By Angie Sandro
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Rescued from the brink of death by her cousin Mala, Dena Acker returns to the land of the living with a terrifying gift. Still connected to the darkness that almost claimed her, she can tell when someone’s about to die–but there’s nothing she can do to save them. Desperate to rid herself of this cursed ability, Dena has only one chance at peace . . . and two very different men willing to rescue her.
For centuries, Ashmael has seen more souls than he can count but he’s never been drawn to anyone the way he is to fragile, beautiful Dena. She fills the dark void of his days with light, and he would sacrifice anything – even his immortality – to cross over to her world and ease her suffering. But he can’t afford to be discovered by police detective Michael Anders, who is investigating the deaths that surround Dena. While Michael fights his growing attraction to her, the evidence still points to Dena as the killer. Both men have the ability to save Dena from her horrible fate, but which one can she trust with her darkest secrets?
Time slows. Colors brighten.
Scents sharpen, spreading a hunger through my body. The cheeseburger resting on the tray on the counter drips melted cheese in slow motion. I push the order toward the woman standing in front of the cash register and take her money. Her lips move, but I can’t hear her. Or anyone. The voices of the patrons sitting at booths and tables in Munchies fade. The restaurant falls silent, but for the music. I draw in a breath and tilt my head, straining to hear over the rush of blood pulsing in my ears. This is not normal music. No instruments play in harmony or voices sing in tune. It’s different, like a hum rising from the earth. Waves of color float through the air: dancing green, swirls of blue, arcs of red. And the black…
A chill runs down my spine as the black ribbon slithers across the floor—a serpent-like harbinger of death targeting its next victim—a raggedly dressed man hunched over his heart attack in a to-go bag, in a corner booth. He pokes a French fry into a pile of ketchup before bringing it to his mouth, totally unaware he has been marked.
As far as I can tell, I’m the only one who can see the black aura infecting the bodies of the living, heralding their impending death. Only I hear Death’s song.
The newest victim’s lips move as if he’s muttering to himself, totally unaware his time is near. Not even I can figure out the timetable. It would be nice to have clocks counting down above everyone’s head. This way you can prepare for the inevitable. Wrap up all of your unfinished business. Live life to the fullest until the timer hits zero. Then move on with no regrets. It’s the randomness that drives me crazy. All I know is that once the black aura finds a victim, it’s only a matter of time. A day or two at most, then bam. Freak car accident. Congestive heart failure. Peanut allergy. The target dies. When I first figured out what the black ribbon meant, I tried to stop it. I thought being able to foresee the future meant I could change the predestined end. How egotistical of me to believe I’m special. Death is the one thing no human can challenge or halt. It can only be put off for a time, like it was for me.
I died last year. Well, technically, I’d been pronounced brain dead. I woke from a coma three months later, only days before they were going to turn off life support. Everyone thinks it’s a happy miracle. I should feel grateful to have a second chance at living out my life and doing all of the things I’ve dreamed of, but I don’t. What nobody knows is how empty I feel, like I left a piece of my soul on the other side. I ache with loss—of what, I’ve got no idea. All I know is that living hurts, and sanity is a fragile precipice I navigate daily, smiling on the outside while screaming on the inside, desperate to hide the fact that I came back damaged from my family and friends.
So here I stand, swaying to an otherworldly music only I can hear. Wishing Death’s embrace had come for me.
“Dena!” The yell in my ear and the elbow to my ribs jerks me back to reality. The transition hurts like a kick in the stomach. Air rushes from my lungs. I blink away the last of the colors floating before my eyes and focus on my coworker.
Joanna grabs my arm and pulls me toward the kitchen door. “You okay?” she whispers, throwing a look over her shoulder at the customer standing at the counter. The homeless-looking guy. When did the woman with the burger leave?
I shrug off Joanna’s hand and straighten my hot pink apron. “I’m fine. Why?”
“You’ve been hypnotized by the candy sprinkles for the last five minutes.”
