Authors: Karsten Knight
Tags: #Romance, #Fantasy, #Young Adult
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To my niece, Victoria:
It’s amazing how one laugh from a three-month-old can give you clarity and perspective that twenty-seven years could not
Ashline Wilde lay battered on the side of
the Pacific Coast Highway and watched her boyfriend emerge from the fiery car wreck, back from the dead.
She heard the sickening crunch as Colt twisted his broken neck back into place.
She waited as he swatted the flames on his jacket until they died away.
She listened to him tell her that he was a reincarnated god—just like her—who had been impersonating a mortal for the last month and a half of their relationship.
As far as breakups went, this had to be her worst.
She thought back to his lips on her lips. To his hands on her body. To his moments of vulnerability and the three separate occasions when she’d thought she was fighting to save his life.
Colt’s smile crumbled as he watched her vomit onto the dusty road. “I don’t get it. I thought you’d be glad that I’m like you.”
Ash wiped the spittle from her mouth and tried to pull herself up onto her knees. Explosion of pain in her lower back. She fell back onto her hands. “Get the hell away from me, Colt.”
“Oh, come on!” Colt shouted. “It’s just dandy for you to be a Polynesian volcano goddess, but we’re going to have a nuclear meltdown because I’m a Hopi trickster?” A queue of cars was slowly forming behind him, obstructed by the blazing wreckage. Several people were rushing toward the scene of the accident with cell phones in hand, and Colt lowered his voice as he reached down to help Ash up. “You weren’t exactly forthcoming with me about having powers either.”
Ash swatted his hand away. “Well, the appropriate time to tell me might have been after I
evaporated a tsunami to save your life
—a life that apparently didn’t need saving!” She managed to get onto one foot, then the other, and slowly extended her spine until she was completely upright. A reservoir of hurt opened up on the side of her rib cage. “How much of this has been a game for you? Were you pretending to be unconscious when the poachers tagged you with that tranquilizer dart? Did you
Eve catch you and chain you to that rock?”
Colt looked out to sea.
It was all the answer that Ashline needed. After everything she’d learned from dating the wrong guys in the past, how could she have gone and let someone so manipulative into her life? “Was it real?” she whispered. Colt opened his mouth, but nothing came out, so Ash staggered up to him and shoved him roughly by the shoulders. “Was any of it real? Tell me, you coward!”
She went to push him again, but Colt grabbed her by the wrists hard and pulled them into his chest—how had she never noticed his strength before, the power simmering behind his eyes?
“It’s real now,” Colt said quietly. “And that’s what matters.”
Ash tried to break his hold, but his grip held true. “It’s real
Ash echoed. “But it wasn’t always? Is that some euphemism for ‘I used you’?”
A man with graying hair lingered near them on his way toward the accident. “Is everything okay here?” He meaningfully eyed Ash, whose wrists were still in Colt’s vise grip.
Colt released her and took a threatening step toward the older man. “How about you go help the dead guy in the crumpled SUV instead of interrupting roadside conversations?”
Ash took the opportunity to flee down the sandy highway embankment, heading for the trees. The sound of sirens picked up from the north. Ash could only hope
that someone from the accident had survived, but there was nothing she could do for them now. She just needed to get away.
Colt’s footsteps trailed behind her. “I needed your explosive little sister,” he explained hurriedly. “I
need her. I can’t explain to you yet exactly how I know this, but the youngest Wilde is capable of creating explosions
that they can rip right through the fabric of space and time. She’s barely six years old now and hasn’t mastered her abilities, but with the proper training not only will she able to create a rift between any two places in the world, but she may be able to open a doorway into the Cloak Netherworld as well. With your sister’s abilities I’d finally have a way to destroy the Cloak, on their home turf, where they least expect it, and they’d never be able to take our memories or our immortality from us again.”
“The Cloak Netherworld? Those creatures have a
?” It was hard to imagine what sort of dark underground lair belonged to the Cloak—the oily-skinned, fiery-blue-eyed monsters that had been stalking Ash for months, manipulating her, sending her cryptic instructions on how to prevent the apocalypse.
The same monsters that had swallowed Eve Wilde alive not two months earlier.
Wherever it was, “Netherworld” was probably a fitting term for it. “Couldn’t you have just used my bat-shit crazy older sister for your dirty work?” Ash asked.
Colt laughed darkly. “I tried to use Eve, but in the
end I couldn’t control her, precisely because she
bat-shit crazy. Sure, she shared my hatred for the Cloak, but Eve was a loose cannon. When I found out that she wanted to go all
and run off with you and the little Wilde . . . well, I had to cut her loose and find a new way to track down the little girl.” He paused. “In this case, you.”
“Oh my God.” Ash stopped at the edge of the trees and bent over, preparing to dry-heave again. She had burned her sister and let the Cloak drag her to an oily grave . . . all while Colt had watched from his spot, chained to the rock. She’d done everything that he’d wanted, thinking that she was doing it for her own good, of her own free will.
“So to answer your original question, yes, I intended to use you. Yes, I thought the visions of the third Wilde that you and Eve shared could lead me to the little one.” Colt took a step toward her. “But what I never intended . . .” He paused. “Was to fall in love with you.”
She felt his arm slither across her back. For a moment she relaxed at the familiar touch, took pleasure in the solid, masculine grace of his hand and forearm, let his warmth radiate through her road-shredded tank top.
But then it began to feel different, poisonous, like an acid drip to the small of her back. A familiar heat burgeoned in the furnace of her chest.
A siren whooped back in the direction of the highway, and the trees overhead flickered with the pulsing red and blues of the arriving state troopers. “Come on.”
Colt tugged her arm. “We have to clear out of here; I don’t think you want to be around when the police try to figure out whose motorcycle shrapnel is lodged inside that flame-broiled SUV.”
Ash didn’t budge. She had her hands planted on her knees and was watching the thick trail of dark smoke drift down the hillside from the accident. “If you hadn’t orchestrated all of this, Lily never would have killed Rolfe,” she said finally. “He’d still be alive, without a hole in his heart.”
“Lily was a bomb waiting to explode, and it was your crazy sister who lit the fuse.” This time Colt wrapped his arms entirely around her waist and succeeded in pulling her a step, but Ash wasn’t about to let Colt keep touching her.
You’ve pushed me around for the last time,
she thought. The heat that had been building in her chest started to rise to the surface of her skin, fueled by Colt’s betrayal.
Colt yelped and released her. “Jesus, Ash, you’re burning up.”
“Good to know that you still feel something.” Ash’s hands started to vibrate.
“I’m indestructible, Ash. That doesn’t mean I’m incapable of feeling. I still experience love, and I can still experience pain.”
Ash spread her shaking fingers, a blossom of misery and wrath unfurling its petals. “Good,” she said. A flame ignited in her open palm like a flint catching propane. “I was counting on that.”
Her arm arced around, and her open palm slammed into his cheekbone. The fireball burst on impact, showering the two of them with sparks. The resulting blow sent Colt staggering back into the hillside with a pained roar, where he dropped down onto one knee and covered his cheek. As he removed his hand from his face, Ash saw the blackened, festering welt across his cheekbone. But even as it still seemed to shimmer with heat like pavement on a summer’s day, the wound began to lighten and fade right before her eyes.