Katie's Hope

Rhyn Trilogy, Book Two

By Lizzy Ford, .com

Edited by Christine LePorte

Cover art and design by Dafeenah, .com/

Special feature at the conclusion: excerpt from

Kissed by Darkness,

debut novel of rising indie star Shéa MacLeod

.com/

Acknowledgments

I'd like to give a hearty thank you to the following people, whose support was crucial to the finishing of Katie's Hope!

Anna

Traci Wood

Katie Bleil

Katie's Hope copyright 2011 by Lizzy Ford

Smashwords Edition

Cover art and design copyright 2011 by Dafeenah

Kissed by Fire excerpt copyright 2011 by Shéa MacLeod,

used with permission

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Chapter One

Three weeks later

The dream took shape as it did every night. Even when she knew she was dreaming, she couldn't wake herself up or shake the fear that this time, Rhyn wasn't going to come.

Katie stood between the assassin and the demon. Her choices were plain: Death or Hell. Bad or worse. Screwed or screwed. One of them was taking her to his underworld. The other would kill her. As the two stared each other down, she wasn't sure who had the better chance of winning: Gabriel, an Immortal sworn to serve Death, or Darkyn, the leader of all the demons in Hell.

Her hand went to her neck, where the name of her Ancient Immortal mate, Rhyn, had been until he broke their mating bond two days before. Desolation unlike anything she'd ever felt made her want to sink into the ground and stay there.

A shadow blocked the hot Caribbean sun, and she looked up to see Rhyn in his pterodactyl form circling above them. She gasped, hope racing through her as he dove toward the ground, switched to his human form in mid-air, and landed hard on the stony island's ground. He met her gaze, and her body bloomed with warmth in response to the possessive gaze that swept over her from head to foot before his eyes settled on the demon. Evaluating each other, the three creatures stood in tight silence before Rhyn spoke at last.

"What the fuck are you doing here, Darkyn?"

"Half-breed," the demon leader sneered. "Negotiating with Gabriel over who gets your former mate."

"Death ordered her dead-dead," Gabriel said. "And Death always wins."

"Brother, I'll kill you both if either of you tries to take her," Rhyn replied. "You have a contract on her, Gabe?" The assassin nodded. "Let me guess, Darkyn, the Dark One, ordered this."

"We'll just say he doesn't disagree with me."

"All right." Rhyn drew a knife from his boot. Katie watched, her optimism fading. "I'm challenging you, assassin, demon. You can have her when I'm dead."

"Rhyn, no!" she cried.

"I can handle it," he said.

"Rhyn- " She started forward, and Gabriel held out an arm to block her. Furious and terrified, Katie planted both her hands on his arm to push it away with no success. "Back off, Gabriel. It's not like I can run anywhere!"

"Two minutes," he warned. "By Immortal Code, Darkyn and I are obligated to accept his challenge."

She hurried to Rhyn and stood looking up at him. His silver gaze was on his foes then dropped to her.

"This is the stupidest thing you've ever done," she said.

"Letting you go was the stupidest thing. I'm doing something right for once." The resolution in his face was unmistakable. He wasn't backing down. His eyes returned to the demon.

"They'll kill you," she whispered.

"If they do, go with Gabriel. Death's a bitch, but she's better than Hell."

Her eyes watered. She'd barely known what to do when he un-claimed her two days ago, but at least he was alive. If he left forever …

"This isn't right," she said, her throat tightening. He looked down at her again, his gaze taking in her face. He cupped one cheek with his roughened hand and rubbed away a tear with his thumb.

"I'm not dead yet," he said, amused. She wrapped her arms around him, comforted by his scent and tormented it was the last time she'd smell him.

"Can't we just run away, right now? Turn into a bird and carry me with you?" she asked.

"Even if we did, they'd both come after us."

"You can go. I'd rather know you're safe than live without you."

"No, Katie," he said softly. "I know where I belong, and it's right here with you. I have to make things right. I couldn't live if I lost you."

"Katie," Gabriel called.

"Rhyn, I love you," she said.

"I know." He pulled away from her and pushed her hair from her face. With a tender kiss on her forehead, Rhyn stepped away. Gabriel drew a long sword, and Darkyn pulled two free. She felt cold from the inside out. The assassin motioned her over. She went woodenly, her stomach in turmoil.

"Break the bond, and Death will save you both. Rhyn will die-dead otherwise," Gabriel whispered then left her standing by a group of boulders. The words struck her as odd, but she had trouble concentrating when the men launched into a three-way battle.

Break the bond, and Death will free you both. She tried to decipher his meaning as she watched them fight, terrified to take her eyes off Rhyn. Rhyn already broke their bond, unless … she had to break it, too.

Death would free them. Her death. Shewas the only one who had the power to end this before he died. Her attention turned to a different direction, the way she'd walked half an hour ago from the beach. She hesitated only a second more before she started running. She ran hard and left the sounds of the battle behind her, her thoughts on Rhyn and nothing else.

The distance to the beach was short in her dream, her body full of fear and adrenaline. She made it to the sand before being forced to slow to a walk by the ankle-deep, loose sand. Agonizing over how much time Rhyn had, she finally reached the water's edge and sucked in ragged breaths as she knelt for a moment of rest.

