Jace had always suspected that someday someone would try to kill him. He just hadn’t expected it to be tonight. Especially not in some rundown bar that reeked of beer and unwashed flesh.
He should have, though. The place was ripe with negative energy, this evening more than usual. An undercurrent of violence permeated the air and resonated from the patrons. The tattooed lump of flesh who went by the name of Viper was no exception.
“Did you say something to me, bitch?” Viper shattered his beer bottle on the corner of the bar and approached him menacingly.
The biker didn’t resemble a snake. He was big and round and lumbered more than he slithered, but there was definitely something snakelike about him, a predatory gleam in his eyes that would warn any sane man to back off.
Sanity had never been one of Jace’s strong points. He had too much anger inside him, was sick and tired of seeing men like Viper terrorize everyone around them and get away with it. “I said, leave the guy alone,” he repeated, ignoring the broken bottle aimed at his throat.
Viper’s original target had been some lanky accountant-type, who’d walked into The Hangout—a renowned bikers’ bar—dressed in a goddamn suit. Then he’d added insult to injury by ordering a glass of Chardonnay. Smelling blood, Viper had come in for the kill, incessantly poking fun at the man and not allowing him to leave when the idiot realized the error of his ways.
Jace wasn’t the kind of guy who fought other people’s battles. He usually kept to himself, tried to melt into a crowd. He was an observer, an outcast, someone who went through the motions of living even though he felt half dead inside. Darkness coursed through his veins, a shadow he’d spent most of his life trying to subdue, one that fought to break free and take him over. Maybe tonight it would finally succeed.
“Guess it’s up to me to teach you to mind your own fucking business.” Swinging his beefy arm, Viper slapped Jace on the back of the neck with a sweaty palm.
Jace downed his whisky, banged his empty glass on the bar and stood. Meeting Viper’s vicious stare, he quickly calculated his odds of winning.
Five-to-one, he guessed.
Metal studs pierced the drunk’s ears and nose, a snake tattoo coiled around his thick arm, and a fine carpet of stubble covered his shaved head. He smelled of tobacco and cognac, of beer and scotch and God knew what else. But what worried Jace the most was the cruelty and despair he sensed in him. Before him stood a man who had nothing to lose.
Jace had been born with the ability to know things about people, things they barely knew themselves. Their screwed-up lives played in his head like a freaking soap opera. He also had a knack for picking up cues in the atmosphere, and tonight his gut told him Viper hungered for blood.
With an enraged growl, the drunk attempted to strike him with the broken beer bottle. Jace blocked him, slammed his hand against the bar to knock the makeshift weapon from his grasp, then reciprocated with a swift uppercut to the midsection.
Viper didn’t as much as flinch, his system pumped too full of adrenaline. “Is that the best you got?” He sneered.
Taking advantage of the distraction, the accountant-type sidled to the door and escaped into the warm August night. Satisfaction sped through Jace. Not because he held any real affection for the guy in the suit, but because he’d helped tip the scales in the right direction for once. After a lifetime of bringing out the worst in people, particularly his old man, he felt damn invigorated to be one of the good guys.
Viper swung his fist, and his knuckles connected with Jace’s ribs. Jace doubled over, groaned. On second thought, maybe being one of the good guys wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
He fought back, landed a couple of punches of his own, but Viper didn’t seem to care. Rage crowded out pain, or maybe it was all the alcohol he’d ingested. The guy charged, spittle flecking his goatee, tendons the size of baseball bats bracketing his neck.
Jace sidestepped to avoid him. Viper was strong, but he was big and clumsy. Jace was swift and agile and not nearly as inebriated. Engaged in a furious dance of attack and retreat, they stumbled out into Pioneer Square. Hopefully outside the negative aura tainting the air would abate.
No such luck. The square was a battlefield, plunged in violence and chaos. A full-blown riot had broken out. Punches flew, cars were being overturned, and brutal screams perforated the night.
Jace never should’ve taken his eyes off Viper, shouldn’t have let the chaotic scene distract him. But he did.
The blade punctured his flesh, sharp and ice cold. Shocked, he brought his hand to his chest. Blood soaked his palm, seeped through his fingers. He waited for the pain to come, but it never did. Numbness spread like a drug to anesthetize him.
