To hold her.
It took every bit of his control not to go in there and make her slap his face. One corner of his mouth lifted as he imagined her outrage if he did.
Definitely worth the slap. But he wouldn’t do that to her. He was too much of a gentleman to horrify a woman. No matter how horny he was.
That being said, his thoughts of her were killing him.
* * *
Abigail was trying to sort through all the information she’d been given. She wanted to believe her family. She did.
But it was hard to refute what she’d been shown, and the fact that Sundown didn’t act like a psychotic killer.
If only she knew the real truth of everything. Were there rogue Apollites who preyed on humans? It seemed preposterous, and yet so did the existence of Apollites altogether. If one was possible, wouldn’t it stand to reason that so was the other?
But why had no one in her family ever mentioned them?
The only thing she knew for a fact was that she was being hunted by something she’d accidentally unleashed. And that she didn’t doubt at all.
How could she have been so stupid?
Sighing, she reached for the soap, only to feel a vicious stabbing pain rip through her abdomen. It was a thousand times worse than the most wretched menstrual cramp. She tried to move, but it slammed her down to the ground as it continued to twist in her stomach. Her skin burned like it was on fire. The water was no longer soothing. Now it tore at her flesh like a razor. Tears gathered in her eyes.
Oh my God, I’m in an Alien movie….
That was what it felt like. Some creature trying to claw its way out of her belly. Light and sound tortured her. Images flashed through her mind as if controlled by a psychedelic strobe.
She couldn’t speak the words. They were frozen in her throat.
Suddenly, the shower door opened. Her breathing ragged, she looked up to find Sundown there.
"Abigail?" His tone was filled with concern.
"Help me," she choked out as tears coursed down her cheeks.
He turned the water off, then scooped her up in his arms to carry her back to bed.
Had she been able, she’d have protested his carrying her while she was wet and nak*d. But right now, she didn’t care and he didn’t seem to notice about either one.
She groaned out loud as more pain lacerated her.
"I’ve got you," he said comfortingly. He wrapped her in a blanket, then brushed her hair back from her face with a tenderness that was completely unexpected. "What’s going on?"
"I-I don’t know. It hurts."
"Everywhere. But my stomach’s the worst of it."
Jess touched her stomach, and she screamed in agony. He thought it might be appendicitis until he met her gaze. Her eyes glowed red. "Um, honey, is there something you want to tell me?"
"What? That I feel like I’m giving birth to a fire-breathing dragon?"
"Nah, more like … any idea why your eyes would be demon red?" They were the same color they’d turned when she was unconscious.
She opened her mouth as if to respond, but before she could, her incisors lengthened.
Had she made a pact with Artemis? She definitely looked like a Hunter, but none that he knew of had red eyes….
"Get away from her, Jess."
He glanced over his shoulder to see Choo Co La Tah there. "What’s going on?"
Abigail went for Jess’s throat with a force so fierce, she forced them both off the bed.
Jess caught her, but it was a struggle to keep her from biting him. Dang, she was strong. Inhumanly strong. He had to turn her around in his arms, and he held her there with her back pressed to him while she shrieked in outrage.
Choo Co La Tah crossed the room and took her face in his hands. He began chanting something Jess couldn’t understand while Abigail fought him with everything she had. She slammed her head back into his, knocking him senseless. Still, he held on to her even while his jaw burned.
Her struggles increased until she let out another fierce scream. An instant later, she collapsed.
He lifted her up into his arms and cradled her against him once more. Her skin was suddenly so cold, it scared him. Was she all right? He returned her to bed while Choo Co La Tah continued with his melodic chant.
Her breathing was coming in short, hard gasps now.
Choo Co La Tah forced him away from the bed so that he could place one palm on her forehead. After a few seconds, she calmed down and appeared to sleep.
With his hands on his hips, Jess scowled. "What was that?"
"They have merged her blood with a demon’s."
That hit him like another blow to the head, which was the last thing he needed. His senses were rattled as much as if he’d taken a header off a bronco onto a fence. "Come again?"
Choo Co La Tah nodded. "One could surmise that they thought to strengthen her abilities by combining her DNA with a demon’s."
Now, that was about dumb. But then, most people weren’t rocket scientists, and he could see an idiot Daimon thinking they’d found an upper hand by using her that way.
But damn, he’d have figured Abigail for having more sense than to try something so boneheaded.
"So the demon’s controlling her?"
Choo Co La Tah shook his head. "The demon is dead. Demons can control someone only when they’re alive, and normally when the demon dies, the control over the person is broken. But this … They did something else to cause her to have the powers, and I don’t know what it is."
"Beautiful." Well, at least that explained how she had the power to kill a Dark-Hunter. "Can she convert one of us if she bites us?"
Choo Co La Tah nodded grimly. "If her fangs are showing and she mixes her blood with anyone, it will bring them under her complete control. And the demon inside her will crave that control. The longer it’s in there, the hungrier she’ll become for a victim."
That was the scariest thought of all. "So what do we do?"
"We must get her to the Valley as soon as we can and perform the ritual."
"Then she’ll be all right?"
Choo Co La Tah refused to answer-which could mean only one thing.
Abigail would die.
Abigail felt her heart rate slow down as she fell through a dark mist. Images flashed through her mind. She saw her parents again. Heard them laughing.
Suddenly, she found herself as a small child on the floor with Sundown, who was smiling at her. Dressed in a black button-down shirt and jeans, he wore his hair shorter, and he was freshly shaved. Still, he was devastating to look at, especially when he smiled.
"Now, look, Abby, you send the bunny under the bush and then down around the rabbit hole. Like this."
