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|The Beautiful Ashes(Broken Destiny #1) by Jeaniene Frost|
The second day, I went to the beach. I wasn’t trying to work on my tan, but the sun, heat and tropical scenery made it the exact opposite of the demon realm, and I gratefully soaked up the differences. Already, I couldn’t stand the cold or dark. I’d kept the lights on when I slept, something I hadn’t done since I was child, and if the air conditioning dipped too low, a feeling of dread washed over me.
Costa said that no one left the realms the same way they entered them. Adrian had warned me, too. They were both right.
I stayed at the beach the whole afternoon, moving under the shade of the pavilion when my skin began to redden. Late October in Miami felt like June in Virginia, but the beach wasn’t crowded, probably because it was a Thursday. Back at WMU, Delia and the rest of my friends would be making their weekend plans. They knew which bars had a strict ID policy and which didn’t, plus there were always parties on or around campus. I’d joined them on the classes-parties seesaw for the past two years, but it almost seemed strange to realize I’d be doing that again if I went back home. I’d often had to fake my enthusiasm for going out, and that was before I knew the freaky things I saw were real. Now? I couldn’t pretend to be impressed by some drunken guy pulling off a keg stand. Kick a demon’s ass, that’ll impress me.
Speaking of guys, a few hit on me throughout the day, which would’ve been flattering under regular circumstances. These were anything but. For starters, they were hitting on my blond disguise, not me. More importantly, when I wasn’t thinking about Tomas’s death, my sister’s imprisonment or the awfulness of the realms, I thought about Adrian. Flirting with cute strangers was the last thing on my mind.
Three of the guys took my rebuff like men and went on their way. The fourth, however, was being a little bitch about it.
“Come on, sugar, have one drink with me,” he urged.
“Again, no,” I said, not adding “and I’m not your sugar” only because simple phrases already seemed too much for him.
He grinned, showing off nice teeth. He wasn’t bad-looking, either, with his short black hair and a leanly muscular build, but even if I was looking for a date, he wouldn’t be it. Years ago, I’d dated another guy who didn’t understand the word no, and I’d ended up breaking an empty beer bottle over his head on prom night. That, he’d understood.
Mr. Pushy grabbed my hand, tugging on it with that same smug grin. “Bar’s right up the street. You’ll love it—”
Being snatched backward and flung to the sand ended his grabby sales pitch. Adrian stood over him, his foot grinding into the guy’s back. Somehow, I wasn’t a bit surprised.
“You’ve been spying on me all day, haven’t you?” I said. “I told you I needed some time to myself, Adrian.”
He glanced down at Mr. Pushy. “Good thing I didn’t listen.”
I rolled my eyes. “Like I couldn’t handle him? If nothing else, you should’ve known that I’d be able to outrun him.”
“...’et me...up,” the guy said, his words garbled, trying to spit out enough sand to talk.
Adrian hauled him up, though a hard cuff almost sent Mr. Pushy sprawling again.
“Get lost,” he said curtly.
The guy looked at Adrian with surly confidence, reminding me that he only saw the disguise. Not the hulking, six-six man who’d ripped the throat out of the last person who touched me without my consent.
“I should kick your ass,” the guy muttered.
“You should run while your legs still work,” I told Mr. Pushy. To Adrian I said, “He’s not worth the police report, so don’t do whatever you’re thinking of.”
Either the guy sensed the danger in Adrian’s glare, or he suddenly remembered another girl who wanted to go to the bar. Whatever it was, with another mutter, he left, still brushing sand off himself as he climbed up the pavilion staircase.
Once he was gone, Adrian and I stared at each other. Moments ago, he’d been poised to strike; now he looked almost hesitant, like he didn’t know what to say.
“Costa’s making dinner,” he told me, as if that had anything to do with why he was here. “It’ll be ready in half an hour.”
My annoyance began to evaporate. I’d seen Adrian look angry, vengeful, bitter, confident, lethal and seductive, but this was different. He almost seemed...shy. Was it because I’d busted him for spying on me? If so, he must not have been doing it only out of concern for my safety.
