Prologue: The Sweetest Trap
The residents of Everlasting Springs had no idea that they lived a few decades behind everyone else on the planet. They had zero interest in figuring out what went on beyond our borders. They happily lived slow analog lives unaware of the fast-paced digital world that surrounded them. It was all part of the enchantment of the place, and I don’t mean that word in a good way. I mean dark magic.
Everlasting Springs was a Venus flytrap of a town. Even those with little magical blood in their veins got stuck once they were inside. They were forgotten and they forgot. All that mattered to them was The Circle with its gazebo for town gatherings, and a pleasant life within the triangle boundaries of water and bougainvillea.
The blood moon ritual might set them free to join modern society. It might also destroy them. Before the ritual could take place, we needed the scroll to keep the record of before and after.
I’m Amalia Ruíz, a witchy sort of wolf, mate to the alpha of Everlasting Springs, and owner of Circle Books. I tried my best to unravel the knots of our odd little town, as we prepared for the blood moon ritual, but I didn’t do it alone.
The magical residents of Everlasting Springs had to bring all the elements together in time for the blood moon, which was easier said than done. Our long path to the decisive moment when nature and magic would guide our fate involved leaping over many hurdles. Some tripped and fell along the way. Others fell in love.
This is one of those stories…
Chapter One: Bad Weather
Three days before Christmas Eve
There had never been a hurricane around Christmas, but things were off kilter in Everlasting Springs. Mama and Consuelo whispered about it, though Mama always said there was nothing to worry about when I asked.
“Everything’s peachy, Azucena.” I was getting sick of hearing it.
Sometimes people treated me like I was too simple to understand trouble. I guess it was because I was cheery, and always looking for the good in any situation, but I noticed when things were wrong. I just wasn’t good with confrontations and would rather make people smile than get angry. That definitely included my dynamic with my mother who, for all her delicate and proper appearance, was a menace when she was pissed. So I nodded and smiled and pretended everything was fine… just as Mama said.
Well, except for the pre-Christmas hurricane—Mitch.
I returned to my body from my dream walk, just as the first outer bands from Mitch began coming ashore. I stood in the rain, barefoot on the muddy lawn and fallen leaves in the backyard of the Calavera mansion. My dreamscape had drifted further from the real world once again.
Dream walking is not like sleepwalking. A sleepwalker is dreaming about other things. When I dream walk I am awake, just somewhere else. My consciousness is in another world that co-exists with ours, almost on the same plane, with a thin veil of separation between them. In the same way that layers of images on plastic sheets complete a picture for animations, the layer of the other world, superimposed on ours, gave me a different view of what might be.
When I dream walked through that other plane, my body was still trapped in this one. Normally, that’s not a problem. The other world I visited had the same landscape, though it might be daytime there and nighttime here. It was usually safe for me to move around without falling into a canal, or something like that.
Except, that the two worlds were just a little out of sync. Over the past few months, each time I dream walked, the map of the parallel worlds was off by another degree or two. Frankly, I was lucky not to have drowned yet.
This most recent time, I wound up waking in the completely wrong place. If the worlds were aligned, I should have stood near the gazebo at the circle roundabout on the wider edge of the geographic triangle that roughly formed the area of Everlasting Springs.
Instead, I woke in a place the entire community avoided, as if the very ground was cursed. Well, everyone except for the wolves. They weren’t afraid of anything.
As I stood in the rain, on this abandoned property, curiosity got the better of me. I came closer to the mansion to peek inside. They originally built the Calavera mansion as a small Spanish fortress, on an elevated foundation—which was smart considering the likelihood of flooding in this area going back centuries. I had to get on my tiptoes to get a peek through the window into what I presumed might be the kitchen. It was dark, so it was hard to tell, but I saw a cupboard and wood table and a large standalone double sink that suggested they might also use the space for laundry. I didn’t notice a stove, but it could have been there somewhere in the darkness.
I wished I could get a better view. When I came back down to my flat feet, I heard a yowl, felt something scratching the back of my left calf. I cursed and spun around just in time to see a flash of orange fur dashing off into the inky black of the night. I guessed it was one of the neighborhood’s many feral cats. They followed me around when I dream walked and often got under foot.
He was always near me, no matter where my dream walks went.
When my heart stopped slamming in my chest from the fright Cinnamon gave me, I went to check whether the back door was open… and bumped right into a hard chest wearing a blue denim shirt. I yelped, and got a better look up the full length of a muscular neck, a hard jaw dusted with dark stubble, and a pair of full lips, damp with raindrops. The straight nose above looked like it belonged on a statue. A pair of glowing blue eyes, framed by thick lashes, glared at me. The man’s sharply angled eyebrows arched in a question, and his longish, thick black hair curled in the rain.
