Authors: Christine DePetrillo
Tags: #romance, paranormal,spicy
She stood beside Keane and pushed her wet, copper tresses out of her face. Keane watched as she inspected the tears in her clothing and the bloodstains. She ran her fingers over the exposed flesh on her arm. Skin that had been ripped open moments ago was now flawless.
“I was dead.” She flexed her hands, her fingers. “Wasn’t I?” She looked back to the wreckage that used to be her car. A shiver rippled through her, and Keane knew what question she’d ask next. “What did you do to me?”
“An abra cadaver,” he replied.
“A what?” Holly’s gold-flecked green eyes narrowed as she gazed up at him.
“Abra cadaver.” Keane rubbed the back of his neck.
Gods, I hate this part
. The part where he had to explain the deal. It never went well. Hundreds of thousands of people brought back from the dead, and it never got any easier to tell them what it all meant. Keane wasn’t sure he’d ever known what it all meant. No one had ever explained it to him. He just knew what he had to do. What he was compelled to do. He only hoped that someday he’d be forgiven.
Holly’s vision cleared. The magnificent white light that had warmed her face faded as cold rain drizzled along her neck. Had she glimpsed heaven? She could have sworn she’d seen her grandparents, both dead five years now, illuminated in that misty, powerful light. How was she still alive?
She remembered the accident, the shrill screech of her tires on the wet, summer-hot asphalt as she swerved out of the deer’s path that rainy June day just after school had ended. It had bounded onto the highway directly into her lane, and while her mind told her not to make any rash adjustments in her course, her hands succumbed to the natural instinct to get the hell out of the way. Once her car slid, she couldn’t regain control. The vehicle had careened into the rocky hill flanking the highway, and the hill had won the battle. Pain had coursed through every molecule of her body as blood slicked her slashed skin.
Standing next to this strange man, she brushed bits of shattered windshield off her jeans. Judging by the amount of blood staining the denim, she should be registering her name with whoever manned the Heaven Admissions front desk.
“Hi, I’m Holly Brimmer. Here’s all my paperwork,” she should be saying to a golden-haired angel.
“Great. Let’s see.” Angel should be tapping a feather quill to his chin. “Oh, car accident. So sorry. Sign here and take a left after the Pearly Gates. Granny and Pop are waiting for you, and they’ve made all your favorite foods.”
But instead, Holly was here. Still on Earth. Still breathing, living.
“What’s your name?” she asked the man standing beside her.
Sweet Mary, he was tall.
Her throat was dry and scratchy as if someone had cleaned it out with a wire brush.
“Holly Brimmer. Yes, I know.”
“How do you know?” She studied his face more closely to see if she recognized him. No. This was a man she’d definitely remember meeting.
“Not important.” He rubbed at his slightly bearded jaw.
Tall, mysterious, and well…gorgeous. All wonderful qualities in a man who had saved her life.
“Thank you,” she said in a soft voice.
“Don’t thank me yet. There are terms to this magick, Holly.” Keane regarded the crumpled and severed frame of her car.
“Terms?” She followed his gaze.
Why does it look as if someone has run my car through a massive table saw?
The car was torn in half, the front end completely separate from the back. Rain pinged off crinkled metal, pooled in leather seats, washed away signs of her almost death.
Another shiver rattled her bones as ambulance lights came into view down the street. At least that was normal. She remembered hitting 9-1-1 on her cell phone before Mr. All Dressed in Black had appeared.
She started walking toward the approaching ambulance, but Keane grabbed her arm.
“C’mon. We have to go. I’ll explain at your house.” He steered her toward a sleek, black motorcycle across the street.
She shook her head. “I should let the EMTs check me out. Maybe something’s hurt inside. Something we can’t see.”
“How do you feel?” Keane asked.
She took a moment to think about that question. “Wonderful. I feel wonderful.” And she did. Head to toe. Better than before the accident.
He slid onto the bike, started it, and handed her a helmet. “Then you don’t need an ambulance, EMTs, or a hospital. Come on.”
