“The Kerrigans told me she died a while ago,” he said quietly, and the mention of his former employers didn’t exactly calm the little storm of nerves brewing between my temples.
I took several deep breaths, nodding and concentrating on slowing my heart rate. The last thing I needed was some magical spike that took out the bedroom windows. “I got a call from the Florida State Police about three years ago. They said that her remains had been found in some burnt-out fleabag motel in Sarasota. It’s a wonder they were able to contact me. We hadn’t spoken in more than ten years.”
Jed tilted his forehead against mine, tucking my body against the curve of his hip. “I’m so sorry.”
“I’m not,” I admitted, in a voice so soft it was a wonder that he heard me. “It was a relief.” And now the tears were slipping down my cheeks in earnest, gathering in the hollow of my throat. “It was a relief to know that she wasn’t coming back, that she couldn’t hurt us anymore. She had a particular talent for hurting Nana, who always seemed to think she could just love Mom out of being bat-shit crazy. Every time she hurt us, it only proved that I was right not to trust her. For Nana’s sake, I pretended I was just as shocked as she was when Mom was arrested in Jacksonville for soliciting or that time she took Nana’s money for rehab, only to spend it on a three-day bender in Atlantic City. But I’d come to expect it. I feel guilty for not loving my own mother, but I feel even worse for letting Nana believe that I did.”
I sniffed. “I feel like so much of my relationship with Nana was a lie now. I don’t know what to believe anymore. I’ve known all my life that my grandmother didn’t want to discuss my grandfather. And I thought I understood it. I’d been angry at my grandfather for years, imagining him as some sort of cad who fathered my mother and ran. But I realize now the part Nana played in all this, and I didn’t realize how angry I was at Nana Fee until I came here and saw what I had missed, not knowing him. She sent me on this wild-goose chase to the middle of nowhere, after giving supposedly sacred objects to a man who was some sort of book hoarder. What if Jane wanted nothing to do with me? What if his shop had burned down? What was she thinking?” That last bit was muffled by a hiccuping sob, which was mortifying.
“You’re not used to bein’ angry with her, huh?”
I shook my head, wiping at my cheeks. “I’m also not used to crying in front of some man while lying in bed with him.”
“I’m not just some man.” His tone was indignant. I chuckled, but he cupped my face in his hand and forced me to look at him. “Look, you know my secrets. You know things I’ve never told a soul outside of my family. And I gather you’ve never told anyone about your mother or your grandmother. That means something, Nola. I don’t take it lightly.”
I nodded and tucked my face into the crook of his neck. “I know.”
I settled my weight against Jed’s side and breathed in his spicy woods scent. I closed my eyes and let that scent soak into my skin. I knew Jed didn’t take this sort of admission lightly. This was an intimacy he was sharing with me, an emotional bond one didn’t forge with a convenient fling. The question was, how was I supposed to take it? How was I going to walk away from someone who knew so much about me? Did I really want to?
Hours later, the room was dark, and the windows were open. I turned over toward Jed. Bright beams of moonlight poured through the window, highlighting the smooth planes of his face. Jed’s completely normal, human face. I sat up, my fingers pressing against his cheeks.
He inhaled sharply, sitting up. The moment his eyes opened and he caught sight of the windows, his face shifted. His skin was blue and smooth. Inky black markings highlighted the sharp cheekbones and arched brows over a leonine nose. He had fangs, long, shiny, and white. His eyes were wide and round and an electric, unearthly green.
I reached out to touch the strange blue flesh but felt only Jed’s warm, smooth skin. I traced my fingertips along his long nose, over the ridges of his cheekbones. He purred, the vibrations of the rumbling sound traveling down my arms to my heart. It was an illusion. He was still Jed underneath. I could feel his eyebrows under my fingertips. I leaned forward and kissed the blue, feline nose.
Jed flinched, drawing back from me as if I’d slapped him. The only thing I felt against my lips was Jed’s plain old human nose. I chuckled, making the blackened eyebrows crease. I leaned forward, taking one of the soft lips between my own. He jerked away. I sighed, pushing up to my elbows so I could thread my hands in the inky black hair and pull him down to me. I claimed his mouth. This was my mouth. No matter what form it came in, it was mine.
Outside the windows, a cloud passed over the crescent moon, and the room was dark again. Under my fingertips, Jed’s skin became his regular golden peach. His features shifted back to human. I laughed aloud, kissing him again. He dove for me, attacking my mouth with a zeal that made me glad he didn’t have real fangs. He threw my leg over his hip and thrust forward, grinding his hard length against flesh that was already warm and wet for him. I cried out, the first tense pulse of pleasure seizing through me as he tugged my jeans away. He growled, nipping and biting down the length of my throat as he tore the material at my hips and threw it over his shoulder.
My nails bit into his shoulders, welting the skin, and I was rewarded with a pleased rumble. He knelt over me, and I moaned at the broken contact. He trailed his hand between us, sliding it over my breastbone, down the line of my stomach, and between my legs. I shrieked when his thumb stroked over that little hard nub. He chuckled, so I reached up and tweaked his nipple in retaliation. He yelped and grinned down at me, redoubling his efforts.
