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Volume 1Edit

Between Books: Volume One  After 'The Hunted, Before 'The Bitten' September 2004

Carlos followed the curve of Damalis nude hip with his hand, and stared down at her as she dozed. Ten fantastic nights, and in twenty more, hed have to leave her to go handle his business down at Council. Dawn approached, and were it in his power, hed stop time. He allowed his fingers to play along the caramel softness of her flesh and finally sighed. He had to let her go this morning like all the others before. It had become their routine. She needed fresh air, sunshine, and real food people all the things that she’d be denied if she stayed locked within his lair all day.
He kissed her gently to rouse her. She had to go now, if she wanted to spend the day in the sunlight.

The beach is calling your name, he said softly. In a half hour, the lair will seal, but I’ll come get you later on tonight.

She yawned and stretched. I dont feel like sunlight today, she murmured, leaning in to kiss him. Im so beat, I could sleep until you get up.

While it was a pleasant thought, her comment slightly disturbed him. He didnt necessarily want her to see him regenerate. What if she panicked when his breathing stopped and he became ice cold, and turned into what he was during the day, a corpse? Thered be no way to open the lair for her to escape. Hed torch.

Carlos smiled and played off her request with a casual shrug. After about two hours, once your batteries recharge, youll be in here fussing and stomping your feet and complaining, girl. Go on, now, and put on some clothes and Ill send you down to the beach.

After messing with you all night, all I want is some sleep, brother. She offered him a mischievous smile. And youd better keep your hands off me, too. Im starting to get friction burns.

Then sleep in a lounge chair, sip some daiquiris, get something to eat, go shopping or sightseeing, and then Ill see you tonight. Cool? He would not be moved. She had to go.

She made a face and sat up slowly. The sun hurts my eyes and is too hot. All the noise and confusion on the beach with tourists and whatnot gets on my nerves, and Im dead tired, Carlos. Cmon, baby, just let me sleep especially after last night, Im beat. For real.

She flopped back on the pillows and stretched out. It was so hard to argue with her when she just sprawled out in his bed like that. He watched her breathing become so shallow that it suddenly made him come near her to check it.

You hungry? he asked, feeling her forehead and unmasking her throat wounds to study them. She was cool to the touch. Mild panic coursed through him as he felt her body temperature and studied her complexion. Hed scored her throat so badly on one side that he immediately resealed it, ashamed at the deep punctures that had black and blue swollen tissue around it. You definitely need to eat. Youre blood sugar is low.

Im starved, she said in a lazy, sated tone.
Ill put some fruit on the

How about a steak?

Again, he just stared at her for a moment. Youre vegetarian.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, but thats what I have a taste for.

How about if I put out a fruit platter, some wine, some bottled water, juice, some stuff to make a salad, since youre being obstinate and wont go before the grates come down? Truthfully, he didnt want her to leave, but this was a bad idea.

She sighed. Leave the water running and the bathroom working, she said, drifting off. In case I have to get up, later. Maybe leave the fireplace lit so I can reheat the steak. Oh yeah, and a pan and some flatware wouldnt hurt.

Any more requests, Princess Richards. Youre seriously high-maintenance, D. Did I ever tell you that? Leos! He laughed and shook his head.

Can a sister get some TV up in the joint, too, since youre gonna be knocked out for

See, girl, this is what Im saying. It takes energy to keep all the amenities going while Im

In state? She smiled with her eyes closed. I hear you. Chances are I wont get up during the day.
He didnt like the sound of that at all. Besides, she couldnt fathom what he had to do while inside a lair by day. All the silk sheets and plush room appointments and torches, all of it, drained his energy. That was the sole reason hed purchased real clothes for her when theyd gone out at night, so that he didnt have to maintain multiple illusions through daylight hours. She simply didnt understand, even after all theyd been through that, the reason Master vampire lairs only had plain marble slabs and rocky granite interiors when opened by vampire hunters during the day was, the Master in repose was saving precious energy for the night. Last night, whatever hed had left in him, was reduced to fumes.

You sure you feel okay, baby? Carlos looked at her, beginning to lose vitality as the grates started to come down.

She patted the bed beside her. Lie down and go to sleep. You worry too much.

The moment darkness kissed the horizon Carlos opened his eyes and sat up. He peered down at Damali and touched her face. He felt groggy and a little off kilter. Maintaining everything for her throughout the day had robbed him of both total relaxation and strength. But as he glimpsed the table, she hadnt touched a thing.

Whole mangoes and strawberries and papayas remained undisturbed. The wine still had a cork in it, and the cranberry juice and bottled water was still sealed. The steak hed provided was still intact, she hadnt even taken a bite of it. From the way the sheets remained, he could tell that she hadnt even turned in her sleep. The television was cold.

Baby, he whispered. You wanna go down to the city?
She stirred and smiled, but didnt immediately open her eyes. In a little bit. What time is it?

Sunset, he said quietly and brushed her cool forehead with a kiss. I think you need some fresh air. Just give me a few to go get some dinner, and Ill be back, then we can go.

We should get Yonnie and his boys to come over, ya know? She sat up with effort and raked her fingers through her locks. Arent you bored? I mean, the night is young, its just been the two of us for a couple of weeks and maybe we could get some people together to go party, or something?

He stared at her. Had she lost her mind? Yonnie and Stack and the rest of his lieutenants werent just people. Rolling with his disorganized lieutenants or even thinking about asking any of them to hang out was an invitation to sheer disaster. The way they partied was not in her vampire huntress code of ethics, not to mention, in Rio, it could pose unthinkable hazards to local citizens, if his squad were on the loose over here. But she was bored? That really worried him.

If youre tired of Rio, he said, deflecting the request to go hang out with a crew of vampires, we can do one of the islands in my territory.

St. Lucia? she said, perking up. Ive always wanted to go there.

He smiled, loving the way her breasts gently swayed when she leaned in close to him. Yeah we can do St. Lucia. He stood up and walked toward the deck, dressing as he strolled across the room.

She loved how he did that. Simply materialized his leather pants and the way they hugged his butt. Then hed slip on a black shirt out of thin air; it was so cool to watch him just transform from graceful nakedness into butter soft fabrics in one fluid catlike motion. When he glanced over his shoulder at her, she almost got up and crossed the room. Nah she wasnt hardly bored. But the night was a siren, nonetheless. Always had been.

I love watching you get dressed, she said, her tone husky as the grates slowly opened. Youre gonna have to teach me how to do that one night.

He chuckled low in his throat and winked at her. I can show you a lot of stuff, but some of it you cant do, baby.

She smiled as a hint of fang glistened within his smile. Oh, leave it to the Master, huh?

Yeah, something like that.

Take me with you on the hunt tonight, she said, moving to the edge of the bed with anticipation.

His smile slowly receded. No. Ive always told you, there are some things I dont want you to see me do. Ill be back.

Why? She stood up and walked toward him. If Im going to be with you, then I have to get used to it. Right?

Wrong, he said, going out on the deck to get away from her. He had to eat, his energy was too low, and she had a look on her face that promised tonight was gonna be a barnburner. If youre bored, we can change venues, take a moonlight cruise, go dancing, whatever, but

All right. Sorry about signifying. She offered a slight pout and put her hands on her hips. If thats why youre so salty, just know that I wasnt commenting on your prowess, okaaaay?

Carlos feigned shock. I knew you werent commenting on that.

He was glad that she laughed; he was slightly relieved. But he did understand where she was coming from. It was a solitary life, if he couldnt connect with his kind. Yet, she didnt fit into his world. Her friends couldnt handle it either. However the fact that she was yearning for company, any company at all, after only ten nights away from normal, human socialization let him truly know what hed known all along. Soon, hed have to take her back to her people. There was no way to grow a lush tropical plant without sunlight and proper food. She was alive and needed to be in a human garden filled with life. His false lights and soft fabrics were no comparison to what she really required. Beneath it all, there was nothing but marble and granite and death. Illusion couldnt create life energy. The materialized foods lacked vitality, living essence. No wonder shed started wilting. His flower was dying and needed The Light.

She recovered from her mirth and swept around the room with a smile. All right, go eat, and then lets paint the town red.

Her choice of words bothered him as he mounted the deck rail and looked out into the darkness for prey. Even her vocabulary was shifting. Later, if youre patient, Ill fix that chaffing problem you mentioned. He smiled and considered how to do that with well-placed kisses.

She laughed again and winked at him and made him chuckle as she leaned against the railing and stared down at the waves bashing the cliffs. I guess after we go out we could possibly come back here does that work? Unless youre bored?

You are anything but boring, Damali, he said truly meaning it. Being with you is an unsettling adventure.

Thats not what you said last night.

I was in the throes and liable to have told you anything.

Oh, right. I forgot. Vampires lie. She laughed and pushed his leg to try to make him fall over the edge of the balcony just to see him take flight.

Stop playing, girl, he fussed, teasing her as he wobbled. I havent eaten right and kept everything going for you all day. What if I just fell for you he said, dropping backward over the chasm and sending his voice behind him as an echo.


Volume 2Edit

Between Books: Volume Two
After The Bitten, Before The Forbidden
February 2005

Sydney Australia Dawn

Deep conflict cut into Joses conscience, as he stood, immobile, watching Carloss back expand and contract with living breaths. Something more visceral than instinct had propelled he and Father Lopez down the treacherous side of a cliff to collect what had been a dead vampires ashes the love of a woman, her tears had been part of it. Yet it was those same tears, the tears shed shed in utter grief for a man whod perished that would melt away his hopes and dreams. Now her tears of joy shredded him as he watched Damali cling to hope and hold Carlos; all he could do was turn away.
Then there was the other part of it that also continued to turn the blade of pain in his side hed gone down the side of the cliff for a brother, a man whom hed come to respect as one of the teams ownfamily. How could he not give it his all? At the same time, how could he not respond to something that was in his DNA and would always be there a trace of vamp heritage that demanded snap-reflex action to preserve the master of the line? 
It would be something that neither he nor Lopez would ever talk about. He knew that like he knew his name. To discuss it would make that aspect of who he was all the more real, which was horrifying.
Jose quietly backed away, becoming a shadow in the brilliant sunlight. The team gathered around the new phenomenon, spellbound. Only Marlene looked up initially and moved toward him as he hung back, needing space, wanting to disappear, desperately wishing he could do what Carlos had done so many times in the past, and just become mist. But that was the insane travesty of it all. He was neither full vamp nor completely human. He was a variable. A misfit, somewhere in between.
Marlenes touch on his shoulder sent healing balm into his bones, but it also threatened his resolve to remain stoic. She seemed to sense that as her hand gently fell away. Rider picked up on the silent transmission and offered a nod that spoke volumes. Been there. They were boyz. Knew the deal. Had been through the best of times and worst of times. Riders steely glance told him to suck it up; his returned nod said he had, but never would completely, no more than Rider could ever forget Tara. Rider nodded his understanding of that, too, as he rubbed his neck and let out a sad exhale.
Jose sent his gaze toward the cliff and ignored the bristle that rippled through Shabazz. Yeah, brother, the only thing between me and the rocks is The Light.
He could feel Shabazz coming up behind him. The older Guardians strong presence felt like a thick blanket, a wall of strength at his back, even though Shabazz was almost a foot away from him.
Dont go out like that, man, Shabazz murmured.
Jose shook his head. Not on your watch. I know where a jump leads. Level one.
He could feel Shabazz nod, although he hadnt looked at him. It was as though current was running through his teammates dreadlocks, charging the air and making even the smallest movement felt.
One door closes, another one opens, Shabazz said in a low, private rumble. What you did was some heroic shit, man. The Light saw that, too. They aint gonna leave you hanging. You did the right thing.
Jose smiled. The grass and rocks became blurry as hot moisture filled his eyes. He took a deep breath to steady his voice. If you say so, he said thickly, and swallowed hard. 
You know The Light works on Its own timeframe. Mysterious ways.
Again, Jose nodded and forced a quiet chuckle. And can be slow, too.
A warm hand landed on his shoulder. Yeah. True dat. But the angels never leave a righteous man hanging. Shabazz motioned with his head toward Carlos. If they could do that, then
Im not him.
Both men looked at each other for a moment. 
No, Shabazz said. But if you werent who you are, hed be cinders, feel me? You got purpose. We all do. Theres something good coming for you, too. Shabazz tilted his head and allowed his hand to more tightly grip Joses shoulder.
Jose turned slightly to stare at the hand that had a slight blue-white current prickling his skin, and then stared deeply into Shabazzs eyes, watching the elder Guardians pupils open within his dark brown irises. You reading, man? Or just trying to
Shush, Shabazz said and closed his eyes.
You been living with Marlene too long, Jose murmured, trying to joke off the hurt.
But Shabazz abruptly opened his eyes and locked his gaze with Jose. When you were younger, something happened. Lock onto that; figure it out. Thats your source of joy, where you been off path. Shabazz let his hand fall away. I cant feel it all the way, serious shaman energy is encoded in it, but its positive energy that blocked your initial direction because it wasnt time. Would have made you miss the team hook up. Soon.
Thanks, man, Jose whispered. His gaze went back toward Damali and an old memory kindled within him. It was elusive, so fleeting, but his heart fought to remember it. There was a name eating at the edges of his mind, but each attempt to grasp it, made it slip away into obscurity. Someone else had been first in his heart, he could feel it, but that now seemed like another lifetime long ago like Tara had slipped from Rider, she, too, was gone from him.
This isnt the first time me and Carlos been through this drama. Thats all I know. Joses gaze searched Shabazzs wise eyes, and then roved over toward Father Lopez. Hes in it, too, man but, I cant put my finger on it.
Because now aint the time, Shabazz said, his tone mellow and philosophical as his attention went back to the team huddle. Not when all hell is about to break loose. 
Shabazzs locks began to crackle with audible static electricity and Jose watched as Shabazz spun away from him in what appeared to be slow motion, synced up with Big Mike at the same moment Carlos scrambled to his feet and began screaming.

  • * *

Three nights later in Brazil


Kamal walked through his team lines, his distended upper and lower canines making it impossible for him to fully close his jaw. His eyes flared with outrage, glowing gold as he looked down at the dead entity at their feet. Pure agitation had made him begin to pace. He could no longer sense Marlenes presence on the planet, and the mere thought that she could have been vanquished in battle made the carnage he stood over seem all the more futile.
A lupine-demon? In our lands of the jaguar? How! he demanded, looking at his battle bulked team. Thick ropes of muscular tension kneaded beneath his shoulders as he stalked back and forth.
This full moon is different, Drum muttered, looking at the beheaded creature that also had several silver tipped arrows protruding from its barrel chest. It didnt burn.
Drum looked up at Kamal, his eyes flickering with a deep, coppery glow. Our team is stronger, but so are our enemies.
Kamals gaze scanned the horizon and then settled on his men. They were stronger, indeed. Each man was a half a hand taller than normal. The thing at their feet was well outside of its North American zone. It smoldered slowly leaving a dank, sulfuric haze and hadnt immediately burst into cinders when the first arrow struck it.
Ahmed tilted his head to the side and sniffed, then crouched low to inspect the were-demon remains that would soon fully ignite. He stared into the opened abdominal cavity that had been butchered by Drums machete before Kamals weapon took off the head. The thing at their feet hadnt fed first. Ahmed glanced at the team; they understood. Their attacker had been in a rush, in too much of a hurry to follow the basic laws of survivalfuel then fight. Why? Too large for a run of the mill rogue. This is a searcher, Senate level.
A Senator, alone, as a searcherthink about it, mon! That makes no sense! Kamal stalked away, his long dreadlocks held by a leather band swept across his agile back while he angrily sheathed his machete, his eyes studying the moon for an answer. 
Electricity crackled in the eerie silence around him. Marlene, baby, where are you? Before now, she had always heard him, always sent a gentle pulse to let him know she was all right. But nothing echoed back to him from the darkness except a withering howl that fractured the night and made his team freeze where they stood.
There are more of them, Drum said carefully, his huge six-foot eight frame loping toward Kamal. We must move, or die.
Kamal jerked his attention around to address his comrade. He sniffed the air, and peered at the trail that the were-demon from the wolfen clans had followed. He sought what is no longer here. The dark Guardian and the Neteru.
The team nodded. Kamal smiled. Moonlight glinted off his protruding upper and lower canines.
Some of us may die, but this is a wonderful night to fight. Drums eyes held an urgent plea of anticipation as the group waited for Kamal to decide.
If his woman was no longer alive, and the cosmos had released this level of adrenaline upon his battlegrounds, so be it. And how long had it been since any of them had allowed themselves to fully shape-shift from their human form fear of it getting too good to them had made such a release against their clan code. It was forbidden.
But tonight was truly a spectacular night. The stars winked a seductive messagego for it. The moon bathed them in blue-white splendor. Power was in the air, something in the universe had shifted the urge to be one with that force was beyond his ability to resist. War made his blood hot, keened his senses, and whispered sweet nothings in his ear.
Kamal dropped his weapon at his feet and his snarling smile broadened as he watched his men instantly drop to all fours. Sleek black coats replaced sun burnished, ebony skins. Shoulder blades cracked and spines distended into tails. Low purrs of jaguar ecstasy blended into one dull harmony that filled the night. In lightening motions, fluid stealth laden high tree branches with unseen terror, weighing them down with an unnatural harvest waiting to pounce. This was their zone; the were-wolves didnt stand a chance. The thrill of the hunt held them enthralled. Oh, yes, this was a killing eve.
Kamal felt his body give sway to the pull of the gorgeous temptress, the moon cell by pleasure split cell, birthing what was inside him, giving rise to what hed steadfastly denied himselfraw power. 
Claws replaced his fists and dug into the fertile earth, his clothes were shreds left behind on the ground like dead snakeskin. His vertebrae elongated notch by notch, a thick coat encasing a network of steel cable beneath it. Tears of sheer ecstasy stung his eyes as he shuddered and became what he was. His team snarled their assent. It was time to cease pretending.
The wolfen clans had invaded his territory. Wolfen were-Senators versus a were-human team that was near mad with the need to avenge the offense yes, tonight was a good way to end it all. 
A high crag became his watchtower. The roar that left his lungs reverberated through the stillness and made the leaves tremble. Marlene had gone, perhaps crossed over. He could deal with her choice to live beside another worthy Guardian, the one called Shabazzbut he would never accept her demise at the hands of evil.
Whatever sought Marlenes Damali, and had killed the love of his life, had seriously underestimated what a man with nothing left to loose might do. Death in a righteous battle would now be his balm.


Volume 3Edit

Between Books: Volume Three
After The Bitten, Before The Forbidden
March 2005

Sydney, Australia...
Rider hung back from the small circle of younger Guardians who had gathered around Damali and Carlos. He and the old heads on the team took a wait and see approach. Just because Carlos had come back from the ashes, didnt mean everything was necessarily jakey.
But that reality just added another ten ton weight to Riders shoulders. He fought back tears of frustration as his jaw muscle worked on the potential problem. When he looked at Damali, he almost had to close his eyes to keep the hot moisture that had built within them from running down his cheeks. She was like his daughter, his baby-girl, no matter what. He shared fatherhood and a deep sense of love and loyalty for her with Shabazz and Mike.
To his way of looking at things, they were the three dads on the team. He was fun dad, the off the wall one, whod allow her to express her wild side and take risks. Shabazz was discipline dad, the one who dispensed wisdom and pulled her back when she became too wild. Mike, well he was Mike her big teddy bear and tall tree to lean on, huggy dad, who was there when the shit just got to be too much and each one of them had lived through something that had put their hearts in their mouths.
Rider glanced at the old soldiers who had been to Hell and back with their daughter, feeling every ache and pain and heartbreak up close and personal with his comrades. Each one of them was so weary they looked like theyd drop where they were standing, and yet he knew in his soul that hed so it all again just to see her happy like she was now.
Shabazz neared him and spoke low and confidentially in his ear with a nod. That was some heroic shit, man. Taking on harpies all by yourself.
Both men set their sightline on Carlos and Damali without looking at each other.
Rider shrugged. You woulda done the same. He motioned toward Carlos with a nod. The other kid we gotta deal with now aint too bad, either.
Shabazz let his breath out hard. Yeah, but you put your body on the line, man. Big props.
My heart was on the line, dude. Would have given my right arm to see them like they are now.
Shit, man, you almost did, Shabazz muttered. Harpies and no weapon? Man, dont go do no crazy bull like that again. We the rock on the team and go way backme, you, and Mike. Wouldnt be the same if you or Mike was gone.
What can I say, Rider said quietly. Look at em. He swallowed hard and steadied his voice. All I wanted was for these two kids to have the chance I never had. Been where that girl went been standing over a body, wishing I could just have the angels hear my prayer. They didnt listen to me, but they listened to her. So, like you always tell me, its all good. He looked away as the memory of Tara filled him up. The one I loved like that came back, but not in the sunshine.
I feel you, brother, Shabazz said softly, landing a supportive hand on Riders shoulder. All us old heads just wanted the kids to have a chance, and to not have to deal with the losses weve dealt with. Thats what were supposed to do, right?
Rider nodded and sighed. We gonna have to watch Jose, though. Hes pretty jacked around now. You and I both know that.
For the first time since theyd been standing together, Rider and Shabazz locked gazes.
Yeah, Shabazz said flatly. Hell be all right, though, once the dust settles.
Rider stared at Shabazz hard. No. He wont.
For a moment, neither man spoke.
Listen to me, Bazz. You dont know what this is like, cause you aint dealt with it like I have, Rider said with no anger in his tone. It was just a fact. After Tara didnt come back right I reconnected with my ole pal Jack Daniels. I tried to blot out her memory with a string of pole dancers. I cant even count em all. I was about his age when it happened. 
Rider stared at Shabazz as he spoke, trying to be sure his comrade in arms didnt just blow off the fragile nature of what was about to go down. Im twice that kids age, and there are still times when I want to play Russian roulette with my revolver. 
He allowed his gaze to briefly go towards Padre Lopez, dragging Shabazzs with it. He aint right, either. Just seeing a love like that, after whatever images Rivera blasted him with in the clerics safe house, thats another man on the edge, and hes a priest. How long you think Joses gonna last in the same household with Rivera knockin boots with Damali before he bugs? 
Rider fell silent for a moment as Shabazz looked away. Youre the head philosopher on the team, so get to this, oh Zen master, and dig it. The kids a nose like me, Bazz. All hes gotta do is pass her in the hallways of the compound to know when she and Carlos have been at it, and hes so damned linked to Rivera from that vamp blood line that could be still residentsince we dont know what The Light burned out or not, that poor kid will feel it through his freakin skin, Bazz, when the man touches her. You hearing me, Guardian brother? God forbid her voice shatters glass in that compound with Jose in earshot, and the next sound well be hearing is a gunshot through Joses temple.
Both men stared at each other.
Lets be real, Shabazz. Could you deal with it if Kamal was suddenly living in our compound for some bizarre reason, and you knew when he and Mar both disappeared what was going on? Or you felt it? Or you heard it? Or you caught the scent of raw sex when she walked by? Or, lemme play devils advocate, my man, and take it to the next level could ya deal with hearing deep bass line satisfaction coming from her room? Or put up with seeing them all giggly and happy in the freakin morning, passing love looks over the kitchen table at breakfast? Rider spit and raked his sweat matted hair. None of us have had to deal with what that kid is gonna have to go througheven us old heads. Not even me, you, nor Mike got constitutions strong enough for that shit. So, Jose, to my mind, is on suicide watch. Thats what Im talking about.
Yeah. I hear you, Shabazz murmured, his gaze leaving Riders to settle on Jose. Well keep an eye on him. He let his breath out hard again. I aint got no wisdom for the young priest, though. Father Pat gotta handle that. Shabazz raked his locks as his gaze filled with compassion and landed back on Jose. We gotta move his room to the other side of the compound, maybe put a damned soundproof barrier around hers set some rules maaaan tell her and Rivera to, uh, try to be discrete when we get home. Ill talk to him, you talk to him, Mar gotta talk to her, cause youre right. I was just tryin to get us all home so we could live. I hadnt even tripped into the future. Aw, shit, Rider. Man I dont what else to do. 
If it aint one thing its another, Rider muttered in a weary tone, and like they say, Houston, we got a problem. This one is kickin my ass.
Mine, too. Now that you brought it up.
Both men watched the teams gentle giant quietly move to stand with them. Big Mike pounded their fists as his gaze scanned the rest of the team from a sideline glance.
Yall know I cant help but overhear things, Mike said carefully, eyeing Rider and Shabazz and keeping his voice low. We gonna hafta watch the other young bucks, too. He motioned with his chin toward JL and Dan. JL is wigged, battle-freaked. He and Jose are thick as thieves, tight. Him seeing Jose like this is making him wonder about his own chances of ever having his own woman and a normal life. That kid has been damned near celibate since we all came together as one unit. Watch how he keeps looking at Lopez with that deer in the headlights expression, then over to his boy, Jose.
Know the look well, Rider said with an appreciative scowl. The, please God, not me, look.
Yup, Shabazz muttered. Just like in the joint. You watching somebody get messed over and made into somebodys bitch, you cant do nothing about it, and all you pray as you try to be cool and not listen or hear, even if its your boy, is please God, not me. Human reaction, man.
Yeah but its also the kinda reaction thatll make a man wig, and try to bolt. We gotta lock down this unit before we get back home, Mike said in a private, tense whisper. Plus, Carlos is like Dans idol if something aint right with our boy, Rivera, Dan will be the weak link. Dan thinks the brother walks on water, which aint a good thing if Rivera aint come back from the ashes without a problem.
Rider, Shabazz, and Big Mike pounded fists in unison.
Shabazz lifted his chin, motioning discretely toward Carlos. Something aint right with the brother, though. Thats the thing thats eatin out my guts. I dont care what we just saw with our eyes. Im feeling some type-a way. My gut aint neva wrong.
Thats why were having this conversation, dude. Rider folded his arms over his chest and looked at the ground. Its all in his eyes.
Mike swallowed hard. Whatever it is, is gonna kill baby-girl, ya know. His huge shoulders slumped. All of us who been to war, or been soldiers know that, it aint just about getting home in one piece. Thats the first priority, true, but maybe the easiest part of going to war is dodging a bullet or a land mine. The hard part is coming back with your head and your spirit straight. Thats what be looking funny in a mans eyes, and be sounding a little off in his voice. Rivera dont soundright to me, neither. Tone of voice is off, brothers. He dont sound like the Carlos I been listenin to before this.
Then, lets get this brother to hallowed ground and do what we gotta do, Shabazz said flatly. But his eyes held a deep sadness that each of the three men in the small huddle could identify with.
Say a prayer, Rider replied quietly, running his palms down his face as they dispersed. If Im tellin ya that, then you know Im outta options.

Marlene stood a few feet away from Damali, gazing at her back and roving a quiet scan across Carloss body. Intermittently she glanced up toward the heavens. Everything about his energy was scrambled, and they only had a few more minutes before theyd have to break camp, get to the cathedral, and try to find safe haven on hallowed ground. She put an added ring of protection around the group, layering in her heartfelt prayers with that of the clerics. God help Damalis sanity if Carlos was back, but not whole.
Her daughter-charge had been through so much her womb had been desecrated her body beaten and in pain. Marlene hugged herself. Her arms ached to hold Damali and take it all away from her. Yet, that wasnt possible until Damali left Carloss side and came to her for that. All she could do was watch helplessly as her girl-child quietly wept against a dead man whod come back to life. Damalis clenched fists felt like they were squeezing her heart, sections of it oozing through her daughters fingers as she thought about the possibilities. 
Marlene looked at Shabazz, then Rider, and then Mike and a silent understanding passed between her and the older Guardians. It was time to move out. She calmly approached Damali and Carlos, but didnt fully enter their private space. What she wanted was a good look into his eyes. What she saw in the depths of them through her veteran second sight horrified her.

* * *


Father Patrick finally looked up from the fervent prayers that he and his fellow clerics had been silently levying to seal the group from any outside detection. Father Lopez troubled him to the core of his soul. When the young cleric looked up, Father Patrick gave Imam Asula and Monk Lin a knowing stare.
If you gentlemen would be so kind to keep vigil while the team prepares to get into the Jeeps, Id like to take a short walk with Padre.
The others nodded and pulled back, and allowed the senior cleric and go to Father Lopez without even a glance. They knew, too.
Walk with me, son, Father Patrick said, moving Lopez out of earshot of the teams. Even a priest needs confession without judgment.
Father Lopez glanced around nervously.
Weve temporarily prayer-sealed the area to demon encroachment. This mission is so sensitive that, even other Guardian teams cant sense us, let alone hear us, Father Patrick said quietly as he draped an arm over Lopezs shoulders and walked him several yards away from everyone else. When theyd stopped walking, he turned the young priest to face him. Talk to me, son. Its all in your eyes a pain so deep, conflict so visceral that it hangs in the air like a razor thats cutting your to shreds. He let out his breath on a slow, patient exhale. I was a man before I was a priest. I, of all people, will not judge you. Just talk to me.
The tears that had welled up in Lopezs stunned brown eyes spilled down his cheeks. Forgive me Father, for I have sinned.
Father Patrick put a finger to his lips, breathed in slowly, willing himself not to panic and cut off the junior clerics brimming hysteria. The pain that wafted from Padre Lopez raised the hair on his neck.
When the image was first put into my mind, then the connection that was so The young cleric stopped speaking, took in a shuddering breath, and allowed his gaze to drift off toward the distance.
Something within sent me down the side of the mountain to collect a vampires ashes. I still feel connected to him, like his passions are my passions, his urges mine. I dont understand what is happening to me. All I know is I cant forget her. The woman Carlos taunted me with lives in my mind.
Padre Lopez glanced down at his mud caked shoes. Then to see Carlos and Damali what they have is pure, and that makes it enviable. It survived the grave, survived the fire, Fatherand now it lives full bloom in The Light. Everything Ive been taught is in question and Im failing my vows in my mind. His hunted gaze frantically searched the elder clerics eyes. Im going quietly mad. I keep asking to be set free, to be sent into The Light, if that would make the struggle go away. But Im so conflicted, he said in a desperate whisper through his teeth, because how can a love like that be wrong? How can one not want that for ones self? Why should a man of flesh not be able to Lopezs voice trailed off and he raked his hair as a crimson tinge spread over his flushed cheeks.
Father Patricks grip tightened on the younger mans shoulders. His voice was gentle, but his tone firm. I know that the image of being with the young woman that Carlos sent into your mind was it was difficult. However, that was done when he was at a different place in his mind, his development, therefore, Padre it will pass and
No, Lopez said in an urgent whisper of quick, jagged sentences. It was more than an image. I felt her. It will not pass. Months and it had not passed! The moment I held his ashes, it worsened. Right now shes all I can think about, even with potential doom before us. Her voice still haunts me. I also felt her spirit. I cant get her spirit out of my spirit. Cant get the sense of needing to protect her and be with her out of my mind.
Father Patrick looked at the young cleric that had near madness in his eyes, and nodded, knowing that to argue now while Lopez was on the brink of mental collapse would not be wise. So, he opted for calm psychology, anything to get the young cleric on the Vatican plane, and onto hallowed ground. Right now, Lopez was so emotionally vulnerable that a breeze could blow him away. 
Son, my fellow clergyman, I understand your pain. It is not your fault. You are human. What we must endeavor to do is to get us all to safe ground. Try to hold on, till we get to safety. Do not make any permanent decisions about your vows, or your status as a priest, until then. Do not defect. We need a unified team, a strong prayer barrier to make it to safety. Ultimately, you cannot help the young woman who came into your mind unless our fortifications against evil are strong. You are a member of The Covenant, and must hold the line. He landed a supportive hand on each of Lopezs shoulders and held him firm while looking him directly in the eyes. Can you do that, at least for me? For the team. One spirit. If only until we get back home.
Lopez weakly nodded as his eyes flooded again tears. But once I see her
Well cross that bridge when we get to it. Right now, its theoretical. Shes not here among us. So, Ill ask you again, can you make this conflicted decision only after we get back home?
Lopez let out an agonized sigh, closed his eyes, and let the tears hed been holding back fall.
Good, Father Patrick said, releasing his breath as his pulled the young cleric into a bear hug. Then I grant you absolution, my son.


Volume 4Edit

Between Books: Volume Four
After The Bitten, Before The Forbidden
April 2005


Los Angeles ...
It rolled through him like quiet thunder, rippled through his system from his spinal column outward, instantly lowered his fangs, and then vanished. Black out. What the hell...?
Yonnie untangled himself from the three naked, voluptuous females that were regenerating beside him, sat up in his lair bed beneath Club Vengeance, and pushed away from it to stand. He staggered toward the in-lair bar and immediately opened a black bottle. The females hed left sprawled out on the bed slowly stirred and stared up at him.
Baby, what is it? the one with long braids asked, her dark smoky eyes roving over him as the two other weaker females drew closer together in silent panic.
Yonnie held up his hand, focusing his inner vision he strained to comprehend Carloss weak transmission. It was coming in fits and starts.
Find others like us.
Brothers tricked into the life.
Raise an army!
Done! Yonnie shouted in response, ignoring the lair kittens as adrenaline pumped through his system and spiked battle rage. Where you at, man?
Elevation bites. No new turns. Only those like us. Played. 
My word, manyou can count on me. You injured?
Carloss voice sounded weaker than hed ever heard it; a thread of mild hysteria was running through it that had set his teeth on edge. Rivera hadnt answered the question. There was a turbine whine inside his head, too. It sounded as though Carlos was mentally hollering through a tornado. Pure fury could do that to a brother, though.
You injured? Yonnie repeated, panic creeping into his thoughts.
Im fucked. No time. Just do it!
Yonnie leaned against the bar slowly and closed his eyes.
How bad, man? Well get an extraction team to
No! Harpies.
Level Seven? Yonnies words drew withering screeches from the three huddled females in his bed. Gooseflesh rose to Yonnies arms. Shut up! he ordered.
Our Councilman is under Inquisition?, the sister with braids whispered through her now lowered fangs. She gathered the two third-generation females into her arms as they pressed against her pendulous breasts and stared at Yonnie in fear.
Again, Yonnie held up his hand for silence and began to pace. He focused on Sydney, Australia, sensing for other Masters that could have ambushed Carlos while topside. Nothing. He shot a mental question back: Was Level Seven sent for you or to quell the dispute?
Nothing.
Fear began to permeate every cell within Yonnies body as he turned the black bottle up to his mouth, polished it off, then strained to listen harder. Nothing. He dropped the bottle and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, smearing blood across it as he let it drop to his side and made a fist. Still nothing.
He looked at the females huddled on the bed with disgust. Whoevers got the fullest tank, get over here pronto and feed me so I can get this order!
Instantly, three well-fed females were at his side. The second-gen threw her braids over her shoulder and offered her throat. He didnt even look at her as he quickly gathered her into his arms, knocked her jaw back with his chin, and tore into her jugular vein. His concentration was singular; feed to strengthen and acquire knowledge. There was not enough time to coat the bite with pleasurethis was a raw nick. The brutal siphon made her temporarily go limp in his arms, but he pulled up before he flat-lined her.
Thanks, baby. Ill make it up to you later, he muttered. Replenish her, he told to the others, gently letting her fall into their grasp. This wasnt about play time; the territory was going to war. His top brass was behind enemy lines, daylight soon approaching as a barrier, and Harpies were on the scene. Some foul shit was in the air.
Yonnie paced to a far wall and splayed his fingers wide as he pressed his hands against the marble. Talk to me, man!
Honor all my marks. Protect Damali at all costs. Her family is my family.
Oh, shit Yonnie brought his hands away from the wall for a second. What just went down?
Silence.
Three sets of panic-stricken eyes greeted him as he stared at the bed. Hed fed hard, but none of them should have come away that pale. Their tawny range of brown complexions had practically gone ashen.
Natasha? Yonnie said slowly as he watched the second-gen hed fed from. Either his eyes were playing tricks on him or her face was gradually beginning to age. Her heavy breasts that once had large, pert, coffee colored nipples began to sag. Her narrow waist that gave rise to ample hips became wider and flabby. Her luscious, thick thighs that touched in the center when she walked had become loose and wrinkly. Scars and battle wounds began to pit and create keloid tissue over her once flawless dark ebony skin. This beauty of a female was literally disintegrating right before him in his bed!
Baby, you all right? Yonnie measured the panic in his tone, trying to ask the question as calmly as possible. 
The two sisters that had just fed her shrieked and scampered up the wall shielding their faces as she began to smolder. Plumes of sulfuric smoke filled the room. One almond hued beauty dropped to the floor next to the black marble bed and combusted on impact, the other willowy mahogany siren simply torched where she sat, screaming while Natasha burst into flames in the center of his bed.
Yonnie was on the ceiling in seconds, reflexes instantaneous as he battle bulked and peered at the carnage in horror. A black hole opened in the center of his lair and sucked the ashen females and the bed right down with it, then sealed shut.
He glanced around, terror keening his senses. How could a feed bite do something like that? But oddly he felt stronger. How could that be? Why? Nightfall here was in the offing; daylight soon approaching where Carlos was. Then he felt it.
Bright light scored the inside of his retinas. Pain so visceral that it made him lose his grip on the ceiling, felled him. Daylight? His main man had bought daylight? No! Couldnt bethere had to be some other explanation! Until her knew for sure, hed never accept that as an answer!
Lying on the floor, panting, sweating, Yonnie attempted an SOS beacon to his boy, Stack, to no avail. He wiped his brow to get the insistent perspiration out of his eyes and realized he was sweating pure blood.
He tried to push up on his hands and knees, but his arms trembled at the attempt. He couldnt sense Carlos anywhere, not even as ash. He allowed his mind to sweep the territory for Carloss marks. Nothing. No human vibration detected in Carloss zones. He honed in on Damali. Nothing? Oh, shit no wonder his boy was freaking out. Raise an armysho you right! Another Master jacked the Neteru? From Rivera? No wonder Harpies were in the mix.
If he knew his Councilman, Rivera was about to turn Hell out. Had the brother lost his mind, thoughtorching everything in his own territory from paranoia? This was beyond dangerous what did three innocent lair kittens have to do with the bull? To his mind, there was only one explanation; Rivera was so pissed off that hed smoked any distraction within his lieutenants lairs. That had to be it. Okay, awight. Made sense. Yonnie stared at the place on the floor that had taken his bed and women with it. Dayum the brother was not hardly playing when it came to Damali. As soon as the sun set, hed gather a war party and start the elevation turns.
Gulping huge inhales, Yonnie allowed his voice to rent the air in a loud bellow. We gotchure back! Carlos, manwhat just happened?

