“Shiver me timbers.” I swung my foam sword in an arc to clash against the bent one Oscar had brandished with a bit too much enthusiasm against a tree earlier. “Batten down the hatches.”
“You’re the best pirate I know,” he said, black eyes shining up at me in adoration.
Pretty sure I was the only pirate he knew, and I wasn’t much of one. All I had done was memorize the lingo from a Talk Like a Pirate Day blog post. I was hazy about all the definitions, but Oscar cared more about exuberance than authenticity. “You’re not half bad yourself, matey.”
Soft laughter huffed behind us, and I cut my eyes toward the lean figure crossing the lawn at Woolworth House.
Linus wore his hair down, the dark-auburn length brushing his shoulders. His gray slacks kept their crease despite the humidity, and his white button-down shirt was starched within an inch of its life without a sweat stain in sight. His black leather shoes probably shouldn’t get dew on them, let alone the muck we were wading through. But his eyes were more navy than black, his lips bent in a shy smile, and suddenly I was ready to foot the bill to have his oxfords repaired or replaced if only he kept looking at me like that.
“Arrrgh, me hearties.” I rested the soft blade of my weapon at his throat. “I spy a landlubber.”
“I believe it’s arrr,” he said, leaning into the foam sword until his cool lips hovered a fraction of an inch above mine. He let me close the distance, and he exhaled when I did, like he still doubted his welcome. As much as I wanted to linger, I broke off the kiss before we scarred Oscar for life. Or death. Undeath? “Unless you’re a particularly frustrated pirate.”
Chuckling, I smiled against his mouth. “You can’t help it, can you?”
Pink flooded his cheeks, and he eased away from me. “Habit.”
“I know.” I lowered my weapon and slid my arms around his trim waist. “I don’t mind.”
“You enjoy being corrected all the time?” He sounded doubtful as he held me, his hands featherlight where they met at my spine. “It doesn’t bother you? I can—”
“It’s not all the time.” I wasn’t a total dunce. “Only some of the time.” I propped my chin on his sternum and gazed up at him. “And it’s adorable.”
Yeah, yeah. Mushy to the extreme. I know. Cut me a break. We’re in our honeymoon period.
The first week of a new relationship is the most intense, or so I’d always heard. I had never had a new relationship, so maybe this felt bigger to me thanks to the lack of experience.
Boaz had always been a dull ache behind my breastbone, a second beat I had felt since we were kids. Linus was more of an addictive taste I was starting to crave, and I didn’t mean his blood. I meant him. The soft looks, the gentle touches, the tender words. All of it. All of him.
“Grier.” Oscar sank as much annoyance into the word as humanly—ghostly?—possible. “Pirates don’t kiss. It’s gross. Make him walk the plank.”
“Sorry, Linus, but you heard him.” I breathed in the herbal and copper scent of his skin, my mouth watering. Fine, so part of the craving did involve his blood. “Rules are rules, shark bait. You boarded without the cap’n’s permission.” I raised the sword and pressed the tip of my blade against his heart. “To the poop deck, ye go.”
“Poop deck.” Oscar cackled. “You said poop.”
Boys, pulse or no pulse, enjoyed toilet humor.
Linus smothered a grin, and it was all I could do not to kiss him until it surfaced again.
What can you do?
Apparently, having a real boyfriend agreed with me.
“It’s Davy Jones’s locker for you.” I nudged Linus until the foam bent, and he backed toward the house. “Woolly, the cellar doors if you please.”
The twin halves leading into the false basement used for storing preserves and mundane nonperishables swung open, the hinges groaning with the old house’s laughter.
“Step lively now.” I tried keeping a straight face, but it was a losing battle. “This plank was made for walking.”
“Drown already,” Oscar sighed over my shoulder. “We have treasure to find.”
Thanks to a tropical depression moving through the area, we had postponed our treasure hunt for a week after the ball. It was past time to let Oscar have his promised fun.
Eyes glinting with amusement, Linus sank into the murky depths of the cellar, and the warped doors closed over his head.
“Hoist the mainsail,” I called, and we resumed our trek to where the map I had drawn for Oscar indicated treasure awaited us. “Batten down the hatches.”
A peculiar sensation wedged itself between my shoulder blades as we set out, but there were eyes in the woods.
