Excerpt for Tortured Soul (The Forbidden Series 2) by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Chapter 1

Beer Pong

Matt Horan

Noah had smothered himself with work since everything had changed. The day his wife had become married to another man. A, now, dead man.

His fourth mark this week was a rapist.

Having dropped in unexpectedly during the final stages of Noah’s last kill, I stumbled to a halt and slipped behind a cement column in the basement of a warehouse.

The scene Noah had caused was alarming even for me.

There were days I was so angry at the shit balls life had thrown at me that I wasn’t ashamed to admit I’d taken out my own aggressions on the assholes who polluted the planet, but Noah’d been in the process of tearing this man from limb to limb—while he was alive.

Oh, he’d deserved it. Noah’s “mark” had been one with a special liking for toddlers.

And Noah was one of the most honorable half-men I knew. The angel blood instilled in him was filled with rage and needed redemption for many different reasons. That day, a streak of fear Noah had never evoked from me sent me retching outside the door of the abandoned warehouse. Not for the pain Noah had afflicted on his victim or the blood spatter, but for the memories it resurfaced. It hadn’t been long ago, that I’d been this mad, this psychotic with rage and longing.

Noah had stalked toward me, looking as if the Fourth of July had thrown up on him. Where the man’s jagged, splintered bones had scraped Noah, his blue blood blended with his victim’s blood.

“Um, was all that really necessary?” I had shivered.

“Probably not. But it felt good.” Noah tossed an imaginary match over his shoulder.

What was left of the man had gone up in smoky flames and the heat of hell. No evidence of the man’s death would be left. Only ashes.

Noah had sauntered toward the abandoned warehouse entrance and sank into the floor before he crossed the threshold.

I’d like to say a lot had happened since Caroline killed Amon, but the only thing my half angel, half human brothers had concerned themselves with was mourning Amon’s death.

This evening after Noah’s shocking display of rage, the house party was still in full swing—beer pong, loud music, breaking all the antique glassware Amon had spent only God-knew how much time collecting, though I couldn’t fathom why. The stuff was ugly as hell.

The black marble floors, gray slate walls, and black and white leather furnishings were littered with trash, sprays of silly string, and, where normally the place had a recently disinfected smell, the light musk of beer, old tomato paste on leftover pizza crusts, and the tang of hot sauce on the savagely stripped chicken wings wafted through the air. Ah, this was the bachelor life.

Luke and Nick gripped game controllers with their rapt attention on the new wide screen television they’d purchased and placed in the center of the room—wires showing and all. That would have irked Amon. Eventually it would irritate all of them, or trip them enough to instigate the professional installation of an entertainment center, but for now, the freedom was like wearing dirty, holey underwear as you purposely wrecked your hated stepmom’s brand new car. You knew she would freak, but you did it to piss her off anyway.

They were a bunch of boys free of oppression, free of authority, and apparently free of any organized thought processes, to hear Noah tell it as he stepped on a piece of broken glass at the bottom of the stairs.

“Party time is over. Someone needs to clean this place. I’ll sweep the glass as soon as I dig this china mug out of my heel.” Noah limped backward to the stairs and busied himself with extracting the piece of glass from his foot. Not gingerly. He ripped it away and stared at the blue substance covering a flower design on the cup remnant. It dripped from the end of the white arrow of glass and his foot, puddling on the floor.

“Not to be a smart ass, but you shouldn’t have come down barefoot.” I shoved my glasses up on my nose and winced. I still wore them, though the transformation from complete human to angel assassin had done away with the need for visual help.

Instant and passing black rage pulsated away from Noah, who would normally respond with a colorful reply.

“Yeah.” He dropped the glass and stalked halfway up the stairs. The black around him dissipated, and a purple hue replaced it. He must have been about to think of Caroline again. It’s the only time the love aura surrounded him. “Tell these boys we’ve partied enough. You’d think Caroline would put a stop to the trashing of her new sanctuary. Where is she anyway?”

I cleared my throat and glanced in the direction of her quarters. “I know it’s a touchy subject, but she needs her time to properly mourn, too. I think she’s in her room.”

“Her room. You mean Amon’s room.” Black outlined the purple, but the purple-lovey color remained. Noah gazed up the stairs, his shoulders sagging.

“Um,” I coughed. “Yeah, I guess that’s the one.”

“How endearing. Well, if one of you guys don’t convince her to eat, we’ll be mourning the loss of yet another leader.” Noah turned and stalked up the stairs.

Caroline had vowed not to take human life, no matter how devious. She swore she’d never be able to do it. We’d have to convince her, because Noah had obviously taken himself out of the equation.

In a few minutes, he returned with bedroom slippers as protective covering for his feet. After wiping up his blood, he sulked to the broom closet deep in the recesses of an oversized cook’s kitchen and resurfaced with a broom and dustpan muttering something between cleanliness being next to godliness and a long expletive about how God probably didn’t give a rat’s ass about us at this point anyway, given the recent turn of events.

To keep his tantrum to a minimum, he focused on the cleanliness/godliness thing as he gathered food wrappers, drink bottles, beer cans, and a dirty magazine or two—you could thank Luke for that. He’d never been allowed to see the full female form.

Noah noisily swiped glass shards and chunks into the dustpan.

“You two kids could come out of that Call of Duty trance and help us adults with some of this mess. It’s time we got things back to some semblance of normalcy.” I kicked the back of Luke’s gaming chair. “You. Yeah, you.”

With an irritated expression, Luke swatted at me. “Dude. Three more kills.”

“If you don’t pause it, that fire hazard you have over there can easily be unplugged. Clean or find a new place to hang.” I knocked Nick’s chair with a hard bump of my hip.