I tried to run away, but his firm hands gripped me by the shoulders.
“Who are you, and why have you come?”
There was something about his voice, deep as the thunder, dark, sharp and slow. He pronounced each word with authority and purpose. He had a slight Spanish accent, which made the throaty rasp of the ‘who’ and ‘have’ sound extra hard. It was very appealing to my ears.
“I might ask you the same thing.” My voice trembled. I was suddenly freezing.
“You might. But I did so out with it. What is your name, little girl?”
Little girl? Geez.
I wasn’t wearing makeup and probably looked more like a drowned rat than a woman, but no one had confused me for a girl in years. With my cotton nightgown drenched in rain and clinging to every curve, there was no way this stranger could think I was a girl. I didn’t like him patronizing me. After all, how old could he be? Twenty-six? Twenty-eight? Thirty, max.
“Do you have a last name, Azucena?”
“Yes, don’t you?” His grip tightened, though not enough to cause me pain.
“Again, I asked first.”
“Your last name is Vazquez?”
“As far as I know, yes.”
“Azucena Vazquez.” He savored every syllable, and pronounced the ‘z’ and ‘c’ with a soft stroke of ‘th’ as in ‘thought,’ not a hard ‘s’ as in ‘strike.’ He was definitely Spanish. I enjoyed hearing my name on his tongue.
“Most people call me Suzy,” I said.
“Azucena, you are trespassing.” He was not most people.
“So are you,” I said, trying to sound brave. Everyone knew the Calavera mansion was abandoned.
“No, I am not. This is my home.”
“I suppose you’re dead, then?”
He cocked his head, as if weighing how to respond. “What makes you say that?”
“It’s a haunted house. If it’s your house, you must be a ghost. Though you sure don’t feel like one.”
“No, Azucena Vazquez, I am definitely not a ghost.” The thunder interrupted whatever he might have said next, such as telling me who he really was. “Leave now, Azucena.” He let go of my shoulders, and I began to shiver. “It’s not safe for you to be here.”
If there was ever a way to get me not to do something, though, it was to tell me I should. Besides, my dream walking had brought me here, which seemed significant. And it wasn’t as if I could stop looking at the electric blue light in his eyes. That would simply be asking too much.
“Hold on,” I said. “You haven’t told me who you are.”
He sighed in a way that made me feel like a dimwitted child, or a pet that refused to be trained. A cat, maybe. There was a strong thunderclap closer to us, which sent electric fingers running down my spine and sparked on my tailbone. He didn’t seem to hear it. Maybe he thought he was being scary, but I didn’t feel threatened anymore. Only chilly. I wrapped my arms around myself but refused to break eye contact with him.
“I’m the caretaker,” he said.
“You’re doing a lousy job. The place looks like it’s falling apart.”
He shrugged the insult off with a twisted grin. “You’re an impossible woman.” I was glad he at least acknowledged that I was a woman and not a girl.
“You’re obviously not from around here. We Vazquezes are known for being impossible. We’re famous for it, actually.”
Thunder roared all around us, the blue-white flash dazzling, the vibrations reaching my marrow. A gusty wind shook the branches of the banyan trees all around us. The rain pelted us from the side, tiny projectiles of water stinging my cheek.
“Do you lack the sense to get out of the rain, Azucena?”
“Are you inviting me inside?”
“That would not be a good idea. If you came in, you might never come out again.”
Then, as if nature was growing tired of our argument, one of the swaying branches broke, flying toward us like a missile. And soon, I was flying too.
Chapter Two: Inigo de la Fuente, etc.
What happened next was nearly a blur. In two heartbeats, the caretaker had picked me up in his arms where I stood and carried me into the dark room I’d been peeking into earlier.
He put me down, then disappeared in a blinding flash of lightning that came through the kitchen window and briefly bathed the dark room in white. I stood near the large kitchen worktable, stupefied, trying to figure out how he moved so incredibly fast. One moment I heard the crack of the branch above us, and the next, I was dripping water on the black and white chessboard floor.
It was a cavernous kitchen, dimly lit by an iron candelabra on the table I was sure hadn’t been there earlier. In the flickering light, I could just make out the appliances. They were quite old, in a style from another era, designs I’d only ever seen in black and white movies at the Star Theater in the Circle, or in some of the 1930s magazines that Clara Ruiz kept among her historic publications collection at Circle Books. But these appliances were in new condition though, as if they’d never been used. Perhaps it was because the abandoned house lacked power?
Why would the caretaker live in the dark?
