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Bloodstone

Nancy Holzner - Author

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ISBN 9781101544341 | 336 pages | 27 Sep 2011 | Ace | 18 - AND UP
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They call it Deadtown: the city's quarantined section for its inhuman and undead residents. Most humans stay far from its borders - but Victory Vaughn, Boston's only professional demon slayer, isn't exactly human...

Boston's diverse South End is known for its architecture and great restaurants, not its body count. So when mutilated human corpses begin turning up in the area, the entire city takes notice. The killer-dubbed the South End Reaper-uses a curved blade for his grisly work. And even though there's no real evidence pointing to a paranormal culprit, the deaths are straining the already-tense relations between Boston's human and inhuman residents.

As the bodies pile up, Vicky, her formidable aunt, Mab, and her werewolf boyfriend, Kane investigate, only to find that the creature behind the carnage is after something much more than blood...

Chapter 1

Bayside Health Club, a former gym angling to go upscale, is where Bostonians go to pump some iron, get sculpted, and trade in their beer bellies for the sexier kind of six-pack. I'd read the brochure. It has a weight room, state-of-the-art exercise equipment, a lap pool, and full-time personal trainers and nutritionists on staff. Everything you need to get motivated and get buff.

But I wasn't here for a workout. The duffel bag I carried didn't hold gym clothes. It was loaded up with bronze-bladed daggers and two bottles of holy water. This afternoon, I was here to kill a demon.

As Boston's only professional demon exterminator, I kill other people's personal demons for a living. Often, that means I get rid of the demons that give you nightmares or gnaw at your guts with guilt or worry. Harpies—revenge demons sent by a sorcerer—are also big business.

Today, though, I was after a different kind of demon. Bayside Health Club had an out-of-control Peccatum infestation. Peccatum, Latin for sin, describes a type of demon that contaminates people's personal behavior. A Peccatum looks kind of like a giant octopus, but with seven tentacles instead of eight. Each tentacle represents one of the seven deadly sins—Anger, Greed, Pride, Lust, Envy, Gluttony, and Sloth—and can branch into an infinite number of tendrils. The tendrils snake out and wrap themselves around their victims, ensnaring them in whichever sin the Peccatum has sent forth. When a victim indulges in that sin, the demon feeds.

Bayside, like a lot of businesses, had paid for this Peccatum, buying it on the black market. A whiff of sin in the air can make a place feel edgy, a little dangerous, and a whole lot of fun. Bayside's owner had told the sorcerer who conjured the demon to keep it small and to stunt all the tentacles except for Envy, Pride, and a thin strand of Lust. Those sins were good for business. But the Peccatum had gotten out of control, and now Gluttony and Sloth had taken over. How—who knew? Maybe someone showed up for their workout feeling lazy, calling Sloth forth from the demon. Maybe a nutritionist appointment made a client fixate on forbidden foods, stirring thoughts of Gluttony. Or maybe the sorcerer did a sloppy job of binding the demon. Since conjuring demons is illegal, anyone who buys demons on the black market takes that risk. No money-back guarantees from a sorcerer. If you complain, you might find a Harpy handling customer service.

As I pulled open the door and walked inside, the receptionist barely glanced at me. She leaned back in her chair, feet up on the desk, eating a cupcake. Frosting dotted the tip of her nose, and the number of empty wrappers that littered the floor around her would do any zombie proud. (Zombies are world-class eaters. They don't go after brains so much, but they adore junk food.)

"I'm Victory Vaughn," I said. "I'm here to…" I glanced around. Business owners don't like to advertise that their business is infested by demons, but there was no one else in the lobby. "I'm here to fix your Peccatum problem."

"Yeah, whatever." She waved a hand vaguely toward the club's interior and let the empty cupcake wrapper fall to the floor. Then she sat forward and put her head down on the desk. Her snores riffled Post-it notes like a gentle breeze.

