I used to be a normal girl, but all that changed when a vampire tried to eat me, because I’m apparently supposed to be a freakishly powerful witch… so much for being normal!

Steel says that the wards aren’t holding like they used to. More and more vampires are slipping through the cracks, like the one that tried to kill me in the woods! He fears there will come a point where even the nightly patrols of his shifter order won’t be enough to keep the bloodsuckers imprisoned where they belong.

 

The stakes are high, but I never asked for any of this. If you look up HERO in the dictionary I guarantee you won’t find my picture there. I’m just smart enough to be terrified of my ineptitudes being responsible for the end of the human race. Do I really have it in me to be all Merliny? And what does it mean for the world if I don’t?

 

Sample chapters

CHAPTER ONE

My name is Crystal Banks, and I used to comfort myself with the hard-earned knowledge of an advanced education. I could spew grammar rules with the best of them, and if the book was considered a classic I’d probably read it at least once. Sure, there had been a few reading assignments that had been so awful that I’d been forced to whip out the SparkNotes. Thank God for summaries. Don’t judge me. After all, I’m only human . . . well, at least mostly human. There’s also some witch running through my bloodlines.

My once simple grasp on reality had been radically altered since I’d moved into the mansion. If only someone would offer me a magic pill to erase the past. How I longed to return to a life where my biggest problems were centered around money! I would have swallowed down my anti-magic medication with a heaping glass of water. Heck, I probably would have doubled up on the dose just to be certain that it worked. Sadly, no one seemed willing to prescribe me such a wonder-drug.

Monsters weren’t supposed to be real; they were just creatures in stories, fictitious elements designed for entertainment value and nothing more. Or so I’d thought. Now I appeared to be living in a fairytale, but not the nice kind where the worse thing to happen to the princess was being forced to spend the night on a lumpy mattress. My life was more like a cautionary tale than a dream come true.

Naive me had believed that vampires were nothing more than pale hotties in movies for teenagers. Those weren’t the types of films that I chose to watch voluntarily. Funny, huh? Maybe I would’ve been better off if I hadn’t spent my whole life trying to be so darned “realistic.” Maybe if I’d been more into make-believe I would have caught on faster to what was actually transpiring all around me!

Point of fact, I hated the thought of the supernatural so much that I cut all ties with my family years ago because I was sick to death of hearing about frog’s brains, magical fairy dust, and how it was my destiny to be a great witch. Trust me, nothing gets a kid bullied faster than living with people that act and dress like members of the Addams Family. Turns out my relatives were right all along though, and now I was going to have to learn to eat my words.

But just because I was going to have to suck it up and eat crow eventually, didn’t mean I was quite ready to do it yet. I was going to need more time before I was willing to reach out to my family and admit that they were right. I was distinctly uncomfortable when I considered that I might just owe my mother an apology. It just so happens that irony is a merciless bitch. Not content with being right, she had to rub my nose in it too.

All I wanted was a job in publishing, but somehow I wound up working odd hours with a billionaire shapeshifter who basically kept vampires from taking over the world every night. He was domineering, rude, and sexy as all get out, and oh, did I mention I was sleeping with the guy? Good thing he owned the company or HR would likely have been all over our collective asses.

Speaking of asses, just thinking about the man’s perfectly rounded hind quarters made my skin flush in anticipation, which was crazy because it’d only been a few hours since we’d last been “skintimate.” I had no idea what was wrong with me. Lately my issues had become so numerous that I couldn’t possibly have listed them all on paper for you.

Steel and I had never blocked out time to have a conversation about our future. Not having had the quintessential girlfriend-boyfriend talk, I wasn’t really certain how to quantify or label our relationship. I didn’t really care . . . or at least that was the current lie I was telling myself. So long as the relentless sexathon never ceased, I chose to simply bask in the afterglow of one orgasm to the next. Basically, I was one happy girl.

Of course, labels or no, exclusivity was a pretty hard line for me, as in Mr. Eric Steel had better keep his hands off other women if he wanted to retain the privilege of putting them all over my naked body. Yup, I was pretty big on the whole faithful thing. If he cheated on me like my last boyfriend, I was going to learn how to put a hex on him! Sure, I may not have had the first clue about how to use my powers, but only an idiot screwed with a witch.

I rolled to my side, preparing to burrow deeper into the delicious warmth that Steel’s bear shifter body never failed to deliver. But I encountered nothing but a big empty space. Well that was disappointing. I opened my eyes, blinking as I waited for my pupils to adjust to the dark gloom of my bedroom.

Not only had the man departed from the king-sized mattress, he seemed to have disappeared from the room entirely. I couldn’t just go back to sleep, because my Curious George brain had decided to go into full-on detective mode. So maybe I should have said a very lazy Curious George mode, because all of my sleuthing was done from a supine position.

