Copyright © 2013 Rinda Elliot
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
Night had begun its slow creep over the Jacksonville skyline as I arrived back at the hospital. I slammed the door of my Jeep and took a deep breath of moist, sticky air. Felt like it stuck in the middle of my throat. At least it wasn’t as dry as it had been earlier. And wasn’t fall supposed to be cooler?
I was entertaining thoughts of moving north as I stomped through the parking lot. Fred still hadn’t returned and that was starting to worry me. Plus, the need to check on my sister burned my gut like I’d been shot.
Chaos reigned inside the hospital. Crowds of angry, scared people milled in every open space—waiting rooms, hallways, and when I pushed open the door to the stairwell, they filled that narrow gap as well. I considered the elevator for about a second. I much preferred moving up and down in buildings on my own steam. I could control my time spent on the stairs as well as have more room to fight should the need arise.
So, I shoved my way into the crowd, doing my best not to jostle anyone too hard as I looked over most of their heads. The noise level—so unusual for a hospital—didn’t drown out the dull throb that beat against the back of my skull. I was going to have to let my hair back down a while in my sister’s room or suffer a seriously bad headache later. I shouldn’t have put it back up. Did I really care what people would think?
Sometimes. Truth was, I got enough strange looks with my hair hidden. With it down, people tended to do stupid things like make finger crosses and stuff. It didn’t help that the smell of sweat, antiseptic and blood had forged a lethal mix that had my stomach rejoining my head’s pain parade.
I had had just about enough of the smell of blood today.
I spotted Blythe the second I stepped onto Elsa’s floor. The witch hovered near a gurney but I couldn’t see why until I nudged and poked my way around the throng. She was busy unpinning a sprig of rue from her dress and fastening it to a small boy’s collar. The little guy smiled up at her, a look of utter bemusement fogging his brown eyes. Great. Even for one that young, her overwhelming girliness disarmed. I tapped my foot, waiting for her to finish.
“Now, leave it there and it’ll help you get well faster, okay?” Blythe winked and patted his curly black hair before turning to look up at me.
I grabbed her arm—gently—and pulled her away from the boy. “I thought you were going to call me when you found a spell.”
“I didn’t want to take the time to find a specific one—not after hearing how many larvae are hanging out here.” She shuddered, glancing up. “I can’t see them but I sure can feel them. It’s like swamp soup in here.”
I blinked at the witch. I didn’t have to look up to know there were at least ten of the disgusting bulbous creatures floating around the ceiling. Come to think of it, swamp soup was a pretty decent description of the hot, heavy feel they gave the air. “If you don’t have a specific spell, what do you plan to do?”
Blythe patted the happy-faced tote bag on her shoulder. “I have an ancient fumigation spell that’ll work just fine until we find the right one.”
“Good. Let’s go do it.” I started to pull her toward Elsa’s room, growling when the witch halted. “What’s the problem?”
“Um, maybe we should do this outside.”
I eyed her, taking in the flush on her cheeks and the way she avoided my eyes. “Do I even want to ask why?”
“Well, you see, I have to…”
“Who’s the Neanderthal in Elsa’s room?” Fred’s abrupt arrival caused me to lose track of Blythe’s answer.
“He’s sitting back in the shadows so I couldn’t see his face, but even—”
I didn’t wait for him to finish. Fear grabbed me by the back of the neck, and I shoved past the anxious, injured and even the few dead who milled about. I hoped whatever usually drew them to me would stay under wraps long enough for me to get this man away from my sister.
I burst through the door and skidded to a stop when it felt like I hit an invisible wall. My sister looked the same, so I peered into the shadows of the corner of the room and held my breath.
He took up all the space.
I didn’t know how to explain it, but it was as if his presence filled every corner of the room. Power shivered over my skin. I took another step, wishing I could see him better because I felt his gaze on me.
A surprising wave of need washed through me as something in this stranger called to me on an elemental level that shook the foundation of my world. Without even seeing him, I could sense his loneliness, his disconnection. He was like me somehow.
I squinted into the dark corner, trying to see what it was about him that pulled me forward yet made me want to run away screaming.
There was something very, very wrong with him.
I stalked forward. “Who are you?”
