Haden Black changed Theia Alderson's life when he appeared in her dreams. And to save Haden, Theia sacrificed everything, but the dangerous bargain she made could have lasting repercussions. Now Theia is susceptible to the same deadly hungers that Haden has long struggled with-and their return to Serendipity Falls could test their control. And someone from Haden's past is determined to destroy Theia from the inside out, starting with those closest to her...
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January 03, 2012
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Excerpt from Dreaming Awake by Gwen Hayes
Danger doesn't always greet with bared fangs. Sometimes it seduces with a willowy caress, a sigh of pleasure, and then turns carnivorous with whipcrack intensity.
Falling in love is the same.
Love had seduced my heart and soul, changed me forever, and then, in one promise made under duress, jeopardized my very humanity. And yet I couldn't regret it.
These were my thoughts as I cartwheeled back through the supernatural veil that separated two worlds--the one I was supposed to live in and the one from which I was escaping. The place called Under.
Existing on the other side of dreams, Under wasn't a place a person could journey to and from freely. On this night, my course had been set by a demon-summoning spell.
And it summoned me. Because now I had the blood of a demon running in my veins.
Brilliant streaks of light ﬂashed around me. I was neither here nor there. I was everything and nothing at the same time. Like a comet, I brushed past the whole world, painting it with light.
The crash of my body onto a hard wooden ﬂoor jolted the part of me that still swam in the alterverse. Then came a sharp tug on the metaphysical line that tethered my spirit to my ﬂesh and bones. I slammed into myself and drew in a harsh breath of oxygen.
And just like that I was home.
One week later
Sometimes it seemed that nothing had changed since the night I saw the burning man fall from the sky.
I stared out of my window into the cold, dark night. Behind me, my pink and ivory bedroom was reﬂected in the glass. A picture of a world that felt like a cage and a haven all at once. I tried to remember that everything was different now, that I was different now, but it felt like I'd stepped into a time warp. One that brought me once again to peer into the night and long for some unnamed freedom from being Theia Alderson--the perfect daughter, the perfect teen girl, the perfect ing�nue from every gothic romance ever written. A doll in a box.
But I wasn't that girl anymore. Even if I was the only one who recognized it.
I didn't dare dwell on those thoughts for too long. There were shadows in my own heart and soul that I didn't want to get to look at too closely. Best to keep them at bay since a small part of me was curious about the new darkness inside me. Too curious.
I pushed away from the window and roamed my bedroom, brushing my ﬁngers against the furnishings of my old life as if they were touchstones for keeping me earthbound. Tomorrow would be my ﬁrst day back at school since my "return." All of Serendipity Falls thought I had run away, including my father. I could hardly have told him I'd been held prisoner in Under, the realm where nightmares were born. He'd have had me sedated and carted off to the nearest mental ward if I'd explained that demons exist and that not only was I dating one, but his mother had turned me into some kind of a monster as well.
So my father didn't look deeper and accepted the fact that I had run away because of his overbearing rules and because I couldn't handle learning the truth about my mother.
He never recovered from losing her; neither of us had, really.
My father was wrong about my running away, of course. When he was ﬁnally truthful with me about the circumstances of my mother's death, a little of the ice around his heart began to thaw and I felt hope that we might be able to build a better relationship. He'd seemed to be realizing that he had tried so hard to keep me safe that the life of structure he had built around me often made me feel like a princess trapped in her castle turret.
But then I was taken to Under, and now our relationship was strained in a completely different way.
I closed my eyes and replayed the memory of returning home a few days ago. I hadn't known what to expect. The counterfeit cheerfulness of the hulking Victorian house where I lived had never seemed so false as when I stood on the street in front of it working up the courage to go inside. It had never been a home to me, not the kind you remember with sentimentality. The way it rose too proudly from the well-manicured lawn and loomed over everything it saw reminded me too much of the way I'd felt about my father most of my life.
I'd knocked cautiously on my own front door. My breath had come in shallow puffs meant to imitate breathing but falling short. The door opened in slow motion, as if it was cracking an entryway into my fears.
"Oh, thank Jesus!" Muriel, our housekeeper, had cried as she pulled me into the house and into her arms. She'd been baking and smelled like apples and brown sugar. "Mr. Alder-son, she's home! Theia is home!"
Muriel patted me here and there, inspecting me for damage. She'd kept her red hair short and still wore appalling mom jeans and an embroidered sweatshirt. I loved every unfashionable stitch.
She'd cooed and murmured comments about my being too skinny and too pale, but her eyes were ﬁlled with happy tears. I was glad she answered the door ﬁrst, and not my father. She was a respite for me. She always had been.
