EXCERPT: Allies & Enemies, by Harper Kingsley [urban fantasy, mm, superhero]

Title: Allies & Enemies
Author: Harper Kingsley
Series: Heroes & Villains (Book 2)
Cover: Aisha Akeju
Publisher: Less Than Three Press
Pairing: Vereint Georges/Warrick Tobias
Characters: Vereint Georges (Darkstar), Warrick Tobias (Blue Ice), Melissa Kim (Blue Devil), Caspian Dukes
Genre: urban fantasy, mm, superhero
Word count: 129,000
Digital ISBN: 9781620043912
Print ISBN: 9781620043929
Note: Can be read as a standalone novel. Non-descriptive lovemaking. Violence and drama. Comprised of three sections, each of which can be seen as an individual story/chapter of Darkstar’s life.

Darkstar x Blue Ice

Blurb: The supervillain you love to read is back. Years of living a normal life should have blunted his edge, but revenge has made it sharp.

Summary: In the wake of the death of the Fabulous Kims, Vereint cannot forget Melissa, the little girl they left behind, a girl that now has no family. Certain he and Warrick can be the family she needs, he pushes to adopt her. That she proves to have superpowers only confirms he’s right. Melissa is their darling daughter by day, and by night she trains to become Blue Devil, sidekick to Blue Ice.

Then the unthinkable happens, destroying the happiness Vereint and Warrick worked so hard to build—a tragedy so great that the long-vanished Darkstar returns with murderous intent…

Links: All Romance Ebooks, Amazon, Goodreads, Less Than Three Press, Smashwords.

EXCERPT:

CHAPTER ONE

The sun struggled to shine through the clouds, and it was one of those days destined to be miserable. Not just because of the weather, but because of the girl sobbing out her heartbreak on a sterile hospital bed, the sheets pulled up around her shoulders as she buried her face in the flat and lumpy pillow.

Vereint clenched his hands together on the handles of the two shopping bags he held. It took all of his willpower to keep from running into the room and scooping her into his arms. Instead, he stood in the hallway and watched through the window as she mourned the loss of her parents. Behind and to the left of him, he could hear Warrick talking to the nurse and the social worker, and Vereint was sure everything was just about worked out.

They were going to take that little girl home and give her a family and make sure she grew up knowing that she was loved. He didn’t think they could ever erase the loss of her parents, but they would try their best to make her realize that she still had a whole life to live and they would be there for her.

Vereint heard the slight scuff of dress shoes on the linoleum floor, then Warrick’s arm settled across his shoulders. He didn’t hesitate to hug Warrick’s wrist against his chest. He breathed in the scent that his brain uniquely identified as Warrick Reidenger Tobias and something screaming and tight in his chest released. “Do we get to take her now?”

“I talked them around,” Warrick said. “There will be social service visits and we’ll have a social worker assigned. They’ll still be looking for any family she has, but she gets to go home with us tonight. They say she’s all right, just shaken up, so it’ll be better for her if she doesn’t spend another night in the hospital.”

“Good.” Vereint had never been fond of hospitals. Just the smell and the sounds were enough to make him uncomfortable; he couldn’t imagine how miserable it must be for a grieving twelve-year-old who had watched her parents die. “The guest room will be fine for tonight, and tomorrow I can go and get things to make it more comfortable.”

He’d get her a few things to make her feel welcome, then later after her grief had a chance to settle he would take her to pick out things she wanted for herself. It would give them a chance to bond. He wondered what she looked like when she smiled.

“Here comes the social worker,” Warrick said.

There was the clack-clack of sensible pumps attached to a tall, thin woman with a pair of no-nonsense glasses perched on her nose. She looked like she might be kind, but also as though she didn’t suffer fools. The subdued floral print of her purple and black blouse showed that she had a softer side that they would be able to appeal to.

“Mr. Georges-Tobias, Mr. Tobias, I’m Nancy Daniels and I’ve been assigned to Melissa’s case.” Her handshake was brusque and businesslike. She wasn’t ready to be friends, not until she was sure of them, but Vereint knew she was the kind of ally they were going to need. He’d done a bit of research about child services, and while money could take them far, they would need her help to smooth away the minor irritations of the legal system.

He smiled at her, trying to pour on the charm without going too far over the top. “Thank you. I’m just glad you’re letting us take her home with us.”

She sighed. “It will be nice for her to be out of here. From what the nurses have said, last night was not a good night for her.” She walked toward the door. “Come along and I’ll introduce you.”

Warrick reached the door first and held it open with easy grace. He brushed his hand against the small of Vereint’s back as Vereint passed by him. Vereint gave him a smile before his attention was caught by the girl on the bed.

Melissa was a cute Korean-American girl with long black hair and a triangular-shaped face. She was short, her body so tiny that her head looked large in comparison. With the opening of the door, she hastily sat up, raking her hands through the tangled mess of her hair and scrubbing at her eyes with the corner of the sheet. Her face was still blotchy and red, but her chin firmed as she pretended she hadn’t been crying.

“What do you want?” she asked, her lips twitching as she tried to maintain her control. She blinked rapidly to clear the gleam of tears from her eyes.

“Hello, Melissa,” Nancy said, her voice gentle and soothing. “I know you said you want to leave the hospital, and that’s why I’ve brought these two gentlemen with me. This is Vereint Georges-Tobias and his husband Warrick Tobias. They want you to stay with them until everything gets figured out.”

