But then she thought of Gabe. How strong he was, how beautiful (was it okay to think of a guy as beautiful?) and how just looking at him anymore was making her entire body heat up, was even making her heart beat like the wings of a hummingbird.

Another rap on the window. Since Lucy’s room was on the second floor, either someone was tossing pebbles up at her window, or they were floating high enough off the ground they could just knock. Lucy was hoping it wasn’t someone floating. Of course, Lucy didn’t know if vampires could float… she hadn’t asked.

Cautiously Lucy slipped out of her nice comfortable bed and padded barefoot over to the window, taking a steeling breath… or three, before flinging the curtains aside. She hopped back as the curtains fluttered and she saw nothing floating outside her window. With a heated little thrill she hoped it was Gabe. Just the thought that it was him made part of her shudder and she giggled as she pulled the window up and looked down to the earth below.

But it wasn’t Gabe, and it wasn’t a psychopathic blonde vampire trying to kill her. Standing there on her grandmother’s lawn was Abbey Adams. Her pink and black hair was done up into two pompom sized ponytails on the top of her head. Her pale skin was accented by the dark multicolored eye shadows and blushes that decorated her face. And as usual she was dressed like a rock star… a punk-rock rock star. Her lipstick was black and made her smile practically glow up at Lucy.

“I need your help,” Abbey said, fidgeting and switching her weight from five inch platform boot to five inch platform boot.

Lucy looked at her alarm clock and furrowed her brow at Abbey. “It’s quarter till midnight.”

Abbey shrugged. “Then we’ve got like fifteen minute to do this.” She was giving Lucy that look smart people sometimes give her, like she needs to catch up. But having that look come from Abbey was just funny/cute.

“Do what?” Lucy asked, leaning out the window and smiling at Abbey.

Abbey looked to her right and then to her left, then she looked back up to Lucy mysteriously. “A spell.”

 

*

 

Lucy slipped on a pair of jeans and a UCLA sweatshirt she’d picked up a couple weeks ago, when she’d decided that she would indeed be going to college. She wasn’t real sure which school she’d pick, but she’d liked the sweatshirt the instant she’d looked at it. It took the place of the Stanford shirt her father had given her. When the Feds took it with all her other belongings it had literally felt like they were stealing her future away from her.

She pulled on a pair of Sketchers and took a look at herself in the mirror she’d installed in her room. Her face was still freshly scrubbed looking, but her hair was a bit bushy from lying in bed. She ran a quick brush through it and then tied it back with a hair scrunchy.

It might be the middle of the night, but she wasn’t about to go out looking like the monster from the black lagoon.

Lucy suddenly wondered if the monster from the black lagoon was real. After all, so far two movie monsters had turned out to be not only real, but alive and kicking… well, the living dead in the case of vampires.

Or undead… Lucy remembered hearing someone saying Undead Americans once. Had it been a book or a movie… or on TV? Buffy the Vampire Slayer maybe?

Lucy shook the thought off. No use thinking of dark, slimy monsters when you were about to venture out into the dark, shadowy night.

Abbey waited for Lucy outside her back door, sitting on the porch steps, her arms clasped about her like she was cold.

“Do you want a sweater or something? You look kinda cold.”

Abbey stood and shook her head, making her ponytails shake. “I’m fine. We’ve gotta go if this is going to work.” And Abbey turned and started walking briskly towards the woods behind Lucy’s house.

Lucy jogged to catch up, and then caught the fiercely serious look on her friend’s face.

“Why the dire face?” Lucy said, falling into step with Abbey. “And what kind of spell are you going to do?”

“We… we’re going to try a spell.” Abbey led Lucy into the trees. She tripped on a tree root but caught herself on a tree trunk and kept going. A moment later they were free of the trees and in a small clearing. There in front of them was a high iron gate, the kind you see in scary movies—every iron bar of the gate was capped with a sharp looking Fleur de lys. Abbey ducked down and slid through a gap in the rails of the gate. Lucy looked around nervously, but then ducked down too, squeezing through the bars.

Once on the other side of the gate Lucy lost Abbey for an instant in the misty fog. But with a few hasty steps she found herself not only caught up with Abbey, but surrounded by long rows of head stones. They were in a cemetery.

This is so turning into a B horror movie. Lucy stopped, shaking her head. “No offense, Abbey, but I’m not up for this whole spooky trip you’re taking me on. I’ve had a really hard week.”

Abbey turned around but kept walking backwards. She had her arms held out imploringly. “I swear, this is so important. I wouldn’t be asking if it weren’t.” There were tears in her eyes, making them glisten in the moonlight.

Against the insistent feeling she kept getting that she should turn and walk away—or was that turn and run away?—Lucy took a deep breath and said, “Okay,” then started to jog through the strange cemetery to catch up with her friend again. She just couldn’t stand that look in Abbey’s eyes—desperation. She knew the feeling, unfortunately, and since Abbey was truly her only real friend, she just couldn’t let her down.

It was probably just some chanting thing, maybe an embarrassing little dance under the moon and stars.

It occurred to Lucy that she had actually never physically been in a graveyard. She was eighteen years old and yet she had never been anywhere near one of these places. Sure, relatives had died—Daddy’s father, one of his brothers, and an ancient aunt from her mother’s side of the family. But both her mother and father had always insisted that neither she nor Seth had to go.

Weird, she thought, now walking in the moonlit night, surrounded by a crush of headstones.

Something… a tingle, or a chill, rippled through her body as if it were coming right out of the ground. Almost like a weak electrical charge coming through her feet.

She stopped, momentarily dazed, and looked around her. She could swear something palpable, something almost visible, was rippling outward from her. Tentatively she reached out her hands, and even though she wasn’t touching the ground, she could feel a cold, dank energy flowing through her fingers with little electric shocks.