Some of the guys had been under Amon’s constant scrutiny for hundreds of years. Under the fear that he could kill the souleaters he’d created, and the pain had been able to put them in— enough to want death over living if they’d continued to go against any whim their leader had had—they’d obeyed his every command.

Now, to make everything completely right in the world, our souleater world, either Noah or Caroline had to be freed from the Cannubis al Mortici (Till Death do we Part) bond.

A few weeks back, Noah had found the love of his life, Caroline Clark. She’d saved him from an untimely self-brought-on death, an agreement he’d made with Amon to kill himself by souleater suicide—a slow, 3-year-long process of agonizing starvation and self-sacrifice.

When Caroline Clark, a normal human then, had ventured into Noah’s home and stolen his heart, Noah had no choice but to forfeit the two years and eleven months’ sentence he’d already served to save her from Amon, for she wasn’t just any human, but a half-human half-souleater.

Amon had aimed his sights on Caroline the second he’d seen her, and Noah, being the martyr for all causes, deemed it his personal duty to save her life. Given the chance, Amon would have seen through her beauty and discovered her true purpose: to take command of the souleaters. That would have put a target a mile wide on her forehead.

In order to save her—and because he loved her beyond reasoning—Noah had bound himself to Caroline with the irrevocable Cannubis Al Mortici bond. When an angelic being mated with a human this bond was formed and entailed more pain than a three-year-slow-death could have ever bestowed, if she were to turn her back on him.

Possessing the infuriating ability to hear all my brothers and my new leader’s thoughts with undeniable clarity, I could hear their tiniest whims. Though Caroline was bound to Amon now, she still went bananas over Noah’s eyelashes. Of all the souleater attraction devices Noah had the use of, these natural occurrences on his face were his most alluring trait. Apparently.

Not his woodsy, masculine smell, which could transform to whatever the woman or man in his sights most longed for.

Not the angle of his jawline or the curve of his mouth.

But his friggin’ eyelashes.

Shoving a Doritos wrapper into the bag I hauled around the room with a little more wrath than I meant to, I almost tore the plastic. Maybe if I had eyelashes down to my nose, I’d have been a little more memorable to Ceara. Maybe every instance of our love affair wouldn’t have been wiped—

“Hey! I was about to turn it off.” Luke stood with a controller dangling in one hand.

“I asked for some assistance. There’s so much glass on this floor Caroline is sure to cut a toe off.” Noah stood with four or five cords drooping over his hand like dead snakes.

“I’m pretty sure she’d heal in a matter of seconds,” Luke muttered, tossing the controllers to his new beanbag seat.

“Why do you worry about her so much, man? She’s in love with someone else?” Nick asked the entirely wrong question.

Noah yanked the cords, pulling the television off the shiny, glass entertainment center. It slammed to the floor with a clatter, and sparks flew from the screen.

Although Caroline’s undying devotion to Noah had been apparent in her endless attempts to convince Noah that living was better than dying, Caroline’s human body and soul hadn’t been bonded to Noah quite the same way he was tied to her. The human bond of love she’d felt for him was exponentially weaker than the Cannubis al Mortici bond that she’d succumbed to with Amon in order to take her place as leader.

Long story short, both of them were in misery now.

Noah pined his days away over Caroline.

The new souleater Caroline pined her days away over the piece of shit who’d made our lives a living hell.

Obviously, the whole house was full of unrequited love.

And it sucked ass.

No jerking drapes open to let sunlight in, no amount of aromatherapy candles, not even intensive couple’s therapy could resolve the thick blanket of misery that smothered the place.

Carrying a bag around the living room to clean up the messes left behind by my brothers wouldn’t be the end of my domestic damage control. Since there was no way I could possibly have the person I was bonded to, I’d find a way to make Caroline and Noah happy again.

Until then, the house—no matter how clean, no matter how many floor to ceiling windows—would be dank and unbearably dark.

Waiting behind Noah as he held the dustpan full of glass, I wondered what was really going on in his mind. He’d blocked me somehow or he wasn’t thinking of anything. Had the pain torn his mind so much that he was having lapses of function? He tilted the dustpan, staring after it into the bottom of the bag—he was blank.

Tinkling, the last of the glass settled.

Noah had never given his heart before Caroline. He’d opened up to Abigail, his only human friend, but these days, he was the keep-it-to-yourself kind of guy.

The most he shared with the guys about his past was that he’d cared about Abigail because she was different than any of the other human species. One that didn’t judge.

And that it would have been the right thing to do to die to get her soul out of Amon’s deplorable guts. A place much like hell but worse.

He’d been reduced to a lovesick forsaken husband.

After all the cleanup was complete, Noah come down stairs with only pajama bottoms on. Passing me, leaving the scent of pine and some light cologne in his path, he ambled to the kitchen.

This was good. He been eating souls to the point of engorging himself, but nothing had filled in the circles under his eyes. We couldn’t have him heading back down the souleater-suicide road by starvation, but he did need to lay off, or he could easily head down the wrong road again. Eating pure souls. He was on a slippery slope.

“I’m glad you’re finally eating,” I said as he passed me with a stack of sandwiches on a plate and a glass of something that looked like tea.

Padding past me, Noah flicked a brow in response and ascended the stairs toward his room.

I was normally the silent, neurotic one. The one who, when faced with too much, or reminded of my past, ran to my room of darkness and hid away for hours or even days on end, until the Hunger became too much. We had switched places.

And there was only room for one whiny-ass around here.

Which was why I’d resigned to doing something none of my souleater brothers would approve of, but I was done being tortured without the woman I loved. Seeing Noah experiencing the same pain unearthed memories I could no longer handle. I couldn’t feel anything much these days, but being privy to Noah’s deepest thoughts caused me to experience his pain. It was time to put it to an end. As soon as I could find time away from everyone, I would find Amon and talk him into releasing Caroline from the bond.

Caroline transferred through the floor of the base level of the house.

