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"Off to the ol' coffin, Phoebe?" asked Connor Ballard. He'd finished his shift at the Old Sass Café a few minutes early and had helped me finish mine. We'd wiped down tables together, and flirted all the while. He was Scottish, so every one of his words sounded like melted sugar.
"Ha. Ha." I'd been a vampire for nearly four years now. A few weeks after my son, Danny, was born, I was killed. I woke up undead, sporting a shiny new set of fangs and no heartbeat.
Oh, it gets better. Not only had I become a vampire, but I had the ability to control demonkind. Y'see, every bloodsucker gets the basic package: glamour, strength, speed, the inability to tan. Then each of the seven vampire Families has a different superpower.
I'm from the Family Durga. I can summon demons, send them back to the Pit, make them clean my house. They really hate scrubbing toilets. (Who doesn't, right?) I'm joking. I wouldn't let a demon in my house on purpose. Woe to the Pit dweller who even tried.
Thanks to the Consortium, we lived in a safe paranormal community protected by an invisible force field. Technology and magic at their finest. Ever since the Invisi-shield went operational, we've enjoyed some peace and quiet. The town's prospered. Vampires, dragons, witches, sidhe, lycanthropes, and even a few ailuranthropes, or were-cats, had settled down here.
Connor and I leaned against my car, which was parked in front of the café, and flicked glances at each other. It was a few minutes past four a.m., which was closing time for most of Broken Heart. Nearly all the lights on Main Street were off, including the neon sign for the café. Broken Heart businesses usually closed about three hours before dawn; that way we could get our kids and ourselves tucked in in plenty of time.
According to Connor, he was Ghillie Dhu, a Scottish fairy. Once, they lived in birch trees and used their powers to protect the forests. But the Ghillie Dhu numbered too few these days. So he'd moved here and I'd hired him as a short-order cook. It seemed to me he should've been a gardener, or maybe even joined the security team. God knows he was built like a warrior.
Even though I managed the place now, I'd been waitressing at the café since I was sixteen. I didn't figure death should stand between me and a paycheck. Besides, the café was like a second home to me.
I went by my maiden name, Phoebe Allen, though I'd been Phoebe Tate for all of two minutes. A quickie marriage to the guy who'd knocked me up turned out to be a big-ass mistake. Don't get me wrong: Jackson Tate was nice enough, and definitely a good daddy. But we sucked as a couple and called it quits before our kid was born. We shared custody of Danny, and since it was the summer, my son was with his father. Jackson had taken him to Florida yesterday, the start of a two-week vacation at Disney World. I was in that mommy limbo of feeling relief (four-year-old's absence equals sleep and quiet and tidiness) and the ache of missing my kid, shaded by irrational panic that something might happen to him if I wasn't there to protect him.
"Am I borin' you, lass?"
"No," I said, laughing. "I'm just thinking 'bout stuff."
"You miss your boy."
I was surprised he'd guessed my thoughts. Connor had never struck me as the familial type. I looked at him beneath my lashes. His face was slashes and angles. Hard-edged. Even the look in his eyes was all knives. The only softness I detected was the lushness of his mouth, the bottom lip slightly fuller than the top, lips that showcased perfect white teeth. And there was the dimple, of course. He had chocolate brown hair that he wore long; the ends brushed his shoulders. His eyes were the color of Crown Royal, rich amber, filled with secrets.
He exuded a caged strength I'd wanted so badly to see unleashed in bed.
It was unusual for me to waste time flirting. Or hoping for, you know, a little nooky. Well, not all-the-way nooky. Since sucking blood was such a sensual act, the original seven vampires magicked up the binding. If you had intercourse, you were bound to your lover for a hundred years. Needless to say, most of us were careful about mealtimes.
Mm-mmm. Connor sure knew how to get a girl riled. A secretive look, a quiet compliment, an unexpected touch . . . yeah, he'd employed them all over the last month.
I liked him. More than I should, really.
"Sunrise is only a couple hours away," I said patting the hood of my beat-up 1965 Mustang. She needed a paint job and some interior work, but her innards were top-notch. I'd taken my baby to our local mechanic, Simone Sweet, and she'd made the car purr like a baby tiger. "Think I'll take Sally for one last run before bedtime."
Connor's lips quirked. "Mustang Sally?"
"Well, she was brand-new in 1965," I said, grinning.
He laughed. Oh, Lord. He was sexy. I turned toward him, inched closer.
"Well then," he said, his gaze on my mouth, "I suppose I should kiss the pretty girl good-night."
I rolled my eyes and punched his shoulder. "Lame."
He put his hand over his heart as if I'd wounded him there.
"You have that fancy brogue," I teased, "and you can't give me a better line than that one?"
He cupped my face and kissed me.
His lips were firm and warm. He tasted like cinnamon and coffee. His fingers threaded through my hair, and my hands flattened against his muscled chest. His tongue slipped past the seam of my lips, beckoning me, daring me.
I met his passion with my own.
Heat poured through me, every nerve ending pinging with need, every molecule within me wanting. We parted briefly, he gulped in a breath, and then he recaptured my mouth, deepening the kiss, his tongue dueling with mine, his heart thundering under my palms.
