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Books: Volume Six
After The Philadelphia Battle… Juanita’s struggle
How did one let go of a man like Carlos Rivera? Impossible. She was only human. How did one forget it all and watch another woman become the beginning and end of his slow sexy smile? She knew him too well, as old lovers do, to be able to ignore the silent signals that passed between him and Damali—the way his gaze smoldered at times, telling his new choice without words to leave the group so they could be alone. Then her mind would blaze, just knowing what that meant, his touch a permanent part of her own skin, his voice a haunting echo of hot summer nights.
Juanita bit her lip, refusing to dissolve into a crying jag. But how could she let go, or be flesh and blood and watch the light in his eyes only shine for another woman? Didn’t they know that she had been there when no one else would be… even Damali? She had been the one to hear his dreams of building an empire, watched him come up from the streets to rule them… had been there for his momma, even his grandmomma to the end—the angels had spoken to her, Momma Rivera had saved her life and had risen as a spirit to give her the number to reach him!
Juanita wrapped her arms around herself and leaned against the tree in the yard, fighting the tears that had to fall. Then, the only one she could have told something like this to, Father Lopez, had been killed.
She closed her eyes and huge, unshed tears ran down her face. He’d reminded her so much of a younger, more innocent version of Carlos that, she’d come as close as one was allowed to falling in love with a priest… but it was because of his resemblance to the man she could never wash out of her system.
Now, she was trapped into living with all these people she didn’t know or like, tormented by the nearness of the man she could never have again. Maybe this was her penance for everything she’d ever done wrong in her life. Who said Hell was beneath the ground and only got its claws in you once dead?
Marlene watched her like a hawk. Evil woman. Marjorie was no better—a judgmental, suburban bitch. Jose had taken possession of her like a Rotweiler, always near, marking her as his territory with an unnecessary touch, a quick kiss, or coming up with some stupid reason to have to talk to her alone. There was an unspoken, invisible barrier created by his Guardian brothers—and the other females in the house almost snarled if she got too close, too familiar, if an old private joke she and Carlos once shared slipped between them. And that whore, Damali… she rode Carlos’s hip like a nine millimeter.
Only his eyes reached out with a sad knowing, every glance speaking volumes, holding an apology that there was nothing he could do under the circumstances. But even as the memories of what she and Jose had once shared began to take hold, oozing into her with each day as though the house was alive with the past, the old shaman’s chants echoing… the more recent memories of Carlos’s touch still pelted her skin like a burning rain.
A shudder ran through her, which only increased the flow of tears. She wiped at them angrily, staring up to the waning sun. Didn’t he know that no matter what happened to him, she would be there? Fangs and all… for him, she would have died in his arms like she’d already done so many nights before, would have walked through fire, ride or die, it didn’t matter. Damali didn’t own sole province over that. Damali left him when he was dealing, had called Carlos a punk— a punk, in front of the team! Carlos? Was she sick?
Juanita ran her fingers through her hair as fight adrenaline made her hands shake. Pain pressed down on her so hard she couldn’t breathe. The air around her felt thick. The only cure would be his kiss… his deep, sensual whisper in her ear just saying one more time, “Baby, it’ll be all right.” She covered her mouth to stifle an audible sob.
“Been there,” a quiet male voice said behind her.
Juanita whirled around, startled by the intrusion. She placed her palm against her chest and bent over. “Rider, oh… shit!”
“Sun’s going down, kiddo. Just came out to bring you back into the house.”
She glanced at the half-emptied bottle of Jack Daniels that dangled at his side in a loose hold, and then up into his bloodshot eyes. “You okay?”
“No more than you are, but I’ll live.”
He set the bottle down on the ground next to his cowboy boot and took out a pack of Marlboro Reds from his vest pocket, then tapped the back of the pack. With a weary sigh, he brought the pack to his lips, catching a protruding cigarette butt between them, and then struck a match with his thumb. She watched him go through the laborious process of lighting the cancer stick, but understood where he was when he closed his eyes, inhaled with a hiss, and a slow expression of ecstasy spread across his face. Pain killer.