Wow, Lucy thought as she turned around on the spot, looking at the ground and then feeling a pull, something literally tugging at her, pulling at her gut like a cramp… no, not a cramp. More like that feeling you get when you’re on a roller coaster, and your belly flips over.

“Lucy… what’s the matter?” Abbey was walking back toward her, eyes worried. Or was it fear?

“I-I don’t know.” Lucy touched the spot on her stomach were that feeling of being pulled at was coming from. It was getting stronger. And, to Lucy’s dismay, she was starting to feel hungry. As if whatever was pulling at her was something she was yearning for—and had always been hungry for.

Abbey reached out and took her gently by the arm. Lucy could swear Abbey jerked, as if she were feeling what Lucy was feeling. She let go of her, looking at her own hand like there was something clinging to her flesh.

Why does everyone do that? Lucy tried to say something, but just then she realized what was pulling at her: the dead.

She closed her eyes and tried to force out that sickening thought, but that just made the sensation worse. It was like no matter where she was trying to drag her mind, there was something cold and dead—and inviting—calling to her. And they were reaching back, trying to pull her to them.

Abbey grabbed her again, this time hard, as she pulled her along with her. “It’s not far… and time’s almost up.”

“I can’t,” Lucy rasped as she tripped along after Abbey. “I think something’s wrong!”

“Nothing’s wrong!” Abbey practically sobbed. “Everything will be fine. We’ve just got to get there… before it’s too late.”

Moving faster seemed to help, as if the dead couldn’t quite get a grip on her if she was moving fast enough. “Where are we going?” Lucy said, but suddenly she knew. Right in front of them a head stone had long, thick white candles atop it, and in the middle was what looked like a picture frame.

Abbey stopped right before the headstone, pulled a lighter from her pocket and lit the two candles. Between the moonlight and the dim candlelight, Lucy could make out a handsome couple, not much younger than her own parents, peering out from the frame, looking adoringly into the camera.

Lucy looked down and read the names on the stone.

James and Julie Adams. Beloved and Missed.

They had died two years ago.

“I took this picture,” Abbey said, her hand shaking as her finger caressed the shiny black of the frame. “We were so happy.”

“I’m sorry.” Lucy couldn’t believe it. She’d just assumed Abbey was living with her grandmother because her parents were getting a divorce. She had never even thought they were dead; hadn’t thought to even ask.

“Don’t be sorry.” Abbey swiped at the tears that were streaking her mascara. “Your grandma and mine both couldn’t, or wouldn’t, help me.”

“What?”

Abbey smiled bitterly, turning to face Lucy. “My Gram’s a witch, yours is a necromancer.”

“I-I don’t know where…” Lucy began to deny it, but the look on Abbey’s face said it all. The jig was up. “You know?” Then another thought crossed Lucy’s mind. “Did you know before I met you? Like, is that why you became my friend?”

“God, no,” Abbey sobbed. “I’m your friend. I just guessed that you had your grandma’s power, though hers is pretty much just a glimmer of what it used to be… nothing much at all compared to yours.”

“I can’t really do anything.”

Abbey rolled her eyes.

“Okay, I have done a couple things, but they were creepy, and I had no control over it. I don’t think I can actually do anything on purpose.”

Abbey’s head drooped, her chin bending into her chest as a tear formed on her chin and dropped onto her black T-shirt. Abbey sniffled and then looked back up, shaking her head. “All you have to do—” she reached out and grabbed Lucy’s hand, something sharp biting into her palm, “is forgive me.”

Suddenly the pain in her hand was nothing. What she felt was like the weight of the world tugging her by the guts down to the ground. She fell to her knees, one hand still clutched in Abbey’s grasp, the other tried to hold herself up from being crushed to the ground. Even with the pain, she could feel things. Somehow she knew, could feel, that her blood and Abbey’s were mingling together, their two powers mixing—and that Abbey was directing Lucy’s horrible power, focusing its flow straight down into the graves of her mother and father.

Lucy felt Abbey’s parents jerk as their bodies filled with her power… was it life? Was it their spirits? Lucy couldn’t tell, and before she could look deeper she felt herself being pulled in a hundred different directions. It was excruciating, and confusing, and made her stomach lurch.

One moment she realized she was screaming like someone was killing her, the next moment the contents of her stomach were being disgorged through her mouth and splattering on the dried out grass of the graveyard.

“Come back to me,” Abbey cried out, her voice shaking with grief and terror. “Mom… Dad… I need you to come back to me… I can’t do this, I can’t live any longer without you!”

And like a tidal wave, Lucy and Abbey’s power burst from them and into the ground, and then it blasted back up at them both, knocking them back five or more feet. Lucy smacked her head on the cold ground, which was better than on a grave stone, but it still hurt, and the dizzy, blacking-out feeling didn’t mix well with all the other nauseating, gut wrenching pain, and electrical shocks that were still surging though her body and mind.

Lucy just lay there for a moment, feeling the power wash out of her body and seep into the ground around her. The earth was cold beneath her, yet she was covered in sweat. Her mind was still electrified, and she could feel things all around her moving, encroaching toward her. She leaned up and pulled herself onto her knees, looking around her, expecting to see things running at her. But nothing stirred, not even Abbey.

She lay there on her back, not moving, her eyes closed. Lucy crawled over to her and shook her, calling out her name, though her voice was hoarse. No response. She felt for a pulse and thankfully found one, then leaned down until she could hear her breathing.

Thank god. Lucy looked around, felt in her pockets for her phone—it wasn’t there! She’d forgotten it. Damn it! She felt the pockets of Abbey’s black cargo pants; lots of pockets, but no bulges big enough to be a phone.

