Sometimes I crave pickles.
Other times I crave the blood of my enemy.
There was a dead tax attorney in my closet, sobbing uncontrollably into the hem of her blouse. She'd been there a few days now. It made getting dressed in the morning awkward.
I would've avoided her altogether if I could, but it was my only closet. And it was microscopic. Tough to ignore chance encounters.
But I had to get ready for a wedding, and sobbing tax attorney or not, I had to get into that closet. I couldn't let my bestie down. Or my uncle, the man with whom my bestie was gracing her presence for as long as they both shall live.
Today was the big day. Their big day. The day they'd been waiting for since they first laid eyes on each other. It took some finagling, but I finally got them to admit their feelings for each other and commit, and I wasn't about to let a tax attorney ruin it. Unless, of course, she was there to audit me. I didn't think so, though. Usually the person crying at an audit was the client, not the tax attorney.
No more stalling. I braced myself and opened the door. She sat curled in a ball in the corner, crying like there was no tomorrow. Which, for her, there wasn't. A name tag she was wearing when she'd died read SHEILA with TAX ATTORNEY stamped underneath that. She must have been at some kind of convention when she died, but her cause of death was not immediately apparent. She looked disheveled, her chocolate-colored hair mussed, her tight bun askew on her head, but that could have happened when she was attacked. If she was attacked. Or it could have been the result of a few too many mojitos during the after party.
There was just no way of knowing her cause of death without talking to her, and God knew I'd tried to do that on several occasions. She wouldn't stop sobbing long enough for me to get a word in edgewise. I could've told her I could see her because I'd been born the grim reaper. I could've told her I'd help her find whoever did this. I could've told her she could cross through me whenever she was ready to see her family, those who had passed before her.
Most people who died went either north or south immediately following their deaths. But some stayed behind. Many had unfinished business of some kind, just like the ghosts and spirits in folktales, but some stayed behind because they'd died traumatically. Their energy grabbed hold of the earthly realm and didn't let go. They were anchored here, and until they healed, they would never cross to the other side.
That was where I came in. I helped the departed any way I could. I found their killers, righted their wrongs, sent messages to their loved ones, all so they could heal and cross to the other side, which they then did through me. Through my light. A light that was supposedly so brilliant, it could be seen by the departed from anywhere on earth.
But Sheila wasn't talking, so there was little I could do at the moment.
As carefully as I could, I pulled a cinnamon bridesmaid's dress through her quivering shoulders. "Sorry," I said as I patted her dark hair. She released another loud wail of sorrow before I closed the door. Thankfully, it was a thick door.
"What?" I asked as I turned back to Artemis, a departed Rottweiler who'd been dubbed my guardian by the powers that be. And ever since a dozen testy hellhounds had tried to rip out my jugular, Artemis refused to leave my side.
She sat there, ears perked, head tilted in curiosity as she pawed at the closet door.
"I've tried talking to her." I walked to a full-length mirror and held up the dress. "She only cries louder."
I rubbed to soften the worry line between my brows. As far as bridesmaid's dresses went, this one wasn't the worst. It would've looked even better if I weren't the size of the Chrysler Building. I was currently incubating the girl who would save the world, according to prophecies, but that wasn't what had been worrying me that morning.
Being a matron of honor was just that, an honor, and part of my job was to make sure the bride showed up for her wedding. Cookie had yet to arrive. It was probably that third margarita she'd had last night. Or the ninth. That girl could knock 'em back. In her defense, she was drinking for two. Since I was pregtastic, I'd been restricted to sparkling grape juice. Didn't have quite the same effect, but it was fun watching my sister and BFF belt out show tunes while channeling Christopher Walken.
I dialed Cookie's number to make sure she was headed my way when a voice, deep and sultry, wafted toward me from the door of my bedroom. If that was Cook, she'd had way more to drink than I thought.
"Closing the door on a traumatized dead chick isn't your style," the man said.
Artemis yelped and leapt toward the door, her stubby tail wagging with unmitigated joy.
