He gestured toward the extra cup of café au lait in front of him. “I took the pleasure of ordering for you.”

She scoffed at his generosity. “No offense, but I’d rather order for myself. Only a fool partakes of what Death has to offer, and my mother drowned all her stupid children.”

He laughed out loud. “You don’t trust me?”

“Not a bit. I’ve known you too long.” She motioned a male waiter over to her and ordered her own drink and beignets.

As the waiter left, Zarelda glanced around the crowded coffee shop to the sugar-laden chairs that showed a bit of wear and the tables that were strewn with even more messy powdered sugar.

While the large area they were seated in was covered with a green-and-white-striped awning, it was still open and exposed to the elements … and to insects, to say nothing of the birds that hopped between human and metal legs, scrounging for scraps.

She arched a brow at Grim. “This is not the place I would have imagined you frequenting, given your fear of germs and dirt. Not to mention your aversion to people who breathe.”

He pulled a large container of Purell out of his pocket and set it down next to her. “Best invention since toilet paper. Except for the fact that it cuts down on the unseen things that can kill humans … that part sucks for me, but I have to say that I do so love using it. While it may not save my life, it does wonders for my sanity … such as it is.”

And now that she noticed it, Grim had the entire tabletop covered with white paper napkins until there wasn’t a bit of it showing. “I find it so odd that Death is a potent germ-a-phobe.”

He shrugged. “Only because I know how many people die every year from bacterial infections caused by undercooked food and a lack of basic hygiene.”

“But you’re immortal.”

He curled his lip. “No excuse for nastiness. I may be immune, but I still have no desire to touch human filth or have it touch me, never mind something I’m going to ingest.”

I am not going to win this argument. Death was emphatic about the subject.

Crazy, but emphatic.

Grim wiped his lips. “So how’s your mission going? Better, I trust.”

“Your little trick with the girlfriend was just what we needed to push him forward. I have to congratulate you on that.”

“It pays to know people and nonpeople. I was very lucky to track down the nugget of her origin and nature of her assignment.”

She didn’t comment on that. “Nekoda still might be a problem, though. If she hasn’t killed him yet—”

“I wouldn’t worry about her. She’s weak and stupidly sympathetic to our Malachai. Most likely, she won’t kill him. So let’s not waste time talking about her. Nick is the one we need control of. Fast.”

“And I will deliver him to you.” She paused as the waiter returned with her order and she paid for her food. Picking up the plain white coffee mug, she narrowed her eyes on Grim. “But I want to make sure that our bargain is still in place and that you don’t have a nasty surprise waiting for me. You can and will free my brother, correct?”

“Absolutely. I’ve already been in touch with the necessary party, who says while she’s not thrilled about it, she isn’t opposed to the possibility. You turn Nick to our cause and Zavid will be freed, I promise you.”

Hoping she wasn’t being lied to or tricked, Zarelda glanced away as a wave of guilt consumed her. Centuries ago, Zavid had taken her place in a hellhole to keep her safe. She didn’t even want to think about what he’d been through there. If he’d be the same brother she’d known so long ago.

Torture and misery changed people.…

One dreadful bargain that had been made out of fear.

And both their lives had been forever ruined, and all because she hadn’t paid attention to the small print. Hadn’t looked ahead to see all the repercussions of her selfish desires.

Gods, how she wished she’d been the one to suffer for it. She should never have agreed to let Zavid be so selfless. In retrospect, it would have been much easier to endure his prison herself than to know he was being tortured because of her stupidity, and his love and protection of her that had made him so altruistic.

Idiot.

But no matter what, she had to get him out of there. And after all these centuries of trying, she finally had a way to do it.

Provided Grim wasn’t as backstabbing as the last vicious creature she’d bargained with.

Never trust a jealous goddess, especially not where a man was concerned.

“So how are you enjoying your new body?” Grim asked. “It must be weird for you to have one again after all this time.”

Swallowing her drink of coffee, she wrinkled her nose at the bitter taste. She reached for the sugar. “It took a little getting used to and it chafes a bit. But I think I’ve adjusted to it.” That only after she’d bitten a giant hole in her tongue the first time she’d tried to eat. Truthfully, there were many things about being locked inside a corporeal body that she’d forgotten. Bad breath. Hair tangles. Hot liquids. Scalding bath water. Furniture lurking in dark rooms, and that so misaptly named funny bone.

Not to mention the interminable hours spent looking for a semi-clean public rest room. She shivered at that dismal memory.

“Tell me something, Grim … how do humans get through high school without becoming raving lunatics? Uh! I’m so glad I was born before schools were invented, and I’d give anything to bypass this misery I’m forced to endure.”

She set her plain white mug down. “I have got to kill her parents once all of this is finished. They are … ridiculous.” She deepened her voice to mock them. “Clean the dishes, take out the trash, do your homework, you’re going to be late. Why are you still up?” She grimaced. “On and on, they rant. Just the sound of her father’s voice makes me want to blast him into oblivion. No wonder you want to end the world. When did mankind get so whiny about every little thing?”

He laughed, then changed the subject. “Is she fighting you for control?”

Flexing her hand to make sure she had one hundred percent of the control of her body, she sighed wearily. “Sometimes, but she’s weak. Still, I have got to have my brother suck her soul out of me as soon as he’s released. I hate how she’s always crying and begging. She’s so needy and cloying. I’ll be so glad when I won’t need her memories anymore and can do away with her, once and for all.” She glanced over three tables to a group of giggling teenaged girls who made her cringe.