He drifted weightlessly to the ground. Noise thundered as he struck the concrete, but the sound was muted, as if it were reaching him through a static-filled wire. The buzz around him escalated. Voices continued to boom as sirens howled somewhere in the balmy night. Darkness rolled in, as familiar as an old friend. His mouth twitched, curled into a feeble smile.
That’s what you get for being a goddamn hero.
Lia Benson was wrapping up her third double shift that week at the Rivershore Hospital when Jace Cutler was wheeled into the ER. She’d never actually met him, but she recognized him instantly because his picture graced her sister’s nightstand. Or it had until a month ago. Cassie had wasted no time getting rid of the snapshot after she’d shown her latest disaster of a boyfriend the door. It was about time, too. Based on what Cassie had told her, the guy had issues. Major issues.
Now it was Lia’s job to save him.
Wasting no time, she checked his breathing and circulation to rule out an airway obstruction. She then removed the bandages the paramedics had secured around his chest and examined the knife wound. The sucking sound the gash made whenever the patient inhaled was a sure sign his chest wall had been damaged. She hurriedly placed a sterile occlusive dressing over the wound, taping only three sides to prevent air from reentering his chest cavity each time he exhaled.
She couldn’t assess the true extent of the injury without an x-ray, but judging from the sucking sound of the gash and the patient’s impaired breathing, she concluded that Jace Cutler’s right lung had been lacerated.
“Prepare him for chest tube insertion,” she ordered Diane, one of the trauma unit nurses on duty tonight. “And draw some blood. He’s going to need surgery and potentially a transfusion.”
Diane hesitated, and Lia shot her a pointed look. “Hurry. This man is dying.”
With a flat glare, Diane did as she was told. In a matter of seconds, Jace was attached to an IV drip, a ventilator and a slew of medical monitors.
His pulse was weak, his pressure dropping fast, his skin cool and clammy. If they didn’t get him to surgery soon, his lung could collapse. “Get Dr. Adams.”
Diane just stood there, studying the patient.
“Now!” Lia’s voice shook the nurse out of her daze, and the woman scrambled off to find the surgeon.
Lia continued to work on Jace, curious as to why no one else had come to assist her. They were probably too busy seeing to the high number of trauma patients who had been brought in this evening because of the riot that had broken out in Pioneer Square. She didn’t have all the facts, but one of the orderlies had heard a news report and told her about it. No one seemed to know why it had started, but many people had gotten hurt, even killed.
She inserted a large-bore needle between the second and third rib, right below his collarbone. A hiss of air confirmed her diagnosis. Sliding a catheter over the needle, she placed the tube into the chest cavity and used a syringe to aspirate all the free air.
Heat abruptly traveled up her arm, a sharp-toothed flame that shot through her fingertips and snaked its way to her heart. Pressure built in her chest, tightened around her lungs. She couldn’t swallow past the lump in her throat, couldn’t breathe. The underside of her flesh burned. Dizziness overtook her, and she grabbed hold of the gurney for support.
What on earth was wrong with her? On this hot, late summer night, a strange energy rippled in the atmosphere and made her skin hum. Either that or sleep deprivation was finally taking its toll.
An ominous chime pierced the air, and a different kind of energy lanced through her. Jace Cutler had just flatlined.
“Damn it, I’m not done with you yet. Don’t force me to tell my sister you died on me.” She pumped his chest, tried to jumpstart his heart. “I need help here!” she called to the nurses scurrying down the hall. No one as much as glanced her way. She wasn’t even sure they heard her.
Only Diane came crashing in.
“Where’s Dr. Adams?” Lia asked between CPR attempts.
“I had him paged, but he didn’t respond. Surgery is filled to capacity.”
Lia couldn’t remember hearing the doctor’s name called over the intercom, but she’d been so intent working on Jace, she could’ve missed it.
She breathed into his mouth, continued to compress his chest. The paralyzing need to see him open his eyes seized her. She couldn’t remember noticing their color when she’d gazed upon his photograph, but she knew instinctively they’d be green.
“You’re wasting your time,” Diane told her.
Lia couldn’t give up. Not yet. She thrust her palms over his heart at a rate of a hundred compressions a minute. “Get the defibrillator.”
“It’s pointless. He has no—” Diane paused.
“Then it won’t hurt, will it?”
