Raising a child should come with instructions.
Raising a half-breed vampire should come with a warning sign.
Thrown into the deep waters of parenting, the twin shifters Mira and Xander are tasked to raise and train a half-breed vampire. The siblings have paused their love lives, moved to a new town and attempted to set their differences aside for their new and unique family.
But when you’re fighting on opposite sides and don’t know it, those differences cannot be ignored. Balancing a new life as humans with their past lives as shifters proves more challenging than they expected.
The cherry on top is their teenage half-breed niece, who’s in search for her own identity. Will Mira and Xander finally find happiness or will darker forces return for another round?
In search of her identity, Violet has always known that she’s unique.Faster than wind, stronger than an army and wiser than anyone she’s met in her home town of Pinedale, her life is about to take a turn.
She’s wanted to explore beyond the spell-protected town for years and now she has a reason.
His name is Gabriel Jones and he’s the only other half-breed vampire in the world. He’s about to take Violet on an adventure and show her the other side of the world. He’s about to change her fragile heart into an unbreakable force that will challenge the wickedest of witches, until death touches them both.
After all, there’s nothing good about being bad.
Note: Morphed is the second book in the Two Halves Series and should be read after Marked, book 1. This novel is suitable for mature audience only.
Prologue - Ekim
It smells like burgundy and tastes like iron.
I can’t live with it and I can’t live without it.
My daughter’s tiny red palm prints had almost dried on Violette’s cheeks and chest, but I couldn’t pull away from my dead wife’s body.
“I can’t leave you.” I waited for an answer, but she remained silent. It was silly to hope that a corpse would reply. Although I would never hear her again, I’d remember her sweet voice forever. As of today, the only mark left of her on this planet was our newborn girl lying between us.
“I’m so sorry, Violette.” I smoothed my hand over my wife’s forehead. Still and warm, she was empty; her soul had drifted away minutes earlier. In the comfort of her mother’s embrace, our baby continued suckling on her breast. It wouldn’t be long before the milk ran out and the suck-swallow pattern stopped. The smell of death and blood had already sent out its signal to the seekers, and I had little time left to cover our tracks.
I stood up without moving the babe and her mother. Instinct led me to dig a grave in which I quickly laid Violette’s body. The swoosh of soil hitting her flesh echoed in my ears. As each grain and pebble fell on top of her corpse, the sound assaulted my eardrums in a pattern I could only compare to a round of ammunition. My motions were automated, and grief would have to wait until I’d found a safer place to rest.
The attack had come without warning. We’d hoped we had more time to find shelter, at least until after our children were born, but as we traveled south, the seekers cut off our path, and we never reached the safe house. While we were always prepared for them to strike, we hadn’t been ready for a month-long hunt. Our journey back north to a powerful witch’s home was our last hope.
We’d run for days and crossed thousands of miles. Along with my best friend and his pregnant wife, we’d planned every road we’d run, every river we’d cross, and every mountain we’d climb. But we hadn’t planned for our wives’ labor to start early. It must have been the unusual exertion. As their pain spiked, the only rest they had was after we’d split halfway, deterring seeker efforts to capture us.
I lowered my gaze to the body covered in blood. A single orchid we’d carried from the Amazon rested on her chest. I picked up a handful of soil and scattered the earth on top of her body before covering the grave where she’d rest.
Burial wasn’t my thing, but it had been Violette’s, and now with this little one, I had a duty to teach her both the human and vampire ways. I crouched and wrapped the baby in her mother’s scarf, the one she’d used as a sling. The infant nestled against my chest. The beating of her tiny human heart was strong.
A rustle in the bushes to my left startled me. I inhaled the creatures’ marking scent and took off. There was no time to decide whether they were friends or foes. My legs ached, but I wouldn’t stop until I reached our destination, which according to the map wasn’t far. I wouldn’t make the same mistake I had made last night. If we hadn’t stopped to rest, perhaps Violette would still be alive.
The creatures remained on my tail but made no effort to get ahead or attack. Their scents mixed as they ran alongside my path: a wolf, a panther, and a cougar. As I hadn’t seen or heard of a shifter in years, I held my baby closer to my chest.
Three miles to go.
Two more bears and three coyotes joined the pack behind me. A falcon circled overhead. I felt my fangs sprout and changed my run to a sprint. Still keeping the babe close to my chest and out of harm’s way, I sped. Branches slapped against my arms. I ducked under the lower foliage and jumped over fallen pines. Friction from the wind burned my face, but I didn’t rest until I reached the hill. The bump in the forest clearing was barely large enough to be any kind of a home, and now that I was here, I wasn’t certain what to do.
I whipped my body around to face the oncoming train of animals. Calculating my next move, I backed against the hill’s front wall. I could hold my ground against wildlife – in fact, my mouth watered thinking about the warm blood pumping through their veins – but shifters were a whole different game.
They leapt out of the bushes without a sound. The female and male appeared human, but the odor of wet fur, skin, and feathers confused and intrigued my senses. They were wearing hand-sewn clothes made of soft white birch bark. That alone should have been a red flag, yet I didn’t feel the need to run away.
I’d lived most of my life by instinct. There was no better alarm than a gut, and despite this weird dress code, my gut told me not to make a hasty decision I would later regret. Trusting my gut was a rule, and in a world filled with foes, an opportunity to befriend a shifter was worth more than blood.
“Who are you and why are you here?” the male asked. He then looked up and blinked in a pattern at the falcon above. The bird flapped its wings twice and disappeared.
I lowered my shoulders, softened my eyes, and let my fangs retreat. My other rule was to avoid unnecessary battles, and his gesture of good faith warranted a matching response. Besides, if these two wanted to attack, they would have done so already.
“I’m looking for Hanna,” I replied.
They glanced at each other with a sibling-like understanding. The animals retreated into the darkening forest, and the female walked forward until she was standing a foot away from me and pressed her hand against a tree trunk behind my left shoulder. The desire to defend the babe in my arms was strong, but my gut kept me still.
The grinding of stone against stone sounded behind me as a camouflaged door slid to the side. The scent of rosemary and mint flourished from within, and a woman with a black braid slung over her shoulder stepped out.
