The addictive nature of Avery’s blood is the only rationalization for these urges to protect her but it does nothing to change the way I feel. I want to be near her so I may ensure her safety.

It’s hours later when I feel her presence–and fear–as she enters the compound but I rejoice because she’s safe. And so near. I will allow nothing to harm her as long as I live. Faster than the blink of an eye and it’s done without any thought for consequence. I make a vow–the same sacred one I once chastised Curry for pledging when he made an oath to protect Chansey at any cost.

I look at the butterfly pendant dangling from my hand. “I will never allow harm to come to Avery by me or any other.”

Chapter One

Three months later

I wake when I hear the first squeal–and then the second–of the newest residents at the Savannah compound. James Grady and Anna Grace Brennan–my best friend’s newborn children–are home and making their presence well-known.

Wait a minute. Who am I kidding? I wasn’t asleep. I spent the day lying awake thinking of Avery just like I’ve done every day since her arrival three months ago. I can’t blame my lack of sleep on crying babies–especially since they just arrived home for the first time.

The last three days have been the worst. The key to solving the mystery of the blood jewel slipped through my hands. The answers were so close I could taste them but Curry ended it all when he chose to kill Marsala before she could give us an explanation. Without any hesitation at all, he snuffed out my chance at learning what I needed to know so I could keep Avery safe.

I’m furious with Curry but I can never let him know. I was a fool to tell him I loved Avery and now I have to do damage control which means I must lie to my best friend again–and soon–because he won’t wait long before he asks me to explain how I could possibly love a human.

I walk to Curry and Chansey’s bedroom and find the door open. That explains why I was able to hear the crying babies from their soundproof quarters. I tap on their door without a response. I assume neither is able to hear a thing over the shrill screams coming from within so I knock again a little harder. “Come in,” they call out in unison.

I pass through their bedroom into the nursery and stop in the doorway when I see Avery. I make a show of appearing surprised to see her but it’s a sham. I already knew she was there because there’s never a time I don’t feel her presence.

She’s so perfectly beautiful. Nothing seems more natural than to see her rocking one of the babies as she strokes his or her face. It’s an instant reminder of everything she’ll have one day when it’s safe for her to leave this compound. They’re things she’ll share with another man–instead of me–and I can’t stand the thought.

She’s grinning when she looks up. It’s the first smile she’s ever sent in my direction but I know it isn’t for me. It’s a remnant of the happiness she has for the baby she’s holding but I’m not choosy. I’ll take a smile from her any way I can get it. It’s incredibly beautiful and she does it far too little. I wish I had the courage to tell her so.

Her smile fades and I feel the tension that always arises whenever we are in the same room. It always makes me want to leave–and I usually do–because I don’t want to cause her discomfort. I want nothing but happiness for her and if my absence accomplishes that then I’ll always oblige.

I turn to leave but Curry stops me. “Sol? What are you doing up so early?” He has a confused looked on his face.

He’s wrong. His kids must have his brain muddled. “It’s not early.”

“Since when is noon not early for a vampire?”

No way it’s the middle of the day. “Noon? You’ve got to be kidding me.” I look in the direction of the nursery’s curtains but they’re closed.

Curry walks over to the black and white print drapes and pulls one back an inch to show me he’s right. It’s a hazy day but I can easily see that it’s midday. Hmm … That’s perplexing.

I’m now able to see that Chansey is holding Anna Grace since I assume she’d be the one to wear pink-trimmed clothing. She places her daughter on her back on top of her legs and brings her tiny feet up to her mouth for a kiss. “Please tell me our kids aren’t loud enough to wake sleeping vampires.”

“They are some loud little buggers when they join forces but I wasn’t asleep when I heard them crying. I seriously doubt they have the ability to wake the others.”

Chansey never takes her eyes from her daughter. “That’s good to know, isn’t it? We don’t want the other vampires in the house to be grumpy like Uncle Sol, do we?”

“I’m not grumpy.” Am I?

“Take it easy on him, love.” Curry kisses Chansey’s forehead and then looks at me. “Can I see you in your office for a minute?”

