First 3 Chapters of Lose You Not!

Today is Teaser Tuesday, and what better tease than the first three chapters of my upcoming release, Lose You Not? This full-length novel in the Havenwood Falls world is the sequel to Forget You Not and releases this Friday, Jan. 26! Woohoo! I can’t wait for y’all to read more of Michaela and Xandru’s story.

Preorder on iBooks | Amazon US | Amazon UK Kobo | Barnes & Noble

Copyright © 2018 Kristie Cook, Ang’dora Productions, LLC. All rights reserved.

 

Chapter 1

Michaela

“Badass vampire. I’m a badass vampire. I can do this.”

Chanting the words out loud, I followed a horrendous stink down the third-floor hallway of Whisper Falls Inn, built by my father in 1854 and inherited by his twenty-four-year-old daughter, yours truly. Armored in elbow-length rubber gloves, an old hoodie, sweatpants, and shit-kicker boots, I pulled a scarf up over my nose and mouth, then held the broom upside down, ready to swing. I stopped at the end of the hall, in front of one of our two suites, this one in the uppermost turret of the Victorian mansion. Nobody had seen the guest since dusk last night, but the room key showed up on the front desk early this morning, and by noon, this odor had permeated all the way downstairs to the lobby. I had no idea what the guy had done in there, but judging by the putrid smell, it couldn’t be good.

This was what my life had become.

“I swear to all, if there’s a dead body in there, I’m going to be fucking pissed.” I rolled my shoulders, then yelled, because I didn’t know where in the building she was, “Mammie, I’m going in!”

Before I could lose my nerve, I slammed the door open and jumped back, just in case something pounced.

“Oh. My. God!” I screeched, bile rising into my mouth. I threw my arm across my face. “Oh god, oh god, oh god.”

The only thing that pounced was the smell, a gazillion times worse now. My eyes watered, and my chest heaved as I fought the urge to puke. I tightened my grip on the broom handle and slowly made my way into the suite, my gaze sweeping the circular room. Blinking against the tears, I saw nothing out of the ordinary. The sitting area looked untouched. The bed was rumpled, obviously slept in last night—before the jerk took off without checking out—but nothing gross stained the bedding, despite the stench. Like feces. Or vomit. Or other bodily fluids.

The odor wafted strongest from the bathroom. Of course. I gave myself another pep talk as I inched my way there, which gave Madame Luiza, aka Mammie, plenty of time to find me and glide into the room.

“Oh, dear,” she said. And considering she was a ghost, if she could smell it, it was bad. “Be careful, Michaela.”

With her Romanian accent, my aunt said my name with its original pronunciation—Me-hay-la—rather than with the hard k everyone else gave it. Of course, everyone else tended to give me a nickname: Kaela, Kales, even Kaekae.

Because that was totally badass.

“How bad can it be?” I squared my shoulders and lifted my chin.

“I’ll go in first,” Mammie said. “Nothing can make me deader than I already am.”

Before I could protest, she disappeared into the bathroom and returned only a heartbeat later. If ghosts could be green, she would have been. Her purple ball gown, in which she was perpetually dressed, appeared to be no worse for the wear, but that didn’t really mean much, considering. Her cheeks puffed out, as though she fought a gag, and she clamped her hands over her mouth. She couldn’t actually puke, but with that kind of reaction, whatever that bathroom harbored was way worse than I thought.

“Badass vampire,” I repeated in a firm whisper before forcing myself through the bathroom doorway. And then I froze, staring at the scene in front of me. “What the fuck?”

“Language, dear,” Mammie admonished, her voice muffled behind her hands.

“Really, Mammie? There’s absolutely nothing else to say!”

A pinkish gelatinous goo stuck to nearly every surface, as though a giant troll had sneezed, spraying pink snot everywhere. It was splattered all over the faded and stained wallpaper, clung to the chipped porcelain sink and old-fashioned tub, and slid slimy trails down the warped mirror. Something large and plasma-y filled the toilet, pouring over the edge and slopping onto the yellowed tile floor.

I spun the broom and jabbed at it with the stick end. It shook like jelly. I lifted it with the broom handle, and my stomach lurched.

“He molted?” I shrieked. “That son of a bitch molted in my inn? And what the hell molts like this?”

The substance was not at all like a reptile skin. Not papery and dry. More like a big, bloodless placenta.

But mammals didn’t molt.

“Skinwalker,” Mammie whispered. “It must be. I knew he was no regular shifter.”

“Skinwalker?” I echoed.

“They shed their skin to take on another—a whole different appearance. Sometimes a whole different life. They’re very rare. I’ve only ever met one before, back in the 1920s.”

“So what’s all over the walls and everything else? Do these skinwalkers explode, too?”

Mammie patted her silver bun as she glanced around, then shrugged. “Maybe if their new body is larger than their old skin?”

“Ew! Gross.” I shuddered at the image while trying to hold back the vomit that kept making its way up the back of my throat.

Groaning, I poked and prodded the gunk, working it out of the toilet, because it obviously was not going to flush through the pipes. Finally, the end of it flopped out of the bowl and onto the floor, splashing at my feet and sending Mammie out into the bedroom part of the suite. I tried pushing it out of the way with the broom handle. At first it jiggled, but barely moved. So I gave it a harder shove, and the handle slipped right through the substance like a knife through warm butter and drove into the wall. Little black things—and some not so little—poured out of the hole and scurried over the wall.

“Ahhhhh!”

I ran out of the bathroom screaming, with Mammie right on my heels, shrieking even louder. We flew through the hall, down the steps, rounding the flights, not stopping until we hit the lobby three floors down. I fell to my knees, panting and heaving, my whole body trembling as my hands pressed into my chest, as if they could slow my heart.

“Spiders,” I choked out. “Fucking spiders.”

Mammie burst out laughing.

Lifting my head, I glared at her with narrowed eyes.

She tried to rein herself in. “I’m sorry, dear. If you could have only seen your face. Are you sure you’re moroi?”

“Hey!” I waggled a finger at her. “You were running and screaming, too.”

“I was not running,” she denied, but a smile twitched at her lips. “I can’t run, dear. Ghosts fly.”

And for some reason, that statement broke through my fear, and laughter consumed me until I was crying. Once I was able to compose myself, I pushed up to my feet.

“We’re burning the whole place down,” I declared as the front door opened.

A teen and a tween, both dark-haired, entered, the smell of an early summer evening carried in with them—pine, freshly mown grass, and wildflowers.

“You’re what?” Gabe, my twelve-year-old brother, asked, his eyes wide in his thin face. They were still brown because he was still human, meaning his moroi gene hadn’t been triggered. That usually happened at around twenty years old.

“Gabe decided he didn’t want to hang out with Cody after all, so I brought him home,” Aurelia, our sixteen-year-old sister, also still human, whined as she followed behind him, both of their slender bodies clad in shorts and tanks.

What they called summer here in the mountains was a lot closer to the winters I’d grown used to during my five years in Atlanta. So while everyone else already wore summer attire, I was still comfortable in hoodies and jeans. And technically, summer didn’t start until next week. Maybe by the end of July, I’d dare a pair of shorts.

“He could have walked,” Aurelia continued. “It’s not like it’s all that far, but noooo, whiny baby insisted on a ride. Oh, well. Lena didn’t want to do anything, and Laurel was being a snot anyway.” Her nose wrinkled as she finally got over herself and noticed her surroundings. “What died?” Her eyes flew wide open, and she had the decency to throw a hand over her mouth in embarrassment as she looked at Mammie. “I didn’t . . . I mean . . . what stinks?”

“Spiders. And gross stuff. You don’t want to know,” I answered.

“Spiders?” she and Gabe said at the same time. Except Aurelia sounded as freaked out as I was, while excitement colored Gabe’s tone.

