DARKNESS SURROUNDED ME.
With my back to the wall, I blinked to open my eyes. I couldn’t see anything but thick black fog curling around the edges of my vision. Neither could I move. Despite that, and the way the inky gloom hid my surroundings, I didn’t panic. In the back of my mind, I had a growing belief that something was coming.
Something I wanted—something wonderful—was about to happen.
Through the darkness, Clay appeared. His very arrival beat back the darkness, as if Heaven itself had switched on a spotlight. An intense beam focused on him, highlighting his features, and my heart leaped into my throat at the wondrous sight. His lips turned upward into a smile so bright it matched the heavenly light around us and made it impossible not to mimic him.
“You came,” he said, his voice infused with the light that surrounded us.
“Was there any other choice?” I asked. The familiar statement spilling from my lips gave me pause.
I’d said it before . . .
I’d said it when . . .
I frowned in confusion.
“There isn’t for me,” he said.
The situation didn’t make any sense. I tried harder to figure out where I was—why—but the thoughts flittered away like butterflies each time I reached for the memories that would reveal the truth. When I tried to shake my head, I was unable.
A prisoner in my own body.
No matter what I tried to do, no matter how hard I fought against whatever ties held me to the spot, I was immobile. Even my fingers were stiff and unresponsive at my side.
On cue, a reel of memories flashed through me, image after image rushing past my eyes faster than I could focus on them, like a projector flicked to fast forward.
Smiles. Kisses. Caresses.
A slideshow of every happy memory we’d shared.
The pictures running in front of me skewed and then darkened. Smoke twisted through the images as they smoldered before flames burst from the middle. The fire burned the visions away, leaving smoke curling around me. I choked on the thick air but couldn’t even fight through the invisible hold long enough to cough and give my lungs a reprise.
Clay’s face appeared through the smoke. His smile was gone. Instead, his lips curled into a terrible sneer as he pulled an oversized knife from behind his back. “This is the only choice I have now.”
With a slow, deliberate pace, he stalked toward me. Our eyes met and our gazes locked. His dark molten-chocolate eyes swirled with madness. I wondered what he saw in my lilac ones: guilt, sorrow, love.
A flare of heat from the sunbird inside my soul rose up to envelope my body. The pain and warmth of the action were stronger in one arm than anywhere else, but I couldn’t tilt my head to find out why.
“This is the only choice that you left me with, you freak,” he spat the last word at me, but I couldn’t even flinch away.
“Clay, don’t. Please,” I begged as I fought against my unresponsive body, trying to fight the flames roiling within me. It wouldn’t be long before the sunbird responded to his threat by taking control of my body—just as she had with Louise. I couldn’t do that to Clay. I couldn’t be responsible for his death. It would destroy me more completely than simply dying ever could. “I love you,” I sobbed.
“I loved you too.” Tilting his head to the side, he brought the knife to rest against his temple and stalked from side to side across my fixed field of vision. When he stopped, he pointed the blade of the knife at me. “But then you killed her.”
With a shrug, he lifted the knife back up to his temple, tapping it as if trying to recall something as he paced once more.
His smile returned: an evil, twisted version of the one he’d worn before, and on his next lap, he pointed the blade at me again. His voice was too calm, almost conversational. “You killed my sister.”
“I didn’t mean to.” I wanted to retreat from him, to put more distance between us just in case he decided to attack, but my feet stuck to the ground and no amount of effort could shift them. Even if I could fight free, I was trapped between the wall behind me and his stalking motion.
“It . . . it was an accident. Please, Clay, you have to believe me,” I said in a broken whisper.
He took another step and then, impossibly with the distance that had been between us a second earlier, he was right in front of me. One of his hands rested against the wall behind me, his other held the knife against my body with the point of its tip pressed hard against my sternum.
I swallowed down a heavy breath when he came close enough that we were sharing the same air. A few strands of his almost-black hair brushed my cheek, caressing it the way I wished his fingers would. I wanted so badly to reach out to him, to find the comfort in his arms that he’d offered me so many times before, to touch my lips softly against his and kiss him until all the pain and guilt went away.
As if he’d read my mind, his lips pressed tenderly against mine. The instant they did, he trailed the tip of the knife along the paths on my body that his hands had once traveled. I whimpered as both fear and desire chased each other relentlessly through me.
Heat flooded through me, pooling between my thighs even as my limbs heated in preparation for a fight. Not that I could fight, not while the invisible bonds holding my body in place still rendered me motionless.
When the blade reached the spot just below my ribs, Clay’s kiss changed. It became needful and savage. His teeth gnashed against mine and his tongue invaded my mouth with rough strokes. The hand he’d been using to lean against the wall reached for my hair, tugging the gold and red strands backward to tilt my head so that I would open my mouth wider to his invasion.
“Evie. Evie. Evie,” he murmured when he pulled away. The tone of his voice was needful and desperate, and spoke to all the places in me that were familiar with his intimate touch. “Now, you have to die.”
