Epilogue

Parker watched Amara glide across the dance floor in the arms of another man and smiled. Greer was one of the best dancers Parker had ever seen. He moved gracefully around the room in a waltz that left most of those around the pair in their dust. The fact that the blond dryad couldn’t take his eyes off Mollie, draped in a shimmering red-and-gold goddess gown, let Parker’s beast know the man wasn’t a threat to his relationship with Amara. Despite bonding with Amara’s tree in the deepest sense possible without drilling holes and inviting splinters in sensitive places, Parker was still a possessive man when it came to his love. Almost everyone else who’d approached his blood wife to ask for a dance had met with a very pointed smile and a shake of his head before the question could even be asked. Only Dragos, Greer, Brian and Ash had been allowed to take his sotiei’s hand and lead her onto the dance floor. Call him old-fashioned, but he had no desire to lose his wife, and once upon a time stealing mates had been a sport among the bloody-fanged set. Amara, amused by the whole thing, had complied with his wishes and restricted her dance partners.

She was having the time of her life at Dragos’s party. So far most of the town members had made a point of approaching her. The reunion with the Madison family had been particularly intense. Amara hadn’t wanted an apology; she’d wanted her friends back. Parker figured with a bit of time she’d get her wish, and they’d all be able to mourn Ken together. His Amara was generous with her heart, despite everything she’d been through. By the time she was done, the Madisons wouldn’t know what hit them.

If some of the townsfolk approached Amara warily, they had good reason. She was amazing, powerful and beautiful and deadly beyond compare. And she was all his.

And much to Greg’s utter disgust, he wasn’t getting tired of saying it. His his his. He grinned like a kid with a fistful of free candy.

His.

He had to resist the urge to pinch himself. The time of terror was over. No longer would Terri haunt him, in or out of his nightmares. The witch was dead, her ashes scattered, the lingering traces of her wiped away from the Throne through fire and magic. Mina, weakened but whole, had been returned to her tree by Dragos, who refused to discuss what had occurred between them. Apparently things hadn’t gone quite the way Dragos had planned, because the mayor had been growling and sullen for weeks.

At least Kate was conspicuous in her absence. The whispers of relief when she hadn’t appeared on Dragos’s arm at the start of the party had been proof positive no one, not even the other witches, liked Kate. They liked her even less when she was with Dragos.

Ash stalked by Parker’s hiding spot, arguing fiercely with Selena. She was shaking her head, denying him a dance, and Ash was getting more and more agitated. He figured at some point Ash would lift the woman onto his shoulder and haul her onto the dance floor.

He wondered what Selena would do if he dared.

“Mr. Hollis.”

Parker, brave predator that he was, let out a squawk. How had she sneaked up on him? Now he had an idea of how Amara felt. “Mollie.” He answered her slow smile. “It’s good to see you looking well again. You had us all worried.”

She grimaced. “Sorry about that. When I use that level of control, it tires me out more easily. I didn’t even realize how low my flames had gone until I woke up in front of a fire, covered in about fifteen thousand furs with a shaking dryad trying to spoon hot soup into me.”

Parker laughed. The image in his head was just too rich. He’d have to rib Greer over it later.

“Don’t you dare laugh. He spilled it all over me.”

That only made him laugh harder.

“Try explaining second-degree burns all over your breasts to the emergency-room physician while Greer knocks everything over in an attempt to help.” She rolled her eyes. “It was the worst trip I’ve ever taken. And I had to do it naked because he lost my clothes. Hmph. And that doctor was cute too.”

Parker laughed so hard he began wheezing. She blew a curl off her forehead. “Well. Back to work Monday?”

He nodded, still laughing as Carter Hayes appeared. “What’s so funny?”

Mollie batted her eyes at the were. “Hi, Carter.”

“Hey, Mollie. You look lovely. Care to dance?”

“I’d love to. I’ll see you later, Mr. Hollis.”

“At this point I think you can call me Parker.”

She grinned, not a trace left of the uptight, nervous woman he’d first started working for. “Thanks.”

“Later, Mollie.”

Parker watched as the two went hand in hand to the dance floor. Greer, watching them, smirked. What…?

“OW!” Carter was scrambling at something in his lapel. “What the fuck?” He pulled the boutonniere off and glared at the huge, bloody thorn. “How the hell did that happen?” His gaze darted to the pale-haired dryad waltzing with Amara and trying not to laugh. “Greer,” he snarled. The boutonniere went sailing right into the back of Greer’s head.

Mollie was trying to soothe the werewolf, but it wasn’t working.

“What?” The dryad waltzed Amara closer to the other couple. “Did I hear my name?”

