When you’re dealing with demons, nothing is for free.
Believe me—I found that out the hard way. My name is Gwendolyn LaRoux and I’m a witch. Not a green-skinned cackling old hag with a hump on her nose and a skinny black cat kind of witch, though. I’m actually quite modern, thank you very much—a typical twenty-something just trying to make her way in the world.
Well, except for one minor detail—I’m still a virgin.
But lest you go thinking it’s because I’m a prude, let me set the record straight. Witches need to keep themselves intact until they find someone to form a love bond with. No love bond equals no sex. That’s because casual encounters and one night stands without love involved will half a witch’s power and greatly diminish her potency, which leaves her vulnerable to attacks by rivals and other supernatural creatures who might wish her harm.
This particular rule doesn’t apply to warlocks—male witches—though. It’s just those of us with girly parts that have to keep our legs crossed. Not fair, right? No, not a damn bit but that’s the way it is and, as my Grams keeps reminding me, I have to stay pure to stay powerful. Though she doesn’t say it, I know what else she’s thinking—stay pure to stay protected. She always worries about me so much and I can’t say I blame her. The women in our family aren’t known for being able to stay out of trouble.
Take my mom, for instance. She got on the wrong side of a fire demon back when my sister Keisha and I were just little girls. Grams always says she went too far toward the darkness and just couldn’t come back. Unfortunately, it ended up killing her, which left Grams to raise us.
After that, I promised Grams I would stay pure. Keisha did the same but unfortunately, she couldn’t resist a certain boy in high school who promised he would love her forever. She gave in and lost half her power along with her virginity—no surprise since he was a player who never really cared for her in the first place. It takes two to form a love bond and unfortunately, Keisha judged unwisely. After that her life just got worse until… well, I’d rather not say any more about her.
As for me, I’ve had my share of ups and downs—not that I would let my Grams know. Well, she does know I used my power to form a soul eater for a local vampire by the name of Corbin—but that was for a good cause. And he offered me his blood in payment, which I happened to need for a spell.
What Grams doesn’t know is that I called on a minor demon for help in forming the soul eater. I promised her I’d only use my powers for light and stay away from the darkness that ate my mother, but I had to make one little compromise—just one.
Unfortunately, that one little compromise came back to bite me in the ass. The demon I called goes by the name of Laish and ever since he helped me, he’s been all up in my business. It’s incredibly irritating—especially considering that he’s ridiculously good looking with coal black hair, a big, muscular body to die for and these weirdly attractive ruby-red eyes.
I’ve never dated outside my race before—to be honest, I’ve never dated much at all—but Laish would tempt me to give it a try. If he wasn’t a demon, that is.
I don’t know how Grams would feel about me dating a white guy but I do know how she’d feel about me dating a demon. Especially one so sinfully attractive he makes me feel hot and cold all over every time we’re in the same room together.
Laish has this deep, smoky voice and when he looks at me with those ruby eyes I feel like I’m naked. He’s always calling me annoying little French nicknames—mon chatte, and mon ange—which I’m sure is a dig at my Creole heritage. Naturally I don’t give him the time of day. Demons don’t have souls so you can’t bond with them—not that I would trust Laish to form a bond with me. He just wants to get under my skin and into my pants and take whatever he can get—that’s his demonic nature.
I shouldn’t even be telling you about him anyway. After my last little adventure where I rescued a vampire friend from the depths of the Abyss, Laish showed up after the fact and yelled at me. His point was that it’s strictly forbidden to snatch a soul from Heaven or Hell and dangerous to enter the Abyss, even in spirit form, which was what I had done. He further reminded me that if I’d left the door I opened into the afterlife’s darkest pit cracked, even the tiniest bit, there would literally be Hell to pay.
At that point I told him to leave me alone and never come back. I know my business. I know I closed that door.
I’m pretty sure, anyway.
To make a long story short, (I know, too late), I got rid of Laish forever. It’s now been several weeks since I gave him the heave-ho and he’s stopped popping up everywhere, asking if I need help and calling me by those irritating little French nicknames that drive me crazy.
I don’t miss him a bit—really. I’m just trying to get back to the business I’m best at—being a witch and helping my Grams run her magic supply business in Ybor City. At first I was a little worried but things have been quiet and calm. I can almost forget about the dabbling I did in dark magic and the fact that I went way past the line any witch who wants to keep her magic strictly white and good should have.
Well…except for the dreams.
