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She gives me a delighted smile in response but makes no move to touch me, either—even before Jaxon lets out an obvious sound of displeasure.

“It’s wonderful to meet you, too. I’m glad everything has…worked itself out with you.”

Surprised by her words, I glance at Jaxon. He doesn’t take his eyes off the woman who raised him, but he does answer my silent question. “She knows you’re a gargoyle. I came to see her twice when you were locked in stone.”

“He left no stone unturned, as it were, when he was looking for a way to set you free. But alas, gargoyles haven’t been my specialty in quite a long while.” Her gaze seems to go far away as she continues. “I did hope to change that once, but it was not to be.”

Even though I already know that Jaxon did anything and everything he could to help me when I was trapped as a gargoyle, it still warms me to hear it—especially from this woman he very obviously respects.

“Thank you for trying to help me,” I tell her. “I appreciate it.”

“There wasn’t anything for me to try,” she answers. “Much to your mate’s chagrin. But I would have helped him if I could. I suggested he bring you to me, in fact. I’m glad he’s finally taken my advice.”

She moves a few steps back, gesturing to the two red chairs before once again settling herself on the couch.

“I always planned on bringing Grace to meet you eventually,” Jaxon says.

Her eyes soften at that, and for the first time, I see genuine affection in her expression as she looks at Jaxon. I find myself relaxing just a little at the sight of it—not because I think she won’t hurt me but because I’m pretty sure she won’t do anything that would harm Jaxon.

“I know.” She leans forward and pats his hand. As she does, I see a softening in Jaxon, too, a momentary dropping of his guard as he looks at this woman he obviously loves but just as obviously doesn’t trust.

It’s such a weird dynamic that I can’t help feeling sorry for the both of them, even as I wonder what it’s like. Before their deaths, I trusted my parents implicitly—it never occurred to me not to.

And though I’ve found out things about them since they died—things like my father was a warlock and maybe they knew about the gargoyle thing all along—at least I still know, even if they lied to me, that they would never have hurt me.

Jaxon’s mother scarred him. His brother tried to kill him. And this woman, who obviously had a major impact on his life and who obviously loves him, has Jaxon so tense, so on edge, that I’m afraid he might shatter at the first wrong move.

Silence stretches between us before Jaxon finally says, “I’m sorry to do this on the first night that you meet Grace, but we need your help.”

“I know.” She looks from Jaxon to me and back again. “And I will do what I can. But there are no easy solutions to what plagues you. There are, however, many, many chances for things to go wrong.”


One Person’s Reality

Is Another Person’s

Total Mind F*ck

That sounds…awful.

I’m more than a little freaked when I turn to Jaxon, but he just gives me a reassuring look as he rubs the back of my hand with his thumb before turning back to the Bloodletter.

He does an amazing job of relating the events since I’ve come back, so much so that the Bloodletter’s eyes glaze over only once in the telling. When it’s done, she stares at me for a few beats, then asks me to take a walk with her.

I look to Jaxon—not for permission so much as reassurance that she’s not taking me to some inner cavern to drain my blood—and he gives me a slight nod. It’s an uneasy nod, but it’s a nod nonetheless.

Not the most reassuring thing in the world, but it’s not like I really have a choice at this point.

The Bloodletter smiles when I get up and beckons me closer with one beringed hand. “Don’t worry, Grace; we won’t go far. I do my best thinking while I walk.”

The Ancient vampire leads me through a double arch into another, darker room. But the second we walk in, the room springs to life. The sun is shining, the sand beneath my boots is sparkling, and in the distance, I can see, and hear, the roar of the ocean waves.

“How—” I stumble to a stop and stare at the familiar blue of the Pacific Ocean. And not just any part of the Pacific, but my beloved La Jolla Cove. I recognize it from the tidal pools around the sides of the relatively small beach and the way the ocean washes up on the sand and the rocks in a rhythm as familiar as my own breathing.

“How did you do this?” I ask, blinking back the rush of homesick tears from my eyes. The Bloodletter has given me a gift beyond measure. No way am I going to waste one second of my time here crying. “How did you know?”

“I know a lot of things, Grace, and I can do almost as many.” She shrugs delicately. “Come on. Let’s go walk by the water.”

