The vintage Victorian cottage should’ve been beautiful, with its Palladian windows framed by tall, white arches, its rough-hewn stone façade and its quaint wraparound porch. It was the kind of house that brought to mind comforting images of checkered tablecloths and apple pies cooling on windowsills, no different from any number of historical homes found in Newport, Oregon.
But as Regan climbed the creaking wooden steps leading to the weathered oak door, all she could think about was death. Her nostrils blistered from the smell of it. The stench of charred flesh permeated the air, as did the lingering energy of something bright and powerful.
“You feel that?” Marcus crowded beside her, his wide frame dominating the narrow stairway and making her all too aware of the tension coiling through him. The same tension that snaked through her.
She nodded, her hand rising to the hilt of her dagger. “Cal was right. Something weird definitely went down here. I’d bet my departed soul on it.”
With a concentrated thought, Marcus unlatched the door and sent it swinging inward on well-oiled hinges. Being a soulless, immortal creature with tainted angel blood had its benefits. They crept inside, unsheathing their daggers as they entered.
The stench intensified, and Regan wrinkled her nose in disgust. “I think I’m going to lose my lunch.”
“I warned you not to eat that cheesecake.” Thick, dark hair brushed his forehead, fringing eyes that glinted with a hint of humor. Marcus’s icy features and penetrating glance gave an impression of lethal efficiency, but despite the dead-serious expression he favored, he could be quite a tease.
“A girl has to get her perks somewhere.”
She didn’t stick around to hear Marcus’s witty comeback. Using her unique ability to fold space, she materialized in the kitchen, where the smell of seared flesh grew so thick, her stomach curdled in response. Something had definitely been flash-fried here, and it wasn’t apple pies.
Holding her breath, her heart pumping a million beats a minute, she circled the counter and glimpsed behind it. Regan had witnessed her share of horrors over the past three decades as a Watcher. She’d seen people turn on each other, their souls corrupted by prolonged exposure to her kind. She’d disposed of countless shrunken carcasses, both human and not. She’d experienced the devastating effects of war and seen women and children ruthlessly slaughtered. But none of that had prepared her for the sight that greeted her in this sun-dappled kitchen.
A couple lay sprawled on the terracotta tiles in an awkward display of limbs, their skin mottled and gray, staring up at her with empty eye sockets. Bones protruded at sharp angles, the bodies atrophied beyond recognition. The two victims were nothing but skeletons with leathered skin, and yet according to the Watchers’ leader, Cal, the disturbance he’d sensed in the atmosphere had occurred mere hours ago.
Marcus’s tall form suddenly filled the doorway. “Find anything?”
“You could say that.”
He closed the distance between them, took in the macabre scene. Apart from a slight twitch in his jaw, his countenance gave nothing away.
“Could be a Rogue attack.” Only a Rogue would leave such a mess behind.
Her partner frowned, his features carved in granite. “No. This energy is different, made of pure light. I sense no darkness in this house.”
Marcus possessed a very special skill. He read energy patterns like a signature. His ability to recognize the different frequencies each life-force emitted and determine exactly who’d been in a given location and where they’d gone never failed to impress Regan. That was what made him the Watchers’ most valued tracker and the best partner she could’ve asked for.
“Then what could’ve done this?”
He didn’t answer. Instead, he made his way to a small pantry at the far left corner of the kitchen and swung the door open. Crouching on the floor, his thin arms wrapped around his bent knees, was a boy of no more than seven or eight.
The child scuttled back when he saw them, pressing his spine against the wall. A shiver coursed through him, and he looked up at them with wet, startling blue eyes. “I killed them.” He bit back a sob. “I killed my parents.”
Regan instinctively took a step toward the child, but Marcus stopped her by raising his arm in warning. “Don’t get too close.”
“He’s just a little boy.”
“A little boy who just incinerated his parents.”
