I thought I’d tease you all with the first three chapters of Destined for Eternity before it releases Sunday. Hope you enjoy!
When one runs a business, they’re always happy for more customers, but the reception area of Cori’s tattoo shop was packed almost beyond capacity. People sat in every available chair and even more milled around the place. Several young women stood together at the wall next to the large front windows, checking out the designs displayed there. For the last few weeks, the shop couldn’t keep up with all the folks coming in to get tattoos. Cori had finally had to put in a television set so her customers had something to do while waiting their turn.
She stood behind the counter and rubbed her aching back. “I can’t believe how busy we’ve gotten lately.”
“It’s a good thing you hired me when you did,” Ginny said, standing next to her as she cashed out the latest client. “I’ve never done so many tattoos in such a short time.”
“It wasn’t always this way.”
Business had started picking up at the start of the New Year. It was more than welcome after a major lull before that. But by the end of January, Cori realized she and her only other employee, Asher, could not handle the workload by themselves anymore. Not to mention she was due to have a baby at the end of May and needed someone to cover for her while she took time off.
She’d interviewed several humans first, but none of them fit in well. Her criteria had been strict. They had to bring something new with their work that would attract a different set of clients, yet they couldn’t stand out in a way that would draw the wrong kind of attention, and they had to be tough enough to hold their own for those times when trouble brewed. In Fairbanks, Alaska—a haven for supernaturals—peace rarely lasted long, especially since the world had found out humans weren’t at the top of the food chain. There were beings far more powerful and dangerous out there.
After two weeks of interviews with no luck finding a new employee, Ginny had strutted her way through the shop door, arms covered in vine and flower tattoos. Her body was petite with curves that would turn any man’s head, and she had shoulder-length purple hair (her natural color) with light purple freckles on her fair cheeks. She definitely wasn’t human, which didn’t fit Cori’s rigid criteria. The pixie, a breed of fae, stood no more than 4’10” high and looked like a stiff breeze could knock her over. There was no way anyone would take her seriously or want her to work on them with her otherworldly appearance.
Then she produced her portfolio, which had some of the most amazing work Cori had ever seen. It was vivid and mesmerizing. Ginny had just relocated from Tulsa, Oklahoma where things were getting uncomfortable for supernaturals. She had twin daughters—Aislin and Dinara. They were five years old with the same purple hair and had become targets for those who didn’t care if children were young and innocent, only that they clearly weren’t “normal.” In Fairbanks, they would be more readily accepted because of the higher concentration of sups. The schools in the area comprised about ten percent of children from werewolf and fae families.
Hearing the pixie’s story weakened Cori’s resolve, especially since her daughters came along with their mother for the interview, adorable in their purple pigtails and polka dot dresses. Their mom needed to work to support them.
But what finally made the decision during the interview was when a heavyset, drunken man came into the shop. He’d demanded a tattoo right then, but they had a policy against working on intoxicated customers. Alcohol tended to make them bleed more and some regretted having the work done later, so Cori didn’t allow it. He became furious when she refused him service, nearly smashing the reception counter.
Ginny couldn’t have weighed more than a hundred pounds, but she picked that man up over her shoulder like he was nothing, flung the front door wide open, and threw him out onto the sidewalk. When he tried coming back into the shop, she punched him so hard he flew six feet into the air, not waking up until she tossed him into the dumpster behind the shopping center. Everyone had watched in wide-eyed shock.
She strutted back toward them and responded, “I might have an eighth of troll blood in my DNA.”
Trolls were ugly, vile creatures with gnarled features that stood even shorter than pixies. Most people couldn’t stand them because, in addition to their unpleasant looks, they weren’t all that nice, and they weren’t very particular about their food sources. Almost anything—or anyone—was on the menu. They were gross and difficult to tolerate.
“You don’t look like you’re part troll,” Cori said after she got over her shock.
Ginny pulled her mussed hair back into a loose French braid. “Luckily, all I inherited was their strength.”
That was good to know.
The interview had continued, and they’d left the angry man to find his own way out of the dumpster. He’d tried pressing charges later, but the incident was caught on surveillance cameras, so the police didn’t give them any trouble. Cori normally could have handled the guy, but she had to be careful now that she had a baby in her belly. She appreciated the idea of having a woman on her staff who could hold her own—human or not—and hired Ginny on the spot.
