Chapter Nine

Parker sat up and spit dirt out of his mouth. “Well. Isn’t this pleasant?” He hadn’t spent a night in the earth since…well, since he’d dug his way out of the stuff when he’d felt someone walking over his grave. He stood and brushed off. “Greg?”

“Here.”

He picked an earthworm out of his pocket and dropped it back into the hole he’d slept in. “Why aren’t I home in my nice, warm wife?”

“Because your beast is a jealous, macho asshole.”

He ran his fingers through his hair, shaking out yet more dirt. “And?”

“Ash visited this morning.”

“So?”

“Amara was naked.”

Parker winced. “Is he alive?”

“Oh yeah. She got him out of the bedroom and thought you’d gone back to sleep. When she left with him, your beast decided someone was trying to steal your mate. I got to them before you did and warned Amara. She got Ash to do a disappearing act, you dug your bed and lay in it, and Amara went out for breakfast with every dryad in the tri-state area.”

“Oh.” He stared at a chipmunk chattering at him in a shrill voice and wondered what he’d done to piss it off. “That explains a lot.”

“The good news is Selena said she got the infection out of Amara and that she should be fine.”

“Infection? What the hell happened while I was sleeping?” He tried to shoo the chipmunk way, but the little rodent wasn’t paying him any attention.

“Some sort of pollen got pushed under her skin when you fed. Selena said it was pretty bad, but she fixed it and gave her an inoculation of some kind. I didn’t understand what she meant, but I don’t understand half of what she says. For a witch, her powers are pretty strange.”

“How so?”

“She can do things most of us can’t, but can’t seem to do things a lot of us can. Remember how I said witches are connected to the earth? It’s like Selena’s connected to the spirit world instead. It’s freaky.”

Parker didn’t give a crap what world Selena was anchored in. “Amara’s all right?”

“Yup. Clean bill of health.”

“That’s good to know.” Parker pulled off his shoe and dumped dirt on the rodent’s head. That should show you who’s boss around here.

“She also said Amara isn’t pregnant yet.”

Parker paused in the act of putting his shoe back on. “Pregnant?” He howled in pain as the rat masquerading as a cute forest creature took a bite out of his ankle before scampering away. He landed on his ass right back in the hole he’d dug himself. “Pregnant?” He could feel his voice rising each time he said it.

“I told you to make little vamplings, didn’t I?”

“I thought you were joking!” He shoved his foot into the shoe, ignoring whatever it was that wiggled against his big toe. The fucker would be smooshed soon enough. He had more important things to worry about, like pregnant wives and impossible dreams. “I’m a vampire. I can’t impregnate anyone!”

“According to Selena you can. She said she’s not sure what all you’re capable of, since you’re the only vampire of your kind, but she suggested you consider wearing a raincoat on your little man from now on.”

“You’re joking.”

“Nope. Selena kind of confirmed you could become a papa.”

He rolled his eyes and got back on his feet. “Wonderful.” He wondered how Amara had taken the news. He figured if she didn’t fling something at his head when he saw her next, she’d taken it well. “I need to get back and check on Amara.”

“Uh, Parker?”

“Hmm?”

“Behind you.”

Parker turned. Two glowing green eyes stared at him from between two bushes. Slime slithered across his senses, leaving a wet, icky trail behind. It was akin to sticking his hand into a jar of fresh snot, and he didn’t like it, or the woman attached to the sensation, one bit. “Hello, Terri.”

The eyes blinked. “Parker.”

That voice sent a shiver down his spine. Where once his urge to flee had overwhelmed him, now all he wanted was the witch’s neck between his hands, her blood dripping on the ground. The only problem with that was he didn’t think Mina, Ash and Greer would appreciate having toxic waste dumped in their forest. “Long time no see.” He smiled and prayed she’d view it as an invitation. He needed to grab her, take her out before she hurt anyone else. “Come on out, pretty. It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”

“You’ve been a bad boy, Parker.”

Parker flexed his fingers. His claws slipped free, ready to shred the flesh from his enemy’s bones. She’d harmed his sotiei, infected her with something. For that alone she would suffer. “Have I now?” He allowed his accent to thicken, remembering how she loved it when he whispered naughty things in her ear. He’d use that against her, lure his prey out and pounce.

“You slept with that woman.” Terri’s voice was full of righteous anger and insane pain. “How could you do that to me?”

Easily. Amara was ten times the woman Terri was, even when she’d been human. “A man has needs, Terri.”