The kid began to weep uncontrollably, and Regan’s heart constricted. The urge to comfort him spread through her, a painful ache in her gut. She’d had a boy once, a baby she’d willingly abandoned in a futile attempt to protect him.
For some reason, this child reminded her of Jace. She’d only seen her son as an infant and then as a grown man, but she’d often imagined what he would’ve looked like as a child. This boy’s image matched the one she’d always carried in her head.
“We can’t just leave him in there.”
“This is beyond our scope.” A beat of silence followed. “We need to get Cal down here.”
The second Marcus pulled out his cell phone to call their leader, Regan fell on her haunches to sit at eye-level with the boy. “What’s your name?”
She wasn’t sure he heard her. It was pretty obvious the kid was in shock. “Ben—Benjamin,” he whispered after a long pause.
“What happened here, Ben?” She gave him an encouraging smile, tried to keep accusation from seeping into her voice. The last thing she wanted was for him to shut down on her. “What happened to your parents?”
Tears leaked from the corners of his eyes to drench his cheeks. “He hurt me.”
“My dad. Here.” Benjamin pointed to his arm, and only then did Regan notice the finger marks, faint red lines that threatened to blossom into a bruise. “I got scared. I thought he was going to hit me again. He always hits me when he gets mad.” He started to sob again.
“You’re not scared now, are you, Ben? You know you’re safe with us.”
The boy shrugged, reluctantly nodded. “I think so.”
“Then why don’t you come out of that pantry and let us help you?”
He trapped his lower lip between his teeth until it blanched. With the heartrending wariness of a wounded animal, he climbed out of his hidey-hole.
Ignoring Marcus’s warning, Regan placed a comforting arm around his shoulders and guided him out of the stifling kitchen onto the porch, where the bitter stench of his parents’ remains abated, no longer serving as a cruel reminder of whatever freakish nightmare had taken place within this house.
Benjamin inhaled a long, shaky breath. He looked so small and lost, his eyes huge in his pale, freckled face.
“Is that better?” she soothed.
He nodded, hugging himself with his skinny arms.
“I can’t help you unless you talk to me, kiddo.” With a smile meant to encourage full disclosure, she ruffled his scraggly cap of reddish-brown hair. “So tell me, what happened after your dad grabbed you?”
“I saw them. Like that. Then it happened.”
The boy shook his head emphatically, closed his eyes and covered his ears with his palms. A low whimper resounded from his throat.
Nice going. You pushed him too far.
Squatting in front of the child, she gently removed his hands from his ears. “You don’t have to tell me,” she reassured him. “Only if you want to.”
“I don’t want to.” Each breath he drew into his lungs rattled in his chest. Panic laced his voice. “Please don’t make me. I don’t want to see it again.”
“Cal’s on his way. He’s bringing Jace and Lia.” Marcus lumbered onto the porch, only to skewer her with a disapproving stare. “I thought I told you to keep a safe distance.”
She rolled her eyes. “Do I look hurt to you?”
Marcus’s steely composure finally fissured, and exasperation swamped his features. “And I thought your son was stubborn.”
Regan didn’t validate his comment with a reply. She’d never openly admitted to anyone at the Watchers’ complex that Jace was her son. Everyone believed she’d drowned her baby shortly after birth. Only Jace and his soul mate, Lia, knew the truth. But Marcus had guessed, and he refused to let it rest.
Realizing he wouldn’t get anywhere with her, his midnight blue gaze settled on the boy again. “Did the kid tell you anything?”
She stood and weaved her arm with Marcus’s, leading him to the opposite end of the wraparound porch, where Ben was less likely to hear them. “Not much. His name’s Benjamin, and from what I gather he was acting in self-defense. He still hasn’t told me how he did it, though.”
Marcus lapsed into deep thought, his face growing distant and blank, the way it usually did when he struggled to work something out in his mind. He leveled an intense stare at Ben, who gazed vacantly into space.
“What is it?” she asked.
He shook his head, uncertain. “His energy is so pure, it’s blinding.”
