End Game

End Game Chapter 1-3

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Read an excerpt of Holly Roberds’  End Game paranormal Romance. The finale in the Five Orders Series.

Chapter One

I inhaled the heady aroma of new paperbacks and tingles raced down my spine. I once heard that new-book smell was from the adhesive binding the books, but even the fact that I basically loved huffing glue didn’t suck the romance out of my favorite scent. It had been a while since I’d been able to step inside a bookstore.
 
Which was why the repulsive stench of sulfur and rotten meat in my favorite place was even more offensive.
 
The hair on the back of my neck rose.
 
I ducked and felt a whoosh of air over my head. The curved claws of the bloodthirsty yeti missed me. I tucked and rolled away before springing to my feet and turning to meet the demon. I pulled out my Ka-Bar Combat Kukri Knife, a gift from Regina. The heavy-duty chopping blade was similar to a machete but curvier, and it was my new weapon of choice. Who said only boys loved their toys?
 
Seven feet tall and covered in shaggy white hair, the creature’s piercing ice-blue eyes stared out from a demonic face of hate-filled ridges. Calan called it an Ururu. Looked more like Krampus to me.
 

“What’s up, shaggy?” I asked, jumping back from another swipe. “Are you looking for the self-improvement books, or maybe the beauty section?” If he was looking for beauty tips, I had stripped my look down to the basics: a ponytail and form-fitting high-waisted black yoga pants with matching crop top. Though I went a little extra with the bright pink lip-gloss which I swore gave me the confidence boost to add an extra inch to my high kick. War paint and all that.

Another swipe from the Ururu, and I leaned back, dodging again. I let him come at me a few more times, artfully dodging his claws. He let out a frustrated roar. My sparring sessions with Calan were paying off. This felt more like a dance than a fight.
With a quick glance around, I saw colorful covers and an abundance of man chests. I’d unconsciously led my prey to my homeland—the romance section. It felt like a lifetime ago that I was in this same bookstore, pushing my glasses up, ogling the goods. I’d continue to add to my stack of potential book boyfriends until I could barely hold my paperback skyscraper.

What a difference a few years made.

The Ururu charged, sick of our cat-and-mouse game. At the last moment, I flattened against the side and brought down my blade. Two claws fell to the ground, spraying red blood onto the new paperbacks.

The Krampus whirled around, his icy eyes now shining, and my gut clenched. Uh oh.
He opened his mouth, and a cold mist seeped out like a dry ice trick. My senses prickled. The demon was preparing to do some dark mojo. This wasn’t covered in the briefing. For all I knew, he could do anything from shoot ice needles from his mouth to releasing a poison gas.

My brain was still computing whether to fight or flee when the tip of a sword broke out through the front of the Ururu’s chest. I clapped my hands over my ears as the Ururu’s cry thundered through the store. The light went out of the demon’s eyes and the mouth mist dissipated.

“Hi honey,” I said, lowering my hands.

Calan pulled his sword out of the creature’s back with a jerk, letting the evil yeti crumple to the ground. My fiancé stood there in all his handsome glory. His dark, curly hair was a sharp contrast to his cobalt blue eyes. Between his square jaw and hard, muscled body, he could have stepped off one of the nearby covers.

Except Calan came from an even less likely place, an ancient secret Order. My sweetie was a Knight of the Light, a Chevalier. The Order of Luxis raised him in a secret Temple where they trained him to fight like a ninja warrior, and honed his will into magic powers to blast demonic baddies away.

“Were you toying with the Ururu?” he asked. The teasing tone of his already deep voice made my insides melt like a milk chocolate bar on a warm day.

“Maybe,” I confessed, looking up at him through my lashes.

Wiping his blade against the creature’s hairy body, a line formed between his eyebrows as he became serious. “The Ururu can emit a freeze that numbs the senses and slows down their prey. Best not to dally long with them.”

I tried to cover up my smile at his word choice, dally.

Growing up in near total isolation save for his Masters, who acted like they stepped out of medieval times, Calan possessed old-fashioned sensibilities and missed a lot of social nuances. As a modern woman, I’d taken it upon myself to bring him up to date on all the movies, latest slang, and the fine industry known as fast-food cuisine. He was still iffy on that last one, preferring simple, whole foods. With all the health nuts out there, we could get him signed on for his own cookbook. I could see it now, Clean Cooking with the Chevalier: For the Busy Demon-Fighting Mom on the Go would be an instant bestseller. Especially if he was on the cover.

Before I could get too distracted with visions of Calan’s ripped bod in only an apron and alluring smile, I said, “Got it. Don’t let them breathe on me.”

My eyes traveled back to the shelves. I briefly wondered if the store owners would be willing to pay us in books. Maybe I could adopt the blood-spattered ones, so they wouldn’t think they weren’t loved.

“What is that face you are making?” Calan asked, tilting his head.

“I’m pouting.”

He had to step on the Krampus corpse to get over it to stand next to me. It made a crunching sound under his weight. Gross.

“I got blood on the pretty books,” I said, gesturing forlornly at the new releases. “For a bibliophile, that’s like a hate crime.”

A crackle over the walkie talkie interrupted us, followed by Travis’ voice. “Nighthawk to Rainbow Bright. The northwest quadrant is clear, moving toward the stairs to the second floor now. Over.”

As if on cue, the gurgling growl of an Ururu traveled through the bookstore.

I pulled the walkie off my hip. “One down on our end. We’ll meet you there. Rainbow Bright, over.”

Calan lips thinned, which was the closest he came to an eyeroll.

I shrugged. “What? You don’t like our codenames?”

“I’d prefer if mine wasn’t Terminator,” he grumbled as we started toward the center of the store.

It was the ongoing joke between Travis and me since Calan had played the “come with me if you want to live” card when we first met him. Considering he was the only one who could fight off the soul eater chasing us, we lived to see another day.

“Would Superman be better?” I asked. Though as I eyed his hard body protected in the motorcycle turtle jacket, lined with mesh, he looked more like dark Superman. My mouth watered, and I wondered how long it would be between now and when I could claw his armor off and climb that body and do bad, bad things to him. Something about our jobs got me all hot and bothered. I’d never been an adrenaline junkie, but after the last few years of intense end-of-the-world battles, I’d learned to appreciate the fight.

Something crunched behind us. Calan and I whipped around, blades up. Instead of an Ururu, Krystan stood there in all her pregnant glory. My best friend had always been rail-thin and had serious model potential. Pregnant, she looked like someone had attached a bowling ball to a matchstick. A snack bag of Cheetos sat on the makeshift shelf that was her stomach. She popped an orange dusted chip into her mouth, crunching loudly again.

“What are you doing in here?” I asked. “Travis is going to kill you if he finds out you left the van.”

