Demons Are Forever - J. Kenner

Demons Are Forever

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Confessions of a Demon-Hunting Soccer Mom (Book 3)

Once again, Kate Connor has a problem. Several, actually.

For one thing, her daughter has figured out that mom is a demon-hunter—and wants to be just like her when she grows up.

And there’s that nagging suspicion that her dead husband has come back to life in the body of another man. Plus, her living husband still doesn’t know her secrets.

Not to mention the fact that she’s acquired a mystical item that the entire demon community seems hell-bent on reclaiming.

It’s all in a day’s work for this stay-at-home mom. But one thing is for certain: sometimes life in the suburbs really can be hell.

Demons Are Forever is Story # 3 in the

About this Story

Publication Date 06/26/2013 Story Type Book Primary Characters Kate Connor Series Demon-Hunting Soccer Mom Place in Series Story #3 Genre Paranormal Women's Fiction Urban Fantasy / Paranormal Romance

Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

I killed my first demon at the ripe old age of fourteen. Stabbed it through the eye with an ivory-handled stiletto that had been a birthday gift from my caretaker and mentor, Father Lorenzo Corletti.

I had spent two days tracking the demon, living on the filthy backstreets of a poverty-riddled Italian village, eating nothing but the scraps I’d tucked away in a threadbare knapsack. I had one companion—a boy I adored and whom, in fact, I later married. But teenage lust was the furthest thing from my mind during those long days. Demon-hunting is serious business, and I was a serious girl.

Even now, over two decades later, I can still remember the intensity of emotions. The drive of the chase despite bone-numbing exhaustion. And the certain knowledge that this was Important Stuff. From an overall life perspective, after all, very little ranks above thwarting the minions of Hell.

As far as my duties as a Demon Hunter went, my youth was an issue only to the extent that my strength and training gave me a fighting chance to stay alive. By age fourteen, I was physically ready. As for mentally? Well, there was never any question. I knew what had to be done, and I was expected to do it. My age never factored into the equation.

With all that in my personal history, you might think that I would understand better than anyone that fourteen-year-old girls are both strong and resilient.

You might think that, but you would be wrong. Because when it came time to actually have the talk with my fourteen-year-old daughter, I was a tongue-tied mess.

And, just so we’re on the same page, when I say the talk, I’m not talking about the sex one. That one I managed to muddle through. I’m talking about the other conversation: The one where I sat her down and confessed my deep, dark, secret life.

My name is Kate Connor, and I’m a Level Four Demon Hunter with Forza Scura, a super-secret arm of the Vatican charged with keeping the forces of darkness at bay. That particular piece of familial history, however, had been withheld from my daughter her entire life despite the fact that her father and I had hunted demons all over the globe until just a few years before Allie was born.

I’d always planned to tell her the truth someday. But somehow “someday” kept getting pushed further and further back. Allie was my baby, after all. For fourteen years, my job had been to nurture and protect her. Skewing her entire worldview with insider information about how evil truly walks among us wasn’t something I’d been looking forward to. I knew I had to tell her, though; demon-hunting is part of her family history, even though I often wish it weren’t.

It was one thing knowing that I someday had to come clean with my daughter. Having the conversation forced on me was something entirely different. But after a High Demon kidnapped her, I knew without a doubt that the demon-related mother-daughter lines of communication needed to be opened.

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And so there we were, sitting on the steps in front of San Diablo’s most well-funded museum. Despite the bright sun beating down, we were huddled together under an EMS-issued blanket, waiting to make sure the police and medical folks clustered in the parking lot didn’t have any more questions for us, and also waiting for Stuart to come pick us up. My second husband doesn’t have a clue about my demon-hunting past. And although this might be the day that Allie learned most of my secrets, Stuart was going to remain blissfully clueless.

“Mom?” she prodded. “So, like, you said you were going to tell me what’s going on.”

“Right,” I said, still not ready, but figuring I never would be. I looked around, ostensibly making sure no one was paying attention to us, but half hoping that some police official was signaling for me to come over and answer questions.

No such luck. I was stuck in this conversation, whether I wanted to be or not. And since there’s not really an easy way to ease into the whole demon thing, I decided to just cut to the chase. “What you saw in there,” I began, a little hesitantly. “Those creatures, I mean. They’re demons, Allie. Honest-to-goodness, from the bowels of hell, evil-incarnate demons.”

I wasn’t sure what I expected her initial reaction to be, but I balled my hands into fists, readying myself for anything.

“Oh,” she said after a moment’s pause. “That makes sense. And?”

And? My hands relaxed and I stumbled a bit, because I really wasn’t expecting and. Not yet, anyway. I figured we had a good half-hour of working through the whole demon thing before we got to and. Tossing and into the mix now threw off my whole equilibrium.

“‘And?’” I repeated. “I’m talking demons, kiddo. Isn’t that enough?”

As if to prove to me that some things never change, my teenage daughter rolled her eyes. “Mo-ther,” she said, as if she were talking to an idiot. “I mean, duh. Monsters, demons, boogymen from Hell. I was there, you know. I kinda grasp the concept.”

Under the circumstances, the kid had a point. After all, there are only so many things that a sulfur-scented creature with paws and claws climbing its way out of a portal to Hell can be. And none of them are good.

