A demon's desire

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  • 1. A Demon’s Desire By Lizzy Ford http://www.guerrillawordfare.com/ Edited by Christine LePorte http://www.christineleporte.com/ Cover art and design by Dafeenah http://www.indiedesignz.com/ * * * * * Special feature at the conclusion: excerpt from Abigail By paranormal romance novelist Heather Marie Adkins http://heather.bishoffs.com/ * * * * * A Demon’s Desire copyright October 2011 by Lizzy Ford Smashwords Edition Cover art and design copyright 2011 by Dafeenah Abigail excerpt copyright 2011 by Heather Marie Adkins, Used with permission * * * * * Smashwords edition license notes: Thank you for downloading this free ebook. You are welcome to share it with your friends. This book may be reproduced, copied and distributed for non-commercial purposes, provided the book remains in its complete original form. If you enjoyed this book, please return to Smashwords.com to discover other works by this author. Thank you for your support. * * * * * See other titles by Lizzy Ford and Heather Marie Adkins at http://www.indie-eclective.com You can follow the GW team and Heather Marie Adkins on Twitter: @LizzyFord2010 @cleporte @dafeenajameel @hmarieadkins Twitter hashtags: #guerrillawriter, #fantasy, #romance, #paranormalromance, #eclective * * * * *
  • 2. Chapter One Olivia flew through the restored Victorian, a crumpled shopping bag clutched to her chest. Most of the members of the coven were in the living room, watching the latest episode of True Blood. She didn’t stop to greet them but hurried through the kitchen and to the door of the basement. She opened it, her elated thoughts sliding into unease at the unnatural glow emanating from one wall of the basement. She descended a few steps and paused. The scent of sulfur made her nose wrinkle, and heat rendered the basement hot compared to the rest of the drafty, old house. Forcing herself onward, she let her eyes fall to the fissure in the basement wall through which the orange flames of Hell glowed. It had grown larger the past few months. Not by much, maybe half a foot or so. Two years ago, it had appeared after she killed her third victim and was no larger than a tiny crack the size of her pinkie. The more black magic she practiced, the larger it became. The only benefit of the heat of Hell: it kept the coven’s electricity bill low during the coolness of the late October autumn in rural northern Maryland. One of her ghostly slaves moved from its place in the poorly lit basement, and she jumped in surprise. “Not now!” she barked at the shadow demon. It slinked back to the corner. Olivia plucked the content of the bag and set it on the wooden desk by the wall of the basement opposite the fissure. She clapped her hands in delight at the sight of the decomposed finger. It stank, but not as much as the portal to Hell. “You’ve been out all day,” a man’s voice said. She tensed at his voice. She never heard him coming. “Must’ve been important to leave my bed so early.” “It is,” she said. “Leave me alone, Jeffrey. I’m busy.” “Not the proper way to thank your host, especially since you’re a member of my coven.” She spun on him with a glare. With silky black hair, chiseled features and a lean frame, Jeffrey’s looks alone had drawn more than one witch to his coven. And he slept with all of them. He was not the kind of man who would ever know how deep and satisfying loving another could be, which was why she didn’t give two flips about pleasing him the way the other girls did. She did what he expected of her to retain her place in the coven-- and nothing more. “None of them brought you that,” she said and pointed to the fissure. “You were a poser, Jeffrey, and everyone knows it. I made you legit.” “I’m more legit than you’ll ever understand. But yes, you brought me the fissure,” he said with irritation. He lifted his chin toward the table. “What is it?” “Nothing.” He strode across the basement and pushed her aside to see her treasure. She shoved him back, but not before he saw what it was. “I’m being replaced by a dead man,” he said. “Where’s the rest of him?” “I’m trying to figure that out. He’s my soul mate-- I’m meant to find him.” “And I’m …?” “Just a warm body.” “You obsessed bitch,” he whispered. His jaw ticked in anger. He was close enough for her to feel how tense he was. “You know Hell will demand your soul for helping you.” “I’ve promised it a soul. Doesn’t have to be mine!” she snapped. “Leave me alone, Jeffrey!” He gazed at her for a long minute. Of all the witches in the house-- and people on the planet! -- he was the only one who seemed immune to her mind influence spells. He turned away finally, and she watched him go, again wondering why he was immune to her spells. The basement’s darkness clung to him like it did her shadow demons. He stopped near the stairs, and his gaze went to the fissure. He closed his eyes, pleasure crossing his features.
  • 3. With a shiver, she looked at the gateway to Hell. As adept as she’d become at using black magic, even she didn’t feel so comfortable around the fissure. The emotion passed, and Jeffrey trotted up the stairs. She returned to the severed finger and held it up. Her only love had been dead for two years, and still her soul sang when she touched his body! “Soon, my love, you’ll be back with me forever,” she said and lovingly wrapped her hands around the finger in the only hug she could give her dead lover. It was the culmination of two years of spells and research. One of her shadow demons had finally found him. “Just one more thing, and I’ll recall you from the dead.” She set the finger down and pulled her wallet free from her purse. “Slave!” “Yes, mistress.” The shadow demon’s voice was monotonous and his presence cold as he joined her. “Find this girl,” she ordered, pulling out the only picture in her wallet. It was of two people: her soul mate and the interloper who stole her soul mate from her. Ages ago, the three of them had been friends. Her gaze lingered with repressed anger on the woman in the picture. The interloper’s was an earthy beauty: peachy skin, light brown hair, dazzling green eyes, and a beautiful smile. Olivia’s own beauty was cold, gothic: her skin was porcelain, her hair straight and black, and her eyes a mesmerizing blue. Her spells had taken some of her beauty from her, which made the jealousy in her blood burn hotter. “Adam,” the shadow demon said and took the picture. “I will bring him back soon, as my mistress demands.” “My sweet Adam. I’ve waited two years for this,” she whispered. “I’m almost ready for you, bitch. You won’t run from me this time, Emma, and Adam will stay with me forever.” She looked at the shadow demon. “Go find her, slave!” * * * Across the state line in northern Virginia, Emma shivered as she reached the door to her sister’s apartment. The hair on the back of her neck was standing on end, as if she were being watched. It was the same sense she felt every time she came to visit her sister, though this time, she could almost feel the presence of someone lurking in the darkness of the stairwell. She looked around then shook off the feeling. She was beyond tired from her late work schedule and frequent visits to her sick niece. She entered the quiet apartment. Her sister was curled on the couch, asleep. Emma pulled a blanket over her before she went to the doorway of her niece’s bedroom. Sissy’s baffled doctors had finally given up the day before with a grim prognosis that Sissy would probably die within the week. Emma felt the black witch’s curse: the coldness of the shadows crowding the corners and stuffed animals. Earlier, in broad daylight, she’d ventured into the room to snag a toy and shoved it in a box, running out before the dark shadows could claim her, too. She balled up her fists. She never suspected Olivia’s cruelty ran so deep as to target a four- year-old. Damn you, Adam. As usual, you took the easy way out and left me alone to deal with the witch. If he hadn’t jumped off the Bay Bridge two years ago, she’d push him and Olivia off the bridge herself to make sure they both stayed out of her life for good. The outcome of that doomed affair-- sweet, innocent Sissy pale and limp on the bed before her-- made her stomach roil. “I’ll fix this, Amber, I swear it,” she whispered to her sister. “No one … can help her,” came the despondent, drowsy response. Emma turned to face her sister, who pushed herself up from the couch. “I know I can. I did some research, and I’m going up the Maryland coast to a small town north of Annapolis.” “You think you found a doctor?”
  • 4. “Maybe,” Emma replied vaguely, unwilling to tell her sister no doctor could fix Sissy. “Hurry, Emma,” Amber said. “I will, Amber, I promise,” she said. “Take care. I won’t be gone long.” She took one last look at Sissy’s tiny frame and Amber’s haunted features and left the apartment for the parking lot. Even as she neared her car, she could feel the coldness of the toy in the box on the passenger seat. If someone like Olivia could inflict Sissy with illness, only someone with the same skill could lift the curse. A list of addresses and names of people and places associated with the occult and witchcraft were scribbled hastily on the notebook next to the box in the passenger’s seat and her GPS was already loaded. She’d gone only to say farewell to her sister on her way out of town. The late October sun was setting earlier than she wished. She flipped on the interior lights of her car, hating the darkness. She already had a headache from a couple of sleepless nights of research, but seeing Sissy’s helpless body reignited her desperation. She had to fix this. No doctor could help Sissy, but maybe, just maybe, she could. Her hope held out until sunset the next day, after she’d visited the two dozen shops that lined Demon’s Alley, the downtown of Wooster, Maryland, which boasted of its ties to witchcraft and the occult. “Sure, we can help. It’ll cost you your soul.” The clerk with black nails and pink hair burst into laughter. “You know, that joke is getting really old!” Emma snapped. She snatched the box off the counter and left, agitated to see the sun was near setting. She’d been to almost every store on the Alley with no success. The tourists had thinned out for dinner and were replaced by Goth vampire wannabes and fairies in heels. The locals took pride in their hallmark Alley, enough so that the street was decorated in Halloween colors and signs that read Welcome to Hell on Earth. “They got that right,” she mumbled to herself. Her eyes settled on the only storefront she hadn’t visited. The Devil’s Depot was directly across the street from her car, behind a group of teenagers dressed as fairies in cheap plastic wings. She set the box on her hood and checked her pockets for the third time that day. She’d lost her keys somewhere along the Alley. The clerks in all the other shops grew uneasy when warning her against visiting the Devil’s Depot. She’d left it for last because every clerk claiming to be a vampire, witch, or demon had become strangely uncomfortable discussing the shop’s owner. He’s the only real demon in the Alley, one clerk confided in her after the joke about her soul. Emma, torn as to whether she wanted to try the store, had tried everywhere else first. After all, she needed a witch to counter Olivia’s spell, not a demon. The Devil’s Depot was her last chance. With a deep breath, Emma crossed the street and noticed the small sign on the window advertising Occult and Unnatural Incident Consultations. She knelt before the panting hellhound lying on the wooden stoop in front of the shop. It was much tamer than the barking Rottweiler hellhounds with spiked collars guarding one of the shops down the street. The Great Dane showed its age; gray trimmed its muzzle, flanks, and ears. She waved a hand in front of milky-white eyes. The dog didn’t blink, but its long tail thumped, and a tongue flicked out in search of her. “Any man who keeps a blind dog can’t be too bad,” she tried to convince herself. “Stay here, angel, and watch out for those idiots in capes.” She fished the squishy remains of a candy bar from her pocket. Her hand emerged coated in melted chocolate and coconut. “Dammit.” Emma pinched the wrapper away with her opposite hand and handed the remains to the dog, whose nose prodded her forearm at its scent. It scarfed the candy and licked her hand
  • 5. clean. She rose and wiped the dog slobber on her jeans before glancing at the store name once again. Candles flickered at her entrance into the shop, and she distinguished several rows of shelves sagging under the weight of goods her eyes were too tired to make out. One wall glowed with the outlines of drink freezers. Her gaze lingered before she realized Coke was the last thing a place like this would stock. It smelled better than the other shops, emanating a spicy, masculine scent with an undertone of basil. On the opposite end of the store, scowling clerks at the cashier counter looked up when the wooden floor creaked beneath her feet. She girded herself for yet another unfriendly exchange when a warm, charged current of air reached her. She glanced in the direction from which it seemed to come. The store was chilly aside from the peculiar current emanating from the corner to the right of the entrance. The darkness of the corner was impenetrable. Someone’s there. She blinked away the eerie sense, turning when the hellhound’s paws clicked on the wooden floor. It ambled into the shop, swung its massive head from right to left, wagged, and sat in the doorway. Had the two silent, brooding clerks not been staring at her, she would’ve retreated to pet the single friendly soul on Demon’s Alley. “Good evening,” she said and started toward the counter. “What are you looking for?” one asked. “I need a consultation on the occult,” she said. “Consultation?” The girl glanced at the other. “Advice isn’t free. You have to buy something.” “Can you tell me if you’re going to be able to help me first?” she asked. “Buy something then we’ll talk.” Emma looked around, frustrated. Her eyes settled on the hellhound. “Your dog,” she said. “That’s Tristan’s. You’ll have to ask him,” the clerk said with a roll of her eyes. “Fine. Just tell me what you want me to buy, and I will!” “Don’t worry about it.” The girl sat down with a huff and tossed a hand toward the front corner before sitting down and pulling out her iPhone. Emma watched her text someone and waited. The girl looked up. “Go see Tristan. He’s over there.” Emma held back her temper, but her pounding head was ready to explode. She started toward the corner with its impenetrable darkness. Her fear of the dark made her stop at the edge of where the light reached, a safe distance away from the inky blackness. Light reflected off two black eyes peering at her from the dark but disappeared as she blinked. Unable to summon a clear explanation among her tired thoughts, she chalked the glowing eyes up to imagination and waited for the figure in the corner to emerge. “What kind of advice are you looking for?” The voice was soft, husky, and dark. It sent a shiver through her and was very much like the scents in the store: masculine and soothing. Suspecting someone was hiding in the darkness hadn’t bothered her; knowing someone was there did. Emma’s tired senses heightened, but she took a step forward. Her imagination was strained enough with the events of the past two weeks that she didn’t need to make monsters out of men sitting alone in the dark. “Could you please come out of the dark?” she said. “I like to see the people mocking me.” “I’m not mocking you.” His voice was like the early fall breeze, sweeping over her in a combination of warm and cool, tickling her ears and the sensitive hairs at the base of her neck. She shivered. The man materialized out of the shadows in a way that brought to mind the warnings from the other shops’ clerks. He took shape as he moved from total dark to partial light. Shadows clung to him, obscuring the width and shape of his frame even when he stood before her. Darkness hovered around him like a cloak, stretching toward her ... Emma stepped back. The shadows were gone.
  • 6. “I’m sorry,” she murmured. “I’m a little tired.” She looked up into the man’s face, and her breath caught. His features were uneven and his eyes close together, yet his dark aura rendered him mysterious where he wasn’t necessarily handsome. Sculpted lips were full, and his skin was olive tinted. A low brow with thick eyebrows hovered over dark, warm eyes. “Why don’t you sit down?” he asked in the quiet voice. Run like hell, her instincts urged. One of his eyebrows quirked, and her tired mind suspected he heard her thought. “Please.” His tone softened, a faint smile tugging up one corner of his mouth. He took her elbow, and the spell of his gaze released her. She drew a deep breath, surprised to find she had been holding it, and pulled away. “Wait,” she said and shook herself mentally. “First, I’ve wasted a lot of time today, and I can’t afford to waste more. I need some sort of consultation with someone who understands … who understands … witchcraft.” “Why don’t you sit down, and I’ll bring you some tea?” “No!” she said more forcefully than she intended. “I mean, no, thanks. I’m in a hurry. I just need to know if you can help me.” “I can. Sit down.” It was not a request, and before she could pounce on his response, he breezed past her, brushing her arm. Emma shuddered as a flare of warmth traveled up her arm. He smelled good, of dewed grasses and sandalwood. She glanced around, distinguishing a table and two chairs in the corner into which she hadn’t been able to see a moment before. A chill swept through her. She swallowed hard and looked around. She grabbed a small candelabra from the window and set it on the table before she sat. The dog’s nails clicked as it drew near. Animals can sense evil and storms, she assured herself, ignoring the small voice that reminded her that the street was populated by faux vampires in capes the blind dog seemed to have no problem with. Tristan emerged from the shadows once again, his gleaming eyes visible first, then his shape molding from shadows. She purposely avoided wondering why her mind played the same trick on her twice and watched him set down the tray. Her eyes were drawn to the movement of his well-manicured hands. He poured her a cup of green-brown tea that smelled as calming as the store’s incense and placed it before her. He sat across from her, his calf brushing hers. A shot of warm electricity jarred her, and her leg jerked upward instinctively, slamming into the table and spilling tea. She gave a growl of frustration and pain and pulled her knees from beneath the table, rubbing one. Her face was warm. “It’s okay. I have plenty,” Tristan said with another trace of a smile. She sensed no danger from the angles and planes of his features, but she sensed no welcome either, as if they sat on a fence while he assessed her before deciding which way to push her: to the vampires outside or to the impenetrable shadows around him. He poured more tea into her cup. “Thank you,” she murmured. She took a sip of the sweet, hot brew. The hellhound nudged her. “She likes you.” Tristan raised his eyebrows toward his dog. There was warmth in his gaze as he looked at the blind hellhound. It was the first sign of humanity she’d seen anywhere on the street. “Animals are so much better than humans,” she replied. “I’d take a rabid dog over some of the people I met today.” “Dogs are kindred spirits.” “It would be a nice life, wouldn’t it? Eat, sleep, roll over and have your belly rubbed.” She sighed. Tristan chuckled, a sound as dark as the shadows. Despite his strangeness, she felt her
  • 7. body relaxing in his company, her emotions gaining the foothold she had denied them the entire day. She looked away before his gaze could capture her. “I’m looking for some advice.” “You said witchcraft?” “I have …” She looked down and around, realizing she’d forgotten the box. Her eyes swept to her car parked across the street, where the lumpy shape of a box was visible against the backdrop of a lit store window. The vampires had multiplied and moved closer to her car. Despair made her throat tighten. “I think I … wow.” She stared at the table, embarrassed when her gaze blurred with tears. “If you dare make a joke about this costing me my soul or making a deal with the devil, I swear I’ll … I’ll just walk away. Again. I’ve done it a million times already and will do it again if you laugh at me. But I’ll show it to you anyway. Excuse me.” Frustrated and tired, she stepped over the dog and left the shop. She wiped her face and stalked across the street, snatched the box, paused for a few deep breaths, and trotted back to the porch as several of the caped spectators started toward her. She entered the shop and found Tristan seated where she left him, one hand dangling down to pet the hellhound’s massive head. He watched her with a piercing gaze she avoided, and she pushed the box onto the edge of the table. “There. Laugh or whatever so I can be on my way,” she said. His gaze slid to the box, lingered, then returned to her. He didn’t even touch it. Sorrow bubbled within her. She reached out to grab it, but he caught her hand. Warmth flared up her arm once more. His palm was calloused; his fingers gently stroked the sensitive underside of her wrist. “It’s too late for someone like you to be out on the Alley. Most people know better than to remain after dark,” he said. “I don’t have time to wait ’til morning. Or eat. Or sleep,” she replied. “What is your plan? To sleep in your car?” he asked. “I lost my keys. I can’t even do that. I’ve failed at everything,” she said and blinked, surprised at how the simple touch affected her. Warmth traveled up her arm, easing her muscles and tension. “I was planning on going door to door until someone called the cops on me.” “I own the apartments above the shop. I’ll loan you a room. You really look like you could use some rest.” “Do I look that bad?” she said, suddenly self-conscious with the considering gaze of the handsome stranger on her. “Yeah, you do.” She wasn’t sure how to take his honest answer. His gentle touch somehow managed to pull the tension out of her. She had come to Demon’s Alley for help. For the first time in two weeks, a stranger was offering to assist her. It was not the help she desperately needed, but it was help nonetheless. “Thanks. That sounds good,” she murmured. Tristan turned her hand to expose her palm. He studied it. She forced herself to draw away finally. “Better?” She nodded, in control of her emotions once again. “Try some tea.” She hesitated before taking a sip. Her gaze went to the box. He hadn’t looked at it after she set it down. “You’re not interested,” she said sadly. “I’m very interested.” His heated gaze was on her, not the box, and his look made her face warm again. “What do you want to know exactly?” “I want to know how to counter it, what it is, where it came from,” she replied with emotion. “I want to know why.”
  • 8. “It’s not something you can counter,” he told her. “I don’t have a choice,” she said with a frustrated sigh. “If you have no intention of helping me, please tell me now and I’ll find someone who will. And please don’t you dare make a joke about this costing me my soul.” “I would ask nothing you couldn’t afford to give.” His response startled her. There were many things she could afford to give! She could afford to give an arm since she had two. She could afford to give her car, her money, even her life, so long as she kept her soul. It was not the reassurance she sought, and her courage faltered for the first time in two weeks. She studied him carefully, the way shadows molded around him as if he were one of them. Would you make a deal with the devil? She’d asked herself the question many times over the past few days and always answered yes. Facing the devil, she wasn’t so sure. If Tristan mentioned her soul, he wouldn’t be joking. “You can’t have my soul,” she said. “That you can keep. Soul extraction is too difficult,” he said. She gasped. Amusement crossed his features. “Breathe, Emma.” “How did you know my name?” “It’s on the box, along with your address. At least, I assume they’re yours. Is it?” She nodded, face warming at her stupidity. “Any other stipulations?” he asked. “Aside from your soul?” “Do you have some sort of contract for consulting services?” she said. “I’ll remember.” The resolution in his tone made her uneasy. She searched his gaze. “You’re not joking, are you?” “No.” “You really can fix this?” she asked, waving her hand at the box. “Yes.” “What do you charge for such a thing?” she asked and braced herself for a sum she couldn’t pay. “Why don’t I tell you when the time comes?” he offered in a tone too casual for her comfort. “That way if I fail, it doesn’t matter.” “I don’t like games,” she responded. “I would feel more comfortable knowing up front.” “You.” Her hands jerked from their place in her lap, knocking her tea cup on its side. She righted the cup, using her sleeve to keep the tea from reaching the books on the adjacent window sill. “I’m sorry,” she muttered, standing. “I think I better go.” “Your friends look eager for you to return.” She looked out the window at his words and saw her car surrounded by caped figures. Devil or vampires? “What do you mean?” she asked. “About your price. I, uh, don’t really understand.” “Sit,” he said and motioned to the chair. Emma glanced out the window, hesitated, and sat again. “What I said. I want you.” “Like, to kill or turn into a toad or drink my blood or something?” “Nothing so drastic,” he assured her with a half-smile. “Your body.” “You’ll have to spell this out for me,” she said. She clutched shaking hands together in her lap. “The way a man wants a woman,” he said. “Oh. Oh!” she exclaimed and gave a shaky laugh. His price reassured her he was indeed human, and she blinked as her vision grew splotchy from her headache. He was a handsome man, albeit scary. She could imagine worse fates than sleeping with the guy in exchange for helping her. Compared to her soul or yet another dead end, Sissy’s life was easily worth a night with a stranger. “But not if you fail,” she reinforced. “And … you’re not into … weird things, are you?”
