Don't Hex and Drive: Chapters 1-3
I was thinking about purple pansies when it happened.
Just bumping along on my bicycle, down the narrow street that paralleled Magazine, while daydreaming of this particular little flower. It was right after sundown, which was my favorite part of the day to ponder things. I was a deep ponderer. Not deep thinker, mind you, because that would imply that I mused about profound, earth-shaking things. Nope. Mostly plants and flowers. And dogs. Sometimes cats. Or a more efficient way to organize our inventory at Mystic Maybelle’s. But really, mostly flowers.
Did you know that pansies, especially when infused with my special brand of magic, can be brewed in teas to heal skin rashes, reduce fevers, and even help with high blood pressure? Pansies! Shocking, right?
Tia liked to tease me—and by that, I mean aggravate—by reminding me that it’s also highly effective in love potions. Ancient Greeks used pansies for love potions, giving it the nickname heart’s ease.
“Maybe you can whip up a batch and find Mr. Right,” she’d said with a cheeky grin this afternoon at her house.
To that, I’d rolled my eyes and waved goodbye, carrying my precious bundle like a newborn babe right out the door. This particular pot of pansies had been dug up in the Meteora region of Greece where they’d been growing wild and untouched for centuries. Every witch knew, especially Conduits like myself and Tia, that the most powerful of plants were cultivated by mother earth, not human hands.
“Almost home, my sweet angel,” I whispered down to the basket attached to my handlebars.
Yes, I talked to my plants. Research proved they responded well to human speech and song. You can Google it.
Okay, fine. I just liked talking to them. Plants and animals never judged you. Not for what you looked like, what you wore or didn’t wear, what you said or didn’t say, what you believed or didn’t believe, or even that you preferred to travel by bicycle as opposed to car.
So that’s what I was thinking about when my world turned upside down. Literally.
I didn’t even hear him until it was too late. The sudden screech of tires and whip of the headlights hit me a split second before his car did. The bump against my back tire was hard enough to send me, my favorite handbag, and my sweet pot of pansies flying into the air. I was so shocked I didn’t even cushion my fall with telekinesis because, unfortunately, I needed a little warning and preparation before I used that kind of magic. How fast had this idiot been driving, anyway?
Landing in a tumble of limbs, my ankle twisted painfully on the fall. “Ow!”
The simultaneous crack of pottery twisted my heart and hurt even more. The headlights of the jerk’s car shone on the devasting sight of my pansies limp on their side. The terra cotta pot was shattered, the soil spilled, her roots exposed like some horrific murder victim.
A gust of wind, then, “Hey bhagwan! Are you hurt?”
It had been no more than three seconds since his car had hit my bicycle before the man’s large hand gripped the curve of my shoulder. No, not a man. Not a human one anyway. Only one supernatural could move that fast. And carried that kind of potent signature. It hit me almost as hard as his car did, punching the breath right out of my lungs.
Before I could even get a good look at him, he was hovering over my feet where my knee was bent and I was holding my ankle. He lifted my injured foot gently and slipped off my flat. His long black hair fell in waves over his crisp white button-down, well past his shoulders. I tried but couldn’t see his face hidden by that fall of hair. Then I became distracted by his deeply bronzed hands. Long fingers brushed lightly over my ankle.
“Are you a doctor?” I winced, tugging at my foot. One, because it hurt. And two, because I didn’t like strangers touching me. For that matter, I was pretty protective of my personal space even with friends. “Do you even know what you’re doing?”
He ignored my questions, holding firm. “Try to point your toes.”
Aggravated, I pointed them anyway before biting my lip on a whimper.
“Not broken then.” He slipped my shoe back on, his fingers sliding over the injury before giving me a light squeeze.
Pulling my foot out of his hands, I accused as calmly as possible, “You’re not a doctor.”
When he finally looked at me, I wasn’t surprised by his striking beauty. So typical. His heavy lashes framed whiskey-warm brown eyes. His perfectly square jaw and well-defined cheekbones were all ridiculously symmetrical. What did I expect from a vampire? An old one, at that. His magic hummed in the air, tinged with power and control and the trait I hated most about his kind. Seduction. They all wore it like a coat, parading it around like proud peacocks. So annoying. But this one? It sealed his aura of magic like a second skin. Like it wasn’t a secondary trait at all, but a natural birthright.
Wait. Not perfect, actually. His left brow was bisected by a thin white scar that disappeared into his hairline. It was hard to see at first in the dim light. So he didn’t use glamour to mask his flaws? Interesting.
His concerned expression shifted, his mouth quirking up with one of those smirky smiles that cocky guys flashed when they thought they could charm their way out of a situation. Uh, no. I don’t think so.
“Aren’t vampires supposed to have superhuman eyesight? Say, to avoid hitting an innocent traveler on the road?”
His nostrils flared as he inhaled a deep breath. Recognition shone in his eyes. His charming smile slipped, his expression changing to…amused interest? “Aren’t witches supposed to have telekinetic powers? Say, to avoid being hit by cars?”
For a moment, I was completely distracted by the smooth, deep timbre of his voice and his subtle accent. Indian, definitely, but something more. The slow, intentional care of each word reminded me of a professor from Russia I had in college. His accent was strong and soft at the same time. This vampire’s was similar, liquid and lilting with an undercurrent of firm control. Casual dominance. If there was such a thing.
His gaze traveled down my body, taking in my forest green Boho skirt and navy blue top. “And why are you riding a bike at night wearing such dark colors, Mistress Witch?”
Unbelievable! He was blaming me for hitting me with his stupid car? The reason I wasn’t wearing bright-colored clothes, which I did if I rode at night, was because I hadn’t planned on staying at Tia’s past our lunch date. But lunch turned into afternoon tea, then we’d gotten into a heated discussion about night-blooming medicinal plants, and I left too late. But this dumb vampire didn’t deserve an explanation.
“Here, let me help you up.” He leaned forward and grabbed me by the forearm, which I quickly wrenched away.
“No, thank you. I’m fine.”
He eased back onto his heels and raised his palms up in a hands-off gesture, his dark eyes shimmering silver for a second. Freaking, nervy vampires. Driving around like bats out of hell. Thinking they owned the world.
Ignoring him, I reached for the strap of my canvas handbag and looped it over my head to cross my chest. I flattened my palms on the concrete and pushed up, hissing in a breath. I’d scraped my palms on the fall.
“No,” I snapped, avoiding his gaze when he made a frustrated noise in his throat.
Managing to stand all on my own, ungracefully, but still on my own, I took a step toward the front of the car and whimpered at the sharp pain. My leg crumpled, but before I hit the pavement—again—the vampire reached over to steady me with an arm around my waist.
“Do you mind?” I wriggled and batted at his hand to get him off.
He released me. “Look,” he said, seeming to force himself to keep calm, “I’m just trying to help.”
“Where’s my phone?” I muttered, digging through my bag while leaning all of my weight on my uninjured leg. I could call Jules to come get me. “Dammit, where is it?”
The vampire walked away, leaned over to the pavement, and then returned with his palm out to me. He was holding my phone, fully cracked glass and the screen frozen on the weather app for some odd reason.
“Just great!” I snatched it from him and tapped the screen, knowing I’d get nothing.
“I’m seriously sorry about this. Why don’t you let me drop you off at home at least? I’ll fix your bike. I’ll replace your phone. I promise.”
I glared at him like he’d lost his damn mind. “I’m not getting in the car with you. Are you crazy? And, yes, you are paying for my bicycle.” I shoved the useless cellphone in my handbag. “But I have phone insurance.”
He propped both hands on his hips and looked up the street, his crisp white shirt glowing under the streetlight, stretching across his broad chest. “You can’t live far. Let me give you a ride home.”