She watched in awe as he tied her red princess ballet bedroom shoe. "That’s not a bunny, silly, that’s a lace."
His smile widened but not so much that he showed his fangs. "Yeah, but we’re pretending," he whispered like it was a big secret.
"Oh." She tried to repeat it with the other shoe.
"You need to find you a woman and settle down, Jess. You’d make a great father."
She saw the pain in his eyes that her mother’s words evoked. His smile died instantly as he reached to pull his hat, which was filled with her Little Ponies, closer to them. "I don’t believe in settling down. That’s for folks like you." He held his hat out so that Abigail could take her ponies back.
"Yeah, but you don’t want to grow old alone, do you?"
As a child, she’d missed the torment that flared deep in his black eyes while he faced her and had his back to her mother. But as a woman, she saw the demons that tortured him, and it made her ache for him. He ran his hand along the brim of his hat and swallowed before he answered. "Believe me, Laura, there are a lot of worse things in this world than growing old alone."
Abigail had looked up with wide eyes. "Like what?"
He gave her the forced smile that adults often give to kids when they don’t want them to feel their pain. "Cookie monsters who sneak past you when you’re tying your shoes and eat your chocolate chip yummies." He feigned a reach for the cookies on the floor next to her. Squealing, she threw herself over his arm to keep him from taking them.
He curled his arm, lifting her and bringing her straight to his chest so that he could catch her in his arms and swing her up. In one graceful move, he rose to his feet, then twirled her around.
"Airplane, airplane, airplane," she started chanting while Jess turned faster.
Her mother gaped at them. "You’re going to be wearing those chocolate chips soon if you don’t stop, Jess."
He laughed. "It’d be worth it to hear her laugh."
And Abigail did…. She laughed and squealed in delight.
How could she have ever forgotten how much she once loved that man?
"What’s going on here?"
Jess stopped moving as her father’s angry voice cut through their joy. He cradled her to his chest while she begged him to keep going. Patting her on the back to soothe her, he faced her outraged father. "I was just teaching Abby how to tie her shoes."
Her father forcefully yanked her out of his arms. "That’s not your job, now, is it?"
She saw the anger in Jess’s eyes, but he quickly hid it. "Nah, guess it’s not."
Her mother stepped forward. "Baby, c’mon. Jess just stopped by for a second on his way to work to say happy birthday to me."
Her father’s gaze narrowed on her mother’s neck, where a beautiful diamond butterfly glittered in the light. Abigail reached to touch it, then protested when her father’s grip on her tightened to the point of causing her pain. She cried out in protest and tried to squirm out of his hold.
Her father ignored her attempts to get free. "Long enough to give you that, huh? What? You think I can’t afford you gifts like that? Is that it?"
Her mother’s jaw dropped in shock and outrage as she took Abigail out of her father’s arms and held her close to calm her. "What in the world is wrong with you?"
Jess stepped forward to wedge himself between her parents so that he could protect her and her mother from her father’s anger. "Look, Stan, I wasn’t trying to offend you. It was real pretty and all, and I just thought she’d like it. That’s it. No slight to you was ever intended."
Even though her father was a full head shorter than Jess, he shoved him back, forcing her mother to step away from the men. Abigail saw the panic on her mother’s face. She might not have known about Sundown’s brutal past or his Dark-Hunter status, but it was obvious that he dwarfed her father, and that in a fight, he’d definitely be the victor.
Her father shoved him again. "You need to quit sniffing around my wife every time I leave."
Jess curled his lip and stood his ground. His expression promised a serious ass-whipping if her father didn’t stand down. "I wasn’t sniffing around her. We’re friends. That’s all."
"Then I suggest you go be friends with someone else’s wife. My family is off-limits to you."
An angry tic beat a frenetic rhythm in Jess’s jaw. It was obvious he was straining to ride herd on an urge to beat her father down. He glanced across the room to her mother. "I have to get to work. I’m sorry I caused you any trouble, Laura. I hope I didn’t completely ruin your birthday, and I’m real sorry about the gift."
His words only enraged her father more. "Yeah, that’s right. Rub it in how much better you are than I am at providing for her. We can’t all be international investors and make millions doing it, can we?"
Jess paused, and Abigail saw the grim look on his face that said he was one step away from slamming her father’s head through a wall. Instead, he pulled his Stetson off the floor and gently dumped her ponies on the coffee table. He picked up her favorite purple one and crossed the room to hand it to her. "Y’all have a good night." His eyes were dark and sorrowful as he met her mother’s gaze. "Happy birthday, Laura." And then he put his hat on his head and walked out.
"Stan," her mother growled the moment he was gone. "That was unbelievably rude. What is wrong with you?"
He sneered at her. "How would you feel if you came home to find a woman in here alone with me?"
"I have many times. Tracy. Remember?"
He scoffed. "She’s the babysitter."
"She’s a very attractive woman."
"That’s exactly my point," her mother said in a disgusted tone. "I’m sorry you lost your job, but that’s no reason to start hating a man who’s been a good friend to me since before I met you."
"Yeah, right. I think it’s more than friendship with you two."
Her mother gaped. "Are you completely out of your mind?"
Abigail covered her ears with her hands. "Please don’t fight anymore. I don’t like loud voices."
Her mother kissed her cheek and gave her a soothing cuddle. "Sorry, baby. Why don’t you go play in your room?" She set her down.
Abigail ran to the hallway, then paused as her father grabbed her mother’s arm and jerked her closer.
"I want you to give that necklace back to him," he said between clenched teeth.
"Because I don’t want to see my wife wearing another man’s gift. You hear me?"