Great. Sleeping Beauty would be no help at all. I checked my watch. This was supposed to be a quick-in, quick-out job. Tonight my werewolf boyfriend, Kane, would be meeting my sister for the first time. In a few hours we were due at her home in Needham for dinner. For all kinds of reasons, being late would spell disaster.

I'd have to track down this Peccatum myself. I opened my senses to the demon plane. The room dimmed, and the stink of sins filled the air, making me cover my nose against the stench. Gluttony smells like flatulence and belches, Sloth like long-unwashed bodies caked in shit. The sounds of a Peccatum at work filled my ears: burps, openmouthed chewing, farts, sighs, snores—a symphony of gross bodily functions. The receptionist let loose a gentle burp in her sleep. Peccatum tendrils coiled around her, wrapping her tightly in their embrace. Gluttony and Sloth both gripped her. Gluttony is sickly yellow and sharp-edged, like a serrated knife to saw at the guts with hunger. Sloth is gray and more diffuse. It enfolded her like a warm, fuzzy blanket.

I let her sleep. Cutting off the tendrils would do nothing more than alert the Peccatum I was here. To kill the demon, I had to get its head.

Of course, "head" might not be the best term for the blobby main part of a Peccatum. It had no eyes, no ears, and no mouth, although it could sense people around it, mostly through their weaknesses. The demon's main body was a roiling mass of oily mist, globbed up into a big ball of ugly.

I opened my duffel bag and removed a belt that looked like something a Wild West gunslinger would wear. But instead of guns, the holsters held water bottles. I hadn't brought a pistol for this job; shooting the demon wouldn't work. Although bronze is lethal to a Peccatum, as it is to any demon, the bullet passes through the thing's misty head too quickly to do any lasting damage. The mist merely fills in the hole. It takes a thorough dousing with holy water or prolonged contact with a bronze blade to kill a Peccatum.

I put on the belt and fitted my liter bottles of holy water into the holsters. Then I strapped on two thigh sheaths, each loaded with a bronze dagger. I checked that everything was snug, the caps on the bottles tight. I was ready to track down the demon.

Unlike other demons, which manifest only after the sun goes down, Peccata are active around the clock. After all, sin is a 24/7 affair. But Peccata don't like sunlight, so the sorcerer would have conjured it in a dark place, a closet or a windowless room. I set off to explore.

The first room off the hallway was the weight room. Inside, bodybuilders lay on benches, sleeping or staring into space. Some sat on the floor, slumped against the wall, heads nodding forward. The whole room was filled with a thick, stinky fog of Sloth.

That was the trouble with Sloth. It's so lazy and diffuse it has a hard time holding its own shape, so it's difficult to follow Sloth tendrils back to their source. I needed to find some gluttons. The tendrils that enwrapped them would lead me to the demon.

But, really, what was the hurry? I yawned. It was only late afternoon, but already I'd had a long day. I deserved a break. My eyelids drooped. My body felt too heavy for my legs to hold up. I could just lie down right here and…

No. I was in a hurry. I shook off the sleepy feeling and stepped back into the hallway. Fluffy gray tendrils puffed toward me, following. Bits of gray fluff clung to my legs.

There are two ways to avoid a Peccatum's tendrils. One is through virtuous living and iron-clad willpower, and I'm sure that works great for some demon-killer, somewhere. But I'd come prepared with option number two.

From my pocket, I pulled out a crystal atomizer and misted myself with its contents. Not perfume; holy water. It makes the wearer temporarily invisible to the Peccatum. I'd misted myself before I entered the health club, but the effect wore off as soon as the holy water evaporated.

The fresh misting of holy water did its thing, and the reaching Sloth tendrils drifted toward the floor. They lay there like dust bunnies.

I went back to the receptionist and picked up the trail of Gluttony. The jagged yellow tentacle snaked down the hall, branching off into several rooms. I ignored the branches and followed the main tentacle, which grew thicker and sharper as it went deeper into the club.