"Death will free us both." Heart hammering, she rose, took a deep breath, and waded into the warm water.

Trust my Gabriel, human, a woman's voice whispered into her mind. This is the only way.

Katie awoke sweating in her bed in the cavernous room to which she'd been exiled upon arriving to the Immortals' castle in the French Alps. The fire had died down, and someone had turned off the light to her bathroom, rendering the room completely dark. The dream had seemed so real. In it she had even recognized where they were: the Caribbean Sanctuary, where she'd been before coming here.

A movement from the balcony caught her attention.

"Another nightmare?" The voice of Gabriel was as dark as the room. He stood in front of the glass French doors of the balcony, taking up the whole space with his massive frame and heavy trench coat.

"Yeah," she whispered. "Every night." Her hand went to her neck, and she threw off the covers, crossing the cold stone floor to the bathroom. Flipping on the light, she confirmed the tattoos and Rhyn's name still circled her neck. He hadn't left her. She looked tiny and frightened in the large bathroom's mirror, and her gaze was drawn to the lumpy scar marring one arm. She rubbed it as she'd begun to do whenever she was upset.

"You okay?" Gabriel asked.

"Just making sure …" he's still alive. She couldn't finish her thought in front of him, partly because it made no sense and partly because she didn't want to admit her soul felt Rhyn's absence like the draft from a cracked window on a winter's night.

"You ever find it odd you feel comfortable waking up to find me here?" Gabriel asked.

She rolled her eyes at his twisted sense of humor, which normally teetered on lethal. As Death's best assassin, Gabriel wasn't the type of person anyone ever wanted to run into, let alone when awaking in a dark room after a nightmare.

"I want the light on, Gabriel," she said.

He shook his head. "I don't like it, and you'll have bad dreams either way," he reasoned.

"Makes me feel safer."

"Nothing safer than hanging out with someone who can't be killed."

"Gabriel," she chastised. She left the bathroom light on and returned to her bed, chilled by the drafty chamber that was now hers. It had the combined square footage of every apartment she'd ever rented. It was cold and large, not the kind of place she'd ever choose to live.

"Mama!" Toby's grumpy voice drew her gaze toward the small bedroom whose door was near the bathroom. She'd stopped gritting her teeth whenever he called her that and- God help her!- she'd even started responding.

The five-year-old angel, whose appearance in her life several weeks ago plunged her into the Immortal underworld, squeezed through the cracked door. He trudged across the bedroom, climbing into bed with her without asking.

"Toby, you're too old to be sleeping in my bed," she said. He ignored her and snuggled deep beneath the covers. If not for the nightmares, she'd carry him back to his bed, whether or not he liked it, but she found some comfort in having the angel so close. Despite her efforts to stay awake, she fell into restless sleep again.

Her alarm clock woke her at dawn, reminding her it was time for her morning run. She turned it off and eased out of bed, stopping to gaze out the French doors. Verdant forests stretched to the steely sky, a swath of green, brown, and grey. Uneasy after her dream, she dressed in running clothes and padded out of the room. Gabriel was gone and Toby still sleeping.

She walked through the castle quickly, not liking the quiet, and emerged into a courtyard leading to an expansive cobblestone driveway. The courtyard bordered a small grassy park off which several trails ran from the grassy area into the still dark woods.

Her running partner, Ully, wasn't there. She shook out her arms and stretched, cold in the early morning air. The trails appeared muddy even from the distance and the air smelled of snow.

She heard the soft step of someone approaching and turned, surprised. Her mate, Rhyn, stood in heavy boots, running pants, and a tank top. Relief trickled through her to see him alive. His snow cloud-colored eyes were piercing, his muscular frame making her warm from the inside out. The tank top displayed his thick biceps and shapely shoulders. If she stepped just an inch closer, she'd feel his body heat.

"Ully's not coming," he said.

"Why not?" she asked, disappointed. Her morning run was the only moment of peace she would have during the day.

"I saw your dream."

"You're not supposed to be in my head."

He said nothing.

"Are you running with me?" she asked.

"Yeah."

Her gaze went to the sky again as she recalled the nightmare. She'd been avoiding him for the same reason her dream revealed: she might just care too much about him to leave when the time came for her to go. The sense of loss from her dream returned, and she was embarrassed to feel her throat tightening.

"I haven't seen you since we arrived," she said. "Are you in the dungeon with the rest of the warriors?"

"Do you wanna run or not?" he asked.

"Are you really running in boots?"

"I can run naked."

She turned away before he saw the flair of interest accompany her irritation. Her face felt hot as she recalled the one night they'd spent together. How could she forget the experience that had effectively doomed her, branded her as his forever?

Rhyn growled low in his chest. Suddenly, a massive black jaguar leapt past her toward the nearest trail. Its back reached her shoulder, and it moved with restrained, lethal power. She'd seen a couple of Rhyn's shapes, but she'd never get used to the fact he could shapeshift.

Rhyn turned to peer at her through silvery eyes, flicking his tail in impatience. She started forward with a sigh and joined him at the beginning of the muddy trail. She picked her way through the first few steps, startled when he launched himself at a tree, clawed his way up, and bypassed the muddy section by leaping to the next tree.