Greer stumbled, landing right against Carter. Carter howled again and began hopping, his foot in his hand.

“Sorry, sorry. Here, let me help you…”

Parker stopped watching. Greer was a fucking Fred Astaire in Amara’s arms. But he turned his so-called klutzy ways into a weapon to annoy anyone he didn’t like, and he really didn’t like Carter.

Carter would hurt a lot more before the night was over. He bit his lip and contemplated removing Amara from the mix, but when she “accidentally” ripped Carter’s pants off, he turned away before his laughter got the better of him.

“Hey, Parker.”

“Hi, boss. Having a good time?” Brian huffed out a surprised laugh. “Where are Carter’s pants?”

“Last I saw somewhere around his ankles. And yes, I’m having a marvelous time. You?”

Brian’s arm was around Greg’s waist. It was odd, but Parker was becoming used to it. He even thought he saw a shimmer of mist where his friend stood, which was an improvement. Selena had said that given enough time, he’d be able to see Greg once in a while as a fully formed apparition. Time Parker was more than happy to spend with the ghost. “We just got off the dance floor. Who knew Greer could move like that?”

“Who indeed.”

Mollie stormed past Parker, her cheeks bright red and her eyes flashing angrily. It was all he could do not to laugh in her face.

Brian snickered into his fist. “Something tells me Greer isn’t happy with her choice of dance partner.”

“You think?”

Brian looked toward Greg and took a deep breath. “We wanted to talk to you about something.”

Brian’s tone was serious and more than a little nervous. “You can tell me anything but who likes what done to them. That I really don’t want to know. I also don’t want to know why I sat at my kitchen table and had to remove a bottle of lube from my fruit bowl.” He sniffed. “One I hadn’t put there, mind you.”

“Homophobe.”

“Perv.”

Brian shook his head. He was becoming used to his unusual new family, and Parker couldn’t be happier about it. “Greg and I want to get married.”

Parker blinked. “Is that legal in Maryland?”

“Dude. I’m pretty sure necrophilia is illegal in all fifty-two states.”

If he could have blushed, he would have. “I meant male-male marriage. Pillock.”

“I’m dead. Legal has nothing to do with it.”

“We want to share our love, and no perv jokes, okay?” Brian looked nervous. “I guess we want your permission. You’re the closest thing to family Greg has. It would mean a lot to both of us to know you approved.”

Parker choked, touched that they’d ask him. “You don’t need my permission, but you have my blessing.” He shook his finger at Greg’s amorphous form. Was it Maggie’s Grove that had lent him that extra bit of strength, or was it the ghost’s bond to his lover? “I’d damn well better be your best man.”

“Wouldn’t want anyone else.”

Parker hugged Brian. “Congratulations, Greg.” He gave Brian his best sad face. “My condolences. Now you’ll be stuck with him forever. Almost like a hemorrhoid.”

“Don’t make me tell the Great Cactus Story of ’69.”

Brian was about to burst into laughter at any moment. “Do I want to know?”

“Yes.”

“No.” Parker glared at where he assumed Greg was. “I will so dump your ashes in the Atlantic and make you late for your own wedding.” He turned back to Brian. “Seriously. Where do you want to hold the ceremony, and who do you want to officiate?”

Brian’s shy look was bloody endearing. “We haven’t worked out all of the details yet. He asked me last night.”

“Oh. That explains all the moaning and thumping.”

Brian was horrified. “You heard that?”

Parker hadn’t heard a thing. He’d been too busy making love to Amara. A monkey could have been banging on his head with a coconut and he wouldn’t have cared. “Oh yes. It sounded like you had quite the time.”

Brian, wide-eyed, turned and began walking away. “Tell me about the cactus thing.”

“Don’t you dare, Greg!” Parker started to scramble after the pair but was brought up short by a hand on his arm. A very strong hand. “Can I help you?”

Noah Wulfenbach’s teeth were clenched. “I’m here to apologize.”

Parker shook free of the werewolf’s grasp. “Where did you go the other night? One moment you were racing along behind us, the next you were gone.” Most of the pack had returned, but enough hadn’t that Parker was pissed.

Noah grumbled, low and full of discontent. “One of ours was taken.”

Parker relaxed, some of his anger drifting away. “Bloody hell. Is he all right?”

“He’s missing. One of my strongest too.” Noah leaned back against a convenient pillar and shoved his hands into his tuxedo’s pockets. “We can’t find a damn trace of him.”

“Shit.” Parker rubbed his chin. “You think this has anything to do with Iva going missing?” The dryads were still looking but hadn’t found a trace of her yet.