That turned out to be the wrong thing to say. An inhuman shriek of rage drove the birds from the trees. “You are mine!

Parker grinned. “Then take me.”

“Parker, no!”

He ignored Greg’s shout, intent on taking out the witch who’d made his unlife miserable. Tenacious vines bound his body so quickly he had no time to react. He was cocooned, only his eyes left free of the wrappings.

Not quite what he’d planned on, but he could work with it. She was up to something, so he’d allow her to hold him until he found out what it was. He felt none of the magic that had kept him in the iron cage all those years ago. Misting through the vines should be no problem.

Now that he wasn’t running away from her in terror, he got his first good look at her, and was horrified by what he saw.

She’d changed drastically since New York. She no longer looked human. Still curvaceous, she walked in the form of a woman, but where a human’s skin was rich with the flush of red blood, Terri’s skin had a sickly greenish cast. Her hair was the dry, pale brown of dead leaves. Her eyes glowed brightly enough for others to see by. Weeds sprouted from random spots on her body. A dandelion bloomed above her navel; crabgrass had replaced the hair of her mound. She smelled of rancid vegetation, like a compost heap that had sat too long in the sun, too rotten to use. “Did you think I would let you hurt me?”

Parker tried to shrug, but he couldn’t move. He couldn’t speak, gagged by the greenery.

One cracked green hand reached out, covered in mold. “I missed you, Parker.” Despite his struggles to move away she stroked his nose. “I’ll make you a deal. You leave with me. We become what we were always meant to be—husband and wife. Vampire and blood donor. And I will allow the town of Maggie’s Grove to live.” She gestured, and the gag was removed.

“You can’t destroy an entire town, Terri.”

She smiled. “It’s already begun.”

“You’re bluffing.”

“I’m sorry, my love. I didn’t want to, you know, but you forced my hand. You’ve turned down every invitation I’ve given you since you got here.” She ran her fingers across his lips. He had to resist the urge to spit her taste back in her face. “If you don’t leave with me, every single plant in Maggie’s Grove will rise up and tear it apart from the inside out.” She tilted her head. “I wonder what my thorns would do to the tender flesh of an infant?”

He gritted his teeth. “You’ll have to show me.”

“Oh, Parker.” She grinned, her yellowed teeth rimmed with algae. He tried not to gag at the overwhelming stench that poured from between her lips. “Very well. This won’t take long.” The greenery covered him once more, this time obscuring his eyes as well. He had no idea what was going on, but he was transported more swiftly than he’d thought she was capable of.

She’d grown stronger since the last time he’d seen her, and that terrified him.

He bided his time. She had to be bluffing. Even Terri wasn’t crazy enough to attack an entire town filled with supernaturals and their mates. They’d hunt her down with their last breaths and make her pay for what she’d done to their lovers, their families. She wouldn’t know a second’s peace.

The plants parted enough for him to see that she’d taken him high up onto the mountain, where his view of the entire town was unobstructed. People’s screams as they tried desperately to defend themselves, their homes, assaulted his ears. Glittering magic lit the night sky with silent fireworks. Fire flashed here and there, controlled by the resident fire elementals. Howls rose in challenge as the weres defended their own.

He gritted his teeth as the faint, tinny sounds of fire and police sirens raced along the streets. Fires had broken out here and there, seemingly uncontrolled. “Greg,” he whispered, hoping his friend would understand. He was no longer certain how fast Greg could travel, but if he’d beaten Parker to the forest to protect Ash, then he was betting on very.

“On it.”

“Stop it, Terri.”

Her finger tapped her chin, and yellowish-green pollen flew into the air with each tap. Parker had never been more grateful for the absence of the need to breathe. “I don’t think so. Not until you agree to my terms.”

He was bound to Amara. If he so much as sank the tip of his fang into Terri, he’d be in unbelievable agony. “Has anyone ever told you that you’re poisonous?”

She patted his cheek, leaving behind spots of slime. “I’m not poisonous to you, Parker. You know that.”

He kept his reaction from his face, but only barely. Maybe Greg was wrong. Perhaps she didn’t know about singele sotiei.

He’d use that against her, use her lust and her tainted love to keep Amara, and the rest of the town, safe.

She held up her finger and pressed it against a thorn on one of the plants surrounding him. A drop of green, sluggish…stuff came out of the wound. “Would you like a taste?”

