After spending two hours in Eidolon’s den talking to Gem, Tayla decided that she didn’t like her newfound sister. It wasn’t that Gem had grown up in a mansion, had attended private schools, and had lived an outwardly normal life despite being raised by demons. It wasn’t that Gem was smart and educated, having entered college two years early, where Tayla was a high-school dropout who had a GED only because Kynan insisted that all Guardians have a basic education.
No, Tayla hated Gem because she kept saying “our mother,” when Gem had never known her. She didn’t have the right to call our mother anything but Teresa.
“You seem distracted,” Gem said, when Tayla pulled Eidolon’s medical text off the shelf and began thumbing through it. She couldn’t read a word of it, but the illustrations were interesting, if disgusting.
“Maybe I’m just tired of hearing how lucky you are.”
“I am lucky. I should have been slaughtered,” Gem said. “That’s what my parents’ species does. They sense demon pregnancies and either ensure that the young are never born or destroy them at birth if a foster family can’t be found. But my parents had been unable to conceive a child of their own, and I came along at just the right time.”
“And that’s what you do at the hospital? The same thing?”
Gem hooked a leg over the armrest of Eidolon’s couch, making the slit in her short leather skirt open over a tattoo of a long-stemmed rose on her thigh. Blood dripped from the thorns—Tayla counted three drops along the length of her leg, the last one half-covered by the top of her combat boot. It made her wonder if Gem had more tattoos, or more piercings besides the six in her ear, the one in her eyebrow, and the one in her tongue.
“Mainly, I work with humans. But I do my best to intercept the odd cases that come through the hospital… infections from demon bites, illnesses and injuries in those with demon parentage, stuff like that. It’s not a big deal if I miss any of it—anything that seems odd to a human doctor is diagnosed as a mystery disease or a deformity. Humans have an incredible capacity to explain away stuff they don’t want to know the truth about.”
Tayla understood that. Her mom had tried repeatedly to tell her that demons tormented her, had even described the Soulshredder, but Tayla hadn’t believed her, had chosen to believe that her mother suffered from drug-induced delusions. Because at the time, that was easier to believe than the truth. Heck, even after witnessing her mother’s death at the hands of a demon, it hadn’t occurred to Tayla that her mother had truly been tormented for years by the Soulshredder.
Gem sprawled back even more, making herself comfortable. Too comfortable. She’d been here, in Eidolon’s apartment, before.
“Have you slept with him?” Tayla asked, gripping the medical book so hard she was going to leave impressions. Better that, though, than giving in to her possessive urge to bean Gem with it if she gave the wrong answer.
“Who? Eidolon? No.” Gem’s eyes glittered. “But you have. I’ve smelled you on him.”
Geez, did all demons possess overdeveloped olfactory senses? “He’s helping me through something,” Tayla said, and then wondered why she felt the need to explain her sexual relationship with him.
“Yeah, I’ll just bet.”
“You sound a little jealous, sister.”
“Jealous? Nah. I could have him if I wanted him.” The way she said it, so sure of herself, made Tayla bristle. “He’s desperate for a mate to head off the s’genesis.”
“A mate? I was just talking about sex.”
“That’s good, then. Because that’s all any incubus is about.” Gem dropped her feet to the floor and propped her forearms on her bare knees. “A piece of advice, sis. Don’t get too close. He’ll either go through The Change and leave you behind, or he’ll take a mate and lock himself into a lifetime of fidelity. Either way, you’re stuck on the outside looking in, and it sucks.”
“You sound like you know a little bit about that.”
“More than I’d like.” Tension vibrated between them, so not the reunion Tayla would have envisioned for something like this. “Look, just think about the integration. As you can see, I’m not a monster. Our father—”
“Don’t call him that,” Tayla snapped.
“It’s what he is.”
Realization slapped her upside the head. “You know him. Dear God, you know him.”
Gem regarded her coolly. “I’ve met him.”
“Met him? Like, what, for tea and crumpets? He tormented our mom, Gem! For years. He raped her, God knows how many times, and then he tore her apart in front of my eyes. And you met him?”
