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As he stood on the corner of St. Ann and Decatur, waiting for the light to change so that he could cross the street, he saw three musicians playing in front of the café.
“Hey, Nick,” the trombone player called to him as he made it across and neared the entrance.
Nick smiled at the older African-American man who’d been playing jazz and zydeco on the street as far back as he could remember. At night, he played in several of the clubs around town too. “Hey, Lucas. How you doing?”
“Just fine. Hope your mama’s well.”
“You know I take good care of her. How’s your daughter doing? She settling into school okay?” Lucas’s wife had died of cancer four years ago, leaving him alone to raise Kesha, who’d graduated last spring. Now she was up at LSU taking classes, wanting to be a cancer researcher one day.
“She loves it so much, I’m having a hard time getting her to come home to visit. Can you believe it? Never thought she’d leave. Now I doubt I’ll get her back.”
Nick laughed. “I’m sure she’ll be home soon. How could she not?”
Thomas, the drummer, tapped his drumsticks together to let them know it was time for another song. Lifting his trombone, Lucas inclined his head to Nick before he joined in with them to play “Iko Iko.”
Nick cringed. While he loved the song, it was one of those that never failed to give him a vicious earworm. He’d be hearing it in his head for at least the next three days.
Hey, now. Hey, now … Iko Iko unday … See! It was already starting.
Oh man, someone shoot me.
As he looked around for an empty table, his gaze was caught by something pink and creamy. When he focused on the girl’s face, his stomach plummeted south. With soft brown hair and great big eyes, it was the most beautiful girl in the world.
And when she recognized him, the prettiest smile he’d ever seen lit her entire face and did things to him he barely understood. His body was hot and cold all at once. His throat turned dry, and a part of him wanted to turn around and run for cover.
Yeah, that would be the smart thing to do.
When have you ever been smart?
Before he knew what he was doing, his feet took him to her table.
“Hi,” she said, flashing him an adorable dimple.
How could one syllable sound like a heavenly choir? Yet that was the sweetest sound he’d ever heard. It even sent a shiver down his spine. “Hey.”
Say something else. Quick.
Why was his mind completely blank? It wasn’t like he’d never spoken to her before. Heck, she’d even kissed him last night.
Yeah, and he could still taste her lips.
That was the problem, he realized. It was so awkward to see her after they’d kissed. Had he screwed it up? Had it been okay for her?
Ah gah, I’m pathetic. I don’t even know how to talk to a girl.
At this rate, he’d never get a girlfriend.
She glanced around nervously. “You want to sit down?” She stretched the words out like maybe she was as uncomfortable as he was.
Oh no. Don’t tell me she’s going to give me the let’s be friends speech. He hated that SOB.
“Uh, yeah.” His hands shaking, he pulled the vinyl chair back and took a seat. “Sorry I’m a space cadet today. My mom got me up way too early this morning, and I’m not fully awake after last night. Then Bubba had me helping clean his store. I could really go for a nap.” You’re yammering too much, and don’t talk about beds or she might think you’re inviting her to something that might offend her, or get you slapped. “How are you feeling?” Yeah, that was a safe topic.
For both of them.
“Glad to be alive.”
The waitress came up to take their order. Nick started to tell her to bring him water when he remembered that for once he actually had cash from Kyrian and Mr. Poitiers. Thank God. He could even cover Kody’s tab. “Two orders of beignets and a chocolate milk for me.” He looked at Nekoda. “What would you like to drink?”
“The milk sounds good. I’ll have that, too.”
The waitress headed off.
“Have you heard anything about what happened at school?” he asked her. School was usually another safe topic.
“Not yet. What about you?”
“Nothing, other than we have a new coach.”
She looked as shocked as he’d been. “Really?”
“Yeah, scary, right? I think they replaced the coach before they finished mopping the blood up in the hallway.” Nick cringed as soon as he heard those words come out of his mouth. Don’t talk about blood with a girl. Are you stupid?
Luckily, she changed the subject for him. “How’s your arm feeling?”
“Better. No pain at all today.”
Then it was awkward again. But the one thing he was grateful for was the fact that she was still a girl. Plain and simple. Not a shape-shifter, vampire slayer, or a demon. Just another human being having a bite with him. It was good to be around normal again.
“So do you like New Orleans?” he asked her. “Is it different from where you lived before?”
“Very different. But I like it. Except for the heat. I can’t believe it’s still this warm so late in October.”
“Yeah, well, there’s an old saying here. If you don’t like the weather, wait a minute. We can swing from hot to cold faster than a turbo wash with a tankless system.”
Nekoda felt her guard slipping as she laughed at his humor. It’s his demon glamour. Don’t fall for it. But it was hard. Nick Gautier was charming and sweet. Adorable.
Gorgeous with eyes so blue, it should be a sin and thick brown hair that begged to be touched. At fourteen, the promise of the man he’d grow into was already there. The chiseled features and sharp intelligence. And even though he was lean, his muscle tone was perfect and showed that in time, his body would be well defined.
The best part was, he had no idea just how handsome he was.
Timid and unsure, yet he could tap some of the most destructive forces ever unleashed. Once he was grown, he would have the potential to become evil in its purest, coldest form. She must never lose sight of that.
Still, his smile was infectious. His kindness touching.
When she went to pay for her food, he stopped her and took care of the bill. He wouldn’t even let her tip the waitress.
