Epilogue

I never thought that I, Count von Batstein III, would ever lift a paw to save her.

My minion had abandoned me and cast me aside, as if I were no more than a pathetic worm. A gruesome death would’ve been a fitting punishment for betrayal.

But when I saw her face…

Perhaps my heart wasn’t entirely as black as my soul, or perhaps she reminded me of Velvet Petalpaws, whom I had no choice but to abandon myself. Perhaps I remembered all the time she scratched me behind my fuzzy ears or told me I was a good boy, oh yes I was.

So Count von Batstein III jumped.

If I had remained an all-powerful warlock, saving her would’ve been as simple as a flick of my wrist and a quick incantation.

What did I hope to accomplish by sinking my teeth into the hem of her dress? Would I give up this pitiful yet adorable body to break her fall?

I would.

When we met our inevitable fate, I didn’t revel in her screams or pathetic whimpering–or was it my own?

And where was I?

RETURN MY MINION TO ME, I howled, as unfamiliar magicks whipped around my small, furry body.

…What was this strange sensation? Where was my plentiful coat, with its lustrous fur that my minion liked to brush?

“My true form has been restored,” I said, realization dawning on me. “And without a virgin sacrifice?”

“Is there only one kind of sacrifice?” asked a nearby fae.

Even a fae should know there were approximately seven hundred thirty-two thousand, six hundred seventy-two documented types of sacrifice, though that number might have grown in the time I’d spent as a stuffed animal, goldfish and dog.

“Were you the one who cursed me?” I demanded.

“Was I?” he said. “Or were you responsible for your own unfortunate fate?”

“How was I to know a certain fae had a powerful and easily offended vampire husband?” I muttered. His deep pockets and influence had no doubt led to my curse as punishment. “Worm,” I added–in a lower voice, in case he lurked anywhere nearby.

“Have you learned anything from your experience?”

Had I?

But the world shifted around me before I could decide. How much time had passed? Where was I now?

Ah, that castle the food provider and my reserve-virgin had dragged me to, separating me from Velvet Petalpaws.

Now that I was Hadrian Grimsley Ravensbane again…what would I do?

Walking on two legs was the first order of business, as I was a warlock. Hadrian Grimsley Ravensbane would once again crush worms beneath his feet.

My teleportation spell brought me near where I wanted to go, but not precisely. Was my minion here…? Was she alive and well?

That was up to darker masters than I to decide.

Misfortune never ceased, and I redeveloped my sense of human modesty by the time I reached the queen of light’s lair.

I should’ve stolen some of the buffoon’s clothes before carrying on with my mission.

Such human concerns as modesty mattered little when I laid eyes on my daughter again. (The others were also present, but ultimately irrelevant.)

She knew me.

“I’ve come to take you home,” I said, despite having no idea where “home” was. San Myshuno? One hell or another?

“I will train you to be the most powerful witch that has ever drawn breath,” I informed her.

Velvet Petalpaws appeared pleased.

And now, to escape. Farewell, Primrose and spawn.

After narrowly escaping an arrest for “public indecency,” I was able to secure what clothing I could, even if it was unfitting for a warlock. Also unfitting: a dog for a daughter.

CLAIM WHAT IS RIGHTFULLY YOURS, VELVET PETALPAWS RAVENSBANE.

She did, as befitting the daughter of Hadrian Grimsley Ravensbane.

“Behold, the magicks of an all-powerful warlock,” I told her.

Fatherhood was one dark sacrifice that I had never prepared myself for.

My daughter never ceased in interrupting the most exacting spells and important research.

But Velvet Petalpaws Ravensbane was my daughter, a boon as well as a curse.

And so the shadowy curtains fell on the remnants of a wretched era; it was high time for a new one to begin.

Chapter 110: Galatea

“You’re not supposed to use that word, Gal.”

“SLY-LAS SMASH,” our son said, bringing a toy robot down on an innocent bear bystander. Bas was obviously too distracted by Daisy’s kid to pay much attention to my one hundred percent legitimate worries.

Good, Silas went quiet…

“But what if he is?” I said to Bas. “He can’t even say his name right. We should have a doctor test him again–maybe it was the sushi. Look, Anders is younger and can already say ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’ while Silas can barely fish a booger out of his nose.”

How hard was it to pick your damn nose?

“He’s fine. Every kid learns at their own pace–and you can’t keep blaming the sushi forever.”

“Anders cleans up after himself,” I said. “Maybe he’s the unnatural one.”

“Considering he’s my sister’s kid? Probably. His pops must cancel her out.”

“God, he’s way more interested in the contents of his nostril than the top-of-the-line educational tablet I just got him.”

Seriously, Silas?

“Oh my god Bas, now he’s eating it. What if he gets sick and dies–”

“Human kids are tougher than you’d think,” Bas said, “so a fae kid’ll be fine.”

What if fae had an unknown booger sensitivity?

Anders probably never ate boogers in his life.

“I’m gonna go hose him down,” I said, lunging for our son.

“Good luck,” Bas said. “He’s in an anti-water phase right now.”

