“Do you see that?” she demanded.

“What?” he replied, looking around.

The monkey was gone, she realized. “Never mind.”

He peered down at her and frowned. “I was granted permission to return, to leave the thorn in my side for another hour, and check on you. Apparently, I’m a beast to be around. And I find you injured?” There was a thread of anger in his tone. “Why are you injured?”

“I hit my head when I passed out,” she admitted.

“And why did you pass out?” He leaned over and traced calloused fingertips across her forehead, exactly where she’d hit it during her fainting spell. A sharp lance of pain caused her to wince, and he drew back, a gleam of shame in his eyes.

A part of her mourned the loss of him, pain or not. He’d just given her a nonmedical-related touch, and it was the first she had received since Laila’s admission here. She’d liked it. A lot.

He was so warm. So vibrant.

“Well, it’s kind of a funny story.” Suddenly nervous, she twisted the sheet on her bed—and maybe the drugs weren’t so strong, after all, because her heart skipped a beat. “You see, you had just given my sister that drop of liquid and disappeared, and she had just started screaming—”

“As I told you she would do.”

His lips pursed. With irritation? she wondered. Yeah. Definitely with irritation. He looked ready to murder her. It probably wouldn’t help his mood if she told him that he suddenly reminded her of a male model flashing Blue Steel. Or Magnum. And that he was really, really, really good-looking. Like, superbeautiful.

I have to watch less TV on the nights I can’t sleep.

“We’re not off to a good start,” he said.

So bighearted of him. “So, what did you give her?”

A pause, then, “I’m not ready to share that information.”

Judging from the hardness of his tone, he might never be ready. “Well, are you ready to tell me what you are? Besides a soldier, I mean.”

“You still have no guess?” he asked, his features darkening with disappointment.

She bit her lip. “I’ve been busy.”

“Lesson number one,” he said. “People give priority to what’s important to them.”

“That’s true, but I have to work two jobs. I’ve had to care for my sister. I’ve had to sleep whenever possible.”

“And you couldn’t spare a minute here, and a minute there? Of course you could have! Instead, you give me excuses.”

And excuses weren’t allowed in Mr. Koldo’s classroom, obviously. He was going to be fun to hang with, wasn’t he? “Oh, yeah, well, how am I supposed to do the peace-and-joy thing if you continue to be mean to me?”

He jolted a step backward, as though shocked. “I’m not mean.”

She peered at him, doing her best to radiate mock sincerity. “Koldo, do you know the definition of the word mean?”

“Maybe for some. But the Nicola Lane definition is ‘pain in my rear.’”

He rubbed the back of his neck. “I will endeavor to be nicer, then.”

She suddenly felt a little guilty for teasing him. He’d taken her seriously. “Will you at least give me a hint? Maybe tell me where you go when you vanish?”

“I go to the spirit realm,” he said, watching her intensely.

He flashed his teeth in a fearsome scowl. “Ghosts do not exist.”

Wow. “O-kay.” There was a glimpse of the Viking pillager from the elevator. The one who had a major beef with lies. “So you’re not a ghost. Got it.”

“There are no ghosts,” he reiterated sharply. “Human spirits go up or down, but they never linger or come back. What people consider ghosts are actually familiar spirits and familiar spirits are dem—” Sighing, he scrubbed a hand down his face. “Never mind. I have more to teach you than I realized.”

A bead of worry she’d told herself she wouldn’t feel joined the guilt. “You won’t change your mind, will you?”

Annnd he flashed his teeth in yet another fearsome scowl. “How could I? A bargain was struck.”

And he was always a man of his word. She’d already known that about him, and had to stop inadvertently insulting his sense of honor. He might stick around no matter what, but she wanted him as happy as she was supposed to be while he was doing it. “Why do you want to teach someone like me, anyway?” Nicola had nothing to offer in return. “And what do you want to teach me? I thought you only wanted me to do the calm, peace, joy thing.”