The vampire bodyguards Lacroix had assigned to me.
And High Society necromancers who hadn’t lifted a finger to aid in the Grande Dame’s release efforts who were willing to make my acquaintance after my demonstration at the ball.
Most requests were confined to emails, texts, calls, or physical mail. But a few wanted to skip the nonexistent line, and those I left to the gwyllgi to hunt or snack on as they saw fit.
Shrugging off the sense of unease, I got back in the pirating mood.
“Arrr.” Oscar held the parchment spread out in front of him. “I can smell the booty from here.”
I waited all of three seconds before he floated higher than the lowest tree limbs in a laughing fit.
“Booty.” He squeezed his eyes shut, but inky tears dripped down his cheeks. “That’s funny.”
“On your feet, buccaneer.” I tugged on the back of his sailor outfit. “There’s no time for lollygagging.”
After drifting onto his feet, Oscar fanned out the map and resumed his quest.
A throaty baying noise raised the hairs down my nape, and Oscar spun toward me, his eyes black pools.
“Shark,” he screamed gleefully, pointing between two trees. “Run.”
“We’re on a—” I started, but it was too late. “Guess this captain ain’t going down with his ship.”
Lethe padded out on all fours, her lips peeled away from pointy teeth, drool stringing her jaw. Even with the foam shark fin belted around her middle, she looked fierce.
Behind her, Hood strolled on two legs while humming the theme from Jaws to set the mood.
“Swim for your life,” I yelled to Oscar’s retreating back. “I’ll handle these coxswain.”
“Pretty sure a coxswain is a helmsman,” Hood said dryly.
I cut him a flat glare that only made him smile wider.
Gwyllgi had a lot of teeth.
Undeterred by my wrath, he continued. “I’m guessing you’ve never been to Tybee Island Pirate Fest?”
“I don’t have a serving wench costume Lethe can borrow, if that’s what you’re asking.”
Odette hated the crowds, so she often came to stay with us during the weekend pirate festivities. Since the rules of Southern hospitality forbade me from abandoning a guest, I had missed every single one to play hostess alongside Maud.
“Now, a little more dun-dun-dun-dun and a little less lip, Shark Number Two.”
“What kind of shark is he?” Oscar called back to us, clearly offended. “They don’t even have lips.”
Sticking the fingers of one hand together, Hood propped his wrist on top of his head in a makeshift fin. “The kind that eats ghost boys for breakfast.”
The gwyllgi shot after the squealing apparition, and I followed at a much more sedate pace, half hoping the landlubber would shake off his drowning and catch up to us.
“Hey, none of that.” Hood circled back for me. “You’re in our waters now.”
That raised an interesting question. “What happened to the ship?”
“We released the kraken.” Mischief glinted in his eyes. “You must have missed that part while you were making out with your captive.”
Heat rushed into my cheeks. “I was not—”
“Less stalling.” He snapped his teeth at me. “More running.”
Without Lethe’s golden-haired brother Midas to crack the whip, I had taken up running with Linus at dusk before training with Lethe. He was fast, and his endurance was off the charts. If I asked, he would tell me it was a side effect of bonding with a wraith, but his lean muscles told a different story. He gave Cletus too much credit for abilities he had earned himself, but that was how Linus thought. Always so quick to brush aside his worth.
Growling, Hood charged me, and I didn’t have to fake my scream as I sprinted after Oscar.
Fifteen minutes later, a stitch pulled in my side, and my lungs strained for oxygen, but I kept pumping my noodly legs. Even so, I knew Hood was letting me win. He could have overtaken me ten times by now. Still, I made him work to maintain his smug grin.
A feral snarl rose behind me, the deep rumble a threat no human throat should make, and I startled. “Hood?”
Muscles rigid, eyes locked on a pool of shadows, he had adopted a pointing stance usually seen while in his other form.
“Stop right there,” a hard voice snapped from the darkness. “Grier, get behind me.”
Sweat dripping into my eyes, I blinked in the direction of the command like a shipwreck survivor who had spent too long in the ocean. I really hoped he was a mirage, but I doubted it.
At last, the creeping sensation lodged between my shoulder blades all night had been given a name.
“You’ve got…to be…kidding me,” I panted as Boaz emerged. “What are you…doing here?”