Was he? Bas would know–he got to work from home, while I was busy on the set of my new TV show. Some suit had thought it’d be a good idea for my genie character on Blood and Bishops to get her own spin-off, Take My Lamp and Shove It. (I wasn’t above using my glamour to cover up my Silas-induced stretch marks.)

When she wasn’t stuck in her magic lamp, she worked in a store that sold…the other kind of lamps. Yeah, and I thought there’d never be a concept dumber than vampires playing chess.

“Hey, little man,” I said to Silas. How did Bas get him to stop doing shit he didn’t want him doing? “Could you maybe not stick your finger in your nose? Or at least not in your mouth afterward?”

Ash ho,” Silas said accusingly.

…Ash ho? Oh. Shit, he probably learned that from me. Thank god he had below average pronunciation–and that Bas was still playing with Anders.

I mean, I’d told Bas to leave our son to me no matter how much I complained, since I knew I was already missing out on so much, but still…

“Maybe Silas developed his water aversion after taking a bath with Anders,” I said as I carried Silas to the sink. “Daisy’s always bragging about the size of her husband’s–”

“Gal…”

“I’m just saying, guys of all ages are obsessed with that shit. And now I’m worried for our son’s future love life–it’s like he’s below average in everything.”

Ugh, was that the boogery or non-boogery hand?

“It’ll probably be a good Strider size,” Bas said. “…You think mine’s a good size, right?”

I let out sigh of relief. No booger-induced deaths today. “Maybe I should ask to measure Finn and Rhys’s, to know what we’re working with.”

Okay, that was the boogery hand, I was sure of it.

“Yeah, that’s not weird at all, Gal.”

“My whole family is weird, in case you haven’t realized by now.”

God, sometimes I wished I could switch my kid for Daisy’s perfect one.

I was relieved when she finally dropped by to pick him up. At least she knew how I felt, being so busy with the restaurant. It was nice having someone to talk to about my guilty new-mom feelings. But obviously she didn’t feel exactly the same, because she and her husband were already trying to have another damn baby.

How weird was it that she’d married my childhood crush, though? Small world. Part of me was actually sad that she’d eloped to Lucky Palms instead of having me be maid-of-honor at her wedding, but she was probably way more disappointed about not being able to cater my nonexistent wedding.

If Bas and I ever got married–not that we would–we’d do the smart, cheap, no-frills thing like Daisy.

“So did Anders behave?” Daisy asked.

It made me hate her, just a little. “Of course he did,” I muttered. “Silas, on the other hand…”

And then, finally, it was just us three again.

I had no right to be jealous of my own kid’s dad, right?

I’d like him best too, if I had us as parents. No contest.

I was grateful for Bas, though. I never could’ve done this without him.

He made me want to be a better person–and a better mom.

I’d do my best not to let either of them down.

Chapter 109: Benedict

Years after the fact, Finn would say that he proposed to me, but I was almost certain it was the other way around.

I saw no reason for a flower girl in a butler-themed wedding, but our parents insisted (and didn’t bother to secure a tiny butler uniform for her, saying she was “too beautiful” for such a thing).

In the end, I suppose it didn’t matter who proposed to whom.

My love life wasn’t the only thing that was going well–my professional life was similarly fulfilling. Finn was right about the minuscule budget for the early seasons of Winner is Served (a ridiculous name considering that the winner was serving the celebrity for a year, but producers thought it was catchy).

However, I loved working with him.

I had no choice but to ask Leopold to be a judge, considering his butler pedigree and willingness to work for peanuts. I also asked Uncle Byron to be the celebrity in need of a butler–his waning comedy career needed a jump-start. Similarly helpful (and budget-conscious), Finn asked his brother Rhys to be the host.

I’ll admit a small amount of unbrotherly satisfaction in seeing Leopold develop a reputation as the “mean judge” due to his stringent standards, whereas I was viewed as the nicer side of the butler coin. Leopold’s wife Daisy had convinced him that smiling more might change audience perception…

Occasionally, Rhys brought his and Ophelia’s twins (Romeo and Juliet, because of course) to work while my sister was busy writing. I was somewhat surprised that someone like Finn’s brother would marry my sister, but Father always said that there’s a white glove for every hand.

The twins apparently inherited their parents’ theatricality, and unlike myself and Leopold, they were inseparable.

Romeo and Juliet were easily entertained when left with each other. However, not every toddler was so low-maintenance.

Behold, the face of evil:

Finn says I shouldn’t call our little sister evil, despite the fact that Mother and Graham were clearly spoiling Belle rotten. She’d thought our wedding existed solely for her to throw flower petals while everyone watched, and not for two vampires to declare eternal love for each other.

And now she thought Finn belonged to her, refusing to be separated from him under any circumstances…

“Maybe we should put her down for a nap…”

“No naps,” she wailed, as Finn hurried to comfort her. “I’m une princesse. Papa says.”

Ever since Mother and Graham had taken her to Champs Les Sims, she’d started talking like that. Hopefully it was just a phase.

“You’re a princess?” Finn said.

Ouiiiiiii.”

“Finn,” I said, “maybe a little tough love wouldn’t go amiss?”

But Finn was all too easily wrapped around her tiny alabaster finger.

