Kiss of Fate (Sinner’s Keepers)
Idioms are what we idiots tell ourselves to make us feel better.
They’re all lies.
Truth sets you free. Ha.
Justice is blind. Hardly.
Life ends when you die. Wrong!
All’s fair in love and war. Fine. I’ll give you that one.
But you’d be wise to remember Fate isn’t fair, kind, or gentle.
How do I know?
I almost died. I say almost because a moment before my last breath, Judgment found me. I don’t know what he saw in me but with one kiss, he changed me irrevocably.
My name is Dahlia. I am fate.
No, I am definitely not fair.
*Please note this is a reverse harem and the authors suggests you always read the forward in their books. Warning, this is a standalone tale with a fierce and feisty heroine, three heroes who are forces of nature, and a tale as old as time, humor, and a little bit of karmic justice thrown in.
‘Living on borrowed time.’ Yeah, never thought that would apply to me. – Dahlia
After millennia, finally, fucking finally, Judgment discovered the key to bringing his brothers to heel. It was nothing he would ever have expected, considering how jaded and resentful Justice and Punishment were. But here they were in a bar on the outskirts of Dallas, a city hotter than hell in August, riveted by a woman in what appeared to be a rather unpleasant argument.
Oh, how the mighty had fallen, to be so infatuated with a human they practically drooled, even as they seemed to lean toward her.
She was beautiful, like a goddess of old with her tall, slender body and midnight hair against alabaster skin. Not his type, but beautiful. Actually, now that he thought about it, not their type either. Yet they gravitated toward her as if pulled on an invisible string.
“Seth. Long time no see,” a sweet voice said from behind him. At first, he didn’t want to turn, he knew exactly who was there. Life was unpredictable with her around, definitely on the less enjoyable side. Of course, she would be here when he finally cornered his brothers.
“Karmen,” he sighed, pulling his long blond braid over his shoulder. None of the humans could see it, but it was always there.
She settled alongside him, studying the scene before them with an objective eye.
“Do Tarus and Zhan know you’re here?”
Hell no. It was no secret those bastards split off more than a few thousand years before, and for what? Because they were too tired, they didn’t feel like anything they did mattered in the grand scheme of things. So fucking what? Their job wasn’t to analyze the effects of their grace, but to follow the goddamned rules. They failed.
And they kept failing.
Where did that leave Judgment? To clean up every mess they created by not using their grace where and when they should have. Each time he swept behind them, he grew a little more bitter, a little angrier. Justice and Punishment were integral to the world the Keepers had created.
It was past time for them to learn a lesson. Judgment was more than willing to deliver it, but finding something that would put a dent in their emotional armor eluded him. His was the task of rendering judgment, but he’d lacked the right punishment until now. The means by which to deliver the justice due them. No, the irony hadn’t been lost on him. By ignoring their duty, they had neutered him.
Did they know he was here? He very much doubted they knew where they were at this point.
“You know the answer to that,” he growled, not willing to waste time in useless conversations.
Karmen patted him on the shoulder. “Then I won’t share your secret. But the object of their affection looks like she needs some help.” The crowd swallowed her up as she glided toward the bar.
As soon as she left him, she was forgotten, his attention returning to his brothers. The man accompanying the woman shook her so hard, Judgment winced from the whiplash. Her shoulders bunched up to her ears as she grimaced and held her head as far away from him as she could while still in his clutches. She dug her fingers into his forearms as her lips moved rapidly, but in profile, he couldn’t make out the words. Judgment edged closer, curious to hear what their argument was about, and more importantly, why Justice and Punishment were so enthralled.
“Is this fucking funny to you, Dahlia?” the man yelled, utterly unconcerned about the fact their dispute attracted an audience both human and very much not.
For her part, Dahlia—he turned the name over, testing the different nuances of each syllable—met the man’s furious gaze steadily, even if her lips twitched with what Judgment suspected was a nervous smile.
“No, of course not,” she said, tugging at her arm in a vain attempt to pull away. Vain because the man white-knuckled his grip, and the red marks already forming promised bruises. “Alex, it was a stupid comment.”
“Oh, of course it was,” Alex sneered. “Everything is a joke. I tell you they’re threatening to can me, and all you can say is ‘it’s not a big deal, you know how they are’? This is serious, and you’re acting like I’m the one overreacting. You know I fucking hate it when you try to belittle me that way.”
