Cursed

Cursed
Tor Paranormal Romance
December 2, 2008
ISBN-13: 9780765357212
ISBN-10: 0765357216
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The Nephilim Series, Book 2

In dreams…

For twelve years the seductive dream has always been the same—a candlelit room, satin sheets, and a mysterious woman. Then, one night, everything changes. A mysterious entity shows Alex Foster a vision of his dream woman in danger from demonic forces.

Elizabeth Raines has returned home to Spokane to care for her dying mother and abandoned nieces and nephews. With their family home ready to crash down around them and no help from her siblings, she carries the weight of the world on her shoulders. Until the day Alex shows up, unwilling to love her only in their shared dreams.

But the real world is much bigger than a dream. An ancient enemy has awakened, and only Alex and Elizabeth’s combined supernatural gifts can save them.

Read an Excerpt

Prologue

Cursed

October 8, 2004 — the Tunnels of the Forgotten Ones

Even deep in the midst of tangling green vines, trees and shrubs, the wind reached them, flowing around them both and twisting the black edges of Draven’s cloak until it flapped like bat wings. It was lightless here, with a cloud-hidden moon and few stars to brighten the sky. The air held a chill that wrapped around a body, at first falsely soothing, then knifing bone deep. Draven shivered, but couldn’t honestly tell if it was the weather or the consequences they were about to face.

At Draven’s side, Silas stood as stalwart as ever, his long white wings folded neatly behind him, the ends tucked against his ankles. His long brown hair whipped around him like tendrils of silk ribbons, brushing over his muscled shoulders and crossed arms. His innate light was temporarily muted by Draven’s innate darkness, hiding them from the brown cloaked figure that approached from their right, but not from the two Seraphs guarding the sole entrance to the Tunnels of the Forgotten Ones.

Nothing could hide from them.

Each fearsome Angel had six wings formed of blazing fire so bright it only paled in comparison to the flames in their eyes. The light of God filled an Angel’s orbs so they saw with perfect scales of truth and justice. The type of scales Draven never managed to balance.

In His presence, two wings covered a Seraph’s eyes, two covered his feet, and with two he flew, as the Bible said, but out here, all six stretched wide and intimidating, each feather scorching the darkness. The Seraphim stood to each side of an entrance that was the darkest, most impenetrable black.

The Tunnel of the Forgotten Ones was a barren mountain prison that held caverns blocked by large boulders. The only beings strong enough to move them were the Seraphim. All their strength, backed by the power of God himself, sealed tight each tomb. Escape was impossible.

It was a cold place, a prison worse than any mortal could imagine: solitary confinement in the most oppressive, deeply disturbing atmosphere imaginable. In this place, minds broke, evil manifested, and death never offered a reprieve.

There was only one reason the brown-cloaked Dugan would be here. Deep inside the Tunnels laid his mistress, one of the darkest of the original fallen angels, the very catalyst that had begun Draven’s alliance with Silas so long ago: Maeve. Maeve of the long, furiously red curls and deep, dark emerald eyes that were pure temptation. Maeve of the mesmerizing face and perfectly alluring body that stirred lust in so many with shocking ease.

Maeve with the lush red lips and vicious jealousy that had cursed her son to relentlessly crave his illegitimate half-brother’s destruction. Those same lips would curse Draven and Silas unto eternity once she discovered their treachery.

Nearly a thousand years ago, Draven and Silas had combined their gifts and skills to break her curse upon the two brothers. But, after crafting such an unlikely alliance, their first attempt had only altered the curse and made the situation worse, damning two more innocents. But now, after over nine centuries of suffering, it was done. The curse was broken and the four souls trapped within it were free.

But so was Maeve. She would be allowed free from this prison because a curse gone awry had placed her here, not the evil she had done. She’d always walked a razor’s edge between causing trouble and breaking laws. She was quite good at it.