“Oh, geez,” I said, looking around for something that I could use to mop up the puddle I’d made. I didn’t want to spread the wet muck from my feet around the kitchen, but I didn’t see a dishtowel anywhere in easy reach. Then the caretaker was back, barefoot, carrying two large bath towels and a kerosene hurricane lamp. He gave me one towel, as large as a blanket, and lit the hurricane lamp with a lighter he fished out of his jeans’ pocket.
Then, revealing a slim but sculpted torso, a muscular chest and brawny arms, he took off his shirt and hung it from the back of one of the carved wood chairs in the kitchen. The low light from the candles and the brighter illumination provided by the lamp shone upon his pale skin, making it almost glow, like brushed gold.
“Get out of that wet nightgown,” he said, pointing at me and removing his jeans so that he was completely naked.
I got a brief glimpse of his taut lower belly and a long, heavy cock before he turned his back to me. For a moment I stared at his firm round ass and defined muscular thighs and calves before he wrapped his own towel around his waist.
The man searched the kitchen cupboard for something, while I took off my dripping cotton nightgown and wrapped the plush dry towel around myself. I draped my soggy nightgown over the back of one of the other chairs.
He turned to check on me with a perplexed look on his face. I wasn’t sure what he saw, but it seemed to trouble him.
“Do you like tea?” He held up a tin. “It’s been here a while, but I think it’s still good. It’s something warm, anyway.”
“Is there power to boil water?” I asked.
“It’s a gas stove.”
“No, I’m fine, thanks.”
Does tea go bad after years of sitting in a tin?
I didn’t want to try my luck. Besides, the sight of him in nothing but that towel was already making me warm. “How did you do that?”
“Do what?” He put the tin back in the cupboard then returned to the table and sat on one of the kitchen chairs that weren’t serving as clotheslines.
“You know…” I moved my hands, as if I were pitching water from a bucket, and made a swooshing sound to help illustrate his rapid movements.
“I don’t know what you mean.” I could tell he was just giving me a hard time. “Are you going to sit?”
I took one of the chairs opposite him. The candlelight played off his features, giving him a menacing expression. His eyes looked black now, though I supposed his pupils were fully dilated. But I wasn’t frightened, despite his earlier warning that I should leave while I could. His rescuing me from the falling branch proved I was safer indoors with him than I would be outside. We sat in silence for a moment, as I struggled with what to say next.
I finally broke the tension. “So, when did you start?”
“A long, long time ago.” He turned his right hand in circles at the wrist as he said this, and I noticed a curious gold ring on his finger. It held a large red gemstone shaped in a rounded teardrop—or perhaps a drop of blood. It looked ancient.
“I’ve never seen you before.”
“Have you been snooping here before?”
“Well, no. Nobody comes here. The place is cursed, or so they say.”
He was quiet for a while, looking at me with those dark eyes, making me feel like a steak dinner. “And what brought you here to this cursed place? Tonight of all nights, in the middle of a hurricane, dressed in nothing but a nightgown?”
I didn’t know how to explain without talking about my dream walking and I didn’t want to get into all that with a total stranger.
“Well?” he pushed.
He raised a sharp, dark eyebrow at me, his arms crossed over his chest. But rather than angry, he seemed somewhere between intrigued and amused. He obviously didn’t get many visitors.
“You haven’t even told me your name yet.” I pointed out.
“You don’t need to know my name.”
“Oh, come on.” I smiled at him. “You know mine. It’s bad manners not to reciprocate.”
“Inigo,” he said. “Inigo de la Fuente, Lago, Rodriguez, Perez, Da Gama.”
“That’s… a lot.”
“It’s enough. There’s more, but I tire of it.”
A subtle smile played at the ends of his lips, but it seemed to me he was resisting the urge to break into a full grin, though I was smiling at him. Most people returned my smile with the gentlest push of my persuasive powers. It was stubborn of him to resist my influence.
“So, where have you been all this time? I’ve never seen you at the Cozy Corner, and everyone passes through our diner eventually.”
“I don’t eat prepared food.” He slid back in the chair, seeming slightly more relaxed. It was some progress.
“Is that like a dietary restriction or just a matter of taste?”
“A bit of both, really.”
“All our food at the Cozy is homemade food, using only the freshest ingredients.” Mama would want me to point that out, I was sure. “And we’re open twenty-four hours, in case you prefer to go out at night.”
Inigo stared at me for a while, the bright blue flashing in his eyes for a moment, then dimming again. “Why would you suggest that?”
“Some people in town are more nocturnal than others,” I noted casually. We didn’t really talk about why that was. It just was in Everlasting Springs, and we all accepted it. “I figured you must be nocturnal since I’ve never seen you around in the day. And you were fully dressed in the middle of the night.”