“Hello, Ekim. I’ve been waiting for you.” She turned around after her greeting and gestured for me to follow her inside. Holding my baby against my chest, I hesitated and glanced back at the creatures.
“She’ll be safe now, Ekim. That’s why you’re here, isn’t it?” The woman reassured me with a smile and nodded to the bundle in my arms. I looked down at the sleeping baby, sated from her mother’s first and last feed.
“Yes. Her mother’s dead,” I said, half to myself, half to her. “Seekers have been on our tail for days.”
“You don’t have to worry about the seekers anymore.” The sturdy male entered inside the hill.
“Let me see her.” The female pushed past the branches in her way, and I braced my free arm in front of me.
“Stay back.” My fangs shot out again.
But she didn’t listen. Instead, she reached for my daughter and gently swept her into her arms, cradling her. I let her; or should I say, my instinct let her, because there wasn’t a thread in my body that wanted to part with my child. Yet I had. I hurried and followed the shifters inside the hill just before the door closed behind us. A fresh smell of pepper and basil joined the herbal aroma. The dwelling was larger than I’d expected.
“The outside’s an illusion,” Hanna explained. Her gentle voice did not match her size. Despite the weight she was carrying, she moved across the room with grace, her long skirt brushing the wooden floor as if she were dancing.
The air was warmer here than above ground, and the dimmer light cast cozy shadows. A small fireplace crackled on the back wall. Steam hovered over a simmering pot hanging above the low flames. Hannah brought out a tea mug made of wood and gestured for me to sit. Beneath her long sleeve, I glimpsed a mark of three wavy lines on her wrist. She made herself comfortable on a stool by the fireplace and threw a log into the pit. With a pop, the settling fire spat out two embers onto the floor. She picked them up with her hand and unscathed, tossed the hot stones back into the glowing flames.
“Drink,” she said.
The sweet scent of the heating mixture fused around my nostrils. “Where did you get that?”
“The orchid tea is a must if we’re going to care for your daughter, isn’t it?”
“We’re going to do what?” The male frowned.
“Stand down, Xander. Look how cute she is.” The female who’d taken my daughter couldn’t keep her eyes off the baby.
“Mira, pups are cute. And they don’t need diaper changes.”
Mira ignored him and glanced back at me, asking, “What’s her name?”
“She doesn’t have a name.”
“Well, that isn’t right, is it? How about we call you Purple? It’s my favorite color.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me. The last thing I need when I look at this baby over the next few decades is to be thinking about your lover-boy. What kind of a name is Purple?”
“Wait a minute. Just hold on a second. What’s going on here? What are you both talking about?” I wanted to stand up, but Hanna’s stern gaze kept me in my seat.
“Relax, Ekim, and let me explain.” Hanna leaned forward and rested her elbows on her knees, sighing deeply. “If we’re going to give this little girl as normal a life as we possibly can before her entire world is flipped upside-down, we’re going to need your help.”
“My help?” I asked.
“Can you outrun seekers on your own?”
“Can you mislead them? Keep your little one’s whereabouts a secret for a couple of days? Visit your best friends and their baby boy in Montana?”
“Atram and Gabrielle had a boy?”
“Yes, I’m told a few hours ago. But the same magic that brought you and your wife together also began a series of events that cast a curse on your children.” Hannah’s eyes fell sad. Her somber tone slithered through me like snake preparing to choke its prey.
Keeping my gaze locked on the child, I swallowed through my tight throat, asking, “What curse?”
“We don’t know.” Mira softly cooed to the babe.
“We’re… working on it.” Xander stood tall at her side, his arms crossed over his chest, his firm stance giving off a protective don’t-fuck-with-me warning.
I stood my ground. “You’re working on it, or you don’t want to tell me?”
“How about the less you know, the better?” he replied.
“How about the less I know, the harder I’m going to punch you?” I replied.
“Boys, this is not a pissing contest. I think we can all agree that the baby’s safety is crucial.”
When I’d first met Mira, she gave off the vibe of an airhead, but the look of love in her eyes as she held my baby was glowing and bright. She reminded me of a woman who’d give up her life to save a child. She reminded me of Violette.
Hannah shifted her weight on the stool, drawing my attention. “Go to Montana and warn your friends about the seekers. There’s a safer path to the Amazon. Give them this map and tell them that a curse prevents the children from being near one another. In the meantime, we’ll set up your new home in Pinedale. Come back when it’s clear, and we’ll help you raise your daughter.”
“I want to trust you. I really do.” I lowered my head and sighed.
My other choices were non-existent. I mean, I couldn’t quite walk out that door with my little one. Once seekers heard her heart beat and smelled her blood, it wouldn’t take long for them to find us.
My gaze was drawn to the side table. “Is that tea is for me or for her?”
“For you. We have another one brewing for the girl. Go ahead, drink it.” She motioned toward the cup and I picked it up. The familiar feel of warm steam on my face drew memories of happy days, when I’d brewed the tea for my wife and my best friend had for his. The orchid mixtures controlled the urges set in my vampire DNA. The tea subdued pain and calmed the baby’s heartbeat even when in her mother’s belly, and it kept her human form hidden from the seekers.
“It should be enough to hide you all the way to Montana.” Hannah brought me back to the present, and then handed me a sealed envelope. “I need you to give this to Atram. The information there will keep their boy safe until the children are ready to meet.”
I sighed, not with reluctance but from exhaustion. Yes, vampires tired as well. I wasn’t sure who came up with the silly idea of vampires’ perpetual strength and eternal ability to walk with their eyes open. Bloodless obviously didn’t mean dead, and we needed our sleep just like any other human. Bloodless, though, did mean a change in a lifestyle. Some took it to the extreme, hunting humans for food. The smarter bloodsuckers knew that we couldn’t survive without a growing population, either. Measures had been taken and rules had been set to live in cohesion, but the changes weren’t accepted by all. And now both human and vampire futures were at risk.
I took one more look at the envelope, then at my daughter, and finally agreed with the thumbs up that my gut had been giving me about this place.
