CHAPTER 2

Jesse’s cheeks paled. Not that, as a ghost, he had much color to begin with, so whenever he lost what little he had, it scared her.

He gave her a cheesy grin. “Looks like I was wrong about the Daimons choosing this spot, hull?”

Simone stepped back. “Yeah, Jess, bad call.”

The Daimon turned toward Jesse and smiled. “How thoughtful. We have three for the price of one, guys. Guess Apollo is in a good mood tonight.”

As the Daimons made a move for Gloria, Simone pulled her stun gun from her pocket and rushed them. There was no way she was going to let them hurt the poor ghost. “Stay away from her!”

The first Daimon dodged the electric prongs that flew from the stun gun toward him, and knocked her back. Before she could counter attack, he had the stun gun out of her hand. “Don’t be jealous, baby. We’ll get to you in a jiffy.”

“Jiffy?” The malevolent, mocking tone sent a shiver down her spine. “What land of pathetic wuss uses the word ‘jiffy’?”

Simone froze at the voice that was so deep she felt it resonate inside her bones.

Out of the darkness moved a shadow so large, it dwarfed her. An instant later, the Daimon went flying over her head to slam into the wall next to Jesse. The Daimon hit it so hard, she was amazed he didn’t splatter like a bug. And he was quickly joined by another Daimon who landed on top of him.

“Open the portal,” the stranger growled at the third Daimon he now held in his fist.

“I ain’t opening shit.”

“Wrong answer.”

The Daimon joined the other two.

The shadow bore down on her like a mountain. Sinister. Angry. Cold. Determined.

She shone the light on him and felt her breath leave her in one sudden gasp. Easily over six feet tall, he had long, black hair that was tousled around Features as perfect as any actor she’d ever seen and eyes so blue they all but glowed in the darkness. He had his jaw set as if he were attempting to keep his fury leashed, and failing miserably. Every surew of his body rippled like a feral beast on the prowl. He was seduction and he was death.

Wearing only a pair of jeans and a black T-shirt, he appeared immune to the cold. His shoulders were wide, his waist narrow, and there was an aura around him that said absolute killer. No fear.

No mercy.

Those icy blue eyes penetrated with hatred and warning. And they sent shivers over her. “This is die part where you need to run, little human. Don’t look back.”

Those words angered her to the same level he appeared to operate at. She wasn’t incompetent or weak. “I’m not little.” She elbowed the Daimon who was running at her in the throat before she flipped him onto the ground and lacked him.

The newcomer scoffed at her show of power. “Then let death become you.” He tinned and pulled the Daimon she’d attacked off the ground. He plowed him into the wall so hard, it left a dent in the brick. The Daimon grunted and cursed.

“Open the portal,” he demanded of the Daimon, whose nose and mouth were bleeding profusely.

As if in response to his words, a bright light flashed at the rear of the alley, right in a corner.

The man dropped the Daimon in his hands and headed for the light, but before he could enter, a giant, blond Daimon came out of it.

This wasn’t one of the normal Daimons she’d seen before.

Dressed in black leather, he had the aura of a trained fighter. Of someone who was used to killing and making the death as painful as possible.

Simone couldn’t move at the frightening sight. At least seven feet tall, the Daimon actually laughed and exposed his long sharp fangs at the dark-haired man an instant before he attacked him.

Fists and lacks were flying faster than she could follow. Apparently no braver than schoolgirls, the other three Daimons ran toward the sheet to get away from the combatants.

Simone stumbled away as the Daimon knocked the man against the wall. The man let out a huff as he collided with the stone. The Daimon landed a punch against his jaw so solid that she could feel it herself.

The man took it with a grimace before he head-butted the Daimon, who staggered back. But the Daimon didn’t go far before he reached into his coat and pulled out a large gold bracelet. He snapped it around the man’s wrist.

The man hissed as if the bracelet burned his skin. The Daimon kicked him back, then turned to her.

This would be a good line to take the man’s advice and run like hell.

Simone didn’t know what the Daimon intended, but whatever it was;, it boded rotten for her. She ran for the street. The Daimon caught her and slung her to the ground. She scrambled to get away, but he was inhumanly strong and much faster than she was.

