Bell, Book, and Sandals by Melissa L. Webb

Was I really destined to be alone? Was I meant to walk this life a spinster in a great set of heels? Is that really what the fates had in store for me? That’s the way it was starting to look. My fiancé had gone and shattered my perfectly manicured world. He dumped me. Like last week’s trends. And before you say those things happen, let me tell you, no, they don’t. Not to me.
Bell, Book, and Sandals
Bell, Book, and Sandals by Melissa L. Webb
Things like that just don’t happen to Maxine Marie Duncan. There are two reasons why that is. Number one: I’m tall, blonde, and have the most amazing green eyes. (At least that’s what all the guys tell me.) I have a killer body. (I’m only 23, so I’m young enough to be shallow. I can always earn extra Karma points later on in life.) And I’m rich. We’re talking “I’ll-never-have-to-worry-about-a-thing” rich. These things alone should be enough to keep me from the pain of rejection. But usually I don’t have to just rely on them. Which brings me to… Number two: I can sense things. I know that sounds silly, but it’s true. I have never been surprised by anything in my life, not once; until this happened. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not one of those people who should be on a street corner proclaiming the end of the world or even working for the Psychic Friends Network. Though, btw, Dionne Warwick is amazing. She is the U.S. Ambassador of health, you know. So she totally knows what’s what. Anyway, I don’t see the future; I just get hunches, which usually turn out to be right. And before you ask, no, that is not why Stephen broke up with me. I’m not a freak or anything. So there I was, planning a wedding, riding a high I never thought I’d come down from. I was going to be Mrs. Stephen Hawthorne. Which is a real honor in itself. He’s going to be the youngest partner at Jennings and McAlister. And I would have been the perfect housewife, too. Throwing parties and socializing with all the other “Elite” wives. Helping to boost Stephen’s career anyway I could. It’s what I was born to do. I never even knew anything was wrong. Why was I so unprepared for this? He texted me, and asked if I could meet him at La Cruz for dinner. Apparently he had something to discuss with me. I was so excited. Usually that meant some kind of adventure was in store for us. (Last time he said that, he proposed.) Plus, La Cruz was our place. We had been going there since high school. So I bought a new dress, got a mani-pedi, and met him at seven o’clock sharp. I was hoping he found us a house. We were going to be married in three months. I didn’t want to start out homeless, or anything. I was waiting in the foyer when he walked in. With her. Some redhead on his arm wearing a miniskirt so short I could almost see all of France. He had the nerve to walk right up and introduce her. Can you believe that? “Oh hi, honey. This is Sunday, and I’m leaving you for her.” Okay, maybe he didn’t say it just like that, but he didn’t have to. I can take a hint. I was out and Sunday was in. What kind of name was that anyway? Did he have a girl for every day of the week? I wouldn’t have been surprised. Not after this. So here I was. The laughing stock of New Haven, Maine. I had been tossed away like yesterday’s garbage and everyone knew it. I needed to get away. I couldn’t stay here, not with the looks and the whispers. It was way too much for me to handle. But I didn’t have anywhere else to go. I couldn’t do anything. All I had ever wanted to be was a rich man’s wife. It’s what I had planned on from the very start. I couldn’t get a job. I couldn’t make something of myself. I just wasn’t that girl. All I had now was my looks. And you couldn’t make a living off that. Or could you? Two I paced the living room of my childhood home as I tried to find the right words. My heels clicked against the hardwood floor, adding to the anxiety I was already feeling. It wasn’t every day you had to shake up your mother’s world; but what choice did I have? I needed to do something, and right now, it seemed like my only option. My mother watched me from her chair, a frown plastered across her face. She knew something big was coming. Something she wasn’t going to like very much. Sometimes I wondered if I didn’t get my gift from her. I took a deep breath and stopped pacing. If I was going to do this, I needed to start now. “I’m leaving, Mom.” She sat there, not saying anything, waiting for me to explain myself. “I’m moving to L.A. I’ve decided to become an actress,” I said with a flourish. My mother’s frown disappeared. I knew she was waiting for the punch line. I folded my arms over my chest, cocking my hip out. I knew it was the pose she hated, but it was my not-backing-down look and I needed it right now. “I’ve made up my mind, Mom. This is what I’m doing.” She sighed when she realized how serious I was. “Maxie, darling,” she said, getting up from the chair. “Is this because of Stephen? I know this is difficult for you, but you still have a lot of options here.” I stood there, glaring. I had finally decided to do something by myself and she writes it off as a side effect of being dumped. That was just great. “You’re young,” she continued, “you’re beautiful. You’re rich. There are a lot of guys out there who would love to take Stephen’s place.” She stopped for a moment, the gears in her head turning so fast, I could almost hear them. “How about that Jefferson boy? He always had a thing for you.” Yuck. Is that what my life had come to? “I am not dating Henry, Mother. He’s a complete idiot. It’s a wonder he can even tie his own shoes.” “He’s a very sweet boy, Maxine. He has a guaranteed career with his grandfather’s company, and besides, he’s got people who can tie his shoes for him.” “This is all a big joke to you, isn’t it?” I demanded. “Well, what am I supposed to think? You tell me that you’re going to Hollywood to be an actress.” She looked at me with her own hands on her hips. Obviously, I knew where I got it. “It has to be some kind of a joke. You haven’t even acted once in your whole life. Now,” she said, dragging me over to the high-backed davenport. “Let’s both take a deep breath and calmly discuss what this is really about.” I knew it was pointless to fight her on this. She needed to understand what my motives were. It’s not as if I had ever remotely considered any of this before. My mother always had my best intentions at heart, even if she had a strange way of showing it. I owed it to her to explain. I sat down next to her, taking her hand in mine. “I’m sorry you think this is just about Stephen. Some of it is. I thought I was going to spend the rest of my life with him. I thought everything was planned out.” “This happens to the best of us, dear. We just have to pick up the pieces and move on,” she said, giving my hand a squeeze. I nodded. “That’s what I’m trying to do. All my life I tried to be what others wanted. It’s what I thought I wanted as well. But now that I’m free to stop and look at my life, I realize I want more. I don’t want to be just a rich man’s wife. I want people to know me for me.” “That is the best thing I have ever heard you say,” my mother said, dabbing at her eyes. “But can’t you find your place here?” “Here I have the painful reminder of what I was. I need a change. To go some place I can reinvent myself. I can’t do that here.” Mom thought that over for a second. I knew she was beginning to understand. “Why an actress? Can’t we find you something a little more stable?” I sighed. I knew this part was going to be a hard sell. “Face it, Mom. We both know there’s not a whole lot of options for someone like me. Can you really see me flipping burgers?” She shook her head. “You won’t have to do that. Money will never be an issue for you.” “That’s not the point. I want to do something. I want to be someone. I want to say I can stand on my own two feet if I had to. My looks are my best option. I can feel it. This is the path I’m meant to take.” She studied me for a moment. “You really feel it? Your instincts tell you this is the right choice?” I nodded, hope growing inside of me. Maybe my mother wouldn’t disown me after all. “You know I’ve always had faith in your instincts. Okay. It looks like you’re going to have to start making arrangements. And don’t worry. Daddy and I will support you through all of this.” I squealed as I threw my arms around her. Did I have the best mother in the world or what? “Thank you,” I said as I let her go. “I’ve got to make some calls.” I couldn’t believe this. It was really going to happen. I hurried to my room. There was so much to do. I was going to Hollywood! Three Loading the last of my luggage on the cart, I headed for the airport exit. Excitement bubbled through me as I made my way around the lingering people. I was here. I was in the Land of Hopes and Dreams. I was going to take this place by storm. “Do you need some help with that?” someone asked from behind me. I turned to see a bronze god in an attendant’s uniform. He was pointing at the cart I was pushing. He must have noticed heels were not the best things to wear when pushing a loaded down luggage cart. Oh, well. You live and you learn. “Sure,” I said, flashing him my million dollar smile. He immediately took over my cart, pushing it straight out the door in no time. Wow, not more than five minutes here, and I was already making new friends. “Where am I taking these things?” he asked me as we wheeled past the flow of people, coming from or going to some far off exotic place. “Oh,” I said, looking around. “I’m supposed to have a car waiting for me somewhere around here.” “I’ll find it,” he said, eagerly disappearing into the sea of people. I stood there, waiting, watching the people flit around me. How exciting was this? It was the start of my new life. Here I was, Maxie Duncan, ready to conquer Hollywood. I was so proud of myself. I’d gone from being the soon-to-be housewife to Californian transplant in no time flat. This was going to be awesome. The airport guy came back, ushering me over to a big black limo. The driver loaded my bags and I started to get in. “Wait,” the bronze god called, stopping me. “I know you don’t know me, but…” He handed me a piece of paper. “Here’s my number. I’d love to show you around. Give you all the inside scoop on living in So. Cal.” I grinned as he waved, heading back into the building. Stepping into the back of the limo, I closed my eyes, letting everything soak in. I was Hollywood bound and had already been asked on a date. My instincts were in overdrive and they were all telling me the same thing. This was going to be an adventure of a lifetime. Four I checked myself in the mirror one last time before coming out of the suite’s bathroom. I was as ready as I would ever be. This was it. Today was my first audition. I could feel fate pulling at me, urging me forward. I couldn’t let destiny sit and wait, so I quickly grabbed my purse; heading down to the lobby of my hotel. My driver was waiting for me as usual. I read him the address, checking the text from Mom again. Her hairdresser had mentioned that the daughter of one of her clients had a big audition today out here in LaLa Land. My mother had insisted I check it out. I did as I was told, and it was a good thing, too. I would have regretted missing this one. It was an open cattle call for “the girl next door” in the new Zand Taylor Romantic Comedy. I was created for that part. Maxie Duncan, Girl Next Door. That described me perfectly. I sat back and relaxed. This was going to be the greatest (and easiest) day of my life. My limo pulled up into the parking lot of the hotel hosting the auditions. The Hotel DenMark. I had never heard of it before, but as I eyed the place, I realized I should have. It was even bigger than the place I was staying. And trust me, that was saying a lot. Eat your heart out, Paris. I got out of the car, staring up at the darkly romantic structure in front of me and made a mental note. If it was as beautiful on the inside as it was outside, I was switching hotels. I walked in with my head held high, my six-inch heels announcing my arrival. The desk clerk looked up at me and smiled. “Let me guess, you’re here for the cattle call, right?” I nodded. She had recognized me for what I was. A future star. “It’s in the ballroom. Just turn left and go to the end of the hall,” she said, pointing to a corridor off to the side. “Thank you,” I said, flashing my patented smile and headed where her finger indicated. As I walked along the plush carpet, taking in the gilded walls, I couldn’t help wondering how old this place was. You couldn’t get this kind of glamor these days. Not even with all the money in the world. Trust me, I know. Hurrying along the hall, I came to a stop in front of huge golden doors. Cherubs stared down at me from each one, their wings unfurled in a state of flight. They seemed to look at me with such intensity, I ducked my head to avoid their gaze. It was almost as if they were judging me. I hoped I passed their test because my future lay behind those ever-staring sentinels. Taking a deep breath, I let it out slowly. This was what I came here to do. And nothing was going to stop me. With my head held high and a huge smile plastered across my face, I pushed the doors open, making an entrance no one would ever forget. Unfortunately, no one noticed. The thousands of girls seated around the large ballroom were too busy dealing with their own impending stardom. I couldn’t believe how many there were, and worse yet, they all looked like me. Tall, blonde, and beautiful. How was I ever going to stand out in this crowd? Moving farther into the room, I sized up my competition. This was going to be tough. I would just have to dazzle them with who I was. I would have to be Maxie to the nth power. That’s all there was to it. “Excuse me, miss?” a voice called from behind me. “You need to sign in before you can take a seat.” I turned around. Two women sat behind a table, staring at me. “You need to check in, dear,” the older one told me, tapping a clipboard. “And we’ll assign you a number,” the other chimed in. “Oh, of course,” I said quickly, coming over to the table. I hoped they couldn’t tell I’d never done this before. The motherly one looked me up and down as I signed the paper, then leaned forward, as if to share a secret. “You’re new to this, aren’t you?” So much for pretending. I nodded, embarrassment creeping into my cheeks. Was it that obvious? “Yes. I only got to California four days ago.” She smiled brightly, looking like she had just won the lottery. “I knew it. I can always spot fresh meat a mile away.” “Fresh meat?” I repeated, swallowing the lump invading my throat. She sure wasn’t making this sound like a pleasant experience. “Yes. Fresh meat,” she said, standing up and pinning a number to me. “Good luck.” Handing me a script, she sent me out into the sea of chairs. I looked around, trying to find an empty chair. I found one in a back corner, next to a younger version of me. “Hi,” I said, sitting down. “It sure is crowded in here.” She looked at me for a moment, then back down at her script. “I’m Maxie,” I offered, trying once again to start a conversation. She looked up at me with a scowl on her lips. “Look, Maxie, I’m not here to make friends. I have no desire to be nice to you. All you are is competition. And I eat fresh meat like you for breakfast. Now…if you'll excuse me,” she said, standing up. “I have lines to learn.” I watched her walk away, sick to my stomach. What had I done to be treated like that? And what was so wrong with being fresh meat anyway? I preferred my steaks to be as fresh as they possibly could be. Most people did. I stared down at the script in my lap through blurry eyes. I had to get this part. I just had to. I had to show everyone I was someone. That I mattered in this world. Picking up the pages, I leafed through them, scanning the highlighted words. Wow. There sure were a lot of them. I read them repeatedly until my eyes couldn’t focus from the strain. I looked up, glancing around me. The room was almost empty. I glanced at the clock on my cell phone. I had been reading my lines for over four hours. Where had all that time gone? “Maxie Duncan?” someone called from a doorway. I stood up quickly. “That’s me,” I called. “You’re up. Follow me,” the guy said, heading back where he came from. I hurried after him. I hoped the last four hours proved well spent because it was now or never. I was racing for my destiny. The guy led me down a hallway into some kind of conference room. Two men and a woman sat behind a table. I stood there, smiling as brightly as I could, hoping they couldn’t hear how loudly my heart was pounding. “So, Maxine,” one of the men spoke. “Please,” I said, interrupting him, “call me Maxie.” He rolled his eyes and started again. “So, Maxie, where is your headshot?” I stared at him, a blank look on my face. What the heck was that? “Headshot?” “Yes, Ms. Duncan. Where is your photo and resume?” the woman asked harshly. “Oh,” I said, feeling very, very awkward standing there. “I don’t have one. This is my first time doing anything like this.” “Great,” the man said, shutting the notebook in front of him. He turned and looked at the guy who brought me in. “Please, show the next one in, Gary. We’re done here.” I froze. That was it? It was over just like that? “Please,” I begged, “I can do this.” The other guy looked at him and shrugged. “She’s here. We might as well see how she does.” He looked me up and down. “She certainly has the look.” I felt hope beginning to grow in me. Maybe my destiny hadn’t been squashed yet. “Fine,” the rude man said. “You’ve got two minutes, kid. You better dazzle us.” I smiled. “Thank you.” I glanced down at the script in my hand. “Where do you want me to start?” The woman looked down at the notebook in front of her. “Why don’t you read the scene where Mitch and Audrey break up. Jonathan here will start it for you,” she said, motioning to the nice guy next to her. “I’m sorry, Audrey. But we’re just not the same as we use to be,” Jonathan read to me. “Our lives have taken two different paths. It’s over.” The lines he read brought images of Stephen to my mind. The words he spoken to me were still there, raw as the day he said them. Tears filled my eyes. I took a deep breath. It was time to do this. “No, Mitch. Don’t say that,” I spoke, letting emotion fill my words. “You still love me. I see it in your eyes. And as long as we have love…” I stopped, my mind going blank. This couldn’t be happening. Not now. What was the next line? I started again, repeating the words I just said, trying desperately to recall what I had studied for hours. I hit a wall as I came to the same spot. It was no use. I couldn’t remember what I was supposed to say next. “Okay, time’s up,” the unknown man spoke, smugness in his voice. “Unfortunately, you failed to dazzle me.” No. This couldn’t happen to me. This was my destiny. “I’m sorry. I’m just a little nervous. I could try again,” I said, flipping through my script. “I can do this.” The man shook his head and turned towards the door. “Next.” My heart sank at that word. I had just erased my future. Five I sat with my back against the wall, letting the tears come. My life had shattered right in front of my eyes, leaving it as empty as the hall around me. How could I have done that? I’d let myself down with one flubbed line. Maybe Stephen was right in leaving me when he did. I would never amount to anything. I bit down as a moan of despair tried to pass through my lips. I may have found a deserted hall in the hotel to cry in, but wailing like a banshee was probably a good way to be tossed out on my ear. Regardless of whom I was. And I couldn’t be banned from a place as beautiful as this on top of everything else. No way. Taking a deep breath, I tried to calm the raging storm rising inside my soul. As I did, the lights around me popped, going out in small flurries of sparks. Great. Now I was upset, frustrated, and all alone in the dark. How much did one girl have to suffer? I sniffled, pulling my knees tighter to my chest. Maybe I could stay here in the dark for the rest of my life. It would be better than facing everyone back home. A beam of light disrupted my plan of hibernation, sweeping across the walls, landing on my gold sandals. A dark shape came around the corner of the hall, stopping. “Hello,” a feminine voice called out. I pulled my knees tighter against me, trying to make myself as small as possible. I wanted to be invisible. I couldn’t let someone actually witness the unraveling of Maxie Duncan, not when my reputation already hung precariously in the balance. Closing my eyes, I held my breath, and thought invisible thoughts. Maybe that would be enough to get her to go away. It’s happened before. “It’s no use. I can see you,” the voice said. I opened my eyes and flinched. The beam of the flashlight assaulted my pupils, causing the world to turn into a hazy yellow blur. “Do you have to shine that right at me?” “Oh. Sorry,” came the quick reply and the light was taken out of my eyes. I blinked several times, trying to get the phantom stain to leave. I felt pressure as the evil one with the light sat down next to me, her shoulder flush with mine. “So, I take it you didn’t make the callback list.” I looked over, still squinting in pain. Who was this person and why did they feel the need to rub it in. As my vision cleared, a smiling face took shape next to me. I frowned as I looked at her, taking in her long brown curls and her wide blue eyes. “You’re the desk clerk, aren’t you?” She shook her head, leaning back against the wall. “No. I’m the manager of the Hotel DenMark. I was only watching the front desk for the clerk.” She smiled slightly. “I’m kinda nice like that.” I sat up straighter. Great. Now I was going to be kicked out for crying in the halls. What a supremely superb day this was turning out to be. “I’m sorry,” I said softly, rising slightly from the floor. “I’ll leave now.” She pulled me back down. “I wasn’t coming up here to kick you out. I was just coming to check on the lights,” she said, swinging the beam of light across the ceiling. “But since you are here…I figured you could use someone to talk to.” I looked at her in surprise. I have never known a manager of any hotel to be as nice. And trust me, I’ve stayed in quite a few hotels in my time. I started to open my mouth, then stopped. I didn’t know what to say. How could you just pour your life story out to a stranger? She watched me for a moment and then stood up, shining the light at her feet. I rose, too, straightening out the hem of my dress while waiting for her next move. Maybe she had decided to kick me out after all. Instead, she held out a hand to me. “Hi, I’m Evangeline Evans. Most people call me Van.” I took her hand, giving it a small shake. “I’m Maxine Duncan. Most people call me Maxie.” “Well, it’s a pleasure to meet you, Maxie,” she said sincerely. “What do you say we get out of this dark hallway and go get a cup of coffee?” I nodded. It definitely sounded better than sitting here. Six “And that’s my whole pathetic life story,” I blubbered into my coffee. I had just filled her in on every sad detail. Talk about making a first impression. Van watched me with sympathetic eyes. How she could find empathy for a hot mess like me I will never know. “So that’s the only reason you came to California?” she asked me finally. “Being an actress was the only thing I could think of to do. I really thought I had a shot,” I told her, the words sounding hollow as soon as they left my lips. “I guess Stephen was right to dump me. I’ll never be anything more than a pretty face with a trust fund.” “Hey, don’t say that,” she said, placing a hand on my arm. “I’m sure there’s a whole life out there right now waiting for you, one you haven’t even thought of yet.” I dragged my gaze from the coffee to her face. She couldn’t really believe that, could she? I was sitting right there in front of her, and I knew she wasn’t blind. She had to see what a lost cause I was. Yet, I could feel it as I searched her face. The feeling growing stronger every second I looked at her. She did believe it. She thought without a doubt my true life was just beginning. I took a deep breath. I didn’t know which one of us was crazier. Her for thinking that, or me for knowing she was. Maybe my instincts were only agreeing with her. Maybe it was all meant to happen like this. “Okay,” I told her, picking up my paper coffee cup. “If you’re so sure of this, then what do I do now, oh enlightened one?” She laughed; the sound like wind chimes in the spring. “That should be obvious. You should stay here. Make a new life for yourself.” She paused, looking thoughtful for a moment. “In fact, I’ve been looking for a new roommate. I think you’d be perfect,” she told me matter-of-factly. I looked at her in shock. Had she just asked me to move in with her? “You want me to live with you? How do you know I’m not some psycho?” Van laughed again. “You may be different, Maxie Duncan, but you’re certainly no psycho. I happen to be very good at reading people and…I always trust what I see.” I smiled. I happened to trust my instincts, too, and right now, those funny feelings were telling me I had just found my new best friend. “Okay. Count me in.” She stood up, beaming like a schoolgirl who had just been asked to the prom. “Great. You’re going to love our apartment,” she said, pulling me through the door. My future looked brighter already. I stood outside the old brick building and gasped in awe. “Love it” was an understatement. The apartment building looked right out of the pages of a Dickens’ novel. It held grandeur in every pore as only classic British architecture could. I expected a street urchin to run by any moment, asking if I could spare a ha’penny or two. “Welcome to Enchantment Cove. The first stop to the rest of your life,” Van said as she closed her car door, staring up at the building with as much awe as I. “It is very enchanting,” I said, thinking even that word couldn’t come close to what it really was. She shrugged and headed past me, motioning me to follow. “There is something very special about this place. I love it here,” she told me as she used the keypad to let us in. “I can’t imagine living anywhere else.” We crossed through the lobby. It looked exactly like a 20’s hotel inside. Plush red velvet lined everything and the matching red carpet sunk luxuriously under my feet. I wanted to linger here, plop myself down on one of the couches and never leave, but Van kept moving. I followed her down a long hallway filled with apartment doors. There were more apartments in this building than I thought would be. The doors were practically on top of each other. They must have been tiny on the inside. I suddenly had second thoughts about this. I know I was making a new start and all, but I don’t think I could survive in a bedroom the size of a closet. “We’re on the top floor. The elevator’s back here,” she said, pointing down the hall. A door opened loudly on my left. The creak of the hinges was loud enough to make a deaf man go crazy. “Hey, Van,” a masculine voice said. I turned to look. Leaning against the doorframe was one heck of a cutie. Shaggy dark brown hair, dark smoldering eyes. Possibly Native American. If he was, he defiantly made me glad Columbus had discovered this continent. Unfortunately, he only seemed to have eyes for the brunette beside to me. “Hey, Danny,” Van cooed. He grinned at her, then turned, sizing me up. “Is this her?” She glanced over at me. “Yes, this is my new roommate,” she said quickly. I arched an eyebrow at her. New roommate? I know I agreed to see the place, but…really, I hadn’t signed on for anything yet. Why did she seem so sure? He stepped forward, offering his hand with a smile. “Hi, I’m Daniel Blackhawk,” he said as he shook my hand. Blackhawk? Defiantly Native American. I returned the smile. “Hi, I’m Maxie. Maxie Duncan.” “Well, Maxie, Maxie Duncan. It was a pleasure to meet you,” he said before stepping back to his apartment door. He turned and looked at Van, a twinkle in his eyes. “You’re right,” he said, slipping back into his apartment. I turned around and looked at my new friend, confused by the conversation they just had. “What was that?” I asked as we headed down the hall. She threw me a hurried glance over her shoulder. “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” she said as we reached the elevator. It was one of those old cage types, one where you could see everything going on around you as you rode in it. She pulled the first screen door and reached for the second. I stopped her, turning her focus to me. “Why did he act like he knew you were bringing me here?” Van shrugged. “I told him I was looking for a new roommate. He probably figured your one of the candidates.” “Oh,” I said as she opened the second gate and entered the elevator. I followed her in, pondering what she had said. It made sense, so why was something bothering me about it? I felt like I was outside of an inside joke. Either that or I was having a bad blonde moment. Knowing me, it was probably the latter. I shrugged it off as best as I could. It was time to see what my future looked like. Van shut the gates, pushing the button for the seventh floor. I leaned back, watching the floor drop away from us as we ascended in the rickety, old cage. I watched as floors crept by, hallways revealing more tiny apartments. Once again, I was beginning to question my destiny. It couldn’t really want me to live in a closet, could it? As the fifth floor came into view, a small gasp escaped my lips. A black figure, no more corporal than a puff of smoke, stared out from the back of the hall at me. Its ruby red eyes glowed with intensity. I blinked, trying to figure out what kind of trick my eyes were playing on me. In that instant, the creature was gone. Staring as the cage climbed away, I tried to bring back the image. Had something really been there, or was I only seeing things? I glanced over at Van, who was staring at me with the same intensity the shape had. “Did you see something?” she asked, a slight arch to her eyebrow told me curiosity burned inside of her. Great. Now I was sure she was having second thoughts about sharing her apartment. I mean, who wanted a loon for a roommate? I shook my head, trying to smooth over any doubts she might have been having. “It was only a trick of the light. It startled me, that’s all.” I smiled reassuringly. “You know how old buildings are.” She nodded but didn’t take her eyes off me. “I know how this old building is. You’d be surprised what you might see in these halls.” I frowned at her. “Is this place haunted?” “It depends on your definition of haunted,” she said with a shrug. “But…this place definitely has spirit. Don’t you, old girl.” She smiled, patting the metal cage gently. Now I was the one worrying my new roommate was a loon. Who talks to elevators? She smiled again as she turned her eyes towards me. She no doubt felt the hesitation creeping through my body. “Don’t worry. Enchantment Cove is a safe place. For all of us,” she said as the elevator stopped. Pulling open the gates, she stepped out into the hall. “Welcome to the seventh floor.” I stepped out, looking around. More hallways, with more tiny apartments. Wonderful. Van led me to the end of one of the hallways, slipping a key into the doorknob of the last apartment. “Here we are. Home, sweet home,” she said, pushing the door open and stepping through. I followed behind her and did a double take. I couldn’t believe it. I had been expecting a hole-in-the-wall. Instead, I found a palace in its place. Okay, maybe not a palace, but I’ve seen five-star hotel suites smaller than this. I quickly inspected the apartment, saving the best for last. I pushed opened the empty bedroom door and looked around. It was huge, complete with its own master bathroom and walk-in closet. It was so much better than the suite I was currently staying in. I turned around and found Van staring at me, knowingly. “Well, what do you think?” “It’s amazing,” I said, a ridiculous grin plastered on my face. “How can the apartment be this big? There’s no way it should fit up here.” She giggled, amused by my shock. “All the apartments are this size. It’s just part of the charms of Enchantment Cove,” she said, stepping into the room. “So, have I sold you yet?” “Yes,” I practically squealed. “I’ll take it.” She smiled at my excitement. “I thought you might say that.” I couldn’t believe it. Finally, something was going right in my life. Who’d have thought destiny actually knew what it was doing? Seven I stood there, watching the delivery men bring in my new bedroom set. I had found the most beautiful antique carved cherry wood sleigh bed and all the pieces to match. It was even better than the bedroom set I had at home. Things were going so well now that I was on my fated path. I don’t know why I had avoided destiny for so long. It and I were about to become best friends forever. “You’re in a good mood,” Van said, watching me watch the men. “Yeah, well, shopping always does that for me. There’s nothing quite like retail therapy. Speaking of which, I got you a present, too,” I said, smiling like the Cheshire cat. “You didn’t need to do that,” she told me. “I don’t need anything.” Her eyes held a curiosity that belied her words. “I know you said the TV acts up now and then, so…” I stopped as two more movers came in, carrying a state-of-the-art 70” HD flat screen TV. “I got that for you.” “What?” she squealed in delight. “No way…I…” She turned back to me. “I can’t take that. It’s too much,” she said, her face falling a little. “Hey,” I said, placing a hand on her shoulder. “It’s the least I could do. You’ve already done so much for me. Plus…I can’t say it’s entirely a selfless gesture. I’ll be watching it, too.” A smile tugged at the corners of her mouth, threatening to come out and play. “But it costs so much.” “Don’t worry about it. Money is something I never have to think about.” “It must be nice,” Van said, eyeing the TV. “Yeah, but it’s true what they say. It can’t buy you happiness, and that’s all I want.” Van threw her arms around me in a hug. “Don’t worry, Max. I know you’ll be happy here,” she whispered before letting me go. “And thank you,” she added before flitting off to instruct the movers on where to place the TV. I smiled. I knew she was right. I could feel it in my bones. I was going to be happier here than I had ever been before. Ever. And my mom thought I was crazy when I said I needed to do this. Maybe I had been. But safe and sane didn’t amount to much at the end of the day if you were unhappy. And I was. More than I had ever known. “Knock, knock,” someone called from the doorway. I turned around and smiled. My first guest. “Well, hello, Mr. Blackhawk.” “Call me Danny,” he said, coming into the entrance foyer. I nodded and glanced over his shoulder, locking eyes with a shorter guy standing in the doorway. The ground seemed to sway as I held his gaze. I reached out, steadying myself against a stand as energy coursed through my body. It hummed through my veins, making me feel more alive than I ever had before. I couldn’t tell you what was happening. This was something totally foreign to me. I broke eye contact with him, shutting mine for a second, and just like that, the humming was gone. I felt empty, hollow inside at the absence of it. Immediately my body begged for more. I was nothing without that energy coursing through me. I took a deep breath, trying to calm myself. What was wrong with me? “Are you okay?” Danny asked as he steadied me. “Do you need to sit?” I shook my head. I was slowly beginning to gain control again. “I’m fine,” I said breathlessly. “I haven’t eaten since breakfast. That’s probably all it is.” I straightened up and smiled at him. “Thank you. I’m okay now.” “Good,” he said and turned to the guy in the doorway. “This is my old roommate, Jensen Harris.” He smiled mischievously at me. “He had to come up and see the new girl for himself.” “Hey,” he said, coming all the way in. “We don’t get new people around here very often. It’s always a big deal when it happens.” “Oh,” I said, stirring everyone with my dazzling intellect. Not. Give me a break. I was still trying to figure out what just happened to me. I shook myself mentally, forcing my manners back to the surface. Make small talk, Maxie. You were always so good at small talk. “Old roommate?” I asked, avoiding eye contact with him. “Yeah,” he said with a nod. “We use to share a place, but now I have my own apartment on the fifth floor.” Fifth floor? The thing with the red eyes was on that floor. Was it a coincidence? I didn’t know what to think anymore. “Yeah,” Danny said, pulling me from my thoughts. “It was a nightmare to live with this guy.” Jensen chuckled. “Funny. I seem to recall it was my idea to move out.” He turned and looked at me. “Don’t let him fool you; I’m nothing but a delight to have around.” “Yeah, right,” he responded good-naturedly. “Is Van here?” “She’s in the living room, hovering around the movers. Danny laughed. “That sounds like my Evangeline. Now, if you two will excuse me, I’ll go rescue those poor guys. Oh, honey,” he called, heading through the sitting room into the living room. I watched him in shock. Van hadn’t told me. “He’s Van’s boyfriend?” “Yep,” Jensen said and sat down in one of the chairs seated around. “They’ve been together forever. High school sweethearts.” “Oh,” I said, sitting in a chair next to him. Yep, still very intelligent. I felt his eyes drift over me. Heat rose in my cheeks, no doubt turning scarlet. What was my problem? I was Maxie Duncan. I didn’t react to guys like this. I raised my eyes and decided turn about was fair play. If he could check me out, I could do the same. I took in his average build, his slightly tousled brown hair, his sparkling green eyes magnified behind a pair of dark framed glasses. Overall, he was the typical guy next door. Not usually what I went for. I preferred them tall, dark, and mysterious. So why had I reacted that way to him? “So, Danny says you want to be an actress,” he spoke, breaking the comfortable silence we had settled into. I shrugged. “I don’t know. I thought that’s what I wanted, but now, I’m not so sure. What do you do?” I asked, steering the topic away from my failed acting career. “I run a bookstore. ‘Curiouser and Curiouser.’ It’s in Long Beach, near the boardwalk.” “Really?” I asked him, thrilled. I may look like a dumb blonde, but one thing I love to do is read. “I love books.” He smiled like he had just won the lottery. “You should check it out sometime. It’s not like those cold chain stores. It has class and charm, with a bit of mystery. All the best ingredients for a book store.” “I most definitely will,” I told him, meaning it. I was growing more and more intrigued with this guy. Maybe there was a reason I hadn’t found Mr. Right yet. Maybe I hadn’t been searching in the right type of guy. I had a feeling that was about to change. “So, how did you and Danny meet?” I asked. “Danny is a high school teacher. He came in my bookstore looking for reading material for his class. We hit it off. I was looking for a new apartment and the rest was history,” he told me with a shrug. “What is it with people taking roommates in off the street?” I asked, a little confused by the trust in these people. Jensen laughed. “People come into your life for a reason. I think deep down a person knows who to keep in their life and who to discard.” “Hey, my ears are burning,” Danny said, entering the room with Van at his side. “Someone must be talking about me.” Van slapped him playfully on the arm. “Not everything is about you, Danny.” He looked at her. “Well it should be.” “Jensen was telling me about how you met,” I told him. “See,” he told Van. “I told you. So, Maxie knows I’m an awesome History teacher who thinks outside the box, does she?” he asked, the words oozing with fake modesty. Jensen chuckled in his direction. “That she does.” “Good,” he said, giving me a smile. “I’d hate to have my talents go unrecognized.” I had to smile at the banter around me. I never had friends like this before…and I realized how much of a shame that was. “Don’t let these two scare you away, Max,” Van said, frowning at the guys playfully. “I know they’re a handful, but they mean well.” “I don’t think you have to worry about that,” I told her. “Good. Because they’ll be around here a lot.” “Oh, yeah. Especially now that you have that flat screen,” Danny said, turning to Jensen. “Seriously, you should see it. It’s huge.” “That’s okay. I think there are more important things to see here,” he said, smiling at me. I dropped my eyes, feeling the heat once again creep into my cheeks. Had he really just said that? Had he felt the same thing as I had when we first laid eyes on each other? Had fate lead me to the one? Whoa, stop right there. This was not happening. What was wrong with me? He was so not my type. Was I really so eager to find a rebound, that my heart would flutter at any guy who smiled at me? I stood up. I wasn’t ready to get involved again. Especially not with Mr.