“So what are you wearing to the Glen tonight?” Lexy sounds thrilled, as though she can’t wait to offer herself up as a sex slave . Or maybe she’s excited about offering me. Since I’m finally twice eleven, (twenty-two in regular, non-witchy language,) I am finally eligible to be chosen as the Sacrifice. Not that the Sovereign would pick me, but still, it’s a coming of age rite.
“I don’t know…” I sigh and lean against the counter displaying some of our most potent magical herbs. The dry, fragrant scent of them fills the air around us, so much that sometimes I think I smell it in my sleep. This shop, The Witch’s Brew, has been in our family for generations and I’m the general manager. Not because I want to be but because I really don’t have much of a choice.
“Come on, Emma—you must have something picked out. You’re twice eleven now.” Lexy swishes her long auburn hair over one shoulder, still sounding excited.
“I don’t see why I have to come at all, let alone get all dressed up,” I grumble. “It’s not like I’ll ever get chosen.” Not that I want to be chosen, of course—no one does. Being the Bloodlust Sacrifice for the Sovereign of the Tampa Bay supernatural community is considered a deep honor—but it’s also a hassle and a pain in the neck. And I do mean that literally—the Sovereign is a vampire.
“You don’t know that—you might be chosen.” But Lexy sounds doubtful. “I mean, you’re a member of an ancient family with a powerful magical lineage,” she continues, obviously trying to be upbeat. “Your mom was the head of the coven until—”
“Please, don’t.” I hold up a hand to stop her.
“Sorry.” Lexy looks contrite. She knows I don’t like discussing my mother. She died in a house fire when I was only eight but the memories are painful and I still miss her every day. “Anyway,” Lexy goes on, “I’m just trying to say you do have a chance.”
“Right,” I snort disdainfully. “Lexy, I have no chance—I’m a dud.”
Lexy puts one perfectly manicured hand on her slender hip. “Don’t call yourself that, Emma!”
“Why not? It’s the truth.” A ‘dud’ is a person from a magical family with no magic of their own. That description fits me to a T. After my mother’s untimely death, I went to live with my aunt and cousins, of which Lexy is my favorite. We were all about the same age and as we grew, my cousins all began to exhibit signs of magical skill. Me, I exhibited nothing. Nada. Zip. Zero. Zilch. Then when puberty hit us all, one by one, their powers grew. The onset of menarche is a powerful time for a witch. A time when her hair and eyes take their true and lasting shade and she comes into her own magically and physically.
All of my cousins came through puberty beautifully. Lexy, Trissa, and Delilah each have flaming red hair and brilliant green eyes. They’re all tall and slender and gorgeous—every supernatural creature with a penis within a hundred mile radius is attracted to their beauty and magic. A fact that Lexy and her sisters take full advantage of. In fact, Delilah, the most delectable of the three, even specializes in sex magic. Making love with a lot of different men isn’t looked down upon in the witch’s matrilineal society—it’s more like a status symbol. Lexy and Trissa are a bit more sedate but not much—they always have a date or three lined up for Friday night.
And then there’s me.
Puberty was not kind to Emma Krist. It didn’t seem to matter how ancient my lineage or how powerful my mother was, the whole legacy just passed me by. All I have to show for my passage to womanhood is mousy brown hair, muddy hazel eyes, and debilitating menstrual cramps every time my period rolls around. Not to mention that I never got the tall, slender figures my cousins inherited. Instead, I’m short and curvy—way too curvy, unfortunately, with big boobs and even bigger hips. Add that to my lack of magic and the males of the supernatural community aren’t exactly beating down my door. Or any other males either, for that matter.
“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” Lexy says, frowning. “You’re beautiful, Emma, and you’ll come into your power eventually. I know you will.”
“Yeah, right,” I mumble. “And until then, I’ll just keep minding the shop while the rest of you actually practice the craft.”
“You don’t have to stay here, you know,” she points out. “You could get a job in the human world if you wanted to.”
I’m planning on doing just that, actually. I’m getting a degree in Herbology and Botany, taking classes at night whenever I can. But I’ve still got a few years to go before I graduate so, in the meantime, the family shop is my best option. Besides, somebody has to run it and it would be a waste to have a real witch tending the shop when she could be out practicing the craft.
“I’ll be fine,” I say, wanting to change the subject. “Anyway, what are you wearing?”