Tayla must have been yelling, because the door burst open, and Eidolon filled the doorway, fists clenched, concern branded in his expression. “You two all right?”
Gem ignored Eidolon to move closer to Tayla. “What he did was horrible. But it was his nature. We all do things we’re programmed to do…”
Whatever Gem was saying melted into a whirlpool of meaningless words. A cry tore from Tay’s throat and then she was launching herself at the other woman. Her hands closed around Gem’s throat as Eidolon’s arms caught Tayla around the waist.
“How can you defend him?” Tayla screamed, fighting wildly against the set of arms—no, two sets, Shade had grabbed her, too—dragging her off Gem.
“You’d better go,” Eidolon told Gem, who nodded.
“Tay, you’ve got to look at who donated your DNA if you want to know who you are. What you can be.”
Something dark and oily gurgled through Tayla’s veins, an evil industrial sludge that threatened to leach the humanity right out of her. “Oh, I know who donated it. And I want nothing to do with it. Nothing to do with you. I will never—never—integrate that shit into myself. Go. To. Hell.”
“I’m sorry,” Gem whispered to Tayla, and then she looked up at Eidolon. “I… I have to go. I’m sorry.”
Tayla stopped struggling, and gradually, Shade’s hands eased away, but Eidolon only held tighter. Grateful for an island in the middle of the nightmarish sea she’d been swimming in, she folded herself into his embrace and wondered how much longer she could tread water before she drowned.
If Gem had been part Trillah demon she couldn’t have run away from Eidolon’s apartment any faster. She had really, really messed up with Tayla. As if things weren’t bad enough with her parents already, now this.
“Stupid,” she muttered, as she hoofed it down the sidewalk in search of a taxi. Raised among humans, she had a tendency to eschew the Harrowgates in favor of more traditional means of transportation. “Idiot!”
First, she’d been antagonistic about Eidolon, something that had been totally uncalled for and more than a little childish. Didn’t matter that she knew where her behavior had come from—her jealousy. Not jealousy of Tayla’s relationship with the incubus—well, maybe a little, since Gem couldn’t have the man she loved, someone who might be responsible for her parents’ kidnapping—but mostly of Tay’s relationship with their mother.
Gem had never had that. She’d seen Teresa from afar, had taken pictures. And once, she’d worked up the guts to speak to her at a bus stop. Gem had been terrified, fifteen years old and dressed like a punk, but Teresa’s voice had been soft and musical, with a hint of southern drawl that went down like sugar, a far cry from the clipped, stern voices of her adoptive parents.
Yes, she loved her parents, would always be grateful to them for saving her life and then giving her a great one, but deep down, she’d resented the fact that Tayla had been given sole rights to being Teresa’s daughter.
How fucking petty. Especially considering how Gem had grown up wanting for nothing, but Tayla… she’d suffered.
Once Gem was old enough to venture out on her own, she’d tracked Tayla down, had followed her from school to the rusted-out trailer where she’d lived with three other foster kids. When Gem saw her the next day, she’d been wearing the same clothes. Tayla had bounced around between foster care and the streets so much that Gem couldn’t keep track. It wasn’t until Teresa got clean and regained custody that, for once, Tayla had a stable home. Granted, the apartment she’d shared with Teresa was a roach motel, but they seemed to be happy for two years.
Until that night.
News reports had blasted the gory details nonstop, had shown pictures of the crime scene and made a big story of how Teresa had been torn apart by a vicious serial killer, and that her daughter, Tayla, was missing. Tay had eventually been found, but she’d never spoken to the authorities about the murder. Afterward, she’d gone again into foster care, but by the time Gem had located her sister, wanted for the killing of her foster father, Tay was already with The Aegis… which was around the time the Soulshredder had come to Gem.
She’d known instantly that the creature was her father. It had slipped into her bedroom in the middle of the night, its goal beyond comprehension. It had intended to sire young on her, its own flesh and blood.
Her struggle to keep her inner beast at bay had been lifelong, something that had required discipline and protective tattoos. But that night, for the first time, she’d let her demon side reign, had used every trick in her book to kill the thing that was her father.
