Excerpt from EMBRACING THE DEMON

Chapter One

You know it’s going to be a bad day when a dozen people try to kill you before breakfast.

I was living in Nawdown, Kentucky, near the Indiana border. It wasn’t so much of a “town” as just a convenient place to stop off of I-71, sandwiched in the no-man’s land between Louisville and Cincinnati. I worked at Griddles n’ Grits, a 24-hour diner that served nothing but breakfast food. Didn’t matter if you walked in at at noon or two a.m., you were getting pancakes. Or waffles. Or eggs. And everything with a side of grits. If you wanted anything resembling lunch or dinner, you were stuck going down to Gino’s Authentic Italian Pizzeria down the street (which was run by a guy named Travis, who had never been to Italy and had never met anyone named Gino, but whatever). Since Gino’s only opened at 11:00 a.m. and closed by 9:00 p.m., we got all the early morning and late night traffic off the highway.

I worked the overnight shift, eight at night until four in the morning, when the early crew came in to set up for the breakfast rush. We had a few regulars, mostly big rig drivers who ate quickly and then showered at the truck stop next door. But occasionally, I’d get someone who sat at their booths for hours, nursing their bottomless cups of coffee without a word, and then would leave me a $20 tip right at the end of my shift. I think they were lonely. I understood.

Griddles n’ Grits hadn’t been redecorated since the 1980s, and it showed in the wood-paneled walls and the vinyl-covered chairs patched with duct tape. The ghosts of old cigarettes seemed to haunt the places, even though it had technically been nonsmoking for years—though I suspected Sally, the owner, cheated when we weren’t looking.

It was early December. Christmas music played over the speakers, and Sally had decided the best way to get into the holiday spirit was to string lights all over the diner. For eight hours, I had to squint at my order pad because, shockingly enough, twinkle lights weren’t great to read by. As usual, my relief was 15 minutes late. My shoulder-length brown hair was falling out of its ponytail, the pads of my fake glasses were digging into my nose, and I had a tension headache. I wanted nothing more than to go home and go to sleep.

Tyler, one of the line cooks who also worked the overnight shift, met me at the door. “Can I drive you home?”

“That’s all right. But thank you.”

He frowned at me. “It’s 20 degrees outside, with a wind chill of 12, and you don’t have a car. I don’t want to come in tonight and find out that you’ve frozen to death on the side of the road because you refused to get into my car. I also have an extra pair of gloves, if you want them. I noticed you didn’t have any tonight.”

“Anne, honey, come here for a minute. I think you’ve got something on your coat,” Sally called to me. It took me just a second too long to respond. Anne had only been my name for three months, after all.

I went behind the counter, and Sally proceeded to brush some invisible lint off my coat. She was about 50, with bottle-blond hair and lipstick in every shade of the rainbow. She lowered her voice. “I know it’s not really my place to give you advice, but honey…take that boy home and fuck his brains out!”

“Sally!”

“Shush!” She glanced around to see if anyone had heard me—as if I were the one just talking about hot and crazy sex in the middle of a family restaurant. “He’s cute, and he’s obviously crazy about you.”

“He’s being nice. He knows I don’t have a car.”

“He’s flirting with you.” I frowned, and Sally gave me a sympathetic look. “He seems like a decent enough guy, anyway. He wouldn’t pressure you into doing anything you don’t want to do. And you know if you don’t use them, your lady parts will just shrivel up down there. I’m not kidding. I’ve seen it happen.”

I glanced at Tyler. He was cute, with brown hair that seemed to perpetually flop into his eyes and a permanent smile on his face. He’d only been working at Griddles n’ Grits for two weeks, and I didn’t know much about him except that he seemed to laugh all the time. Every time I walked into the kitchen, he and the other cooks would be chuckling at some joke I hadn’t heard. There was a lightness to him that I envied. I liked him, in spite of myself. My life had taught me that it wasn’t a good idea to like people.

“He’s just so young,” I said to Sally. He couldn’t have been more than 22. I was 29 going on 100.

“He’s old enough to know where to stick it. That’s the important thing. Besides, the younger ones are easier to train.”

“He does have gloves.” My coat was a thrift store find, but I hadn’t had the time or money to buy gloves or a hat. I’d had some when I’d lived in Minneapolis, before I’d moved here, but I had to leave rather…suddenly. Certain sacrifices had to be made.

I rolled my eyes and walked back up to Tyler. I took the gloves he offered and we headed out the door together. We walked through the gravel parking lot to a red Volkswagon Jetta. Tyler opened the door for me. “Thank you for taking me home,” I told him as he got into the driver’s side.

“You’re welcome.” He turned on the engine and set the heat to full blast. “Of course, you do know that if we get stranded out here in the cold with no food, all this chivalry goes straight to hell. It’ll be full-on Donner Party shit then. I do not deal with hunger well.”

