Prologue

The California Desert, Sometime in the 1960s…

“You know, my friend told me you were a witch, but I didn’t know he meant it literally.”

Parker clutched the bars of his cage and stared at the hippie chick he’d shagged a few nights before. Damn, she’d been a sweet piece too, tasty on the inside and the outside. A rare combination and one he’d planned on sampling again before moving on. She had the biggest green eyes he’d ever seen and a mouth that could suck-start a motorcycle.

Too bad she’d taken exception to his dalliance with the daisy-crowned flower child. He’d been caught with his fangs down, and now the witch was going to exact some freaky revenge. From the way her huge cauldron bubbled, he wouldn’t be surprised if she tried to boil him alive.

“I worked pretty hard to get you into my bed.”

Parker blinked, unsure if he should be flattered or terrified.

Never mind. He knew—terrified. She stirred the mess in the cauldron, and it was all he could do not to scream like a girl. Okay, make that more terrified. He might be a vampire, hunter of the night and all-around badass, but a woman scorned was fucking scary.

“You did?”

“Mm-hmm.” She tossed something into the bubbling goo. The stench was foul beyond comprehension. What the hell had she put in there? And was it going to touch any part of him? There wasn’t enough tomato juice in the world to get that scent washed off.

“I’m flattered.” He remembered first catching sight of her dancing around a bonfire during one of the numerous parties his friends had thrown. She’d looked utterly edible. “I remember you dancing.”

She smiled like he’d handed her a gilded rose. “Yes!” She drifted by, her voice dreamy, her expression serene. “I called you to me. You couldn’t resist my allure.”

Someone needs to stop taking the brown acid. “Look, it was nice and all, but—”

“Nice!”

Parker’s ears were ringing. Damn, she could shriek.

“I let you into my temple, and you desecrated it!”

Oh now, hold on a moment. “You begged me to desecrate it!”

She pointed her white-handled knife at him. “You cheated on me.”

“You have to be in a relationship to cheat. All we did was party together. Horizontally.”

She sniffled, tears forming in her eyes. “I thought I meant something to you.”

Aw shit. Humor the crazy lady. “You did.” He rattled the bars, unsure why he couldn’t turn to mist and drift through them. The one time he tried he’d almost passed out from the pain. “You could.”

The eager grin she was suddenly sporting scared the bejesus out of him. “Yes. And to make sure it never happens again, I’ve come up with a plan.”

Uh-oh. “Excuse me?”

“Don’t worry, my love. You’ll never need to feed off anyone else again.”

“You know?” When he’d thought about being caught with his fangs down, he hadn’t meant it literally.

He’d done everything he was supposed to. The feeding should have been a vague memory of a sharp nip; the only physical reminder, a tiny hickey.

Greg could have warned him. If her lack of memory loss was due to her being a real witch, then he never would have fed from her in the first place, but Greg, a witch himself, had never once mentioned that they were immune.

Oh wait. Greg had warned him to “stay away from the crazy.” Too bad he’d listened to his prick instead.

“That you’re a Nosferatu?” She turned back to the cauldron. The smell coming from it was truly vile.

He winced. “I prefer vampire, myself.” Nosferatu made him think of that spindly, ugly-ass guy in the black-and-white film. He might not be Tony Curtis, but he sure as hell wasn’t that guy either.

There was that smile that had led him to her bed, the one that promised all sorts of forbidden delights. “Of course. I’ll remember that.”

“Thanks.” He gave his attention once more to the iron bars of his cage. He twisted and pulled, bending them, but not nearly enough.

Damn it. He’d been working on freeing himself for an hour or more. Normally breaking out of a simple iron cage wouldn’t be a problem, but she’d done something to it, something…magical? Whatever it was, the bars were extremely difficult to break. “So what do you have planned?”

“Nothing much. I’m going to change your diet.”

He froze. What she was suggesting was impossible. “What?”

She grinned over her shoulder, her whole body glowing eerily. It wasn’t a reflection of the firelight on her skin either. This was serious magic. “It’s simple, really. I’m going to make you unable to feed from anyone but me. Then you’ll never cheat on me again. Isn’t it a great idea?”

