He had defied his birth and his parents. As had her mother and uncle. Each had chosen to be much more than they’d been born for. They had shown her strength and courage. What it meant to swim upstream through the deadliest waters and hazards.

There will be one Malachai born unlike all the others. He will know love and if you can keep him wrapped in it, grounded by it, he can be turned from the dark that spawned him. He will be the greatest champion this world has ever known. But should he lose anchor, he will turn into the one that destroys us all. For the very love that gives him goodness is the love that will turn him to pure hatred when he loses it.

“I have to win him back,” she whispered. It was the only way. She couldn’t risk Nick hating her. If she could keep hatred out of his heart, he would stay as he was.

A hero.

Unlike Sraosha, she didn’t think that killing him would solve anything. Another Malachai would come forward to replace him, and if it was the one she suspected, it would be even worse. Currently, the next in line to replace Nick was a god in full right, with full powers. No one would be able to stop a Malachai like that.

Ever.

Not even the Chthonians.

But Sraosha wouldn’t listen to her. He wanted Nick’s heart with a lust she didn’t understand. If anyone should want Nick dead, it was her.

And part of her did. How could she not, given what all he’d taken from her. Over and over, she saw the demon Malachai—Nick’s true form—killing her brothers. Her entire family had been slaughtered because of him.

Without reservation or hesitation, she had come back in time so that she could stop his metamorphosis. This was her one and only chance to save everyone.

Even herself.

“I can’t fail.”

She would either save Nick from his true nature, or deliver his heart to Sraosha.

CHAPTER 3

“Dang, boy, you drag that tail any lower and you won’t be able to get across a parking lot.”

Nick paused as he and Caleb entered the Triple B—the largest gun and computer store in the South, maybe even the world.

The owner, Big Bubba Burdette, was one of Nick’s best friends and the closest thing to a father Nick had ever known. Standing over six feet tall, Bubba was well muscled and humongous—something that came from his days as an award-winning football player who would have gone pro had he not decided to give up glory to stay home with the wife and son he loved more than anything else.

A wife and son who had died tragically a decade back in a home invasion that had devastated Bubba, and made him the kind of extreme survivalist they featured on Doomsday documentaries and in gun magazines.

Not to mention, he was a firm believer that a zombie apocalypse was imminent. Hence the numerous zombie targets, undead paraphernalia, and the posters on the wall advertising his zombie survival classes he taught with his friend Mark. All over the store and shrunk down as small wallet-sized cards were tips on how to survive an attack.

Nick’s personal favorite was the poster right behind the register that listed the number-one tip. Remember, you don’t have to outrun the zombie. You just have to outrun your friends.

That didn’t exactly warm his heart and make him want to put Bubba at his back in a fight. But then again, Bubba didn’t really subscribe to that, and Nick had fought the undead, including zombies, enough with Bubba to know that in a fight, you could count on him and then some.

Bubba left no man behind, and his real philosophy in a fight was shoot first, double-tap the head, and then let God sort it out.

And since this was the anniversary week of his family’s deaths, Bubba’s mama was in town, visiting with him. Because of that, his dark hair was cut short and his beard had become a well-groomed goatee. He’d also dispensed with his ever-present zombie movie tees and red flannel shirts in favor of a black shirt with sleeves rolled up to his elbows. But his steel-toed combat boots were still his footwear of choice.

Mama or no mama.

Nick would tease him for his maternal fear, but given the fact that he towered over his own mother who kept him cowed and on a short leash, he had no room for mockery. He well understood the potent power of the mothership to quell even the fiercest opponent with nothing more than a glare and arched brow.

But the one thing about Bubba, aside from the fact the man was a total unpredictable lunatic, was that he constantly used Southernisms even Nick had a hard time making out.

“Do what?”

Bubba locked the case where he’d been putting away inventory, then slid the key into his pocket. He stood up to face Nick and Caleb. “You’re blue, son. Practically glowing it, like some Mayan sacrifice, waiting to get your heart ripped out. What has you down so low?”

Caleb leaned against the long glass counter and gave Nick a snide grin. “Your Mayan analogy is amazingly astute, Bubba. He broke up with his girl.”

Bubba tsked. “Ah now, that’s a dang shame. I really liked Kody. She was cold-blooded decent.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Nick saw Mark approaching him from the back room. With shaggy brown hair, he was about two inches shorter than Bubba, and was only slightly less muscled. Thinking Bubba’s partner-in-crime was going to console him, he didn’t react until Mark zapped him in the butt with a cattle prod.

“Hey!” Nick yelped as pain shot through him. “What are you doing?”

Mark, who had not cleaned up his usual rumpled clothing couture because Bubba’s mama was in town, held the cattle prod like he might use it again. “Shocking some sense into you. Boy, are you out of your mind? You don’t let a girl like Kody go without a fight … at least not until she sets fire to everything you own. Then you kick her out. But not before then.” He moved to shock Nick again.

Nick jumped behind Caleb for protection. “Would you stop that?”

“No. I can’t beat sense into you without going to jail for it.” Mark closed the distance between them. “Ain’t no laws against shocking a minor.”

Nick continued to dance around Caleb, who was being derelict in his duty to keep the loon off him. “Isn’t that tortfeasory or something? I’m sure there’s a law against it.”

Bubba let out a heavy sigh. “Unfortunately, Mark, he’s right. It goes under the offensive touching laws.”

“Offensive touching laws?” Mark drew up short to narrow his eyes at Bubba. “How you know that?”

“Don’t want to go there.… Not one of my finer moments. Suffice it to say, I don’t want to pay any more lawyer fees for a while. I’m about tapped out on them.”