I keep on dreaming of a thing made of shadows—a thing with no head. No head but somehow it still has sharp, crooked yellow teeth. And it’s hunting me—looking everywhere for me. Trying to track me down…
Sorry! There I go again, letting my imagination run away with me. After all, a few bad dreams are to be expected considering what I’ve been through lately. And anyway, it’s not like they’re a warning that something really evil is stalking me…
“So Victor’s excited to be a dad?” I asked, pouring myself another cup of wine and topping off Taylor’s sparkling water.
“He’s over the moon about it,” Addison said. “No pun intended,” she added dryly.
“Very funny.” Taylor elbowed her in the ribs good naturedly.
“I know—over the moon—get it?” Addison giggled.
Taylor was pregnant and it was her man, Victor—who happened to be a huge-ass cursed werewolf—we were talking about. Which explains Addison’s bad pun. Well, that and the bottle of white wine she’d had been chugging.
“Well tell me more—details, girl.” I made a “keep going” hand gesture with my wine glass, nearly spilling the contents all over my lap. “Whoops!”
“Whoops is right.” Addison giggled again. She had definitely had more than enough wine. Not that I minded, it had been entirely too long since I’d enjoyed myself this much.
I had invited my new friends Taylor and Addison over for a wine and pedicure party and somehow the time just flew. Of course, once the wine started flowing we sort of forgot about the pedicure part of it. I had managed to get at least one coat of cherry red paint on my toes but Addison’s were only half done and Taylor’s were pretty messy.
That was because Addison insisted that her pregnant best friend shouldn’t be breathing paint fumes (even if they were just fingernail polish paint) and offered to paint Taylor’s toes herself. However, this was about three glasses of wine into the evening and the effect looked like…well, like someone who’d had three full glasses of white wine had done the job. Not that Taylor seemed to mind—she was enjoying herself as much as Addison and I were, even if she was sticking strictly to non-alcoholic beverages.
For a vampire and a Vampire Auditor (I know—weird combination, right?) they were pretty fun girls. They had a few little inside jokes since they’d been friends since college but they never made me feel like an outsider. And we had plenty to gossip about, considering everything the three of us had been through in the past month. Right now, though, all anyone wanted to talk about was the baby.
“I swear Victor talks at least as much to my tummy as he talks to me,” Taylor told us, rubbing her belly and grinning.
“And why not? He’s got to get to know his daughter.” Addison patted her best friend’s tummy, which was already beginning to get a tiny bit rounder. “He’s gonna make a great dad, you know.”
“I know.” Taylor was absolutely glowing, her cheeks pink and healthy. You would never have guessed that she was a vampire to see her—not that she strictly was anymore. A combination of Victor’s blood and a well placed prophesy meant she was able to do things most vampires couldn’t, like go out in the sun, eat solid food…get pregnant. You know, that kind of thing. “He’s already building a crib,” she continued.
“What? He’s already putting together the crib? But I wanted to buy you that,” Addison exclaimed, filled with drunken indignity. “You haven’t even had your baby shower yet!”
“No, no—I don’t mean he’s putting it together from a kit,” Taylor said. “He’s actually building the crib from scratch. He went out and got the wood and sanded it down and stained it…” She shook her head, a fond light in her blue eyes. “It’s going to be gorgeous when it’s done.”
“Not half as gorgeous as the baby, I’ll bet.” I grinned at her. “If she looks like half you and half Victor, she’s going to be quite a little princess.”
Taylor laughed. “Victor says he hopes she looks just like me. But I can’t help wishing she’d get his eyes.”
“The kind that turn wolf gold during the full moon?” Addison asked.
I thought she might have gone too far but I didn’t say anything. And besides, it was something I’d been wondering too, even if I wasn’t quite drunk enough to say it. Would Taylor’s daughter take after her mother or her father? Or was the kid going to be half vampire and half werewolf—a kind of vamp-were hybrid?
Taylor looked grave. “I wouldn’t mind but Victor hopes not. He’s afraid if she comes out a were she might inherit his curse.”
“But if she comes out as a vampire, she won’t be able to go out during the day,” Addison pointed out. “That kind of puts a damper on your play-date prospects with other babies.”
“Maybe she won’t be either one,” I said thoughtfully. “I mean, really, both you and Victor have a human side—maybe she’ll just inherit that and be purely human.”
“Then she’ll just be the kid with the weird parents,” Addison said cheerfully and hiccupped.
Taylor made a face at her and took a sip of her sparkling water. “Look, just because you don’t want kids yourself…”
“And believe me, Corbin was plenty grateful I don’t,” Addison said. “He was all long-suffering and ready to be willing to adopt with me but I could tell how relieved he was when I told him I’d rather not have any.”
