Bittersweet seraphim, p.2
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       Bittersweet Seraphim, p.2

           Debra Anastasia

  She put her hands in his hair and stilled him. “How long do we have?”

  He held out a hand to show her the tremors that had already begun. “Not long, Jenny. I will submit to the compulsion. Brut has already returned.”

  “I need you inside me. Be warm inside me.” Jenny stepped into the shower, and Nero stepped out of his pants to follow her. She took the soap and a washcloth and rubbed him down between kisses and strokes.

  By the time he’d lifted her and pressed himself into her, the shaking, the vibrating of his damnation made her tremble too. Before his release he stopped. “Jenny, we are not the same. I cannot fulfill myself in you.”

  “Nero, I don’t care.” She wiggled, and the soapy shower wall allowed her to slide down.

  He couldn’t speak. His manhood had entered her as far as he could go. She was so much colder than he was, pure bliss and silk and release. She tossed her wet hair and screamed, and he was done, the sight of her panting with pleasure emptied him. Her nails dug into his skin, and he gently nipped her shoulder.

  He wanted to stroke her again. He wanted to lay with her and watch her hair dry, but he was done. His power to fight had left him as his arousal washed out like a tide. There was no goodbye, no words of caution. He had nothing to say to her as he returned to the shed.

  When he arrived, Brut was already working, but he greeted Nero with a deadly smile. Nero took his place, naked, and began to shovel.

  “Want her.”

  Mid-shovel, Nero lifted his blade and slapped Brut with all his might.

  He staggered and laughed. “You cannot fight the minion who knows all your secrets, can you?”

  Working again, because he must, Nero shook his head. Brut was right. If he wanted to see Jenny again, he’d have to endure Brut’s taunts. The last thing he needed was his escape hatch revealed. So with every shovelful of coal, Nero endured Brut’s new, steady cadence: “Want her. Want her. Want her. Want her.”

  Chapter 3

  Jenny washed his pants, so she could get the Hell out of them, but they disintegrated in the machine. She sat down and cried when she discovered she had nothing to remind her of their night.

  It was stupid, she knew, to think a folded pair of pants beside her bed would be a promise he’d have to keep. He was a minion—or else she was stark raving mad with a very pornographic imagination.

  At night she still dreamed of him, but now, instead of just Nero and their passion, Brut’s eyes always watched. She often woke with the crystal-cold sensation of not being alone, and it scared her. She now knew loving Nero came with a price greater than being alone for great lengths of time. Brut was another burden.

  After a month, Jenny had a much bigger problem. When her period did not arrive, she felt a new sense of dread. Soon she realized why Nero had not wanted to come inside her. Jenny was about to bring a life into the world, and she had not one clue what sort of life it would be.

  The pregnancy was a nightmare. Between the sweats and the fevers, Jenny had her doctor in a panic. She continued to write, but inspiration came at odd times during the day and night. The thought of having to provide for a new baby gave Jenny mild panic attacks. If Jenny lived. If the baby lived. If it would even be a baby.

  As the months added together, Jenny made a will and arranged for her aunt to raise the baby if she didn’t make it. But nine months came and went with no labor pains, no signs of an impending birth. Jenny’s doctor wanted to induce her, but Jenny just had a feeling her baby wasn’t done. So she avoided the ringing phone and the letters from her gynecologist asking for an update, an appointment…anything.

  Then, thirteen months after Jenny had made passionate love with Nero against the tile wall of her shower, the first pains came. Unlike the textbook description of pain after pain with some sort of rhythm, some sort of pause in between, a freight train of agony ripped through her. She knew she wouldn’t survive. She was positive. And despite her concern that whatever she gave birth to shouldn’t be seen by the outside world, she struggled to the phone and dialed 9-1-1. As she slipped down the wall and into her own blood, Jenny knew there was too much. So much blood. She whispered her address and was unconscious when the operator asked her to repeat her words, saying she could barely make out what Jenny had said.

