Authors: Diana Pharaoh Francis
Okay, she was right. The guilt was more about the time I’d wasted. The real issue was I wanted him. I missed him. I’d been smothering myself in work to avoid that particular truth. I’d probably sell my soul to have him back, which is why I couldn’t trust myself before and why I second-guessed myself even now. “I should never have pushed him away.”
“Are you nuts?” Patti snapped her fingers in front of my face like I needed waking up, then dropped her hands to her hips. “Really? You decide not to date a man who could get you killed or who might even kill you himself, and that’s a mistake? For fuck’s sake! Avoiding him is probably the smartest thing you’ve done in your life, besides being my friend. He’s too dangerous to be with,” she declared.
“Maybe. Okay, probably,” I said when she just stared disbelievingly at me. “But it’s been damned boring without him.”
“You’re saying you’d risk your life for entertainment?”
“No.” I shook my head ruefully. “It’s more than that. I don’t seem to like my life much without him. There’s no flavor.”
“Who are you and what did you do with Riley?” Patti demanded. “You sound like a mental patient. Why don’t you take up skydiving or bullfighting. Hell, try Russian roulette. You’d be safer.”
“Probably.” I shrugged helplessly. “I miss him, Patti. I’ve been missing him so hard. This bombing—what if he’s dead?” The words nearly choked me. No. He was alive. He’d damned well better be or—I drew a harsh breath, refusing to even think of any other possibility. “I fell in love with him. He fell in love with me. Maybe it’s doomed. Maybe we’ll be fighting like cats and dogs by the end of our first date. But maybe not. All of a sudden I realize that I really want to find out whether we can be anything. This might be a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Why waste the time we have on what-ifs?”
Patti cocked her brow and crossed her arms. “The Riley I know doesn’t usually throw caution to the wind. Are you sure this isn’t your libido talking?”
“I already decided I didn’t want to live in fear anymore. I’m tired of hiding in the shadows from all the big bad wolves of the Tyet. Then I went back to doing it all over again with Price.” I looked down at my hands, then back up at her. I didn’t talk about my dad much. “When my dad disappeared, I got cold, put up walls to keep people out. I didn’t want to get attached to anybody and get hurt. Then I went and fell in love with Price, and half the reason I do love him is that my heart trusts him, even if my head isn’t there yet. If I love Price, I have to believe he’s not going to disappear on me. I’ve got to choose to trust him. He’s not my dad, and keeping away from him is just another way to put up walls so I don’t get hurt. I didn’t really realize that before, but now—” I gave her a lopsided grin. “It seems I’ve gained a whole lot of clarity in the last few minutes.”
Patti tipped her head, examining me. Finally, she nodded. “Okay. So long as you’re sure he’s worth it, I won’t argue anymore.”
She closed me in a tight hug. I wrapped my arms around her.
“Thanks,” I whispered. I knew I was doing the right thing for me, and I didn’t need her approval. All the same, it was nice to know she had my back in this. My family was going to go nuclear.
Just then my phone chirped. I pulled away from Patti and read the text, my heart pounding in my chest.
Banged up, but safe.
I drew in a shaky breath and let it out slowly, sinking down onto the bed. I read the words again. Then I grinned. Time to jump into the deep end.
I typed out a text:
Dinner at my stepmother’s a week from Saturday. Pick me up at the diner at 5:00.
A moment later he sent his reply.
About fucking time. And all it took was a bomb.
I collected myself and returned downstairs to the diner. Hearing from Price made me both happy and itchy. I’d never had what anybody could call a boyfriend before, so I had no idea how to feel, except that I was suddenly nervous about seeing him again. I decided that was ridiculous, and in light of the missing kids, too stupid to even give brainspace to. I pushed it out of my head and hoped I’d get over it in the meantime.
Leo had arrived earlier than I expected. He sat at the counter talking to Ben and sipping coffee. When Leo saw me, he jumped up and wrapped me in a bear hug. I clutched him tight right back, ignoring the burn of pain in my arm when I lifted it up.