So, yeah, she knew firsthand that “we all do things we’re programmed to do.” Because like it or not, thanks to her sire, she was hardwired to torment and kill.
Every day was a battle, a tug of war between her two halves. And every morning she wondered if that would be the day her human half finally lost.
Eidolon paced in the kitchen while Tayla showered and Shade whipped up some dinner. Wraith lounged on the couch, playing video games on the X-Box, Mickey tucked into one armpit. It had taken half an hour and three shots of Cutty Sark to calm Tay down, and then the adrenaline crash had turned her into a noodle. All she’d wanted was a shower, bed, and food, in no particular order.
In the meantime, he wanted to hunt Gem down and string her up. Gem had been their best shot at convincing Tayla to integrate her demon side. Now that was blown all to Hades.
“Want a beer?” Shade asked, as he pushed a plate of spaghetti across the kitchen island.
“Suit yourself.” Shade snagged a bottle of Harp from the fridge. “What a night, huh? I can’t freakin’ believe Paige was part of the organ thing. And Gem, the slayer’s sister? Gives me the jeebies, man. Maybe if we could get them to fight again…”
Eidolon smiled. “You sound like Wraith.”
“Come on. He had a point. You have to give him that much.” Shade popped the cap off the beer. “I mean, twins wrestling on the ground? Hot.”
Maybe, but Eidolon wasn’t interested in two women. He wanted only the one. Shade went on about twins, ticking his conquests off on his fingers. Eidolon recommended a calculator and swept up the plate of food to take it to Tayla, though he wished he had some oranges. Her citrus craving made sense now; Soulshredders were a tropical species that required the fruit to survive.
Halfway to the bedroom, his heart skidded to a halt. The sweet, musky scent of Tayla’s arousal drifted from the living room.
Eidolon sprinted down the hall, caught the corner with his shoulder, and spilled half the spaghetti onto the floor. Not that he noticed. No, all he could see was his own anger in a filter of red splayed across the scene before him.
Tayla stood in the living room, robe loosely tied and showing way too much creamy flesh. Wraith, his bloody video game on pause, watched her, his eyes glowing, not with the normal gold of arousal or anger, but with the blue-flecked gold of his hypnotic gift.
“See what it would be like with me?” he was saying. “Bet E won’t do that to you. It’s not civilized.”
The bastard was in her head, feeding her images of gods knew what.
Territorial rage lit Eidolon up like a gas-soaked torch. “Back the fuck off, brother,” Eidolon bit out. “You don’t do humans or Aegi.”
“She’s not either. Not anymore.” Wraith smiled, his white fangs gleaming hungrily. “Fair. Game.”
Darkness swallowed him. Eidolon dropped the plate and launched over the couch armrest. He slammed Wraith into the wall with a hand around the throat. Sober, Wraith could kick his butt, but he didn’t give an imp’s ass. “She’s mine.”
Wraith’s eyes went half-lidded, and if he was bothered by the fact that Eidolon was nearly choking him, it didn’t show. “Look at her, E. She’s primed. She’ll take us both.”
An image of Wraith brutalizing Tayla with his teeth as he took her tattooed itself into Eidolon’s brain, turning his thoughts to poison. “Don’t touch her,” he snarled. “Don’t you ever touch her, or I will let the vampires—”
They both turned to Tayla, who stood there as though in a daze, her fingertips playing lazily along the edge of her robe where it gaped at the sternum. A blast of lust came from her like a shockwave, and Eidolon jerked as though she’d grabbed his cock.
“That’s never happened before. She should be calling my name,” Wraith muttered. “And what were you saying about the vamps?”
Ignoring the question, Eidolon released Wraith with a shove and crossed to Tayla. She flew into his arms, climbed him like a tree until she was wrapped around him, rubbing her face on him, writhing against his body.
She was going to take him right there.
The thought made him so hot, so deliriously fuzzy-headed, that he nearly forgot Wraith was watching and let it happen. Instead, he hauled ass to the bedroom. By the time he kicked the door shut, his jeans were unbuttoned. By the time they were halfway to the bed, he was sheathed inside her wet, satin heat.
