Authors: Janet Elizabeth Jones
Caroline threw the door open. Outside stood a pair of children, shivering with cold and panting from their exertions. Relief swept over the face of the little girl when she looked up at Caroline. The child clutched her companion against her, though he was nearly as big as she was.
The little girl's gaze lit on Meical, and she took a step back and dragged the boy behind her protectively. There was no emotion on the boy's face. He stared at nothing and made a high-pitched chirping sound like a wounded bird.
Judging by the rush of adrenaline that heightened Caroline's luscious natural scent, she anticipated danger on the approach. She eyed the area beyond the cabin, although she greeted the children with the calm, controlled tone of a professional.
“Hey, Sandy. Hi, Ray. Come on in.”
Meical scanned the area, too, a little bit farther than Caroline could. What had she anticipated?
Caroline drew the children into the warm cabin, closed the door and sat down on the sofa. Sandy cast wary looks at Meical, but when Caroline hugged her close, she seemed to go limp. Her little brother curled up in a ball at Caroline's feet. He looked to be about five or six, and his sister a couple of years older.
“Is it your dad?” asked Caroline.
Sandy nodded against her shoulder. “He just showed up out of nowhere this morning. Mama was downhill at the Petersons' borrowing bread so we can make cinnamon toast. Daddyâ¦heâ¦”
“Did he hit you?”
“I mostly dodged him. But then he swung at Ray. I had to get us out of there.”
“But you couldn't go to the Petersons' because you didn't want your dad to follow you there and find your mom.”
The girl nodded again.
Caroline hugged the child tight. “You did the right thing to come here. Do you think your daddy followed you?”
Meical suppressed a growl at the thought.
“I don't think so.” Sandy sniffled, her eyes grew red and her thin chest rose and fell. “I think he stayed there to wait for Mama to come home.”
Caroline reached into the drawer of the lamp table by the sofa and took out a cell phone. She dialed calmly, all smiles for the two children, while inside he sensed her outrage and fear for their mother.
“Hey, Sheriff, it's Caroline. Looks like Mr. Hicks has turned up again. Sandy and Ray are here with me, and they're safe, but Mrs. Hicks is due home anytime, and the kids think their dad is waiting for her to show up at their place. No, they'll be fine here until Mrs. Hicks wants them home. Yeah, better hurry. She's just downhill at the Petersons', and she's probably on her way back home by now.”
She put the phone back in the drawer and lowered
herself onto the floor beside Ray. The little boy scooted closer to Caroline, peeping like a chick, put his head in her lap and his thumb in his mouth.
Caroline ran a hand over Ray's tousled, sandy-haired head. “I see Ray has turned into a bird today.”
“At least it's not a robot this time,” murmured Sandy. “That worried Mama sick. Coming over here to talk to you has helped him a lot, Ms. Bengal. He was okay until this morning.”
Caroline nodded. “Well, Ray made a good choice. Birds can fly away from their problems, if they want to. Isn't that right, Ray?”
The boy flapped his elbows like wings.
Caroline's melodious voice nearly mesmerized Meical as much as it did the children. She was truly gifted. “When Ray feels safe, he'll be himself again. Right now, he's just hiding. The problem is, his friends can't fly with him. He's going to have to keep his feet on the ground so he can play.”
Sandy slumped onto the floor and wiggled closer to Caroline. The three of them closed their eyes and sat quietly, while Caroline exuded comfort and safety that made even Meical relax. Her warmth and love filled the room like a fragrance. That was how she used her gift. She mended broken lives. Who held
like that when she was frightened? The thought of another giving her comfort set his teeth on edge.
Well, the least he could do was aid Caroline's efforts with his own remedy for human fear. Meical engulfed Caroline and the children in a spell of relaxation and
security. Sitting back in his chair, he watched them while it worked. Did Caroline have any idea how delectable she looked when she was sleepy?
The sound of a large vehicle lumbering to a stop outside ruined it.
Sandy Hicks sprang out of Caroline's arms and clamored to the window. “It's Dad.”
Meical sighed and joined Caroline, who was trying to stand and commandeer her crutches at the same time. Her anxiety permeated the air.
“Sandy, have a seat,” Meical said.
Sandy backed away from the window and hauled Ray up on the couch beside her.
Meical wrapped an arm around Caroline from behind and lifted her to her feet. He could feel her shoulder blades tremble against his chest and taste her righteous anger. “Let me take care of this for you.”
She shook her head. “Mr. Hicks will punch your lights out.”
“Better me than you.”
A car door slammed outside and a heavy tread vibrated on the porch. Ray whimpered.
The door shook under Mr. Hicks's fist. “Sandy! Ray! I know you're in there. Get out here. Now!”
