Think Nekoda, think. What was it that humans did for help?

Ambulance. That’s right. That was it. She reached for her phone and called 911. It took a few minutes before a woman answered it.

Kody’s hand shook as she wished she had the powers to heal Nick so that he wouldn’t have to suffer. If only … “Hey, I found my friend in an alley where he was viciously attacked, and he’s bleeding really badly.”

“Is he conscious?” the operator asked.

“No, ma’am.”

“I need your address.”

Kody ground her teeth as she used her powers to locate it. She gave it over to the woman, and stayed on the line as she waited for help to come.

She conjured a cloth to help wick away some of the blood on his face. “Hang on, Nick. I’ve got an ambulance coming for you. They’ll be here any minute.”

Only it seemed to take forever.

As soon as she heard the sirens approaching, Kody ran toward the street to flag down the ambulance so that they wouldn’t miss her alley.

They pulled up on the corner and grabbed a box before following her to where Nick lay on the ground.

“What happened?” the male EMT asked.

“I don’t know. I found him like this a few minutes ago. He was supposed to be with his mother at work, and when he didn’t show up, she called me to help search for him, and here he is. I called you guys as soon as I dug him out of the garbage.”

“And you are?”

“His girlfriend, Kody.”

They knelt down on the ground and started inspecting Nick’s condition.

“What’s his name?” the woman asked.

“Nick.”

“Nick?” the female EMT said gently. “Can you hear me, son?”

“I didn’t fight,” he mumbled.

The EMTs exchanged a frown.

“Nick?” the woman tried again. “My name is Patrice. Can you hear me?”

“Patrice,” he said raggedly.

“Good boy.”

The man ran to get the stretcher while Patrice stayed behind to insert an IV in his arm. “Can you tell me how old you are, Nick?”

“He’s fifteen,” Kody answered.

“Thank you.” She wrapped a brace around Nick’s neck while speaking to Kody. “Do you have his mother’s number?”

“I do.”

“Why don’t you go call her while I take care of him, okay? Tell her that we’ll be taking him to Charity Hospital and we’ll need her there to sign papers for him.”

Kody made the call while they stabilized him, then put him on the stretcher.

She’d just hung up when they started past her with Nick. He reached out for her and took her hand.

“It’s going to be okay, sweetie,” she assured him.

“You want to come with us?” the man asked.

“If I can, yes.”

They put Nick into the ambulance before the woman went to the front to drive and the man stayed in the back with them. Kody sat by the door while the EMT continued to tend and monitor Nick’s vital signs.

“Do you know what happened?” he asked her.

“Not a clue. He was supposed to run an errand and didn’t show up. His mother called me and I went looking for him. It’s a miracle I found him.”

“He’s lucky you found him, that’s for sure.”

Nick was trying to speak, but with the oxygen mask on, they couldn’t understand him. The EMT pulled it back.

“What’s that, Nick?” she asked.

“Tell…” He coughed, then groaned. “Tell her I didn’t fight.”

“I will.” The EMT returned the mask to Nick’s face. “Did you hear that?”

“I did, but I’m not the ‘her’ he’s referring to. He means his mother. They had a verbal altercation earlier, and he promised her he would never fight again.” She cringed as she surveyed the damage done to him. It was absolutely brutal.

The EMT leaned over Nick to pluck a vial out of his case. “No offense, kid, you should have fought back. I don’t think they could have hurt you any worse if you had. And at least you would have gotten some kind of personal satisfaction out of it.”

Kody couldn’t agree more. And she couldn’t understand why he’d allowed himself to be hurt this badly. Not even for his mother. Nick, I want to hurt you for this. But that was part of what she loved about him. When he gave his word, he meant it.

Placing her hand on his leg, she closed her eyes and used her powers to discover what had happened. She saw Bristol hit Nick in the back of the head with a board he’d picked up from the alley. Caught completely off guard and temporarily blinded by the viciousness of that first surprise blow, Nick had fallen to the ground. His eyes blazing with murderous fury, Bristol had given him no reprieve. He kept bashing Nick with the board, blow after blow, never allowing him time to recover. All Nick could do was curl up in a ball and try to protect himself. Dazed and disoriented by the rapid succession of blows, Nick hadn’t had a chance to call for help before he’d passed out in the alley. Cringing in horror, she finally saw the sanity return to Bristol’s eyes. Only then did Bristol panic as he realized how badly he’d hurt Nick. Terrified that Nick was dead or dying, he’d grabbed Nick’s wallet and had thrown garbage over him to hide his body. Then, he’d run off, leaving Nick to bleed out on the cold sidewalk.

Never had she wanted to hurt anyone as much as she did Bristol right then. How could he be so cold? He’d known Nick for years. Had been in countless classes and had been his study partner for several subjects.

But then Bristol had felt justified in beating Nick, and that was the most dangerous human emotion imaginable. Whenever someone, no matter how warped their reasonings, thought they had a justified cause for taking action against someone, they were capable of unimaginable cruelty. Bristol had thought Nick had lied about him, and rather than believe Nick was the one telling him the truth, he’d beaten him senseless for no other reason than he felt it was what Nick deserved.

Sickened by it, she released Nick and tried to focus on his getting better.

It wasn’t until they’d reached the hospital, and the admitting staff started asking her questions about him while he was whisked off to a room where she wasn’t allowed to go that she remembered to call everyone else and let them know what had happened. Caleb appeared next to her in the shadowy alcove of the waiting room before she could speak more than a handful of words.

