-

Paper Gold Publishing
The Gold Standard in books.

ETERNAL IMMORTALITY

(excerpt)

Chapter 1


She absolutely could not believe this was happening to her. Breathe, Rainey, breathe, she demanded of herself. It had been a wonderful day, and it was turning out to be a great night, too. That was... until now.

Everyone's gazes had shifted their focus from the wedded couple's sparkly blue wigs to her. And one particular person, well... vampire — hot vampire at that — was waiting for an answer. He looked so expectant, but what was she supposed to do? Bend over and kiss his feet and tell him how many nights' sleep she had lost since he'd been gone, but that's okay, let's kiss and make up? That wasn't going to happen in her lifetime!

Armadéus Baros stood before her, flashing that melt-your-heart smile. It had been seven long years since she had heard his voice, smelled his one-of-a-kind hypnotic fragrance, or ogled that beautiful body of his.

How did I not see this coming? Rainey scolded herself, extremely irritated that she could let something as important as this slip through her mental monologue. That must have been just it — complete information overload. She was a very gifted psychic witch. For Christ's sake, she was even a teacher here, at the palace for the witches and the gifted on the island, and she was Abe's — the current High Vampire of Eternal Island — personal psychic. Visions of the future were her specialty. She'd never had quite so much to deal with in one go, true. The last two prophecies had caused two weeks of utter chaos, chaos which she'd thought long gone and hopefully forgotten. And now... Déus...

Rainey kept her composure as she made eye contact with him. He had liquefied every ounce of her heart in just the few short seconds they'd stood there, but Rainey clenched her jaw and quickly constructed a brick wall, a concrete wall around that, razor wire around the concrete with a quicksand moat circling her already shattered heart. There was no way he was getting in this time.

She smiled graciously at Déus, then turned to Abe and Ariana with a not-so-amiable look on her face. Abe's smile turned grim in response.

"I am very happy for both of you, but if you will excuse me, I have a prior engagement that cannot be put off any longer." Rainey smiled at the shocked couple and turned on her heel. She pulled the blue wig from her head and let it drop to the pebbles at her feet as she walked away.

Armadéus rushed to catch up, and then took her arm gently in his fingers, but Rainey jerked free of the brief contact.

She closed her eyes as she took in a sharp breath, then opened them slowly and glared straight at him. "Do not attempt... to ever touch me again." Her phony smile was imitating, mocking his stunned expression. "Have a good time at the party. I hope your flight back, to wherever you came from, goes smoothly." She walked off without another word or glance back.

***

Déus lifted his eyebrows in confusion as he ran the last couple of minutes through his head, and then once more in a final attempt to make sense of what it was he could have possibly done wrong to anger his favorite witch.

The guests started to murmur and break into chatter. Soft music began to play again in the background. It appeared the rest of the wedding crowd had decided to simply ignore Rainey's brief scene and continue their enjoyment.

Abe cleared his throat. "Ariana, this is a longtime friend of mine, Armadéus Baros. Déus, this is my..." he smiled as he looked into her gorgeous green eyes, "...wife, and your Queen."

Déus had thought Rainey would be waiting for him with open arms but, instead, she was giving him the cold shoulder, and he didn't like the feeling he was getting in the pit of his stomach or the ache in his chest, watching her dance now, smiling, with another guy. He rubbed at the left side of his chest absentmindedly. Abe punched him in the arm and he jerked out of his daydream. Great, another sore spot on his body. Why is everyone picking on me?

"Forgive me, Your Highness. How rude of me —" Déus immediately took the Queen's hand and placed an innocent kiss to her knuckles.

Ariana held up her index finger to him and Abe smiled knowingly. "It is very nice to meet you, Armadéus, but if you want to be in my good graces, you will lose the 'Your Highness' bull crap. Ariana is just fine."

His eyes danced with amusement. "Forgive me, Ariana. I was raised with manners." He nodded towards the dance floor, but didn't look away from his company. He didn't want Rainey to know he was inquiring about her if she was watching him, and he was sure she was. He could feel her eyes burning a hole in the side of his head. "What's with her?"

"Your guess is as good as mine," Abe said. "I thought she would be pleased to see you, or I wouldn't have bothered tracking you down. I'll probably get a chewing out from her later, I expect."

Ariana nudged him with her elbow. "You, husband, are going to be busy later."

Déus looked at his feet with a smile, but Abe shamelessly held her gaze. "Yes, I will be. I'll have to turn my phone off and we'll switch rooms so she won't be able to find me. How does that sound?"

She shrugged. "Or I could just immobilize her and paralyze her vocal chords until we are finished, say... maybe till Wednesday or Thursday?"

Déus laughed nervously. "Are you a witch?"

"Only the most powerful witch in the whole freaking world," came Jonah's voice from behind him. They hugged briefly and smiled at each other. "It's been too long this time, Déus."

"I know, I know," Déus agreed. "I just needed to get away for a while. How's everything been here?"

"Oh, other than Abe falling in love," Jonah walked closer and whispered conspiratorially. "Me falling in love... Abe finding out he has a daughter and is about to become a grandpa, Ariana here being a super witch — watch out, buddy, she can read minds — and her killing Max and Julia as easily as if it were toddlers' play, you didn't miss anything. The first seven years of your absence were quite boring."