The idea was revolting. It was unnatural. It was against the vampire code of ethics or something. He couldn’t live off her; she wasn’t his singele sotiei, his blood wife. Only his sotiei could sustain him the way Terri was talking about.

She dipped a golden goblet into the green goo in the cauldron. “When I’m done, the only one you’ll ever need will be me.” She turned toward him, the goblet balanced between her hands. “It’s time, my love.”

“Oh fuck me.” Parker began kicking at the bars with all his might. The outcome of this could not be good.

“Here. Drink this, and we’ll be together forever.”

No way. Odds were good she was carrying liquid death in her hands. His death. Parker knocked the goblet away, but the liquid sloshed over the sides. Some landed on him, some on her. The dark green was almost pretty against her skin.

She looked at him and smiled. “I love you.”

Then the pain hit, and he couldn’t do anything but scream.

* * *

Haight-Ashbury, Sometime in the 1960s…

“Oh Goddess. Oh Goddess. Oh fuck.

Someone pounded on the restroom door. “Brother. What the hell are you doing in there?” A pair of ratty sneakers were visible under the tan door.

Parker clenched the sides of the toilet bowl and prayed for death. He didn’t even know he had these bodily functions anymore. Hell, he hadn’t taken a dump in two centuries!

This was all that bitch’s fault. “That is the last time I eat cactus.” He shuddered, cold sweat popping out on his forehead. It was bad enough he’d had to pick the fucking needles out of his gums, but this? This was the ultimate indignity.

The poor bastard waiting to use the toilet backed up, until Parker couldn’t see his shoes. “What did you say?” He probably thought Parker was high on something.

“Nothing,” he wheezed. When he found that bitch, he was going to kill her. Kill her dead. Deader than dead.

After he got her to remove the goddamn curse.

“Oh Goddess!”

“What?”

Parker groaned. “I think I shit out my spleen.”

* * *

Boston, Sometime in the 1980s…

Parker pushed the shopping cart around the store and did his best to ignore the strange looks people gave him—or rather, his grocery cart. He’d gotten used to them over the last decade or so, but at least he had a better handle on what the witch had done to him. The experiments to find what he could and could not eat had not been pleasant. Memories of the infamous Cactus Incident haunted his dreams during the day.

A vampire cursed to drink nothing but the blood of plants. What the hell had she been thinking?

His butt cheeks clenched at the horrible memory of that day in the restroom.

Everyone knew cacti produced water, which was why he’d attempted to drink from it. What most people didn’t know was the water they contained also produced diarrhea, nausea and vomiting in anyone who drank it, like vampires who were stuck on a restricted diet.

Thank the Goddess for Greg, who’d helped him figure out what the hell he was living with. If not for him, Parker probably would have starved to death or, worse, gone feral and been hunted by his kind. Once Greg heard what he’d been through (and had stopped laughing long enough), he’d concocted a plan to help Parker survive without Terri.

At least he’d managed to avoid her the last few years. The last time she’d caught up to him had been the worst. He’d woken up to find her snuggled up against him, her spooky green eyes boring into him, her scent both tantalizing and repulsive at the same time. His fangs had descended in preparation for feeding, startling him. She’d had him by the balls, her nails lightly scratching the wrinkled skin. “I’ve missed you,” she’d crooned.

He’d never moved so fast in his life. He couldn’t believe he’d been forced to streak through New York City at rush hour. He was lucky he hadn’t been arrested and thrown in a nice cell block with Bubba the Butt Buddy. The sunburn had taken days to heal.

He finished his shopping and headed for the checkout. He placed ten bottles of all-natural maple syrup, a potted spider plant, a bouquet of carnations and a box of caramels on the counter.

The cashier looked at his purchase and frowned.

Parker shrugged. “What? I like caramels.”

She rang him up silently, much to his relief.

The light was on when he got back to the apartment, which meant Greg was probably there. Parker opened the door and picked up the grocery bags, his stomach grumbling. “Honey, I’m home!”

Greg West, his roommate and resident pain in the ass, sauntered out of the kitchen. A Kiss the Cook apron barely fit his athletic body. You’d never know he was both an accountant and a witch. He looked like a fullback for the Giants. “Knock it off with that honey shit, or I won’t feed you dinner.”