Krystan shrugged. “It was too hot and the A/C isn’t strong enough in that old thing.” For a woman officially nine months pregnant, she still managed to look like she was down to party. Black makeup lined her dark eyes. The mesh shirt and dark blue maternity jeans were surprisingly stylish. Her bright red sneakers matched the shade of her lipstick, which contrasted against her otherwise goth rock look.

“It isn’t safe for you here,” Calan said, scanning the store. For seven-foot behemoths, the Ururus sure could play a damn good game of hide-and-seek.

Krystan crumpled up the Cheeto bag and tossed it on the floor before pulling her nail-riddled bat off the holster on her back. “Don’t sass your boss, young man. Or did you forget whose payroll you’re on?”

I stuck my tongue out at her. Since Calan and I returned from the Stygian, we needed money. Krystan and Travis hired us on to work for their demon slaying business, Whack A Ghoul. Strange as it sounded, having a job and a paycheck gave me a sense of security, even if we were essentially glorified exterminators.

Krystan and Travis tried to hide the fact they were thrilled we were on the payroll because between Calan’s powers and my own unique skill set, Whack A Ghoul had gone from a two-star business to four-point-five stars on Yelp with over two hundred reviews.

“I like your knife; is it new?” Krystan asked, rubbing her stomach.

“Thanks, it’s a present from my future mother-in-law,” I said, holding up my curvy blade.

Krystan cocked her head to the side. “I feel like it needs a pop of color.”

The blacked out, powder-coated 1095 steel blade weapon was completely devoid of color. “Yeah, it could totally use a splash of hot pink,” I agreed.

“Ooh, do you think we could wrap the handle in fuchsia ribbon?” Krystan asked.

I quirked my lips to the side. “Probably not. Regina made a big deal about the slip-resistant Kraton handle on this model.” To prove a point, I spun the machete a couple times, easily catching the hilt in firm grip each time.

Krystan frowned. “Maybe a good can of spray paint would work, then.”
Calan broke in, frowning for a different reason. “Ladies, may I remind you we still have frost monsters roaming the store.”

We looked at him.

“Alright,” he said with a sigh. “I see your chatting by the water fountain is more important.”

Krystan raised an eyebrow. “It’s water cooler, but nice try.”

He ignored her correction. “Emma, I’ll leave it to you to protect your friend while I assist Travis.”

Calan stopped to kiss me, sending tingles shooting down my body and back up again. Sniffing books was pleasurable, but they had nothing on that mouth. Krystan and I both watched him walk away.

“Are you staring at my fiancé’s ass?” I asked, not bothering to hide my own leer.

“Yep,” she said, popping the p.

“That’s fair,” I said. After he disappeared, I turned to my best friend with a quick glance at her baby bump. “How are you feeling?”

She rolled her eyes and attempted to push her dark hair back behind her ear. She had been growing out her Bettie Page bangs and the awkward phase where they would fall in her eyes was driving her nuts. “Like hell. I feel like a blimp. And the bean must be part kangaroo based on the accurate shots it takes at my bladder.” She’d affectionately named her unborn baby ‘bean.’ She went on. “I wouldn’t be surprised if one of these days, I suddenly pissed myself from one of those kicks. And I thought Travis was annoying.”

Her eyes flicked away and softened as she said the last bit. Krystan and Travis became more than a working team while Calan and I were stuck in a hell dimension. The commitment and affection they had for each other was more than I’d ever hoped for her.

Krystan had spent most of her life yanking Travis’ chain, and vice versa. She still wasn’t quite used to the one-eighty their dynamic had taken. So I did what any good friend would do when sensing a vulnerability.

“You loooove him, you want to maaarrry him,” I said while making obnoxious kissy sounds.

She narrowed her dark eyes at me. “It’s enough I’m having the guy’s baby. You’re the one getting married. How are you doing? We’re only a few week away. Are you psyched?” She grinned evilly.

“Oh yeah, I’m super psyched,” I said, shooting her a glare and feeling instantly uneasy. I proposed to Calan when we were trapped in the Stygian. He tried to die on me, so I forced him into a commitment he had to keep. He was impeccable about keeping promises, and by his word, he pulled through.

She vigorously rubbed a pinky in her ear. “I can tell you’re lying.”

“You don’t need a supernatural lie detector to tell that. I was being sarcastic. Can’t your superpowers tell the difference?” I wiggled my fingers at her.

Krystan gave me a knowing look. “Yeah, but you aren’t just being sarcastic, you’re trying to convince yourself it’s cool. Lying to yourself counts enough to set off my buzzer.”

While Calan and I were away, Krystan and Travis had been in a supernatural blast that left them both with minor supernatural abilities. Whenever someone lied, Krystan said it was like there were a couple of bees in her ear.

“I love Calan and I want to marry him more than anything.” I lifted my new blade. “But my future mother-in-law should have thought about the dangers of gifting me this while giving me the third degree on the bridesmaid dress you were wearing before launching into wedding favors, then tealights of all things. I almost turned the gift right around on her and stabbed her with it.”

“Come on,” Krystan said. “You had to know when you agreed to let Regina and Phillip foot the bill for the wedding, there would be strings attached.”

“I did.” I let my voice trail off into a mumble. “I just didn’t know I’d want to hang myself by those strings.”

I’d also been putting off a certain conversation with my beloved husband-to-be and time was fast running out. Calan had gotten it into his mind that he wanted a red checkered suit for the wedding. How he managed to even find one—scratch that, the internet was a deep, scary place that produced anything the mind could concoct without questioning whether it should.

“So the guy wants to wear a hideous suit. What’s the big deal?” Before she even finished, she barreled on, “Okay, yeah, I just heard myself. Doesn’t he know weddings are for chicks and he should be docile and simply show up on time in the suit of your choosing?”

I shook my head. “The idea of a wedding is still relatively new to him. And I didn’t want to be that girl…”

“A bridezilla?”

“Exactly. This day is about the two of us,” I said, trying to believe myself.
“And a lumberjack suit.”

I grimaced.

An oversized shaggy Krampus materialized behind Krystan. “Shit,” I cursed, pushing Krystan to the side and out of the way before those sharp claws could slice through her. I swung my blade, but the Ururu dematerialized again. My blade passed through empty space where the demon had just been.

Well damn, no wonder they were good at hide-and-seek. Turning back to Krystan, I was relieved to see she hadn’t fallen over. If anything happened to her or the baby, I’d never forgive myself.

I hit the button on my walkie. “The Ururus can phase, I repeat, the suckers have the ability to phase.” Before I could ask for backup, the Ururu materialized again and grabbed Krystan. Her bat hit the ground. She yelped in surprise as her feet lifted off the ground.