"Stupid cat," she muttered. Rhyn leapt down from the tree a few meters in front of her and sat to await her as she slid and maneuvered the muddy trail. When she reached the other side, he trotted forward. She followed, expecting him to disappear into the trees at any point and reappear with a herd of deer clenched in his jaws.

They ran through the forest toward the cliff, then ducked deeper into the forest before the trees gave way at the cliff. She stopped at the edge, where the trail was nothing but mud. Puffing and energized, she paused for a breath when cold fingers brushed her neck.

Darkyn. He spoke to her, and his cold presence was close. She jerked away, surprised, and slid in the mud toward the cliff edge. Rhyn snatched her and wrapped his arm around her, lifting her out of the mud and farther back onto the trail. Almost immediately she wished he'd let her fall off the cliff. She'd rarely seen him- and never touched him- since arriving a few weeks ago. The warmth of their bodies pressed together made her forget Darkyn, the cold, and the nightmare. The silence was thick and awkward. She sensed him waiting to see what she'd do.

"Thank you," she managed. "For coming with me today." His warm breath on her neck made her shiver, and she instinctively tilted her head. His grip tightened around her, but he didn't bite her.

"Did you mean what you said?" he asked in a husky tone.

"About thanking you? Yes," she said.

"You know that's not what I mean," he growled. "In your dream, you said- "

"I don't know, Rhyn. I've got a lot to figure out."

"Fine. Then tell me you don't."

She sighed. She belonged here in his arms, and yet she feared what that meant. She'd lose her sister, her only family, and Rhyn hadn't yet proven he could keep her safe.

"You can't say it," he said, satisfaction in his voice. He turned her to face him, and she gazed up at him, once again awed by his size, heat, and intensity. His silver eyes were molten, his rugged jaw line shaded by two days' growth. His hands were hot on her hips and his body blocked the cold wind whipping up the cliff.

"Can you?" she challenged.

"Don't need to."

"Rhyn- "

"I've done almost everything you asked me to the past few weeks. I need a reward, before the demons in the forest attack us."

"Demons?" she echoed. Any fear she might have felt disappeared when he rested his hand on her neck and brushed her cheek, then her lips, with his thumb. Her blood was already on fire from their bodies being pressed together, and heat pooled in the base of her belly.

"I watch them watch you," he said. "You draw them out on your runs, and I kill them. We're a good team."

"Until the day you're not there." Her words escaped before she thought to filter them. The sense of loss returned. Warmth passed through his gaze, and the skin around his eyes softened as he took in her expression.

"I win," he said. He withdrew, and the cold wind swept over her. She started after him, senses scattered.

"You didn't get your kiss," she objected, her blood humming with need and frustration. She followed him back to the trail. Her eyes swept over his muscular form, from his shapely shoulders and wide back to the thick thighs outlined by the sweats. He whipped out a curved knife from the small of his back and tossed it in the air, catching it easily.

"You better start running. They're coming," he said.

"You weren't joking." She eyed the forest around them. It was quiet and cold.

"I don't do much right, but I can kill things," he said. She turned to see him gazing at her again. His eyes traveled to her neck and lingered. "Hate demon blood."

Fear made the wind seem colder. She wasn't about to stick around for this one. She started past him. He gripped her arm and pulled her against him once more. His kiss was hot, demanding, and quick, his lips warm and soft. Just as her body melded against his, he pushed her away. Stunned, she stared up at him. His gaze was on some point in the forest. She heard them coming, the sound of creatures crashing through the forest.

"Go, now," he ordered. "Don't stop running until you're back at the castle."

Lust turned to adrenaline. He slapped her backside to jar her into gear, and she bolted forward. The sound of fighting erupted behind her, and she stopped before the trail curved out of sight to see Rhyn standing over his first victim, a demon in a jaguar form. He wiped the bloodied knife on its pelt and straightened, meeting her gaze.

She wasn't sure if she should thank him for protecting him or curse him for the kiss. He lifted his chin in dismissal. Intent on fleeing him as well as the demons, she ran as hard as she could back to the castle before doubling over to catch her breath. Her eyes went to the number she wrote on her hand each morning.

5

She had exactly five weeks left in her bargain with Kris, the Immortal's leader. She squeezed her hand closed to hide the number and faced the forest, waiting for him to reappear.

"What're you doing out here?" Kris's cool voice made the hair on the back of her neck stand up.

"Finishing up my morning run," she answered.

"You were told to take Ully with you."

"I went with Rhyn."

"You don't have much longer here, if all goes according to plan," Kris said and moved beside her, his eyes the color of tanzanite, his white hair the color of snow.

"I know, Kris."

"You're better off without him. That may be the only good thing that comes of returning you to the mortal world."

She looked up at him, anger heating her blood again. She'd never understand how Kris could treat his own half-brother as he did. Rhyn was all she would take away from the twisted Immortal world.

"Go inside. Ully's waiting for you in the lab."

"I'm nothing but a means to an end to you," she muttered. "So tired of all this." At least I have Rhyn.

She didn't wait for Kris's response but trotted inside.