-Guy-Next-Door. I could tell he was a great guy. He just wasn’t the guy. Even if every instinct in my body was screaming for me to give him a chance. “It’ll be great to get to know you guys,” I said casually. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to check on the progress of my room.” I turned, fleeing deeper into the safety of the apartment like the chicken I was. Because deep down, I was terrified. My instincts were howling like a group of banshees. And my instincts were what I based my new life on. This time one of us was very wrong. I was afraid it might be me. Eight It was Monday morning and I was in the kitchen, drinking my third cup of coffee. I had been there for a week and I was about to do something I never thought I would. I was about to start a job. A minimum wage job at a fast food chain, no less. Boy, if only the people back home could see me. No, forget that. I didn’t want anyone to see me. Especially not in that horrible polyester orange uniform. “You know you don’t have to do this,” Van said, watching me with sympathetic eyes. I mostly thought she was trying not to laugh at what I was wearing. “Yes, I do,” I replied quietly, taking another sip of my coffee. “No, you don’t. It’s not like you need the money.” I sat my coffee down and looked at her. “It’s not about the money. It’s about finding where I belong in this world. I don’t want to be someone who lives on their parent’s money and never does anything with their life.” “What about acting classes?” she asked me. “You could take classes and do something you really want to do.” I shrugged. “I might, but I’m not even sure if I want to act. It was just something I thought I could do.” I picked up my coffee again, drowning my sorrows in another gulp. “And I wrong about that.” Van was silent for a moment. “You don’t have to work fast food. I need a new desk clerk at the hotel. I think you’d be great there.” I shook my head. “No. You already gave me a place to live. I’m going to get my own job.” I glanced at the time, setting down my cup. It was almost time for my nightmare to begin. “Thank you, though. It was a nice thought.” She shrugged as she grabbed her purse. “It was more than a thought. You should come work at the hotel. I think you’d really like it there.” “We’ll see,” I said, grabbing my own purse. Prada so doesn’t match polyester. “You never know, maybe I won’t be destined for a life of fast food.” She couldn’t help but grin at that. “Come on, I’ll drop you off on my way to work.” An hour later, I stood behind the counter at Cheesy Dog, lamenting my manicure. I had already chipped three nails and broke the one on my pinky. Van was right. I so wasn’t cut out for fast food. Chris, my trainer, babbled on and on about the steps of properly frying a hot dog, but what did I care? It was all Greek to me. “Okay, Maxie,” my trainer said, trying to get my attention. “It’s time for you to use the deep fryer.” “Okay,” I said, with a nod, trying to get the state of my nails out of my head. “I’ll start you easy. Go get some curly fries out of the back and put them in. The temperature is ready and the timer will automatically start once you put the food in.” I hurried in the back and grabbed a bag of fries out of the freezer, breaking another nail in the process. Perfect. Absolutely perfect. I hurried back out, ripping open the bag and pouring the contents into the fryer. “No,” Chris yelled. “You’re supposed to put them in the basket first.” The hot oil splashed out as the fries hit it, heading right for us. I put my hands up, blocking my face. Forget my manicure, it looked like my hands were about to become one tragic mess. Chris screamed in pain as I waited, expecting my screams to join his as white-hot pain engulfed my hands. But the pain never came. I moved my hands and looked down at myself. Not a drop of oil had hit me. It puddled at my feet, a steaming mess of goo. Chris wasn’t so lucky. His wails, no doubt, could be heard for miles around. He cradled his hands to him, the skin covered in angry blisters. He glared at me as he danced through the pain. Well, I never said that putting me with a deep fryer was a good idea. Needless to say, neither was this job. Tuesday evening had me behind a bar, manicure intact. I had on the cutest black and white uniform, serving drinks as a cocktail waitress. So far, I had only spilled drinks on two customers. All in all, not that bad of a start for me. I grabbed three more drink orders and headed onto the floor. I was determined not to mess this job up. I glided across the floor, gracefully carrying the tray this time. Yay me! I was finally getting the hang of it. “Hey, baby. Have a little something for me?” a voice asked, his silky tone purred with suggestion. I ignored him and kept walking. If there was one thing I was use to, it was being hit on. “Hey, I’m talking to you,” he said loudly. I looked over at him, smiling as brightly as I could. “I’ll be right back, sir.” “You better,” he said as I passed him. He reached out and swatted me hard across the butt. Now I may look like a piece of eye candy, but just because I do, doesn’t mean my body is free property. I twirled around so fast; the shock in his eyes barely had time to disappear as I moved closer to him. “What was that?” I asked, practically growling. He collected himself, fluffing up his feathers once more. “It was a preview, babe. I wanted you to have a taste of what’s to come.” “I don’t think so,” I hissed at him. “Oh, I do think so.” He threw some money on my tray. “As long as I’m paying, you’re going to keep supplying those drinks, and…you’re going to keep them wiggling my way,” he said with a grin as his eyes roamed over my body. “After all, I’m not only paying for the booze.” I could feel my chest tighten as anger took over my body. How dare he treat me like this. I was only doing a job; I wasn’t here to be treated like a whore. “Oh, baby, don’t get mad. Just get me another drink,” he cooed through his smarmy smile. “And be more appreciative when you get back.” I couldn’t believe the words coming out of his mouth. Did women really let this guy talk to them like that? I started to see red as the anger turned into pure rage. Who did this guy think he was? One of the drinks on my tray started to shake. It vibrated with violent intensity, the ice cubes clanking harshly against each other. The guy’s eyes moved from my body to the tray, curiosity in them. “What’s going on there?” No sooner were the words passed his lips, the drink shot up off the tray and splashed him in the face. “What the…,” he hissed as he tried to wipe the booze out of his eyes. I stared at him in amazement. That was exactly what I had wanted to do to him, but I hadn’t moved a finger. What had caused that? “You did that to me,” the man fumed, rising from his chair, what was left of the unmelted ice raining down at his feet. “How did you do that?” I took a step back as he moved closer. How could he possibly think I had done that? He saw the same thing I had. I never even moved. “No,” I said, backing up again. “That wasn’t me.” “You little bitch,” he spoke softly, moving forward. “I’ll teach you to play tricks on me.” I turned as fast as I could, wanting to flee as far as I could from this man. I ran straight into someone as I did, my tray of remaining drinks crashing into them, turning their clothes into a soggy mess. I looked up into the frowning face of my manager. He stood there, glaring at me, his shoes squishing as the liquid poured off him. “I’m sorry,” I said as I tried to fix the mess I found myself in. He held up a hand to stop me and frowned even more if that was possible. “Maxie…” he said through clenched teeth. I let out a sigh. Yeah, yeah. I knew what that meant. Bye, bye job #2. Wednesday night had me at home, getting ready for bed. I couldn’t believe how bad I was messing everything up. I finally found where fate wanted me to be and what did I do? Screw up every opportunity that came my way, that’s what. What was wrong with me? Was I even capable of doing anything on my own? So far, it didn’t look that way. I sighed, pulling my hair up into a messy ponytail. Maybe I should just go home. I wanted to prove that I belonged here, but the more I tried, the more it seemed I should just go back to what I was used to. At least I knew my place there, even if I didn’t like it. I dug around in my dresser until I found my black fluffy pajama pants and a pink tank top. Maybe not the most glamorous of P.J.’s, but they were so comfortable and quickly becoming my favorite. I was beginning to realize that most of life isn’t supposed to be about glamor. Ha, tell that to the people back at home and they’d die laughing. But it was true. Sometimes it was about being comfortable. Like tonight. I wondered if Van was up for a movie night. We could watch chick flicks until we crashed. It sounded like a perfect plan to me. It was exactly what I needed. A soft knock sounded on my door before it opened, Van poking her head in. Speak of the devil. “Hey,” I said, trying to lessen the worry I knew had to be etched in my face. “Hey, gloomy Gus,” she said, taking me in. “What are you doing hiding in here?” I guess it hadn’t worked. I sighed, sitting down on the side of my bed. “I’m not hiding.” “Yes, you are,” she said, seeing right through me. “You’re upset about the jobs you lost. Which I think is ridiculous. Neither one was you, Maxie.” “How was I supposed to know that until I tried them?” “My point exactly,” Van said smugly. “Come work for me.” Her smile grew wider as she watched me. “How do you know it won’t work until you try?” she asked, throwing my own words back at me. She had me there. I had to admit that, but it still felt like giving in if I took her job. It would be admitting I couldn’t do anything on my own. She could tell I was still fighting the idea. Coming farther into the room, she looked down at me, her eyes holding concern. “Maybe the reason you met me was to straighten out your life. Ever thought of that?” she asked softly. I looked up at her, puzzlement clearly showing on my face. No, I hadn’t even thought of that. Was it possible? Did I really need to take everything she offered? Boy, this destiny thing was sure confusing. Van was silent for a moment, letting that sink in. “So, Danny and I are going out tonight. Jensen is in the living room.” I frowned at my friend. “I don’t need a babysitter,” I informed her. It wasn’t like I was totally helpless. “No, he does,” she stated. A pleading look came into her eyes when she saw the frown wasn‘t leaving my face. “Please? For me? It’s the only way I can have Danny to myself tonight. They had plans, and well…” I tried to keep my resolve, I really did, but I felt my frown slipping. How could I say no to her? She had already given me so much. “But…I’m not presentable,” I protested weakly. “I’m in my pajamas.” She eyed what I was wearing and huffed. “I’ve seen women leave the house in worse things than that. What you’re wearing is fine.” “I don’t know,” I said, examining myself in the vanity mirror. I was used to greeting company in the proper attire. “You’re gorgeous in everything you wear, Max,” she said, heading to the door. “Come keep him company. You’ll thank me later.” And with that, she was gone. Thank her later? Was she out of her mind? How could Jensen and I spending the evening together be anything but a train wreck? I wasn’t ready to get into another relationship, especially not with someone like him. No way. It wasn’t happening. I didn’t care that my heart was fluttering just thinking about seeing him again. He wasn’t the guy for me. But…I couldn’t let Van down. I just couldn’t. So with a huge amount of trepidation, I pulled on a sweatshirt and went out to the living room. Buttery goodness invaded my nose as I approached. Maybe this wasn’t such a bad idea after all. I had a weakness for popcorn. “Hey,” his soft voice greeted me as he entered the other side of the living room, carrying a large plastic bowl. His eyes held mine as I approached. I no longer felt dizzy as I looked into his eyes, but my heart was doing the cha-cha. “Hi,” I said sheepishly as we both reached the couch. “I didn’t know you were coming. Sorry I look so bad.” He laughed, deep and rich, as he plopped down on the couch. “I think you look adorable. I like a girl who isn’t afraid to get comfortable.” I flushed slightly as I sat down next to him. “Thanks. I think.” “Trust me. It was a compliment,” he said, sitting the bowl on the coffee table in front of us. “As you can see, I popped popcorn. And I brought movies. I thought maybe you’d join me on a non-date date?” I raised my eyebrows. What was he up to? “A non-date date?” “Yeah,” he said with a shrug. “Van told me you just went through a really bad break-up. I’m here with no other intentions but having a good evening with a new friend.” He looked at me, a shy smile ghosting his lips. “So, what do you say?” I leaned forward, snatching up the popcorn bowl. “Sure, as long as there’s plenty of this stuff, I’m all yours.” “Great,” Jensen said, standing up. “I brought several movies I thought you might like. You’re into Romantic Comedies, right?” “Oh, yeah,” I told him around a mouthful of popcorn. I guess I was going to get my chick flick night after all. I leaned back, sinking into the plush couch as I watched him. Stephen and I had never done anything as ordinary as this. I realized that I could completely be myself with Jensen. No pretending. No being perfect all the time. Just two people really enjoying each other’s company. Maybe my instincts were right about this guy. Maybe I needed someone like this in my life. Well, I wasn’t going anywhere. This was my new life and I had all the time in the world to see where it might lead. He sat back down next to me, flashing me the most perfect smile as he grabbed a handful of the popcorn. My heart fluttered again as our eyes made contact. Oh, yeah. I might not be looking for a relationship right now, but a little company never hurt anyone, right? Nine I stood behind the check-in desk surveying the area, and took a deep breath. I couldn’t believe it. Somehow I had managed to survive four hours of work. I hadn’t maimed anyone. I hadn’t even made anyone mad. Even more surprising, I really, really liked it here. Ugh, I knew there was a told-you-so coming from Van, and the sad thing was, I deserved it. “So…how’s it going?” a voice called cheerfully from my side. Uh oh, here it came. “Great,” I said, smiling sheepishly at Van. “It’s going great.” Van returned it with a wise smile. “I thought it might be,” she told me. “I’ve been getting nothing but compliments about you.” Yay! I was finally good at something. “Listen, Van, I’m sorry.” She held up a hand to stop me. “Doesn’t matter. I’m just happy you finally found your path.” I nodded gratefully. I guess she was bigger than an I-told-you-so. “This place is great. How did you ever end up working here?” She shrugged. “There’s always been an Evans running this place. I guess I was next in line.” She looked around the lobby, beaming proudly. “This place is something, isn’t it? It has a certain charm you can’t find any place else.” “Except for Enchantment Cove,” I said, immediately realizing it was true. Both buildings had that same quality to them. They both felt like home. Van glanced over at me, smiling slightly. “Did you know they were both built by the same people?” I shook my head, but wasn’t too surprised. As soon as she said it, I could see the similarities around me. “I guess they both do have the same soul.” “They were built at the time as a haven for lost souls,” she said, glancing over at me. “And I guess they still are.” I turned around, straightening the old fashion room keys hanging on the wall behind us. I didn’t want her to see the moisture in my eyes. I hadn’t even realized how lost I’d been. I don’t know what I would have done if Van hadn’t found me. I owed her so much for giving me a new beginning. “So…” she said, changing the subject. “You never said. How was your date last night with Jensen?” I turned around, frowning slightly. “It wasn’t a date,” I told her, the words coming out a little too forceful. “Sure, sure,” she said, leaning back against the counter. “How was your “undate” with Jensen last night?” I sighed. Where did I even start? “It was good. We watched movies. We talked. We ate junk food. It was a perfect evening.” “Is that all that happened?” I glanced away, feeling my cheeks grow warm. “Well…maybe there was a little bit of cuddling involved.” “I knew it,” Van cheered. “You like him.” “I’m not ready for a relationship, Van.” “Doesn’t matter if you’re ready or not, Max. If you’re meant to be with someone, it will happen,” she said with a giggle. “I can’t wait to tell Danny. That boy is head over heels about you.” “Danny?” “No, silly. Jensen. He’s been smitten ever since he laid eyes on you.” My heart galloped at that statement. Jensen felt it too? Had every cell in his body screamed my name the first time we locked eyes? Or was he just another mindless admirer from a long list of guys who only saw a beautiful face? I wasn’t sure I really wanted to know. I didn’t feel like having my feelings crushed again so soon. “Are you going to see him again?” Van asked, pulling me out of my thoughts. “I kind of have to, Van. He’s your boyfriend’s best friend.” She frowned at my evasion tactics. “That’s not what I meant and you know it.” “I…” I couldn’t finish that sentence. Not with what I had just seen. Several guys were standing in the entranceway of the lobby. They were talking loudly and pointing to various things around them. “Van,” I squealed softly. “Look. Over there. Look.” I jabbed my finger at the group of men because my brain had gone fuzzy and words were failing me. She followed my gaze, an amused expression danced across her face. “Oh, yeah. Did I forget to mention that?” I looked at her, deep bewilderment pooling in my eyes. “You knew? And you didn’t tell me?” She took a calming breath and then looked at me like I was a five-year-old. “Maxie, you’re going to see a lot of celebrities while working here. It’s not that big of a deal. They’re just people.” “But…but…,” I sputtered, still trying to process what I was seeing. “That’s Ryan Everheart. The Ryan Everheart!” “I know,” Van said, hushing me. “You need to calm down.” I looked at her like she had grown another head. Was she crazy? It was Ryan Everheart. The hottest heartthrob ever to grace the screen. I had been in love with him since his movie debut, and trust me, he totally deserved it. I didn’t know anyone who didn’t swoon when he came on screen. “Oh my God,” I whispered, trying to catch my breath. “It’s Ryan Everheart.” “Yes,” she said, annoyed. “We’ve established that.” She tugged on my arm, turning me away from my Golden God. “You remember that movie you tried out for?” I nodded absently. Of course, I remember that movie. Why would she bring up that horrid memory at a time like this? “They’re filming some scenes here and Ryan’s the male lead.” My breath caught in my throat. He was playing Mitch? I could have acted with him? I could have kissed him? I felt woozy suddenly, like the world had decided to spin out of control. “Maxie, are you alright?” I steadied myself, my body shaking slightly. It didn’t matter. I was terrible before meeting him. There was no way I could have even functioned next to him. “Yeah, I’m okay,” I lied, trying to get myself under control. “Okay,” she said with a slight smile. “Here they come. Try not to embarrass me.” She turned to the counter, waiting like the professional she was. The four men sauntered over to us. I recognized the one next to Ryan. He was one of the panel at my failed audition. The nasty one. I turned away, busying myself. The last thing I wanted was for him to recognize me and say something in front of Ryan. “Welcome, Mr. Taylor. Mr. Everheart,” Van greeted them warmly. “I’m honored to have you here.” “Yes, thank you,” the mean guy said, his voice as harsh as the first time I heard it. I gasped softly as I straightened the paperwork in front of me. Mr. Taylor? No way. I had auditioned in front of Zand Taylor? He was only the best director in the whole world. And apparently, he thought I stunk. “I’ll be showing Ryan around today,” Zand told her. “I want to get his opinion on some shots. Can you see that we’re not disturbed?” Van hesitated for a second. “Mr. Taylor, this is a public hotel. I can’t keep people from coming in,” she told him honestly. “You better,” he said before walking away. The two other men, who I assumed were assistants, followed obediently behind him. He stopped when he realized Ryan hadn’t moved. “You coming, Everheart?” “Go ahead,” Ryan told him. “I’ll catch up.” A muscle twitched under Zand Taylor’s right eye before he turned and quickly disappeared down one of the hallways. I guess he was always like that. Here I thought it had just been a reaction to my performance. “Is there something else I can do for you, Mr. Everheart?” Van asked. “Please, call me Ryan,” he said, his voice as thick and smooth as honey. “And yes, I’d like to stay here this week, get to know every secret of this place.” He glanced around the lobby, seemingly as taken with the place as I had been. “Is one of your suites available?” Van was all business as her fingers clicked across the computer keyboard. “Yes, I do have one available.” How could she stay so calm at a time like this? “Great. I’d like it for at least a week. Will that work?” “No problem, it’s all yours,” she said, clicking away. I watched out of the corner of my eye as she entered his info. I couldn’t believe I was this close to Ryan Everheart. I could even smell his cologne. It was deep and musky, reminding me of the outdoors on a warm night. It was the perfect scent for him. Tall, blond, blue-eyed. Every inch the Golden God I had grown so infatuated with. If I could live in this very moment, breathing in his scent and gazing upon him for the rest of my life, I would die a happy woman. “Maxie. Earth to Maxie,” Van said, pulling me from my stupor. “Can you please get the key to room 519?” “Uh, sure,” I said, grabbing the key off the wall. I felt my face heat up as I turned to the counter. Ryan stood there, staring at me. His gaze washing over me as I froze on the spot. Great, my Hollywood crush must think I’m a complete moron. I just prayed to God there wasn’t any drool on my chin. That would definitely seal my moron fate. What was I doing? I had never frozen like that before. But I’d never come face to face with a God before, either. I forced myself to take a step closer, breathing in more of his scent. “Here you go,” I said, smiling my best smile. At least, I hoped it was my best smile. Considering the way I was acting, I could have looked more like an angry wolverine. I took a deep breath and placed the key in his hand. He took it, gently brushing his fingers against mine. My heart rate slowed at his touch. Calm washed over me, centering me. I felt my lips relax into a genuine smile. See, look. This was no big deal, right? “Thank you, Maxie,” he said softly, his lips turning my name into a work of art. He held my gaze as we stood there. It felt like he wanted to say something with those eyes, but I was too content to worry about the meaning. All the doubt and worry that had been rattling around in my head since Stephen had left me was silenced. Staring into his eyes, I was at peace. “Well,” he said, stepping away from the counter. “I better go catch up with Zand. He gets upset if he’s ignored too long.” He turned, then glanced back over his shoulder. “I’m sure I’ll see you two around,” he said with a smile before heading into one of the hallways. “What was that,” Van asked as soon as he left. “What do you mean?” I countered with my own question. “You know what I mean.” I looked at her, heat in my cheeks. “What? I barely said two words to the guy.” “I saw the look in your eyes, Max,” she told me, shaking her head. “He’s a movie star. He’s used to making women swoon. It’s what they do. That little look you two shared meant nothing to him.” I turned around, straightening more papers. “Of course, it didn’t, Van. I know that. It’s just…how often do you get a chance to say you flirted with Ryan Everheart?” She nodded reluctantly. “True,” she admitted before going back to work. I let out a deep sigh when she was gone. I wasn’t sure what happened between Ryan and me, but it definitely didn’t feel like just flirting. Ten I got out of the taxi and looked at the impressive apartment building. I still couldn’t believe I lived here. The old Maxie would have insisted you were joking if you told her she’d end up living this life. But the new Maxie, well let me tell you, that girl was loving life. I had a job I loved, an amazing place to live, good friends, and maybe, just maybe, a potential love interest. Yes, I had to say things were going quite well in the Maxie Universe. I even got to meet Ryan Everheart. I was still reeling over that one. I practically floated past the doors and in through the lobby, my mind lingering on the feel of his fingers against mine. Being close to him had been magical. It certainly would fuel my fantasies for years to come. I made my way to the back hallway, entering the elevator and closing the doors. I pushed the button for the top floor, leaning back against the metal cage. Van had to work late. She got to be the lucky one to see to Zand Taylor’s every wish. I guess that’s what happened when you ran a place like that. At least she got to be near a certain heart throb. Oh, Ryan. My thoughts went back to him as the elevator slowly climbed. I let my eyes close, images of “Us” filling my head. There was something special about him. And I didn’t mean famous. He had left a deep imprint on me I couldn’t shake. The cage rattled to a stop, pulling me from my daydreams. I leaned forward and frowned. The light said I was on the fifth floor. I know I didn’t push that button. I stepped forward, pushing the gates open, peering out into the shadowed hallway. “Hello?” I called, hoping someone was out there waiting to get on. Yet only silence responded. The hallway was empty. I stepped back in, preparing to close the gates. A movement at the back of the hall caught my eye. For a moment, I hoped it was Jensen. He lived somewhere on this floor. I felt my heart race at the thought of seeing him and suddenly guilt swept in. What was I doing drooling over Mr. Hollywood, who would never even be an option? Like I would ever be anything but another pretty face in a sea of pretty girls to him. But Jensen…he was the chance to be happy. I knew that. And after our little “undate,” I definitely wanted to see him again. I had felt safe and warm in his arms. It was the first time I had really felt content. Yeah. No more thoughts of Ryan. Not when I had Jensen to anticipate. Movement caught my eye again. “Hello?” I called. A dark shape moved forward, glowing red eyes burning into mine as it came. I gasped, flattening myself against the back wall. It was the thing I saw the first time I rode up in the elevator. Time seemed to stand still as it moved towards me. I needed to move, to close those doors and get the elevator started. But I couldn’t move. I was frozen, completely helpless to save myself from the nightmarish thing headed my way. I wheezed, trying to draw in air. I was panicking and there wasn’t a darn thing I could do about it. Prying my eyes away from it, I glanced at the doors. They had to be shut. I had to get to them, but no matter how I tried, I couldn’t get my body to move. Fear had hardened around me like cement. I closed my eyes, expecting the worst, all the while praying the doors would shut. They had to close. Now! The gate slammed shut with a jarring screech. My eyes flew open. The doors were closed? Who had done that? The fear released me and my legs could move again. I leaned forward, my shaking fingers ready to push the button for the top floor. The dark shape stopped outside the gates and looked at me. I felt his eyes examine me, curiosity burning bright within. I stopped, dropping my hand, moving to the gate. I stared at the shadowed creature with just as much curiosity. What was this thing and why did I suddenly think it had never meant me any harm? It held my gaze a few seconds longer, then nodded, turning around and disappearing back into the shadows of the hallway. I slowly let out the breath I was holding and pushed the top floor button. Riding the rest of the way up in silence, I was puzzled by what had occurred. I was wrong. The creature hadn’t wanted to hurt me. Of that, I was sure. As sure of anything else my instincts had ever told me. It only wanted a closer look. Stepping out of the elevator, I headed to the apartment in a daze. What kind of red-eyed shadowy creature wanted to get to know you better? As I unlocked the door, I vowed not to tell anyone about this. After all, it wasn’t like they would actually believe me. Eleven Signing out of the computer, I took a step back from the counter. It was break time. As soon as Van got up here to relieve me, I was going to hunt down a cup of coffee and some kind of pastry. I loved this job, but it was definitely a sugar and chocolate type of day. This was only my third day on the job, but Van trusted me enough to run the whole check-in desk by myself. She said I was a natural at it and I had to agree. It was all becoming second nature to me, but it still kept me on my toes. Especially with Ryan Everheart in the building. Word had spread that the new Zand Taylor flick starring Ryan was filming at the DenMark, and let me tell you, everyone and their mother’s cousin’s neighbor were trying to rent a room here. It was slowly becoming a nightmare. At least we were pretty much booked until the end of the week. “How’s the Ryan frenzy treating you?” Van asked, stepping behind the counter. “Okay, I guess. I can’t believe how relentless some of these people are, though.” She chuckled softly. “Some of the people? Try all of them. Even you can’t take your eyes off of him when he’s around.” I glanced at her, indignantly. “I told you. That first day was a silly case of being star struck. I’m over it now. Ryan’s not even a blip on my radar.” “Sure. Whatever you say,” she said, giving me a knowing smile. I grabbed my purse with a grunt. Who cared what she thought. I knew I meant it and that’s all that mattered. I wasn’t going to let thoughts of Hollywood’s Golden Boy distract me from my new life. “I’ll see you in 15 minutes,” I called quickly. Van turned around and smiled sweetly at me. “You can have 20 minutes if you promise to stay away from Ryan.” Giving her a dirty look, I opened my mouth to send some kind of witty retort in her direction, when I heard someone clear their throat behind me. “Who’s having trouble staying away from me?” a silky smooth voice asked from that direction. Oh, no. I looked at Van in shock, mortified beyond belief. Did he really just hear that? She gave me a sympathetic look as I turned around to face him. I tried to put on my most professional look. “Is there something I can do for you, Mr. Everheart?” He flashed a killer smile. “Yes, matter-of-fact, there is. I was hoping I would see you here today. I needed to ask you something.” I stood there, amazed by his words. What could he possibly have to ask me? Unless…Zand told him about my audition. No doubt, he was here to torment me about my lack of acting skills. “What?” I asked, the word barely more than a whisper. He looked at me for a moment, his blue eyes twinkling with mesmerizing mirth. “I’ve noticed you. I’ve seen you notice me, too. There was something that passed between us that first day. I know you felt it as much as I did. I was hoping we could figure out what it was.” “Uh,” was all I could manage to get out. He couldn’t have really said that, could he? I must have been daydreaming again. I heard Van fidget around behind me. Good. I wasn’t the only one who had heard that. But why did he seem just as nervous as I did? “Uh,” I said again. This was going well. “Maxie,” he said, stepping closer to the counter. “Would you please allow me the honor of taking you out to dinner tonight?” “Uh,” I said again. Was I breathing? I couldn’t tell; my mind had shut down on me. Ryan Everheart just asked me out? I was sure this was all a hallucination or something. I knew my body must have been laying dead somewhere, my mind playing tricks on me as the oxygen slowly faded from it. It had to be. That made a whole lot more sense than what was happening. Van stepped up next to me. “Sorry, Ryan. Maxie already has plans this evening,” she informed him. He glanced at her, and then let his eyes come to rest on me once again. “Oh, I’m sure she can change her plans. Can’t you, Maxie?” Say no, my mind screamed. Remember Jensen. He was real, not some phony Hollywood actor just waiting to break my heart. But I couldn’t seem to focus. Being this close to Ryan was intoxicating. The smell of him washed over me, filling me with curiosity. If he smelled this good, I wondered how he’d taste. No. This wasn’t a good idea. Not at all. Going down this road would only lead to another heartbreak. I needed to stay on the path I was on. I opened my mouth to gently turn him down. “Sure, I’d love to,” I said and immediately snapped my mouth closed. What was I thinking? “Great,” Ryan said with a grin. “I’ll pick you up here at eight.” He turned around and sauntered out of the lobby. “Are you crazy?” Van said as soon as he was gone. “You can’t go out with him.” I turned and looked at her, my shock momentarily forgotten. How dare she tell me what I could and couldn’t do. “Why not?” I snapped. She looked at me, suddenly at a loss for words. “Because…” “I’m waiting.” “Because you can’t. That’s why.” I shook my head, anger seeping into my veins. No one was going to stop me from doing something. Even if it was something I didn’t want to do in the first place. “I can…and I will.” She looked around her as if hoping for some sort of backup with this. “What about Jensen?” she asked suddenly. “What about him? It’s not like anything is going on between us,” I told her, feeling guilty even as I said the words. But they were technically true. One little cuddle on the couch didn’t mean the guy owned me or anything. “Besides, it’s just one date. With Ryan Everheart. Ryan-freaking-Everheart. How many chances does a girl get to do something like this? I have to do it.” Van looked like she wanted to say more, but shook her head instead. “Fine. I’m not your mother. You do whatever you want,” she said, turning her back on me. I turned quickly, too, putting distance between me and the lobby. I couldn’t believe how Van was acting. It wasn’t like this was a marriage proposal or anything. It was just one little date. Okay, maybe a date of a lifetime, but still…she had no right to act this way. Wow, jealousy was so not becoming on some people. Twelve I finished applying my lipstick and looked into the mirror. Done. I looked absolutely stunning, perfect enough for any movie star. But inside my stomach was eating itself raw. I was a nervous wreck. Here I was about to go on one of the most important dates of my life and all I could think about was whether or not I could keep myself from throwing up on him. “Maybe your body’s trying to tell you something,” Van’s voice drifted from my doorway. I turned around, my brows wrinkling as I did. I guess I wasn’t fooling her with my perfect façade. “What do you mean?” I asked innocently. “Oh, come on, Maxie. Anyone who really knows you could see how terrified you are,” she said, stepping into my room. “Maybe there’s a reason for that. Maybe deep down you know this is a bad idea.” I shook my head. “Okay, so I’m nervous. Anybody would be. I’m going out with Ryan Everheart.” Picking up my purse off the vanity, I headed out the door into the living room. Van followed quietly on my heels. I knew she wanted to say more. I could practically feel her trying not to explode with it. I reached the sitting room and turned to face her. “What?” I demanded. “Why is it so important for you to try to stop me?” She stood there, mentally debating something. “There are things you don’t know about him.” What was that supposed to mean? I had just met the guy. I didn’t know anything about him. “Like what, Van?” “He’s…a movie star. They all have skeletons in their closets, Max. Ryan Everheart included.” “So,” I said, tossing my hair out of my face. “We all have dark spots in our past we’d rather forget about. That’s just life.” She looked at me, a sadness in her eyes I couldn’t understand. “I just don’t want you to get hurt.” I shrugged. “I’m an adult, Evangeline. What I do is my business. If I take a chance and he breaks my heart…Well, at least I took a chance. Besides,” I said, reaching for the front door. “It’s not like there’s a future for us anyway. I’m just another name on his dance card. Even I know that.” Pulling the door open, I gasped in shock. Danny and Jensen were standing in the hall, looking at me. “Wow, Max. You look great,” Danny said, eyeing my sapphire blue dress. “But, aren’t you a little overdressed for the movies?” Van looked at them and shook her head. “She’s not coming. She has a date with Ryan Everheart.” “What?” Danny said as they all exchanged some kind of look. Great. Now I had three people trying to run my life. Van shrugged. “Maxie’s a big girl, if she wants to get involved in that life, let her,” she said, stepping out the door and taking Danny’s arm. “Let’s go. I hate missing the previews.” She and Danny disappeared down the hall. Jensen remained there, a hurt look in his eyes. “Why are you going out with him?” he asked softly. I stood there, helplessly feeling guilty, and not knowing why. It wasn’t like we had made any promise to each other. We hadn’t even discussed whether there might be a relationship in our future. I was a free woman and I could date anyone I chose to. And right then, I was choosing Ryan. A girl didn’t pass up something like that. “Look, Jensen,” I told him, almost apologetically. “This is the first great thing to happen to me since I got here. I’m not going to turn down a chance like this.” He stood there, his face an emotionless mask, but I could sense the hurt underneath. “If that’s what you think, Maxie, then you deserve to go out with him,” he said calmly before turning around and walking away. I stood there, watching him go. A part of me wanted to stop him, to beg his forgiveness, but I didn’t. Just because I felt confused and giddy around him didn’t mean anything. Jensen and I were from two different worlds. It would never have worked out between us anyway. At least that was the only thing I could tell myself to keep the tears away as I headed to my waiting cab. Thirteen I stood in the lobby of the hotel, nervously waiting for Ryan. I checked the clock on the