One Seraph disappeared into the Tunnels, leading the cloaked figure inside. Impenetrable darkness closed behind them, leaving one remaining Seraph to stand guard-not that more than one was necessary. What would a thousand years here have done to Maeve? Would she be weak? Even weak, would it make a difference to their survival? How long would she take before she came for them? Months? Hours? Seconds?

“We could run,” Draven offered, now they wouldn’t be over heard, expecting Silas’ predictable response.

Disbelief crashed over his face and his brows collided. “You must be joking.”

Draven shrugged. “I’m just saying, it’s an option.”

Silas shook his head and returned his gaze to the black opening beside the Seraph. “It isn’t worth contemplating. Not only would she find us eventually, but it would negate whatever good we’ve managed to accomplish.”

And doing good was their purpose. Doing good meant earning redemption. For humans, it was an easy matter to pray, repent and have faith that they were forgiven. For Nephilim, children of humans and angels, the issue wasn’t quite as clear cut. Desire could be a bitch, especially when its object was difficult to attain. Draven’s arms crossed, leather-gloved hands sliding into the wide sleeves of an equally black cloak. “Then hiding is out, too, huh?”

Silas emitted an irritated growl.

Draven smiled briefly, then shivered at a sudden burst of sharp, cold wind. Breaking the curse after so many years of heartache and disappointing failure had filled them with a heady, giddy confidence for a short time as they’d stood outside Maeve’s prison cave and listened to her waking scream. Sheer hubris had convinced them they could make a difference last time, but that kind of innocent belief wasn’t available now. Reality had settled in.

Cursed

Maeve would come for them, would likely kill them. They wouldn’t have ten chances to get it right this time. No reruns, no do-overs. To win on the first try was a long shot, but it was the only one they had. They couldn’t run; they couldn’t hide; their only choice was to fight.

“If she eliminates us, they will be vulnerable,” Silas whispered beside Draven. “She will unravel all we’ve accomplished. Dreux and Kalyss will lose the life together they fought so hard and long for. Geoffrey and Alex will be fodder in her path and Kai will once again be her pawn.”

And the world would tremble once that happened. No. Draven had sacrificed far more than Silas even knew. Nothing would be undone at this late stage. “Not if their allies are strong enough.”

“What allies? Even including the two of us, we are nothing against Maeve at full strength.” He pointed out.

It was a simple fact, but not one Draven would allow to defeat them. “Then we have work to do, allies to gain, before she is at full strength.”

Draven paused, silent, as Dugan exited the tunnels, a limp, blanketed form stretched across his arms. Behind him, the Seraph guide returned to the opposite side of the entrance from his companion. He crossed his powerful arms and extended his wings fully, two from his temples, two from his calves and two long, large wings that met at his back. He widened his stance and watched Dugan surge into the trees, very near where Silas and Draven stood.

Draven froze as Maeve passed close to them. The stench of death clouded the air, vile and pervasive. When the two had passed, Draven’s leather-gloved hand grabbed Silas’s bare one. “Come. We need to know where he takes her.”

One month later…

From one cave to another, ever a darker darkness waiting to claim the tiniest light. Time held no meaning for Maeve as she waited, drifting from shadows to blackness, confusion to rare clarity before her moment of knowing, of understanding, slipped back into the oily onyx of oblivion.

She was getting stronger. In fact, it wasn’t the first time she’d had that thought, but it was the first time she remembered having it before. Familiar hands caressed her skin and soft lips traced every inch of her flesh, finally without shredding the thin tissue. Dugan. He cared for her. Kept her safe from her enemies. He was hers and he would make her stronger. Stronger so she could…

Maeve blinked, but there was no difference to the darkness, nothing visual to focus her mind so she quit trying and relaxed against the satin covered down pillow and mattress. Heat blanketed her side as his strong body cradled hers, his fingers gliding up her arms to her neck, then ever so slowly down her collar bone to trace the sensitive shallows there.

This was how he fed her, her prized servant. How her mind could open, operate more and better with each tense thrill that charged through her. His hot breath brushed her ear, her neck, tightening the tips of her breasts. His passion swirled in the air, sinking inside her pores, nourishing deprived cells and revitalizing deadened nerves. Fucking was her sustenance. Adoration her dessert.