I’ve got to get her out of here, Lucy told herself. She just had to choose: go and get help, or try and drag Abbey’s unconscious body to safety. She felt like she’d been hit by a truck, but she so didn’t want to leave Abbey there alone. Not with what had just happened. Who knew what was coming? And truthfully, she didn’t want to come back to this place for anything.

So Lucy stood up, feeling her head pounding and pitching on top of her shoulders. She held her head for a moment until the world stopped spinning. A few deep breaths and she opened her eyes. The night fog had cleared a little, but she still couldn’t see the perimeter of the graveyard. Which way had they come in?

Crap!

She leaned down to grab Abbey under the arms when she heard a crack, the kind like a limb getting split off a tree by lightning. Lucy gulped and looked up. There directly in front of her was a hand covered in dirt and clumps of grass, sticking out of the grave of James and Julie Adams.

 

*

 

Lucy felt a cold stabbing fear in her gut. It wasn’t that horrible pulling feeling anymore. No, this was pure, undiluted fear. If she weren’t so tired she might’ve screamed, she might’ve turned and ran, right then, forgetting about Abbey lying unconscious and defenseless at her feet. But she was both exhausted and acutely aware of what was going on around her.

It was a chaotic mess. It wasn’t just Abbey’s parents digging themselves out of their graves, the cemetery was vibrating with activity—not life… just two hundred corpses rising, clawing their way out of their coffins.

Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit!

And if the rather nasty state of James and Julie Adams freshly animated corpses was any indication of what was to come crawling out of the rest of the graves, Lucy was glad she’d already thrown up the contents of her stomach.

Covered in dirt, stitches clearly holding her flesh together, Mrs. Adam’s head had obviously separated from her shoulders, the stitches bulging since her entire head lolled to the side. They hadn’t bothered trying to stabilize or reinforce the neck. Lucy hoped, for Abbey’s sake, that the funeral had been closed casket.

Mr. Adams had had the top of his skull chopped off, and they had simply stapled it back on top of his head. And as he stepped out of his grave, his suit wrinkled and caked with soil, Lucy saw that his left leg was crooked—probably broken during the accident.

Lucy couldn’t keep her eyes on Mr. and Mrs. Adams. It wasn’t their disturbing appearance… it was that corpses were breaking through the ground all around her. Some faster than others, some almost completely skeletal, some almost looked like they were in good enough shape they could’ve passed for living. Must have been gentle deaths, and the embalming procedure had frozen them that way.

But most were stooped, rotting bags of mottled flesh, oozing fluids and eyes bulging or drooping out of their sockets.

Lucy fell to her knees beside Abbey, trying to shake her awake. If they ran they might have a chance.

Are they zombies? If they are, will they eat us? Lucy cried out Abbey’s name. Or just our brains?

Suddenly Abbey’s eyes snapped open, she gasped and brought her arm up over her face, moaning. And then she was screaming. She’d caught sight of a zombie crawling out of his grave—there was only half of him left. She scrambled to her feet, spinning around, gasping between screams, looking to Lucy, her terrified eyes barely registering her. But then she just stopped screaming, stopped moving, wasn’t even breathing for a moment.

“Momma… Daddy?” She gasped and gulped breath as she started to stagger toward her parents’ animated corpses.

Oh god. Lucy reached out and tried to grab Abbey, caught her elbow and dragged her back to her. Abbey tried to push Lucy away, but Lucy wouldn’t let go. Abbey turned on her and pushed again. “Let go of me!”

“Abbey, we’ve got to get out of here!” Lucy tried to pull her toward the only clear path she could see. The only way that didn’t have a corpse dragging itself toward them. But Abbey couldn’t take her eyes away from her parents, and she just kept calling to them, and pushing at Lucy, trying to get free of her.

“They’re not you parents anymore!” Lucy said. She shook her friend and turned her to face her.

Abbey’s eyes flashed, the whites of her eyes huge, her mouth now open in a snarl. She reared back and slapped Lucy across the cheek, hard enough Lucy lost her hold on one of Abbey’s shoulders, but she kept hold of the other for dear life. She couldn’t let her get any closer to her parents.

She couldn’t feel much anymore, there were just too many dead people walking around, fighting with each other. But she could tell two things: there were no spirits in any of the zombies, just energy filling them, making them move; and she could feel hunger rolling off every single one of them.

Guess that answers the “will they eat us?” question.

Lucy gasped when she saw a skeletal hand clasp down on Abbey’s shoulder, a rotting face appearing out of the darkness, its teeth flashing as it went for her throat. Lucy swung her fist and punched the gruesome creature in the face, knocking out one of its slimy teeth. But just then something grabbed Lucy by the ankle, making her fall to one knee and scream.

A light flared around Lucy and Abbey, scorching the air and illuminating the entire graveyard. Something whipped through the air, crackling with blurry speed, sending the two corpses attacking Lucy and Abbey flying through the misty air.

Lucy looked up and saw an unbelievable sight. There stood her grandmother in her nightgown and robe, her hair braided in a long white rope. In her hand she held an old wooden baseball bat—the one from the hall closet. But now it was glowing, shimmering with light.

“Gram?”

Her grandmother moved forward and swung the bat, catching a zombie in the back of the head, then smacking another in the teeth, flattening both. Another blurry movement and she took out another zombie’s legs, sending it clattering to the ground. In no time her grandmother had run to them, and was pulling Lucy to her feet with unnatural strength.

Lucy gulped when she caught the look on her grandmother’s face. She was majorly pissed off.

“As impressive as this is…” she waved a hand at the throng of corpses. “That you can raise an entire cemetery, if you can’t control them and send them back to their graves you’re going to get everyone killed!”

