Thirteen nights into my new roommate situation had illuminated the myriad ways being an only child had not prepared me for having a live-in best friend. On Maud’s orders, sleepovers had been restricted to one night per week when we were kids. Goddess, how I hated that rule. Each time I walked Amelie home, I vowed to Hecate that she and I would live together forever after we were grown.
No bedtimes. No rules. No parents.
Chocolate in all its various, glorious forms for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Thirty-one flavors of ice cream for brunch. Pie for linner. Cake for dunch. Basically, I envisioned adulthood as one never-ending sugar high.
But what I hadn’t pictured was my Type A bestie padding around Woolworth House in boy-short panties paired with mismatched tank tops stained by chocolate milk dribbles, her hair a bird’s nest tangled at her nape, her teeth fuzzier than my socks. Or the all-cereal diet she had adopted, though I admired her dedication to marshmallowism. Or the bathing-optional clause she seemed to have penciled into her temporary lease. Or the stalking. The stalking was the worst.
Odette had a cat once, a familiar as old as the sand I tracked into her house, and it trailed her everywhere, including the bathroom. Once or twice while I was visiting, Jean-Claude would miss his cue and end up on the wrong side of the door. When that happened, he wedged his nose in the crack where the door met the frame and yowled to get in like his world was ending. But if anyone approached him to offer sympathy, he would whirl on them, hissing and spitting.
That was post-disownment Amelie in a nutshell.
Only, she was so much worse because thumbs.
When I was home, she walked a step behind me, her toes brushing my heels. When I left, she pressed her nose to the glass, her breath fogging the pane as she clocked my trips through the garden, across the lawn, or down the driveway.
Coming home was worse. Amelie waited for me in the foyer, foot tapping, arms crossed over her chest. She was ten times the nag Woolly had ever been, and even the old house was starting to fray under the constant strain of having Amelie pacing her floors night in, night out.
But what else could I do? I had ponied up the cash for the $3.5 million indenture she owed the Society for the crimes she committed during her voluntary possession by the dybbuk Ambrose, but the mandatory six-month sentence she was required to serve as a member of my household as a result of that transaction was immutable.
As far as the Society was concerned, I owned her and the rights to any services she provided during that period of time. As far as I was concerned, I had one hundred and seventy days and change to rehab Amelie before releasing her from her bond to carve out a life from the wreckage of her previous one.
A tentative knock drew me from my gloomy thoughts.
Shuffling out of the kitchen, I left Amelie shoveling in her first bowl of mini marshmallows and toasted oat cereal of the night. I hesitated in the foyer, hand on the knob, and glanced overhead at the elegant chandelier. “Well, girl? What do you think? Do I answer, or do I pretend I’m not home?”
“I can hear you,” a woman replied primly, her voice muffled through the heavy wood.
The crystals tinkled with laughter at my expense.
Me and my big mouth.
The door swung open to reveal a young woman, maybe a year or two older than me, with wavy chestnut hair that brushed her narrow shoulders. Her wide, hazel eyes belonged on an anime character. High cheekbones gave her face a familiar shape, as did her thin lips and the severe point of her tiny chin.
Her smart black pantsuit smacked of taste and money, old money, and the frugal application of jewelry made a statement. Something along the lines of I might only be wearing one ring, but I could sell it and pay off your mortgage. The diamond perched on her left hand’s ring finger might as well have been a grape. The glare nearly blinded me when she tucked her hair behind her ear. I had seen dimmer runway lights at airports. There was also the telltale hum of necromantic power haloing her. Now that I was paying attention, I sensed it through my bond with Woolly.
Crocodile tears sparkled in her eyes as she launched herself at me. “Oh, Grier.”
Woolly, who was not a fan of strangers bum-rushing her threshold, flung up a transparent barrier that sealed the doorway. The woman bounced off the compressed air before her outstretched fingertips brushed my arm, and she hit the porch on her butt with an unladylike grunt.
With her hands cupping a button nose she may or may not have been born with, her voice came out stuffy. “W-w-what was that?”
“Who are you?” I really hoped Woolly hadn’t broken her nose, plastic or not. At this rate, she was going to get a reputation. “Why did you try to attack me?”
“Attack you?” she echoed, lowering her hands to reveal her reddened schnoz. “I was going to hug you.”
“Oh.” Random tackle-hugs might even be more sinister coming from strangers than candy, if I’m being honest. “In that case—” I leaned against the doorframe. “Who are you?” The stubborn jut of her chin struck me as familiar. “Why did you try to hug me?”
“I’m Eloise Marchand.” She rose with a wobble on her kitten heels then straightened her clothes. “I’m your cousin.”
The lights overhead flickered in shocked bursts that matched the wild flutterings in my chest.
Dame Severine Marchand, the Marchand family matriarch, had disowned my mother, Evangeline, on the day I was born. Mom had refused to reveal my father’s name when asked, and Dame Marchand had severed all ties with her youngest daughter rather than risk a potential scandal over my paternity.
