Authors: Thea Harrison
Seremela Telemar leaned against the frame of the open balcony doors in her high-rise apartment and looked out at the ocean view. Tropical humidity licked her skin. As soon as she had gotten home, she had opened up the balcony doors, stripped off her work clothes and put on denim shorts and a tank top.
The weather in Miami was playing the blues. Like the singer Nina Simone’s voice, it had a dark, sultry vibe with a bitter edge and an unexpected snap. Massive knots of moody clouds obscured the sun as they roiled over turbulent water, and heavy rain lashed down in vertical sheets. All that was needed was a world-weary man in a Bogart suit, fingering ivory piano keys in an abandoned hotel as he waited for a hurricane.
One of her head snakes slipped over her shoulder and rose to look at her, its jeweled gaze curious. It tasted the storm-laden air with a slender tongue. She put a forefinger underneath its jaw and nudged it gently. It slid closer and rested its tiny cheek against hers. In another mood, she might have smiled, but not this morning.
Was she really going to do this again?
Yes. Yes, she was.
She sighed, turned on her cell phone and hit speed dial. She held it up to her ear. A strained feminine voice on the other end said, “Serrie?”
“Yes,” she said to her sister, Camilla. “I’ll go get her.”
“Oh, thank the gods,” Camilla said fervently.
“I do not believe the gods are whom you should be thanking,” said Seremela.
“Of course not!” Camilla said. “Thank you, Serrie! You know how much this means to me. Vetta won’t mind me at all anymore—she never listens to anything I say, and I know what would happen if I tried to fetch her home myself. It would blow up into everything being my fault again, and the fight would drag on for hours and hours—and Vetta would make it as public as she could just to humiliate me, she knows how much I hate public altercations—”
“Camilla,” Seremela said. Her tone was sharp enough that it cut through Camilla’s babble. The other woman fell silent. She said, “I need for you to listen to me right now.”
“Of course, whatever you need,” Camilla said quickly.
“This is the last time I’m going to be able to drop everything to help fix your problems and your mistakes.”
Camilla’s tone turned cautious. “What do you mean, the last time?”
“I can’t keep putting my life on hold every time something goes wrong for you, or every time you and Vetta have an argument that you can’t resolve. I just started a new, very demanding job. My employers are wonderful people, and they’re really good to me, but there’s only so much I can ask from them. Unlimited time off at a moment’s notice is not one of those things.”
Camilla’s voice turned cold. “She’s your niece. I thought you cared about what happened to her.”
Seremela bit back her anger. Now it was time for the guilt trip, but it was always time for the guilt trip whenever she didn’t do what Camilla wanted her to do, or say what Camilla wanted to hear. Children were rare for all of the Elder Races, and ever since Camilla had managed to carry Vetta to term, she had a skewed perspective on what the world owed her for achieving such a precious miracle.
“Of course I love both of you,” she said. “And I care about what happens to you. That’s why I’m agreeing to make this trip. But she’s your daughter, and I have to agree, Vetta’s out of control. You have to figure out how to work things out with her yourself. You need to get counseling, Camilla, not only for yourself but for Vetta too.”
“I have to go,” Camilla said.
Seremela rolled her eyes. “Sure you do,” she said. She spoke too late, and a dial tone sounded in her ear. Camilla had hung up on her.
She resisted the urge to throw her iPhone. Instead she checked her work email again. Still no response from either of her new employers, Carling or Rune.
To be fair, she had only emailed them a short while ago, when she had gone into the office to ready her desk for a leave of absence. Deep regrets, family emergency, need to take time off work, will be in touch soon, blah blah blah. She had written the same kind of letter so often through the years, she could compose one in her sleep.
How many times had she sacrificed herself on the altar of Camilla’s neediness? She blew out a breath. Too many times to count.
If she expected Camilla to learn to take responsibility for her own life, Seremela had to do the same. She had chosen to enable Camilla’s behavior over the years. Now it was time to focus her energy on building a new life for herself.
After all, that’s what her move to Miami was all about: taking on a new job and doing medical research she really wanted to do, building a new life and exploring new opportunities and horizons. It was not too late for her to break out of her sheltered, academic shell.
The small, poisonous voice of her Adversary whispered, the only confidence you ever found was in the classroom or the laboratory. When you’re not lecturing over an autopsied body, you turn into a klutzy fool. You haven’t dated in years—actually decades now—and you rarely make new friends. You’re never going to have children of your own, and you’ve grown set in your ways as well. You’re starting a new life with the old you. All your old problems and old weaknesses have come with you, so how can you expect to truly change anything?
She rubbed her forehead tiredly. The medusae believed that each medusa was born with a drop of poison in their souls. The poison turned into the medusa’s Adversary, the dark voice that whispered doubts and fears in one’s own thoughts. The measure of one’s strength was determined by how well one withstood one’s internal Adversary. Seremela tried to overcome that negative voice, but her own Adversary had a lot of ammunition to use against her.
She forced herself to concentrate on the task at hand. There was no reason to procrastinate any longer by pretending that she was waiting to hear back from her bosses. Many employers were very understanding about family emergencies—at least the first time. And Carling and Rune were much better than many other employers. They had gone out of their way to show her how much they valued her.