Volume 5Edit

Between Books: Volume Five
After The Bitten, Before The Forbidden
May 2005

Down on the third and third levels of Hell ...
Her soul had bottomed out in the viscous realm of envy. She could feel the Amanthras ripping at her raw flesh, her eyes near blind from the pain and fetid acid. Another part of her was disconnected, moving in a frenzied, haphazard ghostly wail as something large and manifold chased her soul through a barren terrain. Ghost gangs.
Nuit had promised her this end, should she ever betray him. Hed obviously been a vampire of his word. Soul-torn, shed been split amongst two levels of torture, aware of both interleaving realitieshunted one second, fed upon the next, in horrifying, unrelenting waves of sensation. Forever. This would be her eternity.
She wept but there were no tears left to be shed from her depleted tear ducts. She was now only bloodied, regurgitated human body slime one moment, and mere vapor in the following instant. Madness was her only option.
Slithering laughter deafened her ears to the sound of hunks of meat being consumed from her bones. Echoing moans of others being tortured filled in the blank spaces within her mind, while phantom whispers promised terrifying events yet to come. Every fear she ever owned manifested in the dry place, while the wet swamplands of the serpents made each shriek that rent the air hers.
Momma she wailed. Screams for mercy were useless. If only, if only, if only her mother could come. Marlene! she screeched, the old bat pitch from her once-vampire existence hitting decibels of sonar that made the angry serpents snap and hiss at her more. The Light where was The Light!
Boulders pummeled her from the mere thought and she lie for seconds suffocating, being crushed by shapeless, quickly moving entities, then the serpents found her again and dragged her through the maggoty black waters to begin feeding once more.
The choice was clearget away from the Amanthras. The ghost gangs were harsh, but less torturous. Their pain was more muted. The stings and rips into her flesh delivered by the pit snakes dulled. A hot blast of dry air lifted her to the barren terrain and scorching heat filled her lungs, singeing her weary organs from within. Then for a moment, everything became still. Her aggressors had moved away. Something had temporarily diverted their attention.
Raven tried to get her vaporous limbs to respond. Untold time spent in agony; visceral pain summarily abated. She became a quickly floating mist, obliquely moving upward toward the outer edges of the second level. If she could just get to level one, there, at least, the torture would only be insanity, and maybe not as bad as where shed been. Time had passed, but she had no frame of reference. She could only follow the lessening density as potential escape gave her limited hope.
She felt for the barrier, nearly blind, using her phantom-like hands and the fragmented senses she still owned. When she passed through it, tears in earnest cascaded down her face. The portals something was wrong with the portals! The gates were opened. She had to keep moving, had to flee before the guards found out and sealed them again.
With everything left in her, she honed in on her mothers topside vibration, the connection that went beyond the gravepure love still there and unending.
The sensation staunched the pain; love filled her and lifted her higher, closer to topside where there was human life. A mothers love claimed her, still worried for her even though dead. The Light was the answer
Momma, take me into The Light, she whispered in her heart, clinging to it, finding the silent prayer Marlene had left behind, and she suddenly found herself in a small, dark Southern house where she had been born. It was a place that was now abandoned. Cobwebs and boards covered the windows and sheltered her from the sun. She could feel her mothers pain riddle her body as though poking into her tender, demon-victimized form. It all became so clear as she wafted disembodied throughout the structure, remembering all of Marlenes words, her worries; her warnings everything her mother had said had come true.
Raven closed her eyes as a favorite lullaby that her mother once sang filled her with remorse and a sob escaped her lips. She drifted to the empty bedroom wishing that she could feel safe for just a little while, like when she was an innocent child and would curl up next to Marlenes warmth and feel those ancient hands petting her hair. Had she only known. But everything was gone; the house was empty. How many years had passed? Was Marlene even alive?
Ill find you and make it up to you, she promised in a garbled whisper, weeping and moving throughout the structure in disoriented, ghostly panic. Raven glanced up to the ceiling, wondering 
if her mother had finally crossed over. Dont leave me, momma. I just want to go home.

Volume 6Edit

Between Books: Volume Six
After The Forbidden, Before The Damned 
July 2005

After The Philadelphia Battle… Juanita’s struggle
Every time she saw Carlos her heart nearly stopped. He was so close, passing in the narrow halls of the group’s temporary house, yet a million miles away. Unreachable. She wasn’t sure if it was more painful believing that he was dead all that time, or sitting across from him at team meals, literally smelling his sweat when the team worked out. Every memory was sheer agony, but she couldn’t touch him, privately connect with him or barrel into his arms to cry her eyes out… because there were too many eyes making sure that never happened. But there was so much unfinished business between them that the others would never understand.

How did one let go of a man like Carlos Rivera? Impossible. She was only human. How did one forget it all and watch another woman become the beginning and end of his slow sexy smile? She knew him too well, as old lovers do, to be able to ignore the silent signals that passed between him and Damali—the way his gaze smoldered at times, telling his new choice without words to leave the group so they could be alone. Then her mind would blaze, just knowing what that meant, his touch a permanent part of her own skin, his voice a haunting echo of hot summer nights.

Juanita bit her lip, refusing to dissolve into a crying jag. But how could she let go, or be flesh and blood and watch the light in his eyes only shine for another woman? Didn’t they know that she had been there when no one else would be… even Damali? She had been the one to hear his dreams of building an empire, watched him come up from the streets to rule them… had been there for his momma, even his grandmomma to the end—the angels had spoken to her, Momma Rivera had saved her life and had risen as a spirit to give her the number to reach him!

Juanita wrapped her arms around herself and leaned against the tree in the yard, fighting the tears that had to fall. Then, the only one she could have told something like this to, Father Lopez, had been killed.

She closed her eyes and huge, unshed tears ran down her face. He’d reminded her so much of a younger, more innocent version of Carlos that, she’d come as close as one was allowed to falling in love with a priest… but it was because of his resemblance to the man she could never wash out of her system.

Now, she was trapped into living with all these people she didn’t know or like, tormented by the nearness of the man she could never have again. Maybe this was her penance for everything she’d ever done wrong in her life. Who said Hell was beneath the ground and only got its claws in you once dead?

Marlene watched her like a hawk. Evil woman. Marjorie was no better—a judgmental, suburban bitch. Jose had taken possession of her like a Rotweiler, always near, marking her as his territory with an unnecessary touch, a quick kiss, or coming up with some stupid reason to have to talk to her alone. There was an unspoken, invisible barrier created by his Guardian brothers—and the other females in the house almost snarled if she got too close, too familiar, if an old private joke she and Carlos once shared slipped between them. And that whore, Damali… she rode Carlos’s hip like a nine millimeter.

Only his eyes reached out with a sad knowing, every glance speaking volumes, holding an apology that there was nothing he could do under the circumstances. But even as the memories of what she and Jose had once shared began to take hold, oozing into her with each day as though the house was alive with the past, the old shaman’s chants echoing… the more recent memories of Carlos’s touch still pelted her skin like a burning rain.

A shudder ran through her, which only increased the flow of tears. She wiped at them angrily, staring up to the waning sun. Didn’t he know that no matter what happened to him, she would be there? Fangs and all… for him, she would have died in his arms like she’d already done so many nights before, would have walked through fire, ride or die, it didn’t matter. Damali didn’t own sole province over that. Damali left him when he was dealing, had called Carlos a punk— a punk, in front of the team! Carlos? Was she sick?

Juanita ran her fingers through her hair as fight adrenaline made her hands shake. Pain pressed down on her so hard she couldn’t breathe. The air around her felt thick. The only cure would be his kiss… his deep, sensual whisper in her ear just saying one more time, “Baby, it’ll be all right.” She covered her mouth to stifle an audible sob.

“Been there,” a quiet male voice said behind her.

Juanita whirled around, startled by the intrusion. She placed her palm against her chest and bent over. “Rider, oh… shit!”

“Sun’s going down, kiddo. Just came out to bring you back into the house.”

She glanced at the half-emptied bottle of Jack Daniels that dangled at his side in a loose hold, and then up into his bloodshot eyes. “You okay?”

“No more than you are, but I’ll live.”

He set the bottle down on the ground next to his cowboy boot and took out a pack of Marlboro Reds from his vest pocket, then tapped the back of the pack. With a weary sigh, he brought the pack to his lips, catching a protruding cigarette butt between them, and then struck a match with his thumb. She watched him go through the laborious process of lighting the cancer stick, but understood where he was when he closed his eyes, inhaled with a hiss, and a slow expression of ecstasy spread across his face. Pain killer.

“You gotta let it go, hon,” he said in a tender voice, exhaling smoke. “Even though I can’t pretend to tell you how to do that.” He took another slow drag on the butt. “If you find out the secret, be sure to let old Rider know, okay?”

She nodded, glad to have his company under the tree as the sun set. “Can I ask you something?” Her question was a mere whisper, and she wasn’t even sure she wanted the answer to it.

Rider sighed. “You can ask me anything, I just won’t promise to answer everything. With that said, shoot.”

She appreciated the slight half-smile he offered her. In that moment she understood why Jose looked up to him as a big brother. Rider was truly good people, an honest man.

“Back in the church…” she said halting, not sure how to phrase what she wanted to ask. “Did you have regrets? I mean, did you—”

Rider held up his hand and bent to pick up his bottle. “Need a hit of morphine to get that deep, sis. Necessary for the surgical incision you’re attempting.”

Respectfully, she waited until he took a guzzle of the dark brown liquor that was almost gone, winced, and re-capped the bottle. She searched his eyes as he stood before her legs wide, a bottle of Jack in one hand and a cigarette in the other, and an expression that approached stone on his face. Only his jaw muscle twitched.

“Never mind,” she said quietly, losing her nerve.

He shook his head no and closed his eyes. “Did I ever have any regrets about getting bitten by the only woman I’ve ever loved down to the core of my soul?”

He opened his eyes. Juanita quietly nodded and then looked away.

“And, did I ever think about my eternal damnation as I was frying on the church floor, fangs ripping my gums and snakes coiling in my intestines?”

Juanita closed her eyes.

“Do you want the politically correct answer, given that I’m a Guardian, or do you want the naked truth out here—since it’s just you and me talking?”

She opened her eyes and looked at him, hanging on every word. “The pure truth,” she whispered.

He nodded and took a hard drag on his cigarette and sent his line of vision out into the distance. “I didn’t give a fuck about anything but her. If I could have slithered into a dark tunnel to ride out the sun until night fell, I would have gone to her, battled for her, and would have let her bite me again to make it permanent, if I won.”

They both stared at each other for a moment. He dropped the cigarette and crushed it under his boot.

“ She was my soul,” Rider said quietly, and then took a swig of Jack Daniels.

Hot tears rose to Juanita’s eyes. “Then how can you live without that?”

He smiled, but his voice was strained. “Been hunting the vamps a long time, darlin’. Learned to adapt to their way of life—they exist without a soul for as long as they can, until daylight or something or someone smokes ‘em. I’m not living without my Tara-soul, I’m existing. There’s a difference. And I guess I’ll do that until something or someone smokes me. I suggest you do the same.”

She looked away. “You’re stronger than me,” she said in a soft voice.

“No I’m not,” he said in a tone so tender that she sought his gaze again. He lifted the bottle and patted his vest where his cigarettes were stashed. “I have crutches, whereas you’re doing this thing without anesthesia. Besides, don’t you know how lucky you are?”

She released a bitter chuckle. “Yeah, right.”

“You have a woman’s heart, and they heal faster.” He smiled. “You all are more resilient than my species, sis. That’s because you’re more philosophical than us—we tend to see things in absolutes, black and white, once heart-plunged, that’s it. You all deal in shades of gray. A very philosophical approach to life, so Marlene tells me.”

Juanita laughed, but it had lost some of its brittle quality. “We’re more philosophical, oh, okay. Right.”

“It’s true,” he said, his smile waning. “You all make philosophical choices all the time.”

“Like what?” she said, putting her hands on her hips and sniffing hard.

“Like,” he said, his gaze drifting to a vacant place far away, “you love hard enough, but philosophically enough, to walk to save a man’s foolish life—if necessary… whereas a man would go down in flames. A real woman did that for me, and I suspect that you did that once, too.”

Silence enveloped them, and Juanita’s hands slowly withdrew from her hips to hug her body.

“What really happened in the subway tunnel, Rider?”

He stared at her for a moment. “I was turning, a Master vamp was battle bulked, and my Tara was between us. She made a decision to save my soul by sending me home with my brothers—who were supposed to put a stake in my chest, rather than let me get my heart ripped out without a prayer by the man that could feed her and keep her existing.” He let his breath out hard and took another deep swallow of liquor when Juanita didn’t answer. “And I loved her enough to let her go without raising a hallowed point silver shell against her so she could be fed and not suffer… or become too weak to get out of the sun. His feeding kept her on the planet; her decision kept me on the planet. But it’s a fucked up situation.”

“Jesus, Rider…”

“Yeah,” Rider said and spat on the ground. “Been trying to talk to Him about that, but ain’t nobody answered me here of late. So, there we are. Me, you, and a Jerry Springer household. The walking dead, for now—soul-shattered. But, like I said, you’re lucky.”

“I feel like I’m dying,” Juanita whispered.

“Yep.”

“So, how am I lucky?” she said, her voice becoming shrill as she extended her hands toward him.

“You never got nicked.”

They looked at each other.

Rider ran his finger down his jugular absently, seeming lost in thought. “If Rivera had nicked you, we’d have had to put you down for good, hon. Tara was a second. Your ex was a Councilman. Sit in class with Marlene long enough and you’ll get schooled. All I can say is, Damali got more than nicked by a Master, then a Councilman, and the girl will rip your lungs out if you step wrong in the house.” He shrugged as though defeated and turned the bottle up to his mouth. “Hell,” he said, wiping his lips with the back of his forearm. “The girl might even grow fangs again. Whatdu I know?”

He eyed Juanita with a hard glare when she lifted her chin in clear defiance. “No, it may not exactly be fair… shit, what’s fair?” Rider argued. “He was her first. Don’t think everybody in this house is watching you and keeping you within arms length of him for her protection, darlin’, it’s for yours… just like they did for me by keeping my love-dumb ass away from a post-battle ravenous male Master vamp that had claimed an eternal mate by default. Situation ugly. The team ain’t crazy or hatin’, like you kids always say. They’re just being real, and that’s all I’m trying to be these days. Real.”

“You think she’d go there, huh? Try to actually smoke me for—”

“Can’t say for sure, that’s the problem—and on a situation like this, I’m not inclined to be a betting man.” Rider set down his bottle with wobbly care and put away his smokes. He held out his hands and turned them over, watching Juanita stare at them. “Anger, rippling through the system of a battle-hyped Neteru… a punch accidentally thrown too hard with way too much emotion behind it. A hair-yank, during what should be a normal cat fight. A swing around bitch-slap catching your lovely jaw the wrong way, and, Juanita, baby, your fragile neck could snap. Do. You. Understand?”

He stuffed his hands in his pockets when her complexion paled. “You think Rivera doesn’t want to sit down with you and talk? Not. He does, but the man is pragmatic, can’t risk it. The tactical sensors walk by him and the hairs stands up on their arms. You can smell the worry in his sweat; his nerves are shot, just like all of ours are. Unfinished business is resonating through the house. It’s always that way; anybody with some age under their belts knows that old lovers gotta talk and come to terms to diffuse the potential bomb. But he can’t do that right now, for your sake. Damali ain’t in the frame of mind or place yet to let that go down. That’s also foremost on Jose’s mind.”

She closed her eyes, pushed her hair over her shoulders, and sighed. “Jose…”

“Yeah, him,” Rider said flatly, “Jose. Like I said, you’re lucky. You’ve got somebody back at the house just waiting for you to wake up and see him… a good man ready to pick up the pieces and try again. Baby, don’t waste this opportunity. They come rare.”

“But…” Her gaze fell on Rider’s again, but this time with so much more respect.

“No, buts,” Rider whispered. “Break Jose’s heart and he’ll die. That’s who you need to be talking to. What do you think is probably going through his mind watching you twist in the wind over Rivera?”

Juanita rubbed her palms down her face. “Oh, God…”

“Yep.”

“Did he say—”

“Nope,” Rider said quickly. “Is it me, or am I crazy? Sis, you are living with a group of folks that read signs, have extra-sensory everything guiding their daily lives. Even a blind man could see what’s up, then just throw in a sprinkle of extra—”

“Okay, okay, okay,” Juanita said, new tears beginning to form.

“No,” Rider said firmly. “Not okay. You get this shit straight in that pretty head of yours right here, right now, before we walk back into the house, all right?”

She nodded and simply let the tears fall.

“Good. Because, also, if you hadn’t noticed, this is an insane life!” Rider snatched up his bottle from the ground again, and then lit another cigarette with shaky hands, juggling the Jack Daniels and a pack of smokes in agitation. “Tensions run high,” he said, pointing at her with a lit cigarette smoldering between his fingers. “Shit happens quick. Madness pops off at a moment’s notice, and finding a life partner is near impossible. Finding a private minute to be real, be scared, be comforted, and to be made to feel safe is a luxury! Most of us have been rolling solo for so long that, when we get even a sniff of something like that, we go down hard and permanently.”

“I didn’t—”

“I know you didn’t,” Rider shouted. “Ain’t nobody here got time for games or wishy-washy shit as though we’ve got a lotta options. That’s why Dan is losing his damned mind over Krissy, and J.L. is about to go Bruce Lee for her—brothers squaring off over limited resources. A life mate, read as intimate partner, on this vagabond team is a very limited resource. Open your eyes, sis. And trust me, if either of them was foolish enough to make a move near Inez, we’d be cleaning up road-kill once Big Mike stomped their asses to death. The big guy is on edge; I ain’t never seen him like this. But Inez brings him something he never had before, hope.”

“But—”

“Weren’t you there when our Zen master lost it?” Incredulous, Rider began walking in a circle, muttering. “Shabazz almost got the whole team smoked back there in Philly over that dashing display Kamal pulled, and he still ain’t right in his head about it—but that’s grown folks business and not my primary concern. I work with the newbies. Soon, it’s gonna hit Bobby like that, too, then what? Might be five to seven years before we get another influx of baby Guardians, and there’s no guarantee there’ll be a cutie pie in the bunch for that young buck to pick from. Dan’s been left hanging and hoping for two years now… me, Mike, and J.L., sheesh.”

Rider looked up toward the darkening sky. “What was it, like seven years since we’d found Damali? Then Jose had a brief interlude with Dee Dee, who we allowed on the team not really feeling that she was Guardian material, just because… aw, forget it. Mar told us not to, but we all argued her down, just wore her out till she tried the poor girl, and it ultimately cost Dee Dee her life.” He stared at Juanita hard. “She died because we let someone in the circle who shouldn’t have been there in the first place, trying to rush the hands of fate so one of our brothers could keep his head right. Won’t happen again, believe that.”

Juanita folded her arms over her chest. “What was messing with his head so much that you all let some woman—”

“Don’t go there,” Rider warned, scowling at his bottle by his feet. “I’m drunk and can’t be held responsible for the rambling.” He shot a hot glance up to Juanita. “Ain’t seven years of being alone enough of an explanation?”

She relaxed her arms and slowly let them fall to her sides with a fatigued sigh. “Okay. I’m hearing you.”

“Hon, we have far–reaching issues on the team. Okay? Now you can say, ‘okay’ to me!”

“Okay,” Juanita said softly. “I hear you.”

“Okay, then,” Rider said, finally lowering his voice. He looked at the burned down cigarette between his fingers. “I gotta stop smoking, but at the moment, I can’t come up with a good reason why I should.”

“Because you’re the team’s glue, and a really good friend,” she said, new tears replacing the one’s that fell. “I just didn’t know all that was going on.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m the team’s glue. More like Crazy Glue,” he said, trying to make a joke, but failing as emotion caught in his throat. He turned his back to her and stared at the house. “Remember the house, Juanita. Remember when you and Jose were kids, okay? Remember all the good times in that house and on this land. Remember how he made you laugh, made you sigh… made you safe. This house has memory in it that’s good for you two.”

“I will.” Her voice was tender as she went to him and hugged him from behind, laying her cheek against his back.

He closed his eyes and drew in a shuddered breath. “I was supposed to be hugging you, kiddo… supposed to be the strong big brother with wise counsel.”

“You are wise, Rider,” she said quietly. “I know this house for you…”

“Is Hell,” he whispered and placed his arms over hers. “There are days when I can’t even walk up the front steps.”

She nodded but didn’t speak.

“That front walkway,” he said, his voice becoming gravelly, “is where I carried Tara’s body up to the shaman… then…”

“I know,” Juanita whispered, rocking him gently. “Jose told me.”

Rider nodded. “I came back one last time to see her Nana—they couldn’t do anything.”

Juanita nodded against his back as it expanded and contracted, battling a sob.

“If Damali doesn’t pair with Carlos, who would she, of all people, hook up with, huh? That’s logical, part of the cosmic plan,” he said, his voice sounding garbled and distant. “What would the Neteru do? Who else would survive the bullshit she has to contend with, or hang around long enough to even get smoked? She has to fight to stay with him, sweetie, don’t you understand? For her, what’s the option? Some pretty boy in a club or some gangster wanna-be? Get real.” He chuckled, emitting a hollow sound. “The two of them have been to Hell and back together, did fangs in tandem, have gone places that you nor I can even fathom and don’t wanna know about, kiddo. They’re both insane.”

She held him quietly hearing what he wouldn’t allow himself to openly say. ‘Fangs in tandem,’ she knew he meant Tara and Yonnie. It was in the sad tone of his voice. ‘Have gone places that neither you nor I wanna know about,” she understood the reference to also mean where Yonnie had probably taken Tara. Rider’s stark truth made her want to weep for his loss as much as for her own. Yes, it was all insane.

“She got a second shot at the title—just like you did. You’re both lucky… not everybody gets a second shot.”

She hugged Rider tighter, rocking him harder. Although he was openly talking about Damali, she heard his soul quietly say the name, Tara… someone else who had gotten a second chance.

“So, you have to be cool, Juanita, and get to a very still place in your head, ‘cause all Jose wants is some peace, some comfort that he doesn’t have to compete for—how can a man deal with competing for what should be his in his own house? This is his house, Nita. Where he grew up and became a man.”

“I know… I won’t do that to him. I swear,” she murmured.

Rider nodded, allowing her to continue rocking him. “Good, that’s so good. Rule number one; never violate a man’s home.” His voice cracked as he spoke. “Especially a house that he built with love… where every fiber of who he was went into it, just for her—promise me you won’t do that to my brother, okay?”

“Okay,” she whispered, trying not to cry.

“Good, okay, that’s good—because under no circumstances is another guy supposed to go in there and take everything you’ve built… no matter how awesome he is in comparison. It ain’t right, and it ain’t fair.”

She rounded Rider and pulled him into a hard embrace the moment his sob broke through. She’d felt it coming, building like a far-off thunderstorm. Yet his tears wet her shoulder like a quiet, agony-filled rain, only slight shudders wracking his body as he tried to hold his composure against the inevitable.

“There is no comparison,” she said in a gentle whisper rubbing his back, trying to soothe the gaping wound that would never heal. “Things just got crazy for a minute, and options were limited.”

Soon her pain seemed so remote, her issues so foreign in light of all Rider had said and shared. His words designed for her understanding had awakened a level of compassion within her that she never knew she owned. She also knew that the last of what he’d said had been his way of really talking out loud about what was wearing him out, while seeming to pertain to her and Jose…. The house, his house back in California, violated by an unexpected lover, then finally burned to the ground. This house, a place of sanctuary that had let him down, was now a constant reminder that he had never been given that second chance like others had received. Life was more than unfair, it was ruthless.

The release of Rider’s quiet pain began to release some of the vexation she’d had against Damali. While it was unlikely that they’d ever be friends, being enemies no longer seemed right, either. Until this moment, she had never thought about the circumstances each team member had to endure just to feel the warmth of human touch, or to have someone to call their very own.

“It’s gonna be all right, Rider,” she whispered as his shudders abated and gave way to deep, exhausted breaths. Newfound inner strength and a deep abiding respect for the older Guardian made her carefully choose her words and present them in a parable like he’d delivered them to her. “Practical choices do get made… but you never stop loving the person, even at a distance. That’s a woman, philosophical-thing. But your first is always your first. Jose as my first.”

Rider simply nodded and straightened his back, then loosed himself from her hug. He pulled out a cigarette and wearily picked up his bottle, his damp eyes on the house.

“Thanks, darlin’. Sometimes that’s all a man needs to hear,” he whispered, and then began walking towards the house without looking back at her.


Volume 7Edit

Between Books: Volume Seven
After The Forbidden, Before The Damned
July 2005

Big Mike...

Big Mike pushed back from his plate with a satisfied sigh. The house was definitely too small, but in an odd way, reminded him of home. Old fashioned, overstuffed furniture with cabbage rose floral prints, a small dining room table that fit the house, but not the family—and yet, that was okay. Everybody worked it out, would squeeze into the center of the house to bless the food and then disperse to their favorite places, some finding refuge on the sofa with a plate in hand and wolfing down grub from the coffee table. Others would take their food out on the porch and eat on the swing or steps, a few took over the kitchen, and usually, the old heads were in the dining room. Just like home, back when his people were alive. He missed that.

However, God had provided, had given him a new family. He’d made his peace with the whole situation a long, long time ago.

But what he loved most now were the nights when it was Inez’s turn to select the menu and cook. She never said anything to him directly, but he could tell she always planned what he liked and served it well. Fried okra laced succotash all mixed up in stewed tomatoes, buttermilk biscuits, shrimp and grits, collards, macaroni and cheese swimming in butter… baked chicken with homemade gravy on the side from pan drippings to appease Marlene, albeit no pork chops on behalf of Shabazz and Dan, but he wouldn’t complain. Have mercy, the girl could burn. And she always sat by him. He liked that. Liked it a lot.

“You’re ruining our lean program, Inez,” Berkfield said, blowing out a long, satisfied breath and unbuttoning his jeans. “But take it as a true compliment.”

“Once a month I allow this,” Marlene said with a smile and got up from the table. “Lawd, chile. I gotta agree with the man—you threw down.”

“Does every time she cooks, Mar,” Mike said, shaking his head.

“Oh, and I guess my tuna casserole was—”

“Fantastic, Marj,” Berkfield said with a wink at the guys. “You know I love your cooking.” He kissed her quickly and made her slap his arm in good humor.

“I can’t be angry,” Marjorie said, lifting her chin. “Inez is the master of that domain. I am a mere apprentice.”

Inez giggled and gave Marjorie a broad smile. “I do what I can do, that’s all, Mrs. B.”

“Well, hon, you did way better than the fish I burned last week,” Rider said, stuffing his mouth with another biscuit.

“So I guess you all will really have a problem with the vegan dishes me and Damali are gonna work up for tomorrow to clean everybody out, then?” Shabazz said laughing.

“Aw, man. Lemme digest what the girl done did tonight before you start talkin’ rations, 'Bazz,” Mike fussed good-naturedly.

“Well,” Inez said with a giggle, standing, “can’t be no worse than that mess Carlos and Dan fixed the other day.”

Everybody raised their glasses of lemonade and burst out laughing.

“I heard that,” Carlos hollered from the porch.

“Me, too,” Dan said, shoveling food in his mouth. “I take exception!”

“Warming up for Inez ain’t no joke.” Carlos laughed hard, making everybody join in. “Plus, she’s so serious about her program that she won’t let nobody help her when it’s her turn, like she could drop some knowledge on us. But noooo…”

“The girl is wrong. Stingy,” Jose said, pounding J.L.’s fist, while Bobby and Krissy laughed hard.

“Please give my mother your recipes,” Bobby said, flopping back against the overstuffed chair in the living room. “Have a heart, Nez!”

“I can’t be giving up my recipes that been handed down, man. You crazy? Inez chuckled, looking down shyly from the barrage of compliments as she gathered up near-emptied dishes.

“Well at least you could whisper in your best friend’s ear,” Carlos added, drawing a series of hoots from the house, and then jumped up from the porch step as Damali made a snatch for him.

“That’s okay,” Damali hollered into the house, laughing hard as Carlos raced around the front yard with his plate, avoiding her. “I’ma remember that—you wait!”

“Don’t give it up,” Juanita said from her position on the couch. “Make ‘em work for it.”

Fun banter notwithstanding, it was not enough of a distraction to keep Mike’s eyes from following Inez as she sauntered away from the table laughing. In the back of his mind, he heard Marlene get up from the dining room table. Somewhere in the recesses of his consciousness he knew Berkfield and Marjorie had, too, and he somewhat remembered offering them a grunt as an answer to some comment they’d made.

But watching that woman walk… the way her cut-off denim shorts rode up on her ample behind, and the sound of her thick thighs rubbing together with every step… just a light swish of jeans fabric was running all through him.

“Man, be cool,” Shabazz said, leaning in to whisper to Big Mike.

“Huh?” Mike jerked his attention around to stare at Shabazz. “You say somethin’, man?”

“Oh, shit. Our audio sensor’s gone deaf,” Rider muttered with a sly chuckle.

“Y’all need to stop,” Mike said, reaching for his lemonade.

“You’re looking at that newbie like you could sop her up with one of her biscuits, brother, and you know that until—”

“I know, I know,” Big Mike whispered in a low rumble. “I heard Mar. Be cool till her gift is revealed. I ain’t deaf.”

Shabazz tucked away a smile. “I’m just reminding you, ‘cause ain’t no sense in window shopping so hard you’ll be tempted to rob the store.”

“Or the cradle,” Rider said, chuckling as he swallowed the last of his lemonade. “I’m going outside for a smoke. Happy trails, dude.” He stood, saluted Big Mike, and left the dining room.

Mike leaned on the table with his weight balanced against his forearms, and simply stared at Shabazz.

“Don’t be giving me the evil eye,” Shabazz said with a smile. “I’m not the team’s seer.”

Inez’s return made both men look up.

“It don’t make no sense to put this little bit away,” she said, sighing as she picked up the long, oblong glass pan that had once contained the mac and cheese. She smiled at Big Mike. “The corner is yours—you want it?”

For a moment he just continued looking up at her. “Yeah,” he finally murmured, and then gave her access to his plate. “I’ll take it any day you dish it out.”

She stood still for a second, and then leaned across the table to scoop the remainder of the pan’s contents onto Mike’s plate. His eyes never left hers as she did it.

Shabazz stood up, sighed, and raked his locks. “I’ma go outside and tell Rider to stop smoking. But right through here, I could honestly use a spliff.”

“Mom says that anybody who didn’t cook or set the table is on dish detail,” Bobby announced.

“I got it,” Mike said, still looking at Inez as he shoveled a heaping forkful of mac and cheese in his mouth.

“Ain’t nobody arguing with you, holmes,” Jose yelled from the other room. “You got dat.”

“That is so not right,” Marjorie protested. “All those pots and pans that poor Inez—”

“If she can throw down like she did in here, I don’t mind bustin’ her suds,” Mike said, standing.

Marlene choked on her lemonade and came out of the kitchen. She eyed Mike with a scowl as he passed her. “Maybe a couple of us could help… in… there…” she offered diplomatically, her voice trailing off when Mike flung the spigot on and almost yanked it out of the sink housing. “Or maybe not. Not is best. Okaaay.”

“I’ll just put away the rest of the food,” Inez said, glancing at her flip flops. “Then, I’ll… uh… you know, come out and play some cards or something.”

Marlene just nodded as Inez scurried past her.

Mike kept his back to the kitchen doorway. Had to. Kept his hands in the sink. Had to. Let the suds build and began washing dishes, like he was supposed to. Inez was moving around behind him, wrapping up food, snapping Tupperware, scraping out pots, putting away containers, constant motion, constant friction, bending over to shove food in the fridge… peripheral vision was his undoing and the sounds she generated were kicking his ass.

“All done,” she said brightly, finally closing the refrigerator door. “Guess I’ll go find a card game, or something.”

“Why don’t you sit on a stool and keep me company?”

He saw her smile and look away seeming pleased. He loved that look on her face, and only wished he could really give her a reason for a satisfied smile. But he shunted away the hopeful thought. Too soon, not now, and not until her gift emerged.

She was caught off guard, he could tell that, too. She was stalling, sorta glancing at her pretty toes in her flip flops, taking her time to decide if she was staying or not. He was just glad that everybody else hated washing dishes. This was the only time that he could steal with her alone, and it had taken him a long time to just work up the nerve to simply ask her to sit with him. Months. All he could imagine was if somehow things didn’t go right, she’d tell his baby sis, Damali, all their business—he wasn’t having it. Plus, every time it was Inez’s turn to cook, he’d missed the window, and then she’d be off with gabbing with Damali. But she’d smiled and stopped fussing around tonight. She’d smiled.

“How about if I dry while you wash?” she offered after a nervous pause, grabbing a dishtowel and flinging it over her shoulder.

He pulled it off her shoulder slowly, watching the way that made her heavy breasts sway at the disturbance. “No, I got it, suga. You rest yourself after all that down home cookin’ and let Mike take care of it. Just talk to me while I work. I got KP—cool?”

He saw her swallow hard and her smile go soft. What was worse, he’d heard it… the tiny, strangled gurgle in her throat. Maybe she had also really heard what he was trying to say.

“All right,” she said quietly and then turned away to go perch herself up on a stool.

He knew he probably shouldn’t have watched her do that, not the way he was feeling right now. But it was impossible not to. Lawd that woman had better keep her fine fleshy self up on that stool and on the other side of the room. He turned back to the sink, almost going deaf from the sound of the thuds in his chest. Then he could immediately hear too much of everything in the room.

“So dinner was okay?” she said once settled, her voice light and melodic.

Damn that woman had a voice.

“It was more than okay, ‘Nez. You put your pretty foot in it.”

“Aw, it wasn’t nothin’. I just like to cook.”

He glanced over his shoulder at her, not even sure what type of dish he held in his hand. Everything was on autopilot, as long as she kept smiling like that, speaking to him in soft utterances. “I could tell.”

Her smile seemed to become sad as she released a long sigh that riddled him. “Yeah,” she said, placing both hands on her thighs. “I know. It’ll be a long time before I’m a lean, mean, fighting machine, but—”

“Hold it, Nez,” he said, instantly appalled as he stared at her over his shoulder. “I like them legs. Don’t be getting rash while you’re in training. Naw, baby, don’t lose that, or anything else you got coming or going, hear?”

She laughed and waved him away. “Mike, please. I’ve been working out for months, and haven’t lost a pound, haven’t done nothing but make some of this jelly firm up, but it ain’t going nowhere.” She cast a sad glance toward the doorway. “I won’t never be—”

He stopped washing dishes and cut off her words. “Girl, you fine. Period. You need to know that. Take it from a man’s point of view.”

“You’re just saying that to be nice,” she said quietly. “I ain’t hardly demon fighting material. I can’t run as fast as the others, can’t—”

“That’s ‘cause you ain’t working out right, girl,” he said with a sly grin, and then mopped his brow with the dishtowel that he’d slung over his shoulder.

“Stop playing.” She giggled and put her hands on her hips. “You know what I mean.”

“Okay, okay,” he said laughing. “But don’t worry. Mike got you.” His smile faded to slowly pour over her body like thick, warm gravy as his voice dulled to a rumble. “Mike got you from the rear, from the sides, from the front… you the one that needs to stop playing, girl.” He let his breath out in a rush that flared his wide nostrils. “Matter of fact,” he added quietly, “if necessary, I’ll pick you up and carry you, if your legs give out. But I will work your cardiovascular to the bone, so you can hang.”

She stared at him, began to speak, but no words came out of her mouth. He turned away and went back to the sink, and started washing dishes again. She patted her breastbone, feeling a sudden dampness covering her skin. The kitchen was way too hot and waaaaay to small. Somebody needed to open the back door to allow in a breeze or something—dang. Mike had never said too much to her, except general convo, but had always been real nice, real accommodating… but this was a side of him she’d never seen before. Yeah, sure, she’d had hoped for it, had dreamed he’d see her that way, and now that he did, she was nervous. Correction, scairt.

That tall fine hunk of man, a senior Guardian no less, had outright propositioned her. Her? Naw. She had to be wrong. Big Mike was the team’s loveable teddy bear, so Damali said. Plus, her? He liked those tall, gorgeous Amazon types, her girl had confided after much needling, and she was short, round everywhere, and—no. She had to stop trippin’.

But God in Heaven, the man was fine. She watched him take in slow breaths and let them out as he stood in front of the sink doing dishes. It was impossible to take her eyes off his back, the way each muscle under his sleeveless white t-shirt moved with the expansion and expulsion of air. And his shoulders… Lawd.

Each time he picked up a dish, it seemed like steel was moving beneath smooth, dark wood. All that tight sinew came down to a V, and her eyes followed the trail lower to his nylon Lakers basketball shorts. She almost had to look away, but couldn’t. Her imagination stripped him of his shorts as his body made slight pivots while at the task of moving a platter or dish from the suds, to the rinse sink, and then over to the drain board. The man’s ass was solid stone, his legs were ridiculous. One of his thighs were practically the circumference of her body, and the way the muscles dovetailed right into high, tight calves made her hop down off the stool to fetch something cool to drink. No, he couldn’t want her. Not like that.

