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I married a demon.
Yeah, I know what you're thinking. Why would any sane woman marry a demon? Shoot, forget the why. How does a nice woman even meet a demon? It's not as if demons are hanging out on MySpace or standing in line at Starbucks waiting to get their morning caffeine. No one's ever locked eyes with a demon while pumping gas, right? Of course not--or so everyone thinks.
However, the truth is that the average Jane and Joe would be surprised at how many times they run into a supernatural being in the course of their daily routines. Jane has probably pushed her grocery cart by one and didn't even know it. As for Joe, sometimes that monster of a boss really is a monster of a boss.
So go ahead. Scoff away. But keep reading and learn how I met my demon-other-half.
In my defense, a lot of factors played into my failure to recognize my future hubby as a creature of the heat. Heat as in Hell, that is. I didn't know at the time of our wedding that my wonderful and caring husband-to-be was a demon. He didn't bother mentioning this detail to me before the ceremony. But I can't complain too much. I didn't tell him about my alternate identity, either. Don't all marriages have a few secrets?
Yeah, I know. You probably have a lot more questions. Hold your horses and I'll explain right after I give you a little background info. Let me begin where it's always a good place to begin--at the beginning.
My name is Jennifer Randall-Barrington. I picked up the Barrington part of my name when I married Blake. Yup, I'm the independent type and I wanted to keep my last name. These days hyphenating your name is considered almost normal--too bad I can't use theword normal to describe the other aspects of my marriage.
To be honest, my life was already unusual before I married Blake. After all, not many people can say they work for a secret society whose primary mission is to protect humans against the evil creatures of the world. I'm not talking about murderers, rapists, drug dealers and other mortal vermin. Let the regular police force handle those scumbags. I'm talking about the undead evildoers like vamps and werewolves who cause the real havoc in this world.
I keep the streets of my hometown safe for unsuspecting citizens. Hey, I'm not asking for any reward or praise--although the occasional free mocha latte would be nice. People say they don't believe in boogie men and monsters--although I know deep down they really do. They're afraid of what goes bump in the night, trying their best to deny the existence of these flesh-eating, soul-sucking slimy things. I can hardly expect them to walk up and say "thank you", can I? Still, a little gratitude every once in awhile would go a long way. Yet, even without any thanks, I'll keep on sticking my neck out for the good of mankind. Why?
Because kickin' evil butt is what I do.
After working my cover job selling fixer-uppers to young couples in Pleasant Hill, a satellite community not twenty miles outside sprawling Tulsa, Oklahoma, I spend my nights slinking through the dark streets, looking for the worst the city has to offer. I'm both a Protector and a real estate agent.
Could I interest anyone in a nice little bungalow? I promise it'll be gargoyle-free.
Work aside, I'm also a woman. Being a woman, I have needs and desires like any other romance-loving, I-work-way-too-much kind of gal. Serving mankind while holding down a nine-to-five day job leaves a lady a bit cranky when she doesn't get some hot and heavy fun in the sack to take the edge off. But while holding down two jobs, who has time to find Mr. Right? I'm not even sure I still believed in Mr. Right before Blake came along. Instead, I'd settled for believing in Mr. Scratch My Itch.
What I needed was to get laid. What about love? As the song goes, what's love got to do with it? I told myself I didn't need romance and couldn't care less about love. Love was for normal people with normal lives. There's that word again. Normal.
I realize how this sounds. Exactly like the typical thirty-something female bravado, right? The usual crap single women say when they've sat way too long on a barstool hoping to find Mr. Love and ending up with Mr. Buy-Me-A-Drink.
After seven years of a steady stream of ghoul-busting, shifter-smashing and general evildoer-eliminating, I needed a white beach, warm sand and a hot sun. If I got lucky with a sexy sun worshiper, I wouldn't complain. Ah, hell. Who am I kidding? I'd dance in the streets afterward.
The trouble was, at the time, I wasn't aware of my desperate need for R and R. At least, not until I tried to ram a stake through the heart of an elderly priest. Talk about a major oopsie. I tried to whack the sweet-tempered Father Ramsey.
