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After demanding to help investigate a series of gruesome attacks on females — supernatural, halfling, and human — Jane quickly finds herself forced to confront her darkest nightmares as well as her deepest desires.
And she’s not sure which she finds more frightening.
Table of Contents
I had a brief, intensely detailed fantasy of springing up and hovering, like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix, only to land straddling the barghest.
After a second I registered how ridiculous that was, and I had a secondary, equally vivid fantasy of my short-assed legs hopping awkwardly across the floor toward Anyan while he stared with a mixture of confusion and horror.
Shaking my head to clear it of my daymare, I ruefully smiled at nothing in particular just as Nell yelled for me from the yard.
"Training time!" I sang, awkwardly and too loudly, before plastering on a grin and pivoting on my heel to flee to the front side of the cabin.
What the hell is wrong with me? I wondered. Could I be any more of a spaz?
Luckily, my self-recriminations were short-lived. Mostly because the second I turned the corner I was diving to the ground as Nell tried to take my face off with a mage ball.
Motherfucking gnomes, I thought as I struggled to maintain shields, scramble to my feet, and create a mage ball all at the same time. Nell loved what she called surprises. And by "surprise," Nell meant trying to maim you when you least expected it. She was like Cato from the fucking Pink Panther, only more destructive.
I love it when people pre-laugh at their own jokes. And whatever Marcus was about to say, he obviously found very funny, since he had started chuckling as soon as he'd told us he'd heard "a good one."
"A god gives a selkie, an Alfar, and a nahual each a free wish. The selkie asks for an ocean full of fish." With that, Marcus paused to give me a Look, as if it were my cue to pull a halibut out of my bra and start gnawing on it, before continuing: "The Alfar pushes the selkie aside and asks for a walled city for only the Alfar to live in." We all pushed our drinks around as Marcus stopped again, silently revving his engines for the punch line. He also indulged in one more self-congratulatory chortle. "The nahual thinks about his options. Then he looks at the god, looks at the Alfar, and asks how high the wall will be. When the Alfar says he'd want it to be very high, the nahual tells the god…
"… to fill the wall with water!"
Iris giggled, tossing back her honeyed mane of hair. Marcus was laughing so hard he was doubled over, as his partner, Sarah, gave him the long-suffering grimace of a woman who'd heard the same joke fifteen times in a row. Marcus and Sarah were one of those couples who, like dogs and their owners, had come to look exactly the same. They were both short and very lean but muscular, with similarly cropped haircuts and almost identical outfits of jeans and college sweatshirts. In other words, they looked like twins, except he appeared to be African-American and she Caucasian. In reality, however, they were both nahuals—or shape-shifters—and not really human at all.
Not that you would know by hearing their punch lines, I thought as I shook my head, articulating my biggest complaint about supernatural jokes in general and Marcus's in particular.
"Dude, all your jokes are just human jokes in which you take out the ethnic slurs and replace them with faction slurs. You're like Cartman, from South Park, when he switches 'baby' with 'Jesus' in popular songs and calls himself a Christian rocker."
"So not true," Marcus replied again. We'd had this argument just about every time Marcus told me a "new" joke. "Humans stole our jokes and replaced our factions with human religious leaders."
I snorted. Fat chance of that happening, what with the way the supes jealously guarded their secret existence. But again, this was an old argument that neither of us was going to win. Not to mention, Iris was still giggling and she was too pretty to ignore.
"Oh, Marcus, you're so funny," she tittered as Sarah and I rolled our eyes.
"Don't encourage him," Sarah muttered beside me.
"We know he's got more where that came from," I added for her ears only, just as Marcus turned to Iris and said, "Well, I've got more where that came from."
Sarah and I threw up our hands at the same time, yelling out a triumphant, "Ohhhh!" Then we sealed our collective brilliance by high-fiving each other and collapsing into laughter.
"You two are hilarious," Marcus said drily as he stood to get us all another round from his stand-in at the bar. He and Sarah had the night off, but the Sty was the only place in Rockabill to drink, so they often ended up spending their free time at their place of work.
Sarah and I were still chuckling as Iris's blue eyes started to glow in that telltale succubus manner. Sure enough, when I turned around, it was our local minister and his wife. They were paragons of conservative propriety in public, but in private they swung like piñatas. Iris gave them a small wave, which they returned benevolently as they went and sat down in the restaurant portion of the Sty.
