Chapter One

Maggie’s Grove, Maryland, Present Day

Parker drove through the moonlight-drenched streets of his new hometown with a sense of peace he hadn’t experienced since Greg died. He hadn’t realized how stressed he’d gotten until he’d hit Tennessee and all the tension dissipated. Finding out Greg had cancer, helping him through the horrors of chemo and radiation, only to lose him in the end to an infection, had been devastating. Greg had been in his sixties, not old at all. At least not by Parker’s standards.

And now here he was, following Greg’s final wish to the letter. “Go to Maggie’s Grove. Buy a house. Settle down and have little vamplings.”

“Why?” Parker had asked, damn near tears. His friend’s vision had begun to fail, but it only made his inner vision sharper, clearer.

“The place is in Transylvania County, for the Goddess’s sake. It’s perfect for you.”

“Greg.” He hadn’t known whether to laugh or let those tears fall. What was he supposed to do without Greg?

“Just do what I tell you for once in your damn unlife.”

Parker had chuckled, but he’d known: Do not pass Go, do not collect two hundred dollars. Greg had a vision, and Parker would follow it without question. Even at the end of his life Greg had looked out for him. He only wished Greg hadn’t refused the Kiss when they’d first discovered the cancer. Turning him when he’d wasted away to nothing would have been cruel, not that Greg had asked, though Parker had offered more than once.

Parker would have been insulted if he hadn’t known the real reason Greg hadn’t accepted the Kiss. Greg hadn’t wanted to spend eternity as one of the undead. He’d wanted to move on, be reborn. If he’d become a vampire, he would have lost the connection to the earth that gave him his powers. To Greg, losing his witchcraft to turn into a vampire was a horror not to be borne. But he’d promised that someday Parker would find him again. Before drifting off into a coma, he’d used the last of his magic to ensure it. He’d died as peacefully as any mortal could wish.

Parker wished it hadn’t happened at all.

Parker’s gaze landed on the ornate brass pot in the seat next to him. He wondered whether Greg appreciated the massive cosmic joke that had been played on him, but was afraid to ask. Parker sure as hell did. He went to sleep chuckling about it.

Greg had been instrumental in how Parker now lived his life, and he would be forever grateful. Thanks to Greg, he’d discovered he loved dealing with plants of all shapes and sizes, loved digging his hands into rich soil and watching life sprout from it. He’d tasted and sampled more varieties of plants and saps than he’d known were even edible. He’d learned which ones to stay away from and which to embrace. He was the only vegetarian vampire in existence and had become something of an outcast, but he was all right with that. While there were those who thought he should be put out of his misery, others wanted to study him. He avoided those others like the plague. No way did he want to be tested, injected, vivisected or any other ted that might cause him pain, thank you very much. And the ones who didn’t give a rat’s ass one way or the other were the ones who’d become friends, if none as close as Greg had been. And that was why he was glad he had his best friend with him on this journey of—

“Are we there yet?”

Parker rolled his eyes. Even in death Greg didn’t shut up. “Almost.”

“Good. I’m getting itchy.”

“How can you be… Never mind. Don’t answer that.” He blew his breath out. “I’m dumping your ass under the first tree we hit. You know that, right?”

“I’d be nice to me if I were you. Stakes are made out of wood, jackass.”

“Uh-huh.” He turned down the quaint side street that led to their new home. And didn’t it tickle him silly that the one house that had called to him was on Ghost Haven Lane? “I’ll eat you, then.”

“Like you weren’t already doing that before I got sick. Why the hell should anything change?”

Parker smiled, showing way more teeth than necessary. “Ever heard of tree trimmers?”

“Ever had something shoved up your ass?”

“You and what army, Casper?” Parker crowed in victory at Greg’s sputtering. “Yes! Score one for the fanged one.”

He pulled up outside the home he’d purchased over the internet and climbed out, eagerly scanning the quiet neighborhood. Off to his right was a beautiful Victorian painted lady, colorful and gay, with lavender-and-purple siding and blinding yellow trim. To his left was a lovely Craftsman home with a huge front porch any family would die for.

His home was a midcentury ranch, updated recently to appeal to a more modern taste. The stonework at the base of the house was complemented by the gray siding. The windows were large, allowing plenty of natural light, something Parker would take care of with thick curtains. The landscaping was pristine, with a nice shade tree in the front yard and a fountain surrounded by stone benches, a perfect place to people-watch. Parker had loved the pictures on the website, had known this was the place for him to be. There was even a welcoming porch, wide enough to accommodate a chair or two.

