Barely surviving the resurrection of the warlock Sedgrave, Ashley has healed in body, if not in mind. As she slowly tries to piece together her mind, sorting past from present and friend from foe, the time of her joining- a ritual designed to bind her to her seethe-comes upon her. Before the ritual can be completed in full, it is interrupted by a ragged pack of werewolves seeking asylum and protection.
Meanwhile, a storm is brewing in the mystical world with Ashley at its center, and before she knows it, her calm existence is once more Sucked Away.
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“You should get some rest,” Josh added, when he noticed my smile fade.
I nodded slowly as I crawled to the head of the bed and climbed under the bloodstained blankets.
“Whaboutyou?” I slurred, my eyelids drooping despite my effort to stay awake.
“I’ll stand guard. Someone has to. We don’t know when Sedgrave might attack again.”
Too true, I thought as I drifted off to sleep.
It wasn’t really an end. More like a very gory beginning.
Josh leaned over my shoulder, watching my progress as I typed the last few lines of my newest book. I had a feeling my publisher would be blown away with the sudden transformation in my writing. It wasn’t a work of fiction like my past efforts; it was my real-life story. Granted, I wouldn’t be telling anyone that. They’d lock me up in a padded room and swallow the key. I couldn’t blame them for that response. Even I had trouble believing the sudden change my life had endured.
Endured was the right word. My first week as a vampire had been full of clinging tree faeries, slobbering werewolves, frozen houses, and vampire-sacrifices. I’d survived it, but just barely. I now spent my days and nights cooped up in my studio apartment, trying to reassemble my life. It wasn’t going well.
I had a lot of ground to cover. Granted, I had been nearly tortured to death—a difficult feat considering how hearty we vampires are. I’d been whipped, skewered, and burned, but the worst of it wasn’t what had happened to my body. The ritual, which we thought required my life, had taken my memories—my very essence. So I guess in some ways it had taken my life, it just did it in a way none of us expected. I had regained a lot of my history, but not all.
“This is fabulous,” whispered Josh from his position just above my right shoulder. Though he spoke softly enough, it startled me, pulling me from my own thoughts.
“Thanks,” I murmured.
“Hardly,” sighed my cat from his position on the desk, next to my antiquated computer.
Tereus was a gray Scottish Fold. Though I’d named him Muffler when I first got him, he had asked me to call him Tereus after I discovered he could talk. It turned out my cat was really a very old and powerful fae, trapped in a cat’s body after he impregnated a friend’s sister.
“You want a fabulous book read Les Miserables.”
“Don’t listen to him,” urged Josh. “Hugo rambles.”
Josh was the one member of Mikhail’s seethe that I thought of as a friend. The others I put up with out of self-preservation. I had no chance of survival if I wasn’t part of a seethe. They provided support and safety during rough times, which already proved to be a necessity in my life. I just didn’t like it. I’d been a lone wolf—forgive the phrasing—for such a long time, I wasn’t sure if I could conform to a group again.
“C’mon. You should start getting ready for tonight,” said Josh, still keeping his voice soft; he knew how easily I was startled.
He gently placed his hands on my shoulders and guided me away from the computer. Josh had spent many hours, days even, helping me recover. He’d even gotten me wireless internet so that he could work from my apartment. Though Josh had been a jazz pianist when he was human, he was presently trying his hand at trading stocks online. So far, he was barely paying his own bills.
Granted, he had fifty years of savings he could tap into if necessary.
I forced my shoulders to relax under his hands. I felt a little better after getting the story down on paper, but not well enough to face this night. It was my Joining—a short ceremony to finalize my initiation into the seethe, followed by “one hell of a party,” or at least that’s how Josh had described it. Whoever had been put in charge of my Joining had decided to make it a masquerade. Josh was very excited, while I was considering ways to run away. This would be my first time out of my apartment since the attempted sacrifice; attempted, as I didn’t technically die.
Nevertheless, a powerful warlock had been freed.