wall. 8:16. Three minutes since the last time I checked. He was late. Maybe Van was right. I shouldn’t get involved with someone famous. It was just a disaster waiting to happen. “I’m so sorry,” a voice spoke from behind me. I turned around. Sparkling blue eyes danced as they met mine. My breath faltered in my throat as I looked at him. I couldn’t seem to function around him. He was like a god come to life. My soul actually ached as I took him in. Dress shirt, suit jacket, and designer jeans. His blond hair perfectly ruffled. A very expensive version of bed head, no doubt. Dressy, yet trendy. Everything I could ever want in a man stood before me. I mentally shook myself as I pulled my eyes away from his. This was going to be the best night of my life. “Wow,” Ryan spoke, a smile showing as his eyes drank me in. “You look amazing.” He stepped closer, looking down at me. “I’m really sorry about being late. Zand kept me longer than I thought he would. Barely had enough time to get ready. I’m glad I did, though, or you would have put me to shame.” He leaned closer, placing a quick peck on my cheek. “You probably do anyway. You really are quite breathtaking,” he said softly as he pulled back away from me. I knew I must have been grinning like an idiot as heat crept into my cheeks, but I didn’t care. Ryan thought I was breathtaking. Even if I never saw the man again after our date, I would always cherish that moment. It was one of those rare perfect moments one couldn’t dream of obtaining. Yet, here I was, living the dream. “Thank you,” I told him, still mesmerized by the feel of his lips against my skin. “But you have nothing to worry about. You’re just as gorgeous as ever.” I blushed harder as I realized what I had said. So much for playing it cool! I was going to be nothing but putty in his hands, and thanks to my big mouth, he now knew it. He grinned at me as I tried to calm my nerves. “I just got here myself,” I said, lying through my teeth. I had seen Zand in action. I knew how much of a slave driver he could be. “Good,” he said, holding his arm out to me. “Are you hungry? We have reservations at my favorite place.” I slipped my arm through his, leaning into him. “Sounds great,” I murmured, enthralled by his closeness. “Come on, there’s a car waiting for us outside,” he said and led me to the hotel entrance. I smiled up at him as we went. If I were a cat, I’d have been purring at that moment. My fairytale was finally beginning to come true. Walking through the doors of La Fem, one of the hottest restaurants in So. Cal., I looked around me. I couldn’t believe I was really here. I know I’m rich. And I know I had influence back in New Haven, but that meant nothing in a place like this. You had to be someone to get in here. And …apparently, now I was. “What do you think?” Ryan spoke softly in my ear. His breath tickled my neck in just the right places. Oh, God. I was in heaven. “It’s amazing.” “I thought you’d like it,” he told me with a grin. “Hello, Mr. Everheart. Pleasure to see you this evening,” a man in a crisp black shirt said, approaching us. “Hi, Harry. How are things tonight?” Ryan asked, greeting him. “Oh, perfect as usual,” he said, looking around the busy restaurant. “Life is good in a place like this.” He looked over at me. “Who is this remarkable creature?” Ryan turned and looked at me. “This is my new friend, Maxie Duncan. Maxie, this is the owner of La Fem and a friend of my father, Harold Morgan.” “Oh, please call me Harry,” he said, taking my hand in his. “Everybody does.” His lips brushed the back of my hand in greeting. “Pleasure to meet you, Maxie Duncan.” I took my hand back, smiling warmly at him. “Thank you, Harry. The pleasure is all mine. This is a great place you have here.” He beamed as he looked around. “It is, isn’t it? Consider it your new home away from home. You are welcome here anytime, my dear.” Wow. I was now part of the elite. The night just kept getting better. “Thank you.” “So,” Harry said, turning back to Ryan. “I assume you’d like your usual table?” He nodded. “That would be great.” “Of course. Right this way,” he said, leading us through the restaurant. I tried not to stare as I realized who was occupying the tables around us. I’d never seen so many celebrities in one place before. Well, maybe on TV at award shows, but never in real life. They smiled at us as we passed. I knew it only went as far as their lips, but I still felt special. I was Ryan’s date for the evening and that meant something. Harry led us to a smaller room towards the back. The light was dimmed, but candles flickered all around us, casting a very romantic mood. There were several tables scattered around the room, but none were occupied. It looked like we were the only ones this room was waiting for. “Here we are,” Harry said, gesturing to the table in the center. “The best table in the house.” He pulled out a chair for me. “Your chair awaits,” he said as I slipped into it. Harry looked down at me. “I hope you enjoy your time at La Fem. And I meant what I said. You are welcome here anytime.” He gave me a stately nod, then turned to my date seated across from me. “Champagne is on the way as we speak. I hope your evening is enjoyable,” he told him, sneaking a quick glance back at me. “Thanks, Harry. I’m sure this will be a most amazing evening,” Ryan said as the owner turned and left us alone in the flickering candle light. “Wow,” I breathed when he was gone. This was so surreal. Like a dream come true, and let me tell you, it’s not like I’m not used to getting attention. I guess what it boiled down to was I used to be a big fish in a small pond. Now I was treading water in the ocean and they actually liked me here. I didn’t think that was going to be possible. Not after the huge reality check I had been given my first few days in L.A.. “Wow, what?” Ryan asked, pulling me from my thoughts. I looked over at him, causing my heart to stir in my chest. It was still a shock to be seated alone with Ryan Everheart. “I can’t believe he invited me back anytime.” “I can,” he said, picking up his menu. “He can see how incredibly special you are.” I sat there, my mouth hanging open, watching Ryan skim through his menu. Did he just say what I thought he did, or were my ears playing tricks on me? He looked up at me, a small grin spreading across his lips. He knew I was staring. Of course. Guys like that always knew when a woman’s eyes were on them. He watched me a moment, no doubt taking in the disbelief on my face. Confusion slipped into his eyes as the smile left his lips. “You know that right?” he asked me softly. I was speechless. What was I supposed to say to that? Here was one of the biggest movie stars on the planet and he was looking at me like I was the Holy Grail. “No,” Ryan said, even softer this time. “You don’t, do you?” “What?” I asked, confused by his words. I wasn’t any more special than anyone else in this city. Money, beauty, everyone had those here. I was just another young girl with too ambitious ideas. “Don’t worry,” he said, reaching across the table and taking my hand gently in his. “We’ll make sure you find out.” Leaning back, I let the feel of my hand in his encompass me. I knew I couldn’t let myself get too attached. I knew there was no chance of this actually going somewhere. But as I held his gaze, his eyes giving me the impression that I was the only thing he cared about and ever would, I really didn’t care. I was an adult. And I wasn’t going into this blindly. If he wanted to woo me, treat me like a queen, and sweep me off my feet, I was going to let him. Whether it was a month, a week, or even 30 minutes, I was going to enjoy this, because time was short and Ryan was darn hot. Studying our menus, his hand never leaving mine, we were ready to order when our waitress returned with our champagne. It turned out to be from Harry’s personal stash, and it was on the house. I didn’t know if that was usual for Ryan’s visits, but it made me feel very, very special. “What can I get you this evening?” the waitress asked us, pen poised. She smiled brightly, a gleam in her eye as she jotted down Ryan’s order. Of course, she did. How could she not be taken in by this gorgeous man? It seemed to me most women would be putty in his hands, not to mention a few guys. That’s just who he was. He was as charismatic off screen as he was on. And I knew it would only be a matter of time before someone else caught his eye. The waitress turned to me, waiting for my order. I told her what I wanted and waited for her attention to drift back to Ryan. But it never did. She offered me the same eager smile, hanging on to my every word as I spoke. As she took our menus, she told me how much she loved my dress. “I wish I could look that good,” she said, leaving to get our orders started. I stared at her, even after she left, feeling like I was in a waking dream. I know I looked good. It’s the only talent I actually have, as you well know. But I couldn’t figure out her comment. Our waitress had been just as beautiful as well. Blonde, blue-eyed, curvy in all the right places. We could have almost been sisters. What made me any more special? I felt Ryan’s hand tighten against mine reassuringly. Ah, yes. I glanced up at him. It was him. That’s what made the difference. Who he was had coated over me, lending me some of the charm he commanded. I let out the breath I was holding. Tonight I was Royalty. Once again living the high life. My smile echoed Ryan’s, relaxing me as it did. It felt good to feel special. Even if my extended royal title went poof at midnight. Our food arrived quickly, grilled filet of beef served with creamy garlic potatoes and fresh vegetables, red wine and shallots reduction for him, and house made raviolis in roasted tomato and pepper sauce for me, and we settled into comfortable chatter as we ate. I learned he was a football player in high school, (No surprise.) a classically trained pianist, (Quite a bit of a surprise.) and the black sheep of his family. “What? Being rich and famous isn’t enough for your parents?” I teased. He shook his head, a serious look on his face. “No. My father expected me to go into business with him. I didn’t want to. End of story.” “How come?” “My father and I don’t see eye to eye on many things. I’ve made my decision and I’ve been doing my own thing ever since.” I nodded, thinking how brave he was to go out on his own against his father’s wishes. We were kindred spirits, on the same journey to find ourselves, but at least I had my parents behind me, loving me no matter what. “Well,” I said, taking a sip of my champagne. “At least you succeeded in making a name for yourself. That doesn’t happen too often.” I frowned slightly as I sat my glass down. “Trust me, I should know.” He smiled; a genuine grin that seemed to be only for me. “I think you’ve done just fine making a name for yourself, Maxie Duncan. After all, it’s not a name I’ll be forgetting any time soon.” My heart seized at those words. I had made an impression on him. True, it was only for tonight, but a girl could fantasize on a moment like this for the rest of her life. A waiter brought a dessert cart into the room just as we were finishing up. Ryan talked me into sharing a piece of turtle brownie pie with him. I knew I’d regret it in the morning, but between those dimples and the aroma of chocolate smothered in caramel sauce, I couldn’t help myself. And it was delish. After we finished, we headed out, me promising Harry for the 100th time I would be back, into the cool night air. I looked around, hoping to spot the car we had arrived in. None of the cars around us looked familiar. Ryan noticed my gaze. “Oh, you won’t find the car we came in. I sent the driver home,” he said, taking my hand, his fingertips cold against my skin from the air outside. He gently pulled me from the sidewalk and over to a midnight blue Lotus parked nearby. “I have my car waiting for us.” I looked at the slick piece of luxury in front of me as I stepped around to the passenger side and sighed inwardly. I had missed being around cars like this. I might be growing as a person, but I would always be a rich girl at heart. I know…talk about a step back. “I take it you like my car,” he said, opening the door for me. “I love it,” I said as I slid in, watching him shut the door. I leaned back, letting the rich leather upholstery welcome me in a hug. I was home. I was a shallow, spoiled, rich girl, but so help me, I was home. Ryan Everheart slid into the driver’s seat with practiced grace and looked at me. “You certainly make my car look good, Maxie Duncan.” He started the engine. It roared to life, then settling into a purr only money could buy. “You were born to ride in luxury,” he told me, pulling out of the parking lot. “Never forget that.” Ryan pulled out onto the freeway and headed up the coast along the classic Pacific Coast Highway, showing me everything Southern California was famous for. Fourteen After following nothing but the stars in the sky for an hour, Ryan pulled off the highway, seeming to slow to almost a crawl after the speed of the open road. The car drifted silently, the empty road stretching out before us like a forgotten gateway to the unknown. Peering out my window, I watched the dark shapes of bushes and trees as they silently guarded the night like sentinels of old. “Where are we?” I asked, sudden nervousness crawling around my stomach. It dawned on me how alone we were, and how much I didn’t know about one of the world’s most famous guys. They don’t tell you things like who is a serial killer in their spare time in the pages of People. “What’s a matter,” he asked, sensing the nervousness I suddenly carried. “Do you not trust me?” I looked at him, seriousness in my eyes. “Should I?” Ryan looked at me for a moment, the seriousness echoed in his own. “That’s for you to figure out. But…” he said, his gaze drifting back to the road. “I hope you do.” I stayed silent as he pulled into an empty parking lot. The lines painted on the pavement were faded with age. Weeds grew up through cracks in the blacktop, showing nature’s desire to claim what was rightfully hers. Everything was silent around us. Nothing moved. Nothing even breathed out there. “It’s as if no one’s been here for years,” I said, creeped out by the stillness around me. Ryan laughed softly. “That’s because no one has,” he said, opening the Lotus’ door. “Come on, I want to show you something.” He shut his door and came around to mine. As he opened it, another wave of doubt came over me. What was I doing? Was I crazy? Here I was going out in the middle of nowhere with a stranger. He looked at me, concern clouding his eyes as he seemed to guess where my thoughts were heading. “It’s okay, Maxie. I won’t bite. I promise.” Extending his hand out for me, he added with a slight grin, “At least…not yet.” My heart seemed to stop at that grin. He wanted to spend some time alone with me and I was ready to call America’s Most Wanted. I smiled shyly, letting him pull me from the car. What the heck. I was already here, might as well put a little trust in the man. After all, he was America’s golden boy. “So what’s so important out here?” I asked, trying to put some confidence in my words as we crossed the parking lot to the weed covered hill in front of us. “You’ll see,” he said, pulling me forward into a well-worn path up the hill. He smiled at me, pure delight in his eyes, as we carefully trudged up the trail. I stopped for a moment, pulling my new Manolo Blahniks off my feet. Heels were definitely not made to climb in. I could just see me breaking an ankle out here. That would be a great way to end the evening. Ryan slipped the shoes from my hand, meaning to carry them for me, and looked down at my bare feet. “Are you okay like that?” I nodded, my toes wiggling against the dirt. One of my favorite things was to feel the grass between my toes. Not a very sophisticated thing, I know, but what can I say? I’m a very complicated person. “Good,” he said, taking my hand in his. “We’re almost there.” He led me casually up the rest of the path, his fingers gently laced with mine. A shiver ran down my spine as I followed behind which had nothing to do with the chill in the air. Being this close to him, our fingers intertwined, was nothing short of magical. Maybe I was already dead, because this was Heaven. Ryan stopped, turning to me before we reached the top. Excitement bubbled in him, threatening to overflow any second. I looked at him as the corner of his lips twitched in anticipation. He acted like he had the world’s biggest secret to share. What could be so important? He pulled me closer, squeezing my hand reassuringly. “Welcome to Jaden Park Paradise Pier. The most thrilling amusement park in the world,” he said, leading me to the top of the hill. I gasped as I stared down at the beach in front of us. There, nestled on the sand and jutting out into the ocean, were the remains of a forgotten nautical theme park. It sat there, a skeleton on a boardwalk, calling out, enticing me by its ghostly appearance. “Oh, wow,” I said, taking in the rundown blackened buildings. We were high enough on the hill to see everything. The old rusty rides sat silent in the moonlight. It made me sad to think that they would never move again. “It’s breathtaking, in a depressing apocalyptic way,” I told him. He chuckled, nodding in agreement. “I suppose it is. This place does have a beautifully tragic allure to it.” Taking his suit jacket off, he spread it across the ground, then with grace I could never achieve, he bent a knee taking a seat on the makeshift blanket. Looking up at me, his perfect teeth shining in the moonlight as he smiled, he patted the spot next to him. “Care to join me?” Smoothing down my dress, I lowered myself to the ground, praying I could look only half as good as Ryan. I looked out at the water, the haunting structure taking up most of the view. “Why is it still lit up? “It stays lit so boats can see it. There were too many accidents at night here when it was first closed down. Too many late night boaters not paying attention. In the end, it was safer to keep it lit all night.” I took in the park. I guess that made sense. It was the same reason people came up with lighthouses. “Why don’t they just tear it down?” “Maybe the owner doesn’t want to.” I let his words sink in as I took in all the place had to offer. The faded colors, the broken statues. It made me wonder what it would have been like in its heyday. I could almost hear the ghosts of memories floating around down there, rejoicing in what was now lost to the world. I understood why it was still there. It had somehow survived the hardships placed against it and still managed to keep its place in the world. In many ways, we were alike. Time tried to wear us down, but we remained intact, just waiting for someone to love us enough to make us whole again. “What was the name of this place?” I asked Ryan, only taking my eyes off it for a second. There were too many wonderful things down there to stop looking at it for any longer. He leaned closer. “Jaden Park Paradise Pier,” he said, awe in his voice as he spoke, almost as if he was naming royalty. “I’ve never heard of the place.” I turned and looked at him. “Why haven’t I ever heard of this place?” Ryan shrugged. “Not a whole lot of people have. It was one of the most popular parks in the 20’s. People came from all over just to ride the Big Dipper,” he said, tracing a finger down the sloping wooden arch of decaying roller coaster track. “This was the spot to be. Young, old. Rich, poor. Famous, or not. Everyone wanted to spend a day under the glittering lights of the midway.” He pointed a finger down at the old boardwalk as waves crashed around its supports. “That was the jewel of amusement parks.” I watched the wonder in his eyes as he spoke. This place meant a lot to him. “What happened to it?” I asked, being swept up in the emotions of it. “The Great Depression came and went. People stopped going to places like this. Carefree days and frivolous nights were something people couldn’t afford anymore,” he told me with a shrug. “Visitors stopped coming. Money dried up. The park started to be too much of a burden to keep open. They shut it down and walked away.” His gaze drifted to me. “It sat here, empty, a ghost of its former self, waiting for something to change. Nothing ever did. Except for a small fire in 1954. Turned part of her into a charred mess, but…she still stands.” “It must have been wonderful here.” “Oh, yes. It was. It was the greatest thing around. So fresh and new. You’d look at her and know anything was possible here.” I looked at him in amazement. He talked like he’d known this place. It was as if he’d actually witnessed its days of glory. But that couldn’t be right. He was only a few years older than I was. He had been born in the days of neon-jellied sandals and crimped hair. He wasn’t even thought of yet in the heyday of this park’s past. Why was he so attached to it? He noticed the confusion on my face. “I’m sorry. The way I talk about this place, you must think I’m crazy.” I shook my head. “No, not crazy. I'm just not quite sure how you can have sentimental feelings for a place you’ve never seen.” He turned away from me and shrugged. “Stories passed down to me,” he said, almost automatically. “I’ve grown up hearing all about Jaden Park. Sometime…” He stopped, glancing out at the water, his eyes glazing over at the memories stirring in his head. “Sometimes I feel I’ve lived all her stories personally.” Wow. The guy sitting here, telling me stories about his past wasn’t the Ryan I had gotten to know through the big screen. This Ryan was quiet, thoughtful, almost vulnerable. No longer was there any trace of the cool Hollywood actor. I realized this was a side of him most people never got to see. I doubted if he even realized he was showing it to me. There was so much sadness in his eyes as he watched the waves dance in the darkness below. I leaned towards him. “Ryan,” I whispered, “who used to bring you here?” He looked over at me, startled. It was almost as if he had forgotten I was even there. “My mother,” he said softly before slipping a smile back across his lips. “But…that is a story for another day.” He slipped back into the controlled golden god with those words. The perfect dashing leading man, who made women drool with that smile. But I had seen the real Ryan for a moment. The one who was haunted by things I couldn’t even begin to imagine. There was a depth to him that seemed endless, a depth you might fall into if you got too close. My instincts were telling me all of this from that one brief glimpse. I also knew something else. Something that I could totally relate to. Despite all his wealth and fame, Ryan was a very, very lonely guy. And even though I knew I should stay away, (my gut was screaming that this could only end in heartache) I wanted to fix that. Desperately! I leaned closer, smiling up at him. “You surprise me, Ryan Everheart. Most movie stars don’t have real passion for anything other than themselves.” “Oh,” he said, raising an eyebrow. “You’ll come to find I’m full of unexpected surprises.” He closed the space between us, brushing his lips softly against mine. It was as if I had stuck my finger in a light socket. My body shuddered at the flash of electricity running through me at his touch. I pulled back instantly, not even realizing I had. Ryan looked down at me, slight disappointment in his eyes. “I’m sorry,” he said softly. “I shouldn’t have done that.” I raised my fingers to my lips, making sure they hadn’t been scorched off. What was that? Nothing like that had ever happened when I kissed a guy before. And I’ve had my fair share of kisses. I looked at him, curiosity burning deep within me. What could that have meant? Had he felt it too? Considering I was the only one who pulled away, I seriously doubted it. Ryan took in my silence and then started to move. “I should get you home.” “No,” I said immediately, with such force I shocked us both. I was with Ryan, alone, and I wasn’t going to ruin it. No matter what. Even if all my skin smoldered off at his touch. “I don’t want to go.” He moved close again, looking into my eyes. “What do you want?” he breathed. “This,” I said, my fingers digging into his shirt as I pulled him into me. Our lips found each other and I kissed him softly, making it perfectly clear I wasn’t going anywhere. Lightning struck my senses again as he moved his lips against mine, but this time I was prepared for it. I mentally swatted the sensation away, shoving it deep into the back of my mind. I didn’t care what it meant. I wanted this and nothing was going to stop me. The bolt of electricity died down as our kisses deepened. It became a dull buzzing, seeming to dance across my skin as my whole body flushed from the contact. It almost became pleasant as I melted into Ryan, becoming aware of nothing but his lips and tongue as they told me things only a body could. Maybe everyone felt that searing rush of electricity burn through their bodies when they kissed that special someone for the first time. Maybe I had finally found where I was meant to be and this was my sign. My sit-up-and-take-notice moment when I was supposed to cut through all the mundaneness and realize that I was with the one. My heart stopped for a moment as I felt that sink in. Maybe it was an early warning system and I was falling in love with Ryan Everheart. But…I couldn’t be. I was smarter than that. Wasn’t I? Fifteen Ryan and I walked down the hall to my apartment. My lips still tingled from the kisses we had shared. That strange sensation had indeed wilted into almost nothing as he held me on that hilltop. Now only a warm pulse ran through me any time his skin came in contact with mine. I couldn’t believe it, even as I could still feel the phantom caress of his hands as he had held me close to him. I had made out with Ryan Everheart. Wouldn’t the girls back home just die if they knew? And Stephen! I bet he’d regret tossing me a side. No, it had been more than that. We weren’t two hormone-ridden teenagers frantically making out in the back of a borrowed car. It was experiencing the first kiss with that someone special. It was the stuff of movies. It would rival even the greatest kisses in history. It had been filled with passion, magic, and romance. And I really, really hoped there would be more of it. We stopped in front of my door. Ryan looked down at our entangled fingers, a look of sadness passing through his eyes as he realized he would soon have to separate them. “I had a great time, Maxie,” he finally spoke. “I did, too,” I told him, smiling as his fingers caressed mine at the confession. He leaned close, brushing a strand of hair from my cheek. His fingers were cold and I shivered even as I wanted more. “When can I see you again?” he asked me softly. I giggled at his question, feeling heady, as if I had drunk a whole bottle of wine. What was wrong with me? I was drunk on the feelings which tried bubbling up with such force, I thought I’d explode. Was this normal? Could I really be falling head over heels for this guy? It didn’t matter. All that mattered was Ryan wanting to see me again. How could someone not feel giddy after something like that? “As soon as you want to,” I told him. So much for playing hard to get! He smiled…and not the movie star smile. It was the same honestly sweet smile he’d been wearing since we left Jaden Park. “In that case, there’s a movie premiere I have to attend tonight. Come with me?” he asked. “I’d love to have you by my side.” I felt dizzy. I couldn’t help wondering if I was already in bed dreaming. That’s what it had to be, right? Me on the red carpet? On the arm of someone who wanted me there? It didn’t get any better than that. “Are you kidding me? I’d love to,” I squealed, throwing my arms around his neck. He laughed softly as he held me to him. “Then it’s a date,” he whispered into my hair before pulling back. “I’ll pick you up at seven.” He leaned forward, closing the gap between our lips. My hands instantly found themselves in his hair as I kissed him back, taking my time, wanting to draw it out for as long as I could. I wasn’t ready for this date to be over. Not after it had gone so well. After a few minutes, he pulled back and smiled down at me, almost apologetically. “I have to go,” he spoke, his voice calm and collected, totally opposite of what I was feeling. “I’ll see you later today.” He squeezed my hand gently and stepped back, heading down the hall. “Good night,” I called after him, before digging in my purse for my keys. I couldn’t believe my luck. Just when I thought I was at the lowest point in my life, I stumbled into a fairytale. Tonight I would be walking the red carpet with Ryan Everheart. I suppressed another squeal as I let myself into the apartment, heading through the parlor into the kitchen. Tossing my purse on the counter, I sighed, letting out some of the excitement bubbling in me. “What was all that squealing about?” Van’s voice asked, cutting the silence around me. Startled, I practically jumped out of my heels as my eyes came to rest on her. She was seated at the table, hidden by shadows. I reached over and flicked on the light switch, filling the room with a brightness that chased all the shadows away but one. It looked like the shadow of anger in Van’s eyes was there to stay. Oh, goody. I wasn’t going to let her mood get to me. It had been the best night of my life and I wasn’t going to let her jealousy ruin it. She sat there waiting for an answer, chocolate ice cream dripping from the spoon in her hand; splattering back into the carton in front of her. Oh boy, I was just in time for the pity party. I turned away from her, not wanting to get into it. “It was nothing,” I said, dismissing it as I floated across the floor, snagging a bottle of water from the fridge. “Come on, Maxie,” she said, licking the chocolate mess off the spoon. “I don’t buy that.” I grabbed my purse and turned to look at her, apprehension in my eyes. I wanted to tell her. I wanted her to be happy for me. She was the first real friend I had made here, and I didn’t want to think that a little jealousy could get in the way of that. Sighing, I pulled out the chair across from her, setting my purse and bottle of water between us like a mini protective barrier. I was going to tell her. Everything, if she’d let me. I just hoped it wouldn’t blow up in my face. She took another bite of ice cream, silently waiting for my confession. “Ryan asked me to go with him to a movie premiere tonight.” She stared at me for a moment, frozen in some thought I couldn’t read. She suddenly frowned, letting the spoon fall from her fingers back into the soupy mess in the carton. It splashed and I jerked my purse back, hoping none of the fleeing chocolate droplets had leeched onto it. I waited patiently, clutching my Louis Vuitton to my chest, out of death-by-chocolate’s way, while she decided what to say. Finally, leaning forward, with a squint to her eyes, she spoke, “I suppose you said yes?” I gave her a frown to match her own, as I looked at my friend, dumbfounded. “Of course, I said I’d go. Why shouldn’t I?” She stood up from the table, grabbing the carton of ice cream as she did. She dumped it into the sink, brown ooze splashing across clean steel, and turned back to me. “Everything’s back to normal in your perfect world, isn’t it?” she asked softly. “This is where you think the great Maxie Duncan should be. Dating a movie star. You really don’t know a thing about yourself, do you?” She turned around, heading out of the kitchen and into the back hall. “You’re way over your head, Max,” her voice drifted back to me, challenging me. “I just hope we’re around to pick up the pieces in the end.” The sound of her bedroom door slamming punctuated her words. I sat there, my jaw practically to my knees. How could she not be happy for me? Was she really that jealous of my sudden luck? I stood up, trying to shake the slight cloud of guilt suddenly trickling through my stomach. I had nothing to feel guilty for. It wasn’t my fault Ryan picked me. I shouldn’t have to apologize because Ryan liked me. My mind drifted back to Ryan and those shared kisses by the beach. My lips tingled as I remembered the feel of those kisses. Those perfect moonlit smooches and the feel of his hands on me swirled in my mind, causing instant giddiness to overtake me once again. This was what life was about. Who cared what Evangeline thought? This was about Ryan and me, and it didn’t matter what anyone else thought. I drifted into my room, still on cloud nine. How perfect the night had been. Ryan was an absolute dream come true. This was what my instincts had been leading me to. A chance at a fairytale ending. Is that not what all girls were entitled to? Smiling, I started to slide my heels off, my mind still dreamily on Ryan and his lips. I froze as I stared at my feet, my smile fading in shock. My feet weren’t touching the ground! I was floating, really floating, above the floor. “Help,” I squeaked, too soft for Van to actually hear me. How was this possible? People can’t hover off the ground. Why was I doing it? I turned my body, pivoting for the door. I felt like a fish, trying to swim upstream. I needed help and I needed it right away. After what seemed like hours, I managed to hook my fingers around my doorknob. Heart racing, I pulled the door open and I stepped into the hall. I looked down, dazed, when I realized that’s exactly what I had done. Stepped. I felt the hardwood floor creak as I shifted my weight, verifying the fact my feet were indeed planted solidly on the floor. I looked around me, trying to figure out what had happened. Standing in the hallway, I couldn’t be sure anymore. I took in a deep breath, trying to calm my frantic heart. I was fine. My feet were on the ground. There was no reason to panic. Turning around, I hesitantly stepped through my doorway. My feet behaved just fine. Just like they should. I tried to shake it off as I got ready for bed. Too much to drink. Way too much excitement. That’s all it had been. I kept repeating that like a mantra as I drifted off to sleep. Because if it had been real, it meant something was very wrong with me. And that just had no place in my perfect world. Sixteen I opened my eyes, squinting at the sunlight suddenly invading my room. Rolling over, I offered my back to the offending rays, instead. I laid there for a moment, letting the silence of the apartment surround me, pacifying my mind. The sudden thought of Ryan’s lips against mine shattered any thoughts of returned slumber. I bolted up in bed, a smile no doubt plastered across my sleep-swollen face. I had kissed Ryan Everheart. And I would be on his arm at a movie premiere tonight. Pulling my blankets back, I bounced out of bed with all the joy of a child on Christmas morning. I had so much to do today. I had to find something to wear. And a trip to the salon was definitely in order. I slid my feet into my pink fuzzy slippers. (One of the best things my mom ever gave me. What? I know how to appreciate the simple things in life, too.) After a quick trip to the bathroom, I headed towards the kitchen as fast as my slippers could carry me. I desperately needed coffee. I had a big day ahead of me which required massive amounts of caffeine. The pot was still warm from Van’s morning indulgence. I filled a mug with the delightful offering from the breakfast gods and brought it to my lips, inhaling deeply as I did. Yeah, coffee really did make all the difference in the morning. As I enjoyed my liquid breakfast, my eyes wandered to a garment bag lying on the counter. Ohh! Van had gone shopping. She must still be upset. Retail therapy was the best way for a girl to work out her emotions. I sat the mug down next to the sink and scooted closer, wondering what kind of delectable ensemble Van happened to snag. I suppressed a slight gasp of wonder when I saw my name scrawled across the top of a note lying on the bag. I reached for it, gently unfolding the crisp, white stationary. I smiled as I recognized Evangeline’s elegant handwriting. Ryan had this dropped off for you this morning. Sorry about last night. We need to talk. Van. Wow, an apology and a gift? If that was any indication at all, the day was going to rock. Setting the note aside, I immediately set my sights on the garment bag. The smooth off-white glossiness called to me. I could only imagine what might be held inside. As my fingers clasped the cool metal zipper, anticipation swelled inside of me. What had Ryan picked out for me? Who did he want me to be as we walked down the red carpet together? Unzipping the bag, I looked at the offered gift before me. It was beautiful. Long white silk shimmering iridescently in the light. I pulled it from its plastic confines and couldn’t help but stare in awe. It was a simple enough dress. Strappy top, empire waist, flowing skirt which fell about knee length. But I knew I would look amazing in it. Nothing short of a Greek goddess come to life. And I bet Ryan knew it, too. I squealed in delight as I put the dress back in its bag. I had the perfect cream wedges to go with it. Open toe, though. Hmmm, looked like I was getting a mani-pedi today as well. I called Kisten, my L.A. stylist, and asked if there was any way he could fit me in. I must be one of his favorite customers, because he had no problem freeing up his day for me, especially if it was for a date with Ryan Everheart. With that settled, I quickly showered and dressed, hoping I could do some accessory shopping downtown before my appointment with Kisten. Grabbing my purse, I quickly headed out the door and to the elevator. Riding down, my excitement built with each floor I passed. Here I was, starting my new life the way I wanted to. I actually mattered. I was someone important. Not just Stephen’s old garbage, but someone special. I was feeling better about life and who I was. Nothing was going to bring me down. At least that’s what I thought until I stepped out of the elevator. And practically ran right into Jensen. “Oh, hi,” I said quickly, trying to keep the heat from rising in my cheeks. “Hi, Maxie,” he said softly, standing there with his hands in his jean pockets. He looked good standing there, and a weak feeling trickled into my knees. What was wrong with me? I had Ryan Everheart sending me gifts, and this bookstore owner still made me lightheaded? Focus, Maxie. Eyes on the prize. Ryan was who I wanted. Who I had. “How are you?” I asked, throwing small talk at him as I tried to walk on by. “Okay,” he said, never taking his eyes off me. “I was just on my way out.” “So am I,” I said. I know. Witty repartee. Even for a girl trying to kill the conversation. “I’ll walk with you,” Jensen said, falling in step next to me. Great. Now I’d have to make more small talk. And feel guilty the whole time I was doing it. But I smiled up at him anyway. “Great.” We headed through the lobby. Jensen stopped and held the tall glass entrance doors for me. “After you,” he said, his smile making my heart flutter. I slipped out the doors, my eyes going everywhere but to the man next to me. What was I doing to myself? The one evening we shared on the couch hadn’t meant anything. I had been lonely…and he had been a warm body to cuddle with. We were both grown adults and things like that happened. It didn’t mean I owed him anything. Not even if the sight of him still sent my heart racing. I was a girl who recently had her heart broken. Any attention from a decent guy would have caused the same reaction. Right? “So…how’s the bookstore?” I asked, trying to shut off my inner monologue. I didn’t want to reflect on anything right then. He shrugged as we stepped out onto the sidewalk. “As good as ever. There’s always people looking for a vacation from their lives for a while. Words in books have a magical way of doing that.” He stopped and looked at me. “You should really stop by. You might find exactly