The moment it dawned on her that she was a sitting duck for a family-inspired home invasion, Damali dashed away from the front screen, hit the bathroom, and was in and out of the shower in less than five minutes. Jose's fall-by was just a precursor. She could feel it, and needed a few hours to sort out the tangle of thoughts in her brain.

"Oooohhhh, nooooo," she said loudly while ripping through her bureau drawers to find her underwear, red camisole T, and her earrings. She was out.

Damali flung open the long walk-in bedroom closet, snatched her black leather pants down and yanked on a pair of boots. Her baby Isis blade went on her hip, and her black sunglasses got hooked to the cleavage section of her T-shirt. "No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no no," she repeated as she hurriedly stuffed money and I.D. into her pants pockets.

They must think she was born yesterday. She knew how family could be, and how this was all gonna go. Now that there'd been a demon sighting and all this other madness in the equation, freedom was gone. She hadn't even really had her own place for twenty-four hours!

Before they'd all been alerted that anything in the universe had gone awry, it was bad enough. She knew the family's initial strategy; the first weekend, everybody was being cool to allow Carlos operating room. Then, once they figured brotherman was tight-ened up, they'd start falling by one by one with rental requests. Not that she could blame them, but that was not the point. They knew, just like she did, that there was no way in the world she could be so cold as to deny a family member sanctuary, a hot shower, chill time on her deck, access to her music room, whatever. How could she tell the people she loved, people who had taken bullets for her and had almost died many times in battles too crazy to mention, No, you can't use my place to get your head right? Yeah, right, like she wouldn't share hot water with them after all they'd been through together. But that still was not the point!

She could hear it in her mind, playing out like a horror movie. "Yo, D, uh, you gonna be home all afternoon?" Or, better yet, "Yo, baby girl, uh, the shower situation is kinda tight over at the house, and I was wondering..." Now it was gonna be, "Hey, D, we were thinking, two-by-two detail is in order over here. So, uh, me and my lady are just gonna crash here with you to be sure you can get forty-winks, then when you wake up, we'll go to bed - cool?" She knew her brothers.

"No! Hell no!" Damali said, stomping in the dust as she made her way to her Hummer. Her brothers would be in there trying to use her house as a bachelor pad, regardless of demon sightings. Probably even more so because now that meant there was imminent danger, and that did something crazy to all their libidos, like Jose admitted. Crazy-azz gladiator yang.

It was plain as day. A setup. Marlene and Marjorie would be over there next, suggesting that maybe the females in the group should move in with her temporarily until the compound was built, that way the fellas could spread out and chill out, and it would be one big slumber party until they moved out to the next location to find their targets.

She could hear them now: "D, baby, the women in the group are all new, have to finish being trained in sharp-shooting, Aikido, blah, blah, blah, and Krissy is sooo young to be over there in all that mayhem. Tara could even come by some nights to teach the girls the ways of vampires so they'd have a jump on them in a real-life situation. Plus, the female psyche needs a level of calm for true intuition to kick in." Damali yanked open the car door. "No!"

A Jeep engine sent a panic attack through her. She jumped into her Hummer and started the engine, looking in the rearview mirror. Too late. Inez was back, had spotted her, and was waving at her. "Shit!" She slapped the steering wheel, but then smiled brightly and waved at Inez. They had pulled out the big guns - old-school guilt. Now how was she gonna tell her best girl no?

Inez's Jeep pulled up next to Damali's Hummer. Music was blasting from the stereo and Inez leaned across her seat to yell out her window to Damali.

"Hey, girl!" Inez said laughing. "Where you going?"

"I, uh, was just gonna pop into town, see if I could pick up a bottle of wine, or something." Damali lifted her ponytail off her neck to allow the air to cool her skin. "Did anybody at the house fill you in on what's been going on?"

"No, girl. Carlos was in some meditative trance, Rider was out there with Mike, blowing shit up in the yard, everybody else told me to go ask you, since the old heads were on an errand. So, here I am!" Inez turned off her engine and jumped down out of her Jeep. "I'll ride shotgun," she said without waiting for Damali to respond. "But, I'ma tell you now, Carlos don't need no more alcohol in his system. Brother was tore up!"

"The wine is for me," Damali said flatly.

"Then, girl, why ain't you say so?" Inez said, oblivious to her mood. "Let's go."

She knew Inez well enough not to immediately launch into a discussion of pure terror right off the bat. Her girlfriend would freak, go hysterical, so she had to deliver the news calmly. Besides, she remembered what it was like coming off the natural high of a fantastic getaway with the man she loved. Damali sighed; a wave of sad memory washed through her.

Damali gripped the steering wheel so tightly that her knuckles were beginning to lose color. Inez immediately reached for her radio, turned it on, and then clicked it over to accept a CD.