“Hey, don’t you have a hot date tonight?” Aurelia asked me as her chocolate eyes gave me a once-over, her nose scrunching even more.

“As a matter of fact, I do,” said a deep voice, preceding its owner from the front vestibule.

His tall, muscular frame emerged into the lobby, clothed in a dress shirt and black pants, rather than his usual T-shirt and jeans. The lavender color of his shirt, along with his dark hair and beard stubble, brought out the brightness of his gray-green eyes—the eyes that always got me. The eyes that had been the one aspect of Havenwood Falls I’d never been able to forget, even when the Luna Coven witches magically wiped my memory and replaced it with a false past. Something deep inside hadn’t allowed me to completely forget Xandru Roca.

Like always, my heart went all trippy and my breath caught when I saw him.

The look he gave me in return was not quite as enamored. I glanced down at myself.

Oh, shit. “Is it that time already?”

“Rough day?” he asked.

“You could say that.” I glanced upward, as though I could see through two floors to the third one. “We have a problem.”

He gave me a small smile. “You go get cleaned up. I’ll check it out.”

“No, don’t. You’re all dressed up. You really don’t want to deal with that.” I turned to my brother. “Gabe, since you skipped out on your chores this morning, you get to take care of room 313. It’s totally your kind of thing.”

As I headed through the large dining room for one of the several pairs of French doors in the back, I heard footsteps ascending the grand staircase off the lobby—two pairs, one much heavier than the other—and Xandru saying, “No worries. I got your back.”

Well, at least we’d both stink on our date tonight.

The sky was just beginning to darken as I strode across the rear lawn of the inn to the two-bedroom cottage the kids and I shared until we figured out . . . well, until we figured out life. We’d all been through a lot in the last several years and still weren’t sure about our new normal.

Three months ago, I’d been tending bar at a club in downtown Atlanta and serving breakfast to drunks in the middle of the night, thinking I was some mutant form of vampire with a depressing past and no family. My true memories of growing up in Havenwood Falls, Colorado, population five thousand-ish, with a family who loved me and friends who still did, had mostly returned by now, although I still experienced some blank moments. But they were still just memories, not the life I’d stepped into when I came back. This new life was . . . I didn’t know what it was yet.

Like I said, we were still figuring it all out.

Like what we wanted to do with the family estate. The mansion in Havenwood Heights provided a lot more space than the cottage at the inn, but without Mom, Dad, and Mammie, we all agreed it felt like too much room. Yet, at the same time, the memories there of when our family was whole made the walls feel like they closed in on us. I couldn’t be there for more than an hour before the emotions became too much to bear—mostly sadness, but also a lot of anger.

Maybe not facing it all was a form of denial, but we chose to cram into the small cottage, the largest of the five that lined the back of the inn’s property.

When they were even there, Aurelia usually slept in my bed and Gabe in the smaller bedroom, but they often took a room in the main house with Mammie to watch over them or spent the night with friends. Because of the nightmares, I tried not to sleep much at all, but when I did, it was rarely at night. The tattoo I received as my registry with the Court of the Sun and the Moon, a requirement for all supernaturals in Havenwood Falls, was infused with magic that allowed me to be outside in the sun, but after the novelty wore off, my biological clock reverted to my vampire ways. I favored the late afternoons and nights. I’d always been a night owl anyway, even before I’d been turned. So the arrangement was working for us. Sort of.

Considering everything, I felt like we were managing life quite well.

Just as I pushed the cottage’s front door open, a loud splintering of wood followed by a scream came from behind me. I spun around just in time to see two bodies falling from a hole in the third-story turret and crashing through the glass ceiling of the conservatory just below it.

Screaming, I sprinted across the lawn and tried to open the outside door to the conservatory, but it was jammed. Much of the large, glass room’s framework was made of copper piping, which they pumped steam through back in the day to heat the space, along with other metals for the fancy scroll work on the trim. Patina and tarnish had started to cover the metal, and rust had eaten some of it away, causing places to bend and deform, including around the door. Focusing my mind on the metal, I bent it out of the way, allowing the door to swing open. When Xandru’s brother Tase had triggered my moroi gene by giving me his blood, he’d passed on to me the Rocas’ ability to control metal. It came in handy sometimes.

“Are you okay?” Xandru’s voice came from the shadows.

I followed the sound, weaving around boxes, junk, and covered furniture stored in the conservatory to find him setting my little brother on his feet. They both stood in a broken hole in the wooden floor, next to a full-size replica of a knight holding his sword pointy end up—they’d missed it by mere inches.

“Yeah, I think so,” Gabe said, his voice shaky.

“You’re bleeding!” Pulling my hoodie off, I hurried over to him and pressed it to the gash in his head.

“Is everyone okay?” Aurelia asked from the doorway to the inn.

“Call an ambulance,” I ordered.

“I said I’m okay,” Gabe argued.

“You have blood gushing from your head!”

Unfortunately, neither Xandru nor I could give him our blood to heal him. Because we were both mature (turned) moroi, doing so would trigger Gabe’s gene, and he was way too young for that. Thankfully, his blood didn’t incite any kind of thirst from Xandru or me. We had control over that part of us. Now, if Tase were here, it might have been a whole different story—he’d cursed himself to excruciating bloodlust when he triggered my gene.

If I had any say, though, Atanase “Tase” Roca would never be around my brother or sister.

“It doesn’t hurt.” Gabe shrugged. “Xandru caught me. It was really cool! I can’t wait until I’m turned.”

I visually inspected the rest of his small-for-his-age body, but only found a couple of scratches. “I’d rather be safe than sorry.” I looked up at Xandru to find his pants and shirt splattered with wet marks. “Are you okay?”

He shook his arms, pink gunk flying off his sleeve. “Besides whatever the hell this is? Yeah, I’m fine. I always land on my feet.”

I ignored his cocky grin and grabbed Gabe by the shoulders, walking him over to sit on the step that led inside to the inn. “What happened?”

He held his fist up and opened it to reveal a beaded bracelet. “I was trying to get this. It was inside the wall you put a hole in upstairs. But the wall broke more, and the next thing I knew, I was falling through it and down to the ground. Then Xandru was there, catching me right before we hit the ground. He’s right. We landed on our feet!” He looked over at the hole in the floor. “Sort of.”

“I hate to say it, Ms. Petran, but your inn needs some repairs,” Xandru said, as he inspected what were obviously rotted floorboards.

“You think?” I squatted next to Gabe, re-inspecting him even as he pulled away. He was more interested in his newly found treasure than any injury.

He held the bracelet up in the waning light. “Do you think it’s valuable?”

“Not as valuable as your life,” I muttered.

A few moments later, the ambulance arrived. An EMT named Jordan took Gabe inside the truck to clean him up and do an evaluation. The wound wasn’t nearly as bad as I’d thought it was.

“Heads bleed a lot,” Jordan explained as he hopped off the end of the ambulance. My vampire senses picked up on his scent with a tinge similar to Mike McCabe’s—mountain lion shifter. Mike was the local building contractor and had fixed the inn’s roof last month. I supposed I’d need to call him again. “He should be fine. He’s not showing any signs of a concussion, but it wouldn’t be a bad idea to keep an eye on him throughout the night and tomorrow.”

“Oh, thank god.” I blew out a sigh of relief.

Gabe was fine. Thanks to Xandru. But what if he hadn’t been there to catch him? What if it had been worse? This inn was a danger zone. Worse than I had believed.

Not long after the ambulance left, another visitor arrived.

“I called the Court,” Xandru explained, wiping at a spot on his shirt. “So they could get a sample of this. Mammie told me it’s from a skinwalker, but I’m sure they’ll want to know more.”

“I know I want to know more. Too bad it’s not Addie,” I said before we walked in to greet the male witch the Luna Coven had sent. “She would tell me everything.”