Melissa gave them a suspicious glare. “I don’t know them. I don’t want to go anywhere with them.”

“You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to,” Nancy said, “but Vereint and Warrick are offering you a safe place to stay.”

Vereint stepped forward, shifting the bags until they hung from his left wrist, and held up his hands, palms out so she could see that they were empty. He gave Melissa a tentative smile. “Hi. I can tell you want to get out of here. I don’t much like hospitals myself, and it must be pretty cold here at night, huh?”

Her black eyes were still suspicious, but she gave a nod of grudging agreement. “The blankets are thin and you can hear everything that goes on at night. I think the man in the next room died last night; there was a big ruckus and people were running in and out.” Her chin was a hard nob that she refused to let tremble.

Vereint pressed his lips together. He’d pushed for her to be put in a different unit of the hospital, but her brush with the freeze ray that had shot her parents meant she needed close observation. At least, that had been the line the doctor had given when Vereint had asked if she could be discharged two days ago. Vereint didn’t think a lonely and sterile hospital room was a healthy environment for a traumatized child. He didn’t want to see her spirit damaged.

The fact that she was defensive made him like her more. He’d felt as though something had stabbed him in the chest the first time he’d seen her after her parents’ death. He’d never believed in fate, but it was obvious to him that he and Warrick had to take her home and raise her as their daughter. There had been so much hurt in her eyes when they’d met his and so much spirit beyond that, it had been no effort at all to nudge Warrick into grudging action.

Warrick wasn’t heartless, but he’d long ago learned that there was no helping everyone. He already went out night after night to save his slice of the world; he couldn’t take every orphaned kid home with him. Vereint had agreed with that sentiment, but seeing Melissa Kim of the Fabulous Flying Kims standing on the platform, her eyes wide and horrified as she’d watched her parents frozen to crystal and shattered into red stained pieces, had gotten to him. There was no way he could walk away from her, not with his every instinct screaming at him.

Her parents had died three days ago and there had been no family to call. After the tragedy he’d suggested to Warrick that they take her in, and with no one stepping forward to claim Melissa, Vereint felt as though his instincts were being validated. She needed a home, and they had one to give her. It was kismet.

“Come home with us,” Vereint urged. “There’s a bedroom waiting for you and we’ll make sure you’re well taken care of. You don’t have to make a commitment right away, but we would like it if you were to become part of our family.”

“Why are you doing this?” she asked. Her fingers were twisting and twisting together in her lap. Her fingernails were bitten and the skin around them looked tender and raw from her nervous chewing.

“Because you need us,” Vereint said.

Part of him wanted to snatch her up and force her to go home with him where she belonged, but he knew he couldn’t do that. He wasn’t the bad guy anymore. He was trying to be just a guy, and regular guys didn’t go around subjugating the wills of the people around them. Warrick had told him it was rude.

She bit her lip, her teeth tiny and white. Her right eyetooth was crooked and she had a tooth on the left side that pressed too close to the one next to it; he was already planning a trip to the orthodontist. Her eyes darted to Nancy as she asked, “What will happen to me if I don’t go with them?”

“You’ll remain here until this afternoon, when you’ll be transferred to a group home until we find you a foster family,” Nancy stated bluntly. Melissa’s eyes widened, filling with tears. Nancy softened her tone, “Look, sweetie, this is one of those times when you have to act grown up. We’ll try to help you as much as we can, but you have to help yourself too. Fighting everything won’t help you at all. Do you understand?”

Melissa blinked hard, seeming to process that.

“If you honestly don’t like it with us,” Vereint said, “you can always call Nancy.”

She drew in a huffing breath, her cheeks puffing out thoughtfully. “Okay.” She nodded to Nancy. “I’ll go with them. Just… can I get my stuff?” She glanced at Vereint, then Warrick. “I mean, well… I know I can’t keep the whole trailer, but can I bring some of my stuff?”

Vereint snorted. “Forget that,” he said. He looked at Warrick. “Can we have the trailer delivered somewhere? Like put it into long-term storage?”

“Of course.” Warrick pulled out his phone. “Give me a minute and I’ll arrange it.”

“See?” Vereint turned back to Melissa. “You can keep all of your things. It’s going to be all right.”

“Really?” She gave him a tremulous smile. “Thank you. I was… I was worried they were going to throw everything away. I mean, I’ve seen movies and TV. They don’t let kids in foster care keep most of their stuff. I…” She closed her eyes briefly. “That trailer’s my home. I’ve lived in it my whole life. I thought they were going to take it away.”

“Well, your home won’t be getting sold anytime soon,” Vereint said. He leaned close and dropped his voice to a whisper. “Warrick will make sure it’s there for you when you want it. Is that a good deal?” He gave Melissa a Charm-filled smile that was so bright there should have been glitter and diamonds and bright splashes of fireworks in the air around him. It was a heady rush, one that he had to keep a tight rein on.

There was no way a preteen girl could withstand his powers, so it was no surprise when she smiled back at him with shy delight and reached out to shake the hand he extended.

“It’s a deal,” she chirped, with only one disturbed wrinkle of her brow before she was caught and her brain responded to his pheromones, flooding her body with the chemicals for trust, affection, and a taste of hero-worship. Her forehead smoothed out and her eyes gleamed at him, captive.

