Nick grimaced as Stone Blakemore drove his over-developed muscular shoulder into Nick’s in the hallway of his high school. Pain exploded down his arm, making him want to pummel the beast with his two-hundred-pound backpack until Stone begged him for mercy.
"Watch where you’re going, trailer park!” Stone snapped as he shoved at Nick and kept walking toward his locker. Stone’s pack of ubiquitous idiots followed in his wake, laughing about it. Yeah, okay, ’cause running into a guy in the hallway was such a hoot. Oh to have the intellect of a Cro-Mag so that something as innocuous as picking belly lint could be amusing. . . .
Nick turned to answer that insult with one of his own, but that thought fled as Nekoda appeared in front of him from out of the crowd. Dressed in a tight cream sweater and jeans with her brown hair pulled into pigtails, she took his breath away and instantly vaporized all thoughts of Stone.
Forget his powers, hers were much more impressive. She could turn a guy’s brain into mush with nothing more than a single smile. One touch and he was completely helpless before her. Her mere presence could suck out every part of his intelligence and leave him a drooling loser, trailing after her, desperate to do anything she asked of him. . . even carry her shiny pink purse.
“Hi, handsome. Where were you last night?”
Not where he’d wanted to be. That was for sure. He’d have much rather been holding hands with her in a dark movie theater than listening to Grim tell him what an idiot moron he was.
Man, he could stare into Kody’s green eyes forever, especially when she looked at him like she was doing right now. Like he mattered to her. “My mom wouldn’t let me go. Sorry.”
She frowned. “Why?”
Shifting his backpack to the shoulder Stone hadn’t bruised, Nick sighed. “She considers anything I do with you to be dating, which she thinks I’m too young to do.” Then under his breath, he mumbled, “Don’t get me started.”
Her scowl deepened. “I don’t understand. We’ve done plenty of things together. Why would she object to a movie?”
He gave her a sheepish grin. “She doesn’t really know about those other things. I didn’t exactly tell her I was meeting you for them.”
She tsked at him. “Lies of omission are still lies, Nick.”
“I know, Kode. I do.” But telling your mom that you were being pursued by demons out to kill you and that this hot girl in your school was helping to fight them off wasn’t something he wanted to do. Especially not after Ambrose’s dire warning months ago. “Don’t nag at me, okay? I’m over it for the day.”
Her concerned expression went a long way in making him feel better. “Did something attack you this morning?”
Nekoda and Caleb were the only two people in his high school who knew who and what he really was. While Caleb was his demonic bodyguard sent to keep him from dying prematurely, Nick still wasn’t sure what Kody was.
She wouldn’t say and he had yet to guess.
Talk about lies of omission. . . .
But the two of them had bled for him. So until they did something against him, he trusted them implicitly.
“The mother beast sank her fangs into my hide for everything from forgetting to take out the trash last night to not brushing my hair enough this morning.” He didn’t bother mentioning the toilet-seat-was-left-up-again and pick-your-underwear-up-off-the-floor lecture. No need to horrify his girlfriend with anything that personal. “I’m still smarting from it.”
Her smile made his stomach jump. “Gotcha.” She tugged at the lapels of his hideously orange Hawaiian shirt that had oversized bottles of Tobasco sauce all over it. Another thing his mother insisted he wear because she had this mistaken belief it looked respectable and . . . brace yourself . . . “rich.”
“New shirt, huh?”
He growled in response.
Laughing, Kody rose up on her tiptoes to lay a quick kiss on his cheek, in spite of the “no public displays of affection” laws that governed St. Richards. “Consider this a nag-free zone, and you rock the tacky shirt look in a way no one else can. Trust me. Only you could be that hot in something that foul. But you better hurry or you’ll be late for homeroom again.”
The bell rang a heartbeat later.
Nick cursed his luck as he dashed down the hall with Kody leading the way to their classroom. Just inside the door of their drab tan early morning prison cell, Kody pulled up short, causing him to skid to a halt.