The Luna Coven did all of the Court of the Sun and the Moon’s magical bidding. At least, that’s what many of the supes in town believed. Mammie, who’d sat on the Court for a short time, had let it slip once that there were some tasks the Luna Coven couldn’t dirty their hands with. Not when their High Council leaders also sat on the Court, which ruled the supernaturals in Havenwood Falls, protecting the humans and our secret. The more unappealing tasks were passed on to other, lesser covens in town.

The middle-aged man was thorough in his inspection and collection of goo, which he stored in vials and dropped into his satchel, asking me questions I mostly didn’t have answers for. I didn’t think it possible for him to move any slower, but at least when he was done, he helped Xandru patch the hole in the turret with a flick of his wrist and a few chanted words.

“We’ll test the samples and see what we can find out about this mystery person,” he said as we finally headed back downstairs. “If anything, maybe there are traces of Adelaide’s ink, which she can use to identify them. You all have a good evening now.”

Yeah, right. I looked outside at the dark streets, and then at Xandru, and frowned.

“It must be past midnight if the twinkle lights in the square are off.”

He pulled his phone out of his pants pocket. “Twelve-oh-four, to be exact.”

“Another date ruined,” I murmured as I scratched at a patch of dried skinwalker gunk on the back of my hand. I really needed a shower. We both did. “I’m so very sorry.”

Giving me a smile, he shrugged. “Well, at least we were able to spend some time together, even if it wasn’t the perfect date.”

“Do you think we’ll ever have a real second date?”

He stepped in front of me and brushed his thumb over my cheek. “That I promise you, Michaela Petran.” He leaned down and brushed his full lips over mine. “But we don’t have to call it a night yet . . .”

His mouth lingered on mine in a luscious kiss that I eventually had to pull away from before I collapsed from a lack of oxygen.

“I’m gross,” I reminded him, taking a step back.

He moved forward, closing the space I’d just put between us. “Me, too. We could clean up together.”

“Hmm . . . that is tempting.”

His fingers skimmed over my cheek and down my neck, producing a shiver. “But? I hear a but coming.”

“But Gabe is in the cottage. There’s no privacy.”

His hand cupped my chin, and I could tell by the look in his eyes that he was thinking what I was—there were plenty of other places we could have gone. Upstairs, in a guest room, for instance, since we had several vacancies. Or any of the other open cottages. But he didn’t say it, and neither did I. We hadn’t reached that place yet.

I’d begun to wonder if we ever would.

Instead, he kissed my forehead. “Try again tomorrow?”

I gave him a smile, which I didn’t quite feel on the inside. “Yeah. Sure. Tomorrow.”

But tomorrow didn’t come. At least, not in that sense.

As had been the case for the last three months, every day brought new obstacles that kept us from having a real date . . . or any kind of relationship at all.

 

Chapter 2

Xandru

“Didn’t expect you to be home,” Tase greeted as I trotted down the stairs after showering. “Date didn’t go so well?”

“What are you doing here?” I headed for the bar cart in the sunken living room of the home we grew up in.

It was a large, two-story log cabin, built and added on to over the years by our father, once he had money, made with illicit business dealings. The walls showed off the natural logs, and Mom had always favored dark colors, so the interior felt a lot like a cave—a cave in a tree trunk. Maybe someday, when my sisters were older, Alina or Aurora could have the house and update the décor to brighten up the place. Well, Aurora might. Alina would likely paint everything black, to match her heart.

Tase stretched out on one of the leather sofas. “This is our home, bro.”

I poured a glass of scotch. “You have your own place.”

“So do you.”

I snorted. I’d moved back here the day after our parents died and rented my place out. “We have a sister and brother still in high school. Someone has to be the adult around here.”

He cocked his head. “Do you even know where they are?”

Pausing, I took a sip of my drink and listened for Andrei’s and Aurora’s heartbeats. “Yeah. They’re in their rooms. Right where they’re supposed to be. Even Alina is.”

Only Adrian was out of the house, but he was twenty-two and always stayed at the condo he bought in Havenstone.

“What a good dad you are,” Tase taunted as he slow clapped.

“Fuck off.”

He pretended to be offended. “Is that any way to talk to your older brother?”

“What do you want?”

“I have to make a run to Montrose. Wanna ride with me?”

In Tase-speak, a run meant dropping off or picking up something probably illegal, or dropping off or picking up payment for something probably illegal. As a family, the Rocas had several business interests, a couple on the right side of the law, such as the metal works company I ran. Then we each had something of our own. Besides the ski resort he bought a few years ago, Tase’s side interests tended to fall on the wrong side of the law. He, as well as our other siblings, liked to follow in our father’s not-so-good footsteps.

Tase often made runs to Montrose. Located sixty miles away from Havenwood Falls on twisty mountain roads, it was the closest town with a population over a few thousand and a crossroads that led to Grand Junction and the closest interstate. I used to make the runs with him on occasion. Not my thing anymore.

I scrubbed a hand over my face. “Three hours in the car with you? Nah. I think I’ll pass.”

He leaned forward and peered up at me. We had the same dark hair and olive skin, and strangers often mistook us for twins. That was a little ridiculous, but there was no mistaking we were brothers. His eyes were now a little greener than mine, though. If he turned full-on strigoi, they’d glow a lime green. The Luna Coven High Council predicted he had about a year, eighteen months if their magic held. Perhaps enough time for Addie to find or create a counter-curse.

Perhaps not.

“What the hell’s gotten into you, bro?” Tase asked. “You and I were a team.”

“A team?” I scoffed. He was a distraction when Michaela was gone. Now he was trouble. “We haven’t been a team since the moment you sold out to someone else and turned Michaela behind my back. You made me your unwilling sidekick. Someone to keep you company.”

“Yeah, well, keep me company now. What else are you going to do? Sit in your room pining for Michaela and jerking off? That’s not like you.” He paused and glanced upward, as though he could see the upstairs bedrooms. “If you don’t go, I’ll ask Alina or Andrei. I know they’d love to come.”

I growled. The last thing I needed was any of our younger siblings getting involved in his business, especially those who were still human and therefore a lot more breakable. If I had any say, Tase himself wouldn’t be involved in his own business. Not this kind, anyway. He needed to focus on his legit shit, like the ski resort.

“You suck,” I said, before throwing back the rest of the scotch and savoring the burn. “You know that’s not happening.”

“So you’re going with me?”

“Will it get us arrested? Or in trouble with the Court? Because that’s not an option.” For a few different reasons.

Tase smirked. “Not if we don’t get caught.”

Against my better judgment, I acquiesced and went to my room to throw on jeans and a T-shirt. Ten minutes later, Tase’s late-model Camaro SS turned onto Main Street toward the only highway out of town. As we passed the inn, I couldn’t help but notice which lights were on in the cottage and the inn. Michaela was still up. I wasn’t surprised. We were nocturnal creatures.

At one time, those lights would have been all the invitation I needed. At one time, she would have been happy to see me show up at her door unexpectedly. At one time, I knew exactly how she felt and how she’d react.

Now, though, I felt like I knew nothing.

And I didn’t want to assume. Michaela had changed while she was gone, off in the big city on the far side of the country. Hell, I’d changed, and I hadn’t gone anywhere. We were supposed to have grown and changed together, but that hadn’t happened. Choices had been made for us, with no consideration for what we wanted. Especially for her. After everything she’d been through, I didn’t want to push her into anything that I couldn’t be sure she wanted.

So, instead of sitting on the couch with her, watching a movie or doing much more interesting things, here I was, making a run with my brother, smuggling only he knew what, because I wasn’t about to ask. Some things were better left unknown.

When we pulled into a parking lot in front of a row of warehouses in Montrose and I smelled human blood, it became clear that it was a good thing I’d come.

