Burbank, California

G abrielle watched Rider sleep beside her in the late afternoon sun, her hand gently stroking his bare chest. Filaments of light added flecks of gold and red to his blond hair and coated his damp skin in warm hues. Jack Rider was a good man... a human like she was, who hadn't judged her, hadn't lied to her, but who had become her friend and lover over time, even though he couldn't bring himself to commit to loving her fully.

But he'd also been honest about that. They both knew the reason why. Tara. Oddly, she owed Tara for sparing her, when it would have been so easy for that female vampire to take her blood to survive the Level-Seven Hell onslaught visited upon Master Yonnie, Tara's new mate. Yet Tara had shown honor, and had bled out only her demon brothels to heal him. Gabrielle let out a quiet sigh. The complexity of it all was profound.

Life as she once knew it was peeling away from her; New Orleans was gone, the French Quarter and her establishments were now shambles and mud hovels. Hundreds of people had died, graves were overturned, and the spirits were restless.

It was time. Her bargain with the dark side would be a debt called in soon. Gabrielle brushed a stray lock of mussed hair away from Rider's forehead and kissed him there softly so not to wake him. He looked so peaceful when his haunted eyes were closed and his breaths came deep and slow. But she also enjoyed his ribald humor; a slight smile tugged at her mouth. Yes, she loved Jack Rider.

Ever so gently, she nestled her head in the crook of his shoulder and felt him stir to protectively pull her in beside him, and wondered what her life might have been like had she met him before she made a dark bargain. As she listened to him breathe and his heart quietly thud within his chest, she knew the answer. There would have been no coven brothels, no death, Hell, and destruction in her life. She would have stayed within the safety of this semi-jaded Guardian's arms and never let him go.

Tears of remorse wet her lashes, but she refused to cry. The forces of darkness were realigning; she'd felt it in her bones. The dark covens had surged up, briefly siphoning power from all, and then it went still in the underworld. An event had been set in motion. Something had happened, and now the aftermath would have to play itself out. It was a strange knowing, like something was gloating and watching an evil strategy take form, and it could now just confidently sit back and watch the pawns move on an unseen chessboard, but she couldn't put her finger on the source.

For a moment she'd thought this was the final hour, that she'd been called to deliver what she'd promised so long ago to the Dark Lord, but then an eerie stillness had claimed her. Temporary reprieve had been granted, a more powerful female had taken the brunt of the unseen fury. However, one day or night her turn would come due, and she wanted Jack Rider and the Guardians nowhere near that awful conclusion. She also had to protect her two young coven initiates... they, like her, had come into this life out of desperation, not knowing how long a dark eternity could be.

Gabrielle leaned up and brushed Rider's lips with a soft kiss to wake him, watching his eyes slowly open. "You should go home," she said quietly.

He smiled and cupped her face with his palm and glimpsed the bright sunlight. "Don't tell me I'm losing my touch, darlin'. You putting me out already?"

She forced a smile and allowed her finger to trail along the edge of Rider's jaw. "Never," she whispered. "I just have a funny feeling they're gonna need you there."

For a moment he didn't move, his smile fading into a sober expression. "Gabby, what's wrong?"

She sat up slowly in bed; he followed suit, staring at her. The hotel room felt like it was closing in on her.

"I don't know," she said quietly, "I just want you safe. Even in the daytime." "Now you're making me nervous."

Too many thoughts crowded into her mind at once, and it took her a moment to sort them out before she could reply. Dark power was realigning, and he didn't need to be anywhere near a lightning rod--her. If the surge she'd felt was accurate, then he also needed to go back to the new Guardian compound to help protect her sister and niece and nephew. The senior members of the team couldn't be distracted during this fragile space and time.

Gabrielle gazed at Rider for a moment without speaking. Krissy, her young niece, had the potential, like her mother, Marjorie, to be a significant white lighter. Her sister, Marj, was going to need all the guidance possible to take over her role, once Hell demanded full payment. Bobby, her nephew, stood on the precipice between becoming either a wizard or warlock. Their decisions needed to be clear--go toward the Light. Bobby needed to lean wizard, Krissy and Marj toward Druid white-lighter Celtic ancestry that ran through their collective bloodlines. None of them needed to do what she'd done.

Gabrielle's eyes searched Rider's. Her family being with a Neteru Guardian team was the only thing that allowed her to sleep at night; her family had a choice that would be heavily weighted by the powerful influence of the Light. They didn't have to go out like she had, making the dark and irreversible decision of black magic.

"I love you, Jack Rider." It was the first of many thoughts that leapt to the front of her mind.

He lowered his forehead to hers and stroked her hair, but didn't answer.

"No commitments, remember?" she whispered, her fingers trembling as they grazed his jaw. "I'm a big girl, and I understand."