Iris watched them, her eyes all aglow. Her succubus mojo rolled against my shields and I gave her a warning look. No matter what, Iris received a lot of attention: She always sent out little waves of attraction compulsion, plus—with her Playboy-model figure and girl-next-door features—she was drop-dead gorgeous. But she sometimes got excited and let her shields slip, unleashing the full power of her succutastic self. Unfortunately, when Iris lost control, everybody lost control.
The last thing we needed was for Iris to start an orgy here in Rockabill… Our puritan ancestors would rise up from their graves and spit us on their razor-sharp rod of approbation.
My friend gave me an apologetic smile, and I felt her tone down her magic. I was just about to make a joke, since Iris always felt bad when she slipped, when the cell phone in my purse buzzed. After fishing it out, I saw Ryu's name blinking at me from the caller ID. While I debated whether or not to take it, he hung up. I frowned at my phone until, finally, I excused myself. Iris gave me a knowing look as I walked toward the Sty's exit, pulling Ryu's number up on my phone once outside. Then I proceeded to stare at the phone, again, trying to decide what to do.
My former lover and I were still on the outs after he'd made a big scene demanding that I move to Boston to be with him. We'd never stopped talking entirely, and we were talking a bit more nowadays. But I was still unsure about what I wanted. On the one hand, I did care for Ryu a whole hell of a lot. He was beautiful, and generous, and he knew how to live. He'd also saved my life, in more ways than one. When we'd first met, during an investigation into a murder here in Rockabill, Ryu had stuck around to sleep with me. He could have wrapped up his portion of the investigation in a few days without my help, but he'd drawn it out and schlepped me about with him because of our mutual attraction. Which I later realized had saved my skin, as there'd been a killer waiting in the wings to murder me who'd been thwarted by Ryu's presence.
Ryu had also brought me out of the long torpor to which I'd succumbed after my first love, Jason, had died so many years ago. I'd been only half-alive till Ryu came along. That said, meeting him had inaugurated my plunge into my current position, floundering in the supernatural world. But I couldn't blame him for that. I'd been the one to find Peter Jakes's body, and, anyway, I was too strong in my powers. Nell the gnome, along with the other supernatural folk who lived in or around Rockabill, would eventually have brought me into the fold anyway.
So, on the one hand, I did care for Ryu. On the other hand, however, the baobhan sith had some strange priorities, especially when it came to love. I couldn't shake the feeling that, while I knew my vampire lover did genuinely care for me and we were definitely attracted to each other, the real reason he wanted me so much was because I was the halfling equivalent of a bento box. For whatever reason, my mixed blood had combined into a very rare cocktail: I was both supernaturally magical and sanguinely human. In other words, I was a rarity in that I could be a complete partner to him. He could feed off my essence-rich blood, and yet I was able to keep up with him both magically and in terms of longevity.
While I couldn't blame him for wanting a true partner, neither was I comfortable with living my life as a walking, talking sack lunch.
Another major factor that made my falling back into Ryu's life awkward was that I had a serious high school crush on someone who was probably the most inappropriate person in the world for me to crush on. Anyan Barghest was a badass warrior, an internationally renowned artist (throughout many human lifetimes of name changes), a stud muffin, and someone who had known me since I was a toothless, drooling infant. In other words, he was so out of my league it was ridiculous. But somewhere along the way I'd not only fallen for him, I'd fallen like a seventh grader. I wanted to pass Iris notes signed Jane Barghest. I wanted to write ANYAN LOVES JANE on my geography notebook, if I were still in geography classes. I wanted to play MASH with him as my only "husband" option. That said, I wanted to do a whole hell of a lot of things to him that were not seventh-grade, many involving various forms of slathery foodstuffs, but it was all hopeless. Not least because I hadn't seen Anyan once, and I mean once, since I'd fallen asleep next to his doggie-form after I'd returned from Boston two months ago.
I'd been assiduously ignoring my true feelings for the barghest, until that night when I dreamed we did the pokey-pokey. After Boston, those first days back in Rockabill had been brutal. I hadn't slept at all, until I'd gone to my cove to rest next to the safety of my ocean. I'd started to have the same nightmare that kept waking me up, when Anyan had found me tossing in my sleep. He'd let my sleeping body know he was there to protect me, and my sleeping brain had thanked him by making him the star of one of the most explicit erotic dreams I'd ever had. And I'm someone who dreams dirty.