Milk-chocolate irises striated with lighter bands, liked swirled caramel, raked over me, searching for injury. White scars stood in stark contrast against his tanned skin, which was darker than the last time I had seen him. He must be spending more time outdoors during the day. His platinum hair, shaved on the sides and worn longer on the top, showed the bleaching effects of the sun as well.
Odd. Very odd. But not odd enough for me to ask. Curiosity would only encourage him.
“Visiting Amelie,” he said, the gun in his hand wilting. “I heard screaming and came to investigate.”
With my history, I couldn’t blame him for being alarmed. That didn’t mean I wanted his concern.
“As you can see, I’m fine.” I limped in front of Hood, placing myself between the barrel of Boaz’s gun and my friend. “Just a training exercise that got too intense.”
A flutter of robes caught my eye as Cletus took point at my shoulder, and I winced at the knowledge he was broadcasting this scuffle live to Linus.
“I heard you all the way from the garage.” Boaz squinted at my hand. “Is that…a foam sword?”
“Like I said—” I tucked the blade behind my back “—training exercise.”
After clearing his throat, Boaz stepped closer. “Grier—”
“You did a good deed, and I thank you for it, but we’re done.”
“As long as I’m here…” He rubbed a palm over his head, ruffling his hair. “I’ve been wanting to talk to you. About the ball. About Adelaide.”
Pride kicked up my chin. “There’s nothing to talk about.”
Boaz had made his bed when he broke up with me to propose to her, and now she had to lie in it with him. Adelaide was a better fiancée than he deserved, but maybe her goodness would rub off on him in time.
“I’m still your friend,” he said, the words a silken promise. “I worry about you.”
“The sad thing is, you believe that.”
Fury, scalding in its intensity, far more heat than my single comment warranted, ignited in his eyes, but he was no longer focused on me.
I didn’t have to look behind me to know Linus had arrived.
“You dropped this.” He extended the rolled treasure map toward me, the paper damp and mud-flecked, while tucking his other hand into his pocket. “I thought returning it might earn me a place in your crew.”
Poor Oscar. And poor Lethe too. She hadn’t meant to scare the ghost boy so badly he dropped his map.
She was getting more paranoid about her impending motherhood by the day, and this incident wouldn’t boost her confidence in that department.
Accepting Linus’s offering, I tapped it against my thigh. “There are always decks in need of swabbing.”
Linus didn’t kiss me in front of his longtime rival for my affections. He didn’t reach for my hand or touch me in a physical, claiming way. He didn’t cast me any meaningful looks, either. He gave no outward signs our relationship had progressed beyond friendship, though Boaz had overheard us at the ball and had to know better.
The fact Linus was fine not crowing his victory didn’t surprise me. He was a quiet man, and his victories were often kept just as silent. Even the word—victory—was mine, not his. He wouldn’t see it that way.
“What are you talking about?” Boaz slid his gaze past us to Hood, who kept his fin proudly in the upright position. “This is—”
“None of your business.” I cut the gwyllgi a pleading look. “Escort Boaz to the carriage house, please.”
“Sure thing.” Unashamed, Hood kept his hand propped on his head. “Swim this way.”
Boaz frowned at him, and then at me, but he left without further comment.
Sadly, he didn’t swim this way. Too bad. It would have been hilarious.
“I saw you drown.” I faced Linus. “Does this mean you’re an aquatic zombie? An undead merman? A zerman perhaps?”
Amused, he ducked his head. “I am whichever fits best into your narrative.”
Tempted to chastise him about his malleability, I swallowed the words when his cool lips found mine.
“Mmm.” I smacked a few times. “No fishy aftertaste.”
“I did brush.” He kissed me again, slower this time, and my knees melted. “I even used mouthwash.”
“That must be it.” Nails biting into the hilt of my sword, I glanced up at him from beneath my lashes. “You didn’t stick out your tongue or chant nanny nanny boo-boo at Boaz. I can’t decide if I’m impressed by your restraint or offended you let his latest infraction slide.”
“I don’t need to prove you’re mine.” Linus skated chill fingers along my jaw, and prickling flesh rose in response. “You’re not a thing I possess. I hold no ownership over you.”