“Vampires live a long time and you’re tied to him,” I pointed out. “You might change your mind after a few hundred years.”
Addison shrugged, apparently unconcerned. “Maybe. Until then, I’ll be happy just to be the cool aunt.”
“Well, the main thing is that your baby is healthy,” I reminded Taylor. “And that was the first thing Grams said when she told you that you were pregnant.”
“And she’s always right about that kind of thing?” Taylor had an anxious look in her deep blue eyes.
“Always,” I reassured her. “She’s got one hundred percent accuracy when it comes to anything baby-related.” Which made it a shame that she didn’t have any grandkids to chase after. But since I had to be so careful not to get mixed up with the wrong man—meaning any man not willing to wait until I was absolutely sure of him to have sex—Gram’s house was sadly without the pitter-patter of little feet.
Hey, you try telling a guy he doesn’t get any nookie until you’re sure he wants to stay with you for life. It’s kind of a first date killer. Or a fifth or a fifteenth for that matter.
The creaking of the front door pulled me out of my gloomy thoughts and Grams walked into the room with her massive handbag over one arm.
“Gwendolyn, you didn’t tell me you were having company tonight,” she said.
“Oh, sorry! We didn’t mean to stay so late,” Addison said and she and Taylor jumped up.
Taylor came over to greet my Grams. “Your ears must be burning, we were just talking about you—you know, about the way you first told me I was pregnant and said my baby girl was healthy?” She looked at Grams beseechingly.
Grams smiled—she really had taken a shine to Taylor.
“Just need a little more reassurance, do you, child?”
“Well, it’s still too early for an ultrasound and I don’t know what they’re going to see when they do finally do one—” Taylor began.
“What they’re going to see is a healthy baby girl. Just like the one you dreamed about.” Grams pressed her fingers lightly to Taylor’s abdomen. “And don’t you worry about her taking after you or your man. She’s going to be her own special person with her own special talents. You’ll see.”
“Oh, thank you!” Taylor’s eyes were shining as she gave my Grams a spontaneous hug.
Grams laughed and hugged her back. “Just you be sure to bring her over for me to see her when she comes out,” she said. “I love children and I’ll be happy to say a blessing over her for you.”
“I will,” Taylor promised. She looked at Addison. “Well, we’d probably better get going. It’s late and Victor will be worried.”
“Not before we help clean up, though,” Addison said, gesturing to the two empty wine bottles (I’m ashamed to admit I killed an entire bottle myself), the sparkling water bottle, and all the pedicure paraphernalia lying around my Grams’ faded floral couch.
“Don’t be silly,” I told them. “I’ve got this.” I could tell Grams was tired and ready for bed but she can never rest completely easy when there are guests in the house. She always feels like she needs to be offering them a big glass of sweet tea or cooking them her special gumbo or something like that.
True to form, she opened her mouth and asked if either of the girls wanted anything before they left.
“I’ve had enough. More than enough.” Addison giggled and pointed to one of the empty wine bottles. “Corbin will probably get tipsy if he even takes a sip from me tonight.”
“Good thing you’ve got a designated driver, then,” Taylor said. She turned to my Grams. “I don’t want anything to drink but would it be possible to get one of those delicious homemade dill pickles of yours?”
“More than one,” Grams said smiling. She didn’t let Taylor leave until she’d packed her up with a whole bag of her homemade pickles. The mason jars she always uses for canning clinked together as she handed the bag over.
“Oh, thank you!” Taylor was ecstatic—she can’t get enough of my Grams’ pickles. They were one of the very first things she ate after the prophesy allowed her to start consuming human food again and ever since, she’s hooked.
I hugged both girls and we made promises to see each other again soon. But before they left, Taylor whispered in my ear,
“All clear so far?”
I knew what she meant. She’d overheard my last conversation with Laish. The one where he was yelling at me and warning me that if I hadn’t closed that door into the Abyss, I was going to have trouble. Taylor felt personally responsible because she was the one I’d gone to save. I’d broken all kinds of Celestial rules when I snatched her from the edge of the pit and supposedly, I was going to have to pay the price. But so far, other than the bad dreams about the thing with no head and long, yellow teeth, I was fine.
“All clear,” I told her, not mentioning the dreams. No point in freaking her out over something that was probably just a product of my own guilty conscience, right?
Taylor looked relieved. “Good. Let me know if that changes.”
“I will,” I promised although there was nothing she could do if it did change. “Now you two had better get going—it smells like it’s going to rain.” I glanced anxiously at the murky black sky revealed outside Grams’ trim front door. The scent of ozone was heavy in the humid night breeze, making me shiver.