Their kind had the ability to see a human’s essence, Marcus more than most. A soul usually manifested itself as a pulsing, white glow encompassing the person harboring it.
Her partner was right. Ben’s life-force was exceptionally bright, as powerful as it was innocent. “A child’s soul usually is.” A sudden breeze blew, sending a flutter of red curls dancing over her eyes.
“Not like this. His shines even brighter than Lia’s did.”
Regan shot an assessing glance Ben’s way. “Are you implying what I think you’re implying?”
The stoical expression returned, shuttering Marcus’s eyes and cutting her off from his thoughts. “Let’s wait for Cal. Hopefully, he’ll have some answers.”
Marcus hated it when certain pieces of a puzzle evaded him. He’d been around for a long time, much longer than Regan. He’d lived through several wars that had nearly obliterated humanity, had an intimate understanding of evil because he’d once belonged to it.
And yet, despite the horrific scene he’d glimpsed within this gingerbread house, he sensed no evil on these grounds. A different force was at play here, one that was both foreign and familiar and dwelled in the brittle frame of a small human boy.
Regan had already taken a liking to the kid. Despite Marcus’s repeated warnings, she kneeled beside him, a motherly arm draped around his shoulders, whispering soft reassurances to him. The compassion in her amber eyes was unmistakable, bordering on devotion.
Sunlight fell in sheets to blanket her, softening the lines of her face and setting her hair aflame. The sight of her elicited a slow tug in his abdomen, and he shook his head in frustration. If ever there was an enigma he longed to solve, it was Regan. He’d worked side by side with her for over three decades, but the inner workings of her mind remained a mystery to him. Maybe that was the thing about her that intrigued him so damn much. She was a Watcher, as soulless as the rest of them, and yet emotion ruled her.
Oh, she talked a good game, fought real hard to hide it, but he’d always seen past her act.
Today, even the carefully erected façade she struggled to preserve had crumbled.
The kicker was that when he gazed upon Benjamin, he, too, was gripped by the crazy urge to comfort and protect. There was something infinitely compelling about this kid’s aura. Something that reminded him of the humanity he’d lost, scraped at old wounds and stirred echoes of a past he preferred to keep buried.
The familiar black Lexus SUV abruptly rounded the corner and grinded to a halt in the driveway behind his Escalade. Cal, Jace and Lia poured out of the vehicle simultaneously, and headed their way. From his vantage point, Marcus had a clear view of the street and of Regan and the boy, who were tucked in a quiet corner of the balcony, more toward the back of the house.
Moving as one, the Watchers steadily climbed the stairs.
“They’re here,” he told Regan, who stood abruptly, donning her trademark air of indifference.
He shot her a you’re-not-fooling-me-so-don’t-even-try look, then focused his full attention on Cal.
“Where is he? Where’s the boy?” Cal always got right down to business.
Reluctantly, Regan moved aside to reveal the child.
Their leader approached Benjamin with wary reverence, his golden head bleached by the harsh, midafternoon sun. Cowering beneath Cal’s mercurial gaze, the boy stumbled back, stopping only when the back of his shoes struck the wooden railing.
Marcus didn’t blame the kid for wanting to flee. Cal was…intense, to put it mildly. Add to that his height of nearly six and a half feet, and he had the potential to strike fear even in a grown man’s heart.
“Don’t be afraid,” Cal rasped, and the boy visibly relaxed. Intensity aside, the man had always had a calming effect on humans. Maybe it had something to do with his saint-like features or the mellow, almost hypnotic cadence of his voice.
Whatever the reason, Marcus was grateful for it because the last thing he wanted was to upset Benjamin. From what little Regan had learned from the kid, fear was the catalyst that had triggered the chemical reaction that had pulverized his parents.
Assuming it was a chemical reaction. Right now, the only thing they could be sure of was that they couldn’t be sure of anything.
“Are you an angel?” the boy whispered, reaching out his hand to tentatively swipe at the air around Cal.