“Oh, that’s ’cause they’d partnered up and were doing a waltz,” I say.
“Kidding.” My smile stretches my cheeks. I wonder if it’s reflected in my eyes.
Apparently, she doesn’t notice anything’s off because she laughs. The tension in her bird-like shoulders eases, and she leans against the ice cream bar. “Girl, I thought you’d done lost your mind.”
What would she say if I agreed? My mouth opens, but the words stick in my throat. A bang from the front counter grabs our attention. The dying man, who isn’t quite dead yet. He slams his dirt-crusted fist on the glass counter again. His eyes, hot and full of rage, fix on me. I’m not sure if his anger is personal. More likely it’s toward the world in general. I kind of understand how he feels. I’m just better at hiding my emotions.
“May I help you, sir?” I ask, donning my mask of courtesy, while reminding myself of the rules my boss, Marcheline Dubois, drilled into me when I started working at Munchies. Customer service is paramount. Be polite. Even if the guy’s crazy, he paid for his meal. Therefore, he’s entitled to be treated with common decency. But don’t take shit from anyone. That’s my favorite rule. Courtesy has an expiration limit.
The man’s stench wafts over the counter and blends with the smell of grilled beef from the kitchen. I seal my nostrils and turn into a mouth breather.
He stabs a finger in my direction. “You’re an abomination.”
My lips twitch, but I don’t lose my smile over such a petty insult. Practice makes perfect, I guess. “Why yes, sir, I guess I am. Would you like a free refill of iced tea?”
“Someone should give you a double tap to the head and put you outta your misery.”
A shiver runs down my spine.
Okay, he basically just threatened to kill me.
Joanna’s gasp fills my ear. She spins on her heel and rushes toward the kitchen, leaving me alone with Mr. Charming. If I play it cool, everything will be fine. He won’t break out a bolt gun to make good on his threat. I hope.
Be cool. Be calm. Be careful what you wish for. Man, the universe really has a twisted sense of humor.
I hide my trembling hands in my apron and draw in a strained breath. My eyes narrow on him, and maybe he sees the darkness hiding behind them, ’cause he steps back. Yeah, I’m not as much a victim as you thought, asshole.
I chew on his words, then spit them out. “Put me out of my misery…It’s been tried before, sir.” My fingers pick apart my hair, pulled up in a ponytail, to reveal the scar behind my ear. The bullet’s still in my brain. “It didn’t work.” I smile again. “Now, how about that refill?”
The old man’s lips press together. He doesn’t need to speak; I can read his expression louder than if he shouted at me. Great. I just confirmed his abomination theory.
Joanna must’ve alerted our cook, Adam, of the rowdy customer issue. He comes through the double doors and looms over my shoulder. He’s not big, more like a tiny Mr. Clean, but the carving knife in his hand and the bloodstained apron sends a loud message. Crazy guy stalks toward the front door and leaves the diner with a final glare.
Joanna wraps her arm around my shoulder. “Are you okay?”
“Are those the only three words you know?” I joke, wishing I could shrug her off. But that would only call attention to my otherness again. Before I died, I enjoyed hugging. Now being touched feels like fire ants marching across my skin—an angry, biting little horde. “I’m fine.” I nod toward the kid standing at the register. “We’ve got a customer.”
* * *
Munchies closed an hour ago. One last chore and I’m off for the night. Thank goodness. If my feet didn’t ache so badly, I’d be falling asleep standing up. I wrap my purse strap across my shoulder and pick up the trash bags by the front door. I yell toward the kitchen, “Adam, you all right locking up on your own?”
“Yeah, girl. Go on.”
I push open the front door, but pause when I hear “Wait.”
The overhead fluorescent lights gleam on Adam’s bald head as he leans through the open doorway. “Think that hobo from this afternoon’s still hanging around? Won’t take but a few to walk you to your truck.”
A frown furrows his brow. “Sure about that? No need to play it tough.”
