How Nina Got Her Fang Back

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Accidentally Paranormal, Book 13

An Accidental Quickie

Dakota Cassidy

Published 2016 by Book Boutiques.

ISBN: 978-1-944003-62-3

Copyright © 2016, Dakota Cassidy.

All rights reserved.

Chapter 1

Look, Fakey-Locks, I said I’d go and I’m going, okay? Now get the flip off me before I pluck your stupid bullshit extension eyelashes out one at a time!”

There was a grunt followed by a long, ragged sigh. “Sitting here in the reception area, scrolling your tweets, is not going, Ex-Elvira. You promised us you’d work this out with a professional, and work you will. No more lollygagging,” another woman groused.

“You bet she promised,” said still another female voice, though a less-agitated, more motherly one. “You’re stalling, and it took us almost three months to get you an appointment with this woman, Ray of Sunshine. She’s highly revered in our community and you will not, I repeat, will not miss the chance to let her root around in your deranged little mind and fix this Superman complex you’ve developed since you were turned back. Not if I have to haul you over my shoulder and dump your continuously growing backside on her couch. Now, get up, Statleon. Get up or prepare for the ugly consequences.”

“Like?” the threatened woman asked in a husky tone.

“Like I steal your chicken wings and ranch and run them over with my car.”

There was a rustle of what sounded like a bag before the woman with the husky voice gasped, “You wouldn’t, Wanda. The fucking horror.”

Dr. January Malone, paranormal psychologist, sat inside her office in soothing colors of pale blue and sage, with inspirational messages depicted in framed art on the walls, fake potted plants and soft leather chairs, listening to the argument outside her door with mild amusement.

She’d been warned about Nina Blackman-Statleon, once a human, accidentally turned into a vampire, now a human again.

Her circumstances were extraordinary—an exciting case study of the mind and body. Her vocabulary? Not as much. But she’d been briefed on Nina, her foul language, her gangster mentality, her bizarre hatred for the color yellow, and her alleged heart of pure gold.

Really briefed. In fact, she’d been so briefed, January felt like she’d almost been debriefed, the session with her coven council and vampire clan officials had been so intensely laden with information.

The clan didn’t love this onetime human turned vampire. They didn’t love her brash mouth, her twenty-first century ways, her tendency to throw herself into almost any situation without an ounce of fear.

She made too much noise, brought too much attention to herself and the group of women she aided in helping other paranormals. Correction: Helping accidental paranormals, was how the report had titled their work.

Nina and these women ran a crisis hotline called OOPS—without official approval from anyone in their packs or clans—and they ran it quite successfully, from what January had seen in the thick reams of paper with detailed reports on Nina’s every move since she’d been turned into a vampire in a freak accident back in 2008. People literally called a 1-800 number from a website and asked these women to help them after fluke paranormal incidents occurred.

And these women, along with Nina, did help. They dropped everything, put their families and lives on hold, and helped—whenever, wherever. In fact, in some of the cases they’d taken on—if the written details of these incidents were really true accounts—they’d put themselves in grave danger to do so.

Yet, January had noted something about this Nina in all the material and charts and testimonials she’d scoured. Something one couldn’t deny. Sure, she was loud and even verbally abusive—if “I’ll pull your intestines out through your belly button, wrap them around your leg, and shove them up your ass” was any indication of her abuse. There was plenty of work to be done with Nina, plenty of issues for January to muck about in to her psychologist’s heart’s content.

Nina’s broken childhood, her hard and quite lean times as an adult, her journey from single court stenographer to cosmetic-slinging dental hygienist to wife of a semi-powerful clan member and mother to what the clan had titled a “vampini,” and her constant defiance of authority were all things that intrigued January.

But what intrigued her most, what she couldn’t deny, was Nina’s steadfast loyalty to the people she called family, to the people in crisis she helped. She displayed all the signs of a strong leader without the diplomacy of one.

She bucked the system on a regular basis when called to task for the kinds of shenanigans of which she was accused. Or more precisely, she stuck both middle fingers up at the system and went along her merry way as though there were no rules for proper clan etiquette.

But what was even more fascinating was how Nina and the other two women involved in this OOPS hotline had met, and become so tightly knit.

Through selling Bobbie-Sue makeup door-to-door and an accidental bite in an alleyway by a werewolf named Keegan Flaherty.

Ba-dum-bum.

Eight years later, there were mates aplenty, demons, cat-shifters, genies, bears, manservants, children, and even a half zombie. But together, they’d built this network of ties to one another. This cobbled-together bond from all walks of the paranormal, which the clan called “unbreakable.”

The trouble was, while yes, Nina’s friends had indeed sought January’s help, and it was also true they’d waited three months to get an appointment, it wasn’t only because she was so highly revered in her profession.

The clan, as a whole globally, wanted time to put together a case against Nina. Not just Nina’s immediate clan either. No. The entire race of vampires wanted answers for Nina’s behavior. Council hierarchy had bypassed her immediate officials and even the sire to her clan overruling any objections, deciding it was time to take a closer look at her and her actions.

All this at the urging of one zealous madman—and this jackhole wanted Dr. January Malone to help prove Nina was no longer fit to be a clan member.

At even more of said jackhole’s urging, they wanted this assessment presented at a trial of her elders and the leaders of the paranormal council. This jackhole wanted Nina gone because she was mated to a vampire and was essentially, through the strangest twist of events in a place called Shamalot, a human once again.

In essence, they—or he, to be precise—wanted her shunned.

Forever.

* * * *

A tall, slender woman, her hair in a fashionable updo, her outfit elegant and pristine, barreled through January’s office door and lobbed Nina from her shoulder onto the chair opposite her desk like a sack of potatoes, knocking over a fake ficus tree in the process.

She swooped down and stood the tree upright, all while pressing her palm flat to Nina’s chest to keep her rooted in the chair.

Then she sneered down at her with the oddest mixture of love and annoyance in her eyes January had ever personally witnessed.

Her next words were cool and calculated. “You move, I eat your face off, Statleon. Feel me, bad ass?”

As Nina was clearly about to protest, the stylish woman clapped her hand over the ex-vampire’s mouth and leaned in, thrusting her face in her friend’s with flaring nostrils and flashing eyes. “Not a word. Not one. When I move my hand, you will sit like the lady I’ve taught you to be, speak to the nice doctor with full and coherent sentences, and then you will end your session with a big fat ‘thank you for seeing me. May I have another, Dr. Malone?’”

Nina’s slender fingers wrapped around her friend’s wrist as she tried to remove her hand, but her friend tightened the clamp she had across her mouth and said, “Nod once for yes. Don’t bother to nod for no because I’ll knock your block right off your pretty shoulders if you don’t do what you’re told. Comprende, mi amiga?”

Nina’s hoodie had fallen from her head, her dark hair cascading around her unfairly gorgeous face as she nodded her consent. Oh, but her eyes, those brilliant charcoal-black, almond-shaped slivers in her head? They said “piss off.”

Her friend let go, jerking Nina’s body in the chair, and turned to face January, running a hand over her mussed skirt before holding it out and beaming a warm smile. “Wanda Schwartz-Jefferson, Dr. Malone. It’s such a pleasure to meet you. Thank you for so graciously agreeing to do so.”

January shook her hand, the fine-boned fingers cool to her touch, and smiled back. “One of Nina’s best friends, I assume?”

Her smile was warm and open, her makeup artfully applied with subtle strokes, highlighting her clear skin and sparkling eyes. “After that entrance, I’m sure you doubt the validity of that statement, but yes. I’m one of them, and I apologize. Sometimes brute force is the only way to handle a situation with our troubled ex-vampire.”

“And I’m BFF number two,” a pretty blonde with fluffy hair falling down to the middle of her back and sparkling sapphire-blue eyes said from the doorway.

She strode across the threshold, her fashionable wedge sandals hushed, her flowing print maxi dress floating about her ankles as she dumped a can of Pepsi and a bag of something that smelled a lot like chicken wings into Nina’s lap.

She, too, held out her hand with a smile as warm and open as her friend Wanda’s. “Marty Flaherty. Lovely to meet you. Please help us. Please. I’ll give up my ovaries and free makeup for life if you’ll just help us.”

As January rose to shake her hand, she noted Nina slumped farther down in her chair and pulled a napkin from the pocket of her hoodie. Then she proceeded to pop open the can of Pepsi and root about in the bag, pulling out a chicken wing and holding it up as though she’d found the answer to the meaning of life before digging in.

“Is there anything you need from us? Some way we can help this process?” Wanda asked as she nudged Nina with an elbow and frowned, using her thumb to wipe away the buffalo wing sauce at the corner of her friend’s mouth.

Marty nodded her head and crossed her arms over her chest, making her bangle bracelets jangle. “Anything. We’ll do anything. Please, just make her better, or nicer, or less like a giant on a lust-filled rampage for Lilliputian blood. And for the love of the ruler of the universe, get her to stop eating so much. She’ll have heart disease and clogged arteries if she licks one more Cheetos bag clean.”

But January just smiled the way all good professionals do when they sense urgency from family and friends to hurry up and fix their loved ones. “I think we’ll be fine, ladies, but thank you so much for—”

“Dumping my reluctant, ever-growing ass in your overpriced therapy chair?” Nina finally spoke before taking another enormous bite out of her chicken wing and licking each of her fingers.

Her voice was oddly pleasant, husky and deeper than January had anticipated. Somehow, she’d thought she’d be louder, more nasally and abrasive.

Wanda tugged a length of her friend’s silky hair in chastisement. “Nina, be polite. And for all that’s holy, chew with your mouth closed. Now, we’ll be right outside this door. If you need us—or should I say more aptly, if Dr. Malone needs us—please just give a yell. We’ve got your back.”

Leaning down, Marty dropped a kiss on the top of Nina’s head and patted her shoulder with what January noted was deep affection and worry—so much worry, it was clear to a medical professional’s eye it was eating the woman up. “Get well, ex-bloodsucker. I love you.”

But Nina swatted her blonde friend away with her free hand and a frown—because affection and nurturing weren’t her bag, and that was more than obvious.

“Get the eff off and go look at the pretty pictures in Cosmo. Isn’t that your Bible? I’m sure there’s some dumbass article in there you haven’t seen yet. Like ten ways to turn your man on with tofu and Vaseline. Maybe they’ll even have pictures.”

Wanda closed her eyes and sighed a ragged breath before she, too, planted a kiss on the top of Nina’s head with the same pained, worried expression. “Do this for Charlie, Nina. If for no one else, do it for her. I love you.”

As both women took their leave in clouds of fruity perfume and beautiful clothing, January repositioned herself in her chair and put on her glasses. They always made her feel like she was in charge, in control.

Which was likely ludicrous with this wild card sitting in front of her, but they still helped her with the pretense of control, anyway. They also helped to hide her lying eyes.

Folding her hands in front of her, she began. “So no introductions needed, I suppose. But just in case, I’m Dr. January Malone.”

Nina grunted and tilted her chin upward. “Just in case, I’m Nina Blackman-Statleon. Not a doctor, but I play one on TV.” Then she cackled, pleased with her joke.

Nina was in the phase where she wasn’t taking this enormous change in her life or therapy seriously just yet.

So January humored her with a return cackle. “I have a master’s degree in paranormal psychology and human studies. I’ve been practicing for over thirty years.”

The ex-vampire licked her fingers. “I have a degree in chicken wings, beer, and fuck you up if you look at me the wrong way. I’ve been practicing for over forty.”

January fought another grin and continued. “And you’re an ex-vampire.”

She displayed the slightest twitch in her tight body language, almost unnoticeable, before her eyes hardened and her jaw cracked. “Yep. That’s me. Ex-night dweller.”

Reaching in her drawer, January pulled out her favorite paranormal accoutrement and held it up so the soft lighting of her office caught the sparkling tip. “If you’re wondering how someone like me can hope to help a person like you, just FYI, I’m a witch—and that also accounts for how young I look as compared to my medical practicing experience. So I understand the inner workings of the paranormal, the lifestyle, the challenges of living in a human world in hiding, etcetera.”

Nina, who’d been very studiously digging around in the chicken wing bag, looked up suddenly, her sharp eyes boring holes into January’s face. “Shut the fuck up. Is that a real goddamn wand?”

January made a swishy circle in the air and pointed it at Nina’s feet, lighting a small fire before snapping her fingers to extinguish the flames. “Yep.”

“You got a crystal ball?”

“It’s at the dry cleaners.”

Nina cackled, but then she eyed January with skepticism. “Aw, but hold up. Like abracadabra, pointy-hat witch, or crazy-ass, wart-on-your-nose, dance-naked-in-a-pentagram witch?”

January almost snorted, but she fought it in an effort to keep her role as caregiver on task. “Um, more along the lines of abracadabra and white witch. Herbal remedies, the occasional spell. No broom or cauldron, though. But sometimes, if the mood is right, I’ll break out the pointy hat. Just because it kinda looks cute on me and it’s a mean conversation starter.”

“Hah! In all the tenth-level nutassery we’ve witnessed, we haven’t seen one witch. A genie, yeah. But no witches. Can you even believe that shit, Doc? Very cool gig you got there.” She gave January a thumbs-up then cracked her knuckles as though preparing to do battle.

“It has its perks.” And today, it was having its not-so perks.

“Okay, now that we got all the pleasantries and common courtesy bullshite out of the way, let’s get the show on the road. I don’t really want to be here. Like, I wanna be here about as much as I wanna be at a Payless BOGO on a Saturday in Manhattan. I hate feelings, I hate talking about feelings. I hate to feel, got that? But I’m doing it because my kid needs a healthy mother with a healthy mind, and those two morons with the title BFF use her as their tool to get me to do what they want me to do all the time. So I’m here.” Then she paused and peered at January before scooting the chair forward and taping her index finger on the desk between them. “Shouldn’t you be writing this shit down in that stack o’ crap you got there?”

January flapped a hand at her before pointing to her temple. “Nah. I’ve got a pretty good memory. Anyway, as you were saying…feelings suck or something along those lines?”

Nina pointed a chicken wing at her. “Exactly. I don’t know why everyone wants me to talk about how I feel now that I’m not a vampire. I think it’s GD obvious. I can eat whatever the fluff I want. I can go outside without slathering myself from head to toe with that coconutty shit Marty’s always carrying around in her mom bag. And did I say I can eat whatever the fuck I want?”

“You did. Twice in one paragraph. But you failed to tell me if this huge change in your life makes you happy. Does it? Make you happy? Are you happier without the burden of immortality? Or is that an emotion you hate, too?”

Nina sighed, running her tongue along the inside of her cheek. “Is this one of those games you head doctors play to get me to say shit I don’t want to say? Can’t we do the thing where you show me all the pictures and I tell you everything looks like entrails and death and then you write it down in your notes in my fat-ass chart, you call me violent and volatile, and we call it a day?”

January fought a smile. “The Rorschach test? I’m a paranormal psychologist, Nina. We don’t operate in quite the same way as a human doctor would. So no pictures or flash cards. Just you and me and an evaluation of where you’re at in your life.”

Nina took a long gulp of her Pepsi, using her forearm to wipe her mouth. “I’m at chicken wings and Ring-Dings. That’s where I’m at.”

“Do you want to stay there?”

“Nope. I’d like to move on to a ham and Swiss on rye and some seasoned curly fries, but my friends say I have to sit here with you while you dig around inside my head and fix me.”

“Do you always listen to your friends?”

“Only when I want to or when they make some damn sense.”

“So you’re the master of your own ship then? No one tells you how to steer your course?”

“Oh, for Christ’s sake, did you already use a metaphor for my life? Yes, I’m the master of my ship. I’m the head cheerleader of my life’s fucking cheerleading team. I’m the goddamn top dog, CEO of the Corporation of Nina. Okay?” she spat, her lips tight, her teeth clenched. “I gotta use the facilities. You mind?” She held up her hands to show January they were sticky with Buffalo wing sauce.

January motioned to her private bathroom behind her. “Please. Be my guest.”

As Nina strode toward the bathroom, her long legs eating up the short distance, January paid close attention to her tense frame and flashing coal-black eyes.

This was a clear sign Nina’s circumstance left her feeling out of control these days. Unbeknownst to Nina, she’d played right into the jackhole’s hands. This was exactly what he wanted the clan to hear, and because he was monitoring every session she’d have with the ex-vampire via hidden camera, they’d all see Nina’s abrasive behavior.

And January hated that, because Nina wasn’t just angry and reckless. She was so much more. She was a tangled web of brutal honesty, uncensored, crude assessments, and ride-or-die loyalty.

January didn’t want to do this. She didn’t want to poke around in this woman’s life and find every fault then magnify them by ten thousand so it looked like she was unfit to be a part of the clan.

But if she didn’t, she’d pay. And she’d pay dearly.

Chapter 2

She’d pay because Artem Casteel, a.k.a the Jackhole, would make her pay. Artem, sire to a small vampire clan of three thousand, and current leader of the “bring me Nina Blackman-Statleon’s head on a pike” coalition, was a twenty-first century vampire supremacist and a big, very vocal head honcho consultant on the paranormal council of elders.

He’d wormed his way in by greasing palms and doing “special” favors…but it was his personal agenda that worried January and kept her up at night.

The centuries-old vampire knew exactly what he was doing—the sociopath. What bothered him was, he also knew January knew exactly what he was doing.

He wanted a pure race of vampires, and in an effort to get what he wanted, he’d invested a great deal of time convincing the other vampire clans and paranormal council members it was what they wanted, too.

Artem and his closest right-hand officials in Clan Casteel didn’t like any kind of crossbreeding, either. Worse, he didn’t like Nina and Greg’s choice to raise their baby daughter, Charlie, with the knowledge she was both vampire and genie.

He’d used Nina and her last debacle with a mob of Russian bears to rile the elders of the council to a frothy frenzy like one would whip a good meringue to a stiff peak. He’d wooed them with his charm and his charisma.

He’d swayed them, misguided them, manipulated them until he’d turned Nina into the shining example of everything the clans shouldn’t want mucking up their carefully constructed world.

And he’d done it until he’d turned an unwitting Nina into the equivalent of a human’s modern-day Antichrist.

He’d also put January right in the middle of it all, with the clans and the paranormal council of elders setting their sights on her to rid them of this alleged blight on their vampirism.

They wouldn’t dirty their hands by doing the deed personally, nor would they risk the wrath of Nina’s husband, Greg, should he hear about the rail they planned to run Nina out of town on.

No, they’d let January play the role of bad guy, and they’d let her do it because, unbeknownst to the council, Artem had blackmailed her into doing it—literally made her volunteer. And January’s council, her very own coven, had gone along with this idea that Nina was some sort of danger to the world of paranormals.

Not just because they’d bought Artem’s hype, but because it looked good to have one of their prestigious own represent them in securing safety for the paranormal world. The coven was all about appearances and keeping in good stead with their fellow paranormal peers.

And now it was all in January’s lap.

But she had a plan. A plan she’d prayed to the goddess would work every night since she’d been given this heinous task. If she could just get Nina to use that soft, gooey center of hers instead of her fists and verbally abusive words, half her battle would be fought.

But she had to be careful not to use her magic to get her to do that. Which meant she had to be sharper and more cunning than ever.

Swallowing, January sought to soothe Nina. Bring her back into focus, disengage her, redirect her to kinder thoughts. She needed an ally, not a foe. Leaning back in her chair, she mused about how to deal with the ex-vampire who’d all but clenched a fist in preparation to clock her square in the head.

So January tiptoed forward anyway. This was a good plan. It was solid. Mostly. And it wasn’t like Nina wasn’t struggling. She was desperately trying to keep her head above water while she ate her way through her fears.

January wanted her to see that even though she was no longer a vampire, she was worthy. She was still just as good on the inside without her vampirism, without her strength—she could still contribute. She’d just have to show it in other ways.

As Nina took her seat again, she rolled her tongue along the inside of her cheek and waited.

January broke the silence. “So, okay, cheesy metaphors aside, wanna tell me why you decided to listen to your friends and come see me? I suppose you didn’t have to. Their opinions must mean something to you, yes?”

Nina licked her lips and smacked them, but her defiant coal-black eyes were no longer raging, they were softer. “Sure. They mean something. They’re my family. They all mean something to me. We’ve been together a long damn time.”

January nodded and scrolled Nina’s chart. “I see that. Eight years, almost nine now. Plenty of memories made, I’d guess.”

“Feels like fucking eight hundred years most days,” she responded then cackled.

“Yeah. Family can do that to you. Do you feel like they interfere too often? Stick their noses into your life too much? Dole out advice when you don’t want it.”

Nina rolled her gorgeous eyes. “You’re kidding, right? Fuck yeah, I think that. Didn’t you just see Wanda dunk me in this chair like I was a fucking NBA basketball and force me to have my head shrunk? Doesn’t that say ‘stick your cute, perky nose in where it doesn’t belong’ to you?”

“Ever ask them to butt out? Set boundaries?”

“Nope.”

January cocked her head, leaning forward on the desk separating them. “Because?”

“Because that’s who the fuck they are. That’s how they love me and everyone around them. Some people show their love with food, like Arch, Wanda’s manservant. He cooks and dotes to show his love. Ass-Sniffer and Mother Hen coddle you, smother the flip out of you, make you shop with them, Skype with them. Who am I to tell them they can’t love me in the only way they seem to know how? They coddle. I slap their hands. They coddle some more. It’s a cycle. But it’s one I’m unwilling to break because that’s how they show their love. I show mine by calling them snarky names and giving them shit because that’s who I am. I accept them for who they are.”

“And that’s why you’re here. They loved/smothered/coddled you into seeing me because you’re struggling with some pretty serious anger issues since your accident, correct? Issues that have almost cost you your life?”

Now she sank deeper into the chair, pulling her hoodie back up over her head and crossing her booted feet at the ankles. This was what made Nina vulnerable—afraid. Expressing her fears out loud in words.

Nina didn’t look at her when she spoke; her eyes fell to the floor and her jaw remained stiff. “I’m here because they think I’m going to get myself killed with the kind of work we do for OOPS—because I can’t keep up the way I did when I was a vampire. Because I’ve been a fucking vampire for eight years and I don’t know what the fuck to do with myself if I can’t go into some crazy battle for a client with the twins on either side of me. I don’t know what to do when they leave me out of the fray. It’s like I’m the receptionist, left to do all the damn paperwork, and they’re the heavies. I thought I was getting tired of never being able to have chicken wings again, but…”

January watched Nina’s slender throat work, the visible effort she made when she swallowed to bite back the emotion she didn’t want to burden everyone with. The emotion attached to her immortality—or lack thereof.

“Do you miss being a vampire, Nina?” January asked softly.

Now she lifted her chin, clearly refusing to give in to an emotion she considered weak. “Define ‘miss’.”

“I’d prefer you did,” she replied, her tone firm but her smile sympathetic.

As January gave Nina time to consider her request, she put herself in Nina’s work boots.

To lose something that was an integral piece of you—be it a limb, an organ, a friend or parent—was the equivalent of losing a power. Being a vampire had defined Nina, had given her purpose, a reason to get up each day. She was a savior, and she liked the role of hero.

She didn’t like it because she was egotistical—not in the least. She didn’t want praise. In fact, adulation made her squirm in extreme discomfort. What this ex-vampire did like was knowing she’d likely come out the victor. It made her feel helpful when for so long, she’d felt helpless.

She’d grown up in a tough neighborhood, raised by her grandmother, with a mother who was a drug addict. She couldn’t control her mother or her eventual death, but Nina could certainly try to control the loss of someone else’s life. Each time she saved someone, she was saving her mother. That much was clear from all the information January had been given.

Those almost omnipotent powers were now long gone, and she was floundering to find her place amongst a group of saviors who worried themselves sick over her, and had gone to great lengths to keep her out of the messy stuff.

But Nina didn’t look at Wanda and Marty as two people who only wanted to keep her safe when they were on a case. To her, this was insulting, a slap in the face, a notion her two best friends thought she was weak—and if Nina hated anything, she hated weakness.

But this last time, the event that had given Artem the green light to request the council probe deeper, was the time Nina had almost been killed by a stray bullet.

When Nina didn’t answer, January pressed her with a gentle nudge. “Nina? Can you define why you miss being a vampire?”

But the ex-vampire shut right back down. “Like I said, I miss being able to keep up.”

“Do you feel differently now that your friends have powers and you don’t? Does that make you feel less like you’re part of this intimate group you’ve created with them?”

Nina bristled. The signs were in her body language and her tone. “You mean like inferior or some shit?”

“No. I mean less included. Marty can still take on a hundred linebackers without blinking an eye, Wanda can do the same. Do you feel like you’re no longer doing your part with OOPS, or you no longer belong because they’re technically different than you now?”

Her lips thinned as she looked down at her feet. “I’ll tell you what I feel. I feel like one of those two dingbats is gonna get hurt because they have all these whiny feelings you chicks are so big on, and they take those into consideration instead of taking fucking action when we’re in the middle of a crisis. I’m not afraid to make the hard choices and act on them. I’m the muscle…was the muscle,” she murmured, looking back down at her hands, now folded in her lap.

“You definitely made a hard choice when you threw yourself in front of that Queen Sangria—”

“Angria. Her name was Angria. Can’t you read? Marty wrote all that shit out for you when she filled out the forms. Of which there were nine hundred frillion. I can’t believe you didn’t ask for a lung and my damn kidney.”

“Okay then, Angria. You put yourself in harm’s way to save someone—”

Toni. Her name is Toni. And she’s a good kid. A really good kid who’d had some shitty times.”

January nodded, tucking a stray hair from her face behind her ear as she noted how important it appeared to Nina that she hear Toni’s name. Sometimes that meant the patient was keeping a tally in her head. A checklist of sorts. In this case, the kind of checklist made when a life was saved.

“Right, Toni,” January repeated. “You saved Toni. You didn’t think about the consequences, you didn’t consider you’d end up hurt. You acted. You made the hard choice.”

“And? You givin’ out shiny medals today? I don’t want a standing O. I did what I did. End of.”

January sat with that for a moment, allowing Nina’s facial expressions and body language to do the talking before she asked, “Do you regret making that choice, Nina?”

“Nope,” she said almost before the entire question was out of January’s mouth. “I’d do it again. The kid needed help. I helped. I’ll say it again. She’s a good kid who had an effed-up row to hoe. She didn’t deserve to get snuffed out before her life had even really begun.”

How could anyone not see that this woman was nothing but an asset to her clan? She was bloody fearless, and above all, selfless. But it didn’t matter because she wasn’t supposed to be shining a light on Nina’s assets. She was supposed to be shining a spotlight on her faults, as per that fuckhead Artem.

Stirring in her chair, January decided to delve into the heart of the problem Nina was having. Accepting her mortality now that her life was solely built around being a vampire.

“But that also means it’s taken your longevity away. You’re no longer immortal, Nina. Your husband, Charlie, Carl, all your friends—they are.”

There was a tense pause, where January was sure she was going to have to break out her magic wand to keep Nina from jamming her up against a wall and crushing her skull, but then she appeared to find her own wall. The one she’d constructed in her mind to keep her anguish in check. One she wasn’t going to let January climb over and most certainly wasn’t going to allow to be disturbed.

“I know what the fuck it means, Head Shrinker. I kinda don’t feel like you’re telling me anything new here. How is you telling me what I already know helpful?”

January smiled. “I’m not supposed to tell you anything new. You’re supposed to find something new on your own. You’re supposed to hear it out loud instead of keeping it locked up in your head. Sometimes, actions aren’t always louder than words. I’m just here to guide you to making peace with what your life will become now that you’re human again.”

Again, there was that flicker of grief, a mere second of anguish before she tightened her suit of armor. “Don’t you have a pamphlet that explains how or some shit? Like a twelve-step program? Mental exercises or something? We have one for OOPS. I could just give it a look-see and we could skip this sometimes-words-are-louder-than-actions gibberish.”

January flapped her hands and glanced at the clock. “I’m not much for telling people how to do what they need to do. I’m into helping people discover the best way to do what they need to do. So I have a little homework for you.”

