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But the four-poster bed looked like it could easily hold a family of ten in it. The neatest part to him was that the blue and gold comforter matched the wallpaper. Even the gold-foil-looking stuff, which was really cool on the walls. He’d seen that on TV shows … and horror movies.
His mom turned to him. “How’s your arm doing? You need any more medicine?”
Nick had to force himself not to react to her question. He’d already forgotten about that again. Crap. He better remember; otherwise, everyone would want to know how he healed it so fast.
“Good. Now hit the sheets.”
Nick went to the other side and slid in. The moment he was settled, she pulled him against her and started playing in his short brown hair. He cringed and squirmed, trying to escape her. Unfortunately, she was like quicksand. Once you were dumb enough to get into its reach, it was over. “Ma! What are you doing?”
“Can’t I hold you?”
He screwed his face up in distaste at the mere thought of it. “I don’t know why you worry about Mr. Hunter when you’re the one who’s always sexually harassing me, Mom. Gah, can’t I even go to sleep without you groping me?”
She popped him on the butt. Not hard enough to hurt. Just enough to get his attention. “Stop saying that. Showing my baby affection with a hug is not sexual harassment. You know, there are a lot of moms out there who have no sense of maternal instinct at all.” Those who threw their kids out of the house and into the gutter because of a single mistake, like keeping a baby they didn’t want her to. His mom didn’t say it, but he knew when she ranted on this topic that it was a tirade against her own parents, who’d abandoned her when she was his age. “Be glad you have a mother who loves you.”
He was glad of that. A lot, since she was basically the only person on earth who did. But now that he was a full head taller than her, it was weird when she tried to cuddle him like he was a baby. He could be almost seven feet tall like Acheron, and she’d probably still try to pull him into her lap. “Sorry, Mom. I’m just really tired.”
“I know, precious.” She leaned over, brushed his hair back from his face, and kissed his cheek. “Good night. Sleep tight.”
Without another word, she turned over. Then scooted so that she was touching him with her icy cold feet. He would protest that, too, but it might hurt her feelings again.
I can’t wait until I’m grown and have my own place.…
I know you hate it now, Nick, but savor it. I promise you, you’ll spend many more years of your life wishing you could see her again than you’ll spend wishing she’d leave you alone.
Nick frowned at the intrusiveness of Ambrose in his head. How is it I hear you?
One day, I’ll teach that power to you. You’ll be able to project your thoughts to anyone, just like I can.
Will I be able to read other people’s thoughts like you do, too?
Yes, you will.
That was cool. He could definitely get used to knowing what other people were thinking. It sure would make asking a girl out a lot easier if he knew going into it that she thought he was a total loser dork.
When can I learn it?
Ambrose laughed in his head. Patience, boy. You still haven’t learned everything about controlling the dead that you should have. Or what you need to. Your buddy caused us to accelerate learning that power. And even though you survived, you really didn’t learn much other than how to run from things out to kill you. Before something gets a lucky shot in, I think we should take things a little slower. Learn to crawl, and then I’ll teach you to fly. Literally.
Nick’s eyes widened at that last bit. I’ll be able to fly? Really?
Kid, you have no idea what powers lie within you. What powers I’m going to teach you. But be warned, you are going to have many enemies come at you. Parthenopaeus being one of them.
Nick frowned again. Ash?
Yeah. He’s not what he seems, and if you have any brains in your head—and I know you do—you’ll cut him a wide berth …
Before it’s too late.
But he really liked Acheron. Surely someone who was so cool to be with and respectful to his mother couldn’t be so bad. Everyone had problems. Because he and his mother had been rudely misjudged by so many, Nick hated doing that to others. He believed in liking, not necessarily trusting, everyone until they personally gave him a reason not to.
Like shooting me when I decide that I don’t want to live a life of crime.
He heard the sound of exasperation from his uncle. Go to sleep, kid. Tomorrow will begin a new life that you can’t imagine.
With people trying to kill me?
Yes. And that includes your mother.
Nick came awake to the sensation of his mother strangling him. Dressed in the black T-shirt she’d slept in and jeans, she was on her knees beside him, wringing his neck. “Ma! What are you doing?”
She tightened her grip. “I’m killing you. Do you understand? Dead. Dead. Dead.”
He coughed, trying to twist away from her. “What did I do?”
Growling, she released him and moved back, then popped him on the butt. “Because of the stunt you and those moron friends of yours pulled last night, I’m fired. I hope you’re happy. I can barely afford to feed and shelter us now. What am I supposed to do without a job at all? I didn’t graduate high school, and I have no experience except as a dancer.”
She looked like she was about to cry. “You have no idea how awful some of the other clubs treat their people. I know you hated my job, but it was the only thing I could find that paid above minimum wage for someone with no skills or real job experience. I can’t even work a cash register, never mind run a computer or do anything else. Peter won’t listen to an apology. He said that he doesn’t care what happened or how it happened. I’m fired and not to even come back for my check—he’ll mail it to me ’cause he never wants to see me again. Oh, God—what am I going to do?”
“Mrs. Gautier, I hear there are places online where you can sell children for a good price. Nick is still young enough, he should fetch enough to tide you over for a bit.”
Nick gaped at Rosa’s voice from the other side of the door as she walked past their room. Normally, he loved the sound of her thick accent, but right now … “Thanks, Rosa. ’Preciate it.”