If another Protector hadn't pulled me from the father's prone body and wrestled the stake out of my hand, I'd be in a whole lot of trouble right now. I was so tired and worn-out I'd dismissed certain pertinent facts. Like how the priest hadn't flinched when I'd spilled holy water on him. Or how he'd acted pleased, as though I'd presented him with a gift--albeit rather roughly--when I'd crushed a cross to his chest. Even the fact that I'd found him in the middle of a church on sacred ground didn't seep into my fatigued mind. Nope, I was dead sure the kindly priest was a vampire. This, of course, meant I was hellbent on taking the holy biter out of this world.
Once all the chaos in the church had settled down, I found myself thrown into the rear seat of a state trooper's patrol car, heading toward the nearest lockup. Breaking with his usual forgiving personality, the dear father vowed to see me behind bars with the key buried at the bottom of the ocean in a padlocked safe guarded by fifteen man-eating sharks. Not many people blamed him, either, including me.
Fortunately, the Society for the Protection of Mortals and Control of Supernatural Beings (S.P.M.C.S.B.) has friends on the police force. So instead of spending the night exchanging cellblock stories with drunks and prostitutes, I found myself led into the inner sanctum of the Society. My escort, a huge, unsmiling bouncer type, clutched my arm and escorted me straight into the head honcho's office. I'd been inside the boss's office a few times before to accept assignments, but never to receive a reprimand and possible consequence. Trust me, when I saw the glower on my supervisor's face, I thought seriously about asking Bouncer Boy to haul me off to the Big House without a trial.
My boss, Wilson MacNamara, could have booted me out of the ranks of the Protectors right then and there, but I guess my exemplary record of kicking evildoers' butts bought me a little tolerance and understanding. Still, I'll never forget our conversation if I live to be two hundred.
"Randall, sit down."
Ah, shit. I hate it when he calls me by my last name. I did as he ordered and gripped the chair's arms to keep from clutching the bouncer's hand as I silently implored him to stay by my side. I admit it. I tried everything from the big "I'm gonna cry" eyes to the droopy "I'm scared" frown to the "I'll make it worth your while" batted eyelashes. Yet none of my womanly tactics worked. My escort couldn't get out of there fast enough.
I attempted to keep the apprehension churning inside my stomach from showing on my face, but I'm pretty sure I sucked at it. Up to now, I'd never been on the receiving end of a MacNamara Dressing Down, but I'd heard about them. Tougher Protectors than I had come out of MacNamara's office looking paler than the ghosts they hunted.
"Sir, I can explain." I can? My brain whirred with fruitless activity, hoping to dredge up any reasonable explanation for my actions. Yet like the spinning wheel in a hamster's cage, my gray matter was going nowhere fast.
"Don't bother. I know why you acted the way you did." He paced in front of the dozen monitors filling the wall behind his oversized mahogany desk.
"You do?" Did I want him to enlighten me? Because, frankly, I didn't have a clue. But did I want him to tell me? Nope. I'd pass, thank you very much. As long as his ideas about my behavior bought me some leeway, I didn't need to know.
"You need to take some time off."
I waited for the proverbial other shoe to drop, but it didn't. Caught unprepared for his mild manner, I decided my best course of action would be to keep my trap closed.
Mac turned away from the monitors displaying various areas around Tulsa and crossed over to sit on the edge of his desk directly in front of me. "Ease up, Jennifer. I'm not dismissing you or giving you an official reprimand. In fact, we're going to keep the past few, um, indiscretions out of your record."
Jennifer. He'd switched from using my last name to my first. I wasn't sure what the switch meant. I pushed aside the question of why he'd used my Christian name. I mean, why bother trouble? Besides, I'm the suspicious type. In my line of work, having doubts, expecting the unexpected, and letting your intuition take the lead can save your life. I decided to follow my gut instinct and, again, I kept my yap zipped.
Mac sighed, the picture of the distressed yet caring superior. "At least, I hope we can."
I tried to control my nerves, but couldn't help squirming in my seat. "Uh, I appreciate your willingness to, uh, let my mistake slide this time. It won't happen again." Whoa, Jenn, way too much talking. Shut the fuck up.
"But we can't let you keep screwing up. You've made more than a couple of mistakes lately."
