Chapter Eight

The town hall was no longer structurally sound. The plants had, in a short amount of time, nearly destroyed the building. Hundreds of lives would have been lost had the building come down.

All to get to Parker.

Parker sighed and put his hands on his head. He tugged his hair. “How do I fix this?”

“By not being a pussy. Find the bitch, kill her, live happily ever after. The end.”

Right. Like that was ever the end. Happily ever after took hard work, but Parker was willing to put that work in. Finding his sotiei didn’t mean his life would suddenly become a bed of roses.

At least she’d never have to yell at him for leaving the toilet seat up.

Brian sat next to him on the curb. They were across from the town hall, staring at the ruins. Amara was over there with the other dryads, draped in nothing but his shirt, trying to figure out if any of the plants had survived the carnage. He could have answered that.

Thanks to the thorns waving around the windows, the naiad hadn’t been able to pick out the plants individually, saving plant from weed. She’d been forced to call water from all the plants, draining them dry, letting them wither and die a rapid, arid death. That life-giving water now seeped through the cracks of the town hall’s floor, mere inches from the roots of the plants it had once nourished.

“Shit. Dragos and Kate are going at it.”

Parker looked where Brian pointed, uncaring that Dragos was having domestic problems. Kate screamed at Dragos, her long, occasionally pointing at Mina, Greer and Ash with her clawlike nails. Dragos stood with his arms crossed, his expression as cold as ice, his lips compressed into a thin line. “And?”

“Kate is the town treasurer.”

“Fuck. Double fuck.” Not good at all. “You think she’ll try to talk him out of rebuilding?”

“Possibly.” Brian sighed, his shoulders slumping. “Doubt she’ll lift her hand for us now, even to give us the finger.” Not that Parker wanted anyone who smelled as bad as Kate near Amara. He was surprised Dragos couldn’t sense how foul the woman was. Did she have him wrapped up in some sort of spell? If she was as bad as Parker sensed, he wouldn’t be surprised.

Damn. Once they were done dealing with Terri, he’d be trying to free another vampire from another evil witch. He groaned and covered his hands. So much for the white picket fence and two-point-four vamplings.

Amara walked toward them, fierce fury on her beautiful face. He was surprised she’d reverted to human, considering how angry she was. He stood to meet her. “All done, my sweet?”

Her lips curved, but she didn’t respond the way he’d hoped. “I need to go home.” Parker held out his arms, and she stepped into them, shaking with grief and rage. “Explain to me again why the bitch isn’t dead.”

Parker sighed. “Confused vampire hormones. But I’m working on that.”

She shifted against him. He knew it was a result of the rage and the fear, but her nipples were like pinpricks against his naked chest. Suddenly all he could think about was getting her home, getting her naked and checking every single inch of her for wounds before licking her clean. His cock twitched in his jeans as he thought of taking her against the wall, the door. Possibly in the car on the way home. Hell, maybe there was a dark place around the corner, an alley or something where he could feel her around him, know she was safe and sound. He didn’t care that she was dirty and exhausted. All he cared about was reclaiming what was his. He felt his fangs descend as he thought of having her in the jeep, leaving his scent all over it. “We’ll take your car.” She pulled away. “Brian, you take mine.”

Brian glanced over at him. Whatever he saw, he turned away quickly, but not before choking off a laugh. “Whatever you say, boss.”

“Oh, some alone time. Hey, Brian, I don’t suppose you’d like to test-drive Amara’s couch?”

Amara’s eyes were huge. She opened her mouth, but whatever she was going to say, Parker was in no mood to hear. He needed her, needed to finish what had begun a few days before.

He needed to complete the ritual and mark her as his sotiei.

Parker whirled Amara toward the jeep. “Let’s go.”

Amara didn’t argue when Parker chose to drive. She stared out the window, her arms across her chest. She trembled, but he knew it wasn’t from fear. It was rage that made her shiver, anger that had her fingers dancing up and down her arms.

He could work with that. He’d give her an outlet for her rage and grief. He could take whatever she could dish out.

The only thing he wouldn’t be able to take was her leaving him, and he knew of a way to keep that from ever happening.

Parker drove down a side street. He couldn’t risk going toward the woods, couldn’t allow them to be that vulnerable to Terri’s machinations. He turned into a deserted parking lot. The grocery store was closed for the night, the lights dimmed. Theirs was the sole car in the lot. He was banking on the cops being at the town hall dealing with Terri’s attack. He had no desire to show law enforcement a full moon.

And it had the advantage of being much closer to the town hall than Amara’s house.

“Parker?” Amara glared over at him. “Why are we here?”

He threw the jeep into park and turned off the ignition. “I need you.”