“Come on, Caroline,” Meical urged. “Let me do this.”
He looked down at Caroline's hands on his arm. He wasn't fooled by her shrug and offhanded tone. She was glad he was here. “Have it your way. At least John will be here to patch you up after Hicks breaks your nose.”
Meical pressed his mouth closer to her ear and felt her catch her breath. “Thank you.”
Before opening the front door, Meical released a tide of menace in the cretin's direction. The pounding ceased. He probed Hicks's mind. He was reconsidering making an ass of himself. In the quiet that ensued, the patter of the children's feet on the rug behind Meical sounded like sighs. He felt a featherweight touch on his right thigh and looked down. Ray stood beside him. The child wrapped one arm around Meical's leg and the other around his sister. He looked up at Meical with suddenly coherent, soulful hazel eyes. Meical reached down and chucked the boy's chin with his knuckles. With a quick smile, he opened the door.
“Good morning, Mr. Hicks,” he said. He seized on the man's gaze and held it. “It's too pretty a day for this, don't you think?”
Hicks fell back a step and stared into Meical's eyes. His bulldog jaw hung slack for a moment, and he blinked. The man had mush for brains that were steeped in whiskey and not very sharp to begin with. Meical detected the scent of fresh blood beneath his clean flannel shirt.
He felt Caroline's hand on the small of his back. Warning him to be careful or urging him on?
Hicks rose up on tiptoe and looked over Meical's shoulder at Caroline. “Got yourself a boyfriend now, weirdo?”
Before he could think, Meical reached out and gripped Hicks by the throat.
eical squeezed the air out of Hicks's windpipe, enjoying the shade of purple that infused the man's lips. His quarry clutched at him with bulging eyes, then twitched nicely. When Meical realized the man's feet were swinging in the air, he laughed and lifted him higher.
A feral growl broke through his focus, somewhat louder than an enraged cat. Meical looked down. Ray squeezed closer to him and snarled up at Hicks with arms raised and fingers splayed like claws. Meical reflected. Inciting the little guy to violence would hardly impress Caroline.
He fought for control and let Caroline's angelic voice reach him. Sweet, cool water for his thirsty soul. Thirsty. Yes, he was. Terribly thirsty. Oddly, it reminded him of
the blood thirst he'd known as a vampire. His soul was parched, his mouth like dry paper, his body yearning to be quenched. By her.
The wail of an ambulance sounded in the distance. Meical curled his lip and glared at the squirming human in his grip. “That would be Mrs. Hicks going to the hospital.” He shook Hicks and roared, “Isn't it?”
The man gurgled, then nodded.
Caroline squeezed Meical's arm again. “Let him go, Meical.”
Meical opened his hands and dropped Mr. Hicks. “If you ever come within a hundred feet of Ms. Bengal again, I'll kill you.”
Hicks held one hand to his throat and struggled to his feet. “I'm gonna sue, you freak!”
Meical took a step toward him. “Wrong answer.”
Hicks hightailed it to his truck, slung the door open and turned to glower at his children. “Sandy and Ray, get yourselves over here. We're going home.”
The children refused to move. Hicks gave Caroline a menacing frown, but when Meical took another step toward him, he jumped into his truck, jerked the engine on and sped away, narrowly missing the sheriff's car and Suburban coming around the bend.
Meical eyed the newcomers and swore. “Caroline, you've no end of visitors this morning.”
Caroline went to meet the sheriff and the owner of the Suburban. Meical watched her, suddenly weary. And this thirstâ¦no, he definitely wasn't himself.
Maybe this was how he'd end. He'd just go out like a
fire. But not here, not where it would cause trouble for Caroline. No point in that. Where then?
Meical searched the shadowy forest beyond the cabin. Anywhere would do, as long as it was as far from people as possible. He cast a glance in Caroline's direction. She and the others wouldn't notice his exit. He took a step backward, keeping his gaze on her, even as his eyes watered and his body began to chill.
A small, warm weight wrapped around his thigh. Meical looked down to find Ray attached to him. The adoration in the boy's eyes exhilarated him, even as it filled him with squeamishness. He reached down and disentangled the child from his leg.
“Sandy, take your brother and go help Ms. Bengal tell the sheriff about your dad.”
Sandy took Ray's hand and ran down to the adults gathering by the sheriff's car.
Meical's legs shook underneath him so hard he had to sit down again. He'd rest just for a moment, then go. Leaning back against a post on the porch, he let himself drift, oblivious to everything but the hum of voices and the drone of the morning turning to midday.
“You're really something, you know?”