"Chile, you can't get nothing out here but country western. I swear!" Inez fished in her oversize Louis Vuitton purse, found her CD case, and began nipping through selections. "Girl, we need some riding music." Inez laughed and pushed a CD into Damali's dashboard. Her head began bopping the moment the equipment ate the disc. "Awwww, yeah, get back, get back, you don't know me like that!"

Damali floored the gas petal, but didn't say a word. Her jaws were locked so tight she thought she'd chip a tooth. Inez's effervescent mood was turning hers darker. She said a mental prayer, Please, God, don't let this chile start telling me nothing I don't need to hear.

"Girl, I'm so glad I caught you before you rolled," Inez said, slapping Damali's arm and giggling. "I have the scoop for you."

Damali glanced up at the ceiling. Oh, so God had a sense of humor this morning. Fine. "Girl, what's been going on? How was your trip to Houston?" Damali let her breath out slowly and put a lilt in her voice. It wasn't Inez's fault, but she wasn't feeling the drama right now.

"Listen," Inez said, looking around as though there could possibly be anyone else in the car. "I understand why you couldn't ever let me know how you was livin', or introduce me to none of your brothers... but girl."

"TMI," Damali said laughing. "Too much information before you even get started, okay. Don't tell me nothing about - "

"Oh, Damali, I have to tell somebody or I'm gonna bust. He is soooo nice," Inez said and swooned in her seat.

"Yeah, Mike is cool people, girl. A gem, for real."

Inez nodded emphatically. "He's real deep, ya know. Real old school, laid-back, and a gentleman."

Damali couldn't disagree and that much she could talk to Inez about, so she relaxed. "Yeah... a big old teddy bear with a soft heart. Once he takes to you, that's it. You're his family." Damali's words came out gently as the wind whipped through the vehicle. The beauty of the colors around them sent her mind a million miles away. Why was she running from these people? "But, don't let that big teddy-bear vibe fool you," Damali added with a laugh to jettison the despair. "Mike is the last person you want on your ass if you cross him."

Inez laughed and kept bop-time with the music. "Brother is scary strong, girl!"

"But gentle - just don't be no vamp or he'll blow your ass up." Damali laughed and shook her head.

Inez gaped at her, hanging on every word with the pride of ownership emblazoned on her face. Damali smiled wider, yeah, it was all good. She'd let Inez vent and would then fill her in. The mood she'd been in was beginning to lighten and she was suddenly glad Inez had come along for the ride. Where was she going, really, other than away from her own home that had just been built? Crazy.

"I saw him sucker punch a werewolf, once, coming at him full charge. Was like in the cartoons," Damali said with sisterly pride, laughter becoming a tonic throughout her system. "The mug stopped, shook its head, like yada, yada, yada, and Rider got him, single shell. But it was Mike's swinging wild, cinder-block hit that slowed that sucker down."

"Yeah..." Inez said with a breathy sigh. "I've been scared of stuff all my life, girl, but when that big tree trunk steps in front of me I know everything is gonna be all right." Inez leaned in closer to Damali. "He likes kids... I showed him my boo and everything, and he carries her picture in his wallet now - can you get to that? Her own daddy don't even do that. This is the craziest life�I mean, I never expected my life to turn out like this, much less meet somebody like him under these circumstances... but... D... Lawd, chile..."

Damali started humming to the next cut. This is where the conversation was about to take a dangerous turn. She was one beat away from shouting, la, la, la, la, la - I can't hear you. "Yeah, Mike loves kids," Damali said as a diversion. Yup, go back to basics, family, and very generic topics - please. "Worked with a lot of kids from the neighborhoods through his church, rec centers, schooling the little knuckleheads, and I don't imagine, even with a nine in their hands, too many were about to start no mess with Big Mike. Like I said, he's the last person you wanna step wrong to and have on your ass."

"Correction, girl," Inez said with a giggle. "If anybody is gonna be on your ass... daaaayum!"

"See, now!" Damali said, laughing and turning up the music volume. "I do not need to know that."

"But, D - "

"La, la, la, la, la - I can't hear you!"

"But, oh, my God!"

"No, do not tell me no mess - that's my brother!"

"I know, girl, and we was cool for all them months, got to know each other first, 'cause I had to calm down from trippin' so hard about having to put my baby girl somewhere safe and the fact that there were actually demons, and shit, and plus, had to learn how to fight, and, but then, D, last night - "

"Stop!" Damali shouted, turning up the car stereo so loud that the button wouldn't click to the next level.

Inez laughed hard and turned it down. "For real, what had happened was - "

"Not listening, glad y'all are in love, TMI, not my business, uh-huh, not my business, it's your birthday, whateva, I ain't listenin', 'cause it's my brutha, shut up, 'cause you my sistah, whoop, whoop - "

"Girl, you crazy!" Inez laughed so hard that her head nearly collided with the dashboard. "Stop!"