They’d gotten along well over the past two months since then and the shop had been expanded, using available space that had opened up next door. With a little help from supernatural friends to speed up the remodeling, they were able to add two more booths for artists to work, a separate customer bathroom apart from the small one in the back, and widen the reception area. Ginny helped through the whole process, as well as taking care of clients. Except for the rare person who had an issue with supernaturals, all their customers loved her fun nature.
A soft thump inside Cori’s stomach drew her attention. She rubbed her belly, marveling at how fast it was expanding since she’d become pregnant four and a half months ago. This wasn’t like her first pregnancy when she’d only been twenty years old—with a daughter she’d lost later in a tragic accident with her ex-husband. This time she was thirty-one, and her child was only partly human. Everything felt totally different.
Cori appeared closer to seven months, but that was because the gestation period moved faster for supernatural children, particularly ones with angel blood in them. This little boy or girl—she and Bartol had chosen not to find out the gender until their child was born—would arrive sometime at the end of May. That was a little over six weeks away. Cori was nervous, but she had a vampire doctor who was giving her the best care possible. Having said that, the last baby born with nephilim blood was over fifty years ago. They didn’t have a lot of precedents to draw upon, and she doubted every pregnancy of this nature went exactly the same.
The shop door suddenly flew open with such force it was a miracle it didn’t shatter. Everyone froze at the sight of the short woman with bright orange hair who entered. She hadn’t bothered to use any glamour to cover up her gnarled features or razor-sharp teeth. One of the customers screamed, and others started backing away slowly as if they faced someone armed with a machine gun. Trolls didn’t need weapons to look dangerous or intimidating. Give them a fork, and they’d be as vicious as any serial killer.
“Dammit, Bambi,” Cori said, moving around the counter to come closer to her visitor. “You’re scaring people.”
The troll let out a huff and gestured toward the television. “Don’t ya be lecturin’ me, young lady. Now turn on the news!”
“Just do it afore I get mad!”
Ginny already had the remote in her hands, changing the channel. As she turned the volume up, gasps rose up around the room. Cori swung her gaze toward the far corner where the television hung. Her eyes widened at the scene on the screen. What they were seeing was like something out of a movie.
“We be doomed,” the troll said ominously. She was such a drama queen with a knack for ruining the English language.
But no one was paying attention to her anymore. On the screen, three figures in dark capes walked along the sidewalk in downtown Chicago with dark smoke surrounding them. Everyone who they came near froze in place. They reached the front of a large building with lion statues—according to the newscaster it was the Art Institute of Chicago—and the doors swung open of their own accord. The first footage came from a cell phone recording that had to be someone across the street based on the angle. The news station switched to a surveillance recording inside the institute next as the figures entered the lobby.
People screamed and began running, but the thick, dark smoke caught them one by one. They fell and disappeared underneath its cloying weight. Before long, everything was covered in the sinister gloom, blackening out the cameras. Ninety seconds elapsed before audio and visual returned. People rose from the floor, groggy and confused. The figures in capes had disappeared, as well as priceless works of art. A list of some of the missing paintings and statues followed, but Cori didn’t recognize many of them.
“Those were demons,” Ginny said.
Cori pulled her eyes from the television. “But I thought they were all sent back to Hell months ago.”
Her mate, Bartol, had been among those who’d battled to stop the invasion. There’d been a standoff in London back in December where many people had died, but they’d vanquished the demons. She’d thought they were safe from dealing with them now.
Ginny shook her head. “That’s what they wanted us to think, but there have been two other major robberies like this in the last week. Each in a different country, so I don’t think anyone has put it together yet.”
“How do you know then?” Cori asked.
She shrugged. “I’ve got cousins in Europe where it happened.”
“The girl be right,” Bambi agreed. “The demons ain’t all gone, and they surely be plannin’ somethin’ worse than ever!”
