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Lexi learned early in life to keep her observations to herself when she saw someone glowing. Rather than drawing attention by pointing out the faint aura surrounding the occasional person, she looked the other way.
But as she climbed into the cab, and asked the driver, “How much to get to Third and Broadway?” she couldn’t ignore the silvery ice he radiated.
“I take gold.” He glanced in the rear-view mirror. His gaze met hers in a brief glance, his eyes’ intensity and color a few shades darker than his aura stealing her thoughts. If he wasn’t bathed in ethereal light, he’d be handsome. Gorgeous.
She dug through the secret pocket of her bag, where she kept trinkets for barter. Praise Aphrodite that she still had this on her.
Lexi’s most recent memory was realizing she was standing on a sidewalk in the middle of New York. She didn’t know why she was here, instead of in New Orleans.
Figuring out how she got here was critical, but getting off the streets, in case the cameras had identified her, was a higher priority. Cerb had her memorize a list of safe houses, just in case, and she hoped the one here was still—well—safe. Fortunately for her, the cab she waved down had the familiar pyramid with an eye in the middle on its back window. It meant the driver dealt in barter, rather than digital currency.
A tarnished locket slipped from her stack of cheap jewelry, and a pang ached in her chest.
“That’ll work,” the driver said. She looked up to see him watching her on the screen in his dashboard that was attached to a fish-eye lens recording the back seat. According to the license displayed on his seat, his name was Actaeon. The glow meant he was most likely a hero—the child of a mortal and either a god or another hero—and the Greek name was probably a tribute to heavenly side of his bloodline.
“It’s not up for offer.” No way was she parting with the last physical reminder she had of Mom. She shook her head and tucked her mother’s locket into the hidden pouch sewn inside her jeans. To him it would look like she stuck it in her waistband. She grabbed a money-clip instead and held it up. “This?”
He shrugged. “Sure.”
She set the gold in the lock box between them. It was a simple mechanical device that wouldn’t release payment until they both pressed the switch, presumably when he delivered her to her destination. Going digital on something like this, requiring a thumbprint or biometric, would defeat the desire for anonymity that came with barter transactions.
She settled in her seat, and he wove through the congested traffic with the ease of someone who’d been driving in New York a long time.
The air was heavy tonight, the kind most people wouldn’t be able to name, if they even recognized it, but for her the excess power sank into her bones and put her on edge. It added to the missing piece of her memory and the fuzzy chunk of nothing in her mind that made her head throb every time she jabbed at it.
“I like your tattoo.” His conversational tone jarred her from her musing.
Her hand flew to the mark on the left side of her neck, out of instinct. “Thanks.”
Flickers of his glow licked her senses, clashing and mingling with the suffocating night. She didn’t know if his presence made things better or worse.
“Why Death?” he asked.
The question cranked her attention another notch. “I’m sorry; I don’t understand.” It was a misleading statement. What she didn’t get was how he recognized the symbol. When she sent the image to Cerberus, he told her it was the mark of her biological father, Hades. He was listed in The History of the Gods—required elementary school reading—as dead, so little was known about him. She wouldn’t have marked herself with a god if she’d known beforehand. Typically she wore an illusion to hide it.
“Never mind.” The shake of his head was slight.
A new weight pressed on her. She pushed his disconcerting question aside and turned her attention to the city. She caught a yellow glow out of the corner of her eye and jerked her head toward the rooftops. The light was different from street lamps, and her gut twisted with recognition before she found the source. Gargoyles.
One sat atop a building three blocks down, and another across the street. Two more were within her line of sight. More than she’d expect on a regular night. The cameras kept watch most of the time, but some of the gods didn’t trust technology and relied on their own servants as a back-up.
“Is there something going on in the city tonight?” she asked Actaeon.
Fuck. Summer Solstice wasn’t for two weeks. Why was she missing the last two weeks of her life? Acid churned in her gut. “Who’s the—” She clamped her mouth shut before she could finish the question. Asking the wrong person who the regional deity was would land her at the god’s feet faster than she could blink.
“Poseidon,” Actaeon said at the same time her mind provided the answer.
He’d claimed most of the coastal cities. Double fuck. Poseidon couldn’t know she was here. He couldn’t know she existed. “Thanks, but that’s not—”
“What you were going to ask. Right. Once again, never mind.” Actaeon’s cool tone matched his ambient chill.
She needed to phrase her next question more carefully. “Will we get to see Poseidon tonight?”
“Get to?” He snorted. “I assume.”
Despite the crowded roads, they were inching closer to the gargoyles too fast for her comfort. If she crossed the invisible perimeter that was their line of sight, she’d stand out in an instant.
She’d need to pick another way to reach the safe house. She pressed her switch on the lock box. “I think I’ll walk the rest of the way. Enjoy traffic.”
“It’s three miles.” He took the money clip from its bin.
