Every time they'd said, "Okay, this is the last time, and then we're going back to the suite,"

one thing would lead to another, somebody would mess up and touch the other person, and the whole madness would start again.

Damali leaned up from the floor on her elbows with her knees bent, looking at Carlos, who was sprawled flat on his back. "We have to check in with the team before it gets dark," she said, heaving in air. "The sun is going down and this doesn't make sense." He nodded with his eyes closed, trying to steady his breath. "You know we're gonna catch a ration of shit for this from everybody - so get ready." Damali let her head drop back with a groan as her legs slid out into a V in front of her.

"Awwww, maaaan... you know it."

Her foot accidentally brushed his arm and she felt his breath hitch in the pit of her stomach.

"Don't start," she whispered and began to draw her legs up toward her. He reached back and caught her by the ankle, and then slowly rolled over as he pulled her down the rug, staring at her. "Just one more time, then on my word, we'll go check in."

* * *

the mess was so intense and ridiculous that she literally had friction burns from the rug on her butt and her knees. He was so spent that he couldn't pull them into a fold to get them back to the team.

Sure, they'd had plenty of great sex together, dead or alive, but it still puzzled her that it had been so intense that Carlos's fantastic silver didn't blaze once in his irises. The more she thought about it, he also hadn't even presented mating-length fangs. Not that she was complaining in the


As they slipped out of the vacant room at Hotel La Jolla and hurried to find a cab, she said a quick, silent barrier prayer so nothing could trail them back to the team. Safely tucked inside a taxi, her fevered mind finally had a chance to slowly come back to its own. Then it dawned on her, she and Carlos had been knocking boots until almost midnight with out a barrier around them... and the first seal of the Armageddon was broken - were they nuts?

Carlos turned and looked at her at the same time she qui etly freaked out. He grabbed her by her upper arms. "Don't worry, it's gonna be all right." Where did that come from? Did it matter at all? His hands were on her arms sending a desire ache into her nip ples. She kissed him so hard that she flattened him against the backseat of the cab. The driver looked in the rearview mirror and cleared his throat. Carlos broke the kiss, trying to be cool, then gave up the battle and pulled her to him hard again to put his tongue halfway down her throat.

"Listen," she said, flat-palming his chest as she whispered in a rush. She had to hold her hands in front of her in order to keep Carlos from flipping her beneath him and embar

rassing her out of her mind. Unsure whether he might attempt it, she glimpsed the waytoo-interested cabbie and tried to reason with the man next to her, who was breathing hard. "You're so exhausted, you can't even fly. We have to stop until we at least get to the suite. Okay?"

Carlos nodded and closed his eyes as her palms rested against his chest. She could feel his heart slamming against the heels of her hands as though trying to get out of his body. His breaths were so shallow as he tried to summon cool that she had to fight with her fingers

and will each digit not to touch his pebble-hard nipples.

"Marines?" the cabbie asked brightly, seeming thoroughly amused. "Camp Pendleton?

Get a lot of military types around here, newlyweds - can always tell. The guys drag their asses back to base too tired to fly, drive a Jeep, or a tank - whatever they do. But I think it's pretty cool, ya know. Congrats, kids. I hope you don't have to go back over seas for a long time."

* * *

the inability to summon cool probably messed with him more than being temporarily too exhausted to fold Damali out of the hotel room and back into the suite. It was more than outrageous, beyond ridiculous, that he could barely get his hand down into his jeans to pull out cash to pay the cabdriver.

He had to chill, one breath at a tune. He was not walking back into that suite sweating and carrying on. Oh, hell no. D just had to keep her hands to herself, just for a minute so he could get his head right... fine as she was ... with that satin-smooth, caramel skin of hers, trailing shea butter and hot sex, velvet locks, mouth... Jesus ... gorgeous eyes that could burn right through his to the soul... curves for days ... He studied her behind with a tilt of his head as she began to open the suite door. And her ass, the way it fit right in his hands

... he hadn't felt a jones like this since he'd been apexing - and even then ...

"Hey, C - for the second time," Shabazz said with a smirk.

"Huh, oh, yeah, hey, man," Carlos said, glancing up and remembering to step into the room.

"You okay, dude?" Rider asked, frowning, setting his cards down slowly on the dining room table. "You look like something's been chasing you..." His nostrils flared slightly, and he and Jose stood at the same time.

"Good night, people," Rider said, glancing at Tara. She didn't say a word, just waved.

