Chapter Two

“I don’t know what you’re going on about. It’s only been two weeks. What’s two weeks to someone like you? Hell, we’ve barely finished stocking the fridge.”

“Shut the hell up, Greg.” Parker placed the book back on the shelf and prayed no one heard him arguing with a ghost.

The townspeople were friendly on the whole, but they couldn’t know the new man in their midst wasn’t crazy, just haunted. “She hasn’t been in her house, and from what I’ve heard around town, she hasn’t been to work. Wherever that is.” One thing was for sure, it wasn’t the local library. He sighed and moved to a new set of shelves, hoping to find the book he’d come in for. So far he’d had no luck. He picked up one that was similar, hoping it would do.

“Not that one.” He put the book back on the shelf and moved on. “You also heard that’s normal for her, so why are you so worried?”

“I don’t know. Something doesn’t add up.” He leaned against the bookcase and took a surreptitious sniff, making sure no one lingered nearby. “Why does she smell so damn good, where did she go and why am I the only one curious about it?”

Then again, he supposed he could chalk it up to yet more of the strangeness of Maggie’s Grove, like a library that was open twenty-four hours a day and streets with names like Howling Street and Fang’s Crossing.

“I’d be more concerned about what we’re going to do when Terri shows up. We need to be prepared if we’re going to take her out once and for all.”

Parker picked up a book and waved it in Greg’s general direction.

“That one could work.”

He tucked it under his arm. “Chock-full of magical goodness, is it?”

“Very funny. Check it out, asshole.”

He flipped through the pages, startled to see the information he’d been looking for. “Huh. How does Amara look to you, by the way?” Greg said Parker looked the same as he always had except for a faint green glow, probably a result of the curse. He was curious to find out how Amara appeared to the ghost.

“Man, you are obsessed.” Greg got quiet. “Strange. She looks like you. But not. Maybe that’s why she seemed so familiar.”

“Cursed, you mean?” That might explain a few things, like why she had disappeared and no one seemed to think twice about it.

“No. There’s nothing unnatural about her. If anything, she’s very natural. Almost too natural.”

“How can you be too natural?” Trying his best to look harmless, Parker smiled at the young woman who walked past him. He tapped the book and shrugged. She smiled back shyly and scuttled away. “They grow them sweet in this town, my friend.”

“Not all of them.”

Parker opened his mouth to reply, when a strident voice broke the silence of the library. “There you are.”

He winced. Goddess, what was it about him and crazy women? He turned to face his new boss and all-around pain in the ass, Mollie Ferguson. As usual, she was wound so tight he was surprised her eyelids didn’t squeak when she blinked. “Yup. Here I am.”

She glared at him, tapping her sensible shoe on the linoleum floor, her navy blue suit rumpled beyond redemption. Her blond hair was pulled back in a tight bun, not a hair out of place. Her makeup showed off blue eyes that would have been stunning if they weren’t constantly filled with annoyance. “You’re due back at work in ten minutes.”

What was her issue? “And I’ll be there in ten minutes.”

She huffed out a breath. “I needed that display done before you left.”

She was kidding, right? He was supernatural, not super-powered. “Kal-El would have had trouble getting it done on time.” She was talking about a major flower display for a show in two days’ time, and she hadn’t told him about it until he’d arrived at work earlier. Now she was panicking and he was considering early retirement.

“You don’t understand how important this is, Mr. Hollis.”

Apparently not. “I’ll do as much as I can when I get back.” It sucked having trouble moving around during the day, since it limited his job choices. But never before had the midnight shift at Taco Bell sounded like the better choice.

The job at The Greenhouse had seemed like such a wonderful opportunity when he’d first heard of it. A greenhouse designed to present endangered plant species as works of art, the place was part museum, part preserve, and the funds The Greenhouse brought in were used to help reintroduce endangered plant life back into the wild. During the day, The Greenhouse offered refreshments to visitors, taught classes on gardening and educated the local schoolchildren. Best of all it was in the town he’d just bought a house in. Parker had thought he’d love it.

Then he’d met his boss.

“You do that.” She hesitated, and he saw the hesitation in her eyes. It reminded him how young she was. Mollie Ferguson had to be in her early to mid-twenties, far too inexperienced for the responsibility of managing such a demanding place. “This means a great deal to us, Mr. Hollis. A great deal.”

