Kissed by Death - Book One - by Tara Fuller
Since the car crash that took her father’s life three years ago, Emma’s life has been a freaky—and unending—lesson in caution. Surviving “accidents” has taken priority over being a normal seventeen-year-old, so Emma spends her days taking pictures of life instead of living it. Falling in love with a boy was never part of the plan. Falling for a reaper who makes her chest ache and her head spin? Not an option.
It’s not easy being dead, especially for a reaper in love with a girl fate has put on his list not once, but twice. Finn’s fellow reapers give him hell about spending time with Emma, but Finn couldn’t let her die before, and he’s not about to let her die now. He will protect the girl he loves from the evil he accidentally unleashed, even if it means sacrificing the only thing he has left…his soul.
Praise for Inbetween
“A captivating whirlwind of death, revenge, and true love. I want a reaper of my own!”
- Jena from Shortie Says
© 2012 Tara Fuller Prologue Finn Two Years Earlier
“Tell me again. How did you miss the mark?” I shoved my hands in my pockets and pressed my lips together to keep from grinning. “I swear, Anaya, this is the last time I follow one of you Heaven reapers anywhere.”
Two Years Earlier
Anaya and I walked down a two-lane strip of asphalt that glistened with puddles of leftover rain. Somewhere in the distance, a second round of clouds let out a hungry rumble. Anaya silently kept pace beside me, the gold band around her biceps glinting with each feather-soft footstep.
She turned her nose up into the air. “I never miss a mark.”
“Then would you mind explaining why I’m walking up a mountain to get to our reap? We could’ve just flashed there.”
She squinted at her surroundings, hesitating. I knew we were close, but it was way too fun messing with her to let this one go. “It’s okay to admit you’re losing your touch,” I said. “I’d be happy to take the lead on this one.”
Anaya held up her hand, ignoring me. “Do you hear that?”
I stopped, listening to the mangled wail of a horn in the distance. As if pulled in by the sound, a black blur, like a cloud of ink, whipped past us before disappearing around the bend.
Shadows. Scavengers from the outskirts of Hell. Souls that weren’t chosen to start again, had escaped their reaper, or hadn’t earned their way into Heaven, so they’d been left to decay and rot. They were soulless beings that craved the scent of death. The taste of a soul.
I hated them. But I hated the memories they brought back even more.
Every shadow that blurred across my vision was a cold reminder of Allison, the love of my afterlife. What I’d done to her. What I’d almost let her become. Her name tumbling around in my skull made my chest ache.
But I couldn’t change it. I’d never be able to change it. I’d pushed her into a world where we’d never be together again and nearly gotten myself banished to Hell in the process. The shadows would never let me forget it. After fifteen years of penance, Balthazar wasn’t likely to let me forget it either. A sick feeling started to brew in my gut, so I shook it off and watched another black blur zip past us. At least they always led us to our targets.
“See.” Anaya smiled and skipped ahead. “We’re here.”
Sure enough, around the last bend, a candy-apple-red Camaro lay upside down, crumpled like a discarded Coke can at the tree line. The horn blared, the sound careering off the rock wall and slamming back into the cliffside forest where it splintered into a thousand echoes between the branches. If I had to guess, the car had taken a similar journey. A ringlet of white smoke seeped from under the ruined hood and twirled up into the air.
“Looks like we have a winner.” Anaya pulled her pearl-handled scythe from the leather belt she wore around her white dress, and twirled it in her hand. The twelve-inch blade, with its efficient, palm-sized handle, gleamed like it had never been used.
I glanced down at my sad excuse for a scythe with its plain iron handle and dingy blade. Heaven’s reapers got all the perks. I may have been a slave to the Inbetween, but I was still a reaper, for God’s sake. We were supposed to be the stuff of nightmare and legend. You’d think they’d at least give me a decent scythe. “Hey, what do you think the chances are of me scoring one of those?”
“Keep dreaming, Finn.”
I stopped, leaving a few feet of distance between the car and me. Whoever was in there wasn’t ready for me. Not yet. A slow warmth, an ache, spread through my chest, and drove sparks through my veins. Not the impatient icy burn I would have expected from a reap at all.