“You gotta let it go, hon,” he said in a tender voice, exhaling smoke. “Even though I can’t pretend to tell you how to do that.” He took another slow drag on the butt. “If you find out the secret, be sure to let old Rider know, okay?”
She nodded, glad to have his company under the tree as the sun set. “Can I ask you something?” Her question was a mere whisper, and she wasn’t even sure she wanted the answer to it.
Rider sighed. “You can ask me anything, I just won’t promise to answer everything. With that said, shoot.”
She appreciated the slight half-smile he offered her. In that moment she understood why Jose looked up to him as a big brother. Rider was truly good people, an honest man.
“Back in the church…” she said halting, not sure how to phrase what she wanted to ask. “Did you have regrets? I mean, did you—”
Rider held up his hand and bent to pick up his bottle. “Need a hit of morphine to get that deep, sis. Necessary for the surgical incision you’re attempting.”
Respectfully, she waited until he took a guzzle of the dark brown liquor that was almost gone, winced, and re-capped the bottle. She searched his eyes as he stood before her legs wide, a bottle of Jack in one hand and a cigarette in the other, and an expression that approached stone on his face. Only his jaw muscle twitched.
“Never mind,” she said quietly, losing her nerve.
He shook his head no and closed his eyes. “Did I ever have any regrets about getting bitten by the only woman I’ve ever loved down to the core of my soul?”
He opened his eyes. Juanita quietly nodded and then looked away.
“And, did I ever think about my eternal damnation as I was frying on the church floor, fangs ripping my gums and snakes coiling in my intestines?”
Juanita closed her eyes.
“Do you want the politically correct answer, given that I’m a Guardian, or do you want the naked truth out here—since it’s just you and me talking?”
She opened her eyes and looked at him, hanging on every word. “The pure truth,” she whispered.
He nodded and took a hard drag on his cigarette and sent his line of vision out into the distance. “I didn’t give a fuck about anything but her. If I could have slithered into a dark tunnel to ride out the sun until night fell, I would have gone to her, battled for her, and would have let her bite me again to make it permanent, if I won.”
They both stared at each other for a moment. He dropped the cigarette and crushed it under his boot.
“ She was my soul,” Rider said quietly, and then took a swig of Jack Daniels.
Hot tears rose to Juanita’s eyes. “Then how can you live without that?”
He smiled, but his voice was strained. “Been hunting the vamps a long time, darlin’. Learned to adapt to their way of life—they exist without a soul for as long as they can, until daylight or something or someone smokes ‘em. I’m not living without my Tara-soul, I’m existing. There’s a difference. And I guess I’ll do that until something or someone smokes me. I suggest you do the same.”
She looked away. “You’re stronger than me,” she said in a soft voice.
“No I’m not,” he said in a tone so tender that she sought his gaze again. He lifted the bottle and patted his vest where his cigarettes were stashed. “I have crutches, whereas you’re doing this thing without anesthesia. Besides, don’t you know how lucky you are?”
She released a bitter chuckle. “Yeah, right.”
“You have a woman’s heart, and they heal faster.” He smiled. “You all are more resilient than my species, sis. That’s because you’re more philosophical than us—we tend to see things in absolutes, black and white, once heart-plunged, that’s it. You all deal in shades of gray. A very philosophical approach to life, so Marlene tells me.”
Juanita laughed, but it had lost some of its brittle quality. “We’re more philosophical, oh, okay. Right.”
“It’s true,” he said, his smile waning. “You all make philosophical choices all the time.”
“Like what?” she said, putting her hands on her hips and sniffing hard.
“Like,” he said, his gaze drifting to a vacant place far away, “you love hard enough, but philosophically enough, to walk to save a man’s foolish life—if necessary… whereas a man would go down in flames. A real woman did that for me, and I suspect that you did that once, too.”
Silence enveloped them, and Juanita’s hands slowly withdrew from her hips to hug her body.
“What really happened in the subway tunnel, Rider?”