“After witnessing your excellent driving skills? Um, no, thank you. And I don’t know you. Ever heard of stranger danger?”
Plus there was the whole issue of those college girls going missing. I wasn’t an idiot. Actually, I’d never seen him around this neighborhood before and suddenly eyed him with renewed suspicion. “Who are you anyway?”
His attention swiveled back to me, and then he frowned down at the ground at my foot as I wobbled.
“My name is Devraj Kumar.”
“I’ve never seen you around here.”
“I’ve just arrived in town. I’m a friend of Ruben Dubois. Surely, you know him if you’re a local witch.”
Ruben Dubois? The overlord of vampires in New Orleans? Uh, yeah, I knew him.
“You know Ruben?”
He pulled out his cell from his back pocket and dialed a number, holding the phone up to his ear. Within three seconds, he said, “Yeah, I had an incident.” His dark eyes fixed on me. “An accident, actually. My fault. I hit a witch on her bike.” He pivoted away so I couldn’t see his face. “Shut up, man. No, she’s fine. Well, except for her ankle. Will you tell her I won’t kidnap or kill her so she’ll let me take her home?”
He turned and passed me the phone with a seriously disgruntled look. I guess Ruben handed his ass to him. Good. A little smugly, I took the phone.
“Hey, Ruben. It’s Isadora.”
“Isadora,” repeated the vampire king in his always-steady-and-calm voice. But then he let out a little sigh. “Are you all right?”
“Fine. Just my ankle.”
“I’m glad you were cautious and didn’t get in the car with him.” Ruben had no idea how bad my car phobia was. There was no way I’d ever just get in a car with anyone. “But listen, Devraj is one of my oldest and best friends. You can trust him to give you a ride home. I’m sure Jules is already worrying since it’s late.”
True. She would be. Or my sisters, whoever was home right now. I eyed the vampire standing in front of me, looking somewhat innocent and remorseful, hands in his pockets.
Ruben knew our family well since he and Jules worked closely together as leaders in the supernatural world. He was a good friend to us, so if he said Devraj was trustworthy, then he was.
“If you say so, Ruben.”
“I do. Let him help you. I can promise you he’s already drowning in guilt. Let him get you home safely.”
“Okay. I will.”
“Can I speak to him again for a minute?”
I passed the phone back. Devraj took it and listened to whatever Ruben was saying, his gaze sharpening on me as he exhaled the heaviest sigh I’d ever heard.
“I will,” he said to Ruben before ending the call and slipping it into his back pocket. “All ready to go then?”
I nodded, eyeing his intimidating looking car. One of those super-fast, fancy ones that made me cringe.
“All right.” Then he swept me up into his arms, one arm under my knees, the other cradling my back.
“Wait! What are you doing? Put me down!”
“I’m getting you in the car without you injuring yourself further.”
“I don’t like this,” I ground out, pressing my scratched palms to his white shirt, then jerked them back, realizing I’d likely stain it. Whatever he was wearing, it was expensive. “Please put me down.”
“I will. Inside the car, Isadora. Isadora what, by the way?”
“Savoie,” I muttered, gritting my teeth, my nerves fracturing on multiple levels.
“Your ankle is injured, and you can’t walk. You certainly can’t ride your bike.” He glanced toward where it had landed, the back wheel crooked, spokes popping out. His gaze swiveled to mine as he marched forward, looking a bit more contrite. “I’ll come back for your bike.” He strode around his sleek car, the engine still purring as he’d never turned it off. “I imagine you don’t live far.”
His voice rumbled against my side. I’d curled my hands against my chest, trying to avoid all contact. The vibration of his deep timbre against my ribcage reminded me how close we were. So did the scent of him. Some kind of fancy cologne. It smelled expensive and made me uncomfortable. I was ready to be rid of this vampire with his fancy car, clothes, and cologne.
“Not far,” I grumbled before adding emphatically, “I’m not leaving without my pansies.”
He set me down gently beside the passenger door and opened it, ignoring me. Before he could urge me in, I slammed it shut, almost taking off his fingers. The flash of silver across those dark eyes of his told me I’d made my point.
I leaned back against the closed car door. “Not. Without my pansies.”
He braced his hands low on his hips, drawing my attention to the sheer size of him. Most vampires were built lean and trim. He fit that mold. Except he was taller. More muscular. And his body seemed built for athleticism whereas most vampires were built for indolent leisure. Looked like he scaled skyscrapers and swam lakes for fun. Who knew with vampires? They seemed to be the most over-the-top of the supernaturals. Flashy, arrogant. Except Ruben, actually. He was all right. But the rest of them, I had no use for.
He surveyed my broken pot on the street in front of his car. “And how exactly am I supposed to transport them?”
Leaning against the passenger side, I rummaged in my bag, maneuvering around my hand sanitizer, my granola bar, the duct tape, and my first-aid kit, which I’d need in a second. Aha! There at the bottom, I pulled out one of my reusable shopping bags and handed it over.
“Please move her into the bag very gently. If the clustered roots separate, they may wilt and die, even if I get them back into a new pot. Pansies are extremely delicate. I would just be devastated,” I spit out in one breath.
He blinked at me, brows raised. Perhaps I sounded a little dramatic, but this whole freakish incident had made me, well, flustered. My ankle would be fine once I calmed down enough to heal it myself, but my precious pansies imported all the way from Greece might die because of this vampire’s reckless driving.
Glancing at where my plant lay, I pushed off the door and took a limping step toward the front of the car. “Never mind. I need to do it myself.”
“Wait, wait, wait.” He stopped me with a firm but gentle grip around my wrist, then plucked the shopping bag from my hand. “I’ll do it. You stay here.”
No hint of annoyance in his voice. This vampire wasn’t easily rattled, I’d give him that. Even with my less-than-kind attitude, he’d handled me gently enough. Surely, he’d do the same for my pansies.
Biting my lip, I watched him carefully remove the pieces of broken pottery and drop them in someone’s garbage can at the curb. Then he scooped his large hands under the soil and roots, the entire plant fitting nicely in his palms, and placed it in the bottom of the bag.
“Don’t lift it by—” I stopped mid-sentence since he hadn’t hauled it up like a sack of potatoes like I thought he would have. Instead, he lifted from the bottom with both hands and walked toward his trunk. He held my gaze, arching one dark brow as he passed me by.
Okay then. Clearing my throat, I opened the door and hopped in, belting myself and staring at the spaceship-like console with more fancy gauge readings and computerized stuff than I’d ever seen in a car. Of course, this was a seriously expensive car compared to the Jeep Cherokee and the Honda sedan driven by Jules or Evie, the two I trusted most to cart me around town if I needed something beyond the neighborhood.
Deep breath in and out, I reminded myself we were only a few short blocks from the house. Surely, he wouldn’t wreck again in that short space of time.
Shoving that fear away, I rummaged around in my bag and had pulled out my first-aid kit by the time he settled into the driver’s seat. He’d moved my bicycle safely onto the sidewalk before getting in.
“Where to?” he asked, his gaze fixed on my lap where I’d set out my tube of homemade antiseptic, antibacterial wipes, and Band-Aids.
“The end of this block and take the first right. I was actually almost home before you decided to hit me with your car.”
I dabbed at the scratches on my palms, wiping off the small amount of blood and removing any dirt.
“Believe it or not, I didn’t plan to hit a witch with my car today.” He shifted the gear stick into first and accelerated down the street. “It was on the agenda for tomorrow.”
Pausing, I looked over at him, his gaze fixed forward but his mouth ticked up with a wicked smirk.
