He was such a big, strong warrior. There was a time she would have bet nothing could shake his confidence. But then she had.
As if her opinion mattered to him.
“I could hear you at the hospital, you know,” Laila said, delving into a subject they had previously avoided.
“Really?” She’d always wondered. Had always hoped.
“Yes, and you kept me there longer than I wanted to stay. Anytime I would feel myself drifting away, you were right there to tug me back.”
“But not me. I was ready to go.”
The words were like a fist to the gut. “Well, I’ll never regret holding on to you, La La. I love you.”
“And I love you, too.” Laila’s smile was sad. “But, Co Co, if we’re ever again in that situation, I want you to let me go.”
Nicola stopped, forcing her sister to do the same. They faced each other, right there in the middle of the path, causing the people behind them to trip to the side in an effort to avoid slamming into them.
“No,” she said with a shake of her head. “I won’t. I’ll fight for you with every bit of my strength.” And Koldo would fight with her. Right?
She wanted to believe it, but he’d seemed to abandon her. He’d promised to give her an hour a day, to teach her, to train her, and then he’d vanished for good, leaving her to believe he regretted showing her so much vulnerability.
And why shouldn’t he? She had nothing to offer him. He was tough, fierce and knowledgeable. She was weak, defenseless and ignorant of the truth.
Expecting a twenty-three-year-old girl to die of heart disease was practical? “Koldo says we have to—”
“Ugh. Koldo this, and Koldo that.” Laila anchored her hands on her too-tiny waist. She’d gained weight since her release from the hospital, but not enough. “He’s all you ever talk about anymore. Whoever he is, he’s lying to you, my love. Why can’t you see that? He’s not an angel any more than I’m the tooth fairy.”
“You’re right. He’s not an angel. He’s a—”
“I know, I know, but it doesn’t matter. If he’s so concerned with our health, where is he?” Her sister’s tone gentled as she added, “Why isn’t he here, giving me this information himself?”
A mother pushed a stroller around them as Laila reached out and tugged at the end of Nicola’s earlobe. In the background, a dog barked. “He’s not a Sent One, whatever that is. He’s a con man.”
“I’ve seen him pop in and out of thin air.”
Laila tsked with a mix of exasperation and pity. “Darling, he’s only looking to sell you a miracle cure.”
“No. He’s giving me a miracle cure and paying our bills.”
Nicola swallowed a sigh. No matter what she’d said, or what angle she’d tried, her sister had rejected all things Koldo. She’d called Sent Ones “a romantic idea.” She’d scoffed at the concept of demons.
Frustration and upset had tried to take up residence inside of Nicola—neither of which she welcomed, per Koldo’s orders. She just... She had to get through to her sister. Laila’s life was in danger. She needed saving, and Nicola would do whatever was necessary to save her.
Laila shook her head, saying, “You only believe him because you have a crush on him. Your eyes go dreamy every time you talk about him.”
Laila dropped the empty box of candy and they began a slap fight, giggling like the girls they used to be, before sickness and fear and loss had taken such a vicious toll. But Laila sobered all too soon, too busy fighting for breath.
Nicola picked up the box and tossed it in the nearest trash can, then reclaimed her sister’s arm to urge her forward. She’d missed this kind of interaction. A few years ago, she’d gone to the local community college and Laila had opted not to “waste what little time she had.” Then Nicola had gotten a job at Estellä and Laila had focused on her art. Then, Laila had gotten sick. Well, sicker. After that, Laila had stopped painting and had started spending every free minute inside a doctor’s office or in bed.
“I promise you,” Laila said. “There isn’t a demon following me around.”
“Not right this second, no.”
Another sad smile was cast her way. “You’re seeing things again, that’s all. That’ll stop, just like before.”
No, it wouldn’t. Not this time. Nicola’s spiritual eyes had been opened, and she would never shut them again. But she didn’t want to spend her lunch hour arguing. “So, listen. I already said yes to this, and I’d love for you to join me. Just...promise you’ll keep an open mind when I tell you about it, okay? Please.”