At last he pushed me back, hands on my shoulders, examining me closely. His hands and forearms were covered with burns, scabs, and scars stemming from his work with jewelry.
Leo was four years older than me, and about that many inches taller. He’s my stepbrother, so we look nothing alike. He’s über handsome, for one thing. His dark hair is thick, and he combs it back in sexy waves. His eyes are hazel with long dark lashes. He’s got one of those chiseled up-to-something faces that make women pant. If he’s got a flaw, it’s that the bridge of his nose is flat and the whole thing is a little crooked. That, and he can’t grow a beard to save his life. When he tries, he looks like he has mange.
I endured his scrutiny as long as I could. “What?”
“You said you were all right, but I haven’t seen you since—” He tipped his head in a silent “you know what I’m talking about.”
“Since I almost got killed?”
He winced and gave me a little shake. “Yeah, since then.”
“You can see for yourself—I’m totally fine.”
“Except for the stab wound she got today,” Patti added as she stepped up beside me. “How’s it going, Leo? Been too long.”
He scowled at me. “Stab wound?” His fingers tightened on my shoulders.
“You’re going to crack bone if you keep squeezing like that.” I wriggled out of his grip. “It’s not a big deal. A tinker will have me fixed up in no time.”
He looked exaggeratedly around. “Where is this tinker you speak of? Because we sure as hell aren’t going under the mountain until you’re healed up.”
I rolled my eyes at his kingly command. Like I was his peasant-girl servant to order around. “Yes, we are, because five kids are missing and they can’t wait.”
“I have a heal-all,” Dalton chimed in, having managed to come in the door without ringing the bell. Didn’t he know that the whole point of a bell was to warn people he was coming?
I glared at him. “Mind your own business.”
“Who are you?” Leo demanded at the same time, turning so that I was behind him.
They faced off like two bulls about to charge each other. If they did smash heads, it wouldn’t knock a lick of sense into either one of them. I resisted the urge to kick Leo in the ankle. Instead, I pushed him aside. Rather, I tried to push him aside. He’s slender, made of not much more than skin, sinew, bone, and muscle, but I had no more effect on him than a fly on a dinosaur. He might as well have been a boulder. I stepped around him.
Dalton was staring back at Leo with that shuttered look he liked to wear. He was like a book written in unintelligible code. Not for the first time, I itched to slap him, just to see if his expression would change. Being the smart cookie that I am, I didn’t follow through, as I prefer being alive.
That’s when I noticed that the edges of his silver irises glowed faintly blue. What the hell? Obviously he had tinker-mods, but I had no idea what exactly his eyes could pick up. Another reason not to trust him. For all I know he had Superman’s X-ray vision and was looking right through my clothes. I have to admit that while the possibility squicked me out, it also made me want to go shave my legs and other more personal bits. I hadn’t had time when I showered upstairs.
Oh hell. I
be in a loony bin.
I pushed aside all thoughts of my pubic hair and focused on taking control of the situation.
“Leo, this is Dalton. He’s my bodyguard. Or possibly a stalker, I haven’t entirely decided yet. No, I didn’t hire him. No, I don’t know who did. No, I can’t get rid of him. So far he’s a pain in the ass, but otherwise neither he nor his team has tried to kill me. Dalton, this is my brother, Leo.”
“This man has been following you?” Leo asked in an icy voice.
“Him and his team,” I said. Then anticipating his next question, I added, “ever since I found Josh.”
Josh was a sore subject with Leo, and now he had his underwear in a wad over Dalton. Not that I could blame him, but he was wasting time.
“Before you two decide to go fight a duel or make out in the back of the diner, can I remind you that there are five kids who need our help? If we don’t find them soon, they might not survive. Dalton, do you have the gear?”
I wasn’t getting away with the change of subject so quickly.
“We’re not going into the mountain with him,” Leo declared. “We’re already looking at running into Tyet soldiers. I’m not going to let us get trapped between them and whoever this guy is.” He jerked a thumb at Dalton.