Her breath caught when she glimpsed Noah’s physique as he headed up the stairs.

I didn’t get my mind reading turned off fast enough. Could his eyelashes get any longer? How does he still do this to me? I feel the bond with Amon, but I can’t look at him without feeling like I’ve cheated.

Crossing my arms, I searched for anything but those two to focus on.

I never had to listen to Amon’s thoughts. Why hadn’t God made her whims private, too?

Caroline cleared her throat. “I’m calling my first meeting.”

“I’ll be back.” Noah left us waiting down stairs.

No one spoke. The odd tension in the room sucked up any of the guys’ urge to say something moronic to lighten the mood.

Noah returned with a shirt on.

“Thank you for returning.” Caroline glanced at Noah’s shoulders, then into his eyes. “I know this is difficult for you.”

“It’s fine. You needed to talk with us?” Noah wouldn’t look her in the face.

We assembled in the normal circle of brothers, standing at attention with our hands clasped behind our backs. Our stances were how Amon had ordered us to regard him during meetings, so Caroline deserved the same, if not more respect. I nodded to her.

“I’m aware that this has been a troubling week for all of us. With Amon gone, I’m sure you all have ideas of what you’d like to do with your lives now that you’ve been released from his command. You’ve been given no true orders to follow me. I’m not sure what I’m even meant to do at this point, but I do know I was given a vision. Amon assembled an army of souleaters he never told you about. At this very moment, I don’t know what we can do about them, if we should do anything, but I’ve been studying Amon’s writings—”

“The proper name would be the Amon Chronicles. That’s what we call the journals each souleater writes about his life. Sorry for the interruption. Please continue.” Luke took a deep breath and stared at Caroline.

“There are other Chronicles I need to study in Amon’s quarters, but I’ve also found passages about a vault beneath us. Were any of you aware of its existence?”

Everyone exchanged confused glances.

“I’d think we’d have run into that during a transfer, if one existed.” Nick looked to the marble floor.

“He says it’s there, but if none of you have ever found it, I wonder….” Caroline turned to look at the large wall of windows. “He knew you’d transfer using the earth under the house. Maybe it’s under us somewhere on these grounds. We’ll conduct a search.”

“Why is this vault so important?”

“It’s something to do with the way you were made. I’d like to find it before one of them do.” Caroline’s gaze stayed on the beach.

I was stunned, but the guys fell into an instant uproar. The news of possibly learning more about how they’d been created caused them to burst into conversations.

Caroline turned to us with renewed worry pinching her pearlescent face. “I haven’t heard the voice of The Creator in days. While I’ve been holed up in Amon’s room, I wasn’t in widow’s mourning.”

Good thing she said that. Noah needed to know Caroline’s dead husband wasn’t all she thought about.

“I’ve searched through every single document I can find in the other souleater chronicles. They’re handwritten in old English. Most of the passages are hard to translate, so I need to have you all join me up there, but I’ll be honest. I have misgivings about allowing anyone in just yet.” Her shoulders quivered. “It was Amon’s room, and as much as you all hated him, I can’t allow his things to be damaged. At least not yet. Not until I can find a way to—”

I stopped her before Noah fell apart in front of all of us. “Some of us understand more than you realize.”

She took a shaky breath and pressed her hand on the window to stabilize herself.

With his nostrils flared, Noah crossed his arms and glared at the black and gray marble floor.

I sympathized with her, but the rest of the guys might not. Three of them hadn’t bonded, and the one who had was fighting off one hell of a jealous streak the longer the meeting commenced. Stopping Caroline’s drawn out speech about how she respected Amon’s anything was in Noah’s best interest. Or else his mind might not stay intact.

And we needed him thinking coherently.

At least as much as possible, given Caroline’s proximity.

Caroline looked toward us, but kept her gaze on Noah for only a second. “I realize I’ve already asked some of you for more than I should, but I need you. I honestly have no idea what I’m doing or why my stomach is cramping the way it is, or why I can’t stop thinking about doing things to people I’ve only ever seen in horror movies. I’ve done everything I can think of to make it all go away, but it won’t stop.”

“You have to eat soon.” Luke avoided Caroline’s horrified countenance.

She leveled him with a glare. “You know how I feel about that. I can’t do it.”

Noah’s fingers jerked, and his hands trembled. “I can’t take another step near her. Any closer, and I won’t be able to trust myself. You’ll have to help her, Matt. I can feel her emotions detaching themselves from her mind. If she doesn’t eat soon, I fear for her sanity.”

At Noah’s prodding, I approached Caroline and led her to a sofa where I sat her beside the armrest. “You have to remain calm. We warned you you’d encounter new things, some painful, some really interesting. This is the painful part. And you should eat. If you don’t, you won’t have the ability to manage your emotions. We experienced too many of Amon’s losses of control. And with us being your only means of survival, at this point, you don’t want us to be in the line of fire, if you freak out.”

Caroline was a headless chicken running a horse race. No clue what she was doing in a place she really had no business. Either the Creator had a plan he wanted her to figure out on her own or had run out of things to do to amuse himself.

I was really hoping for The Creator-having-a-plan part.

Caroline had yet to ask any of the guys to do anything personal for her, like massage her feet or make her warm milk at two in the morning like Amon had on various occasions. So, her next request threw us all for a loop. She gripped the side of the sofa and with a cleansing breath, she said, “If we can’t figure out the chronicles, we’ll have to find a way to speak with Amon.”

The brothers stared at her as if she was a headless chicken.

This was too close to my own personal agenda for me to look at her. She might have guessed what I had planned.

“I mean absolutely no disrespect, but please tell me this isn’t to ease your bond-pain, and that it actually has something to do with saving the planet.” Zach’s nostrils flared with each breath.