  Time slipped by above Nero and passed below him, but he could never tell where he was in it. There was only the shoveling. At one point he was given pants, at another he was whipped. Such was the nature of Hell, and it both soothed and disgusted Nero that he’d been there long enough to make some sense of the place. He now knew there were two different ways to become ruler of the damned. The first, and most common, was to systematically challenge everything in the underworld and fight your way to the top. When there were no more in the way, you went toe-to-toe with the Devil, winner take all.

  Alternately, Heaven sometimes put their own candidates into the ring. Jack, the current Devil, was the best of the best. The Devil before him had never been bested in a challenge, but Jack—fresh from Heaven with glitter still falling from his skin—had dispatched him so quickly that the minions called to be witnesses instantly granted him their respect.

  And the changes Jack implemented in Hell after he came to power had made a difference. There were jobs to be done, and Hell became a well-run business. The minions could even come to him and suggest changes—within reason of course, and they were usually granted only if Jack could see something in it for himself. But he often observed the tortures (the jobs, the compulsions) and tweaked them just enough to make them reasonable.

  Hell was still horrible, but there were now measures in place to keep the beings there sane enough to do their work. Thus, Nero and Brut’s occasional brief respites from the shoveling. Maybe it had been the knowledge that Jack was evil, but fair, that gave Nero the balls the take the out when he saw it.

  Whatever his motivations, Nero knew his chances to go to Jenny were few and far between. Brut had to be ready, he had to be strong, and time had to be slow—just a bit so they could find a break in it and escape. Nero also found it increasingly hard to ignore the fact that his desire for pleasure unleashed Brut on an unsuspecting world. And he’d also noticed the minion was fixated on Jenny. Nero warned him often—told him to find his own woman—but he doubted Brut was even listening.

  When finally the moment came again, Nero knew it had been longer than last time. But how much time had whisked by was a mystery as he and Brut lifted the stone into their brief escape. The bright sun paralyzed them both the moment they broke through the lock on the shed door.

  Brut began panting like a dog, and Nero instinctively covered his eyes with his hands. Why he’d just assumed it was always dark, it would always be night, he didn’t know. But the sun was crippling. Both minions returned to the shed and waited for their eyes to adjust, unsure if they even would, until finally they could see clearly.

  In the light of day, Brut looked even more unstable. He was a bit shorter than Nero, but he was so muscled. The crazy in his eyes might just make him stronger in a battle. If it ever came to that. Brut took off first, and Nero stood in the shed doorway to ensure that the minion did not force his way into Jenny’s cabin. He waited for Jenny to come to him, but there was nothing.

  After a time, he broke open her backdoor and let himself in. The house had little punches of square sunlight streaming in from the windows and leaving a patchwork of stepping-stones on her brown carpet. He avoided them. She wasn’t in the shower, still wet and waiting for him. He walked into another room and for a moment he didn’t see her, his Jenny. Then he found her lying on a couch, smaller then he remembered. He went to his knees next to her, touching her cool face until she opened her eyes.

  Jenny smiled weakly. “I love this dream. If only Brut wasn’t watching.”

  Nero left her to check the premises, returning only when he knew they were safe. “We’re alone,” he told her. “He is not here. I am not your dream. When I came through I expected night, and instead there
is day. But there is still you, and that is all that matters.” He kissed her lips. “You look so tired. What has befallen you?”

  Jenny sat up and ran her hands over his chest. “My love, you are back. I’d given up.”

  “Never give up. I’m always coming back to you—in my head if not with my feet.” He uncovered her, sliding the worn, brown blanket to reveal her clothes.

  “Before that I have news to share.” She swung her legs around and drew him between her thighs, pressing them against him as if to make sure he were real.

  He listened with his whole body, stroking her hand all the while.

  “We made a child, my love. She’s so beautiful and smart and healthy.”

  “A child? A daughter? From me—from this? I cannot be so lucky.” He kissed her again, deeply. “Where is the babe?”

  “She’s no longer a babe. Kate’s five years old. My aunt just left to pick her up from kindergarten. Somewhere I have a picture…” Jenny searched the room with her eyes before becoming distracted. “Ironically, today is Bring your Daddy to Tea day,” she continued. “She was asking me about you.”