Déus let his eyes roam over the dance floor. Ariana and Abe had silently excused themselves and were slow dancing once again in a tight embrace, looking blissfully happy.

So the world had kept spinning even though he'd been away. It was my damned fault. I chose to leave. Still, all these new developments were a little hard to take in. "You fell in love, too?" he said to Jonah. "Man, we are going to have to sit down and have a drink sometime soon, so you can explain all this in detail."

His eyes were still sweeping the dance floor, and when they fell on Rainey dancing with a strange male, an unexpected pained sigh escaped his lips. A warlock, he must have been; he didn't get a vamp vibe off him, and Rainey had never stooped below her own status. Well, come to think of it, he hadn't seen her with anyone other than him. Ever. I can take him, he thought, and then puzzled over the unusual thought. Why would I want to? Rainey has always been a good friend, a friend with benefits, before I left. But judging by her reaction when she saw me, it feels almost as though she hates me now. Why? That had him confused. She can't possibly be mad that I left; she knows me and understands the reasons why I had to leave, doesn't she? "Listen, Jonah, can I catch up with you later? I need to ask Rainey something."

"Yeah, sure. How long you staying?"

Déus' eyes didn't stray from Rainey as he answered. "I'm not sure just yet."

He started walking in Rainey's direction. She was laughing at something her dance partner had said. Déus tapped the guy on the shoulder. "Can I cut in?"

Rainey's laugh instantly faded. "Say no, Clive."

Clive smiled at her, thinking she was playing around. He turned to Déus. "The lady says no, man. I'm sorry. Better luck with one of them, over there." Clive pointed to a bunch of girls in too much makeup and too little clothing. The no-challenge type.

Déus, however, liked a challenge. And his challenge tonight was obviously going to be Rainey.

He took in a deep breath and hesitated for only a brief moment. This would enrage her further, he was certain, but hey, he liked her when she was angry; the make-up sex was the best. Déus placed a hand on each of the male's arms and picked him up, did a one-eighty turn, then set him on his feet. "Run along," he told him, then smiled, flashing two pointy fangs. Clive took off for the palace with no further encouragement, no doubt to change his underpants.

Déus turned back to Rainey. She had grown into a beautiful woman since he'd seen her last. He loved her sweet smile and her cute face, but that face looked mad right now. Not just irritated, but bull-raging pissed. "Rainey, I can see you're upset. I just want to talk to you."

"I've got nothing to say to you, and you've got nothing to say that I want to hear," she said, then grabbed her head as if she were in pain. "Aaaaahh!"

"Rainey? Are you okay?" Déus asked as he placed his hand firmly on her shoulder to steady her as she swayed.

She opened her tear-filled eyes and backed away from him. "Stay away from me, Armadéus."

Damn, she is pissed, Déus thought. She never used his full first name. He had to find out what was wrong with her, though. She had taken off, running for the palace. That wasn't a problem. He could catch up with her in no time. But unless he could work out what exactly was happening, catching up with her wouldn't do him any good; she would just scream at him some more to leave her alone. He spun around, looking for Abe or Jonah.

***

Rainey ran for the safety of her lair, clutching tightly at her head. It felt ready to explode with a powerful vision. She could hear a voice in her mind and it was getting louder, but she still couldn't make out what was being said.

"RAINEY... HELP... ME!" a familiar voice shouted through her mind. But it couldn't be... he didn't exist. Julia had admitted to being Kade while intruding in her dreams. There was no way Kade could be talking to her now. Julia was dead, and not even she could come back from dust and ashes.

Rainey scrunched her eyes shut and staggered down the corridor, peeking through her lashes just in time to turn down the hall to her chambers. She stopped briefly to secure the door lock, then ran for her bed and, in her bridesmaid dress, heels and fixed hair, she fell upon the duvet and cried. She cried for the broken pieces of her heart that Déus had left behind and she cried for the strong love she felt for an imaginary man.

She wasn't aware she had fallen asleep, but when she opened her eyes to a dream that was all too familiar, with Mackie's Restaurant in the distance and the ocean to her left, she knew what she would see when she looked down the sandy beach, and her heart broke again to know that this was just a dream and it wouldn't really be him. On shaky legs, she walked toward Kade anyway.

When he spotted her, he started running toward her, too. His face was a mask of sheer panic. His neck and wrists were covered in fang marks, some healed and some still fresh and unsealed. Trickles of dried blood snaked down and under the collar of a dirty, torn shirt that barely covered his bruised chest.

"You're not real, Kade. Who is torturing me like this?" she screamed to the gray sky.

He laid his hand gently on her cheek, bringing her focus back to him. He still looked scared, but seemed a little calmer now that she was there, with him. "A woman vampire kidnapped me after the second time I dream walked you, Rainey. She has been using my mind to get to you. I haven't seen her in a few days, but her vampire clan is about to drain me dry. For some reason, she doesn't have control over my mind any longer, so I came to warn you as soon as I could. Are you all right? Are you safe? I didn't have the energy to dream walk until now. I'm sorry it took me so long."

Rainey covered her mouth with her hands and shook her head back and forth. "She's dead. But, Kade, you've got to get out of there. Where are you?"

"Don't come after me. It's too dangerous. I will probably be dead by the time you get here, anyway."