The tendril led to a door marked CONFERENCE ROOM. Next to the door was a placard: WINNING LOSERS SUPPORT GROUP. Gluttony—in a dieting club? Uh-oh. I spritzed myself with holy water and opened the door.

Half a dozen people sat around a conference table stacked high with extra-large pizza boxes. With my senses open to the demon plane, I couldn't see their faces. Gluttony tendrils covered them like kudzu in a Georgia forest. All I could see was slice after slice of pizza disappearing into Gluttony-possessed lumps.

"Did you bring food?" a lump demanded.

The holy water made me invisible to the Peccatum, but not to the humans it possessed. I reeled my senses back from the demon plane, making the tendrils disappear, to see who was speaking. A plump woman of about thirty had paused mid bite to address me. Pizza sauce was smeared on her face, and a string of mozzarella dangled from the corner of her mouth.

"No, I—"

"Then get out!" she shrieked. "There's not enough for you!"

Five other angry faces glared at me. "Yeah!" a man yelled. "We're starving here." He turned to a college kid who wore a baseball cap adorned with a slice-of-pizza logo. "Call your boss and order a dozen more. Extra large with everything."

"Double everything!" someone added.

"And garlic bread!"

"I want a calzone!"

"A meatball sub!"

As the dieters clamored for more food, the kid pulled a cell phone from his pocket. Between bites of pizza, he placed the order. Or tried to. It was impossible to keep up with all the shouted demands.

Looking at all the empty pizza boxes, I was glad Tina had quit being my apprentice several weeks ago. Tina's a teenager and a zombie, and that combination makes her a nonstop eating machine. Plus, like all zombies, she's super strong. Holy water or not, if Tina had walked in on this pizza fest, she'd have taught everybody here a lesson in Gluttony. And it's a little distracting when your apprentice gets possessed by the demon you're trying to kill.

"Didn't I tell you to leave?" the plump woman snarled. "There's not enough to go around."

"Don't worry about me," I said. "I'm not hungry. I'm here to do some maintenance." I didn't have time to waste with the Winning Losers, anyway. I had to find the Peccatum. Another spritz of holy water, and I stepped inside. I opened to the demon plane a little, enough so I could make out both the faces of the support group members and the tendrils that gripped them. They regarded me suspiciously, ready to fight to defend their pizza. I stayed near the wall, studying the floor, trying to see where the main tentacle left the mass of tendrils. Soon they forgot about me and started arguing over the few slices that remained.

The conference room had a folding wall, the kind that could be pulled back to accommodate a larger meeting. The tentacle, much thicker than it had been in the hallway, passed through it. I skirted two support group members who were playing tug-of-war over a pizza crust, and left the room. The door to the next room, the one on the other side of the retractable wall, looked ordinary. No tendrils passed underneath it. In fact, it was the only door in the hallway clear of tendrils—kind of like a big, flashing neon sign proclaiming, "Nothing to see here. No demon behind this door. Move along." I'd bet my fee the Peccatum was inside.

I misted myself with holy water and tried the knob. It turned. I cracked open the door and slipped inside.

The room was dark, but that made no difference in the demon plane. A dim gray twilight, the constant half-light of the demon plane, permeated the place, along with a stronger stench. A huge blob, bulging and distended from gorging on sins, was sprawled on the conference table. The head, which looked like a muddy garbage bag filled with sludge, sat on top of two huge tentacles—Gluttony and Sloth, each as fat as a fire hose—and five shriveled ones: one for each of the other deadly sins. The head pulsed and shivered as the demon fed on the sins of those it trapped. Finally. Now to kill this demon, go home, and dress for dinner.

I could douse the Peccatum with holy water or gut it with a bronze dagger. Either way, I'd have to get in close.