Vereint blinked and quickly lowered his eyes, his chin dipping down in what might have seemed a clumsy move. That surge of live wire tension he always felt when he powered up settled back down. The sharp clarity returned to normal focus and he knew his eyes had changed back to their usual blue. He lifted his head and gave Melissa a smile she was quick to reciprocate without him pressing her.

Vereint glanced quickly at Warrick, but Warrick was still talking on his phone a few feet away and hadn’t seen what he’d done. It made him feel guilty to hide anything from Warrick, but he hated being on the receiving end of Warrick’s disapproving frown.

What Warrick didn’t know wouldn’t cause any fights between the two of them, and all he’d done was prime Melissa to be more receptive to the help she needed. It wasn’t like he’d made her love him, which he could have easily done. He’d only eased her grief by introducing more positive emotions.

Vereint knew he was trying to sell the idea of him and Warrick as a family unit, but he couldn’t help himself. There was a vulnerability in Melissa that called to him and he wanted to take her home where it was safe. He couldn’t explain why it was so important, but he wanted to protect her from the harshness of the world.

“Here, I brought this for you,” he said, holding out one of the shopping bags. It was glossy black with a red heart on the front. “I thought you might need clothes. I guessed on the sizes, but I think I did a pretty good job.”

Melissa reached out a tentative hand to take the bag, holding it on her sheet covered lap for a long moment. She nibbled on her lip, eyes darting over his face, before opening the bag and looking inside. She lifted out a purple tee shirt with a glittery blue quilt design on the front, then she dropped it back in and held up the jeans and gray sweatshirt he’d picked out.

“You didn’t have to buy me anything,” she said. “I have lots of clothes.”

“You don’t have anything here,” he said. “Until we can get your things from your trailer you’re going to need something to wear.”

“Oh.” She gave him a sideways glance through the curtain of her hair. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” he said. “Why don’t you go change so we can get out of here? Like I told you, hospitals creep me out.” He gave a melodramatic shudder.

There was a hint of a smile around her lips as she pulled the clothing out of the bag and climbed off the bed. She was wearing a loose pair of blue scrub pants and a matching overlarge shirt that hung off her slender frame. She’d tucked the long hem of the shirt into the waistband of her pants and her socks were a white flash as she dashed toward the bathroom, closing the door behind her with a loud click.

Vereint looked at Nancy. “Well, I guess that’s that.”

She gave him a long look, then a nod. “We’ll give her one more chance to back out on the deal, then she’ll be in your care until the situation changes.”

“Good.”

*~*~*

Standing off to one side of the hospital room, Warrick finished giving instructions to his assistant, and then called the League of Superheroes headquarters to let Captain Victorious know he was going to have a civilian child staying at his place. He hadn’t wanted to drop that bombshell until he was sure it would actually happen, but Captain Vic would throw a fit if he wasn’t kept in the loop.

Warrick didn’t hate kids, but he’d never figured on having any. After the initial anguish of finding out he’d been rendered sterile in a bad fight, he’d actually been relieved. He worried sometimes that he had too much of his father’s cold cruelty in him, buried deep and waiting to lash out at the weak and vulnerable, and that was definitely not the way he wanted to be with a kid.

He didn’t trust himself to be patient or kind, but Vereint had asked if they could take Melissa in and it was obviously something he really wanted. Warrick thought he’d handled things well just by agreeing that they could offer themselves as foster parents for Melissa on a trial basis, and it had only taken a phone call to his legal team to have things expedited. If Vereint wanted Melissa in their family, then that was what would happen.

He swore to himself that he would keep his instinct for meanness in check, and if that didn’t work, he knew that Vereint would pull him up short. He just hoped Vereint wasn’t going to start taking in strays all over the place. He didn’t know how much patience he had.

Vereint had already taken in Hank as a new brother and now he was picking up a pseudo-daughter—or as he’d proclaimed her, a “ward,” like they were suddenly in the 18th century. It made Warrick wonder if Vereint was going to insist on getting Melissa a governess.

Warrick felt his lips twitch as he thought of all the trouble Vereint could get himself into. It had taken time for him to realize it, but there was very little in the world he wouldn’t let Vereint have. Though if it came down to it, there wasn’t a whole lot he could do to stop Vereint if he went off the rails.

Vereint could be a terrifying and unstoppable force, and it was only luck that he showed even the tiniest bit of concern for other people. If Vereint had been completely amoral, he would have been a monster terrible enough to be classified as a force of nature. Instead, as a supervillain, he had indulged largely in petty crime and his body count was low for someone with such a powerful reputation. People were frightened of what could happen if he got angry at them personally, but on the whole he had never been a threat to society.

Warrick finished his last phone call, then slipped his phone back into his jacket pocket. He’d been notifying people by rote at the end, but it needed to be done. He was a high profile superhero, and if he didn’t make sure his calls were rerouted it would only be a matter of time before Melissa answered the wrong phone and his secret identity was blown.

It was the biggest reason he’d given Vereint about why he didn’t think bringing a child into their home was a good idea. He had too many secrets to hide and having a kid around was a lot of risk. Vereint had suggested that he should play the Daddy Warbucks card, which would entail locking himself in his office for “work time” and not telling Melissa a single thing about what he was doing. It was going to be a major change in his routine, but it wasn’t like he had any other choice.