I felt the heat of the blush rush to my face and hated myself for letting my emotions show. He was right. I'd messed up a couple of times. But how was I supposed to know a group of teens had rigged an abandoned house with ghostly tricks to frighten their friends? The Collins boy hadn't gotten hurt when I'd pinned him in a corner, ready to take his ghostly presence out of this world and over to the Other Side. No harm done, right? And how was I to know the woman gathering herbs was actually the high school's science teacher and not a wicked minion of Hell concocting a deadly potion?
"Look, sir, I realize I've jumped to wrong conclusions once or twice, but--"
"Four times. Five counting Father Ramsey."
I narrowed my eyes at him in an attempt to appear more confident than I felt. "Oh, I don't think I've messed up that many times. Have I?" Could five be correct? I searched my memory.
"You've made five mistakes in less than two weeks."
Five in two weeks? I still couldn't believe I'd gone off the road five times. In fact, I started to question him again when he picked up a slip of paper and thrust it toward me.
"Check it out, Jennifer. It's all there in black and white."
I didn't take the list, preferring not to touch it. Maybe if I didn't touch it, the names written there would fade away as though they'd been written in invisible ink. Instead, I leaned forward and stared at the list.
Collins boy. Check. Science teacher. Unfortunately.
I squinted harder at the other two names.
William Wordsman. A vision of the pudgy man fleeing before me, shouting for help and swearing he didn't have any ghouls hiding in his basement, flashed through my mind. I cringed. I'd called his Friday night poker buddies vile, villainous vultures from the Otherworld. Admittedly, it was not my finest moment. However, the last name on the list, Betsy Salinger, gored a hole in my gut. How I'd ever thought the bedridden octogenarian was a dragon, I'll never know.
Four times. Check. The sweet old priest made number five. No wonder the boss had called me on the carpet.
"Wow." I dropped my gaze to my hands folded in my lap and wondered if I'd lost my mind. And if I had, where could I get help? Did psychiatrists specialize in helping fucked-up Protectors? Would any shrink believe half of my paranormal-based problems?
"Wow is right." He moved and I heard the squish of leather chair meeting ass as he sat behind his desk. "I glanced at your record, Jennifer. You haven't taken a vacation in years. Why not?"
Could I give him the real reason? Would he understand if I told him I didn't have a life outside my existence as a Protector? Would it even matter? "I guess I enjoy my work. I don't want or need time off."
"Obviously, you do need a break and you're going to take one starting immediately."
Alarm slashed through me. "No, I can't." I stood and bent over his desk like the heroes in the old movies did when they went to bat for what they believed in. Hopefully, Mac would respond as the bosses in those old movies had. He'd let me stay on and work.
But life is not a movie.
"Yes, you can and you will."
"But, sir, I can't. Something big's about to happen. I can't lounge around my home and ignore everything happening around me."
Mac handed me an envelope. "I agree."
I let out a sigh of relief. "I'm glad you understand."
"I meant you're right about hanging around the house. I know you, Jennifer. You'd go crazy and end up on the streets against my orders." He nodded at the envelope I'd tried to ignore. "Look inside. You'll find a plane ticket, hotel reservation and a generous allowance to purchase whatever clothes and necessities you need once you arrive. I've also cleared the time off with your boss at Swindle Realty." He paused as most people did when they thought about the name. "Does he realize--"
"Yeah, trust me, he does." I'd heard the same question too many times to let him finish his sentence. "But he doesn't care. Herbert Swindle likes seeing his name on the front door. Even if the name Swindle runs off potential clients. But about this vacation, I don't think--"
"Humph. Damned stupid if you ask me." Mac tapped on the envelope. "For the sake of the Society and for the safety of the town, you're taking a two-week, all-expense-paid vacation to St. Thomas. Courtesy of the Society. It's the vacation or else, Randall."
Nevertheless, I opened my mouth to protest again, which he waved off before punching a button on the intercom. "Harris, escort Ms. Randall to the company jet."
"But, sir, please listen." I fumbled for words even though I knew anything I'd say wouldn't change Mac's mind. Bouncer Boy marched over, grabbed me by the arm and led me toward the exit. "Mr. MacNamara, let me speak."
"I've heard all I need to hear. Go. Relax. Enjoy yourself. Get a tan. Don't worry about anything here. Your territory is covered."
"Consider this an order, Randall."
A few hours later, I was on the beach of St. Thomas where I met my future husband.