This Side of the Grave

Page 20

"Just be glad your nose isn't strong enough to get a whiff of the weed, too," I replied wryly. "It's a, uh, homemade remedy to keep a certain unwanted element away from me."

"You'll keep quite a lot of elements away from you with that particular aroma," Spade said, wrinkling his nose with such refined distaste that it was like getting a glimpse of him when he was an eighteenth-century nobleman.

"Yeah, well, good thing I'm not trying to pick up vampires anymore, what with my new stinky perfume," I said, hiding a smile. Spade must be really ticked at me. Normally his innate chivalrousness would have him replying with a gallant lie about how garlic was all the new rage for fragrances, or that the cloud of weed wafting from me really brought out the shine in my hair.

Bones gave him a look that said Spade's lack of warmth hadn't gone unnoticed by him, either. He poured two whiskeys from the decanter on the credenza, handing one to Spade with less graciousness than normal.

"Correct me if I'm wrong, mate, but I seem to remember my wife risking her life on your behalf twice just this year. So you can't be sore over her asking your wife for a favor that endangers her not at all, can you?"

"Of course it endangers her," Spade replied at once. "If even a drop of Denise's blood should spill in a place where other vampires might taste it - "

"Dammit, Spade, we talked about this," she interrupted him, her hazel eyes narrowing in way that warned of repercussions. "I'm going to live a very, very long time, and I refuse to spend that life in fear like I did before. If this even works, which it might not, you'll be with me the whole time, right? And stopping this crazy ghoul leader before he gets too many people riled up means more safety for everyone, right? So quit with the overprotectiveness. You wouldn't want me to act that way with you."

"This sounds familiar, doesn't it?" I whispered to Bones, feeling like I was watching actors play the parts of me and him.

He grunted. "Too right."

"If I thought Denise would be in danger, I wouldn't ask her," I said to Spade. Since she'd been branded, only demon bone through the eyes could kill Denise, and that was about as rare as a proverbial snowball in hell. "You want to keep her safe," I continued. "So do I, which is why Apollyon's got to be stopped. Even if I was staked with silver tomorrow, I don't think Apollyon will all of a sudden go away. He's waited six hundred years to try this power coup, and I'll bet he won't want to wait another six hundred or longer until another half-breed pops up again." Spade said nothing for several moments, his tiger-colored gaze traveling over Denise, Bones, and me in turn. At last, he spread out his hands.

"You're all correct, of course. My apologies. It seems logic fails me when it comes to my wife's welfare."

Bones snorted. "I know how you feel. But don't fret. I'm sure Denise will remind you of any flaws in your logic as often as my wife reminds me of mine." I couldn't help but laugh at the dryness in his tone. "Right back at you, honey. You're pretty good about pointing it out when I'm acting with my fears and not my brain. So I guess we've all been guilty of it."

The tension in the room drained away, resulting in a few moments of companionable silence. Then Denise cleared her throat.

"So . . . let's get started. I haven't eaten all day to try and gear up for this, and I'm starving. If this works, I'm rewarding myself with enough food to choke a horse." So saying, she got up and stood a little way off from the couch. I went over to her, not really sure if I should say anything or if that would break her concentration. Mencheres and Kira had left, so the house was empty aside from us. No ghosts lingered in the vicinity, thanks to the illegal stink remedy on me and around the house, and the drapes were drawn even though the closest neighbor was a good two blocks away. We weren't taking any chances of being observed by anyone - unless you counted my cat, who groomed himself while throwing occasional glances our way.

Denise looked me over from top to bottom, her forehead creased with concentration.

Then her scent changed, souring from her natural jasmine base to a harsher aroma of agitation.

Her pulse sped up as well, breathing becoming shorter, sharper. The air around her thickened as her scent changed even more, now tinged with faint undertones of sulfur. Even though I'd seen this reaction in her before, I couldn't stifle a twinge of unease as her hazel eyes slowly filled with deep crimson.