I squinted at the light-up numbers on the digital clock, noting that it was scarcely four a.m. My sleep-addled mind wondered briefly where he could have gone, and then I experienced a face smacking “Duh” moment because I’d just solved the mystery. I knew exactly where he’d snuck off to in the middle of the night.

A few months ago, when I’d taken a job as the man’s personal assistant, I’d felt as though I was taking a giant step back in life. After all, I’d spent years slaving over stinky old textbooks to obtain a master’s degree in English. I’d wanted to work in a prestigious publishing house, not in the middle of nowhere where I was currently residing.

I’d learned to write thirty-page research essays devoid of any biased opinions or emotions. That hadn’t been easy for me, since I have strong feelings on more topics than I could possibly list. I’d sought my degree with laser focus, eschewing more than one personal relationship in the process. I’d been driven with a capital D. Only recently had I begun to speculate about the supposed wisdom of my actions.

I’m one of those people who just loves words, including grammar rules and all of the idiosyncrasies of the English language. Don’t judge me. We all have our little quirks. I was going to be the one who helped edit and publish what would inevitably become the classics of untold future generations.

And if I couldn’t do that, well then I was going to help all those exciting books people actually wanted to read get published. Either way, I was going to be a literary rock star. But whoever was guiding the course of my destiny had other ideas for me.

All of my awesome plans had been dashed to bits right after I graduated. I’d walked in on my boyfriend Bryce screwing the brains out of some blonde with boobs three times the size of mine and that had been the end of that relationship. To make matters even worse, they’d been doing it right on top of my favorite new sheets. Talk about icky. All those lovely high thread counts had been contaminated forever.

As if he somehow hadn’t betrayed me enough the bastard had used his illustrious family’s connections to blacklist me with all the major publishing houses. I was a well-educated pariah. No one would hire me and I was desperate. So, when I’d seen a bunch of people standing around waiting to be interviewed at Steel Corp, I’d hopped in line.

The personal assistant position may have been beneath me in title, but the salary certainly wasn’t anything to frown about. Wonder of wonders, Steel hired me even after I pulled the crazy stunt of forcing my way into his office. His frazzled receptionist had heatedly insisted that I leave the building because the big cheese was no longer conducting interviews, but I hadn’t taken no for an answer. She’d been forced to scurry after me while hollering for security.

Steel himself hadn’t seemed all that keen on me until Lauren, the smoking hot blonde sitting behind his desk, had informed him that I was “the one.” For reasons that I wouldn’t understand until later, Steel had listened to the blonde and offered me a job with the stipulation that if I failed to return before his chopper left the roof I was out of luck.

Like a bull being flashed a tempting red cape, I’d eagerly accepted his challenge. I’d even managed to fleece a hundred bucks out of the billionaire to pay for my cab fare. I’d desperately needed the cash because I was flat stinking broke.

I’d left most of my worldly possessions behind me, including my shoes at the bottom of the world’s steepest staircase. Then I’d jumped into a helicopter with my mysterious new employer. And that, my friends, was when things had started to get weird.

The man lived in a museum quality mansion that looked like it belonged in Europe, not America, yet there it stood in all its radiant, historically accurate beauty. How the thing wasn’t plagued by constant tour groups was an enigma to me. Sales to tour the Biltmore Estate would have literally plummeted overnight if the existence of the residence had become common knowledge.

I’d walked into a spacious and grand foyer that would have been breathtakingly beautiful . . .  had it not been for the occult inspired mural on the ceiling depicting beautiful vampires feasting on innocent humans. The painting also contained warrior shifters and witches working together to tear those same vampires into pieces and burn them into ash with magic fire. The painting had given me nightmares long before the point that I’d realized there was something seriously off about Steel’s house, and I’m not talking about the fact that it has over a hundred bedrooms which would certainly have been intimidating enough for me.

Steel and my relationship got off to a rough start. Lots of insults, loads of teasing, a horrifically intimate moment where we were rudely interrupted whilst mostly naked, and a whole lot of misunderstanding on both sides. The man was bossy and domineering, which should have been a complete turnoff and yet somehow it had the opposite effect on me.

At one point during my stay, I was attacked by a bat during my bubble bath. Not wanting to contract rabies and die, I ran outside wearing nothing but the skin God gave me. That’s when things between Steel and I had reached a new low.

He had shown up immediately after I’d triggered the alarms, and honestly if anyone was more embarrassed about me being caught in my birthday suit it was him. He’d bravely entered the danger zone to kill said bat in my honor, but when he’d been unable to find any trace of the creature he’d instantly leaped to the conclusion that I’d made the whole thing up in an attempt to seduce him. As if!