"It's not like that," he said quietly. "It's just . . ."

"I know I'm not Tara."

He let his breath out hard in a sad sigh. "You don't have to wear lavender for me."

"I know," she murmured. "You tell me that every time. But I do it because I know you need that, even if you'd never expect it and would touch me without it. Just knowing the sacrifice you'd make to lie with me without that scent, is enough.... You respect me by not requiring it. That's also enough."

"It's not a sacrifice to touch you, Gabrielle. You're a beautiful woman in your own right. Gorgeous auburn hair," he said quietly, allowing his fingers to become tangled in her long, silky tresses. "Pretty face, smoky, green eyes, wonderful mouth... fantastic body that can stop traffic on Sunset Boulevard. Go shower and get the lavender off you and I'll call housekeeping to get the sheets changed, and then I'll show you it doesn't have anything to do with the lavender you wear. Afterward, you tell me if you still think it's a sacrifice for me to be with you." He shook his head in disbelief. "Is that why you want me to leave? Because if I did that to you, made you feel like that, then I'm sorry."

His hazel eyes held such gentle sadness that she almost turned away from him.

"No," she said, and swallowed unshed tears. "You didn't make me feel that... you never do. But you do have a way of making a woman feel cherished for a few hours in a way that I never knew was possible. I'm getting too attached to you, because of that." She forced a smile. "That's why you have to go."

"You're real easy to grow attached to, yourself, kiddo." He offered her a half-smile and took her mouth slowly.

She shivered as his rough palm slid down her shoulder and cupped her breast, feeling a renewed heat begin to warm her. But she had to remember more important things. "I'm glad you only brought Bobby to the New Orleans house once. Don't bring him to the one in Los Angeles. Promise me. He's in training and doesn't need to indulge and get his head all screwed up. As it is, my initiate, Jasmine, hasn't been able to concentrate on anything but him since he deflowered her." Gabrielle forced a chuckle. "You Guardians have a way of making a girl crazy, did you know that?"

Rider chuckled and sighed, allowing his hand to glide over the swell of her naked hip. "I don't know if that was a good thing or a bad thing, giving Bobby a onetime taste of female affection. Now that he's no longer a virgin, the poor kid is really bouncing off the walls. But, Dan, God bless him, is gonna have an aneurysm if I don't bring him to see one of your girls again soon." So much was changing, just like his beloved New Orleans. He just prayed Gabrielle would be a constant for a little longer.

She shook her head, her eyes holding a warning. "Don't. He's young, doesn't need to be corrupted, and my establishments are too dangerous--and I can't afford to lose another initiate right now." She tried to soften her warning with a smile. "If I let him have Heather, then where would this witch be? No virgin initiates to appease the beast. I don't want Dan or any of you guys fooling around with anything in my establishment that might bear fangs... or a human female that's got a negative aura, especially not your young guys. Not now."

Rider looked at her and stopped the lazy caress up and down her hip. "Okay... but he's also male, young, and a Guardian, and the Light doesn't exactly move at the speed of light. That kid could be left hanging for a very long time, Gabby. I won't let anything happen to him."

"I know," she said, gathering the sheet around herself and standing. Rider watched her cross the room.

"Okay, at the risk of divulging sensitive client information, er, uh, did one of my guys upset one of your ladies or something? Bobby being banned from your houses I can understand. Can't have your nephew thinking a certain way about his aunt--some things are just not done, and I'm glad he still hasn't put it together that where I took him that one time was under your management. But Dan... jeez. For crying out loud, he'll be a basket case if several years go by before he gets laid again."

Rider pushed back with his spine pressed to the headboard and a wry smile tugging on his face. "Give the kid a break, Gabby. I had to get Dan out of the house when your niece turned eighteen a few weeks back. After the little fracas the brothers had in Arizona over her, Dan's frame of mind was damned near suicidal when J.L. gave her his little jade Buddha amulet and her dad finally let the two of them supposedly go have a private lunch after we cut the cake."


"You shoulda seen it," Rider said, grinning wide and cutting her off. "The girl clutched the amulet to her chest like J.L. had given her a diamond ring, and then the two of 'em went all googly-eyed to the point where her own father gave up the battle. So, if Dan came into your L.A. joint on his own and momentarily lost his mind--"

"No, no, no, it wasn't like that," she said, smiling despite the circumstances. "He didn't offend, even though from what I hear, he definitely lost his mind for a few hours."

