Chapter Three

“I have a date tonight.”

“The pretty next door? What did you do, use your freaky vampire powers and cloud her mind until she said yes?”

Parker ignored Brian’s choked-off chuckle. Already Brian and Greg had teamed up against him, damn them, and it had only been a day. “No, I did not use my freaky vampire powers. I used my freaky British powers. I speak, and women fall in droves.” He struck a dramatic pose and waited.

“Yeah, they do. Fall on their asses laughing.”

Brian looked up from the mail he was sorting. He’d taken over the kitchen table temporarily until Parker could get him a desk. No way was Brian taking over his. Parker had everything exactly the way he wanted it, so the Renfield would need his own workspace. “I’ve always been a sucker for an accent.” He shivered and waggled his brows. “There’s something about a man drawling naughty words in an Aussie accent while he—Ahem. Never mind.” Brian bit his lip and fingered the mail. Parker didn’t want to know what Brian was remembering. It might scar him for life.

Greg’s low snarl made Brian grin secretively. Brian buried himself back in the mail, but not before Parker caught his quickly hidden look of satisfaction.

Why Parker was getting mail all of a sudden was a mystery, since he’d had none since he moved in. Maybe the city council had held on to it until his lackey—er, Renfield—was properly in place. While Parker slept, Brian had quietly moved into the bedroom next to his office. When Parker had gotten up that evening and headed to the kitchen in nothing but a pair of boxers, Brian had already been sitting at his kitchen table and flirting with his ghost.

Parker smoothed his hair one last time, eager to begin his date. “How do I look?”

“Edible.”

Parker rolled his eyes as Brian once more choked off a laugh. “Thank you. I think.” Greg had never commented on his looks when he was alive. He wondered if Brian’s presence had anything to do with the change. “What time does MM Night start again?”

Brian looked at his watch. “You have half an hour. Do you need a bite before you go?”

“Might not be a bad idea. I wouldn’t want to try to munch a philodendron on the way. Might confuse my date.”

“Maybe. Maybe not.” Brian pulled out a bottle of maple syrup and poured it into the blender. The familiar routine sent a pang through Parker. He remembered Greg standing just so, smirking as he prepared Parker’s nightly meal. “Carnations or roses tonight?”

“Roses, I think.” Parker snipped some leaves and added them to the syrup.

Brian picked up the lancet pen and pricked his finger with practiced ease, then added a few drops of blood to the mixture. “Anything else?”

“That should do it.”

Brian put the lid on the blender. “Look, there’s something you need to know about Amara.”

Brian’s concern was worrisome. “What’s wrong?” Parker was ready to dash next store and check on her.

“She’s…different.” He sighed. “Look, not everyone in town likes her. She’s—damn it, how do I say this?”

“Please tell me she’s not crazy.”

Brian rolled his eyes. “No, far from it. But Glinda kept her kind of isolated, and she’s had a rough time because of it. She doesn’t have a lot of friends, despite being one of the sweetest women I know. I don’t claim to understand what Glinda was thinking, but I do know she adored Amara, so she was trying to protect her somehow.”

“Was Amara in danger?” Parker leaned against the countertop and stared out the window at the Victorian.

Brian tapped the top of the blender. “Glinda never married or had children of her own. She was pretty old when Amara came into her life, and she saw Amara as her daughter. It’s possible she was protecting her from a threat that wasn’t real. Of all the people I know, Amara is the one I trust most to take care of herself, but you’ve seen her. She looks like a stiff breeze would blow her away.”

“Has anyone laid a hand on her?” Parker’s beast rumbled, ready to shed blood for her.

Brian bit his lip. “Not that I’m aware of.” He sighed. “Look, I just thought you should know you might encounter some problems when you go out tonight.”

Parker smiled viciously. “No. I won’t.” He’d make sure Amara had the best time possible tonight, even if he had to bang a few heads together.