I couldn’t help it. I laughed. It sounded dry and rusty. “I’ll consider myself warned.”

“Good. Just so we’re on the same page.”

I shook my head, still chuckling. “All right, Sir Galahad, so what’s you story? What are you doing in Nawdown, Kentucky?”

“Ah, well, you know. The usual. I graduated from the University of Michigan in May. I couldn’t find a job back home in Kalamazoo, and after four years of school, I wasn’t sure I was ready to stuff myself into a desk job, anyway. So I thought, ‘Why the hell do gap years just have to be for rich people and Europeans? I’m going to go on the road and find myself.’ Like that guy in Into the Wild, you know?”

“Did you actually watch that movie? It didn’t turn out too well for him.”

“Yes, I have seen Into the Wild…and I read the book. His problem wasn’t so much the ‘finding himself’ part as it was ‘freezing to death in the Alaskan wilderness.’ And you’ll be relieved to know, I have no intention of going to Alaska. If I’m going to leave the continental United States, I’ll go to Hawaii. I could totally make my living as a cabana boy, don’t you think?”

He batted his eyes at me. I snorted. “Good luck with that. But you still haven’t explained how you ended up in Nawdown.”

“Ah, yes. Well you see, Inga and I were making our way south…”

“Inga?”

“Yes.” He stroked the steering wheel. “Inga. My girl.”

My head was spinning. “Isn’t Inga a Swedish name?”

“Shhh!” He put his finger to my lips. “We don’t talk about that. Inga’s a little sensitive over the fact that she’s not…” he lowered his voice to a whisper, “…a Volvo. Anyway, so we were on our way to- Nashville when Inga broke down. Who knew a 20-year-old car with 250,000 miles would just die like that?”

“Shocking!” I was starting to get caught up in his enthusiasm.

“I know. But the good news is, Inga is all fixed and better than ever.” As if to demonstrate, he put the car into gear and pulled onto the road, revving the engine once we got onto the dark street. “The bad news is, I’m pretty much broke now.”

“So you ended up stuck in Nawdown.”

“I don’t know if ‘stuck’ is the right word. I mean…I did finally get the prettiest girl in Griddles n’ Grits to let me drive her home, so that’s something.” He reached over and took my hand, never removing h-is eyes from the road. “I’d say Nawdown’s looking pretty good right now.”

Two minutes later, we pulled into my driveway. I had rented the basement apartment of a modest Cape Cod-style home that had passed the “seen better days” stage 20 years ago. The biggest advantages were that it had its own entrance, so I rarely saw the people who lived in the upper half of the house, and that it was only a 15-minute walk from Griddles n’ Grits. Tyler parked on the street and, before I could say anything, ran around the car to open my door again. When we got to the entrance of my apartment, I hesitated. “Would you like to come in? I have hot chocolate.”

A big grin broke across his face. “That sounds great.”

The ad for my apartment had called it a “luxurious, spacious finished basement.” It was neither luxurious nor spacious, and its claims on being “finished” were iffy at best. The floor was still cement, uncovered beams lined the ceiling, and bare light bulbs illuminated the space. When I’d pointed this out to the owner as I toured the place, she’d called it “industrial chic”—which told me only that she’d been watching too much HGTV. But whatever. It was cheap, and that was what mattered most.

Tyler sat down on the futon, and I stepped over him into my “kitchenette”—a four-foot wide space with a sink, a refrigerator that looked like it had been designed for Barbie dolls, and a microwave. A hot plate and an electric kettle rounded out my appliances, which meant that my food intake was pretty much limited to ramen noodles and Bagel Bites. Industrial chic, indeed. Some days, I would have given my right lung for a pasta cooker.

I hit the button on the electric kettle. Then, I opened a cabinet and took out two packets of instant hot chocolate mix. As I shut it, it fell off one of its hinges. I jammed it back into place, hoping Tyler hadn’t noticed.

By the time I got back to the futon with our mugs, Tyler had made himself comfortable, wrapping one of my blankets around himself. “Is it always this cold in here?” he asked.

“It’s only been this bad since the temperature dropped. It was actually pretty nice in the fall.” As long as your definition of “nice” is somewhere between “Unibomber cabin” and “Law and Order-worthy crime scene.”

Tyler took a sip of his hot chocolate and then set the mug on the end table, next to my oversized alarm clock. “So what about you, Anne-with-an-e? I’ve asked about you at work, but no one seems to know anything about you. What’s your story?”

I was about to give him my standard answer—and then stopped. “Is that an Anne of Green Gables reference I just heard?”