But he belonged to me. I had a piece of paper that said so. I meant to destroy it, but I kept dreaming up excuses not to strike a match and watch one more possible future burn when I had already lost so many.
“And here I was thinking of getting matching tattoos.” I wrote my name across his heart with a fingertip.
A spark of interest lit his eyes, black creeping in along the edges, but he quenched the flare of possessive heat all too soon. “Maybe one day.”
Linus speak for If you don’t get tired of me before then.
“Step lively.” I set off at a jog, hauling him after me. “There’s still one shark in the game.”
A few minutes passed during which I was reminded I was the least fit person in our group. A fact emphasized when I stumbled over Lethe’s outstretched foot and almost ate dirt. She sat beneath a tree, legs crossed, eating a hamburger. The elastic belt sagged around her waist, and she had twisted the fin to one side to avoid crushing the foam against the trunk.
“Did you hide a snack in the woods,” I wondered, “or did you have one in your pocket when you shifted?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know?” She crammed in the last bite then wrinkled up not one but three wrappers while I looked on with wide eyes. “I’m pregnant, okay? I get hungry.”
“That’s not as comforting as you might think,” Linus mused. “Coming from a shark.”
Lethe stuck her tongue out at him, and proud tears welled in my eyes. I was such a bad influence.
“Where’s the kid?” I scanned the area, but there was no blue glow in sight. “Did you spook him?”
“He’s a ghost.” She grunted as she stood. “What do you think?”
“He memorized the map.” I tamped down the instinctive worry stemming from Oscar and Boaz sharing the same woods at the same time. The Elite had no use for a ghost boy now that the dybbuk had been contained. But still, the concern lingered. “Let’s see if he’s discovered whether X marks the spot.”
The three of us walked together, on two legs, to the location where I had asked Lethe to dig a hole deep and wide enough to accommodate a battered trunk I salvaged from the attic. Filled with glass gems and doubloons cast in brass and zinc, it was a discount pirate’s dream come true.
Oscar wasn’t gloating over his find or scratching in the dirt. He didn’t jump out from behind a tree to scare ten years off my life, either.
Dread pooled in my stomach as I knelt on the undisturbed earth. He hadn’t been here. He couldn’t have dug up the chest alone—he didn’t have that kind of strength—but he wouldn’t have been able to resist getting a head start.
“Spread out.” I dusted off my knees as I rose with a grimace. “We’ve got to find him.”
“He’s a ghost.” Lethe straightened her fin to get it out of her way. “He can’t get hurt, right?”
The question brought memories of Ambrose rushing back to me. The dybbuk Amelie had bonded with fed on spiritual energy. He consumed ghosts, among other things, and he had tried devouring Oscar. That’s why the Elite had used the ghost boy as bait for a trap that nearly killed me.
“Even the dead can be diminished,” Linus said gently, for my benefit.
“I’ll shift.” A grimness settled in the lines around Lethe’s mouth. “My nose is better that way.”
Grateful they supported me and what must seem like helicopter parenting, considering the child was already dead, I waited for her to transform and then pick up his trail.
She backtracked across the property, stalling out between the last place I saw them and where we found Lethe enjoying her snack. The rigidness of her spine warned me I wasn’t going to like what I saw, and my chest crumpled inward when a discarded foam sword, bent in the middle, came into view.
“Oscar,” I called as I rushed over to reclaim it. “Oscar.”
There was no answer as the red magic of Lethe’s transformation splashed up her legs, signaling the end of the trail.
“I was tracking your scent on the sword.” Her nostrils flared, but her lips pinched. “Without it, I’ve got nothing. Ghosts have no smell. They’re visible to us, and we can feel them, but that’s about it. Does he vanish on you often?”
“Sometimes,” I admitted, tucking the foam weapon under my arm. “He was so excited about the treasure hunt. He begged me for weeks. It’s not like him to flake mid-game.”
“He might have expended too much energy.” Linus touched my elbow, offering comfort. “You two got into a sword fight earlier, and he carried it and the map during the hunt. He’s stronger now than he was, but his natural state is incorporeality.”
Intense focus was required on his part—tough for a six-year-old—for him to hold on to objects, no matter how lightweight. Anger helped him manifest too. Yet another reason why I didn’t want to arm him with anything sharper than molded polyurethane foam. Not after what he had done to Marit.