Well, Judgment considered, while it could mean exactly what she said, it definitely meant Alex here was a dick. He leaned in closer to her, his voice coming out in a rough whisper-shout, clearly audible to the other patrons. Clearly, because the cowards edged away, darting looks like most humans did when tragedy unfolded around them and they had to gawk like spectators.
“Alex,” Dahlia said his name in a soft rasp, the echo of tears coating her voice but no recrimination. Shock rippled through Judgment. What she offered was not rebuke but comfort. Instead of pulling away, she pushed in and spread her hand against the man’s chest. “I’m sorry. I wanted to make it better, and I made it worse.”
“Fucking right, you made it worse. I’m not some shit loser you scrape off your expensive shoes.” A little bit of spit jumped from his lips as he spoke and struck her cheek. The absolute lack of reaction on her part puzzled Judgment.
“I’m sorry,” she said again, rubbing a slow circle with her palm. The man’s agitation seemed to diminish, but that was an act. His eyes remained hostile and heated, his grip fierce, and no mistaking the faint grind of his teeth. “Seriously, Baby. What they’re doing sucks. They would be absolute jackasses to let you go.”
“Except, they’re probably joking with me, right? Having a laugh at my expense,” he snapped, then released her abruptly. If Judgment hadn’t been studying them so closely, he might have missed her wince. The breath she released wasn’t one of relief.
“I’m sorry,” she said again, her voice pitched even lower. With each passing moment, she diminished herself. Her shoulders pulled in a little tighter, her chin went down, her eyes dipped. The fierce candle guttered in the gale, but it didn’t go out. No, her actions were a choice. The worthless piece of shit in front of her didn’t deserve the woman struggling against the dark rage consuming her… Hmm, he wouldn’t use the word partner.
“You will be,” the worthless piece of shit muttered, but the lack of reaction from Dahlia suggested she hadn’t heard the words.
Judgment’s brothers had.
They stared at the pair of them. Justice’s grayish-brown eyes grew more morose by the moment. Punishment, on the other hand, began to toy with a coin, fidgeting with it across his palm and then making it dance over his knuckles. The very contained action offered the first suggestion Judgment had seen of his brother’s true self in countless years. For the first time in millennia, Judgment could see their desire to intervene, to do what their grace demanded, but they didn’t act on it.
Dahlia folded her arms, hugged herself more, rubbing her palms against her biceps. The fierce red flush of the marks Alex had left on her biceps stained her pale skin like blood on snow.
“Let’s go,” Alex snapped as he tossed a couple of bills on the table. She didn’t argue, even if her drink had barely been touched. Snagging her purse, she hesitated for one, endless moment. Her gaze not on Alex, or even on Judgment’s irritatingly useless siblings, but on another man seated at the bar. A man she gave a swift, negative head shake to and then a faint tremulous smile.
Swinging his gaze, Judgment frowned. The tall man leaned against the bar, his attention—like Judgment’s brothers—focused on Dahlia. The russet, reddish-brown of his skin glowed under the lights from overhead. His eyes were almost tawny, and his lips parted as the barest hint of a smile curved them.
He looked almost pleased.
Dahlia was gone.
They lifted a drink to each other as if in a defeated toast, then knocked it back, but they looked far from happy.
Punishment even stole a glance toward the door.
That decided him, and he moved. They couldn’t have gone far.
Whoever Dahlia was, Judgment had to know more.
Humid, sticky air assaulted him when he stepped out of Sinner’s. The sidewalk was mostly deserted, just a few passersby here and there. He easily caught sight of the couple crossing the street at the next intersection. Even from a distance, Alex was nearly dragging Dahlia behind him, seemingly unaware or uncaring as she struggled to keep up with his fast pace.
Judgment jogged to catch up, careful to not alert them to his presence. It wasn’t hard for someone like him. Humans saw what they wanted to see, and if he put even the smallest amount of effort into it, they couldn’t see him at all.
He followed them for two blocks before they entered a moderately upscale apartment building. As if Dahlia sensed the night was only going to get worse, she tried to extract herself from his punishing grip. Just like in Sinner’s, she wasn’t strong enough to be a match for Alex as he pulled her to the stairwell instead of the elevator bay. The lobby was deserted, and chances were, no one would take the stairs at this time of night.