Ms. Richardson, the meanest troll this side of the Nether Realm, clucked her shrewish tongue at them. With a sneer on her ugly face, she tapped at the cheap watch on her wrist. “I see you’re both late again. This is what? Your third tardy, Mr. Gautier? You know what that means.”
Oh yeah. After-school detention. And even better, more quality time spent with Richardson. Just the thing he wanted to add to his Christmas list- right after a vicious attack of intestinal misery.
Why couldn’t a demon come for him now and gut him? Suck him into some grisly hellmouth . . . That he’d actually welcome. Heck, after the morning he’d had, he might not even fight it.
Closing his eyes, he summoned his silkspeech powers for a solo try. “But the bell hasn’t rung yet.”
Richardson froze for a full second. Then she blinked. “I’ll see you at three o’clock.”
Crap. It hadn’t worked. Big surprise there. And it offered further proof that Richardson wasn’t human.
Irritated, he took the slip of paper from her hand while she glared at Nekoda.
“And you, Ms. Kennedy. One more and you’ll be joining Mr. Gautier’s after-school detention.”
“It’s pronounced ‘Go-shay,’ ” Nick said, correcting her “Gah-tee-aaa.” He hated whenever people mispronounced his name.
“Of course it is.” Could her tone be any more snide? “How could I forget that backwoods Cajun is a corruption and affront to the beautiful French language.”
And she despised Cajuns with a passion. Something she let everyone know, which begged the question of why the woman lived in New Orleans, home of the Cajuns. One of his ancestors must have run over her cat or something when she was a kid . . . nine hundred years ago by the looks of her.
At least that was probably the last time that thing she wore for a dress was in fashion.
In spite of the fact he knew he’d pay for it later, Nick gave her his most charming grin. “ Quoi d'autre?, cher.” What else, dear? “Laissez les bons temps rouler!” Let the good times roll. The motto of New Orleans and his own personal credo.
He winked at her. Richardson was now fuming at him as he went to his seat behind Caleb, who was rolling his eyes at Nick.
Nick set his heavy backpack down on the floor, and couldn’t resist one last taunt. “ Ain’t no Bouki here, cher. Me and my bele gonna pass a good time at lunch. It don madda to moi. I done brought me a boucanée gator po’ boy and some fraîche beignets for eats. Yum!”
The hideous grimace on her face was something she must have copied from a gargoyle. “That’ll be enough, Mr. Go-chay. Or I’ll add another day to your detention.”
Don’t do it. Sit down and shut up, Caleb said in his head.
But Nick couldn’t stop himself. “Go-shay,” he corrected her pronunciation again.
“What was that?” Richardson asked haughtily. “Oh, I know.” She narrowed her mousy eyes on him through her dark-tinted glasses. “The sound of another detention day added. I’m so glad I’ll have someone to clean my room for me tomorrow afternoon, too.”
Oh, he wanted to shove that smug smile down her throat.
Grinding his teeth, he sat down.
I told you. Didn’t I tell you?
He glared at Caleb.
Kody patted his shoulder before she went to her seat on the opposite side of the room. Stone turned around in his desk to mock Nick with silent laughter.
One day, you crotch-sniffing freak, I’m going to have the powers to send a shock bolt at you and watch as you lose control of your form. Yeah, that would be hilarious. Stone lying naked in the hallway, flashing back and forth from human to wolf form. And with any luck it’d make Richardson have a coronary.
Talk about a twofer . . .
Nick returned Stone’s glare. Though he physically appeared to be fifteen, Stone was a werewolf who, in actuality, was in his late twenties. Since Stone’s people didn’t age the way humans did, they were kept at home a lot longer before being sent to school, which was supposed to teach them how to interact with humans. But even with those extra years of home training, Stone wasn’t any more mature than a human teen.
Wait. What was he saying? Stone functioned on the level of a socially stunted five-year-old.
