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|The Beautiful Ashes(Broken Destiny #1) by Jeaniene Frost|
Adrian smiled. “I promised to share secrets and I did. I never specified which ones.”
Zach smirked again, and this time, it was directed at me.
“I’ll remember that,” I replied, giving Adrian a look that promised retribution.
If he thought I’d give up my quest to find out what he was, why he acted so hot and cold around me or what Demetrius had meant when he said that every moment “the bond” would strengthen between us, he was dead wrong. Now, the real trick would be to make sure that none of us ended up really dead before I got my answers.
I turned my back on Adrian, giving Zach my full attention. “You’re going to change how others see me? Fine. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to be a blonde.”
The airport teller’s name was Kristin. I handed her two blank paper stubs and a stack of equally blank Post-it pages, hoping I didn’t look as guilty as I felt.
“One round-trip ticket to Durango, Mexico, please,” I said.
Kristin looked at the blank stubs and pages. I tried to smile, but my face froze. Adrian swore that she and everyone else would see a driver’s license, a passport and lots of cash in the Post-it note pile. All I saw was my imminent arrest, if the Archon glamour didn’t hold up.
After what might have been five seconds but felt like ten years, the teller snapped up the two stubs from the pile, starting to type with crazy quickness on her keyboard.
“Anything to declare?” she asked.
Yes. I’m a total criminal right now. “Uh, nope.”
The next flight to Durango had two stopovers, and only first-class seats available. I looked at the Post-it pages. Damned if I knew what monetary denominations they were supposed to be.
“Take it,” Adrian said softly from behind me.
“Sold,” I told the teller, pushing the pile toward her. If I didn’t have enough pretend money in it, I’d get more from Adrian or play up the dumb blonde stereotype as an excuse for not being able to count.
After more brisk typing, the teller handed me the two blank stubs, most of the blank pages—my change, I supposed—and a ticket with the fake name I’d chosen for myself. Adrian bought his ticket, then we checked our bags and proceeded to our gate.
That’s when my last shred of denial ripped away. Some tiny part of me must’ve still been clinging to the idea that everything I’d seen was a hallucination, just like countless doctors over the years had assured me. But after a TSA official ran our blank stubs through a computer that authenticated them as valid IDs, the truth was undisputable.
I wasn’t experiencing a psychotic break with another equally crazy companion. The fact that even computer systems were fooled by Archon glamour proved that this was nothing short of a supernatural phenomenon. Archons—angels—were real. Demons were, too, and I was going to enter into their world to find a weapon so Adrian and I could kill them.
To say I was in way over my head was an understatement.
This time, I was the one who brooded in silence over the next couple days of layovers and long flights. When the plane finally touched down in Durango, I’d come to the same realization I had in Bennington over two weeks ago.
I had nothing left to lose. My whole family had been taken from me, and I didn’t have someone special waiting back at college. Truth be told, there had never been anyone special. I used to blame my lack of romantic enthusiasm on the medication I took, but now that I knew the pills were placebos, I had to admit the problem was me. I even kept my roommate and my other friends at arm’s length, so while they’d miss me if I never came back, it wouldn’t leave a big hole in their lives. Sure, we had fun hanging out, but no matter how many parties we went to or how many nights we stayed up talking, part of me hadn’t really been there. I think they must have sensed that because while I didn’t lack for friends, I’d never been anybody’s best friend. That took the kind of trust and honesty I’d only shared with Jasmine. With everyone else, I was too busy pretending not to catch glimpses of things only I could see, or worrying if I was living the college life the way everyone expected me to. Most days, I worked harder at faking “normal” than I did on my grades, friendships or the few-and-fleeting relationships I’d had. So while I was scared shitless, the only person who’d really care if I didn’t make it was Jasmine, and my doing this was her only hope of surviving.
It kinda sucked seeing how little my life mattered in the big scheme of things, but then again, that was also my biggest advantage. People with nothing to lose were dangerous, and since I was taking on demons, I needed to be as dangerous as I could.
