Parker paced the length of the town hall’s meeting room. His shoes squeaked on the shiny hardwood floor with every turn. His position on the raised platform where the mayor and town council sat ensured he’d see every single person who filed through those doors.
Something was wrong. Amara hadn’t come home from work, and she wasn’t answering her cell phone. Parker clenched his fists. If anyone had harmed a single hair on his
A low voice softly chanted the
“Parker, it’s time.”
Without opening his eyes, he asked Dragos the most important question of the night. “Is she here?”
The low growl he emitted would have warned away a lesser being than Dragomir Ibanescu. Parker opened his eyes to find the audience staring at him, some hostile, some fearful, some merely curious as to who or what he might be.
Well. They were about to find out.
Parker took his seat next to Dragos and watched the silence that descended on the people of Maggie’s Grove. He hoped they were worried. He prayed they were scared. It might be the only way to save their lives.
A woman sitting on Dragos’s left rose on pointy stilettos. Parker wrinkled his nose. The woman smelled subtly wrong, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on why. He was willing to bet this was Kate, the witch Selena disliked so much.
“This emergency meeting is hereby called to order. Mayor Dragomir Ibanescu presiding.” Something about the way the woman spoke Dragos’s name confirmed this was, indeed, the mysterious Kate. “We have a few corrections to last month’s minutes. Do we agree to waive those until the standard meeting? All in favor say aye.”
The rafters shook at the unanimous sound. The man seated on Parker’s left made a note on his netbook. He had to be the town secretary, because he grinned, winked and showed Parker what he was working on.
Parker damn near swallowed his tongue trying not to laugh.
“She hasn’t sat yet,” Parker pointed out.
The man rolled his eyes and hit the delete key. “One can hope, can’t one?” He pushed his glasses up his nose. “Dominic Davis. Pleased to meet you.”
Dominic slowly smiled at him. “Aren’t you—” They were interrupted when Kate cleared her throat. “We have two new residents of Maggie’s Grove. Parker Hollis, vampire, and Gregory West, apparition, now reside at 213 Ghost Haven Lane. Please welcome them to the community.”
Most of the audience didn’t make a move. Some clapped, some waved. One or two turned away. Parker made note of them all. He wanted to attach names to those faces.
“You had a vision.”
Parker hid a grin behind his hand.
The woman opened her mouth to speak again, but Dragos stopped her by the simple expedient of standing. He waved her to her seat, and she took it, staring up at him with adoring eyes.
Parker agreed. Something was off about the brunette, something that reminded him of Terri. He’d have to talk to Amara about it, after he spanked her ass for scaring the shit out of him.
“It is time to honor our dead.” Dragos’s eastern European accent had thickened, whether in sorrow or anger or both, Parker wasn’t sure. “Kenneth Madison, aged seventeen.” Parker winced. The kid really
All the heads in the hall bowed, including Parker’s. He felt somewhat responsible for bringing this evil to Maggie’s Grove, but he’d finally figured out Terri was the only one responsible for her actions. He had the feeling that, like most stalkers, if he
Who knew Greg would find the love of his life after death?
“Thank you.” Dragos didn’t speak loudly, but his voice echoed through the room, his vampiric powers ensuring he would be heard despite the lack of a microphone. “This meeting has been called to discuss the events at the farmers’ market yesterday evening that resulted in two deaths and countless injuries. The murderer
“We believe we know who the intended target of the attack was and who was responsible.” Gasps filled the room. “At this point I would like to hand the floor over to Dr. Parker Hollis, the man who truly understands what is happening to us.”
Parker stood, ignoring the mutters from the crowd. He held up his hands for silence, not surprised when he didn’t get it. He sent forth his will, used his powers to whisper in their ears. “Do you want to know what happened, or don’t you?”
The murmurs reluctantly died down.
“Good. As some of you may know, I labor under a curse. What you don’t know is this curse was bestowed upon me by an insane witch who believed that by changing both herself and my dietary needs, I would form the
One vampire in the back spoke up. “If you felt she was your
“Because some part of me understood she
“Amara killed them by making that tree explode, not some fairy-tale wicked witch! Stop trying to protect her with lies!”