That had been the last straw for me, because he’d done the unthinkable and gravely wounded my pride. I’d quit on the spot—a ballsy move considering that I had nowhere to go and no other prospects of employment at the time. At least I’d been there long enough to cash in my first paycheck. I’d hoped that would keep the financial wolves at bay long enough for me to find gainful employment elsewhere.

He’d implored me to at least wait until morning, and I’d pretended to acquiesce. But there was no way I was staying in a confined space with Franken Wingy. No longer attempting to reign in my defiant nature, I’d packed a bag and headed out. Initially I’d planned to crash in one of the hundred or so vacant rooms.

But even knowing that curiosity had a penchant for killing cats, I couldn’t quash my obsessive thirst for knowledge. I’d been stifling my meddlesome ways since the moment I had first arrived, but because I wanted to keep my crappy job I’d managed to resist the urge to snoop. Since I no longer had to worry about getting fired, I knew it was the perfect time to investigate.

It was time to find out exactly what Steel was hiding in the west wing. When I’d discovered a bunch of dried herbs, spell books, and other sorcery implements, I’d become immediately convinced that the man was an evil warlock set on turning me into a mindless zombie slave. Then I’d had a major freak out moment.

That’s when I’d decided to steal my favorite antique car from his garage and burn rubber down the driveway. My grand-theft-auto-escape-plan might have worked perfectly had it not been for two pesky details. Number one, Steel, that infuriating man, had chained and padlocked the gate so I couldn’t leave the estate. Number two, the little bat had suddenly become human-sized and wanted nothing more than to poke a straw in me and slurp out all the red punch inside my veins.

Completely out of options, I’d fled on foot into the spooky woods that pulsed incessantly with an eerie blue light. I learned pretty fast that in addition to being able to fly, vampires can run a hell of a lot faster than mere humans. I would have been toast if Steel hadn’t crashed into the clearing. Only it wasn’t Steel in the human form I knew. No, this was Steel in his shifter form, which was a majestically powerful bear body covered in intricate metal armor just like the set in the painting of his ancestors. I may or may not have panicked, fearing that I was going to be mauled to death by the bear and sucked dry by the vampire.

It came as a total surprise when the big scary bear started attacking the vampire instead of trying to eat me. What’s that saying? The enemy of my enemy . . . is a freaking bear shifter! Okay, so we all know that’s not the exact quote, but it’s close enough. The warrior bear fought valiantly, and eventually the vampire grew tired of their battle. He opted out on the fight altogether and decided to use his superior speed to gobble up the prize, as in yours truly.

As it turned out, dumb luck was my saving grace. I’d brought my crudely snapped tree branch up just in time to stake the vampire and keep the red Kool-Aid inside of me where it belonged. The supernaturally seductive bloodsucker had exploded into ashy fireworks all around me, and believe me when I say that filth is really hard to clean off.

Steel hurried me back to the mansion where he spent the pre-dawn hours informing me of the real history of Steel Corp, as well as the actual reason he’d agreed to hire me on as his personal assistant. Here’s the five-peso version. I’m descended from a long line of powerful witches, the very same witches featured on the painting on the ceiling in the entryway mural.

About four hundred years ago, witches and shifters united in order to imprison the deadly vampires in a realm beyond the reach of our own human world. Basically the witch (i.e., “me”) acted like a giant battery and kept the magical gateway locked and the mean thirsty vampires trapped where they belonged.

There had been other witches before me, but according to Lauren, the blonde witch who’d sensed my abilities and told Steel to hire me, there hadn’t been any as powerful as me in a long, long time. No one really understood why, but as generations had gone by, the witch’s descendants had grown progressively weaker. There were few left that could do more than read palms or tarot cards.

Basically I was the Energizer Freaking Bunny, and if I left the house for more than a few hours at a time I was damning humanity to a gruesome death. Talk about a lot of pressure, sheesh! As you’ve no doubt guessed by now I don’t get out of the house much.

So yeah, I was alone in bed. And although my sleep groggy brain had wondered where Steel had gone, I knew he had an important job too. Sometimes a vampire or two managed to wriggle through a weak spot in the enchanted forest, which is how the bat that attacked me had gotten out. The spells around the magical prison weren’t perfect, but they kept most of the vampires locked up where they belonged.

Jailbreaks didn’t happen all the time, but it was a definite flaw in the system, which necessitated nightly patrols by Steel and his band of merry men, a.k.a. the Order of the Bear. So, Steel and his pack of shifters patrolled the grounds after dark, and they killed anything undead. I know, I know, it all seems a little redundant, but there really are dead things that need to be made deader . . . I mean more dead . . . you know, I really don’t think that the English language has a word that encompasses this. Maybe I should coin a new phrase, something like how “hanged” had an entirely different meaning than “hung.” Maybe dead just needed different levels like dead, deader, and deadest?