Bartol was immortal and powerful. Yet most of the time these days, he didn’t feel any stronger than a child. Even with magical abilities that humans would envy and more than eighteen hundred years of living, none of it made a difference after what he’d been through in the last century. One thing a man learns after he’s been tortured and half his face burned into a horrendous scar is that no one is immune to pain or trauma.
He was well aware that everyone wanted him to get over his past and move forward, but they had no idea of the difficulties he faced even trying to socialize with a small group of people. Never mind figuring out how to be a mate to a woman who needed more of him than he could give. He was honestly trying, and he’d gotten somewhat better in recent months, but the psychological damage done to him, including having all his intimate memories altered into nightmares, made it difficult to be “normal.” Every day was a battle to resist the urge to hide in his cabin and shut everyone out the way he’d done in those early months after returning to Earth and freedom.
The afternoon was sunny and clear when Bartol flashed—a method of travel somewhat like teleportation—to the nerou training compound. He hated going to the place, but at least he could appreciate the weather outside. Spring had arrived in Alaska, and the cold that had chilled his bones to the marrow during the winter had finally begun to recede. It was finally above freezing, though still cool compared to southern parts of the United States. As an immortal, temperatures shouldn’t have bothered him very much, but after a century in the icy bowels of Purgatory, he felt it more keenly than most. His time there had changed him in far too many ways.
Bartol walked across the open yard, searching for signs of activity. The compound, consisting of dormitories, classrooms, a gymnasium, and a dining facility was surprisingly quiet. This was a place for the nerou—beings with angel, human, and sensor blood in them—to train. About fifty of them resided there, but their nephilim instructors often broke them down into smaller groups for various training exercises. Usually, at least a handful of students milled about outside, especially on a nice day such as this. Bartol had never seen the place so empty and found it a little unnerving.
He’d arrived to check on a particular nerou—Tormod—the only one of the group with a quarter demon blood in his ancestry. The young man was fortunate the angels let him live, considering his tainted heritage, but since he was a small child when they’d taken him from his parents, they’d let him live so that he could have a chance to prove himself.
Tormod’s father had a dark history with the angels. As a daimoun—half angel and half demon—Yerik was particularly dangerous, making him a threat that Heaven’s minions couldn’t tolerate. They’d sent one of their warriors to execute him some centuries ago, but that battle didn’t go in their favor. The archangel lost the fight and died. The daimoun lived, having to go into hiding from Heaven’s henchmen for centuries until coming back out recently to help free his son and the other nerou from Purgatory where they’d been held their whole lives. With no easy way to dispatch him, Yerik had received a different sort of punishment for killing the archangel and spent a year on a harsh, distant planet. Of course, they didn’t care that he’d simply been defending himself, but while he was powerful and more on the wild side than most, he was hardly among the worst of supernaturals. But he walked a fine line before Heaven decided to throw legions at him to get rid of him.
That was the sort of background Tormod came from, and he had to constantly prove he was an asset and could do good things in the world. Unfortunately, he’d been showing his darker colors recently after a run-in with a powerful demon—one who’d captured his mind and controlled him for days, making him do terrible things. He’d been slowly recovering from the ordeal, but he was no longer the enthusiastic man who enjoyed a bit of mischief. If he didn’t improve quickly enough, or if he committed an unforgivable act that got others hurt, it could put him on the chopping block. The angels wanted an excuse to get rid of a hybrid like him.
Bartol had started guiding him exclusively since last fall to give him the individual attention he needed. It helped Tormod to have that kind of one-on-one mentoring from a nephilim, and he’d been showing great potential to become one of the best enforcers for supernaturals once he graduated training. But after the demon had warped the young man’s mind, they’d had to keep him closeted away for nearly a month before he showed signs of awareness and recognition. Then the next couple of months after that they’d had to bring him out little by little in doses he could handle. Understanding psychological damage himself, Bartol had known what would help, but it was a rather slow process. Both the instructor and student had a long way to go before they’d be considered anything close to “recovered.”
One by one, he searched the buildings in the compound for Tormod or anyone else. He eventually found Eli, a dark-skinned nephilim who many claimed appeared similar to Denzel Washington, sitting at his desk. Among the youngest of the nephilim at four hundred and twenty years old, he tended to be more in touch with the modern world than the rest of them. He was one of the trainers with a specialty in psychiatry he used to aid the students in their mental health. Bartol avoided him as much as possible since the man had a fondness for going after anyone he thought needed “fixing.”
