Xypher had to struggle not to launch himself at the waitress as she brought food and snatch it out of her hands. The scent of it reached deep inside and literally made him ache for a taste of it. All he wanted was to tear into it like a rabid animal and it took all the restraint he had not to. But what amazed him more than the fact that he was able to stop himself was the reason why it was so important to him to behave.
He wasn't about to let anyone humiliate him again.
"You're nothing but a mongrel. Uncouth. Uncivilized. Disgusting. Who could ever love a beast?" Satara's words rang loud and clear in his head.
Simone sat across from him, eating daintily, primly. It was obvious manners had been bred into her and for some reason he couldn't even fathom, he didn't want her to judge him like the rest of the world had and find him an animal, too. Never once had he cared what anyone else thought of him.
As if she could hear those thoughts, she reached across the table and placed one gentle hand on his arm, over the words he'd branded there. "I know you're starving, Xypher. You don't have to worry about your manners with me. Dig in."
Nothing had ever touched him so profoundly. Just as no one had ever looked more beautiful to him. The light in her hair, the way her hazel eyes flashed with an inner spirit that was intangible and electrifying. It baffled him.
He lashed out at her and she took it, just like he did in Tartarus. No matter what they did, no matter how hard they tried to break him, he stood strong against their best attacks. Just like her. Only her strength was innately good. She never sought to hurt anyone.
Not eves him.
She was gentleness personified.
And because of that, he was more determined than ever not to give in to that rabid side of himself.
"I'm all right," he muttered, picking up his silverware.
Simone sat in silence while she watched Xypher's hand visibly shaking as he ate his lamb. There was no mistaking his hunger or his need to satiate it. She wasn't sure why he was fighting it when it was so obvious he wanted to tear into his food. In his shoes, she'd be ripping into it and shoving handfuls into her face.
Not him. It was as if he wanted to prove something. Like he needed to eat with good manners for some reason she couldn't even begin to guess at.
Shaking her head, she tried to focus on her own meal. Something that wasn't easy given the leashed power of him. He was compelling. The Strength, the power. All she wanted to do was reach out and touch those perfect lips.
He was like watching a beautiful animal that was stalking its prey.
But the best part was when he tried to take a bite out of the oyster shell. The boyish confusion on his face was utterly charming.
Stifling a laugh, she got up and walked to his side of the table. "You don't bite into the oyster shell."
He scowled at her. "How do you eat it, then?"
"Let me show you." She took the oyster from his hand and picked up the small fork from beside his plate. "First you detach the meat and then you up the shell to your lips and let it slide down, into your mouth. Then you swallow, but don't chew it."
She stared at the oyster meat that appeared harmless enough, but she swore she could still taste the one time she'd mistakenly bitten into one. Nasty didn't come close to describing that taste. "Well, it's gritty and land of gross. But if you really want to you can."
Xypher froze as he watched her put a dab of Tabasco sauce on the meat. The scent of her filled his head and reminded him that it'd been centuries since he last touched a woman . . .
Strange how in his rage and quest for vengeance, he hadn't even thought of that. Hadn't noticed any of the women he'd passed on the streets while searching for Daimons to take him into Kalosis.
Now that long-forgotten ache burned through him. He wanted to take her hand in his so that he could lick the pads of her fingers to taste the salt of her skin. To bury his face in the crook of her neck so that he could inhale her scent until it clung to his skin.
He didn't know why, but just the thought of her touching him in even the most careless way had him harder than he'd ever been before. And he longed to reach up and brush his hand through those chaotic curls that had defied her best efforts to tame them. He wondered what they'd feel like brushing against his chest while she made love to him. Were they as soft as they appeared?
Were her lips?
Would she welcome him into her body?
Xypher forced himself to look away from her and to squelch those thoughts. It wasn't his fate to have a woman like her touch him in that way. He was an animal and he knew it. He'd been left alone too long, had been cast out to find his own way. Tenderness was for humans. It wasn't for a renegade Skotos who was going to be taken back to hell in a few weeks.
Don't go soft. Don't let down your guard.
