Tayla arrived at her apartment as darkness began to swallow the red glow of the sun on the horizon. Hardcore executives were just now leaving their Wall Street offices. Drug dealers were hitting the streets. Vampires were waking from their sleep and getting ready to suck innocent humans dry.
Her own blood sang, ran like a wolf pack through her veins as the hunt called to her. Oh, how she wanted to be tracking and destroying hellspawn. But her wound ached, and she had a demon tied to her bed.
She entered her apartment cautiously, in case he’d pulled a Houdini. Once inside, she peeled the tracking sticker—nothing more than a spell-saturated black paper dot—from its backing and concealed it in her palm. She eased around the door frame to her bedroom, and her jaw dropped at the sight of Eidolon lying on the bed, one arm nearly free from the chain still attached to the twisted mass of metal frame. He’d obviously gone on a rampage to get loose, but what shocked her was how Mickey lay curled on Eidolon’s washboard abs, looking content as the fiend petted the traitorous animal.
“Oh, hey, Tayla,” he drawled, as though he were lounging on a beach and not being held prisoner. “I hope you picked up some Taco Bell while you were out. I’m starving.”
She dropped the bag of weapons she’d taken from HQ. “You eat fast food?”
“Only when there’s a shortage of live sheep and small children.”
Smartass. At least, she hoped he was being a smartass. “I’m fresh out of those things, but I have stale marshmallows and oranges.”
His eyes caressed her, half-lidded and glittering with hunger that had nothing to do with food—or affection, which was something she’d do well to remember. “I can think of something else I’d like to—”
“Don’t say it.” The dark, sultry note in his voice hit her right between the legs, and she gritted her teeth to keep from falling into the incubus trap. “Is that all you think about?”
“Lately? Yeah,” he said, and he didn’t sound happy about it, either.
“Does it have something to do with that s’genwhatever you were talking about?”
“S’genesis,and yes. I’m close to the change.”
He scratched Mickey on the belly, and the ferret rolled onto its back, practically purring. The weasel was in so much trouble, though if she were being honest with herself, she’d admit that Eidolon’s touch had made her purr, too.
The bastard. She moved to the bed and pretended to check his bonds. When she leaned across his big body to test the loose one, she casually applied the sticker to his pager, a necessity since Stephanie’s magic worked only when attached to electronics. Tayla’s breasts brushed his chest, the light contact sending up a violent tingle through her body.
God, he felt good, even when he wasn’t trying.
“You going to release me any time soon?”
Straightening, she peered down at him. “I was thinking I’d hold you prisoner for as long as you held me in the hospital. Why? You have some other patient to screw?”
“I need to feed my dog.”
“You have a dog? To eat?”
Eidolon stared at her.
“What? Why are you looking at me like that?”
He snorted. “My kind has been terrified of you for centuries, and now I realize how stupid we’ve been.”
“Excuse me?” The demon was chained to his mortal enemy’s bed, vulnerable, and calling her stupid?
“Aegi. You kill indiscriminately. You have no idea what you kill or why. You know nothing about us.”
“I know exactly what I kill,” she shot back. “Evil. I don’t need a reason to do that.”
He kept petting Mickey, the silence growing thick until he finally said, “We’ve always assumed The Aegis is all-knowing, highly trained and organized,” he mused, one corner of his mouth turned up as if he’d uncovered a great secret. “But it’s nothing but a cult, isn’t it? The weak and uneducated being led by those with their own agendas. Brainwashed lemmings following orders without question.”
“So you think I’m brainwashed. That I blindly do the bidding of some David Koresh because I’m ignorant about the underworld?”
Overwhelming rage pummeled her like the fists of foster parents from so long ago. The knife he’d used to cut off her scrubs lay on the floor, and she picked it up, tested the edge with one finger. Hellboy watched her warily, but if he was frightened, it didn’t show.
She suddenly wanted him to be afraid, to hurt as much as she did. But she also knew that what she wanted wasn’t possible. She could skin him alive and he wouldn’t feel the pain she felt on a daily basis. Still, she put the blade to the pulse at the base of his throat.
“I knew the nature of demons long before I became a Guardian.” Her gravelly voice cut out. She had to swallow several times before she could continue, but not before putting more pressure on the knife, until a drop of his blood welled at the tip. He didn’t even flinch.