I'd felt it in my bones when my father saw me. The chill in the room became arctic.
He'd aged ten years in the time I'd been gone. Deep lines framed his eyes and mouth and his hair seemed thinner and lighter. If I'd lost weight in Under, he'd lost more here. His normally impeccable clothes hung loosely on his frame, the fabric gathered in pleats where it should have been ﬂ at.
His stern face was all the more frightening paired with his sunken eyes.
I took a step towards him but stopped when he ﬂ inched.
My lower lip trembled and tears formed and stung, but didn't fall. "Daddy?" I'd whispered. I'd rarely called him that, even as a young girl. "Daddy, I'm sorry," I cried. "I'm so, so sorry."
He didn't hug me that day or since. In fact, we'd barely spoken. He didn't ask where I'd been, if I was all right. He didn't welcome me with open arms. "We'll talk tomorrow" was all he said.
Only tomorrow hadn't come yet, despite the passing of many days. The nonreaction cut deeper into my heart than harsh words would have. His coldness covered my heart like freezer burn. I would have preferred a stern lecture or an angry tirade; instead, he'd sealed himself off from me once again.
He hadn't even talked to me himself about going back to school. His assistant called me after she made the necessary arrangements to reenroll me in my classes.
School. I shook my head in disgust. My friends had convinced me that trying to get back into the routine of normal life was the best thing I could do, but I was not looking forward to returning to high school.
Serendipity Falls is a small California town very different from my childhood home in England. Fitting in had been a problem even before I'd been cursed with demon blood. My British accent, overly strict father, and extreme introverted tendencies put a bull's-eye on my back when Father moved us stateside and I enrolled at the small, cliquish school. Luckily, I made two friends that year who cared very little about ﬁtting in and still cared very much about me. Donny and Amelia were my family. And now I had Haden too.
I smiled to myself even as the ﬁre-hot blush stroked my cheeks as it always did when I thought of Haden. He wasn't the sort of boy a girl could easily bring home to meet the parents-- even if she had normal parents and not an imposing, authoritarian father like mine. Haden, despite being half-human, had been raised in Under. He was unpredictable and wickedly handsome. He had the manners of a hero from a Jane Austen novel, but was equally at home in the high school cafeteria.
As if he knew I was thinking of him, my phone buzzed and lit up with his name on the caller ID.
"What are you wearing?" he asked as soon as I answered.
I smiled into the phone and looked down at my nightgown. "A clown suit with big red shoes."
Haden chuckled low, his voice tickling something deep inside me. "Liar. You hate clowns. Are you ready for your ﬁrst day of school?"
"As ready as I'll ever be." I slid into my sheets and turned off the light, my restlessness abated by the sound of Haden's voice.
"I just called to tell you good night. Get some sleep, Theia. Tomorrow is a big day."
"I would sleep much better if you were here." As soon as the words spilled out of my mouth, I wanted to die of embarrassment. Haden and I were close, but we hadn't gotten that close yet. "I mean . . . it's just that when you're near I'm not as agitated. Not that I want to sleep with you." I needed to stop talking--I was making it worse.
"You don't?" He was teasing now. "Now you've hurt my male pride."
"You know what I mean. Stop trying to ﬂuster me." We weren't really ready for that yet--but I did think about what it would be like. I just didn't want him to know I thought about it.
"My greatest joy comes from ﬂustering you. Your cheeks pinken so sweetly. I bet they're warm right this very minute."
I brought my ﬁngertips to my face. Scorching. "Not at all."
"Good night, Theia. Sweet dreams."
"Good night, Haden."
I never thought I'd fall asleep. As I approached the edge of it, despite knowing better, I let it welcome me back.
It had been a long time since I'd awoken while dreaming.
One moment, I'd been lying in bed drifting into slumber; the next, I was standing outside. Stars danced across the navy blue sky and the moon provided an ambient light. A blanket of red and black rose petals carpeted the ground beneath my bare feet, soft and delicate. Not far from where I stood, a small gazebo glowing with white lights that twinkled like stars on a string drew my gaze. It was breathtaking. In the center a small table was set for two.
I looked down at my white cotton nightgown, chagrined to once again ﬁnd myself in Under barely dressed. I should have been used to it. I also should have been afraid, but I wasn't.
A red petal ﬂoated past me and then another. Slowly, they began falling from the sky like unhurried snow. The black ones were interspersed lightly throughout, but when I put my hand out to catch one, it was heart shaped.
