“Where are you going?” Jamila demanded, ignoring the insult. “You’re not scheduled to leave for another three hours and eight minutes.”
How cute. The girl most likely to be voted Useless was questioning her ethics. “Not that it’s any of your business, but I’m going home. And I’ve already gotten permission, thank you.”
“Why are you leaving? And why are you taking those files?”
“Again, it’s none of your business. And because someone has to do them.” Forget her bubbling excitement for her sister’s homecoming. Resentment radiated from her.
That golden gaze narrowed. “I know how to crunch numbers, and that’s what I’m here for, isn’t it?”
“I don’t know. Is it? You haven’t so far.”
Jamila popped her jaw. “Just give them to me.” She grabbed the strap of the bag before Nicola could respond. “I’ll make sure they’re done. Properly,” she spat at Sirena, who was still on the phone, giggling.
“No, I—” Nicola pressed her lips together. Per Koldo’s orders, she needed less stress in her life. “Fine. Just...please don’t let me down.”
Was she unaware that there were other ways to speak to people?
“Thank you,” Nicola said, and soared from the office.
“Wait. Nicola,” Sirena called, stopping her. She slammed the receiver into place.
“I’m happy to help Jamila out.” Sirena smiled sweetly at Jamila, who clicked her teeth in anger. “Since you’re the senior member here, I’d like your permission to take half the files.”
As Jamila sputtered in outrage, Nicola made her escape.
The building was set in a circular pattern, with winding hallways, multiple offices and very few exits. The elevators were always crammed, and she hated being squeezed inside like a pickle in a jar, conflicting perfumes battling it out for the title of Most Annoying Scent, but she couldn’t take the stairs. She was twenty floors up and would pass out halfway down.
When she reached the parking garage, a quick walk took her to her old, beat-up sedan, a car out of place among the newer-model vehicles surrounding it. Bucket, she’d named the rust heap better suited for scrap metal than travel. She started the engine and, after the expected blast of backfire, pressed the gas—only to slam on the brake.
A monster stood just in front of the hood.
She yelped, her hand flattening over her thumping heart. He was a study of terrifying ugliness, with the body of a steroid-loving man, and a horn curling from the right side of his head. At one time, he must have had two. There was a stump on the left side. He had fur rather than flesh, and eyes as dark as the worst kind of nightmare.
His lips pulled back from his teeth in a parody of a smile, revealing long, sharp fangs. “You’re mine, and I always kill what’s mine,” he said—just before vanishing.
KOLDO SHUT HIMSELF in the luxurious bedroom Thane had given him at the Downfall, and sprawled atop the massive velvet-draped bed. Thane, Bjorn and Xerxes were in their suite of rooms with the day’s chosen females, and he knew he wouldn’t see them again until morning.
That was probably for the best.
His too-short visit with Nicola had left him raw.
Her smoke-and-dreams voice still caused every muscle in his body to tense and hum. Once again he’d been able to sense her underlying scent of cinnamon and vanilla, an intoxicating fragrance no longer masked by the taint of the demons. Instead, it had been overlaid by the malodors that reminded him of his mother. Jasmine and honeysuckle. Far worse than sulfur.
And yet, he’d forgotten that fact when he’d peered at her lips. His own had softened in preparation for...something. A kiss, perhaps. A swift pressing together, or maybe a slow melding.
And what if he’d given in? He knew nothing about the art of kissing. He could have pressed too firmly, and hurt her. He could have pressed too gently, and left her wanting.
He would have made a fool of himself.
She might have laughed. And if she’d laughed...
Another rejection, he thought, his hands fisting. It would have been one of thousands—and thousands more to come. He was never good enough, and couldn’t ever be. He was never what the people he most wanted to love him needed, and couldn’t ever be.
He sucked in a breath as a portion of his words registered. I don’t want Nicola to love me. He didn’t need her love.
Whatever Nicola made him feel, it had to stop. The heat. The tingling. The craving for the unknown.
He jolted to a sitting position. He would exercise until he shook too badly to stand. That would stop everything.
Thane burst through the double doors. The warrior’s hair stuck out in spikes and his skin was scratched and laden with bite marks, but his robe had morphed into battle armor.