Parker held up the bags and grinned. He shook the right one gently, hoping to bribe Greg into a better mood. “I bought you caramels.”

Greg rolled his eyes and headed back into the kitchen. “Did you get the plant?”

“Yup.”

“And the syrup?”

“Uh-huh.” Parker followed Greg, more than ready for his dinner.

“Over there, then.”

Parker deposited the bags on the table. “What’s for dinner?”

Greg sighed. “The usual.”

“Yum.” Parker blinked. Was he beginning to like his curse? He supposed it was possible. One of the things he’d come to appreciate about his changed diet was the variety. O-negative might be different from O-positive, but in the long run, it all tasted like blood. Now he got to try all sorts of flavor and texture combinations he’d have been forced to vomit back up in the old days.

Greg snipped a piece of the spider plant and put it in the blender. Maple syrup was then added, along with some of the leaves off the bouquet of carnations. “Felt like a change?”

“Something like that.” Parker put the carnations in some water. It would help them live a few more days. Besides, he loved the scent of the flowers but couldn’t eat the blossoms, only the leaves. Stupid curse. When Terri had cursed him to drink nothing but green, leafy blood, she’d been serious. Greg had helped him figure out it took a delicate balance of human blood, tree sap and leaves. Too little blood, and Parker would begin to lose weight. Too much, and his body would try to reject the extra protein.

Greg shrugged and grabbed a knife, then pricked his finger and added some drops of blood to Parker’s dinner. He put the lid on and hit Liquefy.

No matter how many times the man had said I told you so, Parker owed him.

Parker’s mouth watered. “Have I mentioned how much I hate that bitch?”

“Every night at dinner.” Greg turned off the blender and poured the sticky golden-brown mess into a glass. He added a corkscrew straw and handed him the concoction. “Bon app?tit.”

“Thanks, man. I really appreciate it.”

“Don’t mention it.” Greg went back to the steak he’d been saut?ing. “How are the studies going?”

Parker took a long swallow. “Not bad, might go for my doctorate.”

Greg choked out a laugh. “You? A PhD?”

“Why not?”

“Sorry. I’m trying to picture you as Dr. Parker Hollis, professor of botany.”

“Yeah. Not exactly the way I’d envisioned my life after life.”

“I never expected I’d wind up living with a vegetarian geek vampire.”

Parker blew Greg a raspberry.

Greg leered back. “So. How much pussy does a botanist get anyway?”

Parker smirked. “Let’s see. There’s the regular pussy willow, the weeping pussy willow—”

“Man. Shut up. Idiot.” But Greg was laughing, which was a good thing, considering the bomb Parker was going to hit him with.

“I’m thinking about pursuing a minor too.”

Greg stirred the steak, adding soy sauce to the stir-fry. “In what?”

He coughed into his fist. “Witchcraft.”

“Parker,” Greg groaned.

“What?”

“First off, no respectable university offers witchcraft as a minor.”

Parker sniffed. “I never said it was respectable.” In fact, the dean of admissions had promised to do things to him that a porn star would consider disreputable.

“Second, what did I tell you about the crazy? Any place that hands out a degree in witchcraft is either a scam or up to the brim of their pointy hats in crazy.”

“But her—I mean their—work/study plan was excellent.”

Greg smacked him upside the head. “Tell Little Parker to shut the hell up for five minutes. He’s the one who got you into this situation, remember?”

“Little? I am insulted, sirrah.” Parker whipped out the straw and brandished it, waving it around like a deranged musketeer. “En garde!”

Greg lifted his spoon and assumed the position. “You are so on.”

The two dueled until, in a frenzy of soy-sauce and maple-syrup splatters, Parker lay on the floor, defeated. He lifted the broken straw and glared at it. “You failed me. Damn you, corkscrew straw.”

Laughing, Greg helped him to his feet. “Dude, I know you want to find a way to end the curse, but seriously? I don’t think that’s the way to go about it.”

“And you would know?” Parker drank the last of his dinner and placed the glass in the sink.