As vampires, we craved blood. It sustained our bodies. Human blood tasted best—like heaven, actually—but animal blood served our needs just as well. As moroi vamps, we could still consume—and quite enjoy—regular food and drink, too. We were mortal, born human with a gene that made us prone to vampirism. When our gene was triggered, we turned. Although it was difficult to kill us, it wasn’t impossible.

Human blood called to us louder than sirens called to their victims, and just one drop could send us into a frenzy. But unlike other vamps, we couldn’t indulge in our true nature. Because each time we killed a human, the need for human flesh and blood escalated until it’d eventually drive us mad and turn us into strigoi. Strigoi were immortal predators. Nearly impossible to kill, they murdered for the thrill of it. Strigoi were true monsters.

The rulers of Havenwood Falls didn’t tolerate strigoi. Any signs of a moroi becoming one meant death by execution.

This was why Tase had a death sentence hanging over his head. When he triggered Michaela’s gene against her will, he caused a curse that had been on her family to jump to ours. The Luna Coven had managed to extricate the curse from the rest of us and instill it only in Tase—a curse meant to drive him to become strigoi. They also spelled him to suppress the urges, but that was a stop-gap, to buy time until they found a way to break the curse completely. If they didn’t find one soon, though, it was only a matter of time before he lost all control.

We all grew up knowing about our heritage. Triggering our moroi gene was a ritual the Roca kids looked forward to for years, until we graduated high school and were finally old enough. Unlike the Petrans. While Michaela and her siblings knew what their parents were, the Petrans had always acted like their kids were too good to become vampires. Now we knew the curse on them was the reason, but my father had always mocked how they tried to deny what they were by drinking in secret. We grew up exposed to blood, all different kinds, human and animal. Even before I’d turned, I could smell the faintest traces on the air.

As soon as Tase parked the car in front of the warehouse in Montrose, the sweet scent slammed into me, making my mouth water.

He smelled it, too. A growl rumbled in his chest.

“I don’t think you should go in,” I said before he could open the door.

“I have to make the pickup.”

“Just let me run in and grab it. Stay in the car.”

“No!” he nearly shouted. “It has to be me. Just cover me, okay?”

Pausing, I gripped the door handle. “Who are these people? Do they know about you and the curse? Is this a game they’re playing?”

His jaw muscle popped as he stared at the door, his leg bouncing up and down. “If it is, they lose.”

“Tase—”

“Xandru, I smell a human female in there, bleeding out. And I’m this fucking close to finishing her off.” He turned to look at me, his eyes glowing a brighter green than I’d seen them yet, his finger and thumb nearly touching. “You got my back or not?”

Then, in a blur, he was out of the car and throwing open the metal door with a flick of his hand before he’d even reached it. I shot out of the car and blurred inside, but I was still barely in time. A girl in her early twenties sat tied to a chair in the middle of the empty warehouse, blood pooled around her feet and Tase already at her throat, gulping like an animal.

“No!” I flew at him and yanked him off of her, throwing him several yards away. He landed in a crouch, glaring at me with those bright green eyes. “Control yourself, damn it!”

His nostrils flared, but he appeared to be holding his breath, the only way he’d be able to overcome the bloodlust. He had to overcome the bloodlust. If he gave in and killed her, it’d be that much easier to do it again the next time. And then the next, and then he’d be fast on his way to becoming strigoi and an unstoppable killing machine. The Court would be forced to kill him.

When I thought he’d regained some semblance of control, I let my fangs out and bit into my wrist, then fed the girl my blood, my eyes never leaving Tase, and his never leaving her throat.

I inhaled as I listened to our surroundings. Besides the girl, we were alone in the warehouse, but a faint scent of someone not human lingered on the air. They’d left only in the last few minutes.

“Find them,” I ground out through a clenched jaw, needing Tase to leave before the blood he’d just drank gave him more strength than I could fend off. “Someone set you up, and you’re letting them get away with it.”

He glared at me for another moment, then nodded before becoming a blur as he ran outside. At least if he found them and killed them, it wouldn’t affect the curse, since they weren’t human.

When the girl had enough of my blood for her wounds to start healing, I untied her and carried her out to the car. Tase was nowhere to be seen, and I didn’t want to stray too far from the girl, who might have been our only witness. Fifteen minutes later, there was still no sign of Tase, but the girl began to stir.

“Who are you?” she asked with wide brown eyes as she tried to sit up, her dark brown hair blood-crusted and matted to her face. Her gaze flitted around the cramped backseat and out the windows. “Where am I?”

I rushed over and squatted in between the door and the seats. “We’re at the railroad warehouses in Montrose.”

“Who the hell are you?” The smell of fear came off her in waves. She rubbed at her bloody neck, then looked at her hands and screamed.

“Shh, it’s okay. You’re okay,” I tried to soothe. “I found you. You’re okay now. It’s not your blood,” I lied to calm her down.

She blinked at me as her pulse quickened. Her eyes darted around, and then she tried to push past me and out the door, but I blocked her way.

“Please let me go,” she cried. “Please don’t hurt me again.”

I placed my hands on her shoulders and held her in place. “I won’t hurt you. I promise I didn’t do this to you. But I have a few questions so I can find out who did.”

Her eyes were wild as she looked around again, and then she swallowed, her gaze returning to me. Her whole body trembled under my grasp.

“Do you know who brought you here?” I asked. She shook her head. “What’s the last thing you remember?”

Her brows came together, as if she struggled to recall. “I went hiking, and my foot slipped . . . I remember waking up in my motel, then going to Black Canyon. I started down the trailhead . . .” She paused. “But nothing after that.”

“Were you alone?”

She frowned. “Yeah. My boyfriend doesn’t like the outdoors. It’s my sanctuary, though.”

Not much of a sanctuary today. “Did you see anyone on the trail?”

She gave it more thought, then shook her head again. “No. Nobody.”

“Isn’t that odd? It’s a busy time of season.”

“Yeah. It is, isn’t it? So tell me what happened.” Her voice went from dazed and confused to angry and accusatory.

I held up my hands. “I didn’t do anything. Remember? I found you. I saved you.”

“From who? Or what?”

“That’s what I’d like to find out.” I leaned in closer and stared into her eyes, searching out the connection to compel her. When I felt it click in my mind, I asked her again, “What happened to you? Who did this?”

She stared at me with a vacant look. I probed harder through our connection. “I don’t know. I went hiking and my foot slipped . . . I remember waking up in my motel . . .”

Fuck. She’d already been compelled. A magical blockade in her mind prevented her from remembering anything else. I just couldn’t tell if it was done by another vampire or something else, such as a fae or a witch.

Footsteps sounded on concrete behind me, and I jumped and spun. Tase sauntered toward us.

“Did you find who did this?” I gestured toward the girl.

“Nah. No trace,” he said. “No footprints. No scent to follow. Did she say what happened?”

I shook my head. “She’s been compelled or glamoured.”

Tase stopped in front of me and pushed a hand through his hair, his gaze bouncing around the darkened parking lot and warehouse. When he finally spoke, his voice came out low. “Does she know what I did?”

“No. She remembers nothing.”

“Then let’s make sure of that and get out of here.”

I lifted a brow. “We’re not going to leave her here. She has no idea where she is.”

He blew out a harsh breath. “Damn it. Fine. What do we do with her then?”

The girl snorted. “Uh . . . hello? I’m right here, and I’m not some piece of trash you found on the side of the road.”

Tase growled.

I dipped my head. “Is there somewhere we can take you?”

She started to get out. “I think I’ll walk, thanks.”

“Sounds good,” Tase said, heading for the driver’s side.

I grabbed his upper arm, stopping him. “You really think it’s a good idea to just let her walk off?” I asked with sarcasm.

He rolled his eyes. “Fine.”

“We’re not leaving you here,” I told the girl, pushing the front seat back, blocking her in. I slid into it as Tase went around to the driver’s side.

