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Grandma turned to him, smiled, and in her sweetest voice said, “Nothing you need worry about, dear. Just a little cleansing and clearing. Do you like chocolate chip cookies? I have a secret ingredient that makes mine irresistible, and I just happen to have a dozen tucked into my basket.” Patting him on the arm she herded him from the doorway, lifting a paper plate full of cookies from her magical basket and winking at me over her shoulder. “Now, dear, why don’t we get you some coffee to go with these while you send that nice young vampyre named Stark in to visit with my granddaughter?”

Stark!

I sat on my bed, nervously straightening my clothes and trying to comb my fingers through my super-crazy hair. And then he was in the doorway, and I forgot about the way I looked. I forgot about everything except how glad I was to see him.

“Can I come in?” he asked hesitantly.

I nodded.

It didn’t take any time at all for him to walk those six steps to me. I couldn’t wait another second, though. As soon as he got within grabbing range, I threw my arms around him and buried my face in his shoulder.

“I’m so sorry! Don’t hate me—please don’t hate me!”

“How could I hate you?” He held me so tightly that it was hard for me to breathe, but I didn’t care. “You’re my Queen, my High Priestess, and my love—my only love.” He let go of me enough to look into my eyes. “You can’t commit suicide. I can’t survive it, Zoey. I swear I can’t.”

He had dark circles under his eyes and his red vampyre tattoos looked especially brilliant against the unnatural paleness of his skin. He looked like he’d aged a decade in one day.

I hated how tired and sick he looked. I hated that I had caused it.

I met his gaze and spoke with all the kindness and compassion within me. “That was a mistake. I won’t do it again. I’m sorry I put you through that—I’m sorry I’m going to put you through all of this.” I gestured at the jail cell.

He touched my cheek gently, almost reverently. “Where you go, I go. We are Oath Bound for this lifetime and beyond, Zoey Redbird. And all of this is bearable if we have each other. Do we still have each other?”

“We do.” I kissed him, long and hard. I thought I was comforting him but realized that his touch—his taste—his love was really comforting me.

It was that moment that I truly understood how much I love Stark.

“See,” he said, covering my face in fast little kisses and brushing away the tears that were slipping down my cheeks. “Everything’s better now. It’s going to be all right.”

I didn’t want to tell him that I wasn’t sure anything was ever going to be all right again. That wouldn’t have been compassionate. Instead I led him to my hard, narrow bed. We sat, and I curled against him, resting in the crook of his arm.

“We’re going to take turns staying here so that you don’t start rejecting the Change again. From today on there will always be a vampyre just outside your door,” Stark began explaining softly while he held me close to him. “They’re putting a cot in the hallway.”

“Really? You get to stay that close to me?”

“Yeah, Detective Marx made them let me. He’s a really good guy. He told the chief of police that not letting a vampyre stay with you would be like giving a human prisoner a razor blade and then turning a blind eye to whatever he did afterward. He said it was inhumane, and that by turning yourself in you had the same rights as any of them.”

“That was nice of him.” I suddenly realized what time it had to be—midday at the latest. “Wait, you shouldn’t be here. It’s daylight outside.” I sat up and began looking over his body, checking him for burns.

He smiled. “I’m fine. So’s Stevie Rae. We drove here in the back of the school’s van—you know, the one with no windows.”

I nodded and smiled. “The Chester the Molester van.”

“Yep, that’s how I roll now.” His smile turned cocky. “Marx let us pull into the covered parking attached to the sheriff’s building. No sunlight got to any of us.”

“Well, be careful, okay?”

He raised his brows at me. “Really? You’re telling me to be careful?”

“Asking, actually,” I said, remembering kindness.

He laughed and hugged me. “Zoey Redbird, you’re a hot mess, but I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

Too soon he let go of me and his expression sobered. “Okay, I want you to tell me everything. I already know you got pissed at the two humans and threw some kind of power at them, but I need specifics.”