"No!" Rainey set her jaw and glared at him, daring him to test her. "I will find you on my own if I have to, but it will just take me longer. Tell me where you are."

He sighed in defeat. "Still in California, somewhere. I think we're underground, but the building is huge, like an underground city or something. If you don't have an army, you won't get out alive." He took her shoulders gently in his hands and made her look in his eyes. "I didn't summon you so you could rescue me. I just had to know that you were all right." He shook his head. "Don't do this. My soul will not rest if I know you died trying to help me escape."

Rainey took a step away from him, but smiled as she held his gaze. "I'm not a child, Kade. I can take care of myself. Don't worry, I won't come alone. Try to sleep. I have a friend who can dream walk. I'm going to ask her to visit you. Her powers exceed anything I've ever encountered before. Stay alive for me, Kade, please. I have to go find her. Maybe the next time you see me, we'll be on a plane back to the island."

She left him standing there, reaching out for her, and willed herself to wake up. She shot upright in bed, pulled off her heels and took off like her life depended on it, back to the party.

***

A few females had propositioned Déus already, in the forty-five minutes or so since Rainey had made her grand exit, but he just wasn't feeling it. Pathetic, really, for someone who'd spent a vast part of his life investigating each tiny aspect of such enlightening activity. Sex was recognized in every culture as the ultimate mood enhancer, and he fully agreed with that hypothesis. Until now. Wherever he glanced, couples were having fun and he… he felt a bit sick, actually.

Abe and his new wife, Ariana, looked as though they were about to try and make their getaway, too. They were talking with a couple of... he sniffed the air in their direction... humans?

The petite girl flashed her smile as Déus walked up to join the four of them, and her date, who was clearly the possessive, over-protective type, gave Déus a once over and hugged her closer to him. Déus shook hands with Abe again and nodded to the human couple. When his gaze fell upon Ariana, he knew something had to be wrong. Her eyes were glazed over and she had one hand out to Abe.

"Abe!" Déus pointed to Ariana and Abe quickly picked her up and set her in a nearby chair.

Abe was nervous as he framed her face with his hands. "What is it, Ariana? What do you see?"

She seemed to snap out of it and looked up at him. "Rainey... she needs my help. She's so scared that you won't approve. It's Kade... he's alive. She wants to go get him before they kill him –"

"Ariana!" Rainey shouted as she burst through the palace doors. Ariana got up and rushed to meet her half way. "It's Kade..." Rainey wailed. Ariana pulled her to her chest and hugged her tight. "He is being held by Julia's clan. They're drinking him dry."

"Shhh, I know." Ariana pulled back and looked at Rainey's horrified expression. She knew that Rainey's only fear at the moment was hearing the word no. "You came to save me. Of course I will do everything I can to save him."

Rainey nodded as Abe, Déus, Janie and Lance walked up.

"Okay, it looks as though we're going back to California."

"Like hell, we are!" Abe shouted. "We are on our honeymoon and Rainey will just have to deal with her imaginary boyfriend all by herself. We fell for that once and you know damn good and well how that turned out."

Rainey has an imaginary boyfriend? A boyfriend? "What the —" Déus began before he noticed the look Ariana was giving Abe. He closed his mouth and took a step back. He'd always been a fast learner.

Ariana squared her shoulders and stood her ground. Everyone watched as the High Vampire cowered under her glare.

"Yes, I do! I remember every slow, miserable second of it! Two very dangerous vampires are ashes now, thanks to that trip. You listen to me, Abraham Cambridge. I am going to help Rainey find Kade. I would prefer to have you by my side, but if you'd rather wait here, propping up the bar in Code Red, I will go alone. You disappoint me. Rainey has always been there for you, and the one time she asks for help you shut her out? You should be ashamed of yourself. We have an eternity to honeymoon, so get your head out of your ass and help us find him." She looked to Jonah next. "We're going to change into clothing more suitable for kicking vampire ass. Can you try and locate him, please? Thank you."

Without waiting for an answer, she picked up the right side of her dress and turned to Rainey, with a smile planted on her face. Janie giggled. Three male vampires and one human watched slack-jawed as the Queen of Eternal Island and Rainey walked arm in arm to the palace.


Chapter 2


Jonah slapped Abe on the back. "Come on, cousin. I know you aren't going to let her go it alone, so let's go get changed."

"What imaginary boyfriend?" Déus mumbled in a subdued tone as he fell into step between Jonah and Abe.

Jonah smiled as a low growl escaped Abe's throat. "Rainey has a dream-walker friend. She fell in love with him and we thought they were going to provide the island's next big wedding celebration. Then it turned out Julia was getting into his mind so she could get information about Ariana's whereabouts. Julia and Max kidnapped Ariana, and Abe and I swam to California to rescue her. She wanted to get her claws into Abe, and I guess Max wanted to wring my neck. Well, in short, Max and Julia are no more, and Ariana has proved what a vamp ass-kicking witch she really is. I guess, from what Rainey was saying, her dream-walker boyfriend is in some kind of danger from Julia's old mates, and Ariana has just agreed to go rescue him. So that's where we're all going. I can't imagine Abe letting her run into battle alone, still mortal, in the midst of some blood-crazed vampire gang." Abe snarled loudly and picked up his pace.

