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BOOK S BY K R ESL EY COL E
The Immortals After Dark Series
The Warlord Wants Forever
A Hunger Like No Other
No Rest for the Wicked
Wicked Deeds on a Winter’s Night
Dark Needs at Night’s Edge
Dark Desires After Dusk
Kiss of a Demon King
Deep Kiss of Winter
Pleasure of a Dark Prince
Demon from the Dark Dreams of a Dark Warrior Lothaire Shadow’s Claim MacRieve Dark Skye The Game Maker Series The Professional The Master The Arcana Chronicles Poison Princess Endless Knight Dead of Winter The MacCarrick Brothers Series If You Dare If You Desire If You Deceive The Sutherland Series The Captain of All Pleasures The Price of Pleasure Those who oppose us will know their doom.
—Rune Darklight (a.k.a. Rune the Baneblood and Rune the Insatiable), assassin and secrets master of the Møriør When in doubt, squeeze till something breaks.
—Josephine Doe (a.k.a. Lady Shady) ONE Houston County, Texas Fourteen years ago J o woke to the taste of copper.
She smacked her lips, moving her tongue. Something’s in my mouth?
Her eyes flashed open. She bolted upright, and spat two pieces of crumpled metal. What the hell are those?
Clutching her aching head, she gazed around, wrinkling her nose at the antiseptic smell. Where am I? Her vision was blurry, the light dim. She thought the room was tiled.
Shit, was she in a hospital? No good. That’d mean she and Thaddie were back in the foster system and off the streets. Which meant she’d be breaking him out yet again.
Where was he? Why couldn’t she remember what happened?
Think, Jo. THINK! What’s the last thing you remember?
Slowly images of the day began to surface....
It’s getting too hot to stay here.
Closing in on the library, Jo scanned the streets for the gang lord’s 4 K R ESL E Y COL E Monte Carlo. She thought she heard its newly replaced engine rumbling a couple of blocks over.
The streets of this hood were a maze, the Monte Carlo a dragon. She was a plucky superhero, carrying her trusty sidekick on her back.
But last night hadn’t been a game.
She craned her head around to ask Thaddie, “What do you think?” His little body was secured in the Thadpack—the stolen backpack she’d modified, cutting out holes for his legs. “We lost ’em, didn’t we?” “Loss ’em!” He waved his single toy, his Spider-Man doll, to celebrate.
She and Thaddie needed to get scarce, maybe head to Florida, making a new start in Key West.
She eyed their surroundings one last time, then slipped through the library’s back door, left open for her by Mrs. Brayden, part-time librarian/ full-time busybody, a.k.a. MizB.
The woman was in the lounge, already setting up the high chair. Her picnic basket was full.
Do I smell fried chicken?
“Hope you two are hungry.” Her dark-brown shoulder-length hair had a touch of gray. Her eyes were light brown behind her boxy glasses. As usual, she wore some lame pantsuit.
Don’t look too eager for chicken. “Whatever.” Jo freed Thaddie from the pack, then took a seat, adjusting him in her lap. “Guess we could eat.” She propped her combat boots on the table.
MizB sighed at Jo’s outfit: ratty jeans, a stained T-shirt, and a black hoodie. The woman had offered to do laundry for them, as if Jo and Thaddie had a wardrobe of other stuff to change into while they waited.
“We need to talk, Jo.” She sat, but didn’t unload the basket.
“Uh-oh, Thaddie, it looks like we’re about to get a lecture.” Jo winked at him. “What do we say to MizB when she lectures us?” He grinned at the woman, his adorable face dimpling, then yelled, “Fuggoff fuggoff fuggoff !” SW EET RUI N 5 Jo laughed, but MizB was unamused. “Excellent, Josephine. Now he has a potty mouth because of you.” “He hasn’t reached his full potential of potty. Oh, but he will. Because my baby bro is brilliant!” Two and a half years old, and he was a boy genius.
At least, that’s how old she thought he was. Thirty months ago, she’d been found wandering the outskirts of Houston, wearing black robes and speaking “gibberish.” She’d clutched Thaddie in her arms, hissing at anyone who tried to take him from her. Before that day, she had no memories.
The docs had put him as a newborn and her age at eight. They’d figured head trauma had caused her memory loss.