One look at how Vereint practically glowed with excitement as he gathered Melissa’s small amount of possessions into the shopping bag—a brightly colored red and gold unitard and ballet slippers, the hairbrush and robe the hospital had provided—and Warrick knew that this was happening. It would be good for Vereint to have something to be involved with. He might not notice how mechanically he went through his days, but Warrick had.

Since retiring from crime, Vereint had tried to write a book, taken art lessons, driven go-karts, and taken on so many other failed hobbies that failure was getting to be his hobby. The fire that had always seemed to blaze around him had dimmed, and Warrick had begun to worry that Vereint was getting depressed, that he would decide to seek out better excitement and leave one day. The thought of Vereint leaving him sent a jagged blade of unease through Warrick.

The bathroom door opened and Melissa stepped out in the jeans and hoodie Vereint had chosen for her. She’d been brought to the hospital in her circus costume and she’d spent the last couple of days in oversized scrubs. She looked relieved to be wearing real clothes again.

“Looking good,” Vereint said, giving her a grin. “Here, I got these for you too.” He pulled a pair of tennis shoes out of the bag he held and presented them to her. They were red and white with a yellow bird outlined in a rich blue on the side.

Melissa’s hands trembled slightly when she reached out and took them, her fingers ghosting over the flying bird design that had been hand-painted on the outside of each shoe. “These… these are the shoes I wanted,” her voice cracked. “I didn’t tell anyone because they’re too expensive. How did you know?” She raised her head to look at Vereint.

“I saw them and I thought of you,” Vereint said, giving her a warm smile. It was the type of unthinking kindness that made Warrick love him even more. It was proof that Vereint had it in him to care about others.

Warrick had long accepted that neither of them was perfect; one of Vereint’s faults was an inability to care about most people. Which made the times Vereint did something compassionate or sweet for someone other than Warrick more precious and important.

It was horribly sentimental, but Warrick wanted to see every expression Vereint could make. He wanted to know every part of Vereint to the point that he could fold those memories into every corner of himself.

He liked to see Vereint happy, with that little tilt to his lips that meant he was seconds away from a laughing smile. He would do just about anything to see that expression, which was why they were taking home a twelve-year-old orphan who had been raised in a circus and had very little experience with normal life. There was something about her that had struck a chord with Vereint.

Warrick pulled out his phone and sent a quick text requesting that his assistant have Melissa’s possessions taken out of the trailer and delivered to the penthouse as soon as possible, watching as Melissa sat on the edge of the hospital bed and pulled on her new shoes. He didn’t know how Vereint had done it, but they were the perfect size.

“Thank you,” she said, giving Vereint a shy glance.

“It’s no big deal. You need shoes if we’re blowing this popsicle stand.” He shrugged, but Warrick could see that he was pleased, the tips of his ears turning red.

Warrick took that as his cue to step forward and herd everyone out of the room. Vereint picked up the shopping bag, but kept his other hand free in case Melissa happened to want to take it. She didn’t this time, but the offer was left open and Warrick’s heart melted.

His assistant, Bertram, was wrapping up the last bit of the checkout process at the nurses station. He turned with puppyish excitement when he saw Warrick. He trotted over with a bright green folder clutched in his hand. “Sir, she’s all checked out and the car is ready downstairs to drive you home.”

“Thank you,” Warrick said, accepting the folder and not breaking stride as he led the way to the elevator. It was always funny to see Bertram, usually well put together, scramble to keep up with him, his loafers squeaking on the floor and his Ichabod Crane elbows and arms bending like Stretch Armstrong.

Bertram Cooke was an overly-educated, under-socialized man who had been training his entire life to be someone’s underling, though he probably hadn’t realized that was where his education was leading him. Still, he was good at his job and Warrick had just gotten him trained enough where he didn’t have to offer any handholding. Bertram was able to act as Warrick’s proxy with a minimum of dramatics and that was an appreciable skill.

Tobias Industries was a monolithic company that practically ran itself, and Warrick could get by with scanning a few reports at the end of each quarter and watching his bank accounts expand. He was the kind of rich his family had always aimed toward in the knowledge that if they wanted to pursue their obsession with crime fighting there would need to be a steady income to finance everything. There was no way a Tobias was going to wander around dressed in a substandard uniform.

Under the iron rule of his grandfather, Warrick had built up the family fortune to the point where he had men like Bertram Cooke to protect his interests and he could take the time to save the world and please Vereint. He’d automated his wealth to such an extent that he was free to be the superhero he wanted to be.

Warrick kept one eye on Vereint and Melissa as they rode the elevator down. Melissa stayed in Vereint’s shadow with a pinched expression on her face as she watched the numbers flick by. She seemed tiny between Vereint and the social worker, her left foot kicking back against the elevator wall nervously.

He felt a surge of pity when he looked at her. She was just a kid and she’d watched her parents die. He figured they were looking at years of counseling to make sure she would be all right. It was a responsibility he wasn’t sure they were ready for, but there was nothing he could do about it. Vereint wanted to care for the girl, and Warrick would never say no to him.

He slanted a glance toward Vereint’s face and was startled to meet his eyes. Vereint flashed him a quick grin, and Warrick smiled back before focusing on the numbers counting down.

Everything would be all right.

*~*~*

Nancy the Social Worker made him nervous, but he knew there wasn’t a whole lot she could call them on. Their apartment was beautiful and clean and he’d already prepared a guest room for Melissa. There were no dangerous weapons in evidence and they had more than enough money to care for a thousand kids.

