He certainly gave off an all-dangerous-all-the-time vibe. And now, it was too late to avoid a possible pillaging.
Her heart fluttered, the warped beat making her light-headed.
“Floor?” he asked, his deep voice filled with more jagged edges than a shattered mirror.
“Lobby,” she managed to reply, and he pressed the appropriate button.
It was a miracle the entire elevator didn’t split apart from the force he used.
There was an exaggerated shake, and the cart began to descend. The scent of morning sky and—this could have been mere fantasy on her part—rainbows filled the small enclosure, and every waft came from the man. It was, quite possibly, the best cologne she’d ever smelled, and like the ladies in the AXE commercials, she had to battle the urge to lean into him and sniff his neck.
And wouldn’t he just love that? He would demand to know what the heck she was doing, she would panic and her heart would give out, just as Laila’s had, and...and...she wasn’t going to think about her beautiful, precious Laila right now. She wasn’t going to think about losing another loved one. First her mother, father and br— No, she wasn’t going to think about that, either. She would break down.
And was that delicious heat coming from the Viking, too? For the first time in years, Nicola felt enveloped by warmth, the cold from her medications and poor circulation finally chased away.
The man turned and leaned against the wall, facing her fully. In that moment, she decided “very tall, very muscled” wasn’t an adequate description for him. The tallest, most muscled man she’d ever seen in person or on TV worked better, but again, the description failed to capture the essence of his absolute gigantorness. He. Was. Huge.
And okay, yeah, he was also quite beautiful despite his murdering-and-pillaging aura. He had bronze skin, a gleaming bald head and a black beard tied by three crystal beads. His eyes were a surprising shade of gold, and capped by two thick brows with a prominent arch in the center. He wore a white linen shirt and white linen pants, each garment flowing as fluidly as water. On his feet was a pair of combat boots.
And she was studying him as if he were a bug under a microscope, she realized, horrified by her behavior. Nicola had often gone to school with electrodes taped to her chest and tubes sticking out of her clothing, so she knew the pain of a single wide-eyed stare. Her attention darted to the glittery pink tennies her twin had given her for their birthday last year.
“I’m quite large, I know,” he said in an accent she couldn’t place. At least he hadn’t sounded offended.
Still, her stomach bottomed out. He’d noticed her examination of him, and now sought to...comfort her for her rudeness? How unexpected and sweet. Well, then, she would be brave.
She raised her chin and forced herself to meet his gaze. “Maybe I’m just amazingly tiny,” she said, trying for humor.
His eyelids narrowed menacingly, hiding all that gold, leaving only the black of his pupils. “Do not lie, even through implication. Not for any reason, not even to be nice.”
Her fingers went numb, and her heart once again fluttered. He was okay with staring, but joking was a killing offense. Good to know.
“Lies are the language of evil,” he added in a gentler tone.
The elevator stopped, the doors opened and a short, heavyset man took a step inside.
“You’ll take the next elevator,” the big guy announced.
The smaller man instantly froze. He licked his lips, backed up. “You know what? You’re right. I will.” He spun and raced away.
For a moment, Nicola considered following his lead. There was being polite, and there was being wise, and the two didn’t always intersect. The fact that the Viking wanted to be alone with her couldn’t bode well.
The doors began to draw together. Now was her chance to run.
But... she couldn’t do it. “You didn’t yell at him,” she pointed out, unsure why she was having trouble keeping quiet—and why she’d stayed. “You seem like such an equal-opportunity yeller.”
“I didn’t yell at you, either,” he said with a frown. A moment passed. He nodded as if he’d just realized something important. “You’re sensitive. I’ll be more careful.”
What, he dreaded her wrath?
He studied her as intently as she’d studied him, causing her to squirm. “You are five-two, aren’t you?”
“Five two and a half, thank you.” She never forgot that very important half!
“Not any that I know,” he replied, deadpan.
Was he teasing her? Or was he just that blunt?
Finally the box stopped for good, and the doors opened to the lobby. Her companion politely waved her forward. She offered a bemused smile, said “Thanks” and hurried out—alive.