I twirled in a slow circle, catching petals and wondering where they fell from with no clouds in the sky. They were fragrant whispers of delight, and I couldn't help but kick at the pile under my feet as if I were a child playing in autumn leaves or in a puddle from the summer rain.
I immersed myself in the ambience, letting the cool petals brush my skin as they settled around me. The atmosphere felt as decadent and lush as it did innocent and childlike. It seemed to ﬁ t my current state of mind--a crossroads between girl and woman, between human and demon.
I continued to play in the ﬂowers as they settled at my feet. I came across a thicket of silvery bushes that were dipped in glitter. I couldn't resist touching the jeweled leaves. The branches were sturdy transparent tubes ﬁlled with a viscous red liquid and barbed with razor thorns. They parted on their own and revealed a center of three beating hearts. I shivered as the hearts squeezed and pumped their blood through the stalks. I stepped back in time to avoid a barbed vine reaching out to lash me. It was good to remember that even the beauty of Under was laced with deadly terror.
I went back to playing with the rose petals, though a little more cautiously, until I felt a cool sensation on the back of my neck and turned. Where there had been nothing, there was Haden.
Theia was beautiful.
The petals settled around her like she was the center of a snow globe and time seemed to slow. A few stray petals caught in her curls like unmelted snowﬂakes, and she reminded Haden of a forest nymph. Her cheeks were rosy and the way she caught the light dazzled him.
He watched her frolic, charmed by her playfulness and how comfortable she felt here, despite everything she'd been through. He'd hoped she would enjoy the interlude he'd planned. He wanted to give her some relief from the intensity of the last few months. He'd brought so much drama with him, he wondered why she hadn't severed ties with him the moment she found out what he was. It was time he gave her some joy to temper all the sorrow.
She sensed him, the romantic bond they shared so powerful that it was hard to comprehend. A stronger person would let her go now, but he'd already tried that. Easing away from Theia was a challenge Haden was not built for. No, it was going to have to be enough that they grab what little happiness they could. He would savor these moments and put them away to relive in the future, because the future was one thing they would never have.
Just like the night we ﬁrst met, when he stole into my dreams and introduced me to Under, Haden cut the picture of a dashing rogue. He'd worn his dark suit with tails again, knowing I'd be in a nightdress. I scooped up a handful of petals and ﬂung them at him, laughing as they stuck in his hair and in his cravat and starched collar.
He wore his Victorian ensemble so elegantly, and yet the clothes didn't conceal his real nature. As formal as his wardrobe and manners were, the effect was tempered by his black-painted ﬁngernails and the very modern chain belt. Haden was always a mix of decorously proper and deliberately uncivilized.
"Where are we? I don't remember this place. Is it safe from Mara?" I asked as he shook the ﬂowers off him. Mara, the demon queen, hadn't let me go willingly.
"You're as safe as you ever can be if you're mixed up with me." He bowed deeply, a man from another time, but he seemed a little sad.
As if to underscore his words, a pair of birds began a woeful call unlike any birdsong I'd ever heard. The sound seemed to chisel at my bones with its intensity. Their pitiful lament crescendoed from a moody song to a hysterical, deafening screech, but by the time I'd lifted my hand to my ears, all was silent again.
Haden looked down at his feet. "There are places in Under even my mother can't go, but that doesn't mean they are safe."
"I feel safe with you. And you can make it rain roses," I said, blowing a heart-shaped petal off my hand like a kiss to cheer him up.
He smiled and closed the distance between us, reaching for my hand and pressing it against his lips. "I am full of tricks."
He brushed a stray petal from my hair. "You deserved a little break from real life. I know you're worried about tomorrow."
"I'm dreading it. I'm not sure it's a good idea, Haden. We still don't know how Mara's curse will affect me."
"I wish I could have stopped you from taking a blood oath with her. You shouldn't have risked yourself like that for me."
I touched his lips with my ﬁngertips. "Your soul was at stake, Haden. I would do it again."
"Never say that, Theia. Don't ever put yourself in danger for me again." He paused. "I'm sorry. I invited you here to put you at ease and I'm not doing a very good job of it. You look beautiful." Haden offered me his arm, and I tucked mine into his as we walked to the gazebo.
"I feel very underdressed," I admitted as he sat me at the small table.
"I happen to enjoy your nightgowns more than words can say."
I rolled my eyes. "Yes, nothing is quite as tempting as a long cotton nightgown."
Haden's expression turned warm, so warm I wondered if my skin was melting like butter under his gaze. "Theia, you have no idea how sexy it is or you would wear a suit of armor to bed."