“If anything happens to my daughter, I will hold you all personally responsible, and I won’t show mercy. Given your brawn and tenacity, I expect nothing but the best for her.”
I paused and took my daughter back into my arms once more. I folded over the cloth she was wrapped in, saying, “She needs a name. I want to give her a name before I leave.”
They waited, and I realized that my mind was already made up. I’d known her name the moment I saw my daughter being born.
“I have to agree with Xander that Purple seems odd, even for a half-breed vampire. Her mother’s name was Violette. She was French. I never knew I had a thing for French women until I saw her gathering wildflowers in that field. She loved lowers.”
“How about Violet, then?” Mira asked, as if reading my mind, and I smiled.
“Violet. It’s perfect, isn’t it?” I asked, though it wasn’t a question. “Thank you for all your help.”
“We’ll see you soon, Ekim. Come to the flower shop in Pinedale. The small town is two hours east of here. We’ll be waiting for you there.”
If I’d known it would be one of the last times I ever saw my daughter again, I wouldn’t have left.
Chapter 1: Xander
Pinedale, 10 years later
She ran down the stairs with the force of a hurricane. Whizzing past me, the girl with the eyes of a hawk focused on the cage in the corner, slid her hand inside the opening, grabbed a rat, and twisted its neck before sinking her teeth into the animal. She sucked the rodent dry until not a drop was left and disposed of the carcass. I shook my head at how it had only been three or so years ago when she’d stopped wiping stray drops of blood off her mouth.
“Definitely not my favorite.” She smacked her lips, skipped over to the kitchen counter, and made herself comfortable on a stool.
“Remind me never to shift into a rat.” I set her plate full of pancakes in front of her, and she drizzled maple syrup on top and dug in.
“You think I do this with pleasure?” she asked, with her mouth full, then leaned her head to the side like an inquisitive pup, waiting for my answer. Although too smart for her own ten-year-old self, she was perfect.
Violet had been a special kid since the day she was born, and her maturity advanced more quickly than that of her peers. Hell, it advanced more quickly than anyone else’s in the world. I worried about her more often than I did about anyone else, and rightfully so. Violet had overcome all the challenges we’d thrown her way with confidence, but we knew that even her matchless abilities would one day be tested: likely with the force of another hurricane. Our girl would eventually face the most dangerous creatures in this world, and we needed her to be ready.
“I can’t imagine rat blood tasting good, but it’s your choice.”
She sighed. As a half-breed vampire who could kill any animal, she chose to feed on rats.
“I meant that I wouldn’t want to be the neck underneath your fingertips. Like evv-er-aah!” I overdramatized the last bit, which made Violet laugh. That smile and those bright blue eyes made every sacrifice worth it. On warmer evenings when our niece was happy, truly happy, sometimes those eyes held a hint of purple. Even though I hated the color, I’d grown to love it for her.
“Save that strength for when you need it.”
“You always say that.”
“To save my strength for when I need it. Why is that, Uncle Xander?”
I turned off the faucet and wiped my hands on the apron Violet had sewn in grade one, in her favorite shade of purple. I chuckled to myself, untied the apron, took it off my neck, and hung it on its permanent hook on the wall.
“Why do you do that, Uncle Xander?”
“Are you auditioning for Jeopardy or something?”
“No,” she giggled. “I just want to know why you fold everything so neat.” She pointed to the apron hanging on the wall. I rarely looked directly at the garment. Heck, when Mira took trips beyond Pinedale’s perimeter to check for weak spots and security, I wore the darned thing from morning to night.
As a shifter who had been thrown into the deep waters of parenting feet first, I’d quickly learned that you could never be too safe. Taking a day to check the town’s perimeter would also give us each the opportunity to take care of business. In the beginning, I’d felt guilty about leaving Violet with Mira, and if I knew my twin sister, she felt the same way; but the arrangement was necessary for Violet’s safety. For me, it was the perfect time to visit Xela’s lair.
The thought of my dark witch brought me back to the predicament hanging on the kitchen hook. When Violet first gifted the garment to me, I hadn’t realized why I’d worn it day and night until I looked in the mirror. When I wore it, I didn’t have to see it hanging on the kitchen hook, and it made the memories of what I’d lost hurt a little less. I didn’t have to be reminded of the past, especially since I didn’t need to be reminded. Time was still ticking forward, and time would eventually lead me to my unfinished business in the underworld.
My left wrist heated and I peeled my gaze away from Violet. “I’m not sure what you mean. Since when is being neat a crime?”
“It’s not a crime, but it’s not you.”
I sighed, sweetened Violet’s orchid tea with manuka honey, poured myself a third cup of coffee, and then turned back around to pass her the cup. “I don’t follow the rules, Violet, and I never do anything I don’t want to. You should know that.”
“Did you want a kid?” she asked, throwing me off guard.
“Where is this coming from? Are you having trouble at school?”
“Did you know that your eyes darken when you lie?”
“So do yours.”
Her eyes brightened, holding mine in a stare-off contest which I immediately knew she’d win.
“And when have I lied to you?”
I wondered whether feeling my eyes darken and wrist burn at the same time meant that they actually had. While I’d never directly lied to Violet, we’d kept secrets that were bound to come out one day. I didn’t consider those lies simply because Violet wasn’t ready to hear the whole truth. But once she was ready, we’d tell her everything we knew. In the meantime, we’d need to stretch the truth by a fraction.
I breathed out with relief and blinked. Her keen gaze flew straight to my left wrist, where the sphere burned as if it knew that I was talking to the girl who, according to the Keepers, was responsible for human and vampire survival. The sneak peek was quick, something a human eye wouldn’t have caught, but it happened, and we both knew that it did.
“I’m not asking.”
It wasn’t the first we’d shared an identical moment; I’d lost count of how many times it actually had happened. She was drawn to my mark in the same way I had once been drawn to get it. As a parent, I was worried about her curious nature. She’d never seen my mark; no one had and no one would. Mira and I had kept the tattoos hidden underneath our tightly wound leather straps since day one. The kicker was that even my sister had never truly seen my mark either, and had always assumed it was identical to hers. After years of keeping the secret from her, I wasn’t sure there’d ever be a good time to tell her the truth. Inside, my gut told me to keep my mouth shut, and so I did.