And Stone, because of his father’s money and the fact that he played on the football, basketball, and baseball teams, thought he was above everyone, and that all should bow down to him. In particular, he and the other animals he ran with had singled out Nick as the omega wolf to be picked on and belittled. In part because Nick, until he’d started working for Kyrian, had been a poor scholarship student. However, lately, Stone’s animosity stemmed from the fact that his on-again off-again girlfriend, Casey Woods, had been making advances at Nick.
But Nick had never been Stone’s willing victim, and it was not in his genetic code to back down from anyone or anything. As a result, their fights were the stuff of legends among the student body and faculty.
As Richardson started calling roll, the door opened to admit two unfamiliar students with their principal, Mr. Head. Taking them to Richardson’s desk, the principal spoke in a low tone to her while the boy and girl swept nervous glances over the room.
“Must be new meat,” Stone whispered loudly to his friend Mason.
Mason nodded. “He don’t look like much, but the girl’s edible.”
“Mason!” Casey snapped as she turned around in her seat to grimace at him. “Stop it! You’re so gross. Both of you.” She paused to pass a hot look at Nick, who did his best to not react to it or let Kody see it.
Too late. He got that what-are-you-doing-Nick glare from Kody right before she shot a girl-I’m-going-to-pull-you-bald-headed-if-you-don’t-leave-my-boy-alone sneer to Casey.
Casey rolled her eyes at Kody before she flounced around in her seat and tossed her hair over her shoulder.
Oooo, not something he’d advise her doing, since he’d seen Nekoda handle a sword. His girl had no qualms about beheading things she saw as a threat.
Too bad Casey didn’t know that.
He still didn’t know what game Casey was playing with him. As the head cheerleader, she’d been Stone’s girl off and on for the last three years. But for the last year, every time Nick turned around, she was in his face, making passes at him.
“Class!” Richardson clapped her hands together to get their attention. “We have two new students. A brother and sister transferring in. Joey and Jill Becker.” She pushed her glasses back up on her crooked nose. “Take your seats, children.”
Joey grabbed the seat up front by Richardson’s desk- poor dude. He’d soon learn. Jill took her time skimming the room before she smiled at Nick and made her way to the empty desk on his left.
Kody turned to give him an arch stare.
Nick held his hands up in surrender. I’m innocent, he sent his thought to her.
The look on her face said she didn’t believe him.
How do I get into these things? More important, how could he get out of them?
He certainly couldn’t help it if his hotness attracted the opposite sex. Yeah, okay, that was a joke. He didn’t know what was in the water lately, but no man wearing his hideously orange shirt, and possessing his teen clumsiness caused by his ever lengthening body could ever seriously attract anything but flies and mosquitoes.
Jill held her hand out to him. “Hi, I’m Jill.”
Feeling the daggers Kody was shooting at him, Nick reluctantly shook her hand. “Nick.” Then he quickly let go.
“You wouldn’t mind showing me to my next class, would you, Nick?”
Help me. . . . Where, oh where art thou, hellmouth? Why have you forsaken me in my hour of desperation? Open quick and I’ll throw myself in.
Caleb turned to face her. “I’ll be happy to show you. I’m Caleb, by the way.”
“Mr. Malphas?” Richardson snapped irritably. “Do you have something to share with the class?”
Caleb grinned at the condescending shrew. “No, Ms. Richardson. I was merely offering to help our new student not get lost or be late to her next class.”
“While that is nice of you, you need to listen for your name.”
Gah, that had to irritate Caleb. Thousands of years old, he was more powerful than anyone Nick had ever met, except for Acheron. He had no doubt the demon could fry Richardson in her seat.
And to think, he’d once been jealous of Caleb’s Hollywood-slick good looks, perfect body, great wardrobe, and money. Until he’d learned the truth about him. Now Nick knew there wasn’t enough money in the universe to compensate Caleb for what he’d been through, and for having to put up with Nick’s cranky butt all the time. While the demon wasn’t big on sharing anything about himself or his past, there was no missing the haunted shadows that darkened Caleb’s eyes whenever he thought no one was looking.