Sooner or later, he'd be back in Tartarus at the mercy of Hades. It'd taken centuries to harden himself so that he didn't feel the steel-barbed lashes so deeply when they beat him. Centuries of learning how to not fall for the cruel mind games that Hades played.
Comfort on this plane would only weaken him when he returned.
It would make hell even more biting. That was something he couldn't allow. It was bad enough. To soften his existence here . . .
No wonder Hades had agreed to let him loose for a month. The god of the Underworld had known exactly how much worse Xypher's punishment would be after he'd tasted freedom.
Curling his lip, he snatched the oyster from her hand. "I'm not an infant. I can feed myself."
Simone cocked her head irritably at his quick reversal. There for a moment, she'd almost thought that he was learning to be . . . well, nice.
She must have been hallucinating.
"Fine," she said, flinging out her hands. "Whatever."
Angered over his gruffness, she went back to her seat and finished her food in silence.
What was his deal? She'd never before met anyone so surly that they couldn't accept even a minimal amount of kindness. He reminded her of that awful Scott Murphy...
Her heart slapped a beat as she remembered the boy who'd been in her children's home with her when she was eleven. Hostile and feral, he'd barely been human.
At nine years old, he'd been taken away from his parents and then put into the revolving door of foster homes because no one could do anything with him. Finally, children's services had started sending him to various facilities that were equally quick to toss him out.
No one at the home where she'd stayed, including the staff, could stand him. He was always picking fights and mocking everyone, even Simone who'd tried to be his friend. He'd laughed at her, then bit her so hard, she'd needed stitches-she still had the scar on her left forearm. Because of that and other such tantrums and attacks, he'd spent all of his time being punished until he'd mysteriously vanished in the middle of the night.
His body had been found a few days later in the basement of the gym, still dressed in his pajamas. Apparently he'd gone there, alone, and slit his own wrists.
He'd only been eleven years old.
Simone had been sad enough over the horrible occurrence, but when she'd overheard two of the teachers talking later that day, that sadness had tinned to all-out grief for the child who shouldn't have been reduced to ending his own life.
"It's a shame that boy ended up like that, but I guess given the trauma of his childhood, he didn't have any hope."
"Trauma ? "
"Didn't you know? He was taken away from his parents because his mother was a crack addict and his father a drug dealer. Scott had his skull shattered one afternoon when he interrupted Daddy doing a deal because the poor thing was starving and dared to ask for a sandwich. That's when the state took him away. His dad's been trying to regain custody ever since. We'd just told Scott the day he vanished that his father was coming to take him home the next morning. Guess the poor kid would rather be dead than go back to whatever hell was waiting for him ..."
In that one moment, Simone had learned a valuable life lesson. Judge no one until you know their circumstances. No matter how awful they seemed, sometimes there was a valid reason for their behavior. Granted, some people were just mean and corrupt, but not always.
Many people were just in pain, and by acting out, they were only trying to protect themselves from being hurt more.
It was what she tried to teach her students. Anytime you entered a crime scene, the worst thing you could do for the decedent was to pass judgment on them. It clouded your professionalism and jaded your work. A medical examiner's job was to report without prejudice.
Personal views had no place in a morgue.
It was one thing to tell someone how to live their life and what decisions to make. It was another to be the person who had to do it and live with the consequences. Just because you would do something differently, it didn't mean they would. People rose and fell by their own life choices and experiences. The mistakes were theirs to make.
And as she thought about that, it made her curious over Xypher and his past. Why was he so defensive?
Who had hurt him?
"What are gods' childhoods like?"
Xypher looked up from his tabbouleh to meet a pair of the clearest, most innocent eyes he'd ever seen. "Excuse me?"
She didn't flinch at the causticity in his tone. "I was just wondering. I mean, mine was very typical until my family died. I rode my bike through the neighborhood, made mud pies, had tea parties with my friends and dolls, and fought with my brother over TV shows. What did you do?"
Like he would tell her that? It was none of her damned busuress. "What do you care?"
The friendliness on her face was washed away by a pained expression. "I really hate it when you ask that question . . . I care because you're a person I'm stuck with until we get the bracelets off and I'd like to know something about you. Who knows? There might even be someone in there buried under all that hostility that I can actually like."