Laila’s brows drew together with confusion. “What are you talking about?”
“A guy at work asked me out. Asked the two of us out, really. On a double date, not anything weird,” she rushed to add. Some men heard the word twins and their minds went to strip clubs and tag teaming.
“I’m intrigued so far. Go on.”
“Yesterday I called him and accepted. For me, not for you.” And she’d only debated three hours before picking up the phone—and another hour after that. She’d just gotten tired, and maybe a little resentful, of waiting for Koldo to appear, of hoping for something more than a conversation and a kiss with him, of dreaming of what might have happened if Laila hadn’t interrupted them, of wondering how he would look at her the next time he saw her. Tenderly? Fiercely? Or as coldly as a teacher with his student?
And what if he wasn’t allowed to date? Or, what if he was already committed to someone and forever off the market?
A fiery fog rolled through her mind, and she experienced what she suspected was a killing rage. If that sleazebag had a girlfriend...
“Nothing. Nothing,” Laila said, holding up her hands, palms out. “You just tell me when you’re ready and not a moment sooner, and I won’t wonder what this little mini makeover is all about. I mean, one second I was talking to my big sis, and the next I was staring at a serial murderer.”
Calm down. Just calm down. Already her heart was pounding erratically, and if she wasn’t careful she would pass out. Or worse, strengthen the demon toxin. And really, this was silly. She was raging for nothing. Koldo wasn’t the type to cheat. He was the type to just flat out tell you he was done with you.
“There’s the sis I know and love,” Laila said. “So...continuing our previous convo. You accepted a date with a coworker.”
“Yes. And I’d love to call him back and accept on your behalf. The other guy’s name is Blaine and he’s—”
“Stop right there. The rest of the deets don’t matter. I’m in!”
After Laila’s last disastrous relationship, Nicola had expected a little resistance. “Really?”
“Really. I’m not sure how much longer I’ve got to live, so yeah, I’ll be doing anything and everything I possibly can.”
“That includes listening to what Koldo has to say, I hope.”
Laila stuck out her tongue. “We’ll see. So, what’d this guy at your office have to do to get you to say yes? You’ve always been oblivious to the male population.”
“I have not. I just didn’t want to have to deal with all the complications.” And, okay, yes, the argument fell a little flat considering Koldo brought more complications than most.
A shirtless guy in blue shorts grinned as he jogged past Laila. “Hey, beautiful.”
“Hey.” She returned the grin with one of her own, and even waved, causing him to slow and then stop, clearly determined to approach. Her sister saved him the trouble and closed the distance.
Sighing, Nicola stepped off the path to wait. Another five minutes, and she’d have to head back to work.
No, not Koldo, she realized with disappointment. A few yards away stood a male with the same body type as Koldo, with a bald head and bold features almost eerie in their similarity. This male wore a black shirt and black leather pants, and both were molded to his skin. He was, perhaps, ten or twenty years older than Koldo, the skin around his eyes and mouth lined. He was handsome, but he was without a sexy, beaded beard.
They had to be related, though. There was no way two guys could look so much alike and not spring from the same family line.
She waved, only to freeze in place when he reached up to stroke...a snake. A large snake with fur sticking out from underneath sickly green scales and the long, multipoint antlers usually only seen on deer. The rest of the creature’s body coiled around the man, the tail shaking and rattling. Its eyes were as red as rubies—and watching her intently.
Not a snake. That thing couldn’t be a snake. A...demon?
Evil wafted on the breeze, a hint of sulfur in the air. Oh, yes. A demon. And demons caused sickness, Koldo had said—and probably a thousand other things she wanted no part of.
No way this man was any kind of Sent One.
The bald man grinned at Nicola, but it wasn’t a nice grin. A gaze as dark as the night perused her from head to toe, reminding her of the leering Mr. Ritter. Her heart, already amped up from the chocolate, kicked into an erratic beat.
Nicola raced forward and grabbed her sister’s hand, tugging her a few steps backward. “Come on. We have to get out of here.”