“There’s higher than usual demonic activity at a building in Kansas,” the soldier said, not taking time for preliminaries. “We’re being sent to investigate.”
“Kansas?” Where Nicola lived. Koldo leaped to his feet, his own robe shrinking, tightening and thickening, becoming a lightweight metal that would shield him from the poisonous claws of his opponents. “We just came from there.” He glanced at the clock. Three hours ago, he realized with a bead of shock. How quickly time had passed. “Where in Kansas?”
One of Nicola’s employers, housed in the building Koldo had just visited. This couldn’t be a coincidence. Had Lefty and Righty returned with their friends?
“I’ll fly you,” Thane said, and motioned him over.
“No. I’ll meet you there.” Koldo flashed. He had a sword of fire palmed and at the ready the moment his feet hit the sidewalk outside, but...
There was nothing. No evidence of a demon attack.
Frowning, he stalked around the perimeter. All around him were red buildings, white buildings, tall buildings, short buildings and even a chapel. There were multiple cars on the road, some parked, some meandering. Trees, patches of grass. Birds in the air and on the ground. The singing of insects. But no hissing, cursing, or scraping to signal demonic activity. No caresses of evil.
He inhaled sharply. No hint of sulfur.
He spun, finding Thane, Bjorn and Xerxes had just landed, their wings outstretched, each male alive with anticipation over the coming kills.
Again he turned. Zacharel, Axel and Malcolm had just landed. The only one missing from the “inner circle,” as he’d heard Thane describe the warriors Zacharel relied on most, was Magnus, Malcolm’s brother.
“No humans are to be harmed,” Zacharel said. They were the same six words he announced before every battle. Sadly, the repetition was a necessity. Humans wouldn’t be able to see Sent Ones, or feel the sting of their weapons, unless the warriors purposely manifested in the natural realm.
In the past, several warriors had manifested, caring little for collateral damage, too desperate to make a kill.
What would happen if one of the warriors harmed Nicola?
Just in case anyone thought to override Zacharel’s instructions, Koldo found himself adding, “If a single female is harmed today, I will remove the head of the culprit. And I’ll take my time doing it. And don’t think for a moment a fear of consequences will mean anything to me.”
Six sets of eyes darted to him, some wide with confusion, some narrowed with aggression. He refused to waste precious seconds explaining and stalked into the building, misting through the brick walls rather than dealing with a door. Humans of every race and size strolled through the foyer and hallways. Males, females, anywhere from eighteen to seventy it seemed.
Some were demon-oppressed, as Laila had been. The creatures had created a stronghold.
Some were demonically influenced, as Nicola had been. The creatures were trying to create a stronghold.
A smorgasbord of temptation for the warriors, he knew. Already he fought the urge to appear and strike everyone in his path. Calm. Steady.
Koldo searched every inch of the place, but found no sign of Nicola. Her office was empty. And she’d left no notes on her calendar.
“What are you doing, going through Nicola’s things?” a female demanded from behind him.
He recognized the voice and slowly turned, coming face-to-face with the woman who had been trapped in hell with his mother. The woman he had rescued and brought back from the brink of death.
The woman who had yet to thank him, and who had instead run to Zacharel, outing the fact that Koldo had locked another Sent One away.
Once a joy-bringer, she was now a warrior. One of Zacharel’s warriors, to be exact. Jamila. Arabic for beautiful. And she certainly was. She was beautiful and elusive, but she was as sharp as he was. They were two blades and constantly sliced each other to ribbons.
“You know Nicola Lane? Where is she?” he demanded. Fury... A dark, terrible fury was boiling inside him, threatening to spew out. If she had been harmed, he would...what? Tear this place apart? Probably. Kill everyone inside? Maybe. He still couldn’t bring himself to care about the consequences.
Calm down. Get your answers first.
“She went home.” Jamila’s chin lifted, a show of irritation. “Now it’s your turn to answer my question. What are you doing here?”
If she was home, she was safe. “I could ask you the same,” he said, relaxing.
“So.” She folded her arms over her chest and glared at him. “Zacharel told me to report what happens to Nicola while she’s at Estellä. I tried staying in the spiritual realm, watching her, but I’m pretty sure she sensed me. She tensed every time I drew near.”
She was always tense. But they would work on that.