“When I was sixteen, I watched a demon torture my mom for hours before he killed her. After that, I lived on the streets and fought them when they would have taken me as a meal. Or worse, because I happen to know there is worse. So don’t you dare tell me I know nothing about evil, you sonofabitch.”
“You think you’re the only one who’s experienced loss at the hands of the enemy? Have you heard of a pub called Brimstone? Yes, I can see you have. Two years ago, Aegis slayers slaughtered everyone there, including the brother I told you about, Roag, who had done nothing to deserve death. You haven’t cornered the market on pain, slayer.”
Brimstone. Two years ago. A cold sweat broke out on her skin. She’d been there. She remembered going in through the rear of the secret lair, remembered how the place had reeked of smoke and worse, a coppery, rotten stench like decaying blood. Demons had been drinking, fighting, gambling. In the center of the room, several demons had been involved in an orgy while others placed bets. On what, she’d had no idea.
The Guardians had swarmed over the demons like mosquitoes, drawing blood. The entire cell had been there, and not one demon had escaped. Especially not after they set fire to the place.
Tayla could have been his brother’s killer.
Mickey scampered off his belly and out of the room, and Eidolon put his hand over hers, not threateningly. “You say I’m wrong about you. If I am, then can’t you accept that you might be wrong about me?” His voice was surprisingly calm, given that she could kill him with a flick of her wrist. Given that she’d hit him over the head, tied him to the bed, and probably slaughtered his brother.
“If I’m wrong about you, then everything I’ve lived for…” Was a lie. She shook her head, because the beasts she’d killed over the years had been just that. Beasts with no redeeming qualities. And yet, she couldn’t get the image of Eidolon caring for the dying nurse out of her head. “I’m not wrong.”
Holding her gaze, he tilted his head, exposing his throat, making blood drip down the smooth skin there. “Then you have to kill me.”
Just three days ago she’d have believed that. Three days ago, if not for the orders to send him packing with a tracking device on his pager, she’d have put him down where he lay. But he’d saved her life. He’d healed his brother and shown mercy to the nurse. Her long-held beliefs had been challenged, and now her resolve wobbled. She tried to pretend she didn’t feel relief at the fact that she didn’t have to kill him. That would be some other slayer’s job.
“You didn’t let me die,” she said, pulling the knife away and tamping down the desire to find him a bandage, “so I won’t kill you today.”
“How generous.” He tugged at the chains holding him down. “Are we done with these now? Or are you going to pay me back for keeping you in the hospital?”
“I should. You destroyed my bed.”
“I could think of more ways to destroy it.”
She huffed. “Demons.”
He winked, and she wheeled away, refusing to be charmed. She retrieved the key to the cuffs from where she’d hidden it beneath the music box—the only gift besides the ring her mother had ever given her. Sweat popped out on the bridge of her nose in an ominous warning, instantly followed by a wave of dizziness. Eidolon’s face blurred.
“I’m fine.” She stepped toward the bed, but her right leg went rubbery and her arms turned into lead weights. Oh, yeah, she was going down.
Swaying, she sat on the floor before she fell. She was getting so tired of this.
“Tayla, what’s wrong? Look at me.” He jerked on his chains with such force that the rattle of metal echoed off the inside of her skull. “Look at me, dammit,” he said, the commanding tone in his voice irritating but effective, because she swiveled her head in his direction.
“Shut up,” she groaned.
“Your eyes aren’t tracking. You’re pale.”
The room spun in a pudding-smooth mix of pale grays and browns. She really, really wanted to fall over and go to sleep, maybe after throwing up.
“Hand me the key and I’ll help you.”
Yeah, like she’d let him loose while she was weak and vulnerable. He couldn’t kill her in the hospital, but he could do it now. That smooth doctor voice he was using didn’t fool her or comfort her in the least. Not when his words at Nancy’s apartment kept replaying in her ears. “I should kill you. Here, with no Haven spell to keep me from wringing your neck.”
“This’ll pass.” She pushed to her feet, only to stumble. Eidolon caught her forearm with his loose hand, and she dropped the key.
Her legs gave out, and she found herself face-down on the floor, unable to move.
The key had fallen just beyond Eidolon’s reach. He rocked his body, jiggling the mattress until the key slid into range of his fingers. Once he had it, he quickly released himself.