One raised eyebrow was all it took to remind Parker that, yes, his friend would know. “I warned you off her.”

“Yes, mama.”

“But no, you had to have a piece o’ that.”

“Fuck off, Greg.” He stared at the blender.

“So now you’re stuck with the freakiest curse on the planet and a degree in botany that you never wanted.”

He inched closer to the counter where the blender rested.

“You’re not taking it apart to lick the blades. That’s just wrong. I use that to make smoothies, and I don’t need that picture in my head while I do it.”

“Aw, man.”

“I mean, who curses a vampire to drink green, leafy blood anyway?” Greg grabbed a clean spoon and tried to salvage his dinner. From the burned smell he wasn’t going to have much luck with that.

“Terri, that’s who.”

Greg poked him in the chest, smearing soy sauce on his shirt. “She turned you into Bunnicula.”

Parker growled. So did his stomach. “Look on the bright side. At least I’m not sprouting things like she is.”

“Next time I tell you to stay away from the crazy, what are you gonna do?”

“Run past Go, do not stop, do not collect two hundred dollars?”

“Damn straight.” Greg blinked. “How did you get soy sauce on your shirt?”

Parker rolled his eyes, snagged the blender and headed for his room.

“That’s wrong, damn it!”

Parker slammed the door shut with a grin. He could hear Greg grumbling long after he’d licked the glass clean.

* * *

Maggie’s Grove, Maryland, Twenty-five Years Ago…

“Oh. Would you look at that?”

She stretched her arms out to the sun, young and eager to bud. Her sap began to flow under the caress of the spring sun.

It was a good day to be alive.

“Who are you?”

She opened her eyes to find a stranger sitting next to her tree. She tilted her head up at the person—the woman—wondering what she might want.

“Can you speak, dear?”

She watched the woman’s mouth move, learning the shape and the grain of the words. “Hello.”

The woman smiled. “You’re a young dryad, aren’t you?”

She was?

Yes, she was.

“Which one is your tree?”

Oh, that one she knew. She placed her hand on the trunk of her tree. The sap running through it was comforting. The roots dug deep into the earth.

“Ah, the Schwedler Norway maple, eh? Very pretty. It’s my favorite tree in the whole garden.”

She preened. The woman thought her tree was pretty.

“Do you have a name?”

Name?

“Mine is Glinda Gershowitz. I’m the one who planted your tree, though I didn’t know I’d get you too.”

She frowned. She didn’t understand.

“Oh, you’re that new, are you? May I help you pick your name?”

“What’s a name?”

“A name is that which other people call you. When people see me, they know I’m Glinda.” Glinda placed her hand on the maple. “When they see your tree, they think Schwedler maple.”

Oh. That made sense.

“Would you like your very own name?”

She nodded, pleased at the thought. Glinda was very nice. She had nice brown eyes and silver hair. She smelled of sunshine and warm earth. Glinda would help her, she knew.

“Well, I would suggest, since you come from a Schwedler, that your last name be Schwedler.”

Last name? How many names would she get? She hoped not too many. She might have trouble remembering them all.

“Hmm. And since your tree is Norwegian, how about…Helga?”

She wrinkled her nose. Helga? No, that didn’t sound right.

“Olga?”

She shook her head. That one wasn’t right either.

“Wait, my niece just had a baby. Let me get my baby-name book, and we’ll pick one out, hmm? Maybe we can find a name together.”

A book? What was a book?

The woman disappeared into a strange glass cave covered in something that felt…dead. She reached out to touch the wrongness, but before she did, Glinda came back. “Here it is.”

Glinda held something that was dead. Something strange pulsed in her veins, something that felt like fire.

“This is a book. I know it’s made of paper, which comes from trees, but I promise it was only taken from trees that had already passed on into the Summerland.”

The fire died. If the dead wood had been dead before Glinda mutilated it, then that was the cycle of life. She was all right with that.

“Now, let me see… Aesa? No? How about Brigitte? No? Hmm. Let’s forget the Norwegian and go for something we both like, hmm?”

They flipped through the book, Glinda reading off name after name until they came to one that made both of them stop. “How about Amara? In Greek it means eternal and unfading, and in Sanskrit it means tree.”

