Red Kiss Excerpt
“What kind of demons live in the ocean?” Emma could barely get the words out, couldn’t breathe. Her heart was beating a crazy, terrified tempo, hammering in her chest.“Water demons,” River said angrily. “Nasty, vicious, mindless creatures who only want one thing. To take you back into the deep with them forever. And trust me . . . you don’t want that.”
He kept wielding that gleaming sword, cursing and commanding the creatures to back down, but then he stopped speaking in English. He began booming away in what sounded like ancient Greek; she recognized the language because she was Greek American, and her cousins Mason and Jamie actually spoke the old language. It also explained the accent that she’d noticed earlier.
Suddenly, without a sound or word, he pitched forward, falling onto his knees. Had the demon pack injured him? Her own feet remained bound: he’d been stopped in the middle of freeing her. “What’s wrong? God, River, are you all right?”
He turned to her, his stare wide and panicked. Those emerald-golden eyes were truly otherworldly now, shining with a supernatural energy that made her shiver. But at that moment, the strength in his radiant gaze seemed to flicker, dim slightly.
When she saw his force ebb, she became truly terrified. Without River, she’d be sucked into the ocean, drowned like Leah. She began squirming and flailing against the demon that held her, but it reacted with a suctioning pressure, leeching onto her legs with new vigor.
“River!” she shouted, giving her legs another struggling kick. “Don’t fade on me!” The creature reacted by dragging her several more feet into the water.
She jerked her head in River’s direction, and was relieved to see that whatever momentary weakness had overtaken him, he was already getting back in the game. But he still looked pale, not as strong and vital as he had earlier.
“I’m . . . stronger,” he said, shifting a sword in his palm.
She pried at the demonic grip on her body, but couldn’t get a solid hold. Not that she could see the entity, but she could feel how slimy-slick and cold its tentacles were. They kept sliding out of her grasp with every attempt she made to fight back, cinching her tighter. As she battled the creature again, it began slithering one of its appendages along her inner thigh, seemingly intent on working toward a highly disturbing destination.
Feeling the motion, she panicked. “River? River! This is starting to get way too personal.”
“I always protect my own,” he proclaimed in a fierce tone, and began hacking at the unseen assailant. Finally, she felt the slippery creature release her and she scooted back on her bottom like a crab, scuttling as fast as she could toward freedom, not even stopping to draw breath or say a word. The demons’ reach was obviously limited to the lapping edge of the waves, and although they could slither onto the sand, they were bound to the water itself.
Once she was out of the demon’s grasping range, she scrambled to her feet and continued backing away from the horror she’d just experienced. No way would she let those demons grab her again. No flipping way. River moved with her, sword raised, and then when they reached the highest ground, he glanced at her.
“You’re safe,” he said in a rasping voice. “Good, Emma . . . stay here. Safe.” Then he fell to his knees, almost as if he knew he could let go now. As if her safety released him to stop fighting whatever weakness kept hounding him.
She hesitated, looking between him and the shore, wanting to believe that she was out of danger, but worried about this brave man who’d saved her life. She reached a hand to his shoulder. “How can I help you? What do you need to be all right?”
He pitched forward onto his elbows, and for an eerie moment his entire form was covered by a silver cloud. It wrapped about him and he released an agonized groan.
Then, just as quickly, the haze disappeared. She rushed to his side, dropping to her knees.
“What’s happening?” She brushed a tangled mass of waving golden-brown hair away from his face, needing to see him more clearly. “Tell me what’s happening to you, River.”“Protecting you.” He obviously struggled to breathe, his strongly muscled chest heaving with every breath. On any other day, that gleaming and powerful physique would have had her ogling like crazy. Instead, she only noted his supreme physical beauty because it confirmed her earlier thought about his dagger—that his beauty reflected an inherent goodness.
Yes, that lean, rippling body had to be a physical manifestation of something much more powerful. More than that, deep in her marrow—that place of spiritual listening—she believed in the man’s goodness. His soul and spirit hummed with a kind of noble purity, no matter how dangerous he claimed to be.
His head dropped forward, touching the sand; he moaned again and it was a deeper, rolling sound from the center of his body. She leaned closer, placing a palm on his bare back. “You’re going to be fine,” she whispered, hoping she wasn’t offering a false promise.He rocked slightly on his knees, keeping his head bent against the sand. It was as if he was trying to comfort himself—as if he’d been in this situation before, and had learned the hard way that only he could soothe his own suffering.
“Shh,” she tried, stroking his shoulder, which was tanned a rich shade of sun-golden brown. A muscle rippled beneath her touch, one that was as finely sculpted and toned as the rest of his nearly nude body. Beautiful. He is stunningly beautiful.Exactly like that dagger had been. In some way that she couldn’t understand, they were one and the same, the weapon and the man.
