I’d like to say the minute I left the room I realized I was being a terrible person, let alone sister, and turned around and went back in. But no. I made my way down to the kitchen, fully expecting it to be full of children who just took a hit for their sugar fix, gossipy moms, and harried catering staff. I was pleasantly surprised to find that wasn’t the case, and it was strangely quiet. The only noise was coming from the back yard, where the children sounded as though they were having a contest to see who could scream the loudest.
The kitchen was modern, with shiny appliances, and a white paint scheme that I imagined took a full-time staff to keep clean. It was large enough to fit most my apartment in, but that’s what my brother gets for being the best personal lawyer in the area, and from the money that was left over from what our parents gave us.
I walked around the island to the large window overlooking the backyard. My nephew had opted for some kind of pirate theme, and was currently running around with his fellow buccaneers in their personal backyard playground. There was even a bouncy house. My other nieces and nephew were now dressed up, too, and my heart clenched. There was pure joy on their faces as they ran around, searching for treasure at the command of Jason, who was the spitting image of my brother. I couldn’t hold that against him, though—he was a pretty cool kid.
“Don’t feel like joining the party?”
I spun around to see a well-dressed man on the other side of the island, a small smile quirking the corner of his mouth. He was impossibly handsome, with features that toed the line between too rugged and romance novel cover model. His hair was a dark bronze, cut short on the sides and just long enough on the top to come off as devil-may-care. Like there just might be a bad boy lurking beneath the expensive, tailored, and designed-just-for-him conservative clothing.
But it was the expression in his honey brown eyes that reminded me of my brother at first glance: lawyer-ish and falsely concerned. My brother was a natural at his profession—a born and bred shark. For survival reasons, I’d learned early on to identify the surface emotions he used to manipulate people into opening up, or doing what he wanted.
However, if my brother was a shark, this man was something more. Something prehistoric that glided through the ocean with deadly grace, and put the fear of god in sharks of old if they’d been capable of the emotion. Something that sent a chill down my spine and made my bones ache with dread.
So, instead of answering his question, I decided to play on my apparent knack of irritating supernatural beings with my insulting questions. And if this guy wasn’t some kind of preternatural bugaboo, I’d eat my tongue.
If you keep irritating things that can murder you with a flick of their pinky finger, they just might make you eat it, Rational Brain grumbled.
Primal Brain was, once again, silent in its terror.
“What are you?” I asked, going straight for the offensive jugular of questions.
He blinked at me, once, long and slow. “I see no one has taught you how to speak to your betters,” he said with a faint hiss, his voice going from pleasant to dangerous as easily as flipping a switch.
I grit my teeth against the sudden surge of adrenaline from my flight response, and stubbornly jutted my chin up at him. “If I come across one maybe I’d be obliged. As it is, I don’t see the point.”
Why are you picking a fight with something that could murder us with less effort than it takes to open his eyes? Rational Brain groaned.
That was a good question. Why was I picking this fight? Maybe it had something to do with needing to lash out after discovering my brother was married to a demon and my nieces and nephews were half-demon? Nah. I was probably just this dysfunctional.
“You know, for someone with little to no standing, protection, or anything worthwhile, you’re quite mouthy,” he crooned, and moved slowly around the island separating us.
“So I’ve been told,” I said, and stupidly stood my ground.
He came right up to me, with barely half a foot separating us. I’ve always been short, so it’s no surprise when someone is taller than me. In fact, I expect most people to be taller than me more often than not. But there is almost a visceral shock that goes through you when someone quite a bit taller than you invades your personal space. You’re left staring at their chest at best, or the bottom of their sternum at worst, and breathing in their subtle, expensive cologne.
When I looked up at him, his eyes had flashed to the same indigo as Candy’s, though his seemed more blue than purple. A thrill of…not exactly fear went through me, and my eyes widened.
His nostrils flared, and a small smirk played across his lips. Then he leaned over until his mouth was right next to my ear.
“You know, I’ve heard you’re trying to help the goblins find whoever killed their wayward heir,” he said, his voice going low and smooth as silk.
At his pause I swallowed and nodded, the motion jerky and tense.
“The goblins are incredibly important clients of ours, and I’d hate to disappoint them with your amateurish—at best—detective skills.”
A flash of annoyance furrowed my brows. “I told them I wasn’t the person for the job, and they didn’t listen. Plus, they’ve already threatened my brother and myself. This seems a bit like overkill.”
His throaty chuckle raised the hairs on the back of my neck. “No, they threatened your brother’s reputation, but my brethren and myself will do more than threaten. And take more than just his reputation,” he said, and leaned back.
That statement dumped a bucket of ice water on whatever hormones had, however briefly, reared their atrociously timed heads. When I met his eyes, the cold-blooded malice that pooled in their depths held a promise of agony in my future. One that might not even be contingent on whether or not I succeeded at finding Stribs’ murderer.
Whatever he saw in my face must have pleased him to no end, because a huge grin broke out across his face and he laughed a full-throated laugh.
“Oh, human. Your kind is a source of endless amusement,” he said once the laugh had died down into a series of staggered chuckles.
Well, at least he didn’t call you an Ord, Primal Brain reasoned.