“Oh, so you trying to make some more dirty dishes to hold a poor man hostage in the kitchen?”

She laughed, but it was a weak one. Her mind was catching fire at the corners. “I’ll wash it. Relax.”

He turned, dripping suds, the front of his t-shirt wet and clinging to his abs. A grin tugged at his mouth. “Well you coulda offered the help some.”

She stared at him for a moment, the smile frozen on her face. In a wet t-shirt, Mike needed to stop playing with her. Every cube of muscle down his torso was stacked like high-rise masonry. His smooth chest was parted by two distinct blocks of pure strength, and she could see two darker splatters of flesh that subtly rose into nipples.

Do not look down, do not look down, she told herself as she forced a chuckle and put a hand on her hip. “All you had to do was ask.”

“Really?” He gave her a slow wink. “Then I want some.” He turned back to the sink.

She almost dropped the pitcher. Problem was, she had to go past him to get to the cabinets that held the glasses. “Dang, Mike,” she said, trying to keep things light as she rounded him and reached up to root around on the shelves. “There’s enough plates and pots and pans messed up to feed an army.”

“Well, that’s what we are, ain’t we?” He smiled and watched her pass him again to go to the table.

“I guess you have a point.” She didn’t know what to say. It was hard to breathe around him. Always was. She took her time pouring more lemonade. Her hands were shaking. She had to be sure, though, before she made a complete fool of herself. “You like kids?” She could have kicked herself.

“Yeah… but I don’t get to be around ‘em much. Used to work with them at the rec center—more knuckleheads than kids, but they was still babies in my book. Trying to be all hard, but just needed somebody that cared.” He shook his head and his tone became soft. “I miss that.”

“I showed you a picture of my boo, right?”

“Purty little thing, just like her momma. Yeah.”

She smiled, flattered beyond his imagination. “I got a new picture from my Mom. Father Patrick got the mail from her and sent a fax. Wanna see it?”

“That would be right nice.”

She lingered for a moment, hanging onto the gentle tone in his voice. “Aw’ight. I’ll be right back.”

He watched her dash away through the doorway and let his breath out. He had to get himself together and stop sweatin’ the girl. Shabazz was right. Mar had put her foot down. But the moment Inez left the kitchen it suddenly felt hollow, vacant. Like a vacuum seal had sucked out all the oxygen. As small as she was, Inez filled up a room. Then just as suddenly as she’d gone, she was back, and he could breathe again.

“Here she go,” Inez said, standing next to him by the sink.

He dried his hands on the towel over his shoulder, bent to look, and gingerly accepted the faxed photo with care. “Aw… now ain’t she sweet,” he said quietly. “She’s growing up, girl. Getting all big.”

“I miss her,” Inez said softly, taking the photo back from Big Mike.

“Yeah… I know. Can’t imagine. Leaving family behind is always hard, but a baby…” He sighed and shook his head. “You got heart, suga. She’s gonna be all right in grandma’s care. Her daddy’s gonna need a shotgun, pretty soon, though.”

Inez stared down at the photo and then withdrew from his side to lay the fax down on the table. She picked up a glass filled with lemonade and handed it to Mike. “That’s if I ever find his trifling ass again.”

He took the glass from her and sipped from it slowly. “Don’t worry about it. If he ain’t around, Uncle Mike got a shoulder cannon for anybody tryin’ to mess with her.” He set his glass down on the drain board and folded his huge arms over his chest. “He’s crazy.”

Inez chewed her bottom lip. She would not allow the thought to materialize, but hell yeah Mike had a cannon that could blow anybody away… especially a sister. And it did not rest on his shoulder. No comparison to her ex’s pitiful equipment. She shook her head.

“Yeah, well,” she said after a while, pushing herself back up on a stool and balancing her glass in her hands between her knees. “Ain’t seen him since he got caught messing with some girl around our way. Couldn’t wait the six weeks.” She took a deep sip of lemonade. “Who am I kidding, as soon as I got all big, he was foolin’ around.”

“Like I said,” Mike reiterated, his voice a low, serious rumble. “He’s crazy.”

“She’s almost three, and ain’t seen hide nor hair of him.”

“Brothers need to stop that mess and take care of what they make.”

Inez looked up from her glass. “That’s why, after I had her, I just went to work, came home, and took care of her.”

For a moment he didn’t say anything. He had to be sure he was really hearing what she was saying. The child was almost three years old. Inez was a thick-hipped, small-waisted, big-boned, heavy-breasted, fine woman that could cook…

“The brothers in LA must be missing they minds. Ain’t nobody coax you out in all that time?”

“What was the point?” she said in a near whisper. “I wasn’t tall, video-worthy, with Mariah Carey skin and Beyonce hair, okaaay. I didn’t do booty-calls, and wasn’t allowing nobody to make me pay their rent for the privilege of laying in the wet spot, if you’ll excuse me for being so blunt—but that’s how it was where I lived. I had to take care of my kid, work all the time, and didn’t have time to be played.”

He shook his head. Three years was a long time for a woman to be scuffling alone. Three years was way too long for a woman who loved to laugh, and play, and who obviously loved family and liked to bring down-home hospitality to the table, to be ignored. The young boys were acid-trippin’. Three years was definitely too long for a woman with a voice like hers, a spirit like hers, and a body like hers to be left unattended. It was sacrilege—a waste of natural resources. Yeah. He’d heard her right. Big Mike would take care of it.

“You’re a good mother, Nez. And a beautiful woman. If’n you wanna go see the baby and your Momma, I’ll get strapped and drive you to Houston.”

“You’d do that?” she whispered.

He almost closed his eyes. The sound of her voice and the expectant tone it held was setting a timer on something that would detonate, if he didn’t diffuse it fast.

“Yeah. I would. Be nice to meet your momma any ole way. Leastwise she’d know you was with somebody who could handle a problem, if one came up.”

She shook her head in obvious disbelief, her big pretty eyes glistening. He studied her small, heart shaped face. Her skin seemed like it was made of dark, satiny opal… sorta shimmered from the kitchen lights. He didn’t know what was wrong with the brothers. Her hair was so pretty, too, the way she’d had it all in long, tiny little braids. In that moment he wished he could just take them out of the ponytail and let each one fall through his fingers.

“Marlene ain’t gonna let us go, though,” she finally said in a quiet voice. “Not until I learn some stuff and can run five miles without losing my breath, and whatever else Shabazz says.”

“They’ve got a point,” he murmured, his line of vision fixated on her mouth, on the exact spot where the lemonade had wet her full lips. “I want your gift to emerge so you’ll have another weapon in your arsenal. I want you to be able to run those five miles without getting tired, so you’ll have a fighting chance if we’ve gotta rumble.”

She smiled. “You said ‘have another weapon,’ and I ain’t even got one.”

He shook his head making her smile fade. “You’ve got a coupla weapons that can blow a man away… but I can wait till we can travel, to tell you all about that.”

“For real?” she whispered, knowing that he could hear her. “You’ll take me to my momma’s?”

“I told you,” he said quietly, but loud enough for her to hear, “Mike’s got you.”

It had been so long since a man had looked at her like that, or had spoken to her like that, or had made promises she knew he’d keep that, she almost slid off the kitchen stool. “I hope so.”

“You’d better know so, suga,” he breathed.

The way he’d said it had put gooseflesh on her arms. “You’d better finish them dishes before somebody comes in here and starts fussing about—”

“Ain’t nobody coming in here,” he said, his voice like distant thunder that rumbled through her bones.

“Guess you got a point,” she said quickly, trying to collect herself. “Don’t nobody wanna get dragged into KP.” Her laugh was strained and she chased it away with another quick sip of lemonade.

“Don’t nobody wanna come in here and mess with me while I’m trying to talk to you.” He unfolded his arms, blotted his brow with the towel, and turned back to the sink.

The water had gone cold, but for the life of him, he didn’t care. He just began washing the dishes in the frigid mixture of fading bubbles and grease, hoping the cool temperature would ratchet his brain back into his skull. But the silence in the room was deafening. Her breaths were like a pulse, and it connected to the throb she’d created in his groin.

“Nez, you need to talk to me while I work. I thought that was our deal for you keeping me company.”

“People always say I talk too much,” she said in a quiet voice. “Especially men.”

“Thought we established that they, men in general, not to be confused with me in specifics, was crazy?”

“Okay…” She watched his back. This time his breathing seemed labored. “I don’t know… next time I cook, what do you want?”

“That’s a loaded question. I’ve got a big appetite.”

She hesitated, not trying to read more into his statement than was there. “I’ll make whatever you want.”

He paused, and then began scrubbing pots harder. “I like everything you fix.”

“What haven’t you had in a long time?”

He dropped the pot, and picked it up again. “Everything Marlene and Shabazz say I can’t have.”

“What if I made you some of what you really want on the side? Like—”

He held up his hand. She watched oily suds run down his arm and then plop on the floor. He swallowed hard.

“I’m gonna tempt you till you tell me,” she said laughing. “Hmmm… how about ribs, cornbread, potato salad, greens, and I can make the rest of them what they want, but for you… I’ll make you a special plate, okay?”

She saw him tilt his head, close his eyes, and lower his massive arm to hold onto the side of the sink. Seeing him do that made her grow serious. The play went out of her voice, an earnest offer of trying to return a favor that could never be repaid enough replaced it.

“I’ll make you some peach cobbler for dessert, too, if you want?” she said in a soft tone. “Or bread pudding… or I can do a lemon butter pound cake? Honey, just tell me what you want, ‘cause you’ve been so nice to me—you saved my life back there in the subway, and can’t nobody keep me from cooking for you. All you gotta do is tell me, and—”

“Inez,” he said firmly, but the tone in his voice was tender. “We got the Berkfield kids up in here, and jus’ trust me when I say, I can’t tell you specifically what I want, right through here.”

She watched him snatch the towel off his shoulder and move to the drain board to dry the large pot he’d just rinsed. Horrified, she was off the stool like a shot. “No!” she said, laughing, grabbing the pot from him. She had to keep things light, had to ignore what he’d just said, couldn’t go there, not with all eyes on them. “You don’ wiped your face with that, got it all sweaty. Man, here. Use a fresh—”

He’d bent down, leaned in, and kissed her so fast that the clean towel she was about to hand him hit the floor. She’d expected the rushed kiss to be hard, if not brutal when it came, but it wasn’t. Once his mouth was on hers, it was the slowest, gentlest touching of mouths; thick flesh against her lips, parting them, moving her body in closer to taste more. A massive hand cradled her head, loosening her ponytail until hundreds of braids spilled across her shoulders and through his fingers. Another damp, hot hand splayed across her back, catching her spine on fire.

She stood on tiptoes but still couldn’t reach enough of him, her hands sliding across wide shoulders made of polished brown marble. She could taste her own cooking in his mouth as he deepened the kiss… the last corner of macaroni and cheese never tasted so good. But when his body made contact with hers, she almost cried out. It was like standing against a skyscraper covered in padded, smooth skin. His length was pressed against her navel like a sawed-off shotgun, good Gawd!

Suddenly she felt petite, something she’d never felt before… fragile, in the arms of a giant, light, featherweight in his strong arms. Tonight she was beautiful.

He swallowed her soft, stunned whimper, listening to everything and nothing. Why a stolen kiss in the kitchen was burning him up, melting him down, he wasn’t sure, nor did he care. Footsteps of fellow Guardians he measured, the Doppler effect of voices telling who was near, who was far, laughter echoed and bounced off wood, plaster, porch frames—as long as it didn’t come in here and interrupt this, he was cool.

But the sound of her voice crested and filled his mouth until he could hear it from the inside out. The sensation sent his hands down her back to the place they’d ached to touch, her luscious rump. Jesus, it fit his hands perfectly. Her hips were a warm swell of soft meat that came off a tiny waist. He could almost touch fingers around it, and yet there was a perfect little rise of belly just below her navel, padded enough to cushion her pelvic bone when it was time for him to go to work.

Man… her voice, though. It had a Portuguese influence with an urban southern flair, her moan trebled with it, too. The dirty south was all up in his head, her backside filling his hands. Her thighs were all thick and cushiony and toned but not hard—just right. He was losing his mind.

“Girl, you feel so good it don’t make no kinda sense,” he whispered in a harsh rush against her temple.

He knew it was foolish, wasn’t no way to do all what needed to be done, but he couldn’t stop kneading the soft, squeezable flesh beneath his palms, separating the halves of it, pressing them together to the rhythm they both wanted to share, but couldn’t… he had to keep kissing her to keep her soft whimpers in his mouth, to keep his silent. A strangled groan beat through his chest and climbed up his Adam’s apple. Her tiny hands flitted up his spine causing chills—he hadn’t meant to lift her with one arm around her waist, but he needed her pelvis to lock with his, needed to feel the large swell of her breasts crushed against his chest. Just the sound of her voice was sending contractions through his sac.

Three years was a waste to have allowed this woman to go fallow; a coupla years for a man was prison—shit, Shabazz and Marlene would get over it. Any special gift she had, he’d bring it out of her tonight, have mercy. He could feel her behind and the backs of her thighs getting wet by the dishwater, but couldn’ta stopped moving against her if he’d tried. She was gonna get wetter any way, before it was all over, he reasoned, pulling her pink tank top out of her jeans shorts. Lawd, her skin was soft, melted butter wrapped in pink and her bra was pink, too. He’d sop her up and lick the plate clean, yes, Jesus. He had to touch more of her skin, feel that low dip in her spine right before her incredible behind rose up to glory. Make him say Halleluiah… who said God didn’t answer prayers?

She broke from the kiss and found his ear. “We can’t do this right here—I mean, what if somebody walks in here?” she whispered, panicked.

“Lord, woman, I love your voice,” he breathed against her temple, not sure what she’d said; just the tone of it had registered in his groin.

“Baby, listen,” she said quickly, trying to see over his shoulder as he began to work open the top button of her jeans shorts.

“Yeah, I hear you, suga.”

“Mike, you ain’t listening to me!” she said in a hissing whisper. Panic spiked through her as she watched him close his eyes and shudder.

“Loud and clear.” He kissed her hard and then broke away to find her earlobe. “Just say it to me like that again.”

She hung onto him with her arms around his muscular neck, trying not to be driven into the half-filled sink as he ripped her zipper down. “Oh… shit.”

His hands traced her breasts making her briefly close her eyes. “Uhmmm, hmmm. I know. I’m right there, too, suga.”

She held his jaw with both hands before he could lower his head. “We are in a house with however many other people in the next room, Michael—some of whom are playing Pinochle or Bid Whist!” she said through her teeth. “Can you hear me now?”

He looked at her for a moment, dazed, but didn’t back up. He simply stopped moving against her as sheer agony slowly spread across his face.

“Good,” she said breathing hard.

“Suga… listen, all I need is a lil’ bit, a lil’ corner of what you got in the pan,” he said finding the side of her neck, then her shoulder, slathering kisses across it till she trembled. “Girl, do you hear me now?” he whispered, his words and kisses gaining velocity and volume with each statement burst. “Baby, don’t let me smell it cooking and hear it sizzling, then put me out the kitchen, Nez. I don’t know whose eyes you been looking through, but, girl, you make somebody wanna slap they momma. Don’t judge me by those other young fools, sweetness… Big Mike gonna show you jus’ how special you is. Uhmmm hmmm… right there,” he murmured, opening her thighs.

Again she tried to glance around his hulking frame to no avail and smoothed her palm over the gleaming surface of his scalp. “Maybe if we go in the back of the house? Aw, Mike, I dunno.”

“I swear fo’ God they won’t hear us.” His hands traced up and down her hips, his voice ragged.

She zipped up her pants and tried to straighten her tank top. “I can’t be gettin’ pregnant up in here, neither, Mike.”

“I know, I know. But we can work that out,” he said, sounding pained. “Just don’t move for a second—lemme get myself together.”

He was dragging in lumbering breaths, and common sense told her that if she stayed wedged up against him like this, he wouldn’t be getting himself together very soon. Neither would she.

“Just let me off the sink,” she whispered. “Pleeeaase?”

She could feel a hard tremor run through him as his eyes slid closed.

“You can’t be saying please to me like that,” he whispered hard against her ear. “Your voice…”

“Mike, put me down on the floor,” she said as strongly as she could.

He looked at her and his eyes nearly crossed.

“I mean, let me off the sink, baby. C’mon, Mike, you know what I meant. Besides, if we don’t get out of here they’ll bust us and then we won’t be able to. ”

He took in a deep breath, let it out slowly, and moved back two inches to hoist her down with one arm. He kissed the top of her head, but kept her pinned against the sink. “I just kinda got carried away in here. Been thinking about you like this for months, but had been hoping you’d come along for years,” he said in a hard, quiet whisper, sending another hot shaft of breath across her hair. “You right. Let’s take this outside, outta earshot. I’m sorry, suga.”

It was nighttime and nobody was supposed to leave the house without two senior Guardians on their flank. Maybe Big Mike counted as two. Insanity let her hand trail down his abdomen and across his nylon shorts.

“I’m not sorry,” she whispered, gazing up at him in disbelief as her hand slid across the shocking dimension of him. “Dayum.”

She hadn’t meant to start the mess all over again, or maybe she had. But this time when her bent to kiss her, her hair went into the water, he’d leaned her so far backward. If it weren’t for his arm blocking the edge of the counter, her spine would have bruised or possibly snapped. He was pushing against her with such slow, determined force that pretty soon they’d both be in the sink. She didn’t care. All she knew was that a man had never made her feel like this.

Each thrust was making her forget about anyone else in the next room. A three-inch diameter of hard rod was slow pummeling her bud right through her jeans shorts at just the right tempo. Strong hands with a gentle hold caressed her everywhere. His timed breaths were melting her bones. She bit her lip to hold the words back, but they slipped out anyway. “Work it, Daddy.” Her legs were about to find their way to his waist, because what she’d said had released a groan from him that made him move against her faster. He could have it any where he wanted it! Right here was just fine. “Oh, right there.” That was all right, too.

A light cough jerked his head up. She froze.

“Just passing through to get some iced tea or lemonade and to see how the dishes were going,” Marlene said in a jovial tone, opening the fridge. “I’ll finish them.”

Inez slid off the sink, her hair streaming rivulets of soapy water over her shoulders, her gaze glued to the floor. She wanted to die. Her face flushed hot. Her body rebelled, contracting as Mike straightened, stepped back two paces, but kept his back to Marlene, breathing hard.

Fidgeting like she was trying to get a napkin to wrap around her glass, Marlene turned away silently pleased. Inez’s third eye had swept the house, nearly ransacked it for a kitchen intruder. Marlene chuckled but swallowed it away. Go, Mike. But the scan was sloppy; the girl needed practice to breach demon mental radar, which required focus. She hated to do it, but Mike was gonna have to get up off that chile.

“I’ll bring y’all a towel,” Marlene said with a sly grin in her voice, “but I think it’s time for y’all to, uh, get out of the kitchen. It’s way too hot in here.”

Mike closed his eyes, nodded, and kept his voice even as he got his breathing under control. “I hear you, Mar. Aw’ight, Mom, I hear you. Just give us a second.”


Volume 8Edit

Between Books: Volume Eight
After The Forbidden, Before The Damned
July 2005

Jose ...
Jose glanced at Carlos and simply continued chewing on the end of his toothpick, muscle in his jaw working. They both understood. It was an unspoken communication between men, deepened by their old line-brother connection that would never go away. The vibe in the silent message was simple: coax Damali into the house to play cards, and Juanita would immediately come outside to avoid her. That had been the way it always went down. Carlos nodded.

“Heard Inez made some cobbler,” Carlos said casually. “Got my eye on it before the young bucks dog it.”

Damali hesitated and eyed both men. “Inez and Mike are washing dishes in the kitchen,” she said with emphasis. “Besides, how can you still be packing your gut like that after all you ate at dinner?” She laughed and shook her head.

Carlos smiled and glanced at Jose, whose expression remain unreadable. He took a deep breath as though considering how to circle back around to attempt the diversion again when Damali didn’t move off the porch step.

“I didn’t say I was going to eat it right now,” Carlos teased, standing with a long stretch. “I’m just setting up a perimeter to protect my section in the pan, is all a brother is trying to say. You know how greedy they are, D. So, you can be slow if you wanna, but I’m taking up a post in the dining room at the Bid Whist table—feel me?”

Damali laughed. “Yeah, okay, brother. Just so long as you don’t go busting into the kitchen unannounced.”

“Hey, I’m smooth” he said opening his arms wide.

“Yeah, right, and I suppose my job is to watch you to make sure that five minutes into the game, you don’t come strolling back out of the house with a plate.”

“I wouldn’t dawg Mike like that.”

Damali put her hands on her hips. “Keep your voice down. You are soooo—oh!” She shook her head. “And don’t you be teasing Inez, either, with your signifying self.” She pointed at him and then towards Jose. “Both of y’all ain’t nothing but the devil, and you know she’s all sensitive. All right?”

“Girl, please. I ain’t in that man’s business, if he’s in there trying to rap. Marlene’s gonna squash any attempt any ole way. Been there,” Carlos added with a wink. “I won’t say nothin’ to Inez, but I might have to casually remind Mike how he did me—”

“Don’t you dare,” Damali said, laughing hard. “You’ll get your ass kicked if you mess with Mike. Big brother is a little edgy, if you haven’t noticed.”

Carlos sighed, a broad smile remaining on his face as he closed his eyes. “I remember… all battle amped, feining, and Mike put a shoulder cannon in my face.” He opened his arms wide again. “It’s a man thing, baby—wasn’t just ‘cause I had a little vamp in me. But, truth be tol’, right though here, Mike is showing signs of going werewolf on your girl. Hombre’s practically got hair growing on the backs of his knuckles, but that ain’t my business.”

“Shut up, man, and leave my big brother alone,” Damali said laughing.

She made a quick lunge for Carlos that sent him jogging out of her reach, and laughed harder when she made another grab for him but he did a zigzag move that left her grasping air.

“Oh, so it’s like that, huh?”

“I’m so smooth I can get into that kitchen, get a plate, and be out without nobody seeing me. Just like you can’t catch me now.” He gave her a sly grin as they squared off, and each time one of her muscles tensed for a sudden burst toward him, he spun just out of her reach, making them both laugh.

“I’m watching you,” she said, pointing at him. “Say one word in there to either one of them, and it’s on.”

Carlos shrugged, baiting her with a smile as he nimbly passed Jose and bound up the steps. “Later, holmes. Every man for himself.”

“Go for what you know,” Jose said without smiling, feeling relief wash over him as Damali let her breath out hard and took the steps behind Carlos two at a time.

Now the wait.

It had been real cool of Carlos to divert Damali like he had, but it still stung watching them play like that. Although he couldn’t deny that this was the way things were supposed to be, the wait for Juanita to finally remember only made it worse.

Jose glanced at the house and then stared out into the darkness beyond the border of porch lights. He knew how it would go. A few minutes of awkward silence would fall between the two female combatants as they passed each other, then they would turn their attention in opposite directions to anyone near them—as long as they weren’t in sight range of the other female they couldn’t stand. The whole thing was ridiculous, although he understood it too well.

He closed his eyes, raking his hair back. A few times Damali and Juanita had silently squared off when neither woman would give ground to pass each other within the tight confines of the house. Marlene had to step between them and act like she needed one or the other for something to break it up. The tension was too thick.

It didn’t matter if it was a seat near Carlos, which is why the brother had taken to eating standing up on the porch, it was so bad. Or when moving through the house to pass each other, the entire team held its collective breath in hopes that neither woman would accidentally bump the other. The bullshit was a powder keg. Something as seemingly innocent as reaching for a TV remote, changing a CD on the stereo, or the slightest comment or movement was potentially volatile. He hated living like this.

What was worse was living here, of all places, knowing that Juanita’s memory hadn’t fully returned the way the elders had promised. His had. Marlene said be patient, he was the one tied to this house and this land, so naturally the vibration would affect him first. Yeah, it was logical, and Mar’s metaphysical explanations made sense… but it still didn’t take the edge off. Months of waiting for Juanita to see him was wearing him out.

Jose leaned forward on his knees and sighed hard. To his utter surprise, Juanita came out of the house within minutes. Her expression was easy and her eyes gentle, as she plopped down beside him on the step with a smile.

“Where’s Rider?’ she asked in a cheerful tone.

Suspicious that her mood was so dramatically different, he hesitated and looked off in the distance. She never came out of the house smiling after passing Damali and Carlos. What was up with that?

“You know how Rider is right now,” Jose finally said in a quiet voice without looking at her. He kept his eyes on the darkness. “He took a solo walk with a cigarette and a new bottle… and a gun.” Jose glanced at Juanita. “I keep waiting to hear the shot.”

Her smile faded as her eyes strained to see beyond the porch lights into the darkness. “He went out there by himself, and you let him?”

“Yeah. The man’s got a death wish and isn’t afraid of getting nicked any more. But you know how Rider is when he gets his mind made up—no arguing with him, so I’m here on point. Got his back. He just needs some space to work it out.”

“We should go find him,” she urged, standing.

“He’s all right,” Jose said, his tone distant and his gaze unwavering on the darkened terrain. “He’s about fifty feet out beyond the lights, lying down by a tree, sleeping it off right now. I’ll go get him before I go back inside.”

She stared at him, incredulous, but didn’t sit. “How in the world do you know all of that?”

Jose smiled, pride beginning to ease its way through his system. “Low scent of alcohol, near ground level, means he sat down and opened the bottle. Dinner scent is in it, too, so I know it’s not just the opened bottle that’s sitting low. No more cigarette smoke, but no brush fire, means he’s probably asleep. No blood or entrails carnage scent means he’s alive.”

She sat down slowly, eyes wide as she stared at him. “Wow…”

Although she’d been in classes for what felt like a long time, still, seeing any of the senior Guardians display their talent was amazing. They each did it so subtly with such casual grace that it seemed as effortless as breathing. Jose’s explanation had been nonchalant, as though normal people could make those types of assessments every day. But to her mind, the way the more senior team members used their gifts, most times without even being aware that they were doing so, was much like watching a person absently tapping their foot, or a nervous habit like chewing on the end of a pencil deep in thought.

Satisfied with Jose’s answer, they sat on the steps enjoying the blanket of quiet that had fallen over them. Crickets and small night sounds blended in with the bursts of noise and laughter coming from the house. Oddly, that was soothing. As long as people were in good spirits, it meant danger was far off. Happy voices filtering through the screens provided the necessary sense of security she needed. She was well aware that, if something crazy was lurking, the seniors would be on it. She was glad to be outside with one of them.

Juanita’s gaze traveled as she lost herself in calming thoughts. Bugs and moths fluttered near the lights. The quiet between her and Jose wasn’t strained tonight. That was good. It allowed her to think without the ever-present, defensive mental wall around her emotions. Without that barricade it was easier to remember… and she so wanted to remember for his sake and hers.

But up to this point, her memory was more like watching snatches of a movie without the textures or feelings to go with it. She could recall specific incidents when cued after a moment, but couldn’t tie into the depths of the feelings. And in all honesty, she’d shied away from Jose because of that. He made her think, challenged her memory and she didn’t want to remember those cues, those incidents, and the past… perhaps out of some crazy, misguided loyalty to Carlos, who had clearly moved on. It felt like she was being split in two within her mind, and Carlos’s patterning over the past was so thoroughly pervasive that, it was hard to get beyond it to even breathe sometimes.

However, Rider’s words haunted her as Damali’s laughter filtered onto the porch with Carlos’s. Inez’s embarrassed expression when she’d fled the kitchen, mumbled something about being tired from cooking for everybody, and needed to lie down, entered her head. Big Mike had stomped out the back door to so-called guard the rear of the house. Obviously there had been a fight, or something had gone down, between two people who were as close as one could get to hooking up. Yeah, Rider was right. There was a lot going on in the house and she’d been blind to most of it.

Juanita glimpsed Jose. “Your nose seems better at night,” she offered, trying to reopen a conversation with him on a neutral subject.

He nodded but still didn’t look at her. “I’ve finally accepted the vamp part in me. My whole bio-rhythm is nocturnal, so I guess the nose is part of that package.”

“Well, maybe that’s a good thing, given what you do.”

“Yeah, I suppose,” he muttered, chucking his toothpick into the walkway with a hard pitch. He hated small talk, and this was the most Juanita had voluntarily said to him on her own in months. It had always been him trying to connect, trying to draw her out of her shell, trying to get her to give the past a chance to take root in the present. He was done with that bullshit, and didn’t feel like it tonight. Why he’d hoped that she would come out to sit with him, he didn’t know.

“You sound like you’re not sure if it’s a good thing,” she said after a nervous pause.

The tone of her voice made him finally look at her.

“I’m not,” he replied, no judgment in his response. “It makes things easier, like tracking, but other things harder sometimes, depending on your point of view.”

She tilted her head and her lovely brows knit in curiosity. He refused to allow the fact that there was finally something about him that she wanted to know to affect him. Her curiosity wouldn’t last, just like her good mood probably wouldn’t. At best, whatever he had to say would just be reference material for her ongoing training lessons as an interesting, generic observation. But it wasn’t about him. It never was any more. If she needed to know about the complex olfactory physiology of male vamps, she had the master in the house and could ask Rivera. Fuck it.

“How is it easier?” she said with care, shifting to sit closer to him, and leaning in with undivided attention. “I would think it would be harder. You know… picking up so much that it overwhelms your nose—like smelling too many things going on at once.”

Jose let his breath out hard and leaned back on his hands as he stared at her. “Initially, as soon as the sun goes down, it bludgeons my senses. Sometimes it gives me a headache… then the scents separate out, the darker it gets. Becomes vamp intense.”

“Damn, was it always like that?”

He shook his head. “No. I got stronger after…” His voice trailed off and he pushed himself forward, leaning his forearms on his knees, and looking away from her at nothing. “My line-brother took a high rank in the vamp empire for a while and it pulled whatever else was latent to the front. That’s all.”

“When Carlos turned?”

Jose let out a breath of annoyance. “Yeah,” he muttered, knowing that this was where her interest came from.

“You said it pulled everything forward… like what? You don’t have the blood thing messing with you, do you?”

He just stared at her for a moment, trying to decide whether he should answer her or just get up and go find Rider. Her eyes were searching his, though, with a bit of fear flickering in them. He wasn’t sure if he should have been offended or a bit pleased. Plus her scent was working his nerves. Baby powder, a light coating of floral deodorant, aloe body lotion, Dove soap, a hint of dinner, a top note of perspiration, and a bottom note of feminine musk. He stood and went to perch himself on the porch rail.

“I dunno. Like, I can separate scents out better like I said. But noooo, I don’t have a blood Jones, okay.”

“Sorry,” she whispered, turning her body so she could face him.

He glanced away from her, keeping Rider’s position on nasal lock to be sure his older Guardian brother was still all right. Then it slowly occurred to him that, perhaps part of her resistance to being alone with him might have been fear-based. Why else would she have asked about the blood, and after seeing Rider’s ugly turn on the church floor—her constant questions about his whereabouts made sense. Not to mention, her first encounter since the veil of forgetfulness had been placed on her, was breeched right in the heat of battle during an ambulance run.

He softened his voice. “Yeah, well, it’s cool. If you hadn’t asked, how would you know?”

“I didn’t mean to be insensitive,” she said quietly. “I just…”

“It’s cool,” he said as he relaxed his defenses. “Here’s the deal,” he added, running his fingers through his hair. “At night, my nose is a razor. I get more energy. Seem to see and hear a little better, too.” He shrugged and looked off in the direction where Rider was passed out. “Stuff like that.”

“That’s deep, Jose… really pretty cool, if you think about it.”

“Yeah, I guess,” he said after a moment, refusing to ever admit to her that his libido also went off the meter at midnight. Nor could he explain to her that that was the reason Rider drank himself into a stupor to cope before said hour. Once the sun went down, it was all over. At least he hadn’t been nicked outright like Rider, but had his demon neatly tucked away within his DNA. “Like anything, it has its good points and its burdens,” he finally said to end the uncomfortable discussion.

“But that is sooo cool, as a gift,” she said in an awed whisper.

He snatched a twig off the bushes by the stair rail and chewed the end. “It’s aw’ight.”

“So, how’s it a burden? Like, the headaches, are they bad… do they make you nauseous sometimes?”

He glanced at her for a moment and then looked away annoyed. “You remember anything?”

She felt her cheeks get warm. Sure she remembered that between them, but hadn’t felt it or hadn’t been fiening for that with him. That had been the primary reason she’d been avoiding him, because she wasn’t ready to go there with him, wasn’t sure if she ever would or could with Carlos in the house, and didn’t want to play games with Jose about it. But the last thing she ever expected was for Jose to just flat out challenge her about her memory. Rather than immediately answer, she picked at the nap in her jeans, struggling to respond.

“Cool,” Jose said, and jumped down off the rail.

“I remember,” she said in a quiet voice that stopped him as he passed her on the steps.

“ But,” he said, his tone hardened. “I got it. No problem.”

“It’s not like that,” she said as gently as possible, looking into his eyes and standing.

How could she get through to him, to make him know that she felt his pain, understood it? She also didn’t want him to be a second choice option, a by-default lover, or someone she hooked up with to try to make Carlos notice she existed in the house. Jose deserved better than that.

“Then, how is it?” Jose said, his tone low and even, hurt shimmering in his eyes.

She placed her hand in the center of his chest. The powder blue fabric of his t-shirt was damp. Her fingertips rested lightly against it like a person about to read Braille.

“I want to remember through my pores,” she said quietly. “I get images in short snap shots, like pictures, then they’re gone… and I don’t know why.”

She felt him tense as though to move away. “No don’t,” she whispered, spreading her fingers out and addressing his chest. “Rider said some profound things to me.”

Jose hesitated, but didn’t speak. She knew he wouldn’t ask.

“You’ve been nice to me, gentle, have always been there to help me when I lagged behind in the exercises, or didn’t get a lesson concept. You have done everything right, Jose. I don’t blame you for being mad… you’ve been patient.”

“It’s cool,” he said flatly, but his tone had mellowed.

She closed her eyes. “No. It isn’t.” She let out a weary sigh. “If we were just two people out in the normal world, and the chemistry didn’t immediately click, then, yeah, it would be cool. But not here, not under these circumstances, and not with what we had before.”

Juanita opened her eyes and slowly stared up at him. He was so handsome… Had beautiful brown eyes, intense. A full, kissable mouth that normally turned up at the corners to give way to a fantastic smile. Jose was a peaceful soul, a listening ear, had a shock of thick, dark hair… a mid-range, melodic voice, and toned body, smooth toffee hued skin… what was wrong with her?

He covered her hand where it rested on his chest and gave her a sad smile. “If the chemistry ain’t there, then it ain’t there,” he murmured, and then kissed the center of her palm as he lifted it away from him to return it. “Sometimes the past just dies on the vine, especially when something else grows there to replace it. I’m cool. No static. My bad.”

“No,” she whispered, shaking her head and stepping closer. “My bad.” She stared at her hand and then looked back up at him. A tremor of memory flitted across her palm. “In all this time, you never did that.” He had only kissed her cheek, too. It was always a quick hello or goodbye type of thing during the day, nothing more or intrusive, but tonight she felt it in her palm.

For a moment he didn’t say anything. He glanced at her upturned palm. “Like you would have let me.”

She gazed up at him briefly, but then down at her palm again. “I felt it.”

“Felt what?” he said going down the steps and walking in the direction he knew Rider would be. He didn’t need this insanity in his life.

Juanita ran down the steps and jogged to catch up with him at the end of the walkway. “Wait!”

“Why?”

“I gotta tell you something.”

He sighed and turned around. “What?”

She neared him, taking bold steps forward. Without asking his permission, she reached out and gingerly ran the pads of her thumbs across his mouth and gently cradled his face. “Make me remember.”

He shook his head no. “I’m done with it, ‘Nita.”

“No,” she whispered, staring at him intently. “It’s in your mouth… in the kiss. All I did was run my fingers across your lips, and…”

“What?” He cocked his head to the side, disbelieving and becoming more annoyed as pure arousal took hold of him. “Stop playing with me, aw’ight.”

“Step into the dark,” she whispered. “Remember what they told us?”

Stunned, he just stared at her. Hell yeah, he remembered, but it had been delivered as a riddle that he had yet to figure out.

“When that which is within comes to the fore. When the full moon calls the coyote and the demon is ash. When the sun draws your blood brother to dance with ancient spirits. Only when you step into the darkness without fear, and a light within burns brighter than that, will you taste your memory. It is on your lips, the Thunderbird. Then it will fill your mouths and lungs to breathe new life again, and you will be home once more.”

He’d listened to her quiet recitation, mesmerized by the way her unpainted mouth moved in the semi-darkness. Her voice was like velvet coating his insides. But he didn’t want to be attracted to her like that, didn’t want to feel the need she produced, or what any other woman produced, for that matter. He always got burned, and was so over it. He didn’t want to be made vulnerable any longer, and no old shaman’s riddle was gonna take him there.

“Juanita,” he said, less forcefully than he’d intended, “what has that got to do with anything? The junk they told us—”

“Jose,” she said, cutting him off and placing both hands against his chest. “You just told me on the steps that your vamp talents have come to the fore, since your blood brother—”

“I’m not talking about Carlos out here, so if you want more info on hombre, you’re gonna have to ask him your—”

“He was the one that went to ash.”

Jose shrugged away from her and went more deeply into the brush to pick up Rider’s trail.

“It’s a full moon out tonight, and for a minute, Carlos went to the other side to dance with the ancient spirits.”