He stared at her for a moment. “I was turning, a Master vamp was battle bulked, and my Tara was between us. She made a decision to save my soul by sending me home with my brothers—who were supposed to put a stake in my chest, rather than let me get my heart ripped out without a prayer by the man that could feed her and keep her existing.” He let his breath out hard and took another deep swallow of liquor when Juanita didn’t answer. “And I loved her enough to let her go without raising a hallowed point silver shell against her so she could be fed and not suffer… or become too weak to get out of the sun. His feeding kept her on the planet; her decision kept me on the planet. But it’s a fucked up situation.”
“Yeah,” Rider said and spat on the ground. “Been trying to talk to Him about that, but ain’t nobody answered me here of late. So, there we are. Me, you, and a Jerry Springer household. The walking dead, for now—soul-shattered. But, like I said, you’re lucky.”
“I feel like I’m dying,” Juanita whispered.
“So, how am I lucky?” she said, her voice becoming shrill as she extended her hands toward him.
“You never got nicked.”
They looked at each other.
Rider ran his finger down his jugular absently, seeming lost in thought. “If Rivera had nicked you, we’d have had to put you down for good, hon. Tara was a second. Your ex was a Councilman. Sit in class with Marlene long enough and you’ll get schooled. All I can say is, Damali got more than nicked by a Master, then a Councilman, and the girl will rip your lungs out if you step wrong in the house.” He shrugged as though defeated and turned the bottle up to his mouth. “Hell,” he said, wiping his lips with the back of his forearm. “The girl might even grow fangs again. Whatdu I know?”
He eyed Juanita with a hard glare when she lifted her chin in clear defiance. “No, it may not exactly be fair… shit, what’s fair?” Rider argued. “He was her first. Don’t think everybody in this house is watching you and keeping you within arms length of him for her protection, darlin’, it’s for yours… just like they did for me by keeping my love-dumb ass away from a post-battle ravenous male Master vamp that had claimed an eternal mate by default. Situation ugly. The team ain’t crazy or hatin’, like you kids always say. They’re just being real, and that’s all I’m trying to be these days. Real.”
“You think she’d go there, huh? Try to actually smoke me for—”
“Can’t say for sure, that’s the problem—and on a situation like this, I’m not inclined to be a betting man.” Rider set down his bottle with wobbly care and put away his smokes. He held out his hands and turned them over, watching Juanita stare at them. “Anger, rippling through the system of a battle-hyped Neteru… a punch accidentally thrown too hard with way too much emotion behind it. A hair-yank, during what should be a normal cat fight. A swing around bitch-slap catching your lovely jaw the wrong way, and, Juanita, baby, your fragile neck could snap. Do. You. Understand?”
He stuffed his hands in his pockets when her complexion paled. “You think Rivera doesn’t want to sit down with you and talk? Not. He does, but the man is pragmatic, can’t risk it. The tactical sensors walk by him and the hairs stands up on their arms. You can smell the worry in his sweat; his nerves are shot, just like all of ours are. Unfinished business is resonating through the house. It’s always that way; anybody with some age under their belts knows that old lovers gotta talk and come to terms to diffuse the potential bomb. But he can’t do that right now, for your sake. Damali ain’t in the frame of mind or place yet to let that go down. That’s also foremost on Jose’s mind.”
She closed her eyes, pushed her hair over her shoulders, and sighed. “Jose…”
“Yeah, him,” Rider said flatly, “Jose. Like I said, you’re lucky. You’ve got somebody back at the house just waiting for you to wake up and see him… a good man ready to pick up the pieces and try again. Baby, don’t waste this opportunity. They come rare.”
“But…” Her gaze fell on Rider’s again, but this time with so much more respect.
“No, buts,” Rider whispered. “Break Jose’s heart and he’ll die. That’s who you need to be talking to. What do you think is probably going through his mind watching you twist in the wind over Rivera?”
Juanita rubbed her palms down her face. “Oh, God…”
“Did he say—”
“Nope,” Rider said quickly. “Is it me, or am I crazy? Sis, you are living with a group of folks that read signs, have extra-sensory everything guiding their daily lives. Even a blind man could see what’s up, then just throw in a sprinkle of extra—”
“Okay, okay, okay,” Juanita said, new tears beginning to form.
“No,” Rider said firmly. “Not okay. You get this shit straight in that pretty head of yours right here, right now, before we walk back into the house, all right?”
She nodded and simply let the tears fall.
