Knead to Know by Liz Schulte

“My cupcakes only taste like dirt to me,” was my new mantra. I muttered it aloud, chanted it in my head, and even wrote it down sometimes.
Knead to Know
Knead to Know by Liz Schulte
My hand flew as I whisked the egg whites, and my thoughts churned in a similar rhythm. Self-doubt was one of the many emotions that came with opening a bakery. It skipped along merrily, holding hands with anxiety, worry, and a general sense that I was making a huge mistake. But what else could a half-vampire with permanent insomnia and a penchant for baking do? Living forever sounded like a dream come true until I was faced with the day to day of it. My human friends were going to get old and leave me—or, more factually, I’d have to cut myself off from them in just a few years so they wouldn’t notice I wasn’t aging. My new friends of the paranormal persuasion were fun, but they all had lives that attracted danger and that wasn’t my thing. I didn’t mind helping people, but I didn’t want to spend forever surrounded by death and mayhem—which didn’t leave me a lot of options. And topping off my socializing dilemma? Severe boredom. Filling twenty-four hours a day would’ve been hard enough even if I let myself hang out with my friends whenever I wanted to. Alone it was impossible. What was I going to do with an eternity of time? How was I going to keep from going completely mad? While hiding in my house was really tempting, eventually I had to find my place in the Abyss or the human world. I continued beating the eggs and closed my dry, burning eyes for a moment. The contacts hid the red in my eyes, but they itched like hell. The problem was clear. I needed something purely mine—a safe-haven. The bakery was only a temporary solution because my failure to age would force the doors closed eventually, lest some human get suspicious. In a perfect universe, the bakery would be successful enough that I could hire employees, perhaps those with eyes opened to both worlds and then I could retreat back into the kitchen and the safety of anonymity. The plan was weak, yes—and that I’d sunk my life savings into this venture terrified me—but I had the misguided notion that I needed control over at least one part of my life. Sue me. When the egg whites were frothy, I added vanilla seeds and cream of tartar, whisked a bit more, and added in sugar. When stiff, glossy peaks formed, I set the bowl aside and released the breath I’d been holding. Everything was going to be okay. I gently folded the egg whites into the rest of a waiting mixture and scooped the chiffon batter into cupcake tins. My shop wasn’t going to go belly-up. I’d find a way to live a normal life. Cupcakes weren’t a passing fad. Everyone liked sweets. Well, most people anyway. Waiting in the refrigerator were two fresh, perfectly ripe diced mangoes and a heavenly whipped cream I’d prepared in advance for my mangoes and cream chiffon cupcakes. Damn, I missed the taste of sugar. The taste of anything, really. I sighed. Surely it would get easier. Right now though, my mouth watered at the memory. I could remember the first light tropical bite that would transport me instantly to the beach—at least in my head. Maybe five, ten or a hundred years I wouldn’t be able to recall it so vividly. Whether or not that made me happy or sad was still undecided. The shop door’s bell jingled, signaling someone had come inside. I glanced at the clock: half past seven in the morning. It was either a thief who totally chose the wrong cupcake shop to rob, or my carpenter was early. I put the cupcakes in the oven, wiped my hands on my apron, and walked out—no weapon needed. A tall man with hair so black it seemed to swallow the sunlight streaming through the front windows stood in the center of the room. He was staring up at the ceiling, mumbling to himself. “Can I help you?” I asked. He startled at the sound of my voice and openly stared at me, mouth slightly agape. I crossed my arms and gave my best impatient look. “Wow,” he said under his breath, then pointed at me. “Maggie?” I took half a step back. He wasn’t a demon—they wouldn’t be out during the day—but he had to be something supernatural. How else would he know who I was? “Who sent you?” He looked genuinely confused. “What?” For about the thousandth time, I wished I had a way to distinguish regular humans from people like me. “Do you need something?” He smiled slightly. “You’re not what I had in mind. I had this mental picture of someone older and a little more…Rubenesque.” “Sorry to disappoint.” I looked pointedly at the door. If I didn’t know him and no one I knew sent him, then I simply didn’t have time for whatever he wanted. Not this week. “If you don’t mind—” He held up his hands. “No, no. I mean that in a good way. My imagination was just completely out of line with reality.” He gestured grandly at me. “I’m Garret. Garret Malloy.” I only held back a sigh because he was a potential future customer. “As you can see, the shop isn’t open yet. If you come back on Halloween, we can talk more then.” I moved forward, hoping to corral him toward the door without having to touch him, but he stayed glued to his spot. “I live down the street. I had a little extra time this morning so I thought I’d…come by and offend you apparently.” He gave me a chagrined smile. “I’m not here for sweets. I’ve just always loved this building and I’m glad to see it filled again. I wanted to meet the new owner.” His gentle curiosity got the better of me. It wouldn’t kill me to take a few minutes off and meet a neighbor. My shoulders relaxed. “It’s a great building. Maggie Edwards, but you already know that.” I shook his hand. “How do you know who I am?” “You know how neighborhoods are. People talk. I’m pleasantly surprised that this time the gossip was right. You are as pretty as they said.” I smiled. It had been too long since I’d been on a date, let alone a human one. Not that he was asking me out, or that I even wanted to go out with anyone, but if I did, this seemed like a good start. “Would you like a cup of coffee?” His lively brown eyes darted around the mostly empty room. All of my furniture was supposed to be delivered this week, but I didn’t have any of it yet. “Sure,” he said absently. “This used to be a speakeasy, you know, back in the day. Most recently it was a pizza place. Buildings like this are unrivalled. The history, the memories, you can’t buy that. If you’re really quiet, I bet you can still hear the jazz.” He paused, his eyebrows raised. No music played. Just as well. What would I do with a ghost? He wandered toward the back wall and ran his hand reverently over the bricks. “Can you imagine everything these walls witnessed? Flappers. Gangsters. Raids. Maybe even Capone was here at some point.” My heart stuttered as Garret’s words sank in. Baker would have loved that I bought a speakeasy. I rubbed gently beneath my eyes, careful not to dislodge my contacts. “I didn’t know that.” My voice was soft and wistful even to my own ears. Garret was at the windows now, inspecting the framing. “The alley door would have been green to indicate what type of place it was. Maybe you could paint it green again. You know, an homage to the past sort of thing.” Though I was about 70 percent sure that Garret had forgotten that I was there, I didn’t care. The door, while faded and chipped, was still some shade of green even after all these years. I had picked out blue paint to cover it, but maybe I’d stick with green after all. “Is the ceiling original? Is there a basement or cellar?” I looked up, though I already knew what my tin ceilings looked like. “I’m not sure. And yes, there’s a basement. It’s storage. How do you know all of this? Are you an architect?” He stopped ogling my walls and made eye contact. “I’m a reporter. I did a special piece on former speakeasies—but I couldn’t get in to look at this building. The seller was uncooperative.” Not terribly surprising. Holden, my undetermined-number-of-greats uncle who happened to be a jinni, helped me get this property. I never met the seller and was given a hell of a deal, which made me think it was probably someone sketchy that owed Holden a favor. Definitely not the sort who’d want a reporter poking around. “Well, feel free to explore.” The bell chimed again as Boone, my carpenter, arrived. I smiled, but he just nodded, his square unshaven jaw mesmerizing as ever. As attractive and masculine as Boone was, I did sometimes wish he spoke more often than was just utterly necessary. One of my favorite things about Baker was how much fun it was to talk to him. He knew a bit about everything, but I guess that happened when someone was immortal and had lived countless lifetimes. “How are you this morning?” I asked. “We were just heading into the kitchen for some coffee. Can I interest you in a cup?” Boone glanced at me as he sat his toolbox on the ground and grunted what I took to be no. But it could have been yes. Who could tell? “Do you need me for anything or should I just get out of your way?” He nodded at the second part. I smiled. “Okay, great.” That wasn’t a problem at all. I collected Garret and we went back into the kitchen. At least Garret had verbal skills, even if they didn’t require a second person in the conversation. I placed two steaming cups of coffee on the counter after I rescued my cupcakes from the oven, then took a seat on a stool. He crossed his long legs and turned to me. “When do you open?” “Saturday,” I said. “I thought a Halloween opening would be fun and bring people in. I’ll decorate the shop and hand out candy and treats to the kids. Hopefully get to know the neighborhood better.” He nodded. “It’s a great place. Did you just move here? Are you living upstairs?” “No, I’ve lived in Chicago for a while, but not this neighborhood. I own the apartment upstairs, but I inherited a little house not too far away. It’s sort of sentimental and I’m not ready to let it go, so I’m going to rent the upstairs unit, I think. We’ll see. I haven’t actually decided.” I laughed at myself and made a face. “Obviously, I’m fantastic at being decisive.” Garret’s eyes danced. “Well, on behalf of the neighborhood, we’d love to have you full time. I grew up about three blocks that way.” He pointed west. “I can probably tell you anything you need to know. But if you really want the scoop, my