MUST READ BEFORE READING BOOK 2,
Where does the road to Hell begin?
What happens when your son turns homicidal overnight and your husband disappears on his way to work? Do you cower in fear or fight for your life? Madison Wescott fights against the odds. Distrustful of a God she doesn't believe in, she finds herself face-to-face with a world she didn't know existed and discovers her own soul is darkened with demonic connections.
With good intentions? Or by demonic design?
Phoenix Birmingham bursts into Madison’s life in a whirlwind of sarcasm and sexual appeal. A hero for the masses—and for her jaded heart—but few will ever know the sacrifices he has made or the sacrifices to come. Discovering her entire life has been influenced by multifaceted paranormal beings, Madison is determined to defeat the apocalyptic blueprint fate has decreed, but only one man dares to challenge the supernatural forces manipulating them. Even with Phoenix's aid, can destiny be denied? Or will demonic design prevail while they pay the crucial price with their souls?
In a small, sleepy Alabama town the battlefor mankind's liberty has begun...
“What?” Madison Wescott said with a mixture of disbelief and irritation. She considered her son, Amos, and adamant denial surged in the form of a pounding headache. She’d come to the doctor for answers and this screwed-up diagnosis was what she got?
“Ms. Wescott, all the tests came back normal.” The doctor scratched his chin. The idea of him being intrigued over her son’s dilemma pissed her off. She forced aside the urge to whack him with her purse. “Everything except the anomaly with his blood.” As he said this, he scrunched his features as if the abnormality still perplexed him. “Fascin—”
When his glance landed on her hands twisting into tight fists in her lap, a flash of wariness became evident in his ordinary brown eyes. His insensitive choice of words made her want to pop him in the eye. She settled on giving him a contemptuous stare.
The doctor cleared his throat, his Adam’s apple bobbing nervously. He failed to meet her gaze as he continued, “Otherwise, I can assure you there is nothing physically wrong with him.”
“Just psychologically?” she drawled with enough sarcasm to frighten a heavyweight boxer.
“With the right psychiatrist and medication…Um….”
She would not drug her child into a zombie state so everyone could cope with his condition. He was already a zombie without medication.
“We think—” so refreshing the doctor only thought and didn’t have a damn solid answer, “—he can live a relatively normal life with medication.”
“Relatively?” she echoed, baffled at how the doctor could think his diagnosis would make her feel better.
“Dissociative Identity Disorders are not the end of the world, Ms. Wescott.”
Dissociative Identity Disorder my ass! The new, feel-good medical terminology for multiple personalities. Something else plagued her child. Putting a nice, neat, medical nametag on the disorder didn’t alter the diagnosis or make her feel any freaking better.
Although…. She stared at her son. He sat on the table, his legs swishing back and forth like any high-energy child. Amos glared at the doctor with enough malice blazing from his baby blue eyes to send shivers of uneasy dread scuttling up her spine. Yeah, she couldn’t deny something was amiss, but she trusted her gut, and it said something more than Multiple Personality Disorder troubled him.
Two months ago, he’d been a happy, healthy, normal child; one who giggled often and adored his feline and canine companions. The next day, he’d been mute and homicidal.
He snapped the cat’s neck the first week of the change, receiving multiple scratches before he managed feline murder. Five years old, and he displayed a marked increase in strength. Explaining the violent incident in the emergency room would have been difficult in the best scenarios. She endured hostile glances from the medical personnel, certain they whispered about her being a bad mother. She read the silent warning in their eyes and knew Social Services would be called if it happened again. If she thought they would help, she’d call them herself. Either way, she didn’t want or need a repeat performance of the event ever again.
The dog came next. Amos sliced and diced her with a kitchen carving knife, and Madison had no idea how or when he procured the weapon. She left him playing alone in the fenced-in backyard long enough to pour a glass of iced tea, couldn’t have been more than five minutes at most. When she returned, she found him and the dog on the back porch. Blood everywhere. Amos’s blond hair had been speckled with the stuff, his pale face splotched red, his hands coated to his elbows like he’d used the hemoglobin as lotion. The clothes on his chest blossomed with the substance, as if he’d wallowed in the sanguine fluid. The smile on his face…her hands trembled at the memory. She’d choked on a scream and retched over the side of the railing until she could do nothing more than dry heave.