Her eyes widened. “Here?”

He grabbed the ends of his shirt and pulled, ripping the buttons. “Here.” He took her hard nipple between his teeth and bit down gently. “Unless you have other plans.”

She twisted in the seat and thrust her breasts toward him. “Suck on them.”

Oh, it was going to be that way, was it? Parker kept his smile to himself and sucked, giving her what she wanted. She needs this as much as I do.

When she started to writhe under his mouth, he followed her until he was twisted over the gearshift, her back pressed against the jeep door, her hands buried in his hair.

This isn’t going to work. She was panting, her hips undulating, and he needed her so badly he felt like screaming. He glanced toward the hood. I wonder…

Parker grabbed Amara around the waist with one arm and held tight. With the other, he opened the door, ignoring her startled squawk when she almost fell out. Laughing, he flew them out.

“Parker?”

Amara’s voice was shaking. To soothe her, he took her nipple back into his mouth, sucking her into him. She gasped, her head falling back, her eyes closed. She wrapped her legs around his waist, driving her wet pussy up against his jean-clad erection.

Much better. Parker moved until Amara’s back was against the warm hood, his shirt protecting her from the heated metal. Now he could turn his whole attention to making Amara scream. He landed on his feet and dragged her down so that her pussy was on the edge. “Beautiful girl.” He bent over and took a taste of his Amara from her wet hole to her clit. This time he wanted her hands to touch, to play. Wanted her to caress his skin, torture her nipples until they were red and puffy. So he didn’t order her to leave them put. “Play with yourself, my sweet. Show me what you like.”

Her eyes were passion-glazed. She began to stroke her breasts, fondling the mounds, cupping them, barely touching anywhere near her nipples.

He responded by keeping his touches to her pussy languid, sweet, playing with her with fingers and lips and tongue until her movements became more rapid. He did love the taste of his sweet girl, could eat her all day and never tire of the flavor. He stroked her thighs, played with the sensitive spots behind her knees, lifted one leg up so he could lick a long line from ankle to knee.

Her fingers were on her nipples, plucking at the hard nubs. Parker watched, fascinated, as his sotiei brought herself to the close to the brink with those touches alone. He stood and put her feet against his chest to hold her steady, freeing his hands to touch where he would without fear she’d fall. He took out his aching erection and stroked himself. Her gaze was on him, on what he was doing to his cock, and the sight merely heightened his pleasure. He inserted a finger into her and fucked her slowly with it. He loved the way she tightened around him. She gasped, squeezing her eyes shut as the first orgasm rolled through her, making her tremble under his touch.

Her smile was full of feral heat as she used her legs to push him away. She stood, and the shirt puddled at her feet, the moonlight bathing her curves in shadows and light. Parker was entranced. The hand on his cock stilled.

She crooked her finger, and Parker went willingly. She took him by the cock and led him behind the jeep, her ass swaying enticingly.

Parker was going to fuck that ass if it was the last thing he did. The thought of her squeezing him like a vise between those cheeks almost had him coming in her hand.

She opened the trunk and bent over, placing her hands inside and wiggled her butt. “Well?”

Parker growled. He couldn’t help it. His mate was uninjured, she’d come and her scent teased him. Her ass was pale against the dark interior, and she’d invited the vampire inside.

And Parker was hungry.

There was nothing left of the gentle, languid lover when he shoved inside her pussy. He was aching and hard and desperate to come, to feed on her warmth. He wrapped his hand around her hair and yanked, the beast close to the surface. He wanted her head back, her neck bared to his bite, his hunger. Amara groaned, tilting her head with his demands, arching her back. Her pussy clamped around him. Parker draped himself across his sotiei, his hand next to hers, his cock buried to the root. Her moisture dripped onto his balls. “I hunger, sweet.”

Her lips curled. “Then feed.”

He struck, digging his fangs into her throat. Liquid heaven poured down his throat. He sucked at the bite, drinking her in, taking her essence into him, making her a part of him.

Amara moaned. Her legs trembled. He began to fuck her hard and fast, giving her the other side of the man she’d taken as a mate, the beast within. Amara nodded her approval as best she could.

“More, Parker. Give me more.”

Parker lost it. She wanted more?

Then his mate would have it.

He reached down until his hand brushed the top of her ass. He wouldn’t go there yet. Not without lube. The beast would never allow him to hurt her, but he could give her a taste of things to come. He pressed his thumb to her anus, let her feel the pressure. Someday he’d put a plug there and fuck her with it in. Or he’d slip a dildo into her pussy and fuck her ass. He’d fill her up until she couldn’t think, could do nothing but feel.

Amara shoved back onto his thumb, taking the tip inside. Parker froze. He licked the wounds on her neck closed. “No lube.”