Rider closed his eyes laughing and slapped his forehead. "My nose is never wrong. Jose and Carlos told me the same thing--the three of us got bloodhound in us, hon. That kid was so torn up by your niece, he still has to do his own laundry. Don't banish him right now," Rider pleaded with a mischievous grin as he opened his eyes. "He's a tactical, and suffering... your niece is flitting around the house wide-open, new sexual experience flushed on her pretty face, looking like the blond cheerleader of Dan's wet dreams and getting laid by a Kung Fu master, who just so happens to room down the hall from him. Gabrielle, you just don't know the house dynamics we have to cope with!"

She shook her head and fought a smile. "But I just feel that it's too dangerous. He's still impressionable, like Bobby. I allowed him to visit once after New Orleans, and then I told him that was it." She threw up her hands when Rider laughed harder. "The girls in L.A. are... oh, I don't know."

"'Spectacular' comes to mind," he said with a droll wink. "That's why I took the puppy out and let him get a good hard run on. At his age, realistically, he could go three times a day, seven days a week. It was only once after New Orleans. But you know what they say, Gabby, once is never enough."

"That's the last time, Rider," she warned, still smiling and folding her arms over her breasts. "I'm glad you left him at the house today. And I don't know what you're gonna do about Bobby."

"Don't tell me, you want him to find a nice wholesome girl and settle down?" Rider slapped his forehead. "Jesus, you sound like Marj." Gabrielle laughed. "Yes, I do, Jack Rider. I want that for both Dan and Bobby."

"All right, all right, all right." Rider stood with a grunt and crossed the room to pin her against the dresser with his body. "But for those of us already corrupted and no longer impressionable, please don't put us on newbie rations," he said, delivering a burning kiss to her neck. "Been there. Did my time. We Guardian brothers don't get out much. Just tell me we're not banned and cut off from the most basic pleasures in life?"

"Because I love you, after today, you are," she said, stroking his shoulders.

He pulled back from Her to look at her. "You're serious, aren't you?"

She nodded as sudden tears filled her eyes. "I love you, Rider. I'm not supposed to fall in love with a client, much less a Guardian."

"So, now I'm just a client, huh?" There was no anger in his tone as his thumbs caught the tears that spilled down her cheeks. "I thought we were friends with a very definite understanding."

"No, you've become more than that, that's the problem," she whispered. "You were never a client, and are my friend. You just became something beyond that, is all."

He nodded and kissed her softly. "I know... same here. When did that happen?"

They both laughed sadly.

"That first time," she said in a far-off voice.

"Yep," he murmured against her forehead. "It's always the first time that gets you, isn't it?"

"Go home, Rider. Keep the family safe. Keep yourself safe by staying away from me until things settle down."

"The Chairman is dead, hon, last I checked. So is his replacement. Rivera took his head off with Damali's Isis. Lilith bought it on the side of a mountain in Tibet--saw it with my own eyes. Cold-seeking missiles got her and started an avalanche that I'm lucky to be here to tell you about. Our two Neterus are in union bliss, probably off somewhere as we speak knocking boots. So, what's to settle down?"

"I don't know... call it female intuition. Just go with me on it for now. Maybe it's nothing, but if it is, I'd rest easier knowing you and especially the younger males on your team aren't anywhere near a place that has... different energy. All right?" She stared up at his handsome face and set her mouth hard, resolute.

He gathered her in his arms and released a long, soulful breath. "And how am I supposed to rest easy knowing that someone very important to me is out there all by herself, dealing with the unknown? Like you said, we're friends."

She held this man who'd recently stopped drinking and smoking... this man who'd begun to heal in her care. His tall, muscular frame made her feel safe against everything deadly in the world. The last thing she'd do is put him at risk, yet she wondered how she'd ever get him out of her system when the time came that she'd have to.

"If it will make you feel any better," she finally said, trying to make him laugh, "I'll be on rations, too."

He smiled; she could feel his face move into the expression against the crown of her head.

"Oh, that makes me feel just peachy knowing you're somewhere as horny as me, but that I can't get to you to cure what ails ya. I'll develop a nervous tic knowing something like that."

"Call me. I do great, phone sex."

They both laughed. "Yeah, right, with seers in the house? Be serious. It's bad enough that the tacticals bristle and take a walk when the young bucks have to get the monkey off their backs solo. Now you wanna add me into their TMI schematic?"

She laughed harder and covered her mouth. "Go home, Rider!"

"I'm being serious," he said, nipping her neck and making her shudder. He pushed her hand down his abdomen. "Feel this wood, woman, and tell me you are not sending me home like that."

She let her hand lazily stroke him, glad that he was smiling and that merriment had crept back into his eyes. "All right. One more go 'round, and I'll send you home tired. But then you get your incorrigible self home before dark, and you stay there until my jitters pass. Is that fair?"

His eyes slid shut as he moved against her slow caress. "Oh, yeah, dar-lin'. That's more than fair. Just lemme return the favor in spades before I leave."