“If you’re a princess,” he said, “does that mean I’m your court jester?” He made a ridiculous face at her.

She stared at him, obviously trying to determine what a court jester might be–and if she wanted one at all. Of course, she wanted everything. “Oui?

His next reply was incomprehensible thanks to her tiny fingers mauling his beautiful face.

“More,” she demanded. “More!

“I have a feeling that’ll be a common refrain throughout her life,” I muttered. It was hard to know if this was a good time to bring it up, but between Romeo and Juliet and now Belle… “It’s much too soon to have our own children, isn’t it? With work so busy and all…”

“It’s never too early to talk about it,” Finn said. “Do you want a niece or nephew to play with, Belle?”

Oui,” she said, because of course she would be denied nothing. Mother said Belle reminded her of me at that age, but I couldn’t see it.

Still, the way Finn doted on her made me feel nostalgic for the way Father had doted on Ophelia, even if I felt a simultaneous pang of jealousy.

Finn smiled at me around Belle’s kicking feet. Luckily, she seemed to be tiring herself out. “We could ask O to be our surrogate,” Finn said. “But I know that might be too awkward…”

Finn and my sister having a baby together, even if their union wasn’t romantic? “No.”

“How about you and Gal–”

J’aime Gal,” Belle squealed.

“Me too,” Finn said.

This really wasn’t the best time to have a serious conversation about prospective parenthood. “I don’t want our children to be mean,” I said, horrified. That was only part of it–knowing that she was behind Leonidas’s true identity…

“Gal isn’t mean…” He sighed. “I don’t think she’d agree anyhow, not with her acting career finally taking off. And she hated being pregnant with Silas, but she might donate her eggs if we asked…”

Would Daisy and Leopold–no, maybe biological wasn’t the ideal way to go. “Or we could pick a good baby off one of those adoption websites,” I said eagerly. “We can make a list of all the things we want in a baby and filter the search results that way–quiet, humble, intelligent, well-behaved, tidy, good butler potential…and of course I want a son.”

“…I don’t think adoption works that way, Benny.”

“Well, it should,” I huffed. “But…I think I like having you to myself for the foreseeable future anyhow. And we have eternity.”

He smiled back at me. “We do,” he said. “Eternity–and each other.”

Someday, though, I knew we’d both welcome a child into our unbeating hearts…but for now, we were enough.

Chapter 108: Dru

“Orlando’s so good with the twins,” Lyanna said. “I was worried, when he talked about human babies hatching from eggs.”

“Should we help?” I asked. “Looks like they’re giving him a hard time again.”

Lyanna shook her head. “He likes how rambunctious they are, I think. It keeps him on his toes.”

Literally, if she’d just look behind her.

Each twin was hanging onto a different kite, their tiny wings pumping. Clementine was on her own…

And Griffin was hanging onto Fox’s foot. My kid wasn’t as adventurous as Lyanna’s, but when Fox was involved…

(Yeah, Fox and Clementine. Lyanna ate a lot of orange things while she was pregnant for some reason, but I just drank plasma packs with “prenatal vitamins” or whatever and googled “awesome stuff with wings” when Sunflower told me our kid would be fae too.)

Orlando’s screams and flailing were kind of funny. He should’ve known that’d just make the twins fly away faster.

Me, Sunflower and Griffin all lived in an old farmhouse right across from Lyanna and Orlando’s house. Their house was pretty too.

We got to live in nice houses mostly thanks to Orlando and Sunflower’s modeling careers. Sunflower went with him to a photoshoot once and they roped him into it too.

The pictures made me feel kind of weird and made my eyes glow sometimes.

“Oh cool,” I said. “Orlando caught one.”

It was smart, because when he or Lyanna started paying attention to one twin, the other would scream their tiny lungs out until they paid attention to them too. Orlando was teaching Fox to fly or whatever.

“Orlando says their flight is very advanced for their age,” Lyanna said proudly. She was so happy when she found out both her kids would be fae.

I was pretty sure Orlando was full of crap, but I didn’t tell my sister. Sunflower said that male fae usually never had anything to do with baby fae. The babies never even knew their moms either, which made me sad, since I had the best mom in the world.

But even if he never knew his parents, Sunflower was a really good, manly dad.

I didn’t even mind if he was Griffin’s favorite.

I wondered if Lyanna knew she’d always be Orlando’s favorite.

“Is Griffin using his wings more?” Sunflower asked me.

“Kind of,” I said. “Seems like he has a fear of heights, or maybe a fear of being alone. But he’s fine with Fox.” It was hard not to get distracted by how pretty and manly Sunflower was, even after being married a few years.

“I’ll feed him,” Sunflower said. “He looks hungry.” See, he was a really good dad, because I couldn’t tell.

The second Sunflower went inside, the twins started yowling. It was hard to tell which parent they were fighting over.

Lyanna’s dogs must’ve heard their yowls because all three of them crossed the street to get here in a hurry.

Primrose’s two pups considered the twins “theirs” most of all.

Lyanna said there used to be a third pup once, but she disappeared. Lyanna made me help her put “LOST DOG” signs all over Starlight Shores, but she never turned up. But we still had five dogs running around all the time, counting the two former leaf-dogs who lived with us.