“I’ll do my best.” And thanks to her, he’d have to check his books out and leave without finding the book he’d been looking for. His lunch break was over, damn it, and the research they’d planned on doing into hexes would have to wait another night. He’d have to hit the library again tomorrow night, see how extensive their witchcraft section was.

“Thank you.” She turned on her heel and marched away, every line of her body rigid. But at the end of the row she paused. “Thank you,” she repeated. This time it sounded genuine and so achingly uncertain that he wanted to help her despite her status as a certified pain in the ass.

Parker sighed. He was surrounded by crazy, and that crazy now included him. “You’re welcome.”

She regained her composure and took off, her heels clattering down the wooden stairs toward the front of the library.

“Is it my cologne? Is that what attracts them?”

“Hmm? Oh, you mean the crazy? I thought it was your sparkling wit.”

“Never mind. Let’s get out of here.” Parker went to the front desk to check out his book, thoughts of strange neighbors and witchy enemies subsumed by his boss’s panic.

“Hi, Parker.”

“Hey, Steve.” Parker grinned at the cheerful young man behind the counter, determined to get his books and get the hell back to work before Mollie Ferguson made his life hell.

Amara stepped out into the night air and stretched, more at peace than she had been in a long time. Her commune with her tree had gone a long way toward easing her concerns.

Now she needed to find out how things had gone in her absence. It had been roughly two weeks since she’d entered her tree, but it was hard to pin down an exact time. Time moved differently for the forest than for humans. It was slower, measured in seasons rather than hours, and it was easy to lose track of the days. If her tree hadn’t given her a gentle reminder she was needed in the human world, she would have happily stayed there till the first snows fell.

Amara yawned. Right after a bath she’d need to call her boss, Rock, to let him know she was back. She hoped whoever had covered her shift had been nice to the kids in the learning center. Some of the people who worked at the ranger station could be downright scary. After that, a trip to the secret garden was in order. She had to make sure none of the weeds had grown. Besides, it would be a way to help her mind return to the human world.

She entered the house and picked up the phone, dialing her number for work. She wasn’t certain why Glinda had insisted she get a human job or keep the human house, but she trusted Glinda’s instincts. The witch had never been wrong when she spoke in that magical tone. So Glinda had made sure that she got the degree she needed to join the Forest Service.

“Hello, Big Savage Mountain Ranger Station, Ranger Ian Rockford speaking.”

It always amazed her how deep his voice was. Any lower, and only werewolves would be able to hear him. “Hey, Rock. It’s Amara.”

“Done communing?”

“Yup.”

“Then I expect your sexy ass in gear tomorrow. We’ve got kindergarteners coming through, and you know how much they love you.”

Amara smiled. She loved dealing with the youngest members of Maggie’s Grove. It wasn’t until the older residents whispered in their ears that the children became afraid of her or acted belligerent toward her. It hurt like hell when it happened too. Those sweet faces would turn away, and she’d never see their happy expressions again. “Thanks, Rock.”

“No problem. See you tomorrow.”

Amara hung up and wandered upstairs. She started the water in the claw-foot bathtub, eager to wash away the last of her stress. Things had gotten odd recently, and she wasn’t quite certain how to deal with them. The pull to go next door and see what Parker was doing, stare into those beautiful eyes of his, was nearly overwhelming. Fighting it had taken a toll on her peace of mind, forcing her to commune with her tree and let the world fade away. But it hadn’t.

He hadn’t, and now she had to decide what to do about it. There was something about the vampire that drew her in a way no one else ever had, and it scared her almost as much as it fascinated her.

She peeked out the window toward Parker’s house while she waited for the tub to fill. She wondered if the community had welcomed him yet. He’d probably never lived anywhere quite like Maggie’s Grove. There wasn’t any place in the world that could match it.

She hoped he loved it the way she did. No matter what else had happened to her, how isolated she’d felt growing up, she’d had Rock and Glinda to get her through. It had been enough, and for them she loved this town and everyone in it. She turned off the water and peeked out one last time. She laughed out loud when a familiar car pulled up to Parker’s house.

Parker was about to meet the Maggie’s Grove equivalent of a welcome wagon.