He opened his eyes, but squinted when they burned and watered. Caroline stood looking down at him, grinning. He smiled at her and yawned. “Sorry I lost it just now. I hope I haven't made things worse.”
She eased herself down beside him with a shake of her head. “I'm glad you were here. You were right. They did have to take Mrs. Hicks to the hospital. Sheriff
Crantz says that jerk worked her over really bad this time. But she won't press charges. She never does.”
She looked away and waved at her departing friend, who had put the two children in his vehicle.
“That's my doctor friend John, the one who helped me with you last night. He's taking Sandy and Ray to his place on his way to check on Mrs. Hicks at the hospital. He and his wife Millie will take care of them until their mom comes home.”
The Suburban left, and the forest fell still around them. He was alone. Alone with Caroline. Finally.
Meical smiled when she shouldered her way closer to him. He could still feel anxiety oozing out of her like little rivulets of blood.
Blood? His jaw throbbed and tingled. He blinked his eyes open, holding his breath, listening to his body. The ache in his gums was all too familiarâbut he wasn't supposed to sprout fangs anymore.
Was that how the experiment had failed? Was he some sort of hybrid now? Not quite a vampire, but not entirely incubus yet either? Of course, nothing so profane could live.
How long did he have? Hours? Another night? Another sunrise? No, he wouldn't have the chance to savor that again.
“Meical, when you confronted Hicks a moment ago, the rage I felt in you wasâ¦it was justâ¦. Where does all that anger come from?”
Of course, she couldn't understand his behavior. But she was his; no one threatened what belonged to
him. “That's one of those questions I can't answer, Caroline.”
“Hey, you don't look so good.”
Meical tried to focus on her lovely face. He caught her scent on the breeze. In half a heartbeat he was so hard he had to stand up, but when he did, he swayed on his feet.
She caught his arm. Her touch unleashed a swell of lust so harsh he groaned. What was happening to him? He'd always been able to count on his self-control. His body was responding to Caroline with a will of its own. He wasn't safe for her.
Another touch of her hand, and he didn't care. He swayed toward her, his gaze fixed on her mouth, while the heat of his lust swallowed everything around him the way he wanted to swallow her, burn her, take her. He wanted to shout at her to run for her life. Instead, he reached for her wrist to tug her closer, mouth open to devour her kiss, lungs heaving, heart on fire.
At the last instant, he saw her clueless half smile dissolve, and he was so sure she saw the hunger and madness in him that he turned away with a growl, eyes closed, straining for breath. He couldn't do this. This was not what he was. Nor would he ever let himself becomeâ¦this creatureâ¦
But if he didn't go now, it would be too late for Caroline. At the end, he'd try to save himself by any means he could. He'd be ravenous. She'd be utterly defenseless against him.
Turning to glare at her, he used the last of his
strength to try to take control of her mind.
You will not follow me.
Caroline smirked. “If you'll stop trying to convince me you're an ogre, I might let you stay for lunch.”
“You have no idea what you're suggesting.”
“Nothing scarier than ham sandwiches.”
“No. I must go. Now.”
She looked so hurt. “But you can hardly walk. I can feel your need forâ”
“Yes, you can feel my need.” Unable to keep from touching her, he caught her arm and jerked her closer. “And I promise you, if I stay, you'll be obliged to do something about it. Is that what you want?”
Stark fear bloomed in her eyes. He hated it, but perhaps it was the only way. He let his gaze slip over her and licked his parched lips. When he looked into her eyes, he let her see all the way to his soulâthe hunger, the approaching madness, the death in him that would be the death of her.
But she stood her ground. “I've seen hell before, Meical Grabian. I'm still alive. If you'll let me, I can help you.”
Meical shook his head, but it only made him dizzy. He let go of Caroline and grabbed the post behind him to keep from falling. The downy heat of her attraction to him vibrated through his body and eclipsed all else for a blessed moment.
He closed his eyes, soaking her up. “I'm warning youâ¦”
“I'll consider myself warned, then. Shut up and let me get you inside where you can rest.”
She opened the door and nudged him in. Meical scarcely felt his feet move across the cabin floor. He literally fell onto the sofa. He felt a blanket cover him and Caroline's soft caress on the crown of his head. For a moment, he fought the lethargy that sought to claim him. Was it the day-death? No, it couldn't be, because there was no pain. But he couldn't hold his eyes open, just had to close them andâ¦
Sleep? After two hundred years of never restingâ¦to rest in the way of mortals? Impossible. But it was happening. He was falling asleep.
The bed dipped, and he felt Caroline close to him. She hummed to him in a husky alto voice. Peace encompassed Meical, and he gave in.
Heaven help her if she was within reach when he woke.