Gah, how she despised all of them.

Turning back to Grim, she released another heavy sigh. “But, the little twit has her uses right now. I turn her loose whenever I have to have private time with that dullard she dates.” She curled her lip in repugnance. “I’ll never understand why women put up with animals like Stone.”

Or any man, really.

“No accounting for taste.”

She saluted him with her mug, wishing she could go back in time and settle a score with one man in particular.…

Leaning back in his chair, Grim crossed his arms over his chest. “How much longer do you think it’ll take?”

She sipped her coffee slowly as she considered it. “Hard to say. As you know from your own dealings with him, he’s very strong-willed. But for all his braggadocio and posturing, he has no confidence whatsoever. And that, my evil friend, is the weakness I’m attacking and exploiting. He doesn’t think he deserves anything so it leaves him wide open … no matter how strong his opinions are.”

“Sneaky … I like that.”

“Well, you know the old saying. Build them up to tear them down. You tell them what they want to hear until they stop listening to those who tell them the truth. Then they’re yours.”

Human ego and jealousy. The two most potent weapons for destroying any human.

And they worked pretty well on gods and demons, too.

Grim stroked his chin as he thought over her plan. “I should warn you that I’ve already taught him about the powers of persuasion.”

“This isn’t persuasion, sweetheart. It’s about the power of the human ego and its voracious need to be fed.”

Grim let out a wicked laugh. “Remind me not to get on your bad side.”

“Don’t worry. You uphold your side of the bargain and don’t betray or trick me, and I will be your eternal cohort to ruin and/or enslave anyone you send my way.”

* * *

“So who was that girl?”

Nick looked up from his backpack with a frown. “I told you, Ma. Casey Woods.”

She paused in her cleaning to glare at him. “I caught that. Why was she bringing you home? You shouldn’t let a girl do that while you’re going with someone else. Kody would have a justifiable fit if she found out.”

Here it comes.…

Rising to his feet, he tucked his hands into his pockets and lowered his head in expectation of her reaction. “We broke up.”

His mother sucked her breath in sharply as she stopped cleaning, mid-swipe. “What did you do?”

Nick sighed in disgust. “Really, Mom? You, too?”

“Me, too, what?”

His jaw ticcing, he met her gaze. “Why do I have to be the one who screwed up? Huh? Couldn’t she have done something wrong?”

She dried her hands on a dish towel. “Did she?”

“Yes.”

“And what was it?”

How could you tell your mother that your girlfriend was a preternatural assassin out to kill you and not get locked in a psych ward?

He had no idea, and no desire to test her maternal loyalty to someone she thought was a paranoid schizo. Nick shifted his feet uneasily. Since he didn’t want to lie to her, he had to come up with some seriously creative truth.

I should be writing fiction.…

“She had divided loyalties, and I don’t want to have to watch my back every time she’s around.” There. Truth.

His mother walked over to him and brushed her hand through his hair. “I’m so sorry, baby. Are you all right?”

Nick shook his head. “Not really. I miss her.”’Cause I’m a flaming idiot who can’t let go of a woman out to kill me. “But that which doesn’t kill us…”

“Will only require years of therapy,” she finished with her favorite spin on the old saying. “You want a chocolate-chip sundae to cheer yourself up?”

Nick made a face at her. “Not a girl, Mom. Case you haven’t noticed, your daughter comes equipped with outdoor plumbing.”

Laughing, she ruffled his hair again. “But?”

“Yeah, okay. I’ll take some. Thanks.”

He followed her to the kitchen and stood back while she went to the freezer to dig out the chocolate-chip ice cream container. “Is it always this hard, Ma?”

“I don’t know, Boo. At this point, you’ve had more girlfriends than I ever had boyfriends.”

And that was definitely his fault. Because of him and his father, she’d never once dated anyone. She didn’t want to take a chance on bringing some guy into the house who would yell at or hit him. For that, he was forever grateful … and extremely guilt-ridden.

His mother was a beautiful woman who could have any man she wanted. One who would treat her like a queen. Saddest part? He was the only one she’d ever loved, and the only one she thought worth keeping.

The woman was definitely crazy.

She placed the bowl of chocolate-drenched ice cream down in front of him, along with a can of whipped cream. “Bon appétit, mon fils.”

“Merci.” He took the bowl and can to the kitchen table and sat down.

She placed a kiss on the top of his head while he loaded the bowl up with half the can. Wrinkling her nose, she shivered. “You got enough there, Sparky?”

He took the spoon from her hand. “I’m not the only person here who drowns their sorrows in Reddi-Wip.”

“Just don’t take shots directly out of the can without warning me to buy a new one.”

“Okay.” He dug in.

His mom lingered by his side until he looked up with a frown. “What?”

She hesitated. “Do you want to talk about it?”

Nick cringed at her offer. “Again, not a daughter.”

She cupped his cheek in her hand and smiled down at him. “Men have feelings, too. I know … I raised you, and I know that hurt look in your eyes. It breaks my heart to see it, baby. Please tell me what I can do to help.”

Nick laid his hand over hers as he fought down a sudden wave of tears. She was right. It hurt. Bad. Like an unexpected kick to the stones. It was so stupid, but he’d seen a future with Kody. He’d wanted to be with her forever.



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