Jared squeezed my hand. “The oak tree it is. Are you sure you’re okay with this?”
“Does it matter?”
“Yes. I would like to see what you can do, though, don’t you?”
I thought for a moment. I had always admired the abilities of the Ryels, but having my own never occurred to me. My damsel in distress days could be over, and I liked that.
“Do I get a shot at you if I beat Claire?”
Jared shrugged. “Sure, but—”
Jared pretended to be offended. “That wasn’t very nice, honey. Not nice at all .”
I hooked my arm around his and nuzzled against him as we walked to the Escalade. “A little exploratory domestic violence doesn’t mean I love you any less.”
The Escalade jostled with the uneven ground of the trail that led to our oak tree. Bex and Claire would be careful not to land a direct hit to my stomach, but my motherly instincts were kicking in, and so were my nerves. I kept tel ing myself I had already done this: Bex and I had sparred many times, and I got the best of him several times. At the time I thought he was taking it down a thousand notches so that I knew I was improving, but now I knew differently.
Ryan, sporting a standard-issue police T-shirt and a PPD bal cap, took position across from me.
“Until I figure out what I can do,” I told him, “try very, very hard not to go anywhere near Bean.”
Ryan frowned. “For the record, I feel like I’m having an out-of-body experience, and the rational me is screaming to kidnap you away from this craziness before you get hurt.”
“We’ll just start slow, and see what happens.”
Ryan winced. “I’m about to fight a pregnant woman. This is wrong on so many levels.”
“C’mon you weenies!” Claire yel ed. “We haven’t got all day!”
“I’m not a weenie,” Ryan said under his breath.
“You are if you’re afraid of a girl!”
Ryan glanced at her with annoyance, and I smiled. “You’l learn whispering doesn’t help.”
“Okay, let’s do this before my girlfriend thinks worse of me.”
“Stil not your girlfriend!” Claire yel ed.
I bit my lip. “Let’s try this,” I said, shoving Ryan. I used enough strength to push him a few feet away, but instead he flew back, twisted in the air, and then fel , rol ing across the ground.
He looked up at me in surprise. “That’s cheating!”
“I barely touched you.”
Ryan pushed himself to his feet, and then jogged back to me, a bit shaken. “I can’t let two girls kick my ass in one twelve-hour period.”
“Bring it,” I said, crouched and ready.
Ryan swung and missed a dozen times before I tried punching him. My fist caught him in the gut, and he landed nearly in the same place as before. He stood up, but then doubled over, trying to catch his breath. He took a step, and then bent down again, holding up one finger.
“Sorry!” I cal ed.
“My turn!” Bex said. He wasted no time, and I could see in his eyes that playtime was over.
He lunged, and I moved. Blocking each of his punches, I used Claire’s leg sweep, knocking him to his feet. He jumped up, missing the first punch, and then landing the next. It stung, but it felt like I had accidental y walked into a door instead of the ful power of a Hybrid pounding into my jaw.
“Oh!” Jared yel ed. His hands were on his head, his fingers intertwined. He hated this. He had spent his life protecting me, and now that we were married and I was pregnant with his child, he was all owing me to be a guinea-pig-slash-punching-bag.
“You okay?” Bex said, breathing hard.
“Oh, God, I’m sorry, did I hurt you?” Bex said, lifting my chin to see the damage.
“Again,” I said, squatting defensively.
“No!” Jared yel ed. “No, we’ve seen what she’s capable of. That’s enough.”
I shook my head. “I’m fighting a thirteen-year-old, Jared,” I said quietly. “I wasn’t trying that hard.”
Bex crouched. “That’s insulting.”
He lunged again, and although our movements would have blurred to the human eye, I had no trouble keeping up. Each move Bex attempted seemed nearly in slow motion. Within seconds, Bex was in the air, and then flat on his back.
“My turn!” Claire said, pulling on fingerless leather gloves.
