His hold finally loosened and I sat up. His innocent expression looked so put on I didn’t trust it.
“What’s wrong with you? You’re always telling me how dangerous it is for both of us to have our guard down.”
“Maybe I just don’t feel like being in control right now.”
I stared at him for a moment in silence. He gazed back in defiance.
“No, that’s not it,” I said emphatically.
It was one thing for Asher to lose control in the heat of the moment. That had happened to both of us more than once. This was something different. To suggest we knowingly take a chance went against everything we’d agreed to. He was holding something back. This felt like the days when he knew about my Healer blood, while I had tried to figure out what the hell he was. Today had been stressful enough.
Asher raised his mental guard. He ran a hand through his hair, messing it up in his frustration. “I’m sorry. I’m acting like an ass.”
“No argument here. Care to explain why?”
“I’m tired. I hate being away from you. And I really hoped . . .” He rubbed a hand over his face. “I can’t believe I let myself hope they’d have a cure.”
The missing puzzle piece slotted into place. He’d wanted my grandfather to be able to help us. As much as Asher had protested my coming here, he’d hoped the other Healers might know a way to solve our problems. We didn’t like to talk about it, but the possibility existed that I could become immortal, while he became human. We would never be in the same place for long with each of us constantly changing. I’d hardly admitted it to myself, but sometimes I worried that the return of Asher’s touch meant my ability to feel anything might disappear.
Healing always came at a cost for me.
The whole situation was so screwed up, no wonder we didn’t talk about it. I didn’t see a solution in sight, but I’d hoped my grandfather might have answers, too. It seemed I wasn’t the only one freaking out. Some selfish part of me felt glad that I wasn’t the only one acting irrationally.
“Asher, lower your guard.”
“No, you’re right. That was a reckless idea. I don’t know what the hell I was thinking.”
“You weren’t thinking. You were feeling,” I said, moving closer to him.
Trust me. Lower your guard,
I repeated in my thoughts.
And close your eyes.
He did as I asked.
“Promise me you’ll stand still,” I whispered.
He nodded after a slight hesitation. His heartbeat spiked when I laid a palm on his chest. His skin radiated heat, and I wanted to curl into it, but I took a deep breath. One of us had to be in control, so I raised my mental walls, knowing that when I felt this much, Asher could see through them. I opened my mind and let my imagination go, as I closed my eyes, too.
I pictured myself touching him the way I wished I could without fear of repercussions. I pushed the coat off of his shoulders, letting it fall to the ground. My jacket and his T-shirt followed, leaving miles of skin and muscle for me to explore. I inhaled the scent of the woods mixed with that of Asher. In my mind, I placed one of his hands on my shoulder, bare except for the thin strap of a tank top. Then, mimicking what he’d done to me earlier, I trailed my fingers down his forearm, into the crook of his elbow, up his arm, and very lightly down his side.
Asher’s real-life chest moved under my hand, as he sucked in a deep breath and I smiled. And then the mental version of me grazed her lips across Asher’s cheek to his mouth, sharing a breath with him. The kiss the imaginary me laid on him could have burned down the forest.
“Remy,” Asher said.
He sounded tortured, and I let the images fade from my mind, worried he hadn’t liked what I’d pictured. Back in the reality of the forest, we opened our eyes. My hand still rested against the
thump, thump, thump
of his heart.
“You’re not the only one who’s frustrated,” I said.
His expression looked pained. “We should go. Now.”
He didn’t wait for my response, merely clasped my hand and took off running. Even with my new speed, I struggled to keep up with him. I didn’t get his urgency, but he didn’t listen when I asked him to slow down. We arrived near my grandfather’s property, and Asher sidestepped me when I would have hugged him good-bye. Instead, he gave me a light push toward the house. My ego took a bruising, too.
“I love you. Text me when you’re inside, okay?”
I scowled and didn’t move. “Seriously? That’s all you’re going to say?”
Maybe it had only happened in my mind, but the moment we had shared in the forest had been intense.
Asher inhaled a deep, calming breath and looked toward the sky. “You really don’t get how you affect me, do you?” He tipped my chin up with one of his knuckles. “You have to go now because I need to find a cold ocean to jump in. Can I make it any clearer?”
I clapped a hand over my mouth to stifle a laugh when I grasped what he was trying to tell me. Heat crawled up my neck, and I turned to go in a hurry. Just before I stepped out of the forest, Asher whispered my name.