Diane reluctantly complied, fetching the device and attaching the pads to Jace’s chest. Defibrillators were generally used to treat cardiac arrest patients and weren’t necessarily proven effective once the heart stopped. Still, Lia had to try. A man’s life hung in the balance.
The current zipped through his body but failed to resuscitate him. She tried again unsuccessfully. Not even a blip disturbed the shrill, flat line running across the ECG.
Everything inside her shook as she relented and backed away. No matter how many times she witnessed death, she never got used to it. It was a black presence, as pervasive as it was cruel. It struck the young and old equally, failed to distinguish between the good and the wicked, followed no rules in its ruthless pursuit of life. And tonight it had feasted yet again.
She checked the stark, white face of the clock on the wall across from her. “Time of death, eleven fifty-five,” she whispered.
Diane approached her, her gaze narrowing, an unsettling intensity glittering in her eyes.
“Why don’t you go for a walk, Lia? Clear your head, forget this ever happened.”
“What?” Lia shook the fog from her mind. “No, I’m not going anywhere.”
The intense glitter gave way to confusion. Diane raised her arms, grabbed Lia by the shoulders, began to pull her closer.
“I hear another trauma patient was just brought in?” Dr. Adams’s voice echoed through the stark emergency room, and the nurse instantly released her.
“You’re too late,” Lia said in a gravelly voice she barely recognized. “I couldn’t save him.” Moisture dampened her cheeks, but she wasn’t sure if she was sweating or crying.
Cassie. Dear Lord, how am I going to tell Cassie?
Just then, a slow, steady beep rose from the ECG. Jace Cutler’s heartbeat had resumed, strong and stable.
Impossible. Too much time had passed.
Dr. Adams hastened to Jace’s side and bent over to examine him. “This man looks perfectly alive to me.” He turned an accusing glance her way. “How long have you been here, Lia?”
“The patient was wheeled in about fifteen minutes ago—”
“No, I mean here, at the hospital.”
His meaning suddenly registered. “Twenty-four hours and counting.”
“I thought so. Maybe it’s time for you to head on home.”
Why wasn’t he rushing Jace Cutler to surgery?
“Diane, take the patient down to radiology,” he commanded. “Let’s see if he has any broken ribs. Order a CAT scan, too.”
Broken ribs? CAT scan? “What about the stab wound?”
Dr. Adams furrowed his bushy brows. “What stab wound?”
Feeling emotionally drained but oddly energized, Lia approached the gurney and lifted the bandage. Blood soaked the gauze, smeared his torso, but the wound was gone. Golden skin stretched over bone and corded muscle, smooth and unmarred. The catheter she’d inserted lay discarded at his side, as though someone had yanked it out, yet no one had.
Her eyes shot to the surgeon’s face in quiet supplication. “He was stabbed. I saw the gash. I bandaged it, performed needle decompression.”
Compassion peppered with a dash of impatience swept over the doctor’s tired face.
“You saw it,” she appealed to Diane. “You saw the stab wound. You watched me struggle to resuscitate him.”
“Sorry,” the nurse lied. “All I saw was blood. It must’ve come from somebody else. God knows enough blood was spilled tonight.”
“No. He was cut.” Diane’s dishonesty rankled. “The wound was deep. An upper cut that perforated the lung.” She turned to Dr. Adams. “If you don’t believe me, ask the paramedics.”
Diane centered her dark, penetrating gaze on the surgeon. “She’s exhausted,” she told him. “She needs to rest.”
Lia shook her head in disbelief. “I know what I saw.”
Dr. Adams’s expression grew blank, distant and cold. Any compassion she’d seen on his face melted away, replaced by irritation. “Go home, Lia.” His tone was non-negotiable. “Your shift’s over.”
Lia turned the key and entered her quiet, depressingly bare townhouse. She’d lived here for two years and still hadn’t gotten around to decorating the place. She kept telling herself that she was too busy, that once she completed her residency she’d have more time, but the truth was, the hospital was much more of a home to her than this redbrick building in Portland’s North District.
This house was just somewhere to crash after a long shift, a quiet corner to retreat to before life resumed its crazy pace. There was nothing here to tether her, no one waiting to welcome her, not even a cat or a dog. Tonight, any greeting would’ve provided comfort, even a soft purr or a wagging tail. But Lia had no time to care for a pet any more than she had time to forge relationships.