“Tayla.” Ignoring his stiff joints and aching muscles, he crouched beside her and turned her face toward him. “Can you hear me? Blink once if you can.”
She blinked, her terror shining through the glaze of confusion in her eyes. He knew how it felt to be helpless and vulnerable, and for someone as strong as she was, the sting would go deep. He shouldn’t care, was still pissed as hell that he’d allowed himself to be knocked out and tied up, but he was a physician and this was his job.
“It’s okay,” he murmured, and gently brushed her hair back from her face. “Just answer my questions. Can you move at all? Two blinks for no.”
She blinked twice.
“I’m going to roll you onto your back. If I hurt you, blink.” Carefully, he rolled her. “I’m going to check your vitals, so just relax and breathe, okay?”
A rapid assessment revealed a clear airway, a regular pulse, and rapid but steady breathing. Her skin felt too cold, but her capillary refill was satisfactory. Until she could speak again, he wouldn’t know what was wrong, but he suspected that her demon half was having a tantrum.
It wanted out.
“Does this happen often?”
No response at all, though the fingers on her left hand began to wiggle. Grasping her arm, he closed his eyes, wishing he possessed Shade’s power to affect bodily functions and detect systemic malfunction. Instead, all Eidolon could do for Tayla was send a generalized healing wave into her and hope that any damage would reverse.
Warmth washed over his skin, seeping from his fingertips into her arm. “This won’t hurt,” he said, because the bitter scent of fear was rising from her and her pulse had gone tachy. “I’m trying to heal you.”
A low moan wracked her body, and her feet twitched. He reached down, pressed his palm to one sole. “Push against my hand.”
She did, a good sign.
“I’m getting better,” she rasped, and he pulled back his healing powers, uncertain if they had anything to do with her recovery.
She grasped his hand, her grip strong but trembling. “Do you know what’s wrong?”
Sixty years ago, he’d gone to Africa to rescue Wraith from yet another incident, and he’d come across a lion dying from a festering bullet wound. The animal, once strong and proud, had been reduced to a weakened shell, but its eyes still burned with the will to live.
Tayla reminded him of the big cat, dismayed at how its powerful body had failed it, yet wanting to survive. Something inside Eidolon buckled, and fuck, nothing should be buckling or unbuckling for this woman. There had already been way too much of the latter.
If anyone in this room was weak, it was him.
“Does this happen often?” he repeated, more sharply than he intended.
She hesitated. It couldn’t be easy revealing vulnerabilities to a mortal enemy. “It’s happening a lot more lately.”
“When did it start?”
She still hadn’t released him, as though she needed comfort and had forgotten who—and what—he was. Just as he had.
“A few months ago. It started small. Numb fingers and toes. Then I’d lose the use of a hand or foot for a few minutes.”
She closed her eyes and took a deep, shuddering breath. Without thinking, he covered her free hand with his, stroked the cold skin. “Tayla? I need to know.”
“Sometimes both legs go out. Or one side of my body. This has been the worst so far. I’ve never been completely immobilized.” She opened her eyes, tried to lift her head, but failed. “I haven’t been to a doctor.”
“I don’t think a human physician could help you.”
“Why?” She struggled to sit up, but he held her down with gentle force. “Tell me!”
“Oh, my God,” she breathed, struggling even harder against his hold. She was growing stronger by the second. “I’ve been infected by some kind of demon disease, haven’t I?”
“Something like that…”
“What will it do to me? Can you cure it?”
“I took blood samples at the hospital. I won’t know the results for a couple of days. We can go from there.” It would definitely be helpful to know her sire’s species.
She relaxed, but her eyes shifted wildly in their sockets as her mind worked. “It started after an Alu demon bit me. They carry disease. I’ll bet that’s what happened.” She rolled her bottom lip between her teeth and worried it in a way that stirred him in an extremely inappropriate manner considering the situation. “Do you think that’s it?”
“Alus do carry disease,” he hedged. The bite of the Alu had been known to trigger dormant illnesses and diseases in remission. Contact with the creature could have activated her demon genes.
She nodded as though relieved at having pinpointed the source of her malady. “The Aegis has doctors. Good ones who used to be Guardians, so they understand this kind of thing.” The pitch of her voice climbed a notch, and her words fell out in a tumble of excitement and hope that would have broken his heart if he’d cared about her on more than a professional level. Which he didn’t. “They probably see stuff like this all the time.”
