Stryker stood over the smoldering remains of the Daimons who’d failed him. He really couldn’t stand incompetence.
Zephyra beat a staccato rhythm on the arm of her chair with her long red nails as she watched him with an amused light in her eyes. “Feeling better, love?”
“Not really. Thinking I should reanimate them just so I can kill them again.”
She wrinkled her nose in amusement. “I do so love you, bunny.” Only she could get away with calling him that. Anyone else would be…
Another stain on the floor.
Stryker let out a frustrated breath. “Our little Huntress knows we’re coming for her and that we have Aunt Artie’s nets…. You know the problem with sending out morons who have no vested interest in accomplishing your goals?”
“They don’t care,” she answered. “But I would think breaking their eternal curse would make any Daimon have a vested interest in succeeding.”
“You would think.” He gestured to the steaming remains on the floor. “But obviously you’re wrong. They were more concerned about who was cheating on whom than saving our race. Pathetic imbeciles.”
Zephyra didn’t comment on that. “Do you want me to go after her then?”
He would say yes, but to get Samia now would require they go into Sanctuary and drag the bitch out. That place was teeming with preternatural predators who enjoyed bloodletting as much as he did. He’d just gotten his wife back. He wasn’t about to risk her to such a venture.
He would go himself, but that would violate a treaty he had in place….
Alliances sucked. One day he’d learn better than to make them.
“No. I think I have a better idea.”
Zephyra stopped tapping her fingernails. “Which is?”
“Someone who wants the Huntress more than I do. He will bring her to us. Of that I have no doubt.”
Stryker only hoped his messenger didn’t dismember her first.
Sam fastened her jeans, then froze at a peculiar sound she hadn’t heard in a long time.
A little girl giggling.
She turned fast to see the door open a quarter inch then slam shut. The giggling got louder.
What in the world?
Using her powers, she opened the door gently so as not to hurt her Peeping Tom. The girl stumbled into the room in a flurry of blond curls and bright blue eyes and dimples. Around four years old in human years and dressed in a cute pink dress with some cartoon character on it that Sam didn’t know, she was absolutely beautiful.
“You weren’t supposed to see me,” she said in a whispered shout. “Uncle Dev said he’d have my entire tail section if I bothered you. I’m not bothering you, am I?”
Yes. The sight of her tore through Sam viciously. It made her ache for her own daughter and was strong enough to form a lump in her throat and to cause her eyes to water slightly. It was so harshly wrong how even after all these centuries her arms felt empty and itched to pick up and hold a baby close. To have one of those precious moments back when she used to bury her face in her daughter’s curls and inhale that sweet baby scent…
I sold my soul for the wrong thing.
And that hurt most of all.
Sam offered the little girl a smile. “No, sweetie. You’re not bothering me at all.”
That thrilled the little girl as she slammed the door shut and ran into the room, closer to Sam. She grinned wide as she held her hands behind her back. “Uncle Dev said that when people touch you, you can tell things about them. Can you?”
She jumped up and down in her excitement as she clapped her small hands. “That’s so neat. I don’t have my powers yet. I keep hoping they’ll come in…along with my breasts, but so far nothing. How long did it take you to get big breasts?”
Sam hesitated before she answered a question that strangely made her laugh. “When I was about twelve.”
“Hmmm, I wonder what that makes in Were-Hunter years? I can’t ever keep that straight.” She looked down at her flat chest. “Obviously I’m not there yet. At least that’s what I hope. Otherwise I’ll have to stuff my bra like my cousin does. Her breasts look really, really lumpy. Like oatmeal lumpy. But I think it’s ’cause what she uses to stuff them with. Kara says toilet paper isn’t as good as socks. It’s really gross and it makes her papa really angry.”
“Yessy! What are you doing in there?”
The little girl jumped as the door swung wider to show an older version of herself. It was like looking into a time warp to see Yessy around the age of twenty. Tall, slender, and yes, big boobed. Dressed in baggy jeans and a green pullover, the older girl was stunningly beautiful.
Yessy backed into the wall. “I’m not doing anything wrong, Josie. You’re just being mean.”
Josie let out a long-suffering breath as she met Sam’s confused frown. “First thing this morning she tries to bake Remi’s Baskin-Robbins ice cream cake in the oven ’cause she thinks that’s what a Baked Alaska is, now she’s defying orders and disturbing you. I am so sorry.” She looked back at her sister. “I swear, Yessy, you’re trying so hard not to live. I keep telling you, Papa eats the dumb ones.”
