Sunshine wasn't sure what to make of Acheron as they entered her loft. He was lean and humongously tall, and those eyes of his...
Something about them made it seem like he could see straight through her. Like he could hear every thought she possessed.
She dropped her backpack beside the couch and watched him walk a circle around her loft, as if making sure no one was in here, and yet she sensed it was more habit than a real need he had to verify that they were alone.
He had such a deadly, graceful swagger. A predator's lope. There was something intrinsically sexual about Acheron. Something compelling, seductive. Just being near him made her want to reach out and touch him.
It was as if he were putting off powerful pheromones, and at the same time, she was scared of him. He was like a lethal, beautiful animal in the wild that part of you wanted to cuddle, even while the other part of you knew he was just as likely to rip your arm off as he was to cuddle back.
He was magnetic and fierce and he made her want to run for the door.
When he spoke, the powerful sound of his voice made her jump, but what struck her most was how erotic his voice was. It was so deep that it rumbled and every syllable he spoke went down her spine like a seductive caress. She'd never been around anyone whose entire body and character appeared to have been made for no other purpose than to entice women sexually.
Boy, did it ever work.
"Your brother, Storm, is below, cleaning up. You might want to have him spend the night with you."
"How do you know Storm is below?"
"I just do."
She frowned-he was even more eerie than her grandmother. "Why aren't you staying?"
"Do you want me to?"
No, not really. But she didn't want to offend him. "You probably have things you need to do."
He gave her a tight-lipped smile that seemed to indicate that he had heard her real response. "Then, good night, Sunshine."
He started for the door.
He paused and looked at her.
"Am I doing the right thing by letting Talon go?" she asked. "You need him, right?"
His mercury eyes seared her. "I think you need to listen to what your grandmother told you, Sunshine. Follow your heart."
"How did you know about that?"
He gave her a hint of a smile. "I know lots of things."
This was a very spooky man. She wondered if he was a missing member of the Addams family.
Acheron turned on his heel and walked out her door.
Sunshine stood there for several minutes, debating what she should do about Talon.
But in the end, she knew what her heart demanded she do...
She'd asked Psyche if it were possible to summon a goddess. She wasn't sure if Psyche had been honest, but there was only one way to find out.
"Artemis," she said out loud. "I summon you to human form."
There was no sound, no great flash of light.
Depressed, she started for her bedroom.
"Who are you? And why have you called for me?"
She froze at the sound of the peeved, thickly accented voice behind her.
Turning around, she saw an incredibly tall, beautiful woman standing by her sofa. Artemis had long, curly auburn hair that spiraled around the face of an angel and vibrant green eyes that didn't look happy to be here.
The goddess was dressed in a long, white sheathlike dress and stood with her hands on her hips.
"Are you Artemis?"
"Gee, let me think. Did you call for Artemis or for Peter Pan?"
Well, Artemis was definitely not a late-night person. She gave a whole new meaning to the word cranky. "I called for Artemis."
"Then since I'm not dressed in green and have the body of a woman and not some prepubescent boy, I guess I must be she."
"Are you always this irritable?"
"Are you always this stupid?" She crossed her arms over her chest and gave Sunshine a withering glare. "Look, little human, I have no patience for you. You're not one of my subjects and that medallion around your neck greatly offends me. So tell me what you want so I can tell you to go bugger off."
This was not looking good. Talon's boss-lady was a serious bitch. "I wanted to ask you if I could get Talon's soul back from you."
She cocked her head at the question. "You mean Speirr of the Morrigantes? The Celtic chieftain I snagged away from the Morrigan?"
"No?" Sunshine asked in disbelief.
"Is there an echo? No, human, his soul belongs to me and you can't have it."
"Because I said so."
Sunshine was aghast. Furious at her too. Artemis would never be voted Miss Congeniality. The goddess needed some personal-relationship seminars. "Well, that just makes it official then, doesn't it?"
Artemis arched a haughty brow. "Little girl, have you any idea who or what you're dealing with?"
Sunshine took a deep breath and prayed for patience. She couldn't afford to lose her temper with the person who happened to own Talon's soul. Not if she wanted it back.
