Book Two – Relic Defender: The Death Skull
Releasing from Samhain Publishing, August 2012
(Jackson and Marisol’s story)

Chapter One

The last place Jackson McKay thought he’d meet his maker was the rugged, snow-covered Himalayans. He slid feet first down the steep mountain. Pain pierced his right knee as he ricocheted off boulders. Skeletal shrubs snagged at his clothing and tore at his arms. His fucking useless arms as they were currently grasping a huge-ass Buddhist idol. He slammed his boot heels into the soft ground as he tried to find purchase in the slick slope. No good.

He heard shouts; he didn’t have time to listen as the lip of the Singalila Ridge came rushing toward him. Not too much further and he’d be flipped out into the deep gorge between the ridge and adjacent mountain then it was bye-bye Jackson.

A black leather-clad arm shot into his peripheral and snatched at the scruff of his neck. With a wrench that strained neck and back muscles, he came to a forced stop a few inches from the edge. The collar of his shirt cut off his air for a moment before his rescuer released him. Jackson flopped backward, lungs expanding as he took deep breaths. He laid on the sun-warmed slope, forcing his heart to stop trying to bust through his chest.

“Jesus, Mary and Joseph,” he muttered. That had been much too close. He could fancy he heard the devil screaming in rage that he’d been cheated of Jackson’s soul.

Lifting his head, he glared at the gold statute which stared back at him with blank, innocent eyes. “Hope you enjoyed that, you son of a bitch.”

“Come now, mortal, it is not the idol’s fault you fell.” The melted dark chocolate voice poured over him heating more than his skin. His savior shifted between him and the sunlight bursting through white clouds after days of rain.

Jackson lifted his gaze to the speaker. Haloed by the eye-burning glow, he could only make out the curves of her body and see the flash of white teeth peeking out from the slight smile he knew played upon her full lips. The same smile that held a not-so-subtle look of derision when she was around humans. With the cock of her hip and tilt to her head, he read the look of quiet satisfaction she felt.

Yep, the reason he wasn’t flattened like a pancake on the rocks below was because a bad-ass demon had saved his life.

Before he could respond to Mari’s taunt, rattling sounds came from behind. Pebbles kicked up by the arrival of Lexi and Mikos bounced around Jackson before taking a dive into the gorge yawning like a great beast for something to eat.

“Damn it, Jackson, that was too close.” First to slide to a stop near him, Lexi stood beside Mari and loomed over him. Lexi peered down and demand, “What the hell happened?”

“Lexi, my dear, language please,” chided Mikos.

Impatiently, she waved off her lover’s admonishment, but not before sending Mikos a hungry look that tugged at something deep within Jackson. Not that he wanted that for himself. Hell no. Such sappiness was not for him. Anything he felt now had to do with is near-death experience.

“So, what the heck happened?” she continued. “You trip over a rock?”

The dubious note in her voice said she didn’t believe he’d done any such thing. With good reason. They all had skills and talents; his was he was quite light on his feet. In his line of work, it paid to be.

“The human seems to believe the idol had something to do with his misfortune.” Mari, the she-demon drawled.

An eyebrow arched. “Oh?” Lexi said. “How so?”

Lord in Heaven, he wished Mari hadn’t heard him talk to the Buddha. Jackson had been staring at the statue, straight in the face, when he’d been struck from behind. Next thing he knew, he’d been flat on his ass, sliding to his death.

Except for her.

He gaze switched back again to Mari. Suddenly feeling very exposed and vulnerable on his back while the others surrounded him, Jackson said, “You all mind if I get up before I get the third degree begins?”

“Do you think you can without falling again, human? I may not be as inclined to save you a second time.”

He shot Mari an aggravated look then climbed to his feet, brushing off Mikos’ extended hand to assist. He’d get up on his own, damn it. Being rescued by Mari was a slap in the face of his manhood even though Jackson appreciated not dying this day. Fucking idol.

Now that he was standing, he felt confident in facing his three partners. Matching skeptical looks shadowed their faces.

“Okay, you’re up,” Lexi said. “Now, spill it.”

First. He shoved the idol at her. “Take the little bastard will ya?”

Despite the doubt darkening her expression, she took the Buddha and carefully put it into the carrying case lined with some kind of woo-woo stopping liner that was supposed to prevent the evil within the statue from leaking forth. Wish they’d thought to put the damn thing in there the minute they’d found it.

When he’d first been told the tale of the idol, he’d found it hard to believe that something that was supposed to represent something good could be so nasty. Guess it had to do with the cult that called forth a demon.

