They met up at UG.
Shade had finished mopping up with E and Tayla, had then sent them ahead to the hospital so his brother could get patched up from his encounter with the slayers who’d tried to kill him. Shade had remained behind to find Wraith and Gem.
Wraith had gone MIA, but he’d found Tayla’s sister standing near an old fountain, watching as the man she’d called Kynan walked away. She’d seemed upset, but Shade had no idea why, and really, he didn’t care. Touchy-feely-mushy crap made him uncomfortable.
They traveled through Harrowgates to the hospital, where E and Tayla were tangled together on the couch in the staff lounge. Talk about touchy-feely-mushy crap. They practically glowed with some sort of after-bond bliss, and her new dermoire stood out starkly on the creamy skin of her left arm. Eidolon, dressed in scrubs, sported his own new marking; mated, post-s’genesismales lost the face tats but gained a linked circle around the throat. He had no idea when they’d completed the mating ritual, but it had obviously happened at the zoo—what, somewhere between the apes and the hippos, between fighting demons and slayers? — but Shade was glad. He still wasn’t sure he trusted the Aegi, but she’d saved E from a fate he’d been dreading, had given Shade his brother back.
And speaking of brothers…
“Has Wraith shown up?” Shade asked, grabbing a Coke from the fridge.
E shook his head. “He was pretty messed up. I’ve been ringing his cell, but…”
“Yeah.” Wraith had probably sucked some junkie dry and gone to ground. If Shade focused, he’d be able to feel his younger brother’s energy, but Wraith would feel it, too, and he’d dig in deeper. “I hope he’s okay.”
The very idea that some sonofabitch might be impersonating Wraith left him wanting to take someone apart. Too bad they hadn’t found any Guardians who were still breathing. Shade wanted answers, and he wanted them now.
He’d never been a patient sort.
“Hey,” Tayla said, extracting herself from E’s embrace. “I guess I need to do that integration thing, huh?”
Her attempt to steer the conversation away from the black hole that was their brother couldn’t have been more obvious, but E grinned. “How about now?”
“Hold on.” Shade moved to the couch. “Can I have your hand?”
E tensed, probably some sort of instinct the bonding had released, but Shade couldn’t be sure. Mated Seminus demons were so rare that he’d never met one and had no idea how they were supposed to react when their mates were near other incubi. Considering how horny incubi were, a protective instinct probably wasn’t a bad idea. Then again, the bonding made it impossible for either one of them to willingly have sex with anyone else.
Tayla reached out, and he took her palm in his. Warmth washed over him as he probed her body, moved through her bloodstream to her womb. This was his specialty, the ability to manipulate a female’s reproductive organs—he could trigger ovulation in order to ensure conception, though he was not yet fertile. His heart rate spiked as he probed, his instincts firing up because even though she was E’s mate, she was female, and she was ovulating. But she hadn’t quickened with his brother’s seed.
“Well?” E asked, his voice husky with emotion.
“Sorry. No little Es in there.”
Tayla pulled her hand away, and he winced at the sudden loss of sensation. “Was there supposed to be?”
“Would it be a bad thing?” Eidolon asked quietly, and Shade shrank back, noticed Gem did the same thing. This situation was way too intimate for either of them.
“No,” she said, smiling with such radiance that Shade felt himself drawn to her, for the first time seeing what E had seen all along. “I just, well, what kind of lifespan am I looking at? How long do we have to make a family?”
“Soulshredders live for somewhere around two thousand years. Being a half-breed, you’ll probably live a fraction of that, a few hundred, maybe?”
“Good,” she said, sliding Gem a glance. “I have a lot of family time to make up for.”
Gem grinned, and Shade gagged, more of a self-preservation response to the aching yearning he felt for the same thing than true disgust. But no way in hell would he admit that, even to himself.
“Hell’s teeth,” Shade muttered. “Can we do the integration now, before I puke? There’s so much grinning and adoration and sweetness in here that the place should smell like fucking candy-covered roses.”
The door opened, and Skulk stepped into the room. Cocking her head, she stared at Tayla, her gunmetal eyes glinting with curiosity. “You’re fixed. Your aura. It’s bright.”
Tayla bit her bottom lip, and E shifted toward her, his need for her rising up in a cloud of scent. They’d require privacy soon, something Shade would be happy to give them. The little jaunt through Tayla’s reproductive organs had stirred him into his own state of arousal.
“It was dark before?” Tayla asked.
“Oh, yes. Very. But you’re all better now.” Skulk jammed her fists on her hips and scowled at Shade. “Now we just have to work on you.”
“No hope for me, little sis. Give it up.”
“I’ll never give up on you,” she said quietly. “We’re going to banish that darkness.” She slipped away then, as quiet as a shadow.
Gem looped her arm in his. “Come on, brother-in-law. Let’s turn my sister into a full-fledged demon. And then we’ll go out for margaritas.”
Yeah, tequila and salt sounded good right about now, both burning, stinging elements to put to a wound. He was happy for E. He was. But his brother’s success at finding a mate and keeping the life he’d always wanted only reminded Shade that his Change was coming.
And there was that little matter of the curse…
Lori found Jagger where she knew he’d be if he still lived; the two-bedroom house they’d rented nearly a year ago. Only the Guardians chosen to work with them knew of its existence. It had always been considered a safe house, a place to come when and if the worst happened.
The worst had happened.
“Jagger!” She flew into his arms, right there in the middle of the living room. He looked as if he’d gone ten rounds with a hellhound. He’d definitely come out on the losing end of the fight with Kynan. How he’d escaped alive and intact was a question she doubted Jagger would ever answer.