"You stop, and I'll stop." Damali wiped her eyes still laughing and tried to focus on the road. "We're going in here, get some licka, and go home. I don't wanna hear no mo', got it?"

"Girl, neva in my life have I seen fourteen - "

"La, la, la, la, la, I am not hearing you!"

Inez laughed as she watched Damali literally run from her through the store aisles. Yeah... maybe Damali was right. Some of this she couldn't tell another living soul. She was so happy she was about to burst, and had to keep telling the little butterflies in her belly just to calm down and be cool. But every time she thought about her man, a new wide smile flashed across her face.

She leaned against a shelf, almost crushing the snacks, but damn, a sister was too content. The brother moved real slow, methodical, they way he stripped off his shirt - she could still see it in her mind. Dark Hershey's chocolate, that was the color of his skin... with a chest and abdomen cut so righteous she had actually covered her mouth. She closed her eyes and smiled, remembering the lopsided grin he gave her when she'd done that... and the way he never lost eye contact with her as he undid his pants and stripped them off, causing her to gasp in awe.

Inez wrapped her arms around herself. Damali needed to hurry up, she had to get home. What was she thinking out here shopping with her girl, when her six-foot-eight pleasure giver was back at the house? They was girlz, and all, but shoot. Especially the way his big ole country hands could cover her entire behind like he was palming a basketball... legs like tree trunks, and how he had so much rod she had to sit on his lap or get split, have mercy!

All she could think about was how he was strong enough to actually stand up... stand up - and walk with her, talking yang in her ear, asking her what she wanted while holding her heavy ass four feet off the floor... neva missing a stroke - the man could wurk. In his arms she felt like the prettiest, thinnest, tiniest little thing, and she'd never felt like that in her life... told her the sweetest things, made her cry it felt so good.

She was getting the chills just thinking about those arms of his, the way the muscles stood up in them she could literally see each strand while he'd held her, and his back... and shoulders, and his butt, Lawd save her. Then, before the night was over, she'd finally figured out how to make him holla and lose his mind. It had been a pure victory to take him there, to make him stop acting like she was made of glass, and stop whispering all low thunder and cut the natural fool. She'd felt like a queen. Mike was her man. That's what he'd told her. Called her baby... suga. Inez shivered.

"D, you wanna hurry up getting that wine, girl?" Inez called out, swallowing hard.

Damali glanced at Inez and hastened her steps away from her girlfriend. No, she was not hearing any of it, and the vibe coming off of Inez had enough static charge in it to make her hair stand up. Damali almost ran into the adjacent aisle trying to mentally blot out the too graphic images of her big brother.

But Inez followed her around the store like a stalker. Every aisle Damali went into, Inez was right on her heels. Her best girl was harder to shake than the press. Each time she tried to tell her some amazing attribute of her brother, Damali held up her hand and made a guttural sound. People in the packaged goods store must have thought she had some type of disability, because her responses to Inez were a series of up, ot, ut, hupp, hut, and nopes with her hand jerking up every five seconds, which only made Inez laugh and pursue her harder.

"Okay, okay, okay," Inez said, teasing her in a forlorn voice. "But if I can't tell my best girl about the best time I've ever had in my life, then who can I tell?"

"Tell Jesus," Damali said, laughing harder. "Take it to the cross," she said, singing the old spiritual through the aisles.

"Girl, you crazy? This I cannot take to noooobody, especially not Him!"

"Then, there you have it. Your secret is safe between A and B, that would be you and Mike, and I'ma C my way out of it."

"You wrong, girl."

"It is not wrong for me to preserve my sanity," Damali fussed, putting two bottles of champagne and a merlot on the counter. She eyed the cashier skeptically, and slid her cash across the counter, not touching his hand. Then she ignored his offended scowl and discreetly waited until he put her cash down and slid it back toward her, hoping Inez didn't notice as she collected her change and rattled on with her complaint.

"Here's the thing, 'Nez. I do not ever want to be sitting across from y'all at dinner in the compound and not be able to look my brother in the eye because I know too much of his business. So, on this one, spare me the details."

"Aw'right, aw'right, aw'right, I get your point." Inez sighed but her smile was still bright. "You happy, though?"

"Yeah, I'm happy," Damali muttered, as the cashier rung up Inez's purchase. "Wait. Let me get that," she added quickly, as Inez was about to place cash in the guy's hand. Nobody needed to touch anybody, especially in this potentially infected town.

" That does not sound like happy." Inez's hands went to her hips.