The cordless phone sat on the console by the door, where she dropped her keys. Her fingers itched to pick it up, to dial Cassie’s number, but something held her back. How could she explain tonight’s events to her sister when she could barely make sense of them herself? But worse was the fear that Jace Cutler’s incident would lead Cassie straight back into his arms. Her sister had been hurt enough, by too many men like Jace. Men who only cared about themselves and who treated women like notches on their belts.
The digital clock next to the phone reminded her how late it was, nearly one in the morning. The call could wait. What she really needed was a scalding shower.
A few minutes later she stood naked beneath the jets, scrubbing her skin raw, driven by the desperate need to wash Jace Cutler’s blood from her flesh. It was his blood that had smeared her lab coat, his blood that had covered her hands, regardless of what everyone else believed. Even the paramedics who’d brought him in had denied seeing the stab wound.
The strange energy that had rippled beneath her skin when he’d died continued to hum along her nerve endings. For some reason she couldn’t explain, it made her feel less alone.
She towel-dried her hair and body, slipped into her robe, then crashed into bed without bothering to change into her pajamas. Exhaustion clung to her, a wet blanket dragging her down, clouding her thoughts. Sleep claimed her instantly.
At first, only blissful darkness enfolded her. Then colors slowly crept in, merged to form shapes both strange and familiar—a pristine mansion nestled in an alcove of trees, the ocean whispering nearby, a fallen nest, the mournful coo of a down-feathered bird.
The sun was bright, the air cool and damp. She reached out and gathered the pigeon in her palms. Her fingers were small, like a child’s, but big enough to cradle the hatchling. The frail-boned bird shivered in her grasp. Affection and protectiveness gripped her. She hugged the pigeon close and raced toward the house, only to stop dead in her tracks when she saw the shiny black Lexus in the driveway. Her stomach lurched.
He was home.
In her hand, the pigeon squirmed. She whipped off her spring jacket and gently tossed it over the hatchling, then skulked into the house, praying the bird would remain quiet long enough for her to make it to her room unnoticed.
She was halfway up the stairs when he called to her, and her whole body tensed at the sound of his voice. Still shielding the pigeon with the jacket, she turned partially around to face him.
Please don’t make a sound, she pleaded silently with the bird.
The man at the foot of the staircase was a stranger, yet something visceral inside her recognized his powerful features, his straight patrician nose, those sharp, disapproving green eyes.
“Why aren’t you in your room doing your homework?” His voice was as polished as the rest of him, as refined as his expensive double-breasted suit and shiny black loafers.
“I’m headed up there now.”
For a few agonizing seconds he said nothing, simply watched her with that probing gaze that drilled a hole straight down to the marrow of her bones. Then his shoulders relaxed. “Don’t take all night. I’ve got some chores for you to do.”
With a relieved nod, she sprinted up the rest of the steps and plowed into the bedroom.
A boy’s bedroom. She’d never seen it before, yet she knew instinctively it was hers.
Guided by that same instinct, she scanned her surroundings, made sure everything was impeccably neat in case he decided to come up and check. The navy blue comforter that covered the boat-shaped bed didn’t have a crease on it. A collection of perfectly aligned cars adorned the shelves. No toys littered the thick wool carpet that stretched over the hardwood floor.
Releasing the breath she’d trapped in her throat, she carefully shut the door behind her.
Beneath the gray jersey jacket, the pigeon complained. She uncovered the hatchling and placed it in a shoe box she retrieved from the closet, which would now serve as a nest.
She’d just managed to hide the bird in the closet when footsteps sounded outside her door. With surprising speed, she pulled her books out of her schoolbag and settled herself at her desk. The doorknob began to turn. Her heart drummed a steady beat in her ears. She closed her eyes, waited…
Lia awoke with a gasp, her gut bunched in a series of painful knots. She inhaled deeply, tried to ease her galloping pulse.
Just a dream, she told herself.
A dream that felt oddly like a memory, only it wasn’t hers. The heaviness in her chest made absolutely no sense. Neither did the sorrow ripping through her. Something fundamental inside her connected with the boy in her dream, understood his awkwardness and isolation. His loneliness echoed her own.