My stomach dropped what felt like a thousand feet as the panic hit me. I couldn’t use my kukri without hurting Krystan or the baby. The monster was going to rip her to shreds while I stood by and watched.

Krystan winced as blood trailed down her arms where the claws dug in. I reached out, yet I was unable to stop what was happening.

A blue light blossomed around the Ururu and Krystan and they both froze. Whipping my head around, I saw Calan on the base of the stairs, his arm stretched out, brow furrowed in concentration as he held the monster in his power. Travis raced by Calan, jumping off the last few stairs.

Logic broke through my panic-induced paralysis. Travis and I worked fast to pull the talons out of Krystan’s arms.

“Hurry,” Calan said through clenched teeth.

Travis caught Krystan and they stumbled back just as the blue light went out. The Ururu took a step to close the distance between him and my friends, but I leapt in the middle and shoved my knife into his ribs.

The Ururu clutched at his wound when I pulled the knife out. It stumbled back, knocking a bookshelf over, causing a domino effect as three more shelves went down. Slamming back onto its ass, the Ururu looked down as his own blood pumped out, matting his fur in crimson red. Looking up at me with those glowing blue eyes, he said in a strange gravelly tone, “Othanos will find you. The sacrifice will be made.”

What? Did he just mention Othanos?

My blood instantly boiled. Rage crashed over my senses like a tsunami.

“Where is Othanos?” I asked the Ururu. My voice sounded strange to my own ears, but I kept my focus pinned on the slowly dying Krampus.

“Othanos will make the sacrifice,” he repeated.

I raised a hand. The Ururu shot up, hovering inches above the ground. My heartbeat drummed in my ears and blood surged through my body. Every detail of the room came into clear detail, from the dust particles floating into the air to the coppery stench of the Ururu’s pierced guts. Power and strength, unlike anything I’d felt before, ran through me.

“Where is Othanos?” My voice boomed through the bookstore.

I thought I heard someone say my name, but I was locked on the Ururu and wouldn’t let him go until I had my answer. That son of a bitch, Othanos, is going to pay. “Tell me.”
All the Krampus did was grin, his pointed teeth stained with bright red blood.

My power was suddenly not my own, as instinct took over and I stretched my hand out a little more. A long ribbon of black smoke wafted off his body, sharply twisting and turning in midair as if trying to get away. I pulled his life essence to me, the darkness traveled into my palm, power zoomed through my body, and I shuddered. I sucked it all out until the Ururu dropped his head, nothing more than a lifeless rag doll.

I stumbled back, gasping for breath as if I’d been holding it for ten minutes. Calan was there behind me to catch my fall in an instant. I leaned against his chest as his arms wrapped around me. Inhaling his reassuring scent of fresh soap and the spicy masculine musk underneath helped ground me.

“Emma,” he started, voice tight with concern.

“I’m fine,” I stopped him, still gasping for breath. “That was a hell of a rush, though.” I couldn’t help but smile.

Calan’s body relaxed a little, but he still held onto me.

When I caught the look on Krystan and Travis’ faces, eyes large with alarm, I straightened. “What?”

Krystan tightly held the cuts on either arm tightly to stop the bleeding. “You were communicating with each other?”

“He mentioned Othanos. I guess I just lost it.” I shrugged, suddenly self-conscious. Ever since I’d gone through the Reckoning, I had on occasion sucked out and absorbed the energy from dark creatures from the Stygian. It didn’t always work on command, but I was getting better at wielding my newfound power. This was the first time I’d done it to a physical creature. In the past, I’d only ever absorbed evil spirits or incorporeal entities.

Yet I’d cracked the Ururu like a walnut and pulled out his lifeforce. That was new.

Calan turned me around to face him. His gaze was intense. He was trying to hide it but I could tell he was spooked. “You both were speaking in a strange guttural language.”
I shook my head, suppressing a shiver. The power inside me was ebbing, but I could still feel it tingling along my nerve endings. “No, I thought you guys could understand us.”

Calan eyed me. He didn’t say anything, but the man could always see straight through me. Intermixed with the powerful magic I’d just wielded was fear and uncertainty.
What was I now? Awesome? Part demon? We didn’t know.

Taking the attention off me, Krystan turned to Travis. “The mother of your child is bleeding over here. Care to grab a couple of Band-Aids? Or would you rather take a coffee break?”

Travis’ green eyes widened as he went about checking her wounds and asking how the baby was and if she was feeling alright.

“I’ll get the med kit. You stay here. Seriously, stay here,” Travis said to Krystan in a firm tone after making sure she wouldn’t keel over. He threw his hands up. “Not that you listen to anything I say. You just barrel into a dangerous job, not a thought of our unborn child or that you could get your ass scratched up.”

No matter how hard I looked, there was little left of the stoner I knew from high school. Travis continued to complain about Krystan as he jogged off. 

I heaved a sigh.

“Are you alright?” Calan asked, his voice anxious. He set his hand against the small of my back and I leaned into his touch.

“I think I deserve a reward,” I said, sending him a hopeful smile and dodging the question.

He raised an eyebrow in a way that told me he’d been hanging around Krystan too much.

“A reward?”

“Yeah, I singlehandedly smoked that monster’s ass and saved Krystan.” To my own ears, the actions I took sounded good. Why was I so unsettled? While I was still mulling that over. Calan leaned in toward me, sucking me into those ocean-deep eyes. “Does this reward involve buying you books?”

I grinned up at him. “Yes, please.”

He always knew the right thing to say.

Chapter 2

My and Emma’s apartment was close by, so we decided to stop there to give Krystan’s lacerations a proper cleaning.

For being wounded, Krystan was in great spirits. She held a spike-covered leather jacket in her lap and sang the word ‘Ka-ching’ for the duration of the ride to our place. The huge payout from the bookstore owner had her so happy she seemed to forget about the deep cuts in her arms. Emma sat smiling as we watched the pair in the front seats of the van. Travis did his best to scold Krystan for putting their unborn child in danger.

Eventually, Krystan admitted she shouldn’t have followed her dumb impulse to go inside on a job. If I had been standing, I would have fallen over. The two of them had changed greatly in our absence.

The afternoon sun highlighted Travis’ sharp cheekbones and sandy blond hair. Where he once possessed a soft physique, Travis now had an athletic build. It had been gradual, but it was plain now that Travis had grown up and was ready to be a father.
Where Krystan was once entirely unforgiving and caustic, she was now notably softer. She seemed more at ease with life; a new confidence had replaced her old defensiveness. I wasn’t sure of the root cause—the baby on the way or Travis. I was happy for them.