Amos had caught a fly, and she’d been amazed at his quick reflexes. Afterward, he tortured it, holding it steady with his fingers while he pulled off its legs before moving on to those fragile wings. Stunned by his ability to inflict torture without emotion, she’d stood immobile until the last moment when she’d slapped the insect out of his hand. Those horrible incidences heralded the beginning of his atrocities.
Twice he’d tried to stab her, slicing her upper thigh the second time. As she stitched the wound herself, she contemplated what she’d done wrong when she hid all the knives on the top shelf of her bedroom closet. How had Amos reached them? When the gash turned an angry shade of red, she worried about infection. She’d slathered the wound with antibiotic ointment, added warm, salty compresses, and luckily, the cut healed after two months. Still tender, she would wear the ragged scar of her son’s attack for the remainder of her life, but she refused to give up on him, or allow anyone to know the total truth of his ferocity. The protective instincts of motherhood had kicked in. Nothing on earth could force her to betray him.
He’d kicked, scratched, and bitten her more times than she could count. When each violent episode ceased—sometimes he snapped out of it in the middle of the rage—he would collapse in her arms. Often, he dropped into a coma-like sleep. Other times, he sobbed until exhausted sleep claimed him. His heartbreak broke her heart.
The doctor didn’t seem to notice her distress—just as well—and continued in his patronizing tone. “This disorder always involves some sort of trauma, Ms. Wescott. Your frank honesty can help us determine the trigger and proceed accordingly.”
She ground her teeth hard. “Nothing has changed in his life.”
Shortly after Amos turned two, her husband walked out the door. Not a word from him in the three years since. In those ensuing years, they moved through the routine of normal life and birthdays without his father.
“I’m sure if you would consider—”
“Enough!” The doctor flinched in surprise as Madison came to her feet with a snap. She sent him a hostile glare, snatched up her purse, and held her hand out to Amos. “Let’s go, baby.”
Amos pushed off the examination table while the doctor’s mouth opened and closed like a fish. Her son smiled at him, his docile expression still somehow reeking of evil intent. It creeped her out when her baby gave such an iniquitous, yet smug glare. She couldn’t explain the expression. Something about his eyes screeched not just evil, but also malevolence.
A pungent aroma reminded her of rotten eggs. She put a finger to her nose, but nothing helped obliterate the stench. It had become stronger lately. God-awful described the scent perfectly. Madison peered at the doctor. “Do you smell that?”
“Sulfur,” he whispered, his face pale as rice paper. The doctor gawked at her son. He tossed the chart aside, jumped to his feet, knees popping, and said in a wobbly voice, “Ms. Wescott, I don’t think you should walk out that door.” He stared at Amos, not sparing her a single glance through his statement.
The doctor’s hands shook and fear parted his mouth. Wondering at his sudden alarm, she peeked at Amos. A fiery orange glow surrounded the outer perimeter of his blue eyes. The color arrived with each of his violent episodes. The child blinked, and the color dissipated.
“We really must put him somewhere we can watch him around the clock and run tests, so we can find out what’s causing his problem.”
Her narrow-eyed gaze snapped to him. “No.” More tests with no answers weren’t an option. As long as she breathed, her son would never become a lab rat. “He does not leave me. Ever.”
Anyone who tried to take him would be a dead man.
Madison chewed on her fingernail. Through her window, she watched her neighbor staple up a missing pet poster across the street. “Fluffy” numbered the eighth missing animal that month. Would her nightmare ever end?
She released the curtain, turned with the sound of the heavy fabric swishing behind her, and walked to the liquor cabinet. Not normally a drinker except on special occasions and then usually only wine or champagne, Madison stared at the few bottles of spirits that lined the shelf. Jack Daniels really, really wanted to be her companion, or at least her amnesiac friend. Only stupidity would drive her to drink to oblivion, because drunkenness would resolve nothing. On the morrow, she’d awake with a hangover and the reality her problems hadn’t changed at all, or arise to a new horror that Amos had committed while she’d been passed out.