I stood with my back against the wall and inched the door closed. There was a soft click as the latch caught. Immediately, exploratory gray tendrils—Sloth—sprang from the Peccatum and wafted toward me. The holy water kept me hidden. The tendrils felt their way around the door for a minute, then receded.

Another self-misting with holy water—I'd used up most of the atomizer already—and I stepped forward. I loosened the caps of the bottles of holy water in my holster and took another step. A few tendrils snaked from the gray tentacle and swept back and forth across the floor, as though the demon suspected that there was someone in the room but didn't know where to look. I advanced cautiously, watching the searching tendrils, moving toward the demon then pausing. The holy water's protection held. Whenever a tendril got near me, it changed direction, as though glancing off an invisible barrier.

Halfway across the room, I removed the caps from both bottles. When I got close enough, I'd dump their contents on the demon. A half gallon of holy water should be enough to dissolve the Peccatum into a puddle of goo.

I eased the left bottle from its holster and held it ready. Another step. I tugged on the right bottle, but it was tight in the holster. I pulled harder. The bottle came out, but some water sloshed from its neck. I looked down in time to see a drop splash onto a tendril near my foot.

Yellow steam, stinking of sulfur, hissed and shot upward like a geyser.

Immediately a mass of tendrils sprang from the gray tentacle. I ran toward the Peccatum, but I'd barely gone two steps before a fuzzy gray net wrapped around me and yanked me to the ground. A bottle of holy water flew from my hand, hitting the floor and rolling to a far corner of the room, spilling its contents as it went. Tendrils wrapped around my other arm, holding it immobile, as more tendrils plucked the second bottle from my grip and flung it away. It rolled under the conference table.

Peccatum tendrils are usually wispy and insubstantial, a creeping suggestion, but these were like bands of steel. I struggled, but the Sloth-woven net weighed me down. The more I tried to move, the tighter it got. As it tightened, Sloth claimed me.

Sleep. More than anything, I wanted to sleep. I was so tired. I knew there was something I was supposed to be doing, but remembering what, exactly, took too much effort. Better to rest now, just for a little while, and worry about it later. Whatever "it" was. My eyelids drifted shut.

The tendrils loosened slightly, letting me curl up on my side. They didn't feel like a net anymore; they felt like a soft, warm sleeping bag, enveloping me in coziness. Nice. The floor, covered with thin, cheap commercial carpeting, was surprisingly comfy—except something dug into my thigh. I reached down to see what it was. Oh, right. My dagger in its sheath. How odd that I'd strap on a dagger before taking a nap. I adjusted the sheath so it wasn't directly under my leg. There, that felt better.

I let my consciousness sink toward oblivion. It felt good, so good, to rest.

I wanted to sleep, but I couldn't. A strong, unpleasant smell, like dirty diapers mixed with month-old body odor, wrinkled my nose. I forced my eyes open, but I could barely see through the warm, gray mist that clung to my face. Tendrils slithered into my nose and down my throat. They squeezed my body. This is bad, I thought, strangely calm. The Peccatum was cocooning me in Sloth—and that was where Sloth became a truly deadly sin. If I didn't do something, the demon would smother me. Sloth would seep into my body until my lungs couldn't be bothered to draw in air, until my own heart grew too lethargic to beat. Yet the realization felt far away and unimportant. Sleep was so much more appealing.

Stinking gray tendrils clogged my nose. I couldn't breathe. My mouth opened in a gasp; invading Sloth filled it like dirty cotton. I gagged. A spark of self-preservation flared in me, and I snorted, trying to clear the tendrils from my nose. My hand lay near the hilt of my dagger. In the tight cocoon, I couldn't move enough to get my hand around it, but my fingers walked the dagger, inch by inch, from its sheath. Each inch felt like a mile; all I wanted was to stop and rest. But I kept going. When the blade was clear, I angled it upward and poked at the Sloth that smothered me. It gave a little, and I forced the dagger upward. Sloth dissolved around the blade, adding the stench of sulfur and brimstone to the stink in the air.