Rhyn lopped the head off the last demon and wiped his knife again. He'd fed on the first one and was full but not satisfied. No blood could sate him as his mate's could, and he hadn't tasted her in weeks. Gabriel said she needed space. Kris said she needed anyone but him in her life. She had no idea what he wanted. For once, Rhyn was the only one who made any sense. His blood still raged from their kiss. If not for the demons' interruption, he and Katie would be doing a different kind of mud wrestling.

He growled, irritated as much by demons as he was with the cold weather. Snow fell in lazy, fat flakes, sticking to his clothes and hair. He swiped at the flakes then braced himself to change into his jaguar shape. Hot pain slid through him as his body contorted into the new form. He released a sigh when he'd transformed and shook snowflakes from his thick coat. He loped along the trail through the forest and trotted into the park around the castle, where the person he least wanted to see awaited him with a glower and crossed arms.

"You had somewhere to be half an hour ago," Kris said.

His tone reminded Rhyn that coming here had been Katie's idea and no one else's. He'd come to keep an eye on her and, allegedly, to help his brothers on the Council, though not even he believed he had a decent bone in his body.

"I thought it important for you to see our father's crypt," Kris continued. "He's been interred here since he became dead-dead at the hands of your demon-mother."

Kris waited for him to change forms. Rhyn breezed by him, much warmer in his jaguar shape than he'd been in his human shape.

Hell was a bitch, but at least it was warm, he thought darkly.

Kris strode past him and led him through the castle's ground floor, whose wide, carpeted halls felt nice on his paws. The massive halls were chilly, with ugly stone walls and wooden beams far above. Kris's décor was similar to his ever-changing eyes: jewel-toned drapes, pillows, and tapestries, edged with gold.

Several people stopped to stare or skirt them as Rhyn padded through, and one startled gasp drew his attention briefly to a stairwell. A child-angel- the first he'd seen in hundreds of years- gazed at him with large brown eyes before darting up the stairs. He wondered what poor fool was stuck babysitting the high-maintenance angel as he followed Kris.

"I'd prefer you didn't act like such an ass around here," Kris muttered as one of the servants dropped a tray of dishes at the sight of the massive cat.

Rhyn stayed in his form until they reached a narrow, winding set of stairs. He changed shape before descending behind Kris. They walked down and through an unused part of the dungeons. Their path dead-ended at a large wooden door. Kris produced a key chain from his pocket and unlocked the five locks before pulling the heavy door open.

"You afraid Pop's gonna escape?" Rhyn asked, amused by the security.

"The magic lingering in our father's blood renders the ground here sacred. I've sealed off the crypt with magic to keep Immortals from entering through the shadow world, and installed locks for those who wander where they shouldn't be," Kris said.

"We should just toss him in the deepest hole in Hell."

"I don't expect you to understand what it is to care about someone else."

Rhyn said nothing. His brother had no idea the depth of emotion even a half-demon could feel. When he'd looked into Katie's eyes and dared her to admit she didn't love him, he'd seen everything he needed to know. He didn't feel like the half-demon bastard he was when he was with her.

"Pay your respects, brother, while I allow it," Kris said, and pushed the door open. The chamber beyond was dark, lit by the soft glow of a single torch beside a clear sarcophagus. Rhyn's eyes lingered on the body on the altar before he took in the seven statues of descending size surrounding the altar.

Kris lit another torch to shed light on the murals on the floor. There was one beneath each statue representing a continent. The largest statue was Andre, their eldest brother who had recently become dead-dead, standing over Europe. Kris was next in size, standing on a mural of North America.

The smallest statue was Rhyn as a child of five or six, standing on Antarctica. He circled his statue, barely recalling his life growing up. Each of the Council That Was Seven was represented, dutifully overlooking their father's corpse. Rhyn faced the sarcophagus, surprised to see his father looked as he had when he last saw him thousands of years before. Their father had Andre's dark skin, and his hair was grey at the temples. His features were most like Rhyn's: heavy and roughly hewn, while his body was lean like Kris's.

"This might interest you more," Kris said in a cold voice.

Rhyn bristled and turned. Kris lit another torch to display a darkened case on the wall. Rhyn's fists clenched as he took in the beheaded, dismembered body hung for spite on the wall.

"My father's killer," Kris said, taking in the demoness's body.

"You kill my mother," Rhyn snarled. "Yet you've never come after me."

"Andre killed your mother and kept me from destroying you as I should have," Kris replied. "You're a cancer on everyone around you. Andre was too kind to kill you. Even Katie is better off without you."

Rhyn heard without listening, instead taking in the tortured features of his mother's face. He'd gone from being tormented by his own mother to the affection of an abusive father who regretted ever having him. What small maternal instincts a demon could have had led her to destroy the man who took her son; then she in turn was killed by Andre.

Andre had taken Rhyn in when he was five and he fled his bullying brothers when he was ten. Andre, however, unanimously approved Rhyn's petition to be recognized as a son of their father when he was old enough, despite his brothers' objections.

"They both deserve what they got," Rhyn said. "Andre alone has ever shown me any kindness."

"And look where that got us all. If he'd killed you, he'd be alive and Katie would be safe."