“Well.” I folded the used wipes and put them in a Ziploc bag I had in my handbag to dispose of later. “I’m so happy I was able to get you ahead of schedule. Nothing better than ticking off your to-do list early.”
“Mmm. Unfortunately, I had a brunette witch on my list, not a blonde.” His gaze roved from the top of my head to down around my shoulders before he moved his attention back to the road.
“Do you have something against blondes?”
I prepared myself for a dumb blonde joke or something else equally offensive. What I wasn’t prepared for was his sultry reply.
“Not at all, darling. I’m a lover of all women.” His gaze caressed my face, shimmering with silver in the dark interior of his car. “I don’t discriminate.”
Darling? Lover? What was he talking about? Wait. Was he flirting with me? What nerve!
“Let me get this straight.” A shocked laugh belted up my throat. “You speed down an unfamiliar road, hit someone with your Porsche, send her flying into the air, injure her ankle, break her expensive, imported plant, and then decide to flirt with her?”
He muttered a curse in another language, but when he spoke, he was all silky sensuality like before.
“First of all, love. This is not a Porsche. This is a Diablo GT Lamborghini, one of the finest Italian cars money can buy.” His tilted smile might as well have added silly little girl. “Second, why are you so sure this is an unfamiliar road to me? I could live right around the corner.”
He could turn off that smooth-talking charm immediately because it wasn’t working on me. “Turn right.”
He downshifted and slowed on the turn.
“You said so yourself you’ve just arrived in town,” I bit back accusingly. “And anyone who lives in this neighborhood knows not to drive their Lamborghini Devil down this road like a bat out of hell.”
“Diablo. Devil. All the same.” I snapped my first-aid kit shut and shoved it in my bag, smiling sweetly at him. “It suits you well, I’d say.” Then I pointed. “Stop here. This is my house.”
He maneuvered onto the curb, staring at our two-story bungalow-style house, his gaze wandering to the driveway with keen interest. Kind of creepy-keen interest, actually.
“Something wrong?” I asked as I opened the passenger door.
He snapped out of whatever daze he was in. “Not at all.” He flashed me a bright smile, then traced in vampire speed around the car before I was even fully standing.
“I’ve got it,” I protested, trying to hobble.
He swept me back up into his arms, ignoring me again. I’d have objected but, to be honest, my ankle was already swollen twice its size, and it would’ve hurt too much to try to make it on my own. I might be stubborn, but I wasn’t an idiot. Still, it was pissing me off to no end to have to depend on this guy who happened to cause my injury in the first place.
With a thorough push of magic, the familiar tingling sensation shooting through my veins, I opened the wrought iron gate at the front. He glanced down at me, all congenial and smiling, like he hit women with his car and carried them around for the fun of it every day of his life. I tried to ignore how he maneuvered me in his strong arms like I weighed nothing, his powerful strength on full display. But of course, all vampires were exceptionally strong. No need to ponder on his.
While I didn’t have the fuller curves like my sisters, I was the tallest. I loved my height. I owned it, relishing the fact that I could look most men eye-to-eye. Or even down at them. But not this one. His powerful physique and easy strength made me feel strangely vulnerable. It wasn’t a feeling I was used to, and I didn’t like it.
Before we made the steps to the front porch, the heavy front door swung open.
“Well, this is interesting,” said my sister Violet, a red Twizzler hanging out of her mouth, one hand on the door. “What did you do?”
“What do you mean what did I do?”
“I’m sorry to say,” the vampire interrupted smoothly while carrying me into the house, “that I hit your sister on her bike.”
Violet heaved out a breath. “I knew this would eventually happen.”
“Thanks for your sympathy, Violet.”
She shrugged, walking ahead of us toward the living room. “You look alright.”
Kicking up my leg with my swollen ankle, now about three times its normal size, I replied, “Yeah, I’m just dandy.” Then something occurred to me. I snapped my attention back to the vampire. “How do you know she’s my sister?” I asked, my attention now riveted to the underside of his chin where his short beard was cut close and trim, defining the square angle of his jaw.
A fleeting glance of those mahogany eyes. “Similar shape of the eyes.” He walked me to the sofa and set me down lengthwise, his gaze fixing more intently on mine. “But the shade is entirely different.”
To break the uncomfortable snare of his gaze, I cleared my throat and tried to reach for the throw pillow to put under my foot. But he was there doing it before I could even ask.
“What happened?” Livvy stood in the open arch leading to the kitchen. Her long black hair piled in a messy bun, she wore a typical Livvy outfit—red-and-orange dragon-flame tights with an off-the-shoulder fitted black top and wide patent leather red belt. She held a mixing bowl against her belly and a chocolate-smeared spatula.
Before I could say anything, Violet piped in, standing above me at the head of the couch. “Isadora finally got herself hit by a car while on that bike.”
“Violet. Go away.” I wasn’t in the mood for her attitude, especially with my assailant standing by my feet, listening in.
Livvy tilted her head, her full red lips smoothing into a sympathetic line. “You need to learn to drive, Izzy. You’ve had too many close calls, and now this.” She stepped into the room, her gaze skating to my ankle.
“I don’t need a lecture.”
Livvy was the next oldest sister above me. And while she rarely played the big sister card, she tended to become maternal when pointing out this one particular flaw of mine. Or phobia, however you wanted to look at it.
“You need to get over this driving thing.” She sighed, standing right beside me now. She gave my shoulder a squeeze. “How badly are you hurt?”
Anger rolled in my belly, spiking my adrenaline. I didn’t want to have this conversation for the hundredth time, and I certainly didn’t want to have it in front of the jackass who hit me with his car.
“I’m fine. And why are you baking? What’s wrong?” Livvy tended to bake, especially with chocolate, when something was bothering her.
She dropped the spatula into the bowl and moved it to her hip so she could trace her fingers lightly over my swollen ankle. “Not too bad.” She had ignored my attempt to shift the attention to her. But it seemed ignoring Isadora was the theme for the night. “You can fix this quickly enough.”
The vampire, still quiet, made a sudden movement, his brows raised. “You’re a Conduit?”
I nodded, lips pressed tight. Because I knew what was coming before he said it.
“Then why not fix it back on the street?” His expression wasn’t accusatory, more confused.
I’d been known to heal a number of people while they writhed and screamed in pain. That had never unsettled or stopped me from using my healing magic before. Traumatic events didn’t knock me off-center. But something about this whole night had rattled me to the core. I knew I couldn’t summon my magic until this vampire got the hell out of my presence. I was sure it all stemmed from the fact that I’d been hit on my bike when I’d always touted how safe the transportation was.
The opening and banging of the back door leading into the kitchen echoed a few seconds before our sister Clara walked in. “Oh, no! What happened?”
Thank you, Clara, for saving me from answering the vampire.
Clara was the sweetest of my sisters. She was also the youngest, having arrived three minutes after Violet.
“This guy hit Isadora with his car,” said Violet, nonchalantly, balancing her butt on the back of the sofa.
“Isadora, you poor thing.” Clara knelt at my side and clasped my hand. “Are you hurt bad?”
Her worried expression zoned in on my foot. Without even knowing it, I’d bet, she pushed waves of tranquility into me with her empathic magic. She couldn’t help it. Auras needed to spread joy and peace like Conduits needed to help and heal.
“I’m fine, Clara.” I squeezed her hand, happy at least one sister was on my side. “Thank you.”
“I know you from somewhere.” It was Livvy, eyeing the vampire still standing in my living room, hands in his fancy pants’ pockets.
For some reason, in the light of our living room, the force of his magic seemed to have amplified. Or maybe that was just because I wasn’t so focused on the accident now that I was safe in my home.
He reeked of power. His disarming stance and charming smile did nothing to diffuse it. My Conduit magic could detect potent sources of energy better than any supernatural, and this guy was pumping it out in waves. I suddenly wanted him out of our house.