what you’re looking for.” I glanced away. That remark could be taken so many different ways and I wasn’t ready to deal with it. This wasn’t a day for misunderstandings and hurt feelings. This was the day I took my place in the world. Even if it only lasted one more night. “I don’t know. I’m kind of busy,” I said, avoiding his gaze as I stepped into the parking lot. “I know,” he said as he followed me. “So where are you running off to today?” I glanced back at him. Wow, spend one evening watching movies with a guy and he thinks he’s entitled to know your every move. “I thought I’d do a little shopping down town.” He looked at me for a moment, the sun glittering off his glasses. The expression in his eyes was unreadable. Who knew where his thoughts had taken him. Finally, he came to some conclusion and looked around the parking lot. “How are you getting there?” I flipped my hair out of my face and shrugged. “I’d thought I’d catch a cab.” He chuckled softly. “Even you can’t catch a cab here at this time of day, Max,” he said, walking farther into the parking lot. He glanced back over his shoulder. “I’ll give you a ride.” I stood there, indignant. Men! Why is it they all thought they knew what was best? “I don’t need a ride,” I called to him. “Yes, you do,” he called back, keying open the driver’s door on a little green Mazda. “You’ll try to flag down a cab, and when you can’t…you’ll walk.” He stood there, looking at me over the top of the car as I moved closer, a rebuttal on my lips. “This isn’t your hometown, Max,” he continued, “a move like that could be dangerous.” His eyes traveled up me, only stopping when they locked with mine. “Especially for someone like you.” My jaw dropped open in shock. Someone like me? Of all the egotistical, chauvinistic things to say. Obviously, I was just another dumb blonde, too stupid to keep herself out of trouble. “Like you know anything about me,” I spat at him. He sighed before answering. “I know enough,” he said, sliding into the driver’s seat. “Now…will you stop arguing with me and get in the car?” He leaned across the front seat and opened the passenger’s door for me. I stood there, glaring at the door like it was its fault. I was angry because he knew exactly what I would do. Who was he to think he had me all figured out? But still…a ride was better than trying to walk any distance in L.A.. Huffing, I headed to the car. Yeah, I was going to take his ride, but that didn’t mean I had to like it. Jensen smiled as I slid in, clearly thinking he had won the battle. Sure, let him think that. It gave me the upper hand. I grabbed the seat belt, trying to hook it. It went in, but didn’t click. I pushed it in a couple more times, but it refused to lock. Really? Did everything about this guy have to be a struggle? He glanced down at my poor seat belt skills, watching me struggle. “Sorry,” he muttered, reaching down to help. “That seat belt gives me trouble from time to time. You just have to jiggle it.” I started to say that’s what happens when you buy cheap cars, but the feel of his fingers brushing against mine as he locked the seat belt in place, froze the words on my lips. The tingles he sent through my body as our skin met was as light as butterfly wings. They caressed every inch of me with the might of a full-scale hurricane. I gasped, severing the contact as fast as I could. Jensen watched my hands move away from his with something close to disappointment in his eyes. “Sorry,” he muttered again, turning his attention back to the car, pulling out of the parking lot. We rode in silence, which was more than welcoming. But I was left alone with my thoughts and they were going places I really didn’t want to tread. The sensation a mere touch of Jensen’s hand brought was different than anything else I had ever encountered. Even with Ryan. It took a kiss from him to jump-start the sensation, and even then, it hadn’t been too pleasant in the beginning. That had been a full on lightning strike compared to Jensen’s cool breeze on a hot, muggy day caress. But what did these things means? And why had I never felt these sensations before? I glanced over at Jensen. He was keeping his eyes very firmly planted on the traffic in front of us. Breezes were much more soothing than lightning anyway. Was it possible I was making a mistake rushing into things with Ryan? Was this a sign there were better options, better choices I could be making? True, I was attracted to Jensen, I couldn’t deny that. But I had been attracted to the baggage handler at the airport, too. Or anyone of the endless guys who had hit on me since coming to California. That didn’t mean they were the ones I was supposed to be with. Ryan was something different. Something special. Lightning never strikes twice, they say, and maybe with good reason. Maybe it’s not supposed to. Sitting on that hill, Ryan’s arms firmly around me, I had let go of the pain that had chained itself so firmly around my heart. With his lips against mine, I had become free. Free to be anyone I wanted. Free to feel something without fear. I didn’t want that to end. Maybe I was risking it all with Ryan, but I deserved to be happy. And Ryan made me very happy. I owed it to myself to see where it would lead. I needed to know if I was falling in love with Ryan Everheart. Traffic thickened as we neared the heart of Beverly Hills. Jensen took a deep breath and looked over at me as the cars in front of us came to a standstill. “So…you’re really going out with Ryan again?” I glanced over at him, surprised his thoughts had been mirroring so close to my own. I could only nod, afraid of what my voice might sound like at the sight of the hurt in his eyes. Darn it. Why was I feeling so guilty? I needed to get over this. I had Ryan. I had chosen him. Jensen was only a friend. Nothing more. “Don’t go out with him tonight, Maxie,” he said softly. “Please.” “What?” I asked him, dazed, completely thrown off by his forwardness. Shifting slightly in his seat, he kept his eyes on me. “I’ll take you anywhere you want to go. We can do whatever you want. Just…please, cancel your plans with him. Don’t see him tonight.” All I could do was stare at him. How dare he ask me to do that. My whole future was riding on tonight. I wasn’t going to give that up. “Why would I?” I asked, finally finding my voice. “Ryan likes me. He’s counting on me to come with him. I’m not going to cancel at the last minute. Besides…I want to be with him.” One of his eyes twitched, as if that was difficult to hear, but still, he pressed on, “His kind is all the same. He doesn’t care about people, just what he can use them for.” I eyed him carefully. Was he trying to make the point I thought he was? “What do you mean ‘his kind?’” He glanced away, eyes back on the traffic barely creeping forward in front of us. His jaw set in anger against whatever he wanted to say. I glanced at the people on the sidewalks around us. Shopping bags in hand, they headed blindly to their next destination. Little did they know World War III might very well start at this moment. “What kind?” I asked again, daring him not to answer me. His shoulders slumped in defeat. “You know, rich and famous,” he told me flatly. I knew it. People were all the same, no matter where I went. “Jensen, I’m rich. Just because a person isn’t struggling it doesn’t make them less than anybody else.” He turned and looked at me, guilt in his eyes. “I’m sorry, Max. That’s not what I meant.” “Oh, I know exactly what you meant,” I snapped. I pointed to the parking lot next to us. “Just pull over and let me out. We’re here anyway.” “Maxie,” he protested, but did as he was told. As soon as we stopped, I unhooked my seat belt and opened the door. Thank goodness it worked that time. I couldn’t be trapped one more minute with that man. They always said if you spent enough time with someone, their true colors would start to show. How could I have ever thought he was a nice guy? He was just a big jerk like every other small-minded idiot I had come across. As I slid out of the car, he reached for me, his fingers just short of stopping me. “Don’t go, Maxie. I’m sorry.” “Good bye, Jensen,” I said, slamming the door. Turning quickly away, I walked across the busy parking lot. I didn’t look back, not caring if he left already or was still there, watching me. I should have never thought I could be a regular person. Nobody would ever accept me as one. I was a porcelain princess, slumming at best. I needed to stay with my own kind. At least they understood me. Lifting my head high, I put on my best game face and entered one of the boutiques nearby. I had shopping to do. A salon appointment to keep. I had a man to impress later that evening, and I didn’t need some silly boy messing it up. I ignored the small, empty feeling creeping into my chest as the store clerk greeted me with a smile. Retail therapy, here I come. Seventeen Sliding the long, dangling teardrop diamonds into my ears, I stepped back from the mirror to admire myself. The silky white material swished where it draped off me in layers of simple elegance. Soft curls framed my face, hanging loosely here and there from the half up-do Kisten had so expertly place on my head. My make up was fabulous and the glint of diamonds at my ears and throat only added to the glow I had around me. I had been absolutely right. I did look just like a Grecian Goddess brought to life. And I felt like one, too. I couldn’t help but giggle like a schoolgirl as I twirled again, watching in the mirror. My fairytale was in full swing, and my prince charming would be here any moment, ready to whisk me away to our happily-ever-after. I was in a daydream, wrapped in a fantasy, contained in a wish-come-true. I had to be, because this was almost too good to be true. I took a deep breath to center myself, calming the nerves racing through me, and then grabbed my handbag. Ryan’s limo would be here any second and I didn’t plan on keeping him waiting. I wanted to meet him in the lobby. Too many bad things could happen if I let him come to my door. Like angry roommates and jealous guys-next-door. No, the sooner I got him away from here, the better. I smiled at myself in the mirror, checking one last time for any embarrassing flaw in my look. Satisfied, I hurried from the room. Entering the living room, I glanced over at the couch as I did. Van was there, legs pulled up under her, her nose in a book. I looked away, praying she was too involved to notice me. We still hadn’t spoken yet; and I didn’t feel like starting another argument right then. I know she had said sorry in the note, but I was still going out with Ryan and I knew that was a sore spot that wouldn’t go away so soon. As quietly as I could in my wedges, I tiptoed across the room. “Wow, Max. That dress looks great on you.” Great. No such luck. It looked like I wasn’t going to get out of the apartment that easily. I turned to face her, a friendly smile on my lips. “Thanks. Ryan has great taste, doesn’t he?” I stated, regretting the words the minute they left my mouth. Nothing like rubbing in the spoils of war. She leaned forward, setting the book on the coffee table. “Yeah,” she said with a shrug. “I wouldn’t expect any less from someone like him.” I started to say something about the “someone like him” remark, and then stopped myself. There was no point. Her mind was set. Another night of arguing wasn’t going to change that. “I’m sorry,” Van said suddenly. I glanced at her, surprised that she would offer a second apology. “I am,” she continued, “I don’t want you to think I’m jealous about Ryan. Because I’m not. That’s not what this is about at all. It’s just…you deserve better than him.” Better than Ryan Everheart? Was that even possible? “But,” she hurried on when she sensed I was about to say something. “You have every right to make your own decisions. None of us can do that for you.” She looked at me with sincerity. “From now on, I will stay out of your personal life, no matter how much I want to interfere.” I nodded slowly. That was more like it. I was a grown woman. I could make my own choices in life. I was just glad Van could let go. I’d hate to lose her friendship over this. “Thanks. That means a lot.” She nodded and stood up from the couch. “Just keep one thing in mind. Ryan’s not like us. He will never be like us.” I let out a sigh. Here we go again. She wasn’t ready to let it go after all. “Van…” “You need to decide if this is really where you want your life to head. Are you really ready to accept everything that comes with dating him?” “What is that supposed to mean?” I asked, confused as I ever was lately. “Talk to Ryan. Ask him to tell you all his dirty little secrets,” she said. “You’re strong enough to handle him. You just need to believe you are.” I smiled, not sure how else to respond to that. “Um, okay. Thanks.” I glanced over at the clock. “I better hurry. I don’t want to make us late.” Van nodded solemnly. “Have a good time, Maxie. If…you need anything, call.” “Okay,” I muttered and quickly swept out the door. I needed to get away from Van and the worried look in her eyes. I used the elevator, nervously descending to the lobby. For one brief moment, as the elevator stopped at the bottom, I almost pushed the top floor button, the feeling of panic overwhelming me. I took a deep breath trying to calm my weary nerves. This was a big night for me. Anybody in my shoes would be absolutely terrified. How could I not be? But my nerves didn’t settle as I stepped out of the elevator. The fear thickened in me with every step. I tried to laugh it off. Van had gotten to me with her doom and gloom. That was all it was. It made sense, but why did I suddenly feel like I was a vestal virgin instead of a Greek Goddess? And that I was headed to my own sacrifice? Eighteen Smiling happily to myself, I snuggled against Ryan as we silently watched the lights of the Hotel DenMark’s floors slowly change. Once again, I felt tipsy in Ryan’s presence. The fear which had been crawling through me as I left the apartment had disappeared the moment I looked into his eyes. I was feeling better than I’d ever felt before. Lighter, like all the weight had been lifted of my shoulders. It was amazing the way he could make me feel. Then again, this night in itself had been amazing. I still could feel the rush of walking the red carpet on Ryan’s arm. I could still feel the eyes that followed me with awe. It was empowering, all that longing from the crowds. The feeling they would give anything to be me right then. I could feel all of that energy flowing over me and it had made me feel like a god. I glanced up at the man next to me as the elevator arrived at our destination. So this was what it was like to be with Ryan Everheart. If this was one of the things that came with dating him, I could definitely learn to live with it. He smiled at me, warm and intriguing, as the doors of the elevator opened. He offered his hand and I gladly took it, slipping my fingers in between his. I suppressed a slight shiver at the coolness of his touch. But I wasn’t too worried. I could probably come up with ways of warming him up. I mentally giggled. He hadn’t even gotten us in the room yet and I was already thinking those thoughts. I wasn’t that kind of girl. Sure, I flirted a lot, but that’s usually as far as it went. I was a serous-relationship girl. Not a one-night stand. What was I doing there? Ryan smiled again as he slid the key in the lock, his blue eyes twinkling in mischief. Oh, yeah. That’s what I was thinking! Pushing the door open, he pulled me inside, letting the door shut with a loud thump behind us. There we were, alone, and I giggled again before I could stop myself. He let go of my hand and walked through the suite towards the wet bar in back. “Would you care for a drink?” he asked, his voice as smooth as silk. I knew I shouldn’t, my head was already mush, but I asked for one anyway. Oh, well. I was young and we only lived once. “Please, make yourself comfortable,” he said, gesturing to the plush leather couches occupying the floor. I sat down, leaning back into the opulence around me. Yeah, this was the good life. I didn’t know why I had tried to convince myself that I didn’t deserve it. This was everything I wanted, everything I needed. I sat there, listening to ice clink into a glass and closed my eyes. I felt a heavy warmth throughout my whole body, spreading out like massaging fingers, relaxing me instantly. Once again, I wondered what was up with me. I never felt this way unless I’ve had a little too much to drink. And I hadn’t had anything harder than a diet soda all evening. I had wanted to remember this night. I glanced up at Ryan as he sat down on the couch next to me. I smiled as the warmth intensified at his closeness. I was drunk on him. It was his mere presence that was affecting me. Was this what swooning felt like? “Here you go,” he said, placing a cold glass in my hands. I stared down at it. The pink-tinted liquid sloshed the ice around the glass. I watched it, trying to remember what I had requested from him. “What is this?” I asked finally. He looked over at me with a smile. “It’s something fruity,” he told me. “I thought all girls liked fruity drinks.” I nodded, taking a sip. It was fabulous. Strawberries and cream with warmth that slipped all the way down my throat. Wow, I could drink it like Kool-aid if I wasn’t careful. I took another sip and set it on the glass coffee table in front of me. “I really enjoyed your movie tonight.” He sat his own glass down next to mine. “Really? I wasn’t too sure about it. Then again, I’m not my biggest fan. Every time I see myself on the screen, I cringe,” he admitted sheepishly. Who knew an actor could be so modest. “I love everything you’re in. I’ve been a big fan ever since your first movie,” I told him, a little sheepishly myself. “Thank you,” he said, running his thumb down my cheek. “And I might add, I haven’t known you very long, but I’ve become a big fan of yours.” I felt a blush creep into my cheeks. Ryan certainly knew how to charm a woman. “Really?” I asked. It was all I could do to keep the word from coming out like a squeak. “Oh, yes,” he murmured, shortening the almost non-existent distance between us even more. “You’re very special, Maxie Duncan. Even if you don’t realize it.” His thumb traced the curve of my jaw. “No one has honestly ever made me feel the way you do. I feel so alive, so much more than I’ve ever been when I’m with you.” “Mmmm,” I absently acknowledged his words as I stared at him. His sparkling blue eyes. His perfect nose. These things were demanding too much of my attention this close. My eyes traveled farther and fell on his lips. His full mouth and his kissable lips. My world had shrunk to the size of his mouth. I wanted those lips against mine. Touching, tasting, connecting us once again. Ryan’s thumb slid off my jaw and made its way to my own mouth. It slid across my bottom lip slowly, teasing sensation from me and I wondered if it was possible for people to purr. “Tell me, Maxie, do you feel the connection between us?” he whispered. “Do you come alive every time I touch you?” “Yes,” I whispered back. There was no point holding back any longer. I was head-over-heels for him and he might as well know it. “Good,” he said. Then his lips were against mine, enticing emotion from me I’d never thought I would feel again. I knew I could be happy once more. Everything that had happened to me had brought me to this point. It had brought me into this man’s arms. And I knew in an instant, as my fingers tangled in his silky hair, all the pain, all the shame Stephen had put me through had been totally worth it. I didn’t know why these feeling were suddenly so strong, but I knew I couldn’t fight them. Ryan was my destiny. And I was his. Nothing else mattered. Ryan slipped a hand around my waist as the other cupped my cheek tentatively, promising more. His tongue darted across my bottom lip, asking a simple question and I answered, opening my mouth. Our kisses deepened as his tongue found mine and he growled softly as his fingers tightened against my back. I sighed as my fingers knotted in his hair, pulling myself closer to him. His scent, rich, clean, and so very Ryan, filled my senses as I leaned into him, making me even more lightheaded than before. Ryan pulled back away from me, staring down with heat in his blue eyes. I started to protest he was too far away from me. I needed him against me once again. He placed a finger to my lips, smiling, and I instantly went silent. “Stay with me tonight,” he said, his voice deeper, huskier than before. I nodded breathlessly, not sure I could form a cohesive sentence. Ryan grinned as if he hadn’t been sure of what my answer would be and caught my lips with his once again. I mentally chuckled as I realized he’d been unsure of how I would react. I guess when it came to love, everyone had their uncertainties. But, really, like I’d say no to a night with destiny. Nineteen I awoke suddenly, morning lying heavily on my tongue as I looked around me, trying to get my bearings. Images danced before my eyes. The dream that had startled me awake still clung to the edges of my mind. Men shouting. Faces which could only be from a monster movie. A broken down Ferris wheel. Me. Alone, lost, and scared to death. I sat up in bed, shoving the images away, back to the place where forgotten dreams go. I needed to focus on more important things. Like, where was I? I shifted in bed, the black silk sheets tickling against my bare legs. I glanced down at the over-sized tee-shirt I was wearing and it all came back to me. I had slept with Ryan Everheart. I was in Ryan’s suite, and from the sunlight filtering in through the curtains, I would say it was morning. I pushed back the sheets and made my way to the bathroom on wobbly legs. After nature’s business was done, I checked my presentabilty in the mirror, fearing the worst. After a few hand rakes through my hair, I figured I was good enough to go find the man of my dreams. Slowly, I made my way out of the bedroom, teetering slightly as I realized I still didn’t quite have my land legs back yet. I felt as weak as a kitten, but kept moving. I had never felt this way the morning after any of Stephen and my encounters. Ryan must be that good if he left me this drained. Even in my exhausted state, I would gladly be up for another round. “Ryan,” I called; a smile on my lips at the thought of crawling back into bed with him. “Where are you?” I waited for the reply, but only silence greeted me. I made my way towards the kitchen, the smell of fresh coffee becoming stronger as I went. The kitchen was empty. Oh, well. Coffee was a strong second on the list of things I desired right then. Grabbing the waiting mug off the counter, I filled it, sighing softly as I took a sip. The hot bitterness of the coffee lessened the heaviness in my mouth, warming me from the inside out on its way down. Feeling a little more alive, I looked around me, wondering where my bedmate had wandered off. A knot began to form in the pit of my stomach as the caffeine spike cleared my mind. It was never a good thing to find the guy you just slept with gone. Was I so disappointing he couldn’t even look me in the eye? Or, was this something he did wherever he went? Sleep with a girl and leave her in a hotel somewhere, never to hear from him again? Had I been just another notch on Ryan’s metaphorical bedpost? I sat my mug down with such intensity, I flinched. No. I refused to believe that. Ryan was different. I saw it in his eyes when he looked at me. He cared about me. He wasn’t leading me on. I know things, and I knew that Ryan had meant every word he whispered to me that night. Standing in the middle of the suite’s kitchen alone and frustrated, I longed for proof my heart was right. I had to silence the nagging in my head. The nagging that said maybe this had all been for nothing. I turned around; wishing for validation, willing myself to see what I knew had to be there somewhere. A slight breeze stirred through the air around me, so faint I could barely even believe that it was more than my imagination. A paper rattled on the far counter, and for a moment, I wondered if the breeze had been real. A headache began to bloom behind my eyes and I grabbed my coffee, convinced I needed more caffeine in my system. Venturing over to the paper, I glanced down at it, curiosity getting the best of me. A smile crept over me as I read the words scrawled for me. Maxie, Zand wanted to meet this morning to go over last minute things before we begin shooting. I couldn’t get out of it, even though I desperately wanted to. Last night was fantastic. You, my dear, were amazing. I look forward to many, many more nights just like that. I hope you do, too. I’ll call you when I get a chance. Ryan. I felt the knot of worry melt away completely. He didn’t leave me. He enjoyed last night as much as I did. Everything was absolutely fine. No, it was more than fine. It was wonderful. Ryan wanted to be with me. Finishing my coffee, I wondered what to do with myself today. I had the day off and who knew how long Zand would keep Ryan busy. I didn’t really want to hang out in the suite all day, especially with no clothes. Frowning, I realized I needed to go home. I could shower, take a nap, and then be dressed and ready by the time Ryan called. It sounded like a plan. A great plan considering how exhausted I was. There was only one flaw with the idea; I would have to do the walk of shame in no makeup and last night’s clothes. That wasn’t something I was used to. I’m not that type of girl. But, here I was, alone at a hotel, needing to catch a cab home. But I guess some things you just had to do for love. Oh, well. They say you should be open to trying new things. I put my dress back on, trying to fix myself as best as I could. Considering all I had in my handbag was a travel brush and a tube of passion pink lip gloss, I doubted I succeeded. Slipping my wedges on, I headed for the door, praying I could make it home without running into anyone I knew. But, alas, good fortune wasn’t mine that morning. “Maxie,” I heard a voice call as soon as I stepped into the lobby. Van was standing behind the counter, Danny nearby. She had a concerned look on her face as she waved me over. Well, that was just peachy. Why did Ryan have to bring me back to the place my roommate ran? Putting on a smile, I headed towards them, thinking I would make a bigger scene if I tried to run for it. As I neared, Van’s look of concern turned into a frown. She glanced over at Danny, who seemed to return her worry. “Good morning,” I said, trying to sound like this whole situation didn’t bother me. She gave me the once over, then leaned on the counter towards me. “You look like death warmed over, Max,” she said quietly. I folded my arms over my chest as I glared at her. “Thanks,” I said. “It’s good to see you, too.” At least she had said it quietly. It was one small thing to be grateful for. “You know what I mean.” I nodded, but didn’t answer. She wasn’t wrong. I had looked in the mirror before I left. “Ryan did this, didn’t he?” I looked at her, incredulously. Like what I did in my private time was any of her business. “If you are inferring that I didn’t get any sleep last night thanks to him, then you are correct.” The anger in her eyes softened as she took in my weary face. “Are you okay?” “I’m fine. I had a great evening. But I’d rather be at home right now taking a shower than here, talking about my love life,” I snapped. I turned on my heel, heading for the door. “Maxie, wait,” she said, coming out from behind the check-in desk. I stopped and waited for her. “What?” “You’re in no shape to catch a cab. Let Danny give you a ride home.” I glanced over at him, standing silently behind Van and wondered what he thought of me. After all, he was Jensen’s best friend. “It’s okay,” I said quickly, trying to avoid any more judgment from these people. “I’ll be fine.” “It’s no trouble. Really,” Danny said, stepping closer. “I need to head out anyway. I’ll be going right past the Cove on my way.” I looked from him to Van and wondered why they were being so nice to me. “Please,” Van said. “Let him take you. It would make me feel better.” I nodded with a sigh. There was no way I was getting out of here on my own and the sooner I accepted that, the sooner I could be in a hot shower. “Okay. Let’s go.” Danny said his goodbyes to Van and, after she promised to call later to check up on me, he ushered me through the doors and out to his jeep. Before I knew it, I was seat belted in and we were on our way. I silently wondered why I had complied so easily. I figured it was because I didn’t have the strength to protest anymore. Last night had really taken it out of me. I decided this would be the last time I would be at the mercy of someone chauffeuring me around. It was time to buy a car. Danny was quiet next to me. His eyes locked firmly to the traffic around us. I decided I had made enough people mad at me lately. I could at least try to be nice to him, especially since he was doing me a favor. “Thank you,” I said and meant it. He glanced over at me. “You’re welcome.” He was quiet another moment and then looked back over at me. “I know it’s none of my business. I’m not invested in you like the others are, but I do want us to be friends.” I stayed silent, waiting for him to go on. He didn’t disappoint. “I don’t think you should be seeing Ryan.” Not him too. “Why?” He shook his head and looked away. “I can’t tell you.” “What?” “Van made me swear not to say anything. She thinks this is all something you need to figure out on your own. Only then will it make sense to you.” He sighed. “Like any one of us were ready to know,” he muttered to himself. My eyes drifted to Enchantment Cove as we pulled up into the parking lot. What was Danny trying to say? He was obviously mad because I had blown off his best friend, but why was he talking in riddles? Everyone was, when it came to Ryan. And I didn’t like it. I looked over at him as we pulled to a stop, anger flashing in my eyes. What right did any of these people have to tell me who I could or couldn’t see? “This is about Jensen, isn’t it?” “No,” Danny said, shaking his head. “This is about you. Ryan is not what you need. He needs to stay with his own kind.” “Why does everyone keep saying that?” I fumed. “What is it supposed to mean?” I got out of the car and turned to face him. No one got to tell me what I needed. Especially someone who looked down on people who came from money. “Just for the record, Ryan and I are more alike then I’ll ever be to you guys. Maybe it’s time I stay with my own kind,” I said, slamming the door. Turning, I stormed across the parking lot, determined not to let anyone see the tears I knew were coming. I heard gravel crunch behind me and knew Danny’s jeep was following close behind. He wasn’t going to let this go. He pulled up next to me and rolled down his window. “That’s not what I meant, Max. Ryan’s dangerous. You’d live a lot longer if you stay away from him,” he said, driving off before I could respond. I stood there in shock, watching the jeep fade into the distance. Was he insane? Ryan Everheart? Dangerous? That couldn’t be right. Not the sweet guy I had gotten to know. Danny must have resorted to scare tactics. But it wouldn’t work. The only thing I had to fear from Ryan was a broken heart. Okay, that would be bad, but not particularly dangerous. Why was everyone so against me being with him? I entered the apartment building. What was wrong with the people here? Why did they feel the need to stand in the way of my happiness? It wasn’t like I wanted to marry Ryan tomorrow. I just wanted a chance to get to know him better, to see where destiny was leading us. And the notion he was dangerous, that was just ridiculous, wasn’t it? I hadn’t seen anything to convince me otherwise. But then again, I had only known him for a few days. Was that really enough time to get to know someone? Everyone had their secrets. Ryan wasn’t an exception to that. So what was it that everyone seemed to know but me? And how would it affect my future? Twenty I pulled into a parking spot at the Cove and got out of my new little red convertible. Glancing back as I set the alarm, I smiled. It felt good to have my independence back. It didn’t hurt that the car was just so totally me. I walked into the lobby and straight into the elevator. It had been exactly 10 days since the confrontation with Danny, and I was feeling too good to have to deal with him or Jensen. Not that I’d seen much of either of them in those 10 days. I’d only seen Danny when he was coming to pick up Van and he’d been extra friendly every time. Van had been the same way. Going out of her way to pretend the whole Ryan thing had never even happened. I think it was their way of accepting the fact I wasn’t going to budge on this subject. I had seen Ryan every night since, and I guess you could say we were officially a couple. I was Ryan’s girl and they could take me or leave me. Apparently they decided to take me. Boyfriend and all. I glanced down at the clock on my phone as I entered the elevator. I had exactly two hours until Ryan arrived and I was eager to get out of my work clothes and into the shower. I leaned back after shutting the metal gates, letting my mind wander to Ryan. The last 10 days with him had been good. In fact, they had been pretty darn perfect. He was sweet and attentive. A real gentleman. Nothing Van and the guys said about him had been true. He was already promising to give me the world if I let him. And I was just about ready to. I knew he cared a lot about me. I could sense he was as close to falling in love as I was. We were perfect together. Even if he kept me exhausted all the time. I guess love was draining. But who ever said happiness was easy? The elevator stopped on the third floor and a guy stepped on. He smiled slightly and pushed a button. A funny feeling was forming in my stomach as I watched him pick non-existent lint of his suit coat. Something about him wasn’t right, even though he wore a suit and tie. He reminded me of a kid playing dress up in his father’s clothes. The man wasn’t who he portrayed himself to be. He was hiding behind a mask. I backed up instinctively, suddenly wishing I was any place but here. I didn’t know what caused the fear, but I knew enough to listen to it. Feeling my fear, he reached out, stopping the elevator in an instant. I was stuck in between floors four and five with a psycho and I had absolutely no way out. The man turned to face me, an appraising look in his eyes. “So, you’re her, huh?” His voice was thick with a Jersey accent. Definitely not the kind of guy I usually saw around here, especially not in a thousand dollar suit. “Who?” I asked, pulling myself farther into a corner. He moved forward, a smile growing on his lips. “The great Maxie Duncan. The bright hope of their future.” “What are you talking about?” I asked, confused enough to forget my fear for a moment. He moved even closer, until he was within touching distance. Crossing my arms over my chest, I tried to create some kind of barrier between us. I couldn’t have this man touch me. God only knew what he would do once he did. Leaning closer still, he inhaled deeply, causing me to wrinkle my nose in disgust. This guy just sniffed me. Who does stuff like that? “What a joke,” the man said, straightening up. “There’s nothing to you. You’re weaker than Maurice’s two-year-old nephew, and he’s only been dabbling for three days.” I stared at him, the words not connecting with the scene that I knew was coming. Who cared what Maurice’s nephew could do? All that matter was me, and how I planned to get out of this. But nothing came to mind. I was just a spoiled rich girl alone with a guy three times my size. I had to face it. There was no way I was getting out of here. “Still,” he said, looking thoughtful before a wolf’s grin took over his face. “There’s no reason to waste a pretty girl like you.” Lust flashed through his eyes as he reached out for me, his fingers digging painfully in my arms. “No,” I screamed, his intent plain on his face. I couldn’t let him have me. A blue light flared between us, glowing white-hot where his hands made contact with me. The man howled in rage as bits of smoke rose up from his fingers. I pushed at his hands, afraid of what the light might do to me. As I struggled the light grew brighter, causing the man to grimace in pain. A boom like thunder sounded between us, and Mr. Creepy went flying backwards into the metal gates. Landing hard on the ground, he was up again in an instant. He hissed at me, his face contorting in rage. He showed long pointed teeth like a cat as he snarled. Funny how I hadn’t noticed them before. “You’re going to pay for that, bitch,” he growled through the fangs. “I was only going to have a little fun before. Now you suffer.” He hissed again, lunging at me. The elevator rocked with the force of his launch. I swayed, unbalanced in the moving cage and fell, nearly missing his hands as I tumbled to the floor. He looked down at me lying there and smiled, confident in his victory. He crouched next to me. “Looks like the old man needs to find a new hope for his future.” I sucked in air and started to scream, but no sound came out. I was that scared. It was over. This psycho was going to have his way with me and there was nothing I could do about it. He was on top of me in an instant, my world suddenly stopping around me as his hands roughly grabbed my neck and yanked me to him, his head lowering to mine. “I’m going to enjoy this,” he whispered, his voice husky with excitement. “Leave her,” a voice suddenly commanded around us. I squirmed underneath him, trying to see my savior. “Please, help me,” I begged. I moved my head enough to see who had joined us in the elevator and gasped. It wasn’t a who at all. The dark shadow from the fifth floor stood by the gates, its red eyes burning down at my assailant. The fury it was generating poured off it in thick waves. Mr. Creep-Jersey-guy turned his head, eyeing the creature. “What the hell? Beat it. I saw her first.” I couldn’t believe my eyes. Had the whole world gone crazy around me? A walking shadow was standing over us as a man with fangs tried to have his way with me. What did they put in the water in California? The man turned away from the shadow and smiled again, making me feel dirty in an instant. “I guess he likes to watch,” he said, bringing his mouth to my throat. “I said leave her!” the shadow creature boomed, jarring everything around us. It felt like a sonic wave had struck us. Growling, the man looked back over his shoulder at the dark shape. “And I said beat it.” It was a standoff of the weird kind and I wasn’t sure who would come out on top. After all, it wasn’t like a shadow had a body. The shadow thing moved forward, plunging his hands deep into Jersey’s back. The man screamed as red light oozed out of him, bathing him in a bloody aura. He shuddered and flung my head away with inhuman strength. I fell back, my head striking the floor with a sickening thud. My eyes lost their focus, and the man writhing in pain became blurry, then completely disappeared as my world turned to nothing but blackness. Twenty One “Uhhh,” I moaned and tried to roll over, but the cement block chained to my head kept me in place. I took a deep breath, shuddering as pain flared through my already incapacitated body. “Easy,” a voice said softly. “Don’t move. You’ve taken a pretty hard blow.” I felt hands on me, probing lightly through my hair. I moaned again, my eyelids fluttering as I tried to fight the hands. It was a losing battle. My eyelids were too heavy and the hands stayed where they were. “Relax, Max. He’s only trying to help,” a female voice told me from somewhere close by. “Van?” I asked blindly, thrilled I wasn’t alone. “Yes,” she answered, her voice strained. “Now stop moving and let him help you.” I laid still and let the hands move