“Thanks, Dev. That was just the look I was going for. Got up this morning, glanced in the mirror, and said, ‘Nick, you’re just too dang handsome. You need to find us someone to kick the crap out of you and bruise you all over. That’ll make you feel all better.’”

Aimee laughed, then popped Dev in the stomach with her hand. “Holy cow, I think we may have found the one person in existence who can give you a run for your sarcasm. Go, Nick.”

He didn’t know why, but there was something about Aimee that drew him to her, and it wasn’t just because the blonde waitress was exquisitely gorgeous. For that matter, he didn’t think of her like that at all. She was more like a big sister. One who could be really raw with people. He’d seen her take the heads off anyone who was rude to her or any of the wait staff at Sanctuary. But when she wasn’t riled, it felt good just to be in her presence.

“I have bad news for you,” Papa Bear said in a serious tone.

Dread rushed through him. Standing at a cool seven foot three and weighing in probably around three hundred well-muscled pounds, Papa Bear Peltier was not someone you wanted to upset.

“Sir?” Nick asked, scared of the answer.

Papa Bear tsked. “Quinn unplugged the Galaga machine. Your nine-hundred-thousand score was erased.”

Nick scrunched his face up. “Oh the humanity! I’ll never score that high again.” He groaned in miserable agony.

“Papa,” Dev teased. “Tell him the truth.” He grinned at Nick. “He had Quinn unplug it because he couldn’t beat your score.”

Papa Bear flashed an evil smile. “All right, I’ll own that. But it’ll teach you to get hurt and leave your successes unguarded, won’t it?”

Nick shook his head, grateful that was what had upset the bear.

They all traded jokes with him for a while, then left.

After they were gone, Wren came in alone. He hesitated in the doorway. Something that probably sprang from the animal part of him. It was as if he respected other creatures’ territory and didn’t want to enter into it unless he planned to kill them. Not that he’d ever killed anyone to Nick’s knowledge, but the day wasn’t over yet.

“How you feel?” Wren asked.

“I’ll live.”

“Good.” Wren pulled the bills out of his pocket that Nick had given him and held them out for him to take.

Nick frowned. “What are you doing?”

“I appreciate the thought, Gautier, but I don’t need the money.”

“Dude,” he chided, “you’re a busboy.”

“Yeah?” He said that like he didn’t get what Nick was saying.

Nick didn’t want him to feel bad about what he did to earn a living, but Wren was probably not much older than he was and he didn’t seem to have any ambition to make more money. He would assume then that Wren needed every cent he made for whatever it was Wren did when he wasn’t working, which wasn’t often, but still … “I know the Peltiers pay well, but…”

Wren’s face twisted into a pained expression before it settled into a wry grin. “Nick, I don’t work at Sanctuary for money. I don’t have to.”

“What? You secretly loaded?” Nick laughed. “Or you won the lottery?”

With his head bowed low, Wren sheepishly rubbed his thumb down his cheek. “Um, Nick, my last name is Tigarian. As in Tigarian Industries, Electronics, and a dozen other corporations that fall under our heading. I’m the sole heir to all of it.”

Nick gaped. Oh yeah if that was true, Wren was insane. “Why in the world would you work as a busboy if you have all that money?”

“Money doesn’t buy everything.”

“Then you ain’t shopping in the right stores. Sorry, but having been poor most of my life, I stringently disagree. Because you swim in it, money may not work for you. For me, hellooo Versace, Armani, and all those other highfalutin’ names I have to consult a dictionary to pronounce.”

Wren snorted. “I’ve never been poor, so I can’t argue.”

“I’m sorry. My mind is so boggled right now. I can’t imagine working if I had access to your inheritance. I just don’t get it.”

Wren shrugged nonchalantly. “You could if you’d walked in my tracks. As my father used to say, everyone loves a self-made man. But they passionately resent his spoiled, rich son … even when the son was never spoiled. When you have a lot of money, you don’t have a lot of friends. Only people wanting a loan, or scheming some way to take it from you, rather than work to get it themselves. Especially if you’ve inherited it. Then they feel justified plotting against you. After all, you didn’t earn it, so you owe it to them.”

He’d never thought about it that way. But Wren was right. He’d known his share of people who thought that very thing—kids at school who would tell other students they should pay for their lunch because their parents had more money. You’re rich, man. You can afford it.

His mom had never been that way. And she’d hammered her beliefs into him.

You’ll never be able to hold your head up with dignity so long as you hold your hand out for charity.

Wren held the money out again. “So please, take this back. While I deeply appreciate the gesture, I really can’t keep it when I know you need it more than I do.”

Nick took it and inclined his head respectfully at the gruff billionaire. What had life done to Wren that with all of his wealth, he’d rather live in a room at Peltier house, cleaning up after people, hauling around a monkey in his apron pocket, than travel the world and enjoy his money?

You really couldn’t look at anyone and tell much about them. Where they’d come from or what demons rode their souls with spurs on.

And he remembered what Thorn had told him. Everyone is in pain. No matter where they come from or what you think of them. Sorrow spares no one, and scars respect no person. He also thought of Grim’s lesson. People put up shields in an attempt to protect themselves from harm, but one trigger word could breach those defenses and leave them bleeding on the floor.

Nick knew for himself that words were far more damaging than any weapon. The body healed and the scars faded, but the internal damage was eternal. It echoed anytime you let your defenses fall. Even with the money he had access to now, he still felt like a hobo, begging for handouts. Whenever he went to Brynna’s house or Kyrian’s, he kept waiting for them to call the police to put the trash out on the street where it belonged.