Arriving at our apartment, I held the door open for Emma, Krystan, and Travis. Before I could shut the front door behind me, Emma cried out, “Not again.” Krystan and Travis groaned in unison.

Pushing past, I saw what distressed them. An African grey parrot with a bright red tail was hanging inside his cage. Literally hanging, from a tiny makeshift noose made from a piece of string. The bird’s body morbidly swung back and forth.

Opening the cage, I gently closed my hand around the still-warm feathers and pulled the parrot out.

“Hey, I almost hadss itss,” the bird squawked. I sighed and set him on the kitchen counter.

“Stupid-ass demon,” Krystan said, taking a seat at our kitchen bar. Travis rolled his eyes and opened his med kit next to her.

“Snarp, we discussed this,” I said. “You are going to remain in this bird’s body for the indefinite future, so you need to stop these antics.”

The parrot stomped his clawed foot on the counter, which only made a light clacking sound. “I wants to be a human, not trapped in these featherss. We made dealss.”

Emma opened the fridge and pulled out a couple cans of sparkling water and passed them to our guests. “Yes, you helped us out of the Stygian, and we agreed to take you with us. But I never said we would let you possess a human.”

“But you saidss parrots live foreversss,” Snarp said, hopelessness tingeing his voice. The bird pathetically hid his head under his wing.

Emma cracked open her own water with a hiss. “No, they don’t.” Then under her breath, she said, “But they can live forty to sixty years.”

Snarp could not get out of a body to possess another until the current one gave out.

After we emerged from the Stygian, Emma managed to hold onto Snarp’s essence until we could get to the pet store, then she forced him inside a bird. While Snarp claimed he wanted to be good, he only appealed his case on the basis he could receive his all-time favorite treat, which he discovered when he possessed Krystan’s grandmother. Given half a chance, Snarp would likely resort back to evil doings simply because it was in his nature. In bird form, his nefarious nature was manageable.

“You promised me snackssss,” Snarp cried.

I admired Emma’s form as she sipped her drink, ignoring his plea. She’d put on some muscle tone and was the healthiest I’d seen her in a long time. The glow in her tanned cheeks offset her warm, expressive brown eyes. Despite her new powers after surviving the Reckoning, she was still Emma.

“Do you have antiseptic?” Travis asked, shaking the empty bottle from his kit. Emma disappeared down the hall to our bathroom.

“I still don’t see why you guys wanted to move out,” Krystan grumbled, casting a critical gaze around our apartment. It was a small, simple one-bedroom apartment, but it was my first real home. Even though I had been raised in the Temple of Luxis, I had been taught that I belonged nowhere—to nothing and no one. My will belonged to the light and my duty was to fight the darkness. But in this apartment, I could control the remote, relax with our friends, and make love to Emma whenever I felt like it. My life had turned out to be so much better than I ever dared hope for myself.

“Let it go, Krystan,” Travis said, brushing the back of her hand with his thumb.
Snarp hopped to the edge of the counter where I was.

Krystan wrinkled her nose. “I mean, sure, your place is newer construction and has big bright windows, but we easily all fit in Gran’s house.”

Travis looked intently at a corner of the room before turning back to Krystan. “She says it’s your house now.” Krystan’s face turned toward where Travis had looked. Her grandmother had passed away, but Travis was able to commune with Mrs. Rits’ spirit. It was a new ability he had. So far, he hadn’t seen any other ghosts other than Mrs. Rits, and she appeared at random with no explanation as to what controlled her appearances.

I was sad to hear she’d died. The old woman was spunky and possessed a kind heart.
Snarp stretched his head out, staring me down. I did my best not to notice.
“Stop trying to trick us into being live-in nannies,” Emma yelled from the bathroom.
She did a good job always sidestepping the truth. We agreed to never tell Krystan the real reason we left.

Those beady eyes continued to fixate on me. I opened a child-proofed cabinet and pulled out a Twinkie. Opening it up, I tore off a tiny chunk and fed it to Snarp. He happily choked down the yellow sponge cake, then stared at me again with expectation.

Sometimes I thought I had gone mad in the jungles outside the Temple of Luxis. That seemed the only explanation as to why my life was so good and why I hadn’t yet sent this demon back to the Stygian.

And yet…we owned a suicidal parrot who demanded snack cakes in exchange for fealty.

“So what if it smells like fresh paint and linens?” Krystan said, eyeing our cream walls with suspicion. “It’s too clean in here. Our house has character.”

Emma walked back into the living room with a fresh bottle of antiseptic and a perfectly blank look on her face. I recognized the expressionless mask she wore to keep from reacting to Krystan’s comment. Emma stopped to shoot me an accusing look when she saw me feed Snarp a second gooey chunk.

“You feed him too much and he really will keel over,” Emma warned. “And then he’ll possess some poor human and run around in their body stuffing it full of Hostess and Little Debbie until they pop and then do it all over again to some other poor sucker.”
The parrot began to dance on the counter in excitement. “Yessss, yessss, yessss.”

I stuck the rest of the Twinkie in the fridge. Snarp flew off to his cage to pout but would likely fall asleep since the sugar made him crash.

Travis took the antiseptic from Emma and continued his deep clean of Krystan’s cuts. Emma took a seat next to them, her brow furrowed as she stared off at the far wall.
“Are you alright?” I asked.

“Yeah, never better,” she said a little too brightly. She pushed her can toward me, sharing her drink. Then her smile faded. “Okay, maybe not. I’m a little freaked out by what happened. What am I now?”

After taking a sip, I slid the can back to Emma. I didn’t quite understand the draw of these bubbly waters, but Emma said I was ruined by having to drink rainwater out of gutters on my missions.

“You are Emma,” I said. Though part of me wondered as well. But Emma didn’t need more stress or question marks right now. Despite her healthy glow, I knew she’d been suffering from night terrors and the wedding preparations had gotten under her skin.
“What’s the big deal?” Krystan chimed in. “You use your powers for good. How can destroying evil shit from the Stygian be a bad thing?”

Emma shook her head, still not convinced.

“Calan can exorcise demons. It’s like you are both Knights of the Light now,” Travis said, still focused on Krystan’s left arm.

“It’s not the same,” I said. “I can cast the darkness back to the Stygian, send it to rejoin with its own dimension, but Emma is somehow absorbing the entities themselves. Seeing as she hasn’t had any ill effects, I can only guess that the darkness dissolves once it’s within the light of her soul. Otherwise we’d see negative consequences of her holding all of that evil inside. She’d be driven mad or feral.”

“So you basically deport demons and Emma is dissolving them like sugar in water?” Krystan said, then hissed when Travis blotted antiseptic on her laceration.

“In very rudimentary terms, that is accurate enough,” I said. “But it’s only a theory,” I pointed out.

Emma chewed on her bottom lip.

