There was a storm brewing over Church Falls, Oklahoma. Blue-black clouds, churning and boiling in lazy slow motion, stitched through with lightning the color of butane flames. It had a certain instinctual menace, but it was really just a baby, all attitude and no experience. I watched it on the aetheric plane as the rain inside of it was tossed violently up into the mesosphere, frozen by the extreme cold, fell back down to gather more moisture on the way. Rinse and repeat. The classic recipe for hail.
Circular motion inside the thing. It was more of a feeling I had than anything I could see, but I didn't doubt it for a second; after years of overseeing the weather, I vibrated on frequencies that didn't require seeing to believe.
I gathered power around me like a glittering warm cloak, and reached out for-
My power slammed into an invisible wall and bounced off. I yelped, dropped back into human reality with a heavy thud and realized I'd almost driven Mona off the road. Mona was a 1997 Dodge Viper GTS, midnight blue, and I was driving her well the hell in excess of the speed limit, which was just the way I liked it. I controlled the swerve, glanced down at the speedometer and edged another five miles an hour out of the accelerator. Mona's purr changed to an interested, low-throated growl.
"Don't ever do that when I'm breaking a century on the interstate," I snapped at the guy who'd put up that wall I'd just slammed into. "And jeez, sensitive much? I was just giving things a little push. For the better."
The guy's name was David. He settled himself more comfortably against the passenger side window, and said without opening his eyes, "You're meddling. You got bored."
"Well, yeah." Because driving in Oklahoma is not exactly the world's most exciting occupation. "And?"
"And you can't do that anymore." That meaning adjust the weather to suit myself, apparently.
His lips twitched and pressed a smile into submission. "Because you'll attract attention."
"And the fact I'm barreling down the freeway at over a hundred . . . ?"
"You know what I mean. And by the way, you should slow down."
I sighed. "You're kidding me. This is coasting. This is little old lady speed."
"NASCAR drivers would have heart attacks. Slow down before we get a ticket."
"Yes," he agreed solemnly. "You frighten me."
I downshifted, slipped Mona in behind an eighteen-wheeler grinding hell-for-leather east toward Okmulgee and parts beyond, and watched the RPMs fall. Mona grumbled. She didn't like speed limits. Neither did I. Hell, the truth is that I'd never met any kind of limit I liked. Back in the good old times before, well, yesterday, when my name was still Joanne Baldwin and I was human, I'd been a Weather Warden. A card-carrying member of the Wardens Association, the international brotherhood of people in charge of keeping Mother Nature from exterminating the human race. I'd been in the business of controlling wind, waves, and storms. Being an adrenaline junkie goes with the territory.
The fact that I was still an adrenaline junkie was surprising, because strictly speaking, I no longer had a real human body, or real human adrenaline to go with it. So how did it work that I still felt all the same human impulses as before? I didn't want to think about it too much, but I kept coining back to the fact that I'd died. Last mortal thing I remembered, I'd been a battleground for two demons tearing me apart, and then I'd-metaphorically speaking-opened my eyes on a whole new world, with whole new rules. Because David had made me a Djinn. You know, Arabian Nights, lamp, granter of wishes? That kind. Only I wasn't imprisoned in a lamp, or (more appropriately) a bottle; I was free-range. Masterless.
Cool, but scary. Masterless, I was vulnerable, and I knew it.
"Hey," I said out loud, and glanced away from the road to look at my traveling companion. Dear God, he was gorgeous. When I'd first met him he'd been masquerading as a regular guy, but even then he'd been damn skippy fine. In what I'd come to realize was his natural Djinn form, he was damn skippy fine to the power of ten. Soft auburn hair worn just a little too long for the current military-short styles. Eyes like molten bronze. Warm golden skin that stretched velvet soft over a strong chest, perfectly sculpted biceps, a flat stomach . . . My hands had a Braille memory that made me warm and melty inside.
Without opening those magical eyes, he asked, "Hey, what?" I'd forgotten I'd said anything. I scrambled to drag my brain back to more intellectual pursuits.