She rubbed her eyes with a tired sigh. Eight missing animals on one street, all of them dead by Amos’s hand. The proof of his deeds lay bloody and deceased in her home each morning. It’d been two months since the doctor visit, and things were decidedly worse. Denial hadn’t helped her son get better, so a couple of days after the appointment, she called the doctor and asked for the medicine to help his Dissociative Identity Disorder. The pharmaceuticals accomplished nothing. A month after starting the prescription, her five-year-old baby sat at the dinner table and explained how he planned to rip her apart and celebrate by taking a bath in her blood. He’d been heavily medicated at the time. Afterward, he went selectively mute…again.
Two of the three psychiatrists the doctor referred her to passed Amos off to another doctor for treatment. During the consultation, the third doctor ran from the office screaming about “Satan’s spawn,” very unprofessional in her opinion, not to mention melodramatic. Confused how to proceed, she returned home from the botched third psychiatrist meeting to find a nasty message from him on her answering machine, telling her nothing short of an exorcism or death would help Amos. He ended with a demand she not call his office again or he’d have a restraining order placed against her.
Two months and three days after the last doctor visit, Amos’s deeds were escalating. Butchering the neighborhood pets in late night romps and sneaking them back into their home to leave the evidence all about. God help her, bringing mutilated animals into her bed on more than one occasion. After committing animal murder, he would climb back into bed covered in his victim’s blood and sleep the remainder of the night.
She relocated him to her bedroom, hoping she’d wake when he climbed out of bed. For the first time in her life, she became a dead sleeper rather than a light sleeper. She lived in a constant state of panic, wondering if Amos would ever get better or if her neighbors would discover his jaunts. What would they think if they learned the lengths she would go to cover up his murderous acts? She tried not to contemplate her ultimate fear of his victims becoming the two-legged variety.
Using an alias and going against her belief—or rather non-belief—she went to the Catholic Church. A priest performed an exorcism. Nothing changed.
She visited an herbalist. They administered herbs and performed an incantation, incense smoke clogged up her sinuses. Again, nothing changed.
In desperation, she turned to a witch doctor. He conducted his ritual, and still nothing changed.
Recently, she’d contacted her umpteenth psychic, Georgie, who claimed to have all the answers. Georgie said she was in Kansas that week, but she would send help to Alabama soon. The psychic talked a good game, but being jaded came with a lot of trust issues. A nervous giggle jerked through Madison.
We’re not in Kansas anymore.
She ran a hand down her face. She’d started doubting her sanity. She’d even doubted Georgie’s sanity when she suggested Amos caused her heavier sleep pattern to carry out his vicious escapades unhampered. Impossible, right?
Georgie cautioned that evil lurked near, a depravity she couldn’t contain. One to devour Madison’s soul if she weren’t careful. The psychic’s hellfire and brimstone prophecy pushed belief boundaries too much for Madison to accept without proof.
She shook her head. Satan? She wasn’t even sure she believed in him or his demons. Her Christian parents would think her blasphemous, but if wickedness existed, her parents couldn’t help her with this dilemma because they were dead. Seven years in the grave.
Regardless of religious beliefs, Georgie refused to explain further, just promised help. Madison had yet to see any assistance. With each passing day, hope grew distant and out of reach, a smoky mist she couldn’t wrap her fingers around.
With defeat as her constant companion, a weight heavy on her shoulders, she wasn’t ready to give up fighting for Amos. Not yet. She shut the liquor cabinet, turned, and walked up the stairs to check on Amos.
She found him in his bedroom, sitting on the floor at the foot of his bed. Cars littered the floor around him. The tip of a knife rested in the palm of his hand, the handle horizontal and spinning, unaided by touch.
All the knives had been removed from her home, so where had he acquired that one?
Madison closed her eyes, counted to ten, and prayed she hallucinated. She opened her eyes and felt her heart lurch into her lungs. Nothing had changed!
Blackness narrowed her vision; she struggled to maintain consciousness. Amos turned his head toward her, his eyes shining with the strange, orange glow, and his wide-eyed expression articulated without words, “Look what I can do!”