“If you say so.” Brian hit Liquefy, stifling any further conversation until the loud sounds of the blender died down. Brian poured the concoction into a mug and handed it to him with a flourish. “Drink up.”

Parker took the first sip. “It’s good.” He swallowed some more, enjoying the energy that raced through him. “Thank you.” Brian flushed with pleasure. “You’ve done something like this before.”

Brian smiled. “Usually they want my neck, not my blender skills. But yeah, I was a Renfield for another vamp, however he decided he’d rather have someone else.”

“Why?”

Brian cupped his hands in front of his chest. “My tits weren’t big enough.”

“Ah.” Parker finished off his drink and rinsed out the mug. “Will you be at MM Night?”

“I certainly will. I promised to show Greg around town afterward if you don’t need us.”

Parker blinked. “Really?”

Was Brian…blushing? “Really.”

“All right, then.” Parker hoped his astonishment wasn’t written all over his face. “I’m off to pick up Amara. Do me a favor and put the blender in the dishwasher before you go, and I’ll see you later.”

“Bye, Parker.”

“Have a good time. I know I will.”

Once again he’d swear Brian was blushing. “Oh dear.” Parker left and headed toward Amara’s, determined to put the vision of Brian making out with thin air out of his head. He didn’t understand how a relationship between them would work. Greg was completely dead, not mostly dead like Parker. They couldn’t hold each other or make love to each other.

Greg’s heart was going to get broken, and Parker didn’t know how to prevent it.

Hell. Greg would have to figure it out for himself. If Greg had met someone who was willing to overlook his handicap, who was Parker to interfere?

Maybe he’d even met that one he’d spent his whole life looking for and never found. If that turned out to be true, Parker would happily live with comments about his ass for the rest of his days. Hell, he’d turn the Renfield so both men would be with him for eternity. He grinned, pleased with the thought that he’d never have to go through losing Greg again.

He walked up to Amara’s door and paused. If he were capable of it, his palms would have been sweating. “I have a date.” An entire herd of moose stampeded through his stomach. For a moment he wondered if Brian had slipped some cactus into his nightly meal.

He checked around, using all his senses. He had to keep Amara safe, which meant doubling his efforts to keep Terri away from her. If Terri found out how much he wanted Amara, she’d find a way to make the woman suffer.

Instant rage, familiar and deadly, filled him at the thought of Terri touching her. His beast would rip the witch limb from limb if anything happened to her.

He rapped on the door and did his best to ignore the disturbing urge to hunt Terri down and keep her from ever placing a cursed hand on Amara.

Amara jumped at the sound of the knock. Parker was here.

She had a date.

She was going to hyperventilate. What the hell was she thinking? These things never worked out, not once her dates found out who Amara really was. Few people fully accepted her, and the ones who did were outcasts of one kind or another. Rock was an earth elemental who rarely left the mountains and his quiet home. Brian was a sensitive who could sense, see and touch ghosts, an ability that freaked out even the most powerful psychics. And she couldn’t begin to describe Selena’s freaky powers or Dragos’s unique issues.

How could she expect Parker, a normal, average vampire, to understand her special needs? She should send him home. Or better yet, find some other female to amuse him for a while. Hell, maybe he’d fall in love with that other female. Maybe they’d bond, forming that unique, magical vampire marriage that was so rare and special.

And maybe Amara would find that female and bury her where she’d never be found. She knew lots of places to stash a body.

She bit her lip, shocked at her thoughts. There was something more than just a simple date going on here.

The knock came again, more insistent this time. Parker wouldn’t wait forever.

Did she open the door, deal with the man on the other side and wait to get her heart broken? Or did she let him think she wasn’t home, let him leave for the movie, maybe even commune with her tree once more until he forgot all about her and found someone else?

Her fists clenched without conscious thought. No way could she let Parker find someone else. She didn’t know why, but the thought brought out the same instincts those fucking tree-choking weeds did. She’d obliterate anyone who laid hands on her Parker.