“Good. Because, also, if you hadn’t noticed, this is an insane life!” Rider snatched up his bottle from the ground again, and then lit another cigarette with shaky hands, juggling the Jack Daniels and a pack of smokes in agitation. “Tensions run high,” he said, pointing at her with a lit cigarette smoldering between his fingers. “Shit happens quick. Madness pops off at a moment’s notice, and finding a life partner is near impossible. Finding a private minute to be real, be scared, be comforted, and to be made to feel safe is a luxury! Most of us have been rolling solo for so long that, when we get even a sniff of something like that, we go down hard and permanently.”
“I know you didn’t,” Rider shouted. “Ain’t nobody here got time for games or wishy-washy shit as though we’ve got a lotta options. That’s why Dan is losing his damned mind over Krissy, and J.L. is about to go Bruce Lee for her—brothers squaring off over limited resources. A life mate, read as intimate partner, on this vagabond team is a very limited resource. Open your eyes, sis. And trust me, if either of them was foolish enough to make a move near Inez, we’d be cleaning up road-kill once Big Mike stomped their asses to death. The big guy is on edge; I ain’t never seen him like this. But Inez brings him something he never had before, hope.”
“Weren’t you there when our Zen master lost it?” Incredulous, Rider began walking in a circle, muttering. “Shabazz almost got the whole team smoked back there in Philly over that dashing display Kamal pulled, and he still ain’t right in his head about it—but that’s grown folks business and not my primary concern. I work with the newbies. Soon, it’s gonna hit Bobby like that, too, then what? Might be five to seven years before we get another influx of baby Guardians, and there’s no guarantee there’ll be a cutie pie in the bunch for that young buck to pick from. Dan’s been left hanging and hoping for two years now… me, Mike, and J.L., sheesh.”
Rider looked up toward the darkening sky. “What was it, like seven years since we’d found Damali? Then Jose had a brief interlude with Dee Dee, who we allowed on the team not really feeling that she was Guardian material, just because… aw, forget it. Mar told us not to, but we all argued her down, just wore her out till she tried the poor girl, and it ultimately cost Dee Dee her life.” He stared at Juanita hard. “She died because we let someone in the circle who shouldn’t have been there in the first place, trying to rush the hands of fate so one of our brothers could keep his head right. Won’t happen again, believe that.”
Juanita folded her arms over her chest. “What was messing with his head so much that you all let some woman—”
“Don’t go there,” Rider warned, scowling at his bottle by his feet. “I’m drunk and can’t be held responsible for the rambling.” He shot a hot glance up to Juanita. “Ain’t seven years of being alone enough of an explanation?”
She relaxed her arms and slowly let them fall to her sides with a fatigued sigh. “Okay. I’m hearing you.”
“Hon, we have far–reaching issues on the team. Okay? Now you can say, ‘okay’ to me!”
“Okay,” Juanita said softly. “I hear you.”
“Okay, then,” Rider said, finally lowering his voice. He looked at the burned down cigarette between his fingers. “I gotta stop smoking, but at the moment, I can’t come up with a good reason why I should.”
“Because you’re the team’s glue, and a really good friend,” she said, new tears replacing the one’s that fell. “I just didn’t know all that was going on.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m the team’s glue. More like Crazy Glue,” he said, trying to make a joke, but failing as emotion caught in his throat. He turned his back to her and stared at the house. “Remember the house, Juanita. Remember when you and Jose were kids, okay? Remember all the good times in that house and on this land. Remember how he made you laugh, made you sigh… made you safe. This house has memory in it that’s good for you two.”
“I will.” Her voice was tender as she went to him and hugged him from behind, laying her cheek against his back.
He closed his eyes and drew in a shuddered breath. “I was supposed to be hugging you, kiddo… supposed to be the strong big brother with wise counsel.”
“You are wise, Rider,” she said quietly. “I know this house for you…”
“Is Hell,” he whispered and placed his arms over hers. “There are days when I can’t even walk up the front steps.”
She nodded but didn’t speak.
“That front walkway,” he said, his voice becoming gravelly, “is where I carried Tara’s body up to the shaman… then…”
“I know,” Juanita whispered, rocking him gently. “Jose told me.”