“How are you?” Eli asked, looking up from his desk. He had piles of file folders and notes before him. The whole office was an eclectic mess. No doubt he studied each and every individual, cataloging their behaviors for his own curiosity.
“Fine,” Bartol answered curtly. “Where are the others?”
The nephilim gave him one of his uncomfortable penetrating gazes. “They’re out training a mile from here.”
Eli cleared his throat and shuffled some papers. “I’ve been meaning to ask how your relationship with Cori is going now that you’re expecting a child together.” He lifted his brows. “Have you overcome your…reticence to intimacy?”
Bartol stiffened. This was exactly the subject he’d hoped to avoid with this man because it no doubt fascinated him. As a nephilim who was once known as the greatest immortal lover but who could no longer stand to be in close proximity to anyone, he was no doubt a good case study. Oh, certainly, Cori had broken down Bartol’s barriers enough for him to impregnate her, but her touch was still difficult to bear. He had to control every aspect of their intimate relations while she held herself back and kept her hands to herself. It was difficult for her, but she willingly did it for him. She understood that part of his torture in Purgatory ruined him from ever making love again—at least in the sense of there being give and take between the two partners. He was tainted forevermore and still didn’t understand what she saw in him.
“That’s none of your business,” he growled.
Eli pursed his lips. “I could help you. When Lucas needed assistance from his past traumas, I was able to make a difference so that he could move on from them.”
“He didn’t have a choice. The archangels made Lucas do it if he wanted to protect his mate.” Bartol was prepared for this argument, having played it out in his head in case this meeting ever happened.
Lucas was a fellow nephilim who’d had some father issues during his upbringing that caused him to abhor humans and sensors with a passion. He’d been imprisoned in Purgatory numerous times for killing many among both races. Only once he found a mate, ironically a sensor, did he finally have to face his problems and learn to control his anger. For Melena, he’d do anything and had proven it time and again.
“Perhaps that’s true.” Eli shrugged. “But I did help him, and if you’re going to be a father, you’re going to need help as well.”
“I’m doing just fine on my own.” Bartol started to turn away, determined to find the nerou one way or another. “You can stay out of it.”
“What are you going to do when the baby is born? Will you hold the child? Could you?”
He froze in the doorway. Eli had just targeted his greatest worry, and he often saw the concern on Cori’s face when he chose to sleep next to her—a few feet apart on the bed. Would he be able to hold his own son or daughter? A lump formed in his throat as he honestly didn’t know if he could. Even to touch his mate’s swelling stomach once in a while took all he had not to jerk away.
“I don’t know,” he admitted, hanging his head.
A hint of sympathy entered Eli’s voice. “I could help you work on it.”
Bartol hesitated. He might not want anything to do with the nephilim and his modern ways of thinking that involved talking and expressing his feelings, but didn’t his child deserve a father who would hold them? Could he be so selfish as to stay the way he was now?
“I’ll consider it.” That was the best he could do for now.
The other man nodded. “I hope you do—for the child. I’ll be here anytime you need me.”
Bartol’s feet itched to get out the door. “Where are the nerou?”
“A mile north of here in a clearing in the woods.”
Bartol grunted. “Thank you.”
He exited the building and flashed to the location, seeing it in his mind’s eye before arriving there. It was clear to him now that he knew where to “look.” All fifty students gathered in a circle around twin nephilim standing at the center. While the two men’s physical features were the same, they had their differences. One kept his blond hair short and usually dressed formally while the other let his hair grow to his shoulders and always wore jeans and t-shirts. Their bearings were different as well, matching their different personalities, but each had golden skin and eyes, muscular builds, and arrogant visages. The one with short hair was Lucas—who Eli had helped a couple of years back—and the other was his brother, Micah.
Working his way through the nerou, Bartol broke through the crowd and found a hunched figure kneeling on the ground with glowing red eyes. It was at Lucas’ feet with a silver chain connected between its neck and wrists. This was a demon from the middle ranks of Hell, based on the intensity of malevolence emanating off of him. How had they gotten him here?