“Oh, my God, Eidolon… oh, my God.” She pelted his face with kisses as she began a punishing grinding motion with her hips. “I went to get my backpack. Saw your brother… and suddenly, my mind just kept seeing—”
“Wraith.” Fuck. He stopped short of the bed, his heart growing cold even as he thrust into her hot depths.
“No,” she moaned. “You. He was there for a second, but it wasn’t right. I concentrated hard, and it was you.”
Pressure filled his chest cavity. A sudden, fierce instinct rose in him, a foreign and yet familiar urge. It didn’t matter that her passion had been induced by a mind-seduction. It didn’t matter that she was hardly in a position to know what she wanted from him. All that mattered was that he take her. Bond with her. Make her his mate.
“Mine,” he growled into the slender column of her throat. “You’re mine.”
“Yes… oh, yes.” Her voice throbbed with the promise of what she was saying. That she was his, that all his years of empty sex with empty females was coming to an end, that he would no longer worry about becoming a mindless beast, that there would be no more loneliness for either of them.
The surge of emotion triggered a chain reaction inside him. Fire shot from the fingertips of his right arm, up the tribal pattern in his skin. The designs glowed red through the sheen of sweat that had broken out over his entire body.
Spinning, he pinned her to the wall. He pumped into her, lost to the sensation of the intimate slide of slick flesh on slick flesh. Pleasure whipped at him, and still, it wasn’t enough. He needed to possess her, to have her in every way he could.
The thump of their bodies against the wall reverberated in the room, all the way to his balls. Words came out of his mouth, words he’d never heard and didn’t even know the meaning of, but he no longer operated on a logical level. Something primal and raw demanded he do nothing but follow a natural course.
Reaching down, he opened his bedside drawer and fumbled for what he was looking for.
Tayla was whimpering and writhing and clenching him to her so hard that he had to wrench his spine to get the space between them he needed. The air around them pulsed with powerful mating magic, cocooning them in their own world as he drew the scalpel across his chest. He felt no pain and was powerless to stop himself. Dropping the blade, he cupped her head and brought her lips to where his blood welled at the thin seam.
She hesitated, looking up at him with passion-darkened eyes.
“Do it,” he whispered. “Taste me. Take me inside you.”
Holding his gaze, which was erotic as hell, she touched her tongue to a single pearl of blood.
Oh, sweet hell.Electric whips lashed at him, spreading from her tongue through his entire nervous system. He was short-circuiting with ecstasy, humming with the energy and hunger. A moan dredged up from the depths of his chest, and as she latched on and began a gentle sucking action, he threw back his head and roared.
His climax hit him with the force of a fire tornado, burning, twisting, turning him upside down and inside out. Tayla joined him, screaming with the force of her release. She bucked against him, her female muscles clasping tight and drawing on his shaft for every last drop of seed.
For a moment, they shuddered together, panting, and he had to lock his knees to keep from sliding to the floor with her. His muscles quivered, and his insides gelled. Hazy reality filled his mind like smoke, and just as he realized what he’d done, Tayla cried out.
A violent spasm hit her with such force that they were propelled away from the wall. “Hurts,” she gasped.
“Lirsha,oh, gods, what have I done?” Fear froze his marrow as he laid her on the bed and sank down beside her, one hand on her hip, the other threaded in her hair. She writhed, alternately clutching her gut and clawing at her skin. “Shade!” Shit. He pulled her robe closed and tightened the sash. “For fuck’s sake, Shade! Get in here!”
The door crashed open, wood splintering. Shade hadn’t bothered with the door handle. Wraith was right behind him, both taking in the scene in an instant.
“Is her DNA—” Shade sniffed the air. “Ah, man, you didn’t.”
Tears streamed down Tayla’s face, dampening the pillow. Her eyes were closed tight against the pain as she huddled in fetal position on the silk comforter.
Wraith peeked around Shade. “Did what?”
“He began the bonding process,” Shade said.
Wraith let out a low whistle. “I knew you were desperate to get around the s’genesis, but I didn’t think you were that desperate. Have you lost your fucking mind?”
Shade reached for Tayla, jerking back when Eidolon growled before he could catch himself. “I need to get inside her, E.”