What the cult thought they were getting was some kind of sex demon so they could continue to indulge in their week-long orgies. Instead, the gold Buddha now played host to a death demon summoned from Hell.

Fucking idiots. He could only imagine the shock etched into their faces when instead of non-stop sex, the demon began killing them. Now he had the bastard. The bastard that, even locked within the statue, had enough power, and freedom, to send him to an early grave.

He explained to them what he’d felt. The drowning sensation when he looked into the idol’s eyes then the violent shove that sent him over the edge. When he was done, the skeptical looks hadn’t disappeared. At least, not from the women. From Mikos, the fallen angel redeemed by the love of a mortal, a speculative expression crossed his face.

Jackson turned to Lexi and Mari. “Well, shit, girls. Haven’t we seen enough weird things in the last few months to at least consider the possibility?”

Lexi shrugged. “Sorry, Jackson. It’s not that I don’t believe you. Just wondering why you were affected and we haven’t been.”

His turn to shrug. “Beats me.”

“Well, whatever happened, glad Mari was there to stop you from going over the edge.”

Yeah, I’m glad she was there too. There it was again, she’d saved him. Chapped his hide.

“Now that we have the blasted beast, can we get off this mountain?”

As if his words were the catalyst, a rush of sound filled the quiet afternoon high in the Himalayas. A red and white helicopter, a Bell 412 by the looks of it, rocketed upward from the gorge, soaring high into the blue sky before diving back down to hover in front of them. Dust and tiny chips of stone pelted their skins before the crazy pilot backed off.

“Show off,” Lexi muttered. Then, with her lips drawn tight, she headed for the copter.

Jackson couldn’t stop the smile. Gordon Reynolds. Gordie to his friends, pain in the ass to Lexi, was a twenty-one year old master at everything he did, including driving the woman who’d recently saved the world from a demon looking to take over Hell and destroy everything human, crazy.

Reckless, beyond smart and a total charmer, they’d found him shortly after the four of them, Lexi, Mikos, Mari and himself, had teamed up to protect mankind from the world’s dangerous relics. It hadn’t taken Gordie long to become an important part of their team, even as his risk-taking stunts tended to piss off Lexi.

Speaking of which— Lexi reached up and touched the earpiece. “Knock it off, Gordie, and get your ass down here. We have the Buddha. We’d like to leave now.”

“You got it, Boss. Give me a minute; the winds are pretty strong here.”

In recognition of that, the copter wobbled, rocking from side to side and dipping down below the ridge line. Jackson watched Mari while Gordie forced the copter to stop mimicking a see-saw. Lines crossed her forehead, and her mouth turned down. The she-demon did not understand why humans flew in metal boxes, as she liked to call helicopters and planes.

She and Mikos didn’t need to fly; they could blink in and out of existence any time they wished and go anywhere with a mere thought. Not that Mikos did, not when he was with Lexi. Mindful of her human status, he traveled the usual ways humans did. By car, train or plane. Mari refused to go anywhere near them.

When Gordie had the helicopter low enough, Mikos and Lexi leaped from the ledge into the wide open side. Jackson looked at Mari. A mocking smile pulled at the corner of her lips.

“You coming?” he asked even though he already knew the answer. The she-demon would not give up control to anyone, human or otherwise, but especially human. For someone helping save the human race, she had a rather low opinion of his kind.

“Not in that thing,” she said and jerked her head at the hovering helicopter.

“Jackson, let’s go,” Lexi shouted in his earpiece. “Gordie says a storm is coming. Fast.”

“Better get going, human. You would not want to be stuck up here by yourself.”

With a shrug, Jackson took off for the helicopter and leaped inside. As he grabbed the handle to pull the door shut, he stared at Mari. She stood motionless in the same spot, her head lifted to the darkening sky. The wind whipped her fiery red tresses into a tangle of curls and she still didn’t move. The defiant expression on her face was almost a dare to the storm to try and take her down.

He finished closing the door and sat back into the seat ignoring the considering look on Mikos’ face. To Lexi’s questioning lift of her eyebrows, Jackson said, “She’s going to get back on her own.”

Lexi nodded and turned to Mikos, sliding closer until she was nestled snug against him, head tucked under his throat. The fallen angel bent down and touched his lips to her forehead. An intimate smile softened her lips. Jackson pulled his gaze away and looked back out the window as the snow whipped around them. He could no longer see if Mari still stood on the desolate ridge. A place that seemed to fit her air of solitude. And strength.

Damn, the woman, demon, whatever, was a strong as hell. Larger than life. He’d never seen anything or anyone affect her. What would she be like if she allowed herself to feel? To allow herself to be emotionally engaged in a man.

And how lucky would be the man to pull them out of her?

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