“What’s wrong, Clemmie?” Lyanna said.

“Maybe she needs a nap,” I said, and not just because I was hoping to do gross stuff with Sunflower today.

Lyanna and Orlando and the twins and their dogs all went home right after that, but I learned right after Griffin was born that there was never enough time for gross stuff. Me and Sunflower were too busy, up until we put Griffin to bed together.

(Griffin’s favorite bug was a ladybug, because it had black-and-red wings like him.)

Griffin never wanted to go to bed, though, no matter how many books we read to him. He didn’t fight me or Sunflower, but he always looked so sad.

“And then the princess woke up and punched everybody,” I said. “The end.”

Sometimes I wondered if Sunflower used fae magic to get him to sleep through the night. I’d have to ask Lyanna if Orlando did the same.

“Dru,” my husband said in a low voice, taking my hands.

I kept my voice just as quiet. “Hold on–lemme change out of these clothes. I dunno if this spot is pudding or poop.”

I kissed Griffin lightly on the forehead before I left, but he still looked like he was carrying too many worries on his tiny shoulders.

At least we finally got some alone time together.

“Sometimes I wish we could just do gross stuff all day,” I said. “Maybe when Griffin’s older.”

Sunflower was quiet. “I’d like that too.”

I could hear his heartbeat when he held me against his chest.

“Dru,” he said, “we can’t stay for much longer. The realm of the fae needs its king and queen.”

“I know,” I said. “I’ll miss Lyanna and the twins and even Orlando…” It was nice, to have a couple years alone together and then a couple more with Griffin. “And my mom and dad and everybody else. But I made a promise…”

I still didn’t understand the whole queen thing, but I knew Sunflower needed me. And then there was our son…

“We’ll protect him,” Sunflower said, as if he knew what I was thinking. Or maybe he was thinking the same thing. “No matter what. I promise, Dru.” He pressed his lips to my palm.

And then I pressed my lips to his, and all my worries were forgotten.

One day, we’d rule a kingdom of flowers and magic and sunlight side by side, where our son could play and dream without fear, and humans and vampires and everybody else would be welcome.

One day.

Chapter 107: Rhys

After Ophelia recovered enough to leave the hospital, I brought her back to my mansion.

My father promised to make repairs to the Alabaster Dove castle before she next visited, and I wanted Ophelia near me for multiple reasons.

“I could carry you,” I suggested yet again.

“You shouldn’t,” she said in a whispery voice. “The vampire doctor said I needed to build my strength.”

I knew she was right, but I still wanted to hold her against me. Instead, I helped her to the sofa, where she could watch a number of vampire-themed television series and films I’d picked out for her.

I slipped off her shoes, already making a mental note to order more plasma packs on the computer. A shame my butler and personal assistant were elsewhere.

“I’ll let you rest,” I said. “Watch whatever you like.” I’d gotten some recommendations from Finn for her favorite films–among other things.

“Don’t go.” Her grip was surprisingly strong on my arm.

“Are you thirsty? Cold? Ah, that’s normal, my father said–the chill. But I’d be happy to find you a blanket–”

“I just want you,” she said. Her fanged smile pulled at my heart.

I was fae, but she was surprisingly strong now, even for a fledgling vampire…or maybe I was only weak to her.

“You should be resting…”

“I rested enough at the hospital.”

Another insistent tug, and I was lying on top of her.

“Ophelia–”

“I can feel someone’s pulsing spear of lustful energies, eheheh…”

She could.

Her kisses had never been so…hungry. (Pardon the cliche.)

She had to feed soon, but I didn’t want to get up for a plasma pack just then. During a brief gasp for air, I bit my lip so hard that it bled–and then helped her swallow the droplets.

She drank, and drank…

“I like your blood best,” she said afterwards. “It’s…different from plasma packs and the human Uncle Graham sent over. It makes me happy.”

“My blood is yours until I fade away,” I said. “If you’ll have it.”

“Is that a dark, terrible proposal?”

Was it? “I…I suppose it is. If you’ll have me.”

“I will.”

Strange, how a proposal involving both Ophelia Lyons and myself could be so simple and undramatic.

But after the drama of her brush with death, I enjoyed these quiet moments with her. I loved her, more than anything.

There were a number of things to take care of before we could plan a wedding, however. The first order of business was securing a sun-proof coffin for her while she recovered; as a turned fledgling, she was even more susceptible to sunlight than an ancient or naturally born vampire.

She’d told me she enjoyed the “fae touches” I added to her room. I would miss sleeping beside her for the foreseeable future, but specially made blackout curtains should make my bedroom safer for her.

Unfortunately, my attempts to find her little hump-happy dog proved unsuccessful, no matter how often I returned to my father’s castle.

Still, she seemed to think he would turn up again someday, and she didn’t need any stress while in the throes of her turning.

I was pleasantly surprised at the frequency of my father’s phone calls, ostensibly to check up on his “daughter’s” recovery.

However, the calls lasted far longer than that and encompassed a variety of subjects. Sometimes conversation was stilted, but the Lyons women were a safe and popular subject.