Not to mention the small fact that as a goddess, Artemis could probably wish her dead if she made her mad enough.
"I know, Artemis. I'm sorry. I don't mean to offend you. I am in love with Talon and I want us to have a future together. I would do anything to keep him with me. Can you not understand that?"
Artemis's face softened a degree, as if she could relate. "Yes, I understand."
"Then can I-"
"The answer is still no."
"Because nothing in this world is ever free. If you want his soul back you have to earn it or pay for it."
Artemis shrugged. "You can't. You have nothing I want or value, therefore you have nothing to barter with."
"Oh, come on, are you serious?"
"Deadly." Artemis flashed into vapor and vanished.
Ugh! Sunshine wanted to throttle the woman. How could she be so selfish?
"Artemis!" she called out before she could stop herself. "You seriously suck!"
Closing her eyes, Sunshine sighed. What was she to do now? There was no way that selfish heifer would ever let go of Talon's soul.
What were they going to do?
Amanda Devereaux-Hunter woke up at seven-thirty in the morning. She glanced absently at the clock and closed her eyes, then jerked to full alertness as the time dawned on her.
It was seven-thirty a.m. and her infant daughter, Marissa, hadn't awakened for her five o'clock feeding.
Not quite panicked, but definitely concerned about her baby, she got up and went to the nursery in the room beside hers.
As she neared the crib, her heart stopped.
It was empty.
At only three weeks of age, there was no chance Marissa had gotten up and walked away.
Oh God, it was Desiderius!
He'd come back for them!
Terror gripped her at the thought. Ever since she and Kyrian had defeated that monster, she'd had recurring nightmares of him returning from the dead for vengeance against them.
"Kyrian!" She raced back to the bed and woke her husband.
"What is it?" he asked grumpily.
"It's Marissa. She's gone."
Kyrian sat up, fully alert now. "Gone where?"
"She's not in her crib. I don't know where she is."
He sprang from bed and grabbed his pants from the floor. Without waiting for Kyrian, Amanda ran through the upstairs, her heart pounding.
Where could her baby be?
The thought of losing her child was her worst nightmare.
She dashed down the stairs to see if the front door was open. If maybe someone had come in and taken her..
As she started into the living room, Amanda pulled up short. Shocked to the core of her being, she focused her gaze on the most unbelievable sight she'd ever beheld.
Acheron lay on the leather couch with Marissa cuddled contentedly on top of his muscular chest, up under his chin.
A pack of diapers was on the coffin-shaped coffee table along with an empty bottle of formula.
Relief and disbelief flooded her simultaneously.
When she had first met Acheron a little over a year ago, he had been the most terrifying thing she'd ever seen. A man possessed of incredible powers and contradictions, she had no doubt he could wish all of them into oblivion and yet there he lay with her infant daughter cradled tenderly in his huge hands.
"Is something..." Kyrian's voice trailed off as he, too, saw them.
She looked up at him over her shoulder. "I didn't know Ash liked babies."
"Neither did I. The uncomfortable way he's been behaving with Marissa in the house, I just assumed he had no use for them."
Kyrian was right. Ash had done nothing but avoid being around Marissa as much as possible. Every time she cried, he actually cringed and made a hasty exit. Amanda would never have guessed that he would actually tend her daughter.
Crossing the room, she reached for the baby.
Ash came awake with a look so feral and fierce that she stepped back with an audible gasp.
He sat up on the couch, but didn't move farther.
He blinked as he saw her and Kyrian.
"Sorry," Ash breathed. "I didn't realize it was you."
"I was just going to take her off you."
He glanced down at Marissa who was still sleeping within the shelter of his hands. "Oh. I must have fallen asleep while I was burping her."
He handed her to Amanda and the way he did it told her a lot. Acheron had an expertise that said he'd handled a baby more than just a few times.
"I hope I didn't scare you," he said apologetically. "She was crying when I came in and I went upstairs to make sure she was okay." He looked strangely pale, as if the thought of a baby crying was somehow painful for him. "Since the two of you were still sleeping and I was up, I figured I'd give you guys a break."
Amanda bent over and kissed him on the cheek. "You're a good man, Ash. Thanks."