  • 9. “Weird things?” “You know … uh … chains, whips, leather, toys, weird things.” “Nothing you’ve listed but possibly things you’ve not.” “Christ.” He gave a smoky chuckle. Emma sagged, head throbbing. “Do we have an agreement?” His voice warbled, as if traveling through water to reach her. “Yes,” she whispered. “I need to lie down. My head is killing me.” “The tea should be taking effect. It’ll help you sleep. Janet will take you upstairs to your room. We can talk more tomorrow. Go on back to the counter.” Emma nodded with a wince and rose, vaguely realizing she should be pissed he’d drugged her. She couldn’t find an ounce of energy to be angry and instead, obeyed without another word. One of the witchy cashiers glared at her before leading her to a set of stairs in the back. She found someone to help her. Why didn’t she feel relieved? Too tired to dwell long, she entered the door the clerk indicated, heartened to see the dog following her. The hound led her through the tiny apartment to a bedroom. She pulled off her shoes and pants, lay back, and murmured a sleepy goodnight to the dog. * * * The woman named Emma slept through the night and well into morning, her soft snores filling the small, plain bedroom. Tristan looked in on her once more. She was entwined with the bedding like she might a lover, one toned leg slung over blankets and exposed to her thigh while her arms were wrapped around a pillow. Long, light brown hair was highlighted with honey and dark gold and spread over the length of one king-sized pillow. Though they were closed now, he knew her striking eyes were the color of spring. He crossed to his dresser and lit the candle beneath a small dish of chamomile and passionflower essences. His blind hellhound, Isolde, had climbed into the bed with her and took up half of the bed. Tristan gave the dog a pat before closing the door and retreating to his small living room. The apartments above his shop were bright and small, made for function and not luxury. The income from the two rentals made up for the lack of money coming in from his shop below. He maintained it to keep his customers comfortable. He didn’t need the herbs or candles he stocked to work his magic, but revealing that made even those who hired him as an occult consultant uneasy. If he’d run into a problem like Emma’s before, he’d have charged her a few thousand dollars. He sat on an old, plush couch before the box Emma had brought and considered it once more. He’d never seen anything quite like it, outside of his own evil shadows. It was dark, the essence of its creator lingering despite an attempt to erase it. A woman, once experienced enough to call up dark magic but not wield it effectively, and a man, whose essence was stronger than that of anyone’s he’d ever felt. The woman had help creating this magic. Tristan had no need for such spells. He was born with magic within him, shifting and restless, at times submissive and at times demanding. His mother called his father a demon, among other colorful names. Tristan didn’t know what his father was. His own careful control of the consuming magic came from years of darkness and struggle, of fighting to suppress the darkness, and of cursing the man who made him what he was without providing him guidance on how to live with the darkness. He touched the box, his body shuddering at the contact. Yes, he knew this magic, and it scared him. It was like an icy drink of water on a hot day, soothing yet burning and too seductive for just one sip. It seemed to recognize him, too. He’d long ago locked up what he could of the evil within him, yet felt it urge him to touch the box again. Why this magic clung to the brown teddy bear within the box, he didn’t know. Emma had powerful enemies. She was a pure soul, a good soul. Why, then, was something like this in her possession?
  • 10. “She still sleeps, Mother,” he said, sensing the woman’s silent entrance through the kitchen. His mother, a woman of olive skin and short silver hair, wore a gym suit and gaudy amethyst and amber jewelry. “You’re too drawn to it,” she replied, unease in her voice. “I don’t like this, Tristan.” “I’m stronger than you know.” “Don’t underestimate this magic.” “Have you seen something that I should know about?” he asked, alerted by her tone. While she claimed to be retired, his mother still practiced white magic when it suited her. “I couldn’t tell you if I had,” she said. “This evil is something you’ve never faced before.” “I feel it,” Tristan said and glanced up to meet dark eyes similar to his. Her features were heavy and smooth despite her age, her small shape thickened with age. “I couldn’t turn her away. This magic doesn’t belong among humans, but it feels so familiar. I can’t place it.” “I worry for your safety in dealing with something like this. Don’t get involved in this stuff more than you must.” The woman before him softened. She perched on a worn chair that matched the sofa. “Not many seek out the demon’s son. And Isolde likes her.” “She fed her a candy bar.” “The way to any woman’s heart. It’s a shame she came with this in tow.” His mother’s features were troubled. She shook off the mood. “You need to fire those clerks. They’re snotty little girls.” “They amuse me.” “By all means, sleep with them and send them off.” His mother knew him well, and her bluntness was refreshing after dealing with the average person too afraid of him to formulate a coherent sentence. Normally he did just that: slept with the clerks until bored with them and sent them on their way. His gaze drifted to his bedroom. He’d never found a woman who could accept the darkness within him. In truth, he’d never trusted his ability to control the evil enough to look for something other than a fling. No one deserved to be with someone like him, especially a woman like the one sleeping in the next room. Emma wasn’t shallow, bitchy, or obsessed. That kind was easier to get rid of, yet something about Emma drew him. The woman had been dead on her feet but too determined to quit. He admired her for it. Perseverance was oftentimes the only thing standing between life and death. He’d been down that road many times in his own struggle with his evil half. “Did you take her car to your house?” he said. “Yes. I’m surprised it lasted the night in this forsaken place.” “Isolde watched it.” “Bless that dog. If not for her, you’d have no decent company,” she said. “You’re harsh, Mother.” “Honest, dear, not harsh.” His mother looked thoughtful, and Tristan studied her, waiting for her frankness to overwhelm her hesitation. He leaned back and slung an arm over the couch back. His mother was a seer, a white witch who saw visions of the future. Though she claimed not to practice, she still meddled in the lives of her sons and her friends when she pleased. “Son,” she said at last, “I don’t think she’s the normal flimflam you date. She dresses nicely and has a clean car, and her aura is as clear as a spring morning. She fell into your arms. I want you to promise only to do what you must with this darkness to rid it from her, and then keep her. I think I’ll like her.” “It’s business, Mother, not personal. You shouldn’t be peering into my future anyway.” “I’m getting anxious for grandchildren, Tristan.” “You think it’s wise to bring more demons into the world?” he teased. “Bite your tongue, son!” she retorted and glared at him. “You go out of your way to avoid a quality woman, and when one’s thrown into your lap, you still don’t see her.”
  • 11. “I see her, Mother. My intentions aren’t as noble as yours.” “Before the end of this, you’ll have to make some choices. Maybe you can stop hiding up here and start living,” she said and rose. “I’ve said too much. The ladies and I are going to town. I’ll drop by and check on her on the way back.” “No cheating if you’re going gambling,” he warned. “Not that I haven’t told you a thousand times, but you’re not supposed to use your magic for selfish reasons.” “I’m retired. Besides, it’s not cheating if you lose sometimes,” she called over her shoulder as she disappeared into the kitchen. Tristan watched her leave with a small smile. When the kitchen door clicked shut, he leaned forward again and gazed at the box. His mother’s strange wariness around the darkness made him think she, too, recognized it. She’d never tried to make him promise not to finish a consult, and she’d never looked as troubled as she did when he shared the details of his job. He lifted the box. Whatever it was, it was bad. Really bad. Emma, Emma. What on earth did you drag us into? Chapter Two Emma stepped from the shower and dressed quickly, convinced the owner of the apartment would appear out of the shadows at will and determined not to be naked when he did so. She used his comb to work out the tangles in her hair and opened the door from the small bathroom to the bedroom to allow the steam to escape, wearing a pair of boxers and a T-shirt she found atop his plain, worn chest of drawers. Her hellhound waited on the bed. Sightless white eyes turned toward her, and her tail thumped in greeting. She felt rested for the first time in two weeks. The room was pleasantly scented, the dark, earthy musk of a mysterious man. His scent clung to her skin; she had not tried overly hard to scrub it free. She liked the way he smelled. She’d forgotten how comforting a man’s scent could be after two years eschewing the opposite sex. The simplicity of his neat and clean bedroom bordered on sterility. His drawers contained folded, organized clothing, and pairs of shoes peeked from beneath the bed. There were no pictures, no wall hangings, no trinkets, doodads, or decorations. She hesitated before opening the door into the hall. The Great Dane climbed off the bed and nudged past her, starting down a narrow hall with a cool wooden floor. She followed, peering into a tiny living room with an awkwardly massive couch. The dining area, a round table with four chairs, sat squashed in the corner of a narrow kitchen. Her stomach roared to life. She took in the empty dish drainer and spotless sink, the aligned appliances on the countertops, and the spacing of towels hanging off the oven. It was not what she expected, though how she expected the devil to live she didn’t know. No fire and brimstone or minions roasting humans over a spit. She opened a small pantry. Herbs hung from the ceiling and jars of creams and pastes lined the wall before her. The scent of the pantry was strong, and she recognized rosemary, basil, and mint before the urge to sneeze made her grab a box of cereal and close the door. She crossed to the refrigerator and grimaced as she looked over the contents of his fridge. “Who knew the devil was a health nut?” she muttered. She retrieved soy milk, fished out a bowl and spoon from cabinets, then turned at the hellhound’s whine. The Great Dane stood with its nose at the cabinets under the sink. Emma opened it to reveal a folded bag of dog food and clean dish. “Your master is a bit on the anal side,” she told her. After breakfast, further exploration led to the discovery of her shoes sitting with his under the bed, and her purse tucked away in one of his drawers. She changed back into the clothes she’d
  • 12. been in the night before and debated leaving her dirty bowl in the sink to break up the creepy organization around her or rinsing it and putting it away. He had, after all, taken her in. He’d also drugged her after blackmailing her into having sex with him. But she’d do anything to have Sissy well again, even sleep with some weird stranger. After all, her last boyfriend had been a stranger to her even after their time together. She left the bowl in the sink and put on her shoes without making the bed. “C’mon, angel,” she called to the dog and started to the door in the kitchen. She held it open for the Great Dane, who led her down a narrow hall lined with three more doors to a set of stairs. The scent rising from the floor below caught up with her as she descended the stairs. It was different from that of the night. Jasmine, she mused, and something she didn’t recognize. Sultry, exotic scents, like the shadow man himself. She entered the store. It was as small as she remembered, though bright and non- threatening in the light of day. There were no corners with impenetrable shadows, no gleaming eyes, no devil. Same clerks. Emma almost rolled her eyes but looked to the back of the shop. He did have Coke. “Will you tell Tristan if he leaves his coffin that I’m going to call a tow truck for my car?” They both gave her looks more hostile than previously. She ignored a hiss of bitch and stepped into the sunlight. The street was as she left it: possessed. There were plenty of vampire and fairy wannabes, more than she had ever seen concentrated anywhere except during Halloween, mingling with the tourists cheerfully strolling in and out of shops with names like Witch’s Brew, Demon Delicacies, and World’s Smallest Portal to Hell. Distracted by the weirdos, she didn’t realize her car was gone until she reminded herself why she’d come outside. She muttered a curse, her gaze lingering in front of the store where she’d parked. No keys, no car. It was fully insured, though that wouldn’t get her home today. Unease stirred within her. Tristan didn’t seem like a very eager host, and his location of living quarters left much to be desired. Most of the caped and winged people on the street deserved to reside in a mental institution at the very least. Her phone rang. She pulled it free of her pocket. “Hey, sis. How are you?” The woman’s voice on the other end was strained, tired. Guilt engulfed Emma. She’d had a good night’s rest and had managed to avoid the pain and sorrow at the edge of her thoughts. Her sister had no such opportunities. “How are you? Have you gotten any rest?” she asked. “Some,” was the evasive answer. “You sound good; you needed some sleep.” “Thanks, Amber,” Emma said. “Hey, look, someone called today claiming to be a friend of yours. I’ve never heard you talk about him, so I wasn’t sure. He said your car was being towed and that you asked him to help my baby.” “Yes,” she said slowly, wondering how Tristan had figured out her sister’s phone number and address. “Tristan, right?” “Yeah. Pretty accent. Is he French or something?” “No idea.” “So is he okay?” “He’s there to try and help,” she hedged. “He’s different, so don’t be surprised.” “None of your friends surprise me, not that I’ve met more than a couple. What’s the story?” “I’m kind of seeing him,” she said, unable to voice the truth. “Boyfriend?” The surprise in Amber’s voice was apparent. “I’ve been so worried about Sissy I haven’t paid any attention. You think he can help Sissy?”
  • 13. “I think if anyone can, he can,” Emma said honestly. Pain filtered through her at the desperation in her sister’s voice. “Is he a doctor?” “Not quite.” “I trust you, Em.” Amber’s voice was quiet. Her words tore at Emma’s heart. She took a deep breath and felt her eyes water. She’d invited the devil into her sister’s home, to meet with her four-year-old, dying niece. What if I made a mistake? “We’ve never met anyone you dated. Is it serious?” Amber continued. “Most of the guys I date turn out to be idiots. I’m doing a favor by not introducing you to them,” Emma said, her mind going to Adam, the last man she’d dated. “No, it’s not serious.” “You trusted him with your car, and he’s coming to meet us!” The hopeful note in her sister’s voice was too sweet, too long absent for Emma to correct her. “Yeah, well, this one might be useful,” she said lamely. “This is really cool. I’ll have Mama drop by to meet him,” Amber said. “That’s fine,” she managed, growing even more unsettled by the thought of introducing everyone she loved to a stranger who wasn’t quite normal. “Maybe I’ll drive over, too, and, uh, introduce him or something.” “You’ve made my day.” “Thanks, Amber. Take care of baby and tell Mama I said hello.” “I will. You’ve done enough, Em. You need to get back to your life,” Amber lectured. “Sis, you and baby are my life.” “Yes, but if this guy is serious, don’t lose him on account of us.” “Oh, no problem there,” Emma assured her. “I’ve never let a guy come between my family and me before.” “You ought to. Someone needs to take care of you.” “I know, sis.” “Well, have a good day,” Amber said. “You, too. Please take care of yourself.” Emma hung up and stared at the phone then glanced at the Great Dane sitting patiently beside her. “Your master has a lot of nerve, angel. He better not be some wacko.” The dog stood as she started forward, and Emma pocketed her phone. She passed through the shop, ignoring the poisonous stares from the clerks. She trotted up the stairs and to the apartment. His scent lingered where it hadn’t before. Her cereal bowl was no longer in the kitchen sink. Her eyes settled on the fridge, where a note that hadn’t been there when she stepped out was held in place by a black magnet. Emma - I called your sis to tell her where you are and had your car towed to her house. I rented you a car. It’s out back. Bring Isolde. The keys are on the dresser and my cell number below. T Emma shivered. Not only could the man read minds, but he must’ve been invisible or gone in and out a back way in the five minutes she spent downstairs. What was he? “Your name is Isolde?” she asked the dog, forcing her mind on something other than a sense of panic and foreboding building within her. The dog thumped its tail. “I hope you like car rides.” Thump, thump, thump. “God help me,” she murmured and turned away from the note from the fridge. * * * Tristan understood Emma’s exhaustion and sense of urgency the moment he entered the small apartment. He stood in the doorway of a brightly painted child’s room. The bed across
  • 14. from him held a sleeping girl as pale as her white pillow and covered in a cartoon character sheet. Her hair was a mass of soft, dark curls, her chubby face heart-shaped. The room smelled of her, an innocent, pure scent, tainted with the heavier scent of sickness. Toys were organized in an open trunk and fat picture books stacked on one bookshelf. Stuffed animals had been banned to a beanbag in the corner, and a large dollhouse took up the area between the bed and one wall. An empty wooden rocking chair sat close to the bed. He took in everything with a critical glance and knew without stepping into the room what afflicted her. Darkness, like that in Emma’s box, hovered around the girl and throughout the room in patches. It called to him as a brother, its presence familiar and soothing. He stepped away, hands sweaty. He’d never faced anything this strong, wasn’t sure he could suppress the evil within him and the evil of the room at the same time. Emma’s sister, a pale woman with dark blond hair, stood over the bed. Despair clung to her. She had already given up on finding a cure for her daughter. “Emma swore she’d find a way to help,” Amber said in a distant voice. She straightened. “Thank you for coming.” Tristan was not unaffected by the scene before him or her words. How would he feel if he sensed the danger without understanding anything about it? “Amber,” he said, drawing off his shadows to reach the woman’s exhausted mind. She turned, dark green eyes focusing. “Come with me.” Tristan led her past the bright living room and into the kitchen. Amber slumped on a stool at the counter overlooking a double sink and watched him with glazed eyes. Tristan prepared a cup of tea to put her mind at rest long enough for her to get some sleep. “Tell me what happened,” he instructed. “A couple of months ago, Sissy started … to get sick. Fevers and such. Kids are always sick when in daycare, so I took her to the doctor. He gave her penicillin, and she seemed okay for a couple days. Then it came back, worse, and she slept for a few days, recovered, and seemed okay again. I took her to a specialist, to a few specialists, but they didn’t find anything wrong.” Amber’s voice was monotonous, her hand propping up her head. “She said she had nightmares, and one night she was crying. I went in to see her. She was okay, and I stayed until she was asleep. She didn’t wake up for a week. I took her to the hospital, and they hooked her up to machines but found nothing. When she woke, she seemed okay again, then … more fevers, more nightmares, more days when she slept without waking.” “How long has she been out this time?” “Over a week. The doctor …” Her voice broke. Tristan turned away to give her privacy and retrieved the water from the microwave. “The doctor says she can stay in the hospital or here at home, but that the chances … the chances of …” Amber blinked back tears and stared, unseeing. Tristan dipped a loose leaf strainer into the hot water. He said nothing for several moments, withdrew it, and handed her the tea. She offered a ghost of a smile. “Thanks,” she murmured. “I’m sorry. Emma’s the strong one.” “You’re strong, Amber,” he assured her, touched. Even if he wasn’t sure he could control the darkness within him, he’d do whatever he could to alleviate the sisters’ pain. “Did Sissy tell you about her nightmares?” “She said there was a man by her bed, a dark man with snow clouds. She was afraid of him, but I didn’t understand why exactly. She said he just stood there and watched her. He wanted her to go somewhere, but she didn’t want to go.” A knot of understanding sank into his stomach. “Emma came back two weeks ago from a business trip. I thought … I was too tired to think much, but she heard Sissy talk about her dreams, and she acted really weird. Wouldn’t go into her bedroom even when Sissy asked for her. I yelled at her. We were both stressed, but she actually cried. I’ve never seen Emma cry, and she’s-- we’ve-- been through a lot. She’s been
  • 15. working so hard to find someone to help.” Amber paused then added drowsily, “Emma and Sissy are so much alike. They have the same hair and are afraid of the dark.” Tristan leaned his hips against the counter across from her, watching. The tea was taking effect, and tension eased from the slender woman’s frame. “Go rest.” “Mama will be here in a bit,” she said in a thin voice as she rose. “Make yourself at home. Em never brings people to meet us, especially not boyfriends. You must be special.” “We’ll talk more when you wake up.” His eyes followed her shape until the door to her room closed. He returned to Sissy’s room and took in the patches of shadows. Emma was hiding something from her sister and him. There was more to her than he expected, but had the darkness within him not warned him of such? He stepped into the room, at once inundated with hot and cold as shadows and darkness were propelled to him like paperclips to a magnet. He paused a few feet from the bed and let the darkness acclimate to him. He hesitated, then let the darkness within him enough freedom to greet the evil in the room to keep it from targeting him next. He shuddered in uneasy pleasure as the two essences merged. Welcome, Tristan. The voice was so soft, he barely heard it. His body recognized this darkness, though he didn’t know how. He moved forward slowly once again, feeling the shadows swirl around him like a soft night breeze. He sat on the bed and touched the girl’s clammy forehead with a steady hand. Her breathing was shallow and uneven, her body laboring. It was evil that afflicted her. The shadows that clung to the teddy bear in the box Emma carried had also crept into the little girl’s body. Removing them wouldn’t be hard for him. Ridding the room and apartment would take more time, unless he could identify what object in the apartment had been tagged by evil. The shadows were guided to their target by something touched by a curse, and he needed to find whatever that was. This was no accident. Emma had known enough to know she needed to seek out someone like him. He couldn’t help feeling she had a few things to explain. “Hello?” a cheerful voice called out. Tristan shook off the shadows and strode to the door. An older woman with fluffed brown hair highlighted with silver and Emma’s stunning green eyes behind large glasses entered the apartment. Her smile brightened as she saw him, and he waited for her to recoil in the usual horror people displayed when they first met him. She hesitated and then crossed the room with her hand extended. “You must be Tristan,” she said. “Yes, ma’am,” he said, surprised she’d approached him. “Call me Mama. The girls introduce me to everyone as Mama,” she said and studied him. There was intelligence behind the shining eyes, and Tristan suspected she was assessing him even as she smiled. She would’ve seen and felt his darkness like everyone else did. Instead of running away screaming, Mama’s eyes went to Sissy’s room. “Is Amber …” “Resting,” he supplied. “Good. Don’t think she’s slept in a couple of weeks. Emma will be here today, right?” The older woman searched through the bag she carried as she walked to the kitchen. “She’ll be in about four.” Tristan followed her. Mama withdrew several bags of cookies and looked at him closely before choosing one bag. “You look like an oatmeal chocolate chip cookie type,” she decided. “How is that?” he asked and accepted the bag, puzzled. “Complex,” she said and flashed a smile. Her interest turned to the pouches he’d placed on the counter. “Did you bring tea?” “I did. Do you like herbal teas?” “I do! Where’d Emma find you?”
  • 16. “Maryland coast.” He braced himself for the typical rejection he faced when dealing with normal people. “I think it’s a good thing,” she said. Her attention turned to the contents of his bag, and he realized he’d passed whatever test protective mothers gave the men dating their daughters. It was a first for him. He watched her explore the herbs and salves in the pouches with the curiosity of a child. Most who met him either ran or tried to kill him, believing him to be a vampire, and yet Emma’s family had accepted him. For the first time in his life, he thought someone other than himself was weird. “I was about to start my trade. Would you like to join me?” he asked. Mama nodded. Tristan secured a small bag resting on the adjacent stool, took his cookies, and went to Sissy’s room. Shadows welcomed him and gathered once more. He missed a step, still uncertain about his own ability to control the shadows, but forced himself to Sissy’s side. The middle-aged woman followed and pulled up a chair next to Sissy. Tristan set to work. He placed candles and incense oils around the room, smeared soothing balm on the little girl’s chest, and sent Mama to the kitchen to prepare a special tea. His actions were mainly for show. What he did to cure Sissy had nothing to do with anything Mama and the girls understood, but seeing physical signs of his trade might comfort them. When she left, Tristan touched Sissy’s forehead again and closed his eyes. Her mind was dark and quiet, as if blanketed by night, and he probed to get a sense of the black magic that held her. It was potent, he realized as he stirred it like a gust of wind stirred clouds. Tristan forced it to answer to him, manipulating it, moving it, gathering it, like he did the shadows within him when they became too restless. He drew away when Mama returned. Sissy’s breathing was deeper, less strained, the breathing of one in deep slumber and not battling illness. “What kind of tea is it?” Mama asked. “Healing tea,” he answered. “It soothes and cleanses the body.” “There’s ginger, right?” “Yes, ma’am.” He took it and tested its heat, found it to be lukewarm, and shifted forward to lift Sissy’s head and chest from the bed. Her body was warm but not fevered. Tristan placed the cup to her lips and softly whispered commands for her body to take it and the shadows not to interfere. Both responded, and he tilted the cup until its contents were drained. “You must be a magician of some sort,” Mama said quietly. Tristan said nothing and lowered the girl back to the bed. “It’s devil’s work, isn’t it?” “I don’t believe in the devil,” he replied. “Evil, then. I imagine you’re not um, Catholic,” she said. “But you believe in evil and good, I’m sure.” “Yes.” “Then it’s evil.” “Yeah, it is,” he said, wondering if she’d ask about him next. “And you are a dark angel.” He looked up with a surprised chuckle. “I’ve been called many things, Mama, but never an angel,” he admitted. “If you can help our Sissy …” Mama’s green eyes fell to her grandchild, and her smile faded. “Thank you for coming, Tristan.” Tristan pulled out one of the cookies. “Are you hungry?” She roused herself from her sorrow. “Maybe a little,” he said, sensing her restlessness. “Do you eat home cookin’?” “I’ll eat anything.” “Good. I’ve got a casserole to make!” Mama said and left. Tristan placed a hand on the girl’s arm, communicating with the shadows. Emma was probably pissed he’d left her there, but he’d
  • 17. long ago found it easier to assess a situation involving the occult without the charged, negative energy of his client interfering. She didn’t seem to be the kind who liked surprises overly much, though she didn’t seem to mind leaving him in the dark about whatever evil it was that invaded Sissy’s room and body. * * * “I found her.” Hunched over the ancient spell book for the past few hours, Olivia grimaced as she straightened. She’d spent another long day in Jeffrey’s extensive library, where he’d collected and translated books older than she could guess on mythology, occult, and witchcraft. His library was the reason she sought him out; he was known throughout the occult world for his seemingly deep pockets he used to build an occult library the size of an apartment. She’d hoped to find the spells she needed to bring back Adam and destroy the woman who took him from her. After two years in the musty library, she’d almost found the last incantation. “Found who, Jeffrey?” she asked, irritated at being disturbed to hear about his latest witchy floozy. “Emma.” She whipped around, her mouth dropping open in silent words. Jeffrey flung himself onto the couch across from the table at which she sat. “I thought you were just interested in bringing back Adam,” he said. “You should’ve told me about her. I know quite a bit about revenge.” “How did you find out about Emma?” she managed at last, her face warm with anger. “I heard,” he said vaguely. “One of your shadow demons tried to pull one of its friends from Hell into the basement. We had a little talk before I sent both of them back.” The shadows in the room lazily drifted toward him, drawn by the same darkness she saw in his eyes. Lately, she’d felt more and more uneasy around him. “It’s none of your business,” she said. “So you’re not interested in knowing where she is?” “Of course I am.” Olivia wanted so much to turn around and ignore him. The raw meat he dangled in front of her was too much of a temptation, but oh, how she hated his smugness! “I don’t need you, Jeffrey. My shadow messengers will tell me.” “How’s that working for you after two years? You grow uglier and weaker by the day, Olivia. You don’t have another two years.” “You son of-- ” “Just saying. I know you’ve read enough of my library to know you can use her blood to bring Adam back. He had no family; she was the only thing on this earth he loved.” “He loved me!” she retorted, anger rising. “And yes, I know that!” “Look, I’ll make this easy for you. You’re a member of my little family here. I’ll help you bring her in and bring him back. I’ll even do it for-- ” “Get out!” she shouted. “I don’t want your help, Jeffrey! I want you to leave me the hell alone!” Fire flashed in Jeffrey’s eyes, and he rose, crossing to the table. He planted his hands on the table and leaned close to her. “It’s too late, Olivia. You cracked the gates to Hell. Only I can keep Hell from taking you.” She started to argue. He grabbed her around the neck with one hand and hauled her to a mirror, ignoring her kicks and punches. Thrusting her in front of it, he squeezed her neck until she stilled for fear he’d snap it. “What do you see, Olivia?” She was beautiful, dazzling, with sleek, long, blue-black hair, large blue eyes, flawless porcelain skin, and full red lips. Surprised, she saw herself, and her own beauty took her breath away.