She growled. His fist was clenched in her hair, his dick was pounding so hard into her pussy she’d be sore for days and she freaking growled at him. “Get some.”

Parker’s eyes widened. He seriously considered breaking into the supermarket. His mate demanded, and he wanted to provide.

“Parker.” She thrust back until his thumb was buried to the first knuckle, wincing as it breached her.

Parker flew. Who cared if he got arrested for breaking and entering? It was but a moment to fly to the roof and find a way in. There had to be a way onto the roof from the inside for inspections, and Parker found it—a simple trapdoor. He opened the lock with a thought and raced inside.

Once in the main part of the store, he found the lube, grabbed it, dropped a twenty on the floor and rushed back out. He’d never flown so fast in his life.

Amara was sitting on the edge of the open hatch, her legs crossed, her eyes dancing. He held up the tube. “Lube.”

Amara turned and bent over once more. Her head tilted to the side, giving him access to her neck. Her tousled red curls looked like blood against her pale skin. “Good.”

He shuddered. He was going to come before he ever got inside her. He just knew it.

“Have you ever done this before?”

She grinned, and whoever had put that satisfied look on her face needed to die. “Once or twice.” She shook her ass at him. “C’mon, Parker. I need.” Her expression turned fierce. “You do too. I know what’s coming next. You’ll mark me for the third time, and I’ll be yours forever.”

Parker ripped the tube open, splattering lube all over the place. He managed to get enough in his hand to get his cock good and slick. He scooped more out of the shattered packaging and rubbed it across her rosette. With great care, he pressed inside her, stretching her with his finger.

Amara moaned and pushed back, taking the entire finger. The knowledge that she was no stranger to ass play ripped through him. Part of him was glad. He was less likely to hurt her, but the part of him that knew Amara was his was both enraged and devastated.

He inserted a second finger, scissoring them, stretching her for his cock, fucking her with them until her knees trembled once more. He wouldn’t bite her again until he was fully seated between those tempting, lush globes.

“Now, Parker.”

“I won’t hurt you.” He started to slide a third finger into her.

She looked at him through the fall of her hair. “You won’t. Now fuck me.”

He was stunned his eyes didn’t cross. He took his fingers from her and grabbed her hips. “Ready for me?”

“Mm-hmm.”

He put the wet tip of his cock against her ass and pressed inside. He might not be her first, but he would damn well be her last. He was determined to be her best.

He entered her slowly, let her adjust to his presence. When she growled again, he moved, careful to keep his movements easy and slow. Before long, she was bucking back against him, forcing him to increase his speed. “Parker. Fuck me. Fuck me hard.” She looked at him with hot, desperate eyes. “Make me forget.”

He was lost. He would give her almost anything she wished. His eyes flamed as he wrapped his hand in her hair, tugged her head to the side. He sank his fangs into her neck and fucked her ass the way she’d begged him to, the way he’d fucked her pussy, in long, hard strokes that filled the jeep with the sound of flesh meeting flesh. She screamed her approval, turned wild in his embrace. He drank from his sotiei and loved on her.

Loved her. She was so strong, so beautiful yet so vulnerable. How could he not? She was everything he’d ever wished for and more, and Parker would spend the rest of his life making sure she never felt alone again.

Parker used his feet to force her legs closed. He wanted her as tight as he could get her, for both their sakes. He began ruthlessly stroking her clit. He needed her to come, needed to shoot inside her. He needed to taste her pleasure in her blood. He needed to mark her for the third time, so no one could ever mistake that she belonged to him.

Amara’s whole body shook. Her mouth opened in a soundless scream, her blood bubbling with the taste of joy, her ass clenching around him so tightly he couldn’t move.

The feel of her milking his cock with her ass was so intense he saw stars. He came with a muffled groan, and it was more than he’d ever imagined, better than anything he’d ever had.

Parker pulled his fangs from Amara’s neck and licked the wounds closed. He was grateful he was mostly dead. Amara’s orgasm had damn near killed him again. He pressed a soft kiss to the spot he’d come to think of his, where the marks of his teeth were already fading away.

“We are so doing that again,” Amara panted.

Parker smiled and shifted. A gasp escaped Amara’s lips as he moved his cock inside her tight ass. “It would be my pleasure.”

Again and again and again. Hell, if he had his say, he’d stay right where he was for the rest of his unlife, buried to the hilt in his sotiei. He couldn’t think of a better way to spend eternity.

“Parker?”

“Hmm?” He nibbled another set of kisses down her neck.

“I can’t feel my fingers.”