Nina’s sigh was ragged and full of impatience. “Jesus. I said I’d come. I didn’t say anything about doing homework. My life is busy with my kid and my man.”

“Busier than your mental health?” January countered.

“Oh, eff off. Now you sound like Wanda.” But she smiled when she said it, and that was something. Nina respected Wanda. Looked to her for support she didn’t even know she sought.

January winked and chuckled. “Then I like Wanda. She’s levelheaded and obviously genius-smart. So here’s the homework. Take this packet. I have to give you this stuff because it’s part of every paranormal psychologist’s spiel. It’s all sorts of repetitive tips on how to deal with your anger. Counting, breathing, whatever. But I don’t care if you read it.”

“This is some kind of reverse bullshit, right? Like you tell me don’t do it and I’m supposed to want to do it just because you said I shouldn’t?”

“No. That would only be if I told you that you couldn’t read it. Then you’d be defying my direct wishes, which wouldn’t really be what my direct wishes are. That’s reverse psychology. What I said was, I don’t care if you don’t read it—because I genuinely don’t. I just want one thing from you before you come back again.”

“Hold the fucking phone, I have to come back? Nobody said anything about long-term therapy.”

“Do you want your friends to quit hassling you?”

“Like I want a GD bacon cheeseburger.”

“Do you think they will if you don’t come back?” She posed the question with her eyebrow raised and a smile on her lips.

Nina rasped a long-winded sigh. “Fine. Tell me what you want me to do.”

January rose, pushing her cushiony chair back and holding out the packet. “In one word, tell me what you miss about being a vampire.”

Nina rose, too, her long limbs untangling as she eyed January. “That’s it? You’re full of shit.”

January waved the packet at her and shrugged her shoulders in nonchalance. “Nope. That’s really it.”

Nina’s skepticism was palpable and the entire time, while she considered January’s words, she prayed Nina would just take the packet.

Goddess, please take the packet.

And then she did, tucking it under her arm and turning to leave.

Fighting the urge to sink down into her chair in relief, January called after her, “Don’t forget to make an appointment for tomorrow with Elsa on your way out, Nina!”

There was grumbling and then the sounds of Marty’s and Wanda’s squeals of delight that no one had lost an eye during their hour together.

Only then did January head to her office bathroom, with its cool white subway tiles and stark white walls, close the door and collapse against it, fighting tears of frustration and fear.

There was hope. She had to hang on to that.

Nina was her absolute end-of-the-line last hope.

Chapter 3

Have I told you, you smell amazing?” a voice purred in January’s ear—a deep, silky voice she hadn’t been able to resist since day one.

But January pinched the back of the wide hand around her waist, resisting the temptation to press it to her lips. “Have I told you you’re not supposed to be able to tell me I smell amazing because you’re not supposed to be here, Galen Markus? You’re supposed to be waiting for that call anywhere but here with me. I could kill you!”

Galen chuckled, the husky sound warm and inviting against her ear. “Already dead, honey. But if push comes to shove, will you wear that cute nightgown and use your magic wand when you attempt my murder? I love when you use your wand. It’s pretty hot.”

“No, but I am going to bring cauldrons back from the fifteenth century and boil you in one. We can’t afford to get caught. Not when we’re this close, Galen,” January whispered into the dark as he slipped both arms around her waist and pulled her to his broad chest.

Turning her in his embrace, he looked into her eyes and asked, “Do you think this Nina read the note in the packet?”

“I guess we’ll know in just a little bit, if she calls you on that burner cell. I gave her the number in the packet. If she was even a little interested in figuring out her humanity with my help, she’ll see it when she opens the stuff I gave her. I pray she opens the stuff I gave her.”

His handsome face, the face she loved almost above all others, with its sharp angles and smooth planes, grimaced. “You don’t really think these women can help us, do you, January? They don’t help people who are already paranormal. They help people who are accidentally turned into paranormals. I looked at that crazy website they have. Did you see it? It was all red and shiny with all kinds of stuff about how they’re nothing like sparkly vampires. How can you take that seriously?”

January scoffed up at him. “You have any better ideas? I’m kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place here. And FYI, have I told you some of the things these women have been smack in the middle of? Those women have fought—successfully, I might add—more certifiably crazy nemeses than most of us will see in ten lifetimes. And just in eight years. Do you think Artem could have gotten the clan this riled up about them if they weren’t a cause for worry?”

“But they’re women. And a zombie, right? Cal or something?”

“Carl, and he’s a half-zombie. And excuse me, Knuckle Dragger, but these women are just as badass, if not more so, than twenty of Artem’s men.”

Galen held up his hands like white flags and smiled at her as the summer breeze lifted his dark hair. “Okay, okay. Easy there, Megadeth. I didn’t mean it that way. I just meant I find it rare that women fight with their fists—you know, in the physical sense. But I get it. Yet, I still don’t know how they can help when they have their own trouble to deal with. The clan wants Nina gone, thanks to that prick. Surely her friends will be more focused on that than what we’re going through.”

“Both issues go hand in hand, Galen. I’m hoping we can help each other, but Artem is videotaping every session I have with her. It isn’t like we can go to someone on the council of elders and tell them what Artem threatened me with if I don’t do what he asks. He’ll do what he threatened to do anyway and no one can question it because he’s your personal clan leader. We have to get this and all his other crazy plans out in the open in front of reasonable people.”

Galen’s hard jaw tightened, the tic in it pulsing. “That son of a bitch and his lunatic ideas about clan purity. They’re archaic. He’s a freak of a zealot and he has everyone in a panic about their immortality every second of every day,” he spat. “He runs our damn clan like a death camp, for Christ’s sake. No one will go toe to toe with him for fear he’ll burn them at dawn.”

That was what worried her. No one would be free to make any choices if Artem had his way—unless the head council of paranormal elders intervened. “But those bullshit ideas are what he wants to reinstate, Galen. All the old laws that have since been modernized, that Artem calls lax. If he accomplishes that with his pack of goons leading the way, we’re sunk. We have to find a way to prove that he’s nuttier than squirrel shit and he doesn’t just want to rule Clan Casteel, but all clans. That he doesn’t just want purification for vampires. He wants to eventually expunge all other species of paranormal. I’m tired of him holding this over my head, Galen. If he succeeds in his mission, it’ll be the first step in his bid to rule every single vampire. Do you have any idea what will happen, not just to us, or you, but to Nina if that happens?”

Her concern for Nina’s welfare, not to mention her daughter Charlie’s, grew by leaps and bounds. Artem had killed in the name of the clan before. Would he really only have Nina shunned? Or would he kill her and her child to prove a point? If he got what he wanted, if he talked everyone into going back to the ways of old, he’d eventually have the right to end her life.

Galen tightened his hold on her, the hard press of his thighs firm against hers. “I’d like to wrap my hands around that asshole’s neck and squeeze until he spits up his colon.”

January shuddered a breath. Standing on tiptoe, she grazed a kiss over his jaw, trying to extract herself from his arms. “You have to go, Galen. We can’t afford to even be in the same hallway at work together, let alone caught like this. I can’t help but feel like Artem’s always watching.”

Galen had found her at their secret meeting place, a rooftop high above New York City, the skyline at their feet. The same rooftop they’d been meeting atop for months now. The one upon which they’d dreamed about a future together curled up on an old frayed blanket, the one where they’d stolen short moments with one another, going over and over ways to fix this damn mess.

Gathering her even closer, Galen pressed a slow kiss to her lips. “I miss you, January. I damn well hate this. You belong with me.”

Tears stung her eyes, her heart so raw; it felt as though the organ had been through a shredder. “I miss you, too,” she whispered raggedly, succumbing to his kiss, allowing herself a long moment to relish his mouth on hers before he’d have to leave her once again.

Galen’s hands roamed over her back, smoothing around and slipping inside her light sweater to cup her breast; the tingle he evoked, the wave of heat he stirred between her legs as needy as it had ever been.

January’s arms went around his neck, her body automatically melting into his, the hard ridges of his tight frame making her moan and cling to him for support.

Just one touch from Galen and she was a puddle of emotion and heat.

The phone in his back pocket rang, the sound slicing into the dark night, but it was just as well. They were taking too great a risk someone would catch him missing, and all of this planning she’d done would be for naught.

Keeping her close to him, he answered, putting the phone on speaker. “Hello?”

“You Galen Markus?”

The deep rumble of his voice against her cheek soothed her frazzled nerves. “Speaking. You are?”

“Your fucking knight in shining armor, buddy.”

January smiled. She smiled wide, and for the first time in months, she sucked in a gulp of balmy air in relief. Nina had called. She’d come through just the way January thought she would.

Maybe there was hope.

While Galen set up a meeting with the ex-vampire and her friends, January eyed the large picture window of the building across from their secret rooftop. In a room in the middle of the high-rise, a small white crib sat in the center of that window. A mobile made of butterflies and unicorns in pastel colors spun above it, creating shadows on the ceiling.

And small, pudgy fists lifted upward, as though trying to catch the moving ornaments.

If January closed her eyes, she could almost hear the soft coos and wondrous giggles of the baby belonging to those fists. Smell her sweet, powdery baby scent, feel her soft baby skin.

Her baby.

Hers and Galen’s.

* * * *

Nina stared at them from across the dark alleyway, pushing off the brick façade with her right foot. “This,” she spun her finger around in a circle to encompass the couple, “is batshit crazy, lady. The Doctor January Malone I met today was a petite little chicken nugget of a lady with all that dewy skin Marty’s always trying to achieve with some blush called Parfait Peach—”

“Paramour Peach,” Marty interrupted, looking at January with confused eyes. “And it would look amazing on you. I mean, when you’re not in your seventies…”

Nina rolled her eyes at Marty. “Whatthefuckever, Makeup Guru. The chick I spent an hour and twenty with today didn’t look like my Gamma Lou. So how do we know you’re really Doc Malone?”

January laughed, but it came out as a jarring, wheezy cackle in her spell-induced, cloaked form. “Well, I could divulge some of our session today to prove it. Or remind you that Wanda had to literally throw you over her shoulder in order to get you to come inside my office. Does that help?”

Nina’s eyes went stormy as she used another finger in the air to circle January’s body. “You did this how?”

“Remember the wand I showed you?”

“Coolest fucking thing ever,” Nina replied in a hushed tone of awe.

January waved a gnarled, age-spotted hand between her and Galen’s bodies. “That’s how.”

Wanda blinked at them, her soft eyes attempting to hide her shock and disbelief. “This is a what spell?”

“A cloaking spell,” Galen responded, his voice shaky and grizzled, further adding to the authenticity of the aging spell. “She does this thing with her wand and poof, we’re in disguise. I don’t know why she always chooses the elderly as our cover, but here we are. AARP cards and all.”

Marty cocked her head to the left then to the right. Tucking her lightly tanned arms under her breasts, she muttered, “That is utterly amazing. I mean, as a whole, we’ve seen some stuff. Jesus, have we seen some stuff, but this is…well, amazing.”

But January shot them a pleading glance, reaching out to grip Marty’s wrist. “We have to hurry or this will wear off and we could be caught. We can’t afford to be caught. If you’ll listen, I’ll tell you everything I know about why we hope you’ll help us. Deal?”

“Please,” Galen requested before a coughing fit overtook him and he had to lean against her for support.

Nina’s tongue darted out of her mouth as she licked her lips, her eyes constantly roving the alleyway. “Deal, Paw-Paw.”

With as much as she could squeeze into the time they had before her cloaking spell wore off, January began to outline their problem.

And then everyone was silent; no sounds but the distant sirens and the electrical hum of the streetlight.

When Nina finally spoke, she did so with a harsh tone, her chin lifted in indignant defiance. “So let me get this shit straight. Because of this twatwaffle, the entire vampire clan wants me gone? Me. Going to see you wasn’t about me getting my mental health tweaked; it’s about collecting fucking proof to find me unfit to be a part of the clan?”

Galen’s jaw tightened as he looked at his watch, but January nodded her head, ready to answer any questions the three women had. Though, if Galen didn’t check back in with Artem soon, they’d notice he was missing.

Nina’s eyes went wide as she cornered them, her face just inches from January’s. “And you fucking went along with this? What the frig kind of doctor are you? I should kick your ass from here to goddamn Sunday!”

But Galen interfered, stepping in front of January protectively, his gnarled hand planted between them. “I wouldn’t—or you’ll lose more than your vampirism,” he said, low and menacing

But Nina—being Nina—flipped a hand upward, palm facing forward, right in Galen’s face. “You didn’t just threaten me, did you, moron? I know you didn’t, because I won’t just kick your skinny girlfriend’s PHD right outta her, I’ll kick your dentures out, too. Feel me, Grampire?”

“Nina!” Wanda grabbed at her arm and swung her around. “Stop! Let’s just listen to them. Please. We don’t have time for you to posture and beat your chest. Dr. Malone didn’t have to tell you what she’s told you, but she did. You’re in danger, my friend. We have to find out what’s happening and how we can get this taken care of before it gets out of control.”

Marty slid her arm through Nina’s and tucked her friend to her side. “Breathe, you beast.” Then she looked to January, who was peering over Galen’s slumped shoulder. “Your note was brief. You said you needed our help. But you weren’t clear about what was happening other than Nina’s life was in danger.”

Licking her dry lips, she set Galen behind her, feeling the tension of his body even in his undercover state. “First and foremost, I’m a doctor. Despite Artem and the clan and their shenanigans, I do want to help you with your struggle, Nina. I know you’re struggling being a human again. Second, I fully admit I have ulterior motives for agreeing to take your case—”

Forced is the word I believe you’re looking for, honey. Forced to take this case,” Galen said.

She sighed, a ragged, rattling sigh. “Okay, yes. I was forced to take Nina on as a client. But I admit, wanting to help you isn’t just because I don’t want to see you booted from the clan. And that’s what I’m here to confess. But please, make no mistake: I don’t want to see you shunned, Nina. I read your file thoroughly and I’m all for the challenges you’ve taken on with OOPS. I believe in what you’ve all accomplished. I hate that the clan was so easily fooled, and I hate the idea that they’ll shun you when you’ve done nothing but good. It’s wrong.”

“The motherfuckers, all looking me right in the eye and telling me it was no big deal I wasn’t a vampire anymore. Lying pieces of shit!” Nina said on a growl.

But Wanda pressed her finger to Nina’s lips. “Hush. Let’s work this out.”

Nina jabbed a finger in the air. “See, Doc? This is exactly what I mean right here. Wanda wants to work it out—talk, fix, maybe even barbecue and bake cakes. I just wanna kill all those traitorous blood lovers, roast their old asses over an open fire, and be done with it.”

“Don’t you see?” January hissed, pulling the shawl covering her hair tighter under her chin. “That’s exactly how they—how he wants you to behave, Nina! They want you to cause more trouble, because the kind of trouble you cause is the kind they find so offensive. It’s loud and out in the open and without censor. They want me to prove you’re a danger to the clan’s exposure. They want you all to give up this OOPS thing you have going and stop helping people. They want your website gone, they want everything you’ve done gone. But what they really want most is Nina shunned. Forever.”

Marty’s slender hand clung to Nina’s, her voice shaky when she asked, “Have they brought this to the paranormal council of elders?”

“Wait, is that the bunch of hags who represent each species?” Nina asked, her jaw tight.

Now Marty licked her lips, tucking her hair behind her ear as a bead of sweat popped up along her upper lip. “Yes, Nina. I’ve told you about them. Each faction of species has a council elder, or the highest-ranking official of their group. If what Dr. Malone says is true, this isn’t just clan business anymore. Now it’s interspecies business, and if there’s anything a bunch of paranormals from the twelfth century don’t want, it’s to be found out. To even consider they might be found out—and they think we’ve encouraged that. That you’ve encouraged that.”

Nina’s eyes searched her friend’s, glittering in the dark, hard as black granite. “Did you know about this?”

Giving Nina’s hand a hard shake, Marty shook her head, eyes wide. “Don’t be ridiculous, Faux-Vamp. Don’t you know me well enough by now to know that I’d tell you something this important? Something this vital to what we do? Yes, I’ve heard rumblings from Keegan about the people we help. I’ve heard him talk with Sloan and the others in the pack from time to time about the risk we’re taking by helping our accidental clients. Especially after Teddy and the Russians. But I’ve never heard a summit of the paranormal minds was underway. I’d venture to guess none of our better halves have heard anything about it either, based on their positions within the paranormal community. If all this was going on right under their noses and not behind their backs, don’t you think they’d have said something? Done something?”

Nina’s lips went thin, her body language stiff. “So this is a big deal. Shit.”

Yes,” January said, her tone somber. “It’s a very big deal. It isn’t often all the leaders of each species gather their most prominent members, but they have been known to do so when they fear exposure is imminent.”

January observed Nina’s reaction, knowing precisely what would come next.

She shook off Marty’s hand and took a step back from the group. “Then there’s only one thing to do. You bitches need to giddy-up and go. No way am I letting you two take the fall because of my mistake. I should have listened when you told me to lay low with that shit with Teddy, but that freak was goddamn gonna kill you, Marty. I couldn’t—wouldn’t let that happen while I stood around like some limp dick and fucking watched. I won’t apologize for that and they can behead me, or fucking lock me up forever, or whatever they wanna do, but fuck ’em. I knew the risk. I’ll take the heat.”

Wanda was in front of Nina in a blur of motion. She cupped her chin, forcing her friend to look at her. “Ride or die, Nina. If you go, we all go. Not even a conversation.”

Nina shrugged Wanda off, her impatience clear. “Fuck that, Wanda! Fuck that to hell and back. It’s why I wouldn’t let any of you turn me back. Because you’ll pay if the clan gets wind of that shit. They’d shun you, Wanda, and the pack’ll lock you up forever, Princess. Better I cough it up than you two. I’ll be damned if I’m going to let you leave your lives and your mates because I fucked up and caught this council of paranormal interspecies whateverthefuck’s attention. The hell I’ll live with that.”

“No,” Marty said, her voice tight and stern. “Fuck you, Nina. No way do you go down for us or without us. We’re as much a part of this as you are. We’ve all been a part of one crisis or another with OOPS and we’ve been just as loud and proud—”

“Not a chance I’ve been as loud,” Wanda teased, pinching Nina’s lean cheek before dropping a kiss on the tip of her nose.

“So we’re in for a penny, in for a pound,” Marty said, her hand on Nina’s shoulder. “Till the end. Always.”

Wanda brushed her hands together as though she were shaking them free of all their troubles and said with a smile, “Now that that’s settled, what’s your dilemma, Dr. Malone?”

Taking deep breaths, January captured Wanda’s eyes and held them. “The leader of Galen’s clan Artem Casteel. I don’t know if you’re familiar with who he is or what he stands for, but I do know you’re all aware each clan has a sire. Artem is Galen’s sire—”

“And he’s a hardcore asshole,” Galen said, his face a hard mask beneath the multitude of wrinkles.

“He is that, indeed,” January agreed. “As you also know, each branch of a clan, pack, and coven has its own rules. Rather like religions and their different rules. They vary from clan to clan, pack to pack. Some are more stringent than others. To make a long story short, Artem believes in vampire supremacy. He believes no one should breed outside their species and he’s staunchly against crossbreeding—”

“Ahhh,” Nina interrupted, her tone dripping with sarcasm. “I get it. This Artem fuck is your man’s head honcho. Your main dude’s a vampire and you’re a witch, and he doesn’t like you two doin’ the do, right? Probably in the same way he doesn’t like that I was once human and I’m now a human again.”

January swallowed hard, tucking her arms under her breasts, her fingers chilly despite the warm temperature. “Yes. That’s exactly it. But he doesn’t know we’re doing anything at this point. After the first time he found out about Galen and I, and he forbid Galen to see me again, he’s mostly left us alone.”

“And obviously, you ignored his bullshit rules,” Nina said. “I like you more and more, Doc. Hate your fucking therapy sessions, but you and your clangers? You’re all right.” Then she grinned.

“But there’s more,” January cautioned.

“We’ve also crossbred,” Galen said, his words clipped and tight. “Neither of us knows how it happened, because as you know, I’m not supposed to be able to breed, but it did, and we’ve kept it a secret for almost seven months now.”

Wanda’s mouth fell open as she tucked her purse protectively under her arm. “You two have a child?”

“And by white witch law, we’re also married,” January added with a wince. They hadn’t just gone halfway, they’d gone all the way when they’d found out they were expecting a baby.

“If this guy’s all up in your shiz, how the fruit loops did you hide a pregnancy?” Nina asked, jamming her hands into the front pocket of her hoodie.

January’s chest tightened with guilt. She’s used all manner of spells and even some voodoo to hide it, and along with the help of her familiar Farley, she’d pulled it off. “Magic. I hid the pregnancy with magic. It goes against everything we’re taught to use our magic for, and it wasn’t easy, but I did it—and I’d do it again.”

Galen’s arm went around her shoulders protectively. “She did what she had to in order to protect our child. I won’t apologize for that, but if Artem got wind of the fact that we had a baby—”

January put her finger to his mouth. “Don’t,” she whispered. “Please don’t.”

“So you’re sure this Artem doesn’t know about the baby?” Marty asked, fear lacing her tone. “Because if he’s threatened the baby, ever, you have to tell us. I’ll kill him myself, and I won’t give rodent’s ass about the consequences when I do it.”

January shook her head vehemently. The fear that notion wrought made her knees weak. “Positive. She hasn’t been with us since I had her. She’s…hidden. Hidden well, with the person I trust most in this world. When Artem caught us together and banned us from seeing one another, we made it a point to stay away from each other. Well, in public, anyway. We don’t even dare look at each other at the office for the most part.”

Nina slapped Galen on the back and grinned. “So the secret lover thing. A little Romeo and Juliet, huh? Can be pretty sexy, I’d bet.”

But Galen frowned, not amused. “There’s nothing sexy about always hiding,” he gritted out.

Wanda’s eyes glittered with concern. “So this Artem blackmailed you into taking Nina as a client or…what? I have a bad feeling I know what, but I need to hear you say it, Dr. Malone.”

“He said if I didn’t do this, if I didn’t give him solid proof Nina was unfit to stay in the clan so he could present it at council, he’d…” Goddess. The words wouldn’t even come out of her mouth.

But Galen took care of it for her. “Kill me. He’ll have me extinguished for breaking clan law if she doesn’t do as he asks.”

Chapter 4

Aw. This freak Artem’s a real peach among vampires, eh?” Nina crowed with a sarcastic edge to her tone. “Swear to Christ, if I had my vampire powers, I’d drain that fuck until his eyeballs crossed and his black heart turned to ash.”

“Don’t think I haven’t thought about that very thing,” Galen said between clenched teeth. “But he’s got plenty of other freaks like him in our clan, eons ahead of me in rank, and they’d just take up the torch in his stead.”

As the swoosh of wind in the alleyway began to pick up, blowing around the trash from a nearby Dumpster, everyone was silent for a moment.

Until Wanda asked, “Does he have proof you two dated or whatever? How can he utilize his clan law if he has no proof?”

January sighed, wrapping her fingers around Galen’s forearm. “Pictures from another clan member. He took them and brought them to Artem in order to gain favor.”

“Fucking rat-bastard snitches.” Nina hissed her disgust.

“Do your people know about this? Your coven, I mean?” Marty asked January, her voice strained when she broke her silence.

“They don’t know about the blackmail, no. But Artem made his threat clear. If I told anyone, alerted any of my officials, he’d expunge Galen without looking back. To make matters worse, my coven and its elders are too caught up in the prestige of one of their own being asked to handle such a big case. A case that could set precedent—not to mention, I’m almost certain they wouldn’t risk the clan’s wrath. A white witch’s goal is peace for all. We’re not known for our uprisings with other species. And even if my coven elders could do something, their one vote, when Artem has a whole council in a complete panic with his propaganda, won’t make much of a difference, will it? We need to prove he’s out of his mind and power hungry. That his goal is to take over completely and keep not just vampires, but everyone under his thumb until he can rid the world of any other species but his own.”

Nina popped her lips. “How the fresh hell can he do that? Just take a dude out without explanation? Doesn’t he have to answer to anyone—like one of these fucking elders? He’s not God, for fuck’s sake.”

Galen cleared his throat. “Our rules are clear in Clan Casteel, and I broke one—a big one. I knew the consequences before I became involved with January.”

“What the frig kind of clan is he running? Greg’s told me about some strict clan laws in the past, but that shit’s heinous, dude. You’ve been living like some damn hostage your entire vampire existence?” Nina asked, her disbelief written all over her face.

“Artem wasn’t always our clan’s leader. He came onto the scene a couple of years ago after our sire, Mathias Rigby, was killed. Artem was next in line.”

“So before this Casteel asshat, you didn’t have to live by this particular rule where you could be punished by death for consorting with someone outside your species?” Marty asked in horror. “Wasn’t there like some kind of grandfather clause? An exception to the rule?”

Galen shrugged, his frustration clear. “It wasn’t always like this. Our former leader was progressive, like most of the clan is. He let us do as our hearts saw fit. But when Artem took over, he reinstated all the old laws and made them very clear to us from the second he walked into the role of clan leader. Anyone who wasn’t already mated outside their species was to adhere to the reinstated law. Our clan is smallish as it is. There were only a very few who’d mated to others anyway. So there isn’t anyone who can save me from a punishment I already knew would come.”

“Dude, you need to defect to our clan. That shit doesn’t go on in our—”

“But don’t you see, Nina?” January asked, grabbing Nina’s arm to remind her of the seriousness of the impending summit meeting. “The vampire clan’s highest official, after hearing Artem go on and on about the danger he claims you’ve put everyone in, is considering the same law—he’s considering forcing each sire, of each clan, to also revert back to the old ways. If your official rules as such, everything before becomes null and void.”

Nina blinked and, probably a rare moment, went totally speechless.

Wanda stepped between them all, her expression grave. “Okay, so we have a serious problem. Because if this is the case, if they don’t like crossbreeding and species mixing, then I’m a problem, too. I’m half werewolf, half vampire, and none of us were born this way. We were all human once—all turned by accidental circumstances. Well…they were anyway. How I was turned is a whole different kettle of fish that could bring us even more trouble. Anyway, are they considering booting me, too? Because I can assure you, I won’t miss those dreadful picnics they force us to attend each year in the name of unity.”

Nina nodded her dark head, a smirk on her face. “Yeah. Their weenies in a blanket suck. Also, the jackhole berserkers are big whiny babies when it comes to touch football.”

January’s heart pounded as the night began to cave in on her, surrounding her in darkness. “I don’t know what the entire plan is, I just know that Artem’s spent a lot of time as a consultant, wooing his way into the summit, and he’s been swaying folks to his line of thinking by creating hysteria and using the three of you—Nina, most specifically—as prime examples for why there should be no exceptions to his purist rules.”

“Okay, so who do we fuck up first?” Nina asked, cracking her knuckles and rolling her head on her neck.

“We don’t fuck up anyone, Nina! No fucking up! This is going to be a covert operation, nitwit. Don’t we have enough attention on us?” Marty asked, using the heel of her hand to nudge Nina’s shoulder.

“Yes. A plan. I wish I could say I had one,” Galen confessed. “But I’m at a complete loss as to how it will help our own situation. My clan’s rules are my clan’s rules. They’ve been clear since Artem took over.”

Wanda squeezed her temple and stood up straight as she began to pace the length of the alley, kicking up dust with her conservative sandals. “Is your coven of the same belief system? Can witches mate with another species? Or is that against your laws, too?”

Gripping Galen’s arm, January leaned against him. “They don’t love it. But it’s happened here and there. I mean, there’s no written rule that says we can’t. They’d just prefer we stuck to our own, you know, the whole procreation thing—keep the bloodlines strong. But I’ve never heard of anyone—not one single soul—persecuted the way we’re being persecuted. I didn’t even think about it until Galen told me his clan’s laws after our first date.”

Which should have been the moment she’d walked out and never looked back. At least, that’s what the rational side of her said. But there’d been no denying she belonged with him from the start. She’d fallen head over heels for him long before he even knew she existed.