“You need to save your strength because you’re one of a kind. And it’s easier to be organized when you’re neat. Simple as that.”
“There’s nothing simple about you, Uncle Xander.”
“Ditto, kid. And if you want the honest truth, that’s the number one reason why you need to save your strength.”
My wrist pulsed with heat. I picked up my cup of coffee and strolled to the outside porch. The sphere never missed an opportunity to acknowledge that Violet was important. I’d often wondered whether my raising the half-breed vampire was a good idea in the first place. I mean, the marking tied me to the underworld, yet I no longer felt its pull even though it was still there, somewhere in the background, darkness never far behind my thoughts, as if waiting for its time to strike. It wanted to lure me back, but no strength could pull me away from Violet. I belonged here now. This was home. She was my home.
I followed a squirrel’s path as it skipped along the white picket fence around our red brick home. A few candied apples and gingerbread crumbs and we’d have a dwelling straight out of Brothers Grimm books. I watched as the squirrel masterfully snuck up a candy-cane-wrapped pole and tippy-toed across the power line up to the roof and across the shingles to the dormer windows. The white trim needed a fresh coat of paint before the summer.
“Have you been feeding the squirrels?” I asked, when I felt Violet standing behind me.
“Yup. That’s Peanut. She’s my number one.”
“Peanut? Cool name. What does number one mean?”
“Peanut listens to me, and she doesn’t tell me not to eat with my fingers.”
“What did you eat with your fingers?”
“That’s what I said.”
I sighed and turned toward Violet. I crouched in front of her and took her small hands in mine. Who knew these cute little digits had enough strength to kill?
“How long have you been eating lunch alone?” I asked. It wasn’t the first time this had happened.
She lowered her head and lifted her shoulders reflexively.
“What else did the kids say?”
“That I’m a rebel.”
“Well, you know that there’s a little bit of a rebel in each of us, don’t you?”
“I know. Because there’s something good about being bad.”
“That’s right. There’s no shame in being a little mischievous.”
“Because no one’s perfect.” She looked up at me with her round blue eyes and I immediately wanted to take all her insecurities, away.
“What else do the kids say?”
“Nothin.’” She shrugged again.
“Nothin’? Nothing doesn’t exist.”
“It does in The Neverending Story.” Violet looked up. A spark of excitement danced in her eyes.
“You know, sometimes I too wish that I could fly on a dragon, but I have to settle for breaking bones to shift and you have to settle for running faster than wind.” I winked.
“If you’re trying to make me feel guilty, it’s not working, Uncle Xander. But if you’re trying to make me feel better, then it’s working a little bit.” She showed an inch of distance between her thumb and finger. “Can’t you see the problem here, though? I have all these gifts, as you call them, but I can’t use them. I can’t share them with anyone.”
“You can use them.”
“Not at school, not at the movies, and not at the park. I can use them here. That’s it.”
Walls closed in around my heart from all sides. I may not have wanted a kid once, but that was because I didn’t realize that having one would feel this wonderful and painful at the same time.
“I’m so sorry the kids are giving you a hard time, but you know that we’re all unique. Now, finish your tea or we’ll be late for school.”
She’d pulled that stunt on me before. It didn’t occur to me what she’d done until Mira returned from checking the perimeter that Friday afternoon. There were moments when time had a weird way of messing with my head.
“Yes, this time it’s true.”
“All right. We’ll talk some more about your gifts when Mira gets home. It’s always a good idea to have a woman’s perspective.”
“I’m a woman.”
“Not yet, but you will be one soon enough.”
I wasn’t ready for that yet, but I’d have to be soon. We couldn’t exactly keep Violet enclosed in Pinedale the entire time, could we? She’d be a mature young adult before I knew it, which meant that the time I’d been praying to pass flew by each time I blinked. That only meant that my time to reunite with Xela was nearing.
“Violet, I have to go away next week.”
Her eyes fell sad.
“Don’t worry, I’ll be here for your birthday. But now, we should take a walk. Your grandmother received a new order of orchids yesterday. She needs help to unpack them.”
“Can I lead?”
“Thanks, Uncle Xander.”
Violet jumped up and threw her thin, strong arms around my neck, then whizzed back inside and moments later, wearing her corduroy overalls, she was walking along the path to our front gate.
I shook my head and called after her, “And by the way, I only realized that I wanted a kid the moment I met you.” I watched as she turned around and smiled at me, her braid flipping to the front. That alone made everything better. It was something sappy my sister would have said to Violet because she was much better at this parenting thing than me.
Family walks always made everything better. I’d stalked enough of the good mothers in this town to know that was what you were supposed to do on a Saturday morning; besides forgetting that it was a Saturday morning, of course. That or go to soccer practice or some other sport Violet had no need for. We preferred walks by the river and over the bridge that led to the cemetery, where Violet visited her parents’ graves—which we’d chosen when she started asking about her mom and dad. We didn’t like that bit of stretched truth, but at the time she was five, and we’d figured it was better than telling her the vicious truth about this world’s cruelty. Besides, Violet used the time to grieve for her real parents, and since it helped her, that was what truly mattered.
I followed Violet as she happily skipped ahead.
“Did you invite your friends for your birthday next weekend?” I asked.
“Yup. Arts and crafts.”
“That sounds… exciting.”
She stopped and gave me a mocking look. I rolled my eyes and resumed our walk.
“What if I told you we could have your birthday party at home?”
We turned the corner by the river. We had another mile to before we reached the bridge. Ma’s flower shop was just across the street, and the cemetery beyond the river was about one hundred yards east. Violet twisted around and walked backwards for a bit.
“Seriously?” Her eyes grew wide.
“I thought we could make it forest-themed.” Which totally made sense, given that our home rested at the edge of a forest near the west end of town. “We could probably arrange a petting zoo, or something like that.”
“Our animals are wild.”
“Then it’s a good thing I know how to tame them for your party. Do you think your friends will want to come?”