grandmother, Emily von Brandt, lives about four doors opposite of you. She knows everyone and everything about them.” “Is she the one who sits in the lawn chair on the sidewalk?” “That’s her.” He smiled fondly. “Have you tried Bronson’s ribs? They fall apart in your mouth. Trust me, the best in city. And have you met Bobby? He runs the dance studio and gives tango lessons to seniors on Monday nights—where Mr. Court, who lives next door to my grandmother, will yell at you and throw his shoe if you try to call him Alfred. He has good aim too. He played minor league baseball for a long time. During the summer, though, that’s when the neighborhood really comes to life. You’ll see.” Though the coffee might as well have been hot motor oil as far as my taste buds were concerned, a happy warmth spread through me as I sipped. For just a moment it felt like nothing had changed and I was normal. I was talking to a regular guy about regular things over coffee. I missed this so much. “It sounds perfect and I swear if I ever call Mr. Court by his first name, I’ll make sure I have a shield…preferably human.” Garret nodded solemnly. “That’s the only way to go. A metal shield could cause the shoe to ricochet and knock over a candle, which could start a fire—and the fire might spread down the street and eventually devour the city. You would be to blame. It’s a heavy burden to carry. Ask Mrs. O’Leary’s cow.” I nodded seriously. “There’s no proof that the cow did anything—but I wouldn’t have that luxury. I’d have to spend the rest of my life wishing I’d just taken the hit like a man.” We grinned at each other. He glanced at this watch and grimaced. “Unfortunately, I have to go.” He stood up, taking my hand in both of his. “Thank you for the coffee. It was great meeting you, Maggie Edwards. I hope to see a lot more of you.” “Me too.” I beamed up at him, gently pulling my hand back. Maybe my plan to be normal wasn’t so impossible after all. “Do you want to do this again tomorrow morning?” I glanced around the kitchen, the list of a million things I still had to do running through my mind. “I’d love to, but I have so much work with the store opening and...” He nodded, but the corners of his mouth curled. “You don’t have time for coffee? Is that a world you really want to live in? One with no coffee?” His feet shifted like he had too much energy to hold still very long, a sensation I knew all too well. He spoke with his hands as he continued. “We don’t know each other, and I might be out of line, but it just seems to me that you only open a bakery once. You might as well take a little time to enjoy it.” I considered his words. This was supposed to be a fresh beginning. I shouldn’t start it completely stressed, plus the whole point was to be normal again. What was more normal than getting to know my neighbors? I couldn’t be too scared to try. “Seven would be perfect.” He gave me a wide smile. “I’ll be here.” I let Garret out the kitchen door so we wouldn’t disturb Boone. My hand lingered on the brass doorknob a second after he departed. I could pull this off. I could have a life here. I’d get to know the whole neighborhood and tell other people stories about old Mr. Court. There would be picnics and parties and…I’d have a few years to enjoy it before I had to vanish. I dropped my forehead against the door. It was too easy to forget that my life was never going to be simple again. Garret’s enthusiasm and charm snuck up on me and wiggled in before I even knew it. I pushed away from the door, went to my purse, and fished out my eye drops. Standing in front of the mirror I’d hung by the door so I wouldn’t leave with flour on my face, I pried an eyelid up and squeezed a couple drops into my eye, relishing the immediate sense of release. I did the other eye next, but when I blinked, the contact shifted and rolled upwards, exposing the blood red iris that was now my natural eye color. “Crap,” I muttered, trying to grab the contact lens as my eyelid tried to force itself closed. The door opened and Garret stuck his head back inside. “I was thinking that I could write a column about you and your shop—” His voice died as his eyes focused on mine. I snapped my red eye shut and my heart thundered in my chest, which only made everything worse. The sharper my energy spiked, the more the vampire half was fed—making it much harder to control. Power buzzed beneath my skin. My hands shook. “Sounds great. Can we talk about it later though? My contacts are really bothering me.” Garret nodded, pupils still too wide as he tried to process what he’d seen. He stepped inside. “It looks really bad. Maybe you should let me take a look. Maybe you got something in it.” I clapped my trembling fingers over my eye. “No,” I snapped, then forced myself to speak more calmly. “This happens. Ocular migraines. It gets really light sensitive and turns bright red. I just need to find my allergy drops. It will clear up in a couple minutes or I’ll go to the doctor. Prying it open will only make it worse. You should go to work.” “But it wasn’t…” He shook his head. “Are you sure?” I forced a smile. “Positive. Don’t be late because of me. We can talk about the article tomorrow.” “Okay.” He left slowly, glancing back a couple times before he closed the door behind him and I flipped the lock. “Damn it,” I hissed. That was close. I had to be more careful. Garret may not have believed my ocular migraine story, but who in his right mind would jump to the conclusion I was a vampire? No one, that’s who. Everything was going to be fine. I fixed my contact in the mirror. The Abyss took their one rule very seriously. We were not to expose ourselves to humans unless they were brought into our world. And I couldn’t do that to anyone. Even if they wanted to know about it, like I once foolishly had. I shook my head. Plus, Garret was a journalist. No good could ever come from his knowing. What if he started telling other people, or worse, wrote about it? Bounty hunters would be hired to eliminate him and capture me. Both our lives would be destroyed all because I was a terrible liar. My phone vibrated on the counter, jarring me out of my new favorite pastime, worrying about worst-case scenarios. I glanced in the mirror, confirming both my eyes were once again brown. I didn’t recognize the number, so snatched it up before it went to voicemail. “Hello?” “Is Maggie Edwards there?” “Speaking.” “This is Combs and King Interiors. I’m calling about your order.” I leaned against the stainless steel island and fiddled with my coffee mug. “Oh, hi. Do you need directions to my shop?” The person on the other end hesitated. “No. I’m calling because there’s a problem with your order. The shipment, I’m afraid, has been indefinitely delayed. I do apologize for the inconvenience.” “What? No. No, that doesn’t work. I open this Saturday. I need the display case and counter now. Today. In fact, yesterday would have been better.” This couldn’t be happening. “Is it a shipping problem? Can I just pick it up myself? Where is it being shipped from?” “As I said, we do apologize for the inconvenience, and we will give you 15 percent off your total order. As soon as we have a confirmed date for delivery, I will contact you.” “I don’t want a discount,” I growled, slamming my hand down on the counter. “I want my counters today or cancel the order.” “There will be a three hundred dollar cancelation fee—” “What?” I roared into the phone. “You told me they would come today. You didn’t live up to your end of the agreement. I won’t pay a penny for any services from you.” I hung up and hit the counter again with an open palm. I picked up a cupcake and squashed it—then flung it across the room. All that did was make another mess for me to clean up. I clenched my fists and mentally counted to ten. With the vampire also came rage. I had never been an angry person before, and while I was learning to have better control, it was still a work in progress. Breathing in and out, I tried to release anger with each exhale. However, as my fury receded, tears came fast on its heels. I wouldn’t be able to open on Halloween. There was no way I could get what I wanted—and needed—here and set up in less than a week. Chapter 2 No. There was no time to cry. Business owners weren’t allowed to cry. That was a rule somewhere, or if it wasn’t, it should have been. I forced back tears and cleaned the kitchen instead. When I was finished I checked on Boone, not that his progress mattered much now. You will open. Just not when you planned, the more reasonable of my inner voices consoled me. The bench was perfect. It stretched halfway down the wall and was inlayed with bead board. An arm divider rested between each two-person wide segment. Boone stood up. “That’s just primer. The real color will be brighter.” I nodded. “It already looks great. Thank you.” I considered asking if he could build a countertop and display case, but he was probably booked and another crushing blow would turn me into a weeping female. “I’m going to step out for a bit. I need some air. Is that okay?” “Sure.” He scratched his stubble that appeared dark next to his blond hair. “I heard your phone call.” Holy crikey, he talks. I was so shocked it was hard to find my own words. “You were eavesdropping?” “You were shouting.” Fair enough. My shoulders sagged. “I don’t know what I’m going to do. Obviously, I’m not opening this weekend. I should have allowed time for disasters, I know, but I wanted…” I wanted everything to go perfectly. I wanted, just this once, for my life to work out as I planned. His tongue ran over his bottom lip in a thoughtless manner that wasn’t at all unappealing. “I could help…if you want.” I laughed sharply, and my eyes stung again. “Can you also work miracles? I need it by Saturday for crying out loud!” I stared up at the corner of the room until the new threat of tears once again passed. “Sorry. Thank you for the offer. It’s very nice. I’d love your help. Can we talk about what I need later and can you let me know when you’ll be available? Right now, I have to cancel all the ads I placed for Friday and Saturday and take down the fliers.” “Saturday shouldn’t be a problem,” Boone said before I made it to the door. I pulled up short. “Are you serious? Don’t toy with my emotions right now.” “I can do it.” He was so quietly confident that I believed him. “I just want you