He grabbed her arm and shoved her over onto her back. She tried to lack him. It didn’t work. He pushed her sleeve back to expose her forearm.

Rather than bite her, he snapped another bracelet onto her wrist. Pain tore through her arm with such ferocity that she wouldn’t have been surprised to see her arm shredded.

She struggled to breathe for the pain of it.

Meanwhile the Daimon laughed at the tears that gathered in her eyes. He smiled evilly. “Time for you to die, human.”

Before he could carry out his promise, Jesse picked up her toolbox and hit him across the back. The Daimon turned on him with a hiss made rabid by his razor-sharp fangs and lunged.

One heartbeat later, the stranger was there, pulling her off the ground and shoving her toward the street. “Move your ass.”

“What do you think I was doing?”

“Picking your nose.” He paused to sling his hand out at the Daimon after them. The leather-clad Daimon recoiled as if something invisible had blasted him.

An instant later, that same invisible force slammed into her and sent her flying. She landed on the ground with a thud so hard, it knocked the wind from her lungs.

“Breathe, Sim, breathe,” Jesse said as he appeared beside her. He grabbed the keys; from her pocket and put them in her hand. “Now get your butt up!” He ran to her car and opened the door for her.

Simone followed him as fast as she could. As she got in, someone shoved her from behind. She looked back to see the dark-haired stranger. He pushed her into the passenger seat and climbed into the car after her.

Even more surprising than that, he glared at Jesse, who was still outside. “Get in, ghost-boy, or get eaten. I don’t care which and I’m not waiting.”

Something struck the car.

Turning to look out, Simone gasped at the sight of the leather-clad Daimon perched like a giant ornament on her white hood. He moved to punch the windshield. The man beside her gunned the engine and knocked the Daimon face first into the glass before he slammed on the brakes and sent him flying from the hood.

The man jerked the wheel and sent the car careening into traffic, over the median. Tires squealed. Cars crashed around them as horns began blaring.

Simone crossed herself and prayed as she watched headlights coming at them, fast and furious. Her hands shaking from fright, she budded herself in while Jesse screamed out like a terrified child in the backseat. As if he could die.

The man snatched the wheel an instant before they would have hit a dump truck head-on, and sent the car back into the correct lane. Still, cars around them slammed on brakes and swerved to get out of their way. “This would probably be easier if I knew how to drive, huh?”

Her eyes widened as she looked at the man beside her. “I hope you’re joking.”

“Not really,” he said as he clipped the fender on a parked car.

Simons didn’t know what horrified her most. The man beside her or what her insurance rates would be if he didn’t stop hitting things.

“Watch out!” she screamed as he headed for another truck. He swerved a heartbeat before it would have plowed into them.

By the time he tinned into an alley and slammed on the brakes hard enough to put a bruise on her shoulder from the seat belt, she was ready to jump out of the car and take a chance on the road rather than die in a twisted heap of burning metal.

The man turned in the seat to look at her. With near perfect features, he was ruggedly handsome. Blue eyes showed intelligence, if not kindness, He had one muscular arm braced on the dash and the other on the seat. He would be gorgeous if he wasn’t so frightening. “I have no idea what I’m doing. Given that, I think I should surrender this thing to someone who knows how to properly operate it.”

Simone gulped for air as she tried to get her heart to stop pounding. She plied her grip loose from the door handle. “Who the hell are you?”

He glanced at die bracelet on his wrist, then snatched at it as if trying to jerk it off. “Xypher, and you are?”

“Pissed off. You wrecked my car, shoved me around, and are a complete and utter dickhead!”

“Dear God,” he said dryly, “what a mouthful— your mom must have really wanted a son. Mind if I call you ‘Pissed’ for short? The rest of that is just too much to say every time I want your attention.”

Jesse laughed from the backseat.

Simone glared at him.

Jesse at least had the good grace to look contrite. “Sorry, but you should be in my shoes. You two are hysterical.”

“Careful, ghost-boy, or I’ll summon a Daimon and feed you to it.”

Simone was stunned. “You can hear him?”

Xypher gave her a blank stare before he replied dryly, “Can’t you?”

“Yes. But no one else has ever heard him before.”