It made Nick wonder if his own scars were that visible whenever he let his guard slip.
Not soon enough, the bell rang, liberating them from Richardson’s whiny drone. Thank goodness he didn’t have her for English anymore. Last year had been the longest of his life.
Nick had just slung his backpack over his shoulder when Jill planted herself firmly in front of him. He passed a nervous glance to Caleb, then to Kody, who seemed less than pleased by the attention Jill was giving him.
“My first period is in room 214. Can you help me find it?”
Nick stepped back so that Caleb could slide in.
“I’d be more than thrilled to show you,” Caleb said in his deepest drawl.
Jill frowned. “I’d rather Nick guide me, if you don’t mind.”
The expression on Caleb’s face was priceless. With his fashionably cut, black hair and dark good looks, he wasn’t used to taking second to anyone when it came to a female’s attention.
Kody wrapped her arm around Nick’s and brushed her hand through his dark brown hair. “I’m sure Caleb doesn’t mind in the least. However, I do have a bit of a problem with it. I’m Kody. Nick’s girlfriend. Nice meeting you.” She all but hauled him out of the room.
Because of her tight grip on his arm and his unwillingness to hurt her, Nick was still stumbling in the hallway as they made their way to first period.
“Easy, Kody. I wasn’t doing anything wrong.”
She loosened her hold. “I know you weren’t. While you are absolutely gorgeous, in spite of what you think, it’s that demon glamour you have that attracts every female you meet.”
Further proof Richardson wasn’t a female.
“The older you get and the more you access your powers, the stronger it becomes. I wish we could find something to turn it off.”
“Yeah, but doesn’t Caleb have it, too?”
“Unfortunately, no. He’s a different type of beastie. His kind were bred to fight, not serve.”
“Serve” was a polite term for demon slavery. Something his father had been bound by for thousands of years until he’d either convinced or tricked, or probably both his way out of it. No one was sure how Adarian had broken free since everyone who’d made the mistake of asking him that had been gutted.
As for Caleb, even though he wasn’t a “servant” class demon, he was now enslaved to Nick, but again, Nick had no idea how or why. Caleb wasn’t into sharing any more than his father was.
Nick paused in the hallway next to Kody’s locker so that she could drop off her sweater. “You still haven’t told me how it is you know so much about me and my powers.”
“I know.” She bent down to unlock the door.
Yeah . . . after a year, he should be used to her dodging his questions about her, her powers and her ability to know him so well.
Nick jerked to attention as he saw a shadow run across the wall, then vanish into a crack above the bathroom door. “Did you see that?”
Kody stood up immediately. “What?”
Nick turned his head and used his powers to try and sense whatever had been there. But he didn’t pick up on anything. “Must have been my imagination.”
Spinning her lock, Kody narrowed her eyes. “Last time you said that, we almost got slaughtered by a mortent.”
True, and he still had that tight feeling in his gut that usually signaled some form of demon species was nearby.
His gaze went to a flash of pink approaching them. It was Brynna Addams—one of the first friends Nick had made at St. Richards and an all-around sweetheart.
Smiling, she touched Kody on the arm. “Hey hon, I was wondering if I could borrow you after school? LaShonda and I got drafted to do the decorations for the Fall Out Dance, and I could really use some help.” She turned her pitiful begging look to Nick. “You, too, Gautier. Want to help a sister out?”
“I would love to, but I have to work today. Kyrian has some returns I have to make, and a pickup from Liza’s.”
Brynna pouted before she turned back to Nekoda. “Please, Kody?”
She hesitated, then nodded. “Sure.”
Squealing, Brynna hugged her. “You’re the best!” She dashed off, vanishing into the crowd.
Nick laughed. “Thank goodness she grabbed you. I don’t want to be in the dog house anymore.”
“You’re still not in the clear, buddy.”