He had no way of knowing if that feeling would ever leave him. But he was learning not to gut himself over it like he used to. Every day, things got better. If anyone had told him a year ago that this would be his life in just a few short months … That his mother would have a job with people, or rather shapeshifters, who treated her like a lady, that he’d be hooked up with one of the prettiest girls in school, and that he’d have an apartment on Bourbon Street, he’d have laughed in their face.

Yet that had become his life. All of it.

Wren hesitated at the door. “You know, Nick, you’re a real decent man, and there aren’t many of them in this world. So do us a favor and don’t get killed. There are too many jerks we need to off. We can’t afford to lose someone who actually has manners.”

“You sound like Caleb.”

“Maybe we both have a little demon in us.” And with that, Wren left.

After the next round of friends, which included Brynna, who appeared a lot better mentally than she had the last time he’d seen her, Nick was ready to sleep.

Until Bubba and Mark came in.

Mark sighed as he scanned the room. “Gah, dang, Bubba. Look at this place. Have you ever?”

“Nope. It’s totally unprotected.” He handed a satchel to Mark. “Let’s get started.”

Nick frowned. “What are you two up to?”

“Pay us no nevers.” Bubba pulled the doctor’s stool over to the window so that they could stand on it and start painting symbols with holy water on the wall above it.

“Hey, did you remember to get more salt?” Mark asked.

“Of course I did. What kind of demon/zombie kit would it be if it didn’t have salt in it?”

“Just checking. What with your mom coming in and it being this time of year and all, you haven’t been as sharp as normal.”

“Tell me about it. But I ain’t totally dumb neither. I still have a modicum of intelligence. You wanna grab the thistle and take care of the door?”

Bubba might have his intelligence, but his sanity was still under debate.

But then, after what they’d gone through over the last year, Nick wasn’t about to chance it. If their seal could keep some of the things out he’d met in the Nether Realm, they could wrap him in tinfoil, shave his head, and call him Sue.

Mark opened a bottle of something that smelled worse than his usual duck urine cologne.

Even Bubba groaned. “Mark, take a bath, son. You’re stinking up the place.”

“Ha, ha, ha,” Mark mocked. “It’s the sulfur stinking.”

“Uh-huh, sure it is.” Bubba snatched it from him and smelled it. Shaking his head and grimacing, he quickly put the cap back on. “Wha-aa-dude,” he sputtered. “Dog, this stuff smells like you after three days at Comic Con. Are you trying to get us thrown out?”

Yeah, ’cause standing on the doctor’s stool and painting holy water all over the walls would make them so happy. They might even offer them a job.

After they got out on probation.

Nick whimpered as he continued to laugh over their antics and it made his bruised sides ache. The two of them were priceless. He didn’t know what was funnier. What they said or what they did.

Unfortunately, just as Mark set fire to the thistle, the nurse came in. She let out a war cry before running to call security.

Bubba and Mark started putting their things away. Given Bubba’s height and muscled body, it always amazed Nick how fast he could move. Mark, on the other hand, was ripped, but lean and wiry. You expected speed out of him.

“We got you covered, brother,” Bubba said. “That should keep out almost anything. Now, we’re gonna haul before we get hauled out by security. My mama is just ornery enough to make me spend the night in lockup if I get caught again.”

Nick laughed at the idea of a man the size of Bubba being so scared of someone as tiny as Dr. Burdette.

Until he remembered the fact that he was taller and thicker than his mother, too. And she scared the crap out of him. Yeah, okay, so he couldn’t legitimately harass Bubba for Mamaphobia. Whoever had said that the hand that rocked the cradle ruled the world must have had a Southern, born and bred, mother.

Sobering, he inclined his head to them. “Thanks, guys. I’ll see you later.”

They ducked out the door like two spies avoiding camera relays.

Nick was still smiling when the nurse came back.

“Where’d they go?”

When unsure of how to respond, the best tactic?

Stupid. “Who are we talking about?”

She huffed at him. “You know? The men who were burning things in here. Where are they?”

“I didn’t see anyone burn anything.”

She glared and he could swear he saw the promise of a painful shot in his future. “We’ll find them. With or without you.”

He wished her luck. One thing about those two, they were slipperier than a greased gator on the hunt in the bayou.

Although, the worst thing she could do was catch them.

It’d be like trying to keep a cobra in a shoebox. Not a good idea.

Grinning, Nick leaned back and closed his eyes. He turned his thoughts to something even better than two lunatics outrunning the authorities.

Nekoda.

Instead of sending her off with Caleb to get some eats, he should have kept her here. He didn’t know why, but just the sight of her soothed him. No matter his beaux-beaux, she always made it better.

At times, he thought he was in love with her. At others …

How did anyone know for sure? Were there bells or whistles, or …

What?

Life really needed to come with cartoon bubbles over everyone to explain what was really going on inside their head.

The saddest part, he didn’t know anyone to ask about it. His mother had never been in love. Aside from him and his father, she refused to have any man near her. I ain’t bringing no man around while I got a baby at home. Anyone hits my Boo and I’ll gut him. For the longest time, he’d felt guilty about that.

But after what Kody told him, he knew the real reason why she didn’t date or see men. And that broke his heart.

Menyara would only give the standard, There are some things in the universe that defy explanation. But trust me, when it strikes, you will know.



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