“Guess you’re not so special after all, hull?”

She screwed her face up at him. “You are so rude.”

“No shit, human.” He started tearing at the bracelet with his teeth.

She cringed at the sound of enamel on metal. She hated to hear teeth scrape like that. “What are you doing?”

He let out a frustrated sigh before he went back to pulling at the bracelet. “You have no idea what happened to us just now, do you?”

“Aside from being assaulted by you and a group of the damned, is there something else I should know?”

He held her arm up to show her the bracelet that matched his. “Yeah. Since both of us are wearing these I’m going to take a wild guess that they bind us together somehow. ‘Cause, let’s face it, the Daimons don’t usually tag you before they bite. They’re not Marlin Perkins out to study us.”

Simone looked down at her arm as a bad feeling went through her. “What are you saying?” She actually knew, but she wanted to hear it from him before she was willing to believe it.

“I’m saying that if I were you, I wouldn’t get too far away from me until we figure out what exactly these are and what they do. Knowing the gods as I do, I’m sure we’re fucked somehow.”

  Knowing the gods . ..

Oh, this was going from bad to worse. “What are you?” she asked,  terrified of what answer he might give her.

His look was; as cold as the wind outside. “Don’t ask questions you don’t really want answered.”

“Um, guys …” Jesse said, interrupting them. “The Daimons have a car and they’re coming after us.”

Xypher cursed.

In the blink of an eye, Simone went from the passenger side to the driver’s.

Xypher was now in her seat. “Can you get us out of here?”

She should probably question what had just happened, but given the fact that one of her best friends was a ghost and the other worked for immortal Vampire slayers, she was used to the unusual on a daily basis. What mattered right now was getting free.

“Defensive Driving 101. Fasten your seat belt.” She threw the car in reverse and headed for the Daimons, who quickly swerved to miss her. Simone did a quick K-turn in the center of the road and headed back toward the alley where they’d met.

“Nice work.”

She was amazed that the surly Xypher was capable of giving her a compliment. “It pays to hang around the police. You pick up all lands of useful things.”

Jesse popped his head up in the front seat, between them. “They’re still behind us.”

“Not for long.” Xypher rolled down the window and he pulled a gun out of his pants pocket. He opened fire on the car following them.

Simone’s eyes widened as she heard the tire blow out. The car skidded sideways before it turned over in the street “Nice shooting.Tex.”

He pulled the mag out and replaced it with another one. “I have an unfair advantage. I can make the bullets go where I want them to. I took out the Daimons before I KO’d the car.”

Simone cut into a small parking lot, then stopped again. She turned in the seat to face him. His cheeks were reddened from his exertion and the wind burn on his skin as he’d filed on the Daimons. The color made his eyes stand out even more.

He looked gorgeous and human, and yet. . . “What exactly are you?”

Xypher didn’t answer as he rubbed a hand over his brow. “We have to figure out these bracelets before it gets any darker. I don’t like playing with unknown factors.”

She gave him a droll stare. “You’re not alone on Planet Ego. I, too, want to know what I’m dealing with, and right now. Psycho, you’re the most crucial unknown factor in my world. So answer my question. What are you?”

The sneer was back on his face. “That’s not so easily answered, human.”

She turned the car off, pulled the keys out, and folded her arms over her chest. “Try.”

Xypher ground his teeth as he fought the urge to kill her. After all, she was just another human, albeit a cute one. Human, nonetheless. Normally, he wouldn’t have hesitated to put her out of his misery, but he had a really bad feeling about the bracelet on his arm. The fact that they both wore them probably meant their lives, if not actual souls, were linked together somehow. Which meant that if she died, there was probably a good bet that he would, too.

Dammit. She’d have to live until he figured this out.

He considered lying to her. But why bother? She’d seen the Daimons, some of his powers, and what the hell? There was a ghost in the backseat who appeared to be a friend of hers. The way she’d acted so far said that she was at least familiar with the supernatural.

What was a little more?

“How up are you on Greek mythology?” he asked her.

“Zeus is the king, right?”

Xypher snorted. “He thinks he is most days. Personally, I think he’s a pompus ass who should be bitch-slapped by Hera at least once in his existence.”

