Koldo just had to teach her how to fight the toxins. And he had to do it while keeping her calm. Fear would strengthen what the paura had left behind, and tension would weaken her immune system, strengthening what the grzech had left behind. Without fear and tension, the toxins would fade. With hope and joy, the toxins would fade faster.

Bottom line, what you fed grew and what you starved died.

Would she be able to look past her negative emotions and see the light?

A spark of anticipation beaded, somehow overshadowing the nearly overwhelming cascade of acid his mother had caused. Despite everything, he couldn’t wait to see Nicola again, to learn what she’d decided about his disappearance. If she’d convinced herself she’d imagined him, or if she’d accepted he was something other than human.

“So not the view I was hoping for,” a male voice said from behind him.

Still naked, Koldo spun and faced Thane, the second-in-command of Zacharel’s army. Thane, meaning freeman. And the warrior certainly seemed to be everything the word implied. The male’s carnal appetite was well-known. He hunted a new lover every day, discarding those he finished with as if they were dirty tissue.

And yet, even knowing that, women still flocked to him, as though he was the only male in creation with curling blond hair and big blue eyes.

“What does Zacharel want me to do this time?” Koldo demanded, reaching into the air pocket at his side to withdraw another robe. He yanked the material over his head, trying not to stare at Thane’s wings. They arched over the warrior’s wide shoulders, sweeping all the way to the floor. Pure white was broken up by dazzling gold. Trying—and failing.

“It’ll be better to show rather than explain,” Thane said, an odd note in his voice.

That didn’t bode well. “Very well. Lead the way.”

THE NEXT WEEK PASSED in a blur for Nicola. Every day she woke up at the butt crack of dawn, went to work, went to see her sister on her lunch hour, went back to work, went to her second job and toiled until the wee hours of the night before at last heading home, watching TV to unwind, then falling asleep for four measly hours—and the cycle started all over again.

Now, she sat at her desk at Estellä Industries, watching the clock. Come on, noon. Get here already. The only aspect of her life that had changed was her thinking. She couldn’t get Koldo out of her mind. Who was he? What was he?

After his disappearance, she’d asked the girl at the coffee shop whether or not she’d actually spoken to a giant of a man with a bald head and beaded beard. The answer hadn’t surprised her.

“Are you kidding me? I’m not blind. But, uh, are you guys dating or, like, is he available? Because I already wrote my number on a napkin if you want to, like, give it to him.”

Unless they’d shared the same hallucination, Koldo was real and Nicola wasn’t crazy. Or maybe she was, despite that. She’d actually taken the napkin, curious to know what Koldo’s reaction would be.

But...what was he? she wondered again. What did say-la mean, the last word he’d spoken to her? She had no idea how to spell it, so she hadn’t been able to look it up online. And how had he vanished in the blink of an eye? Was he some kind of ghost that more than one person could see?

With as many near-death and death-death-for-a-minute-or-two experiences as she’d had, she knew there was an afterlife. Several times she’d floated into it. Once, she’d even talked to some kind of being.

Isn’t this nice? he’d said. He’d had pale hair, eyes as clear as the ocean and a pair of beautiful white wings. He’d been handsome in a classic movie-star kind of way, and had worn a long robe as he’d tried to urge her down a long tunnel. Isn’t this peaceful? Just let go of your old life and you can have this forever.

He’d reminded her of the angels she’d seen in picture books, but there’d been something about his tone...something in those eyes...she had fought him, wanting to return to Laila, and for a second, only a second, his affable mask had fallen away and she’d gotten a glimpse of bright red eyes, gnarled bones and fangs.

A monster. A monster just like she used to see as a child, before therapy and drugs had convinced her otherwise. Now she wasn’t sure what to think about Koldo and the monsters and had no idea how to figure it out. There was an overload of information out there, but nothing had jelled with her.

The right answer would elicit peace; she knew that much. Peace always accompanied truth.

Koldo would just have to tell her. If he ever showed up again.

And he had to show up! Did he really know how to heal her heart? If so, could Laila’s be healed, as well?

