But where did that leave me with Jed?
I’d told myself I was keeping things from Stephen to keep the peace and to protect him. But that was based on that fact that I’d known he couldn’t accept the witchcraft or the weirdness. I thought perhaps Jed was just quirky enough that he could. At the very least, I could tell him about Dick. Or warn him about Dick.
“So you haven’t told him about the witchy stuff or the Elements or anything?” Andrea asked.
“It’s kind of hard to fit into a conversation,” I told her. “How did you tell people that you were a vampire?”
“I didn’t tell people, really, until I told my parents,” Jane offered.
“How’d that go?”
Jane frowned. “My mother asked me if I could try not to be a vampire anymore.”
“My parents disowned me way before I was turned,” Andrea said. “But they did get really indignant when I didn’t invite them to our wedding.”
“That’s remarkably unhelpful,” I said, covering my face with my hands. I was going to have to talk to Jed about some of these things. And the small matter of my returning to Ireland in a few weeks’ time. Otherwise, we were doomed to end up just like Stephen and me. And that wasn’t fair. If anything, I should let my personality and emotional baggage doom the relationship.
“You want to go back to talking about sending that Spanish guy the naked pictures?” Jane asked, nudging me with her elbow.
It took a while to pry my vampire friends out of my living room. Jed had given up hours before, finding some excuse to retreat back to safe quarters on his side of the duplex. Jane and Andrea finally persuaded Dick to leave before he could try to replace other fixtures by reminding him of a Dukes of Hazzard marathon starting at midnight. I waited until I saw the taillights clear the driveway before sprinting across the porch. Before I could knock, Jed opened his door, yanked me into his foyer, and pinned me against the wall. Without saying a word, he pressed his lips against mine in a searing kiss. I moaned, twisting my fingers in the light cotton material of his long-sleeved workshirt as his hands slipped around my waist. Breathless and dizzy, I pulled away from him.
“Your family scares me,” he said.
I arched an eyebrow. “Family?”
“Well, you’re obviously not blood-related, what with the opposing accents and pulse differences, but I know family when I see it. Those people love you. They’re happy to spend time with you. And Dick spends most of his time glaring at me and making crotch-specific threats when you’re not around. That’s family.”
I frowned. Were they my family? Was I ready for any sort of family beyond the McGavocks? The clan and the clinic had been the focus of my life for so long. Did I have room for anything more in my head or my heart? I liked them all so much—Dick, Andrea, Jane, the whole company. They’d made me feel welcome and warm when I had no clue how to go about my search. They’d done all they could to help me, sometimes crossing the line of what was appropriate or sensible. I wasn’t a leader. I wasn’t expected to know what to do every moment of every day. I made an absolute fool of myself when necessary, and nobody panicked. It was lovely. If I could somehow blend the two groups—the overwhelming love of my living family with the unquestionable acceptance of my undead relatives—I might turn out to be a somewhat normal person.
I kissed Jed again—Jed, the man who’d done nothing but help me without demanding details or even questioning whether driving me across three states was a waste of time. And I felt a prick of guilt for keeping so much from him. How could he really like me when he only knew such a small part of me? No magic, no mission, no crazy vampire family. Maybe he would find those “quirks” charming and attractive.
“There’s something I need to tell you,” I said, kissing him one last time. “Several things, actually.”
He nodded, the flirty, sweet energy draining from his face. “There are some things I need to tell you, too.” He kissed me again, and there was a strange air of finality to it. As if he was bracing himself for bad news. Did he know something was “off” about me? Was he more comfortable wondering than not knowing? A buzzing noise sounded from the kitchen, making me break off the kiss.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Dinner,” he said. “I noticed you don’t eat much around the vampires, so I warmed up a chicken pot pie. We’ll eat, and then we’ll talk, all right?”
We gorged ourselves on pot pie and watched some silly Chuck Norris film Jed had insisted on, after I told him that I’d never seen The Delta Force. Apparently, this was a felony in some states.
We cleaned up the dishes, then settled in for discussion, coffee, and the most feared beard in the universe. And for about twenty minutes, I was content and relaxed. Of course, it was all downhill from there.
“Hey, could you take this into the living room for me?” he asked, handing me a bowl of rocky road ice cream. “I’m having a fistfight with the coffeemaker.”
“Why does everyone in this town have an adversarial relationship with coffeepots?” I muttered as I carried the ice cream into the living room, carefully balancing the bowl to keep it from sliding off onto the floor. Penny never had forgiven me for the “Christmas trifle” incident.
But the television blaring Chuck Norris’s all-around badassery was too much of a distraction, and I wasn’t watching where I was stepping. Just as I passed the farthest edge of Jed’s blue rag rug, my shoe caught on the fringe, dragging it back. I grumbled about my own clumsiness as I settled the bowl on the coffee table. I knelt to straighten the rug and noticed that one of the floorboards was loose, set slightly higher than the rest. I shot a guilty look toward the kitchen, where Jed was humming tunelessly. I hadn’t damaged the floor, had I? I didn’t remember dragging anything but the rug. I pushed on the board, trying to slide it back into place, but it listed and slid down into empty space.