Anaya strolled past me, the shimmery brown plaits that hung down to her waist swaying behind her. “Look at the bright side,” she said. “At least they did away with those awful cloaks.”
She gripped the scythe and looked to the heavens. Her lips moved around the words to a prayer, one she’d never let me hear. Then, with a graceful sweeping motion, the blade of her scythe sliced through the car. She tugged once, twice, and yanked her glittery prize from the wreckage. Anaya shoved her scythe back into the leather belt at her hip and pulled the man to his feet. The shadows were on him in an instant, hissing and swirling like smoke around his legs and waist, just waiting for us to make a mistake. They were desperate. Hungry. Of course, their reaction wasn’t really a surprise. Balthazar had loaded the territories with reapers, cutting off their food supply—souls rarely slipped through the cracks anymore.
Anaya turned around, tucking the soul behind her, and swung out her scythe. The shadows shrank back before dissolving into an oily spot on the pavement. She scowled and shoved her scythe back in its holster. “Vermin.”
Vermin. I’d almost doomed Allison to be vermin. I couldn’t look away from the dark spot on the pavement.
“Emma?” The soul babbled, rubbing his head. His eyes swam dizzily in his skull as he tried to regain his bearings. “Emma. You have to help Emma. Have you called an ambulance?”
I closed my eyes, trying to block him out. I didn’t want to know her name.
“It’s going to be fine, sir. She’s going to a very…nice place. Don’t worry.” Anaya looked up at me, her odd golden eyes begging me to back up her lie.
I couldn’t give him what he needed. What he needed was to hear that his daughter was going to live a long, happy life. All I offered was death. I wouldn’t lie to him. The fact that I was about to take his little girl to the Inbetween was bad enough.
If she ever decided she was ready, that is. I glanced back at the car, waiting for the icy pull to kick in. Something still didn’t feel right about this.
“Dad!” a girl’s broken voice cried from the inside the crumpled car.
“Help her!” the man cried, trying to scrabble toward the car. Anaya easily held his shimmering form back. “For the love of God, she’s only fifteen years old. You should have helped her first.”
Now the pull kicked in. Except, this pull was dizzying and familiar in an unfamiliar way. And getting stronger by the second. My head spun with the force of it. Something was wrong here. Nothing about this felt like a standard reap. But I’d swear I felt this before. Once…
Memories pulsed through my mind in blinding flashes as I inched toward the vehicle. Soft-as-satin lips, warm whispers against my neck, smiles like the sun… The pull intensified, like a pounding in my chest, and my knees buckled. I knelt down to the broken window. Something like hope surged through me, followed by a cold rush of fear. I could only think of one other time that it had felt like this. Back when I’d peeled the soul from a frail, bloody body, packed in snow. The day that had changed me forever.
No. It couldn’t be her. Not again, and not like this. Blond hair lay matted with blood against the girl’s cheek. I reached through the window and traced the path of a tear that had fallen from her closed eyelids, my fingers scattering like mist. Her skin was petal-soft, deadly cold. A warm spot pooled in my hand where we touched, then traveled up my arm, down my neck where the heat exploded in my chest. Connection throbbed beneath my ribs. Certainty pounded in my temples.
I jerked my hand back and scrambled away from the car. It was her. After all these years…it was her.
“What’s wrong with you?” Anaya sounded annoyed.
“Dad?” the girl whimpered again, weaker this time. Or maybe that was the gray, gauzy feeling that was suffocating me. Fifteen years. Fifteen years of wondering if I’d done the right thing, and this is what I find? A girl halfway to death, clutching a bloody backpack? No. No. No! I shut my eyes and focused, touching my scythe to be certain. It wasn’t there. No burning pull. No clawing need to take her soul. She could still be okay. Unless—
“Finn?” Anaya crouched down in front of me. “I don’t know what is going on with you, but if you are incapable of handling this, I will.”
I blinked until Anaya’s blurry face slowly came into focus. I bolted upright. “Is she yours? Are you here for both of them? Because it’s not me.” A cold, throbbing panic took up residency in my chest. When she just stared at me, confused, I snapped. “Answer the damn question, Anaya!”