He drew his arm back, ready to plunge his blade into my body. As he pushed forward, the hilt caught fire. A cry left his lips, and he dropped his weapon. Stepping backward from the burning knife, he looked up at me as it bounced once on the floor before landing with the blade pointing straight at Clay. The flames leaped from the blade and licked along the ground, lengthening and coiling like a serpent, writhing on the ground as they forced Clay farther away from me.
I wanted to reach out for him, to draw him back to me despite the danger he posed.
The flames burst brighter, and my own fire joined them, leaping from the place on my wrist that burned hotter than the rest of me and lunging for Clay in roaring bursts. The forgotten blade sprang from the ground, aiming for his throat.
“Clay!” I screamed as I saw the danger. I could take his insults and his threats—I couldn’t take his death.
He lifted his arm to protect his body before disappearing behind a wall of smoke.
Thick smoke filled the room, choking and assaulting me, until my eyes stung and my lungs ached. I coughed as I tried to gather enough air to call for Clay again. I needed to know that he was safe, but I couldn’t see him, and I couldn’t move.
I shook myself awake with a scream, twisting in place as I struggled to reach Clay, even though he was somewhere hundreds of miles away—at least I hoped he was.
Rolling onto my back, I sighed and stared up at the makeshift shelter surrounding me while I waited for my racing heart to slow. Despite the danger I was in, I couldn’t find the urgency I needed to pull myself out of my hideaway to check the area to ensure I was safe. Or that I was alone. With my tired body and aching head, all I could do was pray that the huge oak trees and red cedars that surrounded the hollowed out log I’d claimed for the night would keep me hidden from casual observers. Before I’d gone to sleep, I’d positioned branches over the open side of the log as well, which I hoped would keep me hidden for a while even if someone was searching for me. A quick check to the side confirmed they were in place and mostly undisturbed.
For a moment, I closed my eyes again and allowed myself a few moments to relive my dream of Clay—at least the beginning of it.
“You know what my dream is?”
Tears rolled down my cheeks as the memory of his voice floated through my mind.
“My dream is to spend more than a few hours in a bed with you—preferably not sleeping.”
They were words he’d spoken as we considered stopping in Detroit—the city where his family had caught up to us before his sister died. Before I killed her.
What might have happened if he hadn’t convinced me to stop?
The thought was enough to force me to stop wallowing. The fact was we had stopped moving, we had tried for a life together, his family had caught us, and I’d destroyed everything we’d shared in one dreadful moment. Just because of what I was.
My already higher-than-natural temperature had spiked further over the last few days. Never before had a fever taken hold of my body in such a way. My wrist burned hotter than ever. A beacon forcing me to remember the injury I’d endured trying to escape the hospital in Detroit. When I’d fled from Clay and the organization that he’d once sworn allegiance to, the Rain, which was deadly to others like me.
Wiping away my tears, I sat up and dragged my hands through the clumped strands of my hair. The movement shook loose the dirt and leaves that had pressed into the loose curls as I’d slept, but it also tugged at the skin of the injury on my wrist and forced a spike of pain through my body.
With nausea building within me, I unwound the now filthy dressing from my wrist and stole a glance at the festering wound. Despite my best efforts to apply the first-aid knowledge Dad had taught me, the burn just wouldn’t heal. In hindsight, using my heat and fire to melt away the metal handcuffs securing me to the hospital bed had been a stupid move. In the moment before freedom, a bracelet of molten metal slag temporarily encased my wrist, instantly searing the agonizing wound into my skin.
Much like the lacerations inside my heart, the damage I’d inflicted on myself in my haste to escape Clay had festered and worsened by the day. Even after a week, neither injury had come close to healing.
Now a few more days on, the burn was beyond anything I could deal with alone. So were the wounds in my heart, but at least I could survive those alone. I’d done it before after all.
The area around the burn—extending from my fingers up almost to my elbow—was red and puffy. It throbbed in time with each of my heartbeats; each fresh surge of blood to the area increased the agony tenfold. The charred skin wept and oozed, requiring constant bandage changes. As if the agony of the injury itself wasn’t bad enough, an infection had taken root within that seeped deeper into my body with every beat of my heart.
At first, I’d ignored the warning signs in the hope the pain, itchiness, and swelling were just the first stages of repair and it would be better the next day. I told myself that every night, but examining my arm each morning had renewed the sickening belief that something was very wrong.
I need help.
The sickness worked its way through my veins and dulled each of my senses. I never knew whether I’d be stumbling around half-blinded by hazy vision and rendered deaf over the pounding in my head or left unable to swallow. For the last week, I’d been barely able to keep myself upright and conscious. Each new day had become little more than a blur of pain and hazy memories.
The additional heat in my body caused by the fever was enough to sap the moisture from the rotting wood I’d camped in for the night. The tinder around me smoldered and smoked. Rolling away from my hiding place, I stood and tried to take a step.
Nausea flooded through me and bile rose in my throat. My legs buckled, and I stumbled forward. My hand shot out against a tree in front of me to halt my fall, but the movement put excess pressure on my injured wrist. I cried out and fell to my knees as my hold failed. A bolt of agony shot through me, racing along my skin before smacking into my stomach. Bile roiled within me once again.
I needed to get some proper help. I couldn’t do this alone.