“Nick? Honey? You’re not really asleep, are you?”
Nick blinked his eyes open as some loud, thumping song he didn’t know made his ears ring. In fact, he was surrounded by all kinds of noise. Like a party.
He lifted his head from his folded arms to find himself not in the bed he’d fallen into, but at a …
Yeah, it was a fancy prom with hideous swan and star cardboard cutouts, and enough pink fabric to make him feel like he’d fallen into a Pepto-Bismol factory.
Scowling, he scanned the darkened hotel ballroom where his classmates were partying hard to some flashy DJ on a raised dais.
How had he gotten here?
When had he come to this?
Wait, forget all of that for a minute. It’d been late fall when he’d gone to bed.…
Weren’t proms always held in the spring?
Yeah, they were.
How had he lost six months of his life? When had he lost them? But what floored him most were the people sitting at the round table with him. Caleb was to his right, but instead of the pretty-boy jock he was supposed to be, Caleb was a bit heavyset and wore a retainer.
At a prom?
Retainer? Was it a costume party of some kind? After all, it was New Orleans—the only place in the world where they could turn opening a regular envelope into a grand procession. Yeah, that made more sense of what he was seeing.
Especially the usually flamboyant Simi, who was currently wearing an understated pink frilly dress down to her ankles with a sweater buttoned up to her chin. He frowned as he followed the line of her arm to where she held Caleb’s hand.
Yeah, I’m insane and the devil’s cracking icicles in his hot tub. My dad must have sucked out my brains when he died. Or maybe this is Caleb’s idea of a joke? The demon did have a sick sense of humor at times.
Please, let me just be crazy. The sheer magnitude of possible and awful paranormal alternatives made a straightjacket seem like the most desirable outcome.
Casey sat beside Nick, wearing a pair of thick glasses and an outdated dress that looked like something from a 1980s John Hughes movie.
Is this a dream?
It was too real for that, and yet …
“Nick, you’re looking kind of sick. Like you’re about to hurl. Are you okay?” Casey rubbed his hand.
No. He was definitely not okay. He felt like someone had just sucker-punched him as his gaze locked on a short, stubby … geek whose eyes and dark hair were all too familiar.
No … it couldn’t be.
He beamed. “Yeah, buddy. Should I call your dad to come get you? You don’t look like you should be driving.”
“I can take him home.”
Nick went cold at a voice he didn’t want to recognize. No, no, no. There was no way he was here. Why would an eleven-thousand-year-old all-powerful immortal come to a high school prom?
Not like the being would be bored, given all the things out to end them.
Don’t do it.
But like a grisly car wreck—Nick had to. His stomach tight, he was terrified of where his nightmare would take him this time.
The moment he turned, he knew he’d died and gone to the real hell. That was the only plausible explanation he could wrap his head around. The only explanation that made sense.
Because this …
This was the freakfest of all time.
It was definitely Acheron Parthenopaeus. All five feet tall of him, with short brown hair and blue eyes.
And in a pink tux.
Nick laughed at something that was a lot scarier than it was funny. But he didn’t know what else to do … except scream, and that might get him put in a straightjacket for real.
Maybe I have lost my mind.
Yeah, that was a little more acceptable than this current nightmare.
He swallowed hard then returned his attention to Stone. “Can I ask a weird question?”
“If you must.”
Raking his hand through his hair, Nick tried to figure out why he was having this screwed-up dream. What had he eaten?
Or better yet, had something finally eaten him?
But for now, until he unraveled what was happening, he had no choice except to ride this … horror out to its conclusion.
“What’s my dad’s name?”
They all laughed.
Yeah, so not funny. Nick forced himself not to insult them for their ridicule. “C’mon, guys. Just play along and answer the question.”
Ash snorted, then answered in a nasal tone. “You know your dad, Nick. Michael Burdette. He’s an accountant who works with Caleb’s father.”
Caleb had a dad, too?
Sure, and fat flying fairies made Nick’s tacky clothes every night and left them for him in the bathroom.
Nick arched a brow at Caleb. “And your father would be…?”
Caleb scowled at him. “What is your problem, boy? You know my dad is your dad’s best friend and has been since forever. Caleb Fingerman? Hello? Mark’s my dad.”
Nick started laughing and laughing. He couldn’t stop. Yeah, this was all insane. He must have been hit in the head a lot harder than he thought. “Okay, joke’s over, everyone. Ha. Ha. You got me.”
“What joke?” Ash, Caleb, and Stone asked while the women looked at him as if he was the one who was nuts.
Unable to deal with it anymore, Nick rose to his feet and curled his lip. “You know, for a joke to work it actually needs to be funny, guys … and this is not even a little.” Angry at them, he stormed off to the bathroom to splash water on his face and wake up.
Something had to get him out of this nightmare and back home.
But the moment Nick looked into the bathroom mirror, he froze in absolute horror. Not only was he in an ugly blue tuxedo that he’d never wear, his hair was blond, and his eyes were an average gray color.
Worse? He was a lot closer to the sink than he’d been in a really long time.
Ah gah! Anything but that!
His heart pounding, he checked his legs to make sure they were intact.
And yet he was only five foot eight. If that much.
I’m six-four. Had been since his growth spurt last summer. Panic rose high as he closed his eyes and tried to summon his powers.
That only made him panic more as harsh reality cracked him in the stones. No, no, no, non! his mind shouted. It couldn’t be.
But it was. All of his powers were gone. Every last one of them. He had nothing. Not even a glimmer of the scrying or clairvoyance or anything.
I’m totally without and locked in Hades.