I’d rather drink raw sewage. Although from the scent, her blood wasn’t that far off. “No, thank you. I already ate.” He caught the reddish eyes of a vampire on the hunt and prayed Terri didn’t notice. Dragos crouched in the trees above her, and he knew the cavalry he’d sent Greg to fetch had arrived. It was time to stop the madness, time to make sure she never hurt anyone again.

Parker turned to mist and freed himself from the coiling plants. “You made a grave mistake, Terri.”

“Oh?” Terri backed up, but if she was frightened, she hid it well. Perhaps she still thought she had him over the proverbial barrel.

Well, she’d just have to find out how adept Parker was at rolling that barrel. He’d crush her with it. “You pissed off the mayor.” The plant she’d wrapped him in began coiling once more around him.

Terri froze, and so did the plant. “What?”

“That would be me.” Dragos dropped to the ground, grabbed Terri’s head and twisted it clean off her shoulders. He tossed the head aside and stepped around the twitching corpse, waving his hand in front of his nose. “Phew. What the fuck is that smell?”

The plant that had wrapped itself around Parker slowly slid to the ground, its branches turning brittle, its leaves drying up. “A bad plant.”

Dragos’s brows rose. “Your tormentor, I presume?”

“Yes. Thanks for the assist.”

“No problem.” Dragos dusted off his hands. “In the words of your wife, that was one weed that needed pulling.

Parker chuckled. “Need a hand down there?”

“It would be appreciated.” Dragos lifted off the ground. “Come on, Parker. Amara’s waiting.”

Parker slid into the air, eager to see his mate and take a long, hot bath.

Amara yelped as fire licked up the side of the building and nearly singed her bark.

“Sorry.” Mollie Ferguson shot ball after ball of fire at the weeds surrounding The Greenhouse, but it was too little, too late. They’d already breached the windows, cracked the mortar between the bricks. If they couldn’t stop this soon The Greenhouse would suffer the same fate as the town hall.

She grabbed another vine and began ripping it from the brick, trying not to wince as brick dust landed in her hair. “Terri, you bitch, get your ass out here and face me!” She growled when there was no answer.

Amara had never been so frightened in her life. All over town plants had risen and attacked the people around them. Houses were on fire as elementals tried to stop the encroaching army of thorns and brambles. The earth trembled beneath her feet as the earth elementals tried desperately to hold on to roots, to prevent the weeds from moving forward. Air elementals whipped around in a frenzy, using their own powers to try and pull the plants from the ground, ripping them in two and shattering more than one car window in the process. The water elementals had taken the lesson learned at the town hall and drained the plants of water, killing them instantly.

And it wasn’t enough. Maggie’s Grove was losing to a single insane witch who somehow held the power of the land itself in her fist.

A firebolt singed Amara’s hair. “Weed,” Mollie panted, and that was all she needed to know.

Mollie was ringed in fire. Her body had become a living blaze. Amara was impressed; she’d never seen her so angry before—or so human. She could almost like this Mollie.

A root threatened to trip her up, but a werewolf who’d joined in the fight pounced, forcing it back into the ground. Amara turned her attention back to the battle at hand. She reached down deep, searching for a plant or tree that wasn’t under Terri’s control.

There. A birch, not too far away, and another, this one an oak. Roses responded to her call, impatiens and daffodils waving their blossoms, ready to fight for their home.

Amara linked to them and used them, but unless something happened soon it was a losing battle. Already the dryads of the town had begun to drop from exhaustion. She could sense them as they fell and prayed to the Goddess someone got them to safety.

The roots of the great oak rose, smashing at Terri’s weeds with mighty blows. The birch swayed, slashing with its branches; the roses slithered along their trellises, using their thorns to cut vines from brick. The impatiens dug as deep as their shallow roots could, trying to block the moss that crept closer and closer. Even the grass tried to help, creating a thick blanket the moss couldn’t cross.

Amara bellowed another challenge, wondering why the witch wasn’t responding. She had to be close by. No one was strong enough to do this from a distance.

A weed slammed into her from behind, knocking her to the ground. Just as she saw Mollie readying one last fireball, every weed within her senses quivered. Excruciating pain slashed through her and Amara whimpered.

“Amara? Are you all right?”

All around them the weeds fell to the ground. Only dried husks, dead leaves and the fetid stench of mold remained.

Amara whimpered again. “Ow.” Please let this mean what I think it does.

Mollie fell on her ass beside her and draped her arms across her knees. She looked as tired as Amara felt. “Yeah. Ow.”

