She looked him over, searching for a clue. He wore the same flowing white shirt and pants as before, the same combat boots, looking comfortable, stylish and ready for action. There were no specks of blood to suggest he’d had to fight his way here.
All that grim was for Laila, then.
“First tell me the bargain stands.” The words rushed out. And wow, had she really put her trust and hope in a stranger like this? A stranger of such dubious origins?
Yes, actually. She had. Laila’s survival was too important.
Good. That was good. “Where have you been?” Ugh. Watch the accusation. You don’t want to send him fleeing.
A lovely nonanswer. “Well, are you sure this will work?” Whatever “this” was.
“I’m sure she’ll hurt,” Koldo said, once again ignoring her question, “and she’ll scream, but her body will heal. What happens after that will be up to her. Do you still wish me to proceed?”
Nicola had a little talent for dissecting tones and unveiling a supposition only hinted at. What had she just gotten from Koldo? He didn’t think the results would be worth the effort. Well, too bad. She did. Laila was worth anything. Her sister deserved a second chance. No matter how short.
“Very well.” Koldo stepped up to the bed and gently pried Laila’s lips apart. He opened his hand to reveal an empty vial...no, not empty. A single droplet of water rolled at the bottom, glistening in the light.
He placed the vial over Laila’s open mouth, paused. He inhaled sharply, as if trying to force himself to act. His hesitation caused Nicola’s worry to magnify. Maybe this wasn’t the best decision. Maybe she had made the deal with Koldo for her own selfish needs.
But she was too late. Koldo had just tipped the droplet onto Laila’s tongue.
Nicola waited, expecting something to happen right away. The screaming he’d promised, perhaps. Or maybe, miraculously, a smile.
A minute passed, then two, and nothing changed.
Koldo released a heavy sigh. “It’s done,” he said, and met her hopeful stare. “I must return to my duties or face—never mind. I shall come to you tomorrow, and your time in my care will begin.”
For the third instance in their acquaintance, he vanished.
There was no time to lament or rage over his newest defection. Laila unleashed the promised scream. A scream that nearly busted Nicola’s eardrums. Worried all over again, she rushed to her sister’s side. “Laila, darling, what’s wrong? What do you need?”
Her sister responded with another scream.
Two nurses burst into the room, both unwinding stethoscopes from around their necks.
“I don’t know,” Nicola replied hoarsely. Koldo had fed her sister a drop of...what? Not water, that much she now knew. But she couldn’t mention the warrior without sounding utterly insane.
And if they doubted her sanity, they would refuse to allow her to see Laila. Laila’s fate would fall into someone else’s hands, and someone else would get to decide to turn the machines off.
“Step back,” the other said, even giving her a little push.
They checked the monitors and wheeled a machine closer to the bed. Laila’s entire body began to violently shake.
“Is she going to be okay?” If Koldo had actually done something to harm her sister, Nicola would... She would... There were no actions vicious enough.
Another nurse came rushing in. “What’s the problem?”
“Get her out of here,” the others commanded, motioning to Nicola.
Nicola was too weak to fight as she was dragged from the room. The nurse raced back inside, shutting the door, leaving Nicola standing in the hallway. Tears leaked from her eyes, cascading down her cheeks. She flattened her hand over her heart. The flutter was gone, but the beat was too hard, too fast. Black spots began to wink through her vision. Breath singed her lungs even as her blood chilled.
Her sister was in there, screaming and screaming and screaming, and obviously in more pain than ever. Her sister could be dying right this second, but Nicola wasn’t with her. Only strangers.
How could she have done this? How could she have risked so much, without knowing more?
The black spots thickened. Her breath heated another degree, and the chill in her blood turned to ice-thickened sludge. Knowing she would pass out at any moment, Nicola tried to sit down. But her knees gave out a second later, no longer able to hold her weight, and she toppled forward.
Her face slammed into the tiled floor, and she knew nothing more.
SOMETHING PRIED NICOLA’S eyelids apart, and a bright light suddenly chased away the darkness. Little details claimed her attention. There was a throb in her temples, a steady beep, beep, beep in her ears and a stream of cold in her arm.