Her hands were pressed so hard against the inside of the trunk that her fingers had turned white. “Damn. And I was so comfortable too.” She giggled as he slid from her body and helped her stand on wobbly legs. His weren’t any stronger, but there was no way he would let her see that. “Come on, sweet. Let’s go home.”

Amara allowed him to help her into the jeep. Parker took off, content with the world, smiling wickedly as he thought of the tattered shirt they’d left behind.

Amara woke to a cool, strong arm draped across her stomach. Her ass was pressed up to Parker’s crotch, but unlike most men, her lover didn’t have morning wood. She glanced at the window. Make that early-afternoon wood. Parker was still, the light taking its toll on his vampiric body. Well. At least I bagged a man who doesn’t snore. Amara slipped out from under him and headed for the bathroom. He might not need to use the facilities, but she sure as hell did. She began her morning routine, yawning her way through until she started brushing her teeth.

Amara frowned. She leaned in closer, jumping slightly when the edge of the toothbrush in her mouth hit the mirror. What the fuck?

The three bite marks weren’t what bothered her. No, she’d known Parker was going to mark her, especially after declaring she was his blood wife. Vampires were extremely territorial and protective. She would have been surprised if Parker hadn’t marked her in some way.

No, what bothered her was the pale patch of yellowish-green below the marks. Something felt off about it. It wasn’t a bruise. The area wasn’t tender, but it was warm to the touch. Come to think of it, she felt more tired than normal. She’d put that down to the incredible, rocking sex, but maybe she was coming down with something.

What kinds of diseases did dryads get anyway? Amara had been immune to most of the things that plagued the mostly human youths she’d grown up with. Colds didn’t affect her. Measles, mumps and chicken pox were something to watch, not catch. And the flu couldn’t get a foothold in her lungs.

Could she get Dutch elm disease? She fingered the oddly colored spots. Oh hell. It couldn’t be maple wilt, could it? The fungus had been known to fell mature trees.

She shook her head. She couldn’t get a tree disease. That would be silly.

The greenish-yellow mark mocked her.

Could she?

Perhaps she should talk to Ash, Mina or Greer. They might know what it was. She’d never had the opportunity to discuss things like this with her kind before. She wondered if now that the rest of the town knew what she truly was, their attitude would change. And if it did, would it be for better or worse?

She finished brushing her teeth and hopped in the shower, washing the dirt and dust of the day before off her. Amara washed out her curls, grimacing at the gray, dingy water that flowed down the drain. She should have asked Parker to help her wash off. The man would probably have jumped at the chance to play with her while she was sleepy, naked and wet. Now, instead of wet, horny vampire, there was a load of skanky laundry in her future. She couldn’t imagine sleeping on those dirty sheets again. Damn it.

Amara paused, the loofah dripping soap bubbles down her stomach. Come to think of it, why hadn’t she asked Parker to take a shower with her? Making slow, easy love with Parker while he was naked and wet and covered in bubbles? She shivered. Note to self: add that to my to-do list!

She finished her shower quickly. Her stomach was growling. She could almost taste the muesli she had every morning. Perhaps she’d add some berries to it this morning to sweeten it. She stepped out of the shower and reached for her towel.

“Amara.”

Amara shrieked. Ash stood there, his gaze intent on her neck. “We need to talk.”

“You couldn’t wait until I drove out to the forest?” Amara wrapped the towel around herself, her eyes darting to the motionless vampire on the bed behind Ash. He hadn’t moved, but the faintest hint of red could be seen as his eyelids lifted a fraction. If she didn’t calm herself, Ash would find himself facing her mate’s beast without Parker there to control it. She took a deep breath and did her best to save all their lives. “Ash? Could you wait for me in the living room?” Her voice was calm, but her gaze remained on Parker. She hoped Ash would take the hint and skedaddle before Parker decided on dryad for breakfast.

She gulped, a sudden bout of nausea rushing through her, there and gone again so fast it barely registered.

Ash flinched. “Damn. I forgot about that.” He gestured toward Parker. “I’ll be waiting.” Ash sauntered out of the bathroom on silent feet, hopefully unaware of the gleaming red eyes that tracked his every movement. Only when Ash was out of the bedroom did the vampire settle back down. Amara waited to make sure the beast had gone back to sleep before she dressed and left the room.

Ash was waiting. He was poking through her kitchen. He had her teapot in his hand, smiling at the dancing mice painted on the side.

“What’s up?”

He put the teapot back on the stove, any hint of a smile disappearing. “You’ve been infected with something.”

Amara touched her neck. “How?”

“How did you get infected, or how do I know?”

“Both, I think.”