She stared at the building covered in dead vines and wildly gyrating roses. Amara stifled a laugh as she watched them dance.

“Could you do me a favor?” Mollie pushed her sweaty bangs out of her eyes with a shaking hand.

“Hmm?”

“The roses have started doing the Macarena, and it’s freaking me the fuck out. Could you make them stop?”

He couldn’t wait to tell Amara that their problems were finally over. Ken was avenged, thanks to Dragos. He followed the other vampire down the mountain, feeling lighter than the air he flew through. He alighted not far from the farmers’ market. The plants there had indeed risen up against the townsfolk, but they were dry and brittle now, like the plant that had attacked him. The fire department was working on putting out the few fires that had started, and the police were keeping the people calm and in check. No looting would occur here. Everyone pitched in. It was going to be one hell of a cleanup job, but the people of Maggie’s Grove could handle it.

“Parker!”

He turned to find his Renfield jogging toward him, his expression relieved. “You all right, Bri?”

“I’m fine.” The Renfield panted as he pulled even with Parker. “Greg let me know what was happening, and I called Dragos.”

“Good call.” Parker stared at the damage done by Terri’s homegrown weeds. “Is Amara safe?”

Brian nodded. “She’s helping out around The Greenhouse.”

Parker winced. His endangered asters might not make it if The Greenhouse was damaged. “Damn.”

“So. It’s finally over. How do you feel?”

Parker shrugged. “Same as always.”

“Really?” Brain looked startled. “I don’t look like a tasty midnight snack right about now?”

Ew. Parker shuddered. “No, you don’t.”

“Uh-oh.”

“Uh-oh?” Parker wagged his finger at Brian. “No uh-ohs. There should be yahoos or yippees, maybe even a yee-haw or two. No uh-ohs.” He slapped Brian’s shoulder. “Come on, man! It’s over. Ding-dong, the witch is dead and all that.”

“Are you sure?”

A shiver of apprehension work its way up his spine. “Dragos ripped her head off and tossed it like a beach ball. That usually means dead, even in our world.”

“But does it mean dead in Terri’s?”

“What are you trying to say?” Please let him not be saying what I think he’s saying.

“How do you kill a weed?”

“You rip it out of the ground by its roots.” Parker’s gaze drifted back toward the mountains surrounding the town, and his blood ran cold. “You think taking her head wasn’t enough.”

“You’re still under the curse, as near as I can tell.”

“Or it could be my sotiei is a dryad, and my body is permanently adjusted to drink only from her.” Please let that be the answer.

“True. But to be safe, we should check it out.”

The vampire and the Renfield locked eyes. Parker didn’t want to think even for a second that Terri could be alive somehow, but… “Get Selena.”

Brian pulled out his cell phone and dialed. “Selena? We have a problem.”

Parker barely heard Brian explaining why they needed her and where they were. If his heart could have pounded, it would have. Terri had to be dead. She had to be. Nothing could survive having its head ripped off.

Could it?

“Excuse me. Are you Dr. Parker Hollis?”

Parker whirled to face the speaker. His sunny blond hair was full of soot and his bright blue eyes were rimmed with red. He wore one of the town’s firefighter uniforms and was a full six inches taller than Parker.

And he smelled of were.

Parker snarled, his eyes burning, his claws unleashed. The wolves were not his favorite people right now. He had no intention of allowing them to think they could get away with attacking his wife without suffering the consequences, no matter what Amara said.

The wolf threw his hands up. “Whoa! Hey. Down, boy. I’m not the one whose ass you want to kick, trust me.”

Parker misted, turning invisible to all the were’s senses. He solidified behind him before he could react, one arm around the were’s throat, his fangs inches from the were’s jugular, an easy thing to do with someone taller when you could fly. “Give me one good reason why I should let you live.”

The man swallowed. “Okay. I gather the rumors that you’ve taken Amara as your mate are true?” At Parker’s slight nod, the man’s frame went rigid. “I’m not the alpha. I didn’t order the hunt on your mate.”

“But you participated. You went after her, you and your entire pack, and tried to kill her.”

“We thought we were protecting the people of Maggie’s Grove, our young, our mates. We were wrong.” The man’s arms fell to his sides. He bared his throat, leaving himself at the mercy of Parker’s teeth. “If by my death we redress the wrong done your mate, so be it. But if you must avenge her further, I beg you leave our cubs be.”