We found her motel and parked in front of her door, then Tase slid out and waited impatiently as she climbed out from behind his seat. He leaned down until they were eye to eye, and he compelled her, changing her memory of everything that had happened.

“You were sick today, so you stayed in all day. You’ll go hiking tomorrow. You just really want a shower and sleep, then everything will be okay in the morning,” he told her. “And throw away those clothes. You never liked them anyway.”

Hunching her shoulders and crossing her arms over her stomach, she went into her room, convinced that she didn’t feel well.

We drove for miles in silence.

“This had to have been a set-up,” I finally said, once we were well out of town and headed home. “Someone wants you to go strigoi.”

“No shit,” Tase agreed.

“Who?”

He shrugged. “I have enemies.”

I turned to glare at him. “Are you kidding me right now?”

“Not at all. I’ve made a few enemies in my business dealings.”

“That’s not what I’m talking about.” I gestured at him. “I mean this attitude. Like you don’t give a fuck. This is serious shit, brother.”

“Don’t worry about it. I’ll take care of it.”

“How I would love to stop,” I muttered. “It’d make my life so much easier.”

“It’s easy. Stop caring.”

If only. “Unfortunately, you’re my brother. Family. It’s not so easy. Maybe for you, but not for me.”

He didn’t respond for a while. “Yeah, it’s not easy, is it?”

We rode in silence again for a good thirty minutes.

“It has to be someone familiar with the curse,” I said. “Who knows besides the Court and the family?”

“The Petrans.”

“Michaela wouldn’t do this.”

“You sure about that, bro? She’s pretty pissed.”

“She has a right to be. You fucked everyone up. Killed her parents. Killed our parents. She’s just as mad at you for that as she is for her own family.”

He let out a sigh. “You’re right. She has every right to be pissed,” he said quietly. “I didn’t know what would happen, though. Otherwise, I would have never turned . . .”

“And she knows that. Which is why she wouldn’t be setting you up. She’s pissed, but she’s not out for murder. So who else? What about the witch who paid you to turn her? The one who so conveniently disappeared shortly after the Court found out about your arrangement?”

“Magda?” Tase’s jaw popped. “She’s not a problem. Trust me.”

“She’d want you dead, especially if she wanted to come back to Havenwood Falls. Your word against hers, and with you gone . . .”

“I said she’s not a problem.”

Something in his tone pricked my ears. “Tase, man, don’t tell me. You didn’t kill her, did you?”

“No.” He answered too quickly, though, and I could smell a lie on him.

“Fuck, bro.”

“I didn’t kill her,” he insisted. “But she won’t be a problem anymore. Just leave it at that.”

“Well, if not her, then who?”

“I’m not worried about it. It won’t happen again. I’ll change some things up. I’d never met that contact before. I never will. I’ll drop the whole line of connection, just in case.”

Lies, lies, lies.

“I have an idea. Why don’t you just drop the whole damn business? Get our family businesses back on the legal side of the line?”

Tase laughed. “Don’t be stupid. You know as well as I do that most of Dad’s businesses strayed far from that line. I’m just carrying on his legacy.”

I scowled. For a long time, before Michaela left, I’d wanted to believe the Roca reputation was undeserved. Dad had always sworn it was when we were younger. He’d claimed the Old Families, and especially the Petrans, had been out to get us from the beginning. They’d let go of Mom, Dad, and our aunt and uncle as their servants, but according to Dad, they wanted to make sure we could never become equals, so they made up whatever lies they could to keep us down. That was also how he justified both families’ behavior toward my and Michaela’s relationship.

While she was gone, though, I’d become more involved in our family dealings and learned that our family really was as bad as everyone said. I just couldn’t bring myself to care, though. Not after they sent her away. Now, I had a reason to care again. Sadly, the rest of the family didn’t. Not even Tase, whose very life was at stake.

As we pulled into town, my phone went off with several missed text messages. All from Michaela.

Are you busy? I wouldn’t mind some company.

Hey, did you get my last text? Do you want to come over?

I guess that’s a no?

You could at least answer

Well, you’re either busy or sleeping. I’ll see you whenever I see you

“Son of a bitch,” I muttered under my breath.

“Something wrong?” Tase asked as we turned onto our cul-de-sac.

I blew out a breath. “Nah. Just do what you said you’d do. Don’t let this happen again.”

I couldn’t be mad at him or myself for going. If I hadn’t, that girl would probably be dead and Tase would be one step closer to becoming strigoi . . . which meant one step closer to being put down by the Court.

As we walked up the drive toward the house, Tase snatched my phone out of my hand.

“Fuck, dude,” he said after reading the texts. “Cock-blocked again. Sorry, man.”

“The night was doomed from the start.” I told him about the skinwalker and Gabe’s fall through the wall.

Tase’s eyes sparked when I told him about the worthless bracelet Gabe had discovered in the wall. I couldn’t tell if he was amused . . . or something else. I would have almost said nostalgic, if I thought Tase had a nostalgic bone in his body.

“I’ll make up for it,” he said, handing my phone back to me, all humor gone. “Consider it taken care of.”

Once inside, I followed him up the stairs to our rooms and watched as he paused to look in on our younger siblings. Before Mom and Dad died, Alina, Aurora, and I were the only ones Tase could tolerate—Aurora because she was the baby and he’d had a soft spot for her since before she was born, Alina because she was a girl, and me because we’d basically been best friends growing up. But something had changed since our parents’ deaths. Since the curse. I was no empath, but my vampire senses picked up something new from my older brother. He hid so much of his life, but I realized for the first time what he’d been hiding the most—his feelings. Regret. Shame. Depression. I could practically smell them in his blood.

Who knew Atanase Roca, asshole extraordinaire, actually might have had a heart?

 

Chapter 3

Michaela

Three weeks after what became known as the Day of the Goo, I awoke to the sound of saws and nail guns blasting outside my window. Stomping out, I found a McCabe & Sons Construction crew working on the inn.

“What the hell is going on?” I yelled at one of the guys.

“Ask the boss man,” he yelled back, motioning toward Mike McCabe himself.

I strode across the green lawn to the inn’s parking lot. Mike leaned over his work truck, his hands splayed out on the hood, a large document spread out in front of him.

“What is this, Mike?” I demanded before I was even halfway across the lawn, knowing he could hear me with his shifter senses.

He glanced over at me, then immediately dropped his gaze. I didn’t care that I was dressed only in a tank and short sleep shorts. I’d worn less to work in Atlanta, and it had finally warmed up enough to at least be under the covers in them. But he was of a different generation, the gray sprinkled in his brown hair and the crinkles by his eyes evidence—although some of his weather-beaten look was a direct result of working outside for so many years.

“What is what?” he asked, his voice low as he continued studying what I realized were plans for the inn. The same plans Everett Weston had asked Graysin to deliver to me months ago. Plans that I’d had to put to the side until I found a way to pay for them all.

“First of all, what are you doing here?” I asked, softening my voice. “You shouldn’t be working. I’m really sorry about—”

“Work provides a distraction,” he growled, and I could tell by his tone he didn’t want to discuss his recent loss. My heart hurt for him. He’d been through so much lately with Braden, Reeve, and Aster, and although I didn’t have kids of my own, I just couldn’t imagine how he and his wife were coping. “Besides, the world doesn’t stop turning, even when it feels like it ought to. We have jobs to do. I’m just checking in on this one, getting it going before I go back to the library site.”

“But this isn’t a job,” I argued. “I haven’t hired you for anything more than the roof, and you finished that a while ago.”

Actually, I’d only hired him to repair the roof, but he’d gone and replaced the entire thing, saying it needed to be done. Of course, he’d been right. It’d needed a whole new roof pretty badly. I just hadn’t had the money for it. He only charged me for the few patches I’d originally contracted for, though, saying the rest was covered.

