I just want to thank everyone for reading this story. Writing it was a great experience for me because I only had vague ideas about it when I started and then just threw myself right into it. I toyed around with Haunted for four years before I finally started putting it all together. Hopefully my next story will be a compromise.. I want to take more time setting it up before I start posting, but hopefully not too long!
And thank you to my dedicated reviewers: Kalika Scott, incarnated-soul, wolfseye1, CalliopeMused, Daugain, syrai, Darklight Shadow, and Perceive.
Hollis folded the last of her sweaters and placed it in her suitcase. It had taken her an absurdly long time to pack. She kept getting distracted by a multitude of tiny details, like the softness or coarseness of her clothes, the azure color of the sky as the sun set, and the smells of other people that were constantly wafting on the air. She had actually sat down on the side of her bed for ten minutes, simply inhaling the scent of her own shampoo.
The world was so fresh and vivid now. It was gripping and terrifying at the same time. With every breath, every blink, every touch, Hollis was reminded that her life had been completely altered. She would never be herself again. The girl she'd been was dead and gone, slaughtered by a teenage shapeshifter, and she didn't know what was left.
She didn't remember much about what had happened to her after she'd left the hotel. Though, she supposed that she should be grateful because the few details that she did remember—talking to a grimy boy outside of the townhouse, the boy grabbing her wrist and hauling her inside, the slice of his teeth through her skin, the taste of blood and flesh—were enough to leave her shaking.
When her memory finally crashed down around her, Hollis had found herself lying naked on a cold, cement floor. She'd been covered in blood and she hadn't even known whose it was. Then Ian had been next to her, his arms around her, and she'd remembered what she'd done to his shoulder. Turning her head, she'd seen the body of the shapeshifter boy on the floor beside her. In that moment, she had suddenly understood what she'd become. She thought that that would have been the worst moment of her life if hadn't been so surreal.
But she was trying to shut it out of her mind now. There was no way she could function otherwise.
Just as Hollis was zipping up her suitcase, there was a knock at the door. Even though she knew who it had to be, she checked the peephole. She knew now that a person really couldn't be too careful. But seeing that it was Ian, she opened the door.
"Hey," he said softly. The sound of that one word was enough to make her knees weak. His voice was incredible to her now. It was low and rich, like a caress. And it was somehow intimate, even when he wasn't trying to make it so. "How are you?"
Hollis shrugged awkwardly. She was beginning to hate that question. Ian had already asked her that too many times. So had Risa and Carden. She still didn't know the answer, but she gave Ian her usual reply. "Fine. Why did you knock out here instead of the inside door?"
"Oh, I just saw Risa and Carden out," he said. "They have their own issues to deal with, now that Daybreak has officially cancelled the contract on her."
She narrowed her eyes at him. "You filed the paperwork already? Why didn't you tell me?"
"I didn't want to bother you when—"
"It's my job, Ian," Hollis snapped. She turned away from the door and walked back inside her room. He moved soundlessly, but she could feel his heat behind her as he followed. It was both disconcerting and delicious.
"I know that it's you're job," Ian said. "But you're going through something right now and I didn't want you to have to deal with something as tedious as paperwork."
Hollis rolled her eyes as she sat down on the bed, her anger fading. "I like paperwork," she muttered.
Ian gave a short laugh. "Yeah, I'm aware of that."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"It's just that you tend to bury yourself in work when you're trying to avoid things."
Hot blood rushed into Hollis's cheeks and she tried to think of a good retort, but her mind sputtered to a halt. Good to know that some things never changed.
Ian sat down next to her and put his hand on her thigh, just above her knee. The warmth of the touch spread through her body.
"I'm not going to let you avoid this," he continued quietly. "The shifter changed you and you have to deal with that. You can't just keep telling me that you're fine because I know you're not."
"Maybe not," she admitted. "But we're going back to headquarters soon. There will be people there who can help me…adjust. Assuming, of course, that I don't get fired for my own stupidity."
"You won't. I'll make sure of it."
Hollis lifted her gaze to him. "Why? I thought that you more than anyone would…" she trailed off, remembering the callous words that he had thrown at her the night she'd gone after Risa by herself. It seemed crass to bring it up now, after he'd already apologized.
"Circle Daybreak needs people who like to do paperwork," Ian replied lightly. But then he looked at her soberly, his eyes dark with some emotion that she couldn't name. His voice fell to a hush. "Ah, but we were trying for brutal honesty, right? Well, the truth is that I can't stand the thought of you leaving."
She was thunderstruck. "Why?"
For a moment, Hollis was afraid that Ian would laugh at her question, but he continued to look at her with the same intensity in his eyes. "Because you drive me crazy," he said. "Because I was terrified when I realized that you were missing. Because I'm grateful beyond words that you're alive. Because I swore that if I found you I'd never let you out of my sight again. Because you're you."
Hollis's eyes filled with tears and she bowed her head to hide them. "I don't even know who I am any more," she said in a small voice. "I, uh…I asked him to change me. He hurt me and I knew that I was dying and…I asked him to do it."
"You think I care about that?"