I appear to have digressed, so I’ll try to focus back in on the essentials here. Like I said, Steel worked with a whole pack of shifters who stayed in nearby cabins and helped patrol the hundreds of acres that comprised the grounds surrounding the mansion. I’d yet to meet any of the other shapeshifters except for Bryan, but it was certainly a relief to know that they were out there. Knowing that they were working to keep us all safe helped me sleep at night, although sadly I was still suffering from nightmares on a regular basis.

The best thing about my near-death experience was the fact that I no longer had my ridiculous ten to eight curfew. Now that I knew all about the boogey man, I’d renegotiated the terms of our relationship. I was Steel’s personal assistant in name only, and as a sort of generous signing bonus I’d made him pay off all of my school loans and credit card debt.

Before you start thinking that I was whoring myself out, let me go ahead and put a stop to that nonsense. The sexy times were just a bonus in our unusual working arrangement, and they had absolutely nothing to do with my salary. Everything was still new and shiny and I suspected that he was still hiding some secrets from me, but in spite of my usually pessimistic nature I was actually looking forward to seeing just where the future might take us.

I sensed him before I heard anything that would have clued me in to his return. I didn’t know if it was a witch thing or something special just between us, but somehow I could feel whenever the man was near, unless I was too upset or distracted to notice him anyway. It wasn’t exactly a super power, but I was willing to take whatever added help I could snag at this point.

“You’re awake,” he stated softly as he pulled back the covers and spooned up against me.

“I was lonely,” I replied coyly, although it wasn’t really necessary to tease the man.

He wasn’t naked, but even through the added barrier of his pants I could detect a thick bulge pressed up hotly against me in the most distracting manner. It was pretty obvious that he wanted the same thing I did. I sighed happily when I felt his fingertips begin to trace the outline of my nipple through the gauzy lace of my pajamas.

The man’s sex drive was as vast as his financial holdings. One might say that I was easy, but I preferred to say that I was pretty darned receptive to his advances. Maybe I should have played a little hard to get here and there, but why deny myself the pleasure when he was so willing to oblige my every whim?

Even if it hadn’t been necessary for me to stay and provide the magical energy that kept the vampire prison in perpetual lockdown, I don’t know if I would have ever wanted to leave the man’s side. He flipped me over onto my back and his tongue laved my nipples, wetting the thin layer of silk and lace that separated us. It was erotic as hell, and let’s just say that my headlights turned on immediately and the “girls” were definitely ready to take an early morning drive.

He shimmied the silk sleep shorts down my legs and then stepped away from the bed for a brief moment, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I felt instantly bereft. Oh how I yearned for his return. I needed him to come back, and to never stop touching me.

I heard the faint whisper of fabric moving as he tugged the clothes hurriedly from his body and then rejoined me in bed. I mewled contentedly and ran my hands all over his perfect body. I would never get enough of the contact of his skin against my own. His touch was like heaven, and I wanted to dwell inside of his embrace in perpetuity.

He altered his position slightly, adjusting his legs to rest before him and reclining his back against the headboard. His fingers trailed languorously down my breasts, and then over to my sides where they spanned my waist. I was just getting ready to tell him that there were other parts of me that needed his touch more when he lifted me up and I caught the gist of his action plan. I was never one to balk at a new position, especially not when my partner was so skilled.

My feminine portal opened willingly as he sat me down hard, impaling me upon the length of his deliciously rigid mast. There was no need for lubrication because our foreplay had insured that I was sopping wet and ready. I closed my eyes as I savored the fullness of our joining. It was more than a physical act, it was as though he were filling some deeper hole in my soul as well.

Although it was an athletically demanding position, I had no complaints as he was literally doing all the heavy lifting. Impressive muscles rippled in his arms, and I squealed when his flesh hit mine in just the right spot. He paused his thrusts momentarily, and removed a hand from my side. He leaned forward, snagging one of my nipples between his fingers and I gasped when he tugged it repeatedly harder. My hands sought purchase on his tightly muscled thighs, anchoring myself to him.

I was experiencing so many sensations at once that I didn’t know what to focus on. Every time he moved it created a delicious friction and it felt as though he was somehow firing up all of the swollen membranes inside of me. As he continued his ministrations I began to pant, growing increasingly wanton as I lost control. I screamed as the orgasm tore through me, and his manacle grip tightened about my waist as he increased his pace, thrusting wildly inside of me. I knew the exact moment of his release, felt the hot spray of his seed in my womb, and impossibly yet another climax tore through me.

