Authors: Nelson, Stephanie
Book 3 in theGwen Sparks Series
Copyright © 2012
All Rights Reserved.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead is entirely coincidental.
The scanning, uploading and distribution of this book via the internet or any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.
Cover design:Once Upon a Time Covers
Table of Contents
About the Author
Dedicated to my mother: the woman who taught me
what it means to have an imagination.
First and foremost, I have to thank those who have stuck beside me since my first book,Craved. You guys have believed in my journey and lifted me up with your kind words. If it weren’t for readers like you, I wouldn’t be able to do what I love. A million thank-you’s would never be enough!
Next, I have to thank my husband. Though I spend 90% of my time in my office, you never complain. You have been my rock and the best support system a girl could ask for.
Thank you to all my writer buddies who are always willing to offer advice or make me laugh. You guys are the best! A big thank you goes out to Sarah Ross who lent a fresh pair of eyes and helped beta read my book, though she’s busy writing her own.
I held myself rigid, aloof, as I stood in front of Aiden. I did my best to hide the crumbling, fragile woman hiding just beneath the surface. Could he see her? Was the disguise I wore translucent, fooling no one but me? It’d been a week since I last spoke to or saw Aiden. In that time I’d thrown a pity party or two, but I was getting better—stronger. Or at least I told myself I was. The pain of Aiden’s betrayal stemmed not just from that of a deceived lover, but also a friend. For two years I’d known the man standing in front of me. We’d teased, argued and confided in one another. It was that friendship that grew into a romance. However short it’d been, it’d been real.
Aiden was charismatic with his playful grin. His tousled black hair hung across his forehead, peeking over his thick lashes and curtaining his bright blue eyes. He was a masterpiece, and he’d been mine. But just like any work of art, oftentimes tragedy clung to it. Aiden’s particular tragedy was his addiction to witches’ blood, or Brew as the vampires call it. Maybe it was an honest mistake—his addiction. Or one birthed from too much pride. It didn’t matter how old, or young, the vampire was, Brew took no prisoners. Aiden wasn’t any different. As soon as the magic-infused blood hit his tongue it owned him.
I learned that during his stint as a Brew addict, not only had he killed a witch out of bloodlust, but he’d known what my enemy was planning and didn’t tell me. The witch’s death stemmed from the addiction. The deceit about Ian Despereaux’s plan was just plain greed. As a spirit walker, I’m connected to the realm of the dead. Within the shadowy world, demons lurk.Vampirism is a virus, ademonicvirus. The devil, a fallen angel, made his own children—vampires—to feed off God’s—humans. Long story short, since I can pop into the realm of the dead, where not only ghosts live but demons too, I am connected to them.
Because of this, Ian thought I could be turned into what is known as a hybrid—half vampire, half witch. I still wasn’t sure if there was any truth to his wild idea, but it was enough to entice Aiden’s curiosity. He’d seen an opportunity for me to share an eternity with him. The ironic thing was that in his hopes of keeping me forever, he’d lost me.
I’d promised to meet him tonight. But the longer I stayed in his presence, the more I realized it was a bad idea. I could have just as easily said what I had to say via email or text. God help me, but those blue eyes and full lips still got to me. I’m not a stupid, careless woman, or at least I try not to be. I knew damned well that just because a lion looks cuddly doesn’t mean it’ll allow you to snuggle up to it. I only wish I’d made the connection before giving my heart to one. Vampires are, for a lack of a better word, predators. The virus that runs through their bloodstream is tainted with centuries of evil. That’s not to say that all vampires are evil; most are not. But it’s like a zebra trying to change its stripes. As much as they want to, their DNA will not allow for change. Somewhere beneath Aiden’s magnificent good looks lay something so much uglier—temptation. That kind of pull will cause a person to do all sorts of crazy things. For a vampire? It could be disastrous. It’s what separates the “good” vampires from the bad. The difference between the two was only as strong as their willpower.
Now, I know it sounds like I’ve jumped on the bandwagon in the “Hating Vampire Campaign”, but it’s so much more than that. I don’t hold any ill will towards the vamps; I just know what they’re capable of now. Before, my view on the fanged was biased, naïve. No matter how tame they seem, how romantic and easy-going, they’re still death incarnate—just like the lion. Where Aiden had lost me from his selfishness; I’d lost my heart from my naivety. We both thought more with our hearts than heads.
“Gwen. Aiden’s voice was soft as he spoke my name. Its melody struck the chords on my fragile heart. I looked up, shoving the reaction out of my mind. I would not get sidetracked by my emotions.
Aiden stepped closer, his hands reaching towards me. I shuffled backwards, afraid of the effect his touch would have on my resolve. Against my better judgment I still loved him. I wished that love could be dissolved just as quickly as trust. But love, real love, held on. It wouldn’t matter if I ever spoke to Aiden after tonight, he was etched within my heart for an eternity. The important thing was learning to let go and turn what we had into a memory. Not so easy when the wound was still so fresh.
I met Aiden’s eyes and held his stare. Flashes of our time together, before the chaos and lies, visited my mind. My eyes blurred with unshed tears, and I cursed myself for allowing my weakness to show. I told myself I was strong, that I could get through this and that I wouldn’t waste another second crying for what I’d lost. Standing in front of the man who had inflicted the pain was difficult. I wasn’t strong, not when he looked at me like that. I couldn’t move past our relationship—move on from him. The tears pooled until they spilled over and trailed down my cheeks. Only, I had to—I had to clutch onto my decision to be strong and move past him, past us. Nothing changed the fact that I did not trust Aiden, and that might have been the hardest pill to swallow.
“There is nothing I can say,” Aiden began, running a hand through his hair. It was a nervous gesture I’d come to associate with him. “Except, that you’ll never know how truly sorry I am. Words are not sufficient enough to voice my regret. I could tell you excuse after excuse to hide what I did behind lovely and heartfelt words. But the action has been done and no words will justify it.” Aiden paused, taking a step forward and then backing away. His fingers flex against the side of his thigh. His eyes held a hint of yearning. I wanted to reach out to him as much as he appeared to want to reach out to me. We were lovers who’d turned into strangers. Once passionate for one another, we were now awkward and unsure.
With a quick swipe of my hand, I cleared the tears from my cheeks and willed myself to stop crying. It made me feel juvenile—weak. A speck of strength still grew within me, and I clutched it tight. It wasn’t the first time my heart had taken a beating, and it wouldn’t be the last. As much as Aiden’s betrayal hurt now, just like everything else, it would fade.
“Are you still drinking?” I managed to ask. The NAWC (North American Witches Council) was working around the clock to fix the spell that protected our blood. News of more murdered witches traveled on the grapevine. The addicts were desperate to get one last taste of what ran through our veins. Unfortunately, replacing the spell was trickier than the NAWC expected, and it was taking longer to procure our safety.
“If I answer, would you even believe me?” Aiden asked.
He had a point. “Humor me.” I could use a truth spell, weave my question with magic and force him to tell me the truth, but something about using magic to obtain what he should rightfully give seemed wrong. I couldn’t gain my trust for him if I had to steal it.
“I have not had a sip since—”
“Since you killed a witch for it?” I finished for him.
Aiden rubbed his chin. “Yes.” He exhaled in frustration, his eyes burning from the inside out. Those eyes once seared my flesh as they roamed over my body. Now they made me feel vulnerable.
“My Gwen,” Aiden said, stepping closer. The scent of soap and warm spices enveloped the air around me. “I’m not asking you to forget what I have done. I’m asking for us to move past it. Something like this will take time, I know, but we both live for a very long time.” He smiled but it was humorless. “I will spend eternity showing you how sorry I am if it means that one day you’ll accept me again.”
I held my head high, not bending under his stare, although I had no doubt he could hear the rapid slamming of my heart against my ribcage. My bravery, where Aiden was concerned, only ran skin deep. Inside was wreckage. But just like everything else, I could rebuild, even strengthen.
“I think space is best for now,” I told him. “I can’t be around you so soon, and pretend everything is normal.”
“That’s not—” Aiden began but I held up a hand to stop him.
“If you haven’t noticed my life is in a serious shit storm right now. We’re still dealing with Holly, and the vampires are in a frenzy to kill as many witches as they can before the protection spell is secured. I cannot add relationship drama into the mix. I know that sounds heartless, but that’s the truth of it.” I restrained a smile, happy my voice came out strong.
“I understand, and if I can help in anyway…”
“I think it’s best you stay away from witches, at least until the spell is back in place.” I paused, debating whether I should ask the question that’d been nagging me. I could let it go, move on... But, I needed to know.
“Why did you do it?”
“I was helping you track down Ian,” Aiden began and I shook my head.
“No, why did you keep drinking witches’ blood? Was it the addiction, or did you crave power like Ian?” It was almost unbearable to think Aiden and Ian could have something so ugly in common. Ian’s consumption of Brew stemmed from his need to obtain the magic within it, and he was very good at it. Then again, Holly—a NAWC council leader—was his teacher, and lover.
“Addiction, and nothing more. I am a vampire, and do not wish to be anything else.”
I nodded. “I’m sorry I got you wrapped up in this mess. If it hadn’t been for me, then you never would have tried Brew. I know our problems are partly my fault.”
Aiden reached his hands out, his fingers running up and down the length of my arms. I didn’t pull away. His fingertips were cool, a sign he hadn’t fed recently. I tried not to think about how he got his food. Aiden didn’t like drinking bagged blood; he preferred it straight from the source. Did that mean that now that we weren’t together his feedings would be more sexual? That he would be injecting the pheromone induced venom into his donor so they felt arousal? I reminded myself that it was none of my business anymore.
“I’m responsible for my own actions, my Gwen. I do not hold you accountable for my choices. Understand?”
“I will give you space,” Aiden continued. “That’s not to say that I’m giving up.”
“We have decades, centuries even. Don’t count me out so soon. I need to know the future holds a chance.” Aiden’s eyes held the question, eager for my answer.
“I don’t want to hang on if you’re letting go,” Aiden added.
Could I say without a doubt that I’d never give Aiden another chance? That I’d never be able to get over his misgivings and move on? No, I couldn’t. Part of me entertained the idea of the distant future holding something to look forward to. If I lived long enough that is. I imagined Aiden was battling some inner demons, a vampire’s midlife crisis of some sort. Maybe it was the reason he acted upon the temptation, maybe not. All I knew was that I couldn’t cut him out of my life completely. I knew without a doubt he loved me, and love is never perfect. Even fairytales have their problems.
“Yes.” I spoke soft, hesitant to give him hope I wasn’t sure would be there come tomorrow. Not that I thought he’d be pining for me until we were together again.
“I love you, Aiden.” I paused when his eyes lit up, catching me off guard. “But the future I’m agreeing to is far away, understand?”
“Of course,” Aiden said. He tried sounding nonchalant but I detected a hint of disappointment. I hated how uncomfortable we were around each other when just a couple weeks ago we’d been sharing lingering looks and enjoying each other’s bodies. The world was a cruel, cruel place. Or maybe I was a glutton for punishment. I could end both of our suffering right here and now if I could just get passed his two indiscretions. It just wasn’t in my nature though. My mother use to tell me that my stubbornness was all my father’s fault. At the time I thought being hard headed meant I was difficult. Now I looked at it as a badge of honor to my character. It allowed me to stand up for myself, to not take the easiest road. If my parents did anything for me, it was giving me that trait. I’d need it more now than ever.
“Have you gotten news of Holly?” Aiden asked.
I appreciated the change of subject, even if it had to do with my potential death.
“The council has rescheduled the trial for another week,” I told him. Charles called me early Monday morning to tell me the news. It should have comforted me, but it had the opposite effect. The sooner Dorian and I told our side of the story—that Holly was the culprit in breaking the protection spell of our blood—the sooner I could stop looking over my shoulder.
“The reason for their delay?” Aiden tucked his hands in the pockets of his tailored pants. The movement caused his jacket to span open, revealing a tightly tucked in crimson dress shirt. The man knew how to rock a suit.
“They’re busy with the spell. That takes priority over a tiff between Holly and me,” I snorted, repeating the words Charles had used. “I agree with them though. Just in a week twenty-four witches have been murdered across the United States.”
It amazed me how the news spread so fast. What, did Holly and Ian send out a newsletter? Just thinking about those two caused pure rage to bubble up. Hate is a strong word, one I don’t use lightly, but IhatedHolly and Ian. Aiden laughed, a deep rumbling in his chest. I looked back at him in confusion.
“I’m sorry,” Aiden began. “I find it funny that they’re fighting to restrain order yet keeping the one responsible from conviction.”
He had a point. “I suspect it’s because the one responsible is a member of the NAWC. If it were me, or any other witch, we’d be pushing up daisies by now.”
I frowned because it was very possible that my death was in the near future. If Holly was anything, it was ruthless. Her spot on the council was power, and she wasn’t about to give it up. I was the only thing separating her from keeping her place with the NAWC and staying out of the coffin. She had to know that the evidence against her was too strong. Not only was I witness to the entire thing, but I also had Dorian and Aiden. Not to mention, I could summon the spirits I’d used the night of the showdown, and order them to testify as well. I’d learned a lot of cool tricks while in Moon and I planned to use them to my advantage.
“You know if you need me all you have to do is say the word,” Aiden said. I must have looked overwhelmed because his tone was reassuring. I sent him a small smile, but made a mental note not to depend on him anymore. I couldn’t look to him for comfort or protection, not anymore. From now it was me, myself and I. My only option left was to be strong, and I was ready to test my strength.
On the drive back from Aiden’s house I thought about our relationship. Man, it sucked we found ourselves in the awkward place we now were. The temptation to forgive him was overwhelming. Everything within me still yearned for him, needed him. So why the hell wasn’t I turning my car around and heading back to his place for an epic make-up session? This is where the stubbornness would come into play. If I swept Aiden’s betrayal under the rug, then it was possible he’d deceive me again. He needed to know that I wouldn’t tolerate his lies, whether Brew was to blame or not. I learned people will treat me the way I allow them to. I had enough to worry about without wondering whether or not the man I loved was keeping secrets. So, because I’m hard-headed, we both had to suffer. And let’s not forget he killed a witch. Murder is a pretty serious offense in my book.
My heart was bruised, but I refused to cower under the pain. After a couple of pity parties I pulled on my big girl panties and decided to put on a brave face. It didn’t matter how strong the ache inside my chest was. I’d never show that pain to the world, especially when my life could be in danger.
Pulling into the small parking lot in front of my apartment building, I shut off my jeep and just sat. The apartment complex was one big rectangular building with windows running in twin rows horizontally. A rusted metal staircase led to the second floor where my place was. It was rather unspectacular in appearance. At twenty-six, this was not where I’d seen my life ending up. With Fiona in Moon, expanding her magic and love life, I never felt like more of a loser.
Big girl panties! No more pity parties, Gwen.
Tucking my depression back into the furthest corners of my mind, I exited my car. As I headed up the small concrete path, careful not to slip on the thin sheet of ice covering it, I sensed movement to my right. As I turned my head, a voice from my left called, scaring the bejeezus out of me and down I went. With a hard thump I landed on my behind, wincing as a string of colorful curses flitted through my tight lips. Wearing high-heeled boots in winter was tempting fate, especially since I was born with two left feet. I leaned forward so that I was on my hands and knees, carefully pulling my feet up under my body to stand. A deep masculine laugh taunted my ears and another string of colorful language was my response.
“A gentleman would help me up.”
“If one happens to come along, I’ll be sure to grab him,” Dorian responded.
I managed to stand, my legs wobbly like that time Bambi braved the frozen lake. If I recalled correctly, his friends laughed at his clumsiness too. My eyes instantly found Dorian and his amused grin.Jerk.He was leaning against the building, his arms crossed. Deciding not to chance the icy path again, I stepped onto the frost-covered grass. I’d definitely have a bruised bum come morning.
Ignoring Dorian, I made my way up the rickety stairwell. I only made it halfway before he stopped me.
“Did you forget about training?”
“No.” I continued up the stairs.
“Gwen, we had a deal,” Dorian reminded me. “I’m staying with you to teach you how to be a spirit walker. If you don’t take advantage of my teachings then you’re only hurting yourself.”
I paused, my hand gripping the cold steel of the railing. Looking over my shoulder I eyed Dorian at the bottom. Sometimes he could be a smartass, and other times he sounded like a teacher scolding a child. Since I’ve been taking care of myself since I was sixteen, it annoyed me to be treated as such. Still, I knew I needed to embrace my abilities and that meant dealing with the self-righteous angel of Death.
“Let me help sway your indecision.” Dorian climbed up the first few steps. “I’m teaching you hand-to-hand combat. I’ll be your punching bag tonight.”
Was it wrong that excitement was my first response? It’s not like I’m an aggressive woman but I could see the benefits of blowing off some pent up stress by taking my frustrations out on Dorian. As I rolled the idea around in my head, another thought popped into my head.
“Why do I need to learn hand-to-hand combat? As far I know ghosts can’t physically hurt me.”
“Not all of your enemies will always be in spirit form.”
Like I could forget— my days and nights seemed to slow to a crawl as I anticipated Holly’s strike. After a week of nothing happening I was starting to believe I was more paranoid than anything.
“Yeah, but I can use my magic to defend myself.” I shrugged. Dorian looked away, his hand going up to rub the back of his neck. He looked down at his booted feet, avoiding my waiting stare for as long as he could. He was hiding something. It couldn’t have been more obvious.
“What?” I prompted. “What is it now?”
Dorian looked up, the corners of his mouth turned down as he hesitated to speak. I arched my eyebrows at him in a “come-on-already” stare.
Dorian took a ragged breath, which meant I wouldn’t like what he was about to tell me. “You’re embracing the spirit walker side,” he began, and I waited for him to explain. “There are rules, Gwen. You can’t be both things—a regular witch and spirit walker. Once you pick a side, the other fades.”
“What?” I shrieked. Since I had been so busy with training with Dorian, I hadn’t used my other, normal witchy powers. Granted, I didn’t use them a lot anyway. I didn’t like to depend on magic for everything, but it came in handy if I needed to conjure an item in a snap or zap a threat.
“And you’re just now telling me this?”
“I knew what your reaction would be,” Dorian said. “And becoming a spirit walker is more important than being able to create clothes and do your makeup.”
My mouth dropped open in disbelief. “Why don’t you tell me what you really think of me?” My tone dripped with angry sarcasm. “Is that what you see when you look at me? A superficial woman more worried about stocking her closet than her responsibilities?”
The funny thing was I had always said those exact words about Fiona. I didn’t mean it to be hurtful though, and now it seemed I was just like her, at least in Dorian’s eyes. It shouldn’t have bothered me as much as it did. I knew who I was and screw what his impression of me was. Yet, it did bother me.
“I didn’t mean it like that.” Dorian took a couple steps up. The strong features of his face softened as he looked at me. “I’m just saying that you may lose your magic, but you’re gaining power. Do you have any idea how many witches would love to be a spirit walker? Not everyone is cut out for it.”
I released my anger. Since returning from Flora I’d been on edge and moody, a ball of frazzled nerves. Thinking about what he said, the annoyance ebbed away. I’d embraced my spirit walker self and if that meant losing my physical magic, then so be it. The other option would be to refuse it and go insane from it. And what kind of option was that? So I wouldn’t be able to conjure items, glamour my appearance or cast spells. There were worst things.
“It just caught me off guard,” I admitted. It was yet another piece of my former self I was losing. But I tried seeing it as evolving for the better instead of losing anything. I was determined to look on the bright side even if my life was dark and scary. I couldn’t allow things that were out of my control shake me.
“So you ready to kick my ass?” Dorian grinned causing me to smile.
“I thought you’d never ask.”
* * *
“How did the talk with Mr. Wonderful go?” Dorian was driving my Jeep down Main Street. I eyed the strip of businesses lining the street, their artsy signs glowing above their doors. As we passed my store, Broomsticks, a wave of guilt gnawed at me. I hadn’t worked very much since returning home. There always seemed to be something else more pressing to do, like training for the impending attack I wasn’t sure would ever come.
“Don’t,” I bit out, shooting Dorian a warning glare. It wasn’t a secret that he didn’t like Aiden and vice versa. As far as I knew, Dorian had never been in a relationship so I didn’t expect him to understand what I was going through. Whenever he brought up my ex, I made a point to either warn him away from the topic or change it altogether. I wasn’t sure if that was because I didn’t want him poking the fresh wound, or if I was embarrassed about being deceived so easily. Sometimes I wondered if I looked up the word “fool” in the dictionary if I would find my picture. I was too afraid to check with Mr. Webster though.
“That bad, huh?” True to his character, Dorian didn’t drop it. Heaven forbid a woman (me) gave into one man (Aiden) and not him. It wouldn’t surprise me if Dorian had never been rejected in his life. I knew what irked him about Aiden was the fact that when we were in Moon, I wouldn’t swoon under his charms and betray my love for Aiden. I mentally snorted at myself. A lot of good my loyalty had done me in the end.
“We had a civilized conversation and that is all I’m going to say about it,” I told him. When he didn’t respond I looked over at him. He was shaking his head back and forth, a bemused look on his face.
“What?” I asked, annoyed with his unspoken words. Dorian shifted, realizing I was watching him. He glanced at me before looking back at the road.
He shrugged. “He’s a fool. If you were mine I wouldn’t give you up so easily.” He threw another glance my way. “I should send him a thank-you card though; had he fought for you, then I wouldn’t get my shot to prove to you what you’ve been missing out on.”
His comment half offended, half excited me. “It wouldn’t matter how hard he fought; he knows I’m resolute in my decision to take time away from him.”
Dorian snorted. “He either doesn’t know how to claim what he wants or he doesn’t care enough to get it.” He slid me a sidelong glance. “I couldn’t watch you walk away.” His eyebrows dipped together and his mouth quirked up on the side. The confusion on his face belied the confidence of his words.
“Even you will eventually tire of being rejected and move on. You don’t strike me as the kind of man who exerts energy on something with no reward.” I turned my head, looking out the window with a small smile on my lips. Screwing with Dorian was the perfect distraction for my abused brain.
“There will be a reward.” Dorian’s voice was low and smooth—promising. A small tingle prickled along my skin. He pulled alongside the road, turning the key to shut the car off and got out. I followed him, slamming the door behind me a little too hard. I stared ahead unenthused at the open field as Dorian started making his way across it. When he was fifty or so feet ahead of me, he turned back and motioned for me to join him. Stomping through the tall grass in high-heeled boots was not easy. I wasn’t sure how long it’d be before the magic left, but if learning to throw a punch could save my life then I’d grin and bear the bad news he gave me at the apartment.
“This doesn’t seem like it’s in your job description,” I told him.
“Spirit walkers derive from me,” Dorian said. “Since the numbers are dwindling, and there aren’t enough to take on the task of training, it’s in my hands.” He shrugged out of his leather jacket, setting it off to the side. A tiny part within me was excited to spar with Death. I had been fighting for my life for the past few months, it was nice to have a tangible thing to take my frustrations out on.
Dorian had chosen a large grassy field that sat outside of town. The glow of the moon bathed the landscape in its silver light. Ice crystals clung to the meadow and glistened. A few lazy clouds hung against the star encrusted sky.
“Okay, feet shoulder width apart,” Dorian stepped closer, placing his leg between mine and nudging my legs wider. He reached down and clasped my wrists in his hands, bending my arms up in front of my face. I squeezed my fingers into a tight fist; a smile playing on my lips, mimicking the one on Dorian’s face. He was wearing a grey thermal shirt, snug enough to see the definition of his strong arms and sculpted chest. His warm hands lingered on mine a little too long before he took a step back.
“I want you to punch my hands, alternating with your right and left.” He held his hands out in front of me, and all of a sudden I felt silly. When I hesitated, Dorian lifted an eyebrow and said, “Come on, witch, give it your best shot.”
No more prodding needed, I struck my right fist out and connected to the meaty flesh of his palm. A loud smack echoed through the night as a stinging sensation crawled its way through my fingers.
“Again,” Dorian ordered.
I struck, this time with my left fist.
Thwack.I punched with my right and then my left over and over, gaining speed and pain as my fists made contact with Dorian’s hand. After ten minutes, or it could have been an hour, Dorian caught my fist. My breathing was labored and a thin sheen of sweat blanketed my forehead while Dorian looked unfazed by my assault.Jerk.
“Good job. You’re not as fragile as you look, princess,” Dorian chuckled. That comment earned him a kick to the shin since he still had my hand pinned. He cringed but shook it off. A wide smile spread across my lips.
“Ew, she’s got a temper too,” Dorian said, releasing my hand and walking a slow circle around me. I pivoted my head to watch him, my body tensing up for his next move. He stopped just behind me, his body pressing against my back. Leaning down, he rested his face against the side of mine so that his lips were poised next to my ear. I bit my lip to restrain my grin from widening. Ever so slowly, Dorian’s arm snaked around my waist, his large hand slipping beneath my unzipped jacket to rest on my stomach. I ignored the tingles that his touch caused, keeping my head in the game. I concentrated on anything but the feel of his hard body behind me and the flexing of his fingers as he bunched my shirt, causing it to rise a little bit.
“Now, what do you do if your attacker comes from behind?” Dorian whispered. Since it was him playing the part of the attacker, the only thought that came to mind was,let him have his way with me.I’m sure that answer would have pleased Dorian, but we were out here tonight to train, not to flirt.
Instinctively, my hand began to glow as magic rushed to my fingertips.
“Ah ahah,” Dorian tsked. “No magic.”
Ignoring him, I reached my arm up and zapped his hand. When Dorian released me I turned around quick and sent my arm flying through the air and toward his face. I wasn’t quick enough though; he caught my fist midair.
“Nice try, cupcake, but when your magic fails that won’t work. Let’s try again, this time no cheating.”
“There’s no cheating in a fight,” I told him. “It’s play dirty or die.”
The side of Dorian’s mouth lifted up into a smirk. “You may just survive Holly’s wrath after all.”
I frowned. Had he thought I wouldn’t? If Death wasn’t on my side then I was in some serious trouble. I never asked Dorian when I would die, though I knew he knew. The idea was tempting but too scary to voice.
In position behind me again, Dorian asked, “What do you do?”
I remembered the countless movies I’d watched where women took self-defense classes. Though I couldn’t remember all the steps, I knew one. Rising my leg up, knee bent, I thrust it down as hard as I could and stomped on Dorian’s instep. He released me but as I took a step away he reached out and grabbed my arm. Swinging around I—and I’m not proud of this— swatted at his hand.
“Well that’s not going to hurt anyone,” Dorian teased.
Deciding my legs could do more damage than my fists; I raised my leg again and kicked out toward his chest. Releasing my hand, he quickly blocked the blow of my spiked boot. He tugged upwards, throwing me off balance. I landed with a hard thump on my butt, Dorian stood over me with a satisfied smile on his lips.
“You’re adorable when you pout.”