“I know,” he snapped, not wanting anyone, including—or especially—his brothers, to touch the female he wanted as his lifemate.
Warily, Shade wrapped his hand around her ankle. “Our blood is toxic to humans, you knew that.”
Yeah, he knew that, but he hadn’t been thinking, had been too deep in the rut, too driven by pure instinct. The argument that she was only half-human was too lame to bring up, so he stroked her cheek and talked to her as she’d done for him the night he’d taken the vampire punishment.
“You’ll be fine,” he murmured, sending a healing wave into her, figuring it couldn’t hurt, but she still made little sobbing noises, punctuated by high-pitched cries. Her legs scissored back and forth until Shade gripped both ankles and held them still.
“I’m not sure what’s going on,” he said. “I think it’s a combination of the poison she ingested and her body’s reaction to the chemical changes the bonding put into motion.”
Damn, he felt so helpless. “Hang on, Tayla.” He wrapped his arm around her slim waist and dragged her against him, as if, if he held on tight enough, she couldn’t die. “Damn you, hang on. Don’t let a demon be the death of you. You’ve fought too hard for too long.”
Wraith uttered some smartass remark from behind him, but Eidolon wasn’t going to leave Tayla for even the five seconds it would take to ram his brother’s head through the wall. He’d deal with him later. Right now…
“Hellboy?” The sound of her rasping voice was music. “What’s happening?”
“Shh… we’ll get you through this.” He slid a pleading glance at Shade. Sedate her.
“I can’t. Not until she—” he broke off, nodding at her left hand. “There. It’s happening.”
Eidolon bunched the sleeve of her robe up to her biceps and nearly swayed with relief at the beautiful miracle taking place. A shadowy replica of his tattoo was etching itself onto her arm, temporarily marking her as his. Gradually, she calmed, the tension draining out of her so she melted against him.
Where she belonged.
“Someone get her some water,” he said, not looking away from her. Her strength amazed him, humbled him. She was the fire he’d never had, the spark that had lit his calm, measured existence. He brushed her hair out of her eyes, an excuse to touch her. “How are you feeling?”
“Better,” she croaked, as she pushed up on one elbow. “Is this a DNA thing? Is it happening? Am I dying?”
“No, nothing like that.” He handed her the glass Shade brought. “You guys go make the preparations for tomorrow night. I’ll call you in the morning.” After his brothers left, he grasped her empty hand. Gently, he raised her arm so she could see the markings.
Her hand shook as she set the water on the bedside table and pulled the robe open to get a look at the tattoo that ran from fingertip to shoulder. “This is yours. What did you do?”
“I initiated a bonding sequence. It’s not complete yet,” he finished quickly. Gods, she made him feel like a youth just entering his first transition. “Be mine.” Yeah, that was smooth.
“You don’t have to decide now. You have five days, and then the markings will fade.” Once they disappeared, the window of opportunity would close, but by then, he might have completed the s’genesis and wouldn’t care, anyway.
“But you said your species doesn’t mate with humans because the offspring are half-breeds.”
“We can mate with half-breeds. The young will be full-blooded Seminus demons.”
Tayla was silent for a long moment. “Is that what the blood was about?” She shot upright and her face, already pale, grew even whiter. “Oh, gag. I drank your blood. Why did I do that? And why do you keep a scalpel in your drawer?” She narrowed her eyes at him. “Most guys keep condoms there.”
He bit back a smile. “I don’t need condoms, since I can’t impregnate anyone yet.” Though he vaguely remembered wanting to plant his seed in Tayla when he’d shapeshifted, so maybe he could now. The idea that she could right now be swelling with his offspring filled him with a sense of wholeness he’d been missing all his life. He could ask Shade to feel for a pregnancy—
“So what’s up with the scalpel?”
Heat flooded his face, probably making him as red as she was white. “I—” he felt so stupid admitting this “—I’ve always wanted to be prepared in the event that I found a mate.”
“Are all Seminus demons so sappy?”
This time, he couldn’t contain the smile. “I doubt it.”
“I really, really do not understand demons.” She closed her eyes and breathed deeply. “I heard Wraith say something. Something Gem said, too. About being desperate to stop the s’genesis by taking a mate.”