I felt drowsy and contented, like a cat in a warm ray of sun. Always reluctant to sever our intimate union Steel shifted me carefully and cradled me in his arms as he curled up onto his side, throwing an arm and a leg across me. Who needs a blanket when you have your very own bearskin rug? I drifted off to sleep contentedly in his arms, refusing to think about what a sticky mess we would both be when we woke.

We hadn’t spoken of love yet, and honestly it was way too soon to have that talk, but I felt the emotion swelling within my breast all the same. Steel may have been reserved in speech and manner, but when it came to our physical union he held nothing back. He was a consummate lover.

Maybe that’s why I always wanted to have sex. So long as we were joined physically, I had no doubt of his strong feelings for me. When we were fully clothed and talking like grownups I wasn’t sure of anything.

I fell asleep instantly, secure in the cocoon of my bear’s arms. I don’t know how much time passed, but it wasn’t long enough. A knock sounded on the door, jarring us both from the warm embrace of the deepest of slumbers, the kind only achieved after mind blowing coitus. Steel didn’t bother to dress as he strode angrily over to see who’d dared to wake us. I barely had time to pull the sheet up to my neck before Steel threw open the door to bellow at our intruder.

“Someone had better be dying!” he barked loudly.

CHAPTER TWO

Lauren waited serenely before him, completely unfazed by either his anger or his nudity. As always, she was dressed to the nines and everything from her nails to her hair was camera ready, not that she was a movie star or anything. Although, with her perky breasts and all that long blonde hair, she certainly looked like she belonged on a magazine cover somewhere.

“Eric darling, I know how busy you are, what with all the fornication you’ve been studiously laboring to perform . . .”

I gasped indignantly, and when Steel turned to look at me Lauren used the brief window of opportunity to breeze past him into the room. Then she began doggedly opening the blinds one at a time. I blushed and sank lower into the covers, wishing the bed would just swallow me whole and end my mortification once and for all. It wasn’t that I was a flighty virgin or anything, but I was all about my privacy. I wanted nothing more than to vanish from sight, and escape this whole conversation. Lauren may have been turning on the charm, but I could spot a brewing confrontation from a mile away.

No such luck on the escape front. After she finished flooding the room with daylight, Lauren hunkered down on the edge of the bed, effectively trapping the corner of my modesty sheet. Essentially I wasn’t going anywhere, unless I chose to flee in the buff.

“You’re overstepping yourself!” Steel roared loudly, the violent tenor of his voice hinting at just how close his animal was to the surface.

“Actually, I don’t believe I am,” Lauren argued, removing an invisible piece of lint from her blouse. “Everyone else agrees that the girl needs to be trained, and I can’t do that with you keeping her chained to this bed all day, every day.”

If I had known how to use my powers, that would have been the point where I’d have disappeared, poofing dramatically into a swirling vortex of smoke. I wondered if there was a sorceress’s handbook or something. If so, the art of vanishing gracefully was probably in there somewhere. It was probably listed directly after the passage where Mickey Mouse had learned to enchant the mops and brooms to do his dirty work for him.

I’d thought that Lauren and I had at least been on our way to becoming friends before that morning. She’d even told me to call her Lori once, not that I ever did. We weren’t exactly into painting each other’s nails while we gossipped about boys. After this I wasn’t sure if I’d ever be able to look her straight in the face again. Yup, our being BFFs was definitely off the table now.

“The girl is sitting right here . . . and she has a name,” I muttered tersely.

I tried to tug on the edge of the sheet once more, but to no avail. The thing might as well have been nailed to the bedframe for all the give it had. The universe was out to get me, and her name was Lauren. Maybe if I pulled a pillow over my head it would muffle the noise enough for me to be able to go back to sleep.

“She needs time to recover from her attack!” Steel ground back heatedly.

They probably would have continued to argue back and forth indefinitely if it hadn’t been for the next intrusion. Just when I thought the morning couldn’t possibly get any worse, Mrs. Turner walked straight out of the 1960’s in her pale pink Chanel dress suit. She poised in the doorway and patted her hair to make sure every strand of her Jackie O hairdo was still perfectly in place. She looked far too good for ninety years old, and although she claimed it was all due to her healthy diet I strongly suspected she’d been under the knife at least once. Whoever her surgeon was, I only hoped he was still practicing when I got old enough to require his services.

“I didn’t spend two hours slaving over a hot stove so that my scones could be ignored. We will continue this discussion in the dining room over breakfast.” She pivoted and leveled a gaze at Steel first and then at me before adding, “And clothing is mandatory.”

Is it possible to die from embarrassment? I guess not, because surely that would have been the moment I croaked if ever there was one.