Simone winced as she realized that he was going to be somehow related to them . . . Yeah, her luck was improving by the minute. “So what has Zeus got to do with this?”

“Not much really. You’re the one who brought him ip.”

She let out a tired breath of exasperation. “I’m getting a headache and you’re still avoiding my question.”

“Fine,” he said simply. “I’m a Skotos.”

She scowled at the unfamiliar word. “That means what? You have toe jam?”

He looked less than amused by her question. “No, human, it means I used to be a dream god.”

Well, he was kind of dreamy . . .

Oh, no, Sim, you’re not really buying into his baloney, are you? It seemed so far-fetched and yet the Dark-Hunters Tate worked for were an army of immortal warriors created by the goddess Artemis to protect mankind.

Yeah, it’d taken her a while to swallow that reality. Arid if she believed that Tate wasn’t crazy and that the Daimons were real—because she’d seen them more times than she wanted to—then she had no choice except to buy this farm tale, too.

Taking a deep breath to brace herself for the rest of his story, she tensed. “And now you are?”

“The walking dead.”

With images of the Daimons trying to eat her running through her head, Simone shot out of the car. All she could think of was escaping him before he made a meal out of her.

She didn’t get very far.

Xypher flashed himself in front of her and caught her against his chest. “I told you not—”

She clipped him hard in the throat.

Cursing, he let go of her as he struggled to breathe.

Xypher glared at her as he imagined tearing her into bloody pieces. Angry beyond tolerance, he slung his hand out and pinned her to the wall behind her. His throat throbbing, he stalked toward her intending to make her pay for her attack.

He’d been hit enough in his life . . .

“Do that again,” he growled between clenched teeth, “and, bracelet or no bracelet, I’ll tear your head off and use it for a doorstop.”

Simone felt fear crawling down her spine, but she wasn’t about to let him see it. “What do you want with me?”

“Not a damn thing. All I want is an entrance into the Daimon hell so that I can sit and kill an old friend. You’re just the poor sap who got caught in the crossfire.”

He released her so fast that Simone almost fell. She caught herself and stood as tall as she could, but it was far from intimidating since he was a full head taller than her. “I don’t like being threatened, lied to, or manipulated. You’d do well to remember mat,” she said.

He sneered at her bravado. “Or what you’re going to snivel at me?”

Jesse started for him but before he could strike Xypher, Xypher turned and caught him by the throat. Throwing Jesse to the ground, he drew back to hit him, then caught himself before he completed the punch.

He moved away.

Jesse gaped at her as he pushed himself to his feet.

Simone was stunned. Though Jesse could move things, no one had ever been able to touch him before. “How can you touch him?”

Xypher crossed his anus over his chest. “I still have a lot of my god powers, but not all of them, and the ones I have keep coming and going without any predictability. No doubt courtesy of Hades and his sick sense of humor.”

Jesse stared at her in disbelief. “I think we’re going to have to believe him. No one’s been able to touch me since the night I died.”

Swallowing, Simone nodded her agreement, What Xypher had just done was impossible and unexplainable. “All right. Let’s start over. You’re a dream god with screwed-up powers who is out to kill someone. And these …” She held up her arm with the bracelet. “Are an unfortunate gift.”

He nodded. “For all I know, these little Tinker-toys could explode and kill us. We’ve got to get them off.”

You think? She bit back the sarcasm, sensing it wouldn’t help the situation or his cranky mood. “Okay. I think I know someone who can help us.”

“You?” He sneered. “You know someone.” He laughed.

Oh, that offended her. “Hey, I happen to know a lot of people. Most of them are highly unusual.”

“Yeah, and do any of them have a connection to a Greek god?”

“As a matter of fact they do.” She raked him with a smug look. “They happen to work for Artemis.”

He sobered instantly. “You know the Dark-Hunters?”

“Not personally, but I know a Squire.”

“Take me to him.”

Those words went over her like ice down a gown in the middle of the night. “You are one seriously bossy SOB. Who died and made you …”

Simone paused as she realized that if he was telling the truth, then the man really was a god. Which would answer her question. And it explained a lot about his ego and pushiness. “Never mind. Get in the car and let’s find Tate. If you’re right about these things exploding, then we need to hurry.”

