Hmm. As he straightened, he caught tendrils of smoke wafting through the air. Smoke that didn’t curl from cigarettes or cigars but from charred wood and fabric. He studied the bar, searching for evidence of a fire. He found Kendra stalking toward him, wearing nothing more than a bra, a pair of panties and the slave bands.
“Thane!” she bellowed. “I knew you’d come down here.”
The crowd parted to clear a path for her.
Bright red hair stood on end, as though her fingers were hooked to an electrical outlet. Her eyes crackled with blazing jade fire, and her skin sparkled enough to rival the Harpy’s appeal. Her arms were lowered, spread, her claws extended and shooting little golden flames onto the floor.
She bared sharp little fangs and spat, “You left me in bed to come down here to play with some dirty street skank?”
He motioned to the head of security, and the male knew to clear out the room.
Angry voices rose from the crowd, but the Fae he’d hired was good at his job and footsteps soon pounded toward the doors. Thane despised public displays like this, and he wouldn’t stand for it.
Soon, only he and the Phoenix remained.
“I never promised fidelity, Kendra,” he said softly. “In fact, I promised the opposite. You claimed to be happy with our arrangement.”
Her chin lifted in a show of pique. “I was. Things changed.”
She thought for a moment. Obviously she couldn’t come up with an answer that satisfied her, because she stomped her foot and said, “If you think there’s another female out there who will do the disgusting things you need, you’re wrong. I told you. I’m the only one who will ever be able to satisfy you.”
And she was right. But she’d always made him think she enjoyed it.
She’d lied, and he hated liars. “I told you,” he replied smoothly, even as rage kindled. “There are many who can satisfy me. And they have. They will. But not you. Not ever again.” He closed the distance between them, grabbed her by the neck and squeezed just hard enough to make breathing difficult but not impossible.
“You shouldn’t have pricked my temper, female. I will punish you—and I promise you, you’ll wish I had killed you instead.”
SHE HAD SEEN a monster.
Nicola had beaten back the fear percolating inside her since speeding out of the parking garage long enough to pick up her sister from the hospital, ensure Laila was settled in at home, take a shower to wash off the lotion Koldo despised and walk the aisles at the nearest grocery. Fear she wasn’t supposed to entertain. But as she turned her car into her neighborhood to return home, it finally spilled over—and she couldn’t stop it. Or if she could, she didn’t know how. In seconds, she felt as though she’d downed the most toxic of champagnes, all of the possible side effects converging: light-headedness, upset stomach and ringing in the ears.
As her vision blurred, she parked at the nearest curb and leaned her head against the steering wheel, breathing with slow deliberation. I’m still dealing with the aftereffects of a concussion. That’s all. Surely.
Either that, or Koldo had brought something nasty into her life.
But...no. He was a (famous) warrior to his very core. He was observant. He would have known if he’d ushered in something malevolent. And if he had, he wouldn’t have left her to fend for herself. He wasn’t the type to run. He couldn’t be.
He’d helped her when he could have remained invisible. Or whatever. He’d helped Laila when he could have washed his hands of her.
That left the concussion—but she wasn’t satisfied with that explanation. She had no peace about it. So...what if Nicola wasn’t hallucinating? What if the creature she’d seen had been real? After all, Koldo could arrive and leave in the blink of an eye, and he wasn’t a hallucination. Why couldn’t something else do the same?
So, if the warrior hadn’t led the creature to her door, then...what had? And what was it, exactly?
When she was younger, she’d heard little girls whispering together at school, afraid of the monsters in their closets. Until that moment, Nicola hadn’t known anything about such monsters. Her parents had never allowed her and Laila to watch TV, and they had carefully chosen every book they read. She’d been so wonderfully innocent in regard to the evils out there, afraid only of what her body was doing to her.
But of course, everything had changed after that overheard conversation.
She’d stopped sleeping. She’d looked for monsters around every corner—and she’d begun to see them. A furry, fanged monkey on her mother’s shoulder. Two on her father’s. One following Laila. One following Nicola.
The increase of fear and the constant stress had damaged her heart further. But after months of therapy and new medications, she’d managed to find a small measure of peace. Fickle peace, that is, that had come and gone. But she’d never seen another monster. Until recently.