Horrified, Nick gaped at the unfamiliar face he saw in the mirror that wasn’t his. He pinched himself and shook his head. It was him. Somehow he’d morphed into a short blond dude.
Unable to accept it, he tried everything he could to wake up. But nothing worked. He continued to exist here in this freakworld.
It’s not a dream.
Somehow this was real. He was real, and he was here, wherever here was.
Madaug walked in and sneered at him. No longer skinny and nerdy, he was the six feet four Nick should have been, and ripped. “What you looking at, Burdette? Cruising for a date?”
“Burdette?” Nick repeated, looking around for Bubba.
Madaug shoved him. “Nick Burdette? Can’t you even recognize your own name?” He rolled his eyes. “Dog, boy, how dumb are you?” He went over to a urinal.
Stunned, confused, and terrified, Nick stumbled out to the prom that was filled with people he knew but didn’t recognize. Reaching for something, anything to prove this wasn’t happening, that he was being punk’d, he pulled his wallet out and checked his license.
It was the “new” blond him in the photo, but what hit him like a kick in the crotch was the name.
Nicholas Michael Burdette instead of Nicholas Ambrosius Gautier.
“What the Hades has happened?”
And more importantly … how could he undo it when he no longer had any power and his preternatural allies were now all woefully normal?
“Nick? Boo? Get up. You’re going to be late for school.”
Groaning in fear of what he might find this time, Nick opened his eyes to see the navy blue curtains his mom had bought him last year when they moved into their condo on Bourbon Street. Relief flooded him.
It was just a nightmare, after all. Thank you, God!
That was his thought until he realized that the window wasn’t the same. Instead of being a large single window, it was two windows with a divider between them.
Ah, crap. Not again. Haven’t I suffered enough indignities and horrors? Really?
His heart hammering, Nick slowly swept his gaze around a room he didn’t recognize.
His stomach tightened to the point he feared he’d be ill.
“Nick?” His mom knocked lightly before she pushed open the door to smile at him. “So you are up, sleepyhead. Hurry now, or else you’ll get another tardy.”
Even more unsettled than before, Nick gaped at the sight of her in an expensive dark blue business suit with her blond hair cut short to frame her beautiful face. That definitely wasn’t her waitress uniform.
Scowling, she moved to stand by the bed and placed her hand to his forehead. “Are you all right? You look pale.”
Stunned, he couldn’t speak as he stared at a stranger in his mother’s body.
“Cherise? It’s London calling. They need to speak to you. Said it can’t wait.”
His eyes widened at the sound of that familiar deep, thick Tennessee Southern drawl. Bubba? What the heck was Bubba doing in his house at seven thirty in the morning? It’d been bad enough when Nick had come home from the prom and found him here. But that he’d attributed to a date.
No, wait. That wasn’t right. Someone had told him at the prom that Bubba was his father now. Caleb?
For some reason, he couldn’t remember.
And why in the world would someone in London call his mom?
Maybe London’s a name?
No. Not possible. This was bad bad. His mom didn’t know anyone named London.…
“I’ll be right there, Michael.” She squeezed Nick’s cheek. “You don’t have a fever. Did you stay up too late?”
Honestly? He feared some kind of terminal brain damage. How hard had that demon slammed him on the ground while they fought to get his mom back?
His door opened again to show “Bubba” in a black Armani suit. Nick only knew that designer brand because they were the ones his immortal boss, Kyrian, favored and Nick had had a seizure the first time he’d gone to pick one up and had seen the cost of it.
Who wore that stuff and why?
Huge as ever, Bubba had abandoned his beard for smooth cheeks and wore a short, stylish cut. Yeah, this definitely wasn’t the burly redneck who hunted zombies in the bayou with his lunatic best friend. One who was paranoid as all get out, and armed to a level that the ATF had him on their watch list.
As if he hadn’t morphed into some creepy businessman, Bubba came in and handed a cordless phone to his mom.
Removing her expensive earring, she cupped her hand over the mouthpiece and whispered to Bubba. “I think our Boo is sick. See what you think.” She stepped out of the room to deal with her call.
Bubba knelt his gigantic form by the bed and brushed the hair back from Nick’s forehead. “You all right, buddy?” Now there was a loving tone Bubba had never used with him before. That was even more terrifying than having a Charonte demon try to eat him.
Completely dumbfounded by it all, Nick dropped his gaze to the huge football championship ring on Bubba’s hand. The diamonds on the front formed a pattern reminiscent of a fleur-de-lis. They were framed by the words “Forty” on one side and “Niners” on the other. The name “Burdette” was on the “Forty” side and “Super Bowl XXIV 55-10” on the “Niners” side. Gasping, he fingered the ring as he remembered Bubba’s mama telling him how Bubba could have gone pro after college, but had decided to stay home with his wife and son instead. “This looks so real.”
Bubba snorted. “It is real, you know that.” He duplicated Nick’s scowl. “What’s going on with you, Squirt? You have a test you’re trying to avoid?”
“No. I … uh … yeah, no, I’m fine. Not a morning person.”
Laughing, Bubba stood up and pulled the covers off Nick. “Come on. Mom made pancakes for breakfast and they’re getting cold.” He left the room.
Still disoriented and confused, Nick rolled out of bed. This was so screwed up. Raking his hand through his hair, he gaped at the photo on his desk of a sweaty Bubba in a 49ers uniform holding him as a toddler, dressed in a matching 49ers jersey with BURDETTE on the back. At least Nick thought it was him. The face and blond hair belonged to the stranger he kept seeing in the mirror. It was a picture from a newspaper where the 49ers had won the Super Bowl, January 28, 1990.