She grabbed Lucy’s injured hand and Lucy could feel her gram’s power flicker and sizzle against her flesh. It wasn’t very strong, but it was concentrated, and most importantly, it knew what it was doing. “Now let’s send all these poor people back to their rest.”

Lucy could feel her own power rise up again, this time it hurt and burned far more than before. But it wasn’t as frightening. She knew her grandmother was going to put everything right.

Gram raised her other hand up to the heavens. “Hear me, denizens of this cemetery. I am Lillian Haveraux, and I command you to return to your graves… now!”

Lucy felt the power flash up through her, rippling over her flesh and pulsing through her hand into her grandmother, then out to the zombies. Every zombie stopped in its tracks, slowly turned to face Gram, and then just like that, they all started moving in straight lines until they started falling back into their graves. And amazingly enough, all the ripped up earth and grass just seemed to open up and swallow them, and then settled and smoothed out until even the grass looked exactly as it had before.

Gram let go of Lucy’s hand and she felt the instant shock of their powers disconnecting. Her grandmother shot her with the angriest glower. “You stupid girl!”

“But Gram… I-I didn’t…”

Just then Gram’s eyes lit on Abbey’s still sobbing form, and she shook her head, giving her granddaughter’s arm a gentle squeeze. “I should’ve known.”

Gram walked over to Abbey, peering down at her with harsh, demanding eyes. This alone made Abbey shut up.

“Your grandma, Donna May, and I both told you not to mess with this kind of magic.”

“I had to try!” Abbey cried.

Gram grabbed hold of Abbey’s hand. She examined the wound and then let her go. “You’re just a witch.” Her tone was cold. Lucy had never heard her voice like that. “You can’t possibly control a necromancy ritual. It may be magic, but it is too removed from witchcraft for your kind to do anything but get themselves killed!”

Abbey sobbed. “I’m sorry… but I had—”

“If you had waited until you’d learned enough from your grandmother, you could’ve called your parents’ spirits from the nether realm, all by yourself, like any other self-respecting Wiccan.” She got right in Abbey’s face. “Instead, you had to trick the first necromancer you came across into this foolishness, and you almost got my granddaughter killed!”

Abbey wiped the tears from her eyes, her face usually so full of life was stripped of all hope…beaten.

In an instant Gram’s face changed from angry to the gentle warmth Lucy was used to. She moved forward and took Abbey into her arms. “Sweet child. Zombies can’t remember what they were. They’ve lost the spark of humanity. Their souls moved on shortly after they died. So please don’t remember them like this. Remember them as they were when they were living.”

As always, Lucy was touched by her grandmother’s caring nature. Even though she’d been angry enough to kill Abbey only a minute ago, she was now consoling her, her arm around Abbey’s shoulders as they turned and started to walk towards the entrance of the graveyard.

Lucy brushed some of the dead leaves from her jeans, just starting to feel a little better. Still wobbly, but she was a damn sight better than she would’ve been if the horde of zombies had gotten their cold, dead hands on her.

Gram’s such a rock star…

She was going to elaborate on her grandmother’s wondrous qualities, but she didn’t get a chance to finish that thought. What’s more, she didn’t have a chance to even take a single step to follow either.

She gasped as she felt it: something cold and dead hurtling toward her from behind. The darkness of the graveyard made her all the more confused, and she turned in time to see flowing blonde hair and a smiling set of fangs. Something hurt, and something else knocked her down and was dragging her way—then all went black.

 

Chapter 16

 

FROM THE SHADOWS of the night, Delia had watched the two on the porch. She had been such a fool, to believe Gabriel’s word over her own common sense and intuition. She’d known the instant the girl had stumbled into that filthy little alley behind the Refectory. She could see passion and the glow of love plainly on her face. But that hadn’t been what had set her off—that alone, the pathetic attentions of a silly human girl, wouldn’t have made a damn bit of difference to her.

What had made the difference had been the smell. Even through the stench of the garbage and rot of the alley, the scent he’d left on her flowed through the rancid air to Delia, and the meaning of it shot straight through her nervous system and mind, and cracked her heart.

Gabriel’s scent was all over the girl. And worse, she smelled lust and longing in that trace of him. He wanted her. He wanted her enough that she stunk of it.

Now that didn’t mean love. Delia knew that it didn’t. But what it did mean was that his body wanted to cheat on her. And added to the obvious amorous intentions of the girl, Delia had snapped. She’d wanted the girl dead—not scared, not whimpering for her life, but dead.

But Gabriel and her stupid brother, Vin, had interfered. Gabriel had fought for the girl, and Delia had been more than hurt over that fact. She’d been devastated. And no matter how much he swore that he did not love the girl, she could indeed see it in his eyes. It wasn’t just lust, for that scent had waned during their battle in the alley. But he could not hide the truth that blazed from his very soul. He was now in love with another.

And as Delia searched his eyes, finding this new horrific truth there, she also saw another truth. Though there was still love in his eyes for her—and maybe he was still in love with her—there was pity too. And that pity had sealed it for her.

She’d trusted her heart to a filthy, stinking werewolf, but no longer.

She lied when she told him she believed him. She lied when she told him she trusted him. After all, he’d made every lame excuse imaginable not to lay with her that night. How stupid did he think she was?

So she’d kept to the shadows, following him, unable to trust herself to not kill the girl if she just stalked her. And then the two had wandered out onto the porch, their want and need for each other as thick and obvious in the night air as their adoration of each other was to the eye. And all that she’d gleaned before the kiss against the porch railing.

Delia heard thunder pounding in the background—a storm, or avalanche, some natural disaster. But she could hear their breathing rise and quicken, even their hearts pounded loud enough that she knew their pulses were nearly in sync.

