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“I can feel your sadness, my beauty. Please talk to me.”

Aphrodite looked up at the sound of Darius’s voice, but she didn’t meet his eyes. She stared over his shoulder. “What do you want to talk about?”

He sat beside her and used the back of his hand to gently wipe a tear from her cheek. She jerked away from him, hastily brushing at her other cheek. She hadn’t even known she’d been crying!

“I want to talk about us,” he said.

“Really? Wouldn’t it just be easier to keep on going like we have been? Pretending to be all ‘in love forever and ever’?” she air-quoted sarcastically.

“That has never been a pretense for me. You know that, Aphrodite.” He spoke calmly, earnestly.

She wanted to slap him—hurt him—make him feel even a little of the fear she was feeling. But she didn’t do anything violent. That would mean she’d lost control. That would mean she’d become her mother. Instead, Aphrodite struck him with words.

“And how the hell would I know that? I can’t be inside your head. I can’t even share your feelings like a real Priestess would. But, whatever. Don’t worry about it. Everything’s fine, and we both have a bunch of shit to do because, as per usual, Darkness is about to try to take over our world.”

“Darkness will have to wait, because you are my world, and if I lose you, I lose myself.”

Aphrodite meant to stand up and walk away and not look back. She was going to make her heart hard, like it used to be when it had actually protected her. Before the shit storm that was Zoey and her Nerd Herd and Darius had happened to her.

She was going to, but somehow Darius had said exactly the right thing so that her legs suddenly decided to listen to her heart instead of her head.

Aphrodite met his gaze. “You lied to me.”

“No, my beauty. I simply didn’t tell you something.”

“Why? Why did you keep that from me? Kalona being Erebus’s brother is a pretty big f**king deal!”

“I don’t care about Kalona or what he did or didn’t say. I care about you and what you say.”

“Me?” Aphrodite frowned at him. “What the hell are you talking about? Not once have I mentioned anything remotely like the possibility of Kalona and Erebus being brothers.”

Darius’s smile was slow and sweet. “Exactly. And if you, my beautiful, wise, gifted Prophetess, don’t have any insight into Kalona’s true past, then why would I care to mention an offhand comment the winged immortal made? Aphrodite, if it was important for us to know Kalona was Erebus’s brother, then I believe you would have told me.”

Aphrodite shook her head, feeling a little dizzy as she realized what Darius was actually saying to her.

He took her hand. “Have I told you how much I love you today?”

“N-no,” she whispered, thinking, Please don’t say it if you don’t mean it—please, please don’t.

“With all my being,” he said.

Tears leaked down her cheeks, but she didn’t look away from him.

“Don’t be afraid,” he said.

“I am. It still scares me,” she admitted.

“It scares me, too, but being with you—really with you and not just pretending so that my heart stays safe—is worth facing and conquering that fear.”

“But you’re a Warrior. I’m nothing, not really. I’m just…” Her voice faded. She couldn’t say it, but the words filled her mind: I’m just the daughter of an awful woman who taught me how to hate, and to never, ever trust love.

“You are the bravest person I know,” Darius said solemnly. “And you are not, nor will you ever be, your mother.”

“And you won’t ever lie to me.”

She didn’t speak it as a question, but he dropped from the bench to his knee and pressed her hand against his heart, saying, “Aphrodite, Prophetess of Nyx, I give you my oath that I will never lie to you. Should I not always speak to you the truth, may the earth swallow me whole so that my spirit never finds its way to the Otherworld.”

A terrible shiver passed through Aphrodite and she grabbed Darius and pulled him into her arms. “No, stop it! Anyone can accidentally tell a lie, anyone! I don’t accept that oath!”

Darius leaned back, holding her gently by her trembling shoulders and smiled. “But I am not anyone. I am yours. Your Warrior. Your lover. Your mate. I swear never to lie to you because that would wound you beyond bearing, and I would rather the earth swallow me forever than do that to you.”

As she stared at Darius and saw the truth in his eyes, something broke free inside Aphrodite—something small and sharp that had been lodged deep within her for a very, very long time. She gasped, drew a breath, then let it out slowly.