“Well, let’s see.” He pulled out a stack of rolled up papers from his back jeans pocket. “I have a bid here. All of it based on Everett’s plans. You remember that?”

I glanced at the paperwork. “Yeah. And I remember telling you that I couldn’t do all of that right now. Only the absolute necessities.”

“Well, see, right here I have a copy of full payment. It’s all taken care of. Including the newly added tasks of a permanent repair to the hole in the turret and redoing all the glass in the conservatory.”

I practically tore that piece of paper out of his hands. My jaw dropped at first. The bid had been to repair, replace, and/or restore any of the inn’s exterior that needed it, from siding to the gingerbread trim to windows, as well as to prep and paint the entire outside. Nearly ten thousand dollars’ worth of work. Except for the fairly recent issues with the turret, most of the work was cosmetic in nature and I couldn’t yet afford to address it. But here was a copy of a cashier’s check for the entire amount and then some.

“There’s a deposit on there for interior work,” Mike clarified. “Hear you have some issues inside your walls. We should inspect every wall. Spiders could be the least of your worries. And we can replace plumbing and electrical while we’re in there, and bring it all up to code. According to what I’m told, it’s all taken care of.”

“How . . . ? Who . . . ?” My eyes narrowed. My nostrils flared. “Oh no, he didn’t!”

“Yeah, he did,” came an unmistakable voice from behind me.

I spun to find Xandru approaching with a cup bearing Coffee Haven’s logo. Despite the indignation bursting at my seams, I couldn’t help my smile. We hadn’t seen each other for over a week, and even then, only a few minutes here and there since our last failed attempt at a date on the Day of the Goo.

He held the cup out to me. “Good morning.”

Mike gave him a strange look before going back to work. He’d probably been up for many hours, like normal people. I wasn’t normal. Of course, he wasn’t either, but I supposed mountain lion shifters weren’t nocturnal.

“Good morning,” I said giddily, taking the cup.

Xandru walked back to the cottage with me as I sipped the delicious coffee.

“You know how I feel about this,” I said.

“The coffee?”

“The money.”

“Mmm.”

“Mmm? That’s all you can say?”

He shrugged.

“I can’t take it. I wouldn’t take yours, and I can’t take any more of his. He’s already paid off the inn’s mortgages and everything else. He can’t keep doing this,” I ranted.

“You won’t change his mind,” he countered as we climbed the steps to the front door. “And stop trying. Tase has done a lot of bad shit, Kales. This is his way of making up for everything he’s done to you and your whole family, and it’s something to make him feel good about life. He needs that right now.”

“Hmph,” I grunted, opening the door.

“Do it for me?” He closed the door after we entered and leaned against it, lowering his chin and looking up at me through his thick, dark lashes. He surely knew by now what that look, those eyes, did to me.

I punched his arm lightly. “Stop it. That’s not fair.”

His gaze swept down my body, over my thin tank top and short shorts, lingering on my breasts and the tops of my thighs. His finger slid under the strap of my tank, the light touch sending goosebumps over my skin.

“And this is fair?” he asked, his voice husky. He tugged on the strap, pulling me up against him. He must have felt my hard nipples, because he gave me a cocky smirk. “I think you missed me.”

I pressed my hips in, feeling him arouse under the pressure. “I think you missed me, too.”

“Possibly.” He leaned down, his full lips brushing over mine.

Morning breath.

Coffee.

I stepped back and clamped my hand over my mouth. “I need to brush my teeth.”

He chuckled as I hurried for the bathroom. When I came back out, feeling more human—well, as human as a vampire can feel—I found him sound asleep on my couch. I sat beside him, about to wake him up, but stopped and studied his face. His sharp cheek bones and square jaw could have made him a pretty boy, especially with the stunning eyes now hidden behind closed lids, but he had a rugged look to him, rather than beautiful. Especially now. My thumb lightly caressed the purple circles under his eyes, then my fingers brushed over the dark beard that had grown beyond his usual summertime stubble over the last week. I hadn’t seen him look so relaxed since I’d been back, and still, even in sleep, his forehead creased with worry.

I didn’t know anything about the several one- and two-day trips out of town he’d been taking with Tase, only that it was absolutely necessary that his brother didn’t go alone. Xandru refused to tell me more than that. But whatever the reasons had been, they obviously had not been mini-vacations. This wasn’t the haggard face of too much partying. This was the gauntness of too much work, the wariness of constant and unending stress and worry. I wondered when he’d last slept and decided not to wake him.

He was still asleep after I showered—which said a lot. We’d tried to seize every opportunity that presented itself to be together, but they had been few and far between. Of course, for a while in the beginning, as my memories returned and everything about my parents—what they’d done, their deaths—had settled in, I’d been emotionally unavailable. Since then, we could hardly find more than a few moments at a time to be alone. It’d been four months now, and we still hadn’t made love.

We’d done pretty much everything else, but we’d promised each other that our first time back together wouldn’t be frantic, rushed, and meaningless. He wanted to do right by me, and I wanted it to be right, but that was in the beginning. We hadn’t realized we’d be bogged down with work and family issues, and that days would turn into weeks and weeks into months. And now I didn’t know if our expectations had been built up so high that we were afraid of disappointment . . . or if it just didn’t matter enough anymore.

Don’t think like that, Kaela, I reprimanded myself. But I couldn’t help it, especially when he hadn’t even stirred while I’d showered. We were like an old married couple, except we never got the engagement or the wedding or the honeymoon. And I was too young to be old, damn it.

I slipped outside and strode across the lawn to begin my day at the inn. When I took my place at the front desk, I noticed Mammie in front of the parlor picture window, watching all the hubbub of town square across the way.

“They’re doing it all wrong,” she said, a look of longing on her face as city workers and volunteers set up for the Fourth of July festivities tomorrow. “They should have done this weeks ago! Where are the lamppost decorations? The red, white, and blue twinkle lights? This town needs its twinkle lights. That Rose Howe has no idea what she’s doing. Why did they let her take over? You should have had the committee meeting here, Michaela, so I could have had input.”

“I’m sure it will be fine, Mammie,” I muttered while glancing over our expected guests for the night—all two of them. I hoped they didn’t mind the unanticipated construction zone.

“Oh, there’s Adelaide. She’ll straighten them out.” Still, Mammie wrung her hands as she floated back and forth in front of the window.

My aunt, aka Madame Luiza, aka Mammie, had passed four months ago, right after I’d first come back to Havenwood Falls on a weirdly arranged job offer at the inn. She’d returned in this new form, her silver hair in a bun and wearing the purple ball gown I’d dressed her in before she died—but a little less solid than she’d been before. Her death had been the last in a string of deaths in our family, including my parents, leaving Gabe, Aurelia, and myself on our own. Mammie couldn’t bear to leave us quite yet, for which I was grateful. Surprised as hell the first time we saw her, but incredibly grateful. I wasn’t quite prepared for what it would mean to finish raising two teens while simultaneously trying to save the family business that was over a century and a half old and on the verge of bankruptcy.

Although I knew her worry for us was the real reason Mammie visited our realm, she claimed she came to help the business. She was a marketing ploy.

“Looks like our efforts last night worked,” I said to her as I read the comment card left by today’s departing guest.

“Only because of you,” she said, distracted. “He was a tough nut, wasn’t he?”

“Oh, he’s experienced. He wrote, ‘I’ve been to several hotels and inns in Colorado that claim to be haunted, but this is the real deal. Watch for the woman in the purple gown. She particularly likes windows. Besides an incident involving my backside, she seems harmless enough, but there is something more sinister that lurks in the shadows. I felt like it might want to eat me.’ Ha! We did it! But what does he mean about his backside?”

Mammie looked over at me with a coy smile. “I’m dead. It’s time I start living.”

I sucked in a breath. “What did you do?”

She patted her hair. “Oh, well, I might have pinched his butt.”