Tough’s got nothing to do with it. Fatalistic is what I am, through and through. It’s stupid to tempt fate, but I do it every chance I get. Still I’m not walking on the wild side tonight.
“It’s okay. That guy’s long gone. None of our customers saw him lurking around. And the sheriff’s office said they’d patrol the area tonight in case he shows up again. Everything’s fine.”
“You know I’d never let anything happen to you, right?” He steps from the kitchen, but doesn’t cross the room. His fingers clench the mop. “If I’d—”
Yeah, I know. “You’re a good guy, Adam Pope.” He really is, too. I’ve known him my whole life. He grew up well. Maybe he’s not the brightest bulb, but he’s dependable. He even came to see me at the hospital. Not many of my so-called friends did. “Night.”
He nods, putting earbuds in his ears.
I step outside and let the door close behind me with a sigh.
I dodged a bullet. I can’t handle any more pity declarations. My guy friends all act like they think they should’ve protected me. As if my well-being was and is their responsibility. Their guilt screams at me in the worry lines on their faces, and I’m sick of it. I take care of myself. Always have. Always will.
The heavy spring downpour from earlier has lightened to a warm drizzle. My grip tightens around the trash bags swinging at my sides. I squint through the haze, trying to see the trash bin at the far end of the alley. Streetlights cast shadows across the walls. Ragged bits of paper sail past in overflowing gutters.
Once I leave the shelter of the overhead awning, I’m gonna get wet. No way to avoid it. A soggy end to a crappy day. Which morphed into an even crappier night once Samantha called in sick, forcing me to work a double-damn shift on a Friday—one of the busiest nights of the week since we close at eleven. Ms. March needs to fire the girl. Given the number of illnesses Sam’s supposedly contracted over the last year, the girl should’ve died more times than I have.
I’d find this funny if it didn’t remind me I haven’t gotten sick since coming back from the dead. Not once in the last six months. Even the virulent flu that took down my brothers and mother during Christmas bypassed me. One more depressing symptom pointing to the fact that all ain’t right in Dena’s world.
“Just keep swimming, Dottie Dee,” I mutter. Some days I sing the entire song as a reminder. It may be one of those days.
A quick glance back at the glass door startles me. The reflection magnifies my eyes. They’ve turned into dark blue pits, threatening to overflow like the gutters. Sweat glistens on my forehead, tinting my skin with a sickly cast.
“Gawd, I look like an extra from The Walking Dead.” And feeling more zombiefied by the minute.
With a sigh, I stare through watery eyes across Main Street to the new Chinese restaurant, Happy Dragon Eats. What do happy dragons eat? The randomness of the thought makes me groan. Here it is. Proof positive Dr. Estrada’s diagnosis was right. Brain damage. What else explains this “Soylent green is people” rumble in my tummy? I can’t even put my finger on exactly what makes me so nervous. Other than the obvious serial killer movie scenario playing out—girl in a dark alley, alone, on a dark and stormy night. Duh.
The street looks as desolate as the moon peeking from behind the departing storm clouds.
“Stop stalling,” I tell myself. Toss the trash, get into the truck, and go home.
I step from beneath the awning. My gaze dances from shadow to shadow searching for—nothing, just scared of my own shadow.
With a deep breath and a roll of my shoulders, the knot in my stomach loosens. I take short, mincing steps, trying not to lose my balance on the slick asphalt. Mud churned by the heavy rain forms a sludge that squishes beneath my tennis shoes. A thump echoes eerily from the far end of the alley and I freeze, holding my breath. It’s too dark to see more than a few feet away. The city really needs to put more effort into maintaining the streetlights. Sure, there’s not a lot of crime in Paradise Pointe, Louisiana, but when assholes go rogue, they go on a full-out, nut-job killing spree. Like the psycho serial killer who murdered a bunch of teenage boys last year. And Redford Delahoussaye’s murder spree to clean up the witnesses who could identify him as one of the men who executed Jasmine LaCroix for being a witch.