“Today we are going to find out if it’s possible for you all to banish a demon with your abilities,” Lucas announced to the nerou.
Bartol frowned. He hadn’t heard anything about this idea, and normally they kept him apprised of the various training activities so he could work it around his schedule with Tormod.
Lucas answered his unspoken question, “Melena sensed him walking around downtown Fairbanks a few hours ago.”
“Here?” So close to home? That was arrogant, considering it was a supernatural haven with powerful individuals living in the area. Even Hell’s minions had to be aware of that and wary of running into them.
Lucas’ visage turned grim. “I’m afraid so.”
Bartol had heard a report from the archangel Remiel that they hadn’t banished or killed all the demons a few months ago in Europe as they’d hoped, but he hadn’t known any of the stragglers had made it into America yet, much less a remote area like Alaska. This did not bode well. He had a sudden need to flash to Fairbanks and protect his pregnant mate.
“I must go,” Bartol said, nodding at Tormod where he stood at the outer edges of the crowd. The young man would understand if he missed his lesson for the day. The woman Bartol loved could be in danger, and he needed to check on her.
“Stay.” This came from Micah. “Melena is already sweeping the city, and she’s sent Patrick to keep an eye on your mate.”
Patrick was another sensor, but he was mortal and lacked experience in fighting.
“I can look out for my mate myself,” Bartol said, clenching his fists.
Micah spoke in a calming tone, “You’re needed here. If the nerou can’t banish the demon, you’ll have to take care of him. We knew you’d be along shortly or we would have requested your presence sooner.”
Most nephilim couldn’t do much more than fight the denizens of Hell. Bartol was an exception to the rule because he’d inherited his archangel father’s abilities, who’d been made for the purpose of killing demons long ago when there was a war between Heaven and Hell—before a treaty came into place.
“Have your mate take care of it,” Bartol said. Melena was a sensor, and just a small amount of her blood administered to the demon could send him back to where he came from. That was one of her race’s gifts, and one they hoped might have passed to the nerou since they all had sensor blood.
“She is busy.”
Bartol was losing patience. “Get Emily, Patrick, or anyone else.”
He really didn’t care who.
“It would take them too long to get here.” Because sensors were immune to magic, they couldn’t be flashed to other destinations quickly. Their current location was almost an hour from Fairbanks.
“Your mate is safe,” Micah said, the more diplomatic of the twins despite appearing like a punk rocker. He did actually play in a band, so the look fit.
Bartol used his flashing vision to check on his mate and saw nothing amiss. She was staring at something—perhaps the television based on the angle—with a disturbed expression on her face, but she appeared healthy and whole. The scene faded, the magic power only able to hold a few seconds.
He took a deep breath, telling himself he couldn’t rush to his mate every time there was a hint of danger. She’d take offense, and he’d never hear the end of it. “This better not take long.”
Lucas nodded, then turned his gaze to a nerou at the front of the circle. He was a stout fellow with short, black hair and sky-blue eyes. Bartol had seen him a few times and not once had the man smiled. There was something very serious and disciplined about his personality.
“Ivan, you will be the one to do this.” Lucas held out a dagger. “Cut your palm and feed your blood to the demon.”
While the nerou wielded the blade, Micah took the demon by its shaggy hair and lifted it to its feet. The minion from Hell had possessed the body of a lean man in his mid-twenties. There was no fear in its red gaze, only fury and the promise of retribution. They’d gagged him so that he couldn’t do more than throw muffled curses, and the chains kept him from flailing too much.
Lucas waited until Ivan had filled his palm with blood before pulling the rag from the demon’s mouth. The creature spit and threw out such vile expletives that several nerou blushed. Bartol had quite a range of sexual experiences, but he was certain the ones described were not anatomically possible for a man, woman, or beast.
“Silence!” Lucas boxed him in the ear.
The demon wailed as his head swung to the side with such force it would have killed a human. Ivan used that opportunity to press his bloody palm into his target’s mouth. Everyone watched with bated breath. A moment later, the demon slumped. Micah kept his hold tight but allowed the body to sink to the ground. The creature’s eyes were still open with a hint of red.
