Mortal Obligation (Dark Betrayal Trilogy #1)

Chapter 2

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“It's alright, Ree. Probably just a bird or something. Freaky timing, though.” He shook his head ruefully and pulled out of the parking lot.

Chapter 2

The Center wasn’t far, but parking was dreadful. They were finally able to find a spot three blocks away and Ree was glad Paden had insisted on driving. She hated to parallel park— it was always a rather painful and embarrassing ordeal. The Civic Center was decorated in bright colors for the winter holidays. Twinkle lights were strung through the trees and Ree could hear Christmas music drifting into the street from some of the surrounding stores as they half-walked, half-ran toward the entrance. Weylin and Melanie, the friends that were waiting for them, were already standing in line.

Weylin was leaning against a railing with his hands in his pockets. He always looked so casual with his light brown, tousled hair and laughing brown eyes. Melanie was talking to some people Ree didn’t know, which was nothing unusual – she seemed to have friends everywhere. Ree waved at Mel, and smiled when Weylin held his arms out to hug her. He swung her around, making her laugh, and then ruffled her hair. She shoved his arm away and tried to fix the mess he’d made of her hair.

Bryce was standing with an arm around Juliette as they chatted quietly. They had apparently beaten Ree and Paden by a few minutes. Michael and the others were nowhere to be seen; thank God. She really hoped their tickets had them sitting somewhere far away from that group.

The line at the door was moving along pretty quickly now that they were seating people for the concert. As they neared the door, Ree reached into her pocket for the concert tickets Paden had handed her earlier that night.

“Crap!” She reached into her other pocket and grimaced. “I'll be right back. The tickets must have fallen out in the car.” She started to head back to where they had parked and Paden jogged after her.

“Wait up. I'll walk with you,” He slowed to her pace and looked down at her. “It's not safe out here by yourself.”

She suppressed a sigh as she looked up at him and smiled instead. He really was a delight to look at. The moonlight glinted in his eyes, and shone along the planes of his face. His hair waved gently in the light winter breeze. “My, aren't you the chivalrous one today? My very own knight in shining armor.”

“Always at your service, Milady.” He swept a bow in her direction.

She chuckled and hoped it was dark enough to conceal the blush creeping up her cheeks. She just could not seem to stop that reaction when he was around. As she had gotten older, she had been drawn to him. He had a stubborn face, but with an undercurrent of sensuality that hadn’t been there when they were younger. She rolled her eyes at herself. How had she ever missed how cute he was?

It felt weird to be uncomfortable around Paden. She had known him most her life. When she was little she told him everything. When she had reached high school, he stuck up for her. Even when his best friend, her brother Tristan, had started going downhill, Paden watched out for Ree. As the popular jock, he had enough pull to keep the nerdy art girl from being an easy target for jokes and ridicule. All of his friends had been so rich and beautiful, the opposite of Ree. They all lived in a different world than the one she inhabited. Some of them often made a face when he would make a point of stopping and talking to her. Or worse, they had looked at her in pity, making her feel like she was a lost puppy they wanted to pat on the head. Well, all of them except Jules, Bryce, Melanie, and Weylin. They had seemed to get her. And, in spite of Paden’s social status, she had never felt uneasy with him. She was quick to spout off her random thoughts to him where she would normally become tight-lipped with others. She never felt like he was judging her or secretly waiting to get away from her. In fact, he seemed to enjoy her company. After the accident he had made a point of checking up with her every week. He went to her art showings at school and bragged about her to his family so much that his younger cousin, Claire, started going with him, too. He had even taken it upon himself to interrogate her homecoming date last year. But now . . . things were different.

Did he resent looking after her? She had never asked him to fill Tristan's shoes. When Tristan died in the car accident, it had seemed that being around the family had helped Paden as much as it had helped the McKennas. It had been a comfort to have someone to look after her at first, but recently the fact that he treated her like a younger sister had actually started to grate on her nerves. Would he ever be able to see her as a woman? Would she always be the gangly art nerd in his mind? Ree had grown over the years, and while she might never look anything like Juliette, she had fleshed out nicely. Tall and slim, she had natural blond hair, dark blue eyes, and a light sprinkling of freckles over her nose. Some days she liked the freckles, other days they were the bane of her existence. She was definitely not Angelina Jolie, but she wasn’t without her good points. She sincerely hoped he would see that one day.