Yeah, crazy stuff happens here all the time.
My mouth opens to call out, like one of those silly girls who die first in a horror movie. I even take a breath before choking back the clichéd words, “Is anyone there?”
What if someone actually responds? Show no fear, be brave. I don’t want to close my eyes, but I do. With my head tilted to the side, I listen to the water gushing down a storm drain, the scratching of branches scraping together in the wind, and my harsh and heavy breathing. Nothing stirs or slithers from the dark crevice of the alley. I snort, disgusted at the time I’ve wasted by lapsing into paranoia.
My pocket vibrates.
“Oh—” I drop a trash bag into a puddle at my feet and fumble to answer my cell. “Gabby? That you? ”
“I’ve been waiting forever.”
“Sorry, really, it’s just—” I wipe raindrops from my eyes with the cuff of my sleeve. “I had to work a double shift. Sam’s out sick. Again. I called, but you didn’t answer.”
“Where are you?” Gabriella slurs the words until they’re almost unintelligible.
“I told you. Munchies.” I bite off the name so I won’t yell. If I could, I’d reach through the phone and slap the drunk-girl sober. “I turned my cell on after my shift and got your message. You didn’t say why you needed a ride. Everything okay?”
“I’m fine—just buzzed.”
“You sound more than buzzed.” I poke the trash bag with the toe of my shoe. I wouldn’t mind downing a few rum and Cokes myself right now, but no way on God’s green earth am I going to the bachelorette party from hell. Not for all of the free shots and male strippers in Louisiana.
“Aren’t you picking me up?” Gabriella enunciates the words with great effort. “’Sides, everyone else’s drunk. Not me.”
It’s after midnight. I shudder to think what state the other women are in if they’re still partying. Gabriella’s a featherweight in comparison to most of our friends, but one person should still be sober. “Gabby, put Mala on the phone.”
“I told you. She’s dying.” Gabriella’s voice rises to be heard over the screaming that breaks out in the background. She must’ve covered the phone with her hand because I hear a muffled “Take it off!” before she gets back on the line, continuing where she left off. “Don’t you listen?”
My jaw aches from grinding my teeth together. “I think I’d remember if you told me my cousin’s dying. What happened?”
“I paid a guy. He tried to give her a lap dance. But she screamed and threw up on him.” Gabriella giggles. “My God, you should’ve seen his face, Dee. He was so pissed. She kept saying ‘so sorry’ and trying to wipe him off with a napkin. And he kept trying to get away.”
Oh man, Mala must be mortified. She hates getting sick. Says the smell reminds her of all the times her mama got wasted and tossed her lunch into her flower pots. To actually throw up on some random guy…a stripper. At a bachelorette party, no less. Poor thing. I should’ve put on my big girl panties and gone, even if it meant celebrating the pending nuptials of my most-hated-one. At least then I would’ve been there to help my favorite cousin.
I heave a sigh. “Where’s Mala now?”
“Landry picked her up about”— she pauses— “oh, two hours ago. She said something about food poisoning and going home ’cause the shrimp’s killing her.”
“But you stayed, even though your designated driver went home sick?”
“I didn’t want to disappoint Vanessa.”
My own stomach curdles when Gabriella utters the name of the bane of my existence, my high school ex-BFF, Vanessa Purdue. “Girl, you’d better be f—”
“No, s’okay, I’m kidding. I still hate her for stabbing you in the back, but her party’s fun. I met this guy. Oh Dee, you should see the way his hips move when he dances.”
“Nothing good will come from a relationship based on how the man’s hips swivel.”
“Then you’ve been into the wrong kind of guy,” she says, then gasps. “Geez, Dee— I’m sorry. My mouth keeps moving, but no one’s home.”