Wanda leaned back against the brick of the building, her beautiful face tight. “So do you think we might find allies within your coven? Some high-ranking officials who aren’t against you mating with a vampire? Someone with some power who’ll back us up? Someone who can talk some sense into this Artem?”

January held up her hands in misery. “But who can I tell? Whom can I confide in without fear word will get back to Artem? What if there are witches in my coven who feel the same way? What if they believe what Artem believes? What if they told Artem? I can’t afford to arouse any suspicion, Wanda. We have an infant to consider.”

“Shit,” Nina swore, pulling a Snickers bar from her hoodie pocket and ripping it open with her teeth.

January put her hand on Nina’s wrist, the doctor in her unable to stay quiet. “You’re stress-eating.”

Nina hitched her jaw. “Really? If I pulled some fucking kale out of my pocket, would that be considered stress-eating?”

Point for the vampire. “Not technically, I suppose, because it’s better for you.”

“Well, if I liked that shit, that’s what I’d use to shove my stress down my throat. But seeing as kale tastes like dirt and I don’t give a fuck about calories or clogged arteries, here’s to you, Doc.” She saluted January with the candy then ripped a hunk of it off with her teeth and smiled.

“Honey?” Galen said, squeezing her hand. “We have to go. Your spell won’t last forever.”

“So let us think on this, yes?” Wanda asked, gripping January’s arm, her eyes ablaze. “We’re better as a team. I’ll run this past Darnell and Arch and our husbands and let’s see what we can come up with.”

January blew out another breath of air. “That’s another thing. We have a tight time frame, Wanda.”

Marty’s gaze zeroed in on January’s face as she place her hands on her rounded hips. “How long are we talking, Doc?”

“A week,” January whispered. A week to prove Artem was a maniacal power-monger. “They’ve given me five days only to assess Nina. Nina should get notification from the council of elders that they’re calling a meeting soon.”

Wanda licked her lips and tucked her bone-colored purse under her arm again. “Okay, then. We need proof that Artem’s ultimate plan is to oust everyone in power. There has to be a way to prove it. Until then, Nina comes to see you as planned. Let them videotape her sessions. We’ll try to keep her in check on this end.”

Nina’s finger shot upward, eyeing them all. “Stop GD talking about me as if I’m not here, Halfsie. If I start acting like I want to go to therapy, this Artem is going to get suspicious, right? I can’t just go in and be all pro pick-my-brain. Is that at all like me? Fuck no. He’ll know something’s up. Especially if he has a list of all my so-called indiscretions—which is bullshit anyway. I do what I do because it has to be done. If I’m a little mouthy when I do it, tough shit. I can’t believe the clan wants people like our accidental clients to flop around like fish out of water until they figure out their new statuses in life. They should be grateful someone’s willing to help. Isn’t it fucking better that we help them so they don’t flip a nut and head to the local X-Files office? Jesus, these assholes are backward-ass fucks.”

“Nina’s right,” January agreed. “She’s absolutely right. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t show progress, because I hope we’ll make progress, Nina. But behaving isn’t in her nature. Of course she’s going to be resentful of the process at first.”

Nina pointed at January and smiled, a sly upward tilt of her lips. “What she fucking said. So I’m going to put my surly drawers on and I’ll see you and all your lame-ass breathing techniques tomorrow, Doc. We good?” She held out her hand to Galen and shoved it under his nose.

Galen’s reluctance, not to mention his skepticism, was palpable, but he grabbed her hand anyway and shook it with a firm gesture. “We’re good. I’ll do what I can on my end to dig up something. There must be some plan—something Artem’s got mapped out for this big coup he wants to attempt. There has to be something we can use to prove his intent to rule.”

“We’re on it,” Marty said as January and Galen turned to leave. “But wait. One question, January.”

January turned, tucking her shawl around her even tighter when the streetlight shone down on her head. “What’s that?”

“This cloaking spell thing,” she said softly, almost hesitantly. “I was curious. Can you make my boo—”

“Marty!” Wanda yelled. “Knock if off. It’s rude to ask for D cups from someone you only met twenty minutes ago!”

January and Galen looked at each other before she dissolved into a fit of laughter against him as they left the alleyway and headed back down the sidewalk to go their separate ways.

And anyone who saw them together would see a hunched-over, graying gentleman with a cane, assisting an equally graying woman in a knitted shawl and sensible black shoes.

* * * *

“I hate saying goodbye,” January whispered against Galen’s chest. “Especially when I don’t know when we’ll see each other again without thirty different coworkers in our faces. I hate all this hiding and grabbing mere moments when we should be in our own home getting our Netflix and chill on while Calista sleeps.”

Galen tightened his arms around her, keeping his eyes wide open in order to survey the street for anyone who might have followed him. “I hate it, too, honey. But I promise, some way, somehow, we’ll figure this out. We’ll find a way to be together. You, me, and Calista—as a family. Swear it.”

“After meeting them, do you think these women can help?” she asked, her question muffled against his shirt.

His jaw tightened. How could he shoot down the only thing that had given her hope in months? But he had to admit he was riddled with skepticism. “I don’t know.”

“What you’re saying is, they’re not exactly instilling hope in you because they argue like children on a playground, right?”

He chuckled and relaxed a little. “That Nina? Whoa. She’s like having a conversation with a hand grenade. You never know when you’ll mistakenly pull the pin and she’ll explode.”

“Ah, but she’s also the one who’s responsible for saving many lives, including her best friend’s just this past winter.”

“Which one? The cute blonde with all the bracelets and hair, or the understated one with the patience of Job and the schoolmarm voice?”

“The cute blonde. Her name’s Marty, and she’s also not exactly someone you want to tangle with, by the by. Nina took a bullet for her, Galen, and she was human at the time she did it. She knew going into that mess they had with a mob of Russian bears that she’d take a literal hit, and she jumped into the fray anyway. It took four months of physical therapy for her to heal, and I get the feeling she’d do it all again because she’s selfless, even without her powers. Selfless and fearless and intensely loyal to those women and her family—not to mention the countless others she’s helped along the way. They all love her despite her surly nature.”

“She can’t be easy to love.” He’d never seen a woman as abrasive, forthright, downright in-your-face as this Nina. But he had to admire her willingness to threaten him—even when he was cloaked in a spell that made him look like he was eighty. She was a human, he was a mean vampire, and still she hadn’t backed down.

She was unafraid, and that was a trait necessary if they were going to try to stop Artem. But he didn’t want anyone hurt because of them. He didn’t want anyone hurt period.

“Nope. She doesn’t make it easy to love her, that’s true. That’s her shield. Her armor to keep the world around her at bay. It’s a test she gives—a game she plays with herself to ensure she won’t end up hurt. But when you do love her, when you can’t help but love her, that’s when she shines. She’s all or nothing. How many people can you say that about? I have to find a way to help her discover she’s just as valuable to her friends, vampire or not.”

“You really do want to help her,” he murmured, his admiration for her never-ending.

January didn’t just do her job. She was her job. Honest, straightforward, nurturing. She had it all and then some, and even in the midst of this disaster, even when she could simply use Nina and her friends as a means to her own end, she wanted to fix the ex-vampire.

“Of course I do, Galen. She’s suffering. The fear of her mortality is huge. Her daughter’s half vampire, for goodness sake. Charlie—that’s her daughter’s name—has eternal life. So do all her friends, her husband, the people she’s surrounded herself and created a family of her own with; they’ll all live eternally. She’s petrified to leave them, but she’ll have to. She’ll age. She’ll suffer all the things aging brings. Her friends won’t. I want her to acknowledge that—learn to move forward despite that. Find a way to live out her humanity with a different outlook now that her landscape’s changed.”

“Your passion for your work is one of the things I love most about you, January Malone. It’s what attracted me to you from the start.”

Kissing his jaw, January nipped at the skin, making his body harden to an almost unbearable need for her—even still cloaked as an old man. It had been a long time since they’d been able to be intimate and it was killing him slowly, day by day.

“You know what I want to know? Why’d they put such a cute guy in the office right next door to me? Didn’t your crazy clan think about the temptation you’d create, Dr. Marcus? All tall, dark, and blood-drinking? It was just too much for me to resist.”

Galen tipped her chin up and stared down into the eyes of the woman he’d been head over heels for since day one. From the second she’d poked her head out of her swanky office door the day he’d moved into her medical building in Manhattan, he’d known she was the woman for him.

From her chestnut-brown hair in a thick braid, falling over her shoulder while stray strands floated about her heart-shaped face, to her petite but curvy frame and wide blue eyes, hidden behind black-framed glasses and peering at him intently, she was perfection.

And he’d known it was against his clan’s laws to even engage in polite conversation with her. He’d known the rules. He’d known the risks. He’d tried to look the other way, ignore her subtle hints, avoid brushing up against her in the elevator, shut his nose off so he wouldn’t smell her amazing scent.

But…

They’d both been working late, and he’d known better than to invite her to share a table with him so she didn’t have to eat standing up in the cafeteria while a late-night conference was in progress.

He’d known better, but his vampire lust, his entire existence, narrowed to only January after that first conversation. Her voice, her scent, her desire for him, so rich and real he could taste it, all drove him mad—absolutely mad.

And now they were here and a baby later, trying desperately to find a way to be a family.

“Galen? That you, man?” a voice called from behind him.

Shit.

Their cloaking spell must have worn off.

January stiffened in his arms. He sniffed the air, picking up the scent of Rowdy Goram, an optometrist from the third floor of the medical building where he and January housed their practices.

“Shit,” he murmured. Rowdy was a fellow clansman and a total ass-kisser. If he saw Galen with January, Artem would know the minute Rowdy could dial his number. If it could bring him some rank in the clan, he’d rat out his own damn mother.

Rowdy’s footsteps grew closer, and as Galen was about to scoop January up and whisk her away, she giggled.

He frowned, looking down at her. January—all buxom blonde and ruby-red lips—looked back up at him and winked a sultry conspirator’s eye.

Thank the gods for her cloaking spells.

“Galen?” Rowdy slapped him on the back.

“A little busy here, buddy. You mind?” He pointed to January’s head and made a face at Rowdy as he tucked January closer and wiggled his eyebrows.

Rowdy blustered, his pale, narrow face eerie in the dark of the night. “Sorry, buddy. Didn’t know you were otherwise,” he coughed and grinned like they’d just shared a dirty picture in Penthouse, “engaged. Just checking to be sure you’re okay. Anyway, ’night, you two. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.” He wiggled his eyebrows at Galen and made a crude gesture before he was off, scurrying his lanky frame toward the office building and slipping inside behind the tinted glass door.

January let out a breath of air. “Gods, I hate your clan.”

“Ditto, Marilyn,” he teased, dropping a kiss on her nose.

She chuckled and shrugged her shoulders. “What can I say? She’s the absolute opposite end of the spectrum from not-so-va-va-voom me. Marilyn Monroe was the first image that came to mind. Sometimes it just happens that way.”

“Yeah? Well, I like your end of the spectrum way better, young lady. It’s all kinds of restrained hot. Now go, before this spell wears off and I get into trouble for having my way with you right here in the middle of the sidewalk.”

“It’s the pouty lips, isn’t it? What is it with men and big, poofy lips?” she teased, kissing the corner of his mouth.

“It’s your everything. Now scoot. Don’t change back until you’re halfway home. Promise me.”

She held up her fingers in a Girl Scout’s Honor and mocked a sultry smile, turning her head to rest her chin on her shoulder. “Promise. But what are you going to do here tonight? It’s almost midnight, Galen.”

“Just some research—besides, nighttime is my thing. Remember? Coffin-dweller here?”

Giggling, she stood on tiptoe and pressed a kiss to his lips. “I love you, Galen Marcus. We’ll figure this out or we’ll pack up and move to Siberia.”

“I love you back, January Malone. Like crazy. And I guess I could get used to borscht and an igloo,” he teased. Kissing her one last time, he sent her on her way, regretting instantly the moment she left his arms.

As he watched her sashay down the sidewalk, her Marilyn hips much fuller than her own, her sway accentuated by her heels, Galen fought the tight sting of fear in his chest.

If these women couldn’t help them, by hell, he would find a way to make their family whole—because there was still one more issue he hadn’t told January about.

One really big issue.

He was holding off as long as he could in the hopes Artem wouldn’t say anything until after the summit had gathered. But he’d have to tell her soon.

Closing his eyes, Galen sniffed the muggy New York air and once more made the promise he’d been making to himself since he’d decided January was his mate. He’d protect her and Calista to any end. Go anywhere to be with them.

Or he’d die trying.

Chapter 5

You want?” Nina asked January, holding up half of her ham and Swiss on rye as they sat in her office, preparing to begin their next session.

Nina didn’t appear at all affected by the idea that she knew they were being recorded. In fact, she’d strolled into January’s office cool as a cucumber, sandwich bag in hand, plopped down in the same seat she’d sat in yesterday and began to eat her lunch.

If anyone was going to blow this sky-high, it would be January and her stupid nerves. Now that she knew Nina was aware of the recording, and she knew she had to keep her on course, she was far more worried about discovery than she had been when she’d feared Nina would find out on her own that she was being recorded.

“Doc?” Nina inquired again, waving the sandwich in front of her face. “Yum-yum. Cheesy goodness on rye,” she tempted with a comical grin. “Wouldn’t hurt you to put some meat on those scrawny legs of yours.”

January squared her shoulders and shook her head with a smile. “No, thank you. I had lunch.”

Nina shrugged. “Your loss.”

Clearing her throat, she licked her dry lips as Nina happily chewed. How was she ever going to get through this?

But then Nina looked up at her, her black eyes compelling January to look back—willing her to participate and help maintain their ruse. And when she complied, Nina didn’t bat an eye, but said, “So what’s on the fucking agenda today, Doc? You wanna probe me like an alien? Check my cholesterol? Maybe have me pee in a cup?”

That instantly broke the tension for January, making her laugh as her body began to relax into her chair. “I’m not that kind of doctor, Nina. No urine samples required.”

She took a huge bite of her sandwich and chewed, glaring at January. “So? Then what’s next? I don’t get what you want from me. I told you everything yesterday. I’m here because my nitwit friends say I need to be here. Do what you gotta do and get ’er done.”

“What’s next is you tell me what your state of mind’s been like since you were returned to your former humanity. How are you feeling since you became a human?”

“Hungry.”

“Are you really eating because you’re hungry or is it because of something else?”

“Like?”

“Like it’s a way to remind yourself you’re human. Are you using it as a form of punishment—a constant reminder of your new lot in life?”

“Because Ring-Dings and a fucking steak the size of my face are forms of punishment? Punish the shit out of me, is what I say.”

January watched several different emotions play over Nina’s face before she shrugged. “Maybe. You tell me.”

Sighing, the ex-vampire dropped the crust of her sandwich into the grease-stained bag and made a sucking noise. “Listen, I’ll admit the ability to snarf down whatever the hell I want, whenever the hell I want, is GD sweet after eight years of nothing but synthetic blood. So yeah, I’m making up for lost time, and I’ve got the trail of Cracker Jack crumbs in aisle seven at the supermarket to prove it. But it isn’t because I need to remind myself I’m a fucking human. I have the Ass-Sniffer and Mother Theresa for that.”

“And that bothers you? Do you think they do it to make a point or they do it to be helpful?”

She gave January a blank stare. “Do you?”

“Don’t avoid and deflect.”

Nina made a face. “Right, the dreaded D word.”

January gave her a thumbs-up. “You did read the packet. Kudos! Now, answer the question. Why do you think your friends remind you of your new station in life?”

“I’m sure they’re just looking out for me, but if I needed looking out for, I’d tell ’em.”

“So you trust they’re doing this because it’s in your best interest?”

“Didn’t I just say that? Listen, they don’t do it to shove the fact that they’re stronger than I am now in my face. I trust them. I don’t like that I trust a chick who wears more makeup than a clown and always takes two hours to get ready when we’re just going to the frickin’ Dollar Store. Marty’s nothing like me, and if she’s nothing like me, then Wanda’s a million times unlike me. She’s reserved, all about good manners and being a fucking lady. But trust them? Fuck yeah. It’s been ride or die since day one, and it always will be. End of. Move along to the next subject, little doggie.”

January believed Nina did trust her friends. She didn’t flinch when asked. Not an iota. “Okay, let’s look at your marriage then. How does your husband Greg feel about your humanity?”

Rolling her head from side to side, she cracked the muscles in her neck. “You wanna call him up and ask him?”

“No. I want you to give me your impression of his feelings. How do they come across to you? How do they make you feel? What do you hear when he shares them?”

Nina shrugged, and this time, she didn’t look January in the eye when she answered. “He was pissed that I risked my life for Marty, if that’s what you’re getting at. Not because it was Marty, mind you, but that I took a chance like I did, knowing I was human. Because of Charlie…”

January cupped her chin in her hand and assessed the gorgeous brunette. Nina’s husband played an integral role in how she felt about her returned humanity. It had to be hard for him to adjust, too. “So he was angry then?”

“Yeah. He was pretty pissed.”

“Did you argue about it?”

“We didn’t really knock-down-drag-out because we don’t ever do that. We get heated, but we don’t sling fucking mud. I know you prolly think coming from me, that’s bullshit, but my marriage is solid and keeping it that way means I have to use my words. But he was upset enough that he asked me to reconsider my role at OOPS.”

“And that made you…?”

“Tweaked at first, because I’m all kinds of mouth and posturing when it comes to somebody telling me what I can and can’t do—even my own husband. But I get it, and if I didn’t get it, Marty and Wanda are there to remind me I’m in a fucking partnership and something about consideration for my other half, blah, blah, blah. But it’s not like I don’t get that I have a finite amount of time here on earth. I know I’m a lot easier to kill now.”

“Do you still feel as much Greg’s equal as you did when you were a vampire?”

Nina said nothing. Instead, she rustled around in her bag of chips.

“Nina?” January prodded with a gentle tone.

She squirmed for a moment, as though she were deciding whether she should divulge one of her deeper fears—not to mention divulge it to their hidden audience.

Finally, she took a napkin from her bag and wiped her mouth before saying, “No, okay? No, I don’t feel like an equal anymore. I feel like I’ve been spending a lot of time showing Greg all the things I do day to day for Charlie and Carl so—” Her voice cracked a little then, but she rallied quickly. “So that if something happens to me, he’ll know what they like for dinner, or how Carl likes his broccoli cooked a specific way so it’s not too mushy, or the days of the week I take them to the library for story time… I guess I didn’t realize I was telling him all these things because I know one day I…I…”

“Won’t be here?”

Now Nina gulped, the slender column of her throat working. “Yeah. It’s like I’m preparing to die, and I’m not even dying, and…”

“And that sucks.”

“Fuck yeah, it sucks. But I’d do it again. So if you’re going to go back to how I should regret saving someone’s life, fuck off.”

January noted that was for the benefit of the hidden camera. “It can’t be taken back anyway. All we can do is move forward from this point on.”

Nina yawned and stretched. “Right. One foot in front of the other, yadda, yadda, yadda.”

“How do you plan to do that? Put one foot in front of the other?”

Nina made a face. “You want a demonstration? Fucking pictures?”

“No. I want to know if you have an active plan in place. How you’ll tell Charlie someday that you’re different than her. Carl, too. I want to know how you’ll mentally prepare for an ending you haven’t had to prepare for in several years.”

“Like a will?”

January shook her finger at Nina. She was toying with her. Playing dumb because she didn’t want to acknowledge anything beyond the next grilled cheese sandwich she ate. It was all part and parcel of coming to terms with this new journey she was on, and Nina was ignoring it, shoving it away, stalling.

And January knew she had to get to the heart of the matter before time ran out. If nothing came of this, if she ended up blowing this whole thing with Galen and Artem, she wasn’t going to do that before she helped Nina. She absolutely had to properly grieve the loss of her vampirism in order to accept and come to complete terms with her humanity.

“Don’t play dumb with me, Nina. I asked a question. Do you have a plan in place for the time when your life will cease, but everyone around you will carry on?”

Nina narrowed her eyes at January, straightening the ties on her hoodie, the knuckles of her fingers white, but still she didn’t bite. “I got plans for dinner. That’s about as much fucking planning as I’ve done today.”

“Then here’s what I want you to do before our next appointment tomorrow. Think of one, Nina. Think of a plan. Tell me how you’ll talk to Charlie and Carl and explain that you’re different. What you hope to do with your time when your friends are still youthful and fit and you’re part of a knitting club at a retirement home.”

Nina’s eyebrow rose, but then she eyeballed January and grinned—wide. “Fuck knitting. It’s Ping-Pong or bust.”

But January chose to ignore Nina’s blatant refusal to acknowledge her words. “Just a loose outline will do for now, but give it some thought tonight and I’ll see you tomorrow, same time.”

“We done here? Am I excused, Dr. Malone?”

January didn’t miss the sarcasm in Nina’s tone, but she gave her a sunny smile and pushed away from her desk. “Free bird, baby.”

There was a sudden commotion, making both Nina and January look up and toward her office door. Voices were raised, heated and animated.

Nina was the first to rise from her chair. She pushed off, using her hands on the arms as leverage and strode toward the door. “Fuck all. If Marty’s out there grousing about validating her parking, I’ll fix her ass. Don’t you worry, Doc. I won’t let her screw with you. We’re fucking rich, for Christ’s sake. I don’t know why she has to make such a big stinkin’ deal about shit.”

But as she threw the door open, it wasn’t Marty making a scene at all.

No, in fact, it was Galen, just outside the thin glass that separated her reception area from the hallway and elevators.

Marty and Wanda both looked to January, their eyes rimmed with concern, their bodies frozen to the spot.

January cocked them a glance in question as she watched Galen’s strong hands fly about in the air, clearly agitated. “What’s going on?”

Elsa, her receptionist, short and elderly and also a fellow witch, smoothed the ruffles on the front of her polka-dot blouse. “That hunky doctor next door is arguing with someone.” She shivered, her round cheeks vibrating. “He’s so manly when he’s all worked up, eh, ladies?”

Nina—being Nina—strode to the door and flung it open, pushing her way out and cornering Galen and the other man. A man January couldn’t quite see over Nina’s tall frame.

“Hey! What the fuck is wrong with you two? There are goddamn people in here with mental-health related issues. Like me. And I’m telling you, I’m fragile, bitches. Fragile with a capital edgy. You do not—I repeat—do not want to set me off. I’m like a GD volcano just waitin’ to blow. So shut the fuck up and take it the hell outside!”

Galen was the first to respond, his handsome, pale face and strong body tight with tension. “My apologies, Dr. Malone. We didn’t mean to disturb you with your patient,” he offered in a curt tone before his beautiful eyes the color of green marbles moved from January’s face and focused on the far wall to avoid even merely glimpsing at her.

“Indeed. Our apologies, Doctor,” the man Nina blocked from view reiterated.

“Who the fuck are you, in here harassing doctors? Jesus, can’t anyone get some friggin’ respect these days? Bet you eat corn chips in the library, too. What’s wrong with you?” Nina demanded of the man, leaning down to peer into his face.

But January grabbed her arm from behind, fighting a cringe. She knew that voice. She knew it well. “It’s okay, Nina. Come on, let’s go make an appointment with Elsa for tomorrow and let these two hash out whatever the problem is on their own.”

But the man raised his slender hand, reaching up to plant it on Galen’s shoulder, giving him a hard pat. Then he smiled, working hard to ooze charm from every slimy pore on his scrawny body. “It’s fine, Dr. Malone. We were just grousing about baseball, if you can believe it, weren’t we, Galen? We got a little heated, as men are wont to do when they challenge one another in the sports arena. Nothing to worry about. Right, Galen?”

“Right,” Galen responded, the tic in his jaw pulsing like mad—meaning everything was not all right.

Stepping between the women, he glanced up at Nina and smiled pleasantly, his long, thin face pale, as opposed to his lips, which were a deep ruby red. “Again, so sorry, Miss…?” He looked up at her hopefully, his deep-set dark eyes searching hers while knowing full well who she was.

“Nina Blackman-Statleon. Besides loud and rude as fuck, who are you?”

January gulped and inhaled with as little sound as possible.

He beamed at Nina, slicking back his glossy, raven-colored hair before he extended his hand to her. “I’m Artem Casteel. Undoubtedly, the pleasure is all mine. All mine.”

Chapter 6

I should have ripped his throat out then and there. You know what it was like to stand there and look that motherfucker in the face, knowing the whole time he wants my ass in a wooden sardine can? Why the fuck did you let me walk into that shit blind, Doc?” Nina crabbed at January as they all sat around a table in the basement office of OOPS.

There was an enormous poster of Mulder and Scully on the wall with the words “I Believe” scrawled across it, hanging just above Nina’s head. The phones they had set up on each of their desks to take calls sat in silence, much as they all had since they’d arranged to meet on this balmy July night.

“It’s not like you gave her a chance, Nina,” Marty pointed out, reapplying her pink lip gloss for the third time since they’d arrived. “This is exactly why we ask you to slow down. It isn’t because we like being nags, Acts-Like-Thug. It’s because sometimes you open that big gaping hole on your face and cause more trouble than we need before you even know what the heck is going on.”

“It’s okay, Marty. She was just doing what she does best. Protecting everyone,” January defended, oddly warmed by Nina taking Galen under her wing—even if her wing was very mortal and easily clipped. “Yes, she was brash and loud, but Artem has no idea she even knows what’s going on or who he is. So it all worked out.”

Nina sighed, reaching into her hoodie for a Twizzlers with an expression that said, see? “What the shrink said. I saw Galen and he looked pretty wanked, so I went out swinging. I was just looking out for him. Because like the Doc said, it’s what I do. She gets it, why the hell don’t you two?”

Wanda shifted in her office chair, crossing and re-crossing her legs. She let her mint-colored wedge sandal dangle from her toes. “So that was the big bad Artem, huh?”

“That was him,” January replied dismally. She knew damn well they hadn’t been arguing about sports. What worried her was what they’d been arguing about.

Had Artem caught them? Had that snake Rowdy figured out who she was and given them up? Damn. And where was Galen, anyway?

Nina nodded. “I could prolly take him even as a human. He’s a weaselly lookin’ shit. You shoulda just let me kick his ass right then and there. Problem solved.”

January patted Nina’s hand and shook her head in admonishment. “No, Nina. You cannot take him. He’s a vampire. Need I remind you once more, you are a human with human strength and capabilities?”

“You sure harp on that shit a lot, Doc. Sing a diff tune, huh?” she said on a wink, stretching the strawberry-flavored licorice between her teeth until it broke.

But January gave her a stern look and tapped the table with a finger. “I’ll sing the same tune like a broken record until you acknowledge and take your humanity seriously. Artem is a vicious killer. He’s killed before in accordance with his clan laws. He justifies plenty with his iron fist. So again I say, no tangling with vampires because you, quite plainly, aren’t strong enough.”

“Doc’s right, Nina,” the man introduced to her as Darnell said.

From the moment his burly hand had swallowed hers and he’d grinned down at her, all white teeth, gold chains, high-tops and warm vibes, January felt safe.

Whatever his story was, however he’d become a demon, he was good to the soul. She didn’t need a degree in psychology to tell her that. His aura was crystal clear.

Darnell scrubbed a hand over his shortly cropped hair, his eyes a mixture of sorrow and worry. “Y’all gotta be careful now that we talkin’ the paranormal council. That ain’t no joke. Word gets back you bein’ violent, and it’s gon’ get real, Boss. I won’t be able to take it if they shun you. Believe that.”

“How the fuck is it everyone knew about this damn council and I’ve never heard about it?” Nina asked. “It’s like I suddenly just got the invitation to the party. I had no flippin’ clue there was a bunch of ratchety-ass elders from each species who could pass judgment and it was the law. I thought each clan or pack or gaggle of sirens or whatever had their own branches and that was that. No one’s ever interfered with Greg before.”

“Because you damn well don’t listen, Nina!” Wanda yelped, slamming her hand down on the surface of the table they all sat around, making everyone jump, including Nina.

She leapt up from her seat, her usually serene face tight with anger. “Damn it! It’s because you seem to think you can do whatever you want simply because you deem it so! So why would you care if a council of elders existed? No skin off your pert nose, right? Because no one tells Nina the Ass Beater what to do! But there are rules. There have always been rules. We’ve bent them, we’ve worked outside of them, but they exist. Greg is a powerful leader in your clan, but he’s not the sire. He’s not in charge. He can be overruled.