Unable to deny what my subconscious had thrown in my face, I'd woken up overly excited and chagrined and completely alone. All of which meant that I had mixed feelings about Ryu, who wanted me, and very solid feelings for a man who'd never feel the same.
Giving my bottom lip one last, fortifying chew as I stared at Ryu's name and number glowing from my phone's screen, I steeled myself and pressed Send. It was no mean feat to call that number. After all, whenever we spoke, there was one part of me (namely, my libido) that wanted to demand Ryu come to Rockabill, right now. But another part argued that I should make our separation permanent. In other words, our relationship was as complicated as ever.
"Jane?" Ryu answered on the fourth ring.
"Hey, Ryu. What's up?"
"Nothing, I just wanted to hear your voice."
My libido purred in response, even as I rolled my eyes at Ryu's line. The baobhan sith had graduated magna cum laude with a degree in Romance Schmomance, something I found both endearing and irritating.
"Jane, did you hear me?"
"Yes. Sorry, Ryu. It's been a long week. Thanks, I miss you, too."
Liar, my virtue thought petulantly.
No you're not, my ever-irrepressible libido grumbled.
"What are you doing?"
"I'm out for drinks at the Sty with Iris, Sarah, and Marcus. Grizzie and Tracy are on their way."
"How is everybody?"
"Fine. Tracy's pregnant!" I said, remembering I hadn't yet told him the news.
"Yup! Three months. They're doing great. Tracy's freaking out because she's already starting to show, but that's just because—"
"That's great news, Jane," Ryu interrupted rather rudely, considering I was telling him something so important. "But how are you?"
I paused before answering, knowing something was up. Whatever his flaws, Ryu usually had impeccable social grace. So not only was it weird that he interrupted me like that, but his voice was odd and really intense.
"I'm doing good," I replied cautiously. "Work's the same. Training-wise, I managed to crack that magical probe I've been stuck on, finally. And I trounced Trill in a duel the other day." I'd been working my ass off on offensive magics, and I was doing pretty well. Getting kidnapped by Con and having the crap kicked out of me by Graeme had been pretty good motivation, plus the lessons I'd learned from Anyan about manifesting my power had stood me in good stead. I'd discovered I had surprisingly aggressive magic at my disposal, considering I was half-selkie. I just had to get comfortable with the idea of Jane True: Offensive Hybrid.
"Turns out," I joked, using my sassy voice, "I'm the kind of seal who clubs back."
"That's great," Ryu replied, his voice still distracted. He paused, and when he spoke again he sounded even more intense.
"You know I'm always here for you, right?"
What the fuck? I thought.
"Okay," I said.
"I mean that. I'll always be here for you, baby."
Ryu was being more than a little dramatic, but drama and Ryu went together like cheese and… Well, cheese goes with everything.
"Thanks. I'm here for you, too," I added lamely.
"I'll let you get back to your friends."
"Um, okay. Thanks for calling."
Ryu didn't respond for a second, and then when he did, his voice was resoundingly portentous.
"Remember what I said, Jane. We'll talk again soon."
With those cryptic words, he hung up. I blinked at my phone, wondering what the hell he was up to, until I heard a car door slam from the parking lot in front of me.
It was my old arch-nemesis, Linda Allen, and her current boyfriend, Mark, the postal worker I'd nearly dated awhile ago until he'd learned of my sordid, suicidal history and dumped me like a hot potato.
Things were different nowadays, and Linda and Mark merely smiled politely at me as they passed. Granted, I'd nudged them with a little glamour a few weeks ago, which had made them want to be polite to Jane. But somewhere along the line, I'd also stopped being someone who took shit.
I watched Mark open the Sty's door for Linda, and I felt a twinge of sadness. I'd been so used to being alone after Jason died, but then Ryu had shaken up my world as if it were a snow globe. He'd reminded me of what it was like to have someone, and I missed that connection. I also really missed the nookie, but at least I had a drawerful of sex toys from Grizzie to make up for it. That said, pocket rockets didn't open doors for you or hold your hand, nor were they great conversationalists.
Then again, sex toys are rarely, if ever, complicated, I thought, jumping as someone grabbed my ass.