"Adios," Jose said, rubbing the back of his neck. "I'm just glad you're cool, man. We was worried. But it's all good." His hand slid into Juanita's, making her smile as he passed her.

"Night folks," Juanita murmured, and then just shook her head.

"Okay," Mike said, stretching as he stood. " 'Nez, we can stand down. It's just like old times." They were out the door before Damali could say good-bye.

"Mar, you got our message, right?" Carlos said, trying to preserve a little of their dignity.

"Yeah," Marlene chuckled and then dropped her voice as the rest of the team moved out slowly. "It was a sputtering, garbled transmission saying, 'About in an hour or so my husband debriefed his mind. Can't talk, gotta run.' Now what was I supposed to make of that?" Marlene's hands went to her hips with a wide smile. "I guessed it was delayedreaction balm ... but after it got dark and you guys didn't come back, we all started getting nervous."

"I'm sorry, Marlene," Damali said, and then tucked her trembling hands into the bends of her elbows as she hugged herself.

Just seeing her do that made Carlos begin to walk in a circle.

"Me, you, Carlos, Shabazz - private meeting," Marlene commanded quietly.

"Not a long one, though, Mar," Carlos said, walking to the window, dragging in air as the

team thinned out in their suite.

Shabazz shut the door behind Berkfield and came back deeper into the room. "Damn man, you're in here sweating like a junkie and got the shakes - ain't seen you look this bad since you got a vamp nick and turned."

"That's what this shit feels like," Carlos said, looking at Damali and unable to keep up the front any longer. "But the hunger ain't for her blood, and I'm about to vamp-snatch girlfriend in two seconds... so say what you gotta say quick." Marlene and Shabazz looked at each other and then fo cused on Damali.

"Honey, your color is off. How's your appetite?" Marlene asked, trying to inspect her for bites.

"For him - outrageous," Damali said, wiping sweat off her brow with the back of her forearm. "But he never bit me, never presented fangs while we were, uh, out ... ya know. Everything's all right, guys, in the morning - "

"You'll be sick as dogs." Marlene glanced between the two of them. "When you went to the Neterus - "

"We was cool there, Mar," Carlos said, his voice brittle. "Can't this wait until tomorrow?"

"Looks like Louisiana roots, if I didn't know better," Marlene fussed, crossing her arms.

"Haitian is my call," Shabazz muttered, sitting on the back of the sofa.

"Look at the whites of their eyes, getting cloudy, just a tad," Marlene said, speaking to Shabazz as though a doctor in a clinic.

"It's in their sweat. I can pick up the taint. Must have been dormant while under the intense white light in council, but went full blown the minute they came back to the earth plane."

"Oh, shit..." Carlos groaned, rubbing his neck. "I knew something came out of Lilith's pit - "

"No, you were okay, and so was every other guy on the team," Damali said, going to him.

"The only weird thing we saw was the pearl, when we dunked her in water." Carlos looked up. "Yeah ... the way the lionesses at tacked it."

"They went after your necklace?" Marlene asked in a tone of disbelief.

"Yeah, after the pearl in it turned black," Damali murmured, stepping closer to Carlos.

"Wait, D, a Neteru oracle went black in front of your eyes and you guys didn't tell anybody? That's a fucking team hazmat, folks." Shabazz was off the back of the sofa raking his locks.

"He and I both lowered it into the water... his hands touching mine, because I knew she always liked Carlos ... we were trying to coax her out," Damali murmured, staring at Carlos.

"I remember," Carlos said in a low, sensual rumble, "hi the water... my hands were touching yours, your hands were touching mine, then the charge ran right through me ..."

"Like it's running through me right now," Damali murmured.

"Hold it!" Shabazz and Marlene shouted, breaking their trance.

"Step back from each other ten paces," Marlene said.

"Okay," Carlos said quietly, but he didn't move, just stroked Damali's cheek, making her shudder.

"It's in your hands," Damali whispered with a soft gasp.

"Okay, okay," Marlene said, taking Damali by the shoulders as Shabazz body-blocked


"Put your hands out for me, hand - don't punch me, I'm outta your way in ten seconds, but do me that favor," Shabazz said, studying Carlos's aura. Carlos closed his eyes when he opened his palms and spread his fingers. "I just gotta touch her, man."

'Tainted energy all in it," Shabazz said, surveying his aura. "Breaks at his tattoo, over his heart chakra, all the energy concentrating in primal meridians. This was some fucked up root work, if ever I seen it."