"Safe?" Rhyn echoed. "You'd force her to become your mate."

"I wouldn't force a human to do anything."

"But you'd hold her down and take her blood." Rhyn's voice lowered dangerously and he faced his brother. Kris fell silent. "Did you think I didn't know?"

"She told you."

"She didn't have to."

"I didn't intend for it to happen," Kris said.

"You're no better than Sasha," Rhyn said.

"And she's better off with you? You have nothing to offer her."

Rhyn faced his mother again. The words were too familiar. Katie had said the same. He hadn't even been able to keep her safe when they were together, and he had nothing- not even a home- to give her.

"Don't destroy anything while you're here," Kris said and left.

Rhyn ignored him, turning from the mother who'd never wanted him to the father who'd wanted him dead-dead. He'd had one friend in his life, Gabriel, and his mate, a woman tough in spirit but vulnerable in flesh. He didn't belong here with Kris's kind, yet she was safe. People around him had a way of dying horribly, and he wasn't entirely sure what to do about it, now that it mattered. He wished Andre had stuck around a little longer, so he could've asked him what to do.

He sensed the entrance of another before his companion spoke.

"She looks like the Council, dismembered beyond recognition."

Rhyn snorted and faced Sasha, the brother charged with governing Australia, and the first to abandon the Council in favor of serving the Dark One. Sasha was lean and pale, his gaze turquoise.

"You're not surprised to see me," Sasha surmised.

"If Kris let me in, he'd let anyone in," Rhyn replied.

"Miss Hell, brother?"

"Warmer than this place."

Sasha chuckled, his gaze taking in the sarcophagus. He neared it with a small frown. Rhyn stayed where he was, wary yet unafraid of Sasha, who'd been the zookeeper among the animals with him in Hell.

"I wonder if he were still alive if things would be the same," Sasha mused, his eyes on their father.

"I'm glad the asshole's gone," Rhyn said.

"I suppose."

"What're you doing here, Sasha?"

"I'm here to see Kris, of all people."

"You can't manipulate him like you do everyone else," Rhyn said, well aware of his brother's ability to twist the minds of others.

"No? Wanna bet?"

"People like us don't pay up."

"True. We are more alike than the others. How's your little human treat?"

Rhyn eyed him. Sasha gave a faint smile.

"I'm not here for her," he said. "Wouldn't you like to have Kris out of the way, so you and your human treat can live in peace somewhere?"

"I wouldn't trust anything you offered."

"Very well, then, how about we make a deal for you to come back with me as my personal bodyguard, and I'll make sure she's safe and happy the rest of her life? I learned in Hell how you can un-mate her. She'd be better off without you, Rhyn."

She'd be better off without you. He'd heard these words more than once over the past few days and couldn't help the small part of him that agreed. The rest of him didn't give a shit what anyone said: Katie was his.

"You know Kris'll kill her when he's done with her. One human is nothing to him in his version of the big picture," Sasha continued. "Not sure which of us is more twisted."

"Fuck off, Sasha. You did me no favors in Hell, and you'll do me no favors here."

"Think about it. I'm off to see Kris."

Rhyn watched him go, wondering just what his brother was planning, and how he'd figure it out before Katie was hung on the wall next to his mother. Agitated and chilled by the chamber, he transformed into his jaguar form to terrorize more Immortals on his way to hunt the demons in the forest.

From the shadows of the crypt, Gabriel waited until the half-brothers were gone to dump the contents of the velvet dice pouch into his palm. Two small green gems- holding the dust of human souls- glittered in the torchlight of the dead-dead Immortal's chamber. Kris had given them to him weeks ago as payment for two assassinations. Wanting to give his friend, Rhyn, a moment of peace with his dead-dead parents, he waited until Rhyn was gone before withdrawing from the shadows.

"He looks so un-dead-dead," Death said, a rare trace of interest in her sweet voice.

Gabriel put the gems away and looked up to see her slight frame standing beside the sarcophagus. Her white hair and snowy skin glowed in the dim chamber.

"I wondered where you'd been going," she said.

"You always know where I'm going," he replied. "You can read my mind."

"You come here a lot."

"I do."

She turned and raised an eyebrow at him, her rainbow eyes flashing with every color between white and black. "I want to hear you say why," she ordered.

"To see my friend and protect his mate."

"You're not independent anymore, Gabriel. I own you now," she reminded him. "The other assassins go nowhere without my permission."

"You know where to find me when you need me," he said.

"You can't influence destiny, Gabe," she said. "You shouldn't be here at all."

"I have one friend in the universe. There's nothing wrong with- "

"You sacrificed your immortal soul for him. You've done enough."

He clamped his jaw shut.

"And he's still not doing what he should be," she continued. "I think you wasted your freedom. Poor choice, but you were a human once. Maybe your human compassion led you astray."

"I thought you appreciated my human perspective."

"I did. But I think you've become a liability to me, Gabriel."

He'd heard the speech before, though this time, it was different. Three weeks ago, he'd bargained his soul in exchange for her taking Rhyn off her list of those to be made dead-dead. In all the years he'd served her, she'd never owned him until three weeks ago. He still didn't doubt his friend or his decision, but he was the only one.