Noah stared at the floor as if he had laser vision and was aiming at an annoying bug or a small country of terrorists.

Red overwhelmed my vision when I tried to pry into his mind.

Caroline had done well not to mention Amon much since the bonding/ripping his head off incident.

“Caroline wouldn’t use us for personal satisfaction,” I said regarding all the guys and landing on Noah. “She knows we’d form an uprising and put glue in her shampoo or something.”

“I have more regard for the planet than that, and,” she glanced to Noah even though he wasn’t looking, “and more respect.”

She loved him. Somewhere deep down. She had to. Or she wouldn’t have cared how he felt.

“It’s good to know you’re such a philanthropist, but it took enough to get him into the real hell. Why would we want to chance speaking with him and have him latch his leech ass onto one of us and come back?” Luke gritted his teeth in disgust.

With renewed strength, Caroline paced as we waited for her next words, demands, comments. Though she’d yet to make a demand, out of pure appreciation of the new freedom she’d afforded us, we would give her anything she wanted. As long as her requests didn’t involve hurting Noah further.

Caroline faced the window and gazed out at the star-filled sky above the beach. She held handfuls of her long flowing skirt in her clenched fists. “Amon can’t hurt us. But his group of souleater loyalists I saw in his memories possibly could. We don’t know what they might be capable of, and we can’t wait around to find out. I have Amon’s memories, so let’s use them. He suspected one of you or all of you would commit treason, so he created an army that would follow him. Although I can’t deny seeing Amon would be—beneficial—to my mental state, my true reasoning is to make contact and use the bond Amon made with me to get information to find them. We have to rehabilitate them before they do further damage to mankind.”

“By further damage, you are referring to what we’ve already done.” Nick glared at the floor as memories of his own personal atrocities flashed over his memory.

“Unfortunately, yes. But you must remember, that wasn’t you. Any of you. It was Amon controlling you.” She tensed at the Amon-part of the sentence. Pain. I knew the signs. I almost felt sympathy for her. Almost. I hated that she had to go through it at all, but she’d bonded. The pain was part of the separation process.

I hated even more that Noah had to hear Amon’s name. For the time being, I had done all I could to block the agony that seared through the core of Noah’s being and seeped into his thoughts. They should have been his own in such a private and desiccating time. Sometimes, Noah’s agony was such that it slipped through and nearly yanked me to the ground with its immense weight.

Damned souleater gifts. Sometimes, they were more of a curse than they were a help.

“When we find them, you could just blow them to smithereens. Amon said he could do it to us, so it stands to reason that, with a touch, just a graze of their skin—BOOM!” Zach was louder than needed, being all melodramatic. As usual. My head was starting to ache. And we weren’t supposed to get headaches and feel pain.

That’s how Amon had drawn me in. He’d made an assortment of promises that had turned out to be lies.

No pain.

No more hunger.

No more tears.

No more boring, mundane life.

Every day since I’d been turned had been anything but boring, but what I wouldn’t give for one day without disorder to spend it with Ceara. Quiet, no chaos, no saving the world or tearing it to shreds. Just us on a sofa in a remote cabin in the woods where no one could find us—

“Even if I could, which is still in question, I’m not going to be making anyone go boom unless I have no other choice.” Caroline turned to us and released the knots of fabric she’d made in her skirt. “I can’t imagine ever embracing the kill the way you all do.” Especially you, Noah, she thought. Her eyes widened as if she hadn’t meant for the thought to come through. “And I mean that in the least offensive way possible.”

“When the Hunger hits, you’ll change your mind.” Nick’s grin was sinister. “You haven’t had a chance to experience it yet. Like the souleater suicide, the hunger takes a while to really get its claws into you. When it does, you’ll understand why it was so easy for us to stray from the straight and narrow.”

“Which is why someone will be assigned to her. Someone who knows exactly how to control it.” I purposely stared at the other three guys, but Noah knew he’d be the best choice. He was the only person who could read Caroline in that intimate, primitive way. He’d bonded with her. He’d feel when the hunger had shoved her to the edge of no turning back and she was about to break. With that same sense, he could reel her back in. “We’ll need someone to shadow her every move, night and day. Someone who can sense what she’s feeling and thinking.”

The other three guys’ eyes automatically locked on Noah.

“If you’ll excuse me.” Noah looked up from the imaginary country he’d just obliterated on the floor. “I have an assignment to get back to.”

“This assignment pulls rank on all others. Caroline is infinitely more important than some rapist. For now, anyway,” I said before Noah could sink completely out of the room. All the guys had always gone to Noah for guidance, and had hoped Noah would be the one to lead them to freedom. With Amon dead, Caroline clueless, and Noah in no shape to lead a marching band much less a group of lethal killers, I had to usurp leadership.

Sticking up through the floor like an animated head on a platter, Noah’s head rotated as he met me with dark, narrowed eyes and an eerily even voice. “Do not ask that of me.”

Noah’s gaze shifted directly to Caroline’s guilty countenance for the first time since the sacrilegious bond between her and Amon.

A hush blanketed the group.

Caroline took a step toward Noah’s head poking out of the floor. Her voice was quiet reverence and the emerald green of her eyes flashed anguish at either having to ask anything of him or at the prospect of having to be near him for anything other than necessity. “You’re the only person who can help me.”

Noah’s body lifted from the floor, and he faced her. “You’re the only person I can’t be alone with and stay sane.”

The moment was so private I, and from the looks of it, all the other guys, wanted to crawl out of the room.

Caroline searched the faces of her followers.

We can’t help you, chick,” I thought spoke to her.

Noah nodded a stiff goodbye-for-now to Caroline, slinked through the foundation to the metal in the stairwell, and transferred somewhere other than the room Caroline occupied.

This is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,” Caroline thought back to me.