Déus was all on board with massacring bad vampires. God only knew how much he needed to let loose of some aggression. He just wasn't really sure he was on board to rescue someone Rainey was in love with. Rainey is mine. He shook his head quickly, as if to get the thought out of his head. The ache in his chest seemed to be getting worse. She's not mine. What the hell am I thinking? She is no more mine than I am hers. He blocked the thought from his mind and, tugging his tie free, raced to his room to change into something a little more comfortable.

***

Once they had changed into battle gear, Ariana sat on her bed and held Rainey's hand. "I don't know him personally, so I will need your link to find him. You told him to go to sleep, right?"

Rainey nodded. "Yes. I don't know if he'll be able to, but he agreed to try."

Ariana gripped both of Rainey's hands in hers. "You okay to come along?"

Rainey brightened and nodded vigorously.

"Close your eyes... Take me and Rainey to Kade's dream," Ariana whispered.

Their vision was suddenly obscured as everything went black. There was a faint, erratic heartbeat that worried Ariana. Everything started to get lighter and a handsome guy in swimming trunks and a shredded shirt lay on a beach in the sun.

"That's him!" Rainey shouted.

Kade heard her voice and his body snapped up off the sand like someone was shooting at him. He ran to her and grabbed her in his arms, hugging her tight to his dirty, blood-covered chest.

Ariana winced as she assessed the physical damage. It was clear he'd been chewed up and spat out. It was hard to see where one set of fang marks stopped and another began.

Rainey clung to him as she said, "We're coming to get you."

He started to object, but Ariana stepped forward.

"Hi, Kade. I'm Ariana. I am also a witch with very special talents. It shouldn't be a problem to find you and get you out of danger's way. I sense you're very weak." Ariana held out her hand, but stopped just before touching him. "Do you mind if I try something? I'm not sure it will work, but if it does it might give you enough strength to stay alive until we can find you."

Kade only nodded and Rainey stepped back so Ariana could work her magic.

Ariana had never tried healing someone while visiting their mind, but she could think of no reason why her healing shouldn't work. Everything she'd tried to do since she'd awakened her inner witch simply happened without too much drama, if she discounted the tree on fire incident or trying to use magic on herself. She raised her arms and pulled her emotions to the surface, concentrating on Kade's injuries and the loss of blood in his system.

After a few tingly seconds, Kade gasped, then smiled at her. "You're amazing."

"So they tell me," she said, smiling back at him. "Now hold tight and stay alive. I'd hate to know I've wasted all this effort for no reason."

Rainey shook her head as she cried joyful tears. "We'll see you soon. Jonah is going to track you. I know he won't let me down, even if the King is a royal pain in my –"

Ariana cleared her throat. "Abe will comply, Rainey, by order of the Queen."

Rainey chuckled. "We're coming, Kade."

"I'll be waiting. Be careful." He kissed her cheek.

"Take me and Rainey back to our own minds," Ariana said.


Chapter 3


Abe brooded as he pulled on his second boot. "I still don't understand why you feel obligated to save him, Ariana. He isn't anything to us."

She shot him a look from the opened door she was holding onto, and he could tell her patience was stretched to snapping point by his deliberate slowness. She knew full well he could tie a boot quicker than that. Even molasses moved faster. Abe was simply reluctant to share her company on his wedding night. Couldn't the damn rescue wait until tomorrow?

"Not yet. But Rainey is. Did she hesitate to come and get me when you asked her to? No. Has she been loyal to you and protected you for over seventeen years? Yes. I don't feel obligated to do anything; I am only helping a friend in need. She is more than just a valuable asset to the palace, Abe, she is your friend, and if you don't want to help your friends when they're in a jam, then you aren't the man I thought you were."

The bootlace flashed tied so fast, it buzzed, and in one step Abe had his arms wrapped around her. "I'm sorry. I am being selfish, I know. I've waited so long to have you all to myself that I find it hard to share you with anyone, even for an hour. Of course I want to help Rainey find her friend. I try every second to be the man you want me to be, the man you deserve. Sometimes I slip up. I'm not perfect. Thank God I have you to keep me in line." He smiled, his eyes searching for forgiveness. "Let's go get him."

He picked her up and ran to his Hummer. Jonah, Rainey, Trent and Déus were already in the garage, waiting for them. Michael and Ariana's parents were also there. Ariana went to hug her parents and Michael goodbye, while Abe walked to Rainey's side.

He looked at Rainey's grateful, tear-filled eyes.

"Thank y —" Rainey began.

Abe pulled her into a hug, cutting her off. She tensed in surprise, but then relaxed and hugged him back.

"I'm sorry. I was a fool, Rainey. You have always been there for me and I behaved like an ass the one time you asked for my help. No need for thank yous. I'm just doing what a friend should."

The tear dam broke, and Rainey hugged Abe tighter as she sobbed.

After a minute, Abe pulled back and looked at her wet face. "You want to fix that?" He pointed at her ruined makeup. "You're starting to look like Picasso's first attempt at drawing." Rainey laughed and mock-punched him on the arm. Abe danced neatly out of her way. "Right, guys. Everyone here and ready to go?"