He grabbed Greg’s urn and climbed the steps to the dark red front door, eager to enter his new home for the first time.

“Incoming.”

“Who are you?”

Parker whirled around. Someone had sneaked up on him. Damn, his senses were dulling if people could…do… Hell-o.

Parker found himself staring at the most incredible redhead he’d ever been privileged to lay eyes on. Something about her scent tantalized him, teased him. For the first time in decades his mouth watered over a person rather than a salad. “The new owner.” He took a step forward and held out his hand, juggling the urn. “Parker Hollis. Are you one of my neighbors?”

She stared at his hand, a frown marring her lovely face. “You’re dead.”

Parker’s jaw dropped. “What?”

“You’re a vampire.” She said it with such authority that he couldn’t deny it.

Parker checked his fangs with his tongue. Nope, his teeth felt human. “What would make you say that?”

“You’re unnaturally pale, you’re carrying around another dead guy, which is freaky even for a vampire, and your eyes are glowing ruby red.”

He laughed, but even to his ears it sounded awkward. “Vampires don’t exist.”

She poked him in the stomach. “Funny. You feel real enough.”

Want to feel some more? “Whatever would give you the idea that there are vampires?”

“You mean besides the fangs poking your bottom lip?”

Parker blushed. That hadn’t happened in years. These days they only descended at the sound of a blender. Made going into a smoothie shop a real chore. “Oh. Sorry about that.” He forced his beast back and away from the pretty, pretty girl.

“Don’t worry about it. One of my best friends is a vampire.”

“That explains a lot.” Humans and vampires rarely became friends, but if it could happen to Parker, it could happen to his lovely neighbor. “For a moment there I thought I was wearing a sign.”

Her frown smoothed out into a shy smile. Her lips made a lovely cupid’s bow, tempting him to sample them, to see if they tasted as rich as they looked. “I don’t know. You could be. Have you looked in a mirror lately? Oh wait, would you even see the sign?”

“Ha-ha. That’s a myth, I’ll have you know.” He stuck his hand out again, wondering why the woman wasn’t more freaked-out. She knew what he was; did that mean she too was supernatural? He couldn’t detect any scent of were, none of the sparkle the fae had. The only odd thing was that utterly delicious scent wafting from her. She smelled like the highest-quality syrup mixed with the rarest of greens, combined with that hint of copper every vampire craved. “You are?”

“Amara Schwedler. I live next door.” She pointed toward the lavender Victorian with a sad smile. “My friend Glinda left it to me.”

“Left it to you?”

“She passed away a year ago.”

Parker frowned. “I’m sorry for your loss. I recently lost a good friend myself, so I know how much it hurts.” He set the urn down on the front porch. He had no desire to crack Greg’s final resting place, but damn, he wanted to get closer to the sweet-smelling female standing at the bottom of the steps.

“Aw, how sweet.”

Parker ignored Greg, glad no one else could hear him. No matter what Greg thought, watching him die had been painful, almost as bad as his conversion.

“Why didn’t you change him?”

He took a chance and prayed Greg would forgive him. “He was a witch.”

“Parker!”

“Ah. Of course. He’d have lost his powers if you changed him. No witch wants that.”

He dared take a step closer to her. “You seem to know a great deal about witches as well as vampires.”

“Mm-hmm. Glinda was one.”

He nearly laughed. Some witch had dared name their daughter after the Witch of the North? “I guess she was a good one.”

“Oh yes, she was the best.” Amara grinned cheekily. “She let me help create the garden behind your house.”

Parker blinked. “I have a garden?” Damn. He had plans for his backyard. Knowing his delicious neighbor lady had already taken care of it was a serious conundrum. What if he didn’t like what she’d done and decided to rip it out? Would she refuse to let him crawl inside her the way he wanted to?

“Oh yes. It’s beautiful. One of the best we’ve ever done.”

“Would you be willing to show it to me?” He’d forgo entering his home for a chance to spend some time with Amara.

She bit her lip. “May I?”

“Please.” Please please please. Anything to get her to stay close to him. He waved toward the back garden. “After you, m’lady.”

She giggled. “I like your accent.”