  • 18. “Me,” she whispered, touching her face in awe. The mirror changed suddenly, reflecting a haggard woman whose blue eyes were faded beyond their twenty-one years. Her skin was grayish and splotchy, her hair a mix of black and yellow, her eyes baggy. “Look at what you’ve become,” Jeffrey whispered. “Even a dead man would want nothing to do with you.” He released her and stepped back. She remained in place, stunned once more. She’d avoided mirrors for about a year, not wanting to see the impact black magic had on her. Even last year, she’d looked nothing like the worn woman in the mirror. “Adam would love me anyway,” she said, trying hard to ignore the whisper of doubt in her mind. “Not if he had to choose between you and Emma. She’s beautiful and you’re …” He drifted off, letting the mirror complete his thought. “Even at your best, Adam chose her. I can make you better, more beautiful, invincible.” Her heart ached at his words. Adam had chosen another woman over her, even when she was at her most beautiful. She’d kill Emma, but what if he did it again? Emma had been one of half a dozen women she’d punished for trying to take Adam from her. If she were able to keep him from straying in the first place, she would never have to deal with them again. “How?” she asked. “I have the incantation you’re looking for, and I have the power to give you what you want.” At his words, the image in the mirror turned again to the beautiful woman. “Just say yes.” He moved forward again, his warm body at her back. He touched her shoulders and then let his hands roam downwards, over her arms, to her waist. She gazed longingly at the beautiful woman in the mirror and watched as he kissed her neck. A woman as beautiful as the one peering back at her could have anything-- and anyone-- she wanted. Adam would never leave her. The thought of a night with her lover made her heart leap and her body grow weak. She closed her eyes as one of Jeffrey’s hands traveled across her belly. He pulled her against him hard, and she felt the length of his erection against her backside. His other hand slid into her jeans. Strange fire flowed from his hands into her. “You’ll give me Adam and help me destroy Emma?” she whispered, beyond aroused. “I will. He’ll be yours forever.” “Yes, Jeffrey.” “Come to bed with me. When you awaken, you will be beautiful again.” She turned and kissed him with passion she’d only shared with Adam. He groaned in pleasure and pushed her onto the table. Unable to control the unnatural heat building in her blood, she pulled him on top of her. “Now, Jeffrey!” she ordered hoarsely. * * * Emma stared at the apartment building with a sense of foreboding. The fall sun hovered low on the horizon, casting long shadows around her. She would rather sleep in the breezeway than step foot in the apartment. Guiltily, she touched Isolde’s head. “C’mon, angel,” she murmured. The dog followed. Emma climbed three flights of steps, guiding the animal with touches, and paused outside the door to Amber’s large, bright apartment. Her house keys were on the lost keychain. Doom and fear made her shudder. She mentally pictured herself stuffing each negative emotion into a bottle and then corking it. Face the devil unafraid, Emma, she ordered herself. Of course, this devil could read minds. “Dammit,” she muttered and beat on the door. Mama answered. “Hello, Emma-doodle!” Mama called.
  • 19. “Mama, don’t call me that,” she sighed. “I’m not five.” Mama smiled brightly and hugged her. Emma hugged her back, relaxing in the safety of her arms. She pulled away. “You brought a friend.” Mama looked down to Isolde. “Hello there!” Isolde thumped her tail and sniffed, taking a hesitant step forward to find the source of Mama’s voice. The apartment was already too dark for Emma’s comfort, with the shadowy doorway to Sissy’s room darker than the rest. She eyed the lamps above the entertainment center. “Her name’s Isolde,” Emma said. “She’s Tristan’s.” “Did she fit in the car?” Mama asked. “I’ve never seen a dog that big!” “Yes, Mama,” she murmured. “I smell dinner.” “My weekly experimental casserole.” Emma groaned and entered, closing the door behind her. She turned on the nearest light and set her bag down by the door before removing her shoes. Isolde started forward, following the sounds of Mama’s retreat and the scent of food. “Where’s Amber?” she asked, glancing around. “Tristan gave her some relaxation tea, and she went to sleep.” “I forgot about his drugged tea! But at least she’s getting some sleep,” Emma said darkly. Mama looked at her curiously from the kitchen. Emma turned on two more lamps and glanced apprehensively at Sissy’s door. He was there, with the rest of the darkness. Emma started toward the half-closed door, paused, and turned on another lamp. She pushed the door open, not certain what to expect but awaiting a scene from Poltergeist. Sissy slept deeply, her room much more organized than Emma had ever seen it. Tristan sat in the rocking chair beside her, dressed in a light blue polo shirt, unbuttoned to reveal curls of dark chest hair, and stonewashed khaki pants that clung to his lean form. In the darkness of his shop, she hadn’t noticed his body. He was lean with wide shoulders and chest and thick thighs. How had she not noticed his looks? He was beautiful in a wild, animal-like way with the sense of deceptively relaxed dark power. His piercing eyes pinned her in place. Emma stood in the doorway, arrested once more by eyes darker than night. They glinted with something too raw to be natural. It thrilled her as well as unnerved her. Her body responded to the sight of him, grew warmer and aware. He seemed unable or unwilling to look away from her, and Emma was more than aware of the way the shadows of the room all pointed and angled toward him, as if stretching to reach him where he sat. I brought the devil into my sister’s home. One eyebrow twitched. A look of amusement crossed his face. She’d almost convinced herself to disregard the strangeness of their first meeting, that she’d been too tired to understand much of anything. “You look rested.” Likewise, she had forgotten the softness of his dark voice, how it traveled like a dark caress on a fall breeze, grazed her, made her shiver. “Yes, thank you,” she replied with effort. “I see …” …you’ve met Sissy. A sense of guilt washed over her, and she stepped back, struggling to keep her emotions bottled. What was she doing? Seeking help from the only man capable of giving it. The thought was not entirely hers, but she accepted it. It was the truth; there was no one else who could help. She had made a deal with the devil. As long as he kept his part, she would keep hers. There was no more debating. Tristan smiled and blinked, releasing her from his spell. “You can save her?” she ventured, uncertain if she were ready for an honest answer.
  • 20. “Yes, Emma.” The calmness of his dark voice soothed her. She looked away and glanced around at the burning oil. It smelled of musky earth and fresh ocean. The window above the bed was open. “I brought Isolde,” she said awkwardly. “I don’t think she likes long car rides.” “I don’t either,” he said. “Used to turning into a bat and flying?” she asked. “You have a charming family,” he said with a chuckle. “Yes, thank you,” she replied. “I’m sorry, but I didn’t know how else to explain you. I told them … well, that we’re dating.” “I have no problem with that. Why don’t you come in?” His voice changed, as did his face, and Emma felt again they were on a fence and he was assessing her. The air tensed until even the shadows were wary and waiting. The feeling made her queasy. She glanced around. “No,” she said. “No.” His eyes were hot enough to make her skin warm. The sense passed, and she met his gaze once more. “You feel it,” he said. “It was meant for you?” “I’m going to eat now,” she told him. She closed the door until she could no longer feel his eyes on her. Shivering, she crossed the living room to the breakfast counter at the edge of the kitchen. “Isolde likes my casserole,” Mama said. Emma’s eyes dropped to the floor, where Isolde stood devouring a plate of meat, noodles, cheeses, and vegetables. “I like him, Emma.” Mama lowered her voice. “He’s reserved but very nice.” “Don’t get used to him, Mama,” Emma advised. “Think of him like every other man, a commitment-phobe.” “Emma-doodle, you’re the commitment-phobe.” “Mama, don’t call me that.” Emma flushed. Mama had a way of making her feel like she was waist high, yet Emma also felt as if she were twice as old as her mother, that in the absence of her father, she was their only buffer between the sweetness of Amber and Mama and the evils of the world. Her eyes strayed to Sissy’s room. First a curse from a black witch, then the devil. She was doing an awful job of taking care of her family. Depressed, she sighed. “Really, Emma, you haven’t dated in so long, and you didn’t even tell us you started seeing someone new,” Mama went on. “I didn’t know about Tristan; neither did Amber.” “It doesn’t matter, Mama,” Emma said. “I’m not bringing riffraff to meet my family.” “You don’t bring anyone to meet your family.” “Don’t get lippy, lady,” Emma warned. “Besides, there’s a man here now, isn’t there?” “You still haven’t told us anything, like where you met, how serious you are, or anything about him,” Mama said pointedly and dropped the plate of casserole in front of Emma. “Mama!” she exclaimed as casserole splattered across the counter. “It’s not serious. We’re just dating. His name is Tristan, and he owns an … herbally type store and has a dog. He’s a health nut. I met him when he pretty much saved me from a gang of street urchins after I lost my car keys. Happy?” “You’re as stubborn as Sissy in the toy aisle.” “What do you want me to tell you?” Emma asked in exasperation. “Your feelings.” “I don’t have any,” Emma replied gruffly. “I stuff them all in my toes so they can’t come out.” “I’ll get answers from Tristan,” Mama said. “Oh, you’re welcome to try.” “I’m just happy you finally got over that one guy, Adam. It’s been long enough. We talked about the devil today.” Emma choked on her mouthful of casserole at Mama’s words. “Tristan is
  • 21. a really interesting person to talk to.” Emma nodded, coughing until her face was red, and pounded on her chest. “You okay?” Mama asked, pouring a glass of water. Emma swallowed a mouthful of water. “He’s been with Sissy all day, but he came out once, and we talked about a few things,” Mama went on. “He’s nice and sharp, I think maybe even as smart as you.” “I’m glad you like him, Mama. You can keep him and toss me back.” “Emma!” “How’s Amber?” she asked, wanting to change the subject away from Tristan. “Stressed, exhausted,” Mama said. “I’ve been coming over to make sure she eats, but she wouldn’t sleep before today.” “I’m sorry, Mama,” she murmured. “Darlin’, you’ve done what you could. It’s in God’s hands,” Mama said gently. “We need to concentrate on taking care of your sis, too.” Emma nodded. Her appetite fled at the thought of her tormented sister. She pushed the plate away. “Have you called into work?” Mama continued. “I told them a few days ago I’d be gone a month. They won’t call for another week and a half or so,” Emma said. “You’re not getting paid, though.” “Don’t worry about it, Mama. I’m good enough with my money.” “Well, if it gets to be too hard on you to send me money, stop doing it,” Mama said firmly. “You sacrifice too much sometimes.” “No, Mama,” Emma assured her. “I’ve got the money. I make more than enough, and it’s just me and my car. I’m able to save quite a bit.” And I can sell the car next month, when I’m totally broke. “All right,” Mama said, unconvinced. “My old boss called and said the admin support staff should only have a few more weeks on furlough. I know he can’t type, so I wonder who’s been writing his memos for him.” “That’s good, Mama. Fortunately, no one is willing to lay off a computer tech, or I’d be worried about mine.” She finished eating and changed into sweatpants and a T-shirt, brushed her hair and teeth, and tied her hair in a ponytail at the base of her neck. It wasn’t even six-thirty yet, and her tired body was ready for bed. Mama was in the chair watching a movie when she returned to the family room. Emma plopped down on her side on the couch. Isolde stood beside the kitchen for a long moment, sniffed, and made her way to Sissy’s room. She nudged her way in, and Emma turned her attention to the movie. * * * Tristan left Isolde with the sleeping girl and stepped into the living room a couple hours after dark, surprised to see Emma sound asleep on the couch and Mama dozing in her chair. His movement caused Mama to stir. The matriarch of the family rose and smiled before shaking her daughter awake. “Emma!” Emma grumbled. Tristan gazed at the sleeping woman, once more caught by her classic features and the pure aura. Her curvy shape was clad in running pants and a T-shirt. Her long, silken hair was captured at her neck. His eyes drank her in, and he felt a stirring in his loins as he realized she was the prize for this job. Mama succeeded in rousing Emma at last. Emma swung her legs over the side of the couch with a sigh and rubbed her face. “I’m up, I’m up,” she muttered. “I made up the front bedroom for you both,” Mama told Tristan.
  • 22. “He gets the couch, Mama,” Emma said with a pointed-- if drowsy-- look at him. “Nonsense.” Mama eyed her. “He’s a guest, and I don’t have a problem if you share a room.” “What? It’s against all your Biblical principles!” Emma argued. “Emma, I’ve watched enough TV to know how things are.” “Mama, TV has nothing to do with this,” she objected. “I’ll sleep on the couch.” “If Mama doesn’t mind, it’s not a problem with me,” Tristan ventured. “I know you’re an adult,” Mama said and started down the opposite hallway. “Shall we keep up appearances?” he challenged as he stepped beside the stubborn woman. Emma frowned but rose. She crossed her arms and strode forward, out of his reach. “I know you like pillows, Emma,” Mama said from the hallway, voice muffled as she dug through a linen closet. “Here are two more.” “Thanks, Mama,” Emma said grudgingly and accepted them. “Sleep well, stubborn one,” Mama said and kissed her cheek. Emma mumbled in response and marched into the guest bedroom. “You, too,” Mama told Tristan with a gentle squeeze of his arm. “Thank you, Mama,” Tristan said with a small smile. He followed Emma and closed the door. She glared at him from the opposite corner of the room. “You get the floor,” she snapped. “You get the floor,” he replied. He removed a pillow from the bed and tossed it to her. “We made a deal. I won’t break my word, even if you’re lying beside me.” Her jaw clenched. She stayed where she was, staring at him with beautiful, large green eyes, then snatched a blanket and tossed it on the floor. “I sleep with the lights on,” she informed him crisply. “I don’t,” he countered and flicked off the switch. She swore, and he smiled, sensing her unease. Tristan stripped to his boxers and slid under the covers, not at all tired. His mind swam with awareness of the sultry siren a few feet away. He could smell her, the musky scent of warm honey water and amber, the scent of a woman with a body he would gladly plunder once this was over. He forced his thoughts to Sissy, to the source of darkness. He needed some information and suspected Emma would be his last resource. He feared releasing his shadows into her to learn the truth. He didn’t like dealing with his darkness anymore than he had to. Perhaps a secondary approach would work with her, a subtler one, through Mama and Amber. They, too, might know what he needed to learn about Emma’s history and when her first brush with darkness had been. The shadows in Sissy’s room might tell him if he asked, but shadows knew only what their creator told them, not the entire story. She tossed and turned. He sensed her negative energy: fear, anger, anxiety. It was more than him that caused it; it was the darkness itself. Em and Sissy are both afraid of the dark. Tristan sensed no threat aside from that within him. He sat and crawled to the foot of the bed, seeing her as plainly as he would during daylight. She was curled in a ball on her side, surrounded by a small fort of protective pillows. Her eyes were open, staring, her body far too tense for sleep. It was not a natural fear, he assessed, but one caused by trauma. She appeared no older than a child huddled in the dark against the threat of an elusive boogeyman. Only Emma was too old for fanciful fears or boogeymen, and something about her drew both the man and shadows within him. He sensed her passion, buried with her emotions. In her toes, he recalled overhearing with some amusement. She was the kind of woman a man didn’t let go. Mine. The sense was natural, applauded by the darkness and human parts of him as well. “Beware the monsters under the bed,” he whispered.
  • 23. Emma jerked and looked up at him, raw terror crossing her face. He knew what she saw when she looked at him in the dark: the gleam of demon eyes and nothing but shadows. “Son of a bitch!” she swore. Anger and apprehension warred, but anger won out, and Tristan drew back to lie down as she rose. “I swear, Tristan, if you’re … Christ, I don’t even know what you are, but if you hurt anyone in my family-- ” “Rest, Emma.” She paced. Tristan relaxed and folded his hands behind his head, letting her fume and debate over what was the lesser of two evils: the boogeyman under the bed or the one in it. Finally, Emma slung a pillow at him and climbed onto the far side of the bed. Tristan watched in amusement as she created a small wall of pillows between them and then curled up into a tight ball once more. He waited until she stilled before summoning the shadows and commanding her to sleep. Her body responded, unfolding like a flower. He rolled to face her, disassembled her fort, and hugged a pillow, content. Chapter Three He woke up before she did and left her in peace to join Mama at the small dining table. Mama was reading a book, her toast forgotten on a paper plate in front of her. “Why is Emma afraid of the dark?” he asked as he sat down opposite her. Smiling, Mama set her book aside and stretched to reach the counter, pulling a box of cereal off of it to place on the table. “Strangely enough, Emma’s only been afraid of the dark since she’s been an adult. She was mugged in a back alley one night, not that it stops her from walking in them, so that might not really make a difference. I don’t know,” she replied. “Do you know when she started turning on lights everywhere she went?” “Maybe a few summers ago. I thought it was kind of cute. She leaves a trail of light behind her.” “Her fear seems unusually strong,” he commented. “Almost phobic. Aside from kids, I’ve never seen an adult like that.” “Are you a counselor or something?” “I do occult consulting and routinely run across phobias or paranoia people mistake for supernatural issues.” “Well,” Mama said thoughtfully, “a couple of years ago she was seeing a boy named Adam. Well, not a boy, a man, I suppose, though y’all are all kids to me. Don’t remember his last name. Never met him. Never knew she dated him until she broke up with him, as usual. She’s real private like that. The only thing she said about him was that he was a jackass. I guess that was about the time she started turning on lights. You’re the first boy she’s dated since then. Where are you from? Your accent is so pretty.” “My mother is Italian, but I grew up in France,” he answered. “Emma likes to travel. She goes places alone, all over the world.” Mama frowned. “I don’t care for that. I’m old-fashioned; a lady should always have an escort, especially overseas, but Em has her own mind.” “That she does,” he agreed. “You don’t know what might have caused her fear of the dark?” “Have you asked her?” “Not yet.” “She won’t tell me,” Mama admitted. “I’ve asked, and her response is always vague. She likes light, or light keeps her awake, or something like that. I’ve gotta call Sissy’s doc in about ten minutes. We can chat later, if you want.” Mama swept up her dirty dishes and retreated to the kitchen. Tristan puzzled over her words, unable to piece together the information he was missing. After a dozen years alone in his
  • 24. attic, it had taken only a couple of days for him to feel at home with people who seemed to accept him where no one else ever had. He liked the feeling of being around a normal family. He took a shower before retreating to Sissy’s room. Amber, he knew, would not stir for another day entirely, but Emma would be up soon enough. Tristan entered and then closed the door to the little girl’s room, his gaze sweeping around before resting on her. Her color was already improving. Satisfied, he opened himself to the shadows and focused on controlling them. * * * Emma awoke surprisingly refreshed and set about avoiding Tristan with determination. She was relieved to see the door to Sissy’s room closed. Gratified for a chance to escape, Emma waved to Mama, grabbed a banana, and left. Isolde followed her. She breathed the clear, warm air of autumn deeply, content to find some time alone. She bypassed her car and walked through the maze of apartment buildings to the main gate. The road leading to the 7-Eleven on the corner was narrow, undivided, and normally traveled by drivers going far too fast. Fortunately, most were at work this time of the morning. She strolled down the blacktop. Isolde’s paws clicked rhythmically as they walked, the massive dog’s head swinging back and forth. Emma rifled through her purse for sunglasses and placed them atop the bridge of her nose. “It’s a pretty day, angel,” she murmured, comforted by the rustling of trees and cheerful songs of birds. She walked to the corner and crossed the street into a sleepy downtown of three-story brick buildings, mom-n-pop owned shops, and antique stores at every corner. She’d visited her sister’s many times before without giving the downtown more than a glance. She hadn’t walked far into the downtown area when she sensed someone following her. She looked around. No one was on the street but her and Isolde. She shook off the feeling and continued, heading toward a sign pointing down a set of stairs to a used book store in the basement of one of the antique dealers. Isolde followed, and Emma waited for her at the bottom of the stairs before tugging open the heavy door. A bell jingled, and coldness washed over her. She dismissed it as an overambitious air conditioning system and shivered as she entered. A direct stare made the hair on the back of her neck prickle, and she turned to greet the clerk, her smile freezing in place. A freak worthy of Wooster, Maryland, in black with a powdered face, fake contact lenses giving him golden cat eyes, and a black dyed Mohawk. His look was borderline hostile, his frame tensed as if to spring on her should she consider shoplifting. “Okay, then,” she muttered and turned away. He watched her, and it took polite perusing of the nearest shelf to convince her the AC was not the only discomfort in the small shop. It was cold-- familiar, bone chillingly cold, like standing by the ocean during winter, or maybe like … … entering Sissy’s room. Emma tightened her grip on Isolde and glanced around. There were no signs of shadows. The shop was bright and decorated for Halloween. Just the creepy clerk stood out. “Thank you,” she called and made her way back to the door. No response, only an eerie catlike stare. Emma ran up the stairs and awaited Isolde, shuddering. Her phone rang. She tugged it free and looked at the display, vaguely recognizing Tristan’s number. She frowned and tucked the phone away, resumed her grip on Isolde’s neck, and walked away from the shop. The sense of being watched returned, and she glanced back over her shoulder, unnerved to see the clerk standing on the sidewalk in front of the stairs, staring after her. She turned a corner, and he was gone from view. When he didn’t reappear, she tried to tell herself it was a freak incident and continued with Isolde.