“He’s still in there.” Ivan poked his dagger into the demon’s arm. “But it seems he can’t move.”
They’d had no way of knowing how the attempt would go, but it wasn’t quite what Bartol had expected. They waited a few minutes. First, the demon blinked, and then its fingers began to twitch. By the ten minute mark, his feet were kicking across the ground.
“Should I give him more blood?” Ivan asked.
“No,” Lucas replied. “I doubt it will make any difference. If you could kill or banish him, it would have worked already.”
Bartol felt the itch to kill the demon the longer he stood near it. That was part of his nature because of his abilities, though he’d gotten much better at handling it after his experience in London. “Have you questioned it yet?”
Lucas nodded. “It was the first thing we did, but like most of their kind, he didn’t have much of anything useful to say.”
Bartol slowly walked toward the demon while Lucas and Micah held it down by both arms. Bartol pressed his hand to the creature’s chest, searching for the essence inside. He could feel it churning there, dark and malevolent. The demon cursed at him and tried to jerk away. It was strong but not strong enough to get away.
Bartol pulled on the essence, letting it flow into him through his palm. His stomach turned at first, the evilness of it making him ill, but then he felt the intoxicating power as it filled him completely. If he kept that for himself, he’d become something different—something dangerous. It was possibly what happened with Tormod and what had changed him. Bartol had to resist the urge. Instead, he looked up at the blue sky and let the essence flow out of his body, disintegrating into inert particles in the air. A moment of regret hit him at letting it go, but he tamped down those feelings. He was meant to destroy demons, not take their powers for himself. The few times he’d held on for too long, he’d become insane and dangerous.
“It’s done,” he said, stepping back.
The demon presence was gone, and all that was left was a human carcass. Bartol couldn’t have saved the man who’d once been in there. He’d been possessed too long and his body too ill-used, so he’d probably died and his soul had moved on days or weeks ago. The only chance of saving humans from possession came in the first couple of days—if they were lucky.
Lucas and Micah lowered the body to the ground and instructed one of the nerou to wrap it in a tarp. They intended to return the corpse to his family as soon as possible.
“Is there anything else?” Bartol asked.
“No.” Lucas shook his head. “You may go.”
He found Cori cleaning up her booth. She must have just finished with a customer, as all her equipment was still laid out, and there were ink splatters on her work tray. For a moment, Bartol stood in the doorway watching his mate and marveling at her changing body. It seemed she grew larger with each passing day, but not in a terrible way. Her new curves only made her more beautiful to him.
At a distance, he could truly appreciate her form and how it was producing life—a life they’d created together. It was only when they were close that he began to fear her and the intimacy between them. How would he feel about their child? Would he be a good father to his daughter or son?
“You can stop staring and help, you know,” Cori said, turning to look at him.
She had her shoulder-length black hair pulled into a ponytail with just a few wisps free to frame her face. Her fair skin seemed paler than normal, and there were dark circles under her eyes, which worried him. She was working too hard and not resting enough.
“Tell me what to do,” he said.
She smiled, her hazel eyes lighting up. “Take this spray bottle and some napkins. You can wipe down the seat.”
He did as Cori asked while she went to work cleaning her tattoo machine. “How was your day?”
“I was going to ask you the same thing, considering you weren’t supposed to meet me here this soon.” She paused to rub her lower back. “Shouldn’t you be working with Tormod right now?”
Bartol ignored her question. “You work too much. Sit down and I will take care of this.”
“I own and run a business.” She gave him a pointed look. “I can never work too much, and I have to make sure this is done the right way.”
“If I had my way, you’d be confined to your house.”
Cori rolled her eyes. “Good luck with that.”
“But the baby…”
“Is fine,” she interrupted. “Paula says the pregnancy is progressing as expected.”
“You haven’t seen her since last week. That could always change.”
Bartol hadn’t lived for nearly two millennia without noticing a thing or two about women. In the later stages of pregnancy, they tired more quickly and had to rest. Cori was carrying a child with angel blood in its veins that would tax her body even harder than a mortal one, especially with the shorter gestation period.
Cori set her freshly sanitized tattoo instruments aside on the counter. “I have another doctor appointment in a few days. You can come with me and see for yourself that the baby is doing alright.”