“I’m not pouting,” I snapped, getting to my feet. I wanted to smack the smug smile off his lips. Stalking towards him, I threw my right arm out and then my left. Dorian blocked each of my blows but that didn’t stop me. I kept coming at him, determined to land a hit. Dorian stepped back and I pushed forward. Punch, block, punch, block. It was a never-ending battle. His soft chuckles taunted me, driving me forward and making my anger skyrocket. Finally I decided to take my own advice—play dirty or die. I directed all of the magic flowing through my body to both of my hands. They lit up like I was holding two balls of bright, blue light. The hesitation in Dorian’s steps was the confidence booster I needed. Flinging my hands in front of me, I cast my magic out and towards Dorian’s chest. It wouldn’t kill him, but it would sting like a son of a bitch.
The magic smashed into his stomach, throwing him back a couple feet where he landed on his side. I was breathing so hard I had to concentrate on slowing the rapid intake of air. When Dorian didn’t move, didn’t pop up and make some sarcastic comment, fear replaced my exhaustion. I rushed towards him, falling on my knees to inspect his body. His chest still rose and fell with steady breath.
“Dorian?” I shook his shoulder. Fisting his jacket, I turned him over so that I could see his face. His sunglasses had flown off and his eyelids were closed. I leaned down to listen to his heartbeat. The calming thump of his heart echoed in his chest. Leaning back up, I shifted my eyes to his face and then to where I’d hit him. With nervous fingers I lifted his shirt up to reveal his taut stomach. There wasn’t a mark, not even a scratch from where my magic had blasted him.
“Dorian, wake up!” I tapped his cheek soft at first and then harder. His eyes flinched, a smile lifting his mouth up. Relief washed through me, and then anger. How dare he pretend to be knocked out. His little stunt had about given me a heart attack. I leaned back on my heels, ready to stand up and leave him lying in the field, when he reached out for my arm and I lost my balance. I fell on top of him, his arms encircling my waist and holding me prisoner.
“Let go,” I warned.
He snorted, that damned smile still holding strong. “I said no magic.”
“And I said there are no rules when it comes to fighting. Now that we’re caught up on the conversation, let me go.” I struggled against his body, trying to get my hands underneath me to lift myself up, but Dorian’s hold was unyielding. I was in an awkward position, half on top of him and half off. My legs weren’t any good because if I tried to use them to push myself up, my face planted into Dorian’s chest. I kept my face turned away from him; otherwise we’d be nose to nose. I could only imagine what I looked like. Luckily there weren’t any other witnesses to my shame.
“You can wiggle all you want,” Dorian said. “I’m rather enjoying it.” At that I stilled, my body going limp and melting against his. Now that I’d calmed down, I noticed the scent of his cologne—woodsy and clean. I wanted to inhale deep, take it into my lungs and store it in my memory, but that would have defeated the point I was trying to make. I was mad, reeling and frustrated beyond belief. But man, did he smell good, and the feel of his body just beneath mine threatened to penetrate my determination.
His fingers flexed on the small of my back. Frustrations gone, I was hyperaware of those hands and the path they were beginning to follow. I held my breath as they slid across the hollow of my back. My shirt had come up a little bit with my earlier struggle, and the warmth of Dorian’s fingers on my bare skin was making me forget why I was mad in the first place.
“Don’t you think we should talk about what happened in Massachusetts?” Dorian’s voice was low, smooth and raspy with his inner thoughts. Given what question he’d just asked, I could guess what he was thinking about.
I released the breath I’d been holding, unsure how to respond. We’d come so close to sealing the deal and now it was the constant elephant in the room. Dorian wanted to discuss it while I wanted to ignore it. I wanted to flirt and train with Dorian, not categorize our relationship. Those kinds of conversations always led to rules, intense emotions and heartbreak. Since my heart was already broken, I was a bit protective of it. Not that Dorian was looking to sweep me off my feet. He’d told me multiple times that he didn’t do the whole relationship thing. No, his motto was more of the ‘wham-bam, thank you ma’am’ variety than the hopeless romantic so many women are looking for. Though I doubted he ever told the women thank you. I smiled through my nerves, imagining Dorian devoted to one woman and mushy. It just didn’t fit the man.
“Can you please let me go?” I couldn’t have this conversation while in such an awkward position.
“Since you asked so nicely,” Dorian said with a smile in his voice. His arms fell away from my waist and I crawled backwards off him. Sitting crossed-legged, I picked a piece of grass and studied it. Dorian didn’t push; he laid beside me waiting and staring up at the night sky. A million excuses ran through my mind, none of them helpful. Like earlier tonight, this was yet another conversation that needed to be visited. I just hope it went as well as the one with Aiden.
“Massachusetts was…” I searched for the right word, something efficient enough to get my point across, but not too harsh. Dorian didn’t seem like the type to have his pride tested. And in truth I did like him, maybe a little more than I should. His kiss was imprinted in my mind. No matter how many times I told myself to forget about him, at least until my life was sorted out, my brain wouldn’t let go.
“Was…?” Dorian drawled the question out.
I looked up through the curtain of my black hair that’d fallen over my right eye. Dorian had his arms bent behind his head, his body stretched out along the ground. Though it was the middle of January the cold didn’t seem to affect him. He drove his motorcycle twelve months a year. I, on the other hand, was starting to shiver. We hadn’t gotten a lot of snow, but the temperature of the icy cold ground was soaking through my jeans and straight into my bones.
“It was great, considering,” I said.
I so did not want to have this conversation. Discussing feelings and heartache to a man who didn’t feel those things was nearly impossible.
“I’d just broken up with Aiden. I know you’re an emotionless tough guy, but I’m not. Ending things with him crushed me.” Dorian grumbled and I frowned.
“Yet you kissed me, a lot.”
“I know,” I whispered. I knew his next question would be why. Why had I kissed him if I was pining for Aiden? To that I did not have a response, at least not one that would please him. I had two reasons: I was attracted to Dorian, plain and simple. And I thought by giving in to him for one night, it would erase Aiden from my mind. I couldn’t tell him that though. It was too cruel.
“You’re wrong you know,” Dorian said after a while. I looked over at him, studied the way his hair swayed as the winter breeze stirred it. His eyes were closed as if he were completely content to stay in the middle of the field all night. As for me, I was freezing my ass off. When I didn’t respond he peeked through one eye to look at me. Catching my stare, Dorian propped himself up on his elbows. We were locked in each other’s gazes. The gloominess of his eyes was difficult to see in the darkness, but I could tell the clouds were light, calm even.
“What am I wrong about?” I spoke soft, undecided to whether I wanted to hear his answer. Something told me that when it came to Dorian, I was wrong about a lot of things.
“I’m not emotionless,” he replied just as soft. “I care about you. I didn’t know why I placed myself in your path, not at first.” He took a deep breath and then settled back down on the ground. “I told myself it was because of what you are, and it was my job to direct you to do my bidding.”
I snorted and shook my head. The moonlight highlighted the slight upturn of Dorian’s lips. He was such a cocky bastard sometimes. Another tidbit I’d learned while in Moon was that Spirit Walkers use to be Death’s bounty hunters. They tracked down spirits and escorted them to the realm of the dead. Since my kind was quickly becoming extinct, Dorian was forced to work in the field too.
“But,” Dorian continued, interrupting my thoughts. “My interest in you has nothing to do with what you can do for me, at least not job wise.”
I yanked a handful of grass up and threw it at him. He chuckled, brushing the blades off his face.
“I’m trying to have anemotionalmoment here. Stop ruining it. It may be the last one you ever witness.” When I did not respond, he continued. “What I’m trying to say is that you’ve affected me in a way I never expected. For such a stubborn, smart mouthed woman you sure do know how to charm men.”
Okay, so he had some work to do where sweet-talking was concerned, but his compliment/insult still had the same affect. Emotions I tried to ignore bloomed within me, straining for attention. I tamped them back down but could not contain the smile that slipped onto my lips.
The next morning I tried slipping out of the apartment before Dorian woke up. I tiptoed down the hallway as to not disturb his sleep. Making my way into the kitchen, I grabbed my coat and slipped it on, weaving a gray scarf around my neck. Last night had not offered a lot of sleep. My mind was too occupied with Dorian’s emotional spill and the thought of losing my magic forever. I’d come to depend on it much more than I realized, even though I didn’t use it 24/7. It was my security blanket, and like a small child I wanted to throw a tantrum that it’d be taken away.
“Where are you going?”
I jumped when Dorian’s voice sounded from behind me.
“To work,” I told him. “You know, that thing that pays the bills?” The lack of sleep might have made me a little grumpy, or maybe it was the constant questioning from him. Either way, I didn’t want to listen to his lecture about being precautious.
“I’ll send Eddie to watch over you,” Dorian said.
I’d not only acquired Death as a roommate, but a ghost named Eddie. We’d picked him up while at the bed and breakfast. Dorian used him from time to time to track down spirits and whatever else he didn’t feel like doing. Since returning to Flora, Eddie had made himself scarce, choosing to hang out in the cemetery rather than my tiny apartment.
“I’ll be fine,” I said. “Shouldn’t you be, you know, collecting the souls of the dead?” I still had no clue what Dorian’s job description entailed. He’s the Angel of Death, sure, but people died every single day and here he was hanging out in Flora.
“Death comes whether I’m there or not,” Dorian replied. “I’m simply the one to make people reach their expiration date.”
I sneered. “That’s a heartless way to put it.”
“According to you I don’t have a heart so I’m sticking with my character,” Dorian bit out. He may have been a little ticked that I didn’t respond to his heartfelt speech last night. I listened, nodded and then complained that I was cold and wanted to head home. Dorian showed me a vulnerable side of himself and I ruined the moment.
I took a deep breath, annoyed with myself and Dorian. “I didn’t meanyou’reheartless. It’s just difficult to talk to you about things when you don’t seem to have any emotions where people are concerned.”
Dorian stepped towards me. I watched the way the thin t-shirt hugged his chest and the looseness of his pajama pants hung. That nagging voice inside my head asked why the hell I hadn’t given into him already. Chills that had nothing to do with the temperature in the room radiated throughout my body. My fingers itched to reach out and span the broadness of his shoulders; to move upwards and into his silky smooth hair. I imagined myself doing it: gaining courage and letting go of my inhibitions. I was lost in the thought of what I wanted to do with him. My eyes closed in a long blink as I remembered how his strong arms felt circled around my waist, tugging me toward his body. The way his mouth felt on my lips and the taste of his tongue as it massaged mine. My body quivered for him.
Dorian stepped closer, his fingers curling around my waist and guiding my body to his. I looked up; my breathing shallow and my heart pumping like a wild animal. I loved these moments: when we were close and the only conversation was held between the stares of our hungry eyes. The attraction was real. There was no denying it. In these moments my feelings couldn’t be excused as anything else. I was an open book and Dorian read me.
“I…have to go.”
“Then go,” Dorian said softly. It came out sounding like a challenge to my ears. And it was difficult to remove myself from his embrace and walk out the door. How wonderful it would be to spend the entire day curled up with him. I smiled, my earlier frustrations forgotten. He had a way of making that happen without my knowledge. One minute I would resent him and the next I was losing myself in the cloudy abyss in his eyes.
“Promise not to send Eddie?”
“I do not,” he said with a shake of his head.
The annoyance was back. Turning out of his arms, I grabbed my keys and purse. I wanted one day without a reminder of what my life had turned into. Before I knew I could see and control ghosts, before the distribution of Brew had thrown my entire world off its axis. The days when I was a simple witch with a magic shop, and the most exciting thing to happen to me was getting new shipments in. It sounds pathetic, I know, but it was my life. Each day a little bit of the woman I used to be was erased and replaced with one I didn’t recognize.
“I’ll be working late,” I told Dorian as I left.
* * *
“Good morning,” I said as I walked through the front door of my shop, Broomsticks. I hadn’t worked much since returning to Flora and the guilt was eating me up. Penny had been my rock, taking care of the store and even setting up a website so that we could sell online.
“Hey,” Penny greeted me. “I didn’t know you were coming in today.”
“Yeah, sorry I’ve been such a slacker lately. From now on I’ll be back to my regular schedule.”
I stowed my jacket and purse beneath the front counter and slipped out the folder that contained shipping invoices. I needed to take inventory and order more products otherwise Broomsticks wouldn’t be in business much longer.
“Not a slacker at all,” Penny said coming up to lean on the counter. “Just busy. Besides, you’re the boss which means you can have minions to do work for you.”
I laughed and looked up at her. “Only villains have minions. Is that what you think of me?”
“Of course not, but the idea of having minions might be enough to tempt me into becoming one myself.”
“Would your plan be to blow up the world unless the government paid you one hundred cajillion dollars?” Penny gave me that look—the one that said she thought I was a dork.
“Austin Powerswas on TV the other night,” I explained.
Penny laughed. “No, I’d be a much better villain than Dr. Evil.”
“I don’t know, with a name like that it’s hard to be eviler.” We both smiled and shook our heads. It was amazing the random things I found myself talking to Penny about. My eye caught sight of something moving along the shelves towards the back of the store.
“Eddie, get your butt up here,” I called.
“Who’s Eddie?” Penny asked, craning her neck to see what I was looking at.
“He’s a ghost,” I told her. When Eddie didn’t appear, I walked around the counter and headed back to where I saw him. For most people, tracking down a spirit who didn’t want to be found was next to impossible. For me it was quite simple.
“What’s a ghost doing in Broomsticks?” Penny asked right behind me, causing me to jump. She seemed frightened herself so I smiled in hopes of reassuring her everything was okay.
“He’s…a friend,” I told her.
Closing my eyes I concentrated on pinpointing where he was hiding while I continued to walk down the aisle.
“Edddiee,” I drawled. “Come out, come out wherever you are.” I felt a cold gust of wind whoosh past in front of my face and then disappear. Opening my eyes, I rushed forward, following the icy coldness of the ghost. As I rounded the corner, I caught sight of a white mist disappearing behind another shelf. I ran forward, wanting to end the game of cat and mouse. Just as I reached my hand out to grab him, Eddie floated through the wall. Grumbling in frustration, I turned around and headed back to my office.
“So you have a ghost as a friend?” Penny asked, following me through the door that led to the back of the store.
“Kinda. Hey, why don’t you take today off? You’ve been working non-stop for the last few weeks. You deserve a break.” All of that was true, but I could tell that having a ghost in the store creeped her out. I didn’t want her more freaked out when Eddie decided to pop back up.
“Are you sure?” Penny asked with uncertainty. She looked over her shoulder then around the small stock room.
“Yeah, I’m sure. Go have some fun for a change.” I retrieved the office laptop and together Penny and I walked back up front. Through the large bay window I could see sleet beginning to fall. There wouldn’t be a lot of business today.
“All right. I’ll see you tomorrow?” Penny asked as she put her coat on and headed toward the door.
“Absolutely,” I told her, unlocking the door and holding it open. When she left I flipped the closed sign to open and headed back to the counter. Setting the computer down, I picked up a notepad and decided to take inventory while the store was empty.
After an hour I was almost done and about dead from boredom. My mind was otherwise engaged, and I couldn’t concentrate on ordering more potions and knick-knacks. I was sitting at the counter with my computer open and filling out an order form when the bell above the door chimed. Mrs. Dobson was the only customer through the door today and she was only here for the basic spell casting supplies: candles, dried herbs and oils.
When I saw the face of my new customer the red flags went up. I didn’t recognize him which was strange in a town as small as Flora. He was tall, maybe six-foot-two, and almost as skinny as a skeleton. His cheeks were sunken and dark circles ringed his gray eyes. The military style jacket he wore was dirty in various spots and ripped in others. He had buzzed, sandy brown hair and a piercing in his left earlobe. When he turned to look back at the door, I caught site of a dagger tattoo etched along the length of his neck. Definitely not from Flora.
“Can I help you?” I slid off the stool, and crossed my fisted hands across my chest to hide my nervousness.
The man jerked his head in my direction, his eyes menacing. “Perhaps,” he said. “You Gwen Sparks?”
“No,” I said feigning confusion.
The man stepped closer and I took a step back, hitting my back against the wall. A devious smile curled his lips, and he reached behind his back and pulled out a double-edged dagger.
“I think you are her,” the man said, waving the blade and watching as the lights reflected against its sharp edge.
“I’m not,” I told him again. “You don’t want to kill the wrong person, do you?”
The man shrugged his bony shoulders. “I could be wrong, you could be someone else, but I don’t think I am. And if it turns out I am…oh well.”
Shit, shit, shit.
I tried to focus on my magic, direct it to my trembling hands, but the man rushed me. He bolted for me and I scrambled in the other direction. Just as I was about to jump over the counter, I was yanked back by my hair. A scream bubbled up my throat and filled the store with my terror. Reaching my hands up, I tried to break his hold on me, but fighting backwards wasn’t doing any good. Though fear consumed me, I channeled my magic to my fingertips and zapped the man’s hands. Still he didn’t let go.
Shit, shit, shit.My mind screamed again.
Before I could think of what else to do, the guy yanked me back further and then shoved me forward, slamming my face against the hard Formica. Stars and black fuzziness obscured my vision, but I fought to stay conscious. Blood gushed down my nostrils and onto my lips and counter. It took me a few seconds to come back to reality, pushing through the haze of dizziness.
“I think I’ll take my time with you,” the man remarked with sadistic excitement. I yelped when he tugged on my hair again. Unless I wanted to have a bald spot I needed to go in the direction he was pulling. When I was standing up straight again, he turned me around to face him. His eyes were alight with satisfaction, and he waved the dagger inches in front of me.
“Sit,” he ordered. When I didn’t listen to him, his hand came up and a white-hot burn heated the side of my face. The fuzzy stars that were starting to fade popped back up. My skull rattled with the hit and an instant migraine assaulted my head.
“Sit!” he screamed.
I was consumed by rage, driven over the edge by fear and the pain he caused. I sneered at him through the haze and the strands of my hair hanging in my face. I was breathing heavily and my hands lit up like lanterns. The man glanced down at my arms, a smirk lifting his mouth.
“Go ahead, hit me with your best shot.”
I didn’t need to be told twice. I raised my hands and threw the magic towards him giving him everything I had. The magic washed over his body and vanished. Just…vanished.
What the hell?
“Your magic can’t save you this time.”
I whirled around and tried to jump over the counter again but like before, the man ripped a handful of my hair backwards and I fell to the floor. He knelt in front me, the dagger pointed toward my face.
“Man,” he snorted to himself. “Who’d you piss off to warrant a visit from one of us?”
“Who are you….whatare you?” I hadnever seen anyone able to withstand a hit of magic, except for Dorian and even it affected him a little. Not this guy. “Are you an angel?”
That made the man laugh out loud, “The furthest thing from it.” The amusement was gone from his eyes in an instant. He was all business again; focused on me and the blade. My indecision was soul shattering. I had no clue how to escape this guy when my magic didn’t so much as leave a scratch on him. There was no way I was going to die in my shop, that much I did know.
I kicked my leg out, my foot landing in the center of his chest. He stumbled backwards but held his balance; now more pissed than before. He swung the arm with the dagger in it backwards and then sent it downward. Everything was in slow motion as I watched the blade cut through the air and towards me. Out of instinct, I raised my arms to protect my face and was rewarded with a slash across my forearm. A bloodcurdling scream left my lips as I grabbed my arm and squeezed. It was no use though. The cut was too deep and the blood just kept flowing. The gash left my skin flayed open in two thick strips. Tears streaked down my cheeks as I continued to hold my arm and stare at the man. The scent of my coppery blood filled my nostrils. If I concentrated on it I knew I’d pass out.
A crash sounded from behind me. I couldn’t tell what had happened because my back was towards the noise and I was not taking my eyes off of the psycho in front of me. The man stood with a sick sneer on his face as he greeted the new arrival. While my attacker’s attention was occupied I tried to stand up again. It was a bit difficult using one arm, but I managed.
What I saw was the most beautiful site a dying woman can ask for—an angel. Dorian stood on the other side of the counter, his body so rigid it could have been carved out of stone. The temperature in the store dropped at least twenty degrees, and I could have sworn I heard his teeth crack under the pressure of his jaw.
“Death has come to claim you,” the psycho said to me. “I’m not quite done with her yet and I do so love taking my time,” he told Dorian.
“She won’t be dying today,” Dorian bit out.
“No?” my attacker questioned. “She’s lost a lot of blood already.”
I checked my wound and he was right. My arm, fingers, sweater and jeans were stained with blood. I thought the wooziness that swam through my head was a result of all of the blows to the head, but now I knew the real reason. I was dying.
The man slipped behind me, either to block himself from Dorian or because he wanted to inflict more pain. He wrapped one arm around my throat while the other closed around my waist. The scruff of his jaw scrapped against the side of my face as he rested his chin on my shoulder. I shivered in disgust, wanting to remove every trace of him from my body.
“Do you think you can kill me before I kill her?” He dragged his arm back so that the dagger rested against my jugular. The cold steel bit into my skin as my throat bobbed up and down with my sobs. I kept my eyes locked on Dorian, needing my last vision to be of something good. The guy pressed the knife harder when Dorian took a step closer. I held my breath, too afraid to move lest I force the blade to slice a sensitive area.
“You have two choices here,” Dorian said.
I could feel the man’s cheeks spread into a smile against my face. “Ooh, I can’t wait to hear them.” His voice was filled with mock enthusiasm.
“You can let her go, answer a few questions and be on your way or I can kill you right here and now.”
“Tempting,” my attacker said pretending to think about it. “I gather she means something to you. Death doesn’t save lives after all.”
Only the slightest twitch of Dorian’s lips betrayed that the psycho was right. I didn’t know if the man had noticed it, but it didn’t matter. He was right—Death took lives, not restored them. As soon as Dorian defended me, my attacker knew something was fishy.
The man snorted. “Death is sweet on a woman? Go figure. See, I think you’d do whatever you could to make sure this blade”—the man pressed the knife tighter against my throat—“doesn’t find its way into your lady friend’s neck.”
I gasped as a searing pain burned along my throat and wet droplets fell against my chest. My body sagged from the exhaustion of the fight, blood loss and the impact my head had taken. It caused the knife to bite against my skin harder. The pain was almost non-existent now; my body was numb.
“Enough,” Dorian growled. “Gwen, look at me.” I dragged my eyes up to meet his, fighting to stay conscious. My head felt too heavy for my shoulders. It took concentration that I didn’t have to hold it up.
“That’s right—just keep your eyes on me.”
Dorian’s body was blurry to my weary eyes, but I continued to stare at his outline, wishing I could just fall asleep and forget all about the nightmare I was living. The man grunted, his arms squeezing me tighter and cutting off my supply of oxygen. My head fell, swaying to the side and going limp with the rest of my body. If the guy wasn’t holding me up, I would have crumpled to the floor.
“Gwen, look at me. Stay with me,” Dorian ground out. I couldn’t raise my head again, not when it weighed a hundred pounds, but I held onto his voice, allowing it to comfort me.
My attacker grunted again, a deep rumble at first and then a screech that pierced my skull, causing me to flinch. His grip loosened, his hands slipping a little bit. I fought to keep my legs under me, but they wobbled beneath my weight. I heard a thump behind me, but it took me a moment to register that I wasn’t in the man’s arms anymore. He was sprawled on the floor, his eyes wide and lifeless.
A new set of arms encompassed my body, the smell of leather filling the air around me. I was hoisted up against Dorian. There was another crash before he lay me down on something hard.
“Gwen?” Dorian’s smooth voice flowed over me like silk. “Help is on the way, stay with me.”
Stay with me.I clung to those words, promising that if I lived through this I wouldn’t take my feelings for Dorian for granted anymore. Cool lips brushed my forehead as soft fingertips caressed my cheek. It was the last sensation I had before my eyes fell shut and I drifted into oblivion.
“I think she’s waking up,” I heard someone say. My eyelids were heavy, making it a great effort to get them open. Blinking, I saw glimpses of bodies hovering nearby. Their outlines were blurry figures in the distance that didn’t make sense to my jarred brain.
“Gwen, you’re in the hospital,” a woman said close to me.
The last thing I remembered was Dorian whispering in my ear, though I couldn’t remember what he had said. Someone slipped their hand in mine and squeezed while using their other hand to brush strands of hair out my face. The coolness of their skin on mine was refreshing. Giving it one more try, I strained to open my eyes. I managed three-quarters of the way but could now tell that I was in a white room. The air was stale and did nothing to help my dry throat. A beeping noise sounded next to me and when I tried to lift my arm something caught on the sheet. The longer I was awake, the easier it got to open my eyes and put a coherent thought together.
The first face I saw was Penny’s. Her big brown eyes were puffy and red, and she smiled at me. I dragged my eyes away from her face and looked down at my hand that had someone else’s in it. Aiden sat in a chair beside my bed, his hair mussed as if he hadran his fingers through it over and over. His face held pain, sympathy, love and anger all in one. Nearly tangible emotions radiated from him.
“You’re going to be okay, my Gwen.” He squeezed my hand in reassurance. I tried to smile but it felt funny, awkward on my face. I’d just turned my head back straight when I saw another body leaning against the far wall. My eyes locked onto it, ontohim. Seeing Death hanging out in your hospital room wouldn’t comfort most people, but I wasn’t most people. Tears filled my eyes, causing my vision to go blurry again. If it hadn’t been for him, I would be in the basement of the hospital.
“Are you in pain?” Aiden got up to inspect me.
I shook my head. “No. Just realization setting in,” I told him. “Could I have a moment to speak with Dorian?”
Aiden’s jaw flinched, his right eye crinkling the tiniest bit before he wiped all emotion off his face.
“We’ll be in the waiting room.” He kissed the top of my head. He and Penny left the room, but before exiting he exchanged heated glares with Dorian.
I tried to sit up but every bone in my body felt like it’d been broken and glued back together. I hoped the doctors had better luck with me than the townsfolk did with Humpty Dumpty.
I brought my attention away from the pain ricocheting throughout my body and looked at Dorian again. His arms were across his chest, and his head was hung as he studied the floor.
“Thank you,” I began, swallowing around the dryness in my throat.
“Don’t,” Dorian snapped, looking up.
I was taken aback by the abruptness of his comment. “You saved me,” I said like some grateful damsel who’d been rescued from her distress. “I mean…thanks.” Every word came out sounding unintelligent as I stumbled over my tongue for the right words. When someone saves your life it kind of warrants a fantastic “thank-you” speech: one that shows the savior just how grateful you are. Dorian was getting gypped.
“Do you have any idea how close you came to dying?” Dorian’s words were cold and clipped, unlike the normal smooth masculine tone I was so used to. I couldn’t speak so I just shook my head.
“You lost a lot of blood from the cut on your arm. If it’d been a quarter of an inch deeper it would have hit bone.” He pushed off of the wall and stood at the foot of my bed but kept his eyes looking anywhere but at me.
“I don’t know what he did to you, but you had blood on your skull plus a fracture. Your face looks like it was used as punching bag and your clothes were coated in so much blood the doctors thought you were dead when they brought you in.” Dorian curled his fingers around the footboard and squeezed so that his fingers turned white.
“You were knocking on Death’s door and I didn’t even hear it,” he mumbled. “If it hadn’t been for Eddie…you’d be dead.”