“What?” I asked. Since the Stygian and the Reckoning, Emma often became distant or distracted. “Are you feeling any dark impulses?” I asked.

Emma scowled and the can slightly crunched under her hand. “For the four hundredth time, no.”

Travis and Krystan pretended not to notice the sudden tension, which made it all the more apparent. I met Emma’s defensive glower with an even, measured look that projected I wasn’t trying to start a fight.

Emma rolled back her shoulders with a sigh and said, “Sorry. I know you’re concerned. That’s just it. It doesn’t feel wrong at all. I want to suck the darkness out of these creatures, and it feels right, like…like spring cleaning.”

“You’re like the Dr. Pimple Popper of demons,” Krystan said with a wicked grin. Emma choked on her water. Based on Emma’s reaction, I would pass on looking up that reference.

“They’re right, Emma,” Travis said this time, finishing up with the last bandage on Krystan’s arms. It was strange to see Krystan let him fuss over her. They had both changed. We all had. Even I had been adapting to civilian life. I still slept with a knife in reach and meditated two hours a day after physical conditioning at the crack of dawn.

But our days were spent deciding what food we should get or what movie to watch. I never knew life could be so good or easy. But it seemed Emma was the one who couldn’t completely buy into our new normal.

Travis went on. “You smited that guy.” He stopped, his face twisting up. “Smote?

Smitted? Whatever, you kicked ass and saved the day along with my insanely reckless girlfriend and our unborn child. Where’s the bad here?”

Emma shrugged as if losing her internal fight. “The unknown? That things are finally going well for once? It’s like I haven’t caught up to the fact the world isn’t ending or my responsibility to save. My brain has been a heat-seeking machine for all that could possibly go wrong.”

“You need to relax—ow.” Travis grabbed his leg where Krystan had landed a swift kick.
She glared at him. “What did we say about the R word?”

Travis rubbed his shin, but clamped his mouth shut.

“Is this about Othanos?” I reached over and covered Emma’s hand with mine. “We’re going to find him.”

Othanos had gotten away from us twice already. The first time, the demon had made a spectacle in Boulder at the outdoor mall. He’d slaughtered half a dozen people in the name of a ritual sacrifice to call forth his dark overlords. The second time, the demon tried to sacrifice a baby he’d stolen at the Denver Zoo from the giraffe exhibit. Both times, we were close enough to the scene that we could get there quickly. We managed to save the child and return him to his hysterical mother. I nearly had Othanos while Emma and the others got the bystanders to safety, but the demon repeatedly escaped.
Emma’s eyes met mine, fear radiating out of them. “The Ururu said Othanos was coming for me, to make the sacrifice.”

Krystan piped up. “What the hell is it with everyone trying to sacrifice you?”

Emma took back her hand to smooth her hair back in jerky, quick movements, preparing to put it back in a ponytail. It had gotten long, almost to the middle of her back. “I don’t know. You’d think some other lucky gal would get a chance at the position.”

“You were born the Propheros,” I said. “It’s in your blood; it can’t be helped.”

Emma’s lips twisted with displeasure. “Well, my mom was the Propheros until I came along, but no one is gunning to throw her into a volcano.” She looked away but was too late to hide the sadness that crept into her face. Diana had gone with us into the Stygian, but shortly after arriving back on our dimensional plane, she’d lost consciousness and had yet to wake up. Emma had been the only one with her when it happened. Emma said Diana had screamed as if she’d seen a ghost and then passed out, nothing more. She was taken care of at the hospital, and we visited regularly, hoping the sound of our voices might provoke her to wake up.

“When she comes around, perhaps we can ask her,” I said, reaching over and taking her hand into mine this time.

Emma’s eyes flicked up to mine, a grateful smile on her face.

“Okay, boy wonder, time to go,” Krystan said to Travis, pushing herself slowly off the stool. Her arms were bandaged now. “These two want to get freaky and we need to get home so you can rub my sexy swollen feet.” She paused. “Is that why you guys left? Is this all about having unlimited, loud, hot monkey sex on every possible surface?”

Emma and I met each other’s eyes, then turned to Krystan and said in unison, “Yes.”
Krystan rubbed a pinky finger in her ear even as Travis tried to push her toward the door. “Keep lying to me. Maybe my powers will develop into some kind of mind control ability, and I’ll force it out of you guys.”

Travis shut the door with a wave and a promise that we’d meet up the next day.

Demonic activity had gone up since the start of spring and had worsened as the Colorado heat intensified.

I rounded the counter and came to stand next to Emma. “Do you think we should tell her?”

Emma shook her head. “If Travis hasn’t told her she has a problem, we sure as hell aren’t going to be the ones to do it.”

Wrapping my arms around Emma, I pulled her to her feet so I could kiss her. What I had intended to be a short, sweet kiss deepened. As I pulled her closer, liquid heat began to run through me. The taste of vanilla mixed with the uniqueness of her caused arousal to curl in my abdomen, then spread lower. I molded her body against my hardness, and instantly craved more. Even after months of being together without the world falling apart, I could sincerely say I was even more addicted to her than before. Her laugh, her intelligence, her body, and those sounds she made when I had her spread on our bed as I discovered even more ways to make her lose her mind.

Her nails scratched down my neck, causing goosebumps to stiffen along my arms. That wasn’t the only thing that had stiffened.

Pulling back, Emma let out a contented sigh. “Sorry I’m being crazy. Things are better than they have ever been, and it must seem like I am trying to self-sabotage. Right before our wedding, no less.”

I shook my head. “Someone taught me that you are going to feel however you are going to feel. I cannot tell you to stop; my job is to ask you what you need from me while you go through it.” I would do anything to protect her, but there was little I could do against her sense of foreboding. The only other course of action I had was to track Othanos down and destroy him, and so far I’d had little luck in that endeavor.

She snorted. “Don’t use my own logic on me. You were the one brainwashed by a crazy secret Order. I should know better.”

I didn’t bother bringing up the point we both had been under the Luxis’ hold at different points. Instead, I lowered my lips until they were a hairsbreadth away. “You’re saying crazy things. Is that better?” I kissed her as she nodded and laughed.

Then gently pushing me away, Emma began to pace. “You’re right. I survived the Reckoning and used the powers to get us out of the Stygian and now I’m using those same powers to fight evil creatures on the job and protect people.”

It was prophesized by the Orders of Veritas that the Propheros must know the darkness in order to defeat it, which mean undergoing the Reckoning. I’d done everything in my power to keep her from that fate, but in the end, she’d chosen it herself.

She went on. “I just wish I knew how to control the magic. If this were anything else, I’d run out and buy a book, search for videos on YouTube. I’m completely in the dark here and blindly reaching around.”

