Why are you with me?
“Because you’re perfect.”
I’m far from perfect.
“Perfect, so decent...”
Dear God, no, I’m so far from decent you couldn’t even begin to imagine. Nice? No, my sweet, don’t go there. My sins are like the weight of the world. . . .
“You’re not who I think you are.”
I’m exactly who you think I am. You’ve seen, you’ve known. . . .
You can’t close your eyes. . . .
But her eyes were closed. She shook her head. She didn’t want to think or talk; she wanted to feel. The sun and the earth and the sky were within her, novas bursting, and she had never expected that anything could be so sensually, sexually, wildly . . . good.
She awoke drenched, and with memories that brought a flush to her cheeks and confusion to her heart.
The room was in shadow. It was very, very early in the morning, she thought sleepily. The sun hadn’t quite come up.
She heard strange noises.
The television was still on.
Moving damp, tangled hair from her eyes, she squinted at the television. Yes. The soft porn that came on the respectable cable channel late at night was still going. She shook her head, amazed at herself.
She reached out, certain that Rick had to be next to her. She knew that he had arrived in the night, and that her fears had been ridiculous. He was perfect. Everything that she had wanted in a man. Bright, decent, and ...
Could she face him?
She stretched out a hand. He wasn’t there.
Frowning, she started to rise. Her black gown was on the floor. Her covers were twisted halfway from the bed.
Had he gotten up to make coffee? Or, since it was still nighttime for him, had he grabbed a beer and found one of the icy steins?
She crawled out of bed, hurried into the bathroom for her terry robe, and started back out to the living room.
Then she heard the key twisting in her lock.
Rick stepped in. He looked beat. Absolutely beat. She stared at him. He stared back. He fumbled with the collar of her terry robe.
“I’m sorry, so sorry.”
“Rick?” Her voice was a bare whisper. “You’ve been here.”
“I told you it would be late. Really late. Or early,” he apologized. “I shouldn’t have come here, Jade. It’s so late, the night was awful. I’m getting sicker and sicker, I think. I can barely stand. I think I have to get home.”
“Get home ... but you ... you haven’t been here?”
“You just saw me open the door.”
Her body went cold. Rigid. She thought she would fall.
She barely heard his voice.
The world filled with ...
And she crashed to the floor.
Janice Detrick yawned.
She liked the early shift at the hospital, but this morning she was tired. Still, she wouldn’t have traded her schedule for anything later, not even for a fair-size raise. She got off early—she was able to pick up her first-grade twins from school, have dinner, do homework, and even go shopping now and then. Granted, she shopped at the discount stores, but she valued her time. She was a single mother. Thanks to her own mother—who had raised six kids without a man in sight, cleaning house for rich white folks—she had gotten an education. She was a registered nurse with a good job, great kids—even if she, too, had made a foolish choice in men—and had an ever-abiding affection for her mother. Jennie Pritchard would never— no, never—go into a nursing home. Not while Janice had breath in her body.
This morning, though ...
Getting moving was a little rough.
She’d seen some med techs downstairs at the emergency entrance; everyone had been talking about the awful accident that had nearly decapitated some college kid. Strange things were happening. Look at those murders in New York. Not that New Orleans couldn’t be crazy. Mostly, nowadays, voodoo was a big tourist industry. But there were still those—her mother included—who saw it as pure religion, who believed in zombies, the power to raise the dead, to cast spells, throw curses— do weird shit!
Nursing wasn’t weird, thank God. Just humdrum. She was a good nurse.
She went up to the third floor, where she worked in surgical care. The night crew was filling out paperwork, getting ready to leave. As usual, the incoming nurses chatted with the outgoing. They discussed their patients, new and old. “You have a new hernia in three forty-seven,” Andrea, the girl she was replacing, told her. “Let’s see— the tonsillectomy could have gone home yesterday, but the kid’s a little wimp—whined all night. Told him whining would hurt his throat more; he didn’t care.”
“Oh, I can deal with him,” Janice assured Andrea. She could. Her tonsillectomy was Tommy Hart, her twins’ age. She teased him, laughed with him, and brought him little presents—today it was the newest kids’ lunch toy from Burger King.