Infections, curses, demon bites, yes. Half-breeds gone wrong? He doubted it. If an Aegi doctor learned the truth, she would probably wind up dead after a lot of torture or painful medical experiments.
“You can’t see a human doctor, Tayla.”
“Why not?” The familiar wariness had crept back into her eyes, shadows that flickered in the green depths. She scrambled to sit up, and this time he let her, though when she jerked out of his grip, he felt a slight twinge of regret. “I can’t trust a demon to help me.”
“You’re right.” He hated it, but demons weren’t the most trustworthy beings, though many, like his mother’s species, did live by a code of honor that had influenced his upbringing and had instilled in him a sense of moral principles. Which was something his brothers lacked, and was why he didn’t fully trust anyone. Not even his own siblings. Wraith was too unstable, and Shade… he had a curse to deal with.
“You can’t trust any demon,” he said. “But that doesn’t change the fact that you might have to rely on one to save your life.”
She pushed to her feet, a little wobbly. Standing, he reached out to steady her. For a moment, she swayed toward him. Then, as though realizing what she was doing, she pivoted out of his reach, her movements fluid despite her weakness. Even when not in top form, she radiated deadly strength and determination. She was a fantastic specimen, a perfect female, and his body hardened in response.
Her gaze locked onto his, and this time he was the one who swayed. His world tilted as he pictured her beneath him, begging him to relieve her ache. But he hadn’t. Couldn’t. His inability to do so had him cracking his knuckles in frustration.
“You think I’m going to rely on you? Do I look like an idiot?”
“I could have killed you while you were helpless just now.”
“I’m sure there’s a reason you didn’t,” she said. “I just don’t know what it is yet.”
There was no point in denying her accusation; not only was it true, but he couldn’t convince her otherwise. She was too smart, too street-savvy and well-trained to believe anything else.
“Your condition is more serious than you think.” The panicked light in her eyes flared again, and he didn’t wait for her to speak before blurting, “You are half-demon, Tayla.”
She stared. Blinked. Stumbled back a step. “What did you say?”
“One of your parents, likely your father, was a demon.”
“You son of a bitch,” she said softly. “How stupid do you think I am?”
“It’s true, Tayla. Think back to when you were a kid. You were different in some way. Your nutritional requirements were probably odd. You craved certain things.”
Hatred came off her in sizzling lashes that practically peeled away his skin. “Shut your lying, filthy mouth. My mother—”
“Slept with a demon.”
“She wouldn’t! She would never willingly have sex with something so… so vile.”
Vile? “It was easy enough for you.”
She punched him, knocking him back a step. Shit, she had a killer right hook. He’d feel that one in his cheek for hours.
“Get. Out,” she snarled. “Before I change my mind about letting you go.”
Her pain, anger, and fear hit him like another blow, and he knew there would be no more talk. “You know how to contact me should you need help.” He strode into the living room. “And you will need help.”
“Don’t hold your breath.”
Not holding his breath was impossible when she looked the way she did, even as pissed as she was, standing in the bedroom doorway, the neckline of her tank unbuttoned enough to show cleavage. The hem had ridden up to reveal a creamy expanse of skin between the top and her extremely low-slung jeans. Lust shot through his blood, throbbing through him with the same beat as the pain in his cheek.
He cursed, long and loud. The human was a menace to his control. Control would keep him alive. Lack of it would land him as dead as Roag.
And his control was being slowly stripped with every hour he drew nearer to his change.
Gem checked her watch for what had to be the millionth time as she sat on the hood of Eidolon’s car and watched the entrance to Tayla’s apartment building.
What was going on in there? Gem had come to have a little chat with the slayer, had arrived just in time to see the other woman enter her building a half-hour ago. Gem had been poised to follow… until she saw the other doctor’s BMW.
It was too much of a coincidence to assume he was in this part of the city on business unrelated to the slayer, so she’d held back, growing more agitated by the minute.
Her suspicious nature was running amok.
A gang of humans approached from the north, their sleazy banter ringing out over the honking horns, distant sirens, and the sounds of domestic violence from the dwellings above. Humans like Tayla should worry less about the evil brought about by demonkind and focus on the evil and violence their own species perpetuated. Violence like what she witnessed today while handing out condoms. What she witnessed every day in the human emergency room where she worked while covertly assessing patients for suspicious injuries, illness, and impregnation with demon spawn.