“So what’s for dinner?” I asked, my voice soft.
He smiled. “Burnt moussaka, probably. Costa loves to cook, and I don’t have the heart to tell him that he sucks at it.”
I laughed. “Thanks for the heads-up. I’ll play along and clean my plate, too.”
Adrian chuckled before he looked away. The sea breeze blew his longer bangs back while the setting sun turned his blondish-brown hair into different shades of red. His shirt molded to him from the wind, and his shorts showed off those shapely, muscular legs.
“You did really well in the realm,” he said, still not looking at me. “I meant to tell you that before, but...”
“Everyone died and Zach only brought a couple back,” I filled in, grief chasing away my other thoughts. “Thank you, by the way. I didn’t get to say that before, either. I wouldn’t have made it out of there alive without you.”
Or out of the desert, the monastery, the other desert, Bennington... Because of Adrian, I was turning out to have more lives than a cat.
He looked at me then, sadness making his eyes appear a deeper shade of blue. “Did Tomas... Was it quick?”
I drew in a shuddering breath, remembering that awful wound and Tomas’s last words. “It was quick.”
He nodded, returning his attention to the water, but I glimpsed the grief he was trying to hold back. I moved closer, sliding my hand into his without even thinking about it. His fingers curled around mine, and the sense of rightness I felt hit me like a wrecking ball. Had I fallen so hard, so fast?
“I’m glad you were with him,” he said, his tone faintly hoarse. “Dying’s hard enough. Doing it alone is worse.”
I couldn’t imagine all the death Adrian had seen growing up in the demon realms. I’d suffered so little by comparison, and some days, I still felt like I couldn’t take it. Today had been one of those days. All the warmth and sunshine I’d tried to soak up hadn’t put a dent in the icy darkness rising inside me. But holding his hand did, and that scared me as much as I silently marveled at it.
“Do you really think I’m strong enough to keep searching the realms until I find this weapon?” I asked, my voice barely audible as I spoke my greatest fear aloud.
His hand tightened on mine. “I know you are,” Adrian said, turning to look at me once more.
It wasn’t the words, though I’d needed to hear them. It wasn’t even his voice, though it vibrated with surety. It was his eyes. I’d never read so much from a person’s eyes before, but Adrian’s seemed to spill all the secrets he still refused to tell me. In those sapphire depths, I knew he meant what he’d said. I might not believe in me, but he did, and right now, it gave me hope that we would make it through. All of us.
I reached out, trailing my free hand down his arm. “Thanks,” I said softly.
He stepped closer, brushing my hair back, and I closed my eyes. I felt so safe with him, which he’d say was the last thing I should feel. Still, if nothing but betrayal loomed ahead, how could Adrian be the only person I trusted? And how could he be the only person who made me feel alive if he was destined to be the death of me?
“I believe in you, too,” I told him, not opening my eyes. “You’ll beat your fate. I know you will.”
He let out a strangled sound, and my skin felt cold from how fast he let me go. When I opened my eyes, I wasn’t surprised to see only surf-soaked sand in front of me.
Once again, Adrian had vanished, but like all the other times, he wasn’t really gone. Whether by destiny or by choice, neither of us could completely walk away from the other.
The next morning, I awoke to a strange man sitting on the end of my bed. His back was to me, and I would’ve screamed if I hadn’t recognized his faded blue hoodie. Good thing I’d caught myself. Adrian and Costa would’ve run in with their guns drawn.
“What are you doing here?” I asked Zach.
The Archon set down a picture of Tomas as a boy with his father. Family pictures occupied most of Tomas’s room. I hoped looking at them made Zach feel guilty. He could’ve saved Tomas, but he’d chosen not to for reasons I still didn’t understand.
“I am here to glamour your appearance,” Zach replied, ignoring the thought I knew he’d heard. “Adrian has chosen the next realm for you both to search, and demons will be more watchful of blond women.”
I ran a hand through my hair, remembering that only Adrian, Zach and I saw its deep brown shade. As for my face, well, I hadn’t seen that clearly in almost two weeks. Not being able to look in a mirror without risking a demon attack cut back on any feminine urges to check my appearance.