I calmed my breathing and dropped the magical shields I'd thrown up the minute I was touched. I know that pinch, I thought, turning to find Grizzie behind me, leering. "Think of the devil," I said drily, "and she gooses you."
"You were obviously thinking about something," my tall friend said, laughing as she hugged me. "I was stomping away in my big-girl boots, and you didn't bat an eyelash."
"Off in my own world again." I shrugged, watching as Tracy waddled up next to her life partner.
"I'm getting fat," she wheezed.
"You're not fat," I chided as I went to hug her. "You're pregnant."
When I released her, Tracy pointedly looked down at her belly.
"With twins," I conceded, giving her already bulging stomach a little pat.
"Twin sumo wrestlers." Grizzie chortled, for which I shot her the evil eye.
"Never again," Tracy mumbled as I held the door open for her. "Next time, Ms. Montague, you get turkey basted and I point and laugh."
I smiled as they bickered over who would next get knocked-up. Grizzie kept arguing about her "girlish figure," but I knew she was being blasé and was actually looking forward to her turn at being up the duff.
We chitchatted a bit before walking inside. Bars in Maine had been smoke-free forever, which was great as it meant we could hang out at the Sty despite Tracy's being pregnant. My two human friends had integrated pretty seamlessly with Rockabill's little supernatural contingent. Granted, they knew nothing about our "real" identities, but it didn't matter so much with this crowd, who had highly developed human personas and were happy to have Grizzie and Tracy around. Not least because Grizzie took the pressure off. If anyone looked like some creature out of mythology, it was Grizelda Montague. While Tracy was dressed in her usual long-sleeved polo shirt and carpenter-cut jeans, her life partner was wearing a skintight PVC jumpsuit, and had braided her long black hair up into a Princess Leia bun on each side of her head. For a Wednesday night out at the Pig Sty in Rockabill, Maine, population 1,003.
Marcus helped the mother-to-be into the booth he'd just vacated, next to Iris, and then went to get another round of drinks and an orange juice for Tracy. Grizzie pulled up a chair to sit at the end of the table, next to Tracy, as Sarah slid out of the booth to go help Marcus with the drinks. I listened to Grizzie squelch around in her PVC, then slid back in to sit across from the succubus. Everyone started talking at once, but, as good friends do, we turned it all into a great conversation.
Soon enough, Sarah came back with drinks and started talking with Tracy and Grizzie about their pregnancy. Iris took her opportunity to lean across the table and gossip.
"Was it Ryu?" she asked, her voice honeysuckle sweet.
"I could tell by your face. What did he want?"
"I don't know, actually. He was being typically cryptic."
"Are you going to see him?"
"He said something about seeing me, but he didn't seem to have any particular plans. Girl, what the fuck am I going to do with him?" I groaned, dropping my forehead down onto the table in defeat.
"Well, first I'd tie him up. Then I'd start with a feather and a Dustbuster…"
"Iris! I meant… not that. I meant what am I going to do about him and me."
"Oh. I don't know. I'm only good with the sex stuff. Relationships are another matter entirely."
I blanched, feeling inconsiderate. I'd only very recently learned that Iris had been in love with a human, ages ago, with whom she'd borne a child. The child had been entirely nonmagical, and both her son and her husband had died of old age while she remained young and strong. Iris had been gutted and hadn't had a real relationship since.
"I'm sorry, Iris."
"Oh, don't be. It's fine. But we were talking about you and Ryu."
I knew Iris didn't like talking about her past, so I let her change the subject.
"I just hate that we're tiptoeing around each other like this. And I do care about him, but it's so complicated."
"And there's Anyan," Iris whispered, dropping her voice so only I could hear.
I snorted. Don't get me wrong: I wanted to do things to Anyan that would make Casanova blush. But for every fantasy I had about the barghest involving handcuffs and drizzled honey, I had an equally vivid fantasy about slapping him across the face. I felt we'd really connected when we were in Boston, and he'd said he felt bad about not being there for me. Then he'd gone MIA the minute I was back in Rockabill. I felt rejected. And stupid for feeling that way, since I had no right to such emotions. We'd never really been more to each other than acquaintances. But I still felt angry at him, even though I knew it was irrational. It was the illogical ire of unrequited love, and I wasn't strong enough to resist its temptation.