"There are a few more vampires and witches from the Force assembling at the airport," Rainey said, extracting her mirror and some makeup removing wipes out of her small backpack. Abe stared for a second, reflecting on the female psyche. For all they knew, they were going to war, but Rainey had packed her makeup. Oblivious of having baffled the male standing before her, Rainey kept talking. "I have also called five of my witch friends in California, and Jonah has contacted about fifteen of his badass vamp buddies. They are all going to meet us when we land. It's only ten o'clock now, so we have about seven hours before the sun graces us with its imminent arrival."

Abe clapped his hands loudly. "Let's get started, then. I think everyone will fit in the Hummer okay. Ariana isn't sitting on anyone's lap, so, Rainey, take your pick," he said, hiding his smile. He opened Ariana's door and then slid behind the wheel and watched, amused, the spectacle he'd just initiated. Hopefully, Déus would recognize the chance he'd been offered and turn it to his advantage.

Rainey averted her eyes from Déus, who was smiling from ear to ear. She looked at Jonah, who quickly said, "No, Rainey, I am on strict orders to not touch any females for at least a month." He smiled. His interpretation of the promise he'd made to Lidia was a bit extreme, Abe knew. Lidia wouldn't have cared if Rainey sat on his lap on the way to the plane; she knew Rainey was like his little sister.

Rainey turned her pleading, yet resigned, glance to Trent, already knowing he would refuse her, as he was also married. "Amy wouldn't like it, Rainey, I'm sorry." He got in the back seat beside Jonah, leaving Rainey standing there, red faced, shooting daggers out of her eyes at Déus, who was grinning from ear to ear.

"You know, this looks very much like it might have been planned. Come on. I've sat on your lap before. You try anything, and my good friend in the front seat will make you regret it, I promise."

Abe's eyes darted to Ariana, worried she'd disapprove of his scheming, but she was smiling, too. So far, so good.

Déus held both his hands out in front of him, palms facing Rainey. "I will be a perfect gentleman."

She rolled her eyes and climbed on his lap. "That would be a new one. Just remember, even as a seat, you're still my last choice."

Déus' grin faltered and his brow creased.

A couple of minutes into the ride, Ariana huffed and spoke up. "Déus, what Jonah told you a bit ago is actually true. I can hear every thought in your mind. Please try to keep it PG."

Abe heard Rainey hit him and a muffled "ouch" soon followed.

"I wasn't touching you, I was just thinking about it," Déus mumbled as he rubbed his chest. "Anyway, you used to like me touching you."

"That was before I found out what a jerk you are."

"I have never been a jerk to you!" he growled.

"Ariana, do you think you could silence his vocal chords for the remainder of the trip?"

Ariana laughed and Abe spoke in a firm voice. "Settle down, kids."

"I'm thinking of shutting his brain off, as well. I wonder if I could do that," Ariana said, still laughing. Abe joined in.

There were seven people waiting by the jet when they pulled into the hangar.

"Some of you will have to sit on the floor; we don't have enough seats. My wife and I will be in the back bedroom. That should help with the overcrowding issue. No one is to disturb us until we land."

"Abe, it's a thirty-minute flight to California, at most. There is not enough time for you and Ariana to join the mile high club," Rainey said.

"Well, we'll get started, and finish up on the way back," Abe replied with a smile.

Ariana gave him a sympathetic look. "Honey, I may need to save my energy for the bad vampires. You don't want me passing out in the middle of the rescue, do you?"

"Damn! It's my wedding night and I don't even get to make love to my wife! Thanks a bunch, Rainey." Abe left the driver's seat and slammed the door in anger.

Ariana hastened to soften the blow of his temper tantrum as she and the rest of the crew climbed out of the Hummer. "Don't worry about it, Rainey. He'll be fine. Maybe not until tomorrow, but he will be fine."

Abe shook his head in wonder at his young wife's kindness. God, I love her! he said to himself.

They all climbed on board the island's private jet. Abe watched Rainey wait till last, in an obvious attempt to see where Déus was sitting and make sure she was as far away from him as the jet allowed. What she hadn't counted on was Déus' determination. The man had kept her a seat. Very considerate, Abe thought, even if it was the seat right next to Déus.

Rainey didn't seem to appreciate his thoughtful gesture. She growled under her breath and stomped off to sit among the people on the floor, with her back to the wall and looking resolutely toward the cockpit so there would be no chance of accidentally making eye contact with him.

***

Déus felt a pang in the center of his chest and quickly dismissed it. Why was the damn woman being so stubborn? Yes, he understood she felt hurt seven years ago, when he'd left without saying goodbye, but it wasn't like the goodbye would have changed anything. He needed to get away, so he did. He would have gone with or without her approval. No need to dig up all that history. He only wanted to talk about the present. And possibly the future.

Actually, he had to talk to her before they picked up her dream guy. Just talk. Talking wouldn't hurt, would it? It seemed petty and childish of her to block him so completely — not a word, not a gaze, nothing.

The jet taxied down the runway and began to pick up speed.

"Oh, for Christ's sake. Rainey, just talk to the guy. He's driving me crazy with the weeping and whining that's going on in his head!" Ariana exclaimed. Rainey turned to look at her, avoiding his face with utmost skill.

He might have been feeling a little sorry for himself, but that wasn't whining by any stretch of imagination. Déus resented Ariana's accusation. He slanted a glance at Ariana and put her right. "I wasn't weeping or whining!"