  • 25. Half an hour of walking calmed her nerves once again. She stopped to peer into several antique stores before arriving at one whose windows were already decorated for Christmas. The owner had used Depression glassware to create the outline of a tree. Fascinated by the creative display, she leaned forward to study a small pink plate, puzzled by two black spots on it until they blinked. Emma jerked back, startled, and the man peering at her through the translucent plate straightened. Another freak, this one with normal hair, dark clothes, a nose piercing, and eyes as black and hostile as a night in hell. Isolde growled. Emma stepped back and moved on, pausing half a block away to see him step from the shop and stare after her. She never noticed the freak population of her sister’s town to be so high! Emma turned back in the direction she came and crossed the street again. Her pleasant walk was too much like strolling down Demon’s Alley. She dug through her purse for her debit card, determined to stop for food somewhere before retreating home in defeat. Isolde growled again, and Emma glanced up, stumbling as she sought to avoid a form in her path. “Excuse me,” she muttered. “No problem.” The man’s voice was cold and monotonous. Emma looked up as she passed him. He was a vision of winter with pale skin, gold-white hair, slate gray suit, and cold gray eyes the color of snow clouds. “You dropped this,” he said and bent to retrieve something from the ground. Isolde bared her teeth, and Emma snatched the dog’s scruff. “Keep it, it’s okay,” she said as he showed her a five-dollar bill. She turned away, walking quickly. She felt it again, the sense of someone behind her watching her. Cat-eyes stood by Mr. Winter while the man with the black eyes looked after her from the corner across from them. All watched her with intensity too black to be human. Emma quelled her rising panic long enough to go another two blocks. She ran when she was out of sight of the freaks, the Great Dane loping beside her. She went a few blocks before resuming her path toward home. A freak on the corner distracted her. He started to cross, as if to intercept her. She began to feel threatened by the watchers and glanced at the McDonald’s across the street. She crossed the street and paused by the door. “Stay, Isolde,” she said. The dog sat. Emma entered. The crew behind the counter was blessedly normal. She stood at the register for a long moment, staring at the employee gazing at her while her thoughts were on the men following her. “Four cheeseburgers,” she said finally and pulled free her debit card with a shaking hand. She paid and exited, leading Isolde to a seat in the outdoor dining area overlooking the street. All four of the freaks following her stood across the street. Emma shuddered. “Well, angel, we’re holed up here for a while.” “Excuse me?” the young man holding a tray beside her table asked. “Sorry. Talking to my dog,” she murmured. He gave Isolde a pat and deposited the cheeseburgers onto the table in a small pile. Emma unwrapped a cheeseburger for Isolde before freeing one for herself. She stayed for two hours with the freaks watching her like crows a weakling field mouse. They didn’t try to approach her again, and she assumed they were there only to watch her. Two hours seemed to be their limit. She watched them disburse into four different directions and waited until all of them were out of sight before she rose. Elated but suspicious, she ventured out of the dining area. They didn’t reappear. She leaned over the railing and spotted the 7-Eleven on the corner two blocks down.
  • 26. “Okay, Isolde, our goal is there,” she told the dog. Relieved she thought to wear sneakers instead of sandals, she tapped the dog on the back of the neck and moved into the middle of the empty street. “Let’s go!” She sprinted down the street, fear and exhilaration drowning out all sounds but that of her heart, her breath, and the clicking paws of Isolde. She reached the final intersection and snatched Isolde’s scruff when the dog failed to stop. Two cars whipped past, and Emma dragged the dog forward again, pausing at the other side to turn around. Her watchers lingered on the other side but made no move to follow. Fear slithered through her. Emma moved forward at a slow trot down the narrow, undivided road. Two cars passed her, and she kept one hand on the trotting dog to prevent it from wandering too far into the road. As she heard the third car approach she gazed around her, soothed by the calm forest lining one side of the road. The scents of earth and trees were pleasant along this stretch and she shook out the tension in her shoulder. Isolde growled suddenly. She glanced at the dog. “It’s okay, angel,” she purred with a pat. The dog bared its teeth, clamped them around her forearm, and planted its huge paws on Emma’s body. Emma toppled over backwards into a muddy ditch with a cry of alarm. The dog landed half on top of her, and she started to shove it off when the wheels of a car dipped dangerously close into the ditch as it flew by. Stunned, she struggled to catch her breath and turned wide eyes to the dog. Isolde righted herself with a few grunts and clambered out of the ditch and flung mud from one paw. “Oh, Isolde,” Emma gasped. “Oh, you beautiful dog!” She climbed out of the ditch and hugged the animal, kissing its ugly, large face. Isolde panted and licked her. Emma straightened, shaken, and slung mud free of her arms. She glanced around, afraid to be only halfway down the road. With a tug on Isolde, she raced the rest of the way down the road, pausing for breath when she passed through the gates of the apartment community. “Okay, Isolde,” she gasped. “Don’t tell … anyone … even Tristan.” Isolde panted without responding. Emma leaned over to catch her breath and walked forward on spaghetti legs. She wiped as much mud from herself as possible before reaching Amber’s door. She waited outside to steady her breath and create a story of why she and the dog were caked in mud, then removed her shoes and left them by the door. Emma pushed open the door, pausing at the sight of mail lying piled on the linoleum entrance way. The letter on top was addressed to her. Surprised, she snagged it and closed the door. Her mother and Tristan sat in the living room drinking tea. “Hey Mama, Tristan!” she called and all but ran through the living room. “Emma!” her mother exclaimed. “What have you been doing?” “Cross country … um, walking!” she said and slammed the door to the bathroom closed. She leaned against it with a sigh and pulled off her muddy clothes. She started the shower and sat down, naked, on the toilet seat. She no longer felt like crying now that she was home and Tristan was in the room next to her. She felt like … suppressing everything and never leaving the house again. She groaned and reached for her letter. No return address. She opened it. Adam will be back soon. The letter fell to the floor. “No, no, no,” she whispered. “It’s not possible!” I saw him die. Emma slammed the cork on her spinning emotions and climbed into the shower, struggling to scrub free mud, fear, and memories. She calmed under the warm current of water and rested her head against the wall. Tristan could fix Sissy. She would face whatever else it was that followed.
  • 27. She stayed in the shower until the water grew too cold to bear. She escaped to the guest bedroom to compose herself before she joined the two in the living room playing backgammon. Her mother sat on the floor, cross-legged like a youngster, snacking from a bowl of popcorn. Tristan was devilishly mysterious in a cool green, short-sleeved cashmere shirt and camel khakis. His feet were bare, revealing well-cared-for feet and long toes. He smelled of sandalwood, night, and dark spices. Emma fought the urge to move closer, if only to smell him. “Who’s winning?” she asked. “I am,” Mama answered. “Wanna join?” “Don’t really care for games. How’s Sissy?” “Her color’s returned, and she actually smiled in her sleep,” Mama replied. “Tristan thinks she’ll wake in a day or two.” “Will she be better for good?” Emma asked, eyes drifting to the solid, silent man beside her. “Yes. She’ll be weak for a while,” he answered without looking at her. Emma’s eyes lingered on his dark eyes. She recalled briefly how he scared her the night before. Was he enough to counter the black witch? What if Olivia found out she failed, tracked her down, and tried to hurt the rest of her family? Once Sissy was well, and her debt to Tristan paid, would she alone be enough to keep the black witch from attacking her family? Maybe if she surrendered to Olivia, it would be enough to satisfy the psycho. The thought weighed heavily on her. As if hearing her disturbed thoughts, Tristan looked up to meet her gaze. His eyes were warm, and she found her face growing warm at his direct look “Why is my dog all dirty?” he asked. “Something you want to tell me?” Her face grew warmer with irritation. “Tristan had to take her downstairs and spray her off. Where did you go?” Mama looked up. She couldn’t fault her mother for asking, but she could damn Tristan for instigating. “Just wandered around and took a detour,” she said vaguely. “Isolde can eat six cheeseburgers.” “I don’t think you should feed a dog cheeseburgers,” Mama said with a small laugh. Tristan frowned, and Emma sensed he agreed. She looked away from his gaze. “Doodle, why don’t you and Tristan go out tonight? You can get away a little and relax together.” “We’re here to support you, Mama,” she countered. “Why don’t you take a break instead?” “Kid, I get the mornings off. Take a break. You always overdo it,” Mama said with familiar firmness. Emma gritted her teeth, seeking some sort of excuse that would not further entrench her mother’s suggestion. “We’ll go out for a bit,” Tristan said before she found the words. She wanted to refuse but knew nothing she said would come out tactfully. She needed Tristan here, at least until Sissy was better. She sighed. Tristan’s hand found her wrist, and he drew it to his thigh, caressing its underside again. Her surging emotions faded once more until she felt herself ready to doze. His touch suffused her arm in warmth, his fingers freeing her tension with the slightest touch. Her eyes closed, soothed. She stayed until their game was over and then went to change for their date. * * * Tristan knew she was stalling, but he waited, talking to Mama. Isolde climbed onto the couch and stretched its length, content after a day with some exercise and her bath. Emma finally emerged from the guest bedroom in designer jeans and a blouse that dipped low enough to enhance her full bust. The colors set off her bright green eyes. She was a beautiful girl, her allure as soft as her voice, and her voluptuous figure firm and sultry. She gave him a look that implied she’d rather be on a death march than a date with him. “Bye, Mama,” she murmured and kissed the plump woman.
  • 28. “Bye, guys. Have fun!” Something in Mama’s twinkling eyes assured Tristan that she was rooting for him and not her daughter. He’d never met the mothers of any of the women he dated, suspecting they’d forbid him from speaking to their daughters once they met him and his shadows. He felt grateful to the matriarch of the tiny family for accepting him despite his darkness. He took Emma’s elbow. They stepped into the soft, cool night, and she tensed, looking around. Something had happened during the day, but he didn’t know what. The foolish woman didn’t seem to understand that he wouldn’t let anything happen to her or her family. “Do you have a preference where we go?” she asked, tugging away and starting down the stairs. Tristan trailed, enjoying the feel of night on his skin. A breeze swirled around him, kissing him gently. He closed his eyes as shadows eased towards him, brushing him in a warm-cool combination. Emma stared at him from the first landing, uncertainty and trepidation on her fair features. “I’d like to talk to you about something,” he said and started forward. “Why don’t we do this. Why don’t you go out, and I’ll hide in my car for an hour or so.” The resolution in her tone almost drew a smile. “You want to be alone after today?” he asked. She turned away and started down the stairs. Tristan joined her at the bottom. Her gaze swept over the dark parking lot, and she shifted uneasily. “Tristan?” Her voice was hesitant. “Are there more people like you?” “I imagine so,” he responded. “Emma, I’m more dangerous than anything else you’ll ever meet.” “How dangerous, Tristan?” she asked, hurrying to keep up as he started toward her car. “Nothing bad will happen to any of you as long as I’m around.” She slowed, deep in thought. Tristan led her into the dark parking lot, aware of her unease. She watched him with as much apprehension as she did her surroundings. He led her to her car and opened the passenger door for her. Emma murmured her thanks and sat, relaxing once in the safety of the car. She was silent again as he pulled out of the parking lot and maneuvered through the complex’s maze. “You won’t hurt me, will you?” she asked at last. “Or my family?” “No, Emma.” “You can see in the dark, can’t you?” “Yes,” he answered. “Like a bat?” “Bats use sonar. Mine is more like night vision. You have an odd obsession with vampires, but I’m not one.” “I know,” she agreed. “You’re something even more unholy and foul.” “Like what?” “A man.” He chuckled. She shook her head. They were quiet again. Tristan followed the signs to a highway, deftly recalling Mama’s directions to a clump of restaurants. “I saw four freaks today that looked like they belong on Demon’s Alley,” Emma said and leaned her head against the seat rest, gazing at him warily. “They followed us.” “Ignore them,” he advised. “Whoever you’ve pissed off doesn’t want you dead yet.” She stared at him, her look demanding him to explain what he knew. He settled a hand on her thigh, and she looked at it before settling her hands over it. “You don’t know what you’re dealing with, Emma,” he said softly. “Why didn’t you answer the phone when I called?”
  • 29. “Maybe I didn’t hear it,” she retorted. “Or maybe you scare me as much as they do. Or maybe I feel guilty for bringing you home with me. Or maybe, all of the above. “ Her fingers tugged at his hand, and she flipped it over, tracing his palm lightly before flattening it again. “You don’t need to fear me, Emma.” “I know, but I can’t help it. My luck with men is awful. You have nice hands, Tristan,” she said absently. “I noticed them when we met. I mean, apart from the whole demon eyes glowing in the dark and morphing from shadows display.” “I really like you, Emma, and I adore your family,” he said. She was quiet. He felt her eyes on him, her thoughts loud enough for him to hear her debating whether or not she could trust him. He drove the rest of the way in silence before pulling off the highway and easing the car into a crowded parking lot next to a massive building. “You’re sure Sissy will be okay while we’re gone?” she asked. “Positive. She’ll wake up soon and be healthy as ever,” he replied. She ducked her head, hiding the sparkle of tears in her eyes. He got out of the car and walked slowly around to her side, giving her a minute. “Do you like miniature golf?” he asked as opened her door. A small smile crossed her face, but she looked at him quizzically. They walked into the crowded foyer teeming with adolescents and families. Tristan ignored the way people moved from his path and the looks he received, instead approaching the main ticket counter. Emma followed, and he turned when he reached the end of the line. “This doesn’t seem to be your kind of place,” she said. “How would you know?” he challenged. “You just seem like a loner who probably doesn’t like people.” “That’s accurate. But I happen to like fitting in a round of putt-putt when I’m not roasting humans on the spit in my kitchen. That was what you were thinking, wasn’t it?” She gave a startled laugh, her face reddening with embarrassment. Her smile pleased him. It faded and was replaced by a flicker of concern. Sissy and the shadows were heavy in her thoughts. “We’ll get through this,” he assured her. “I hope so, Tristan.” They played a round of putt-putt. He sensed a thaw as her smiles came more frequently. He didn’t try to question her again about her skeletons in the closet, instead distancing himself. He liked the smiling Emma and wanted to enjoy the moment away from their worries as much as she did. She’ll trust me when she’s ready. They played another game of nine holes, and he was pleased to see her relaxed by the time it was done. They hadn’t spoken since they started, and Tristan remained wary. No shadows or darkness dared approach her with him there, and he suspected she sensed this. After a few hours of quiet enjoyment, they left. He offered his hand as they walked through the parking lot. She hesitated but took it. “You don’t have to, Tristan,” she said as they reached the car. “Don’t have to what?” “Well, court me, I guess. I agreed to your terms, so there’s no need to … I don’t know, romance me,” she said awkwardly. He raised an eyebrow as he opened her door. Emma paused between door and car, awaiting his response. Her gaze was guarded but hopeful. He knew what she wanted him to say, that he wasn’t doing this because of their deal but because he wanted them to be more. He wasn’t sure he was ready for such a statement, however true it was. He still had his evil to contend with. He nudged her, and she sat with a disappointed look. She rested her head against the headrest, quiet as they left the parking lot. Tristan thought of Sissy. The girl would be awake in a day or two, at which time he would begin a thorough cleansing of the apartment. He needed Emma’s cooperation to discover what
  • 30. had been tagged and the person who tagged it, but he knew that would take more than a few days to earn her trust enough for her to tell him. “How dangerous are you, Tristan?” she asked. “People have an innate sense of danger,” he said. “I’m as dangerous as you think I am.” “You read minds.” “That’s one of my skills,” he said. “Do you want to know how?” “Yes.” “I’ll trade you one of my secrets for one of yours.” She hesitated and shook her head. He drove for fifteen minutes before pulling into the apartment complex. Immediately, he noted the shady characters at the main gate. He glanced at Emma. Her eyes were closed. Tristan whispered a command, and darkness swallowed the figures as he drove by. “Did you say something?” She roused herself at his voice. “We’re here.” He parked in a lighted area, and they exited. “Tristan, I’ll trade you something else for an answer,” she said as she slammed the door. He waited, watching her. Apprehension slid over her features as she watched the darkness and shadows welcome him, play around him. He wished he wasn’t this way, but he’d long since resigned himself to the knowledge he was. No one else had ever accepted this about him, even his mother, who preferred to ignore his dark half. He hoped Emma would be the first willing to conquer her fear and accept even the dark side of him. “I’ll trade you a kiss,” she said. Warmth and surprise flared in response, the shadows and man within him responding to her words. He joined her, moving until their toes touched, and she was forced to arch her neck back to meet his gaze. “Dangerous,” he murmured, breathing in her scent. “You’re not afraid of me?” “I am, Tristan, but there’s something about you …” She drifted off, gazing deeply into his eyes. She shook her head to focus. “One kiss for an explanation about reading minds.” “I agree,” he said. “Kiss first.” Emma nodded bravely. Tristan lowered his head. The gentle meeting of their warm lips sent an unexpected spark of warm energy through him. He coaxed her slowly, satisfied that it took little encouragement for her to respond, for her to shake off the sense of restraint that bound her normally. It was an unhurried kiss, a long, deep kiss, of two lovers exploring each other for the first time. Emma’s full lips parted unbidden, and he tasted her, the taste of dark honey and spices, a taste that rivaled her intoxicating smell. She did not hesitate to taste him but leaned forward until her body rested against his. Warmth flared as their bodies met, and Tristan placed his hands on the full rise of her hips as she rested her fingertips on his cheeks. He could get lost in such a kiss with her taste and scent weaving magic around him. Sleeping with this woman would be like none other. He drew away, aware he was becoming too aroused to retain control much longer. The shadows within him were restless, clamoring for a deeper taste with a need stronger than any he’d ever felt. His shadows normally ignored his sexual needs. Not with her, as if they, too, wanted her to accept all of him. Emma gazed at him, green eyes sparkling and unguarded in the lamp light. Her face was flushed, her lips red and plumped, her breathing shallow. The woman was incredibly appealing, enough so that Tristan pushed her away until their bodies no longer touched. “Don’t tempt a demon,” he said huskily. He clasped his hands behind his back, twitching with his need to touch her. She blinked, awareness crossing her face, and regained her balance. “Explanation,” she commanded. “There’s a sense, rather like ESP, that I have honed,” he said. “It’s like picking up the phone; if you’re not listening, then you don’t hear anything. If you’re listening, you hear what you want
  • 31. to. With you, your thoughts are strong enough to intrude on my privacy, but only when you’re thinking of me, which you do often and not always in glowing terms.” “You can choose not to listen, right?” she asked pointedly. “Yes, which I normally do.” “We lesser mortals appreciate it,” she said, clearly uneasy with his admittance. There’s nothing lesser about you, Emma. He said nothing and offered his hand, walking with her to the apartment. * * * Olivia lingered in the shadows of the stone wall marking the perimeter of the graveyard, her heart racing. Her eyes were pinned to the shadow demon she’d sent across the street to the caretaker’s shed, where a light still shone. One of the witches in her coven had scouted the area and claimed the caretaker was always gone by sunset. It was past midnight; no one should’ve been there. The shadow demon disappeared through the wall of the shed. She heard a surprised shout and then the sound of thrashing. It stopped. Silence. She waited a minute before hurrying across the road to push open the door. The caretaker was alive and held under the weight of the shadow demon sprawled on top of it. “Mistress, your command,” the shadow demon said. The caretaker twisted to look at her, surprise crossing his face. She knew it was her newfound beauty; it would stun any man into silence. She hesitated and smoothed the sweater over her hips. The middle-aged, stocky caretaker’s life was in her hands. She should be benevolent, as people with power generally were, and let him live with a warning. Kill him. Jeffrey’s voice entered her mind again, ill-timed as usual. He’ll report you, and they’ll find you long before you have Adam. “I don’t want to kill him. He’s just a …” she argued out loud. A nobody? A threat? I see his thoughts. He thinks you’re weak. “I am not weak,” she grated. Do it, Olivia. “Fine, but this is not what I want!” She shook her head, marveling briefly at the long, blue- black tresses that crossed her vision. “Kill him, slave.” “How shall I kill him, mistress?” the shadow demon asked. “Quickly. We have things to do.” Slowly. And you will watch, Jeffrey corrected her. “No, I-- ”Pain radiated through her. It drove her to her knees. Startled, she sat back, uncertain what had happened. Blood trickled from her nose to her designer jeans. Do as I say, Jeffrey ordered. “Slowly, slave,” she said, eyes on the wide eyes of the caretaker. “How shall I kill him?” it said again. Anger and fear filtered through her. She was here for Adam; she didn’t have time for this. Olivia launched to her feet and grabbed a shovel from the wall. “Move, slave,” she snapped. “Hold him still.” The shadow demon obeyed. She gripped the shovel’s rough wooden staff, hesitated again, and then slammed it onto the man’s head. He grimaced. She hit him again. The new fire in her body-- Jeffrey’s fire-- flared and consumed her. She slammed the man’s head over and over with strength that wasn’t hers, growing more frenzied as blood splattered everything around her. Only when his head resembled a smashed pumpkin did she drop the shovel and step back, horrified and satisfied at the same time. “I will find Adam,” the shadow demon said.
  • 32. Olivia wiped blood from her face and turned away, unable to face what she’d done any longer. She left the shed and breathed in the ocean air deeply. Her hands shook. He was in the way. He would’ve taken Adam from you, Jeffrey said, his voice gentle once more. “Yes,” she agreed. “Nothing can stand between me and Adam.” She steeled herself. She’d done what was needed to clear a path for her future with Adam. Even so, the image of the man’s bloodied body made her feel ill. “Mistress, he is here,” the shadow demon called. Her head swiveled toward him at his words. She ran, the caretaker forgotten. The shadow demon stood in the middle of a grassy area surrounded by tombstones. She’d walked through the cemetery many times, willing Adam’s spirit to recognize her and tell her where his body was. She’d accepted Jeffrey’s offer of finding Adam for her, and was surprised at how easy he made it seem. Olivia approached the grave marked “John Doe” with apprehension. He’d had no family come forward after he threw himself off the bridge. She hadn’t known he was dead until a few weeks after their final fight. A couple out on their boat in the Chesapeake found his body on the shore near the bridge, and the police ruled his death a suicide. Olivia couldn’t help but feel guilty. She’d left him again after the Emma episode. He’d claimed to be sorry and begged her forgiveness, but she’d walked away. If she’d forgiven him, as her heart urged her to, maybe he wouldn’t have taken his life. She knelt in the grass before his grave. She had eternity to make it up to him. “Soon, my Adam,” she murmured, a new kind of excitement lighting her blood. “Dig him up, slave.” She had Jeffrey to help her raise Adam, and now she had Adam’s body. Jeffrey was dealing with Emma. Everything was as he promised: perfect. The shadow demon disappeared into the ground. She rose and stepped aside. A few minutes later, the demon reappeared clenching a body that reeked with the scent of death. She didn’t care; she stepped forward, gaze taking in her lost lover hungrily. She saw him not as he was in his decomposed state but as he had been and would be again. Her eyes glowed. Chapter Four Tristan stood in Emma’s cluttered living room the next morning, taking in her jewel-toned apartment. Mama had intended to drop by Emma’s for clothes, but he’d convinced her to stay with Sissy and send him on the errand. While he felt bad about entering her apartment without knowing, he needed to know what she wouldn’t tell him. He didn’t know what he was looking for but hoped his shadows keyed on something. The apartment was larger than his but not by much. Her collection of … things made it feel cozy and small. He gazed around, growing more amused. Books took up what space trinkets and brass and ceramic figurines had not already invaded. There was no smooth surface left untouched. The TV in the entertainment cabinet was stacked high with DVDs despite the mostly open DVD rack beside it. The window sills were burdened with trinkets, some of which had blown onto the floor, and even the dining room table was a depot for mail, two purses, and a small basket of junk. He moved into the kitchen and almost grimaced. There was nothing natural about the processed food she preferred. Appliances were aligned haphazardly according to which she used last, and her fridge was cluttered with cheerful magnets holding up two different calendars turned to two months-- neither of which was the current month.