Parker closed his eyes. The anger was close to the surface, but damn it, the man had made a sacrifice of himself. He could have tried to hand Parker the name of the pack’s alpha, but instead he’d taken the blame on his own shoulders.

If Amara had been killed or even badly wounded, Parker would have taken him up on his offer and considered it done. But she hadn’t been. She’d shown them mercy. Parker could do no less.

Shit. And he couldn’t even say he had a yen for blood.

But the wolves needed to learn Amara was his. “I’m not the one you owe a debt to.” He scratched the were’s neck hard enough to draw blood. “Your pack needs to apologize to Amara.”

“I will speak with my alpha.”

“You do that.”

“And I’ll apologize for my part in it, whether he approves or not. It’s the right thing to do.”

“The right thing would have been to not go after her in the first place.”

“You’re right.”

“Who is your alpha?” Because Parker had a strong desire to reach out and touch someone. Preferably with his fangs.

“Noah Wulfenbach.”

“Is he the one with the naiad mate?”

The were shook his head. “He’s currently unmated. His brother, our beta, has the naiad mate.”

He’d need to visit Noah Wulfenbach and have a nice chat with him. “Thank you.” He released the wolf, certain the man would bolt.

He was wrong. The wolf turned and held out his hand. “Carter Hayes.” He stood there, waiting for Parker to make a move.

Parker took a deep breath and pulled his beast back. Carter wasn’t the one he wanted to punish. He knew how wolf packs were supposed to work. The true apology had to come from the alpha, or it didn’t mean a thing. He shook Carter’s hand. “Hello, Carter. A pleasure to meet you.”

Carter winced. “Yeah. I’m sure.” He rubbed a hand across the back of his neck, his weariness bleeding through now that he wasn’t so tense. “Amara wanted you to know she’s heading home. The situation at The Greenhouse is pretty bad, but she’s done what she can. The rest is up to you and Mollie.”

“I’d better head that way, then, see how bad it is.”

“You might want to call Amara, let her know you’re all right and where you’re headed. She was worried when she realized you weren’t there.”

“Thank you for passing her message along.” He hadn’t quite gotten over his problems with the wolves, but this wolf wasn’t so bad.

“You’re welcome.” Carter strode away, rubbing at the mark Parker had left on his neck. Little did the were know that the mark wouldn’t fade until he’d paid his debt. Only when Parker was satisfied or the wolf died would the mark disappear, as if it had never been.

Brian tapped him on the shoulder. “Hey. Selena’s on her way to The Greenhouse.”

Parker shot Brian a grin. “I could get used to having a Renfield around.”

Brian grinned back. “Good, because you’re stuck with me.”

“Ah, but my month isn’t up yet.” Parker teased, knowing full well he had no intention of replacing Brian. Even if Brian had been a complete flop as a Renfield, he wouldn’t have broken Greg’s heart that way.

Brian blew a raspberry at him.

“Save that for Greg.”

Brian rolled his eyes. “C’mon, I parked over here. I’ll take you to The Greenhouse, then check on Amara for you. The thing the wicked witch put inside her took a lot out of her, and the fight in town took a toll. She’s beat.”

Beat? “She’s all right?”

“Oh yeah. Just tired. I’ll cook her up a light meal when I get back, make sure she’s hydrated. She’ll be fine.”

The Renfield was settling into his life nicely. “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.” Brian slid behind the driver’s seat.

“So. Have you completed the ritual?”

Parker’s smile was wicked. “She’s mine.”

“Then why ask me how she’s doing? You can tell how she’s doing by thinking about her.”

Parker grinned. “You know, I’d forgotten all about that.” He focused his thoughts on Amara. His grin softened to a smile when he realized she was half-asleep, as Brian had said. “Sweet.”

“Mmm. Parker.” She shifted on the sheets. “Where are you?”

He didn’t know if she realized she was speaking to him or if she thought she was dreaming. “I’m heading to The Greenhouse. Someone named Carter told me you’d gone home. Are you all right?”

“A bit singed, but otherwise fine. How are we talking?”

“We’re bound together, sweet. I can see you.” He ran his finger across her lips and groaned when they parted. “I can feel you.”

Her tongue darted out, trying to taste his phantom flesh. “Can you make love to me like this?”

Parker’s cock jumped. He was grateful the Renfield was paying more attention to the road than the state of Parker’s jeans. “Oh hell yes, but not now. Brian’s driving, and I’d hate to embarrass myself that way. We’re meeting with Selena to see if my curse has been lifted.”