Ash grinned, and Amara was afraid again; he looked every inch like Oak’s defender. “The entire forest senses you, Amara.” Ash stepped forward and circled her, predator to her prey. The only thing preventing her from reacting was the knowledge Parker would wake up and rip Ash’s arms off if she so much as flinched. “The forest knows when its hamadryad is ill. And you are definitely not well.”

Amara swayed, her vision blurring. He was right. Something was seriously wrong.

“Whoa. And we need to take care of this right now.” His fingers approached her neck, but he didn’t touch. “Do you know how you got infected?”

Amara fingered the mark; the warmth there was somehow repulsive. That clever, evil bitch. “The pollen.”

Ash snapped his fingers. “Of course. Your vampire fed from you last night?”

“Before I bathed. His fangs must have pushed some of the pollen beneath my skin.”

Ash stepped back. The feeling that she was being hunted faded away. “We need to speak to Mina about this.”

“Didn’t Mina send you?”

“No. I knew before she did.”

Huh. That was odd. “Are the three of you all right?” They’d breathed in the pollen. “As far as I know, we are. It’s possible that breathing in the pollen wasn’t enough, since blood is mixed in so deeply with this curse.”

“Or it was specifically targeted toward me.” The huge amounts of pollen the weeds had released might have been a fail-safe, ensuring Amara came in contact with it no matter what.

“Is that possible?”

“Are you feeling any effects or noticing any bruising? Is the forest reacting to you differently today?”

Ash shook his head. “No. I think we need a witch for this.” Once again his fingers danced close to her skin, but he didn’t touch. She couldn’t blame him. If this pollen infected Ash, it could destroy a fourth of the forest before the dryads could stop it.

Brian stumbled down the stairs and came to a halt at the sight of Ash in the living room. “Oh. Good afternoon, Mr. Ward.”

“Good afternoon, Brian. Please, call me Ash.” Ash shook hands with Brian. “Amara’s sick. I need to get her to Mina.”

“Brian, can you think of any witches in town who you trust one hundred percent?”

Brian frowned. “Not Kate.”

No. Not Kate. Never Kate. The bitch had been screeching at Dragos about her stupid skirt and her broken heel, completely ignoring the damage to the town hall and the plants around it. Hell, she’d barely touched on the fact that Parker had a witch after him. She was pretty sure Kate would love to have Parker and Greg shunned because she’d been embarrassed. Goddess, she hated that bitch. “What about Mel?”

Brian nodded. “She’s trustworthy. And Kate hates her.”

“Bonus! Mel it is. Do me a favor and call her. Tell her to meet us at the visitors’ center outside the park, okay?”

“No problem. If I can’t get ahold of her, I’ll call Selena.” Brian poured himself a bowl of cereal, but his attention was centered on Ash. “Do I need to wake Parker?”

“Can you wake Parker?” Amara had thought once daylight hit, Parker was down for the count.

“It’s something a Renfield can do, but only in emergencies and only if he doesn’t mind being a midday munchie, but yes, I could.”

“No. That would only do both you and Parker more harm than good. Besides, we can handle this.” Amara picked up her jacket and slid her feet into her boots. “Let Parker know where we are and tell him it looks like I picked up a problem from last night.”

Brian’s eyes widened. “You’re pregnant?”

Ash froze. He looked horror-struck.

Amara giggled. “No, silly. Aren’t vampires sterile?”

“Most, yes, but not all. And Parker’s unique. Who knows what he’s capable of?”

Amara’s face flared bright red. She’d been with Parker without a condom because vampires couldn’t impregnate her or give her any diseases. Her mind reeled at the thought of a dryad/vampire hybrid child.

Her child. She pressed her hand against her flat stomach and gulped as another bout of nausea threatened to send her worshipping at the porcelain god. “Tell me about it later, okay?” She had to deal with one problem at a time or she’d become overwhelmed, forced to commune with her tree whether she liked it or not. Hell, she was already beginning to crave her tree’s touch, but with the disease infecting her, she didn’t dare.

“Done. I’ll let Parker know if you’re not back by sunset.” Brian took hold of her arm, a worried frown creasing his forehead. “Be back by sunset, Amara.”

She would do her best, but she wasn’t making any promises. She went to help Ash load his bicycle into the back of her jeep, but it was already there. Amara didn’t want to know how Ash had gotten into her car and put the bike there without the keys. “You are one scary-ass dude.” She started the car and pulled out of the driveway.

“Thank you.”

Amara was glad he’d taken it for the compliment it was. “So. You’re positive everyone else is all right?” She had visions of zombie dryads shuffling through town, looking for… What? She pictured shambling dryads, their arms outstretched, groaning, Pooootaaatooooeeeesss…

“Everyone is fine, including the wolf pack. The forest released them this morning.” Something in the way he said it told her the forest had been less than kind in letting them go. She wondered if she’d be getting angry phone calls from the mates of bruised and battered wolves. “Are you?”