to know, I might hug you.” He nodded once, no smile. “Consider me warned.” “The look I’m going for is cozy and elegant. The company I ordered from was perfect. The pictures they sent were pretty much what I was looking for.” “I remember the pictures,” he said. Of course he did. I sent them to him, so he could match the bench he was building to them. “Can you make it look like that?” He shook his head slowly. My heart sank and a fat, hot tear spilled over my eyelid which I quickly wiped away before he could see its pinkish tint. I didn’t want to settle, but anything was better than nothing. I probably couldn’t get a refund on my advertisements and if the other company charged me $300 to cancel the order they couldn’t deliver then I couldn’t afford to redo my marketing plan without dipping into the money I needed to actually bake. “We could do something different though.” “Like what?” I asked, trying not to sound too depressed. I had wanted my own bakery since I was a kid. I had a very specific mental image of what I wanted it to be. One way or another, I would bring that image to life. Even it took me a few years. It wasn’t the end of the world. “I have some drawings in my truck.” Boone walked out the door before I could question him. Why would he have counter and display case sketches when I only hired him for a bench? He returned a minute later, sketchbook in hand. “These are just drawings,” he said, not handing it to me. “But I think it’s something we could do by Saturday.” I stepped closer to him. “Why do you have sketches? Are you working on another bakery?” He pressed his lips together. “Do you want to see them or not?” “I do. Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful, but…” He opened his mouth, then closed it shaking his head. Finally, he spoke. “I started them right after you hired me to build the bench. I guess I was inspired by your vision.” There were a lot of things I could picture Boone doing, but sitting at home at night drawing a girly bakery wasn’t one of them. “May I?” I reached for the book. He handed it to me open to the page he wanted me to see. It was of the counter. The drawing was nothing like the design that I ordered. Instead there were pale sage green glass-front cabinets that hung on the wall in front of the kitchen with matching cupboards below and a butcher-block top. Two glass display cases connected by a wooden counter stretched all the way down to the kitchen door. An antique cash register was positioned between the display cases. “This is amazing. It’s like you plucked the thought from my head.” He reached to take the book. I moved away, flipping to the next page. Two white-framed mirrors hung above the bench—my bench— which was filled with colorful throw pillows that looked perfect with the pale lavender walls. Wicker chairs sat around the white bistro tables pulled out as if waiting to be occupied. The mirrors and chairs were exactly what I had already bought. In fact, the drawing was so spot on to how I envisioned it looking that it could have been a photograph of my thoughts. I couldn’t have described it to him this well. It was my vision exactly—right down to the chandelier and the shades of paint. “Those are my chairs and I just bought those mirrors last week. You couldn’t have known…” He yanked the book from my hand, jaw clenched. “No one will believe you.” I looked up. “Pardon?” Who wouldn’t believe me about what? “It’s just a coincidence. Maybe you mentioned you wanted mirrors or I saw them. You don’t know when I drew this. No one will believe you if you say otherwise.” Boone backed toward the door. “Maybe you should find someone else…” I shook my head, holding up my hands for him to stop. “Why would I say anything to anyone? Who would I even tell? Those sketches are great. I love them. I like them better than what Combs and King designed. They’re exactly what I want. Don’t leave.” He stopped, staring down at the floor. I saw Boone with new eyes. He was quiet and avoided me, but he did so for the same reason I avoided my friends. He was some sort of supernatural something-or-other. But what could read minds? One thing was certain though, I was the last person he needed to be afraid of. “Look, I don’t know why we’re so in sync on the design, and I don’t care. You’re saving me. Do you really think we can do this by Saturday?” He hesitated, then slowly looked up. Two dimples emerged. “I already finished the display case. It’s back at my shop.” “What about the rest?” The sage cabinets were perfect. He flipped his sketchbook open and scrawled something, then tore off the corner of the page. “Go here. They might have what you’re looking for.” I glanced at the address. “Might?” He shrugged. Boone was quite the mystery, but it wasn’t like he was the only one with secrets. I was just grateful for the help. “I don’t know how to thank you.” “I’ll swing by and pick up whatever you buy after I finish here.” He glanced back at the bench. “I need to get back to work.” **** A serious depletion of my already hemorrhaging bank account later, I was surprisingly calm—or maybe I was just bewitched. I was positive there was something otherworldly about Boone. His drawing could have been made while sitting in the flea market he sent me to. Everything looked a bit rougher than he portrayed it, but was still recognizable. The more cynical voice in my head pointed out that there was no way he would have wasted time designing and building a display case unless he knew mine wouldn’t show up. But I didn’t think it was sabotage or anything like that. Maybe he had some sort of magic or something that let him pluck the thought from my mind about how I wanted the shop to look. That same ability could have told him that my order wasn’t going to work out. Truly though, I didn’t care. As I approached the bakery from the opposite side of the street, I saw Boone standing in the alley talking to a short man in a green army jacket with a black hood hiding his face. Boone handed him something cupped in the palm of his hand and leaned in close as he spoke. I had never seen a drug deal in real life, but this looked pretty much the same as it did on TV. My feet slowed as I watched. The fall had been warm so far this year, definitely too warm for so many layers, making the guy in green look extra suspicious. My carpenter was like Breaking Bad. I hustled down the block to the crosswalk then across the street. Staying as close to the building as I could, I crept up on the alley, listening for snippets of their conversation, knowing full well it was probably innocent. Questioning Boone would be an invasion of his privacy, but stumbling, through no fault of my own, into the truth was another. And as a concerned citizen I had a right to know if my contractor made meth on the side. However, aside from sounds of cars passing by, the rustle of the leaves falling to the ground, and the usual city noise, I couldn’t hear a damn thing. I eased closer and closer to the edge of the building, then peeked around the corner. Damn it. Empty. “Did you find it?” Boone asked, suddenly behind me, making me jump. “What? Who me? I wasn’t looking for anything.” His eyebrows tugged together. “Are you okay?” “Yep,” I said, my voice higher than normal. “Great. Perfect. Never better. I wasn’t looking for anything.” He peered around the corner. “You established that,” he said softly. “Did you hit your head?” I forced a laugh. “Good one.” I had to relax. It wasn’t like he could hurt me…or could he? I still didn’t know what he was. “When I was on the other side of the street I thought I saw someone hanging around in the alley. Did you hear anything?” He shook his head, still looking at me like I’d lost my mind. And now he was lying. Very suspicious. “Just too much caffeine over lunch, I guess.” His gaze flicked back to me. “Did you find the cabinets?” he repeated slowly. “Oh. Right. Duh. Of course, that’s why I went. Sorry. Um, yeah, they’re ready to be picked up whenever you have time.” He nodded with a vaguely worried expression. “You know if you need to go home early today, I can lock up for you.” Hmmm. Trying to get rid of me. “I have way too much to do. I’ll probably be here half the night.” I glanced back toward the alley, trying to think of how to bring it up again. Boone was already walking toward his truck. “Good chat,” I called behind him. Okay, so he probably wasn’t a drug dealer. My imagination always bordered paranoia. But it was legitimately possible that he was from the Abyss. And that posed its own problems. I was the only half vampire as far as any of us knew and Holden had warned me that some people might find me very interesting. Of course, he didn’t expand on what he meant by that. To me it said I should keep my mouth shut about what I was or some evil corporation would find me and use me for experiments. Now meeting Boone the way I had felt entirely too convenient. I just happened to stumble into him exactly when I needed a carpenter? Then today he just happened to be ready to come to my rescue again? All my gratitude aside, no display case was worth my freedom. Or maybe I’d read one too many Liz Schulte books and watched too many movies. I sighed, massaging my temple. I needed to be careful around Boone until I had a chance to talk to Holden. It was probably nothing and Holden would laugh at me—or, at the very least, shoot me the how-can-you-be-this-dumb-and-still-be-alive look that he’d perfected over the years. Yeah, maybe I’d talk to Olivia. Boone returned, his truck full to bursting, and spent the rest of the day painting and installing things. I pretty much stuck to the kitchen, but I kept an eye on him while making phone calls and confirming the rest of my orders would arrive on time. The kitchen itself had no windows, so I left the side door propped open just in case there was another alleyway meeting. It was dark outside by the time Boone stuck his head in the room. “I’m going to call it a night. I put one last coat of paint on everything. It should be dry by morning.” “So I should go out there and touch everything?” I grinned, but it felt strained. I glanced at my watch. It was already past ten. All my overthinking washed away with the shock. “Oh my gosh, I didn’t realize how late it was. Get out of here. Did you even eat today?” He smiled a little. “About as much as you did.” That didn’t mean