“Shit!” I whispered, tilting forward as my weight shifted. I grabbed at the board, and my hand brushed against a cloth-wrapped bundle tucked away in the space underneath. “What’s this?”
There was a stack of photos under the bundle . . . and one of the buildings in the corner of the photo looked awfully familiar. I pulled on the bundle, but it wouldn’t come up without pulling up more boards. I popped another board out of place and pulled the cloth up, bringing the stack of photos with it. They showed long-range shots of me, walking away from the clinic in Kilcairy. There was another one of me out to dinner with Stephen in Dublin. And another, with Penny, just before I’d left for Kentucky.
“What?” The cloth slid out of my hand and to the floor with a dull clunk. My hands shook as I pulled the cloth loose to find the plaque—the acorn-shaped plaque I’d believed was smashed and stored in pieces in Jane’s shop.
Jed had taken it. He must have switched the bundles when he took my bag out of my truck and then “accidentally” dropped my bag to make me think the plaque was broken. I was so stupid. I knew something was off with the age of those clay bits, but I’d wanted so badly to believe that I held two of the Elements, that I could trust Jed, that I shut down any doubts I should have listened to.
“I lost the fight with the coffeemaker,” Jed said, carrying two mugs into the living room. “Just think of the loose grounds as ‘sprinkles.’ ” He saw me on my knees, with the plaque in my hand. He dropped the mugs to the floor with a clash of broken pottery. “Nola, please.”
“Don’t,” I ground out. “There’s no trying to convince me that ‘this isn’t what it looks like.’ Just explain to me, why the hell do you have this? Why would you make me think it had been destroyed? Why would you even want it?”
Jed blanched, and his gaze immediately shifted downward. “I’m so sorry.”
“I didn’t ask for an apology, I want a goddamn explanation!” I shouted. “You know why I’m here. You had pictures of me in your hidey-hole. You knew who I was as soon as you met me, didn’t you? You knew I was a McGavock, about the witchcraft, the Elements, all of it. And you’ve been pretending all this time to be this clueless, sexy, himbo neighbor man. Why? Who the hell are you, Jed? Is Jed even your real name, or did you pick it out of the Redneck Alias Handbook?”
“Every word you’ve ever said to me was a lie.” I seethed. “Here I was feeling guilty for keeping things from you—my family, the vampires, my boyfriend—and you were outright lying!”
“Not every word,” he said, shaking his head. I shoved him away, cradling the bundle against my chest. “Please, Nola, you have to understand. There’s a good reason for this.”
“Fine, what’s your reason?” I growled.
“I can’t tell you right now,” he said, wincing. “There are things you need to understand first.”
His voice was soft as a breeze as he said, “I never meant to hurt you.”
“Bullshit!” I yelled, pushing past him toward the door, the plaque pressed to my chest.
“Nola, please.” He grabbed my arm. At first, I thought he would grab for the plaque, but he was only trying to keep me from leaving. “The Kerrigans—”
Before he could finish his sentence, a rage I could only describe as volcanic bubbled up from my belly and surged through my arm to my hand. He knew the Kerrigans? Was he working for the Kerrigans?
And suddenly, Jed’s arm was on fire.
He yelped, waving his flaming sleeve back and forth, feeding the fire oxygen and making a small situation much worse.
“Stop moving!” I exclaimed, I shoved him into the kitchen and pushed his sleeve into the sink. I picked up the sprayer and shot an arc of water toward him. After briefly dousing Jed’s face, I aimed the stream at his arm and put the sleeve fire out. His face was pale and dripping wet as we stripped him out of his sodden shirt. While the flames hadn’t left a mark on his flesh, the outline of my hand was clear, as if my palm had given him a contact burn. I jerked my hand away, unable to see anything but the blistered, bright-red handprint I’d left on his arm.
Backing away, unable to take my eyes from the mark of violence I’d left on his skin, I told him, “Don’t come near me again.”
I marched out of Jed’s apartment and drove directly to the shop.
How could I have been so stupid? How was it possible that Jed was some sort of witchcraft spy? Who was Jed, really? Was he working for the Kerrigans, or was there some new third party involved in the feud? How would the Kerrigans know someone from Tennessee? Was Jed really from Tennessee? Was the accent fake, too?
Oh, good night, I’d let that man see me naked.
I’d been had. I was the dumb henchman in the Bond movies who was distracted by female sidekicks with overtly sexual names who eventually strangled the henchman with their thighs. I’d been used. He’d never liked me. He’d never found me “adorable” or “sweet” or any of the little endearments he’d tossed about so casually. And I think that was what hurt so much. I’d really believed he liked me just for me. Not because of what I could do, because I was Nana’s heir, or because I fit conveniently into his life as his lovely normal girlfriend. For me.
I do not remember anything about the drive, other than that I skipped going to the store in favor of pulling over in the Half-Moon Hollow Baptist Church car park to scream and beat on my steering wheel. And at the BP station. And the Bait-n-Beer.
It was a long drive.
Maybe, on some level, I’d known. Maybe that was the root of whatever had kept me from telling the truth about why I was here, about the search. Some part of me must have known he wasn’t trustworthy, too good to be true.