I couldn’t help but be a little pissed. I knew firsthand what Noah was going through and it wasn’t a funnel cake at the State Fair. If she thought this was hard, dealing with someone bonded to her, then she hadn’t suffered. Not really.

Sure, her bonded Soulmate was dead, but she had known Amon for all of five seconds and new nothing real about him other than through Amon’s memories. The way he took his coffee, heavy on the cream, the way he truly liked puppies—the only thing he had any real softness for—and his lack of love for anything else other than his own reflection in a mirror. There had been nothing else even remotely endearing about him. If you wanted to call any of those things endearing.

Caroline Clark hadn’t had a chance to learn any of the Amonisms enough to realize that any inclination of being bound to him for eternity should have been revolting. And hard as hell to have sympathy toward.

With my hard gaze narrowed at Caroline, I took a chance at her wrath being aimed at me. “If you humans didn’t throw yourselves around like volley balls, Noah might be a little more open and understanding, but this reminds him of the way humans cheat. Even though we all know you didn’t mean for Noah to be hurt. He’s going to have to work through some of his pain before he’ll be any good to us.”

I’m sure it’s common for a girl to find herself irrevocably bound to two separate souleaters at one time. I mean really. And for the record, it’s not my fault souleaters have obsessive tendencies toward their soul mates.” She poked her small fists into her hips.

At least you admit that you’re his soul mate. That’s something in itself. And you’ll never understand what Noah is going through. He was truly in love with you before the bond. What you and Amon have may as well be a Hollywood Romance.” I considered my nails the way a cat would after eating a mouse.

You might have a direct line into my mind, but you have no idea how my heart feels. I can’t help the way I feel. It’s not like I woke up one day and decided I wanted to be Amon’s little fangirl.” Caroline’s eyes filled with unshed tears.

I glanced at Noah’s closed bedroom.

What they were going through wasn’t their fault. Noah had been in love, and Caroline had been performing a duty that wiped out most of her love for Noah, if not all of it. “I know. I’m sorry. I just…this takes me back a few years. It reminds me of what I’ve lost and digs up some long-buried bitterness. Just know, Noah is beyond torment. You have this emptiness born from the need to be with someone that the stupid bond holds you to like a cheap adhesive. Every time Noah has to be in the room with you, it’s like he’s falling further into an abyss of black death. His devotion is infinitely stronger than anything you could imagine right now. Take what you feel, multiply it by a million, then put the pain of being two feet from the sun into that mixture, and you might experience even a modicum of what he’s feeling.”

Caroline’s face twisted in agony as she sat on one of the cold leather sofas. She ran her hand over its surface in quiet contemplation.

Seriously, I’ve been trying to help, but he won’t let me in. I swear we’ve switched roles. It’s going to take a while for him to learn to handle your rejection. Now, years after I lost Ceara, if someone asked me to protect and serve her right now, I think I could do it and not lose what few threads of sanity I still hold onto.” I took my regard from Caroline to infiltrate Noah’s thoughts. I did this every hour or so, just to keep tabs on him.

His afflicting his misery on criminals was fine, but if he got that look in his eyes, the look that told me he was close to the edge, then I’d have to intervene.

Good. Same thoughts. Same angsty pining away. I wouldn’t have to do any couch sessions or talk him down from a ledge.

Caroline’s fingers stopped their pointless fingering of the sofa upholstery. Her face was as blank as a white sheet of paper. “You could do something to make him forget?”

I could have, but Noah would miss a girl, be miserable trying to recall who, and of course things would be even worse, because he’d be all obsessive about finding her. Then all the guys would have to pay. Because knowing Noah, during down time he’d have them hunting some faceless girl, when the whole time, she was right there in front of him. And, there was always the chance, the good chance that my mind swiping would wear off. Noah would never forgive me.

After considering doors one, two, and three, I thought-projected, “Nope. Not an option.”

She huffed. So human. Yet so angelic. The sun caught the chocolate streaks in her chestnut brown hair lending her pale complexion an even more porcelain glow. The moon did even cooler stuff for her, but my male musings never went beyond a healthy appreciation for her all-encompassing beauty inside and out. She was caught in the middle and didn’t deserve my wrath.

I understood half of why Noah had such a hard time dealing with his emotions when he was around her.

Another woman so good and pure hadn’t existed since…

Staring over Caroline’s shoulder at a black and white painting of a tree, Ceara’s form took shape beneath it as if it had just been yesterday we’d met there. It took every ounce of self-control I had to prevent myself from abandoning my post at the Lair and setting out on a journey to find her.

Stop this.

It’s pointless.

Thinking about her only draws you backward from progress.

I honed in on what Luke was talking over with Caroline. “…and if we can, we’ll talk to him for you. If the Creator isn’t talking to you though, I don’t know how we’ll get there.”

In a chronicle I’d hidden from all the guys, I learned exactly how to get to souleater hell. I couldn’t reveal my plan. None of them would have agreed with it. Least of all Caroline.

Upstairs, thoughts darker than any I’d ever had distracted me from Caroline’s response.

I should have run her out of that house as soon as I saw her aura. I should have known. I should have found strength to get up from the bed, run her out of the entranceway, and I’d have never fallen in love with her. I should have let the world end. The pain of knowing every human would die is less than what I feel right now. My chest is in a vice, my insides are dying now, so why didn’t I go ahead and let it happen again. And if she thinks about HIM one more time, I swear I’ll tear this place to shreds. I thought I could do it, but I can’t. I can’t. I can’t.” Noah was frantic.

Matt caught Caroline’s gaze and pointed upstairs. “He’s going to do something he’ll regret if I don’t form an intervention. I have to go to him.”

Something crashed upstairs.

I’d try to talk to him, but I fear it would only make things worse. I shouldn’t have requested him to shadow me. It was cruel to ask.” Her blue eyes softened as she turned from me, head bowed.