“Mammie!” I squeaked as laughter bubbled up.

“The dead don’t need to be proper. I’ve decided I wasted my life being good, and look where that got me. Just as dead as the ones who had all the fun.” She shrugged. “Now it’s my turn. And it gives the guests more to talk about.”

Mammie served as the resident haunter of Whisper Falls Inn, scaring guests (or, apparently, sexually assaulting them) just enough to thrill them into leaving enthusiastic reviews. The memory wards surrounding the town meant tourists never remembered visiting Havenwood Falls once they left, so we had to capture their excitement to paper before their departures. For really tough customers, like this guy, I vamped out in dark corners or reflective surfaces, leaving them to question what they saw, but with a spike of fear flowing in their blood. Nobody could accuse us of false advertising. In fact, we were more authentic than most.

“What is Adelaide doing? She’s walking right past them all and not saying a word.” Mammie let out a sigh, before turning and giving up her post at the window. The guy was right about her liking windows, particularly one on the top floor in the far back of the inn. She stared out it, but at what, I wasn’t quite sure, because it looked upon the back of the row of businesses on Main Street and the alley that ran behind it. “The mail came, dear. Maybe while you’re out there—”

“I’m not going to tell those people how to do their jobs, Mammie.” I walked around the front desk and headed for the door.

“Somebody needs to!”

Snickering, I hurried out to collect the mail, then sighed as I ruffled through the envelopes on my way back inside. Bills, bills, and more bills.

Tase had paid off the mortgage, and Mammie’s hauntings had helped to keep the inn afloat, but we were still in deep. The inn had fallen into some disrepair over the last several years, thus the need for all of the work. Our current services were only the basics—besides our outdated guest rooms, we offered muffins, scones, and coffee provided by Coffee Haven each morning and that was pretty much it. Our kitchen needed to be completely redone, and the dining room needed updates. I could have tended the bar, but without diners in the restaurant or overnight guests, we had no reason—nor funds—to keep it stocked.

Mom and Mammie had been unable to keep up with everything after Dad’s death, and Mammie had an especially hard time after Mom passed. But the inn’s misfortune had started even before Dad died, when Tase bought the ski resort. He’d been engaging in shenanigans with a witch to draw out-of-town visitors to the resort’s new cabins and simultaneously drive our business into the ground. He’d almost succeeded.

He claimed to have seen the evil in his ways and changed. Possibly because he had a death sentence hanging over his head. Maybe because he actually felt real guilt for everything he’d done to our family. I wasn’t sure it was possible for Tase Roca to feel anything at all, but it explained why every single bill in today’s pile—and every day’s pile—was marked “Paid in Full.” Along with McCabe’s and Weston Design’s invoices.

“Looks like that boy’s not going to give up.” Mammie looked over my shoulder, near enough that her cold breath sent a chill down my spine.

“He’s pretty damn persistent.”

“Good. Let him be. We need to bring in more guests, Michaela. There’s nothing more to it. That boy owes us. He and his father. Let him pay their debts.”

I didn’t reply as I left the front desk area for the back office to drop the invoices on my desk. She wasn’t wrong about needing more guests, but more guests meant we needed all of our rooms not just habitable, but comfortable and nice, and our dining room and bar functional. Which meant I needed the work to be done if I ever wanted to earn enough money to pay for the work that needed to be done. Without Tase’s help, we were between a rock and a hard place.

I really hated letting Tase Roca get his way, though. Everything wrong in my life was about him getting his own way, including everything wrong between Xandru and me.

“Isn’t it coffee time with Adelaide?” Mammie asked, as I came back to the front desk. “It looked like she headed to Coffee Haven.”

I glanced at the clock. Addie had been my best friend since preschool, and we had a standing coffee date—whenever we could both get away, anyway. “Yeah, I guess it is.”

“Talk to her, will you, dear? She’ll tell those men how to do their jobs.”

“Yeah, sure. If Xandru comes in, tell him where I am.”

The sun was actually, finally warm as I crossed the front lawn of the inn that sat on a diagonal facing the corner and Town Square Park across the intersection. Once I crossed Eleventh Street, though, the Main Street buildings threw shade onto the sidewalk, and it was still a little chilly for my thin blood. It’d probably be a year or two before I adjusted from Hotlanta to the mountain climate. At least once I passed Callie’s Consignments and crossed the alley, I was back in the sun, where I found Addie sitting at an outside table at Coffee Haven.

She wore a black tank top, displaying the tattoos that covered her arms, cutoff jean shorts, and purple Chuck Taylors. A bandana covered her head, her brown hair snaking out of the bottom in two braids. Round sunglasses had replaced her regular eyeglasses. She hunched over the small book she carried with her everywhere, two cups on the metal table in front of her.

“I didn’t know you BuJo’d,” I said as I took a seat and a cup.

She looked up at me. “I what?”

“Bullet journaled?” I motioned at her book, the pages filled with writing and drawings in a colorful array. “Or is that a Happy Planner? I’m not quite sure about the difference.”

“What the hell is a bullet journal or Happy Planner?” she demanded.

“Um . . . that. Sindi had them, too.”

“Sindi? You mean the other Addie?”

I laughed. Sindi was my old roommate in Atlanta, and while I’d been there, she’d been my best friend. It was kind of funny how similar she and Addie were, although it made sense. I supposed they were my “type” for besties.

“Don’t worry, nobody could ever replace my Bratty Addie,” I cooed as I reached over to tweak her nose. She slapped my hand away. I gestured at her notebook again. “Anyway, Sindi would never admit it, but she was a planner freak, and she loved her BuJo. She planned out her days, used them as a journal, and tracked all her crap, from when to change the water filter to the last time she had sex and with who. She had all these stickers and tapes and a gazillion markers and pencils for her color-coding system. I even caught her using Pinterest to pin all these elaborate, artsy layouts.” I laughed at the memory of her flushed face when I teased her about it. “I’ll admit, I’ve been tempted to start one myself to keep track of everything going on. At least give myself the illusion that I have my shit together.”

One side of Addie’s lip curled up, as if she were appalled by the whole idea. Then she leaned forward and hissed, “This is my Book of Shadows.”

I stared at her.

“My grimoire.” She huffed out a breath at my ignorance and leaned even closer, whispering, “My spell book, you idiot.”

“Ohhh,” I drawled out. Then I whispered back, “Your magic BuJo.”

She threw a piece of scone at me. I caught it and popped it in my mouth. Aster McCabe may not have been around here anymore, but her scone recipe remained. And her scones were not something to be wasted. In fact, doing so felt like an affront to her memory.

“Still no news on your skinwalker, which is really pissing the Court off,” Addie said. “Some of them are worried we won’t be able to detect it if it’s wearing someone’s skin who’s already registered and known by the wards.”

“Is that possible?”

“You gave us,” she wrinkled her nose, the stone piercing twinkling in the light, “tissue samples. That should be enough for the coven to track it if it were in town.”

“So, you think it left?”

“I don’t know. These things are skeevy as hell. But we can hope, right?” She took a sip from her cup, eyeing me over the rim. “So, speaking of the Court . . .”

I made a face and blew out a sigh. As the Court’s business manager, Addie had apparently been given the job of persuading me to claim the moroi seat, because it came up nearly every time we saw each other. “After what they did to the McCabes, I don’t know that I want to be a part of that.”

“Maybe you could have changed the outcome.”

I lifted an eyebrow.

“Okay, probably not,” she admitted. “We do have laws in this town. If you don’t want your seat, though, you’ll have to give it up to a Roca. And you know what that means.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know.”

Saundra, Addie’s grandmother and one of the leaders of the Luna Coven as well as the Beaumonts’ member of the Court, had already explained it to me.