Dev snorted as he came up behind her. “Well, that can’t be true, Jo-Jo. You’re still here.”
She rolled her eyes at him in a way only someone close to Dev could do and live. “You have no idea how trying she is.”
Dev scoffed. “Of course I do. I was here when you were her age.”
Josie stiffened in indignation. “I never acted that way.”
“No,” he said in a dry, flat tone. “You never behaved like that ever. You were a perfect angel. Always. Why is there still a hole in the north stovepipe again?”
If looks could kill, Dev would be seriously wounded. “That was different. Alex was bothering me and he was the one who bought the firecrackers.”
“Uh-huh. God help us and our customers when your dad decides you’re old enough to wait tables. Now get out of here, both of you, before I feed you to Remi.”
Josie grabbed Yessy’s hand. “See, I told you they eat the dumb ones.”
As Dev moved to shut the door, Yessy came running back in to hug Dev on the leg. “Love you, Uncle.”
He pulled her up into his arms and gave her a tight hug and kiss on the cheek before he set her down again. “Love you too. Now you better run, muff, before Josie goes grizzly on you.”
Yessy cocked her hip and held up two small fists in a fighting stance. “I can take her.”
“Yessy!” Josie called from out in the hall.
Dropping her arms straight down her body, Yessy made a small O with her mouth before she darted out of the room.
Dev laughed as he closed the door behind her. He smiled at Sam. “Sorry about that. Didn’t know Yessy had gotten off the chain. You gotta watch that one like a hawk. I swear she moves so fast she leaves a vapor trail most days.”
Sam used to feel the same way about hers. God, to have one day back where she had to chase after Agaria…
She forced herself not to think about it. “She’s adorable. Who does she belong to?”
“My brother Zar.”
“And who’s Alex?”
“Josie’s older brother. Zar is a breeding machine. Don’t ask. He’s been turning out cubs for so long that we’re dizzy from it. Luckily they’re all cute enough that we tolerate most of their crap.”
Sam shook her head at his joke. “Where do you keep them? All the times I’ve been here, I never seen any children.”
“They’re not allowed in the restaurant during operating hours. The cubs are kept here in the house and guarded until they hit puberty and can change into humans. The human children are watched and some sent to school when they’re old enough—if they want to be. Otherwise we homeschool.”
That explained it. She could well understand being highly protective of them. “Why don’t you let Josie wait tables? She seems old enough to me.”
His expression turned grim. “Everyone thinks we’re all Kattagaria. A Were-Hunter sees Josie or one of the other human kids at those ages and they’ll know immediately that we’re not…at least not all of us.”
She didn’t see the problem with that. “Is that a bad thing?”
By the feral look in his eyes, she could tell it was. “When my mother was alive, it would have cost her the seat on the Omegrion. She was the Kattagaria bear rep. Can’t have the seat unless you’re loyal to our species. The other Kattagaria bear clans would have viewed her being mated to an Arcadian as a conflict of interest—which, believe me, it wasn’t. My mother was loyal to her species to the bitter end. Then there’s the lovely fact that many of our kind don’t like half-breeds. They think of us as mongrels—barely one step up from a cockroach and some not even that. I’d have to kill anyone who made one of my nieces or nephews hang their head in shame. And you don’t want to know what Remi would do to them.”
That was one of the things she really liked about Dev. He reminded her a lot of herself. Family first and death to anyone dumb enough to tread on it.
He inclined his head to her chest. “How are you feeling? The wound still bothering you?”
“I slept and healed. A little sore, but almost as good as new.” Not entirely true. It burned like crazy. If she was anything other than an Amazon she’d probably complain.
However, that wasn’t in their code. Amazons carried on no matter what.
“Good.” He tucked his hands into his back pockets in a pose so sexy it actually quickened her heartbeat. “Now do you want the bad news?”
Her stomach shrank. There was a major buzz kill. It put an instant kibosh on her hormones as her brain started coughing up all kinds of things that could have gone wrong while she took a short nap. “You have rabies, don’t you? And somehow it’s contagious to Dark-Hunters. Body parts are going to start falling off, but first the hair will go. Right?”
“Ha, ha. No. You should be so lucky.”
Great. Just great. Why did she bother getting up? “Do I need to sit down for this?”
