What kind of woman would capture his attention? she wondered.
Another warrior-type probably. Strong, capable, with big-enough bones to withstand any kind of abuse—uh, contact.
He returned a few minutes later and spread out a feast before her, the scent of berries, yeast and sugar wafting up and making her mouth water. She hadn’t eaten in forever, it seemed, because she’d been too consumed with worry for Laila, dread over paying bills she hadn’t begun to make a dent in and, well, trying not to drown in a sea of despair.
Today was different, though. Even as upset as she was, she felt better than she had in a long, long time, and her stomach rumbled.
Cheeks flushing, she claimed her tea and sipped at the burning liquid, savoring the sweetness. “Seriously, Koldo. This means a lot to me. A thousand times thank you wouldn’t be enough.”
“It’s very much my pleasure, Nicola.”
So polite. She liked that.
And the likes were certainly outweighing the dislikes now, weren’t they?
“The food is for you, as well,” he said, pushing a muffin in her direction.
Her eyes widened with astonishment. “All of it?”
Of course, he’d said. As if she was used to eating for an entire legion.
“You will keep up your strength,” he added. “Right now, you’re too pale, too frail.”
She wasn’t insulted. She was pale and frail. Nicola selected one of the croissants, pinched off a warm, buttery corner. “So...were you here visiting someone?”
Though she waited, attentive, he offered no more than that. “I’m sorry.”
Annnd...again he offered nothing more. “Do you come here often?”
“That could be the plan, yes.”
Talkative much? But okay, no problem. They weren’t really here to get to know each other, were they? They were here to forget their lives, if only for a little while. “I’m here a lot.” Every day, in fact.
“Perhaps we’ll see each other again.” He lifted a steaming cup of coffee to lips as plush and red as candy apples and gulped. His expression never changed, the fiery temperature somehow not melting and welding his tongue to the roof of his mouth.
What were girls supposed to talk about with boys they weren’t interested in romantically? Because, if she were being honest—something he would definitely approve of—this was kind of painful. It wasn’t what she’d expected or hoped for.
“What do you do when you’re not here, Nicola?” he asked, at last taking up the reins of conversation.
Relieved by his efforts, she relaxed in her seat. “I work. I’m an accountant every weekday morning and afternoon.” A job guaranteed to keep her blood pressure steady. She could crunch numbers, sort receipts and design a financial plan to get anyone out of debt. Anyone but herself, that is. She was still working through her parents’ bills, and her and Laila’s medical costs were still stacking up. “I’m a checkout girl at an organic food market every evening and on weekends.”
“Neither of those jobs sprang from a childhood dream.”
No, but dreams died...and if you weren’t careful, the ghosts would haunt your present. “Why do you think that?” She wasn’t fond of her jobs, but she’d always done whatever was needed to survive.
“So, what did you want to do?” he asked.
Why not tell him the truth? “I wanted to live,” she said. Really live. “I wanted to travel the world, jump from airplanes, dance on top of a skyscraper, deep sea dive for treasure and pet an elephant.”
He tilted his head to the side and steadily met her gaze. “Interesting.”
Because she’d mentioned activities rather than a career? Well, there was a reason for that. She’d never known how long she would live, so a career had seemed pointless. “What about you?” she asked. “What did you want to do?”
“I’m doing it.” He refused to look away. “You could still do all of the things you mentioned.”
“Actually, I can’t. My heart couldn’t take it.” Let him assume she meant her nerves would get the better of her rather than the truth.
“If words are the power of life and death, you just pointed a loaded gun at your head.”
“What are you talking about? That’s absurd.”
“You speak what you believe, and you believe you’re doomed. If there’s one thing I’ve learned throughout the years, it’s that what you believe is the impetus for your entire life.”
A spark of anger caused her heart to skip a beat. “I believe in reality.”
He waved a dismissive hand through the air. “Your perception of reality is skewed.”
“You believe what you see and feel.”
“Everything in this natural world is changeable. Temporary. But the things you cannot see or feel are eternal.”