She stepped back, thoroughly scared. Her Parker?

The front door opened, and Parker stepped inside, incredibly sexy in a red silk shirt and dark-washed jeans. His eyes gleamed, and his lips curled in a sensuous smile as his heated gaze drifted down her body like a caress. “Your door was unlocked.”

No, it wasn’t. She distinctly remembered locking it before taking her shower. She didn’t know who might decide to drop in. Both Rock and Dragos had the disturbing habit of showing up on her couch unannounced. If she didn’t know them so well, she’d have thought they were interested in her, but Rock was in love with a shy water elemental, and Dragos was involved with a bitch Amara couldn’t stand. “That door was locked, Parker.”

He blinked, the innocence he strove for completely lacking, thanks to the grin that threatened to overwhelm him. “Was it?”

She bit her lip. Somehow she knew he wasn’t there to hurt her. If Glinda could hear Amara’s thoughts, she would have her hide, but on this one she was going to go on instinct. “Don’t I have to invite you in?”

He chuckled and shut the door. “Monster Movie Night, remember? We mock how much Hollywood gets wrong. That’s one you should definitely giggle at.” He stood before her, touching his chest to hers, curling his fingers around hers. “You look exquisite.”

She was trembling. Why was she trembling? “So do you.”

She’d swear he was laughing at her, but when she started to glare up at him, his expression was solemn. “Thank you.” He lifted first one hand, then the other, placing soft kisses on her fingertips, and her knees damn near gave out. “Are you ready, my sweet?”

She nodded before she could stop herself.

“Good. I look forward to seeing the movie. Do you know what’s playing tonight?” He reached over to her coatrack and wrapped her favorite sweater around her shoulders.

The Howling. The weres insisted, since last month was The Haunting of Hill House and the month before that was The Craft. Next month we’re probably going to do The Guardian again, although my vote is for The Day of the Triffids.

“What about Attack of the Killer Tomatoes?

“The theater won’t show it anymore. It took forever to get the stains out.”

He paused before pulling her door shut. He took the keys from her and locked it. “Stains?”

“We started throwing tomatoes at the screen, the projector, each other. By the time the movie was over, the theater looked like Little Italy had puked all over it.”

He shook his head and held out his elbow. “Shall we?”

She took his arm and began walking. “It’s about five blocks to Main, then another three to the theater.”

“A lovely stroll with a lovely woman,” he whispered in her ear. She’d have thought he was just being polite if not for the fact that he nibbled on her earlobe when he was done.

She shrugged, brushing him off. “Do I need some Vamp-Be-Gone?”

He gasped. “I’m wounded. Again. And here I am, taking you to the theater, making sure you aren’t molested—”

“—by anyone other than you.” She was beginning to enjoy this. He was flirting with her.

With her!

She couldn’t remember the last time that had happened.

“That should be obvious.” He sniffed arrogantly, and she didn’t know whether to laugh or scream for help.

“Tell me something.” They turned onto Main, and she knew she wouldn’t have much time, but the question had been circling in her mind ever since he’d asked her to movie night.

“Anything.”

“Why me?” When his steps faltered, she continued. “I’m curious. I mean, most vamps take one sniff, wrinkle their noses and move on to the O-positive set. You have to know I’m not human, so why me?”

“Will you answer my question if I answer yours?”

She nodded. Everyone in town knew who and what she was, so it wasn’t like he couldn’t find out, now that he’d been accepted by the council.

“What can I say? To me, you smell divine.” She opened her mouth to protest his lame answer, but he placed his finger over her lips. He halted and gently asked, “What are you?”

She huffed out a breath. “I’m a dryad.” Another dryad saw her coming and, as usual, crossed the street without acknowledging her. She hid her wince and hoped Parker hadn’t noticed.