"Then definitely come back to bed, Jack Rider, so we can wear each other out."

Beverly Hills, California Dan sat quietly on the edge of his bed in the newly retrofitted mansion, staring out the window. Seal's CD had been set on repeat, cut six, Kiss from a Rose, a mantra by now, something filled with hope to enter his tactical field and drown out the vibrations emanating from J.L.'s room every time Krissy was there... now that she was in bloom.

Yeah, it was true, just like Seal sang it--she could be compared to a kiss from a rose on a grave, and there was indeed so much a man could tell her, so much he could say. She remained his power, his pleasure, his pain. He was dying, the new mansion was his tomb, but he had to let all that go.

Celtic and Gaelic chords took him so far back into his mind that for a while he was no longer in the room. Stonehenge appeared in the mist as the strands from the song entered his daydream.... He was a knight, his white charger rearing, refusing to enter the circle of standing stones. She was there wearing a crimson cloak, her hood spilling forward to hide her face.... Then she reached for him. A sense of desperation swept through him as he tried to dismount the frightened horse, and as always, she began to fade into the mist just as he'd accomplished the task. All he could see was a wash of her blond hair transforming into a thicket of auburn ringlets and a flash of blue eyes becoming gray as she turned to leave him. Pain.

A silent prayer constricted his chest. Don't go. I love you. No words escaped his mouth before she vanished. The loss made Dan slowly hug himself and begin to rock slightly in agony where he sat. It was always the same sensation when J.L. loved Krissy hard. Dan dragged in a shuddering breath and closed his eyes. "Just get it over with soon," he whispered into the empty room. "Just finish, for God's sake."

He missed the old compound, the former team life when they were touring, the music was happening, and demon-hunting was a sideline venture. All the working out in the world didn't change what was, couldn't banish the dim reality from his mind as the sun began to set. He was alone.

"Not for long," a strange female voice whispered.

Dan was on his feet in seconds, had crossed the room, grabbed his nine-millimeter and a vial of holy water off the dresser, and spun to meet the threat. The moment the phantom materialized, he dashed it with the anointed water and held his gun steady with both hands. But it didn't smolder, didn't combust. The faceless female form remained placid, the water glistening silver to make her aura brighter. "Two seconds and you're history," he said, panting from the adrenaline roiling through him.

"I'm already history and mean you no harm," she said in a gentle voice. "Daniel, please put down the gun and don't alarm the house."

"Show yourself."

"Promise not to fire. I came out in the Light, during the day before sunset. I am not a demon."

"Show yourself," he repeated, his finger trembling over the trigger in readiness to squeeze off rounds.

"If you fire, the bullets will go through the wall and could hurt one of your brethren. Disarm and I will comply."

He didn't lower the weapon, but extended his trigger finger as a compromise. Slowly a deep toffee hue filled in the glowing places where the entity's white robe revealed skin. Thick, long dark hair washed over her shoulders. Her face became recognizable, and he backed up farther, stunned, knocking over colognes and deodorant on his dresser. "Raven . . ." he whispered.

She shook her head. "Christine. Raven is dead, and I am who I had been before I was ever turned." "Oh, shit! Marlene--"

"It will hurt her to see me. Don't." A sad expression filled the entity's beautiful eyes. "Please."

Dan slowly lowered the weapon, but didn't abandon it. "I cannot go to my mother without stirring up her old pain. I cannot go to Damali now, even though I owe her for the gift of release into the Light. She is in a very bad place within her mind.... And I cannot go to Carlos for a number of reasons. I do not know that he will ever forgive what I did to his brother and cousin or his human friends from his old life... or forget that I was his first sexual conquest when he first turned vampire. Too much pain." Her voice drifted around the room in a soft echo that seemed to be everywhere at once. "Sense me, Daniel. You're a tactical Guardian. Do I feel like a threat?"

Dan now held the weapon at his side. What she'd said was logical, and he felt no pending attack. Still, this was Raven. "Why me? I'm no seer. If you've got a message from the other side, then one of the older seniors--"

She placed her finger to his lips to still his argument. "I chased you when I was that which shall not be named. If I hadn't, who knows? Maybe then you might never have been inducted into the Guardian life. I owe you, and I'm trying to earn my wings, trying to clean up the life disasters my poor choices created. So, I came to you."

Dan could feel adrenaline-induced perspiration making his T-shirt cling to him. "Yeah, well, I guess it was fate. I'm here, woulda been brought in one way or another."

Her tone was so sad and her gaze so gentle that a sudden calmness filled him. The gun dangled in his loose grip by his side.

"Dan, tell me, is the Guardian life so bad?"