“Yess…” she encouraged him. Lust rode him hard and she could remember for a brief moment, when she had ridden him harder. When the hardness at her hip had stretched her deep inside where she was too weak to take him now.

She hated being fragile. She hated weakness of any kind, but this was worse. Days, weeks, centuries of being raped of her will, her freedom. Her strength, her mind, her power, all out of her control, at the mercy of those too foolish to relish true freedom. It was so much more enjoyable when rape was sexual. To roughly take and demand and force. She enjoyed either and sometimes both at the same time. But what she had suffered was far worse on a much grander scale. They had robbed her of life. Vitality. But they wouldn’t rob her of vengeance.

Dugan moved, leaning over her. Wet muscle pressed over the tip of her breast before he blew a hot breath against the shriveled peak.

Maeve floated, boneless and sprawled, his touch so light it was barely there. Yet the soft abrasion of his callused fingers down her torso and over her concave stomach stirred the embers inside her. Carefully tending them, fanning them until they blazed. And so was the cycle that had fed her power. Once, she’d been insatiable. Her lusts devouring hundreds. Now, only one man sufficed.

His touch was brushing and gentle, careful not to break her. After long, strained moments, she recognized the slightly furred limbs that stroked her thighs. There was more to this man than nature had given him. Maeve raised a hand to his chest, her fingers trembling as they searched over his hard muscled skin up, to his neck. There was something… She needed to remember.

Dugan bent his head to her neck, finding and licking a particular spot that craved attention. Just returning his touch, more than she’d done in too long of a while, intensified her passion. Yes. This is what she needed. The inferno inside her built, soared, and her touch lowered to the small black face at the center of his chest. She stroked around it, missing the many eyes, and a high-pitched purr vibrated her hand.

The eight long, furred limbs she’d given him wrapped around her thighs and pulled them wide. His fingers separated the tender folds of her sex, spreading the moisture to her dehydrated skin. Yes, finally, she could produce her own lubricant. Feeling the hot cream as he rubbed it into every crevice transformed the inferno to a conflagration.

Maeve arched. This wasn’t rough and she may hate being fragile, but she loved being worshipped. She needed it, fed her power with his lust and heat and faith. One last pat and her hand rose high. Higher. There. She traced the intricate pattern hammered on the wide metal torque encircling his neck. Another inch to the center of his throat and she found it.

Cursed

Smooth and square, the emerald felt cold to the touch. It should have warmed with the heat of his skin, but the power within it prevented abatement of the supernatural chill. The power was strong, created when she was at the height of her skills. She could draw from that, use it to enhance what was left of her. Barely alive was not the way for a Goddess to exist.

Dugan settled over her, four limbs now circling her thighs, four circling and twisting around her arms as his fingers pulled her nipples and his lips and tongue feasted at her neck. Agonizingly slow, he slid into her prepared entrance, stretching her and pulling out before sliding deeper. And out again, thrusting further with each breach of her tight entrance.

Maeve grasped the emerald and inhaled, just slightly. Just enough. Dugan slid inside, all the way as she’d once coveted and now starved for. A deeper breath and she released her hold on the emerald. It wouldn’t do to take too much. She’d break it and the curse within.

No matter her desperation, she couldn’t allow that to happen. Dugan would kill her if she let him free. As close to dead as Goddesses got, anyway. Even a thousand years of the Tunnel’s damage wouldn’t compare to what he would do to her if he learned how long she’d held him.

Chapter One

Four and a half months later…

The tunnel was black, with not even a torch to light it. The air was so thick it sucked and clawed, ripping away any oxygen that could fuel a person’s lungs until they lay gasping beneath the horrible pressure. Sometimes it seemed the weight of the world rested in this spot, so heavy nothing could alleviate the atmosphere of oppression and doom; that happiness would never be felt again.