No parents had come to claim them. Fuckers.
Sensing the drop in her mood, Thaddie made his Spidey doll kiss Jo’s cheek. “Mwah!” He smiled again. The kid loved showing off his new teeth.
Whereas Jo would just as soon sneer at someone, he babbled greetings to everyone, inviting them to play with his toy. If she’d ever owned a toy of her own, she never would’ve shared it with people who weren’t Thaddie.
“Be fwends?” he’d ask anyone, blinking his big hazel eyes at them, and “awws” would follow.
Folks fell in love with him as deeply as they fell in hate with Jo and her “sullen attitude,” “sickly looks,” and “pinched expression.” “He needs a checkup,” MizB said. “And vaccinations. You both do.” “If Thaddie didn’t like you so much, I would’ve popped you in the mouth by now. You realize that, don’t you?” She swiped her sleeve under his running nose. “He’s fine. We’re doing fine.” Jo had never meant to get so dependent on the woman.
A year ago, the tiny library had seemed like a good hideout for the day.
She’d planned to steal some comics and wash herself and Thaddie in the bathroom like the rest of the homeless did.
MizB had set out food for Jo and Thaddie, then backed away, as if she were luring feral cats.
6 K R ESL E Y COL E Fuck if it hadn’t worked. Woman made a mean tuna-fish sandwich.
They’d dropped by the next day, and the next, until Jo actually trusted her enough to leave Thaddie for an hour now and then.
Whenever Jo had to do battle against villains.
Sometimes doing battle got dangerous. She glanced at the window.
Way too hot to stay here. She’d need bus fare. MizB would watch Thaddie, and Jo could go roll some tourists. Doing her part to make their vacation more eventful.
“So are we gonna get to lunch, or what?” A full meal for the road wouldn’t be bad.
“In time.” MizB was holding out till she’d said her piece.
That chicken smelled like deep-fried crack. MizB was a sorceress! One the heroine and plucky sidekick must resist!
As much as Jo liked the food, she hated the way Thaddie gulped it down, like he knew he was only getting gas station chow until the next basket. Made her feel like shit.
So what was Jo going to do when they ditched this town? Who’d babysit Thaddie? Who’d feed them every day?
“You might be doing okay,” MizB said. “But you’d do better with me and Mr. B.” Her husband was a ruddy-faced dude whose laugh sounded like it came out of a barrel. He picked his wife up from the library and dropped her off every day, walking her to the door as if she were precious cargo. He clearly didn’t like her working in one of the worst hoods in Texas.
When the two of them thought no one was looking, they linked pinkies. ’Cause they were tools. MizB smelled like cinnamon and sun, Mr. B.
like motor oil and sun.
Jo had no urges to do lasting violence to them—her highest measure of approval.
MizB continued, “But we can’t adopt you two unless you get back into the system.” With no sign of parents, Jo and Thaddie were adoptable. The Braydens were okayed for adoption.
Jo didn’t trust the system. “And what happens if you and Mr. B. don’t SW EET RUI N 7 get us? Did I ever tell you about my first foster ‘father’? Night one, dickwad shoved his hand down my pants—before the freaking Late Show came on.” “Digwad!” Thad echoed.
MizB pursed her lips. “That man is the exception to the rule. And you should’ve reported him. Other children might get sent to him.” “No. No chance of that.” Jo had set dickwad’s house on fire, using the silver Zippo she’d already stolen from him—before the freaking evening news had come on.
The look on his face as he watched his place burn still made her chuckle. From their spot in the bushes, Thaddie had clapped his little hands. Fires were free fun. Just ask that gang lord...
“Do I even want to know?” MizB asked.
“Nope.” There’d be no system for them. If the Braydens didn’t land the Doe siblings, Jo and Thaddie would be separated.
Docs had diagnosed her with scary-sounding disorders and disabilities;
Thaddie was in the ninety-ninth percentile of everything good.
Her eyes and skin were jaundiced. Thaddie was pink-cheeked and bright-eyed. Every time she pulled down her hoodie, more of her hair would fall out. His was curling down.
Inside and out, she was as bad and defective as Thad was good and perfect. The only thing the siblings had in common was the color of their eyes—hazel irises with blue flecks.