Then Denise cried out, harsh and loud. Her skin seemed to ripple over her features in a misshapen, melted way, like wax held too close to flame. More moans came from her, the sounds almost animalistic in their intensity. She bent over, shudders wracking her body so viciously it looked like her muscles were being torn out of place. Unbidden, my hand rose to my mouth, stifling a gasp. Spade was right. I shouldn't have asked her to do this. What the hell had I been thinking?

Denise fell to her knees, her hair falling over her face as a horrible shout wrenched from her. Spade was at her side even before I was, taking her in his arms and whispering to her. I touched her shoulder, heaping recriminations on myself.

"Stop, Denise, it's not worth it. We'll find another way - " My voice broke off as her head whipped up suddenly, her eyes now gunmetal gray instead of crimson or hazel, dark brown hair changed to red and framing the same face I saw looking back at me from the mirror.

"Bugger me dead, you did it," Bones whistled.

A slow grin spread across Denise's face - except it wasn't her face anymore. It was mine.

"That was so much easier than the last time!" she said, giving Spade a quick kiss before jumping to her feet. Even her body now looked exactly like mine, I noted with amazement.

She'd grown inches taller and filled out in the butt and breast area, all in the space of about three minutes.

"Darling, are you all right?" Spade asked, rising and looking her over with far more objectivity than I felt. Staring at a mirror image of myself on my best friend was just . . . odd, even though this was what we'd hoped would happen. The demon's essence hadn't just made her virtually unkillable. It had also turned Denise into a shapeshifter like he'd been.

She smoothed her hand down Spade's chest. "Don't worry, I'm fine. Looks and sounds much worse than it is, really. Now, where's the kitchen? Did I mention I was starving?" I'd just gotten out of the shower when Bones shut the bedroom door behind him, his gaze somber. After dinner, which all of us ate so Denise didn't feel like the odd person out, we'd finalized the details of our plan. Everyone agreed it was our best way to hopefully head Apollyon off at the pass, but Spade wasn't the only one who had misgivings about his spouse's safety. I was nervous for Bones, as he was for me, but we both knew not acting posed the greater danger.

Still, now that we were alone, I felt his disquiet in the emotions grazing mine. His natural heady, burnt sugar scent was more reminiscent of kitchen accident than creme br?llee right now.

I stopped towel-drying my hair and went over to him, sliding my arms around his neck as I laid my head on his chest. Soon, I'd have to reapply the garlic-and-pot packets all over me, but for now, I could hold him without those smelly impediments.

"It'll be okay," I said, my words puffing onto the fabric of his shirt. "This will work." Hard arms encircled my back as he pulled me closer. "I know. Just don't fancy being separated from you."

I let out a small snort. "I don't like it, either, but Denise is the ultimate decoy. You saw her. She's now my twin, right down to my cup size. If you saw her out at a bar, even you would swear it was me."

"Not as soon as I got close," he replied, head lowering until his mouth brushed my jaw.

"Forget the heartbeat; she doesn't smell like you, her voice isn't yours, her posture is different, and she looks at people differently than you do."

"How do I look at people?" I asked, bemused. All the other things he'd listed made sense, but few except Bones knew me well enough to notice those differences. Denise's heartbeat was the biggest concern, but we had a way around that which would work for all but someone right up next to her - and I didn't think Spade would let anyone get that close.

Bones pulled back, staring into my eyes even as his fingers traced my face. "You have the gaze of a fighter. Noticed it right off when we met. You looked at me . . . and I could tell you were mentally assessing my strengths and weaknesses before anything else. At the time I thought it was odd, because that stare didn't match the green girl who tripped over her words when she asked me if I wanted to f**k."

Laughter bubbled from my throat. "I was trying to lure you outside so I could kill you, but unlike every other vampire I'd met up to that point, you weren't cooperating. Should've known right then that you'd be trouble."

His lips curled, a hint of green appearing in his gaze. "Ah, but that only made me more tempting to you. You couldn't resist the challenge. That's why you came looking for me the very next night, and why you agreed to let me train you even though you still plotted to kill me those first few weeks."