I steadied myself. Claire had always frightened me. Bex, I had sparred with before; I was familiar with his moves. But it had been months since Claire and I had practiced together, and I was unfamiliar with her strategy. Stil , I didn’t want to make Jared worry, so I planned to step up my game a notch. I couldn’t let Claire punch me. Jared would feel guilty enough. Not to mention that even though she loved me now, Claire been waiting for this moment a long time.
She glared at me from under her brow as she always did to intimidate an enemy. That part I was familiar with. She would not hold back, and she wasn’t afraid to hurt me.
This was going to suck.
Bex helped Ryan to Jared’s side, and Ryan fel onto his knees, sore and demoralized.
“Get her, Nigh!” Ryan yel ed.
“Hey! Whose side are you on?” Claire said.
I focused. Claire Ryel was the best of the best. Demons feared her. She was Earth’s deadliest weapon, undefeated by anyone she’d ever come up against, and I was about to deck her. Once Claire returned her attention to me, I swung. Claire took the punch, and it almost knocked her off her feet. She looked at Jared, rubbed her cheek, and smiled with bloody teeth. “She hurt me!”
I didn’t let my guard drop for a second, knowing Claire was too competitive to quit. Her ice-blue eyes sharpened and her vicious glare targeted me. “I love you, and I’m sorry for the ass-kicking that’s about to commence.”
“No, you’re not.”
“You’re right. I was just being polite.”
Knowing that she had watched me wait to be attacked with my last two opponents, I took the first shot. She dodged, but in the next moment, my foot connected with her chest, and I sent her flying forty feet into the one muddy section of the entire field. She emerged, wet, dirty and pissed off.
She flung her hands outward, letting the excess mud spatter to the ground. “You real y went there, didn’t you?”
I smiled. “I did.”
She sprinted toward me and grabbed my shirt. I was soon in the air, but landed on my feet—just short of the mud.
“Nice try,” I smiled.
Claire was unhappy. She tried repeatedly to push, shove, throw, and punch me into the mud, but I either blocked her or put her there instead.
After half an hour, her platinum hair was tangled and brown, and we were both filthy and panting. She more than I, but coming into contact with someone covered in muck made it impossible to emerge unsoiled, and Claire was definitely a ful -contact adversary.
“Enough,” Jared said, walking out to meet us. He wiped a chunk of mud from Claire’s face. “You’ve made your point.”
“I’m…not…finished with…her yet,” Claire breathed.
Bex had been laughing uncontrol ably since the first time Claire found herself in the mud, but with one glare from his sister, the laughter silenced.
“Okay,” I said, breathing hard. “Now you?”
“No?” I said.
“Chicken!” Ryan said.
Jared frowned. “We’ve seen what we need to see, and I don’t want you to get overly tired. You may have angel blood running through your veins, but you’re stil human. Until we know for sure how your body wil handle the stress, I don’t want to push it too far.”
I nodded. “You’re right. I can throw punches at you anytime.”
Jared laughed, and then put his arm around me as we walked to the Escalade. He was thoroughly enjoying my new Yes, Dear attitude. The truth was I couldn’t live with myself if something happened to our baby.
Ryan took off his coat and draped it around Claire’s shoulders, and then used his hand to scrape the rest of the mud from her face. She was never happy to lose a fight, but the excitement we all felt for this new development was evident in her eyes. “I want a rematch after Bean is born!”
she yel ed.
“No way!” I cal ed back. I looked to Jared. “She’s not serious?”
Jared tried to subdue a smile. “Of course not.” His attention was diverted from the path to the road. Kim’s Sentra barreled toward us.
The Sentra stopped abruptly, and Kim emerged, slamming the door behind her.
Jared raised his hands. “I know you’re impatient, Kim. We’re leaving next week, okay?”
When she was close enough, I gasped. Her clothes were covered in blood. “Wel , that’s just great, Jared. Unfortunately for my uncle, it’s too little, too late.”
“What happened?” Jared said, equal y alarmed. Bex, Claire and Ryan gathered around.
Ryan grabbed Kim’s arm, but she pul ed away. “Oh my God, Kim. Are you okay?” he said.
Kim didn’t look away from Jared. Her eyes glossed over. “I told you. I told you we needed to get it back.”