“De nada, m’ijo.”
Nick scooted across the bed, trying to get away from his mom before she started choking him again. “Kyrian said he knew some people who could hire you.”
She stared at him as if she really could kill him. “That doesn’t get you off the hook, mister. Are you and Bubba going to waltz in and tranq me again and cause me to lose another job? You know most employers tend to frown on their sons bringing in a brute to carry them out over their shoulders when they’re supposed to be working.”
“But it was for your own good.”
“So’s the spanking I’m about to give you.”
Nick leapt back onto the bed, rolled across it, then ran for the door and into the hallway, where he hoped it would be safer. “I’m too big to spank.”
“Fine, you’re grounded until your grandkids are old.”
“Kind of hard to do. How am I supposed to have grandkids if I’m grounded?”
“Precisely my point, you demon spawn. You’re never going to get off restriction. Ever!”
The door at the end of the hall opened to show an irritated Kyrian. Dressed in a pair of black pajama bottoms and no shirt, he glowered at them. His hair was tousled and he had a good shadow on his face. More than that, he had a build Nick would kill for. Dang, no one at school would ever pick on him again if he was ripped like that.
Kyrian pinned them both with an angry scowl. “People, I really need to sleep. Can you go downstairs to shout at each other? Or better yet, outside in the yard?”
His mother immediately calmed down. “I’m sorry, Mr. Hunter. We didn’t mean to disturb you.”
Kyrian raked his hand through his blond hair, which made it stand straight up. Nick would laugh or mock it, but Kyrian wasn’t as attached to him as his mom was. His boss might actually kill him. “No problem. Now, if it’ll help stop this fighting and save Nick’s life before he can pay me back, put a call in to Sanctuary on Ursuline. Ask for Nicolette Peltier. She’s the owner and I’ve already spoken to her about you. She said to call her anytime and they’d be more than happy to add you to payroll.”
He held his hand up in an imperious gesture that actually silenced Nick’s mom. Wow, to have those evil Jedi tricks. Had Nick done it, his mom really would have spanked him. Hard.
“No buts. Give her a call. I assure you, you’ll love working for them.” And with that, he vanished back into his pitch-black room and shut the door.
Nick let out a relieved breath. He might survive the morning yet.
“Oh, don’t even.” His mom turned her nasty gorgon face back at him. “You’re still not off the hook. Get your butt dressed. You have five minutes.”
“Don’t back-talk me or argue. Not if you want to live to see noon. Get in there and shower. Now!”
Fetch. Heel. Bark, Fido, bark. He really hated when she talked to him like he was nothing but a dog with no other purpose than to obey her every whim. “You know, I don’t ride the short bus, Ma. I can understand you.”
“Apparently you can’t, because you now have only four minutes and thirty seconds before they start playing your dirge.”
With a juvenile desire to stick his tongue out at her, he walked back into the room and into the adjacent bathroom so that he could obey and not stay grounded any longer than was necessary.
Though at this rate, it seemed like she was looking for reasons to ground him.
Empty-nest syndrome. She was afraid of him leaving home, so she clung to him all the tighter. Okay, that’s probably not what it was called, but that’s what he was calling it.
Sighing, he stripped his clothes off and started the shower.
Of course, it took him longer than five minutes to finish and dress. And when he opened the door that led back to the bedroom, he found his mother on the bed, staring furiously at him.
“What? I hurried.”
“Sure you did.” She slid off the bed. “You didn’t even shave.”
“You told me to hurry, so I didn’t bother looking for a razor. Besides, I have only three hairs. Not like anyone can see them except you.” He kept hoping they’d grow longer and multiply, but so far …
They were just enough to be emasculating and aggravating. Something else for his mom to nag at him to do.
She made an annoyed sound that always reminded him of a tea kettle letting out steam. “C’mon. We have to catch a streetcar.”
“Where are we going?”
“You heard Mr. Hunter. We need to go to Sanctuary.”
“He said to call.”
She rolled her eyes—something that would also have got him grounded if he’d done it to her. “You don’t apply for a job that way, Nick.”
He didn’t want to go across town for no reason. Why did he have to watch her apply for a job, anyway? He’d rather have his eyes gouged out than sit there bored and watching the fluorescent lights flicker. “Can’t I stay here?”
“No. We don’t take charity, and you know that. Mr. Hunter was nice enough to put us up for the night, but you should never overstay your welcome.”
“Nick, do what I say.”
Grinding his teeth, he headed for the stairs. He might as well take the but out of his vocabulary, since all it seemed to do was act like a nuclear accelerant that caused her temper to explode.
No sooner had he reached the bottom than he smelled something delicious.… Something that smelled like real, juicy, delectable, make-your-mouth-water-and-arteries-harden bacon. Not those bacon bits packets his mom saved from condiment stands and added to his powdered eggs in the morning.
Without conscious thought, he beelined for the kitchen.
His mother grabbed his arm. “Where are you going?”
“Food. I’m following my nose.” And his rumbling stomach.
“No,” she whispered to him. “What part of ‘no charity’ have you missed?”
The part that said he couldn’t eat.
But he knew better than to argue, especially when she had that look on her face. “Fine.” He headed for the door.
Rosa came around the corner of the wall and frowned at them. “Nick? Mrs. Gautier? Do you not wish to eat before you leave?”