Delia had wanted vengeance. She’d wanted to attack Gabriel right then and there. How dare the dog think he could do this to her! She was a warrior, second in power only to her father, and this mangy mongrel thought he could hurt her like this. To choose a mere mortal over her.

A single hot tear escaped from her left eye. Delia snapped closed her eyes and clenched her jaw shut, pushing back the emotion that threatened to turn her into a sniveling, crying wreck. No, she was a warrior, weeping wouldn’t change things, and would not make her feel better.

Yet vengeance against her enemies would.

She pondered following Gabriel, and then pushing a tree down in his path. When he got out of the car she would take him, hard and fast… well, maybe she would torture him—get some real satisfaction from his death.

Unfortunately, the mere thought of killing Gabriel sent a cold, bitter chill through her entire being. She knew there and then that she couldn’t just kill him. She loved her wolf. But she did want to hurt him.

Physically? Or just psychologically? Maybe break his heart as he had broken hers.

Now that sounded promising.

And how better to break a heart than to kill what it loved? The thought of ripping the girl’s throat out, or better, her heart… oh yes! That was a lovely thought. Rip out Lucy Hart’s heart, watch her life drain from her face, lapping up her fear like a river of blood, later gifting that heart to her unfaithful love. Maybe she’d gift wrap the little piece of meat—a box with metallic red wrapping paper, and blood red ribbons and a bow.

Delicious.

But not enough… no, his betrayal was far worse than killing that stupid human could pay for. She wanted him to know, for the rest of his inadequate life, that his heart’s desire was just out of his reach.

Yes! If he would not be hers, and she had to live with that fact as evidence, then Delia would make sure Gabriel shared the exact same lifelong agony. Her plan formed in her mind, as glittering and cool as the night that enveloped her. Yes, so easy. But the girl wasn’t just a human. She’d been immune to Delia’s mind control—something she hadn’t encountered in a human before. And, infuriatingly, she’d demonstrated influence over Delia’s body, holding her back from killing her outright. Though it had visibly drained the girl to pull off such a trick, Delia would need to be careful, sneaky. Not only capturing her, but in keeping her captive.

Turning a human took time… an entire night and day, to be exact. She needed privacy and safety—somewhere safe from Gabriel, her meddling brother, and where the girl’s power over her would be quelled.

Delia closed her eyes as the lights of the Hart girl’s home flickered off, delight flowing through her veins as she saw in her mind’s eye where she would take her. She knew just the place.

“Tomorrow night, you little bitch…” Delia whispered into the wind, her nails cutting into the flesh of her palms, making them bleed. “You will rise vampire. And Gabriel will never be able to make you his bride.”

 

*

 

Delia was just about to set the little house where Lucy Hart lived on fire. Since she couldn’t enter uninvited, she would simply and literally smoke the little blood-sack out. But then another human girl had shown up and started rapping pebbles against the girl’s window. How convenient. The human girl had Lucy out the front door and headed out into the woods behind the house in no time at all.

Delia followed, not making a sound, biding her time as the two strode through the woods and then into a graveyard.

Too bad Delia was no longer going to kill her rival for Gabriel’s love. Killing her in the graveyard would have been a splendid memory to have.

But no sooner did she enter the graveyard than she felt it. The little blood-sack’s power, the one that had stopped her in her tracks back in that filthy alley, the one that Delia would neutralize soon enough. But maybe not soon enough. What if the blood-sack had finally noticed her lurking in the background?

But then she saw what was happening. There was an altar set up on the top of a gravestone—and Delia could smell her rival’s blood. They were performing necromancy. Yes, that was the power the girl had, power over the dead. Of Course!

But Delia had never heard nor read of a necromancer powerful enough to possess or control a vampire. That was new and interesting. Delia felt the blood-sack’s power surge through the ground, running straight for her. She jumped, vaulting herself straight up into the air, landing on headstones as she hopped with lightning speed toward the walls of the graveyard. There she perched and watched the mayhem the little blood-sack and her witch friend let loose.

Foolish children, they had no idea what they were actually doing. With as much power as the little blood-sack had, and obviously no skill or control over that power, just walking into a graveyard was a dangerous proposition. Let alone filling the consecrated earth with that power.

Delia knew what was about to happen before it actually did. But she was impressed nonetheless. Grave dirt all over the graveyard started to churn, rotting heads and hands erupted everywhere as the dead gained access to the night air, and freedom.

They were animated, yet uncontrolled. Maybe Delia wouldn’t have to turn the blood-sack, maybe the freshly raised zombies would take care of Delia’s problems for her. No way for Gabriel to blame her for his precious Lucy being eaten by her own creations.

Delia felt a voyeuristic thrill, watching the two girls tremble and scream in horror.

But then a sharp spear of light caught Delia’s eye. Entering the zombie littered graveyard was the blood-sack’s doddering old grandmother. But she was running toward the two girls, swinging a baseball bat that gleamed with power. Every time she touched one of the zombies they fell over, shocked and disoriented—yet not returned to the ground. No, the old woman didn’t have the power her granddaughter did… but she had skill and control the other might… no, would never have.

Delia watched as the older woman took charge of the situation, and with remarkable skill used her own granddaughter’s considerable powers to lay to rest every last one of the zombies. It was impressive. Maybe even more impressive than her granddaughter’s near fatal raising of the graveyard.

Delia waited patiently as the old woman chewed her young charges out—making the little Goth-chick witch cry, her tears streaking her face with mascara rivulets. But in the blink of an eye she started to soothe her, as Delia had watched countless human women do over the centuries, by wrapping her arms around her and speaking cooing lies that it wasn’t as bad as it seemed. As always, that act fascinated her. No such thing happened in vampire society, especially not in the house of Tokar.