“Dear Lord, do I even want to know what y’all are getting into now?” Bubba’s mama asked as she came through the black curtains that separated the back area from the front. Arms akimbo, she passed a menacing glare to Mark. “Do I need to call your daddy for more bail money, son?”

Mark straightened up instantly before the much smaller lady. Dressed in a no-nonsense black Armani business suit and low heels, she seemed substantially taller than her tiny five-foot-one stature … Mostly because you knew she wouldn’t hesitate to take a stick to your backside if you needed it, no matter how big you thought you were in comparison to her.

A world-famed pediatric surgeon, Bobbi Jean Burdette took nothing from anyone, and that included lip from her only son and the best friend he’d grown up with.

And the instant Nick saw her, he grinned a warm welcome. In his head, he heard her favorite saying about Bubba and her hair, which she currently had put up in a sophisticated bun—God gave me black, then Michael turned it gray, and L’Oreal made me a redhead.

But the best part about Bubba’s mama? She’d twice saved his life.

“Hi, Dr. Burdette,” Nick said in greeting, then he gestured at Mark. “For the record, he was shocking me for no reason whatsoever.”

Storms brewed in her hazel eyes as she turned her gaze back to Mark. “Markus Jethro Fingerman, you put that thing down. Right now! Good Lord, I barely got the boy patched up and now you threatening to undo all my hard work on him. Don’t do something else to harm him or I’m going to turn his mama loose on you.”

Mark immediately tossed the cattle prod so that it landed by Caleb’s feet. He held his hands up as real fear entered his eyes. “Anything but Cherise. I swear I’d rather be naked in the swamp, surrounded by Madaug’s super zombies and hungry gators, than be covered in Kevlar, fully armed with a live grenade in my teeth and flamethrower in my hands and face Cherise Gautier when she’s in Nick-protection mode. I ain’t never seen a scarier Chihuahua.”

Mark was right. Forget his demon bodyguard, Nick’s mom was a thousand times more fierce.

And deadlier.

“Besides, it ain’t totally my fault, Dr. Burdette,” Mark continued. “I was just trying to make him see some sense.”

“Then, for heaven’s sake, boy, try talking to him first. He is a bright child, you know? I’m sure he can see reason without electroshock treatments.”

The look on Mark’s face said he doubted it. But he didn’t comment as he turned back to Nick. “So what’d you do to drive her off?”

Nick grimaced as Mark repeated Brynna’s earlier assumption. “Why does everyone think I’m to blame?”

“Dude,” Mark said in a patronizing tone. “Do you own a mirror? Guys like you don’t get women that fine.”

Now that was just plain rude. “Excuse me?”

Mark held his hands up again. “I ain’t saying you’re a bad-looking guy, not that I look at you that way, but … you got no fashion sense. At all.”

Nick flicked the edge of Mark’s jacket. “This from Dr. Camo?”

“I ain’t the one who broke up with the hot girlfriend. I never did figure out how you rated with her anyway. So yeah, it has to be your fault.”

Nick was aghast. “You know I am one of the most valuable players on my football team, right?”

Mark snorted. “So was I, and Bubba blew us all away in skill. So while that works in movies and TV shows, in real life … it ain’t that big a thing. Really fine and decent women don’t care what jersey you wear. And it definitely isn’t what got a woman like Nekoda talking to you to begin with. So my advice to you, kid … piece of really nice jewelry and some expensive chocolates.”

Dr. Burdette nodded. “I have to say he’s right for most women. Shiny usually trumps stupid, and reminds a girl why she liked you in the first place.”

Yeah, but he didn’t want his assassin back in his life, which he had to keep to himself. Dr. Burdette could conceivably have him committed for rambling that kind of lunacy, even if it was the truth.

So he went with the part of the story that would keep him out of a straitjacket. “As a case in point, I’m the one who broke up with her.”

Mark looked at Caleb. “Hand me that cattle prod back. This boy’s so stupid, I got to shock some brains into him.”

Caleb laughed. “Don’t tempt me.”

Ignoring them, Bubba tsked. “Hope you had a good reason, Nick. From what I’ve seen, you two were golden together. And that don’t come around often.”

No, it didn’t. And having lost the love of his life, Bubba knew that better than most.

“It wasn’t stupid,” Nick assured him.

Mark sighed. “I still think we ought to hold him down and shock him till he gets over whatever’s ailing him.”

Dr. Burdette made a sound of deep aggravation in the back of her throat. “Try it, Mark, and I will tell his mama on you.”

Mark deflated instantly. “Yes, ma’am.” But the gleam in his eyes said that the minute Dr. Burdette left them alone, Mark was going for it.

Nick stepped forward so that his foot rested on the cattle prod. Better safe than sorry, especially whenever Mark was around.

“So what are you two doing here this early anyway?” Bubba asked, changing the subject. “Don’t you have football practice?”

Nick let loose an evil laugh. “It ended early. Stone cracked the coach’s wee-belows with a badly thrown ball. I’m sure we’ll all be running laps for hours tomorrow. But today … Coach had to go ice himself.”

Bubba and Mark sucked their breaths in sharply. “That’ll ruin his weekend.”

“Yeah, and then some,” Caleb added.

Nick walked up to the counter and pointed to the RAM chips that were locked in the case next to boxes of ammo. “Kyrian wants to up his RAM.”

“Ah … no problem. How much?”

“Max it out.”

“You got it.” Bubba pulled the RAM out while Nick reached for his wallet and credit card.

“How’s it been at school?” Dr. Burdette asked as she went to lean against the counter not far from Nick. “Did they make that girl do her public apology yet?”



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