through my hair. I didn’t know why I couldn’t open my eyes, but if the hands could do anything about it, I’d let them. A faint murmuring joined the gentle probing. It didn’t sound English, but in this state, I was lucky I didn’t think I was speaking Dutch. The soft words went on a moment longer and then died, my pain going with it. I felt the fingers leave my scalp and I opened my eyes slowly, afraid the pain might come back any moment. It didn’t and I let my eyes focus on the familiar form leaning over me. “Hey,” Jensen said, smiling down at me. “Welcome back.” “Hi,” I said, feeling terribly confused. What was I doing here? I sat up on the couch I had been laying on. Jensen moved back, sitting on the coffee table next to me. I was in a living room, but not one I was familiar with. “You’re in Jensen’s apartment,” Van said from behind me. “He brought you here after he found you.” I turned around and looked at my roommate. She looked like she had been crying. Danny was standing with her and offered me a smile. Why did they all seem so concerned? You’d think someone had died or something. “What happened?” I asked. “You were attacked,” Van told me. “You were left in the elevator, bleeding.” So that would explain the pain in my head. I ran a hand through my hair near the scalp. It came away with sticky red, but I couldn’t find the cut. What was it that they said about wounds that didn’t hurt? “You’re okay now,” Jensen said. “I took care of it.” I barely even registered his words, I was too busy remembering the nightmare that occurred in the elevator. The guy in the suit wanting to have his way with me. I looked around at the others. “Did you stop him?” I asked in a rush. “What happened to the man in the suit?” They exchanged looks, none of them sure what they wanted to tell me. But I had to know. I needed to know if that pervert had touched me. “We don’t know what happened,” Danny told me finally. “When Jensen found you, you were alone.” I turned around and looked at Jensen, who only shrugged. “I stepped out into the hallway and heard a scream. You were lying in the elevator when I got there. I brought you here,” he told me, glancing away. I was alone? What happened to Jersey…and the red-eyed shadow? “There was a guy in there with me. He attacked me. I don’t know what I would have done, but this black shadow thing came in and stopped him.” The others stayed quiet around me, no doubt worrying that my head injury had caused permanent damage. I knew it sounded crazy, but that thing had been real. It had saved me. I looked at them, tears brimming in my eyes. “I know it sounds impossible, but I swear, that’s what happened.” I watched them exchange more glances, silently communicating with each other. They were probably wondering how fast the loony bin could get out here. “You don’t believe me,” I said softly. “No,” Van said quickly. “That’s not it at all. We believe you.” I glanced over at her. Was this some kind of trick to pacify me? Were they just humoring me to get me to go quietly? “It must have been something you manifested subconsciously,” Jensen told me. I looked at him in shock. Was he making fun of me? It was real. “I saw it. It pulled that psycho off me.” He nodded, a serious look on his face. “I believe you. You needed help and your powers found a way.” Maybe I wasn’t the one the loony bin should come for. “My powers? Are you kidding me?” “Stop and think about it, Maxie,” Danny spoke from behind me. “Things happen to you all the time that you can’t explain, don’t they?” I sat there in silence, trying to push down the dread rising up in me. So what? Weird things liked to happen to me? Big deal. Just because I got hunches about things didn’t mean anything. Neither did flinging drinks or floating off the ground. Did it? I looked up at Jensen, who was watching me carefully. “So…what? You think I’m some sort of magician?” He smiled slightly. “You’re a witch, Maxie Duncan. It’s who you are.” I couldn’t believe the words coming out of his mouth. This had to be a dream. I was still knocked unconscious on the floor of the elevator and this was all in my head. It had to be. Stuff like this didn’t happen in the real world. “Why would you even think that?” I asked Jensen, trying to understand where this was coming from. He shrugged. “Because it’s true,” he said mater-of-factly. “I know you’re a witch, Maxie, because I’m one, too.” And just like that, my world changed forever. Twenty Two Have you ever had someone tell you something that just couldn’t be true? And seem so very, very sincere about it? It leaves you in a moment of flux, wondering who to believe and where that leaves you in the reality of your world. I sat there in that moment trying to convince myself this was all a lie. That I needed to get up, pack my bags, and get away from these people as fast as I could. But I couldn’t. Part of me knew the truth when I heard it. Things happened to me all the time that I couldn’t explain. Deep down I knew they were right about one thing; I was different. But a witch? Really? I didn’t know if I was ready to get aboard the crazy train. “I know this is hard to believe, Max,” Van said, sitting down next to me. “It’s never easy when you’re brought into this world this late in life, but it’s true. You are a supernatural being. You are a witch.” She gave me a small smile. “It really isn’t a bad thing if you think about it.” I looked at her for a moment. “Are you saying you’re a part of this, too?” “Yes. I am.” She glanced over at Danny. “We both are.” “So…you’re witches, too?” “Good Gods, no,” Danny said quickly. “Witches are so pedestrian.” “Thanks, buddy,” Jensen said sarcastically. “Well, it’s true. Witches are just humans that have mutated into something else. We come from a long line of purity.” “Right,” Jensen said, rolling his eyes. “Like there’s anything pure about you.” I ignored the boy’s bantering and studied Van for a moment. Whatever was going on, she believed it. She wasn’t lying to me. She wasn’t playing me like the dumb blonde I thought they were. She was telling me the truth. I could sense that with 100% clarity. That only left one question. What was she really? Her smiled became less forced as she realized I believed her. I sighed, taking it all in. I wasn’t human and neither were my friends. “What are you?” I asked Van, curiosity getting the better of me. “I’m a pixie,” she told me in all seriousness. I couldn’t help myself. A laugh escaped my lips. “Like Tink? Aren’t you a little tall?” The look she gave me stopped my laugh completely. “I can be small when I need to be. But I’ll have you know, contrary to popular belief; this is the normal size for a pixie.” “Oh,” I said, completely thrown off by her. “And I’m a Trickster,” Danny told me proudly. “I am the only one on the West Coast.” Hmm, a trickster and a pixie? I’m sure there was a joke in there somewhere. I mentally shook myself when I realized I was buying into all of this. Where was the proof? Was this real or was I suffering from a concussion somewhere? These were way too many things for me to answer right now. “I know what you’re thinking,” Van said. “I was thinking it the first time I was told I was a pixie. You want proof.” She turned from me, concentrating on Jensen’s apartment around us. She waved her hand and just like that,…flowers bloomed everywhere. Reds, yellows, oranges, pinks, and whites all swirled together, every shape and size, closing in on us like a floral shop gone wrong. The scent was cloying, too many mashed together to be enjoyable. “Great. Now my apartment will stink for weeks,” Jensen said, closing his eyes. He took a deep breath and the flowers were gone. I would have never even known they had been there if it wasn’t for the lingering smell permeating everything. Jensen was right. He’d be lucky if the smell ever came out. I tried to focus on the bigger picture here. Van had made flowers appear and Jensen had sent them away. This was real. They had powers, and that meant I did, too. I turned and looked at Danny. “What can you do, Mr. Trickster?” His smile was bright enough to power the whole city. “Oh, I can do a lot of things,” he said mischievously. He gave me an exaggerated wink, and suddenly I was no longer in Jensen’s apartment. My jaw dropped open as I took in the sights around me. I was sitting alone on a park bench in the warm evening breeze, staring up at the Eiffel Tower. Dusk was setting in and her lights were just beginning to glow. I stood up quickly, glancing around at the people strolling in the icon’s shadow, enjoying a memorable evening. I couldn’t believe this. How had I arrived here? Could Danny really send people places? This was amazing. I was in Paris! I mean, I had been here before, but…to get here by magic, that just made the experience even better. I stepped forward, wanting to live the moment. After all, who knew how long Danny would let me stay here. I mean if he could send me, he could bring me back. As I moved forward, eyes on the sparkling tower, I felt hands clamp down on my arms. I jumped, seeing nothing around me. I was standing alone on a path in the park. I tried to move again, but the hands held firm, keeping me in place. What was holding me? If witches, pixies, and tricksters-oh my!-were real, didn’t that mean other things had to be real as well? Something must have seen me pop in. Something too eager to have a little fun with the new witch on the block. I could only imagine what kind of terrible creatures stalked the night here. I panicked, lashing out at the fingers curled around my arms, digging my nails in. Maybe my powers weren’t something I could control, but I was a girl, and I knew how to use a manicure. “Oh, damn it, Maxie,” a voice cried out in front of me. “I didn’t want you to run into the coffee table.” Paris rippled around me, the scene melting into nothing more than a blur. Suddenly it dropped away, leaving me staring straight into Danny’s face. “What…” I began, looking around Jensen’s living room, confused. “What happened?” “I stopped you from cracking your head open when you tripped over the coffee table.” “But…you mean…” I stammered, glancing at Van and Jensen standing nearby. “I was here? The whole time?” Jensen nodded as Van spoke, “You never left the living room.” I was stunned. “But I was in Paris, near the Eiffel Tower. I could hear the people. Feel the evening breeze.” I looked at all of them, eyes wide. “I could even smell the scent of fine food drifting in on that breeze.” Danny shook his head. “Never happened. It was only an illusion. You’ve been here the entire time.” He watched the disbelief skitter across my face and smiled. “That’s what I do. I trick people. I can make them believe anything I want.” “Anything?” I repeated, trying to cope with the meaning of the word. He shrugged, stepping away from me. “Pretty much.” Van grabbed my hand, pulling me back to the couch. As we sat back down, she watched me with sympathetic eyes. She knew what a shock this was. “Enchantment Cove is a safe haven for Supernaturals. Everyone who lives here is one.” “Everyone?” She nodded. “Yes, everyone. It was no coincidence you found your way here, Maxie. You are one of us.” Twenty Three I sat down on my bed, taking a deep breath. I couldn’t get over this. I wasn’t human. Why hadn’t my parents told me? Did they even know the truth? Too many questions poured through my mind, all swirling around one single thought. I was a witch. I changed quickly into my pajamas. I was glad Ryan had called to cancel our date. A slight emergency had come up requiring his attention for the evening. I was more than happy to let him off the hook. After all, how could I even expect to focus on anything right then? Even something as wonderful as him? Oh, no. Ryan! What was I going to tell him? This was something that could ruin everything. I could just see it. “Hey, I’m a witch. You still want to be with me?” Ryan Everheart, America’s golden boy, would run as fast as he could in the other direction. And I wouldn’t blame him. He could have any girl he wanted. There was no reason to stay with someone he thought was crazy. Or worse than that…a freak. No. I knew our relationship was doomed the moment I woke up in this strange new world. I just hadn’t wanted to admit it to myself. I guess I could try to hide it from him. Or maybe just forget this new part of me. Ryan was quickly becoming the most important thing in my life. Was I really ready to give up on that? Just for something I may or may not be able to do? That’s what I needed to know. What could I really do? And was it something I could give up? Grabbing a scented candle from my shelf, I set it down on the night stand. Sitting back down, I focused on its wick. If I was really a witch, I should be able to light the candle using nothing but my will. I had seen it done plenty of times in the movies. It looked simple enough. I cleared my mind of everything but the candle. I stared at the unblemished white wick, concentrating so hard my eyes were about to cross. In my mind, I let one word repeat over and over. Light. Light. After what seemed like an eternity, I pulled back, closing my eyes from the strain. Disappointment swam through me. I couldn’t even light one little candle. What good was I as a witch? Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to give it up for Ryan. Taking a deep breath, I tried again. It was the least I could do before I wrote off this new life forever. I stared at the candle for a moment and then closed my eyes; picturing it in my mind with perfect clarity. I then imagined holding a match to it. I needed the light from the flame. I yearned for the heat it offered. I wanted fire, and I wanted it now. I suddenly felt heat against me. I smiled, knowing the flame was really there, dancing before me. I opened my eyes and gasped in terror. My nightstand was on fire. I had set the dumb thing on fire. Jumping up, I grabbed my bottle of water, pouring it down along the flames. It slowly died, winking out of existence like it had never been. I stared in shock as the water dripped down on my carpet, turning it into a soggy mess. The wax candle, still standing, was completely untouched by the hungry flames. I did that. I had called fire. I was a witch. But it hadn’t gone as I planned. It had taken control and nearly set our apartment on fire. I did have powers, but I couldn’t control them. That not only made me a Supernatural, it made me a very, very dangerous one. Twenty Four I slid out of my convertible and straightened my black slacks. It had been a week since I had found out I was “special” and I was doing remarkably well. I still couldn’t control my powers and I didn’t know what I was going to tell my movie star boyfriend, (thank God he had left on a business trip due to his emergency) but I was feeling good. I was a witch and I could accept that. I was even beginning to think I could embrace it. I just needed to get my powers under control. And for Ryan to understand. Brushing those thoughts aside, I plastered a smile on my face as I headed through the staff parking lot behind the DenMark. I had work to do, work I was good at, and I wasn’t going to let the “what ifs” distract me. I hurried, my heels clicking on the cement as I went. I knew Van would be waiting for me, eager to make a coffee run as soon as I got there. I should have stopped and got her a coffee on the way. Tomorrow, I swore to myself, tomorrow I would meet her with caffeine in hand. A rustling sounded in the trees surrounding the parking lot. I glanced up, an uneasy feeling suddenly coming over me. I needed to get inside the hotel and I needed to do it fast. Picking up the pace, my heels like machine gun fire, I all but sprinted across the blacktop. The rustling grew louder and the trees exploded in red. It filled the sky around me, blocking the sun and casting me into an unnatural shadow. The red screamed in shrill anguished cries and I realized it was birds. Hundreds of blood red birds had flown from the trees at the same time and were now circling over head. Though I didn’t know what they were, I sensed the danger they brought. I peeled my eyes from the sky and double-timed it. The last thing I wanted to do was become bird food for these over grown parakeets. Before I had taken even five steps, a small group of the birds swooped down and surrounded me, squawking at me in defiance. A gasp of air escaped me as I started to panic. The birds circled around me, their sharp beaks only inches from my delicate skin. These were definitely not millet fed. You could tell by the looks in their eyes. Or was it the crimson stains on their talons? I stepped back, hoping I wasn’t completely boxed in. They let me break through their ranks and I hurried in the opposite direction, running for the cover of the trees nearby. The small cluster followed me, the breeze from their wings flowing over my back like ghostly fingers. They gathered behind but cleared a path for me to follow. I was being herded. I turned around once I had reached the grass, facing the small pterodactyls flapping in front of me. “What are you? What do you want from me?” I screamed at them. They squawked together, their cries turning into words. “We are the Byangorma,” they spoke, hatred in their eyes. “We must do what is asked of us.” I stared at them. I didn’t know if I was terrified or speechless over the fact they answered me. I know I asked, but really, who thought they’d answer? Finding my voice, I tried to keep my emotions in check. “What is it you have to do?” Once again they answered together. “We must not let the Apex arise.” “The Apex?” I asked. What in the world were they talking about? Had this new world come with a new language as well? The birds remained silent on the subject. They swooped forward, driving me into the trees. One of the beaks tore into my shoulder, letting me know they meant business. I didn’t have a choice, I was forced to go where they wanted me to go. I ran as fast as I could, my hand pressed to the hole in my shoulder. I didn’t know how bad it was. I didn’t want to know how bad it was. I couldn’t be thinking about that right now. I knew I was heading straight into a trap. And I couldn’t see any way to avoid it. Stumbling into a clearing, I landed hard on my knees. Great, so much for my work clothes. Blood and grass stains? So not in this year. The birds’ cries grew distant. I glanced up, realizing they had pulled back. Was I really spared from their attack, or were they only getting out of the way? I rose slowly, my legs shaking from the adrenaline coursing through me. I glanced over at the blood staining the left side of my shirt. I needed help. And I needed the comfort of the DenMark. I turned and almost peed my pants. A woman was floating out of the trees. Long white hair trailed behind her as she came towards me. Her ancient wrinkled face snarled at me. I knew this wasn’t a normal old hag. For one, I could see right through her, and two, every inch of her was on fire. I stepped back quickly. Even though she was a ghost of some sort, I knew those flames were very real. They could kill me if I got too close. Snickering sounded from behind my back. I turned, afraid of what I might find. More old hags floated towards me. Once again, I was surrounded, this time by a bunch of old women who didn’t know how to moisturize. This day just kept getting worse. They moved in closer, surrounding me in a small circle. I could feel the heat from their flames licking at my skin. I tried to stay as far from them as I could, which wasn’t very far at all. The air around me went stale as the heat pushed in on me. It clung to me, coating me like a second skin. These freaks were going to flash fry me alive. I realized quickly that was not the case. I was going to suffocate long before I was cooked. Their flames were quickly consuming all the oxygen in the circle. I went lightheaded and the world swam before my eyes. I watched it tip on its head as the soft grass reached out to caress my cheek. I stretched out a hand, fingers wrapping in the blades of grass, as I tried to focus my oxygen-deprived brain. The ground hadn’t moved. I did. I laid on the ground, looking up on the hags as I choked on the vacuum the clearing had become, realizing with perfect clarity I was dying. I was alone with a bunch of ugly spinsters and I was pounding on death’s door. How tragically uncool was that? I couldn’t even have a proper death scene with someone sobbing over me, mourning the void I would leave behind in this world. I would never get to say goodbye to my friends. I wouldn’t get a chance to tell Ryan who I really was. My future was being erased. I would never get the chance to become the witch I was meant to be. Hold the phone. I was a witch. I could do something about it. I could stop it. Taking my last bit of focus, I tried to save myself. I tried to shoot the blue light out like I had with the fanged attacker. I tried to form a red-eyed shadow to charge in and save the day. But nothing happened. I was a failure. I failed at being a fiancée. I failed at acting, and now, I failed at being a witch. And this time it would cost me my life. I couldn’t die. I was only 23. I had so much life left to live. There was so much I still needed to experience. It was unfair to have that all ripped away from me by some crazy old biddies. As they pressed in on me, their fire growing hotter, I used the last of my air to scream. It tore from me as if it had a life of its own; shaking the trees around us, driving the stupid red birds higher into the sky. I screamed long and hard. It was what was left of me. And I was going to make myself heard on the way out. I stopped when I felt the air change around me. It was still thick with heat, but now something else was there as well. I could feel it brush against my arms, a tingling sensation of energy. It grew stronger around me. The taste of it coated my tongue. Even in my dying haze, I knew what it was. Electricity. Bolts of lightning shot down around me, striking the hags where they stood. They screamed in agony, their bodies thrown back from the force of the impact. The circle broke and I could breathe once again. I gulped greedily, expanding my lungs with the oxygen I so badly needed. I flinched as a big fat rain drop struck me. I glanced up and blinked at the clouds rolling in. A storm was gathering over head and soon the few raindrops around me turned into a downpour. The birds screamed over head and the hags’ bodies sizzled around me, their flames snuffed out by the sudden rain storm. I sat there watching the steam pour off those bodies before they faded away, completely gone from this world. They had come to kill me and, instead, I had killed them. Somehow, some way, I had survived the storm. A shuddered sob racked my chest and I felt tear drops join the rain as I knelt in that clearing, soaked to the bone. I had done this. I had taken my first lives. Twenty Five I sat in Van’s office, dripping water on the carpet. I couldn’t control the flood of tears escaping my eyes. I, Maxie Duncan, misunderstood rich girl from Maine, was now a killer. How had this happened? Where had I gone wrong? Next thing you know, I’d be robbing banks and kidnapping babies. Was this what being a witch was about? If it was, I wanted nothing to do with it anymore. I wanted to go back to my normal life. One where all I had to worry about was when the next sale was or who I was going to marry. I wasn’t cut out for this kind of life. I didn’t want to be a killer. “Maxie, calm down. It’s over,” Van said as she finished bandaging my shoulder. “I killed people, Van. Doesn’t that mean anything to you?” She took a deep breath and stood up. “Relax. They weren’t people. From the sound of it, they were Candilejas. Ancient spectral entities. I’m surprised they would come after you. They’re vicious, but usually they only attack if provoked.” I looked up at her, wiping at the tears. I couldn’t believe we were even having this conversation. “I didn’t do anything to them. I didn’t even know they existed.” “I don’t know,” she said, heading for the door. “You should talk to Jensen. He knows a lot more about this stuff than I do. He could put Giles to shame with the knowledge he has.” She chuckled as she looked at me. Great. Just what I needed. Some pop culture reference that wasn’t even current. She saw the roll of my eyes and continued quickly, “You should have him look at that shoulder, too. It’s pretty bad. He could help the healing process. Speed it up.” She opened the door. “I’ll get you some towels and some hot tea,” she said, slipping out. I glanced over at my shoulder, moving it slightly. Van had gotten it to stop bleeding, but it still hurt. A lot. Maybe I should have Jensen look at it. He healed my head on the spot. Maybe he could also tell me why these things were attacking me. I needed someone to explain that to me. The attack in the elevator might have been random, but this, this was planned. What had I done to cause it? Why was I suddenly wearing a bull’s-eye on my back? I honestly needed answers. I couldn’t stop them until I knew what was going on. I felt a vibration at my right hip and reached in the pocket of my slacks, pulling out my phone. I was surprised it still worked given how soaked I was. I glanced at the caller ID. Ryan! My knight-in-shining-armor come to rescue me from my new life of weirdness. Well, one could dream, couldn’t she? Wiping as much water as I could from the side of my face, I answered my phone. It was a good thing he couldn’t see me right now. I’d be mortified. The drowned rat look never inspired romance. “Hi,” I said quickly, almost too breathlessly for my own taste. Nothing like telling a guy how vulnerable you are. “God, how I missed the sound of your voice,” Ryan said, his voice making me tremble inside. I think I was luckier in that department. I could listen to him read the phone book all day and still beg for more. “I missed you,” I told him, trying hard to keep the misery out of my voice. It didn’t work. “What’s wrong, Maxie?” “Nothing.” “Don’t give me that,” he said, seriousness backing his words. “Did something happen while I was gone?” Yes. I wanted to scream it. I wanted to tell him everything. I needed him to tell me everything would be alright. But I couldn’t. This new world of mine was a horrible, dangerous place. I couldn’t involve him in that. I just couldn’t. “No,” I lied. “Everything’s fine. It’s just been a long week. Work’s been busy. And I’ve been missing you like crazy.” “Well,” he said, a grin creeping into his voice. “You don’t have to miss me any longer. I’m back at the hotel. Come see me.” Now that sounded like pure paradise. I looked down at my clothes and felt the joy drain from me. I couldn’t go see him like this, soaked, wet, and bloody, he’d have a heart attack on the spot. I wouldn’t be able to keep the truth from him after that. I’d be lucky if he’d ever let me out of his sight again. Then again,…that could be a good thing. Reason won out and I sighed. “I have a few errands I need to get done today,” I heard myself say. Who said I couldn’t act? I almost believed it myself. “Can I come see you this evening?” “Sure,” he said, sounding more than a little disappointed. “I’ll be here when you’re ready.” “Thanks, Ryan. I won’t be too long. I promise.” “Good. The sooner I have you in my arms, the happier I’ll be.” Twenty Six Van came back, informing me she had found someone to cover my shift for the day. Partially dry and with warm tea in my belly, she sent me home to change and get warm. It dawned on me then how supportive she truly was. She treated me like family. I’d never had that in my life before. Sure, I had friends back in New Haven. They were the ones I socialized with, hung out at the country club with, shopped with, but I couldn’t turn my back on any of them. Ever. They’d be quick to stab me in it, their polite smiles never leaving their faces as they did. No wonder Stephen had left me. I didn’t belong with that crowd. I had always been different. A little too nice. A little too trusting. And you know what? That’s okay. It made me better than them. I had been taking Van’s friendship for granted. Well, no more. I’d find a way to repay her for everything she had done for me. Maybe once everything calmed down around here, we could do a road trip. A witch and a pixie on the road together. Now that would be a sight to see. I got home and took a quick shower, examining my shoulder as I did. It was red and puffy, blood oozing around the edges from the hot water running on it. I bandaged it as best as I could. I definitely needed to see someone about it, even if it was only Jensen. I hoped those nasty red birds couldn’t give you rabies. With my luck, it would be some magical kind and turn me into a zombie. Dressing quickly, I threw on my cutest long sleeved shirt. It was too warm for it, but I didn’t want the world thinking I was a walking wounded. Even if I was. I cringed at the thought of Ryan seeing it. There would be too many questions I couldn’t answer. Not if I wanted to keep things secret. I’d have to tell him the truth, or give up my love life for a while. Talk about a rock and a hard place. I finished getting ready, putting everything else out of my mind. My boyfriend was back in town. I was going to spend the evening like a normal person. I was going to laugh, eat, cuddle, and above all else, I was going to relax. Ryan might be a movie star, but he was the one ordinary thing in my life. And that’s what I needed. Something real. Something that didn’t seem to come from some nightmare reality. I just needed some peace. By the time I actually made it back to the hotel, evening was in full swing. I hoped Ryan hadn’t given up on me. A girl needed time to pull herself back together after all. I hurried through the lobby, hoping no one would see me. I wasn’t even sure if Van would still be there, but I didn’t want to risk it. She would want to talk. She’d want to know if I had Jensen look at my shoulder. I didn’t want to do any of that. I only wanted to see Ryan. I felt as if I was almost running by the time I reached his suite door. Everything would be fine once I was in his arms. I could let the events of late wash away. For a few blissful hours, I could be regular old Maxie Duncan. Before I could even raise my hand to knock, the door opened wide and Ryan was standing there, smiling that gorgeous smile at me. “I thought I heard someone out here,” he said. And just like that, I was in his arms. He pulled me inside, shutting the door firmly behind us. “I missed you,” he said, staring down at me with so much intensity. “I missed you, too.” It was the honest-to-goodness truth. The last few days would have gone a lot differently if he had been there. I never wanted him to leave my side again. He leaned down, his lips inches from my ear. My breath caught at the close proximity of his mouth. I longed to be this close to him, closer still if I could get it, yet something about him made me freeze like a deer sensing a wolf. It must be some long forgotten instinct left over from days gone by, when a male would take his mate by force. Taking a deep breath, I forced those morbid thoughts away. He was my boyfriend, not some caveman. He was gentle and kind, and I had missed the feel of his skin against mine. Ryan moved closer as if sensing my thoughts. “So how are we going to make up all this time spent apart?” he whispered in my ear. Before I could get a word out, my body answered for me. I pulled him close, our lips firmly connected. He didn’t miss a beat as his arms went around me, pulling me closer. I moaned into him, enjoying the feel of his hands on my body. A thought popped up in my mind. Why was I not going to sleep with him tonight? Oh, yeah. That’s right. My shoulder. Oh, well. Some things were just too important. I would just have to come up with an excuse after we were done. Twenty Seven I opened my eyes, feeling worn out but content. Light was already streaming through the curtains. I glanced next me, hoping to see my blond god. Once again, his side of the bed was empty. I got up, disappointment weighing heavily in my chest. No morning sex for Maxie. Scanning the room for my discarded clothes, I dressed quickly, stopping by the bathroom before I headed out. I guess it was back to real life. I walked through the suite in search of a pen and paper. I'd leave a note rather than call him. I would hate to get Ryan in trouble with Zand. "Are you missing something?" a voice asked from behind me as I searched the living room. I turned around and stared at the man behind me. He hadn't left me at all. "You didn't have to meet Zand this morning?" I asked as Ryan wrapped his arms around me. "No," he said, smiling mischievously. "This morning is all for you." Oh, a girl could get used to hearing those words. I pulled his lips down to mine, showing him just what I thought of that idea. He pulled away, growling softly. "Come on," he said, tugging me towards the kitchen. "I ordered breakfast for you." I followed him in, giggling in delight at the mini buffet on the bar. "I didn't know what you'd want this morning, so I ordered a little of everything." Everything looked so good. I think I gained 10 pounds just by smelling it. Grabbing a plate, I went straight for the waffles. What can I say? When I'm bad, I'm bad. I sat down at the table, mouth drooling over the food in front of me. Don't worry, I took plenty of protein, too. Ryan sat a mug of coffee in front of me as he joined me at the table. This was pure heaven. "You're going to spoil me, you know," I told him after I had swallowed a bite of waffle. "That's the idea," he told me, a twinkle in his eye as he watched me eat. "Aren't you going to have some?" I hated to think about all that food still on the bar. You could feed a small nation with what was left. He shook his head. "I already ate. Besides, I like watching you eat. There's something about a woman indulging herself that is just so sensual." I felt a blush creep into my cheeks. Here I was pigging out, and he thought it was sexy. Men. Go figure, right? We sat in silence as I finished my breakfast. As I dealt with my dirty plate, seriousness crept into Ryan’s face. “What happened to your shoulder?” he asked me suddenly. Oh, no. I had forgotten about that. I had to come up with that excuse after all. “It’s nothing. I was just being clumsy.” He came over to stand by me, fixing me with those brilliant blue eyes. “I don’t buy that. What really happened?” I froze. There was no way out of this one. I had to tell him something, but what? Could I trust him with my secret? Did he really care enough about me to handle hearing the truth? I had to tell him. He was too important to me not to. I wanted this to last and building a relationship on lies wasn’t the way to start. He deserved the truth. He needed the chance to get out of my nightmarish world if he wanted to. I just hoped he believed me. I took a deep breath. “I’m not like regular girls, Ryan.” He smiled, his eyes dancing. “I know.” I sighed. This was going to be harder than I thought. “No, that’s not what I mean. I can do things.” He leaned over, kissing me softly. “I know.” Great. He wasn’t getting it. “No, you don’t…” He let his lips drift down to my neck, kissing softly as he went. He worked his way up to my ear and stopped, nipping softly at my earlobe. “I can feel the power flowing off of you,” he whispered. His breath felt cool against my neck. “You’re practically swimming in it.” What? What did he say? Pushing him back, I looked into his eyes. “How do you know?” He smiled and tried to pull me back to him. “It’s not like it’s a secret.” Well…that was news to me. Had everyone known from the beginning? “What? How?” “I could sense it on you the first time we met. The first time we touched.” He looked at me with affection in his ice blue eyes as he laced his fingers with mine. “You’re a witch, Maxie Duncan, and that’s okay with me.” I stared at him, floored. All of this time he knew. Even before I did. He knew and accepted it. What did that mean? Did he care so much about me that it didn’t matter? And how was it possible for him to sense it? I decided to tackle the hard question first. “How are you okay with this? Ryan smiled again, that charming boyish grin that set my heart a flutter every time. “Oh, I think that should be obvious, Max,” he said, emphasizing his words with a kiss. I tried to make my mind focus as my lips melted into his. There was no way I was going to let him off the hook. Not when so many important questions still needed answers. I pushed back from him again. “Enlighten me.” He stepped away from me, running a hand through his thick blond hair. “God, Maxie, what can I say? I honestly never felt this way before…about anyone.” He turned and smiled at me. “And that’s saying something. You’re all I think about.” He came back over to me, sincerity written in his beautiful face. “Since meeting you, my life has been better. I’ve been more of who I want to be, who I was meant to be. Every thought, every emotion, is about you, baby.” He stopped, taking a deep breath. “You’ve changed my life for the better, Maxie. And I love you for it.” The whole world froze around me and I stopped breathing. Had he really said what I thought he had? I couldn’t be sure. I was suddenly afraid I would wake up any moment and lose what was happening. “You really mean that?” I managed to squeak out. He grinned as he took my hands. “Yes, I do. I love you.” OMG! He said the words. Those glorious words I had hoped to hear ever since our first date. Those words that haunted my mind on a regular basis. Does he or does he not? I now knew the answer. He loved me. I glanced up, feeling slightly dizzy. My heart was pounding so loud, it almost drowned out the inner monologue in my head. Ryan had his head cocked to one side, an expectant look in his eyes. “Don’t you have anything to say to that?” Oh, right. I was so caught up in the words he spoke, I forgot to give him something in return. Poor guy must be dying inside. “I love you, too, Ryan.” There. It was official. I had come to California to find my destiny and I had. Score one for team Maxie! Ryan leaned over and kissed me. Our newly admitted feelings bringing fire to the dance. I felt his emotions flood against mine. In an instant, he became a part of me, and I a part of him. We were no longer Maxie and Ryan, but a new creature, one who had been woken from a deep slumber and was feeding off the emotions swirling around it. I pulled back, startled by the loss of myself in his kiss. Was this what happened when witches found their soul mates? I hoped not. It was unsettling and I wasn’t sure I liked it very much. Ryan stared at me a moment. I couldn’t tell, but I think he was just as thrown off by what had happened as I was. He grabbed my hand suddenly. “Come with me,” he said, leading me into the living room, pulling me down on the couch. He sat down next to me, our knees touching as seriousness once again crept into his eyes. “Do you want us to be together, Maxie?” he asked me. I couldn’t figure out what he meant by that. Weren’t we already together? Hadn’t we just confessed our love? “Yes. Of course.” “Good,” he said, nodding. The sudden light coming into his eyes told me he had just decided something. “Then let’s leave all of this behind and start over. We can be anyone we want and not have to live up to what others expect from us.” “I don’t get it.” “I’m tired of being Ryan Everheart and living up to the name all the time. Run away with me. We could go somewhere where names and titles don’t matter.” An impending sense of dread began to wash over me. Was he ashamed of me? Was there some reason Hollywood’s leading man couldn’t be with someone like me? I knew it. He didn’t want to date me because I was a witch. He must have sensed some of the things running through my head, because he pulled me to him, stroking my hair softly with his fingers. “I’m not ashamed of you, Maxie. I’m not. I only want to keep you safe. You have no idea how