When the grandmother turned and began to lead the witch away, Delia found her chance. The little blood-sack had just stood up when Delia streaked across the graveyard at her. The first blow slammed her to the ground, knocking her unconscious with no more than a breathy yelp. Delia had her thrown over her shoulder and was already out of the graveyard before either the witch or grandmother could turn around.

 

*

 

She could’ve simply dragged her all the way to their destination, yet Delia wanted to conserve her energies. Turning a human to vampire took a lot of blood out of a vampire, and thus much energy. And what if the little blood-sack had some tricks up her sleeve still?

No, she had her wickedly fast sports car only a few blocks away. Dropping Lucy in the trunk, Delia angled herself behind the wheel and drove like hell out of the sleepy little town of Four Corners and streaked through the night, north to Onyx.

The house was on the edge of the small town, bordered by forest on all sides. It had been in her family for ages, and was a well-kept secret. Once inside the house Delia knew her plan was as good as accomplished. She had nothing more to fear. Once in the house, any member of the Tokar clan was safe. Just close the door, insert the black onyx key and turn the lock. The house wards sealed with the most powerful of magicks. Not even another member of the Tokar family could get in, no less an enemy.

No less a foul-hearted letch like Gabriel.

No, no werewolf could ever make it through the mystical wards that steeped these walls.

Delia tossed the little blood-sack on the floor and drew herself up a seat. After a few minutes of waiting she gave the blood-sack a non-too-gentle nudge with the toe of her boot. Nothing. Humans were just so… fragile. Too bad. Delia was in the mood to play. But she could be patient. She had all the time in the world to bring the little blood sack over. The basement of the house even had a dirt floor, so she could wait out the change in its entirety in the safety of the house.

The scent of the little human’s blood wafted up and made Delia’s mouth water. Maybe it was because the little blood-sack was a necromancer, but her blood held an intoxicating aroma. Delia had planned on messing up her face quite a bit before turning her. There were ways—there was a silver knife she could use, once her heart stopped, and after the vampire blood had started to take hold—to guarantee some rather nasty scars.

Either way, Delia would taste that lovely blood.

She would just have to wait.

 

Chapter 17

 

LUCY’S MOUTH FELT STICKY, the coppery taste of her own blood making her nauseous. She moved her head first—a cacophony of pain ricocheted through her skull like a bullet. She moaned, reaching up to hold her head. She felt something wet and sticky, and pulled her hand away. She opened her eyes and saw that her hand was painted red with blood.

Oh god…

She felt her body shake as she lowered her hands and looked around at where she was. A house, dimly lit and sparsely furnished. The smell of old blood and decay pressed in on her. As her eyes adjusted to the dim light she saw large, strange symbols drawn on the walls. The windows were all bricked up, letting in no light from the outside.

Lucy turned to check out the wall behind her and jerked back reflexively when she saw her—Delia—not two feet away, sitting still as a statue in a straight back chair. The chair was made of black wood, with intricate carvings of leaves and fruit, the feet fashioned into lion claws. The sight of Delia, so close, her eyes as terribly cold as ever, made Lucy cry out, made her lurch away and scramble clumsily to her feet and stagger away from the vampire.

Delia canted her head, watching Lucy’s progress intently.

“What do you want?” Lucy’s voice sounded hoarse and feeble to her. “How did I get here?” And before she finished the question she flashed back to the graveyard, her grandmother and Abbey walking away, and then…

And then Superbitch here tackled me!

Delia patiently sat in her chair as Lucy tried to shake off the effects of the head wound which had left her unconscious in the first place. Lucy could feel where Delia had hit her, like she’d been hit by a baseball bat, and just touching it made her eye feel like it was about to pop right out of its socket.

Delia just sat there, staring, not uttering a word, a small smile playing at the edges of her mouth. Her makeup was minimal: eyeliner and mascara, a hint of silvery eye shadow, and that smirking mouth accented by iridescent pink lipstick. Added to that she wore a sleeveless black silk blouse and matching skintight leather pants; she looked like a very pretty monster.

Standing, the room started to pitch and spin on Lucy. She felt like she was about to barf. She clamped the hand not covered in blood to her mouth, and choked back what wanted to come out. Squinting shut her eyes, she forced herself to breathe. After a moment the world felt like it had finally stopped spinning.

To Lucy’s surprise, Delia was still sitting patiently in the chair—hadn’t moved a muscle, and she still had that stupid smile on her face.

Lucy staggered away from the vampire, her sneakers making little squeaking sounds as she fell against a wall, and then seeing the front door she ran straight for it. She slammed against the thick, unforgiving wood and clawed at the door knob. It wouldn’t budge. She searched with her eyes and with her fingers for a latch, finding only a key hole.

A dead bolt… emphasis on dead…

Lucy pushed the thought out of her mind. She couldn’t afford to freak out, not now, not when she was locked in a house with a deranged vampire that hated her guts.

I’m so screwed!

Just then Delia rounded the corner and walked with a graceful gait right up to Lucy. She stopped about two feet away, and sniffed the air. “I love your perfume… oh, wait… that’s not perfume… it’s fear.”

“Stay away from me!” Lucy shrieked.

“Did you know,” Delia said thoughtfully, “you can taste fear in blood? It’s like adding curry spice to the mix… but better.”

Lucy gasped when she saw Delia’s teeth slide down into place with a snick, lethally sharp and white as snow. But then she felt that wonderfully familiar heat rage in her skull again, smothering the pain, and leaving her suddenly pissed off instead of scared stiff.

“You skank! Where do you get off?” Lucy leaned forward meeting Delia’s sinister gaze. “Sure, I might have kissed your boyfriend once—”

“I saw you with him just tonight,” Delia said in an even tone. “A porch is hardly a private place.”