“But what about you?” she continued, before I could say anything else. “I mean, you were like Wonder Woman in there. It was pretty cool, Mom. But it was also pretty weird, too. And you said you were going to tell me.”

That I had. I’d rushed to her rescue, just like any mom would. But by doing that, I’d shown her a side of me I’d carefully kept hidden. So when she’d asked me point-blank if I had a few secrets, I’d had no choice but to admit that I did.

I’d hoped to ease a bit more slowly into my revelation. Allie, though, wanted answers now.

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“Let’s walk,” I said, standing up.

“But what about Stuart?”

I glanced down the road and didn’t see any cars coming. Within the cluster of people still in the parking lot, I saw David Long talking with a uniformed officer. He noticed me and turned, a question in his eyes. I indicated Allie and made a walking motion with my fingers. He nodded, and I knew he understood. If Stuart came while we were walking the museum grounds, David would let my husband know.

The irony of the situation didn’t escape me. Because I was pretty sure that David was my husband, or that he had been at one time. Which sounds a bit weird when you say it that way, but it was true: I was reasonably certain that the soul of my first husband had taken up residence in the body of Coronado High chemistry teacher David Long. I wasn’t positive, though, and today wasn’t the day to find out for sure. Someday, maybe. But not today.

Allie didn’t miss our exchange. “Something’s up with Mr. Long, too,” she said. “If you were Wonder Woman, then he was totally Superman.”

I had to laugh at the image, but the truth is that she was right. Telling my secrets meant giving some of his away, too.

“Come on,” I said, taking her hand as I led us down the stairs and over to the gravel walking path that twisted through the museum’s landscaped grounds. She didn’t try to pull away, which left me feeling both surprised and nostalgic for the long-ago years when I could reach out and expect her little hand to close around mine immediately.

“You know I grew up in Italy,” I began, looking sideways at her. “In an orphanage?”

She nodded, because that part of my past had never been a secret. She didn’t know how I ended up in an orphanage, or who my parents were, or why an obviously American kid ended up wandering the streets, lost and abandoned, in Rome. But I didn’t know those answers either. And for years, I’d told myself that I didn’t care. To my mind, my life started the day I met Father Corletti. Everything before that was white noise.

“Well, I wasn’t raised in a Church-sponsored orphanage,” I said. “I was raised by the Church itself. By a small group within the Church, actually.”

“Daddy, too, right?”

“Daddy, too,” I said. Allie had more than once heard the story about how I had a crush on my first husband, Eric, when I was barely thirteen. But he—much more wise and mature at almost fifteen—hadn’t been the least bit interested in a kid like me. Not at first, anyway.

What Allie didn’t know was that Eric had finally come around during our training sessions. He’d been assigned to help me with my pathetic knife-throwing skills, and after a few months of one-on-one time, Eric was just as much in love with me as I was with him. Plus, I could hit the target dead-on every time.

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“Okay,” she said. “And?”

“You’re getting an awful lot of mileage out of that word today,” I countered.

To which my drama queen daughter responded by stopping on the path, tapping her foot, and asking me if she was going to have to repeat the word another time.

“Once was fine,” I said, managing not to laugh. “But remind me when you grew up?”

“About an hour ago,” she said, then turned and pointed back toward the museum. “In there.”

Point taken.

“Forza Scura,” I said. “It’s Latin. Translates roughly to the Dark Force. And,” I continued, before she could toss the word at me one more time, “it’s the name of the organization within the Church that your father and I were trained to work for.”

“Trained,” she repeated. I nodded, then watched as she processed that new bit of information. “Okay,” she finally said. “But trained to do what?”

Now it was my turn to point back toward the museum. “Take a guess.”

“Whoa,” she said. “No shit?” And then, “Sorry, Mom.”

I smiled and gave her hand a squeeze. “No shit,” I said. “Forza trained us to hunt demons. And that’s what we did for years, and then we retired about a year before you were born.”

“Oh, okay.” She nodded slowly, as if she was still trying to process our discussion.

“Anything else you want to ask?” There’s a lot I could tell her at this point. I could describe traveling Europe with Eric and chasing down the types of creatures she’d met in the museum. I could talk about living in the Forza dorms, staying up all night and sharing the kinds of scary stories that all kids tell. Only the stories we told were true. I could tell her about Wilson Endicott, my first alimentatore, who helped Eric and me by doing the research even as we went out armed to the teeth.

I could tell her all of that, but I wasn’t going to. Not unless she asked. Because this was Big Stuff. And I knew she had to take it in at her own pace.

At least that was what I told myself. And I really think that I was mostly being honest. But even so, I have to admit that a small part of me hoped that she wouldn’t be too curious. Because once you truly know about evil, it’s hard to be a kid anymore. And I didn’t want to be the mother who’d ripped what was left of childhood out from under her daughter.

She took a look around the grounds, taking in the wooden gazebo and the crushed stone paths. Birds-of-paradise and other tropical flowers that thrive in California lined the walkways, marking the way back to the museum in one direction and the San Diablo City Park in the other. Except for us, there was no one to be seen, and after a few moments of silence, I guess Allie decided we had time to hit a few more of the high points.