“Is he all right?” His sincere concern surprised her. The way Caleb acted and spoke to Nick, she’d assumed he could barely tolerate him. But that wasn’t mere tolerance or adherence to duty in his tone and body language.

Caleb was genuinely concerned.

Wow.…

Kody slid her phone into her purse. “We know he can’t die from a mere beating, but the human who attacked him made a mess of him. He looks terrible.”

Caleb narrowed those beautiful dark brown eyes suspiciously. Because she knew him for what he really was, it was easy for her to see past his human beauty, but right then when he let his tough protector façade slip and she saw the vulnerable heart beneath his demon’s aura, he was every bit as handsome as Nick.

“Are you sure it was a human who attacked him?” Caleb asked.

“Positive. I think it’s why he was trying to walk away from the fight. Had it been one of us, I’m sure Nick would have torn into him.”

Caleb made a sound of supreme irritation. “I would kill his mother for causing this latest bout of stupidity, but…”

“I know. At this moment, I’m not happy with her, either.”

And speaking of his mother, Cherise finally arrived. She paused in the double doorway to scan for a familiar face. As soon as she saw the two of them in the back corner, she rushed toward them. Blonde, skinny, and petite, she was absolutely beautiful even with tears streaming down her cheeks. “Where did you find my baby, Kody?”

“In an alley off Royal. Not far from Liza’s.”

Menyara arrived just in time to hear her response. No taller than Cherise, and every bit as skinny, she had her dark sisterlocks tied back in a red scarf and was dressed in a red blouse and jeans. “Oh my poor Nicky,” she breathed. There was something about the depth and cadence of her voice that always reminded Kody of Eartha Kitt.

Her tears flowing even harder, Cherise turned toward Menyara, “Who would do such a thing to my Boo? Why Mennie, why? It doesn’t make any sense. My Boo such a good boy, and I was sharp with him when he called to tell me he was going to work and then coming to walk me home. I swear I’ll never yell at him again. Just tell me he’s going to be all right.”

“I hope so, Cher. I do.”

Kody started to explain what had happened during the fight, then thought better of it. Since she hadn’t been there for the beating, she couldn’t very well tell any human how she knew so many details about it since she hadn’t arrived until about an hour after it’d taken place.

So she settled for the most obvious explanation to soothe his mother. “It looks like a mugging.”

Cherise’s legs buckled. Caleb moved like lightning to catch her and keep her from hitting the floor. He swung her up in his arms, then carried her to an empty chair so that he could set her down for Menyara’s care.

Menyara sat beside her and took her hand. “It’ll be all right, ma petite. He a strong boy. It’ll take more than a beating to take him away from us. I promise you.”

“I pray you’re right, Mennie,” she sobbed. “Nick’s all I have in this world. If I ever lost him, you’d have to dig two graves. I can’t live without my baby. I can’t.” She broke off into gut wrenching sobs that brought tears to Kody’s eyes.

Trying to catch her breath before she gave into her own fears where Nick was concerned, Kody looked up to see a shadow of fierce pain inside Caleb’s eyes. Something about Cherise’s reaction haunted the demon.

But what? If Caleb had ever possessed a mother, he never spoke of her. Was it possible that he might have been married in the past? Had a family?

Demons mated, too, and some species of them were even more monogamous than humans professed to be.

Caleb’s daeva species was one of the ones most notorious for their loyalty to family ties.

I really don’t know anything more about him than he knows about me. For the first time, her blinders were torn off and she realized that even though the three of them spent so much of their lives together … that as much as they interacted with each other- her, Nick and Caleb- were really nothing more than intimate strangers …

How sad for us that this is what we’re relegated to.

But then how many people lived like that? How many people either were or felt like they were strangers in their own home? Or that no one in their family really knew or understood them?

In so many ways, we are all nothing more than orbiting satellites that occasionally collide with each other whenever our paths overlap. People formed social bonds to keep from feeling so isolated. But in the end, the only constant in any life was its own soul. And even that was transitory.

Souls could be, and were far too often, bought and sold like used shoes in a consignment shop.

And yet when two of those souls slammed into each other hard enough, they could form a single unit so strong that nothing and no one could tear it apart. Those unions were rare and she’d been around long enough to know that for a fact.

But she’d also seen those unbreakable bonds. Like the one Cherise shared with her son. There was no force in existence that could shatter their love and break it apart.

It was a love bond Nekoda had only felt with her brothers and one other person.

Don’t go there.

The pain of their loss was still too great for her to bear. And her nerves were already shot from what had happened to Nick. While their love wasn’t that strong yet, she could feel it growing every day and doubling with every new discovery she made where Nick was concerned.

He was so much more than what he knew. For the first time in centuries, she had hope.

And she owed that to a creature she should hate with every fiber of her being.

Life was so strange. Seldom did it make sense. As her brother would say, ‘life isn’t a puzzle to be solved. It’s an adventure to be savored. Let every challenge be a new mountain to climb, not an obstacle to get in your way and stop you. Yeah, it’ll be hard, but once you reach the summit of it, you’ll be able to see the world for what it really is. And at the top, it never seems to have been as difficult a feat to climb there as you first made it out to be. Most of all, you’ll know that you beat that mountain, and that you rule it. It does not rule you.’



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