In the fading town of Rooster, Texas, all that’s really left is a service station, a church…and the Banty House, a long-ago Depression-era brothel. For more than seventy-five years, Betsy, Connie, and Kate Carson have called their mama’s house a home. The three eccentric sisters get by just fine with their homemade jams and jellies, a little moonshine on the side, and big hearts always open to strangers. Like Ginger Andrews.
An abandoned teen with a baby on the way and nowhere to go, she’s given a room to call her own for as long as she wants. The kind invitation is made all the sweeter when Ginger meets the sisters’ young handyman, Sloan Baker. But with a past as broken as Ginger’s, he’s vowed never to get close to anyone again. As a season of change unfolds, Ginger and Sloan might discover a warm haven to heal in the Banty House, a place to finally belong, where hope and dreams never fade.
For a long time now, I have touted Carolyn Brown as my go-to girl for small town reading, but The Banty House has taken that to next-level status!
Betsy, Connie, and Kate Carson have spent their entire lives in little Rooster, Texas. With every decade that passes, more and more of Rooster’s residents have packed their bags and left town. Today, there’s not much left in Rooster beyond the older families, the church, the Carson sisters (of course!), and their beloved Banty House. While one might suspect the Carson sisters, given their respective ages have slowed down, that is far, far from the truth.
For the past 60+ years, the Carson sisters have not only been gainfully employed in the most unusual of ways, but they have also staunchly and avidly protected their family name and legacy. In years past, when times were far harder than they are now, the Banty House saved the Carson women and kept them solvent in times when many others were not. The Carson sisters are not only proud of their heritage but proud to carry on its rules and traditions in their own particular way(s). First among the rules of the Banty House is to never turn away a stranger and/or a person in need.
Ginger Andrews is about as in need as a girl can get. At seven months pregnant and homeless, Ginger has finally run out of money and road in Rooster, Texas. Though she has no intention of staying in Rooster, Ginger also doesn’t have many choices and when the Carson sisters offer her a hot meal and a warm bed, at least for a night two, Ginger accepts their hospitality. Instantly, Ginger feels not only comfortable in the Banty House but accepted and liked, all feelings she has rarely every felt in the entirety of her young life.
Helping the Carson sisters at the Banty House is one of the most fascinating and rewarding jobs Ginger has ever had. Given their unusual interests and activities, the Carson sisters are the most surprising and delightful people Ginger has ever known. Outside of their oddities, there is also their kindness, wicked sense of humor, and willingness to help others. Ginger has never felt so accepted and cared for and while she never intended to put down roots in Rooster, leaving and/or the prospect of leaving becomes harder with each passing day.
Though life in such a small town would seemingly be lazy and slow, life in Rooster is anything but. While the Carson sisters aren’t ashamed of their past, some in Rooster aren’t thrilled with it and are always looking to stir the pot and cause trouble. As Ginger quickly discovers, the three elderly ladies are anything but old and more than willing to stand up for their beliefs, their heritage, and their way of life. They live by their momma’s rules, believe in God and a mostly righteous path, and defending that and those which they love and hold dear.
The Bottom Line: No matter what, I want to be the Carson sisters when I grow up! There were so, so many times I found myself laughing aloud and just marveling at the audacity of the Carson sisters. To be sure, they won’t tolerate any negativity toward their family and are willing to defend all, no matter the consequences. But, above all the hilarity and audacity was the strong sense of justice, family, and love that simply oozes out of the Carson sisters in both their words and their actions. As Ginger’s story unfolds, so does the Banty House/Carson family story and each revelation made me love the whole hot mess even more. Ginger is so young, and the influence of the Carson sisters touches her so deeply and profoundly that it alters her entire future in the best possible ways. I loved Ginger’ s story just as much as the Carson sisters and found this book as a whole to be simply fantastic. I’m not sure Carolyn Brown is going to be able to top The Banty House on my list of favorites, but I sure look forward to her trying to do so.
Callie, a lonely small-town waitress, is still reeling from the discovery that she’s adopted when she arrives in Montevino, Italy in search of answers – the keys to the stunning hillside villa she has just inherited clutched tightly in her hand. Inside the rusted gates, and through a large wooden front door dripping with sun-kissed flowers, Callie can’t decide if she’s more astonished by her new home or her first encounter with the mysterious young groundskeeper, Tommaso.