And here we go. See you in my office for a minute is code for I need to get you alone. He’s wants to know why I was talking out of my head about loving Avery.

Chansey looks up at her husband so adoringly. Their love for one another is so apparent. And I envy it. “That’s fine but don’t be too long. You know what’s coming and I need help.”

I’m happy for Curry and Chansey but I’m jealous because it’s what I want for myself with Avery. I’ve accepted that it can never be but it doesn’t keep me from dreaming.

“Avery, would you mind sitting with Chansey and the babies for a few minutes? It’s almost their feeding time so she’ll probably need some assistance with whoever isn’t eating while she nurses the other.” He always ensures that Chansey is taken care of even in his absence.

“Sure.” Avery brings James Grady up so his cheek brushes hers. “I have no objections to holding one of these precious little angels.”

“We shouldn’t be long.” That at least sounds reassuring.

“I’m in no hurry to get rid of this sweet angel.” Avery strokes her index finger down his forehead and slope of his nose. He closes his eyes when she repeats the motion and he doesn’t open them again. It’s like some kind of newborn magic sleep trick.

I can’t help but overhear the conversation between Chansey and Avery as we leave. “Anna Grace usually throws a fit to eat about fifteen minutes before James Grady decides he’s ready. I guess she thinks ladies should go first but he always decides he’s starving about halfway through her feeding. I haven’t managed to master nursing them at the same time.”

Too much information. I didn’t want to think about one–much less two–kids nursing on Chansey at the same time. I’m a vampire. That kind of mundane stuff is more than I want to know.

We’re walking toward my office and I push the breastfeeding conversation aside as I try to decide how I’ll handle Curry’s questions. I should have already considered this conversation and decided on something to say but I chose to not think about it because I don’t want to answer the tough questions he has for me.

“I’m glad Avery is here. It’s good for Chansey to have another woman in the house.”

He doesn’t say it but Curry doesn’t mean just any woman. He means another human woman. “I know Chansey loves Gia and Lairah but I’m sure it means a lot to her to have a human in her life so she isn’t surrounded by vampires all the time.”

I take my seat behind my desk and rearrange papers. I try to appear carefree as I shuffle one paper with another but I know why we’ve come to my office. He wants to ask me about what I said in the hospital. “I want to protect Avery for me … because I love her.” I said those words during a moment of weakness. And it was a screw up on my part. Now I have to fix this problem I created for myself.

I open my desk drawer and pretend to search for something. “When did you get home from the hospital?”

“A couple of hours ago.”

Maybe I should try to keep him talking about his family. “It’s a relief to have them home safely.”

“You wouldn’t believe the weight that has been lifted from my shoulders in knowing Marsala can never harm my family again.”

I’m happy Chansey and the twins are safe but I’m instantly pissed off again. I struggle to hide my anger because it threatens to blow what I’m working so hard to conceal. “I can only imagine.”

“That’s sort of why I’m here. I need to ask you about something you said that night. Something about Avery.”

This is the part where I play dumb and pretend I don’t know what he means. “What about Avery?”

Curry narrows his eyes at me while he wrinkles his brow. I think he’s suspects I’m about to try to deceive him. “You told me you loved her and I’m confused about what that means.”

He’s being a straight shooter on this so a new action plan is required–play down what I said. “It means nothing at all.” I shrug.

He’s no longer relaxed in the chair. He’s sitting on the edge and staring straight into my eyes. “Your face didn’t look like it was nothing to you that night and it damn sure doesn’t look like it means nothing to you now either.”

He knows me well and I have to do a better job of hiding my emotions from him. “It’s true. I have become protective of Avery but only because of the time she’s spent here. I’ve come to think of her as a sister the same way I do the other girls. I meant nothing by what I said.”

“That’s not the way it sounded to me. You’ve never spoke of loving Gia or Lairah.”

“And I won’t,” I laugh. “I’d never hear the end of it from that pair of smartass extraordinaires if they ever heard me say I loved them.”

“You know you can tell me if you’re having side effects from drinking Avery’s blood?” It’s a question–not a statement.

I’ve always been able to tell Curry anything–but not this time. No one can ever know how I feel about Avery. “Yeah, I know.”



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