Brynna sniffed. “Because there’s a light inside you that shines so bright it’s hard to look at. You are kind and funny, and you’re the smartest boy I’ve ever met. Most of all, you see potential and opportunity where others see obstacles.”

“Yeah,” Nick said, his throat tight as he remembered all the times when all he’d needed was a kind smile from someone. Anyone. And Brynna had been that one person that day when he’d felt battered beyond his endurance. “Those words etched themselves into my soul, and I think about them a lot when Stone and them get started on me. While other people have kicked me, coming and going, you never did. You are an angel, Brynna. Don’t let the haters win. They wouldn’t have attacked you had they not felt inferior to you. So you hold your head up and you dare them to come after you. And know that when you do, you’re not facing them alone. You’ve got me, LaShonda, Kody, and dozens of other people who will take on the devil himself for you.”

She threw herself into his arms and sobbed against his neck. “I love you, Nick. You’ve always been such a good friend to me.”

Patting her on the back, he knew she meant that the same way he did. As friends. “I love you, too. Now if we want to be really evil, let’s sic Tad on them.”

She laughed at the mention of her older brother, who’d graduated early and gone on to college up in Baton Rouge. “He would beat them senseless, wouldn’t he?”

“You know it, and he’s the one person outside of Bubba and Mark who could track them down and then some.”

“Hey, Brynna? You here?”

Wiping at the tears on her cheeks, she drew a ragged breath. “Up here, Daddy.”

Nick put a little distance between them as her father climbed the stairs. When he reached the landing and caught sight of Nick outside Brynna’s bedroom, he stopped dead in his tracks.

Now Nick had always known that Mr. Addams was a large man, and by large he meant really tall and muscular. But right now with that furious glower on his face, Nick could swear that her father grew about nine inches taller and his muscles expanded to the size of Rambo’s. And he was pretty sure that crazy light in her father’s eyes came from an image of him gutting Nick where he stood.

Holding his hands up in surrender, Nick took another step away from her. “I did not step one foot inside her room, sir. I swear it on my mother’s life. We’ve been out here the whole time.”

Brynna wiped at her nose. “I had a really bad day at school, Daddy, and Nick came by to check on me and cheer me up.”

Relaxing, her father closed the distance between them. “I got a call about it from Mr. Head. It’s why I came on home.”

Nick edged himself closer to the stairs. “And now that I know you’re not alone, Bryn, I’m going to head back home. If you need anything at all or someone to talk to, any time day or night, call me.”

Brynna frowned. “Did you really come all this way just to check on me?”

Nick shrugged sheepishly. “I don’t know anyone else who lives out this way.”

Her smile warmed him. “Thank you so much, Nick.”

“No problem.” He inclined his head to her before he went to the stairs.

Mr. Addams followed him down to let him out the door.

Nick paused in the foyer and looked up to make sure Brynna wasn’t on the landing before he spoke to her father. “Mr. Addams, I don’t know what the principal told you, but I am seriously worried about Brynna. I was in the class that saw … those lies about her, and it was pretty gruesome what they did. And I know how mean some of the kids at school can be. You might want to keep her home a few days and watch over her. Please make sure she’s not left alone. I know her mom’s in Seattle and girls like to talk to girls. If she needs someone, I can volunteer my mom. She had a bad situation in high school, too. And she survived it. I know she thinks the world of Brynna and would be more than happy to help her anyway she can. She’s working tonight at Sanctuary, but she’ll be home all day tomorrow.”

Her father smiled at him. “Thanks, Nick. I really appreciate it.”

Nodding, Nick left. But he didn’t go too far. He stopped by the fountain that they had in the middle of the yard and stared into the water. It took a few minutes for his powers to kick in. When they did, he saw Brynna still crying in her room as she hugged one of the stuffed animals she kept on her bed. He saw her upset and angry. However, the image of her killing herself was gone.

Breathing in relief, he headed back to the streetcar while his thoughts ran through everything that had happened.

Caleb had assured him that this perverse maliciousness was human-spawned, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that something else was behind it. It just didn’t feel right. Yeah, people were cruel. They were nasty. He’d seen the worst of humanity. Had looked into the eyes of a friend as that friend beat him to the brink of death and then ruthlessly shot him on the street.

More times than he could count, Nick had sneered at the hypocrites around him and bathed in their condemnation.

Still …

He heard something whispering in his ear in a language he couldn’t understand.

Nick froze as he tried to comprehend it. Was it the voice of the ether spirits that Caleb listened to? The ones who carried information and wisdom?

Ambrose had told him that he would one day be able to access the universe—see all things hidden. Know the unknowable. It’d sounded far-fetched, but the one thing he’d learned over these last few months was that absurdity was the true natural order. Trying to find sense in the world was like trying to unlock the key to the universe using a Tinkertoy.

In a way, he missed living in ignorance. Those days of supreme comfort he’d had back when the world had made sense, and any problem he had could be cured by his mother pulling him into her lap and kissing his boo-boos. Back then, he’d dreamed of being a teenager. He’d told himself that once he had a job, he’d be a man.

But he didn’t feel like a man.

Well, some days he did. Some days, he felt as ancient as Acheron, who was over eleven thousand years old. Other times, he still wanted to run to his mom and have her make it all better.