She heard Jose stop walking. She also heard a faint, low, pounding of ancestral, Native American drums. Then the voices blended into the Tom Toms in a soft hum. “Can’t you hear it?” she said, her voice becoming shrill as she whirred around in the darkness.

Jose came in close to her. “It’s all right. I can’t hear anything, but there’s no sulfur present, and Rider is knocked out. You should go back to the house, get Dan and Bobby to help me lug his—”

She spun around as slow-floating, transparent figures moved amongst the trees in full ceremonial dress then disappeared. “Didn’t you see them!” She whispered between her teeth and clung to Jose, panic sweeping through her.

“’Nita, chill. It’s just—”

“It’s my gift,” she whispered. “Marlene said so. I can see the other side… spirits.”

He hugged her to him and unsheathed a bowie knife from its leather harness at his waist. “You getting a bad vibe? I need to haul Rider’s ass outta here, then. Run to the house, open a red alert, and—”

“No.”

“I can’t leave him, ‘Nita. You can’t be afraid to run across the clearing. Just do it! Go get reinforcements!”

She took several deep breaths and held her ground. “I’m not afraid. They aren’t here to hurt us. They’re part of the ancestors’ promise.” Her hand rested on his arm, pressing it down until he relaxed his grip on the blade. “We both stepped into the darkness without fear. A light within burned brighter than the fear—you were willing to stay out here with Rider, not knowing what it was that was out here with us.”

He studied her face as the clouds passed and allowed the full moon to wash blue-white luminance across it. Yes, he remembered, how beautiful she was… what her silky, shoulder-length, brunette hair felt like in his hands, what it smelled like… herbal fantasia. Yes, he remembered the tea splashed with cream skin that set his palms on fire, how could he forget? God knew he remembered her mouth, how soft that was, and the way her breath hitched when he deepened a kiss. And her eyes now glistened with a shared memory, too… those huge, doe-brown eyes of hers that had been blind to him for so long. He slowly sheathed his Bowie knife, giving into her pull.

“The Thunderbird is on your lips… make me remember, Jose. Make me breathe new life again so we can be home. I’m so tired of being alone. I haven’t been with him in years, or no other man for that matter. He didn’t want me, doesn’t want me like that, and—”

“I ain’t no replacement part for him—or some fool to be used. Don’t play me, ‘Nita.”

His gaze burned her and she swallowed hard.

“I know and I won’t,” she whispered. “I’m not trying to make him jealous by using you, I wouldn’t do that, I swear… I just need to remember you. Don’t send me away tonight, even though I’ve hurt you by taking so long to wake up. Aren’t you tired of being alone?”

Perhaps it was the vamp in him, or the overriding male imperative, he wasn’t sure. But the offer was too sweet to refuse, her mouth too much of a magnet to resist. She may have seen ancient spirits, but he sure didn’t—so if they were watching, it wasn’t bothering his psyche in the least. She filled his arms in the darkness, and that had tugged at something deep and resonating within his DNA.

His hands cradled her face, half afraid that he was dreaming. His mouth swept hers in a soft brush, half afraid to commit beyond that, just in case she pulled away. He continued to hold her face with trembling hands, a plea in his soul, knowing that his mind might snap if she got him all worked up and then exercised her prerogative and changed her decision. He couldn’t go there, not with her.

But rather than draw back from the intensity, she deepened the kiss and fully embraced him, pressing her petite frame against him. Urgency replaced all trepidation as she traced his spine, and then loosed her arms to run her fingers through his hair. He fought a moan, still not willing to totally give himself over to possible bitter disappointment. If she walked away from him, he vowed to a least walk with his pride.

“I remember,” she said breathlessly against his neck, rubbing her breasts the length of his torso. The straps of her turquoise blue tank top had begun to fall as she moved. “Make me remember it all.”

Speech failed him. He had rehearsed a series of cool comeback lines that were ready and waiting for her in case she ever played with his mind like this, but instead what he was going to say came out garbled in the moan he’d been holding back. He couldn’t help it, but his hands found her hair the moment her mouth found his sweet spot. She sucked the side of his neck until tears dampened his lashes. Jesus, she remembered… her hair was raw silk, her mouth, unbelievable.

His attitude got summarily dismissed; her nipples were pressed hard against his, gentle friction driving him crazy. There was no fear in the dark; his boy was passed out cold, yards away on the other side of a huge tree—was she game? If so, what did that mean? If not, what did that mean? What did any of this mean, what did any of this matter… her tight, round behind was searing his palms through her jeans and burning a hole in his mind. Her shirt had hiked up and her skin dragged another moan into her mouth from deep within his throat. The sweet scent of her was locked in his head, his lungs, and covered his palate.

She swooned against him as he nipped her neck. He could feel her pulse against his lips and instinctively followed it with a trail of kisses down her throat, over her collar bone, and was rewarded when she lifted her tank top for him. For a moment, he simply laid his cheek against her bare breasts, knowing that was a clear yes. Good… God…

The scent of her there made him close his eyes. Deep, feminine cleavage perfumed with baby powder, lotion, perspiration, and want. Her hands were shaking as they pet his hair and his lips drew in the tight, brown pebbles, his tongue dancing across them in a flicker. Oh, hell yeah, he remembered everything she liked. He let his palms lift her heavy lopes with care as he nursed away years of hurt and frustration until her voice pierced the night.

Make her remember—no problem. The Thunderbird was on his lips—as soon as her jeans were down, it would be between her legs. Some things went beyond memory, damn straight—that was pure DNA.

The button fastening to her jeans opened with a flip of his thumb. Her zipper ripped the quiet. He slid down her body slowly, his mouth never leaving her skin as he knelt, drawing her pale yellow thong and jeans down with him. Her flip flops came away with the pants as she stepped out of them breathing hard. He inhaled sharply, his nose pressed to her silken mound as a whimper escaped her. Oh, shit, he remembered; his hair was in her fist and the Thunderbird was on his lips… her leg draped over his shoulder until her body swayed and her knee buckled. The pulse from her femoral artery thudded in his ear; the salty sweet scent of blood thrummed in his nose; her bud begged for more attention and he complied with gentle ministrations. He refused to relent until she convulsed hard and remembered him by name.

He caught her when her legs gave out from under her, and he brought her limp body to his chest, savoring her wet scent as he unfastened his jeans. She looked down at him; he stared up at her breathing hard. There was a problem; they both knew what it was.

She leaned forward and kissed him hard. “I’m on the pill.”

He closed his eyes and shuddered as she sheathed him. The wet sensation arched his back and made his fingers grip her thighs leaving white marks beneath them. It had been so long… years. She felt so good… da butter. Her movements were quick and hard and deep like he needed… compasion. Por Dios don’t let Rider wake up for ten more minutes, por favor!

“Papi,” she said sobbing, moving, barely unable to stutter the apology. “You were my first, will always be that.”

Her words and her body stripped his mind of all that had gone on before. The night dredged his core, deepened his voice, strengthened his limbs, and in moments, she was beneath him. Words filled his head, took over his throat, and made his back work harder. His sight cut through the shadows, his breaths became syncopated with hers.

“Remember I was your first.”

“Yes, Papi!”

“Who loved you best?”

“ Por Dios, you!”

“Whose territory is this?”

“Yours!”

“Then what’s my damned name?” His voice was a thick rumble, his body long stroking, his eyes on her, holding her hair in one fist, the other hand gripping her ass.

She was battling for air, her sobs and moans colliding.

He yanked her head back as she arched and he bit her throat hard.

“Jose!”

The release swept through him, made him throw his head back and holler at the moon, still pumping. For a moment, he couldn’t move when the last shudder ebbed. All he could do was stare down at her in disbelief, sweat running off his face. He nodded and briefly kissed the bridge of her nose then mouth, gulping deep inhales.

“Yeah,” he said, and collapsed against her. “I thought so. Always remember that.”


Volume 9Edit

Between Books: Volume Nine
After The Forbidden, Before The Damned
August 2005

  • Spoilers Warning! If you have not read The Forbidden, you might not want to read this installment!

Marlene ...
Marlene moved toward the kitchen sink with methodical calm. A knowing smile remained on her face as she let out the cold slurry of dishwater Mike had left and replaced it with hot, clean suds. Her hands worked by rote; her eyes remained fixed on the window above the curtains, studying the moon deep in thought.

The tension-filled charge that had been in the cold water washed over her. She simply shook her head. But she understood. Just like Inez and Mike getting together was inevitable before it was time, everything else in the house was headed toward a destination that revealed itself within her mind’s eye. It was like watching a slow-moving train wreck with no power to stop it. Human nature would prevail. No one was perfect, least of all her.

Each person’s need for touch, comfort, any respite from the pressures they all faced was too great. With every passing day a fissure yawned wider within each Guardian’s psyche, especially those that had been on the battle lines longest. She was not exempt.

Panic was also driving the younger members of the team to seek shelter in laughter, a smile, a private stolen moment. For the old guard, it like was sutures that held together gaping internal wounds. The complex simplicity of the emotion, love, was cherished and people clung to it to help make them forget all the tragedy around them. Discipline was gone. No stones were being cast; it just was what it was.

She sighed as Rider came into her consciousness. He was bleeding, as was Jose. Dan would be next.

With care, Marlene lifted each dish from the water, cleaning off the soggy dinner remains that had soiled it, and then rinsed it with clear water before setting it aside to be dried and used again later. If only the human experience of pain could be so easily dealt with…

Perhaps that, indeed, is what the Creator did, washed everyone’s plate clean. Yet, it was in the nature of people to struggle with the process and try to avoid it, much in the way that no one in the house wanted to do the dishes—but everyone wanted to eat from clean plates. Just like no one wanted to do laundry detail, but wanted to wear clean clothes, and everyone hated to go food shopping but wanted to feast. Marlene stared at the dish in her hand for a moment before quietly setting it down with a weary sigh.

She focused her mind back on the newest Guardians. Although she felt Mike’s pain, he had to understand that Inez was displaying signs of being a seer. But the new Guardian’s gift seemed to manifest in being able to detect current danger or to see energy traces like she had at the church in New York.

Marlene became still and then nodded silently to herself. Yes. Inez’s gift wasn’t direct precognition or dreams, which was why she had tried to get Big Mike to give the chile breathing room—Inez needed development space to see what else might evolve from her. But the big guy was past his endurance. So was Inez.

An annoyed smile crept across Marlene’s face until she had to chuckle. She set aside another plate. Fine. She didn’t have the energy to fight the tide. She’d simply have to accept the hand that was dealt and work with what the young woman had displayed thus far. In truth, being able to see energy tracers was an invaluable skill. Mike had to back up, though, so the gift could be refined and Inez could see with instant reflex. In a battle, there wouldn’t be time in the dark for her to have to hone in on it, coax it to the fore, and whatnot. Mike knew better than that!

Marlene allowed her hands to become one with the water as she thought about Juanita. Now that one had dream-time skill. Plus Juanita’s vision could pierce the veil between the living and the dead, even if the girl couldn’t have picked up an energy tracer if her life depended upon it, and it did. The tricky part was getting Inez and Juanita to relax enough around each other to tap into the same catalyst, Damali.

“You are really testing me, Lord,” Marlene whispered and briefly closed her eyes. How was she supposed to align that combination, when lines had been drawn in the sand between Inez and her best friend, Damali, versus Juanita? She would have to talk to her female Neteru to get her to be the adult in all of this. Marlene chuckled. Yeah right.

Her mind did an instant roll call: Dan was developing nicely as a tactical, but it would be his undoing. Every time Krissy moved, the boy’s pupil’s dilated. But poor J.L. Again, Marlene shut her eyes and leaned her weight on her hands. The man literally stopped breathing when Krissy entered a room. If the girl laughed or squealed about anything, his knees almost buckled and he had to leave her presence.

“Too many warriors under one roof, under too much pressure,” Marlene whispered in warning to the ancestors.

All of them were locked in on high-frequency vibrations that naturally attract another on the same wavelength. Add in a cup of danger, a pound of limited options, a teaspoon of curiosity, a heap camaraderie, a healthy dose of respect and friendship, and the recipe is outrageous passion, otherwise known as disaster.

“And, what, pray tell, am I supposed to do with that?” she murmured absently.

The Berkfield kids, just like Marjorie, oddly hadn’t developed any sensing capacity. Marlene stopped washing the dishes and turned her palms up to the cosmos.

Her hands had become pruny in the water and she studied them with care, wondering. The three Berkfields hadn’t shown signs of picking up—receiving, but they set off all sorts of magnetic buttons within each Guardian sensor. Transmitters? Deep. She needed to further study the phenomenon, especially given that the kids’ Aunt Gabrielle was clearly in the craft.

It suddenly dawned on her that, the whole while she’d been washing dishes, not once had she worried about Damali or Carlos. Marlene chuckled softly. “Now I know things must be bad, if I’m not worrying about those two.” She shook her head again, making her ponytail of silver locks sway against her back. “I’ll ask you one more time,” she said, looking up at the moon, “what in carnation do you want me to do with all of this?”

“Come talk to me,” a deep male voice responded within her mind.

Marlene stood very, very still. “I can’t,” she whispered, then hurried to finish the dishes.

“On the astral plane, it’s not a physical affair. It’s… fantasy. You’ve been mine for a long time.”

She pursed her lips, refusing to answer the seductive invitation as she worked harder at the kitchen chore.

“The charge was in the water—thick. Your hands ignited it, made it worse, and carried it into the air on a full moon night. What was I to do?”

That truth she couldn’t argue. Sexual tension in the kitchen had been thick enough to lodge a butcher knife in it. Yeah, true, it had run through the water and washed over her, however she’d been focused on the household and not her own needs when that had happened.

“Serves you right,” she finally said in a quiet voice with a smile. “How many times have I asked you to go home since Philly?”

A low, rumbling chuckle filled her inner ear. “Too many… but the full moon caught me still here, near you. Then, the charge…”

“Stop,” she whispered, her voice coming out in a strangled plea. “I can’t—”

“Just lock wit me, Mar. Send your spirit out de window to meet me.”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Because it ain’t right!” She glanced around and monitored the level of her voice. “Go home.”

There was a hard expulsion of air that kissed her cheek.

“All right, Marlene. I admit it ain’t so-called right, but it is a practical compromise, since you’re still adamant ‘bout allowing him exclusive access to you in the flesh. At least come out to play in the fantasy realms with—”

“No,” she said firmly, warming to the concept and then quickly banishing the idea.

“Why not?”

“Because on thing can lead to another. You know things begin in the consciousness first,” she mentally whispered. “So stop trying to get me to go there.”

“You’ve fantasized about being with me like that before and even touched yourself while—”

“Number one,” she said, growing peevish and cutting off his mental barrage. “That’s my business. Number two; I was alone and not knowingly linked to you on a sensory level. A dream or fantasy is—”

“Innocent enough, and you need to be honest. You and I are always linked, will always be like dat.” His voice had spilled against her mind in a low, mellow tone with a chuckle embedded in it. “We’ve both been innocent for a long, long time. Every full moon, girl… it come up on me like a—”

“Kamal, stop,” she said through her teeth.

“Marlene, you stop. Tonight, stop this charade!” he said with a firm warning. “I don’t have as much will-power as I used to. Not after tasting your mouth in da heat of battle. What you want me to do? Come in da house, challenge him direct in shifted form? You want me to lope through de damned window and drag you outta da house so you can say it wasn’t your fault? Just tell me, because I can do whatever will make it all right in your mind, but stop the charade.”

“It’s not a charade, and don’t you dare come in here like that,” she whispered, her tone gentle. “I love Shabazz.”

“That’s not the charade I’m talking ‘bout, nor the subject of this debate,” Kamal said quietly. “I know and respect that. The charade is that you also love me and haven’t tol’ him or come to terms with it.”

She closed her eyes. “Why are you doing this?”

“Because I want you right now more than I want my next breath.”

A desire-laced tremor ran through her. A thick, muscular back—sinew working, entered her third eye and then coated her with gooseflesh. The mental hands of a tactical Guardian charged with passion sent desire into her bones. Yes… she remembered. A fellow seer locked on the same climax drew her breath up short. His dreadlocks tangled in hers, his fingers in her hair sending waves of pleasure-static charge into each strand, and then into every hair on the surface of her skin before it leaked into her pores. Sweat commingling like tongues, voices grunting ancient syncopated chants. Green flora and damp mosses cushioning knees, thighs, clenching buttocks… The earthen scent of the jungle and him filled her nose and stung her mind with more primal memories.

Marlene weaved and held onto the edge of the sink. “Oh, God…” she whispered. “Stop.”

“I see you remember very well, too,” Kamal murmured, breathing hard. “You must come see me tonight. Slip out of the window. Lock wit me, Mar. Baby…” His voice dissolved into a low, rumbling jaguar purr. “Essence of my soul, don’ leave me hanging like this.”

Her spirit fled her body through the top of her head as though it were being chased. It passed through window panes in a blur to fill his arms, eliciting his agonized groan.

“Shabazz is a good man,” she whispered against Kamal’s neck as his hands slid across her naked skin.

“I know,” he purred, his eyes glowing coppery-gold in the moonlight. “But so am I… in fact, better.”

“Don’t say that,” she whispered tensely, her eyes shut tight as he nuzzled her neck and his palms flattened against her back.

“It’s the truth. Let me show you,” he whispered, his voice becoming an impassioned growl.

“I’m serious,” she whispered sadly. “I shouldn’t have even—”

He captured her mouth, his fingers tangling in her locks, his tongue a hot duel with hers, his body a searing press of skin against skin.

“You’re here with me, naked, under a full moon. Trust that tonight I’m deadly serious, too.” Her kissed her again harder then broke to kiss a wet path down her neck to her shoulder.

“He cannot understand this,” she said through a shudder, her hands glorying in the velvety feel of his dark skin.

“That’s one of the reasons I’m better,” he said through a pant, the frenzy of his kisses across her shoulder intensifying as his hands tried to touch all of her at once. “I accept my role in your life, know of his existence, and have willingly shared you with him. He hasn’t.”

“He’s a traditionalist,” she defended as her hands swept Kamal’s agile spine.

Kamal pulled back and stared at her for a moment, eyes blazing with unspent passion. “That’s because he lacks vision, isn’t a seer. The man is blind. You and I, gurl, are on the same plane and on another entire dimension of perception than him.” He took her mouth hard, then threw his head back to breathe as his gums ripped to allow upper and lower canines to present. “Oh, shit,” he whispered thickly. “I want you so much I can’t even love you in my head without half-shifting.”

His stomach contracted against hers, his massive erection pressed tightly between them. “He doesn’t understand, because he’s never been were-nicked, never dealt with this type of burn between seasoned lovers with this much history. Tell me I’m lying,” he said urgently through his teeth and then knocked her head back to graze her windpipe, holding her still with her throat in his jaws.

Pure want riddled her as his hands charged with an intense, blue-white hot current, lifting their locks in a static-laden twine. Pleasure soaked her skin, coursing over every surface that touched his as their pelvises locked. Her hands traced his pulsing hips then slowly lowered to cover his muscular buttocks.

“He’ll never forgive me if he finds out that—”

“Then fuck ‘im,” Kamal growled, unable to take her mouth hard with his fangs distended.

His eyes shimmered with agony as he turned her, covered her breast with his palms until she moaned, and then forced them both to their knees on the ground. One strong male hand plastered against her stomach, the other bracing against the earth, a hot lick of pleasure danced across her shoulder blades, and a swift entry followed so hard that their cry rent the air in unison. Her nails dug into the dry earth as her ankles hooked his tight calves. Hot sweat dripped against her skin and sizzled in the electric charge where it landed, making her throw her head back just to breathe. Every thrust took her back to every other time he’d been with her, connecting the memories, the pleasure all running together in one blue-white hot current of imploding releases.

She could see it, she could feel it, the old nick bled rivulets of ecstasy and put molten lava between her legs. She was crying; he was delivering hard lunges that challenged lightening. Each punishing stroke and sent shards of pleasure-heat inside her that lacerated her womb with climatic bursts till she wept.

His voice was a breathless, unrelenting, deep baritone chant singed with a growl. “Oh, Marlene… oh, Marlene, shit… don’t do this to me no more!”

She could make no promises; she could barely speak as she felt him approaching the edge, battling not to fully shift from human form on her. Both of his arms were now wrapped around her waist; his face burned against her shoulders, his tears mixing with sweat as the first of his convulsions claimed him and spent his voice with an elongated roar.

* * *

She returned to her body exhausted, subdued… mellow, and very introspective. The orgasms Kamal had produced had been so intense that she still had a mild headache from his charge. Now, she had a real problem.

Her hands began moving beneath the suds again, and she started when a pair of warm, familiar male hands gently rested on her shoulders.

“A million miles away in thought again, baby?” Shabazz said in her ear and then kissed her neck.

She fought herself not to tense and simply nodded, closed her eyes, and let her breath out slowly. Guilt stabbed her conscience. “Yeah. Everything is at the breaking point,” she said quietly.

He nodded and swept a slow, sensual kiss across her exposed shoulder, unsettling her unbleached cotton sundress. “I know, and I’m not exempt.” His hands slid down her arms. “What the hell was going on in this kitchen?” He kissed the side of her neck more aggressively as he fit himself snugly against her backside. “Damn, Mar,” he whispered. “Got my locks standing on end.”

She fought back the tears. “It got intense in here.”

“Tell me about it,” he murmured, his hands caressing her arms. “Want me to finish those dishes for you in the morning?”

“That’s okay,” she whispered. “They’re almost done.”

He kissed her ear, then her neck, and shoulder. “Baby, I’ll do ‘em in the morning.”

“Everybody is still awake and moving around in the house. Besides, the young tacticals won’t be able to tolerate it, if we go there, and Mike is in no condition to hear bedsprings.”

“Then let’s go take a walk,” Shabazz breathed against her temple.

“It’s dark outside, honey.”

His hands covered her breasts and a low groan filled his throat when he felt that her nipples were hard. “You are sooo wet,” he whispered and then sucked in a deep inhale. “The charge coming off of you, Mar… damn, girl. I haven’t felt you lit up like this in months. Not since we first got back from the Philadelphia job.”

She bit her lip and nodded. “I know. Maybe later, when folks finally crash, and—”

“This can’t wait,” he murmured, sucking her earlobe.

“But it’s dangerous out at night and—”

“Baby,” he said quietly, turning her around to look at him. He touched her face with the pads of his thumbs his gaze tenderly searching hers. “It’s so bad you’ve got tears in your eyes, Mar. So, the way I see it, right now,” he murmured, kissing her briefly, “it’s more dangerous for anything that rolls up on me and you tonight, feeling like this. I can’t leave my baby hanging.” He nudged her with his shoulder holster. “That’s why I came back here with a weapon.” He smiled and kissed her harder. “Me, you, and Sleeping Beauty,” he added with a sexy chuckle. “Ménage a trois in the shed.”

She smiled through the tears and nodded, then dried her hands slowly on the dishtowel that was over her shoulder. “You know I love you, right?”

He kissed her again and nodded. “No matter what, I’ve always known that.”

Volume 10Edit

Between Books: Volume Ten
After The Forbidden, Before The Damned
August 2005
'*Spoilers Warning! If you have not read The Forbidden, you might not want to read this installment!

On a Mission ...
“At dawn, we ride, gentlemen.”

Those infamous words, said so eloquently before the team, came back to haunt him as the new morning rays pierced his skull and slapped his face. The aroma of brewing coffee dragged him from the sofa like the dead rising. The kids were in the kitchen preparing fossil fuel to pour into his body so his engine would turn over. He felt like shit.

Rider scratched the stubble on his jaw. To say that they could go on this mission later and do this another day just wouldn’t be right… would be like blowing off children on Christmas morning. He’d never do that, had vowed never to be a stinking, lying, hollow-promising drunk like his old man had been. He might be some of those things, but a liar he was not—at least that’s how he justified his condition to himself.

Besides, for all Bobby and Dan knew, this would be their first solo mission to ride shotgun with him to go build the ammo supply. J.L. and the others had to stay put—his orders—so the two youngest best buds were bouncing off the walls and raring to go on an adventure.

Rider scratched his head, yawned, and then stood with a hard stretch. It took him a moment to steady his focus before he could amble to the kitchen in search of java.

Shit, shower, then shave—that was the natural order of things. His universe was simple. Coffee would take the edge off; a shot of Jack would bite the snake that bit him; nicotine was necessary to make the venom go down smoothly. Yes, his world order and priorities were just fine, thank you very much.

“Yo, Rider, you carrying a Glock or an Uzi on this run?” Bobby smiled brightly and poured the coffee too fast, half spilling it.

Rider closed his eyes and leaned on the doorframe. The puppies had too much energy first thing in the morning.

“Double-aught to go in the Jeep is the way the man likes it,” Dan said with authority, tossing a pack of smokes to Rider.

The cigarettes hit Rider’s chest and fell to the floor. He held up his hand, squinting to stave off their enthusiasm and winced as he bent to pick up his Marlboros. Dan seemed crushed, like he’d thrown a baseball to his favorite Major League player who’d missed the catch.

“Gimme a minute,” Rider said, not wanting to spoil their image of him, whatever that was, but it was all he had. “Java first,” he added, accepting the mug from Bobby and slurping from it loudly. Then nodding to Dan, he put a cigarette in his mouth. “Now the matches.”

Dan eagerly hiked a box of stick matches to Rider, who caught them this time without looking up from his coffee. The smile on Dan and Bobby’s faces said it all==big brother hero restored.

“So, when’re we leaving?”

Bobby was practically bouncing off the walls as he tried to drink his coffee the way Rider took it, clearly trying not to wince.

He didn’t answer the kid, but just meandered over to the kitchen sink, bent, and began rummaging for a stashed bottle. He sighed with satisfaction when his fingers blindly found it. “Fifteen minutes,” he said, pouring a healthy jigger of Jack Daniels into his black coffee. “Let me get my morning constitution done, then meet me in the Jeep.”

* * *

 

Rider leaned his head on the steering wheel, his eyes shielded behind dark glasses and a tawny, felt cowboy hat. Jesus make the driveway hold still in a straight line. Bobby and Dan’s voices were drilling a hole in his skull by way of jackhammer—right at the temples.

Nevertheless, he straightened his back, coordinated his fingers enough to turn the key in the ignition, and started the motor.

Dan patted the Glock nine millimeter in his shoulder holster, making Bobby do the same.

“Rule number one, never take off your gun while Rider is doing a buy,” Dan warned, addressing Bobby’s wide-eyed stare of awe. “The shotgun on the floor is your friend. We watch the door and watch Rider’s back. Bikers are as bad as some of the vamps, ‘cause if they know he’s got serious cash on him, they may try to roll him. We’re his reinforcement. Enforcers—got it?”

Bobby nodded enthusiastically and never took his eyes off Dan.

“That’s why you couldn’t go out with us until you turned eighteen and your Mom got cool with it.”

“Leave the puppy alone, Dan.” Rider let out a weary sigh as he drove. This was gonna be a long day. “He’s old enough to serve in the military, go to war, and die for this country, plus old enough to vote for the next President. So if Uncle Sam says he passes the litmus test, he’s old enough.” Rider glanced over the back seat at Bobby, who had such an expression of pride on his face he almost saluted the kid. “Rules of the road when you’re rolling with me, what happens in New Orleans, stays in New Orleans.” He glanced in the rearview mirror and then glanced at Dan. “We clear?”

“That’s cool,” Bobby said, sounding confused. “But I thought we were going to the Mexican border?”

Rider briefly released the steering wheel and rubbed his palms down his face. “That’s because your Mom would have a hissey fit knowing we were headed for the vamp Big Apple… Damali wouldn’t allow it, nor would Marlene. But the best buys are there, and I don’t screw with El Diablo weapons traders from Mexico—that’s Rivera’s specialty, not mine. So, if I went into details, this little adventure would have been null and void. I couldn’t tell you two puppies before now, because you guys are as easy to read as the Sunday paper. No psychic skills necessary. Your faces give headlines in bold print. That’s why you suck at poker. I had to tuck my ace under the ten gallon.” Rider tipped his hat and shook his head.

Dan glanced at Bobby. “Okay, so then, exactly where in New Orleans are we going?”

“Relax. I’m not crazy enough to take you lair busting during the day. But I am gonna take you where I should have taken you guys a long time ago. Couldn’t, though, because we were under siege and it wasn’t prudent.”

Rider spied the two younger Guardians from his peripheral vision with a half grin. It was impossible not to smile. Their expressions were priceless. To his way of thinking, he had a virgin and a near-virgin that were both too old for the condition—and he’d been charged with getting them calmed down enough to become sharpshooters? Fat chance.

After a moment, Dan and Bobby both looked at each other and burst out laughing.

“Get out, man!” Dan said laughing hard. “You’re gonna take us bar hopping in The Big Easy?”

Rider stared out the windshield. They just didn’t get it.

“Dude, I’m gonna get hammered!” Bobby shouted, laughing harder.

Rider shook his head. “Where we’re going, gentlemen, you gotta leave your gun at the door, so all this excess arsenal we loaded in the Jeep was just to make it look good for the house Moms. Good exit strategy. Now, my friend who is an ex-Vietnam chopper pilot, also has a little Cessna that will be flying two hours differential, which means we can stay till near sunset and pick up two hours on the back end when we head West again.” He glanced over the seat at Bobby and then to his right toward Dan. “Always know your daylight window for a mission, and keep a compass in your head,” he added, suddenly glad he’d made the decision to get the three of them out of the house. “Note, I mentioned that my buddy is an ex-vet, why?”

“Because we shouldn’t get on his nerves with a lot of unnecessary convo,” Dan replied, sounding unsure.

“Precisely,” Rider said, pleased. “Yep. And a true soldier handles his business on a need to know basis—translation—nobody but the three of us need to know, and therefore even casually discussing it when we get back is off limits, especially having seers in the house.”

“No problemmo,” Bobby said quickly, falling back against his seat still smiling.

Dan pounded Rider’s fist.

“Shoulda done this for you, man, a long time ago. My apologies.” He glimpsed Dan as a pang of guilt stabbed him. “Things got hectic, I got busy, and as the last new kid on the block until the new crew came along, you sorta fell through the rites of passage cracks, what can I say? But you’re a good egg, an ace on the slingshots, really stepped up back in Ethiopia… like your style.”

“Thanks, man,” Dan said quietly, his eyes holding admiration. “I wanna learn from the best.”

“That would be Rivera,” Rider said. “Or—”

“Rivera is awesome, and so are Shabazz, Mike, and Jose—Damali is unmatchable, but if you haven’t noticed, everybody is caught up in their own shit and really isn’t listening to us new squad. There’s nobody to really talk to, even though the house is loaded with bodies. But you spend more time with us, though… are still the best sharpshooter on the team.” Dan looked at Rider and then glanced away. “You hear us when we haven’t even said stuff.”

Bobby nodded adamantly. “You make the time, man, and that means a lot.”

Momentary silence felt like it was swallowing the Jeep cabin whole. How and when did he become den-Dad? That had always been Shabazz’s role, and he was always the rebellious one that needed a behavior chaperone as much as the newbies did. But the shift oddly felt pretty good.

“I really needed to get out of that house, Rider… ‘ppreciate the day pass, dude.” Dan sent his gaze out the window and swallowed hard.

Rider glanced at Dan. “Listen… things sometimes don’t always go your way, but you’re still young enough to recover. Gotta keep hope alive. Comprendo? I know where you’re at, and you just need to get out and blow off some steam—so that’s what we’re gonna do today.”

Bobby looked out the window as Dan’s gaze briefly returned to Rider. Every man in the Jeep knew the reference was about Krissy. But some things were just not to be said outright between men.

“I just can’t believe you’re taking us bar hopping, dude,” Bobby said, cracking first under the pressure of the silence.

Rider kept driving and knew Bobby’s dilemma from experience. It was no fun having one’s best friend in love with your sister, but your sister in love with another guy who was your next best friend. Why did women put men in positions like that, he wondered? He thought of what to say. When the smoke cleared in the house, Dan and Bobby were the solo males… so it stood to reason they should be partners in crime.

“We’re not going bar hopping,” Rider said after a while, his tone flat. “Although the lady of the house does have a nice selection of to shelf at her establishment.” A sheepish smirk fought for control of his facial muscles and won. “Besides, consumption of too much alcohol deadens the senses, takes years off your life, and generally fucks up your life—ask me how I know. So go easy on the booze, and I’ll break your arm if I catch either one of you smoking—that goes for weed, too… do as I say, not as I do, especially around the ladies. Got it? Finally?”

Rider waited. He braced himself for the volume spike. He still had a hangover after all. Then it hit, nearly rocked the Jeep as Bobby and Dan whooped in unison.

“Noooooo…” they said in a simultaneous rush.

“Oh, shit!”

“Get outta here, dude!”

Rider had to laugh as the two younger Guardians pelted him with backslaps, almost making him swerve off the road. In their celebration, Dan and Bobby almost hugged each other, but then quickly checked themselves and offered high-fives instead. He was just glad that the fact that J.L. had been excluded from the adventure had passed right by them. Krissy was pretty much spoken for, and the last thing he could go through was another heartbroken newbie. This was best, to his way of seeing things.

Left with no choice, he waited until some of the reverie in the vehicle died down to a dull roar, and decided to do what he knew how to do best—layer on the sarcasm to keep the convo light. He didn’t want Dan to go morose on him. Thinking too hard and analyzing too much would do that to a man, and this was a mission of mercy.

“Hey,” Rider said with a shrug, breaking up the laughter. He adjusted the brim of his ten gallon and reached in his vest for a cigarette. “Mar and ‘Bazz told me to make you pro sharpshooters. If anybody asks, that’s what I’m doing. No details, that’s your line that you stick by.”

He grinned in the rearview mirror at Bobby as the two younger Guardians erupted in a gale of laughter again, and accepted the lit match from Dan. Leaning in to catch the flame, Rider looked at Dan over the tops of his dark aviator sunglasses, took a hard drag and tossed the match out the open window.

“Dude, save it for the ladies—the lighting my cigarette thing. I know you’re excited and it’s been a long time since you got laid, but don’t do that where we’re going. I don’t want ‘em to think you just got out of prison.”

Dan raked his hair and laughed, embarrassment staining his cheeks rosy. “Shit, Rider, I did just get out of prison, man. You’re gonna make me tattoo your name on my arm for this one, brother.”

Bobby doubled over laughing, and Rider gave in to a hard chuckle.

“I can respect an honest man,” Rider said with a wink, exhaling a billowing trail of smoke. “But to our friend in the backseat who likes jokes,” he added, issuing Dan a sly nod to let him know is was Bobby’s turn to get ribbed, “Don’t go in there and embarrass me as the fastest gun in the West.”

Dan whooped and pounded Rider’s fist. Bobby hollered and shoved Dan’s shoulder.

“We are Guardians,” Rider said, putting bass in his voice while smiling widely. “We have a reputation to uphold and defend. I train sharpshooters, which is a skill requiring accuracy and control. I don’t train Minute Men, like this is the Revolutionary war… even they took time to reload their muskets. And just ‘cause you’re packing automatics, don’t go in there and spray the freakin’ wall with shells… what has always been my motto?”

“Find your target, hold the shot, squeeze the trigger slow and—” Dan, gasped through gales of laughter. “Oh, shit, you’re killing me, Rider!”

“Short, controlled bursts from the automatic,” Bobby howled, slapping the back of Riders seat and wiping his eyes. “Don’t blow your load and waste shells!”

Rider was laughing so hard the vehicle swerved as they speed along to the private airstrip. “I paid for the entire afternoon, you knuckleheads—four hours—so you can come back for seconds and thirds, buffet style. Anything you want. So, don’t waste my five grand, okaaaay.”

“Five grand?” Dan whispered, and then just fell back against his seat and closed his eyes.

Bobby whistled and was still laughing. Rider shook his head. The older one knew what time it was.

“You definitely kill me, dude. I’m with Dan,” Bobby said, wiping his eyes. “Five fucking grand?” After a moment Bobby fell silent and just stared out the window as though in shell shock.

The change of mood in the Jeep made Rider raise and eyebrow; Dan opened his eyes and looked over the back seat at Bobby.

“Are they pretty?” Bobby fidgeted with his shoulder holster.

Again, Rider just shook his head as he puffed on a cigarette. Both young Guardians were looking at him now.

Yes,” Rider said sarcastically. “For five grand they’ll look like they walked off the showroom floor in Vegas. Red heads, brunettes, blond, pick a color.” He briefly let go of the steering wheel, tossed his cigarette butt, and cupped his hands over his chest for a second before grabbing the wheel again. “Silicon to here—this is New Orleans, don’t insult me.”

“Which one, I mean type are you gonna pick?” Bobby asked in a rush. “What do you suggest, since you’ve been here before?”

“Nah… this is your play day,” Rider said, reaching for a new cigarette. “You guys are under thirty and your hearts can take it. Me, I’ll wait for you in the bar. Not to worry, I’ll be your shotgun by the door and will smoke a cigarette or two, maybe pass out and get a few more Zs on the parlor sofa. The babes in there will give me a heart attack at my age. Any more questions?”

There was a long pause, but he knew several hundred more questions loomed. The insane conversation reminded him so much of his Harley riding days out West with Snake and the gang before his life changed. He remembered how the older bikers took him on a Rites of Passage mission like this when he’d joined the squad as their mechanic. Then, he was the youngest kid, the one wet behind the ears—and he remembered how much he loved those guys like family until it all went belly up. A quiet sadness filled him. That was during the time he’d met Tara. Man, this was a Harley riding kinda day. But the vamps had wrecked his bike, just like they’d wrecked his woman… had wrecked his biker-family… had wrecked his life. He hated vampires.