Nick sighed. “Story of my life.”
The warning bell sounded.
“You better go,” Kody said. “I don’t want to see you get another detention.”
“You? At this rate, I should just make a bed on the floor of Richardson’s room. Tell me again why she couldn’t have gotten eaten by a zombie?” Nick fell silent as he contemplated a way to facilitate that happening. It wasn’t too late. “I wonder if Madaug has any more copies of that game laying around.”
Kody paled. “Don’t even joke about that. Now go.”
Saluting her, he turned and headed toward his first period, where Caleb was waiting at their computer lab table.
Either Caleb or Kody was with him in every class—something they’d both insisted on. After what had happened last year with the coach who’d sold his soul for victory—literally—the two of them were paranoid something would grab him in the middle of the day if one of them wasn’t nearby.
Nick’s home was considered a safe zone since they’d set up protection symbols and sealed the apartment. However, the school was a public building with hundreds of people in it- including some known preternaturals who were supposed to be there, and who posed no threat to him. There was no way to make it completely safe without banning them, too.
Nick sat down at the same time Caleb shot to his feet. “Something wrong?”
Caleb narrowed his eyes as he made a slow circle around his stool, scanning every corner of the room. “There’s something here. Can you feel it?”
“I thought I saw a shadow in the hallway a few minutes ago.”
As he cursed under his breath, Caleb’s eyes flashed orange.
Nick glanced around to make sure no one else had seen him do that. “Yo, D, the freak eye thing? Dead giveaway, man. Sit down before the wings pop out, and we both end up in a real science lab, under the microscope.”
“Malphas?” their teacher snapped. “You have trouble finding your seat?”
Caleb turned at Mr. Tendyk’s question. “No, sir.” He sat down beside Nick.
The bell rang.
After closing the door and dimming the classroom lights, Tendyk turned on the overhead projector that displayed his desktop for everyone in the class to see. Nick sucked his breath in sharply while the rest of the room erupted into chaos.
Instead of the boring icons they were used to staring at on a vomit green background, Tendyk’s desktop wallpaper was a montage of Brynna Addams naked, doing extremely lewd things.
Tendyk almost broke his computer as he fumbled to turn it off. “Who’s responsible for this?” he demanded angrily.
Utter silence rang out.
Until Stone laughed again. “From the looks of it, I’d say Brynna Addams. Who knew that was hidden underneath all those high buttoned shirts and sweaters?”
Laughing, Mason high-fived him.
Pandemonium returned as everyone had a foul or gross comment to make. Everyone except Nick and Caleb. Nick was too horrified by how Brynna would react once she found out about it. And he was sure some snotwit would beeline right to her with the news. There was nothing to goobs in his school loved more than to be the bearer of really bad news, especially to the person it related to. It was like they enjoyed seeing the misery it caused, firsthand.
He turned to Caleb. “That wasn’t Brynna, was it?”
Caleb shook his head. “That was someone’s idea of a sick joke.”
Speaking of sick, Nick felt ill over it. His stomach heaved in sympathetic agony for her. “Can you tell who?”
He did that weird head cock move as if he were listening to a song only he could hear. “No idea. But it was done for sheer malice.”
“Brynna will die when she finds out.”
“I know.” A tic started in Caleb’s jaw. “Can you feel the hatred behind it?”
“Now that you mention it . . . is that what the icky tickling is down my spine?”
Nick sighed heavily. Well at least he knew what was causing that symptom. “Is it demonic?”
“No. This is human evil. Demon hatred comes with a distinctive odor to it.”
“Yeah, well, this stinks, too.” Nick was repulsed by whoever had done something so vicious to someone so kind. Why would anyone hurt Brynna so? In all the years he’d known her, he’d never heard Brynna say a mean thing about anyone.
Not even him.
“All of you!” Tendyk snapped. “Line up in the hallway and be silent. Stone, I want you to go to the office and tell Mr. Head that I need him down here, pronto.”