A less pleasant surprise was the naked man I saw skulking about just outside my property (where was my bodyguard-slash-assistant?), but a fae enchantment creating an impression of poison ivy should deter him.

My father’s marriage to Ophelia’s mother, however, wasn’t much of a surprise at all. More surprising were the sheer number and range of things Ophelia expressed wanting to do to her new stepbrother…

But I had other siblings to tend to as well.

I went to Dr. Puck’s office alone at first…

He rose from his desk chair. “Do you have an appointment, Rhys?”

“Actually,” I said, “I wanted to make a family appointment. However, ah, my sister may be under the impression that she’s been seeing you for a good number of months…”

“Were these sessions fruitful?”

“I think so,” I said. “She’s willing to see you along with myself and my brother, whereas she’d never voluntarily tolerate my presence in the past. I…wanted to apologize as well as warn you–I never intended to borrow your face for so long.”

Is this truly my face?” he said. “And what day would work best for all of you?”

So that was one hurdle overcome.

The next involved the three of us in a single room, airing our pain and grievances, our misconceptions and hopes…

Occasionally, we were joined by our parents, but never both at the same time. My mother acted strangely around my brother…

And it hurt somewhat, to see her paying attention to him even outside of the sessions. I was the one who had chosen her; I was the one who had stayed.

Still, I wouldn’t begrudge a son his mother.

Especially not when I had wanted a father so desperately for so many years.

It was that father who walked my bride down the aisle on our wedding day.

For the venue, she’d chosen a gloomy, ancient castle–one whose railings had been inspected and reinforced, not that she had much to fear as a vampire.

Similarly, her dress was also to her unique tastes–tastes that led to both of her brothers fainting during the ceremony.

I approved, however. Of course, Ophelia had never needed anyone else’s approval.

Still, I was touched when she sought to add fae-inspired decor alongside her usual aesthetic.

And then we were wed, my beloved and I.

I never wanted anyone else.

Chapter 106: Finn

Benny’s mom looked stunning in her wedding dress, but I knew better than to say so in front of Benny.

It was an intimate, relatively modest ceremony, which was surprising. Dad didn’t do “modest,” but I suspected it was a request from Benny’s mom. Maybe she didn’t think her second wedding should eclipse her first, even if Dad would’ve liked to give her the world.

“You didn’t tell me this was a wedding,” my sister’s boyfriend said from behind me. “Would’ve thrown on a suit.”

“I didn’t want you to think it was this big thing,” Gal said. “Besides, we’re leaving as soon as this shit’s over.”

The vows–in which my father promised his bride eternity, among other things I shouldn’t repeat–lasted for hours.

If I’d ever harbored any doubts about the depth of Bianca Lyons’s feelings for my dad, they would’ve evaporated that night.

And then came the kiss. It sure was…memorable.

I could hear Rhys and Ophelia’s delighted laughter from the other side of the aisle. I wasn’t sure which was stranger–Rhys being at our dad’s wedding or him sitting beside a vampiric Ophelia.

“Is that–Mother’s tongue?” Benny muttered. “If I weren’t a vampire, I’d vomit.”

“I’m not a vampire and I’m definitely ready to vomit,” Gal said. “And here I thought I was the only one who grabbed crotches in public.”

Afterward, Benny excused himself to go off on his own, so I went to congratulate Dad. I was surprised when Rhys joined us–but not in a bad way.

Equally surprising was seeing Benny voluntarily go over to his brother, who was apparently introducing him to his fiancée. (I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but it’s hard when you have a vampire’s hearing.)

…Did Benny ever want to get married? Maybe it was normal to have weddings on the brain right now. I knew Benny so well, but that was one of the things he’d never mentioned to me. It was too soon to think about anyway, but still…I thought about it.

I thought about saying hello to Ophelia and asking how she was enjoying vampirehood, but she was sharing a private moment with her mom.

They looked like sisters, with their equally pale skin and raven hair. I hoped being a vampire was everything she dreamed it would be–Rhys already called and texted me constantly to ask for advice, which I didn’t mind. Asking what Ophelia “liked,” on the other hand…

I almost went after her–but then Benny joined their mom instead.

This time, I did mean to eavesdrop. I wasn’t sure why–did I think I could cause a distraction if he tried to ruin her wedding day? But I didn’t think he would, not anymore.

But I stood still behind a tree and listened.

“The ceremony was lovely, Mother,” Benny said.

“Thank you, darling–doesn’t this dress accentuate my slim figure perfectly?”

“…Yes?” He coughed. “I wanted to apologize…for attempting to force you to call off the wedding. I know you loved Father, and that you have the right to seek your own happiness, but–” His voice cracked. “It was so fast, and I miss him so much.”

“Of course you do,” she said softly. “I’ll always love and miss Lysander as well, and not a man in this world, living or undead, can truly replace him. He taught me how to love, and how to be loved, as I hope Finn will do for you.” She reached out to stroke his cheek. “But I’ve lived in solitude long enough to know that it simply isn’t for me, and I refuse to waste another moment, not when Graham makes me so very happy.”

They were talking. Finally.

Would my mom and I ever be able to clear the air like that, after years of silence? She’d called and left a message recently, telling me she wanted me to meet my uncle, but I’d felt too intimidated to call her back.