  • 33. He avoided the cabinets, suspecting what kind of messes he’d find. Instead he went to her bedroom. The bed was, unsurprisingly, unmade. The room smelled like her. He relaxed and breathed deeply. She slept with a teddy bear. Somehow it didn’t surprise him. According to Mama, Emma hadn’t dated in a couple of years. He entered the walk-in closet. She liked clothes and shoes, all of which were piled or stacked in the closet. Tristan’s eyes settled on two small shoeboxes scrawled with the words don’t lose! They were stacked on one shelf, and he walked over to them. The first box contained her passport, birth certificate, and photos of her family. The second box contained three letters, two addressed to her from Adam Merchant in Baltimore and one addressed to Adam that had been stamped unable to deliver and returned. Interested, Tristan opened a card from Adam Merchant. It was a birthday card with nothing more than a signature and a picture of the two of them in daylight making faces at the camera. Adam was a handsome man with dark blond hair, friendly brown eyes, and a lean frame. Tristan ignored the stirring of agitated darkness at seeing Emma with her arm around another man’s waist. The shadows within him growled, joining the male part of him that wanted no man within a mile of the woman he claimed as his. This, his shadows told him. He didn’t know why, but he listened. He pocketed the picture, replaced the card, and opened the second card, drawing out a letter sent from Adam to Emma. Emma – I’ll always love you with all my heart. I’m sorry about Olivia and the others, but you weren’t exactly perfect, either. I tried a few times to tell you I wasn’t happy in the relationship, and you just ignored me. What was I supposed to do? Anyway, I’m sorry, and I love you. I promise, if you come back, it’ll never happen again. Adam Tristan’s anger flared. What kind of weak man would fool around on a woman like Emma? Adam is dead, the shadows told him, and Tristan fingered the letter, wondering if Emma knew, or if she had walked away and never looked back. While he didn’t fully understand it, his dark side was satisfied with the information. How he would learn more was less clear. He replaced the card in the box and the boxes on the shelf before exiting the closet. He removed the backpack from his shoulder and crossed her dresser, recalling the mission Mama had sent him on. Emma had gone to the grocery store while Mama was supposed to pick up clothes. Mama had admitted she was out of work and low on funds, and Tristan couldn’t help sympathizing with the pleasant woman. Dark angel, she’d called him again. He smiled. He did his best to choose matching clothes and set them on the bed as he went from closet to drawers. Tristan, I don’t want to go with the snowman. He drew a breath, startled to hear Sissy’s complaint clearly in his thoughts. He’d taught her quiet mind how to call to him when it awoke and was thrilled it worked. “Tell him to wait for me,” he whispered, even more pleased that his work had drawn out the evil spirit at last. He’s in your chair. Sissy was angry. Tristan smiled, placed Emma’s clothing in the bag, and strode out. Tristan said they won’t hurt me. This voice was Emma’s. She had to be quite distressed for her thoughts to be so loud. He checked his cell to make sure he hadn’t missed her call. She hadn’t called, still didn’t trust him. Disappointed, he hoped she would one day. He debated calling her and then thought of Sissy. The shadows chasing her were almost powerless during daylight. He’d check on Sissy first then go help Emma. He returned to Amber’s apartment. Voices in Amber’s room indicated the presence of both Amber and Mama. Tristan entered the apartment and placed Emma’s bag on the couch before moving to Sissy’s room. Her large green eyes were open and staring at the shadow man she dubbed the Snowman, who did indeed sit in Tristan’s rocking chair.
  • 34. Tristan eased the door closed, recognizing the dark spirit for what it was despite its human appearance. The man was tall and lean in a light gray suit with eyes the silver-gray of clouds. The air around it was cold, and shadows clung and danced around it, left briefly to welcome Tristan, and returned. It was a shadow demon, one of the lesser demons from Hell. He’d read about them in his occult research but never met one. “Brother,” Snowman greeted him. A shiver went through him as he realized his mother wasn’t lying about him being half-demon. Tell him I won’t go with him. Snowman looked at Sissy, hearing her words as Tristan did. “Who caged you?” Tristan asked and perched on the bed beside Sissy. While unnerved, he didn’t fear the dark spirit. It did only what its master bid, knew it only knew what its master willed it to know. If it wanted him dead, there would’ve been no greeting. “Witch,” was the shadow demon’s response. “Where is she?” No response. The witch must’ve forbidden it from answering questions about her whereabouts, Tristan reasoned. “What name?” he asked. “Olivia.” “Go back to your master; you are on my territory,” Tristan commanded, recalling the name from Adam’s letter to Emma. “Who caged you?” the shadow demon asked. “I’m not caged,” Tristan answered. He felt icy shadows probing him. “We are not alike,” the dark spirit said. “You are free but trapped in this weak form. How?” “I don’t know.” The dark spirit looked to Sissy again. “She is mine,” Tristan said more firmly. “Tell your master it is so.” “Very well,” it said. Good-bye, Snowman, Sissy said angrily. The room grew colder. The air around them became heavier until it weighed down on Tristan’s shoulders. He reached for Sissy instinctively and touched her arm, watching as the form before him faded, grew dark, and absorbed the shadows of the room like a sponge. A snap of icy cold, and the dark spirit eddied and eased out of the open window like smoke. Tristan waited until the air in the room returned to normal before closing the window. He still sensed a shadow somewhere in the room, the lingering evil a sign confirming his suspicion something in the room had been tagged. Sissy watched him, too weak to speak, and he touched her face gently. “He’s gone, Sissy,” he murmured. Mama. The girl’s eyes welled with tears, and Tristan soothed her before going to the door. * * * Emma began to wonder if being afraid of the dark still made sense. After all, she only saw creepy freaks following her during daylight. In the dairy aisle. She’d overstayed her welcome, she suspected, but lingered over the cartons of soy milk, torn between doing something somewhat nice for the demon in her house and bypassing it. The feel of eyes watching made her tense enough to snap. She glanced over her shoulder, where Cat-eyes, with no apparent intentions of shopping, leaned against a bread stand and stared at her. Tristan said they won’t hurt me, she thought again. She pulled a carton from the shelf and placed it in her basket. Tristan’s effort to be normal the night before touched her. He would never look anything but like a demon to her, but he was more human, taking her out to relax, answering her questions.
  • 35. Kissing the daylights out of her. Emma touched her lips, face warm. No man had ever kissed her like that. No kiss had ever suffused her with warmth, welcome, and promise beyond that of the hot fire of desire. He made her feel like the only woman on earth. Which meant he had kissed a lot of women. She shook herself mentally and continued, unable to dismiss the wonderful sensation of his lips against hers. She rounded a corner and nearly ran into another freak. She pushed this one with her cart. He moved but continued to stare at her, and she decided her trip was done. Emma checked out under the supervision of several more hawk-eyed freaks and moved smartly to her car, where one leaned against it and another hovered. Calm, Emma, calm. Tristan said they won’t hurt me. She hurriedly placed everything in the trunk and turned, jumping and pressing herself against the trunk. Mr. Winter stood in front of her in a light gray suit, smiling a smile as chilling as a stiff breeze. His eyes were silver-gray and empty, his presence like that of a meat locker: dead, still, cold. Tristan said-- Mr. Winter touched her arm, and Emma jerked. Tristan said nothing about what to do if they did more than watch. She eased away, determined to run over any that remained in her path. Mr. Winter took her arm in a tight, painful grip. “Why don’t you try one?” he offered, producing a tin of mints and flipping the lid with one hand. Emma stared at him. Freaks lingered in a loose circle around them, watching, shifting, waiting, as restless as shadows. Mr. Winter held her in place, and Emma suspected she would not be released until she accepted. She timidly took one and placed it in her mouth, surprised it tasted like a real mint and didn’t burst into flames. “Thank you,” Mr. Winter said and released her. She moved away from him, startled to see the loose ring around them break up. The freaks turned their backs and walked away. Mr. Winter smiled again. Shaken, she threw herself into her seat, locked the doors, and bolted from the parking lot to Amber’s apartment building. She hesitated in the parking lot of the apartment building, willing her hands to stop shaking before seeing her family. They needed her strong, especially Amber, who was too fragile for such trials. Isolde waited at the foot of the stairs. Emma relaxed and crossed to the blind dog. “Hi, angel,” she murmured and sat on the stair beside it. “Met a few people you need to chew on.” Isolde licked her and panted, ears flickering. Emma hugged the animal, comforted by its warmth and presence. Isolde trailed her back to the car. Emma filled her arms with what she could carry and staggered up three floors and into Amber’s apartment. She made it to the table before dropping everything. “Hey, doodle,” Mama greeted her as she emerged from Sissy’s room. Emma gave her a withering look at the hated moniker and snagged an apple as it headed for the edge of the table. Isolde snapped up the first that fell, surprising Emma and Mama alike. “Good nose,” Mama stated. “Emmy!” The shout was tiny, high-pitched, feminine, and distinctly Sissy’s. Emma froze, suspecting she was hearing things as well as seeing freaks everywhere she went. “Emmy!” “Is that …” She looked at Mama. Mama smiled. Emma gazed at Sissy’s partially closed door, recalling the last time she had stepped within. She moved forward, heart beating fast, and pushed it open, eyes settling on Tristan before falling to Sissy. The little girl was awake and bright-eyed, her cherubic face gaunt but glowing. Emma took a step and braced herself, awaiting the coldness of the curse. Nothing came, and she hastened to the bed, amazed when Sissy flung open her tiny arms and leaned forward
  • 36. with a grin. Emma sat and was engulfed by slender arms and the scent of innocence. She squeezed Sissy’s warm little body hard, tension slipping from her. Black curls tickled her nose and eyelids. The bottle around her emotions cracked. She blinked away tears, relieved. “Tristan and I played a game,” Sissy told her. He did it. Torn between gratitude and fear, Emma pulled away and cleared her throat. “I have to stay in bed, though,” Sissy continued with some disappointment. “Mama went to get the doctor.” “Oh, good,” Emma said, aware of Tristan’s gaze on her. “I don’t think I need one,” Sissy said. “Tristan says the snowman won’t come back.” “Snowman?” “From my dreams, only he was real and sitting in Tristan’s chair. I said I didn’t want to go and-- ” Emma looked at Tristan, Sissy’s cheerful prattling unheeded. His head rested against the back of the rocking chair, his eyes slits through which gleamed his dark demon eyes. “ … can we?” Sissy asked and shook her arm. “I’m sorry, Sissy, what?” Emma returned her attention to the little girl. “Go to the movies? When I’m well.” “Yes, of course. Why don’t you lie down until the doctor comes, Sissy?” Emma said and nudged the little girl toward her covers. Sissy gave an exaggerated sigh and crawled to her pillow. Emma watched her and stood, unable to shake her guilt. Sissy’s sickness, the men following her, the demon in her niece’s bedroom. Everything was her fault. She felt ill knowing she’d caused so much harm to her family. She looked at Tristan. His eyes were open, and he assessed her once more. She stepped toward him. He watched, relaxed, as she leaned down and looked him squarely in the eye, her face inches from his. “Thank you, Tristan,” she whispered and added silently, this better be real. His faint smile indicated her message was received. She kissed him. He yielded to the tender kiss, his velvety lips sending a shot of warmth through her. “No mushy!” Sissy all but yelled. “Okay, okay, Sissy,” Emma said, laughter bubbling. She straightened. Tristan touched her arm in his own sort of reassurance. Emma turned away without looking at him. She went straight to the bathroom, managing to close the door before bursting into tears. * * * Emma hid the rest of the day in the bedroom they shared. Tristan was annoyed by it. He’d expected some sort of progress with her after she saw Sissy. Instead, she spent the afternoon crying, refusing to let anyone comfort her. He didn’t want Emma to cry, ever. He yearned to take away what pain was hers and see her dazzling smile. He had never felt so affected by a client before. “Adam Merchant?” Amber repeated. He pulled his gaze from the front bedroom door again and focused on Amber, who he’d been talking to for half an hour. Two days of sleep rendered the woman’s color returned, and the sight of her healthy daughter made her glow with warmth and happiness. “Tristan!” Mama chided as she brought him a cup of tea. “You should ask Emma.” “Mama, Emma’s too stubborn,” Amber responded. “And if Tristan’s here, Emma trusts him.” Mama padded back to the kitchen, passing Isolde a cookie as she did so. Isolde had never had so much attention or people food in her life. “I remember her mentioning him in a less than complimentary way, as usual,” Amber went on. “She saw him for a while, maybe even a year. I think she really liked him, but I think …”
  • 37. Amber glanced toward the kitchen and lowered her voice. “I think she found out he was engaged to someone else.” Adam’s letter blaming Emma for their failed relationship returned to him. Irritated with the dead man, Tristan sipped his tea. “Why is she afraid of the dark then?” he asked. “You don’t think badly of her for that, do you?” Amber asked. “She’s a good girl and never would’ve stolen someone’s fiancé on purpose.” “I know she is,” he assured her. “Sometimes circumstances are less than clear when we walk into them.” “She was really angry at him for a long time. I know she had bad dreams for about a year afterwards; she stayed with me for a bit. It’s hard to sleep with every light in the house blazing.” “She never really said why aside from nightmares?” “No. Why so interested?” Amber asked curiously. “I’m more interested in why she’s afraid of the dark,” Tristan responded. “Your mama mentioned that she started turning on lights about the time she broke up with Adam.” “I guess that’s about right,” she agreed. “Maybe it’s connected. My sis is too private for her own good. Do you mean to help her like you did Sissy?” “Help her be unafraid of the dark?” Tristan chuckled. “Yes, I suppose.” Amber’s considering, evasive response sparked his interest. She knew more than she was saying. At his intent look, she looked away. “She had her mail forwarded when she lived with me. Someone used to write her nasty letters. I was nosy and opened a couple. Her dreams were bad, too. She looked like a zombie for a couple of months and used to jump at her own shadow. I remember because Sissy was sick with pneumonia and we were in and out of the hospital constantly for a while. Whenever I came home, Emma would have every light on, the radio up full blast, and an overflowing coffee pot to keep herself from going to sleep. She said something similar to what Sissy said a week ago, that there was someone waiting for her when she fell asleep. Sissy said it was a snowman.” Tristan listened, intrigued. “I have no idea what that means or why she’d be afraid of it. I mean, a snowman?” Amber continued, glancing again toward the kitchen. “Anyway, I think something bad happened before Emma left Adam. She came here from where she was going to college in northern Maryland. She never said what, but sometimes she gets this haunted look on her face, and I’m pretty sure she’s thinking about it. I kinda thought it was some sort of post traumatic stress disorder, like when soldiers come back from war and dream of being attacked by the enemy.” Mama emerged from the kitchen with a tray of snacks. Amber grew quiet, gave him a quick, anxious look, and smiled at Mama. Tristan leaned back, patting Isolde as the animal followed the scent of food. He would research Adam, using the city that had been on the letter in his pocket. Someone waited for Emma in her sleep. He dwelled on this. Sissy experienced similar, a dark spirit trying to draw her away. What got rid of Emma’s dark spirit? He didn’t sense the darkness anywhere but in Sissy’s room. Something in there acted as a homing device for the spell. “Does Emma have anything stored in Sissy’s room?” he asked, puzzled as to how else someone had tagged the little girl. “Her apartment’s too small for all her junk. I moved some of her boxes into Sissy’s closet to clear out the guest bedroom. Not sure what’s in them.” The evil in Sissy’s room was similar to that which had tagged Emma. He’d felt it the minute she returned. Something had happened when she went to the grocery store. She was approached by something, and it managed to mark her. Wondering if the signature would be the same as that in Sissy’s room, he went to the closed door of the bedroom they shared and opened it. Emma lay on her back, with one arm slung across her eyes. He was quiet for a
  • 38. moment, allowing his grip on the shadows to loosen enough for him to read what had tagged her. It was the same evil that had afflicted Sissy. He entered, more concerned than before. “How’s your headache?” he asked and closed the door behind him. “Fine. Tristan, does this mean you’re done?” she asked. She swung her legs off the bed, regarding him with large, guarded eyes. “Done?” he echoed. “With your part of the deal.” “Not quite. I need to cleanse the apartment and discover the source.” “I don’t want you to do that. I say you’re done, aside from cleaning.” “Cleansing,” he corrected. “I’ll do what you asked me to do. We made a deal.” “Which was …” “You wanted to know how to counter it, what it is, where it came from, why,” he reminded her. “You do remember,” she said with a frown. “Yes.” “Do you have any answers?” she asked. “I’ve countered it. It’s black magic. Sissy was not its target but happened to be there to fall under its influence. Why and where I’m still unearthing,” he explained. “If you care to share anything about this …” She crossed her arms in response. “I guess not. I’m leaving tomorrow morning for a day,” he said. “Why?” “I need to go home for a day to do some research and check on my shop,” he said. “Sissy will be fine, and whatever is tracking you doesn’t want you dead. I won’t be gone long.” “You’ll leave Isolde?” she asked. He nodded. What if something happens? Her question went unvoiced, and he didn’t respond, agitated she didn’t feel comfortable enough to ask him. “Just don’t take any candy from strangers,” he said with some frustration and turned to go. Emma shot up and took his arm, pulling him back to face her. “Why not?” she demanded. His warning was late, as he suspected. “You don’t know what you’re messing with, Emma,” he told her. “You need to start talking to me. I’m working in the dark here, and you’ve got the info that’ll help me find the source of evil.” She released him and her jaw clenched. Tristan left to cool his anger at the stubborn woman. He went for a long run, took a shower, then braced himself to deal with her again. When he entered the bedroom, she was stretched on the bed once more, staring at the ceiling with the pillow fort down the middle of the bed. She had switched them so she was closer to the door and the light switch. She gave him a dirty look as he approached the light switch to the room and flipped it off. Her eyes snapped shut. He walked around the bed and lay down. She crossed to the door and turned on the light once more. He willed the light off. She muttered something he knew to be a curse directed at him and turned it back on. “I want it on, Tristan,” she told him. “I don’t care,” he answered. He willed it off again. She all but leapt into bed, tugging the sheet up over her head defensively. Tristan watched, entertained, and leaned over the pillow fort, poking her side. “You think a sheet stops anything?” “You have nothing to be afraid of,” she growled and swiped at his hand. She curled into a ball.
  • 39. “You survived Demon’s Alley after dark. You don’t seem like someone who’s scared of much.” “No, I’m not,” she agreed. “But some things that go bump in the night can hurt you, Tristan.” “How, Emma?” he asked softly. She said nothing. Tristan reached over and tugged the sheet from her head, brushing her soft, warm cheek with his fingers. She didn’t move, and he felt the wetness of tears. They burned his skin, as if punishing him for causing them. At once he felt guilty for torturing her, even if she refused to help him figure out what evil had made it into the apartment. He ran his fingers through her hair, and her body relaxed, her eyes closing. She found his hand with her own and held it tightly, her grip relenting only when he commanded her body to sleep. He removed her pillow fortification once more and adjusted his grip on her hand. With a deep breath, he carefully gathered his darkness to use on her. “I’m sorry, Emma,” he whispered. He released his darkness into her and found the evil taint she’d brought back from the grocery store. He nudged for it to do its master’s bidding. “C’mon, Emma, we can do it together.” Emma’s face was turned toward the warm sun, her form leaning against the steel railing of the Bay Bridge. A warm, summery ocean breeze swept past her, making the curls of her ponytail dance and tickling her neck and face. She opened her eyes at the voice and recognized Adam, his dark blond hair tousled by the same ocean breeze sweeping over her. He gave her a familiar goofy grin. Her emotions soared in excitement and confusion to see him again. “Do what together?” she asked. “You know,” he said with a wicked grin. She tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear, and he kissed her palm, the familiar action making her melt even when she tried hard not to be affected by him. “No, I don’t,” she answered. “What?” “Jump.” “Whatever, Adam,” she said. “Just tell me why you wanted to meet me here.” The dream flickered. His back was to her now, and the scene altered in a way that gave her more awareness of her surroundings. A chilled fog tickled the back of her neck. Emma turned to see the afternoon fog rolling in over the bay, heading quickly toward the sun. “We’re about to be fogged, Adam,” she said. “We still need to talk,” he replied. “Fine. Let’s go get dinner at the café.” She started in the direction leading back to the mainland, where she’d parked her car at the foot of the bridge. They were the only ones on the bridge, car or human. Puzzled at the lack of activity, she looked around. The Bay Bridge was well traveled, especially on a weekend evening. The bridge ended a few hundred feet away. Instead of land, there was nothing. “Adam?” she called. Fog blocked the sun and moved to envelop the land at the other end of the bridge. Within a blink, it swallowed everything. She reached out to grip the railing to keep from wandering into the road. It was unusually cold, and she drew back. “Emma?” Adam’s voice was close. “Adam, something strange is going on,” she said and turned to face him. He leaned over the edge once more, gazing downward. Emma joined him, touching the railing with her fingers to test its coldness. It had grown cold enough to burn. She leaned out cautiously to see what caught Adam’s attention. The bay was gone, swallowed by the same fog at both ends of the bridge. “Let’s go home, Adam,” she said, a chill of fear sweeping through her. “C’mon, Emma,” he said dismissively and placed one foot on the edge.
  • 40. “Adam, this isn’t funny,” she objected and grabbed one arm. His arm burned her fingers, as cold as the railing. Surprised, Emma drew back. Adam glanced down at her, his brown eyes icy gray and empty. She stepped away before he reached for her. “Will you leave me to die again?” Coldness swept through her. She spun and started away, seeing the darkness at the end of the bridge drawing nearer. “Don’t abandon me again, Emma.” She squeezed her eyes closed. “Wake up, Emma.” The voice was familiar to her even in her dream, and she thought of Tristan. “Release her, shadow.” * * * She awoke groggily, aware of bad dreams. The room was bright from opened blinds. She stretched, one hand landing on the other side of the bed, where Tristan should have been. He was gone. Emma’s gaze lingered before she recalled his words about leaving for a day. She sighed, grateful for a break from his intensity yet anxious about him being gone as well. She simply would not leave the apartment. Mama was up and cooking breakfast when she left her room. The smell made bile rise to her throat. Surprised, Emma paused, hand on her stomach. “Hello, doodle!” Mama called. “Mornin’, Mama,” Emma replied. “Where’s Amber and baby?” “Sissy’s getting a bath,” Mama replied. “Tristan left an hour or so ago. He said to thank you for the soy milk.” Emma blushed, uncertain why it mattered that he noticed. She sat on a stool at the breakfast counter. “You should see his apartment, Mama,” she said. “Exact opposite of mine.” “Clean?” “No, Mama,” Emma said. “I mean, his apartment is sterile. Nothing out of place, nothing excessive, not even pictures on the wall or color anywhere.” “Amber, Sissy, and I like him, Emma.” Mama turned to face her and folded her arms firmly. “A lot.” “You don’t know him, Mama,” Emma mumbled. “I know he’s taken time out of schedule to stay here and help Sissy. He might be in dire financial straits if he up and left his store. He’s sweet to all of us, and he’s strong enough for your attitude.” Emma rolled her eyes. She wasn’t taking advantage of him! They had a deal, she reminded herself, a deal in which he had named his price, though she’d never considered his financial concerns. Tristan seemed too self-sufficient to need anything and too much like her to ask for help if he did. “He’s your dark angel,” Mama added and heaped scrambled eggs onto a plate next to bacon. “My what?” “Your dark angel. You used to say one day, a man with dark eyes and hair would come and sweep you off your feet. You called him your dark angel.” “Yes, but that was before …” …I gave up hope. Before Adam. Before I knew you never really know anyone and can’t trust those you do. The words died in her throat. “Before what, doodle?” “No ‘doodle,’ Mama,” Emma said with an exasperated sigh. “I don’t know. Before Tristan, I guess.” “He’s so reserved. He must have been a lonely child. Is he an only child?”