Luke cringed when glass shattered on the marble floor above us. Eyes closed, he shook his head in pity and stalked from the room. His thoughts were along the same lines as mine. “Poor guy. I hate this for him. But Caroline is hurting too. She didn’t mean for things to turn out this way.”

Zach was the only one brave enough to vocalize his thoughts on the whole bonding matter. He flopped back on the leather sofa and stared at the ceiling. “Remind me again why you guys ever got involved with the opposite sex?”

Caroline glared at Zach and opened the sliding glass door to the patio. “I’m going to take a walk.”

Chapter 2

Salem’s Lot

Upstairs, with my hand resting on Noah’s doorknob, I paused.

His thoughts were louder, outside his room. Sure, a long walk on the beach. Probably to daydream about him some more. I’m not even a passing thought in her mind. Did I ever matter? She probably looks at me and sees him. It’s what I deserve, isn’t it?

Something else crashed.

Inching the door open, I said, “I’m coming in. Can you keep the flying objects to a minimum?”

“Totally not in the mood for your humor.” Noah growled. In danger of being the next thing hurtled at the wall, a picture of himself from when he was ten years younger but no different looking, dangled in his right hand. A streak of blue blood rolled down his arm, and glass sparkled on his sleeve.

“You’re dripping blood everywhere, and I wasn’t being humorous. Being hit by chairs and beds aggravates me. It’s not a good way to start out the day.” I pushed my way through a pile of clothes, shoes, broken lamps, and food containers. All this in a week? He really was worse than me, at this point. And what was that smell? “What happened to cleanliness is next to Godliness? At this rate, you’re going to hell.”

“Don’t pass judgment.” Noah’s voice was dangerously even.

“I’m not.” I sighed. It was time to get serious. “I get it. Remember?” I righted a chair and rounded it, heading toward the bed.

Noah swung around, fury on fire in his blue eyes. “Then why the hell would you ask me to shadow her?”

I flopped on Noah’s bed where something sharp stabbed me in the back. A coat hanger. With a grunt, I pulled it from behind me and tossed it to the floor. Something was still poking me. “I forgot how the bond muddles the mind in the early months. Think about it. If you’re around all the time, you’re in her face. He’s not. Eventually, it would have to have a positive effect on her.”

“You’re just trying to get me killed.” Noah yanked a book from his book shelf. His breathing had regulated, and his face wasn’t as blue. When the blood rushed to the surface of a souleater’s face, it tinged slightly blue, as if they’d held their breath too long. Noah placed the book on his desk. At least he looked like he was going to read the book instead of throw it.

“She wouldn’t kill you. She’s more likely to blast that smart-ass brother of mine to bits before she’d hurt you.” I tugged at a lump of the bedspread behind me searching for the unknown object that threatened to impale me. Still couldn’t find it. “She’s got a soft spot for you whether she’ll admit it or not.”

Noah turned slowly, a look of suspicion growing in his eyes. “You know something. What aren’t you telling me?”

Giving up with finding the thing that was aggravating me, I tossed a pillow to the headboard, repositioned myself, and lay back. “Without giving away her secrets, which you know I never do, all I can tell you is, she doesn’t even realize what’s in her head or her heart. She needs prodding.”

Noah rectified a chair and sank into it with sagging shoulders and his face drawn into the most forlorn look I’d ever seen. He looked like a puppy when you took his favorite toy away. “I’d like her to come to that conclusion of her own volition.”

“She’s a woman. Use charm, good looks, and that cute little way you flip your hair when you’re concentrating.” I propped my hands behind my head and gazed on the thoughtful-looking Noah.

His face pinched into a scowl. “What?”

I flopped one leg across another. “You wouldn’t know a clue if The Creator came down, laid it in your lap and explained it to you in detail.”

“You’re moody.” Noah flipped through the book. “So, she thinks that? About my hair?”

I chuckled. Noah was so easy. “I told you, I’m not telling you anything straight out. But if I slip, I can’t help that. Listen and quit with the bitch-fits. I’ll guide you through this. So, are you going to shadow her?”

“Absolutely no—” A crash came from downstairs.

I jumped to standing.

Noah shot up from the chair. “What was that?”

The ground rumbled so hard the few remaining pictures left on the wall rattled and the floor jerked back and forth beneath us.

Matt!” Caroline’s horrified thought-scream cut through everything else I’d been about to say to Noah.

“Caroline!” Noah joined me in an instant transfer through the hard wood floor and up through the marble to a spot just beside Caroline.

She stood with her hands on the thick glass, staring at the beach.

Lining the foaming ocean were men of all nationalities. More popped up and sand cascaded from their forms as my other slack-jawed, souleater brothers joined us to stare out the window.

The house rumbled again.

Noah disappeared faster than I’d ever seen him in a transfer. Protective instincts I was all too familiar with sent him up through the sand to stand alone before Amon’s rogue souleater army.

“Why does he insist on killing himself?” I said more to myself than anyone. Turning to Caroline, I gripped her shoulders. “We don’t know what you’re capable of or what they could do to you. Until we have more answers, I want to keep you secret. Stay here.”

Caroline nodded, her hands trembling. She called after me, “Be safe.”

Disappearing through the floor, I slammed invisible walls up around all my souleater brother’s minds in case any of the new souleaters had the gift of thought-speak or mind-reading. In three seconds, I rose in the sand beside Noah.

“Two of you?” The African-American linebacker with caramel skin flinched as he readied himself for us to attack.

Beside Noah and me, the beach birthed my three brothers, grainy white sand sliding off them as they emerged.

“I don’t think you want to test our numbers,” I warned.

Nick, Luke and Zach sauntered toward the group and stood in a battle-ready stance, their fists clenched tightly at their sides.