Wandering the villa barefoot at night, Callie finds a diary belonging to a woman named Elisa, wrapped in faded blue ribbon and hidden in her birthmother’s antique wardrobe. Page by page, Callie is swept away by its story of love, passion, heartbreak and betrayal as she reads how Elisa married her childhood sweetheart in secret before fleeing to the woods to join the resistance. They vowed to find each other again when the war was over, but history had other plans.
Callie is certain that her and Elisa’s lives are somehow connected, and that the truth about her family is hidden somewhere within the diary’s crinkled yellow pages. It gives her the courage to start asking questions around the close-knit village until, at long last, she feels her closed-off heart begin to open. Perhaps even enough to let someone in…
But when a devastating betrayal in the final pages of the diary unlocks a heart-breaking secret about who Callie’s mother really is, the chance for a new life shatters in front of her. Can she persuade the locals to forgive her past and accept the truth about her identity?
The Bottom Line: I want to say this is writing at its finest, but there are a few issues with this generally enjoyable book that can’t be overlooked in an honest review. First and foremost is the very slow start; it takes more than a hot minute to get Callie to Italy and the story doesn’t really pick up the pace until she arrives on Italian soil. My other major issue is how neatly and perfectly some elements of the story fit into place; life doesn’t really work so neatly and perfectly which makes parts of the story a bit hard to accept. With the negative out of the way, I must admit to still liking this book quite a lot. Callie is an utterly sympathetic and likeable character whose story is only just beginning even as she uncovers the story of her family’s sad and sordid history. The larger setting, the town, the villa, and her family’s local shop all serve to enhance the read and provide a wonderful backdrop for the story to unfold. When you throw in a love interest with a bit of his own history, well, this book has a bit of everything for everyone. Though I would have preferred things to have ended a little less perfectly than it did, I still can’t complain too much because the positive undoubtedly outweighed the negative.
That is… until she chooses between two empty plane seats and ends up right in the middle of Sebastian Corronov’s messy life.
Bella motions two fingers from her eyes to me to let me know she’s watching me. It almost makes me snort-laugh. Watch me, bitch. Watch me all you want. Now that I’m looking right at her, I realize she reminds me of a girl back home who always acted like she was better than everyone else. I feel myself grimacing. She’s a rich girl who thinks she can have whatever she wants. I start to genuinely feel sorry for Sebastian. He seems like he’s being honest and she’s got coo-coo written on her face. So, I decide to do the only thing I can think of. I take his hand in mine and hold it on the armrest between us. Then I smile at her as I raise my voice. “Oh, Sebastian, darling, it’s not your fault. Some people are just crazy.”
I face forward in my seat and place our entwined hands on my thigh, knowing Bella is watching. “It’s only a couple of hours. I’ve got you,” I whisper, leaning toward him.
“Really? You are solid gold. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. I’ll never forget this.”
“You’re lucky I have a big heart, Bash.”
“I’ll call you whatever I want and you’ll like it.”
He smiles and my heart feels odd. Can helping someone actually make you feel good?
“Do you think perhaps I could know your name? I mean, we’re holding hands and you are my girlfriend for the next few hours.”
“S…” I stop myself. Shit, I almost gave him my old name. “Natalia… Natalia Pearson. My friends call me Nat.” It feels odd as it leaves my mouth. The truth is I have no real friends and I’ve never told a soul my new name before, unless you count Joey the Juggler when he forged all my new documents.
“And you’re okay with that?” he asks.
“What?” I question, wondering if I spoke my thoughts out loud.
“You’re okay that your friends refer to you as a cumbersome insect that flies in swarms and bites people?”
“Cumbersome? Grand? Solid gold? Who talks like that? What are you, sixty? And no, it’s not G-N-A-T like the bug. It’s Nat. It’s cute, like a cool chick you want to drink beers and play pool with.”
He scrunches his face and shakes his head. “I refuse to call you Nat. You’re too sweet to be a bug.”
I’m sure he thinks he’s being nice, and maybe someone else would see it as a compliment, but I’m not sweet. He doesn’t know me. And I’m kind of pissed he dissed my nickname for myself. I liked it perfectly well until now. Why is he ruining this moment for me?
“Then don’t say my name. It’s not like you’ll need to say it in the next one hundred and forty minutes or so we’ll be pretend dating.”
He squeezes my hand and glances down at my fingers. I wonder if the pale pink color I chose suits a Natalia. I used to keep my nails a fire engine red, or sometimes black like my soul, but I’m not that girl anymore.