anything. It wasn’t like I could go out and order a demon essence smoothie. “Have a good night, Maggie. Get some rest. Everything is going to be okay.” “Do you like cupcakes?” I blurted. He shrugged, but nodded at the same time. I grabbed one of my mango chiffon cupcakes from the refrigerator and handed it to him. “I need a taste tester.” He eyed it for a moment. “Why what’s wrong with it?” “Nothing. I just…I just want a second opinion. Menu-worthy or not?” He took a bite. Happy surprise lit his face. “It’s good. I don’t really like fruit, but this is good. More than good actually. Tropical.” He licked a spot of whipped cream off his finger. He was definitely an attractive potential future kidnapper. “Excellent! That’s exactly what I was going for.” My smile felt so huge I must’ve looked ridiculous, but I didn’t care. Knowing the cupcakes were good felt like a huge accomplishment. “I don’t know why I had it in my mind that they’d be terrible. It’s such a relief.” “You didn’t try it?” He took another bite, cupping his free hand beneath his mouth to catch crumbs. “No.” I shook my head and took a deep breath. “I’m diabetic. It’s pretty new for me. I’m still getting used to the no sugar thing.” “And you decided to open a bakery?” He quirked one eyebrow. “I like to live dangerously,” I said, packing him up a box to take home. “I’ll just end up throwing them away if I keep them.” He laughed. “There’s a food kitchen at St. Michaels. And a homeless shelter not too far away. I’m sure they’d appreciate anything you want to give. How much longer are you staying? I could give you a ride home. It probably isn’t safe to walk alone at night.” Right. Donating. I should have thought of that. “No, I’m fine. Thanks though. Have a good night.” He didn’t move toward the door and I didn’t know what else to do, so I hugged him softly—being careful not to squeeze too hard just in case he was purely human. “I really do appreciate all of this.” He stared at me for so long that I had to suppress an urge to squirm. “Did you need something else?” I asked. He pushed his hair back from his face and glanced toward the front, mouth creased into a frown. “You might want to lock the door behind me.” Chills spread over me as I followed his gaze, but I didn’t see anything. “Why?” He continued to stare at the door like he was watching something, but if anything was out there I’d see it. My vision as a vampire was definitely better than a human’s. “Boone,” I said louder, touching his shoulder. He jerked, but turned back to me like nothing happened. “It’s late, and you just never know what kind of people are out and about.” “That’s comforting,” I said. I followed him to the door, watched him drive away—and triple checked the lock behind him. Nothing was out there. Not that I had anything to be scared of anyway, I reminded myself for the millionth time. Nevertheless, I pulled all the shades down over the glass. The first thing on the agenda for the evening—and it was the same every night—was to remove the evil contacts that had been torturing me all day. I breathed a sigh of relief as the burn ceased and I could finally relax. My thoughts drifted to Boone as I looked over the amazing amount of work he’d accomplished in a single day. He definitely didn’t seem human, but what did I know? I wasn’t like other people who could see auras or feel if someone was dark or light. All I could absolutely tell for certain was that he could occasionally read my mind and he didn’t want me to know. And I still couldn’t shake the feeling that he was a little too prepared for all of this, swooping in for a rescue. Then the thing with the door freaked me out. Even the way we met was off. That should have been my first warning about him. I’d been walking down the street not too far from my house and saw him leaning against his truck, drinking from a bottle of water. Yes, he was hot and that probably accounted for seventy percent of my decision to hire local—granted, impulsiveness wasn’t completely abnormal for me. But the fact was, I could have just ordered everything from Combs and King. I didn’t question the coincidence of meeting him at the time, but maybe I should have. “The place is coming along.” Holden’s voice made my heart leap and my hand jerk, knocking a drying paintbrush to the floor, which was thankfully still covered. He stood near the locked front door, eyeing the lavender walls, his arms crossed over his chest, no indication of what he thought on his face. “Do you like it?” I asked. He stared a bit longer. “Charlie will love it,” he said, finally looking at me. Great. The approval of a seven-year-old. “The elementary crowd is an important market for me.” He nodded like that was probably true. Sarcasm was wasted on those without a sense of humor. “You’re not wearing the contacts.” “I know. It’s my favorite time of day. I can just be me.” Holden shook his head. “You have to get used to blending in.” I looked at the floor to keep from rolling my eyes. “They itch and it’s late. No one’s coming here. Who’s going to see me?” Holden grunted. “When did you last eat?” “A while ago. Why?” But I knew full well why he asked—and ugh, leave it to him to notice. What was he? The eye-color police? If I fed regularly, my irises were black not red—still abnormal, but not as noticeable. Holden read me well. It had been weeks since I last fed. As a half-vampire feeding was tricky. Regular vampires could go outside and brush up against any person, human or otherwise, and take little sips from their life force. And there lay my biggest problem. As a half vampire, half human, my vampire half was always fed. It leeched off of my human half—basically, making it a roided out asshole determined to ruin my life most of the time. I had to be careful picking up glasses, so that I didn’t crush them. I was mostly terrified to touch humans, afraid I would break them. Olivia and Holden said my strength would even out over time, but frankly, how did they know? I was the only one of my kind. Then again, it was Olivia, Holden’s wife, who stopped my transformation, making me such a unique creature of wonder—or freak of nature. She was also the one who figured out what I had to eat to keep from going completely insane. Because everything is apparently about balance, she surmised that in order to level myself I had to feed on dark souls, the antithesis of life. Basically, I needed demons and other super dark creatures. That was all fine and dandy, but it wasn’t like I had a list of demons I could call when I needed a snack. In fact, since Olivia and Holden went up against Hell in a major way, the demons in the city had been kind of scarce. “Maggie,” Holden said. “Are you listening?” Of course not. What had we been talking about? Right, the contacts. “I’ll put them in before I go home. I just need a break.” Holden headed toward the bench and tested its sturdiness. “This is nice work,” he said offhandedly. “You’re opening on Saturday?” “If the ulcers don’t kill me first.” He barely cracked a smile. The bench reminded me of Boone. I needed to talk to Holden about him, but another lecture sounded about as fun as pulling out my eyelashes. The problem was Holden was family. A really distant relation, but still family and because of that, he seemed to feel I was his responsibility since I became a vampire. I really did appreciate everything both he and Olivia did to ease my transition, but Holden wasn’t exactly the most patient or caring of people. Olivia had a much gentler touch. “What brings you by?” I asked, chickening out. I’d figure out what Boone was up to on my own. “Did you need something?” I crossed my fingers in hopes that he was here to take pity on me and tell me where I could find a demon. Boredom with faint traces of wanting to leave before something girly rubbed off on him etched along his eyes as he looked at me. “Just checking on you. Making sure everything is okay.” “Olivia sent you, huh?” This did win a grin that softened his usually serious face. Don’t get me wrong. Holden was hot (which is totally creepy when talking about a relative), just in a “blue steel” sort of way. However, on the very rare occasion (unless Olivia was there) that he smiled in earnest, it changed his whole face into someone almost approachable. “That would be accurate. She thought you might need help.” God bless Holden. At least he tried. This wasn’t the first time Olivia sent him over to bond with me and it wouldn’t be the last. But no matter how many times, things never got less awkward. Ah, the joys of family. “Sure I do. A nice spawn of hell with a side of wendigo would be divine.” “Maggie,” he started, heaving a huge sigh of inconvenience. I held up a hand, stopping the rest of the speech I knew by heart. “I know. I know.” He couldn’t keep handing me demons. I had to figure out how to find them on my own. I had to become self-sufficient because both he and Olivia had to have the appearance of neutrality for their new positions. Blah, blah, blah. “I was joking. Mostly. Go home. Be with your family. I’m almost done here anyway. Are you guys still coming on Saturday?” He nodded. “I believe we are.” “Great! Don’t forget to wear a costume. I can’t wait to see the kids.” I walked him to the door. “Tell Olivia thanks and say she should stop by and see the place.” He looked back at the main room. His eyes drifted back to the purple wall. “Is the kitchen set up?” “It is. That’s the first thing I did. Do you want to see it?” My kitchen was spotless. It would even live up to Holden’s high standards of cleanliness. “I have cupcakes if you want one.” He followed me back to the kitchen. “Isn’t it too soon to be baking?” “These aren’t to sell,” I said, going through the swinging door. I pulled the last of the cupcakes from the refrigerator. “I was practicing and trying new recipes. You could take them home to the kids.” “The last thing either of them need is more sugar.” The disgust in his words made me laugh. I still struggled to picture him with two little kids running around acting…well, like children. “So how long is ‘a while’?” he asked. Damn. He wasn’t going to let the feeding thing drop. “I don’t know. A couple weeks, maybe.” I unfolded a flattened box. Perhaps I was downplaying my need a tad. But I didn’t have time to hunt all over Chicago for something evil to feed on, especially this week. I had a bakery to