Where was the night guard? The front desk was empty, but a steaming cup of coffee sat on the counter. Dahlia must have been on the bad side of Luck tonight.
“I have to stop by my mother’s, Alex. Let me go, she has a package for me, and she’ll worry if I don’t show up to get it.” Her voice was strained, her face scrunched up in a pained grimace.
Alex shoved the door open and yanked her inside, distracted enough for Judgment to slip through undetected. He might be able to hide his presence, but he couldn’t walk through walls or doors.
“What the fuck ever. Your mother hates me, and if she thinks she can keep you away from me, she will.”
“Let go of me, Alex!” Some sense of self-preservation kicked in, and she slammed one of her palms into his shoulder, but it only enraged him further. He did let go of her arm, only to grab a fistful of her beautiful hair.
A foreign feeling beat at Judgment as he watched the horribly sad scene unfold in front of him. He didn’t need any of his grace to know how tonight was going to end. He’d seen it too many times over the long history of humans. Still, he didn’t want to see anything bad happen to this beautiful woman because she had the misfortune to hook her star to a piece of human filth like Alex.
“Bitch, you think you’re so much better than me. You’ve always thought it. I’m fucking tired of trying to impress you, and give you the world when you don’t fucking appreciate it.” They were roughly the same in height, if you counted the fact she had on rather high heels, but Alex had a good fifty or sixty pounds on Dahlia. He easily hauled her up several flights of stairs.
There was no reason for Judgment to follow after them, he simply shifted at the foot of the stairs so part of their bodies came into view. Were Justice and Punishment interested in her because they knew what was coming?
He knew, but it didn’t increase his interest in her. Humans acted on their baser instincts all the time, spreading evil into the world. She was just one more human who would experience injustice at the hands of a loved one.
“I’m sorry!” Dahlia cried as she fought to loosen his grip on her hair. “I didn’t mean it. I never wanted you to feel like I don’t appreciate you. Please! Just stop, and we’ll talk about this!”
He stopped on a random platform and rammed her into the wall, the sound of her head cracking against the concrete reverberated around the enclosed stairwell.
“No more, Dahlia! I’m done.” He repeatedly slammed her into the unforgiving concrete, then scoffed in disgust right before he tossed her down the stairs.
The world stilled. More to the point, Judgment did. Grace afforded him many talents, and in this, he looked for some possible solution before she continued pitching down the rough stairs. Each outcome cycled through the same.
No one deserved the fate awaiting Dahlia. Every blow of her soft body against the unforgiving concrete did damage. The human excrement watched her tumble down that flight. Not moving, Judgment waited. The sound of her breathing flowed to him along with the soft thud of her anxious heart.
A look came over the male’s face, and Judgment’s hackles raised. Until this moment, the filth had been fueled by pure, unreasonable fury. A madness that afflicted their kind. While deplorable, it often led to impulsive, if unforgivable, actions. The universe paused and Judgment with it, until the male took the first step, then the next.
She had survived that first fall. Though hurt, she was alive.
When his foot connected with her and sent her tumbling down the next flight, her head struck another step and the distinct crunch of bone reverberated through Judgment. Malice aforethought.
Alex wanted her dead.
The fleeting thought slipped through his reserve a split second before the garbage turned on his heel and fled up the stairs, leaving Dahlia’s broken body alone in the cold, empty stairwell.
He climbed to where she lay and knelt down. Blood spilled onto the stone around her. The lighting washed her out, leaving her skin seemingly sallow and stripping the color even from her lips. They’d been a softer pink earlier.
A strange sensation wavered through him. This woman had done the impossible. She’d disturbed the malaise around his brothers. Now, as the result of one hateful, premeditated act, following a litany of violence, she would die.
Cold and alone.
Judgment glanced upward to where the culprit had fled. There remained a miniscule chance he would call for help. A sliver of baseless hope he might regret his haste and temper.
Not soon enough.
The stutter of her breath pulled him, and her eyes fluttered open. The fierceness in them demanded acknowledgement. Broken, battered, and twisted, Dahlia continued to fight.
Her heart, beating for all its worth, could not sustain against the damage she’d taken. A single tear slid down her cheek, and a raspy breath cut the silence as she whispered, “Help.”
