She pulled the curly red hair back from her neck in an open invitation. The sight of her alabaster skin made him salivate. But her blood wasn’t what he needed right now.

“The demon’s blood.”

Color faded from her cheeks. “You’re almost out. You told me not to let you use it anymore.”

“I have no choice. Something’s wrong.” He panted as he felt his powers grow even stronger. More fierce. His skin began to turn from tawny to the red and black swirling skin of the Malachai.

Artemis shrank back from him.

Ambrose wrestled with the demon that was kicking inside him, demanding release. Growling, he fought for control with everything he had. But it wasn’t easy. The beast was so much more than it’d been.

What have you done, boy?

His memories were shifting and rearranging so fast that it left him sick to his stomach.

For a moment, he saw his mother on that fateful night when she’d been killed, and thought that maybe, just maybe, this time they had saved her. But it was a false hope. Artemis’s bow-and-arrow mark was still on his face and his mother remained dead.

Yet the most frightening realization came a second later. Instead of them pushing the Malachai into eternal submission, Nick had just released him.

Ambrose felt his humanity leave as his vision turned from human to the red haze of rage. He no longer cared about anyone or anything. All he could taste was blood. All he could feel was hate. Enough with humanity and their disease. It was time for them to yield their world to their masters.…

He rose to his feet as his wings unfurled.

Artemis screamed.

Laughing, he lunged for her.

CHAPTER 9

Nick barely recognized himself as he stared into the full-length store mirror in front of him. Casey had all but strong-armed him into a frou-frou salon that smelled way too much like perfume to get his hair cut, and then forced him into Saks Fifth Avenue to shop for something less hideous to wear. All his life, he’d walked past the Shops at Canal Place and wondered what it’d be like to have enough money to shop here.

His first excursion had been a few months ago when he’d bought a shirt for Kyrian’s birthday. As strange as it sounded, it hadn’t occurred to him to buy clothes for himself.

Now …

He grinned at the sight of the expensive black pants, belt, and black silk shirt he wore. Yeah, this was definitely the life. “I make this look good.”

Casey laughed. “I love it when you flash those dimples at me.”

That landed like a punch to his nose. Nick stopped smiling immediately, and cleared his throat.

She tsked at him. “How on earth did I upset you by complimenting you?”

“I hate my dimples,” he said in a low but emphatic tone. “They’re girly.”

She made a loud sound of total disagreement. “They are not. They’re girl magnets, maybe, but definitely not girly. Why would you think that?”

He wiped at his cheeks where the dimples were hiding, wishing he could remove them forever. “There was a woman in church when I was a kid who always said I smiled so pretty that I should have been born a girl. It wouldn’t have been so bad had I not always had a feeling that my mother would’ve preferred a daughter over me.”

She appeared aghast at the comment. “How can you possibly think that?”

Nick shrugged as he remembered the unguarded expressions on his mother’s face when he caught her wistfully touching tiny ruffled dresses in stores, or the way her longing gaze would follow after little girls with their mothers. But he didn’t want to share that with Casey. “I don’t know.”

“Has she ever said that to you?”

She’d made jokes about it from time to time. And he didn’t want to admit it out loud either. “Nah, I guess not.”

Casey leaned up against his back and wrapped her arms around his waist. She smiled at him in the mirror. “Trust me, Nick. You look hot in this. Completely edible.”

That caused his right eyebrow to shoot up all on its own as heat scorched his cheeks and his thoughts burned with images he was still too young to have in his head. They made him even more uncomfortable than being in an expensive store where he felt like a fraud, and kept waiting for the security guard to come throw him out.

“So what do you think?” the clerk asked as he joined them.

“He’ll take it,” Casey said before Nick had a chance to speak.

Nick hesitated, knowing his mother would never approve of an all-black outfit. She’d have all manner of fits.

But he did like it.…

“Ooo, Akri-Nick, looking spiffy like the Simi in your all-black clothes. Except you’re a boy and not a Simi, but you know what the Simi means. You finally coming into the demon world in all your finery. Now all we needs is to get you some barbecue sauce, and a big ole plate of Cajun boudin rouge, cracklin’ and hog’s head cheese. Yum. Yum. Yum!”

Laughing at the unique singsong accent that was unlike anything else he’d ever heard, Nick turned as Simi came up on his right and paused to look into the mirror over his left shoulder.

A little odd … no, take that back, a lot odd, Simi was another good, demonic friend of his. Today her ever-changing black hair had a purple stripe on the left-hand side that matched the short, frilly skirt and Doc Martens she wore. A matching purple corset peeked out from beneath an ornate black lace jacket that reminded him of an anime drawing. She was absolutely breathtaking and always good for a laugh. “Hey, girl! What are you doing here?”

With a wide smile, Simi lifted her arms to show him two wrists full of bangles that she jangled. “Buying the Simi some new sparklies. I was feeling kind of low ’cause of that heifer goddess Akri won’t let me eat, and thought some good eats would cheer me right up, and I know they will.” She snapped her teeth together.

Nick still had no idea who the heifer goddess or the Akri was that she spoke about all the time. She acted as if he knew, and if he asked her, she’d say as much. Which really didn’t help him figure out their identities.

Simi pursed her lips. “What you doing here all alone, by yourself, with no one else?”

Casey wrapped a possessive arm around his waist and tugged him away from Simi’s grasp. “He’s not alone … By far.”

Could her tone be any icier?