I swirled to face my husband, the devastatingly handsome supernatural being who'd been forged in the fires of sin, created in hell by the very creature we were in hiding from. As far as we knew, Lucifer, Reyes's father, had sent the Twelve, the hounds of hell, the most vicious and bloodthirsty creatures ever to exist. And he sent them here to destroy us. Our only salvation was literally the land we stood on. The sacred ground that the Twelve couldn't traverse, as we were now living in a convent. An abandoned convent, but a convent-with the requisite sacred ground-nonetheless.
And we'd been here for months in an attempt to avoid being ripped to shreds by the hellhounds that patrolled the border. With help, our job had been to scour ancient texts and prophecies as we searched for a way to kill them. Only Reyes and I were at risk. We seemed to be the only ones the hellhounds wanted for breakfast. Everyone else could come and go as they pleased, which would go a long way toward explaining the lateness of the bride to prepare for her own wedding. We had hours yet, but I figured Cookie would've been at the convent at the butt crack of dawn, waking me up to do her hair. God only knew what would come of that.
Still, my immediate company was nothing to scoff at. His disheveled appearance every time he entered a room of late caused the blood in my veins to surge, the pulse at my throat to quicken.
He bent to pet Artemis. I watched as he gave her a final pat then indicate the Barbie closet with a nod and a gently arched brow. I followed his gaze. The closet had been made for a person with few worldly possessions, aka a nun. And though I was now living in the aforementioned convent, I was not a nun. Not by a long shot. Proof resided in the ever-expanding girth of my midsection.
His signature heat drifted toward me, blisteringly hot, a by-product of his being forged in the fires of hell, and I turned back to him. His hair, thick and unruly and in dire need of a trim, curled over his collar and around his ears. He still wore the button-down from last night. It hung open, revealing the wide expanse of chest he'd crossed his arms over. The cuffs of the shirt had been rolled up to his elbows, showing his sinuous forearms. Beneath them, a rock-hard waist tapered down to lean hips that rested comfortably against the doorjamb. He let me absorb every inch of him, knowing it gave me a thrill. Knowing he'd reap the benefits later.
After taking in his form, my attentions unhurried, languid, I slowly returned to his face. He'd let a small grin soften his mouth. His deep brown eyes sparkled beneath dark lashes that were spiked with the remnants of sleep. As though he'd just woken up. As though he had no idea how sexy that was.
Normally, I would've chalked up his appearance to the bachelor party they'd had for my uncle, but he'd looked like that for weeks now. Exhausted. Disheveled. Sexy as fuck. I could hardly complain, but I was beginning to worry about him. I noticed that he grew hotter when he was trying to heal from an injury, and his heat had been growing hotter by leaps and bounds lately, but he hadn't been injured in months. We'd both been stuck in the convent, on sacred ground, since I was about a month pregnant. That was almost eight months ago, and we hadn't been stabbed, shot, or run down with a runaway vehicle since. I'd have to keep a close eye on him. I did that anyway, so I'd have to keep a closer eye on him.
"Hey! Wait!" I threw the cinnamon dress at him. "You're not supposed to see me before the wedding."
He flashed a set of startlingly white teeth. "I think that only applies to the bride."
"Oh, right." When he indicated the closet again with a questioning gaze, I decided to question him back. "Do you know how many times I've tried talking to her? She won't stop crying long enough to catch her breath, let alone tell me what's wrong. Why did I get this closet?"
His grin spread. "Because it's the only one in the room."
He had a good point. He'd been forced to use a closet in the next room, but still.
"Want me to take care of her?" he asked.
"No, I do not want you to take care of her. Wait, you can do that?"
"Just say the word."
Sadly, I considered it. Her sobbing was taxing, probably because she was a tax attorney, and yet I heard her only when the door was open.
"Check this out," I said, walking to the door. I opened it, and we were met with loud wailing. After a moment, I closed the door again. Crickets. Metaphorically. "This door is incredible," I said, opening it again and closing it several times in a row to demonstrate.
"You need to get out more," he said.
"Right? I'd kill for the delightful décor of Macho Taco."