“Oh, my goodness,” gushed Clara, wide blue eyes staring at him. “Your aura is…”
His head tilted, his expression softening to one of humility. As if. “I’ve heard from other clever Auras that it’s a kaleidoscope. Am I right?”
She nodded eagerly. “Such a pretty rainbow.”
His smile brightened even more. Good Lord, Clara! Don’t encourage him.
“But I know you,” continued Livvy, standing closer to him, studying his face. “I’ve seen you.”
He offered her his hand. “I’m Devraj—”
“Holy shit!” Livvy gasped, grasping his hand in hers. “You’re Devraj Kumar.”
With a modest smile, he nodded once and shook her hand. “I am.”
“Who?” I asked. I mean, he’d told me his name, but why would Livvy know him?
She let out a laugh that sounded a little too fangirly to me. Livvy never gushed or fangirled.
“Isadora. You were hit by the Devraj Kumar. Famous Bollywood movie star.”
“Oh, a movie star. Well, I guess that makes it all right then.”
“And you’re a vampire,” added Violet with wicked glee. “So fucking cool.”
Livvy dropped his hand and held her mixing bowl with both hands again. “Do you work for Ruben?”
Was she fluttering her eyelashes? What was happening here?
He paused, charming smile still in place. “On occasion. And I’m in town to visit and help him with a case. If I can.”
His gaze skated to me on the sofa where I was sure my glare of extreme annoyance—or seething hatred rather—was more than apparent. I don’t care if he’d won Sexiest Man of the Year, two Oscars, a Golden Globe, and Coolest Asshole in a Lamborghini Award. The fact that he had my sisters all swoony and girlish made me want to hurl.
“Speaking of which…” He glanced back toward the hallway that led to the front door. “I should be going.” He rounded the sofa and leaned over, taking my hand in his. “It was a pleasure bumping into you.”
“Really?” I snapped, a little too much venom in my voice.
He stifled a laugh. Just barely. “Truly.” He squeezed my hand with both of his, then he removed a card from his pocket and handed it over to me. “I’ll deliver your bicycle to you as soon as possible. And replace your phone.”
“I have phone insurance,” I said again, staring at the white card with just his name in bold print and his phone number.
“Then send me the bill for the deductible. I take full responsibility for this accident.”
Even though he’d mouthed off to me when it first happened, I was almost mollified as he strode for the hall.
“Wait! My pansies.”
He turned. “How could I forget? Could one of your sisters…?”
“I’ll go,” and “Let me help,” and “I’ll get it” came out of my sisters’ mouths all at the same time.
His charming smile brightened, and I wanted to punch it off his face. His sultry gaze swept back to me.
Sighing, I said, “Clara, you go.”
He dipped his head in a slight bow like some aristocratic lord from the 18th century then gave me one last searing look before he left. Which made me wonder again how old he was.
Vampires could live well close to a thousand years. They had the longest lifespan of the supernaturals. That we knew of, anyway. Werewolves could live to half a millennium or thereabouts. Most witches lived well into their three hundreds. Sometimes a little longer. The only one we still weren’t sure of was grim reapers. But that’s because we knew next to nothing about them at all. And they liked to keep it that way.
As soon as the front door opened and closed, Violet fanned her face with her hand. “Fucking hell, that vampire is hot.”
“You think everybody is hot,” I snapped.
Violet laughed, but Livvy shook her head, tasting the chocolate batter from her spatula before pinning me with her narrowed gaze. “Isadora. You can’t pretend he isn’t. Even you with your no-man-is-worthy attitude can’t pretend he isn’t panty-melting.”
I sniffed and straightened on the couch. “Whether he is or isn’t means nothing. He’s an arrogant ass who hit me with his car.” I pulled down the faux why chinchilla throw on the back of the sofa and draped it over my legs. “Besides, a man with that kind of conceited personality and driving a car like that must be suffering from small man syndrome.”
Violet’s throaty laugh burst out hard and loud. “Are you kidding me?” She sauntered around to Livvy and tried to dip her finger into the bowl. Livvy slapped her hand. “If anyone is swinging around BDE like a fucking pro, it’s that vampire, Devraj Kumar.”
Livvy grinned, her red lips widening as she turned to Violet. “Even his name is sexy.”
I wanted to scream with joy when Clara rushed in, carrying the shopping bag with the pansies inside. She set the bag on the coffee table and knelt down beside me, eyes glittering with excitement. “He said he carried you inside?”
I shrugged. “So? I couldn’t walk.”
“Oh, my goodness, Isadora!” She clasped her hands at her breast, a dreamy glint in her sky-blue eyes. “It’s just like Willoughby and Marianne in Sense and Sensibility when he rescued her with her sprained ankle on the down.”
“Willoughby didn’t hit Marianne with his car,” I protested.
Violet chimed in. “Willoughby was also a total douchenozzle who dumped Marianne for a rich sugar momma.”
Clara frowned. “Oh, right.” Then her expression brightened again. “Then he’s like Colonel Brandon when he rescued Marianne from the rain.”
“This Marianne was a bit of a klutz,” Livvy added before disappearing into the kitchen. “Eighties movies are better, Clara,” she called back.
Exhaling a growling breath, I said through gritted teeth, “I am not Marianne. And that, that man—”
“Vampire if we’re going to be technical.” Violet lifted my foot and stuffed another pillow underneath.
“Whatever.” I huffed out a breath, blowing a strand of hair out of my face. “I don’t need rescuing.”
“Says the Conduit who didn’t use her magic to heal herself at the scene of the accident.”
“Violet,” Clara chastised her twin, “don’t make Isadora feel bad when she’s been injured.” They were polar opposites in just about every way. They both had platinum-blond hair, but Violet dyed hers constantly. Right now it was a vibrant turquoise.
“I don’t feel bad,” I assured Clara. And Violet’s snarky comments never bothered me. Too much, anyway. “I just want to rest here on the couch a bit while I heal my ankle. I just need some quiet.”
She nodded. “I’ll get you some hot tea. That’ll make you feel better.”
I smiled as they both went off to the kitchen, leaving me alone. I heaved out a sigh of relief. I wasn’t about to admit to anyone that Violet’s remarks had bothered me far more than they should’ve. That vampire had unsettled me enough to throw off my magic. Men didn’t throw me off-kilter. Honestly, they barely registered on any kind of barometer of mine at all. Whether for needs, desires, or just plain semi-interests. I didn’t dislike men. I just had no need of them. I could handle all of my needs by myself. Which is why Devraj Kumar shouldn’t have gotten under my skin at all. But he so had.
No worries. At least now he was gone for good.
I stood in my new laundry room, holding the white shirt in my hand, staring down at it like it was a bomb. Or venomous snake. Or crack cocaine. Honestly, it might as well have been all three in one.
“Don’t do it,” I muttered to myself.
The mere fact that I was even standing here having this conversation with my shirt was a sign that something was terribly wrong. Hitting the witch on her bicycle hadn’t just tilted my world on its axis. It had blown a city-sized hole in it.
Because Devraj Kumar never lost control. Never succumbed to temptation. Hell, I never even felt temptation. As a Stygorn, an elite vampire warrior, I’d trained for decades to cull all basic weaknesses. I’d honed my special abilities to razor-sharp precision so the smell of blood or the scent of a woman didn’t send me into a downward spiral that culminated in sweaty dreams of orgasmic proportions. But her scent had.
Then I would wash it.
I’d stripped off the shirt the moment I’d stepped into my new home two nights ago, right after the accident. Strangely, the compelling need—no, the desperate desire—to inhale her scent from the small stains of her blood on my shirt hadn’t started until the day after. Yesterday.