He didn’t move and his utter stillness was unnerving. “Nikolos.”
I shot a glance at Phro only to find the spirit had gone translucent. She did that whenever her emotions grew too strong to handle—almost as if the effort zapped whatever vitality she used to appear in near-solid form.
“Do you know him, Phro?”
“I thought you said the name didn’t ring any bells.”
“This is an old bell.” The words bounced on a shaky whisper.
I turned to Fred, who only shrugged, his stare never leaving the man in the corner. “He can see us.”
My head whipped back to the stranger. “Why are you in my sister’s room?”
“She’s a friend.”
“You date?” I had no idea why, but for some reason the very idea made me curl my hands into fists.
“Not that sort of friend.” Amusement laced his voice.
I stilled the sudden feminine urge to tug up my jeans, smooth a hand down my black T-shirt, pat my hair. “What sort of friend, then?” I asked, and then frowned. “This is ridiculous. Come into the light so I can see you.”
“Demanding little thing aren’t you?” But he stood and stepped forward.
“Little?” I snorted. “You must be blind—” I broke off because yeah—to him—I could seem little.
He strode to me on impossibly long legs and just like that, cupped my chin to lift my face. “You don’t have the color of women from my home.”
He used his free hand to tug the hat from my head. I’d pinned it on, so I winced as the pins went flying and my mass of hair fell with a heavy whoosh. In the next instant, he was running his hand down my hair, lifting strands to rub between his fingers.
“Just a damn minute! Who the hell do you think you are?” I jerked my chin away and stepped back, glaring and marveling over how much I had to look up.
Fred had been right. Oversized Neanderthal fit him to a T. He had to be around six-foot-six or seven. I stared into his face, intrigued by its interesting mix of Native American and Asian features—dusky skin, long, sharp nose and lightly slanted eyes so velvety brown they were nearly black. I ran my gaze down to his mouth and felt a rippling awareness dance along my nerve endings. The man had a wicked nice mouth.
Blythe, whom I had forgotten entirely, broke the spell. “Wow. You’re really pretty.”
Pretty was maybe taking his description a bit far, especially with the very strong, masculine slant to his looks, but he was seriously nice to look at—beautiful even, though I could tell by his withering glance at Blythe he wouldn’t appreciate that adjective, either.
When he’d turned his head, I caught a glimpse of a long, fat, black braid. I immediately wanted to know how long it was and what it looked like loose.
This wasn’t like me at all.
“What are you?” I whispered, forgetting how very much I hated that question when it was aimed at me.
His eyes softened as he turned back to me and once again, he reached out to touch my face. I flinched. People didn’t touch me. Ever. I didn’t know how to react. I wanted to step back from those warm fingers and yet, I also wanted to sink into them and see if maybe—just maybe—I wasn’t all that different from other women after all. I shivered.
“I’m a man, but like you, I’m something more.”
Cryptic. Weird. “More what?”
“I don’t know.”
It took all my effort not to let my shoulders slump with the crushing disappointment that draped me from head to foot. For an instant, one glorious instant, I’d thought all my questions were about to be answered. That maybe this person knew what I was. Why I was here…
Why I was so very, very different from everyone else.
Everyone other than him, though. The thought struck me with the force of a blow. We didn’t have the same coloring, but he was like me on some elemental level I didn’t understand and I had every intention of learning.
“I’m Beri, by the way. Is it just me or is this really strange?”
A half-smile tilted one corner of his mouth. I didn’t know how I knew this, but Nikolos was not a man to smile often. And as he stepped back, I suddenly got it. I’d been distracted by his beauty—his overpowering presence. I’d completely missed the very thing that set him apart from other people and now that I saw it, black smudged the edges of my vision. I reached blindly to the side and grabbed Blythe’s arm, pulling the unnaturally silent woman into my narrow line of sight. “Do you still have that spell for auras?”
Wispy, blonde strands of hair bounced as Blythe shook her head. “I don’t need the spell with him.” Face white, she tilted her head back and stared at the giant. “He may be pretty but his aura isn’t. It’s nothing but black. Not just a spot either. The whole thing. It’s all black and thick and just not…right.”
It was no aura.