***

 

Mrs. Turner’s culinary abilities were legendary, and if Lauren hadn’t risen speedily from the bed I probably would have streaked past her to the bathroom anyway. No one stands between me and my breakfast! Ideally I would have showered first, but I decided that if I couldn’t laze about in bed all day with Steel then I wanted an intimate reminder of him on my body.

He’d explained to me once that he loved smelling his scent on me, and instead of being horrified I’d discovered the thought totally turned me on. Nothing beats the nose of a bear shifter, or so I’d been told. Of course I couldn’t go too long without showering, or said bear nose would be doubly offended by my body odor. Sexercise was sweaty work.

I hurriedly pulled on my clothes without even looking to see if they matched. My stomach started rumbling vociferously which led to my decision to forgo first makeup, and then shoes as I hot-footed it towards the formal dining room. Most meals we just took in the kitchen with Mrs. Turner, but apparently a business meeting warranted a more formal setting.

Somehow Steel had managed to pull on a three-piece suit and yet he’d still beat me to the table. He and Lauren were still verbally sparring, but Mrs. Turner and Steel’s business partner, Bryan, were also tag teaming in and out of the heated debate. I hummed under my breath sarcastically as I tried to ignore the lot of them, which wasn’t hard because they were all talking about me as though I wasn’t present.

I snagged a plate from the side table and filled it generously with scrambled eggs, bacon, and of course, scones. I’d never been a huge fan of breakfast before moving to the mansion, but thanks to the supernatural energy-pull zapping me from the magical wards, I was always hungry these days. I didn’t mind the constant need to eat though, not so long as I got to gorge myself on Mrs. Turner’s decadent fare . . . and provided my pants continued to buckle each morning.

“This is my house,” Steel growled.

“The importance of ownership pales when one considers that this property and its wards also happen to be the only thing protecting the human race from the vampires,” Bryan interjected as he reached for yet more butter. With a body as ripped as his, one would assume that fat never passed through his lips, but no one turned down one of the old cook’s culinary creations. He moaned around a mouthful of scone and turned to Mrs. Turner. “Say you’ve changed your mind and decided to work for me instead of Sir Scowls-A-Lot. You can remodel my kitchen however you want.”

“Not likely,” the older woman replied saucily, obviously enjoying the attention of the attractive younger male. I suppose that only goes to show that it doesn’t matter how old you get, because us women never cease to enjoy the attention of cute flirtatious boys.

Steel politely pulled out a chair for me and I couldn’t help but appreciate his old-fashioned manners. Too bad he had to go and sour the beautiful gesture, because the moment my butt hit the upholstered seat he went right back to ignoring me as he and everyone else returned to discussing what I would or wouldn’t be doing with my time. I could have been tap dancing and belting out the “Mr. Cellophane” song from the musical Chicago. I really did feel like they could “look right through me, walk right by me, and never know” I was there.

Instead of squandering important energy reserves on righteous indignation I opted to dive in and enjoy the veritable feast Mrs. Turner had slaved over. I bit into the fluffy scone and moaned contentedly as the flaky pastry melted in my mouth like butter. How the woman didn’t have her own celebrity cooking show was a complete mystery so far as I was concerned. She could spend half the episode giving horticulture tips in her secret garden, and then the rest of the show would be all about turning those organic ingredients into gourmet food.

“I am the head of the ORDER!” Steel actually shouted the last word at Lauren, shoving the plate Mrs. Turner had tried to offer him off to the side and out of his way. Technically this was infringing on my personal space, but it was a big table so I just nudged my plate a little further to the left and kept on eating.

At least he’d already divulged the existence of the Order of the Bear, or I would have totally been lost. The Order was an ancient group of shapeshifters, even older than the four-centuries-old prison gateway, that had banded together in order to protect humanity from extinction. Not all of the shapeshifters were bears, but Steel’s ancestor had been the most badass beast in the lot, so they’d all agreed on bear, because the Order of the Random Shapeshifting Collection of Beasts just didn’t sound as impressive. I liked to call it TOOTB, because the title was too long, but mainly because it had annoyed Steel so much the first time he heard me say it that I found I couldn’t stop.

“Shifters have the worst tempers,” Lauren muttered disdainfully.

“Ummm, you may be the head of the Order, but we all risk our lives every night, and that means we get a say too,” Bryan interjected.

Did I mention that Bryan is a shifter too? Originally he’d been introduced as one of Steel’s business partners, which he was, but he did a whole lot more than push pencils at Steel Corp. I hadn’t asked him what animal he shifted into yet because it seemed rude, almost like asking someone how much they weighed or their age. If I’d had to wager a guess, I would have gone out on a limb and proposed that he was more than likely a bear shifter too, being as he was Steel’s right-hand man.