I’d filled the day with unpacking. A familiar feeling I’d experienced after doing this dozens and dozens of times over the years settled with a hollow thump in my gut. And yet, it wouldn’t be the last. The nature of my job kept me moving from country to country, continent to continent. Wherever the job required my skills and attention. So here I was yet again, stopping off in Ruben’s hometown, wondering if I’d ever fill that longing for a home of my own. A place to dig my roots deep.
My Lamborghini was in the body shop, her bike was being repaired, and Ruben said he’d let me get settled before we met. So what had I spent the day doing? In between unpacking, I’d stalked the laundry room like a crazed serial killer. I must’ve marched past it a hundred times, trying to avoid the temptation in my laundry basket.
I finally, finally, lifted the stained part to my nose and inhaled deep.
Abort. Bad decision. Very bad decision.
I immediately threw it in with the wash, dropped in two pods of detergent, poured in three cups of fabric softener, and slammed the lid, setting it to heavy duty/hot cycle. If there was a whiff of her scent left on that shirt, I’d have to burn it.
The doorbell chimed.
I jumped like someone had caught me in a crime.
Combing both hands into my hair, I laughed at myself. Maybe I’d spent too many months off the grid in Romania, tapping into my natural vampiric instincts. That must’ve been it. I’d gone too deep, living in the Carpathian Mountains, letting the beastly side roam free too long. I’d needed the time to track an elusive vampire gone rogue for the overlord of the Bucharest Coven. And yet, the time I’d spent in the wild seemed to tap into my uncivilized side.
I tilted my head and popped my neck. Time to come back to reality and focus on the new job at hand. The hiss of water filling the washing machine calmed me back to reason.
I heard the front door open and close.
“Dev?” Ruben’s voice and scent carried to me.
Shaking off whatever the hell had just happened, I sauntered through the kitchen and into the living room where he stood staring at my painting of Crann Bethadh hanging over the mantel. I’d commissioned the Celtic Tree of Life from an old Irishman on the island of Inishmore about sixty years ago. He’d made his own paint, mixing thirty different shades of green, and flecked gold-leaf into the brown for the trunk.
That painting along with a few other treasures, like my Grecian vase, my Icelandic wall tapestry, and my white marble statue of Shiva, always moved with me. When I’d gotten the call from Ruben, needing a favor, I’d left Romania immediately and then cleared out my apartment in Paris to make the move here.
It seemed a visit with an old friend for a few weeks was just what I needed before I moved on to the next job. There were other vampire overlords looking for Stygorn to hire in the United States. In the meantime, Ruben and I could catch up, he could show me his city, and I could lend a hand with his current case. Besides, my restlessness for something else, something more, was pushing me harder than usual these days. There was an itch I couldn’t quite scratch.
“Good to see you, Dev,” he said with a smile.
I met him in front of the painting, shook his hand, and pulled him in for a hard hug and clap on the back. “And you, my friend.”
“How was Romania?” he asked, turning back to study my artwork with intense focus.
Ruben Dubois was one of my oldest friends and one of the few of my kind I actually trusted. I shook my head at his three-piece tailored suit in midnight blue, complete with cufflinks and personalized vest.
Ruben and his eccentric vests. This one was the same blue as the suit with silver threading in a seemingly random geometric pattern. But I knew Ruben. Nothing was random with him. Ah. It was the subtle design of the DNA triple helix. Not double like humans. The DNA code for a vampire required a third strand.
“Romania?” I sighed. “Peaceful, if you can believe that. After I’d caught a rogue vampire for the Bucharest Coven. And gotten the book for you, that is.”
Ruben had asked me to find a witch and acquire a rare book in heavy werewolf territory in the Carpathian Mountains. After I’d gotten the book, I stayed on in a cabin for several weeks, finding the solitude comforting but also lonely. It had twisted a bittersweet longing in my breast, though I still wasn’t quite sure what that yearning was for. A desire just out of reach.
“Thank you for doing that job so last-minute,” he said.
“No worries. I was glad to help.”
He turned to the living room, giving me a bright smile before surveying the layout. “The place looks great though you didn’t need to uproot yourself to come here.”
The furniture was delivered yesterday and fit nicely in my new place. I probably didn’t need to rent such a big house, but its quaintness and charm called to me.
“I wanted to,” I said before admitting softly, “I needed the change.”
My life in Paris was full of posh parties and wild nightlife and beautiful women. Though I’d stopped filming Bollywood movies a few years ago, I still caroused with the celebrity crowd, venturing often to Monaco, Berlin, Mykonos, and the Amalfi Coast. I enjoyed the endorphin high that the fast life provided. It kept me from thinking too long, too hard about what was missing.
Permanence. A place I could call home. Though it had been hundreds of years since my mother—my only family—had died, I’d managed to fill my life with pleasure and entertainment. Travel and parties, clubs and conquests. And though that life had lost its shiny allure years ago, I’d been going through the motions, knowing it was lacking in filling that deeper, more intimate need.
“Oh? That sounds serious,” he said with a smile though there was a pensive pinch between his brow.
“Perhaps.” I laughed, noting the tone of bitterness in it.
“Tell me.” Ruben was the kind of friend I trusted deeply, no matter how much time had passed between our reunions. We were brothers of a different sort.
Clearing my throat, I tucked both hands in my pockets then faced the Crann Bethadh, remembering the ancient trees in the Carpathian woodlands. “After I’d gotten what you needed in Romania, I stayed on in the mountains.” Pausing, I tried to find the right words to express what I experienced there. “It was so, so quiet there. I hadn’t slowed down in so long. It hit me hard.”
“In what way?” he asked softly. “How did you feel?”
“Very serene. And very sad,” I confessed as I faced him. I wasn’t surprised to find understanding there. Though Ruben wasn’t as old as me, he was old enough to feel the marrow-deep hollow that came with age. And the lack of what we needed to fill that tender emptiness.
Romania was the first time I’d been alone for an extended period of time. In my everyday life, I was surrounded by people. But even amidst a throng of friends, the aching loneliness found me. It always did. In Romania, the feeling was amplified, screaming through my blood like a feverish virus.
“Anyway,” I added lightly, “it was time for a change. I’ve had other overlord vampires in the States reach out to me for work before. Seemed like now was a good time. Perhaps see what kind of trouble I can get into over on this side of the pond.”
He clasped me on the shoulder with a smile. “I’m glad you’re here. Even if you did hit one of my friends with your precious Italian sportscar.”
“Ouch.” I pressed a hand to my chest.
Though I was particular about the make and model of my cars, I wasn’t attached to any of them. I’d sold my Maserati Alfieri in Paris and bought the Lamborghini from a seller in Boston and drove it down here. I had been, literally, three blocks away from my final destination after two weeks of preparation, packing, and traveling when I’d run into Isadora.
Damn. I did feel bad for hitting her, no matter what she seemed to think. She hadn’t broken anything, but the incident had shaken me all the same. It was the kind of mistake I never made. I’d find a way to apologize properly soon enough. For now, I had a smaller token to deliver to the Savoie sisters, which I planned to do as soon as Ruben left.
Fortunately, he’d said they were the forgiving sort. That was good to hear since Jules Savoie—a name I’d heard more than a few times over the past ten years—was the Enforcer of the New Orleans supernaturals. She kept everyone in line. Her powers as a Siphon, a witch who could suck the magic from any supernatural creature in a blink, ensured that.
Ruben bit his lip on a small chuckle, his gaze sliding over my shoulder toward the western-facing windows for a few seconds. “Come on. Let’s have a drink, and I’ll tell you briefly what I know about this case.” He glanced at his watch, a silver TAG Heuer. “I have a dinner meeting uptown, but I wanted to check in with you.”
