So he allowed her to haul him over to the sunglasses counter where designer eyewear was laid out like a bright, shiny banquet Simi would most likely cut a swathe through with her barbecue sauce.
Yeah, okay, these really were a lot better-looking than the scratched-up pair he’d bought in a gas station clearance bin three years ago for a buck. Honestly, he’d never known that there were this many kinds or colors.
A female clerk beelined for them. “Can I help you?”
Nick had a compunction to look behind him to see if someone else had walked up. It’d taken the other clerk ten minutes to acknowledge them in the men’s department. And even then, he’d been reluctant to help until he realized Nick had a platinum credit card and Casey wasn’t afraid to use it.
“Which ones do you like?” Casey asked.
Nick shrugged. How could one mere mortal, or in his case, semi-immortal man choose from so many? “What do you suggest?”
The clerk pulled out a pair of yellowish Oakleys. “These are really popular. A lot of guys go for these.”
Yowza! Nick had to bite back profanity at the price tag. But he was sure he’d gone bug-eyed when he glanced at it. Were they out of their ever-loving minds? Who paid that for something you were going to drop in the driveway and possibly back over? Or worse, sit on them and crush them or leave them in a restaurant somewhere?
Grimacing, he shook his head and moved away from her. “Do you have Predator sunglasses?” He had no idea what they cost, but that was what Acheron wore, and Ash, in all his Goth glory, didn’t strike him as someone who would give over a body part for fashion.
“Of course.” When the clerk started to hand them to Nick, Casey intervened and pulled the tag off before he had a chance to see it.
Casey set them in his hand. “They’ll be my present to you if you like them.”
Nick hesitated. “I don’t know about that, Case.…”
“Shh.” She put her fingers over his lips, causing his body to erupt again. Dang, he should have bought a longer jacket.…
“Don’t think, Nick. Just try them on.” It was definitely hard to think straight when she looked at him like a Victoria’s Secret model.
His throat dry, Nick did, and froze as he saw himself in the mirror on the counter. With his new haircut and the stylish glasses and clothes, he looked grown. There in the mirror, he didn’t see the scared kid who normally stared out at him, afraid he was going to accidentally cut his throat while he shaved and bleed out before his mom came to find his body.
He looked like a man. Confident. Sophisticated.
Was that really him? He turned his head to verify it. Yeah, it was definitely his reflection.…
But it didn’t look like him.
Casey arched an expectant brow. “Well?”
“I like them,” he said before he could stop himself.
She smiled and dug out her own pink Visa card. “We’ll take them.” She handed the card to the clerk.
Still, Nick hesitated. It was one thing to have her buy him a Coke. Another to take something that could very well be a hundred bucks or more. “Casey, I really can’t—”
“Yes, you can,” she said, cutting him off. “Just say thank you.”
He wanted to argue, he really did, but she had that unique girl expression that said, “Boy, don’t you dare argue with me or you will regret it.” His mom and Kody had tutored him well on what happened to any male dumb enough to try their luck when that look was present.
Taking a deep breath, he inclined his head to her. “Thank you.”
She kissed him. “You’re very welcome.”
“They really do look good on you,” the clerk said as she handed Casey the receipt to sign. “You wear them like they were custom-made for you.”
And that caused him to be even more uncomfortable. People, stop complimenting me. He really didn’t like it. “Um, thanks.”
Casey handed the signed receipt back while the clerk gave them the case and bag for the sunglasses.
Nick couldn’t explain it, but he did feel different. Much more confident. Was this what Kyrian, Caleb, and Acheron felt like all the time?
It was kind of cool not to be self-conscious. To have clothes you knew didn’t come from a thrift store sale rack.
Lifting his chin with a newfound pride, he followed Casey out of the store.
Casey watched Nick very carefully as they headed to the lot where she’d parked her car. While he’d been cute in his regular clothes, in his new ones, he was absolutely stunning. She’d had no idea when she started this little confidence-building game what the Malachai really looked like.
Full grown, Nick would be stellar. In fact, it was taking everything she had not to take a bite out of him now. But he was still very skittish. Every time she reached toward him, he jumped as if she were a high-voltage wire about to wrap around him and zap him hard. While it had been cute in the beginning, it was starting to wear on her nerves.
She had to get him to relax if she was to open the channel for his powers. “Are you hungry?” she asked as they put his new clothes in her trunk.
“I’m always hungry.”
That had been true of her brother at Nick’s age, too. She’d never seen anyone pack away more food than Zavid.
She ran through her mind the restaurants that were nearby that would appeal to a teenaged Malachai. “Hard Rock?”
She saw the hesitation in his eyes before he mumbled, “Sure.”
What was that? “Would you rather eat somewhere else?”
“Nah. Hard Rock’s fine.” He frowned as she moved to unlock the doors to her car. “We’re driving?”
He actually scowled at her. “Why? It’s just on the other side of the Westin. It’s what? Half a mile, if even? We’re just going to move from this parking lot over two? It’d take us longer to navigate traffic than hoof it.”
Was he serious? Zarelda didn’t walk. She’d never been a pedestrian.
“C’mon,” he said, flashing those adorable dimples at her. “We can walk along the river. It’ll be fun and scenic. That is why you have a convertible, right? To embrace nature and the fresh air?”