“We’ll talk about it later. You need your rest.” He pulled the sheets up over her, but she stopped him with a firm grasp on his wrist.
“Tell me about it.”
Oh, hell. He swore and looked up at the ceiling. “Taking a lifemate is the only way to stop the worst of the s’genesis changes. We still become fertile and gain the ability to shapeshift, but the insane need to impregnate everything in sight will disappear.”
“And you’ve been looking? Your brother said ‘desperate.’”
“So am I like, your last resort?”
“No, Tayla.” He climbed into bed beside her and tucked her into his body, her back to his chest. “It’s nothing like that.”
There was a long pause, and then she said in a small voice, “How close are you to no-return?”
Reaching around her, he tipped her face up to his and sealed his mouth over hers. Her lips were warm, firm, tasted mildly of the salt from her tears. For a moment, she melted, opening to him, shifting toward him.
But she wouldn’t be deterred, and she murmured against his lips, “How close?”
“Close,” he admitted, running his palm down her hard belly, spanning the narrow distance between her hipbones where her womb might be quickening. “The next time I shapeshift, I might not come back as myself. I’ll look the same, but I won’t be running the show.”
She pulled away from him. “And you say that bonding with me now has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that you’re on the verge of no-return?”
As much as he wanted to answer that, he couldn’t. Had he met her a year ago, he didn’t know if she’d have set fever to his blood the way she did now.
“That’s answer enough,” she said, lurching to the other side of the bed. “And my answer is no. I won’t be anyone’s last resort.”
Shit. This could’ve gone better.
“Just listen for a minute, okay?”
“I said, no.”
He sat up and stretched across the bed for her hand, which she yanked away. “Dammit, Tayla, I don’t care if my instincts are responsible or not. I want you.”
“Oh, that’s one hell of a proposal,” she snapped, tugging her robe tight around her. “Excuse me if I don’t run out and reserve a caterer and a church. Oh, wait. You probably can’t set foot in a church.”
“So I need to work on my delivery…”
“You need to work on finding someone who doesn’t mind being the 3:00 a.m. wallflower. I might not have anything to my name or any place to go, but that doesn’t mean you can take advantage of me just so you can hold on to your precious medical degree.” She glared at him, daggers of fury that pinned him in place when he would have grabbed her and held her to him. “How dare you lie to get me to fall for your shit? You don’t want me. You can’t. You don’t even know me.”
“I’m not lying. I do want you, and I know all I need to.”
“You know nothing. Nothing. How am I supposed to believe what I am isn’t a problem for you, when it was before? I’m an Aegi butcher. A lemming, remember?”
“I was wrong, Tayla. My brothers are wrong.”
She shook her head. “See, that’s where you are wrong. I am a butcher. Want proof? Proof that you know nothing about me?” When a tremor entered her voice, she cleared it ruthlessly. “Let’s talk about your brother Roag—”
“Don’t say it.” He searched her eyes, seeing an ugly truth in their murky depths. “Don’t. Even. Say. It.”
But she pressed on, leaning forward on fists pressed into the mattress. “I was there. At Brimstone. I was there and I killed anything that moved. When Jagger set the place on fire, the sound of demons screaming didn’t bother me at all.”
Oh, shit. Roag. “It might not have been you…” The desperation in his voice was pathetic, and he hated himself for it.
“Or it might have been. I don’t remember seeing a demon like you, but—”
“He could have shapeshifted.”
Eidolon felt his world collapse in on him, felt his chest crack wide open. It hurt. Gods, his heart hurt.
The female he wanted as a mate had killed his brother. Had been involved, at the very least.
“Do you see, Hellboy? Do you see why we can’t be together? Can you really see beyond what I was? Can I ever see beyond what you are?”
But he was no longer listening. “You killed my brother.”
He pushed backward, off the bed, feeling the anger rise in him, feeling something even more horrible churning inside. He could feel The Change pulsing, clawing to the surface.
With a roar, he tore out of the bedroom, out of the apartment, away from Tayla before he did something he’d regret. Because he was pissed, hurt, and he was also out of time.