Bring her to me, Malachai, and I’ll save her for you.

This time, he knew whose voice taunted him. “Noir?”

Yes. Come to me, Ambrosius. And I’ll take care of you both.

Nick started to obey, then caught himself. Streetwise and tough, he wasn’t anyone’s fool. “I’ll take care of you both” sounded like a threat to him.

Kody gasped, drawing his attention back to her and the seconds of her life that were running out of her and down his arms.

What should he do? She would die any minute now.

Her life or an eternity of slavery for him?

Kody’s words haunted him now. Sometimes our choices are only between lesser evils. But they are our choices alone to make.

Was this fate or free will?

He didn’t know. And honestly, right now, he didn’t care. A decision had to be made, right or wrong.

Life or death?

Slavery or freedom?

CHAPTER 13

Kody came awake in the softest bed she’d ever been in. Panic tore her apart as she remembered what had happened. She’d gone after Nick to protect him and had been stabbed by his father.

The last thing she remembered was Nick in his demon’s form. The form that kept him from feeling anything for anyone. Yet the fierce Ambrosius Malachai had been crying as he held her and begged her not to die.

Noir …

He’d offered Nick a bargain for her life.

“Oh Nick,” she whispered. Please tell me you didn’t.

Glancing around the room, she frowned. She lay on an old-fashioned Rice bed. The hand-carved testers rose almost the whole way to the ornate ceiling that formed a dome over her. The lower part of the tray was painted sky blue with clouds. In the high arch overhead, someone had painted it to look like an ancient temple. Her heavy down cover was a deep, rich navy laced with gold and burgundy threads.

She sat up, then immediately wished she hadn’t as a wave of nausea and pain hit her. It was only then she saw that she was wearing a white flannel nightgown. Warm and toasty, granted, but …

This was starting to freak her out. Who had removed her clothes? What had happened to her?

Where was she? She knew she wasn’t dead. Somehow she’d returned to the human realm. But how?

Looking inside her gown, she saw the jagged scar where she’d been stabbed. All right, their fight in the Fringe Realm hadn’t been a dream.…

And now she was starting to get angry. Who had dared to touch her while she’d been unconscious?

What had happened to Nick? And most important, where was Nick now?

“So you’re back among the living.”

She lifted her head out of her gown to find Caleb standing in the doorway. He had his dark hair brushed back from his face, which only emphasized how handsome a man he was.

If he just didn’t have that little demon infestation problem …

“I’m at your house?” she asked.

“You don’t have to sound so offended. I do have people clean it, you know?”

“Sorry.” She sighed wearily. “You have no idea how confusing it is to wake up in a strange place with no idea how you got there.”

Caleb laughed. “Sure I do. Happens to me frequently.”

She rolled her eyes at his frightening lifestyle. “Yes, but I woke up in this bed alone.”

He sucked his breath in sharply. “Low blow, Kode.”

Maybe, but … “Are you going to tell me how I got here and who undressed me?”

He held his hands up in surrender. “That be your boy, not me. You want to bitch-slap somebody, I’ll fetch Nick. He’s the one who brought you here.”

That concerned her even more. “Did he say anything to you about what happened?”

“Only that you two were attacked, and you went down. He needed someplace safe to put you until you could heal. We both decided taking you to his place would be a huge mistake. His mom would ground him until retirement if he did that, not to mention, she’d want to know how you got stabbed, and why you both weren’t in the hospital.

True. On all accounts.

And none of this was allaying her fears. She should be dead. How had he saved her?

Not one of the possibilities appealed to her. They all ended with Nick doing himself harm.

“Where is he now?”

Caleb checked his watch. “As of an hour ago, Sanctuary. He and his mom should be heading over to school in a few, for parent-teacher conferences.” He dropped his arm and narrowed his gaze at her. “You’re making me nervous with the intensity of your interrogation. What do you know that I don’t?”

“Noir offered him a bargain. We need to know if he took it.”

Caleb went white as a sheet before he started cursing under his breath. “He seemed like normal Nick to me when I saw him. But now you have me worried, too. That boy finds more trouble…”

She wouldn’t argue that. Much like Bubba and Mark, you couldn’t leave Nick alone for five minutes that he wasn’t getting into something he shouldn’t. Or that something wasn’t trying to eat him. Either way, watching his back was a full-time job.

She let out a long breath. “How long have I been out?”

“Almost four days.”

She cringed in reaction. Four days? Really? “Are you serious?”

“Why would I joke about that?”

“I don’t know. You’re a daeva. Some of you can be really twisted.”

“I’ll remind you of that the next time you need someone to save your sorry butt.”

She ignored his threat. He’d come when she called. He was terribly dependable that way. “So what all have I missed?”

“Main thing. School was canceled today, and no,” he added quickly, “I didn’t set anything on fire to cause it. It’s that stupid Web site that we’re still trying to locate. The owner has people going at each other like animals. There were eight fights before yesterday’s homeroom alone. So Head has called meetings between faculty, students, and parents in an effort to allay parental fears and to find the party responsible … which makes me really glad I’m not Goth or Emo.”

Weird segue that she definitely didn’t take with him. “Why?”

He made a sound of disgust. “Who do you think they’re targeting? Head is convinced it has to be ‘one of those weirdo, depressed kids,’ ’cause you know, they’re all cutters and social rejects.”

Of course they were. “He doesn’t have a clue about his students, does he?”