She stopped, tilted her head to the side, and said, “Uncle Xander, you must live on a different planet if you don’t think that at least half this town is interested to know how we live. Including the kids.” And then she grinned. “It’s definitely a better choice than arts and crafts.”
A flash of innocent doubt flashed in her eyes, and she asked, “You will actually let other kids inside our house? And you’re going to let them pet Soarin and Dash?”
“Holy mother of all evils, Mira’s gonna flip!”
Holy mother of all evils was right. I wasn’t sure whether I was ready for the nosy human invasion. They were curious creatures, just like us; but I’d do anything and everything to keep Violet’s smile permanent. This birthday party would mean a bit of work to move cabinets, equipment and supplies, but since humans did odd things for those they loved, why couldn’t I? Besides, integrating Violet with them was part of our duty.
“You let me take care of Mira. There’s just one rule: You have to hold onto your special skills for that one day when at home.”
“Done.” She halted and grabbed my arm mid-step, over-dramatically popped her eyes out, and asked, “Wait! You do understand what that means, don’t you?”
Of course I did. It meant that all the single mommas and some married ones as well would not only make an effort to show up for the party, but they’d also ensure they could stay.
“Yup, I know what that means,” I replied.
“Because Katy’s mom’s been trying to get her to come over since September. But you know, we have rules and all.”
With all the work I’d been doing at the clinic, which took up most of our house, I’d forgotten about Katy’s mom. I’d also forgotten how one night the cougar had masterfully taken advantage of one of my weaker moments and left her bright pink lipstick around my dick, and then bragged about it. She’d had me in her mouth before I had a chance to recuperate from a fucking sneeze. These allergies I had, the ones that seemed to come out of nowhere when a woman was near, were annoying.
“We’ll have to clean up a few things,” I said.
“Wow, you are serious. All right. Looks like I’ll be moving the rat cages to the attic.”
“Make sure you clean up that space as well.”
“Uncle Xander, no one goes to the attic.”
Of course no one did. It was Violet’s private space.
“And we’ll have to behave—“
“Like humans. Got it. I’m perfect at being my other half.” She grinned. It was true. She was perfect, which again worried me because no one was perfect. One day she’d pull off a human kid stunt and run away from home or something. How would we deal with that? Like I said, this parenting thing wasn’t easy, and the more years I spent playing the role of a father, the more I realized that the Keeper’s prophecy to raise a child until maturity was more difficult to fulfill than I thought.
“You’ll have to—”
“Convince aunt Mira that this is a good thing for me because I’m very closed off to new friendships and one day I will need people in my life whom I can turn to.” She shuffled those feet while walking backward as if she’d been doing so since the day she’d learned how to walk at the age of six months.
“I see you’ve prepared for this.”
“I’m always prepared. It’s this thing I have, Uncle Xander. Sort of like saving my strength for when I need it.”
The thing was, that I totally understood what she was saying. The prophecy might not have been that simple, but Violet sure made life feel a lot more precious.
“Smart girl. Now turn around before you trip.”
“What are you going to do about the flirty moms?” She wiggled her shoulders and fluttered her lashes, giving me a pretty good impression of Sonia while continuing her lead.
“Can’t they just drop their kids off and leave?”
“Ha! Good luck with that. Hey, maybe you can make a friend too, Uncle Xander.”
“I don’t need any friends.”
She laughed, shaking her head. “And you really wonder who I take after?”
I felt a little proud hearing that. Like I’d said, she was one heck of a smart ten-year-old. I glanced to the left, where my mother had flipped over the sign of her flower shop to Open, and waved.
“Looks like Gran’s ready.”
Violet’s grin stretched. She loved visiting her witch grandmother, and my mother loved every minute she spent with her granddaughter. In fact, she always ensured that no minute was lost without a teachable moment, which was probably why Violet was so smart.
We crossed the empty main street. One of the benefits of living in a small town was lack of traffic, which I found greatly decreased that parental level of worry I held in the back of my mind. Ma opened the front door before we reached the sidewalk, and Violet ran straight into her arms, after which she hopped off and ran inside to drink her fresh cup of orchid tea. Ma always knew when we’d visit and never failed to have the brew waiting.
“How are you doing, my son?” She turned to me.
The worried look on her face was clear, and I knew exactly what she was thinking. Parents had a way of knowing when their children’s hearts were broken, but who had time to heal a broken heart? Any last ounce of strength I had, I committed to raising a half-breed vampire.
Since the day Xela had sent me to that cave, each time I tried to reach her through the gem, it had took me back to the same place: her lair. The stone was no longer working. During one of my soul-tormenting nights, with disappointment, I hid it there. From what Ma had already told me, Xela’s soul was lost, and only time could morph us together again.
Ma and her riddles.
“I’m doing fine. Violet keeps us busy.”
I walked to the back storage and reached for the top row of delivery boxes, most of which contained supplies of orchid teas. I opened the first one and passed it to Violet to unload. She gladly lifted the thirty-pound, uncomfortably rectangular box and took it to the front pantry for storage.
“Ahh, the joys of parenthood,” Ma said knowingly.
“I just told her she can celebrate her birthday with her friends at the house next weekend. You should come over. She’d love that.”
“I wouldn’t miss watching you wiggle out of those women’s claws for the world. Did you tell Mira?”
“Not yet. I was hoping you could do it. You know, in your riddle ways, convince her that it’s the right thing for Violet.”
She chuckled and I added, “Please, Ma.”
“I’ll do it if you stop complaining about Violet reading a little bit from my journals. It’s only history.”
That was a big request, but only because I’d never read them myself and I feared that Violet would have questions I couldn’t answer. I glanced over Ma’s shoulder to where Violet was sitting in the corner chair, sipping her tea while flipping though the hundreds of journal pages Ma had written.
“You know, sometimes I feel like you time these things on purpose.”
“I’m a witch, and time is not important when important decisions rest on your shoulders.”
I ignored Ma’s new riddle, saying, “She has more and more questions.”
“As she should.”
“Ma, I worry when I see her reading those journals.”
“Knowledge is power. It will answer the questions you’re afraid to ask.”
I shook my head. There was no point in continuing an argument I knew Ma would inevitably win, so I decided to change the subject.