That pales somewhat in the face of him threatening Joel’s life, Rational Brain replied scathingly.
“What I find amusing,” I said, my voice taking on a slight growl, “is how pathetic all you supposed ‘better’ beings must be to rely so heavily on humans to do everything for you.”
His expression didn’t change, but he did quirk an eyebrow. “All good leaders know how to delegate tasks appropriately. You don’t see the farmer pulling the plow, but the ox,” he said.
I won’t react to him calling me a cow. I won’t, I thought, and grit my teeth.
“And what good does it do the farmer to abuse or kill the one pulling the plow?” I asked. “Sounds like nothing more than an excuse to be cruel for no reason other than pathetic self-amusement,” I spat.
Though his smile hadn’t died during our back-and-forth, it went gentle. His eyes softened, and his head tilted slightly as he leaned in close, our noses almost touching.
“There might be one more thing you should consider before you mouth off to someone less genial than myself,” he said, his breath tickling across my skin, and smelling subtly of mint.
“What’s that?” I bit out.
“We aren’t the only ones who know about your familial connections, and what do you think will happen to Candace—” I couldn’t help the brief moment of satisfaction I got from the fact that I wasn’t the only one who didn’t want to call her Candy, “—and the children should something happen to Joel?”
Whatever vindication I’d felt for that short second died at his words. I sucked in a shocked breath, and my chest tightened so painfully it hurt to breathe.
“Aunty Holly!” a familiar voice shrieked from the doorway leading out to the backyard.
I jerked backward from the demon just in time to catch a tiny, adorable, armful of pirate. He had an eyepatch and everything. I ignored the scream of protest from my hand, though I did let out a small, pained noise inaudible over the commotion the little one was making. I nearly inhaled the white-blond curls of my youngest nephew, Owen, who still sported that baby fine hair of younger children just like Evelyn Rose.
“Missed you, Aunty!” he proclaimed as he squeezed my neck with all the force of a python, despite the fact he’d seen me barely more than half an hour ago.
His breath smelled of sugar, and I gave him a suspicious glance. “You haven’t been sneaking frosting from your brother’s cake, have you?” I asked.
“No!” he proclaimed far too quickly.
I laughed. “Well, if you say so, I believe you.”
He grinned in triumph. Who was I to rain on his parade? I was the indulgent aunt who didn’t have to scold him about his brother’s cake if I didn’t want to. I’d leave that to my brother and sister-in-law.
“Were you and Uncle Dizzy going to kiss?” he asked, in all his youthful innocence.
I let out a strangled, inarticulate noise of surprise. I wasn’t sure which shocked me more. The fact he called him uncle, that his name was Dizzy, or if he thought we were going to kiss.
“What made you think we were going to kiss?” I asked, trying to keep the utter panic from my words.
‘Dizzy’ broke out into an amused, truly affectionate grin aimed at Owen.
“He was close to you like Daddy when he’s going to kiss Mommy,” he proclaimed, and bounced in my arms. After a moment, he tilted his head and narrowed his eyes. “You know kisses are yucky, right?”
“Absolutely, which is why Uncle Dizzy—” I just managed not to choke on the name that didn’t fit the demon at all, “—and I certainly weren’t going to kiss,” I reassured him.
He pursed his lips as though he didn’t quite believe me, but then he started to wiggle, an indication he’d had enough of being held. I let him down, and he grabbed my uninjured hand and started tugging me toward the backyard.
“Come on; you’re missing the party!” he said, and tried to drag me away.
I planted my feet to keep from falling forward. “I’ll be out in a minute, Handsome. I need to ask your dad something,” I said.
He pouted and dropped my hand, then crossed his arms over his chest. “I want you to come now!”
“Don’t worry, dear heart, she’ll be out soon enough,” Dizzy said.
Owen looked between the two of us a couple of times before shouting, “Okay!” He ran back through the door, slamming it behind him and making me cringe as the glass fairly rattled.
There was a long moment of silence before he turned to consider me once again.
“Dizzy, huh?” I asked.
“It’s Dezanoth, actually, but try getting a five-year-old to say that,” he said with a shrug.
Well, he wasn’t wrong.
He rolled his eyes. “You ask far too many questions, but in a roundabout, distant way you could say Candace and myself are related.”
I didn’t want to touch that with a ten-foot pole. The thought of having this…man for a brother-in-law gave me the heebie-jeebies. Now that I’d interacted with a demon far closer to what I expected, I could certainly appreciate Candace in a way I hadn’t before. Now I really needed to ask the two of them some questions.
“I really do need to speak with my brother, so, try not to murder any ‘amusing humans’ if you can manage it,” I said scathingly. With a glare, I turned and went to head back to my brother’s office.
“Holly,” he said, his voice soft, the words caressing my spine and making the little hairs on the back of my neck stand up again.
I turned back to look at him, and he was still on the other side of the kitchen. With how quick and silent supernaturals moved, I half expected to come face-to-face with him, and was relieved to find that wasn’t true.
When I met his eyes, though, I stiffened and my breath froze. The wicked look there promised all the imagined torments of hell would come to my doorstep one day, and the alluring smile gracing his lips indicated I might just beg for it to happen.
“Don’t forget: the farmer isn’t nearly as replaceable as the ox.”