A pain-filled look crossed his face as he pulled back from her. He got up from the couch and picked his backpack up from the floor. "I'll go on up to bed."
Kyrian stopped him as he started for the hallway. "You okay, Acheron? You look kind of shaken."
Ash laughed at that. "When have I ever been shaken?"
He clapped Kyrian on the shoulder. "I'm just tired."
"Yeah, I was wondering where you spent yesterday. You never came back here to sleep."
"I had something to take care of. Something that wouldn't wait."
Amanda sighed. "You know, Ash, one day you're going to have to learn to confide in someone."
"Good night, Amanda," Ash said. He inclined his head to Kyrian and headed for the stairs.
Amanda joined her husband as Acheron vanished upstairs. "I can't believe you've known him for twenty-one hundred years and you know so little about him that you can't even tell me his real hair color."
He shrugged. "Ash is so self-contained and -controlled that I doubt if anyone will ever know anything about him other than his name."
Sunshine lay in her bed long into the morning, remembering the sound of Talon's deep, even breaths while he slept. She remembered the way he liked to keep his knee snuggled high between her thighs and his arm draped possessively over her chest with his left hand buried in her hair.
How she missed him.
Then, her thoughts drifted into the past. Far into her other life...
"Don't go, Speirr. There is evil in this. I know it."
Angry, he'd jerked his arm free of her grasp. "They murdered my uncle, Nynia. Cut him down before my eyes. I will not rest until I have vengeance."
As Nynia, she had been too afraid of losing him to press the matter. She'd always deferred to him in all things. He was her husband. But in her heart, she'd known he was about to set matters into motion that could never be reversed.
And she had been right.
Just as she knew somehow tonight would settle everything one way or another.
What if she lost Talon?
She couldn't bear the thought of it any more than she could bear the thought of living out her life without him.
She glanced around her loft, at all the familiar things.
Since the day she'd divorced Jerry, all she had wanted was her career, her art.
Now, alone with her stuff, it just didn't seem quite so important to her.
Her art didn't hold her at night. It didn't make her laugh or seduce her. It didn't make her body burn with desire or shiver with orgasms.
It didn't punch Jerry in the nose for being a jerk.
Only Talon did that.
Only Talon could do that.
Her eyes fell to the Snoopy dispenser as tears welled up. "I can't let him go."
If only she knew how to keep him.
Zarek sat in the darkened corner of the living room, listening to the city outside awaken. He should be sleeping, resting up for the night that was to come, but he couldn't seem to find the peace he needed.
His phone rang.
He answered it to find Dionysus on the other end.
"Are you ready for tonight?"
Zarek took a drink of vodka before he answered. "I'm always ready to cause trouble."
"Good. Since Talon is now on to Styxx, it requires a little more effort for tonight's preparations. I'll need you to get Sunshine away from the Celt and bring her to me. She has to be in the warehouse by eleven-thirty. Now rest and be ready to kill Talon and Valerius."
That he could do with no problem. "What about Acheron?"
"Leave him to us."
The phone went dead.
Zarek tossed his cell phone aside and returned his attention to the vodka. He'd already drank three-quarters of it. It was a pity Dark-Hunters couldn't get drunk. For that matter, they couldn't even get numb. The only induced pleasure they could take was human blood.
Closing his eyes, he remembered the woman he had tasted last night. Now she had been full of passion. Laughter. Even love. And there for a short time he had felt something other than the pain that cocooned him.
He leaned his head back against the wall and finished off the vodka, letting its smooth taste burn down his throat.
And as he sat there, alone, he couldn't help but wonder how Sunshine would taste...
Talon got up alone to the smell of turpentine on his sheets. He should have washed them, but he couldn't bear the thought of losing that last bit of her.
He wanted his Sunshine. He needed her.
And she was lost to him forever.
Sighing, he got up, showered and dressed, then headed into the city.
Tonight everything would be decided.
As soon as the sun set, he rode his motorcycle to Sanctuary where Ash had told him to meet everyone.
Instead of meeting them in the bar itself, he went to the building next door that was also owned by the bear clan.
Attached to the bar by a locked door in the kitchen, the other building was where the bears and certain were-members of the staff lived. The house was equipped with a makeshift hospital, complete with a doctor and a vet.