“What happened? One minute we were fighting, and the next we weren’t. Everything pretty much died around us without our help.”

“Dragos decided Terri would look better minus her head.” He didn’t tell her Brian’s theory that taking Terri’s head might not be enough to kill the bitch.

“Did Dragos do anything else with the body?”

Parker groaned. “Fuck. You think she’s alive too?”

“Who else thinks so?”

“Brian. It’s why he wants me to see Selena.”

“Go. Tell me what happens when you get home. And, Parker? Be safe, okay?”

Warmth spread through him at her concern. “I promise. Sleep well, sweet.”

“Wake me when you get here.”

He pressed a spectral kiss to her lips before pulling away, the awareness of where she was a low hum in the back of his mind. He’d keep it alive until he knew for certain Terri was gone for good.

They pulled up outside The Greenhouse. Selena’s car was already in the lot, along with Mollie Ferguson’s. Parker got out and greeted the witchdoctor. “Selena. A pleasure.”

“Parker.” She tilted her head, her markings flaring to life. “Yup. You’re cursed.”

“Shit.” Parker glared up at the mountain. “What is it going to take to kill that bitch?”

“Fire.” Parker turned, stunned, to find a disheveled Mollie Ferguson behind him. She had on the tattiest pair of jeans he’d ever seen, a T-shirt that had more holes than cloth and sneakers a ten-year-old boy wouldn’t be caught dead in. Her hair was in a sloppy ponytail, and her glasses were askew.

She’d never looked more human.

“Fire?”

Mollie nodded. “The only way to truly kill a weed is to rip it out by the roots or burn it.” Fire flickered along her skin, and Parker danced back, his instincts driving him away from the threat. Something in her eyes scared him, a burning flame that could burst at any moment. “Bring her here. I’ll be more than happy to take care of her for you.”

Selena took one step to the left, widening the gap between her and Mollie. “Yes. Well. Here’s hoping she takes the hint and leaves town.”

“Right. She’s going to leave without me? I don’t think so.” Parker sighed. The Greenhouse’s walls were covered in dead vines. More than one window was broken. Scorch marks dotted the brick-and-mortar structure. He could already tell the damage was widespread and would be expensive to repair. “We’re so fucked.”

There was a sneeze and a whoosh. Parker glanced over at Mollie, who was batting at a cinder on Brian’s jacket. “Sorry.”

“No harm done.” Brian pointed her toward her car. “You must be exhausted. Let’s face it. Parker’s a night owl. Let him deal with some of this.”

Mollie’s shoulders slumped. “You’re right. There isn’t much more I can do here.” Her expression pleading, she straightened wearily. “Please, Dr. Hollis. Make this right.”

“I will.” And he meant that in more ways than one.

Brian helped the exhausted woman to her car, and they watched her drive off.

Parker stepped into The Greenhouse and groaned. The inside was much worse. He would be cleaning up this mess for days. He hoped Amara slept well without him.

“It is time to lip-synch…for your life!

Amara shoved some popcorn into her mouth, unable to tear her eyes away from the fabulous not-women on the screen. Glinda had never let her watch anything like this. She was absolutely fascinated. And where did they get those gowns? And the heels? They were to die for! “Are you sure they’re men?”

Brian yawned, nearly cracking his head open. “Mm-hmm.”

“They’re too pretty to be men. There has to be a trick somewhere. Oh!” Amara bounced up and down, almost spilling the popcorn in Brian’s lap. “I love this song!”

Brian yawned again. “Are you sure you aren’t tired?”

“Nope, I’m good. That nap helped a lot.” Amara pouted as the judges declared the winner. The pretty one with the sparkly eye shadow was sent home, but damn if the Asian girl hadn’t rocked. At least the funny blonde had gotten to stay. “This is fascinating.”

“Somehow I don’t see Parker in sequins.” Brian lay down, his head not quite on the arm of the couch, his feet tucked under her thigh. It looked like his head was floating, so Greg had to be there, holding his lover close. “Did you ever dress in drag?”

“Nope.”

“Not even that time with Mary Jane and the six pack?”

“You are not going to let that go, are you?”

Brian snuggled closer to Greg. “Nope. Who the hell was Mary Jane, anyway?”

“Mary Jane is another term for grass, weed, aka marijuana.” Greg sighed. “Fine. One night I was high off my ass and had a serious case of the munchies. I’d drunk a six pack with my bud, but we were starving. We headed out of our dorm and went searching for munchies, but we didn’t want any ordinary old crap. We wanted, for some bizarre reason, peanut butter mallow bars.”