"There's no Anyan," I replied heatedly. "And I'm stupid if I think there is. Anyan is never here, first of all. Plus, he's out of my league. And he's never seen me as anything other than something to take care of. I may have issues, Iris, but they're not daddy issues; I don't want to be with a man who thinks he needs to babysit me. Besides, I have to deal with how I feel about Ryu without taking Anyan into consideration. I owe Ryu more than that."
"Do you? Owe Ryu more than that? And would you feel this way about Anyan," she continued, "if you already felt what Ryu wants you to feel for him?"
I made a face at Iris. "I don't know what I feel. And I certainly can't base my feelings for the bloodsucker based on my feelings for the hellhound who apparently doesn't even know I exist. Besides, there's no issue. Not yet, at least. Ryu's in Boston; I'm in Rockabill; Anyan is in absentia. So I'll just keep ignoring everything till I get walloped with it. Then I'll panic and run to you."
Iris laughed. "Your plans always suck, Jane. But you know I'll be there when you need me."
And I did. Unlike Ryu's cryptic statement, I knew exactly what Iris meant. She meant she was my friend and would be there when I needed her, just as she had been every day for months. I smiled at her and reached over to touch her hand.
"Thanks, lady. You know I love you."
The succubus laughed. "I know. You tell me every time you get drunk."
"To drunken declarations of affection," I said, holding my drink up to her. We clinked glasses, bringing everyone into the toast.
I smiled at my friends, knowing how lucky I was to have them. We all talked for another hour, until the pregnant lady called it quits and we went our separate ways. Tracy and Grizzie left first, then Iris trailed off after our swinging minister and his wife. When Sarah and Marcus said good night, I did, too. Then I went to the only other thing I loved as much as my friends and family.
The next day found me basking on my favorite flat rock, soaking up the rays of a late-afternoon sun draped in plump repose across the horizon.
It was only in the past month that I'd really mastered my invisibility glamour and could swim during the day. Now that I could be in my ocean at any time without fear of discovery, I'd found that there was no heaven so pleasurable as lying on a warm rock jutting up from the shallows, the sea foam frothing at arm's reach.
That said, I may have looked peaceful—but I was secretly working. Today was my official "day off," both from my job and from my magical training. But after going out the night before I wasn't going to waste another big chunk of time. So while I lay, outwardly quiescent, I practiced manifesting little bursts of power that scooped and released small handfuls of water near my head. It took a lot of control and a very dense power weave to hold fluid, so the exercise was actually very demanding.
"You're supposed to be resting, Jane," came an oil-slick voice from somewhere near my feet. I raised my head petulantly, frowning toward my unwanted visitor. It was my kelpie friend Trill. Kelpies were two-formed, like selkies, only instead of turning into a seal like my mom had, Trill turned into a weird little underwater pony. She was currently in her humanoid form, all the better to bask with me.
"I am resting," I said. "I'm horizontal, ain't I?"
"From what I've heard, you do a lot of things horizontally that aren't resting."
"Ha-ha, very funny. Move over, Ricky Gervais… here comes Kelpie Trill!"
Trill emitted a strange grating sound it had taken me forever to realize was actually her version of a girlish giggle.
"Everything 'pony' is better. Especially pony-style."
I laid my head back down, squeezing my eyes shut. "Ohmigod, are you talking about pony sex? 'Cause if you are, I think you may have ruined me for life."
Just thinking about two little kelpies going at it made me shudder.
Trill grated her harsh giggle at me again, then I heard her haul herself out of the water. I meeped my protest when she dripped cold droplets over my sun-warmed flesh. The kelpie's pearl-gray skin gleamed dully in the sunlight, her black-nailed hands—cold from the sea—prodding me like frozen brands to move over and make room. For a moment, too comfortable to budge, I refused. Until she threatened to wring her green seaweed hair out on my belly and I finally made way so Trill could share my rock.
We lay in companionable silence, drowsing together for at least a half hour. But I knew such peace couldn't last, and soon enough Trill's slippery voice eeled its way through my respite.
"How are you feeling this week?"
From the time I'd met Trill, she'd been my friend and my swimming buddy. After everything that had happened in Boston, however, she'd also taken it upon herself to be my therapist.
I wish I could say I didn't need her help, but I knew better.
- On Sale
- Jan 1, 2011
- Page Count
- 368 pages