A bottomless pit of unease opened up in my stomach. If I had caught Eddie and ordered him away then Iwouldbe dead. I swallowed around the lump in my throat and looked down at the arm that had been slashed. A row of stitches ran from my elbow and stopped two inches before my wrist. The skin was raised in red puckers from where the doctors had pulled the skin tight. I ran my fingertips over my face with care. My right cheek was swollen so much that I could see its puffiness when I looked down. I couldn’t imagine what I looked like.
“Are you saying that you couldn’t see my name on your death list?” I wasn’t sure how Dorian’s job worked: if names of the people about to die just popped into his head or if it were something more complicated. He didn’t talk about that aspect of his life very much.
“You’re blocked from me,” Dorian said, almost in awe.
“Why?” So much for having Death on my side…
“I have no fucking clue,” Dorian snapped, turning around as he began pacing the room. I watched as he walked back and forth staring at the ground. I assumed he was so angry because this had never happened to him. He wasn’t used to not having the upper hand in the fate department. The thought that I was the exception to the rule did nothing to help my unease.
“Hey,” I said and Dorian stopped to look at me. “I’m okay. I survived and it was because of you.” I smiled. “Whether you saw my death or not, you still saved me.”
Dorian snorted, a smile replacing his scowl. “It’s just like you to try and get Death to look on the bright side. The only silver lining I’ve ever seen is…” Dorian didn’t finish his sentence. Instead he stood there and stared at me, allowing his silence to speak for him.
A hard knock brought our attention away from each other. Aiden stood in the doorway, looking from Dorian to me.
“I’d like to speak with Gwen,” he said.
“Too bad,” Dorian said matter-of-factly.
“Dorian, it’s okay,” I told him.
Both men glared at each other. The tension in the room was so thick it was suffocating. My already sore muscles tightened.
“I’ll be right outside the door,” Dorian warned as he passed Aiden.
“He’s pretty protective of you,” Aiden noted as he walked over to my bed and sat in the chair. I nodded, unsure how to respond. “That’s the only thing I like about him.”
A nervous laugh escaped my lips, and Aiden smiled. Reaching his hand out, he clasped mine and squeezed. I noticed his skin was a lot warmer than it had been before.
“Gwen, I want you to drink from me,” Aiden announced, causing the smile to fall from my lips. “You’re still not out of the woods. You have a fractured skull that’s causing bleeding on the brain. The doctors are waiting until the swelling goes down to make a decision on whether you’ll need surgery. They’ll offer you vampire blood, but all of their donors are young vampires. My blood will heal quicker.” Aiden took a deep breath, his eyes burning into mine. “Please let me do this for you.”
The supernatural towns kept a supply of vampire blood on hand to heal severe cases but needed the patient’s approval to administer it. Once the vampire’s blood was running through a person’s veins, that vampire could sense them. I couldn’t imagine how many emotions the donating vampires felt with their blood coursing through multiple people’s bodies.
I thought about whether it was a good idea or not. There wasn’t any harm in drinking from Aiden. It wouldn’t form a bond like I shared with Ian, but I was still wary. And I would be drinkingblood. I could barely look at the stuff without fainting.
Aiden must have noticed my discomfort because he said, “I can mix it in with tea or something to help hide its taste.”
“I think you should do it, Gwen.” Dorian stepped into the room. “I don’t trust this bastard for a second, but his blood would heal you. The quicker you’re on your feet the safer you’ll be.”
It didn’t surprise me he had been listening to our conversation. What surprised me was that he agreed with Aiden. Had the world been knocked off of its axis? Was up down and down up?
“Jealousy is an ugly trait,” Aiden said to Dorian. Once again they were in a glaring match and all was right in the world.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll do it. I don’t want to spend the next week in the hospital, not when more thugs might be coming after me.”
Aiden looked at me and smiled. “I’ll get something to put it in.”
“No, I’ll drink from you.” If I thought about it too long then I would change my mind. The faster we got it over with the better.
Aiden unbuttoned his cuff and rolled his sleeve up to his elbow. Dorian walked around to the other side of the bed and crossed him arms like some bad-ass sentinel. I tried not to pay attention to him too much. Drinking blood from a vampire tended to be a bit sexual, at least for the vampire. Having Dorian witness such an intimate moment between Aiden and me made a blush heat my cheeks.
I tried to sit up so that I could lean over Aiden’s wrist, but my body screamed in protest. I sucked in a sharp breath as I waited for the agony to subside.
“Just lay back, my Gwen.”
Slowly I lowered my body back onto the mountain of pillows, closing my eyes for a moment as the last waves of anguish disappeared.
“I want to see myself,” I said, and both men looked at me with confusion. “I need to see the damage. I want to remember how close I came to the coffin so that next time I’ll fight harder to keep it from happening again.”
The stitches on my arm weren’t enough. Though the gash was extensive in itself, I knew that seeing the abuse my head had taken would shake me to my core. Aiden opened the drawer to the small table next to my bed and gave me a handheld mirror. I squeezed the handle with both hands, the pressure turning my fingers white, before raising it up to see my reflection.
I’dbeen right about being shocked. All I could do was stare at the stranger looking back at me. She couldn’t be me. She was weak, defeated and broken. Her long dark hair hung in limp, stringy strands and her skin was almost as white as the sheet covering her. Purple and blue bruises decorated the right side of her face like grotesque body paint. Her cobalt eyes were lifeless and lost, brimming with tears. I couldn’t hold her gaze without her hopelessness consuming me. A long red band circled her neck where the blade had taunted her life, digging deeper and threatening to end it all.
I chucked the mirror across the room to get rid of the broken girl trapped within it. It crashed against the stark white wall as shards of glass rained onto the floor. Tears splashed against my swollen cheeks.
“Give me your wrist,” I said with a harsh whisper. I would not be defined by the sad girl in the mirror. My life was teetering on the edge and I was going to do everything in my power to not fall.
“Gwen—”Aiden began and I glared at him. I didn’t want to be consoled into thinking everything would be all right. It wouldn’t. Not until I took Holly and her followers down.
“Wrist,” I said through clenched teeth. The first step to gaining the strength I needed was in Aiden’s veins. I’d drink as much as he would give; relish in the newfound power of his six-hundred year old blood coursing through my body.
Aiden’s fangs descended, glinting in the light like pearl daggers. He bit into his skin, not flinching as his fangs pierced his wrist. A glint of desire burned behind his eyes as he held his arm out to me. A thin rivulet of crimson trickled down from his mouth. He was a walking, talking, macabre masterpiece. Not wasting any more time, I gripped his arm and held it firmly, closing my lips around the twin puncture wounds. The coppery sweet tang of his blood hit my tongue. It wasn’t horrid but it wasn’t delicious either. Putting the thought out of my mind, I began to suck against the wounds with greed. Aiden grunted softly, his hand balling into a tighter fist. I locked eyes with him, flashes of our times together floating through my mind. He watched me with such want I found myself absorbing his hungry emotions. The fact that he was turned on, and that I was the cause of it, sent a rush of heat cascading through my body.
Dorian cleared his throat and I broke away from Aiden’s gaze to find a pair of aviator sunglasses. Though I couldn’t see his eyes, I could guarantee they would resemble a coming thunderstorm—dark and angry.
“I think that’s enough,” Dorian said.
“I’ll say when she’s had enough,” Aiden bit back.
My eyes volleyed between the two men as I continued to drink in Aiden. His blood was like a dose of espresso, shooting through my body and awakening my tired muscles.
A handful of seconds passed before Aiden said, “Now it’s enough,” and removed his arm. I kept my eyes down; embarrassed I enjoyed it as much as I had. Running my fingertip along my upper lip, I wiped away the excess blood.
“Thank you,” I told Aiden. “I’m feeling better already.” And I was. The pain of my broken body was fading and I could tell the swelling in my cheek was receding.
Aiden bent forward and pressed a soft kiss to forehead. “My pleasure.”
“Am I interrupting?” Penny hovered by the door.
I smiled. “Not at all.” She picked the perfect moment to pop in. With her here I wouldn’t have to deal with Aiden and Dorian’s hatred for each other. She walked into the room, stepping around the mirror I broke, and stood at the end of my bed.
“You look…better,” she said with confusion.
I wasn’t sure how fast Aiden’s blood would work, but if results were being seen already, it was a good sign. My head still felt fuzzy, but the rest of my body buzzed with energy.
“Vampire blood, it’s the duct tape of the medicine world. It fixes everything.”
Penny nodded but her thoughts were somewhere else. Her brown eyes watched me with sadness and sparkled as if holding back tears.
“I’m so sorry, Gwen,” Penny blurted. “If I would have stayed…if you hadn’t been alone…” She shook her head back and forth as if trying to dislodge the mistake she thought she made.
“Penny, it’s not your fault,” I told her, sitting up and reaching out to her. She clasped my hand, walking around the bed. Aiden stepped out of the way and Penny sat on the mattress. I wrapped my arms around her and squeezed.
“Apparently this is my life now,” I told her. “It’s what happens when you piss off a villain.” I smiled and Penny gave a shaky laugh. “And I wasn’t alone. Eddie was with me and saved my life.” I hoped that hearing a ghost had saved me would help her reservations about the spiritual world.
“Speaking of, where is Eddie?” I asked Dorian. If he had materialized at Broomsticks, I hadn’t seen him. I was too focused on my attacker.
“Should we discuss this in front of the kid?” Dorian nudged his head towards Penny.
“I’m not a kid,” Penny argued.
“She has a right to know what we’re facing. She’s part of my life and that means she could also be in danger.” I gave Penny an apologetic look. I wasn’t taking any chances now that I knew how ruthless the assassins were.
“I have him searching for information on the Veil,” Dorian offered.
“What the hell is the Veil?”
“It’s an underground organization of black magic practitioners who hire themselves out to clean up people’s messes. They pride themselves on their kills and will go after just about anything or anyone.”
It was becoming clear that I didn’t know of half the evil that existed in the world. Living in a small town I had been blissfully ignorant. That ignorance was going to get me killed.
“What are they?” I asked.
“They can be anything: humans, witches, vampires, werewolves. They’re rogues who don’t like to play by society’s rules and forfeit their souls to the dark side for power,” Dorian explained.
“Does that make them immune to magic? Because mine didn’t even leave a scratch on that psycho.”
“He was possessed,” Dorian stated matter-of-factly. “Magic doesn’t harm demons, unless you’re trained in that sort of thing.”
I nodded. There were various levels of magic. Just like majoring in a special trade in school, witches majored in spells. Fiona was currently studying spell casting in Moon, while others specialized in nature, weather, animals and yes, demons. Practitioners of black magic have been around for centuries. For most, the temptation of a demon’s promise to solve all their problems was too much, and they bent to their influence. It was the job of those who studied black magic and demons to take care of a threat. Black magic practitioners were consumed by evil, and with evil there were always the risk of disaster.
“So you’re saying that members of the Veil allow demons to possess their bodies all in the name of power?” Aiden asked with disgust. “Is Holly a member?”
I hadn’t thought about that, but she would have used black magic to break the protection spell of our blood. Plus, if she was sending Veil members, it was pretty obvious she had an in with the rogues.
“I don’t know,” Dorian said, rubbing his chin.
“Yet Holly had you on speed dial to teach Gwen,” Aiden retorted. “Just for the record, I trust you even less than you trust me.”
It was Holly who set me up with the Angel of Death, and I did question it. Though now that the dust was settled and I’d gotten to know Dorian a little better, my suspicions of his involvement with Holly faded.
“You’re one to talk,” Dorian spat. “You can’t even be around her without wanting to drain her dry. As for me, I don’t have partners or subject myself to trivial matters. I’m neutral. My interest in Gwen lies solely in her Spirit Walker abilities. She is after all, mine.”
I knew Dorian meant that because I was a Spirit Walker I was under his protection and guidance, but the way he said it implied I was his in a very different sense—a romantic one.
Aiden snorted a harsh bitter sound. “Gwen will never be yours.”
“Um, hello? Let’s stop talking about Gwen like she’s not sitting in the middle of both of you,” I told them. “Besides, Gwen can make her own decisions.”
Penny stood up, adjusting her twisted sleeve to cover her hands. “I think I should head back home. I’m so happy that you’re okay.” She gave me a quick hug and cast both Aiden and Dorian an uncertain glance before disappearing through the door.
Ignoring the ever-present tension between the two men, I asked, “Can I go home now?”
“How are you feeling?” Aiden asked, resting a hand on my shoulder as he inspected my face. Dorian snorted to himself but we both ignored him. I moved this way and that way to test the pain. When my body didn’t scream in protest I smiled.
“A lot better.”
“I’ll get the doctor, he’ll want to examine you before they release you,” Aiden said and turned to leave.
I studied my hands in lap, unsure how to break the uncomfortable silence. Dorian walked over to the large window that occupied the right side of the room. The night sky was a mixture of darkness and light as the sun prepared to come up within the next hour or so. The stars were fading and the golden glow of a lamppost outside bathed the icy grass in its warmth. I studied Dorian’s reflection in the glass. His body was stoic as he looked out the window without seeing the scenery beyond it. Sometimes I envied mind readers. To know what was occupying his mind at this exact moment would be a godsend. Part of me wondered if he was regretting getting involved with someone like me—someone who had attracted the attention of a turncoat council member and the Veil. Was the trouble I found myself in outweighing my worth? It didn’t matter; Dorian couldn’t fight my battle for me. If he decided to walk, to leave me to fend for myself, I would make sure I was ready. I’d find someone to train me and help me become a master of handing out ass whoopings. Maybe even get business cards to verify my badassness. When I came face to face with another rogue, I would know what to do and do it well. I couldn’t afford to let another one get the drop on me. The next time could end up being my last, and I wasn’t ready to die yet.
Squeaking footsteps brought me out my thoughts. Aiden and a man in his mid-forties—the doctor if the white coat was any indication— walked into the room. Most of the medical staff was made up of supernaturals of nature: fairies, elves, and hobbits. Their expertise with living organisms—plants and animals—also transferred to beings. After all, we’re living organisms too. Their type of medicine didn’t consist of human drugs. You wouldn’t find morphine or antibiotics in this hospital. They treated their patients with herbs and other various natural products.
“I’m Doctor Fern. Mr. Blake tells me that he administered his blood to you?” The man asked.
“Yes, and I’m feeling worlds better.” I would run an obstacle course to prove it if it meant I could go home and get away from the stark, cold hospital.
“Yes, I can tell that it’s working. Already your bruises are fading and,” he lifted my injured arm up to inspect it, “the stiches are almost ready to fall out. How is your head?”
“Fine,” I said while Dr. Fern shined a penlight in my eyes.
“I suppose it’s a good sign that you have Death as a friend and not just a visitor, huh?” he smiled, tucking the penlight into his chest pocket. Dorian and I looked at each other, our silence depicting our worry that I wasn’t on his “death” radar.
“If you’ll sign here we’ll get you checked out and on your way back home,” the doctor said, handing me a clipboard I hadn’t noticed before. Without hesitation I signed at the bottom of the release page and handed it back to him.
“You’re good to go. Try to stay out of trouble; unlike other businesses we don’t like seeing repeat customers.” The doctor smiled, nodded to all three of us and turned to walk out of the room.
A nervous laugh bubbled up my throat when I slid out of bed and felt a breeze on my backside. Clasping the hospital gown closed, I turned my back away from Dorian.
Aiden walked to the other side of the room and retrieved a tan tote. “Penny didn’t have the key to your apartment so she bought you some things from Digs.” He handed the bag to me and then said, “We’ll wait outside.”
Dorian was still standing by the window but turned and without a word, he and Aiden left the room. For the first time since waking up I was alone and the tension was gone. I sucked in a deep breath, holding it for a moment and then releasing to clear the rest of the fuzz from my brain.
I set the bag on the bed and began to disrobe. Digs was owned by elves, and all of the clothes were organic. The shirt I slipped out of the bag was a beige off-white color with the wordsMother Nature loves youin green print with a blooming flower beside it. So long as it covered my body I would wear a garbage bag out of the hospital. Before slipping the shirt over my head, I dug through the bag for a bra and underwear. I found the underwear, no bra. I suppose Penny didn’t know my size. Closing my eyes, I focused on creating one with my magic. When nothing happened, I squeezed my eyes tighter and tried again. Still, a bra did not appear.Damn it, it’s fading already,I thought.Or maybe it’s the stress and I can’t connect with it right now.That was the option I was going with. I’d had my magic at Broomsticks so it couldn’t be gone, not yet.
I finished dressing and looked down at my chest. My nipples poked against the thin cotton of my shirt. It was unusually cold in the hospital, and even colder outside. Penny hadn’t brought me a jacket, or shoes. I rubbed my chest, hoping the friction would ease the suckers back down.
My hands dropped and I turned to see Dorian smirking. “Don’t let me interrupt.”
Heat warmed my cheeks.
“Here.” He shrugged out of his leather coat and walked over to me. I was hyperaware of his presence behind me. With gentle hands he draped the coat around my shoulders, his hands lingering a little too long.
“Thanks,” I breathed, turning to look up at him. I don’t know what made me do it; perhaps it was the gratitude of his rescue or the soft comforting things he whispered in my ear as I lay dying. I reached out to him, my arms embracing his neck as I pressed my body to his. Dorian held himself stiff, as if touching me was torture. I ignored his discomfort and laid my head against his chest, inhaling his scent into my nostrils.
“We should get going,” he said, stepping away from me.
The embarrassment from trying to get my nipples down wasn’t nearly as bad as the humiliation I felt at this moment. I’d given in to the feelings I had for Dorian, needed to feel the comfort of his arms around me, and he rejected me. I cleared my throat and erased all emotion from my face. It was silly to expect comfort from him. Slipping the tote bag over my shoulder, I walked past Dorian and out into the hall. Aiden was leaning against the wall and looked up at me with an emotion I couldn’t put a name to. Sadness? Anger? A mixture of both? It was gone before I could analyze it further.
I walked over to him, unsure what to say. It seemed both men were acting odd around me, and I couldn’t stand it.
“The sun is coming up,” Aiden stated, standing up straighter. He looked down the hall, then back to me. “I know we’re not together anymore, but I’d like to assign one of my vampires to guard you.”
“It’ll give me peace of mind to know someone is watching your back.” Dorian stepped into the hall. “Someone that I trust,” Aiden finished.
Dorian didn’t say anything which I found out of character for him. He just hung back, looking in the opposite direction, arms crossed. When I looked back at Aiden he was almost scowling. What the hell was wrong with them?
“That’d be great,” I told him, afraid to hurt his feelings if I declined. “Thank you, and not just for that…for the blood too.”
Aiden cupped my face, his eyes pained and full of questions he wouldn’t voice. It was tempting to reach out to him and let him hold me like he had done so many other times. Before I could act on my thoughts, he dropped his hands and turned to leave. I watched him walk away while my feet itched to run after him. I stomped down the impulse, knowing that just because I was feeling vulnerable didn’t mean I should forget the reasons why we weren’t together. As painful as it was I allowed those memories replace the good ones.
“Ready?” Dorian asked holding out a pair of white slippers to me. I put them on and together we walked down the hallway and out the front doors. The icy chill of the early morning air stole my breath for a second. We headed down the brick walkway to my Jeep parked along the road. Dorian’s pace was a little faster than mine, which gave me a view of his back. When we reached the car he went around to the driver’s side, unlocked the doors and slipped inside. I didn’t expect men to open doors for me, but I knew he hadn’t intentionally, almost as if a signaling something I wasn’t getting. Swallowing my confusion and pain, I opened the door and slipped inside.
Heartless black eyes peered into my soul and left an icy chill quaking through my bones. His smirk revealed the pleasure he took from my pain. As he weaved the dagger through the air light caught the edge of the blade as if shining a spotlight on the weapon that would end my life. He was proud of the double edge knife, wielding it with efficient swift hands like some sideshow at a circus. Only I didn’t clap and cheer for his show.
“You think you can kill me before I kill her?” His breath brushed against my cheek, warm and sour as he dug his weapon into my neck. A white-hot searing burn erupted along my throat as he toyed with my life.
My eyes popped open. I was on my side in a ball and my cheeks were wet. Heavy sobs choked me as I tried to put the pieces of reality back together. I was safe in my bedroom, not back at Broomsticks. Not in the arms of the rogue. Flashes of the broken girl I saw in the mirror flitted through my mind. Burying my face in my pillow I screamed, hating that I hadn’t let her go yet. I needed to be strong to get the upper hand on the Veil. That couldn’t happen if she was still hanging out in my subconscious.
Two soft knocks echoed behind my door. “Gwen?” Dorian’s soft voice called. I wiped my eyes and nose, clearing the evidence of my breakdown before he opened the door and stepped inside.
“I heard a scream,” he said. The light from the hallway spilled into the room, highlighting his hair while shadows played along his face.
“I’m fine,” I mumbled. The floorboards squeaked as Dorian stepped further into my room. Sitting up, I hugged my knees and watched him. He walked over to the window, bracing an arm against the wall and looking at the small side yard below.
“What aren’t you telling me?”
Dorian looked back at me, dropping his arm and turning around to lean against the wall. His hair fell forward as he lowered his head to study the floor. I sat quietly, waiting for him to spill it. It could have been five seconds or five minutes before Dorian spoke. I was so anxious to hear what he had to say that time slowed to a crawl.
“I cannot see your death.”
Well, I hadn’t been expecting that. “Since when?”
Dorian pushed off the wall and paced back and forth. His hands fisted at his side and his head was down as he stared at the floor. His brows pulled together sending creases rippling across his forehead.
“I—I don’t know. In order for me to distinguish when someone is going to die, I have to focus on his or her soul. I never checked yours when we first met. It didn’t seem important at the time.” His voice was hard with frustration.
“And now when you try to pinpoint when I will die, you get what? Is your sight just blank, or can you not even sense my soul?” This was not good. Having Death on my side was to my advantage, and now he was as clueless as I was.
“No, I can feel your soul still. Your fate is blocked from me.”
I draped my legs over the edge of the bed and gripped the mattress with both hands. So the reason he was acting so strange was because he didn’t like not knowing when I would die. Not that I wasn’t curious myself. If Dorian could not determine when I would die then that small shred of hope I had been clinging to vanished.
“Do you think Holly cast a spell of some sorts?” I asked. “Something that blocks me from you so you can’t prevent my death?”
“It’s impossible,” Dorian murmured to himself. Looking up at me he said, “She’s just a witch and I amDeath. She’s not powerful enough to hinder any of my powers.”
“The spell would be cast on me, not you,” I told him. I stood up and walked over to him, making sure not to touch him. “By erasing me from your sight you wouldn’t get in the way of her killing me.”
Dorian shook his head. “I can break through spells. It wouldn’t be the first time a witch tried to use magic to hide a soul from me. I can see past the magical shields.” Dorian scrubbed a hand over his mouth and chin. “It’s something else. Something I’ve never experienced before.”
I had to admit, it was scary knowing Dorian wouldn’t get a head’s up about my potential demise. I hadn’t realized just how much I was depending on his insight until now. When I first met him I had thought about asking when I would die, but chickened out. Now, I was regretting it. It could be today or fifty years from now. That’s life though; we’re not supposed to know our fates, easier for me to deal with than Dorian. I imagined this was bugging him like crazy.
“So, I will eventually lose my magic and you’re blind to me,” I stated, crossing my arms and shaking my head. “Add it to the list of drama that is my life.” I tried for a smile to lighten the mood, but Dorian was staring at the floor again; his features pulled tight and sharp. As I waited for him to snap out of his zoned out state, I watched how the shadows played along his face. He was such an enigma and it intrigued me. The shiny finish of his sunglasses caught the reflection of what little light penetrated my bedroom and cast a slight glow on his cheeks.
“We need to continue to train.” Dorian lifted his head, pausing when he noticed I was watching him intently. He stood still and speechless as he watched me watching him, both of us captured by one another. A tingle tiptoed down my spine and washed through my core.
Dorian cleared his throat, rubbing a hand across his stubble-lined jaw. “I may need to leave, Gwen.”
His words snapped me out of my admiration. “Leave the apartment or Flora?” I rolled my neck along my shoulders to work out the tension. “Am I supposed to train myself?”
“Both. I need to figure out what is going on. If it can be fixed, it’ll be better for the both of us. I won’t be gone for too long and you can train with the spirits yourself.”
My head was nodding, but I realized after about twenty seconds that I hadn’t spoken yet. Truth was I had grown fond of having Dorian around, even if he infuriated me most of the time.
“Okay,” I finally replied. It wasn’t like having him in Flora would give us the upper hand in the destiny department. But I was still comforted by his presence. Just as Dorian was about to say something, someone pounded on my front door. Dorian and I looked at each other before he headed out of my bedroom with me at his heels.
“It’s a vampire,” Dorian said as he walked to the front door and opened it. A tall leggy blond stood on the balcony, one hip cocked as she studied her nails. The black leather body suit she was wearing looked like a second skin and was unzipped just enough to allow her cleavage to spill forward. Her wide blue eyes latched onto Dorian and a mischievous smile spread across her painted lips.
“Well hello, handsome,” she crooned. “Are you going to invite me in or devour me with your eyes?”
“Who are you?” I stepped around Dorian’s large frame to inspect vampire Barbie closer. Her eyes shifted to my face, a coy glint brightening her eyes as she tilted her head to the side to study me.
“I know who I am,” I snapped. “Who the hell are you?”
“Lauren Hayes, vampire hired gun extraordinaire.” She curled her hand in a flourish. “I can see why Aiden is so smitten with you. You’re just his type, dark hair, light eyes, an innocent face, but I’m sure you’re a hellcat in the sack.” She laughed a musical tune that I wouldn’t associate with an assassin.
“Ah, Aiden sent you then? When he mentioned sending someone over I expected…well, someone else.”
Lauren rested a manicured hand on her hip. “Don’t let the getup fool you, sweetie. I’m not as nice as I look.” She emphasized the statement with a devilish smirk. Fangs peeked out from under her cherry red lips.
“Point taken,” I told her.
“So, you going to invite me in?” Something in her eyes made me uneasy. I was not up to entertaining vampire Barbie, or worrying that she would use me as a midnight snack. Not all vampires were addicted to Brew though, and Aiden trusted her. And she was here to protect me. Just as I was about to invite her over the threshold, Dorian grabbed my arm.
“Why don’t you call Aiden and verify that he did send her before inviting her into your house?” he advised. I nodded, turning away and reaching for the phone. I punched in Aiden’s number while keeping my eyes on Dorian and Lauren. If she eye-fucked him any harder, I would need to offer them both a cigarette.
“Yes, my Gwen?” Aiden’s smooth voice rolled over the phone.
“Hi,” I replied. “I’m just calling to confirm that you sent assassin Barbie to my house.”
Aiden chuckled and my body responded with a shiver. I momentarily closed my eyes in remembrance of feeling his laugh on my skin, the way his breath brushed my throat right before he pressed a kiss to the sensitive spot. Snapping my eyes open, I chided myself and shook the memory away.
“She may look like a grade A hooker but she’s the best in her line of work. I’ve known her for fifteen years and I trust her.”
I shot a quick glance at the woman in question. She was bracing both hands against the doorframe leaning in ever so slightly so that her full breasts spilled forward. I wondered if her being here had more to do with making me jealous rather than her stellar kill record. I could almost hear Aiden say,See, Gwen, I have plenty of beautiful women to surround myself with.