Too agitated to drift back to sleep, she slipped out of bed and walked out onto the balcony. Above her, a glittering sky stretched, dark and bright at the same time. Again, she felt that electric thrum, a current in the air that brushed her skin and made every pore come alive. In the distance something hypnotic called to her. Her soul reached for it. She felt full yet incomplete, as if a part of her was missing and she needed to find it.
Problem was, she didn’t know exactly what she was searching for.
“Enter, Diahann.” The seven-foot-tall figure stood at the heart of the darkened room. Moon shadows embraced him, made his jet-black hair gleam almost silver.
Diane approached Athanatos, stopping five feet away from him as was customary for someone of her rank. She kneeled before him and waited for him to begin interrogating her. A Kleptopsych never addressed an Ancient first.
She complied without hesitation. Although she was tall herself, nearly six feet in height, she still felt dwarfed by his imposing stature. No wonder the Ancients had once been referred to as giants.
“You have something to report?” The words rolled off his cultured tongue like honey. Had Diane been capable of emotion, his silky voice would have triggered a deep, primitive response in her. As things stood, it only elicited a humbling wave of respect.
“Yes, Your Excellency. A Hybrid was brought in tonight.”
Athanatos turned around to face her, and she allowed herself a brief glimpse of him. Perfect, angelic features came together to form a stunning picture. “You witnessed his rebirth?”
She took a moment to gather her thoughts. “Yes, and so did a resident at the hospital.”
Silence stretched to fill every corner of the abandoned hotel that now served as their command center. They’d moved their operations here recently, after the Watchers had discovered and raided their last location. This place was ideal, far removed from civilization, offering perfect access to the catacombs.
“Did you capture his soul?”
Athanatos didn’t approve of his followers feeding at will—the risk of growing greedy and going rogue was too great—but if one of them happened to catch an errant soul, especially one belonging to a recently turned Hybrid, he did not object.
Diane averted her gaze. “No.”
“I didn’t realize what he was until it was too late. I thought he was just another human injured in the riot.” A riot the Kleptopsychs had instigated at Athanatos’s request. Every so often their leader planned an event that would allow him and his followers to feed without arousing suspicion—a riot, a mass murder, a robbery. On those rare occasions when they truly feasted, hundreds, sometimes thousands of human lives were lost.
“You didn’t sense the darkness in him?”
She shook her head. “Not until the soul had left his body.”
Fury pinched Athanatos’s features. Emotion was an unavoidable side-effect of feeding, and tonight, he and the others had ingested their fill of souls. Diane envied them. Her job at the hospital had prevented her from joining the feast, which meant she’d have to find another way to satisfy her cravings. Thankfully, lives were lost every day at Rivershore. Working there definitely had its perks.
“Take care of him,” he ordered. “Before the Watchers find him.” The statement was deceptively soft, yet encrusted with ice. “As for this witness, did you wipe her memory clean?”
Diane ventured a step closer, caught herself when he directed a piercing stare her way. “Not yet.” She couldn’t bring herself to tell him she’d tried and failed. “I did take care of the paramedics who brought him in, though. They didn’t corroborate her story. Our secret is safe.”
He startled her by bridging the distance between them. His thumb traced the outline of her jaw with a deliberate slowness that was undeniably erotic. Increased sexual desire was another side-effect of ingesting a human soul, one she more than welcomed.
Diane might have missed the feeding tonight, but heat still flooded her veins. Her eyes drifted shut as a swell of lust tightened in her abdomen. Her breasts grew heavy, suddenly screamed to be touched. Becoming Athanatos’s mate would be an honor equivalent to being crowned queen—a position she was ready for, both inside and outside the bedroom.
“Our kind has lived in secret for several millennia now, and it’s that very secrecy that has ensured our survival.” His silken voice flowed over her skin like a lover’s caress. “Have you forgotten what happened the last time we were careless?”
Diane studied him through hooded eyes. “I’ll erase her memory tomorrow. You don’t need to worry.”
“I don’t. Worry is for the weak.” He threaded his fingers through her pin-straight, black hair. His hand was so wide, his palm spanned her entire head. She leaned into it, waited for his mouth to devour hers. Her lips ached with the burning need to be kissed.
“Don’t let this one get away.” His breath tickled her mouth. “I will not see the Watchers gain any more ammunition. We are at war, Diahann. Never forget that.”
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.”
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