His smile was pure sin. I shifted closer to him and leaned against his chest, resting my head on his shoulder. He stiffened, surprised, and I snuggled closer, soaking up the warmth of his body with my back. He raised his arm and put it around my shoulders. I concentrated and heard the steady beating of his heart, strong and a little too fast. He was anxious, too.
“If we get out of this mess alive and undamaged, would you like to spend the night in my apartment or do you want me to stay with you?”
“Either way will work,” he said softly.
The six-month storming of my castle had put a definite dent in Raphael’s body armor. It would take me a long time to convince him that he didn’t have to be charming, witty, and sexy around me twenty-four-seven. Some part of me had hoped that once we had sex, everything would smooth itself out. But in the end, he was still insecure and I was still broken. Sex was simple. Being together was a lot more complicated.
We stood together and watched the sunset.
The magic crashed.
“Time to pry Doulos’s shade from that bitch,” Raphael said.
“You realize that if we’re right and Cerberus is after his corpse, he will follow Doulos wherever we take him?”
“Yes. But my mother deserves to say her good-byes.”
He took off his clothes, stood still for a moment, the breeze fanning his perfect form, and opened his mouth. A groan broke free, deepening into a hair-raising growl, as his body stretched and thickened, hard muscle encasing it. Fur sheathed him. He glanced at me and his eyes were completely wild.
I lifted Boom Baby. Raphael picked up a six-foot metal pole he’d wrenched from the slope on the way here. We headed down through the ravines to the house.
“Those bullets are the size of a dollar bill,” Raphael said.
“They are Silver Hawks: armor-piercing, incendiary, explosive, silver-load cartridges. They slice through armor, set things on fire, and explode inside the target, delivering a load of extremely potent silver pellets. Boom Baby fires two hundred of these per minute.”
An excited snarl rolled ahead of us. The ground trembled in sync with the beat of the giant paws.
“Can they handle the dog?” he asked.
“We’re about to find out.” I raised Boom Baby. “Here, Fido . . . Here, boy . . .”
Ahead, Cerberus rounded the curve and charged us.
I squeezed the trigger. A high-pitched whine of bullet flurry ripped through the air. Boom Baby bucked in my hands, the recoil hitting me hard. The bullets bit into Cerberus’s chest, punching through the muscle to the heart. Blood flew. The great hellhound ran three more steps, not realizing the lethal swarm had already shredded his life, stumbled, and fell, paws over head. He rolled and slid to a stop five feet from me in a smoking ruin.
“Nice gun,” Raphael said.
Five minutes later we reached the electric fence. Raphael braided the fingers of his hands together and offered them to me like a stepping stool. I stepped, pushing hard, and he threw me, adding his strength to my jump. I shot over the fence, flipped in the air, and landed in the dirt. Boom Baby came flying next. I caught it and gently lowered it to the ground. In the cramped quarters inside the house, it would restrict my movements too much. I pulled out my P226s, the familiar weight of the twin firearms reassuring in my hands. Raphael took a running start, pole in hand, and vaulted over the fence, landing gracefully next to me. There were times when Lyc-V came in handy.
We jogged to the house and I pressed against the side. Raphael hammered a single kick to the door and it flew off its hinges, crashing into the darkness. I cleared the doorway and stepped into the gloom. The door led to a narrow foyer. On the right, stairs led to the second floor. Straight ahead lay a hallway and past it, through a doorway, a sitting room waited steeped in the twilight, the dark bulky shapes of furniture like the spines of sleeping beasts.
The nauseating stench of undead flesh laced my nostrils. It clung to the floor, permeating the carpets. If smell had color, this reek would drip from the draft in oily, fat drops of black. It was impossible to tell where it came from.
A moment later I caught another scent entirely: the bitter, clinical scent of embalming fluid. A human body waited for us somewhere in the house.
My eyes adjusted to the low light. We padded through the foyer on silent feet, cleared the doorway, and emerged into the hallway.
Slow and steady, room by room. An undead waited at the end of this race, and I had a feeling it would find us before we found it.
Two small, musty rooms later, we stepped into the family room. The old furniture had been haphazardly piled at the walls. In the center of the room, on the filthy old rug, lay the corpse of Alex Doulos. A huge chain caught the body’s ankle, binding it to a rod driven into the floor.
Two red-hot eyes sparked in the heap of furniture at the opposite wall.
I fired. The first two bullets punched the bloodsucker’s head.
The vampire leapt.
My guns spat thunder and bullets in a lethal rhythm, trailing the bloodsucker as it hurtled through the air.
