He gathered her in his arms and held her close. "I know."
She shook her head against his chest. "Do you know how hurt I was that Jesse came to me and not my family? Over the years I’ve seen hundreds of ghosts. But never my mother or father. Never my brother. Didn’t they love me enough to at least say good-bye?"
His gut tightened in sympathy for her pain. "Of course they did, Simone. How could they not? Your father died to protect you. That is real, true love."
"Then why haven’t they ever come to me?"
"I don’t know. I don’t. Maybe they couldn’t." "Because they didn’t care."
"I’m sure that’s not it."
Simone wanted to believe that, but it was hard. And in all these years, she’d never shared that with anyone. She’d always kept it bottled up where it incinerated her soul squeezing her eyes shut, she forced herself to stop these thoughts. They were counterproductive.
What was done was done.
Surely Xypher was right and they would have come to her had they been able. But there was still that part of herself that doubted. That part of her that felt as if no one had ever loved her.
At least Xypher was here.
Their bracelets were gone. He could leave anytime he wanted to, but so far he hadn’t.
Her stomach jerked from her nerves and grief. She pulled back, afraid of the sensation. "I still feel sick. How long is this going to last?"
"Until you get used to your powers. I imagine."
She didn’t like the sound of that. She wanted something concrete she could put her hands on. Something tangible. "I can hear your heartbeat. Jesse is in his room with Gloria, showing her how to play Atari. My neighbor on the right is fighting with his wife over the phone, and my newest one, the woman on the left, is hungry. How do I know all that?"
"It’s your powers. You’ll be able to sense other people in a way you’ve never imagined."
"Will I hear their thoughts?"
He gave her a land smile. "Only if they think out loud. But you will be able to sense the emotions people struggle to hide. That will tell you more about people than anything else."
"Will this massive headache ever ease?"
Nodding, she looked down and touched his wrist where the bracelet used to be, "You’re free of me now."
"Then why are you still here?"
Xypher hesitated. It was something he wondered about himself. But he couldn’t leave her. She was vulnerable and alone, and having been there himself, he couldn’t bring himself to abandon her. "You need help."
"I can manage on my own. I always have."
"I’ve no doubt you can. But you helped me when I needed it. I’m returning that favor."
Simone leaned her head against his shoulder, truly grateful for his support. "Thank you, Xypher,"
She rubbed his arm as the entire events of the day played out in her mind. "Because I’m a demon now, is Jaden over me?"
"No. So long as you own your soul and you don’t baiter it, no one has power over you."
She pulled back to look at him. "What if someone takes my soul?"
"No one can take your soul without your consent. Souls don’t work that way."
She was glad to know that. Being a demon was scary chough, the idea of losing her soul was even more terrifying. God, she had so much to learn. It was like being born all over again. There was so much about herself that she didn’t understand.
She wanted to learn the depth of her powers and what part Jaden played in the universe,
"I have a question … If Jaden is so powerful, couldn’t you make a bargain with him to kill Satara?"
Xypher brushed the hair back from her face. "Jaden doesn’t work that way. He won’t actively do anything. Rather, he provides the means for each of us to carry out our desires, If you need more power, he finds it. If you seek an amulet or device, then you call him. As he would say, he’s a means to an end, not a lap dog."
"Why didn’t you have him open one of the portals to her, then?"
"He refused me when I asked it of him."
"Refused you? Why?"
"Since Kalosis is controlled by the goddess Apollymi, I guess his powers wouldn’t work there. But I don’t know. It could be something as simple as he didn’t like what I bartered with. Jaden can be extremely capricious at times."
"That doesn’t seem right."
"Tell me about it." He looked around. "Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m hungry."
She smiled. "Famished." Suddenly that smile faded, "I’m not going to be drinking blood now, am I?"
"I hope not. If you are, we’re going to have to learn how to bleed Jesse."
Jaden flashed back to the tree where he’d first been summoned As expected, Kaiaphas was waiting for him.
"Greetings, my lord," the demon said, bowing.
Jaden would give him kudos for knowing when to grovel. But kudos wouldn’t save his ass. "You attacked your brother in the open today."
"My mistress demanded it."
Jaden slung his hand out and pinned the worthless bastard to the tree. "And by doing so, you undid a bargain I made. Do you know what that makes me?"
"No, my lord."
"A liar. And that is one thing I’ve never been." Jaden wanted blood over what had happened today. Palackas had given his life in vain and that sent Jaden to a level of pissed off he didn’t like to function in.
But it wasn’t his place to demand satisfaction over the demon’s death. Frustrated, he released Kaiaphas and let him fall back to the ground. "I don’t want your virgins. You can keep them."
"What then, my lord? Name your price and I will deliver it to you."
"There’s a Dimme in this town. Bring me her heart."
"Is that all?"
"Trust me, it’s enough."
Kaiaphas blinked as Jaden vanished from his sight. . .
A Dimme. That was easier said than done. First, they were brutal and rumored to be invincible. He wasn’t sure if he had the powers to even look at one.
Licking his lips, he remembered his fight earlier that day. The woman . . .
Her blood had held the Dimme in it. He was sure of it.
Perhaps if he delivered her heart to Jaden, that would suffice. After all, wasn’t one Dimme as good as another?
Snapping his fingers, he went back to Kalosis to round up a sortie for his next attack. Simone was a medical examiner . . .
Smiling, he thought of one way to definitely get her out of her house.
Simone was still trying to get her bearings as she moved back to her bedroom, but it was hard. Everything seemed so amplified now. Every noise pierced her head. The lights were incredibly bright, and she could hear Xypher’s heartbeat competing with hers. It was all very disconcerting.