“A sexy sheer little something I picked up at the last festival.” Lexy gives me a coquettish smile. “Guaranteed to get Alex’s attention and keep it.” Alex is the alpha wolf she’s been flirting with for the past few months. She’ll probably get him during the Sacrifice Ceremony but knowing Lexy, once she has what she wants, she’ll lose interest and move on to the next interesting male. “So what are you wearing?” Lexy demands, returning to her original question. “Something sexy, I hope.”
Actually, I plan on wearing a nice long black skirt and a long sleeved silk shirt to go with it. Not very sexy and not very cool, considering the Florida heat, but black is slenderizing and the long skirt and sleeves will cover a multitude of sins. I can’t tell Lexy that, of course—she’ll have a fit. So I just shrug vaguely. “I’ve got something picked out at home—it’s no big deal.”
“Of course it’s a big deal—it’s your twice eleven!”
“I don’t know why you’re so excited,” I grouse. “It’s bound to be the same as always. The Sovereign will chose one of the fairy girls because they’re the prettiest and sexiest and their blood is the most potent. Then everyone else will pair off and the whole thing will become one long orgy.”
“Will you listen to yourself?” Lexy shakes her head in exasperation. “I’m telling you, it’s going to be different this year. Don’t forget, there’s a new Sovereign ascending.”
“So?” I shrug. “He’s still going to be a vampire. What’s the difference?”
“The difference is that he’s younger—only a little over a hundred, and you know that’s not very old where vamps are concerned. Plus, everyone is saying he’s into some pretty kinky stuff.”
I raise my eyebrows. “Kinky how?”
“You know,” Lexy says mysteriously. “Whips and chains and bondage. Apparently he has unusual ways of taking blood and power. And he fucks like a bull.” She sighs. “I wouldn’t really want to be chosen but if I was…”
“If you were, you’d be stuck being some vamp’s sex toy for an entire year,” I point out acidly. “Not to mention his personal blood bank. Ugh.”
“It’s not so bad being bitten—if the vamp does it right.” Lexy frowns at me. “Don’t tell me you’ve never done a vamp before.”
I shake my head. “Nope, sorry. Not interested.” Actually, my closely guarded secret is that I’ve never ‘done’ anyone before. I’m a virgin—a big no-no for a witch, who is supposed to use sex to augment her power. But since I don’t have any power to augment in the first place, it’s really not a big deal. Well, except to my ego but what can I do? As I said before, the guys aren’t exactly knocking down my front door. And though I could probably hook up with a human guy for a one night stand, I don’t want to lose it like that. Somehow I can’t take sex as casually as Lexy and my other cousins—I want it to mean something. Which is stupid, I know, but I can’t help the way I feel.
“Well maybe tonight is your night,” Lexy says, interrupting my inner pity party. “I happen to know of a really hot vamp who says he likes your type.”
I narrow my eyes at her. “Are you trying to set me up again?”
“Well, somebody’s got to,” Lexy huffs. “It’s for your own good, Emma. A witch needs company, you know.” Which is a nice way of saying she needs regular screwing.
“No thanks. Not this witch.” I shake my head firmly. The last time I let Lexy send me on a blind date, the guy she picked up turned out to be a horny werewolf on a full moon night. I barely escaped with my virginity and my panties intact.
“Emma,” she begins but I override her.
“I’m only going tonight because I have to go,” I tell her. “If I wasn’t required by supernatural law to be there, I’d skip it and stay home to watch a Gilmore Girls marathon.”
“Oh, you…” Lexy throws up her hands. “Sometimes I don’t know what to do with you, Emma.”
“Just love me,” I said, giving her a winning smile. “And let me live my life the way I want to.”
“Never,” she declares. “If I did that, you’d go on being frumpy and lonely forever. I’m determined to transform you.”
“And just how do you plan to do that?” I put a hand on my hip.
“You’ll see,” Lexy trills. “I’ll be at your apartment around six thirty to pick you up.”
“But the ceremony doesn’t start until eight,” I point out.
“So? We’ll hang out. We haven’t had any good cousin time in ages.”
“Just hanging out? That’s all you’re planning?” I’m very suspicious of this—Lexy always has an ulterior motive.
Lexy gives me a wide-eyed glance that’s just a little too innocent. “Of course. And also—”
But whatever else she was going to say is interrupted when the string of chimes hung over the door tinkle a musical warning. Someone is coming into the shop. A customer—time to be professional.