  “Kate. Kate. You chose well with a name. This is so much. Thank you. Thank you, Jenny, for making a child. My child. What did you tell her?” Nero moved to sit next to Jenny, and the couch groaned with displeasure at his immense size.

  “I tell her that her father is a good man. A true man. And that you love her. Will you stay? Will you meet her?”

  Nero saw caution in his love’s eyes. The wariness of a mother. “Can I go to the tea? I will proudly claim my daughter at the kindergarten.” Nero touched his chest with his fist.

  She covered his fist with her hand. “I think that’s more than kindergarten is ready to handle. She’ll be home soon.”

  “I missed the tea. Will this make her sad?” Nero spotted what must be Kate’s picture and rose so he could lift it from its spot on the wall. “This is her. I see you, and I see me. Look at her eyes. Was it terrible, Jenny? All this time alone?”

  “She has been a gift, but seeing her growing and not knowing when you would return, if you would return, that was terrible.” His vibrant Jenny didn’t rise from the couch.

  Nero’s hand began to shake, the image of his daughter trembling with her father’s damnation.

  “Will you make it, Nero? I don’t want her to be scared. She’s just a little girl.”

  Nero closed his eyes briefly as a lightning bolt of jealousy soared through him. Jenny loved this girl more than she wanted him in her world. And in the next beat he respected her. This strength and possessiveness of her young was as it should be.

  “I’m not positive. I will leave immediately if that’s what you wish, Jenny.” He loved calling her by name. He returned to her side, hugging her close and kissing her hair. “You smell like goodness.” He touched her chin, turned her face to his, and kissed her. He slid his lips to her neck, whispering, “And you taste like perfection.”

  She felt frail in his arms, and he was about to ask her about her health when Kate skipped through the open door wearing a T-shirt with a puppy on it. She filled the whole room with her sweet voice.

  “Mommy, that door is so broken! Where are you? I brought cookies from the tea.” She stopped cold and stared at her mother and Nero. “Get away from my mommy.”

  Nero felt his whole being swell with sheer pride. He loved Kate at first sight. Her long black hair and dark eyes made her look like a doll. And her quick temper was probably a trait from her minion father. Her cheeks flushed, and she pointed at him as she repeated her warning.

  Nero slid away from Jenny on the couch and sat on his shaking hand. The picture of Kate lay between her parents. Then Jenny’s aunt came in the door with concern all over her face, which was quickly replaced by confusion at the sight before her.

  “Sweetheart, I’m so glad you’re here because this man is important to me,” Jenny said, her voice soothing. “He’s nice. It’s okay.” She waved her daughter over.

  Kate kept her eyes on Nero as she came to sit gently on Jenny’s lap, as if her mother was made of glass.

  “Remember how I said your daddy was a good man and that you might not get to meet him, but he loves you? Well, today you do get to meet him. This man is your father.”

  Jenny cuddled her daughter as she spoke, her calm voice belying the tension in her eyes. Nero could tell she would never have rushed an announcement like this had their circumstances been better or even the slightest bit normal.

  Nero tried to make his voice less scary as he drank in the sight of her, creating the memory he would picture while he shoveled. “Kate, I’m happy to meet you. I’m sorry I didn’t make the tea. I would have loved the tea.”

  Kate stood, an act of bravery Nero admired instantly. “Did you break our door? You’re going to have to fix the door because my mommy’s sick, and my aunt is old. You better get a hammer.”

  “I will fix your door, Kate.” Nero turned to search Jenny’s eyes for more information. Shaking her head, dismissing his concern, she motioned toward Kate.

  “Can we have the tea now?” Nero asked. “Do you have tea?” He folded his hands, though he desperately wanted to hug the girl.

  “I guess—if you’re going to fix the door. I have a tea set! Mommy, can I use my tea set? I’ll set it up right here, and we can all have tea!”

  Excitement began edging out the wariness in Kate’s eyes, and Nero’s heart cried silently. That just having a drink at the same time as her father was a treasure…it was almost too much.