I pressed my advantage, cutting a bigger hole in the cocoon. When I managed to grip the dagger's hilt, I swept the blade back and forth. In a moment, my arm was free, and I sliced away the Sloth that was wrapped around my head. Sloth recoiled, the cocoon loosened, and I pushed myself into a sitting position. I drew my second dagger and sliced with both hands, cutting the tightly woven cocoon to shreds.

More tendrils reached for me, but I severed them as they approached. Stinking yellow smoke filled the room. I crawled toward the conference table, where a bottle of holy water rested against one of the legs. I got under the table and grabbed the bottle. About a quarter of its contents remained. I splashed holy water over myself and stayed where I was, directly beneath the Peccatum. Tendrils of Sloth slithered on the floor around me, searching, but the holy water kept me hidden, even as I coughed Sloth out of my lungs. Gray clouds puffed from my mouth as I hawked up the last of it.

Bam! An explosion shuddered the room. Fire blasted out, rife with the smell of smoke and charred meat. I ducked and covered my head, then peered out from between my arms. A massive new tentacle, red and fiery, streamed from the demon and through the wall. Anger.

The door burst open. One of the dieters—the woman who'd told me to get out—stormed into the room like an avenging Fury. She was no longer a yellow lump of Gluttony; now she was aflame with Anger. Her face was scarlet, and she was wrapped in flames. Behind her loomed two bodybuilders, both of them also in the fiery clutches of Anger.

The woman scanned the room until her eyes locked on to me. "What the hell do you think you're doing?" she screamed. In the human plane, she couldn't see the demon that wrapped her in flames. Only me. And I was the target of a massive Anger overdose.

She rushed into the room, fingers curled into claws, and swiped at me under the table. When I drew back, she kicked. I tossed some holy water on her leg, extinguishing the flaming tendrils that clutched her. She staggered back, confused.

Her bodybuilding friends charged me. I threw holy water at one. The other made it to the far side of the table and grabbed my ankle. I shook the bottle over his hand, but the few remaining drops of holy water barely dimmed the flames. He dragged me from under the table.

I slashed his forearm with one of my daggers—barely a scratch, but he let go. I scrambled to my feet. He bellowed and charged at me, arms swinging. I ducked and ran around behind him. When he turned, his arm drawn back for another punch, I sliced through the tendril of Anger that held him. He staggered as it let him go, and gazed at his own fist as if wondering where it had come from.

With a screech, the woman launched herself at me, her fingernails aimed at my eyes. I sidestepped her and stuck out my foot, tripping her and sending her sprawling. As she fell, I slashed through the Anger tendril that clutched her. But then one of the bodybuilders charged again.

I could take him. I could take all three of them. As a shapeshifter, I'm stronger than any human, even one who spent most of his time pumping iron when he wasn't in the grip of Sloth. Fighting off these norms wasn't what worried me. The Peccatum could keep this up forever. As soon as I severed a tendril, it sent out a new one, possessing the human with Anger again. Shouts and footsteps came from the hallway, as more Anger-possessed norms stormed the conference room. And the holy water I'd doused myself with was wearing off—I didn't have any more.

Tendrils of Sloth snaked toward me. I could sever them with bronze, but they'd keep coming. Eventually they'd get me. And I'd stand still, indifferent, while a throng of enraged dieters and bodybuilders beat me to bloody mush.

I had to get close enough to drive my blade into the demon's head.

Again, all three norms in the room flamed with Anger. They spread out, trying to encircle me. The woman snarled.

Her fury gave me an idea. The thing about sins—they're equal opportunity. They don't care what their object is.

"Hey," I said to her, "did you hear what that guy said about you?" I pointed at the closest bodybuilder. "He called you a fat cow!"

The dieter stopped in her tracks. Her head whipped toward the bodybuilder, her eyes narrowed with rage.

"And you know what she called you?" I asked the bodybuilder. "A stupid slab of meat!"