His eyes grew wide and wild. “Really,” he breathed. It was like she’d handed him Christmas, his birthday and an all-you-can-eat porn star rolled into one. From the way he swallowed, he might have started drooling.

I am in big trouble. “Yes, really.”

“Well. That explains quite a bit.” He started walking forward again, a curiously satisfied expression. “I was cursed by a witch to drink only green, leafy blood.”

This time she was the one who drew to a halt. She ignored the man behind her who muttered “Freak” before walking around her, instead focusing on what Parker had just said. “That’s…different. How did she manage that, and why aren’t you dead of starvation?”

“Long story, one I promise we’ll go into after the movie.” He stared into her eyes. “If you’ll allow me, that is.”

She swallowed hard. “I should warn you. I’m slightly more than a dryad.”

He nodded. “And I’m a freak among monsters.” He smiled and threaded their arms together again. He didn’t seem to notice the unfriendly stares they were attracting. “I think we’ll get along fine.”

There was a brief moment at the concession stand where Parker thought he would have to fight a werewolf over Amara’s popcorn. The were had snarled at her, and only backed away when Parker snarled back. Amara’s apprehension had him pulling away before a real fight could begin. The were let it go also, joining his friends with a sneer.

He didn’t get it. The popcorn didn’t smell that good, and Amara hadn’t done anything to deserve such a reaction. When they took their seats toward the back of the theater, several people got up and moved away, giving them wary looks. Parker kept his arm around Amara, eager to show her at least one person in the theater was happy to be with her.

The movie, on the other hand, turned out to be incredibly fun, especially when the werewolves decided to howl at totally inappropriate moments and hurl insults at the screen. Watching the on-screen werewolves shape-shift with crackling bones and melting faces while their terrified victims screamed seemed particularly amusing to them. A few of the real weres growled at that part, but Parker didn’t want to know what that was about.

He always wondered why the victims didn’t run. Who would be that dumb? If Parker was faced with something that could easily kill him but took twenty minutes to change shape in order to do it, no way in hell would he stand there screaming. He’d haul ass and get as far away as he could. He shook his head. You might as well carry ketchup packets in your pocket in case the monster wanted some condiments while he gnawed your face off.

There was a mock fight in the audience between one of the werewolves and a woman who smelled like a clean, crisp waterfall. The werewolf won by the simple argument that when your tongue is busy dueling with someone else’s, you can’t yell anymore. “Mates?”

“Mm-hmm.” Amara snuggled close, giggling when the werewolf slung the woman over his shoulder, saluted his friends and strode out of the theater. “She’s been dealing with some pollution in her pond, and it made her cranky. This was a good way for her to get some of that out without hurting her mate.”

Parker’s head tilted. “Her pond?”

“She’s a naiad.”

“Oh. That explains the way she smells.”

Her eyes literally lit up, the green glow startling him. “You like the way she smells?” The rumbling tone of her voice startled him even more.

“It’s refreshing, but it isn’t you.” He licked a long line up her neck, enjoying her shiver. “No one is you.”

The glow died down. Amara smiled, one of those satisfied, mysterious smiles that went right to Parker’s cock and perked it up in the best of ways. He shifted in his seat. He didn’t want her to notice how badly he wanted to strip her down and have her right there and then. He didn’t want to scare her off, but he also didn’t want her thinking the only thing he wanted from her was an occasional date.

He was beginning to think he might want everything.

“Ice cream after the movie?”

Parker stared at his date. She’d forgotten he was a vampire for at least one moment in time, and he was tickled pink. “Does it come in A-positive carnation-maple-walnut?”

Her expression was completely serious. “I don’t know. We can check the menu.”

It was Parker’s turn to be startled. “You’re kidding me.”

She smiled. “Nope. Your…unusual difficulties are probably all over town by now. I’m sure some of the merchants have already taken it into account.”

He blinked. “Shit.” He wasn’t sure if this town creeped him the hell out or if he’d found his special slice of American pie. “That’s—” he noticed the looks some of the audience were giving him and changed his answer accordingly, “—neighborly.”