“This isn’t just a real estate issue here. It doesn’t matter that the house is yours. The real problem is the fact that the wards are weakening,” Lauren added.

“More bloodsuckers have escaped their prison in the past year than in the previous two decades,” Bryan added. “It takes several of us working in tandem to take down one of them, even in their devitalized states. If so much as a single vampire manages to sneak past our patrols and feed, the damage will be extensive.”

“She must learn to use her powers. She is the next layer of defense,” Lauren added. “I simply have too many other duties to remain here indefinitely.”

“Still right here,” I groused, not that anyone bothered to acknowledge my presence or anything. Mrs. Turner had yet to speak, but I had a feeling that if and when she chose to use her words she would be accorded not only attention but respect. It was probably because no one wanted to be cut off from her cooking.

I happily masticated away on a mouthful of scone. I’ve always loved that word, something about it just seems dirty even if it is just a fancy way of saying chewed. Everyone needed to stop yelling so I could enjoy my meal. I bet Mrs. Turner knew some boringly fascinating facts about stress and indigestion, but I was afraid to ask, because it would inevitably morph into a lecture on my shameful dietary habits and we’d had that conversation too many times already.

I didn’t know what she’d done to the eggs, but they shouldn’t even be called eggs anymore because they tasted so much better. I never would have thought to add kale and sundried tomatoes to breakfast food. Heck, a few months ago I’d never even suspected that Kale was edible. I’d seen it once before on a salad bar, but it hadn’t been on the menu; they’d been using it as a decoration.

“It seems to me like you don’t care if anything happens to her,” Lauren accused, pointing a finger at Steel. She paused to take an appreciative sip of her coffee while she waited for his response. Hadn’t she learned yet that it wasn’t wise to bait the bear?

“I WILL KEEP HER SAFE AT ALL COSTS!” Steel roared.

He shot to his feet, kicking the chair out from behind him as he stared the blonde down savagely. I flinched reflexively, realizing how easy it would be for him to injure me if he ever lost control. That was not a mental path I wanted to travel down. He’d never hurt me intentionally, would he?

I’d only seen Eric shift a couple of times, but even I could tell that he was on the verge of an uncontrolled metamorphosis. His entire body appeared to be growing in stature, and the fabric of his shirt was straining tightly against his ever-increasing bulk.

“You’re forgetting that the bat not only made it inside the house, but went straight for her bathroom where it knew her guard would be down,” Bryan interjected.

“They can sense her power,” Lauren added sagely.

“If Crystal hadn’t set off the alarm and run outside you never would have made it back in time,” Bryan said.

“Even if you never left her side for a second there’s no way you could guarantee her safety.”

“You’re only one man,” Bryan added.

“She has to be able to defend herself or else she’s no better than a blood bag with legs,” Lauren hissed.

I so did not like the feelings that that visual evoked in my horrified noggin. Even I was starting to wonder if Lauren might be right here, much as it pained me to admit it after her earlier invasion of my privacy. Yet, even knowing I was in danger, I was still reluctant to go poking around into my paranormal abilities. Wasn’t it enough that I was willing to camp out in the freaking mansion twenty-four seven?

Why did it have to be me? I’d never asked for any of this. I’d been told repeatedly that witches weren’t strong anymore, that I was freakishly powerful, blah blah blah. Apparently I was way more potent than even Lauren, whose body could no longer sustain the constant drain of the mansion’s magical wards. I lacked training, but the raw material was there inside me, just waiting to be plumbed.

Even knowing all of this, the thought of plunging deeper still into my new identity rankled. If you’re the only person who can do something about a problem, does that automatically mean it’s your duty to fix it? Stupid vampires. They had robbed me of far more than a peaceful breakfast experience, they were literally ruining my life.

Steel’s fist came down with the force of a blacksmith’s hammer on an anvil, splitting the table right down the middle and sending a mass of china into the air where it proceeded to plummet downwards before shattering on the unrelenting floorboards. I lunged sharply and my uncharacteristically quick reflexes managed to save both my plate and Steel’s from an untimely end.

Eric was covered in fur from head to toe and he was visibly quivering with unbridled rage. Although his bear had been the destructive force behind the “Hulk” table smash, somehow he still stood upright on human’s legs. It was pretty much a miracle that he’d managed to refrain from completely shifting into his bear form.

“That’s quite enough!” Mrs. Turner said shrilly, sounding for once like the old woman she actually was. “You, get out of here and go for a run before you destroy any more of my dishes.”

Steel didn’t acquiesce immediately. His hands shook as he fought an invisible enemy. Two forces were warring within him, and it was a battle of man versus animal. For a moment there his eyes looked a little more human and I thought he might manage to halt and reverse his shift mid-transformation, but the fur mantle wasn’t going anywhere.