"That's what Marj was talking about," Marlene said, visually scanning Damali's hands without touching them and then pressing two fingers to Damali's third eye. "Damn, chile!" Marlene said, jumping back. "Warn your mother-seer, okay? You knew I was going in and I don't wanna know all that."

Damali covered her face with her hands and tried to breathe. "I'm sorry. That's what we're trying to tell you... it's that bad."

"Look, we'd appreciate it if this problem stays at the senior level, until we can figure out what to do, or if it's catching," Carlos said, putting his hands behind his back to keep from reaching for Damali.

"I need to get hi conference with Marjorie, Heather, and Jasmine - Marj is a blood relative, the girls were either tight with Gabby or in a coven with her as her initiates, and I'm gonna need the power of three to figure out what's all in the spell to counteract it."

"I know what you're saying, Mar, but damn," Carlos said, closing his eyes. "This shit is embarrassing."

"They're looking into the pearl up in Neteru Council. Maybe can you just let Aset and Nefertiti know, and wait 'til they come back with a verdict before we break it to the team?

If we ever have to break it to the team?" Damali's eyes furtively searched Marlene's and Shabazz's faces. "C'mon, guys, have a heart, like Carlos said, this shit is too embarrassing."

"Forty-eight hours," Marlene said, "with full disclosure to Aset - which I'll do tonight. But you guys try a white bath, and don't worry, I've got this room already barriered. Just stay in here, 'til... aw hell."

"White bath, never happen," Shabazz said, "unless you individually dunk 'em - which ain't gonna happen. The only thing you said that's plausible is for them to stay in the room for now." Shabazz headed for the door. "We got two Neterus down. Face it, baby."

* * *

"All right," Aset said, her eyes narrowing as she leaned forward on the oval Neteru Queens Council table, making the radiant colors in its opalescent finish shimmer. "What was your angle, Lilith?"

"A love spell to push the two together doesn't make sense," Nefertiti said, staring at the black translucent box.

"It does if you want the Neteru generals diverted," Eve said through her teeth. Nzinga nodded. "So that you can create a sneak attack... something is planned, and it has been too quiet on the earth plane."

"Open the box," Lady Fu Hao urged. "We must dissect the spell, now that Marlene Stone has told us of its debilitating effects."

"I stand ready," Penthesileia said, holding an Amazon battle-ax. "If cauldron parasites emerge, they will be slaughtered."

The Aztec Queen removed a long, sharp, golden-handled dagger from her sleeve.

"Anesthetize the oracle as you lower the black-box, Aset. It will be traumatic as I remove her from the necklace and submerge her into an alabaster bowl of Ma'at's truth elixir." Aset nodded. "If she's beyond repair, then, Chalchihuitlcue, you have the swift hand of sacrifices ... don't allow her to suffer."

The Aztec Queen nodded. "I shall indeed be merciful and make it swift."

* * *

"I know this isn't normal," Damali said, racing across the room to kiss Carlos the moment Shabazz and Marlene shut the door.

Both on the same mission, he cleared the sofa in a one-handed hurdle and they bumped into each other and almost fell.

"I knew it wasn't straight up when my fangs didn't drop," he said between urgent kisses, cradling her face as she worked on his clothes.

"Or I didn't see your silver," she said, stripping off her tank top. When her breasts bounced free, he covered them with his palms and leaned in, causing them both to release a long moan riding a shudder.

"Yeah, your wings didn't come out," he finally said, now panting and working harder to get off her clothes, tugging on her jeans zipper while her hands set fire to his chest. "Dead giveaway."

"We should take a white bath," she said, devouring his mouth.

"Uh-huh," he mumbled into her mouth, pushing her back on the sofa. "In the morning."

"Yeah, in the morning."

"Oh, yeah, D, in the morning ..."

"Oh, God, Carlos ... in the morning ..."

"Uh-huh, like that, in the morning."

* * *

She didn't remember if she went to sleep or simply passed out, but Marlene hadn't lied, they were both sick as dogs. It felt like sunlight was chiseling a hole in her temple, and for a while she lay on her side hoping it might just be so the pressure inside her brain could leak out. Her entire body felt like it was purging, even her cycle had come on and she'd now have to deal with that, too, for a couple of days. When this was all over, she was gonna personally kick Lilith's ass.

Keeping her body as rigid as possible to stave off the dry heaves, she tried to sit up to move to the bathroom, but Carlos's grip tightened on her arm.

"Touch me again," she said through her teeth, "and I'll stab you."