“It doesn’t bother you?”
“Why should it? When you choose to sleep is your business.”
“I rarely do these days…”
“Well, that’s not healthy. A person needs to dream.”
“I don’t dream. I haven’t dreamt for centuries.”
He had a slight tendency to the melodramatic, which I found amusing. I gave him a broader smile, but he insisted on keeping his lips closed to me.
“You probably don’t remember. Everybody dreams.”
“I’m not everybody. In fact, I’m not anybody.”
I laughed. I was pretty sure he was making a joke. “You’re a little weird, aren’t you?”
“Perhaps.” His head tipped to the side as if he were considering the notion. “I wasn’t trying to be, but I suppose I’ve developed some bad habits.”
“What are you, really? You’re not one of the pack, and you’re not Fae. I don’t think you’re a shifter… or a warlock.”
It was a rude question for me to ask, by Everlasting standards, but I found Inigo intriguing. He didn’t give off any energy I could recognize. That was weird.
It’s something I’m pretty good at, figuring out the nature of people based on their ‘waves.’ It’s how I recognize them in the other world too, even if they look different there, which was sometimes the case. But I’d never seen Inigo in the other world either. I didn’t think I had, anyway. How do you recognize the absence of something that is nothing when it’s present?
“What are you?” Inigo turned my question on me, which was fair enough since I’d opened myself up to it.
“I…” I started, but wasn’t sure what to answer. There wasn’t really a word for it. I was a Vazquez. I was one of Chloe’s daughters. That was usually enough for most people. “I’m not a shifter. Nor a witch, as far as I know.”
“You might be an eternal, though, right?” Inigo seemed to test a theory in his mind, weighing the possibilities. “You’re not human either. And you’re not your mother.”
“Do you know my mother?”
“Really? She’s never mentioned you.”
There was an awkward silence while I waited for him to elaborate. He didn’t.
“I’m sunny,” I said. “I guess that’s the best way to explain it. Some think I’m naïve and others think I’m a ditz. But I’m not. I just like to make people happy.” I smiled at him again, hoping he would finally return it. But he seemed incredibly resistant to my charms. “And I walk through the dream world.”
“Do you?” He leaned forward in his chair, folding his hands in front of him and giving me a scrutinizing look, which made me feel exposed, almost naked under his intense regard.
“And what do you see when you walk?”
He shook his head. It seemed to me he was tiring of my cryptic answers, but it was really difficult for me to get other people to wrap their minds around what I saw when I dream walked. There weren’t enough words to describe what it was like, or at least I didn’t know enough of them.
“Well, you can stay until the deluge passes, Azucena. But then you need to go—and you can never come back here.”
“Because here is not somewhere for you to be.”
“Are you really the caretaker of this place?”
“For my sins.”
“What sins were those?”
Something crossed his face, a brief wince, something like regret, but the expression vanished almost as soon as it appeared. His intense stare returned. There was something in his eyes, and it wasn’t just the luminescent blue, which was back with an intensity that stirred a warmth deep in my core. It was the darkness at the center of his irises. It was blacker than black, but it was also vibrant and hot.
“How do you know my mother, really?”
“We’re old acquaintances.”
“Seriously? I wonder why she’s never mentioned you. She’s not good with secrets.”
“Your mother keeps plenty of them.”
I knew Inigo was right. Most people didn’t think so, because my mother had a well-earned reputation in town as a gossip and a busybody, but there was a strategy to that. Chloe was a schemer. But she didn’t share her schemes, even with her daughters. She kept us in the dark.
My mind went back to all her recent whispers to my older sister, Consuelo. I wondered when Consuelo would share with me what she heard from my mother. That was probably one of Mother’s plans too, putting distance between us. I’d always trusted my older sister and would confide in her. My mother asked a lot of questions, but I only told her what I thought she needed to know. I had to tell someone I could trust about the shift in the layers of the worlds, and that person would usually have been Consuelo. Now I wasn’t sure anymore, which made me sad.
Inigo’s voice brought me out of my thoughts. “I can’t stop you from telling Chloe that we’ve met, but I would rather that you didn’t mention it.”
“I think it would displease Chloe to learn I had met you. And I’d much rather not be dead.”
I giggled. “Mama wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
Though that was not entirely true. She was famously effective with a fly swatter.
“I’m not a fly.”
“You’re bigger and stronger than she is. I think you’re safe from Mama.”
He laughed at that, and I got a very brief flash of the teeth of a predator. His canines seemed more… prominent than normal. He reminded me of a feline shifter, though I knew he wasn’t one. I told myself it was just an effect of the light, and the nighttime playing on my imagination.