“Don’t overdue the hotness factor this time,” I said. “We might have made it out of that realm without a fight if Mayhemium hadn’t gotten a hard-on over my glamoured looks.”
Zach nodded. “I will make appropriate changes.”
Then he placed his hand on top of my head. Like last time, I didn’t feel anything, but when he said, “It is done,” I knew I now looked completely different. Pity I couldn’t see my disguises. When I looked at my reflection in shiny surfaces, it still looked like the “real” me.
“Okay.” I got out of bed, put on a robe and went to the door. “I’m making coffee. Don’t suppose you want any?”
The side of his mouth twitched. “I’m trying to cut back.”
Had he just cracked a joke? I looked sharply at him, but that twitch was gone and his expression was back to its normal, placid mask. Deciding I had more important things to worry about, I left the bedroom.
“Zach’s here,” I announced on my way to the kitchen.
Costa’s door flung open, and he stared at me, shock creasing his features. “Ivy?” he asked with disbelief.
I waved a hand. “I know. Zach gave me a makeover, so minions and demons don’t recognize me from my old disguise.”
“They sure won’t,” Costa croaked, his lip curling in a way that said Zach had taken my admonition seriously by beating my new appearance with an ugly stick.
I gave a mental shrug. I was shallow enough to care if Adrian saw me that way, but he didn’t.
Speaking of Adrian, his door opened as we passed. He’d been in the process of pulling on a shirt, which gave me a glimpse of his muscled chest and ripped abs before the loose material covered them. I swallowed, glancing away. With a mind-reading angel in the house, now really wasn’t the time to dwell on how much Adrian affected me.
“Zach.” Adrian’s voice was brisk. “We need more manna, plus a new appearance for me, too.”
Costa said something in Greek that had Adrian whipping around to stare at me. Then he let out a snort of amusement.
“Nice,” he told Zach, the edginess gone from his tone.
Had Zach given me Halloween-style warts, too? I lifted my nose and started making coffee. Some of us were too mature to worry about things like unattractive fake appearances.
“Where are we going this time?” I asked.
Zach remained standing, but Adrian and Costa sat at the kitchen table. I pulled three cups out from the cabinet. None of us were trying to cut back on our coffee habit.
“Roanoke, North Carolina,” Adrian replied.
Not another desert, at least. “There’s a vortex there?”
“No.” The edge was back in Adrian’s tone. “No more vortexes.”
I turned around, still holding my empty coffee cup. “Why?”
“Demetrius now knows the weapon is hidden in a demon realm,” Zach answered for him. “He’ll expect you to try vortexes, since they are the most efficient means of entry into their realms.”
Adrian’s shrug conveyed, What he said. Costa still seemed to be reconciling my new appearance with who I was, but I was focused on the information no one had told me before.
“You mean the demons didn’t know the weapon had been hidden in one of their realms before they caught us looking for it?”
“That’s right,” Adrian said, with a sidelong glance at Zach. “It’ll be a race to see who finds it first, and you can bet they’ll be searching their worlds from top to bottom.”
“Do you know where it is?” I asked Zach bluntly, remembering Adrian’s accusation about the Archon.
As if he knew the source of my question, Zach gave Adrian a measured look before he responded. “No.”
Archons don’t lie, I reminded myself. Then again, I only had an Archon’s word on that, so it wasn’t exactly unbiased.
“But your boss knows,” I prodded. “Right?”
The faintest smile curled Zach’s mouth. “He would not be much of a ‘boss’ otherwise.”
“How about we save a lot of lives by having him tell us where it is, then?” I asked, barely holding back my sarcasm.
Zach gave an infuriating shrug. “If that were His will, you would already know its location.”
The coffee cup in my hand shattered. I yelped, both at the pain and the clattering sound as pieces hit the floor. I hadn’t been aware of tightening my grip, but in my anger, I must have. Adrian started forward, but I waved him back with a frustrated swipe of my hand.