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“So Gramps and Mr. Long,” she began. “How come they were with you? Are they with that Forza thing?”

“Gramps was,” I said, referring to Eddie Lohmann, an eighty-something retired demon hunter who had taken up temporary residence in our guest bedroom and permanent residence in our life. Allie was under the impression that Eddie was her long-lost great-grandfather, and that wasn’t an illusion I felt compelled to dispel. “He’s been retired for quite a while.”

“And Mr. Long?”

Wasn’t that a loaded question? But I fielded it the best I could, explaining that David Long was not just a mild-mannered high school teacher, but also a rogue demon hunter. In other words, a hunter not affiliated with Forza. He was also, I added, a friend of Allie’s father. Which, for all I knew, was the God’s honest truth. Because as much as I might suspect that Eric was somehow hiding in David’s body, at the same time, I might simply be grasping at straws, desperate to believe that my first love hadn’t really perished that foggy night in San Francisco. That somehow the man who’d been my lover and my partner for so many years could still be alive.

It was almost too much to hope for, and at the same time, if David was Eric, what would that mean for me? For my kids? For my marriage?

I didn’t know, and every time I tried to think about it, I got lost in a quagmire of emotion so thick that I was certain I could drown in it if I wasn’t careful.

Allie started walking again, and I shoved the melancholy aside and moved into step beside her, forcing my thoughts back to my daughter and away from Eric.

“Al?” She was hugging herself, her gaze directed back toward the museum. As I watched, she shivered, her back and shoulders spasming as if the cold finger of Death himself had traced its way up her spine. “Al!” I repeated, this time more urgently, and with my hand on her shoulder. “Are you okay?”

She turned to look at me, her eyes haunted. “You aren’t still . . . I mean, that thing could have killed you, Mom.”

“But it didn’t,” I said gently, trying desperately not to cry. My daughter had lost a father only too recently; the idea that she now feared losing her mother about broke my heart.

“You’re retired now, right?” she asked with an unfamiliar urgency in her voice. “Like you said. You and Daddy retired before I was born.”

I hesitated, knowing that I should tell her the truth. That I’d come out of retirement a few months ago and that lately I’d been neck-deep in demons. My head told me to say the words, but my heart wouldn’t cooperate.

So I lied. Or, to be technical, I repeated one truth and neglected to mention another. “Right,” I said. “Daddy and I retired.”

Her whole body relaxed and I knew that I’d made the right decision. Yes, I needed to tell her the truth. But considering what she’d just been through, the truth could wait a while. It was one thing for Allie to know the truth about my past—and to know I survived it. It was another thing altogether to have her worry about me every time I went out at night. Since I already worried about her every second she was out of my sight, I knew what a burden that could be. And it wasn’t something I intended to dump on my kid. Not so long as I could help it, anyway.

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We walked a bit more in silence before she turned to me again. “So, what I don’t get is how come you were there,” she said. “In the museum, I mean.”

“To rescue you, baby.”

She rolled her eyes again. “Yeah, that part I got. But if you’re not in this Forza thing anymore, then how did you know where to find me? And how’d you know that I’d been taken by demons and not just by a bunch of creepy guys?”

“We have David to thank for that,” I said, which wasn’t entirely true. But the truth would require admitting that I was back on active duty with Forza, and I’d already ruled that out.

“So what about Stuart?” she asked. “He doesn’t know, right?”

Astute kid. “No,” I admitted. “He doesn’t.”

“Why?”

Another big question, but this one I was prepared to answer. “Because when I met Stuart, my demon-hunting days were long behind me. He fell in love with a single mom with a great kid who happened to be a lousy cook and a mediocre housekeeper.”

“Mediocre? Puh-lease.”

“Compared to the way you keep your room,” I countered with a laugh, “I’m mediocre. And the point is that my past wasn’t part of the equation. So I’ve always thought it would be unfair to spring it on him now.”

“Yeah,” she said, after pondering that for a bit. “I guess that makes sense.”

I’m glad she thought so, because I needed her to help keep my secret. As it was, I expected that I’d soon have to come clean with Stuart anyway. As much as I feared that the truth would drive a wedge into our marriage, I was equally afraid that keeping secrets would do the exact same thing.

“The whole thing’s kinda freaky,” she said as we headed back toward the parking lot. “But it’s pretty cool, too,” she added, flashing a wide smile. “My mom, the superhero.”

A little trill of satisfaction caught me by surprise. Having your teenager say you’re cool is a rare treat, and one that must be savored.

“What about Aunt Laura? Does she know?”

Laura Dupont lives directly behind us and also happens to be my best friend.

“Yes,” I admitted. “Laura knows.”

“Um.” She chewed a bit on her lower lip as she processed that tidbit of information. “So, then, I can tell Mindy?” she finally asked, referring to her best friend and, conveniently enough, Laura’s daughter.

“I don’t know. Let me think about it. And let me talk it over with Laura. It’s a big deal knowing demons are out there. That may be more than you want to lay on a friend.” It had been more than I’d wanted to share with Laura, but she’d stumbled across my secret and I’d had no choice. Now, I was glad she knew; everyone needs a confidante, and even though the rules of Forza require ultimate secrecy, some rules scream to be broken.