The ambulance was nearly at the scene now. She volleyed a glance back to her car. No way she was driving that thing home. She wiped rain off her forehead as she looked at Keane’s motorcycle. He patted the seat behind him, and Holly thought about all the risks she never took. How she always let logic and responsibility guide her. How she always played it safe and almost died before she’d done anything outrageous in her life.
She squeezed the water out of her hair, donned the helmet, and climbed onto the motorcycle behind Keane. Her hands automatically went around his waist, and his body was hard in her arms. He didn’t settle back against her as some level of her had hoped he would. Instead, he leaned slightly forward, gripped the handlebars, and zipped down the road in the opposite direction of the ambulance.
Back at her house, which Keane somehow found without Holly giving him directions, he led her to the back porch and told her about the deal.
“I gave you back your life,” he said as he leaned against the house, his arms behind him, “but I must take others to keep you alive.”
She hadn’t understood at first. What was he trying to tell her?
“It takes cadavers to keep a former cadaver alive. Your number was up, Holly Brimmer, but you chose to extend your life. To do so, others must die.”
“Are you saying you have to
people?” That couldn’t be what he meant.
He sat beside her on the porch swing and stared at his black work boots. “Not people exactly. Not anymore anyway. Demons overtake humans and use them as hosts. Once a demon possesses a human body, the human is gone. So I kill the demons.”
“Demons?” She looked around her yard. “Right. Okay.” She searched for the hidden cameras. Surely she was on some ridiculous reality television show. Something designed to make her look like an idiot.
“Demons walk among humans. Most criminals are possessed by them. When I kill them, their energy keeps you alive.”
Holly studied Keane’s profile. He didn’t look like a nutcase, and yet, what came out of his mouth sounded like the ramblings of someone who needed a padded cell. She stood and her usually cast-iron stomach flopped.
“I was really dead, right?” she said.
“Then I should still be. This isn’t natural.” A quick image of her grandparents’ faces flashed into her mind. They had been waiting for her. “You had no right to bring me back.”
“You made the choice.”
She studied the guilty look on Keane’s face as he angled his head up. “I…I didn’t know what was happening. You saw my condition. I was in so much pain.”
“Even so, every seven days, I will need to slay a demon so you can continue to live.”
Slay a demon? Who talks like that?
She shook her head. “It was my turn to die. I’ll take it. Don’t you dare hurt anyone.” She squeezed her eyes shut expecting to drop dead on the spot. When the splintered planks of the porch floor didn’t crack against her skull, Holly opened her eyes.
“There’s no going back on this. It’s all part of the curse, Holly.” Keane slid off the swing.
“What are you?” she asked before he could go into her house.
“A good question. One I’ve been considering for centuries.” He closed his fingers around the doorknob. “The word
is the only answer I can come up with.”
A cruel curse.
, the wretched hag had called it. She must have had a twisted sense of humor to go along with her witch’s candles, crystals, and potions. Keane would have willingly died from the sword wound across his stomach. To die in battle, fighting for his Celts and defending his homeland, would have been the highest honor.
Instead, here he remained. A constant. A wheel that no longer turned. A creature that looked like a man, but did things no sane man would ever do.
A murderer for the sake of keeping others alive. True, he only killed demons, but when their blood stained his hands, it was hard to remember he was keeping the demons from hurting anyone else.
He’d tried to refuse the witch’s attention, but when one’s intestines are spilling out one’s lower abdomen in a warm, crimson coil, clear thought is impossible. The pain he had been in at the time his soldiers brought him to the crone had rendered him speechless, near death—a death he was ready to accept. However, his brother and second in command, Eliah, begged the sorceress to save Keane. Eliah wept for Keane, his only brother, and though it broke his heart to hear his brother fall so deeply into desperation, he did not wish for his own life to be unnaturally lengthened. He’d accept his time to leave this plane and go with dignity. To die a warrior’s death.