I hated not being able to help. I couldn’t exactly stab or exorcise her fears, but there must be something I could do. I sat on the stool and folded my hands. “Do you want me to go approach some of the Orders and ask for assistance?”

Emma stopped in her tracks, her eyes rounded. “You would do that for me?”

Since we returned home, we’d made it clear to all the Orders, and our family members therein, that we were done with their doctrines and prophecies. We set boundaries and somehow, they held. Though I couldn’t help but feel some of them were biding their time until they could find a way to control us…

Ylang, my former Master, and leader of the Order of Luxis, was the first in my mind on that front. What he wouldn’t give to get me back under his thumb so I could do his bidding. He’d made it clear he thought we were wasted resources.

According to him, Emma and I could use our combined powers to wipe out the Stygian presence that had been running rampant on earth since last year. The catch was it would have to be under his guidance. I had to remind my adopted father that we weren’t resources, we were people. I was a civilian now and I got to choose how I fought. And I chose to do so with my friends at Whack A Ghoul.

The rest of the Orders approached us at different times, trying to force us to side with one of them in particular. Even my biological parents from the Order of Veritas had hinted that we should join their faction and combine forces. Emma made it clear she was done with the Orders, so I put a stop to that immediately.

Putting distance between me and the Orders had been difficult since it had been my whole life for so long. Now I would be going back into the fold to ask for help while having to watch our backs. Emma knew how hard it had been for me to create healthy boundaries.

“For you?” I said. “Anything.”

A smile spread on Emma’s face and I fell even more in love with her. I didn’t think that was possible, but she proved it almost daily.

She stared at me with sudden intensity. An almost desperate need shone from her eyes. “I need you to promise you won’t go near Othanos again.”

Her demand took me off guard. “What? Why?”

Emma clutched one hand in the other, never blinking. “Promise me. No matter what. If we cross paths with him, I need you to hold back.”

“Emma, I…” I didn’t know what to say. Othanos needed to be dealt with, and I was the most able to handle him. If I didn’t fight Othanos, people could get hurt. Emma could get hurt. Yet her eyes searched mine so earnestly as if she would break into pieces if I denied her.

I dropped my head, but I couldn’t say it. My instincts bucked, telling me not to do this. Not to make this promise. Once I made a promise, I kept it no matter what.

“Please promise me,” she said, the words coming out in a shaky whisper.

“I promise.” The words barely got past my lips as my stomach clenched, and a feeling of dread filled me.

Crossing the distance between us, Emma kissed me with passionate fervor. “Thank you,” she whispered against my lips.

My hands found her hips. I stood and picked her up before whirling around to set her on the countertop. She raised an eyebrow.

I claimed her mouth in a hard kiss, trying to drown out the regret washing over me. The desire that had started out as a quiet hum was now a pounding drum. Demanding I take Emma until neither of us could remember anything about Reckonings or Orders.
Releasing her sweet, already swollen lips, I said, “Might as well go with Krystan’s theory. What was it? Loud and on every surface?”

She laughed. “You’re tall but this is probably the wrong angle.”

Admittedly, her hips were far higher on the bar-height counter. One corner of my lips curled up. “Am I?” I asked, then spread her legs, leaned down and pressed my mouth over her sex through her yoga pants. She gasped as I began to roll my tongue against her center, dampening the fabric until the scent of her arousal permeated the air.

It didn’t take much to convince her to let me peel off her pants, taking her panties with them. Lowering my mouth again, I kissed her sensitive center. Her breath came in soft pants at first, then turned into ragged gasps as I worked her sensitive bud with short little licks and sucks. When I added my fingers into her tight channel, she yanked at my hair and cried out my name as she broke into an orgasm. Her blonde hair had escaped the ponytail holder and now was a tousled mess. I wasn’t sure which was sexier, that or the glazed yet hungry look in her eye.

“She did say every surface?” Emma asked, licking her lips. She slipped off the counter, careful not to stumble on her unsteady legs, and pushed me down onto the floor right there between the living room and the kitchen. We made quick work of our clothes and she positioned herself over me. As she lowered onto my hard length, pleasure washed over my senses. Her inner muscles squeezed me within an inch of my breaking point.
“How is it so good every time?” I asked through clenched teeth as I struggled to maintain control.

“We practice a lot?” Emma said breathlessly as she rocked on me. Her sweat-covered stomach slid against mine. I stifled a groan.

Our rhythm was steady at first. Emma held me with her eyes. Her pupils were fathomless, filled with desire. Desperation gripped me. Too many times, I’d become convinced I was in a dream that was on the edge of shattering into pieces.

I’d come to understand why the Luxis never gave me a solitary thing to cling to, no home, no friendship, and certainly no love. I was fearless because I had nothing to lose. But now, I had everything to lose. My whole world was above me, biting her lip and moaning a symphony that inspired my entire being.

We sped up into a desperate frenzy as we strained for more. Time and space seemed to bend around me until there was only Emma. I would die for this woman, one million deaths. I would do anything she asked of me. Without her, I would still be convinced I was a damned, soulless creature. I would still be controlled by people who considered me a tool rather than a man. Yet I still questioned every day, was I deserving of this much happiness? But Emma saw me, saw the truth of things in a way I never could.

Without her, I was lost.

I flipped us so she was under me. I drove into her, until she was clawing at my back and crying out incoherent curses along with my name. My need for her was so intense I feared I would never be satiated, even as we moved as one.

When Emma threw her head back, screaming my name, I lost control. Gripping her hips, I shut my eyes against the shuddering intensity of my own orgasm.

When I returned to my senses, I brushed back the hair that now stuck to her damp forehead. A bubble of emotion grew in my chest. I dropped my face into her neck, wanting to say something to express how much she meant to me. How she was everything to me, but the feelings were caught in my chest and could move no closer to my mouth.

Since we’d returned from the Stygian, we no longer shared a psychic bond that allowed us to sense extreme emotions in the other. I missed it like one would miss a limb, but Emma squeezed my shoulders and I knew she understood anyway.

Finally, I lifted myself up and was able to speak. “I know why you keep expecting the darkness to find us. Sometimes I fear I’ve fallen into a dream with you.”

The corners of Emma’s mouth lifted as she ran her hand along the back of my neck. The sweat on our bodies was starting to cool.

“Let’s not wake up, then,” she said, then leaned up and kissed me, her soft mouth as intoxicating as when we started.

When our kiss broke, I whispered, “It’s over, Emma. Othanos is nothing compared to what we’ve handled before. The dimensional tears to the Stygian have been healed.

And I’ve learned as long as we are together, we can handle anything.” My heart pounded as I felt the weight of my own words. I’d always been alone before her and I would never have to be again.