“Good, maybe you can screwthemover,” I mumbled to myself, and then bit down on my tongue when I realized I had spoken the words rather than thought them.
“What was that?” Aiden asked.
“Nothing,” I said quickly. “Thank you for sending…her. It’s dangerous giving out invitations to vampires these days so I was just double-checking her story. Have a good night, Aiden.”
“Gwen,” Aiden breathed before I could hang up. “Stay safe and if you need anything, you know you can call me.”
When I hung up the phone I made my way over to the door. Lauren was giggling, actuallygigglingat Dorian. What the hell kind of ruthless killer giggles? I was quickly losing faith in her reputation.
“Aiden confirmed that he sent her,” I said to Dorian. When he looked at me he had a shit-eating grin on his face. What the hell were those two so chummy about? I swear, you put a pair of boobs in any man’s face, human or paranormal, and he turns into a drooling dog. And they think they’re the stronger sex?Pft.
“You can come in,” I told Lauren. She smiled at me and stepped over the doorway, swinging her hips and clacking her high heels as she sauntered into the kitchen. Her head swiveled as she took in the small space. Swinging around, she placed a hand on her hip and said, “It’ll do.”
“Happy it has your seal of approval,” I bit out.
“Dorian, would you be a dear and retrieve my bags? They’re in car, the silver Maserati.”
“Bags?” I questioned. “You brought an arsenal with you?”
“Only of clothes and makeup,” Lauren smiled.
“How many bedrooms does this place have?” Lauren took off down the hall, surveying my small apartment. While Dorian headed outside to do her bidding. I followed when I saw her slip into my bedroom.
“Why do you think you’re staying here?” I asked incredulously.
“My contract states that I am to stay in your company at all times.” Lauren walked over to the window and pulled back the curtain, observing the fabric. “We’ll have to get something thicker to keep the sun out.”
Furious, I stepped further into my room and squared my shoulders to face the intrusive Playboy bunny vampire. “This is my room,” I snapped. “And Aiden didn’t say anything about you moving in.”
Lauren released an exaggerated sigh, locking eyes with me. “Aiden said you could be headstrong. You need to realize when people are trying to help you out. You don’t always have to go on the defense.”
Who the hell did this woman think she was? “Don’t pretend to know me.”
“I got your bags,” Dorian announced, lugging three duffel bags and one suitcase down the hall and stopping in front of my room. I stared at him astounded. Since when did the angel of Death jump when a pretty woman snapped her fingers?
“Thank you, handsome.” Lauren walked over to him and ran a painted nail down his chest, while Dorian grinned like a fool. I shook my head, dumbfounded, as I watched the two of them. What the hell was going on? I knew I hadn’t rocked Dorian’s jollies, but he couldn’t be that hard up. Surely he would satisfied his sexual appetite with some local tart since getting here. He was acting like an eager hormone-induced teenager.
“Gwen isn’t ready to give up her bedroom,” Lauren said to Dorian. Looking over her shoulder at me she said, “Some people don’t know what hospitality is.”
“You can stay in my—”
“No,” I interrupted quickly. Both Dorian and Lauren turned to look at me, and I realized I sounded a little too invested in my disapproval. But there was no way I wanted Ms. Bat-my-eyelashes-and-sway-my-hips rooming with Dorian. Yes, I know how that makes me sound. And I’m not the type who tells a guy I’m not ready yet but doesn’t want him with anyone else. Okay, maybe that’s how I was acting, but something was up with Lauren. Dorian wasn’t acting like himself and that’s what scared me.
“I was going to say she can stay in my room and I’ll sleep on the couch.” Dorian grinned at me and an inferno warmed my cheeks.
“Are you two…” Lauren signaled between me and Dorian.
“No,” I answered a little too quickly, shrugging and feigning indifference to Dorian’s sexual partners. I had never been a good liar. I was too obvious or overly adamant about what I was saying which was a dead giveaway.
Dorian was looking at me over Lauren’s shoulder and his jaw tightened the slightest bit when I confirmed that there was nothing between the two of us. Looking down at Lauren he said, “There you have it. Come on, I’ll help you get settled.”
While Dorian was helping Lauren getsettled, I headed to the bathroom. I hadn’t inspected myself since coming home from the hospital. My body no longer ached and the swollenness of my face had gone down. Dragging my eyes up, I stared at my reflection and was happy to see that the defeated girl I saw in the mirror at the hospital gone. Vampire blood was seriously a miracle worker. Though I was healed on the outside, inside I was a mangled mess. And not just from the rogue attack. I was still mentally dealing with what Ian had done to me while in Moon. It’s difficult making the world think you’re strong when you’re barely bending under the weight of inner demons. But I’m a firm believer in owning your problems and not allowing them to own you. That may sound like a spiel from Dr. Phil, but it’s been a motto that’s worked for me. I had to accept Ian’s abuse and move past it. At least the son of a bitch was dead and unable to hurt anyone else.See, silver lining.
Lauren’s throaty giggle sounded through the apartment. What was Aiden’s angle in placing her in my home? I dragged my hands through my hair, gave myself one last glance in the mirror and headed out to see what the hell was so damned funny.
I passed Dorian’s bedroom and stared in astonishment. They were both chuckling like hyenas while Dorian helped unpack Lauren’s things. I had never seen Dorian in a full blown laugh, his cheeks stretching wide while a deep rumble of laughter sounded from his full lips. Sure he had laughed around me, but it was more at my own expense rather than finding humor with me. An, “I’m not laughing with you, I’m laughing at you” sort of thing. A nasty pang of jealously stuck in my gut, causing my upper lip to curl up in a sneer as I glared at the blonde intruder. I got my inner green monster under control and headed to the kitchen to slip on my boots. I glanced down to appraise what I was wearing: black yoga pants and a long sleeve gray t-shirt. Deciding that the pants might not be thick enough to chase away the coolness of the night, I hurried to my room and changed into jeans. As I slipped past Dorian’s room, I did a walk by peek. Dorian’s head snapped up and settled in my direction but I didn’t stop my escape.
I needed time by myself, without a giggling vampire Barbie and infatuated angel of Death and I knew just the place. I grabbed my coat and closed the front door behind me quietly. The stairway squeaked under my weight. I liked to walk and the temperature outside wasn’t as cold as I expected. Slipping on my jacket, I stuffed my hands in my pockets and headed for the one place that had become peaceful for me.
* * *
Flora’s cemetery sat on the edge of town. It wasn’t very big but what it lacked in size it made up for in charm. I know how strange that sounds, that a graveyard would be charming, but I no longer found the resting place of the dead frightening. There was something very calming about the hallowed ground. A three foot stone wall encompassed the area and a tall wrought iron arch with a hinged double gate welcomed grievers. Thick oak trees with curvy bare branches shared the area with tombstones and mausoleums.
As I walked down the worn thin path, I closed my eyes and reached my senses out. Dorian told me with more practice I wouldn’t have to concentrate on sensing death, it would become a sixth sense of sorts. Though I was accepting what I am, the idea of always being able to detectdeath was a bit disconcerting. Imagine if you found out your neighbor, the one who always waves and makes small talk, had actually killed someone. Sometimes ignoranceisbliss. I knew Aiden killed a lot of people and I didn’t want a constant reminder of sensing it from him.
Death has a distinct feel and smell to it. It is the coldest cold I’ve ever felt. It penetrates to the bone, and then come the emotions. The spirits’ feelings smack me in the face and make it hard breathe sometimes, especially if they are trying to get my attention. And the smell? It would be disgusting to most, but it doesn’t faze me. It is the stench of rotting fruit, sweet yet sour too.
A tug of cold emotion came from in front of me. I slowly opened my eyes to find at least ten transparent bodies lingering with watchful eyes. The first time I came to the Flora cemetery, the spirits had been shy, scared almost. They knew what I was and that I could send them to the realm of the dead if I saw fit. After coming back a few times, the ghosts were starting to trust me.
“Where’s your sidekick?” Eddie asked appearing right in front of my face. I jumped back in surprise, holding my heart as it jittered rapidly from the shock.
“Son of a...” I took a moment to catch my breath. “You scared the living hell outta me.” I took another ragged breath. “Dorian is at the apartment.”
“Does he know you’re out here by yourself?” Eddie chided.
“I’m a grown ass woman, Eddie. I don’t need permission to go somewhere.” I walked around him and up the path. “I wanted to thank you,” I told him when he floated to catch up to me. “For alerting Dorian about my attack.”
“Just doing my job.” Eddie’s pale shoulders rose and fell in a shrug.
I glanced over at him. “Well thank you for doing your job.”
“I also kinda like you and don’t want anything bad to happen,” Eddie admitted and I smiled. The ghost was in his early forties with shaggy brown hair and matching muddy eyes. He died in the seventies and was forever doomed to wear bell-bottom jeans and a blue t-shirt that read Volvo across the front.
“So have you seen any other rogues around?” It suddenly dawned on me that one could be watching me right now. But this time I didn’t feel helpless like I did at my shop. My magic may be waning but I was surrounded by a horde of spirits and could use them to defend myself if I had to.
“No,” Eddie replied. “But I’m sure they’ll be more. Rogues don’t back down easily. The Veil will find out the rogue they sent failed and they’ll send more to kill you. When they’re hired for a job they don’t stop until they accomplish it.”
I walked over to a small, concrete bench and sat while the curious ghosts floated toward me. I smiled as they cautiously came closer, their eyes inquisitive. Seeing them in the period of clothing they had died in was like time traveling. What better way to learn about history than from someone who had lived it? I had no clue why I was so afraid to embrace my spirit walker side. It was pretty awesome. So what if I lost my physical magic? I could control and sense spirits and that was ten times cooler than conjuring stuff.
“Who wants to play hide-n-seek?”
“You cheat at hide-n-seek,” Eddie complained and the other ghosts nodded their translucent heads.
“How do I cheat?” I stood up and placed a hand on my hip.
“You command us to show ourselves,” another spirit answered. He was completely naked which led me to believe he either died when he was a werewolf or been caught with someone’s wife in a compromising position.Poor guy.
“Okay, okay,” I said holding up my hands in surrender. “I promise not to order you to show yourselves.” I smiled. “Ready, set, hide.” And just like that the ten ghosts standing before me vanished with the steady breeze blowing through the cemetery.
I crept around the base of a large oak, bracing my hands on the rough bark as I closed my eyes and tried to detect where the spirits hid. My eyes snapped open and a smile lifted my lips. Six feet to my left, behind a tombstone that had the nameMORRISONengraved on it, a ghost lingered.
“Ready or not here I come,” I called out. I just hoped no one wandered into the cemetery this late at night. It wouldn’t look good that it appeared I was talking and playing a game by myself. I could almost hear the whispers of the townsfolk now, “There goes crazy Gwen Sparks. I hear she prowls the graveyard at night to play with ghosts.”
I inched forward, the sensation of death getting stronger the closer I got to the tombstone. A rush of icy coldness raced across my back, and I whirled around to search out the apparition making a run for it.Float for it?They were keeping themselves hidden though so I rushed forward, reaching out a hand and tagging the ghost behind theMORRISONtombstone. The spirit appeared beneath my grasp, a woman in her late twenties with a side pony and eighties garb.
“Got you, Maureen,” I exclaimed with a smile before turning and running after the fleeing ghost. “No changing spots,” I called out. “That’s cheating.” A phantom laugh carried on the wind and taunted my ears. I recognized that laugh—Eddie.
I raced through the cemetery, dodging the protruding stones as I ran after Eddie. In my pursuit I ran straight through a cold spot. Cringing, I turned around and gave an apologetic smile to the spirit who had been hiding there. The naked ghost slowly pieced himself back together, the air coming together to form his body again.
“Sorry,” I told him.
The spirit looked down at himself like he was making sure all of his bits and pieces were there. Looking up, he smiled and said, “That’s the most action I’ve had in ten years.”
“Awesome,” I deadpanned. Making ghosts frisky was on mydo-notlist.Yuk!Ignoring the amazed naked man, I turned and began walking at a brisk pace. I lost track of Eddie and now needed to sense him again. I tagged four more ghosts on my walk, their transparent bodies forming as soon as I made touched them.
The crunch of footsteps behind me had me pausing. Looking over my shoulder, I scanned the area but no one was approaching. Swinging all the way around, my eyes tracked the darkened landscape. Gravel being shuffled under someone’s feet sounded to my left and I turned my body in that direction. I latched onto the spirits around me, connecting with their energy and ordering them to my side. Multiple translucent bodies floated forward, circling around me like phantom soldiers.
“Someone is here,” I whispered to my team of ghosts. I didn’t like taking away their rights and controlling them, but if it meant saving my life then I would do it. Their bodies hovered stoically as they waited for my command. The buzz of my magic still ran beneath my skin, though not very strong. I concentrated on it and forced it to my hands. I would use what little I had left while I still had it. It might not faze the rogues but I could use it to throw objects at them, and I was pretty sure getting smacked upside the head with a granite tombstone would stop their attack on me. Or at least I hoped it would.
“I see you’re finally taking precautions,” Dorian said, stepping from out behind a tree with vampire Barbie. My body sagged from its tense position and I glared at Dorian. A thought occurred to me and, I’m a tad embarrassed to say, it brought a smile to my face. Ignoring both of them, I channeled the connection to the spirits and began whispering my orders. One by one they floated away from me and toward Dorian and Lauren. The vampire couldn’t see the spirits but Dorian could. Everyone could see ghost if they chose to show themselves, but these guys were staying hidden from Lauren. Dorian’s right eyebrow arched, peeking over the rim of his sunglasses.
Lauren was flung back, landing hard onto the ground. The ghost lingered around her, waiting for her to regain her footing. She snapped up in a blur, her blond hair whipping wildly around her head as she searched for the threat.
“What the hell was that?” she snarled, reaching beneath her pant leg and extracting a silver dagger.
“That,” I said, stepping closer, “was all the security I need. How are you supposed to defend me when you can’t sense all of the threats?” I crossed my arms and stared at her with a satisfied smile.
“The rogues aren’t ghosts, Gwen,” Dorian supplied.
“You’re right,” I told him. “They’re worse, they’re demons. Can she detect those?” The ghost swirled around her, a haunting breeze stirring up her hair. Lauren’s eyes darted in every direction, her knuckles tightening around the handle of her blade.
“You’re being petty,” Dorian reprimanded. “Yes, they are demons, but they’re in a host body. Lauren will not have a problem fighting them.”
He was right. But I didn’t trust the Playboy vampire. Whatever wiles she used on Dorian weren’t working on me. I eyed both of them, my gaze landing on the skittish blonde and then back to the Dorian. His defense of her soured in my stomach a little, and I tried my damnedest to ignore the unsavory feeling. Dorian and I were friends, and I had no claim on him, or him on me. Still, that didn’t stop me from smiling at the fear on the badass assassin’s face. She talked a good game, but when her threats were invisible she looked about as menacing as a baby bunny. Her big blue eyes were wide orbs as she listened to the whistling of icy cold wind surrounding her.
“What the hell?” Eddie appeared beside Dorian, his hands crossed in front of his chest. “You guys are gossiping like a bunch of girls while I was hiding? Thanks for telling me.”
Dorian spared him a glance before looking back at me. I ignored the indignation on his handsome face and instead brought my attention to the ever-complaining ghost.
“You cheated,” I accused.
“Wha—did not,” Eddie shot back.
“You’re supposed to find a spot and stay there,” I told him.
“I found a better spot,” he shrugged and I shook my head.
“Who the hell are you talking to?” Lauren asked, her eyes still volleying around the shadowed landscape.
I looked at Dorian and rolled my eyes. Hadn’t Lauren been debriefed on who she was protecting?
“We’re in a cemetery,” I told her with a bit of sarcasm.
“And I’m a spirit walker.”
“Add it up, Barbie.”
“So you really can speak and control ghosts?”
I shot another you-have-to-be-kidding-me look to Dorian. “For a vampire assassin you’re a little slow.”
You would think a bunch of supernaturals wouldn’t fear much, and you would be wrong. For some reason, spirits put them on edge. Maybe it was because a lot of supeswere over confident with their super powers. Vampires are quick, lethal and fast healers. However, they can’t fight what they can’t see or touch. If a ghost were evil enough, it could hurt them and they wouldn’t be able to protect themselves. Vampires didn’t like feeling vulnerable—hence the fear. As for the other supes, it was pretty much the same—the idea of not being able to see what was around them. Hell, I had just gotten use to the idea of seeing them.
I didn’t wait for either one of their responses. I shoved past Dorian and headed back down the path that would lead to the exit, releasing my control of the spirits as I went. Lately I had been very agitated: a ball of angry nerves threatening to go over the edge. I had done a good job at keeping my emotions under control, but I could almost feel the damn walls tremble under the pressure of putting on a fake smile. I hated it, hated feeling so unsure of myself.
“Gwen,” Dorian called behind me. I looked over my shoulder but I kept walking. When he caught up to me, his hand closed around my arm, yanking me to a stop. I was furious with him and that confused me. He hadn’t done anything wrong, but looking at him made my insides burn, and not in a good way.
“If I didn’t know better I would say you’re jealous.”
I snorted. “Don’t be ridiculous. I just don’t trust her. And you shouldn’t let that head,” I pointed to his crotch, “think for you. Something’s up with her.”
He stepped closer, his hand still on my arm. With his free hand he brushed my hair back and tucked a strand behind my ear. His soft fingertips caressed the sensitive skin, leaving tingles in their wake. My shoulders shook as a shiver skirted up my spine, and I hoped it appeared that I was cold rather than affected by his touch. I still wasn’t sure how much I could trust Dorian.
“The only personthathead is thinking of is a stubborn brunette with azure eyes.”
I stared up at him, wondering if I should be offended or turned on by his statement. Dorian might have been an angel but there was nothing holy about him. He did what he wanted, took what he desired and raised his middle finger to the world—all while charming it with that damned smirk.
“Appealing as always,” I mumbled, tugging out of his grasp. A small smile ghosted across my lips. I began walking again and was tugged backwards. Dorian’s large hands encompassed my face, his fingers slipping beneath my hair. He leaned forward and before I could put two and two together his mouth was on mine. Out of shock my body wanted to fight, until his tongue slipped through my lips and weakened my knees.
My insides relaxed and my body slumped against Dorian’s hard frame. My veins hummed with a strange buzz as his tongue did clever circles around mine. He smelled like lavender and some sort of spicy wood, cedar maybe. It was divine. The surge of energy rushed through my body like a live wire, zapping and awakening my desire. I sighed against his mouth when he wrapped an arm around my waist and tugged me closer still. His body was solid, hard muscle against my soft frame.
“Down!” Someone yelled and it pierced through the little world Dorian and I had created. My eyes slowly peeled open and I looked up at him, seeing my hungry gaze reflected back in his aviator sunglasses.
Dorian’s eyebrows drew together, his mouth forming a hard line. His arm shot out, shoving me behind him so quickly I stumbled over my feet and fell backwards. A blade sailed through the air, right where I had just been standing. My breath hitched when I saw the large man Dorian was fighting. Grunts and snarls sounded up ahead. Lauren was fighting another large man, his skin so dark it blended into the night.
Quickly standing, I reached out and latched onto the surrounding spirits without a second thought. But before I could direct them to take care of the rogues, heavy footsteps echoed through the night. Five more men were running through the graveyard, daggers drawn and fury in their obsidian eyes as they rushed toward us.
A twig snapped just behind me, the sound more menacing than the scene before me. Hot, sour breath assaulted the back of my neck. I whipped my body around, bending down and sweeping my leg out. The rogue hadn’t been expecting it. His feet went out from underneath him and he tumbled to the hard earth. His coal eyes pinned me in my place, emanating enough hatred and fury to chill me to the bone. But I couldn’t hesitate when dealing with these bloodthirsty monsters. I took off running for a clear space, hoping that none of the rogues were chasing me. Adrenaline coursed through my veins, amplifying my fear as I reached the clearing. The attack at Broomsticks was still fresh in my mind, making it difficult to focus. A flash of my reflection at the hospital flitted through my mind, the ugly sneer of my attacker and the hopelessness I had felt. It was enough to push the fear away and snap me back to reality.
I eased my rapid breathing, sucking in deep breaths and releasing them slowly. Off in the distance Dorian and Lauren were occupied with their own rogues. Lauren moved so quickly it was difficult for my eyes to track her. Dorian held one rogue by the throat while holding his arm out to the other. He wasn’t touching the rogue, but he stopped in his tracks all the same. His inky eyes shot wide, his lip curling over his teeth in a feral snarl. White and black mist lifted from his body, twirling and spiraling in a sluggish cyclone. The man fell to his knees, a piercing screech breaking through his trembling lips.
Another man, no taller than 5’3”, was heading my way. Fifteen feet separated us and I was running out of time. I stretched my senses, willing the hiding ghosts to my side. Using my spirit walker powers were a lot like using my normal witchy ones. Both buzzed beneath my skin, but while my witchy magic was warm, my spirit walker magic was cold. My skin prickled and itched as the coldness filled my hot hands.
White mists twirled around me, slow but agitated. The spirits’ foggy energy continued to surround me, picking up speed the closer the rogue got. He stopped just outside of the protective ring, his eyes squinting as he tried to make sense of the display in front of him.
My hair whipped out around my shoulders, and my chest rose and fell heavily as I fastened onto the power surging within me. A satisfied smile bent my lips as I locked eyes with the rogue. I wasn’t defenseless this time. This rogue would not get a chance to hurt me like the other had.
He stepped forward, his hand securely wrapped around the handle of his dagger. Stopping just outside the line of the swirling ghosts, he stabbed his knife forward and into the misty bodies. The dead sped up, whirling around me like an angry tornado. Strands of my dark hair blew across my angry eyes.
The rogue stepped forward, and I lifted my chin the slightest bit. The spirits rushed forward and the man was flung back and thrown a good ten feet. I stomped toward him, fury racing through my veins and warming my skin.
“Gwen,” Dorian called as he ran over to me. “Stop.”
My eyes flicked up at him and then back down at the snarling man. The spirits pinned him to the frozen ground. His onyx eyes were like black glass. Bending down, I tried to grab onto his shirt but my hand fell through his chest cavity. I was instantly filled with a sense of despair and depression. I fell forward, clutching the earth as tears filled my eyes and fell over my heated cheeks. Thin inky vines crawled up my forearm, encircling as they ascended up my arm. My shoulders shook with my sobs and then I was yanked away.
I lay on the ground in the fetal position, my body shivering as the overwhelming depression ebbed. A screech sounded just behind me, making me wince. Someone knelt in front of me, fingers sweeping my hair out of my face. I looked up and into a pair of blue eyes. Lauren smiled, her blond hair falling over one shoulder.
“Come on,” she said, reaching her hands out to me. “Let’s get you up and off that cold ground.”
I sat up, wiping away the streaks of tears on my cheeks and let Lauren pull me up.
“What the hell was that?” My eyes shot to my arms and I released a relieved breath to see the blackness was gone. Dorian was searching the pockets of the rogue, who lay dead just a few feet away from me.
“This one was using a meat suit,” he replied, looking up at me.
“Do I even want to know?” I wrapped my arms around myself and looked over to the right. Multiple dead bodies lay strewn haphazardly amongst the tombstones and oak trees.
“Demon inhabiting a freshly dead guy,”’ Dorian said as he stood up. “The soul was already gone.”
I nodded, cringing in remembrance. While in Moon I had accidentally lifted Aura’s soul out of my cat’s body. Dorian explained that since her spirit didn’t belong in the cat’s body, I was able to connect to it and release it. Now I was left with a normal cat and lost my familiar when Aura moved on.
“So what I was touching was a demon?” I would have to take a few scolding hot showers to erase the feeling it gave me. I didn’t even know that kind of depression existed. An involuntary shudder trembled through my shoulders.
“I tried warning you.”
“You could have tried saying something like ‘If you touch him, your hand will be swimming in demon gunk’.”
“I’ll remember that next time,” Dorian responded.
My eyes fell to my forearm again. “What were those black vine things?”
“My guess is that the demon was trying to inhabit your body because it knew its host would be killed,” Lauren replied, staring down at the dead rogue. A few deep scratches lined her neck and cheeks but were already in the healing process.
“She’s right,” Dorian replied. “You’re lucky I got here before that happened.”
I nodded, swiveling my head to see all of the dead rogues. “You think they’re working for Holly?”
“I don’t know, but Flora isn’t safe anymore.” Dorian walked to my side. “Let’s head back home.” He placed his hand on the small of my back to turn me around, but I held my ground.
“We can’t just leave dead bodies lying around.”
“Aren’t dead bodies supposed to be in a cemetery?” Lauren said and she and Dorian shared a laugh. I glared at him and his laughter ceased but an amused grin remained.
“Do either one of you have a cell phone?” I asked.
Dorian slipped his hand into his pocket and pulled out his phone. He held it out but when I went to grab it, he tugged it away. “Where’s yours?”
“At home,” I said. “I didn’t think I’d need it.” I tried to grab it again but he held it up and over his shoulder.
“Have you learned your lesson?”
“That I shouldn’t invite annoying men to move in?” I asked. “Yes, lesson learned.”
Dorian grinned. “Admit it, if we hadn’t come to your rescue you’d be in a serious shit.”
“Give me the phone.” I reached my hand out, palm side up. Dorian quirked an eyebrow and smiled when I frowned at him.
“Fine,” I snapped. “You and Lauren saved my hide. Thank you, oh-powerful-ones. Now give me the damn phone.”
Dorian chuckled, placing the cell in my hand. Shaking my head, I turned away from the smugness on his face and dialed the only person who could handle a cleanup this bizarre.
“Who are you calling?” Lauren asked from behind me. I held up a finger in a ‘wait’ gesture. It was a little after midnight, but I knew Micah kept his cell right next to his bed in case of emergencies.
“Hello?” His raspy voice answered after the second ring.
“Sorry to wake you up,” I told him. “I have a situation that needs dealt with.”
“Gwen?” he paused. “It’s 12:30. What could possibly be that important?”
“How about ten dead bodies in the cemetery?” I glanced over my shoulder, cringing when I saw a man’s arm torn off and lying a couple feet from his body. I was guessing that was Lauren’s handy work.
“The cemetery is full of dead bodies,” Micah said, his voice low and rough like he was fighting staying awake. I wondered if I should be concerned that Micah shared the same sense of humor as Lauren and Dorian.
“Fresh dead guys,” I said. “They’re rogues that we just killed.”
“Whojust killed?” Lauren chimed in, leaning over my shoulder. I swatted her away.
“Listen, I’ll just call the department. I’m sure one of your lackeys can handle it.”
There was a groan and then the squeaking of the bed. “No, I’m on my way. But I’m calling Wyatt too. There’s no reason he shouldn’t be woken up, too.”
“Thank you, Micah.”
* * *
Fifteen minutes later, red and blue flashing lights lit up the night. Micah and Wyatt walked down the beaten trail, their eyes drooping and Styrofoam cups in their hands. When they stopped in front of the three of us, their eyes instantly landed on Dorian. I knew what they were thinking: their squinting eyes, drawn together brows and tight lips all screamed of their suspicion of the tall, leather-coat-wearing man standing to my right. Little did they know he wasn’t just some rough neck.
