Read an Excerpt
By Heather Burch
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2013 Heather Burch
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe blur lasted only a second before Nikki Youngblood's face exploded in blinding pain. And I thought karate tournaments were ruthless. Even the gentlest blow of this Halfling put her past competitors to shame; half human, half angels were lethal. Her lips throbbed with the beating of her heart, and for a few horrible seconds she wanted to call time out and collapse onto the ground.
But she wasn't a quitter, and the pain rumbling through her was only more incentive to pummel the Frenchman into the ground.
Even if it wasn't the smartest choice she'd ever made.
Nikki advanced, ignoring the cheers and gasps around her. A smattering of Halflings now dotted the courtyard surrounding the Cinderella-style castle, similar to the one where Nikki had been living like royalty since she and the others arrived. Though to her knowledge, Cinderella never kicked any butt, so any fairy-tale similarities between her and the blonde princess ended there.
Her lips were numb, a thankful reprieve from the pain of them smashing against her teeth as the Frenchman, Deux, made contact with a powerful fist. She didn't taste blood yet, but she could feel her mouth swelling. For all she knew, there was blood seeping from her lipsshe was simply too adrenaline-driven to care.
If she was in a competition, officials would call the fight at the first sign of a cut. But this was no tournament. There were no senseis, judges, or black belts hoping to showcase their abilities as masters and students. And no called fouls when things got rough.
Nikki stood in a cat stance, trying to form some type of strategy, and used her newfound powers to take in her surroundings. It struck her that the French countryside was quite picturesque, and would be like a storybookBeauty and the Beast, maybe, since Cinderella didn't fitif not for the guy beating her to a pulp.
Pulp. That's what her mouth felt like.
She saw the fist coming and caught it in midair. When Deux tried to pull away, she held firm, stopping him and letting this new powerthis new strength she'd begun to tap intocourse though her, but carefully. Nikki knew what she was capable of. A night of stalking her demented godfather, Damon Vessler, had taught her that.
Her fingers squeezed until she heard Deux's bones begin to pop. His clear blue eyes clouded with a mix of surprise and dread.
"Oooooh" and "ewwwww" echoed from the crowd of spectators. No disapproving groans. Mace must still be in the house; otherwise he'd be breaking things up. One thing her boyfriend couldn't abide was Nikki fighting for no reason. Boyfriendthat sounded strange to her ears, but accurate. She and Mace were a couple. Mostly.
She released her grip marginally. After all, she didn't want to break Deux's hand, just disprove his theory that female Halflings were the weaker part of the species.
Nikki shoved his fist back, knocking him off balance.
Off to the right, someone said in a thick French accent, "I think you have misjudged her power, my friend. Or perhaps you have misjudged your own."
Snickers from the onlookers on both sides of the earlier argument. She tossed a glance behind her to the tall glass doors.
No Mace. She could continue the fight.
Deux was shaking his hand, massaging it, trying to encourage fresh blood flow. "You are waiting for Mace to return and rescue you, no?"
Nikki set her jaw and punched Deux in the face. His head jolted back, causing his carefully layered hair to whip.
"That hurt." A red welt materialized on his cheek and jaw, but a smile sliced through the darkened flesh. He wiggled his brows. "I think I am in love."
Maybe it was the fact that love had gotten her into more trouble than any personhuman or Halflingdeserved, or maybe it was the cocky, condescending way he looked at her, but his words unleashed her fury. And her fury always meant real pain. Nikki sailed into a combination of kicks and punches that a fifth-degree black belt would envy. Each made contact, but not with the intended target. Over and over Deux cupped his hands and caught every punch. Kicks were absorbed by arm blocks. Even the low kick to his knee was halted by a shin block.
"You are good, Cherie. In a few years, you might even be a real opponent." He yawned.
A few chuckles from the crowd, along with some calls cheering her on and some telling Deux his skills were still amazing.
Even when outmatched, there's always a way to win. Find the hole in the machine. Then throw a wrench in it.
So Deux was a better fighter. It didn't matter. One thing this journey, this new life, had taught her was that things could change in an instant. Her whole world had. One second she was a semi-normal teenage girl, the next she was a Halfling. But her transformation of sorts gave her one serious advantage: the awareness brute strengtheven Halfling strengthwasn't the only way to win a fight.
Nikki smiled and blinked a few times, ignoring the pain now flooding her lips. She lowered her hands and loosened her body posture. When she dropped a shoulder and cocked her hip flirtatiouslya move she'd learned by watching GlimmerDeux's hands fell to his sides.
His gaze drifted down over her while she pretended not to notice. And to add to her attractive assault, Nikki pulled the two pencils out of her hairher makeshift hair claspsand tossed them to the ground. Her long hair cascaded around her shoulders, and when the wind grabbed it she shook her head, letting the breeze have its way. Deux was helplessly pinneda boy attracted to a girl, one who suddenly seemed interested.
