“Putting you in my truck. Taking you home where you belong—where you’re damn well going to stay.”
His pace was steady over the cold ground; each heavy tread of his booted feet pressed his shoulder into her stomach. “You’re making me sick.”
“Better than dead.”
“Put me down.” She wanted to pound at his back, but knew it would do nothing but wear her out even more.
“Nope.” With a powerful movement, he hefted them both over the low metal fence surrounding the cemetery.
Nika could hear an engine running nearby. She was almost out of time. “Will you at least listen to me?”
“Talk all you want. It won’t change anything.”
Madoc shifted her weight and set her on the bench seat of the truck. Another moment of dizziness distracted her, but she’d fought through worse. “I need those bones. I need proof that Tori is alive.”
“Not my problem.”
“If you take me back, I’m just going to leave again.”
“Maybe by then it’ll be warmer.” He climbed up into the truck, crowding her so she had to move over to make room for him.
“You really don’t care, do you? You don’t care that Tori is out there suffering.”
“All I care about is getting you home and getting back to the nest I’d planned on clearing out before I was so rudely interrupted.” He reached past her, under the seat, pulled out a first-aid kit, and flung it open.
He tore open a small antiseptic wipe with his teeth, spitting the top of the foil envelope onto the floorboard. “Give me your hand.”
At least he was willing to touch her now. Not like she wanted. Not like she’d dreamed about, but it was something. A start, at least. She could work with that.
Nika put her hand out and the sleeve of his black jacket flopped over her fingers. He pushed it up and dabbed at the scrape on her hand. The ugly, matte black ring he wore brushed her thumb, making it go cold, but she refused to complain.
“See. It’s not bad,” she said.
“Blood is still blood. I’ll call Tynan and see if he can meet us.”
“No. I don’t want him anywhere near me. I’m sick of doctors.”
“That leech is hardly a doctor, and you should have thought of that before you left Dabyr.”
“Just cover it up. It’s not even really bleeding anymore.”
Madoc ignored her, pulled out his cell phone, and dialed. “Where are you?” he demanded.
Tinny words she couldn’t make out came through the phone.
“Nika’s hurt,” said Madoc. “Can you meet us?”
Nika grabbed for the phone, but Madoc leaned away, evading her grasp.
“Of course it’s serious. She’s fucking bleeding.”
“It’s not serious,” yelled Nika, hoping she’d be heard.
Madoc shot her a warning glare. “Yeah. I know the place. We’ll be there.” He slid the phone back onto his belt, put the truck in gear, and pulled out of the small parking area.
“Buckle up,” he told her. “And don’t even think about trying anything stupid. I’ve got a roll of duct tape in back, and I swear to God that if you make me use it, we’ll both regret it.”
Nika pulled the lap belt around her hips, refusing to move over to the far side of the cab. It was warm next to Madoc, and despite his jacket, she was still shivering from her exposure to the cold.
“Why do you have to act like such a jerk?” she asked.
He turned the heat up full blast and pointed the vents toward her. “It’s not an act. If you don’t like it, stay the hell away.”
The heat began to sink into her, but it only made the shivering worse. Muscles not used to so much physical effort clenched up, rebelling at their abuse. “Where are we going?”
“Tynan is too far away. He’s sending Connal to meet us.”
“No. I don’t know him. I don’t want him to touch me.”
Madoc shifted in his seat, inching away from her. “Damn it, Nika! You went and hurt yourself. I don’t know shit about patching people up. The best I could do would be to slap a strip of duct tape over it. That’s not good enough.”
“Actually, that would be perfect. Not only would it stop the bleeding; it would also keep me from getting more blisters.”
“You’re not going back there to dig up those bones, and that’s final.”
“I thought you, of all people, would listen to me.”
“Why? Because I’m so fucking sensitive?”
“No, because you know I’m not crazy.”
“No, I don’t. Standing out in the cold in the middle of the night in a cemetery, alone and unarmed, is pretty fucking crazy.”
“I need those bones. Please.” She put her hand on his arm, and because he was driving, he couldn’t flinch away. She felt the thick muscles below her hand twitch as though he wanted to, but she knew he wouldn’t risk crashing the car.
A weary sigh filled the silence. “Why, Nika? Why are those bones so important?”
“Because they prove Tori is still alive.”
“No. Even if those aren’t her bones, all that proves is that we haven’t found her body yet. Do you really want to do that to Andra? Do you really want to take away what little bit of peace she found by burying Tori?”
“You don’t understand. Tori is still alive. I can feel her. Rescuing her will make Andra feel a lot better than any fake funeral ever could.”
“You can’t know she’s alive.”