“I need to stretch my legs before the festivities begin.” She hopped from the cab before he could push the conversation.
He’d already turned his gaze back to the road.
She walked in the opposite direction, trying not to be too obvious about looking at the sky every few seconds. If she stuck close to the buildings and ducked down alleys, she could keep a low profile. Gargoyles weren’t built to look straight down, and navigating tight spaces didn’t work with their wing spans.
One of many things she’d had to learn on her own—Dad’s games never taught her that, and the history books tended to leave out those little details.
June heat swirled around her with the movement of the crowds, and humidity filled her lungs. It made it difficult to feel the beasts in the sky, but that meant she was masked as well. Her pulse hammered in her ears, urging her to walk faster.
Another glance behind her, and her heart leaped into her throat at the sight of a gargoyle swooping below the tops of the buildings, in her direction.
The people around her ducked their heads and moved faster. No one wanted to stand in the way of a god’s servant, especially one like a gargoyle. No one would help her. She expected hat.
She turned down a side street.
The heavy beat of stone wings thrummed in her skull, and the beast swooped in front of her. Okay—not good. It nearly clipped the side of the building. There was no reason for it to risk such a tight space for the average schmuck. But gargoyles supposedly had about as functional a brain as a walnut. If she shifted her aura to act as an illusion, making herself look like someone else, would it give up and go away?
When the gargoyle touched down, the heavy footfall shook the ground, threatening her balance and tentative grip on not freaking out. It growled something. The pitch and cadence might have been words, but not in a language she spoke.
Or, for all Lexi knew, he was just growling.
He stepped forward.
She waved and smiled. “Hey. Got lost on the way to the festival. I figured out where I was, though. I won’t keep you.” She turned to run from the alley.
The gargoyle was in front of her again, blocking the way out, so quickly she couldn’t blink. There were doorways and another outlet, but if it moved this fast, could she get someplace it couldn’t, before it caught her?
It would either tear her to shreds or take her to Poseidon. Terror clawed at her thoughts that it might be the latter, and panic surged as the stone monster loomed over her.
The air changed again, washing away the gargoyle’s presence and bathing her in a chill. She heard a zip, and an arrow of light flew past her. It struck the gargoyle. A shower of sparkles cascaded around the beast, as the arrow vanished, and the gargoyle stopped moving, returned to solid stone.
Lexi whirled, knowing she’d see Actaeon behind her. She didn’t expect the blinding silver that surrounded him. As the light faded toward neutral, she got her first good look at him. Pale skin, sculpted arms disappearing into his shirt, and a chiseled jaw. Gods, he was gorgeous. He might as well have been cut from marble. Which meant, in the cab, he’d been cast in illusion too.
A red string ran from his finger to… someplace. Was it some sort of ethereal blood? No. It looked more like actual thread. She’d never seen that before.
She’d also never met an illusion she couldn’t see through. Who the fuck was this guy? Not some wimpy half-breed hero, like she originally thought. With the power he radiated, he was as strong as the big names, like—
Her brain stalled, and her head throbbed. Why didn’t she remember any of the hero’s names?
“It called you a child of Death.” His voice sent a chill down her spine.
The gargoyle recognized her. Did it tell Poseidon? Or was he too engrossed in the activities? “So it did say something.” She kept the panic from her reply.
“Death has no children.”
And it was best people kept believing that. “I thought Death was destroyed by his brothers,” she lied. “My dad worked in a comic book store.” Her stepdad had. The man who raised her. The person she actually called Dad.
“I’d ask how you’ve survived this long, but you obviously know what to avoid, so…” He turned on his heel and strolled away. “’Night,” he called over his shoulder.
Good. If he was going in that direction, she was heading in the opposite. Being near someone with a two-hundred-watt aura was a great way to hide her own, but if he’d been masking himself behind an illusion that still didn’t completely hide who he was, she wasn’t the only one of them hiding. And he’d killed a servant of Poseidon without breaking a sweat.
She was much better off putting him behind her.
* * *
Actaeon headed back to his cab, leaving the woman with the Death tattoo. Stepping in to save someone now and again was fine, but he had to stay off the radar. Not for his safety—he was virtually indestructible—but to keep the mortals around him from becoming collateral damage of one of the gods came for him.
It sucked that leaving her scent wasn’t as easy. Lilacs and ozone lingered in his sinuses.
Why was he thinking about turning around and asking her questions? There was the morbid fascination that she appeared to be a child of Hades—who was supposed to have died with no offspring. That she might be able to see auras supported that theory, along with that damning smell of ozone. Oh, and there was the fact that she had Persephone’s locket, and carried the scent of who he assumed was her mother.
But those were all reasons to get clear of her as far and as fast as possible.
He left the cab behind and walked toward the city center. It was faster. She wouldn’t follow. Not after her reaction to the gargoyles.