“I probably would. But I’m lazy that way.”
Sighing, Sam leaned back against his dresser and crossed her arms over her chest. “What?”
“Ash, in his infinite concern for you, has called in a couple of the Dogs to help us guard you until we find out why Stryker wants you so desperately.”
Oh, this was bad. Maybe she should sit before asking the rhetorical question she didn’t want answered. “Who did he send over?”
“Ethon Stark and—”
“No.” She refused to have him near her. It hurt on so many levels that at this point it was cruel and unusual punishment to even have him in the same town.
“You’ll have to take that up with the big guy. I got no control over his personnel assignments. I get enough shit dealing with mine down in the bar.”
She didn’t comment on that as she steered him back to the main point. “Dare I ask who the other is?”
“Your buddy Chi.”
Well, at least there was that. If only she could can Ethon…in more ways than one. “I can’t believe Ash would send over Ethon to protect me.” Ash didn’t know the extent of their history—she hoped—but he did know that she didn’t care for her fellow Greek solider. “I’m in hell.” She ground her teeth as she bit back a curse. Then she sighed as she realized she had one small break. “At least I don’t have to tolerate him until the sun—”
“He’s actually downstairs, waiting for you.”
Of course he was. ’Cause that was just her luck and Ash’s sick sense of humor. “How? It’s still daylight.”
“Tate. The coroner I was talking about earlier? He has body bags he can transport Dark-Hunters around in.”
Sam scowled at his explanation. “Why don’t I know about this?”
“Probably because with your powers, putting you in a body bag would be a really bad thing since you’d pick up all kinds of traces from its previous occupants.”
She growled low in her throat. “Can I put Ethon in one permanently?”
“I wouldn’t care, but again, you’d have to take it up with the big guy, who might.”
She hated whenever Dev made sense. “Is Chi here?”
“Yes. She’s in the bar playing a mean game of Ms. Pac-Man on one of the machines in back.” He moved closer.
Sam tensed out of habit.
He cupped her cheek in his hand and that comfortable feeling washed over her. His eyes darkened as he studied her face while his breath fell gently against her skin. “Are you really all right?”
No, not when he stood this close to her and made her feel normal. She both loved and hated it. The scent of his skin teased her as she felt an overwhelming need to nip his chin. How could any man be so good-looking?
So sweet and fierce? It was an unbelievable and sexy combination.
He reminded her of all the things she’d given up for this life. All the things that had once meant more to her than anything else.
An image of him holding his own child went through her. Damn, I should never have seen him with his niece. Now that image would haunt her forever. She’d always loved the sight of a man holding a baby or child. It was what had made her fall in love with Ioel. They’d been walking through town when a small peasant child had tripped and fallen into the mud.
Without thinking about his noble station or the expense of his clothes, he’d picked the boy up and quieted him, then carried him home to his mother. Ioel’s chiton had been covered with little muddy handprints.
He’d laughed at the sight of them. “It’ll wash. Better I be a little dirty than a child be hurt. Clothes can be replaced. Children should always be cherished.”
That memory stabbed her hard through her heart. Why did you have to die?
Even after all these centuries she was angry at him for having died on her and leaving her alone in the world. But she knew wherever he was, he was watching over their daughter for her.
Just like he’d promised.
Focus, Sam. She had much more important things to think about than a past she couldn’t change. Like why she was suddenly a Daimon magnet.
Were they planning on singling out each Dark-Hunter and taking them to Kalosis one on one to torture and kill them?
Or something worse?
Dev cocked his head as if he was listening to a sound only he could hear. When he looked back at her, he was scowling. “Nick Gautier is downstairs too.”
“Nick?” He was the one she’d been moved into New Orleans to guard. Even though he was a Dark-Hunter, he was transitioning into something Acheron wouldn’t elaborate on. All they’d been told was that Nick had to be guarded until he learned how to corral his powers. If they allowed the darker elements to get near him, it would corrupt him and they’d have something a lot more dangerous than the Daimons to worry about.
And no way to stop it.
Sam shook her head. “What’s he doing here?”
“Don’t know. He just head-popped me”—a Were-Hunter slang term that meant Nick had contacted him telepathically—“and said he needs to see you. You want him to come up here or you want to go down?”