I watched Josh move to my closet and pull out the dress someone had purchased for me. I took it and silently went to my bathroom to put it on. Josh stayed, knowing I’d need help with the laces. I slipped into it, the girlish part of me reveling in the stiff fabric that draped from my hips in heaps of emerald loveliness. The bust was tight and strapless. I held it on as I came out of the bathroom and allowed Josh to lace up the back, which left my pale skin half revealed to the small of my back. Just as he finished, a small, half transparent puppy burst through my closed door.
It bounced around the room, ignoring Tereus as the cat jumped on to the bed and hissed at it. It came up to where Josh and I stood and tried to bite the lower folds of my dress. We both turned away and ignored it. The ghost dog had been haunting Josh ever since we dug up its twisted mistress, who had chosen to be buried with her dog.
“You look beautiful. I got something to go with it. Now this is just to borrow for the night. So don’t lose it,” he added before opening a felt box.
I felt just like Julia Roberts as I stared at the overwhelming display of silver, diamonds, and emeralds lying on the cushion.
I smiled reflexively. “It’s gorgeous! Josh, where did you get it?”
“I know a guy.”
I smiled again, the movement feeling unnatural, and turned around so he could help me into the ornate necklace. Josh—or a sick display of diamonds—was the only person who could make me smile.
“Now let’s get your hair and makeup done before your date arrives.”
I tensed at the thought. I couldn’t help it. Nik had insisted on escorting me to my Joining. He claimed he had the right, considering how much work he put into keeping me alive. Never mind that he’d wanted to kill me himself when I was first turned, or the fact that Josh had asked me first.
I’d a long list of enemies at the time, and Nikolai considered me a threat to the seethe’s safety. He wasn’t wrong, but Mikhail had chosen to protect me, mostly just to piss off Richard, the Lacey seethe’s primus. Evidently, when you’re a couple hundred years old, that’s enough motivation to risk countless lives. I didn’t get it.
“It’ll be okay,” Josh said as he pushed me toward the bathroom.
My curling iron was already plugged in and hot. I sat on the toilet lid while he curled my hair. The ghost dog ran into the bathroom, lost control on the linoleum, and skidded through the edge of my tub. I couldn’t tell if it had any control when it interacted with the world around it or not, but occasionally it couldn’t go through a wall or chair leg. Today, evidently, it was the floor that it connected with.
“Where’d you learn to curl a girl’s hair?” I asked, immensely grateful that he could.
“I studied a few years of college theater. I know my way around a bobby-pin.”
I laughed. It felt good. I hadn’t spent much of the autumn laughing. In fact, this might have been the first time. It wasn’t that I was depressed. Rather, I couldn’t remember what was funny and what wasn’t.
Josh wanted me to allow Jordan and Chloe to visit—my only two friends from my human days. The problem was, I knew if I saw them I wouldn’t be able to carry on a normal conversation, not to mention I would probably kill them. Josh had made the annoyingly accurate point that if I didn’t start getting out, I’d never recover the rest of my memories, or gain any control over my blood lust.
Even so, there was another problem, and one I refused to mention to Josh. To see Jordan and Chloe, I would have to see Nik. They were now both Nikolai’s sheep: Jordan because he’d stumbled upon us after I’d been horribly wounded, and Nik had to control him; Chloe because Jordan wanted her to be in on the secret. They now spent half their time with Nikolai in his mansion.
It would take a lot more than my love for Jordan and Chloe to get me into Nik’s mansion again. I absolutely loathed Nik. It wasn’t just his wanting to kill me when I first came to the seethe. In fact, I was mostly over that. After all, he had saved my life many times since that initial introduction.
It was something else entirely.
I knew that he had, at one time during his long life, sacrificed one of my ancestors in an attempt to raise Sedgrave, the maniacal though charismatic, warlock who could create daywalkers. And that was just a parlor trick; Sedgrave’s real skill was manipulating politics—a much more subtle and terrifying gift.
Still, Nik had tried to bring him back to life, and had never mentioned it to any of us when we were actively trying to prevent that from happening. I hadn’t told anyone that I had seen him in one of my freaky ritual visions. In fact, no one even knew I had been transported back through all the other attempts at raising Sedgrave.
