- The Darkest Secret
So, who was he? A prisoner like her? There was something oddly familiar about his voice, as if she’d heard it before and it had made an impression. Yet she couldn’t specifical y place it. Was he a Hunter?
Had they met during training? At one of the thousand debriefings she’d attended?
Her ears twitched, and she turned, fol owing the sound of his voice this time, determined to help him, just in case he was a Hunter as she suspected.
There. She frowned. A wal . Was he on the other side? The fact that she’d heard him certainly suggested he was nearby.
Slowly she approached the wal . She padded her hands along the smooth, delicate paper, finding no hint of a doorway, and yet… Haidee dropped to her knees, gaze zeroing in on a tiny gap between crown molding and floor.
A smal crack of light seeped through.
No, not light. Not ful y. Woven with that stream of light and dancing dust motes was a wisp of black, a writhing phantom, curling up, inching toward her.
With another yelp, she scrambled backward. The black tendril fol owed her, avoiding her pants and her T-shirt to reach the skin bared at her wrist. But when it touched her, a screech rent the air and the…thing was sucked back through the crack, returning to the other room.
What. The. Hel ?
Had she just met one of the demons, stripped of its human cloak? Was that what tormented the man who’d cal ed her?
Her fight-or-flight instinct screamed flight.
Haidee replied, Screw you, flight! I won’t leave a man behind.
Teeth grinding, she scraped her nails over the wal paper until she created a groove. Then she began ripping, tossing the pieces she extracted over her shoulder. She worked feverishly and final y revealed enough of the wal to find the outline of the door.
No knob. Of course.
Through faint scrape patterns on the floor, she knew the door had once opened from the right. Which meant there would have been a knob at one point. She had only to find where the demons had spackled over the hole its removal would have left behind….
She scraped the center of the right side, cringing at the grating sound she created, until flecks of white chalk began to embed in her nails. Bingo! Clawing harder, deeper, she removed the spackle as fast as she could. Took half an hour to reach the other side, and by then, ice coated her entire body in a chil y sheen.
Her arms trembled violently, her sense of urgency increasing. She was swiftly using up her reservoir of strength and knew she wouldn’t be able to stay on her feet much longer.
When she col apsed, she wanted to be outside, the man with her.
Haidee latched her fingers around the edges of the hole and jerked. The door eked open a mere fraction of an inch.
Fighting disappointment, she gave another jerk—only to be rewarded with another fraction. Get in the game, Alexander.
You can do this. Deep breath in, hold, hold… As she exhaled, she tugged so hard she feared her spine would snap. Final y. Real movement. Not much, yet just enough.
When the door stopped, it stopped hard. She lost her grip and fel to her ass.
Pinpricks of starlight dotted her gaze, but when the crackling orange and yel ow washed away, she focused on the gap she’d created. A sweet sense of victory flooded her as she popped to her feet. Her knees rebel ed with every step forward, but she didn’t pause.
She squeezed her way through the opening, shirt snagging on a sharp protrusion, then ripping as she just kind of fel into the other room. When she balanced, she quickly took stock, readying herself for anything.
Another bedroom, this one a mix of light and dark. There was a thrashing man on the only bed, smoke rising from him, undulating.
Her gaze locked on the smoke, and she gasped. It was as beautiful as it was horrifying. An ocean of crumbled black diamonds, punctuated by the occasional sparkle of paired rubies—like eyes, watching, lethal y intent—and damning flashes of white. Sharp, like fangs.
Come on, come on. Time’s wasting. For some reason, looking away actual y hurt, shooting a pain from her temples to her bel y, but she did it, refocusing on the man and closing the distance between them. The moment she reached him, bile scalded her throat, and she nearly lost her last meal. Fruit and bread that Defeat had grudgingly given her. Al those injuries…
What had the demon done to him? Peeled him? Lit him on fire? He was—
Oh, God. Oh, dear God. Eyes widening, she covered her mouth with shaky hands. No. No!
Despite the savaged body, the swol en, nearly unrecognizable face, she knew who writhed before her.
Micah. Her boyfriend. Same dark skin—what remained of it
—and same muscled frame. Same inky hair he constantly smoothed from his brow. No wonder she’d recognized that battered voice.
Oh, God. The demon must have caught him while he’d chased after her, trying to save her.