  • 41. “I hope to God there’s no one else like him,” Emma said with feeling. “You’re a snot this morning, Emma-doodle.” “I don’t know anything about his childhood,” she admitted. “I feel like I don’t know anything about him.” “Then you’re not paying attention. He’s a gentleman, reserved and intense. I imagine if you ask, you’d discover he doesn’t have many friends. I feel a bit sorry for him.” “You’d pity the devil if it came down to it,” Emma joked. “Of course, darling. The devil is forever cut off from light and God. What’s not to pity?” Forever cut off from light. Was that Tristan? She sensed the darkness within him, around him. What would baby Tristan have been like? How would he react when even the adults shunned and rejected him? Was that why he lived alone in the attic above the store? If you can’t be accepted in the freak-fest of Wooster, where can you be accepted? she mused. She rubbed her face and recalled her first conversation with Tristan. He was the only one who tried to comfort her and the only who took her seriously. “Oh, Mama,” she murmured. “Have some breakfast,” Mama said and placed a plate before her. “You kids are young enough. You still have time to figure things out. Amber and I are going somewhere this evening, if that’s okay. Will you be okay with Sissy?” “Of course.” She took a bite and froze, queasiness washing over her. Mama gave her an odd look, but Emma forced the food down. Isolde joined her. Emma patted her with one hand and fed her bacon when Mama turned. She toyed with her food, feeling nauseous, before eating another two bites and stopping. A minute later, Emma hurried to the bathroom, sick to her stomach. * * * Tristan reached his apartment around noon. He never considered it bare or cramped. He never noticed anything about it except that it served his needs, and he wanted for nothing. Walking through it, he felt the loneliness, the emptiness. He went to his bedroom, almost relieved to see his bed unmade from Emma’s stay. He picked up a pillow as he set down his bag, smelling her scent before replacing the pillow. Everything else was how he left it, perfectly aligned, arranged, and in its place. Why did it bother him after so long of not noticing? It would be a long night. Thirty years sleeping alone, and one night without Emma seemed ... unusual. He sat in the living room and pulled his laptop from the coffee table to his thighs. His phone buzzed and hopped. He snagged it off the adjacent cushion. “Hello, Tristan!” Mama’s voice rang out. “Hi, Mama,” he said with a smile. “How are you?” “We’re doing fine. Wanted to make sure you made it okay.” “Yes, I did, thanks.” “Emma’s staying home with Sissy tonight. Amber and I are going out for a little bit. Amber needs a breather, I think.” “A great idea,” he agreed. “How does Sissy like Isolde?” “Oh, she loves that dog! Isolde follows her everywhere, I think mainly because Sissy drops as much food as she eats.” Tristan grinned, touched by Emma’s family. “Feel free to call if you need anything.” “We will. Thanks, Tristan!” He hung up, warmed by the sound of the plump woman’s voice. He flipped on his laptop and sat back, turning his head toward the door. “I suppose you forgot to call me,” his mother said as she entered through the kitchen. “I left a message with those snotty girls to call me when you got in.” “Hello, Mother. I’ll be leaving again tomorrow, Mama. You can always call my cell.” “Mama?” she echoed. “That’s new, boy.”
  • 42. Tristan studied his mother. She was small and prim with a cool air compared to Mama’s. Tristan knew his mother to be intelligent but oftentimes selfish, and he wondered for the first time in a long while what she would be doing with a demon, if that were truly what his father had been. He knew better than to ask. She never responded, and she was the only person he had yet come across who could keep him from rifling through her mind. “Are you almost done with this consult?” his mother asked. She sat, oblivious of his scrutiny. “Soon. I’ve got another loose end to tie up.” “In Virginia or Maryland?” “Does it matter?” he asked, again leery of her casual tone. “Maybe I missed you. You’ve never left your attic since we got to Maryland.” “You don’t miss me. You can find me anytime, anywhere,” he countered. “You did See something, didn’t you?” “Maybe I did, son.” “So you’ll cheat at slot machines and cards but not tell your own son what’s obviously bothering you?” “I don’t alter the events around me, just figure out when a machine is about to pop and happen to sit there,” she snapped. “It’s … hard for me to see you grow and know that growing will take some painful lessons.” “What kind of painful lessons?” “Lessons that will make you face the half of you neither of us wants to admit exists.” He shifted. “I won’t use the evil, Mother,” he said, irritated. “I’ve always protected you, Emma, and everyone around me from me.” “Emma, is it?” She raised an eyebrow. “Will I be officially meeting her soon?” “If she wants.” “So much for ignoble intentions, eh, boy?” “Gambled your savings away with the ladies yet?” he asked instead. “Not quite. I keep winning.” “Mother.” It was his turn to raise an eyebrow. “It’s your inheritance, son,” she said. “They make enough money off me.” “I thought you were the last witch to use her powers for evil.” “I’m not a witch anymore,” she reminded him. “I’m too old for them to throw out of the casinos, and I make a point of losing when I can afford it.” “You do what you do, and leave me to what I do,” he said. “Fine, son. I want to meet this Emma’s family,” she continued. “I’m still your mother, you know, and I want what’s best for my son.” “It’s not that serious,” Tristan objected. “She’s the first woman I’ve known so long without sleeping with her.” “Have mercy, son!” she exclaimed. Tristan laughed huskily. “It must be serious then.” “I’ve got to help her family first. If we all survive this, you can meet them,” he said. He leaned forward to his computer and looked up when his mother said nothing. She was staring at him, the look on her face revealing he’d hit close to home with his statement. “Do we all survive this?” he asked warily. “I don’t know. I can’t See that far,” she said. “Anyway, I came by to tell you I think one of the snots downstairs has been pilfering some herbs.” “I’ll take care of it,” he said, unwilling to look away. She avoided his gaze and stood. “Where’s Isolde?” she asked. “With Emma. She’s in danger, Mama,” he said. “Whatever spell you put on Isolde, she’s all that’s protecting Emma and her family.” “You need that protection, too. Isolde is your protector.”
  • 43. “Emma needs her more. I don’t know what it is about her, but I can’t stand the thought of someone like that being a victim of something like black magic,” he said. “She’s beautiful, gentle, proud, and so sweet I feel dirty around her.” “Everyone has their secrets,” his mother said. “You’re the sweetest man I know.” “I’m the only man you know,” he reminded her with a faint smile. “I’m being serious, Tristan. I may be your mother, but I still wouldn’t put up with you if you were anything but an angel. A dark angel, maybe, but still an angel.” “Dark angel?” he echoed. “I’ve heard that term far too often lately. I’m the farthest thing from an angel, dark or otherwise. I’m not good enough for a woman like that.” “You are good enough for her,” she chided. “When will I meet her?” “Mother, please,” he said with a chuckle. “I’ve got to take care of something first. If we all survive this, you can meet her, though I’ll warn her about your tongue.” “You’re so cruel to me sometimes,” she said. “You’re leaving again tomorrow? For how long?” “I’m not sure. I hope to be back within the week,” he said. “Got plans for me?” “You’ve been near your whole life. It was strange to find you gone,” she said in a softer tone then added with a flash of heat, “Without calling me, when you know I’m worried.” “I’ll call you every day,” he said. “When I’m done, I’ll let Emma know a dragon-tongued old lady wants to meet her.” “Dragon?” she snapped. “Before this is over, you’ll have a greater appreciation for me, you ungrateful boy.” “Unless you want to tell me what you Saw …” “You know I can’t. Just be careful,” she said. “The ladies are waiting for me. Check in with me daily, son.” “I will, Mother,” he said and watched her go. He could tell she was beyond worried. He rubbed the back of his neck, wondering what it was she saw that he couldn’t yet and concerned he wouldn’t figure it out in time to help Emma and her family. When he heard the door close, he picked up the phone again, dialed, and returned his attention to the computer. “Lora,” he said as soon as the woman picked up. “Tris?” Surprise was in her voice. “It’s been awhile. Are you coming up to Baltimore?” Her voice lowered a notch, and Tristan smiled. There were few things as predictable as an ex- girlfriend who wanted to be anything but ex. Lora was the only witch Tristan had convinced to return to college and make something of herself, even if he was too afraid to take a chance she’d reject him if they had a legit relationship. “Not exactly. I need a favor,” he answered. “You still working for the state police?” “Yep. What can I do for you?” “I need to research suicides off the Bay Bridge about two years ago.” “Sure, I can help.” He settled into his seat for a long day of research and repelling Lora’s attempts to hit on him. Chapter Five He felt the disturbance long before Emma worked up the nerve to call. He paced, eyes on the notepad beside the computer, and stretched. It was nearly two in the morning. He glanced at his phone before sitting once more on the couch and reading his cramped writing filling several pages of the notepad. Emma’s dream had been much more accurate than he expected. Adam Merchant committed suicide by jumping off the Bay Bridge, which connected mainland Maryland to the state’s outer banks. The rest he could piece together, with the
  • 44. exception of what made Emma fear the dark. Whatever happened was not available online, in public records, or even in newspapers at the local library, where Lora had kindly agreed to go. Olivia’s whereabouts were another unknown, though he suspected she wasn’t far from either Emma or from Adam’s likely burial place of Baltimore. He could follow her through the darker side of his abilities once he dug up whatever object she’d tagged in Sissy’s room. His phone buzzed and hopped. He snatched it and answered. “Tristan?” “Yes, Emma.” “Tristan, Amber and Mama were …” Her voice trembled. “They were in an accident. I’m so sorry to bother you, but I … I …” … need you. He almost sighed at her thought, even if her voice spoke other words. “Could you come back?” she asked, with an edge that bespoke her expectation for his rejection. It took great courage for Emma to ask another for help, and Tristan was proud of her despite his irritation. “Of course, Emma,” he said. “Thank you, Tristan,” she whispered. “How are they?” “Mama’s okay, but Amber is in the ICU.” She regained her control and hid the note of vulnerability. “Sissy and I are here at the hospital. And Isolde. She likes car rides. Tristan, I’m so sorry.” “Why?” he asked, rising. He shut his laptop, grabbed the notepad, and walked to the bedroom, tucking the notepad in his bag. He was changed and ready, his clothes clean, his bed made once more. “I haven’t been as good to you as you’ve been to me,” she said with a small sigh. “I was thinking about it today. I treat you like you have lice, and you’ve only treated me with respect, and given me a chance when everyone else laughed. Sissy’s alive because of you.” “You’ve nothing to apologize for,” he replied. “I think it’s time for us to have a talk, Emma.” “I know.” The note of anxiety was back in her voice. “Can you hurry?” “Yes, Emma.” “Thank you.” He gathered his things and left quickly, reaching the hospital as dawn stretched across the sky. He left his bag in the car, aware of the shady characters lingering everywhere. They noticed him, too, and those not fast enough to flee were swallowed by darkness and shadows. Isolde waited outside the ER doors, guarding them from the shady characters. The dog recognized his scent from a distance and wagged. She rose and sniffed the air as he approached. “Hello, Isolde,” he greeted her and knelt. “Good girl. Stand guard.” Isolde sat again and butted his arm with her hand. Tristan smiled and handed her the contents of his pocket, a pack of half-eaten crackers, before rising. He entered the modest-sized hospital, pausing in the ER to greet a sleepy teen manning the information desk. The teen fumbled and stammered under his gaze, so Tristan followed his instincts to the second floor. He pushed through the doors marked ICU into the antiseptic- riddled scents of the hospital. He spotted Emma as he rounded a corner. She stood in the middle of the hall, speaking to two doctors and a nurse. Sissy was asleep in her arms with her cherubic face resting on Emma’s shoulder. By her profile, Emma was ill herself. Her face was pale, her eyes glazed. He sensed the shadow clinging to her, sensed her distress and apprehension. She nodded to something one doctor said, a queasy look crossing her face. With a weak smile, she handed Sissy to the nurse and moved away, trotting down the hall. Tristan followed with a frown. Emma darted into the first bathroom she found, holding her mouth. He waited several minutes before opening the door. She leaned over the sink, rinsing
  • 45. her mouth. From the portable dentistry kit resting beside the sink, this was not the first time she vomited. She glanced up and caught sight of him in the mirror. He entered, closed the door, and locked it. “Don’t look at me like that,” she said and tucked away a toothbrush before reaching for mouthwash. “Like what?” he asked. “Like you’re mad at me,” she answered after rinsing her mouth once more. “Right now, I am. All you’ve needed to do was talk to me, and I’ll help you,” he said in agitation. “How are they?” “Mama will be discharged at eight. She has a sprained wrist and will probably need an MRI for her neck. Amber might have spinal cord damage and …” She cleared her throat. “ … a broken bone or two.” Tristan’s anger eased at her distress. “How are you?” he asked. “I’m fine,” she said at last. “Being strong. Dealing with the doctors, police, and insurance companies, and Sissy and the freaks.” “Thank you for calling me.” “I hope I’m not bothering you. I know you have your own life. I just couldn’t think of anyone else I really wanted you to be here.” “Not at all,” he said. “Why didn’t you tell me you’ve been sick?” “It’s not important,” she said and straightened. “I deserve it.” “What did the freaks offer you?” he pursued and stepped closer. She pulled her head back to meet his gaze. He saw her debating whether to resist or give. “Mints,” she said, bitter amusement crossing her features. “Demons like fresh breath, I take it.” “Let me help you, Emma,” he replied. “You’ll be no more obligated to me than you already are.” Her bravado faltered, displaying her fear and uncertainty. She nodded, and he offered a hand. She took it. “This might hurt a little,” he warned with a half smile. “Famous last words.” He drew her into him, cupped the back of her neck with one hand and steadied her with his other hand at the small of her back. For once, she didn’t resist him but surrendered. Tristan kissed her, reveling in the sensations caused by her slightest touch. She relaxed against him, welcoming and yielding. He coaxed her mouth open, savored her taste, then tightened his grip on her. Tristan felt her tense despite his attempt to be gentle. He released his shadows into her, commanding them to find their brethren and return. Her body shuddered, but he worked her lips, suffusing her with warmth while the shadows within chilled her. She responded almost desperately, and he felt some of her pain and loneliness, distress and yearning. When he withdrew, both of them were breathing raggedly. Tristan released a puff of black smoke above her head. She wrapped her arms around him, and he squeezed her. Her scent wrapped around him, its subtlety only making him want to be closer to her, to engorge himself on her elusive essence. “Who supports you while you shoulder the world?” he murmured into her hair. “I don’t need anyone,” she said in a tiny voice. “Stubborn girl.” She pressed herself against him and relaxed, letting him support her. Incredible. There was no other word for the sensation of having her pliant in his arms, her sultry body pressed against his. It was a tender surrender, one he suspected would not last long, but one he would relish while it did. Tristan memorized her heady scent and softness, her
  • 46. lingering taste in his mouth and her arms around him. He’d never met a woman capable of ensnaring his senses or calming the raging darkness within him. “Tristan, they’ll never leave my family alone, will they?” she asked. “I don’t think they will. It’d be much easier for me to protect them and you if you’d trust me enough to tell me who it is that’s after you.” “I love them so much. I couldn’t bear it if anything else happened,” she whispered. He felt her give like the first drops of rain after the tension of a gathering storm. “Let’s go talk.” She nodded in silence. He took her hand and led them out of the restroom and down the hall until he found a waiting room with no one in it. Emma sat in the chair next to him, looking broken. He squeezed her hand, and she shook her head to clear her thoughts. “A few years ago, I met this guy named Adam. Total charmer, handsome, sweet, and he seemed so genuine,” she started. “I was a freshman in college, and he was a senior. I was on top of the world that he even noticed me. He was my tutor for math. I hate math, but he made it simple. We started talking then hanging out. I’d heard from friends he might be seeing someone, but I never brought it up, and neither did he. One day, we’d stayed out late at a coffee shop. When he took me home, he kissed me. It was the beginning of this disaster.” “I take it he wasn’t single,” Tristan said, keeping the anger out of his voice. “Not even close. He had a few different women,” she said with a frown. “One was Olivia, another freshman. She was kinda strange. She was very goth. I never thought she was a witch, and I never thought such things as black magic existed. She found out about Adam fooling around on her and flipped out. His other girlfriends sort of … disappeared. One moved out of town suddenly, and another one jumped off the Bay Bridge. I don’t know what happened to the third one. She just looked real sick and stopped coming to school. I didn’t think anything about it at the time. “Adam swore he broke it off with Olivia, that she was a psycho, and it was just us. I believed him. I was really happy with him, and everything seemed so great for about six months. Then he became unreliable, stopped taking my calls, showed up randomly on my doorstep, always looked upset. He was still seeing her, and she’d figured out there was someone else. She found out it was me and confronted me one day. I was shocked. I told her the truth, and she went crazy. Said she’d curse me with awful things. I was just pissed at Adam for lying. I didn’t think anything about it until bad things started happening to me.” “Like what?” “The brakes on my car went out like Amber’s did last night. Some guy mugged me in the alley behind our dorm. I couldn’t sleep, because there was always someone waiting for me that wanted to take me away to Hell. Just weird things like that. And every day for a week, she would wait for me outside the dorm and follow me to my first class, screaming in some weird language at me. Total psycho. Anyway, a couple of weeks after I broke it off with Adam, he sent me an email and asked me to meet him on the bridge. Said he left her for good and wanted to marry me. He said he needed a friend. As angry as I was, I couldn’t bear the thought of losing him.” Her voice grew faint and then faded into silence. She blinked back tears. “I was such a fool.” “You met him, and he jumped,” Tristan finished for her. “He said Olivia would kill him if he didn’t do it first. I guess she’d been doing even worse stuff to him than she had to me,” Emma said and cleared her throat. “I called in an anonymous report to the police from a pay phone at a gas station and then packed up all my stuff and left college.” Guilt crossed her features, and tears spilled down her cheeks. Tristan leaned closer to pull her into him. “None of this is your fault, Emma,” he whispered. “You got caught between two very stupid people.” “I know I didn’t kill him, but I still ran away like a coward!”
  • 47. “No, you survived for two years until I could find you,” he said. “I have to ask, when you packed up your belongings and brought them to Amber’s, was there anything in there Olivia or Adam had given you?” “Like what?” “An object of any kind.” “Adam gave me all kinds of things. I threw most of them out. He knew I collected geodes and used to buy them for me. Some were too pretty to throw in the trash,” she said and pulled away. “Why? You think I did this to Sissy, because I kept them?” “Emma, you didn’t do anything!” he said and wiped tears from her cheek. “I think Olivia cursed something Adam gave you without you knowing. It sat in the storage room at Amber’s and was harmless until it came into long-term contact with another person.” “If he was still alive, I’d push him off that damn bridge!” she said, fire back in her eyes. He kissed her forehead, unable to resist the temptation. “You need to get some rest,” he said and withdrew before he lost his will to keep away from her until this was over. He rose and held out his hand. “I’m not tired,” she told him. She took his hand anyway and let him pull her the short distance to a bank of elevators. “And I want to find Olivia so you can use your weird magic to kick her ass.” “I’ll take care of Olivia.” She believed him. Adam was screwing her over even in his death! She wished she’d destroyed everything he gave her. If she had, Sissy would be well, and maybe Olivia would be satisfied with only coming after her. She gazed up at Tristan, comforted by the closeness of his body and his quiet strength. His gaze was distant as they waited for the elevator. His hard face with its lopsided features was impossible to read, but he’d held her sweetly when she revealed her dark secret. His dark eyes were not black as she first thought but dark brown, the color of dark chocolate. Tristan looked down at her, and the skin around his eyes softened. He was a loner. Mama had been correct in that. He seemed genuinely surprised whenever someone asked him how he was or did something thoughtful for him. She felt the cool darkness around him like she had Mr. Winter but wasn’t afraid of Tristan. His eyes were warm and his touch gentle. Whatever he was, whatever she might be suffering from, she was drawn to him with an intensity that frightened her. His touch was familiar, like they’d been lovers in some former life. His taste and scent set her senses ablaze with awareness. Of all the emotions she felt toward him, gratitude was foremost on her mind. He’d healed Sissy and treated her family well. The elevator in front of them slid open, and they entered. Emma gazed at him, wishing she knew what to say. She wanted to know more of the man who’d saved the life of someone she loved and provided her more comfort than anyone else ever had. She wanted to ask about his family, why someone so sweet lived in a place like Demon’s Alley, even his favorite color. How did one converse with an otherworldly being? How did one converse with men at all? She sighed and looked away. They reached the tenth floor in silence, and she walked from the elevator. “Nap,” he reminded her, holding open the door with a hand. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.” “Where are you going?” she asked. “I’ve gotta make a phone call.” Thank god! With her gratitude had come an increased awareness of the sexual tension that stretched between them. She needed rest and doubted she’d get it if he went with her. Tristan gave a smoky chuckle, one that tickled the back of her neck and slid over her like a fall breeze. She shuddered and eyed him, once again aware of just how unique this man was. The elevator door closed. My favorite color is green, like your eyes.
  • 48. She smiled, the guilt she’d felt for two years at Adam’s death lifted from her thoughts. Tristan hadn’t judged her. He’d been the gentleman Adam was never capable of being. She did what he suggested and took a short nap in Amber’s room, followed by a shower hot enough to melt her tension. She closed her eyes and sighed. When she stepped out of the shower, the stress would be back. She would face a man that frightened her, an injured mother, and a daughter wondering about her own mother. Worst of all, she would look in the mirror and know who caused everything. She opened her eyes. It was still dark. She blinked. The light flipped on, then off again. She opened the shower curtain in the tiny hospital bathroom, snatched her towel and wrapped it around her sloppily, and flung open the door. Sissy stared at her in surprise, her fingers on the wall beside the switch. “Do that again, and I’ll never take you out for ice cream ever again!” she said, unable to help the fear streaking through her. She glanced up and saw Tristan’s intense eyes skimming over her before she slammed the door. She dressed in the same outfit and left the bathroom, feeling grimy without a change of clean clothes. “Mama, I think I’ll run to my apartment really fast to get some clothes,” she said as she exited. “Of course, doodle. I’ll keep Sissy. Tristan will go with you though.” “You’ll be okay, right, Mama?” she asked, hesitating. She glanced at Tristan. He nodded in reassurance. “We’ll be fine,” Mama replied. “Go get some real food while you’re out.” Emma stepped into the hall, feeling uneasy about leaving. Tristan took her hand before she could change her mind and led her down the hall. She said nothing until they were out of the hospital and noticed Isolde lying by the ER doors. “Oh, angel,” she murmured and released Tristan to cross to the blind dog. Isolde perked and thumped her tail. Emma patted her. “I’ll bring you some food. Don’t let any creeps inside.” Isolde licked her, and she rejoined Tristan, who smiled. The sky was gray, a strong, cool wind whipping in from the north. She savored it, sensing the threat of rain and thunder. She welcomed the autumn storm. They walked quietly to the car, and she gazed at him as he opened her door. “I feel like I don’t know anything about you and you know everything about me. What’s your last name?” she asked as he sat in the driver’s seat of her car. “Chatham.” He smiled as he merged onto the highway. His right hand rested on her thigh once more, and Emma gazed at it, temporarily distracted. She really did like his hands. Oddly enough, she learned early in life that a person’s hands bespoke much of that person. Tristan’s hands were well-cared for but calloused, strong as a man’s hands should be with round palms. “Your favorite color?” she asked. Green, like your eyes. His reply came unbidden into her mind. “I bet that skill of yours works well cheating at cards,” she said. “My mother does that in a casino.” “Really? I didn’t think you’d have a mother. You’re too unusual,” she said. “Is your mother like you?” “No. She’s Italian,” he said with his subtle humor. She gazed at him, not certain if he were joking. He tipped her chin with a half smile. “Your father?” she continued. “Never knew him.” “Siblings?” “A brother.” “Good lord,” she muttered. “He’s normal,” he assured her.