She slammed her tea on the tabletop. Liquid splashed from the hole in the lid, burning her hand. “Lookit. Maybe you’re not getting enough oxygen up there where your head lives, but you sound like a crazy person.”
“I’m not crazy. I know you can be healed.”
Healed? As if she hadn’t tried everything already. “Some things can’t be changed. Besides, you don’t have any clue about the things I’ve done or the future I have.”
“I know more than you think. You’re so afraid to live, you’re actually killing yourself.”
Heavy silence descended. He’d...nailed it, she thought. She’d watched as fear slowly ate away at her sister’s happiness, tainting every aspect of her existence. And in the days before she’d landed in the hospital, that’s all Laila had had. An existence.
Her stomach had always hurt, ruining her appetite. Nicola was already striding down that road.
Laila had lost weight, and even her bones had seemed to wither. Give Nicola another few months.
Laila’s hair had lost its glossy sheen. Blue and black smudges had become a permanent fixture under her eyes. Yeah, another few months should take care of that for Nicola, too.
“Somewhere along the way you lost hope,” Koldo said, and there was a grim quality to his voice, as if he had suffered a loss of his own. “But if you’ll listen to me, if you’ll do what I say, your heart and body will mend and you’ll at last do all the things you’ve always wanted to do.”
“Are you a doctor?” she demanded. “How do you know that? And what do you think you can do for or to me that hasn’t already been tried?”
Ignoring her questions, he said, “Selah, Nicola.”
And with that, he disappeared, there one moment, gone the next.
DETERMINED TO PROVE A POINT to Nicola, Koldo flashed out of the hospital to his underground home in West India Quay. The place of his greatest shame.
The place he kept his mother.
The small, hidden cave was illuminated by a soft green glow emanating from a lake of water uncontaminated by human life. Air so fresh it literally crackled with vitality enveloped him.
Just like the home in South Africa, he kept no furniture here, no wall hangings, no decorations and no amenities of any kind. Unlike the other home, there was a cage, a bucket for food, a bucket for water and a blanket. He would have provided his mother with a bed, but then, she’d never given him one.
And there she was. Cornelia. A name that meant horn. And she was certainly that. Sharp and deadly, able to puncture a man’s heart and coldly walk away as his very life drained from him.
She sat in the corner of the cage, wearing a robe made by human hands and natural fabric. One Koldo had tossed her after ripping off the one made in the skies, for the robes their people wore could clean themselves and their wearers. But he hadn’t wanted Cornelia cleansed in any way. He’d wanted her to know the feel of dirt that could never be scrubbed away.
Her skin was pallid, her freckles a stark contrast. Her long hair had been shorn and now fell to her ears, the locks tangled and sticking out in spikes. He hadn’t been the one to do this deed. A few weeks ago, she had been captured by a horde of pică and dragged into hell in an attempt to force Koldo to betray Zacharel. He hadn’t. He had rescued her instead.
He had no idea what else had been done to her, only that torture had, indeed, taken place. When he’d found her, she had hovered at the edge of death, and that was the only reason she hadn’t fought him as he doctored her back to health. Now, here they were.
Her, as hate-filled as ever.
Him, shockingly dissatisfied with the situation.
As a child trapped under his father’s reign, he had dreamed of punishing her in the worst of ways. And he still wanted to. Oh, did he want to. The desire was always there, burning in his chest. But he hadn’t. He wouldn’t. He’d allowed himself to do little things, like denying her the bed and proper robe, but nothing else. He was nothing like her, and every day he proved it. He would come here, pit himself against the pull to act and then leave.
Wise men knew not to even approach the door of their temptation, but Koldo hadn’t yet convinced himself to stop.
She sucked in a breath. “I should have cut your tongue out of your mouth when I had the chance.” She tossed a pebble at him. The stone bounced off his shoulder and tumbled to the floor.
“Just like you should have drowned me. I know.”
Her eyes narrowed, long lashes fusing together and hiding the violet depths he so often saw in his nightmares. “I hadn’t the stomach for violence back then. But your father... I expected better of him. He should have done what I could not.”