“Let me guess. You went to buy some and ran into a hippie vampire?”

“Nope. The hippie vampire ran into us. Literally. He was doing that freaky-ass fast-as-shit thing you see vampires doing in the movies. He must have hit our van doing thirty miles an hour. Dented the front end in but good. My friend was knocked out, but I managed to climb out.” Greg chuckled. “First thing I did was ask him for peanut butter mallow bars.”

Amara was intrigued. She hadn’t heard this story from Parker yet. “What did he do?”

“Before or after he picked himself out of the tree he’d flown into?”

Brian laughed. “Oh Goddess. I can see it now. There you are, love beads dangling, asking for peanut butter while Parker picks leaves out of his teeth.”

“Nah, he hadn’t met Terri yet. Leaves didn’t do it for him until a couple of years later.”

“How’d you find out he was a vampire?” Brian rubbed his eyes. Amara didn’t think he’d be awake for much longer.

“The usual way. He was hungry, I was convenient and he bit me. Hell, he even gave me mallow bars after. It was the best date I’d been on in years, which is fucking pathetic now that I think back on it. We’ve been friends ever since.”

“You two are insane.” Brian yawned, his eyes drifting shut.

“Yeah, but he’s my best friend, you know? I worry about him.”

“I do know.” Brian stroked Greg’s leg. “Let me know when he gets home, ’kay?”

“Mm-hmm.”

“Greg? You mind if I keep watching this?” Another episode was about to come on, and Amara had to know who won and who went home.

“Not at all. I’m lovin’ that Asian girl. She is smokin’!”

Brian pinched thin air.

“Of course, I prefer blonds.”

“You’d better,” Brian muttered. “Night.”

“Night, baby.”

Brian’s hair moved on an invisible breeze. He smiled and snuggled in. His eyes drifted shut, and soon he was snoring softly. Amara turned the sound low enough to keep from disturbing Brian. “You sure you don’t want to take him to bed? I’m okay waiting up for Parker by myself.”

“I’m good. First off, I don’t sleep much, in case you hadn’t noticed. Second, if Terri is alive, she might come here. Least I can do is protect Brian or fetch Parker if she does.”

“Our personal guard ghost?”

“Something like that.” The remote lifted off the coffee table, and the sound inched upward. “Shh. I want to hear what that bitch has to say about my girl.”

Amara was so engrossed in what she was watching that she jumped when cool arms wrapped around her from behind. “Good evening,” Parker drawled in a bad Bela Lugosi.

She laughed. “That is so clich?.”

“Do you know how long I’ve waited to use that line?”

“Since 1931?” Glinda had been a horror-movie buff, but she’d loved the vampire movies the most, so Amara was aware the first Bela Lugosi film came out that year.

Glinda would have loved Parker.

“Ha-ha, funny girl. How about, honey, I’m home.” Parker stole a soft kiss, moving quietly in the face of Brian’s snores.

“How was your day, dear?”

Parker moved around the couch, picked her up and settled with her in his lap. “Absolute rubbish. Yours?”

“Ditto.” She rested her head against his shoulder with a sigh. Her lover was safely home; she could relax.

“Sequin alert.”

Amara spun around in time to see her favorite drag queen sashay onto the runway.

“That’s a very beautiful woman.”

“Yes, she is.”

Parker stared over Brian’s head. “Greg? Since when do you like the ladies?”

“I don’t.”

Amara dug out the last of the cold popcorn and popped it in her mouth.

Parker eyed the television with suspicion. “What in blazes are we watching by the way?”

“A RuPaul’s Drag Race marathon. And I have to say thank you for introducing me to this show. Who knew men in dresses were so hot?” She bit back a laugh as Parker choked.

“Gotta love men in sequins, baby.”

“Good Goddess.” Parker lifted Amara and deposited her back on the couch. “I think I need to go do something manly, like grow chest hair.”

“Homophobe.”

“Perv. If I see Brian dancing around in dresses, I’m bleaching my eyeballs.”

“If you see Brian in dresses, then he’s obviously out of my bedroom, and why would he do that? Let me tell you, the boy’s got legs up to here.”

“Lalalalalalalala…” Parker stuck his fingers in his ears and left the room, headed for the kitchen and a midnight snack.

Amara picked up the popcorn bowl and followed him. “How was The Greenhouse? What did Selena say? Did you find Terri’s corpse and burn it to a crisp and scatter the ashes to the four winds?”

