By Sherrilyn Kenyon
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2011 Sherrilyn Kenyon
All rights reserved.
138 years later Las Vegas, Nevada
"How are you doing?"
Abigail Yager barely understood those words as the male doctor stood over her bed, injecting her with a substance that could very well be lethal. But if it worked, it would be worth the risk. "What?"
"Abby? Can you hear me?"
She blinked slowly and tried to focus on Hannah's question. Everything was blurry. Even so, she could see the way the light played in Hannah's blond hair. The concern on her sister's beautiful face. "Um ... yeah."
Hannah cursed. "You're killing her. Stop!"
The doctor didn't listen.
Hannah started for him, but before she could reach the far side of the bed, her older brother, Kurt, intercepted her. "Stop it, Hannah."
"We don't know what that will do to her. She's human!"
Kurt shook his head. "She needs it. If it strengthens us, it should do the same with her. Besides, it's too late. At this point, it'll either help her or she's dead. Plain and simple."
Could there be any less care in his tone?
Hannah shoved Kurt away. "I'm ashamed of you. After all she's done for us, you still see her as nothing but a human." She returned to Abigail's side and took her hand. "Stay with me, Abby. Don't leave me alone with an insensitive prick as the only member of my family."
"I'm not a prick!"
Hannah ignored him. "I need my big sis. C'mon, girl. Don't let me down."
Abigail couldn't really follow the angry exchange they were now engaged in. Honestly, all she heard was her heart pounding in her ears. She saw images of her past playing through her mind as if they were on a DVD. The old two-story house where the three of them had grown up. Of her and Hannah staying up past their bedtime to whisper and giggle about their latest celebrity crushes.
So many happy memories of that time ...
Her thoughts turned to Kurt and Hannah's mother and father, who took her in after Abby's own parents had been slaughtered. They, too, had died years ago from their curse, and there was nothing she wouldn't do for her adoptive siblings.
And you just might be paying the ultimate price.
Was that the doctor's voice?
The thrumming grew louder as she felt something shatter deep within her body. Arching her back, she screamed as every molecule in her body seemed to catch fire.
"What's happening to her?"
"Get your sister out of here."
Abigail heard Hannah protesting as Kurt jerked her from the room and slammed the door behind them. Tears streamed from the corners of her eyes. She could no longer see anything, and yet she saw everything. There was no way to describe it. It was as if she had a mirror to the world.
"Breathe," the doctor whispered. "Just breathe. I'm not about to let you die."
That was easier said than done. Pain lacerated her body. It was as if she was burning from the inside out.
Unable to stand it, she screamed until she could stand no more. This was it. In spite of what he said, she was dying. She had to be. Surely no one could withstand this much pain and live. There was no way she'd survive.
In fact, she felt the darkness coming for her. It was swallowing her whole. Piece by piece. Shredding her completely.
She turned her head from side to side, trying to breathe. Something had its hands on her throat, choking her.
Was it the doctor?
She couldn't focus. Couldn't see.
"Stop!" Her cry echoed in her ears.
Then as quickly as it'd come, the pain left her — like a bird that shot skyward for no reason. It was gone.
Her throat was so dry now. She tilted her head to meet the doctor's gaze. Concern etched his brow as he lowered the mask on his face.
"How do you feel?" There was only the smallest bit of his fangs showing as he spoke. Something else flashed. A memory of him that was gone so fast, she couldn't grasp it.
Was it important?
"I need water," she rasped.
"Do you crave anything else?"
"Yes," she breathed.
Abigail licked her lips as the memory of her birth parents' deaths seared her. Even all these years later, that memory was perfectly intact, as if it'd happened only yesterday.
Barely four years old and dressed in her red Sesame Street pajamas, she'd hidden under the bed while the man her parents had called friend mercilessly slaughtered them with a shotgun. Those horrendously violent sounds were forever carved in her heart. From where she'd been, she saw the man's black cowboy boots, which caused the floorboards to squeak while he searched her room. Terrified, she'd watched him track blood all over her pink princess rug. She'd held her favorite teddy bear to her mouth and bit him hard to keep from crying out and betraying her location. He'd paused before her dresser, and there in the mirror she'd seen his face so clearly. So perfectly.
And as she heard those heavy footsteps leave her home, she'd sworn one thing.
To find that man and kill him as brutally as he'd killed her parents. To make him beg for a mercy she had no intention of giving him.
Retribution would be hers. ...
"Abigail?" The doctor forced her to look at him. "What else do you crave?"
"The throat of Sundown Brady."
"Someone's killing Dark-Hunters."
Jess Brady scowled as his Squire, Andy, burst into the obscenely huge kitchen, huffing and puffing, with his dark hair sticking out all over his head as if the boy had been wringing at it — a habit Andy had whenever he was duly stressed.