His blood boiled to think about what she really wanted. "You won't set my weaknesses that easily, babe. I don't have any."
She gaped at him. "You equate childhood memories with weakness? Dear God, what did they do to you?"
He laughed bitterly at the memories of his past. Memories he tried so hard not to think about. But one of them was clearer than all the others. It was the only time in his life he'd allowed himself to be weak and it was an experience he would never again repeat.
"I was chained to a fence where they beat me down and then cut my heart out while I fought them. Even one-handed, I made my impact on those who killed me. Suffice it to say, I will never be that helpless again."
Simone wanted to weep at the honor he described. At the pain she saw in those clear, bright eyes. "You didn't deserve that."
"No kidding," he said between clenched teeth. "But deserving has nothing to do with anything. Life and death are what they are. They have mercy for no one."
Simone looked over at Jesse who wore the same aching expression she was sure was on her face, Xypher's words hit her hard as she remembered her mother and brother, They didn't deserve what had happened to them, either.
Not wanting to think about it, she didn't try to speak to him as he finished eating. It was just too hard to try and reach someone who obviously didn't want to be reached.
Once he was done, she upped the waitress and headed back toward her condo.
They'd barely left the restaurant when Tate called. "How'd it go with Julian?" he asked.
She glanced down at the bracelet on her arm. "Not really the way I wanted it to. We're still united."
"Man, I'm sorry."
"It could be worse, I suppose. He could be your serial killer."
The look Xypher gave her told her he could hear her conversation.
"Oh, damn, I have to take this call, boo. You guys be careful and I'll check in again later." Tate hung up before she could tell him good-bye.
Closing the phone, she saw Xypher rubbing his arm out of the corner of her eye. Even though he didn't say anything, both of his arms were covered with goose bumps. "You cold?"
He didn't respond.
"He's cold," Jesse said. "It's all over his aura, which I can see, even if you can't."
Xypher sent him a glare that should have set fire to him.
Simone paused as she considered where they could get clothes for him in the Quarter. Most of the places catered to women . . .
Or to goths.
A slow smile curved her lips. Yeah, with his caustic personality and height, goth would look really good on him.
Without a word, she cut down Dumaine to head to Decatur Street.
"What are you doing?" Xypher asked defensively.
"Getting you some clothes."
He pulled her to a stop on the sidewalk. "I don't need anything,"
"Yes you do."
His handsome face turned to stone. "I'm not taking your charity. I don't need anything from anyone."
She raked him with a cold stare. "And I'm not getting stuck for a month with a man who only has one shirt and one pair of pants when I'll be forced to smell you the entire time."
That took some of the fire out of his eyes.
Jesse scowled. "Hey, he's a god. Can't he just make clothes for himself?"
Xypher gave Jesse a quelling glare. "Hades is a bastard as I said earlier. My powers aren't intact. I can use them for defense. But not for food or clothing ... or shelter." The last bit came out so low that she wasn't even sure she'd heard it.
The ashamed expression on his face told her that she hadn't been mistaken.
Why would Hades do that to him?
"C'mon," she said, tugging his hand gently. "You need clothing, especially a coat or jacket."
Xypher couldn't breathe at the gentleness of her fleeting touch that set file to his entire being. It wasn't designed to hurt or to control. It was nothing more than a friendly touch any human might give to another.
He'd never been touched like that.
Awed by her kindness, he followed her into a store. Not that he was following per se. He never followed anyone. She only led because he didn't know where they were going.
As they entered the store, he paused at the sight of a mannequin with a corset, short skirt, and striped leggings.
"Is something wrong?" Simone asked.
"I know a demon who dresses like this."
Her face lost color. "A demon?" she whispered.
Xypher nodded. "She travels with Acheron as his companion. Simi."
Xypher was shocked by the exuberance of the clerk's voice. Short with jet-black hair, she stood on the opposite side of a glass counter filled with jewelry and goblets.
Simone frowned at the woman. "You know Simi?"
The dark-haired woman's smile widened. "Oh, yeah, we all know Simi and her sister. They clean us out every time they're in town. We love them. Are you a friend of theirs?"