They were in the car instantly.

Simone shook her head to clear it as a foreign buzz whispered in her ears. “Wow. Can you take us to Tate’s office like that?”

“Only if I’ve been to it first. I have to know where I’m going to perfect it. Otherwise we could turn up in a wall or someplace foul.”

Foul was bad. She definitely didn’t want to do that. Implantation in a wall wouldn’t be much better.

Jesse appeared in the backseat. “By the way, did you guys realize that Gloria vanished during the chase? I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.”

Sadness gripped her as she started the car. “I’m sure it’s bad. But we’ll worry about her after I talk to Tate. Unless you can find her in the nether plane, there’s not a lot we can do about her for now.”

Fear flashed in Jesse’s brown eyes. “Yeah, right. Remember what happened the last time I did that? It’s not an experience I want to rush back to.”

Neither did she. Poor Jesse had almost gotten swallowed by a Daimon.

Simone headed toward Tate’s office and picked up her phone from the console. She dialed his number to make Sure he was there.

He answered on the fourth ring. “Hey, my love. I just got off the phone with the Squires,”

She slid a glance to Xypher, who was sitting there looking grim and irritable. “That’s great, but right now I have a really pressing problem.”

“You find something?”

“More like something found me.”

“What do you mean?” Tate asked, his voice full of fear.

Simone considered the best way to tell him what had happened. But she wasn’t one to beat around the bush. Besides, if Tate worked for the Dark-Hunters, maybe he knew what a Dream-Hunter was. “While I was looking over things, a group of Daimons showed up and so did … a Skotos.”

Tate laughed nervously. “You’re shitting me, right?”

Xypher cocked a handsome brow at her as if he could hear her conversation.

“No,” she said, dragging the word out, “and I take it you know what mat is, then.”

“Absolutely. Were you hurt?”

“Scuffed a bit.” She turned left onto Canal. “But the point of this is the Daimons slapped something on my wrist and the Skotos’, too. We don’t know what it is and we need to find someone who does.”

“You need an oracle.” Tate made that sound so easy.

Simone shook her head. “Yeah, and we’re just a little far from Delphi, hon.”

“You don’t have to go to Greece, boo. You know Julian Alexander, right?”

She frowned at the familiar name. “The hot classics professor?” “Not that I personally consider him hot, but yeah.”

She ignored his sarcasm. “You’re not seriously telling me that he’s an oracle who speaks to the gods?”

Tate laughed evilly. “Brace yourself, boo. He’s the son of Aphrodite.”

Of course he was . . . Why should anything in the world make sense? Dear Lord, it wasn’t like she wasn’t sitting beside one of the hottest men on the planet who was a god himself. Or that she had a goofy teenage ghost in her backseat mouthing the words to the Tears for Fears song “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.”

It only made sense that the hottie in the classics department was a demigod, too . . .

“I just knew I wasn’t going to like that answer,” she muttered. “And to think, all this time I just thought he was a cute teacher.”

“And all your students think you’re eccentric for talking to yourself when they catch you having conversations with Jesse.”

“Of course they do. Okay, how do I find him?”

“Let me give you his number.”

Simone repeated the number to Jesse to help her remember it. Hanging up from Tate, she immediately called Julian.

He answered on the third ring.

“Dr. Alexander?”

“Yes?”

“I don’t know if you remember me, but we’ve met at a couple of faculty functions. I’m Dr. Simone Dubois—”

“The ME and pathology professor . . . Yes, I remember you.”

That was impressive since she was highly unremarkable. She was average height, average weight, with curly dark brown hair and hazel-brown eyes, and she normally wore beige and browns or a white lab coat. As a rule, she never stuck in people’s memories, In fact, her senior high school paper had once voted her Most Likely to Be Forgotten . . . or Sat On By Mistake. The fact that Dr. Alexander remembered her gave her a bit of an unfounded thrill. “Good, ’cause I’m in a bit of a pickle with something.”

“And that would be?” Even over the phone she could hear the reservation in his tone.