He followed me into the kitchen. “I would’ve gone to The Green Light yesterday,” I called over my shoulder, “but I had to wait on the furniture delivery and get it all straight.”
Pulling down a bottle of Maker’s Mark from the cabinet, I then grabbed two rocks glasses.
“You still like everything in order and in its place.” Ruben took a seat on the stool and tapped his fingers along the granite countertop, looking around the kitchen.
I filled both glasses with ice, poured us each a drink to the brim, and then slid his across the granite. “It’s the only way to keep the chaos at bay.”
“As you say.” He lifted his glass. “Welcome to New Orleans.”
We clinked glasses and took a deep gulp of whiskey.
“While I do want to experience the pleasures of the city,” I said, swirling the amber liquid over the ice, “why don’t you give me a brief rundown of where you are?”
“Well said.” He drained the rest of his drink in two more gulps then set it down. That in itself was rather telling. Ruben wasn’t a big drinker. But this case had him on edge. “I didn’t bother to tell you because I knew you were in the middle of the move, but another girl went missing last Saturday.”
After setting down my drink, I crossed my arms and leaned back against the counter opposite him. “That’s, what, four girls total? In four weeks?”
“Right.” His sapphire-blue eyes darkened to the color of his suit, a silvery sheen icing over them.
“No bodies yet. All of them rather young.” He clenched his jaw. “College age. And taken from neighborhood bars.”
I flattened a palm on the countertop and began tapping with my index finger, the wide silver band of my ring tinking against the granite. “Their age may only be a by-product. Our predator may feel more comfortable hunting the local bar scene, late at night, where the easiest prey is in the twenty-something age range.”
“True,” Ruben conceded. “And their minds are more malleable at that age. Easily persuaded for even a young vampire.”
“How are you sure it’s a vampire? Could be a werewolf gone rogue.”
His brow pinched into a frown. “I’ve got a guy who says he’s got proof it’s one of our kind.”
“What kind of proof?”
He chuckled lightly. “He wouldn’t tell me.”
“This is one of your men, and he refused to tell you?”
I found that hard to believe. Ruben was a cool, calculated leader, but ruthless when he needed to be. It wouldn’t be wise to hold information from him.
“Not one of my men exactly.” He rolled the base of his tumbler on the rim, the ice clinking in the glass. “He’s on my payroll, but he’s a grim.”
“Ah. I see.”
Grims were notoriously private. Everything to them was on a need-to-know basis, including the most trivial of things like whether they took their coffee black or with cream. Yet, they were founts of knowledge themselves.
“So when is he handing over this information?” I asked, suddenly curious what this grim had as proof.
“Sometime this week. I’d like you there if you don’t mind.”
“Whatever you need.”
“How about dinner tonight?” The tightness around his mouth softened. “Then we can catch up properly. I haven’t seen my oldest friend in more than three years. You’ve been busy.”
I shrugged. “Always some asshole to put in his place. Bring to justice.”
“They never seem to go away, do they?”
He glanced behind me toward my stove. “You’re baking these days? That’s new.”
Taking his glass and mine, I rinsed them both in the sink. “Not baking exactly. You don’t bake penda.”
“A recipe from home, I take it?”
Home. Varanasi, India hadn’t been my home in over two hundred years. To be truthful, no place had. But Ruben was right. I tended to cook dishes that reminded me of the spices and scents of where I’d been born for the first time. And where I’d been reborn as a vampire. Cardamom, nutmeg, and saffron still scented the kitchen even though it was two hours earlier that I’d made the doughy balls of flour, condensed milk, and sugar then topped them with cashews and crushed pistachios.
“Yes.” I dried my hands on a dish towel and leaned back against the sink. “I thought my new neighbors might enjoy a welcome gift.”
“Isn’t the tradition for the current residents to welcome the new neighbor with some sort of baked gift? Not the other way around?”
Crossing my arms, I stared out the window that faced the side of the Savoie home next door. From here, I had a good view of the carriage house over the garage, the driveway, and the second-floor balcony with a wrought iron railing.
“I figured I’d better sweeten the deal after my incident with Isadora. Especially now that we’re neighbors.”
Ruben walked closer to the window, tucking his hands in his pockets. “I’m sure she’s fine. Isadora is a powerful Conduit.”
“It’s not her ankle I’m worried about.” I joined him at the window, catching sight of a small shed-like structure surrounded by chicken wire fencing. “Is that a hen house?”
His grin widened. “No hens. Just a very dominant rooster named Fred.”
“Huh.” Didn’t know what to say to that. There was also the roof and opaque glass walls of a greenhouse tucked in the back corner behind the carriage house. I’d bet my original Pollock painting that I knew who spent most of her time in there.
“What is it you’re concerned about?” Ruben asked.
Heaving out a sigh, I turned from the window and stepped into the living room. “I fear I’ve offended her, though I’m not sure how.” I threw up my arms in exasperation. Taking a seat on the dark suede sofa, I added, “I mean, I did apologize. But she seemed even angrier by the time I’d left her safely tucked up on her sofa.”
Ruben’s throaty laughter snagged my attention. He didn’t laugh as often as he should. “I can’t believe the famous Devraj Kumar failed to win over a woman with his illustrious charms.”
That had me frowning. Not because I needed to win over any woman for any reason, but because, well, I suppose I was accustomed to women being more receptive to me. At the risk of sounding vain, I never had to try too hard to charm the ladies.
“Look at you.” He shook his head, standing in front of the coffee table on my red and gold Persian rug. “All anxious and scowling over a witch who doesn’t like you.”
I couldn’t refrain the huff of laughter that barreled from my chest. “Are you seriously going to stand there and say that?” I arched a superior brow at him. Yes, superior. And he damn well knew why. “To me?”
His smile fell, his jaw tightened, then he glanced away, his suddenly fierce expression skating away from the windows to my three-foot statue of Shiva on his black lacquer stand in the corner.
“Ruben?” I coaxed softly.
He ignored me, his eyes trance-like, certainly chasing some memory he shouldn’t be.
“Ruben? Are you serious?”
Stiffening his shoulders, he returned his burning blue gaze to me, not saying a word. He didn’t have to. The pain was there, raw and too bright.
“Still?” I asked quietly.
He held me for three seconds longer before checking his watch again. “I’d better go.” He marched for the door, his shoes clopping on the hardwood floor. “Dinner at eight? Meet me at The Green Light.”
“I’ll be there,” I replied evenly, knowing he could hear me well enough all the way in the foyer.
The firm slam of the door told me he didn’t want to talk about his old ghosts that still haunted him. Regrets that apparently cut deep and were still bleeding. Profusely. I heaved out a sigh and shoved off the sofa.
When would he learn that he couldn’t keep running?
I pulled the Saran Wrap from the drawer beside the stove then covered my plate of penda.
I might not be able to help him with his problem witch, but I could at least make a friend of mine. No. I didn’t even want that. I just wanted her to let bygones be bygones. Surely, my skills in the kitchen would win her over.
There were other skills I could employ.
No! No. Not even remotely going there.
It’s never safe to live next door to your lovers. If they got too attached, it caused all sorts of problems. Though the thought had crossed my mind—say, first thing this morning after an erotic dream starring a golden-haired witch with taunting green eyes. But no. That was a terrible idea. Terrible. Wasn’t it?
Heaving out a breath, I nodded to myself, ready to put that woman out of my mind.
Just make amends and move on, Devraj.
Picking up the plate, I headed for the door. Deliver the penda, smile, apologize, and be gone. That’s all I needed to do, and all would be fine.