“I’ll see you tonight,” I tell Lexy.
“See you tonight.” She blows me a kiss and heads toward the door.
As Lexy is leaving, the customer is coming in. They brush shoulders and Lexy stops to lift her eyebrows suggestively at me behind his back. I make a quick shooing motion and point to the door. Now isn’t the time to flirt. She giggles and leaves, the chimes tinkling a second time as she flits gracefully through the door.
I put on my best ‘I’m a professional witch’ face and look up at the customer…and up and up. He’s tall—at least six foot five, which makes my own rather diminutive five four seem even shorter. He’s also handsome—all chiseled features, dark hair and broad shoulders. He’s even got one of those little clefts in his chin and some sexy stubble to go with it. No wonder Lexy was making eyes at me behind his back. On his right hand he wears a heavy gold ring with a strangely carved black stone. Onyx, maybe? I’m not sure. But I do know there’s something about him—a muted power I can feel thrumming in the air around him. I’m sure he’s a supernatural being but I can’t place what kind, exactly.
I get a chance to study him because he’s perusing a handwritten list, staring at it fiercely as though he’d like to burn a hole in it with his eyes.
“Yes, sir?” I say at last, when he continues to just stand there, looking at the list. “Can I help you?”
“I certainly hope so,” he snaps. “That is why I came here.” He’s wearing an expensive charcoal suit with a crisp white shirt and a solid red silk tie that looks like it cost more than my car. When he looks up, his eyes are cool gray, reminding me of a winter twilight.
Rich asshole, I think, but don’t say. “All right then,” I murmur smoothly. “If you’ll just tell me what kind of spell you’re trying to work—”
“These are the herbs I need,” he interrupts me, going back to the list. “Mugwort, serpentavia root, yarrow, rosemary—”
“Wait a minute.” I hold up a hand to stop him. “Do you need them fresh or dried?”
“How should I know?” he snaps. “You’re the expert—you tell me.”
I take a deep breath, reminding myself to be professional. “It depends on what kind of spell you’re casting or what kind of potion you’re making?” I end the sentence as a question, raising my eyebrows at him, hoping he’ll fill me in.
“It’s a potion,” he says reluctantly. “I really can’t say any more than that. Look, just give them to me dried.”
“All right.” If he wants to be an asshole, I don’t care how his potion works out. I come out from behind the counter and start hustling around the store, grabbing the herbs he named. We keep most of our merchandise up front on the various shelves which means technically he could get them himself. But it’s clear Mr. Tall, Dark, and High-handed is used to being waited on so I take it upon myself to get what he’s demanding.
When I turn around, I see him watching me closely. For some reason, I feel my cheeks get hot. I’m wearing jeans and a modest crew neck T-shirt but somehow it feels like those cool gray eyes can see right through my clothes. Don’t be stupid, I tell myself uneasily. As if someone like him would look at someone like you. “Um, is there anything else?” I ask, trying not to let him see that his eyes on me disturb me.
“Hmm?” He looks at me speculatively. “Oh, yes—I also need adder’s tongue, cinnamon, cedar—”
“Hang on.” I go and get the things he’s naming, collecting them easily—all except the adder’s tongue. We don’t get much call for that one and it’s stored on the highest shelf in the store. Feeling self-conscious, I stretch up on my tiptoes, trying to reach it. I can brush the red tin it’s stored in with my fingertips but I can’t quite—
All at once I realize he’s right behind me. “Allow me,” he murmurs. I can feel the heat of his big body along my spine as he reaches over my head and easily plucks the red tin of adder’s tongue from the top shelf. He isn’t actually touching me, but he’s not far from it, either.
I turn quickly to find my face just inches from his broad chest. When I look up, I’m confronted with those cool gray eyes again. He’s studying me as though I’m some kind of a bug he wants to know more about. I can feel his power, throbbing like a beating heart between us. Whatever he is, he’s one dominant son of a bitch, that’s for damn sure.
“Oh!” I try to take a step back but the shelf is in the way. I only succeed in making the various jars and tins of dried and fresh herbs jangle against each other.
“I’m sorry,” he murmurs, but he makes no move to back up and give me more space. “I didn’t mean to frighten you—I was only trying to help.”