He came at her so fast she barely released a half-scream before he kicked her feet out from under her. She hit the floor hard, the breath whooshing from her lungs, her teeth jarring together. He jumped on her before she gasped. Instinct took over, thank God. The blade glinted—serrated, odd she noticed something so trivial—as he slashed it toward her neck. She caught his wrist an inch from her throat.
Nix stepped out of his 1968 Dodge Charger and leaned against the driver’s side door, waiting for his uncle, James Birmingham, to join him. Taking in the picturesque neighborhood, he noted perfect lawns and picket fences straight out of Desperate Housewives. A wide, wrap-around porch engulfed the stately, historic-looking yellow house. Blooming plants hung from the eaves, and a white swing swayed in the breeze where the porch wrapped to the other side. This was how the rich and cultivated lived. He felt as out of place as a redneck president in the White House.
Nothing appeared wrong, but experience taught him appearances could be deceiving. Besides, Aunt Georgie had forewarned something sinister traumatized the family within, and rarely were her visions wrong. Her worry bothered him because she never fretted over any client’s problems. Knowing a demon stalked the woman and boy inside this moneyed home bothered his aunt profoundly.
Demons were bad news for anyone. Unlike the garden variety ghost, Hell’s spawn were wily bastards and before one could be eliminated, the exact kind must be assessed.
The worst of the breeds were the Kings of Hell. No one he knew personally had ever bumped into one, and at best, the Sherlocks—a network of folks like himself who hunted supernatural creatures—only knew sketchy information about them. What they believed but couldn’t confirm without a Q&A session with one was that they were the first four angels to fall from Heaven. They all knew Lucifer fell first, since he led the war against God and His human creation. The fallen angels possessed their own bodies and were holy by nature, which meant holy water and crosses caused them to suffer no harm. Exorcisms expelled baseborn demons from their human hosts, yet would most likely only piss off a King. Sherlocks were uncertain if a King could be defeated at all. A scary prospect in his line of work.
Unfortunately, Aunt Georgie couldn’t lock down the exact type of beast terrorizing this family. Which meant Nix and his uncle would have to wait until the creature showed itself before they would know how to get rid of it.
What did the hell spawn want with this child and mother anyway? Neither was sick—at least not sick in the way to indicate they were dealing with a Plague Demon. A Cardinal Demon could be involved if the child went homicidal, but to his knowledge, Cardinals weren’t known to possess children.
Nix ran his hand across his mouth and watched his uncle come around the front of the Charger. “You sure Aunt Georgie got the address right?” Nix asked, looking up at the swanky, two-story home.
“Yeah.” James sighed. “The owner contacted her. Georgie said Ms. Wescott sounded desperate.”
“I don’t know, Uncle James. This doesn’t look like the local hotspot for demonic activity.”
They’d seen stranger. “High class demon. That’s unusual.” Most of their clients weren’t living the high life, they were down on their luck or one step from the grave, which was where a demon always put them.
They rapped on the door and waited. Nix peered at his uncle, rolling on the balls of his feet, hands tucked into his pockets. James’s wrist flexed to knock again, when the scream ripped from inside. They tossed a silent glance at each other, before the older man kicked the door in. A crash from upstairs and Nix climbed the flight two steps at a time, his uncle racing behind him.
Throwing the door open, Nix caught sight of a towheaded boy, not more than five or six, straddling a woman, a blade in his hand. The woman clutched the child’s thin wrist and struggled to keep him from carving her up. Her grunts and groans were barely audible over the boy’s high-pitched cackles. From the looks of the gash on her throat, a slim line of blood winding back into her blonde hair, the boy was serious about killing her. The woman was no match against the child. Logically, she should’ve possessed more strength than he did, yet she resided on the losing end of the battle. When Nix reached the scuffling duo, he grabbed the boy by the collar, and yanked him off the woman.
The child shrieked. The inhuman sound abruptly stopped, and the boy whipped around. The blade glinted in the sunlight coming through the bedroom window. He sliced down.