Cal stilled, Jace arched two curious brows, and Marcus barked out a laugh. “Something like that,” he said, since everyone else had apparently gone mute.
Jace and Cal exchanged conspiratorial glances, and Marcus bristled. Ever since they’d returned from their mission in the catacombs, where Jace had fulfilled his destiny by destroying their most powerful enemy, Athanatos, Marcus couldn’t help but feel he was out of the loop. For nearly two centuries, he’d been Cal’s right-hand man, and now he felt excluded, the butt of an inside joke, plagued by an unwavering certainty that these two knew something he didn’t.
Reclaiming his composure, Cal pried his attention from the boy long enough to issue an order. “Marcus, Regan, why don’t you show Lia the bodies? Perhaps she can make sense of what happened to them. Jace and I will speak with the boy.”
Marcus opened his mouth to protest, but his leader shot him a quelling look. “Alone,” he added, his tone non-negotiable.
Biting back a retort, Marcus hastened into the house, feeling as if he’d been sucker punched. Till now, whatever conspiracy Jace and Cal shared had puzzled him, nothing more, nothing less. But suddenly, resentment shot through him, making bitterness sour in his throat and anger bubble in his veins, reactions that were all too human for his liking. One hundred and ninety-three years of loyal service and this was how Cal rewarded him, by treating him like an afterthought.
Inside the kitchen, Lia hunkered over the remains, examining them. She’d been a doctor back when she was human, and in these types of situations her old skills proved an asset.
“I’m not sure what to make of this,” she said. “There are no visible lesions. All their organs have been liquefied, as if they came in contact with some kind of acid. The skin looks practically mummified.”
Regan crouched beside Lia, concern pleating her thin brows. “Is there any way a little boy could’ve done this?”
“A human boy?” Lia shook her head. “Not likely. Then again, I was able to project energy before I turned.” She shot an apologetic grin at Marcus. “Sent you flying across the room, if I remember correctly.”
Since her transformation, Lia’s memories of her past life were somewhat fuzzy, but with each passing day they grew clearer, thanks to the bond she shared with her boyfriend, Jace. Jace was the only Watcher who had a soul—two to be precise, the same two souls that had once belonged to Lia.
A short pause followed. “Unless—” Furrows lined Lia’s forehead, and she grew silent.
“Unless what?” Marcus probed.
“Unless he’s a twin soul, like I was.”
Marcus nodded, satisfied. “My thoughts exactly.”
Back at the Watchers’ complex, Regan stood guard as Ben slept, curled in a ball, a flimsy blanket drawn all the way to his chin. After they’d burned down his house, along with all evidence of his parents’ death, they’d decided to bring him here to Cascade Head, where—at the heart of a sprawling metal construction once rumored to be a secret military base—the Watchers had set up their headquarters a year and a half ago. Reinforced with numerous shields meant to keep their enemies out, the complex was the safest place for Ben.
For the time being, anyway. She knew he couldn’t stay here forever. Regardless of how pure his essence was, he was still human, which meant prolonged exposure to the dark energy her kind emitted would eventually corrupt him.
The thought depressed her. Now that his parents were gone, he was all alone in the world. What would become of the child?
Careful not to wake him, she smoothed down the wild locks of his hair. The uneven tufts felt soft and rough at the same time, like coarse silk. He looked so tiny, so harmless, it was hard to imagine him causing the kind of damage she’d witnessed in that kitchen today.
But he had. He’d admitted as much himself.
He turned sideways in the makeshift bed, an old cot she’d set up in her stark, no-nonsense room. Hardly a room that would appeal to a child. For the first time, she regretted the lack of decor, the lack of warmth or personal detail. The only thing that added a splash of color to the place was the forest green chenille throw she’d draped over his thin body. His small hands fisted around the blanket, drawing it against his chest the way he would a shield.
Emotion pooled in her throat, and she swallowed to wash it away. She’d always had the ability to feel, but never with such vivid intensity. Something had changed in her today. The part of her that had once been human had come alive again.
