Copyright © 2012 Anne Hope
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
The air around him buzzed, an unrelenting throb that battered his eardrums and yanked him from a dreamless sleep. Reluctantly, he opened his eyes and took in his surroundings. He lay on an uncomfortable hospital bed, his body covered with a white sheet. Everything around him had a surreal feel, every sight painted in stark detail, every sound amplified. He could see the hairline cracks in the ceiling, the chips in the white paint coating the walls. Beside him, an assortment of equipment he couldn’t name added an arpeggio of offbeat chimes to the chorus.
He sat up, expecting to feel weak, surprised when he didn’t. He tried to gather his thoughts, but they remained scattered—small, lightning-quick flashes of something he couldn’t quite grasp. What had happened to land him here? And why did he feel so numb inside, as if he’d swallowed twice the recommended dose of Valium, then chased it down with a bottle of Johnnie Walker? Funny, he couldn’t remember his own name, but he knew the taste of his favorite brand of whisky.
The door suddenly swung open, and a perky young nurse entered. What he saw convinced him they’d pumped him full of some serious drugs. A bright, compelling energy pulsed around her, flickering like a halo.
“How are we feeling today, Mr. Cutler?”
Cutler. The name didn’t ring a bell, but it obviously belonged to him.
“Stoned. What the hell did you guys give me?”
The closer she got, the more the strange glow enveloping her sang to him. The sudden hunger to steal it from her tangled his gut, and he pressed his back to the headboard.
The nurse looked genuinely surprised. “Nothing. Just a saline drip.” She frowned upon seeing the tube hanging from the side of his bed, no longer attached to his arm. Liquid pooled on the floor.
“You shouldn’t have removed that.”
The nurse hastened to reattach it to his arm, but the new needle broke before it could pierce his skin. She promptly got another one, tried again with the same result. “Well, that’s funny. Must be a defective batch.”
“I don’t need it. I feel fine. Which begs the question, why am I here?”
She furrowed her forehead, took several seconds to answer. “To be perfectly honest, we have no idea.”
He tried to concentrate, but her glow kept distracting him. It made the yawning black hole in his chest ache. He nearly reached out and grabbed her. The need to suck that light from her and bury it deep inside him was a wound festering at his very core.
Unaware of the battle raging within him, she approached him and proceeded to check his vitals. “You were found lying unconscious on the sidewalk in front of some sleazy bar, covered in blood. The paramedics brought you in.”
“What knocked me out?”
The nurse shrugged. “No one knows for sure. It was pretty crazy down at Pioneer Square last night. A full-blown riot broke out. Dozens of people got killed. You probably got caught in the crossfire, hit your head. You’ve been out cold for over twelve hours.”
She paused, crinkled her forehead again. “The kicker is there’s no sign of trauma. No head wound, no concussion. The doctors are downright baffled.”
Relief gushed through him when she finished her exam and stopped touching him. “What started the riot?”
“Who the heck knows? People are a rotten barrel, if you ask me. They look for any reason to beat each other bloody. Bunch of drunks and drug addicts with a taste for violence. That’s what I’m placing my bets on.” She looked different from when she’d entered the room, weak and deflated. “Sometimes I wonder why we even bother mending the lot of you. You’ll only be back again, most likely before the week is up.”
Her eyes widened, and she covered her mouth with her hand. “I’m sorry. I can’t believe I said that out loud.” Panic laced her tone. “I should go.”
“Wait.” His fingers closed around her wrist, and the light instantly went out of her eyes. She didn’t look perky anymore. In fact, she looked old and beaten. “I need to speak with someone. Someone who saw me when I first came in.”
“That would be Lia—Dr. Lia Benson. She’s a resident here.”
He released her. “One more question. Where are my things?”
“Over there.” She indicated a small closet beside the bed. “Your watch is in the nightstand. Top drawer.” Then she scurried out of the hospital room like a rabbit escaping a wolf.
With a confused shake of his head, he sprang out of bed. He felt light, quick and strong, which struck him as odd for a guy who’d spent the last twelve hours in a semi-coma. As the nurse had said, a black leather jacket, a blood-smeared white shirt and a dark pair of jeans hung neatly in the closet. He checked all the pockets, pulled a heavy wallet from the jacket. The smell of Italian leather rose like a cloud to sear his nostrils. The first thing that struck him when he flung it open was the thick wad of twenty-dollar bills that lined the interior. He obviously hadn’t been mugged. A conclusion the flashy watch in the nightstand, a high-end Omega, corroborated.
He retrieved the driver’s license, which belonged to Jace Cutler. So now he had a first name to go with the second. Unfortunately, it still didn’t trigger a memory. The man in the photograph was a complete stranger. He quickly scanned the description provided: six-foot-two, dark brown hair, green eyes. The height felt about right. The guy in the snapshot had a cleft on his chin. He ran his thumb across his jaw and traced the slight indentation.
Suddenly curious, he headed to the mirror hanging over the pedestal sink. The man gazing back at him was no more familiar than this place, this room, the nurse he’d apparently scared half to death. He wasn’t very old, early thirties he guessed. He slanted a glance at the ID again, quickly did the math. Yup, thirty-two.
Peeling off his hospital gown, he stood in front of the tiny mirror, as naked as the day he was born, studying himself. From the looks of it, he worked out regularly. His legs were long and lean, his stomach flat and ripped. But that wasn’t what shocked him. What blew his mind was that he didn’t have a scratch on him, not even an old scar to show he’d lived some kind of life. How did a person exist for thirty-two years and maintain skin as untarnished as a baby’s?
Another presence slowly invaded the room, one that made everything inside him come alive and the darkness retreat. For a moment, he felt almost human again. Almost.
Jace turned around, not caring that he didn’t have a stitch of clothing on him. The woman entering his room froze at the sight of him.
He squinted. Glancing at her made his eyes hurt. She was so damn bright, he needed a frigging pair of sunglasses just to look at her. The nurse who’d examined him earlier paled in comparison, and not because this woman was any kind of beauty. She was plain at best, with blond hair pinned in a ponytail and not a drop of makeup on. Still, something inside him recognized her.
She checked him out briefly before averting her gaze. “Looks like you’re feeling better.”
He couldn’t find his voice to answer. Waves of emotion washed over him, constricting his windpipe. He’d felt nothing since he’d awakened in this stifling hospital room, and all of a sudden he couldn’t get his feelings under control long enough to offer some kind of greeting. Her glow enfolded him, and the hunger returned with sharpened fangs.
“Katie, the nurse who was just in here, told me you were awake, but I had to see for myself.”
She took a step toward him, then another.
Please, don’t come any closer. I can’t stand it.
“Who—” The word scraped his throat. “Who are you?”
Her gaze latched on to his face. Confusion and a touch of fascination glimmered in her clear blue eyes. Right there and then, he could’ve sworn he glimpsed her soul, and it was a beautiful thing to behold, potent and familiar.
She shook her head, swallowed hard. “The person who watched you die last night.”