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We walked a bit more in silence until Allie stopped abruptly, anxiety coloring her face. “Oh, God, Mom,” she said, making me totally fear the worst. “I can still go back to Coronado after the Christmas break, right? I mean, just because there was a demon in the surf club, that doesn’t mean I have to switch to a private school or anything. Does it?”

“That’s it?” I said, completely unable to keep my amazement—and relief—to myself. I’d just told her that not only had demons infiltrated her school, but that her mother, her father, her (pseudo) great-grandfather, and her chemistry teacher had all been Demon Hunters by trade. And the primary question on her mind was whether or not she was going to stay at the same high school? “That’s what you’re worried about?”

Call me crazy, but I was expecting . . . I don’t know. Fear, yes. But once that was quelled, I thought there would be more. Fireworks. Teenage angst. Huffing and stomping and storming about. Accusations about keeping secrets. Possibly even the silent treatment.

I’d been expecting that, prepared for it, even. And I’d also been expecting that at the end of all the shock, she’d beg to follow in her parents’ footsteps. I figured she’d plead for a trip to Rome. Want to meet Father Corletti. At the very least insist on keeping a stiletto and a vial of holy water in her purse.

Honestly, that was one of the reasons I’d held off so long on this talk. Because that’s not a life I want for my daughter. I want her safe, secure in her home, tucked into bed at night, and not worrying about monsters in the closet or walking the streets. I agreed to come out of retirement to make San Diablo a safer town, after all. Tossing my daughter into the fray wasn’t part of what I was hoping to accomplish.

Apparently, though, I worried for nothing. Because I got none of that. Not then, not during the remainder of our walk back to the museum parking lot, and not during the entire four weeks of Christmas vacation. Instead, I just got . . . well, Allie. A slightly more introspective version of Allie, maybe, but nothing to suggest there’d been any life-changing mother-daughter talks in the last few weeks.

* * *

“She has a lot to absorb,” Laura said on a balmy Thursday in January, just a few days before school was scheduled to start up again. “Give her time. Before you know it, she’ll be begging to wield a stiletto and learn how to identify a demon on sight.”

At her use of the word demon, I turned toward the doorway, the reaction automatic since I knew perfectly well that the house was empty. In a rare moment of domesticity, Stuart had taken Allie and Timmy to the mall for an afternoon of exchanging presents and scouring sales, and Eddie was at the library, more interested in the librarian than the books.

“Thanks,” I said as Kabit, our cat, twined between my legs in the vain hope of snagging some cream. “That makes me feel so much better.”

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Laura peered at me over the rim of one of my festive holiday mugs, currently brimming with cocoa and whipped cream. “She’s a teenager, Kate. Just because she’s scared for you doesn’t mean that she’s scared for her. After all, you’re old and creaky. She’s young and invincible.” She skimmed her finger through her whipped cream and held it down to Kabit, who immediately abandoned me and trotted to her. “And she did tell you that the demon-hunting thing was cool, right?”

I nodded. That she had.

“She’s processing,” Laura said. “Along with boys and cheerleading and school, she’s processing the fact that she was kidnapped by a demon and her mother used to be a Demon Hunter.” She nailed me with a significant look; I’d confessed to Laura my flat-out lie about no longer hunting demons, and my best friend was not exactly supportive of my decision. “Once she’s worked it all out in her head, she’s going to want to know more. And if you don’t tell her that you’re still hunting, you’re just going to dig yourself in deeper and deeper.”

I scowled at my Santa Claus mug. In truth, Laura had a point. A sharp, painful point that I couldn’t ignore, even though I wanted to. I’d seen fear in Allie’s eyes and so I’d lied about my hunting. I’d been trying to make things better, and by doing that, I’d probably made them ten times worse. “It will be okay,” I said firmly, more to convince myself than Laura.

The corner of her mouth twitched.

“What?” I demanded, feeling surly.

She smiled into her cocoa. “Just picturing the battle between you and Allie when the truth comes out.”

“And that’s funny?”

A tiny shrug. “The odds. Because between you and a demon, my money’s on you any day of the week. But between you and Allie? Kate, you don’t stand a chance.”

* * *

I’ve lived in San Diablo for over fifteen years now. Eric and I moved here from Los Angeles while I was pregnant with Allie. And although I know the town pretty well, it’s only been since last summer that I’ve really gotten a feel for it. For all of it—the good sections and the bad.

For the most part, San Diablo is a nice little town. That’s why Eric and I came, after all. We were looking for a demon-free zone in which to live out our retirement and raise our baby. At the time, we thought San Diablo was just the ticket. After all, the historic cathedral that forms the focal point of the town is so infused with the blood and bones of saints that we were certain demons would want no part of the place.

Clearly, we were wrong.

I met my first San Diablo demon right before the school year started. Since then, I’d been spending much of my free time poking around dark alleys, strolling down the boardwalk long after most respectable humans have headed off to bed, and roaming the halls of the hospital and nursing home.

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Over the holidays, I’d cut back to about one patrol per week. To be honest, after battling the demon Asmodeus and his minions for the life of my daughter, I was experiencing a little touch of demon-hunter burnout. Moreover, I didn’t want Allie to wake up and not find me there. The cops had warned about post-traumatic stress resulting from the kidnapping. I figured they didn’t know the half of it. She might seem fine on the outside, but I was worried about her inside, too.