Sanctuary was more than just a bar. It was a safe haven for any Dark- or Were-Hunter who needed aid.
By the time Talon was admitted into the drawing room of Peltier House, the Peltier quadruplets had already been dispatched to patrol the Mardi Gras crowd for Daimons.
Julian and Kyrian were locked in a holding cell upstairs where Mama Lo Peltier was guarding them until morning. Even in the drawing room, Talon could hear them threatening to kill Valerius, who stood by the fireplace with a sneer on his face.
Nick sat in a stuffed chair, munching a bag of potato chips, and Eric St. James sat on the couch, staring into space.
Almost thirty years old, Eric looked a lot younger. He had long black hair and was another one of the goth contingency.
He'd come into their community as a second-generation Squire, but preferred Dorean Status, meaning he didn't serve one particular Hunter. He served anyone who needed him.
"Acheron, you better let me out of here," Kyrian shouted from upstairs. "Do you hear me?"
"Sounds like I missed a party," Talon said to Ash, who was standing with his back against the far wall.
"You have no idea. I decided it was best to keep Kyrian and Julian locked up until morning. I already called and told Amanda and Grace not to worry about them."
"I really wish you would let them out," Valerius said to Ash.
Ash didn't bother to comment.
Instead, he stared at Talon. "You almost look normal tonight. Are you going to stay that way?"
"I told you I could contain myself." So far, it was working.
Talon was at peace with the fact that come the dawn he'd be having it out with Camulus.
When Ash stepped forward to speak, it dawned on Talon that Zarek was nowhere to be seen.
Was he upstairs too?
"Where's Zarek?" he asked Ash.
"I have him guarding Sunshine."
Now that destroyed his calm.
"Like hell!" Talon roared.
"Trust me, Talon. I believe in Zarek to do the right thing."
Talon's response was emphatic. "I don't trust him. At all. And after this, I'm not sure if I trust you."
"Enough of the bickering," Ash said. "Just do as I told you and everything should work out."
"Should?" Talon asked.
When Ash spoke, there was an odd note in his voice that made Talon wonder how much more Ash knew than he was telling them. "We have predestinies, Talon, but human will can circumvent them. If everyone does as I've instructed, then things should work out the way they're meant to."
Talon clenched his teeth. "And if we don't?"
"We're all screwed."
"Gee, Ash," Nick said sarcastically, "you're just so damn comforting."
Ash gave him a wry look. "I try to be anyway."
Nick's answer was flat. "You fail admirably."
Talon was still stewing.
Ash spoke to all of them. "What I need everyone to know is that we have a truly sinister night ahead of us. It seems Dionysus and Camulus have combined their forces to try and get themselves reinstated to their full godhoods."
"How are they planning on doing that?" Valerius asked.
"The two of them aren't strong enough to do it on their own. They need the power of a third god to aid them."
"What god?" they all asked simultaneously.
"Who the hell is Apollymi?" Talon asked. "I've never even heard of her."
One corner of Ash's mouth turned up wryly. "She's an old god who dates back to my time. One who has powers over life, vengeance, and death. The Atlanteans affectionately referred to her as the Destroyer."
"Is she like Hades?" Valerius asked.
"Oh no," Ash said ominously, "this god makes Hades look like a Boy Scout. Apollymi finishes off her victims with an iron hammer and commands an army of malformed demons.
"The last time someone freed her, plagues and suffering permeated the world and she sent Atlantis straight to the bottom of the sea. She headed across Greece, laying waste to the entire country, and setting them back culturally thousands of years before she was finally returned to her holding cell. The Destroyer will unleash holy hell on this earth. Starting with New Orleans."
"Oh goodie," Nick said sarcastically. "I just love knowing about these things."
Ash ignored him.
"So how do they intend to free the Destroyer?" Talon asked.
Ash took a deep breath. "The only way to do that is with the blood of an Atlantean."
"Your blood," Talon said. It was a given, since Ash was the only Atlantean left alive.
Ash nodded. "At midnight, the threshold between this plane and the one where she lives will be thin enough to breach. If they unleash her..."
"Anyone else have an ulcer?" Nick asked.