Eloise’s arrival might herald the extending of an olive branch, but I had been excised from their family tree before my first cry rang out through the world. Blood or no blood, I was a Woolworth, and this woman was no relation of mine.
“I heard voices.” Amelie appeared at my shoulder, a spoon fisted in her hand like she knew how to use it. Which, considering the number of empty cereal boxes in the trash can, she did, but I doubted it would do her much good here unless she planned on scooping out Eloise’s eyeballs. “Introduce us?”
“This is Eloise Marchand.” I gestured toward the High Society poster girl. “My cousin.”
“What are you doing here?” Amelie demanded, knuckles gone white. “What do you want with Grier?”
A delicate frown gathered between Eloise’s brows. “I’m family—”
“No, you’re really not.” Abandonment issues, I had them. “Try again.”
“I was three years old when Grandmother disowned Aunt Evangeline,” she said, proving me right about our age gap. “You can’t hold me responsible for the decisions she made for us all.”
Amelie flinched in my periphery, her wounds in that area much rawer than mine.
“I thought you were dead,” Eloise continued. “Our histories record you as stillborn.”
Interesting that I rated a mention at all when disownment was meant to cleanse Mom from their annals.
Less interesting was learning the Marchands had decided I was literally dead to them.
“Why show up now?” That was the million-dollar question. “How did you find out I was alive?”
“Odette Lecomte,” she whispered, reverence for the famed seer stealing her voice.
“Odette told you?” Skeptical as I was that she would pin my private business to the family bulletin board, I had begged a favor of her. While gaining entree to Dame Marchand, she might have made a few more discreet inquiries along the way. “What did she say?
“No, it was nothing like that.” Eloise flapped her hands at the notion Odette might speak directly to her. I worried she might knock herself unconscious if that rock on her finger clipped her. “I’m a practitioner. I’m training under Grandmother at the family firm.”
An unexpected pang hit me at the glimpse of yet another stolen future, one where I worked alongside a cousin, groomed by our maternal grandmother to take my place in the family business as a practitioner.
“She was supervising while I prepped the conference room for a new client meeting,” Eloise explained. “When the receptionist patched a call through, we assumed it was the client. He was nervous about our suggestion he consider inducing death in order to jumpstart the resuscitation process. He was a high-profile client and required…special handling.”
Inductions, ending human lives in their prime to raise vampires in peak condition, cost extra. “And?”
“I overheard Madame Lecomte mention Aunt Evangeline before Grandmother muted the call and sent me home for the day.” Her cheeks reddened. “I was curious why Madame Lecomte would call and drop your mother’s name.” She ducked her head. “Our mothers were twins, you see, and that bond has always fascinated me. Our family has multiple instances of fraternals whose magic—”
“Twins?” A peculiar ringing started in my ears. “No one told me.”
A heady truth swirled through me and left me weaving on my feet. Can I see a picture? That’s all I had to ask. One question, and she could show me a glimpse of Mom. No, not Mom. One of her possible futures. The hair, the makeup, the clothes, the expression—no matter how similar—belonged to someone else.
On the spot, I decided I never wanted to meet my aunt. I don’t think my heart could take seeing her.
“Mom sided with the family after the disownment,” she said, picking her manicured fingernails. “To my knowledge, she never saw or spoke to her sister again but…”
“She regretted turning her back on family,” I finished for her.
“And you hoped that fence might be mended through you and I?”
“Yes,” she replied, slower this time. “After Madame Lecomte called, I scoured the family archives and discovered she lives in Savannah. A section of her file was dedicated to her friendship with your mother and Maud Woolworth.” She gnawed her bottom lip. “When I noticed the former Dame Woolworth also lived in Savannah, I followed up on a hunch, and I found you.”
Googling Maud would have turned up photos and mentions of me, mostly from fundraisers and galas, and those would name me as the Woolworth heir. But there was also Mom’s obituary to consider, and my very public adoption. Connecting the dots wouldn’t have been hard. Especially since a practitioner in Eloise’s position would have access to the Society databases.
“Woolly, what do you think?” Armed with amped-up wards, she ought to be able to scan Eloise down to the marrow for a reading on her intent. “Is it safe to let her in?”
“Woolly?” Eloise glanced at Amelie. “Who is Woolly?”
Neither of us enlightened her.
The porch light beside Eloise hummed thoughtfully before flaring her consent.
“Come in.” I made it an order. I wanted to get to the bottom of her interest in me. “Leave any weapons you’re carrying at the door. She won’t let you bring them in.”
“Weapons?” Her wide eyes rounded. “I’m unarmed.” Her hand lifted to her throat. “This is a social call.”