If she was smart, she’d leave town. If she was lucky, Poseidon would be too wrapped up in solstice activities to notice one little girl out of place in this massive city.
Either way, she wasn’t Actaeon’s problem.
He spent an hour in a nearby bar, nursing a bottle of something domestic and dark, then returned to his car. Ms. Death was nowhere to be found.
That didn’t stop her from lingering in his mind. It probably had a lot to do with her ebony hair, crystal-blue eyes, and pale skin. Three-thousand-years old, and he still had a hard time ignoring a sexy piece of ass.
Her persistence in his thoughts wasn’t related at all to the mysteries she presented. The last several decades had reinforced his determination not to meddle in the affairs of gods.
In the late two-thousand-teens, Poseidon and Zeus decided they’d had enough of begging for table-scraps of faith. They wanted the glory they once had.
They destroyed their brother, Hades, for opposing them—except had they? Actaeon never questioned that before tonight—and with the remaining gods, rose up to remind the people that worshiping them offered more rewards than the technology humanity had put their faith in.
Which struck Actaeon as funny, in a sick and twisted kind of way, because the gods still used the tech. Mostly for surveillance, because their servants couldn’t be everywhere, but cameras, digital currency, and other tagged tracking methods could be.
He ordered another beer and downed it too fast. Diving into the past tended to make him drink hard, and meeting Ms. Death weighed on him more heavily than he’d like.
The gods also worked to eliminate or woo any hero or remaining Titan who posed a threat to them. The edict was pick a side or step aside. Not the most warm-and-fuzzy marketing campaign ever, but it was catchy.
Heracles sided with his father, Zeus. Atlas had taken his own life after World War II, and didn’t have to worry about it. Prometheus was bound in a mental prison. A breakdown caused by something no one had seen, and just as few people knew how to heal. Actaeon’s only reason for staying in New York so long was to try to free him.
Actaeon had tried to stand against the gods, forty years ago. A decade after The Enlightenment.
He tried to take another swig off his drink. Empty.
Over the harbor, an array of sparks lit up the night. A century ago, it would have been from fireworks. Tonight, it was Poseidon, impressing his grace upon the people. Reminding them that, as long as they were loyal and offered their faith, they would be rewarded. It was turning their hearts away from the gods that earned them punishment.
Actaeon shook his head. A dick-measuring contest in magic form—that was all the light show was. In Chicago, Moscow, Paris, and São Paulo, it would all be the same show, different asshole behind it.
And if his attitude was creeping into his thoughts that audibly, carried on memories of Las Vegas and what led up to it, it was time to call it a night before he did something heroic. Again.
He returned the cab to the station and hoofed it the couple of miles back to his apartment. The studio was small. It suited his needs, though. It had its own bathroom, and the owner operated on barter. The money clip and others like it wouldn’t pay his rent, but a piece from the cache of antiques he owned would do the trick.
He collapsed on top of the bed, turned on the TV to the festivities, and let it play in the background while he fell asleep.
The voice jarred him to consciousness, and his eyes flew open. Someone stood in the shadows at the foot of his bed.
“Holy fuck.” Actaeon jolted upright, and was summoning his bow before he registered who was creeping in his room. “Pyrcon.” Poseidon’s left hand.
“Lovely to see you too.” The servant stepped into the light of the TV.
Actaeon sighed and leaned his weight against the headboard. “What?” He should have known they had a bead on his location. Hiding from the computer-operated systems? Easy enough. Hiding from the aura-trackers? Not too tough. Achieving both, especially after the stunt he pulled tonight? Almost impossible.
“You killed a stone child,” Pyrcon said. He meant the gargoyle.
“It got in my way.”
“The encounter happened in an alley.”
“Where I have more business than it does.” Actaeon would give up as little information as possible. Mostly out of spite. “When Poseidon trains his flying monkeys not to leer at me when I’m getting a blow job, I’ll stop killing them for creeping me the fuck out.”
“I don’t believe you.” Pyrcon stared at him.
Actaeon shrugged. “I don’t care.”
“So you keep insisting. As long as you’re in this city, Poseidon is watching you.” With that, Pyrcon vanished from the room.
Actaeon needed to talk to Lorelei about another layer of protection. But he’d have to wait until morning, when she was willing to open the gate.
In the meantime, he’d make sure not to help anyone else, and hope Poseidon was too involved with the sacrifices to care about him.
A nagging feeling told him he couldn’t shrug this off. This situation was different. She was different. Because Death shouldn’t have children.
Ignoring the glaringly obvious had kept the people around him alive this long. Why was he tempted to taunt that fate tonight?
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USA Today Bestselling Author Allyson Lindt is a full-time geek and a fuller-time contemporary romance author. She likes her stories with sweet geekiness and heavy spice, and loves a sexy happily-ever-after. Because cubicle dwellers need love too.