He shoved the ley energy to either side, ramming it into Hunter and Vilna. The force of it made them both stagger a step.

Free of the circuitous energy, Johnny stepped forward into the light. In that split second, he bent and grasped the lower end of the scythe. Twisting it to angle the blade into a horizontal position behind the man, he yanked with all his might.

The scythe carved deep into the man’s back.

Red screamed. Demeter stumbled and fell to the side. He tried to catch her but couldn’t. The man was pitching toward him, across a wide lounge seat.

Behind the man, Red was racing forward, her expression full of confusion and concern. . . .

Concern for the fallen man?

Suddenly, Johnny was suffering the consequences of his actions. Waves of energy coursed through him. Feeling like he had shoved his finger into a light socket, he lurched backward and fell, half in and half out of the lighted core of the circle. All the air was propelled from his lungs by the brusque landing; he fought for the breath to scream, but even as he did, the cry shifted into a howl. Fur sprouted across his body only to retract and sprout again, retract and sprout, until his skin was raw. He writhed and convulsed, unable to escape the clutches of this power riding him.

Stupid thing to do. Stupid. Stupid.

Vilna-Daluca stood over the part of him that was out of the light. She was shouting mightily. Though his vision altered repeatedly from the transformations, he saw Vilna transfer her orb and candle to Demeter, who was sitting on the floor. Pain was evident in Demeter’s expression.

Did I fuck everything up? Oh, Red. I’m so sorry.

The next thing he knew Vilna was sitting on his stomach with one hand on his chest and one raised over her head—the lifted hand flickered and gave off lighted shards like an Independence Day sparkler.

For interminable minutes, she pulled power out of him, discharging it into the circle as Demeter and Hunter channeled it back into the ley. When finally the bright inner circle had faded and only the normal realm of the farmhouse kitchen remained, his transformations ceased. He lay with his eyes shut and listened as the witches shut down the connection to the ley line and took up the circle.

When it was done he lay still panting and not moving. Hunter helped the old witch climb off him and stand. When Vilna had her feet under her, Hunter kept hold of her arm and moved her away from him toward a chair. Vilna paused.

“You okay, Vil?” Hunter asked.

“Yes,” the old witch grumbled, then she kicked Johnny in the ribs.


Hunter dragged Vilna away from him.

“Serves you right,” she called back. “You know better than to break a circle! And a circle drawing on the ley, no less. Fool! You could have killed us all!”

Johnny tried to sit up, and decided leaning on one elbow made breathing easier. Vilna settled into a dining room chair where she could still see him.

“You may be the Domn Lup,” she grumbled, “but when there’s magic being done, you damn well better respect those who are working it! It may seem like a flick of the wrist and a twitch of the wand, but that’s the exterior. Calling the power, holding the power, shaping it and releasing it safely, properly, and with the right focus and direction takes skill. Takes energy. And the kind of power that is called up from a ley—hell, boy. You don’t want to take the chance on loosing that kind of power.”

She paused to breathe deep, and in that moment of silence heard a cough from behind him near the sink. Remembering Lydia and Demeter were both down, he rolled onto his other side.

Lydia lay unconscious to the left.

Demeter was on the right, scooting herself along the floor . . . to where Persephone lay, throwing up.


My throat was raw and the taste in my mouth was beyond vile. Hades’s shredded finery had disappeared and, somehow, I was dressed in the jeans, shirts, and socks I’d left home in. I had aches like you wouldn’t believe. But I was vertical, sitting at the big dining room table because my kitchen looked like a tornado had been through it. It was a mess—salt, candle wax, goddess knew what else was still strewn about. I didn’t care. I was home.

Hunter sat across from me suffering a bad case of the yawns. Vilna was slumped next to her, trying to recover from a bout of sleep deprivation.

Nana sat in another chair, icing her knee. She’d re-aggravated her arthritis. Lydia, looking like she’d come back from the dead herself, leaned against the counter with a bruised hip and a wounded ego.

“What happened to you?” I asked Johnny, who had lifted his shirt to examine his side.

“Vilna kicked me.”

After snorting a laugh I popped a couple of ibuprofen tabs into my mouth and washed them down with several swallows of milk. I remembered everything about my nightmarish evening—that was why I chose milk. I may never drink water again.

“Deserved it, too,” Vilna grumbled.

She’d explained what Johnny had done to rescue me. Her tone was 100 percent complaint, but somehow she also conveyed a sense of admiration for his “damnably foolish, dangerous” actions.

I was not going to think about any of it right now. There was plenty to ponder from the experience, but I wasn’t ready to analyze anything yet—including what my next move as Lustrata would be. I’d already dealt with the devil—or close enough—and suffered for it. As for the deal I’d made with Hades, I had no idea if it still held, but I was far too wobbly right now to think about it—or much of anything else. Other than my bumps and bruises, staying so long in a meditative state had weakened me physically and mentally. And the time I’d spent with Hades seemed much longer than the few hours I’d been “gone” from my physical body. I guess in the underworld human time was irrelevant.

I was just happy to be home, happier still to know the vampires had found Beverley and that she was safe. Goliath’s phone call had been brief—maybe too brief to be completely reassuring—but positive. I knew there was more to it, but I was told not to worry about the kiddo, she was in good hands and they’d bring her home soon.

I slugged down the last of my milk. Without a word, Johnny took the glass from my hand and sat it on the countertop. Looking at me with all the hurt and affection I could stand, he lifted me and carried me upstairs.

The entryway to my house was wrecked worse than the kitchen! “What the hell happened to my banister? To my floor?”

“Later. It’s all fixable.” He carried me up the steps easily.

When he tenderly placed me on my bed, I was more grateful than I could express. He turned to the door and exited the bedroom. I heard the water running. When he returned to the bedroom, he picked me up again, carried me across the hall to the bathroom, and sat me gently on the edge of the tub. The thick scent of lavender bubble bath enveloped me as Johnny crouched before me and peeled the filthy socks from my feet, massaging as he did. Tartarus had been hell on my socks.

It felt so good, I mmmm-ed.

“I’ll rub the rest of you all night long if that helps.”

“The rest of me might be too sore to touch right now.”

He nodded. “Stand up?”

I stood. He unfastened the button on my jeans. Reached for the zipper. I put my hands on his and he stopped. He met my gaze with a look I couldn’t read, but which evoked my pity.

“I love you,” he whispered.

I stared. He said the “L” word.

For a moment, the world was quiet and still.

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