Pushing away the blues, he fought through the last vestiges of the Jack Daniels haze and tried to recall being Dan and Bobby’s ages. He let out a hard exhale and pitched his cigarette butt out the window.

“Okay, here’s the protocol,” Rider said, trying to smile through the memories. “We’ll go in, and the lady of the house will greet me, and she’ll smile and fawn over you. But she’ll talk to me.” He glanced at both younger Guardians, almost sighing with fatigue as they hung on his every word. “I’m the paying client, you two puppies are there to get a full service oil change and a lube job on my dime, but she’s businesswoman enough to know that if you guys walk out of there smiling, I’ll consider it money well spent. I also asked her to send you the books, rather than have you choke on your own spit during an in-parlor selection process.”

“Books?” Dan asked quietly. “Like how do they work?”

Rider sighed. “Don’t they teach you anything in school these days? Why, by the time I was halfway through high school…” He lifted up his hat and set it back down on his head hard. “See, all this cyberspace bullshit and reliance on technology is dulling the social skills of Generation X!” He lit another cigarette when Bobby and Dan exchanged a confused glance. “Gentlemen… you get escorted to a room, you look through the photo book, you dial the number on the page of the cutie who strikes your fancy which routes your call to an in-house line, and very shortly thereafter, she’ll appear like an angel—wearing very little, and will lock the door behind herself.”

“Ooohhhh…” Bobby said, wiping his brow beneath the bill of his baseball cap. “Deep.”

In a huff, Rider pointed at both Guardians and talked with the cigarette precariously dangling from his lips. “See what constant cyber-sex will do for you? Dulls the cognitive skills. At least with a magazine you’ve gotta use your imagination—and I promise you guys, after this, you’ll never be able to go back to a wireless laptop in the shed again.”

The situation had lit a fuse of anger within him, and he found himself waving his arms as he drove, spoke, and smoked all at the same time. In his opinion, all of this was a travesty. Young kids in the prime of their lives shouldn’t have to go to these lengths, when they should be out having fun with other kids their own age on a beach during spring break somewhere. The cosmos had a wicked sense of humor.

“But what do we say to them when they come in the room?” Dan ran his fingers through his hair. “Is there some sorta—”

“Put a gun to my temple and pull the trigger, why don’t you,” Rider exclaimed and glanced up to the vehicle ceiling. “Guys… you have to talk to ‘em a little. Compliment their hair; say something halfway reasonable, even though you’re paying. Some things are just gentlemanly manners. You talk a little once you make your pick, sit back for a few, have a beer to relax—and in your conditions, whatever you do, don’t throw back a shot of hard liquor. Then, she’ll sidle up to you after handing you your beer, will ask you if you wanna get comfortable—your answer is, ‘Yes, darlin’, that would be nice.’ Easy. The rest she’ll do and do well.”

Bobby and Dan exchanged another nervous glance.

“Damn, Rider,” Bobby said in a quiet voice. “Like you could’ve told us, and that way I would have worn better underwear or taken a for real shower, or something. I thought we were going to hang out with bikers, not babes.

Dan absently reached in his jeans pocket and tossed Bobby a roll of mints. “I mean, I woulda shaved, ya know.”

“Oh, for chrissakes, guys! They have showers, bath tubs, soap, toothpaste and will bath you naked, if that’s what you want to spend time doing.”

“Whoa,” Bobby whispered.

Dan blew out a long whistle and kept his gaze trained on the horizon.

“How many businessmen come through these types of establishments and gotta go back to work, the conference they slid out of, or home to a nagging wife smelling laundry fresh? While I happen to think a midday change of scent to freshly showered is a dead giveaway, the house I’m taking you to has said facilities—these are not street walkers or crack-heads giving you a roll in an alley for five bucks! These girls are at the top of their profession, probably have a medical and dental plan better that we do, and this is the good ole south, thank you very much. The profession is managed with a level of gentility often neglected in the greater Northeast or back in Los Angeles, which can border on tacky sometimes—but in a pinch, those work, too. Who’s complaining?”

Quiet descended upon the vehicle again. Rider braced for another round of questions that were percolating in the silence and kept his gaze focused on the road. Maybe this was a bad idea. Their innocence would be ruined but their horizons expanded. These two guys had no idea the range of skills gorgeous working girls possessed, and although they were gonna get their pipes cleaned good today, it would never compare to being with a soul mate… the love of one’s life. That he couldn’t explain to them or buy for them, as much as he wanted to make their lives a little less painful. Losing Lopez had fucked him up but good.

He couldn’t get that out of his mind… a kid, a virgin, clerical status notwithstanding, dead on impact from a demon tail-spear. Any night, one of his newbies could go down, just like they’d lost Dee Dee and the others. So, rather than live life on the cautious side and bury another young person who hadn’t experienced the full buffet of life, he’d decided to go for broke. The seniors would have to get over it—so what he took the young dogs out and let ‘em off the leash to play. God only knew Dan and Bobby were starting to develop nervous ticks.

But, no, he wasn’t interested. This was their day. After having steak, everything else was hamburger casserole, and at this juncture in life he’d become a very picky eater. What was there to have after Tara?

He saw Dan take a breath as though to speak and then watched him gaze out the window. That worried him.

“Yes, they have condoms. Like I said, they’re pros.”

Dan glanced at him. Good. Then it wasn’t about Krissy, per se. Then again, with the young guys, one could never tell.

Reaching for a diversion, Rider pressed on in a nonchalant tone. “Word of advice, let her do most of the work—unless you feel compelled and just can’t help yourself. Your day will last longer that way. But when you meet me back in the parlor, I’ll bitch-slap you both if either one of you tells me you’re in love. This is a service being provided by those in a very old and admirable profession. But just like you don’t fall in love with your dentist for giving you extra gloss on your pearly whites, you do not fall in love with your service provider in there. Got it?”

Heads bobbed enthusiastically in unison.

“Cool,” Dan said.

“Yeah, we cool,” Bobby reiterated.

Rider inhaled a long drag. These guys were anything but cool. Sweat was already making dark Vs in their t-shirts, and they were so lost in thought that the questions finally ceased. Gazes were out the window, muscles in jaws lines pulsing. It was like watching hunting dogs pointed toward quail in the bush—intense focus. He almost laughed, and would have if it weren’t so pitiful. He remembered those days, still had ‘em from time to time… more at night when Tara’s nick burned.

Note to self: get these young men out once a month until I go broke or get busted by Mar. Postscript: Reminder to have a drink with Berkfield and then kick his ass for allowing his son to be tied to Marj’s apron strings so tight. No job was that important to let her do all the raising. No wonder the kid had been giving them grief until he joined the team.

“One last word of advice, guys,” Rider said, just to mess with their minds—but he was also half serious. He paused for dramatic effect, taking a long, thought-filled rag on his cigarette. “If you can manage it, do a quick room scan and be sure you know how to open a window. In the event of a raid, at all times you should know where your pants, boots, wallet, and gun are, in that order—even when getting’ laid. That’s cowboy code and been done like that in the ole West since the West was won.” He chuckled as their expression went ashen. “Where do you think the term knocking boots came from?” He exhaled showed and stared at the ember, and then took another drag. “Half the time we never took ‘em off to ride.”

He spied his young pupils from a sideline glance. Their mouths opened and then closed, and gazes sought the window again.

“Thanks, man,” Dan said so quietly he could barely hear him.

“Yeah… thanks,” Bobby murmured, his line of vision fixed on the distance beyond the window.

From the corner of his eye, Rider glimpsed their glassy stares. He could only shake his head; there just oughta be a law!

Volume 11Edit

Between Books: Volume Eleven
After The Forbidden, Before The Damned
August 2005

  • Spoilers Warning! If you have not read The Forbidden, you might not want to read this installment!

Just before dawn in New Orleans ...
Rider adjusted his hat and knocked on the front door, glancing over his shoulder at Bobby and Dan. “You guys look like you need a Valium. Chill out.”

He waited on the marble steps, casually leaning against the ornate wrought iron rail, simply watching the Spanish moss lazily hang from wide branch trees. If he was gonna bring ‘em anywhere, it would have to be Ophelia’s.

It had all the accoutrements of fine Southern living. Her pleasure palace had an immaculate white exterior, was discretely out of the way, used its renowned bed and breakfast status as a nice cover, had no working girls that catered to the fanged population, and the establishment was on very good terms with the local police—whom her girls regularly serviced. They understood that firearms were okay to stay with VIPs who in the serve and protect professions.

Ophelia’s house had grand, Antebellum interiors were all done up in white and gold silk brocades, with no hint of vampire anything lurking anywhere. A well stocked bar and well stacked babes; this was the American way. A sentimental sigh escaped his lips as the dense humidity and still air made his clothes stick to him. It had been so long since he’d been here hanging out with Mike. He was just glad that some things in the universe were fixed institutions. Change wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

Within minutes, a petite blond in a tasteful white linen jacket and short, business-length skirt, opened the door with a bright smile. She smoothed back her chignon as Rider’s gaze calmly assessed her ample bosom that was slightly constricted by her shell-pink blouse. She peeked around him and waved at Bobby and Dan, then returned her attention to him.

“Why you must be Mr. Smith,” she said in a long, breathy drawl. “Ms. Ophelia told us to take very good care of you during your visit.”

Rider tipped his hat. “Ma’am, much obliged for the hospitality.”

“Please come on in and make yourselves at home, suh. The lady of the house would like a word with you, as well.”

Rider turned with a smile. “Gentlemen, welcome to the best of the South.”

“I can see why Ms. Ophelia has taken such a shine to you,” the young hostess crooned. “Do come in out of this insufferable heat and enjoy our bar while you wait for your rooms to be readied. Right this way, gentlemen.”

He could feel the cool air from blasting central air conditioning units wafting around her and making her nipples tight under her semi-sheer blouse. He gave her an appreciative glance as she held the door open and waited for them to assemble in the grand, white marble foyer. That she was wearing pearls, truly tickled him, and he loved the five inch black stilettos that put an extra sashay in her sexy gait. Great legs, for a tiny little thing. She looked so dangerously corporate, but then again, right out of a video, that he knew he needed smelling salts for the younguns behind him.

Rider took off his hat and glanced up at the heavy, crystal chandelier to keep from chuckling out loud, especially when she closed the door and blew Dan a kiss as she rounded them, and then brushed up against Bobby before leading them toward the parlor.

He leaned into Dan as their hostess strutted ahead of them. “Close your mouth and wipe Bobby’s chin before she turns around. This is why I didn’t think you all could stand a parade of options. The book was best.”

“Uh huh,” Dan said, mesmerized. “But if she’s on the list,” he whispered, “I really don’t need to shop.”

“Patience,” Rider whispered back with a smirk. He glanced over his shoulder at Bobby. “You need a pulse check, or can you make it to the parlor? And take off your hat in the house around ladies.”

Bobby whipped off his hat, and wiped his brow. “I’m cool.”

Rider shook his head.

“Mr. Smith, would you mind having a word with the lady of the house in the drawing room? You gentleman have a seat. May I offer you a beverage?”

“Uh, huh,” Dan said.

“Uh, huh,” Bobby repeated.

Rider sighed with a smile. “How about a beer for these road-weary souls, ma’am?”

She unsuccessfully tried to swallow a smile. “Any particular brand?” She stared at Bobby and Dan, waiting.

“Uh, huh,” Bobby said, his voice failing.

“Oh, he is divine,” she said, laughing behind her hand.

“Forgive them. How about if you make it two Coronas?”

“All right… but, uhmmm… won’t you two gentlemen have a seat?
The two younger Guardians nodded but didn’t move.

“Sit. Heel. Stay,” Rider said with a grin. “Hon, they don’t get out much.”

Both Bobby and Dan sat quickly and kept their eyes on the attractive hostess.

“That is just so darling!” she squealed at a pitch that made both Dan and Bobby wipe their brows. “Let me get you into the drawing room so you and Ms. Ophelia can chat, and so we can get these boys a room.”

“Hon, you must have been reading my mind.”

Rider gave Bobby and Dan one last look and ran his fingers through his hair as he followed the hostess. He calmly waited for her to pull open two large, walnut, recessed doors and close them behind him. But to his chagrin, there were two women in the room. One was the buxom, long-stemmed blond with Dolly Parton proportions wrapped in an expensive, white designer suit, and the other was the last person on earth he’d expected to see.

“Oh, honey, you have been a veritable stranger!” Ophelia gushed, sweeping over to Rider and throwing open her arms. “Where have you been you naughty boy—all these years, you just put old Ophelia down completely.” She hugged him hard until her breasts crushed the air from his lungs, and then held him back. “You’re lucky I even take your calls, and you’re even luckier that you caught me before the management changed.” She pecked his cheek and led him to the sofa, adjusting the one button suit jacket she wore without a blouse beneath it. “Let me introduce you to—”

“Gabrielle…”

She laughed and stood.

“You two know each other?” Ophelia glanced from Gabrielle to Rider. “Small, small world. Have you been stealing my best clients?” she teased with a wink toward Gabrielle. “But in this business, it isn’t polite to ask how you two know each other.”

“Management change?” Rider stuttered. “Since when?”

“Oh, now, hon, don’t take it so hard. Ophelia is getting up in years, and the Mediterranean is calling my name—maybe I’ll just go on and marry some rich Greek tycoon like Jackie O did?” She laughed and went over to the bar. “I’m retiring.”

Rider’s gaze followed her stacked form. For fifty years plus, and with expert cosmetic surgery, Ophelia was well preserved. “Darlin’, you just go on ahead and do that. You deserve it, even though you are far too young and far too gorgeous to be retiring. But the tycoons abroad will scoop you up so fast your head will spin.”

She brought him back a tumbler of Jack Daniels as Gabrielle shook her head. “Oh, Jack Rider, I’ma miss you so much.” She spun toward Gabrielle. “Do you see why I love him so?”

Gabrielle nodded. “I do. He’s one of a kind. They broke the mold.”

He saluted her with his glass and took a steady sip from it. “You couldn’t have transferred your enterprise to a better businesswoman.”

The smile lingered between them and he noticed that her entire presence had changed. Gabrielle had gained weight in all the right places, and no longer looked like a fragile, anorectic vampire feeder. The woman was voluptuous, full. Her hips were gently padded and her gaunt pelvic bones were gone, now hidden behind a nice layer of feminine flesh. She’d also changed her hair from the harsh Goth black that it once was; it was now a shoulder-length, soft auburn hue with highlights that complimented her one green eye and one blue eye. Her skin looked healthy and tanned, as though she’d been on the beach. Her coloring looked great in the soft, moss green suit she wore. He couldn’t help noticing her shapely legs as the sat again with a wise smile and crossed them.

“Well,” Ophelia exclaimed on a breathy exhale, clasping her hands. “Now that we are all acquainted, we should discuss a matter of delicacy.” She patted the sofa next to her for Rider to sit, and he did so with care.

“My nephew is out there, Mr. Smith,” Gabrielle said smiling, and then sipping her Cognac.

“Aw, man, Gabby… had I known, I wouldn’t have bought the boy here—but if you ladies send him home—”

“I’m amused, Rider, not a sadist. How my sister sleeps at night with her son in this condition is beyond me.”

Rider closed his eyes. “Bless you.”

Both women laughed.

“I just don’t want him to know I’m expanding my Southern operations after the financial disaster that hit my Manhattan property. How do you explain to the insurance company that…” she glanced at Ophelia and then censored herself. “It’s bad enough that he knows I’m a witch, he doesn’t need to know about this type of enterprise.”

“We just wanted you to be discrete,” Ophelia said, holding Rider’s hand. “I’ll ring for Tessa, and she can show them their rooms. But aren’t you getting any work done today, honey bunch, just for old time’s sake?”

He laughed and kissed the back of her hand. “I’ve gotta set an example.”

“Well, you just oughta set an example for those boys and show ‘em how an old gunslinger—”

“I’ll just indulge my vices at the bar,” he said laughing.

“Mind if I join you and we stay in here, so my nephew is none the wiser?”

Gabrielle offered Rider a wink and Ophelia dropped his hand with a disappointed sigh.

“You guys are no fun,” Ophelia said with a disappointed sigh.

“If my nephew thinks his Aunt Gabby is in the house…” Gabrielle said grinning.

“When he’s getting laid for the first time…” Rider chimed in, finishing her sentence.

“I know, I know, you’ll ruin the boy for life.” Ophelia said, throwing her hands up. “But I still don’t see why it makes a difference if our dear old friend gets taken care of? However, if he’s adamant about playing camp counselor, I’ll send in my best girl for your nephew and keep you two sneaks hidden back here.”

“No, no, no,” Gabrielle said, holding up her hands. “Use Jasmine for him.”

“Jasmine? But the child is practically flat-chested,” Ophelia fussed. “You are gonna run this establishment into the ground, chile. You want ‘em to get what they can’t normally have here, and keep coming back, to have a hankerin’—”

“I hadn’t thought about that,” Rider said, taking a deep swig from his glass and wincing. “Gabby’s got a point. Send Bobby a girl that is not far from his age, if you’ve got one, without implants, who has a little innocence to her eyes, ya know?”

Gabrielle gently clinked her glass against his. “Jasmine is from the Philippines, by way of Thailand. Long brown hair, gorgeous doe eyes, sweet, tiny, beautiful. She looks like a girl he might meet at college. I don’t want him making the more flamboyant working girls a lifestyle habit.”

“I hear you,” Rider said, staring into his drink. “First patterning is the one that always sticks.

‘”She’s actually not a working girl for me yet… she’s a young apprentice of mine. Just turned eighteen. So, for her maiden voyage, under my house rules it’s no girls under age, I think it would do them both good.”

Gabrielle nodded and stared at Rider.

“I found her at thirteen years old while acquiring girls overseas and they had her in… it was horrible—she’d been there since five, and they were prepping her to be vamp bait.”

Gabrielle glanced at Ophelia, who seemed confused with the term vamp-bait, but she left her statement open for interpretation by the current house Madame without adding definition.

“Anyway,” she continued, “That’s why I got called in to assess their girls’ readiness, since I do have a bit of an international reputation for the best establishments that service evening clientele. They were expanding; I had the expertise, and had lost several girls.” Gabrielle sighed and sipped her Cognac slowly. “I haven’t asked her to work, yet, while in the States, just to come with me and study so she’ll know the craft and know how to deal with that type of paying customer. They sold her to me, can you believe it?” She ruffled her fingers through her hair. “I might just retire my damned self.”

“Well, let’s not dwell on unpleasantries, honey,” Ophelia said. “This business has its more difficult side; we all know that. So, I’ll ask Tessa to explain to your nephew that he’s getting one of the best our house has to offer, and that’s why he won’t be receiving the wish book. Does that sound like a compromise? I just hope he’s not too disappointed about not being able to select from the book.”

Rider lifted his glass. “Thank you, darlin’. I don’t think he’ll mind, if Jasmine looks like what Gabby just described.”

“But what about the cute blond? He’s adorable.”

Rider smiled. “He’s grown. This ain’t his first time. Give the man a wish book.”

“Done.” Ophelia batted her long eyelashes. “But I think Tessa is sweet on him, she came in here with the widest grin… and she has a cute little cheerleader outfit.”

Gabrielle chuckled into her drink and Rider laughed.

“Ophelia, if you send her in there in a potato sack, I don’t think the man will have a problem with that.”

“Then you all just made my day. The other girls are upstairs occupied—this is our high season, you know. He’d have to wait about an hour, because a couple of our regulars just insisted on going overtime this afternoon; I don’t know what’s in the air. Our whole schedule is running behind and that poor thing didn’t look like he’d last that long.”

She casually motioned to the front door security monitors that were mounted in the wall behind the large mahogany desk. “A lot of big conferences are in town and we’re gearing up for Mardi gras soon. But from the look on his face when he got here, we need to get that young man up to a room soon.”

Ophelia came to Rider as he laughed, leaned down, and pecked him on the cheek. “I have to go finish coordinating things in the other house and I’ma hafta leave ya, sugar. I’ll have Marguerite answer the phones and front door—but we are now all booked and don’t have any other appointments, so I really need to get along.”

Rider stood and hugged her in a warm embrace. “You take care of yourself, baby.”

“Oh, now you know I will.” She placed her palm in the center of his chest for a moment. “Even though we’re booked solid, I would have taken a management prerogative to give you a little something free on the house—you sure you’re all right?”

He kissed her and smiled. “I’m just fine. Be well.”

She brushed his mouth with another quick kiss that lingered. “You bring your tall friend back here, too. That big guy.”

“He’s probably getting married,” Rider said laughing.

Ophelia waved her hand and sucked her teeth as she walked away. “Aren’t they all? Gabrielle tell him, we’ve heard it all.”

“Bye, Ophelia,” Gabrielle said waving and chuckling quietly.

They both watched her leave and Rider kept his eyes fastened on the open door.

“Your boys will be all right, Dad,” Gabrielle said with a grin. She stood and walked over to the doors, and then closed and locked them. “Once they clear the area, I’ll come out of hiding. All I’d need is for Tessa to parade them past this drawing room on the way upstairs and for Bobby to faint on us.”

“Sorta like having your Mom bust in the bathroom on your while you’ve got your pants down around your ankles and a Playboy in your lap.” He chuckled and polished off his drink, feeling cheerful.

“Sounds like the voice of experience,” she said with a wink.

“Nah, not the kid. I’ve never been busted but have friend that were, and trust me, they turned out as some twisted SOBs.”

They both laughed as she took up their glasses and headed toward the bar. He pulled out a pack of cigarettes and raised them for her to see.

“Mind if I smoke?”

She hesitated. “Yes.”

“But Ophelia has ashtrays everywhere in here.”

“I mind if you smoke, because I want you to stop killing yourself, Jack Rider.”

He sighed. “Well, then is it all right if I drink myself to death? Geese Louise, four hours and no smokes? You’re worse than an airline.”

She came back to the sofa, kicked her shoes off, and handed him his refreshed drink, calmly sipping hers. “Yes, we have rules about our clients committing suicide on our premises.”

“But you accept the walking dead. Explain, Lucy.”

She laughed. “Touché. But they came in like that, so what can we do?”

“Aw, Gabby, tell me you’re not gonna turn this joint into a vamp palace.”

“I haven’t decided yet.”

He glanced at her. “I hope you don’t.” He set his drink down. “How’re you doing? You look good.”

She smiled and set her glass down very carefully. “I look better than I am.”

“I look better than I am, too, which oughta tell you where I’m at.”

They both laughed softly.

“Yeah,” she finally said. “They burned us both.”

“Hey, I’m sorry Yonnie left you like that, kiddo, but I’m glad you can stand the sunlight. Once he was elevated…”

“Unless he meant to turn me, a love nick is an easy purge.”

“He’s a Master,” Rider said carefully. “I got a nick from a second and Marlene couldn’t—”

“You, my friend, are working with a different set of circumstances.”

He eased his drink up to his mouth. “Talk to me.”

“You never bargained for power in the dark arts, nor has Marlene… I can purge a Master’s bite if the recipient hasn’t flat-lined. Most dark covens have to learn to do that to protect their own, given whom we interface with on a regular basis. White-lighters haven’t made those types of blood oaths or choices, so their cure options are limited.”

“Damn, darlin’, what did you bargain away to get juice like that? Not that that’s my business, or anything, but I like you. Wanna see you around for the long haul.”

“It was something I did in the rashness of youth,” she said quietly, staring down into her tumbler. “There were four of us, remember, who are all much older than Marjorie.” She looked up at Rider. “Susan went to ash in Yonnie’s arms. After Lilith went topside, Rebecca took her own life—we have yet to recover the body, which is why Marj doesn’t even know.”

“Shit. When did that happen?”

“Couple of weeks ago,” Gabrielle said quietly, now stirring her glass with her finger. “Elizabeth fled to Europe right after that, and I haven’t seen her since. Marjorie was the only one that didn’t grow up like us.”

“What did you bargain away?” He took her glass from her, set it down, and held her hand.

“My father beat my mother half to death one night. Marjorie was still a crib baby. The rest of us were twelve to fifteen. I was the oldest, and he liked to visit me the best. She finally worked up the nerve to accuse him and tell him to stop.” She looked at Rider hard. “At that time, I didn’t feel like anybody above that I was praying to was listening. I hated being powerless. In my view, I didn’t have a soul; I had a hollow place in my heart caused from every night he’d slip into my room. I was numb, and wanted him dead, my mother and baby sister alive… my other sisters safe. So, I crossed the line. I didn’t know hope existed until I saw with my own eyes that a Council Level vampire could become a Neteru.”

“What did you do?” he whispered, holding her by both arms. “You say you crossed over. What does that mean in plain terms?”

“It means that I bargained my soul off to the ruler of Level Seven, in exchange to be able to purge vamp and werewolf bites, see into their realms, advise them… ever wonder why my establishments don’t have to pay mob protection monies or taxes?” She closed her eyes. “I was fifteen and had lost hope. I gave it to them in a ritual, and my father got sick immediately after that. The bastard keeled over with a heart attack. That, to me, then, was power. My nemesis was gone. My mother and sisters could live in peace. We four older girls went to work in this business so Marj would never have to, and we let Mom retire from her waitress job without ever knowing what we did. We made a mint, and until your Guardian team blew through our lives and took in my sister and her children, I had no idea that there was another way.”

He slowly dropped his hands away from her arms.

“Don’t hate me, Rider, and please don’t judge me.”

He pushed her auburn tresses behind her ear. “A fifteen year old kid and her sister molested by her Dad, her mother brutalized, and nobody coming in to assist… how can I judge you?”

“My sister, Marj, does. She never saw the beatings, never had him put his hands on her at night, never feared the thuds and screams that came through the wall… never saw her mother bloodied and unconscious. But she thinks I’m an irreverent, money-grubbing whore who dabbles in esoteric matters to amuse my jaded perspective.”

Gabrielle ran her fingers through her hair and kept her eyes shut tightly. “She didn’t understand that, to me, money meant power, safety—our mother had no money and was powerless. The brothels make money, Rider, especially the ones that cater to the underground trade. The dark side had taken away the monster, our father. He’s what I feared at night as a kid, not vampires.”

He sighed and she opened her eyes.

“And you needed Yonnie to turn you, to make you his mate to protect you from having to repay the debt, especially after you found out there was another side. The Light.”

She nodded and two large tears welled in her eyes. “Yes,” she whispered. “There was a strange security in knowing that the dark realms would have had my soul, but it would have resided on Level Six… and until I was staked or met daylight, I would have been a young, beautiful vampire with him as an eternal mate, but I would not become an old crone—the final outcome of all dark witches in the end… hags!”

She covered her mouth with her hand, her eyes wild. “When you’re fifteen, fifty years seems like a lifetime away. Then you look up and you’re forty, then forty-five, and you realize that the sand is running out quickly in the hour glass.”

Stunned silent, he wasn’t sure what to say as her tears fell.

“We all wanted to be turned by a sexy, handsome, kind, Master. It was our only way out; we’d been in the craft so long. We didn’t know of another way.”

“You need to run this by our team, maybe there’s a—”

“I’m afraid to breathe this, and please don’t. If I start doing things now that look like I’m moving away from my promise, they could call in the contract early. I have five years left before there’s a problem—don’t speed up time for me, Rider, by messing with this.”

“I’m glad he didn’t turn you,” Rider said quietly. “As long as you’re alive, you’ve got a fighting chance. You know they’ve got serious juice upstairs that can reverse things, I’m living witness.”

She leaned forward and kissed his forehead. “You give me faith.”

“No,” he said, holding up his hands before his chest. He pointed upward. “For this job, you need Him. I’m a has-been, rough rider, who drinks too much, smokes, and brings innocent young Guardians of The Light to houses of ill repute, nice as they are, I’m just speaking metaphorically. But you’re talking to a guy who also has a penchant for watching pole dancers, who cheated on Tara till she—”

Gabrielle’s finger against his mouth stopped his tumble of words. “That was created by screwed up circumstances, but she wanted you.”

“Yeah, well, that’s a whole different conversation.”

“Can you still feel them?” she whispered.

He just stared at Gabrielle for a moment, but didn’t answer.

“I can,” she admitted quietly. “Maybe it’s because I’m on the wrong side of things, but I’m locked to him… every time he’s with her, I can feel it, and until he releases, I can’t release—not that I’m big into sex.” She smiled when Rider tilted his head. “Most of us aren’t who work this profession. It’s a job, a theatrical performance.” She chuckled sadly. “My Dad took my libido… Yonnie was the only one that brought it back, and I adored him for that.”

“That why you couldn’t leave the kid in Thailand.”

“A bad witch with a good heart,” she said, tears streaming down her face as she smiled. She dabbed at them. “I heard you were called ‘man with a good heart.’ It fits.”

He looked away and picked up his drink again. “That was a long time ago.”

“It’s still true. You brought two young kids who were bouncing off the walls to the only place you could think of that was clean, fun, wasn’t vamp or coven infested, trying to make their very abnormal lives normal… and I watched you sit here like a nervous father, practically wringing your hands to make sure everything would be all right. That was sweet.”

She kissed the bridge of his nose when he turned to stare at her. “And you would sit here for four hours, patiently waiting for them to come down, and then pour themselves into a vehicle—without ever indulging yourself… because you’re still in love with a female vamp who you couldn’t bring over into The Light.” She brushed his mouth with a tender kiss. “That wasn’t your fault.”

“At this point, whose fault it was or not is moot—for all of it,” he said, staring into her eyes. “You have to find a legit way outta that dark deal… but I’ll respect your request, only for the moment, not to press the point. I’ll let you break the news to your family. But if I see you going down, it’ll be my business and I’ll tell it, because I consider you a friend. Anybody who tells me not to smoke myself to death and means it is a friend.”

She stroked his hair back. “I’m glad we’re friends. I need one of those.”

“Well, friend,” he said, taking up her hand and kissing her knuckles, “if you get caught up in something bad and need a safe house—just like you did for us, we owe you. Call me, call us; forget all that dysfunctional family drama between you and Marj. My family was messed up, too, in different ways. However, we don’t leave our own and you helped us at a time when we woulda been screwed.”

“I see why she cried bitter tears when he brought her back to the house in Manhattan.”

“Don’t tell me,” Rider whispered.

“You need to know this,” she said holding his hand tighter. “He drained my in-house stock… and then turned to me. She was so weak, but she stood in front of me and begged for my life. She’s a Guardian, Rider… trapped in a vampire’s body. I tried to push her aside; I wanted him to turn me!”

Gabrielle dropped his hand and briefly covered her mouth to hold back a pending sob. “But she told me he’d flat-line me in his condition. I wouldn’t turn and could wind up ash like my sister had. She knew from his elevation bite, had dredged him, and knew what had happened to Susan… She was crying, but he wouldn’t listen. Then she became very still, ripped her top down and told him to feed her then take her to V-Point. She seduced him in post-battle to keep you alive and me alive. Don’t you understand? He had to respond, it is their way, it’s encoded in Master DNA.”

Her words had become thick from tears as sobs slowly took over to wrack her body. Soon she was in his arms, his hand petting her long, auburn hair.

“They left us, Rider,” she wailed. “It was situational, but the outcome was the same. He was the only male I could ever trust, the only one that kept me safe—all that time there was none, but he never let anything happen to me, would be with me when…”

Rider rocked her quietly, nuzzling the top of her hair, holding her tightly against his chest and shutting his eyes to keep from crying himself. Somehow what she was, or what she did, or what deals she’d made seemed so very unimportant. Hurt was hurt, pain was pain, and this woman had had enough traumas in her life to rightfully cry a river.

“How do such good-hearted women get such a raw deal? I’m talking about both of you.”

“I’m not good,” she said, breathing hard, and sucking back the sobs.

“You’re not evil, and that’s a real high mark in my book.”

She hugged him hard and then wiped her face, blotting her nose with the heel of her palm. “Some fun afternoon at a whore house. The boys get to go upstairs and play; you get to sit down here with a forty-five year old prostitute and play her therapist. No wonder Yonnie didn’t want me.”

“He wanted one of his own, needed that or he would have killed you.” Rider smoothed her damp hair away from her cheeks. “Ever consider that the man loved you and didn’t want to end your life?”

She stared at him for a long time.

“Yeah,” He said softly, hoping she’d accept the pretty lie from a man so that her broken heart could heal. “He needed one of his own.”

“Maybe that’s what you and I need… somebody who’s been half nicked, knows the burn, and knows the heartbreak, knows exactly where to deliver a vamp passion release nick.” Her pretty eyes glistened with new, unshed tears. “What do you need, Jack Rider?” She unbuttoned her suit jacket and exposed her black, lacy bra.

“A cigarette,” he said hoarsely.

She reached for the pack on the table, tapped the back of it hard, and then pulled a cigarette out of it between her lips. She kept her eyes on him as she leaned in to him to light it. They both watched the flame as he struck a match and touched the end of the butt with it. She pulled in a hard drag that made the red ember glow at the tip.

“It’s just like their eyes… when they need something isn’t it?” she said, glancing at the smoldering cigarette. “I have a lavender sachet upstairs. I don’t mind wearing the fragrance for a friend. And I have a funny feeling that my reaction to you wouldn’t be theatrical. It’s been a long time for me, too, ‘man with a good heart.’”

She handed the cigarette off to him like she was passing a joint, and allowed the smoke to slowly filter out of her nose.

He nodded and swallowed hard, suddenly remembering what a woman in his arms felt like. Pain killer.

“What else do you need, Jack Rider. Name it. It’s on the house, friend to friend—and that’s a standing offer. Any time.”


Volume 12Edit

Between Books: Volume Twelve After The Forbidden, Before The Damned August 2005
'*Spoilers Warning! If you have not read' 'The Forbidden', you might not want to read this installment!