open. Plus, what if the evil person wasn’t really evil? What if they wanted to be good? It was so much easier when they attacked me first. “You know what happens when you don’t eat,” he nagged. I scrunched up my nose. Easy for him to say. He could have a steak or... “I bet he doesn’t even eat cheeseburgers,” I mumbled. Holden scowled. “Who?” I shook my head. I hadn’t meant to say that out loud. “Never mind.” He probably lived on kale and dirt just to prove he didn’t need delicious food like normal people. “I’ll get something tonight.” He glanced at his watch. “Put your contacts in before you step out that door.” “Yes, Dad.” Chapter 3 By the time I left my store, it was nearly three. My tired feet wanted to go home and binge on random television shows, but Holden was right. I had to eat. I walked down the mostly empty streets toward a nightclub named Xavier that was popular among the jinn, racking my brain for anything that would make me more tempting to evildoers. Jinn were off limits. Holden was their leader and frowned on me snacking on them. But at least they were easy to find. I hoped their presence would attract other darker elements to the area. I stopped at a twenty-four hour convenience store along the way and picked up a bottle of tequila. Alcohol had ceased to affect me, but that was okay, I was never much of a drinker anyway. The liquor burned my throat on the way down. It wasn’t an altogether bad feeling so I took another swig. Then I dumped some on my hand and flicked it on myself. There was a dark, scary looking alley a few blocks from the club that seemed made for evildoing. Six months ago, I wouldn’t have even walked on this street alone. Now, not only was I on it, I was actually hoping to be attacked. Life was weird. I stumbled into the darkness, making sure to bump loudly into some trashcans and giggle to myself. I looked like an idiot, no doubt, but the moment I heard footsteps, I knew it had worked. “You shouldn’t be here,” a deep male voice said. I couldn’t see the man, only the glowing red end of his cigarette as he took a long drag. I ran my hands through my hair in a way I hoped was sexier than it felt. I took another gulp of tequila. “I’m looking for…” I trailed off and giggled. This was so demeaning. “I forget.” “Maggie?” The man came close enough I could see him. Shit. It was Phoenix, Holden’s henchman. “Damn it,” I said. “What does a girl have to do to get attacked?” He took another deep inhale from his smoke before tossing it on the ground and grinding it out with his shoe. “You want to be attacked?” His hooded, intense stare cut right through the darkness. “That’s littering,” I said, before I could stop myself. Obviously, the man running all of the jinn in Chicago didn’t care about littering. But he should have. Just like me, he’d have to live in this world forever. He didn’t give the cigarette butt a second glance as he came into my space. His sharp cheekbones were made more severe by the lack of light. “Why?” I blinked. The vampire energy roared to life beneath my skin and the bottle of tequila shattered in my hand, soaking the side of my leg. “Because it’s paper and whatever the filter is made out of, assuming you smoke filtered cigarettes—” He smiled and shook his head. “Why do you want me to attack you?” “Oh.” Thank God it was dark because I was most definitely blushing. “I don’t. I didn’t. I just wanted someone to attack me. Not you in particular. A girl’s gotta eat.” He laughed. “You came looking for a demon.” “Yeah, or whatever. I’m not in a position to be choosey. I figured if it attacked me, then it has it coming.” “I see.” His eyes continued to drill into me keeping my heart beating fast. “Perhaps we could come to an arrangement.” He raised an eyebrow and offered me a cigarette from his squished pack. I shook my head and he slipped the pack into his pocket. “What sort of arrangement?” He ran his finger down the cleft of my chin. “A mutually beneficial one.” The way he said “mutually beneficial” made it sound entirely illicit and therefore all the hotter. Holden wouldn’t approve, but the offer was tempting. Of course it was. He was jinni. That’s what they did. They tempted you to do things you would otherwise know better than to do. “Think I’m going to have to pass.” I stepped around Phoenix, back to square one. He caught my sleeve. “The only thing you’ll find around here is jinn. You can’t hunt them.” “I know. I’m not.” His grip tightened. “I didn’t know where else to look. I know the rules.” He smelled like leather and something that I couldn’t place, but was alluring. He shifted closer to me. “Do you always follow the rules?” His voice was soft and velvety as it ran over my skin. My mouth went dry. “Mostly.” “Pity.” He brushed his lips against mine, lightly at first, but long enough my instincts kicked in and I siphoned off some of his darkness. Not a lot, just enough to whet my appetite. I pressed my lips harder against his, taking deeper, longer pulls until he wrenched away. His eyes stayed closed as he held me an arm’s distance away. It took everything I had not to lunge at him and finish what I’d started. I’d never begun feeding and not pulled every last ounce of the dark soul from its body. My appetite was insatiable and greedy. When Phoenix finally opened his eyes faint traces of blue flames danced in them. “Let me know if you change your mind.” He released me, but my legs couldn’t function. The hunger wouldn’t allow me to walk away and he wasn’t moving either. “I should probably go,” I said because if I wasn’t going to leave, the least I could do was fill the silence. His lighter clicked to life as he lit his next cigarette. “It doesn’t look like you want to.” “No, I do.” I forced myself to take two steps back and managed to tear my eyes off him. He was lucky. Had it been longer since my last feed, I wasn’t sure I could have walked away from him. Not feeling like this. “Have a good night.” My words, though soft, rang out through the darkness. “It’s already looking better,” he said just as softly. “Good luck with the bakery.” I glanced over my shoulder. How did he know? Holden must have mentioned it, though I couldn’t picture how or why it would come up in their conversation. “For the record, what sort of deal were you offering?” “You need a supplier and someone like you would be greatly beneficial to a person in my position.” Ah—but making a deal with him would be a bad decision no matter how much it simplified my life. “Holden wouldn’t like it.” “Holden doesn’t have to know.” I couldn’t help but smile. “See you around.” “You can count on it.” I spent the rest of the night traipsing all over the city looking for any being evil enough to feed me, but there was no one, especially now that my taste buds knew exactly who they wanted. Just before sunrise I headed home. The crisp fall air caressed my skin as I walked. Carved pumpkins were already starting to show up on people’s stoops and the leaves were vibrant shades of gold and red. Fall was my favorite time of year. Just like me, it fell somewhere in between blooming full of life and lying still in a peaceful slumber. I unlocked the door to my silent house. Maybe I should get a cat. Or dog. Any animal that would be happy to see me when I got home would be an improvement over what I had now. How did animals react to vampires? Maybe I’d get a fish. If I wanted to make it to the bakery by seven to meet Garret (which I felt I had to, given what he witnessed yesterday) I just had time to shower and change. When I was dressed in jeans, a plain gray T-shirt, and a white blazer, I sat down for a moment in the living room. I looked at the text messages I’d been avoiding. There were fifteen messages from my human friends. Gia inviting me to a happy hour. Jaime wanting to know who my hair stylist was. And most of the rest were from Izzy, the first real friend I made in Chicago. Her messages started with, “Why are you avoiding me? Did something happen? Are you mad?” and evolved to, “I’m really worried about you.” I bit my lip and locked the screen. Not yet. Not until I figured out what to say to them. This whole experience gave me a new understanding of Baker and his actions. Lying to me was wrong, but explaining this world was impossible without changing an unwitting person’s life. However, it didn’t absolve him. He knew what he was and what I was before we met. He made the choice to start a relationship with me and changed the course of my life without my consent. And yet . . . I still loved him. Feelings that intense don’t just go away overnight, even if he did. Garret came back to mind. I also knew what I was before I met him, and yet I endangered him yesterday without even meaning to. How was any of this supposed to work? How was I supposed to explain to my friends that while I loved all the happy hours, girl talk, date recaps, and details of their lives, I simply wasn’t part of their world anymore? Even if I could tell them what I was—and I couldn’t—they would never understand. I had to find a way to tell them that I would always want to be their friend, but I had changed. I couldn’t be like I used to be. I strolled to the store in the soft morning sunlight, consciously slowing my pace, energy buzzing beneath my skin. That small taste of Phoenix had only made my hunger worse. I had to eat today. No matter what. Maybe I’d call Corbin, the only vampire I actually knew. Maybe he’d give me an idea of where to find a demon. Or Femi, a bounty hunter, surely she could help. Neither of them had to be neutral. I put coffee on as soon as I walked through the door to the shop, so I could enjoy the delicious aroma. Then I placed two mugs on the island, unlocked the front door, and waited for Boone. Today I’d figure out what his deal was—or, at the very least, I’d figure it out before he finished working for me. Ducking back into the kitchen, I started on a new batch of cupcakes I’d been thinking about all night while I wasn’t finding demons. I planned to call them the Dark Side. Basically, they were rich, moist chocolate cake with a shot of fudge in the center and salted caramel frosting. I’d just retrieved two eggs and a carton of buttermilk from the cooler and started back to the counter when the side door flew open, catching my foot and pitching me forward. I fell against the island, slamming into the mugs I’d just placed there They