Xypher bit back a snort. Friend . . . there was a word no one had ever applied to him before. But he couldn't exactly tell the woman that off an army of demons and save the world. "Yeah, we're friends."
"Oh, honey, then welcome to Roadkill. Any friend of the Parthenopaeuses is a friend of ours. What can I do for you?"
"We need to get him some clothes," Simone said. She pointed to a leather jacket high up on the wall. "Can we see that?"
The woman stepped out from around the counter to get it down.
She handed it to Xypher who shrugged it on. It was all he could do not to moan at how good the warm leather felt on his skin after being cold for all these days. The jacket was heavy, but he welcomed the weight of it.
It felt really, really good.
Simone smiled as she came up to him and adjusted it. Her hands brushed against his neck, making him instantly hard. "Very nice. Looks good on you. You like it?"
He didn't even know how to respond. "It's okay," he said, knowing that was incorrect. It was so much more than just okay. He wanted to hug her for the gift.
Simone stepped back as a strange wave of desire went through her and she didn't know why. Okay, maybe she did. Xypher looked hot in the black motorcycle jacket that was painted with an anarchy symbol on the left shoulder and the Misfits face on the back. She wanted to stroke the leather and feel the hard body underneath. He looked so dangerous and feral.
Which he really was.
It was all she could do not to purr.
"How many shirts you want?" Jesse asked.
Simone blinked before she stepped back, grateful for Jesse's interference. "At least a dozen."
"A dozen what?" The sales clerk stared at her.
Simone blushed as she realized the woman didn't know Jesse was standing beside her. "Sorry, I was thinking out loud."
"All, I thought you were speaking in code." The woman's gaze slid down Xypher's abdomen. "'Cause I'm sure he has a deadly dozen concealed."
Simone had no idea why, but a flash of jealousy went through her. How ridiculous was that? Yet when she collected the woman, her tone was clipped by that stupid, unexpected emotion. "Eight, actually."
The clerk was impressed. "Really?"
"Damn, you're one lucky woman. Mine's only got a single, but I love him anyway."
Xypher didn't. "What are you two talking about?"
Simone patted Xypher on the arm. "Nothing, sweetie. Let's get you a couple of sweaters and some shirts and pants."
Jesse rolled his eyes. "They're ogling you, dude. Talking about your assets and the fact that you're nauseatingly lipped, which I would have been had I not bit the dust at seventeen." He puffed out his chest, trying to make himself look more muscular. "I'm forever trapped in my tall, gangly phase."
Xypher didn't comment on his appearance, he was more perturbed by the women. "Are they supposed to do that?" he whispered to Jesse.
"Only if you're lucky ... or if you're going to be." Jesse made strange clicking noises at him.
The clerk grimaced. "Are they supposed to do what?"
Simone cleared her throat. "Get his clothes. Yes, honey, they are." She leaned closer to him. "Ignore Jesse before they throw us in a padded room." She then gave Jesse a pointed stare.
"She's just jealous I can go into the dressing rooms and not be seen," Simone mouthed the words "you are such a perv!"
"No I'm not. Perverted would be spying on you when you're bathing or changing clothes." He shuddered, "That's like spying on your sister. Gag me and leave me dead."
"I wish," Simone muttered under her breath.
Xypher was actually amused by their exchange. It took a couple of seconds for him to realize what the emotion he felt even was.
Amused. He'd never experienced it before, but it was good. His chest was light and his stomach tickled. There was no anger or intent to harm in their tones. They were merely bantering playfully and enjoying each other.
He liked watching them.
Simone gave Jesse another warning stare before he seriously got her in trouble. Though she loved him, she hated when he did this. She didn't like to ignore him, but she didn't want anyone to think her insane, either.
Turning away from Jesse so as not to encourage him, Simone followed the woman toward the back, then paused as she saw the shoes in the middle of the store on shelves attached to the walls. Most were pretty funky, including a pair of clear stilettos with nine-inch heels. But one pair of black biker boots with skulls and crossbones for buckles caught her eve.
A slow smile curved her lips as she knew the one person who could do them justice. "Xypher?"
She pointed to the boots. "Would you wear those?"