Much less excited, especially since he'd been up only a few, Jess blew his breath across his steaming coffee. "Settle down, pup. I ain't had my caffeine yet." And he wasn't a morning person, even though his mornings were what most people called early evening.
Still the boy jumped about like a filly around a rattlesnake. Had he ever been that nervous about anything?
The answer hit him hard in the chest and did nothing to improve his irritability.
Jess quickly turned his thoughts away from that memory and focused on the boy he'd known since the day Andy was whelped.
Even though Andy was nearing thirty now, he was about as high-strung as anyone Jess had ever met. Times like this, he missed the old calmness of Andy's pa. Nothing had ever rattled that man.
Not even the time he'd landed in a nest of scorpions.
"Sundown ... you don't understand. It's —"
He held his hand up to stop the boy midsentence. "I get it, kid. Case you haven't noticed, Dark-Hunters are on almost as many menus as humans are. Having something trying to kill us is about normal. Now, why you more flustered than a preacher in a whorehouse?"
"I'm trying to tell you." Andy gestured toward the door as if expecting the bogeyman to charge through it. "There's a human out there who is killing off Dark-Hunters, and someone needs to stop them."
Jess took a slow drink before he spoke. Ah, yeah, that hit the spot. Little more, and he'd be as close to human as a dead man could come. "Well, that's just plain rude."
All that did was frustrate Andy more. "I really don't think you understand what I'm trying to tell you."
Jess scratched at the whiskers along his jaw. "And my mama drowned the dumb ones. I hear everything you're saying. There's a group of Buffys thinking we're the bad guys. Ain't my first rodeo, pup. It's been happening so long, they were called Helsings long before your daddy was a gleam in your granddaddy's eyes. Thank you, Hollywood and Stoker, for that. Not like being undead didn't suck before. They just made it worse for us by cluing the rest of the world in that we exist. Now every goth with a thirst for immortality is cruising for us, begging us to bite them and turn them. Did I ever tell you about that time when —?"
"Sundown," Andy snapped. "I —"
"You need to check that tone, boy. Remember, I used to kill people for a living, and I ain't been up long enough to have much tolerance right about now. Knock it down a notch before I forget I'm supposed to actually like you."
Andy let out a long sigh. "Fine, but answer me this."
Dang, when had the kid turned into the Riddler? He should have curtailed all those Batman reruns when Andy was a boy.
"Did any of those others ever come after you guys in the past leading a Daimon entourage?"
Now, that got his attention. While it wasn't unusual for Daimons to use humans as servants or tools from time to time, it wasn't normal for them to follow one.
Jess set the coffee down on the stainless steel counter. "Come again?"
"Yeah ... this one travels in a pack of Daimons and has been slaying every Hunter they can find. She's taken out three here and four others in Arizona and Oklahoma."
Jess took a full minute to digest that. "How do you know about this?"
"I was contacted by Tawny, who got it from her mother." Now, to most, that'd sound bizarre. But like Andy, Tawny was a multigenerational Squire. A few thousand years back, the Squire network had been set up to provide a "normal" cover for the nocturnal Dark-Hunters during the daylight hours when they were sleeping. The Squires helped them to pass for humans, and most of all, the Squires shielded their existence from the rest of the world and took care of their day-to-day necessities so that they could focus on their job. Killing Daimons and freeing the human souls they'd stolen before those souls died and were forever lost.
But the best part about the Squires was that some of them were Oracles who could speak directly to the gods and get information from them that the Dark-Hunters could use to track and kill Daimons.
Tawny's mother happened to be one of those Oracles.
Deciphering what the gods said, however, was another matter.
Jess leaned against the kitchen counter and crossed his arms over his chest. "Tell me exactly what her mother said."
"She said that there's an ill wind coming and that you should guard your back. Lionel didn't fail to make it home before dawn. He was murdered and his killer, a human leading a Daimon guard, was on the hunt for more of his kind."
Lionel was another Dark-Hunter who'd been assigned to Las Vegas. He died three nights ago, after he'd failed to make it to shelter before the sun rose — at least that was what they'd been told. Immortality had its price, and while the things that could kill them were few, those few were an ugly way to die.
Jess rubbed his thumb against his brow. "And the gods spoke that plainly?"
Andy hedged. "Well ... not exactly. You know how they are."
Yeah, they always spoke in riddles that were tougher to unknot than a two-headed cobra. "So how —?"
"It's taken them days to decipher it, but she swears she's right and that you need to watch your back."
That, he'd been doing since the day the goddess Artemis resurrected him. Bart had tutored him well on guarding every angle of his body and staying alert no matter what or who. Jess wasn't about to ever be a victim again.
"Don't Andy me. I believe her. She's one of the best Oracles we have."