“It’s gone,” she whispered.

“What is gone, my beauty?”

“My fear. It’s gone, Darius. You chased it away.” Aphrodite knew she sounded young and silly. She didn’t care. For the first time in her life, she wasn’t afraid of losing love. “I can’t lose you!” she blurted.

“No,” he said, smiling again. “You cannot ever lose me. And I did not chase away your fear. You released it.”

“Oh,” she said softly, finally understanding. “Sorry that I took so long.”

“You took exactly as long as was necessary, and I don’t regret one moment of the wait.”

Darius kissed her then, and Aphrodite knew complete happiness.

Until Aurox’s voice interrupted. “Darius! There you are. Come quickly. They are at the gate!”

Aphrodite leaned on Darius’s shoulder and frowned up at Aurox. “Oh, for shit’s sake, if you messed up this moment because Zoey and the Nerd Herd are back, I am going to smack the crap right outta—”

“Not Zoey!” Aurox said. “Humans! There are humans at the gate asking to be let inside because they want us to protect them from Neferet!”

“Well, in that case, I suppose we should let them in,” Darius said, standing and offering Aphrodite his hand. “Don’t you think so, my beauty?”

She sighed and muttered, “Fine. Whatever. As long as there are no politicians with them.”

CHAPTER ELEVEN

Zoey

“Ah, hell! A mob? That’s all we need right now.” I sighed in frustration as we went through the Twenty-first Street light at Utica and got within sight of the school. It was a super-weird scene. By now it was after midnight, and the street was dark. It should have been empty, too, but the big iron school gates were open, and a whole bunch of people were crowded at least ten deep in front of them. The two gaslights encased inside weathered copper sconces threw flickering shadows in a semi-circle over the group. People also stretched down both sides of the street. Outside the reach of the school’s flames, I could see the dark shapes of the cars that were parked up on the sidewalk, looking abandoned and totally out of place.

“Do you see anything burning except our lanterns? Like a ginormous cross?” Shaunee’s head poked between Stark’s and mine as she tried to get a better view from the backseat.

“Stop and let me out of here. I shall deal with this!” Kalona said.

“No!” Thanatos and Marx and Grandma shouted together.

“They don’t appear angry,” Thanatos said.

Detective Marx braked and rolled down his window. We all strained to listen, then he said, “It’s hard to see, but I don’t hear any yelling.”

“My night vision is better than yours and I can see no shoving or panicked milling. Everything looks remarkably calm,” Thanatos said.

“Yeah, well, I’d rather be safe than sorry, so let’s be sure they know which side of the law the House of Night is on.”

The detective grabbed the portable cop light he’d brought from ONEOK and slapped it on his side of the roof of the Hummer. He flipped a switch and it started to rotate the blue and red strobe that was all too familiar to any of us who might have not fully stopped at the four-way down the street from South Intermediate High School on 101st and Lynn Lane. Not that I had any personal experience with that. I’m just sayin’ it was weird to be inside the cop car when the thing lit up.

Marx tapped at it again and an even more obnoxious siren shrieked twice. The light and the sound worked together perfectly. The crowd rippled and turned toward us and, recognizing the presence of the TPD, parted so that the Hummer was able to turn into the school’s entrance.

Standing where sturdy iron should have been safely closed, Aphrodite, Darius, Stevie Rae, Rephaim, Lenobia, and Aurox were lined across the driveway, making a human gate.

“What are they doing?” Stark asked the question we all had to be thinking.

“I hope they are making wise decisions,” Thanatos said.

Silently I agreed as my eyes went to Aphrodite first. If she looked pissed and/or had a drink in her hand, I’d know whatever was going on was bad—burning cross and shouting townsfolk or not. All she looked was confused. I mean, obviously confused. She had one hand on her hip and was shrugging her shoulders. At the same time Lenobia was nodding and speaking to someone in the crowd I couldn’t quite see.

“Aphrodite looks confused, but not freaked,” I spoke my surprised observation aloud. “And Lenobia looks like she’s okay with whatever is going on. It must not be that horrible, whatever it is.”

