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Better Off Dead: A Lucy Hart, Deathdealer Novel

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 curtain as a very large, very scary shape burst through the wall, roaring like a freaking T-Rex.

Great… It rushed on all fours toward her. Something else that wants to kill me.

 

Chapter 18

 

IT WAS THE TASTE that woke her: sweet and rich and… to freaking die for. It gushed over Lucy’s tongue and down her throat in greedy draughts. Better than ice cream, better than chocolate, better than a caramel mocha latte made with whole milk—even better than the cake her grandmother had baked special for her birthday.

As if the scrumptious liquid was a magical cure-all for everything that had ever gone wrong in your life, or had ever laid a finger on you, Lucy felt the panacea rush through her veins, warm and pulsating with life, making every molecule in her body sing with joy, all her pain vanishing as her heart thrummed in her chest.

Strong arms held her, cradled her as she drank from—her lips were latched tight to flesh—someone’s wrist.

“That’s enough,” a man’s voice Lucy knew she should recognize said. “Any more and she might…” He didn’t finish. He pulled his wrist from her grasp, eliciting a whimper from Lucy’s lips. He gathered her up in his strong arms and moved them both effortlessly through the ruins of the room, through the gaping hole in the wall, and out into the cool night.

 

*

 

Time flickered by and Lucy now felt warm all over, the wondrous taste still in her mouth, and everything that had hurt wasn’t hurting anymore. She realized she was so warm because she was pressed against Gabriel’s naked chest, his strong arms wrapped protectively around her. She sighed as she indulged in the thought that she’d died and gone to heaven, and in heaven Gabriel was naked, at least from the waist up.

Lucy opened her eyes a little more and saw they were riding in the back of a car, a sedan with tinted windows. Delia’s brother, Vin, was driving. Lucy felt the car sway as Vin zigzagged through traffic, making her hold tighter to Gabriel’s bare torso. Glancing up to the driver’s seat again, Lucy suddenly felt a jolt of astonishment. Vin had a white linen handkerchief wrapped around his wrist. Lucy’s stomach lurched with revulsion as she realized what had happened.

It hadn’t been some dream, or a trick of the mind. Vin had fed her his own blood, probably saving her life… but was she really alive anymore?

“Am I a vampire now?” Her stomach did another flip, and her heart started really thumping. She didn’t care that one of them had saved her life or not, becoming fangy and dead and—well, she just couldn’t get past the whole dead thing—just wasn’t in her life plan.

Delia’s brother finally spoke, his voice silky and smooth, and irritatingly calm. “It takes far more than drinking a little blood to make the change.” He gave her a wink as he gazed at her through the rear view mirror. His eyes were the same blue as Delia’s, yet they were not cold as ice. No, they were liquid blue heat, smoldering as he gazed at her. “So, do not worry.”

“You’ll be fine,” Gabriel said, holding her closer. Lucy took a deep breath and snuggled into his bare, ever so warm flesh. But then she saw Delia lying in the front passenger seat beside Vin.

“What the hell is she doing here?” Lucy blurted out, an edge of hysteria to her voice. Her entire body jerked as her eyes snapped open and her heartbeat began to race again.

“I think she’s asleep,” Vin said neutrally.

“And I so was hoping for ‘she’s dead’ to pop out of your mouth.” All of a sudden Lucy felt like an ungrateful child, talking to Vin like that. After all, he’d literally saved her life.

He acted as if he hadn’t heard her, saying: “Would this be your doing?”

Gabriel turned and looked to Lucy with a confused expression on his gorgeous face.

“Yeah,” Lucy mumbled, “I’m surprised it stuck.”

Out of nowhere Lucy felt something cool and silky move over her, slipping effortlessly into her consciousness. It was lust and wanting, and an acute hunger. And it wasn’t hers. Instantly she knew she was feeling Vin’s emotions, and no sooner did she try to recoil from them than she heard the vampire’s thoughts, as clear as if he’d whispered them in her ear.

Her power is extraordinary. I’ll have to keep an eye on her. Then, with a frantic flash of images, all of them of her, reflected through the yearning of his mind, he thought: Would I kill to be with her?

Lucy’s entire body tightened until she was sure she’d break apart in Gabriel’s arms. She’d seen in his thoughts that he wanted to bed her, and he wanted to eat her—drink her, whatever—quite literally. She knew without knowing that his thirst for her blood, and his attraction to her and to her very scent, was overwhelming—just being in the confined space of the car with her, even with Gabriel there, was almost unbearable.

He’d kill me in an instant… or worse…

Lucy was hyperventilating and trembling when Gabriel pulled her closer, pressing his soft, warm lips to her forehead. “I won’t let anything hurt you,” he whispered, his breath warm and tickling against the flesh of her ear and neck. “I promise.”

Lucy snuggled deeply into Gabriel’s naked flesh, the thick slabs of super-heated muscle. She wanted to be home. She wanted to see her grandmother and her mother… hell, she even wanted to see Seth…

But most of all Lucy wanted for what she felt right then—in Gabriel’s arms—to be real.

She caught Vin looking back at her again through the rearview mirror. Just keep your eyes on the road, and on your comatose psychopath of a sister.

Lucy already knew Delia wouldn’t stay asleep forever.

 

The End

Want more Lucy Hart?

Check out Not Dead Yet: A Lucy Hart, Deathdealer Novel

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Also by Stella Blaze

Love Him: A Love Him, Hate Him, Want Him Novel

Need Him: A Love Him, Hate Him, Want Him Novella

Want Him: A Love Him, Hate Him, Want Him Novel

Better Off Dead: A Lucy Hart, Deathdealer Novel

Not Dead Yet: A Lucy Hart, Deathdealer Novel

Min’s Vampire

Chased by the Billionaire 1

Chased by the Billionaire 2

Taken by the Billionaire Assassin 1

Love Story: An Asheville Novel

 

About Me:

Let me introduce myself. I’m forty-three, and a proud indie author. I write New Adult, Contemporary and Paranormal Romance. I love sexy alpha males, brooding and sparkly vampires, and I love, love, love pizza.


Better Off Dead: A Lucy Hart, Deathdealer Novel

What if your fiancé turns out to be a werewolf, and worse, his creature-of-the-night girlfriend is trying to kill you? Lucy Hart, eighteen-year-old queen bee and captain of the cheer squad, faces just that. She loses everything—money, social status, and even her home—when her father is arrested for tax evasion and immigrant slave trafficking. Reduced to flipping burgers, she plots to get her old life back by blackmailing her father’s slimeball lawyer and scheming her way into a gig pretending to be a rich young man’s “fiancée.” The pay: enough money to let her write her own future. The bad news: the guy is a condescending pain in the butt. In no time at all Lucy finds herself fighting for her life as her faux fiancé’s vampire girlfriend tries to slaughter her, and on top of that, getting royally grossed out by her own spanking new paranormal ability: necromancy. Yet somehow, while she gets back her life and kicks vampire butt, she also manages to fall in love/lust with her fake fiancé. Newly edited. Previously published as Last Rites

  • ISBN: 9781311533852
  • Author: Stella Blaze
  • Published: 2016-06-29 08:35:41
  • Words: 70298
Better Off Dead: A Lucy Hart, Deathdealer Novel Better Off Dead: A Lucy Hart, Deathdealer Novel