The weres smiled and turned their attention back to the movie. Parker sank in his seat and prayed none of the furry set took it into their heads to teach him the true meaning of neighborly, were-style. While he could take on a few of them, he had no desire to take on all of them.

Amara hid her face in her hands. Even over the howling wolves and screaming idiots on the screen, he could hear her giggles.

“It’s not funny.”

“Yes, it is.” She lifted her head and looked at him. Her eyes were dancing, her lips curled, her cheeks flushed. She looked beautiful.

Could anyone blame him for stealing a kiss? He didn’t think so. He couldn’t remember ever being tempted by a woman’s lips this badly. Kissing the laughter from those full lips almost took top priority. First, of course, was getting a taste of Amara.

And damn if she didn’t taste delicious, as he’d expected. Whether it was her dryad blood, her “something more” or the fact that he was kissing Amara, he wasn’t sure, but he could easily become addicted.

The best part? She hadn’t frozen up on him, hadn’t tried to stop the kiss. No, she parted her lips, inviting him inside the lush warmth of her mouth, dueling with his tongue until the only thing he could hear was the beating of her heart. She grabbed his biceps and pulled him as close as the theater seat would allow. He followed where she led, more than ready to move with her.

“Go, Parker. Go, Parker. It’s your birthday. It’s your birthday.”

Parker froze. His eyes flew open. Oh no. No way. They couldn’t be.

“Be nice, Greg.”

Fuck. They were.

He ripped his mouth from Amara’s and glared over his shoulder. Brian sat with his arm around an empty seat, his attention seemingly riveted to the screen.

“Parker?”

He turned back to Amara. “Ah. Brian and Greg are behind us.”

She waved. “Hello, Brian.”

“Amara. How are you this evening?”

“Fine. You?”

“Good. This is my, um, friend Greg.” Brian pointed toward the empty seat, an adorable blush staining his cheeks. His normally pristine hairstyle was mussed, and his lips were swollen. Parker had to wonder what they had been up to before Greg had made their presence known.

“Greg?”

Parker’s head fell back against his seat. “My Casper.”

“Hey!”

Brian’s laugh was almost as loud as the howl the weres sent up as the bad guy was finally defeated.

“Oh. Nice to meet you, Greg.” She held out her hand to the empty seat, pretending to shake someone else’s hand.

“Parker? What the hell is she doing?”

“Shaking your ectoplasm.”

“That’s my job,” Brian muttered, but there was laughter in his voice.

“Well.” Parker clapped his hands loud enough to make some of the surrounding audience jump and grinned weakly at Amara. “Not that this isn’t humiliating or anything—”

“I’m having a good time.”

“—but would you like to get out of here?”

Amara stood and grabbed her purse. “Have fun, Brian.” She waved goodbye to the empty seat, stealing a bit more of Parker’s heart. “Nice meeting you, Greg.”

“You too.”

Parker shook his head and followed Amara out of the theater. So much for our first date. He hoped she’d be up for a second, and a third.

Was it too soon to ask her to move in?

Amara pointed toward the ice-cream parlor. “It’s open late on MM Night. So is the candy store. Sometimes we leave hungry despite the free popcorn.”

“Hmm. I’m not certain they’ll have anything for me.”

“What’s the worst that can happen? You go home without ice cream?” She grabbed his hand and dragged him inside. “Quick, before everyone else gets here.” She did a goofy victory dance when she saw the place was empty. “Yes! We’re first in line.”

Parker sighed but allowed himself to be danced along. She got the impression he was used to leading.

“Evening, Ken.” Amara smiled at the teenager behind the counter. The Madisons were one of the few families around town who treated her as if she were like everyone else, and for that they had Amara’s undying loyalty. “Can I have Chocolate-Covered Cherry, please?” Amara bounced at the counter. She loved ice cream; it was a special treat for special nights. Even after Glinda’s death she’d continued the practice, rewarding herself with the creamy delight when something good happened in her life.