“Gwen,” Wyatt said in greeting, nodding his head in my direction but his eyes still on Dorian. It was nice to see that I wasn’t the only one affected by Dorian’s presence.
“Sorry for waking you guys,” I said, and their eyes finally found my face. Micah and Wyatt were brothers and you could definitely tell. Though Wyatt’s hair was shorter than Micah’s, it was the same shade of cocoa brown. To the casual observer, their eyes would also appear brown but I couldn’t miss the gold swimming through them that marked them as werewolves. Both men were tall and muscular, five o’clock shadows lining their sharp jaw lines, though Micah’s was a little scragglier compared to his brother’s.
“Not a problem. I know when you call it must be serious.” Wyatt smiled. “I didn’t realize you were back from Moon until the other day.”
“The other day?” My eyes caught movement behind the brothers. The spirits lingered amongst the tombstones, their necks craning as they watched the FPD’s team invade their territory. I curled my lips inward to restrain my smile. I imagined what the police would do if they knew they had a phantom audience. I envisioned a lot of screaming and heavy footfalls as they ran for the gate.
“Yeah,” Wyatt said, bringing my attention back to the conversation. I looked up at him and he looked over his shoulder. “When you were attacked at your shop... You were already on your way to the hospital by then.”
“Oh, yeah, I got back about a week ago,” I told him and he looked back at me. I smiled and he cocked his head a little to the side in question. The last time I had seen Micah and Wyatt, I thought I was just a normal witch with an unusual talent for reading the dead. They hadn’t heard that I was actually a spirit walker.
“So what happened tonight?” Micah asked, his eyes falling on each of the dead bodies. He took a drink of his coffee while he walked over to the nearest dead rogue. We all followed and he knelt down to inspect the man who attacked me.
“They’re rogues,” Dorian answered.
“Why would rogues be after Gwen?” Wyatt asked, joining his brother beside the body. He pulled a pen from his pocket and used it to drag down the man’s shirt collar. Having not found anything, he then used the end to tilt the man’s face away.
“They’re working with the Veil,” Dorian said, crossing his arms.
I caught Lauren’s smile in my peripheral and turned to look at her. She was tracking one of the uniforms with her eyes. “I’m going to see if he needs any help.”
Before I could threaten her to keep her fangs to herself, she was gone and charming the police officer. Shaking my head, I turned back to the three men. Wyatt turned the dead man over and pulled down the back of his coat to reveal a dagger tattoo spanning his neck. I vaguely remembered the man at my shop having the same tattoo.
“Who the hell did you piss off enough to warrant a visit from the Veil?” Micah asked, his golden eyes hard.
“So you guys know about the Veil too?” I’d been living in my own little world in Flora and hadn’t questioned the things that lurked outside its boundaries. My ignorance was going to get me killed. First thing tomorrow, I was doing some serious research.
“It’s sort of our job to know about this stuff, Gwen,” Micah said without humor. “Who hired them?”
“I’m pretty sure it was Holly,” I told them. “She’s a member on the NAWC’s council.”
“What the hell happened in Moon?” Micah asked. It’d been the FPD’s case that started the downward spiral, though that was just the tip of the messed up iceberg.
“It’s a long story,” I told him. “In short, Holly and Ian were a couple. Ian thought that since I’m a spirit walker, I could accept the vampire virus and be turned into some sort of hybrid and used for his revenge on the VC.” By the time I finished talking Micah and Wyatt were staring at me with disbelief.
“Can you accept the vampire virus?” Wyatt asked.
I shrugged. “I don’t know and I don’t want to find out.”
“And Ian?” Micah said.
I smiled. “Silver stake through the heart.”
“Damn,” Micah said. “Seems we missed a lot. I’m happy you’re home safe.” He looked down at the dead man in front of him. “Well, home at least.”
“Now that you’ve given Gwen her welcome home speech, can you clean this up and keep it quiet?” Dorian grimaced.
Micah and Wyatt stood with their shoulders wide and tense as they glared at the uncouth angel at my side. A smirk lifted one side of Dorian’s mouth up as he brushed off their intimidating stares. The werewolves weren’t to be trifled with. Most people avoided their hair-trigger tempers, but Dorian wasn’t most people.
“This is Dorian Hade,” I said to break the tension. “He’s staying with me to teach me about being a spirit walker. Ignore his rudeness; it’s the only side of him.”
“I resent that.” Dorian looked down at me. “I think we both know I have another side.” He winked and I rolled my eyes, looking back at Micah and Wyatt. Their eyes volleyed between me and Dorian, their assumptions written all over their faces. Why was it men always assumed a man and woman were sleeping together simply because they are friends?
“All right, well, we’ll take these guys back to the morgue,” Wyatt stopped, a thought occurring to him. “Are the demons gone from their bodies?”
“Only three of them,” Dorian responded. “I didn’t have time to extract the rest.”
“What are you, some kind of black magic witch?” Micah questioned, his right eye crinkling in speculation.
A sly smile spread across Dorian’s lips. “I’m much worse.”
Micah and Wyatt looked at each other, and then at me accusingly like I’d stepped over to the dark side and was consorting with the enemy.
“He’s Death,” I said. “And the only thing dangerous about him is his enormous ego.” That wasn’t true; Dorian was a force to be reckoned with, but I wasn’t going to feed his narcissism. And for the most part he was one of the good guys.
“As in the reaper of souls?” Wyatt asked.
“That’d be the one,” Dorian replied.
“Now that the introductions are out of the way, what are you guys going to do with the bodies?” I asked. It was quickly getting colder and the thin jacket I wore wasn’t up to the task of shielding me from it. Plus, I was exhausted from the fight and using my energy to control the spirits.
“Like I said, we’ll take them to the morgue,” Wyatt replied. “We’ll have to find someone to exercise the demons from them.”
“I can do it,” Dorian offered. “It’d be best if we took care of it tonight so that the demons don’t extract themselves and go into one of your officers.”
Micah and Wyatt looked at each other, their heads nodding and their mouths agape. The poor guys were used to dealing with the run-of-the-mill criminals, not demons.
“Where’s Lauren?” Dorian asked.
I turned to see where she had gone but didn’t see her. “I don’t know, probably sinking her fangs into the cute officer she was flirting with.”
“Some bodyguard she’s turning out to be,” Dorian mumbled. “You’ll have to come with me to the morgue.”
“Like hell I will,” I bit out. “It’s late and I’m tired. I’m going home.”
“Not by yourself you’re not,” Dorian replied, his tone final.
“For crying out loud, I’m not helpless and you can’t order me around.”
“We’ll just give you two a moment,” Wyatt interrupted. He and Micah walked over to a couple of their officers and left me alone with Dorian. We glared at each other, both unwilling to bend.
“It’s nice you care about my safety, but I’ve survived twenty-six years without you. I think I’ll manage to stay alive for one more night.” I turned and walked away.
“Meet you at the morgue, boys,” Dorian called behind me as his footsteps headed in my direction. “I have to walk Gwen home.”
I frowned, hugging my arms to my chest and continued up the path. Dorian fell in step beside me and together we exited the cemetery. I felt something heavy fall around my shoulders, and when I looked up, Dorian was no longer wearing his leather jacket.
“You know, if word gets out that you’re a gentleman, it’ll hurt your rep.”
“Luckily there aren’t any witnesses around.” We walked in silence for a few long seconds before Dorian spoke again. “It happened again tonight.”
I had been staring into the trees lining the street. I looked up at him. “What happened again?”
Dorian shook his head slightly, his lips a tight wire as the muscles in his jaw flexed. He was absolutely gorgeous, even when pissed off. His skin, though lined with a five o’clock shadow, was warm porcelain.
“I couldn’t see the danger you were in tonight,” he said, bewildered.
I knew the lack of insight bothered him, and it bothered me too, but I believed everything happened for a reason. I just didn’t know what the reason might be.
“Maybe you’re not seeing it because the rogues weren’t going to kill me. You see death, right? What if the rogues were ordered to just kidnap me or something?” Dorian gave me an ‘are you serious?’ look, I shrugged. Truth was I didn’t have a clue why I was blocked from him. In my experience, it couldn’t be good.
“I cannot pinpoint when you’ll die, Gwen. Do you understand how baffling and dangerous that is?” Dorian’s hands curled into fists beside his thighs. “I have to find answers. Otherwise you may not live through the week. Especially when you don’t take precautions.” He gave me a chiding look.
“How do you plan to find answers?” We’d made it back to the apartment. We climbed up the staircase and I fished my keys out of my pocket and unlocked the door. Dorian’s strong hands slid over my shoulders and he turned me around to face him.
“I have to leave, Gwen. I don’t know how long I’ll be gone.” He moved his hand up my shoulder, to my neck and cupped the side of my face. Brushing the pad of his thumb along my jawline, he leaned down and pressed the softest kiss to my lips.
“Leaving is the last thing I want to do, but finding answers could save you and that’s more important than my need to stay by your side.” He spoke against my mouth, his breath caressing my lips.
The idea of Dorian not being around twisted my heart. I knew he’d come back, but that could be days or months. The Dorian leaving was different than the Dorian who arrived at the castle in Moon a month ago. This man still had hard edges but they were softening, and it pained me to see him go. I may be reluctant to enter into another relationship, but I’d come to think of Dorian as my friend— even if that friend occasionally kissed me.
“When?” I mumbled.
“As soon as I’m done helping the FPD.”
I nodded and looked down at my hands. Turning, I opened the door and stepped inside. Dorian followed, closing the door behind him. A small part of me was angry with the angel of Death for leaving me at such a vulnerable time, but I wouldn’t voice those emotions. Dorian needed to find answers for what he was experiencing and who was I to stand in his way? He’d given up his life to help me out and now I had to let him get back to it.
“Alright,” I said, crossing my arms and staring at him. “Good luck.”
He crossed the room, stopping just in front of me. We watched each other for a few lingering moments until his lips were on my mouth again. There was nothing soft about this kiss. It was urgent, hard and possessive. A delightful tremor ran through my body as his arm snaked around my waist and pulled me tighter to his body. If only all moments could be this delicious.
“Whoa,” Lauren said behind us. The door slamming shut was like the snap of a hypnotizer’s fingers, awakening me from a dream.
Dorian pressed one last kiss on my lips before he turned away and disappeared through the door. I caught Lauren’s smile but wasn’t in the mood to return it. Turning, I headed to my bedroom and prayed sleep would claim me fast.
I don’t know why I thought finding information on a secret, underground group of evil rogues would be easy. It wasn’t like there was an evilrogues.com. (Yes, I tried it.) I had woken up at 4 a.m. and spent the morning hunched over my laptop sifting through websites until my eyes burned and I couldn’t see straight anymore. There were a few conspiracy theorist blogs where they mentioned the idea of a group like the Veil, but they also thought there were subliminal messages on children’s televisions shows. After reading it, my brain hurt and my patience was thinning.
I must have drifted off because I woke up on the sofa, my laptop discarded on the floor and infomercials for slimming lotion squawking from the television. The good news was I hadn’t dreamt about assassins or sharp daggers. As I tried to sit up, the throw blanket got tangled around me like some sort of cotton boa constrictor. I fought my way out, yanking and lifting until I was free to stand. Talk about an early morning workout.
Rubbing my blurry eyes, I padded into the kitchen in desperate need of coffee. While I waited for it to brew, I headed down the hall to the restroom, pausing in front of Dorian’s bedroom door. It took me a moment to realize he wasn’t behind it. Turning the knob, I opened the door; half hoping he would be sleeping under Fiona’s frilly comforter. He wasn’t. Lauren was curled into a tight ball, her arms strangling her pillow. Her long blonde hair spilled over her face. She actually looked peaceful when she wasn’t strutting and wielding her body at the closest man.
Lauren would be dead to the world until tonight. Vampires could awaken during the sunlit hours, but they had the strength of a toddler. The two windows had thick blankets duct taped to the wall to keep out even the smallest sliver of light. My eyes adjusted quickly, the light from the hall leaking into the room. Fiona had had movers pack up a lot of her things when she decided to stay in Moon. I knew her father didn’t want her around me when I was the target in so many bad guys’ eyes, but I missed her. Seeing her half-empty room caused a pain in my chest. Deciding it was probably creepy to be watching over a sleeping vampire, I turned and closed the door.
* * *
After three cups of coffee, and more endless internet searches, I reached a dead end. I flipped through the notes I had scribbled down in my journal. There were more doodles than information. Sometime during zoning out, I had drawn a dagger. Its hilt was wide and at the base a gem was set in the metal, just like the tattoo I’d see on my attacker’s neck. As I thought about my assassin, another thought came to mind:What had Dorian done to him?The man stood behind me so I couldn’t see what had happened, but one minute he was holding my life in his hands and the next he was crumbled at my feet—dead. And he hadn’t touched the man at the cemetery either. He simply reached his hand out and black and white smoke rose from the rogue’s body. Bizarre.
“Damn you, Dorian,” I whispered to myself.
Two hard knocks echoed behind my front door. I froze, afraid to find out who was on the other side. I didn’t have a lot of visitors, and the ones I did have only came once the sun fell. Jumping out of the chair, I hurried to the knife block on my counter and grabbed the biggest blade it stored. Clutching the handle, my palm suddenly sweaty, I inched closer to the door.
“Who is it?” It was times like these that I wished I had a peephole. It didn’t matter, if I didn’t recognize the responder’s voice I wouldn’t open the door.
“It’s Micah,” a smooth baritone answered and I sagged in relief. I flipped the lock and opened the door. Micah, my ex, local detective and werewolf, stood with his arms crossed and a smile on his face. His shaggy brown hair was a tangled mess as if he had just hopped out of bed and headed over here. Dark circled lined his eyes and his skin was a shade paler now that I could see him in the light of day. He looked like he’d aged five years.
“Hey,” I said. “Come on in.”
Micah stepped inside, shutting the door behind him.
“Do you want something to drink? I think I have some iced tea.”
Micah eyed the knife in my hand and then arched a brow at me.
I smiled sheepishly. “You can never be too careful.”
“No, I’m fine,” Micah said, waving off my hospitality. “The reason I came by was to tell you I think you should keep the store closed, at least until rogues stop coming after you.”
I leaned against the counter and studied Micah’s face. “You mean because the other business owners don’t want me to reopen.”
Micah rubbed his stubble-lined jaw as he stared at the floor. When he looked up his amber eyes were apologetic. “We’ve gotten complaints,” he admitted. “But that’s not the only reason. I do think it’s a good idea to lay low. I don’t know what happened while you were in Moon, but the residents of Flora aren’t happy you brought the trouble back with you.”
I snorted. “It’s not like I invited the rogues here to kill me or wreak havoc in our peaceful little town.”
It was Micah’s case that started the entire mess, one that I should have kept my nose out of. Not that it would have done any good. Ian Despereaux targeted me before I even knew he existed. I was doomed from the start. Since the fight was between the witches and vampires, the two governments took over handling the problem, leaving Micah, and every other person who worked on the case, out of the loop.
“I’m not saying that, Gwen,” Micah said. “It’s just…what did happen in Moon? I thought the NAWC and the VC were taking care of the problem?”
That caused me to snort in derision again. “Oh they are, but Holly, our trusted council leader, was in on the entire thing. Like I mentioned last night.She and Ian were also screwing.” I took a moment to reign in my anger. “She’s supposedly locked up and awaiting trial while the other NAWC members are working around the clock to reset the protection spell of our blood. Until then, I have to dodge rogues and whatever else Holly throws my way.”
“It doesn’t surprise me. Every government has a dirty side.”
“Yeah, well, my government’s dirty side is trying to kill me,” I paused. “Speaking of which, what do you know about the Veil?”
Micah sat down at the table, leaning back in the chair. “I thought they were a myth, a story that paranoid supes told. Up until now they’ve been more legend than fact.” Returning the knife to the block, I joined him at the table.
“So, whatdoyou know about the Veil? I tried looking them up on the web but got a whole lot of nothing.”
Micah chuckled. “They’re a secret, underground group, Gwen. They’re not going to advertise their services on a website.” He pointed to the computer. “They’re not stupid.”
“It’s called grasping at straws, Micah. I have no way of finding out about them. Everything else is on the web so I figured I would give it a shot.”
“Why not ask Dorian?” Micah asked.
“Hmm, I should have thought about that right before he left.” I was trying very hard to not allow Dorian’s runaway act anger me. It was not working so far. I had plenty of time to think about it this morning and the more I thought the angrier I got. Demon possessed rogues wanted my head, and he was off who knew where trying to figure out why he couldn’t see my death. One thing was for sure, I was on my own for the time being. I would have to start taking those precautions Dorian was so fond of bitching at me about.
“What?” I asked once I noticed the strange look Micah was giving me.
Micah grinned. “Nothing,” he said shaking his head and lowering his eyes.
“It’s something,” I insisted. “Do you forget we dated for eight months? I know when you’re hiding something from me.”
“I can smell your desire for him,” Micah said almost apologetically. “Were you and him…”
“No,” I snapped. “And that’s TMI.” It was impossible for a person to retain their modesty when they were around vampires and werewolves. They saw, heard or smelled too much.
“Hey, I tried not to tell you,” Micah shrugged. “Getting back on track, the Veil is made up of supernatural rogues, creatures who don’t want to play along with society’s rules. Once they join the Veil they forfeit their souls to the dark side for the chance of gaining power. No one knows where their headquarters are, and the only way to contact them is through a black magic spell.”
Well, that information didn’t help me. It was pretty much the same thing Dorian had told me. Maybe the Veil was just a bunch of social rejects that banded together and formed their own gang, a minor operation instead of the huge following like we all suspected. There was nothing more important to thugs than their reputations. If the public thought they were some scary, demon-backed group, they would leave them alone. The rogues would be free to kill anyone they wanted. I ran the argument through my head, testing it for flaws. After debating my theory, I found one—the black eyes. My attacker wasn’t a vampire, which meant he was something else, something darker—eviler.
“How are you feeling?” Micah asked, tearing me away from my thoughts. “You look a lot better.”
“Better than last night?”
“Better than after your attack.”
My eyebrows arched. “Oh, I didn’t realize you saw me afterwards.” I remembered Dorian telling me he called for help when I was fighting to stay conscious, but I couldn’t put a coherent thought together. Of course the FPD would arrive on the scene.
“Yeah,” Micah said softly. “We weren’t sure you would make it.” His warm honeyed eyes watched me with compassion, and I gave him a small smile.
“Aiden gave me his blood,” I said with nonchalance. “How have you been? You look…tired.” I needed to change the subject. If I thought about how I felt in the hospital it would break through my confidence.
“Jesse’s pregnant,” he said reluctantly. The reason it hadn’t worked out between Micah and me was due to the fact that I wasn’t a werewolf and couldn’t offer him purebred children. His father, the alpha of their pack, did not make our relationship easy. In the end, Micah chose his pack and it was for the best.
“Congratulations,” I said and tried to sound the way a normal, excited person would. Iwashappy for Micah but it was still a touchy, awkward subject.
“Thanks,” Micah said. “A pregnant werewolf’s hormones are off the charts. If I survive this it will be a miracle.”
I smiled. “You’re tough. I’m sure you’ll be okay. I bet your father and Wyatt are excited.”
“Gwen, we don’t have to talk about it. I just wanted to stop by and see if you were all right and to ask you to keep Broomsticks closed until this blows over.”
“Are you going to call the people who send my bills and let them know why I can’t work?” I halfheartedly joked. A magic shop in a town full of magical folks didn’t rake in the dough like some would think. I made enough to cover my expenses with a small profit at the end. Plus, keeping the store closed meant Penny and Jillian wouldn’t get a paycheck either.
“Didn’t you kill Ian Despereaux?” Micah asked.
My eyebrows drew together. “Yeah? So?”
“You didn’t get an inheritance?”
“When vampires are killed, their assets go to the one who ended their life. It’s a sick rule the vamps have. Doesn’t make sense to me. You would think people would be trying to kill vampires all the time to inherit their fortunes.”
I laughed. “That is the silliest thing I’ve ever heard. Plus, Ian’s sire is still alive. Wouldn’t his money go to him?”
Micah shrugged. “Perhaps, or maybe his sire just doesn’t want you to have it and that is why you haven’t gotten notice of it yet. You should ask Aiden…if you two are speaking, that is.”
“Yeah, we’re still talking…sort of.”
Micah’s forehead wrinkled in confusion.
“Another long story I don’t feel like telling,” I explained.
An awkward silence settled over the kitchen, and then Micah stood up. “I should get going. It was nice seeing you, Gwen.”
I stood up also, walking around the table to hold the door while Micah stepped out onto the balcony. “You too.”
“Think about what I said about keeping the store closed, and stay safe. You know if you need anything you can call me or Wyatt.”
“I will, and thanks. Tell Jesse I said congrats,” I smiled. When Micah turned to leave, I shut the door and leaned against it, staring at my small kitchen. Cabinets and countertop were housed on the far wall, along with the stove. The refrigerator rested at the end, and a small worn table sat in front of two windows that looked over the pathetic front lawn and parking lot. I had painted the walls a bright blue, but the longer I stared at them the more I hated the color. The yellowing linoleum was beginning to crack in various places. The landlord hadn’t updated the apartment building since the eighties.
The phone rang, startling me. I laughed at myself for being easily shaken and walked the short distance to answer it.
“Is this Gwen, Gwen Sparks?” The man’s voice sounded like that of an elderly man, soft and raspy.
“Yes,” I said with uncertainty, peeking over my shoulder and around my kitchen.
“I have a deal for you,” the man said.
“Who is this?” I hurried to the window and looked out into the yard as if the man would just be standing out there. What can I say… people get paranoid when they’re scared.
“Who I am does not matter,” the old man said. “What matters is your life and whether or not you’ll have it for much longer.”
I couldn’t say anything to that. I slammed the phone onto the cradle and stepped backwards and away from it like it was a poisonous snake. The phone rang again, screaming through the kitchen and beating against my eardrums. I jumped. It continued to ring repeatedly until the sound became one long noise in my mind. I raked my fingers through my hair, frustration seeping through my veins.
“What do you want?” I growled into the phone, clutching it tight. A low, raspy chuckle rolled over the receiver and all the way down my spine. There was nothing fragile in that laugh.
“Avoidance is only postponing the inevitable, my dear.”
Goosebumps pebbled my arms, and my skin crawled as his soft breath sounded in my ears. I punched theENDbutton and took the battery out of the back of the phone for good measure. Now rogues were making house calls? Suddenly the walls and locked door didn’t make me feel as safe as they had moments before.
I sipped my vanilla iced coffee on my walk to Broomsticks. As I headed down the sidewalk from Espresso Self to my shop, sharp stares and not-so-hushed whispers fell my way. The people of Flora really weren’t that different than those of a human small town; give them something to talk about and their mouths ran wild. I had brought chaos to their haven. I could almost see the ideas of pitchforks and torches in their steely gazes. As I passed one woman with a small child, I had to smile as she shielded the little girl from me as we crossed each other. In a town of monsters, I had become the boogeyman. Talk about ironic.
I stopped in front of my store, eyes wide and a frown on my face. A sheet of plywood covered the door. I had forgotten Dorian had busted it down, but that wasn’t what made me frown. In bold, red letters was the Latin wordinfelicitas, which roughly translated to bad luck. It was a warning to the townsfolk to stay clear of me. I could handle Fiona’s dad talking her into staying in Moon; she was his daughter and he was protecting her, but now my hometown was keeping a wide berth?
“What ever happened to unity?” I asked no one in particular, looking over my shoulder. A man—no, not a man, an elf picked up his pace to pass me and murmured something under his breath that sounded a lot like “cursed”. Shaking my head in frustration, I made my way down the alley and to the back of the store. Unlocking the door, I flipped on the light and stepped inside, making sure to lock the door behind me.
The storage area wasn’t very big, but it was enough for my small store. Rows and rows of metal shelving units ran in three lines to the left and to the right was a gift-wrapping station that rarely saw use. Just behind that was my office and restroom, the walls were made of cinder block and painted the color of sand.
I made my way up front, my steps slow and hesitant. From the back of the store the shop looked untouched, but I knew better. It was a crime scene,mycrime scene. Once I made it out of the rows of glass shelves, I stopped. The register, pens, bags and various papers were strewn in front of the cashier station. Shards of wood and glass littered the gray carpet by the door. I stepped closer, my heart thumping wildly. Like a movie reel, those horrible memories replayed in my mind.
The rogue held me from behind, the dagger cutting into the skin at my throat. My head was full of blurry stars from getting it slammed onto the counter. Dorian stood on the other side of the counter, icy fury rolling off him in dangerous waves. He was as beautiful as an avenging angel.
“Can you kill me before I kill her?” the rogue had asked, pressing the blade tighter. I was losing consciousness but Dorian ordered me to keep eye contact with him.
I walked around the counter and stared at the space behind it. A deep dent concaved the wall where the rogue had thrown me against it.
The rogue’s hold loosened, the dagger’s sharp edge falling from my throat. Angry grunts sounded from behind me as the man fought against Dorian’s influence. With a hard thump, the rogue fell to the floor. Before I could join him, Dorian captured my falling body in his arms. With a swipe of his arm, he cleared the counter and placed my body on top.
“Stay with me, Gwen,” he whispered.
I blinked as the memory of his words bounced around my head. The last thing I remembered was Dorian catching me and clearing the counter. I was sure after that I had passed out yet, now things were being added to a memory I didn’t know I had. My eyes fell to the counter and the red stain of my blood coating it. A tremor vibrated my bones.
Dorian brushed my hair away from my face. My eyes were closed and my head lolled to the side. For all intents and purposes I looked dead. Dorian leaned forward, pressing a kiss to my forehead. His fingers disappeared through the curtain of my dark hair while he rested his cheek against my head.
“You will not die,” Dorian growled, standing up straight. He looked to the ceiling; his hands fisted so tightly his knuckles turned white. “Do you hear me?” He yelled. “I won’t let you take her.”
I blinked back tears, surprised to feel them falling against my cheeks. Confusion consumed me. How was I able to see and hear Dorian when I was passed out? The memory was so vivid like it was there all along.
“Gwen,” Dorian said softly, standing and taking a couple steps. A white mist hovered just in front of him, so soft it was hard to make out. Dorian reached out his hand to the misty form and it became solid beneath his grasp. The fog solidified into that of a woman with long dark hair. Her back was turned toward Dorian.
I took small steps backwards while I saw the past play out in front of me. My throat constricted and the air in my lungs thinned. I jumped when my back hit the wall behind me. Looking over my shoulder briefly, I brought my gaze back to the space in front of me.
“I’m not done with you yet,” Dorian said to the woman. His voice was tinged with pain and indecision as though he were fighting some internal battle. The woman turned her head, her skin porcelain and cream. Her almond-shaped blue eyes stared unblinking at Dorian, but they churned like an emotional sea.
I gasped, my hand going to my mouth. The spirit was me. How was that possible? Tears spilled over my eyes, dripping onto my cheeks.
The spirit me looked at her body on the counter and then back at Dorian.