“Okay,” I agree, even though I know the water isn’t real. Even though I know I’m in the middle of a giant illusion. The fact that it feels real is enough for me right now.

We don’t talk as we make our way up the beach to the slowly rolling waves.

“If you want your mind and body back, my darling—” She stops to stare out over the vast ocean for what feels like an eternity before turning to face me, her eyes swirling that eerie electric green again. “It’s going to require sacrifice. Probably more than you’re willing to give.”

I swallow. “What does that mean exactly?”

But she pats my hand and simply says, “That’s something for you to learn another day. For now, why don’t you take a moment and feel the water?”

I look down and realize we’re near where the ocean should be kissing my toes if I were to move just a few more inches to the side.

“But it’s not real,” I tell her. “There’s nothing there.”

“‘Real’ is in the eye of the beholder,” she answers. “Feel the water.”

“How are you doing this?” I gasp as I let the water run through my fingers. The feel of it gets me in the gut, even though I try not to let it. But how can I not when it reminds me of all the times I was there with my parents or Heather?

“A good illusion covers all the bases,” she tells me. “A great illusion makes it impossible to tell where reality leaves off and deception begins.”

She waves her hand, and just like that, we’re in the middle of the desert, sand where there was only ocean before.

I swallow my instinctive protest, my urge to beg her to bring the water back. To bring my home back. And instead plunge my hand into the sand right in front of me.

I come away with a handful of it, just as I knew I would, and when I let it leak through my fist back onto the ground, some of it sticks on the wetness of my fingers so that I have to brush it off against my ski pants.

“I don’t understand what’s happening here.”

“Because you don’t believe what you see,” she snaps.

“But I can’t believe it. It’s not real.”

“It’s as real as you want it to be, Grace.” Another wave of her hand and a sandstorm kicks up, hard and fast. Grains of sand whip against my face, fill my nose and my mouth until I can barely breathe.

“Enough,” I manage to wheeze out between coughs.

“Is it enough?” the Bloodletter asks in a voice as cold as the Alaskan wilderness she has made her home. “Do you understand what I’m trying to tell you?”

No, I don’t. Not even a little bit. But I’m afraid if I tell her that, I’m going to end up buried under a thousand pounds of sand, so I just nod.

But I do try to focus, not just on what she’s saying but on the deeper meaning of what she wants me to understand.

Her gaze holds mine, her green eyes urging me to think beyond my simple understanding of the world. To recognize that some things have to be believed to be understood instead of the other way around.

It’s a leap of faith, one I’m not sure I’m comfortable making after everything that’s already happened. But what other choice do I have? I can believe or I can get swept away—not just by the sand she is continuing to blow my way but by Hudson’s dark and overwhelming will.

I swallow, knowing there really is no other option for me. And so I close my eyes, lower my defenses just a little, and let her words swirl in my mind, settle in my bones, become my reality.

The moment I do, the illusion of this world fades into something that feels even more right. Something that feels like coming home.

Suddenly, there’s another voice in my head, and it’s not the one I’m used to, the one that warns me of bad things to come. No, this voice is low and sardonic. It’s also familiar—really familiar.

“Well, it’s about time.”

“Oh shit.” My stomach bottoms out. “Did you hear him?” I demand of the Bloodletter. “Tell me you heard him.”

“It’s okay, Grace,” she answers. And if she says any more, I don’t know because—just like that—the world around me goes completely black.


It’s Hard to Pick

My Battles When

My Battles Keep

Picking Me

Something isn’t right.

It’s the first thought I have as I slowly open my eyes. My head hurts and my stomach is roiling like I’m going to throw up. I notice I’m lying on a bed, in what I think is a dimly lit bedroom. Which doesn’t make sense, because the last thing I remember is talking to the Bloodletter—right up until I heard someone in my head with a British accent.

My eyes fly open as I remember Hudson, and I bolt upright, then wish I hadn’t as the room spins around me. I do my best to breathe through the nausea and focus on remembering what’s important. Namely, Hudson, and what he did or didn’t do.

Did he take control of my body again?

Did he hurt Jaxon or the Bloodletter, and is that why they’re not here?