"Oh, Jesus, don't move, I'm gonna hurl. Don't rock the bed."

"We're on the floor."

"Oh, God, the room is spinning."

"Breathe slowly," she said, sipping air with her eyes squeezed shut. "I'm gonna crawl to the bathroom and make us a white bath."

"Bring me the wastebasket on the way, if you can reach it."

* * *

"How you guys holding up?" Marlene said quietly, touching Damali's forehead and looking at Carlos with concern. "You still feel clammy." Shabazz and Marlene shared a look.

"That's 'cause girlfriend is trying to be ultraladylike," Carlos muttered, sipping peppermint and ginger tea with his eyes closed. "I got all mine out - both ends. I'm way better this morning, Mar, trust me."

Damali dry heaved and covered her mouth, her eyes wide, and then dashed for the bathroom.

"She'll be good in twenty minutes," Marlene said philosophically. "Told y'all if you didn't catch it last night, you'd be sick as dogs."

"Let it rest, Mar," Shabazz said, trying not to smile as he stared at Carlos. "Baby, just let it rest."

* * *

"As long as I live, and for as long as I die, Damali Richards-Rivera, I never want to be that out of control over any substance again in my life - not even you."

"I hear you," she said in a faint murmur, holding on to the side of the bed with her eyes closed as he tied a Windsor knot in his uniform. "Just keep your voice down. I don't even know how you're gonna go with Dan and Heather right now ... you know his mom is gonna feed you."

Carlos held up his hand. "D, please," he said, taking in a deep breath through his nose. "I just barely got my stomach back. I'll make it up as I go along." She peeked up from the bed at him and had to admit that the uniform was blowing her mind. Under any other circumstances it would have made her try to get up and coax him to stay. The brother had more braids and medals on than made any type of sense. And although it was "borrowed" from some top brass owner for just a little while, the ruse was all for a good cause. If people knew the real deal, not a soul would argue that one Neteru general, Carlos Rivera, had definitely earned his stripes.

"You look good," she finally said, and dropped her head back to the pillow. He kissed the top of her head. "Think I'll pass inspection for Mom and Pop Weinstein?"

Damali opened one eye. "Just give 'em the strong, silent, steely jaw - if-I-tell-ya-I-have-tokill-ya look."

"Aw'ight," he said, glancing back and looking concerned. He stood in front of the mirror, then put his hat on, then took it off and whipped it under his arm, standing at attention a few times, practicing. "Okay. I'm out."

From a very remote place in her mind as she drifted back to sleep, she caught that nervous anticipation in him - saw and felt just how much he wanted to do a good job for his team brother and not mess up. It endeared him to her even more, because by rights, with everything else that was go ing on, Carlos could have begged off and no one would have argued. But he didn't. Because it was important to Dan and Heather, it was important to him. That was just one more thing she added to the list of things she loved about her man.

* * *

"yo!" jose said, laughing. "You clean up real good, brother." He walked around Carlos and let out a long whistle.

Carlos laughed and opened his arms, then looked at Dan. "I pass inspection?"

"Whoa ... Rivera ... My mother will have a coronary and then tell the entire neighborhood that I work for the Pen tagon."

"Well, get the story straight, dude, before you go in," Rider said, laughing. "Rivera can make you a Black Ops agent, Bond - as in 007 - or a Secret Service aide to the president of the United States of America, in that uniform."

"Generals can do that, you know," Mike said with a wink, teasing both Carlos and Dan.

"You better work it, brother," J.L. said, shaking his head and laughing as Krissy came over to kiss him. "And here you introduced me to the Berkfields with fangs. Where's the jus tice? No wonder they gave me a hard time about marrying their daughter."

"Honorable fangs, though," Tara said with a smile.

"Yeah, but Mom would have taken it a whole lot better if she'd seen Rivera in Heathrow Airport in that getup - right, Mom?" Bobby said. "Be honest."

"He does look very handsome in that uniform," Marjorie crooned. "Just dashing, Carlos. Almost as handsome as you looked in your wedding tuxedo." She glanced at Heather. "It's going to be just fine."

Carlos bowed and gave Marjorie his most professional rendition of a general's voice that he could muster. "Ma'am, thank you, ma'am." Then he started laughing. "Oh, maaan, what have y'all gotten me into?"

"Impersonating an officer is how many felonies?" Berk field said with a grin, causing the color to drain away from Marjorie's and Heather's faces.

"The man is fine," Inez argued, folding her arms over her chest. "Dang, Carlos, just imagine if you'd gone that way years ago."