“I’m dead, aren’t I?”
“Not completely,” Dorian replied.
The spirit me wrinkled her eyebrows and stared at her abandoned body for a long while.
“Gwen, you have to return.”
The spirit’s eyes fell back on Dorian and then she looked over her shoulder.
“I’ll drag you back here and put you back in your body if I have to,” Dorian threatened. I turned to look at him, a frown bending my mouth down.
“If it’s my time—”
“It’s not,” Dorian snapped. “I won’t allow it.”
I looked over my shoulder again but before I could make a decision, Dorian held out both hands, palm facing toward me. The white mist making up my body began to drift toward him, disappearing into his palms. As soon as all of the fog was soaked up, Dorian turned towards my fleshy body and placed his hands on my chest. Tipping his head back, his mouth fell open and tendrils of white began to snake out of his palms and seep into my body.
That’s where my memory ended. The next thing I remembered was waking up in the hospital. “What the hell?” I murmured. Dorian hadn’t mentioned anything about capturing my soul and placing it back in my body. Was I supposed to die the other day? Was I just having an out of body experience? It was pretty creepy that Dorian had sucked my soul up. I had beeninsideof Death. Sure, I thought about Death being inside me a few times, but this was different—not sexy.
I wiped away the lingering tears, eyeing the counter with disdain as I stepped around it. The next time I saw Dorian, he had better start explaining or he would have more to fear than a loss of insight.
* * *
“Okay, I’m here. What’s the big emergency?” Jillian crossed her arms and leaned against the doorframe leading into the living room. Her blonde hair was cut into a bob, longer in the front and shorter in the back. She was new to vampirism, turned five years ago. When she wasn’t working at Aiden’s bar, Vain, she covered nights at Broomsticks.
“I didn’t say it was an emergency.” I gave her a pointed look, one that reminded her I was her boss. She rolled her eyes and I barely restrained myself from getting up and smacking her head to see if they would stick like that. It would be hard to be a sarcastic vampire with crossed eyes.
Penny sat in the overstuffed chair next to me. Tonight she was wearing red and gray plaid pants with suspenders over a white baby tee. Her red-streaked muddy brown hair fell in twin braids over her shoulders. I had called them over to break the news about Broomsticks closing for a while. I had a feeling they wouldn’t be as broken up about it as I was.
I pulled my attention away from the screen of my open laptop and looked up at the girls. “Due to recent events,” I began, “the FPD thinks it’ll be in everyone’s best interest if I close Broomsticks for a while.”
“They’re making you close your store?” Penny asked with indignation. “That’s total BS.”
I agreed, but I didn’t want to add fuel to her fire. “The FPD asked me to consider it,” I told her. “Nobody’smakingme. However, after careful consideration I decided that it’s for the best. Had you or Jillian been working when the rogue came, he could have killed you. I don’t want to put either of you at risk. Besides, just because the store is closed doesn’t mean there won’t be work.”
Jillian walked into the living room but didn’t sit. Instead, she stood in front of my sofa table and stared at the silver frames lining it. She picked one of them up and studied the photograph.
“How old were you in this?” She held up the frame, looking over her shoulder. My eyes fell to the picture of me with my younger sister Rebekah. We had been close despite our ten year age difference. I hadn’t seen her since I was sixteen but that didn’t stop me from wondering what kind of woman she’d turned out to be.
“I was fifteen.”
“And who’s this?” She tapped her finger over Rebekah’s face.
“My sister.” Rebekah had the same raven colored hair as me, and her eyes were so brightgreen they resembled spring grass. I smiled as I imagined how beautiful she must be now.
“I had a sister too,” Jillian responded more to herself than me. She stared at the photograph for another long second before placing it back on the table. When she turned to face us, she noticed Penny and I were staring at her.
“Did she pass away?” Penny asked, her voice soft.
“Wha—no, my family disowned me when I decided to become a vampire. My parents were afraid I would drain them dry.” She rolled her eyes. “Haven’t seen or heard from them in almost four years.”
“I’m sorry,” I told her. “I know what it’s like to have an insensitive family. I’m sure you’ll see your sister again someday, when she’s old enough to decide for herself whether she wants to see you or not.”
Jillian snorted. “My sister is older than me. If she wanted to reach out, she would have by now.”
“At least you’ve got us,” Penny beamed, making me smile. I knew she was doing it just to annoy Jillian, and Jillian knew it too.
“Okay, back to business,” I said. “The front doors may be closed, but thanks to Penny, we have the internet sales. Those will still need to be packaged and shipped each week. I made up a schedule.” I flipped open a folder and handed a piece of paper to both girls. “Each of you has keys to the shop. I just ask that you keep the door locked while there. Just in case. I’m not saying another rogue will pop up but it’s better to be safe.”
“Oh, is it a girls’ night?” Lauren stood in the doorway, a smile stretching her lips. She had been out doing recon, or so she said.
“Just a work meeting,” I told her. Turning my attention back to Jillian and Penny I said, “Do you guys have any questions?” Both girls shook their heads. Now that my business was situated, I felt a lot better, and Penny and Jillian wouldn’t have to look for another job.
“If you’re done, we have somewhere to be,” Lauren said, her face growing serious.
“Where?” I looked up from the folder in my hands.
Lauren gestured with her head for me to follow her into the kitchen. Excusing myself, I got up and walked over to where Lauren stood by the counter.
“What is it?”
“Aiden has asked me to bring you to Vain.”
I arched a brow. That news didn’t seem as important as she was making it.
“The VC is in town and they’ve requested a meeting with you. Aiden wants to do it at Vain so that his vampires are there, in case things get out of hand.”
“You know,” I said, “it would be nice if just for once, someone had good news.”
Vain is in a long rectangular building. The outside was painted black, and the tinted windows looked like liquid silk as the lights reflected off them. Above the door hung a black sign with the wordVainin red neon, a drop of blood hanging from the center of the V. Gripping the handle, I opened the door and waited for Lauren to enter. She hung back, arms crossed and apprehension coloring her delicate features.
“I can’t go in,” she all but whispered. I had to stick my head out to capture her words fading into the night wind.
“What do you mean, you can’t go in? Aiden hired you to protect me. I mean, that is why you moved into my apartment, right?”
“Yes, and I’ll be out here when you’re done. But I cannot go inside. Aiden knows why.” Lauren’s voice grew stiff, her blue eyes piercing.
I shrugged. “Fine.” I stepped inside and let the door close behind me. “Shouldn’t I be the one terrified of entering?” I mumbled to myself.
The inside of the club had a red, black and white color scheme. The walls were covered in black and gray damask wallpaper. Various two-person love seats were ranged along the wall, while the dance floor was situated in the middle of the room. Off to the left, a bar made of black marble stretched along the wall. Rows of alcohol bottles were perched on black glass shelves, red lights beneath to cast an eerie glow. The floor was covered in black slate tile and hanging lights with red shades fell from the ceiling, their bulbs barely casting enough illumination on the space below them. Seeing wasn’t necessarily difficult for me, but it wasn’t easy either. Silhouettes of bodies cast shadows against the walls, only visible when the dance lights cut across the floor and revealed their identity.
Arms slid beneath mine, languid yet possessive. I didn’t need to see the person’s face to know that it was Aiden behind me; my body was attuned to his energy. The air around me thickened as Aiden slipped one of his hands free and trailed a finger down my arm while holding me against his chest with the other. My eyes closed briefly, relishing the familiar ecstasy. For just a moment, I didn’t want to think about what he’d done, why we were apart or the impending meeting with the VC. If only it were that easy. My newfound spirit walker powers wouldn’t allow me absolute ignorance. The death rolling off Aiden twined with his energy and sent goose bumps flitting up my arms. I tried to push the feeling away, to ignore the truth of his past.
Aiden settled his face against mine, his mouth brushing my ear. The sound of his tongue rolling across his lips as he licked them was an intoxicating seduction that stirred the fire within me. No matter whether Aiden and I were together or apart, I would always be attracted to him, had been since I first met him. It only made being away from him that much harder.
“The VC does not know that we aren’t together,” he whispered, a kiss behind my ear following his words. “It would be best if they didn’t find out. Without a vampire consort you’re fair game.”
I hadn’t realized my eyes had slipped all the way closed until Aiden’s embrace disappeared. When my eyelids opened sluggishly, he was standing in front of me. His blue eyes broke through the darkness: penetrating and hungry. He watched me for only a second before he stepped forward, his hand disappearing in my hair as he cradled my face and kissed me hard. His mouth claimed my tongue, sucking and twirling in a delicious battle to bring me to my knees.
When he broke the kiss, my breathing was heavy. I traced my swollen lips with my fingertips, averting my eyes from Aiden’s. Oh, man, I was on a slippery slope. If Aiden kissed me like that again, reason and sense wouldn’t penetrate through my desire to have all of him.
“I’ve missed the taste of your lips, my Gwen.”
“Don’t say things like that,” I breathed. “And you shouldn’t kiss me.”
A devious smirk lifted one side of his mouth up. “So I can still affect you; is that what you’re saying?”
“Can wait,” Aiden stepped closer, towering over me like a dark seductive shadow. He kept advancing until the only option I had left was to step backwards. When the wall stopped my retreat, his smirk grew into a full-blown smile. He reached an arm up and rested it against the wall, while his other hand settled on my hip, his fingers gripping my waist.
“My blood runs in your veins. I know how turned on you are right now, my Gwen.”
The techno music beat against the walls, sending short vibrations running against my back. Vain was crowded, but all I could see was Aiden’s athletic lean body in front of me. My eyes fell to his full lips, and I licked my own in remembrance of how they tasted. Aiden yanked my hips toward his body, my pelvis smacking against his in a delightful collision. A moan slipped through my lips before I could stop it. Aiden’s mouth was busy suckling against my throat, his tongue licking an upward path. For the love of god, he felt good against my body, an enticing drug that promised the ultimate high. I could lose myself to this man and not realize I was lost.
Someone clearing his throat made me snap open my eyes. Aiden leaned up slowly, more annoyed about being disturbed than embarrassed. When I realized I had his shirt fisted in both of my hands, I quickly let go. Aiden smiled at me before turning toward our interrupter.
“Aaron does not appreciate being kept waiting while you grope your witch,” the man said. “His words, not mine.” The man looked out of place in his jeans and sweatshirt. A baseball hat pulled low on his head obscured his features in the shadows.
“My apologies,” Aiden said dipping his head. “But can you blame me for wanting to stay in her company instead of theirs?”
Though I couldn’t see the man’s eyes, I could feel them observing me.
He shrugged. “She’s no Alana.”
Ouch, that stung. Alana was Aaron’s sister and a member of the Vampire Council. She is also Aiden’s very blonde, very sexy ex. I hated her.
“That’s what I love most about her.” Aiden’s fingers brushed a light path across my cheek, and then he turned back to the man. “And if you ever speak ill of my Gwen again, the VC won’t even be able to protect you from my wrath, understand?” When Aiden gave a threat he did so with calm and calculated words. He was over six hundred years old and knew how to demand respect. His low clipped words wielded the danger of a blade as he directed them to the man, who was wise enough to fear them. He bowed before disappearing through the shadows.
Exhaling to clear my head, I ran my hands through my hair and got myself together. Aiden’s little seduction had knocked me off track and that was dangerous—he was dangerous, at least to my resolve.
“Aiden, while that was…nice, and thank you for threatening that guy…but—.”
“I know you’re not ready to be with me yet. But I don’t apologize for what just happened. I love you, Gwen and I’ll never stop craving you.”
“As long as you don’t get the wrong impression... Just because we made out a little doesn’t mean we’re getting back together. Things are fragile right now and while I’m still physically attracted to you, nothing more can come of it.” I mentally groaned at how cold and technical my words sounded. “I do love you, Aiden, and the Goddess knows I’m attracted to you. It’s just…”
“Dorian?” Aiden supplied.
“What? No.” Dorian hadn’t even entered my mind while I was being seduced by Aiden. “There’s nothing going on with us. I think it’s smart if I take a break from relationships for a while.”
Aiden frowned. “Everyone makes mistakes, Gwen. Don’t allow mine ruin your outlook on love.”
Disbelief fell over my face. “Are you saying you want me to be with Dorian?”
“Fuck no,” Aiden growled. “I only meant, don’t let what I did ruin what we could have. Screw Dorian. On second thought…don’t.”
* * *
When Lauren told me that the VC was waiting to meet me at Vain, I hadn’t expected all of them to show up. Six pairs of steely eyes landed on my face when I entered the private room in the back of the club. Aaron, the voice of the group, stood and met me in the center of the room. He might have looked like a teenager, but there was nothing naïve about him. His brown eyes held knowledge while his face deceived the world. The Vampire Council was made up of the original vampire family, the first humans to be turned by the demon Nufesum. And their appearance in Flora wasn’t just a friendly meet and greet. I had struck a deal with them while in Moon and the payment for their help was my blood. I knew it was only a matter of time before they came to collect, but I hoped it would be in the distant future.
“So nice to see you again, Ms. Sparks,” Aaron La’rue smiled, clasping my hand and bending at the waist to place a kiss on top. I was sure all of them could hear my heartbeat speed up; I could almost feel the rapid thump against chest.
“And you,” I said through tight lips. My eyes circled around the room and landed on the other five vampires. Alana sat on the edge of the suede sofa, her lengthy legs crossed and a satisfied smile on her face. Her long blond hair was neatly pinned up while tendrils escaped and brushed her shoulders. Pernis, Ian’s sire, sat next to Alana. He was tall and lanky with slicked back brown hair and a no nonsense attitude. He wore a three piece suit that looked like it had been constructed in the 1920s.
“Let me introduce you.” Aaron still held my hand, and as he walked further into the room I had no choice but to follow. Aiden made sure to stay right beside me, his hand on the small of my back. I knew in a room full of elders there wasn’t a damned thing Aiden could do to save me, but I appreciated the illusion of security he offered.
“You’ve met Alana and Pernis.” Aaron gestured toward the two of them. They both smiled, and I tipped my chin down in a shallow nod. “This is Fredrick.” Aaron held out his hand toward a man with reddish brown hair, a thin coating of freckles lining the bridge of his nose. His eyes were brown like Aaron’s but had gold twining through the irises, giving him an almost ethereal look.
“And Mira and Giles,” Aaron continued. My eyes fell on the last two. Mira looked to be the youngest, maybe fourteen when turned. She had shoulder-length dirty blonde hair and wide green eyes. Giles, I admit was good looking, with spiky golden hair and blue eyes. There was a cockiness about him that was both off-putting and alluring. I gave both of them a small smile before bringing my attention back to Aaron. I should have said something along the lines of “it’s nice to meet all of you” but that would have been a lie. In no way was I happy to meet the entire Vampire Council or have them travel all the way to Flora to meet me. If they thought my silence was rude they didn’t comment. Out of all of them, Pernis was the one I was most afraid of. I had killed his child, broken a bond with someone he’d had in his life for over eight hundred years. Depending on the vampire, retribution could be extracted should they see fit. Another thought occurred to me, one scarier than allowing six vampires feed from me. Were they here to kill me for killing Ian? In Moon they had offered to help capture Ian, but there was no talk about killing him. Maybe I stepped over the line and they were here to punish me for it. I mentally laughed, more of a stressed out chuckle as I thought about the absurdity of worrying about demonic rogues when the real threat was the VC. I hadn’t been anticipating their role in my survival.
“Please sit.” Aaron held out his hand to an empty chair. “We have much to talk about.” I walked toward the chair and sat while Aaron joined Frederick on the couch. All six vampires were watching me, each with different expressions. Aiden stood beside me, his hands clasped in front of him. I looked up at him briefly before looking back at the VC. The room remained silent except for the echo of music beating against the dark walls. The VC remained motionless; their eyes pinned on my face. I trailed my own eyes over each of their faces, expecting someone to say something, anything. The awkward silence was playing hell on my heart. It jumped and slammed harder against my chest as my anxiety spiked.
“This is your idea of having a lot to talk about?” I finally said. My impatience always outweighed my common sense. Granted I wasn’t trying to make a good impression with the council leaders, but I knew it was dangerous to mouth off to them.
“Apologies,” Aaron said. “We were having a short meeting.”
I looked up at Aiden in confusion and he tapped the side of his head to indicate they were talking mentally amongst themselves. Creepy.
“You remember your promise, I assume?”
“Yes, but it was under the terms of you guys helping me capture Ian.” I shrugged. “Seeing as how handled it myself, I figured the deal was null and void.” I knew for a fact that it wasn’t but you couldn’t blame a girl for trying. There was no way I wanted six pairs of fangs sinking into my body. Again, I should have thought about the consequences before making the deal. The best I could hope for now was that they didn’t inflict pain when they bit me.
“Capture is the key word, Ms. Sparks,” Pernis said. “There was no mention of killing. When you drove that stake into Ian’s heart, you didn’t just kill him, you offended me in the process. As you know Ian was mine to deal with how I see fit. It was not your call to end his life—”
Aaron placed his hand on Pernis’ arm to stop his speech. Pernis’ hard eyes bore into me while his mouth stretched into a thin line.
“What Pernis is saying is that it goes against our rules to kill another’s child. In that aspect you took a piece of his property.”
“You guys do realize why Ian bonded himself to me, right? Why this whole thing happened?” I paused for a moment. “He wanted to turn me into a hybrid so that I could kill each and every one of you. If you’re asking me to feel sorry for ending him, I don’t. I do however apologize for taking a piece of yourproperty, Pernis. But judging from how Ian talked, there was no love lost between the two of you.”
Aiden tensed up beside me. I didn’t have time to think how unusual that was because Pernis shot up off of the sofa and was in my face before I could blink. Hisses echoed around the room. Fangs glistened, capturing what little light was in the room. Aiden was crouched beside me, his hand gripping the edge of the chair tight. I could tell he wanted to rip Pernis away from me but was biding his time. Once he laid a hand on Pernis, the tension would escalate to something deadlier.
“He was mine,” Pernis snapped. “Feelings are beside the point.”
“Pernis,” Aaron warned, standing up. Frederick and Giles joined him. I wasn’t sure if they were getting ready to grab Pernis should he attack or if they simply wanted to join in on the fun of ripping one of my veins open.
Pernis blinked and I could see the veil of his anger falling away. With one last contemptuous look, he stood and took a couple steps back. The entire room took a collective sigh as the tension settled back to normal. Aiden stood back up, portraying a statue of calmness.
“I apologize for my brother’s brash reaction,” Aaron said. “We know why Ian was interested in you. The idea of hybrids has been lingering on the lips of vampires for centuries. It’s a pipe dream, one derived from an insane mind. Ian was not well.”
“You don’t have to tell me that,” I added.
“Can we drink her already?” Alana pouted from across the room. “I’m dying to taste Aiden’s pet.” A wicked smile turned her pretty face into something far more sinister. Her fangs peeked out under her full lips and her blue eyes blackened around the edges. I knew from that look that no pleasure would be gained from her bite. And I was okay with that; there was nothing worse than being turned on by your ex’s ex. It was wrong on many levels. I would rather be in pain than be under her arousing control.
“The deal you made with us remains,” Aaron said. “A blood gift is non-returnable.” He smiled at his small joke, but I was having trouble finding the humor.
“Okay,” I said standing up. “I will hold up my end of the deal, but this—” I pointed to my neck—“is a no fang zone. I’ll go to the hospital and have six vials of blood drawn and to you by tomorrow night.”
“What?” Alana shrieked. “I want to sink my fangs into her pretty little neck.” Her whiny voice was grating on my nerves. I tried to channel my magic to my hands but the power was more timid than ever. Losing it was like losing the ability to breathe or blink or sneeze. It was pure instinct for me and the realization that I might not have it for much longer not only caused anxiety but depression.
Aaron turned to look at his dissatisfied sister and then back at me. “That is not the normal procedure. If you’re frightened of us taking too much I can assure you have nothing to be worried about. I take you under my protection.” He glanced at his sister again. She crossed her arms, sitting down with a sneer on her face.
“When the deal was made there were no rules given,” I reminded him. “I am more than willing to give you guys my blood, but how I go about doing that was never stated.”
“She killed my child,” Pernis interjected. “I will drink from her vein.”
I was smiling at finding a loophole in the VC’s blood gifting procedure and hoping like hell they would honor it.
“I have a proposal for you,” Aaron said, holding his hands behind his back. “The five of us will accept the vials, but Pernis is allowed to drink from you as payment for killing his child.”
I eyed Pernis. He looked down at me over the slope of this thin nose. His brown eyes were tinged in black either from anger or hunger. My guess was both. One of his hands was in his trouser pocket while the other arm hung limply at his side. All of the La’rues looked young, having been turned so long ago. Pernis seemed to between eighteen and twenty, but his eyes were wise beyond his face’s age. It was bizarre to be in a room full of teens, yet feel like the most inexperienced in the group.
I sucked in a breath to calm my beating heart. Aiden was the first vampire to ever drink from me, and I didn’t want another tainting the memory like Ian had. I would always associate a vampire’s bite in the intimate sense. As I look at Pernis a shiver of disgust rolled over my skin.
“The NAWC have been working on resetting the spell,” I said. “It could already be fixed which means drinking from me won’t offer the high you’re all expecting.” I was praying that Charles just hadn’t called me back to inform me as such due to being busy with the hype at the castle.
“We’re not Brew addicts, Ms. Sparks.” Aaron smiled. “We just…appreciate the taste pallet of your blood.”
In my lifetime I’ve gotten random compliments, but this was by far the creepiest. Six pairs of hungry eyes rested on me—no, not me, necessarily, but on my neck, my wrists and even my breasts—all places vampires could sink their fangs.
“And how would you know that? You’ve never tasted my blood.”
“Ah, but we don’t need to in order to know it’ll be delicious,” Aaron said, his eyes darkening. “You’re a spirit walker, which means your blood is not only full of witches’ magic but also that of the angels.”
I balked, my mouth hanging open in disbelief. “That’s…not true.” My head was shaking from side to side lethargically as I tried to wrap my mind around what Aaron had said.
“You don’t know, do you?” Giles asked, stepping forward. I had been staring at the space in front of me, not seeing those around me. When I looked up, Giles was standing right in front of me, his sensual presence overwhelming the air surrounding us. His power circled around my body, warm like a lover’s caress.
“Back off, Giles,” Aiden snarled, shoving between the space that separated me and Giles.
He held up in hands in surrender, a devious smile on his face. “Touchy, touchy. I remember you didn’t use to mind sharing, Alonzo.”
“Don’t call me that,” Aiden snapped. He’d been born Alonzo Moretti but adopted the name Aiden Blake after leaving the VC. The mention of his birth name was a reminder of the family he’d once had, before the VC killed them.
I moved around Aiden. “Why would you think I have angel’s blood?”
Every one of the VC members smiled at me. It was dangerous wanting information from a vampire. They knew I was on their hook, and they were getting a kick out of watching me squirm.
“Will you allow Pernis to feed from you?”
“If I do you’ll tell me what you meant?”
Aaron nodded. “I will.”
“Gwen, this is ridiculous,” Aiden said, turning toward me. He placed his hands on my shoulder and squeezed. “You have no reason to believe they’re telling the truth.”
That was true, and chances were they weren’t. But I had made up my mind to let Pernis feed from me when the question was first posed. Feeding one vampire was better than feeding six. The VC might think I was falling for their tricks, but they were about to fall for mine.
“Aiden, I know what I’m doing.” I shrugged off his hands, stepped away from him and held out my arm. “Bon appétit.”
Pernis walked forward, a smirk on his lips. The remaining VC members slinked off the sofas, circling around the two of us. The tension in the room spiked, sensual energy pulsating against my body. I sucked in a deep breath, my chest rising and falling heavily. My tongue darted out and rolled over my bottom lip.
When Pernis’ fingertips brushed my forearm I thought my insides were literally catching on fire. It was a strange sensation. In no way was I attracted to these vampires, nor did I want to feel aroused by them. Yet, my body yearned for their attention.
Pernis leaned over my arm and pressed a kiss to the sensitive skin. My eyes slipped closed as he moved his mouth down to my hand. He sucked my finger into his mouth and I almost exploded.
“Gwen.” I vaguely realized it was Aiden’s voice, but he sounded off in the far distance. Words were exchanged; I couldn’t be sure what was being discussed. And then someone was behind me, holding my body against theirs.
“Join us,” a woman purred.
The person behind me slid my hair to the side and I moaned as his or her warm lips began trailing up my neck. The faint scrape of fang only excited me more. The temperature in the room was scorching as multiple hands, mouths and bodies pressed against my own, all demanding I give into the craving they offered. I moaned and realized everyone else was moaning as well.
A sharp pain shot through my throat and was replaced by a rush of the strongest desire I had ever felt. I wiggled my body against the one holding me, my hands caressing someone else.
Something loud burst through the haze and then I was crumbled on the floor. Hisses, sickening cracks and yelling sounded all around me. Crawling onto my hands and knees, I closed my eyes and tried to shake the fog out of my head. Looking around me, I saw several pairs of legs standing still. When I looked up, my mouth formed an O.
“What are you doing here?” I breathed.
Dorian walked over to me, he was calm and dominated the room. Kneeling down, he helped me up and checked me over for injuries. His fingers brushed my neck and he frowned.
“You still trust him?” He nodded behind me.
“Aiden didn’t do this.” My voice was hoarse as though I had just woken from a dream.
“Why don’t you look at lover boy now that you’re not under their influence?”
My stomach sank as I turned around. Aiden had his head hung, but I could see the blood smeared on his lips. My eyes searched all of the vampire’s faces in hopes of finding blood on their lips too. They all smiled with clean mouths. My eyes welled with tears that I refused to let fall.
Aiden lifted his head. “I had to, Gwen.”
“Nothing you have to say will justify what you just did to me. You were supposed to protect me, Aiden.”
“Tell her,” Aiden snarled to Aaron.
Aaron simply smiled and shrugged. “Things got out of hand and sometimes vampires have a difficult time controlling themselves.”
Aiden flew across the room and attacked his sire, his fist connecting with Aaron’s face. All of Aaron’s brothers and sister rushed forward, and Aiden went sailing across the room where he slammed in the wall.
“Let’s go.” Dorian tugged on my arm, but I dug my heels in.
“We can’t leave him.” I was pissed at Aiden for making a midnight snack out of my throat but I was afraid that if I left the room without another look, the La’rue’s would kill him. No amount of anger would allow me to ignore Aiden’s potential death.
“So help me, woman,” Dorian grumbled through tight lips. “Back off, fangsters,” he warned the VC, stomping toward Aiden, who was getting to his feet, and hauled him toward the door. “Come on.”
“Just so you know,” I said over my shoulder to the VC, “the deal’s off. If you so much as show your faces in Flora again, I’ll show you firsthand why you shouldn’t fuck with a Spirit Walker. Nighty-night, and may stakes find their way into your cold black hearts.” And with that I slammed the door and followed Dorian and Aiden out of the club. We may have escaped the council and their fangs, but I wouldn’t celebrate just yet. It was still early which meant the rogues had plenty of time to make an appearance.