harsh my world can be.” I felt the truth in his words, but it didn’t help to lessen the dread I was utterly soaking in. I loved that he was willing to give up everything for me, but why should he have to? It wasn’t what I wanted. I didn’t want to give up anything. “What’s wrong with staying here?” I asked, pulling away from him. My life was just starting to get good again. There was no way I’d give that up. Especially now that Ryan knew the truth. Speaking of which… “How do you know about witches?” I asked suddenly, strange thoughts taking shape in my head. “Who are you, Ryan?” He just looked at me. The silence between us confirming everything I was thinking. “Does it really matter, Maxie?” Well, darn. “You’re not human, are you?” Of course, he wasn’t human. He was far too perfect to be human. How could I have been so blind. “No, I’m not,” he admitted with a shrug. “But neither are you, so what does it matter?” I stopped and thought for a moment. He was right. It shouldn’t matter. I was a witch. A witch who lived with a pixie…who was dating a trickster. I lived in an apartment building that only rented to Supernaturals. Why should I be surprised that my boyfriend was also supernatural? This was my world now. These were the types of people who would always be around. But somehow, for some reason, what he was still mattered. A lot. “What are you?” I asked softly. He sighed, rubbing his finger against my knee. His skin was cool against my flushed skin, even through my jeans. “Maxie, I love you. Remember that. I’m not some monster. I’m a gentle, caring, compassionate guy who just wants a normal life with you.” I heard the words. I knew he meant them, but the dread just kept building. Why wouldn’t he answer my question? Was it really that awful? “What are you?” I asked again as I realized I wasn’t going to like his answer. He nodded with determination, knowing he had to own up to whatever he was keeping from me. “I love you,” he whispered, giving my knee one final squeeze. His mouth opened in a smile that was devoid of any joy. I watched as his perfect white canines grew longer, turning razor sharp. They were identical to Jersey’s. I gasped as it slowly dawned on me. Sorrow filled Ryan’s eyes as he saw recognition sweep over my face. He gently stroked the back of my hand with his thumb, offering support. “I’m a vampire, Maxie.” Twenty Eight I opened the apartment door, slamming it behind me in frustration. I couldn’t believe the sick joke my life was turning into. I used to be the all American girl-next-door, (Well, maybe not too next door. I did grow up in a mansion after all. But…you know what I mean.) and now I might as well be a long lost relative of the Munster’s. I stalked through the parlor and into the kitchen. I needed ice cream, cake, or any other calorie rich substitute. Maybe if I got fat, I wouldn’t have to worry about this anymore. I know, I know. It wouldn’t help anything. I’d just be a fat witch with things trying to kill her. Pulling open the freezer, I looked for something to drown my sorrows in. How could Ryan do this to me? I couldn’t date a vampire. Who dates a vampire? My life had suddenly become a young adult series. But I wasn’t that girl. Could I really date a member of the undead, even if he was charming and gorgeous? I slammed the freezer door after realizing we were out of ice cream. Great. Death by chocolate wasn’t even an option. What a lousy witch I was. I couldn’t conjure ice cream and I didn’t want to date a vampire. Someone was going to strip me of my broomstick if I wasn’t careful. Leaning back against the refrigerator, I tried to hold back the tears I felt coming. What was I going to do? I really liked Ryan. Why did he have to be an immortal bloodsucker? “What’s going on?” I looked up at Van, standing in the entrance way, her hands on her hips. I quickly tried to wipe at the moisture seeping from my eyes, but I knew it was too late. She had already seen them. She took a few steps closer, sympathy on her face. “He told you, didn’t he? It’s about time.” “You knew? This whole time you knew?” “Of course, we knew,” she said with an apologetic shrug. “Everyone in the supernatural community knows what he is.” I sniffed as I straightened up from the fridge. They knew what he was and had kept it from me. “Why didn’t you say anything?” The sympathy on her face faltered a little at that. “We all told you to forget about him. We said he wasn’t good for you. What more do you want?” I pulled out a chair at the table and sat down, hard. My legs were shaking and I couldn’t trust myself to stand there. I was so confused. Finally, when things started going good in the love department, I had to find this out. I didn’t know what was going on inside of me. I loved Ryan, or at least I thought I did, yet every instinct was telling me to run. “Are all vampires really that bad?” I heard myself ask. Maybe Van would tell me I was overreacting. Sure, you can keep a vampire as a boyfriend. Just keep the fridge stocked with blood and cut down on your garlic intake. Van watched me for a minute before nodding. So much for that fantasy. “Most of them are, Max,” she told me softly. “They’re selfish creatures controlled by their own wants and desires. They’re unnatural.” She studied my face a moment, trying to gauge what I was feeling. “Haven’t you had any doubts about him?” I started to deny it, but then realized she probably knew what I was feeling anyway. It was no doubt a pixie thing. I took a deep breath and voiced the thing that had been bothering me. “The first time we kissed, there was this intense pain, almost like I had been struck by lightning. And not in a good way,” I told her, realizing it didn’t sound good even to my own ears. It still happened to some extent every time we touched. It was like I was hooked up to a live wire. Every nerve sizzled with it. I had gotten good at blocking it out. The pleasure he brought me was worth it, but…was that sensation natural? Van nodded, not surprised at all. “That’s your witch’s instinct kicking in. It’s shouting ‘Danger, Will Robinson.’” She frowned when that failed to get a chuckle out of me. She sighed and continued, “It’s trying to tell you that nothing but danger lies down that road.” I shook my head. I couldn’t believe it. Not about the guy I had gotten to know. “But Ryan’s not bad. He loves me,” I told her. And I knew deep down it was true. “I’m sure he does,” Van admitted as she took the chair across from me. “But a vampire’s love is different. They get blinded by it. It becomes an obsession. And generally speaking, they have no moral compass. They’ll do anything to keep that love.” I frowned as I thought about that. He might have blindsided me with the vampire thing, but I knew without a doubt he was a good guy. “Ryan’s different. He’s the exception to the rule.” “Bat’s don’t fall very far from the cave, Max.” She was silent for a moment, leaving me to wonder what else she had to tell me. “You know who his father is, don’t you?” “No.” Ryan had never given me a name. I knew there were reasons he wanted nothing to do with his dad. Reasons I had hoped that one day he would feel close enough to share. Van looked at me, a heaviness to her eyes. Oh, boy. This was bad. Wasn’t this situation bad enough already? “His father is Richard Everheart.” “The shipping magnate?” I managed to get out. He was one of the most powerful men in the world. He made my family look like bums living in the street. Which, of course, is saying something. “That’s Ryan’s dad?” “He claims him as his son and heir. Richard is the East Coast godfather of vampires. If you’re a vampire living in his domain, you do what he says.” I shuddered at the images strolling through my mind. What had I got myself into? I could see now that there was nothing cute and cuddly at all about vampires. I don’t know why teenage culture had decided there was. Yet, I couldn’t help what I felt. I wasn’t ready to give up on Ryan and what we had together. Van wasn’t going to back down. She wanted me to know everything. And I couldn’t blame her. That’s what friends did. They tell you the truth even if it hurts. “That’s why we leave them alone. They leave the rest of the Supernaturals alone as long as no one makes any trouble for them,” she told me, fear etching her features. “But you’ve crossed into vampire territory. All bets are off now. Let’s just hope that Richard Everheart had no idea who you are.” “What would he do if he did?” A sudden thought popped into my head. Was he the one sending the attacks on me? Was I in danger simply because I was dating his son? I knew now the guy in the elevator had been a vampire. And he had a Jersey accent. East Coast, huh? Had Daddy Everheart sent him in to get rid of me? The pieces were certainly beginning to fit together. “I need to get my powers under control. And as soon as possible, don’t I?” “Yes, you do,” Van agreed whole heartedly. “You should go see Jensen. He’s at the bookstore right now.” I nodded absently. That’s exactly what I needed to do. I was done running from my destiny. I didn’t want to die because I refused to admit what I was. Jensen could help me. He could teach me how to use my powers, instead of them using me. I stood up, and suddenly my shoulder was on fire. I cried out in pain as I sat back down. “What’s a matter,” Van asked, appearing next to me faster than any human could. She grabbed my hands, as I swatted at my shoulder, trying to put out the flames that engulfed my entire left side. It was probably for the best, all it was doing was making it worse. She pulled my tee-shirt aside and stared at my bandage. “Have you had anyone look at this?” I shook my head, gritting in pain. Now wasn’t the time to ask me questions. Couldn’t she see I was dying? She pulled back the bandage, tugging at my skin as she did. I bit back a scream as it felt like my whole shoulder came off with it. “Oh my Gods,” Van said, staring down at the wound in my flesh. That wasn’t good. Maybe she had peeled off my whole shoulder. I looked, my head crowding Van’s as I tried to see what the damage was. I gasped in horror when I saw the red, puffy flesh. It peeled and oozed, festering right before our eyes. It was infected. There was no doubt about that. But that’s not what had me scared. Black swirls swam out from the wound, covering my well tanned skin from breast bone to my back. It looked like a child had used me as an art project. “Can that come off?” I asked. She licked her finger, rubbing lightly at one of the swirls. I cried out in pain at her touch. She pulled her hand away quickly and looked back at me. “No.” The infection in my shoulder was spreading, turning my skin black as it went. I was going to die. Van ran to the bathroom and back, slipping a new bandage in place, before pulling my tee-shirt back down. “We’re going to see Jensen. Now!” Twenty Nine Van raced through L.A. like we had a devil on our back. And maybe we did, only it was on my shoulder. I cried out with every bump. The pain reached out, making me feel like my whole body was one exposed nerve. Thank God the traffic was light, but it was still the longest 35 minutes of my life. When we got to Long Beach, I was barely conscious. The pain was so bad I would have paid someone to kill me right then. Van found Jensen’s store with ease,(Of course, she had probably been there a million times.) pulling up against the curb right outside the front door. “Wait right here,” she said as she jumped out of the car, her door slamming shut behind her. Yeah, like I was going anywhere. All I wanted to do was curl up in the fetal position and die. I raised my head and looked at the building. It was a rundown, tiny hole-in-the-wall place, but at least it was across the street from the beach. He must get a lot of the tourists. No wonder he opened it so far away from the Cove. Dropping my head, I started breathing through a particularly bad wave of pain. My door was suddenly yanked opened. “Oh God, Maxie,” I heard Jensen mutter. With a sudden click of my seatbelt, strong arms wrapped around me. I cried out in pain as I was lifted out of the car. “I’m sorry. I’m being as gentle as I can,” Jensen whispered against my hair. I knew he was, but every inch we went felt like miles of hot blades against my skin, stabbing and cutting, until I had no skin left. I didn’t know whether to scream or cry. To tell the truth, I was probably doing both. It would explain the soft comforting words Jensen whispered against my ear. We got inside, Jensen laying me down on a black leather couch. I gasped at the pain in my back as I made contact with it. What? Did he have his couch stuffed with barbed wire or something? Jensen turned and looked at Van. “Come with me,” he said quietly. It was quiet as I laid there, suddenly realizing they had left me all alone. Was this Van’s great plan? Frantically rush me here so I could die on Jensen’s couch? Alone? Here I thought she wanted to save me, when in reality she just didn’t want me to die in her apartment. I let my eyes flutter closed as I fought another tidal wave of pain. I was dying. I was sure of it, and suddenly I didn’t care so much. Not as long as it meant the pain would stop. “Here you go,” Van’s soothing voice washed over me like a balm, bringing me back from the pain. I felt something cool and wet pressed against my forehead as Van hovered over me. “It’s okay, Maxie. Just hold on.” “Okay, let me see this,” Jensen’s voice joined Van’s as he no doubt hovered over me, too. Gentle fingers fluttered over my skin as my tee-shirt was tugged aside once again. “I’m sorry about this,” he murmured softly as fire bit down into my shoulder. I wondered how much skin came off with this bandage. Silence filled the room as I tried to focus on my breathing. Pain washed over me in a thick, red haze, but I fought against it, refusing to be dragged down into an unconscious abyss. Someone shifted nervously above me. “Have you ever seen anything like this, Jensen?” “No. I haven’t.” Fingers drifted against my cheek, pulling me back to the people next to me. My eyes fluttered opened and I stared into Jensen’s concerned face. “What did this to you, Maxie?” he asked softly. I focused on him, on the glint the florescent lights reflected off his glasses, and swallowed, forcing the pain away. “I don’t know,” I said thickly, my tongue much too big for my mouth. Why was it so hard to talk? “Some dumb red bird.” Jensen looked at me a moment longer, slowly taking his fingers away from my cheek and then turned, reaching for a very large, very old leather book behind him. I was dying and he wanted to play librarian. Excellent. He flipped through the ancient pages, sending dust into the air around us. Okay, so if the bite didn’t kill me, allergies would. He silently studied the pages in front of him. Suddenly, he looked up at me, a strange look on his face. “This bird didn’t happen to talk, did it?” I nodded weakly, which turned the volume up on the pain. “Yes,” I grunted through gritted teeth. I felt a hand slip into mine, silent support in the face of adversity. I didn’t know who it was and I didn’t care. I focused on their energy and continued, “They called themselves Bang Gories, or something ridiculous like that.” “Byangorma?” “Yeah. That’s it.’ Jensen let out the breath he had been holding. “This isn’t good.” His eyes locked onto mine, a sadness deep within them. “It bit you?” “Yes,” I breathed, feeling weaker by the moment. I tightened my fingers around the hand in mine, never letting go of Jensen’s gaze. I was a witch, darn it. I wouldn’t let this be the way I went out. “Maxie,” he said my name softly. “It says Byangorma saliva causes death within four hours.” “That can’t be right,” Van said excitedly next to us. “It’s already been 24 hours since the attack.” He looked at her, shocked. “You’re kidding.” He turned and looked at me, frustration in his eyes. “Why didn’t you come see me right away?” he demanded. “What can I say? I’m stubborn,” I told him, the last of my strength leaving with that admission. I was going to die and it would be my own fault. If only I wasn’t so adamant about doing things my own way. Jensen leaned close, his fingers once again on my flushed cheek. “You’re also a whole lot stronger than anyone gives you credit for.” Closing his eyes, he hummed softly. It was a tuneless melody that seemed to reverberate through my bones. The fingers of his other hand traveled to my shoulder, probing softly at first, then clamping down, opening a conduit between us. I cried out in pain and the hand in mine tightened, obviously Van’s, unless Jensen had a third I didn’t know about, sending me warmth that reminded me of a summer’s day. Jensen’s humming grew louder until it turned into words. Words I didn’t understand. But I guess that didn’t matter, because with each word, the pain diminished, until, after what seemed like an eternity, it disappeared all together. His fingers were soft on my skin as he ran them over my shoulder. “There. Done. But I can’t do anything about these.” I sat up gently, glancing down at my shoulder. The black swirls were still there. They looked like some kind of tribal tattoo. I wondered just how much of my body now looked liked that. My mother was so going to kill me. “But…I’m not dying?” I asked, fixing my tee-shirt. It still surprised me what magic could do. “No,” Jensen said, shaking his head. “You’re not dying.” “Thank the Gods,” Van said, pushing Jensen out of the way and hugging me in relief. Jensen laughed as he picked up the book and sat it on a desk across the room. “She wouldn’t even have come that close, if she had come to me sooner,” he said, looking at me. “I could have probably even stopped the black marks.” I sighed as Van let go of me. That would have been nice, but how was I supposed to know I was becoming the tattooed lady? Still…this was my own fault and I owed Jensen big time. “Thanks,” I told him. “I won’t wait so long next time.” “You better not,” he said in mock anger, but I could tell I had scared him. Both of them. A lot. Looking around the room, I realized we were in some kind of office. Must be Jensen’s office, except…this room was as big at the building I saw outside. Had they taken me in someplace else? This couldn’t possibly be the office to the bookstore. They both watched me, a knowing smile spreading over Jensen’s lips. He stepped away from the desk, coming closer to me. “You’re probably wondering where you are, aren’t you?” I nodded as I continued to look around the room. “We can’t possibly be in the bookstore.” His smile deepened. “Oh, you’d be surprised. Come on,” he said, holding a hand out for me. I slipped my hand into his, letting him pull me to my feet, grateful for the help. I wasn’t sure if I could stand on my own yet. He didn’t let go as he led me into a cavernous area filled with bookshelves as far as the eye could see. “Welcome to Curiouser and Curiouser. My pride and joy,” he said, motioning to the stacks around us. I blinked in shock. Something wasn’t right. This place was huge, and we’re not talking bookstore huge. It was more like two-story mall huge. This had to be a joke. They had snuck me into some warehouse while I was out of it. I turned around, glancing behind us. A check-out counter stood there, next to some window displays and the front door. Van’s car sat parked at the curb, silently waiting our return. I turned back and stared at them. Jensen and Van both had amused looks on their faces. “When are you going to stop being so shocked when you encounter something unknown, Maxie?” Jensen asked, squeezing my hand slightly. “You need to get used to it. It’s your world now.” I let my hand slip from his, taking a step forward. The shack outside had been roughly the size of a pre-school classroom. There was no way this could fit in it and I was just supposed to accept that? I turned quickly, looking at them. “But it’s bigger on the inside,” I exclaimed. Van giggled. “They always say that.” Jensen shrugged. “It’s a simple expansion enchantment. Nothing too fancy.” Nothing too fancy? This man could heal the dying and take space that didn’t even exist, and he thinks it’s not a big deal? What could he do if he really tried? “Okay, time to get down to business,” Jensen said suddenly, all the humor gone from his face. “What’s going on, Maxie? The attack in the elevator, and now this? They aren’t just random, are they?” “I have no idea,” I told him and meant it. How was I supposed to know anything? Two months ago, I was only a spoiled rich girl, and now reality kept shifting on me. Tomorrow I’d probably wake up to find my shoes talking to me. And let me tell you, the price I pay for shoes, they’d have one heck of an attitude. “Ryan told Maxie he’s a vampire this morning.” “It’s about damn time,” Jensen muttered, glancing over at me. I turned away quickly, hoping to hide the betrayal in my eyes. “I told her about Richard Everheart,” Van continued, “I’m beginning to think he might be the one behind these attacks.” “I wouldn’t be surprised. He wouldn’t want anything to pull his heir even farther from the empire.” Vampire Empire? I couldn’t help but giggle at that one. Was that something they really called it? How could you be evil and still call your domain that? “Maxie, this is serious,” Van said, frustration in her voice. “You have no idea what Richard Everheart is capable of,” Jensen added, trying to make me see reason. “Okay, I get it. This is bad,” I told them, a little frustrated myself. Of course, I knew this was bad. I had been the one attacked. “What do you want me to do about it? If you haven’t noticed, there’s not much I can do right now.” Jensen nodded. “I know. We need to fix that. There’s some books on the back wall which might help,” he told me, sympathy clouding his eyes. “Most witches know what they are from an early age. They spend their childhood developing their powers, learning to control them. Unfortunately, you’ll have to play catch-up. We just don’t have time to do it the usual way. I’m sorry.” It was my turn to nod. It wasn’t his fault I didn’t know who I was. Yet, I knew he’d help me in every way he could, even if I wasn’t his responsibility. “Thank you. I know I have to get control of them. I’d feel safer if I did.” “We all feel that way, Max,” Van said, sincerity making her words mean even more. “Why don’t you head back there?” Jensen said. “You can’t miss it. The whole back wall is covered in the books we need. There’s a table and chairs back there as well.” He glanced over at Van. “We’ll meet you back there, Maxie.” “Okay,” I said, before turning around and heading into the stacks, praying I wouldn’t get lost. Jensen should offer a map to his customers. Even malls had that “you are here” thing. I glanced over my shoulder, suddenly feeling very alone. I couldn’t even see the front anymore. I couldn’t make out Van and Jensen’s voices. It probably was for the best. I knew they were talking about me. Probably pitying the poor little witch who didn’t even have enough sense not to get involved with vampires. Well, it wasn’t like I knew, was it? Not one of them had come out and said, “Run, Maxie. Ryan’s a vampire.” That would have been nice. An honest warning. Though, truthfully, it probably wouldn’t have mattered much. Like I would have believed them at the time. I walked forever it seemed. Finally when it felt like I was in another zip code, I reached the back wall. There was a table, chairs, a few couches, and several of those strange egg shaped chairs I could never remember the name of. Sun light spilled in through the windows scattered around. I glanced down the wall. It went on for miles in both directions. I sure hoped the books we wanted were in this section, because I wasn’t walking anymore. I moved to a shelf, running my fingers along the spines of the books as I read the titles. These were the ones. It seemed everything on this shelf had something to do with witchcraft and magic. I started pulling books off the shelf, placing them on the large, round wooden table nearby. I didn’t know what I was looking for, but I was sure Jensen could find something useful in one of the books. I started to relax, a calming sensation flowing over me as I pulled a chair out and sat down. This place was amazing. I loved old bookstores and this one was the most magnificent one I had ever seen. It had a “welcome home” vibe as if the store itself had been waiting for me. I smiled at that thought. I think I had found my new favorite hangout. Grabbing a book off the top, I started flipping through it as I waited. Maybe I’d get lucky and find one called Witchcraft for Dummies, cause that’s what I felt like. A dummy that would die before she got her powers under control. I wasn’t that lucky. Not one dummy book among the pile. Just a lot of old books with archaic words I didn’t understand. Huffing in frustration, I pushed the books aside. Except for passages like “no doubt in your heart,” “pure of mind,” and my personal favorite “know you can do it,” it was all nonsense to me. There was no way I was going to figure it out on my own. I had a better chance of winning the Nobel Prize for my achievements in Quantum Physics. AKA, never going to happen. Tapping my nails in frustration, I looked around, waiting for my friends. What was taking them so long? Was it possible that Jensen could get lost in his own store? A tap echoing mine sounded on the window behind me. I turned, wondering if they had walked down here from outside. It certainly would have been a faster trip. The window was empty. Nothing but buildings lay beyond it. With a shrug, I went back to tapping my nails. Must have been a trick of sound, nothing more than my own taps bouncing back at me. Besides, I didn’t know why I had thought it would be Jensen or Van, it wasn’t even like there was a door in this part of the building. More tapping followed mine. I listened to it, then tapped again. The tapping copied mine perfectly. That wasn’t an echo. There was someone behind me. I spun quickly, hoping to catch whoever was toying with me. And this time I wasn’t disappointed. A small blonde girl stood there, peeking in the window. She smiled at me, her pig tails blowing slightly in the breeze. “Elizabeth?” I said, startled. I rose, going to the window as fast as I could and stared down at the girl. “What are you doing here?” Her eyes darted nervously around her. “Help me, Maxie. I’m scared.” “Why?” I asked her, but I knew she needed help if she was here, it really didn’t matter why. “How did you get here?” Elizabeth was my next door neighbor’s daughter. I mean next door to my house in New Haven, Maine. The Freemont’s weren’t careless with their nine-year-old daughter. Especially not careless enough to lose her all the way cross country. There was absolutely no reason for her to be in L.A.. Not unless someone was using her to get to me. “Elizabeth, sweetheart, what’s wrong? She looked over her shoulder, her eyes widening in terror. “They’re here, Maxie. They want to hurt me. You have to stop them.” I pressed closer to the window, desperately trying to see her attackers. “Who is, honey? Who’s out there?” I asked as calmly as I could, even though calm was the last thing I was at the moment. “Please,” she begged, panic in her voice. “You have to stop them.” Tears clung to her lashes as she stared up at me, hopeless in her fear. “Okay. It’s okay,” I said and looked around me. How could I help her? There wasn’t any way to get to her. Wait. I couldn’t, but maybe my friends could. I turned around, peering down one of the aisles. Where were they anyway? “Guys!” I screamed. “There’s a little girl outside who needs help. You need to go to her. Please!” I waited a moment. No one shouted back to me. No running. No commotion. Nothing. They weren’t coming to help me. I was alone. Reaching down to pat my jean’s pocket, I turned around. Great. I hadn’t even grabbed my phone on the way out of the apartment when we left. I had been too busy dying to even think of it. Frustration grew as I stared out the window. It was empty once again. “Elizabeth,” I called frantically. “Where are you?” The alleyway stayed empty. The child was no longer out there. Panic gripped my heart. What had they done to her? Pressing my face closer to the glass, I tried to peer along the side of the building. She had to be somewhere close by. A scream erupted from the end of the alley. I pressed closer to the window, my breath forgotten as I willed her to be okay. A shadow slunk through the edge of my vision and Elizabeth screamed again. “No!” I yelled, anger dripping from every pore. Why would they do this? Why would they take some poor little girl from Maine, just to have her scream? It didn’t make sense. A slam against the window startled me. I peeled myself away from it, staring at the figure outside. Disbelief flooded through me. This couldn’t be happening. “Mom?” My mother stood on the other side of the glass, looking even more scared than Elizabeth had. “Maxie,” she spoke in a whisper, as if she didn’t want to draw any attention to herself. “Maxie, something is after Elizabeth. We have to do something.” A tear leaked from the corner of my eye. I had never seen my mother so scared before in my entire life. Whatever was out there was bad, and I couldn’t help them. “I don’t know what to do, Mom.” My mother looked at me so forlornly, I thought my heart might break. “We can’t let that little girl die,” she told me, determination in her eyes. She darted away from the window and disappeared, following Elizabeth where I couldn’t see. “No,” I whispered, fighting back the tears. This was all wrong. None of this was my mother’s fault, or Elizabeth’s. It was mine and I had put them in danger. Was this the kind of person I was destined to be? Someone who constantly kept the people she loved in danger? My mother’s scream rose from the side of the building as well. My mother was out there paying for my sins. “Mom,” I screamed, pounding my fist against the glass. “Leave her alone! It’s me you want.” The screaming continued, drilling a hole right through my soul. I couldn’t just stand there and listen to this. I had to do something. I turned around, planning to run back to the front of the store. I stopped mid-stride. That wouldn’t work. By the time I got there, it would be too late. I was sure of it. If I wanted to save them, I had to get to them now. I had only one choice. I had to get through that window. Grabbing the wooden chair I had been sitting in, I spun around, flinging it into the window with all my might. Jensen would just have to forgive me. The chair left my hand, crashing into the window, where it bounced harmlessly and landed on the floor. I cursed under my breath as I stared at that window, adrenaline spiking the anger I was feeling. How pathetic was that? I couldn’t even break a window. Grabbing the chair again, I threw it several more times. I let all the rage I was feeling fly with the chair, still…the window did not break. Shoving the chair aside, I collapsed against the window, my chest heaving as the tears came hot and fast. I was going to lose her. I was going to lose them both because I couldn’t manage to do anything right. “No,” I shouted to the universe as I started pounding on the window again. “Why would you do this to me? Why would you bring me all the way out here and tell me I was a witch, if I can’t do anything to save them?” Wait…I was a witch. A thin piece of glass shouldn’t stop me. Maybe I couldn’t control my powers, but they were there. And they hadn’t let me down yet. I focused on the window, willing it gone. I felt the sheer force of my desire to reach them wash over me. I was like a mother lion protecting her young. Nothing was going to stop me. I gave a primal yell as my will ripped into the window. Closing my eyes, I prayed for the glass to shatter. Instead, the roar of traffic greeted my ears as a warm breeze fluttered through my hair. I opened my eyes, shocked at the sight in front of me. The window had completely disappeared. So had the wall around it. In its place was a door, standing wide open. I had done it. I had bent the will of the world around me. I created an opening where there had been none. I did it. I used my powers to obtain what I wanted. I was awesome! I stepped closer to the door, silence greeting my ears as I did. What was going on out there? Why had the screaming stopped? I would never forgive myself if I was too late. A shadow moved in the doorway, causing me to take a step back. The figure stepped into the doorway and looked at me, a huge grin on his movie star face. “Maxie, you did it,” he told me proudly. “You destroyed the creature and freed your mom and Elizabeth.” I couldn’t believe my eyes. “Ryan?” What was he doing here? “Yes, my love,” he said, stepping closer, eyes burning bright. “I knew you needed me. I wanted desperately to be where you were and suddenly I was. Your powers brought me here.” I shook my head. Could I really do that? Did that one little act of adding a door really save everyone and bring Ryan to me? I didn’t know what to think. None of it was making any sense. I was still too strung out on adrenaline to try to force it to. Ryan saw the look of confusion on my face and stepped in through the doorway, coming closer to me. “You did it, Maxie. You allowed me in.” I looked up at him, worry rolling through me. That didn’t sound good. Maybe they were right. Maybe you couldn’t trust a vampire. “What?” Throwing his head back, he laughed, the sound echoing through me in waves of pure malice. His face suddenly rippled, like water in a pond and Ryan was no longer standing there. Jensen was. “Thank you for giving me entrance,” he spoke, a smile lingering on his lips. “It will be so much easier to kill you if I’m on the inside.” I backed up, bumping into the large table behind me. What the heck was going on? How did Ryan change into Jensen, and why did he want to kill me? I didn’t know, and it really didn’t matter. I just had to keep him from succeeding. I raised my hands, trying to throw some kind of energy at him. I had seen it done in countless movies, but nothing happened and Jensen kept coming. “Give it up, Max,” he hissed, coming nearer. “You aren’t strong enough to stop me.” “No,” I whispered. Why was he doing this? I know I chose Ryan over him, but…come on. Was this anyway to win a girl back? “Yes,” he said as his features changed again. This time it was Van standing there in front of me. Her blue eyes sparkling with glee. “It will be my honor to take your life, witch,” she said and sprang. She hit me hard. Every inch of her curvy figure dragging me down beneath her. I screamed as she clawed into me. This was crazy. Was this some kind of conspiracy? All my friends were out to kill me. “Hold still,” Van said, pinning me down harder. “This will only take a moment.” Her finger clawing again against my skin. This time the pain went deeper than just a flesh wound. Whatever she was really doing to me went much deeper than that. It was like she had dropped hot coals into the very core of me. Somehow, some way, she was ripping at my soul. I screamed again as my body convulsed, too engulfed in the pain to even function properly. “No…Van,” I gasped, panting around the words. She really was going to kill me. “I’m not Van, sweetheart,” she whispered in my ear, voice deeper than I had ever heard before. I opened my eyes, trying to focus past the pain. I looked up, meeting eyes I had thought would love me forever. Eyes that had betrayed me more than anyone had before. My ex-fiancé stared down at me, amusement written all over his once handsome face. Now it only reminded me of the hate people were capable of. “Stephen?” He chuckled, sinking his fingers deeper into my chest. He tugged hard, ripping something deep inside of me. “Goodbye, my love,” he said as he shredded all that I was. The pain was suddenly gone. I was no longer tied down by the agony he was subjecting me to. I was floating, falling, and something was pulling me away. I knew it meant he succeeded. They all had succeeded. I was getting whisked away from the world I loved, and I didn’t care. I heard footsteps coming up one of the aisles. The sound dragged me back, cementing me in reality. As the floating sensation left, the pain came back. Three-times what it was when it had left me. I screamed, convulsing once again. “What the…Fetch?” I heard someone shout from behind me. “Get off of her.” A blinding white light tore passed me in a shock wave, knocking Stephen from me, launching him into the bookshelves on the wall. He landed with a thud, books showering down around him, burying his limp form. I gasped, breathing a little easier. Something was still broken inside of me, but at least I was alive. I didn’t know how long it would last though. I felt warm hands on me, causing me to look up. Van and Jensen stared down at me, terror on their faces. “No,” I whispered. Were they here to finish what they started? “Easy,” Jensen said softly. “It’s really us.” “Are you okay?” Van asked me, tears in her eyes. I closed my eyes, weariness settling over me. “I don’t know,” I whispered, too tired to manage much more. Taking a deep breath, I opened my eyes again. “What’s going on?” Jensen’s gaze left me, locking on to the door in the wall. “Where did that come from?” He closed his eyes, listening to something I couldn’t hear. He jerked suddenly, his eyes flying open and glanced over at Van. “My wards. They’re all gone. Someone has destroyed them all. How could someone do that?” He shook his head, disbelief in his eyes. “We’re sitting ducks without them. If there are others outside…” he let his sentence die out, not wanting to finish it. Obviously, having no wards was a bad thing. “Who’s strong enough to do that?” Van placed a hand on his arm. “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of it.” And just like that, she was gone, disappearing right before our eyes. I was never going to get used to any of these things. Jensen looked back down at me. “Here,” he said, his arms coming around me as he helped me into a sitting position. “Better?” I nodded weakly. I didn’t know how much better it actually was, but at least I wasn’t lying on my back anymore. “What was that? It looked like you and Van.” He glanced over at the mound of books. “That was a Fetch. They take the form of others to hurt and confuse people,” he said, looking down at me. “We’re lucky we got to you in time. That thing could have killed you.” “I still will,” a voice rang out as the pile of books shifted, and a dark shape rose from it. Its rotten body stood there, dead eyes glaring in our direction. Oh, great. Zombies? Was there anything in this world that wasn’t real? Before either one of us could move, the zombie lurched forward, moving faster than I ever thought one could. Jensen reached out and pulled me to him, his arms wrapping around me like a shield. It was all he had time for. The zombie was almost on top of us. A scream of rage tore through the book store, shaking the walls around us. I glanced up, looking for the source and found it, swooping down at the zombie. The black shadow with the red eyes flew through the air colliding with the zombie, attaching itself to its body. The zombie howled in pain as its decomposing flesh dissolved from the shadow's touch. The shadow held on, wrapping around the zombie until there was nothing left of it but black smoke. The shadow slowly drew the smoke into itself, merging it with its own form. We stared at it in shock. All of this had happened in no more than a few seconds. He had saved us that quickly. The shadow turned towards us, taking on a more human form. He let his gaze travel to me. “Thank you,” I said, voice shaking. He bowed to me, a deep, sweeping gesture, then disappeared as if he’d never even been there. Jensen turned and looked at me. “You weren’t kidding when you said you summoned a shadow.” “I don’t know how it happens. It didn’t show up last time.” He stared down at me, still in his arms. “Are you okay?” I looked up at him. I was hurt, scared, confused, but I also felt