Several of the townsfolk shouted their agreement. He prayed it wasn’t one of the Madisons or Wus; that would break Amara’s heart. “No. Amara didn’t kill anyone. She’s a dryad, incapable of harming a tree. Terri is the one most likely to be responsible. She was a witch before she cursed us both, and that power resides within her. She would think nothing of taking a life to get to me. Indeed, she’s done it before.”
At that the shouting turned angry. “Silence.” Dragos’s voice whispered across the room, and his power flowed with it, staggering in its intensity. Silence fell, instantaneous and total. Parker could barely hear them breathing.
Parker had a hard time getting his voice to work. Damn, Dragos was
“Is it true? Is Amara your
He didn’t recognize the voice, but the features could only belong to one of Brian’s siblings, and he sounded like he was on Parker’s side. “Yes, Amara is my true
No one answered. Their guilt was matched by their defiance. “I still think Amara did it,” one woman shouted. “How do we know you aren’t protecting your
Parker was nose to nose with the woman before anyone, even the other vampires in the room, could blink. The only one who might have been able to stop him had chosen not to. “I’m sorry.” His fangs were fully extended, the hunt burning red in his eyes, an open threat to the woman who’d dared malign his wife. She couldn’t run fast enough to escape him, and they both knew it, the knowledge obvious on her pale, suddenly sweating face. “Would you care to repeat that?”
He stiffened in all the right places at the sound of that voice. “Amara.” He turned from his victim and grinned at his woman. “You’re late.”
She was filthy, tired, covered in leaves and had long scratches down her legs he was going to ask her about as soon as he got his hands on her. She wasn’t in the uniform he knew she’d left the house in, but jean shorts and a T-shirt that were both too big. Their scent matched one of the people standing with her.
What had happened to his wife in the forest?
“I was unavoidably detained.” She gestured behind her, and the rest of the people in the room began talking at once.
“Greer Berkeley.” Arms wide, Greer bowed, the gesture flamboyant. His gaze raked the townsfolk. His expression said he found them wanting, and his grin suggested he could have some fun with that. He had blond hair so light it was almost white, streaked with an orange that was barely visible. His eyes were pale brown.
“Mina Chainey.” The woman nodded but didn’t smile. She had hair as dark as the richest earth and eyes to match. She was roughly the same height as Selena, perhaps an inch or two taller.
He was beginning to think the dryads had a serious problem with the people of Maggie’s Grove.
“And last, Ashton Ward.”
Ashton’s stance was easy, but something about the way he held himself said he wasn’t a man to fuck with. His hair and eyes were so bright a green it rivaled the freshest grass of spring.
“These are three of the ruling dryads of Maggie’s Grove.”
Parker bowed, much less flamboyantly than Greer. “Parker Hollis, at your service.”
Mina Chainey beamed. “You’re the botanist who moved into town. The one who’s been working on The Greenhouse exhibit.” Parker nodded, and Mina’s shoulders relaxed. “Your work has been exceptional.” In fact, all three of the dryads relaxed, moving with that same easy grace he’d noticed in Amara.
“Thank you, but how do you know that?”
Greer laughed, the sound light as wind through leaves. “Because we
Oh dear. These were his bosses. Fancy that. Parker maneuvered around the townsfolk, careful not to hurt any of them. His claws were out, his beast raging, but he battled it back until he could meet Greer’s eyes. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.” He held out his hand and was glad Greer chose to accept it.
“And you. Amara has told us quite a bit about you.”
For the first time, Parker understood the term
Ashton winked. “Call me Ash.”
Mina shook his hand last. “I was especially pleased with your display of endangered asters.”
“Thank you.” Amara settled in against his side, and he put his arm around her shoulders. “It’s been my pleasure to work on the display.” The last thing he wanted to do was give the impression his boss had worked him like ten horses to get it done on time.
“Indeed. Mollie Ferguson has told us what an asset you’ve been. She’s very pleased and has recommended we give you the curator position that opened up.”
“You three never leave the forest, never take part in what happens in town. So why the fuck are you here, and why did you bring her? Is she here to turn herself in?”