“I just hope it doesn’t rain next weekend.”
Given there was not a single cloud in the sky and the weekend was seven days away, I wasn’t sure where the idea of rain had come from.
“The rainy season brings good news. It gives life and drowns death,” Ma replied, keeping her passion for riddles at the fore. Little did I know, that was something worthy of adding to Ma’s journal. I just wished I’d realized the value of her words sooner.
Chapter 2: Mira
“You did what?”
My brother must have lost his mind when one week before Violet’s birthday party, he decided to change the plans. That was seven days ago, and he “forgot to mention” the little change in plans until now. The house was a mess, and we still had a long way to go before we were ready. At least that’s what I’d argue when I drilled it into my brother’s thick skull how bad an idea this was. Didn’t he remember the time he’d agreed to keep a litter of wolves Ma found in a ditch near our home? She was in on it, I knew that, but with a year-old baby to take care of, a litter of wolves was not a responsibility I’d been prepared to take on.
“I guess Ma talked to you?” he said in return.
“She did this morning, and the least you could do is have enough balls to tell me yourself. Like, a week ago.” That was a little bit below the belt, but hey, I wasn’t one to count punches. At least Eryk could pop in every few months to see me. Xander had been on his own since the day we were marked. I knew he wasn’t getting any from the single mothers in town, either, and I knew it because women talked. I just wished he’d told me about the party last week.
“Don’t get your panties all tied up.” My brother frowned.
Jesus, he was almost frothing at the mouth. Maybe this party was a good idea after all. If one of the moms made a move and he finally got some, he’d be a little easier to deal with. I couldn’t even imagine the frustration that must have been growing in his pants. Glad that my brother could no longer hear my thoughts when in our human form, I quickly pushed the image aside. Nevertheless, I missed our connection.
“I’m not wearing any panties,” I replied.
“Then you should put some on. Kids are coming.” He grinned with pride as if this was actually a good thing.
“Shut up. Just shut up. How in the world are we going to handle a birthday party at a clinic that resembles a zoo with a bunch of ten-year-olds running around?”
We weren’t messy types, but with limited space and a creative child who liked to build climbing features on walls and ceilings, at some point our home had lost its visual appeal of normalcy.
“Don’t worry. It’ll be cool,” he said in his usual it-will-all-work-out tone. The thing about my brother was that his mood swings were worse than those of an addict who’d run out of his stash.
“Cool? You know Violet’s been having trouble with kids at school. Doing arts and crafts at the community center was the perfect plan for her birthday.”
“An at-home party is a much better idea. More social interaction.”
“Is that how you sold the idea to the parents?”
“I didn’t really have to do much selling. Everyone RSVP’d with a yes the next day.”
The taste of sarcasm filled my mouth. “It would have been nice to know about it ahead of time.”
“I wanted to handle it myself. Look around. It’s not a zoo anymore.”
Looking around the house, which had magically transformed into something close enough to resemble a family home, I had to admit that he’d done a good job.
How did I not notice this before?
“I’m serious, Xander. I’m worried about her. I’m worried how she’s going to handle herself among humans.”
“You don’t think I am? We have a duty to prepare Violet for a cruel world no human knows about. But if we can’t even find a way to organize a birthday party, how are we expected to fulfill our promise? The last thing I want is to fail, and the very last thing I want is to fail Violet.”
I shook my head. Was he right? Was I failing as an aunt, who took on a mother’s job at the first sound of a baby’s coo? Yeah, my brother knew all about the world’s cruelties. We both did. The guilt never stopped cruising through my veins. The day we were marked, I was the one who’d pushed Eryk out of harm’s way, inadvertently opening the hereafter full of lost souls. I was the one who’d stolen my brother’s chance to be with his true love – so in my eyes, he’d sacrificed enough, and for years I hoped that he’d find a love interest in a human. If the vampires could, why couldn’t a shifter? Maybe a birthday party with Kate’s mom at our house was exactly what he needed.
“If you want to make Violet proud, you better shower and shave. And take that damn thing off.” I pointed to his apron. Xander should have hidden his purple apron somewhere in the back of a closet instead of letting that beautiful rose Violet had stitched on its front remind him of everything he’d lost.
He ignored my request the same way he had the million times I’d asked him in the past, and continued. “Every morning, I wake up wondering whether today is the day they’re going to find her.”
“I know we’ll have to let her go out on her own to fulfill the prophecy and shit, but she’s not ready.”
“Shh.” I leaned to the side and looked out the back window to where Violet was giving Dash a good scrub before this afternoon’s party.
“We have to integrate her more. Violet’s a unique kid, and this party is good for her. I can feel it.”
He was serious. My brother’s gut was usually right, though, and he would never place Violet in any unnecessary danger. She stole my heart the moment I took her in my arms. Violet was the perfect kid, who didn’t cry and didn’t need much more than the necessities, and I’d given her all the love I held in my heart. She was a survivor from the day she was born, and despite her vampire strengths and abilities, it was our duty to train her and protect her, because the mountains she’d need to climb in her life were steep, iced, and higher than Everest, with craters deeper than any ocean.
I never prayed much, but the times when she stood over her parents’ graves talking to herself, I did. I prayed that we would do our jobs well. I prayed that our instructions on the Keeper’s scroll had a reason, and so I followed them like a trained soldier follows her orders. I stopped to smell the roses every time I passed them — the way the prophecy had asked of us. Xander must have thought I was crazy. At some point, he attacked me in the woods, and we had it out the shifter way, with claws, fangs, hooves, and iron strength. He thought I was smelling the flower blooms to irritate him because of the witch, but that was far from the truth. I only wanted the silly tasks we’d been asked to complete to be done, and I wanted them to be done well. So, I stopped to smell the roses each time I saw one. I didn’t do it for me; I did it for Xander, and I did it for Violet. We did a lot of things for our niece that didn’t make sense, but we did them with love, as any guardian should. After all, how difficult could it be to love someone you’ve known since birth?
“You know how much I love her, but if she’s that way with the wolf when the kids arrive, we’re going to have a lot of questions to answer.”