Francesca Delaney’s wedding gown shop has two necessary rules to guarantee success:
1. Never covet a dress
2. Never sell a dress that led to a doomed marriage
These two rules have helped Francesca build her reputation as a woman with a knack for matching a bride-to-be with the perfect gown. At Fran’s shop every gown has its history, and the dresses seem to whisper their secrets to Fran, telling her the perfect match. But Francesca breaks both these rules the day she finds a beautiful 1950s couture floor-length gown. In her desperation to know the dress’s background, she inadvertently becomes entangled with the original owner’s son who would like the dark history of the dress to remain hidden forever.
The Bottom Line: I’m absolutely on the fence with this book and there is nothing that is going to tip me over to one side or the other. Here’s the split for me: I really enjoyed the bits and pieces about the dress shop and the history of each of the dresses, but I had real issues with both Francesca and Rafael. While I generally enjoy a two broken souls come together story, I simply couldn’t get past both Francesca and Rafael’s generally bad attitudes. Neither were able – in a reasonable amount of time – to move beyond their respective pasts to see what was right in front of them, the possibility of a happy and fulfilling future. Outside of the terribly interesting dress information, I simply found the characters too angsty to be likeable. At the end of the day, loved the dress information, really disliked the characters which leaves me in the middle and on the fence!
Horror caught her voice in her throat as she looked up at Octavian. At the man—at the thing—that was perched on top of her, straddling her thighs. On each of his arms was etched an archaic and ceremonial magic circle. Each was a combination of two names—an archangel’s merged with one of their fallen brethren’s. She knew them on sight. She wore identical ones, after all.
Only instead of ink like hers, the marks on his arms were carved into his flesh, oozing and bleeding. They didn’t look fresh, but instead like they had never healed.
It was impossible.
He was impossible.
He’s just like me.
She yanked on her restraints, but the leather straps were etched with symbols she knew rendered them unbreakable no matter how hard she tugged. And even worse, the magic on the table made it inescapable even for someone with her talents. The writing held her soul as skillfully as the leather held her body.
The smile on his beautiful features was beaming, proud, and jubilant, like he had just won the lottery. Like he’d dreamed of this moment, and now it was real. Blond curls fell in front of his crimson eyes. It was clear he was having a blast. At least one of them was.
“I know, I know, it’s not fair to call you my sister. We’re not really anything, you and me. We’re just puppets of flesh and clay, homunculi made for the amusement of others. We’re no more related than two dolls on a shelf. I just wanted to be dramatic, I suppose.”
“Who…who the fuck are you?” It was a stupid question, but she didn’t know what else to say.
He chuckled and let out a long sigh as he sat back on her thighs. He was lithe and thin, and his weight on her felt like next to nothing. “The doll that sat on the shelf before you until I was much more trouble than I was worth, and I went in the trash. I’m just the prototype. Your prototype.”
She shook her head dumbly, not understanding. No, she understood, but she couldn’t process what she was hearing. “Asmodeus…made you?”
“Mmm, see, I don’t know if I should give you that one for free or not.”
“I wanna play a game with you, darling.” His crimson eyes trailed from her face down to her collarbone. He reached out and placed his fingertips there then drifted up her throat, and she realized he was tracing a vein underneath her skin. “A game you won’t want to play, so I’ll pay you in information.”
She didn’t want to ask. She figured she already knew the answer. But he was looking at her expectantly, waiting for her to ask with an overeager, excited look on his thin features. “Okay. I’ll bite. What kind of game?”
“It’s easy! You ask me a question, and if I think it’s valuable enough…I’ll tell you the truth, but I get to kill you after. In whatever way I want.” He shivered, as if overcome with some sort of thrill.
Oh. Yeah. He was insane. A special kind of nuts. “Octavian, I hate to break it to you, but that’s a shitty game.”
“Oh, come on!” he whined. “You get to know all the details about my evil scheme, and I get to play with you the way I want to. And then, you can’t be mad at me for it. Because we had a deal.”
“I don’t think that’s how this works,” she shot him a narrow glare, “seeing as I’m your prisoner.”
“Mmh, details.” He sighed and leaned back again, still perched atop her thighs. The man had to weigh maybe a hundred pounds total. “I’ll tell you what. I’ll give you this bit for free. Asmodeus made me.”