As we disembarked, Adrian grasped my arm, the contact sending a familiar shiver through me. He was the only guy who’d made me feel everything I’d been missing all these years, and for reasons he refused to discuss, he wanted nothing to do with me. Figured.
“I know I deserved it, but are you done paying me back for all the times I’ve given you the silent treatment?” he asked.
I looked at him, taking in his height, muscular build and devastating good looks that were invisible to everyone but me. Then I spoke the first words I had in over a thousand miles.
“Yeah, I’m done, and more important, I’m ready.”
* * *
We spent the night in a hotel in Ceballos, one of Durango’s smaller towns. Adrian spoke fluent Spanish, which helped with checking in and getting dinner. Jet lag and my new resolve ensured that I slept well, and in the morning, I found out that we weren’t driving to the entrance of the demon realm alone. Two guys approached us as soon as we entered the hotel parking lot, exchanging back-slapping man-hugs with Adrian.
“Ivy, this is my friend Tomas,” Adrian said, indicating the tough-looking Hispanic man with a scar curving from his neck down to his upper arm.
“Hola,” I said, wishing I’d taken more than two years of Spanish in high school. Tomas accepted my outstretched hand, shaking it firmly.
“Hola, senorita.” Then his stoic features cracked, and he flashed a wide smile at Adrian. “La rubia es caliente! Hora de que empieces a salir de nuevo, mi amigo.”
“It’s not like that,” Adrian said in English, though I’d translated enough to get the misassumption. “Ivy and I aren’t dating. We’re...friends.”
I stiffened at his pause. No, we weren’t besties, but did he have to make it obvious that I was an unwelcome acquaintance? Something reckless stirred in me. Adrian might not want me around, but he wanted some things from me. Plus, I might die before sundown and I wasn’t sure I’d really lived during the past twenty years. Time to change that.
I gave Tomas a wide grin as I wrapped my arms around Adrian’s midsection.
“Don’t mind him, he’s in denial over how crazy he is about me,” I said glibly. “You should’ve seen him rubbing my ass the other night. It’s like he was trying to polish it shiny.”
Adrian gazed at me in disbelief. Tomas choked back a laugh, and the guy I hadn’t been introduced to yet let out a low chuckle.
“Looks like you have more on your plate than just demons, Adrian,” he drawled, his accent sounding Mediterranean.
Adrian’s hands flexed on my back, as though he was having trouble deciding whether to push me away or mold me closer. His gaze had changed, too. Disbelief turned to something darker and infinitely more enticing in those silvery sapphire depths.
“You have no idea what you’re toying with,” he said, the growled words barely audible.
“What if I want to know?” I replied, and shivered as his grip on me began to tighten.
I’d started this as a game, but it felt very serious now. His stare burned into my eyes with more than the lust I’d called his bluff on. Secrets, promises and lies seemed to swirl together, drawing me in and warning me away at the same time. When he pulled me closer, those warnings collapsed under the explosion of sensation as he pressed against me, and when his hand coiled through my hair, pulling my head back with a strong, possessive grip, I didn’t just shiver. I shuddered.
“Do you and your friend want to postpone our trip until tomorrow?” an amused voice asked.
Adrian released me as suddenly as if I’d become scalding. Maybe I had. My whole body felt feverish, and if my heart beat any faster, I might be in danger of a coronary.
“We’re leaving now,” he said in a strained voice. “Get in the black Jeep, Ivy. I’ll be right there.”
I would’ve argued if I didn’t feel like I needed a moment to compose myself. I walked toward the black, open-topped Wrangler that had four machine guns in the back. No seats, though, and the front ones must be for Tomas and our as-yet-unnamed companion. Looked like Adrian and I would be standing.
Adrian. The thought of how close he’d come to kissing me made that feverishness sweep through me again. Why did he keep pulling away at the last minute? Was it the secret he thought was too terrible to reveal? He wasn’t a demon or a minion, and he worked with an angel, so how bad could it be?
Adrian’s arrival with the two men cut my musings short. He jumped into the back of the Wrangler, grasping the bar that the machine guns were strapped to.
“This is Costa,” Adrian said, indicating the handsome young man with the wavy black hair and dark brown eyes. “Get in, Ivy.”