On the Saturday before school started up again, though, Allie was spending the night at Mindy’s, and I was feeling the need to get back in the groove.

I tend to approach patrolling from two directions. On the one hand, I’ll occasionally do sweeps through the town, simply keeping an eye out for anything suspicious. As you might expect, that method rarely produces results. I’ve gotten lucky once in a while, but for the most part the only purpose these broad-based patrols serve is to remind the demons that there’s a hunter in town. A subtle suggestion that they should hop on Charon’s ferry and sail back into Hades.

I tend to have more luck with my second method. Every morning, I scour that day’s Herald for articles about recent near-misses—car wrecks that people miraculously survive, near-drownings, heart attack victims brought back to life after an astoundingly long bout of CPR.

Most people celebrate those kinds of miracles. Me, I’m suspicious. Because newly dead bodies are a demon waiting to happen. The human soul moves out, the demon moves in. Trust me. It happens more than you’d think.

I was pretty sure, in fact, that it had happened just the day before. That morning, I’d noticed a short article near the back of the Metro section. A local businessman named Jacob Tomlinson had recently downed a bottleful of sleeping pills, then decided to swim toward Hawaii. A fisherman had pulled his body out and managed to resuscitate the despondent Mr. Tomlinson. The newspaper called the rescue “miraculous.” I had a different perspective.

Since it takes a demon a few days to get up to full strength once it’s moved into a fresh body, I always follow up on these articles. That’s why I decided to go to the beach Saturday night. Demons—like criminals—tend to return to the scene.

San Diablo’s northernmost coastline is rocky and unfriendly, and both Saint Mary’s Cathedral and the Coastal Mists Nursing Home are perched high on cliffs overlooking the rough terrain. The jagged rocks and hostile topography, however, gradually fade to the traditional sandy beach as the coastline extends south, finally opening up to wide, inviting beaches that overflow with tourists and locals during the summer months.

That part of the coastline is dotted with parks, public beaches, and private marinas. Since the fisherman had launched his boat from the city beach near the Old Town section of San Diablo, that’s where I planned to head once everyone in the house fell asleep.

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I assumed I’d be out the door by one.

Naturally, I assumed wrong.

“Less than one week,” Stuart said, easing up behind me and hooking his arms around my waist. I was occupied with scrubbing a saucepan, trying to coerce a greasy, gooey mess off the bottom, since I knew our dishwasher was incapable of battling that level of sludge. Considering the press of my husband against me, though, I was fast becoming less concerned about the cleanliness of our dishes.

“Just a few more days,” he said, “and then I formally announce. Hard to believe this time next year I could be the San Diablo County Attorney. Or not.”

I heard the tinge of insecurity in his voice and shifted my position, grabbing a dishtowel for my wet hands so I didn’t soak the man. “Don’t even think that way,” I said, lifting my damp arms to circle his neck. “You’ve got more support than anyone.”

“Maybe,” he said, but I saw the truth of my statement in his eyes.

I batted him with the rag. “Don’t give me that. You’re going to win this race, and you know it. As far as everyone on the PTA is concerned, it’s a done deal. Lose now, and you’ll be screwing me out of prime committee picks. And I really don’t want to be in charge of the clean-up crew for the Spring Fling.”

That worked, and he laughed. “Fair enough. For you, I’ll win the race.” He leaned in and kissed the tip of my nose. “And I’ll do it even though you’d probably rather I lost.”

I immediately blurted out a denial. But at the same time, I stiffened a little. Because even though I knew how much winning the county attorney seat would mean to Stuart, at the same time I was selfish enough to want my husband back. Lately, his nights and weekends had been spent campaigning rather than cuddling. And I rather missed the latter.

If I had him back, though, he might be more clued in to the goings-on around the house. Little things like, oh, that his wife hunts demons in her spare time.

All in all, it would probably be for the best if Stuart won the race. If nothing else, his late nights at the office made it easier to keep my secrets.

I turned back to the dishes, just in case he could read my expression. I pretty quickly realized, though, that deep, introspective conversations weren’t on the agenda tonight. “Timmy’s sound asleep,” he said, his lips brushing the back of my ear, the sweet sensation sending a little trill down my spine. “And Allie’s over at Mindy’s.”

“That’s very interesting information,” I said, unable to keep the smile out of my voice.

“We have an unopened bottle of Merlot.”

“Also good to know.”

“And if you scoot over, I’ll help you with the dishes.”

“Now that’s the way to a woman’s heart,” I said, shifting to the left to make room for him.

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True to his word, he pitched in and the kitchen was quickly transformed from disaster area to presentable. It wasn’t Better Homes and Gardens, but it probably never would be.

“It’s getting late,” I said, hoping he’d take the hint. It was already after ten; if I wanted to go patrolling tonight, I needed him sound asleep soon.

Stuart, however, wasn’t cooperating. “It’s Saturday,” he said. “And it’s a brief calm before the storm. We should kick back and enjoy it. The wine. Maybe some cheese. A movie.” He pulled me close and traced his forefinger over my bottom lip. “Who knows where it could lead?” he added softly, his tone alone telegraphing at least one rather delightful destination.