All because of this lost little boy.
“If you’re not careful, you’re going to give yourself away.”
Marcus’s voice startled her, and her gaze shot to the door, where he stood leaning against the doorjamb. Black jeans hugged his long, sinewy legs, and a dark T-shirt stretched over his wide, muscular chest. An uneasy sensation blossomed in her chest, and she looked away. Her partner painted a compelling picture. The kind of picture that could make a woman forget who she was and all the promises she’d made.
But most unsettling of all was the glint of shrewd intelligence she always caught in his eyes. Marcus had a way of looking at her that made her feel vulnerable and entirely exposed.
“I have no idea what you mean,” she lied.
“You’ve been wearing your heart on your sleeve all afternoon. If you keep it up, the others will notice and start wondering if you’re feeding on the sly.”
The most common way for their kind to experience deep, unadulterated emotion was to ingest a human soul, something the Watchers were loath to do. That was the very thing that set them apart from their enemies—the Kleptopsychs and the Rogues—who had no such qualms.
Regan resented the accusation. “That’s a load of bull, and you know it. I’ve never taken a soul. Ever.” Her link to her lost soul was strong, always had been, especially after she’d taken the blood vow. As long as that soul remained in circulation, free to be reborn, she could fight the dark urges that perpetually plagued her kind.
She met Marcus’s penetrating stare in blatant challenge. “Can you say the same?”
“We’re not talking about me.” Swaggering into the room with an arrogant confidence that annoyed the hell out of her, he dragged a chair next to the bed and folded his tall, lean body into it. “What’s going on with you, Regan? I’ve always suspected that you feel a little more than the rest of us, but you’re usually pretty good at hiding it. Lately, though, you’ve grown careless. First there was that whole business with you training Jace behind Cal’s back, and now this.”
She closed her eyes, released a tremulous sigh. “You’re not going to let this go, are you?”
“I can’t.” Concern swam in his dark blue gaze.
“Why? Why do you care?”
He reached out and clasped a strand of her hair, rubbing it between rough fingers. “Because we’ve been partners for over thirty years and I’d hate to see your pretty little head end up on the chopping block.” Briefly, his eyes fell to her mouth, and her stomach clamped in painful response. “That would be a terrible, terrible waste.”
She swallowed her discomfort and fought to ease her galloping pulse, certain he could hear it. “Yeah, you’d have no one to boss around anymore.”
The crooked smile he gave her made her forget how aggravating he was. “I do enjoy that. Not that you take orders very well.”
He released her hair and leaned back in his chair, lacing his fingers as though struggling not to touch her again. Regan wasn’t sure if the sensation that traveled through her was relief or disappointment.
“So what do you make of the boy?” he asked, abruptly changing the subject.
“There’s no darkness in him. I’m sure of it.”
“We didn’t sense the darkness in Lia either until she died. A twin soul can mask these things. Especially one so powerful.”
“No.” Her tone was adamant. “He has no tainted blood in him.” She realized she was clenching her fists and forced herself to relax.
Marcus eyed her reproachfully. “You’re too invested in this. You’re not thinking clearly.”
He was probably right. Ever since she’d pulled Ben out of that pantry, her emotions had been in a tailspin. She wasn’t used to this, didn’t know exactly how to handle it.
“I know what I feel.”
“That’s the problem. You’re feeling.” Deep grooves lined his forehead. “And so am I.”
“You heard me. There’s something about this boy. Something different, potent. And it scares me.”
His confession stunned her. Marcus rarely admitted to feeling anything, let alone fear.
Ben stirred again, and briefly his eyes sprang open. He gave her a tentative smile, his cheeks dimpling, and affection blossomed in her once-withered heart. She fought the urge to stroke his hair again, to let her palm linger on his face.
When she was certain Ben had drifted back to sleep, her attention shifted to Marcus. “There’s nothing to be afraid of,” she whispered. “He’s just a boy.”