The Petrans—my father, specifically—had always held the Court seat for the moroi vampires, since the very beginning, because at the time, the Rocas had been my family’s servants. When my father passed a couple of years ago, there had been a huge uproar by the Rocas, who hadn’t been servants for over a century, because the seat was offered to my mother instead of Mr. Roca. That’s how all seats were passed along, from family member to family member. But Mr. Roca was, among other things, a misogynistic and self-righteous ass, and thought he deserved the seat rather than my mother.

Then again, I couldn’t entirely blame him. After all, the Rocas had never had any true say in things in our little town. My father had always spoken for all of the moroi, and I doubted he consulted the Rocas before making any decisions with the Court. When Mom passed, Mammie took the seat. Now it was meant to be mine.

If I didn’t want to claim my place on the Court, I could offer it to another moroi vampire. And since my siblings were minors, that meant one of the Rocas. I’d honestly considered offering it to Xandru. Since I’d been gone for over five years, he had a much better understanding than I did of the town’s secrets and things that went on beneath the surface. But Xandru wasn’t the eldest of his family.

Tase could rightfully dispute the offer, and since he was unpredictable these days, we couldn’t take the chance. The only way to guarantee he didn’t get the seat and Xandru did was to prove to the Court that Tase was incapable of fulfilling the duties of the position. And while that might have been true, we didn’t want to go that far yet with Tase, especially with the Court. That would have meant giving up hope on him, and not even I was at that point. Even if I were, I couldn’t do that to Xandru.

Or to Addie, who’d never give up on him, even if her love was unrequited.

I gnawed on my bottom lip as Addie drummed her fingers on the table’s edge while studying me.

“You’re not ready for the commitment, are you?” she asked.

“What?”

“To the town,” she clarified, then she cocked her head. “To Xandru?”

I shook my head. “What are you talking about?”

She leaned forward, resting her arms on the table. “Kales, I love you. You’re like a sister to me, and I missed you so much while you were gone. We all did. But I get it. You didn’t even remember us, so you couldn’t possibly have missed us.”

“But now that I’m here and I remember—”

“It’s not the same, is it?”

I sucked in my lip and chewed even harder on it, as feelings I didn’t realize I’d been harboring stirred within.

“You’re not the same,” she said pointedly.

“What do you mean?”

She smiled, and although I couldn’t see her eyes, I could sense the sadness in them. “You’ve had a big taste of life outside this sleepy little town. Big city life. You’re different.”

I leaned forward, too. “You really think so?”

“I don’t think so. I know so. You’re . . . darker. Less confident than you used to be. More hesitant. The old you would have been the one to BoJu or whatever you called it, because you always had so much going on, and you loved organizing and color-coding. The old you was the bubbly and social one, while I was the weird, awkward, and ugly best friend. The old you always dove headfirst into whatever crazy idea we came up with. We were practically fearless together.” She dropped her voice to a soft whisper. “And the old you wouldn’t have gone this long without jumping into bed with the man she loves.”

I frowned. “That’s not all me. To be honest, I don’t think Xandru likes me anymore. Not in the same way.”

Addie spluttered on her coffee. “Oh, trust me. I don’t think that’s an issue.”

“I don’t know . . . I mean, sometimes I wonder how he can even look at me.” I dropped my voice to a whisper as guilt flooded through me. “I killed his parents.”

“He doesn’t blame you for that,” she said softly.

“Not out loud.”

“Kales, I’m sure that’s not an issue, either. Not for Xandru.”

I exhaled slowly. “Well, there definitely is an issue. It’s just . . .” I couldn’t finish my thought, not sure what words to give it.

“This life is not what the two of you had always planned and daydreamed about before,” she finished for me. “It’s not the vision you’d created in your sweet and innocent minds.”

I slumped back in my chair. “No, it’s not,” I admitted. “Maybe it is me. Maybe it’s everything I’ve been through.”

“It’s getting to you both. He’s been through a lot, too. He lost his world when you left.”

“I know. We both did. I left this town as a young girl who didn’t know half of what was going on behind all the pretty lights and small-town charm. I came back after having my life ripped away from me. Twice.” Once when my parents sent me away with my memories wiped, and once when my gene was triggered, turning me. “And even now . . .”

I swallowed against the lump in my throat. Addie was my best friend, and I should have been able to say anything to her. But what I was thinking felt almost like a betrayal. One I couldn’t bring myself to say aloud.

But she could. “Even now you feel like this life has been forced on you.”

“How did you know?”

She shrugged. “I would have felt the same way. After everything you’ve been through, it’s not surprising. You came back to a life you didn’t remember, only to have two kids and a failing business dumped in your lap. And while you and Xandru always seemed to be meant for each other, that was before.”

“Before I changed.”

“Before both of you did. Before shit happened. Before you both let fear get in your way.”

“I’m not afraid of anything,” I protested automatically. She lifted a brow.

I twisted my hair around my finger. The backs of my eyeballs pricked, but I refused to tear up. Her hand landed on my forearm, and she gave it a squeeze.

“Nobody would blame you if you took off, you know. I’d hate you, but I wouldn’t blame you.”

“I can’t.”

“You can. If that’s what you really wanted.”

“I couldn’t do that to Aurelia and Gabe. They need me . . . The inn does, too.”

“The town would rally around them and make sure they were taken care of. Or you could take them with you. Let them see the world before their genes are triggered. Are you going to trigger them?”

I blew out a breath. “I haven’t even thought that far ahead. It’s not like anybody’s at risk if I don’t.”

Normally, if the moroi gene wasn’t triggered by age twenty-one, the whole bloodline before them would begin to age and die like a human. But there was nobody left before us, no previous generations at risk. And if my siblings’ genes weren’t triggered, they’d continue life as humans, having children with dormant genes that didn’t have to be triggered. That was the life my parents had tried to make for me, before Tase turned me.

“You could take them far from here and let them lead the normal life you were supposed to have,” Addie said. “Get away from all the craziness of this town.”

“Are you trying to get rid of me?”

“I’m trying to point out that you have options, Kales. You don’t have to feel like this is all forced onto you. You can choose this life. I mean, it’s kind of like what you’d always wanted, just a little twisted up. Or you can choose something else. And it’s about damn time my girl was allowed to choose for herself. Wouldn’t you say?”

I looked up and behind her, at the mountain rising high into the sky, a tiny bit of snow left on the tallest peaks. We were surrounded by magnificent beauty in this little box canyon of ours. But there was a whole world out there beyond.

I’d been happy out there before. Sort of.

I’d been happy here. Once upon a time.

“What about Xandru?” I whispered.

Addie gave my arm another squeeze. “I think you have some hard decisions to make. Just remember—you do get to make those decisions. Make them yours and nobody else’s.”

I considered that for a moment. How glorious it sounded to be able to make my own decisions about my life. I’d tried it before, though. I’d had a life I’d created on my own, once. But she was right about my fears. “What difference does it make if my life just gets ripped out from under me again?”

“Oh, Kales,” Addie said with a sigh. “I’ll do my damnedest to make sure nothing like what you’ve been through happens again, but I can’t guarantee anything. All I can say is that you can’t let that fear hold you back, or you’ll never be able to move forward. Take the power you do have and use it.”

Tilting my head, I studied her, letting her meaning sink in. “When did you get so wise?”

She smiled. “My destiny is to be a wise old witch, so I may as well start working on it now.”

“Good thing you have a lot of years before you get to the old requirement, so you can practice the wise part,” I teased.

“Aw, come on. I thought I did good for my first time.”

I laughed. “If imparting your wisdom means leaving your subject more confused than ever, you’ll make a fine wise old witch, Bratty Addie.”

She considered this for a moment and nodded. “I’ll take that. So, you don’t know what you’re going to do?”

I stood and grabbed my nearly untouched cup of coffee. “I’m going to think. That’s what I’m going to do. Because you’re right. It’s time for me to woman up and be the boss of my own life.”

Available Friday, January 26, 2018

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