shattered beneath my palm. Pain shot up my arm. Shards of porcelain protruded from the top of my hand. I plucked them out as fast as I could, hoping whoever was at the door didn’t see. “Jesus, are you okay?” Garret rushed toward me as my dripping blood slowed and started retreating back inside. “Garret. You’re here.” I snapped my hand behind my back and away from him. He pulled my arm toward him, towel ready to wrap it, but it was already healed. His fingers stalled where I should have been hurt. Shaking his head, he studied my other hand, then the bloody countertop. “It’s not possible,” he said softly. “How are you okay?” I yanked my hand away from him and held it in my other hand. “It’s just a scratch.” I ran my thumbnail across my palm hard enough to cut it, then flashed it at him. “The cup exploded. It looked much worse than it is.” I took the towel and wrapped it around my hand. “I’m fine, really. A Band-Aid and I’ll be good as new.” He shook his head again, still frowning. “The red eyes...” His eyes stayed locked on the towel. “And instant healing.” He started to back away. I forced a chuckle. “I had an allergy attack and a scratch. Have you been getting enough sleep?” “Then let me see your hand again.” It was already healed beneath the towel. I knew it and he thought he knew it too. “Why?” “Show it to me.” “No,” I said. “Look, I don’t know what your problem is, but this is getting weird. I think you should go.” Garret looked at the bloody counter again and snapped a picture of it before leaving. The door slammed behind him. “Shit.” I probably could have caught him, but what would that prove? I didn’t need this right now. I rubbed my hands over my face. Garret was definitely going to be a problem. And why wouldn’t he be? There was blood and coffee all over the place—not to mention the bloody chunks of glass I’d pulled out of my hand. “Maggie?” Boone stepped into the kitchen. He slowly took in the chaos. “What happened? Are you okay?” “I’m fine.” I removed the completely bloodless towel from my hand and tossed it over the mess. “Don’t come in here. There’s glass everywhere.” His eyes trailed to the door. “He’s going to tell,” Boone blurted out. “The guy who was here. This isn’t over. He’ll be back.” I blinked and my mouth fell open. “He’s going to tell what?” His jaw tightened, squinting off into space. “I don’t know. Something about you.” Perfect. “How do you know?” Even before I finished my sentence, I could see him closing off. I hated secrets. I hated them so much. “Are you part of the Abyss?” “The what?” He shook his head like he didn’t have time for my nonsense. “If you’ll trust me, I can help you. I know how this sounds, but I think I’m supposed to help you.” I bit the inside of my lip. I wanted to trust him. I needed at least one person I could talk to about this crap that I wouldn’t feel like I was inconveniencing. “Who did you meet with in the alley?” He pulled back slightly. “When? I haven’t had any meetings. Are you in some sort of trouble, Maggie?” Was it too much to ask that one person in my life didn’t feel the need to hide things from me? I had enough of that for a lifetime when I was with Baker. I should have turned Boone down right then and there on the “trust him” bit, but I couldn’t get past the fact that he had read my mind. Whether or not Boone actually knew anything about the Abyss didn’t matter. He had a gift and I had a problem. “Why would you help me with anything? You don’t even know me.” He stepped closer. “I don’t know, but right now it’s the only thing that feels right. I met you for a reason.” It wasn’t enough. There had to be a better motivation than a mere feeling. I simply had too much to lose. Besides, he didn’t know about the Abyss and I couldn’t explain it to him. I had to take care of this problem on my own. “You are helping me. You’re making sure I can open on time. This is just a misunderstanding.” I looked at the bloody mess. “I’ll be fine. Where I need you the most is out there.” I pointed toward the door, drawing a line in the metaphorical sand between us. I didn’t need another friend who I couldn’t talk to. Boone nodded once and went back to the front without another word about it. Chapter 4 Guilt immediately ate at me, but it was for Boone’s own good. Getting to really know me would cause nothing but problems in his life. I could barely take care of myself—and I definitely couldn’t protect him from the Abyss. He had a life and a business and apparently a really awesome gift that he had already learned to live with. Besides, I had other problems to worry about. Problems like finding my next meal and dealing with Garret who already knew too much. All I could really hope was that Boone was wrong. We avoided each other for the rest of the day, and only the sound of the door opening and closing that evening indicated when he left. It was for the best. For the first time in hours, I left the kitchen. The room looked amazing. The cabinets had been sanded and painted and were hung and base cupboards were in place, just waiting for the countertop. He had even started refinishing the little table I’d bought on a whim to go in the store window. It was perfect. Tears filled my eyes. Part of me wished I could have trusted him. There was a time I would have. I never used to be like this, but now paranoia ate at me. It had ever since Baker told me this other world existed. I thought being stronger would make me feel safer, but it didn’t. If anything I felt more at risk this way than I had as a human. I wiped pink tears from my eyes. Maybe once I had everything figured out, Boone and I could be friends. The bell chimed and the door opened. “Boone, everything is—” Only it wasn’t Boone. It was Garret. “Oh . . . hi.” He was the last person I expected to see again, though I’d thought about how I should handle the situation all day. Telling him the truth about me wasn’t an option and neither was telling Holden and letting him “disappear” him. There was only one other way I could think of, but it was risky. As a half vampire I had most of the powers a full vampire had. I was inhumanly strong, I could move fast, and though I had never tried it before, I was willing to bet I could compel humans. Corbin was really the only vampire I knew, but I’d watched him do it. How hard could it be? He touched their arm, looked in their eyes, and suddenly they were putty in his hands. I could do that. He took a deep breath. “Maggie. We need to talk.” “Sure. About what?” I stepped toward him and he didn’t back up. At least that was a good sign. “The red eyes. The healing. Are you a…” He shook his head. “I know this sounds crazy, but I also know what I saw.” I nodded. “I know how it must look, and I’d like to explain.” I advanced as if approaching a feral animal with a slight smile. His shoulders relaxed a little. I put my hand on his exposed arm and his face didn’t change at all. I stared deep into those once open, now suspicious brown eyes. They locked to mine, pupils dilating. “My eye was red because of allergies. I get ocular migraines, and what you think was rapid healing was just a mistake. I only had a scratch.” I willed him to believe me. “Just a scratch?” he said softly. St. Sebastian’s cupcake, it had worked! The door chimed and Boone re-entered, holding a bag of take out. I glanced over at him and smiled. Garret wasn’t going to rat me out. I took care of it all on my own. But before I could celebrate my victory, Garret’s face changed. It filled with fear and his mouth fell open. “Demon,” he hissed and then raced out the door, knocking into Boone as he went. We both stared after him. Okay . . . maybe it hadn’t worked as well as I thought. I ran my fingers through my hair. This sucked. “I’ve never seen a grown man move that fast,” Boone said. I was going to have to call Holden. I was out of choices. “I thought you were gone for the day.” He held up the bag in his hand. The delicious smell of Chinese food wafted toward me. Oh, I was hungry! “Neither of us has eaten all day.” It was more like three weeks, but who was counting? I led him to the kitchen and got us drinks and a Dark Side cupcake for dessert. I picked at the cashew chicken on my plate until I couldn’t force myself to take another bite. “Everything out front looks great. Thank you so much—and the tables and chairs come tomorrow.” He nodded. “We’re ready.” I pushed away the mostly uneaten plate. I never meant for anyone to get hurt, especially Garret who had been so nice to me. Opening a bakery was stupid. Why had I thought I could live a normal life? “Are you worried about the reporter?” I blinked. “How do you know what Garret does?” I waited for Boone to deflect as he always did. It was hard to say why I kept asking questions. Sometimes it was best not to know everything. Maybe I’d needlepoint that onto a pillow—I had forever. “I just know things. I can’t explain it because I don’t know how it works. I’ll see someone or hear them talking and know the truth. Other times I get very clear images in my head. And I’ve had more episodes since I met you than I’d had in my lifetime to date. That’s why I think we were supposed to find each other. Whatever gave me this gift also gave me you. I believe that.” I clasped my shaking hands together in my lap. “That’s why you think you need to help me?” He took another mouthful of noodles and stared at me. “Crazy, right?” I shook my head. Not crazy, but probably not accurate either. “So you’re a psychic.” He made a noncommittal noise. If vampires and angels and jinn existed, why not psychics too? I empathized with the risk Boone was taking by telling me all this, and I glanced up at him for just a moment before looking away again. Maybe he was lonely too. It wasn’t easy being different from everyone else even if it was in a way others couldn’t see. “What if I told you I don’t need a taste tester for my cupcakes because I’m diabetic?” He didn’t say anything. “What if I said it was because I can’t taste food?” My uneaten dinner sat between us and I held my breath as I waited for him to speak. He didn’t. Now that I’d started this confession, I couldn’t stop. I wanted to tell him everything. “Then what if I further told you, that Garret maybe has a good reason to be afraid of me. I am the monster he thinks I am.” I chewed on my thumbnail. I was toeing a dangerous line with these what ifs, but Boone