The grin that question caused was absolutely wicked. And for once, it wasn't mocking. It was a look of pure pleasure and it warmed her all the way through. Damn, that man was gorgeous.
Clearing her throat, she called the clerk back to where they stood. "We'll take a pair of those."
The clerk laughed. "I just love it whenever friends of Simi come in. You guys shop like demons."
Simone cast a sideways glance at Xypher, who passed a guilty look to her. The woman was half right.
Before long, they'd picked out clothes, underwear, and accessories for Mr. Fine But Obnoxious.
Simone had to bite back a whimper when she handed over her credit card. Even though she had a lot of money, it wasn't like her to spend it shopping, especially for a temporary guest. But she couldn't have him walking around for three weeks naked, either. Then again, he would be hot, but they'd both get arrested.
At least that was her thought until she caught an unguarded expression of joy on Xypher's face as he stroked the sleeve of his new jacket. It was obvious he'd never been given anything like it before.
Yeah, that made it worth it.
Smiling, she glanced toward the wall behind the clerk's head. A rack of scarves hung there. Her smile widened at one in particular. "Excuse me," she said to the clerk, "let me get that scarf behind the counter, too."
The clerk picked up the black one with a white skull and crossbones on it. "This one?"
As soon as it was rung up, Simone took it from the counter, pulled the tag off, and wrapped it around Xypher's neck.
"What are you doing?" The suspicion in his eyes actually burned her. "It'll keep your neck warm outside."
Xypher didn't speak as she tucked the ends of the scarf in his jacket, then zipped it closed. It was such a tender gesture of caring that it brought a foreign ache to his chest. He didn't like the sensation of it. "I'm not a child."
She laughed. "Trust me, babe, that has not escaped my attention." He frowned at her playful words. "Are you teasing me?"
Teasing ... no one had ever done that before. At least not playfully. He looked at Jesse.
"Teee-zeeeen," Jesse said, elongating the word. "It means . . ." Scowling, he paused. "Well, hell, I don't know what it means. It's when someone, you know, teases you."
Grinding his teeth, Xypher popped him on the back of his head.
"Ow! Dang, I forgot you could do that." Jesse stepped closer to Simone.
When Xypher started to pursue him, Simone stepped between them and handed him the bags of clothes. "We're leaving now," she said in an exaggerated tone. "Thank the nice lady for her help."
The clerk laughed. "You're definitely welcome. You two have a good night."
Before Xypher could respond, Simone lightly pushed him toward the door. He followed after her grudgingly.
Was she insane for coining between them? He couldn't fathom anyone putting their life in danger for a ghost. Especially not a silly one like Jesse.
Simone paused outside to give them both a chiding glare. "You two are going to get me into so much trouble one day. Can you not behave?"
Jesse huffed. "He started it."
Simone held her hand up in frustration. "Not another word!"
Xypher turned and zapped Jesse so hard, his hair started smoking.
Simone grabbed his arm to protect Jesse, who was now whimpering.
Xypher's eyes flared as if he were about to fry her, too.
"Diplomatic immunity," she said, holding up the bracelet to remind him that he couldn't kill her so long as she wore it.
"You'd do well to remember that won't last forever."
"But it'll last long enough to get you to leave Jesse alone."
He growled threateningly. Luckily, though, he turned his back to Jesse and started down the sidewalk.
Relieved that she had them both quelled, Simone had barely taken a step when her phone rang again. "Hello?"
It was Tate.
"We've got another homicide . . . just like Gloria. Can you get your butt over here and take a look at it while the cops are still investigating the scene?"
"Of course. Where are you?"
She didn't hear his answer as two police cars went streaming by, headed toward the other side of the French Market. There was an urgency about them that set off her sixth sense.
"Oh, wait, let me guess," she said after they passed. "You're at North Peters."
"Heard that, huh?"
"To the depths of my now deaf soul." She watched the cars turn. "I think I'm only about four blocks from you. Be right there."
It didn't take them long to cut across the street and find the police . . . and a small crowd that had gathered to watch and comment or speculate. Simone pulled her wallet out of her back pocket to flash the first officer she reached. Even though she carried a purse, she always put her wallet in her back pocket-a force of habit after she'd had her purse stolen several years before.