Tears rained down her cheeks, crystal izing into ice as they fel . She almost crumpled into a sobbing heap. She’d dreamed of this man long before she’d ever met him. Had loved him long before she’d ever met him. She’d thought him a memory that hadn’t quite been wiped clean after—
Nope. Don’t go down that road, either. Those kinds of thoughts would paralyze her as nothing else could. Micah.
She’d think only about Micah now. He needed her.
About seven months ago, she discovered he wasn’t simply a memory or even a figment of her imagination. He was real. She’d thought, Surely this is a sign we’re meant to be together. A point further proven when they were both assigned to the same demon-hunting mission in Rome, and then again when he’d asked her out, as attracted to her as she was to him. She’d said yes without any hesitation.
Except the real man hadn’t lived up to her imaginings.
There’d been no bone-deep connection. No earth-shattering awareness. She’d blamed herself, and rightly so, and had tried to force the bond. Because of her visions, she’d known—knew—on a level she didn’t quite understand that he would make her happy. That he was her future. That he could at last melt the unnatural ice that stil swirled inside her.
So she’d stayed with him, al the while thinking the connection would soon spark. It never had. And though they were stil seeing each other and were total y exclusive, she’d always held a little piece of herself back. She hadn’t even slept with him yet. But now…connection. Sizzle. And it was everything she’d expected to feel for him.
Here, now, she thought she might never again be whole without him. As if she’d final y found the last piece of a puzzle.
Guilt suddenly swarmed her. She hadn’t been the best girlfriend, holding herself back as she had, yet stil he’d searched for her, stil he’d chal enged a Lord of the Underworld for her. And now, he might die for her.
“Oh, baby,” she managed to croak past a constricted throat. “What did he—” they? “—do to you?”
She reached out, the shadows hissing as they inched backward, away from her, away from him, as if afraid to be near her. She paid them no heed. As gently as she was able, she slid one of Micah’s pulverized hands through the steel cuff that bound him. The amount of blood and the crushed bone al owed for an easy glide and also had her swal owing bile at an astonishing rate.
Could he recover from this? Could anyone?
Thankful y, her touch seemed to calm him rather than hurt him further. The thrashing became less violent, and he eventual y relaxed against the mattress. Haidee moved to the other side and freed his other wrist.
By the time his ankles were unchained, the slightest hint of a smile curled his lips.
Her chest contracted at the sight of it, both an agony and a blessing. He was damaged, but he was alive.
Would he be grateful for that, though? He might never be able to fight again.
Didn’t matter. She had to save him.
Biggest problem: she couldn’t carry him. He was too heavy.
And he certainly couldn’t walk. She didn’t have a medical degree, but she’d bet a fortune that half the bones in his body were broken. Stil . She couldn’t leave him behind, either.
She studied him more intently, praying for a solution.
Instead, what she found had her gasping in outrage. Those bastards! Of al the cruel things they’d done, this was the worst. They’d branded him. Etched a jagged-winged butterfly—the mark of their demons—into his calf. Just to taunt him.
“I’l make them pay, baby.” Her hands coiled into tight fists, ready to strike. “I swear it.”
At the sound of her voice, he shifted, angling toward her. He even tried to reach out, the muscles in his forearm bunching with the strain. The action proved to be too much for him, and the arm hung uselessly.
A second later, the thrashing started up again.
Cooing, Haidee eased beside him and smoothed away the hair sticking to his brow, just as she knew he liked. The first moment of contact, she experienced a jolt of undiluted heat.
The ice that was her constant companion, a part of who and what she was, cracked. Droplets melted, dripping. Instantly Micah calmed, his sweat drying as if he’d absorbed her deepest chil .
Nothing like that had ever happened before, and the sensation disconcerted her. A side effect of what had been done to him, perhaps?
Bastards, she thought again, her molars gnashing together.
In this life or the next—and she was always given a “next”—
she would punish them.
Spiderwebs suddenly wove in front of her eyes, gossamer threads laced with a shot of fatigue.
Determined, she swept them away. She couldn’t deteriorate. Not now. Micah needed her.
His voice startled her, but she quickly recovered. “I’m here, baby. I’m here.”
A soft sigh echoed, a whisper of contentment. The breathy sound stroked her—even though his mouth had never moved and his lips had never parted. Impossible. Right?
“Micah? How are you talking to me?”
Sweet, sweet, Haidee.
Again, his mouth hadn’t moved, but again, she’d heard him.
And she knew she wasn’t imagining his voice. She couldn’t be. She’d heard him before ever entering the room.