“I’m so sorry, Kim,” Jared said.
“Sorry won’t bring him back. I helped you, and when it was my turn, you dragged your feet until someone I loved was kill ed.” She turned and walked toward her car.
“Sunday, Kim,” Jared said, cal ing after her. “We leave Sunday.”
Kim’s arm shot into the air and her middle finger pointed toward the heavens. A moment later, she was gone.
“Poor Kim,” Ryan said. “What do you think happened?”
Claire crossed her arms, watching the Sentra disappear into the distance. “They’re sending a message. If it were demons in true form they wouldn’t have been able to get to him. They must be shel ing.”
“Shel ing?” I asked.
“They’re taking human form,” Jared said.
Ryan nodded. “Like possession.”
Claire frowned. “No, like shel ing. They take over the body for a short amount of time to achieve a purpose. It doesn’t leave the body weakened, and the human has no recol ection or aftershock.”
Jared rubbed the back of his neck. “It’s starting.”
“It sure as hel is,” Claire said, heading quickly toward her Lotus.
“It’s a good thing I was quitting to go back to school, anyway,” Ryan said, fol owing Claire. “If I would have asked for more time off to go to Jerusalem, they would have fired me, anyway.”
Claire put a hand on Ryan’s shoulder. “They were going to fire you anyway.”
Ryan’s head jerked in her direction. “Huh?”
“Because you suck.”
Ryan shrugged off her hand, and then used all of his might to shove her. She didn’t budge, only turning long enough to offer a smal , amused smile.
“I don’t suck. You suck,” Ryan grumbled, climbing into her car.
Last Minute Forgiveness
So much to do. So much, so much. Repetitive grumbling hissed from my lips as I rushed around the house. A week wasn’t long enough to get my life in order. I scrambled around the house, up and down the stairs, trying to maneuver around my growing stomach. It became rounder and ful er every day. As I packed, Agatha worked overtime trying to finish the laundry, and Jared was constantly up and down the stairs, fetching clothes and medical supplies. It wasn’t until he phoned in a favor to a friend for bags of saline, IV tubing and needles, and anticoagulant that I realized I wouldn’t have my baby in a hospital—not even at home. Bean would be born in a dark, timeworn cavern under the city of Jerusalem, away from modern medicine, but just beyond the reach of Hel .
Seven days didn’t seem like enough time, but knowing that demons were shel ing, it was also too long. Anyone we happened upon could try to kil us. Any human was a threat. Beth, Chad, even Ryan or my mother. The thought of my mother as a demon made my blood run cold. She was already frightening enough as a human.
Grant needed to be informed of my upcoming absence, but something kept me from dialing the numbers. Knowing he was an Arch—a fal en one, at that—made me feel uneasy. I had been rude to him, even insulted him at times. Being kept in the dark seemed to be the theme of my life, and yet this time it felt like a violation of my trust by everyone. Not to mention the unspoken competition I felt between us was forever ended. He had won.
Every jab at my expense, every flirtation was only him goading me, and I played into his hand every time. Knowing that made future conversations with him difficult. The urge to admit defeat might come, and that would be the ultimate humiliation. Nope. Absolutely not. Wasn’t going to do it. Jared was his celestial BFF. He could talk to Grant.
“Sweetheart?” Jared cal ed from the hal .
I shoved more clothes into my suitcase and then zipped the lid shut. “In here.”
He chuckled. “I know. Bex cal ed. Grant wil keep an eye on Mom. He said he needs to speak with you.”
“You talk to him. You know the details of the trip.”
“I don’t know the details of Titan. He wants you to go in tonight. I’m going to let Bex fol ow you in while I run to a friend’s clinic to get the rest of the supplies, and then I’ll be by.”
He pul ed me to his side, his arms surrounding me. It just occurred to me why the temperature of his skin didn’t feel as warm as usual. I was running the hybrid fever as wel . That was one thing I would be glad to have back once Bean was born: Jared’s warmth had always been so comforting. Now that it was gone, I mourned its loss a bit.
Bex burst through the front door and sprinted up the stairs, stopping just short of us.