I smiled through the sudden pink sheen in my gaze. "Me and Ian? Come on, Bones. You know better."
His mouth twisted. "The pair of you looked very convincing."
"That was the point, wasn't it?" Ian asked, sauntering over. "Though I'll admit to mild enjoyment on my part."
Mild enjoyment? My femininity was affronted but the rest of me could care less. I was too busy staring into Bones's eyes and feeling overwhelming relief that I recognized the person staring back at me.
"So you're not ha**ng s*x." Balchezek made a noise of disappointment. "Now I am bored."
Bones glanced at the demon and then back at me. "He's right about everything. I woke up the morning after Wraith appeared and suddenly I was a spectator in my own body."
"It's easier to possess strong people like vampires when they're asleep. Then their guard is down," Balchezek offered. "Otherwise, she'd need to shed buckets of your blood to weaken you enough to force her way inside. A lot messier that way."
Buckets of blood. I flashed back to Annette's hotel room and her odd behavior the night of Bones's birthday party. So she'd been the first one possessed. Wraith had been her attacker, but she hadn't accused him, because everything that had come out of Annette's mouth had been directed by the demon piloting her.
The same demon who was piloting Wraith, if Balchezek was right about him being the demon's main "anchor."
"There are a few things I need to say, Kitten," Bones stated, directing my attention back from piecing together the possession chain. "I don't know how long I'll be able to hold the demon down. She's very strong."
"She's still in there?" The realist in me expected that, but I'd hoped his rage had miraculously booted her out.
"Yes," he replied shortly.
"Of course she is." Balchezek shook his head. "You think I was lying to you?"
I didn't point out that he was a demon, so lies went with the territory. He was our best source of information and I didn't want him leaving in a huff.
"You'll need to record me rescinding my disownment of you and your reinstatement as heir to my line," Bones said, fury skipping across his features before he went on. "I'll also expose Mencheres, Kira, Spade, Annette, and Wraith as being possessed. Once I've done that, give me a silver knife. No one will doubt my statements when they see I'm willing to die for them."
"No!" I said at once, horror flooding through me.
Bones closed his eyes briefly. "I'm sorry it's come to this, but I've no illusions about what must be done. Believe me, I would rather be dead a thousand times over than to again watch as my own hands smash into you because some bitch has control of my body instead of me."
I grabbed his hair less roughly than I had Ian's a few minutes before. "But you stopped her when she put that knife in my heart. You stopped her!"
"Outing yourself and Mencheres as possessed will result in civil war within your line," Ian warned. "Not to mention inviting all your enemies to attack when you're weakened. It will cause a bloodbath, Crispin."
"Ian's right, listen to him," I said, too concerned about Bones to be shocked at those words coming out of my mouth.
"I might not be able to stop her next time she attempts to kill you, and I refuse to risk it," he snapped. "Even now she's ripping at my strength to regain control. You swore, Kitten. Years ago when Mencheres challenged you over whether you could kill me if your situations were reversed, you swore that if I murdered those close to you and wouldn't stop, you would do it. The demon in me will kill everyone in her way, and you cannot allow that. The only way to stop her is to kill me."
No. No. The words resounded through me so loudly that it took a second to realize someone else was speaking.
" . . . might be another way, but it'll cost you," Balchezek finished.
My gaze swung to the walnut-haired demon. "What? What other way?" If he said it would cost me my soul, God help me, but I might do it.
Bones closed his eyes, wincing a little. "She's getting very restless. Just as I was aware of everything when she had control, so she is listening now. Best not to discuss this in front of me, Kitten."
"That's what I've been saying," Balchezek muttered. He strode out of the room, tossing a "You coming or what?" over his shoulder.
I looked at Bones and gave an apologetic shrug. "We'll be right back."
He glanced at his chains, the faintest smile curling his mouth. "Go on, luv. I'll wait right here."
"I'm not bargaining away my soul or anyone else's," were my first words when I followed Ian and the demon outside of the subterranean garage. Maybe if Balchezek thought I was uncompromising on this point, he wouldn't press me for conditions that, in my desperation, I might take him up on.
The demon snorted. "Good, because I don't want yours, and - newsflash - you don't have authority over anyone else's, Miss Overthinks Her Importance."
I was beyond relieved to hear that, but I pretended to bristle at the insult. Ian laughed. "She does at times, doesn't she?"
"Before we go further, why would you want to help vampires over your own kind?" I might be desperate, but I wasn't about to ignore the most logical question.
"Because I hate my job," Balchezek said promptly.
My brows rose. "You consider damning souls a job?"
"What would you call something you have to do in order to fit in, where you're bitched at whenever you underperform, yet you're never, ever appreciated for when you do it right?" Another snort. "I guess marriage also qualifies, but for me, it's contracting souls."
Was it possible that all demons weren't evil incarnate? That one could feel remorse over what he'd done? "So you don't like having to condemn people?"
He looked at me like I was crazy. "Some meat monkey comes crying to me about, oh, I need this or that, give it to me and you can have whatever you want. So I give it, then he bitches about the terms after the bill's come due, and I'm the one who's supposed to feel bad?"
All right, looked like I was wrong about him feeling remorse! "Yeah, because you're taking advantage of people when they're at their lowest," I pointed out. "It's not fair."
He rolled his eyes. "It's not like I was consulted when the downstairs went to war against the upstairs. I'm just supposed to do what I'm told, all day, every day, for the rest of eternity whether I like it or not. And if I don't do it, then I get thrown into the lake of fire. Don't talk to me about fair."