The more she wondered, the more hope filled her. To be able to fall asleep and not wonder if she would wake up, or if Laila would still be alive...to never fear losing another sibling. To be able to walk up a hill, holding Laila’s hand, without either of them passing out...to be able to skip and jog and jump...to be able to dance! Oh, to dance. To fall in love, get married and have children. To live, really live, as they’d used to dream, before tragedy convinced them to deal in “reality” rather than “fantasy.”

Koldo had said he would be visiting the hospital again, but hadn’t mentioned when. If he waited much longer, she might strangle him when he appeared, just to release a little steam. Every day she looked for him so diligently the nurses asked her if she’d like a Xanax or ten to help her relax.

When has anything good ever happened to you?

The question wafted through her mind, and she frowned.

Being optimistic will only lead to crushing disappointment.

No. No, that wasn’t true.

You don’t need one more thing to worry about right now.

Her hands curled into fists. Before meeting Koldo, she might have caved under the weight of those thoughts. She definitely would have battled an upset stomach, paced a thousand miles without ever leaving her chair and frayed the edges of her nerves until her limbs began to shake uncontrollably. Now...

“I’m not listening to you.” Or herself. Whatever! She had hope for the first time in years, and she wasn’t letting go. She leaned back in the chair at her desk. “He’ll keep his word. He’ll turn up, and he’ll answer all of my questions.”

The depressing thoughts stopped, and she breathed a sigh of relief.

Nicola blinked rapidly and focused on the beautiful woman in the open doorway. She was tall, slender and black, with a fall of jet-black curls. Shadows consumed eyes the color of chocolate. Koldo’s were lighter, like caramel, and— Wow, Nicola must be hungry.

The woman wore a black-and-white tailored jacket, a pencil skirt and mile-high stilettos that perfectly complemented toenails painted black-and-white. Everything about her screamed style, sophistication and cold-blooded calm. So, what was she doing here, at the middle-class stress capital of the world?

“Well, congratulations. I’m now part of your department.”

Sarcasm on the first day. Wonderful. “Are you Jamila Engill or Sirena Kegan?”

“Pretty name.” She wondered what Jamila meant. No doubt Koldo would have known.

“You have two new hires?”

“Yes.” Nicola tugged the lapels of her sweater closer together to ward off the chill blasting from Jamila’s attitude. Okay, fine. It was from the overhead vent. “Please, have a seat and we’ll get to know each other.”

Jamila marched into the office and slammed onto the far chair. Chin high in the air, she twined her hands in her lap and kept her gaze narrowed on Nicola, her back ramrod straight.

They were gonna have fun together, she could tell.

Five days ago, her very jittery, very irritable boss told her that he’d decided to hire two more accountants. Shock had nearly drilled Nicola to her knees. She’d been begging for a new hire for months, and every time she had been told to “make do.”

Currently, she was doing the work of five people. At first, she had managed. After Laila’s hospitalization, she’d begun to fall behind.

“So...what will be expected of me?” Jamila asked tightly.

Nicola explained a little about the operating system, and even though she hated sharing personal information with a stranger, she added, “I’ll be as much a help as possible as you learn, but the truth is, my sister is...dying—” even voicing the word was difficult “—and she... Well, I’m being pulled away from the office more and more.” Sooner or later, Jamila would have found out anyway. Phone calls would have come in, paperwork would have blasted through, or coworkers would have mentioned it.

This way, it was out in the open from the start.

Jamila leaned back in a pose that should have relaxed her. Instead, she appeared more rigid. “I’m sorry.”

People always said that. Nicola wondered what Koldo the Honest would have said.

Just the thought of him caused her heart to flutter. She cleared her throat. “Sometimes we have to confront employees who haven’t turned in their books. They’ll make excuses, but you’ll have to stay on them.”

No flinching, and no paling.

“Good, then you should do fine.” Unless you keep glaring at me like that.

Nicola’s attention shifted to the girl now standing in the doorway. She was taller than Nicola by an inch, maybe two, and wore an ill-fitting black jacket and matching pair of slacks, with a pink button-up top breaking up the darkness. Her hair was long and blond and as straight as a board. Her eyes were as wide as a doll’s, a mix of brown and blue; a pair of horn-rimmed glasses perched on her nose.

“Oh, my,” she said, shutting the door behind her. She glided to the other chair and eased down, then extended a small gift basket. “This is for you. I was just so excited to work with you, I couldn’t help but show it.”