“Hey, babe,” he said, locking her against him with one arm around her neck. “I’m really frickin’ sorry.”
“I know. But I’ll go to Kynan, explain—”
Jagger stepped away, and at the same time, a sharp cramp in her gut nearly doubled her over. She palmed her abdomen… wet, warm stickiness coated her fingers. Stunned, her head light, she looked down. A knife hilt jutted from her belly.
“Like I said, I’m sorry. But you can’t go to Kynan.” Jagger caught her as she stumbled, her legs no longer working.
“Son of a…bitch.” Her words came out on a gasp.
“Yeah, my mom was a bitch. A whore.” He lowered her to her knees and sat on his heels in front of her. “I thought all women were whores, until I met you.” Her vision fuzzed as he lifted her chin with one hand, held her steady with the other. “I mean, you did fuck around on Ky with me, but shit, who wouldn’t?”
Anguish, physical and mental, washed over her. She’d cheated on her husband, who she loved more than anything. She’d betrayed him on so many levels, and for what? To die in the shithole where she’d screwed the man who was killing her?
If only she’d listened to Kynan that night, one year ago, when she’d been feeling ill but insisted on hunting anyway. He’d said she shouldn’t go, that sickness left humans vulnerable to spells and demon magic, but she’d kissed him and laughed, and had headed out on her own.
Wraith had come to her in Central Park, where she’d been hunting a Nebulous demon that had sucked the soul out of a cabbie a few blocks away. He’d merely looked at her and she’d experienced a rush of desire so strong her knees had trembled.
He’d worn an Aegis ring, had claimed to be an Elder, one of the Sigil who oversaw all Aegis cells worldwide. When she asked about his arm-length tattoo, he’d said that all Elders were similarly marked. Since no one knew the identity of the twelve Elders, she couldn’t very well ask for proof. But he had known a lot about the Aegis, and a lot about her.
Such as how she liked to be touched. How she liked to be licked. And he’d shown her new things to like when she met him at a hotel the next day.
She’d never cheated on her husband, not once in their eight-year marriage. But for some reason she hadn’t been able to resist the man, who’d asked to be called Wraith.
He’d brought a money-making proposal to the table, and she’d agreed, but then, she’d have agreed to anything if he’d only give her one more orgasm.
“I know what you’re thinking.”
Startled, she opened her eyes. Darkness ringed the edges of her vision, but the pain was gone. She was bleeding out. Jagger trailed a finger down her arm. “You’re thinking about sex. With me. How it started. Your life is flashing before your eyes,” he said, and only Jagger, with his mammoth ego, would think that in her last moments she’d be thinking about him.
No, she was thinking about how she’d betrayed her husband, how sex with Wraith seemed to have triggered some sort of addictive response, and after their second encounter, she’d come home, her body pulsing, her skin hypersensitive. Any pressure at all made her womb spasm, and the tiniest vibration made her orgasm where she stood. She’d come three times on the cab ride home.
Jagger had flirted with her yet again, and in her heightened state she’d responded, had let him take her on the library floor while Kynan had been out hunting.
Guilt plagued her; she loved Kynan. But her body hadn’t felt like hers in a year, was a slave to her hormones, and although she’d craved Wraith’s touch, she couldn’t have it as often as she’d like. Hell, she’d been with him only half a dozen times. Kynan could keep up with her sex drive, but he wasn’t always around.
Jagger had been there when Kynan wasn’t.
“Don’t worry, Lori. I’ll keep the operation going. Obviously, we’ll have to move it here, unless I can take out Ky.”
“No,” she gasped.
“I have to. I can take over the cell—”
Mustering all her strength, she pulled the knife from her gut and buried it in Jagger’s.
He yelled, fell backward, and then suddenly, he was flying across the room.
She heard muffled grunts, bellows of rage, and the sound of fists on flesh. Her vision had dimmed to nearly nothing, so she couldn’t see, but when she heard the crack of bone, she knew someone had died.
“Lori.” Kynan’s strong hands rolled her from her side to her back. “Hold on. Please hold on.”
“No.” Weakly, she grasped his wrist. “It’s over. Just… know…” She sucked in a gurgling breath. “I did it for the cell. The money.”
“You were in league with demons for the money?”
Demons? She shook her head. “Orders came from an Elder. We caught the demons. Left them at the zoo. Money was wired into our account.”
Kynan cursed. “It wasn’t the Elders giving the orders and paying you… it was demons. You were taking orders from fucking demons.”
“No,” she whispered, “no.” Oh, God, to have gone through all of that, to have betrayed The Aegis, her cell, Kynan… for demons…
She shivered. “Cold… so… cold…”
Kynan pulled Lori into his arms as her life drained away. When he’d arrived at the house, led by the tracking signal he’d planted on Jagger at the zoo, he’d thought he hated Lori. Thought he could kill her. But when he saw her bleeding, on the verge of death, all he could think about was saving her.
As an Army medic, he’d seen it all, had breathed in the foul stench of lifeblood and bowels as he patched up guys he knew damned good and well weren’t going to make it for ten more minutes. As a Guardian, he’d sewn up wounds as horrific as any caused by IEDs. But nothing had prepared him for seeing his own wife holding in her guts with one shaking hand.
She went limp and her eyes glazed over and goddammit he wanted to cry like a fucking little girl. Instead, he set her gently on the floor. He didn’t spare a glance at Jagger’s crumpled body in the corner of the kitchen as he pulled a cell phone from his pocket. With a flick of his thumb, he popped it open.
— Thirty-nine, thirty-eight, thirty-seven…
He dropped the phone next to Lori and strode out of the house.