He looked away from her out the window, unable to immediately respond. "What's not to love? My parents think I'm in Israel on a kibbutz," he said, laughing sadly. "Rabbi Zeitloff handles the correspondence between us, and has people check on them to bring me word, sends them pictures.... It's all a bizarre ruse, but for their own good. They're happy, with parental bragging rights." He glanced away from the window and nervously ran his fingers through his hair. "So, how about you? How's the Light treating you?" Then he stopped and stared at her hard. "Seriously, all jokes aside, what's it like where you are?"

"Free," she whispered. "There is no way to describe the peace."

He nodded. "That's very cool and real good to know--especially since on any given day or night, any of us on this team might find ourselves over there with you. Glad you got somewhere safe. I know Mar rests better knowing that you did."

Dan's eyes held Christine's, compassion wafting through her body and covering his skin from where she drifted across the room. "She's real good people, Rav--I mean, Christine. Is like a Mom to me, too. Really, she's like that for all of us, except maybe Shabazz.... You know what I'm saying, since she sleeps with him, how can she be his mom? But, I'm... oh, shit, I've never talked to an angel before, so I don't know what I'm supposed to say or not."

Christine nodded and her expression remained serene. Then she smiled. "I'm not an angel, just a very lucky spirit that wound up on the first ring of Light. I have so much to learn, so many things to correct, and who knows how many incarnations to go through before I get it right. But thanks for the compliment."

"Oh, well... that's cool, too, I guess. Reincarnation is like a do-over," Dan said, slowly setting his gun on the dresser. "Beats me why you'd wanna come back down here to check on any of us, after you got a get-out-of-jail-free card, though."

"It's because I did get one of those," she murmured, her large, luminous brown eyes pouring empathy into his. "I felt your pain, followed you here. Something happened and allowed me to come onto this side of the veil. Lopez almost followed me, but they've pulled him so high up, I don't think he can slip out without them knowing. He has a message for Carlos and Jose, but it's not time yet to deliver it. Padre has work to do, some other mission, but sends his love. You have to let Carlos know there's no hard feelings, just love here."

"Whoa... you saw Lopez?"

She nodded and looked away. "He's in our old line from that old existence.... They let you remember all so that you gain wisdom, but it doesn't hurt once you've faced it and admitted it. I'm in an atonement phase, I guess. That's why I'm here to help."

Dan shrugged and jammed his weapon-free hand into his sweatpants pocket. "Well, we did pretty good on our own in Tibet, unless you guys from the unseen side of things were in the equation, which I don't doubt."

"We were."

"Thanks," he said, smiling. He carefully put the safety on his gun before sliding it further away on his dresser. "Glad you're on our side... but we're cool now."

She tilted her head and glanced away. "I used to be a master vamp's lair mate... and, uhmmm... for a while, I bottomed out in the succubae realms. So can we speak freely?"

Sudden heat flushed Dan's face and he walked away from the smiling entity that glowed to brace his hands on the window frame.

"Tell me you guys don't see everything."

"We don't spy on personal things, no. That's unnecessary. We can feel things... sense the vibrations. Although we don't sashay into dreams uninvited, if that's what you're worried about. We only come when we're called, or if the person is really in trouble or upset and has a prayer for guidance in their hearts. You had one of those just now, so I came."

He let out an audible breath; her tone still nagged him. There was too much amusement in it.

"You're not trapped down here, or anything?"

"No," she said, giggling softly, "and I'll go away, if I'm upsetting you."

"It's not that I don't appreciate your looking out for me, but... just some things are really personal, and I'm working through it on my own, and it'll really wig me out if you just blow through my room when I don't know you're there." He glanced over his shoulder and saw her swallow away a broad smile. That was the last thing he needed anybody to see, those times when it was so bad he had to relieve himself just to get through another day.

"I won't do that to you. I promise. I just followed your pain trail and heard the prayer and thought you might want to talk to someone who knows how you feel." Her voice had become gentle as she glided closer to him. She was truly beautiful and not the least bit threatening. But the things that had been on his mind weren't the sort of topic one discussed with a heavenly body.

"The truth is the Light, you know," she said with a wide grin. "I can take some of that pain away. Just take the edge off."

He backed up, rendered near speechless. "How?"

She laughed, sending the sound of tinkling bells around the room. "Not like that," she said, and then covered her mouth with her hand. "Oh, Daniel, it's really bad, isn't it?"

"I don't wanna discuss it, and I think you should leave before you get stuck here or something."

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to laugh."

She came closer and touched his face. This time he didn't draw away from her. A quiet peace filled him, and the need to hug her to feel more of her calming sensation made him jam both his hands into his pockets. To his surprise, she opened her arms and embraced him. He'd expected the touch to be ghostly cold and to pass right through him. Instead serene warmth radiated against his skin like a humid summer breeze.