The men passed by without noticing her, thanks to the spell surrounding Eidolon’s vehicle. She breathed a sigh of relief, not because she’d been afraid, but because defending herself would have been messy.
Yet another reason she was glad Kynan had neutralized the earlier threat. Had she done it, her secret would have been exposed.
Exposed not only to humans, but to the demons from whom she hid her identity, as well. As far as her demon brethren were concerned, she was a full-blooded Sensor, just like her parents. Because to many demons, slaughtering half-breeds was considered sport.
Movement in the shadows across the street drew her attention, and she sucked in an appreciative breath at the sight of Eidolon exiting Tayla’s apartment building, his shirt wrinkled and missing most of the buttons. The man was fine. Smokin’. Why hadn’t she bedded him before now?
Oh, right. Because she was in love with a married human who hardly knew she existed.
She shook off thoughts she had no business thinking when her parents were in such grave danger and hoped to hell Eidolon wasn’t in league with The Aegis in the demon organ ring.
She respected the Seminus demon and his brothers for what they’d done with UG. The hospital was one of the few places a demon could go for help. UG had had a rough start, but as the word spread, suspicion faded and there was even talk of opening a similar facility in Paris, where the demon population was nearly double that of New York.
If Eidolon had anything to do with the black market killings, or if the hospital was being used… the damage done to all medically trained underworld beings would be irreparable.
Eidolon crossed the street, his easy, powerful stride ratcheting her heart rate up a notch. Incubi did that to her, even incubi as uptight as he was. Son of the devil, she’d never met an incubus with such self-control. Then again, he had grown up with Justice demons, a species that couldn’t be more opposite. He was the ultimate experiment in Nature Versus Nurture, and she imagined he must be engaged in a constant battle between what he was and what he wanted to be.
He didn’t miss a step when he saw her sitting on his hood, but his gaze narrowed and the angular line of his jaw hardened.
“Gem.” He stopped next to the driver’s-side door. “What are you doing here?”
“I could ask you the same.” Could ask, but given the state of his clothing, the answer was obvious. So much for his famous self-control.
His expression shuttered. “I gave a patient a ride.”
“Oh, please.” She barked out a laugh. “There’s no way in Hades you’d treat an Aegi.”
“Why are you here?” He crossed his arms over his broad chest, the flexing muscles making his dermoire dance. “To see me or the slayer?”
“I was hoping to have a chat with Tayla.”
A blast of scent came from him, sweet yet acrid, like burnt chocolate. It was a potent cocktail of lust and unease, an arousing combination for the demon in her.
“How do you know about her?”
She slid from the hood on the passenger side. “You know my mother works at an East Side free clinic? Well, she took care of Tayla’s mom when she was pregnant with Tayla.”
“Then you know she’s half-demon.”
“My mother had sensed a demon pregnancy,” she said carefully.
Eidolon smiled, nearly taking her breath away. “Get in the car. We have a lot to talk about.”
Tayla sagged against the front door, shaking uncontrollably, as though she was coming off a drinking binge to put college kids to shame. She covered her mouth with her hand as her stomach rolled and rebelled. Why would Eidolon lie like that?
Because he’s a demon.Duh.
So why had his words hit her on a level so deep she couldn’t climb back out of the pit she’d sunk into?
Think back to when you were a kid.
She didn’t want to, but everything that had separated her from the other kids came crashing back. She’d been stronger. Faster. She’d read others’ emotions by the odors they gave off. Her need for vitamin C had been overwhelming and crippling at times, something doctors had never understood or explained.
Not that any of those things were proof of what Eidolon claimed. No way was she the spawn of hell. It wasn’t possible. She’d have felt it somehow. She’d have known.
So why had she kept her exceptional vision, hearing, and strength a secret from everyone including her mother and, especially, The Aegis? Deep down, had she suspected?
Fury exploded inside her, and she put her fist through the flimsy door. Eidolon had made her question her beliefs about demons, her loyalty to The Aegis, and now, her very heritage.
“You bastard,” she shouted, but she didn’t know if she was cursing at Eidolon or whatever had fathered her, human or demon.
All she knew was that she needed to kill something. And unlike earlier when she hadn’t taken Eidolon down where he stood, this time, she’d show no mercy.