The brat almost sounds sober with the apology. And as pissed as I am, I can’t disagree with her slurred assessment of my former relationships. I try to ignore the spurt of pain her words bring up. “Don’t do anything you’ll be crying in your coffee over tomorrow, Gabby.” I cradle the phone between my shoulder and cheek then pick up the trash bag. Time to get this chore over with while she’s on the phone with me. Drunk as she is, her voice eases my anxiety.
Except the other end of the line has gone quiet. “Hello?”
An oppressive silence answers, and I’m suddenly aware that I’m standing in the middle of the dark alley, like bait waiting to be gobbled up. My heart races as I ask, “Gabby, you still there?”
“Yeah, Dick’s coming with Jell-O shots.” She has a breathless quality to her voice. “Oh, yeah—I almost forgot—Vanessa.”
“What about Vanessa?” My voice hardens. “Don’t you dare ask me to give her a ride home!”
“I wouldn’t do that. Geez, what kind of friend do you think I am?”
“The kind of friend who’d party with the girl who helped my boyfriend cheat on me, while like an idiot I…” I draw in a breath and squeeze my eyes shut.
“Uh…I thought you were okay with this?”
My head’s killing me. I pull the hair tie from my ponytail and shake out my curls. “Sorry, I’m fine. I mean, I thought I was fine, but obviously I’m not.”
“Look, Vanessa and Charles—I bet they divorce—six months tops. Plus, Vanessa downed six shots of tequila, with beer chasers. She’s at the front of the bar puking her guts out. If I post the video on YouTube, it’ll get a gazillion hits. She’ll be Internet famous. Come on, please.” Her voice takes on a familiar cadence, “Help me, Dena…you’re my only hope.”
“Stop quoting Star Wars at me.” I sigh. “I’m coming.”
As I angle inside the alley, I catch a glimpse of my shadow, outlined against the brick wall. It sprouts a second head and, in imitation of the Hindu goddess Kali, stretches multiple arms toward me. My mind rapidly sorts through the jumbled images, piecing together what I’m seeing: arms, legs, bearded face…. The picture forms, not goddess but man. It’s him.
I throw the bags toward the guy who threatened to kill me this afternoon. He swats them from the air and rushes at me. My scream echoes against the walls, bouncing back as if mocking me. The meaty fist aimed at my face misses, but the wind of its passage lifts the hair curling around my head. I throw my arms in the air and the phone slips from my hand. Gabriella yells for me through the tiny speakers, and I scream to her for help.
Buffy Gets Staked
The man thrusts forward, grabbing a handful of my hair and yanking my head down onto his upraised knee. Pain flares across my cheek, settling in the eye socket. My knees buckle, and I hit the ground. Jagged pieces of broken glass tear through the knees of my jeans, slicing into skin. With my eyes closed tight, I try to think through the screaming. The screaming that’s only in my head because I’m too afraid to utter a sound.
My kidnapper got off on my screams. He kept me locked in a windowless room and beat me whenever I tried to fight. It charged him up. What if this guy’s the same as that sick bastard?
“Get up!” He uses my hair like a puppeteer uses strings. My scalp burns as some of the strands tear out by the roots. With no choice but to follow his lead, my body slides up the front of his. He presses even closer, trapping me against the wall. I squint, straining to see him through my swelling eye.
“You ain’t gonna fight?” He makes it sound like I have a choice. “I’ll hurt you more if you do.”
I shake my head. My face is pressed against his dirt-crusted shirt. He smells of stale cigarette smoke and body odor. I grit my teeth.
I can’t believe this is happening to me again. This is what happens when you tempt fate—you get bitch-slapped.
“Say it out loud. Say it like you mean it.” He jerks my hair again.
I clutch at my head. “I won’t fight!”
He moves his left hand around my shoulders, holding me tighter against his body. The other hand brings the strands of hair over my shoulder, up to his nose. He inhales deeply, rubbing a curl across his cheek, then across his tongue. “Never seen hair like yours—all red and fluffy like a fox tail. When I saw you inside, I knew I’d keep some of your hair to remember you by. Whenever you look in the mirror, you’ll remember Ol’ Jeb’s the one who saved your soul.”