“If you come to our house, it would be for good.” MizB looked fiercer than Jo had ever seen her. “We’d never let anyone take the two of you from us. We’d be a family.” Jo’s opinion of the woman rose a notch. Still she said, “Are we done yet? For fuck’s sake, woman, feed us.” MizB glared, but she did unpack the basket. “You need to be in school.” “It didn’t take.” Jo couldn’t read. Kids caught on. Her awkward attempts to make friends had turned into scrapping, a pastime she preferred to do outside of a structured environment.
8 K R ESL E Y COL E Jo had Thaddie; nothing else mattered.
In a kiddie bowl, MizB mixed pieces of chicken with mashed potatoes.
Thaddie grew still, eyes locked on the grub. His stomach growled; Jo’s chin jutted. Mental note: Steal more gas station chow between baskets.
Wait... When they left for the Keys, there’d be no more baskets.
He was clambering for the high chair before the woman had even sprinkled cornbread crumbles on top of the chicken mash. She wouldn’t hand it over till he’d accepted a kiddie spoon from her.
“Like we taught you, Thaddeus.” “We?” Jo snorted. “Two hands, ten fingers. What’s he need a spoon for?” Once Thaddie was shoveling food into his piehole, MizB started back up again. “Mr. B. and I lie awake at night worrying about you two out here.” She and her hubby lived in the burbs. Ginormous yard. The woman had shown Jo on a map, then withheld barbecue until Jo could recite the address.
If MizB knew a fraction of what went on in these streets...
But Jo saw all.
The local gang lord was the worst. The street people called him the Wall because of his steroidal build, but also because he liked to screw his prostitutes from behind; in other words, your back was always up against him. Jo nicknamed him Wally.
He hung with a pair of brothers named TJ and JT. Because cleverness. The hookers named the older brother Knuckle behind his back since his dick was the length of a finger from knuckle to knuckle. The younger brother didn’t even merit a body-part nickname. The fourth crony was called Nobody. In other words: “Who did it?” “Nobody.” Girls went into Wally’s crib one way, and after screams sounded, they stumbled out different. Whatever those four were doing in that house took the fight out of girls. Which was unforgivable.
Jo worshipped fighting. She dreamed about being a comic-book superheroine—just so she’d have an excuse to mess people up. With no SW EET RUI N 9 superpowers on the horizon, she’d launched a one-girl guerrilla war, kicking the ant mound and running.
She’d started out small. Stick of butter underneath the door handle of Wally’s car. A little breaking and entering to slather his toilet seat with superglue. Then sand in the Monte Carlo’s gas tank.
She could stomach the risks, but she had a kid to think about. So why couldn’t she stop herself ? It was as if some instinct was forcing her to target prey, stalk it, then hurt it.
She’d struck a much bigger blow last night, putting a stop to Wally’s revolving door of bad. She grinned.
When a car rumbled down a nearby side street, her grin faded. Waaaay too hot. She could feel the dragon’s breath.
“Come stay with us, Josephine. Just try it out,” MizB said. “There are only so many times I can watch you leave here before I do something.” Jo went motionless. She gave the woman the same scary stare she’d given that dickwad foster dad, the look that got him to yank his hand away and back off. “You report us, and I’ll bust Thaddie out just like I always do, and I’ll take him so far away you’ll never see him again. We clear?” You’re already gonna do that, Jo.
How would MizB react? It’d probably break her. Which Jo didn’t care about. At all. Jo’s job was looking out for number one.
“I have no doubt. That’s why I stop my fingers from dialing Child Protective Services every day.” “I am his mom,” Jo said, even as Thaddie shoveled the woman’s grub into his mouth.
MizB softly said, “A mother would want better for her son.” She sounded reasonable, but here was the thing: Jo was feral. There’d be no living under someone else’s roof and following someone else’s rules.
Rules didn’t apply to Jo and never had.
There’d be no sharing Thaddie with a woman who desperately wanted to be his mother.
10 K R ESL E Y COL E He’s mine, not hers. He was Jo’s number one.
But a tiny part of her said, Thaddie’s not feral. Not yet. Sometimes Jo had dreams about him with the Braydens. The three of them as a family.
Those dreams weirded her out, because she wasn’t in them.