“You may teach her, but only if she also undergoes combat training with me as well,” Steel spat out forcibly, from a maw that sounded as though it contained far too many teeth. “If her spells fail her she needs to be able to defend herself through non-magical means.”

“Agreed,” Lauren voiced breezily, as if she’d known all along that he’d come around to her viewpoint.

There was a series of sharp bone cracking sounds as Steel’s skeletal structure thickened and lengthened into his other form. He dropped down on all fours and the floor groaned about his impressive girth. Having completed his shift, he bared his teeth and roared savagely at Lauren from across the broken table.

To her credit she didn’t so much as flinch, although she did exchange her smug expression for a glare of her own. The bear let loose an ear-splitting roar, as though to make certain that his point had been made. Then he lumbered furiously out of the room, bumping into furniture and knocking knick-knacks askew in his wake.

“You. Go open the door for him before he barrels into it,” Mrs. Turner ordered Bryan, shooing him out of the room as though he were a small child. She thrust a hand on her hip and sighed heavily at the damage the shifter bear had wrought on the formal dining room.

I was still sitting there in a dazed stupor, trying to process everything that had just happened. I hadn’t conceded a single damn thing, yet they’d all just agreed that I’d be embarking on Sorcery 101 training in addition to learning freaking ninja warrior skills? I’d watched enough Buffy episodes to know how thrilling all of that would be.

Tapping into the forbidden zone of my witch powers was one thing, but now suddenly they all wanted me to be physically active too! That was the last straw. Steel may have stormed off to have his shifter hissy fit, but this conversation was far from over. I’d never agreed to PE class, let alone physical activity with dangerous weapons added in to the mix. Sometimes you just have to stand your ground . . . or better yet, retreat. Sound the bugle people, it was time to tuck tail and run.

Remember lazy me? Running sucked and even walking was overrated. Don’t even talk to me about cardio training. If I could I would roll around on a wheely office chair all day. That’s living, people. Maybe I should get a Segway. I liked the idea, mainly because it was the antithesis of exertion.

The last time I’d run up some stairs I’d almost had a heart attack! I’d only attempted to work out three times in the past year, and poochy food belly or no I still wouldn’t have bothered if I hadn’t been so sexually frustrated at the time. The swimming and the jogging efforts had all ceased the moment I had entered into my latest friendship . . . you know . . . the one with benefits. The only fitness regime I was even remotely interested in was “sexercise,” and that was because Steel did all the heavy lifting.

Given how mad I was at the man, I intended to keep my legs tightly shut for the foreseeable future. Too bad I wouldn’t get to have the satisfaction of telling him to sleep it off on the couch. He had his own bed to return to, and a hundred other expensive mattresses sprinkled about the enormous mansion if that somehow wasn’t enough for him.

I set my nearly empty plate on the ground and stole a piece of Steel’s untouched bacon. As I savored the crispy goodness I tried to comprehend how my once orderly life had evolved into the mess it was now. It had started out as such a lovely day, but it had devolved to the point where now I wanted to go pout in the corner like a toddler.

“You are cleaning up this mess,” Mrs. Turner informed Lauren.

“I’m not a maid!” Lauren sputtered indignantly.

“You poked the bear, now deal with the consequences,” Mrs. Turner stated resolutely. Once again, I had the feeling that no one could ignore one of the old woman’s dictates and walk away unscathed. I only hoped she wouldn’t suddenly decide that I too was in need of disciplining.

I swiftly stole the rest of Steel’s bacon and both of his scones before promptly bolting from the room. I wouldn’t have put it past Lauren to try to enlist me in clean up duty. Personally, I was on Mrs. Turner’s side. I hoped she would punish Lauren and Steel, and keep them both so busy that they forgot all about little ol’ me.

Just thinking about all of my new job responsibilities made me tired. I’d already quit once, but that was before I’d found out about all the nightmare creatures I was responsible for keeping locked up. Thanks to the vampires I couldn’t just leave and get a new job somewhere else. Nothing was easy anymore.

I was so demanding a new raise, not that I’d ever get to go out and spend any of my new money. Still, it was the principle of the thing. If I had to work harder I deserved a raise. Maybe I should take up a new hobby, like online shopping. I’ve always been a sucker for free shipping.

Would the rest of the household notice if I just crawled back in bed and treated myself to a nice mid-morning nap? Maybe if I slept long enough they’d forget all about this nonsense and allow me to resume my previous schedule, the one where I could do whatever the hell I wanted all day so long as I didn’t leave the premises. Oh, the good old days. I missed them already.

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