Anything I'd ever had before was nothing compared to this maelstrom. I wanted to breathe in Connor, absorb him, take him into me and become whole.
"Lass." He pulled free, leaning his forehead against mine. He inhaled greedily, shuddering. Inhaling wasn't really an option for me, but quivering? That I could do.
My mouth felt swollen and tingly.
I looked down. My white Nikes and his black boots touched, our knees rubbing against each other, and I thought: We could be naked.
"Come home with me, Connor."
He drew me in close and tipped my chin so that I was staring into his eyes. An old word floated to the surface of my mind: aurum. Latin for "gold." His eyes were tarnished with the kind of sorrow I'd seen only in my mother's troubled gaze, usually when she was thinking of my father, who'd died when I was fourteen. I wondered about the tragedy that had dulled the shine of Connor's gaze.
"When you look at me like that," he said, running his fingers down my throat, "it's like you can see into my soul."
"No." I stilled his roving hand and took it to kiss his fingertips. "I just see you."
He sucked in a breath, and I was surprised my words had affected him so. Was this the game people played when they felt as if their hearts had met before the world began?
No, Pheebs. Animal attraction is not love.
"You wish to spend the night with me?" he asked. "And you make this choice of your own free will?"
His formal language threw me, but I went with it. Impulsiveness, thy name is Phoebe Allen. "Yes," I murmured. "I choose you, Connor."
He kissed me until my knees felt wobbly, and I knew, right then that I was in for one hell of a night.
Connor slid into the passenger seat as if he belonged there, Clyde to my Bonnie. I glanced at him and saw him staring out the window, his eyes lifted to the full moon. For a moment, he seemed as though he might be praying.
Then he looked at me, and his eyes were not those of a penitent man.
The house was dark, quiet. We both got out of the car, the muggy heat an insult after the cold of air-conditioning.
I hesitated, my gaze traveling the cracked sidewalk, studying the dandelions that poked through. Devil's Shoestring grew in thick brown clumps all around the house. After Daddy passed, Momma's schizophrenia had gotten worse, and so, too, had her strange habits. She insisted we plant the Devil's Shoestring. "Purpose bound," she had said when we were finished. "Promise made."
Guilt flickered like a dying candle's temperamental flame. Oh, Momma.
My mother had committed suicide.
I was eighteen. I just wanted to take Sally and travel around, get out into the bright, beautiful world. I'd saved nearly all my waitressing money. Aunt Alice had agreed to take Momma in for a while, and had driven from Louisiana to get her. On an overnight stop, Momma went into the hotel bathroom and took razor blades to her wrists. She didn't mess around, either. The lines went from wrist to elbow, and were so deep that the paramedics glimpsed bone.
I'd failed her.
I'd wanted a life all my own. It was almost as if her illness had been killing me. I'd just wanted to breathe again.
And now? I didn't breathe at all.
Momma hadn't left a note, so there was an autopsy and a police investigation. While we waited for bureaucracy to crawl toward the obvious conclusion, Aunt Alice and I cleaned out the house. It was hell going through Momma's bedroom, organizing her clothes, inventorying the items she'd considered precious, tossing the stuff she wouldn't need anymore. You ever clutch a half-used tube of toothpaste and just lose your shit?
I had held on to that stupid tube of Colgate, sat on the toilet, and wept. It didn't do a damned bit of good. Momma was gone. I didn't feel relieved, either. I just felt like my chest had been clawed open. That kind of emptiness was never filled.
You just got used to living with it.
Digging through the boxes in her closet, I found the journals. And that's how I'd discovered Momma practiced hoodoo. Weird things we'd done—mostly to keep Momma's mind settled, like weekly floor washings and planting the Devil's Shoestring—were hoodoo rituals.
Momma had been trying to keep out the bad spirits, the ones only she could see (when she wasn't medicated). Believe me, ever since I got undead and found out demons were real, I'd wondered whether Momma had been able to look into the beyond. I'd been so intent on hanging on to reality, I couldn't consider the possibility that she'd been right.
Y'see, I didn't want to be crazy. I made sure my world stayed in order, that it made complete sense all the time, no matter what I had to do. In a way, that was its own kind of crazy.
The week of Momma's death was when I crawled into Jackson Tate's embrace and we made a baby together. All that yearning to leave Broken Heart and all that money I'd saved went toward fixing up the house and preparing for Daniel Allen Tate.
I realized I'd been staring at the Devil's Shoestring for a little too long. I didn't want to get lost in those memories. I didn't want to feel that same sense of vulnerability and fear that had me scrambling for a human connection.
Well, I guess I didn't need to worry about the human part, now, did I?
Connor's hand pressed lightly on the small of my back and I looked up, realizing how tall and broad he was, how much of a man he seemed when I still felt like a girl.
"Changin' your mind?" he asked softly.
"Nope." I strode down the walkway, digging my house keys out of my purse. I had the door unlocked and opened when I realized Connor hadn't followed me onto the small porch.
"Invite me, lass," he said, his gaze filled with wicked promises.
"Come in," I said, smiling.
I felt the air move, an odd breeze disturbing the damp night, and then he smiled, too.
He sauntered up to the house and followed me inside.