"What do you call it, then? 'Cause it damn sure didn't feel like you were floating on cloud nine. More like the seventh syde of Hell –"

"I don't want to know, Ariana. He's nothing to me," Rainey interrupted, keeping her gaze averted.

Déus ground his teeth. Damn stubborn female! What part of 'need to talk' did she not get? He rushed to her, picked her up and held her at arm's length. He glared into her tear-filled electric blue eyes that nearly matched his own. Oh, no. She was about to cry. He had never seen her cry before, and he certainly didn't want to see it happen now. But what was her problem? His Rainey was indestructible; she could cope with anything life threw at her with a smile on her lips or the flip of a finger.

Frustration unlocked his voice box. "What is your problem? What have I done to piss you off and make you hate me so much? We used to be tight, Rainey. I thought we still were."

Her face filled with rage and a tear leaked over the edge. "Let me go!" she screamed. "I hate you, I hate you with every piece of my soul. You left me here all alone, and you didn't even have the courtesy to tell me goodbye. You said — the day before you left, in fact — that if you ever did leave, you would soon come back. Seven years, Déus! Seven years with no goodbye, no calls, no texts, not knowing whether you were even alive! I loved you, Déus, and you shattered my heart into a million pieces. You think I should just forget all that anguish and pain, all that torture, and open my arms to you so you can do it all over again? Screw you!"

Déus set her down and backed slowly away, his eyes never leaving hers. He was shocked and appalled. Completely bewildered. He hadn't known her feelings for him were so intense. The pang in his chest grew ever more painful and he unconsciously pressed his hand to it, trying to ease the discomfort a little. It made no difference; his chest was still hurting like a son of a bitch. What the hell was going on? He didn't love her, he knew he didn't. Why did her words cut so deeply? And that look on her face — her eyes accused and dismissed him, neon blue through her tears. He couldn't look at her like this, not now that he knew he was the reason for her pain.

"Rainey —"

She put her hand out to stop him. "Don't. I don't need to hear it, Armadéus. I'm over you."

She walked back to her spot on the floor and dropped to the ground. She put her forehead on her knees and hid behind her folded arms.

"Ariana —" Déus started.

"Sit down, Armadéus!" Her voice was harsh, unforgiving, disgusted even. And who could blame her? What kind of man was so completely ignorant of his woman's feelings? What did that say about him? Déus sat back down, hung his head in his hands and slumped forward in his seat, with his elbows on his knees. No one moved to take the spare seat next to him.

***

Ariana watched Déus and Rainey for a short while, then decided to let them deal with their little drama all by themselves — after all, they were hardly teenagers on a first date. Time to get organized. She turned to Jonah and took his hands in hers, so he could get a bead for Kade. But Jonah only sat, his fingers linked with hers, with a big smile on his face. A low growl rippled through the cabin and Ariana's eyes cut quickly to Abe as he started to rise from his seat.

When not on Lidia, the vast majority of Jonah's thoughts were directed toward irritating his cousin. And his strategy was working. Ariana decided to intervene before things got out of hand. One drama was plenty enough for any one flight.

"Hurry up, Jonah, or he's gonna rip your head off."

"I'm trying, I'm trying," he chuckled. Ariana's eyes narrowed to thin slits. Surely, he knew better than to lie to her. "It's a little harder if you haven't ever met the person before… Okay, okay, I think I found him. Oh God, you guys aren't going to believe this. At least, you're not going to want to. Hey, Elton!" Jonah shouted in the general direction of the cockpit.

"Yeah!" Elton yelled back.

"Looks like you're gonna land this bird at the Compton/Woodley Airport."

Rainey's head popped up. "Compton?! I've got to call everyone who was supposed to meet us at John Wayne Airport and let them know there's been a change of plans. Wait, what exactly did you get, Jonah? Why are we landing there?"

"We're landing there 'cause your boy's in East Compton, that's why, and he's with about a hundred vampires."

Déus growled at Jonah's comment and reclined in his seat. Ariana watched him rub his chest. It wasn't hard to work out why Déus had reacted to Jonah's description of Rainey's latest love interest, but why did he act as if he was in pain? Vampires didn't get ill.

She chanced a quick peek at his thoughts. There was pain there — sharp, like a stab to the heart, and a lot of worry about Rainey walking into the heart of a vampire mob to rescue someone she hadn't even met face to face yet. Déus' gaze swept over the plane, taking in Abe's impromptu army and quickly arriving to the conclusion that they would be hugely outnumbered, regardless of how many people would join them at the airport. She had to agree with him there, but there was nothing they could do about that. Déus' thoughts shifted to the possibility of perhaps leaving as soon as the plane touched down, to spare himself the agony of watching Rainey with someone else, but he soon decided he couldn't trust anyone to be able to protect her as well as he would. He'd stay just long enough to make sure Rainey got home safe, and then he would get out of her life, altogether. When he reached that conclusion, he grabbed his chest and a muted "Ouch!" came through his lips. His brow was scrunched up in obvious pain.

Ariana slipped into the vacant seat next to Déus and touched his chest. His eyes flew open and he jumped. Ariana held his gaze, trying to reassure him, and then brought her energy to the surface and started her customary exploration, to see what was not right in his body. Kidneys — fine. Liver — fine. Stomach — empty, but fine. She almost skipped over his heart, as the organ was redundant in a vampire's body, but decided to check it anyway at the last moment. There was a rip in it. Strange. How did an unmoving muscle rip? It couldn't kill him, like it would a human, but she could see why he was in so much pain. Ariana quickly repaired the tear, then looked at him and smiled.

