Simone looked to the stairs, thinking his mother was in the house.
Apparently, she wasn’t. A flash of light almost blinded her before an incredibly beautiful blond woman appeared in front of Julian. Thin and grace fill while wearing a winter-white wool suit, his mother looked as stunned at Simone’s presence as Simone was at hers.
Not to mention the fact that Julian’s mother didn’t look a day older than Julian, Holy cripes! There was a real live, breathing goddess in front of her! What would appear next? A dragon? Then again, if it were Brad Pitt, she’d be in busuress.
"What’s going on?" Aphrodite asked.
Julian inclined his head behind her to where Xypher stood with his usual menacing glower. "We have a situation."
Aphrodite turned, then curled her lip. "You? What are you doing here? I thought you were dead."
"I am. Thanks. You look good for an old broad, too."
Aphrodite looked at him as if his words left a bad taste in her mouth.
Xypher ignored it as he held the bracelet up to her. "I’m here to get this off, or if not off, to at least find out what it is and what it does."
Simone wouldn’t have thought the goddess could look any more repulsed and yet she pulled it off nicely. At least until she laughed.
"I swear by the liver Styx, Xypher, I have never seen anyone make the gods madder than you. Whoever did you irritate for that?"
A muscle worked in Xypher’s cheek. "Don’t toy with me, Aphrodite. What is it?"
"It’s a deamarkonian. A nice little trinket created by the Atlantean gods to kill the invincible. I didn’t even know there were any left. Wherever did you find it?"
"I found it attached to my wrist. Now what exactly does it do?"
She made the most graceful shrug Simone had ever seen. "It binds the life forces of two entities together. You and"-she turned to Simone-"your little friend here. If one of you dies, the other dies. The Atlanteans used it as a way to kill a stronger person. You bind them to someone weak and you kill the weak in order to kill the strong. Simple."
"Oh, but it gets even better," Aphrodite said, wrinkling her nose at him. "You have to stay near each other. If you wander too far afield, you’ll both die."
Simons went still. "What?"
Xypher cursed again. "How far?"
"I have no idea. Guess we’ll know when one of you crosses the boundary and you both die, huh?"
This time Xypher’s curse was so foul it actually made Simone blush. "I can’t be stuck with you," he growled at her.
Her mouth dropped at his angry words. "Like you’re my dream man come to life. Believe me, that sick feeling you have in your stomach is very much shared by me."
He narrowed his eyes on her, but she refused to back down. "Do you know of any way we can get this off?" he asked Aphrodite.
By his expression, Simone could tell that wasn’t the answer Xypher wanted.
"What do you mean, you don’t know?" he said.
"What are you? Blind? I’m not Atlantean-that bracelet was designed to bring us down and that means the Atlantean gods who made it weren’t real big on sharing its weaknesses with us. If you know someone tied to their dead pantheon, I suggest you try them." She turned toward Julian and her features softened. "I’ll see you later, sweetie." She vanished.
"Aphrodite!" Xypher shouted at the ceiling. "Get your skinny ass back here!"
Simone scoffed. "I can’t imagine why she wouldn’t respond to that." She narrowed her gaze at Xypher. "Where did you go to charm school, anyway? Prison?"
He glared at her as if he could imagine his hands wrapped around her throat. That was okay by her since she currently held the same fantasy about choking him. . . preferably with one of the bracelets they were joined by.
Julian let out a tiled breath as he put his hands on his hips. "I hope you’re friends with Acheron. He’s the only Atlantean I know of."
Xypher didn’t looked overly thrilled by that prospect. "Give me his number."
Simone arched a brow at Xypher. "Can’t you just call him out of thin air?"
Julian laughed. "Good luck. He’s the only person I know who can be crankier than my mother or Xypher. You don’t summon Acheron. You ask nicely."
"I’m so sick of the gods playing with my life," Xypher snarled as Julian handed him a piece of paper with a number scribbled on it.
A glimmer of something flashed in Julian’s eyes. "I know the feeling. But sometimes salvation from them can come at the most unlikely time." His gaze went to Simone. "And from the most unlikely people."
Xypher rolled his eyes. "Don’t sell me your bullshit. I’m on a countdown here. In twenty-two days I so back to hell. My only goal is to make sure that this time, I don’t go alone."
"Then I wish you luck." Julian showed them to the door. "If you need anything else, let me know."
Simone thanked him before she led the way across the porch. She handed Xypher her cell phone as they walked to the car-she was actually surprised he didn’t poof them back into it.
Then again, he was distracted. He didn’t say a word. He merely took the phone and dialed the number with an irritable expression that was somehow inviting.
"Of course you’re not answering …" he said in a guttural tone. Then in a more normal voice he said, "Acheron, it’s Xypher. When you check messages, I need you to call me back at this number. I have a situation and I need you to contact me ASAP." He closed the phone and returned it to her.
Simone put it in her back pocket. "You think he’ll be in touch?"
"Don’t worry about it."
She pulled him to a stop on the walkway, "Do you have to be so surly over every question?"
"Do you have to be so damned perky Was it too much to ask that I get chained to a depressed mute or one of those clucks who dresses in black and writes bad poetry?"
She’d never been more offended in her life. "What is wrong with you?"
His eyes flared in the darkness. "Be grateful, human, that you could never understand."
Understand what? That he was an ass**le? There was no excuse in that.
"You know, you’re not the only one with problems in this equation. I happen to have a life and a job. The last thing I need is to be pulling around a three-hundred-pound gorilla with a chip on his shoulder so big it’s a wonder he’s not hunchbacked from it."
"I don’t weigh three hundred pounds,"
She arched a single brow at His retort. "No denying the gorilla part?"
That took a lot of the bravado out of her. It was hard to get the upper hand when he seemed so content to be a monster.
