“Don’t worry. I’m incapable of impregnating anyone until my s’genesis is complete. After that, only other demons need fear me.”
“Other Seminus demons?”
“There are no females of my breed,” he said, tossing the washcloth into her hamper beside the bed. She’d trash it later. Burn it, maybe. “We have to impregnate other species. The offspring are always male, always pure-blooded Seminus demons, though every individual shares some minor traits with his mother’s species.”
She tugged a sheet up to cover herself, because the way he was watching her made her feel like a science experiment. Besides, she was shaking like a leaf. “Like?”
He shrugged. “Shade can turn to shadow in the presence of a shadow. Wraith possesses extraordinary speed and needs to ingest blood to survive. I suffer from a terrible sense of fair play that my brothers lack.”
“Why not impregnate humans?” She couldn’t believe she was asking these questions as though they were bonding over beer and peanuts, but hey, the more she knew, the more efficiently she could kill them.
“Breeding with humans results in cambions. Sterile half-breeds. We need to mate with other demons to keep our species from extinction.”
“And these other species . . . they don’t mind giving birth to yours?”
The bed creaked and sagged beneath his considerable weight as he stretched out beside her, uncomfortably close, as if they were lovers. Real lovers and not the most mismatched pair of f**k buddies ever. The wolf and the rabbit. The predator and the prey.
A shudder shook her because she was dangerously underestimating him. They were both predators.
“They mind. Which is why, when the s’genesis is complete, we have the ability to shapeshift into the male of any species.”
“So you’re parasites who trick the females into ha**g s*x with you.”
“Essentially. The females have no idea what they’ve slept with.”
“And what happens when Junior pops out and he doesn’t look like Mom?” Now her questioning had nothing to do with the job and everything to do with her curiosity. She found it interesting that demons scammed other demons as well as humans.
“Most Seminus demon offspring are abandoned, slaughtered, or eaten within hours of birth.” She could have sworn his expression softened with sadness for a moment, but it was gone by the time he said,
“Less than 10 percent survive to adulthood.”
She winced. “Harsh. Is that why so many of the brothers you were talking about are dead?”
“Most of them.”
“What about the one you said survived to the s’genesis? What happened to him?”
“He didn’t have a chance to die from the usual things, like angry males of other species avenging their females’ seductions. Roag was killed by Aegi.”
Shit. She should have seen that one coming. “I, ah—”
“Don’t,” he said softly. “Don’t say you’re sorry, because you aren’t.”
She wasn’t sure she had been going to offer condolences, but she was glad she hadn’t. When she’d told him about her mom, if he’d said he was sorry, she’d have blown a fuse. Yeah, a change of subject would be good right about now. “Your brother said you weren’t raised together . . . so how do you know how many brothers you’ve had?”
“We feel them. We’re aware of every birth, we stay connected during their lives, and we feel them die.”
He averted his gaze. “Every death leaves a hole.”
For the first time, she knew the feeling. Her mother’s death had carved a canyon through her soul, and Janet’s death had cut it deeper. Tay had known foster kids who had been beaten to death, street kids who had ODed, Guardians who’d been torn apart, but she’d never allowed herself to feel sorrow. Not until Janet. Now Tayla encouraged the pain, intentionally maintaining it because although she and Janet hadn’t been close, her death had been Tay’s fault.
“Have you ever met your father? Your real father?”
“He was killed when I was two, shortly after Wraith was born.” She didn’t want to ask, afraid he’d say The Aegis was responsible again, but he seemed to know what she was thinking, and said, “Vampires. Revenge for what he did to Wraith’s mother.”
This time she did want to ask, but her mind had already moved onto the math calculations . . . Eidolon had said he had over forty siblings, twenty born before he was . . . so if the father died when he was two, twenty more had come between Eidolon’s birth and his second year.
“Sounds like your species is pretty prolific.”
He folded his arms behind his head and stared up at the ceiling. “Exactly. That’s why, once the s’genesis is complete, unless we have bonded with a single mate, we are overcome by the urge to seduce and impregnate as many females as possible.” His voice changed, went low, and something told her he wasn’t happy about this change. “It’s all we can think about. And yet, we still face extinction.”
“That would be too bad.”
He narrowed his gaze at her with such intensity that she sucked a harsh breath. “Be careful, little killer. The Fates can f**k with you in ways you can’t even imagine.”
Sitting up, he swung his legs off the bed and started to button his pants. The muscles in his back and arms flexed, and she admired them even as she reached beneath her pillow, grasped her handy-dandy steel pipe—she had a duffel bag full of fancy weapons, but nothing felt as good as heavy piece of basic metal in the palm.
He was beautiful, terribly beautiful. Which made what she was about to do that much more difficult.
She brought the pipe down on his skull. It cracked sharply, and he slumped to the floor.
“Looks like the Fates really f**ked with you, Hellboy.” She peered down, almost feeling sorry for him, but she tucked that foolish sentiment away and wrote it off as near-orgasm warm fuzzies. “And they aren’t even close to being done.”
Gem burst into her parents’ Upper West Side house, hoping the call had been a hoax. The broken vase filled with her mother’s prize orchids and the blood on the floor in the formal sitting room said otherwise.
“You sons of bitches,” she whispered to no one in particular, though most of her anger was directed at herself.
If only she’d taken the threat seriously. If only she hadn’t answered the phone the first time the bastards asked her to cut for them. If only she hadn’t told them no when they called back three days later. If only
. . .
Didn’t matter. The damage had been done.
But if it didn’t matter, why did the second phone call, two weeks ago today, keep replaying over and over in her head?
“Well, Gem, what is your answer?”