"Still waiting for a plan, if it doesn't disturb your beauty sleep." I kept the tone firmly in the bitchy range, because if I wasn't careful I might start with a whole breathless I-don't-deserve-you routine, and that would cost me cool points. "We're still heading east, by the way."
"Fine," he said, and adjusted his leaning position slightly to get more comfortable against the window glass. "Just keep driving. Less than warp speed, if you can manage it."
"Warp speed? Great. A Trek fan." Not that I was surprised. Djinn seemed to delight in pop culture, so far as I could tell. "Okay. Fine. I'll drive boring."
I glanced back at the road-good thing, I was seriously over the line and into head-on-collision territory- and steered back straight again before I checked the fuel gauge. Which brought up another point. "Can I stop for gas?"
"You don't need to."
"Um, this is a Viper, not a zillion-miles-to-the-gallon Earth Car. Believe me, we'll need to. Soon."
David extended one finger-still without cracking an eyelid-and pointed at the dial. I watched the needle climb, peg out at full, and quiver. "Won't," he said.
"Okay," I said. "East. Right. Until when?"
"Until I think it's safe to stop."
"You know, a little information in this partnership would really help make it, oh, say, a partnership."
His lips twitched away from a smile, and his voice dipped down into octaves that resonated in deep, liquid areas of my body. "Are we partners?"
Dangerous territory. I wasn't sure what we were, exactly, and I wasn't sure I wanted him to tell me. He'd saved me; he'd taken the human part of me that had survived an attack by two demons, and transformed it into a Djinn. I hoped that didn't make him my father. Talk about your Freudian issues. "Okay, genius, I don't know. You define it. What are we?"
He sighed. "I'd rather sleep than get into this right now."
I sighed right back. "You know, I'm a little freaked out, here. Dead, resurrected, got all these new sensations-talking would be good for me."
"What kind of new sensations?" he asked. His voice was low, warm, gentle-ah, sensations. I was having them, all right. Loads of them.
I cleared my throat. "First of all, things don't look right."
"The way they-"
"-used to look," he finished for me. "You've got different eyes now, Joanne. You can choose how to look at things. It's not just light on nerves anymore."
"Well, it's too-bright." Understatement. The sun glared in through the polarized windows and shimmered like silk-it had a liquid quality to it, a real weight. "And I see way too much. Too far."
Everything had . . . dimensions. Saturated colors, and a peculiar kind of history-I could sense where things had been, how long ago, where they'd come from, how they'd been made. A frightening blitz of knowledge. I was trying to shut it down, but it kept leaping up whenever I noticed something new. Like the gas gauge. Watching that quivering indicator, I knew it had been stamped out in a factory in Malaysia. I knew the hands of the person who'd last touched it. I had the queasy feeling that if I wanted to, I could follow his story all the way back through the line of his ancestors. Hell, I could trace the plastic back to the dinosaurs that had died in the tar pit to give petroleum its start.
David said, "All you have to do is focus."
I controlled a flash of temper. "Focus? That's your advice? News flash, Obi-Wan, you kinda suck at it."
"Do not." He opened his eyes, and they were autumn brown, human, and very tired. "Give me your hand."
I took it off the gear shift and held it out. He wrapped warm fingers over mine, and something hot as sunlight flashed through me.
The horizon adjusted itself. Sunlight faded to normal brightness. The edges and dimensions and weight of things went back to human proportions.
"There." He sounded even more tired, this time. "Just keep driving."
He let go of my hand. I wrapped it back around the gearshift for comfort and thought of a thousand questions, things like Why am I still breathing and If I don't have a heart, why is it pumping so hard and Why me? Why save me?
I wasn't sure I was ready for any of those answers, even if David had the energy to tell me. I wasn't ready for anything more than the familiar, bone-deep throb of Mona's tires on the road, and the rush of the Viper running eagerly toward the horizon.
I had another question I didn't want to ask, but it slipped out anyway. "We're in trouble, aren't we?"
This time, he did smile. Full, dark, and dangerous. "Figured that out, did you?"
"People say I'm smart."
"I hope they say you're lucky, too."
"Must be," I murmured. "How else do I explain you?"