I climbed into the back, accepting Adrian’s hand up. He held mine a second too long, as if reluctant to let me go. I felt the same way, though I grasped the metal railing between the seats when Adrian did. Was it me, or did something happen when we touched? Something more than lust, although I had that bad, too. Could this be the supernatural bond Demetrius had spoken of? If so, he was right. It was getting stronger.
“Hi, Costa,” I said, trying to refocus my attention. “You mentioned demons, so I take it you know what we’ll be doing?”
Costa snorted. “Yes, though I wish you didn’t have to. No one leaves the dark realms the same way they entered them.”
Tomas gunned the Jeep, and bracing to stay upright made me almost miss the look on Adrian’s face. From the way his features tightened, Costa wasn’t referring to different exits. Adrian had told me the demon world was awful, as if I couldn’t figure that out for myself. From his expression and Costa’s words, maybe I hadn’t prepared enough. I drew in a deep breath. Think about Jasmine, I reminded myself. If she could survive being trapped in one, I could survive searching however many I needed to in order to save her.
“I’m tougher than I look” was what I said.
Adrian’s hand brushed my back, the brief caress wordlessly promising that I wasn’t doing this alone. Then he nodded at Costa, supporting my statement. I held on to that as tightly as I did the metal bar that kept me from being vaulted out of the car from Tomas’s crazy driving. Jasmine needed me, and Adrian believed in me. I wouldn’t fail either of them.
The vortex we were headed to was located in a section of desert called La Zona del Silencio, or the Zone of Silence. I found out why they called it that after Tomas turned off the highway and started driving on the barren terrain. After a hundred yards, the radio station he’d been blasting abruptly went silent. Costa held out his cell, showing me the screen going blank as though the phone had powered down on its own.
“Technology doesn’t work here,” he stated. “Most people don’t know why, but it’s the vortex. It’s one of the bigger ones on the planet, so it drains everything around it.”
Our surroundings reminded me of where Demetrius had attacked us. Like that sliver of Oregon desert, the endless landscape of sand was interrupted here and there by cacti and other scrub. It had more mountains, though, sometimes narrowing the path Tomas drove through. Every so often, Adrian would call out directions. He seemed to know exactly where he was despite the lack of roads or signs. I tried to pay attention to our route in case I needed to come back in the future, but after half an hour, I gave up. “Turn left at the rock” wouldn’t work because all the damn rocks looked the same, and once you’ve seen one cactus, you’ve seen them all.
Finally, after my muscles ached from hours of the Jeep’s rough jostling, Adrian told Tomas to stop. Then he jumped out of the back, unloading his bulky duffel bag with him.
“We’re here?” I looked around, squinting in the bright sunlight. “I don’t see any older, rotted versions of what’s around us.” Plus, the only landmark for miles seemed to be an oblong piece of rock sticking out of the ground.
Adrian flashed me a challenging look. “You can sense hallowed ground. I can sense gateways to the dark worlds.”
I jumped down, too. “How can you do that?”
His smile was dangerous and beautiful, like the caress of sunshine right before it became a burn. “A gift of my lineage, same as your abilities.”
Wasn’t that a not-so-subtle warning? If sensing demon realm gateways was one of his “gifts,” he was letting me know that he wasn’t the last descendant of Mother Teresa’s line. Still, why should his family tree weigh so heavily on him? Our previous conversation replayed in my mind. Did my ancestor do something terrible to your ancestor?...No, Ivy, it was the other way around...
Did Adrian keep pushing me away because he felt guilty for what his ancestor had done? If so, could his big, awful secret actually not be about him, but about his long-dead relative?
“I don’t know who my biological parents were,” I said in an even tone. “Or who their parents were, and so on. I do know it has no bearing on who I am, beyond genetic leftovers like hair color, eye color, and apparently, an ability to sense hallowed objects and see through supernatural glamour. Same goes for you. Regardless of who your ancestor was, your decisions make you who you are, and aside from being a dick sometimes, you can also be pretty great. Maybe, if you dropped whatever your ancient relative’s baggage is, you’d like who you were, too.”