He was right. Back then, believing all vampires were evil bloodsuckers, I'd been determined to kill Bones despite the fact that he was much stronger than me. And he was right that the lure of defeating such a powerful vampire appealed to my sense of challenge. Or recklessness, depending on who you asked.

"What about you?" I breathed, standing on tiptoe to brush his mouth with mine. "If I'd have fallen back with my legs open like all the other women you came across, you'd have given me the night of my life, and then forgotten my name before breakfast. But I was immune to your charms and prettiness. Must've shocked you." I couldn't stop my grin as I lightly nipped his lower lip. "So I'm not the only one who couldn't resist a challenge."

"You weren't immune to my charms for long, as I recall," he responded, a brow arching with sinful meaning.

"I admit to being stubborn when it came to resisting your appeal." Spoken as I unwound my towel to let it drop to the floor. "But I'd have to be all the way dead not to want you." His eyes were now completely green, and fangs gleamed out from his upper teeth. I loved the way his gaze raked over me. Like it was the first time he'd seen me this way, and he couldn't stop himself from staring. I knew my body, was well aware of its flaws, but Bones made me forget those when he looked at me. Under the hunger in his gaze and the swell of his lust cresting against my subconscious, I felt beautiful, strong, and sexy. Free to do anything without fear or shame.

His hands slid down my bare skin, power caressing my senses at the same time. I opened my mouth as his head dipped, feeling those inner sparks ignite with his kiss. They increased as his tongue stroked along mine with deliberate, intimate thoroughness. He'd use the same slow, deep strokes when his mouth was somewhere else, and the thought made my loins clench with anticipation. Bones only rushed things when I wanted him to; when impatience made my need so sharp that I couldn't endure the delicious way he drew out foreplay. Tonight, though, I wanted him to be the one who felt drugged with passion, and if I let him keep kissing me, I'd soon be past the point of enough mental capacity to do that.

"Get on the bed," I said, tearing my mouth away.

He carried me there, trailing more dizzying kisses down my neck at the same time, but I resisted when he started to lay me onto the mattress.

"Just you," I said, untangling myself from his arms.

He cast a meaningful glance at the thick bulge in his pants before looking back at me.

"Not becoming a tease, are you?"

I felt the rub of fangs against my tongue, two pointed reminders of the heat flaring inside me, but I pushed my desire back. That was tough to do with Bones propped on his elbows, legs casually yet invitingly splayed, inky shirt unbuttoned to reveal a V of crystal flesh in extravagant contrast to the dark fabric. For a minute I stared at him, letting his beauty fill my eyes.

"Angels wish they were as gorgeous as you," I said with conviction.

"I'm very far from angelic, but thank you for the compliment." The words were light - his expression wasn't. It was intense, his eyes flashing with emerald, and that bulge between his legs sent rip currents of lust through me. If I kept staring at him, letting my mind dwell on the fact that he felt even better than he looked, I'd fall on top of him and lose all thought amidst the bliss of his flesh merging into mine.

But I had an agenda, and right now, it didn't involve me jumping on him. We'd had so much stress, danger, and violence lately, with more coming on the horizon, that our circumstances didn't lend themselves to romance, but I didn't care. Sure, we could sit down, go over our battle strategy yet again, or smother each other with admonitions to be careful, but if I'd learned anything these past few years, it was to grab hold of moments of bliss when they came.

Or to make them myself, if circumstances weren't accommodating enough to throw one my way.

"After tomorrow, we won't see each other for a little while," I replied, voice low and throaty. "So I want to make sure that you have something to remember me by."

Chapter Twenty-one

I reached out to Bones with deliberateslowness, batting his hands away when he sought to pull me down again.

"No," I said, pushing him flat against the bed. "Tonight, I'm in charge. Your only job is to lie back, relax, and" - memory of words he'd once said made a soft laugh escape me - "let me work."

His brow arched even as a wicked smile tugged at his mouth. "I'd tell you to be gentle, but we both know I wouldn't mean it."

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