But Simi was undaunted and uninsulted as she glanced around the store in sharp, short head gestures that reminded him of a bird. “Where’s Akra-Kody? I know she didn’t leave you alone, by your lonesome. She know better ’cause Cajun boy get into all manner of trouble whenever he’s left on his own, by himself.”

Her words returned the lump of sadness to his stomach. Simi was right. He and Kody had been basically inseparable.

Until now.

“We broke up.”

Simi made a tsking noise that sounded strangely like someone typing on a keyboard. “Now why you want to go and leave a perfectly good akra for something else?” She passed a less than complimentary glare over Casey’s body. “And here the Simi thought men traded up, not down…” She dropped her voice to a deep baritone. “Like way down. Bottom of the barrels.”

Casey came around him with a snarl.

Nick caught her and pulled her back. He’d seen Simi in a fight and Casey was no match for an angry demon with mad Simi skills. And if Simi had her customary barbecue sauce in that coffin-shaped purse she always carried, she’d make really short work of Casey.

“Maybe we should talk about this later, Simi?” he asked pointedly.

Simi hissed at Casey like a cat. “We can talk later, but the Simi say you not gonna listen ’cause you hearing something else right now and it ain’t got nothing to do with your boy ears or brains but rather your boy parts.” She held her hand up imperiously to keep them from interrupting her. “But mark the Simi’s words, Mr. Gautier. Some counsel…” Hesitating, she pressed her finger to her lips in thought. “Or is it council?” She waved it away with a flounce. “Oh who cares? Some things ain’t worth listening to. So don’t let them things into your head, Nicky, where they,” she lowered her voice to where he could barely hear her, “whisper, whisper, whisper.” She straightened up and pinned Casey with a gimlet stare. “Ticked-off demons are hard to exorcize and get out of your skin. Trust me on that ’cause the Simi know her demons … and their demons, too.”

With one last nasty hiss at Casey, Simi turned and stalked off.

Nick started to go after her, but Casey stopped him.

“You need to pay for your clothes, Nick.”

Oh yeah … dang. Last thing he wanted was to be arrested for shoplifting in Saks. How could he have forgotten so easily? The soft, well-fitting clothes felt very different from his usual hand-me-down wear.

Still, he turned his head to look past Casey, trying to see where Simi was going. But it was too late. She’d vanished completely.

Dang, that demon could motor.…

Sighing, he left Casey’s side and returned to the dressing room to change into his old clothes, then he went to the register where he almost choked at the price of his shirt alone. But the clerk didn’t take mercy on him or his wallet as he rang Nick out. The cost of it all made him hyperventilate. Holy cow and beef jerky …

Really?

To his credit, he didn’t show his mortification, even though he wanted to cradle his wallet to his chest and run for the door before he bought things he really didn’t need. It was so hard to act nonchalant over something tantamount to two months’ rent. Thank goodness his mama wasn’t here. She’d beat him for the waste.

Good lord, when did it get so expensive to buy a pair of shoes, socks, one black T-shirt, and three outfits? No wonder his mom shopped at Goodwill. Those ugly shirts weren’t so ugly after all.

Don’t think about it, Nick. You make enough money now, and besides, their cost is the least of your current problems.

True, he still had Kody out there, wanting him dead.

And if you have to die, go out well dressed.

Yeah, right. His happiness completely vaporized by the mere mention of Kody’s name, Nick reached for the bags.

“Wait.” Casey turned back to the clerk. “He wants to wear the last outfit home. Cut the tags for us, please.”

Nick almost whimpered when the clerk obeyed. There was no way to return them now. Once he walked out, they’d never take the items back. His stomach shrank at the thought.

Even more upset than before, he took his new clothes to the dressing room to swap them out.

I am so whipped. He’d stood up to zombies, demons, and a deranged coach out to steal his soul, so why was telling one pretty cheerleader that he didn’t want to go broke on a pair of jeans so hard?

Because I’m tired of being a loser. Just once in his life, he wanted to look like somebody. Feel like somebody.

He tucked his tacky Hawaiian monstrosity and threadbare jeans and worn shoes into the bag, then went to meet Casey, who bit her bottom lip when she saw him. Her entire face lit up.

Yeah, okay, the price was worth it. At least that was the thought until another memory cocked him hard.

Kody had always looked at him like that without his having to go broke for it. I like your Hawaiian shirts, Nick. They’re your signature.

Signature tacky, maybe …

But Kody had never once been embarrassed or made uncomfortable by his mother’s insistence on his fugly clothes.

Unlike Casey.

Nick bit his lip as he tried not to go there. Change was good, right? Everyone needed to shake things up. Defy the norm. Try something new …

But if that was true, then why did he feel so bad right now? It was stupid. Yet he couldn’t shake the funk that had him in a fierce headlock. While he liked the clothes, he didn’t really like the reason he was wearing them.

Casey stopped him as they passed by a mirrored column and forced him to look at his reflection. “Who is that handsome, refined gentleman?”

But Nick didn’t see himself. Instead, he saw a female clerk behind them who was staring at him with a hunger in her eyes that matched Casey’s. More heat exploded over his face. He wasn’t used to women paying him much attention, unless they were insulting him or laughing at something stupid he’d done.

Without commenting on Casey’s question, he started for the doors, but she reached out and stopped him. “Not so fast. You need sunglasses to go with your new posh image.”

“I’ve got a pair already.”

She rolled her eyes. “Not those cheap things you wear. The right pair of sunglasses can make or break the man.”

He would argue that point, but he had to admit that the ones Kyrian and Acheron wore were exceptional. And while he didn’t think it would break the man, it did lend an air of coolness to them that he was sadly lacking.



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