Noah twitched. “Possibly. No one asked my opinion before. How long has she been gone, and why haven’t they said anything?”

“Is it your beta who’s missing?” Parker shot back.

“No. One of my enforcers.”

Parker’s eyes widened, and he whistled softly. “Damn. An enforcer would be tough to take down.”

“Which is why I think it was more than one person who did it.”

“Hell.” He looked around, but he could no longer see Greer or Ash. “Greer and Ash need to know about this.”

“I know your loyalty is to the dryads, but—” Noah sighed, “—we could use your, and Amara’s, help.”

He didn’t even have to think about it. “Of course.”

Noah straightened slowly, removing his hands from the pockets of his tux. “That’s it? You’ll help me? No making me grovel? No asking for favors?”

“You’ll grovel all right, but onstage, and to my wife. Other than that? We agreed that once you did, all would be forgiven. And if two of our people are missing, who else could get taken? Amara? Brian? Even Greg?” Parker shook his head. “I think we need to talk to Mina, Dragos and Selena, get their take on this as well.”

Noah nodded. He clapped Parker’s shoulder, and if he hadn’t been a vampire, he would have been driven to his knees at the force of it. “You’re good people, Parker Hollis.”

“Wonderful.” Parker tried not to wheeze, but he was pretty sure his elbow was somewhere down by his knee. Actually it would be difficult not to wheeze, considering his lung was folded in half. He straightened as best he could once Noah lifted his hand. “Where is Amara? It’s about time for your apology, I believe.”

Noah winced, but he followed Parker toward the stage.

“Amara, sweet?”

“Hmm?”

“Noah is here and needs to talk to you.”

“He doesn’t have to do this, Parker.”

Parker had made a pact, and by damn the alpha would stick to it. “Yes, he does. It’s a man thing. You wouldn’t understand.”

“Uh-huh. Where should I meet you?”

“By the stage, sweet.”

“On my way.”

“Everything ready?” Dragos, looking both suave and surly, appeared at his elbow. He grunted hello at Noah, who grunted back.

“Yes. And we need to have a powwow when this is over. It seems one of Noah’s enforcers has gone missing. It’s possible the same person may have Iva Yamauchi.”

“Yew?” That seemed to snap Dragos out of his self-imposed pity party. “You think they’ve been kidnapped?”

Noah glanced up at the stage as the music came to an end. “There’s my cue. We’ll finish this discussion later.”

“Come on, big guy. A few simple words and this will all be over.” Parker followed Noah onstage but stood back, letting him be the center of attention.

Noah stepped up to the edge and took a deep breath. The crowd turned quiet, waiting for Noah to speak. They all knew what was coming. Some were anticipating it with glee, others with dread. For some reason Parker didn’t think the alpha would take out his embarrassment on his pack; the man, for all he could be an arrogant jerk, had bone-deep integrity and a sincere desire to protect what was his.

Noah’s gaze raked the throng. “Two weeks ago my pack hunted an innocent woman.”

There were murmurs of disbelief, mostly from those who, despite evidence to the contrary and testimony from witnesses, still believed Amara was responsible for the deaths. Those voices were few, but Parker knew who each one belonged to.

He’d already visited a few of their dreams. He’d warned them, after all.

“We learned the hard way that you do not go after a dryad in her woods, especially a hamadryad.”

Most of the crowd laughed at that, some darting sly glances at Amara, others nodding in either understanding or approval.

“Yet she did nothing that would cause us permanent harm. She taught us a lesson and nothing more. And when we learned she was not the one responsible for the tragedy that occurred here, we realized some form of reparation would have to be made.”

Parker’s brows rose. This wasn’t what he’d expected Noah to say. “At first I thought that reparation would be monetary or perhaps a favor owed.”

Not uncommon payment in the supernatural community, but Parker had been after something far more precious than gold.

“Imagine my surprise when I was informed the price of forgiveness would be a public apology.” Noah was growling at the end. Some in the audience laughed, but most backed up a step. Parker noted that all those who laughed appeared to be pack.

What is he up to?

“Everyone knows I don’t apologize. Ever. I haven’t since I became my father’s beta, and I certainly haven’t since I became alpha.” He bowed his head and stared at his hands for a moment before looking back over the partygoers. “But today I offer one to Amara Schwedler-Hollis, mate of Parker Hollis, wrongfully accused of causing the deaths of two people and hunted by my pack for crimes she didn’t commit. I would defend our actions, except they were made in the heat of the moment and without proper knowledge of who the true culprit was. The fact that we thought we were protecting our mates, our cubs and our town should have no bearing on this. That, I have discovered, is no excuse for what we tried to do. The death toll, had we succeeded, would have been three innocent lives and the knowledge we would never again be allowed to roam freely within our beloved forest.