“Now it’s time to really listen. Just this once. I’m begging you, my friend. There are lives at stake here. A baby. Your baby—my niece. January and Galen’s baby. Darnell…all of us. We can’t risk upsetting the applecart. This isn’t a time to throw your weight around. God in heaven, how many times can I explain that before you get it through your thick skull?” Tears welled at the corners of her eyes when Wanda finished ranting, surprising January.

Wanda had reached her breaking point. It was evident as she slumped back in her chair. She was tired. Tired of watching Nina shatter before her, picking up the scattered pieces to glue them all back together, only to see them break again.

The man named Archibald—elderly, spry, dressed in a butler’s uniform, complete with ascot and an utterly charming British accent—reached across the table and took Wanda’s hand, pressing the back of it to his lips. “For that I could ease this pressure you’re all under. Know that I would.”

Nina instantly grabbed her friend’s free hand and squeezed it before letting go. No sarcasm, no snarky comebacks. Just compassion. “I’m sorry, okay? I get it. I’ll try and chill the fuck out. Don’t cry, Wanda. I hate when you fucking cry.”

Carl came from behind Wanda, his tall body and oddly un-zombie-like features a surprise to January. She’d seen many things in her time on this earth, but never a zombie, especially not one as sweet and endearing as Carl.

He wrapped his arms around Wanda’s neck and squeezed, thumping her on the shoulder with a hand that had duct tape keeping his thumb on. “S’okay,” he murmured, closing his eyes and rocking back and forth.

According to Nina, he was just learning to speak, but his heart spoke volumes. He was a gentle lamb in a hurricane of discourse, and the sight of him, the sweet, loving sight of him, made January’s heart clench until her chest ached.

Wanda squeezed him back, resting her head on his arm. “I’m sorry, Carl. I didn’t mean to upset you. Forgive me?”

He nuzzled the top of Wanda’s head and nodded.

Marty cleared her throat and sat up straight, smoothing the ends of the wide green-and-pink band holding her hair away from her face. “Okay. It’s time to get serious. We have what, just a few days now before council calls?”

“How do you know the date they’ve set for the council summit?” January asked, surprised.

Marty held up a letter—an official council letter.

Nina dug something out of her back pocket and dropped it on the table. “Yep. They’re meeting on Monday. That’s a letter from those ancient motherfuckers, telling me I’d better show up or I’m meat.”

Wanda and Darnell each reached for something, too. As Wanda dug into her purse and Darnell pulled something from his own back pocket, January’s dread heightened. Simultaneously, they plopped the same stationary on the table that Nina had.

January swallowed hard. “So everyone’s been ordered to appear.”

It wasn’t a question. It was a statement of fact. She knew what those letters meant. They wanted to question them. More specifically, Artem wanted to question them. He wanted to poke and toy with them to prove to the council elders he was right, and these people were a detriment—but mostly, he wanted to shame them in front of an audience.

Wanda nodded, her stare vacant. “Looks like it. But you know what? I’m not going to apologize for doing what we do here. I don’t give a damn what clans and councils and packs say. We help people. We help a lot of people, and in the process, we save them from going somewhere outside of the paranormal community for that help. I hope this stupid paranormal council’s prepared to hear that.”

“You been to one of these summit meetings, Arch?” Nina asked.

Arch blew out a breath, his sagging cheeks expanding outward. “I have. ’Tis serious business of the highest order. But ’tis also rare the blustery old bags of bones gather. I can only take that to mean this cretin, Artem, has stirred the pot quite vigorously to rouse them to this level of anxiety. I know his kind. Oh, indeed I do. Smiles and good cheer to your face, while they stick the knife between your shoulder blades!”

“Fucking perfect,” Nina muttered.

The throb in January’s temples increased tenfold. Goddess, this was never going to work. They had to come up with something on Artem before Monday—before he went in front of a bunch of panicked elders and showed them proof the new laws were too lax, and he was going to use Nina’s sessions as a case in point.

A rap of knuckles on the door to OOPS had Darnell up and out of his seat, flexing his muscles. He dragged it open, the heavy weight of it scraping against the concrete floor.

“You Galen?” he asked in that deep, whiskey-tinged drawl.

“I am.”

Darnell reached for him then, wrapping him in a big bear hug, clearly taking Galen by surprise. “Good to meet ya, man. C’mon in.” He slapped him on the back once more before leading him to where they all sat.

In an instant, January was in his arms, pulling him close and inhaling the familiar, soothing scent of his subtle cologne. “Are you okay? What the hell happened today?”

He looked down at her, his pale face grim against the backdrop of the basement offices of OOPS. “We’ve got a lot to talk about.”

January’s stomach rolled as her headache grew. She was exhausted from living in a state of constant fear. “Is it Calista? I just checked in with Farley and he gave me the thumbs-up.”

“Who’s Farley?” Wanda asked, scooting over so Galen could sit with them.

She smiled at the thought of her dearest, oldest Scottish friend. “My familiar. Most witches have them. They’re guides, confidants. He’s watching over Calista. Keeping her from everyone so we won’t be found out.” She’d have never made it through these last months without Farley. She trusted him with her life.

“He really has her good and hidden, I hope?” Marty asked, a tinge of concern to her tone.

The sting of familiar tears poked at the back of her eyelids. She was missing so much of Calista’s infancy with all this skulking about. “For now. But I can’t hide her forever. Or wait. I take that back. I could, but I don’t want to. What kind of life is that for her?”

“And you fucking shouldn’t have to,” Nina retorted. “So fill your boy-toy here in on what level we’re currently at on the scale of doom so we can try and hash some shit out. We need to do something soon if we all have to appear before this council in five days. It’s not enough for us to just beg like dogs for their scraps. We have to fucking show them what a freak this Artem is, and we need hardcore shit. No-holds-barred shit.”

Galen rolled up his shirtsleeves and dropped into the chair beside January, pulling her hand into his. “Appear before the council? All of you?” His surprise was clear amidst the weary glance he gave them.

“Yep,” Nina confirmed. “All of us. So make like Einstein and think.”

Galen ran his hand through his thick hair, shaking his head. “God, he’s such a bastard.”

Wanda toyed with a sticky notepad in pink with a Bobbie-Sue header on it. “And he’s calling us all to task. Seeing as I don’t much cotton to being called to the mat, have any brilliant ideas since we last saw you?”

Galen clenched his fist. “Nothing. I have no idea how you’d get any information on him. He knows all of us by sight now, so it’s not as though we could sneak into one of his quote-unquote inspirational meetings unnoticed—which is likely where he’d make any mention about this big coup he has planned. You know, so he can cackle with all his equally twisted minions. And after today, he knows your scents, too.”

“He has inspirational meetings?” Marty asked, sitting up straight, her eyes suddenly brighter.

Galen made a face, his eyes narrowing. “He calls them ‘visionary’. His vision of what a purist vampire’s world looks like, I suppose. He spouts all sorts of tips to keep our world free of any other species but our own, under the guise of harmony and peace. I happened into one of these meetings purely by accident, and it sickened me. I was ushered out as quickly as I’d arrived because they’re only meant for Artem’s most trusted henchman. They’re a lot like the human world’s tent revivals. You know, rabid preacher, spewing Bible verses with a snake around his neck, that kind of thing. It’s extreme.”

“Sounds like a GD Bobbie-Sue meeting, if you ask me. Lot’s of crazy slogans and all sorts of tactics while everyone cheers you on for shoving your mascara down someone else’s throat,” Nina said, her eyebrow raised.

Marty rolled her eyes and stuck her tongue out at Nina. “We don’t promote purity, hater. We promote beauty and health. And there are absolutely no snakes.”

Nina cackled then frowned, setting her Twizzlers on the table on a napkin. “Who attends these fucking meetings and when are they?”

Galen cocked his dark head. “He and his cohorts meet every Saturday night. They used to meet at a bar exclusively for paranormals called Landry’s—which was where I happened into their nuthouse of theories on human cleansing. But nowadays, since they’ve ramped up the crazy and gone all secretive, they meet at his house upstate. Rhinebeck, I think—it’s really secluded. Also, everyone he keeps close has drunk the Kool-Aid. They’re as insane as he is. He treats them to a bird’s-eye view of what the world will look like when vampires run it. He spews his hate with pretty words and catchy phrases—he even serves real blood. His bunch of sidekicks guzzle that juice and they back him one hundred.”

Marty cupped her chin and leaned forward, her expression thoughtful. “You suppose he writes some of his nutball ideas down on paper? Keeps them in a Word document, maybe?”

“Do cult leaders write down their manifestos?” January asked, her misery sinking deeper into her gut.

“Wait. He serves them real blood? Not synthetic? Do you have any idea how long it took me to curb my damn appetite for the real thing? Years. Fucking asshole. The real shit’s been outlawed in the community forever,” Nina spat.

“Just one of the perks when you’re an Artem minion,” Galen seethed.

Serves them,” Nina murmured, her voice faraway. “Is this like some kind of catered deal? Waiters? Waitresses? Some kind of staff and shit?”

“Yeah. It’s always pretty fancy,” Galen responded on a nod. “Chalices made of fourteen-carat gold, people waiting on you hand and foot with warm towels. That’s one of the things he preaches—subservience from everyone around him. He talks about this cleansing like it’s the equivalent of the Vikings’ Valhalla.”

Nina looked down at her phone and began using her fingers to type as Galen told them about some of the parties he’d heard about via other clan members.

“What’s going on in that messed up head of yours, ex-coffin dweller?” Marty asked, craning her neck to look at the face of Nina’s phone.

Nina flicked her fingers in Marty’s face to ward her off. “I think I have an idea. Just gimme a few to get it together. Carry on until I do. I wanna hear more about these parties. Are there virgin sacrifices? Belly dancers?”

Galen barked a laugh, the tension in his wide shoulders easing a bit. “No virgin sacrifices that I’m aware of. Just a lot of propaganda, supremacy and talk of a world virtually free of anything but vampires. Heil Vampire and all that jazz.”

January shivered with a violent tremble. “Sometimes I can’t believe this is still going on. I can’t believe you’ve been forced to live like this for so long.”

Galen’s face went dark, his hand tightening its grip on hers. “We have to talk about the way I’ve been living.”

Instantly, she was on red alert. “Why do I think this has something to do with what you and Artem were arguing about this afternoon outside my office?”

“Because it does, honey.”

“What’s that fuck got up his sleeve now? Chains, whips? Waterboarding you?” Nina asked as her phone beeped an incoming text message.

“No. It’s about as appealing, though,” Galen responded.

Nina nudged him, a frown creasing her forehead. “Well, spit it the fuck out. Don’t keep me hanging.”

“Artem told me today he’s found a mate for me.”

Chapter 7

January had to fight not to gasp, her eyes going wide in disbelief as she gripped the edge of the round table for support.

“So not only can he ban you from going outside your species to find some nookie, he can mate you off, too?” Nina yelped, her fist clenching.

Marty’s head bounced as she looked to her friend in surprise. “Of course he can, Nina. Are you forgetting the mating between you and Greg? He refused to marry Whatshername because he was all goo-goo eyes over you and as a result, he was doomed to die because he was defying his clan? Clans, packs, whatever, they have all sorts of crazy, archaic rules. To make matters worse, Greg had to mate on that one specific night or he’d turn to dust. Remember the madness?”

“So you mated with your husband to save his immortality?” January asked, astounded. That hadn’t been in the Nina Files. A forced marriage? Or a marriage born of immediacy and pressure from her spouse, Greg? She didn’t get the impression Nina was at all unhappy in her marriage—or that it was an act she’d committed out of fear.

Nina leaned back in her chair and put her booted feet up on the table, crossing them at the ankles. “Don’t get your stethoscope in a twist there, Doc. I wanted to mate with him. I was already half in the bag where my man Greg was concerned when we mated, anyway. No one forced me to do anything. Besides, do I look like the kind of chick who’d marry a dude because he was pressuring me? Please.”

January sucked in air, as much of it as possible. “Okay, so let me get this straight. Artem came to tell you that he’s mating you off?”

“Yes. Well, sort of.” His response was stiff, his eyes flaming with anger. “I knew about this for a while.”

“You knew?” January squeaked in shock. “And you didn’t tell me! How could you not tell me?”

Galen sighed, running a hand over his jaw as he grabbed her hand. “I didn’t want to make things worse, honey. I guess I hoped it would go away. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner. But there’s a motive here. I suspect it’s to see if he can draw you out—get a reaction out of you. Which is why it’s even more crucial for us to keep it together. At least publicly.”

But January wasn’t hearing that. All she could hear was Galen had been matched with another woman.

Who is she?” January demanded, her eyes narrowing. “If it’s that damn gynecologist down the hall with the boobs the size of hot-air balloons and more hair than a yeti, I’ll kill him and her myself! She’s been chasing after you from the moment you moved into the offices and opened your practice!”

“You’re a fucking doctor, too, Vampire?” Nina asked with a wink. “Nice gig, huh? Good money. Fancy car. Sucks about your kooky sire, but still, shit’s good, right?”

Galen smiled politely, clearly uncomfortable with Nina’s brash assessments. “General practitioner.”

“Shut up. You know…question? I got this damn ache in my lower back that won’t give the fuck up. Never had it before, but all this human shit reminds me I’m in my damned forties now. Any ideas on how I can ease the tension? The over-the-counter stuff sucks ripe ass, and—”

Excuse me!” January yelped, jumping up from the table, keeping her cool façade always a problem where Galen was concerned. “My husband just told me his clan leader says he has to mate with someone other than me, and you’re all sitting here like he just told you he was running to the bodega to grab some milk! Can’t you see I’m in a crisis?”

Nina wiped the corner of her eye where, in January’s rant, she’d spit. “Slow your roll, Head Shrinker. We’re not gonna let some pissy bitch with big balloons and foofy hair take your man.”

“Honey, sit, please,” Galen encouraged, tugging her hand. “It’s not Dr. Howel.”

Then who is the bitch?” January roared, paying no mind to the shock on everyone’s faces that the easygoing Dr. Malone was losing her marbles.

Galen stroked her arm to soothe her and pulled her back down to her chair. “Honey. Please. Sit next to me. Let me explain.”

“I’ll get some water,” Wanda offered, rising from the chair.

“I’ll go with,” Darnell said, following her to the small kitchen they’d set up with a fridge and hotplate.

Galen cupped her cheek and stroked it with his thumb. “January, listen to me. He hasn’t named my mate—not yet. He said he wanted to wait until after the summit. It’s not happening tomorrow.”

“And did you tell him to piss the hell off?”

Nina cackled again. “Damn, Doc. Didn’t know you had this in ya. You’re always so cool and together. All that hushed-whisper talk and controlled-environment thing is just a cover for a seriously sassy bitch. Maybe I should be in charge of breathing techniques in our sessions from here on out, huh?”

January’s entire body trembled with rage. God, she hated Artem Casteel. Prayed every night he’d catch on fire, forget to put his sunscreen on, die a heinous, painful death at dawn so she could dance in his ashes.

“You saw the conversation we were having, didn’t you, honey? It was enough to bring you from your office and out into the hall. Of course I told him to piss off, January. For all the good it does me. Technically, he can mate me to another. It’s his right. But I told him anyway. Which is why we have to think of something before the summit.”

Another knock on the door made both January and Galen stiffen, but Nina held up her hand. “I got this.”

As she went to get the door, January fought tears of frustration while Galen rubbed circles along her back. “We’ll figure it out. I promise you, January. If we have to leave the country and take Calista with us, I’ll do it.”

She’d only heard that a thousand times since they’d become involved, but right now, it felt like nothing was ever going to be all right again. What if they didn’t fix this and he had to mate with someone else? A blood bond was surely a far stronger bond than a ceremony officiated by a fairy and a fellow witch, like they’d had.

As the noise at the door stole her attention from this new revelation, she forced herself to get it together. Losing it like she had only made her appear weak and out of control. The last thing she wanted these women to think was that she was incapable of helping them because she was too consumed with her anger to think straight.

Two women entered the room, one a gorgeous, blonde goddess with platinum hair and Viking height, wearing a floral T-shirt and a pair of cutoff shorts. The other, much smaller but certainly as captivating, with her eyebrow piercings and vivid eyeshadow, was dressed in black, from her thigh-high utilitarian boots to her pleather vest and spiked collar necklace.

The shorter woman dropped her slouchy black bag on the table and smiled. “Guess who’s here, bitches!”

Everyone jumped up to greet them while January and Galen looked on. Hugs and tears were exchanged, and the blonde woman explained she was here in New York after a phone call she’d received from Archibald yesterday, who’d made it clear her help could possibly be needed.

She wrapped her arms around Nina’s waist and lifted her off her feet, giving her a big hug before dropping her back to the floor. “Damn, Nina. Everybody said you were eating a lot, but they didn’t tell me you’d eaten Montana. What the hell are you packing away?” she teased with a wide grin.

Nina brushed the blonde’s hair from her cheek and pinched it with a return smile. “Fuck you, Mrs. Gigantor. How’s Cormac and all my little wildlife buds at Sanctuary?”

She blushed prettily under Nina’s gaze. “Cormac is as amazing as ever and sends his love. He said if you need backup, just give a holler, as did my brothers. As to Sanctuary, Mr. Noodles the monkey hasn’t stopped signing about you since he saw you a couple of months ago on your last visit with Charlie. He’s still madly in love. So when this is all over, we’ll have to Skype so he can visit.”

“And you?” Nina pointed to the girl with all the piercings and a proud grin. “Gimme a hug, Miss Straight A’s. Have I told you how GD proud we are of you, kiddo?”

As Nina gathered up the other young woman and squeezed her tight, the leggy blonde approached them. Galen rose from his seat and January caught him flaring his nostrils to catch her scent.

But she just smiled and offered her sun-browned hand to him. “Teddy Gribanov. Bear shifter, in case your nose is unsure. You must be Galen, and you,” she pointed to January, “are the poor doctor assigned to cure Nina. Sorry in advance for all the mean stuff she says. Swear, it’s all in love.”

January chuckled, rising to shake her hand, but Teddy pulled her into a peach-scented hug. “You’re the Russian bear, right?”

Teddy bobbed her head, the ponytail high on the back of it bouncing. “My reputation precedes me. Niiiice,” she drawled, nudging the woman she’d arrived with, who’d come to stand next to her.

A clearer picture of Teddy came into her head as January recalled her story in Nina’s files. “I’ve read all about you and what happened back in February. Pretty harrowing.”

“You know it. But everything’s good now. Really good. Well, except for this crap with the summit.”

“And that’s why we’re here,” the tiny woman said, her youthful face smiling broadly. “I’m Ingrid and I’m about to rock your world. We have a plan, ladies and gents!”

* * * *

“It’s too dangerous,” Galen said for the umpteenth time. “He’ll smell Teddy, for one. Secondly, Ingrid’s a human. What if something happens? What if something happens and she doesn’t have the strength of a bear and she ends up hurt? I can’t let that happen just so you can save my hide. I won’t.”

January hated to admit it, but Galen was right. She’d never be able to live with herself if anyone was hurt trying to save them.”

“It isn’t just you we’re trying to help, Blood Lover,” Ingrid said, hands on hips. “So get on over yourself. I’m trying to save my bosses here, too. You don’t think I’m going to sit on my keister while they all end up shunned or whatever happens when you’re not up to snuff as per these flippin’ jackholes, do you? These three women are like my family. Charlie and Carl like my kid siblings. The heck I’m gonna watch that all blow up in my face without at least trying to do something. They paid for me to go to vet school. You have any idea what that costs? The earth. That’s what. I’ll never forget what they’ve done for me.”

Marty’s cheeks turned a pretty shade of pink beneath her light tan. “We didn’t do it so you’d—”

“I know you didn’t do it so I’d be your indentured slave,” Ingrid reminded her, crossing her arms under her chest. “You know I know that. Now it’s a solid plan, people. Stop harshin’ my strategy and work with me here.”

“I’ll never let her leave my sight. Promise. She’ll never be far from me,” Teddy assured, her soft eyes determined. “I’d dare one of those maniacs to try and get to her with me between them.”

“But he’ll smell you’re a human,” Galen reminded, his body tense.

“Not if Doc whips up something,” Ingrid said, pointing to January. “You know, like the Walking Dead, when they’re trying to get past a horde of zombies? They cover themselves in zombie guts to disguise their scent.”

Carl whimpered, but Ingrid gave him a hug. “Not you, buddy. I like your guts right where they are.”

Nina nodded, popping her lips. “Can you do something like that, Doc? Disguise their scents? Abracadabra a spell with that magic wand of yours—sort of like that crazy shit you did the other night when you two looked like something fresh out of Cocoon?”

January bit the inside of her cheek, twisting her braid in her fingers. “I can, but it’s so risky. What if it wears off before you can get out? What if I can’t sustain the spell long enough for them to get any information? What if those maniacs just plain think something’s fishy?”

“That’s why we’ll have earpieces,” Ingrid said, her grit an admirable quality as far as January was concerned. “You guys stay far enough away that they can’t smell you. You watch with binoculars. Anything seems even a little off, you pull us. End of. We have to try, guys. If we can get into one of these meetings and get the goods on him, at least you’ll have some kind of proof to take to this council about his intentions because I’ll record everything he says. It’s our only chance—let us help.”

“But won’t they know who Teddy is?” January fretted, her heart thrashing against her chest at the mere thought of anyone, let alone a defenseless human, tangling with these men.

Teddy put a warm hand on January’s shoulder and squeezed. “I’ve lived a pretty isolated life in Colorado, January. I’ve never been to these picnics and gatherings and councils, or whatever you guys all talk about, and at first it made me sad when Nina and everyone told me about them. They sounded like fun. Touch football with berserkers? Who’d want to miss that? But not so much now. Now I understand why my dad laid so low and stayed out of the politics of our species—and everyone else’s politics, too. Besides, at best, they only know my name, address, and my circumstances after the incident in February—which was apparently reported to Nina’s clan after her shooting. But I’d bet they don’t know my face, and even if they do, I can put on a bunch of makeup to hide it. I can help, Dr. Malone. Please let me help.”

“So when’s the next meeting again, dude?” Nina asked.

“Saturday,” Galen responded, but his lips were tight.

Nina winked at Ingrid. “You hear that, kiddo?”

Ingrid nodded her spiky head. “Means I’ve got three days to learn how to belly dance. Better get my hips in gear,” she said on a laugh.

Teddy sighed with comical length, a twinkle in her eye. “Why do you get to be the belly dancer? Why can’t I be the belly dancer?”

“Because I’m the belly dancer. And you definitely can’t be the virgin after all that kissy-face with Cormac I saw going on at your party, so the only thing left after that is waitress,” Ingrid said on a snort.

Then everyone laughed—even January and Galen.

And for the first time since they’d sat down together as a group tonight, January felt like maybe—just maybe—they could pull this off.

Chapter 8

Just as January was locking up her office, mentally preparing to head off to begin the planning stages for this crazy plan they’d hatched last night to catch Artem being the asshole bigot he was, the man himself turned up.

“Dr. Malone,” he murmured in her office hallway, appearing out of the fading light from the tall windows behind him and into view.

Gripping her keys, she turned around and faced the man she feared more than almost anything she’d ever feared before. Whatever she did, she had to remain calm. Remain polite. In Nina’s words, “don’t show the motherfucker you’re onto him.”

Smiling, she nodded in his direction, keeping the keys in her hand. “Artem. How are you this evening?”

Driving his hands into his trouser pockets, he smiled back. His cold, soulless, insincere smile. “Very well, thank you. I thought we might have a chat.”

Instantly, January froze. Did he know what they were planning? Had she been careful enough to pay attention to whether they were followed coming and going from OOPS? Suddenly, she felt as though he could read her every thought. As though he were using a crystal ball to watch their every move.

And then she got a grip. That was ridiculous. She was paranoid. Not to mention, crystal balls didn’t even really exist.

Do not react, January Malone. You are a rock. Be the rock.

Shaking off her fears, she smiled harder at Artem. “What do you want to talk about?”

Artem ran a hand over his pointy chin. “Well, about our deal, of course. What else is there?”

Right. Because why else would he associate with a dirty witch? It took everything she had in her not to remind him the deal he’d made with her was just short of a deal made with the devil.

But she managed to keep it together instead of turning him into a slimy leech. “I’m rather in a rush. It’s been a long day. So, can we make this quick?”

Striding forward in his usual vampire blur of motion, he stood but an inch from her within a half second. In her experience, vast and sundry, close-talkers needed to be heard. Whatever Artem was about to impart, he wanted to be heard.

“Big plans, Glinda?”

He’d begun calling her Glinda the Good Witch as some kind of sick joke when he’d first approached her with this crazy scheme, after she’d at first refused to have any part of his madness.

Most of all, he knew it rankled her.

Tucking her purse over her shoulder, she attempted to feign boredom even as her skin crawled. “Huge. Me, a bottle of wine, a bag of kale chips, and the latest issue of Modern Psychology. Need to catch up on my reading. Gotta keep my instruments sharp.”

“Yes,” he drawled, as he narrowed one eye and sucked in his gaunt cheeks. “About that. Your instrument. I’ve been reviewing the videos of this Nina Statleon. Interesting creature, wouldn’t you agree?” he baited.

“You mean as case studies go? I suppose interesting enough. Typical anger issues. Not so out of the norm in any species, truthfully.”

His brows crashed together as he shook his head. “I mean how utterly crass she is. She’s a cretin. A foul-mouthed, poor representation of the clan.”

Defending Nina might arouse suspicion. She needed as little suspicion as possible, but she damn well hated the things he was saying about her. “She is indeed abrasive. But I’d wager she’s not the only vampire in all of your surrounding clans with a foul mouth and poor temper. Surely not all vampires are fields of wildflowers dappled in sunshine, are they? Not a surly one of you in the lot?”

Oh, January, as the ever-succinct Nina would say, shut the fuck up. Stop baiting the fuck-knuckle.

Artem eyed her for what felt like hours, studying her, likely attempting to pick up on the vibe she was throwing. So she thought of soft kittens and facials and warm cuddles from a freshly bathed Calista. If his keen sense of smell even hinted at her desperation, her agitation, he’d pounce.

Finally, his finger snaked out and pulled at a stray tendril of hair, wrapping it around his index finger and giving it a gentle tug. “I’d like to see more abrasive, less fixer-upper.”

God, he was bananapants. Straight-up nuts.

Remaining as still as possible, January gazed into Artem’s dark eyes. “I don’t understand your meaning. You said to highlight the worst of her personality. The anger. The recklessness. I thought I was doing as you requested. I can’t exactly bait her or it will arouse suspicion with my coven. I did take an oath as a doctor, Artem. I can’t be the antagonist. That isn’t very doctor-ish of Glinda the Good Witch, now is it?”

Artem narrowed his eyes and sniffed the air before he reminded her, “But there’ve been no ugly outbursts. I need more drama, less poor ex-vampire. I don’t care that she’s suffering about being a human once again. Wah-wah-wah,” he exaggerated on a mock pout. “I think I’ve made my position clear. She doesn’t deserve a place in our clan and technically never has. I wish to see that. I wish everyone at the summit to see that. Would you risk others’ lives just to save this one? Nina Statleon is a danger to all paranormals. What kind of doctor does that make you if you’re willing to put our kind at risk?”

If January clenched her teeth any harder, she was going to crack them and spit them in his face—all thirty-two. “If I’m not mistaken, wasn’t she accidentally bitten by a vampire? It’s hardly her fault she became one, technicalities aside.”

Artem’s eyes flashed hot and stormy. “And now she’s no longer bitten. She’s human, which means she doesn’t belong, Dr. Malone, and she must go. Reading about her exploits is far different than experiencing them firsthand. Thus, the council must see for themselves. I want screaming and yelling and rage-filled rants to prove a point! While she may behave as close to civilized as someone like her can get when she’s in your office during your therapy sessions, that doesn’t aid my agenda. After all, I thought we had a deal?”