Nick’s telepathic power made her raise an eyebrow. When Acheron had briefed her on Nick’s abilities, that one had been missing. Made her wonder if Acheron knew everything about him or if Nick’s powers were growing even faster than their fearless leader knew. Or if it was another case of Acheron withholding pertinent information. “Gautier has telepathy?”
“Either that or I’m hallucinating. I’d hate to think I’m wasting a perfectly good hallucination on Nick Gautier, especially where you’re involved.”
Sam gave a short laugh at Dev’s inability to take anything seriously. “Send him up.”
The words had barely left her lips before Nick appeared in front of her. Sam didn’t know why but something about the Cajun set her nerves on edge. Even though he’d never been anything but cordial to her, it was like he had a core of evil. Something about him made her nervous. Wary.
Not scared, just tense.
He’s not right….
Tall and sinfully gorgeous, Nick was dressed all in black. The one thing that differentiated him from the rest of the Dark-Hunter crew was that where they usually had their bow-and-arrow marks hidden, his was right on his cheek and neck in a way that suggested Artemis had bitch-slapped him when she’d brought him over.
For the merest nanosecond, Sam could swear she saw his eyes flash red before he let out a short, sinister laugh.
“You’re so screwed.”
Sam glanced to Dev before she gave Nick a flat, emotionless stare. “How so?”
“You can’t stay here,” Nick said darkly. “The Daimons know where you are and they’re gearing up for total war.”
Dev scoffed. “Tell us something we don’t know.”
Nick shot a look at Dev that said he thought the bear was an idiot. “You really have no idea. You have kids here and Savitar isn’t on your side right now. Stryker knows that and he’s planning to take advantage of it.”
Dev was less than convinced. “And how do you know what Stryker has planned?”
Nick didn’t answer. “Look, you two can stay here and argue, or you can trust me.”
Dev hesitated. Part of him still thought of Nick as the same snarky little kid who grew up downstairs hustling pool in their back room and watching over his mom when she’d worked as a waitress for his family.
But that Nick had vanished the night his mom had been murdered by a Daimon and Nick had killed himself in order to become a Dark-Hunter to get revenge on her killer. The boy hadn’t been the same since.
More than that, Nick had powers that the average Dark-Hunter didn’t. Freaky powers. Every animal instinct in him could feel it resonate. Those powers were extreme and intense. Even worse, they were malevolent and cold.
Corruptive. They came from something a lot darker than the goddess Artemis.
Dev picked up on something else inside him. Something about Nick was even more wrong than it’d been….
A shiver went down his spine.
Because of that, Dev gave him no quarter. Until he knew whose side Nick was on, he assumed him an enemy regardless of where he’d stood with them in the past. One thing he’d learned the hard way, people turned on each other. “We’ve shown we can handle anything thrown at us. I think she’ll be all right here.”
Nick scoffed. “You evaced your children last time. Got them out of the line of fire. They’re back. You ready to put them in harm’s way?”
Now that went over him like an acid wash. “Are you threatening our cubs?”
Nick’s entire expression and stance was unreadable. “I’m trying to save all of you.”
Dev wanted to believe him. He did. But something wasn’t right and he couldn’t put his finger on it. “Look—”
Nick’s look turned thunderous and dark. “Why don’t you take the hint, Bear, and leave?”
Dev stiffened. “You don’t talk to me like that, boy. Not ever.”
Sam pulled Dev away from Nick as something weird flashed through her mind. She saw Nick surrounded by Daimons. Saw…
It was gone before she could really get a fix on it. Crap. She hated whenever her powers did that.
Nick narrowed his gaze on her. “We should leave before anyone here gets hurt.”
Suddenly, Sam realized what was wrong. Nick was here by himself. Alone. “Who’s watching you right now?”
“You heard me, Nick. Who has watch duty on you?”
He scoffed. “No one has watch duty over me. I told Acheron that. All of you are wasting your time. But what ever.” He looked past her to where Dev watched them with a stern grimace. “If you don’t want to leave. That’s fine.” His expression turned cold. “Stay. Get killed. No sweat off my balls. I was only doing this as a favor to Acheron anyway.”
Sam screwed her face up in distaste. While the attitude was vintage Gautier, he wasn’t normally quite so crass.
He dragged his thumb down the side of his face before he sneered, “They’re all yours.
She scowled at his Greek that meant to eat until you were stuffed.
No sooner had Nick spoken those words than a bolt-hole opened in the center of the room and a dozen Daimons came out of it.