His face held his expression steady, not wavering in the slightest, but I felt an involuntary pang of regret ripple through him.
I let go of the door and straightened. "No," I said, walking to him.
He pushed off the doorjamb and waited to wrap me in his arms. His heat whispered across my skin and bathed me in warmth as one arm slid around my back while he let his free hand caress Beep, the fugitive I'd been harboring for almost nine months. I felt it was about time to evict her, but the midwife Reyes had hired told me she'd come in her own time. Apparently, Beep lived in a different time zone than I did.
"No," I repeated, blasting him with my best stern face. "We've done okay. We now have a semi-solid plan in place to blow this Popsicle stand once Beep is born that could actually work, if the planets align just so. I've had lots of time to practice my mad skills in grim reaperism slash supernatural being. And I've learned a lot about why I never became a nun: no closet space. This is not your fault."
"At least your father isn't trying to kill us." He stilled, shocked at his own statement, then said, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean-"
"Don't be ridiculous." I dismissed his statement with a wave of my hand. My father had died a few days before we sought refuge at the convent, and I was still searching for his killer. Well, my uncle, a detective for Albuquerque PD was, but I was helping every chance I got. "Reyes, it's not your fault your father is evil. Or that he's the most hated being this side of Mars."
"That's not entirely true," he said. When I silently questioned him, he added, "Not everyone believes in the devil."
"Good point." I was not about to argue with him about his father. He felt guilty that his father would do anything in his power to kill us. To kill Beep, actually. She was the one prophesied to destroy him. I'd tried repeatedly to convince Reyes that this wasn't his fault-to no avail, so I changed the subject instead. "What's with all the dead people on the lawn?"
Departed had been showing up for about a week, standing in what would be considered our front lawn. If we had a lawn. If this were a house and not a converted convent.
A worried expression flashed across Reyes's face so fast, I almost missed it. Almost. "I wish I knew."
He'd been worried a lot lately. I could tell the situation was draining him, and I couldn't help but wonder if he didn't feel like he was in prison again. He'd spent ten years there for a crime he didn't commit. And now once again, for all intents and purposes, he was incarcerated. We both were. We were prisoners of a sort, stuck in this place, and while I was certainly going a bit stir-crazy, my restlessness couldn't compare to his. Still, one foot across that invisible line, the one that marked the sacred, blessed ground from the rest of the area, and that foot would be gone. Along with part of a leg.
We'd fought the Twelve before, and while we didn't exactly lose, we sure didn't win. They came back angrier than ever. Their snarls every time I stepped too close to the border were proof of that. They wanted a piece of me, but it was hard to blame them. I did have a killer ass. Or, well, I used to.
I walked back to the mirror and held up the dress, the one that had to be let out due to the fact that my ass had grown in sync with my belly. Reyes stayed close behind, his hand warm at the small of my back, his heat seeping in and easing the ache there. He was very therapeutic, especially now that the nights were getting cooler.
"They won't talk to me," I said, trying to decide if cinnamon had been my color all along and I just didn't know it. It did match my eyes quite nicely, which were the color of the amber in which the mosquito was preserved inJurassic Park, but it also made me look a little deader than I liked. "The departed on the lawn. I keep thinking they need help to cross, but they just stare straight ahead, their expressions completely blank. Maybe they're zombies." I turned this way and that. "Either way, it's unsettling."
Reyes pressed into my backside and rubbed my shoulders with what I'd come to realize were magic hands. He was clearly the Magic Man Heart had sung about. I'd had no idea anything could feel that good. On bad days-the days there was just no settling Beep-it rivaled an orgasm.
Wait, no, it didn't. Nothing rivaled an orgasm. But it came damned close.
"You're bright," he said, bending until his breath fanned across my cheek.
"I know, but-"
"You're really bright."
I laughed and turned into him. "I know, but-"
"No," he said, his eyes sparkling with humor, "you're even brighter than normal. Your light is so bright, it fills every corner of the house."