“Not just rain—it’s about to be a monsoon.” Grams put a hand to her back. “My spine is aching like the devil’s using it for his own private xylophone. Arthritis never lies—it’s gonna go a gusher pretty soon.”
“We’d better go for real then.” Addison gave a little wave and Taylor pulled me in for one more quick hug.
“Be safe,” she whispered and then they hurried off into the damp Tampa night.
I went back inside and began cleaning up the remains of our little party. But as I was picking up the living room, I found a little scrap of something dried and black hidden under the couch. It was a tiny piece of demon’s breath—the black flower with a blood red spot in its center that only grows in the Shadow Lands—Hell’s front doorstep.
I sank down on the couch and contemplated the little scrap. Laish had given it to me the fateful night I had worked the spell to free Taylor from her blood bond with Victor. That had been a big misunderstanding and their bond was back now and stronger than ever. But it wasn’t their bond or the ceremony I had worked that I was thinking of. No, what I was thinking of was the way I had “paid” Laish for the sprig of demon’s breath he had given me.
Remember I said that nothing is for free when it comes to demons? Well, it’s not. Laish had demanded a kiss—one single kiss—that was all. It had seemed a simple enough payment at the time. I was sure it wouldn’t affect me. And yet somehow when he had taken my face gently but possessively between his hands and pressed his mouth to mine, I felt like I was melting and burning at the same time. My body started trembling, my heart was knocking against my ribs like it was looking for a way out, and my knees got so weak I could hardly stand.
All that from just one kiss.
The worst thing was, Laish knew how he was affecting me. I could see it in those damn bewitching ruby eyes of his—could read it in that self-satisfied, arrogant smirk he had on his face when he finally let me go. I had wanted to wipe that smirk off his face with my fist…and at the same time I had wanted in the worst way to grab him and kiss him again. Kiss him and more, so much more…
“It’s late, Gwendolyn. You going to turn in for the night?” Grams asked me.
I jumped guiltily and shoved the scrap of demon’s breath into my jeans pocket. “Yeah, Grams, in a minute,” I muttered.
Look at you, I lectured myself, getting off the couch to finish my cleaning. Getting all hot and bothered over a demon. A minor demon at that. He’s not worth it, Gwendolyn. Pretty to look at but he’s got no soul.
Which was true. You can’t form a love bond with a soulless demon—not that you’d want to in the first place. And not that I would ever see Laish again. I’d told him to stay away from me the last time I saw him and he’d finally taken the hint. I didn’t miss him a bit—so why couldn’t I stop thinking about him?
“Well, I’d better get these old bones to bed. Hope it’s not too damp in there,” I heard Grams murmur.
I knew what she meant at once—outside the rain was pouring down in a solid sheet of water. Which wouldn’t be a problem except Grams’ bedroom had a small leak in the far side of the ceiling. It’s not a huge leak—more of a drip, really, and we were going to get it fixed as soon as we had a little more money. But the extra dampness in the room made Grams’ arthritis so much worse she could hardly sleep in there on rainy nights.
“Let’s trade bedrooms for tonight,” I told her.
She shook her head. “Oh no, Gwendolyn, honey—I don’t want to kick you out of your own bed.”
“Don’t be silly.” I hugged her. “I don’t mind the damp and my room is snug and dry. You know you can’t sleep in that other room when it’s raining. I don’t know why you don’t just trade with me for good.”
Grams harrumphed. “I like my room. Been sleeping there since we bought this place. I hate to let a little weather kick me out.”
“Grams, you’re as stubborn as a mule.” I kissed her cheek affectionately. “Come on, let’s go to bed. You in my room and me in yours.”
“You’re a good girl, Gwendolyn.” She patted my cheek gently and looked into my eyes. “You really are.”
I had to suppress the urge to look away guiltily. If Grams knew what I had really been up to—dabbling in black magic, calling up demons from the pit, snatching souls from the very lip of the Abyss—she wouldn’t be so quick to say I was good. But I had managed to keep all that from her so far and I intended to continue to keep it a secret for as long as I could. Hopefully forever.
“Love you, Grams,” I told her. “Come on, let’s get some sleep.”
“Sounds good to me.” She sighed. “Let me just get my C-pap machine so I can sleep easy.”
“You mean your Darth Vader mask?” I made a face. The bulky contraption helped Grams with her sleep apnea but it certainly wasn’t the prettiest thing to look at. The noise it made and the way it fit over her face really reminded me of the Star Wars baddie.