The doorbell rang as Parker finished his dinner. The stale taste of the bagged blood mixed with his usual nighttime snack was nowhere near as nice as the blood Greg had provided, but he was getting used to it. Until he could find a human willing to sacrifice a few drops here and there, he was stuck with what Greg called BRE: blood ready to eat. At least he could cut the taste, unlike other vamps.

But there weren’t enough rose leaves in the world to disguise the flavor of a BRE.

He stashed the bag in the fridge and ran to the door, wondering where Greg had gone. The ghost had been awfully quiet this evening. The television was off and the radio was silent.

He opened the door to a young man standing there in jeans and a dark blue button-down shirt, his blond hair scraped back from his forehead in a low ponytail. He smiled, warm and inviting, reminding Parker of the time he’d gone with Greg to a gay bar. Half the men there had hit on him; the other half had hit on Greg. It had been a while since a man had hit on him, and if he did, hopefully he wouldn’t be offended when Parker turned him down. He looked like a nice person, but Parker’s interest didn’t swing that way. “Can I help you?”

“Hi. My name’s Brian Cunningham.” Brian shook Parker’s hand. “The city council sent me. Can I come in?”

Parker’s brows rose. What in blue blazes could the city council want with him? As far as he knew, he hadn’t done anything wrong. “Um. Sure. I’ve just finished unpacking, so things are a bit messy.” He shut the door behind the shorter man. Brian’s gaze swept the hallway, taking everything in. He finally lit on Greg’s urn. “I heard you’d lost someone recently. The town wanted you to know we’re sorry for your loss.”

“Thank you.” Brian’s expression was strange—like he was waiting for something. “Why did the council send you exactly?” Because somehow Parker knew it wasn’t to offer their condolences.

Brian chuckled. “I’m your new Renfield.”

Parker’s jaw remained shut through sheer force of will. “Excuse me?” Renfields were humans picked by vampires to serve and protect them during daylight hours when they were most vulnerable. Parker had never taken one, not really seeing the need for it.

Besides, he couldn’t afford one.

“Don’t worry too much about it. I come from a long line of Renfields.” Brian swept into the living room and sat on Parker’s favorite chair. “I need to know what duties you’d like me to take care of for you. Did your previous Renfield leave an appointment book or something I could use as a starting point?”

“I don’t need a Renfield.”

“They all say that,” Brian muttered. “Look, every vamp in Maggie’s Grove has one. Trust me, they’d stare at you funny if you didn’t.”

“They’re already going to—every vamp in Maggie’s Grove?” Parker’s knees had gone weak. He settled on the couch before he fell on it.

“You don’t know, do you?” Brian looked even more amused. “How did you find out about Maggie’s Grove?”

“My friend on the mantelpiece was a witch. He told me to come here.”

“Ah. My apologies. We thought you knew.” The smile left his face, his expression becoming serious as death. “Okay, here’s what’s going on. First off, you’re aware Maggie’s Grove is chock-full of supernaturals, right?” At Parker’s stunned look, Brian laughed. “Oh yeah. The witches keep out anyone who either isn’t one or isn’t capable of accepting us. You just found the only town in America where you’re one of the normal residents and humans are considered odd man out.”

Parker was glad he was sitting. He felt light-headed.

“Your settling-in period is officially over. You’ve unpacked, and you’ve been assigned a Renfield, since it’s obvious you don’t have one.”

“Who the hell is this guy?”

Brian jumped. His gaze landed somewhere behind Parker. “Holy fuck. You have a ghost?” His tongue darted out to lick his lips, and if Parker didn’t know better, he’d swear Brian was checking out a seriously hot man.

Could Brian see Greg?

“Can you hear him?”

“Sure. Sensitives and psychics run in my family, and ghosts happen to be my specialty. No wonder Mayor Ibanescu sent me. He knew I’d fit in perfectly.”

“Mayor who?” Since when did the mayor care so much about his resident vampires? “So. Who are you, who the hell is Mayor Ibanescu and what the fuck is going on?” That last was roared loud enough to shake the windows.

Once Brian’s eyes uncrossed, he explained. “Okay. Maggie’s Grove was founded over two hundred and fifty years ago by people from, believe it or not, Transylvania. Clich?, I know, but I swear it’s true.”