They paused. Him, smiling expectantly, and her, looking up at him wondering where on the scale from one to Hannibal Lecter this guy registered. “Am I allowed to ask follow-up questions? Or are you going to start stabbing me if I do?”
He gave her an exaggerated sigh. “I’ll tell you when it’s time to pay up. Come on.” He poked her in the ribs, and she jolted. “I’m trying to be friendly.”
“Right. Sure. This is friendly.” She avoided rolling her eyes. But, man, she wanted to. At least his weird, childlike joy and bizarre friendliness with her was dulling down her shock at what he really was. “When did Asmodeus make you?”
He grinned, glad she was playing along for now. “On November first, 1860. Fifty years to the day before he made you. That makes you my little sister.” He giggled—actually giggled. “Sorry. There I go again. Can I call you my sister, though?”
She blanched. “I’d really rather you didn’t.”
“You’re no fun.” He pouted and slid down until he was lying half next to her and half on top of her. She went stiff, frozen still, as he nuzzled his head into her neck, and let out a long, contented sigh. He was cuddling her. Honest-to-God cuddling her. “You smell so nice. I smell like blood, no matter how hard I try to scrub it off.”
Octavian had been a six on the Hannibal Lecter Scale of Crazy. Now he was pushing up toward an eight. Maybe eight and a half.
“Are you cold?” There was genuine concern in his voice. “I turned the heaters up for you, but this place doesn’t really have central heating.” He giggled. “Doesn’t really have heating at all.”
“Where are we?”
“Oh! Oh, that’s a good one. Maybe that’s the first one to trade for.” He pushed back up to sit on top of her again. The man seemed to be too excited to sit still. “Yes. I think I’ll trade you for that. It’s a good one. Let me kill you, and I’ll tell you what you want to know.”
“I’d hate to point this out, um…but you could just kill me anyway.” She yanked on her wrists. “Kinda stuck.”
He laughed. “Oh, I know. I can, could, probably would if you didn’t agree. But…this way it’s much more fun. I’ll tell you where we are. But it means you won’t beg me to stop when I kill you.”
“One small problem in your sick plan. The first time you kill me, Azrael will know where I am. They’ll be here in a heartbeat to stop you.”
“Ah, no, they won’t. Telling the others where you are means getting involved in saving someone from a life or death scenario. Even if you don’t stay dead, it still counts as suffering. It would break his sacred vow.” He poked her on the end of the nose. “Right?”
Veil swallowed thickly. He was right. No matter how bad things got, Azrael would keep his mouth shut about where she was. He wouldn’t do anything to save her. Damn it. Octavian was right. This definitely counted as “suffering,” and Azrael never stepped in to stop it. She let out a long growl and shut her eyes. This was going to suck.
“But! It is a useless piece of information, I suppose. Since Azrael will know in a few minutes anyway. So, I’ll tell you what. I’ll make it a quick death. Small piece of information? Small death.”
“How utterly magnanimous of you.” She couldn’t keep her sarcasm out of her voice.
He laughed. “Fair. That’s fair. So, darling, do we have a deal?”
She looked up at him narrowly. “Let me get this straight. Let me just…recap. You’re going to start trading me information for murdering me over and over again. Which you could technically do anyway.” She snorted. “No. How about no? If I say no, do I get to not take a trip on the U.S.S. Stabby?”
He grinned at her joke but then tried to school his features into something more businesslike. It was a sad attempt. “Now, before you get to be too hasty, think about this. Azrael won’t come to save you, but what about the rest of what I have to say? The rest of all that I know? Oh, he’ll be happy to relay what I’m willing to tell you. Can you imagine what Michael and the others will do when they learn I’m a homunculus? Don’t you want to warn them about Asmodeus’s deceit? All it takes is one little death, and then they know what kind of freak I really am.”
She really hated it when insane people made sense.
She sighed heavily. Damn it all! Yes. They really did need to learn what they were up against, and this was the only way it was going to happen. She growled and thrashed uselessly on the table in a last bid to get free. Octavian let it happen, still smiling above her, seeing that he was winning. “Fuck! Fine. Fine!”
He made a happy and excited squeak and clapped his hands. “Oh, thank you, darling. Thank you. This is going to be so much fun!”