I couldn’t figure out how to bring the subject up. In lieu of coming up with a plan, I had chosen to avoid him—until tonight. I couldn’t get out of it. The party was for me, and I couldn’t tell him he couldn’t escort me. He’d saved my life after all; he’d earned the right. Besides, if I refused him, he’d want to know why, and I wasn’t ready for that conversation.
“You doing okay?” Josh asked as he finished tucking the delicate curls of red hair into a beautiful design.
“I guess. Don’t really want to do this.”
“I know. But you need to. You need to start going out, being around people.”
“People?” I asked.
“You know what I mean.”
“Josh… I can’t even remember what my mother looked like… or if I liked chocolate chip cookies when I was human. I’m not sure I even know who I am anymore… and you want me to go out and… mingle?”
Josh grabbed my knee and spun me around on the toilet lid until I faced him.
“Then spend time with those who do know you,” he urged. “We’ll remind you.”
“Who, other than you, knows me in the seethe?”
I waved my hand, dismissing the idea. Josh took me by the shoulders and gave me a gentle shake.
“What is this thing with you and Nik?”
“It’s nothing,” I answered quietly.
“That’s a load of bullshit. Whatever it is, you need to talk to him. Get it out in the open. He can’t figure out why you’ve avoided him for the past two months.”
I stood up, pushing Josh out of the bathroom so that I could put my own makeup on. I wasn’t sure why I needed makeup when I would be adding a mask, but Josh seemed to think it was necessary. I was halfway through the process when Josh opened my front door.
“Fine, be stubborn. I’m out. Nik will be here soon. See ya there.”
I finished the makeup and carefully put the mask on. It was emerald green with silver detailing, and black and silver feathers that curled up over my head, almost like a crown. Josh had designed my hair style to let the feathers disappear into the curls. It was amazing; much better than anything I could have managed.
I had just applied the last bobby-pin when I heard the exterior door open and recognizable steps resounded up the narrow stairs.
I gulped, forcing the lump down my throat. My stomach gave a little uncomfortable jump at the thought of seeing him again. I quickly ran through a few options for greetings. They all seemed flat and artificial.
I moved out of the bathroom and settled on “Come in” before he could knock. Nik entered, wearing a very chic and modern-looking tuxedo. He stopped in his tracks to stare. I started wondering if something was terribly wrong—like a blood stain on my new gown.
“Wow,” he sighed. “You look amazing.”
“Err… thanks.” It didn’t feel like an adequate response to his compliment, but my muddled brain couldn’t think of anything else to say.
I grabbed the black, elbow length gloves from the foot of my bed and followed him out the door. I slipped them on while heading for the bottom of the steps. When we reached the L shaped courtyard of my apartment complex, he took my hand and placed it in the crook of his elbow. It felt old fashioned and uncomfortably intimate.
“I’ve missed you,” Nik said out of nowhere.
He kept his voice soft; no doubt Josh had warned him how easily I startled. I nearly forgot to keep walking, I was so shocked. Though I realized he no longer hated me, I had no idea his feelings had transformed enough to actually miss me.
“How have you been doing these last two months?” he asked when I didn’t respond.
I knew perfectly well that Josh had been reporting to Nik and Mikhail about my recovery.
“Fine,” I stated flatly. I knew I wasn’t doing a very good job of hiding my antagonism, but I couldn’t find the energy to care. I couldn’t seem to regain my old vampire vitality no matter how much blood I drank, and despite my recent snack, I felt drained.
“I wish you’d come out to the mansion. I know Jordan and Chloe want to see you.”
“Yeah… I should do that,” I agreed, trying to keep this from becoming a fight while not committing to anything.
“How ’bout tomorrow night?”
“Maybe. I’ll have to see. I just finished another book, and I’m sure my publisher is gonna want to talk about it… a lot.”
“Of course. Josh told me you were writing again. Using our experience for a plot?”
My stomach did another little acrobatic flip. Was he not okay with me using our story?
“Yeah. I hope that’s okay. Initially it was just to help me regain my memories. Josh helped a lot with the blank parts. But it turned out really good… and I think it could be a big turning point for me… as a writer. But only if you’re okay with it,” I added in an effort to get myself to stop babbling.