Elizabeth trailed her hands along the rough walls. The tunnel seemed warm, but the sharp, jagged rocks were cold beneath her fingers. Her heart beat swift and light, nearly floating through her throat. Her ears pulsed with each thin pump of blood rushing past the drums. Her hands shook but her steps were steady. She knew this path, journeyed here quite often.

Just up ahead thick steel doors blocked twisted paths to caverns that lay even deeper into the tunnels of her mind. Her right hand stretched forward to a door. She read each dent, each scratch like Braille. Behind this door were some of the best memories of her life.

Sometimes it was locked and she stood deep in her dreams, pounding against the steel, crying and begging it to open and allow her inside. Those were the nights when her dreams had a will and power all their own. Helpless against the force of her own mind, she would turn and continue farther, deeper into the tunnels.

This time she didn’t desire to enter that room and she passed the door quietly, her nightgown whispering against her ankles. She couldn’t see it, but she knew it was long and golden and transparent in candlelight. No, tonight wasn’t a night for happy memories from her past. It was a night for something different, something even more secret.

Ahead and to her left was the door she dreaded. The one she edged past, her back pressed to the opposite wall. Even through the thick steel and heavy locks, she could still hear whispers of what waited for her beyond it. The cries and screams, the depression and anxiety of every painful moment in her life called for her from behind that door. It held a monster that crouched, waiting to fling it open and drag her in.

Elizabeth held her breath, her right hand reaching further along the tunnel. Her legs shook now. Her steps weren’t as certain. She prayed not to make a single sound that would awaken the monster. She didn’t want to enter that room tonight. She never did, but the choice wasn’t hers. One misstep and the door would open. The monster would grab her and she would scream-scream until morning.

Elizabeth eased past, grateful when she passed it, but she couldn’t breathe yet. Instead she ran, putting as much distance between her and that door as possible. Down twists and turns, her hair flying behind her, her hands blindly scraping over rock walls and steel doors with leather hinges. These doors weren’t locked to her. They were mostly empty, waiting to be filled, though she didn’t know what with.

Although she couldn’t see, the atmosphere heated and she knew she had arrived where she wanted to be. At the deepest, darkest, most secret caverns of her mind. The places where no one could reach her and spoil what lay within. These rooms were the closest to her heart.

Elizabeth placed her hands on one door, her fingers tracing the heated lines and cracks. Her chest heaved with the effort to draw breath. She had made it, through the darkness, past the door of sorrows, to this door-the door of wishes and secret desires. Sometimes it was empty, mocking her for daring to dream.

But she hoped, with her cheek held tight to the smooth steel, and she prayed, with trembling hands pressed to the hot metal. She needed so desperately for the room to not be empty tonight. Keeping her eyes squeezed shut, gripping the latch with her fist, Elizabeth eased the door open just enough to squeeze through.

Dreading the moment when she would find herself alone, she faced the heavy door, her hair swinging over one shoulder with her movement, and leaned on the steel portal until it slowly closed. She wasn’t brave tonight. She was afraid to hope and dream and be wrong.

But gentle hands, so large and hot, eased around her and settled on her stomach, pulling her back to a hard chest and the moist, seductive heat of a man’s breath on her neck. Elizabeth’s breath stuttered out and her heart folded over inside her chest. Her trembling hands cupped his against her stomach, allowing them to warm and steady her.

Her clenched-shut eyes eased without opening and her lips curved up. The shake and tremble of her body melted into a slow, sensual weight as she leaned against him, the icy fear in her blood now hot, molten. His breath grazed the sensitive skin at her nape just before his teeth scraped against her ear; sending shivers all down her spine.

Cursed

“Hi, Beautiful.”

Elizabeth smiled. She was only beautiful with him. Tilting her head, she opened her eyes and stared through the candlelight into his caressing, green-and-gold gaze.

“Hi, Alex.”

Alex was dreaming. Part of him knew this. Only in his dreams did Beth Ann Raines come to their room of black stone walls where they were trapped together in a tangle of bare skin and burgundy satin sheets. It was these moments he yearned for. These times he wished were real-even when he was awake.