" 'Nez, why'd you have to mention that?" Krissy fussed. "Geez!" Carlos looked down at his duds, refusing to get sad about the things he couldn't change.

"Naw, Inez is right," he said, looking up with a half-smile. "But see, 'Nez, if I had this on years ago when I met your girl, guaranteed she wouldn'ta been no virgin by the time she reached twenty-one."

With that said, the group burst out laughing as Shabazz, Mike, Marlene, and Rider grabbed Carlos and Dan by the arms and hustled them out the door.

* * *

"this is never gonna work!" Rabbi Zeitloff said as he met everyone at the airport baggage claim.

"Please keep your voice down, Rabbi," Dan said, looking around nervously. "Let's just get your luggage, go to the real far end of long-term parking, and let Carlos do his thing." Dan glanced around nervously as other military personnel slowed down, stopped, saluted Carlos, and kept going. Heather squeezed Dan's arm and also squeezed her eyes shut when another high-ranking official rode up an escalator and hailed Carlos.

"Before someone puts a camera in my face for a media comment - because it would be just my luck that something major's kicked off in the Middle East while we're standing here - ya mind if I wait in the car?"

Dan, Heather, and the rabbi said no in one voice.

Carlos turned on his heel in a military pivot, keeping in character as he got out of Dodge. The threesome watched his back as he melted into the crowd and disappeared toward long-term parking.

"See? What'd I tell you, huh? This, Daniel, is never gonna work!"

* * *

his nerves were already shot by the time he folded them out of the parking lot, and Rabbi Zeitloff's constant com plaining only frayed them even more. But when Dan pushed him and the rabbi to the top steps of his parents' home, it wasn't until Mrs. Weinstein started screaming and almost fell on the floor that they realized what she probably thought. Carlos's first impulse was to touch his jaw to be sure that during the transport he hadn't dropped fangs - his energy had been off. However, seeing the look in the woman's eyes, remembering the uniform, a cleric at his side during war time, he caught her before she hit the foyer tiles.

"He's my only son!" she screamed, slapping Carlos's face and knocking his hat off. "My beautiful baby boy!"

"Mom! Mom!" Dan shouted at her side, but his mother was too hysterical to even know who he was.

"Frank!" she shrieked with her eyes closed. "They took my Daniel!"

"Ma'am, your son is alive!" Carlos barked in a military voice. "Home on leave!" He sat her up so that she could see Dan's face. Her hus band had hustied into the room. Dan was on his knees in front of her, and then she began shrieking again, this time stran

gling him with a hug. There was no use in trying to introduce anyone to her. The woman was rocking and sobbing and pet ting her only son's hair. Dan's glasses were askew on his face as he stroked her back and tried to glance at his father, but it was of no use, his mother's meaty arms had claimed him.

Ever so calmly, Carlos walked over to retrieve his hat. Rabbi Zeitloff stepped back with him as Dan's father joined his wife and son on the floor. The reunion made them both stare out of the window until Heather's quiet presence caused the crotchety old rabbi to put his arm around her shoulders.

"Most times," the rabbi said, "when I come to homes like this, it isn't a good thing, Carlos. It is not a happy reunion like this. So, I should thank you for making an old man have hope."

Carlos nodded and kept his gaze on the horizon. "He's a lucky man. My mother never got me back in the daylight... so she could do that. Woulda given my eyeteeth for that."

"I hope they'll like me," Heather whispered, clasping the rabbi's arm.

"What's not to like?" the old man said, his voice unusually soft. "You're a beautiful girl... smart... and you make Daniel happy - I hope he makes you as happy." Rabbi Zeitioff leaned in. "I don't do this sort of thing for everyone, you know." Heather giggled, and that made the rabbi and Carlos smile. They looked over and finally saw Dan and his father helping Mrs. Weinstein up. Carlos secured his hat better under his arm, quietly chuckling at the wasted practice of taking it off with military precision only to have a hysterical mom slap it off his head. But not to let all of his practice go to waste, Carlos made the pivot turn on his heels that he'd worked on all afternoon to face Dan's


"This is Rabbi Zeitloff," Dan said, "the one who you've been corresponding with." He looked anxiously between his parents and watched his father and mother collect themselves.

"See, Stella - I told you the boy knew what he was doing, and all this fracas before you even heard the man out. Rabbi, my apologies."

"No harm done," the rabbi said, waving off the offenses. "You're parents; she's a mother."