"I could learn a lot from you." Nikki's voice dropped to a purr. "Like those blocks. Could you teach me?" Being this bad shouldn't come so easy. But she didn't want to linger on that truth.
"I would enjoy teaching you many things, Cherie." He took a few steps toward her, one brow arched seductively.
Except it wasn't seductive at all. It made her want to snicker. She bit her cheeks to keep from laughing, because he was playing right into her plan. He mistook her reaction for more flirtation and winked.
For a while, she listened as he instructed her on the blocking technique. She took it all in and waited for the right moment to strike. When Deux rocked back on his heels and crossed his arms over his chest, the opportunity arrived. He was no more ready for an attack than a duckling in a pond was ready for the alligator lurking just below the surface.
Snapping with her signature jumping front kick, she planted her foot against Deux's stomach. Rock-hard abs softened and his body flew back as if yanked by a string. He landed on his behind with a roar of laughter rising around him.
From his seated position, feet straight out in front of him, he shook his head. "I can no longer consider dating you, Nikki. I'm sorry, but trust is paramount in a relationship."
She giggledjust couldn't stop herselfand reached out a hand to help him up. "You can trust me."
"It is not you I'm concerned about. I cannot possibly trust myself with such a wild animal. You are driving me crazy." Before she could pull away, he tightened his grip on her hand. His foot slid against hers. After a powerful tug, she landed on top of him.
She tried to roll off, but Deux's arms were suddenly everywhere. As she tumbled, so did he. She squirmed, but he wouldn't let go. With each passing second, she struggled harder to break the hold. No luck. The crowd was chanting, for her, for him, for both of them.
When she had the upper hand and was almost free, they cheered for Deux. But when he clamped his powerful arms on her, they cheered for Nikki, shouting ideas on how to break his hold. Fickle crowd.
Grunting and now face-to-face on the fresh grass, Nikki reached behind her back, curled her fingers around his thumb, and pulled.
Deux arched his back and let out a yell so loud that Nikki felt terrible. But she was free at least. She sprang to her feet, turned, and hit a brick wall.
He glowered at her from eyes filled with a curious blend of concern, anger, and maybe a tinge of disappointment. Her wrist was in a stranglehold. Drat, trapped again. This time in Mace's iron grip as he dragged her from the courtyard and into the house.
* * *
"Can I not leave you alone for two seconds without you getting into trouble?" Mace tried to slow his racing heart, but when he stepped outside and saw Nikki and Deux fighting, rolling on the ground, his pulse had gone into overdrive and wasn't likely to slow down anytime soon.
"He was helping me."
Fresh fire coursed down his body. "He was helping himself to you."
Her eyesnow darkened to melted goldnarrowed on him. "You said yourself that Deux is one of the best fighters there is."
"So?" Brilliant argument there. He just kept imagining Nikki and Deux rolling on the ground, and something, some horrible monster inside him, wanted to grab Deux by the throat and ...
Oh. That's what this is about.
He watched Nikki blink, those feather-soft lashes hooding her eyes for a few seconds. She pulled in a deep breath and let it out slowly. Her cheek was smudged with a bit of dirt, and the corner of her mouth had a drop of dried blood on it. It too was caked with dirt.
He lifted his hand to her cheek. Fingertips touched the soft skin and she pressed into him. "Did he hurt you?" Mace whispered, praying Deux hadn't, because he'd hate to accept the Frenchman's hospitality then kill him in his own courtyard.
"Only my pride," Nikki said, nuzzling into the press of Mace's hand.
His thumb drifted over her bottom lip. "You're bleeding."
"A sucker punch. I shouldn't have fallen for it." Her eyes snapped open. "What should I have done differently?"
"Stayed out of the fight."
She leveled him with a look.
"Okay, okay." He stared at the ornate ceiling and worked the muscle in his jaw. He hated to see Nikki fight, but fighting was a certainty in her life. She was a Halfling. And even though she'd only just learned the truth about her angelic power, she was already enmeshed in the epic battle against darkness.
Since discovering what Nikki truly was, Mace had learned Halfling females tap into their power later than the males, around age eighteen or nineteen; at seventeen, Nikki was a bit of an early bloomerlike Vine, his "brother," who'd earned the Over-Achiever award for tapping in at fifteen. Mace was still amazed Nikki had adjusted so quicklybefore her angelic side had begun to emerge, even their fully angel guardian, Will, had thought she was human. "Everything changes when we tap in."
"For me more than anyone."
That much was true. Nikki's life had been orchestrated by her godfather, Damon Vessler, who'd planned on turning her into a dark Halfling once she tapped into her power, and then using her to create an army at his command.
Since Mace first met her, in a field where she was being chased by hell hounds, he'd tried to protect her from ... well, from all of it. But that wasn't fair, and in doing so, he'd almost lost her. He'd have to help her take on the evils herself, no matter how hard that was for him. "When I came out you were already on the ground. How'd you get there?"
"He pulled me down when I reached to help him up."