If Nancy wanted to give them a hard time, he would do what he had to in order to get what he wanted, including Charming her and turning her into his thrall. He was holding that back as a last resort, since he knew Warrick wouldn’t approve of anything that smacked of supervillainy.

Sometimes Warrick was a real buzzkill.

Vereint shot him a fond look across the car and received a wink in return.

They were being driven to Tobias Towers in one of the company limousines, their driver expertly cutting through traffic with nary a bump. Melissa was in the spot next to Vereint, with Nancy on her other side. Warrick was sitting across from them, with Bertram focusing on his ePad next to him, a worried little frown tugging at his wide lips.

“What’s up, Bert?” Vereint asked, unable to hold it in any longer. They were trying to play all happy family, but sometimes Vereint couldn’t bite his tongue fast enough and had to pick away at people.

It was lucky that Bertram had been around long enough to figure out Warrick’s “Vereint Protocol,” which basically consisted of everyone doing their best to keep Vereint happy. He didn’t raise a single brow and smoothly said, “Nothing much, Ernie.”

Vereint snorted and glanced at Melissa. “If you stay with us, that’s the kind of humor you’ll have to put up with all the time. I’m sorry.”

A faint smile tugged at the corner of her mouth, but didn’t quite fully bloom. “It’s not so bad.” Her voice was soft enough that he wouldn’t have heard her if he’d had normal hearing.

He patted her on the shoulder. “It gets worse.” He glanced out the window as the car slid to a smooth stop. “Ah, we’re here.”

He led the way out of the car and through the lobby to the elevator. “We’re at the very top,” he told Melissa.

She was looking around the metal and glass elevator curiously, her head tipped back to see. She was so young, her expression open and honest. “It’s high up,” she observed.

“Sometimes we land the jet on the roof,” he said, giving her a sly wink.

She laughed, relaxing. “No way.”

He nudged her shoulder as the door dinged open. “Come on. Let me show you where you’ll be staying.”

He left Warrick to handle Nancy as he led Melissa through the spacious penthouse apartment, pointing out different features and giving her a general rundown on what she was allowed to use and what she should leave alone and why. He felt like a talk show host and had to resist sashaying and The Price is Right hand-waving.

“This is the living room, where we hang out most of the time. I don’t go out all that much, so most of the time this will be where I am.” He let her try out the couch and the recliners, then took her to the open kitchen. “This is where the food comes from. Please don’t try to cook by yourself, at least until I can make sure you’re not going to set the microwave on fire.” He gave her a charming smile.

“I won’t,” she said. She watched interestedly when he opened the refrigerator and showed her that it was packed with food, then he popped open the various drawers and cupboards.

“What’s that?” She pointed at a bamboo steamer.

“That’s where I make my delicious gyoza,” he said. “I think you’ll enjoy helping me next Saturday.”

“What’s next Saturday?” She followed him down the hallway. Her eyes flicked everywhere, taking everything in.

“There are some nights when Warrick is stuck late at the office, but every Saturday, Warrick and I have a family dinner together.” Vereint pushed open a bedroom door and let her go in first. “It was always lonely before with just the two of us. It’s going to be so much nicer with another person around.” He waved his hand. “This will be your room. What do you think?”

She was agape as she stood in the middle of the room, turning slowly around and around, staring everywhere. “It’s… it’s so pretty,” she whispered.

Vereint smiled. “Yeah. We let my mother decorate this room and forgot to give her a limit on what she could do. She always wanted to be an interior designer. She went crazy.”

The guest room had been an uncomfortably large open space with generic furniture, and Sandra had been able to turn it into a more comfortable and intimate space. The walls were a rich orange and there were dark red and purple fabric hangings that made everything seem warm and safe.

The bedspread had a vibrant yellow starburst pattern on a turquoise background. The furniture was all lushly comfortable and Vereint made a note to ask Melissa if she really liked the chairs and couch or if she wanted to exchange them for something firmer.

“It looks like A Little Princess,” Melissa said, sitting down on one of the blue chairs. She grabbed one of the yellow-orange brocade pillows and gave it a hug.

Vereint shrugged. “Knowing my mom, that’s probably how she got her inspiration.”

Melissa jumped up from the chair and walked over to the bed to test it. “It’s a lot better than the hospital.”

“Yeah,” Vereint said. By the look in her eyes, he knew he didn’t have to point out how much better it would be than what she’d get at the group home. She was a smart kid.

“If you decide to stay with us, we’ll get you more personal things,” Vereint said. “We’ve got a couple of weeks before school starts and I know you’ll want to look your best.”

“I’ve… I’ve never been to a regular school,” Melissa said. “My mom taught me in our trailer while we were on the road.”

Moving slowly in case she wanted to duck away, Vereint rested his hand on her shoulder. “That’s all right. If you need extra tutoring, we can arrange that, or if you’re more advanced than your peers we can get you more advanced classes or whatever. There’s nothing for you to worry about.”

She blinked at him. “Okay.”

He smiled, a feeling of accomplishment going through him. He could practically see that she was bonding with him. That was good. He didn’t have much experience with kids, and he didn’t want to screw this up. She’d already had such a bad time of it. He didn’t want to add to her problems.

“This really is a very pretty room,” she said.

“Yeah. You can tell my mom that when you meet her,” Vereint said.