I almost hadn’t recognized my own mother’s voice.

Benny’s voice was comfortingly familiar in comparison. “Then…then I hope he continues to make you happy, Mother. For eternity. But…it might take me some time to warm up to your new husband. My–my stepfather.”

They drifted toward a marble bench, sitting together and talking.

I saved my well wishes for the bride until after I saw mother and son embracing.

“That wasn’t as terrible as I thought it would be,” Benny said to me when we were alone. It was almost morning, and the guests had started to thin out.

“I’m glad,” I said.

“I wish…I wish she could’ve chosen somewhere other than a graveyard. At least it wasn’t the same one where Father is buried.”

I’d asked my dad about that, and he’d only said that it was a place of special significance to both of them. Judging by the headstones, it was a very, very old place.

The moment Benny raised his head, he drew me into a kiss.

“Finn,” Rhys said. “Just the brother I wanted to talk to…”

I was relieved when we finally made it home.

A week later, we received a card in the mail announcing the birth of Belle Blackwell-Straud.

“I didn’t know a vampiress could conceive and give birth in only a week,” Benny said. “They certainly wasted no time after the wedding.”

Even if Benny was gay, he had to know women’s–even vampire women’s–bodies didn’t work like that, right…? “A little sister,” I said. “For both of us.”

Half-sister,” Benny huffed.

“Benny.” I wondered how far before the wedding Bianca had given birth–that dress really had accentuated her slim figure. Part of me was mad at my dad for keeping my sister’s birth a secret, but another part could understand why he’d protect the mother of his child. And he knew I couldn’t keep it a secret from Benny.

“I suppose two halves make a whole,” Benny said. He sighed. “Now that the festivities are over, I really ought to look into new butler work.”

“I actually wanted to talk to you about that…”

“Did you?” Benny said. “A shame, because I’m no longer in the mood for talking. I can never get enough of you in a butler uniform…”

He really couldn’t.

“I was serious, Benny,” I said, half a morning later. “I have a–” I didn’t want to say proposal, not after we just went to a wedding. “A project I wanted to share with you, but I need to show you in person before I ask for a commitment.”

“What sort of project?”

“You’ll see. And we can wear our uniforms there, too.” That always motivated him.

He was immediately suspicious when we arrived outside a mansion–well, an exterior made to look like a mansion, anyway.

He didn’t react right when we stepped inside, either.

“What sort of place is this, Finn?”

“It’s the place we’ll be shooting a new butler reality show competition,” I said. “The winner gets to serve a celebrity for a year, with a very competitive salary. Though we won’t have a huge budget for our first season…”

“But–” He was at a loss for words, but his legs still worked, and I followed him from one room to the next.

“They’ll practice their tea service here,” I said.

He only nodded vigorously and moved on to the next room.

“Ah,” Benny said. “A butler does appreciate a crisply pressed and folded shirt–as do their masters and mistresses.”

He followed me upstairs, to the shared living quarters.

“This is where the contestants will be sleeping,” I said. “I remember how hard it was for you to get your foot in the door as a new butler, especially without attending the Academy, but I thought this might be a good opportunity for promising young butlers. And I wanted to ask you to be a judge–”

“Finn.”

I laughed when he pressed his lips to my cheek. “I’ll take that as a yes, then. We’ll need two other judges, and a celebrity who needs a butler, and a host…but I think it’s all doable.”

You’re doable. Pardon my impropriety.” He cleared his throat. “Or would you like to pull off each other’s white gloves and get especially improper…?”

“Well, there are six beds.”

No more secrets, I decided. Only surprises.

No matter how many years or centuries passed, I hoped I still found ways to surprise Benny and make him as happy as he was today.

Chapter 105: Gal

“I really don’t know why I’m being sentenced to baby-mama prison,” I said. “I’d rather just stay at home until I pop this little shit out.”

“The doctor said you had one of those what’s-it–’high risk pregnancies,’” Bas said. “I don’t want anything bad happening to either you or our kid, Gal.”

“You do know my dad totally paid off my obstetrician, right?”

“That’s illegal. There’s doctor-patient confidentiality–”

“You don’t know my dad.” Not well enough, anyway. How had he even found out? Bas’s dad was probably the leak, since Dad would kill his minion if he gathered intel on me and didn’t bring it back to the demon king.

“…He wouldn’t really do that, would he?”

“You’re so freaking cute–and naive. Now let’s see if we can de-sanitize my stupid new maternity suite and make the baby come shooting out early.”
 

We headed through a set of double doors, hand in hand. “…You sure this is a maternity suite?” Bas asked.

It sure was a thing, all right.

If it weren’t for the giant freaky painting, the sheer number of lights and cameras would’ve set off alarm bells instead. And Dad would’ve never forced that color scheme on his little “butterfly princess.”

I laughed. “I don’t know what the fuck it is, but it’s definitely not for me.” Hopefully mine was just as opulent but a lot less vampire queen. If I had to be locked up for the duration of my pregnancy, it had better be in luxury.