She sighed, tossed her phone onto the coffee table and went to pack a carry-on. Seriously, when she found Vetta, she was going to wring that girl’s neck. That’d solve any potential problems with further confrontation or conflict. It wouldn’t cure Camilla of her neediness or get Seremela a life outside of work, but that was okay, it would make room for taking care of the rest. Lots and lots of lovely room.
A knock sounded on her apartment door. The nictating membrane on her eyes snapped shut in surprise, and she paused, bras clutched in one hand and undies in the other. Dropping the filmy, colorful handfuls of underwear into her open case, she hurried to the door and peered out the peephole.
A dark haired man stood on the other side of her door, looking like he had just stepped out of an issue of GQ magazine. He stood in a casual stance, hands in the pockets of a hand-stitched linen summer suit, the jacket unbuttoned. Every expensive line of the tailored clothes emphasized his lean, well shaped body. His sleek dark hair, layered in a razor cut, fell on his forehead as though he had just run his fingers through it. His eyes were just as dark as his hair and glittered with intelligence. In contrast his skin was the pale ivory of a man who never saw any sunlight.
Because if he did, he would vanish in a blaze of fire.
Duncan Turner, internationally famous lawyer and the youngest progeny of one of the most Powerful Vampyres in the world, stood on her doorstep? In midmorning?
Once her nictating membranes started they wouldn’t stop. They snapped open. Shut again. Open again. Shut again. It was a medusa’s version of nervous hiccups.
She jerked her head back and rubbed at her eyes quickly to make them stop. When she opened her eyes again, she saw that several of her snakes were trying to look through the peephole, pushing each other out of the way.
She grabbed at her snakes, gathering them up frantically. They kept sliding out of her hands, trying to get back to the peephole.
Forget about dating. This is why I don’t play poker, she thought. Because I have so many tells, and they’re all so opinionated.
Duncan knocked on the door again, making her jump. “Seremela?” he called. “Are you home?”
Even through the door, his rich, baritone voice sent shivers down her skin. Her agitation sent all her snakes undulating.
For crying out loud, stop it!
she told them telepathically. Out loud, she said, “Yes, I—I’m home! Hold on just a moment. I’ll be right with you!”
Now all of her snakes were trying to look out the door. They knew Duncan was outside too. They liked Duncan. A lot.
“Calm down, damn it,” she hissed out loud.
As usual, they ignored her. Some elderly medusae were famous for their control over their head snakes, and everything they did or said was a graceful symphony of coordinated movement.
Not Seremela. Oh no, hers never paid attention to a word she said to them, and she had long since given up hope of exerting any true control over them. They were like a pack of poorly trained poodles.
“Seremela?” Duncan said.
He sounded…complex, but then he always sounded complex, the flavors and notes in his voice as layered as a fine, aged wine. He was a master of nuance and one of the sharpest legal minds in the world, and—and she admired him so damn much, it tied her up in knots.
And it didn’t help in the slightest that his voice, like actors Alan Rickman or Liam Neeson, was spellbindingly beautiful. According to Carling, Duncan rarely made court appearances any longer, but when he did, other lawyers, judges and legal professionals from different demesnes traveled from all over the world just to hear him speak.
Now he sounded divided between amusement and worry.
“Everything’s all right,” she called out as she patted the door. That was a stupid thing to say, especially in the face of her family emergency. If she could, she would climb in bed and pull the covers over her head. Over all their heads. “You just caught me by surprise. Hold on a moment.”
“Take your time,” he said.
His voice. Swear to gods, she was pretty sure he could bring her to orgasm just by talking.
That thought did nothing to help her present a cool, collected attitude of her own, nor did it help to calm down her excited little head freaks. She threw up her hands and dashed across the apartment, back to her bedroom where she grabbed a scarf and wound it around the snakes with quick expertise, starting at the back of her head.
The normal life span for medusae was around 450-500 years, and their snakes grew longer and more poisonous as they aged. Infants and small children had snakes as small as their fingers, the poison from their bites about as irritating as a mosquito bite, while elders had snakes that often trailed a foot or so along the ground. A single bite from the snake of an elder could make a grown human very sick, and multiple bites would cause almost certain death to several races.
Seremela was in late middle age, close to 380 years old, and her snakes reached past her hips. She had never felt threatened or afraid enough to cause her snakes to bite anyone. She pulled the mass over one shoulder and worked quickly down their length.
They did not want to be wrapped in the scarf—really, it was like putting children down for a nap—and their agitation increased until she had them all snugly under cover and eased them back over her shoulder again. Once they were tucked in a warm, dark place, they went quiet. Even as she stepped out of the bedroom, she could sense that they were asleep.
She took a deep breath and hurried back to open the door. Duncan, who stood looking down the hall as he waited, turned back quickly to face her. His dark, clever gaze regarded her for a moment. She felt her cheeks grow warm at the open concern in his expression.
She held the door open wider, more to give herself an excuse to back away from his penetrating, too observant attention than to be hospitable, although she did manage to say, “Please, do come in.”
“Thank you.” Hands still tucked in his pockets, Duncan strolled into her apartment.
Her mouth dried as she watched him. In some ways he looked so normal. At five foot ten or so, he stood just a few inches taller than she did. And he wasn’t oversized. He had a neat, compact build, and when he moved something unique and intangible became manifest, as his sharp, quiet intelligence flowed through his body.