Okay, that sucks…

“Multiple times, then,” Lucy amended. “But don’t forget this was all your idea in the first place. If you’re looking for someone to blame, look in a mirror.”

Delia shot Lucy with a look that screamed, You moron!

“Okay, so you can’t actually see yourself in a mirror, but you know damn well what I’m talking about.” Lucy stood up straighter and stared the vampire down again. “Plus, you must be plain stupid. Last time—” Lucy stopped and thought. Last time she could control Delia… sort of. But she had tired quickly. If it hadn’t been for Gabriel jumping in, she’d been vampire tender vittles.

“Last time what?” Delia said, looking curious and psychotic.

Lucy took a deep breath, focused on the annoyed heat burning in her head. “Open the door.” She automatically felt her power radiate out from her, and with it a large chunk of her physical strength abandoned her.

Delia leaned forward looking at Lucy with faux confusion. “Can you say that bit again? I didn’t quite hear you.”

Lucy gritted her teeth, pulling up her power around her, felt it scorch and lick out of her hot and angry. “Let me out of this house, you nasty bitch!”

Again Lucy felt herself weaken. She staggered backward into the wooden door, gasping.

Delia looked as if she were pondering Lucy’s command, rolling it around in her mouth as if tasting the very words. “Nope,” she said with a cheerful chirp. “Don’t wanna.”

Lucy felt the icy fingers of shock and realization climb up her spine. She could call up an entire graveyard of zombies, and she’d been able to control Delia before. What was different now?

The house, Lucy thought. The house and all those weird ass markings on the walls.

“Come on Luce…”—Lucy gulped. Delia had heard Gabriel call her that. And now, hearing it come out of the vampire’s mouth, made Lucy cringe—“Want to try that once more with feeling?”

“It’s the house, isn’t it? The creepy markings on the walls.”

“Now you’re getting it.” Delia paced around her, her eyes laughing. “Guess you’re not as dumb as I thought.”

The annoyed heat flashed in her head again, “Well, I knew it couldn’t be you.”

Delia’s face turned hard and angry.

“I mean, you didn’t paint all these marks. This is just somewhere you knew about. Some secret safe house your family owns. You probably have the mystical power of a doily.”

Delia smiled again. “Safe? No, this house is anything but safe.” She chuckled as she spread her arms out to encompass the entire building. “This is a house of interrogation, a house of torture.”

Lucy gulped reflexively. She didn’t want to know any more about the house. And she certainly didn’t want to imagine the torture visited within these walls. She especially didn’t want to think about what kinds of torture this wacked out vamp would like to dole out on her.

“But you’re right,” Delia said. “It is the markings that keep your filthy little trick from working on me again. And no, I didn’t have anything to do with the magic of this place. The markings are old magic, the kind you don’t see much anymore. And they’re very specific. They make everything—except vampires—powerless within the confines of these walls.”

“I knew it.” Lucy waved her hand dismissively.

“Even though I’m one hundred percent sure what kind of power you actually have—I’m guessing you’re a necromancer—I’m sure you’re not going to be able to overcome them.”

Lucy’s mind was practically sprinting through all the thoughts swirling through her mind. If Delia had wanted to kill her, then she could’ve just done it while she was passed out. Why the whole kidnapping bit? Why drag her all the way to this hexed house?

“So… you’re just going to keep me locked up in this house?” Lucy scowled at her captor. “’Cause if you are, I’d like a TV, with cable… and some better furniture.”

“What are you—?”

“And you’re going to have to call for pizza or something… no, make that Chinese,” Lucy continued as if she was dictating orders to her personal assistant. “I’m dying for an egg roll, and some sweet and sour chicken.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Delia shrieked.

“Well, you went to a lot of trouble kidnapping me: knocking me out, dragging me here. And all for what?” Lucy brushed some dust and leftover grass from the graveyard from her sleeve. “I don’t see you killing me, especially since you had plenty of chances while I was passed out.”

Delia smiled again, her eyes brimming with excitement.

The bitch has a plan, damn it…

Delia said, “It occurred to me that if I killed you, I wouldn’t really get much satisfaction out of it, vengeance-wise it’d be kind of short lived. I want Gabriel to feel this for a long time.”

Lucy glared at her. “Just get on with it already.”

Delia rushed at her, grabbed her by the throat and slammed Lucy against the wooden door again. She snarled, baring her teeth. “Patience…”

She let go of Lucy’s throat and pushed herself away from her. “There is a way,” Delia said with naked hatred in her cold blue eyes. “A very simple way to make sure you can never marry Gabriel… and yet keeps blood off my hands, figuratively speaking.”

Somehow Lucy knew what Delia was going to say. If she wasn’t going to kill her, and she wasn’t going to hold her captive—and once she was done Delia wouldn’t have to worry about Lucy and Gabriel getting married—that left one more alternative.

“So you’re going to…”—Lucy gulped down a huge, ice cold ball of fear—“to…”

“Make you vampire. Yeah, that’s the idea.”

Lucy stood there, astonished, her mouth gaping.

“I was going to say disfigure my face.” Okay, Lucy thought. Not my best guess.

Delia laughed and let Lucy go. “Maybe later.”

Lucy took off at a dead sprint as she rushed toward the back of the house. Some annoying girl was screaming like an idiot. Lucy suddenly realized she was the annoying screaming idiot. Straight ahead she saw another thick wooden door and she rushed toward it, grabbing the knob and finding it blessedly unlocked. She yanked it open, rushing into the dark little room—definitely not an exit!—and pulled the door shut with a slam. She felt for a latch, but once again she could only feel the subtle notch for a key—another dead bolt.

Lucy gulped air and then held it. She listened for Delia’s approach. She had all her weight leveraged up against the door, but knew she could never hold it against Delia’s vampiric strength.