He’d gone with her once before when he first found out she was pregnant. The vampire doctor, Paula, had done what she called an ultrasound so he could see the baby. Bartol had marveled at the moving child on the screen at first, but then he thought of how it would grow and evolve. One day, it would leave the safety of its mother’s womb, and he’d have to protect it. A thousand other thoughts had raced through his head about the huge responsibility that would come with a child. The next thing he knew, he’d panicked and flashed halfway across the state. Hours passed before he’d had the courage to return and seek out Cori. She had been angry with him at first, but then she’d become sweet and understanding. The woman was doing her best to be patient with him.
He couldn’t even explain his reaction logically since he was happy with the idea of becoming a father. For nephilim, most accepted that it would never happen since they were cursed not to have children. It was only with a sensor that they could procreate because that race was immune to curses. Cori technically wasn’t a full sensor, but she’d had enough of Melena’s blood that it apparently allowed her to get pregnant by him.
“I’m not sure if that’s a good idea,” he said, shuddering at the panic he’d endured last time.
She turned her head, attempting to hide the disappointment he caught lurking in her gaze. “Of course. Only if you’re comfortable with going.”
He desperately needed to change the subject. “How are you doing with the new tattoo design for vampires?”
“The last test didn’t go so well,” she said in a weary voice, heading for the sink to wash her hands. “The vampire burned up.”
“You experimented on someone who would have been executed anyway, correct?” he asked. Cori had developed a special ability since ingesting Melena’s blood that allowed her to infuse certain immunities into tattoos if she put a lot of concentration into it. At first, she hadn’t done it on purpose, but she’d practiced to have more control.
Her back was stiff as she pumped soap onto her hands. “Yeah, but that doesn’t make me feel any less guilty.”
Months ago, she’d discovered she could create tattoos that prevented demons from possessing human bodies or keep them from being compelled by vampires. She’d given the tattoos to both supernaturals and human agents during the outbreak last year to protect them during a battle with Hell’s minions. The special design had worked very well, protecting everyone. She’d also discovered she could give tattoos that allowed werewolves to shift during the day, whereas before they could only change into a wolf at night.
The next test was to craft something that could allow a vampire to walk in the daylight. Nothing she’d come up with so far had been successful, but Bartol knew of her conducting only two experiments, including the latest. They had to use vampires who deserved to die anyway since it only took one touch of the sun for them to burn.
Derrick, the supernatural leader of Fairbanks, was very controlling about which people Cori gave her special tattoos. The leading sups needed to be able to compel most of the nearby population in case of incidents they wanted to cover up. Also, they couldn’t afford for just any werewolf to run around in their animal form during the day, and the same went for vampires walking in the sunlight. It taxed his mate to do them as well. With her pregnancy wearing her down more lately, she wasn’t doing as many as before. The vampire experiment was an exception.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” he said, understanding it must have been frustrating for her to fail again in such a gruesome way. They had allies who would love to walk in the daylight, and it would make them more useful when the days were long in Alaska. “I’m certain you will succeed and make it work soon.”
Cori nodded. “I’m afraid the problem is who I’m testing. Derrick gives me these really bad guys who’ve hurt innocent people, and it’s hard to want to give them that special power—never mind that they’re just gonna get staked afterward. I’d love to try it on someone who deserves it, but if they die…”
“You’d feel terrible,” he finished.
“Don’t worry about that too much. I have full confidence in your abilities,” he reassured her, then glanced at the clock on the wall, noting it was almost four in the afternoon. “When do you finish here?”
“Ten minutes, but I have to make a run to the bank to make a deposit.” She paused, her expression changing. “Did you hear about the museum robbery in Chicago?”
“I did.” He’d seen it on the news just before going to the nerou compound. Now that a demon had made its way to Fairbanks, he was less keen on Cori traveling around town by herself. “Allow one of your employees to go instead.”
She lifted her chin. “I always do it…but you can go with me.”
Bartol had to resist the urge to make her go home where she’d be safe. Without her cooperation, he couldn’t flash her. Cori was at least part sensor. She’d received one recessive gene from one of her parents, which would normally be dormant, but consuming Melena’s blood last year had activated it. So while she wasn’t entirely immune to magic, she could choose when it worked on her or not. He had to try reason if he wanted to get his way.