"Um, Simone?" There was a note of fear in Jesse’s voice.
She turned toward him. "Yes?"
"What is that?"
She looked to see what he was pointing at. Tall and lithe, it had eyes that were glowing red in the darkness.
And it was headed straight for them.
Xypher jerked her toward Jesse. "Both of you stay back."
Simone wasn’t about to argue given the size of the creature headed toward them and the fact that his skin appeared to be boiling and smoking.
He was dressed in a flowing black cape that obscured everything but those creepy red eyes. He went for Xypher so fast, she could barely see it.
The two of them tore into each other.
Xypher flipped the demon, who rolled and shot a blast of fire at him. He deflected the fire, then flung his hand out as if to return it to Smokey the Demon.
It didn’t work.
The demon laughed. "Poor Xypher. Having trouble?"
"At kicking your ass, Kaiaphas? Never."
The cloak vanished. In the darkness, the demon’s boiling skin articulated into something that looked like leather. His face mutated into that of a gargoyle while the cotton of his clothes tinned into sleek black armor that clung close to the muscular contours of his body. Still those eyes glowed like bright embers from a fire.
Kaiaphas pulled out a short sword and twirled it around his body before he lunged at Xypher who sidestepped the blade. A silver vambrace appeared on the arm that wasn’t wearing the bracelet. Xypher used it to twist the blade out of the demon’s hand. But before he could capture it, Kaiaphas caught it in his left hand and stabbed at him again.
Spinning around, Xypher shoved the demon. Kaiaphas staggered, then caught himself.
Kaiaphas lauglied. "You’ve improved."
"Yeah, little boys grow up eventually." Xypher lacked at him, but Kaiaphas caught his leg and snatched it up.
Xypher turned a midair somersault to land on his feet. He ran at the demon and caught him about the waist. They fell back, still fighting.
Simone wanted to run, but remembered that so long as she wore the bracelet she couldn’t go far without killing them both. "Find a weapon," she whispered loudly to Jesse as she started looking around for a tree limb or something she could use to help Xypher beat back the demon.
Suddenly Jesse cursed.
Simone turned to look at the combatants to see what had caused Jesse’s reaction. Faster than she could blink. Kaiaphas twirled the sword in his hand and stabbed Xypher in the stomach so deep, the point of it came out his back.
Xypher gasped as blood pooled around the sword hilt and flowed over Kaiaphas’ hand.
The demon laughed. "Apparently your skills didn’t improve enough, eh?" He head-butted Xypher. The motion of it caused Xypher to stagger back. As he did so, the sword was jerked out of his body.
He fell to one knee on the ground while Kaiaphas lifted his sword for the coup de grace.
Simone ground her teeth as she saw her mother and younger brother dying in her mind all over again. An unfounded rage consumed her so that she could no longer think rationally.
In that moment, the demon became the focus of twenty years of hopeless frustration with a justice system that had failed her and a rage so bitter, she could taste it.
Her only thought to save Xypher, Simone grabbed the pepper spray from her coat pocket and ran at the demon. Shoving him back with all her strength, she held her breath and doused him with the spray.
Kaiaphas coughed and spat. His eyes flashing, he stalled for her.
Simons braced herself for his attack, intending to fight back with her bare hands. But before he reached her, something knocked him away.
A flash of blond hair confirmed it was Julian with a sword in his hand. He put himself between them and forced the demon away from her and Jesse.
While he engaged the demon, she ran to Xypher, who lay on the ground coveted in blood. His face was pale as he visibly shook. Blood poured over his hands without slowing.
"Shh," Simone said, pulling his hand away so that she could see the jagged wound. "I’ve got you, Xypher. Don’t worry." She glanced over her shoulder. "Jesse, pop the trunk and bring me my medical bag."
Jesse ran to the car while she examined the wound in Xypher’s stomach. It looked gruesome. And the instant she touched it, he cursed. His nostrils flared and she was sure he’d hit her.
Fortunately for her, he passed out before he could make good on that unspoken threat.
She glanced up to see Julian engaged in an impressive swordfight. They moved so fast, all she could see was the sparks that flared whenever their blades met. The sound of metal on metal was deafening and drowned everything but their grunts and insults.
Then in one fluid motion, Julian dodged the demon and shoved him sideways before he stabbed him in the ribs.
Staggering back, the demon hissed, showing a full set of jagged teeth before he dissolved into the darkness. All that was left behind was die stencil of sulfur and something that reminded her of treacle.
Julian cocked his head as if trying to sense something. He turned in her direction at the same time Jesse brought the bag to her. She focused on stanching Xypher’s blood. It wasn’t easy, especially since she was starting to get light-headed herself.
"You okay?" Jesse asked.
"I’m not really sure."
Julian knelt beside her. "We need to get him out of the public eye, if you take my meaning."
She certainly did. They’d been lucky no car had driven by during their fight … or worse, that a neighbor’s dog hadn’t needed walking. "I couldn’t agree more."
A heartbeat later, they were inside Julian’s house again, in an upstairs bedroom that was decorated in greens and cream and furnished with nice Victorian antiques.
She and Julian stood to the side of the queen-size bed while Xypher lay on top of it.
Jesse popped in a second later and wrinkled his nose. "That is one grody wound. It gotta hurt."
Julian grimaced as he saw the blood pouring out of Xypher’s side.
Without a word, she lipped open Xypher’s shirt. She sucked her breath in and remembered one of the advantages to her job. Decedents didn’t bleed like this on the examination table. She hadn’t tended a living patient since she’d been an intern in college.
Julian looked over her shoulder. "How’s he doing?"
"That . . . thing, whatever it was, made a mess of him. The sword went all the way through his body."
Julian grimaced. "Yeah, wounds like that seriously hurt. Had a few myself back in the day."