Tonight was special, and she deserved her special treat.

“Got anything both bloody and green and leafy?” Parker didn’t sound very enthusiastic, but Ken nodded.

“Dr. Hollis, right? I’ve got something you might like. You’ll have to let me know if we can improve it, though.”

Parker’s expression was comical. “You actually have an ice cream you think I can eat?”

“Well, it’s technically not ice cream per se, but…well. You’ll see.” Ken disappeared into the back room and returned with a cone with one scoop of something swirling with colors. Reddish-brown, dark green and tannish-gold warred with one another. The scent had Amara wrinkling her nose, but Parker practically salivated. “My Goddess. That actually smells good.”

Ken looked relieved. “Thanks. My dad came up with the recipe. We modified the standard How Green Is Your Love? by combining it with Here’s Blood in Your Eye. Oh, and there’s some Maple Madness in there too.”

Parker gaped, his expression reverent. “It’s the supernatural Ben and Jerry’s.”

Ken laughed as Parker got down on his knees and prostrated himself before the counter. “Thanks! I’ll tell my dad to keep it in stock.” He rang them up, and he waved goodbye when Parker paid. “Enjoy your ice cream, Dr. Hollis. Amara.”

Parker waved his cone. “You can call me Parker.”

The kid nodded and waved to the next person in line. “Hey, Mr. Wulfenbach. What can I get you?”

Amara was careful not to bump into the werewolf alpha. He didn’t snarl and snap at her like some of the others, but she’d hardly call him warm and fuzzy either. And he’d never done anything to make the rest of the pack back off when they took it into their heads to get really annoying. “Hair of the Dog, kid.”

“Coming right up.”

Parker held open the door for her. “Wow. You guys take your ice cream seriously.”

Amara licked her cone. Yum. “You have a problem with that?”

“Hell no.”

She didn’t understand his rough tone. She licked another side of the ice cream, allowing the rich flavor to burst on her tongue. She moaned at the rich, creamy goodness. “Mmm. This is delicious.”

“Remind me to buy an ice-cream maker.”

She looked up at him. His gaze was glued to her mouth. His cone was beginning to drip down his hand. “Lick it.” He blinked, and she realized what she’d said. She could feel her cheeks heating. “Your ice cream—it’s melting. Lick it.”

He did, moving his tongue along his hand and back up to the ice cream, circling the creamy tip. His eyes never left hers. Amara’s nipples were rock hard by the time he was done.

“You’re right. This is incredibly good.”

Somehow she knew he wasn’t talking about the ice cream.

“Uh. Yeah.”

He smiled, the look so smug, so male, she wanted to kick him. “So. The curse. Greg. The idea that dryads are tasty morsels. Inquiring minds want to know.”

He cleared his throat. For the first time since she’d met him, he looked uncomfortable, and she had to wonder why. “Let’s finish our ice cream first, shall we?”

“It’s going to take a while, I gather.”

“You gather correctly.”

They walked in silence, each concentrating on their cones. Okay, Parker was concentrating on his cone. Amara’s attention wavered between her treat and Parker’s mouth.

She was really coming to like his mouth.

He finished first and tossed the cone into one of the trash cans that lined the streets, then licked the sticky mess from his hand. “That was good. Thank you for taking me there.”

She blushed in pleasure. “Make sure you let Ken know if you think it could be better.” She looked up at him from under her lashes, shy now that they were almost home. “And you’re welcome.”

“I will.” He stretched, the fabric of his shirt pulling taut over his chest, and Amara’s heart rate sped up again. “Are you all right?”

“Mm-hmm.” She devoured her ice cream, barely tasting it before it was gone, and tried to ignore his slow grin. They walked up the steps to Amara’s home. “May I come in?”

“Will you explain everything to me? And I mean everything.