The past few days, she’d seen two. One with Laila, and one at her work.
Maybe she hadn’t been lost to paranoia back then. Maybe the monsters had always been there, and she had simply shut her eyes. But now...now her eyes were open again.
Her stomach twisted into hundreds of little knots, the edges sharp enough to cut. And cut they did, making her cringe.
She couldn’t think about this now, she realized. Worrying—more than she already had—would violate Koldo’s rules. And besides that, she had too much to do. Laila was at home, waiting for her. Nicola had the chocolate her sister requested, as well as a few other necessities, like ice-cream sandwiches and chips, and the groceries were probably baking in the heat of her car, since Bucket had no working air-conditioning.
Deep breath in...deep breath out. She forced her mind to focus on calming thoughts. Laila, happy. Koldo, telling her those jokes he’d mentioned. She could even imagine what he’d say.
Why did the warrior cross the road?
That’s easy. To kill the guy on the other side.
A bud of amusement had her smiling.
The amusement bloomed the rest of the way.
Her vision cleared. Her stomach settled. After checking the road and finding it empty, she motored forward. Her gaze snagged on the depressingly run-down area anyone with half a brain would have avoided. Most of the lawns were tall and filled with weeds—to hide the evidence of recent crimes, she was sure—and most of the houses had a few boarded-up windows. All of the houses had graffiti spray painted on the brick, hers included.
Police sirens could be heard throughout the night, every night, and she was pretty sure the neighbor on her left had a meth lab in his basement. But this was all she could afford, her parents’ house having been sold to pay a few creditors from their atrocious stack of bills.
Enough. Nicola had one hour before she had to clock in at Y and R Organic Market. A place she couldn’t afford to shop at, even with her employee discount. She planned to spend every minute with Laila.
Only, after she put away the groceries, she discovered her sister had moved from bed to the couch, empty food wrappers all around her as she slept, the TV playing an old episode of Castle. Nicola grinned. This was what she’d wanted for so long. Laila, here. Laila, relaxed.
But her grin faded when she spotted two fanged monkeys perched on the top of the couch, both glaring at her, their fur raised aggressively. Like the creature in the hospital—in fact, the one on the left had to be the very one she’d seen—they had tentacles rather than arms, the appendages slithering around them like hungry snakes ready for a meal.
As a child, Nicola would have run screaming.
Only a few hours ago, she had burned rubber in her car.
Now, she would learn the truth one way or another.
Trembling, she marched forward and reached out. One of the creatures unleashed a shriek of rage, either to scare her off or to warn her that she was about to lose her hand. The other swatted at her with one of those tentacles, and the contact burned, leaving a red welt behind.
That meant...that meant the monsters were real.
Before she could panic, both creatures jumped off the couch and disappeared beyond the wall.
Her knees gave out and she sank to the ground, trying to steady her throbbing heart. Sweet mercy. What did this mean? And what she was going to do about it?
SHORTLY AFTER MIDNIGHT, Nicola closed her register at the Y and R Organic Market, and she’d never been so happy to finish a day. Not just because she was eager to return to Laila, but also because every coworker to cross her path had insulted her. For no reason! Every customer to come through her line had yelled at her. And, okay, yes, they’d had good reason.
The monkeys with tentacles had followed her. Them—and around twenty of their dearest friends. But at least they weren’t hovering around poor Laila.
Ten minutes after her arrival, the horde had congregated inside the market, crawling up the walls, along the ceiling tiles, dropping upon the shoulder of everyone she encountered, unbeknownst to them, and laughing and pointing at her.
She had almost passed out.
But no one else had seen them. No one else had reacted. Well, not to the demons. They had reacted to her high-pitched terror fits.
About twenty minutes ago, the creatures had left the same way they’d come.
She wanted to talk to Koldo. And maybe climb him like a tree and hide up there in the upper stratosphere of Giantland where, hopefully, no one would be able to see her and she wouldn’t have to deal with this kind of stuff.
“Nicola, I need to speak with you in my office.”
The voice pulled her from her thoughts, and she turned to see her boss standing at the end of her stall. He was five-eight, with sandy-colored hair, hazel eyes and olive-toned skin. He would have been a decent-looking guy if not for his skeevy ways.