Luckily, there was only one other set of doors in the hall, so it wasn’t like we could get lost. “This place better have a toilet,” I said as I pushed open a door. “Your giant son keeps pushing on my bladder and I have to piss all the–”

What. The. Fuck.

“Seriously?” I said. “Could my mom and grandma maybe not make out in my prison cell?”

“So it’s true,” Vilhelmina said. “You’re my first grandchild to breed.”

“Not on purpose.”

“That never seems to matter, when the howling little beast claws its way out of you,” she said. “I thought you were the smartest of the three–I would’ve put my money on Rhys being first and siring a bevy of bastards.”

“She’s suffering enough, Villie,” Mom said. Villie? “Motherhood doesn’t come naturally to us.”

“Don’t remind me,” I muttered. “Have you seen Dad lurking around yet?”

“We worked out visiting hours,” Mom said. That was a first–them working out anything. “He won’t trouble you while I’m here.”

Vilhelmina snorted. “This nonsense is so very Graham–so much fuss over a baby.”

I followed both of them to a couch, while Bas sort of hung back by the door, tongue-tied. I probably should’ve pointed out his existence, but it wasn’t like I needed to introduce him when he’d met them both when I was a kid. My family wasn’t all warm and friendly like his.

“Galatea,” Mom said, “why is your former babysitter standing around staring at us like a human experiencing stage fright?”

“He’s kind of the father of my child,” I said.

Bas waved awkwardly. “Hi. And, uh, I prefer ex-bodyguard.”

Mom sighed. “I hope the baby inherits your intelligence,” she said to me–in a stage whisper, which meant Bas and anyone in the first twenty rows of a theater could hear too.

Luckily my mom and grandma didn’t stick around for long. They were too busy with important things, and it wasn’t like I was giving birth that day. Still, I was glad both of them stayed long enough to insult my boyfriend and act surprised that my pregnancy wasn’t farther along. Genuinely glad, because at least they cared.

“You okay?” I asked Bas when they were gone. “Hey, you survived.”

“Somehow they’re scarier now that we’re together,” he admitted, “even if they haven’t changed at all from back then.”

“Thanks for being here,” I said.

“You couldn’t keep me away–”

“My turquoise-winged butterfly,” Dad’s voice interrupted. “Is your suite fit for a princess?”

“I think I’m going to blend into the fucking walls,” I said.

“I wanted something that would complement my daughter’s exquisite beauty, not drown it out. Shall I have the painters executed?”

“Not a king anymore, Dad.” Demon king, maybe. “Sorry,” I said to Bas. “Ignore him long enough and he’ll go away.”

“I’m going to be a grandfather…”

“Like hell you are,” I said. “I’m getting a restraining order as soon as the baby’s born–he doesn’t need any bad influences until he’s an adult.”

“C’mon, Gal,” Bas said. “The kid should know all four of his grandparents…”

“How are your parents?” Dad asked. “I told my good friend Saul that I stole his firstborn son in retaliation for his stealing my favorite butler, and he barely had any reaction at all.”

Dad.” He wouldn’t have–couldn’t have–gone that far, right? There was no way he could’ve known Bas and I would ever get together.

Still, it weirded the shit out of me and I kicked him out after that. …But maybe I was glad he dropped by too, and arranged this ridiculous maternity suite for me. Better than a normal hospital room, anyway.

“Okay,” I said with a sigh, “now we can have this damn place to ourselves–”

“Hey,” Bas’s freaky little roommate said. …What the hell was she wearing?

My hot uncle was with her too for some reason. Did my mom know?

“Galatea, my only niece,” he said, walking toward me. “You look like my sister.”

I stood and got a better look at him. “Bullshit. You do, though.” I wasn’t sure what to say to him. “Good morning or whatever the hell. You miss out on any good TV while you were gone? Definitely wouldn’t recommend Blood and Bishops.”

“I’m catching up on everything with Dru,” he said. “She likes martial arts movies.” Of course she would. He walked over toward the empty crib in the corner of the room. “Another fae born into the world of humans…”

So Bas was right about our kid being fae, unless my hot uncle was full of shit. Hopefully our son wouldn’t get into too much trouble–and if he did, Bas could play disciplinarian.

“I’ll teach your kid how to punch and be manly,” Dru said.

“Thanks,” I said. “Maybe if you punch my belly now, it’ll come out early.”

Bas let out a nervous laugh. “She’s kidding. …Right, Gal?”

Dru showed off more manly punching moves while my hot uncle–Sunflower, like some weird-ass hippie–talked to Bas. And then finally, finally we had some peace and quiet.

Which wasn’t meant to be, apparently.

“Hiiiii,” Daisy said. “Ooooh, I’m so glad the cats fit through the door!”

“You know I’m not having triplets, right?”

“You could–you never know!”

“I do, actually. I saw the sonogram.”

“There are medical mistakes every day! Leo reads about them on the internet and then tells me what to be careful of.” She gestured enthusiastically at the three giant cats I’d have Bas stuff in a closet when we got home. “I tried to find a naked version, but I couldn’t.”

“Thank god.”

She spent the next hour squealing over the maternity suite and telling Bas how she just knew this day would come the moment she met me. Luckily I had to pee a lot and got to miss some of it.