He was awestruck. "Pain's gone. What did you do?"

"It was nothing fatal, don't worry. You just had a broken heart," she said matter-of-factly as she stood up and went back to sit in Abe's lap.

Déus shot up in his seat and twisted to stare at her. "A what?!"

"You had a rip in your heart. It was broken. I repaired it. You're good as new." She kissed her husband then, a not so subtle hint to let Déus know that she was done talking with him. Abe deepened the kiss, and soon her hands were in his hair.

***

Déus looked at Abe and Ariana and smiled. He'd never thought in a million years that Abe would take the plunge, and now look at him. The poor guy was wrapped around her little finger so tight, it had to be cutting off his circulation. For a second, he envied them. He wanted what they had — love. A tingling sensation filled his chest then, and he nodded to himself in agreement. Blinking a few times in confusion, he cleared his throat and quickly gathered himself. What in God's name was that all about? No, he didn't want love, but he found that denial didn't quite fit right.

Even as he was saying it to himself, his eyes focused on Rainey, who was burning up her cell phone telling people about the change in location. Her eyes briefly met his but didn't show any emotion. None. There was no 'I'm still in love with you', or any 'I hate your freaking guts', just sort of a 'I don't give a rat's ass anymore' kind of look, and that hurt more than blistering hatred.

"What's the big deal with East Compton anyway?" Déus heard Ariana ask.

"The crime rate is through the roof. You wouldn't want to get stranded there for any reason," Jonah replied.

"You are talking about humans, right? You're a vampire, Jonah. Hello! They can't hurt you. Well… unless they have a can of hairspray and a lighter." Abe chuckled and Déus wondered what else he'd missed while away. "We are about to enter what seems to be the den of God knows how many unhinged, badass vampires, and you are worried about humans?"

"I just don't want to kill any humans. The vampires don't bother me."

Abe bumped knuckles with him.

A beep sounded overhead, signaling that Elton was going to speak. "Attention, ladies and gentlemen. I hope you've enjoyed your flight aboard Eternal Airways. We are clear for landing at the Compton/Woodley Airport. ETA is four minutes. Please remain seated until the aircraft has come to a complete stop. Thank you."

Rainey laughed. "He's so melodramatic sometimes."

Her laugh was hypnotic, and music to Déus' ears. Why was it now that he was noticing every little detail about her, when only a few moments before, saying goodbye for good was what his mind desired? When had she morphed into a magnet? For some inexplicable reason, he wanted to see her smile and hear her laugh for way longer than a few hours. He wanted to stay. He would stay. They may be going to get this punk, but Déus made up his mind right then, 'her boy' had competition.

Ariana shot him a look, then swiftly glanced away.

Of course. The Queen could hear his thoughts. Déus said a silent 'Sorry' for the insensitive thoughts she'd had to endure, and got ready to disembark.

Rainey was the first one off the plane. "I'm freaking starving. You think us mortals can fuel up before we go into war?"

Déus was one step behind her. "What do you want? I'll run and get it."

She breezed right past him as if he were invisible and went to Ariana, all the while grinning as if she'd just had a brilliant idea. "Hey, Ariana, how about some McDonalds? We have time to get some McNuggets before everyone gets here."

Ariana's eyes lit up and she hooked her arm through Rainey's. "Lead the way. I've been craving McNuggets since you woke me up in the mental hospital."

That comment surprised Déus. It seemed he had some serious catching up to do, if he was going to stick around. Half of what people were saying made absolutely no sense to him. He made a face and turned to Abe. "You married a crazy woman?"

Abe rolled his eyes as he stood behind his wife and put his arms around her. "It's a long story. I'll tell you one day, when the girls are out shopping." His expression turned stern. "Or when she goes back to work and I have nothing to do but worry."

Ariana smiled and kissed him lovingly. Déus tilted his head involuntarily, but there was no kiss for him, though Rainey was close enough; all she would have had to do was stretch. The empty feeling on his cheek felt sharper than a slap. Rainey just stared at him with a stony expression.

At least she'd noticed him. Déus decided even that a poison dart stare was better than being ignored. Marginally happier, he pondered what to do or say next. The girls were discussing transportation — that had good potential for wringing another little reaction out of Rainey.

"How are we going to get where we need to go tonight, including McDonalds?"

Rainey pointed to a group of people standing by a bunch of parked cars. "Them."

Ariana's eyes widened. "We're going to steal vehicles?"

Rainey laughed. "No, Ariana. Those are our friends. Come on, I'll introduce you."

Déus stuck close to Rainey, unable to allow too much distance between them. He was only trying to protect her. For now. This part of California was dangerous — not to him, but it was for Rainey. He didn't think he would be able to live with himself if something happened to her.

What the hell? Why did something happening to Rainey suddenly matter so much? He always cared for her, but somehow this felt different. While before it was care, now it was more of an obsession. And why did he feel the need to fight this guy to the death, for her? What did he have to offer Rainey? Marriage? Kids? No, that wasn't his style; it never had been.