He wrinkled his nose at her ID. "Meat Division. I don't envy you guys,"
She smiled at him. "It's okay, I don't envy you, either. At least the people I take into custody don't try to kill me."
"Good point." He lifted the tape so that she could bend and go under it.
"He's with me," she said before he could stop Xypher.
"It's okay, Ryan," Tate shouted as he headed toward them. "We need them on this one."
"Whatever you say, Doc."
Simone stepped back to introduce them to each other. "Tate, this is Xypher, my current paranormal dilemma."
Laughing, Tate offered his hand to Xypher. "I've never met a Dream-Hunter before."
Xypher shook it. "Sure you have. You just don't remember it," he said with an evil glint in his eye.
Tate shook his head. "That's not comforting."
"My kind seldom are." No missing the ominous tone in those words.
"Xypher is very much in the hair-raising scare'em crew," Simone explained.
Tate led them toward the victim who waited under a black tarp. "I can see that. And I'll make a note to stay on his good side. Last thing I need are any more nightmares in my sleep."
Simone couldn't agree more. "I think Xypher lives for nightmares." Tate snorted. "In that case, he's going to feel right at home."
Tate indicated the body on the ground at their feet. "Just like Gloria. Same wounds. Same MO. No blood. Drained and dropped. Only difference is this one seemed to fight back."
"He," Tate corrected.
Simone frowned. That would debunk the serial killer idea. "He?"
Tate lifted the tarp to show her a Caucasian male in his mid-twenties who was lying face up, staling blankly at nothing at all. His face was contorted, frozen by the honor that had taken his life.
Simone winced as a wave of sympathetic pain went through her. She hated this part of her job most. That feeling of seeing someone as a killer had left them. The sick die ad that clamped her stomach tight. But the worst was the firsthand knowledge of how the family would react to this tragedy.
"We have to find this asshole and stop him," she said between clenched teeth.
"Yeah," Tate agreed.
Xypher set his bags down before he approached the body to examine it.
"Careful," Tate warned. "Don't touch the body. We don't want to destroy any evidence. We have to find the perp and bring him to justice immediately."
Xypher leaned over to carefully study the neck wound. "That's going to be hard."
"It's a demon kill."
"What?" she and Tate said simultaneously.
Xypher sat back on his haunches to look up at them. "A human didn't do this."
That didn't make any sense to her, "Daimons don't-"
"Not Daimon. Demon." Xypher indicated the marks on the neck that were identical to Gloria's attack. "This is a Sumerian Dimme attack,"
"Dimme?" Tate repeated. "What the hell is a Dimme?"
Xypher rose to his feet. "That's how I ended up here. I helped to fight them in Las Vegas. During the battle, one of the Dimme escaped and to my knowledge no one could find it. I think you just did."
Tate appeared as ill as Simone felt. "How the hell did it get here?"
Xypher shrugged. "There has to be something that called it here. An artifact, a person. Something. Otherwise it would have stayed close to the cocoon where its sisters are still trapped."
"Are you sure about that?" Tate asked.
"No, human. I don't know shit about this. I'm just rattling off randomness to confuse you."
Simone sighed. "I should have warned you about his sarcasm. It makes being around him a total joy."
Tate ignored her statement as he glanced around the dark street. "Can you find his ghost Sim?"
"He hasn't popped in."
Xypher crossed his arms over his chest. "He won't have a ghost."
Simone cocked her head at his deadpan words. "What do you mean?"
"It's a Dimme kill. They usually suck everything out of a human. Lock, stock, and barrel. And, for the record, you'll need to destroy the body since their kills reanimate a few horns after death."
Simone exchanged a sick look with Tate.
"Gloria," Tate whispered. "That's why her body got up."
Simone scowled as she thought about that. "Then why did we see Gloria's ghost?"
Xypher shrugged. "The Dimme must not have finished eating the soul. It happens sometimes The soul gets trapped and eventually withers and dies."
Tate cursed. "So then how do we track and kill this thing?"
Xypher's expression was one of pure evil. "You don't. It tracks and kills you."