No, but she couldn’t tell him the real reason—it made jumping out for human victims a lot easier. Biting her lip, she glanced up at the evening sky. “It’s getting dark.”
He scoffed at her argument. “It’s early still and there’s plenty of lighting along the way.” He winked at her. “C’mon, Casey, I’ll be your protector.”
If he only knew the truth.…
He was the one who needed a protector.
Humans definitely weren’t her predator. They were her food. “All right.” She locked, then closed the door and walked around to his side of the car.
He held his elbow out to her so that she could take it. Zarelda almost declined, but Casey wouldn’t do that. She’d be flattered and thrilled to walk arm in arm with a boy this fine. And in truth, so was she. It’d been a long time since anyone made her feel like this. Like she was desirable and normal.
She hated him for that.
Worse, he placed his hand over hers and walked as if she meant something to him. That alone made her want to claw out his eyes and eat them for hors d’oeuvres.… Because she knew it was a lie. If he had any inkling as to who and what she really was, he’d be fighting her or trying to kill her.
Just like all demons did.
She’d already been lied to and betrayed once, and her brother was paying the price for it.
Trust no one. Every thing betrays.
And the Malachai in particular was one nasty, treacherous beast.
Unaware of her hatred, Nick took her to the back side of the parking deck that looked out onto a large cement wall that blocked them from the huge bank of transformers.
Casey cut an unamused smirk at him. “Nice wall, Nick. Love the danger high voltage signs.”
He laughed. “Only the best for you, baby. Only the best for you.” Still smiling, he led her across the parking lot toward the streetcar tracks. And the closer they got to them, the more tense he became. Did he sense something she didn’t? Were they about to be attacked by an unseen threat?
She glanced about nervously, well aware of the fact that even a half-formed Malachai had a much more heightened alarm system than she did. “Are you all right?”
“Yeah.” He loosened his hold on her as if he would need to start running any second. “Pavlovian response to how many times in the past I’ve had to run to catch a streetcar.”
She snorted until she realized he wasn’t joking. “How much have you had to do that?”
“Let me put it to you this way…” He checked his watch. “The next car that’s heading to the French Market station from here will arrive in just under six minutes.”
“Oh my God, you have the whole line schedule memorized? Are you serious?”
“As heart failure. Before we moved, I used to catch the French Market stop to Dumaine every morning for school.”
She wrinkled her nose as she remembered those days. “No wonder you were always dripping sweat when you got there. Why didn’t you ride a bus?”
He shrugged. “Bus would have taken longer and it wouldn’t get me any closer than Ursulines or the Square. The streetcar was quicker and more direct.”
That only confused her more. “But the Market to Dumaine is even shorter than our little jaunt here. Wouldn’t it have been easier and closer to get off at Ursulines on either the bus or streetcar?”
“Yeah, but after I ran to catch the streetcar at the Market, I needed that extra stop to catch my breath. And with morning traffic, the streetcar was still quicker and much more reliable.”
That confession stunned her. Why would anyone put themselves through that kind of misery just to get to a school where he was a pariah? “You really aren’t joking?”
“No, I’m not.”
Nor was he complaining. That was the hardest part to believe.
He never did, for that matter. He merely accepted people and things as they were.
Arm in arm, they walked up the stairs behind the Bienville station, to the brick walkway that ran mostly parallel to the Mississippi River. The water glistened from the setting sun and provided a nice tranquility to the cool evening. Off in the background was the picturesque suspension bridge that connected the city to Algiers Point.
Nick was right. It was very pretty, and at this time of day, semiprivate. There was almost no one over here with them. Only a few stragglers or hobos off in the distance.
For the first time since Grim had assigned her duty here in New Orleans, she saw the city as something other than a nuisance, and Nick as something other than a target.
“Okay, I’m glad you talked me into this. I do like it.”
He flashed those dimples. “I told you.”
Slowing down, she laughed as they neared the beautiful Monument to the Immigrant where a muse of hope looked out over the river while protecting a Victorian family of four that bravely faced the city with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. She didn’t know why, but the carved little girl and boy reminded her of her and her brother.
Unwilling to remember those days, she slid a teasing glance to Nick. “Yeah, yeah. You’re the man. What can I say?”
Before Nick could answer, a shadow stood up from where he’d been crouching on the hidden benches in front of the monument and pointed a gun at them. “You can say nothing, bitch, if you want to stay alive.”
Another armed man stepped out from the tree on the left and pinned Casey and Nick between them.
Sucking her breath in sharply, she froze. While she was an immortal creature, the body she was in wasn’t. One shot into Casey’s flesh, and she could be trapped between worlds forever.…
What were the odds of this? Nick ground his teeth until he tasted blood as he recognized the guys holding guns on them.
Alan and Tyree.
Oh yeah, this was karma of epic proportions. He owed both of them a payback large enough to get the country completely out of debt. They were the whole reason he now worked for Kyrian Hunter. Back in the day when he’d stupidly called them friends, Alan had duped him into almost mugging two tourists.
What kind of “friend” would do that to another, right?
Hey, let’s all go to prison together, shall we? Forget college, Nick, and a future with a beautiful wife and kids. Angola prison and baggy orange jumpsuits are so much better for you and your ego, too. We’ll all get big hairy boyfriends and never be eligible for a decent job again. C’mon, let’s go!