Then, he excused himself and took his change so that he could drop it in the trombone case for the street musicians. He didn’t keep a single cent of it.
She arched a brow at that as he rejoined her and took a seat. “I thought you were really poor.”
He blushed profusely. “I am, but I’ve got a new job that pays well, and I believe in sharing my good fortune whenever I have some. Lucas helps his daughter at school, so … I figured he needs it more than I do.”
“That’s really sweet of you.”
“I have moments of that, but don’t tell anyone. Let that be our secret.”
She smiled at his sincerity. He was so different from the Malachai she’d once battled. How could this generous boy have come from the most evil of all powers? It was inconceivable, and yet there he sat.…
Caring. Joking. Precious.
But for the fact she knew better, she’d swear they had identified the wrong person. And yet, somehow this boy in front of her would grow into a demon who would one day end the world.
A demon she’d have to kill.
If she had any brains, she’d do it right now, before those powers grew stronger. But she had protocols to follow. There was still a chance that he could be saved.
A bargain made …
She had to honor that bargain, even though it went against every part of her being. Like him, she’d been born a soldier. Her sole duty to protect the natural order and to put down any and all enemies.
Including charming teenage boys.
The wealth of a soul is measured by how much it can feel … its poverty by how little.
Right now, in this time and place, Nick’s soul was rich and pure. If they could keep it this way, he wouldn’t be lost. A tool they could use and a power they could harness …
That was the landscape they were painting, and failure wasn’t an option.
Nick had the sudden feeling that Kody was dissecting him like some mutant lab experiment. “Did I sprout a new head?”
She blinked. “What?”
“You look like you’re trying to figure me out. I probably shouldn’t say anything, but it’s making me really uncomfortable.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean anything by it. I was just … Never mind. Some things a woman has to keep to herself.”
“Hey, good quality people! What are you doing out and about in the daylight?”
Nick grinned at the high-pitched, singsongy voice that belonged to Simi. Another newbie he’d met last night. She’d shown up to help them all out, and boy had she ever. “Hi, Simi. Want to join us?”
Her hair was jet black with red streaks running through it. Today she had it pulled up in pigtails that were held with spiked bands that matched the spiked collar around her neck. A good six feet tall, she also wore stacked boots that added another four to five inches to her height. Her short skirt was a purple plaid that matched her purple fishnet top and black tank.
She plopped down in the chair next to Kody and opened her coffin-shaped purse. Nick exchanged a frown with Kody as Simi pulled out a lobster bib and tied it around her neck. Next came a small bottle of hot sauce.
Their waitress came up with a big smile on her face. “Hi, Simi. Your usual?”
“Absolutely, Tracy. Keep ’em coming till the Simi pops.”
The waitress laughed. “Girl, I don’t know where you put it. I swear you have hollow legs.”
“Ooo, the Simi wishes. Then she could eat even more. Yum!”
Laughing, the waitress headed back to kitchen.
“How often you eat here?” Nick asked.
Simi pulled out several napkins from the silver dispenser and put them in her lap. “Whenever we’re in town and Akri lets me.”
Akri. She kept mentioning that name last night, too, but Nick had no idea who it was, even though Simi acted like he should. “Who’s Akri?”
She huffed in irritation. “The Simi’s daddy. Silly partial human, don’t you know nothing?”
Nick opened his mouth to respond, but the moment he did, he saw …
He wasn’t sure. It was rapid-fire images. Him and Simi. Only it wasn’t him. It was … Another time and place.
No, it was here. No … he saw her as a demon with wings and horns. His head spun as he tried to sort through the kaleidoscope that left him feeling sick to his stomach.
“Nick?” Kody asked in a concerned tone. “Are you all right?”
Simi answered for him. “He’s fine. Just freaking out ’cause the Simi’s a demon and he didn’t know until now. He’ll be all right in a few.” She held his glass of milk out to him. “This’ll help.”
Nick blinked as he tried to calm down. “Am I dreaming?”
Kody hadn’t reacted to Simi’s news at all. In fact, she acted as if she hadn’t heard it. Maybe she hadn’t. Maybe Simi was like Grim, and he and Tracy were the only ones who could see and hear her.
Still, the images tore through his head, making it hard to focus on anything. He could barely catch his breath.
I have to get away from here.
His head pounding, he looked at Kody. “I need to … I got to leave. I’ll catch you later, okay?”
“You sure you don’t need me to help you?” Kody asked.
“No. I mean yeah, I’m sure.” He got up and stumbled away from them. He didn’t know where to go, so he headed toward the only safe place he could think of.
* * *
Kody arched a brow as she watched Nick hurry away from them. “Was that you or me who spooked him?”
“Pretty sure it was me.” Simi grinned. “The Simi has that effect or is it affect on people? Affect. Effect. What is this difference between those two words and really, does it matter? Some people get so testy when you misuse a word. But I likes doing it. Language should be fun and so long as people know what you mean, what difference does it make? Really. Really. Really.”
Kody shook her head at the Charonte. Simi belonged to an ancient race of demons who’d been created to protect the Atlantean gods. Now, she was assigned watch duty to only one of them.
While she knew of the ancient god, she’d never met him. For many reasons. One being the fact that Acheron didn’t want anyone to know about his godhood. It was a well-kept secret, and she could respect that. The only reason she knew of his identity was that they had a mutual friend. One who, like Nick, could see the truth no matter how hard someone or something tried to hide it. The waitress returned with ten plates of beignets and a large milk for Simi.