“Now, Alex,” Beth Ann demanded, her sexy, breathless voice teasing his ears.

Each occurrence of this dream happened so rarely, with only shadowy imitations in between, that the torture of making it last forever was the greatest pleasure of all. Clenching his fingers in her golden hair, Alex stroked his tongue against hers, then said, “No. Not yet.”

Too soon, they’d find their release, hold each other close and fall asleep. When he awoke, he’d be back in his apartment, the bed beside him empty and undisturbed. Alex withdrew from the kiss, pulling back enough to stare into her eyes-the most dazzling, patriotic true blue imaginable. They were passionate and demanding in their focus on him. If only it lasted longer than the dream.

His hips continued to move with that quick, hard, shallow friction that stole her breath-and his. Which was good. It kept him from begging her to stay, to face what lie between them and let it grow into the spectacular future he just knew was theirs for the taking. But his words had never worked before. She wanted him, needed him, and returned to him when she was at her most vulnerable. But only in his mind.

Perhaps it was better she wouldn’t stay. Their dreams were unique, vivid and special, but they’d never manifested in the real world. They’d only left him to wake up to an empty, lonely bed. Or worse, a bed that wasn’t empty and a face that wasn’t hers.

It hadn’t taken long to realize it didn’t matter how long he dated a woman, how much he cared for her or took pleasure in her body, the morning after one of these dreams he felt nothing for her-nothing in comparison. How much worse would it be to search for love in real life if he were already fully committed in his mind and heart?

But now Beth Ann’s creamy, soft legs cradled him, her fingernails dug into his back and she bit his chest in small, demanding nips. Here, she wanted him. Here, she loved him. And now felt better than any waking moment with any other woman.

Unable to hold back the words, Alex gave in. With a guttural, commanding growl that barely masked his pleading, Alex said, “For God’s sake, Beth Ann, stay with me. Love me.” And because his mind warred with his heart in a constant struggle for dominance, he amended, “Choose me or let me go.”

She gasped, her legs tightened and her nails dug deeper into his skin. With an expression full of both pleasure and agony, and a tone of regret, she whispered, “I can’t.”

And so it was. Holding her tight, gripping her hair and trapping her with his body for as long as he could, Alex drove them both to the edge where their bodies were tense enough to break and their lungs ready to seize up. One final thrust and they both arched, tension bowing them taut in a release so great not even the long gouges under her nails halted it.

But as soon as the pleasure ebbed, the pain burned. And not just the pain in his heart. Long streaks of fire stung his back until a blue light shown from behind him, momentarily bright against the darkness. Then he felt the itch as each wound re-knit itself from the inside to the surface. Alex kissed her neck, knowing each mark would disappear and leave his back as smooth and unlined as it had begun.

Alex released her hair and brushed damp tendrils from her brow. She’d bitten her bottom lip until it split and a thin line of blood marked her soft flesh. It was hard to see a wound and do nothing about it, even when it risked revealing his secret to the world. But with Beth Ann, it was impossible to do nothing. Alex touched her lip with his thumb and the blue light glowed from his fingertips. Her lip sealed as his split, bringing her damage into him, then his body healed as it always did and both marks were gone.

“You should leave this for me to nibble on.” Alex lowered his head for one last kiss. “I’m much gentler.”

She caressed his cheek, giving him that familiar apologetic smile. Her eyes were wide, sincere and slightly damp. “I wish…”

“I know.” Alex buried his face in the curve of her neck. He couldn’t be upset with her anyway. It was only a dream. His dream, at that. And until he could figure out how to stop having it, and if he really wanted to, then he just had to deal with the disappointment. And the lack in his life.

Alex opened his eyes, knowing the bed beside him would be empty, but what he hadn’t expected was to wake up in their dream bed, in their dream room. Usually, when Beth Ann left him, the dream was over and he was abandoned, alone in his apartment, missing her more than ever. Wishing she was real. But the black walls and the burgundy curtains hanging from the corners of their four poster bed left no doubt he was still dreaming.