"I'll stay away," he said. "If it pleases you."

"Stay today, Gabriel, but know that the next time you return, you will take the lives of two of them," she said. "Kris paid for Katie's death and the death of another, whose name he did not mention, but I will."

Heaviness settled into the pit of his stomach. He wondered if Death would've been more lenient if he stayed home with her and played nice instead of spending half his day in the mortal world.

It was too late for him to know.

"Who else would you have me take?" he asked in a monotone. Death smiled, and when she spoke, he looked away. "You would ask this?"

"You're lucky this is all I ask. Normally, when an assassin goes soft, I make him dead-dead. You've been my lover for ages, and I am doing you a favor."

"Next you'll say you've kicked me out of your bed."

She said nothing, and he met her gaze once more, genuinely surprised.

"I guess you no longer interest me, since you're just another of my slaves. You're no longer exciting and different to me," she said with a shrug. "I am sorry for this of all things, Gabriel. You are still my top assassin, assuming you don't fail in your executions."

"I wonder why you agreed to my deal, if it rendered me boring!" he snapped.

"Everything comes at a cost, Gabriel, which you know. I broke Immortal Code to grant your favor of not killing Rhyn. You had to pay the price for it, and so did I."

Her words did nothing to quell the anger boiling within him. It'd been too long since he'd felt such strong emotion, and it caught him off guard. At his silence, Death went on.

"Today's your last day here. Next time, you make them dead-dead."

"I understand, mistress."

"Very well."

At his tone, she softened. "Gabriel, you know there are things I cannot tell you. You must understand there is a reason behind what I ask of you that will not become clear for some time. Trust me. This is the only way."

"As you wish, mistress."

She left him alone in the dark with his thoughts, and he began to understand more how his friend Rhyn felt in a world that was pitted against him. He'd expected things to change once he pledged his soul to Death, but he hadn't expected anything so drastic, so soon. He clenched the pouch with its gems.

Instead of going to see the Immortal leader, Gabriel crossed through the shadow world, squinting as he emerged into the bright mid-morning sunlight. He put on his sunglasses, which did little to alleviate the headache sunlight gave him. The lush Scottish Highlands around him were covered in a blanket of snow that stretched for miles, the white world interrupted only by a few narrow roads snaking in different directions.

It was rarely sunny in this part of the world, and he chalked the irritation up to his sudden plunge in luck. He breathed in deeply of the scent of snow. The chances of him ever returning were slim to none. He was early this year, but he'd rather visit now than risk he'd be grounded during winter solstice in a month.

He'd miss the smell and sight of his homeland and yearned already to stay here rather than return to his dark corner of the Immortal underworld! He began to think Death was right- he was going soft. Before he gave his Immortal soul to death, he'd never noticed how sweet the air was or how the grass sang as the wind whipped through it. He missed the smells and sounds in winter.

He walked a familiar path to a graveyard so old, not even legends remained about its location or the importance of those buried there. A stone cottage up the road was the only sign of inhabitation, and a herd of sheep raised their heads as he neared. He ignored them and went to a place only he knew, stopping when he was atop the graves he sought.

"Mother, Father," he said quietly, "I may not be able to come back again."

He never expected his long dead parents to respond but waited anyway. When only the winter wind greeted him, he continued.

"Father, I did as you told me not to do long ago. I gave Death my Immortal soul. It was for a worthy cause, and I don't regret what I've done," he said.

His gaze lifted, and he recalled vividly the last time he'd seen his parents in this very spot, when they were cut down by bloodthirsty demons during the only period in Immortal history when demons attacked humans. They'd been led by the demon leader Darkyn, whom the Dark One had punished when Death discovered what the demons had done. He didn't know what happened to Darkyn, but Death adopted him, raised him, and trained him to be the most ruthless of all assassins.

Rhyn had become like a brother to him, and the idea of killing his mate reopened wounds that hadn't bled since he stood in this place thousands of years before. He tried not to think of that sad time, instead blinking away dark memories and focusing on the snow at his feet.

"I'll come back whenever I'm allowed," he said with resignation. He gazed around once more and then turned and walked away, back into the shadow world.

Still in her jogging clothes, Katie made her way to the super-lab on one of the castle's upper floors. She knocked and waited.

"You stood me up this morning. Kris yelled at me for it," Katie said, leveling a glare on Ully as he opened the door. His bright features turned pink beneath his wire-rimmed glasses and straw-colored hair. At barely above her height and slender, the mad scientist was very unlike the Immortal warriors that filled the castle.

"You know, I just … well, Rhyn …"

"You can say he scared you shitless," she said.

"Yeah, he did," he said, then brightened. "But I have good news for you!"

"You figured out how to make an immunity injection?"

He whirled away from the door and strode into the lab. She followed, uninterested in the sterile glass and stainless steel landscape. As she did every day, she went to the table near his cluttered desk to await her blood draw and any other experiments he wanted to do. He scampered across the lab to a fridge that held cold tools and bottles of mysterious serums, everything except what a normal person put in a fridge.

"Nowhere close." He retrieved a small bottle of what looked like perfume and brought it back, holding it out to her. She took it skeptically.