Raphael lunged from the left, and I raised the guns’ barrels up a fraction of a second before he fell onto the vamp from behind. The bloodsucker went limp in his hands. My bullets had chewed its skull to mush. Raphael grasped the vamp’s chin, exposing the neck; his knife flashed, and the head went flying across the room.
I reloaded. The bloodsucker had been unpiloted. Its eyes had been too crazed and it attacked me straight on, without any consideration for the fact that there were two of us. Spider Lynn was gone. She had left the vampire to us as a present.
It took us ten minutes to search the rest of the house. Empty as expected. I didn’t think she would sacrifice another vampire. We did find the generator and I shut it off, cutting the power to the fence.
We returned to the body. Alex lay on his side, thrown on the floor like a dirty rag. Death had robbed him of warmth, but his features still kept hints of his personality: a network of laugh lines around the eyes; strong chin; wide, tall forehead. His hair was pure white and worn long enough to reach his shoulders. A small green object lay by him. I picked it up. A little toy car. How odd. I tucked the car into my pocket.
We had to take him out of this terrible place. Raphael touched the chain securing Alex’s ankle and jerked his hand away. A silver-steel alloy.
The chain clasped Alex’s ankle too tightly. Neither one of us could get it off without burning all the meat off our fingers. I ripped fabric off the nearest couch, wrapped it around the rod the body was chained to, and strained. It didn’t even shiver.
Raphael grasped the rod. Veins on his face bulged and he ripped it free. He slung the body over his shoulder and let the chain trail behind him. It would have to do.
It took us three hours to cross the city. We drove through the dilapidated remnants of the industrial district and left Atlanta behind. Woods replaced ruins. The road grew bumpy. Neither of us said anything. The corpse wrapped in a blanket and resting in the backseat kept me from talking, and Raphael seemed immersed in thought.
Cold wind fanned us. The night was vast and filled with a flurry of scents. A sprinkling of stars shone high above, indifferent to us and our little problems.
Thirty minutes later we pulled onto the side road, dipping into the dense forest. The dirt road veered, we turned, and a large ranch-style house came into view. The bouda house. Usually it was full of life: sentries prowled the woods, and insane laughter floated on the wind currents, mixing with moaning and snarls of sexual release. But now it lay quiet. Raphael had said that everyone had left, letting Aunt B grieve in private, but it didn’t hit home until I actually saw it.
A woman waited for us on the porch, her hands crossed under her breasts. Middle-aged and plump, she wore her hair atop her head in a bun. Careworn shadows distorted her usually happy face. She looked like a very young grandmother who had just realized her grandson’s school bus was ten minutes late.
We parked. Raphael hopped out and gently picked up Alex’s body. Alex’s white hair spilled over Raphael’s shaggy arm. Aunt B looked on without a word as the monster who was her son and my mate carried her lover’s body to her and held it out. A single word escaped his monstrous mouth. “Mother . . .”
Aunt B’s lips trembled. She slumped against the porch post. Her shoulders shook and she covered her mouth with her hand. Tears swelled in her eyes. No sobs escaped her lips. She simply stood there and cried, grief plain and raw on her face.
What do I do? She was the bouda alpha. Alphas didn’t . . . they didn’t show weakness. They didn’t cry.
She was just a woman.
I walked up on the porch and hugged her. “Let’s take him inside.”
For a moment I thought she would snap my neck, and then she nodded wordlessly and I opened the door. We took him in and laid him to rest on a table in the back room. She sank into a chair next to him. Raphael sat on the floor next to her and she stroked his head.
I went into the kitchen, brewed herbal tea, and took it to her. Raphael was gone and Aunt B sat alone. Her face was wet with tears. Her eyes glanced at me. Still sharp and hard. She took the cup. “Thank you.”
I nodded, not knowing what to do with myself.
“Are you and my son together?”
Everything inside me clenched, reminding me I was beastkin and she was the boudas’ alpha. “Yes.”
“That’s good,” she said softly. “I always liked you.” She glanced at Alex. “Make the best of it. The way we did.”
The magic surged, drowning us. The outline of Alex’s body shimmered. A pale glow broke free of the corpse and congealed into Alex Doulos. He saw Aunt B. His voice was like the whisper of dry leaves underfoot. “Beatrice?”
“Yes,” she said softly.
I tiptoed out of the room.
I found Raphael outside, on the porch. Too bulky to fit into a chair in his warrior form, he sat on the floor. Hard knotted muscle corded his back. His long arms lay folded on his knees and the claws of his right hand protruded, crisp in moonlight.
He truly looked monstrous. Just like the secret me.