He was right about that. But ...
"We all make mistakes." And Jess had made more than his fair share.
A tic started in Andy's jaw. It was obvious he wanted to throttle Jess, but he knew better than to even try.
"Fine," he said, finally relenting on the matter. "Whatever. You're the one they're after, so it's none of my business. Plenty of other Dark-Hunters to work for. They're probably a lot less irritating, too." Then he changed the subject entirely. "I repaired your tracker and phone." He held Jess's iPhone out to him. "Try not to get it wet tonight."
"Not my fault the Daimon I was chasing decided to run through a water fountain." Damnedest part about living here in Vegas, there were huge fountains all over the place, and for some reason, Daimons seemed to think Dark-Hunters were allergic to water. Or maybe it was their way to piss them off before getting killed.
Andy ignored his comment. "Mom overnighted some of her oatmeal cookies for you. They're in the jar by the sink." He pointed to the container that looked like a Conestoga wagon, which was really out of place in the commercial-grade kitchen designed to feed a large army.
The thought of those cookies perked him up a lot. Cecilia made the best in the world. That was what he missed most about Andy's pa working for him. C used to have a fresh batch cooling on the stove every evening when he came upstairs for coffee.
Andy continued his report. "I picked up your laundry and hung it in the hall closet. I checked with the company, and your horses will be transported out here next week from your ranch, so you can quit pouting every time you pass the saddles."
Wow, he had no idea he'd done that. Huh ... he'd have to keep an eye on his expressions. He hated to be that obvious to anyone.
Andy gestured toward the door. "The boots you ordered are in the box on the hall table, as are the throwing knives Kell sent to replace the ones you broke the other night. I couldn't get the black Stetson reblocked, so I have a new one on order. Your bike is fully gassed, and Sin has offered all of you free valet parking at his casino while you hunt. He'll have his staff leave the bike parked in front so that you can grab it and go when you're ready to head home, and if you get trapped in the city and can't make it back here before dawn, you can hole up in one of his rooms — they'll have a key at the concierge with your name on it. Is there anything else you need?"
That was the best part of Andy. Like his father, he was as efficient as the devil's desk clerk. "Nope. Can't think of anything."
"All right. I'll have my cell phone if you need anything." The boy always said that.
Jess moved toward the cookies. "Have a good night."
Andy nodded before he went to the door. He paused as if he wanted to say something else — then he quickly took his exit to head to his apartment over the garage. For some reason, as the kid left, Jess had an image of Andy as a little boy chasing after his father. He could still see Andy's chubby cheeks, wide eyes, and freckled face. Hear him asking in that youthful tone if Jess would teach him how to ride, and then picking the boy up from the dirt the first time Andy was thrown by the Shetland pony Jess had bought for him. Little booger had gotten right back up, dusted himself off, and then climbed into the saddle like a trouper.
Now that little boy was a man strangers thought was older than Jess.
That was the hardest part of being immortal. Watching people he cared about be kids, grow old, and die while he never changed. And just like with Andy, he'd known the boy's father from the moment Ed was born. The Taylor family had been his Squires from the beginning of his Dark-Hunter life.
Even so, he'd kept a wall between him and them. Never letting them in too close. At least not until Andy. He didn't know why, but that little shit had wormed his way past Jess's best defenses. In many ways, Andy was like his son.
There was only one other person in his long life that Jess had felt that way about.
He winced at another memory he wished he could purge.
Aching with remorse and grief, Jess pulled his watch out of his pocket to check the time. The moment he opened it, he paused to stare at Matilda's face in the worn-out sepia photograph that had been kept inside his watch since the day he was reborn. No matter how many years passed, he still ached over the loss of her.
That had been the only thing he truly hated about his rebirth. Knowing she was alive and not being able to see her. Dark-Hunters were forbidden from having families, and they were never to let anyone from their past know that they'd come back. It was part of what they swore to when Artemis created them.
Still, he'd kept tabs on her while she lived and made sure that she never once wanted for anything. She'd gone on to marry and have six kids.
To the day she died, she'd never known who her benefactor was. The Squires told her it was a trust fund set up by a distant uncle who'd died and left it to her. She never knew that money came from a pact he'd made with a goddess to even a score that no amount of violence could tally.
Sometimes dead wasn't dead enough.
His throat tightening, he closed his watch. There was no use thinking about what should have been. He'd done what he'd had to. Matilda had probably been better off without him, anyways. Sooner or later, his past would have caught up to them, and the result would have been the same.
At least that was the lie he told himself to make it all bearable. But inside, he knew the truth. No one could have loved her more than he had.
More than he did to this day. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Retribution by Sherrilyn Kenyon. Copyright © 2011 Sherrilyn Kenyon. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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