The blade caught Nix on the forearm. Blood bloomed. “Son-of-a—”
He jumped back as the boy slashed again, a rabid gleam in his eyes that made Stephen King’s Cujo look tame. The weirdness failed to stop there. The child flew at him, his bright blue eyes rimmed in a wide orange ring. Fast and strong neglected to adequately depict the boy’s technique. Impressed by the youngster’s ability, Nix could appreciate being an extra in a Chucky horror flick if he knew it wasn’t real. But this….
The blonde woman jumped to her feet and screamed, “Amos, stop it!”
The boy ignored her, grinning at him as he tossed the blade back and forth between his hands. The child’s strange behavior promised retribution in the worst, bloodiest way. Nix absorbed the notion the child might possibly be able to back up the taunt. James sputtered a Gregorian exorcism and the kid abruptly stopped.
Almost simultaneously, the woman repeated James’s chant, impressing Nix with her ability to pronounce the Latin words. Impressing him further by thinking on her feet and hopefully understanding they were there to provide assistance.
The youngster’s head whipped around at an unnatural angle to glare at his mother. He wagged his finger at her and seconds later, she slammed against the wall, crashed into the bedside table, and knocked over the lamp. Shattered glass pinged against the hardwood and filled the eerie moment. The boy cocked his head to the side and eyed James. Less daunting smiles had curved the lips of sadistic demons engaged in perverse torture.
“Sulfur,” Nix said. The room reeked with the mineral’s tang.
James nodded, yet said nothing as he focused on chanting the Latin words. The woman managed to crawl to her feet, repeating his uncle’s phrases in a breathless whisper. She stepped up behind the boy. Astonished, Nix watched her reach for the child.
Gutsy. Bold. Foolish. Death wish. All those words came to mind.
When she placed her hands on his shoulders, the boy collapsed in her arms, to all appearances peacefully asleep.
“What the hell was that about?” Nix panted, breathless from fighting off the nearly rabid boy.
When the woman lifted her blonde head, her blue eyes—the exact shade of the child’s—rendered him motionless. What a babe.
Tall, leggy, and full breasted. Just his type of woman. Not that his tastes were discriminating. Sometimes this job held perks, and right now he stared at a sexy perk.
The woman stared at them, mistrust evident in her blue eyes. “Who the heck are you?”
“James Birmingham, ma’am,” his uncle said. She glared at his extended hand, hers full with the limp child. James approached her cautiously, nodding toward the boy. “Let me.” He moved to take the youngster from her. She pulled away, mistrust stark in her gaze.
With a grunt, she lifted her son and placed him on the bed, straightening his limbs and tucking the covers under his legs. When she turned to face them, she glanced at Nix. “And you are?”
“Phoenix Birmingham. Nix to my friends.”
She sized them both up, but Nix couldn’t tell from her blank expression what she decided. Trust apparently not established, she remained near her son.
“You’re Madison Wescott?” James asked. Nix continued to watch her and witnessed the flinch of surprise when his uncle said her name. “Georgie sent us.”
She nodded at the boy. “This is my son, Amos.”
“The problem Georgie spoke of,” James confirmed.
“May I?” he asked. She nodded and James pulled a small cylinder out of his pocket. Engineered by brainy Sherlocks to look like breath freshener, the container held holy water. Uncle James depressed the tip, spraying his fingers with the liquid, and marked a cross on the boy’s forehead.
Nothing happened. James glanced at Nix. “He’s not possessed,” he said, shrugging.
The Gregorian exorcism had also pulled zero out of the child, which indicated nothing demonic resided within him.
Madison spoke up. “Something is possessing him.”
The statement tugged at Nix’s bizarre sense of humor, and he chuckled. She glanced at him sharply, eyes narrowing as he commented with a lopsided grin. “The first step on the road to recovery is admitting there’s a problem.”
The look she gave him could have withered roses. “You find this funny?” she snapped. “He’s five, Mr. Birmingham—”
“Nix,” he corrected, catching his uncle’s disapproving glance and disappointed sigh.
“—and your humor is inappropriate.”
He scratched the back of his head, and shuffled his feet like a chastised five-year-old. “Sorry.”
