“Do you want to live?”
What the hell...?
I focused on the brown hand thrust into my face, held onto it like a lifeline. Everything else around me was a scorched blur. My heart beat hard, and pain rode through my flesh. Did I want to live?
Where was I? What had happened? Panic bubbled and words burst out. “What sort of insane question is that?” I choked, and agony shot over my skull.
“Make a choice.”
I breathed slow, wanting to ease the fear, the pain enveloping me. I focused on the man’s hand, on the ring on his third finger. Heavy, white gold, and ornate, it gleamed against his smooth brown skin. Something about it itched, tugging at my memory, but my dull brain couldn’t help me remember. I concentrated on his question instead and let out a slow breath. My throat hurt. “Choice?”
More sensation worked its way through my fogged brain, breaking the pounding pain beating against my skull. Flagstones scraped against my cheek, my jaw. Cold air brushed against my skin, and the thin taste of smoke, brick dust, and the river’s damp air slid into my lungs. I swallowed, and blood and grit filled my mouth. All right, I was lying down outside somewhere. Which made no sense. I’d been what...heading in to work? And then what? Collapsed, passed out? Then some freak had found me. Always my luck.
It was time to try moving. My arm lay at an awkward angle under my hip, and I pushed my will into my muscles. Big mistake. The twitch of movement lanced agony down to my fingertips. The sudden flare of pain brought with it an unexpected clarity, and the surrounding haze of light and shadow fell into brief focus.
Beyond the stranger’s hand, flagstones coated with red dust stretched away from me and a morning fog rolled in from the river, wreathing around the black lampposts and obscuring everything else.
“You have to answer me.”
I winced, and a hot flush of pain ran over my face. Damn it, what part of me didn’t hurt? “Answer you?”
“Do you want to live? You have to make the choice.”
His hand disappeared from my view, and for a panicked, confused moment, I thought he’d left me, alone, injured. Then came the light brush of his fingers over my hair in a slow, sure rhythm. My thudding heart slowed...but something about his touch seemed wrong. However, even with the fading beat of pain in my head, thinking was still hard, and I just wanted the relief of not hurting. I closed my eyes and let my body pull in air, bitter as it was. Slowly, I drifted, and the warm tug of sleep dulled the agony --
“Do you want my help?”
I winced. The pain was back. Hell, was the deep voice stabbing into my head simply a figment brought on by my obviously cracked skull? “No, I just want to lie here.” I spat out the taste of blood. “Maybe bleed a bit more. What d’you think?”
He cursed, something ripe and not very complimentary. “Leona Munro. Yes or no? Do you want to live?”
“I’ve told you. What sort of insane, crazy question --” I made the mistake of moving my head from the flagstone pavement. Pain spiked and my stomach roiled. Nausea surged. I sank back to the cold stone and tried to breathe away the agony ripping through me. It didn’t work. Damn it, I needed his help. If I had to answer his stupid question, then I’d do that. “Yes.” The word gritted out from between clenched teeth. “I want to live.”
His hand, still caught in my hair, pressed hard against my skull. And that was the something wrong. It didn’t hurt. In fact...the searing edge of pain dulled, faded, and a slow fire slid through my flesh, relaxing every screaming inch of my skin, bones, and muscle. I sighed, and I couldn’t stop my body from sagging deeper against the hard flagstones like a boneless doll. I didn’t care. I didn’t hurt. That was all that mattered in my world right then. “Thank you.”
“You may change your mind about that.”
Blake gripped my arm with hard fingers and yanked me to my feet. His strong arm hooked under mine, wrapped under my breasts, and clutched my hip. He held me up, and I let him, as my rag-doll body refused to work. I willed myself to find the strength to break away from him...and failed. On the plus side, my brain was clear and free from pain. I blinked, wishing I could rub the grit from my eyes, but my hand refused to lift. My fingers tingled, so whatever my stranger had done, I still had feeling.
I did the only thing I could. I stared around me.
I’d had no idea where I was as my head pounded and I could barely focus. I’d just known that I was outside and somewhere near the river...but I knew
the stone wall curving away from me. It stretched up in front of the old pier master’s house and was built around its ornate garden. My breath hitched, and a new panic hit me -- hot, fast, firing adrenaline through every muscle. That tall, thin house was all that was left of the immediate waterfront.
The riot of fear rushed strength into my body, and I broke free of my stranger’s tight hold, staggered, and then slumped against the stone wall. My heart pounded, and I dug my fingers into the wall’s crumbling mortar until the pain bit into my palm. It was real. The destruction was real
The brick-built warehouses that had stretched along the river, the ones due for regeneration, were gone. Rubble and twisting smoke obscured the surrounding glass-and-steel offices. And the gallery, my workplace, was a half-standing wreck. My stomach turned over. What could have done this?
“Magic.” The word escaped me. Yet, it made no sense. I was an invigilator at the maritime gallery, a security guard with a degree in history and art, meant to work the floors and chat with the visiting public. The first thing I’d learned in the job was that every stone bristled with reinforced antimagic. Centuries of it, worked into the old waterfront by the contractors from across the river. But no known tech could lay a precise area to waste and leave the surrounding buildings intact, untouched. “It can’t be magic. That’s impossible.”
“So you would think.”
I stared up at the man who had healed me, saved me. Dressed in a tailored black suit, shirt, and matching tie, I had the uneasy feeling he was just like me, a guard. Yet...there was something more to him. Something aristocratic in the turn of his strong jaw, and a power in his dark eyes that itched under my skin. Was he a magician? My stomach hollowed, and my hands tightened into fists. Had he done this? Destroyed the waterfront? “What are you?”
A smile curved his mouth, and there was something almost...animalistic...about it.
I swallowed, and goose bumps ran over my flesh. “Well?”