When he finally plunged between my thighs, I was already coming. I pulsed and rolled underneath him, my breath too short to scream his name properly. All I could manage was a series of exhausted whimpers. I closed my eyes and tilted my head back, trusting him with my body as I had before, and let myself float away.
We stretched across the couch, Jed’s legs sprawled across mine. My hand trailed down a back that was still a pleasant human tone. Jed was breathing, deep and even at my side, while we both enjoyed a long, comfortable moment of silence. Of course, I couldn’t leave things alone.
“Am I crazy, or did you just shift into one of those things from Avatar earlier?” I asked.
“You were blue, and you had this weird tail and a cat lip.”
“When was the last time you saw that movie?”
He shrugged. “I was flipping past HBO earlier this morning and stopped on it.”
“Tree of souls scene?”
“Bloody pervert. So you see a sex scene between two otherworldly creatures, and then we’re all snuggled up together, and . . .”
“So you think I turned into a Na’vi because I watched Avatar?”
“Yes, I do. And the first thing we’re going to do is remove Aliens, Predator, and all zombie movies from your DVD collection, because I am not prepared to deal with that. I don’t think you’re cursed, Jed. I think you’re some sort of were-creature. Only you’re not limited to one form. You can have any form you choose. But because you never learned to control it, the form is determined by whatever is happening in your subconscious.”
“So how do you explain the moonlight factor?”
“I honestly don’t think it applies. For one thing, that wasn’t the full moon. And second, the moon was shining on you earlier while you were asleep, and you didn’t shift until you woke up and saw that the curtains were open. I think it’s psychosomatic. If the witch all those years ago was some sort of sensitive, she might have been able to tell when your ancestor was getting ready to shift for the first time. She may have been able to use that, saying she was cursing him with ‘a thousand faces.’ When he shifted into some animal form for the first time, he was convinced it was a result of the witch’s curse. I would imagine he did it under the light of the full moon, making that connection in his mind. The next time a family member shifted, he blamed the curse, and the next, and the next. You were going to shift no matter what, but the witch just used the power of suggestion against your ancestor to a devastating effect.”
“You’re going to explain what that means, right? In much smaller words?”
“Think about it this way,” I said, sitting up. “If you’ve been told all of your life that you’re allergic to peanuts, that everybody in your family is allergic to peanuts, you’re probably going to believe you’re allergic to peanuts. Especially if you frequently see your relatives having allergic reactions to peanuts. So when you’re exposed to peanuts, even if you’re not really allergic, you’re probably going to at least hive out a little bit. Which would reinforce your belief that you’re allergic, and that will start the cycle all over again. Does that make sense?”
“No, and now I really want a Nutty Buddy.”
“Your brain has tricked you into thinking you’re allergic to moonlight. You can probably shift anytime you want, into anything you want. Frankly, I’m amazed that no one in your family has accidentally shifted during the day or fallen asleep outside before.”
“Well, this isn’t something we talk about a lot.”
“Do you run around your village telling everybody about your witchy stuff?”
I nodded. “Among my family members, yes. We talk about it all the time. Soccer and magic, those are the main topics of dinner conversation. Sometimes both together, which would be my aunt Penny making comments about David Beckham that make the rest of us uncomfortable.”
“Well, we don’t talk about it. On full-moon nights, we shut ourselves inside our houses and pretend it’s because we want to watch TV or play cards.”
“Fine, you’re poorly adjusted, I get it. Try shifting now.”
He frowned. “I can’t just change.”
“Just think about whatever form you’d like to assume, and change. Feel the energy flowing up from the ground, into your legs, and spreading up through your body. Picture that energy filling in all the places between your cells and changing your shape into whatever you wish.”
Jed rolled his eyes. “Hippie.” He squinched up his face, as if he was concentrating, but then his features relaxed. Nothing. He squinted again, seeming to try harder. But nothing.
I patted his hand. “Don’t worry, I hear this happens to a lot of guys.”
He whacked me over the head with a pillow. “Shut it, you!”
For the next three days, the hours in which I wasn’t retracing every step I’d taken since I’d arrived in the Hollow were filled by working with Jed on his shifting. And by that I mean I called out random animals and monsters to see if he could change on the fly. It took some concentration, overcoming decades of belief in how the shifting worked, but eventually, he was able to see it as a biological function and not something that happened to him.
Jane, of course, saw this as an opportunity to research. She looked into shape-shifting from every culture. She brought over books by the barrow load. Jed was overwhelmed. After watching the process a few times, we came to the conclusion that Jed’s ability worked like a hologram. He never actually changed shape. The cells realigned to project an image, a defense mechanism against predators, like a chameleon, only in Jed’s case on a much larger scale. He could change size and shape entirely, but beneath the image, he was the same adorable redneck.
Jed was faster and stronger than the average person, which was helpful. While his physical form didn’t change, there were limits to what Jed could do. As long as the size and shape were close to his own and humanoid, he could master them. But he couldn’t become an actual animal or another person. The image of the other person’s face flickered back and forth over his own until it made bystanders vaguely ill, like an unsteady picture on TV.