Judgment tilted his head.
Dahlia’s gaze fixed on him.
Still crouched, he studied her.
“Please,” she whispered, then stretched out her fingers to him.
A foreign emotion flooded him. The injustice here was his brothers’ failure to act. They’d seen something, and now this beautiful light suffered for it. To show them how they erred, he could do…
Judgment hesitated, and then flexed his grace. Time slowed as her heart joined her breath in its agonized stumble. At a simple touch of his fingers to her temples, all of her desires and motives pummeled into him as an abstract knowing only he, as Judgment, could read.
“Make it stop?” The question revealed more of the asker than she might have realized.
“The pain?” He pressed his palm to her forehead. He was no healer, but he could allay some of it. Comfort eased the taut lines of her mouth.
“Do not thank me yet, Dahlia,” he said, intoning her name and testing each syllable for her worth. The woman lying there had not lived a happy life, nor one of great comfort. But she had a good soul. A kind one. She sought to help others, even the trash who left her lying here. “You help people?”
“Sometimes,” she said, a faint smile curling her lips. “Not at the moment.”
Humor. She was delirious in the ghost of her pain, and still, she found humor.
“I cannot save you,” he told her, and understanding kindled in her glazed over eyes. “This you must accept from the beginning of our bargain.” She watched him, but made no move or attempt to answer him, slipping far too fast, even as time slowed for him.
“This should not have happened to you, and while I can’t undo it, I think we can help each other.” Even as he made the offer, a small piece of himself took a step back and looked at him askance. This flew in the face of all the rules. While not strictly forbidden, this was not an action to be undertaken lightly, and there were rules. For him.
“How?” Barely a whisper on her lips. Holding them in that moment between her next and last breath required great skill and effort.
“I can share my grace,” he told her quickly. “But it will only buy you time. Time for you to help me punish my brothers for abandoning you, and I will punish the one who did this to you.”
Understanding kindled in her gaze right before her lids fell shut. “How long?” She coughed.
“A month, maybe a little longer.” If his calculations were right. “But that passing will not be this. The pain and the injuries, they will be gone. You will simply—stop.”
Another tear trembled on her lashes, and she gasped her next words. “I can’t kill your brothers.”
No, she really couldn’t. “There are more ways to punish someone than to kill them, Dahlia. The punishment, after all, should match the crime.”
“Will you tell me their crime?”
He allowed himself a smile. “Perhaps. But you must agree to this now, or I’m afraid your life ends here.” Her kindness and nature should have been rewarded. Instead…
Dahlia swallowed, and somehow, she managed to open her eyes. “What’s your name?”
“You can call me Seth,” Judgment told her as he threaded fingers through the blood slickened hair at her temple. For a moment, her lucidity returned with a bit of her strength.
“Okay, Seth,” she whispered, lips quirking like this was all a joke. “If this isn’t one of those light at the end of the tunnel moments where I’m experiencing a hallucination because of oxygen deprivation to the brain…I accept. I’ll get retribution for you. You take care of Alex. I was wrong to want to fix him. You can’t fix evil.”
Judgment considered her for a moment. “You are not asking for mercy for him?” He had to be sure.
Dahlia’s gaze hardened. “He doesn’t deserve it.”
No. He really didn’t.
“Then you have my word.” His voice softened, and he slid his hand deeper into her hair, carefully palming her damaged skull as he lifted her. “And my grace,” he whispered before he released time and caught her last breath with his, closing his mouth over hers and exhaling it back into her body, igniting that stubborn spark that fought on, even as it guttered in the darkness.
Light flashed. Authority resounded through him, and her heart thundered as he gave her what she would need. Not much, it couldn’t be too much. Her human body wouldn’t be able to take it. But life flooded her, and then her hand clasped his nape, fisting around his braid, and she slid her tongue against his.
Lightning sizzled through his system as something shifted and changed. Then he lifted his head and met Dahlia’s dazzled gaze. “Wow…” she whispered, then her eyes rolled back, and she collapsed. He caught her easily and rose. Her body used his grace and was already working hard to repair itself.
Sleep was what she needed most for now. Climbing the stairs, he exited on the roof. The hot, humid air rushed against him as he unfurled his wings and shot into the sky. First, he would settle her.
Then he would take out the trash.
A deal was a deal.