“What?”

“Pregnant?”

Amara almost swerved off the road. “No!” Not as far as she knew, anyway.

“Because that could complicate things.”

“Really? You think?” She shot him a disbelieving look.

He wasn’t smiling. “Your infection and cure could harm the child.”

The way he was staring at her freaked her out. “What?”

“It could turn the child into a vampiric weed.” Amara snarled, but Ash held his hand up, silencing her. “Think about it. A vampiric dryad child infected with the pollen of a twisted weed like Terri. What would the child become?”

She thought of all the so-called carnivorous plants in the world. “A walking Venus flytrap?”

Ash shook his head. “That’s the best-case scenario, Amara. Think about it.”

Her palm hovered over her stomach. What would she do if she was carrying Parker’s child and Terri had damaged it somehow? That volcano in her belly came damn close to erupting.

What if?

She pulled up to the visitors’ center and let herself out silently. Selena Giannone was waiting for her.

Ash stopped dead in his tracks. His breath hissed in. If Amara didn’t know better, she’d swear his knees quaked.

“Hi, Selena. Do you know Ash?”

Selena shook her head and stared at Ash, her expression wary. She appeared to be one step away from running from him, and Selena never ran, even when she should.

What the hell?

She hid her smirk. Interesting. Take that, Dragos. “This is Selena Giannone, our witchdoctor. Selena, this is Ashton Ward, one of our ruling dryads.”

When Ash took Selena’s hand, sparks flew. Literally.

“Holy crap.” Amara took a step back, brushing at a few that had lit on her clothes. “What was that?”

Selena, her mouth open, kicked Ash right in the shin. “What the fuck have you done?”

Ash bent to rub his abused leg. “Me? What the fuck did you do? You’re the witch, not me!”

“Keep your hands to yourself, or I swear to God I will turn you into a houseplant.” Selena took another step back, whether from Ash’s sudden anger or from the desire to remain untouched, Amara wasn’t sure. She was betting on the second. Selena had never backed down from Dragos at his worst. She doubted Selena even knew what she was facing this time, but she’d never back down from anything.

Just this once she should.

Ash’s expression smoothed to its usual calm appearance. Amara wasn’t fooled for a moment. “Amara needs assistance—magical assistance.” He closed his eyes and glided toward the forest. “Mina is calling.” He opened them and gestured toward the women. “Follow me.”

Amara shrugged. “Come on, people. Let’s get this over with.”

Selena sighed and stalked after them, her boot heels sinking into the soft earth. “No one mentioned a nature hike, damn it.” Selena glared at the trees. “Where’d Sparky go?”

Amara choked out a laugh. “Sparky?”

Selena shrugged. She really didn’t give a fuck what anyone thought of her. It was part of her charm, but she was too earthy for most people to handle. “Who called you? Brian?” Not that Amara minded. If she was pregnant, Selena was the best person to check her and the babe out.

“Yup. He was worried you’d need, and I quote, the big guns. No offense to Mel.” Selena slapped a mosquito off her neck. “Fucker.”

Amara laughed. “Don’t you mean sucker?

“Hell, I didn’t ask for either, so it can keep its pointy little proboscis to itself.”

Amara studied Ash’s back, not surprised he’d returned without a sound. Her lips curled up in a smile.

I wonder if she’s earthy enough for a dryad?

“Parker’s on the move.”

Amara and Selena jumped, earning a sharp look from Ash. “Holy fuck. Greg?” Was Selena using her powers to make him heard again? She shared a look with Selena, who shrugged.

“Don’t look at me. I’m not doing it.”

“Look, it’s taking a lot of juice to make myself heard, so listen up. Don’t ask me what’s going on, but Parker’s on the move. He’s sticking to the shadows as much as possible so he doesn’t become a crispy critter, but he’s smoking. From what I can tell, he’s headed this way. And Amara? The beast is in full control.”

Amara stared at Ash and knew what had set her mate off. The fact that she’d been naked in front of the male dryad, coupled with the fact that she’d left with him wouldn’t have sat well with the beast. “Oh shit.”

“What?” Ash was mystified. “Why did we stop?” Apparently Ash couldn’t hear Greg. That was interesting. Why could she and Selena hear him, but Ash couldn’t?

“Parker is up and headed this way, and his beast is in control, not him.” Amara waved to Ash. “You need to leave. If you’re here, he’ll attack without hesitation.” And no amount of chanting would stop him this time. She didn’t know which of them would win, but she couldn’t lose Parker, and she couldn’t leave Maggie’s Grove if he killed Ash. Her roots were too deeply settled to move somewhere else. It would kill her.