“You mean the one where you don’t kill a man if I do what you say? That deal?”

Shit. Shitshitshit. Shut up, January. Don’t incite the troll!

A slow smile spread across his face. “That’s the one. You don’t want to see your boyfriend strung up at high noon, do you, Dr. Malone? I will admit, even I find it incredibly uncomfortable to watch a vampire’s skin peel away as he screams. It’s really quite unsettling and the memory lingers, if you know what I mean…”

Lifting her chin, she looked directly into his evil, beady eyes, even as her stomach turned and her heart chugged almost out of her chest. “He’s not my boyfriend, and I’m sure it’s unsettling to kill one of your own.”

His eyebrows rose high on his forehead and he clucked his tongue. “You disapprove?”

“How could someone like me ever approve of stringing anyone up, Artem?” Unless, of course, it was Artem. She’d pay for a front row seat to that.

Taking a step back, he rocked on the heels of his expensive Italian loafers. “Ah, yes. Peace and love. The white witch way, isn’t it? How will you ever sleep at night, knowing you essentially sacrificed Nina’s life for your non-boyfriend? That’s not very good witch, is it, Glinda?” he goaded.

Her heart began to crash in her chest again, her hand aching as she clenched the keys so tight, they dug into her palm. “Are we done here?”

Chucking her under the chin, he winked. “Most definitely. But do keep in mind. More heat—less love and lollipops.”

“Artem?”

January saw Galen’s head pop up behind the shorter vampire, his lips a thin line, his face taut with anger. Stepping around Artem, he behaved as if January wasn’t even in the same space by totally ignoring her.

Putting his hands on his hips, Galen asked, “Were you looking for me?”

“Not at all. I was looking for the lovely Dr. Malone. But seeing as you’re here, let’s talk about the mate, shall we? In your office? You’re going to thank me for picking you such a hot piece of—”

“My office, then,” Galen cut him off with clipped words, knowing Artem’s goal was to see if he couldn’t get a rise out of January.

Then maybe she’d confess that whoever this hussy of a vampire was, due to mate with her husband, she was in for a shitstorm of hell raining down on her if she ever caught her so much as looking at Galen.

January hung on to every last shred of her control, using every technique she’d ever taught to manage her anger in order to keep from setting Artem’s balls on fire with her wand.

Instead she, too, ignored Galen’s very existence—even though what she really wanted to do was fall into his strong arms and cry—and stepped around both the men. “I trust we’re finished?”

Artem winked once more. “For now. But I’ll check back with you tomorrow night. Until then.” He wagged a lean, pale hand at her and sauntered down the hall toward Galen’s office.

Neither of them said a word to each other, but they didn’t need to. They’d always been able to read each other’s eyes, and as January looked up at the man she was so desperately in love with, he acknowledged the signal she sent.

She was okay. He hadn’t hurt her. She hated Artem and wanted him dead with every fiber of her being.

With a curt nod, Galen signaled back with just a short glance. I’m sorry you’re caught in the middle of this. I love you. I want him dead, too.

As she stepped into the elevator and pressed the round button for the garage, she leaned on the handrail and fought the hatred welling deep in her gut.

Fought the urge to see Artem Casteel slaughtered at her command.

She was a white witch. A good witch. A kind, forgiving witch.

Maybe if she said that a few thousand more times, she’d keep from landing in handcuffs and chains herself.

* * * *

“So how are you today, Nina?”

“Feeling like you owe me a swanky dinner and a beer for all the money I’m dishing out here. How are you, Doc Malone?”

“Feeling like you’ve got dinner covered and you don’t need any help from me.” January pointed to the KFC bag in Nina’s lap.

Nina snorted before she tucked into a fried chicken drumstick. “I got plenty. You want? I’ll share. It’s extra-crispy,” she enticed.

“I already had lunch, but thank you for the offer.”

Sitting back, Nina slumped, her posture sagging. “Jesus. This is like Groundhog Day. Didn’t we just do all this polite bullshit yesterday?”

January folded her hands atop her desk and gave her a tight smile. She was a nervous damn wreck today. “We did.”

“So what’s on the agenda today, Doc?” Nina asked. But she already knew what the plan was for today. They’d discussed it at length last night as they’d finalized the arrangements to get Teddy and Ingrid into that party Artem was having Saturday tonight.

Nina was going to blow a gasket. A big, ugly, screaming gasket—just like Artem wanted. Because keeping him off her back was crucial to keeping him from even getting a whiff of what they were about to do.

Tomorrow was the day they’d infiltrate the enemy camp, and January was about as frazzled as she’d ever been. On the outside, she fought for calm. She’d applied makeup to cover the signs of a sleepless night. She’d dressed professionally, and grabbed a bagel and coffee at the shop downstairs just like always.

She’d practiced goading Nina into a fit of rage in her head to keep things as real as possible—just like the girls had instructed. And now here they were. It was D-Day and if her nerves didn’t eat her alive, she’d collapse from sheer exhaustion.

“On today’s agenda, we have the source of all your rage. What makes you angry?”

“Well-done steak and parsley for garnish. Who the fuck cares if the damn food is pretty?”

January made a face at her and looked down at the file on her desk with a scoff. “Oh, c’mon, Nina. That doesn’t make you angry. Not angry enough to threaten lives.”

“The hell it doesn’t. Ever try to eat a well-done steak? It’s bullshit.”

“Wanna play a game?”

“Only if it’s Twister. I’m a flexible bitch. I’ll cream your tiny ass,” she said then chuckled.

“Not a board game, Nina. Let’s role-play.”

Nina dropped the cleaned chicken drumstick into the bag and gave her a saucy smile. “You into that kinky crap? Fine by me, but only if I get to be Olaf, the big Swedish masseur. I’m not gonna play Heidi from The Hills, the innocent, virginal sheep herder’s daughter. I fucking hate braids.”

January barked a laugh she couldn’t contain, the tension between her shoulder blades easing a bit. God. Nina was so good at this, even as January was coming apart at the seams.

“I don’t mean that kind of role-playing either. I mean, how about I be you, and you be someone who’s made you angry?”

“Everybody makes me angry, Doc. Isn’t that why I’m here? We only have so much time before you bleed my bank account dry at seven hundred bucks an hour, ya know. We could spend years playing that game.”

“I thought you said you were rich. Is money an object?”

“Nope. But it becomes one when it’s leaving my account and going into yours. You get richer, but I’m still the same old bent-out-of-shape Nina. Except I’m broke.”

“Okay, so tell me who’s made you the angriest you’ve ever been.”

Nina sighed, rolling the top of the bag and pretending to finally give in. “You mean like a client? A case?”

January shrugged. “Whatever. Just pick a target.”

She scrunched her face up as if she were trying to recollect. “Well, shit. Lemme think. There was the dude who tried to kill my half-sister and my stepsister. Complete damn maniac. I also kinda hated the bananapants bitch scientist who wanted to create an army of super-paranormals. So whacked, I can’t even tell you. But I think the chick who fucked with Marty’s SIL comes really close to the person who’s made me the most pissed I’ve ever been.”

“And why’s that? What did she do that was different than, say, the bananapants scientist?”

“Kids. It involved kids. Nothing makes me wanna choke somebody out more than somebody who fucks with kids—and animals. Oh, and old people.”

“Because they’re defenseless, vulnerable?”

“Damn straight. I don’t pick on anyone who doesn’t pick first, but when you mess with a kid, I’ll kill you. Call that a Superman complex or whatever it is you shrinks call it, but that’s where I draw the line. She put those kids in some cold, dark cave and was going to let them die if we didn’t figure out the clues to her batshit treasure hunt.”

“So did you kill the person who did this to Marty’s sister-in-law?”

“Her name’s Mara, by the way. Marty’s sister-in-law. A werewolf, if it matters. You might want to write that down for future reference. And nah. I didn’t kill her, but I remember wishing I had.”

“Have you killed before, Nina?”

Nina’s head popped up. “Have you?”

“I’m not the one here for therapy.”

“I don’t want to be here for therapy.”

“Established.”

“Okay. So we’re deadlocked. Next?”

January struggled with what she was about to do, knowing she was going to trigger Nina. But Nina had insisted if Artem wanted a show, she’d give him one. Still, she was growing fonder of Nina by the day, and hurting her was the last thing January wanted to participate in—even for the sake of this ruse.

“How do you feel about me trying a technique I learned way back in college when I was getting my degree?”

Nina rolled her tongue in her cheek before she asked, “What kind of technique would that be, Doc?”

Twirling a pen between her fingers, January stared at Nina, conveying her apologies in silence. “Well, if I told you the technique, it wouldn’t come as a surprise, would it? But it does involve your trust. You game?”

Nina wiped her mouth with a napkin. “As long as you’re not hooking me up to some crazy-ass electroshock shit, I’m good. So go. Do your best.”

“Tell me about your mother, Nina,” January asked, her tone purposely sharp.

Nina’s eyes met hers, brilliant and glittering—she knew it was game on, and she was ready. “What the fuck about her?”

Leaning on the desk, she eyeballed the ex-vampire. “She was a drug abuser, right? Drugs, alcohol, prostitution.”

Her jaw tightened and her fist clenched. “How the fuck would you know what my mother was?”

“It’s my job to know who the fuck your mother was, Nina. I know all about your past abuse. So tell me about her. What was it like growing up with a prostitute? A drunk?” January asked glibly, but her stomach rolled with bitter acid. So much so, she had to take a sip of the bottled water to wash the sour taste from her mouth.

“How do you think it was, Head Shrinker? Most of the time it fucking sucked.”

“What about your father? Where was he while your mother was drinking and drugging?”

Nina’s chest rose and fell and her nostrils flared. As per Nina’s instructions, they hadn’t rehearsed this. She’d said it should be a method-acting experience, where she was as surprised as an audience would be at her reactions to January’s questions.

“He was an over-the-road truck driver. He wasn’t home a lot,” she mumbled, glancing to her left at the big windows overlooking the city.

“Did your father know your mother was sleeping around and substance-abusing while you were in her care and he was off just trying to earn a paycheck?”

Licking her lips, Nina sat up straight, and January had to wonder in hindsight if the ex-vampire had really given this as much thought as she’d claimed. These were sore, sore subjects for her. They still hurt—even though she’d been the one to suggest using them. She hadn’t given any direction on how to use them; just to really give it to her good, surprise her so it looked as real as possible for Artem.

Nina shrugged, but her shoulders were stiff and her feet were tightly tucked beneath the chair. “I don’t know if he knew the full story until it was over. He was always picking up the pieces of her fucked-up life. Then he’d be gone again—always thinking everything would get better. Like by some miracle she’d find Jesus or whoever and they’d fix her. Then he’d come back home and see everything was still the fucking same as when he’d left. A flipping shithole of a mess. Is that what you want to hear?”

Now, January drove deeper, harder. “How’d you feel about that? I mean, what kind of father leaves his most precious asset with a woman who sleeps around and spends his hard-earned money on heroin?”

The air was growing thicker by the second, and while that was good for Artem, it wasn’t good for Nina.

When she didn’t speak, but the signal her eyes gave said keep going, January put her hands in her lap under the desk and clenched them. “Well, Nina? How do you feel about your father essentially abandoning you with a cracked-out alcoholic? Didn’t he care that she might hurt you while he was gone? Maybe even kill you because she loved her drugs more than you?”

Nina’s eyes glittered, but it wasn’t just with anger, there were tears. “She didn’t love them more than me. She did love me. She was just fucked up, an addict. She didn’t know what she was doing half the fucking time, okay? If anybody should know about an addict and a needle, it should be you, Doc.”

“So you’re making excuses for her? As I read through some of your middle school transcripts, it says someone once called your mother a whore and you rammed his head into a locker so hard, you broke his nose and the bones in his right cheek. Is that true?”

Cracking her knuckles, she asked, “That I beat the fuck up for mouthing off?”

“No, that she was a whore. It says that,” January tapped the fake file with a fingernail, “right here, in fact. He called her a whore and you beat him up because of it. Did she sleep with men for money?”

“She wasn’t a goddamn whore, you idiot!” Nina growled, leaning forward in the chair. “She was sick, for fuck’s sake. She couldn’t help herself.”

“Isn’t that what all crackheads say, Nina?” January demanded. “How could your father even consider leaving you alone with her? It’s unconscionable. Despicable!”

Her eyes narrowed, zeroing in on January, who, if not for some incredibly good deodorant, would be sweating bullets. “He didn’t leave me alone with her,” she seethed. “Didn’t you find that out while you were doing all that fucking research? He left me with my grandmother, moron. She took good care of me in the best damn way she knew how.”

“Oh, Nina. Come on!” January baited, her words dripping sarcasm as she jumped up and slammed her palms down on her desk. “He did nothing to help your mother, Nina. He dumped it all in your grandmother Lou’s lap, didn’t he? In fact, didn’t he cheat on your mother? Your poor, substance-abusing mother, while he was out on a quote-unquote run? Says here you have a half-sister and a stepsister because he was cheating. Because he was so concerned about you, he went off and got another family! Just up and dumped you and your mother and forgot all about you—”

Nina was on her feet so quickly, so insanely swift, with her hand around January’s throat in no time flat, she had to wonder what her speed had been like as a vampire.

Literally, she was on the desk between them in mere seconds, wrapping her hands around January’s throat and dragging her across the surface until she had her on the floor and was on top of her.

Her eyes were hot with rage, her face so contorted it was almost as if she wasn’t even the same person. January went limp rather than tightening up, even though she wasn’t sure Nina was acting anymore.

But it wasn’t easy. What she wanted to do was soothe Nina, remind her with words she would always be safe with the people she loved the most in the world. But that wouldn’t look good for the camera.

Gathering her up, Nina jerked her close to her face so they were at eye level, with January sprawled helplessly beneath her. “Shut the fuck up!” she screamed, spit flying from her mouth as she shook January like a ragdoll. “You don’t know anything about us but what those asshole counselors and clan members and whothefuckeverelse wrote in some fucking report! I’m not a bunch of half-assed paragraphs with meaningless words! So shut up or I swear to Christ, I’ll kill you right here! Hear me, Dr. Malone? You know nothing about me and my family!”

She was about to wave the white flag, because wow, this non-vampire was pretty strong and a crushed windpipe was not the goal here. But then Nina leaned in even closer, the curtain of her hair creating a cocoon, blocking them from the cameras discreetly placed behind books amongst the shelves on her wall, and whispered with urgency, “Do it! Just do it! Finish it and make it fucking good!”

So January clawed at Nina’s hands, trying to tear them from her throat as she yelled back, her voice hoarse from the pressure of Nina’s hands. “That’s not true! I know everything about you, Nina! Everything! I know your father abandoned you—your mother abandoned you! Why does everyone abandon poor pissed-off Nina? What is it about you that makes everyone you love leave?”

Leaning back, Nina howled her fury. Her face beet red, her eyes wild, she raised a fist high in the air, ready to bring it down on January’s face.

And in that moment, even as January kept telling herself this was all an act, she saw something in Nina—she saw what terrified her the most.

Everyone leaving her.

Because she couldn’t be enough—couldn’t keep up—couldn’t do what everyone else could now that she was human. And though January was sure she knew the idea was irrational and born of paranoia, because no one loved her as much as Marty and Wanda and her family, Nina hadn’t entirely left her past in the past.

The irrational side of her, the frightened kid, the helpless victim of her mother’s substance abuse, had crept back to the surface and firmly planted itself within her heart of hearts, and she was doing everything in her power to prove to them she could fight the good fight right alongside them.

And it was exhausting her. Taking all of her energy and what little patience she possessed to keep all the balls she juggled in the air.

As the door to her office burst open and Marty and Wanda rushed in, yanking Nina from her and, as pre-planned, chastising her violent outburst, January had to fight tears and pretend outrage for Artem’s cameras.

But what she really wanted to do was pull Nina close and hug away her pain.

Chapter 9

When January saw Nina for the first time since that afternoon’s session, she lunged for the vampire. Throwing her arms around her neck and hanging there to beg forgiveness.

Each time she closed her eyes, she saw that one vulnerable moment Nina had exposed to her. That second where all of her was laid bare, and it broke January. Made her fight the impulse to call her up all day long and apologize profusely. But she was too afraid to take the risk that Artem would catch her.

So she’d waited an agonizing six hours since their session, counting the minutes until she could make things right.

“Doc, quit squeezin’ me, for fuck’s sake! Enough with the touchy-feely already,” Nina groused.

But that only made January cling tighter and bury her face in Nina’s shoulder. “I’m sorry! Oh God, I’m so, so sorry, Nina. I hated every second of that. Please, please forgive me. I would never, as a doctor, ever use that technique. It’s awful and ugly and so cruel,” she sobbed.

“But GD efficient, huh? Got me from zero to a hundred in no time flat.”

January shook her head vehemently. “It’s invasive and brutal. I hate it.”

Untangling herself from January’s clingy claws, Nina set her away from her. “Some people say I’m invasive and brutal. Kinda like a colonoscopy. But you were just fightin’ fire with fire.”

“You listen to me, Nina. When this is over, if we…well, you know, if we’re successful, I want you to continue to see me—free of charge. No mortgages paid on your dime. Will you think about that? Please?”

Nina glanced away only briefly before she said, “Yeah. Whatever. I’ll think about it.”

A tall, unbelievably good-looking man strolled toward her. His hair dark and thick, his skin pale like Galen’s.

He slung an arm around Nina’s shoulders and pulled her to him. “She’ll definitely think about it. I’m Greg, by the way. The ex-vampire’s husband.” Then he held up a hand. “No, don’t apologize. I knew what I was getting into. Besides, I like ’em mouthy and saucy,” he joked, dropping a kiss on Nina’s forehead.

“It’s so nice to actually meet you. I’m sorry about all this…about involving you. I didn’t know what else to do…”

His clear eyes narrowed in obvious disgust. “As though you need to apologize for a madman? Don’t be ridiculous, Dr. Malone. I’ve known about Artem for a long time. I’ve suspected his motives for a long time, too. I just couldn’t prove them. Now, I’m happy to help prove the bastard shouldn’t be anywhere near another vampire, let alone running a clan. The hell he’ll get his hands on my wife and have her booted. And the hell I’ll let him create some kind of hate clan and infiltrate the rest of us with that hate. This is hardly your fault. No apology necessary. Besides, seeing you has been good for my lovely wife. She won’t admit it, but I will for her.”

January laughed, warmed by Greg’s words. “Ammunition is always a good thing to have in my therapy arsenal. I’ll be sure to remind her.” Then she squeezed Nina’s arm and gave her a warm smile. “And again, I’m sorry, Nina.”

But Nina simply thumped her on the back like it was an everyday occurrence, one getting mentally abused by the psychologist in charge of mending them.

“S’all good, Doc. You were just doin’ what I told you to. Hit all the buttons everybody expects to hit when they wanna make me crazy. It’s fine.”

“Goddess, I hate Artem,” she spat. It was going to be a long time before she was able to forget what she’d done this afternoon.

But Nina tilted her chin, her fingers going to the still-red lashes streaked across January’s throat before flashing a look of guilt. “Damn. Did I hurt you, Doc? How’s your neck?”

But January flapped her hands at Nina, dismissing her concern. “It’s fine. Forget me.”

Nina looked at her for a long moment, a moment where she conveyed with her eyes there really were no hard feelings. “Look, Doc, here’s the good news. Grampire Galen gets to live because of what you did today, right? It’s all part of the bigger picture and all for the greater fucking good. You’re just tryin’ to save your boy-toy, and my ass along with him. No skin off my nose. We did it for the show this wank Artem wants so bad.”

But that wasn’t entirely true, and if she did nothing else, she was going to help Nina understand that just because she was no longer a vampire, that changed nothing for anyone but her.

Yet, she couldn’t help but praise Nina, too. “You were amazing. You all were. I mean, if I didn’t know better, if we hadn’t pre-planned that little show, I’d have never known you were acting.”

Nina winced again as she assessed January’s neck. “I got caught the fuck up in keepin’ shit real. Sorry about that, Doc. Five Red Bulls and three cups of coffee’ll do that to ya. I wanted to be in the moment, ya know? For reality’s sake.”

“I’ve prepared something soothing for your throat, Dr. Malone,” Archibald said, zipping in from the kitchen of the house Ingrid had rented under a fake name for the weekend.

It was an amazing log cabin with wide decks sprouting along the back, off each bedroom. Nestled in the trees, the cabin sported six bedrooms—one for each couple, and two spare bedrooms for Carl, Archibald and Darnell, and Ingrid and Teddy. The setting was peaceful and soothing, situated in front of a roaring brook, but secluded enough by the fully bloomed foliage.

January took the tea from Arch gratefully, smiling her thanks.

“Now, Dr. Malone, do drink all of it. I think you’ll find between your very clever familiar Farley and myself, we’ve whipped up something that will surely soothe all your aches.”

“You’ve met Farley?” She’d had a feeling Archibald and Farley would hit it off, just by sheer age and nurturing qualities, but especially due to their love of cooking.

“Aye, lass,” Farley acknowledged in his Scottish brogue, his broad chest expanding as he smiled, his fiery-red beard, neatly trimmed, spreading up to brush his cheeks. “We have indeed. And my new friend is correct. This brew will surely fix what ails ya.”

She took a sip of the tea and found a quiet spot in a rocking chair by the dormant fireplace to watch the chaos around her. After the day they’d had, she needed a moment to get her bearings back.

Galen caught her eye from across the room as he fed a sleepy Calista her bottle, making her heart clench with love. When he crossed the room, Calista on his shoulder, she patted the rocking chair next to hers.

Leaning down, he dropped a kiss on her forehead before he settled into the chair, stroking Calista’s tiny back, her chubby legs slowly relaxing against his chest.

“Heard you had a tough day, Doc Malone. Wanna talk about it?”

Stupidly, her eyes filled with tears she had to swipe away with her thumb. “I hated that hour more than I’ve hated almost anything in my life, Galen. Maybe almost more than I hate Artem for what he’s doing to us.”

Reaching over, he scooped her hand up in his larger one and pressed it to his lips. “You didn’t do it to be cruel, honey.”

“I know, but…still. I just want this to be over. Over and done so we can hopefully get on with our lives. All of us. Together.”

“That’s the plan,” he murmured, nuzzling Calista’s cheek with his nose.

“You’re still not sure about this plan, are you?”

“I’m not sure about anything, honey. I’m pretty sick with worry that when they try to plant that recording device, they’ll get caught. Artem’s not an idiot. This close to the summit, he’s going to be extra sharp. And what if he doesn’t say anything that’s of use to us anyway?”

She swallowed more of her tea, noting it was indeed incredibly soothing, then she rolled her eyes. “Please. You don’t think a man like Artem isn’t going to gloat with his henchman this close to the summit, do you? It’s his big day. Of course he’s going to talk about it. Take it from someone who knows the type of personality Artem is. I do have a degree in psychology. Artem’s a narcissist, an egotist, a full-on sociopath. He’ll talk about it; he’ll likely make a toast about it. He’ll pat himself on the back about it. He’ll be busy drilling his platform into his goons’ heads until the word go. That much you can trust.”

“I wish they’d let me go with them, do something. I feel a little useless here.”

“We can’t afford for Artem to find you anywhere near his place, Galen. We have to be very, very careful at this point. If nothing else, he doesn’t know Darnell or Teddy or Ingrid. No matter what, we stick with the plan, right?”

“No matter what,” he repeated, but it was a canned response that left her frightened he’d take matters into his own hands. They’d spent so much time planning this, carefully outlining all the details, she needed extra reassurance.

“Swear it to me, Galen. We stay here while they go in. No crazy acts of bravery,” she pleaded. “For my sake…for Calista’s.”

His eyes captured hers. “I swear, no crazy acts of bravery. I’m here with you and our girl for the duration.”

Breathing a sigh of relief, she smiled at him as he rocked their daughter, January’s love swelling, strengthening, growing each time she saw the pair like this. “Farley told me what our genius daughter said today just before I got here.”

Galen knew exactly what she was referring to when he smiled smugly at her. “You mean how our rocket scientist here called me Da-Da for the first time ever?”

January grinned at his smile of pride, reaching over to stroke Calista’s dark brown curls as she slept. “Yeah. That. I can’t believe she didn’t say mommy first. This is the thanks I get for spitting her from my vagina after thirty-eight agonizing hours of un-medicated labor? Imagine this ungrateful cur at fifteen.”

“I imagine it all the time, honey. All the time,” Galen said, burying his face in the top of Calista’s head and squeezing January’s hand.

They rocked together for a long time—as the sun faded and the coming night prevailed, reveling in each other’s company, in just being a family. Something they’d done so rarely since she’d had Calista.

As everyone prepared for their roles for the next evening, as Arch and Farley and Darnell swapped cooking tips, Carl read Goodnight Moon to little Charlie and Hollis to keep them distracted, and the OOPS girls’ men sat with their wives and talked softly about what was to come, January closed her eyes and sent up a prayer.

That someday they’d all be able to do this again.

Together.

Each and every last one of them alive and well.

* * * *

“What is all this?” January breathed to Nina, Marty, and Wanda, her eyes scanning the long deck just outside the sliding glass doors of the cabin’s kitchen. Trees surrounded the space, making it feel like you were sequestered in a secret treehouse hideaway.

Lights twinkled from the big red umbrella over a rectangular glass patio table, and candles burned all along the railing of the deck, their flames blue and orange. Something classical played on a phone, and Archibald and Farley were both on hand with wide smiles on their faces.

A bottle of wine sat chilling in a makeshift ice bucket someone had made from a KFC bucket, and one glass of what January guessed was blood sat next to it.

Nina winked, pulling out one of the patio chairs for her. “A little birdie told us you and Romeo haven’t had any time alone together in months. We figured you two needed some love-muffin time. Seeing as little miss here is ready for bed anyway…we thought you might wanna get your romance on.” She wiggled her fingers at January, indicating she should hand Calista over.

Both January and Galen responded simultaneously. “But—”

“But nothing,” Nina’s husband Greg said, pushing his way out of the sliding glass door as he draped an arm around his wife’s shoulders and tickled Calista under the chin. Tall and dark, his pale good looks and calm demeanor had set January instantly at ease from the moment she’d met him. She didn’t doubt his devotion to Nina and her mental health. Not even a little.

“You’re both worn out from these last months. All this hiding can’t have been easy for either of you. Take one night. Just one—on us; on all of us—and breathe. Well, I mean you breathe, January. For both of you,” he joked with a smile.

“Hah!” Nina crowed, tucking Calista to her shoulder as she snuggled closer to Greg. “My man—funny, right?”

“Sit, sit, sit,” Wanda ordered with a smile, pushing in January’s chair and squeezing her shoulder. “Relax. Enjoy some adult time. We’ll take care of the baby and anything else that needs taking care of.”

As January settled in across from Galen, her body melted into the chair. For the first time in months, they were safe. No one knew where they were. Artem wouldn’t bother checking up on her until Monday before the summit, as busy as he was psyching up his compadres for the big event. This was a freedom they hadn’t been afforded in months and months.

Marty tugged January’s braid with a gentle pull. “Now, we’re all going to go inside and go to bed in order to allow you some privacy to do whatever it is that two people who haven’t been alone together in months do. Ahem,” she said, straightening her peasant blouse over her flowing skirt and grinning a saucy grin. “The house is all yours. Go crazy.”

“But not too damn crazy now. Hear?” Nina reminded on a chuckle as she rocked Calista, who’d popped a chubby thumb into her mouth. “Like countertops and furniture are out. Got that, Doc? Normally I wouldn’t care. But now that I can eat, Arch makes a killer breakfast I don’t plan on missin’. Feel me?”

January barked a laugh as the warm breeze lifted the hair on the back of her neck. “No countertops or furniture. Got it, Boss.”

“And no talk of that prick Artem tonight, either,” Keegan, Marty’s equally handsome husband, reminded. “I know it’s not easy, but you have to at least try. For both your sakes.”

“Damn right,” Heath chimed in, pulling Wanda to his chest and smiling over the top of her head. “Forget everything but being together. Let all the other crap go.”