good. Like I was where I belonged. I realized as I sat there, pressed to Jensen’s chest, even though horrible things had happened, I was at ease. It happened the moment he wrapped me in his arms. There was a connection between Jensen and I that I couldn’t deny. It wasn’t the electric burning I felt whenever Ryan and I touched. This was soothing, like a salve covering everything that was wrong. It wrapped me in a protective coating and left me with peace. And I liked it. A lot. Jensen was staring at me, worry seeping into his eyes as he waited for my answer. I opened my mouth to tell him I was fine, but exhaustion hit me like a brick wall, rolling me out of the peace he provided. I felt myself go slack in his arms as I weakened. The damage I had suffered was finally catching up to me. “I…don’t know,” I said, my head lolling to one side. He moved my gaze back to him, placing his hands on the sides of my face gently. He took a deep breath, staring into my eyes. I held my breath, lost in the bright green pools of his eyes. He seemed to be searching for something, but it didn’t matter, I could stay lost in those orbs forever. Jensen pulled his gaze back, looking at me instead of through me. “The Fetch damaged your soul,” he told me. “It’s ripped to shreds.” My heart hammered at that. It was what I was afraid of. There was no way this was going to end well. “What does that mean?” “It means you will die if we don’t do something.” “Die,” I squeaked. Again? Why was it I was always dying anymore? I see how it is. L.A. really will kill you. “Is there anything you can do?” He nodded. “There’s one thing, but it’s kind of extreme.” Extreme? When a person is dying, is anything really too extreme? He pulled me close, looking me square in the eye. “I’m willing to do it. Honestly, there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you,” he whispered to me. Before I could respond, he pulled me to him, his lips finding mine. They moved slowly, gently giving into what was there between us. I sighed as I tried to wrap my arms around his neck. I couldn’t believe the sensations coursing through me. It was like the first day of summer, Christmases, and birthdays all wrapped into one. It was finding a new sacred spot and coming home at the same time. I felt his energy touch my soul. It cradled it, gently caressing it, and slowly my soul started to mend. It was growing, bigger and brighter than it had ever been before. My soul was still mending, but at the moment, it was whole. I was whole. Jensen’s arms loosened around me as he pulled back slightly. His lips caressed mine one last time, reluctant to stop. I looked up at him, slowly sitting up on my own. I felt great. Even better than before. “What did you do?” A smile formed on his lips as he continued to hold me. “The only thing I could think of, Max. I gave you part of my soul.” Thirty I sat on the edge of my bed, toweling my hair dry. It had been a long day. Most people didn’t come close to death twice in one day, but lucky me, I was special. Tossing the towel aside, I opted for the hairdryer. The ritual of drying my hair always relaxed me, and boy, did I need that. I was no closer to finding any of the answers I sought. In fact, I had only found more questions. Ones I was truly terrified to answer. At least one good thing came out of this day. I could finally control my powers. Van had come back from fixing Jensen’s wards, which apparently, I had knocked out when I made the door. We straightened up the bookstore, returning it to its original condition. Except for the door. Jensen decided to leave it there. You never know when it might come in handy. When everything was back to normal, Jensen gave me an impromptu magic lesson. He needed to know I could protect myself if something like that happened again. When something like that happened again. We all knew it was only a matter of time. There were things after me. I couldn’t deny that fact anymore. It was too stupid and too dangerous to play dumb. That’s why I had to be able to wield magic on my own terms. But to everyone’s amazement, I didn’t need much training after all. I got it right the first time and every time after that. I had total control of my magic. They thought it might be because the total shock of almost dying had opened me up to it. I knew the real reason. Jensen’s soul was infusing mine. And because of that, I knew my powers would never let me down again. I couldn’t believe Jensen had given me a part of his soul. Who does that? I honestly didn’t know if Ryan would have done the same thing for me, (Did vampires even have souls?) and that was what was bothering me as I dried my hair. I was beginning to think maybe I had been blind when I chose Ryan. I didn’t let myself see everything because of who he was. I mean, I was dating Ryan Everheart. That should be a girl’s dream come true. Yet, here I was, miserable and completely confused. Don’t get me wrong. A part of me did love Ryan. Those feelings were true, but how much of that was needing to be in love versus actually being in love? What I felt with Jensen was so different. It was stronger, yet purer. It was something to fear even more than dating a vampire. It was the connection that could scar you for all eternity if it was taken away. I didn’t know if I was ready for that. This was something I hadn’t even experienced with Stephen, and I was going to marry the guy. What was going on with Jensen was terrifying. Plus I had part of the man’s soul. How much more complicated could it get? And I couldn’t stay with Ryan. As much as I cared about him, he was a vampire and I couldn’t get trapped in that world. His father could make my life a living hell. And I didn’t think running away would help. He would find us no matter where we went. It was all too confusing to think about. I really wasn’t ready to choose either of them at this point, and because of that, maybe it was time to choose none. I was too dependent on men anyway. A girl like me is raised to be. But I was the new Maxie Duncan. A modern, fabulously dressed witch and I could stand on my own two feet. Yes, that was it exactly. I needed to find me. I needed to become who I really was and see where I was going before I settled on some guy. After all, the right one would wait for me until I was ready, right? It was time for me to just be me. Wow, was I growing up or something? I finished my blow-out and was picking out some pajamas, when my cell phone rang. A quick check of the screen told me Ryan was on the other end. I stared at the ringing phone in my hand. I wasn’t quite ready to talk to him yet, but…considering the decision I had come to, I knew sooner was better than later. I needed to end it before it ended me. Answering my phone, I carefully tried to keep the sadness from my voice. I knew I needed to do it, but that didn’t mean I had to be happy about it. This was something that would weigh on my soul for years to come. Why couldn’t we just be normal people? Would that really have been too much to ask? “I know I’m probably the last person you want to hear from right now,” his voice floated into my ear, rushed. Obviously, he was afraid I would hang up on him before he could get it all out. “I should have told you from the start. I’m sorry for that.” It was true. I could hear it in his words. But it didn’t change anything. He was still a vampire. With a very dangerous father. “I know you are.” “Good,” he said, breathing a sigh of relief. “Can I take you to dinner? We could talk? Figure out where we go from here.” “Yes,” I told him immediately. We did have a lot to talk about. “I’d like that.” “Okay,” he told me. “I’ll pick you up in an hour?” “I’ll be waiting,” I said before hanging up. Tossing my P.J.’s on my bed, I rummaged through my closet once again. I had a date to dress for. What does a girl wear to tell a vampire she no longer wants to see him? Thirty One Once again, I found myself at La Fem under the appreciative eyes of Harold Morgan. His arm looped through mine as soon as we made our way through the doorway. “There’s that special girl,” Harry cooed in my ear. “I hoped you would be back, though, I had expected you sooner.” I gave him an apologetic smile. “I’m sorry. I’ve been a little preoccupied lately.” His smile lessened at my words. “I bet you have.” Pulling away from me, he turned to Ryan, his huge, welcoming smile in place once again. “Your table is waiting for you. It’s set up just the way you asked.” “Thank you, Harry,” Ryan said softly as he gestured me to follow him. Harry shot me a troubled glance, but didn’t say anything as I followed Ryan back to the same room we were in on our first date. I was glad he didn’t ask what was wrong. There were too many emotions flooding me right now, at war with each other over which one was right. Saying I was done with Ryan was a lot easier when he wasn’t around. Now that I was with him, there were too many things wearing down my resolve. His smile. His charming personality. Who he was, or seemed to be, with me. These were things I just couldn’t ignore. I still loved him, God help me, I did. And I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to leave him, but I couldn’t stay. I couldn’t mess up my life anymore than I already had. I followed Ryan into the backroom and gasped. The room was once again empty. Candles flickered all around us, giving the room a soft, inviting glow. Bouquets of red roses sat on every table and petals lined the floor. A single silver rose waited at our table, a small card hanging off the vase. I took in the room, a tear sliding from the corner of my eye. “It’s beautiful.” “It’s all for you, sweetheart,” Ryan told me softly. “You deserve so much more than this. But…at least it’s a start.” I couldn’t believe it. No one had ever done anything like this for me before. Stephen’s idea of romance had been seriously lacking. The best he ever did was come home early from work with a bouquet of flowers his secretary had picked out. How lame is that? That should have been a warning to our future right there. But this…this was amazing. All of this was for me. Why did Ryan have to be so perfect? “I’ll leave you two for now,” Harry told us from the doorway. “Diner will be served shortly.” Giving me another smile, he disappeared from view, leaving us to our date. “Join me?” Ryan asked as he led me to our table, pulling the chair out for me. I couldn’t help the grin on my face as I slid into the chair. I meet the most perfect guy and he turns out to be a vampire. What does that really say about the world? Taking the card from the vase, I snuck a peek as Ryan took his seat across from me. A special rose for my special girl. I’m sorry. “I really am,” he said as he stared across the table at me, the sadness in his eyes plain to see. “I am so, so sorry. I should have told you. I wanted to tell you.” “Then why didn’t you?” I asked, pushing the vase to the side. But even as I spoke the words, I already knew the answer. There was no way he could. “I tried a million times, but something held me back each time,” he told me, taking one of my hands in his cool one. “I didn’t want…I couldn’t…You would have thought I was crazy. Or worse. You might have thought I was telling the truth and ran screaming for the door. I had to wait until you knew who I really was.” “I get why you didn’t,” I told him, and I did. Like I said, there was no way he could have told me when we first met. I wasn’t ready to hear it. But that didn’t change the position he had put me in by keeping it a secret. “But what am I supposed to do about it now?” He looked at me, the tension between us wearing heavily on his shoulders. “Forgive me. Love me. Let us rise above who we are so we can become who we’re meant to be.” It sounded so simple. Just let go of everything and be together. But I knew this life would never let go of us. “I do love you.” “Good,” he said, his smile coming back in full force. “And I love you. That’s all that matters.” I was silent for a moment, fighting the urge to throw myself into his arms, telling him I, too, believed that’s all that mattered. But deep down, I knew it didn’t and that was the problem. “I’ve been told vampires can’t be trusted,” I said softly. “Is that true?” The question took him by surprise. “Yes. Normally it’s true,” he admitted to me. I could tell it pained him to do so. “But,” he added quickly, “I’m not like other vampires.” I looked at him, knowing it didn’t really matter. “Are you like your father?” Words failed him at that moment. He looked down at the glass of champagne in front of him. His fingers tapped nervously against the stem. “You know about him?” “Yes.” He had really thought I wouldn’t find that out? Maybe he was too naive to be like his dad. “I’m not my father, Maxie,” he told me, looking me in the eye. “That’s why I left. That’s why I’m here in Hollywood squandering my life away, because I could never be my father.” Squandering his life, huh? I thought he was happy. Time for the million-dollar question. “Does your father know about me, Ryan?” He nodded quickly. “He knows all about the amazing Maxie Duncan, the girl who has stolen my heart.” Great. It was as we suspected. Richard Everheart knew I existed. Even if he wasn’t the one trying to kill me, my life had just gotten very, very complicated. “How?” “My father knows everything,” he said with a shrug. “He’s happy about it. He thinks you’re perfect for me.” He gave me another small smile. “And I do, too.” Darn it. This was exactly what I didn’t want. I had been approved by the Godfather of vampires. What was I going to do now? Ryan must have sensed the worry on me. He squeezed my hand gently. “It’s okay. He won’t interfere with our life together. He promised.” I grimaced as fear flooded my mouth. Yeah, and I’m the queen of Mars. This was bad. Very, very bad. “Ryan,” I said, taking my hand back from him. “I can’t do this.” He stared down at his empty hand and then back up at me. “Do what?” “I can’t be involved with your world. It wasn’t fair to drag me into it.” He eyed me carefully. “What are you saying, Maxie?” “I can’t be with you, Ryan.” Anger flooded his face, turning his eyes even paler blue. “You don’t want to be with me?” he repeated softly. “No. I can’t do this. I’m barely getting used to what I am. I can’t be thrown head first into the world of vampire politics.” He sat there, staring at me, his anger hitting me like a brick wall. “You said you loved me.” “And I do. That wasn’t a lie.” “Then how can you do this?” He was right. I was being heartless, but how could I be with someone who terrified me as much as he did right then? The monster in him was dangerously closed to the surface. If he was the good one, I’d hate to see his father on a bad day. “I’m sorry, Ryan.” Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath, his anger lessening around me. “Please, Maxie. Don’t do this,” he said, looking at me once more. His eyes held so much sadness in them, I could barley hold his gaze. “We’ll run away. We’ll go some place where we never have to think about another vampire, let alone see one. I’d do that for you. I’d do anything for you.” That sounded good, perfect even. But I knew it was only a pipe dream. There wouldn’t be any place we could go that his father couldn’t find us if he wanted to. There was a noise behind me as servers started to bring in our food. I felt sick to my stomach just looking at it. This was definitely not the way I wanted our night to go. “Please,” Ryan said, pulling my attention away from the wait staff. “Give us a chance.” I shook my head. How fair was that to put me on the spot in front of everyone? It wasn’t going to work. I had to protect myself. “No, Ryan. I’m sorry.” Anger filled the room like a tidal wave. Ryan’s eyes turned white as he pulled his gaze away from me. It landed on the people around us. “Take the food away,” he told them calmly. I held my breath. Those words were too calm to come from the man in front of me. His emotions were a time bomb and I hoped no one would do anything to set him off. “But, sir…we were told to bring this out here,” one of the men carrying trays said. Uh, oh. Big mistake. Ryan was up and out of his chair faster than I could even blink. The tray of food went flying as he slammed the guy into the back wall, his fingers pressed into the flesh of the man’s throat. “I said take it away,” he hissed at him, his exposed fangs distorting the words. The wait staff wasted no time. The rest of them grabbed the food and ran from the room. The man watched his friends go, panic in his eyes. He was trapped and had no clue what Ryan would do to him. I didn’t even know what he would do to him. This was a Ryan I had never seen before. The Ryan I was afraid existed ever since I learned he was a vampire. My heart shuddered at the confirmation. “Ryan,’ I said, getting out of my chair. “Let the guy go, Ryan. He didn’t do anything.” I slowly moved next to him, placing a hand against his arm. “It’s me you’re angry with. Let him go.” Ryan turned his gaze on me, anger flaring even brighter. His fingers dug in the man’s throat harder, causing him to scream. “Ryan. Stop it,” I told him, praying he wouldn’t turn on me next. But I’d be ready for him. “I’d do what the lady says, son,” a voice spoke from the doorway. I spun around to find Harry standing there, sadness in his eyes as he watched Ryan. “You don’t want to do this. This isn’t you. You’re not your father,” he said to him, stepping up next to me. “Don’t undo everything you’ve worked for.” Ryan looked at him, then at me. His fingers relaxed, dropping the guy to the floor. “Go,” he said, stepping away from him. “And consider yourself lucky.” The man crawled past us, finding his feet at last, disappearing out the door. “Ryan,” I said, taking a step forward. This wasn’t what I wanted. “Give him some room,” Harry whispered, pulling me back. “Right now is not the time to push it.” Ryan turned and looked at us, his fangs gone and his eyes once again a sparkling blue. They trailed over my face, boring into the depths of my soul. “I love you, Maxie. I’m sorry for everything,” he spoke before turning away from us, then quickly disappearing from the room. I stood there, tears welling up in my eyes. Was it possible to break a vampire’s heart? Cause if it was, I was sure I just had. “Are you okay?” Harry asked me as I dabbed at my eyes. I couldn’t trust myself to form words at the moment, so I just shook my head. Nothing about this was okay. I turned America’s golden boy into a raging monster. “Ryan will be okay,” he assured me, patting my shoulder. “He’s stronger than even he knows.” I tried to collect myself as I stood there next to Harry. A thought occurred to me as I focused on his sympathetic face. This was Harry Morgan, owner of L.A.’s exclusive La Fem and Richard Everheart’s friend. And I just broke Ryan’s heart in front of him. If I hadn’t been in deep doo doo before, I was now. Harry seemed to know exactly where my thoughts were heading. He stepped closer, a conspiratorial smile crossing his lips. “Don’t worry. He won’t hear it from me. I may be an acquaintance of the family, but I’m loyal to my own kind, not there’s.” Loyal to his own kind? But that would mean… “You’re a…” “Witch,” he finished for me. “And I saw how special you were the first time I laid eyes on you.” I glanced over at the open doorway Ryan had disappeared through. “Did I do the right thing?” Harry was quiet for a moment. “Ryan’s different from any vampire I have ever known. He truly loves you, I can tell,” he told me sincerely. “I think you’re good for him. He hasn’t been this happy in years, but…that doesn’t mean he’s good for you.” He patted me on the arm again, looking every bit like a concerned uncle at that moment. “You’re meant for greater things than their petty wars. I think you made the right choice for you. If the vampire’s had their way, they’d drain every last drop of goodness from you. You’d be wise to remember that.” I stared at him, at a loss for words. Harry was condoning what I did. He was their friend and he thought I should get out. Ryan’s father must be a lot worse than I’d ever imagined. I had done the right thing even if it didn’t feel like it. I had to watch out for me. “You’ve had a rough night. Sit. I’ll call you a cab,” Harry said before heading out of the room. “And when you feel better, come back and see me. I think I can make this journey of yours a lot easier.” Thirty Two The next two weeks after the break-up with Ryan were cold and hard, filled with guilt, avoidance, and plenty of attacks on my life. It was a good thing I had control of my powers because they were really putting them to the test. Creatures whose names I couldn’t even pronounce were lining up to take a swing at me. Whether Ryan’s dad had placed a bigger bull’s-eye on my back, or everyone just wanted a shot at the new witch, I didn’t know. I was getting a magical workout either way, and although it helped to hone my skills, I was truly getting sick of it. I couldn’t even go shopping anymore, for fear I would blow up some boutique and they’d never let me back in. Van had given me time off from work as well. She said it was because I needed less stress in my life, but I think she only did it so I wouldn’t destroy the hotel in an epic battle for my life. And I had to admit she was right. I didn’t know where and when something was going to show up. I could find an Ogre in my car, or a Duppy in the sitting area of my favorite coffee shop. It was enough to drive a girl insane. The only place I hadn’t been attacked yet was inside our apartment. And I was beginning to spend more and more time there. I was going to turn into some eccentric recluse at this rate. Yep, I vant to be alone. And then there was Jensen. Every time I turned around, he was at the apartment, checking up on me. I get that he was concerned. I had magical hit men gunning for me every time I turned around, not to mention they were probably being sent by my ex-boyfriend’s father. The very same boyfriend who had turned out to be a vampire. It was amazing I hadn’t completely snapped by this point. But Jensen showing up all the time wasn’t helping anything at all. I felt guilty every time I saw him, which just added to the misery I was in. He and I had a connection, one stronger than anything I had ever felt before. And having a piece of his soul attached to mine just made everything even more confusing. I couldn’t get that kiss out of my mind. It had been perfect, magical even, but that’s all it was, wasn’t it? I had been dying and it was the magical balm to bring me back. And I loved Ryan, even though I had to get away from him. I had broken his heart, so what right did I have to even contemplate being with another guy? And Jensen had been guilty of the same thing Ryan was. Everyone had. They all left me in the dark about what was really out there. I needed to forget about both of them and work on my life. I needed to worry about keeping it. I was in the living room, watching a marathon of some kind of reality show, trying to pretend I wasn’t miserable. Though in all honesty, if I had to watch one more chick fight, I was going to scream. Everyone was at work and I was going stir crazy. I couldn’t spend my life in the apartment. I needed to be out in the world. Shopping, socializing, living life to the fullest. I refused to be a prisoner, trapped in my own life. Getting up from the couch, I headed into the bathroom to check my makeup. I was going out, even if it was only for an iced latte. I wouldn’t let fear ruin my life. My fear or the fear of the other’s around me. I was a grown witch, a powerful witch, and I was going out. I hurried across the city, my convertible going as fast as traffic would allow. The last thing I wanted was for something to attack while I was behind the wheel. I didn’t know how well someone could sling magic while steering, and I didn’t want to find out. I pulled into the parking lot of my favorite coffee shop. So far, so good. Mocha-deliciousness here I come. The line was short and before I knew it, I had my latte. Now if I could only survive the trip back home, everything would be perfect. I hurried back out to the car. I didn’t want to tempt fate any more than I already had. Digging through my purse, I looked for my keys. Why is it they never stay on the top where you put them? “Hello, Maxie,” a voice greeted me. I glanced up. Standing on the other side of my car was a young guy. He smiled at me, his handsome face lighting up as he did. “Hello,” I said, not wanting to be rude. I had no idea who this guy was, but his casual manner and boyish good looks helped set me at ease. I was used to being hit on. This was a return to the normal for me. Wait a minute. That wasn’t right. Fear suddenly washed through me. He knew my name. This wasn’t some random come-on. His startling green eyes shifted, sensing something had changed in my stance. He stepped a little closer to my car. “Someone wants to have a word with you.” He smiled again, his perfect white teeth reminding me of someone else. This guy looked too perfect to be human. I could only guess what he truly was, but vampire was at the top of my list. I tapped the energy inside of me. I thought about turning him into a frog, but decided that was too good for this slimy lackey sent to do someone else’s dirty work. His smile deepened as he felt the energy crackle around me. “Oh, the attack’s not coming from me,” he said, amusement making his green eyes dance. Realization dawned on me. Smug-boy had only been a distraction…and I fell for it. I turned, but it was too late. Something very heavy collided with the side of my head. I saw fireworks that rivaled the best shows in the world as the cement reached up to greet me. I laid there, fading into the darkness around me and groaned. If I lived through this, Van was so going to kill me. Thirty Three My head throbbed. The sensation filling me as I swam out of the murky depths of my mind. Instant pain, creeping down the back of my head and blossoming, like a bouquet of torture throughout my whole body. Opening my eyes, I stared into the black void in front of me. Nothing. I was surrounded by nothing, the complete absence of everything, and I couldn’t figure out how I had ended up here. I tried to move, but I was frozen in place, the void restraining me where I was. I stopped and listened, straining to hear something that could tell me what this place was. A roar surrounded me, crashing down on something underneath me. I wasn’t in a void after all. There was something in here with me. I wasn’t alone. Inhaling deeply, I tasted the bitter sting of salt in the air. I knew what that roaring was. I could hear the ocean. It was all around me. I struggled against the void, trying to remember why I was here. Why would I willingly come to the ocean and sit in the dark? It didn’t seem like a very Maxie thing to do. The answer crashed into my mind the same time as the wave below me crashed into the rocks. I had been jumped. By a vampire no less. With my mind back in reality, I recognized the feel of a wooden chair beneath me, my arms and legs firmly held in place by some kind of metal chain. I wiggled my nose, trying to figure out why I couldn’t see. The rustle of fabric confirmed what I had been thinking. Blindfolded. Well, this was shaping up to be a super day. I reached down inside of me, to the very core of my essence. I’d teach them to mess with me. I was going to blow this whole place apart. But as I reached my core, I came up empty. There was nothing there. No glow. No sizzle. My magic was gone. I was numb inside. It was like the spark that had been awakened in me had been silenced. Even Jensen’s sliver of soul was keeping quiet down there. I was on my own. I tried to physically break free of my restraints. But that was no use. The chains were bound too tight and I was too weak. Who ever had placed me here knew exactly what they were doing. Anger trickled into the hollow parts of my essence. I had been abandoned, left to die with nothing to protect myself with. Had my powers been taken? Or was this my punishment for being so stupid? I stopped struggling. It was no use. I was up doo doo creek without a paddle. Tears, as hot as the shame within me, streaked down my face. I had been careless, and now I would pay. “What’s a matter?” a voice, as coiled as a snake, asked in my ear. “Did you just realize how much trouble you’re in?” I flinched, trying to shrink down into myself. I didn’t recognize the voice, but I didn’t have to. I knew how serious this situation was. Those words were made up of pure malice. Laughter surrounded me. The room was filled with people and this was all a game to them. I was merely a mouse being toyed with before dinner. A hand stroked my arm, its fingers hard and cold against my skin. Dead fingers. Funny how Ryan’s never felt that way to me. “Don’t worry,” the voice spoke again, no doubt the owner of the fingers on my skin. “It doesn’t have to be all bad.” If it could have, my skin would have crawled away at that. Pain flared into my system as my body rejected his touch. My shame intensified as I sat there, dirtied from the touch. To think I had let one of them touch me was unimaginable. No wonder why my friends had tried to stop me from dating Ryan. “Don’t you dare touch me,” I growled, wishing to God I could do more than that. More laughter erupted around me. The peanut gallery was getting one heck of a kick out of this. A door opened to the right of me. The click of expensive shoes silenced the laughter immediately. “What are you doing?” a deep, charming voice dripping with authority asked. “What you told me to,” the first voice spoke; slight fear replacing the malice as he quickly pulled his hand away from me. I sighed as the pain stopped from the lack of the vampire’s touch. “I told you to restrain her, not torment her.” Those expensive shoes stepped closer and my blindfold was yanked free. I blinked as my eyes adjusted to the beams of light shooting in through the holes in the ceiling. People stood around, staring at me, curiosity in their eyes. And people said vampires couldn’t be in the sunlight. I glanced around, trying to get my bearings. Faded posters of clowns and sideshow acts littered the walls. I looked up, staring at the skeletal remains of a Ferris Wheel through the ceiling. I was in an old amusement park. More exactly, given the ocean around us, I was in Ryan’s abandoned boardwalk park. The thought of betrayal stung deep. Ryan was in on this, too. What better place to hide someone, then a place no one even knew existed. I glanced up, fighting tears as I stared at the man who had given me back my sight. He smiled at me, charm oozing from every pore. I had to say, if I hadn’t been tied up to the chair, fearing for my life, I might have succumbed to that charm. He was devastatingly good looking, reminding me of Errol Flynn in those old movies my mom loved so much. He looked as young as me. He looked as ancient as time itself. Someone of this magnitude could only be one person. Ryan’s father. Richard Everheart. “I’m sorry about that, my dear,” he told me soothingly, glancing at someone next to my chair. “Cass can be a little unruly at times.” I turned my head, the ache in it complaining as I did. The green-eyed guy from the parking lot stood there. He bared his teeth in a suggestive smile. “Hello, love.” Richard frowned at him, turning his attention back to me. “What can I say? My other son has all the charm.” Other son? I looked back at the green-eyed guy, the light slowly going on in my head. Ryan had a brother. How many other things was Ryan keeping from me? I was getting a very bad feeling about all of this. Ryan’s whole family was here. Had this been a set up all along? Was Ryan going to pop out of the woodwork himself and say “Thanks for the goods, now we have to kill you?” I had to stop this. “Look,” I said to Richard, trying to appeal to the business man in him. “You don’t have to kill me. You can call off all your attacks and let me go. I’m not a threat to you. I’m not even dating your son anymore.” He frowned down at me, puzzled by my words. “First of all, I have never tried to harm you. The attacks you speak of were not sent by me. And secondly, you breaking up with my son is exactly why you’re here.” Great. Breaking up with Ryan was coming back to bite me. Literally. “I’m sorry I broke Ryan’s heart. We were just not right for each other.” Richard dismissed me with a wave of his hand. “Oh, I don’t care about his feelings. He’s always been too much of a sentimental bleeding heart for a vampire. He was a disgrace to the Everheart name. Running off to play pretend, when he should have been with me, running the vampire regime.” He shrugged nonchalantly. “I’d written him off a long time ago. The boy was useless to me. But then…he goes and snags himself a witch. And not just any witch, a very powerful one.” I shook my head. What was he talking about? I wasn’t anything special. I was just a novice. A dumb blonde one at that. There was certainly no reason to go to this length over me. “You may think you’re nothing,” he said, guessing my thoughts. “But you’re destined for greatness.” He leaned towards me, a predatory smile on his lips. “I can smell it on you.” He stood back up, straightening his suit and tie. His demeanor once again casual. “Any way…where was I?” Cass spoke suddenly, “Ryan.” “Oh, yes. The disappointment. Somehow he gets a witch to fall in love with him, willingly. That’s never happened before. Most witches have more sense than that. Or their powers prevent them, or something. But you…you came willingly to a vampire and that’s all I needed.” “Why?” I asked him, lost among his words. Why should any of this matter? “What’s that supposed to mean?” Richard sighed as if he was talking to a three-year-old. “You see, I’m at war with the West Coast Vampires. If they knew I was here right now all hell would break loose. The problem is…we’re evenly matched. No other Supernatural will join our war, and I can’t say I blame them. We are a nasty lot. But…if I had a witch on my side, a witch as great as you, I could be invincible.” Cass shook his head as he stared down at me. “But your boyfriend couldn’t even do that job right.” “What job?” I asked, the terrible feeling magnifying in my stomach. That was it, wasn’t it? Ryan had been using me this whole time. I was only a pawn in his daddy’s game. “When I contacted Ryan about you, I told him how special you are,” Richard continued, “I told him you’d be a powerful woman on his arm and I would gladly accept both of you back into the family. At first, he didn’t want anything to do with me. He had his life, but…after that vampire attacked you in the elevator; he flew home to talk things over with me.” What? “Ryan knew about the attack?” I couldn’t believe it. How could he have left at a time like that? “Of course, he did. When a rival vampire attacks someone important to me, everyone around me knows about it. Ryan figured as long as he was dating you, you’d be a target for the other side. I told him if he brought you into the family, I’d protect you with everything I had.” So it wasn’t Ryan’s idea. He had only wanted to be with me. But that didn’t change a thing. Maybe he wasn’t using me, but he sure as heck knew his father wanted to. Richard tsked sadly. “But instead, he let you get away. What a fool. And to think for a short while I was proud that he was one of my children.” A door opened and several people came in. Ryan stood in the middle of them, looking like he lost a fight with a dump truck. The others shoved him and he stumbled, landing hard in front of me. “Ryan,” I yelled, but whether I was calling out for him or cursing his name, even I wasn’t sure. He sat there on his knees. The pitiful look on his face was almost heartbreaking. “I’m sorry, Maxie,” he spoke softly. “I never thought he’d do something like this. He gave me his word he’d leave you alone. No wonder why you hate me.” He glanced over at his father. “Vampires are vile, depraved creatures.” Cass stiffened at those words and walked over to Ryan, pulling him up off his knees. “That is our father you’re talking about, brother. Show some respect.” He backhanded him, sending him flying into the wall behind them. My eyes widened in terror. I was in trouble here. Vampires were as bad as everyone said they were. I was getting a front row seat to that point. Where were my powers? I needed to stop this before it went any further. Ryan got up off the floor. The other vampires moved back to watch the show. He wiped his mouth, smearing the blood flowing there. “Just because he chose us to be monsters, doesn’t make him our father.” Cass snarled, his rage practically shaking the already crumbling room apart. He lunged forward, his deadly sights set on Ryan. Richard reached out and grabbed him, tossing him back as if he was nothing more than a harmless kitten. “Now, boys. Please. Stop fighting. We have more pressing issues to attend to.” Turning, he looked down at me, frustration in his eyes. “Like this little witch right here. I need her on my side,” he said, looking at Ryan. “You two can still be together. I won’t stop that. Just blood bind her and this can all be over. You two can live happily-ever-after as long as I have that witch willing to do whatever I ask.” What? Now that just wasn’t right. I didn’t know exactly what blood bind meant, but I could guess. He wanted to turn me into a slave. Heck, no. I wasn’t going to play slave girl to his Jabba the Hutt. How dare he even think about it. I didn’t want to be robbed of who I was and I definitely didn’t want to spend the rest of my life as a vampire’s lapdog. Blind panic took a hold of me as I fought the silver chains tying me down. They bit angrily into my wrists, crushing flesh, but I didn’t care, I had to get out of there. “No, Ryan. Please don’t do this,” I begged, yanking on the chains. Ryan spit out the blood pooling in his mouth, then turned to his father. “I will not bind her to me. She doesn’t want anything to do with our messed up family. I won’t do that to her.” Richard growled, baring long white fangs at him. “It doesn’t matter what you do to me, I won’t subject her to that.” Ryan stepped past his father, coming to stand in front of me. “I’m so sorry, Maxie,” he said, moisture forming in his eyes. “If I had known this would happen, I would have stayed far away from you. I didn’t want you to get pulled into this.” Richard rolled his eyes, yanking Ryan back away from me. “I told you he was a sentimental fool. Pathetic. I don’t know what I was thinking when I chose him.” He tossed Ryan back to the guards by the door, who grabbed onto him, holding him in place. “I still need you blood bound, my dear,” Richard said to me. “Even if your boyfriend is too squeamish to do it.” Cass stepped forward and looked into his father’s eyes. “I don’t know the meaning of squeamish. Never have,” he said with a shark’s grin. Richard looked at him, contemplation in his eyes. With a glance in Ryan’s direction, he let a smile dance across his lips, revealing his fangs. “Then…she is yours.” “No,” Ryan snarled, struggling against his captors, but there were too many of them, he couldn’t break free. Cass turned to me, a cocky look on his young face. “Who says Ryan gets everything?” he cooed at me. A whimper escaped my lips as I started to tremble, my body already beginning to feel the shock of what was to become of me. I knew there would be no kindness in Cass’ touch, only cold hard want and the encompassing need for blood. He moved closer, unspent desire coming off him in waves. “Don’t you dare,” Ryan called to him, his voice darker than I had ever heard it before. At that moment, I could see the true monster in him. “You do this, and I will kill you.” Cass looked over at his brother and rolled his eyes. “Please. You have never killed anything in your whole existence.” “There’s a first time for everything.” Cass brushed off the threat and stepped in front of my chair, trailing a finger down my arm once again. Fire ignited my