Parker growled at the man pointing at Amara. The man stared back, seemingly unafraid, but Parker could scent his terror.
The three exchanged glances. It was Ash who spoke. “Because Amara needs us.”
“Amara is one of us.” Mina walked toward the council table, the two male dryads following closely behind.
Greer waved cheerfully. “Hello, Dragos. Missed us?”
Dragos shook his head at the blond dryad. “No.”
Greer laughed again. “Same old dragon. Grouchy as hell.”
Mina, her hand on her hip, seemed amused by the elder vampire but didn’t say a word.
When Amara tugged on Parker’s hand, he allowed her to pull him forward. He had the feeling he was about to get a front-row seat to something very interesting. From Kate’s sour look, it was going to be a great deal of fun. Or horror. One or the other.
Parker could go either way.
The dryads lined up in front of the platform, with Parker in the middle. Mina spoke up again. “Dragos. You have a weed that needs pulling.” The familiar words had Parker smiling once more. Mina tsk-tsked like she was chastising a child. “Why weren’t we notified?” She tapped her foot, ignoring the renewed mutters of the crowd, her attention concentrated solely on the mayor.
“Did Amara tell you of Terri?” Dragos rested his chin on his hand. Any sense he was actually in charge had fled the moment Mina and company set foot in the town hall. He couldn’t seem to take his eyes away from the dark-haired, dark-eyed dryad.
“No. We became aware of it when the tree exploded in the market. When the wolves attacked Amara—”
“What?” Parker clenched his fists. Dragos’s fascination with Mina could wait. Fury flew through him. Someone had attacked his
“Down, boy.” Amara stroked his arm. “I took care of it.”
“Boy, did she.” Ash’s evil grin was alarming. “They’re dangling from the trees like furry fruit.”
“Are they dead? Did she kill my mate?”
The naiad who’d been carted out by her werewolf mate at Monster Movie Night stood, wringing her hands.
“No. I killed none of them.” Amara tightened her grip on his arm.
“Although she would have been well within her rights.” Mina’s glare scraped the crowd raw. “They attacked without provocation or warning. Had she been anything other than what she is, she would be dead.”
Parker saw red. Only Amara’s touch and the soft chant Brian began kept him from losing control over his beast, hunting down that furry fruit and picking it until it bled. “Who?”
“It doesn’t matter.” Amara took his head in her hands and faced his beast. “It’s done. If they haven’t learned their lesson, perhaps a night helpless in the woods will teach it.”
“Where they’re vulnerable to anything that comes along,” an anonymous voice yelled. “And who is to say she didn’t kill them and is standing here lying to us now?”
Ugly murmurs began yet again. Dragos was preparing for the moment when Parker finally lost it.
Ash faced the townsfolk. “We saw everything. Amara was the victim, not the entire wolf pack of Maggie’s Grove.”
All the wolves?
Amara started. “Jason?”
“Right here.” The wolf waved, his face red. He had a fresh scar along one cheek, the mark of a claw. Parker hadn’t damaged the were; had Jason’s alpha done that? “I didn’t go. I didn’t think it was right.”
Huh. The only wolf who would survive this was the one he hadn’t expected to act sensibly. “Good.”
“Parker. Let it go, sourpuss.”
That got his attention. He stared at Amara, and the beast receded at the sight of his
“I humiliated them, proved I’m stronger than all of them. Let them live with that.”
He ground his teeth. He
Besides, if she
“What’s being done to bring the witch to justice?” Mina returned their attention to what was important: finding and stopping Terri.
“We’re going to try to lure her into the open.” Dragos relaxed only marginally, meeting Mina’s challenge head-on. “We could use Parker and Amara as bait.”
“Not Amara.” Parker spoke without thought, his first instinct to protect Amara.
The elbow that dug into his side was sharp and pointy. “Yes Amara.”
He glared at her.
She glared back. “Don’t you growl at me, mister.” They both ignored the startled chuckles of the townsfolk. “She killed Ken. I want her to
He had to find Terri, and soon, before she did any more damage.
He cupped her cheek and tried one last tactic, knowing it would fail. “I won’t be able to control myself if she harms you. You know that.”