Of course, only he would know that. I couldn't see my light, which was probably a good thing because how would I put on makeup if all I saw was a bright light? No, wait, he wasn't the only one who would know that. There were others who could see it. The departed, obviously, but also Osh, our resident Daeva, a slave demon who'd escaped from hell centuries ago. And Quentin, a Deaf kid we'd adopted as part of our gang, who mostly hung out with Cookie's daughter, Amber. And Pari, one of my best friends. And Angel, my departed thirteen-year-old sidekick and lead investigator.
I blinked, realizing all the people who would have known that my brightness levels needed adjusting. "Why didn't anyone tell me?"
He lifted a shoulder. "There's not anything you can do about it, right?"
"Then why bring it up?"
"It's important, that's why. Maybe there's a reason. Maybe I'm sick." I felt my forehead. My cheeks. My chest. Then I lifted Reyes's hand and pressed it to my chest, glancing up from beneath my lashes as impishly as I possibly could. "Do I feel feverish?"
He darkened instantly. His gaze dropped to Danger and Will Robinson, aka my breasts. His gaze did that often, unruly thing that it was. Danger and Will loved the attention.
"You shouldn't tempt me," he said, his voice growing ragged.
A tingle of desire sparked to life, causing a warmth to pool in my abdomen. "You're the only one I should tempt, seeing as how we're hitched."
He wrapped a hand around my throat ever so softly and led me back against the mirror. It wasn't his actions that jump-started my heart, but the raw lust that consumed him. The dark need in his eyes. The severity of his drawn brows. The sensuality of his parted mouth. My girl parts tightened when he dipped his hand into my shirt. His thumb grazed over a hardened nipple, and a jolt of pleasure shot straight to my core.
"I'm here!" Cookie called from down the hall, her voice breathy, winded from the stairs.
I almost groaned aloud at the interruption. Reyes's grip on my throat tightened. He tilted my face up to his and whispered, "We'll continue this later."
"Promise?" I asked, unwilling to relinquish the impish bit.
He covered my mouth with his, his tongue hot as it dived inside me, as he melted my knees and stole my breath. Then, a microsecond before Cookie walked in, he pushed off me with a wink and strolled to look out the window. Still weak from his kiss, I almost stumbled forward.
"I'm here," said Cookie Kowalski, my assistant who moonlighted as my best friend, as she rushed into the room.
It took me a sec, but I finally tore my gaze off my husband. Cookie's short black hair had been flattened on one side, making her look lopsided. Her mismatched clothes were rumpled and a purple scarf dangled off one shoulder, perilously close to falling to the floor. Though Cook was considered large by society's standards, she wore her size well. She had the beauty and confidence of an eccentric, wardrobe-challenged countess. Normally. Today she looked more like a frazzled scullery maid.
I fought a grin and chastised her for her tardiness. "It's about time, missy," I said, tapping my naked wrist to make my point clear.
She gasped audibly, then looked at her watch. Her shoulders sagged in relief. "Charley, damn it. The wedding isn't for hours."
"I know," I said, stepping closer as she sat some bags on a bench at the end of the bed. "I just like to keep you on your toes."
"Oh, you do that. No worries there. I'm like a ballerina when you're around."
"Sweet." I leaned over to peek inside a bag. "I also want to thank you again for having the wedding here." She did so to accommodate Reyes and me, since we couldn't leave the grounds.
"Are you kidding?" she asked. "This place is perfect. Who gets to have a wedding in a historic convent surrounded by a lush forest adorned with the colors of autumn? Me. That's who." She gave my shoulders a quick one-armed squeeze. "I am beyond thrilled, hon."
"And, by having it here," she continued, pulling out a fluff of pink material from one of the bags, "neither you nor Reyes will be ripped apart by hellhounds during the ceremony. I'd love to get through this without getting blood on my wedding gown."
"It's so always about you," I said, and she laughed. Mission complete.
She took a ribbon off the material, then noticed Reyes's tousled state. "I'm not interrupting anything, am I?"