“Uh-huh. Pull the other one. I thought most of the people who settled in Maryland were French, Dutch and English, Mr. Cunningham.”

“They were. Mostly. But we had a few…special immigrants—ones with, shall we say, special needs? Maggie’s Grove was founded to harbor them, and in time it became what you see today, a town made up almost completely of supernaturals. We have vampires, werewolves, doppelg?ngers, psychics, witches, dryads, elementals—you name it. I think the only thing we don’t have are mermaids. And somewhere on the edge of town I hear there’s an actual dragon shifter, but that’s nothing but a rumor. I mean, really.”

“Dragon…shifter?”

Brian snorted, amused. “Who could believe it, right? Those guys are nothing but myth.”

Parker damn near strangled on his laughter. A dragon shifter. Good grief.

Brian shook his head. “And humans like me of course.”

“Of course.” Parker was fascinated. “How does that work? I’d think there’d be problems with humans and supernaturals living together so openly.” This was the only place he’d ever heard of where the humans were not only aware of the supernatural in their midst, but actively welcomed them. Most supernaturals avoided outing themselves to humans, lest they find themselves being hunted by Van Helsings. The hunters delighted in bagging vamps, weres and fae. Van Helsings firmly believed all supernaturals were threats to humanity, whether or not they were. No one wanted to tangle with Van Helsings.

“We protect you, you protect us. We work together as a community. The dryads take care of the forest. The elementals help with various projects, depending on their temperaments. I know a fire elemental who works as a firefighter.”

“And the humans?”

“We take care of you. For instance, every vampire gets a Renfield, paid for by the township. We make sure the daytime side of things is covered, that blood is provided as needed, that sort of thing. In exchange, the vampires become security guards, cops—just about any job that has a night shift. Heck, one of the nighttime librarians is a vampire.”

It certainly wasn’t Steve, the only librarian he’d met so far. Steve’s heartbeat had been healthy, unlike his own. “I’m a botanist.”

“A vampire botanist?”

People needed to stop laughing at what he did for a living. So it wasn’t a normal occupation for the fanged set, but president of the Bela Lugosi fan club had been taken. Besides, capes made him look like a complete spaz. “I work at The Greenhouse.”

Brian winced. “Ouch. Mollie Ferguson is a hard-ass when it comes to that place.”

“I know.” He rotated his shoulders, still sore from the effort to get the display done on time. “Listen, I’m not sure my having a Renfield is such a good idea. I mean, where would you live?”

“Here. With you. We’d set up a Renfield apartment for me so I wouldn’t be in your hair twenty-four-seven. Trust me, you aren’t the first vampire who arrived in town without one, and you won’t be the last.”

“I’m not sure I like this.”

“Well, as his last Renfield, you can fill me in on how to take care of Mr. Hollis, maybe fill in some of his history for me.”

Parker panicked. No way. Greg would have way too much fun with that. “Greg!”

“Last Renfield? Oh hell no. I’m no Renfield!”

“Oh. I’m sorry. I assumed… So who took care of him before he came here?”

“I did.”

“Oh?” One of Brian’s brows rose. He folded his arms across his chest as he stared at a spot somewhere to the left of Greg’s urn. Parker could swear the man saw Greg. “So how are you not a Renfield, then?”

It was like watching a cosmic train wreck. How the hell was Parker supposed to stop Greg when he couldn’t even see him?

“I was a witch, damn it!”

Brian’s eyes lit up with reverence and sexual interest. “Ooh. They make the best Renfields.” He sat forward, all puppy ears and eyes. “Can you tell me what I need to know? Please?”

“Well now.” He could practically hear Greg’s metaphysical hands rubbing together, his ego thoroughly stroked. Parker listened to the sound of his privacy shattering like a glass baking dish dropped from ten stories. “I think I can fill you in on the care and feeding of the world’s only vegetarian vampire.”

“Veg—did you say vegetarian?” For the first time, Brian seemed unsure of himself.

“Yes, he did.” Parker’s head collapsed against the back of the couch. “For the love of the Goddess, Greg.”

“How did that happen? And why aren’t you dead of starvation?”

Parker closed his eyes as Greg filled Brian in on his curse and the folly of not listening to his “Renfield.” By the time Greg was done speaking, Brian was making notes on his PDA and nodding furiously. “Want our witches to take a look, see if they can remove the curse?”