“Indeed, Dr. Malone,” Archibald assured on a smile and a quick bow. “And should you need me, the fine Farley and I shall be in the last bedroom on the right, where a rousing game of checkers and an episode of The Barefoot Contessa await us.”

Farley nodded his pleasure with a grin. Never were two men more suited to becoming friends than her familiar and Archibald. Farley was probably one of the biggest BC fans around.

He dropped a kiss on the top of her head and murmured in her ear, “Take heed the wise manservant’s words, lass. I’m a mere snap of your fingers away, should ya find ya need me.”

As everyone began to file out, January reached a hand out to Nina and gave it a squeeze. “Thank you,” she whispered with a watery smile.

She winked and let Greg pull her inside while the others followed suit.

Carl poked his head out of the sliding door and waved, slipping outside to drop a plate of broccoli in front of January. Then he, too, patted her on the arm and went in, leaving just her, Galen, some Barry Manilow, the roar of the brook, and the nighttime sounds of July.

Sighing, she closed her eyes and inhaled before opening them as Galen reached for her hand and pulled her to his lap. “How did they know we haven’t had a chance to be alone?”

Galen smiled at her, the worry in his eyes fading. “I must have mentioned it while we were all getting to know each other, before you got here.”

January’s heart melted. “They really are good people, aren’t they?”

Galen nodded his head, running his fingers over her jaw. “They are. I was wrong to doubt them.”

“Do you think—”

Galen pressed his lips to hers to stop her from expressing her doubt. “No talk of what’s to come. How about you dance with me? I don’t think we’ve ever danced, have we?”

Curling her fingers into his dark hair, she smiled as he nuzzled her neck, sending sharp tingles of awareness along her flesh. “You can dance? Big girly sigh. What can’t you do, Galen Marcus?”

“Wait to get my hands on you naked?” he offered as a response, lifting her up and setting her on her feet to wrap his arms around her waist.

She giggled, leaning into him, resting her head on his wide chest and sighing her contentment as he led them across the wide deck. “It’s been a long time, hasn’t it?”

“It’s been forever,” he muttered against her mouth, slipping his tongue between her lips.

The silky slide of it, the rasp against her own, made her sigh again, this time in anticipation. Reaching up, she wrapped her arms around his neck and molded her body to his—every last plane and rigid line.

“You’re pretty good at this.”

“I’m pretty good at a lot of things.”

“A lot of good things is what gave us Calista,” she whispered on a chuckle.

“Like I said. I’m pretty good at a lot of things, but she’s the best thing. The best thing I’ve ever been a part of in a couple of centuries.”

January’s heart tightened and contracted. “You wanna go see if we can practice for the time when we might want to give her a brother or a sister?”

“Do you think it’s possible to give her a sibling?” he asked, nipping at her neck.

“I don’t know. But it can’t hurt to hope, can it?”

They’d both been blindsided by January’s pregnancy. In fact, for weeks, she’d wondered what was going on with her cycle. She’d chalked up her lack of menstruation to the stress of sneaking around after Artem banned them from seeing one another.

Until Farley suggested a pregnancy test. She’d never forget seeing that little line indicating she was pregnant—or the fear that when she told Galen, he’d reject the very idea. They’d never talked children or family because it never entered a conversation with a vampire. She’d fretted he’d think she’d cooked up some spell, but it had all been worry for nothing.

When Galen found out, when he’d absorbed the information, he’d smiled wider than she’d ever seen him smile before. Then he’d swung her around and asked her to marry him on the spot. That was when she knew they had unconditional trust between them. He never once questioned how it had happened after she’d explained she didn’t have a clue.

Galen had declared it a miracle—meant to be.

He’d ignored her protests about their forbidden relationship. He’d ignored everything but the idea that he was going to be a father, and there was no way Artem or anyone else was going to stop him from fulfilling that role as her husband.

They’d married under white witch law in a small ceremony consisting of Farley, a fellow white witch and a blue fairy—and it had been magic.

And it would all be the most perfect thing ever if not for Artem.

Fucking Artem.

Chapter 10

You’re not doing as instructed, Dr. Malone,” Galen teased.

Returning her attention to him, she fought to keep her mind free of their predicament.

And when he cupped her breast, she was totally able to pony up. “Bedroom?” she whispered against his lips.

“Yes. That,” he said on a chuckle, tearing his lips from hers and pulling her toward the sliding glass doors.

They snuck into the kitchen like two children, giggling and trying not to trip on the shoes lined up by the pantry door.

They raced down the hallway to their bedroom, where Galen closed the door on everything but them. Shutting out their worlds so determined to pull them apart, and then he pulled her to him and kissed her, whispering his words of eternal love and devotion.

When they lay together long after their lovemaking, January clung to this moment. Clung to Galen’s strong grip, buried her face in his wide chest, reveled in this cocoon they’d created.

And as she tried to keep her eyes open to savor every moment, January silently prayed they’d have the opportunity for more moments just like this.

* * * *

“I can’t even believe he asks the waitresses to wear these, Ingrid! I mean, how can anyone carry a tray of whatever we’re serving these asshats with heels the height of Redwood trees?” Teddy groaned as she slipped into one of the sapphire-blue stilettos Ingrid handed her.

“According to our boss for the night, this Artem’s very particular about how the waitstaff should dress, and this, my friend,” Ingrid held up the skimpy cocktail waitress dress with the bustier, “is what he prefers.”

“He’s a sexist dick,” Teddy spat, holding out a very long leg to eyeball the high-heel on her foot. “I feel like King Kong.”

“You’re prolly as tall as King Kong, too,” Nina said on a chuckle, pushing the sleeves on her hoodie over her elbows before she dug into a raspberry-filled donut. “If you aim right, you could maybe squash a whole damn village with heifers the size of yours.”

But Teddy wasn’t insulted by Nina’s jab. Not at all. Instead, she laughed and chucked her friend under the chin. “I smell jelly, ex-vampire. Stop projecting your disappointment we’re not jamming your skinny butt into one of these, because you know you want one just like it. It’s unbecoming of a human.”

Then Nina laughed with her. Their dynamic was that of every relationship Nina shared with another soul. Playful, full of banter, sometimes insulting banter, but always with the undercurrent of total and utter devotion.

January didn’t know many who had the kind of fierce loyalty Nina possessed. For that matter, she didn’t know many who’d put up with the kind of verbal foreplay Nina found so amusing.

Certainly, it tried her friends’ patience. Without a doubt, it taxed them now that she was weathering a crisis. But when they were all together, they moved as one unit. They meshed. They worked…they fit…and somehow, her abrasive remarks only added to her less-than-sunshiney personality.

Ingrid tightened the corset laces on the top of Teddy’s uniform. “Damn. Look at your rack. Now I’m the one with some jelly.”

Ingrid had managed to locate the catering service Artem used for these parties via some computer hacking and a little magic from January. They’d found the names and addresses of the staff without much trouble earlier this past week.

Then January set about giving two of the waitresses the flu via a spell that would wear off within the day, but left them ill enough that they couldn’t work. She’d then snapped her fingers and put Teddy and Ingrid’s names at the top of the list of acceptable replacements for a party at Artem’s. Apparently, he had a very short list of approved employees—likely due to the fact that he kept close tabs on who was allowed in and out of his home.

And voila, now they were here. Tonight was the night. If only all of the things they had to do this evening were as easy as the flu and some finagling of names.

Now, via strict instructions from the caterer, Teddy and Ingrid were trying on their uniforms. Uniforms the caterer said were mandatory, also per Artem’s orders. Artem wasn’t just a total buttwipe, he was a womanizer, too, if he thought it was even remotely comfortable for these poor women to wear heels that high and skirts that short while they ran themselves ragged.

January forced herself to try to focus on helping the women change into their skimpy costumes, determined to keep it together—for Calista, for Galen, for her sanity.

Nina had abandoned her donut and was currently doting on Calista as she rocked in a chair between bouts of teasing Ingrid and Teddy about their clothing.

“Who’s the prettiest girl ever-ever?” she cooed at Calista, who’d taken to Nina like a duck to water the moment she’d seen her this morning after a solid night’s sleep, snuggling right up against her side and resting her dark curls on the ex-vampire’s shoulder.

As Nina held Calista up in the air and demanded she give her smooshies while she nibbled on the baby’s toes and the infant giggled, January’s heart tightened with love.

Once more, she was reminded how good it was to see her baby—to have her little family in the same room. It hadn’t happened nearly as often as it should have since her birth, and she refused to consider what she’d do if they were parted.

But she also noted something else while Nina cooed, cuddled, squeezed squeaky toys as Calista’s chubby hands grabbed for them, and lavished praise on her. Nina was amazing with everyone but her peers. And even then, some would say they didn’t much care that she didn’t relate well to people because her mouthy attitude was well worth the return in friendship—in loyalty.

And January was coming to find that was true. She didn’t care how abrasive Nina was either. She liked her despite her cursing. She liked her a lot. She liked all of them a lot—even if their time together thus far had been short.

“So, Doc, you feelin’ any better about this plan—or you still got the jitters?” Nina asked as she played peek-a-boo with Calista and the hood on the baby’s sweatshirt.

“I have all the jitters,” January replied, intertwining her fingers together to keep from digging her nails into her palms. As the time for the women to attend the party grew closer, her anxiety swelled. “If someone ends up hurt, I’ll never forgive myself.”

Teddy put a hand on Marty’s shoulder to balance herself as she slipped into the other shoe. “You know who’s going to end up hurt, don’t you? Me. When I crash-land on my ass in these heels,” she said on a chuckle, but then she looked at January and smiled in sympathy. “Stop worrying, January. I’m pretty tough, I promise you, and even though Ingrid’s human, she’s no slouch. I just want you to try to relax. Spend time with Calista and Galen and let us do the heavy lifting. The ladies and Darnell have their earpieces in. They’ll hear every word we say and know if we’re in any danger. Darnell drives the absolute best getaway car ever if trouble ensues. I think we’ve thought of everything. It’s going to be okay. I feel it.”

She held out her hand to January and she took it, swallowing hard when the warmth of it touched her cold skin.

Despite the heatwave they were experiencing, January was chilled to the bone.

“Aye, dearheart. A sweater’s what ya be needin’,” Farley said, draping one over her shoulders, his words easy and soothing in her ears, his large presence beside her one of the best things life had given her.

She caught his beefy hand as everyone around them prepared for this sting they’d jokingly labeled Mission: Infiltration Artem. “I’m terrified, Farley. Terrified. Just say it’s all going to be all right, like you used to when I was a kid and had a bad dream.”

He squeezed her shoulders, pulling her to his stout side, brushing his bristly red beard over her forehead as he dropped a kiss above her eye. “I know, wee one. But I have a good feelin’ about these lasses. Their auras are strong. Their backbones stiff and sure. Good people, all. It’s going to be all right.”

Farley and his aura readings were usually never wrong, and he was an incredibly good judge of character, but there was this small niggle in the back of her brain… “One little thing goes wrong and they get caught, Farley. Please tell me I’m not an idiot for going along with this against my better judgment.”

“Aye, that’s just all yer schoolin’ talkin’. You’ve no street smarts. Ya don’ know how to take a chance anymore, January Malone. Sometimes ya have to take great risks to win the pot o’ gold.”

She shivered, rubbing her arms. “If it were my own life we were talking about, I wouldn’t mind being so frivolous. But it’s not. It’s two people I hardly know who’ve jumped into the fray without a second thought for their own safety.”

Farley dropped another affectionate kiss on the top of her head. “That’s what good people do, lass. They help. If only the world were filled with more like ’em. Now, off with ya. No more frettin’. It gets nothin’ done. The wee bairn hasn’t seen her mother in nigh on a week. Skedaddle. Go bond or whatever ’tis ya do according to those fancy magazines to keep them latched onto ya for life.”

She chuckled, wrapping her arms around his burly middle and giving him a hug. “We’d have never made it through this without you, Farley. You know that, right?”

Patting her back, he blustered, always embarrassed by her compliments for as long as she’d known him. “Aye. Now scoot,” he ordered, pinching her cheek before he left for the kitchen, where Archibald had buried himself.

“Are we ready?” Greg asked. “Check your earpieces again, ladies.” He then whispered to them, commanding them to nod their heads if they heard him.

As each woman dutifully nodded, Keegan said, “So whatever you do, don’t forget the deal. You get in, you play nice, you find somewhere to plant the recording device, you get the hell out, and Teddy uses her tracking skills to bring you back to the point Darnell drops you at. He’ll be waiting. Clear?”

“Copy that, Boss,” Teddy responded.

Heath handed Ingrid the tiniest recorder known to man, some high-tech gadget he’d found online and had tested personally since they’d hatched this plan. “This is voice-activated. It’s small, but still, be careful when you plant it. Hide that wherever you have to in order to keep it from being found, on the off chance they search you.”

“Look away, Vampire,” Ingrid instructed on a snicker as she shoved the recorder inside the bust of her dress.

As they prepared to pile into the car Darnell would drop them off with—after which, he’d leave the scene before another car picked them up to take them to Artem’s—January had to steal gulps of air.

An anxiety attack was on her list of things to do tonight—she knew the signs well, and she fought hard to keep herself in check.

As Teddy and Ingrid put light sweaters on and Darnell and the others gave both women a hug, January grabbed her wand in a shaky hand to cast the cloaking spell over them.

“You ladies ready?”

“Does it hurt?” Ingrid asked, squaring her shoulders as though preparing for the pain. These people never ceased to amaze January. Even with the prospect the cloaking spell might hurt, they were still all in.

“Well, I haven’t made anyone cry so far,” January joked.

Teddy gave her the thumbs-up and Ingrid smiled and said, “Then whammy us.”

Swishing her wand in the air, the slight electric hum buzzing beneath her ice-cold fingers, January began, “Fruit of thine essence, bend to my skill, mask and distort, be gone at my will!” A puff of colored smoke shot from the tip of her wand, shrouding the women before dissipating.

Nina cackled, giving her arm a light punch. “Fuck, Doc. You’re officially the coolest shiz on the planet.”

Ingrid waved her hand in front of her face, wrinkling her nose. “Okay, who gets the honors for the smell test?” she asked, leaning in toward the vampires of the group.

Galen sniffed the air, followed by both Greg and Wanda, to test the strength of the spell. She might not know much, but her spells were some of the best in the biz.

“Wow,” Greg whispered, his eyes full of disbelief. “This was the last glitch in the giddy-up for me. I wasn’t sure it could be done, but they both smell like vampires. Nice job, Dr. Malone.” He offered his fist for a bump with a smile of praise.

“I’ll be damned,” Wanda agreed, sniffing Ingrid again. “You both smell like vampire. Well done, January!”

Galen dropped a kiss on the top of her head. “Never doubted you for a second, honey. Good job.”

Letting out a breath of air, she relaxed a little now that she’d passed the scent test. “Excellent. Now remember, this will only last tops, four hours. That means you have to get in, get out, and get back here before you’re discovered. Promise me you’ll be careful. Promise me you’ll keep track of the time. It’s crucial.”

Ingrid winked a saucy eye, her spiky hair gone and now high on her head in a dark ponytail. “Four hours. Got it. Quit worrying.”

January threw her arms around Ingrid’s and Teddy’s necks and whispered, “Goddess be with you. Be safe.”

Teddy smiled at her, beautiful, perfect, confident and sexy as all hell in her tiny outfit. “We got you. This’ll all be over in no time flat. See you soon.”

As everyone said their goodbyes and offered up well wishes, Galen pulled her close and tucked her shaking body next to his. “Here we go.”

Yeah.

Here we go.

Chapter 11

This’ll all be over in no time flat.

Teddy’s words raced through January’s mind as she listened in horror while everything fell apart.

It had all started so well. After reaching the pickup point, where they’d been stuffed into a car with someone to guard them on the ride, Ingrid and Teddy had joked about the scenery, landmarks, whatever they could use to define where they were going in an effort to keep everyone informed.

At that point, January had almost begun to relax as they all eavesdropped on the women and their light chatter via headsets, while Carl, Charlie, and Hollis slept snugly in Archibald and Farley’s bedroom, and Calista slept in Ingrid and Teddy’s. Remarkably, neither woman appeared nervous or afraid—not in the least.

When they’d slipped into Artem’s like they’d been doing this sort of thing all their lives, they’d made sure to describe everything around them—the house, the surroundings, even the landscaping as a just-in-case. After they’d passed the search of their belongings by the security guards, January had relaxed even more.

Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all. So far, so good. They were in the kitchen, receiving orders from the caterer and headwaiter—do this, don’t do that, smile whenever anyone makes eye contact, don’t ask questions, keep things moving, blah, blah, blah.

And still, everything continued to go well. Teddy hardly groused about the height of her heels as she carried tray after tray of blood and served what she estimated were about twenty vampires in total. The real kind of blood, she’d assured them. It was the talk of the staff.

“That son of a bitch!” Greg had spat, reacting to the idea Artem provided human blood to his cohorts. “I don’t give a damn what clan you’re part of, integration into society says we never drink human or animal blood. Ever. It’s been that way for years now. Clan law.”

“Damn,” Heath commented, running his hand over his stubbled jaw, his eyes full of concern. “Where the hell’s he getting it, you think? Galen? Any ideas?”

Galen’s jaw had tightened and his fist had clenched. “I don’t know. I’d only heard rumors he served the real thing, but now that it’s confirmed, I can’t even begin to imagine. Hell, I almost don’t want to know.”

“Shhh! Ingrid’s talking to one of them,” Nina said, and they’d all quieted to listen to the conversation—and January’s palms began to sweat.

“Aw, aren’t you sweet?” Ingrid said in a syrupy tone, and then paused. “Nuh-uh-uh. The only thing I’m serving is drinks, Hands McGee, and I’ll thank you kindly to keep yours to your—”

There was a grunt and a muffled thud.

“Get out of there now, Ingrid!” Marty shouted, jumping up from the chair, pressing her fingers to her headset. “No-hands policy is officially in effect! Do not engage!”

But then Ingrid came over the earpiece once again. “Listen, Buckeroo. I’m just the waitress and you’re giving me the stranger danger vibe, pal! Now, please move back. I can’t serve O-neg if I’m pressed up against a wall. You don’t want me to lose my job, do you?”

“Ingrid, you listen the fuck to me—walk, fast. Get out! Find Teddy and bounce, goddamn it!” Nina demanded, slamming her fist against the solid wood coffee table.

“Hey!” January heard Teddy exclaim. “Did you hear the lady? We’re here to serve you drinks, not sexual favors. Now back the hell off, buddy!” she hissed.

There was more scuffling, the rustle of clothing perhaps, and then, “Get off me, you coffin lover!” Ingrid screamed, loud enough for everyone gathered in the living room to wince.

January jammed a knuckle into her mouth to keep from screaming right along with her. Oh Goddess. This was bad.

Galen stiffened at her side and grabbed her hand as he instructed, “Ingrid! Teddy! Get out! Get out right now. Forget everything and get out!”

There was a loud clang, like something heavy falling to the ground, but the final nail in the coffin came from Teddy, who bellowed, “You spilled it everywhere! It’s all over our stupid dresses! They’re going to take that out of our pay, you dick!”

January’s mouth went dry, her throat constricting. Oh Goddess, no. Something had apparently spilled on Teddy. That was bad enough. But if it had also spilled on Ingrid—

“I said take your filthy, bloodsucking hands off me!” Ingrid howled.

And then the worst bit of intel came like a punch to January’s gut—her worst fears confirmed.

“How dare you call me a human, you animal!” Ingrid roared—just before the sound cut out and nothing but silence greeted their ears.

Wrapping her arms around her middle, January rocked forward on the plaid sofa. “No,” she whispered in horror.

What?” Nina jumped up, grabbing January by the arm. “What the fuck just happened?”

She could barely speak, barely breathe, but somehow she managed to form the words. “If someone spilled something on them, it washes away the spell. Oh Goddess, I warned them! No, no, no!” she cried out.

“So that freaky fuck knows for sure Ingrid’s a human?” Nina squeaked, her normally deep voice raising several octaves.

“Yes!” January said as tears began to stream down her face.

It had all gone so sideways, and no amount of brawn could change the fact that they had Ingrid and Teddy.

Artem had them in his hot little hands—and he wouldn’t hesitate to kill them.

* * * *

“Then we just go and get them!” Nina screamed. “What the fuck is wrong with you lot, for Christ’s sake? Get off your lazy asses and let’s go hunt these bastards down!”

“Nina!” Greg yelled, gripping her arm to swing her around to face him. “Stop, honey. Stop now. Please. You cannot—will not—go and get anyone. I forbid it!”

Nina’s chest heaved, her face twisted into a mask of disbelief as she yanked her arm from her husband’s grip. “Who the fuck are you to forbid me to do anything, Lover? Last time I checked, I didn’t marry into goddamn servitude!” she shouted up at him.

Greg’s mouth turned to a thin line of angry anguish. His emotions were as clear as the nose on January’s face.

Grabbing Nina’s upper arms, he gave her a light shake. “Enough!” he roared back at her. “If I have to tie you up and restrain you myself, I will, Nina Statleon! You aren’t equipped to deal with even one madman vampire, let alone twenty! The hell I’ll watch my wife, the woman I love to near distraction, the mother of my child, haphazardly throw herself into yet another fight as though she’s still immortal! You’re a human, Nina. Human! Hear that? Human! You breathe. You eat. You’ll age, and the hell I’ll waste a single second of what’s left of our lives together, already knowing I have to live an eternity without you, while you carelessly take on something we both know you can’t defeat anymore, just so you can end up dead! I love you more than I’ve ever loved anyone. I need you with me for as long as humanly possible. Charlie and Carl need you, and if it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to protect you from yourself! Are we clear?”

As he rasped the last angry words out, the room grew deadly silent, each breath measured, each agonizing moment lengthened by the tension between them.

Wanda was the first to rise and tug at Nina’s arm, her voice somber, her face stricken. “He’s right, Nina. You know he’s right. It’s what we’ve been telling you all along. Please, please, please listen,” she whispered, her voice quivering.

For the first time since January had met Nina, she saw her finally absorb that word. Human. She watched as Nina finally met her reality head-on.

She was human.

Rather than lash out, rather than rage and rant, Nina cupped Wanda’s jaw and grazed Greg’s hand with hers before she padded toward the front door of the cabin, opened it, and then let it shut quietly behind her.

Marty was up in the blink of an eye and heading out right behind Nina, but January managed to stop her by gripping her upper arms with gentle hands. “No. Let her process this. Please. I know you’ve all been telling her this since the beginning of her accident, but I don’t think it truly hit her until just now. Greg’s words…well, in my professional opinion, they finally got through to her. I know you all love her and would do anything for her, but let her have this moment. There’s nothing she hates more than to appear weak, and right now, she’s so vulnerable. Let her own that—privately, okay?”

Marty licked her lips, her eyes filling with tears as she nodded. “Okay,” she murmured, allowing her husband to envelop her in his arms as she buried her face in his wide chest and softly cried.

No one moved. No one even looked up, each processing what to do next with Ingrid’s words ringing in their ears. The minutes ticked by as they each fought internally to create a plan.

Finally, Wanda swiped at her eyes with her thumb as Heath gripped her hand. She clung to it for a moment before she appeared to shake off her sorrow and straighten her spine. “Okay, family. We have a problem. A big, ugly, hateful problem. We’ve played nice, for the most part, up until now with this whackadoodle. But I’ll be dipped in cow dung before I’ll let this piece of vampire excrement terrorize Ingrid and Teddy. Especially Ingrid. Teddy was a bounty hunter. She won’t scare as easily and she can take a whole lot more than the average bear. But Ingrid’s as helpless as a newborn. So get your vampire noses in gear, make a plan. I don’t give a flying flip what it is or what we have to do, as long as it’s solid. Now let’s hunt this asshole down and get our girls back!”

January was already tying her hair up and rolling the sleeves of her sweater, but there was one thing she had to do. Help Nina over the final hurdle—or at least check to be sure she was stable enough to work through this on her own. “You all start. I’m just going to take a quick peek in on Nina. She’ll never know I was there.”

Slipping out the door, the lights from the deck helped her spot Nina, sitting on a bench under some trees, her back to January, head bent low.

Her heart hurt for the ex-vampire, for her loss, for the coming days when she’d have to work through the grief of leaving everyone behind someday, of aging long before her friends and husband.

“I might not be a vampire anymore, Doc, but I hear your tiny size fives like claps of damn thunder.”

“I’m a seven and a half, thank you very much,” she said on a laugh, tucking her hair behind her ears.

“Then you just fucked with the Jolly Green Giant’s job security.”

Resting her elbows on the back of the white iron bench, she asked, “May I join you?”

“Do I have a fucking choice? I just gave you enough shit to work with for at least a month. What else would you do but try to fix the broken ex-fucking-vampire? I’m a virtual therapy wonderland.”

Placing a hand on Nina’s shoulder, January squeezed, bracing herself for an onslaught of anger when she spoke to the real reason Nina did what she did. “You’re not broken, Nina. You might not be super strong or be able to smell a hot dog vendor from ten blocks away anymore, but you’re far from broken. You’re one of the strongest people, patients, I’ve ever met. You’re good to the damn core. You’re hell on wheels. You’re a force of nature with so much to offer. But you can’t keep going into scenarios where you’ll end the life you have left. You can’t keep making up for not being able to save your mother, Nina. No one could have saved her…and each person you save won’t help bring her back.”

“Fuck off,” she murmured, but her tone held defeat. “I know that.”

“You know that rationally, but somewhere deep inside, you do it for her, in honor of her. Because she was helpless. Because she couldn’t kick her deadly habit. But she wouldn’t want you to risk your life, Nina. That’s irrational. Your fear is that you won’t be able to keep helping people. That you won’t be able to continue to honor her and somehow she’ll be disappointed in you. And that’s not true. Your strength of spirit is what will get you through.”

Nina shifted in the seat, her shoulders trembling. “If I know that rationally, why the fuck can’t I come to grips with being human again, Doc? I’ve dealt with a lot of shit in my life. You’re right; I lived through a crappy childhood. I dealt with finding out my mother was dead in some motherfucking alley. I’ve been in the middle of a shit-ton of crazy, but I can’t get a flippin’ handle… That doesn’t say GD strong to me.”

Pressing her cheek to Nina’s, she whispered, “That’s because you’re so strong, Nina, you’re not seeing the forest for the trees. You’re fighting the idea that you can be strong without the power of a vampire to back up your abilities. But I know this much—your heart is strong. Your faith and loyalty are strong. Your tenacity is strong. Your love for your family is strong. There are plenty of vampires who have plenty of strength, physical strength, but they don’t have half the inner strength you do. Not even close.”

Nina’s shoulders trembled. The weight of the last months had finally come to roost. “I don’t…” Her husky voice cracked in the night as she clenched her jaw, searching for words. “I don’t know how to…”

“Use your words, Nina,” January coaxed with urgency. “All this time, all these months, even after being shot, you’ve never said it out loud. Say what you want out loud. Put it out into the universe, and even if it’s something you can’t ever have, own it, Nina. Own it, learn from it, hear it. Then you can move on.”

Nina’s fists clenched, her body going rigid when she spat, “I want to be a goddamn vampire, okay? I want shit to go back to the way it was. I thought I’d be happier than a can of Silly String, finally getting to do human things like eat chicken wings and guzzle cans of Bud. But those are the only things I like about being human. It isn’t about how strong I was as a vampire. It fucking isn’t about some power trip. It’s about not being forced to leave the people I made my fucking family after I was turned, okay? I damn well don’t want to leave my kid and my husband and my fucking BFFs. I want to help my GD friends who are in trouble with a freak of nature!”

“So say what you want, Nina!” January pressed, gripping her from behind. “Acknowledge what you want, stop kidding yourself and let it go!”

Nina shook her off with a rough jerk, her head falling between her shoulders. “I want to be a vampire. I want to be a fucking vampire! Is that what you want to hear? Is it, Dr. Feels?” she rasped, the pain in her husky voice raw and achingly honest.