was practically one of us. He shook his head. “You’re a good person. He’s an asshat.” I rubbed my hands over my face, then dropped them to the table. “I’m a vampire.” He chuckled. “Sure you are.” Instead of arguing, I picked up my fork and slammed it into my hand. Boone’s eyes widened and he reached for me, but I pulled away, withdrew the fork, and held up my hand so he could see. It wasn’t that I didn’t feel pain, because I did. It hurt like a son of a bitch, but it was short-lived and the wound immediately began to close. Boone was unblinking as he took my hand and felt the spot I stabbed. Seconds turned to minutes and neither of us spoke, but at least he didn’t run away. I could hear his heart beat faster in the silence. “I’ve never met a vampire,” he said conversationally. A giggle broke from me and I clapped my hand over my mouth, but kept laughing. Telling him was a completely selfish thing to do. I knew that, but it felt so good to not be isolated. I didn’t have to tell him about the rest of the Abyss. He only had to know about me. “Half, actually.” He rubbed his jaw. “That’s what Garret knows about you?” My leg bounced up and down. “I don’t know what he thinks he knows. He saw me heal this morning, sort of, by accident. I told him it was just a scratch, but well, you saw the blood in the kitchen. Oh, and he caught a glimpse of my eyes.” “What’s wrong with your eyes?” “My irises are red—and they’re brighter when I haven’t fed and it’s been a while. Again it was an accident. He wasn’t supposed to see either and now both of our lives are in danger. If he talks about it or, worse, reports it, then…let’s just say there are repercussions.” “From the other vampires?” “Sort of.” Not really, but I’d given Boone enough to swallow for one day. “So that’s my secret.” I picked up the cupcake I brought over for desert and offered it to him. “I didn’t want to freak you out.” “I’m glad you told me.” He accepted the cupcake, carefully peeling back the paper. “You’re going to need a better taste tester than me.” He took nearly half of it in one bite. A smile melted over his face and his eyes closed a little as he chewed. “It’s good.” He took another bite. “Really good,” he mumbled around the cake and oozing chocolate. Warmth spread through me and I grinned. It was like a huge weight had been lifted from me. I wanted to hug him, but managed to keep my hands in my lap. “You’re not scared?” He nodded. “Relieved actually. I didn’t know why you were inspiring so many visions. Maybe it’s because of what you are. You don’t have to worry about me. I’ll keep your secret.” He polished off the cupcake. “But what are you going to do about Garret?” “Nothing,” I said automatically. “He can’t go around accusing me of being a vampire. Who would believe that? Vampires aren’t real. You’re a psychic and even you didn’t believe me. I’m just going to let this blow over.” “What about the repercussions?” he asked. “He has as much to lose as I do,” I said. “Surely he won’t destroy his own life for an article no one will believe, right?” Boone shook his head. “I don’t know. It doesn’t feel like he’s going to let this go.” I cleaned up our dishes. Calling in Holden was like calling the army about a shoplifter. If I wanted to live in the human world, these were the things I needed to handle on my own. “I have another option, but it’s strictly a last-ditch measure. I want to give Garret a chance to move on first.” Boone reached across the counter and took my cupcake. It would have been so easy to ask him about the guy in the alley, but I didn’t. He’d already shut me down twice, and right now I wanted to live in the happiness of finally having someone to confide in. “How many people know about what you can do?” He swallowed his bite. “No one. You’re the only person I’ve told.” “Why?” He shrugged. “I haven’t always been able to do it.” His phone chimed and he pulled it out of his pocket, then hopped up, plopping the last bit of cake into his mouth. “I completely lost track of time. I have to go. I’ll try to think of something you can do to convince the reporter that you’re just like everyone else.” He grabbed his tools and was out the door in a flash. It occurred to me that I didn’t know anything about him. Was he married? He didn’t wear a ring, but not everyone did. Did he have a girlfriend, a family, a dog? And if yes to any of it, why was he willing to put anything on the line for me? Almost the instant Boone disappeared, Phoenix stepped up to the bakery’s front door. He was wearing all black, mostly leather, and his dark hair was brushed back from his face. He nodded to me, the left side of his lips curling into a sexy half smile as I let him in. “What are you doing here?” I asked as I pulled the shades, keeping my distance from him. “I’ve been thinking about you all day.” His voice was low and too close to me. I whirled around, inching as far away from him as I could. “Stay back.” I raised my hands, almost taking a defensive stance. “Why?” He slowly advanced. “I don’t want to hurt you,” I whispered. If he touched me tonight, I wouldn’t be able to stop feeding. His tongue traced the edge of his top lip. “What if I like it?” I laughed nervously and moved toward the kitchen. “You might not like being dead, though.” His grin widened. My back hit the wall. I had misjudged where the door was. He stood in front of me, nearly touching, but not quite. “About that deal,” he said smoothly. “How would you like a free sample to help with your decision?” “I already said no,” I managed to say somewhat normally. Phoenix winked. “Never take a first answer. Holden taught me that.” His cheek was so close to mine I could practically feel it. “I can give you want you need.” I closed my eyes, having trouble breathing. “I could kill you,” I said slowly, with emphasis, hoping this time he would understand. “Not tonight.” Something soft hit my chest and I cracked open an eye to see my white blazer lying over me. “Put that on and come with me.” I slipped my arms into my jacket and didn’t argue as I followed him out the front door, locking it behind me. He didn’t wait for me so I rushed to catch up. “Don’t you have a nightclub to be at?” “Yes,” he said. “But you weren’t going to come back to me on your own.” That was true. “Where are we going?” He flashed a grin. “Not knowing is half the fun.” This was wrong. Whatever we were doing here was wrong, but I kept with him. I had come this far and I wasn’t going to turn back. Phoenix was friends with Holden. Apart from that, I didn’t know a ton about him. He now had Holden’s old job of being in charge of this region of jinn, but what that meant in the wake of their freedom from demon control, I had no idea. But I knew him well enough to know he wasn’t going to hurt me. Not because of any emotional connection, but because he owed too much to Holden and Olivia. Phoenix stopped outside a red leather door and looked me up and down. “Lose the contacts.” I shook my head. I wouldn’t have anywhere to put them and it wasn’t like I had sunglasses with me. “Someone will see.” “We want them to see. That’s the point. Trust me.” I swallowed back my fear and plucked out my lenses, sighing with relief as the burning sensation I lived with all day finally ceased. “Feels good, doesn’t it?” Phoenix said, leaning in too close again. I met his dark stare. “The contacts, the bakery, the starving, that’s not who you are.” I swallowed, my mouth watering and my thoughts fuzzy. “I saw you last night. The real you. The one who takes what she wants.” I shook my head because I couldn’t speak. That wasn’t the real me. “On the other side of this door, you can be her any time you want. No one will stop you. Do you want me to show you?” He was the devil, but the offer was too good to refuse. I gave into the temptation, dragging my lips along the column of his neck, taking what I needed from him. His fingers threaded through my hair, but he didn’t pull away. A coarse rumble started deep in his chest as he lifted me against the door, using his body to pin me there, blue flames dancing in his eyes. I cupped his face, pulling him against me harder, sinking my teeth into his lip, making him hiss. He slowly slid me back to my feet. But it was too late to stop what he’d started. The hunger wouldn’t be beaten down again. I reached for him, but he pulled away and managed to avoid me. “Not me,” he said, taking me by the shoulders and turning me toward them door. “Them.” He opened the red door and I stepped inside. Chapter 5 I was late getting to work the next morning, but I felt fantastic. I hummed all the way to the bakery. I couldn’t remember much of anything that happened after I went through the door with Phoenix, which was worrisome, but the feeling that the world was mine for the taking made the worry easy to dismiss. There were two days until opening. Boone was installing the countertops and the chairs and tables would arrive any minute, which meant I had the rest of the day and tomorrow to finish setting up and to prepare for Saturday. Despite everything that had happened, I was going to open on time. It felt like a major accomplishment. And even better than making my deadline was the fact I was calm. My entire outlook on life had changed. Was it because of the talk Boone and I had, or because I’d finally sated my appetite? Either way, I owed both Phoenix and Boone flowers—or something less girly. I couldn’t have made it through the week without them. There was one more thing I had to do, though. Yesterday, I couldn’t decide, but this morning when I woke up (Yes, I slept!) the answer was clear. Holden had to be told about Garret. Garret couldn’t be left as he was, frightened and positive that I was somehow evil. That decided, I got to work. My tables and chairs arrived and I dedicated the rest of the morning to arranging them until they looked perfect. Boone tapped my shoulder as I was admiring how everything had come together. “I’m finished,” he said. I looked at the wall in front of the kitchen, opposite of the big windows and entrance. Goosebumps rose in waves over my arms. It was more than perfect. It was mine. “I love it.” I smiled from my heart at Boone. “I love everything about it. I’m so glad we met.” His dimples came out. “Wait here. I have a present for you.” I wrapped my arms around myself as I envisioned the cases filled with treats and the cabinets