“Yeah. That’s fair.” He chuckled and ran his hands through his chin-length, blond, and curly hair. Some of it was stained a little red with crimson. “Well. Here it is. Where are we? We haven’t gone far at all. We’re still here in Mount Auburn Cemetery.” He spread his arms out at his sides in his big reveal. “We’re in a crypt I took over for my headquarters. This one is particularly stupid. I’m not sure why anybody ever needed a crypt this huge and lavish. An over-extravagant final home for a bunch of over-extravagant corpses, I guess.”
Octavian pointed. Following his gesture, she saw the walls were etched with names. She hadn’t noticed at first, having been too distracted by the knife in her lungs and the madman on top of her.
“It’s a rather uncomfortable home, but it’ll do for now. No one thinks to look in a crypt for the living, do they? Not to mention, they won’t think to look anywhere close to where I took you. The best hiding spot is often right underfoot. No pun intended.” Again, he flashed her that beaming smile. “There we go! Was it worth it?”
“Clever, I’ll give you that.” She sighed. “Now you’re going to kill me?”
“Are you cold?”
“I—” she stammered, unsure of how to respond to that. He had just changed topics like a hummingbird changes direction. “What?”
“You never did tell me if you were cold.”
He said he was going to cut her limbs off. Told her he was a homunculus like her. And he was concerned that she was cold? Holy shit. Now he was an eight and a half on the Hannibal scale, officially. “I’m…I’m fine, thanks.”
“Good.” He suddenly lay down on her again and snuggled closer to her. He let out a long, contented sigh. “I do get to kill you. Doesn’t have to be now, does it?” He seemed so…sad, suddenly. So lonely. “I want to talk some more first. Okay?”
“Sure.” Not like she was going to rush to the front of the line to get stabbed to death.
“I’m just so happy to meet you. To really meet you. I’ve waited for this day for so long.” He tucked his head up against her neck. She could see the blood on his back, soaked into the gauze in three circular patches, hiding the symbols she knew were there. “I was there when he made you, you know. I helped design you.”
She cringed. This was just going from creepy to worse. If she thought trying to reconcile Azrael as her dad and Asmodeus as her lover was bad, trying to figure out what the hell Octavian was in her life was another giant can of worms she didn’t need.
“I didn’t know you existed. I thought…” She paused. He was right; he smelled like blood and cologne. It was an odd combination.
“That you were the only one? I don’t blame you. I hate to tell you, but I wasn’t his first attempt. Just the first one that lived.” He leaned up on his elbow next to her, smiling warmly down at her. There was friendliness there, a tenderness that shocked her. It was more terrifying than if he had been cruel. He ran his fingertips gently along her chin. “You and I come from a long line of failures. A pile of corpses that were all made by him. His little human dolls.”
She cringed and looked away, but he turned her head back to look up at him with a press of his bloodstained fingers against her chin. She didn’t know what to say. She didn’t know how to react to him. She wanted to know why Asmodeus had done all this. Why he had lied to her again.
The sting of his betrayal must have made her wince. She really was too much of an open book sometimes. Reading her correctly, Octavian let out a small hum. “Don’t be too angry. He feels too much. That’s his curse. They call his twin the archangel of love, but I don’t think that’s quite true.” He tilted his head thoughtfully down at her. “I bet that’s why he didn’t interrupt us in the bar when he saw me.”
He grinned and answered her question with two more. “Do you know why he made us? Why he made you in particular?”
“For some hot sex that won’t up and die on him.” She couldn’t help but grin. “I mean, I don’t mean to presume or anything.”
Octavian burst out laughing. Not derisively, not cruelly, but honest-to-God laughter. He smiled down at her and poked her in the ribs lightly. The action still made her jolt. “No, silly. We were never like that. Besides, if he wanted immortal sex, he has plenty of that at home. Incubi and succubae ready and happy to do his every whim, not to mention the rest of the population of Hell. No. He loves humanity. But he hates mortality. He wanted a human, immortal family. You, his bride. And me? Well…” He trailed off thoughtfully. “A son, I suppose.”
“A family,” she repeated dumbly, trying to sort it all out.
“You were his goal in all this. You were clearly his only desired outcome. Me? Just the prototype that hung on.” He shrugged. “But that’s why he didn’t barge in on us at the bar at first, I think. He saw us together, saw his family, and just couldn’t ruin it. He had a chance to kill me a long time ago. He couldn’t do it. He loves me, and I him, even still. Not to mention, he’d have to ’fess up to you that I was your sketch model.”
Something wasn’t quite adding up. “How did he make you, though? Azrael had nothing to do with you.”
“You want another freebie?” he teased.