  “Katie-Belle, go get your tea set and your favorite bear.” After the girl’s footsteps faded, Jenny turned to her aunt. “Bess, this is Nero. He won’t be staying long.”

  Nero rose and bowed formally. Jenny hissed softly and touched her fingers to his whipped back. Aunt Bess nodded, not seeming particularly impressed, and raised her eyebrow as she spoke. “I do believe Katie will need a kettle of hot water. I’ll see to it.” She gave them a semblance of privacy, but no doubt remained within earshot.

  “She is so brave and strong.” Nero returned to Jenny and hugged her carefully. “Sick how? What has robbed your vitality?”

  She was sparing him pain with her words, he could tell. “They’re not sure yet. Don’t worry. Kiss me again.”

  He complied, and she moaned against his lips. The clattering of the little girl’s footsteps returning parted the lovers. Nero still held Jenny’s hand, and she allowed it.

  “Well, I brought Fuzz Bucket, and here’s my tea set.” Kate set down the small wicker basket with a thump, the porcelain inside threatening to crack with the force.

  Nero knelt and watched as Kate opened the gold hook and set out tiny plates and cups. “One for you.” She looked at Nero and smiled a bit, just a little—enough for him to know he was a special guest.

  “Thank you, milady.” Nero gestured with a flourish.

  Kate giggled. Nero looked from her to Jenny and back again with unabashed delight.

  “One for Fuzz Bucket. He’s my bear. He sleeps with me at night.” Kate straightened the bear and propped him against an ottoman so he could sit up straight.

  Nero waited as she set the table. Aunt Bess brought napkins and a teapot. He tucked his shaking hands between his legs and nodded as Kate poured his tea.

  “Oh, wait. Let me get the cookies from school. That’ll make this party perfect!” She stood and rushed to her backpack, her own hands trembling like her father’s, only from excitement. She kept picking the wrong pocket to unzip.

  Jenny knelt slowly in front of her designated plate and whispered, “Leave if you must. I’ll explain.”

  His arms were shaking now. “I’ll make it through the tea and cookies. It’s the very least I can do…for her.”

  Nero was sure the strain in his neck made his fight apparent, but Kate was too busy handing out iced sugar cookies shaped like a necktie. Nero nodded when she offered him sugar, and Kate happily added three heaping spoons.

  Nero looked ov
er to see Jenny’s face blooming with love and pride, but as he watched, it was transformed by fear and horror.

  “Oh, God. Nero, he’s here.”

  Nero followed her eyes to find Brut smiling through the mesh that separated him from the sweet scene. Horrifically, he was covered in red paint. Or was it—

  And the scene changed. The sweet memory Jenny and Kate should have had was altered, now to be engraved with terror as Brut simply walked through the door.

  Nero stood, his tremors so violent that that he could hardly see straight. “Go.” Nero charged toward Brut, knocking Kate out of the way. Their tiny tea party cracked and splintered as Nero slammed straight through the table.

  Jenny had no idea if Nero was telling Brut to leave or the women to run, but her body was hardwired to react to this particular fear. She’d practiced nearly every time her eyes closed.

  “Bess, get Kate downstairs.” She didn’t feel her sickness now. Jenny felt only the adrenaline pumping through her system.

  Bess grabbed Kate from her place crying on the floor and ran for the kitchen. Jenny followed them into the room and paused to grab her carving knife. She stepped back out and kicked the door shut, sealing in her daughter and aunt. “Lock the door, Bess. Lock the door, damn it!”

  There was a satisfying click. Jenny turned her back to the door and stood guard. An epic battle was destroying her living room. She couldn’t tell which minion was hers, but their noises reminded her of wild animals. Close, close animals. Finally Nero’s body slammed into the wall and gravity pulled him to the floor. He was motionless. And Jenny knew she was about to face her nightmare with her eyes wide open.

  Brut began singing a high-pitched, deranged song. “Where once there was one, now they are two. I’m going to eat you and your daughter too.”

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