The sound of talking came from near the door, and when Vereint turned to look he saw that it was Nancy and Warrick. From the expression on Nancy’s face, Vereint had a feeling things were going in their favor. They had a beautiful home, ridiculous amounts of money, and Vereint had plenty of spare time—there wasn’t anything she could call them on, given she didn’t know about either of their metabilities.

Warrick Tobias was worth a lot of money, and he was the kind of guy that hapless bureaucrats went out of their way to keep happy. Nancy may have been serious about her job and the careful placement of all her charges, but those above her on the totem pole…

Vereint didn’t have a single doubt that Melissa would be staying with them. It was inevitable.

He smiled at Melissa. “Let me show you the rest of the apartment. I’m sure you’ll enjoy seeing our rooftop garden. We put a lot of work into it.”

He held out his hand and waited patiently. A small hand tentatively linked with his.

It was the little victories he enjoyed the most.

*

*
CHAPTER TWO

It was strange having a kid in the house. Just the sound of a new person breathing broke the routine, but to hear the weakness of those normal human lungs, so delicate and fragile… It made something shift and bend in Vereint’s chest.

He’d spent the early years of his adult life feeling alone, as though he were looking at the world through a pane of dark colored glass. He’d seen the love his parents shared, and he’d started thinking he’d never have that level of connection with another person, not when he couldn’t even maintain an everyday friendship with anyone. Then he’d met Warrick and his life was changed forever. He’d found someone to love, and it had settled the wildly snarling beast that had always lived inside him. He had a family of his own now and it raised a powerful, protective urge inside him. He liked it.

Sliding out of bed, he retrieved his robe from the bedpost and put it on over his pajamas. He spared the still-sleeping Warrick a fond look before leaving the bedroom, closing the door softly behind him.

He padded into the kitchen and fixed himself a cup of coffee before starting on breakfast. It was such an everyday thing that a feeling of warmth rushed through him.

Vereint mixed up pancake batter and started frying bacon. He’d barely finished the first batch of pancakes when a sleepy-looking Melissa wearing pink cloud pajamas came in. He smiled when he saw she was wearing the fuzzy blue monster slippers he’d slipped into her room. With every step the mouths gaped open and there was a honking-beep sound.

“Good morning,” he said. “You hungry?”

She nodded and went to the chair at the table that she’d already claimed as hers. She didn’t return his smile, but the eyes that met his weren’t drowning in sadness either. She handled her grief with a quiet strength.

He made a mental note to arrange for her to attend group counseling. The one-on-one stuff she was already set up with could probably do with age appropriate dynamics. He didn’t want her to lose herself in her grief; she had to learn that there were other kids going through the same thing. She shouldn’t feel that she was alone.

Vereint shook his head to clear it. He fixed a plate for her and carried it over to the table with the pitcher of orange juice. “Here you go, sweetie. Breakfast of champions.” He poured her glass half full and nudged it closer to her placemat.

“Thank you.” Her voice was hoarse. He wondered if she’d cried last night, though he hadn’t heard anything. Children were such a strange mix of fragile and resilient, able to handle so much before breaking.

Vereint went back to cooking, keeping one eye on her. She was such a lost little girl. He wanted to keep her safe.

The master bedroom door clicked open quietly, and then Warrick came in. His blond hair stood up in dandelion tufts around his head, and he was wearing gray sweats and a white tee shirt. He gave Vereint a smile when he came into the kitchen for coffee. “Good morning.”

Vereint handed him a plate of pancakes, bacon, and sliced strawberries. “Here you go,” he tapped his cheek meaningfully and got the kiss he wanted, “and thank you.”

“You’re certainly in a good mood today,” Warrick said, their fingers brushing. “I like it.”

Vereint smiled. He was in a good mood, wasn’t he? “I’m happy.”

“Try not to sound so surprised about it,” Warrick advised. He leaned forward to give Vereint another kiss, this one a brush on the lips, before carrying his plate and coffee to the table.

When Vereint glanced over, he saw Melissa hastily look away. The tips of her ears were pink where they poked through her dark hair. She held her fork clutched in her fist, stabbing away at bites of pancake.

“Melissa, would you like more bacon?” he asked.

She shook her head. “I’m getting full.” She lifted her glass and sipped her juice. “It was very good. Thank you.”

Vereint smiled at her. “It was my pleasure.” He switched off the burners and quickly made himself a plate. He carried it over to the table and sat next to Warrick, who reached over to fill his glass with juice.

Sitting there, the sun pouring in through the wide windows, Vereint could practically see their life unfolding in front of him. It sent a burst of warmth through him, tinged with sadness for Melissa’s loss. But there was no way he could have let her go home with anyone else.

The second he’d seen her there on top of the platform with her face twisted in horror and fresh grief, he’d known: This one is ours. It was only fitting that two damaged souls take in and raise a damaged child. Maybe they could all fix each other.

He took a bite of pancake and chewed slowly, enjoying the comfort of not being alone.

*~*~*

Having a kid around was strange and alien. It was the kind of thing Warrick had never imagined would happen to him. There might have been disappointment when he’d announced he was gay and wasn’t looking to produce the next Tobias heir, but he’d brushed it off. His family had taken so much from him. There was no way he was letting them decide his sexuality too. Their opinions had ceased to matter after the Tobias Tragedy had taken most of their lives. After that, there was no one but him to say how he was supposed to live. He’d been freed of the burden of expectation, and then he’d been rendered sterile and the whole conflict became moot.