She sighed, disgruntled.
He chuckled. “Okay, okay. I guess since I told you I’m a homunculus, I might as well give you all the details with that. I’ll play fair. Did Death make me? No.” Octavian wheezed and turned his head away to cough. She could hear the rattle in his lungs. He spat onto the ground. She didn’t need to see it to know it was blood. He dug in his pocket for his handkerchief and cleaned his mouth. “I’m sorry. That was disgusting.”
Of all the things to apologize for.
He turned back to her and smiled again, his teeth tinged red. “No. I am the sole creation of our favorite archdemon. He realized after I turned out, well, broken, to put it nicely, that he needed help. It was my being a failure that sent him to his brother.” He wheezed again and coughed. “I haven’t eaten in a while. Forgive me.”
“What do you mean, you haven’t eaten in a while?” He’d threatened to eat her, after all. She assumed he was just a sicko. But the way he said it implied it had a connection to his illness.
“I eat human flesh to survive.” He smiled sweetly again like it was a perfectly normal confession.
“Holy shit.” She grimaced and would have recoiled from him if she weren’t strapped to a table. “You’re just a giant pile of fucked up, aren’t you?”
“If it matters, I don’t really enjoy it.” He shrugged one thin shoulder. “Well. Not too much, anyway. I’m always hungry for more of what I am. What I was made from. I consume it, and it becomes part of me. Heals me. But it works less and less as the years go on.” At the look of nausea on her face, he chuckled. “Don’t worry. Like I said, you’re useless to me for that. We’ll have our own fun, though.”
He slung himself off the table, coughed again, and reached down to pick up his bloodstained shirt. He put it back on without any care for the wet crimson splotches. Walking to a nearby chair, he fiddled with something next to it. She watched him curiously as he lifted a clear plastic mask to his face and inhaled. An oxygen tank, maybe?
He took a series of deep breaths from it before dropping the mask back onto the top of the tank. He pulled in a long breath, seemingly experimenting to see if he would cough again, before letting it out with a puff. “I wasn’t lying when I said I was dying, Selina.”
“How, exactly, are you alive at all?”
“I wasn’t lucky enough to have Azrael take my death away, no.” He smiled at her look of surprise. “Oh, yes, I know exactly how you were created.”
None of this made any sense to her. None of it fit with anything she knew. Correction—anything she thought she knew. “So how did Asmodeus give a bunch of stitched-together human corpses the breath of life?”
Octavian walked back over to her and sat on the stool next to the table. He looked so sweet and innocent, but she knew the threats he made hadn’t been lies. She knew he was going to cut her to pieces. It was just a matter of when, with what, and how badly. He folded his arms on the table and propped his chin on top of them again, watching her. His blond curls fell around his thin, delicate features.
He picked up the surgical knife from the table and toyed with it, moving it between his fingers like somebody might play with a pen. “You know how his puppets are made?”
“Binding a living soul to a wooden puppet. When the body dies, the soul transfers over. But the soul doesn’t die.” She couldn’t help but watch the edge of the blade as he lazily moved it through his fingers. She knew it was going to be plunged into her body soon enough.
“Imagine what would happen if you bound a living soul to a living body instead of a dead lump of wood. Imagine if you used all your dark magic to take the willing, living flesh of mortals and twisted them into something new without killing it—something more pleasing. Imagine if you bound the living soul of your most devoted servant to the heap of sputtering blood and bones you made. What would you have then?”
Her eyes went wide. She watched him as he stood slowly, leaning over her, his face tilting down close to hers. His lips brushed over her cheek then hovered close to her ear.
“You think you’re a monster?” He chuckled quietly, his breath ghosting over her skin as he tilted his head. “You don’t know the meaning of the word.”
He kissed her, his lips searing against her skin, thick with the taste of blood, as he drove the knife deep in between her ribs. She felt the slide of blade against bone, and she screamed, muffled against his lips.
Richard sat with his head in his hands. The driver’s side door of his best friend’s Pontiac was open, and he was sitting on the driver’s seat with his feet on the asphalt. He had taken Veil’s car and found his family by the front gate but found he couldn’t go any farther.
Not because he didn’t want to run.
Oh, he very much did.
Not just from Octavian. He could run from that madman without shame, but what he couldn’t run from was his accountability. That, he couldn’t stomach. That, he knew would eat him from the inside out like a cancer.