They all walked up to the group. Rainey hugged a couple of people he didn't know, and Jonah shook hands and bumped fists with numerous other people. Everyone was introduced and the plan was that one vampire would accompany all the witches to the nearest McDonalds to eat.

Déus, Jonah and Abe all walked in the same direction, toward the vehicles the witches would be transported in.

"What are you guys doing?" Rainey asked. "We don't need this amount of protection. Actually, we don't need any protection, 'cause we have Ariana."

"My wife isn't going out in this town without me," Abe replied in a stern voice. He took Ariana's hand in his.

Rainey accurately interpreted her King and High Vampire's body language. There was no way he would be separated from his wife. "Fine then, you can come. But we don't need any other hangers-on."

Damn, Déus thought. Still, he had to at least try. "There's no reason why there can't be two vampires to protect you," he stated nonchalantly and continued walking toward the parked cars.

"I can think of a good one: you're spoiling my appetite. Now get lost!" Rainey climbed in the back seat of a Suburban, beside Ariana and Abe. She slammed the door without the slightest glance his way.

Déus stood there, stunned, for a minute, staring as the vehicle pulled away. When he managed to unscramble his brain and make his limbs work again, he turned back to Jonah, who was laughing so hard, he was almost on his knees.

"What's so damn funny?"

"Hell, don't knock it! I call that progress."

Déus growled out a frustrated mumble containing the words 'bloody', 'woman' and 'damned', plus a few others that seemed to only make Jonah laugh harder.

"The longer you fight it, the harder it's going to hit you when it does catch up with you. Not if, my good friend. When," Jonah said.

"I haven't the slightest idea what you're talking about, Jonah. Do you think you could spell it out for me in English, please? It's been a while since I spoke idiot."

His reaction pushed Jonah into another laughing fit. "No, actually, you just spoke it, so you're still fully conversant in idiot! But, yeah, I'll spell it out and use small words, so even an idiot can understand. L…O…V…E. You've got it bad, man."

"Don't be stupid —"

"You know, I didn't think it would ever catch up with me either, especially since I've known this girl for fifteen years, but it did! It caught up and grabbed a hold so tight; it's a part of me now. Doesn't look like it's gonna let go any time soon, either." Jonah chuckled. "And you know what's funny? I don't want it to let go. I've never even kissed her, but I know that when I do… it will feel like heaven."

"You are crazy, man. I'm not in love with anyone. But I am curious to know who your special lady is."

Jonah sucked in a breath and let it out. His smile spread a mile wide. "She isn't mine yet; I have a few stipulations to meet first. You gotta promise to keep quiet about it — only Abe, and I guess Rainey and Ariana know about us." He stared up to Déus' face, waiting until he nodded in agreement. "It's Lidia."

Déus' eyes grew wide. "But she's with Max."

"Max is dead, you idiot! I told you that. Ariana got rid of both him and Julia."

"So you're in love with Lidia?"

"Head over heels. I'll love her till the end of the world, and the twins, too."

Déus' eyes lit up. "You're going to be a father! That's great, man!"

Jonah shook his head. "God, you're slow today! Have you heard anything I've said? I've never even kissed her, Déus. The twins are Max's, but I have every intention to help her raise them, if she will have me. I just have a test to pass, first, to prove I'm worthy of her love."

Déus' felt more and more confused by the second. "A test? To prove…"

"Yeah, man."

"To whom?"

"To Abe, and Lidia, too. And to myself. Abe is Lidia's father, Déus. She's known since she was thirteen, but he only found out a few nights ago."

"That's crazy. So… how do you feel about him being your father-in-law one day?"

"I'm excited about it, but I don't think he shares my enthusiasm." Jonah bowed his head. "I got in trouble about six months ago and he kicked me off the island. I was helping one of my friends get away. The boat was coming ashore when Abe and the rest of the Force showed up. Things got told, punches got thrown; you know how it is... I fought Abe on it, but he still sentenced the guy to death and kicked me off the island. I didn't dare come back until about a week ago."

"I have missed so much, being away." Déus leaned back against the hood of a car and crossed his legs at the ankle.

Jonah shook his head. "Nah, the other six and a half years you were gone were pretty boring. Now you're here… Don't fight it, Armadéus. You will lose. I recognize the signs — this is love, dude. Rainey might act like she hates you, but everyone knows she doesn't. She's not mad at you, really. Okay, maybe a little. She's more like trying to stay mad at you and getting madder that she can't. You'll just have to make her see that, too. Make her trust you with her heart once again. You'll have to earn that trust back; nobody else can do that for you. I know; I've been there, too."

Déus let his shoulders slump, and turned his face skyward. "Even if I was in love with Rainey, I don't deserve her. I realize now that leaving the way I did wasn't fair to her, but I didn't know the depth of her feelings for me."

"It wouldn't have mattered. You would have left anyway."

Déus nodded. "You're right. I was so blind."

"Not anymore," Jonah said, and then he chuckled. "Just slow. I could help, you know?"

"How?"

"Drill a hole in your skull to let the stupid out."

"Har, har. Very funny." Déus swatted at Jonah's head, but he sidestepped him.

A few other vampires and witches showed up in the time Rainey had been gone, and Jonah got busy shaking hands. Déus wasn't into meeting anyone new, so he distanced himself from the crowd, picked out a nice little piece of concrete, and paced until her return.