“Stark, can’t we just—” I began, not wanting to waste a second of being with him to talk about the terrible mistake I’d made.

He cut me off. “No, we can’t just ignore it. Zoey, you’re a lot of things, but you’re not a killer.”

“I slammed two guys against a wall, and they’re dead. That makes me a killer, Stark.”

“See, I have a problem with that. I think that makes your Seer Stone a killer. That’s why you gave it to Aphrodite, isn’t it? Because it was what channeled your anger at those two guys.”

I’d opened my mouth to start trying to explain to him what I didn’t understand myself, but the sound of feet running down the hallway interrupted me. The guard, red-faced and wide-eyed, appeared at the door.

“Let’s go, let’s go! Gotta get out. Now!” he told Stark, gesturing wildly at him. “One of you vampyres can stay, but it has to be out here in the hallway. The rest of you gotta get outta here—go back to where you came from.”

“Wait, it hasn’t even been five minutes, let alone fifteen,” Stark said.

“Nothing I can do about that. Everything’s going on lockdown. There’s an emergency downtown.”

I followed Stark to the door, feeling like an ice cube was making a trail down my spine.

“Where downtown? What’s going on?” I asked.

“All hell’s broken loose at the Mayo, and they need every cop the city can spare there.”

The door to my cell slammed closed, leaving Stark and me to stare at each other through the bars.

“Neferet,” Stark said.

“Ah, hell,” I said in complete agreement.

CHAPTER THREE

Neferet

It had been midmorning on a sleepy Sunday when Neferet commanded her threads of Darkness to open their embrace and allow her to drift from their thick cloud of blood and death to the sidewalk in front of the Mayo. She straightened her white Armani suit and swept back her long auburn hair. Neferet was ready for her glorious return to the penthouse that awaited her amid marble and stone and velvet on the rooftop. She opened the vintage brass and glass door and then paused just inside the entrance, sighing happily at the vast ballroom that opened before her, resplendent in white marble, statuesque columns, grand 1920s fixtures, and a double staircase that curved up to the promenade with the grace of a goddess’s satisfied smile.

Her dark brows lifted. Her emerald gaze sharpened. Neferet studied her surroundings with renewed interest.

“It is, indeed, a building exquisite enough to be the temple of a goddess.” Neferet smiled. “My temple. My home.”

“Miss Neferet! Is it really you? We have been so worried that something terrible happened to you when your penthouse was vandalized.”

Neferet looked from the grand ballroom to the young woman who beamed at her from behind the reception desk.

“My temple. My home. My supplicants.” She knew what she must do. Why had it taken her so long to think of it? Possibly because she had never absorbed as many deaths at once as she had just moments before arriving at the Mayo. Like her faithful tendrils, Neferet was pulsing with power, and that power focused and clarified her thinking. “Yes, that is exactly how it must be. Every human in this building must worship me.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am. I don’t understand what you mean.”

“Oh, you will. Very shortly you will.” The receptionist’s beaming smile had begun to fade. With preternatural movement, Neferet glided toward her. She glanced at the girl’s golden name tag. “Yes, Kylee, my dear. Very shortly you will understand me completely. But first you are going to tell me how many guests are currently staying in the hotel.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” Kylee said, looking thoroughly uncomfortable. “I can’t give out that information. Maybe if you told me what you need I—”

Neferet leaned forward, stroking her hand along the rich marble top of the reception counter, cutting her off and capturing the girl’s gaze. “You will not question me. You will never question me. You will do as I command.”

“I-I’m sorry, ma’am. I didn’t mean to offend you, but information about guests of the hotel is confidential. Our—our p-privacy policy is one of the things about which we are most d-diligent,” she stuttered, her hands trembling nervously as she clutched at the gold chain that held a crucifix around her neck.

Even had Neferet not been psychic, she would have known the extent of the girl’s fear—little Kylee reeked of it.