“What is your business here?” Noah asked. His fingers were splayed out at his sides, the tendons white against his tanned skin.

Another man stepped forward. His olive complexion and slanted eyes appeared Japanese. “We’ve come to retrieve our leader.”

Noah’s hands jerked into fists. “He’s dead.”

The African-American hulk grinned. “Nice try.”

Another man with blond porcupine hair and an icepick chiseled jawline stepped between the linebacker and Chinese body builder. He looked Noah up and down as if he were documenting his measurements. His British accent was thick. “We came for the girl.”

Noah froze. “Do something, Matt. If I speak, I’ll give her away. They’ll see my devotion. They can’t take her.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about. There are no girls here,” I said. There was only a woman that meant more to all of us than our own lives. Our loyalty was apparent as we stood, a united front.

“A very smart teacher of mine once said, ‘Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.’ I think this applies here just as much as it did then. We’ve lost contact with Amon. The last we heard from him were his plans of bonding with a human female. With that bond in place, that makes her next in line to lead us if something has happened to him. You have three days to produce Noah or his mate. If something has happened to Noah and she is in fact our new leader, we’ll go to extensive lengths to retrieve her,” the linebacker said. A sinister smile gave us an aggravating view of his gleaming white teeth.

Nick took a step toward the opposing group and, with commendable acting skills, he said, “Maybe he and this girl you speak of have run off together. If you see him, he owes me money.”

“No closer, cockroach.” The Brit growled instead of speaking.

“Cockroach?” Nick’s chest puffed out.

“Not only are they inferior, they have hearing problems, too, Salem,” the Brit said to the linebacker.

So, his name was Salem. I’d tried to slip into each one of their minds, but they’d been blocked. Normally, I would have tapped into all their thoughts and discovered exactly how and where they’d been made, and what their plans were, but one of them had a power similar to mine, but stronger. The shield sheltered the whole group.

If one of them could do that, then what could the others do?

Caroline had blocked both me and Noah at the same time, though she probably wasn’t even of it. These guys were more advanced than us, causing me to feel threatened for the first time since Amon. It was as though we had a group of around fifty Amons standing before us.

Numbers of souleaters sank into the sand leaving the last three who’d spoken to finish the conversation.

“If there is some girl that Amon has bonded with and something has happened to Amon, that makes her your leader. She’d probably be very strong, so fighting her wouldn’t be in any of our best interest.” Somehow, I had to get them off the defensive and think that we were neutral to their cause. I couldn’t allow them to detect that I was protecting Caroline. I regarded the guy who seemed to lead them, Salem. “What would you do with the girl if you found one?”

“Whatever I please. At this point, I’m not sure what that will be. My new leadership role is very appealing. I might take her as my own mate.” Salem’s smile turned even more sinister, if that was possible.

The ground rumbled under Noah as his hostility set an imbalance between his energy and the ground beneath him. Before Noah could wreak havoc on Salem, I blocked Noah’s view of him. At the same time, I spoke to Salem, I thought-spoke to Noah, “Take her to my parent’s cabin. Hide her there.” “I take it Amon didn’t fill you in on the whole souleater bond thing. Mating with a human can be more painful than anything I can do for you, so I’m going to do you a favor and save you from yourself. If in fact there is a girl, and we find her first, I can promise you, she’ll be under our protection. I hope you won’t go against that. It would be a very poor leadership decision.”

“And if we do?” Salem stepped nose to nose with me.

“You’ll go against the Dictates. And punishment for that is harsh. Plus,” I paused for effect. “I’ll find ways to make you sorry.”

Salem laughed, reached forward, grasped my shoulder with a bear’s grip and sent the worst pain I had ever felt through every joint in my body. I crumbled to the ground.

Zach, my twin brother, lunged for me, but before he could make it, the Brit separated himself from his body leaving a clone behind and wrapped his arms around Zach.

I couldn’t squeeze sound from my vocal cords. If the pain I felt was anything like what was about to happen to Zach, I was terrified for him.

Salem released me.

On the ground, I gained use of my muscles and flopped over in the sand to get a full view of Zach just as his body went up in flames.

The other three soul-sucking bastards slipped into the sand and out of sight as Noah, Nick, and Luke rushed Zach. They tossed him to the ground.

Screaming, Zach rolled in the sand to distinguish the flames.

As soon as the icy stone fully released my muscles from a painful spasm of paralysis, I dashed to my brother and touched his charred temple. The screams ceased as he fell into a deep sleep. I’d found the primary somatosensory cortex where the brain most normally processes pain and stopped the signal, and I’d sent him into the third stages of REM sleep where he’d remain till our healing process corrected his skin lesions and righted his appearance.

“Thank God for that mind hoodoo stuff,” Luke said falling on his backside to relax. He rested his forehead in his hands.

Nick stood, staring at his burned friend.

Zach’s hair was gone, and his skin no longer looked human, but bubbly and blistered. He breathed deep, rhythmic breaths, hopefully feeling nothing.

“What the hell were those guys?” Nick asked without expecting a real answer.

None of us had one.

What happened? I heard screams? Is everyone okay?” Caroline asked. “If you don’t answer immediately, I’m coming down there.”

It’s Zach. I’ll bring him in.” I thought to her then glanced at Noah.

Noah stared at the house. “Is she stronger than them?”

“I honestly don’t know,” I answered aloud. Scooping my arms around my twin, I transferred with him into the house.

As our bodies took full form from the marble floor, Caroline gasped. Covering her nose, she rushed toward me and Zach.

His skin still bubbled and steamy smoke rose from his body.

“Oh, my God!” she cried touching him. Where her fingers grazed his skin, the burns disappeared even faster than a normal souleater healing.

“Okay, so you can heal. This is good.” I nodded for her to follow as we all lifted Zach and carried him upstairs to his bed. “Come here. I need you to do that again, but all over his body. After that, it’s time we learned what else you’re capable of.”