Parker froze. “Can they do that?”

“Sure. It’s one of the things we do, take care of each other.” Brian poked at his PDA again and closed it with a snap. “There are no guarantees, but it’s worth a shot.”

Parker wasn’t sure what the ultimate price of that caring would be, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to find out. “I don’t know.”

“I’ll double-check the witches for you. I won’t let anyone send you to a dark practitioner.”

“I wouldn’t worry about that. We have some around town, but they’re watched constantly. I’m not sure they’d bother with you anyway, other than to mock you.”

“Gee, thanks.”

“You’re welcome.” Brian’s eyes gleamed, and Parker knew he was being laughed at. “But the grays and the whites might be willing to look at it for you.”

Parker almost asked what the hell that meant but decided at the last minute he didn’t want to know. Besides, he could always ask Greg later, when the Renfield wasn’t around. “Let me think about it.”

Brian nodded and made another note. “All right. So can you fill in your turning history for me? I have to file the temporary Renfield paperwork with the township.”

Good grief, there was paperwork?

“You mean you don’t know about Parker and Jessica—”

“Don’t say it, Greg.” Parker sighed as the ghost laughed. Every time Parker mentioned his dame’s name, Greg lost it. It wasn’t her fault someone had named a cartoon after her. “I was turned in 1811 by Countess Jessica Le Li?vres, a noblewoman on the run from Napoleon—or so I thought. To her I was just a handy snack shack while she hauled ass across the continent. We spent almost a year together before she decided she wanted to keep me and turned me.”

“Wow. I’ve heard of more brutal turnings, but that one?” Brian whistled.

“It wasn’t that bad. Once we left France, we had a wonderful time. We went to Rome, Venice, Austria and even visited Russia. Jessica took care of me, taught me everything I know. Our relationship ended on good terms. I send her Christmas cards every once in a while.”

“How did you meet Greg?”

This time it was Parker who snickered, while Greg yelled at him to shut up. “The only thing I’ll say is it involved Mary Jane, a six-pack and the strangest urge to eat peanut butter and marshmallow bars.”

“I was hungry!”

“I am so worming that story out of you.” Brian chuckled. “So I need to hit the grocery store and stock up on what you need. I’ll pick up one of those diabetic lancet pens so you don’t have to deal with the skanky bagged crap I hear you’ve been adding to your diet. Any preferences? Peanut butter, maybe?”

“Shut up.”

“Green. Leafy. Maple syrupy.”

Oh hell. Had he given Brian something to do? Did that make the man officially his roomie?

Great. Now he had two people willing to mock him and order him around. Just what he needed.

“Got it.” Brian tucked away his PDA. “Thanks for giving me a chance. And if you decide you don’t like me after a month, you can request a change of Renfield, and a new one will be assigned for a trial basis.”

So he only had to live with Brian for one month? Brian didn’t have to tell him that. It was a mark in the man’s favor. “Thanks.”

Brian stood, preparing to go. “Well, it was nice—”

“Wait! Remember, Terri is bloody dangerous. If you see a crazy woman sprouting dandelions, run like hell, got it?”

Brian laughed. “That will be more of a pain than you imagine, since a number of our inhabitants have sprouted something over the years. What does she look like? Can you sketch? I bet I could convince the sheriff to put up a Wanted poster if you like.”

“Oh yes, brilliant idea. Not. Terri has killed anyone who’s tried to stop her.”

“Other than Greg.”

“Greg could protect himself.”

“Damn straight.”

Brian put his hand on Parker’s shoulder. Parker jumped as something passed between the two of them, something strange. Something that brought a look of warmth and satisfaction to Brian’s face. “Don’t worry. We take care of our own around here.” He stepped back, but the connection didn’t break. “Do yourself a favor. Let Amara Schwedler know about this Terri person. I have the feeling she’ll be more than interested in helping you.” Brian winked and sauntered toward the door. “Be back soon.”

Brian shut the door, leaving behind one confused vampire and his little ghost too. “What the fuck?”

“Welcome to Maggie’s Grove?”

Parker rolled his eyes and headed back to the kitchen. “At least he didn’t bring me flowers and a fruit basket.”