She looked over at her parents, who were busy serving guests in their backyard—the annual spring barbecue they hosted for the clinic staff they worked with. As Sensor demons, her parents were ter’taceo, demons who lived and worked in the human world, and none were the wiser. Life in the earthly realm came at a price for their particular species, though; every six months they were forced to return to the underground demon realm, Sheoul, and endure a painful, two-week-long regeneration ritual.
“I’ve thought about your offer,” she said in a hushed voice, “and the answer is no. You can’t pay me enough to do what you want.”
“I’d urge you to reconsider.”
“Never say never, doctor.” Insane laughter crackled over the airwaves. The bastard hung up, leaving her shaking and feeling ill.
“Gemella, darling, you don’t look well.”
Startled by her mother’s voice, Gem yelped and spun around. “It’s nothing. Work issue.”
“Must be some work issue.” Her mother, whose human name was Eileen, handed Gem the margarita in her hand. “Looks like you could use this more than I can.”
Gem had practically inhaled the cocktail, even though she rarely drank alcohol. Too much liquor negated the effect of the protective spells she’d had tattooed on her body in order to control her demon half. She’d stopped after that one margarita, but now, as she searched her parents’ house, hoping they were here despite the bloody evidence to the contrary, she thought about breaking into their wet bar and drinking everything they had. Right now, letting out her inner demon might not be a bad thing.
She saved her old room for last, the one her parents kept exactly as she’d left it when she moved out almost five years ago to attend medical school—two years early, thanks to her parents’ militant homeschooling that had put her ahead of schedule in college. They’d always hoped she’d come back home to live after graduation as many Sensor demon offspring did until they’d been mated off by their parents. But Gem wasn’t a Sensor, and while she loved the family that had adopted her instead of killing her as an infant, she’d needed her own space to discover who she was and where she truly belonged.
She also had no desire to suffer an arranged mating.
Her room, decorated in black, crimson, and blue, had driven her mom nuts, which had pretty much been the point. Rebellious from the start, Gem had probably, on several occasions over the course of her twenty-four years, made her parents regret their decision to raise her. But they’d also loved her, and she had no doubts about that. Her mom never once let her go to bed without a good night hug, and her father had set aside the third Saturday of every month to take her someplace special, just the two of them. Knowing she’d need to blend in, they’d provided her with a very normal human childhood that included church, sleepovers, and camping. As long as she avoided the securely locked basement, she could almost pretend she—and they—were human.
Though she didn’t expect to find anything, she searched her bedroom and found exactly what she’d expected. Nothing. The Ghouls really had nabbed her parents, the sons of bitches. She moved toward the door. Halted as she passed the dresser.
But she had to. She’d avoided this for far too long.
Heart pounding, she opened the top drawer and fumbled around until her fingers found the thin photo album duct-taped to the underside of the top. She removed it, her hands shaking so badly that she nearly dropped the small leather-bound book.
She almost didn’t open it. The thing felt heavier than it was, the phantom weight of memories that should have been but never were.
God, she was such a drama queen.
Disgusted with herself, she opened the book and flipped through the two dozen pictures. All of people who didn’t know they’d been captured on film. All taken at a distance.
All of Tayla Mancuso and the slayer’s now-dead mom.
It took three minutes to secure Eidolon to the bed. As tempting as it was to kill him, Tayla knew The Aegis might benefit more from his survival. At least, that’s what she told herself. Anything to keep from thinking too hard about the fact that he had saved her life, and she owed him.
Afterward, Tayla showered, dressed in ratty jeans and a tank top, and checked his breathing and bindings once more. She’d laid him out spread-eagled on his back, his arms stretched over his head and chained to the bed frame.
Lying there, unconscious, he was beautiful. She’d been hesitant to look too closely before, when he was awake and would know what she was doing. Now, she could spare a moment to admire a body so perfect she could only compare it to an athlete’s.
Thick layers of muscle cut valleys across his bare chest and down to ripped abs that spoke of hours of situps. His caduceus pendant had slipped to the side, pointing to a thin, almost invisible scar on his shoulder. When she leaned closer, she saw more of them, so faint she doubted they could be seen in anything but the most perfect conditions, like now, with the afternoon sunlight pouring through her window.
Geez, he looked like he’d been scored by a thousand paper cuts that had healed but left shadows.
Tentatively, she trailed a finger along his shoulder and up his right arm, tracing the tribal tats, firm muscle, and pulsing ropes of vein. That arm had wrapped around her. Held her. No one had held her. Not since her mother had died.
Chastising herself for letting her thoughts take her in a direction she had no business going in, she darted out of the apartment.
It was cooler outside than it had been earlier—apparently Mother Nature hadn’t gotten the newsflash that it was spring and should be warm in the afternoon—but she didn’t waste time going back for a jacket. She wanted to get back before Hellboy woke up, if possible.
She took two trains and a bus, and forty-five minutes later, arrived five blocks south of Aegis HQ.
Headquarters sat on the remote outskirts of a New York City suburb, a large three-story house where the two Regents, the married heads of the New York City cell, lived and sheltered dozens of Guardians. The nearest neighbors were nearly half a mile distant, but standard operating procedure required an approach from the rear, through a secret entrance hidden in a copse of trees a quarter-mile away from HQ. An underground tunnel brought Tayla into the wooded, enclosed backyard, where two male Guardians were engaged in crossbow target practice. Trey couldn’t hit the ocean if he were in the middle of it, but the straw vampire didn’t stand a chance against Warren, a recently transferred Guardian from a London cell. Another Guardian, Cole, fiddled with something in his hand.
An explosion rattled her eardrums, Body parts whistled through the air. She ducked in time to avoid being struck in the head by a flaming foot.
Near the guest house that was home to nine male Guardians, the burning remains of a mannequin smoldered.