Cursed

The candle had burned lower, proof that time had passed while he slept. Rising from the bed, Alex pulled on his dark green sweats and matching AK Martial Arts t-shirt, staring at the door that was always firmly closed and locked so he couldn’t leave, even when he really wanted the dream over. He hated that door.

Scooping up the thin pillar, cinnamon apple pie wafted into the air all around him, filling his senses and his memories. This was the flavor of them, together. Apple pie, home and family, and love with just enough cinnamon to spice it up and make it worth fighting for.

Turning to the door, Alex reached for the handle. It had never opened before, but he had to try anyway. He’d always wondered what was on the other side. Was it escape? An end to the dream? Or would he find Beth Ann? Was she waiting to share more of herself if he was brave enough to follow?

Alex pulled the door wide and stepped out into a forest so thick, so lush, it was barely lit by a moon over half full. Cupping his hand protectively around the tiny flame of the candle, Alex continued forward. The air moved and there was a click behind him. Alex looked back in time to see the door disappearing beneath rustling trees and tangling vines until it was gone as if it had never been.

Alex stiffened as the atmosphere changed, an ominous chill breeze flowing around him. His stance became looser, more fluid, and more deadly. Blowing out the candle, he set it down before continuing. He stepped cautiously, sliding past dark shrubbery and low hanging vines with broad, thick leaves to a break in the tree line. The clearing was wide enough for a good size campsite, but small enough to reveal a tragedy in detail. Alex jerked a few more steps forward, his surroundings all too achingly familiar. He’d nearly lost everyone he loved here.

Movement brought his eyes to the center and that hellish glowing light brightened around him, trapping him. It was the same kind of barrier that had trapped his friends and left him beating at the light like it was bulletproof glass, helpless to aid them. The light-barrier didn’t come down unless a heart stopped. And it was well known the bitch in the center didn’t have a heart to sacrifice.

He’d only seen Maeve once in a vision of her false death, but hers wasn’t a power to be forgotten. Her hair was the deep, dark red of garnets and her eyes were a bright hard green to match the cursed emerald at her throat. Once appearing broken and beaten, now Maeve stood alive and well and holding a dagger to Beth Ann’s throat.

“Come forward, little healer. We have much to discuss.”

With his heart in his throat and his hands held carefully, visibly at his sides, Alex left the relative safety of the tree line. Beth Ann’s eyes were wide in her pale face as she held absolutely still, her chin lifted to accommodate the blade. Her gaze kept shifting to the sides, but Alex couldn’t look away long enough to surmise her message.

Maeve laughed. “Your hands don’t scare me, Alex. Neither as instruments of your healing power, nor as your puny human excuse for defense.

Suddenly, all sound became silent and though Maeve’s mouth still moved, Alex didn’t know what she was saying. Straining to listen, he even tried to move closer to her, but his body was frozen. Only his eyes could move. Alex searched through the darkness, trying to find the unseen menace. His heart pounded hard in his chest and the blood rushed thick past his ears until the only sound he could hear was his own heartbeat.

Until a voice as deep as the pits of hell, as resonant as his darkest nightmares, spoke in his ear. “I look into the future and this is what I see.”

Like spotlights in the darkness, the trees behind and to the sides of Maeve lit, showing the huddled figures at their base. He should have seen them before since they were well inside the barrier of light, but they’d been shadowed, hidden from his gaze and only now fully revealed.

As the delicate features of each small face were bared to his gaze, Alex fought harder against whatever spell bound him. He didn’t know them, had never seen them before, but they were children caught by Maeve. That alone strengthened his resolve to save them, but there was even more meaning to the scene. More horror to digest.

“They are your future, every single one of them. Including her.” The voice moved until he could see a figure at the edge of his vision. Not a man, but something else. Something black with red embers burning within it, like a fire after it had been snuffed but still smoldered. “They were once my future. Let’s hope you aren’t as foolish.”