Brown eyes opened, studied me for a few seconds, then drifted shut again. He said, just as softly, "Let's pray you never have to."
The car didn't need gas, and I discovered that I didn't need sleep-at least not for more than twenty-four hours. We blew through Tulsa, hit I-70 toward Chicago, bypassed Columbus, and eventually ended up on a turnpike in New Jersey. David slept. I drove. I was a little worried about mortal things like cop cars and tollbooths, but David kept us out of sight and out of mind. We occupied space, but to all intents and purposes, we were invisible.
Which was not such an advantage, I discovered, when you get into heavy commuter traffic. After about a dozen near misses, I pulled Mona over to the side of the road, stretched, and clicked off the engine. Metal ticked and popped-Mona wasn't any kind of magical construct, she was just a plain old production car. Okay, the fastest production car ever made, with a V10, 7990 cubic centimeters, 6000 RPM, top speed of over 260 miles per hour. But not magic. And I'd been pushing her hard.
I rolled down the window, sucked in a breath of New Jersey air laden with an oily taste of exhaust, and watched the sun come up over the trees. There was something magical about that, all right-the second morning of my new life. And the sun was beautiful. A vivid golden fire in the sky, trailing rays across an intense, empty blue. No clouds. I could feel the potential for clouds up there-dust particles and pollution hanging lazily in the air, positive and negative charges constantly shoving and jostling for position. Once the conditions came together, those dust particles would get similar charges and start attracting microscopic drops of moisture. Like calls to like. Moisture thickens, droplets form, clouds mass. Once the droplets get too heavy to stay airborne, they fall. Simple physics. And yet there was something seductive and magical about it, too, as magical as the idea that chemical compounds grow into human beings who walk and talk and dream.
I watched a commercial jet embroider the clear blue sky, heading west, and stretched my senses out.
There wasn't any limit to what I could know, if I wanted ... I could touch the plane, the cold silver skin, the people inside with all their annoyances and fears and boredom and secret delights. Two people who didn't know each other were both thinking about joining the mile high club. I wished them luck in finding each other.
I sucked in another breath and stretched-my human-feeling body still liked the sensation, even though it wasn't tired, wasn't thirsty or hungry or in need of bathroom facilities-and turned to David . . .
Who was awake and watching me. His eyes weren't brown now, they were sun-sparked copper, deep and gold-flecked, entirely inhuman. He was too beautiful to be possible in anything but dreams.
The car shuddered as three eighteen-wheelers blew past and slammed wind gusts into us-a rude reminder that it wasn't a dream, after all. Not that reality was looking all that bad.
"What now?" I asked. I wasn't just asking about driving directions, and David knew it. He reached out and captured my hand, looked down at it, rubbed a thumb light and warm as breath across my knuckles.
"There are some things I need to teach you."
And there went the perv-cam again, showing me all the different things he probably didn't mean . . .
"So we should get a room," he finished, and when he met my eyes again, the heart I didn't really have skipped a beat or two.
"Oh," I breathed. "A room. Sure. Absolutely."
He kept hold of my hand, and his index finger traced light whorls over my palm, teasing what I supposed wasn't really a lifeline anymore. The finger moved slowly up over the translucent skin of my wrist, waking shivers. God. I didn't even mean to, but somehow I was seeing him on the aetheric level, that altered plane of reality where certain people, like Wardens and Djinn, can read energy patterns and see things in an entirely different spectrum.
He was pure fire, shifting and flaring and burning with the intensity of a star.
"You're feeling better," I said. No way to read expressions, on the aetheric, but I could almost feel the shape of his smile.
"A little," he agreed. "And you do have things to learn."
"You're going to teach me?"
His voice went deep and husky. "Absolutely. As soon as we have some privacy."
I retrieved my hand, jammed Mona into first gear, and peeled rubber.
We picked an upper-class hotel in Manhattan, valeted Mona into a parking garage with rates so high it had to be run by the Mafia. I wondered how much ransom we were going to have to pay Guido to get her back. We strolled into the high-class marble and mahogany lobby brazenly unconcerned by our lack of luggage.