“Thank you.” She wasn’t the first woman to tell him they liked his British accent. American women went bonkers for an accent, even one as faded as his, and he used that to his advantage when the urge for sex became too great to satisfy with his hand.

But he’d been forced to learn caution. Terri had a habit of finding out when he’d slept with someone. The last woman he’d been with more than once had died horribly, strangled by vines in her greenhouse. The cops had called it a bizarre accident.

Parker knew better.

Parker frowned. Maybe…maybe instead of trying to end the curse, he should be trying to end Terri. After all, the curse wasn’t so bad.

Terri, on the other hand…

“Here, let me open that for you.” He reached over her head and unlatched the gate, then pulled it open and followed her inside.

He stopped dead, arrested by a wonderland of flora.

“What do you think?”

Meandering pathways led to secreted benches, perfect for sitting and enjoying a quiet evening. A patio, complete with fireplace and outdoor kitchen, was close enough to the house for entertaining, but far enough away to create its own vignette. Statuary peeked out here and there from under leaves, satyrs and dryads and faeries of all types. Trees were positioned to provide shade for all but the hottest of days. But best of all was the view of snow-capped Big Savage Mountain behind the garden, part of the Valley and Ridge Appalachians, framed by two towering oaks. “Beautiful. Absolutely beautiful.”

Amara blushed. “Thank you.”

He walked around, dazed at the beauty of his secret garden. He fingered each plant, naming them as he went. “This rhododendron is exquisite. And columbine!” He pointed toward a flowering bush. “Look at that baptisia! That’s a Carolina Moonlight, isn’t it?”

“Yes.” Amara nodded enthusiastically. “How did you know?”

He grinned. “I’m a botanist.”

“A vampire botanist?” Amara’s lips twitched.

He shrugged. “Long story.” One he might be willing to tell her someday. “I’m impressed with what you’ve done here.”

That blush raced across her cheeks once more, and he was in serious danger of having his socks, and other parts of his apparel, charmed off. “Thank you.”

“Someone’s planning on gettin’ some.”

“Shut up, Greg,” he muttered.

“Greg? Was that the name of your friend?” Amara seemed illuminated by the moonlight, fey and shy and so beautiful his heart lurched.

“Yup. Some days it’s like he still talks to me.”

“Bow-chicka-bow-wow.”

Parker gritted his teeth against the cheesy bump-and-grind noises.

“I know the feeling.” Amara grimaced, caressing a rare Sterling rose, so pale and delicate in her hand. “I was with Glinda since childhood. She raised me.”

Parker could almost feel Greg’s interest perk up. “Are you a witch?”

Amara’s expression was serene, almost reverent, as she let go of the rose. “No. I’m something else.” She turned back toward her house, her gaze at once sad and distant. “I have to go.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. I was enjoying your company.”

She looked up and smiled at him, and damn if Parker couldn’t see tiny Cupids dancing around her head. “I was too.”

He grinned. “It’s always good to enjoy your own company.”

Her brows rose.

“Ignore me. I have an odd sense of humor.”

“Something tells me you’re going to be very hard to ignore.”

He could live with that. He followed her to the gate and opened it for her. “It was a pleasure meeting you.”

Amara looked up at him, and he almost swallowed his tongue at the lust pooling in his belly. He couldn’t remember ever having a reaction like this to a woman. He wanted to cart her into his house, tie her to his bed and never let her go.

Some of the distance in her eyes eased, and she smiled at him once more. “I enjoyed our chat. I’ll come visit the garden again.”

“Not me?” Parker pouted and put his hand to his heart, feigning hurt. Parker wanted her to visit more than his rhododendrons. He wanted her in his bed. On his couch. Even in the kitchen, if he could keep Greg from bitching about his precious countertops. He would keep her for however long it took to work her out of his system.

But she was distracted by something only she could see. “Perhaps.” She walked across his lawn, and for the first time he noticed her bare feet, as she bent not a single blade of grass. Something else, indeed. “Good night, Parker Hollis.”

“Good night, Amara Schwedler.”

“That is one strange woman.”

“Yes. She is.” Parker narrowed his eyes as she glided onto her front porch and through the door. “She surely is.”

“What did I tell you about the crazy?”

Parker shook his head. “I don’t think she’s crazy. She’s…different. But not crazy.” Reaching for the latch to close the gate, he hissed and pulled his hand back. The metal had shocked him. “Greg.”