"Rabbi, I don't normally behave this way, but he's my boy..."

"Yes, yes, a son is a lovely thing ... and so is a daughter." The rabbi glanced at Dan to urge him to make the introduction.

"Oh, I don't have a daughter, Rabbi," Mrs. Weinstein scoffed. "I wasn't so blessed with a girl, too. But I have my boy."

"And, uh, this is the guy I work for, uh, General Rivera," Dan said, looking at Carlos with a plea in his eye.

"Nice to meet you, ma'am. Sir." Carlos extended his hand and said no more. It wasn't his place to introduce Heather, and if the rabbi passed, then hey. Dan had to man up and tell his momma he'd gotten married without her being there ... although he didn't envy his Guardian brother at all, in that regard.

"Our son works for a general!" Mrs. Weinstein whispered, glancing at Dan and then her husband.

"Is it important, what you do? Dangerous?" his father asked, seeming skeptical. Against Carlos's better judgment, he stepped in to give Dan a little more family cover.

"What he does, sir... ma'am, is of the-highest importance to world security. Not national security, but world security. Because you don't have clearance at that level, I am not at liberty to discuss more."

Carlos waited a beat for theatrical effect and then tried to think of any incendiary words he'd heard in the media that might help Dan's parents just accept what he said on face value. His mind locked on "the axis of evil," wondering if people really knew what that meant. True, Dan was fighting an axis of evil with the team, but one that had a whole different meaning - not the one where there were a bunch of humans with disputes over land, oil, weapons, or any of the other material concerns the darkside had manipulated them to go to war over. He just wondered how long it would take for people to wake up and stop bombing each other, especially when it seemed the targets mainly included old men, women, and children. But he had to tell Dan's people something that they could wrap their minds around. Demon hunting wasn't such a thing, so he kept it to world politics as the closest analogy he could come up with.

After a moment, Carlos pressed on, knowing that the well-timed pause had probably engendered awe in Dan's parents. "What your son does is dangerous, is important, and is part of... eliminating the axis of evil. He has indeed been invaluable to our special forces." Carlos looked at Dan and gave him a crisp salute. "This is why, as his commanding officer, I wanted to escort him to his parents' home and to personally meet the fine people who made him who he is. We know this is hard on families, not knowing where your loved ones are or what they are doing, but we appreciate the sacrifice." Carlos gave Dan the eye when his mother practically swooned with pride and his father's chest puffed up, that now would be a good time to explain a quick marriage. An elbow in

the ribs from Rabbi Zeitloff helped Dan spit it out.

"Mom, Dad... because things were so hectic, and abnormal, and dangerous as Car... uh, General Rivera said - and I met someone who works with me in the same unit, who also can't discuss what she does," Dan said, bringing Heather closer to him with a hug, "I want you to meet Heather, my wife, and uh - "

"Wife! Frank, did he say wife?" Mrs. Weinstein's voice hit a decibel like fingernails down a blackboard as she covered her mouth with both hands.

"That's what he said, Stella - wife," Mr. Weinstein said with a smile.

"Mom - "

Mrs. Weinstein looked at the rabbi, ignoring her son. "Is she - "

"I married them. What do you think?" the rabbi said in a feigned huff, cutting off Mrs. Weinstein's question before she could ask if Heather was Jewish.

"She's beautiful," Mrs. Weinstein said, coming up to Heather to look her over. "My son married a girl this gor geous? My Daniel, who in high school, wasn't able to - "

"Mom!" Dan said closing his eyes.

"He was too smart for those other girls," his mother said, preening and kissing Dan's cheek. "But I bet they'd be sick now to see our Daniel with such a lovely wife," she added, holding Heather back and then hugging her.

"And smart, too, don't forget, Stella - she has an important, high-security job like Dan ... the two of them have the same shtick. Cut from the same cloth."

"Yes, sir," Carlos said, now fully enjoying the role. "She works in Dan's same unit."

"I'm so pleased to meet you both," Heather said in a quiet, relieved tone as Mrs. Weinstein released her. "I've heard so much about you both. Dan loves you so." She looked at Dan, and he touched her hair.

Dan's parents hugged her again, taking turns handing her off to each other and then embracing their son. Dan's father gave him a huge smile of approval that made Dan seem to stand even taller.

"So, when was this wedding, and we have to meet your parents; I have so many questions," Mrs. Weinstein said in one run-on sentence. "And you want children, right?" Heather's eyes filled with terror and she glanced at Dan, who'd lost the color in his face.