A tremor of pleasure made me shiver slightly, but I held the eye contact and the tremor deepened into something so strong it ached. Haden looked away ﬁrst, for a change, and a gentle pink dotted his cheeks.
He lifted the silver dome in front of me to reveal an elegant chocolate mousse garnished with chocolate shavings, raspberries, and a mint leaf. The dish was a work of art.
"One of the things I love the most about you is the way you react to chocolate." Haden gestured to the spoon. "Wait until you taste it."
He was right. As soon as the frothy chocolate touched my tongue, I sighed. "This is what heaven tastes like."
Haden leaned across the table and stole a kiss, licking the corner of my mouth. "Yes," he agreed. "Heaven."
He sat back, and my heart squeezed. He'd awoken someone new inside me, and something delicious and edging on wicked blurred the lines of who I used to be and who I wanted to become.
The rich darkness in his eyes caught the glow from the candlelight and threatened to drown me in the surge of wonder that this perfect boy loved me. Me.
But he wasn't a boy. Haden Black was a dark mystery, a demon with a human soul. He embodied all that shouldn't be in a glorious presentation of everything that was ideal. His chiseled features would have been too harsh on a mere mortal, but gave him a unique appearance--as if he was sprung from a well of dreams. I suppose he was.
And he knew very well the effect he had on me.
Haden didn't feign ignorance about his sex appeal-- he enjoyed the attention, courted the reaction. That's not to say he was egotistical. He'd be the ﬁrst to admit his failings. His smoldering appeal was just part of what made him Haden. Desire was a natural state of being in his world--using it, feeling it, receiving it was all the same to him.
As if he knew what I was thinking, a slow grin eased across his face. So much of our courtship had been spent by me trying to cipher whether Haden had really wanted me or not. He had pushed me away every time he had drawn me close, and the seesaw of tumultuous emotions had been exhausting.
I didn't have to wonder now.
When Haden looked at me, I no longer felt perplexed by his feelings. His heart beat strong and true, and there was nothing ambiguous about the desire I read in his eyes. He wove a spell over me, enticing me from the safe world I'd been sheltered in and into a place where I didn't know my way but trusted that I would ﬁnd it with him.
Heat kindled the air between us. Nerves dashed throughout my body, making me aware with prickles and tingles that I was not just nervous--but also excited.
Haden said, "Your cheeks are pink."
I didn't answer, but my skin felt too hot and tight and my lips were parched. I licked them and Haden inhaled sharply.
Answering my questioning look, he said, "Sorry. I'm a little too focused on your mouth right now. Perhaps we should change the subject."
"I'm not sure we were talking about anything." Was he blushing? It was nice to know that he was just as overwhelmed by his feelings. It made me feel like my lack of experience wasn't as monumentally important-- that we were both charting new waters.
"Well, we should talk about something, then. Something normal couples talk about," he said.
Unfortunately, that would be easier said than done. "I have no idea what normal couples say to each other. I've never even been on a date before."
A wistful expression softened his features. "Me either. Someday, we should try for a really normal one. Maybe go to a movie or bowling."
"Bowling?" I laughed, imagining Haden in rented bowling shoes. "Okay."
Haden cleared his throat. "I have no idea what is wrong with the male population of Serendipity Falls, but I can't tell you how much it means to me that I will be your ﬁ rst."
I glanced up sharply, but realized he meant ﬁrst date, not ﬁrst . . . lover. Still, the words hung between us as if suspended in a cloud. He realized what he'd said and his eyes widened. Suddenly his dessert plate became very interesting and he concentrated on his mousse.
The part of me that wasn't embarrassed loved that he bounced between dark, dangerous demon and slightly awkward boy. It made up for my mostly awkward girl moments.
I pushed the spoon through the mousse, trying to think of small talk that would defuse the tension. I couldn't think of anything to say that would qualify as inane chatter when there were so many things that needed to be discussed. Things we'd avoided since my return.
I didn't know what I was and I didn't know what I was capable of anymore. Under had changed me in more ways than one and he was the only one who could understand. I looked up to ﬁnd him watching me intently.
"What is it?" he asked. "And don't tell me 'nothing' because you are a horrible liar."
I bit my lip. "I have questions."
Haden leaned back casually, but there was something so ethereal about the way he moved sometimes that it didn't seem as casual as he probably thought it was. "You know I'll answer whatever I can, Theia."
I had to know. "The summoning spell our friends performed . . . the one that brought us both back from Under last week . . . it was a demon summoning, right?"
Haden nodded, knowing where I was headed with my questions but letting me form them.