lined with colorful jars of hard candy and trinkets. I couldn’t wait to start baking. The door chimed. I looked up expecting Boone, but Garret was there instead, wearing a huge crucifix and a string of garlic around his neck. One hand held a video camera and the other clasped a bottle of what I could only assume was holy water. I pressed my lips together to keep from laughing. “You’re back,” I said, sighing heavily. “Garret, you have to stop harassing me.” “I know what you are, demon.” He sent a spray of holy water splashing across my face. I briefly considered messing with him, but I decided that wouldn’t be the best idea given the trouble we were in. I simply wiped it away. “Please, sit down. We need to talk.” He stared accusingly at the ineffectual holy water then stuck it in his pocket and focused the video camera on me. “Then talk, vampire.” I sighed again. “This is insane. Put the camera down. You’re unwell.” “The camera stays. I want a record of your lies. I could feel you in my mind yesterday. I know you did something to me. The world will know.” It was worse than I thought. I assumed since I’d failed that compelling wasn’t one of my abilities—but he’d felt me. What if I’d damaged him in some way? “Put the camera down,” I said gently. “Let me help you.” He pulled out a gun and pointed it at me, his hand shaking. “I thought you might say that, but I saw you heal and I can prove it.” I held up both hands and backed away. “You don’t want to do this, Garret.” He really didn’t. Chances were I would not only heal instantaneously, but my vampire half might take being shot personally. “Confess and admit it on film or you’re forcing me to prove it. The world deserves to know.” He pulled the trigger. A shot rang through the air. I moved out of the way just before the bullet hit, even though I was on camera—the lesser of two evils. It was that or accidentally kill him and that was something I didn’t want to live with. Garret crashed into the ground as Boone tackled him from behind, knocking over a couple chairs. A small wrapped gift flew from his hands and fell to the floor. “It’s okay,” I said. “I’m okay.” Boone pinned Garret’s arm behind his back. “He didn’t want to hurt me.” I didn’t have the words to defend Garret, but I couldn’t condemn him either. This was my fault. “Did he or did he not just try to shoot you?” Boone growled, yanking Garret’s arm up tighter. Garret clutched the camera with his free hand. “You moved too fast. You did. You moved too fast,” he crowed. “I have it on film. Everyone will know.” Two days ago he had been such a nice man. “Call the police,” Boone said over Garret’s ramblings. I shook my head. There was only one thing I could do. “You can leave, Boone. I’ll handle this.” Garret tried to scramble to his feet, but Boone kept hold of him. “I’m not going anywhere while this madman’s still here.” A lock of his hair fell over his face. I picked up my cell phone and called Holden. He appeared instantly as a thick black cloud of oily smoke that quickly formed into him. Garret ranted louder, his face red with exertion. Even Boone looked a little frightened as Holden glared at them. He turned to me. “What happened?” I gave him a quick rundown of everything that happened with Garret and how I tried to fix it. Holden’s jaw flexed at least three times during my story and I braced myself to be yelled at, but he turned away and scooped up Garret by the back of his shirt, right out from under Boone. Holden’s other hand snatched the camera from Garret and handed it to me. Then he grabbed his chin and forced Garret to look at him. I sucked in air. He was going to kill him right there in front of me. I squeezed my eyes shut then forced myself to open them again. I had to watch. It was my fault. “You have never met Maggie, you don’t believe in anything paranormal, the last three days have been completely normal, and you hate sweets. Now you are tired and want to go home and sleep for at least twelve hours.” Garret’s dark eyes rolled back in his head and Holden dropped him to the ground, where he stood deathly still. Then Holden snapped his fingers and Garret stumbled out, not saying a word, his face completely blank. And that was how compelling was supposed to go. I bent down and picked up the gun, offering it to Holden. “I didn’t know you could do that.” He took the weapon and looked at Boone. “What about him?” Boone stood up and offered Holden a hand. Holden glanced at me and I nodded. “Boone’s okay.” He shook his hand, but didn’t look happy about it. “You know the rules.” He turned his penetrating stare onto me. “He’s psychic. He’s practically one of us.” I glanced at Boone. “Besides, I explained the rules. He understands.” “What kind of psychic?” Holden asked. I stepped between him and Boone. “The kind that doesn’t need our sort of trouble.” “We’ll see.” He looked over my shoulder at Boone. “What did she tell you?” “That vampires are real and shouldn’t be talked about. Hey, man, I’m not going to say a word.” Holden relaxed. “See that you don’t.” With that, he disappeared just as fast as he’d arrived. Chapter 6 The shop was warm and bursting with life on Halloween. It was a confectioner’s dream. Rows of cupcakes, rolls, tarts, cakes, and candies lined the cases. Charlie, in her cat woman costume, helped Olivia, who was dressed as an angel (of course), and me (I was Daphne from Scooby Doo) hand out treats to the steady stream of adults and children. Some even stayed to mingle. Holden, dressed as himself (of course), sat in the corner of the room trying to restrain baby Baker who already had a mind of his own. The one person I had hoped would come, Boone, didn’t. In fact, he’d been absent since the day Garret attacked. But it was okay. There were far too many blessings in my life to be upset over one disappointment. I would make another friend. Now that I wasn’t starved, it was easier to have faith in that. My mind drifted to Phoenix. I hadn’t seen him since the night I couldn’t remember. Then again, it wasn’t like I’d gone to Xavier’s to look for him either. To be fair, there wasn’t much call for our paths to cross in my day-to-day life and that was probably for the best. He was too good at tempting me and as each day passed, with me still unable to remember a single detail of that night, the more I feared I’d done something I would regret. Charlie tugged on my skirt. I looked down at her round cheeks, flushed from the excitement and massive amount of sugar she’d eaten. “Aunt Maggie,” she said, eyes sparkling. “Can I have the big one?” She was pointing at a large pumpkin-shaped iced sugar cookie on the counter. “Um,” I glanced back at Olivia who shrugged. “Okay, but don’t make yourself sick.” “Okay.” She skipped off to collect her cookie. Olivia laughed, handing me her bowl of candy. “I better go help her or you’ll have fingerprints all over the case.” My smile grew as I greeted the next group of customers with their treats and introduced myself. “So you finally opened your dream bakery,” my best friend Izzy said behind me. I closed my eyes, half hoping she wouldn’t be there when I turned around and half ecstatic to see her. “Izzy.” I hugged her gently as possible. “I meant to text you back, but time got away from me. I’m so sorry. It’s wonderful to see you.” She nodded slowly, still not smiling. “Everything looks great. I’m just glad to know you’re alive and doing well.” She started for the door. “Iz, wait.” I couldn’t let her walk away. Not after everything. No matter what I was, I missed my friends. Some people, maybe, were built differently and could happily exist alone, but I wasn’t one of them. I needed people. I loved people. And she was my people. “I know I messed up. I’m sorry I haven’t been around. It was completely me, not you. I was working through some stuff. I didn’t mean to shut you out.” She shook her head and crossed her arms. “We’re friends, Maggie. I know you went through something when Baker died, and I wanted to be there for you.” “I know, but I had to deal with it on my own. Baker’s death changed my life and I lost myself for a while. I just needed to…I don’t know.” I hugged the candy bowl to my chest. “I promise I’ll be around more if you still want me to be. I’m starting to feel normal again.” She pressed her lips together, eyes trained on the corner of the room. “Of course I want you around.” I handed her a bag of treats. “You know where to find me.” She looked around the store with the start of a grin. “It really does look great.” The rest of the evening flew by and when everyone was finally gone, I had a huge, glorious mess to clean up. There was a light tap on the front door just as I was finishing up sweeping. I flipped the lock and opened the door. Boone stood on the other side, unsmiling. “How’d the opening go?” “Wonderfully—totally wonderfully. Come in.” He closed the door behind him. “There’s more than vampires out there, isn’t there?” I opened and closed my mouth. “You don’t want know.” He nodded. “I think it’s too late for that. I was getting ready to come here and trick-or-treaters came to my door. As I put the candy in their bags, I had a vision about the middle one.” “What happened?” He plunked into one of the chairs. “He was taken from his bedroom by an old lady. I saw him sleeping in his bed, then a door appeared in his room. An old woman stepped out of it and picked up the kid. Then I swear she looked right at me and winked. I know it sounds crazy—but then again, you’re a vampire; it doesn’t get much crazier than that.” Yep, it was definitely my sort of crazy. I thought I needed the store to feel normal again, or even that I needed to fall in love, but I didn’t. Phoenix showed me that, but he wasn’t entirely right. I was still the girl I used to be, the one who wanted to own a bakery and unapologetically loved the color pink, but I was more than that now. I was also a half-vampire who could hopefully do more good than harm in this world. The store would be a great adventure, but it wouldn’t make or break me. Life was still mine for the choosing. And this had all the makings of one of those moments that would define who I was going to be. I gave Boone my last piece of candy and sat down across from him, leaning forward on my elbows. I met his squinty blue eyes. “How much do you want to know?” “Everything.”

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