A shady glen lay just ahead. It drew Meical onward. In such a place, one could crawl into the greenery like a wild thing and never be seen. It would feel so cool to his feverish skin. It was so hot. Where had the snow gone? It felt like a summer day.
The glen opened onto a clearing, and in the clearing was a tent, and outside the tent sat a woman dressed in a simple cotton dress. She was all alone. Dark-haired and dark-skinned, beautiful in a maternal, mature way, she fixed her gaze on him and smiled, even though he had yet to emerge from the trees.
Meical turned away, intent on putting as much distance between him and any living thing as possible.
He had to go and find himself a place to die. He had to. He couldn't go on.
“Would you care for something cool to drink?”
Meical shivered, then broke into a sweat. Slowly he turned to find the woman only a few feet behind him. No mortal was that swift and silent. He narrowed his eyes and tried to discern what manner of being she was, but there was nothing familiar about her, nothing to grasp at all, nothing to identify. Cosmically speaking, she was as close to nothingness as she could be. Was she even real?
Perhaps this was part of dying. She was a hallucination. Meical rolled his eyes. He might have hallucinated something more profound than a middle-aged siren out for some quality time with Mother Nature.
But it was her very nothingness that gave her presence such a peculiar strength. Or perhaps it was the way her eyes lured him. Meical found himself following her back to her tent like a sheep to the fold. She smiled regally and motioned for him to sit in a chair opposite hers. He could have sworn the chair wasn't there a moment ago.
She slipped into the tent and returned with a glass of cold tea. Beads of condensation formed on the glass and sparkled in the sun as she placed it in his hands.
Meical looked up to search her eyes. “Thank you.”
She steadied his hands while he took a sip. His sensitive taste buds picked up on a taste that reminded him of something he'd drunk before, but he couldn't be sure what it was. It tasted green, sweet and a little tangy.
“It's good,” he said. “What kind of tea is it?”
She had such a low, dulcet voice. “It's an old family recipe. I would tell you the herbs I use, but that wouldn't be fair to my ancestors.”
He smiled and finished the entire glass without taking a breath. It made him feel invigorated and relaxed at the same time. Handing the glass back to her, he watched her set it aside on a table that seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. No, it had been there. He just hadn't noticed it until now.
Meical sat back in his chair, surprised by the subtle contentment that flowed through him. “Good stuff, your tea.”
She sat down across from him, resting her arms on the armrests as though the chair were a throne, and regarded him with a small smile.
Meical thought he'd seen the height of exotic beauty in Queen Freya's countenance. But this lady, in spite of her years, was more beautiful than his vampire queen. He liked to see older women wear their hair long. She had the hair for it, too, thick and as black as a raven's wing. Her tawny almond-shaped eyes gave him the impression that she could take in the entirety of the clearing without shifting her gaze from his face. Eyes that missed nothing.
Momentarily wary of this hospitable lady, Meical pushed himself out of his chair. “Thank you. Have a good day.”
He sounded like a bloody human.
“Are you going so soon?” she asked.
He turned and sat down again, uncomfortable with her disappointment. “I have little time.”
“People are in such a rush these days.” She looked away. “They used to call on me long ago. You wouldn't know it to see me now. These days, I am forgotten, except for a loyal few.”
All of which was entirely too surreal to be borne, and none of which had a thing to do with him. But what could he say?
So sorry, but look at the time. I have to go off and die now.
She spoke as though she were in her dotage. She didn't seem elderly, by any means. The sunlight slipped out from behind a cloud and cast the lady in a halo. The radiance suited her, even with a tent for a backdrop.
know how it feels to forget and to be forgotten.” Her gaze returned to his, seeming exquisitely feline all of a sudden. “But in your case, I believe,
you've forgotten yourself.
You, Meical, have abandoned the man you were meant to be.”
Maybe he had, but he wasn't going to share that with a stranger, no matter how good her tea tasted. “So, you're camping out here all by yourself, are you?”
She hesitated, eyeing him closely. “I came to help an old friend with a difficult situation. And I think I know, now, how I can help him the most. I am here to visit his brother as well. I knew them both long ago, way before your time on this earth.”
She leaned forward and lowered her voice to a near whisper, as though to impart a secret. “I've already been in contact with his brother, but we're keeping my
presence here a secret from him. I want to see what he's been up to, before I let him know I'm here.”
“Have you found out yet?” he asked, although he didn't know why he should.
“Yes. He has been working long and hard to accomplish a great feat and he has invested all his hope in it. Many fear him because of it; others regard him as evil. But I have come to understand what he is attempting and know his noble heart well enough to see that it is a worthy goal he seeks to achieve.”