"Don't covet what J.L. has.... They're making one especially for you--and right now, we need you to be one of the voices of reason. I don't know exactly what's going on, since I'm new. But I know something is about to happen, and it's big. Just be careful, Dan, and don't worry about having a mate. One is on the way." Christine smiled. "Would you like to see her?"

He gazed into Christine's beautiful brown eyes, seeing through her translucent irises into what seemed like infinity. He'd heard the part about something major going down, but at the moment, his focus was on the last part of what she'd said. Then he saw her, just like in his daydream. Gorgeous gray eyes and a lush spill of auburn curls. That was all he could make out in the mist blanketing standing stones.

"Wow... you mean you know that they're sending another female Guardian?" His voice had come out on a choked murmur of anticipation.

"I heard them whispering that two more will be coming. The team needs that for balance. Daniel, I know you're lonely, and I know what that feels like. Just trust and know you've been heard. Yours will be exactly the right fit for you. I overheard that she's really sweet and really pretty.... You'll know hereby her eyes... gray, I think?"

"Is that what you came to tell me?" he asked quietly, still gazing into the depths of Christine's limitless eyes. "It's hard to believe that they'd send a special envoy just to tell me, a new senior Guardian, anything so personal."

"They don't even know I'm here," she whispered. "I came, like I said, because I owe you, and I caught the prayer first. I've heard murmurs,

plans, but I don't know the details. But if it's coming from above, it's all good. I sorta slipped out while there was a bit of chaos, but have to go back soon. Everybody was all up in arms about something, and I figured now was as good a time as any to let you know I'm available."

He paused and didn't immediately respond. It was the emphasis that she'd placed on the word available.

"You have to stay out of Gabrielle's establishments, though. There's dark energy passing through her houses, not that it's my business. Just a warning."

Total embarrassment made him look away with a scowl. "So, are you now like my Guardian angel? I thought you didn't spy on the living."

She smiled shyly and glanced away. "I just saw you go in, that's all. What happened inside, I can only imagine, but I didn't peek. But common sense is common sense, Dan.... If you need a friend until they send you a soul mate, then ..." He let out a sigh of frustration. "I can't have an angel for a friend, Christine. Not that type of friend, anyway. That much is common sense, too."

"I told you, I'm not an angel," she argued in an upbeat tone. "But I do care... and you're sorta cute." Christine's smiled widened. "No, let me be honest. Actually, you're really cute. Handsome. That's why I chased you into the garage before."

"You were gonna bite me, then." His smile widened to match hers. It all seemed like so long ago, and strangely the memory didn't dredge up fear like it once did.

"I know. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I was gonna bite you--so sue me. But that wasn't all. Some of it you might have enjoyed." She blushed and glanced away again, glimpsing him from the corner of her eye with a sly smile. "I said I was sorry."

He chuckled, very flattered, and that made her giggle, sending the bell sensation through his limbs again.

"You're blushing," she whispered.

"Yeah, well, so are you."

"Oh." She tucked away her grin, but it kept escaping. "Are you flirting with me?"

She giggled again. He loved the sound of her voice and how it sent tingles through him.

"I can visit in dreams if you call me by name," she said, avoiding his

question and glancing over her shoulder nervously. "I knew how to do that really well from... before. But you have to say it like a prayer now is the only real difference--really want me with all your heart to visit."

He just stared at her. The proposition was outrageous. "I don't think a heavenly entity is supposed to trip over the edge of my dreams," he said, feeling his face get warm as he laughed. "Especially not the ones I've had lately."

She shrugged, but still couldn't seem to contain her smile. "Can I tell you a secret?" "Yeah."

"Promise not to tell?"

"Like anyone would believe me. If I told my brothers, they'd say I was hallucinating. Maybe I am. But, yeah."

She leaned in close to whisper in his ear, sending a warm, sensual breath into it. "It's soooo boring. I'm not complaining. Believe me, I'm glad that the pain and horror are gone, but I liked being alive, when I could feel things."

"Whoa," he whispered. "You shouldn't even think that, let alone whisper it. Words have power," he added, glancing around. "You could get in trouble, couldn't you?"

She nodded quickly. "I think so," she whispered, "but I don't know. I'm not sure what all the rules are yet, and I don't wanna get put out."

"Well, then, you definitely don't wanna step into my dreams," he whispered, leaning into her and making her giggle again. A light rose scent filled his nose, and he had to pull back to remember that he was talking to a ghost. "You're really pretty, and anything could happen in my mind. Not to be disrespectful. But it's been a very long time since, you know."

"If you think about me instead of Krissy, it might make it easier to be around her and easier to not be so mad at J.L., that's all I'm suggesting. I'd be bringing, uhmmnm team harmony. That's good, right? We could just talk, if you feel uncomfortable about... thinking beyond that. It could really, really cheer you up."