"I was hanging upside down this morning with Rhyn snarling at me and I thought, this doesn't just suck, but it's gotta suck even more for a little human like Katie," Ully said. "Kris said the normal Immortals aren't allowed around you, because they tend to attack you. This will help. Try it."

She sprayed the perfume on her wrist and coughed.

"Oh, god, Ully, this smells like a skunk crawled into my clothes!"

"I know!" Ully said, excited. "I created a pheromone repellant. It should cause temporary blindness in Immortals as well as mask your pheromones."

"I can't wear this."

"You don't have to. Just spray any Immortal that gets too close."

She looked at the bottle anew, thoughts going to the long list of Immortals she could've used it on instead of bearing their attacks.

"This is the first useful thing I've seen you do," she said. "You have more of this?"

"I have travel-sized, too. Sit down. Time for some blood."

She sighed and held out her arm, setting the perfume on the table as she sat. She still couldn't watch Ully draw her blood and covered her eyes with one hand. He was quick about it and placed a Hello Kitty Band-Aid over the small puncture before dropping the vials into his coat pocket.

"And you're no closer at all?" she asked, holding her breath for the answer.

"Nope. I had to start over yesterday. I told Kris I don't think it's possible to duplicate the antigen that makes you immune to Immortals. I can probably get close with a few years of research, but not in two months."

She suspected Kris might override his promise to let her go in five weeks, if Ully couldn't figure it out. She released her breath, satisfied on more than one level to postpone her return to the human world.

The wind chime above the door tinkled. Kris entered, followed by someone whose appearance made her gasp. Sasha looked over her, uninterested, and both her hands went to her throat at the memory of what he'd done to her in Hell. Fear fluttered through her, and her gaze flew to Kris, whom she trusted little more than his sadistic brother. Kris's gaze was amber, a visual indicator of his anger despite his calm features.

"Ully," he said in a clipped tone. "Test this." He tossed a vial whose contents were the color of blood. Ully caught it and held it up.

Katie snagged the perfume off the table as the two brothers neared and eased off the chair, placing it between her and them. Sasha seemed to be ignoring her, though a small smile of amusement was on his face.

"What is it?" Ully asked curiously.

"The solution to our problem," Kris answered.

"My lab in Hell didn't have the ethical reservations you do in using Immortal or demon test subjects," Sasha said.

"How could you let him in here?" she demanded of Kris, unnerved by his sudden appearance in a place where she was allegedly safe.

"I came bearing gifts, namely the immunity blood you all need to fight the Dark One's army. I seek an alliance against my former employer and to regain my place at the Council," Sasha answered.

"Cut the shit, Sasha," Kris snapped. "I haven't decided what to do with you yet, and you may end up with an assassination contract on your head."

"As you wish," Sasha said in a voice so calm it drew the gazes of everyone in the room.

"Ully, test that now," Kris ordered. "Sasha, you'll follow me to your room."

Sasha bowed his head in a mocking show of respect. Katie watched him go, her nightmares in her thoughts and her heart pounding. When the door closed, she looked at the vial of blood.

Suddenly, she feared a new fate. At least before, Kris had a reason to keep her around, because he wanted something from her. What happened if he got what he wanted elsewhere, before she knew what she wanted?

"Ully, how long will that take you?" she asked.

"A few days, maybe a week."

She gripped the perfume bottle more tightly. She couldn't help but think Sasha's sudden appearance was related to the demons in the forest and her dreams. Her thoughts went to Rhyn.

"I'll see you later," she heard herself say.

Ully nodded, already seated and scribbling at his desk. She exited the brightly lit room into the hallway, crossing to look out the nearest window at the falling snow. A dark figure in the snow-covered park area caught her attention. Gabriel was sitting alone on top of one of the half dozen picnic tables. She made her way to the back entrance to the castle and stepped into the quiet, chilly day. The snow fell straight from the sky without the wind and was soft and fluffy beneath her feet.

"Gabriel?" she called, crossing her arms at the chill. He didn't face her. "You okay?"

"Better than you."

She paused a short distance from him, sensing something wrong. He didn't speak much. She knew nothing about him, except he'd been a friend to Rhyn.

"You're early today," she said.

"I can't stay tonight."

"Oh. You've got, um, work?"

"Yes."

"You'll be back tomorrow?" she asked at the ominous note in his voice.

"No, Katie. I'm not coming back."

"Ever?"

"For your sake, not if I can help it."

"So when you come back, you'll be back for me for good?" she asked.

"Yes."

She was struck by his words, feeling as if the one person she relied upon was not only running out on her but would chop her into pieces the next time she saw him. Her hand went to her neck. He looked away as his words sank in.

"Take care of Toby and Rhyn," he said, and stood. "And … take care of yourself."

"Gabriel, maybe you should just take me with you now and save us all some grief," she said.

"Humans have free will," he reminded her. "You have some other decisions to make first."

"But if I choose Rhyn and you come back for me tomorrow, it doesn't seem very fair to him."

"You're not making this easier on either of us!" he said, a flare of emotion in his voice for the first time since she'd met him. Taken aback by his anger, she watched him run a hand through his hair in an unusual sign of agitation.