“One day we won’t have to worry about mental walls. It’s going to be better than we can imagine.”
He slipped through an opening in the trees and disappeared. Left alone with the thought of something better, I shivered and wished for it with all my might.
y days settled into a rhythm. Not comfortable exactly, but I didn’t have too many complaints. Sometimes my grandfather played tour guide and showed me around San Francisco. Most days, we drove out to Pacifica, and I absorbed what I could about the Healers. Asher had warned me to keep my guard up at all times, and after that first day, I agreed. I would never forgive myself if I hurt any of them. To be on the safe side, I also made a point of avoiding any accidental touches, sidestepping shaking hands with Healers even to the point of rudeness. I’d rather they think me rude, though, than chance feeling what I had with Erin.
In the evenings, I slipped away to call my family. I told my grandfather that I was calling my friends back in Brooklyn, and I told my father that my grandfather was out when Ben asked to speak to him. I lied to my grandfather about my family in Blackwell Falls, and I lied to my family about how I spent my time with my grandfather.
Someone should have given me a sash with
THE WORLD’S GREATEST FIBBER
written across it in caps. I’m fairly certain Lucy would have been happy to make it by hand. She avoided me like I had the chicken pox. Most of my updates about her came from Laura and Brandon. Gabe, on the other hand, had taken to sending me imperative texts. I could almost hear his arrogant tone when I read
TAKE CARE OF MY BRTHR
REMEMBER YR TRAINING. I
usually ignored his texts or texted back
because I knew it would irritate him.
The only person I didn’t lie to was Asher. Our time together came in stolen moments every few nights when I could sneak away. We feared that if we met more often, my grandfather would become suspicious. Plus, since our first night in the forest, Asher and I had spent more minutes in pent-up, awkward silence than talking. What conversation we had revolved around what I was learning about the other Healers in Pacifica.
A couple of weeks after I arrived, my grandfather left me at Erin’s house while he ran errands. Alcais and Delia had gone off together somewhere, so I spent a rare moment alone with Erin. As had become our habit, we strolled to the beach, stopping at a small café along the way to pick up a hot cocoa for her and a mocha for me.
I swiped a finger through the whipped cream and wrinkled my nose. “This is so wrong to be drinking hot coffee in July. We should be in the middle of a heat wave that’s melting our shoes into the concrete.”
Erin smiled. “That’s the Bay Area for you. Summer doesn’t get here until September. Too bad you’ll be gone by then. Franc said you live with friends in Brooklyn?”
“Yes,” I lied. “Ever since my mother died.”
“I’m sorry,” she responded simply.
I nodded and sipped my drink. “Can I ask you something? What does it feel like? When you heal people?”
Her head tipped to the side, and her hair spilled over her shoulder. “Don’t you know? You’ve experienced it yourself.”
“So it’s the same for everyone then?” I asked.
She blew on her cocoa. “Sure. Why wouldn’t it be? Someone is hurt or sick. We gather our energy and touch a person to heal him or her. There are sparks, and it’s a done deal. Nothing to it.”
“Don’t you ever get cold after?”
Asher said it looked like I had hypothermia, especially after healings that required more energy. My lips turned blue, and shivers racked my body until I could warm myself again. Delia hadn’t suffered any of this from what I’d seen.
Erin gave me a curious look, tucking her hair behind one ear. “No. Do you?”
I shrugged, not answering the question. I thought about the differences between our mothers. Erin spoke about her abilities with such ease. She’d grown up accepting that they were a part of her and not something to be hated or feared. Her mother had been the opposite of mine.
“You’re lucky, Erin. To have all these people around to teach you. I didn’t have that.”
We reached the breaker wall, and she held my drink while I hitched myself up onto the ledge. Then I held her drink while she did the same. I wore gloves, but I still maneuvered carefully to avoid our fingers touching. We studied the waves, and I could sense how badly she wanted to question me. It didn’t take long.
“Your mother really didn’t tell you anything?”
“No. I think she hoped that if she pretended my abilities didn’t exist, they would go away.” That was the truth. She’d admitted as much on the recordings. “She didn’t want me to be part of this life. Constantly in danger.” I turned to Erin. “How do you do it? Living with the threat of the Protectors hanging over you all the time?”
Erin’s forehead wrinkled as she thought about the question. “It’s not like I know anything different. Besides, we go about our lives like everyone else does. Just more quietly and with a bit more caution.”
“Really?” I asked, genuinely bewildered. “What about dating? Or kissing boys?”