Trust Vereint to mess with the status quo. To bring a child into their little duo and turn them from a hot, sexy couple into a family. He was surprised by how much the change didn’t bother him.

Warrick smiled fondly at Vereint where he was showing Melissa how to work the complicated media system. They’d had so many remote controls that they’d set up everything to work through a tablet computer.

“See? You push this here and it turns on the TV,” Vereint said.

Melissa reached out with one of her tiny fingers to brush against the touch screen. She jumped and jerked her hand back when the TV immediately switched on. “I barely touched it!”

“It’s pretty sensitive,” Vereint said. He touched the Guide button. “And here’s how you find all the cartoon and kid friendly channels.”

“No porn?” Melissa asked.

Vereint spluttered a second before giving in to a laugh. “No. There will be no adult entertainment for you. And please don’t tell me why you know anything about it. It’s all kids TV for you from here on out.”

Warrick sat in his favorite chair with his ePad propped on his crossed knees. He had flicked through his daily blog roundup, but nothing had leapt out at him, so instead he watched Vereint’s face. It was something he always did when he had nothing else to keep him occupied. Vereint was his obsession. He could spend the rest of his days watching the expressions that crossed Vereint’s face and still want more.

He was glad to see Vereint happier than he had been lately. Having Melissa around had brightened his mood and given him something to look forward to in the days when Warrick couldn’t be there.

Seeming to sense Warrick’s regard, Vereint turned his head and gave him a smile. “You sure you don’t want to join us as we try to figure out the mysteries of your way-too-complicated media setup?”

“It’s not complicated,” Warrick said, “as long as you know what you’re doing. And I’m comfortable where I am. Though I would appreciate something to eat if you want to make something.” He gave Vereint a charming smile.

Vereint sighed good-naturedly. “Sometimes I don’t know why I put up with you.” He nudged Melissa. “If you ever decide to get married, you gotta understand that it’s like roulette. Sometimes you win… and sometimes you get a guy that wants to sit around in his favorite chair surfing the Internet while other people do all the work around the place.”

Melissa giggled and took the tablet out of Vereint’s hands. Her fingers ghosted over the icons, changing the TV channel and turning the stereo on.

“I see you’re already better at that than I am.”

“It’s not complicated,” Melissa said, then gave Warrick a grin.

He laughed in surprise. Though she’d been with them less than a week, she was already showing that she had real spunk to her. It went well with Vereint’s innate sarcasm and his own laconic tendencies toward anyone that wasn’t Vereint or Caspian.

Warrick had never been the best at connecting with other people. It always seemed as though anyone outside of his little circle were annoyances he forced himself to put up with. Even his own family had rubbed him the wrong way. They’d always been forcing their expectations on him and thought that he would capitulate. Giving in had always seemed like weakness and he’d hated it. Yet Vereint only had to hint at a desire and Warrick couldn’t bend over fast enough.

There were times when he questioned what kind of man he had become, but there wasn’t a single doubt in his mind that Vereint had made him a better person. Certainly a much happier one.

His ePad jolted in his hand with a melodic sound. Warrick glanced down at the screen and saw that the little yin-yang icon had lit up, notifying him that the League was looking for him.

“Darn it,” he said, standing up. “I just got an email from the company. There’s a situation they need me to take care of.”

Vereint raised a questioning eyebrow and Warrick nodded. Vereint sighed and turned to Melissa. “Well, if he’s going to leave us, I guess he’ll miss out on our fabulous lunch date at The Purple Fez.”

Warrick grimaced. “You’re really eating at that place?”

“What’s wrong with it?” Melissa asked.

“Nothing!” Vereint insisted before Warrick could answer. “They make the best club sandwiches and I thought we could share one and have their minestrone soup. And if we’ve still got room for it, we could get spicy chocolate lava cake.”

“Lava cake?” Melissa folded her legs under herself and rose up on her knees excitedly. She cocked her head. “What’s that?”

Vereint shot Warrick a victorious grin before turning to Melissa. “You’ll just have to wait until lunch to find out.” He stuck his tongue out at Warrick. “You go off and do your boring office stuff while we have a great time without you.”

“I’ll see you guys later.” Warrick couldn’t resist a grinning fiercely as he left the room. All his worries about having a kid seemed to have been as stupid as Vereint had said.

I guess I am a selfish ass, he thought, amused. He hopped in his private elevator to go to the apartment he used as a staging area now that Melissa lived with them. A couple of days before her arrival—before they were even sure that she’d really be coming home with them—they’d moved everything Blue Ice-related out of the penthouse and to his new gear rooms. It was lucky that they both possessed superstrength or they wouldn’t have been able to move it all as quickly as they had.

Warrick had chosen to repurpose an empty apartment that had previously been used for special guests. There’d already been security measures in place, and with the help of Vereint and the League’s contract superscientist Dr. Zee, he’d added to them. In a matter of days, the apartment had been arranged to his specifications and he’d unloaded the hastily packed equipment and put it away at his leisure.

The move wasn’t something he’d wanted to do, but now that everything was done, he had to admit that it had been a good idea to get his Blue Ice gear out of the penthouse. There’d been too much risk of discovery the way things had been. It was better to keep his two lives separated—Warrick Reidenger Tobias in the penthouse, and Blue Ice in the private access apartment.