I sighed, looking out the window, doubtful that this was the path to Violet’s continued integration with the humans. But at this point, I didn’t have much choice. She loved her wolves.
“So you agree to this?”
How can I not agree? Look how happy she is. I thought to my brother, but he didn’t reply. Since the marking, unless in our shifter form, we could no longer communicate through our minds. The habit had never died for me, though, and I often found myself talking in my head. Unfortunately for me, no one was listening, and the constant silence was beginning to drive me bonkers.
I grabbed a rag and wiped the counter clean. “Yeah, I agree to this. She does best when she’s in her element.”
“I know. Me too.”
I grinned as I watched her scratch Dash underneath his chin. Living at the edge of town with a path crossing into the woods from our back yard had its advantages. It also meant that our home had turned into a one-stop hotel with a big fat welcome sign, and the wild animals just kept on coming. This home kept me sane during the most turbulent times.
“Is she being picked on at school?” Xander asked.
“No. She gets along well with the kids.”
I’d taken on the job of a gym teacher at the school with the sole purpose of being close to Violet. It was one of the best decisions I’d ever made. “I just see how they avoid her sometimes. I watch them at recess duty, and when some of them look at her, it’s like… it’s like they know. Their gut is telling them to stay away from her. Are they right? Is she dangerous, and we don’t know it? Is she even supposed to be marked?”
“Violet wouldn’t hurt a fly, and markings are overrated,” he replied.
He’d said that before, which wouldn’t have been odd if in the past he hadn’t been eager for the event himself.
“I’m sorry. I guess our marking didn’t quite turn out the way we thought it would, did it? I’m sorry you lost Xela.”
“No, it didn’t.”
I followed the path of his glance to his wrist where the leather strap covered his mark. It was a quick peek, one that no human would notice, but I did, and he knew it; yet we never talked about the exchange. Since the day of our marking, our lives were as stable as those of anyone who felt like they held the world’s weight on their shoulders.
“I’m afraid one day she won’t have her tea, or it won’t be enough, and she’ll snap.”
“Violet won’t snap. She’s smart and well-rounded.”
“Are you forgetting the time she lost her baby teeth?”
“It’s been a while, and we’ve adjusted her dosage each time there was a need.”
“She’s going to be a teenager in three years, and we have no clue how much trouble her half-breed hormones are going to be.”
“They can’t be any worse than your hormones,” he snickered.
“At least I’m not the one running off into the forest in the middle of the night, like an animal.”
“Shifter. Like a shifter. If you’re calling me names, at least get it right.”
“What’s with the long perimeter checks, Xander? Where are you sneaking off to?”
“It’s none of your business. And no one’s sneaking.”
Except we each knew the other’s business too well. The moment I’d been selfishly marked with the water mark, my brother had lost the love of his life. We’d been torn between duty and love, and his chance at love was now gone.
Raising a half-breed vampire child and fulfilling an oath while keeping a relationship with a one-of-a-kind evil-bender wasn’t easy. My life didn’t leave much more time for living.
“Okay, if we’re going to have a party, we need to stop this. Right now.” I finally grabbed his dishcloth and threw it in the sink.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“We still have to prep the party room. We need balloons and streamers.”
“When you were sleeping,” he said with sarcasm. “I told you, sis. I got this.”
“We still need to take off the red ribbon around the pole.”
“Because it looks like a candy cane, and it’s not Christmas.”
“Okay…. Done! Or consider it done.” He grinned.
The tension in my neck eased a little. I shook my head, but as soon as Xander turned toward me, my gaze fell to his fucking apron, which held the exact shade of purple that reminded me of Eryk. Why couldn’t he just take the damn thing off and stuff it in the back of a closet?
If there was anyone who could ease my tension, it was the bender; but Eryk rarely had time for us anymore. Ever since I’d pushed him out of harm’s way and changed the trajectory of his powers, our relationship had changed. It was my fault he’d been tasked with finding every single last soul so that he could guide them back to their waiting room. That’s what the hereafter was; it held lost souls who weren’t ready to pass to the other side, waiting for unfinished business they’d left on Earth to end. Eryk had once explained that catching something you couldn’t see wasn’t easy. Even ghosts had to be lured in by a professional. Hence Eryk’s constant absence. He was on a goose chase, and the kicker was that there was no finish date on his job. Plus, he wasn’t chasing geese.
Xander moved over to the counter and began chopping veggies. I let out an exasperated breath.
If you can’t beat them, join them.
On the other side of the counter, I sliced through a watermelon and began scooping out small balls of fruit.
“So, do you think she’ll be marked?” I tried again to touch the subject my brother always tended to avoid.
“I don’t know. I’ve never heard of a marked vampire.”
“She’s not a vampire.”
“You know what I mean.”
“How does she know which side she’s on without the marking?”
“The same way you knew where you belonged.”
He was right about that. “But you didn’t.”
He didn’t reply, and I knew that I was right. If he really wanted my opinion – and recently I wasn’t sure if he wanted any opinion at all – I found the entire concept completely annoying. One moment everything was clear and I wanted to help, so I ran to pick up a baby I didn’t know I would love as my own. The next minute, there was this pull to find a safe home, and Violet became all that mattered, which made the pain of living without Eryk that much worse. I’d often wondered whether he understood. The last time he had time for us was six months ago, and I was beginning to hate this dry spell.
“Maybe being unmarked is what makes her so special. Besides, markings aren’t all they’re hyped up to be.”
“Do you ever think the sphere is calling out to her?” I asked.
“No one’s calling out to her. No one knows where she is.”
“Because the kids at school are keeping their distance,” I repeated.
“As they should. She’s a half-breed vampire.”
I set the melon scooper aside. “I’m not questioning who she is, but we agreed to raise her like a normal family—”
“Which we’re doing.” He lowered his knife and arranged the carrot sticks in a tall green glass. They spread out in a circular pattern, like petals of a flower. “I saw the Pioneer Woman do this. It’s going to be epic.”
I shook my head. Sometimes, I didn’t get my masculine, apron-wearing housewife of a brother.