The two of them bellowed and charged each other. They went down, wrestling on the floor. As soon as they hit, the other bodybuilder ran at me. When he got close, I pointed at the wrestlers and said, "That guy said you're a wimp and his grandma can bench-press twice as much as you." He ran right past me and jumped into the fray.

I didn't waste any time. I ran to the Peccatum and plunged both my daggers into its head. I moved the blades around, making as much contact with the oily mist as possible. Tentacles thrashed. More norms, possessed by Anger, barged into the room. Barely glancing at me, they were drawn to where the Anger was strongest, the three people pummeling each other on the floor. The newcomers leapt into the brawl.

Anger lashed at me, too, cutting into me with fiery whips. I gritted my teeth. Let it. I channeled the fury into my attack on the demon, stabbing and slicing and slashing the disgusting blob. I hacked through the Anger tentacle at its root. My rage diminished, but that didn't slow down my attack on the head.

The Peccatum began to deflate. It tried to regenerate its Anger tentacle, but the result was thin and pale, barely flickering. One by one, tentacles dropped from the body and withered, curling like dried-up slugs. Across the room, the grunts and smacks of fighting ceased. I moved the bronze blades through the demon's body like I was stirring a big vat of sludge. The vat got smaller and smaller, until the Peccatum collapsed on itself. A puddle of grayish glop spread across the table. Thick, viscous strings oozed over the edge.

I wiped my blades, resheathed the daggers, and turned around. People stood in the room, looking dazed. The Anger had worn off, and they weren't quite sure what had hit them. The bodybuilders were helping the dieter to her feet. Her dress was torn and she had a black eye, but she'd held her own. She clutched a big clump of hair (once she noticed it in her hand she flung it away with a gasp), and the faces of both bodybuilders bore long, bloody scratch marks. All three apologized profusely to each other. Those who'd joined the fight late slunk quietly out the door.

As I left the conference room, one of the bodybuilders was making a date with the dieter. "Dinner?" he asked. The idea made her turn green—not surprising after all that pizza. They agreed on a movie instead.

Back in the lobby, the receptionist looked bewildered and a little green herself. She dialed the gym owner to come and fill out the final paperwork and cut me a check. He'd been smart enough to stay far away from the club once the Peccatum got out of control. Now, I assured him over the phone that it was safe to come back, and he said he was on his way.

I hoped he'd hurry. This job had taken way longer than planned, and I still had to get ready for dinner at my sister's house. Mmm, dinner. I wondered what we'd have. For some reason, I was feeling kind of hungry.

Chapter 2

In my apartment in Deadtown, the paranormal-only section of Boston, I checked myself in the mirror, wondering if pearls were too formal for a family dinner. Probably not for this family dinner. To my boyfriend, Kane, a high-profile lawyer as well as a werewolf, "casual" meant loosening his tie. And my sister, Gwen, was all about appearances. Ten to one there'd be a silver candelabra on the table tonight. Now that I thought of it, pearls might not be enough. Oh, well—they'd have to do. Too late now to rent the crown jewels.

The phone rang. It was Kane, letting me know he was waiting in the no-parking zone in front of my building. I threw on my jacket—the mid-March evening was chilly—and headed for the elevator, before some zombie meter maid threatened him with a ticket.

Downstairs, though, I paused at the mailboxes. Mine held an electric bill and a couple of junk-mail flyers. I shoved them back into the box to deal with later, disappointed that the one piece of mail I was hoping for hadn't arrived: a postcard from my vampire roommate, Juliet.

Six weeks ago, Juliet had gotten mixed up with the Old Ones, shadowy super-vampires so reclusive most vampires thought they were a legend. Then she'd disappeared. Since her disappearance, she'd sent me a series of postcards with cryptic messages, suggesting she was on the run from the Old Ones but letting me know she was okay. I'd received five postcards so far, mailed from locations all over the world, but the last one had arrived nearly a week ago. I was worried. The Old Ones prey on vampires the way vampires prey on humans—and they have no scruples about killing their victims. If they'd caught up with Juliet, she could be in serious trouble.