“Nope. Just his nubile young self,” Greg purred.

Parker pretended to gag and stuck his fingers in his ears. “Lalalalalalala!”

“Homophobic asshole.”

“Lecherous old goat.”

“You’re pissed because I never tried to bone you.”

“Stay away from my man-bits, perv.”

“You think he likes black men?”

“Sure. But I think he likes them better when they’re capable of passing him the salt.”

“Prick.”

“What did I say about my man-bits?”

“You might want to take your man-bits and aim them out the window.”

Parker would have given Greg a look if he’d been able to see him. “Why?”

“Amara is back.”

Parker was out the back door so fast, not even Greg could keep up.

Amara took a deep breath. A serene smile slowly crossed her face. On nights like this she always felt so alive with the beauty of the mountain above her, the moon shining its silver light across her garden, the crickets chirping their song of spring. She turned, only to find herself staring at a pair of fangs.

“Hi.”

Amara screamed and lashed out, punching the toothy trespasser right in the chest.

“Well. That’s a greeting I’m much more familiar with.” Parker grinned and eased back until he was leaning against the fence. With a bemused look he rubbed the spot she’d nailed.

“Sorry, but you scared the shit out of me.”

He chuckled. “I noticed.”

“You shouldn’t sneak up on people like that. What if I’d had a stake in my hand?”

“I’d be dust in the wind?”

Amara shook her head. Her heart was going a mile a minute.

“You smell wonderful tonight.”

Before she could think twice about it, Amara covered her throat with her hands. “I have the feeling I wouldn’t taste very good.”

His grin turned feral, his fangs peeking out. “Someday I might be the judge of that.”

She tilted her head to the side. “Who says I’d let you?”

His shoulders shook. Was he laughing at her? He seemed oddly happy. “Has the town welcomed you yet?” Brian hadn’t been in Parker’s house as long as she’d thought he would be, but she hadn’t stopped to talk to him. Maybe the two men hadn’t clicked? It could be difficult for a vampire to find the right Renfield, but Brian was among the few she’d trust with someone she cared about. Too bad Dragos already had one, or she would have recommended he take Brian.

He sighed, some of his cheer fading. “Yes, they have, in their unique way.”

She didn’t want him to know she’d been spying on his house earlier. “Who did they send?”

“Hmm?”

“To be your Renfield. Who did they send?”

He blinked, shocked. “Brian Cunningham.”

“Did you like him?”

“Was I supposed to?”

Not quite the answer she’d hoped for, and his wary expression hadn’t changed. Maybe he was waiting to see if he’d bond with Brian? “He’ll take good care of you.”

“So you approve of him?” She nodded, and something in him seemed to ease. “Then I’ll learn to live with him.”

She was charmed her opinion carried such weight. “Have you been to MM Night yet?” She blushed. Of course he hadn’t been yet. He’d only moved in two weeks ago. His nearness had flustered her.

“What’s that?” He stepped forward and took her hand. She allowed it, surprised at how right it felt. The only other person who’d touched her so easily was Glinda. She hadn’t realized until now how much she missed that.

“MM Night is Monster Movie Night. The whole town gathers once a month and puts on an oldie-but-goodie. Then we ridicule it relentlessly and laugh our asses off at how much Hollywood got wrong.”

“Sounds like fun.”

“It is.”

“When is the next one?”

“Tomorrow night.”

“Excellent.” He lifted her hand and kissed the back of it. Butterflies danced through her at the touch of his lips. His faint British accent rolled through her, warming her from the inside out. “Then it’s a date.”

She blinked up at him, shocked. When had she agreed to go out with him? She wasn’t that dazzled by his voice. “Date?”

He bowed. “I look forward to seeing you. Good night, my sweet.”

She opened her mouth to argue, but he kissed the back of her hand again, effectively filling her stomach with those damn butterflies. What on earth was wrong with her? She never had trouble telling a man no.

She watched him walk away, drawn to his strong shoulders and sculpted ass. “Oh boy.” She drifted back into the house and curled up on top of the covers, barely remembering to kick off her shoes first. The memory of Parker’s touch lingered as she tried to drift off.

She had a date. With someone who didn’t have to be blackmailed first.

It shouldn’t have surprised her when she smiled, but it did.

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