“You didn’t frighten me,” I lie, lifting my chin. He might be a hot, powerful supernatural whatever he is (I still don’t know his species) but I’ll be damned if I let him intimidate me in my own shop. For a moment we lock eyes. Mine widen and his narrow—it’s strangely intimate and also disconcerting. Who is he?
Finally, I manage to look away and sidle farther from him, putting some space between us.
“What else do you want?” My words come out sounding rude—almost belligerent—but being this close to a male, especially such a large, dominant alpha male, isn’t something I’m used to.
He clears his throat and consults the list again. “Cedar, ginseng, and rue. And that should do it.”
I shake my head. “No, not that last one. You don’t want rue.”
“Excuse me?” He gives me a displeased frown. “You don’t even know what kind of potion I’m concocting.”
“Yes, I do,” I say, feeling calmer now that I’m out of his general proximity. I go back behind the counter, cementing my authority here as the witch in charge. “You’re making a divination serum,” I tell him. “Probably to help you find your true love.”
“What?” For the first time he looks genuinely angry. Not just pissed or snappish but really irate. “Who told you that?” he demands, striding toward me. He has long legs so it only takes two steps to put him right in my face. I’m glad we have the counter between us, not that he couldn’t just step over it, as tall as he is.
“No one told me,” I snap right back. “It’s obvious. Look—you’ve got mugwort, that’s good for clairvoyance. Serpentavia root and adder’s tongue for divination. Rosemary and cedar for purification and love. Cinnamon for lust and ginseng for, uh, sexual potency.” I clear my throat, feeling my cheeks get red at the intent way he is studying me.
“And?” he demands.
“And so you don’t want rue,” I say, nodding to the shelf where the herb is kept. “Rue is for exorcisms and hexes. Adding it to a true love divination serum would ruin the whole thing. I mean, you want to find the girl…or guy, right?” (Hey, what do I know about his sexual orientation? I can’t even tell what kind of supe he is.)
His face darkens. “It’s a female I am searching for, I can assure you of that.”
“Okay, sorry.” I hold up my hands in a ‘don’t shoot’ gesture. “But anyway, you want to find her and bind her to you, not hex her. Rue would ruin a perfectly good serum.”
“And you’re sure of this, how?” He leans over me, looking into my eyes, obviously trying to intimidate me.
I look right back and frown at him. “Besides getting a degree in herbology and horticulture? An entire lifetime spent in this shop, learning the properties of every known herb at my mother and aunt’s knee? Believe me Mr…”
“James,” he says, drawing back marginally. “Aiden James.”
“Believe me, Mr. James,” I said, ignoring his offered hand. “If a witch of my lineage tells you not to put rue in your love potion, you’d better pay attention.”
“It’s not a love potion,” he says, frowning at me. “None of this is about love. I just need to find the right one.”
“The right one for what?” I demand.
“None of your business, nosey little witch.” He glares at me frostily. “You don’t need to know.”
That’s technically true but I don’t like being insulted in my own store. Well, my family’s store but it feels like mine since I run it. “That’s it.” I point to the door. “You can leave now if you want to be rude.”
“Is that so?” He leans forward again and bares white, even teeth. To my surprise, I see two long, curving fangs where a normal male’s canine teeth would be. Holy crap—he’s a vampire! I’m stunned and more than a little afraid—I’ve never seen one who could hide it so well. He’s scary as shit but still, I endeavor to hold my ground.
“Yes,” I say, hoping my voice isn’t shaking too much. “That’s so.”
“Are you threatening to kick me out of your store?” he demands.
“If I have to.” I may not be a powerful vampire or even a practicing witch but we do have some pretty effective ‘leave me alone’ type spells already made up in aerosol cans like magical mace. They come in handy for a lot of witches who, as I said before, like to sleep around. Sometimes a guy gets clingy and you need an out. Of course, I have no idea if they would work on a vamp but it looks like I’m about to find out. Slowly, surreptitiously, I reach under the counter for an aerosol can full of the distilled warding spell.
Aiden James still looks furious. “You should learn to treat your customers with more respect,” he growls in a soft, menacing voice. “Were you mine, you’d be severely punished for such a display.”
“Well I’m not yours,” I point out, my hand tightening on the smooth cylinder of magical mace.
“A great pity,” he snaps. “There’s nothing I’d enjoy more than teaching you a lesson, little witch. You’re badly in need of some discipline.”
I can’t believe him. What kind of caveman is he, anyway?