Xypher snatched the phone from her hand and started speaking to Julian in a language she couldn’t even begin to identify. That being said, the smooth, lyrical quality of it was incredibly sexy. It was the kind of tone that could make a woman hot even if he were ordering pizza. And she hated the fact it was affecting her.

Good-looking or not, he was a jerk and the last thing any woman needed to do was feed his massive, pushy ego.

After a few minutes, he held the phone out to her. “He’s going to give you directions to his house.”

“Thanks,” she said dryly. She took the phone from him. “Dr. Alexander?”

“Call me Julian.”

She listened as he told her how to find his house. Lucidly, it wasn’t too far away.

It didn’t take long to find the little bungalow off St. Charles. Simone had barely parked the car before Xypher flashed them to the porch. “You know, that’s really obtrusive and disorienting.”

“I really don’t care.” He knocked on the door.

Simone shook her head as Jesse joined her. Jesse looked about as pleased as she did.

Julian opened the door with a less-than-welcoming look. It never failed to shock her exactly how good-looking this man was. And she wasn’t the only one to think so. His classes were always filled to the brim by female students who wanted nothing more than to stare at him. The fact he was one of the leading experts in the world about ancient civilizations was just a bonus.

The good doctor narrowed his eyes on Xypher as if he couldn’t believe what he saw. “You have emotions.”

Xypher curled his lip. “Not really. I only have one. Rage. Unless you count an insatiable need for vengeance. Then it’s two.”

Julian’s scowl deepened. “How can you—”

“Look,” Xypher snapped. “I don’t have time for this. Get the bracelet off so that I can do what I have to do.”

“He’s extremely single-minded,” Simone explained.

“Yeah, it shows.” Julian stepped back. “Come in and let me see it.”

Xypher literally shoved his arm in Julian’s face. The man was truly obnoxious. “There.”

“I suspect he might have been raised by apes,” Simone said to Julian.

Julian gave a low laugh before he took Xypher’s forearm and examined the bracelet while he stood in the doorway. “This isn’t Greek.”

Xypher scoffed. “Of course it is. I know the work of Hephaestus.”

“So do I and this isn’t it.” Julian bent Xypher’s arm so that he could see the lock. “I’m taking a shot in the dark here, but I think this is Atlantian in origin.”

Xypher still looked less than convinced. “Are you sure?”

Julian nodded grimly. “Hephaestus is my step-father. I have trinkets from him all over my house . . . and experience with other items of his. Including handcuffs. The lock on this is definitely something else.”

Simone wanted to groan in frustration. If Julian couldn’t help them, who could? “Do you know what it does?”

“Not really, but if you can come in and get out of view of my neighbors, I can ask.”

Xypher’s eyes darkened dangerously.

“Don’t even try,” Julian said. “I’ve faced down a lot worse than a pissed-off Skotos.”

Xypher gave him a menacing stare. “You have to sleep sometime.” “So do you.”

Simone let out a sound of disgust. “Down, boys, down. Please, I just want to be free before I get testosterone poisoning.”

Without another word, Julian led them into his house, toward the living room. Simone smiled at the sight of toys scattered about on the floor of the otherwise immaculately kept home. There were also pictures on the mantel of Julian with a dark-haired woman and kids —two boys and two girls. They appeared to be extremely happy. “I didn’t know you had children.” she said, warmed by the sight.

He smiled proudly. “They’re at a friend’s house with their mom. I was trying to put together a syllabus for a new class while it was quiet and the baby wasn’t trying to scribble all over my notes. Her older sister just taught her how to draw tulips and she’s been putting them on everything.”

Case in point, there were two bright pink tulips about toddler height on the wall behind him.

Simone could just imagine how hard it must be to think up interesting and beneficial class material while shuffling an insistent toddler. Personally, she hated coming up with new syllabi and that was without the addition of a … then again, she did have Jesse. She could actually relate to Julian’s plight. “Sorry we’re disturbing you.”

“Don’t worry about it,” he said in a friendly tone. “If this is the worst interruption I have today, I’m doing remarkably well.”

Then without another word to them, Julian upped his head back and looked up at the ceiling. “Hey, Mom, you got a minute?”

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.”

Xypher cursed.

“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?”

She nodded.

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.

“Don’t know.”

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 asshole? 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?”

“No.”

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.

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