“Maybe you’re right.” The map crinkled in my fist when I tightened my fingers. “You don’t think Boaz…?”
“I doubt he would risk falling further from your good graces while his sister lives on your property.”
“Guess there’s nothing left to do but go home and wait.” I set out in that direction but pulled up short when Hood, sans fin, came into view. “Have you seen Oscar?”
“No.” He searched my face. “What’s happened?”
“We found his map and his sword.” Guilt bowed Lethe’s shoulders, and misery thickened her voice. “I gave him a head start so I could take a snack break, like it would have killed me to wait an hour before stuffing my face again.”
“This isn’t your fault.” I unstrapped her fin. “Besides, we don’t know for sure that anything is wrong.”
“I’m going to have a flesh-and-blood kid soon,” she fretted. “What if I park his or her stroller at a food truck, get preoccupied inhaling calories, and walk off without him or her? Or worse—what if he or she is kidnapped? The grandchild of the Atlanta alpha is a major bargaining chip.”
“Hear how panicked you are right now?” I rested my hands on her shoulders. “That’s how I know you’re going to be an amazing mom. You would never forget your kid, not even on Two for One Taco Tuesday.”
Eyes glassy with unshed tears, she pushed out a slow exhale. “Thanks.”
“No problem.” Unable to resist, I gave her a playful shake. “Now if it was a churro stand…”
“That’s your kryptonite.” Her watery laugh made me smile. “Not mine.”
“As much as I enjoy hearing you two rank which foods are most likely to result in the child abandonment or kidnapping of our firstborn, we need to focus.” Hood rubbed his jaw. “Oscar is tight with Woolly. She might have an idea of where he’s gone. We should check with her next.”
Hope surged through me in an electric tingle. “I could kiss you right now.”
“Please don’t.” He shot Linus a pitying look. “I remember what happened to the last guy.”
A teensy smile curved Linus’s mouth, but he dropped his chin to conceal his amusement.
I saw it, though. I had gotten good at noticing what he hid from the world. Or maybe he wasn’t hiding so much as no one had bothered looking. He was seen now. And when his gaze met mine and the corners of his eyes crinkled, I was flustered at the uptick in my pulse from a simple glance.
Linus meshed his fingers with mine. “How close do we need to get for Woolly to answer?”
The chills racing up my arm had nothing to do with the temperature of his skin, and my chest tightened.
“I can sense her whenever I’m on the property, but our connection is strongest when I’m in sight of her.” We set out again, and in a little bit her pitched roof came into view. “Close enough.”
I shot the question to Woolly along our bond, and alarm flared, sinking my hope she had a bead on Oscar.
“No luck.” I sweated against his palm. “She hasn’t seen him since we left.”
“Go to work,” Lethe suggested. “Get your mind off things.”
“We’ll worry if he hasn’t checked in by dawn,” Hood agreed. “Lethe will keep an eye out for him and call if he beats you home.”
“All right.” I exhaled. “I don’t have any better ideas, so we’ll go with yours.”
“Where are you guys patrolling?” Lethe cut into my swirling thoughts. “Downtown?”
“River Street,” I said, deciding I would check the Cora Ann in case the magic binding Oscar to the brass button I wore around my neck had faltered long enough for him to be sucked back to the scene of his death.
“Bring home some of those churros you mentioned.” She patted her flat stomach. “Baby likes cinnamon.”
“Mmm-hmm.” I didn’t bother hiding my eye-roll. “Does baby like caramel and chocolate sauce too?”
“Yes, he or she does.” Lethe ignored my sarcasm. “Thanks for asking.”
Back at Woolly, Linus and I left the gwyllgi to discuss security protocols while we stepped inside to dress for the night.
Since I no longer held a job as a Haint, River or otherwise, I had started joining him during his nightly patrols. While it didn’t pay much—or anything at all, really—I enjoyed getting to know my city through his eyes. The contacts I made now, with him at my side to vouch for me, would prove invaluable after he returned to Atlanta.
The pinch in my heart when I thought of him going home no longer took me by surprise, but it still hurt.
I didn’t want him to leave, but he had a job, a duty. And it wasn’t to Savannah, or to me.