“Yeah, well, you’re a saint.”
“Not at all, ”Janice said. Andrea lifted a brow and turned back to her paperwork. “Most else is just status quo,” she murmured.
Janice thought that she saw something.
A black shadow . .. sweeping past the nurses’ station. She had the strange sensation of... wings. Great, sweeping, broad wings.
Silly. It was very bright here.
She started down the hall that angled to the left of the nurses’ station. Now there were some shadows.
The bright lights from the work area faded out here, and they hadn’t started the whole let’s-get-moving day yet; medicine runs and breakfast wouldn’t begin for another half hour. Outside, the sun was still struggling to rise.
Something seemed to draw her down toward the supply room.
She stopped dead in the hallway.
There, right before her, not twenty feet away, stood a man. He seemed to be in shadow.
Or he was shadow.
Wearing a cloak? What was he doing, and who was he?
Mr. Clark, from 322, sleepwalking again? No, Mr. Clark was seventy if he was a day, and this fellow was young and virile. How could she tell from a damned shadow? she wondered.
He buckled over suddenly, like a man in serious pain.
She rushed forward, always a nurse. “Here, here, let me help you! What’s wrong? We’ll get you back to your room.”
He had never been in a room, she was certain. If she’d ever seen him before—ever, even a glimpse of him!— she would have remembered him. He was so different. So compelling, so tall—striking, virile, attractive....
Cold as ice.
How did she know he was cold?
She could feel cold. Waves of cold.
He was pale, bruised. Stabbed? Bleeding?
“You’re hurt,” she said. Compassion overrode any sense of unease.
For a moment he smiled. An oddly charming smile. Chilling ...
“Shucks. You should see the other guy. And then ... well you know. I thought I was okay, and I stopped to see this girl ... too much exertion, huh?”
“Let me help you!”
She tried to get his arm around her shoulder. He really was charming. What a smile. She envied the girl.
But then, he clenched his teeth.
“No! Get away!” he insisted, suddenly shaking his head fiercely. His voice was deep, rough, edgy—but commanding. He was accustomed to authority.
For a moment she thought she saw his eyes, his face. She felt ice creeping around her. He was so ashen.
He smiled again, but his smile faded.
His eyes were focused on her.
Focused on ...
She felt a deep, swift shaft of fear along her spine, yet she was mesmerized. She thought he smiled still, despite that razor-sharp gaze he kept hard on her.
A rueful smile.
He hadn’t meant to be seen, she thought.
She could feel her heart pumping. She could feel her veins. Pulsing. It was like ...
Childhood stories came to her mind.
“Grandma! What gold eyes you have!”
“The better to see your veins with, my dear.”
“Grandma! What big teeth you have!”
“The better to suck those veins dry!”
“Go!” he said gruffly, speaking at last. She couldn’t move at first. Then, “Go!” he repeated. “Yes, I’m hurt; get help!”
He shoved her. She lurched forward, then stopped. He was crumpling to the floor. The strangeness she had felt faded. Help, she needed help. He was too big for her to handle.
Jasper, one of the male nurses, had just come in. He’d played football until a shoulder injury sidelined him for good. He was great friend, and his strength came in handy at the hospital.
“Jasper, quick, we’ve a patient, or maybe not a patient—” she said as she approached the nurses’
“There’s a man in the hall who is hurt—”
“A patient is up and staggering around?”
“Maybe he’s not a patient; he’s just a man—”
“He is or isn’t a patient?”
“I’m not sure, damn it. Now, Jasper, there’s a man in the hall hurt, and he’s a big one. He’s ... he’s too much for me. Help me.”
“Sure, I’m coming.” Jasper said, his dark eyes confused, but not doubting. He gave himself a shake, as if he’d realized he should have moved much faster. He followed Janice as she started back to find the man.
She came to a dead halt. He was gone. There was no one there. Nothing. Not a drop of blood, not a speck of torn flesh—not a hint of the man.
“Couldn’t have been hurt too badly,” Jasper commented.
“Jasper, I swear, he was here.”
“I believe you. I guess .. . Hey, maybe he was a gunshot wound. He chickened out and disappeared.