"I just have one question," Mr. Weinstein said, making everyone turn. "Why are we standing in the foyer? Why haven't we come into the house like normal people?"

"Yes, yes, we should come in and everyone just relax for a very short while," Rabbi said, already staging the excuse to leave as he and Mr. Weinstein deflected Mrs. Weinstein's probing questions.

"But you have to have dinner." Stella Weinstein looked around at everyone as though mortified by the concept that her son could visit, bring home important guests, and even a rabbi, and not eat. "If I'd known you were coming," she said, covering her chest with her hand in mild shock, "I would have cooked. General, make my son eat - he doesn't eat." The thought of food made Carlos's stomach roil, but he knew better than to decline. This was family.

Dan and Heather looked at Carlos with such appreciation and affection that Carlos looked away.

"Thanks, General," Dan said. "I'll never forget this. Ever."

* * *

he thought they'd have to give Mrs. Weinstein smelling salts when it was finally time for them to leave. Carlos kept breathing back dry heaves - it wasn't that the food wasn't fantastic, but rather the volume on a shaky stomach. Each time his plate was threequarters cleared, a heaping dollop from what should have been a military-chef's spoon dropped more on his plate. The argument Dan's mother gave was re lentless: "Eat. You should be glad a mother is cooking this instead of the government - not that I'm casting aspersions on the government, but who knows how clean army food is?" Who could argue?

* * *

violet beacon light filled the bedroom and mingled with the late afternoon sun's roseorange beauty. Damali lifted her head, feeling a bit better, but still wrung out. At least the headache had gone, and the nausea had slightly calmed. Her white tank top felt slightly damp and another shower was calling her name, but there wasn't time. Damali pushed herself up and then got out of bed, yank ing on her jeans and shoving her feet into a pair of flip-flops. If the Queens had called her like this, then there was impor

tant news to be had. It didn't take long for their warm light to surround her and bring her to their opalescent table.

"Damali," Aset said, walking up to her quickly and dis pensing with all formality. She airkissed Damali quickly, holding her by her upper arms and then hurried back to the table.

"Look," she said, showing Damali the thrashing tenta cles that fought to get out of Carlos's black-box.

"Eiiiw," Damali said, glancing at the writhing morass, and then she looked at Aset and the other Queens. "That came out of the oracle? What the heck is it?"

"Medusa's contribution to the spell," Nefertiti said. "If I tell you what Jezebel added, you will be positively ill."

Damali held up her hand. "I'm already queasy enough, ladies, so - "

"It got on her," Nzinga said, drawing the Caduceus into her hand and tossing it to Eve. Eve caught the golden rod that was ensnared with golden serpents and rammed it into the floor by Damali's feet. In stantly a golden carpet of light spread out along the white marble floor, washed over Damali's flip-flops, and entered her body through her feet, causing a warm, peaceful sensa tion to overtake her. After a few moments, Damali opened her eyes. The residual effects of last night seemed to dissi pate. Right now she would have paid five bucks for a stick of gum, though.

"It wasn't that bad, because her husband caught some of the charge - it only got their hands," Eve said. "But it was a vile spell, indeed."

"Nasty," the Amazon Queen said.

"We'll elaborate to you later, who all the culprits were," Aset said, "but we were able to save your oracle."

"Pearl!" Damali said, hugging herself. "I was really wor ried and was trying not to even go there... but I figured Zehiradangra might be strong-willed enough. But, still, I didn't know."

Aset guided Damali by the shoulders to a small opalescent bowl filled with azure liquid. She could see some type of crystals, or perhaps undissolved salt at the bottom holding the

pearl in place.

"Hi, Damali," the pearl murmured quietly.

"Zehiradangra," Damali said in a gentle tone, going to the bowl and leaning close to coo to the traumatized oracle. "Oh, honey ... I am so sorry. I wouldn't have dunked you in the sea, had I known."

"I know, Damali. Your heart is always pure... unlike that, that... oh ..."

"Shsssh, don't talk. Rest," Damali said. "When you're ready to come home, I'll come get you. But you're safest here, with the Queens. Okay?"

"All right," the pearl murmured. "I'm just sooo tired."

"Sleep, honey. Just rest."

Damali stepped back, raking her locks as Nefertiti cov ered the pearl with a panel of white Egyptian cotton.

"What did they do to her?" Damali asked through her teeth as the Queens drew away from the pearl and back to the table.