Erin’s skin turned blotchy as color climbed her neck to reach her cheeks. “I can’t speak from personal experience, but being a Healer hasn’t exactly stopped Delia from getting around.”
My brows rose at that, and Erin seemed to realize what she’d said. She slapped a hand over her mouth.
“I didn’t mean that.”
She collapsed into giggles when I said, “Sure, you didn’t,” drawing the words out.
“Okay, maybe I did mean it.” It took her a moment to get serious again when I lost it at her admission. When she sobered, she said, “I think you have the wrong idea about what it means to be one of us. Being a Healer isn’t a punishment, Remy. It’s a gift.”
She really believed that. Sincerity practically oozed out of her. But then she didn’t have a Protector side throwing her powers out of whack.
My doubt must have been obvious because she laughed. “I’m serious. Listen, your grandfather changed everything for us. He realized we’d been going about things all wrong. Separating. Hiding. A lot of people died alone and without help. Franc believes it’s safer to hide in plain sight. A few of us have been caught, but it’s not like before. We lead our lives in the open, and nobody suspects anything.”
It sounded good in theory, but . . . “What about using your powers? I mean, isn’t healing people what usually gets our kind caught?”
She bumped my shoulder with hers and didn’t seem to notice when I moved away quickly. “That’s the one part of our lives we keep hidden.”
I frowned. I didn’t understand how that was possible for a group this size. I’d almost been busted a dozen times. The sparks and “now you seem ’em, now you don’t” injuries were always a dead giveaway. At the very least, the person you healed would notice. How many people could you heal before someone blabbed?
The only thing that had saved me from discovery had been my isolation. Before I’d arrived in Blackwell Falls, I’d healed myself or my mother after Dean had beat the crap out of us. There had been occasional brushes with strangers that I couldn’t help, and every once in a while, there had been someone hurt or sick that I’d healed because some decent part of me demanded that I had to. Somehow I’d always managed to slip away, though, before their minds could accept what they’d seen. I’d gotten too good at blending into walls to hide what a freak I was and to hide what damage Dean had done to us. Shame could be a powerful thing. Asher had changed everything by seeing the real me the very first day we’d met.
Before I could ask Erin more questions, she waved at someone in the distance. I followed her gaze to see Alcais and Delia approaching and had to smother my disappointment. The pair tended to steer the conversation with their bickering.
Erin gave me a sweet smile as her brother and friend reached us. “You should ask your grandfather to show you our library.”
I sat up straight. “Library?”
“Sure. We all have to spend time in there at some point. There’s a book that might answer your questions about our kind. How our abilities work, how to avoid Protectors, that kind of thing.”
“You’re kidding me. Someone wrote a book about that?”
“Books. It’s a library, after all. It would be a crappy library if it only had one book.” She kicked off the wall with her foot, waving at Delia and Alcais. “You know, if the story we’ve heard is true, soon we won’t have to worry about Protectors anyway.”
I froze, but she didn’t seem to notice. “What story?”
Delia overheard Erin’s last comment as she joined us and rolled her eyes. “I can’t believe you’re repeating that shit.”
“It’s just a story, Delia,” Erin protested weakly. “I didn’t say I believed it.”
Alcais stole Erin’s cocoa and sipped it. “Oh, back off, Delia. Let her have her fun.”
“What story?” I repeated.
Erin hesitated a moment and then shot Delia a defiant look before she spoke. “It’s no big deal. Some people say they’ve heard of a story the Protectors tell each other. They say one day there will be a different kind of Healer who can cure their immortality.”
The contents of my stomach flipped over. I fought to speak around the lump that had formed in my throat. “Why? I mean, why would they think there would be a Healer who could do that?”
Did they know the Healer in that story would have Protector blood?
Alcais scoffed at my question. “Who knows? It doesn’t matter anyway. One day we’re going to figure out a way to kill them, immortal or not. It’s only a matter of time before we outnumber them.”
Delia hissed and exchanged a harsh glance with Alcais. He grinned unrepentantly and launched into a tale about a time he’d surfed during a storm. Of course, the storm was practically a monsoon the way he told it, and the waves had been at least twenty feet high in his estimation. Delia sniped at him for exaggerating, and their usual bickering started.
They should have saved their efforts to distract me. No way would I forget what they’d said. They had a library. A library with books that could hold the key to my future with Asher. These Healers had secrets, but secrets could be uncovered.