“She’s not going without my team,” Dalton said, his jaw hardening. His shoulders squared. If he’d had fur, it would be bristling all down his back. My brother and my bodyguard/stalker—a matched pair of macho idiots. If Price were here, I wouldn’t be able to breathe for all the testosterone in the air.
is going to do whatever
damned well pleases,” I said. “If necessary,
will scrape both of you off and go in alone. It wouldn’t be the first time.” I gave Dalton a pointed look, then continued. “
is getting pissed off and
is going to kick both your asses if you don’t stop acting like dogs fighting over who gets to pee on a fire hydrant. Is
Leo glanced at me. The corner of his mouth pulled up, and his eyes danced. “Yes, ma’am. The fire hydrant is very clear,” he said.
Dalton’s lips may have shaped into a fleeting smirk, but I doubted it.
“You’re an ass,” I told my brother. “So are you,” I told Dalton. “Now, did you get all the gear?”
He nodded, but his eyes narrowed. “You will use the heal-all before we go.”
Before I could say anything, Leo jumped in. “Absolutely.”
I started to open my mouth. My brother cut me off.
“It won’t take much time.”
I blew out an aggravated breath. “I wasn’t going to disagree.”
I flopped into the seat across from Lauren and scooted across to leave room for Leo. “Detective Lauren Morton, this is my brother, Leo Calvert. Or stepbrother, if you want to be more accurate. Leo, meet Lauren. Her nephew is one of the missing teens.”
He flashed his rogue smile and said hello before sliding in beside me. Dalton stood at the end of the table. I about fainted when he offered Lauren a greeting and a slow smile. A real smile, like a real boy. Man. Whatever. And here I thought he was made out of ice and salt.
“May I sit?” he asked in a tone I’d never heard before. Apparently when he wasn’t annoyed with me, he had a sexy growl. Or maybe his Riley voice was also his drill-sergeant voice.
Lauren got a flustered look and moved over. I didn’t blame her. When he smiled, he was dazzlingly handsome. Seriously. He could have been a cover model.
He melted gracefully down onto the seat beside her and began fishing in a pocket. He wore one of those military-style flak jackets with a billion pockets and a Kevlar lining. It was black, which, from what I’d seen of him so far, matched the rest of his wardrobe. He seemed to have taken clothing advice from Johnny Cash.
He pulled out an amethyst crystal about the size of my thumb. A silver cap covered one end and a heavy silver chain threaded through the bale on top. He set the necklace down on the table in front of me. I picked it up, turning the crystal in my fingers. I could feel a heavy power in it. This would easily heal my arm and a whole lot more.
I glanced up at Dalton. “Isn’t this a little overkill?”
He shrugged. “It’s the littlest one I’ve got.”
I lifted one brow. “Again, overkill?”
“Your reputation precedes you,” he said, his expression reverting to his habitual sneer. He voice had also returned to drill-sergeant mode.
I frowned. “What are you talking about?”
He started listing stuff, ticking each off on his finger: “getting shot, nearly freezing to death, getting hit with tear gas, getting yourself diced to ribbons, getting beaten within inches of your life, and now . . .” He pointed at my arm. “You really have to ask?”
His list just about confirmed that Touray or Price had sent him. I don’t know how else he could have learned about all my mishaps.
He pointed at the crystal. “You ought to use that. We’re burning daylight.”
Leo stared at me. “Beaten?” he squawked.
Yeah, because that’s the worst on the list. On the other hand, I’d deliberately left out that detail in recounting my recent adventures to him, since I hadn’t wanted to tell my family that Josh—my sister’s former fiancée—had been the one to beat the crap out of me. He’d been drugged out of his mind, and since he’d totally vanished out of Taylor’s life since his rescue, I figured it was kinder to let her think he was just broken, not homicidal.
“I’ll tell you about it later,” I lied.
“Yes, you will,” Leo said, his mouth pulling thin and his eyes glittering fury at me.
Inwardly, I sighed. “It wasn’t that big of a deal.”
“Then you should have no problem telling me about it.”
Dalton snorted softly. I glared at him.