Doubt bled from her eyes and a playful spark entered them. “Even telling your mom that we want chocolate in our wedding cake?”
I chuckled. “Perhaps I spoke too soon.”

Chapter 3

Jack-knifing up in bed, covered in cold sweat, I reached for Calan. My hand landed on cold, bare mattress and for a moment I believe my nightmare had already happened.

He’d been stabbed by Othanos, then disintegrated into dust. A few more moments and some of my disorientation passed. Judging by the soft white light filtering through the curtains, the sun had just risen. Calan was always up and out training before the dawn. Flopping back down onto the bed, I tried to calm my pounding heart with some deep breaths.

The nightmare had been recurring since I first laid eyes on the red-eyed bastard. If we killed Othanos, maybe I’d stop having these night terrors. The lack of sleep and on-edge feeling I’d been riding for almost a month had probably contributed to my loss of control in the bookstore.

It probably didn’t help that I snuck outside in the middle of the night to listen to police scanners. I’d kept an ear glued to it while scanning the news and social media on my phone for any sightings of Othanos. Keeping a secret from a Chevalier was a hell of a feat, but so far Calan didn’t know how much of my time was spent trying to track down Othanos.

“It’s nothing, Emma,” I said to myself as I pushed the sheets back. “You are just experiencing PTSD. Your life is totally normal now.” Except for the part where Calan and I earned our living as supernatural exterminators, but there was even normalcy in that now. “All you need to do is plan your wedding,” I said, trying not to feel anxious about Calan being out. He’d be back soon and I’d convince him to snuggle back into our puffy white bed after his shower. Maybe give him a second workout while reassuring myself he was here with me in the most physical way I knew how.

My phone buzzed on my bedside table. Holy crap. Twenty-two texts from Regina. I scooted up so I was sitting up against the headboard. Scratch that. I wasn’t planning my wedding, Regina was.

I saw the centerpieces and before you panic over those disastrous arrangements, I already called. They will redo them and send pictures of another sample.

Did you send the photographer the portfolio of desired poses you want taken? He said you hadn’t sent them yet.

Are you positive you want chocolate in your wedding cake? I know we’ve talked about this, but I want to make sure you are absolutely comfortable with your choice.

“Yes, it’s my comfort you are worried about,” I said under my breath, closing the phone, not wanting to deal with the countless other questions and demands she’d sent me.
Pushing the sheets back, I got out of bed, unable to sleep now. Making a beeline for the kitchen, I wondered if I would have the cojones today to tell Calan his suit was the ugliest thing I’d ever seen.

Another text popped up.

I never heard back from you about the chocolate. I’ll just call and ask how much notice they would need to switch it to white cake. If they need more than twenty-four hours, then they are amateurs anyhow.

I set the phone face down on the counter and went about making a small pot of coffee. Ugh. I barely had the gumption to stand up to my future mother-in-law for being overly controlling; there was no way I was going to risk hurting Calan’s feelings. The suit was the one and only thing he asked to be in control of and cared about. I couldn’t take that away from him.

I took my steaming mug of coffee to sit in my comfy reading chair with the mint-colored vine print. I curled my legs under me and stared at the pile of romance books I had on the coffee table—all wedding-themed to get me in the mood—but I couldn’t bring myself to reach for one. So what if this didn’t feel like my wedding anymore?

So what if all I could think about was finding Othanos, or more disturbingly, finding more beings from the Stygian to absorb? Even the memory of the Ururus yesterday warmed my belly and sent a shiver of pleasure through me.

In another world, I would have been just as neurotic as Regina about all the planning and prep work. Now, my wedding seemed out of focus and secondary.

Second to what? Worrying something bad would happen? They were just bad dreams.
My phone buzzed three more times on the counter where I’d left it.

I sighed and rubbed my forehead as if I could knead away the crazy.

Not for the first time, I wished my own mom was awake instead of unconscious in a hospital bed. Wasn’t this the kind of thing moms were best at? Telling you not to worry and that everything was fine? I hadn’t spent much quality time with her since I was little, but I got the deep sense that my mother would be really good at that.


A knock at the door got me back on my feet. Opening the door, I was surprised to find Regina standing there along with Phillip. Thank god, I’d thought to put on shorts and a silk kimono right as I got out of bed.

Several inches shorter than me, I half-believed that quote, “Though she be but little, she be fierce,” had been made for Regina. Her hair was pulled back into a tight French braid and the slash of her mouth told me that she meant business. So basically, she was on the same mode as every other day.

“Didn’t you get my texts?” she asked as she passed me, walking into the apartment. “I texted last night we would be over early.”

My phone buzzed on the counter, reminding me of the unread texts.

Regina’s eyes tracked over to the phone that was obviously in easy reach, then to me. The lines around her mouth deepened.

Giving her a weak smile, I widened the door to let Phillip in. While Phillip was a foot taller than Regina, they both shared the physiques of professional cyclists and wore matching black turtlenecks and pants. To me, they always looked prepared to execute a professional jewel heist at a moment’s notice.

My future father-in-law walked in, kissed me on the cheek, and went to the kitchen to set down a bowl full of fresh blueberry muffins. My parents were agents devoted to the Order of Veritas, but they cooked and baked like a couple of professional chefs. I followed the heavenly smell wafting off the baked goods like a cartoon character riding the scent to its beckoning source.

“Emma, your wedding is only a few weeks away.” Regina started in on me while Phillip handed me a muffin with kind, knowing eyes. I loved how they matched Calan’s cobalt blue ones. Phillip pulled out a bag of gourmet coffee from his pack and showed it to me. I mouthed a heartfelt thank you. He didn’t waste time, throwing out the little coffee I had made and started on making a new pot before storing the rest of it in the cabinet next to the crappy generic java I bought.

Regina paced back and forth in the living room. Apparently, she’d worked herself up on the way over. “If you aren’t going to follow through and take the details seriously, you might as well let me know so I can take point and make the decisions.”

I shoved the muffin into my mouth, taking as large a bite as I possibly could to avoid answering. If I had answered, I would have pointed out that she would just love that. Just because I wasn’t hypercritical didn’t mean I didn’t care.

There was another knock at the door. Why the hell was everyone at my apartment this early? As I went to open it, Regina continued to give subtle digs about my choice of chocolate cake versus a classic white cake with raspberry filling. Opening the door, my eyes flew open wide.

Okay, I really should check my messages even when I don’t feel like it.
Leaning over, my dad gathered me in a big bear hug.

I hugged him back but asked, “What are you doing here?”

“They didn’t tell you?” my dad said, looking over me to Phillip and Regina.