“You’re back,” I said as we ran through the front door of Vain. My hand went to my chest as I tried to catch my breath. It wasn’t so much the sprint out of the club, but the adrenaline racing through my veins that left me shaky and breathless. Dorian’s appearance didn’t help my jittery heart either.
“What happened?” Lauren asked, jogging to catch up with us. Dorian was holding my hand, tugging me across the street to my Jeep. He whirled around on Lauren, jerking my body in the process.
“Why did that bastard send you to watch Gwen?” He questioned Lauren, his voice harder than the grip he had on me.
Lauren had the good sense to look frightened. “To protect her, of course.”
Dorian let out a sarcastic snort. “Fine job of that you’re doing. Your boss had his fangs in her throat while the rest of the council members circled around her like hungry vultures.”
“Maybe she wanted him to bite her,” Lauren snapped, finding her courage. “Some people like what our fangs offer.”
“I just want to go home,” I added, reaching my hand up to feel the spot on my neck. It didn’t feel that bad. Lauren and Dorian were in a staring match when the front door of Vain slammed open. Aiden stepped out, his hair a mess and his eyes wild. Those eyes found me the second he stepped foot outside. I stared at him, my heart breaking. And then the realization of what had just happened slammed into me.
“Son of a bitch,” I whispered.
“What?” Dorian and Lauren both questioned.
I was shaking my head back and forth in anger as I watched Aiden walk across the road. Dorian stepped in front of my body to shield me from him.
“Gwen, you have to know that I didn’t plan that. Aaron ordered me to bite you.”
“And you justhadto? Lamest excuse ever.”
“He has to do whatever Aaron tells him to do,” Lauren added.
“Of course you’d take his side; he’s paying you,” Dorian accused.
“Children cannot disobey their sires,” Aiden said. “I didn’t think they would order me to bite you. God…if I had known what they were up to…”
“What the hell is going on?” Dorian growled, sliding his arm around my shoulders and holding me to the side of his body. I admit I didn’t mind one little bit.
With a deep breath, I said, “Aiden just bonded himself to me.”
“What?” Lauren shrieked.
“Son of a bitch,” Dorian growled.
“I didn’t know,” Aiden murmured.
“Wait,” Lauren said. “You would have had to drink from him too.”
I eyed Aiden, remembering how he offered his blood to me in the hospital tohealme. I swore in that moment that if I lived through this I would never accept a drop of blood from a vampire again. I would rather lay broken and bloody than be linked to another vampire, even Aiden.
“Aiden made sure to offer it when I most needed it,” I told Lauren, never taking my eyes off my ex. “Did you also hire the rogue to attack me so I wouldn’t be able to refuse the help of your blood?”
A look of disbelief fell over Aiden’s face. “As much as you hate me right now, I’m not Ian Despereaux. I don’t have some evil master plan. If you’re looking to point fingers, direct them to the VC.”
Aiden began choking, his hands clawing at his chest as he worked to fight off the invisible threat.
“What’s happening?” Lauren yelled, her hands searching Aiden for a wound.
White mist began seeping out of Aiden’s skin, slow and sluggishly. I turned towards Dorian and knew he was the cause of Aiden’s pain.
“Dorian, stop!” Shrugging out from under his arm, I stood between him and Aiden. “Stop it,” I yelled, looking over my shoulder at Aiden. “You’re killing him!”
“I’m breaking the bond,” Dorian said in the calmest tone. It sent shivers quaking through my body.
“Not like this, please.”
Aiden fell to his knees, coughing. His blue eyes were wide and staring right at me. Though I was beyond furious with him, I couldn’t watch him die. More importantly, I didn’t want him to die.
Dorian wasn’t going to stop no matter how much begging and pleading I did. My arm was in the air before I realized what I was doing. I sent my fist flying towards him where it connected with the side of his face. That was enough to break his concentration. Aiden stopped coughing but didn’t get up.
“What the hell was that for?” Dorian growled.
“You were going to kill him,” I snapped, turning to see if Aiden was okay. The white mist rising from his body fell back, soaking into his skin again.
“Are you okay?”
Aiden scrubbed a hand over his face, getting to his feet with wobbly legs. “Yeah.”
Aiden and Lauren’s eyes shot wide when I smacked him across the face.
“Just because I didn’t let Dorian kill you doesn’t mean I’m not pissed off.” I stuck my pointer finger out and said, “You better find a way to break the bond, Aiden.” Turning, I hopped in my Jeep and drove away from all of them, my tires squealing against the asphalt.
* * *
Dorian stepped through the front door of the apartment fifteen minutes later. I was sitting on the couch with a glass of wine and looked up when he entered the room. He sat down in the chair adjacent to the sofa and rested his elbows on his knees. I couldn’t appreciate how excited I was to see him again when my insides felt ready to combust in anger. Had Aiden been fooling me since day one? As I eyed Dorian, I wondered if he had a plan too. Was everyone out to get me in one way or another? The idea of packing up and moving far, far away tempted my mind. Or maybe I was just paranoid.
“You want to tell me what happened back there?”
Bringing the glass to my lips, I took a drink, staring at Dorian. “Which part?”
“You in a private room with the VC andhim.”
I laughed a quiet snort. “You’re acting like a jealous boyfriend.” When he didn’t respond I leaned forward and sat my wine glass on the coffee table, folding my arms across my knees and hanging my head.
“They said they wanted to discuss the blood gift. Pernis was the only one who was supposed to drink from me, payment for killing his child. The others I was going to give vials of my blood.” I paused, sitting up straighter. “I don’t know why they’d want Aiden to drink from me. And now I’m bonded again.” I snatched my wine glass up and emptied it, reaching for the bottle for a refill.
“Gwen, Spirit Walkers are rare. People are going to do try and take advantage of that…of you. Being able to control the spirit world is a power some covet. You have to start suspecting everyone of some kind of motive—”
“What’s your motive?” I interrupted with a glare.
Dorian leaned back in the chair, resting his arms on the armrest as a sly smile spread across his lips. He motioned with his head and said, “Come over here and I’ll show you my motive.”
My eyes fell to his broad shoulders, down to his strong chest, to his belt buckle and further still. His legs were spaced apart, enough room for me to crawl between and… Taking another drink, I stared at the rack of DVDs across the room. I’d already been tempted by one man tonight; I didn’t need another one playing with my mind.
“If all you want is sex, you can get that fantasy out of your head right now. Not going to happen, buddy.”
“I want all of you and everything that entails. I thought I’ve made that clear?”
I ignored him and took another drink of my merlot. My body hummed with unfilled desire. Aiden had awakened it during our little make-out session, and then the VC had made sure to stimulate every last one of my nerve endings earlier. If I wasn’t careful, I would end up turning to Dorian to end the torture. After bonding with Aiden, every man was on my shit list. Horrible timing too because I was horny as hell.
“What did you find out on your vacation?” I asked, taking another drink.
“You wouldn’t believe me,” Dorian said.
I swiveled my head to look at him. He was still sitting in that relaxed position, perfectly inviting. I could see myself standing up and walking over to him, climbing onto his lap and… Damn those stupid vampires. Playing with one’s libido like a game of keep away should be punishable by death.
“Try me.” I took another drink to ease the dryness of my mouth and frowned when I had emptied the glass. On refill number three, I sat back against the soft cushion of the sofa and watched Dorian. For crying out loud, could the man at least have the decency to have one physical flaw, one that I could focus on and smack my lust away with?
“You’re too perfect,” I heard myself saying out loud. My cheeks warmed either from the wine consumption or embarrassment. The merlot was doing its job and turning my tense body into a cozy marshmallow. I felt my anger melting away.
Dorian laughed. “That’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me.”
“It was meant to be a criticism.”
“I’ll take what I can get.”
“Well, you’re not getting any of this.” I signaled to my body with a wave of my hand.
“Yes, you’ve made that abundantly clear,” Dorian deadpanned. “But that doesn’t stop you from eye-fucking the shit out of me. Why don’t you come over here so I can give you the real thing?”
Was it hot in here, or was that the wine? “Stop distracting me. What did you find out when you left to wherever?”
Dorian shook his head in exasperation. “It’s going to sound like a pick-up line.”
“The reason you can’t see when I’ll die will sound like a pick-up line? Consider me intrigued.”
“Remember when I told you everything has rules?”
“It turns out I’m not the exception—”
Dorian ignored my sarcasm. “The Fates have obstructed my view of your life because…”
“Because…?” I drawled.
“Because of how I feel.” His voice was a whisper, but I had heard it loud and clear. We watched each other for a few moments before he spoke again.
“They’re afraid I’ll favor you and not collect your soul when the time comes.”
I smiled to myself, hiding it with another drink. “So Death is sweet on me. There are worst things I suppose.”
“Get over yourself,” Dorian teased. “You’re a hot piece of ass and that’s it.”
I couldn’t hide my smile this time. “Really? So that spiel about wanting all of me and everything it entails was just a line? And the Fates’ declaration was wrong?” I laughed, standing up and heading into the kitchen for another bottle of wine. “Tell me,” I said loud enough that Dorian would hear me in the living room. “Are the Fates often wrong?”
“About this they are,” he said right behind me, scaring me. I jumped, but once I got over the initial shock, I became aware of his body just behind mine. My fingers gripped the side of the counter and I remained still, afraid if I turned around Dorian would make his move. Hell, part of me was hoping he would.
His hands slid up my shoulders, gripping the hem of my jacket. I hadn’t taken it off when I got home. Finding the wine seemed more important at the time. Sliding it off, Dorian placed my coat on the counter beside us. He swept my hair to the side, revealing my neck. As he pressed a kiss in the crook, flashbacks of tonight visited my mind. Anger and lust overwhelmed me. I was pissed at what had happened but still fighting the effects of the vampires’ sensual power.
Dorian placed a hand on my stomach, holding my body to his as his lips moved up my neck, to my jawline and then my mouth. I turned my head slightly to make the kiss easier, moaning as his tongue slipped between my lips.
“Hate to interrupt,” Lauren said from behind us. Dorian didn’t stop kissing me, his mouth moved against mine in a sensual seduction while his hands trailed over my body.
“I’ll just tell the rogues outside to wait,” Lauren said. “Give them ten minutes, boys,” she mock yelled.
It was enough to make Dorian step away from me. I turned my face to the counter again, closing my eyes and sucking in a deep breath. My entire body was warm from the wine, but Dorian had awakened it with a need so strong I thought I would scream in frustration.
“How many?” Dorian all but growled.
I shook off my irritation and spun to face them. “And why are you here?”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Should I leave so you and hunky can get back to screwing while the rogues beat down the door?”
“You’re right,” I told her. “I’m sorry and we…weren’t screwing.”
“How many?” Dorian repeated.
“Four, and some weird dude in a black cloak. He smells old.”
My heart stopped beating for a second. “An old guy called me…this morning.” Wow, it seemed like ages ago that I had gotten the call. Talk about a long day.
“What did he want?” Dorian asked.
I shrugged. “Something about making a deal. I hung up on him.”
Two hard bangs came from my front door. The wood rattled against the frame and had me worried it would be bust down. It wasn’t like the apartment was built with quality materials. If the bad guys wanted in, it wouldn’t be that difficult, unless they were vampires of course. I loved that little rule about them needing an invitation to enter any private dwelling. Or maybe I was just clinging to any semblance of a silver lining.
“We have to leave,” Dorian said. “Flora isn’t safe anymore.”
“Where are we supposed to go?”
Another round of bangs sounded, my door creaking with the pressure. The windows rattled and heavy footsteps raced across the metal balcony. Lauren hissed, rushing forward in a blur. She was standing in front of the windows and I’d just caught what caused her reaction; a man was hovering outside the window, his eyes inky pools as he watched me. Lauren pulled the string that lowered the blinds.
“What the hell? We’re on the second floor.” In my experience supernaturals didn’t fly. That whole witch and broomstick thing is just a bad joke.
“Demons can pretty much defy gravity. Creepy little bastards.” Dorian headed down the hallway, me on his tail. He disappeared into my room. Opening my closet, he began pulling clothes from hangers and stuffing them into a duffel bag.
“What are you doing?”
“We’re leaving. I don’t know how long we’ll be gone.” He walked over to my dresser, opened the drawer and held up a pair of red lace panties. With an arch of his eyebrow, he smiled and stuffed them in the bag too, along with a handful of others.
“Where are we going?”
“What’s in New Orleans?”
“My house and something that just might kill these bastards.”
A loud crash echoed through the house. Dorian stopped packing and we both remained silent as we listened. Footsteps slapped against the floor, followed by more crashes and grunts.
Dorian peeked his head out quickly and then shut my bedroom door. Walking over to me, he wrapped his arms around my waist and held me close.
“What’s going on?” I craned my neck to see around him. My eyes were glued to the door, positive my room would be invaded at any second.
“They’re in the house,” Dorian whispered. “Lauren’s holding them back.”
“Don’t you think we should help her?”
“No, I think she can handle herself and that I should get you to safety.”
My cat padded out from underneath my bed and I broke away from Dorian to scoop her up.
“We’re not bringing her.”
“Like hell we’re not,” I snapped. “I can’t leave her here, especially when you don’t know how long we’ll be gone.”
“Fine, but if she sheds on any of my stuff I’m kicking her out.”
He wrapped his arms around me and my cat and I closed my eyes as the air began speeding up and ruffling my hair. My cat struggled against me, but I held on tight. I didn’t know what would happen if she jumped out of my arms while Dorian was transporting us to the realm of the dead.
I opened my eyes when the gust settled to a normal breeze. We were in what looked like a deserted town. Buildings crumbled to the ground. The remaining stones still standing looked like they were struggling to hold themselves up. Like the times I had visited before, the realm of the dead was a gray washed out landscape, barren and gloomy.
“Where are we?”
“New Orleans,” Dorian said, placing his hand on the small of my back. Together we walked toward a structure that looked like it used to be some sort of restaurant. A rotting wooden sign swung in the breeze. Wooden columns held up a decaying balcony above. My eyes traveled up the length of the building and the broken windows. Dorian had tried explaining the ghostly realm to me while in Moon. It seemed like such a depressing place to spend the afterlife, but from what I understood the ghosts saw it differently than we did. If the spirit was pure and good then they saw their own piece of heaven within the gloom. If they were evil during their lives then their afterlives were hellish.
Dorian and I stepped into the dilapidated structure. The interior was coated in a thick layer of dust and cobwebs. Fallen beams hung from the rafters.
“We’ve got to get to the shimmer,” Dorian said, pointing across the space. Shimmers, or safe zones, are spots that spirit walkers could walk through and transport to other areas. The spot would shimmer like a heat mirage. The one Dorian was pointing to was all the way across the room. Large holes where the floor had crumbled blocked the path to it. Dorian intertwined his fingers in mine and together we walked with caution toward the safe zone. My cat struggled against me, her nails digging into my shoulder. I winced from the pain but kept a tight hold on her body. There was no way I was losing her in the realm of the dead. There were scarier things here aside from ghosts. Demons also prowled the desolate place.
“How are we going to get to it?” There was a single plank still standing but it looked like it was struggling to hold up the weight of the dust, let alone Dorian and me. He stared at the spot for a moment and then turned back and looked at the door we had come through. He let go of my hand and stuck his booted foot out to test the stability. The board creaked as puffs of dust swirled into the air.
“You still have your magic, right?”
“As far as I know,” I told him.
“Can you create something to reinforce the floor?”
“I’ll try.” I used my magic to create a lot of things, clothes mainly but I’d never tried to produce something substantial like wood. Closing my eyes, I envisioned two by four inch planks spanning the gap, strengthening the floor. The magic within me buzzed and rushed through my veins, sending a jolt of energy to awaken my senses. I could smell the wood I was trying to create, see the blonde color and picture it sliding into place to form a bridge. Opening my eyes, I stared at the space where the hole had been.
“Come on.” Dorian gripped my hand again. I held my breath as he stepped onto the wood, hoping the magic held and the boards wouldn’t disintegrate under our feet. The entire building creaked as we made our way to the shimmer, as though it was angry that we’d found a way around its booby traps. I squeezed Dorian’s hand tighter as we walked with caution across the boards. Dust rained down from the ceiling causing the air to thicken with tiny particles. My cat sneezed, scaring me. I jolted, my foot slipping off the side of the wood. Something resembling a shriek escaped my lips as I fought to keep my balance and not fall off the side and into the dark hole on either side of the bridge. Dorian stopped, his hand sliding down to grip my forearm and hold me steady. Once I found my footing again I took a moment to take a deep breath and nodded for Dorian to continue. Three more feet and we would be safe inside the shimmer.
“You couldn’t have found a less dangerous place to cross?” I asked, keeping my eyes trained on Dorian’s back. If I didn’t look down then I could pretend I wasn’t a misstep away from falling to my death.
“I could have, but it would have been further away. Traveling long distances in here would be more dangerous than this old building.” I had learned last time just how dangerous the realm of the dead could be after a demon chased Dorian and me. I did not want to run into another one anytime soon.
Dorian stepped inside the shimmer, which clung to the decaying wall like some kind of optical illusion. Just as I was about to cross the safety threshold, loud footsteps sounded behind me. Looking over my shoulder, my eyes locked with three men. The hoods obscured their faces from me, but I didn’t need to see them to know they weren’t there to help; their evil smirks spoke volumes.
They rushed forward, dodging the holes in the floor like some kind of supernatural ninjas. Dorian yanked on my arm hard, pulling me into the shimmer. The men stood on the other side of the bridge staring ahead as if they couldn’t see us. One of them began to cross the wooden boards. He tilted his head to the side to inspect the wall in front of him.
“They can’t see us?” I whispered.
“Not while we’re in a safe zone,” Dorian said. “Destroy the boards, Gwen.”
I envisioned the boards disappearing. My heart pounded with each second they remained under the man’s feet. The other man followed in his friend’s footsteps and walked onto the bridge too. I tried to concentrate on willing those boards to vanish and ignore the evil men standing just a foot away. One of them leaned closer to the wall, reaching his hand out and tracing the worn boards beneath his fingertips. His lips spread wider, revealing crooked, yellowing teeth. I snapped my eyes shut and threw all of my willpower and focus into the bridge.
“What are you waiting for?” Dorian asked in a harsh whisper. “Do it!”
Energy built like a volcano causing my veins to feel like they would explode. A migraine slunk its way around my skull, weaving around my brain and pounding against my temples. I grunted, grinding my teeth as I sent all of my will into breaking those damn boards.
A loud shriek made my eyes snap open. The boards were disappearing one at a time, and the men were scrambling to save themselves. The one closest to us threw his arms out, shoving the first man out of his way. The man fell over the edge, his fingers gripping the fading 2x4s as the other ran past him and onto the safety of the building’s fragile floor.
“Help me,” the man clinging to the bridge snarled. His friend made no move to save him, and then the wood disappeared and the man’s screams were swallowed up by the darkness of the deep hole. The remaining guy laughed a maniacal sound that didn’t belong to a human being. He winked as if he could see me, sending icy cold shivers to penetrate to my bones. Turning on his heel, he fled from the building and out the door. When he was gone, my entire body sagged in relief, and exhaustion consumed me. The migraine worked overtime to abuse my head and sweat collected along my forehead.
“Come on.” Dorian wrapped an arm around my shoulders and we were walking again. My legs moved but my brain was somewhere else. I was on autopilot: an empty shell of worn out muscles and depleted energy.
It felt like hours, though I was sure it was mere minutes, before I felt the warm wash of exiting the shimmer cascade over my body. Loud noises and bright lights overpowered my senses, causing me to blink and cringe. I raised my arm to shield my eyes. The neon lights were hell on my headache. I was vaguely aware that Dorian’s arm was still wrapped around my shoulder and I was huddled against him. My legs felt weighed down, too big and bulky to move with grace. I stumbled over the cracked concrete as we made our way through the crowded street. The sounds of the nearby people talking and laughing became white noise, floating in the back of my mind on a sea of confusion.
“Where are we going?” I mumbled, squinting to see my surroundings. We were on a narrow road bordered on either side with businesses. Above, wrought iron balconies hugged the buildings and were full of lush greenery.
“Home,” Dorian said. “It’s just around the corner.”
My vision blurred in and out of clarity, but I kept my feet moving and allowed Dorian to guide me in the right direction. I rubbed my cheek against the soft leather of his coat, inhaling the scent. The clicking of metal against metal sounded. I lifted my head and looked forward. Dorian held open a gray door with wrought iron detailing.
“Here,” Dorian said grabbing something from my arms. I realized after the thing was gone that he had taken my cat and placed her inside the home. Snaking an arm around my back, Dorian bent down and lifted me into his arms, cradling me against his body. I stared up at him, the strong outline of his jaw, the softness of his brown hair and the fullness of his lips. I hadn’t realized how afraid I was when he left until he came back. Though he had only been gone for a day, the fear that I would never see him again surprised me.
We reached a landing but he didn’t put me down. Instead, he carried me through the home and down a long hallway where we entered a bedroom. My eyelids were heavy and my vision was getting fuzzier the longer I tried to focus on any one thing. My limbs felt boneless and weak as they hung limp in Dorian’s arms.
Dorian laid me down on a bed and began slipping my shoes off. He drew the thick comforter up around my body and then turned to leave the room. I watched his silhouette getting further and further away as I drifted off to sleep.
* * *
My eyes fluttered open, and I stared up at the high ceiling of an unfamiliar room. I looked around. Toward the left was a wall of tall, arched windows. The sky was dark which meant I had slept all day. For all I knew I’d slept for multiple days. Lights from outside cast shadows to dance around the large room, making it seem more menacing than it probably was. A large armoire rested on the adjacent wall, antiquated and beautiful, and a large circular mirror hung on the next wall. The room was large, but mostly bare of furniture.
Slipping my legs over the edge of the bed, I braced my hands on either side of me and closed my eyes as I thought about what had happened. Dorian came back and cloaked figures were stalking me. I didn’t know whether I should be happy about Dorian’s return or afraid of more evil rogues hunting me. A mixture of emotions consumed me, but at the moment I would concentrate on the good ones.
Standing up, I hugged my arms across my chest and padded out of the room. A long hallway of gray stretched in either direction. There were two doors made of dark wood to the right. To the left there were two more doors and the opening of the hall. I chose left. As I got closer to the entrance soft music and a large, rectangular living room greeted me. I recognized the hauntingly beautiful piano melody as Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. It had been one of my favorites since I was fifteen.
Coming around the corner, I saw Dorian’s large frame sitting on a black, leather sofa. He was leaned forward, elbows resting on his knees as his head rested in his hands. His chocolate hair formed a curtain around his face. An amber filled crystal glass sat on the thick wooden coffee table in front of him.
“How are you feeling?” Dorian’s smooth voice carried across the room though he hadn’t spoken very loudly. My heart jolted that he knew I was watching him, but he made no movement to look at me.
“Okay,” I said closing the space between us while I looked around the room. It seemed his entire house was painted in varying shades of gray. The living room was dark, the color of angry thunderclouds. Wrought iron sconces clung to the wall every six feet casting a warm golden glow against the cherry hardwood floors. A kitchen sat toward the back of the room and was made up of one row of upper and base cabinets with frosted glass doors. A granite island separated the two rooms.
“Now I know why you thought my apartment was shit,” I joked. Five of my tiny apartments would have fit in this place.
“If you need to take a shower, the bathroom is at the end of the hall. There’s a closet of women’s stuff in your room if you need to change your clothes. They’ll have to do until tomorrow.”
I didn’t want to know why Dorian had a supply of women’s clothes, nor did I want to wear his one-night stands’ castoffs. I was standing next to him now, unsure whether I should sit or not. He seemed like he was in a bad mood.
I sat down beside Dorian and smiled when I saw my cat curled up on the cushion next to him. “Thank you…again,” I said. He didn’t respond or look up at me. Ignoring my annoyance, I said, “I’ve always loved this song.”
Dorian reached for his glass, taking a drink before leaning back against the sofa. When he looked at me his face was devoid of any emotion. “I’m going to head to bed.” He finished off the glass, stood up and walked around me and to the kitchen. Turning around, I watched him put the glass in the sink and head toward the hallway.
“Dorian,” I called out, confused and angry. He stopped but didn’t turn to face me. Scrambling off the couch I walked over to him and, without thinking, wrapped my arms around his waist and hugged him. His body went stiff, unwilling to embrace me back. A door opened, and I stepped away from Dorian. A tall woman with brunette hair exited the far room. She was dressed in a long t-shirt that hung mid-thigh. She giggled when she spotted us staring at her.
“Last door,” Dorian said.
Everything inside of me felt like it had been crushed. My lungs constricted as air tried to fight its way through. Angry and embarrassed, I stepped away from Dorian, turning my back to him. We weren’t a couple in the least so I didn’t want him to see the hurt and jealousy on my face. I had been so stupid to allow another man to weave his way into my psyche. Maybe the reason I kept getting hurt was because I allowed it to happen. I knew as soon as I met Dorian that he hopped from bed to bed. Hell, he’d even told me so himself. So why was I surprised to see a half dressed woman in his home? The more I thought about it the more I realized I was madder at myself then him.
“No explanation needed,” I said interrupting him. Turning around, I smiled though I felt like crying. “Good catch. She’s pretty.” Dorian glanced away, unable to look at me any longer. “Well, goodnight.” I headed for the sofa, willing myself to stay strong and not breakdown in front of him. The sound of his footsteps disappeared down the hall and then a door closed. I sat on the edge of the couch, unable to decipher the change in Dorian’s personality. He wasn’t the man I’d come here with. This man was distant and cold—detached. The door opened and closed again, but I tried not to think about the leggy woman sharing Dorian’s bed. It was none of my business.
A set of French doors led out to a balcony. Heading to the kitchen, I grabbed the first bottle of alcohol I could find and headed through the doors, shutting them quietly behind me. I should have probably eaten something, but my appetite was gone. The balcony was actually a rooftop patio. A wrought iron fence surrounded the entire perimeter. Terracotta pots with blooming flowers sat in the corners. A square table rested in the middle, surrounded by padded chairs. I made my way over to it, sat down and propped my legs up. Unscrewing the bottle, I took a long drink and choked back the burn crawling down my throat. I tried to think about anything except for Dorian and what he could be doing at the moment.
I took another drink from the bottle, sat it down and stood up. Walking over to the edge, I leaned against the railing and stared down at the crowded street. My eyes roamed over the French inspired architecture and I realized we were in New Orleans. I had only seen it in movies, but it looked exactly the same. I smiled as a couple of women stumbled their way down the sidewalk laughing like hyenas. It must be nice to be carefree and human. They had it so easy. At the moment, it made me miss Fiona. I hadn’t talked to her in almost two weeks. I hoped she was having more fun than I was and that her new relationship with the judgmental Ethan was working out. I didn’t like him but he seemed to make my best friend happy and that was the only thing that mattered. I made a mental note to call her tomorrow and catch up.
As I stared out onto the crowded street I found myself falling in love with the vibrant city. There were all sorts of characters to be seen; it was like aWhere’s Waldobook come to life. One man was dressed in all black with a skeleton mask covering his face while he posed for pictures with tourist. Another man was painted entirely silver, sitting on a milk crate against a restaurant wall. I smiled watching these two free spirits. They weren’t concerned with what the world thought of them and I loved that. Too many times society played a major role in making our decisions for us. In New Orleans, the residents were true to themselves. I could learn a thing or two from them.