“Sorry.”

It wasn’t the first time the ghost had worked up enough energy to affect things in the physical world, but it was the first time he’d done it by accident. “What’s wrong?”

“She seems familiar somehow, like I should know her. But why would I? I’ve never seen her before in my life.”

“If I have my way, you’ll be seeing a lot of her. Preferably naked and bent over my couch.” He went back to the front porch and hefted the urn with a grunt. “Damn, Greg. Have you gained weight?”

“Shut the hell up.”

Grinning, Parker carried his friend into their new home, turned on the lights and sighed. “It looks better than I thought it would.”

“Yeah. A few touches here and there and it will feel like home.”

Parker nodded as he carried Greg into the living room. The movers had set everything up. His caramel-colored leather couch was in place in front of the fireplace. The mantel and surround were made out of dark, rich wood with opalescent glass tile around the firebox opening. A huge red-and-gray geometric-patterned rug anchored the area. His chrome-and-glass table lamps gleamed against all the dark wood. It would be a perfect place to cuddle on a cold winter night. The walls were done in a mocha color he was debating painting over. Greg liked it, but it was too bland. Parker liked color, inside and out. Oak floors ran throughout the house.

Parker placed Greg’s urn on the mantel and explored the rest of the house.

The first hallway off the living room led straight into the dining room. His table was too small for the space; he’d either have to leave it fully extended or purchase a new one. The chandelier was beautiful, but its crystal elegance was wasted on his table. “We need a new dining set,” he muttered, running his fingers along the wood.

“Seriously. We could look online.”

“Or visit that antique shop we passed on the way through town.”

“Even better.”

The kitchen was a slice of heaven. Stainless steel appliances gleamed. Dark granite countertops and dark, mission-style cabinets complemented the home beautifully. There was a banquette that Parker might rip out. A pantry was better than an eat-in space, but once again Greg disagreed. They’d decided to live there awhile and see which would suit them better after they’d settled in.

Parker headed back to the living room and down the right-hand corridor. This one led to two guest bedrooms and a bath. The bedroom facing the front of the house was Parker’s office.

The other corridor led to the third guest bedroom and master bedroom, where Parker’s king-size sleigh bed fit right in.

“I’ll bet you anything the little chickie next door has a four-poster.”

Parker ignored his friend and checked out the master bath. It held a tub big enough for two and a shower big enough for three, double sinks and marble vanities. Perfect. He stripped and left his clothes on the heated natural stone floor.

“Pig. Didn’t your mama teach you to pick up after yourself?”

“Oink, oink.” He turned on the hot water and basked under the spray. Thoughts of the cute redhead next door drifted through his mind. His lips curled in a hungry smile.

Something told him he was going to love it here in Maggie’s Grove.

Amara breathed in the night air, somehow invigorated by her interactions with her new neighbor. He’d stared at her with heated eyes, watching her move around his garden.

He’d wanted her. No one had wanted her like that before. Amara wasn’t quite sure what to do about that. The few times she’d been with a man had been pleasant, but there had been none of the heat a single glance from Parker’s rich brown eyes had caused. She could drown in those eyes, lose herself forever in them.

That couldn’t be good. Besides, even if she did try to pursue something with him, she was almost positive they would be…incompatible. No vampire could feast on her. They required human blood, and hers was anything but.

She stood beneath her tree, surrounded by its heavy, comforting warmth. Deep roots tapped into the earth, drank in its lushness, its life, and filled her with peace. But the memory of brown eyes and tousled brown hair darkened to near-black in the night marred her usual serene union with her tree. The man drew her like a moth to flame, and if she weren’t careful, her wings would get singed.

She understood the fire that burned inside her when she protected the forest, but she didn’t understand this new need that beckoned her toward the man next door. The one that told her to crawl into the vampire’s lap and hold on to him through the night. Goddess above, she wished Glinda were here to explain this to her, because no one else she knew could. She’d developed a few more friendships since college, but none of the local dryads would speak to her, and the rest of the townsfolk avoided her.

Of the few friends she did have, none of them understood what it meant to be a dryad.

She stared up at the stars, and the first tear of the night slipped down her cheek.

“Glinda, I need you.”

But neither the stars nor her friend answered. So Amara did the only thing she could to ease her confusion. She slipped inside her tree and allowed it to comfort her.

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