A voice beckoned to her, but she couldn’t make out the words. A brighter light was flashed over one eye, then the other. She tried to turn away, but her head was too heavy to move. She tried to reach up and push the stupid thing away, whatever it was, but her arm was even heavier.
She felt as though she’d fallen asleep at the wheel of a car and woken up inside a mangled heap, her weakened body pinned in place. Help had yet to arrive.
Scratch that. Help had arrived.
She blinked rapidly, and finally managed to focus. A man loomed over her. He had dark hair, dark eyes, and his skin was beautifully black. He wore a lab coat and had a stethoscope draped around his neck. Dr. Carter from County General, she realized. Laila’s doctor.
“You fainted,” he said, his tone gentle.
“No, I—” Had fainted, yes. The memory played through her mind, and she saw herself in Laila’s room. Koldo had fed her sister a droplet of something, then vanished, and her sister had begun to scream. A nurse had shoved Nicola out of the room and fear had overtaken her.
Now she was lying in a hospital bed, hooked to an IV and wearing a paper-thin gown.
“Your heartbeat has been regulated,” he informed her.
Don’t care. “Laila,” she said, trying to sit up.
Dr. Carter kindly pushed her back down. “You knocked your skull pretty hard when you landed. In fact, you have a concussion, and we’re going to keep you for the rest of the day and night.”
His lips curved into a slow smile. “It’s the most amazing thing. Once we got her calmed down, we noticed her vitals were actually stronger than they’d been in weeks. We drew some blood, and the results astonished us. Her liver and kidneys are finally working properly, and her heartbeat is steady.”
Just like that, undiluted joy burst through Nicola, as potent as any drug. Joy Koldo had sown into her. Laila was on the mend! Koldo had told the truth. He had—
Saved her twin for a little while, Nicola recalled. Only a little while. Ribbons of disappointment threaded through the joy. He’d said he could buy her sister time, nothing more.
Before, that had seemed so promising. Now? She wanted more.
Time. Time. The word echoed through her mind in tune with the ticking of a clock. How much time did her sister have? Koldo had said she wouldn’t live more than a few weeks, and when Nicola peeled back the top layer of those words and peeked inside, she realized Laila could drift away much sooner. In a matter of days.
An hour from now.
“I want to see her,” she rushed out.
Dr. Carter’s smile widened as he turned to the side and waved his arm toward the patient in the bed beside hers. “You can.”
Her gaze landed on the beautiful blonde buried under a mound of covers, and her joy returned full force. Tears flooded her eyes. Her beloved Laila was stretched out on her side, facing her, the color in her cheeks healthy for the first time in months. Her eyes were closed, her breathing even. Her chest rose and fell on its own, with no help from a machine. Her lips were curved in a grin. A soft, happy grin.
Nicola had worried for nothing, she realized. In fact, she had actually harmed herself. Had she remained calm and trusted Koldo, she could have enjoyed hearing the news of her sister’s recovery while on her feet. She could have whooped and laughed and watched as Laila strengthened. I’ll never make that mistake again.
“It’s a miracle,” Dr. Carter said. “If she continues to recover at this rate, she should be able to go home in a few days.”
“Really. Right now she’s resting, and I suggest you do the same. We’ll be checking on you every few hours.” He reached out, squeezed her hand. “If you need anything, let us know.”
“I will. And thank you.”
He nodded and strode from the room.
Nicola stared over at her sister, marveling. How many nights had she and Laila lain awake in the same bed, snuggled up to each other, whispering and sharing secrets? Countless. And they would have that again.
Nicola rubbed at her eyes, but...she could still see an ugly little monkey with tentacles instead of arms perched on the side of Laila’s bed. The creature was glaring at Nicola with hatred in his eyes as he stroked Laila’s arm, as though trying to capture her attention.
A hallucination? Surely. She was concussed, after all. But...but...it looked so real. Just like the monsters she’d seen as a child.
Koldo materialized at the side of Nicola’s bed, consuming her attention and overwhelming her thoughts. Any other time, surprise would have jacked up her heartbeat. Because really, she didn’t think she would ever get used to watching a man appear from thin air. But there were currently very strong drugs in her system, preventing any kind of adverse reaction.