January bracketed Nina’s face, forcing her to turn around and look at her, and wiping the single tear dripping down Nina’s cheek before pulling her into a tight hug. “Yeah. That’s what I want to hear, my friend. That’s exactly what I want to hear.”

She imagined Nina didn’t allow anyone to coddle her—at least not very often. So she took great pride in this moment. This moment meant full and total trust from someone who didn’t trust easily. Someone who guarded and clung to her innermost terrors with a steel grip.

This moment meant vulnerability and fear for Nina. She’d stepped out on the ledge and taken a chance someone would catch her when she fell.

This was the moment when Nina felt all the feelings she’d shoved away in one form or another—really felt them, really expressed them. January was grateful it was she who was her soft place to land.

When January had asked Nina to tell her what she missed most about being a vampire using one word, Nina had written family.

But January didn’t get it at first. Her family hadn’t deserted her just because she wasn’t a vampire anymore. But now she understood—it was crystal clear.

Most of Nina’s family consisted of the paranormal, with the exception of her grandma Lou and Archibald. She missed feeling like she was a part of the family she created, the family she’d hand-selected. She’d begun to feel like an outsider with the only people she’d ever allowed into her life.

And it hurt.

But January hoped this new revelation, this new acceptance, was the beginning of a new outlook.

Nina relaxed in her arms, shuddering against her as she sobbed, clinging to January’s arm, her fingers digging into her flesh.

But she didn’t mind.

Not at all.

Crying was the first step in moving forward. Letting go. Getting on with the business of living.

And she wanted that most of all for Nina.

Chapter 12

January reentered the house after Nina’s request for a moment to compose herself. Nina’s battle was only one in the near future she’d have to fight, but knowing she was on the road to moving forward was so gratifying, leaving January warm on the inside.

Jumping into the fray, January watched as the group mapped out a plan, the minutes ticking away far too fast.

Marty’s head popped up as she gazed at January. “Do you think it’s okay to get Nina now? We really need her input.”

January smiled and nodded. “I think she’d be thrilled to hear that.”

But when Darnell pushed his way back through the front door after going to get her, his warm, open face was in clear distress. “I can’t find her, Boss,” he said, his voice tight with anxiety. “Looked all over the place out there and nothin’.”

January’s stomach fell to her feet and she didn’t quite know why. “But she just went outside to catch her breath no more than fifteen minutes ago. I was just with her.”

Darnell’s sweet eyes held concern. “She ain’t there now, Doc.”

Dread filled January from head to toe.

No. No, she wouldn’t go after Artem alone. Would she?

No. She’d really heard Greg for the first time. She’d listened to January. Really listened, so she instantly ruled that out. Maybe she’d just wandered deeper into the woods?

Archibald stumbled from the hallway on heavy feet after going to check on Farley’s whereabouts. His kind face red, his chest heaving beneath his pristine suit as he helped a limping Farley to the living room and handed him off to Galen. “She’s gone!” he shouted before taking off back down the hall.

“Who?” Marty asked, her eyes scanning the room in surprise.

Farley inhaled a ragged breath. “The wee bairn! Calista! She’s gone!”

“What happened, Farley?” Galen shouted, his voice tight as he gripped her familiar’s shoulders.

Farley’s cherubic face was stricken, his words groggy. “I was sitting beside her in my chair as I always do as she drifted off to sleep. I admit to ya, lass, I was dozin’, too. I woke when she cried out. And then…”

“Then what, Farley?” January almost screamed.

He ran a hand over his lined face as though to clear the cobwebs from his brain. “Suddenly Nina was there in the room, and then those swine vamps, I’m assumin’, they showed up and everythin’ went black as the sky over the moors on a winter’s night. Cracked me o’er the head, they did!”

“Did you recognize any of them?” Keegan asked, his tone a barely contained calm.

Farley shook his head then winced. “Nay! Nothin’ but a quick gander of the bastards, mind ya, but they were pale as alabaster.”

Archibald burst back out from the hallway, Charlie in his arms and Carl and Hollis following close. “Everyone else is safe, sir!” he yelped.

Greg and Heath tore down the hallway, the rumble of their feet on the hardwood floors jarring January even as she was frozen to the spot.

“She’s not in her crib!” Greg confirmed on a yell.

January nearly passed out as terror raced through her veins in a cold wave. “Calista? Someone took Calista?” she screamed, bile rising in her throat as Galen rushed to her side.

The world narrowed to a pinpoint, everything else falling away as she fought to stay conscious, to piece this together, to stay coherent enough to think rationally as they all rushed outside, instead of reacting by crumbling to the ground in fear.

Artem didn’t just have Teddy and Ingrid.

The motherfucker had Nina and Calista, too.

“Look!” Wanda yelled and pointed to the ground beneath the balcony of the room Calista had been sleeping in. The dirt was disturbed, large footprints of all manner, including what were likely Nina’s work boots, were visible.

The leaves on the ground were shoved to either side of a distinct path headed deeper into the woods, a trail she’d probably created by dragging her feet to prevent being taken.

January’s heart raced, pounding in her ears. Artem had her baby. He had the most precious thing in her life.

“Definitely looks like someone took her. But she put up a fight. That’s my girl,” Marty said while tears rolled down her face.

“How could we not smell those fucks?” Heath roared into the night.

Wanda gripped his arm, her face ashen. “We were too wrapped up in figuring out how to get Ingrid and Teddy back and we let our guards down. Damn them!” she cried.

“Son of a bitch! I’ll kill him, you all hear me?” Greg roared, the veins in his neck straining. “No one touches my wife ever! I swear to Christ, if he hurts my wife or that baby, I’ll rip him limb from limb and damn the consequences!”

Heath and Keegan were instantly beside their friend. Keegan slapped him on the back. “We’ll help, man, but I need you to gather your wits. Got that? We’ll root this bastard out but we have to do it logically. Do not lose your shit.”

“He has my goddamn wife, Keegan! This fuck better run far because I’ll see him on fire at daybreak for this!”

The pain on Greg’s face was as raw as January’s. If she’d ever doubted his love for Nina, no one could doubt it now.

Galen stepped forward, his face grim, but in a situation like this she could always count on him to be rational. “I’m going to pray that whoever took Nina, she’s with Calista. So I’m begging you. I’ll do whatever you ask, but let’s use caution. Artem is a vile man, not above using vile tactics to lure us to him. But a defenseless baby, our baby, is at stake. Please, let’s think this through.”

January knew it took everything he had to say those words without exploding, but she loved him even more for it—even if she couldn’t breathe. Even if her whole world was now in the hands of that maniac.

“Okay, here’s how it’s gon’ go down, y’all. Somebody’s gotta stay here and watch the babies,” Darnell pointed out. “Somebody strong with a lil’ bit o’ magic to fight off anybody who might show up wantin’ to create some trouble. You men go with your women. The Doc, me, Arch, Carl, and Farley’ll keep watch here.”

But January shook her head, even as it spun in circles. There was one thing she knew beyond a shadow of a doubt. No way was she staying behind.

“No! Absolutely not. If I have nothing, I have a wand that will fuck a bitch up if need be. Fuck the white witch way. Fuck peace and love. This is my child we’re talking about. I will not let that monster hurt my baby!”

“Slow your roll, Mini-Nina!” Wanda ordered, whirling January around to face her, the warm evening wind tearing at her perfect updo. “When we do this, we each have to have a specific role. We can’t just run in there like we’re on fire. Hear me? No wild magic wand tricks unless it’s necessary. My experience with crazies like this makes me very skeptical Artem doesn’t have a backup plan. Understood? You follow the rules and listen to us.”

January brushed the hair from her eyes, her jaw firmly set in determination. “I’ll do whatever you say. Anything at all, but I’m not staying behind.”

Galen opened his mouth to protest, she knew that was where he was headed, so she cut him off at the pass. “Don’t you say a word, Vampire! I can take care of myself and I wield a mighty wand when needed. I love you, Galen Marcus, but back off!”

He held up his hands in submission, though the vein above his eye pulsed. “Okay. But I need you to promise to stay close to someone who has superior strength, January. While your wand is pretty potent, you need someone with speed and power.”

“Then let’s get to this, shall we?” Heath encouraged as they all headed back into the house.

She fought a wave of nausea as she put one foot in front of the other, clinging to Galen’s hand and following everyone inside.

Her coven and peace and harmony be damned.

This was GD war.

* * * *

“You sure this is the right place?” Heath whispered with a hiss in the dark.

“I know the scent of my own damn wife, Jefferson!” Greg hissed back.

“He’s right. I definitely smell Nina and that bowl of clam chowder she had this afternoon,” Galen agreed.

“Looks damn deserted,” Keegan commented.

They were behind a row of shortly trimmed hedges surrounding Artem’s vast property, hunkered down and assessing the situation.

Wanda rolled her eyes as Marty retied her shoe. “Boys, shut up! God, we never have this much conversation when we’re going after some fruitcake. And they say women are chatty? Please. Now all of you can it and let us canvass. No one moves. Stay put. Marty, January? Come with. And keep that badass wand handy, Doc.”

Never was January ever as grateful to have vampires on their side as she was tonight. Their noses had led them directly to Artem’s front door. A front door attached to an amazing cabin at least ten times bigger than the one they were sharing right now.

Built almost in the vein of a castle, and made of a gorgeous combination of logs and stone, it had two turrets, a guesthouse, property as far as the eye could see and eleventy-billion rooms—but not a sign of a single soul.

As they snuck around the back of the enormous structure, January struggled to keep up and wondered if this was how Nina felt these days. She was a witch with nothing more than a semi-powerful wand between her and the eerie darkness. She didn’t have super speed, couldn’t see in the dark, couldn’t smell anything but freshly mown grass.

There was little in the way of landscape lighting, making it even harder to keep up, and as they crept around the first corner, she tripped over something. Maybe a root or a rock, she couldn’t be sure, but the fall she took was jolting, leaving her breathless.

As January rose to try to catch up, she squinted into the near pitch-black dark of the night and couldn’t make out a thing. Stuffing her wand inside her sweater, she began to go in the direction she’d last seen Wanda and Marty heading—when she was suddenly steamrolled.

Whoever it was came at her so fast, she didn’t even realize she was on the ground until he was hauling her back up and shaking her so hard her teeth rattled.

“Who the hell are you?” he gritted out, the scent of his overpowering cologne assaulting her senses.

As January fought to push air into her lungs, she held up a finger for a much needed moment to gather herself.

But he was of the impatient kind. “Who. Are. You?” He growled the demand, his face a dark mask with no discernible features in the cloak of night.

“Lawn Doctor. Heard you have grubs. Came to inspect,” she said on a wheeze, still winded.

He pulled her even closer—close enough that she could finally make out bits of his face—and leered at her with glittering eyes. “At one in the morning?”

Squirming, January tried to extricate herself from his iron grip, to no avail. “Needed to get a head start. Early birds and worms and all,” she huffed.

“I’ll ask one more time. Who the hell are you and what do you want?

Letting herself go limp, she rasped a defeated sigh and began to explain in the hopes she could stall him until someone came to help.

“Okay, I’m not really from Lawn Doctor. I couldn’t give a damn about landscaping. I’m really a Girl Scout and my troop, bunch of bloodthirsty, money-hungry chicks in berets and ugly sashes, have all sorts of connections. They sell more cookies than a damn plastic surgeon with a half-off silicone sale. I’m sick of it. How will I ever get to the mission in Beirut to help all those sick kids if I can’t sell any cookies? So I thought I’d get a leg up. The guy who lives here looks rich. Can I interest him in some Thin Mints? Samoas?”

“You’re coming with me!” he growled between clenched teeth as he literally tucked her under his arm and made a run for the back of the house.

So that was when she screamed—as loud and as long as her vocal chords would allow. “Martyyyy! Wandaaa! Run!” she called out. “Bad guy alert!”

Those were the last words she managed because she was too busy spitting the gnats out of her mouth due to the speed with which the guy was running across the lawn with her tucked under his arm. Like some freakishly fast football player running for the goal.

Everything went blurry, the dizzying motion almost making her retch until he pulled up short with a grunt. When they reached what looked like a storm cellar, he flung the doors open wide and simply dropped her in the gaping black hole, head first.

As what sounded like a heavy lock creaked above her, she tumbled down concrete steps, bucking and grunting her pain the entire way until a wall thwarted her, slamming right into the side of her face.

Rolling to her back, the first thing January did, before she acknowledged her battered body and bloody nose, was feel for her wand. Thank God it was still in her sweater. She might not be a vampire, but she could certainly create a diversion.

“Doc?”

Her eyes flew open and she found herself staring directly into a pair of dark eyes highlighted by a very dim bulb in the ceiling. “Ingrid?”

“Oh my God! Doc, are you okay? Gimme your hand and I’ll help you up.”

As Ingrid reached for her, January winced, the burn and ache in her right side a sure sign she’d possibly broken a rib.

“Easy, Doc,” Ingrid urged, helping her to a stack of crates, where she sat January gently before kneeling down in front of her.

“Is Teddy here?” she asked breathlessly, squinting into the room to scan the length of the dank cellar before getting a good look at Ingrid, her dress torn and stained with blood.

Ingrid bit her lip. “Bad news.”

January froze, gripping Ingrid’s hands. “What?”

“She’s here, but she’s out like she’s been on a weeklong pub crawl. They drugged her or something. I don’t know. It’s all kinda hazy, but I remember as they were dragging us down here to Chez Dungeon, someone saying she had to be kept quiet because she was a bear. Obviously I was no big thang, because I’m human and don’t have the strength to gnaw my way through cinder blocks with my bare teeth.”

Fear sped up her spine, making her grip Ingrid’s hand. “Is she hurt? Show me where she is! For that matter, are you hurt?”

Ingrid waved a dismissive hand and shook her head as though a good pounding was no big deal. “Just some bruises, my ego amongst them. I’m fine. Really. But you’re not fine. You’re bleeding, Doc.” Using the edge of her skimpy skirt, Ingrid pressed it to January’s nose.

Now January waved her away. “I’m fine, too. And I brought something that’ll help.” She drew the wand from her sweater, showing it to Ingrid.

Ingrid beamed a smile and did a little dance. “Oh, happy day! Can you zap us out of here?”

“I wish I could. I don’t have the gift of teleportation, but I can heal my ribs and maybe wake Teddy.” Raising the wand, January began the chant. “Ease this ache, heal this pain, remove all memory, of which I complain!” Pressing her wand to her side, she let her magic flow through her, allowing the soothing vibrations to heal and mend.

Closing her eyes, January let the process complete itself before she opened them and braced for the answer to her next question. On a deep breath, she asked, “Are Nina and Calista here?”

Ingrid froze and grabbed her hand, eyes wide. “What? No! Why would they be here?”

“It’s a long story; I’ll tell you all about it. Just get me to Teddy. She might be our only hope of getting out of here unless someone from the group finds us.”

As Ingrid led her deeper into the cellar, January noted its depth. It was as deep as the house, spanning the structure with room after room of nothing but dark openings and spider webs.

Teddy was slumped in a corner of a room at least two hundred feet deep into the musty space. Her lightly tanned face was pale, her blonde hair matted against her face with blood, her shoes gone, her dress torn.

“Oh, Goddess, did they hurt her?” January asked, dropping to her knees to run her hands over Teddy’s face and neck to check for damage.

“She put up a hella fight, our girl. But there were too many of them. She was bound to get some bruises.” Ingrid slid down on the other side of Teddy, gripping her limp hand. “What happened with that spell by the way? I mean, one minute he thought I was a tasty vampire morsel, the next he was screaming ‘infiltrator’ and calling in the hounds.”

January held her wand over Teddy, keeping it perpendicular to her body, and began to move it up and down, using it to heal every exposed inch of her. “He spilled blood on you, didn’t he?”

“Shit, shit, shit!” Ingrid cried, using the heel of her hand to thump her forehead. “I forgot we couldn’t get wet, Obiwan. Like that movie with all those fuzzy things, right?”

Gremlins. It’s sorta like that. When he spilled the blood on you, it broke the spell and revealed your scent to him.”

Ingrid held a fist upward and shook it. “Damn. I’m sorry, January. It was an accident. He had me pressed so hard up against that wall I thought I’d have to become one with the hinky-ass wallpaper. And he was strong. Really strong. I couldn’t get away from him and I lost my grip on my tray and then everything went to total shit.”

January patted her hand to console her as she took in the creepy, mostly dark cellar with its long and winding halls. “It’s all right. You did the right thing, Ingrid. Now, gimme a sec and let me see if I can’t wake up our pretty Amazon.” January repeated the spell she’d used on herself and focused so she wouldn’t miss a single hair.

As Teddy began to stir and moan, January explained to Ingrid their theory on how Nina and Calista were taken.

Teddy’s head popped up as she braced her palms on the floor to keep from wobbling. “They have Nina and Calista? Those stupid, stupid bastards! C’mon, we need to get the hell out of here before someone comes back and wants to finish what they started.”

“But where is Nina? Where’s Calista?” January asked, trying to keep her panic out of her voice. Knowing Calista was likely with Nina helped a little. She knew Nina would do whatever it took to protect her. But only if she was actually allowed to stay close to the baby. Terror began to seep its way back into her psyche in full force.

Don’t let your mind wander, January. Stay focused.

“Any thoughts on how they found out where Nina was to begin with?” Ingrid mused as they began retracing their steps and peering into each dark room in the cellar.

“Our scents must’ve led them right to you. They retraced our scents back to the cabin, found out Nina was there, probably assumed we were doing exactly what we were doing—spying on Artem—and as a revenge tactic, took Nina and Calista. Fuck all, this is a mess!” Teddy spat. Then she stopped dead and held up a hand.

“What?” January hissed, banging into her back.

“Do you hear that?” she asked, making them all lean in and listen.

As they paused, January keened her ears, but heard nothing…

Until there was a soft coo.

She froze, her limbs dead weight, her pulse the only thing moving at breakneck speed.

“There!” Ingrid whispered as another tiny coo rang out.

January’s heart crashed in her chest, her pulse racing, her limbs weak in relief. Calista was somewhere in this damn moldy and musty den of spider webs.

And if she had to tear it down with her bare hands, she was going to find her.

Chapter 13

Teddy began pulling her toward the cooing noises, her legs moving so quickly, and she easily took one stride to January’s three. Down a winding hallway, across two connecting rooms, deeper and deeper they went until they came to a tunnel, making Teddy pause.

Calista burbled a laugh, tiny, soft, innocent, and January tried to dart after it, to follow the sound, but Teddy yanked her back, almost dislocating her arm.

“No!” she ordered in a whisper. “Let me track the scent, Doc. No sudden moves, no rushing into a situation without thinking it through.”

“But I hear her!” she whisper-yelled back. “I know my own baby. She needs me, Teddy!”

Teddy grabbed her shoulders and forced her to look into her eyes. “Stop it! That’s my point, January. They want you to react. They want you to make a mistake. I know a thing or two about this. Please. I’m begging you. No rash moves!”

Sucking air into her lungs, she forced her pulse to slow, forced her mind to stop creating scenarios of doom. Teddy was right. She knew better, and January wasn’t going to be the idiot who went into the basement while the audience screamed at her to not go into the basement.

Steeling herself, she said, “Okay. You’re right. Just tell me what to do and I’ll follow your lead.”

Gripping her hand, Teddy tucked both she and Ingrid behind her and began the winding path toward the sound while she sniffed the damp air. The lighting was dim; so dim, January found it hard to make out two feet in front of her.

Teddy halted and looked both ways, hitching her jaw to the left, where yet another tunnel led to an opening with crude stairs descending into darkness.

And Calista gurgled once more, making the effort very real to not knock Teddy and Ingrid over and fly down the steep steps to see if she was there.

Just as they hit the bottom, Teddy stopped, craning her neck into the room. “Nina? Oh God, Nina!” she whispered, leaping into the enormous room from the last step, with January and Ingrid hot on her heels.

The ex-vampire lay apparently unconscious, huddled in a corner, her hand still loosely wrapped around Calista’s tiny wrist.

Calista sat beside her and cooed baby talk to her favorite new friend, her eyes alight as she patted an immobile Nina on the cheek and leaned forward to give her wet kisses, tangling herself in Nina’s long hair.

January’s heart turned over in her chest at the sight of her chubby daughter with Nina. Calista had adored Nina from the moment she’d laid eyes on her. It was evident in the way she now tried to rouse Nina with gentle gummy kisses, just like the ones she so lovingly gave January and Galen.

There was no stopping her at this point. Slipping between Ingrid and Teddy, January raced to her, scooping her up and pressing her cheek to Calista’s softer one, inhaling the very essence of her child in deep gulps. “I’m here. Mommy’s here,” she whispered, thanking the goddess she was safe before she knelt and brushed Nina’s hair from her face.

Teddy took Calista from her, bouncing her upward as Ingrid and January spread out around Nina.

“Boss! Wake up!” Ingrid husked out, patting her cheek. Nina stirred, but her eyes remained closed, her face slack, and she was cold—so cold.

“Use your wand, Doc!” Teddy urged, keeping Calista amused by tickling her under her chin.

January pulled the wand from her sweater and roamed the length of Nina’s long body, but she wasn’t responding. So she leaned in and whispered in her ear, “Nina! Wake up now, honey. We need you alert. Calista needs you to help us get out of here!”

Her eyes cracked open at the request, staring straight ahead before she blinked. “What the fuck…” she mumbled—then her eyes closed again, slamming shut.

Ingrid slung an arm around Nina and hauled her upward with a grunt, the echo of it harsh. “What’s wrong with her, Doc? Why won’t she wake up?”

January tamped down her panic and kept her voice even. Her wand almost always worked, unless the person was…

No. Nina was not dying. Tears stung her eyes. She would not die on her watch. She wouldn’t allow it. “I don’t know. My wand isn’t helping at all. I don’t know what’s wrong. Maybe she’s concussed? If that’s the case, we have to keep her awake.”

Teddy handed Calista down to Ingrid. “Take the baby and give me Nina.” In one fell swoop, she gathered Nina and hauled her upward, wrapping her arm around Nina’s waist. “Okay, Badass, it’s time to open those beautiful eyes. C’mon, Tough Guy. Walk!” she demanded, pulling her across the hard, dusty floor.

January went to the other side of Nina, dragging her limp arm over her shoulder. “Nina! It’s January—remember me? Dr. Pain in The Ass? Wake up, Nina!”

As they dragged her back and forth, she still hung limply, giving little to no effort to aid in her plight.

“Jesus, Nina—how many dang bags of Cheetos did you eat? You weigh a ton,” Teddy razzed, poking Nina in the ribs, but still she didn’t respond.

Ingrid hopped up, cradling Calista close. “Guys, maybe we need to take this show on the road and head toward the cellar doors? Now that Teddy’s awake, she can break the lock.”

January nodded. “Agreed. But promise me one thing. If Artem or any of his goons show up, take the baby and run. I’ll try to clear a path for you with my wand, but do whatever you have to—get her to safety.”

“Swear it,” Ingrid said, tucking Calista close, her voice strained.

“Then let’s move.”

Teddy held up a finger, unwinding Nina from her grasp. “I got this,” she said on a grunt, slinging Nina over her shoulder fireman style. “Let’s do this, ladies!”

As they began the climb upward, a voice admonished them with the click of a tongue.

“Tsk-tsk, ladies. It was all you could do to get into my party and now you want to leave it so soon? Where’s your sense of adventure? The night’s just begun!”

January’s heart jumped and her mouth went dry as she pressed a hand against the wall to steady herself and her shaking limbs.

Artem.

Artem had arrived.

* * * *

Galen paced the area between the house and a thicket of trees where they all hid, minus January, his chest tighter than tight. But he would not give in to panic for the sake of January and Calista. “So she was behind you when you heard her scream?”

Marty nodded, her blonde hair a beacon in the otherwise dark night. “Yes. Both Wanda and I heard her scream to us to run.”

“Fuck!” he said more to himself than anyone else. He was responsible for this, he was the catalyst for this chain of events leading them all here, and if something happened to Calista and January…

“Don’t go there, man,” Keegan urged, gripping his shoulder. “They heard January right around there.” He circled an area with a finger, pointing out what looked like a storm cellar in the middle of the back of the house. “I’d bet my life they’re in that cellar.”

The moment Keegan spoke the words was the moment they watched several men with guns pull the doors open, the creaky hinges squeaking in the night air.

“We have company,” Heath said. “But if we’re smart, we can get these sonsabitches from behind. You all up for a sneak attack?”

“They’ll smell us, honey,” Wanda warned.

“Not if we roll in this,” Galen said, toeing a patch of horse manure. “If nothing else, it’ll throw them off enough for us to at least get in there.”

Wanda was the first to kneel down, eyeing the manure. “Whatever it takes,” she said, scooping up a glob and slathering it all over herself without so much as a wrinkle of her nose.

As Galen and everyone else joined her, he thanked the universe. He didn’t know how he’d gotten so lucky to come across this batch of people willing to do whatever it took to help someone in need.

But he was goddamn grateful they were.

* * * *

In the blink of an eye, Artem had them all pushed back down into the room until they were backed into a corner, his eyes gleaming, his cohorts right behind him.

Pushing Ingrid and January behind her, Teddy blocked their path to the women. “So I guess you’re Artem?”

“You guess correctly, and you are?” He sniffed the air around Teddy. “I smell dirt and…salmon, is it?”

Taking a step forward, Nina still over her shoulder, she sniffed the air back. “I smell spineless and…twat, is it?”

For a moment, January thought Artem would respond by punching Teddy’s lights out. Instead, he threw his head back and laughed a gurgling chuckle. “I like saucy, and you don’t just look saucy, your mouth is saucy. Too bad you’re a vile bear. The things I could show you if you and your kind didn’t disgust me so.”

“Really? The things I could show you because you disgust me, you vile piece of shit. Wanna give it a go?”

Artem’s lean face remained calm as he basketed his fingers together in front of him and smiled slyly. “Oh, no. No, no, no, my blonde goddess. I don’t get in the mud with the pigs. I eliminate them and make bacon. Now put your friend down right there,” he ordered, pointing to the corner.

“Do as he says,” January urged, watching as Teddy reluctantly set a passed-out Nina on the floor in the corner, against the wall.

Her long body limply slumped and she continued to remain motionless, ratcheting up the fear that something was internally wrong and January had missed it when she was checking her.

Artem peered around Teddy as she repositioned herself in front of January. “Peek-a-boo, Dr. Malone!”

January gripped her wand in her sweater, stepping in front of Ingrid as Artem taunted. Licking her dry lips, she lifted her chin. “Are you really going to kill us all, Artem? How are you going to justify the murder of four women and a baby—one of whom is a clan member—to the elders at this summit on Monday?”

“Oh, that won’t be a problem, January. You did essentially break into my home, didn’t you all? You and your filthy friends and their ruse as waitresses. Of course, your friends were quite violent. Especially the one who can’t seem to keep her eyes open long enough to know she’s going to be a real party pooper when she’s dead,” he snarled.

No. It wouldn’t end like this. She wouldn’t let it end like this. “But there are others who’ll testify against you, Artem. Others who know about you and your plans. Other clan members and the like who think you and your way of thinking should be wiped from the planet!” January snarled back.

Artem reached around January and gripped Calista’s finger, a twinkle in his eye when she cooed at him. “Do you mean those who have children with men who aren’t supposed to crossbreed? Are those the people you speak of? I mean, a baby, January? Really? Care to explain this, Dr. Malone? Babies don’t just appear. Whose sweet bundle of powdered perfection and honeysuckle is this?”

“Mine! She’s mine, you freak, and if you touch a hair on her head, I’ll staple your dick to your asshole, asshole!” Ingrid said, pulling Calista away from Artem and flattening herself against the wall.

But Artem shook his head and simply grinned at Ingrid’s lie. “Oh, come now, goose. How can a mere mortal such as yourself produce a baby who’s half witch, half vampire, and happens to be the spitting image of the lovely Dr. Malone—with shades of her species-traitor boyfriend, Galen Marcus? Methinks you were a very bad girl, January, weren’t you? Very, very bad.”