As he’d mustered up his final shreds of strength to decline the hag’s offer of dark magick, Keane felt Eliah’s hand clamp over his, great tears streaming down his brother’s young, battle-scarred face. Keane’s words strangled in his throat looking into his brother’s eyes, and the witch took his silence to mean he wanted her to work the spell. To pull him back from death’s precipice.
Before he could stop her, the crafty sorceress had tossed her chant, her dark magick, into him. His entrails healed, his skin mended. Aside from a scar stretching clear across his stomach from the base of his ribcage to the opposite hip, he was returned to his original state before the slice of an opponent’s long-sword. A swipe that had ripped him from his horse and brought him to the blood-soaked battleground.
“You are saved, brother.” Eliah had helped him to his feet and threw his arms around Keane’s shoulders. “We will have many years together. We will finish the fight. The Celts will be victorious!” His soldiers had thrown up a cheer loud enough to rattle the very ground beneath their feet.
Unfortunately, he was around to witness the Romans defeat the Celts. At that moment, however, seeing his brother’s joy made it hard for Keane to be angry at being cheated out of his honorable demise.
“Thank you,” Keane had told the crone. She had given him his life back.
“Truly a wonderful gift I’ve given thee. Your service will be thanks enough, warrior.” The cackle she released into the candlelight frightened him more than facing an army of fire-breathing dragons.
“My service?” He towered over the withered witch, but her power leaped off her cloak-covered fragility, and he staggered back.
Eliah caught him before he hit the ground again. “What do you wish from us, witch?”
“I wish nothing from you, dear, but your brother owes me a debt.” She ran her crooked fingers along Keane’s bare arm and when he looked down, his bones were visible beneath his flesh. She’d given him a glimpse of the death he’d avoided.
“I asked you to save him.” Eliah stepped between the witch and Keane. “I will pay for your magick.” He plunged his hand into the coin purse at his belt.
The hag put her hand over Eliah’s, and he froze, his eyes wide with terror. Keane would never know for sure what the witch had done to him with that touch, but Eliah slid his hand from his money pouch and let the coins drop to the ground like golden hailstones.
“Only you can pay the debt.” She pointed at Keane, a nasty smile on her cracked lips.
“Fine. How?” He was tired of the games. He had more homeland to protect.
“I give you the abra cadaver, warrior. With it, you shall save many as I have saved you tonight.” She angled a gnarled finger at Keane’s arm focusing her cloudy, gray eyes on his flesh.
Standing amongst his men, Keane suddenly keeled over, gripping his bicep as something seared his skin. The burn was incredible, as if someone branded him with fired iron. When he pulled his hand away, an inked serpent spiraled its black body around his bicep, and the witch’s voice echoed in his head.
Marked with the snake,
in you I wake,
the power to shed
death from the dead.
With those words still whispering in the air, the hag disappeared into the darkness of the night. He had walked away, but instead of continuing the fight with his men, he’d kept walking until he was compelled to kneel beside an enemy soldier dying in the carnage Keane’s army had unleashed. He’d placed his hands over that soldier’s chest and brought him back from the Dark Place.
From that point on, century after century, he’d been saving people and killing demons to keep them alive. He could barely call what he had a life. People weren’t meant to live as long as he had. People weren’t meant to do what he did.
You’ve come to terms with what you are. You can’t change it. You can only deal with it, as you have been all this time.
On the redeeming side—yes, there was one—everyone Keane had saved with the abra cadaver had turned out to do something important. The list was long, but the more recent saves had been among the most interesting. Michelangelo Buonarroti, 1475-1564, Italian Renaissance artist famous for his sculpture,
Statue of David
. Galileo Galilei, 1564-1642, father of modern science. Keane had hoped Galileo could figure out a way to undo the witch’s curse, but in their time together, the scientist was too interested in the night sky.
George Washington, 1732-1799, first president of the United States. Louisa May Alcott, 1832-1888, author of
, the first piece of literature published for the mass market of juvenile girls in the nineteenth century. Mary Walker, M.D., 1832-1919, first female surgeon in the U.S. Army who continually crossed Confederate lines to treat civilians. Too bad she hadn’t known anything about releasing people from spells.