"Guess I don't understand the rules," she said quietly.

"I'll stay away as long as I can. I may not have a choice, though."

"What do I do, Gabriel?"

"I can't tell you that."

"But you can tell me you're coming back to kill me," she said, anger rising.

He looked up at the sky. Dressed all in black with his dark eyes and hair, he looked like a living shadow in the snow-covered world.

"Rhyn is my friend," he said after a long pause. "He cares about you. I've never thought twice about any life I've taken until now."

"I understand but I'm having a hard time sympathizing, considering it's me you're gonna kill."

"It's not just you. The next time I visit the human world, I'll be leaving with two souls."

"Okay, so you're taking me and someone else, but this still doesn't help me figure out what to do!" she said.

"I can't tell you that."

She drew a deep breath. Her hands shook as she stood there discussing her own death with a creature that resembled the Grim Reaper.

"It's not Toby or Rhyn, is it?" she ventured.

"No."

"Good. They're both growing on me."

"I have to go, Katie," Gabriel said.

"First the nightmares, now this. Why do I feel like something really bad is happening?"

"Sometimes things get worse before they get better. Most of the times, things just never get better. Doesn't help that I got demoted. No alcohol," he reminded her.

"Kris tossed it all out after he found me knocked out on the bathroom floor last week," she admitted, rolling her eyes.

"Good. You're going to need your head clear."

She searched his face. The snow began falling harder, and he met her gaze again finally. The regret in his dark eyes made her want to beg him not to kill her and comfort him for the pain he'd surely feel hurting his own friend. Her throat tightened, and in the end, no words came out. She wondered how accurate her dream had been, if her only way to save Rhyn was to sacrifice herself.

"Farewell, Katie," Gabriel said in a hushed voice.

"Farewell, Gabriel."

Death's assassin turned and walked away, disappearing into the shadow world. The coldness of fear within her grew stronger. She rubbed the lumpy scar on her arm, her attention caught by the sight of a jaguar dropping from a tree branch to the edge of the park and the forest a short distance away. It was not all black but had a white patch around one eye. It stared at her through green eyes, and she frowned, uncertain why the sight of the creature bothered her.

A gust of wind flung snow into her face. She retreated to the castle, up the back stairwell off limits to everyone but her, and to the warmth of her chamber. Toby's giggles reached her before she opened the door. She walked in to see Rhyn's jaguar form sprawled across the bed, shredding a down pillow. Her bed looked as if a flock of geese had combusted over it, and she counted at least ten dead pillows.

Toby laughed and tossed Rhyn another pillow, delighted when he snatched it from midair and shredded it in an explosion of white feathers. Reining in her emotions, she tried to distract her dark thoughts by focusing on Toby.

"Toby!" she exclaimed. "Where did you get all these pillows?"

The baby angel and half-demon turned toward the door.

"From our neighbors," Toby said. "I had two and you had three and the fat lady down the hall had four, so then I got hers and that mean man's pillows."

"Just what I need," she grumbled, wondering what other insults the castle's Immortals' mates would fling at her after this incident. She didn't fit in; they made it clear every chance they could, just as their leader did. "Wash up for dinner."

"Okay, Mama!" he sang and sprang away. She bent down to pick up a yet unscathed pillow, startled to stand and see Rhyn had changed to his human form.

"You got stuck with the baby-angel?"

"Maybe that should be we got stuck with the baby-angel!" she shot back.

"He's all yours. What smells like shit?"

"I think I like you better as a jaguar. Much easier to get along with," she said with a shake of her head, unable to help the warmth that spread through her whenever she saw him. "Gabriel left for good today."

"He always comes back."

"Not this time."

He was quiet, digesting the news. Still shaken from her discussion with Gabriel, she couldn't decide if she wanted to run to the comfort of Rhyn's arms or send him away for good, before Gabriel took her away.

"Mama, I'm ready!" Toby said, reappearing.

"Okay, come on," she said. She held out a hand. He took it and tugged her to the door. Rhyn gazed at her, and her whole body responded despite her fear. The memory of his kiss made her insides warm. "If you want, you can come by later."

His gaze flared with heated interest.

"For tea," she clarified. "And to talk or whatever."

"I like whatever," he said.

"I'll get more pillows," Toby said.

"You're not invited," Rhyn growled.

"But how can we play?"

"You'll be in bed."

"That, no, Rhyn," she corrected him. "I mean tea. Daylight tea."

"Breakfast tea."

Toby giggled, and she glanced at him, afraid Rhyn was going to dive headfirst into a discussion Toby shouldn't hear.

"Afternoon tea. C'mon, Toby," Katie said and turned away, allowing Toby to pull her down the hall to the dining chamber, which had yet to fill up. She braced herself for the resentful looks and whispered insults she was glad Toby was too young to understand. They made their way unscathed through the dining room to their own little corner, where Toby's favorite food combination of mac-n-cheese and French toast waited for him on the table.

She couldn't eat, feeling more stressed than she had in the past three weeks. Sasha was somewhere in the castle, and Gabriel was gone. She'd cracked the door to her heart for Rhyn to shove his foot in the door and now needed to close, lock, and deadbolt it closed again.

I do love him, she admitted silently.