"Wow," I said, and looked around appreciatively. "Sweet." It had that old-rich ambiance that most places try to create with knockoff antiques and reproduction rugs, but as I trailed my fingers over a mahogany side table I could feel the depth of history in it, stretching back to the generations of maids who'd polished it, to the eighteenth-century worker who'd planed the wood, to the tree that stood tall in the forest.
Nothing fake about this place. Well, okay, the couches were modern, but you have to prefer comfort over authenticity in some things. The giant Persian rug was certainly real enough to make up the difference.
The place smelled of that best incense of all-old money.
David waited in line patiently at the long marble counter while the business travelers ahead of him presented American Express cards and listened to voice mail on cell phones. A thought occurred to me, and I tugged at the sleeve of his olive drab coat. "Hey. Why-"
"-check in?" he finished for me. "Two reasons. First, it's easier, and you'll find that the less power you use unnecessarily, the better off you are. Second, I don't think you're ready to be living my life quite yet. One step at a time."
He reached into his pocket and came out with- an American Express card. I blinked at it. It said David L Prince in raised letters. "Cool. Is that real?" I said it too loudly.
His eyes widened behind concealing little round glasses. "Not a great question when we're about to use it to pay for the room, is it?"
Oh. I'd been figuring we were still in some unnoticeable fog, but clearly not; the guy in line ahead of me was distracted enough from the cell phone glued to his ear to throw us a suspicious look. True, we didn't have the glossy spa-treated look of the rich, or the unlimited-expense-account confidence of the corporate, but we weren't exactly looking like homeless, either. I shot him a sarcastic smile. He turned back to his business.
"Sorry," I said, more softly, to David. "Obviously, yes, it's real, of course. I mean-hell, I don't know what I mean. Sorry. Um . . . where do they send the bills?"
"Not to me."
His smile made my train of thought derail and crash. Cell Phone Guy in front of us picked up his room key and got out of line; David and I moved up to the counter, where a highly polished young lady too nice for New York did all the check-in things, issued us plastic key cards, and fired off amenities too fast for me to follow. A uniformed bellman veered out of our path when he saw we were bag-free and gave us a look that meant he was no stranger to couples arriving for short, intense bursts of time.
David took my arm and walked me to the elevators, across the huge Persian rug, past a silent piano and a muted big-screen TV that was showing some morning show with perfect people interviewing more perfect people. We rode the elevator with Cell Phone Guy, who was still connected and chatting about market share and a corporate vice president's affair with the wife of a global board member. The latter sounded interesting. As it happened, we were both on the same floor-twelve-and he looked at us like we might be after his wallet or his life, but before long he peeled away to a room and we continued on, down a long hallway and to a bright-polished wooden door with the number 1215 on it.
David didn't bother with the key card. He touched the door with his finger, and it just swung open.
I looked at him. "What happened to 'the less you use, the better'?"
He scooped me up in his arms and carried me over the threshold. Gravity slipped sideways, and I put my arms around his neck until he settled me down with my feet on the carpet.
"What was that for?" I asked. He felt fever-hot against me, and those eyes-God. Intense, focused, hungry.
"Luck," he said, and kissed me. I felt instant heat slam through me, liquefying me in equal proportion to how incredibly real he felt against me, and I felt a feverish urge to be naked with this man, right now, to be sure that all of this wasn't just a particularly lovely dream on the way to the grave and oh God his hands burned right through my clothes like they weren't there.
And then, as his palms glided up my sides, wrinkling fabric, the cloth melted away and disappeared, and then it was just flesh, and fire, and the taste of David's lips and tongue. I felt myself burn and go faint with heat stroke, revived with the cool relief of his skin.
And if it was a dream, it was the best I'd ever had.
In the morning, we got down to the work of teaching me to be a Djinn.
I'm not what you could call spiritual, so learning how to be spiritual-in the true spirit sense of the word-was a challenge. Sure, I'd been a Warden, but calling the wind and calming storms was all about science for me. I understood it in the way a child of the atomic age would, which meant subatomic particles and chaos theory and wave motion. Hell, I'd been a weather-controlling bureaucrat, when you came right down to it. Nothing that you might call preparation for being granted power on a legendary scale.
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