Chelly had oohed and aahed about the old muscle car and wanted to play with all the dials. But she was also exhausted, and sleep warred with her curiosity as she poked at the screen while rubbing at her eyes. Now, she was passed out asleep in his wife’s lap in the back bench.
He had found Veil’s phone on the passenger seat. Flicking it on, he unlocked it using her four-digit code. They knew each other’s codes—not just in case one of them had an emergency, but because they simply knew each other that well.
And I betrayed her.
He’d like to think she understood. He’d like to think she would offer herself up in trade to Octavian to save his life. He suspected that was precisely what happened. She was too smart, and had been in this business too long, to not have seen such an obvious trap coming. Which meant that she had come to the cemetery tonight fully aware of what was going to happen.
It didn’t make the sting any better.
Another text from Conrad.
Conrad: 1 min away don’t do anything stupid.
Richard didn’t bother responding. There was also a voicemail on the phone from a number he didn’t recognize. It was new, having been left in the past few minutes. Hitting it, he raised it to his ear out of curiosity. It might be important.
“Selina. This is a trap you are walking into. Do not go. Do not go near Octavian. You cannot imagine the cost. We will save your friend Richard together. Wait for me. Please, Selina. I love you.”
Asmodeus. A desperate-sounding Asmodeus.
“We should go, Richie,” Chris said from the back seat.
“No. I need to explain to them what happened.”
“But we don’t know anything. They didn’t tell us a single thing.”
“That’s not the part that needs explaining.” Richard sighed and put the phone on his friend’s dash. It was big enough to hold a lot more than a single cellphone. Old cars. They were just needlessly huge. He supposed it was part of the charm. “I’m sorry, but I need to do this.”
He glanced back at his wife and tried to offer her a faint smile, hoping she’d understand. He needed to face judgement for his crime. And if it couldn’t be through Veil, let it be through her new friends.
Chelly was out cold in his wife’s lap. At least she didn’t seem to suspect anything was wrong, only that things weren’t “right.” She knew the adults weren’t telling her something, and that was enough to put her on edge. Not enough that she stayed awake, mind you.
He hoped she didn’t wake up when the yelling began. He knew there’d be yelling. Likely at him. But his girl could sleep through a bomb blast. Here’s hoping it isn’t worse than that.
The sound of engines and wheels screeching turned his attention back to the graveyard. In that moment, six large black SUVs tore out of the darkness and through the gate, swerving onto the main road. Tires squealed, and the smell of burning rubber was thick in the air as they peeled out and took off into the distance, engines roaring.
Octavian and the rest.
Gone. Taking Veil somewhere.
He squeezed his eyes tight and lowered his head, feeling tears sting his eyes. He wanted to weep. But he wouldn’t. Not yet. Not in front of his wife and daughter. Chris’s hand settled on his shoulder, reaching through from the back seat to console him. He slipped his hand over hers and squeezed it.
“You did the right thing.”
He nodded weakly. It didn’t feel like the right thing. It felt like the coward’s choice.
Another minute or two passed before another car pulled up, the headlights sweeping over them then sending him back into darkness as the other driver stopped. The engine flicked off, and four figures climbed out of the black sedan.
His face had bloomed with heat, that strange kind of adrenaline rush one got when caught in a lie or an embarrassing situation. Like when he had accidentally sent an email he thought was a simple reply, but was a reply-all, disparaging several of the people to whom he had unwittingly sent the email.
This was far less mundane. This was serious. Now he knew what that feeling of adrenaline was really for.
He knew Gabe and Conard, who climbed out of the front of the vehicle. He didn’t know the two men who climbed out of the back. But he knew, instantly, that they weren’t exactly normal.
One of them seemed to embody every vision of danger, sexuality, and masculinity in human culture into one well-dressed and towering form. Green eyes swung to him immediately, and Richard recognized the piercing gaze, even if he didn’t know the form it wore. He had seen this creature come back from the spirit world carrying Veil. Asmodeus.
He was slightly less terrifying as a mortal. Slightly.
The other man he truly didn’t know and couldn’t guess. He was built like a quarterback. Broad shoulders, muscular, and dressed casually in a well-loved brown leather coat, a t-shirt, and jeans. Short blond hair. He was handsome—almost too much so. It made his humanity instantly suspect.