Bobby ...
He didn’t know quite what to expect when he’d been taken into a room in Madame Ophelia’s house and told to wait, but it most certainly wasn’t the beautiful, shy girl who slipped into it, looking as afraid as he felt. She’d gently shut the door behind her with a noticeable gulp and kept her gaze fastened to the floor. Her hands were trembling as she clasped the front of her fire red kimono closed, and sipped air like a sparrow that had spied a cat too near her.
There’d been no book like Rider had told him about. No thoroughly seasoned, buxom redheads, brunettes, or blondes to rival cyberspace, except the one that met them at the door and took Dan by the arm with a knowing smile. What was this fragile, scared beauty doing in his room? She wasn’t a whore. Wasn’t what he imagined one would look like. She was destroying his entire sense of world order. 
Sunlight put red, teal, and gold streaks in her long black hair that hung to her waist. Her exotic brown eyes glittered with fear, and her smooth, brown skin seemed flushed, every shuddering breath making her seem like she was either about to bolt or pass out. 
Bobby glanced around the fancy room and at the oversized four-posted bed he was sitting on the edge of, wondering if he should have taken a seat in a chair instead as protocol, and then stood. The girl backed up so quickly that her back hit the door. 
“Hey, hey, hey,” he said, putting his hands out in front of him. “I’m not like that. You don’t have to do this, if you don’t want to.” 
She stared at him mute, huge tears beginning to form in her wide eyes. 
“It’s cool,” he said. “You shouldn’t even be in a place like this.” 
She shook her head. “Please. Don’t be angry. I’ll do whatever you want, sir. Just don’t send me back downstairs, because then they’ll send me home.” 
“Huh?” He began to pace, outraged. “No way. First of all, it’s illegal to make some chic do stuff like this against her will. Where are you from?” 
“Thailand,” she whispered. 
“Oh, shit. Who runs this joint? We’ll have the feds shut ‘em down for—” 
“No, no, please,” she said, dashing across the room and barreling into his arms. “She saved me from much worse than you over there. I’ll be good to you. I didn’t mean for it to sound like I’m not grateful… you’re just my first.” 
For some inexplicable reason, he found himself hugging her, stroking her back, and making promises he had no idea of how he’d keep. “Listen, we can get you out of here. My squad and me, we’ve also come up against a whole lot worse, and the last thing I’m gonna do is see some really scared, really nice chic caught up in some sex slave bull crap.” He held her away from him, and then patted the revolver in his shoulder harness. “Trust me, if we have to shoot our way out of here, then Dan and Rider will have to get over it—but you are not staying here doing Johns, if you don’t want to.” 
Even though tears streamed down her face, she suddenly laughed and covered her mouth, and then touched his cheek. “They told me you were truly sweet. They were right.”
“I’m not gay,” he said, becoming indignant. 
“No, no, no,” she said shaking her head. “Honorable. Sweet, like in your spirit, soul.” 
“Oh,” he muttered and looked away. “So, listen, you wanna make a break for it, or what?” 
“It’s very complicated,” she hedged, seeming to become calmer. “Where would I live, what would I eat, who—”  “Got a house in Arizona, food, clothes from all my Guardian sisters, money. We can take one more in. Mar won’t turn you away. You don’t have to live like this. We’re so outta here, then we can figure it out.”
She neared him again and placed a hand in the center of his chest. “I’m sorry I scared you,” she said quietly. “You really are a Guardian, aren’t you?” 
“Yeah, that’s what I do,” he said, standing taller as her gorgeous eyes searched his face. 
She smiled and cupped his cheek. “Wizard or warlock?”
“Huh?” 
She swallowed away another smile and glanced over her shoulder at the dresser behind them. Small crystal bottles of massage oil had moved forward, seemingly on their own volition, and the tassels on the lampshade were wildly dancing.
“You’re about to come into your season, aren’t you?” 
“Okay,” he said, stepping away from her to cross the room. “Start at the beginning. I missed something here.” 
“You draw power,” she stated simply. 
“I don’t have any special powers, like the other guys, other than feeling stuff in my gut sometimes,” he said quickly, and then censored himself. “But, how do you know so much about the supernatural, anyway?” 
She smiled and lowered her intense gaze. “Because I’m a witch. Almost. An initiate.” 
“Jesus H. Christ—Rider is outta his fucking mind.” Bobby just stood there in the middle of the room, bewildered for a moment. He ran his fingers through his hair. “I’m out. You should be, too. This place is crazy. Rethink that decision, before you do anything permanent, that’s all I can tell you. I’ve seen some shit recently that makes me know going that way has some serious consequences.” 
“I know,” she said softly, “that’s why I’ve been stalling the final steps.” She walked away from him and sat on the edge of the bed, seeming even tinier, like the massive mattress and thick, white, embroidered satin duvet might swallow her up. “I’m not a bad person,” she added quietly. “But I had no choice at the time, and the lady that brought me to this country felt sorry for me. She’s very, very nice in her heart.” 
He sat in a nearby, overstuffed Queen Anne chair with a thud, staring at her battling awe and confusion.  “I was five when I saw my first vampire. But I was too small to… they didn’t find me as pleasurable as the grown women, so I was passed over, and I suppose I didn’t have enough blood to make the killing worth the trouble. But I saw it all.” Her eyes sought his and held them for ransom. “My mother serviced the trade. I do not know my father, nor does she know which human client made me. All I’ve heard is he was from the Philippines. I was a burden. So, she sold me… maybe they took me for the price of her keep. I don’t know. But I was luckier than my brother and sisters, who were older. I was always so small, too skinny, and none of the men wanted me. I cleaned up the rooms after they were done.” 
“Damn…” Bobby murmured, thinking of what his suburban life had been like in comparison. “I’m really sorry, but really glad you were too skinny.” 
“So am I.” 
She smiled and pushed her long strands of hair that had spilled forward back over her shoulder. He watched her do that with a fluid, graceful flip of her slender wrist, mesmerized.
“But, then I started to look more like a girl,” she said with a sad sigh. “I was thirteen. It would have only been a matter of time before I had to earn my keep. They wouldn’t let me clean up blood in the chambers forever. Either that, or I’d become food.” 
Bobby shuddered and stood, and then began to walk in a circle. “That’s really fucked up.” 
She nodded, but her expression remained serene. “Then this lady came to me and asked if I was still unsoiled. She wanted an initiate. One that had the gift of touch and sight,” she added in a small voice just above a murmur. “She paid a lot for me.”
“Then what did that bitch do, bring you here and put you to work servicing assholes? Some bargain!” he said shouting and not sure why. 
“She made me study, and I also cleaned for her during the day, so I’d be safe from any of the night clients that are often very treacherous—the ones that can walk through walls and hypnotize you. She kept me safe, and didn’t make me do the day trade. I was more valuable to her by helping her see.” The girl sighed and looked away. “You would have been my first, if I hadn’t messed up. If a virgin is with a virgin, then the magic she’s teaching me stays in tact. Pure. I’ll still be her initiate and have time to decide. She won’t make me work the Johns. Don’t worry.”
Bobby came to her and sat next to her slowly. He wasn’t sure that he liked the fact that the pretty girl sitting beside him flat out knew his condition, so he wasn’t about to admit to the charge. Rather than do that, he focused on what she’d said about possibly getting in trouble for not taking her next step in whatever crazy bull was going on in the brothel. He’d step to Rider later, and give him a piece of his mind.
“Hey, you didn’t mess up. We both sorta wigged, is all.” Bobby let his breath out hard. “How about if you hang out with me, I’ll lie and tell ‘em you rocked my world, and we can just act like everything is cool?”
She reached out and touched his face with warm, trembling fingers. “You’d do that?” 
He shrugged. “I gotta wait for my ride, anyway. If I go downstairs all in a huff at this point, I’ll never hear the end of it.”  She giggled. “I think your brothers would be very upset.”
“Sis, you have no idea,” he said, laughing. “Okay. So, we have a plan for today, but what about tomorrow, and the day after that? You’ve gotta get out of here.” 
“You can’t be my hero, Bobby.” 
For a moment, they stared at each other. 
“Why not? Why can’t I?”
She closed her eyes and laid her head on his shoulder. “I have made it to eighteen, have been educated so that I can read, and I’m still alive working for a lady who has a heart.” 
“And?” he said, making her look up at him. “Like, that doesn’t give her the right to make you do vamps, or werewolves, or whatever else she keeps in a dungeon around here, plus, regular Joes who are cheating on their wives. Shit, if you can read, you can get a regular job. If you can—”
She pressed her fingers to his lips. “The owners of this establishment would hunt me down until I paid my debt. They are worse than the Mafia, especially the warlocks.”
“Yeah, well, I’ve got an aunt in Manhattan who owns a slammin’ joint like this, from what I hear, and she’s in a coven or something—my mom went nuts when she found out, that’s how I know, and I also know my aunt would take you in, give you artillery back up, if you didn’t wanna live with me. I mean, with the team in Arizona. Aunt Gabrielle had our backs before, so I can’t believe she’d leave you—”
A soft kiss stopped his babbling. He just stared at the girl who’d kissed him when she pulled back.
“You don’t have to be a witch, if you don’t want to, is all I’m saying,” he whispered.
Another kiss again stopped his words.
“If you’ve got special powers, like touch or second sight, you could—”
This time her kiss opened his mouth and a gentle tongue twined with his.
“I wouldn’t mind being your hero,” he said quietly when they came up for air and she ran her hand down his chest.  “If this is my fate, then I don’t mind having you as my first… I was foolish to be afraid. You’re a gift, Bobby. My mentor is very, very kind, in her way… and wise. She didn’t have to send me into your room.”
“But you’re a virgin,” he said quickly and then stood, panicked. “That’s a lot of responsibility.”
She smiled. The heavy Queen Anne chair moved across the floor an inch, and the pedestal mirror flipped, catching the light as it spun in its frame.
“I know,” she whispered. “One must be gentle.”
He raked his fingers through his hair as a crystal bottle inched forward and then crashed on the hardwood floor. They both stared at it for a moment.
“I’ve got plenty of experience,” he contended. “I’m talking about the whole thing of this being your first time, and all. I don’t wanna hurt you. I mean, I could get caught up and forget and think you were like, experienced like one of the other girls I’m usually with. So, we can just hang out, no pressure, you don’t have to do anything you’re not ready to do, okay?”
“Take off your gun, Bobby.”
He looked at her wide-eyed. “No, see, I always keep my gun on in situations where there could be vamps in the house.” 
She covered her mouth to hide her smile as she glanced at the bright sunlight. “I understand.”
He unfastened the shoulder harness, but didn’t fully disarm. “I’ll take it off, if carrying heat is making you nervous. Only ‘cause it’s daylight.”
“Thank you,” she whispered.
“Is there a difference between wizards and warlocks? Like what’s that all about?” he said, walking around the room and giving her wide berth, and keeping his gun on. “Or is there really a difference between witches, like, seriously, are there good ones and bad ones?”
“Wizards are good, warlocks, not so good. There are white witches; we call them white-lighters, and dark ones. I have been reading a lot for five years.” 
“Yeah, like my brother says, knowledge is power.” Bobby nodded, going to the window for some air, and then remembering they were all sealed to keep in the air conditioning. Damn the room felt suffocating. Stifling. “It’s good that you learned where the line is.” He turned and looked at her. “Have you decided yet what kind of witch you’re going to be?”
“What do you think I should be?’ she asked quietly.
“Definitely the white-lighter type.” 
She giggled, seeming very flattered as her gaze slid down his body. “You, then, would be all wizard.” 
“Really? Ya think so?”
She nodded and flopped backward on the bed, staring at him upside down. “You are definitely that.”
He lifted his chin and squared his shoulders, flattered beyond her comprehension. “You said something earlier about coming into some sorta season—for wizards, you mean?”
“Yes. I think you’ll be a very powerful wizard who will be able to zap things across the room, or cast good spells that help people.”
He squatted down near the opposite side of the bed and peered at her, resting his cheeks on his fists as his elbows dug into the soft bed linens. “Awesome.”
“It is,” she said, and flipped over on her belly to smile up at him.
Her red silk robe had opened a bit when she’d flopped on her back, and the quick turn had allowed it to gap even more. The small swell of her tiny, cone-shaped breasts drew his attention for a second, and he looked away, ashamed that he’d glimpsed her like that. But she seemed like a gorgeous, exotic butterfly that had lit on a orchid, her wings a drape of bright silk against the stark white bed, her hair a silken spill of jet blackness, and her butter-cream skin as though pollen dusted.
“What else is supposed to happen?” he asked quietly, all exuberance gone from his tone. Suddenly he felt very serious and not as nervous as he’d been.
She reached across the duvet and took his hand, her eyes holding his. “Your specialty will come in. You have touch awareness, right?”
“I don’t know,” he said, not able to look at his own palm as long as her eyes met his. “My Dad’s a healer, but that happened by accident.”
“There are no accidents in the Universe.”
He smiled. “Now you sound like my teacher.”
“Very wise teacher, then.” She allowed her palm to slide against his in a slow rub back and forth. “Then your mind eyes will open,” she whispered.
The rhythm of her touch and what it possibly suggested had given him wood, but he’d never let her know that. She was just an innocent, sweet, very betrayed soul that needed a hero, and he was not gonna be a John to her. If anything, like him, she needed a friend. 
“You’ll probably be able to work with the natural heat of the elements,” she said quietly, making him ache so badly he nearly closed his eyes. “You have metal, maybe fire in you, that’s why you are so magnetic—you draw things to you… maybe like me?”
“I guess,” whispered, wishing he could draw her to him for just one more kiss. Her mouth was so soft, so natural, pink, and unpainted… her eyes so pretty, and he could only imagine what her long, black hair felt like. Suddenly it was in his hand as she took her palm off his and a thick section of her hair dragged over her shoulder and filled it.
“I didn’t mean to… I was just wondering, I mean, I wasn’t trying to—”
“It’s all right. My hair wanted to be there, your hand wanted to touch it.” 
“But I’m not like those other guys,” he said, his tone urgent, desperate for her to understand.
“No, you’re not like them at all,” she said softly. “You are very dear.” She opened his other hand and shook her hair into it. “You aren’t violating me by touching my hair. Your mind asked permission, my hair said yes.”
He stared at the riches that had filled his palms, almost closing his eyes at the sensation, but unable to stop watching it cascade between his fingers. “It’s so beautiful,” he whispered, nearly hypnotized as it washed through his fingers. Reflex made him lower his nose to it and breathe in the sensual, floral fragrance that wafted from it.
She leaned up on her elbows and shook her hair forward for him, but in doing so, accidentally exposed her breasts. He could see her tight brown nipples between her gorgeous drape of hair, framed by red silk, but she didn’t seem aware that she’d done that. Smiling with trust in her eyes, she simply reached out and touched his hair, pushing the mussed strands off his damp forehead. The way she moved seemed totally natural, uninhibited, and completely unaffected by modesty. He stopped breathing for a second.
“Yours is nice, too,” she murmured, referring to his hair.
His legs were cramping and going numb, but he didn’t want to move from where he was, or make her think he was trying to get closer to her than she wanted. Keeping the wide expanse of bed between them, him on one side, her in the middle of it and able to control how much touching happened, seemed best. But doing a runner’s squat in jeans with an erection was killing him.
“I gotta stand up,” he finally said, unable to endure.
“Okay,” she said, balancing her face between her hands and watching him.
She’d bent her knees and was swinging her legs behind her with her ankles crossed like a school girl might, and standing up in front of her was the last thing he wanted to do.
“Uh…” he stammered. “Maybe—”
“I have second sight, too, and already know. I’m not upset. I’m flattered that you’re hard. Means you like me.” Her smile widened to a dazzling brilliance. “I like you, too.”
His face flushed hot, but still he couldn’t stand.
“You mind eyes will open soon, too. Don’t worry.” 
Unable to bear it, he popped up, turned his back to her, and then sat down. “You aren’t supposed to say stuff like that.”
“Why not?” 
“Because.” 
“I’m sorry. Okay.” 
He glimpsed her over his shoulder. “You like me, too?”
She giggled. “Yes. Why wouldn’t I?” 
He shrugged. 
“You opened the strap, but never took off the gun.”
“Oh, yeah. My bad.” He fumbled with the weapon, and almost dropped it. 
She covered her head and squealed. 
The sound of her voice climbed up his back so quickly and so intensely that he almost shot himself.
“I’m gonna put it on the dresser,” he said, jumping up, and almost tripping on the edge of the duvet.
“Turn the barrel to the wall,” she said, covering her eyes and peeking between her fingers. 
“It can’t go off without—”
“Yes it can, yes it can,” she said, as he carelessly set it down. “Turn the barrel away from the bed, trust me. It will go off.” 
He glanced at the smashed bottle of oil on the floor. Maybe she had a point. He turned the muzzle away from the bed, hoping no one was in the next few rooms. Still, now that she knew she’d given him a hard on, there was the delicate question of how to casually sit beside her again. He hesitated. She solved the dilemma with a soft smile and a gentle pat on the side of the bed. Okay, now all he had to do was get his legs to move. It was awkward but he reached the bed and sat down hard. 
“She made me read a lot about Guardians.” Taking both of his hands in hers, she kept her voice a murmur. “She said, of all the types of men in the world, you guys are the best.” 
“Yeah… well, I guess we’re all right.”
“I know you are,” she said, issuing him a sly, sideline glance. “I was also told to watch all those years, to learn. I’ve never seen a Guardian, that wasn’t allowed. But, I’ve observed a lot of different types of males, even though I haven’t been with one.” 
“Hold it,” he said, laughing. “She made you watch? Get out of town.” 
“I was never in the room, in case it got rough… but she said I needed to know what could be expected—so I wouldn’t be shocked.” 
“Like in a two way mirror or something?” He glanced around the room, thoroughly unnerved. The fact that her robe was now wide open and he could see her full front didn’t help. 
“No, silly,” she said laughing and pushing herself back on the bed. She crossed her legs Indian style and began talking with her hands. “To open my mind eyes. She would tell me a room, and then say, ‘tell me what type of entity is waiting?’ I would answer. Then she’s say, ‘which girl went in to service him?” I would answer. I was wrong a lot, at first. Then she made the tests harder as I got better at it.” 
Intrigued, he laid on his side, watching her while propped up on one elbow, mesmerized by her unique experiences, and blown away by her casual nudity. Try as he might to keep his focus on her lovely face, ever so often his gaze would slide down her delicate neck, linger on her petite breasts, glide down her flat belly, to become fixed on her clean shaven mound, marveling at how even that looked like a flower.
It was hard not to stare. He was captivated by the way her fruit had layers of soft, fringed, pink petals that seemed to grow to a deeper shade of rose as they disappeared into a moist, secret place that made his mouth go dry. The insides of her thighs appeared to be as smooth as fine porcelain. She was telling him something about the mind eyes, and or maybe her eyes, but at the moment, his were literally crossing. 
“Finally,” she said, her smile magnetic, “I got to the point where I could concentrate on a room, and see exactly what was going on. I learned a lot the easy way.” 
“Huh?” 
“I said that all I had to do was concentrate hard on the room I was being tested on, and I could tell her everything that was happening inside that room. It was an easy way to learn.”
“They don’t let the seers do that in the house compound,” he said, not sure why his voice was deeper than normal.
“Oh, well, I guess not,” she said, tossing her hair over her shoulder. “You guys are family. That wouldn’t be right to look in on each other.” 
“Uh huh.” 
“But, here, anything goes.” 
“Uh huh.” 
“I’ll bet they’ll have you guess weapons or how somebody is standing in a fight formation?” she said, sounding excited and curious.
“Uh huh,” he said, addressing the valley between her thighs.
“It must be dangerous, what you do?” 
He just nodded as his voice forgot the way out of his throat.
“Are you ever scared?”
He simply looked at her, this time finding her eyes. “Scared to death.” 
“Why?” Her voice was tender as she leaned forward and kissed his forehead. 
“I’m not sure what to do and I don’t want to hurt anybody, if I mess up.” 
“Ohhh,” she whispered, coming forward and lying on her side to face him. “You just have to take your time.” She stroked his chest.
“Not sure I can.”
She nodded and then leaned forward, scooting closer, sealing her body to his, and then kissed him slowly. Every instinct in him made him want to roll her beneath him, but he had on rough jeans and hadn’t even taken off his shoes. Her skin was so soft, she’d bruise, and that was the last thing he wanted to do to her.
“If you taken them off, it’ll be easier,” she said, reading his thoughts. Then, without waiting for him to hesitate again, she tugged at his shirt.
He sat up quickly and ripped it over his head, stopped, looked at her, and waited for her to nod. The moment she did, he kicked off his shoes, almost fell as he got up, fumbled with his zipper, and yanked off his jeans and underwear, wishing he’d thought to pull back the covers so he could jump under them. But the way her eyes slowly went down his body and her smile faded before her gaze found his again, was very reassuring.
“What’s your name?” he whispered as she shed her robe and blanketed his body.
“Jasmine,” she whispered into his mouth.
“Like the flower…” he murmured, closing his eyes to the sensation of her skin. “Beautiful, like you, too.” 
“Follow your instincts,” she said against his ear. “Study me slowly with your hands, first.” 
He looked up at her briefly, overwhelmed by the heat her small body produced against his. She stared back at him unblinking as his hands flowed over her soft curves, the swell of her hips and buttocks, and then the silken, fragrant curtain of her hair. She gently guided his hands to touch her breasts… he’d never touched breast before in his life, and took great care with the privilege. When she moved against the throb in his groin, he bit his lip to hold back the sound that was trapped in his diaphragm.
“Let it out,” she whispered. “It feels better when you do, I think.” 
Her kiss crushed his mouth, and her tongue found his, sucking the deep groan up and out of him. She was so right. His hands instantly sought her hair while her kiss caused sudden delirium. But her skin… it drew agony up and out of his pores, making him sweat. Two more bottles rattled on the dresser, and another crashed to the floor. Yes, she was a delicate butterfly, flitting her tongue over his neck and his shoulders, stopping to flick at his nipples until he arched… her tongue, searching for body nectar, danced at his navel until tears stung his eyes; he should have unloaded his gun. When she went down on him, he said a prayer, and stopped breathing.
Without warning she stopped and looked up at him. “Am I doing it right?”
Tears rolled down his face. A gasping inhale was all he could respond with.
“You sure I’m not doing it wrong?” she asked, gripping him tightly when he didn’t immediately answer.
“Uh huh.”
“But you’re so quiet… that’s not how it’s supposed to be, is it? I’m doing this wrong, and you’re just being nice.”
“Oh, God… It’s perfection.” he said arching, “Just don’t stop.” 
“Ah, that’s what I didn’t hear before,” she said, as though a grand epiphany had come to her. “Okay.”
This time when her warm mouth sheathed him, she pulled at his body with studious authority that sucked an audible gasp from his lungs with a deep moan behind it. If all she needed was voice coaching, he’d be her cheering section. Words wouldn’t form, only guttural reminders that she was awesome. His head dug into the duvet as her exploration made him grab the bed linens in his fists. If she stopped again, his heart might, too.
The building pressure from her soft tongue twining around him with each hard drag along his shaft almost made him sit up. The special attention she paid to the head had nearly made him sob out loud. The chair was practically walking across the floor. The armoire doors had banged open. The curtains were pulling along their rods. Everything on the dresser was in jeopardy. Was the safety on the gun; was the safety on the gun? Oh shit, what she was doing felt so good!
The convulsion hit him in body-slamming waves that made him do jerking sit-ups till his voice rent the room in halting jags. A fast as it had happened, it was all over, leaving him flat on his back, gulping air, eyes glazed over just staring at the ceiling. From some remote place in his mind, he felt her move up to lay beside him. When he could finally focus, he looked at her. She stared back at him with a serene and curious smile. He’d kiss Rider’s feet when they got outside.
“Are you ready to lose your virginity, or do you just want to talk for the rest of the afternoon? Either way is okay, if you’re still nervous.” Her tone was completely open and non-judgmental. 
He just nodded.
She glanced down his body and let her hand slide across his erection. “It’s still hard, or do we have to wait until you go to sleep and wake up?”
“I think if it’s hard, it still works,” he said, panting out his reply.
She tilted her head to the side with a question in her eyes and then kissed him.
“I won’t hurt you, if you climb on top,” he murmured, returning her kiss harder. He broke from her mouth, and stroked her hair, still breathing hard. “That way, you can stop if it hurts. It was probably best that you did what you did to me first… I’ve learned patience from you.”
“Your mind eyes just opened.” She took his mouth tenderly and held his face in her hands as his covered hers. She straddled him and lowered herself down on him slowly. “I will never forget you, Robert Berkfield,” she whispered, and then winced. Tears wet her lashes as she closed her eyes. “Oh, my God… you are such a gift, sweet wizard. Today, be my hero.”

Volume 13Edit

Between Books: Volume Thirteen
After The Forbidden, Before The Damned
September 2005
Arizona ...J.L.

J.L. kept his focus on the engineering drafts for the new equipment room, trying to force his eyes and mind to stay on the thin blue lines that needed his careful attention. He’d felt Krissy’s presence as she’d walked through the house and had quietly entered the dining room. Keep your eyes on the drafts, he told himself. One slip-up could cost the team their lives, if a system failed or a power line didn’t have redundant back up generators. The new compound had to be perfect, given all they’d faced so far. Why the hell had Rider taken Dan and Bobby out of the house and left him to such temptation!

“Good morning,” Krissy said, her soft voice making J.L. glance up.

“Morning,” he said quickly, sounding grumpy and unable to keep his eyes on the large engineering drawings strewn across the table. Damn it, she was morning itself. Too pretty in her pale pink, baby doll t-shirt and skin tight jeans… hair like spun gold flowing over her shoulders. He looked down at the papers. He had to remember, she wasn’t eighteen yet. Besides, the Berkfields had probably Dan picked for her, anyway, so there was no need in getting his hopes up.

He prayed that she would just pass him and go into the kitchen, but instead, she moved closer to him and peered down at the drawings.

“Way cool,” she said, her arm brushing his ever so slightly.

The touch made him bite his bottom lip. “It’s just basic stuff,” he said, stepping aside so their arms didn’t touch. Rolling the drawings up into a tube, he put more distance between them. “I’ve gotta go over to the site to be sure the construction workers make the adjustments I’d ordered to spec.”

He was out. But her eyes slowed him down.

“Can I go with you?”

He hesitated. This was exactly what he’d been trying to avoid—going anywhere with her alone. “I don’t think your dad is gonna—”

“Her dad isn’t gonna what?” Berkfield said, coming into the living room and rubbing his palm across his bald head.

Both J.L. and Krissy looked up at her father as he made his way past them in a worn, plaid robe and wearing beat up leather slippers. Berkfield stopped at the kitchen doorway, his glare withering.

“I asked J.L. if I could go with him over to the construction site to see how he’d designed the new equipment room and security sensors,” Krissy said with her hands on her hips. “Can I?”

Berkfield glanced between Krissy and J.L. in a silent standoff with his daughter. “Where’s your brother?”

“With Rider and Dan,” Krissy said, her voice escalating. “How come Bobby gets to go on a weapons purchase run, and cool stuff like that—and all I get to do is the dishes and laundry? Huh? That’s not fair,” she argued, not giving her father a chance to respond.

“Life ain’t fair,” Berkfield muttered, and then turned to head into the kitchen.

“Mom!” Krissy shouted.

J.L. cringed with Berkfield. Within seconds, Marjorie had scurried into the dining room, hastily tying her pink terry robe closed.

“Honey, what’s the—”

“Dad let Bobby go to do something really cool and really dangerous this morning, and all I asked to do was to go down the road a mile to watch J.L. give technical specs to a construction crew—and I can’t go!” Krissy had launched into her complaint at the top of her lungs before her mother could even get the full question out.

Shabazz and Marlene had entered the living room at the sound of Krissy’s shrill voice, and Big Mike’s lumbering footsteps behind Inez’s could be heard coming down the hallway. Jose peered through the screen door from the porch and Juanita didn’t even bother to stand up from where she sat in a porch wicker chair.

J.L. ran his palm over his hair. This was crazy. “Look, it’s cool,” he said, trying to play peacemaker. “I’m just gonna make a run to make sure all the correct power lines and generators get installed correctly in the building foundation—just like Carlos and D are over at their places making sure their buildings are going to spec and on time. That’s all. No biggie. I’ll be going over there a lot until that portion is done, so maybe next time… when Bobby or Dan are home and—”

“What are you trying to say?” Krissy demanded, whirling on him. “Why do I need an escort of my brother or his friend to go out in broad daylight to some freakin’ construction site with twenty or so guys swinging hammers?” Her hot glare raked her parents. “How am I ever gonna learn to fight like a Guardian if all I do is the same chores I used to have to do at home?” She pointed at J.L. while looking at her parents. “Have you seen this man’s tech work? He’s a genius, an expert, and I’m the next best in here on computers! I should have the same opportunity to learn from the best as my brother! It’s not right, and you guys are treating me like a baby when I’m seventeen, okay!”

“Oh… shit…” Big Mike muttered, and walked back down the hall towards the men’s bedroom.

Inez went outside and sat on the porch swing, passing Jose, who only shook his head and left the screen to disappear down the front steps. Shabazz and Berkfield’s line of vision locked. Silent empathy etched across Shabazz’s face. Marj gave Marlene a pleading look for an assist, but Marlene just shook her head, smiled, and left to take a shower.

“Honey,” Marjorie said, her voice a gentle balm. “It’s not that, uhm… You do have to learn how to fight, and it would be good experience for you to see an equipment room designed and built from the ground up, but—”

“Then what’s the problem?” Krissy challenged, her angry gaze going from her mother to her father.

“It is broad daylight, Richard,” Marjorie said with a sigh. “And—”

“And they’ll be twenty freakin’ hardhats over there hanging from rafters ogling my daughter! Hell no! She doesn’t need to be over there. And, we discussed this already, Marjorie!”

J.L. could feel the hair standing up on the back of his neck. This wasn’t about construction workers, it was clearly about him. Cool. No problem. He knew that going in, which was why he’d told Krissy no, too… or at least had tried to deflect her effort to join him. But the way her Mom’s gaze slid away to the floor, and her father had crossed his arms over his chest, told him all he needed to know. J.L. looked down at the floor. Hey, a decision had been made, and that was that.

“So, that’s it?” Krissy hollered. “I don’t have any—”

“He could take a gun,” Marjorie offered, her gaze now hard on her husband, “if you’re worried that some redneck might try Krissy.” Marjorie’s hands went to her hips in a slow, burning defiance. “Or, maybe J.L. is so awesome that he wouldn’t need a firearm against twenty hardhats to protect our daughter, given his black belt status. I, for one, trust that young man to do the right thing, if he takes our girl out for the day to teach her some very critical technical information. Yes, Richard, we have discussed it. But I think she’s old enough to learn, especially if you think our son is.”

The turn of events stilled everyone in the house. Confusion tore through J.L. as he watched the older married couple struggle on some silent issue before him, not sure what part of it had them at odds—his Asian heritage or the mere fact that he was male. Although the construction worker argument was a lame excuse, until Marjorie blew it away, that had been enough to allow everyone in the room to save face. However, it felt really good that Krissy’s Mom had taken up for him… maybe he’d been wrong, after all? Maybe the decision wasn’t a done deal? Maybe, just maybe, at least her Mom was neutral and liked both him and Dan as a potential choice? Maybe Mrs. B would allow Krissy to make up her own mind?

Hope made him foolish enough to step into the fray. “Mr. Berkfield, sir, I can take a gun, if you think something will happen out there.”

“Give my daughter one,” Berkfield muttered. “And remember, I also have one.”

J.L. forced himself not to smile. It wasn’t a heritage thing; it was a father-daughter thing. Okay.

“If you two get in trouble,” Marjorie said, glaring at her husband, “Richard has a gun and can come to the rescue—not that I think it will be necessary to pull a firearm on civilian construction workers.”

J.L. smiled, unable to swallow it any longer. Mrs. Berkfield was cool people; the consummate diplomat.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Berkfield muttered.

“So I can go?” Krissy squealed, barreling into her mother’s arms.

The sound of her voice at that pitch sent a shiver through him, but J.L. kept his expression humbly stoic.

“You can do whatever you like,” Berkfield grumbled. “It’s on your mother, whatever happens—since she knows all.” He huffed into the kitchen in search of coffee, banging a mug down on the counter.

J.L. thanked Marjorie Berkfield with his eyes and a silent understanding passed between them. “I’ll take good care of her and have her back soon. I promise.”

Marjorie nodded as she released Krissy from her embrace. He watched Marjorie stroke her daughter’s hair once as she pulled away.

“I’m counting on you to do that, J.L.,” Marjorie said softly. “Until she’s old enough.”

He nodded, knowing exactly what her mother meant.

“This is soooo cool,” Krissy said, oblivious to all the subtle messages that had passed over her head in the dining room.

She bounced out to the porch. J.L. followed her, his destination the truck, and he tried to avoid the sly smile Jose gave him.

“Be cool, bro, and take care of daddy’s little girl,” Jose teased as they passed each other on the walkway.

J.L. just quietly flipped Jose the bird and climbed into the black, Ford F150 next to Krissy and started the engine. Before he could get out of the driveway, she had turned on the radio full blast with a wide smile.

“I thought we’d never get away from them,” she said, closing her eyes and slumping in the seat. “Oh, they get on my nerves! Parents!”

“Be glad you’ve got ‘em. We’re all not so lucky, you know,” J.L. said cautiously, pulling the vehicle onto the service road behind the house. No matter how he felt, it was now about honor between him and Marjorie—she’d trusted him, so he’d keep his distance from her daughter.

But the way Krissy sat up, turned to him, and landed a gentle hand on his arm as he drove, made that a difficult proposition.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “I forgot you lost your parents.”

He shrugged, not wanting her gentle touch and soft voice to work its way further into his system.

“I meant what I said about you being a genius,” she added, and then shyly looked away. “I’m glad I’m getting to spend some time alone with you without all the noise and distractions in the house… maybe I can really concentrate and learn from you now.”

He refused to address the multiple implications her words contained. It was too difficult to sort out as they drove the short distance between the house and the construction site. Even though it was still early, the Arizona air was already heavy and hot… or maybe it had to do with the close proximity to her, he wasn’t sure. But he wanted to be certain that he was reading all her signals right. She’d been in Dan’s company—a lot. There was no secret about how his team brother felt about her; it was written all over his Guardian brother’s face. Theirs was also a very silent, urgent struggle between men.

“Yeah, well,” J.L. said, hedging, “I know it’s chaotic in the house, but from time to time, you’ve been able to get a lot of one-on-one training from Shabazz, Marlene, Dan…” he wished he hadn’t put extra inflection on Dan’s name; that had just slipped out by accident.

“I know,” she said, staring at him with wide, blue eyes. “But it’s not the same as being with you.”

He glimpsed her from the corner of his eye, watching what the sun did to her light tan, and how the sun played in the golden highlights of her hair. “Dan is great on explosives and has mastered the slingshot, is—”

“He’s okay and a good friend… he and Bobby are tight,” she countered, toying with the threads of her multi-colored friendship bracelet. “But, like, that’s different. I just like hanging out with you.”

He glimpsed her again; she was looking down at her wrist. His heart was slamming within his chest. Shit… Okay. “Uh, yeah, well, I like hanging out with you, too. Don’t get to do that very much, though.”

She looked up and stared at him. “You do?”

The joy in her voice was a rush of innocent yearning that made him keep his eyes on the road ahead.

“Yeah,” he finally said, not wanting to forestall answering her.

“I like what you teach me, J.L.,” she said, her voice so soft that he wished she hadn’t turned on the radio. “I mean, you’re the first guy who didn’t think I was a pure geek for being into computers and stuff… and you don’t talk down to me like I’m stupid… or teat me like a cheerleader.” She cast her gaze out of the window. “And you never… you know what I’m saying. Dad thinks all guys want one thing, and you’re not like that.”

Conflict mixed with guilt tore at him and helped his resolve. She was right, in that he knew she had a brilliant mind and a decent soul—he’d felt that from the moment he saw her. She was a breath of fresh air and had brought light into the group like he’d never seen it. But her dad was also right… she had no idea how beautiful she was, and any guy in his right mind definitely wouldn’t be male if he didn’t think about making love to her. Opting for a bit of chivalry, he decided to take the high road and defend her father’s position.

“Krissy, your dad is just trying to make sure that you don’t get hurt. A lot of guys are slimy—losers, and will go after a beautiful woman like you… and then dump her. If I had a daughter like you, I’d be the same way.”

She turned down the radio and sat back. “You think I’m beautiful?” she asked in a near whisper, missing the point. “I didn’t know you saw me like that.”

His mouth went dry. “Yeah… Krissy, a man would have to be blind not to see that.” He could feel his pulse racing, and tried to correct himself before things got too deep or he said too much. “But you’re also really, really smart, and that’s what I like about you most. When we’re on the tubes, maaan… and you make me laugh a lot. I need that—laughing. In our profession, that’s hard to come by.”

You think I’m smart?” she whispered.

She’d breathed out the words with such awe in her tone that he’d momentarily stopped breathing.

“You’re brilliant,” he said too quietly. “A natural.” His voice was on autopilot, and had dropped way too low in his throat.

“I think you’re awesome,” she said, her eyes raking him in a way he wished they wouldn’t. “When I watch you work and figure stuff out… sometimes it gives me the chills.”

It was time to get out of the truck. She was sipping air in; each inhale made her breasts rise and fall to a rhythm that was beginning to cause him sure agony. He could see her nipples begin to harden beneath her thin t-shirt, and her mouth was glistening with a sheer pink gloss that made him know it desired a kiss. They were at the site and she wasn’t legal. She’d produced gooseflesh on his arms with the admission, and if he didn’t jump out of the truck in two seconds, he’d have wood in his jeans.

“Okay,” he announced, “let’s make sure these guys have our power lines laid right.” He quickly turned off the engineer, grabbed the blueprints, and jettisoned himself out of the cab without looking back.

He could hear her footfalls behind him on the dirt, but kept his line of vision on the workmen before him. The foreman glanced up. The crew gave him a causal, but disdainful, assessment.

“Just here to go over the mid-section of the building,” J.L. said to the foreman.

The broad-shouldered man in his mid-fifties was already reddened by the sun, and his dirty t-shirt hugged his pot belly as though holding up a fifty-pound load of bricks.

“Yeah, yeah,” he grumbled. “We know. The center of the house is where all the generators gotta go.”

J.L. scanned the other workmen who’d temporarily stopped moving to watch Krissy walk up to the site. Broad smiles in multi-hued faces and glances of appreciation shot between the construction crew members.

“Make sure the little lady stays back from the area,” one guy called out. “She needs a hardhat, boss, if she’s gonna do a walk-through while we’re working.”

“Oooh! Can I?” Krissy squealed, laughing.

“I got your hardhat right here, little lady,” another guy yelled, grabbing his crotch and making his friends on a steel beam all chuckle.

J.L. gave the guy a hard look. Curious glances passed between the men on the beam, and a silent challenge was in the air. The disrespect bristled J.L. to the point where the foreman read it.

“Knock it off, guys,” the foreman said, shaking his head. “Sorry ‘bout that. Those guys are so ignorant sometimes.”

Accepting the apology from the man in charge, J.L. begrudgingly nodded. He knew the deal; she was a blond, he wasn’t—so the assumption was that she wasn’t with him, or at least shouldn’t be. If Bobby had brought her here, they would have respected him. If Dan had, they would have given him props. If Rider came with her, they would have assumed he was her Dad, and never tried it. If Marlene and Shabazz had come there together, or Carlos and Damali, or the Berkfields, or even Jose and Juanita… any of the couples, they wouldn’t have made a ‘babe’ comment to the woman those men were with. If Big Mike had brought Inez here, they wouldn’t have even blinked wrong at her. Obviously, they thought he couldn’t defend Krissy, given his size versus theirs. He pulled on every Zen principle he owned and let the dig pass.

The problem was, Krissy had taken offense. Her hands were on her hips, and he could see the feminist principle burning in her gaze. He begged her with his mind to let it go—but she wasn’t a telepath, neither was he.

“You got a problem with a female on this site, dude?” she hollered up at the men on the beam.

“Whooo, no, honey. Not one as pretty as you—ain’t that right, fellas?” The verbal offender slapped his hardhat and leered at Krissy, and then whistled.

“Okay, okay, guys,” the foreman said with a smirk. “I told you fellas to knock it off.”

J.L. glanced at the foreman, realizing that he, too, thought the same way and his peacekeeping was just a front.

“Whistle again, and my boyfriend will kick your ass!” Krissy shouted. “We didn’t come here for this bullshit!” She whirled on J.L. “Do you believe these assholes?”

For a moment, he was at a loss for words. Several things had just happened in a very dangerous collision of events. Krissy had claimed him, openly, as a mate. Twenty burly construction workers, of the un-evolved variety, had been baited and challenged. He had been put on the spot to defend her honor, as he’d promised her parents. Shit, he’d promised that to himself. Her eyes were waiting for a response. Guys on steel beams were laughing at him and shaking their heads. His woman had been disrespected,

“All, honey, now don’t get yourself all worked up. We were just joking around, and your boyfriend seems like he’s gonna have a stroke with just the thought of a yard fight—so, here’s a hardhat on us. It’s safe to walk under our beams.”

The offender tossed down a hardhat at Krissy. J.L. caught it in front of her before it ever hit the ground.

“Say one more thing to her,” J.L. warned, his eyes keened to the males on the beam, “and I’ll dust your ass in this yard.”

Laughter rang out from the beams. Krissy folded her arms over her chest. The foreman shielded his eyes to the sun.

“I told you knuckleheads to lay off these kids,” the foreman said, his smile growing. “You wanna make us lose this contract, screwing with them?”

He shook his head and began walking to the board and horses where J.L. had set down the blueprints, but J.L. never moved. Now it was a matter of face.

“Apologize to her,” J.L. ordered.