Rider nodded. “I came back one last time to see her Nana—they couldn’t do anything.”
Juanita nodded against his back as it expanded and contracted, battling a sob.
“If Damali doesn’t pair with Carlos, who would she, of all people, hook up with, huh? That’s logical, part of the cosmic plan,” he said, his voice sounding garbled and distant. “What would the Neteru do? Who else would survive the bullshit she has to contend with, or hang around long enough to even get smoked? She has to fight to stay with him, sweetie, don’t you understand? For her, what’s the option? Some pretty boy in a club or some gangster wanna-be? Get real.” He chuckled, emitting a hollow sound. “The two of them have been to Hell and back together, did fangs in tandem, have gone places that you nor I can even fathom and don’t wanna know about, kiddo. They’re both insane.”
She held him quietly hearing what he wouldn’t allow himself to openly say. ‘Fangs in tandem,’ she knew he meant Tara and Yonnie. It was in the sad tone of his voice. ‘Have gone places that neither you nor I wanna know about,” she understood the reference to also mean where Yonnie had probably taken Tara. Rider’s stark truth made her want to weep for his loss as much as for her own. Yes, it was all insane.
“She got a second shot at the title—just like you did. You’re both lucky… not everybody gets a second shot.”
She hugged Rider tighter, rocking him harder. Although he was openly talking about Damali, she heard his soul quietly say the name, Tara… someone else who had gotten a second chance.
“So, you have to be cool, Juanita, and get to a very still place in your head, ‘cause all Jose wants is some peace, some comfort that he doesn’t have to compete for—how can a man deal with competing for what should be his in his own house? This is his house, Nita. Where he grew up and became a man.”
“I know… I won’t do that to him. I swear,” she murmured.
Rider nodded, allowing her to continue rocking him. “Good, that’s so good. Rule number one; never violate a man’s home.” His voice cracked as he spoke. “Especially a house that he built with love… where every fiber of who he was went into it, just for her—promise me you won’t do that to my brother, okay?”
“Okay,” she whispered, trying not to cry.
“Good, okay, that’s good—because under no circumstances is another guy supposed to go in there and take everything you’ve built… no matter how awesome he is in comparison. It ain’t right, and it ain’t fair.”
She rounded Rider and pulled him into a hard embrace the moment his sob broke through. She’d felt it coming, building like a far-off thunderstorm. Yet his tears wet her shoulder like a quiet, agony-filled rain, only slight shudders wracking his body as he tried to hold his composure against the inevitable.
“There is no comparison,” she said in a gentle whisper rubbing his back, trying to soothe the gaping wound that would never heal. “Things just got crazy for a minute, and options were limited.”
Soon her pain seemed so remote, her issues so foreign in light of all Rider had said and shared. His words designed for her understanding had awakened a level of compassion within her that she never knew she owned. She also knew that the last of what he’d said had been his way of really talking out loud about what was wearing him out, while seeming to pertain to her and Jose…. The house, his house back in California, violated by an unexpected lover, then finally burned to the ground. This house, a place of sanctuary that had let him down, was now a constant reminder that he had never been given that second chance like others had received. Life was more than unfair, it was ruthless.
The release of Rider’s quiet pain began to release some of the vexation she’d had against Damali. While it was unlikely that they’d ever be friends, being enemies no longer seemed right, either. Until this moment, she had never thought about the circumstances each team member had to endure just to feel the warmth of human touch, or to have someone to call their very own.
“It’s gonna be all right, Rider,” she whispered as his shudders abated and gave way to deep, exhausted breaths. Newfound inner strength and a deep abiding respect for the older Guardian made her carefully choose her words and present them in a parable like he’d delivered them to her. “Practical choices do get made… but you never stop loving the person, even at a distance. That’s a woman, philosophical-thing. But your first is always your first. Jose as my first.”
Rider simply nodded and straightened his back, then loosed himself from her hug. He pulled out a cigarette and wearily picked up his bottle, his damp eyes on the house.“Thanks, darlin’. Sometimes that’s all a man needs to hear,” he whispered, and then began walking towards the house without looking back at her.