Alex followed the blue-eyed gaze to the children filling the clearing. Blond, brunette, glasses, twins, a baby…he counted ten children of varying ages and his eyes widened, swinging to Beth Ann. She didn’t appear a day older than the woman of his dreams, his fantasies. Actually, she’d seemed to age as he did over the last twelve years, as if even his unconscious mind had allowed for the changes time might have cast upon her. The children weren’t theirs, together, but as he watched her gaze shift to each of them, bright with tears and fear, full of love and the determination to save them, he knew they would be.

His future. Alex swallowed, but couldn’t speak.

“You can save them. If your love is great enough.”

With a burst of movement, Maeve struck and the clearing ran red. Screams filled Alex’s ears-his own among them.

“It started out as one of those dreams.” Alex had told Geoffrey enough about them before that no more explanation was needed. Thankful for phone earpieces, he tightened one hand around the grips on a case of pop and the other hand around the bags of tonight’s dinner as he headed toward his truck. He always needed fuel on research nights. “So how can the rest of it be real?”

Cursed

“It might not be, but there’s nothing about Maeve that should be taken lightly. The best, safest, thing to do is treat the dream like a warning.”

Setting the groceries in the bed of his truck, Alex said, “What I don’t understand is how she’d even know about Beth Ann. I haven’t seen her in years, so unless Maeve can tap into my dreams, Beth Ann shouldn’t even be a blip-”

Alex stilled, staring as a heavily laden grocery cart rolled past his truck, pushed by a slim blonde woman in khaki shorts that showed off a pair of slim, long legs and a short sleeved peach top that made her tanned arms look soft and entirely bite-able.

“Judging by the sound of your tongue hitting the linoleum, I take it you just saw her.”

“Asphalt, but yeah. How did you know?

“Murphy’s Law, destiny, fate-pick one.” Geoffrey’s tone was as flat as ever, but something about this conversation gave it a grimness that sent chills along Alex’s spine.

When a man had lived for close to a thousand years, like Geoffrey had, it was prudent to pay attention to his words. Especially when he spoke them in that tone. Which meant seeing Beth Ann the afternoon after his dream-warning wasn’t a coincidence. A plan was playing out.

“So you’re saying treat every part of it as real, not just Maeve or Beth Ann, but believe the voice really knew the future?”

“There are different views about visions of the future, Alex. Some believe they can be changed. Some believe they can’t, that whatever is seen might as well be hard fact. And some fight so hard to prevent it, they make it happen. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Alex had channel surfed enough late night TV and seen enough That’s So Raven, that he could figure out what that last view meant. According to the Disney Channel, the future would happen, whatever choices he made would lead to it, but he completely understood Raven’s unrelenting drive to try to change what she didn’t like about her visions anyway.

“Just friggin’ great.” The first time he’d really seen Beth Ann in years and he would put her in danger whether he left, stayed, or went over to her. And at some point in the near future, he would watch helplessly as a homicidal bitch took her life.

“Not the best of choices, I agree. The question we need to ponder is: if the vision can’t be changed and every action before it is destined to happen-”

“Then how do we fix it after it happens?”

“Exactly.”

“And I thought it was going to be something difficult.” Alex snorted and watched Beth Ann lean in the back of her Durango, her bottom wiggling side to side as she rearranged a mountain of groceries. He licked his lips, but even his tongue was dry. Excuse me, miss? Can I help you with your groceries before my enemies target, torture and murder you?

“Are you going to talk to her?”

“And say what? ‘I know we haven’t seen each other since you turned me down for prom, but some evil witch-slash-demon visited my dreams last night and threatened you and our future children, so can I stick close?” Alex snorted. “Sounds like an Addam’s Family pick-up line.”

“I have never known you to be speechless, Alex.” Geoffrey paused for a beat. “I may have prayed for it, but that one went unanswered.”

“Be careful, old man. I might accuse you of having a sense of humor.”

“I’m sure I could disabuse you of that crazy notion.”