Realization slowly replaced the confusion in her eyes. Anaya shook her head and stared up through the spiky treetops where a crow swam across the turbulent lavender sky. “It’s her.”
It wasn’t even a question. I couldn’t hide this. Couldn’t shove the secret into the dark safety of my pocket and walk away. Anaya knew.
She glanced back at the car, and then her gaze settled on me. “Walk away,” she said, her voice just a whisper of breath. “If you have any sense left in you, you’ll walk away from this and forget it happened, Finn. Don’t screw this up. You’ve worked too hard to go back now.”
I still had some sense. I must have, because part of me knew she was right. That I should walk away right now before this went any further. I blinked at the car, trying so hard to ignore the pull tugging me to her, warm and urgent like the need to breathe. The pull telling me I was here for a reason, even if that reason wasn’t to take her soul. I didn’t admit that to Anaya, though. Instead, I nodded, not trusting the words tumbling around in my mouth.
Anaya wrapped her fingers around her charge’s hand and smiled at him. The air behind her rippled like a silk curtain, then erupted with light. His eyes went wide as he glanced at Anaya, then to me.
“I’m…I’m…” He stopped when Anaya patted the back of his hand, the word dead hanging among us.
“Yes,” she said.
“And my daughter?” His shimmer dimmed as he watched the car teeter ineptly on the cliff’s sharp drop-off.
“I’ll take care of her,” I said. “I swear.”
I swallowed, realizing I meant it. What were the odds that I’d find her again like this? What were the odds that out of all of the places in the world she could have been reborn, she’d end up in California? I’d reaped this territory for years, and she’d been right under my nose. There had to be a reason.
Anaya shot me a sharp look, but didn’t get a chance to follow through with her usual rant. Glittery tendrils of light reached out and wrapped around her and the soul in tow. A gust of balmy air exploded from the porthole, blowing Anaya’s braids in every direction. It fluffed her white skirt until she looked like she was floating on a cotton mushroom top, then spun them around until they were just a swirl of blinding color.
When they were gone, the wind died, and the light dimmed and dissolved into the murky blue twilight.
The tree that held the wreckage in place swayed. I looked up. A brilliant flash of red bounced on a branch, as if begging it to snap.
The soul whose second chance I’d stolen fifteen years ago when I pushed Allison through the portal in her place.
And all at once, I realized what fate wanted me to do.
“Don’t!” I scrambled for the car. It wobbled on the one tire that hadn’t gone flat, threatening to go over any second and take the girl inside with it.
“I knew following you around would eventually pay off.” Her voice echoed through the treetops, followed by a mocking laugh. “I realize this is bittersweet, so I’ll let you say a quick good-bye before I kill her and ruin your sad excuse for an existence.”
I wriggled through the window, closed my eyes, and gave into gravity. Cells connected. The air sizzled. I flexed my fingers, only a breath away from being fully corporeal.
I stopped myself, fighting the urge to slip my arms around Allison’s limp frame, and pictured Balthazar, the second in command to the Almighty, ruler of reapers. He’d feel me go corporeal and would know I’d found her again. I punched the ceiling and let my skin scatter like sparks against the gray felt. I couldn’t afford that kind of hell right now.
She groaned and something like relief flooded me. Yes, definitely still alive. But not for long. The tree swayed again, this time allowing a little of the car to slip through its hold. I glanced out the window and watched a few rocks spring loose from the cliff and roll to the bottom.
“Finn, come out of there,” Maeve sang. She bounced again, rocking the car. “Just give in to this and we’ll call it a day. She was going to die anyway. You’d just be doing your job.”
She was not going to die. I wouldn’t let her.
“Come on, Allison.” I leaned in close and watched her eyelids twitch, then crack open one at a time. Thank God. “I know you’re scared, but I need you to trust me.”
Her eyes darted back and forth, wide and afraid, before settling on me. “Who are you? Where’s my dad?”
When she leaned up to try to see in the front seat I moved in front of her to block her view. “He’s fine. Don’t worry about him right now,” I said, softly. “I need you to get up. See that window?” I pointed to the upside down broken window and she nodded.
The car lurched again.
“You need to crawl through there. And you need to do it fast.”