She leaned into his caress. “Then don’t. Feel free to kick her ass big-time. Please. I want to watch. I’ll even bring popcorn and a video camera so we can relive the happy moment over and over.”
“So? How are we luring her out? Are we using this meeting? Because if I were her, and unafraid to attack in public, this is the first place I’d go.” Greer walked the rest of the way onto the platform, his blond hair glowing brightly under the lights.
“We need the wolves.” Dragos stared at Greer. “Amara, please free them.”
“No.” Mina held up her hand, imperious down to her toes. “The wolves stay where they are. They attacked Amara. They need to be taught a lesson, a hard one.”
“And if they don’t learn it?” Dragos followed Greer with his eyes, frowning slightly when Greer stole Dragos’s seat. He seemed puzzled by the dryad with the easygoing smile.
“Hi. I’m Greer. And you are?” The dryad held out his hand to Kate. She ignored him, shuffling papers on the table, but the tense set of her shoulders screamed her disdain. Greer shrugged and put his hands behind his head, but Parker caught a brief glimpse of mischief and wondered what he was up to.
“Then they find another place to hunt.” Kate sniffed, scooting away, but Greer grabbed her seat and pulled her closer, to her dismay. “They could always try heading west. Say, Alaska?”
“No, they couldn’t.” Ash hopped onto the table. He crossed his legs and blocked Kate’s view of the crowd with his broad back. “The feral dryads living there already know what happened, and they’re a little more aggressive than we city folk are. Not a single wolf would return if they went there.”
There were gasps in the crowd. “What?” The naiad was on her feet again. “Why?”
Mina turned on the woman. “You idiot. You
Amara stiffened. “A what?”
Where had Parker heard that term before?
Ash’s mouth went tight. “Glinda knew you were different, but she didn’t understand
“And until you felt ready to talk with us, we couldn’t interfere.” Greer’s expression was serious for once. “You weren’t old enough, and Glinda wanted you to have as normal a childhood as possible. As she was your guardian, we were forced to comply with her wishes, whether we wanted to or not, until you came of age.”
“She came of age years ago,” Parker pointed out.
“Not for a tree, she didn’t. Schwedler maples are full grown at—”
“Twenty-five years.” Parker groaned even as Ash nodded.
“And that is when we could have interfered despite Glinda’s wishes. Until then?” Ash shrugged. “We were forced to stay away, no matter how badly we wanted to teach her, bring her into the fold. She’s…precious.” The awe on his face when he looked at Amara had Parker’s hackles rising.
Greer kicked his feet up on the table, narrowly missing Kate’s coffee cup. “A hamadryad is literally one with her tree in ways no ordinary dryad can possibly understand. It’s like the psychics and sensitives among humans. They have senses normal humans don’t. You commune with your tree the same way a normal dryad does, but when your life or the life of something you care about is in danger, you can
The room was so quiet you could hear a pin drop.
Mina piped up, her gaze raking over the townsfolk. “There is no being rarer than the hamadryad, not even the Meliae.”
Parker cleared his throat. Mina winked at him. “Except vegetarian vampires.”
Parker made sure he had a good grip on Amara’s elbows. “So basically you’re telling me she’s a weretree.”
The dryads gaped. Amara rolled her eyes.
Greer threw his head back and laughed, nearly tipping his chair over.
“Uh. Yes. I suppose that’s one way to look at it.” Ash looked like he wanted to laugh too, but he didn’t.
“And you three are?”
The dryads exchanged a glance.
“Oak, Birch and Ash—we rule the forest and all its inhabitants,” Ash answered. “In the same way the alpha rules his pack, we rule the creatures who call the forest home.”
“And Oak rules them all.” Ash, Oak, Birch and Yew were the four sacred trees among the druids, with Oak reigning supreme. So where was Yew?
Mina nodded. “Very astute.” She raised her chin proudly. “And that means Amara is under my command.”
Parker stiffened at that but quickly let it go. It was no different than a ruling prince of a coven of vampires or a high priestess of the witches. “I’ll take good care of her.”
Amara snorted, but Mina looked delighted. “I know you will. But first we need to take care of your problem.”