Morning came sooner than I wanted. I hadn’t gotten to sleep until around four. My face was plastered against Dorian’s leather sofa, a thin coating of drool on my lips. Sitting up, I wiped my arm across my mouth and grumbled at the bright sunlight streaming through the windows.
“Morning,” Dorian said from behind me. I turned, brushing my hair out of my eyes. Most of last night had been spent thinking about him and his houseguest, when I wasn’t thinking about Aiden and our bond. I could be the poster girl for chaos and drama.
Dorian’s hair was wet, his white t-shirt snug against his chest and two cups of coffee in his hands. I silently wondered if he was bringingherbreakfast in bed. He answered my question when he walked into the living room and sat a mug down in front of me, taking the empty seat across from the coffee table. He wasn’t wearing his sunglasses so I had a clear view of the cloudy abyss of his eyes.
“Thanks,” I mumbled, lifting the cup and taking a small drink. I couldn’t look at him without thinking about what he might have done last night; so I focused on the house. It wasn’t at all what I was expecting. Everything had a place and nothing was out of order. On the far wall hung colorful prints of jazz musicians and a large flat screen television hung. The entire place had cherry hardwood floors. A staircase was to the left of the living room, leading down to the front door.
“I thought about something last night,” I ended up saying when the silence began making me uncomfortable.
I nodded, glancing briefly at Dorian and then away. “Yeah. Aiden’s eyes didn’t turn blue. I mean they’re blue anyway, but they didn’t turn the electric blue they do when a vampire drinks our blood.”
“Oh yeah,” Dorian said, his voice complacent.
I nodded again, still uncomfortable. Was the woman still here? Would she come out in one of his t-shirts and nothing else? And why did I care?
“Something bothering you?”
“Huh?” I looked up.
Dorian signaled with his head to my hands. “You’ve got a pretty tight grip on the sofa.”
I glanced at my hands, releasing the cushions from my death grip. “No, just thinking. It must mean that the NAWC has restored the spell that protects our blood. Otherwise why wouldn’t his eyes change? And why haven’t they called me, or Fiona for that matter? If—”
“Gwen.” Dorian’s voice cut through my ramble.
“Why don’t you ask me what you really want to know?”
I pursed my lips and feigned innocence. “There’s nothing I want to know.” I took another drink, burning my tongue in the process. Standing, I stretched and asked, “Bathroom?”
Dorian lifted his arm and pointed down the hall. “Second door on the left.”
“I’m going to take a shower. Where’s my bag?”
“First door on the right.”
My head bobbed, and I headed for the hallway.
“Hmm?” I didn’t turn around. Instead I looked over my shoulder, pissed that Dorian looked so tempting this early in the morning. His feet were bare and his entire body seemed relaxed. I was trying really hard not to think of why.
He stood up and walked over to where I was. “About last night—”
I held up my hand. “You don’t have to explain. We’re friends, right?”
Dorian nodded. “Yeah, but it’s more than that. I need to get my head straight to gain my sight again. This,” he signaled to me and then himself. “whatever it is, puts your life in danger. Without knowing when you’re in trouble or going to die, I’m useless to you.”
“It’s cool, seriously. Do yothang.” I turned on my heel and sped walked down the hallway. Only when I closed the bedroom door did I let out the breath I’d been holding.
“Do yothang?” I whispered to myself, embarrassed beyond belief.
Pull your head out of your ass, Gwen.I may have even pulled out the finger guns, which only made me cringe with more humiliation.
I spent a good forty-five minutes under the hot spray of the shower before the water began running cold. Sluggishly I dressed in a pair of jeans and green henley. I had gotten four hours of sleep, but my body felt depleted. Running a comb through my hair, I wrung out the excess water and picked up my old clothes, rolling them into a ball and exiting the bathroom.
A woman’s laughter flowed down the hall and to my ears. Grumbling, I headed to the bedroom where I first woke up and stuffed my dirty clothes into my duffel bag. Given the choice between having an awkward conversation with Dorian’s flavor of the night and dealing with rogues, I’d choose rogues.
I slipped out of the bedroom and walked the short distance to the opening of the living room. Craning my head forward, I spotted Dorian and a dark haired woman sitting at the breakfast bar. At least she was dressed this time. Dorian leaned on the counter, a smile on his face and his sunglasses back in place. I wondered if the woman had an inkling of what Dorian was.
“Gwen,” he said, blowing my eavesdropping out of the water. I was embarrassed, not at getting caught, but from acting like an immature child. Dorian was free to do and see anyone he wanted. The jealousy snaking its way through my entire body was irrelevant.
“Hi.” I stepped out into the room. “I didn’t want to interrupt.”
Dorian smiled, telling me he didn’t believe what I said. I walked over to the wall and picked up the phone cradled there. “I need to make some calls and I forgot my cell at home. I’ll just get out of your guys’ way.” I smiled to myself that I had come up with a good excuse as to why I couldn’t sit and get to knowher, but Dorian stopped my brilliant exit.Jerk.
“Don’t be rude, Gwen.”
I spun around, shooting a glare toward Dorian before the woman turned on the barstool to smile at me. Of course she had reason to smile; she spent last night in Dorian’s bed.
“Sorry, I wasn’t intentionally being rude.” I smiled back at the woman, walking over to where she sat. “I’m Gwen Sparks. Nice to meet you.”
“Ah,theGwen Sparks?” She looked at Dorian with a knowing smile. “It’s nice to finally meet you. The big guy hasn’t stopped talking about you since he met you.”
I could feel my eyebrows crawling up my forehead with my confusion. Who was this chick?
“Pardon me,” she said, still smiling. “My name is Amara. I’m a friend of Dorian’s. He helped me with a pesky poltergeist a couple years ago, and we’ve been friends ever since.”
I crossed my arms, shooting a look at Dorian. “I thought you didn’t do friendships?”
Amara’s mouth popped open and she teasingly slapped Dorian’s arm. “You’re still pulling that bad-boy crap?” She looked to me, the smile still holding strong. “He’s all talk, ya know?”
I nodded, a small laugh bubbling up my throat. “Yeah, I’m learning that. So what has the bad-boy been saying about me?” For all intents and purposes, Amara seemed like a nice person, but did that mean I wanted Dorian telling her about my business? No.
“Didn’t you have some phone calls to make?” Dorian finally said.
I pursed my lips and shook my head, hiding the phone as I crossed my arms. “I’d much rather talk to Amara.” I sat in the empty barstool next to her. Her face was ethereally beautiful and made me wonder what type of supernatural she was. Her long chocolate hair spilled halfway down her back while her large green, almost-shaped eyes lit up.
“Sorry for my rudeness, but are you a fae?”
She tipped her chin down as if embarrassed by my question.
“Amara is one of the Fates, Gwen. She’s who I visited to find out answers.”
I couldn’t do anything but stare. I had always been a fan of Greek Mythology, but I assumed it was just stories, legends. My eyes slid to Amara, then back to Dorian’s face.
“Are youactuallyHades?” I breathed. “Is there really an Underworld and a river Styx?”
“More or less,” he shrugged. “But not the Underworld you’re thinking of. It’s the realm of the dead.”
“Wow. I mean I know your name is Dorian Hade, but I assumed you were trying to be clever.” My smile fell away as I thought about something. “You said you were an angel, but Hades is a Greek God…and…I mean you’re not the Devil, right? Because Hades is also another name for hell.” The time from when I stopped talking and from when Dorian answered was mere seconds but seemed like lifetimes. If I was attracted to and kissed the Devil that would truly be the lowest point in my life. In no way did I want anything to do with that sort of man.
Amara laughed, causing Dorian to smile and me to blush. I knew right then that I had interpreted it all wrong. The strain in my chest eased.
“I am an angel, Gwen. I handle the dead, so in some ways I’m like Hades, but not the son of Cronus and Rhea. I am the neutral middle-man, collecting souls and directing them to the hereafter. Whoever takes care of them after that is a mystery, even to me. Most of the Greek gods have either been imprisoned or killed. The remaining few like to keep a low profile.”
I nodded with a smile on my face. This was the most Dorian had talked about who he was and what he did. And the idea of Greek gods existing was the cherry on top.
“So as one of the Fates, Amara, you know why Dorian cannot see my death?”
“I do,” she grinned.
She looked up at Dorian and then back to me. “Perhaps this is a conversation better left between the two of you.”
I looked to Dorian expectantly. “Now would be a good time to make those phone calls.”
I could tell Dorian didn’t want to discuss it, either at all or with an audience so I nodded and headed out to the rooftop patio. Walking over to the wall, I leaned against it and punched in Fiona’s number.
“Hello?” She sounded confused.
“Where are you calling from? I don’t recognize the area code.”
“I’m in New Orleans with Dorian. Flora was getting a little crowded.” Understatement of the year.
“What does that mean?” Fiona asked. I could hear people talking in the background and wondered if Ethan was sitting next to her eavesdropping and rolling his eyes. That man did not like me. The feeling was mutual.
“Never mind,” I told her. She didn’t need to know rogues had invaded our hometown. My drama was the reason she stayed in Moon. “I’m calling because I have reason to believe the council members restored the protection spell.”
“Just a minute,” she whispered. I heard her say something to someone and then her footsteps as she walked away. “What have you gotten yourself into, Gwen?”
My face scrunched in confusion. “I haven’t done anything. Why? What have you heard?”
“Everyone is gossiping about you, saying that you’re going through with it.” Fiona’s voice was a hiss as she tried to keep her voice down and still coat her words with the severity of what she was saying.
“Going through with what?” The people of Moon gossiping about me really wasn’t that big of news. I hadn’t made a lot of friends there when I chose to continue seeing Aiden while they were all gearing up to take the vampires down. They saw me as some kind of traitor. Now that I knew the truth about Aiden, I was claiming stupidity instead.
“Going hybrid,” Fiona whispered harshly. “Don’t do it, Gwen. You know supernatural blood cannot coexist in the same body. Everyone thinks you’re either suicidal or up to something.”
I rubbed my forehead in hopes to ease the confusion out of my brain. “Why in the world would they think I was going to try and become a hybrid?” Just the thought of becoming half vampire and drinking blood made me cringe. I had my hands full with being a spirit walker; I didn’t need to add to the burden.
“I don’t know, but it’s all everyone is talking about.”
“Well tell them you heard it from the source that it’s not true. I swear everyone in Moon is worse than a group of teenagers.” I swallowed my growing frustration. “Have they restored the protection spell?” I knew the answer before Fiona spoke.
“Yes, they were successful like two days ago. I…never mind. I don’t think I should say anything.”
“Spill it, Fiona.”
“It just…Holly has been spotted around the castle acting like everything’s peachy.”
My frustration quickly grew into anger. Why the hell hadn’t Charles called me to let me know the spell was back in place? And why wasn’t Holly held up in a dirty cell?
“I knew they wouldn’t believe me about that night. Holly is going to get off scott free,” I bit out. “Is Charles at the castle now?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t seen him today.”
The line went silent for a moment. “Sorry for the rant. How are you? How’s the spell casting going?”
“Moon is okay, but it’s not home. I miss Flora and you. Ethan and I are good and I’ve learned a lot of cool new spells.”
I could hear the smile in her voice and it made me smile in return.
“That’s good. Moon may not be home but it’s the safest place for you right now. You wouldn’t want to be drawn into the drama I’m facing,” I laughed but it sounded fake to my ears.
“Gwen, is everything alright? You said Flora was invaded? By what?”
“I’m over reacting as usual,” I laughed and this time it sounded sincere. I could tell Fiona about the rogues and the bond with Aiden but I didn’t want to worry her when she was thousands of miles away and unable to do anything but work herself up.
“Okay, but if something else is going on you better tell me. Just because I’m studying in Moon doesn’t mean that I’m not still your best friend. And if I find out you’re lying to me I won’t hesitate to use one of my new spells on you.”
I smiled wide. “Consider me scared.”
After we hung up I stared at the phone for a few minutes as I contemplated whether I should call Charles. If the council was allowing Holly to roam around the castle, then maybe they were part of her scheme. And if everyone in Moon believed I was going through with the hybrid thing then I definitely didn’t have any fans there. It looked like I was on my own and would have to take care of Holly myself.
“It was so nice to meet you, Gwen.” Amara embraced me. I couldn’t help but notice her hair smelled like lotus blossoms and when she touched me my entire body relaxed against hers.
“I hope you’re not leaving because of me.” I still wasn’t sure if there was something going on between her and Dorian but that didn’t matter; I liked her. And I was supposed to be taking a break from relationships so if she was involved with Dorian then it would give me a good reason to stop thinking about him.
“Of course not,” Amara said. “I’m just passing through. On my way to Maine.” At my confusion she said, “I don’t like staying in one place for too long. The world is too vast to stand still.” She eyed Dorian across the room and then turned me slightly, motioning for me to follow her down the stairs. When we were standing in front of the door she leaned in really close, her face almost touching mine.
“Don’t be so hard on him. He’s not as shallow as he seems. A vast life of solitude with nothing more than the dead to keep him company has hardened his heart. That is, until he met you.” She stepped back, winking as she opened the door.
“Goodbye,” she called loud enough for Dorian to hear.
“Good travels, Amara,” Dorian said from the top of the stairs.
When the door closed I turned to stare up at him, taking one step at a time as I slowly ascended to the top floor. Dorian had his hands braced on either side of the short wall surrounding the staircase, blocking my path.
“What’s the plan?”
Dorian reached his hand out and I took it, stepping up to the landing. I tried, and failed, to ignore how small my hand looked in his. Everything about him made me feel safe. I knew without a doubt that whatever threat was thrown my way, Dorian would shield me from it. I had learned he was more than his attitude when he first saved my life.
“The only thing you have to do today is be a tourist.” He shook my hand gently. “Hi, I’m Dorian and I’ll be your guide to all the wonders that is New Orleans.”
* * *
We walked all up and down Bourbon Street, my eyes wide while Dorian pointed things out. It was unusually warm for a February day or maybe that was one of the perks of living in the South. The world still went on with its business while my mind was plagued with thoughts of rogues, vampires and scheming council members. Tipping my eyes up, I stared at the fluffy white clouds against a bright blue sky. Walking next to Dorian, I could pretend everything would be all right, if only for a day.
The scent of food from the multiple restaurants lining the street permeated the air and made my stomach grumble.
Dorian laughed, wrapping an arm around my shoulders and tugging me into the nearest restaurant. The sign had a grinning alligator welcoming guests. A woman with short, red hair smiled at us.
“Two,” Dorian responded.
She grabbed two menus and we followed her through the restaurant and outside to a bricked courtyard. Colorful plants rested in various sized pots while a fountain trickled water toward the back. A bar sat off to the side and wrought-iron tables sat in rows.
“Your waitress will be with you in a moment,” the hostess said. Dorian and I sat, picking up our menus. I smiled with excitement at seeing alligator and jambalaya listed.
“What’s a boudain ball?”
“They’re a mixture of rice and sausage. Very good, but spicy.”
I nodded. “I think I’ll try those.”
As I waited for Dorian to choose and our waitress to come over, so many thoughts raced through my head. I still needed to ask Dorian about what really happened at my shop, what he did to Aiden and the rogues and figure out a way to tell him that my council might be shady. As I watched Dorian, I also wondered if I could trust him. Holly was the one who brought him to Moon. That wasn’t a good start. But against my better judgment, I did trust him. He had saved my life more times than I could count and acted protective of me.
“Hi, I’m Marie and I’ll be your server today.” The waitress smiled at both of us but chose to keep eye contact with Dorian. I didn’t blame her, Dorian was nice to look at.
“She’ll have the boudain and I’ll have the blackened pasta.”
“Okay,” Marie said, writing our orders down. “And what can I get you to drink?”
Dorian looked at me.
“I’ll have iced tea with lemon, please.”
“And I’ll have water,” Dorian added.
Marie took our menus and walked away, leaving Dorian and me to ourselves. A lump formed in my throat as the words I wanted to say ran through my head. My mouth opened and then closed, opened and closed. If Dorian thought I was gasping like a fish out of water, he didn’t say anything. Finally I found my voice.
“I visited the store the other day.” The words didn’t carry as strongly as I intended over the clatter of the restaurant, but he’d heard me. Dorian turned his attention towards me, his head bobbing as if it was the courteous thing to do.
“It was a mess,” I continued. “Micah came by to tell me I should keep it closed. I guess other business owners have complained.” I was getting off track. “Did you have to bust my door down? Did you have a sudden fear of door knobs?”
“The next time your life is in danger I’ll be sure to follow protocol,” he said sarcastically. His sarcasm didn’t bother me as much as it used to, Especially if it was always followed by that sexy ass grin.
“Something strange happened when I was there.”
“Yeah,” I responded. “I saw—”
“Here we go,” Marie said, sitting our drinks down. “Your food will be right up.”
“Thank you, Marie.” Dorian smiled and a fresh blush colored Marie’s pale skin. She cut her eyes to me, looking away quickly as if embarrassed to be swooning over another girl’s boyfriend. I didn’t have the heart to tell her Dorian and I weren’t an item. If he was interested in her it would last one night, and Marie would be crushed. It was better they never interacted outside of the restaurant.
When Marie walked away, I took a big drink of my iced tea. Leaning up, I rested my folded arms on the table, my knee bouncing up and down nervously.
“You were saying…”
“I remembered things that couldn’t be real,” I began. “I mean, I guess they could be real. We deal with ghosts all the time but…” I stopped to take a deep breath. Circling around what I wanted to say was pointless. I just needed to spit it out and hope he told me the truth.
“What did you do, Dorian?”
“I thought it was clear what I did,” he responded. “I saved your life, again.”
“But…I was a ghost. I saw it, saw you…suck my soul into your hands.” My upper lip lifted in a cringe. If I was just watching Dorian, daydreaming about all the things I would like to do with him, it was easy to pretend he was normal. But if I thought about all the things I had seen him do, that fantasy collapsed. He wasn’t just otherworldly, he was unlike anything I had ever seen before.
“I did what I had to,” he said tersely.
“Was I supposed to die?” I whispered. I waited, watching him speculate internally on how much he wanted to tell me. “Damn it,” I slammed my hand down on the table, rattling our glasses. The other patron’s searched for the commotion and quickly looked away when I glared at them.
“I have a right to know.”
“It’s not the time for this conversation,” he snapped. We were locked in each other’s stares when Marie popped back up. She sat our plates down in front of us, but still we didn’t break each other’s gazes. I could see my angry face reflected in Dorian’s sunglasses.
“Uh…Is there anything else I can get for you?”
“No, thank you,” Dorian said and Marie scampered off. “Eat,” he ordered, breaking eye contact to pick up his fork and stir his pasta. I shook my head, my frustration outweighing my hunger. How could I sit across from this man and eat lunch like everything was hunky-dory?
“You are the most pig-headed man I’ve ever met. How in the world I was ever attracted to you is beyond me—”
“At least you’re admitting to it now,” he interrupted, shoveling a mouthful of noodles into his mouth.
“Shut up,” I retorted. “Marie.” I waved my hand in the air. She looked up, her eyes volleying between me and Dorian. After a few seconds she headed over to our table.
“Can I get a to-go box please?”
“Sure, would you also like the check?”
“No, he’ll take care of it.”
Marie nodded, her hair bobbing against her shoulders. “Be right back.”
“Where the hell do you think you’re going?” Dorian asked. It may have been childish but I ignored him. There were too many emotions fighting for my attention. If I acknowledged him, I might start screaming. Since I didn’t want to draw any more attention than we already had, I kept my mouth closed and my thoughts to myself.
“Here you go.” Marie handed me a Styrofoam container.
“Thank you,” I smiled.
Storming out loses some of its effect when you stop to fill a doggy bag, but I knew my appetite would return and I was curious to try the boudain. Besides, I didn’t care what Dorian thought of me, or about the smug smirk currently on his face.
Standing, I picked up the container and headed out. Dorian didn’t try to stop me. I had no clue where I was going. Going back to Dorian’s townhouse wasn’t an option, and I wanted to experience the city. Taking a right, I headed down the sidewalk and walked and walked. The sidewalks were crowded in every direction. I cut across the street, heading south. After ten minutes or so the city opened up to a large square. An elaborate building rested against manicured shrubs and flowers, its spiky steeples reaching towards the darkening sky. Its white granite exterior was in sharp contrast to the gloomy clouds above.
Spotting an empty bench, I walked over and sat down. My eyes studied the gray clouds and it only made me madder. They raced across the sky, mimicking Dorian’s eyes. My head tipped down, staring that the container in my lap. My appetite still hadn’t resurfaced. As I thought about my argument with Dorian, I watched people walking through the square. I was thrilled I was still alive, but at what cost? Had Dorian thrown the cosmic design off balance when he chose to restore my soul to my body? I really wished I had asked Amara about it; she was one of the Fates after all. Maybe her visit wasn’t just about Dorian finding information on why he couldn’t see my destiny.
The angel of Death was such a mystery to me. Half the time I wanted to punch him, and the other half I wanted to rip his clothes off. He had gotten under my skin in more ways than one. I replaced my aggravated thoughts of Dorian with the NAWC. If there was anything that could make me angrier than Dorian, it was my council. As soon as I got back to Dorian’s I was going to call Charles and find out what the hell was going on. Knowing that Holly was roaming around the castle like an innocent woman had me seeing red. Not only did she try to kill me, but she was the one who, informed Ian about me. Had he not known a spirit walker was within his grasp, my life would still be my own.
My mind stewed, changing to thoughts of the VC. Where did they come into play, and why did they order Aiden to drink from me? A million different motives were in play, and eventually they would all collide. I needed to be ready when it happened.
I felt him before I saw him. The icy coldness of death’s grip hit me in my gut. I had gotten pretty good at not focusing on the sensation; otherwise I would go insane. But Dorian wasn’t someone who could be ignored. His presence dominated wherever he was. Currently, he was walking across the square toward me. I watched in awe as people went out of their way to walk around him, making sure to not get in his way. I wondered if he knew the effect he held over them. I cursed mentally when I felt my anger with him slipping away. I was more focused on the confidence of his walk, the way the strong wind whipped his hair across his face, the fullness of his lips and the snug fit of his motorcycle jacket. My brain told me to be pissed, but my body was currently thinking “bow-chica-wow-wow”. I was a hopeless mess.
“Do you feel better after your tantrum?” Dorian sat next to me, resting a foot on his bent knee. He leaned back, placing an arm across the back of the bench.
“It wasn’t a tantrum,” I bit out. “I just don’t like you keeping things from me.” I lost some of my steam, leaning back and crossing my legs. I looked at Dorian. “How did you know where I was?”
His lips bent upwards. “You can’t hide from me, cupcake. I’m the keeper of souls, and I’m attuned to yours.”
I didn’t know how to respond. It was an obvious statement, but the way he had said it implied it meant more than just being able to track me down. I looked away, watching the people instead of focusing on Dorian. We sat in silence, absorbing the city. Thunder rumbled in the distance, but neither of us made a motion to move. The wind picked up, caressing my face. I closed my eyes, taking a deep breath and enjoying the feel of it against my skin.
Fingers curled around my shoulder, tugging me closer. My eyes opened slowly, and I looked at Dorian. He was staring straight ahead, but his lips strained as if holding back a smile. Anger forgotten, I leaned closer, resting my head on his shoulder. It didn’t matter how many times he infuriated me; being next to him, feeling his hands on me settled my soul. He was a hot cup of tea on a cold day; a big serving of comfort food that always hit the spot. He might poke the fire within me but he also knew how to tame it.
“Dorian,” I whispered.
“Did you condemn me by saving me?”
His fingers brushed against my shoulder back and forth. “The payment will be mine.”
I tilted my chin up so I could see him. “What does that mean?”
He looked down, his other hand coming around to caress my face. “It means you have nothing to worry about.”
Something about his words made me sad. Before I could analyze why, my mouth was on his. I kissed him gently, placing my lips against his soft as a whisper. His arm tightened around me, holding me close to his body. Our mouths worked against each other, unhurried as we savored the moment. Unlike the other times, this wasn’t raw sexual desire. It was a sweet, untainted emotion. Droplets of water splashed against my cheeks and the thunder grew louder.
When I pulled away all I could do was stare at him, speechless against the emotion swirling through my stomach. I could deal with lust, it was a natural feeling, but it wasn’t what was causing me to catch my breath or see Dorian with new eyes. I sat up quickly, putting distance between us.
“We should probably get home before it really starts pouring.” I stood, ignoring the rain splattering against my face and the thoughts cluttering my head. I heard Dorian stand, but couldn’t look at him. Instead, I began walking. Once we got back to his place, I could occupy myself with trying to find answers. Charles was the first one my list, and then Aiden. I was hoping the VC might have explained why they made him drink from me. The bond left me angry, but not at Aiden. The VC had something up their sleeve. I just needed to find out what it was, and why. Surely they couldn’t be that angry over losing a lowlife like Ian.
I glanced over my shoulder, and stopped when I saw Dorian staring up at the beautiful building. All of the other people rushed around him, hurrying to outrun the coming storm. He was a picture of solitude staring ahead at the towering church. Turning, I walked toward him. Everything else faded into the background as I made my way to him. I was captured by the loneliness seizing his face. It only took moments, but my short walk toward him left me with the realization that Dorian was deeper than I gave him credit for. I no longer saw a man who slept around and spouted off sarcasm like it was his first language. All of the one night stands were nothing more than an opportunity to share a small piece of his life with someone else, a moment when he wasn’t alone. Amara had told me that the lifetimes had hardened his heart, but maybe his detachment from the world was for protection.
I stopped beside him and admired the architecture too. Slowly, I reached my hand out to the side and clasped his.
“The St. Louis Cathedral,” Dorian said.
“It’s beautiful.” Thunder boomed overhead, lightning striking through the gloominess of the sky. “We should get back.”
Dorian turned toward me. His face was calm, masking what he was feeling inside. “I take souls, guide them to the hereafter. I’ve done it for as long as I can remember, never asking questions.”
Another crack of thunder sounded, the rain picking up. “Dorian, we can talk back at your place. It’s not safe to be out here.”
The wind was picking up, bending tree branches with its ferocity. The square was now completely empty.
“I never questioned the departure of a soul until yours,” Dorian said. “I couldn’t watch you go.” He was shaking his head as if his words astonished him. Tears filled my eyes, hidden by the rain. My mouth was open, words failing on my trembling lips. The air in my lungs constricted with his vulnerability.
He stepped toward me, his hand going up and his fingers burying themselves in my wet hair. With his thumb, he brushed the droplets away from my cheek. His eyebrows scrunched together, as if pained by something. Like the lighting above, Dorian struck, claiming my mouth with an eagerness that awakened every nerve ending in my body.
Wrapping an arm around my waist, he held me tighter. His tongue slipped between my lips and I felt my body sag against his. We drifted to a place where only he and I existed. I no longer heard the booming thunder, the smack of rain hitting the concrete or the feel of it against my skin. There was only Dorian, his hands on my body, his mouth on mine and the delicious sensations he stirred within me.