“Your insensitivity is duly noted.”
“We should look at that.” Madison nodded at the blood saturating his shirtsleeve, hoping the gash wasn’t too deep.
The square-jawed stranger overdue for a shave, jabbed his finger between the sliced material of his shirt and widened the opening to get a better look at the wound. He winced, and shrugged. “I’ve had worse.”
“Not in my home.” She shuffled her fingers through Amos’s hair, ruffling the flaxen strands off his forehead. “He’ll be out a while. My first aid kit is in the kitchen.”
“Mind if I sit with him?” James stared at the child with a thoughtful frown on his face.
“Why?” Suspicion should be her middle name. Trust should be earned, except, she needed to trust someone. Georgie had sent them; she’d come through, which was more than she could say about any of the other psychics.
“To keep an eye on him.” The older man pulled a device out of his pocket. Lights covered the top of the contraption. With no idea what the item could be used for, Madison watched him manipulate its gauges. “I promise I won’t do anything to him without asking your permission first.”
She tossed every rule she ever taught Amos out the window. The men were strangers, but she would allow them to stay. She glanced at Phoenix. Light brown hair, spiky in the front, giving the impression his fingers couldn’t stay out of the short strands. A slightly crooked nose, probably been broken at least once. A walking pheromone, quite possibly the sexiest man she’d ever seen in a pair of well-worn jeans. Not that she liked his abrasive attitude at this point.
“I guess it’s okay.” She grimaced, a headache threatening to batter her temples. “Come on,” she said to Phoenix, who glanced at his uncle before following her. “Sit,” she instructed when they entered the kitchen.
The chair Nix pulled out scraped against the floor, as she retrieved the first aid kit. “Mind if I ask you some questions?” Phoenix sat and stretched his long legs out in front of him.
“Go ahead. Want some coffee?” She dumped the supplies on the table. “It’s already brewed.”
“Yeah, thanks. Black.”
She poured the coffee, placed the mug on the table and pulled out a chair beside him. “Give me your arm.”
Phoenix laid his arm in front of her. He watched closely as she rolled up his bloody shirtsleeve. A conglomeration of tattoos flanked his arm and disappeared beneath the torn pieces of his shirt. She wondered how far they went up and how many blanketed his skin. She resisted asking. They appeared nicely done, but she knew little to nothing about tattoos and couldn’t make an informed opinion.
She bent over the cut and got to work. As she cleaned away the blood, she realized the gash wasn’t as bad as she thought. A stitch or two might be preferable, but it’d heal okay without them. The swirly hieroglyphic stylized tattoo wouldn’t be as lucky. Cleaved in two, it would be forever dissected. He should consider himself fortunate. If not for his quick reflexes, Amos might have hacked his arm off.
“How long has he been like this?”
“Amos?” She glanced up. Phoenix nodded. “A little over three months. He was fine one day, happy, chatty, and the next….” She struggled to hold it together. The strain wore on her, she couldn’t sleep, couldn’t focus on daily chores, worried without end, and hope had grown thinner than a sheet of ice. “The next day, mute and homicidal.”
“Did he suffer any trauma?”
Madison jerked the antiseptic soaked gauze over his arm. “I swear to God if someone asks me that one more time, I’m going to take his head off!”
“Or arm,” he said dryly.
Her glare snapped to his. She’d just about endured enough of his smarta—and suddenly she grew aware how forceful she’d become in her anger. Contrite, she muttered, “Sorry.”
He let her finish cleaning and bandaging the wound in silence. Probably out of self-preservation.
“Your tattoo won’t ever be the same, but you’ll live.”
He shrugged. “Won’t be the first tat to suffer.”
Unsure what to say to his statement, she remained silent. She finished securing the bandage, and he flexed his arm.
She shook her head. “No.” She packed the supplies back into the box. “Just lots of practice lately.”
Phoenix placed a hand over hers, keeping her from tucking away the kit’s contents and motioned to her neck. “You’re bleeding, too.”
Madison touched her throat, shocked when her fingers came away smeared with blood.
“May I?” He held up the medical supplies.