They rounded the corner just in time to see someone duck into an alley near their car. Both of them stopped in their tracks. “Did you see that?” Ree whispered.

“Yeah.” Paden shivered. It was unnerving to see the skin crawl along his neck. “Be careful, Ree. Let’s make this quick.”

“Definitely,” she agreed.

They hurried to the car and Paden unlocked the driver’s side door so she could search the seats and floorboards.

“Ah ha! There you are!” She backed out of the car and held the tickets toward him. “Got’em!” Paden didn’t notice; he was looking up and down the street, then back toward the alley. “Er, what is it? Did you see something?” She looked around suspiciously.

“I keep feeling like someone . . . .” He trailed off, shook his head, and locked the door. Ree stared at him for a moment before licking her lips nervously. “Like someone is watching you? Like someone is staring at the spot just between your shoulder blades?”

“How did you know?” He shivered and ran his hand across the back of his neck, trying to smooth the goose bumps away.

“I’ve felt that way all night.” She shrugged her shoulders, trying to look calm and sane. Sane was important. “I didn't realize anyone else felt it, too.”

“I was beginning to think I was going crazy.” He chuckled before motioning for them to start walking back.

“You’re not the only one. It’s nice to know I’m not losing it. Not insane.” She settled into a stride next to him.

“Well, sane. Hm. I don't know if I would go that far, Little One.” He chuckled when she frowned up at him.

She hated it when he called her that. It made her sound like she was still five years old. Surely any moment he would reach over and ruffle her hair. That would definitely make things worse. How could she ever get him to see her as an adult if he kept doing things like that? She crossed her arms over chest. “Why do you insist on calling me that? Maybe I should start calling you the Jolly Green Giant.”

He laughed loudly and threw a friendly arm over her shoulders. It was always nice when he touched her. She shivered just a bit in pleasure, careful to not dislodge his arm. He pulled her a little closer, obviously thinking she was cold. “You're just so cute when you’re angry. I can't help it.”

She elbowed him gently in his ribs. “It's not nice to irritate people, O'Reilly. I'm going to have to find a way to get under your skin.”

He looked down at her and there was an intensity she hadn’t noticed before as he scanned her face. His eyes lingered on her lips for just a moment and she felt like he had actually touched them. He gave himself a small shake before shrugging. They continued in silence for a while, and Ree realized they were almost back to the Civic Center. The area taken up with waiting fans was now deserted.

Paden dropped his arm and hurried his steps. “We’re going to miss the cover band! Let's hurry up.”

Ree rolled her eyes. “Relax. They probably haven't even gotten on stage yet.” When he didn’t slow down she quickened her pace to match his long stride. Paden hesitated mid-step, and Ree saw the swirl of black out of the corner of her eye. Seemingly from nowhere a man in dark, dirty clothes stood between them and the steps of the Civic Center. Alarm bells rang in her head, screaming there was something very wrong. Goose bumps ran over the length of her body and she froze where she stood.

“Alastriana,” the man rasped. The cracked whisper sounded like breaking branches in the middle of the night. It sent chills down her spine, causing all of the hair on her head and arms to stand up. Silence made it feel as if they were standing under a bubble, somehow removed from the rest of life in the down town area. Her breath puffed out in a cloud of steam as she felt her heart beat erratically.

Paden grabbed her arm and stepped in front of her, effectively shielding her from view. “Can we help you?” His whole stance had shifted. Suddenly his six-foot, two-inch frame looked intimidating. His muscles were taut and ready for anything. Even his voice sounded deeper and more authoritative.

“Alastriana.” The dark man reached a hand out toward them, his fingers curved into claws. “Give me the Alastriana.”

Chapter 3

The alarm bells in Ree's head grew louder, shriller. Something was building in her, making it hard for her to breathe. A hot feeling prickled under her skin, the energy moving and shifting in the pit of her stomach, choking her breath.

“Paden! Watch out!”

Before she had finished that short sentence Paden had wrapped her in his arms and thrown them both to the concrete ten feet away. She barely had time to register the impact of the cold ground before she felt something brush over their heads. The strange man barely missed them with his outstretched fingers as he seemed to fly past. Without thinking, she pulled out of Paden’s arms, rolling to her knees, and flung her hands in the direction of the man. If you could call it a man. A feeling akin to boiling water seemed to bubble out of her. With a shout, green energy flowed from her hands and collided with the thing, splintering its body. There was nothing left except for a fine dust floating to the ground.