She paused. Amara?

She liked the way it sounded. Ah-MAH-rah. It was almost as pretty as her tree. She tested the name on her tongue. “Amara.” Joy bubbled through her; the name felt right.

It was hers.

Glinda closed the book with a snap. “Amara Schwedler it is.” She stood and held out her hand, bending until she was level with Amara. “Welcome to Maggie’s Grove, Amara.”

Amara took the woman’s hand and allowed her to lead the way.

* * *

Maggie’s Grove, Maryland, Sometime in the 1990s…

“What are you doing?” Amara watched in horror as sweet Glinda ripped a living plant from the soil and tossed it into a pile.

“Pulling weeds, Amy.”

“Weeds?” A spurt of pleasure almost threatened to overwhelm her anger at Glinda’s actions. Only Glinda called her Amy. Everyone else in town called her Amara. When they spoke to her at all, that was. Most adults simply avoided her or talked around her as if she weren’t there. She wouldn’t begin to discuss how the people her age treated her. Every time she did, it seemed to make Glinda sad. For some reason, not even other dryads would play with her. She didn’t understand it. She’d done nothing to earn animosity from the people around her, other than be herself.

It hurt more than she wanted Glinda to know. Other dryads avoided her like she had some sort of disease—and the rest of the kids?

Best not to say what the rest of the kids liked to try to do. Amara had bloodied more than one nose in self-defense, and if Glinda found out she’d been fighting, she’d be grounded for a week, regardless of who’d started it.

Humans could be weird that way.

“Yes. Weeds.” Glinda yanked on another plant, almost succeeding in pulling it out.

Amara put her hand over Glinda’s. “Please stop.”

Glinda sighed. “My dear, this is why I do this when you’re not here.” Not here. Their code for when Amara joined with her tree, communing with it in perfect serenity.

“Why are you killing them?” She couldn’t understand it. Glinda loved plants. She was the one who’d picked Amara’s tree, who’d directed where it should be planted. She’d chosen all the beautiful flowers and trees in their garden.

“Because if I don’t, it will kill all the other plants.”

Amara blinked. That fiery something flickered to life inside her, the something that had reacted to the first book she’d ever seen. “It…will?”

“Yes.” Glinda gestured around the wild, secret garden they’d planted at the base of the mountain. Not even Rock knew about it, and he was her best friend. She bit back her sad sigh, not wanting Glinda to hear it. He was her only friend. “Do you see that vine climbing that tree over there?”

It was hard to miss. It was healthy, vibrant and glowing. The tree beneath it… Something was wrong with the tree.

“That vine will strangle the tree, killing it in order to survive. It feeds off the tree and the rain and the nutrients the tree should be getting. In the end, the tree will fall and only the weed will be left.”

The tree will fall.

She wondered what that buzzing in her ears was. Why was her vision blurring around the edges?

“Can my tree be eaten by a weed?”

“Yes.”

That fire was back in her belly, only stronger. “My tree could be eaten by a weed.

“Amy?”

She didn’t understand why Glinda’s voice sounded so strange or why she suddenly moved away. All she knew was that the weed was going to kill the tree. “You pull the weeds so the trees can live?”

Glinda nodded, her eyes wide and frightened.

Well. She’d have to do something about that.

By the time Amara was done, not a weed was left standing. The tree that had been attacked was free and clear of the vine, free to live. The fire in her belly died, leaving behind a sense of accomplishment.

She’d done well.

She’d done her job.

Amara dusted her hands off and blew a red curl out of her face. “There.” Her stomach rumbled, reminding her it had been a while since she’d eaten. She picked a shredded leaf out of her pretty green skirt and gave Glinda her best doe eyes. “Can we have some ice cream now?”

Glinda, pale and shaking, led the way.

* * *

New York City, Sometime in the 2000s…

“You’re kidding me. Tell me you’re kidding me.” Parker stood outside the jail cell and tried not to laugh his ass off. Greg? In a fight? In a bar?

“Shut the hell up and bail me out.”

“Not until you tell me what happened.” He could smell the blood on Greg’s skin but knew his friend wasn’t too injured, or the cops would have sent him to the hospital.