Without ceremony, the pitch dark room filled with light from an overhead light fixture: a large, dusty crystal chandelier. On the other side of the room, peering at Lucy from another open door, Delia flashed a most beatific smile.

“Silly girl…you can’t actually think you’re going to get out of this…or away from me.”

All around the bare room Lucy saw those creepy markings adorning all the walls. In the bright light of the chandelier Lucy could see they weren’t just painted on. No, the symbols were brushed onto the walls with blood, having long ago dried to a deep, dark crimson.

Delia streaked with blurry speed across the room and flung Lucy against the wall. “This was… well, it was fun! But we’ve got more… appetizing business to tend to.” Her fangs lengthened and glowed in her mouth. “This might hurt a little.”

Lucy was about to scream bloody murder, which was actually kind of what was about to happen, but then her mind clicked onto something she’d completely forgotten about.

Mr. Winkie, Lucy thought. Come to me. Immediately she felt the sheath and harness materialize on her forearm. Delia was leaning in to bite Lucy’s neck, so she didn’t notice when Lucy felt for the knife, then pulled it out of the sheath.

Delia’s teeth sank into her throat with merciless efficiency. The pain and shock of being so penetrated, and the instant weakening of having your lifeblood rush from her body, made Lucy shake and moan, the weight of the world crashing down on her.

But she had the blade in her hand, thin and light as a feather. Miraculously it was pointed in just the right direction. With her blood rushing from her into the vampire’s sucking maw, she thrust up with the last bit of strength she had and slid the blade into Delia’s belly like she made out of butter.

Delia screamed and pushed herself away from Lucy. She staggered back with her hands holding onto the gushing wound at her core. The blood spilled in splashes on the hardwood floor.

She laughed, though this time it sounded raspy with pain. “Silver.” She nodded to the knife still clutched in Lucy’s hand, Delia’s blood dripping from it. “Nice. But this wound won’t kill me… it’ll just piss me off! Believe me…” She staggered back against the nearest wall. “I’ll make you suffer for this.”

“I believe you,” Lucy said breathlessly. She struggled to keep herself standing, her one hand clutching at her injured neck—the vampire’s teeth had ripped a chunk out—the other hand holding the knife. The blade and her hand were drenched in the vampire’s blood. “But it will slow you down.”

“Not enough to save you,” she laughed. “Stupid cow!”

Lucy looked at her hands, dripping with her blood and the vampire’s blood, and an idea popped into her head. “You said the markings on the walls protected vampires, making anything else’s powers useless.” Lucy dropped the knife, stumbling toward the closest wall marking. She reached out to the creepy crimson design and swiped her bloody hands over it, immediately feeling a sizzle and then a flux of power. Suddenly she knew, right then and there, that the spell (at least in that room) had been broken. She could feel it.

“Shit!” Delia spat as her eyes flashed murderously at Lucy. She lurched forward, forgetting the painful gash in her stomach, and ran right for Lucy, her eyes crazed, her fangs dripping with strings of saliva.

Lucy called her power up around her, the familiar heat flickering in her head. “Delia, stop.”

As if she’d run into an invisible wall, Delia halted in her tracks; though she was still seething and trying to reach her arms out to grab at Lucy.

Lucy fell to her knees, suddenly too weak to stand. She pulled her hand away from her neck wound again to find it drenched and dripping with even more blood.

I’m dying…

Delia stalked closer, as if she were trying to pull free of whatever was holding her back.

“I said stop, super bitch!” Lucy’s power flashed hot in her mind, and she felt it reach out and hold Delia back.

But the vampire was smiling.

“You’re fading fast. Won’t be long before all that delicious blood of yours is all over the floor. And when you pass out…” She clapped her hands together in exultation and smiled all the more devilishly. “You’re mine.”

The psycho-bitch-monster-of-death has a point. Once I pass out—which I’m already starting to feel—I won’t be able to hold her back at all. Lucy shivered as darkness crowded her peripheral vision. Either she’ll kill me, or… or I’ll wake up with fangs.

“I’m torn,” Delia said, obviously feeling better, her wound probably almost healed already. “Should I just turn you and get this over with? Or… I could make you drink just enough of my blood to heal you, and then I can carve you up for a while, see how you like it!”

While Delia was monologuing her ass off about the ravages she was going to inflict on her, a very simple thought revealed itself to Lucy. She didn’t know if her little ability covered it… and even if it did work, would it last after she’d passed out?

“Or I could wait until you’re dead, dead.” Delia twirled with excitement. “With only the tiniest sparks of life left, and then bring you back as—”

“Go to sleep,” Lucy said, her eyes locked on those of the vampire.

Her monologue abruptly interrupted, Delia stared at Lucy with slack jawed disbelief.

Lucy breathed in one deep breath, calling up what was left of her strength, feeling the hot annoyance burn in her skull. Delia was just about to say something when Lucy said: “Go—to—sleep—Delia! And don’t wake up again until I tell you to.”

She gave a snort of laughter, shaking her head, but then her knees buckled and she fell to the ground, her arms shaking as she tried to hold herself up from the floor.

“No… you… you can’t…”

“Sleep… ” As the word fell from Lucy’s lips, so fell Delia to the ground. Her frosty cold blue eyes stared out at Lucy for a few very uncomfortable beats before they too slid shut, and Delia’s entire body went slack with sleep.

Hopefully she’ll stay that way after… after I… A dark curtain started to fall over Lucy, only the sound of her own breathing filled her ears, a frightening cold enveloping her body, making her numb and scared.

I’m really going to die…

She felt a tear trickle hot down the side of her cheek.

This… so… bites!

From the other side of the room came an earsplitting crash, the sound of splintering wood and metal being ripped apart. Lucy tried to keep her eyelids open, but they fell like a curt