He was at such a strange time in his life. Caught between childhood and being his own man. His mom had leaned on him so hard at times that he felt like he was the parent. Like they’d raised each other.

And at the same time, he couldn’t imagine being his age and having a toddler to take care of. It was a wonder his mom was sane. Not to mention the fact that he’d been a sick little kid. For the first two years of his life, he’d been in and out of hospitals for all kinds of weird things.

Because you were demonkyn. He knew that now. His human part had been fighting his father’s DNA. And the demon in him had been trying to kill the human half.

How had his mother met such a creature as his father? It was something she refused to talk about. Nor would she speak ill of him.

For better or worse, he is your father, Nick. Family is family, no matter what.

And his mother was whacked for that thought. He’d only met his father a couple of times in his life, during visitations at the prison. His only real memory of the man had come from when he was ten and his father had lived with them for three whole months after someone had been dumb enough to parole him.

Like some bad Hollywood cliché, his father had laid up drunk and knocked them around until one of his former inmate buddies had convinced him to rob a bank. During the robbery, his father had brutally slaughtered four people he claimed were demons trying to kill him. At the time that’d seemed stupid.

Now, not so much. It probably had been demons out to get him.

Instead of going for an insanity defense or fighting the conviction, his father had pled guilty and been sent right back to Angola. About a year later, just shy of Nick’s eleventh birthday, there had been a huge riot where his father had been wounded. He’d also killed a guard. Something that guaranteed he’d never be paroled again.

Let’s hear it for family.

But Nick didn’t believe blood ties created family, or that his father’s whacked out DNA had to define the person he was to become. In his world, family was something you chose to have. It was the people you loved who loved you back—those you could call in the middle of the night who would rush to your side without complaint. They were the only ones who mattered. The ones who counted. As far as he was concerned, his family was his mom, Menyara, Kyrian, Rosa, Liza, Bubba, and Mark. And Acheron was the weird uncle no one was sure about. Caleb was that acerbic cousin you liked, but you didn’t know why.

And Kody lived in a place in his heart that was uniquely hers.

Maybe he felt that way because, other than his mother, he’d never really known blood kin. He’d never once met his grandparents. The closest he’d come to that was seeing them in passing at the mall during Christmas years ago. His mom had ducked into a store and Menyara had told him who they were, and why his mother was so upset, and didn’t want to be seen. Now, he couldn’t even remember what they’d looked like. He wouldn’t know them if they stepped on him.

“Nick?”

He paused on his way back to the streetcar as he heard his name, but couldn’t place the voice. Turning around, he didn’t see anyone near him.

Just don’t be more mortent demons out to attack me while I’m alone. Caleb would kill him for being so stupid.

“Nick!” A car moved and then he saw Jill running toward him, waving.

What was it about Jill that made him so uncomfortable? And it wasn’t the same kind of nervousness he had with Kody. He was twitchy with Kody because when she was around all he could think about was how good her lips tasted. And his body would go white-hot with horomonal overload until he could barely think of anything else.

He wasn’t attracted to Jill at all. So what about her was fueling his aversion?

Give her a chance, Nick. She’d been nervous on her first day … Just like you’d been.

True. Not to mention, he’d had more than his share of off days since then. He shouldn’t hold one of hers against her.

“Hey, Jill,” he said as she stopped in front of him.

She grinned broadly. “I didn’t know you lived out this way.”

“I don’t. I came by to see Brynna.”

Her face blanched. “The girl who made all those awful photos with animals?”

“No,” he snapped. “The girl someone lied about. Those pictures were doctored.”

She actually got huffy with him. “That’s not what I heard about her.”

Keep talking, babe, and you’re really going to alienate me. And seriously tick him off. “Yeah, well, you’re hearing it now. I was there and can tell you that they were forged. It was obvious. Brynna has never done anything like that, and wouldn’t.”

She smiled. “If you say so. I don’t know her well enough to comment.”

“Then you don’t know her well enough to carry a rumor that is completely untrue.”

Jill went silent for a few seconds. “That’s a really good point. I never thought of it that way.”

“Yeah, well, I don’t like gossip.” He’d had too much of it spread about him and his mom. “As my mother always says, great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people. And life’s too short to worry about what other people do or don’t do. Tend your own backyard, not theirs, because yours is the one you have to live in.”

“Wow, that’s deep. Are you, like, one of the scholarship kids?”

He hated that question. In theory, scoring high enough to get a scholarship should be a mark of honor. But somehow it’d been twisted around by his classmates to mean that anyone who had a scholarship couldn’t afford to go to school at St. Richards and had no business there because they weren’t worthy.

“Yeah, I’m one of the scholarship kids.”

“That’s so cool. Me and my brother got in last year, but we weren’t able to get one of the scholarships. We tried twice, though.”

Now he felt awful. “I’m sorry, Jill.”

Her smile returned. “It’s okay. The church was real good to us. They were taking up a collection to help my parents with tuition when this really nice old couple volunteered to sponsor us. They’re paying for everything … right down to the pens and book bags. They even took us shopping to get new school clothes.”

“That’s decent of them. They must be really great people.” His mom would never have allowed someone else to pay for Nick’s school, never mind his clothes. She was fierce in her beliefs that you take nothing from no one. What you had, you earned, or you did without until you could afford it.



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