“Of course. It’s fine. How’s that going, by the way? The memory issue,” Nik asked as he opened the door to his very sleek Martin Vanquish.
I tried not to remember the first time I’d gotten into his fancy car. He typically saved it for special occasions, though he’d been driving it when he was first assigned to keep me alive. Thankfully, it hadn’t been destroyed like his Land Rover. This one, I was told, cost a lot more.
“Its fine,” I responded as he slid into his own seat.
He started the car and gently pressed down on the gas. His usual style of driving was “the faster the better,” but evidently he was not in a hurry. For once I wished he’d speed up. I glanced over in his direction. He looked uncomfortable and frustrated; I had no doubt my short answers were annoying him.
“Josh says there are a lot of things you still can’t remember.”
I began to grind my teeth together but stopped when I realized he would be able to hear it. Was there anything Josh hadn’t told him?
I shrugged. “I’ll get them back, eventually.”
“And if you don’t?”
“Life’ll go on. Not a lot I can do about it.”
He nodded slowly, taking in what I had said. I knew it sounded like I was depressed, but really I was just pragmatic. If I couldn’t regain those memories there wasn’t a darn thing I, or anyone else, could do about it. So why fret? I had bigger issues, like my self-control, to consider.
Josh and I had been working on it. He would wait until I was thirsty and drink a blood bag in front of me. These tests hadn’t always ended well. Josh had endured a few bruises and even more curse words from me, but I was doing a little better.
I glanced out the window; I focused on the tiny beads of moisture that appeared and condensed into a stream that flowed to the back of the car. Like any other December night, it was raining, though I thought I saw a few crunchy drops. Maybe it would snow tonight.
The silence dragged on, but I didn’t mind. It was better than talking with Nik. When we talked, we tended to fight. I heard Nik clear his throat, but I refused to look at him. I didn’t have the energy to fight, even with Nik. I didn’t want to talk, and really hoped he would take the hint.
As if on cue, Nik asked: “So, what are you going to call the book?”
“Not sure. Josh wants me to call it ‘Sucked In’, but I’m not sold on it.”
I felt, more than saw, Nik nod as we pulled to a stop next to the restaurant. The sign reading “The Viewer’s Lounge” glowed above the glass doors. It was a rather posh watering hole that I had never been able to afford. In fact, I still couldn’t. It was the front for the seethe and had clearly been closed down for the occasion. The doors were closed, with their glass panels covered in white silk so that we couldn’t see inside. The short walk from the street to the door was covered in red carpet and protected from the Western Washington elements by a white canvas tent. Winding up the poles of the tent were many tiny Christmas lights swathed in delicate tulle, making the light even softer.
Nik stopped at the entrance, being sure to come at it so that my door was at the curb. Two men with matching red vests jumped forward from a nondescript black tent hidden in the shadows. One raced to my door and helped me out, being sure to keep my dress from touching any puddles. I held my breath, knowing by his heartbeat that he was human. The other young man opened an umbrella and escorted Nik to the protective covering.
Nikolai smiled down at me as he slipped my gloved hand into his arm again and whispered in my ear, “You ready?”
“Why are there humans here?” I asked with what little breath I had left in my lungs.
“I’m right here. I won’t let you do anything naughty.”
I could hear a smile in his voice, even though I was still staring at the men standing by the front doors in cheap, off-the-rack tuxes. They were doing a good job of ignoring our private conversation, even though it clearly concerned them. I swallowed, trying to force the first trickle of desire from rearing its ugly head.
Nik nodded to them and one of them pressed a button on his ear piece. “She’s here,” he said in a business voice.
From inside the main room I heard the music stop and the voices go silent. I swallowed again, this time out of nervousness. I hadn’t realized exactly how central I was to this whole thing. Suddenly I felt like a debutante, and I wasn’t enjoying it. The two men waited for a short pause before swinging the large doors open.
If I hadn’t already been holding my breath, it would have caught in my chest. The scene before me was beyond anything I’d ever seen. Gorgeous, decadent—but in a really morbid sort of way.