“Right,” I say. “Well, I’m afraid you’ll just have to forgo that particular pleasure. And I’ll treat you with more respect when you start treating me with more respect. This is my place of business—don’t come in here and insult my intelligence.” I may not like running this stupid shop but I know my stuff cold and I’ll be damned if I let him say otherwise.
To my surprise, Aiden James suddenly stops looking scary and vampiric and nods a little stiffly. He takes a deep breath and his next words genuinely surprise me. “Very well, I will admit that it was rude of me to disparage your knowledge.”
“Thank you,” I say, nodding.
“I can see you know what you’re talking about. You’ve saved me from a very costly error, Ms…”
“Emma,” I say grudgingly. “Emma Krist.” I wonder how he can be out in the daylight. The gold and onyx ring on his right hand catches my eye again, must be magic—heavy duty magic too, to pull off something like this. A vampire with access to high-level sorcery—great. My little bottle of magical mace would probably bother him as much as a gnat bothers an elephant. Slowly I release my grip on it and place both hands on the counter.
“Very well, Ms. Krist, you’ve earned my respect.” He looks at me speculatively. “And my interest. Forgive me for being rude, I’m very preoccupied just now.” He puts out his hand in a conciliatory gesture. “We are well met on this Sacrifice Eve.”
I don’t really want to shake his hand but I don’t see that I have much choice. Reluctantly, I hold out my own hand. “Well met, indeed,” I say, giving the ritual response. Or that’s what I start to say as his hand closes over mine.
But as the vampire’s much larger hand engulfs my own, I feel a strange tingle that runs down my arm and gives me a most uncomfortable jolt. My heart starts to hammer and I jerk my hand away from him. What the hell…?
Aiden James must have felt it as well because he looks from his hand to my face and back again, as if trying to figure out what just happened. Well if he finds out, I wish he’d let me know. I’ve never felt such power from anyone before, not even my Aunt Cassandra and she’s a senior witch and the mistress of our coven.
The vampire studies me, his gray eyes narrowed. “You know,” he says at last. “I think I’ve changed my mind.”
“About…about what?” I ask, wishing my voice didn’t sound quite so breathless.
“About this…all this.” He waves one hand negligently at the packets of dried herbs strewn over the countertop. “I don’t think I need to make this potion after all.”
“You don’t?” I look at him uncertainly. He was so intent on his list, so insistent about the ingredients. What changed his mind?
“No.” He shakes his head, then cocks an eyebrow at me. “I assume I’ll see you at the Sacrifice Ceremony tonight?”
“Of…of course,” I stutter, feeling stupid. My hand is still tingling from his touch—along with other parts of my body. What happened? Who is he really? Then I realize what he’s asking. “Not that…I mean, I won’t probably be around afterward,” I say quickly, feeling my cheeks heat up. “For the uh, celebration. The after party, whatever you want to call it.”
“The orgy,” he says, and there is a spark of heat far back in his gray eyes that makes me tingle all over again. “You don’t intend to participate?”
“Uh, no. Not at all.” I shake my head firmly. “I don’t…I’m not…not like most witches. Besides, I have to be back here early tomorrow.” I pat the counter, indicating my place behind it.
James looks at me speculatively. “I see.”
“So I might see you there but I won’t…I can’t…”
“I understand.” He nods, cutting me off.
Suddenly I feel stupid. It’s not like he was propositioning me. Someone who looks like him? Please—he can have anyone he wants and I’m sure once he catches sight of my lovely cousins I’ll be the last witch on his mind.
I clear my throat and try to get back to business. “Uh, so anyway. Are you sure you don’t need the herbs?”
“Quite sure.” He gives me one last long look from those cool gray eyes and nods. “Good day, Emma. I’ll see you soon.”
I seriously doubt it, I think as he heads out the door, empty-handed. As I put back the herbs, I wonder again who he really is and what happened when we touched. But it seems my questions are destined to go unanswered. I’m sure if I see him at all after the Sacrifice celebration, he’ll be partying with some slender fairy chick or chatting up some other pretty witch or were. As for the girl he was searching for, he won’t have to look hard to find one to suit him.
I sigh softly and look at my watch. Almost time to close up anyway. I put the shop in order and try to get him out of my mind. But somehow he lingers there, Mr. Aiden James with his sharp teeth and even sharper eyes.
Why can’t I stop thinking of him?