“Consider the baby,” he said.
Her hand crept over her belly and she glanced down, her gaze lingering there for a moment before meeting his eyes again. “Our child is fine.”
“A demon was found in Fairbanks this morning.”
Cori stiffened. “You’re kidding.”
“I’m not. I’ve just come from vanquishing it.”
“Well, then…” She worked her jaw. “Then you will be the perfect company while I go to the bank. You’ll know when one is close, right?”
He could, but only once it was within a dozen or so paces from him. Only a sensor could track them farther out. “That isn’t the point.”
“Look, Bartol.” She clenched her fists. “We can’t live our lives in fear of remote possibilities, especially if you’ve already killed the demon. In six weeks, this baby will be born, and then we’ll have to worry about his or her safety every time we take our child out of our home. Cars, planes, asteroids…anything could be a hazard whether demons are around or not. Believe me, I’ve learned that lesson all too well. This isn’t any easier on me, but I promised myself I would not let my past affect my future and I need you to help with that.”
Gut-wrenching pain entered her eyes as she said the last part. This was a woman who had lost her five-year-old daughter because of her ex-husband’s carelessness while drinking and driving. He’d had their little girl for the weekend as part of their divorce agreement, so there was nothing she could have done. Bartol had seen the grave Cori regularly visited, and he could tell she’d never fully gotten over it.
At least the fool who’d killed her daughter was finally dead and gone. He’d gone up in flames in the sun last year—as a result of becoming a vampire—and had tried to take Cori with him. She’d nearly died from extensive burns, but a heavy dose of Melena’s immortal blood had saved her. Going through that had forced Bartol’s mate to relive the trauma of her daughter dying and had changed her irrevocably, though she did her best to hide the pain and suffering she felt.
Cori had held herself together remarkably well as impending motherhood approached for the second time. It might have helped that this baby would be far more resilient and potentially immortal once it grew up, but there would be a period during its childhood where it would be vulnerable.
The nerou, who had the most similar genetic makeup to his and Cori’s unborn child, never faced a day of sickness in their lives. They could heal quickly from everything except the gravest of injuries. They didn’t even need very much oxygen or food to sustain them. But because they grew up in Purgatory where nothing could harm them, no one knew for certain what vulnerabilities they might have faced in their youth if they’d been on Earth. With nephilim, they healed slower during childhood, and they didn’t have any abilities to help defend themselves until well into adulthood.
“I know this can’t be easy for you,” he began.
“It isn’t.” Cori hugged herself. “And it doesn’t help that you aren’t able to…”
“Comfort you properly,” he finished.
He took a step toward her. They were a mere five feet apart, but it felt closer to him—more like a breath away. He required a good deal of personal space, but he could see that she needed him. A few more steps and he stood directly in front of her. Cori gazed up at him, standing nearly a foot shorter. Cautious hope entered her eyes. It wasn’t often he braved touching her intimately, despite feeling the need all the time when they were apart.
Bartol braced himself, took a calming breath, and pulled her into his arms. She sank into him, careful not to clutch him too tightly. He closed his eyes and rubbed her back. His throat was tightening, his chest felt like a boulder was crushing it, and he had the urge to flee, but he did his best to ignore all of that and just be there for his mate. He had to give her all of him that he could, and desperately wished it could be more. Cori wasn’t one to allow others to help her often, and she preferred not to show vulnerability, but sometimes with him, she let her guard down. He cherished that she trusted him that much. For a long minute, he held her. It was difficult, and yet it felt right deep down inside. They loved each other—for better or worse.
He kissed her forehead and pulled away. “I will go with you to the bank.”
Cori let out a sigh of relief. “Thank you.”
“And God help anyone who tries to harm you along the way.”
“I know, right?” She gave him a saucy smile. “I’ll shoot them to Hell and back.”
“You’re not taking a gun with you, are you?”
She gave him a careless shrug. “I do what I must.”
Sometimes, Bartol had no idea what to make of the woman he’d fallen in love with, but one thing he did know above all else was that they were made for each other.