She tried to sit up, then winced and fell back. “I can’t. It hurts.”
I plastered a smile on my face and had to force myself not to touch her, to brush the hair out of her face, to grab her arm and pull her the hell out of there. “Yes, you can. You’re tough. I can tell.”
She shook her head. “No, I’m not. Really. I didn’t even make it through one week of softball before I sprained my ankle.”
I laughed in spite of myself. “I have a feeling you’re a lot tougher than you give yourself credit for. Now come on.” The car rocked and I tensed. “Get out of the car.”
She looked into my eyes for a long moment, then pushed herself up and inched toward the window. I crawled out first, coaxing her to follow.
The car shifted. Groaned. I heard more rocks break loose from the cliff to tumble over the edge.
“You’re making this unbearably complicated, Finn. Really, why not just pull her out of the car and get it over with?” Maeve taunted, a smile behind her words. “You’re already dead—what else could Balthazar possibly do? Oh…well I guess there is Hell. But other than that?”
Pushing Maeve’s laughter out of my head, I focused on Allison. “Come on, pretty girl,” I said, fear thrumming in my chest. “You can do this. You have to do this.”
The gash bleeding through her blue jeans snagged on the broken window and she sobbed.
“Don’t stop. I know it hurts. But you can’t stop.” We were so close. Another few feet and she’d be free. I kept my eyes on her, trying to figure out a way to distract her from the pain. “You know, one time I broke my leg,” I blurted out.
She sniffled and looked up at me.
“I’d climbed this big tree on my dad’s farm. I didn’t tell anyone where I was going, so when the branch broke, I knew I was in trouble. I had to walk all the way home on that leg just to get there before it got dark.”
“Why didn’t you wait for somebody to look for you?”
“Coyotes. All I could think about was how I used to hear them howling at night. Our neighbor used to find his cattle torn to shreds.”
She scooted a little farther out. “Didn’t it hurt?”
The car groaned and tilted underneath us. Allison gripped the seat, her eyes wide.
“It hurt like hell, but it was a lot better than ending up like the cattle.”
She squeezed her eyes shut and wiggled the rest of the way through the window, into the pine needles and dirt on the side of the road. She crawled forward a few more feet and collapsed. Her cheek pressed against the wet pavement as she fought to catch her breath.
A loud crack split the silence, and the car lurched forward, its weight breaking the tall bone of a tree. Within seconds, it rolled off the side and into the chasm below, a chewed-up red spot swallowed by the dark.
Maeve’s scream ripped through the mist that had started to fall, and in it, I heard her cry for revenge. I’d worry about that later. For now, I looked down at Allison.
I watched her breaths make foggy shapes as they puffed erratically into the night. Her lashes blinked away the tears that were running across her cheeks. No. This wasn’t Allison anymore.
“Emma,” I whispered as a beam of headlights curled around the bend in the road. “You need to flag down the car that’s coming around the corner. You’re going to have to get up.”
“My leg…” She looked up, tears in her eyes. “Why can’t you do it? Why aren’t you helping me?”
Guilt tied my insides into knots, making it hard to look at the girl reaching up for my help. I couldn’t give it to her no matter how badly I wanted to. Balthazar and his damned rules!
“I can’t. I’m so sorry.” I took a few steps back until she lowered her hand. “But you can do this. You’re tough. Remember?”
Her gaze swung to the lights glistening on the pavement and she pushed herself to her knees. I took my chance. I let myself fade. Dissolve into the mist around me that was calling me home.
I watched Emma wave her arms at the slowing car. She was safe. Alive. I closed my eyes, laughing with relief. I’d done it. I’d saved her. Except…
I looked up at the broken tree where Maeve had balanced only minutes ago. There was no way I could walk away now. Not when I’d led Maeve to her.
Damn it. This was bad on so many levels. I watched Emma collapse against the man from the car as he wrapped a jacket around her shivering shoulders. Warmth spread through my chest. Yeah…bad wasn’t a strong enough word. Disaster was more like it. And I didn’t care. She was worth it.
“I’ll keep you safe. I swear it.” I repeated the promise I’d made to her father, then closed my eyes and let the wind catch me and toss me into the night.