There was nothing I could do to help her now. I didn't even know where she was.

I went outside. Kane's BMW purred at the curb. My Jag was in the shop again—one of the hazards of owning a vintage car—so he was driving us out to Needham.

I opened the door and slid into the passenger seat, tugging the skirt of my dress to a reasonable level of decency.

"Wow." Kane gave a low whistle—I'd call it a wolf whistle if I were into puns—and leaned over to kiss my cheek. "You look great."

"Thanks," I said, putting my hand on his face. I turned his head until our lips touched. He smelled like summer forest at midnight. His lips, slightly rough, pressed against mine.

With a sigh, I sat back in my seat. "We'd better get going." It took about half an hour to drive out to Needham. Traffic should be light on a Saturday night at seven thirty, but I didn't want to keep my sister, Gwen, waiting.

"Damn," Kane said, but he pulled the BMW away from the curb. He shifted gears, then put his hand on my thigh. "I was kind of hoping you'd brought a little Lust home from work."

I let his hand linger for a moment, feeling its warmth through the thin fabric of my skirt. His fingers curled around the hem, inching it upward, and I shivered. Then I picked up his hand and placed it back on the gearshift. "No, you weren't. If that Peccatum had nailed me with Lust, I would've already scratched that itch. You forget I was at a gym full of prime, grade-A beefcake." Most of them had been firmly held in the clutches of Sloth, Gluttony, or both, so they weren't exactly in peak form. But I didn't have to paint that picture in Kane's imagination.

He growled deep in his throat and jabbed the accelerator. Almost immediately, we were at the checkpoint out of Deadtown. He hit the brake, and we jerked to a stop.

As the checkpoint guard reached to open his window, I leaned over and whispered in Kane's ear, "Besides, I'm saving the Lust for dessert."

Kane grinned and gave my thigh another squeeze. Then he pulled out his wallet and removed his ID. I handed mine over, too. The guard, who had the gray-green skin and red eyes of a zombie and the bored expression of a public employee in a routine job, checked our cards. He looked at each of us, comparing pictures to faces. Then he swiped the cards through his machine and handed them back to Kane. The gate raised. The guard nodded as we drove through.

"Lust for dessert?" Kane did that thing with his voice that made my insides go all fluttery. "Too long to wait. Let's make it an appetizer. We could turn around right now and spend the whole night feasting on it."

His look smoldered, but tension—not lust—strained his voice.

"You're nervous!" I exclaimed. The attorney who regularly argued high-profile paranormal rights cases, who spoke on national television more often than some people brushed their teeth, was afraid to meet my suburban housewife sister and her family.

"Can you blame me?"

Well, no. In the couple of years Kane and I had been dating—off and on until recently—Gwen had basically pretended Kane didn't exist. Like me, Gwen was one of the Cerddorion, a race of Welsh shapeshifters whose origins reach back to the goddess Ceridwen. Unlike me, Gwen had chosen home and family over shapeshifting. Cerddorion females gain the ability to shift at puberty, and lose it if they give birth. When Gwen decided to go norm, she went all the way, aspiring to be even more human than her middle-class, white-bread human neighbors. Although she said she accepted my decision to retain my shapeshifting powers and carry on the Cerddorion tradition of fighting demons, my sister sometimes acted like she was uncomfortable having a monster in the family. She'd never accepted my paranormal friends, and she'd tried to fix me up with a never-ending norm parade of potential boyfriend material, mostly her human husband's coworkers and acquaintances.

So when she'd asked me to come out for dinner and casually added, "Oh, and bring Kane if you like," the invitation seemed nothing short of miraculous.

"You'll do fine," I said. "Gwen is the world's most gracious hostess."





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