I leaned in close, then tilted my head back and batted my eyes at him. “Why, Mr. Connor,” I said, in my most breathy voice. “Are you seducing me?”

“I think that might be on the agenda.” He kissed me then, and when he pulled back, his smile held the promise of more. “You get the wine,” he said. “I’ll find a movie.”

We ended up snuggled together on the couch watching Sean Connery and Jill St. John do the James Bond thing. Stuart is an Ian Fleming fan, and I’ll watch anything with Sean Connery, so while this wasn’t exactly seduction material, it wasn’t torture either. Even so, the action sequences definitely shifted me from seduction mode into hunter mode. And by the time the credits rolled, I was wired again and ready to go.

So was my husband, actually, but not in the way I had in mind. Still, I have to admit that he won me over pretty quickly. How could he not? This is the man I loved, after all. And this was what I’d been missing.

He pulled me close, his lips brushing mine, and his fingers touching me in a way that was both delicate and possessive. I moaned a little, thinking how lucky I was to have found love twice in my life.

I know it’s natural for a widow to think of her first husband. So even though memories of Eric started to sneak in around the edges of my lust, I didn’t feel guilty. Stuart knew that I’d loved Eric and that he’d always have a place in my heart.

What Stuart didn’t know was that Eric might still be alive. Might, in fact, be living in San Diablo.

I pushed the thought away, not ready to deal with that possibility, and tugged Stuart closer. And as I lost myself in my husband’s kisses, I tried hard not to think about how complicated my life could become.

* * *

A full moon hung in the sky as I made my way down the wooden boardwalk. I had a flashlight tucked in my back pocket but I didn’t need it. The night was clear, and the light from the moon was plenty to show me the way.

I’d been patrolling now for about fifteen minutes. I’d parked along Main Street in front of one of San Diablo’s numerous artsy stores. I’d walked the short distance to the Pacific Coast Highway, passing pizza places and local coffee shops closed up tight for the night. There’s a traffic light at PCH and Main Street, but this late, it was flashing yellow. I’d crossed the highway without seeing any sign that anyone else was awake on this chilly January night, human or demon.

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I fervently hoped I hadn’t made a mistake in coming. The trip would be worth it if I actually nailed a demon. If not, I was risking family peace should Stuart wake up.

The air hung cold and thick, but I fought the urge to hug myself for warmth. I needed my hands free, ready to defend myself should Tomlinson jump me.

As for that, I kept my senses on alert, my eyes trained to spot anything out of the ordinary, and my ears cued to hear more than just the pounding of the surf.

Even if you don’t run across a demon, patrolling is hard work. You have to be at the ready, adrenaline pounding just below the surface. If not—if you relax even a little—that’s the moment they’ll get you. And that’s how Hunters end up dead.

Since dead really wasn’t a convenient state of being for me, I was on hyper-alert. Even so, I almost didn’t hear the faint pad-thump, pad-thump of footsteps behind me. The sound was so negligible, I could almost believe I’d imagined it. Or that I’d heard nothing more than a cat crossing the boardwalk in search of a washed-up fish for dinner.

Pad-thump. Pad-thump.

My heart rate increased, multiplying with the tempo of the footsteps. I tried to gauge the distance behind me but couldn’t. Whoever was back there was a master of stealth.

I didn’t slow my pace, didn’t give any sign that I knew I was being followed. But as I walked, I flicked my left wrist, causing the stiletto concealed inside my jacket sleeve to slide down to a ready position.

Silence.

And not the good kind. I whipped around, my right hand grabbing the handle of the stiletto as I lunged for my stalker. He loomed behind me, at least a head taller, his face hidden by the hood of a dark gray sweat jacket. Without hesitating, I attacked, then faltered when I saw his eyes. He jumped all over my hesitation, parrying expertly and thrusting his cane out to trip me up and hook me sideways off the boardwalk.

“David!” I howled, losing my balance and falling backward into the sand.

He didn’t retreat at all. Instead he straddled me, his strong hands pinning me at the wrists, his face only inches from mine.

My breath came faster and faster, but whether from fear, exertion, or something else, I wasn’t sure. “Dammit, David!”

“You’re out of practice,” he said, his face still close to mine. “And that means you’re dangerous.”

“Only to myself,” I muttered. “Now get off me.”

He flashed a lopsided grin. “You’re lucky it was only me.”

“I’m on my ass because it was you. You’re the one who’s lucky. If I hadn’t seen your face, you could have a stiletto in your eye right about now.”

“Not a chance,” he said. “You’re too good to make a mistake like that.”

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I raised an eyebrow. “I thought you just said I was out of practice.”

He laughed, then shifted his hips, trying to reach his cane, the pressure more than a little distracting. A second later, he was standing. I was still on the ground, trying to mend my tattered dignity.

He reached a hand down to help me up, and I took it grudgingly. “What the hell are you doing here, anyway?”

“Looking for you,” he said.

“Here?”

“I saw the article about Tomlinson. I figured you’d come check it out.”

“Monday’s the first day back at school,” I said, looking up at him as I wiped sand off my jeans. “Your odds would have been better looking for me in the carpool lane.”