He turned toward me with a grin. “This is what normal is. And the kids aren’t keeping their distance from her out of dislike. Their gut is telling each of them that she’s different and could be dangerous, but they don’t realize why, so they stay away.”
“I overheard a parent talking about vampires. What if they know?”
“And I overheard Mr. Fields at the corner store talking about dragons. Do you see one around?” Xander placed the glasses with veggie sticks on a table filled with snacks, and looked at me with the confidence my own soul lacked.
“You need to be logical about this, sis. And logic is telling me that it’s all in your mind, because no kid’s imagination or even an adult’s could ever be grand enough to think of what she is or what we are.”
“If anyone finds out, it won’t take long before word gets to the seekers. With the shit that goes on in this world, we can’t trust anyone. Ma said that last year seekers killed enough vampires to cause a stir. The underworld’s powers are growing again. They have spies everywhere.”
I wasn’t sure whether it was just my imagination, but I thought I saw Xander wince in pain.
“We can trust each other. No matter what, that will never change,” he said in a firm tone.
“Well, of course we can. We’re marked.” I carefully pointed to my wrist where the leather strap was wrapped around my tattoo. Our markings were more sensitive than Xander’s nose in a garden full of roses. They could light up on their own when we least expected it, which would raise questions if someone saw the glow, so it was better to keep it all under wraps.
“Smart vampires can deal with stupid seekers. Humans are the ones we need to worry about. They’re not marked. They’re easily swayed, and any one of them could pose a danger to Violet.”
“Hence your great idea to have an at home party?” I puffed. “It’s absurd how your mind works sometimes, Xander.”
“Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”
“Humans aren’t the enemy. Seekers are.”
“Yes, I get it. The advantage we have, though, is that we fit in like a glove. Violet says we’re like unicorns from their favorite fairytales. The humans may keep their distance from us, but they also think of us as happy little family. Besides, it’s good to have Violet exposed to her other half. She is half-human, after all, and she needs to know how to co-exist. This party will be a great opportunity to observe Violet in her environment with others.”
I sighed, then scanned the family room filled with balloons and the table set with paper plates, napkins and cups. We were almost ready. Out in the back yard, seeing the happy child chasing a wolf with a towel, I knew that my brother was right. Truth was, even though we’d learned how to raise the girl on a whim and we were a happy family, part of our responsibility was to expose Violet to the human world. I crossed the kitchen to the back door. A dusting of flour was spread over the wooden kitchen island and some had fallen on the dark hardwood floor. Paw prints drew a path across the scattered powder.
“She let the wolves in again.”
“That was before I woke up. I’ll clean it up.”
“Did you know that the only clean room not run by the animals is Violet’s room? Jesus, the back yard looks like it hasn’t been cleaned in years.”
I was exaggerating, but today had felt off from the moment I stepped out of my bed. I wasn’t sure what it was, but trouble was brewing, and I was sweating like a beast. “I need to take a shower. Don’t forget to have Violet clean the attic, too.”
“Don’t worry. That space is off limits.”
“Take it easy, sis. It’s all good. Everything will work out just fine. I promise. I’ll sweep and wash and I’ll make sure the floor is dry before another wolf runs across.”
Feeling anxiety spike in my body, I let out a long puff. “I’ll be back in ten. In the meantime, please don’t shift into Martha Stewart.”
My brother chuckled.
Upstairs, I turned on the faucet to the hottest water my skin could stand and stood underneath the scorching stream. The rising steam swirled around me, and I closed my eyes. The color purple flashed behind my eyelids. That happened often when my heart ached with loneliness.
Missing him had become a constant, and the heartache never eased. Our futures couldn’t align until I fulfilled a prophecy, and he corrected my mistakes. His work for the Keepers stole him from me in the same way that mine kept me from him. The obligation rooted deep in my heart became more difficult to swallow every day while at the same time sprouting new stems around my heart to remind me that there was no way out until I’d fulfilled my duties.
Water flowed down my body, and I tilted my head back to clean my face and wash my hair. It wouldn’t be long before the kids arrived, and we still had a cake to frost and decorate. I kept my eyes closed, enjoying the purple hue that calmed and irritated me at the same time when the smell of lilac blossomed around my nostrils.
I wished he were there. I wished he could be the one whose hand was sliding down my stomach instead of mine. I wanted his fingers, not mine, playing around that swell that’s been growing daily. I craved his touch. I longed for his cuddles, and during these lonely moments, I often imagined him fondling me. My ass tightened at the first rub of my fingers. With my eyes still closed, I heard his whisper near my ear. “Open your eyes, sugar.”
I jumped, startled.
But I couldn’t finish my sentence. Heck, I couldn’t even remember what I wanted to say. Clothed, he appeared out of nowhere and stood in the shower in front of me, getting drenched.
“Should I have called first?”
“I don’t have a phone,” I mumbled, taken aback.
“I know,” he snickered. “It was supposed to be a joke.”
The falling water had soaked his black turtleneck. As the fabric clung to his skin, it reminded me how much I enjoyed this view. I splayed my palms over his pecs and succumbed to the feel of his perfect chest underneath my hands. Before I realized what I was doing, I slid my hands to the hem of his shirt, grasped its bottom, and pulled it up and off his body. His cold chest connected with my heated breasts. My lips parted, and at the first touch of his lips every reasonable thought I had clouded. My fingers fumbled with his zipper. The heaviness of my breasts kept me glued to him. When I finally pulled my mouth away to breathe, he didn’t give me much chance to think. His hand slid down to my pussy and his fingers dove between my folds, then lifted higher, where he began rubbing. He picked up exactly where I’d left off, reviving my need.
“I don’t have a lot of time,” he said.
“You always say that.”
“There’s a ghost roaming these areas I haven’t been able to catch.”
“So you’ll be working close to home?”
“Until I catch her, yes.”
“It’s a she? Should I be jealous?”
“Yes, it’s a she. And I thought I already said that she was a ghost.”
“I know, I know. I’ve just missed you. A lot.”
“Mira, my love. I’d much rather use this little time we have wisely.”
He shut me up with his lips, and I knew that this shower would take longer than ten minutes. In fact, I was certain it would be the reason I was late to Violet’s party.