Caroline sank to sitting on the side of Zach’s bed.

Noah, Luke and Nick scrambled backward to make room for her.

Gently, she rested her hand on Zach’s chest.

His skin continued to sizzle against the air-conditioned air. Falling into ashes on the bed, his red shirt and jeans were almost unrecognizable. In some places, they had been melted to his skin.

I couldn’t imagine the agony he’d feel had he been awake.

I winced hating that I hadn’t protected him better.

Though I was older by only minutes, I had always felt responsible for Zach.

Those bastards would pay dearly for this. I’d see to it.

As Zach’s chest turned to the new pink skin of a baby, Caroline’s hands wandered Zach’s body searching for more charred areas. Her hands shook as she lifted them.

The skin was healing, but not nearly fast enough.

“Touch him again,” I commanded. This process was taking way too long.

“I will. I just have to rest a second.” She placed her hands on his arms, but her head dipped and her chin rested on her chest.

“Just do it!” I was impatient. I hadn’t meant to take a tone with her. Wrought with worry, I turned my head, unable to look on him any longer.

“She’s doing all she can do. You don’t want her to damage him further. And look at her. This makes her weak.” Noah touched my arm.

Fighting the urge to shake him off, I could think of nothing other than sending my essence through the sand to search out those sons-of-bitches so I could reach into their minds and tear them to shreds. If I had one iota of how to do what they’d done to my brother, every one of them would be ashes in an instant.

Caroline closed her eyes and grazed Zach’s chest beside where she’d been before.

Nothing happened. No miraculous change of black skin to new baby soft skin.

“I’m having trouble replicating what I did,” she cried. Her hands shook. Tears spilled on her cheeks. “I hate this. I hate not knowing what I am or how to use any of this damned curse.”

Noah knelt in front of her with his hands on her knees at first, but he retracted them. He spoke directly to her in tones so low I couldn’t hear.

Wide-eyed and full of horror leaned against the blue walls of Zach’s room, Luke and Nick stood staring at their brother. Thoughts of retribution scoured their minds, also.

Noah’s words were finally audible. “You’ve always known just who you are. Not much has changed. Tap into that compassion you feel for someone suffering. You can do this. You did it for me.”

Luke and Nick took their gaze from their burned brother to the floor. They’d seen human destruction, but never had one of them been injured to the brink of death.

I took a full assessment of Zach’s injuries. Even with Caroline’s help, he still wasn’t healing as quickly as he should have been. The healing process for souleaters began instantaneously, but he’d never started. And when Caroline took her touch from him, he’d stopped altogether. What had those vile creatures done to Zach?

“Something’s not right.” I sank to my knees beside my brother. My hands shook uncontrollably now. I was never nervous, unless it came to subjects that hurt me, subject better left unspoken and unthought of. I turned to Caroline. “He might not make it through this. I don’t know what Amon created out there, but they might be able to kill us. If they can, we need you now more than ever. Noah is right. You did it once, you can do it again. It’s in your nature. You’ve always been a healer.”

Caroline gazed at Noah with an old look I had seen her give him pre-Amon. She trusted him. She may not love him right now—or at least she wasn’t aware that she loved him—but trusting him didn’t threaten her bond with Amon.

Taking a deep breath, she turned back to Zach. She placed her hand on Zach’s chest and closed her eyes. Glowing white light spread outward from her hand in ripples.

Noah and I stood and stepped back.

Zach’s skin shoved the blisters away and new skin rose to the surface. Rosy and perfectly smooth.

I held my breath.

This had to work. Hopefully no infection had time to seep into his compromised integumentary system before she’d closed off the germs. Apparently, now that he’d been touched by a sacrilegious angel, he wasn’t as resilient as before, which could make him more susceptible to foreign particles infiltrating his immune system.

After about an hour of pacing in the hallway, and Noah stepping out to check on me from time to time, Noah stuck his head out the door. “He’s looking better, but I’m not so sure about Caroline.”

As I stepped over the threshold, Caroline’s hands went limp, and she fell back, almost landing on Zach’s legs.

Noah caught her.

“Weak,” she whispered.

This was not good. Energy she used for healing was drawn from her own life source. We’d have to learn how to keep her energy up during times like this. Maybe she’d require more souls than we did to survive.

“Hungry,” she whispered a little louder.

“And now we have a problem.” Nick stepped forward.

“I’m going to take her to Matt’s old cabin in the North Carolina Mountains. There I can get her fed, and we can begin her training, whatever that entails.” Noah cradled her against him.

Good. Now he was putting her and the world before his pain.

“She can’t be seen in public. There’s no doubt in my mind that those monsters are out there watching the house. I bet they have surveillance in every direction,” Nick countered.

“They can’t stop me from taking her through the ground, and they can’t track us,” Noah said lifting her to her feet. “We don’t know what will happen if she doesn’t eat. It’s already been a week. We can’t chance it much longer.”

“So, you’re volunteering to train her?” I gestured to Caroline.

Noah’s change of heart was inevitable. He’d just needed some prodding.

“I don’t have much of a choice. Not that I don’t trust you guys. I just can’t allow anything to happen to her.” Noah looked to me and added in thought-speak: “I didn’t think there’d be a pain worse than being around her and not being able to express my feelings, but the thought of losing her for good trumps it. I won’t let that happen, no matter how much suffering I have to endure.”

“I’ll try to keep tabs on you, filter through your mind so that if it gets too bad on you, I can step in. I’ll do my best to keep things from getting too out of control.” I placed my hand on Zach’s shoulder.

Noah started to the middle of the floor with Caroline lying limp in his arms.

Her eyes darted around the room.

I knew that look well. The Hunger.

No black souls here, Sweetie.

And it was a good thing.

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