“Is this a never-ending fucking parade?” I asked when she left.

“I, uh, wanted to ask you something,” Bas said. “Now that we’re alone.”

“Galatea?”

Holy fucking shit. Now Rhys was here?

I stomped over to the door and scowled at him. “What the hell are you doing here?”

He instinctively backed away–as he should. “I was already elsewhere in the hospital, and heard that you would be here for the foreseeable future…”

“Yeah, and?”

“I wanted to congratulate my little sister on my impending niece or nephew. I brought a gift…” He held out a small stuffed lion. When I didn’t take it, he shimmied around me to put it on the bed. Great, another fucking cat.

“As you can see”–I pointed at the three giant cats behind me–”I’m kind of full up on gifts right now.” The stupid thing was kind of cute, though–and a decent size for a baby.

“Ah, I also wanted to ask you if you–after the birth, of course–might consider attending family therapy with Finn and me? I’d like to get our parents to join us as well, but the three of us should be a good start…”

Now that was something I wasn’t expecting, especially from him. “Family therapy? Seriously?”

I almost said no right away. Almost. If I was going to be a mom–and a not-shitty one–I’d probably have to work on all the fucked up family shit I had bottled up. I sat down on the bed (my swollen ankles were killing me) and thought about it. “Fine, whatever.”

He looked surprised–and then happy. “Thank you, Galatea. I look forward to our future sessions with Dr. Puck.”

At least he knew better than to stick around.

“Sweet, sweet solitude,” I said to Bas. Maybe he’d give me a foot massage.

“Gal,” he said, “I can’t wait anymore–not if somebody else comes striding on in here. So, uh…” And then the unthinkable happened, and he got down on one knee. “Galatea Straud, will you–”

I smacked the ring out of his hands. “What the fuck, Bas, no. Are you insane?”

“But–I was just gonna ask you to marry me…”

I stared down at him. “Fuck no.” Seriously, what part of no didn’t he understand?

He looked like he wanted to try again, so I just walked away.

Unfortunately, he wasn’t pregnant and like 600 pounds, and he got up fast enough to corner me at the door.

“Sure, block in a helpless pregnant woman,” I said. “Real fucking chivalrous.”

“You’re fae,” he said. “You could get away if you wanted. Just…just tell me why, Gal. Please?”

“If I weren’t pregnant,” I said slowly, “would you seriously be proposing to me today?”

He tried to touch my face, but I wasn’t having it. “Well, uh, maybe not today, but I like to think eventually–”

“I don’t want you marrying me out of obligation,” I spat. “And that’s all marriage is–an obligation to stay with someone for sex or money or a fucking baby. It’s just a piece of paper you can tear up whenever you’ve had enough. It’s worthless.”

“It’s not out of obligation, Gal.”

“You just said you wouldn’t be proposing to me today if it weren’t for this stupid little shit-potato. And I can tell you with one hundred percent certainty that there’s no fucking way we’d work out. You know that kids whose parents are divorced are way more likely to get divorces too? And I’m a ‘child of divorce’ ten times over.”

He tried to smile, but it was more like a mouth tremor. “I’d never leave you. Or our kid.”

“Easy for you to say now–tell me that again in ten years, or twenty.” I shrugged. “If you want to stay with me, prove it. And just…stay. Then maybe I’ll believe you.”

He smiled more easily this time, even though I could tell he wasn’t happy. “Then I will. You’ll see.”

He was pretty quiet after that. I almost wished someone else would visit to break up the silence and the weird mood, but at least he didn’t let me go.

I turned my head toward him. “Do you regret meeting me yet?”

He stroked my cheek. “Never.”

“You will. Especially when our kid turns out to be a total shithead.”

“You let me worry about that, okay?”

So I did.

He didn’t leave the maternity suite except to bring me stuff, and he helped me more and more the closer I got to my due date.

“I’m pregnant,” I said. “I should be exempt from exercising.”

“It’s good for you,” he said, “and our kid. Keep moving–don’t want any blood clots.”

Bossy. But I kind of liked it, him taking care of me.

“Get this fucker out,” I said. “Or I’ll yank the little bastard out myself.”

“Soon, Gal,” he said, keeping his voice light even though I knew he hated the word bastard. “Any day now.”

Sure enough, that day came, along with a baby-shaped football that came flying out between my thighs. (Not literally, despite the fae-ness, since the wings hadn’t sprouted yet.)

It actually wasn’t so bad–Mom said fae childbirth generally isn’t as ugly or painful as the human variety–except for the unearthly howling from the suite next door. Werewolf going into labor, maybe?

“Silas Strider,” I said. “Guess we should take you home soon.” I liked having nurses deal with all his (literal and figurative) shit though, while I was pampered.

“He’s gonna be a handsome devil.”

“Not too handsome, I hope. It’s your job to make him learn to use a damn condom the second he hits puberty.”

He screamed his tiny lungs out when he was left alone in his crib–definitely my kid.

I’d used my own fae magic to put a glamour on him and make him look like a human kid until he could manage his own. It was pretty funny, seeing Bas freak out and think the baby was dead because it was blue…to me, anyway.

Welcome to the world, Silas fucking Strider.