Mace chuckled. "And you said his move was a sucker punch? Seriously, Nikki, you fell for that?"
Her mouth cocked in a sheepish grin. "I should have known."
"Yeah." Mace ran a hand through his hair. He'd rather be running his fingers through hers, smoothing the messed-up strands, but that would only distract him. Though he itched to remove the blade of grass stuck in her hairline. "As soon as you felt him pull, you should have dove, caught him off guard. He wouldn't expect it, and it may have given you a few seconds to get away. At the least it would have"
"Given me the upper hand," she said. Her brows dipped.
Thinking. Ah, he loved her when she was thinking. Beyond the glass door, another fight ensued. Deux and Vine this time. From what Mace could tell, the two looked pretty evenly matched. Go, Vine.
"Watch how Vine fights, always thinking aheadalways." He laced his arm around her waist and pulled her close while she studied the two combatants.
She smiled. "Thanks for helping me. I think your judgment may finally be clearing."
What was that supposed to mean?
"Don't be offended, Mace. It's just that your opinions haven't been the most sound where I'm concerned."
"You mean trying to leap into an airplane filled with titanium, and then letting Vessler get away?"
"You were with me when the airplane landed. You couldn't have known Vessler would make it out."
The whole scene entered his mind like it did every night when he fell asleep. He could hear gunshots, knew Nikki was in the plane, but the titanium zapped his strength, making him unable to leap inside. The kryptonite-like metal had caused his wings to feel like giant anchors; the closer he got, the worse it was. Finally, he'd moved to the other side of the plane and spotted the open cargo door. He got Nikki to safety while Ravenhis rival and brother-in-armsfollowed the plane. Will had contacted the other Halflings, who'd met the plane when it landed outside of St. Louis. Sorry, Vessler, no titanium wingcuffs for you.
Nikki's voice drew him out of the memory. "I really didn't think I'd make it out alive. Vessler actually told me to leap to safety at one point. Like I have wings."
"You'll have wings, Nikki. You've tapped into your angelic power, so it's just a matter of time now."
He could see she didn't believe it. "At least the titanium was intercepted. And thanks to you, Vessler was so wounded he'll be out of commission for a while."
When her body posture changed, he knew she'd gone back there in her mind as well. Tiny frowns appeared and disappeared on her face, each attached to a fact she'd not yet been able to accept. She'd shot Damon Vessler. Twice.
"You could have died, Nikki."
"I don't know what I was thinking, going after Vessler alone." Ever since getting her back, Mace had watched closely, trying unsuccessfully to understand her actions. Her darker side had been shocking, and the confusion over what she'd briefly become was taking a toll on Nikki as well.
He tilted back to look at her. "I know I asked you this before, but do you think Vessler may have been putting something in your drinks?"
She stiffened. "Mace, I know you want to believe that. And I do too more than you can imagine. But I'd been away from Vessler and his influencepotentially spiked beverages includedwhen I decided to go after him."
"But Nikki" Her fingers rose and rested against his lips.
She leaned in and placed her head against his heart. "I remember wondering if there might be something wrong with the water. He'd always fill my bottles for me. And once when I was finishing a cup of coffee, there was this little bubble of something in the bottom. I figured it had been dirty, but when I handed it to the housekeeper, she got really nervous."
Against his chest, he felt Nikki squeeze her eyes shut. "I don't know what he was doing to me. What I do know is, I have to be responsible for my actions. And I almost murdered Damon without a second thought."
"It wasn't you, Nikki. It had to be a product of whatever he was giving you. Your mood would change almost instantly. Remember when I found you at the beach house?"
She nodded, but he felt an unsettling distance between them, an invisible wall she raised whenever this subject came up. But that wouldn't stop him this time.
"It was like a veil came over you. Like you weren't in control anymore. And I think that's why you went after Vessler."
"And I think that's what you need to believe." She laced her fingers together at his back and held on to him, but he pushed from her.
"What are you saying?"
The gold in her eyes lost its shimmer. "Exactly what I said. You need to believe I was just a robot under someone else's control. If you don't, you have to consider the possibility that I have become the monster Vessler worked so hard to create."
"Nikki, that's crazy. You're not a monster."
"Aren't I? I shot himtwiceand I wanted to do a lot more." She shook her head. "I'm sorry. I'm not who I used to be. And I'll never be that carefree, innocent girl again."
Mace chose to hold her close rather than argue, despite the cold feeling that swept through him. Fact was, Nikki had changed. They'd all changed. And he wasn't sure how to navigate that new mountain before them.
He looked over her head to the door facing the courtyard. "Based on how Vine's fight is going, I don't know if we'll be welcome here much longer. We can only beat up our host so many times." Nikki gave a small laugh. "Come on, let's get the others and head back to Viennesse." Their ancestral home in Germany and across the Rhine Valley from Deux's compound. These days, Viennesse felt like the only safe place. And even that surety was slipping.
Excerpted from Avenger by Heather Burch Copyright © 2013 by Heather Burch. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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