He looked away, saying, “Perhaps I know what it’s like to suffer one travesty after another, desperate for hope but discovering none.” He studied her sister for a long while. “I just pray Laila proves to be as accepting as you.”

“Would that help her? Save her for more than a few weeks?” A whisper. A desperate rasp.

“Honestly? Only she knows the answer to that. I can teach her what I teach you—and no, I won’t share the details yet. You’re drugged, and will forget the most important parts. I’ll do everything I possibly can to make her feel calm, at peace and joyful.” A flicker of doubt in his eyes, followed by...anger? He shook his head and added, “But will she listen?”

Would she? Laila, who was so stubborn, so hardheaded, she would argue until she ran out of breath. Laila, who possessed the unique ability to tune out anyone at any time. Nicola loved her, but she was highly aware of her faults.

“What you teach us, what we feel, will help us heal?” she asked.

“Yes. I have seen lepers cleansed. I have seen the lame walk and the blind regain their sight.”

“I’ll make her listen, then.” Determination mixed with a heady dose of excitement. Over the years, she had been checked out by hundreds of doctors. A thousand tests had been run. A million procedures and surgeries had been endured. The prognosis had always been the same.

We’re sorry, Miss Lane, but there’s nothing we can do.

Now there was hope for Laila, too.

Koldo’s expression softened as he gazed at her. He actually appeared proud of her. “The only sure way to fail is to give up, Nicola Lane. You aren’t a quitter, I can tell.”

A compliment from so blunt a man was sweeter than words of adoration from any charmer.

Nicola jolted at the sound of her sister’s voice. A voice that was rough, the edges broken, but still unbelievably beautiful. “Laila! You’re awake!”

Koldo stepped back, out of the way, and Nicola’s gaze zipped in her sister’s direction. First thing she noticed, the monkey hadn’t returned. The second thing, Laila was glowing.

Though their features were identical, Laila had somehow always been the pretty one. The charismatic one. People had always gravitated to her, hanging upon her every word.

Even Nicola, the serious one, never willing to take a risk, had been enchanted by her.

“I’m thirsty,” Laila mumbled. She was still on her side, with her head propped on her pillow, but now her eyelids were opening and closing slowly and repeatedly, as though she were fighting to stay awake. “I’d really like some water.”

But he was no longer there.

Laila frowned, her gaze finally remaining open, and said, “Where’d the doctor go?”

Doctor? Yeah, the title fit Koldo very well, she thought. “I wish I knew.”

LAILA WOULD BE COMING home today, far earlier than anyone had expected!

Nicola could barely contain her excitement as she puttered around her office, gathering the files and receipts she needed. Even the fact that Jamila and Sirena were the worst coworkers of all time and Nicola was carrying just as heavy as load as before failed to dampen her good mood. She could do the most pressing tasks tonight, after she had tucked Laila into bed and finished grocery shopping. Who needed sleep, anyway?

Sighing, Nicola closed her bag. Between half-hour bathroom breaks and two-hour-long lunch sabbaticals, the girls barely had time to sit at their desks.

Nicola’s head snapped up, her gaze colliding with the golden brown of Koldo’s. Instantly her heart sped into a frenzied beat. “You’re here.”

Last night she’d lain in that hospital bed thinking about him, wanting so badly to hear his voice, to draw in his scent, to feel his heat, to lean on his intensity. His honesty. His strength.

Now he was standing just in front of her desk, wearing a black shirt and pants, the dark shade the perfect contrast to the bronze of his skin, making him more beautiful than any model and sexy in a way that should have been illegal. Seriously. Giant warrior man had her drooling. He was total Drogo hot.

A scar bisected the side of his forehead, adding an air of danger. His lashes were thick and black. His nose was aristocratic, regal, and she’d never been one to think beards were a male must-have, but Koldo changed her mind, the dark shadow accentuating the masculine purity of his jaw.

His head tilted to the side, his study of her intensifying. “You’re a strange mix of emotion and energy today. Happy yet anxious, enthusiastic yet fatigued.” Expression stern, he added, “You must take better care of yourself, Nicola. That’s an order.”