"I care about that. I knew that he would only use me, but that didn't matter. I just didn't want to die. And I'm supposed to be better than that. I'm supposed to—"
Ian cupped her cheek and turned her face towards him. The tears that had been welling in her eyes spilled on to her cheeks. "You're not supposed to be anything, princess," he said. "I don't understand why you're so ashamed of who you really are. If you hadn't asked him to do it, then you wouldn't be here right now.
"No, you're not perfect, but I would never want you to be. I like the way you blush, the way you laugh, the way you babble when you're nervous. I think you're sexy when you swear, when you're nerdy, when you're passionate, when you're pig-headed. I don't want the façade, Hollis. I just want you. And if you don't know who that is right now, I want to be with you while you figure it out."
She gave him a tremulous smile. "You like it when I babble?"
He laughed softly as he leaned in to kiss her cheek. "Oh yeah," he murmured. His lips brushed her skin as he spoke and Hollis shivered. When he began to kiss her neck, it was almost more than she could take because of her heightened sense of touch. "It's cute."
"No one has ever called me 'cute' before," she said breathlessly. Ian's fingers slid into her hair, holding her close against him. "No one's ever called me 'pig-headed' either. I think most people would say that I'm rather agreeable. In fact—"
Ian silenced her with a kiss that stole the bones from her body. Her arms went around his neck for support and they fell back onto the bed.
"What were you saying?" Ian asked, bracing himself above her.
"Hell if I know," Hollis replied. Then she pulled his mouth back down to hers, relaxing as she let her visceral instincts take over.
"Are you sure you're ready for this?" Carden asked her. "It could get ugly."
They were standing out in the street in front of the enormous house that Risa's mother and sister still lived in. It hurt to look at it, this place where she had cultivated her craving for vengeance. She hadn't been back here since she "died". It had been too risky. And now, after so much time had passed, it reminded her of how much she had lost when Carden had changed her, and how much she could have had if she hadn't gotten so obsessed with hunting.
"It should be ugly," she murmured. "They're about to find out that their daughter and sister was alive for the past eight years—as a vampire, mind you—and never bothered to tell them. If it's all smiles and hugs after a blow like that, then there's something seriously wrong."
But what Risa was really afraid of was their reactions when she told her mother and Cori what she'd done. It pained her to imagine the hate or revulsion that would come over them when they looked at her and saw a monster. A murderer.
Carden felt her anxiety and took her hand. "Do you have to tell them?"
"Yes," Risa replied with more conviction than she felt. "I'm through lying and hiding. That's what I did the last two or three years that I lived here. I was always sneaking out to go on killing sprees. They never really knew who I was. If they want me back in their lives, I want them to understand what they're getting."
"And what about me?" Carden asked.
Risa looked up at him, puzzled. "What about you?"
"What will I be getting?"
"You want me in your life?" she asked him slowly.
"I'm still here, aren't I?"
"Did you think I was just going to drop you off here and be on my way?"
She shrugged helplessly. "I don't know what I thought. I just wouldn't allow myself to get my hopes up."
"Look, if you want me to say it, then I'll say it. I was a complete fuckhead to leave you in the first place, Risa. I told myself that it was what you wanted. For eight years I told myself that. But it was really because I couldn't face what I'd done to you. I couldn't handle you hating me."
"I didn't hate you," she said. But then she faltered under the weight of his skeptical stare. "I know I said that. But I was mostly just mad. Hurt. Betrayed. I didn't hate you until you left me."
A crooked smile captured Carden's lips. "So where does that leave us?"
"Here, I guess," Risa replied coyly.
He laughed. "You're trying to kill me, aren't you?"
"I don't know what you're talking about," she said with an innocent smile.
"All right," Carden said. He held her face in his hands and gazed into her eyes. "Fine. I'll be the one to go out on the limb. Here's my formal declaration, sweetheart. I want you in my life for as long as you'll have me."
"You're willing to give up all those slutty blondes?" Risa asked playfully as she slipped her arms around his neck.
"No, I don't think that wasn't part of the deal."
Risa smacked the back of his head.
"All right, all right," Carden laughed. "No slutty blondes. But how do you feel about redheads?"
"That's it," she said, leaning up to kiss him. Risa pressed herself against him and ravaged his mouth with desire that had been silently simmering inside her for eight years. The soulmate link blazed with new heat, searing through them both.
When Carden finally pulled away, he was breathless. "Okay, screw the redheads. I think you're all that I can handle."
Risa smiled smugly as she tried to catch her own breath. "Good."
Her soulmate intertwined their fingers and brought her hand up to his lips. "Come on," he said, nodding to the house. "Let's do this."
She took a deep breath. "Okay."
Together they walked across the street and up the path to the front door. She had no idea what her mother and sister would say, but Risa suddenly couldn't wait to hear it. Even if they yelled and screamed, it wouldn't matter because she would be with them. And she would fight like hell to get them to forgive her and accept her, just as she would fight to make amends for the wrongs she had committed.
Risa squeezed Carden's hand tightly as she rang the doorbell. She could feel his love through the link and wondered how she hadn't seen it all those years ago. Well, that didn't matter either because he was here now. And with her soulmate at her side, she was sure that she could handle whatever happened when the door opened.