“I’ll do my best.” His thumbs were hooked in his belt loops, and his sexy grin morphed into an embarrassed one.

“You’d better.” She didn’t know why, but damn it, she not only wanted him, she trusted him. He intrigued her, and she was determined to find out why. She unlocked the door and led the way. “I’d offer you a drink, but—”

“That’s all right. I’m full.” Parker gestured toward the couch. “Perhaps we should get comfortable. The tale of my rampant stupidity might take a while.”

She sat and waited for him to settle next to her. “All right. You have my attention.”

“Long ago, during the age of hippies and free love, I was an idiot.”

Amara did her best not to smile.

“Why do I have the feeling you’re wondering what’s changed?” He held up his hand. “Don’t answer that. Please. Greg is more than happy to point out my flaws in perpetuity. I believe it might be why he decided on an afterlife after death, so he could continue to tell me I told you so.” Parker ran his fingers through his hair. “During a bonfire in the desert I met a woman, a young hippie named Terri. And no, she hadn’t changed her name to something like Moonflower or Starlust or anything like that.”

Starlust?

“You’d be amazed how many people ask me that. Like all of us went around calling ourselves Moonpuppy or something. Anyway, she was pretty, she danced like a dream and she thought my accent was groovy. Greg disliked her from the first, but I found myself watching her more and more, until eventually we wound up sleeping together.”

Okay. Amara really didn’t like this part of the story. She doubted much sleeping had gone on, and picturing it made fire burn in her belly, the kind that had her ripping out weeds by the roots.

Not good.

“I thought it was another one of those things—two people coming together in an LSD haze of good feeling and good feeding. Terri thought it was more. When she realized I was ready to move on, she kidnapped me.”

“How?” Kidnapping a vampire was damn near impossible.

“She used magic. Terri, as it turns out, is a witch.”

And that was why it was only nearly impossible. “Damn. That goes against the Rede.”

“An it harm none, do as thou wilt? I believe Terri was beyond that point before I ever met her. By the time she cursed me, there was no way she was white or gray. She had to be black.” And black witches, those practitioners who put their personal gain above anything else, were one of the most feared creatures in the world. Selfish and brutal in their attempts to satisfy all their cravings, dark practitioners lived for nothing and no one but themselves. “She brewed a potion that would change my diet and force me to become dependent on her for sustenance. When I struggled to get away, I knocked the chalice containing the potion and splashed us both. Now I’m cursed to drink nothing but green, leafy blood, and Terri is…a monster.”

“Monster?”

“She sprouts.”

“I sprout.”

“Not like you. It’s not natural. She smells vile and looks worse. She’s… Damn. How do I describe her?”

“She’s a weed?”

“That’s one way, I suppose. I’d go with pond slime myself.”

Amara wrinkled her nose. “Ew.”

“Exactly. What’s worse, she’s killed the few women I’ve tried to establish relationships with. She’s bloody dangerous, and I’m a complete pillock for putting you in danger this way.”

“What does pillock mean?”

She didn’t know vampires could blush like that. “It means idiot. Asshole. Someone who’s done something extraordinarily stupid.”

“Oh.” Her eyes were glowing, but she didn’t care. A weed was trying to kill Parker. “Don’t worry about it. I know how to deal with weeds. What I don’t understand is why you haven’t killed her.”

Frustration, confusion, anger—they were easy to read in Parker’s face. “I have no idea. Whenever she comes close to me, I run like some pigtailed girl being chased by the boogeyman. I want desperately for this to end, but every time I think about killing her…” He shuddered and paled. “I think something about the curse stays my hand.” The feel of Parker’s hand on hers calmed her, settled the raging inferno inside her. “You have to know I’m very interested in you.”

He’d made it clear he wanted more than ice cream and an occasional movie date, and from the way she reacted to him, her answer was obvious. “Me too.”

“You’re interested in you? Not necessarily a bad thing.”