“No, never…maybe…well, definitely. I have three younger sisters, and I babysat a lot. I might have read it once or twice…or maybe I have entire chapters memorized. Just don’t tell anyone. I’ll totally lose my man card.” I chuckled, and he nudged my chin up toward him. “If you’re about to say something like ‘I don’t really like to talk about it’ or ‘it’s not all that interesting,’ please don’t. I’m not trying to pry, I’m really not. I just want to know more about the beautiful girl I’m sharing hot chocolate with.”

He stroked my cheek, and I turned my head and leaned in to the sensation. It had been so long since I’d let anyone in, so long since a I’d felt…anything. I was lonely. I’d been lonely for most of the last 12 years. But for one brief shining moment in New York, I hadn’t been. And maybe for one more night, here in Nawdown, Kentucky, I didn’t have to be. “There was a guy.”

“Ahhh.” Tyler leaned back, ready to listen. To his credit, he didn’t look any less interested when I didn’t bother pretending that I was still a virgin, that there had never been anyone before him, blah blah blah.

“I was…really crazy about him. I’m kind of ashamed to admit how much.” By the time I’d met John, I’d already been on the run for 10 years. It had been the first time I’d really connected with someone since I’d been in high school, and the first time I’d fallen in love with a guy since…ever. The fact that he was drop-dead gorgeous, with blond hair and eyes that reminded me of a lion, didn’t hurt.

“You should never be ashamed of caring about someone,” Tyler said.

“Maybe…I don’t know. It just all happened so fast, and I really felt like he understood me, you know?”

John understood me, because he was just like me: half angel to my half demon. He’s the one who’d told me I was a supernatural, the one who brought me into that world. For the first time, so many things in my life made sense: my inability to fit in, my Aunt Barbara’s disdain of me, even the Rages—violent blackouts I’d been having since I was a teenager. He’d trained me and helped me tap into my powers. Everything I knew about being a demon was because of him.

“Lemmie guess,” Tyler interjected gently when I stopped speaking. “He turned out not to be the kind of guy you thought he was.”

I nodded, tears filling my eyes. “He did some really horrible things to my family.” My mother, Amara, had been the leader of the demon world for thousands of years. John killed her. He’d killed my mother to satisfy a 300-year-old vendetta. It had all been a ruse: his protectiveness, his helpfulness, even his feelings toward me. Every last bit of it had been to get close enough to my mother to kill her. “After what he did, I just…I couldn’t stay. So I left. It’s been about a year and a half now. And then three months ago, I came to Nawdown. And now I’m here.”

“And now you’re here.” Tyler reached out and squeezed my hand. “And I’m glad.”

The air between us became charged. I stood up, my mug of chocolate still in my hands. “You know what really sucks? For the first time, I felt like I belonged somewhere. I had friends, people I really cared about.” That, too, had been a first. I’d worked to keep people at arm’s length during my years on the run. But Nik Cohen, my roommate and my first real friend since high school, had a way of making people like her. And with Nik came Chaz, a comic book artist who’d been her BFF since time immemorial. I’d had lovers during my time on the run, no one particularly special or important, just guys who could scratch the itch with varying degrees of proficiency. But I’d never really had friends. Nik and Chaz showed me how much I missed that. Some days, I resented John more for making me lose them than for what he did to me personally.

Tyler stood up. He took my still half-full mug in his hands and set it down on the end table. “Well, maybe you could belong here for a while.” He tucked a strand of hair behind my ear. “With me.”

Then he kissed me.

His mouth was warm and tasted like chocolate, and he waited for a signal from me to deepen the kiss. When I gave it to him—by brushing my tongue against his lips—he didn’t hesitated to open up and let me in.

He removed the mug from my hands and set it on the table. Then, he pulled me down onto the futon and kissed me some more. His erection pressed up against me, and I arched into it. He groaned and whipped off his shirt. I did the same.

He kissed his way down my chest, lingering at my nipple. I shivered. “Cold?” he asked. Before I could answer, he wrapped the blanket around my shoulders and pulled my body closer to his. “I’ll keep you warm.”

I closed my eyes and kissed him some more.

He wriggled out of his jeans, but hesitated when he got to the waistband of mine. “Is this…is this all right?” he asked.

In response, I reached into the drawer of my end table, pulled out a condom, and dropped in onto his chest. He flipped us around, so that he was on top and I was on the bottom. He rolled the condom onto his quivering penis and thrust into me.

I moaned, reveling in the sensation of Tyler’s body pressing into mine. If I couldn’t help but think about the last time I’d done this—hard and frantic and desperate, in the backseat of a stolen car, with a man who was about to betray me—and if I couldn’t stop a couple of tears from rolling down my face, well…that was only natural, right? Broken hearts don’t heal overnight. And I hadn’t realized how lonely I was until I wasn’t alone anymore.