Raucous laughter ensued as a response. Before his brain had consulted his hand, the hardhat became a discus. It whirled through the air so fast that it caught the offender dead in the center of his chest, made him lose his balance, and fall off the four foot high beam he’d been on with a dusty thud.

“Now, you just hang on a minute!” the construction worker bellowed as he quickly stood and his crewmen doubled over with laughter.

“Whooowee, Billy—the little pipsqueak got your big, dumb ass! Ha ha ha ha ha!” one of the men said, as the others continued to roar with laughter.

“He sure showed you!” another said, sitting down on an exposed beam in a spectator’s position.

“Hey, hey, hey,” the foreman shouted. “No fightin’ on the site!” He hustled his burly frame to stand between J.L. and the would-be contender.

“I’ll kick his narrow little chink ass!”

“What did you call him, you big, dumb, redneck?” Krissy shrieked.

In an instant, the foreman had body blocked the angry worker and was trying to keep him away from J.L. “Go after him, and I’ll dock you a day’s pay!”

The angry crewman looked over his foreman’s shoulder. “You’re lucky that the boss won’t let me kick your ass!” he hollered, pointing at J.L. “And your trashy little—”

“Let the sonofabitch go,” J.L. said between his teeth, walking forward. “What did you call her?”

“I said she’s poor white—”

“Yo!” the foreman said nervously, cutting off the foul comment. “These folks are paying customers, and—”

“Let that stupid bastard go,” J.L. said evenly. “This is off the record. He won’t be docked, but you’d better up your medical and dental plan, because his ass will be on disability leave.”

“Since it’s off the record, and he threw the first cheap shot,” the man argued over his foreman’s shoulder, “Lemme go! His scrawny ass is mine!”

Krissy tipped her chin up. J.L. took a wide legged stance away from her across the clearing. Every man on the worksite found a beam to sit on and watch.

“Don’t you hurt him, none—hear, Billy! I swear, this is out of hand, this is a good contract, and I’m not gonna be responsible.” The foreman looked at J.L. and Krissy. “Let me get him calmed down. Why don’t you guys go on and get into the truck. Billy’s a good ole boy, he’s just got a short fuse and—”

“Let him go,” J.L. said so coolly that the foreman did a double take, and then released his hold on the angry crewman.

The crewman rounded his boss, ignoring his protest and took a stance. “So you think you’ve got something? Then show me, you little punk.”

J.L. rolled his shoulders and shook his head no. This was not supposed to be happening this morning. But something irrevocably male had been engaged. “Take it back,” he said between his teeth. “Apologize to her and I’ll let it ride.”

“Fuck you and that little bitch! Let her go back to her Momma’s double-wide trailer, messing with the likes of you,” Billy yelled. “I’ll kick your ass and have you wishin’ you’d never left that shack up the road you live in.”

“Make my day, asshole,” J.L. said, feeling a level of insanity threading through him that he couldn’t hold back any longer.

The man rushed forward, J.L. left the ground, and sent two rabbit kicks to his abdomen to avoid cracking the man’s ribs, before he flipped to a stance behind him. Fury and adrenaline tore through his system. He had to remember this was a human, demonic behavior notwithstanding. If he hit the brute too hard, he’d kill him, and that couldn’t happen.

“Apologize!” J.L. yelled, hoping with all his might that the fool would give it up and comply before he really got hurt.

“Fuck you,” the man wheezed, whirling the face J.L., holding his stomach and then upchucking as his friends laughed and yelled from the steel beams.

This was bad. Obviously the jerk refused to loose face, and had put up his dukes again after wiping vomit away from his mouth with the back of his hand.

“You gonna let his skinny little ass beat ya down, Billy-boy? Hot damn, wait till the guys at the bar heard this one!” a guy jeered, egging their friend into futile combat.

“Bruce Lee—oh, man! The pool hall is gonna love it!” another shouted and slapped five with a nearby construction worker.

Snorting, red in the face, broad shoulders squared, and his blonde hair matted to his skull with sweat, Billy rushed his six-foot-two, hulking frame forward and hurled a punch. Opting not to break his arm, J.L. dodged the punch, scissor grasped him around the waist and spun him down hard to the ground.

“Apologize,” J.L. repeated, not even winded.

The man rolled out of J.L.’s hold with a growl, stood and rushed at him again. J.L. dropped to the ground on his back, caught the guy between the legs with a hard kick to the groin and flipped him to sprawl in the dirt on his back. J.L. was in his feet in one lithe flip. The guy was curled into a fetal position groaning with both hands between his legs.

“If you get up again,” J.L. warned, his anger beyond the point where he could trust himself not to kill the man on the ground, “I’m not responsible.” He looked at Krissy. “Let’s go.” He dusted off his jeans and strode over to the makeshift worktable to collect his blueprints. “The next time I come here,” he yelled, pointing at the foreman, “if I see this asshole on site, your contract is cancelled!” He looked up to the beams at the men who were no longer smiling. “If she is ever disrespected on this site, I will come up there and break your necks!”

* * *

He had to keep driving and couldn’t walk back into the compound this enraged. Krissy sat quietly beside him as he seethed. How could he face her father and mother now? He’d let something happen out there, and Berkfield had been right about the construction site. Clearly her Dad knew about the types of guys working on the building, and he’d probably mistaken Berkfield’s concerns as being prejudiced when that wasn’t the full picture. Plus, the whole construction crew now had bad energy, and he didn’t want them working on the new compound with those vibes.

J.L raked his fingers through his damp hair. Shabazz would have a coronary, as would Marlene, to learn he’d been out fighting a civilian over something so stupid… especially when he could have compromised his soul by killing one unnecessarily. He’d broken Guardian rules, and had thrown out the principles of discipline. The reason would be unacceptable to the old-heads on the team; pride. But damn, she was worth it.

“I’m sorry,” Krissy said, wringing her hands in her lap as he sped the truck towards town.

“Forget about it,” he muttered.

“No, I can’t,” she said, suddenly shifting in her seat to face him, her eyes filled with tears. “They only said something smart to me because they’re bigoted assholes. I hate people who act like that, and I couldn’t stand by and have them treat you that way. I didn’t care what they called me, but I could see it in their eyes—they didn’t think you had a right to be there telling them what to do, and they didn’t like that I was with you! What gives them the right?” Her voice had cracked and then she sat back in the seat and swallowed hard. “But you are smarter, stronger, faster, nicer, classier, everything than them, and I just wanted to climb up that beam and yank that jerk down off it by his stinking hair!”

Oddly, his foot eased on the accelerator. For some reason, he sat up taller in his seat. She wasn’t offended by what that SOB had said to her, but by the disrespect the guy had shown him? Krissy had baited the guy into a fight she knew he’d lose, just to teach the Neanderthal a lesson—not because she was playing some dumb, young girl game? Oh, shit… and she thought all those good things about him… to the point of outrage… like that? She’d also called him her boyfriend.

“You can’t go around yanking bigots off construction beams all the time,” he said, trying to regain his calm and to make her smile. “Your arms will get tired. There’s too many of them in the world.”

She was still pouting, but gave him a half smile when he glanced at her.

“So my Dad was right?’ she asked with a hard sigh.

“Yeah, he has a point. If you can avoid them, that’s best.”

“But what if you can’t?” she countered, turning again to face him. “What if you’re surrounded?”

He smiled. “First off, you try to stay in environments where you won’t have to be surrounded. Second off, you try to reason your way out verbally, or seek the law, thirdly—”

“Get serious. You can’t reason with apes like that, and I don’t want to have to be afraid to go out with you anywhere.”

He looked at her, almost driving off the road. Just like that? She’d made up her mind? Women could do that… that fast? When did that happen!

“Uh…”

“I’m serious, J.L.,” she said, her gaze intense. “Like, when I turn eighteen, and Dad finally gets used to the fact that I can date, like, what if you wanna take me to a bar or a club? Or, what if we wanna go to a movie in this hick town? Or, one day, what’ll happen if we want to check into a motel, or something, and the clerk gets an attitude, or whatever?” She tossed her hair over her shoulder and folded her arms, confronting him.

“Uh…” The last part of what she’d asked was blowing his mental circuits. She’d thought about that, with him? “I don’t think your dad is ever going to be ready for that,” he said cautiously, entering the small town, numb. He tried to focus on the street lights and stop signs, looking out for pedestrians, lest he accidentally hit someone.

“My Dad is just old-fashioned, but not a redneck, J.L. We weren’t raised like that, and frankly, I’m offended that you think he is. Do you think that about me, too?”

Her voice contained so much hurt and anguish that he pulled into the diner back parking lot, just so he could think and speak at the same time without worrying about driving.

“Hold it, hold it,” he said, putting the truck gears into park. “I never thought he was prejudiced, per say… I just thought Dan made him more comfortable, and—”

“He’s only more comfortable with Dan because Dan sucks up to him to get to me. But you don’t.” She tipped her chin up in defiance. “My Mom is neutral. She always told me that she just wanted me to be happy—and not to get pregnant before I got married, like she did with Bobby. Okaaaay. It isn’t because you’re from Laos.”

J.L. rubbed his hands down his face. The conversation had taken some mysterious, giant, intimate leap that he wasn’t prepared for. The back lot was completely deserted, and the front lot only had a few, lone, tractor-trailer trucks and pick-ups in it that had been left by road-weary patrons searching for coffee and grub. It was too isolated in the sleepy little town diner lot, and she was sitting waaay too close to him for comfort. That, with a combination of fight adrenaline still running through him, was volatile.

“You wanna get some breakfast?” he asked, deflecting the direction that the conversation had been headed.

“You don’t like me, really, do you?” she asked quietly, and then looked away. “I understand, and I’m sorry I read your being nice to me wrong.”

For a moment, he simply stared at her.

“Are you kidding?” he whispered.

She glanced up at him and then held his gaze. “Then why don’t you ever seem… I mean… is it because I’m not Asian?”

“It’s because you aren’t eighteen,” he said quickly and then sent his gaze out the front window. “If I start…”

“That bad for you, too?”

He swallowed hard. “You wanna get some breakfast?”

“I don’t like Dan like that, if that’s what you’re worried about,” she said softly, touching his arm.

“Let’s get back to the part about your Dad,” he said as calmly as possible, trying to ignore the rush that washed through him. “I respect the man. You’re his daughter. I promised your mother, on our way out of the door that, nothing would happen to you. We’re good friends, and maybe, when you’re old enough, if they say it’s all right, we can go catch a movie, or something, ya know?”

“In my high school, I was the last vir—”

“That doesn’t matter,” he said fast, truly needing to not have this conversation.

“I’m not a baby,” she replied softly, scooting closer to him in the seat and allowing her hand to capture his. “Even with all those people in the house, we’re side-by-side day and night… you listen to me, make me laugh, and every morning I look forward to a new day and I’m not afraid, because I can’t wait to boot up a system with you, or learn some new way to hack into a database, or—”

“I know, I know,” he said, unable to pull away from her, but summoning his discipline not to move in closer. “But, see, Kris, it’s more complicated than—”

“When I told those guys you were my boyfriend, you didn’t deny it. Are you?”

He briefly closed his eyes and hung his head, letting out his breath hard. Her silence finally made him look at her, and her sad, anxious expression drew his fingers to trace her warm, soft cheek.

“Kris, when you’re old enough, I’d be honored to be that, if you still want me to.” Her mouth was a magnet, so were her intense blue eyes. “You’re beautiful from the inside out and the outside in, which is so rare. Sometimes… I can’t even breathe around you, but you’re the first person I look for everyday, too,” he whispered, taking in her features one by one. “I’ve never had anybody accept this poor kid from Laos just on face value, other than the team, so keeping harmony on it is very important to me… and once you’ve been without a family, you know how important it is to have one. I cannot make your father lose face, or dishonor your mother. Don’t make me do that.”

She nodded and closed her eyes, turning her cheek into his touch. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I just can’t help it sometimes. I dream about you.”

“I’ve always dreamt about having someone like you with a pure heart to come into my life,” he murmured, running the pad of his thumb over her bottom lip.

She kissed his thumb. “Me, too… but that’s not what I meant.” She opened her eyes, and they contained a desire haze in them that was unmistakable. “I dream about you. Do you ever dream about me?”

His hand trembled as it caressed her cheek. “All the time,” he said in a whispered rush.

She placed a finger on his eyebrow, and then slowly smoothed it out to the edge, her eyes following it as it traced over his cheekbone until he shuddered.

“Don’t,” he whispered, closing his eyes. “I’m a tactical.” He sat back and drew his hand away from her cheek, suddenly short of breath.

“Can we be boyfriend and girlfriend in secret, then? Until I’m old enough?”

He nodded and closed his eyes. “Only if you promise not to disrespect your parents. Okay?”

She leaned over and kissed his cheek. The sensation imploded in his groin.

“I just wanted you to know how much I liked you… in case some other older, prettier girl came along before I got a chance to tell you,” she said in a soft murmur so close that her breath merged with his. “I know I’m not blessed with special powers, like the others in the house, and I’m the baby in the group, and you probably think I’m silly… but at night, J.L., when I’m lying in bed… and all of us are crammed in the room, and there’s no privacy, and everybody else has somebody, and I’m not stupid… I know they slip off to be alone, and sometimes I feel like I’m crazy, do you know what I mean?”

He stared at her, nodding quietly. “You do have special powers,” he murmured. “There’s nobody else for me, but you. I don’t think you’re silly at all.”

“Then why do I feel this way, and you’re so cool, so able to just…”

He knew it was going to wreak havoc with his system, but the look in her eyes and her intensity drew his hand to her hair. The silken tresses added to the ache, but he couldn’t pull his fingers away. He knew exactly what she meant about the lack of privacy in the house; he bunked in the crammed male dorm-like room, and that was the last place one wanted to be exposed in this condition. He always made sure he was the last one to go to sleep. Cold showers weren’t even working any more. It was probably going to be worse, now that he knew how she felt about him.

“I’m just older, and have more at stake, like my life,” he finally said with a sad smile. “Getting shot can be a bad way to end things.”

She didn’t smile; her expression was stone serious and her breathing had become stilted. “I trust you, J.L.,” she whispered, “and if we’re really friends, you won’t laugh at me, if I tell you something really private?”

The smile slid from his face as his eyes searched hers. “Anything you ever say to me is always just between you and me, forever. I swear it.”

“I’ve never felt like this before in my life… and I don’t want to seem like I’m some nutcase babe with a monster crush… but sometimes when you pass me in the hall, or we’re sitting side-by-side working on the systems, I feel like my skin is about to catch fire.”

She glanced away, a rosy tinge rising to her cheeks, and then she covered her face with her hands. “Oh, my God, why would I tell some guy something so lame?”

Stunned silent, every hair on his body stood at attention. The need to be with her was so acute that it had burned his throat dry.

“It’s not lame,” he rasped. “I go through it every day, too.” He sat back in his seat and blew out a hard exhale, putting his hands on top of his head and lacing his fingers together to keep from body slamming her in an embrace.

“You think I’m a tactical sensor?” she asked, removing her hands from her face and staring up at him.

“I think we need to either go into the diner to eat breakfast, or go back to the house before I dishonor your parents.”

He simply looked at her, but she didn’t look away. Her nipples had become so hard beneath her shirt that it made his hands hurt not to touch her. But when her gaze slid down his body and landed on his lap, his stomach clenched.

“You’re feeling it, too, aren’t you?” She hadn’t removed her gaze from his erection for a moment, and then she suddenly sought his eyes.

He couldn’t answer. “I think we should go home.”

“Why?”

“I’m dishonoring your parents in my mind.”

“So am I.”

He watched strands of her hair begin to pull away from the mass, becoming static charged by electricity within the small space of the cab. Her eyelids were heavy and she was breathing in sips of air through her mouth. She’d pressed her knees together tightly and placed a flat palm on her chest as though about to have an asthma attack.

“The only time I can be alone with you is in my mind… in the bathroom, when I can—”

“Kris, don’t tell me,” he said, gripping the steering wheel and leaning his head forward on it with his eyes shut. “I’m way older than you; you’re only seventeen.”

“Do you think about me like that, to the point where you have to get somewhere alone and—”

“Yes,” he whispered through his teeth, refusing to look at her.

“It’s so embarrassing,” she said quietly.

Again, he could only nod and hold onto the steering wheel tighter. Her agony was his. Every ache within her had penetrated his aura and tactical field, sending jags of desire through it until he nearly wept. He had to get this girl home and take a long walk by himself… to the private spot he’d found in the woods… where he could release the tension and think of her without dishonoring his word. Her admission was breaking his back.

“Can we just kiss, and not go all the way?”

The plea in her voice made him lift his head and stare at her. Was she insane? “No.”

She looked away hurt, toying with the strap of her baby doll t-shirt.

“If I kiss you, I’ll want to touch you… and if I do that, things could get out of hand… and we’re sitting in a parking lot in broad daylight, Kris.”

Despite his protests, his eyes couldn’t help following the lazy trail of her graceful fingers moving up and down the strap… which led to her shoulder, and the swell of her breasts in profile, then the defining hard tips that pushed against the fabric, begging to be caressed. Somehow his mouth wound up on the softest shoulder it had ever brushed, and the deep moan that escaped her almost made him press her hard against the seat.

“That’s why,” he said, pulling back again and setting his jaw hard. He dabbed sweat away from his brow with the back of his hand as a shudder passed through him. Just kissing her shoulder was bad enough. If he took her mouth, he knew they’d be in trouble.

But she reached for his hand again, and this time brought it to her breast with a grimace. Her eyes slid shut as though she’d been dazed. She immediately bought her other hand up to cup the swollen lobe that he hadn’t touched.

“Oh, God, what’s in your hands?” she moaned, and then leaned forward and kissed him hard.

The longed-for sensation caught his breath in a strangled gasp. His tongue sought hers within an urgent tangle that wasn’t supposed to be. His hands skimmed her body, following the rise and swell of tender flesh beneath pink cotton, arching her into the touch just as he’d always imagined until his mouth found soft, burning-moist skin at her neck and shoulder. Her thigh was somehow wedged between his and his pelvis moved creating glorious friction in the dense morning air. He couldn’t help it; his hands were under her backside, she’d been flattened horizontally against the seat. His body craved entry, could almost feel it, as his kisses spilled over her face. Tears were running down her cheeks from the corners of her eyes. Her head was thrown back, her mouth open, and her grip tightened as she suddenly convulsed and shuddered in his hold. He almost did, too, but pushed himself up and then sat back quickly.

Panting he ran his fingers through his hair. Too close. How the hell was he gonna pass her Mom and Dad if he blew his load in his jeans?

She remained where she’d been sprawled, breathing hard, close to sobbing. “J.L., I could feel it…”

He held up his hand, closed his eyes, and shuddered. “This is why your Dad didn’t want you going out alone with a tactical.”

“Can you—”

“Yes, I could feel it, too, all right!”

“Are you mad at me?”

“No!” he shouted.

“Then why are you yelling?”

He let his face drop into his hands. “I’m stressed.”

The moment he heard her zipper rip down, he glanced at her in alarm.

“I have to take you home.”

“I’m so ashamed,” she whispered, “but I have to.”

Frozen for a moment, he couldn’t move as he watched her slide her hand into her pants, close her eyes, and two big tears roll down her cheeks. It was the highest compliment any woman had ever paid him, and compelled against all reason, he found himself kissing her belly, pulling up her top, his mouth lavishing her breasts as her hand feverishly worked beneath her jeans.

Her softness, her light female scent, and her impassioned gasps drew her tiny pink nipples onto his mouth, his moan lolling over them with his tongue. He couldn’t stop pleasuring her, even if a gun were to his head. Close to dry humping the seat, he almost yanked down her pants, his mouth hungering to taste her. But before he could, she convulsed hard, let out a strangled wail, arched hard, and collapsed.

She lay there breathing hard for several minutes, making him want her all the more. A huge wet spot was beginning to appear in his faded denims where sheer agony resided, thudding out a call for merciful release. He kissed her stomach and lowered her shirt, rousing her.

“I have to take you home,” he whispered, and brushed her mouth.

“Okay,” she whispered back. “But what about you?”

“My situation is a little more complicated,” he said with a tense smile. He glanced down at his pants. “This is already gonna be a problem to cover, any more of a stain than that, and your Dad will blow my head off.”

“But that’s not fair,” she said, sliding over to him and kissing his cheek. “If you felt like I did, then you have to be going crazy.”

He nodded, unable to deny it. “I’ll live, though.”

When she touched him, he groaned. “Baby… don’t. I’m too close.”

“I’ll swallow,” she said, making him look at her. “That way, they’ll never know.”

“Oh, shit… don’t promise me something like that and not mean it,” he whispered, glancing around the parking lot and taking odds on the possibility.

“It’s the only way, isn’t it?” She glanced around the lot, her eyes feral. “I mean, what are you gonna do? You can’t make it through the day like that can you?”

“I’ll go take a long walk in the woods,” he said, gasping. “Like I always do.”

“I thought we were boyfriend and girlfriend, now? I’ll wait until I’m eighteen, but…”

He stroked her hair, gazing at her in pain. “This isn’t right, and you know it.”

“I want to, it’s not like you’re forcing me.”

“You sure?” he said, his will decimated as her hand slid across him again. He lifted his hips to her touch, drowning in need. His t-shirt was sticking to him, sweat rolling down his temples. Her pulsing pressure against him made him see stars; her kiss promise-destroying, like her skin. She’d found the head and was playing with it, learning, exploring… oh, God, it felt so good—forgive him, he was a tactical Guardian… human… oh, shit… it had been so long! Her parents would never understand how it had gone down. But, still, she was jailbait.

“I… I… listen, Kris,” he stammered, tearing away from her kiss and holding her wrist firm to stop her insanity-producing strokes. “I’m not gonna be able to hold back, and if you change your mind at the last minute while doing that, it’ll be in your hair, all over your clothes, or—”

“I won’t, not feeling like this,” she argued, kissing him until he groaned inside her mouth. She pulled back, urgency trapped in her gaze. “I’ve never actually tried it before, but my girlfriends said you just—”

“Ohhh, noooo, no, no,” he said, sitting up straight and turning on the engine. He was supposed to be a Guardian—a protector of the innocent. The word ‘girlfriends’ had connected to the word high school, then connected to Marjorie’s pleading eyes, which ricocheted to Berkfield’s glock nine and fatherly glare. “Not like this, not out in some diner parking lot while you’re underage. Uh uh.”

“But don’t you want to?”

J.L. banged his head on the steering wheel as she sat back and zipped up her jeans. “I must be a fool.”

“Well, like, ye-ah…”

He glanced at her sad smile and put the truck in reverse, careening it into a spin to face the road. If Rivera had suffered like this as a vamp, with the whole Guardian team pointing nine-millimeters at him, then he’d walk it off. He also now understood Jose’s pain, and wasn’t even angry at Dan, anymore. A new level of appreciation entered his consciousness. The burden of honor was beyond fucked up. He repeated her age in his mind like a mantra.

“Six more months. I can do this,” he muttered, talking out loud more to himself than to her, and speeding the entire way home.

Volume 14Edit

Between Books: Volume Fourteen
After The Forbidden, Before The Damned
October 2005
Just before Arizona ...

Carlos sat on the side of the bed in his boxers, listening to Damali in the shower, and just staring at the wall. The hotel/motel situation was working his last nerve down to a nub. He cut off the blaring television, disgusted. The driving cross country from South Carolina to Arizona thing was a trip, although he could dig where everybody was coming from: nobody wanted to get on a plane any time soon. But still. Damn. And what they were headed towards—some run down house that had to be cleaned out, set up, blessed, and something all of them had to cram into, was not his version of the simple life.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, he knew why they had to travel off the beaten path, lest media and paparazzi mob Damali and the band, but the cheap motel vibe on dusty back roads was seriously not him. Plus, with all that money just sitting in the bank? Sheeit. There had to be a better way. Living like fugitives was insane. But he’d chill, for the sake of peace. He’d be cool, if that would help make Damali relax. She’d been a ball of nerves ever since, Philly—not that he could blame her.

They’d all been through a lot. Now, they were all moving like a scared herd of sheep. Everybody ate together, didn’t go out even in the day time, without a partner. There was a night time curfew. As soon as the sun set, Marlene and Shabazz rounded everybody up, prayed over each door and window, anointed bodies, and whatnot, then everybody went back to their respective rooms. He ain’t never rolled like this.

And that was the thing, too. In a cheap motel, the walls were like paper, and all of their rooms had been arranged, family reunion style, right smack next to each other… something else that had blown the groove. Every time he’d reach for his woman, she was telling him to keep his voice down, listening hard to hear if she could hear anyone else’s conversation through the wall so theirs wouldn’t be overheard, trying to keep bed springs from squeaking. Girlfriend didn’t even wanna take a shower in duo—and water was his thing… talkin’ about the tiles echoed into the next room. So! Folks was grown and knew the deal. He loved his woman all naked and slippery and soapy in a hot spray.

Carlos rubbed his palms down his face and let out a hard sigh, resigned to the fact that, if he was going to get anywhere with Damali on a regular basis, he had to allow her to calm down and set the lovemaking agenda. Her being tense was not the way he wanted it. When she could just let go and get into it righteous, there was nothing like it in the world. But right now, after weeks of this nonsense, he felt like he was developing a damned nervous tick.

True, at first he’d been the one that couldn’t get it together. Losing his Mom and grandmother… plus Padre Lopez, had just worn him out mentally. But, little by little, the pain started to fade to a dull ache, and he’d become philosophical about it all.

Talks with ‘Bazz and Marlene had gone a long way, on that note. Now they were some serious warriors. Had lost people real close, like he had. They’d been there, so he could respect their way of looking at things, their way of coping with the madness. Those two old-heads had perspective, like nobody else on the team. Then again, Rider and Big Mike, even Berkfield, had some serious wisdom along those lines. It was all good.

After he’d gotten his head right, then his libido had kicked in again. Then Damali’s was all off—like they were out of sync, and that had never been the case. That part worried him. Maybe, like all things, it was just a matter of time?

What girlfriend didn’t seem to understand was, being with her, just losing himself in her, was like… like… tonic. Pure painkiller. A moment in time where he didn’t have to think about anything else, didn’t have to got deep inside his mind or soul to feel the stab of guilt, the woulda, coulda, shoulda was held at bay. If there was ever a time when he needed her to just blow his mind, it was now.

He leaned back on the bed on his elbows, watching the bathroom door, intently, and then jerked his gaze away from it to scan the room. Shit… he had to stop staring at the door so hard before he accidentally burned a laser hole through it. Women didn’t understand that, sometimes it was just like that. It didn’t matter, for a brother, if the room had a dingy coat of what was supposed to be white paint on the walls. He didn’t care about the chipped, cheap furniture, or the tired-ass pictures that hung on the walls. He didn’t care if the bedspread was some old, faded floral print in ugly green and brown and gold, or the rug had seen better days. She was beyond fine. She was his. That was enough. Just thinking about her had given him wood, and he wasn’t trying to think about nothin’ else tonight, but getting with her.

Tomorrow would be another day. Problems would always be there. Issues going on within the team would still be there. Drama with the relocation, logistics, all of that wasn’t going nowhere. Sometimes the only pragmatic thing to do was live in the moment, and allow pleasure to wash away the problems for just a little while so one could think. Sometimes the little head took precedence over the big one, so enough blood could free-flow back up to his skull to allow his mind to work at razor sharpness.

Hearing the water turn off in the next room almost made him sit up, but he didn’t. Six weeks of hearing ‘not tonight’ was enough to make him wanna rush the door. But, nah… he had more style than that. Even in a permanent relationship, a brother had to be smooth.

Carlos forced himself to take long, deep, cleansing breaths. Being human again was a bitch. A little atmosphere, maybe, wouldn’t have hurt his cause. He glanced at the table. Shoulda brought girlfriend in a bottle of wine. He’d forgotten. Was slipping. Was used to not having to plan and could be spontaneous. Shoulda maybe gotten a few smooth CDs… a small boom box… picked up a coupla candles, or something. Maybe tomorrow night, he’d set up a romantic dinner in the room.

But it still pissed him off no end that she was real tense after that last go ‘round in the hotel where Jose had been across the hall. So what Jose probably heard them? Everything was peace, between men. Brotherman wasn’t no virgin, and wasn’t on rations, per se. How was it his problem that ‘Nita was sharing a room with Inez and Krissy? Jose was grown, and coulda talked some trash to Juanita to pull her for the night, if that’s what he needed to do.

To his way of thinking, a situation like that was for every man to work out for himself. Carlos closed his eyes. Damali was stressing about crazy shit. Why she was so worried about Jose’s sensibilities, was beyond him. Yet, had ‘Nita been next door, no doubt Damali woulda been real loud, for theatrical effect, then all grins in the morning at breakfast, rubbing female, kiss-my-ass salt in ‘Nita’s wound—rather than walking around looking guilty and quiet like she did in front of Jose. But had he gone there around Juanita, after a hollerin’, go hard night with Damali… being all humble and unnecessarily apologetic in the morning, then it would have been on, and Damali would have been in his face with ‘tude. Double-standard. Wasn’t right.

The bathroom door opened. He sat up, forgetting about what he’d been thinking about. Damali was drying her hair with a flimsy white towel. But she’d already put on a nightgown? Damn. Had already lotioned her body with She butter… in the bathroom? Why? He could smell it from across the room? He would have done that for her. Damn… he would have spread that cream all over girlfriend—she ain’t even have to ask.

She looked up from her towel at him with a cautious smile. He could see her entire naked outline through the thin, pale yellow fabric and enjoyed the fact that the light in the room was behind her. Fantastic perspective, if he did say so himself. The lace V panel in the front was awesome. Liked the way the spaghetti straps sorta fell off her satiny, cinnamon brown shoulders. Loved how he could just barely see the darker shade of her nipples through the short, thigh-high gown. She was gorgeous.

As she neared the bed, he cut on the nightstand light. “Why don’t you turn off the one on the wall?”

She hesitated, and then doubled back to oblige his request. God she looked good… shapely ass just working under the fabric as she walked to the light switch. Could see each muscle kneading down to the backs of her thighs… the crack that separated each lovely half of her butt was a darker line beneath the lightweight cotton. Okay… he wasn’t mad no more.

When she turned around and yawned, he stood up.

“You tired?” He didn’t mean for the question to come out the way it sounded, half a broken plea and half indignation, but shit.

“Beat,” she said, covering her mouth with her hand, yawning again. “Been a long day. Working out all the logistics of the new construction, figuring out how to get the ammo stored and stashed, training newbies, who haven’t got a clue as far as their battle reaction time.” She entered his embrace and laid her head on his shoulder. “They’re still fighting with human timing. One of them will get their heart snatched or lungs ripped out, if they don’t learn how to sense the predator before it—”

“I know, I know,” he said, cutting her off and brushing her mouth with a gentle kiss. He didn’t want to hear that team problem shit right now. “Let it rest until tomorrow.” He kissed her neck, waiting for the shiver that didn’t come. “Baby… you have got to relax. Like Marlene said, each newbie will come into their own in due time. Patience. Right?”

“Yeah, I guess you all are right,” she said, stroking his bare shoulders. “But always having my radar up, twenty-four seven, is wearing me out.” She backed up a bit to stare at him. “When I’m awake, I’m constantly scanning the group and the environment. When I’m asleep, I’m sleeping with one eye open, hoping that we don’t get a battle stations, incoming, red alert. I wake up exhausted, and go to bed exhausted. Does that make sense?”

He closed his eyes and let out a very long and patient breath. “Yeah,” he said, finding her sweet spot along the jugular to nip. She didn’t even sigh. “But, sometimes, you just have to let it go.”

“I know you’re right. Intellectually, I can accept that. But in my gut, I’m afraid of being off the job, not on-point, and I’d hate to have it on my conscience that, because I was sleeping a situation, we lost another member of our team.”

He knew she was referring to Lopez; nobody wanted anything like that to happen again, especially him. He also knew that her best girlfriend, Inez, being a part of the team, not to mention, two kids, Krissy and Bobby, was worrying her no end. He also knew what she meant by ‘sleeping on the job’—translation, being so caught up in making love that she had her radar down, her senses on full lock with him, and somebody might die on their watch, all because both Neterus were getting’ it on. But still. Damn. Six weeks? Could a brother get a little affection?

“Listen,” he said, intermittently suckling her throat where he’d once marked their union. “You know Marlene’s got her third eye working overtime. Every now and then, you can take a break from monitoring… and you have to recharge your batteries, baby. I know I have to recharge mine.”

She wasn’t moving against him, wasn’t warming to his hold. Her body was still semi-rigid, not relaxed, hadn’t melted against his. He could sense the wheels turning in her brain, her mental engine racing, and then getting stuck in gray-matter gridlock. But the resistance was beginning to make his breathing labor. He wanted her so badly that he was beginning to get a headache.

“I hear you,” she whispered, kissing his earlobe, but not grazing his old throat wound where he really needed her to. “Maybe I should call Marlene and ask her if she’s up to monitoring tonight?”

In utter defeat, he watched Damali cross the room and head towards the phone. He closed his eyes and almost groaned. Now they needed to call a baby-sitter, break the mood, and make it public knowledge that they’d be going out… as in, going out of their minds for a few hours? This was definitely not him!

“Why you gotta call her on the phone?” he asked in exasperation. “Just lock with her, baby. Send her a quick message that—”

“I don’t know where she is right now, even if she is in her room—feel me?” Damali shot back quickly, her tone peevish. “I don’t know whether or not she and Shabazz are busy, and you just don’t go into a lock, like that, and blow the groove without the courtesy of… well, it’s not done.” She set down the telephone receiver and put both hands on her hips.

Panic washed through him. Oh, shit, not tonight. Not another argument. Lovemaking was the only thing on the agenda, as far as he was concerned. Peace. He’d stand down. Would take the weight. An immediate apology went to his lips like an SOS from his groin.

“You’re right,” he said fast, holding his hands up in front of his chest. “My bad. Call her. See if it’s convenient for her.”

Damali folded her arms over her chest. “I wouldn’t be so tired, if I wasn’t the only one doing scans all the time with Mar. She’s exhausted, I’m exhausted. Really, this late, it’s kinda tacky to pick up the telephone and ask her, ya know?”

Now why did D have to go there, making a back-handed comment on his skills? It wasn’t his fault that his Neteru scans were in flux. Hadn’t Shabazz and them told her that it would take a few months to really stabilize until the seven-seven-sevens kicked in? His arms somehow got folded over his chest.

“Fine. Don’t call her, then.”

Damali sucked her teeth and walked away from the telephone. “Cool. It’s embarrassing to have to do that, anyway.”

“Oh, shit…” he said out loud by accident, and then began pacing beside the bed.

She gave him a glare, flung back the covers, jumped into bed, and then cut off the light. “Get some sleep. Good night.”

Hope crushed, he let out an exhale of defeat. It took a second for his eyes to adjust to the complete darkness, which was fucking with him as much as knowing that sleeping was all that was going to happen tonight. He got into bed, totally morose. Maybe if he talked to her, got her to calm down… He hadn’t been angling for a fight, didn’t she know that? Attempting quick reconciliation, he laid on his side to face her, but she abruptly turned away, pulled the covers up over her shoulder, and served him her back.

On his feet in an instant, he walked across the room and yanked back the drape. Moonlight bathed him and the room around them. That was much better. God, he missed the night.

“Why’d you do that?” she snapped, her tone testy and evil.

He glanced at her over his shoulder. “Because I still love to see your skin turn faint blue in real night light,” he said quietly. “Reminds me of when your aura would go pure liquid silver for me. That’s all.”

“Oh…” she whispered, her tone less aggressive.

He stepped aside so that more moonlight could cover her, and he watched it bathe her face, making her eyes shimmer. “I want to open those sliding glass doors, smell the night… hear the crickets and coyotes howl. Wanna see that sheen on your skin when you’re getting hot… see your head fall back and your beautiful eyes slide shut, just for me. Don’t mind if you serve me your back, as long as it isn’t board stiff and angry, but dipping and swaying while you’re on your knees under me.”

When she lowered her gaze and the combative expression left her face, a slight rush of adrenaline ran through him. He kept a steady gaze on her, unblinking. It was the stone cold truth. Pride ain’t have nothing to do with it tonight.

“I’ve missed you, girl,” he admitted thick in his throat. If she needed to hear heavy rap, so be it. Right about through here, he’d tell her whatever she wanted to get her to relent. “Miss seeing torchlight dance those gold and reds across your skin, like it’s burning you up from the inside out.” Every sentence was getting longer, harder to say, as he truly thought about it all. “Miss knocking your jaw back, finding your sweet spot… just smelling you get wet, tresora.”

She pushed herself up and stared at him in the semi-darkness. Now, see, why did he have to start talking trash… making her go there… ending it in a Spanish endearment? Why’d he have to be standing in half shadows… moonlight washing over his broad shoulders and cut abs, his breaths stilted, seeming as though just looking at her was making it hard for him to breathe? Black silk boxers, loaded with steel. Shit. It had been a long time, hadn’t it? She pressed a finger to her lips, thinking. Six weeks? Was she crazy? How in the hell had that happened? But, as turned-on as he seemed… no silver flicker? Why?

Was it new Net flux, or him being conflicted about that bitch, Juanita down the hall? She couldn’t think about that right now, though. There were newbies on the team… Mar might be out, so to speak. Had to keep her radar up and focus. Maybe she should have made the call.

“Why don’t you come back to bed?” she finally said in a soft murmur, and then reached in the drawer to extract a box of condoms.

Was she insane? He just looked at her and then the nightstand. Aw hell to the no.

“Your eyes aren’t flickering,” she said in an apologetic tone. She glimpsed the box, let out a weary sigh. “Your tattoo isn’t lit, either.”