Paden was on his feet before the gritty flakes settled. He walked over and kicked at the pile, but the ashes disappeared as he watched. He looked around the area, but there was no one else to be seen. Ree moaned and sagged back toward the ground. She propped herself up on one elbow, the other hand cradling her head. Paden rushed to her side, and cool hands cupped her face.

“My head.” She gasped as he tenderly stroked her temple, and after a moment the pain began to recede. Carefully, she opened her eyes and looked up at him.

“Are you alright? What was that? What did you do?” His voice was a harsh whisper.

Ree shook her head, just as confused as he was. A wave of exhaustion swam over her, and she had to fight a yawn. But the feeling between her shoulder blades returned, and the heat swimming in her stomach allowed her to shake off the heavy sense of sluggishness. Paden growled and jumped to his feet, his gaze constantly shifting.

“Watch out,” someone said from behind Ree. A woman, dressed in jeans, a black turtleneck and boots walked into her line of sight. “There’s one more.”

“Ms. Diakos? Sophie?” You could have knocked Ree over with a feather. Sophie Diakos was the owner of the antique shop where Ree had been hired a couple of weeks ago. She reminded Ree of a Greek goddess — tall, slender and exotic. Despite her regal looks, Sophie was kind of young to own her own business, maybe in her mid-twenties, and she insisted Ree call her by her first name.

Before the woman could respond, Paden made a sputtering noise. His hand reached up to his mouth, his fingers feeling along his teeth. “Whath the hell?” he said. “My teefth!”

The shop owner gave a bark of laughter before doing her best to stop smiling. Ree shot her an angry look before making Paden move his hand. Wide-eyed, he shook his head no.

“Dammit, Paden. Let me see!” She yanked his arm down and stared at him until he opened his mouth. Slowly, he bared his teeth in a grimace, causing Ree to gasp. “Fangs. Paden, you have fangs!” Her eyes were huge as she looked at them. She couldn't seem to tear her gaze away from the white pointy teeth. In his tan face, it made a striking appearance. Actually, it bordered on frightening.

“Don’t worry, dear. It’s natural. You’ll get used to them soon enough.” Sophie was a picture of calm. “Right now we have more important concerns.”

“More importvanth? More importvanth van fangths!??!” Paden demanded, pointing at his teeth.

Sophie chose to ignore him, but the corners of her mouth twitched. “Yes. I’m sorry I wasn't here for the first one. The second gave me a merry chase and managed to lose me near the river.”

“Ms. Diakos, what’s going on? What are those…things?” Ree stopped and took a deep breath. Why were they asking for her? By name, no less.

Paden had closed his mouth, careful to avoid his fangs, but he was nodding his head vigorously. Apparently he was going to avoid talking if possible.

“Sophie, dear. Call me Sophie. And I realize all of this is a bit of a shock, but right now we have to focus on other things. The other Dark One is still out here, and it’s not playing by the rules.”

Ree whipped her head around toward the far side of the Civic Center parking lot. Sophie nodded her head in appreciation. “Yes, it’s watching us. Deciding on its next move. They hadn't thought you would be able to call the power this early.”

Paden stepped forward and crouched down into something Ree could only assume was a fighting stance. He growled, baring his fangs. His face was angry, his eyes flashing, and Ree was struck by how menacing he looked in that moment. His body tense, muscles flexing, he looked fierce. She shook her head to clear it. If there were ever a time to not notice how attractive Paden was, now would be it.

The shadow of the creature shuffling toward them bounced off of the parking blocks as it walked under the street lights. Paden growled again, this time much louder. Her friend stepped in front of her, blocking her from the direct sight of the scary creature a few yards away.

“Patience, Paden. Let me handle this one.” Sophie walked forward, her stride purposeful and deadly. Her hands were at her side, slightly outstretched, a faint green glow forming at her fingertips. She turned briefly to look over her shoulder, and Ree realized she, too, had fangs. “Watch what I do, Alastriana,” Sophie said.

Ree could now see that the creature was a man. He approached slowly, his stride smooth. “Guardian, we weren't expecting you.” His voice wasn’t as brittle sounding as the other’s had been, and Ree briefly wondered why.

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