Plus, the good husband reward sex afterward had made his toes curl. There’d been a sense of the forbidden about bending Vereint backward over one of the bigger boxes full of his life as Blue Ice and plundering Vereint’s laughing mouth. Their make out session had reminded Warrick of their first time kissing, only there’d been no security guard to interrupt them before they got to the best parts.

Coming out of the elevator, he tapped his private code into the touch pad next to the door to open the access panel. Then he suffered the retina scan and palm scan before the lock would accept his house key and he could open the door.

He walked inside, kicking the door shut behind him as he briskly crossed the room to the secondary security panel. He popped the lid open and typed in his code. If the code wasn’t entered within five minutes of the front door being opened, a security alert would go to both him and Vereint.

Warrick figured that if anyone broke in, they would get the surprise of a lifetime when Vereint blasted them into vapor. If there was no evidence of a crime, they wouldn’t have to file anything with the League or the Central Metahuman Policing Force. It wasn’t something he’d mentioned to Vereint, not wanting to give him ideas, but he understood how deep battle instincts ran.

Vereint would blast first and ask questions later. He could be pretty vicious, so if anyone tried to break into Warrick’s Blue Ice stash, they would only get what they deserved.

Warrick quickly changed into his uniform. The blue and white bodysuit fit him closely, and once it was in place, he tugged on his armor flak jacket and guards. He pulled his head stocking down to cover his blond hair; the I-shape in the front left his eyes, nose and mouth clear.

He’d tried full-face masks before, but it hadn’t worked out. His father would have yelled at him for risking his identity with his uniform choices, but Warrick had added a shaped half-mask and called it good enough. Full-face masks had always been too stifling for him and age hadn’t changed that any.

Once he was dressed, he paused to give himself a quick once-over in the mirror. The last thing he wanted was to let carelessness leave clues to his secret identity. The stories of how Katmandu had bought it had slammed reality down Warrick’s throat. The assholes had even gone back and chopped up her kids as a lesson to other heroes about getting sloppy with their kit: when in costume, everything else should be left at home where it belonged.

I’m a father now, he thought, and it was still an alien concept. He didn’t feel like a parent, yet there was a kid in his life and he had to be smarter than before.

Vereint could protect himself. Melissa was a liability.

“Get your head in the game,” he told himself. His voice seemed loud in the silence. It made him uncomfortable.

Warrick grabbed his utility belt and strapped it around his waist. His partner, Caspian Dukes, was probably already waiting. The half-Atlantean was startlingly quick about responding to call ups, probably because he didn’t have much of a life outside the superhero gig.

Not that Warrick could judge him. Before Vereint, he hadn’t had much of a life either.

*~*~*

Aliens. It was aliens again.

He remembered a time when the thought of aliens brought to mind awkwardly waddling glob-monsters that wanted to go home. Now he was dealing with aliens that wanted to suck out peoples’ brains before absorbing their organic tissue into heaving masses of pink and red ick.

“E.T., go the fuck home!” he yelled, dodging out of the way of a writhing tentacle that burned the asphalt with acid where it hit.

“Why do all aliens have to look like fucking Jell-O monsters?” Caspian asked. He’d been given a dart gun loaded with a chemical that was supposed to render the blob monster helpless, crystallizing its insides. Only the darts he’d fired so far had all bounced. Neither one of them was having a good time.

Warrick blasted an oncoming tentacle, freezing it in mid-air. “Not all aliens are blob things,” he puffed. “Some of them are hot alien babes sent to seduce strong virile superheroes. Remember Blandromeda? She kept trying to get into my pants. I had to have Lady Arcana give her the girl-talk about why I wasn’t into her generous offer.”

Caspian snorted. “She was sent to destroy Earth’s mightiest heroes by infecting them with space herpesyphilaids. You dodged a bullet, man. Charismo’s wiener had to be surgically amputated after it started smoking and melting. Dude’s still bitter about it.”

“Didn’t the Mechanic give him a robo-dick though? Wasn’t that good enough?” Warrick froze the tentacles heading toward Caspian, giving him a chance to fire another shot.

The dart bounced.

“Dammit.” Caspian tumbled out of the way of a finger-thin tendril. Seemed like the space blob was trying to be stealthy. “I don’t know about you, man, but I like my original parts. And if I ever decide to get anything replaced, I don’t want it to happen because I caught an STD from a space hooker.”

Warrick cackled. “Space hooker. That shit’s going in my diary.”

They maneuvered the blob away from the civilians trapped in an overturned bus, and hazmat suit wearing police officers rushed in to hustle them out of the way. It was the best they could manage until their League backup arrived with better weapons.

The blob quivered with frustrated rage and a shudder went through the whole thing. There was a disgusting sucking-gurgling sound and an oozing maw lined with human-bone pseudo-teeth opened up.

“Have you ever seen the movie Teeth?” Caspian’s voice had gone up hysterically. “That shit gave me nightmares that went like this.”

Warrick leapt into the air and swooped down to snatch Caspian under the arms as the blob jumped into the spot Caspian had been standing. Angry tentacles reached for them, trying to grab a trailing foot, but Warrick carried them high enough it couldn’t reach. He blinked sweat from his eyes.

“Whoo, that almost got ugly,” he said.

Caspian gave a wordless whimper and his grip on Warrick’s shoulders was almost painful.

/EXCERPT

Links recap: All Romance Ebooks, Amazon, Goodreads, Less Than Three Press, Smashwords.

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