And that would kill Parker.

Ash bowed his head and slipped away, there and gone in an instant.

“Neat trick.” Selena scanned the skies, her markings glowing, her eyes turning white. “Parker’s almost here.”

Amara was worried for her safety. Neither of them knew the casuta, and without it, she might not be able to keep him from attacking. “You should go.”

Selena’s markings flared. “No. I can help you calm him. I’m not a threat to you or your mating, and his beast will know that.” She blew her bangs out of her eyes. “Oh well. Let me take a look at that.” Selena brushed her fingers over the mark on Amara’s neck. “Oh yeah. You’ve got something in there all right. Let’s see if I can get it out.” Selena closed her eyes and hummed, moving her fingertip in a complicated pattern on Amara’s neck.

The mark stirred under Selena’s touch, writhing with the witchdoctor’s movements. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Parker land. He was snarling, his gaze riveted to what Selena was doing. There was comprehension in those reddened eyes. The beast inside Parker understood Selena was there to help.

The story might have been different if Ash had stuck around.

Parker’s tension eased, the snarl disappearing into weariness. Seeing him calm down, she relaxed and allowed the witchdoctor to work her magic.

Parker settled on the forest floor, the burns on his skin blistered, dripping blood onto dry leaves where branches had cut him. He psychically lifted a mound of dirt out of the ground, disturbing a chipmunk family that squealed in terror and chattered angrily at having their den disturbed.

Parker didn’t seem to notice. He lay down and curled up in the hole he’d crafted. With a wave of his hand, the dirt he’d set aside settled over him, sheltering him from the rays of the sun.

Her roots ran into the earth, but to be completely buried by it? Amara shuddered.

“Yeah. I know. I prefer a mattress myself, but to each his own.” She blew Selena a raspberry, but the witchdoctor only smiled serenely. “Hold still. I haven’t gotten it all out yet.”

Amara obeyed. What the hell else was she supposed to do? Curl up in the dirt with her mate?

“There. All done.” Selena smiled, her eyes returning to normal, the markings fading from her skin.

“Thank you, Selena.”

“Don’t worry. You’ll be fine. I got all of it out and gave you a spiritual inoculation against future infections. And for the record, you’re not pregnant.”

Amara sagged in relief.

“Yet.”

She groaned.

Selena patted her shoulder. “Honey? Prophylactics are your friend.” She looked around, a frown darkening her face. “Where the hell did I park my car?”

Amara pointed toward the parking lot. “And, Selena?”

Selena turned back. “Hmm?”

“Be nice to Ash.”

“Why?”

“Because he rules the forest you’re standing in, dummy.”

Selena made a rude sound. “Oh please. He ain’t the boss of me.”

The leaves overhead rustled. Amara coughed.

Selena waved, her expression nonchalant. “Bye, Amara.”

But for all her brave words, the witchdoctor sure hauled ass out of the forest, muttering the entire way.

Amara pulled out her cell phone and dialed the learning center. “Rock?”

“You’re taking a sick day.”

Amara blinked. “I am?”

“Yup. Brian called me, let me know what was going on. Is it taken care of?”

“Yeah. I feel fine. Listen, I—”

“No. Sick day.”

“I’m already—”

“Sick. Day.

“Call Selena. She’ll tell you I’m fine.”

He sighed. “Amara. You’ve taken exactly three days off since you started working for me, and that was only because Glinda passed away. And you know I don’t count tree time as sick time. It’s written into your contract. Take a sick day. Hell, take a sick week. Enjoy your mate. I’ve got some things to work out on my end, but I think this will wind up being a good thing for everyone.”

Amara’s gut clenched. “You’re firing me?”

“What?” Rock sounded completely stunned. “Hell no. I’d fire myself first.” Amara began breathing again. “Now that you’re mated to Parker, there are some things that might get adjusted, that’s all. For the love of all that is holy, take some time off. Maybe find the bitch who’s after him and take her out while you’re at it.”

She headed toward the car park. There wasn’t much she could do for Parker while he was buried, but she gave a mental command to the forest to watch over him. The forest would alert her if anyone or anything disturbed him before his rest was over. “Yeah. Having some time off might not be a bad idea, but, Rock? I don’t want to take more than five days.”

Rock sighed. “Stubborn.”

“As a tree root.” She hopped in her jeep and started it, suddenly starving. She’d completely forgotten breakfast, and waffles sounded like a great idea. It wasn’t muesli, but a change was nice once in a while. Besides, heading to the local diner would allow her to gauge the townspeople’s reactions to her after the battle with the wicked witch.