Amelie choked on a snort, and I elbowed her in the gut. Once upon a time, we had been that naïve too. I wouldn’t be the one to tear off Eloise’s blinders. Truth be told, I relished the idea of at least one person thriving in our world who might never think to check for monsters under her bed.
“In or out.” I rolled my hand in a hurry-up motion. “Class starts in fifteen minutes, and my teacher gets his suspenders twisted if I’m late.”
Okay, so Linus had yet to wear suspenders, but I strongly suspected he owned a pair. How could he not? And if he didn’t? I knew what I was getting him for his birthday.
“Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea,” Eloise murmured as she stepped over the threshold. Or made the attempt. Woolly suspended her midstride, and the wards slid over her skin, assessing every inch of her. Thirty seconds later, Woolly released her, and Eloise stumbled into the foyer beside us, flailing like a salmon swimming upstream. “What was that?”
“Magic.” I took her by the elbow, guided her into the living room, and shoved her toward a couch. “Sit.”
She perched on the edge of the cushion, her spine ruler-straight, her legs crossed at the ankles.
Still half-naked and rather feral, Amelie stood behind Eloise, clutching the spoon in her fist.
“Okay, Eloise, let’s try this again.” I hooked my hands on my hips. “You found out I’m alive and decided to visit. Why?”
There must be more to this visit than smearing salve over her mother’s decades-old hurt.
“As I said, I hoped we could talk.” Her manicured fingers twisted into knots on her lap. “That maybe one day we might be friends.”
“Your family disowned her,” Amelie snarled, jabbing the spoon at the back of Eloise’s head like a deranged zombie fantasizing about using her skull as a bowl. “What right do you have to—?”
“Amelie,” I warned, flexing my palm until she surrendered her weapon. “Let her talk.”
“I understand your suspicion,” Eloise began. “I read articles about your time in…”
“Atramentous,” I finished for her.
Eloise swayed a bit, her hand again rising to her throat to clutch pearls she wasn’t wearing.
“I was locked away for five years for the murder of Maud Woolworth.” I cocked an eyebrow at her. “I’m sure you can imagine how imprisonment changed me.”
The version of me who might have hugged her back and welcomed her into my home with happy tears had died locked in a cell buried so deep underground the tang of mold still coated the back of my throat on occasion.
“View this from my perspective.” I swept my gaze up and down her, doubting her kittens-and-rainbows outlook would allow for such a thing. “Some long-lost relative popping up on my doorstep after my reinstatement as the Woolworth heir makes your timing suspect.”
News of how the Grande Dame had pardoned her niece was circulating too. Eloise might be telling the truth. Maybe this was an innocent visit. Or she might be a ladder-climber who had spotted an opportunity to align herself with the Woolworth name under the guise of mending fences.
“This was a mistake.” Eloise shot to her feet and backed toward the foyer. “I shouldn’t have come.” She wiped her palms on her pressed slacks. “I wish things could have been different between us, Grier, I do, but this is too much.”
Woolly opened the door in an invitation to leave that Eloise was quick to accept.
I massaged the base of my neck after the locks snicked into place behind her. “That went well.”
“She shows up out of the blue all these years later?” Amelie pulled aside the curtain on the nearest window, and we watched Eloise get in her hired car and leave. “I don’t buy it.”
“Odette did call Dame Marchand. That part is true. She was hoping to get a lead on my father.”
“How do we know it wasn’t Dame Marchand who sent her protégé to woo you back into the fold? High Society families are always shopping for an angle.” The fabric crumpled in her fist. “Besides, you’ve already got one spy living on the property. You don’t need a matched set.”
“Better the devil you know.” Defending Linus just put her teeth on edge. There was no point trying when her mind was made up about him. “What are your plans for the night?”
“I’ll be diving into your finances here in a little bit.” Her yawn illustrated how much the prospect excited her. “I’m almost to the good stuff,” she assured me, retrieving her cell from parts unknown to check for messages. From Boaz. He was the only person calling her these days, and he checked in every forty-eight hours like clockwork. Yet he hadn’t so much as texted me since leaving her in my care. “Before I get bogged down by all those decimal points, I’m putting dinner in the Crock-Pot.”
Hope that this might signal a return to normal for her tightened my chest. “You’re tired of cereal?”
“No, but cereal is tired of me.” An unhappy gurgle welled in her stomach. “You off to meet Linus?”
“Yes.” Cue my belly’s anticipatory growl. “Lessons wait for no woman. Or parakeet.”
“I’ll be here when you get back,” she joked, mostly, the words less bitter than in nights past.
When Amelie veered toward one of the downstairs bathrooms, she tapped each doorknob in the hall as she passed them, a new habit she’d developed that reminded me of a prisoner counting the bars on her cell. Tension ratcheted through my shoulders when her fingers brushed the glass knob leading down into the basement, but her stride didn’t so much as hitch as she marched on.
Thank Hecate it was still magically sealed, and no one had figured out how to access it.
At least, not yet.