“Give a brother a minute,” he said with a strained half smile.

She relaxed a bit. “Okay. I’m just not trying to…”

“I know,” he murmured, climbing back into bed beside her. His finger traced the edge of her jaw, across her collarbone, and over her shoulder, making a nightgown strap fall off it. “First I had hope,” he said, kissing her shoulder. “Then you got an attitude,” he said, kissing her throat. “Then I was like, no sense in getting myself all jacked up… if she ain’t in the mood, and I had to work it out of my system,” he whispered, nuzzling her neck as he stroked her arm. “Then… the lady gave me a yellow light… proceed with caution,” he murmured, leaning her back against the pillows and taking her mouth in a long, sensual kiss. “That’s all. It’ll come on in a minute.”

The taste of her yielding mouth made him deepen the kiss and made him explore the soft region he’d been denied for so long. Minty toothpaste entered his sinuses and he chased the fragrant flavor with his tongue, sliding his across her teeth, tangling it with hers, growing bolder as her body began to heat up.

Shea butter and Damali was in his nose. For the first time in weeks, her skin felt alive under his touch. His body yearned to be inside her, remembering the excruciating sheath of pleasure it offered. Her soft moans were shattering him, decimating all worries. Her mint-tainted breath suddenly became something to track, hunt, and capture in a feral kiss. “Baby, I missed you so much.”

His heart was beating in arrhythmia, keeping time with every contraction in his shaft. Jesus. He wanted to bite her so bad, it wasn’t even funny. But he had to remember that wasn’t an option. However, latex was out. To his mind, they were married.

Her sweet spot called to him in a gentle whisper as he slid her other strap down, but he ignored it, landing a kiss in the sensitive skin where her collarbone came to a V. There, he could feel her heartbeat speed up and loved the way her hands caressed his hair in a gentle, circular motion, coaxing him, encouraging him to kiss her lower. Yeah… this was how it was supposed to be. No outside intervention, nothing between them but skin—just him and her.

Lathing the swell of her breasts with a long, sensual lick, he stopped briefly to glance up at her. The expression of anticipation she had on her face nearly closed his eyes. Drawn to her cleavage, he landed tender kisses between her breasts and was rewarded as she turned into the caress, attempting to get him to capture her nipples.

Yeah, it had been a long time for both of them, hadn’t it? Rather than rush, he allowed his thumbs to softly stroke the underside of each lobe close to the points of pain at the tips, but not touching the tender, hardened flesh until she arched and demanded he address the sting.

“Drop your radar, corazon,” he murmured in a gentle command. “You’re blocking your flow.”

His voice coated her skin with heat and sudden need. Forgotten want traveled through her, across every surface until raw desire slammed her. This was her man. Fine, smooth operator that knew her like the back of his hand. How had she allowed so much time to go by? She attempted a verbal apology for the vast oversight, but her words fused into a moan.

Since her voice didn’t work she roughly used her tongue against his throat to explain the transgression, her lips to offer the apology, her hands to smooth away hurt. Radar faltering, she tried to divide her mind, but he’d already divided her thighs, his weight between them demanding that her undivided attention be on him.

“Who’s gonna watch over the team?” she asked in a breathless urgent whisper.

“The Almighty,” he said, slowly biting down on her sweet spot. “I defer to Omnipotence… for about two hours.”

“Be serious,” she gasped.

“Do I seem like I’m playing?” He lifted his head and stared at her for a moment, forcing her lids to go to half mast. She swallowed hard and began breathing through her mouth. “I didn’t think so.”

She couldn’t see the silver, but his grip felt like liquid steel, melting her resolve. And that look on his face… that had always been her weakness. That tone of voice near a low growl, close to panther—have mercy. It had definitely been too long.

Listening to her breathing quicken, sped his pulse. He slipped her gown down just enough to expose her nipples and blew a cool breath on the hot surfaces, wishing he could make his mouth ice for a moment. She wriggled under the sensation, and feeling her lift towards his mouth ever so slightly did something to him. The heavy throb that had been in his groin was now a pulsing question: when. Not yet. She needed to lose her mind tonight. Some things had to be rectified with sheer authority.

He let the warm tip of his tongue replace the cool air, grazing her nipples. Her soft moan and arch closer added another layer of burn to the throb. Brushing his bottom lip across the tight pebbles, he took his time, pressing the subtlest kiss above them. Fair exchange was no robbery, and her absence had been a felony. Grand larceny, to be exact. Had stolen his peace, had messed with his mind, had him walking in circles, and just acting a fool. She needed to ache for the offense as a reminder. Even amongst thieves, there was a code of honor. Never deny your man, not when he’s feeling like this.

“Don’t back off of a mind-lock,” he whispered. “It’ll do us both good.”

“I don’t wanna start thinking about anything but this right now. Okay?”

Her voice held a plea that he could respect. She had a point… but, damn it would be so good. “I’ve only got one thing on my mind right now,” he whispered between her breasts, “and you can have it all.” He closed his eyes, let his head drop back, and sent the signal into her mind hard.

Her gasp was a slow, hissing inhale that sent a shiver through him. She didn’t have to send, as long as she received. Just take it in… all way to the hilt. There was no need for him to fully penetrate her gray matter, as long as she was down for the real entry he craved. Forget the black box—he was too far gone for that.

The thought into sliced her front mind like a hot knife through warm butter. It straightened his back, made pre-cum begin to leak. Damn, he’d forgotten how strong she was. Then she gasped and slid into his head with a delicious mental whisper that made him groan her name.

In a very fragile state of mind, he tried to pace himself by drawing a slow circle around the angry surfaces of her breasts, using the heat of his mouth in hard pants to tease without touching them. She had to know he hadn’t forgotten the basics, even if his vamp burn was a little rusty, he was still her man.

But where was her beautiful light-filled aura? He captured a nipple gently between his teeth and flicked the very center of it with the tip of his tongue. Her sharp gasp sent another hard shudder through him. Girlfriend should have been spilling liquid color all over him by now. Maybe she really was exhausted, and wasn’t just tripping?

“Oh, baby, I’m sorry I haven’t been more understanding,” he whispered, truly meaning it, then allowed her nightgown to ride up and cover her breasts, just so he could tease her nipples through the fabric with a gentle nuzzle against them. He covered her body with his own, and although she moved beneath him to a familiar rhythm, none of her pulse points were lit.

Shit… it felt like they were lit; maybe he just couldn’t see them? Mild panic swept through him as he knocked her head back, and she arched, groaned, and waited. He delivered a hard human bite, and her nails dug into his shoulders. Naw… she was reacting normally. It had to be him.

His apology was delivered in renewed kisses down her throat, sliding down her body as he slid off her gown with trembling hands. The moment her breasts bounced free from their fabric encumbrance, he nursed each one with care until her spine lifted at the dip-point off the bed.

Maybe he’d been too unforgiving and not relentless enough in his pursuit… A thorough apology was in order, and he allowed his tongue to deliver it all the way down her abdomen, stopping to pay much respect to her navel, his hands a gentle glide down her sides and over her hips, nestling in the silky hair where he could French kiss away the error in judgment, beg her pardon.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered into her wet folds. “I’ll be more patient, I promise,” he murmured, sending tonal vibrations against her bud before he pulled it between his lips.

“I’m sorry, too,” she said on a strangled whisper, gathering the fitted sheet in her hands. What had she been thinking? Oh, Lord… silver or not, this man was awesome. Her lids slid shut and her eyes crossed beneath them. His tongue had found the burning rim that had been neglected too long. She couldn’t worry about who was in the next room, couldn’t remember the motel layout right now if her life depended on it. Right… there…

He’d read her mind, had found… oh, yes… the spot… A hard plunge, followed by rabbit flicks, broken up by a mad-crazy tempo that was gonna make her holla. She covered her mouth with one hand, shuddering.

“I wanna hear your voice, desesperado,” he murmured in a hot wash within her.

“Oh, shit!”

Now that’s what he was talking about. Uhmmm, hmmm… yeah… just like that. He went back to the task with a deep sense of satisfaction threading through him. This was his woman, his wife. Wasn’t about half-stepping. His grip tightened on her thighs, spreading them wider so his tongue could explore deeper. Then suddenly her bud drew his focus, pulling his attention to it, a soft suckle, timed with ardent flicks till he got that bottomed-out moan, that exact shudder he was seeking, that thigh-muscle closing pulse that threatened to suffocate him in wet flesh. He’d die like that any night she so chose, his hands loving the feel of her rhythmically lifting bottom, butter soft ass… working hard to get more.

He lifted his head, just to see her expression. Tears glistened in her eyes in the moonlight as she sat up slightly, a plea on her face. It did something to him. Made him cover her, the ache in his length near unbearable. Conflict ate at his conscience, but never made it past his groin. He should have let her cum again, but it had been six freakin’ weeks. His mouth was on hers before he had time to really think about more options.

The moment the head hit her wetness, he forgot all about slow, even entry. It was sloppy, hard, the shudder a divine pleasure bolt snapping vertebra as it ripped up his spine and threw his head back. The groan simultaneous. Thunder right after the lightening. “Oh, baby… damn, I missed you.” The first few strokes were erratic, too fast, roiling pressure in his sac… about to explode. He knew it, but didn’t care.

Primal sensation sent hands on fire into her hair, clasping her head, rushing down her arms, seeking anchor around her back, her legs a vice around his waist, her graceful palms sliding wanton memory into his cells. A cool spot; her hand reaching for something. Whatever, just don’t stop moving or touching him. He kissed the inner bend in her elbow, instantly remembering the pulse point blind.

A box hit his shoulder. He looked up, ignored her, wurking, sweating, found her throat, and bit down hard.

The box slid out of her hand. Fuck all that—not now. The window of opportunity had closed, and slammed down hard. Her hair was in his fists.

“You wanted me to stop?” he asked through his teeth, looking down at her into her eyes without missing a beat.

“I… I think… you—”

A hard thrust cut off her words.

“You sure?” he said, then captured her mouth with a brutal kiss and broke from it to keep from passing out.

Her lips parted, he could feel an answer get trapped in her throat, and scored her jugular again.

“Oh, God…”

“I’ll stop if you want to,” he said, gaining momentum, and then pushed hard on the headboard to spare her a concussion. “Talk to me. You want me to stop?”

“No! Don’t stop.”

He took her mouth again and tightened his embrace. “?Continuar?” He stopped moving and abruptly pulled out. “?Prohibido la entrada?” He kissed her harder and tears raced down her cheeks. “I’ll do whatever my wife asks me to, tresora—you know that, right?”

“Put it in,” she said on a strangled gasp, her voice escalating to a decibel he loved.

He didn’t move, just kissed her throat breathing hard.

“Okay, I’m begging you.” She returned the kiss quickly.

“Tell me in Spanish.”

“I can’t remember!” she wailed, arching under his hold and digging the crown of her head into the pillows.

“Want me to remind you?” he asked, panting.

She sat up a little, lifting them both slightly, grabbed the nape of his neck, and spoke to him between her teeth without blinking. “No. Let me remind you.”

She bit him so hard that he saw stars when he shut his eyes. She’d caught him with a lightening fast, blunt-edge strike that almost made him cum on her belly. He couldn’t play any more, he had to get inside her, but she avoided the thrust, chuckled low in her throat, and made him crazy all at the same time.

She shrugged and glanced at the box and then spoke to the ceiling. “Me supplico que parara.”

“I know, I know, I begged you to stop, but—”

She captured his body with hers on a swift thrust and took his mouth the same way. He was done.

The convulsion ran up his shaft, made him throw his head back, embedded her name in the wail, and ruined his will. Her head hit the wood at the top of the bed, but she’d arched so hard beneath him that he couldn’t begin to process stopping. When she called his name it had sent fractured light beneath his lids and set off another deep implosion in his groin.

“Oh, tresora, shit… I love you, girl!”

Her answer was an elongated wail that hitched, broke into pieces of shrill orgasmic response that ripped him to shreds.

Spent, panting, he couldn’t even lift his head for a moment. Soft hands pet his shoulders. A gentle kiss brushed his sweat-damp temple. The heat of the air in the room slowly eased to a cool covering as his intermittent tremors abated.

“We didn’t use protection,” she murmured, gulping air.

He smiled with his eyes closed. What could he say? “I missed you.”

“I missed you, too,” she whispered.

He just nodded with his eyes still closed. “Next time. But don’t make it so long between visits, okay?” He let his forehead drop against hers. “Just promise me that. Damn.”

Volume 15Edit

Between Books:' 'Volume Fifteen - The Ripple Effect  After The Forbidden, Before The Damned October 2005

Just Before Arizona… “The Ripple Effect” 
Jose lay awake in the bed, staring up at the ceiling in the dark. He kept his fingers laced tightly behind his head. He hated this motel/hotel shit with a grand passion. The whole concept of partnering in a buddy-system, two-by-two detail was crazy. Marlene was insane, even if he had to admit in his heart of hearts that, she made a whole lotta sense. 
It was the situation. Him bunking with J.L. with Juanita, Inez, and Krissy wedged into a room between them and Damali and Carlos—the newest and most vulnerable group, the female newbies, between two Neterus, the Berkfield’s and them… Mike with Rider at the end of the row near the doors where something could slither in. Then they’d put Dan and Bobby together on the other side of the Neterus, with Shabazz and Mar at the other end of the row of madness. The Neterus were always in the middle. 
Sure, he understood the arrangement and the strategic positioning in case of an attack. But still, why couldn’t Mar just have relented and put him and J.L. waaaay down the hall! 
Jose took in a slow breath and let it out quietly through his mouth. The first time he’d heard Carlos’s name called in a muffled moan back at the other hotel had killed him. But this… a second round of the bullshit, was murder. Yet, how was it possible that he’d heard all of that? The question made his mind race. He wasn’t an audio. Mar had been reasonable, had but a two room buffer between their rooms. The sensory overload didn’t make sense. He had to go to sleep, and could, if J.L. would just stop tossing and turning! 
He took another meditative breath and tried to focus on counting backwards from one hundred. But with the erection he had, he could have begun counting backwards from at infinity and would still be awake in the morning. 
Disgusted with his condition, he glanced down at the tent his body made in the covers—glad that J.L. had his back to him. This was beyond fucked up. Damali’s scent had wafted down the hall, past two rooms and was all in his nose. It was worse than before, back in the old compound days… this was raw, mature, female sex with a strong male carrier making it worse. Her sweet essence flowed like rain on a humid summer day and was lodged in his sinuses. Every breath made it cling to the back of his throat, and roll over his tongue until he could literally taste her in his mouth. 
He swallowed hard, trying to banish the devastating awareness from his taste buds. But her scent was insistent, demanding. It slid down his throat and imploded in his stomach, then new set fire to his groin. Compasion, por favor. 
Sweat was beginning to trickle down his temple as he shut his eyes tightly and clenched his laced fingers together harder behind his head. Rivera’s scent was unlocking the link between them. Although Carlos had become a living, human, Neteru… his sweat was the same, still owned a piece of DNA that registered male master vamp… same line… distant brethren. Oh, shit… that’s why he could hear it all like it was happening next door! 
Jose sat up quickly and raked his hands through his hair. J.L. turned over and looked at him in the moonlit room. 
“You cool, man?” 
“Yeah, I’m all right.” 
“You hear something?” J.L. said, pushing himself up in the bed, ready to turn on the light. 
“Do not turn on the light,” Jose said between his teeth. 
The two men stared at each other for a moment in the shadows. 
“I’m not trying to be funny, but you got real sick before. If you—” 
“I’m cool,” Jose said low in his throat. 
“You ain’t cool. *bleep* all that,” J.L. said, slowly swinging his legs over the side of the bed. “Look at you, man. Even in the dark, you’re sweatin’, breathing hard. You look like—” 
Jose stood and walked to the far side of the room. “This bullshit going on down the hall with D is fucking me up, all right. I ain’t turning.” 
J.L. sat quietly for a while, just watching him. “If it will make you feel any better, the vibe jumping off on this corridor is making me trip, too.” 
Jose nodded, remembering that his Guardian brother was a tactical. “Yeah… all right. My bad. I just have to shake this Neteru affliction I’ve got.” 
J.L. stood and went to stand by the door, and then began to pace. “I’m not talking about that,” he said, rubbing the back of his neck. 
In the semi-darkness, Jose could make out J.L.’s silhouette, and his hair was practically standing on end, arcing small flickers of blue sparks through it. 
“Shit, man… what are you talking about?” Jose said, becoming nervous. If something was on the move, then J.L. needed to spit it out. 
“She’s right next door—her Pop is two seconds down the hall. Oh, shit, man… she ain’t gonna turn eighteen for months,” J.L. said in a quiet, urgent whisper. “She’s picking up vibe off that hot Neteru room as a brand new tactical and her wild energy is ricocheting to where it wants to be.” J.L. laced his fingers together on top of his head. “Brother, listen, if I do something stupid, like head down the hall—pull my dumb ass back before I get shot.” He waited a beat and then pointed at Jose. “Promise me, man. I ain’t never been jacked up like this.” 
Stunned, Jose could only stare at J.L. for a moment. J.L.’s eyes were glazed as though tears had risen in them, and he watched him walk in a tight circle trying to take in deep, cleansing breaths. 
“I got your back,” Jose finally said. “I ain’t gonna let you go out like that.” 
“Cool. I got yours, too. I won’t let you—” 
“I’m not crazy,” Jose said, indignant. “Vamp is further down in my line than that!” 
J.L. chuckled, trying to release some tension. “You look like I need to put you down with a crossbow.” 
Jose laughed quietly, and then suddenly leaned against the wall and hung his head—stone serious. He closed his eyes, tilted his head and took in a sharp breath. “Right between the eyes. Get a nine, a crossbow, whatever you got… my ass is suffering, man.” 
“Yo, yo, yo… whatchu talkin’ about, dude?” 
J.L. had begun to pace and Jose couldn’t even look at him. 
“Remember when me and Padre did that link?” Jose whispered thickly. 
“Yeah,” J.L. said, staring at him hard. 
Jose slowly lifted his head to return J.L.’s gaze. “I can still feel it.” 
“Holy shit.” J.L. wiped his brow. 
“It’s the scent,” Jose said, going to the sliding glass door, yanking the drape back, and staring at the moon. 
His tactical brother couldn’t even imagine… for a few, wondrous moments, he’d been linked with a master at wurk. He’d actually tasted Damali on a borrowed palate via a master mind-lock. The scent of her sweet pussy was such a visceral reality—now that the scent had summoned the memory, and he couldn’t shake it for money. Being inside her, feeling it through a host with no barrier… Madre d’ Dios. He clung to the glass, palms flat to keep breathing. 
“Take deep breaths, man,” J.L. warned. “Easy, bro. Rivera will freak.” 
“I ain’t got no control over this,” Jose whispered. 
It was the naked truth. The higher Damali climbed in ecstasy and the closer Carlos teetered on the edge, the more pheromone rent the air, the more vivid the memory became… the more he felt it. And they had been at it all night… the third round was eating him up. Burning him alive. 
“Either walk down the hall and stop at ‘Nita’s room,” J.L. said gently, “or go take a cold shower, man. I’m not trying to be funny. That’s the only viable options I see.” 
Both men stared at each other. J.L. walked over to his bed and flopped down, his eyes on the ceiling. 
“If you don’t hit the shower soon, I will,” J.L. added. “I wasn’t taking a pot shot at you, man. I’m just trying to be real.” 
Without a word, and with his dignity in shreds, Jose crossed the room, slipped into the bathroom, and quietly shut the door. It felt like his t-shirt and nylon basketball shorts had been welded to him, and he painfully peeled them off his body like he was shedding skin. 
Turning on the tap, he let the frigid spray hit his hand first, and immediately drew it back, then adjusted the temperature to a tepid level he could tolerate. But the moment he entered the shower and doused his hair, every droplet seemed to heighten the scent in his olfactory system… oh, shit… water… Rivera was a Scorp… memories of Damali’s scent in the compound during her ripening… every shower she took—sudden heat. His palms flattened against the cold tiles for relief to no avail. Memories scorched his mind and made him drop his head forward. Cool water didn’t stop the burn. 
The scent of her carried in the shower moistened air, turning mental tumblers, unlocking sealed mind doors. Her with the water, the water with her. Wet female. Sex perfumed compound drain systems. In a lair. In the Caribbean. Rose petals and blood… sex scent pungent and dense like rainforest foliage. She felt like slick soap and Shea butter and everything woman. His hand became a sheath against the agony she’d presented. 
God forgive him, he couldn’t help it… but he had to release this pain. 
If he went down the hall, and Krissy opened the door in a nightgown—he was gonna break her father’s heart. If she would just chill… would stop throwing crazy, unspent energy, he could meditate, relax, shake it off, and go to sleep. But he could feel her skin ignite, her mouth hungering to be taken hard… like the rest of her. He looked at his arms as a current of blue tinged current swept along them. 
J.L. licked his lips, trying to keep his mouth from going dry without success. Shame washed over him as he sat up, slowly beginning to rock in pain. There was no denying the inevitable… he was next in the shower… taking her in there with him mentally. 

  • * * 
Juanita flung her covers back and walked to the sliding glass doors. Krissy glanced at her from across the room, and blotted the perspiration off her forehead. 
“You okay?” Krissy asked in a whisper. 
“No, her ass ain’t okay,” Inez practically snarled. “But her ass needs to get over it.” 
“Don’t say shit to me,” Juanita snapped. “Not a fucking thing, hear?” 
Inez was out of her bed and on her feet in seconds. Krissy jumped up and stood between them. 
“Hey, hey, hey,” Krissy said, extending her arms. “What’s wrong with you guys!” 
“She needs to stay out of my face,” Juanita said through her teeth. 
“We can go right here, right now, girlfriend,” Inez said, hands on hips. 
“Would you stop!” Krissy shouted, and then lowered her voice. She held her hands at both sides of her head. “Just quit it!” 
Krissy’s impassioned outburst made the two older women in the room just stare at her for a moment as she walked across the room, began to pace, and then wrapped her arms around her waist. 
“Later,” Inez said, pointing at Juanita. 
“Any day or night,” Juanita said, tossing her hair over her shoulder. 
“You all right, Kris?” Inez said, becoming concerned. 
“Noooo,” Kris wailed in a hushed tone. “I’m… I’m….” 
“You got blue static electricity all over your skin,” Juanita said, coming nearer. 
When Juanita reached out to inspect the phenomena, Krissy yanked away. “Don’t touch me,” she whispered through her teeth and then hugged herself harder. 
Juanita and Inez gave each other a quizzical look. Krissy inhaled sharply, shuddered, and then tears began to stream down her face. 
“Want me to go get Marlene?” Inez said, growing more alarmed by the second. 
“Oh, please, God, no—don’t call Miss Marlene. I don’t want her to see me like this. Promise me, promise me, don’t go get her or anyone else. Swear it!” 
Inez and Juanita shared another glance. 
“Well, what’s your problem then, chica?” Juanita said warily. “Because if you got bitten by some shit, I, for one, ain’t staying in this room with—” 
“It’s J.L., all right? Satisfied?” Krissy turned away, swallowed hard, and shuddered again. “Oh, God…” 
Both Juanita and Inez stared at each other for a moment and then mouthed the words, ‘oh shit.’ 
“You think you’re a tactical, like him?” Inez asked softly, keeping her voice quiet. 
Krissy emphatically nodded. 
“Oh… man…” Juanita said, running her fingers through her hair. “That ain’t good, hon.” 
“Don’t let me walk out that door,” Krissy said in an urgent whisper. “My mom and dad and brother are right next door. I can’t… I just… ” 
“We got you,” Inez said, body blocking the door. “I know how you feel. It’ll pass—” 
“Not,” Juanita said, lifting her hair off her neck. “Tell the girl the truth, ‘Nez. Stop lying. As long as all that bullshit is going on that close to her, she’s gonna be lit up like a freakin’ Christmas tree—and if J.L. is in the same condition… hey.” 
“Girl, don’t make her bug. Chill,” Inez demanded softly. “Listen… I get snatches of vision and can sometimes see Mike… and uh, it does get bad, at times… like tonight… but, uh, if you, uh…” 
“Just tell her, Inez,” Juanita said, losing patience. “Just tell the girl to go take a shower and handle her business so she can get a good night’s sleep!” 
“Aw, Lawd, ‘Nita… girl, you ain’t have to go there.” 
Krissy covered her face as the heat of pure embarrassment made her cheeks burn. 
“Hey, I ain’t throwing stones,” Juanita said in a huff, and then flopped down on the bed. “You all have no idea where I’m at in my head right now. So stop fucking with me.” A bitter sob choked off her words and made her stand again, and then begin walking in a dizzying circle. 
“For your information, Inez,” Juanita said, pointing at her, every word gaining momentum, getting broken up into a more Spanglish coated harmony, rolling Rs faster without a breath. “This has nothing to do with your girlfriend. It has to do with me, what I know for fact, what I remember, and what sensing what I’m sensing is making come back into my brain—you ain’t neva been with no brother like Carlos, okaaay. You ain’t neva lived with one, or even… oh, shit, if his ass would just get done and go to fucking sleep I might be able to not lose my mind, okay. So don’t you get all up in my face and start talking about a beat down, because tonight, chica, if you wanna take this to the hall, go out in the parking lot, where eva, we can do dat shit real barrios style and I’m telling you right—” 
“Girl…. It’s cool,” Inez said softly, as she and Krissy stared at Juanita. “You’re unraveling, sis. Chill. We’re all messed up. I can’t hear it, you can’t hear it, but Mike did, most likely… so… look. Let’s just all get back into bed, or take a shower, or I don’t know, but we need to be cool… or everybody is gonna make a break for the hall—and we cannot leave Krissy in here alone… ‘cause J.L. will be in here with the quickness, and then he’ll get shot, the cops will come, and—” 
“All right, all right, all right,” Juanita said in a near hiss and then sat down hard on the bed. “Let’s play some cards till it’s over, then. I cannot lie down in no freakin’ bed while Rivera’s wurkin’.” 
  • * * 
Rider passed a bottle of Jack Daniels to Big Mike as they both sat in the dark on their beds. 
Mike took a healthy swig and handed it back to Rider. 
“I know she’s grown,” Mike said in a far off tone. “But ya know, man… she’s still like my daughter. I can’t deal with hearing that shit. I have to keep remembering that I ain’t supposed to go get my shoulder cannon.” 
“And you wonder why I smoke?” Rider picked up the pack of Marlboro Reds on the nightstand, slowly stood, crossed the room to go light it, and blew smoke out the sliding glass door. 
“Second hand smoke will kill a brother, too,” Mike grumbled, taking another swig from the bottle. 
“It blocks my sinuses, and D is like my daughter.” Rider took a deep drag off the butt until it glowed bright red. “I don’t wanna deal with it.” 
Mike nodded and took a cigarette out of Riders pack and lit it. “Ain’t did this since Nam, smokin’. But my nerves is bad, bro.” 
“Have at it. Knock yourself out.” Rider kept his back to Mike and inhaled again, also breathing in crisp night air. 
“Thing is, if Inez came down here right now, I wouldn’t be no good to her. It’s like… that’s my baby girl, and I just ain’t even—” 
“In the mood. Hearing your daughter in three part harmony is a real libido buster.” Rider sighed hard. “Before all that mayhem started, I was half ready to go take a long walk in the moonlight, hoping to get lucky by way of an accidental meeting in the dark… know a lovely lady that has gorgeous red eyes.” He flicked an ash out of the cracked-open sliding glass door and leaned on it. 
“Man, you woulda had me walking point with a hollow point magazine. You know that lady you’re talking about has an old man now, who guards this territory like a pit bull.” 
“Yeah, yeah, yeah… but if Tara ever rolls up on me at night, hey.” Rider shrugged. “But, after all this bull tonight, I might not be no good to her, either, for a while.” He shivered and took another long drag on his cigarette. 
Mike stood, pulled in a long drag, and walked toward him with the bottle outstretched. “Well, if you had gone out, with me watching you back, then at least we would have missed the show.” 
  • * * 
Berkfield kept the newspaper up in front of his face, intently reading the same paragraph over and over. Marjorie flipped channels on the remote, moving the selections faster and faster until Berkfield grabbed her hand. 
“I’ve only got one thing to say,” he muttered. 
“Richard, please don’t start. They’re young, and in love, and—” 
“I’m just glad it’s not my daughter.” 
They both looked at each other. 
“Richard… one day—” 
He held up his hand. “Do not say it. Never.” 
She smiled. “It’s natural… and you want grand kids one day, don’t you?” 
He dropped the paper onto his lap. “No. Not if I have to get them like that.” 
She laughed hard. “How else are they made, honey?” 
“Today, in this era, there’s technology. Test tubes.” He picked his paper back up and began rereading the same sentence all over again. 
A deep male moan made him snatch a new page before him. 
“Test tubes, you hear me Marj… and only after she’s forty-five and never, ever in the room next to me—then, maybe, Christ in heaven, I can accept that reality.” 
  • * * 
“’Bazz… you okay?” Marlene asked, watching him sit on the floor in a yogi position. His eyes were closed, his breathing steady and even. “Baby, are you all right?” 
“No,” he said evenly. “But I am a philosophical man. This too shall pass.” 
Marlene chuckled and turned up the volume on the television set. “Oh. Just checking. 
  • * * 
“Yo, Dan—you cool?” Bobby sat up in his bed in the dark and studied his mentor. “You’re hyperventilating, dude. Like—” 
“Shut. Up. And go to sleep.” 
“But like, dude… if you’re having some kinda demon alarm attack, and—” 
“Shut. Up. And go to sleep.” 
“But, like, what if this is the real McCoy—‘cause, clearly, those guys next door are not hearing squat, ya know, dude. And, if they’re—” 
“Shut. Up. And go to sleep.” 
Dan sat up in bed, wiped his hands down his face, and jerked his attention toward Krissy’s room. 
“You feel something, don’t you? Like… something really serious. ‘Cause, you’ve got a cold sweat thing happening, and if it’s on the move toward the girls’ room, like, Krissy can’t—” 
“Shut. The *bleep* up. And go to sleep.” Dan’s arm snapped away from his body in a hard point. “Not another word. Do not say her name around me right now.” 
“Like, what did Kris do? You mad at her, or something? I thought you were nuts about her, dude—or am I reading the signals wrong? Like, I know she’s all scary and probably pacing the floors in there and not even dressed. Knowing her, if something were to attack, she’d just be screaming, half naked, not —” 
“Oh, shit, please shut up,” Dan said, standing fast and crossing the room. He raked his hair and stared out the glass doors. “I’m not mad at her.” 
“Well, dude, if you keep looking that way, and keep like, sensing or whatever in her direction, you think she’s in some kinda danger? Like, we should go down there, and—” 
Dan spun around so fast and glared at Dan so hard that he’d stopped the teenager’s tumble of naïve words. 
“I cannot go down the hall and have your sister open the door in her baby doll pajamas with your old man right next door. Got the *bleep* to sleep!” 
“Oh… whoa… dude…” Bobby sat forward on the bed and clutched his head with his hands. “Wild… like… it hits you tactical guys like that?” He glanced at the adjacent wall where echoes of thunderous lovemaking resounded. He stood slowly and touched the wall and looked at Dan. “Crazy.” 
Dan began pacing again. “Two seconds and I’ll punch your lights out. Go to bed.” 
Bobby just stared at his hand. “How come I didn’t feel anything? Guess I’m not a tactical, and must not be an audio, either—not that anybody needs cool special powers to hear all that.” He sniffed. “Nada, bro. I don’t have a snooze, either. You think I’m gonna develop—” 
“You’re gonna develop a black eye, for real, if you don’t quit it.” 
“But what am I supposed to be feeling, when a special power comes in, dude? Like I get it now—intense vibes have a ripple effect on the team. Like, ‘Bazz and J.L. are tactical sensors, so you think they’re tapped into the ridiculous dealio going on next door?” Bobby laughed. “But I gotta give it to Rivera… dude. I mean… dude.” 
Dan closed his eyes. “’Bazz is like her dad.” His statement began as quiet resignation but escalated with each word until his was almost yelling. “If anything, he’s having a mild heart attack or stroke, in which case, Marlene is healing him by pounding on his chest. That is, if she’s not down the hall putting a spoon on Mike’s tongue so he doesn’t swallow it in an epileptic fit of rage… or is tying Rider to a chair to keep him from cutting off his own nose to spite his face. Or is pulling a nine away from Jose’s skull… or—” 
“Dude, my old man and my mom must be wigging. I don’t even know how we got here, because in all the years I’ve know ‘em, I don’t think—” 
“Bobby—” 
“But, J.L. is like you, dude, an eligible bachelor and—” 
“Shut! Up!” 
“Whoa. Raw nerve, dude,” Bobby said. “Your hair just did this blue arc of light thing and is standing up, man. No offense but it’s kinda creepy. Take some deep breaths bro. Your face is like beet red and you’ve got a vein standing up in your temple. That cannot be a good thing.” He stood and scratched his head, peering at Dan with intense curiosity. 
Dan was breathing hard, swallowing dry spit with his eyes closed, t-shirt and boxers clinging to him. A hard shudder sent a white arc down his torso. His hands slowly balled into fists as his lashes fluttered. Bobby’s gaze followed the arc and then he looked away. 
“Don’t take this the wrong way, but you’ve got a killer case of wood, dude. Biz-zarre.” 
“Please shut up, man,” Dan said in a quiet rush through his teeth. 
“Is it the knocking boots next door or are you tapped into Kris, surreal, like that? I mean, seriously, dude. We’re best buds, and all, but that’s still my sister… like I can’t even fathom that—you know, her messing you up to that degree… Kris? I love her, but she’s a real pain in the ass. Look at you, dude. You’ve practically got the shakes, and shit. What’s up with that? You’d better take a cold shower and chill out.”


* * *



Damali sat in the diner across from Carlos in a small booth. No one on the team said a word. Only Marlene seemed chipper and was all smiles and conversation. Everyone else carefully studied their plates and ate slowly, looking haggard and fatigued. Carlos glimpsed up at her and offered her a sly smile. She wanted to die, but that wasn’t allowed for such a stupid reason. 
Pancakes kept her attention and she poured syrup on them, nearly using the entire container. Carlos just looked at her with a deeply satisfied grin. 
“Burned a lot of energy last night,” he muttered in a private tone with a dashing smile. “Guess your body is in sugar shock and looking for replacement therapy—” 
“Don’t start,” she whispered between her teeth, slathering more butter on the already gooey mess on her plate. Truth was, she was starved. Sugar, fat, carbs, and plenty of them, were the quick-fix answer. “Now you see why it had been so long?” 
“I guess I’ll go back to bed,” Juanita muttered to Krissy behind them. “Now that I can get some sleep.” 
Inez looked up and held her forkful of eggs mid-air. Jose cut Juanita a glare. The older members of the team chewed their food slowly like cows chewing cuds, but didn’t dare glance in the direction of the brewing storm. Dan slid a glance toward Rider, who ignored it. The Berkfields carefully sipped their coffee. Carlos stopped chewing and looked at Damali when her back stiffened. But Bobby smirked. It was on. 
The butter knife left Damali’s hand so fast, whirred past Krissy, and impaled the booth an inch next to Juanita at heart level that, Inez squealed and Juanita dropped her orange juice, splattering her clothes. 
“Oh, shit!” Juanita shrieked. 
“This morning, we need to work on reaction times to a potential threat. Training day begins after breakfast. Don’t even think about going back to bed—or anything else with said association.” Damali looked at Juanita with a glare that could cut metal. 
“If I hadn’t been up all night, I would have caught it,” Juanita said, leaning forward in her seat, foolishly challenging Damali. 
“Even when you’re tired,” Damali said with emphasis, toying with her fork in a very dangerous way, “even when you’ve been up all night… do not be slow… or think that I am. Test me on the mats when we do some Aikido exercises, hear? Or maybe you wanna go sharp shooting with me today.” 
Carlos set his fork down slowly, and then reached across the table with care and stroked the back of Damali’s hand. The smile had left his face. “Baby… uh… why don’t you let me—” 
“Do what?” Damali said, her eyes never leaving Juanita’s. She’d spoken so low that the words had come out in a near growl. 
Inez grabbed a handful of napkins and began to furiously wipe up the spilled juice. “Girl… if you know like I know…” 
Carlos coolly withdrew his hand from Damali’s and sat back, ready to grab her in case it got crazy. Krissy sat wide-eyes, not moving. Jose cocked his head to the side, a plea in his _expression, poised and ready to break up a lunge. Dan ran his fingers through his hair, muscles tensed at the ready. J.L. casually slid to the edge of the booth seat he occupied, flexing for a separation move. Bobby’s attention bounced between Juanita and Damali, and then he glanced at his father and mother who sat stock still. Shabazz and Marlene sipped their coffee, passing even glances over the rim of their mugs. Big Mike shook his head and kept eating. 
Rider calmly got up, walked over to the booth that now had a butter knife firmly lodged into a plastic-covered cushion. He bent down and extracted the knife and spoke softly into Juanita’s ear. “You should have seen her when she had fangs, darlin’. Don’t take her there, especially not before a martial arts work out.” He straightened his spine and coolly walked over toward Damali, all eyes on him. “I believe this is yours,” he said with a smirk, studying the bent blade. “Good thing it wasn’t the Isis, ya think?” 
“You’d better know it.” 
Damali snatched the knife from Rider and kept her glare on Juanita, who suddenly began to busily wipe herself off as Inez and Krissy started to mop up the spill. Rider walked back to his seat, sat, and picked up where he left off, scoffing down the food on his plate. The older Guardians hadn’t even flinched, but resumed eating breakfast with detached resolve. Carlos brought his coffee mug up to his mouth to cover a smile. 
“No more sugar for you,” Carlos said, his tone amused, as he slid the syrup far away from Damali’s reach.


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