Xypher was by her side, and she was holding on to him. She needed his strong arm to steady herself. But the smell of his skin was haunting. It also made her hungry for a taste of him in a way she’d never wanted a man before. It was almost like there was another part of herself. One that was braver, more seductive…
She looked up as Jesse came running into the room through the wall.
"You’re up! You’re up!" He ran at her like an exuberant puppy.
In the past when he did that, he’d run right through her. Today, he slammed into her so hard, she stumbled.
"What the . . . ?"
Xypher gave her a look that was half amused, half evil. "Bonus round for your new powers. Now you can bitch-slap him when he gets on your nerves."
"I can touch Jesse?" She breathed the words, trying to fully understand them.
Turning, she met Jesse’s shocked gaze. In all these years, they’d never been able to touch. Her hand trembling she lifted it to place her fingers against his cold cheek.
It was solid.
Jesse was real to her. She could touch him. . .
Tears welled in his eyes as he laid his hand over hers. Gasping as her own emotions overwhelmed her, Simone pulled him into her arms and held him close. "I can touch you!"
Xypher crossed his anus over his chest as emotion pierced his heart like a knife. He had no reason to be jealous of a punk kid ghost and yet the way she held onto him. . .
He wanted to rip Jesse’s head off.
"I wish I could have held you like this when you were little," Jesse breathed. "All those times you cried, all I could do was watch and try to cheer you up by making faces."
"I know, Jesse. I know."
Xypher hated to admit it, but it was actually touching the way they embraced each other, and he realized that the jealousy he felt wasn’t because another man was holding Simone. It was the love the two of them had for each other.
They were a family.
Through thick and thin. No matter what, these two had stood by each other and would do so for eternity. There would never be betrayal. No treachery. They only wanted to love and help one another.
No one had ever loved him like that. And they never would.
Not once had he been touched by a loving hand. Suddenly, he felt like an intruder. Worse, he didn’t feel worthy to witness something this pristine.
Aching inside, he turned away and headed for the kitchen.
Simone felt the air stirring. She looked past Jesse to see Xypher leaving the room. There was an aura of such sadness around him that it made her hurt for him. She pulled back from Jesse.
"Is something wrong?" Jesse asked.
"I’m not sure." She let go of his hand to follow Xypher and see what had happened.
He paused by the counter to look at her. His handsome Features were stoic, but she could feel His turmoil inside.
"Are you all right?"
He nodded. "Fine. I just didn’t want to watch the two of you slobbering all over each other. It was ruining my appetite."
If only she believed that. Now she understood what he’d meant earlier about her powers. Such incongruity between what she felt and saw was extremely disconcerting.
She moved closer to him. "Why are you hurting inside?"
"I’m not hurt, I’m hungry. You really should learn to tell the difference." He indicated the fridge over his shoulder with his thumb. "Isn’t it lunchtime?"
She shook her head as she realized he was changing the subject. Something had made him uncomfortable, and rather than deal with it, he wanted food. Fine, she could cope with that. But she wasn’t fooled by his actions.
"I have some tuna salad left. We could make sandwiches." "That’ll work."
Simone pulled out the bread. "Why don’t you grab the tub out of the fridge for me? It’s in the clear container with the white lid."
Jesse joined them while she counted out the slices of bread. "Did you know Gloria was studying to become a psychologist?"
Simone smiled. "Nope, how would I know that?"
"True, you’ve been off doing stuff with Xypher . . . getting turned into a demon and all. Gloria’s actually a really neat person once she quits mocking my music."
Simone was bemused by his sudden change of heart toward Gloria. "I mock your music, too, Jesse."
"Yeah, but you’ll also dance to it with me." He struck a Michael Jackson pose. ‘"Just beat it, beat it, beat it.’" Without flunking, he bumped into her.
"Jesse!" she said playfully, "I’m trying to make lunch."
"All right, but later, ‘we gonna wake me up before you go go’ and ‘walk like an Egyptian.’ "
Simone groaned and smiled at the same time.
Jesse blew her a kiss, "Now I’m off to see my woman." He drifted to the back of the house.
Simone laughed at him, especially since Gloria had now become his ‘woman.’ "Jesse," she said playfully. "You’re not old chough to date, boy!"
"I’m older than you. And at least I’m not dating a cradle robber who outdates me by countless centuries." The disembodied voice echoed in the kitchen.
"But remember that now I can smack your head …"
"Point taken, now leave me alone. We’re comparing ectoplasm."
She didn’t want to touch that one with a thirty-foot cattle prod. Shaking her head, she went back to making sandwiches.
Xypher handed her the tuna salad. "What’s it like?"
"To have someone who knows you that well? Someone you can tease around with and share inside jokes. I’ve seen people do it in dreams, but newer up close before. There’s a warmth inside you whenever Jesse’s around. Even when he annoys you, it pleases you on another level."
Simone paused to look up at him. Poor Xypher, to have no idea what friendship meant. "It’s good. There’s a lot to be said for having people around you who aren’t faying to tear you down. People who know how to laugh and who aren’t jealous. Unfortunately, those relationships are sometimes hard to find."
"Sometimes they’re impossible."
She nodded. "People are complicated. Emotions are complicated. Explain to me how you can both love and hate someone at the same time."
"Odi et Amo."
She frowned. "What?"
"It’s an ancient Latin poem written by Catullus. ‘I Love and I Hate.’ It talks about that very thing. He wrote it for a woman he both adored and despised."