"I love you."
"I had hoped you did. For every demon, imp or wraith I destroyed, I hoped it would bring me one step closer to that love."
"You made it. I'm all yours."
"And hope has finally been mine."
Exhausted and yet elated, the twosome joined hands and began to walk toward the edge of town.
"How did you know who was the right me?" Ivan felt compelled to ask. "I couldn't do any more than follow my body's will to move. Every time Himself gestured, I did. And when I tried to make a significant motion, it became something benign. I was completely under his control." "But you answered truthfully about desiring me over your soul?"
"I did. So how did you know?"
Dez tucked her head against his shoulder. "I didn't. I had a fifty-fifty chance of picking the right Ivan. So, I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best."
"So you basically guessed?"
"What else was I to do? I couldn't read your eyes, or your expression. I lucked out."
"Who would have thought my life would be saved on a whim."
"Saved? I thought you would be killed, Ivan. I couldn't bear to watch after the murk came after you. It wasn't fair. That wasn't part of the bargain."
"Wouldn't have expected anything less from the Old Lad."
"It's over. You're weak. Your clothes are falling off you." She tapped his bare arm, and Ivan gave his wrist a shake, which dropped a shredded sleeve to the ground. Dez pulled away strips of fabric from his shoulders and chest. "You need more blood.
Why...why didn't you take mine?"
"I would sooner die than know I betrayed one simple request that meant so much to you. Mrs. Henderson's blood will sustain me for a while."
"What of your soul, Ivan? Do you feel as if it's within you?"
He placed her hand over his chest. "No. I feel no different. I imagine Himself will overlook that part of the deal."
"But we had a bargain!"
"I'll be thankful if he no longer considers me the fixer. Guess I won't know until tomorrow night. If the coercion digs into me."
"What of the shadow on your neck?"
"It's still there. I can feel it."
They paused at the edge of town. Sunlight glinted on the horizon. Time had twisted when they'd been playing the game with the devil Himself.
"I want to take you home and make love to you all day," he said. "And if the night brings another task, at least I'll know you're free."
It wasn't fair. That she had won the Grande Grimoire and freedom from Himself?
"Can you get home yourself? I...need to hunt before we can be together."
She nodded. And as he leaned in to kiss her, the scent of her blood seeped into his mind. His desiderata. The only desired thing he could never have.
A homeless man living in a shanty at the edge of Willow Cove served Ivan to renew his strength. He didn't balk at taking advantage of the sleeping man. With the persuasion, Ivan was able to lift the deeply buried dream to handcraft boats to the man's forebrain. He had the skills, and now he would gain renewed determination.
Leaving him with the curse against his shadows, Ivan walked briskly down the gravel road. Dawn lighted his path and topped the peaks of the white picket fence.
He shrugged a hand through his hair and marveled with a huge smile that Dez had been winging it when she'd chosen him.
But he wouldn't dwell on what could have been. Dez was free, with the Grande Grimoire, and that was all that mattered.
The sun dashed pink and gold swashes across the gentle rolling waves below. The air hummed with cicadas and the urgent energy of the ocean. The cool air shifted over Ivan's bare flesh. But shards of his pants revealed everything below the knees. He'd thought to bespell some new clothes when-something was not right.
He scanned the back of the house, eyeing the windows to sight Dez. A shadow moved behind the upper-floor bedroom window.
Waiting for him.
Yet he felt the world shift. Vision blurred, and then everything grew sharp and defined. Vision, smell, even the salt in the air pricked at the small unhealed wounds and cuts scattered across Ivan's body.
Would Himself retaliate by taking Dez away from him?
Not that he had her. She was not his. She could never be his. Not while he worked for Himself. It wouldn't be fair to Dez.
Hit with such a force he felt his insides become molten and shift, his limbs splayed out and he could not keep balance.
Falling backward, Ivan hit the ground. The force moved over and through him like worms seeking the inner parts of flesh, muscle and organs. As well, it was warm and encompassing. So bright.
He closed his eyes. His body filled with brilliance. And he did not want to struggle, for he knew this was the moment he'd dreamed of.
When it ceased, he felt different. Full. And empty. Invigorated. And yet, he simply lay there, arms outstretched above his head and legs spread like a vampire Vitruvian Man.
"My soul," he said, and knew it was so.
And then something even more spectacular occurred. Out the corner of his eye, Ivan saw a flash. Not the sun on the ocean. Not a bird's wing taking flight. A blinding wheel spun in the sky, gorgeous with color and radiating love.
"An angel," he whispered. A tear rolled down his cheek. "Thank you."
Dez appeared above him. A sweep of red silk spilled across his face as she knelt, and swiped the skirt of her robe away. "What happened? Are you hurt? Is Himself trying to punish you again?"
He slid a hand behind her head and pulled her down for a kiss.
Never before had a woman tasted so exquisite. So...made for him. And the sensation of touch had not until now seemed so fine and detailed. Her lips molded to his as if they were meant to only touch his mouth. The taste of her carried more than a hush of surprise and the soft minty tingle of toothpaste. He could taste her life. Not blood. Life. Full and bountiful and honed over the centuries. Wise with years of experience. Innocent with wonder.And the angel approved.
Hot tears spilled across his cheek. Dez traced the wet trail with a fingertip, but she did not break the kiss. She wanted to know what was wrong with him. Not a single thing. He was perfect.
Life had just begun.
I van paused at the white picket gate before Dez's house and looked over the pile of rose vines heaped to one side, smoldering with smoke and flame. Dez waved hedge clippers at him in welcome, her hands gloved and hair tied off from her face.
"This is too much," Ivan said as he approached, still a bit leery of the vines on the ground. But they had been severed, and when he got close, the thick, cordlike vines did not snake toward him. "What of protection from other vampires?"
"I'll blast them with a category five mini-hurricane. Besides, shouldn't they be relenting on the witch attacks now?"
"They are. The Gray Council reports a remarkable retreat on both sides." Swiping at the smudge of dirt on her cheek, Ivan then leaned in to kiss it. "I love you."
"It's evening," she replied.
He knew what she was asking, and was happy to report, "No coercion. I'm no longer bound to Himself. Look."
He turned and tugged his shirt off over his head. Slapping a hand over his shoulder, he displayed a bare neck, devoid of shadow.
"Bet that feels like a million bucks."
"You can't even imagine."
"What will you do with yourself now you've a new life?"
"I promised my father I'd devote the next year to overseeing the transition. There are a few tribes we've marked that could be resistant and continue to go after the witches. I won't be satisfied until we've achieved complete peace."
"That might never be possible."
"I won't stop until it is so."
"Will you check in with me every month or so?"
"Month? I was thinking my weekends would belong to you. Don't know that I could stay away any longer than that."
"You just want me for sex, vampire."
"You are talented when it comes to sex. But how do I know you're not keeping me around as your love slave?"
"I like the sound of that. Can a person have a love slave and be in love with him at the same time?"
"Want to help me finish burning the vines?"
"Yes, I'll take over. You shouldn't be messing around with fire, witch." "So quickly he starts to tell me what to do."
"Now that I've got you, I don't want to lose you."
"You won't. I'll stick around for as long as you'll have me."
"Forever and a day, my love. Forever and a day."
THE DEVIL TO PAY.
Copyright 2009 by Michele Hauf All rights reserved. Except for use in any review, the reproduction or utilization of this work in whole or in part in any form by any electronic, mechanical or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including xerography, photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, is forbidden without the written permission of the editorial office, Silhouette Books, 233 Broadway, New York, NY 10279 U.S.A.
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