"They were trying to make your husband impotent and your lust for him to cause strife, and hit you with jealousy against your team sisters, and - "

"What!" Damali put her hands on her hips. "First of all, that bitch is crazy if she thinks there's anything she could do to make Carlos - "

"We know. It was outrageous, but could have worked if you both hadn't learned your lesson with Cain and hadn't strengthened your bond. That's what she was banking on, for there to be some residual unforgiveness - it would have slith ered into your systems that way. The only reason it adhered at all was because Carlos felt guilt for something he didn't do -  breaking the first seal." Eve looked at the other Queens. "That's how they get in. They find a weakness in your spirit or psyche and exploit it."

"It was so toxic," Lady Fu Hao said, "that if it had some how gotten into the rest of your team, there would have been a full-scale team meltdown. A mutiny. Old jealousies, bitter

ness, hurts unspoken of but not forgiven ... coveting those things one did not have. It would have been horrible and could have done years of irreparable damage to friendships, marriages, psyches, and spirits. It would have started with you two, then trickled down."

"How do I make sure none of this got into anyone else?" Damali said, her eyes frantic.

"My team is just healing from all sorts of personal drama; it's like an arm just out of a cast or a wound still tender after they took out the stitches."

"You couldn't heal it unless you recognized it," Aset said. "But now you know."

"So the moment you see any dissension, don't let it fester. Stamp it out," Eve warned.

"Bring it into the Light, get it up and out of that person and bring the parties together to heal."

Damali closed her eyes. "Last night... it was simply ridiculous. We couldn't even think. If the team were to lose it like that - "

"They can't be allowed to. It would stop all rational thought," Nzinga said flatly. "Then when the first part of the evil spell wore off, the next wave of it would come -  Medusa's serpentine jealousy."

"Then Machiavelli's duplicity - backstabbing, talking about others on the team behind their backs, forming secret alliances," Chalchihuitlcue said in a low, concerned murmur.

"They raised Machiavelli for this?" Damali began pacing.

"Yes," Nefertiti said. "Added Jezebel's ... er, essence, to make you lust and - "

"Oh ... just... stop it!" Damali hollered, looking at her hands. "EeiiiLLL ... that skank!" She whirled around, napping her wrists. "I need to wash my hands - essence! As in essence!"

"You shouldn't have told her that part," Nzinga muttered. "Too much information."

"Sebastian's twisted mind, his evil thoughts, to poison and skew how you think... clouding perspective and blocking reason," Nefertiti continued, undaunted. "Genghis Khan's warring nature to make you and the team battle yourselves re lentlessly ... the war within a household can never be won... and then they added Siren's voice to block the voice of reason, to make you say things that could not be withdrawn once said, to beckon couples to seek solace on far shores ... anywhere but home."

"This is what they would have visited upon your house hold, Queen sister," Eve said, rage kindling in her eyes. "But you were strong; it backfired on them because your household was on firm foundation when this foul wind blew against it. The pearl, bless her, was grieving so heavily at the time that most of it went right into her." Aset nodded and swept around the table to sit on her throne. "They miscalculated and thought you and Carlos would be the ones mourning greatest, possibly having no knowledge of your oracle's heartbreak as a magnet. They also forgot about the one-flesh reality, and never suspected you to come to the sea touching your husband to douse your necklace. They would have made your necklace a carrier of this nasty spell into your household... right around your very throat."

"You know whaaaat?" Damali said, cocking her head to the side. "We oughta hand deliver this mess right back to Lilith's door and let it explode in her realm. I know them bitches down there couldn't shake this if they wanted to."

An angry grin slowly dawned on Eve's face. "Sealed in a prayer that whoever sent it should have it back tenfold ..."

"Praying that whatever they prayed for Damali, they should also have back, many-fold ... karma," Lady Fu Hao said in a dangerous whisper.

"A household breach, the old-fashioned way," Nzinga called out, grabbing Penthesileia's forearm in a warrior's grasp as the Amazon threw back her head and released a war cry.

"Bring her house down," Nefertiti said between her teeth. "A house divided cannot stand. Now that the first seal has been broken, we can breach their realm, if reprisal warrants -

and this does!"

"They have sown the dragon's teeth!" Penthesileia yelled. Chalchihuitlcue drove a dagger into the black-box so that Damali could hear the twisting, fighting tentacles scream. I'll cut off sections to bomb every level."

"Every level?" Aset asked.

Damali nodded. "Yeah."

Tags: L.A. Banks Vampire Huntress Legend Vampires