Parker heard a gasp and a thud.
“Sorry,” Greer muttered, helping Kate to her feet. Somehow he’d managed to knock her chair over, with her in it. “Here, let me get that for you.” He brushed at Kate’s skirt, specifically her rear end.
“Greer.” Dragos took a step forward and reached for him.
Kate’s skirt hit the floor. She shrieked and covered her black lace panties with her hands.
“Oops. So, so sorry.” Greer bent over and tried to pick up the skirt. His backside collided with Dragos, knocking the vamp back. Greer pulled, and the sound of fabric tearing filled the air. “Uh-oh.”
“Greer!” Mina snapped. “Stop playing and pay attention.”
Greer handed the ripped skirt back to the half-naked woman. “It will only take a moment to repair it, Mina.”
Dragos reached for Greer again, but the man danced aside.
Parker’s eyes damn near crossed. The woman had a hell of a set of lungs on her.
Greer leaped over the table and landed lightly next to Mina. “I say we take Parker and Amara into the woods, set them loose and let Amara deal with Terri. It should only take a couple of days, right?” Mina shot him an irritated look. “What?”
“That won’t do.” Parker tugged Amara close again, unwilling to go any longer without her sweet touch. “I’ve got a bit of a sunlight allergy, remember? A few minutes too long and
“Right. Sorry.” Greer actually blushed, looking more embarrassed than when he’d accidentally ripped Kate’s skirt off. Parker wondered what the hell that was all about. “Ash?”
Ash was staring at something in the crowd, or possibly someone. His shoulders were tight, his hands loose. If Parker didn’t know better, he’d swear the man was hunting.
Ash’s head whipped to the left. His eyes narrowed, his nostrils flared and he placed himself firmly in front of Mina.
Parker immediately went on alert. He sniffed the air, hoping to sense whatever was making Ash so tense.
Mina grumbled when Ash didn’t answer. He kept his focus on the crowd…or the wall behind the crowd. He grasped Mina’s wrist and kept her behind him when she tried to move past.
Something tickled the back of Parker’s throat. It tasted foul, fetid.
“Terri.” He started searching for that elusive stench, that horrible taste. She wouldn’t be in the crowd itself. There was no way she could blend in with so many supernaturals. But she was powerful enough to damage the building and everyone in it without ever having to come inside. “Can we get everyone out?”
“No! I’m half-naked!”
Parker turned to Kate, who was still struggling with her skirt. The zipper had apparently broken. “Bloody hell, woman. A witch with a vendetta is somewhere nearby, and you’re worried about your fucking togs?”
An ominous creak reverberated through the wooden floor. The lights flickered. A cracking noise was swiftly followed by the sound of pebbles hitting the ground.
“Oh shit.” Amara, eyes wide, stared at one of the walls. “She’s using the garden around the building to bring it down.”
“Parker,” Terri’s voice crooned, coming from everywhere at once. “Come to me, my love.”
“How the hell is she doing that?” Brian gagged. “Gods above, I can
There was a stampede toward the front door, but when the first wave of people hit it, the door refused to open. It was jammed shut.
“I’m really beginning to dislike this witch-bitch of yours, Parker.” Dragos stepped off the platform into thin air. “We need to take her down before she kills the entire town to get to you.” He held out his hands, and a screeching noise, like branches being viciously scraped across a car, assaulted their ears. Dragos was trying to force the doors open telekinetically.
He was failing. And he looked utterly stunned by that fact.
Parker refrained from telling him he wasn’t the first person to underestimate the witch.
“Uh-uh, naughty, naughty.” Terri giggled. “I’ll tell you what—give me Parker and I’ll let you all live.” Plaster rained down on their heads; women screamed as a huge crack appeared in the ceiling.
“Out of my way, everyone.”
Parker turned to find Amara had assumed her hamadryad form. She lumbered toward the door, the townsfolk scattering away from her like sheep before a wolf. She placed her hands on the door and shoved, straining against the weight. Dragos resumed using his mind to help, but nothing happened. Whatever Terri was using to barricade the door was tough.