She nodded and watched as he doused gauze with antiseptic. “Dr. Nix at your service,” he said with a grin, two adorable dimples charming her where words failed.
Madison rolled her eyes, and tipped her head to the side to give him better access. He brushed her hair off her neck, back behind her shoulder. Such a simple gesture, yet it felt terribly personal. The air grew thick and sticky with her awareness of him. She shifted in her seat and crossed her legs.
Madison stared into his eyes. Green, she thought, his eyes were green, gorgeous and intense, with ridiculously long eyelashes women would fantasize about. If they didn’t, they should. A flicker of compassion, concern, and something else she couldn’t identify flashed in his eyes.
“Ready?” he asked.
The husky tenor of his voice forced her gaze to shift to his mouth. Nice, sexy lips, designed for kissing. She gave a mental shake but couldn’t resist wondering how his mouth would feel on hers.
“Madison?” Humor deepened his voice, a touch of a smile tilted the edges of the lips she’d been fantasizing about, and she realized she still stared at them. “You ready?” he asked again, and her eyes widened in embarrassment over her foolish stupor.
She swallowed hard. “Yeah.” She whispered past the lump in her throat and forced her vision to lock on the wall over his shoulder. Good God, what was wrong with her? Her pulse throbbed like crazy, and she felt woozy. Loss of blood! Must be why she reacted that way. No other explanation made sense.
Even though the antiseptic stung like hell, the gentle touch coming from such a gruff man surprised her. “It’s not bad,” he said, dabbing the blood away. “Just a nick.”
Well, she could nix the blood loss theory. Exhaustion and stress were the only other excuses she could come up with. “I’ve suffered worse.” Her voice sounded off, kind of hoarse. She tried to clear her throat delicately, but he must have noticed her unease, because his perceptive eyes met hers. Again, she thought she caught the edge of concern reflected in their green depths.
“This isn’t the first time he’s attacked you?”
“No. It’s the first time he’s tried to seriously kill me, though.” She sighed as she closed her eyes, ready to give up fighting, the sudden tears threatening to fall. Okay, woozy and acting strange because of strain…not because of him. Seriously, as far as first impressions went, she wasn’t impressed.
Madison opened her eyes and stared at him, unsure of Phoenix Birmingham’s efficiency or professionalism. She decided not to jump to judgment just yet. “Finished?” she asked, her throat tight, burning from the effort to hold back her emotions.
“Yeah.” He tossed the gauze on the pile in the center of the table and leaned back into his chair.
Her motions jerky, she tossed everything back into the first aid kit, trashed the bloody gauze, and washed her hands.
“You sound and look exhausted.”
A lifetime ago, his honesty might have offended her. Now, she wasn’t worried about her appearance. With her son’s life in jeopardy, her looks weren’t important. She stared out the kitchen window, gravesites, like dirty little secrets, pock marked the lawn. The pet cemetery in her backyard placed the important things in life into perspective. “I am exhausted and a breath away from giving up,” she admitted for the first time. She turned to look at him, leaning against the sink.
Phoenix sipped his coffee. “Where’s Amos’s father?”
She hugged herself in an unconscious protective gesture. Imminent defeat hung heavy on her shoulders. “I don’t know. He walked out shortly after Amos turned two. Haven’t heard from him since. Personally, I hope the bastard is rotting in a terrorist prison, being raped and tortured on an hourly basis.”
“Bloodthirsty much?” he quipped, elevating his eyebrows, a half-grin on his mouth. Her gaze narrowed, and he said quickly, “It was a joke.”
She sent him a spiritless smile, telling herself to get a handle on her sensitivity. “Yeah,” she agreed with a sigh. “I guess I am a little bloodthirsty where he’s concerned.”
“I didn’t mean what I said upstairs.” He crossed an ankle over a knee. His green-eyed inspection crawled all over her, starting at her feet and ending with her hair.
She couldn’t get a read on his quick appraisal of her. Did she even want to know?
“My mouth gets away from me sometimes.” He rubbed his fingers over his bottom lip, a sexy move that betrayed his awkwardness. The mother inside her wanted to reassure him.
“So, tell me your story.”
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