Talon ignored his question. "How do we stop them?"
"With a lot of faith and by doing exactly what I tell you to do."
Nick snorted at that. "Does anyone other than me think that Ash is being just a little too vague about all this?"
Everyone except Ash raised their hands.
"You're not funny," Ash said to them.
Ash looked to Valerius. "I need you on the streets with the Peltiers. At eleven-thirty, Dionysus is planning to unleash his Daimons on the population in order to distract us. Slay any of them you find.
"Nick," Ash said, "I want you and Eric ready to mobilize if you're needed."
The Squires nodded.
Ash put his sunglasses on. "Talon, you stay with me. You and I are going after Dionysus and his crew."
"Just out of curiosity," Talon said, "how do you know all this?"
Ash ignored him.
"All right, children," Ash said, "head out and guard the streets."
"Just one question?" Eric asked him.
"Maybe I'm being dense but why are these guys after power now? Why didn't they do this last year or at some other time? Why wait?"
Ash's answer wasn't comforting in the least. "This isn't the first time they've tried to take their powers back. This is just the best shot they've had at succeeding."
"Okay," Eric said slowly. "So what happened to their powers to begin with?"
Talon answered for Ash. "When a god ceases to be worshiped, their powers diminish. If a god is defeated by another god, then a chunk of his powers is absorbed by the victor and he loses his ability to regain his former position."
Eric nodded. "Okay, one last thing. What happens if they do regain their powers?"
Ash looked away. "Let us hope we don't find out."
"Because according to Atlantean myth, the Destroyer is supposed to be the one who will bring about Telikos-the end of the world. No doubt Dionysus and Camulus are thinking that Apollymi will be so overcome with gratitude when they release her that she won't think twice about joining them and sharing her power with them.
"What they don't know is that there was a really good reason why Apollymi was imprisoned by the Atlantean gods. Even the other gods feared Apollymi's wrath, and in the end, she killed them all. Whatever we do, we can't ever let her escape. If they free her tonight, everything you know about this existence will change. Everything."
"Gotta love saving the world," Talon said. "Another day in the life."
Ash took a deep breath. "And on that note we have things to do."
Talon nodded, but in his heart, he wished he could see Sunshine one more time.
He didn't want to die without seeing her face again.
Duty, how it reeked.
Valerius headed out first.
Talon, Nick, and Eric went out through the back door with Ash pulling up the rear.
As Ash left the house, the back door slammed shut, catching the tail end of his long black coat.
Ash jerked to a stop and cursed.
Nick howled with laughter at the sight of Acheron trapped. "Don't it take the bad-ass right out of you?"
Ash arched a brow.
The door opened by itself, freeing his coat, then it slammed shut again.
Nick sobered instantly. "And that puts it right back in you."
Ash ruffled Nick's hair like an older brother. "Watch our backs and soothe Amanda's nerves until Kyrian returns."
"You got it."
Ash and Talon left the ornate courtyard and headed into the crowd of tourists and locals who were as thick as fog.
There were hundreds of people out. Hundreds who had no idea that the very fate of the world rested in the hands of the two men dressed in black who were making their way slowly through them.
Two men who were tired tonight. Weary.
One because he had long ago ceased feeling anything except the heavy burden of his responsibilities.
Ash wanted nothing more than one single day to just lie down and rest. One day to find a moment's worth of comfort.
He'd spent eternity waiting for a second chance.
Waiting for an escape from the wreckage of his past and the damnation that made up his future.
Tonight, he had to face his brother for the first time in eleven thousand years.
The two of them had never been on equal footing. Styxx had hated him since the moment of his birth.
For Ash, this was going to be a long, long night.
Talon's thoughts were on Sunshine. On the gentle curve of her face. The beauty of her touch.
Was she in her loft painting?
Was she thinking of him?
"I love you." Her words tore through him.
Talon clenched his teeth, wishing he were touching her. Hoping that at the end of this night she would be safe from Camulus forever.
"Faith, Talon," Ash said as if he knew his thoughts.
Talon took a deep breath.
His death didn't concern him. It was Sunshine he couldn't allow to die. Right or wrong, he would see this through, and come morning she would be safe.
No matter what it took.