Cursed

“True.” Alex smiled. He’d been a black belt for years, but five months of mixed Martial Arts training with Geoffrey as his mentor had taught him several painful lessons on a whole new level. Geoffrey’s concentrated seriousness was one of them. But also, even if a man was rarely moved to feel or show emotion, he could still understand the mechanics of it. Especially if it produced the desired result in the person he was talking to.

“Now, armor up and go talk to her. ” Geoffrey commanded in his I-have-led-knights-in-hundreds-of-battles tone.

“Sir. Yes, sir,” Alex snapped out like the smartass he was and tapped off his earpiece and shut his phone. He’d go talk to her. Surely talking wouldn’t lead to the vision, necessarily. It should take something much worse than that to damn someone to being Maeve’s victim. On the other hand, if whatever he did was his destined action, then did it matter what he chose?

Yes, his choices mattered. Even if only to himself.

A loud splash punctuated the afternoon quiet in the relatively empty parking lot and Alex turned to see white liquid pooling around Beth Ann’s feet and her hands holding the sides of her face rather tight. Alex strode to the rescue, his love of irony now a sharp, double-edged weapon pointed back at him.

Elizabeth gripped her hair at the sides of her head and stared at the river of milk wending its way around her shoes as if any deviation from her stance would release the maelstrom building inside her. It was just a gallon-overpriced, surely-but only one plastic container of a liquid that was probably too full of hormones to be truly healthy. But it was so symbolic of all that was wrong in her life that it was all she could do to stand and stare and rigidly forbid herself to become a laughable cliché.

Who was she to know if something was necessary to a growing body’s health or a secret danger to that same body? It wasn’t like she’d ever been a mother with months before giving birth, then years, to read, prepare and learn, at least somewhat, for being responsible for another person’s well being. She wasn’t a mother, a nurse, or an oncologist with years of knowledge to pull out of a bag of tricks the moment a situation required action. She was a software programmer for God’s sake!

But what about her life fit logical parameters? What mathematical equation would lead her forth from the maze? Elizabeth took a deep breath, pulling it in until both lungs were full and her chest was puffed out, lifting her breasts dramatically. She held it a moment before exhaling. She had to regain control of herself here and now, before any sense of it was gone completely. Lord knew there wouldn’t likely be time to do so later. Again she inhaled, clearing her mind of all problems except the most immediate. Step One: Remove shoes from milk.

“Can I help?”

Elizabeth looked up, into a pair of sparkling hazel eyes that were all too excitingly familiar and her held breath whooshed out in a loud, embarrassing raspberry.

Alex laughed. “Is that the new feminist mantra? Because it may be the one no one can argue with.”

Elizabeth smiled helplessly at his humor, careful to step out of the milk and quit being pathetic. He looked just as she’d imagined, perhaps his hair was longer, perhaps his arms were thicker and his chest broader than she’d remembered, but otherwise he was still the tall, lean Alex she’d gone to school with.

The Alex she dreamed of, when life was overwhelming and she needed to feel his arms around her even if only in the depths of her mind. Elizabeth released her hair and her hands danced helplessly from her hips to the air and back. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to do that.”

Alex winked, then leaned forward and grasped the handle of the broken jug and turned toward the trash cans at the side of the building. Elizabeth took it as the perfect cue to remember how to breathe. Seriously, a shirt stretched over muscles and a tightly rounded butt that perfectly filled his black jeans should not equate to speechless bimbette. Elizabeth shook her head and stared down at the pavement to see the milk had settled in a dip beneath her car.

And her tire was flat. With a wordless moan, she fell to her knees, mindless of the dirt, and pulled at a piece of glass wedged into the side wall of her tire. From a pickle jar? She wanted to ask how, but too many possibilities came to mind.

“Makes you want to just crawl back into bed and start the day over, doesn’t it?”

Elizabeth swallowed thickly. Just last night she’d crawled into a bed in her dreams and the man standing behind her had been waiting in it. “Desperately.”

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