skin at his touch. He leaned close, his eyes burning bright. He looked at me like my father looked at steak and lobster. “No,” I cried, terror coating every inch of my body. I couldn’t stop myself. That’s what you do when a predator has its sights set on you, you beg for your life. “Please don’t do this. I’ll help you. Just don’t bind me. Please.” Richard looked down at me, shaking his head sadly. “Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. We could never really trust you. No. A witch as powerful as you has to be on a leash.” Cass chuckled, leaning down towards me, his face inches from mine. “I’m sorry, Maxie,” Ryan called from across the room, his voice cracking as he did. “I’ll find a way to fix this. I swear.” Cass leaned closer, pressing into me. My body screamed in agony as his hands roamed freely. His hair tickled my face as he lifted my chin, his mouth going straight for my neck. I closed my eyes, giving in to the despair. There was nothing I could do now. I had just found myself and now I would be lost forever, nothing more than a vampire’s stooge. A weapon to be used. A scream echoed around us, followed by another and another. Soon the whole room was filled with shouting and yelling. Cass pulled away from me, looking just as bewildered as I was, no doubt. I didn’t know what was happening, but I was grateful for it. I had been given a reprieve from my fate at the moment. And that’s all that mattered to me. “What the hell is going on?” Cass shouted to his father above the ruckus in the room. Richard stood there, shock written on his chiseled features. “I don’t know,” he admitted bitterly. Obviously, he was a man who liked being in control. I couldn’t believe what we were seeing. All of Everheart’s men had gone crazy. They were screaming as they attacked the air, landing punches and kicks on nothing at all. It was like they had started fighting an invisible army. Some of them were even falling to the floor, wounded by their unseen attackers. Richard and Cass weren’t affected by it at all; neither was Ryan, who just stood there watching the men fight around him. He caught my eye and shook his head, telling me he had no clue what had befallen the other vampires. He took a few steps in my direction, and even though I hated the guy right now, I wanted him close to me. What can I say? A girl will take any kind of help in crisis. Cass saw the movement out of the corner of his eye and reached out, stopping him dead in his tracks. “Where the hell do you think you’re going, lover boy?” he growled in his face. “She is no longer your toy.” Oh, goody. Just what a girl wants to be regarded as. Ryan opened his mouth and then thought better of it. He pulled his fist back, punching Cass square in the nose. His head snapped back as he fell to the floor. “She will never be your anything,” he hissed down at him. In a heartbeat, Cass was off the floor and tackling Ryan, both of them flying like a blur out the door. Richard quickly followed, not wanting to be left out of the chaos their gathering had become. I was left there, surrounded by dozens of crazy vampires, still battling nothing and losing all the same. So this is what my life had become. I felt pressure on my shoulder suddenly. Images of a vampire sneaking up on my neck flashing through my head; I squealed loud enough to shake the building around me. “Shh, it’s just me,” a tiny voice said next to my ear. I turned my head and a small shape left my shoulder, hovering in front of my face. “Van?” I said in disbelief. She hung there in the air, no more than five inches tall, tiny gossamer wings jutting from her back, fluttering as they kept her suspended. The soft hum they made instantly calmed me. “You’re so little.” She giggled, the sound like bells on a Christmas tree. “I told you I was a pixie. You think I couldn’t look like Tink if I wanted to?” I didn’t care. All I knew was my best friend was there with me and I couldn’t have been happier. “How did you find me?” “I stopped at the coffee shop on the way home. I saw your car outside, but couldn’t find you. I instantly knew something was wrong and I called the guys. Jensen was able to find you.” “How?” Van shrugged her tiny shoulders. “He did a spell to find the missing part of his soul.” I looked at the small smile that crept across her lips and wondered if her words didn’t mean something else. “What is happing to them?” I asked, tilting my head towards the few fighting vampires left around us. “Danny’s messing with them,” she said proudly. “He’s creating a distraction for us.” Hope soared through me. My friends were here. They were going to save me. I hoped. A chunk of the wall exploded, taking out a few vampires as it did. As the debris cleared, I saw Jensen standing there, his eyes hot with unspent magic. He stepped through the hole, Danny following close behind him. Their clothes were torn and they were bleeding in places, but they were still the best thing I had ever laid eyes on. Here was my cavalry, my knights-in-shining- armor, my big darn heroes, and I was going to be okay. Jensen’s eyes darted around the room, his hands lowering as he realized there was no threats left. His gaze moved to me, relief flashing across his face as he took me in. A smile that mirrored my own lit up his face as he crossed the room to me. I opened my mouth. There was so much I wanted to tell him. So much I needed to apologize for, but before I could say anything, Richard Everheart stormed back into the room. “What the hell?” he demanded, seeing the state of the room and my friends standing there. He glanced over at the few vampires still there. “Get them,” he demanded. Danny laughed, the sound rich and full, like a child on Christmas morning. He was having a great time. “They’re a little busy right now, Pops,” he told him, smiling a perfectly innocent smile. New screams issued from the men and they scrambled for the opening in the wall, pushing each other out of the way. “Chickens,” Danny mocked as they ran past him. I didn’t know what he showed them this time, but it had to be good. A look of despair crossed Richard’s face as he realized he was on his own. No one was going to do his dirty work for him this time. He bared his fangs, threatening us. Jensen stepped in front of me, standing his ground. “I wouldn’t if I was you. There’s a reason vampires don’t take on witches. The same reason you had to restrain Maxie, isn’t it?” He glanced over at me, at the silver chains binding me to the chair. “Enchanted silver from Tuscany, I believe? It absorbs any magic that touches it until there’s none left.” Richard stood taller, trying a more menacing look, but I could tell fear was seeping in. “You’re outnumbered, witch,” he growled through his teeth. “Look around you. There’s no one left to help you. You’re on your own now. And that’s never happened to you before, has it?” Jensen took a step forward. “End this. Let my friend go and I’ll forget you were even here. You can go back to leading your vampire dictatorship any way you want to. Just stay away from us.” Anger blazed in the vampire’s eyes as he stepped away from us. He was nothing but a bully. Cowardness ran through his veins and he knew it. “Fine. You might have saved her today, but can you keep her safe for the rest of her life?” Jensen stood there, not even blinking at those words. “I’ll sure as hell try.” Richard scowled and then turned his gaze on me. “There’ll come a day when you want to know what this world really has in store for you. You’ll come to me willingly then.” I just looked at him, disgust on my face. “Like I’ll ever want anything from you.” “You will, my dear. That is one thing you can be sure of.” He looked back over at Jensen. “The Apex will rise, and when it does, I will be there,” he said, turning around and disappearing through the opening in the wall. The room was silent as I looked around it. We were alone now. Only my friends and I were left in the wreckage that had once held merriment and mirth. Jensen looked down at me. “Are you okay?” I shrugged sheepishly. “I’m fine. I’m the world’s biggest idiot, but I’m okay,” I told him, avoiding his gaze. He had saved me from a fate I had thrown myself into. I wasn’t too clear on how he did it though. “What happened here? Nobody had to fight anyone? How did we win?” “That’s what happens when you’re as good as us,” Danny said, joining us. Van flew over and landed on his shoulder. “Is that what they’re calling it these days?” she squeaked up at him. “Hey, watch it, bug breath,” he teased, his eyes showing the love he really felt. Van stuck her tiny nose in the air, but smiled, returning the love. Jensen smiled and returned his gaze to me. “No. Vampires don’t like to confront witches when they are alone. There’s not much we’d let them do to us.” I suddenly understood, feeling very stupid indeed. “We have more power than they’ll ever have,” I said softly. He nodded. “Vampires are like a pack of wolves. A wolf takes on a guy with a gun, the guy shoots it. A whole pack attacks that one guy and he’s going to be in trouble regardless of what weapons he has.” I had let my feelings for Ryan almost get me killed. “Magic is our gun.” “Yes. That’s why Everheart took it away from you,” he said, tugging at the chains around my arms. “Unfortunately, I can’t free you from these chains. Any magic I send out towards them, will just be absorbed and neutralized.” Perfect. “Does that mean I’m stuck here?” They all stared at me a moment, contemplating the situation. Despair was starting to build up in me, when Danny cleared his throat. “That’s just regular wood right?” he asked Jensen. “I would imagine so.” “Then I’ll just find something to break the chair with,” he said and wandered back to the hole in the wall. Van flitted along behind him. “That’ll work,” Jensen said, heading over to the other side of the room, searching the rubble for something he could use. I wasn’t too keen on them chopping away at the wood around me, but really, what choice did I have? “Thank you for rescuing me…again.” He looked up at me, a smile on his lips. “What can I say? I seem to be making it a habit lately.” “Thank you,” I said again and meant it. “Why you little bitch,” someone snarled from the doorway. We both turned to look, surprise washing over both of us. Cass stood there, rage engulfing him at the sight of me all alone. He moved like a blur, coming straight for me, determined to blood bind me, even if it was the last thing he ever did. Jensen threw out his hands, sending a ball of green sparks right at the vampire, but Cass was too close to me. Jensen’s energy was absorbed into the chains, pulling it out of existence. Cass collided with my chair, knocking me over. I could feel the chair splinter behind me and then the vampire was on top of me, pressing me down into the floor. “No,” I screamed as I tried to push at him, but my arms were pinned between us. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t free myself from the horror looming over me. Just when I had thought I was safe, he was grinning down at me once more. “Oh, I’m really going to enjoy having you at my side,” Cass whispered, his fangs nipping at my throat. Everything was happening too fast. It was like Cass and I were in some speeded up version of time. Jensen was moving across the room, but he was way too slow. He’d never reach us in time, and even if he did, Cass would snap his neck in an instant. I was going to become Cass’ pet. There wasn’t anything either one of us could do now. A blur caught my attention as Cass’ teeth pressed against my flesh. It collided with him, knocking him away from me. Suddenly Ryan was there between Cass and me, keeping him back. Saving my life. “Leave her alone,” he growled. “Make me,” Cass snarled back like any brother would do. And then they were moving, nothing but a blur of fangs and fists, ricocheting off the walls. I moved, pulling myself away from the broken pieces of the chair. My body felt like one giant bruise, but at least I was free. I sat up, pulling at the chains draped over me. Hands joined mine, as arms went around me. I flinched, expecting another attack. “It’s just me,” Jensen whispered in my ear as he helped pull the chains from me. Once they were off, he tossed them into the far corner and pulled me to my feet. “Are you alright?” “Yeah, I’m good,” I said, my eyes drifting back to the supersonic fight around us. A body suddenly flew passed us, slamming into the wall. Cass slid down and sat on the floor, his body broken and bleeding. Ryan stalked towards him, looking better off than his brother. “It’s over, Cass,” he said, his voice husky with anger. “They’ve won. Leave now and forget you ever met her.” Cass placed his hands against the floor, pushing himself up. He stood in front of his brother, glaring up at him. “You’re a fool, Ryan, if you think this is over. Father will never stop wanting her. We need her.” He glanced over at me as he wiped blood from his eyes. “And for that reason…I will never stop hunting her.” He bared his fangs with a menacing hiss. Jensen stepped in front of me, hands spread wide at the same moment I reached inside of myself and found my spark once again. I was whole and Cass would pay if he even got close to me. But it was Ryan who lunged forward as Cass started to move. As they collided, Ryan latched on to his brother’s head and twisted with all his might. With a sickening crunch, it came off, his body dropping instantly to the ground. Ryan stared down at the lifeless head in his hands, eyes wide at the shock of what he had done. He dropped the head, backing slowly away from the mess he had made. “I can’t believe I just did that,” he said, staring down at his brother’s lifeless form. “Whoa,” came a voice from the hole in the wall. “Looks like we missed all the fun.” Danny stepped closer with a normal sized Van at his side. Ryan’s eyes stayed locked on the corpse, a sickened look across his face. “I’ve never killed anyone before.” My heart ached as I realized what he had done for me. He had thrown out all his morals in an instant. I had turned him into the killer he didn’t want to be. “Ryan,” I said softly as I headed over to him. He looked up at me, tears in his eyes as reality set in. He slowly shook his head, stopping me in my tracks. Suddenly, once again a blur, he darted out the door and was gone. Danny looked over at me, a deep sigh emerging from his chest. “Well, it looks like we’re on cleanup duty.” Thirty Four I sat on my bed, thinking about everything that had happened since I arrived in California. I ended my acting career before it even started, got fired from several jobs, made some friends, dated a movie star, found out I was a witch, and then forced that movie star to kill his brother. Wow, I had been a busy beaver, hadn’t I? I didn’t know if time reversed and I had the option to start over if I would move to L.A. again, but now that I was here, I saw that this was the only possible life I could lead. How messed up is that? I liked who I was now, even if it was a witch. I could make a difference in the world. I don’t know if I could have said that before. I was nothing more than a prospective rich man’s wife before I got here, but now I was Maxie Duncan, Witch Extraordinaire. Maybe some of my wide-eyed innocence had worn away, but that was okay. Everyone needed to grow up eventually. I just wish it hadn’t taken me so long. I knew this world for what it was now. It wasn’t just shiny sports cars and corporate mixers; it was a world where fairytales and nightmares met. Where a witch could be roommates with a pixie. It was a world where a girl needed to be prepared, because a would-be vampire king was out there somewhere, ready to raise an army. That thought terrified me, but I realized I could handle it. There must be a reason he wanted me so badly. And a guy like that is only interested in one thing. Power. Obviously, I had it and I was going to do my best to find all of it. I wouldn’t be a victim anymore. A knock on my bedroom door pulled me from my thoughts. Van stuck her head in and smiled. I still couldn’t get over how tiny she had become, but what can I say, my best friend was full of surprises. “You okay?” she asked. “Yeah,” I said, getting up from the bed. After all it had been a week since the kidnapping. I should be okay, right? I could tell she knew I wasn’t quite sure if I was or not. She came into the room, shutting the door behind her. “You’ve been through a lot. It’s hard enough to find out you’re something other than what you always thought you were, but to have your heart broken and then be kidnapped by the guy’s father…All I know is you’re handling it better than I would be. You’re one tough cookie.” I shrugged as I looked at her. “I don’t know if that is something I can ever get used to, but...I want to be this Maxie. The magical Maxie. So, I guess I’ll have to find a way to deal with these kinds of things happening.” Van laughed, pleased by my answer. “Like I said, tough cookie.” The smile faded from her face, a serious expression taking its place. “I ran into a friend of yours at the hotel. He was checking out. He needs to get away from everything right now,” she told me with a shrug. “I guess hanging out in Hollywood wasn’t really helping anything. He needs to figure out who he really is.” She pulled a small box from her pocket and tossed it to me. “He wanted me to give this to you. He said it would protect you where he failed.” I glanced down at the white box in my hands. Did I really want anything from Ryan? I know he never meant for any of this to happen, but…he still betrayed me by proxy. But being one who never turned down gifts, I lifted the lid and looked inside. A huge ruby pendant hung from a silver chain laid there. It was a piece of fire frozen in time, still burning in the light now and then. I pulled it from the box, holding it up. Van gasped softly and I had to agree, it was breathtaking. A folded up piece of paper was at the bottom of the empty box. Laying the necklace on the bed, I unfolded the note. Ryan’s elegant script filled the page. I didn’t care, but somehow I couldn’t convince myself enough to tear up the note. My darling Maxie, I am so sorry for everything my family has put you through. I never meant for any of this to happen. I know as long as I am in your life, you’ll be a target in the vampire world. I set you free. I am leaving. I need to find out who I really am and where I belong in this world. I know now why vampires and witches should never be together. There is only pain that can come from a union like that. But please know, Maxie, what I told you was never a lie. I love you. And I will always love you. Ryan P.S. Harry said I should give you this necklace. It was my mother’s. He says it will protect you. He also said in the right hands, it could save the world. I don’t know if that is true, but if anyone can save this world, it’s you, Maxie. I sat the paper down on the bed and picked up the pendant. It felt warm against my skin as I held it. I didn’t really know if I wanted something of Ryan’s, especially something that meant so much to him. But I did know one thing. He killed someone to save my life, and that should mean something. Slipping the chain over my head, I let the pendant fall against my tee-shirt. It felt right on me, like I was the one it had been waiting for. Also, whether I liked it or not, it made me feel a little closer to Ryan. The vampire who had betrayed his family to save me. Van watched me knowingly and then turned for the door. “Oh, if you’re up to it, you have a visitor.” Visitor? Had Ryan stopped by? Had this all been a test? Intrigued, I followed Van out to the living room. Jensen waited on the couch. He smiled when he saw me. “I’ll leave you two alone,” she said, disappearing down the hall, into her room. “Hey,” I greeted Jensen, feeling the weight of Ryan’s pendant against my heart. He stood up from the couch. “How are you feeling?” “I’m good. The bruising has almost gone away,” I told him, holding up my wrists, showing him the fading damage the chains had done to me. “It’s almost like I was never taken at all,” I said, but the reality of that day hung heavily between us. Jensen nodded, both of us knowing that wasn’t really what he was asking. He stepped closer, staring down at me. “When Van called and told me you were missing, my heart about stopped. The thought of losing you forever nearly shattered my world,” he said, stepping even closer. His hand gently pushed a strand of hair out of my face, his fingertips lingering against my cheek. “I know this hasn’t been the greatest start of a relationship, but if you’re willing to overlook that, so am I.” The look in his eye was easy to read. He wanted me. He had wanted me the whole time. I was the idiot who kept pushing him away and he still wanted to be with me. “Jensen,” I said, barely finding my voice. “I admit the feelings I have for you are more amazing, more frightening, and more real than anything I have ever felt before.” He smiled at me, encouraging me to continue. “But there is so much uncertainty in my life right now. I don’t even really know who I am yet. I’m just meeting the real me for the first time,” I told him, wishing I didn’t have to. “I can’t have my head in the clouds any longer. Ryan’s dad is still out there. More attacks are bound to be on the horizon. And…something is coming. I can feel it. It’s pressing down on the edge of my awareness. I have to be focused. I have to be the best witch I can be.” “Don’t you think I can help make you a better witch?” “I know you can. I’m going to have to rely on you a lot and well…” I stepped back away from him, pulling out of his arms, regretting it even as I knew I had to. “My last two relationships have been disasters. I’m not ready to lose what we have, too. I need you. And the best way to protect that is not to get involved,” I said, taking a deep breath. “So, I’m going to try single life and make magic the number one priority right now.” I looked up at Jensen, at the sadness in his eyes. I didn’t want to hurt him, but I couldn’t be with him, not when there were so many unanswered questions still left in my heart. I held out my hand to him. “Friends?” He looked down at my hand, a thoughtful look on his face. Slowly, a smile crept across his lips. “Of course, Max,” he said, scooping me into a hug. “There’s no one in this whole world I’d rather be friends with. Besides, someone has to stay by your side and keep you alive. You’re not too good at that yourself.” I smiled, snuggling into his embrace. I didn’t know what the future held, or who I’d end up with, but this looked like the start of a beautiful friendship. If you enjoyed this novel, I would be forever grateful if you took some time to leave a review. I love hearing what you have to say about my words. Perhaps others will as well. Want more Maxie? Check out her Halloween adventures in It’s Not The Great Pumpkin, Maxie Duncan. The Witch is back! Maxie Duncan wants to celebrate her first Halloween as a witch in style. Unfortunately for her, the Supernaturals don't celebrate it like humans do. They would rather sit at home, watch movies, and hide from the spectacle the norms think creatures of the night are. She needs help. She needs to fine a way to restore the joy Halloween use to bring. She comes up with a plan. Throw the biggest party Enchantment Cove has ever seen. Can the Supernaturals that live there be convinced there is fun to be had in even the most backwards of traditions? Maxie has her hands full with the plan, but if anyone can pull it off, it's her. Too bad something is dead set on crashing her party of the year. Now the night may really be "to die for." Check out Maxie’s Christmas adventure in A Very Maxie Christmas. It's Christmas time for L.A.'s newest witch, but all Maxie wants to do is Bah Humbug her way through it. This will be her first Christmas without her parents and her friends have been called away. She thinks it's a blue, blue holiday until things get worst. Katelyn, one of the Hotel DenMark maids, was just dumped by her fiancé on Christmas Eve. She's a sobbing mess and Maxie knows how it feels. After all, her fiancé broke up with her in a restaurant. Maxie decides it might be time to meddle again. She's got a few spells up her sleeve to insure Katelyn gets her man back. After all, there's no point in both of them being miserable for Christmas. Read on for an excerpt from Soulless in Seattle (Maxie Duncan, Book 2) *** Chapter One I raised my arms over my head, stretching as the warm tropical sun shone down over my body. My pink rhinestone bikini sparkled brightly as I reclined in my mahogany chaise lounge. My skin had a deliciously golden sheen and was perfectly unmarred. Absolutely no sign of scars or black swirls on this beach babe. The beach stretched around me as the ocean sparkled a deep, rich blue that only the Caribbean could provide. “Here you go, Miss,” a tall, dark god of a man said, leaning down to offer me some kind of pink fruity drink. His well-oiled chest glistened in the afternoon sun and I murmured my thanks as I took the glass. I was thankful for many things here in my paradise. I sipped at my pink concoction and sighed, adjusting my black Dior shades. This was exactly what the doctor ordered. There was nothing a tropical vacation couldn’t fix. Even if it was the stress of almost dying. Several times. Time sure flew when you were trying to keep your hide in one piece. I couldn’t believe it was already the beginning of February. A new year, a new me. One I wished I had found much, much sooner. I was a witch and darn proud of it. I was holding my own in the magical world. I had even taken down an old God. Then again, maybe I shouldn’t count that one as a personal victory. After all, I did summon him in the first place. However, to get back to the point, I had been a busy witch. And I desperately needed this time to myself. Even if it only lasted a few minutes. I closed my eyes, taking in the peace that was flowing freely from my little piece of heaven. It felt better than a stroll down Fifth Avenue. No worry. No troubles. Just my bliss and me. “Maxie,” a voice said softly as a shadow fell over me. Okay. So much for my bliss. I cracked an eye opened and stared up at the man before me, my heart fluttering at the sight of him. I didn’t know why I felt the way I did about the bookstore owner. It was a complete mystery to me. I mean the only other guys I’ve fallen for were either a corporate lawyer wanna-be from old money, or a movie star from even older money. You could see where I was going with this. I didn’t normally fall for some guy-next-door, bookish type, but here I was, trying to calm the stirring of my soul just because he pops in. He had that much of an effect on me and we weren’t even dating. I know. Sometimes I can be such an idiot. “Jensen?” I said, feeling a little perturbed by his intrusion. I mean, I came here to unwind, not to have a coronary just because his soulful green eyes were focused on me. He glanced around the beach, his eyes lingering for a moment on the surf. “Nice place.” I sat up, placing my glass on the stand next to my lounge. Well, so much for relaxing. It looked like my vacation was officially over. The well-oiled god hurried back over as he spotted the empty glass. “Would you care for another, Miss?” Jensen looked at him, and then back at me, his eyebrows rising in a question. “Ah, so that’s how it is, huh?” he asked, a hint of amusement in his voice. He was going to enjoy watching me squirm. I glanced back up at the cabana boy. “No, Roberto. I think it’s time for me to be leaving now. Thank you.” He flashed me a dazzling white smile before retreating, taking my empty glass with him. Yeah, I was bad. “What?” I asked innocently as I turned back to the guy who never failed to make my heart beat faster. So what if I was indulging in a little eye candy? This was my paradise. He shook his head, a hint of a smile on his perfect lips as he sat down on the edge of the chair next to me. “Nothing,” he said, letting me off the hook. I felt my cheeks heat up as I glanced away. “What are you doing here?” I asked, eager to distract my thoughts. “Van’s trying to get a hold of you. She needs you to cover the rest of her shift for her.” I glanced back at him. That was odd. Van was just as responsible as Jensen when it came to work. She never played hooky. “Is everything okay?” He shrugged. “Don’t know. Her sister showed up and I think she wants to spend some time with her.” I frowned slightly. Double odd. Van’s sister lived in Seattle. That was an awful long way to come just to chat over coffee. Plus, she would have told me if it was a planned trip, wouldn’t she? I sighed. Yep. This little piece of found paradise had most definitely reached its end. Time to get back to the real world. “Okay. I’m leaving,” I told him as I stretched. It had been fun while it lasted. Jensen watched me with amused eyes. “I should have never taught you how to meditate like this,” he said. “You’ll always be off on some kind of mind adventure now…with shirtless cabana boys.” Ah, so he was jealous. “Don’t worry,” I told him with a grin. “My real life is way more of an adventure than anything I could come up with. I just needed a few minutes here to recharge my batteries.” I looked pointedly over at him. “Next time, knock first.” He grinned. “Yes, dear,” he said before standing up from the chair. “See you later?” “You know it,” I told him and closed my eyes. I took a deep breath, letting it out slowly before reopening them. I was back in my room, lying on my fabulous sleigh bed. I sat up slowly, stretching out all my muscles. I felt as if I had honestly spent a relaxing day at the beach. I could still even feel the sun’s caresses against my skin. These mini meditation breaks Jensen had taught me were quickly becoming one of my favorite things in the whole world. How did I not know about these sooner? A witch could close their eyes, turn a bit of focus on calming their mind, and end up just about anywhere their imagination wanted them. And it was cheaper than going to the movies. I reluctantly stood up, fluffing my bed-head mess in the mirror. The dark black swirls that marred my body showed plainly through the straps of my tank top. I frowned, my fingers sliding over the white puckered flesh that covered my left shoulder. The bite that the Byangorma had given me had left several changes to my body. No longer was I as flawless as I once had been. They were my reminder that I was no longer Maxie Marie Duncan, rich man’s daughter from New Haven, Maine. That Maxie was gone. Fallen in a battle to keep her head in the clouds. I was the new Maxie. The stronger Maxie. I was awake now. I had earned these marks. They were as much me as my magic was. But…that didn’t mean I had to live with them. I turned sideways, my eyes roaming over the marks. I whispered words, letting them flow free, coating over my body into an invisible armor. The swirly tribal tattoos and the horrid scar disappeared from sight, leaving my skin as fresh as it once was. It was only an illusion, but it worked every time. I told you. It was good to have magic. With a final appreciative glance in the mirror, I padded my way into the bathroom. It looked like my day off had been cancelled. It was time to go to work. Chapter Two I stood behind the check-in counter of the Hotel DenMark, filing my nails with a yawn. My passion pink nail polish was chipped in several spots and I was in dire need of a manicure. I filed away, trying to give my mind something to focus on. It was a losing battle. I tossed the emery board on the counter behind me in disgust and glanced out onto the empty lobby. I was bored. Bored out of my little blonde head. It was a Sunday afternoon in the beginning of February and no one was checking in. Oh, don’t get me wrong. Most of our rooms were full, but no one graced our lobby, lingering like they normally did. No one needed anything. The phones stayed silent. For some strange reason, everything was calm and quiet, and it was driving me crazy. After all the excitement I had lived through lately, absolute nothingness was wearing me out. Ever since Christmas, after my parents had gone home from their vacation, things had calmed down in my life. Nothing had tried to kill me. I was learning to harness all the power that flowed within me. I was also beginning to learn when to use magic, much to my friend’s relief. Hey, a girl summons one little God and everyone comes unglued. I just didn’t get it. It wasn’t as if I had gotten anyone killed. Well…coming close didn’t count in my book. Either you did, or you didn’t. And I definitely didn’t. Anyway, control was good in their eyes. I wasn’t completely out of the doghouse yet, but it was a start. Moving to L.A. was the best decision I had ever made. I just wish I had done it sooner. But then again, the Fates always knew what they were doing. Maybe I hadn’t been ready to embrace my witchyness until then. I mean, after all, it had taken me a while before I was willing to accept that I was anything but a freak, even this late in life. And trust me, 23 was way late to find out what you really were. No wonder why I was always trying to play catch-up with my friends. It was only natural. I sighed as I stared at the clock. I wondered what Van and her sister were doing. I still thought it was strange she hadn’t mentioned her sister was in town. Did the clueless witch that shared her apartment embarrass her? That thought stung as I contemplated it. But it only lasted for a second. That wasn’t who Van was. She had welcomed me with opened arms since the first day we met. She was my best friend. She’d never let my naïve actions come between us. Something else must be going on, but what? My boredom was put on hold as the front doors opened. The girl of the hour was back and I had a million questions I needed to ask. She hurried to the counter, a worried look on her face. “Is everything okay, Van?” I asked immediately, worried at the sight of the frazzled pixie. She was normally so calm and collected. The rock to my off-kilter days. She looked at me, shadows as thick as smudges under her blue eyes. “I don’t know yet.” “Why? Is it your sister? What happened?” I had never met any of her family, but I knew how much she loved them. It would rip her heart out if something bad had happened. “Jenny’s worried,” Van told me quietly. “Something strange is going on with her family.” Her sister, Jenny, lived in Seattle with her husband and son. I shivered at the thought of the child in danger. I could only imagine what Van was feeling. “What’s going on?” I asked. Van shrugged, the weight on her shoulders taking up far too much room. “It started at their store. Little things. Lights going on and off. Stuff moving by itself. Voices with no source.” I frowned. Sounded like some kind of haunting. “There’s a ghost in the store?” She nodded. “Yes, but that’s not the problem. Their store has always been haunted. No,” she told me seriously, “whatever is in the store now is scaring the ghosts.” “Okay.” What do you do when something scares ghosts? “It’s spreading. Things are happening at their home. They see things out of the corner of their eyes. They aren’t the only ones occupying their house now.” She had my full attention. Someone else living in your home? That was the creepiest thing I had ever heard. “So what is it?” “It’s never more than a fleeting darkness to Jenny and her husband. But…they think it’s appearing to their son, Mackenzie. They hear him talking to someone at night.” She sighed, leaning wearily on the counter. “He’s changed. Jenny says he’s not the same bright, inquisitive 10-year-old he used to be. He’s become sullen, withdrawn.” Mmm, sounded like a teenage thing to me, but 10 years was a little young to start, especially if he came from a good home. And if Jenny was anything like her sister, it was one of the best. “My sister is hoping Mac will talk to me. He’s always loved his Auntie Evangeline. He used to talk to me for hours about nothing just because he could. Maybe he’d be more open with me now.” I looked around us, half expecting her sister’s family to be right there. “So, when do you get to talk to him? Is he in town, too?” She shook her head. “That’s the thing. She wants me to come to Seattle. Talk to Mac in his own surroundings.” Wow. It looked like Van was headed north for a few days. “When do you leave?” “She wants me to come as soon as possible. Jenny’s afraid to wait any longer.” That made sense. When something was wrong with your child, help couldn’t come soon enough. “I suppose you’re leaving with her today.’ “No. She’s already gone. A Djinn who owed her a favor popped her here and back. She wanted to talk to me in person, but needs to be there when Mackenzie comes home from school. She…” Van stopped, staring down at the counter. “She doesn’t want him to know how serious she and James are taking this.” Hmmm. Was Van’s sister afraid of her own son? What was going on in the Emerald City? “Well, I guess this means a road trip is in your and Danny’s future.” Van shook her head. “The high school is testing this week. Danny can’t leave his classes,” she told me, a sigh coating her words. “I’m going to fly up there alone. It’s the simplest way to go.” Van’s hesitation filled the air. That was the last thing she wanted to do, and I couldn’t say I blamed her. Taking a journey alone, no matter what waits at the end, is always a daunting task. As I stood there, taking in Van’s despair, an idea suddenly started to take form. I knew I still needed to find a way to repay Van for everything she’d done for me. Like a miracle, she had risen up out of nowhere to help steady me in my time of need. I wanted to do the same for her. I was going to go with her. But forget the airplane. Flying was so passé. We would do it in style. An adventure worthy of a witch and a pixie. “Van,” I said, holding back a squeal. “I’m coming with you. That is, if I can have the time off work.” She looked at me, the gears in her head turning. “Are you sure? It’s just going to be a lot of boring family time. Nothing too exciting for the great Maxie Duncan.” “Oh, come on,” I told her. “I don’t have any siblings. I’d love to experience some Auntie time. Even if it’s only vicariously.” “Okay,” she said with a smile. “I’ll go book our flights. You don’t mind if we leave tomorrow morning, do you?” She turned around, no doubt headed for her office. “Wait,” I called, practically bubbling over from the anticipation. “We’ll take my convertible. It’ll be fun.” Van stopped, turning back around, a smile haunting her lips. “It would only be a three day drive,” she said, thinking it over. “Three days wouldn’t make a whole lot of difference.” My face lit up as the smile I was holding back came out to play. “It’ll be an adventure. You and me on the open road. Some quality BFF time as we Thelma and Louise it up the coast.” “Deal,” she said, the smile now full fledged. “Just as long as you don’t drive us off any cliffs.” “You have my word.” “I’ll hold you to that,” she teased as she walked away, no doubt to preplan our trip. That was Van for you. I shuffled through the paperwork behind me. It had been a long winter and I was ready for a vacation. True, this would be nothing like a tropical paradise getaway, but a vacation was still a vacation. Who knew working 9 to 5 could lead to cabin fever? I couldn’t wait to go home and start packing. I just needed to take a short trip down town first. After all, a girl needed to stock up on essentials before hitting the open road. This would be my first time seeing the West Coast in all its glory. It would be like one of those coming-of-age movies where the girl discovers everything about herself while seeing the sights. It was going to be awesome. Coastal highways, best friend bonding, and tacky souvenirs. This was going to be the road trip of a lifetime. After all, when a witch hits the road, adventure’s sure to follow. Right?

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