When it was over, Tyler retreated into the bathroom to take care of the condom, and I put my clothes back on. I smelled like bacon grease and ashes, and suddenly I felt nauseated. When Tyler came out of the bathroom, I couldn’t look him in the eye. “You should probably go now,” I told him. “I’m covering the swing shift for Celeste this afternoon, so I should probably get some sleep.”

He frowned. “Anne, did I—”

I put my hand up to stop him before he said the words. “You didn’t do anything wrong. I’m just…kind of stuck in my head right now.”

“Ah,” he said. He voice was still surprisingly, achingly gentle. “Is this a ‘it’s not you, it’s me,’ sort of thing?”

I gave him the best smile I could manage—which probably looked more like a constipated grimace. “I’ll walk you out.”

We walked out to Tyler’s car, the sound of a lone cricket chirping through the night. Tyler’s windows were covered in frost. He turned on the engine to de-fog them, and then leaned against the Jetta. “I know you’re kind of blowing me off right now, but I wanted to tell you that I had a really good time.”

“Tyler, I’m not—” But then I stopped. Because something was decidedly not right here, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

“Anne, are you all right?”

“I don’t know. I think something’s wrong.”

He put his arms around me in a gesture that was probably supposed to be reassuring. “Anne, I know you’re kind of freaking out right now, but you don’t have to worry about anything. What happened here is just between you, me, and the crickets.”

Crickets. In December. In sub-freezing temperatures. The lone chirp had been joined by a chorus of others. “I need you to go back inside.”

“Anne, what’s go—”

I didn’t have time to argue with him, so I reached out and grabbed his mind with my powers. “I need you to go back inside. There’s an alarm clock on the end table, right above the condom drawer. Grab it, and then press the ‘AM Radio’ button over and over again until the clock reads ‘5:05.’ Got it?”

I could tell he wanted to fight me, feel his resistance pushing against my mind. But his will was nothing against mine—and more than anything, I wanted to get him away from whatever was about to happen. His eyes glazed over, and he ran back into the apartment without another word.

The chorus of crickets grew louder. I stepped away from the car, scanning the area. Then, I heard a whizzing noise, and something pricked my neck. I reached for it and pulled what appeared to be a small, cylindrical dart with a pompom attached to the end.

And then the world faded around me.

I fell to my knees, fighting to remain conscious. It felt like someone was covering my eyes and ears, though I could see and hear just fine. The world had just shifted from three dimensions to two, and I couldn’t get my equilibrium back. This was…not good. I struggled to stand up, my knees shaking with the effort.

Tyler ran to my side. “Anne, are you all right? What’s happening?”

Shit. I’d told him to go inside, but I hadn’t told him to stay inside. I opened my mouth to give him another command, and then I realized what was wrong. Even when I wasn’t actively using my abilities, I could still touch the minds around me. I was so used to it that I scarcely even thought about it any more. Tyler’s mind had been flexible but solid, like one of those bouncy balls they used to sell in vending machines when I was a kid. But now I couldn’t sense it at all. I pushed out with my abilities, trying to sense anyone or anything around me. I felt…nothing. My powers were gone. “Tyler, you need to run.”

“What’s going on?”

Shadows emerged from the tree line, maybe a dozen of them. They carried guns, all pointed straight at us. “Tyler, run!”

They fired. I ducked to the ground and rolled toward the nearest one, grabbing his ankle and yanking his feet out from under him. He tumbled to the ground, and I crushed his windpipe.

But the next two were on me already. I wrenched away from them, but not fast enough to avoid the bullet that lodged itself into my back, sending a wave of fire through my body. I knew instinctively that it was a fractal bullet—a bullet designed to fragment and drift toward the heart or, barring that, poison a supernatural’s body with liquid silver. I could feel it hitting my bloodstream already, making my limbs feel heavy.

One of my attackers stepped into the light. I didn’t know him, but I recognized his look—basically, what happens when you take a Green Beret and put him into a Vitamix with Jason Borne. He was part of the Zeta Coalition. Shit.

Tyler screamed. He was in a ball on the ground, covered in blood, and two Zetas were beating him with their rifles.

I summoned all my anger and fear and protectiveness, and I felt a Rage growing inside me. I pushed myself to my feet. “Leave him alone! I’m the one you want.” The Zetas attacking Tyler looked at me.

I took advantage of their distraction by lunging at the first one, knocking him off his feet. While he was down, I tore the rifle from his hands and shot him.

The other aimed his weapon at me, but I was faster. The bullet went through his head and came out the other side, leaving a trail of blood and ichor in its wake. I crouched in front of Tyler’s shuddering form. “I’m so sorry. Just hold—”

I was struck from behind, the force cracking my skull. I tried to get up, but the blood loss and the silver had taken their toll. Bullets rained down upon me, explosions shattering the night. I fell.

I heard sirens in the distance. But it was too late for me. I was already dead.