“Is something funny?”
“Most definitely,” he said, and his expression was positively gloating.
I supposed he figured this was karma for me giving him and his team the brush-off this morning. Last night? Sometime between sunset and sunrise, anyhow. “Remember that snort next time you can’t find me,” I said with a sweet smile.
His grin faded. “We made a deal—” he began.
I cut him off. “Our deal says that you won’t follow me home, and I’ll show up for work at the diner so you can stalk me to your heart’s desire. I never promised to make it easy.”
“What the hell is going on?” Leo demanded.
“Nothing.” Dalton and I said it in unison.
I lifted a brow at him, and this time his lips ghosted into a smile before he turned into Mr. Roboto again.
“Are you going to use that or just look at it?”
I thought about making a smart-ass remark, but decided against wasting time. Dalton really rubbed me the wrong way. I settled the necklace around my neck, tucking it under my shirt. Skin contact wasn’t necessary, but I didn’t know if the crystal would light up like a disco ball. Some tinkers liked a little showiness. Maybe they thought it was a way to get free advertising. Or maybe they thought the sick and wounded needed a little light-show pick-me-up. Plus the customer usually appreciated a sign that the heal-all was working. Like flesh and bone knitting up wasn’t evidence enough. At any rate, I didn’t need everybody in the diner rubbernecking to see what was going on.
I touched the amethyst lump between my breasts and activated it. It flared with scorching heat. Instantly I started sweating, making my shower fairly pointless.
The heat spread around me in a sheath before sinking inside. It broke into wormy fragments that oozed and slithered through me, nosing around for something to fix. Maybe I should have put the pendant right over the wound so it would focus on my actual problem. Then again, it wasn’t called a heal-
for nothing. This sort of magic was meant to be thorough. If I had a canker sore or an ingrown toenail, it would fix those, too.
Eventually I could feel it focus on the scalpel wound. I gripped my coffee cup tightly as it burrowed into the wound, summoning reinforcements from the rest of the oozy little bits. It was like having a few hundred maggots wriggling around in my flesh. I was starting to feel really glad that the last time I’d suffered a heal-all healing, I’d been unconscious.
Everybody was watching me. I looked at them, sweat running down the sides of my face, not to mention everywhere else. “Should I do a dance or something?” I asked.
“Watching you squirm is entertainment enough,” Leo said, but he still frowned.
Dalton, on the other hand, was grinning. I gave him a withering look. He only smiled wider.
“What are the eye mods for?” I asked, deciding that I didn’t need to be the only uncomfortable one at the table.
His smiled vanished. “None of your business.”
“I don’t know. Apparently you want to be my bodyguard. Seems to me I ought to know your skills and capabilities, don’t you think? How do I know if you’re any good?”
“Just who the hell are you?” Leo demanded, glaring at Dalton through narrowed eyes. “Who are you working for? What do you want of my sister?”
I could have chanted the answers along with Dalton, I’d heard them so often.
“I work for someone who wishes to remain anonymous, but wants to see Miss Hollis stay safe. My job is to protect her.”
Leo looked at me. “And you’re okay with this?”
“No. But I can’t seem to do anything about it at the moment.”
He looked back at Dalton. “What have you done to protect her?”
I hadn’t actually bothered asking.
“We’ve blocked three attempts to kidnap her just this week, and two attempts to kill her. We have also captured several people carrying various charms designed to incapacitate her or lure her away.”
My mouth fell open, and my stomach wriggled queasily. Dalton gave me a “so there” sort of look. Because apparently we were still twelve. I, however, did not stick my tongue out at him, though I really wanted to. On the other hand, I felt like I’d been gut-punched. I’d known I’d be a target once word about my skills got out, that and I’d developed some new enemies among the Tyet elite, including Savannah Morrell and Alexander Briandi, both of whom would like to skin me alive for ruining their plans to take over the city. But I’d convinced myself that
was the one who was keeping me safe; that I was being so ultrasmart and careful that they couldn’t get at me. I was an idiot. And now Leo knew it, too.