“Not exactly conducive to what I wanted to say.”

“Oh? What’s that?”

He leaned in close, his voice low. “That you’ve been avoiding me.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said, but I think the fact that I didn’t meet his eyes and started walking in the opposite direction suggested otherwise.

He caught up to me in no time, despite the limp and the cane. “Kate, stop.”

I turned to him. “David, I’m tired. You jumped out of the dark and tackled me. Forgive me for not being in a chatty mood, okay?”

“Fair enough,” he said. “But you still haven’t answered me.”

“I’m pretty sure I did,” I countered. “But if it will make you happy, I’ll be more specific. I’m not avoiding you. Not intentionally, anyway.”

“You’re unintentionally avoiding me?”

“Dammit, David.” He was making me laugh, and that wasn’t good. “All I’m saying is that I patrolled alone before I met you, and now I’m patrolling alone again. It’s not nefarious. It’s just logistically easier.”

“You only patrolled alone because there wasn’t another Hunter in town. You should have someone watching your back.” He took a step closer to me. I moved backward, until I was barely balancing on the wooden boardwalk a few inches above the sand. Another step, and I’d fall on my rear again. Not the way to appear in control of the conversation.

I opened my mouth to say something, realized I didn’t know what to say, and pushed past him. I was here to patrol, and I told myself that’s what I was going to do. Not stand around arguing.

David and I had hunted together while we were trying to stop Asmodeus. But before that, I’d never hunted with anyone other than Eric. He’d been my partner in so many ways—my lover, my friend, my husband. He’d known me better than any person ever had or, I’d believed, ever would.

There’s an intimacy to hunting, a bonding and a trust that has to be there if you’re going to step out together against the bad things in the world. I’d opened myself to that trust with David, and through that crack had swarmed a desperate melancholy. I’d done this with Eric, I’d thought. And this, and this.

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The memories and sadness had blindsided me, as fresh as that cold night when I’d first heard of Eric’s death.

Those raw emotions had been painful enough. But when I’d started to suspect that David was more than Eric’s friend—that he was Eric himself—well, my emotions had whirled into a tailspin.

I’d loved my life with Eric, but I also loved the life I now had. My fabulous daughter. My precious little boy. My wonderful husband who adores me despite the fact that I can’t cook worth a damn and have yet to figure out a method for ensuring that we all have clean laundry on any given day.

The thought of hurting Stuart paralyzed me, and yet I couldn’t help but fear that I was on that very path—that merely by contemplating this David/Eric mystery, I was hurting him. If not in fact, then in my heart.

For weeks now, I’d been balancing on a knife edge, desperately hoping that Eric had returned even while fearing that very same thing. Because if Eric really had escaped his body on that dark day in San Francisco, then he’d been a disembodied soul until the day several months ago when David Long wrecked his car. And that meant that when the “real” David died and his soul had departed, Eric had squeezed into his body using the exact same method that the demons use.

Black magic, Eddie called it. And he was certain that no good soul could play with dark forces and come out unscathed.

That wasn’t something I wanted to think about, much less believe, but I had to concede that the argument had merit. Still, David had helped me save Allie. He’d never done a thing to harm me. So maybe Eddie was wrong? Or maybe David wasn’t Eric at all, but simply the man he purported to be—a chemistry teacher who’d survived a nasty car wreck. A rogue Demon Hunter who used to be Eric’s friend, all those years ago.

Or maybe the blackness in him was growing, and one day—when I’d need him most—David would turn on me.

I shivered slightly, pushing away the thought. I had three things going for me in this life—my family, my strength, and my faith. Whether he was Eric or not, I believed that the man I knew as David was good. That he would never willingly harm me. I believed that with every breath in my body. And I held fast to that belief. Because without that faith—without that hope—I knew that I would be truly lost.

But while I might trust David and long for Eric, that didn’t mean I was ready to learn the truth. I wasn’t. If David truly was Eric, I wasn’t ready for the ramifications—to Eric’s soul or to my family.

And if he was simply David? Well, I wasn’t ready to give up the hope that somewhere—somehow—my Eric was still alive.

So I’d done the only thing I could do—I’d avoided the problem by avoiding David.

I should have known better. When you grow up in Forza Scura, you grow up knowing that the things you try hardest to avoid are the things that jump out at you in the dark.

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His footsteps quickened behind me, the padding sound of his shoes underscored by the tap of his cane. “Kate,” he called. “Katie, wait.”

I kept walking.

“Katie! Dam—” The curse died on his lips, but I heard him speed his pace. I considered taking off in a jog, decided that would be taking the coward’s way out, and turned to face him.

“I don’t need help,” I said. “I’m fine patrolling on my own.”

“Why do it on your own when I can help you?”

“You’re not a Demon Hunter.”

“The hell I’m not,” he answered.

I stared him down. “You told me yourself you’re not with Forza. You’re rogue. And that’s a complication I just don’t need.”

“That’s a bullshit excuse and you know it,” he said, taking a step closer. “It’s not that I’m rogue that’s complicating matters.”

“No?” I countered, my voice breathier than I wanted. “Then what is?”

I watched his eyes, saw him hesitate, and decided to go for the jugular. “How far are you willing to go, David?” I pressed, stressing his name. “How complicated do you want things to be?”