Oh, Goddess, this was bad. This was more than bad. There was no way they could take on Artem, along with twenty or so vampires with guns and eyes filled with the lust for blood.

So she decided to make a deal.

Chapter 14

Goddess forgive her for what she was about to do… But it was better to see them shunned from their respective species than dead.

“Tell you what, Artem. Let’s make a deal. Let them go. Let them all go and I’ll testify against Nina. I’ll tell the council she’s the perfect example of why she—why all of her friends—should be ousted from the community altogether. I’ll even testify that your recommendation to ban all species from mingling is a wise choice on the part of the council. I’ll back you one hundred and ten if you’ll just let them go. Who better than an esteemed member of the medical community to bring credit to your theory?”

Teddy and Ingrid were about to protest when January held up her hand. As she looked into their eyes, she silently begged them to stay quiet.

Artem paused, gazing at her with his smug eyes and his enormous ego. And then asked, “Why the sudden change of heart, Glinda? Could it be you want to save your vampire’s hide?”

Her body trembled, her hands shook, but she refused to let him see. “What does it matter other than I’ll offer my credentials and years of experience? The motivation for my reasoning is moot, wouldn’t you agree?”

“But then what am I to do about you? You know all my secrets. How can I trust you won’t someday expose me before I’m ready to rid the world of filth? In fact, your friends know all my secrets.” He sighed, raspy and long. “I’m afraid it’s a no-go, Glinda.”

“Then kill me. My life for theirs,” she said, trying with everything she had in her to keep her chin up, to keep hot tears from falling down her cheeks. “Keep me here with you until the council meeting as your prisoner. Take me to the summit. I’ll testify and when it’s done, you can kill me. But you have to agree to let the baby and Teddy and Ingrid go. And Galen lives. He’s your insurance. He’ll never tell them what you’re planning because he’ll die if he does, and leave Calista fatherless—and I can’t tell anyone anything if I’m dead.”

Calista reached forward from behind her then, tugging at January’s long braid. “Ma-ma!” she chirped, the tone in her voice making it clear she was pleased she’d finally said the word after January had coaxed her for so long.

And that was the moment January’s soul shattered. When her heart cracked in half and all she wanted to do was curl up in a ball and scream her rage. When she truly understood, truly felt what Nina was feeling.

She’d never hear Calista call her mama again. She’d never watch her go to kindergarten, find a familiar, scratch her knees at the playground, cry over her first love breaking her heart, graduate from high school, sob as she packed her belongings and went off to college. Smile through tears as she tried on wedding dresses.

But she didn’t curl up in a ball. Instead, January reached back and grabbed Calista’s chubby hand, the soft skin warm to her touch, and tried to swallow before letting go and taking another step forward.

“So do we have a deal?” she asked, her voice cracking. “My life for theirs. My sworn testimony—my sworn, highly valued testimony—for them and Galen.”

Pressing his index finger to his chin, he pondered with another long sigh. “So tempting, but in truth, your testimony isn’t really as important as you seem to think it is, Dr. Malone. The fact that you all broke into my home, forcing me to take action, is all the proof I need that these heathens shouldn’t mingle with us. Your friend Nina alone is a danger to our breed—a real threat for exposure. Surely you realize the council will see that when I, and my clan members, testify to what you’ve all done tonight. I’m afraid I’m going to have to take a pass, January. Now, say goodbye to your friends and your daughter—because this is over.”

Then that settled that. He’d asked for it. “I really wish I could change your mind, Artem,” she said as a deadly calm pooled in her feet and wound its way up along her body.

Praying Ingrid and Teddy remembered what they’d promised, January gripped her wand and yanked it out of her sweater. Snapping her wrist, she summoned a spell.

“Flames be mine, wreak havoc and pain, source of light do not refrain!” she roared as flames rushed from the tip of her wand in two white-hot streams.

The heat of the fire was intense as it flew toward Artem and his men, making them all scatter to avoid being burned, creating a path for Ingrid and Teddy. This was their chance and she wasn’t going to waste it. “Run, Ingrid! Teddy, ruuun!”

“I have to get Nina!” Teddy screamed as a wave of fire prevented her from crossing the room.

“I’ll get her!” January yelled back. “Just go!”

January stepped to the right, keeping the path clear with the streams of molten lava spewing from her wand, swishing it back and forth as the men screamed when the flames licked at their bodies. Guns began going off at random intervals before dropping to the ground, the flames so blinding, they prevented Artem’s men from seeing their targets clearly.

Inching closer to Nina, she put her body between her and Artem’s goons. “Run!” she screamed after Ingrid and Teddy as they took off up the stairs.

Then she lifted her wand higher and summoned the wind to ensure they made it all the way to the cellar doors. “Gales of wind I call to thee, set the stage, set them free!”

A whoosh of arctic air almost slammed her back against the wall as she held her trembling wand steady, blasting the room with wave after wave of brittle air, pushing at Artem and his men until they were forced to the far walls, and even their strength couldn’t push past the force.

And then Galen was there, calling her name from the top of the steps. “January!” he bellowed, racing down the stairs with Heath, Keegan, and Greg right behind him.

She lost her focus then, and just as Galen set foot in the room, Artem rose up, his smaller body a ball of angry flesh and limbs as he ran for Galen, charging him, hitting him in the gut, sending him smashing to the wall.

January almost ran for him, but one of Artem’s men tackled her, knocking her to the ground, sending her wand high in the air.

Marty, like some crazy female version of LeBron James, leapt from the steps and caught it, holding it up as she came down hard on Artem, making him squeal in rage.

Heath and Keegan raced toward three of the other men, Keegan shifting to wolf form with a keening howl so loud, the room shook. His coal-black body arched and twisted as his clothes fell away and he went straight for a cluster of the men. He latched onto one of their necks and began to tear, the echoed sound of flesh ripping, ringing in January’s ears.

“I’ll kill you!” Galen howled at Artem just as January began to rise, her ankle twisted from the fall. Running at the vampire, his beautiful face a mask of determination and hatred, Galen rammed into Artem just as the sound of a gun went off.

“Galen!” she screamed, only to see Wanda—prim, proper, elegant Wanda—tear the gun from the man’s hands and crack him in the head with it just before she grabbed his arm and flung him high in the air so he crashed against the concrete wall.

Galen was down, and in the confusion, January lost track of him, lost sight of his beloved face. But she saw Greg hovering over Nina, scooping her up, launching her over his shoulder and running toward Marty, who took her from him.

And that’s when she finally found Galen again—pressed against the wall, Artem’s back facing her as he jammed something against Galen’s strong body.

Galen’s eyes met hers from across the room and she knew the message he was sending. Read it as clear as if he’d spoken the words or sent them in one of the cute notes he was always slipping under her office door.

If I don’t make it out of this, I love you. Always. Take care of Calista. Take care of you.

He sent that message the moment Artem jammed a shiny knife into his chest.

Chapter 15

January’s scream of anguish tore from her throat in a raw howl. “Nooo!

But someone else’s scream of protest matched hers. Someone whose voice was husky, low…someone she’d come to care for in a very short time.

Heads swiveled toward the stairs, eyes lifted at the sound of the bloodcurdling scream, and almost everyone who was still standing gasped at the sight.

It was Nina, her mouth open wide, fangs flashing, her warrior cry loud and fierce as she flew across the room like some pale dark horse, aiming directly for Artem.

“Look who’s back, bitches!” she roared, landing behind Artem with the grace of a cat. Her hands grabbed his shoulders, tearing him from Galen, twisting his body until he faced her, his eyes wide with surprise.

Leaning close, she lifted him so he was eye level, her face eerily pale, her eyes wild with hatred. “I will kill you, you piece of shit motherfucker! You will not hurt my goddamn friends, you fucking sicko!”“ She roared the words so loud, Artem’s hair actually lifted off his forehead.

And then she hurled him across the wide expanse of the room like a baseball, slamming him against the wall, watching as his scrawny body fell to the ground then stalking him until she was right back in his face.

Artem was only able to raise a hand in protest before Nina grabbed it and jerked it backward, the bones in his hand cracking with sharp snaps. “Do you hear me, you crazy psychopath? I’m going to kill you for touching that baby and then I’m going yank your fucking guts out through your throat and barbecue your fucking liver for my damn dinner!”

January hobbled toward her, toward Galen, who’d apparently managed to block the knife from his belly with his hand—a hand that now had a deep, sizzling gash in it. He rose to his feet to try to help with Nina, his arm going around January’s waist as she dragged him with her.

“Nina! Oh my Goddess, Nina! Stop. Please stop!” Throwing herself on Nina’s back, she clung to her, pressing her face into her spine. “It’s okay now. Stop. Shh-shh. It’s okay. Stop,” January soothed, tears falling from her eyes. “We’re okay. Everyone’s okay.”

As she attempted to pull Nina from Artem, from the corner of her eye she saw her wand, obviously lost in the melee of vampires and warring.

Artem’s long fingers reached for it. Wrapping them around the length and lifting it high, he roared, “I’ll kill you, you filthy, impure bitch!”

But Nina’s hand snaked out so fast, with such force, January fell from her back and to the ground with a bone-crushing crack. As Wanda rushed to help her up, Nina snatched the wand from Artem and drove it into his neck.

And then something absolutely bananapants happened.

January’s wand—her wand, her own personal magic stick—lit up like a Christmas tree in Nina’s hands. Sparks flew, flashing lights beamed, and smoke billowed.

Lemony-yellow tendrils of smoke wisped upward into the air before Greg was pulling Nina to him, forcing her to let go of Artem as the room filled with people who looked incredibly official. They began to gather up the piled bodies while Heath and Keegan spoke to them.

“Oh, Goddess. Does it hurt? Let me look!”

He grabbed her hands and smiled, keeping her from tugging at his filthy shirt. “I’m okay, honey. Had he gotten me between the ribs, it might be a different story, seeing as the knife was dipped in something meant to kill.” Galen held up his hand and showed her the remnants of his wound, still jagged around the edges. “But thanks to Nina, Artem only nicked me. It looked far worse from your perspective, I’m sure.”

A squeal of delight made them both turn to see a filthy, muck-covered Marty, running straight for Nina, lunging at her and planting kisses on her cheeks. “Oh my God! You’re vampire again? What the hell is going on?”

“Get the fuck off me, Fakey-Locks! Jesus in a sweat suit, Marty. You’ll get that damn lip gloss all over me and I’ll never get it off. And why do you smell like you just rolled around with a bunch o’ pigs at a damn barnyard jubilee? Jesus and fuck!” Nina flapped her hand at Marty, but she let her hug her hard, and even hugged her back.

January looked to Galen when the smell Nina complained of finally registered, almost making her gag. “What in Goddess’s name is that?”

Galen chuckled with a wince. “Manure. Long story.”

“Thank the universe, our girl’s back!” Wanda, equally covered in the vile stench, yelped a cheer, dragging the reluctant, newly turned vampire into her arms and hugging her until tears fell from her eyes.

Nina shrugged them off but her smile, one she fought to hide, was inevitable as it spread across her lips.

Greg, also drenched in manure, pulled her close, resting his chin on top of her head and closing his eyes, his relief obvious. “I love you,” he whispered.

“Good damn thing, too, because it looks like I’ll be around for a long time. Someone’s gotta tell you to shower more,” she teased on a chuckle, pressing a kiss to his jaw, stench and all.

And then she turned and looked at January, her eyebrow raised, her arms outspread. “You want one too, don’t you, Dr. Feels?”

In that moment, January cracked, her shoulders shuddering, a whimper escaping her lips as she limped to Nina and threw her arms around her waist—so grateful. “You were amazing, just amazing. Thank you. Thank you for looking out for Calista and saving Galen. I’ll never be able to thank you enough. Never.”

But Nina shook her head. “I should be thanking you, Doc. You made shit better. I won’t forget that anytime soon. Trust that shit.”

Galen put his hand on Nina’s shoulder and gripped it. “You’re about as fierce as they come, my friend. I’m forever in your debt.”

“Nah. No big thing. Just take care of my little Smooshie Face and anything you owe me is golden. Oh, and take a GD shower. You smell like fucking shit—literally.”

Speaking of Nina’s Smooshie Face, January asked, “What happened back at the cabin, Nina? How did they get both you and Calista?”

Jamming her hands into her hoodie, Nina shook her head. “I heard her cry from outside. So I hauled my Cheetos-lovin’ ass over the balcony and went to check on her. Those motherfuckers jumped into the window so fast I almost missed it, knocked Farley out, blindsided me, grabbed the baby and me and dragged us back here. I fought like hell, but I’m…er, I was human. Almost forgot how strong us vampires could be until that fucking moment when I couldn’t even move my head, let alone scream.”

“But how…? I mean—this?” Galen asked, pointing to Nina’s retracting fangs. “How did that happen? Did one of these bastards bite you? Try to drain you?”

Nina held up her finger and grinned. “So, funny fucking thing. The kid was howling something fierce. I’m layin’ bets it’s her teeth. When he got us back here, that freak was threatening all sorts of shit you should have let me kill him for when the killin’ was good. Calista was so worked up, I stuck my finger in her mouth to see if she’d latch on and maybe it would quiet her. I’m here to tell ya, she latched on—and she’s definitely getting her teeth.”

January’s mouth fell open in shock, her hands going to her cheeks.

“Close your mouth there, Doc. I can see your tonsils,” Nina teased, tugging the end of January’s braid.

Calista turned you?” January asked in disbelief.

“Best I can tell, that’s what did it.”

“That explains why my wand wouldn’t heal you! I thought you were dead because you were. That’s why you were so lethargic. You were in vampire stasis. Oh my Goddess, you were going through the change!”

Everyone began to laugh then as they all started piling toward the stairs. But January stopped in her tracks. “Hold up though, Vampire. This just occurred to me. You made my wand work—really work. You can’t do that…” January shook her head in wonder. “But it worked for you. Holy cow, it worked for you!”

Nina just shrugged. “So? What’s your point? And hurry it up, I need blood, Doc. Don’t make me drain your tiny body dry for my first fix.”

“Remember all that yellow smoke?”

Nina rolled her eyes and snorted. “Yeah. It’s the ugliest damn color on the planet. What about it?”

January gripped her arm in excitement, her happiness a big bubble waiting to burst. “Guess what that is?”

“Smoke, Doc. It’s smoke. What the hell are you getting at here?”

“Calista is half vampire, half witch, Nina. That means, you’re not just a vampire—but a witch now, too!”

Nina’s mouth fell open as everyone around them gasped.

“Close your mouth there, Vampire-slash-Witch. I can see your tonsils,” January teased, pinching her cheek.

“And the smoke?” Marty asked, her blue eyes dancing. “What’s the significance of the smoke?”

January grinned. “The smoke is your witch signature. Sort of like signing your name in the universe. Mine is pink.”

“So wait—that means my fucking signature smoke is yellow?” Nina squawked with clear indignation.

“Um, yep,” January confirmed, fighting a chuckle.

“Ahahahahahaha!” Marty barked her laughter, followed swiftly by Wanda, who was almost in tears from laughing so hard. They clung to each other, falling into each other laughing, as Nina frowned and made a face.

Then she flipped them all the bird before she stomped up the steps. “Fuck you, you smelly Ass-Sniffer, and fuck your smoke, Doc. Who the fresh hell do I talk to so I can trade that shit in for a nice deep purple? Shit, I’ll even take blue.”

As they climbed the stairs and wended their way down the hallway, their laughter filled the musty basement.

Filled it to the brim.

* * * *

“And that, esteemed council, is how Nina Statleon got her fang back,” Wanda finished, her eyes alight with the fierce speech she’d just given to the elders of the summit.

January gave her the thumbs-up and grinned as she sat next to Galen, who’d kept her close to his side since the events of Saturday night.

The elder representing werewolf in a long embroidered robe pointed a gnarled finger at Artem, who was bound with special handcuffs made just for vampires detained in police custody.

“Is what she says the truth? Did you, Artem Casteel, murder Mathias Rigby in order to gain control of your clan? Is it true that your plan is to extinguish all but your own kind? To bribe and lie your way into a position of authority and bend us all to your will?”

Artem’s eyes flashed defiantly as he twisted in his chair, still in his torn, burned suit, his face covered in soot, but he remained stubbornly silent.

January’s coven elder, Agatha Monroe, rose up from her seat, her angry face weathered from age. “Speak!” she demanded. “Speak or lose the option to defend yourself!”

Greg jumped up from the row of chairs they occupied before Artem had the chance to answer. “He can deny it all he wants, Elder Monroe, but I have the proof. May I?”

The crowd that had gathered in the summit’s meeting room gasped as Greg made his way toward the panel’s heavy wooden table, where they all sat to hear each of the people involved testify about what Artem had done.

The dragon elder, an enormous brickhouse of a man who wasn’t half bad to look at in human form, rose and eyed Greg. “Show us,” he ordered with a somber tone.

Darnell popped up out of nowhere to position a projection screen behind the council elders as Greg set up his laptop.

“If you’d all turn and view the screen behind you. I give you irrefutable proof of Artem Casteel’s plan to run anyone not like him out on a rail,” Greg announced, pressing a button on the laptop.

Music filled the large room, some angry speed metal clanging and banging Heath had chosen, because he’d decided it was suitable background music for Artem’s wish for vampiric chaos. It played in all its clatter as a picture of Artem flashed on the screen, his smile smug and confident.

And then the recording kicked in. “Mathias Rigby wasn’t a noble ruler. He was a coward! A coward afraid of his own shadow. I ended his life! My own hands drained him from existence. I did this for you, fine friends, to further our cause! Come Monday, when those inferior fools gather, we’ll remind them of whom we are! We’ll rise from the ashes of this pathetic lot we call modern-day vampire. No more will we allow ourselves to be tainted by the stench of a werewolf, the putrid breath of a dragon, the meek mewling of peace-loving witches! We shall rise and own the world—reinstate the laws of yesteryear. We’ll create chaos and rule with fear and dole out retribution! And then—only then will we take back what is rightfully ours until there’s nothing left but the purity of our breed! I say to you, keep us pure. Keep us pure! Keep us pure!”

On cue, the chanting from Artem’s favored hate-mongers began. “Keep us pure! Keep us pure!”

And the final nail in the coffin: Artem’s picture flashing over and over, his words on constant, stuttered repeat. “Drained him from existence. End-end-ended his life. Drained him from existence…

The council, along with the crowd, went deafeningly silent as they absorbed the recording.

Goddess love Ingrid, but she’d somehow managed to lose the recorder in her scuffle with Octopus Vampire. They’d come across it as the clan police questioned them inside Artem’s house, and Nina had been smart enough to pocket it for just this occasion.

Artem had indeed killed Mathias Rigby in order to gain power in the ranks of his clan, and it looked like the council was none too pleased. His words—words meant to pump up his sycophants and incite hatred—had come back to bite him in the ass.

Hard.

Elder Monroe finally rose from her seat, her face a mask of tight anger as she stared down Artem, who was positively green, if that were at all possible with a vampire’s pallor. “Did you call my kind ‘meek’?” she asked, haughty and indignant. “Meek?

The elder dragon blew a breath of air from his lungs onto his hand and sniffed. “Putrid breath?” he bellowed so loud, a spark shot from his mouth.

Artem cringed in his seat as one of those sparks hit his hair, singeing it. Yet still, he kept his mouth firmly shut.

When it was January’s turn to take the stand, her legs shook, but Nina and Galen’s silent support from the crowd kept her on track. As she told the tale of the deal Artem struck with her in exchange for Galen’s life, the council stirred in their chairs uncomfortably.

And then she begged forgiveness for agreeing to take on a task so heinous, for using her degree as a weapon to do it. But she wouldn’t apologize for doing whatever it took in order to save the life of her child and husband.

But Nina was the one whose testimony resonated loud and clear when asked by her council elder, “The question here is, did Dr. Malone actually assist you? Facilitate your recovery to the best of her ability?”

Nina nodded her dark head as her eyes met January’s. “Fu—Er, yeah. I didn’t want her to. I didn’t like it. But she did it anyway and she did it under some pretty crappy conditions, what with all the pressure from that freak breathing down her neck. She came to me and told me—told us—the truth about what was really going down, why she was doing what she was doing. She told us what that nutball’s plan was. He was going to see me extinguished. She didn’t have to do that. She could’ve saved her dude’s hide and walked away and left me for dead. But she didn’t. She risked everything to help me get through some serious crap in my life. I’ll never forget that, Doc. Not as long as I’m roaming this Earth.”

January had to gulp hard to keep from crying as she gripped Galen’s hand, and Wanda blew Nina a kiss.

And then one by one, the men they’d fought off the other night were forced to give their account of Artem’s parties, and as the last man standing was put into cuffs, the elder representing vampire rose.

Steepling his hands, he gazed out into the audience, his craggy, pale face solemn. “My friends, esteemed members of the council, clan citizens, my humblest, deepest apologies. Artem Casteel shall be punished to the maximum limit our law allows. We wish only to live in peace with one another and all of you—no matter your choice of mate. That such hatred exists in this day and age still takes me quite by surprise, but I will do—and my clan sires will do—everything in our power to eradicate and punish the offenders. We deem it wholly acceptable for Dr. January Malone and Galen Marcus to live freely with their child, and any children to come. So sayeth we all.”

The crowd erupted into cheers, to which the elder representing the bears pounded his gavel. “Order! I demand order!”

But nobody heard, and nobody really cared that they didn’t listen. The happiness filling the room was too much to contain.

Galen swept her up in his arms and pressed a kiss to her lips. “So I guess we have to go apartment shopping?”

January smiled up at him, her face wet with tears. “And furniture shopping.”

“Oooo!” Marty cooed, grinning from behind them. “I know exactly where to start! Girls, it’s Ross or bust!”

Nina groaned. “Fuck that, Fakey-Locks. Not effin’ Ross. Do you see what you did here, Doc?” she asked with her best mean face.

But January just smiled and reached around Galen to give her favorite vampire in the world aside from Galen a big fat juicy kiss on her cheek. “Yeah. I do. I see exactly what I did here.”

Epilogue

Three months later…

One ecstatically happy paranormal psychologist, a proud daddy vampire, a halfsie, a pretty blonde werewolf, a burly Scottish familiar who’d made a lifelong manservant friend during a marathon of The Barefoot Contessa, a future veterinarian, an Amazonian-like bear, a demon who couldn’t resist buying plastic magic wands online for the newest member of what he’d dubbed his Toddler Posse, a zombie who religiously took the children to the library once a week, two sweet babies with hair as soft as down and cheeks colored the shade of rose petals, and a brand-new half witch, half vampire gathered with their respective mates to play a rowdy game of Pictionary at a housewarming party for the happy new couple…

“Marty? Does that damn well look like fucking Montana? Jesus Christ on a stick. Sleepless in Seattle, blondie! That’s the state of Washington!”

Marty planted her hands on her hips and gave Nina an indignant stare. “Well, I’m sorry, Miss Geography, but it looks like The Blob!”

January and Galen laughed as they stood in the dining room of their brownstone, a ramshackle mess they were in the process of renovating, as all of their favorite people playfully bickered and visited.

Life had been pretty sweet since that final ruling. She and Galen had bought a house and were finally able to be together as a family. It had taken a bit of adjusting, him with his socks in piles on the floor, and her with her makeup and hairbrushes scattered over the bathroom vanity.

But there wasn’t anywhere either of them would rather be.

Nina dropped in at least twice a week to visit her Smooshie Face and to learn the ways of the coven, something she’d taken very seriously. She was well on her way to earning her own permanent wand—even after the implosion of January’s favorite curio cabinet during a particularly rousing lesson.

Artem and his group were sentenced to eternity in prison, a maximum-security facility guarded by witch magic, where he and his band of haters would never see moonlight again. Many of Galen’s clan had come out of the closet since, each telling a story of oppression and fear while they’d hidden their love for other species of the paranormal.

Best of all, OOPS was cleared and given the go-ahead to keep right on doing what they were doing—with the council’s blessing.

And life for the three of them as a new family was finding some normalcy, getting into a routine, developing a pattern they nurtured with love and treasured above all else.

A howling meow roused January from her thoughts, one so high-pitched and urgent it made everyone pause.

“Jesus, who’s skinning cats?” Nina asked, looking out the big bay window of their living room.

January came to stand next to her as the scratching began. Scratching at her front door that sounded more like a saber-toothed tiger was trying to make his way in—rather than just the tiny black cat they witnessed furiously howling.

“I told you, Galen—it’s a stray. He’s been popping in and out for a few days now and every time I go see if I can coax him inside, he runs away,” January complained.

But Nina held up a hand. “I got this,” she muttered, striding to the door and opening it with caution. She knelt down and rubbed her fingers together. “C’mere, little guy. I won’t hurt ya,” she cooed at him.

When it looked like he was going to take off, Nina swiftly reached out a hand and scooped him up, pulling him close to soothe him as she mashed his face into her chest and rubbed his ears.

He was a tiny little thing the color of night, sleek, with a round belly and an even rounder head. No doubt the runt of the litter.

“Look at you!” Nina rubbed her nose against his. “Who’s so precious? Who’s a good-good boy? Who’s a pretty-pretty boy?”

“Lady?” a voiced groused, husky and annoyed.

Nina’s head bounced upward, her eyes meeting January’s.

“I’m not your goddamn pretty-pretty boy,” the cat said, mimicking Nina’s tone. “Not unless the Calamities you know have a wizter-snitzel, and for Christ’s sake, get the fuck off me! Jesus, I’ve only been beating down this psychobabbler’s door for almost a week since they assigned me to you. What does it take to get your attention, Fang-Banger? And put me the hell down. I’m not your toy. Now—get. Off. Me! Before I turn you into tuna casserole and call it a day!”

All motion ceased as everyone stared at the cat, who wiggled out of Nina’s arms and dropped to the floor on surprisingly graceful paws. “Point me toward the shrimp. I can’t advise and guide with a stomach emptier than your brain.”

Nina blinked, as did January. “What the shit?”

The cat came to rest at her feet, its black tail swishing in wide arcs over the throw rug. “Are you always this thick? Didn’t Coven Central send you the official letter? Wait, of course they didn’t send you a letter. Who am I kidding to think they’d actually do their motherbleedin’ jobs?” the cat asked, staring up at Nina.

“Oooo,” January murmured, fighting to contain her smile. If this was what she thought it was, more therapy might be in Nina’s near future.

“Oooo, what, Doc? What the hell is Coven Central?” Nina asked, her eyes narrowing at the cat.

January tucked her folded arms under her breasts and tried not to collapse with laughter—but it wasn’t easy. “Wellll…I think he’s your—”

“She, lady. I’m a chick,” the cat interrupted, arching her back to stretch. “My name’s Calamity and I’m your assigned familiar—meant to spend every waking, coffin-loving, fake-blood-drinking moment with you. For fucking eternity, baby. That’s for-freakin’-everrr, in case you were wondering. Now point me toward the salmon. Fresh, not canned, thank you very much.”

There was a short moment of stunned silence before everyone burst out laughing. In fact, if Greg could cry tears, January was sure he would have as he fell forward on the couch and Heath slapped his back with a guffaw.

January doubled over laughing right along with everyone else.

But Nina? She stood rooted to the spot.

So January wrapped her arm around her newest friend’s waist and chuckled as she pulled her in tight to break the news. “So there’s this thing I meant to mention to you, but with all the moving in, renovations, patients to handle, husband to love madly, daughter to play peek-a-boo with, I totally forgot. My bad. Anyway, this is your assigned familiar. Cute, right? Cranky, but cute.”

“A fucking cat familiar?” she finally said, her shock evident.

January nodded with a grin. “Yep. A fucking cat familiar. Unlike Farley, some familiars prefer their animal form. Fucking Irony, she’s a crazy bitch, huh? Anyway, welcome to the coven, Nina Statleon!”

Galen brought over a wine glass filled with synthetic blood and handed it to Nina, still snickering. He clinked his glass to hers and saluted her. “To your new familiar. But mostly,” he said, looking down at January, his eyes tender and warm, “to us.”

January planted a kiss on his lips, filled with all the love she’d had to hide for so long.

Yeah.

To them.

End of Extended Sample

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