River’s eyes drifted shut and then a shimmer of silver flowed across his skin, a glowing pulse that seemed to run through his veins. Emma watched, refusing to fear the way his body morphed before her eyes.
“Listen to me.” She clasped his shoulder, squeezing. “Why are you turning silver? Is it something to do with your dagger?”
Eyes still shut, he nodded his head with a slight moan. “It wants me . . .”Emma tried to restrain her panic at the thought of River vanishing on her. “You can’t go back inside that dagger, River,” she told him in a steady voice, trying to get him to focus on her words, to prevent him from disappearing. “I won’t let you go back, you understand? Because those demons are all around us still.”
His eyes drifted open again, and he focused their glazed depths back toward the attacking demons. The silver vanished completely, his entire demeanor becoming resolved and alert once more. She shivered, realizing that the glowing silver force had wanted to consume him, had tried to seize him. Or wanted to turn him back into a dagger against his will.Struggling to his feet, River swayed a moment, then sank back down to his knees. “Emma, go. Leave me and get away from these demons. I’ll hold them at bay while you escape. They’re bound to the water, but the tide is rising fast because of the storm. You’ve got to get farther away.”
She sprang to her feet, about to run for the trees as he’d advised, but she couldn’t. She just couldn’t leave this strange warrior man, not after he’d saved her and was now apparently in some sort of peril of his own. Having seen that strange silver cloud that tried to overwhelm him, and after hearing his frantic pleas for her help earlier, she knew one fact. He needed her as much as she needed him.
She reached him, taking hold beneath his arms. “Come on, bub. I’m getting you out of here.” But he was so unbelievably heavy, his body slick with rain and ocean water. He was larger than she’d realized, solid, without an ounce of fat. Those hard muscles made him even more difficult to heft or move, especially since her grasp on him kept sliding and slipping.
He looked up into her eyes, his own green-golden depths growing unfocused, and his entire body shaking with unsteady tremors. “I can’t hold my human form.” He covered her left hand where it grasped at his arm. “Am going to be a dagger. Again. If I change, keep me. I promise . . . I won’t hurt you. Will be careful with you, Emma.”
Those gorgeous eyes slid shut, and he mumbled something else, something about Aristos, then Leonidas. Like the famous king from that 300 movie? Okay, he was obviously out of his mind with whatever he’d been through. And she wasn’t much better; she felt weakness begin to overtake her, too, but she had to get River back to the main island, to safety. Maybe by the time she paddled them both there, he would be more coherent and could explain every living detail of this crazy nightmare he’d dragged her into. Or, then again, maybe she really was just dreaming, some horrible nighttime vision quest.But unlike the nightmares where she sometimes had to seize control and wake herself, she remained on the windswept and rainy beach with the slumped warrior resting in her embrace. His ankles dug into the sand where she’d been dragging him, two small furrows marking where she’d already hauled him.
“Damn it, I’m getting you out of here, River. You saved me and I’m gonna help you now.”She gave his body a heaving tug, and there arose more howling, low guttural noises of the water demons. When she got out of this mess she was going straight to her cousins’ house. Mason had always been a straight shooter, and they’d been really close at one time. He’d give her the skinny on what the living hell these water demons were all about. And how a man could turn human after being a dagger, or how he could even start out that way to begin with.
“Yep, Mason will get this all sorted out,” she said aloud, working to calm her nerves.“He’s too far away,” River mumbled, his eyes opening again.
“Mason Angel? How do you know Mason?” she asked in panic. Okay, the entire situation was getting weirder and scarier with every passing moment.
River began struggling against her, and rolled out of her grasp. He bent over double, his long hair falling across his face. She couldn’t read his expression, not through the tangled mass of light brown hair.
“Em, please,” he nearly begged. “The demons will keep coming for you, but if you get to the tree line, you’ll be safe there.”
She took hold of his nape, forced him to look up at her and slapped him across the face. Not too hard, but enough to get him more alert. “No. Do you hear me, Dagger Man? No flipping way. You saved me, and now I’m gonna return that favor.”
He grinned, laughed a little. “You saved me first, milady. Don’t forget that.”And then, without any warning whatsoever, that silver cloud encircled him again. Or maybe it just swallowed him whole. She couldn’t say for sure, but she no longer held a man’s nape. That man had dissolved and vanished within her grasp.
Instead, she clutched a weapon that was so intricately carved and gleaming with silver brightness that she nearly had to squint just to gaze at it. There, instead of the man named River, she clasped a renewed and polished version of the dagger from earlier. His dagger, right in the palm of her hand.