“There’s Sister Mary Angela and Sister Emily. Oh, now I can see! There’s a group of the nuns in the forefront.” Grandma pointed and waved. “All is well if they’re part of the crowd.”

“That’s a good theory, but I’m pulling inside the school grounds before any of you get out. And I want you to stay on the House of Night side of the gate—no matter who might be calling you outside,” Marx said.

I could see that Grandma had her scolding face on, but Thanatos’s hasty, “Agreed, Detective,” silenced her.

I was glad. Okay, maybe it was because I hadn’t been out of jail for twenty-four hours, but a crowd of humans milling around at the school’s gate—even familiar humans who appeared to be milling peacefully—made my stomach clench with stress. Not to mention that it was past midnight not long after Neferet had been tossing exploded people parts from the balcony of the Mayo. I had no desire to scold or disobey Marx and Thanatos. Actually, I hoped I’d done enough disobeying for the rest of what would, hopefully, become my long and boring life.

And then Kalona got out of the Hummer.

“Hey, is that the winged guy?” someone from the crowd shouted.

“Wow! Son of Erebus!” someone else called out the misinformation and mispronounced Erebus so that it sounded like airbus, which had Stark covering a laugh with a cough.

I elbowed Stark and he shot me his cute, cocky grin, mouthing airbus! I rolled my eyes.

“Okay, okay,” Detective Marx was saying while he raised his hands in a calming gesture. “There’s nothing to see here. You folks need to move along and not block this entryway.”

“Oh, do not worry, Detective. We don’t wish to block the school’s entrance. We only wish to enter the school.” The tall, wimpled nun strode forward purposefully, smiling with motherly warmth. “It is so nice to see you again, Kevin.”

“Sister Mary Angela, ma’am.” Detective Marx tipped an invisible hat to her in an old-time gesture of respect. “It’s awful late for you and the other ladies to be paying a social call.”

“Oh, Kevin, we aren’t here to socialize,” she said cryptically.

Before Marx could start to question her, Grandma spoke up, walking past him to meet the nun at the boundary of the school. “Mary Angela, I was just thinking of you earlier.” They embraced quickly.

The nun laughed and said loudly enough for a good part of the watching crowd to overhear, “And when did you think of me? Before or after you were being attacked by Darkness? You do lead such an interesting life, Sylvia.”

Aphrodite, who had come over to stand by me, snorted, saying, “Old people should have less interesting lives.”

“We should have less interesting lives,” I said under my breath.

Grandma smiled as if she could hear us. “It was afterward, when Thanatos called for the prayers of Tulsa to aid us.”

“Ah, that is a lovely coincidence, because prayer is what brought us here.”

“Please explain, good Sister,” Thanatos said. I noticed she didn’t join Grandma. I glanced at Kalona, who was sticking to her side like he expected more tendrils of Darkness to appear at any moment.

“Oh, for shit’s sake, enough with this procrastinating,” Aphrodite muttered, and then strode forward. “They want protection.”

I followed her, though Stark’s hand on my elbow slowed me down.

“I believe the correct word for what they want is ‘sanctuary,’” said Lenobia.

“You mean the politically correct word,” Aphrodite said.

“If any of us were politically correct, we would not be here.” From the middle of the flickering lamplight, a petite woman, followed by a slender man, walked to stand beside Sister Mary Angela. She nodded politely to Thanatos. “Shalom, High Priestess.”

“I greet you with peace, Rabbi Margaret,” Thanatos said. Now that they were closer to the light, the couple looked kinda familiar to me. “I greet you with peace as well, Rabbi Steven. It is always a pleasure to see our neighbors from Temple Israel.”

I realized that’s why the woman and the man looked familiar. They were the married rabbis, Margaret and Steven Bernstein, who had recently become the rabbinic leadership at Temple Israel, which literally backed to the Utica Square side of the House of Night. I remembered that they’d raved about Grandma’s chocolate chip cookies at our open house before that night had, of course, ended in disaster and death.

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