“Nope. Even if you bought him one, I doubt he’d understand it. But given his attitude, I’d love to introduce him to Acheron and watch his head explode.”

She gave a short laugh. Yeah, Ash would definitely throw his preconceived stereotype out the window.

“Give me a couple of minutes to get dressed. Then we need to go find Nick.”

* * *

Nick sighed in frustration as they sat outside the office, waiting for the secretary to make a copy of his transcript for his mother’s records. He was thinking the woman must have taken the long way to the copy machine, including a scenic route through Europe.

He had way too much to do to be stuck here.…

But at least Kyrian was coming to pick him up. After he’d been attacked, neither Kyrian nor his mom would let him near a door to the outside after dark.

Impatient to leave, he stood up and started pacing the small walk area in the center of the waiting room. He wanted to rant over the secretary being part snail, but he knew his mom wouldn’t tolerate it.

Everyone deserves your respect, Nick. Especially those who are doing work for you and making your life easier. God bless them for it.

Yeah, she didn’t have a sense of humor when anyone showed impatience with a worker.

“Oh hey, that’s Nick! Nick!”

He turned to see Jill in the hallway with her brother and two older people who seemed vaguely familiar to him. Since they looked too old to be Jill and Joey’s parents, he assumed they must be the tuition donors.

Jill came rushing over to hug him.

Awkward. Why did some girls do that? He didn’t like to be touched much anyway. Unless it was Kody.

This … this was intrusive.

Help me.

She squeezed his arm as she made him walk toward the door. “Nick, you have to meet our sponsors.” She smiled at them. “This is the Nick I was telling you about who has the same last name you do.”

“Ah.” The man held his hand out to Nick. He seemed decent enough. His graying hair appeared to have been brown in his youth. Dressed in a nice brown sweater and khakis, he oozed an aura of Garden District or Kenner old money. As did his accent and diction. “It’s a pleasure to meet another Gautier. I know Jill thinks the world of you. It’s Nick this and Nick that, all the time.”

Giggling, Jill turned as red as her blouse.

“Most people do think the world of my Nicky … Dad. He’s a good kid. Honor student. Here on a full scholarship. Was one of the best football players they had until he was benched with an injury. And he’s already working, saving up money for college. Not to mention, he does a lot of charity work. Every morning, he gets up early and goes down to Ms. Liza’s doll store so that he can wash off her sidewalks and balcony before she gets to work and he gues to school. He doesn’t even charge her for it.”

Nick wasn’t sure what stunned him most. His mother’s bragging on him or the fact that he was standing in front of his real grandparents.

No wonder they’d seemed familiar. Some part of him must have remembered them from the one time he’d seen them passing by in the mall.

And now that he knew, he definitely saw how much his mother favored hers.

Rising to her feet, his mother moved to stand beside him. “Nick, meet your grandparents. You’ve always been curious about them. Here they are.”

Jill’s jaw dropped while Joey went bug-eyed. “I thought you said you didn’t have any children, Mr. Gautier?”

His grandparents drew up like two swollen cantaloupes. It was obvious they weren’t happy with Jill remembering that.

Mr. Gautier looked down his nose at Nick. “I’ve heard he cheated to get into school here.”

His mom cast a scornful glare at her father. “That’s jealousy talking. But they did make him take the test twice, because they were so stunned by his superior performance. And he had the same score both times on two entirely different tests. One hundred percent. He missed nothing and even got the bonuses. Apparently in all the one hundred and thirty years the school’s been operating, my Nicky is the only one to make a perfect score. He’s been courted by some of the best Ivy League schools in the country ever since.”

Wow, his mom never bragged about anything. She disdained it. Be humble in thought and humble in action. Most of all be humble in tongue. She’d harped on that as much as she did “honor thy mother” and the Golden Rule, et cetera.

It was Mrs. Gautier’s turn to be snotty. “You still working in that henhouse, selling yourself for money?”

His mother curled her lip. “I never did that.”

“Not what I was told.”

“Then someone lied, and no, I don’t work there. I’m a day manager for a restaurant. Have been for over a year now.”

“You expect me to believe that?” Her father raked Nick with a sneer. “Anymore than I believe what you’re saying about him. Good grief, look at him. How many fights has he been in?”

His mother opened her mouth to respond, but before she could, Kyrian came into the office to pick him up for work.

Dressed in a black Armani suit with a black shirt and black-and-white tie, he looked every bit the rich businessman and prince he’d once been. His blond hair was perfectly styled and if Nick didn’t miss his guess, those were two-thousand-dollar-a-pair loafers on his feet.

And for once, he wasn’t wearing his sunglasses inside.

He stopped gallantly in front of them. “Cherise, ma petite, am I early?”

She smiled up at him. “No … Kyrian.” She no doubt had to force herself to say his name since she always insisted they call him Mr. Hunter. “Perfect timing.”

He returned her smile. “Nick, I had to put the Bentley and Aston Martin in the shop for oil changes. I’m afraid I was stuck with only two-seaters to drive tonight so I’m in the Lamborghini. But since I don’t want you walking home after that vicious mugging, so Ash said he’d be here in a few minutes to pick you up in his Jag. Is that all right?”

Nick was even more stunned.

Kyrian never threw his cars out like that. In that moment, he could kiss his boss for his mind-reading abilities.

“Sure.” Nick smiled. “He’s already promised me I get to drive it.”



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