  • 49. “Tell me something about you, Tristan. Help me believe I didn’t invite the devil into my home,” she said with a sigh. “I was born in Italy to an Italian mother and a man she refers to only as The Bastard. She had one older son, my brother, named Andre, whose father she calls The First Bastard. We moved to France shortly after my birth, where I lived until I was fifteen. My mother moved to Wooster at that point and bought the shop on Demon’s Alley. I grew up there and have been there ever since.” “Not married, no kids, no black witch girlfriends you’re not telling me about?” she asked. “No.” “Do you like Demon’s Alley?” “Not especially, but it serves a purpose.” “What purpose?” she pried. “I’m with my kind.” Emma frowned at him. “They’re not your kind, Tristan. They’re hostile, stupid, unfriendly, and wouldn’t give me the time of day. You’re the only person who’s ever helped me.” “There aren’t many places for people like me, and I’m a freelance occult consultant. Demon’s Alley is the only place I’ve ever fit in,” he replied. “Tristan, I’m serious. You deserve to be somewhere better. I can see it. I wish you could,” she insisted. “You’re too good of a person, even if you aren’t fully … uh … you’re a better human than full humans.” “There are two people who think so,” he said with a chuckle. “You and my mother.” “My family,” she added. “I have a feeling we’re the only people you’ve ever really known, though.” “I was home-schooled because I terrified the kids in class. Hard to make friends when people fear you. I’m not even sure …” He trailed off. She waited, unable to decipher the emotions on his face. “I gave up my biggest secret,” she reminded him. “Talk, Tristan.” He hesitated then sighed. “I’m afraid I won’t always be able to control the evil inside me.” “It’s evil?” she asked. “Half of me is. I suppress it, but sometimes I wonder if I’ll always be able to.” She was quiet, hearing the pain in his voice. It disturbed her to know how tortured his existence had been, never accepting who he was, never finding acceptance anywhere he went. She lifted his hand and kissed it. “I imagine it helps if you have a good enough reason to want to control it,” she said. He glanced at her, his gaze warming. She would step up to become that reason after all he’d done for her family. While he said nothing, she sensed he was happy with her words. As they pulled up to her apartment building, she couldn’t help thinking of his apartment. “I don’t think you’ll like my apartment,” she said in a considering tone. “Why don’t you like color or things on your wall?” “My mother says I spend too much time in my head to pay attention to the rest of the world,” he said. “And I like your apartment.” “You’ve been?” “Mama sent me for your clothes the other day.” “You got them?” she asked in surprise. “I’m surprised my clutter didn’t throw you out before you got past the front door. I’m sorry, Tristan. I would’ve cleaned if I knew you were going there.” “A delightful mess,” he said with another small smile. “Much like you.” “I’m not that bad!” She blushed, about to continue when he raised a hand. His eyes were on the building. “Wait here.” His voice was low, his eyes sharpening. “Is something wrong?” she asked.
  • 50. “Just stay here.” Without another word, he left the car and jogged to the building. He disappeared around the corner. * * * He recognized the darkness from his time with it in Sissy’s room. What alarmed him, however, was something even more familiar. He took the stairs to Emma’s apartment two at a time and strode in boldly. His mother’s warning came back to him as he faced the man in the middle of Emma’s living room. Caught off guard, the man who could be his twin dropped the shoebox in his hand and stared. “I didn’t sense you,” the stranger said. “Who are you?” “I think it’s evident,” Tristan replied. He sensed the evil lingering in his twin. While Tristan had defeated the darkness he was born with, this man had not. Anger filled him. More than one woman had kept her secrets well from him. “Is that bitch still alive?” the stranger growled, sharing his thought. “Our mother is alive.” “When this is over …” “What do you want with Emma?” Tristan asked. He closed the door behind him and loosened the boundaries on his darkness. It stretched, ready. Feeling it, the stranger straightened to face him directly, dark eyes narrowing. “I don’t give two shits about her. A friend, however, does.” “She’s mine.” “I won’t let you ruin my plan, blood or not.” “Your plan?” “To return home to our father. The bitch Olivia cracked the gateway to Hell. I can’t enter until …” Aware he said too much, his twin fell silent. “We can both go home to Father.” A different kind of coldness swept through Tristan as understanding of his twin’s intention became clear. Human sacrifices. He’d heard of the practice among those obsessed with devil worshipping. “Why Emma?” he asked. “Why not just anyone?” “Olivia fell into my lap with her sights set on Emma. She’s taking a life for a life. I needed a spell powerful enough to give me what I want.” Tristan frowned, suddenly wishing he could speak to his mother about the dark magic. Before he could ask anything else, the shadows around him stirred, and he was slung into the wall. The blow made his mind explode in lights. The shadows dragged him down. Too startled to respond, Tristan struggled against the shadows, before his twin charged him and knocked him flat. His head spun, and his blurred vision showed the man raising his clenched fist for another blow. He slumped to the floor, unconscious. * * * She couldn’t sense what he did but was made nervous by his own sudden unease. Tristan could handle anything. She exited the car and circled around to the driver’s seat. He’d left the keys in the steering column, and she started the car. Feeling anxious, she focused on finding her favorite radio station. She didn’t see the stranger approach until he’d whipped open her car door. Startled, Emma stared up at a man who looked much like Tristan, except his hair was long, his nose was pierced, and his eyes lacked any sort of human warmth. Shadows didn’t cling to him as they did Tristan; they swirled, cold and menacing. “Olivia’s waiting for you,” the man said.
  • 51. She reached for the door but he caught her arm in a tight grip and pulled her out of the car. Emma slammed one fist on the horn before she was out of reach. The snowman stood waiting with another shadowy creature in black. Fear exploded within her, and she opened her mouth to call for Tristan. The man who looked like Tristan shoved her to her knees before she could make a squawk then pushed her onto her stomach with a foot planted in her back. He forced a gag around her head and tied her hands before hooding her. Tristan! She cried out to him with her mind. One of the three picked her up and tossed her in the backseat of a car. She heard the engine start and squirmed in the cramped area, panicked. And then they were driving. The car rocked back and forth as they turned out of the community to reach the main roads. Tristan didn’t come. Was it possible the twin-like man and his two shadow-men had done something to him? They drove for a while, long enough for her tears to dry. The interior of the hood darkened as afternoon turned to evening. Renewed fear gripped her at being faced with the dark once more. The smooth sound of freeway beneath the car turned again to rocking as it left the highway for an unknown destination. The car halted, and awareness overtook her again. While traveling tied up in the backseat of a car was miserable, whatever awaited her was worse. Someone hauled her out by her feet. The hood tore, and fire tore down her cheek as it scraped the rough asphalt and then dirt. Tears of pain filled her eyes. Whoever dragged her finally took mercy on her and lifted her up a set of three stairs then into a house smelling of marijuana. She peered through the rip in the hood as they passed a great room lit by a quiet television and through a kitchen that smelled of cinnamon laced with sulfur. A door slammed open, and they were descending into a basement. The scent of sulfur grew more intense until it burned her nose. It smelled and felt like the basement was on fire. Tristan’s twin slung her down on hard cement and pulled off her hood. Her gaze went first to the strange crack emanating heat in the wall, behind which fire glowed. Shadow creatures shifted in the poorly lit basement. He hauled her up and steadied her. Her eyes fell to the sickly figure of a woman before him. If not for the bright eyes, she never would’ve recognized Olivia. The once beautiful woman had shrunk and grown gaunt. Her skin was patchy and her eyes ringed with black. Her hair and teeth had become yellow. “At last!” the black witch breathed. “I have you at last.” Her eyes glowed with madness. Emma couldn’t look away, horrified by the change in the woman. Olivia drew nearer, raised a hand, and slapped her hard. “We won’t have much time,” Tristan’s twin said. “Now you’re the jealous bitch,” Olivia said, oblivious. She gripped and ungripped the knife in her hand. “Jeffrey has made me more beautiful than you ever were. Adam won’t leave me this time.” Confused, Emma looked from the hideous woman in front of her to Tristan’s twin, whom she called Jeffrey. There was ridicule in his gaze as he took in the black witch. He took Olivia’s hands and drew her toward him. “You’re right, Olivia. I’ve never seen anyone as beautiful as you, and neither has Emma,” he purred. His gaze went to Emma and sharpened in warning. Emma chewed the gag. They were both crazy! Olivia, who had no idea Jeffrey was destroying her, and Jeffrey, who was some sort of half-demon like Tristan. Unlike Tristan, Jeffrey had no ounce of human mercy in his hard gaze. “We don’t have much time,” he said again. “And you want Adam here soon, don’t you?” “My sweet Adam will be with me again soon,” Olivia said and faced Emma again. “And this time, no one will come between us.” She raised the knife toward Emma’s face and took a step forward.
  • 52. “Of course not,” Jeffrey agreed. “You’ll have him for all eternity. But we must follow the spell.” He pushed Olivia’s hand away from Emma. “I’ll tie her down to the altar while you prepare yourself. You want to look perfect for when Adam returns.” Olivia’s face turned from anger to joy at the mention of Adam. She handed him the knife and whirled without another word, heading up the stairs. Alone with the half-demon and the shadows, Emma took a step back. Jeffrey faced her and took in her features with his sharp gaze. “I see why my brother claims you as his. You are his opposite.” By the flare of hate in his eyes, any connection to Tristan would only make her life worse. He circled her, knife in hand, and she moved away from him until her back hit the wall. “Pretty, strong.” He moved in front of her again. “Pure. The things I would do to you. You’re not as beautiful as Olivia when I found her. I could give you anything, beauty, wealth …” He paused. What felt like a cool breeze passed through her mind. “I’ll kill her for you. Even I wouldn’t target a child.” She shook her head. “She’ll go after your whole family once she’s done with you. I can help you stop her.” He maneuvered her until her back was to him and sliced her hands free and then her gag. “Tristan can go back to the attic where he hides. I’ll leave him alone and make sure your sister and mother are well cared for. You’re broke, Emma, and your sister has spent her savings on doctors for that brat.” He leaned close to her, whispering into her ear. “I’ll fix everything, Emma.” Emma squeezed her eyes closed, terrified of moving. Fear for Sissy and Amber made her chest tight and her breathing difficult. He said all the right words, but the creature behind her would do to her what he’d done to Olivia. He’d destroy Tristan and her family while deluding her into believing the opposite. “No,” she whispered. “You’d rather I tie you down next to Adam’s corpse, drain your blood, then slaughter everyone you love? Because I will, Emma.” His voice was still soft. His words made her gasp. “Tristan-- ” she started. Jeffrey snatched her neck and dragged her across the basement. Light and dark spun as she struggled to stay on her feet. He thrust her downward and held her. Instinctively, her hands shot out to brace herself. One hit a cool cement slab and the other … “Oh, god!” she cried, focusing on the decomposed body Jeffrey held her inches from. Her left hand had landed in what had been Adam’s thigh. She flung it free, near hyperventilating despite the scent of decomposition. “This is what you choose?” Jeffrey demanded, pushing her closer. She strained to keep herself upright and from toppling into Adam. “Answer me!” “I won’t do it!” she shouted. The air shimmered with his anger. Jeffrey hauled her up and shoved her down hard on the altar next to Adam. He tied her hands and arms spread-eagled. “Before this is over, you’ll choose me,” Jeffrey snarled. “I’ll make sure of it!” Her chest heaved in fear, and tears leaked from her eyes. As she heard him storm up the stairwell she closed her eyes, too aware of how close she was to Adam’s body. Tristan! Chapter Six The shadows kept him trapped in unconsciousness until warmth flared through him. He jolted awake, blinking his mother’s fuzzy gray head into focus. Morning light filtered in through the curtains. “I warned you, son,” his mother said.
  • 53. Morning. Emma. Tristan bolted to his feet and faced his mother. She rose from her seat on her haunches and sat calmly on the couch, ignoring the emotions boiling within him. He could hear Emma’s voice in his head. She was hurt and terrified. “That’s all you’re going to say?” he charged. “Nothing about keeping the secret of a brother?” “I hoped you’d never meet him.” “Mother, you can see the future. You must’ve known!” “Believe it or not, I’m not omniscient,” she replied brusquely. “I saw there was a chance, but there’s a chance at winning the lotto, too, son.” Furious, Tristan sat down across from her. “Tell me everything.” “There’s no time for everything,” she said. “Your Emma needs help, soon.” “Then tell me what I need to know to face your son.” “Don’t call him that. He’s your father’s son, not mine. You already know the answer. You must use what you’ve suppressed all these years. You control but a fraction of your dark powers. The rest you’ve buried and must free.” “You make it sound just that easy.” He ran a hand through his hair. “I don’t even know if I can anymore.” “Trust me, the darkness will call to you once you’re there. Your problem won’t be tapping into it. Your problem will be coming back from the edge once you do.” The worry in her voice drew his gaze. She suddenly looked haggard and tired. “I brought this upon you, Tristan. I am so very sorry, son. Your father was a demon handler, a breed of black warlock who could control demons. I was too young to know. You and your brother were twins. I saw evil in both of you, but I saw your path was not one of darkness.” “You chose to keep me,” he said, both pitying and angry at the small woman. “Did you throw my brother to the wolves?” “No,” she said firmly. “Jeffrey was taken from me by his father before your first birthday. I never saw him again, except when I would peek into your futures.” Tristan! Emma’s frantic calls were becoming more desperate. “We’ll detangle our sordid family history later. I need to find Emma,” he said and rose. “He said he wants to go home to Father, and he said he needed Emma for ...” He thought hard. “… life for a life. Human sacrifice?” His mother was quiet for a moment, features pensive. “Life for a life implies he’s raising the dead. It’s a powerful spell that requires that someone close to the dead must replace him in the ground. It’s an ancient blood spell, though why he thinks such a thing will be enough to open the gateway to Hell, I don’t know.” “He said the gateway is already open.” “If it is, it’s only a crack. You and I would both feel it if the gateway to Hell was open. The spell might be strong enough to shove it wide open.” TRISTAN! “I have to go, Mother,” he said. He started for the door. “Wait, son!” she called and followed him to the door. She fished a small object from her pocket and handed it to him. “I made this many years ago. It’s a demon handler’s tool. If you can force the demons into it, toss it into Hell. They can’t come back without being re- summoned.” The small, transparent crystal ball was hollow. He accepted it and met his mother’s gaze again. Worry creased the lines around her eyes. Softening, Tristan kissed her on the forehead. “Don’t worry, Mama. I’ll be fine,” he said. “I’ll light a candle for you, son.” “Better light a few.” Her gaze flared, a sign he welcomed. Tristan left. Her car was in the parking lot, running with the door open, waiting for him. He sighed. His mother knew more than she would ever say.
  • 54. He sat in the driver’s seat and closed his eyes, loosening the shadows again. For the first time since defeating it many years ago, his darkness was given its freedom. It filled him with warm and cool currents, calmed his mind. Already he could feel it test his will to control it. He drove fast to Amber’s apartment and went straight to Sissy’s room. The walk-in closet was stacked with boxes along one wall. Tristan closed his eyes and let the darkness guide him to the object tainted with evil. He flung two boxes off one stack and dumped the contents of the third until he spotted the geode. Snatching it, he tore out of the apartment. Take me to Emma, he ordered his shadows. The darkness complied and lit up the route he needed to follow against the backdrop of his eyelids. He opened his eyes, put the car into gear, and obeyed the instructions to the highway, around the Beltway, toward coastal Maryland. The route grew more familiar as he drove, and with some anger, he realized his twin had virtually lived in his neighborhood. His mother would’ve had to have known Jeffrey was so close. He gripped the steering wheel hard and tried not to think about her secrets as he drove. His mind was on Emma, who’d gone quiet. She was alive; he could feel her. He sped past Annapolis and Wooster, even angrier when the shadows directed him to a small town less than twenty highway minutes north of Wooster. He exited where the shadows indicated and drove through rural farmland before coming to the small town near the Chesapeake Bay. His fear grew as he neared. True to his mother’s prediction, he felt the evil and shadows of the fissure to Hell. Half of him rejoiced at it, strained to be free. He’d never fully defeated the darkness within him. If he wanted to save Emma, he’d have to release it-- and trust he could return. The closer he got, the sweatier his palms became. Soon, he didn’t need the guidance of the shadows; they all but dragged him closer. Tristan slowed to a stop as he drew near the large Victorian house, struggling with the shadows. If he was to save Emma, he’d have to become what he was. He closed his eyes and drew a deep breath. He’d never met anyone who would drive him to this point, who appeased both sides of him. He loved her family, from sweet Sissy to the cheerful matriarch. They’d accepted him as even his own mother hadn’t. He owed them-- all of them. If rescuing Emma killed him, his was a sacrifice worth making. * * * Olivia didn’t return until the single window in the basement showed it was morning. Emma jerked out of a light nap when the door above slammed open. She raised her head. The black witch wore a wedding dress of pristine white that only made her sallow skin less natural looking. Emma rested her head back, bitterness in her thoughts. They’d both been engaged to Adam. As guilty as she felt for being there when Adam jumped, she didn’t understand why Olivia would want the traitorous man back. She said nothing, afraid of drawing the crazy woman’s attention. Instead, she watched as Olivia took a wooden bowl to a small desk. The black witch set it down and pulled a lighter from a drawer before walking around the basement to light black and purple candles. She shied away from the fissure in the wall, and Emma looked at it again. She hadn’t wanted to acknowledge the fiery crack or what it meant to lie in front of it in the basement of a black witch intent on revenge. The sound of someone trotting down the hollow steps to the basement drew Olivia’s gaze, and she looked irritated. “I’m not ready yet, Jeffrey,” she barked. “We can’t take a break between the preparation incantation and the start of the ritual. You took too long getting ready.” “I must be perfect for him. Besides, she’s not going anywhere,” Olivia said, tossing her hand toward Emma.
  • 55. Emma met Jeffrey’s gaze as he circled the altar to stand near Olivia. Her breath caught. His long hair was tied back and he’d shaven. Aside from his cold, cold eyes, he looked identical to Tristan. “You look beautiful, Olivia. There’s nothing you can do to tempt him more. He’ll want you more than he ever did.” A slow smile crossed his face. His gaze was on Emma. She twisted her head to stare at the wood beams lining the ceiling. “You really think so?” the black witch asked. “He won’t be able to leave your side.” She turned and gave him a hug before hurrying past him to grab something from a box. Emma wanted to cry again. Leaning against the altar, Jeffrey crossed her vision. “You still have a chance,” he said for her ears only. “To save yourself, Tristan, your family.” “No.” “In about an hour, I’ll ask you again.” He walked around the altar and stood before the fissure. Though his back was to her, she saw the heavy sigh that took the tension from his shoulders. Tristan was nothing like this creature, but she wondered if he, too, would find some pleasure at the sight of Hell. Would it call to him as it did Jeffrey? Sudden, sharp pain made her cry out and her body jerk. Olivia stood back with the knife that bore Emma’s blood, eyes glowing in pleasure. Emma’s body convulsed at the pain, and she tried to see the wound through teary eyes. Olivia had stabbed her in the chest on the right-hand side. Olivia raised the knife to plunge it again into her chest. “Olivia, no!” Emma shouted. “What’re you doing?” Jeffrey demanded, lunging to grab Olivia’s wrist. “This isn’t what we planned!” “She must die for him to live!” Olivia argued. She struggled to pull free from his grip. Emma watched, terrified, uncertain if she wanted Olivia to kill her fast and end this or for Jeffrey to stop her in hopes Tristan found her. The burning pain in her chest made her clench her teeth. “There’s a process,” Jeffrey snarled. He yanked the knife free and punched Olivia hard in the face. The black witch pitched backward and landed on the ground. Jeffrey set the knife down, anger in his eyes, and pulled up Emma’s shirt to see the wound. “Goddamn idiot! If you kill her, you’ll never have Adam back.” Olivia rose, dazed. “But I thought-- ” “Shut up and do what I tell you. Now we have to hurry. You’re lucky you didn’t hit a lung.” Olivia moped like a child disappointed at not receiving a toy. The fire spread through Emma’s body as they hunched over the desk, preparing whatever spell they planned to use to kill her and raise Adam from the dead. Coldness crept into her, and both heat and cool made her sweat and shake. Jeffrey drew near with the small wooden bowl Olivia had carried to the basement. He used the knife to channel the blood from Emma’s shoulder into the bowl. Olivia watched, crazed excitement on her gaunt features. “You look like shit,” Emma said at last. They were going to kill her, or she’d bleed out soon. Either way, Tristan wasn’t coming, and she didn’t care anymore. “He’s using you, Olivia. Look in the mirror. He’s destroyed you.” Jeffrey slapped Emma, and Olivia snickered. The black witch was too far gone for logic. Emma’s eyes watered. She watched them circle her, both chanting in words she couldn’t decipher, and stop at the other side of the altar, closer to Adam. Jeffrey set down the bowl and pricked Olivia’s arm with his knife. Emma watched as he collected the blood in the bowl. “I’ll wed you now, so he can’t ever leave you again,” he said to her. “Do you wish to spend your eternity with Adam?” “Yes,” Olivia said breathlessly. “Do you swear to him your body, heart, and soul?”
  • 56. “Yes, Jeffrey, yes!” As they spoke, smoke emerged from the bowl. Shadows withdrew from their corners of the basement and floated toward them. The air of the basement grew thicker, charged, hotter. Emma watched them through her fevered gaze, not sure what was real. Jeffrey asked Olivia more questions. The shadows and smoke mingled, coalesced, and took on the shape of a man. The man floated through the air and lowered itself to Adam’s body. “Do it, Olivia. Use your magic.” Jeffrey stepped aside. Olivia closed her eyes and faced each direction, speaking in a powerful voice that filled the basement. Emma struggled to understand the words, on the verge of passing out. The decomposing body beside her stirred. Emma gave a strangled cry of surprise, adrenaline pulling her back into the world. Olivia stopped and turned. “Adam!” “Don’t stop, Olivia!” Jeffrey shouted. “He’s alive!” Olivia exclaimed. Emma looked at the form beside her and cringed. It was moving, but it wasn’t Adam. The body hadn’t returned from its rotting stage, even if it struggled to sit up. The ground rumbled, and all eyes turned to the fissure in the wall as it grew by a foot. “Finish it, Olivia,” Jeffrey said, gazing on the fissure with the same excitement Olivia’s gaze held for Adam. Nothing good could come from a gateway to Hell. Emma forced herself to focus despite the fever addling her senses. Adam was sitting now, looking every bit the decomposed corpse she expected after two years in the ground. Olivia began chanting again, and more shadows gathered to enter Adam’s body. Though she didn’t understand the connection between Olivia’s magic and the fissure, they were somehow linked. She tried to think of how to distract Olivia. The corpse beside her began to change. Adam’s face formed as it had been two years ago. The change spread from his head to his neck, his chest. “Adam never loved you, Olivia,” Emma said, frantic to stop the spell. “He knew you were as big of a whore as he was!” The chanting stopped, and the shadows stilled. Adam had enough awareness to face her. His eyes were as she remembered them: warm and brown. She expected to feel some of her previous emotion for him return. Nothing. If anything, she pitied him as the look of both pain and confusion crossed his features. “You little bitch!” Olivia snarled, snatching the knife once again. “I’m done with you! Adam is mine!” Emma tried to hedge away from the plunging knife. It pierced her right shoulder, and she screamed. By the frenzied look on Olivia’s face, the black witch intended to chop her into pieces. Jeffrey snatched her arm and hauled her away, forcing her to face Adam. “Finish it!” Emma saw the look on Olivia’s face change from fury to worship. She pried herself free from Jeffrey and stepped to the body of Adam. The half-corpse looked at her, puzzled. “Tell Olivia how beautiful she is, Adam,” Emma urged. Recognition crossed his features, and he grimaced, appearing repulsed. Olivia touched her face and stepped closer. “Adam, it’s me!” she said. “Jeffrey did this. Am I not more beautiful than you remember?” His response was too quiet and ragged for Emma to hear, but its impact was clear. Confusion and hurt crossed Olivia’s face. “Olivia-- ” Jeffrey said, pulling her away from Adam. “What do you mean?” she asked of Adam. He didn’t answer but twisted his half-repaired neck and looked at Emma. Emma stared back, in too much pain to care about the look that crossed his face. Olivia, however, saw it.