Almost alone, she thought wistfully. She would be able to sort through her thoughts and figure out what she was going to do when her sister... When Laila...
She couldn’t think the word, even though she knew it would happen sooner rather than later. A mercy for Laila. Another sorrow for Nicola. She wasn’t sure how many more she could bear and still survive.
Most people with their condition and underdeveloped heart died in their late teens. But she and Laila had lasted into their early twenties, a true miracle in itself, and she should be thrilled with the time they’d had together. And yet, she wanted more. For both of them. Laila wasn’t satisfied with her life, and a person should be satisfied before they died. Right?
Nicola just...well, she needed to decide on a plan of action today. For once, her mind wasn’t shrouded by a thick veil of fear and anxiety. And why were people looking at her as if she were a hideous beast monster determined to—
Not her, she realized, but the man beside her. The giant from the elevator. Nicola stopped, and so did he. He failed to maneuver around her, as if her slight presence was somehow blocking his path. She faced him fully, anchoring her hands on her hips. He stepped three feet away from her, and she found herself shivering all over again.
The heat did come from him.
He peered down at her, his golden eyes framed by the blackest, most luscious lashes of all time, so unexpected in that rough-and-tumble time-traveling-warrior face.
“No, but you can have coffee with me.”
No, he’d said. Meaning, she couldn’t help him. He really took the honesty thing seriously. And had he just...asked her out? “Why would you want to do that?” she wondered aloud. And why hadn’t she just said no? She had to return to work, like, soon. Her lunch hour was almost over.
“I’m not ready to go home.”
Ah. Not a date, then. He simply craved a distraction from whatever had brought him to the Palace of Tears and Death, and oh, could she sympathize. And she wasn’t disappointed that he wanted nothing romantic from her. Really. Her mother had been right. Boys equaled excitement and excitement equaled another heart attack. And really, she hadn’t ever missed boys and excitement all that much because she’d always had Laila. But Laila was...was...
“Coffee sounds great,” she croaked as her chin quivered. Clearly she needed a distraction, too. The planning could wait. So could work. Pulling herself out of this pity pit was more important. “There’s a little shop down the far corridor.”
He stepped up beside her, and all that delicious heat returned. They kicked into gear, earning several more stares and even a little whispering. People had to be shocked by the difference in their sizes, and she couldn’t really blame them. The top of Nicola’s head failed to reach the man’s massive shoulders.
Cold-oh. Had to be foreign. “I’m Nicola.”
They turned the first corner, though the scenery didn’t change. All of the hallways were the same: white and silver with signs posted along the walls. “Uh, did you just secretly look that up on a cell phone I can’t see or did you already know?”
“The words we speak are important, powerful, and since names are spoken every day, directed at specific individuals, people often become what they are called. I like to know who I’m dealing with.”
Well, she wouldn’t tell him she was the most defeated person ever and shatter his illusions. “What does Laila mean?”
Interesting. Laila was fair, but she was lovely. “What does Koldo mean?”
A warrior, as she’d first assumed? She wondered if he was in the army. “Are you truly famous?”
No hesitation. No pride. In his mind, he must have simply stated a fact. She admired his confidence. “So, what do you do, Koldo?”
Two more corners, and they reached the shop. He directed her to an empty table. “What would you like, Nicola?”
Her name on his lips...an embrace and a curse, all rolled into one. It was a little disconcerting. “Oh, I can—”
“You won’t offer to give me money, and insult me,” he said, and for once he sounded genuinely offended. “Now, then. Let’s try this again. What would you like? I’m buying.”
She smiled. No one had ever insisted on buying her something to drink. Most offers came from the coworkers who knew about her situation, and were mere tokens. The moment she mentioned taking care of her own bill, the other person immediately acquiesced. “An herbal tea, please. Something without caffeine. And thank you very much.”
A nod, and he was off, leaving her chilled. She watched as he approached the counter. Watched as the punked-out cashier stared at him with utter fascination. He didn’t seem to notice as he placed the order and waited for the drinks...and muffins, scones and croissants from the looks of it.