After hanging the last bundle of lavender on the beam overhead, I brushed the excess pollen off my hands and counted.
“Seven lavender. Fourteen chamomile. And seven hyssop.”
That should do it for this month. I’d had to double my normal bundles of chamomile, which was used for protection. Clara said she couldn’t keep them in stock at the shop since the young women had started going missing a few weeks ago. My magic-infused bundles could certainly ward off a magical or psychic attack on someone’s home, but it would do nothing to protect girls from being kidnapped off the street.
Still, if it gave them peace of mind, I encouraged them to use the chamomile. I also encouraged them to buy a good guard dog and stay home at night behind bolted doors.
I grimaced. That reminded me of the scolding Jules had given me when she’d gotten home two nights ago. I’ll confess I really wasn’t thinking when I biked home that late. Everyone knew that women were disappearing from night clubs or bars. It wasn’t exactly safe to be out that late on my own. I wasn’t equipped with the kind of defensive magic my sisters were. My ability at telekinesis was negligible, making me the most vulnerable of my sisters when it came to physical threats.
“Vampires are opportunists,” she’d said with more than a little bite.
I knew that snap judgment stemmed from her not-so-secret strained relationship with a certain overlord vampire. There was history between Jules and Ruben. A history none of her sisters were privy too. Not the whole story anyway. And it was a topic of discussion that was never on the table. So I knew her comment about vampires was more about Ruben and less about Devraj.
Still, the whole bike incident had riddled me with anxiety. Clara had told me to rest and she’d take care of Mystic Maybelle’s and handle any inventory deliveries or issues on her own. When she’d told me we were already out of chamomile, I’d happily busied myself in the greenhouse all day. It was exactly what I’d needed to decompress.
Now that my ankle was fully healed, I walked around the wooden worktable littered with rope and twine clippings to see the other patient. My purple pansies.
“Now, look at you. You’ll be the prettiest girls in the yard.”
Smiling brightly, I lifted the pot I’d put them in, letting them soak up nutrient-rich soil before I transplanted them to the bed in the courtyard. I had the perfect place in mind near Clara’s reading bench where it would get a great balance of sunlight and shade.
Taking a hand trowel with me, I carried the pansies out to the courtyard. Kneeling in my loose-fitting olive pants, I set to work, thankful the sun was out, warming my bare shoulders. Once I transplanted the pansies into their new home, I poured the excess soil from the pot around it and patted everything down. Standing, I wiped my dirty hands on the hem of my tank top, heaving a contented sigh at how perfect the pansies looked. Clara would love them right there, too.
Suddenly, Evie’s boisterous laughter echoed from inside the house.
I headed for the back kitchen door. Ever since Livvy and I had returned from visiting our parents in Switzerland before Christmas, Evie had been more than preoccupied with her new boyfriend. A werewolf! I’d thought she’d gone a little crazy while we were gone, but then I met Mateo and totally understood. He was, honestly, the nicest guy. Not too hard on the eyes either. And he worshipped my sister, so yes, I liked him.
Pulling open the kitchen door, the rumble of a deep, masculine voice caught my attention. Yep. Mateo must’ve come over with Evie. That was nothing new. They were glued at the hip most of the time.
“Then what did you tell her?” asked Evie.
But the voice who replied did not belong to Mateo. “I said, ‘Madame, I don’t care if you were once the lover to Vlad the Impaler or King Henry the Eighth. You’re still going to put your clothes back on and come with me for interrogation.’”
“Wow.” Livvy guffawed, her husky laughter carrying into the kitchen. “I can’t believe that. So what did she do?”
I rounded into the archway leading to the living room to see just what I knew I would. That freaking vampire, who I’d been happy to be rid of after that nightmare two nights ago, was cozied up on our couch, his arms spread wide on the sofa back, dressed in a casual black T-shirt and jeans. Both of which probably cost a couple hundred dollars each.
Anyone who drove exorbitant luxury cars like he did overspent on everything. I knew the type. Even stupid plain T-shirts that you could get at Target for $12. Yeah, so I might’ve looked up how much a Lamborghini Diablo cost. Trust me. You don’t want to know. It’s sinfully expensive. Do you have any idea how many homeless cats and dogs I could help with the cost of his stupid car?
Livvy perched on the edge of the lounge chair and Evie sat on his right, grinning at him with entirely too much joy. My happy mood of ten seconds ago evaporated like a whiff of smoke.
His mouth tipped at a cocky angle as his gaze slid to me standing in the doorway. “She did exactly as I told her. I didn’t even have to use glamour at all.”
I swallowed hard and wiped my dirty hands on my tank top hem again, aggravated that he was back. Why was he back? And why were my sisters so easily duped by his so-called charisma?
“Isadora!” Evie popped off the sofa and met me halfway, wrapping me in a swaying hug. “I feel like I haven’t seen you in a week.”
“That’s because you haven’t.” I squeezed her back. “You’ve been preoccupied.”
She pulled away laughing. “Maybe,” she admitted, a flush of pink crawling up her neck. She wore a green T-shirt with Baby Yoda eating a frog. The caption read: Feed me and tell me I’m pretty. I was fairly sure Mateo did both on a regular basis.
“Where’s your man?” I asked, completely ignoring the one who stood from the sofa behind her.
My pulse was racing for some stupid reason. I didn’t understand why he was back.
“He had a commission to deliver, and I’ve got a shift at the Cauldron tonight.” She glanced at the grandfather clock against the wall. “Oh, crap. I need to hurry.” She pecked me on the cheek and jogged toward the stairwell in the hall. “Nice meeting you, Devraj! Come by the Cauldron when you get the chance.”
“Thank you, Evie. I will.”
Livvy stood with a plate of something in her hand. Cookies? “Look what Devraj brought for us, Isadora.” Then she turned back to him. “I’m sorry. What are they called again?”
“Penda. Also called peda. It’s a milk-based confection. I hope you all like it.”
“They’re delicious,” said Livvy. “You really didn’t have to.”
His dark eyes swiveled back to me. Piercing. “Actually, I thought I did.”
Livvy carried the plate over to me. They were perfectly formed soft discs, like thick cookies, decoratively sprinkled with nuts, the smell of nutmeg making my mouth water. I loved anything made with nutmeg or cinnamon. I suddenly wondered if he’d somehow found out my secret love of the spice.
“He made them himself.” Livvy raised her black brows, stabbing me with her sapphire eyes as if she could prod me into being nice with her dagger stare. “Wasn’t that nice of him, Isadora?”
I glanced at the offending plate of sweets. And yes, they were offensive. Because why was he cooking things for us? He seemed to be trying a little too hard, wasn’t he? A simple sorry would suffice. Or maybe he’d returned my bicycle? I knew he’d taken to have it fixed on his own.
“Are you here to deliver my bike?” I asked in confusion as I remained half in the kitchen doorway.
“Not yet,” he said with a little regret, taking a step closer. “I just wanted to bring over a little peace offering.”
My throat was dry like it always got when I had to deal with strangers. I mean, yeah, I’d met him and I’d given him a piece of my mind. I’d been pissed off the other night. But we’d handled it.
Now he was back in my personal space, this stranger, and it irked me.
“There really was no need for you to come all the way over here from your hotel. I wish you hadn’t bothered.” And I one hundred percent meant it. Maybe ninety-nine.
“Oh, that’s the best part,” Livvy said, lifting the edge of the plastic wrap. Nutmeg and some other sweet spice wafted up to my nose. “Devraj is renting the house next door.”
I was absolutely positive that my stomach plummeted right onto the floor. I actually glanced down to be sure my organs were still contained inside my body.
“What did you say?” I whispered.
“Dev is our new neighbor. Isn’t that great?”