“I do. We’re connected. She’s getting weaker, but I can still feel her inside me. I can still feel her suffering.”
He shook his head. “This is crazy. You need to let it go or you’re going to get yourself killed.”
“So what? You’ve made it clear you don’t care about me one way or another.”
The truck lurched to the right, screaming to a sudden stop. Madoc slammed the gearshift into park and turned to face her.
“You have no fucking clue what you’re talking about. I’ve spent every spare moment since I met you hunting the sgath for you, trying to free that fucked-up mind of yours. That counts. I may be dead inside, but damn it, that counts.”
The pain radiating out from him shocked her. She’d always thought of him as invincible. Clearly, even he could hurt.
Nika reached up and pressed her hand against his cheek. Beard stubble tickled her fingers. His jaw clenched, but he didn’t pull away.
“You’re not dead inside. Why would you think that?” she asked.
His mouth tightened in anger and his eyes closed. A deep breath filled his chest, lifting his shoulders. She could feel him struggling to regain control.
In a carefully modulated tone, he said, “Forget I said anything. I’m fine.”
It was a lie. She could feel the taint of it staining his words, which meant he wasn’t fine.
Panic exploded inside Nika. She couldn’t let anything happen to him. He was too important—not just to her, but to everyone else, too. “What’s wrong with you?”
“I’m an incurable asshole. That’s all.” With that, he turned back to the road, pulling away from her touch, and merged onto the street.
Nika sat back, her mind reeling. He was lying about being fine, which meant something was wrong. Seriously wrong.
Whatever it was, Nika had to figure out what it was and fix it. She needed Madoc too much to lose him. Without him, she was destined to go back to the way she used to be—unable to control the pull of the Synestryn on her mind, unable to resist being sucked into their world of blood and pain and death.
She couldn’t let that happen. Not again. One way or another, she was going to figure out what was wrong and find someone who could fix it.
Connal was already waiting for them when they pulled into the Gerai house. Madoc had been here before—the night they’d taken Nika from the mental hospital. The human doctors had done nothing to help her, and had actually allowed her to fool their minds into thinking she was fine when she was wasting away, unable to eat.
Madoc had known the moment he saw her that she was going to be trouble; he just never suspected how much. He hadn’t had a moment’s peace since meeting her—not that he really deserved any. Still, he sometimes wondered what his life would have been like if he’d never met her.
He’d be dead already. He knew better than to fool himself into thinking otherwise. He wouldn’t have had a reason to live. He would have given in to the pull to remove that frigid black ring, let go of the last sliver of his soul, and be set free. His brothers would have found him and killed him, but not before he’d done some serious damage to them in return.
Who knew how many lives Nika had saved by giving him a reason to hang on? Of course, once he freed her mind and killed the last sgath, that reason would be gone.
Madoc really needed to die before that happened. He needed to give up and let go—dive headfirst into a nest of Synestryn and take out as many as he could before they killed him.
The problem was the timing. If he went to his death too soon, Nika’s head would still be fucked-up. If he waited too long, people he was supposed to care about would die.
Better to err on the side of caution while he still had enough control over his actions to do so.
It was time to let go. Hand over to another Theronai his quest to kill every last sgath. It wasn’t like he was the only one who could kill the fuckers. There was nothing special about him. He was just one more sword arm, one more warrior.
They didn’t need him; they needed him dead before he could hurt anyone. Especially Nika.
“I remember this house,” said Nika.
“We brought you here the night we took you from the hospital.”
She gave a distracted nod, staring at the modest home set inside an isolated, wooded area outside Omaha. “I tried to run away to get to Tori, but a vampire stopped me. You came in and took care of me.”
Madoc snorted. “Hardly. I told you to get your scrawny ass back in bed.”
“You fed me. I hadn’t eaten in so long.”
“You’re not still having trouble with that, are you?”
“Not very often. I’m stronger now. I can usually tell the difference between the things that happen to me in my body and the things that happen to my mind while it’s in the body of others.”
That was some freaky shit Madoc refused to think about too long. Dealing with his own pain was bad enough. Having to also stand the suffering in someone else would be a nightmare.
“Connal’s van is here. We should go in.”
“I really don’t want to do this,” said Nika. Her voice trembled, making Madoc feel like the biggest dick on the face of the planet for forcing her.
It was the right thing to do. She was bleeding. The leech would make it stop. It was as simple as that.
“If he hurts you, I’ll kill him,” he said, meaning every word.
He got out of the truck, and Nika scooted across the seat toward the door. She looked small and fragile inside his leather jacket. The thing swallowed her up, hanging over her hands and nearly down to her knees. Her cheeks were pink from the cold, and the dome light over her head made her white hair glow.