“I had a fight. Didn’t like something the guy said. I kicked his ass. End of story.”

“Greg.” Parker could tell Greg was holding back. Why, he didn’t know, but he was determined to find out. “C’mon, man.”

Greg looked at him through the bars, and something in his expression sent shivers down Parker’s spine. Something was wrong with his best friend. Whatever it was, Parker would figure out a way to deal with it.

Nothing was going to put that scared look on Greg’s face ever again.

“Get me out and I’ll tell you. I swear.”

Parker nodded and went to bail him out. When Greg joined him up front, he opened the door to the police station without a word. He waited until they’d arrived at the tiny apartment they shared in Soho before starting in on him again. “So?”

“I’m gay.”

“And?”

Greg turned on him, his expression shocked. “What do you mean, and?”

Parker shrugged. “I’ve known for years. Why haven’t you?”

“I did… I mean, yeah, but I never mentioned it before. It…it doesn’t bother you?” And for the first time in years Greg looked unsure of himself, of Parker. Of everything.

“No. It doesn’t. Why didn’t you think you could tell me?” Parker had known for years. He’d thought it was a private matter, that eventually Greg would find someone and introduce them. But Greg hadn’t, not yet.

Or had he? “Did the fight have to do with a date?”

“No,” Greg scoffed. “Just some asshole who thought it was okay to hassle the black gay man.”

Parker grimaced and put his arm around his friend. “I’m sorry.”

“Why? You’re not the one who tried to punch my lights out.”

“Tell me who it was and I’ll put the fear of the fang in him.” Parker grinned and dropped his fangs. Thing was, he wasn’t kidding. He would put the fear in that man if it meant Greg would be all right.

Greg rolled his eyes. “Man. You’re weird.”

“Says the gay black witch.”

“Homophobe.”

“Perv.”

“You’re just jealous because I never hit on you.”

“Remind me to get you a nice pink Judy Garland T-shirt for your next birthday.”

“Asshole.” Greg hugged him. Parker could feel the tension seep out of his friend. “Thanks.”

Parker hugged him back. Finally there was something he could do for Greg for a change. “You’re welcome.”

* * *

Maggie’s Grove, Maryland, The Senior Prom…

Amara cried so hard she thought she’d never catch her breath again. The tattered remains of her dress floated around her, the words of her date echoing in her ears. Freak was the nicest thing he’d called her.

“Amy?”

She didn’t bother trying to dry her eyes. Glinda would know anyway.

“Why aren’t you at the prom, child?”

She couldn’t catch her breath to answer. She’d thought Jason Montanaro was different. He was a were, loyal to the bone, someone who would understand the needs of a young dryad.

But she’d forgotten for one shining, happy moment that a dryad wasn’t all she was, and now she was paying the price.

“Oh, dear.” Glinda’s arms went around her shoulders, but Amara couldn’t raise her head. Couldn’t look at the sympathy on Glinda’s face. Thank the Gods school was almost over. She’d commune with her tree for the entire summer, long enough for Jason and his friends to go away to college. Long enough for her to forget.

“What did that boy do to you?” Glinda smoothed her hair away from her hot forehead. “My poor child.”

She couldn’t breathe. It hurt too badly.

“I swear this to you, my child. Someday a man will come, one who will love you for who you are and what you are. When he does, hold on tight to him, for he’ll need you like no other.”

Her sobs quieted at the tinge of magic in Glinda’s voice. When Glinda spoke like that, things happened. Amara had learned to trust the promises spoken when Glinda used that voice.

“Let’s get you home and cleaned up. I know you’ll want some time with your tree, but promise me you’ll come out before the end of the summer. I have a graduation present for you that I think you’ll like.”

“Wh-what?”

“A trip to Disney World.”

“Disney?” Mickey Mouse and princesses and magical people who weren’t outcasts like her?

“Mm-hmm. When we get inside, I can show you the hotel we’ll be staying at, hmm?”

Well…maybe she could hold off on communing with her tree for a while. She followed Glinda home, knowing someday, somewhere, there’d be someone who accepted her the way Glinda did.

After all, a girl could dream, right?

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