I watched his face, frustration coupled with anger. It was the pity, however, that surprised me. “Katie, I’m sorry. I swear, I never meant to hurt you like this.”

I reeled, his unexpected words like blows. “David,” I stammered. “You don’t have to—”

“I should have told you the truth at the museum. I should have just gotten it over then.”

I couldn’t move. My feet weren’t accepting signals from my brain. Either that, or my body had been transformed into ice. I didn’t know. All I knew was that no matter how loudly I was screaming inside my head to run, my feet were staying firmly planted on the boardwalk.

“I know what you think, Kate, but it’s not true.” He cupped my chin in his hand and looked me straight in the eyes, his never blinking. “I’m not him, Kate. I’m sorry, but I’m not the man you loved.”

His words seemed to come at me from under water, and as I moved, I was certain I was slogging through Jell-O. I’d moved from the real world to some surreal place, where nothing quite made sense. Not even the words David spoke to me.

“What?” I finally managed. “But . . . but you—”

“I knew him,” David said. “That’s all. I knew the man, and pretty well, too. I’m sorry, Kate. Truly sorry.”

I wanted to say something, but words wouldn’t come. The tears, though, had no such qualms. They trickled quietly down my face in silent mourning to a fantasy that was finally dying.

“I realized that day at the museum that you’d gotten the idea fixed in your head. I should have told you then but I couldn’t. I thought maybe you needed to believe that Eric had come back to help you save Allie. After a week or so, I figured you’d realize the truth. But when you started avoiding me, I knew I had to tell you the truth once and for all.”

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“Oh,” I said, since that was about all I could manage. “Right. I understand.”

I took a tentative step, decided that I was relatively stable again, and started to walk slowly down the boardwalk. I needed to move. Needed to feel the solid earth under my feet and find my grounding again.

He fell in step beside me. “Are you okay?”

I drew in a breath and considered the question. “No,” I said. “But I will be.” His words had killed something inside me. And yet maybe he’d freed me, too. Because as much as I hated to admit it, the specter of Eric had been haunting my marriage.

“You’re sure?” he said.

“Yes.” And then, because it was true, I added a simple, “Thank you.”

He didn’t answer me, and I took his silence as both an acknowledgment and closure. And as he quickened his pace and pulled ahead of me, I used the pad of my thumb to wipe away the last of my tears.

We patrolled the next half hour or so in silence, each alone in our thoughts, our attention focused not on each other, but on our surroundings, and the ultimate question of just what was out there with us.

By the time we’d circled back, I was ready to pack it in. “No demons,” I said, as much to break the silence as because I believed it. “Maybe they’ve moved on.”

I was only mouthing my discouragement, but he seemed to seriously consider the possibility. “Maybe they did. You were here for, what, fourteen years before you caught whiff of a demon?”

“Literally,” I said, remembering the first demon I’d sniffed out in the pet food aisle of Wal-Mart.

“Then two in quick succession.”

“And both times the demons wanted something that was located in San Diablo,” I added.

“Wanted it badly enough to put up with the fact that the cathedral makes this town less than appealing to the general demon population.”

I lifted a shoulder. “That was our theory, anyway. Mine and Eric’s.”

“I say it was a good one,” David said. We’d reached the children’s playscape, and he leaned casually against the monkey bars. “So, Sheriff, now that you’ve run all the bad guys off, what will you do with your time?”

I laughed and started counting out on my fingers. “Dishes, laundry, dust-bunny wrangling. Candy Land with the kiddo. Mediating boyfriend disputes, overseeing makeup purchases, and surviving the dangerous rite of passage known as the Teenager with a Learner’s Permit.”

His mouth curved into a smile. “And here I thought you’d be bored.”

“Never,” I said. I started to take a step away. I needed to get back to my car and head home. Patrolling, I can justify. Casual chitchat? Not so much.

I never made it that far. I’d barely reached the boardwalk when something dark and fast tackled David, sending him sprawling into the sand. “Are you the one?” it demanded, then sniffed deep, like a bloodhound searching for a scent, even as I raced toward them. “If you are he,” it hissed, “release Andramelech. Release him from his shackles and know that when you do, your end will come.”

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The words still hung on his lips by the time I reached the demon. He had David by the collar of his shirt, but one swift kick to the gut knocked him off.

The demon teetered, and I pounced. Then, without hesitation, I thrust my stiletto through his cold, gray eye.

The body went limp as the demon departed, the familiar shimmer in the air the only sign of its passage.

“Mr. Tomlinson, I presume?” David asked, climbing to his feet.

“I think so,” I said. “But why did he attack you? He didn’t have a weapon, and I was standing right there. It was a no-win situation.”

“He was newly made,” David said. “Maybe he was just stupid? Had me confused with someone else?”

“If you are he,” I repeated. “But who?”

David looked at me, his eyes serious. “I don’t know. But my guess is he’s looking for whoever captured Andramelech.”

“Looking for the captor so they can kill him,” I said, shuddering. “But who’s Andramelech?”

“No idea,” he said, looking completely baffled. “But I do know one thing for certain.”

“There are still demons in San Diablo?”

“Exactly,” he said. “And they’re up to something.”

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