They stared at each other for a moment. "How about if I call you when I need somebody to talk to? I really like talking to you, Christine. You make me laugh and are already beginning to make me feel like I've got somebody of my own to hang out with."

"You do. I'll be your spirit friend. Besides, anything important that I hear from the other side, I'll bring it to you--and you can tell the others, if you need to," she whispered, cupping his cheek. "If something bad is about to happen, Dan, I promise, I'll come to you first, like I did now, if I can. Okay?"

Impulse drove him, and he quickly kissed her cheek. "Okay."

She covered the place where his kiss landed with her palm, and then just as abruptly, kissed the bridge of his nose. "Okay."

"Your aura is becoming lighter," she murmured sadly. "You don't seem as down anymore. So I did what I was supposed to do, which was cheer you up, and since you're not in danger... I suppose I have to leave. If they find out I visited you, at least I can say I did a good thing, brought a little joy to your spirit and made it brighter again. You have such a wonderful light inside, Daniel."

"Wait. Hang on," he said, trying to hold her ethereal body in the loose hug they'd been in, but she'd begun to dissolve. "If I'm really down in the dumps or in peril, you're allowed to come--but if I'm happy and safe, you have to stay away and not interfere with the living?"

She nodded and pouted, moving out of his embrace. "Unless you reach out in a dream... and I so want to be on this Guardian squad with you. On the astral plane is where your spirit and mine can dance and play. There'd be no distortion because you were in the flesh and I'm not. It's different there."

"But what if something, you know, risque happens in the dream?"

Her bright smile caught the waning sun. "What if it does? Wouldn't be my fault. You called me. Prayed for the physical agony to stop. Plus, I'd just be cheering you up in your fantasy."

He could see furniture that was across the room through her body now, and knew she was quickly leaving. Oddly, he didn't want her to go. Moreover, he was trying to adjust to the fact he'd just been thoroughly turned on by a very sexy ghost. If she kept this up, he'd sleep all day and all night, trying to hold on to her in his dreams.

"I don't know how To astral travel like a seer.... I'm a tactical Guardian. Before you go, you've gotta tell me how to call you, if I have to, uh, see ya again. It's been really bad, Christine, I'm not gonna he."

"Just dream me, and I'll do the rest. Put on the music to raise your vibrations to the love level, say a prayer for the pain to stop, call my name, and I'll be there." Her gaze held his for a moment. "The more information I get about the new Guardian who's coming, the more I can... sort of take on her shape for you when I visit, if you want."

Dan slowly shook his head and stared at her, imprinting her into his soul. "If you come to me like that, Christine, come as yourself. You're beautiful. Your spirit... your eyes, your face, your gorgeous, ethereal body, and your vibration is more than enough for me." His voice became a deep murmur of awed appreciation. "And if you're my secret friend, then... I'd wanna know you, not someone who's not here for me yet. I don't know her. I know you. I'll remember your energy tracer, always. Thank you for being there for me."

Christine covered her mouth with her translucent hand and briefly closed her eyes as tears brimmed in them. She let her shimmering palm fall away as she backed up farther, dissolving as she glided. "That's the kindest thing any man has ever said to me, dead or alive," she whispered. "The next time you go to sleep, call me, Daniel. I will most assuredly cheer you up."

"Would you feel it, though?" he asked, his tone urgent as she became harder to see. "Would you feel whatever my mind came up with? And, would? I mean, like you and I just felt that kiss?"

She waved and disappeared, leaving him her soft giggle to feel with her whispered answer. "Yes. Better. Just like it was real."

Yonnie opened his eyes the moment the sun went down. Tara's body instantly covered his. "Good evening," he said with a slow smile, somewhat confused by her passionate outburst. This was not the reserved Tara he knew, their new connection notwithstanding.

Her response was a hard, punishing kiss, and then she pulled away, breathless, her eyes wild and glowing red. "I have to feed."

"No problem," he said, growing concerned as he offered her his throat. "Take what you need, baby."

She scored his throat with such wanton pleasure that it made him arch. This was no mere feeding, and that Tara had initiated it was blowing his mind.

"Oh... shit. . ." he groaned, presenting fangs. "Had I known you were feeling like this all day, I would have stayed awake in lair and rocked your world."

"I need a body," she murmured hotly against his bleeding jugular. "Human."

"Whoa, hold up, sis." Yonnie sat up and held her away from him by her upper arms. He stared into her eyes, reading thoughts, gaining impressions, even though her ardor had made him pant. "I thought you said we weren't supposed to go there--no human deaths so we had a chance at Light conversion--"

Her fervent kiss stopped his words, and she pushed him against the jumble of red silk sheets then covered him in a hot swath of skin against skin.