“For that reason—because the life we tried to take was an innocent one and because we were wrong—I offer this apology to Amara in all sincerity and with the full backing of my pack.”

And one by one, the pack walked onstage and stood behind their alpha, offering their silent support and their own unique form of apology.

Amara joined the wolves on the stage, her green gown floating around her legs, her brilliant curls pinned neatly to the top of her head. Parker had every intention of taking each and every pin out and watching those curls tumble about her head before he stripped that floaty gown from her body and tasted every inch of her skin.

He might even wait until they got home. This was an awfully big house. Dragos wouldn’t mind him borrowing a bit of it.

Amara stopped in front of Noah and bowed. “I accept the apology of the alpha and his pack. I also accept that you thought you were defending your people and your town.” She winked at Noah and grinned broadly. “I can understand the need to defend. Consider this over and done and your safe passage through the forest renewed with the blessing of Oak, Ash and Birch.”

The three ruling dryads bowed regally to Noah. They’d managed to get right up to the stage in time to hear Amara’s pronouncement and confirm it.

“We need to talk to them about Iva when this is done, my sweet.”

“We do?”

“Yes.”

“Crap. More trouble?”

“Yes. One of Noah’s enforcers has been taken. It could be connected to Iva’s disappearance.”

Amara took a deep breath, but she held out her hand and forearm for the alpha to clasp.

Noah took it, his big paw swallowing her slender arm. The crowd cheered the two, including one very enthusiastic witch who’d managed to sneak her broom in and was currently doing loop-de-loops around Dragos’s chandelier.

Noah looked at his pack and nodded once. They headed for their mates or partners of the evening, leaving Noah, Parker and Amara alone on the stage. The musicians struck up a lively tune, and Amara, laughing, dragged Noah into the gyrating crowd, proving once and for all that everything was forgiven and forgotten.

“Well. Dismissed.” Parker looked up at the witch in the chandelier. “I wonder if she’d like to dance.”

“Parker? What have I told you about the crazy?”

Parker laughed. “Fine. I’ll see if I can drag my wife away from the furry set.”

Parker stepped up behind the big alpha and tapped him on the shoulder. “May I cut in?”

Noah moved back, allowing Parker to take Amara into his arms, right where she belonged. “Enjoying yourself, sweet?”

She draped her arms around his neck. “Mm-hmm.” Her head lowered until it rested on his chest, her curls tickling his nose. “But now it’s better.”

Parker breathed in her scent and damn near fell over. She smelled wet and warm, inviting him into her. “Hold still, sweet. I’m about to take you on a ride.”

He reached out with his mind and traced her nipples with imaginary fingers before she could protest.

Amara gulped. “Oh hell.” She clenched her fingers in his hair and tightened them to the point of pain. “Here?”

“Think you can be quiet?”

“Are you kidding me? Take me home, Pa-Parker. Oh Goddess. Parker.”

He’d slid one of his “hands” down to the wet cleft between her thighs. He stroked her clit, eager to see her passion, to let everyone in this room know exactly who she belonged to. “You’re going to come for me, sweet. Right here, right now.”

She growled up at him, her eyes glowing bright green. “I don’t think so.”

Parker didn’t have time to react. He found himself slung over her shoulder like a sack of potatoes, his fingers dangling dangerously close to the ground. “Um. Amara?” He didn’t know whether to laugh or mist away, embarrassed beyond belief.

“Excuse me, please. I have to take my husband home.”

“Is he sick?”

Oh dear Goddess. Selena touched his hip. He wasn’t surprised when her hand was abruptly lifted.

“He’s fine, Selena. He just needs to go home now.

“Oh.”

He could hear the laughter in the woman’s voice and knew this would take him decades to live down. However, he could forgive a lot. Amara had called him her husband for the first time. That alone warranted his cooperation. “Can I walk at least?”

Amara strode forward, carrying him out of the ballroom like some barbarian hero—or would that be heroine? “Do you promise to be a good boy until I get you naked and begging?”

He blinked. “I think I could manage it.”

The ballroom doors swung shut behind them, drowning out the whistles, laughter and clapping of the people of Maggie’s Grove.

Yup. It would take decades for their friends to forget the sight of him being carried out of the ball by his petite wife. He cupped Amara’s ass as she carried him out of the mansion, intent on having her wicked way with him. Laughter bubbled out of him when she swatted his ass with an order to “be good.”

“And what will I get if I do?” he sent her along their bond.

“I promise to be very, very good.”

Parker grinned, his fangs descending. He hoped it was going to be a long night.

“I can live with that.”

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