"So what do you want in return for helping us?" I asked, giving Balchezek a calculated once-over. "You're offering us information to help beat this demon, and you just proved that it's not out of a sense of repentance."
Balchezek smiled. "Not at all. I want a place in your world. If I try to abscond on my own, the higher-ups will come after me, and I'd rather die than get caught cowering among humans. But if I'm under a vampire's protection, I become more trouble than I'm worth. It's like I said, most demons don't want to poke the fang beehive if they can avoid it."
"You want me to take you in as a member of my line?" I couldn't quite keep the appalled sound out of my voice.
"You take in ghosts," he said, spitting out the word like it was foul. "Yet a demon isn't good enough for you? Besides, I don't want protection from your line. You're so priggish, you'd make me crazy. But you," a nod at Ian, "are more my style."
Ian inclined his head in acknowledgment of their similarities. "You're set in your decision? Because while I don't require morals from members of my line, I do expect loyalty. How can I be sure you won't change your mind later?"
"Know that movie where the underappreciated cubicle workers flip out, beat their copy machine to smithereens, and then rob their own company?" He flashed his teeth in something too feral to be considered a smile. "Consider that demon in your friend my copy machine, and my robbery is spilling secrets of my race to tell you how to save him, and your other friends, without killing them."
Ian stretched out his hand, which the demon grasped without hesitation. "Fulfill your promise, and you are welcome in my line with my full protection."
Balchezek shook his hand. "Great. That's part one of my terms."
Why wasn't I shocked that the demon had more conditions? "What's part two?"
He let go of Ian's hand and smiled at me. "Life's not worth living without a few basic comforts, eh? I want money. An obscene amount of money, to be specific."
I didn't have tons in the bank, but Bones had built up a fortune over his centuries of bounty hunting and investments guided by a vampire who caught glimpses of the future.
"Fine. When this is over, I'll be sure you get a check that'll make me vomit when I write it, how's that?"
Balchezek coughed. "I'll need a little down payment on that promise." And then he nodded at my hand.
I glanced down at the red diamond ring Bones had given me the day he asked me to marry him. Its sentimental value to me was priceless. Because of the rareness of red diamonds and its five-carat size, its market value was also through the roof.
I twisted it off and handed it over without needing a moment to think. I'd rather have Bones alive than a rock that would break my heart with memories if he were dead. "Fine. When you've helped us boot that bitch out of everyone without killing them, you'll give that back in exchange for your obscene check. Agreed?"
The creature who had bound countless others to supernatural deals stuffed the ring in his pocket and smiled. "Consider it done."
I smiled back, making sure to show my fangs in warning. "I'll hold you to that."
Two vampires and a demon, allied together. It was a Christmas miracle alright, but of the macabre kind. Still, I'd take my miracles however I could get them.
Balchezek said he needed to fact-check a few things and he'd return later, so it was only Ian and I who descended back into the underground garage.
"Tell me you did not barter your soul, Kitten," were Bones's first words when we came into sight.
Although I'd given that more than a passable thought, I was able to say, "Of course not," with total honesty. If I made sure to sound like I'd never even considered it, well, that was just the icing on the cake.
Bones drilled Ian with a hard stare next. "Is she lying?"
"You'd believe his word over mine?" I shook my head. "That's insulting."
Ian gave Bones a languid smile. "No worries, Crispin. Our sulfur-smelling mate has more pedestrian reimbursements in mind for any assistance he gives us."
"Really," I added when Bones still looked like he doubted we were telling the truth.
"We'll need to keep you chained until we hear from Balchezek and come up with a game plan," I went on, hating the necessity even as I acknowledged the reason for it. "Ian and I will watch over you in shifts. I'm sorry for the - "
"I'm not sorry," Bones cut me off. He'd been staring at me, but then he glanced away. "I can't harm you this way. That's all I bother about."
"Excuse us for a moment, Crispin," Ian said. Then he tugged me along to far side of the haphazard concrete maze where the hole to the outside was. He jumped out and I followed, wondering what was up now.
Ian walked over to the side of the street. "Are you trying to make Crispin lose the hold he has over the demon?"
I blinked at the question, too surprised to be offended. "Why would you say that?"
"He's shredded with guilt over what that demon made him do. Blimey, I'm a selfish conceited bastard and even I'd feel badly about kicking your face in and trying to kill you if you were my wife. Multiply that by Crispin's far finer qualities, and you have a man tormented. Yet you're acting as though he is to blame."
Okay, now I was angry. Didn't take long at all when talking to Ian. "I know it's not his fault. That it was all her, and he has nothing to feel bad about. So why don't you go take a flying f**k, Ian!"
"Why don't you take a chained one," he countered.
I scoffed. "I'm sure that's a fabulous British comeback, but it's wasted on me because I don't know what it means."
"It means," he replied, speaking slowly, as though I was a child, "that I've seen how you normally act after a separation where one of you was almost killed. You nearly kick people out of the way to shag each other. Yet all you're doing now is contributing to his guilt when you should be showing him that he's still the man you're in love with, demon or no demon. And chains or no chains."
My mouth opened, ready to let loose a caustic comment about how Ian thought sex fixed any situation, when I stopped. He might have a point. I could reassure Bones until I was blue in the face that I didn't consider him responsible for what the she-bitch did when she was in the driver's seat, but as the saying went, actions spoke louder than words. Granted, there was nothing romantic about an underground, abandoned Jiffy Lube station, but Bones had made more out of less when circumstances threw us a curve ball.
I'd just have to do the same.
"You don't get to stay and watch," was what I finally said.
His lips twitched. "It would be safer in case the demon resurged and took control - "