“You’re quiet,” he murmured at the base of the stairs. “Oscar, or something else?”
The man was perceptive. I had to give him that. But telling him I was dreading Atlanta yet again was out of the question. My insecurities would drive a wedge between us if the topic kept popping up in every conversation. Instead of venting, I reminded myself I had known what I was getting into, and with whom, and shook my head.
“Let me grab my bag.” It wasn’t an answer, but he didn’t press. Like I said—perceptive. “Be right back.”
I had a thing about ignoring my feelings, bottling them up until pressure built under my skin, ready to explode. I was getting better about letting off steam before I reached that point. Lethe’s friendship was slowly filling the hole where Amelie used to fit. There would always be a gap, a space no one else could fill, but such was life.
Old friends left, new ones took their places. Even if the old ones still lived in your carriage house.
Up in my room, I went to check on Eileen where she gazed out into the yard from the oak podium I had rescued from the attic. I kept track of my goddess-touched sigils within her pages, but she seemed otherwise content to bask in the moonlight like a cat in the sun.
I was scratching her eyelids with my fingernail when the force of Woolly’s mental ping made me gasp.
Images of Oscar flipped through my head, each one brighter than the last.
“We’ll find him,” I promised, regaining my balance. “The kid is family.”
Her relief gusted from the floor registers to flutter the curtains above my window.
“He played hard today.” I located a black nylon backpack crammed with necromantic paraphernalia. It was nowhere near as elegant as Maud’s leather doctor bag, but that statement piece hadn’t exactly been vintage chic when she started carrying it, either. “He might have gone…wherever it is he goes when he’s not here.”
Oscar never volunteered the information, and I had never asked. I wasn’t certain he was aware when he began fading, and if he wasn’t, I didn’t want to be the one who told him.
A knock on the front door brought my head up, and I strained to hear who Linus greeted, but Woolly’s consciousness flared, and a jaunty melody crashed through my mind with her incandescent joy.
“Oscar?” I asked, not quite believing our luck. “He knocked?”
How unlike my little sneak, who preferred popping in and scaring the pee out of people. Mostly me.
Thanks to my connection with Woolly, I was aware of Linus approaching before I heard footsteps on the stairs, and I met him in the hall.
“We have a situation.” His lips thinned, and his hand tightened on the banister. “You have a guest.”
“I thought…” I peered around him, but he stood alone. “Oscar isn’t here?”
Linus hesitated. “He’s downstairs.”
Certain the last thing I wanted to do was find out what put that look on his face, I followed for Oscar’s sake.
The front door stood open, and a young man around my age waited on the porch. He jingled a ring of keys hooked around one finger while clutching the glowing blue hand of my adoptive son with the other hand. The man’s hair was black as midnight, and the soft waves fell across his shoulders, clashing with the hard set of his jaw and the piercing green eyes that measured me from top to bottom. He was handsome enough, but wiry. Lean like he was hungry. And he was…angry.
No, that wasn’t quite it. He was nail-spitting furious. With me. Over what I had done to him.
How I knew all that at a glance made me question my sanity, but his truth beat against my senses.
Behind him, in the shadows, lurked the gwyllgi. Lethe had already shifted, but Hood remained upright.
As I stepped closer, a prickle of awareness swept up my spine, alerting me to the fact our visitor was a vampire, but…there was more. Not the lure of Last Seed, but a resonance that vibrated in my back teeth, an urge to reach out and touch him. Soothe him. Make amends.
“Oscar.” I waved him over, not trusting myself any closer to the vampire. “Come here.”
The ghost boy continued staring a hole in my thigh through unseeing eyes.
“I call to spirits,” the vampire explained. “I don’t mean to summon them.” He opened his fingers, but Oscar kept gripping his hand. With a sigh, he pressed a guiding palm between Oscar’s thin shoulder blades and nudged his toes right up to the threshold. “I figured you’d want this back.”
Ghosts tended to be drawn to necromancers, not vampires, but stranger things had happened.
Just look at me.
Reaching through the wards, I pulled Oscar to me and then demanded, “Who are you?”
“That doesn’t give me much to go on.” I examined his face, trying to place him, but memory failed me. “You look familiar. Have we met?”
“Only once.” His hard smile showcased elongated fangs. “I’m your progeny.”