“Excellent! Now that you are going to be following my commands, I will expect you to be even more vigilant about privacy—my privacy.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am. Do you mean that you have purchased the Mayo Hotel?” Kylee’s confusion intensified along with her fear.

“Oh, much better than that, and much more permanent. I have decided to make this lovely building my first Temple. But did I not just command you not to ever question me?” Neferet sighed and made a tsking sound. “Kylee, you are going to have to do much better in the future. But do not worry your little blond head. I am a benevolent Goddess. I intend to be certain you get the help you need to be my perfect supplicant.”

As Kylee gasped like a fish bereft of water, Neferet turned her back to her and faced the sea of tendrils that, unseen by the doltish Kylee, lapped over the marble floor and washed caressingly against her legs. “Children, you have fed exceedingly well. Now it is time you repaid me for the bounty I provided.” They writhed excitedly, a nest of mating adders, and Neferet smiled fondly at them. “Yes, I have given you my oath. That was only the beginning of our feasting. But you must work for your food. I refuse to have children who are miscreants.” She laughed gaily. “Now, I shall need one of you to possess this human. No! You may not kill her,” Neferet clarified when a dozen or so tendrils began to slither with excited and obvious purpose toward Kylee. “Follow my mind into hers. Use my pathway to her innermost thoughts, wishes, desires, then coil there, around her will, and squeeze. Not enough to kill her, or rob her of whatever she has that passes for reason. I won’t have a Temple full of gibbering idiots. I will have a Temple full of obedient servants. Possess her, so that I may be certain of her obedience!”

Neferet whirled around to face the girl, whose face had paled so dramatically that her brown eyes looked like dark bruises within it.

“Miss Neferet, please don’t hurt me!” she said, beginning to cry.

“Kylee, my dear, my first human supplicant, this really is for the best. Free will is a terrible burden. I had free will when I was a girl, not much younger than you, and yet I was trapped in a life not of my choosing and abused. Too often that happens to humans. Look at yourself—this menial job, that substandard clothing. Do you not want more from your life?”

“Y-yes,” Kylee said.

“Well, then, it is settled. If I take away your free will, I also take away the unexpected terrors life can bring. From this moment on, Kylee, I will protect you from unexpected terrors.” Neferet captured the girl’s wide-eyed gaze and bored into her mind. She was too focused on Kylee to look down, but she knew a strong, faithful tendril had obeyed her and was slithering up the girl’s body. Though she couldn’t see what was crawling up her leg, Kylee could definitely feel it. She opened her mouth and began to scream. “End her terror and enter her!” Neferet commanded, and the tendril shot up and into her open mouth.

Kylee gagged convulsively, and only Neferet’s grip on her mind kept her from fainting. “So very human. So very weak,” the Goddess muttered as she probed the girl’s mind, feeling the familiar presence of Darkness following. When she found the center of Kylee’s will—her soul, her consciousness—Neferet commanded, “Encase it!” With that extra sense—the one gifted to her by another Goddess more than a century before—Neferet witnessed Darkness imprisoning Kylee’s will.

The girl slumped, her body twitching spasmodically. “Remember well the pathway I just showed you, children. Kylee is only the first of many.” Neferet clapped her hands together quickly. “Come now, Kylee. Pull yourself together, my dear. Your life has just become so much more, and I have other commands you must obey.”

Kylee jerked upright as if she were a puppet on a string.

“There, that is so much better. Now, tell me how many guests are in the hotel, and remember, no more of that irritating screaming.”

“Yes ma’am,” Kylee responded instantly and mechanically.

Neferet’s smile returned. She was filled to overflowing with power! Humans must worship her—with their feeble wills and their easily manipulated minds, they really had no choice. “And stop calling me ma’am. Call me Goddess.”

“Yes, Goddess,” Kylee repeated automatically, her voice utterly devoid of emotion. Then she began tapping at her keyboard while she stared, stone-faced, at her computer screen. “We currently have seventy-two guests, Goddess.”

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