“You do not know, do you?” he asked, finally.
“What do you mean?”
“Nothing. Least said, soonest mended. You’re right, I’m probably safe from Chloe, but not if you are here. It’s not safe for you to be here, anyway, especially not after dark. As soon as the rain lets up and the winds calm down, you need to go.”
“Why? Are you expecting Mama to come to the door with a shotgun any minute?”
“Are you always like this?”
“No, I’m like nothing,” I teased, trying to get him to laugh again.
He didn’t cooperate.
“Don’t be stubborn. Heed my advice. You can stay here in the kitchen to wait out the storm, but don’t come into the rest of the house. After the storm passes, just go.”
“Tell me one true thing, and maybe I’ll think about leaving.”
“There are no truths to tell, Azucena, beyond what I’ve already told you. It is not safe for you here.”
“The dream path brought me to you,” I argued. “I’m not sure why, but I think this is where I belong. For now, anyway.”
He pondered this for a moment. “I am not someone you follow a path to find, Azucena Vazquez. I am someone you run away from as fast as you can. There—I told you two truths for the price of one. Now, I will go. Leave as soon as it’s safe. Don’t come into the rest of the house—and don’t let me catch you here again.”
He vanished from the seat, gone in an instant—so fast that I wondered, briefly, whether I had imagined him. Maybe he was a ghost. Except the candelabra and the hurricane lamp were still on the table. I was wrapped in the towel he had given me.
I remained frozen in my seat, trying to recall all the sharp corners and dark shadows of his face. He was gorgeous—more handsome than any man had a right to be. When he laughed, it warmed me to the marrow. I wasn’t sure what to make of the flashes of blue in his eyes, or those inexplicably hot black irises, or the hint of fangs I thought I hadn’t imagined.
He wasn’t a wolf. I wasn’t Little Red Riding Hood either.
I had mapped the layers of this forest of Everlasting Springs, and felt at ease in all of it—except for this one weird corner in which Inigo de La Fuente lived.
That name echoed in my mind, unsettling me.
I could hear myself sighing it as he covered my body with kisses.
I would cry it out in the night as he plunged himself into my depths.
I was suddenly… very horny. But the truth was that I’d been aching and hungry for sex for a long time.
It was weird, really, because there were plenty of men in Everlasting Springs. They were all very sweet, friendly to me, but not a single one of them had the courage to ask me out. I would have minded more if both my sisters, Consuelo and Lola, weren’t going through the same thing.
It was like some town conspiracy. Nobody asked a Vazquez girl out on a date.
Well, not until recently, anyway.
Richard Cummings—the odd man who had shown up out of nowhere and settled in town a couple of years back—had asked Consuelo to go out the previous Saturday night. It thrilled Mama when her not-so-subtle hints to Richard that her daughter was beautiful and very available worked. Others were less thrilled though. Andrew Finn, the chief of the fire department, was positively murderous when he heard the news from Mama over breakfast on Sunday.
When I mentioned to Consuelo that Andrew seemed very upset, my sister told me I should mind my business. I sensed my mother’s scheming behind this, too.
I don’t know why Mama is like she is. Or why water is wet. Not everything needs an explanation.
Except for Inigo.
I needed an explanation for why I felt so desperately drawn to him. That was the best way to describe it. Of course, he was incredibly attractive, and I was ravenously horny, but there was something else. I felt as if I needed to be with him, that somehow I always should have been with him.
It was a ridiculous notion. I had only just met the man and had been with him for only a few minutes before he vanished. Did he have some sort of magic I didn’t know about? Had he cast a spell on me? I didn’t think that was possible. I was usually the one casting—though not spells so much as sensations.
The best way to describe my gift was reverse empathy. I didn’t just feel what others feel; I influenced their feelings—and always for the good. I didn’t abuse my power; I only pushed them gently, planting suggestions through my own body language, encouraging them to feel better, to trust me, and to treat me nicely. It earned me big tips from my customers at the Cozy Corner, but I didn’t do it for that reason. I just wanted everyone to be happy around me. After all, I had almost everything I wanted. Except for a man.
Was I imagining him whispering his name in my ear, making the hairs rise on my arms?
As far as Inigo’s two truths were concerned, neither was true.
The fact was the dream path had led me to the Calavera mansion on this night. I had woken there, and I had met him—which felt significant to me.
In terms of Inigo’s second so-called truth, he was obviously so fast that no one had the least chance to run away from him.
The second truth was a dare. I liked dares.
I rose out of my chair intending to find him wherever he was in the house. But I paused for a moment, worried he would be angry with me for not heeding his warning.
Except a wicked part of me wanted to see what he would do about it.