She rolled her eyes. “You know what I mean.”

“I do. But I need to know. Are you willing to see where this goes, knowing Terri will more than likely go after you because of me?” He picked up her hand and kissed her fingertips. “I will do everything in my power to protect you, but she could get to you when I’m not here.”

“You’re giving me the choice? I thought macho men made all the safety decisions when it came to the womenfolk. You know, ‘Grunt, grunt. Get in house wo-man.’ Followed by the inevitable beating of hairy chests.” She’d read Glinda’s stash of romance novels. She knew the way these things worked. He was supposed to go all emo and declare her off-limits, then flirt with another girl to convince Amara he meant it. Then he’d be forced to rescue her and work hard to get her back. Why wasn’t he following the script?

“We’ve come a long way, baby. You told me you’re something more than a dryad, and frankly? We live in a town of supernaturals who have apparently decided that they like me. I know they must like you. It would be hard not to.”

She chose not to disabuse him of that notion. He’d find out soon enough. Then he’d have some decisions to make, like whether she was worth the harassment he’d suffer when the townsfolk found out who he was dating. Their attitude had ruined the few relationships she’d tried to have.

“Therefore, the odds are excellent that we might be able to get some help from our neighbors. The choice is yours.”

“Hmm. Let me think.” She was in his lap, her arms wrapped around his neck, her thighs straddling his. She would enjoy this while it lasted, because once he realized what a freak show she was, he’d be out the door in a flash, vegetarian vampire or not. This might be her only chance to feel him under her. “Done.”

He held her hips. “I take it that’s a yes?”

Here goes. “I want you to know something first.”

“What?”

“When I told you I’m not a normal dryad, I meant it.”

“You’re a Republican?” he gasped.

She rolled her eyes and bopped him on the head. “No. I’m rarer than a dryad Republican.”

“Dear Goddess, that is rare. So? What are you?”

“I’m not sure if you’d believe me if I told you.”

“Then show me.”

Show him? Did she trust him that much?

She looked down into his expectant, patient eyes and knew. Yes, she already trusted him that much. It was a scary thing, to realize she trusted a man she’d known for so short a time. “You know, I don’t get it. Why do I have the urge to share my darkest secrets with you?”

“You do?”

“Yeah.” Far too comfortable to move, she couldn’t bring herself to climb off his lap. The awkwardness she’d experienced with previous partners was absent, and that in itself was strange—and alarming.

He stroked her hips, soothing her. “Odd. I feel the same. Do you want to slow things down?”

No. “Maybe.” Why did she say that? The last thing she wanted was to scare Parker away. If he left, she might never get another chance, especially with someone this hunkalicious. Parker placed her on her feet, rubbing her skin with his thumbs. The slight calluses from working in The Greenhouse scraped across her skin, heightening the sensation. It was sexy as hell. “This is temporary, just so you know. I have every intention of pursuing a relationship with you since I have your permission. I do, don’t I?” He pressed an all-too-brief kiss to her lips when she nodded. “Dinner tomorrow?”

Thank the Goddess he hadn’t been put off by her stupidity. “Yes.”

She loved the way her answer lit him up. “Good. I’ll pick you up after sunset.”

She walked him to the door. Part of her wanted to rip his clothes off so they could rut like bunnies, but maybe taking it slow wasn’t a bad idea. She could wait a night or two before diving into his pants. “I’m looking forward to it.”

He stroked her cheek, leaving behind a shivering awareness of his touch that lingered long after his flesh had left hers. “So am I.” He graced her with one last heated smile and walked out the door, whistling. “Amara?”

“Hmm?”

“I do like this town.” He strolled over to his house, whistling the entire way. Her gaze never left him, guarding his steps till he was safely inside.

She had more than one thing in Maggie’s Grove to protect now, and she had a few good ideas on how to do that. Behind her, the branches of her tree swayed, though no wind blew.

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