  • 57. “What did you do, Jeffrey?” she demanded and turned on the half-demon. “He said I was ugly. What did you do?” “You did this to yourself,” Jeffrey snapped. “Get out of my way.” He pushed her aside to get to Adam. Emma winced as Jeffrey shoved Adam onto his back. Jeffrey met Olivia’s gaze, and a cold smile spread across his face once again. “You want him, Olivia? He’s yours.” “You said you’d bring him back.” Olivia looked from him to the not-yet-alive Adam. “And I did. You broke the incantation. Now you’re stuck with that.” “No. You will bring him back to me, the way he was!” “You ugly, stupid bitch!” Jeffrey replied. “You think anything I did was for you? Adam was right; you’re hideous. No man in his right mind would choose you over Emma. Even now, Adam lusts for her, or maybe you missed the look he gave her? They’ll be fu-- ” “She’ll never have him!” Olivia roared, her face black with rage. Her gaze fell to Emma. Emma wriggled in her bonds, reading Olivia’s intentions in her maddened eyes. “Why would you want him?” Emma said. “In life he was a whore and now ... Look at him, Olivia! You’re lucky he doesn’t want you.” Jeffrey paced to the fissure, and Emma grew colder. She didn’t understand what Jeffrey was doing, but it couldn’t be good. “You don’t want me.” Olivia’s gaze went to Adam. “It’s her, isn’t it? You’re going to cheat on me, leave me for her again!” “I loved … her.” Adam’s voice was raspy and took great effort. Startled, both Emma and Olivia looked at him. Olivia snatched the knife off the table and flung herself on top of the half-corpse, stabbing him and screaming wildly. Emma looked away, disgusted by the splatter of tissue and blood. Olivia stopped and panted, sobbing. Emma waited for Olivia’s fury to turn to her. Instead, she heard a shout of surprise and opened her eyes to see Olivia’s knife buried in Jeffrey’s back. Jeffrey growled, an inhuman sound, and whipped around. He picked up the woman and flung her against the wall. Emma watched her crumple to the ground and looked again at Adam. Despite Olivia’s attack, the mostly dead man was battered but breathing. Furious, Jeffrey pulled the knife free from his back and dropped it. His eyes glowed with fire, and he looked around the basement before turning to the fissure, tossing his head back, and bellowing a command. Two shadows emerged from the fissure and took shape in front of him. He nodded toward Emma, and one obediently floated to her. She closed her eyes, panicking again at the thought of being dragged to Hell. She felt the cold touch of the shadow and cried. * * * Tristan snatched the shadow demon hovering over Emma and flung it away. The other shadow hovered over Olivia. The fever in his body-- his own shadows trying to escape-- made the world seem to move slowly and his head spin with thoughts. I’m so close to home. His eyes went to the fissure. No! He belonged here, with Emma. Jeffrey whirled, sensing him. Glee was on his twin’s face at the prospect of returning to Hell. Tristan looked around at the basement. Emma was hurt, her life fading. The corpse beside her was unsettling with its human head and mutilated, decomposed body that appeared as if part of it had gone through the blender. Jeffrey used his shadows to fling Tristan against the wall and keep him there as he had the day before. He retrieved a bloodied knife from the ground near his feet and approached Emma. Tristan drew a deep breath and did what his mother said: he let go of what control he had of the darkness within him. Warm and cool, dark and light … they mixed within him, overwhelming him, until they became shadows that controlled his body. He launched off the wall where he was pinned and landed on top of Jeffrey. Darkness and fire consumed them, and Tristan surrendered.
  • 58. * * * Emma heard them fighting. The inhuman sounds were disturbing, but even they weren’t enough to keep her from drifting closer and closer to passing out. A fuzzy face crossed her vision. Repulsed, she tried to move away from Adam but couldn’t. He had rolled to face her and stared at her before grimacing with effort. She twisted her head to see what he was doing. One of his hands was tugging at her bonds. Surprised, she watched as he worked to free her. “I’m s….sorry,” he stuttered. “Sorry for what?” “Everything,” he said. “I’ll make this right.” After a long moment, her left hand was free. She stretched to her right hand and fumbled with the knot, crying at the pain caused by putting her weight on her injured chest and shoulder. Her hand came free and she took a deep breath before sitting with effort. Her head swam but she focused on her right foot. The sounds of the brothers fighting faded in and out of her soupy thoughts. One foot was free, then the other. Lightheaded, she rose with some difficulty and could think only of escaping the hellhole that was the basement. She pushed herself away from the altar, staggered, and careened into a wall. Tristan. She stopped, alarm making its way through her unfocused mind. “Go, now!” he shouted in response. Her eyes found him and his twin, locked in battle across the basement, shrouded by shadows. A shrill shriek jarred her attention to the altar, and she saw Olivia charge across the basement, knife raised over her head. “Tristan!” she called. Olivia dove into the shadows, stabbing at anything that moved. The ground trembled, and the fissure grew by another foot. A blast of heat knocked Emma back. She staggered to her feet and moved toward the three battling, trying to distinguish who was who among the flailing arms. The decomposed figure that was Adam slid off the table. On stiff legs he lumbered in the direction of the three, tripped, and fell into the midst of the shadows. Another shriek, and Adam emerged from the battle, Olivia clutched in his arms. She clawed at him, screaming madly. Emma watched, horrified, as he staggered to the fissure to Hell. Olivia’s screams took on an eerie quality as she saw their destination. As they neared, demons from within the fissure grabbed both figures and hauled them into its depths. Emma covered her ears at the sounds of demons devouring their new prey. Her gaze returned to the twins, both of whom lay still. The shadows were gone. “Tristan!” She made her way across the basement, shaking and avoiding the area between the altar and the fissure. She dropped to her knees between the two of them, unable to tell them apart with her blurry gaze. One of them reached for what looked like a large black marble. “Tristan?” “I told you to go,” the man to her left said. “Leave it and go!” “Toss it into Hell,” the man to the right countered. “No, Emma, he’s trying to confuse you. Give it to me, before he gets it!” “Emma, toss it into Hell.” Thoroughly confused, she made out the blood pooling around both of them from their own battle and Olivia’s stabbing. They were locked in some sort of silent tug-of-war; both lay prone, their faces furrowed with effort. Her gaze settled on the marble. She grasped it. It felt hot, like Hell. Throw it into Hell. Tristan’s voice said into her mind. She hesitated before pushing herself up and moving as close as she dared to the fissure. Hands reached out at her, and she stepped back. She threw it. Good. Now run. I’m going to bring this place down.
  • 59. “Not without you, Tristan.” “Run, Emma. I can’t control … them.” His voice was broken and ragged, as if it took great effort for him to say the words. I’m a demon. I deserve Hell. She heard the last words in her thoughts, his own resignation to dying alongside the other half-demon. Emma dropped beside the man who had been on her right and touched him. His body burned with otherworldly fever. “You’re coming with me, Tristan,” she said. “Or we’re dying here together. I won’t leave you here.” For a long moment, she didn’t think he’d respond. He moved at last, pushing himself to his knees. His eyes spun with flames like those beyond the fissure, and she drew back, wondering if she’d guessed wrong. He closed his eyes then opened them again. They went back to normal. He stood and pulled her up. She felt the wave of power ripple through the world around them and shake the house to its foundation. Tristan lifted her with unexpected strength and hurried to the stairwell as the walls shook around them. He ran through the kitchen and hallway. The house collapsed around them. Emma covered her head, and they burst into the light of early morning. Relieved, she lost what will was keeping her out of unconsciousness. She sagged against him. “Emma?” His voice was still ragged. “Oh, god, Emma!” She closed her eyes, exhausted. I’ll take care of you, he promised. One week later Tristan paced outside of the hospital room. The bossy nurse that forbade a non-relative access had finally been put in place by Amber after a phone call demanding to know why he wasn’t there. He was so nervous, he’d forgotten flowers or a card, despite his mother’s advice to bring both. He ran his fingers through his hair, which now stood on end every time he got excited or anxious. Some of his newfound powers were irritating. He’d found he couldn’t harness the darkness once he let it go. Instead, it might accept his guidance or it might become passive-aggressive and make his hair stand on end or his shoes melt on his feet. He had a lot to learn about living in peace with his other half. “You can come in.” The stern nurse left the room with an irritated look in his direction. His hands were sweaty, this time not from the demon side of him but from the prospect of seeing her again. Tristan entered the small room and closed the door behind him. Emma was pale, the earthy color he loved about her faded. She looked him over intently as he approached, no doubt sensing the change in him. His mother had noticed it, too. Emma had spent two days in the ICU but looked good despite the trauma. At the awkward silence, he drew up a chair and sat beside her. “Are you feeling better?” he asked. “A lot. I wondered …” She hesitated. “None of that was a dream, was it?” “No, Emma. It was all real.” “Olivia and Adam?” “Together forever, like she wanted, though she won’t be happy where they are,” he said. “Adam freed me,” she said, troubled. “What happened to Jeffrey?” “I’m not sure,” Tristan said. “Hell probably got him, too. It’s what he wanted, though, to return to our father.” “I saw Amber yesterday. She said she’ll need surgery eventually, but her back wasn’t as bad as they initially thought. Witches, gateway to Hell, demons cutting brake lines … God, what a story we’ll have to tell the grandkids!” she said with a weak laugh. “Can you imagine?”
  • 60. Grandkids. He tried not to smile at her sentence and felt relieved that she wasn’t driven away by what she saw. “You’re safe now, Emma, all of you,” he said and took her hand. They were quiet for a moment. “Now I owe you,” she said. “No, Emma. If you sleep with me, I want it to be because we’re more than clients,” he replied. “You sleep with all your clients?” “No.” He chuckled. She squeezed his hand. “Mama and Amber are excited for you to come over. Sissy can’t stop talking about you,” she went on. “You fit right in.” “And you? Are you excited to spend time with me?” he asked, breath stilling. She looked up at him with a faint smile. “Maybe,” she said. “We had a rocky start. How about we start over?” She offered him her hand. “My name is Emma. I’m recovering from a run-in with a black witch who tried to throw me into Hell because I stole her boyfriend two years ago.” “Hi, Emma,” he said and shook her hand. “My name is Tristan. I’m a half-demon, and my mother is a white witch who cheats at slot machines. And, I like the idea of telling our grandchildren stories about our adventures.” “So do I,” she whispered, a warm smile crossing her face.
  • 61. This month, it’s my pleasure to introduce you to yet another up-and-coming, brilliant indie writer, paranormal romance and chick-lit novelist Heather Marie Adkins! Heather is a friend as well as a colleague, and she’ll one day be That Writer who went from obscurity to the front page of the newspaper because of her strong writing. Heather can be reached at her blog: http://heather.bishoffs.com/ Please enjoy the synopsis and exclusive peek at the first chapter of her book! Abigail Synopsis When Abigail’s supposedly immortal faery mother is found murdered, her human father sells her in to slavery. Bought by a young and wealthy landowner named William, she is whisked away to a Grecian island to play caretaker for his baby sister. However, the island has a deadly secret connected to Abigail’s past. Her budding romance with William is shattered by Abigail’s intimate, unwanted connection with the island’s faery prince. Meanwhile the faery king plans revenge upon the family. Abigail must join forces with the very race she’s sought to deny, to save the humans she has learned to love. Abigail is available at: Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Abigail-ebook/dp/B005F28PU0 BN: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/abigail-Heather Marie-adkins/1104560658? Smashwords: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/77230 Exclusive excerpt, copyright 2011 by Heather Marie Adkins, used with permission Abigail Chapter 1 My father was selling me into slavery. No manner of pressure could fix the uncomfortable tick caused by the throbbing behind my closed eyelids. I alternated between digging the palms of my hands into my eyes and seeking solace from the earth. Sliding my right hand behind me between my back and the wall, I pressed it firmly to the moist stone. With just a little mental push, I sent myself into the ground beyond, feeling the worms crawl and the dirt shift. For a moment, I was able to forget the dank cell and let the Mother’s arms wrap around my shoulders, the earth’s strength seeping into my skin like a much- cherished blanket. A burst of girlish laughter brought me back to myself, leaving me bereft. My skin was chilled beneath my thin, muslin dress; a stark contrast to the way the earth had brought me warmth. Bringing my hand back around, I pulled the shawl tighter around my shoulders-- even though it was riddled with holes-- and tucked my bare feet under my knees. Perching on an old barrel that smelled of stale wine and piss, I surveyed the scene around me feeling oddly detached. It was the kind of dark that made one sluggish and miserable, from where nightmares originated. There was not a single window, or even a crack in the earthen walls to bring us comfort from the outside world; we were lucky to have the pale yellow glow of the oil lantern hanging by the only door. We swam in the scent of feces, its source a crude hole in the floor where we relieved ourselves. The stench hung in the air like another entity, stagnant and unhealthy. From where I sat, I could feel two women with illness creeping through their bodies.
  • 62. Fourteen women, some of them but children, in a room barely big enough to house eight. The little girl sitting to my right leaned against the wall with her knees pulled up to a face so covered in filth she looked like an animal. I caught her eye, a vivid green shiny with unshed tears but hard with lessons learned much too early. She couldn’t have been nine years old. I tried to give her a comforting smile only to find the muscles in my face weren’t responding. How do you comfort innocence destroyed? Matilda, the one person I counted friend in my five weeks locked away, was in a puppy pile of teenagers in the corner, telling stories she shouldn’t. I knew from previous conversation that she had once belonged to an older aristocrat who had raped and mutilated her in ways beyond imagination. How she continued to exist day to day with the memories of such…even more so that she told the tales so easily. If I know anything now from my own experiences, humans tend to practice selective memory. I closed my eyes once more, attempting to rein my thoughts. With nothing else to do-- no books to read, no garden to plant-- my mind tends to run wild. “You seem very calm today, Abigail.” Pretty Matilda, finished traumatizing the young ones, was settling beside me on an old wooden crate, tucking her dingy blue dress around her knees. Her chestnut eyes were sparkling with good humor in her pale, simple face. I gazed down at her, and cocked my head in contemplation as I counted her freckles. “To feel anything right now is redundant. What comes will come despite thought or hope.” She rolled her eyes, leaning back against the wall. “Could you at least try to speak as if you are only twenty?” Breaking eye contact, I focused on my usual meditation point, a black knot in the wood wall directly across the room. It was nearly invisible in the flickering lamplight. I closed my eyes once again in an attempt to shut out reality. “I’ll try. It’s harder when I’m upset.” One of the consequences of appearing young when my body is much older than it seems. Sometimes what comes from my lips doesn’t match what others see. I felt her lean close on the little stool, her wild red curls brushing my bare knee below my dress. I cringed away from her so slightly that she didn’t notice. Five weeks I’d gone without touching her and delving into her mind; I refused to give in. “It’s almost over. We are almost out.” I straightened imperceptibly, drawing in a deep breath, comfortable in the darkness behind my eyelids. “Yes.” “We can hope our new masters are good-- ” “Matilda,” I cut in sharply, eyes flying open. When she jumped back slightly at the sight, I knew I had lost my glamour. I closed my lids on the lavender fire that glowed there, and steadied myself. Sometimes she made me lose my temper. The downside of keeping human friends, I suppose. I took a few deep breaths before opening my eyes and going on in a lower tone. “False hope will only make the little ones worse in the long run. I wish you would put an end to it.” “What is life without hope?” Her voice was small and I felt a pang of regret. Good intentions never go without punishment. “Life is a long, terrible thing,” I whispered, more to myself. I couldn’t meet her eyes. The door creaked open like a scream in the hushed room, pivoting outward. Every face around me, nondescript and identical to the one beside it, turned to see who was on the other side. The big one with the bushy red beard stood in the doorway, dressed in rags fit for no better than a pirate. His dirty white shirt had short sleeves and barely covered his rotund belly, while his black vest hung open over his loosely draped black pants. Scuffed brown boots tapped on the floor as he gazed around in disdain. It was time.
  • 63. “1, 4, 8, 9, and 13,” he said sharply. Thirteen; that was me; it was crudely tattooed on the inside of my right wrist. I slid from the barrel, my heart beating wildly. Matilda followed me, her fingers clutching my shawl and her eyes wide. The room was silent as we were shackled together. I brought up the rear, stepping lightly and slowly so as not to walk all over the little one in front of me: the green-eyed girl. I could see every bone in her little shoulders. She looked like a beaten dog. Torches lined the hallway outside our cell, casting evil, wavering shadows on the dirt floor. Mine, as usual, was absent, a by-product of my abnormal heritage. The young man walking somewhat behind and to the left of me, obviously new to the guard, kept glancing from the floor to me as if I might disappear. Too bad that wasn’t within my range of powers. If that was the case, I’d be harvesting my potato patch instead of walking towards an unknown destiny. Dry dust swirled around my ankles, the hallway steadily getting warmer as we ascended the steep hill. A sharp corner brought us into blinding sunlight and fresh air. I felt unwelcome tears sting my eyes and choked down a sob of gratitude for the warm rays that caressed my shoulders. I let go of my shawl outside the door, where it trailed from my fingers to the ground without a thought; it had never been mine, anyway. Already I could feel my strength returning, the sun filling my reserves with its loving energy. We came out of the jail tunnel behind a raised platform crudely constructed of wood and haphazardly sewn burlap sacks. I could hear the noise of the crowd on the other side as we were lined up with our backs to the stage. The first girl was a teen with shorn brown hair and slumped shoulders, her spirit in tatters on the ground. Her hands were shaking so much I feared she was going into shock. A man with muscular arms and an almost invisible neck unshackled her from the community chain and led her away. So the waiting began. The big guard walked by tapping his sword to the side of his beefy leg. His black belt strained with the weight of his belly, a wild patch of red hair sprouting from above the loose ties of his shirt. He leered at me from the center of a head full of dirty, rust colored curls. “Glad to see you’ve survived, pretty thing,” he murmured, brushing a thumb down my cheek. The offensive finger continued to my neck, and even further to the crest of my breast. Disgust flooded me. I gave him my best glare and emptied my eyes of emotion. The human color remained, but he was seeing the inhuman inside, the part of me that is connected to the Earth, to the things that bump and crawl in this world. Confusion darted across his countenance and he inched away. It was entirely too tempting to do something stupid, like zap him with a single touch. My cover would be broken and the people who knew what exactly I was. They’d slap a steel cuff on my ankle so fast my head would spin…if they didn’t hang me first. “How is it you see out of those pig-like, squinty eyes?” I retorted with a sneer. Slap. Colors exploded. One of his hands was the size of my head; the force threw me to the ground where I landed hard in the dirt. I sucked in a couple of deep, centering breaths with my chin tucked to my chest. I kept my eyes and palms to the ground, spitting blood as he walked away laughing. One by one my companions were unchained and led to the stage I couldn’t see. The sting of my cheek eventually ebbed. Matilda gave me a cautious smile and a lighthearted good-bye wave as she shuffled to the stairs. I watched until she rounded the corner, her ankle chains leaving lines in her wake. It wasn’t clear to me whether I would miss her or be glad to be rid of her. The young guard, handsome in a childish sort of way, waited until we were alone before coming to me. Lacing my fingers before me, I tried to appear as easy and approachable as possible, despite the chains weighing me down like a criminal.
  • 64. “Why do you cast no shadow?” If I hadn’t already been prepared for the question, I might not have understood the whoosh of air that escaped him in the form of words. I regarded the Italian thoughtfully, all dark coloring and confidence. The physical closeness of his body to mine would allow me to read him, and I conceded to the temptation. When my eyes caught his, he froze; prey. I could imagine the hairs rising on the back of his neck as he watched the dark brown of my eyes fade to be replaced by irises so bright purple they could burn. With a decent amount of effort, I focused on not allowing my skin to revert to its natural form; I didn’t want to scare him away. One, two, three…I charged in. I can’t explain how the thoughts come. A series of pictures, words uttered in my head; also scents, colors, emotions, and sensations. Flashes of insight into the life of the person I choose to read. Physical touch isn’t necessary, just proximity, although with touch sometimes it comes unbidden. His wife’s name was Theodora and his daughter, Victory. They lived in a one bedroom shack above a butcher’s shop. I could smell the blood. His daughter was sick…tuberculosis. She was going to die; it was in her stars. Mere man can’t fight the fate set forth by the universe. He was a good man, who took care of an elderly mother and gave to the poor…I saw an empty pantry and a deteriorating marriage. “Why are you here, Marcello?” One might have thought I’d hit him. I saw the questions pass over his face. I placed a hand to his bare arm, my skin like fire next to his human temperature. “You don’t belong with these men.” “I need the money,” he stuttered. Even unsure, he didn’t shake me off. I let his dark eyes study me, his other hand coming up to cover mine on his arm. “My daughter-- ” “The butcher needs help,” I told him watching the elderly man in that sacred place of my mind. His wife was passing away as we spoke, her hold on life threadbare. The timing was impeccable; how grand the Universe is when it demands intervention. “You will make much more money. The old man has no child, and his only will to live is leaving soon. He will leave you the shop if you take a job with him. You have a choice to make. Your current path will end your marriage and result in suicide.” The poor man was shaking, his skin ice beneath my hand. His brown eyes resembled that of a doe, flashing around in panic beneath the archer’s gaze. I could feel his indecision on my skin. “Number 13, your turn.” The brute was back, abruptly ending my connection to the sweet, naïve Italian. My hands twitched to wrap themselves around the big man’s neck. I’ve killed before. I wouldn’t hesitate to do it again.
  • 65. Like free ebooks? Lizzy and Heather are members of the Indie Eclective: Books Crossing Genres, a group of nine talented, passionate indie authors, many of whom have free ebooks available to whet your appetite! Check them out at: http://www.indie-eclective.com. Members include: Heather Adkins, young adult fantasy author, Abigail Julia Crane, young adult fantasy author, Conflicted: Keegan's Chronicles Lizzy Ford, paranormal romance author of the War of Gods series and Rhyn Trilogy Talia Jager, young adult author, Damaged: Natalie's Story P.J. Jones, parody author, Melvin the Dry Cleaning Zombie and Vampire Shoe Warehouse Shéa MacLeod, paranormal/urban fantasy author, Kissed by Fire (Sunwalker Saga) M. Edward McNally, fantasy author, The Wind From Miilmark (The Norothian Cycle) Alan Nayes, paranormal romance and fantasy author, Smilodon Jack Wallen, zombie and thriller author, My, Zombie My (I, Zombie Trilogy)