Plaster landed on Parker’s head. He looked up to find the ceiling riddled with cracks. A sharp snap had him cursing, but it was breaking glass that got him moving. He peered out one of the windows, using his enhanced night vision to see how bad things were.
All he saw was a sea of writhing green. He snapped his head back as a thorn poked through the window, damn near taking his eye out.
“Oh no, you don’t.” A tendril wiggled through the broken panes, wrapped around the lintel and snaked up the wall. Wherever it went, it left tiny cracks behind, which branched into more cracks. “You can save them from this. Just come outside. Join me, Parker.”
Soon the wall would be nothing but cracks and would fall, killing anyone in the way. Sprays of pollen formed and burst, drifting in the air. “We’re in deep trouble.” He bit his lip, thinking hard. The vampires could get out by misting, but that would leave everyone inside to face the fate Terri had in store for them. Knowing Terri, any vamp who demisted on the other side would be facing something horrific, and they’d be without protections of any kind. Enough puncture wounds would kill a vamp without ever touching his heart. She had to know that. She was crazy, but she’d never been stupid.
He couldn’t use fire. Burning the foliage would only enclose the victims in an oven, baking everything and everyone along with the vegetation. He had no way to freeze the plants, unless…
He grabbed the naiad who had stood up for her wolf mate. “Can you freeze water?”
She shook her head. “No. I can move water, but I can’t boil it or freeze it, not without help.”
“For boiling? A stove. For ice, I like my refrigerator.”
“Yes,” she drawled, obviously thinking him a madman.
He tugged her over toward the window. “Can you work with the water inside the plants?”
She gasped. “Of course! Why didn’t I think of that?” She rolled up her sleeves. “Stand back.”
Parker obeyed and hoped she got it right. If not, they were all dead.
Amara pushed and pushed, but nothing happened. The door remained stubbornly shut. “I need help!”
A pair of hands joined hers, their stony grip sure and steady. “I’m here.”
Rock. She’d recognize those hands anywhere. “Thanks.”
“Me too.” Another pair joined Rock’s, pale and small, the nails bright red. She hissed as she pushed. Amara recognized her as one of the vamps who’d cried out that she was guilty.
“Anyone else who wants to help, see if you can find another way out.” She couldn’t run the risk of doing more harm than good. Too much force could take the entire wall out.
She pushed, her muscles straining, and considered taking out the wall anyway. Soon it would be too late. The creaks and groans of the building told her the structure might soon fall on their heads, killing everyone inside.
Then something happened. The plants on the other side of the door quivered. She could feel their pain, but they were tainted, weeds of the worst kind, and she felt very little sympathy for them.
The door moved.
“Bad Parker. No cookie for you.” The voice had grown more distant, weaker. Terri was losing strength.
“Keep pushing!” Whatever was happening, the plants were losing their strength. Out of the corner of her eye she glimpsed a withered, limp leaf falling to the floor. “What the hell?”
“Push now, talk later.” Rock never let up. He kept the pressure going, digging his fingers into the metal door. He didn’t even sound winded, but that was an earth elemental for you. Their strength was rooted in the ground they stood on.
Water lapped at Amara’s feet. “Have the pipes burst?” The town’s witches chanted, the spell they wove keeping the ruined ceiling from collapsing.
“Dunno,” the vamp with the painted nails grunted. “Keep pushing.”
Amara pushed. The door gave some more, the groan of metal and wood shuddering through the room. “It’s gonna give.”
With a shriek, the door burst open. Dry twigs snapped. Dust and pollen swirled around them in a rank, dry cloud.
“Bless you.” The female vamp took a step back, waving her hand in front of her face.
Rock glanced down at the vamp, his nose wrinkling. “Thank you.”
Amara stepped through the door and into the wreckage of the gardens around the town hall. Every single plant was withered and dead. The tree that had once shaded the hall was leafless, its branches creaking in the wind. It looked ready to topple over at any moment. The roses Glinda had planted were gone, broken and twisted by the rampaging weeds.
She stared around at the carnage jealousy had wrought and felt the fire burning in her belly burst into a goddamn volcano. “I’m going to kill that bitch.”
Dominic Davis stepped carefully over the rubble and pushed up his glasses. “Amen.”