Damali watched the cashier load her bottles into a bag. "My happy isn't going to sound like yours, because yours is brand spanking new. What you hear is mellow happy. Been-to-Hell-and-back-and-I'm-okay-with-the-situation happy. There's a difference, which is not to be confused with unhappy."

Inez fell silent for a moment and Damali clasped the verbal respite and hung on to it. She marched out of the store with purpose and looked down the strip of small shops. It wasn't such a bad town. Decent people all just trying to live. The reservation retail operation was sparse, but farther away toward the open tourist areas, there were a reasonable amount of things to do. She prayed the demon had visited only her.

"Y'all had a fight?"

Damali climbed into the Hummer and started the engine.

"He didn't stay last night, did he?"

Damali sighed. "No. And it wasn't a fight, just a disagreement. He hates this place; it's so different from L.A. But we all know why we have to be here, so, sometimes you just have to make the best of the hand you're dealt."

"He'll come around, girl."

"Yeah," Damali said, pulling away from the curb.

"You know, he ain't even trying to get with Juanita no more, if that's what you're worried about."

"I'm not worried about no damned Juanita."

Inez smiled and riffled through her purse for a new CD. "Cool, 'cause her and Jose got that on lock."

"Good." More information that she didn't wanna know. Damali let her breath out hard and checked the rearview mirror as she pulled out.

"You know... maybe me and Mike and you and Carlos could go hang out sometime?"

Damali kept her eyes forward on the road and her mouth shut.

"I mean, after you guys patch things up, have some alone time, maybe we could fall by, open up some wine - I'll cook, watch some movies, or go find a nightspot? You've got an extra bedroom over there, right?"

She wasn't exactly sure where the new spike of irritation was coming from, but it made her ears and face hot. "Yeah, girl," she finally muttered. "Maybe we can do that."

"You all right?" Inez asked, finally catching on to the tension in Damali's voice.

"No," Damali replied. It was time to spill the beans.

"What happened?" Inez clicked off the music. "Y'all really fell out this time, didn't you?"

"When we get back to the house, I'll fill you in. But I had a little visit from an old demon, but I smoked his ass."

Inez covered her mouth. "Gurl! No! Was Carlos there?"

"No. He was out cold over at the family house."

"Get outta here!" Inez folded her arms and shook her head. "No wonder you're salty. Chile, if I had been by myself when that mess popped outta nowhere on me, I don't know what I would have done."

"That's why, all fun nights notwithstanding," Damali said, keeping her eyes on the road, "you have to learn to protect yourself. One night, Mike might not be there - not because he's doing anything wrong, he just might not physically be there when something crazy happens." Damali let her breath out in a rush. "So, you have to know what to do and can't freak out."

Inez nodded and tossed her braids over her shoulders. "I'm just glad he was there when the mess rolled up on us in Houston. Girl, if it wasn't for him, I'd - "

Damali slammed on the brakes and pulled over to the curb. "What happened in Houston?"

"Chile, don't worry. We were out in the park, had the baby with us, and you know Mike... easygoing, but he heard something. Told me and boo to get in the car. So, we did. But I saw him tilt his head, roll his shoulders, and walk toward the trees. I was hollering for him to just get in the car, and he told me to put up the damned windows. Wasn't nothing messing with his woman and her kid while he was around."

Inez fanned her face, excitement glinting in her eyes. "He is such a gentleman, all that... something pushed him. I couldn't see it all the way. But he body-slammed whatever it was to the ground and stomped it so bad all it left was a black puddle. Then it was gone." Inez shrugged. "He told me that, in our line of work, things tend to seek us out, but it was handled. After I saw him do that... girl, once we got the baby back to Mom's, hugged everybody good-bye and kissed the baby, I had to slip out to the hotel with him. That was some heroic shit, D. I can't explain it, but it turned me on... like I've never felt. Does that make sense?"

Damali nodded, nearly hyperventilating. "Did he tell you what it looked like?"

"He didn't want to scare me... but you know me. I had to know. So I bugged him till he told me. Said it was a revenge demon. Head half blown off, chest and stomach all opened, talking shit about getting me back as it disappeared - just to mess with Mike's mind." Inez closed her eyes and hugged herself. "Girl," she whispered. "That's when he pulled me into his strong arms and told me he'd never let anything happen to me or my baby girl... or he would die trying. For the first time in my life, being there with him, I wasn't afraid. After that, forgedaboutit. We made love so hard I thought the front desk would call the police." Inez opened her eyes. "You've been there, right? I'ma marry this man, girl. He's the one."

Tears slowly filled Damali's eyes and her hand slowly went to Inez's face to cup her cheek. Her best girlfriend... her dear, honorable brother, Big Mike, and every single person they had touched... even Inez's baby, her mom, plus every Guardian that Mike pulled into a big bear hug when he got back - her entire world had been infected.

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