He turned, but only slightly, not wanting to expose the evidence of exactly what she'd interrupted. "Not at all," he said, pointing outside. "We were just talking about all the departed-"
"-who have passed on over the years," I said, stopping him from making a grave mistake. "And, boy, are there lots." I snorted. "Like millions. Maybe even billions."
Cookie stopped what she was doing-namely rummaging through another shopping bag-and turned toward me, her movements slow. Methodical. Calculated. "There-" Her voice cracked. She cleared her throat and started over. "There are dead people on the lawn, aren't there?"
"What?" I dismissed her suspicions with a wave of my hand. Because that always worked. "Pfft, no way. Why would there-? I mean, what would they be doing on-?"
"Charley," she said in warning, her hangover voice low and alarmingly sexy.
I bit down, cursing myself for my utter lack of finesse. This was her wedding day, and her nerves had been stretched thin enough without a last-minute addition of the recently departed to the guest list.
"Only a couple," I said, strolling nonchalantly to Reyes's side and looking out the two-story window. I was such a liar. There were at least a hundred departed standing in front of the convent. Silent. Unmoving. Unblinking. This was going to be the creepiest wedding ever. At least they weren't coming inside, but the wedding was actually outside in a little clearing behind the convent. Thankfully, they hadn't invaded that area. Much.
Reyes leaned down to me and whispered into my ear. "Your nearness isn't helping my condition."
I glanced at his crotch. The fullness caused a flush to rise in my cheeks. But he was right. Now was not the time. "Sorry," I whispered back before turning to Cookie again. "What's that?"
She was busy staring out another window, and I thanked God she couldn't see the departed. "The curtains for the nursery came in," she said absently.
"Oh!" I rushed forward, snatched them out of her hands, and shook out a panel of pink taffeta. "I sure hope it's a girl," I said, trying to change the subject.
"Of course it's a girl," she said, scanning the grounds. "All the prophecies say so. Where are they?"
"The dead people."
"Right." I looked out over the weathered grounds. The grass had yellowed over the last month, the trees burning with the bright oranges, golds, and reds of autumn.
"They're gone now," I said, adding to the long list of sins I was committing in a house of God. "Those people love playing hide-and-seek. Seriously, it's like a thing with them."
I looked up at her, worried she wouldn't believe me, but her gaze had drifted somewhere else, namely to Reyes's reflection in the window. His shirt still hung open, the white material a stark contrast to the dark skin beneath, the muscles leaving shadows along the upside-down T of his chest and the rungs of his abs. "Good Lord," she said to me, her tone silky soft.
I agreed completely. "Good Lord indeed."
We both gawked a solid minute before he realized what we were doing. He dipped his head, unable to suppress a brilliant smile, and cleared his throat before announcing he got the first shower.
"I don't know how you do it, hon," Cook said when he left.
The communal shower was down the hall, a rustic imitation of my shower at home. And the thought of him in it, with steaming hot water cascading over his shoulders, down the curve of his back, sent a tiny shiver through my body. "Do what? Keep my hands off him?"
"No. Well, yes, but also keep your composure around him." She sat against the windowsill. "I'm not supernatural or anything, but even I can feel his power. His ... allure. Does that make sense?"
"Damn straight it does."
"There's just something so primal about him. So ethereal."
"And?" I ventured. Cookie didn't usually say much without an ulterior motive.
"I worry about him. About him being a dad."
Surprised, I stopped and straightened my shoulders. "What do you mean?" Then, as a possible explanation sank in, I felt my eyes widen. "Do you think he'll be a bad father?" I turned and looked toward the door to make sure he'd left.
"No," she said with a soft chuckle. "I'm afraid he will sever the spine of any boy who breaks our girl's heart."
"Oh," I said, relief flooding me. But she had an incredibly well thought-out point. "Oh. You're right. I didn't think of that."
"You might want to discuss dating guidelines with him now. You know, before she turns five."
"Five?" I screeched. "Why five?"
The smile that spread across her face was one of practiced stoicism, as though she were talking to a mental patient. "And just when did you become interested in boys?"
Copyright © 2015 by Darynda Jones