Laughing, Stone went to obey.
Nick reached for his backpack.
“Leave it, Gautier,” Tendyk snapped. “No one is to take anything out of here.”
Nick hesitated. His grimoire and pendulum were in his backpack, along with his Malachai dagger. If his bag was searched and they happened upon those. . .
It would get ugly, especially since his grimoire was written in blood. Granted, it was his blood. But adults didn’t seem discriminating when it came to kids bleeding on things during school hours.
I’ve got it covered, Caleb said in his head.
Releasing a relieved breath, Nick headed outside with everyone else.
Caleb crossed his arms over his chest as they lined up against the wall of bright red steel lockers. “You know what the only thing worse than an evil demon is?”
“My mother when she’s really ticked off at me, especially when it’s justified.”
Caleb snorted. “No, Nick. Human cruelty. All the centuries I’ve lived, I’ve never understood it. Instead of banding together, your kind seems ever determined to tear each other down. And for what? Jealousy? I just don’t get it.”
And coming from a demon, that pretty much said it all. “You’re not seriously telling me that demons are never cruel?”
“Some are. But you know who they are, and you see them coming. You can smell them from days away. Humans, on the other hand, are insidious. You don’t see it coming until they’ve stabbed you in the back and through the heart.”
Nick wasn’t sure what he meant by that. “What are you saying, Cay?”
“I can’t tell who did this, but I can tell why they did it. This was meant to shame Brynna and hurt her to the deepest level.”
And as those words left Caleb’s lips, Nick became aware of the conversations around him.
“I told you Brynna was a slut. My mother said her mama was one, too.”
“I always knew her goody-two-shoes persona was an act.”
“Man, I wish I’d known she’d do that. You think she’s busy Saturday night?”
Nick cringed at their ugliness. “It wasn’t Brynna,” he said defensively.
Mason scoffed at him. “You’re an idiot, Gautier.”
“Yeah,” another student concurred, “didn’t you see that in there?”
“With farm animals, too! Oh my God, I’m disturbed.”
“You are? Imagine how that horse felt.”
They all burst out laughing.
Nick started to respond, but Caleb stopped him.
“Let it go.”
That was easier said than done. “Brynna’s my friend.”
Before Caleb could comment, the principal stalked past them and into the room. Nick stood on his tiptoes so that he could see Tendyk show the principal the horrific montage.
His pocket started vibrating. Nick pulled out his Nokia 9000 and flipped it open to see he had a new e-mail. As he tried to access it, his phone blew up with texts about Brynna and the photographs. Apparently, their classroom wasn’t the only one spammed with that filth.
An instant later, a door down the hallway opened. Brynna ran out, sobbing hysterically. Laughter from her classroom rang in the hall and mixed with the laughter of the jerks around him. Laughter that was only drowned out by a few dickweeds making offers to her.
His heart aching, Nick started to go after her and calm her down.
Caleb caught his arm in a tight grip. “I can’t stress enough to you that you need to stay out of this.”
“Use your powers, Nick. Look at what’s about to happen.”
Nick glanced around until he found something shiny enough to use for scrying . . . the silver on the water fountain. It wasn’t very big, but it was enough that he could focus his powers with it.
And there in that small, two-inch strip, he glimpsed the horror that was about to become Brynna’s life over this single act of cruelty.
In that moment, he completely disagreed with Caleb. “She needs a friend.”
“Yes, she does. But right now, the administration is looking for someone to blame for this. You walk in there too soon and this will be hung around your neck. Trust me.”
That would be his luck, too.
Even so, Nick would deny it if not for the fact that Caleb had a lot more life experience to draw from. You didn’t argue colors with Picasso. Car facts with Richard Petty. And you definitely didn’t question human behavior with Caleb.
Standing down, Nick felt that strange sensation again. While Caleb had assured him this was human in origin, he wasn’t so sure.
There was something else here. Something dark. Cold.
And it wasn’t Caleb.