“Fine. Do me a favor? Be careful, okay? I’d hate to lose my best friend to a psycho bitch.”

Amara grinned. “Will do. Bye, Rock.”

“Later.”

She dropped the cell phone on the passenger seat and headed off to find some syrupy goodness. She pulled up outside the diner just after three in the afternoon and was surprised to find so many bicycles parked out front. “What the hell?” Was school out already?

She entered the diner, and all conversation stopped.

Oh hell. It looked like every dryad in Maggie’s Grove was sitting in Harry’s, scarfing down pancakes, salads and veggie burgers galore. They stared at her, their faces slack, their eyes wide. Shit. She’d forgotten practically everyone ate at Harry’s, whether they lived in town or on the mountain. She pointed toward the door with her thumb and began shuffling away. She’d rather eat anywhere else. Like Siberia. “I’ll go now. It’s okay. Don’t get up.”

As one, the dryads stood and began walking toward her.

“Hell.” Amara opened the door and ran for her jeep, hoping the Children of the Corn had taken the hint. The first touch to her shoulder told her they hadn’t. She whirled around, ready to defend herself.

Soft butterfly touches on her hands, her hair, her arms and her legs confused her. Each dryad took a turn stepping forward and touching some piece of her skin that was exposed by her uniform.

Each one closed his or her eyes in grief afterward.

This was the first time any of them had come close enough to touch her. She had no idea what they were feeling or sensing, but from the way some of them had begun weeping, it couldn’t be good. She wanted to shrink, disappear until she wasn’t faced with their hatred anymore. This was ten times worse than someone crossing the street. “Please. Leave me alone.”

The dryads stared, most of them with tears in their eyes. Not one moved.

Amara swallowed. They’d surrounded her jeep. She couldn’t leave without possibly hurting one of them. She closed her eyes and prepared herself for the coming blows, physical and spiritual. “Why?”

Of all the people who’d chosen to attack her, the dryads were the only ones who were absolutely safe from retaliation. It went against all of her instincts to protect and defend, and now she finally understood why. As a hamadryad, it was her job to keep them safe.

The bastards.

“We’re sorry.”

That was the last thing she’d expected them to say. Amara opened her eyes. Around her, the dryads sat, some on the ground, some on her jeep, keeping her penned in with nothing more than their bodies. “What?”

The one who seemed to be their spokeswoman stood. Amara recognized her as one of the dryads who used to cross the street when she approached. That shunning had hurt more than any of them would ever know. “We’re sorry.”

“Glinda loved you, but she didn’t know you,” another one, this one male, said.

A third piped up. “And because of that, neither did we.”

“We followed the lead of Oak, Ash, Birch and Yew. They avoided you, so we did too.”

“But we didn’t understand why they did.”

“We thought they avoided you because you were different, not because Glinda asked them to.”

“We knew you were different. We sensed your pain, but we couldn’t make ourselves help you.”

“We were cruel to you.”

“We’re sorry, Amara.”

“So sorry.”

“So sorry.”

“We’re going to help you,” the spokeswoman said firmly. Amara, shocked, stood speechless, waiting for the other shoe to drop. “We’re going to help find the one who is after your heart. When we find her, you’ll know.”

Amara didn’t respond. She couldn’t. She was light-headed, afraid she might pass out.

They’d accepted her. They’d apologized to her.

She looked up.

Nope. Sky’s still there.

When she faced them again, some looked heartbroken. Others were stoic; still others were quietly crying. She could feel their pain, their remorse. Their heartache. It twisted inside her, made her want to howl, to punish whoever had caused them this much grief.

But how do you punish love? Glinda had never intended to hurt any of them, but she had, and now they all had to live with the memories.

The spokeswoman looked around and sighed. “We’ll leave you to your breakfast.” The crowd walked toward their bikes.

“Wait.” Someone had to take the first step in healing the breach love had accidentally caused. If they could come to her, apologize to her, then she could do her part to mend the rift. “Have breakfast with me.”

They sagged in relief, sighing and smiling and patting her skin once more. “Yes, please.”

“Thank you.”

“We’d like that.”

The chattering crowd surrounded her, suddenly eager for waffles and eggs. Amara stuck close to the spokeswoman as they reentered the diner. “How did you know I was coming here?”

The woman smiled. “You’re our hamadryad. We always know where you are, but we didn’t understand why until Oak explained it to us.”

She sat in the booth with a thump. They always knew where she was? “Do you always know what I’m doing?” That had the potential to be hideously embarrassing, didn’t it?

Blushes and giggles. “No, but a lot of the time we can guess.” One of them actually batted his lashes at her.

Amara didn’t know if dryads could sink through linoleum, but she was determined to find out.

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