I concentrate on calming my mind—pushing past the fear. Despite all his talk of “looking in the mirror,” I don’t trust that he’ll let me go after he exorcises whatever demon he thinks inhabits me.
He’s crazy. Dangerously so.
“What do you want from me?” I whisper. Unable to meet his eyes, I focus on the thick beard sprouting from his face like a dandelion. A louse crawls across his lower lip, and he releases my hair to scratch his infested chin.
I don’t plan it. My knee rises, aiming for his balls like Dad taught me. At the same time, I shove him in the chest. He falls back with a yell, slipping in the mud. His hands wave in the air, but he remains on his feet. I spin, half-sliding along the edge of the wall, hoping to reach the door. Adam is still in the kitchen. If I can get inside, I’ll be safe.
Hands wrap around my hips, and I groan as I’m lifted in the air and yanked away from the door. I rear back, trying to slam my head into his face, but he tilts his head to the side. One arm pins mine against my chest. He slaps the other hand over my mouth. It smells disgusting, like he wiped his ass with it. I bite down on the fleshy web between his thumb and forefinger as if I’ve turned into a rabid pit bull. I even growl in response to the adrenaline pumping through my body. He lets out a piercing shriek and tries to jerk his hand away. No way in hell am I letting him go. I finally have the upper hand, so to speak, and I aim to survive.
Fear melts away.
He must’ve thought my customer service smile at his earlier taunts meant I was a helpless, pathetic weakling who’d be too frightened of the Big Bad Wolf to fight back. But that’s where he messed up. Since I returned from the dead, my rage has grown stronger. At night I dream about being helpless while captured by Red. I fought him. The whole time. I couldn’t stop that asshole from hurting my family, beating me, shooting me…Now this asshole wants to do the same thing. He’s fucked with the wrong woman.
For the first time since I died, I feel alive.
I stop thinking about the danger or what he’ll do in retaliation. I grind my teeth deep into his skin until blood fills my mouth. When my teeth click together, I give a sharp twist of my head and end up with a large chunk of his flesh stuffed in my cheek. The guy screams, cursing me. Saliva splatters the back of my neck.
His uninjured hand shoves me away. My feet slip on something slimy growing on the trash lining the alley floor. Unable to get my hands up in time, my head takes the full impact of my fall. Bright lights flash across my eyes and coherent thought ceases. It takes four heartbeats to return. The spots clear in time to see the glint of metal slicing downward. My arm rises to protect my face, and the sharp bite of his knife slices deep into my skin, scraping bone.
I scream, kicking out. My foot connects with his chest, and I hear the loud crack of his rib breaking, followed by a bellow of pain. The impact sends my body sliding in the slime, and I turn the slide into a blind roll. I come to rest against the wall with my head only inches from a metal trash bin.
He grabs my left ankle with a bloody hand and drags me from the corner, waving the knife. If he thinks I’ll cower in fear, he’s mistaken. He should have learned by now that he has no idea who he fucked with.
My hand scrambles across the concrete, coming to rest on an old board lying on the mud beside me. Once it’s in my grasp, I go Buffy the Vamp Slayer on his ass and shove the pointy end right at his face.
He swings his left arm, blocking the stake. It grazes his cheek instead of taking out his eye like I intended. He falls forward. The hand holding the knife drops, and I gasp, staring at the hilt sticking out of my chest. My body goes numb. I can’t release the air trapped in my lungs. My eyes dart up to meet the startled gaze of my attacker. Damn. He seems as surprised about stabbing me as I feel about being stabbed. He stares at his hand then jerks on the knife. It grates on bone and I hiss. If he removes it, I’ll bleed out.
- "A vivid and entertaining storyteller, Sandro is an exciting new writer to watch."—J.A. Redmerksi, New York Times bestselling author
- On Sale
- Jul 14, 2015
- Page Count
- 384 pages
- Forever Yours