Richard stood and closed the door to the car, wanting to separate Chris and Chelly from what was going to happen, even if only a little. It was a meaningless separation, but it made him feel like they were somehow safer. He was a fool grasping at a safety blanket. He stood in the presence of two priests who were plenty dangerous, and at least one archangel, fallen or otherwise. Maybe two.
The voice had come from beside Richard unexpectedly, and he would have screamed if he hadn’t also choked at the same time. He looked over at Azrael, who had appeared there without warning. Richard pressed his hand to his heart, feeling it thud painfully in its cage. “Wh—f—” was all he managed.
Azrael barely cast him a glance. There was judgement in those blue eyes that exactly matched Veil’s. Judgement, sadness, and…age. Those eyes had seen a hundred thousand years of suffering, and now they were looking at him. Judging him for adding more to the pile.
“Hello, Richard,” the archangel greeted him. It felt more like the whisper of a winter wind than a hello.
Instantly, Richard felt his face run cold. He shrank away from the archangel of death. The one whose daughter he had just betrayed. Guilt crashed through him like a runaway train. “I’m so sorry. I—I—”
“He will not harm you.” A deep voice, rumbling like thunder, distracted him. It only added to his fear. He glanced to the man who must be Alistair Solomon. The other creature whose creation he had betrayed.
Richard retreated, trying to keep the hood of the car between him and the approaching dark cloud. The “man’s” face was a schooled mask of indifference. But those green eyes of his glittered in rage.
The archdemon was stalking toward him. He had never felt more like prey in his life. Images of memories flashed into his mind. Of being trapped in that cage, in that bloody basement, listening to his mother and sister scream as they died.
“Please, I—” His voice sounded small. Weak. He was that eight-year-old boy once more.
“You have nothing to fear from the archangel of death,” Alistair assured him. But it was not a comforting promise. He sensed the razor’s edge of danger in the man’s voice. “Azrael does not interfere. He will not take revenge for your betrayal. But me? Mark me, human…” He grinned sadistically, a flash of white teeth that reminded Richard of a wolf. And then the beast struck. “I live by no such rule!”
When Alistair jumped toward him as if to grab him and do some unspeakable horror that Richard couldn’t imagine, he leapt back, tripped over his own feet, and landed painfully on the pavement. Azrael took a step back to let the scene unfold, his hands clasped behind him.
Alistair had him by the front of his coat and dragged him to his feet. Two fists twisted in his peacoat and shook him hard. “What you have done, you will pay for dearly, little mortal. You—”
“Back off.” A pair of arms separated them, pushing Richard back. A body stepped between them, facing Alistair. The other man from the car who he didn’t know. The blond in the brown leather coat. “Back the fuck off, Asmodeus.”
Alistair bared his teeth in a snarl and went to shove him off, but he saw it coming. He put his shoulder into the archdemon’s chest and shoved Alistair back, nearly sending him sprawling to the ground. “I’m not going to let you kill him.”
“And why not? Do you suddenly protect every human life?” Alistair growled at the mystery man. “How quaint.”
“Nope. But I’m gonna do it when I can.” The other man grabbed the edge of his leather coat and gave it a stiff tug to straighten it. “I’m pretty sure I’d get my angel card revoked if I let you squish some poor mortal asshole in front of me.”
“Angel card…?” Richard hadn’t realized he had spoken until it was too late.
“Oh. Hey.” The man turned to look at him and offered him a casual salute. “Michael. Nice to meet you. You must be V’s friend.”
He staggered back against the car and would have fallen again if the vehicle hadn’t been there to stop him. He shook his head rapidly in disbelief. “Oh, no. No, please, no,” he murmured. The world began to spin and grow fuzzy around the edges. He was getting nauseated and felt both flushed and cold at the same time.
“Aw, is he gonna faint?” Michael scratched the back of his neck. “I hate it when they get all floppy on me. Sit down, bud. Deep breaths. No big deal.” The archangel seemed almost…embarrassed. “Man, I hate being a celebrity.”
It might have been funny if Richard weren’t about to pass out. He paced farther back and leaned against the trunk of the car to try to steady himself. When a hand touched his arm, he nearly leapt out of his skin.
“Easy, easy…” Conrad and Gabe were there, looking at him in deep concern. “Just us. Just the humans.”
It was ridiculous that he found that as comforting as it was. He nodded and forced the air into his lungs to slow down and go deeper. Soon, his dizziness began to fade.
It was Gabe who asked the question Richard dreaded so profoundly. But the one he needed to answer. “What happened to Veil?”