Regina stopped her pacing. “If someone read their texts—”

Phillip took pity on me. “We are going to Washington, DC on business. Your father has been an enormous help and support. Since we were coming to check in on you anyway, we asked Gregory to meet us here. We’ll be heading to the airport directly after.” Phillip handed a fresh mug of coffee to me. My dad, like Calan, wasn’t much for caffeine.

Chevalier didn’t appreciate the appeal of legal addictive stimulants. Something…something…their body is a temple.

My dad grinned at me. “I’m their consultant.” An invisible band squeezed around my heart. It wasn’t long ago that my dad was little more than an emaciated vegetable, but Phillip had found him the help he needed to undo whatever magical curse had jumbled up his brain.

Where he had turned frail, thin, and pale under the curse, now my dad stood tall again at six foot three. He’d packed on muscle again and his bushy beard was well kept now.

Some gray had started to sneak into his auburn-colored hair and beard. My dad was every ounce the Colorado mountain man he looked. I still remembered pointing at the Brawny man on the paper towel wrapping and back at my dad when I was four years old because I couldn’t figure out how’d he’d gotten on there.

Knowing now that he had once been a Chevalier, I couldn’t help but see the resemblance to Calan now in his bearing. He’d left the Luxis before I was born, but I noticed now how he always quietly assessed his surroundings, devoted himself to physical training, and wasn’t afraid to step up and help someone in need, like Calan.

When my dad’s eyes landed on my muffin, I jerked my head toward the kitchen for him to follow. He might not drink coffee, but he loved good food more than most.

Phillip’s phone rang. He answered it but paused to shake my dad’s hand with a formal greeting. “Gregory,” he said as he stepped outside to take the call.

“What are you consulting on?” I asked, after I swallowed another hunk of delicious muffin. My dad had gone back to our old house in Smoky Badger, but drove down to Denver to be at my mom’s bedside several times a week to read to her in the hopes she would wake up to one of her favorite books. She had been the one to teach both him and me to read since the Order of Luxis made a point of not teaching the Chevaliers to read. Jackasses.

My dad looked to Regina, as if seeking permission.

She was hesitant in providing an answer. “We are going to Washington to discuss some…issues. Your father has graciously agreed to help.”

“Do I want to know?” I asked.

Instead of answering, Regina launched right back into wedding details, which told me whatever they were doing in DC was ‘need to know.’ That was fine with me. I had enough on my plate.

Her tirade about the centerpieces and what the DJ considered music didn’t faze me or my dad as we rested our elbows on the counter, eating fresh hot muffins and watching her spin herself up and down over different things.

My dad had always been the strong silent type. Even though Regina was going nuts, I enjoyed just standing next to him. Growing up, I’d only had him, and I still wasn’t over the novelty of getting to spend time with him again. I’d always been a daddy’s girl. He caught my eye and shot me a wink.

The sound of a flushing toilet drew my attention. Counting Regina, Phillip, and my dad, no one was missing and Calan could only come home through the front door. Looking at Snarp’s cage, I noticed the door was hanging conspicuously open.

“Oh crap,” I said, racing to bathroom.

The toilet flushed a second time and as I walked in, a torrent of feathers floated in the air. Droplets of water hit me in the face.

Snarp dove headfirst into the toilet water but was thrown out by the current of the flushing toilet, causing him to flap as fast as he could to get control of his trajectory to try again. Realizing it was toilet water that hit my face and lips, I wiped at them quickly. “Gah, Snarp! Stop trying to drown yourself in the toilet, you dumb demon.”

Snarp regarded me for a frozen moment, our gazes locked in a standstill. I waited for a tumbleweed to blow by or for a Western whistle to play.

Then Snarp jumped on the toilet handle again before taking another header in the toilet. I dove for the dumb parrot. My fingertips brushed his tail but failed to grasp him. Snarp took a sharp turn, smacking into the wall before furiously flapping the opposite direction. Changing direction, I tried to follow but only ended up with a handful of feathers. Fluff exploded off his body as he pinballed around the small bathroom. Snarp finally landed in the toilet again, spraying me full on in the face as he flailed in the porcelain bowl and tried flush himself again. The scuffle between us went on for several minutes until I finally managed to get my hand on his soaking body.
Snarp protested, bobbing his head rapidly. “Give me snacksssss.”

“You think I’m going to give you a treat after that stunt?” I asked, walking back into the living room. My father and future in-laws had varying degrees of surprise on their faces when they saw me. Phillip walked back in and shared the same expression of surprise. My clothes and skin were damp from toilet water and feathers were stuck to me everywhere. I couldn’t wipe off the glower as I stuck the dumb bird back in his cage and flipped the blanket down over his cage, though it couldn’t block out his wails of needing to die and needing Twinkies.

“Well, you need to go get cleaned up and we need to catch our plane,” Regina said.

“Yeah, you do that,” I said, hanging onto my cool by a single thread.

As they reached the door, it opened and Calan walked in. His hair curled a little more than usual, dampened by sweat. The sun streamed in behind him, turning his skin golden and making his blue eyes pop. A true Adonis in the morning.

While yours truly got to play the part of drowned sewer rat.

His surprise at seeing our guests only doubled when he regarded me. Our parents made a hasty retreat with the promise they would be back in plenty of time before the wedding.

The door shut behind him. Calan struggled to hold back the smile he’d been fighting with little success.

“It’s toilet water,” I said, screwing up my face in disgust and shaking my damp hands.

“Snarp tried to kill himself via the toilet. No treats for him for a week.”

The squawk of displeasure was almost deafening.

“Looks like we both need a shower,” he snorted. An honest-to-god snort, from the ever-composed Greek god. Now I knew I was a hot mess.

“Nooooossss nossss, mistresss nooooosss.”

“Keep it up, bird brain, and it’ll be two.”

The screech that came from the cage next to me nearly pierced my eardrums.

“That’s it,” I said, jerking the blanket back up and opening the cage door with all the violence I could muster.

Two strong arms wrapped around me from behind, subduing me. Calan closed the latch I’d just opened. “You can kill the bird later,” he said calmly.

“Killllssss me now!” Snarp cried.

I tensed under Calan’s grip, but then suddenly I was airborne and over his shoulder.

“Hey, put me down. We are going to eat roast parrot tonight.”

“Eattsss mee,” Snarp screamed in earnest delight from the next room.

Calan slapped my ass, causing a shot of lust mingled with shock to go through me. He walked us through the feather explosion in the bathroom and turned on the shower.

“You seem stressed, and today is too beautiful of a day to be anxious.”

“Yeah, well, you telling me to relax is the fastest way to get your ass kicked.”

“Later,” he promised. “Right now, I plan on cleaning you up, then lapping between your legs until you go boneless and beg me to stop.”

I went silent at that.

What was I worried about again?

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