"So, I'm a demon then . . . since it obviously worked on both of us?"
"You have demon attributes because you made a pact with Mara using blood. You're not a demon, though. Not technically."
I closed my eyes and relived the memory of almost stealing Haden's essence while I was "not technically" a demon in Under. "She taught me things." I couldn't look at him. "Mara showed me how she steals souls from people in their sleep. She taught me how to be a mare demon-- like her."
I shook my head. "I almost did, that one night . . ." The hunger I had felt that night would haunt me forever. It was like being possessed-- like I was watching something else take over my body and mind while I stood in a corner unable to stop it.
"I remember," he said simply. Quietly. Of course he remembered the night I almost took his human soul. "But you
stopped, Theia. You overcame it."
But would I be able to stop the next time?
The unnatural desire had racked my body physically, but what it did to my mind was much, much worse. The primal urge to feed overcame everything and became who I was for those few hours. My entire sense of self boiled down to my needs and urges. The person I knew myself to be was an annoying gnat to demon blood trying to take over. I was weak and useless. I was a silent scream.
A mare demon usually preys on human victims in their sleep. I didn't know all the correct demon taxonomy, but as a species, humans tend to lump the mare together with sex demons like incubi and succubi. The myths say the demons visit the sleeping humans and feed them nightmares--sometimes erotic ones--while absorbing the essence, the soul, of their prey. What the myths don't talk about is that mare demons can feed on souls that are awake as well--and the demons use their demon-given charms, called the Lure, to entice their prey into wanting to hand over their essence gladly, just to be near the mare demon. The demons absorb the human spirit through touching and kissing . . . and other, more intimate ways.
"Have you ever fed on a person's soul?" I asked, but wasn't sure I wanted the answer.
"I don't need to feed to survive, because I'm half-human. I've never drained a soul completely--but I have to admit that I've swiped a bit of essence now and then. Does that bother you?"
Well, it didn't make me think of puppies and rainbows.
"You're a demon, Haden. There are things that I have to expect will make me uncomfortable."
"It doesn't hurt them if you just take a bit. I know that isn't an excuse, and I haven't done it in a while. It's not always easy to resist." He didn't look away from me, almost as if he was daring me to turn away from him. As if I had any right to judge.
"I understand that it's difﬁcult." I didn't want to admit how difﬁcult it had become. "I have these cravings that come and go. Fleeting, really," I lied. "That night she showed me how to take your soul . . . it was so hard to stop myself. . . ."
Haden covered my hand with his warm one and I instantly felt calmer. "If we can ﬁnd a way to rid you of her curse, I swear I will do anything."
"I worry that we've made a horrible mistake bringing me back, Haden. I think everyone was safer when I was trapped in Under."
Sometimes during the last week, I even missed Under a little. It was dangerous, and yet there was an eerie, captivating beauty to it also.
A string quartet began playing in the distance. I couldn't see the musicians, but the haunting song reached into my soul, entwining around my memories and dreams, twisting, turning, and reliving them . . . making the melancholy sweet . . . turning the sweet arcane. My eyelids drifted shut and the sound washed over me. I hadn't picked up my violin since I'd returned from Under. When I opened my eyes, I found my suitor standing in front of me, offering his hand and all of his old-world charm.
"The way you catch the light takes my breath away, Theia."
Haden sent me a smoldering look, the kind that made me glad I was already sitting down, because my knees would have been useless. He arched one brow, quite aware that he was undoing me with just a look and quite proud of himself for it.
I placed my hand in his, sliding my palm across his until our ﬁngers linked, and he pulled me out of my seat. He pressed an openmouthed kiss against the back of my hand, curling my toes with wicked pleasure.
We began to dance in an elegant pattern of a waltz he'd taught me before we knew that our hearts would shatter a million times in our quest to be together. This time during the dance, Haden touched me, something he'd been unwilling to chance when we ﬁrst met. The weight of his hand on my back was not as heavy as the gravity of his gaze. The twinkling lights danced in the reﬂection of his onyx eyes. I wanted to capture this moment like a ﬁ reﬂy in a jar.
We moved together as if we'd been dancing partners for centuries, when in fact I'd never danced until Haden taught me. I loved him more in that moment than I thought possible, but I felt a sadness seeping between us. We danced as if we had no worries, and yet we knew full well what torment might come.
We twirled and dipped and the world raced around us to keep up.
He scanned the horizon. "It's almost time."
"So soon? It feels like I just got here."
Haden kissed my temple. "Good morning, Theia."
I blinked, and my bedroom was awash in the light of a brand-new day.