"Yonnie, I need human blood," she whispered against his throat in a hiss. "I'm losing my mind... I need that now--can't you feel it? The power surge from below."

Tara's caresses against him were aggressive and soon she'd lit every pulse point he owned with fevered want. He could barely keep his eyes open as she mounted him and writhed against him. The moment he'd entered her, he'd felt it. Something stronger than he'd ever known tore through him and made him flip her onto her back. His arms trembled as he stared down into her eyes, and then they both watched a black arc of energy crackle through his aura. Yonnie threw his head back and groaned.

"You want a body? I'll bring you fresh kill in a minute."

Tara wrapped her legs tightly around his waist and reached up to hold his hair in her fist. "Take me to V-Point and then feed me," she said between her teeth, digging the crown of her head into the profusion of pillows.

The feel of her was exquisite, her passion genuine, and it was something that he'd longed for and had been denied. The deep moan that traveled up from her insides created near madness. Only a flicker of sanity made him ask himself why as he moved against her in hard thrusts.

"If I take a body for you then there's no going back," he said between agonized breaths. "Is that what you want?"

Her nails dug into his shoulders as she began to convulse with pleasure beneath him, nodding. Tears streamed down her cheeks, her eyes were shut tight. He dropped down to his elbows and held the sides of her skull, his fingers splayed in her hair, needing to know. Had it been any other vamp female, he would have gladly obliged, but after all they'd been through and knowing Tara as he did, something had to be wrong.

"Baby, talk to me," he said, kissing her face, her mouth, and her throat in a fast spill. Her wails of ecstasy were slicing at his libido, and even he wasn't sure how he was able to hold on without fracturing into cellular bliss.

"You're a councilman---just do it!" she shrieked.

Yonnie stopped moving for a moment and stared down at her. "What did you say?" he whispered very carefully.

Tara came out of the pleasure haze with him still lodged deep within her. "I don't know . . ." she sobbed, her voice catching in her throat. "Why are you torturing me?" He grabbed her jaw roughly between his fingers and turned her head to expose her throat. "No humans, ever," he whispered, feeling a new level of control simmering inside him. Something had definitely gone down.

"But why?" she moaned, arching her back to take more of him in.

"My Chairman's edict... unless I hear it directly from Rivera that he's changed his mind."

"He's no longer a vampire, Yonnie. He's no longer one of us." Her eyes were wild and desperate as they searched his for answers.

"He'll always be the one who elevated me--that's enough, no matter what he is now. My brother never lied to me... whatever's messin' with your mind I don't trust." He kissed her forehead, sensing a powerful darkness there that had been strong enough to compromise Tara's iron will. If it got to her, then whatever it was had to be serious.

"Then just do me," she said breathlessly, not sounding herself. "Forget the human."

Yonnie lowered his mouth to Tara's throat, siphoning a gasp from her as his fangs raked the fevered skin of her neck. "I won't go against our brother, or fuck up a chance to get out of Hell. But, V-Point, baby... any night of the week."

Lilith sat down very slowly on Dante's old battered throne, feeling it come alive at the armrests under her caress. As the red velvet fabric knitted itself together beneath her she closed her eyes, leaned her head back, and released a slow, burning breath of satisfaction. She would miss Dante sorely, no matter how insidious her treachery had been. He was special.

But that was then and this was now. She watched without emotion as the Vampire Council Chamber on Level Six began to reorganize itself and the abandoned, pentagram-shaped table slowly gurgled to life with black blood now pulsing in the veins of the marble. So much waste, so much strain on the empire... she well understood her husband's rage. She would not incur his wrath again with failure.

Concentrating on Carlos Rivera's essence, Lilith waited. The dark side of him that had been born from her machinations put tears of pride in her eyes---the entity had been so foul. Then the good one had killed it... just like the female Neteru had slain her Dante. The loss of her would-be heir, a dark Rivera, was profound, leaving a visceral hole in the evil empire--one of no less magnitude than Dante's demise.

Lilith glanced up toward the cavernous ceiling, enraged that even vampires in the new male Neteru's old family still would not submit to the lure of human blood or the temptation of an elevation, and were still loyal to the Neteru team. Guardians hadn't even been fully compromised!

Revenge gripped her and her nails grew to talons that penetrated the armrests. The Neterus would pay.

Slowly, through the haze of sudden fury, she felt it. The sensation came into her spine like a lightning strike and made her throw her head back and screech with laughter.

"Oh, Carlos . . ." she whispered, clucking her tongue. "Now I know your dirty little secret--the one thing that will fell you and will make you lose your mind. I own your greatest fear... and now I can turn the blade in your side, thus hers, just like she gored my womb. Wait until Damali sees this."

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