“Very funny, young lady.” Grams shook a finger at me. “See if you can sleep without help when you get to be my age. Then we’ll talk.”
“Yeah, yeah…” I waved off her mock severity. “Okay, get your machine and I’ll see you in the morning.”
She headed off to get it, still harrumphing, and I went to my own room to get a t-shirt to wear to bed. Some nights I preferred PJs but it had been really hot in Tampa lately and our little AC unit could only do so much. So I would be sleeping light tonight.
I just hoped I would be sleeping sound as well. If I had another one of those freaky dreams… I shuttered and pushed the thought away. I’m going to be fine and get a good night’s sleep, I told myself.
I had never been more wrong in my life.
A creaking sound woke me up in the middle of the night.
I sat bolt upright in the blackness, my eyes wide open, my heart pounding. I’d been having the dream again—about the headless thing coming to get me. If I closed my eyes I could still see those gaping jaws and the long yellow teeth, hungry for my flesh.
Or no, not my flesh—my soul—I suddenly realized. For the thing in my dream, the physical part of me—my body—would be nothing but an appetizer. It was the immortal part the headless thing was after and it would stop at nothing to get it.
Stop this foolishness, I lectured myself uneasily. It’s just a dream and that creaking sound was probably just the house settling.
It was a plausible enough explanation. Grams’ little bungalow had been built back in the nineteen twenties. It had been modernized with central heat and air because you can’t live in Tampa without AC—not unless you don’t mind dying of heat stroke—but it was still old and old houses make noises. Besides, I reminded myself uneasily, Grams had white magic wards all around the house, protecting every door and window. Even if the creaking sound was something awful coming for me, it would never be able to pass through her charms to get at me.
The thought calmed my nerves somewhat and I was just settling back in the bed and pulling the covers up to my chin when I heard the creaking again. This time it was coming from right underneath the bed.
I gasped and sat up again. Something’s not right. What’s going on? Wards around the house or no wards, my heart was suddenly pounding and I wanted to run. I was sleeping in just my t-shirt and panties and I was just about to swing my bare legs over the side of the bed and make a dash for it when I had a horrible mental image. What if the thing with no head grabbed me by the ankles and yanked me under the bed?
I pulled my legs back up abruptly, feeling sick with fear. What was happening? Every sense I had—both physical and supernatural—was on high alert. This creaking wasn’t simply the house settling—I was under attack. But who—?
Before I could finish the question, there was another creak—a horribly loud one this time—and the entire bed shifted.
That was it. I was getting up out of there. I stood up on the bed, intending to take a flying leap for the door of the bedroom. But just as I was poised to jump, there was a fourth creak that was more like a roar. The bed shook violently and suddenly I found myself falling. Or rather, the entire bed was falling.
I didn’t understand what had happened at first. All I knew was that I was suddenly flat on my back and the room had just gotten a whole lot darker.
I scrambled to my feet and stood on my tiptoes, trying to see what had happened. From the faint light coming from behind the window shade, I could tell that everything had shifted. For some reason, the floor was now at eye-level. I could see Grams’ furry house shoes, which I had bought her last Christmas to keep her feet warm, right in front of me. They had been by the side of the bed earlier but now I would have to reach up to grab one.
I brushed against a wall which hadn’t been there before and the smell of fresh dirt hit my nose. A clod of soil broke off and fell onto the clean white sheets, scattering filth all over.
My first thought was that Grams would have my hide—she’s very big on cleanliness, especially when it comes to not sleeping in a dirty bed. The second thought was, how in the hell had a dirt wall suddenly grown up between me and the bedroom around me. And why had everything shifted?
“Grams?” I shouted without much hope. “Grams, can you hear me?” The crash the bed had made would have woken anyone else but that damn C-pap machine she wore at night made so much noise it drowned out everything else. She often said the second coming could happen and she wouldn’t notice it over the sound it made.
I called again but I wasn’t surprised when she didn’t appear. I would have to get myself out of this mess.
The moon must have come out from behind a cloud outside because suddenly the light in the room got brighter. I looked around and finally understood. Grams’ big four poster bed with its homemade quilts and too-soft pillows had somehow sunk down through the solid oak flooring. It was like a sink hole had opened just beneath it which probably explained the wood creaking just before it happened.
Just then I felt the bed shifting under me again. I screamed and grabbed desperately for the lip of the hole I was in. Then the bed disappeared entirely, sucked away down into the ever deepening hole. I was left hanging there by my hands with my feet swinging down into the darkness.