“Damn near destroyed, agreed Terri probably is alive, didn’t go looking because I was busy trying to save the lives of my astrids and no.” He pulled out the blender and gathered the ingredients for his nightly meal.

“I’ve got blood.”

He grinned over his shoulder at her. “I know, sweet. I have to space my feedings so I don’t hurt you. But I would appreciate a few drops if you don’t mind.” He poured maple syrup into the blender and began beheading carnations. “I contacted Dragos while I was at The Greenhouse. He went looking for Terri’s body but didn’t find it. Damn it.”

“I was afraid of that. Weeds are really hard to kill. I’m surprised the dryads didn’t sense her.” A few had called afterward to offer their apologies, but Amara knew it would be difficult to find Terri if she was hiding on the mountain. Amara stuck out her finger. “Tooth please.” She barely winced when Parker pricked her finger. She added some drops of her blood to his meal, then let him lick the wound closed. “I almost forgot. Brian asked us to wake him when you got home.”

Parker put the lid back on the blender. “I’ll give you a few minutes before turning this thing on.”

“Thanks.” She brushed a kiss across his cheek before heading back into the family room.

She needn’t have bothered. Brian was awake and semiaware. “Greg told me he’s home.”

“Yes. He’s about to make some dinner. Why don’t you head on up? I’m sure Greg would love to tell you all about Jujubee.”

Brian glared at Greg, his arms crossed over his chest, tapping his toe on the antique carpet.

“What? Remember the movie 300? Tell me you’d kick Gerard Butler out of bed, and I’ll call you a liar.”

“So I need to keep you away from drag queens?”

“Just like I need to keep you away from Spartans.”

Brian’s glare turned to something much hotter. “I bet you’d look hot in a leather kilt.”

“Thank you, but I fear they chafe dreadfully.” Parker sat, his gooey concoction in a beer stein with a pink bendy straw. He’d perched a jaunty purple paper umbrella on the side. He’d even added one of those plastic cocktail swords with fruit through it. She hadn’t even known she had maraschino cherries in the house. And where had he gotten pineapple? “Now I think I’m ready for this show, don’t you?” He looked back and forth between the stunned faces of Amara and Brian. “What?”

Amara rolled her eyes and curled up against him, certain life would never be dull again.

Amara followed Parker to bed in the early-morning hours. Thanks to Rock’s forced vacation, she could sleep for as long as she wanted without missing anything truly important. Greg and Brian were already at the top of the landing. Brian laughed at Parker, barely able to keep to his feet.

“Duct tape? Seriously? Down there?” Parker shuddered. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“Nope. You’ve got to hide the candy, remember?” Greg’s voice was full of mirth. Amara suspected the only reason Brian was standing was the ghost holding him up.

Parker cupped his “candy.” “How do they get it back off?”

“Riiiip!”

Parker whimpered.

“Oh Goddess. I’m going to bed. You people are nuts.” Brian used the wall as a crutch, laughing his way down the hallway.

“Wait for me, Bri. Good night, guys.”

Parker continued to cup his manhood protectively. “That’s wrong on so many levels.”

Amara pushed past Parker. “I’m going to get some sleep. Are you coming?”

“I’m debating whether it’s safe.”

“I doubt a roving band of penis tapers is going to show up in the middle of the afternoon and hide your candy for you. Can we go please?” She was so tired that the walls looked like they were weaving.

“And won’t that image give me nightmares for weeks?” Parker followed her into the bedroom. He closed and locked the door behind them. “There. That should keep out the rogue penis tapers and sneaky peeping dryads.”

Amara crawled into bed, too worn-out to even remove her shoes. “Uh-huh.” She yawned, hoping Parker would shut the hell up and let her sleep.

“My poor sweet. Had a rough night, have you?” Parker tugged her shoes off one at a time. “Let me help you.”

It was her turn to whimper. “No sex. Sleep.”

“And surprisingly enough, I’m not into necrophilia. I like my women moving, thank you.” He slid her jeans off, chuckling when she glared at him out of one eye. “Sorry. My woman. Singular.” Her panties were removed next and tossed to the floor. She’d yell at him later for making a mess.

Her shirt slid up her body and over her head, followed by her bra. She bet it was somewhere next to her panties. The warm comforter was pulled over her, and a kiss brushed her forehead. “Sleep, my love. I’ll be here when you wake.”

Amara couldn’t answer. She was too busy following orders.

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