She grinned at me like Cruella Deville. I was sure she was about to toss her head back and laugh maniacally. Livvy and Violet were two of a kind. Evil incarnate. And there was nothing they loved more than torturing their sisters. Livvy knew this guy irritated the hell out of me, and she was gleefully rubbing in this new disaster of giant proportions.
And when had she started calling him Dev?
“Here, try one,” she said, shoving the plate toward me. “They’re delicious.”
Ignoring the plate, I narrowed my gaze on her wicked face. “I’m not hungry.”
Aaaaand, that’s when my stomach decided to growl. It was a complete biological response. I’d been in the greenhouse since breakfast. It had nothing to do with the absolutely amazing delicious-smelling treats right below my nose.
“Your stomach says otherwise,” said the stupid vampire, standing much closer.
I jumped. Then frowned. “Don’t sneak up on me.”
“I need to go finish my planting,” I said as a sad excuse to get the hell out of there.
Pivoting in my bare feet, I wandered back outside, feeling satisfied when the kitchen door slammed shut behind me. I wasn’t even going to admit to myself—yet—that I was definitely going to try the penda. When he was long gone. I glanced over at the house next door where he must now be living.
It had been empty for some time since our older neighbor, Mr. Harvey, moved to Florida. He left the house in the hands of his daughter who was having trouble finding the right renters. She was very picky, wanting only responsible professionals with fixed incomes. For which, I was extremely grateful. This neighborhood attracted both quiet families and loud party people. I didn’t want some obnoxious, loud person living next door, disturbing my peace. But I surely didn’t want that particular vampire living there either. No matter how responsible and quiet he was. Ugh.
I knelt down and pounded the dirt around my pansies, then reached behind it and yanked out a tiny weed.
“I see they survived.”
I startled again, my hand flying to my chest.
“Sorry,” he apologized quickly. “I didn’t mean to frighten you.”
Vampires were known for moving so fast and quiet it seemed as if they appeared out of thin air. Devraj had apparently mastered that skill, and it was so annoying. He took a seat on Clara’s cushioned reading bench, leaning forward to prop his elbows on his knees, clasping his hands casually between them. His hair was twisted in a man-bun today, revealing his face more clearly. His close-cropped beard highlighted the blade-like angles of his jaw and the soft curve of his mouth.
“I’m happy to see your pansies are doing well.”
I was aware that my mouth was hanging open, but after the shock of seeing him there, I was now completely confused by his presence. Why? Why was he sitting there and why was he talking to me? I had no idea what to say to him.
I remember watching Pride and Prejudice with Clara where Matthew Macfadyen played the stoic, painfully shy, and socially awkward Mr. Darcy. Yes, Mr. Darcy truly was all these things on top of being a bit priggish at first. But behind all that, he was loving and loyal to the nth degree, too. We just couldn’t see it behind all of his “stay back, peasant” vibes. There was this scene where Mr. Darcy told Lizzy, “I do not have the talent of conversing easily with people I have never met before.”
That was me. I was Mr. Darcy. Introverted, shy, and nervous in large crowds and around strangers. Except the difference between me and Mr. Darcy was that I had no desire to grow outside my small social circle. Content with everyone on this side of my comfort zone, I definitely had no interest in expanding it to include this vampire.
“You obviously have a gift with flowers,” he said softly, warm gaze sweeping over my face, across my shoulders, and down to my hands.
I blinked heavily one more time then returned to my unnecessary patting of the soil.
Clearing my throat, I muttered, “Thank you.”
Now please leave.
“You’re very welcome.”
I remained silent even though the amused tone in his voice rankled. Then he fell silent, too. But he wasn’t leaving! Like he enjoyed just sitting there on the bench and watching me plant flowers.
What did he want?
Livvy had made it abundantly clear this guy was super famous and his social circle included dozens and dozens of celebrities and European fashion models and all the rich, beautiful people in the ritzy parts of the world I’d never even been to or desired to ever go. Livvy had shown me his Instagram, which had included photos of him yachting with a beautiful, smiling entourage near Monaco. One was of a pretty, black-haired woman draped behind him in a chair, the sun setting behind them, glowing like a halo to highlight their perfection. She appeared to be one of his Bollywood movie costars. Both of them glittering.
And now he was sitting here in my courtyard with me while I gardened, a far cry from Monaco, and I couldn’t figure out what he wanted. I waited him out for at least five more full minutes, yanking at weeds and patting the soil. In that time, I’d glanced up twice to catch him smiling serenely and just observing me. Quietly. Calmly. While I was screaming inside, my nerves fractured the longer he sat there.
What the hell was he doing here?!
I couldn’t take it anymore. I kept my eyes down on the soil and asked, “Is there a reason you’re here?”
“I thought that was fairly clear,” he replied evenly. “I brought you and your sisters a neighborly treat.”
“Not here at my house, but here in my garden.” I sat back and placed the trowel in my lap, squeezing the handle and forcing my polite face to remain in place as I looked up at him. “Do you need something?”
In the sunlight, his eyes shone more amber than the darker shade of brown they seemed the other night. The afternoon sun shot across his intense expression, highlighting the slash of his cheekbones and the beard he apparently manicured like a madman to be so perfect.
Those eyes roamed my face, the small crease pinching his brow telling me he was riddling me out. Or trying to. There was absolutely nothing to riddle. I was an open book. I was just annoyed. No secret there.
“I do need something,” he finally answered, the sun glinting off something silver in his mouth.
“What is it?”
My gaze was solely focused on his mouth now, realizing with a rush of heat that his tongue was pierced.
I blinked. That was definitely not what I was expecting. My mind was a hazy mess from his apology and the erotic discovery of his tongue piercing.
His full mouth tipped up on one side, apparently laughing at me again. “I realized I didn’t actually apologize the other night.”
Gripping the handle of my trowel so I didn’t fidget, I was surprised by his open sincerity. He seemed all arrogant and superior and bossy in my brief instances with him. But if he thought I’d make this easy on him because he’d finally decided to grow some manners, he was a bigger fool than I thought he was.
“No,” I agreed. “You didn’t.”
He smiled wider. “Would you please accept my apology?”
“For what exactly?” I tilted my head as if I had no idea what that might be. My heart pounded far too fast, making my voice shaky. But I’d gotten my ass handed to me more than once the past few days from my sisters over me and my bicycle, so I actually wanted to hear this apology to the fullest.
He clasped his hands tighter, glancing down at them before spearing me with an intense expression fixed with compassion. “For hitting you with my car. You were right.” His voice dropped soft and deep, a combination I didn’t particularly like coming from him. “It was entirely my fault. I’d been driving too many hours without rest, which is no excuse, but I must’ve lost my concentration on the road. So, I apologize for causing you any harm or distress.”
Hmm. Well, that was a pretty damn good apology, I had to admit.
Satisfied, I wiped my right hand on my already dirty pants and held it out to him. “Apology accepted.”
Without hesitation, he reached out and engulfed my hand with his own. I shook once then pulled my hand back, not liking the fact that even his handshake was intense. Like the potency of magic that filled his frame couldn’t help but reach out and zap anyone within touching distance. His aura was even pushy.
The soft clucking of Fred, Violet’s rooster, drew my attention to him as he wandered behind and around me, pretending he hadn’t noticed us. Like I didn’t know exactly what he wanted. I tell you, a cocky rooster was worse than a cat with their snotty attitudes. He circled back to my right, posting with his head bobbing. He wore a rainbow-striped tie—that was a new one. Heaving a small sigh, I decided to put him out of his misery. “Come here, Fred.”
He gave a deep-throated cluck, eyeing Devraj, like he hadn’t been after my attention this whole time. Or maybe he was protecting his hen, aka