“My name is Samuel Blake.”
“I didn’t ask your name.”
His smile deepened. “I know.”
I straightened, hoping that if I controlled my body, then some sense would work its way back into my brain. I stared at my hands, clear of any cuts, and then pulled at my torn blue uniform. Blood still stained the holes, but there was only clear skin beneath. “You healed me.” I felt it deep into my bones. Yes, healed me completely.
I stopped myself from gritting my teeth. He’d saved me; I wouldn’t punch him just yet. “You’re a magician.”
Something shifted in his eyes, and a chill swept over my skin. I could almost taste his anger as if it were my own. “No.” His hand tightened around my arm. “Let’s go.”
“Go?” I grabbed at the wall again, anchoring myself to it. I shrugged my arm free of his tight grip. I’d be damned if he thought I was leaving, running away from the scene. I didn’t run. “I’m the deputy.” I held his blank stare. “To the disaster recovery manager? I have to start to sort this out.” I glanced into the sky. “It’s still early.” I tapped my watch. The cracked face showed six thirty-five. Damn it, how long had I been out? They relied on me. Douglas had made it very clear how important my role was in a disaster situation, how much trust he placed in me. “Shift change is...was due. We have to contact people, organize the search for survivors.”
Blake’s jaw stiffened, and there was that undercurrent of anger again, a raw, almost bitter taste in my mouth. “No.” His fingers curled around my upper arm, and he yanked me along with him. I stumbled over the debris, slithering over my own blood staining the flagstones. “I asked you if you wanted to live. For you to live, you have to leave.”
“No?” I staggered back from him. How was he simply walking away from this? “What kind of man...”
Blake’s hand slid into his jacket, and everything about him screamed weapon
. I pressed my lips shut. Who the hell was he? Samuel Blake radiated menace, and I really should get as far away from him as I possibly could.
His gaze narrowed, and he pulled out a slim, silver-edged mobile interface. My heart squeezed and started beating again. Not a weapon. My brain kicked in as I realized what he was. He was a reject just like me. A reject for whom the tech-implants of the South Bank simply didn’t take.
Blake stared at me -- no, through me -- as he put the device to his ear and listened to the voice at the other end. “All of them. All emergency services.” He paused, and the cold expression didn’t change. “Yes. Didn’t you notice the implosion?” His mouth thinned. “My tone is no concern of yours. But as you’re not interested, I won’t tell you that the
Merrow Dock complex is flat.” He stabbed a thumb at the sleek interface, killing the connection. “Idiot.” He turned his attention back to me. “I contacted help. Good enough?”
“Tough. You are --”
The groan of metal was the only warning before the upper floors of the maritime gallery crashed into the tidal dock. I bit back a scream, only half aware of Blake yanking me back against his chest.
“Damn it, what is it with you people? Are you not listening? The whole waterfront is unstable.” Blake’s words were a low growl.
I couldn’t take my eyes off the gaping hole that revealed the reconstruction of the steam-age liner. I’d worked on that floor, leading small groups of children around the long polished deck, warning them not to poke the already listing mannequin of the captain. And above it, exposed to the smoke-filled air, was the exhibition in which I currently worked. The Myth of the Sea-Dragon.
I shuddered. It was the reason why I was late this morning. I hated that damn room.
The dark chamber had cracked open, revealing the replica of the golden throne, from which the Dragon Lord ruled the world. Black silk banners streamed in the wind, the image of the Sea-Dragon twisting green and gold from the fourth floor. Another shudder shook me. I was slipping into shock, and I knew it. Couldn’t stop it. “What did this?”
“What you said.”
Blake broke me from staring by lifting me over a shattered lamppost, sparks lashing the ground around us. The ease, his obvious strength, unnerved me. Hell, I wasn’t a waif. I pushed my mind back to what he’d said. “Magic?”
He didn’t reply, only turned me away, took my hand in a tight, hard grip, and tugged me forward. He broke into a run, and I had to follow. He pounded over the swing bridge, his boots thumping against the metal. I couldn’t keep up with his harsh pace. My boot caught, and I stumbled, yanking my hand free. The metal dug hard into my knees, but what I saw through the grill cut off my pained yelp. The river, brown and frothing far below, its roar lashing, snarling and growling against my brain. I fought for breath. The tidal power of the river had always terrified me.
“Leona.” Blake gripped my arm, and I tore my gaze up from the raging river. His dark gaze held no reflection, was endless, and pulled me in. Breathing came easier, and my surge of panic ebbed away. “It’s just water.”
“Water.” I repeated the word, needing to believe it. “Just water.”
He pulled me up. “Now we need to get away. We’re not safe here.”
I stared back at the destruction of the waterfront. The black banners flashed in the clearing air, and a shiver twitched through me. Everything felt...wrong, and I didn’t know why. “But magic? That’s impossible. We signed treaties. The guild masters have honored them for centuries.”
“Did I say it was the North Bank?”
I blinked. “Magic is bound to the guild masters and exists only on the peninsula of the North Bank. Where else is there?”
His smile was wry. “I’ve said enough.”
“Who the hell are you?”
I yanked myself free of his tight hold. “Yes. And that means nothing.”
He took my hand again, his grip hot and strong around my bloodless fingers. “It’s all you are to be told.”
“As if just saying your name is a good enough explanation. I have no idea who you --”
Something zinged past my ear.
Blake dropped, dragging me with him. My knees impacted the metal grill for a second time, and I winced. The water below lashed up, and horror twisted my stomach. Just water. Just water.
Blake blocked me with his body, the fresh scent of him hiding the sour stink of smoke and rubble. He smelled like the clean ocean, and it threaded through me, calming me as I stared into the churning brown water far below.
The metal bridge spanged. Bullets ricocheted. Bullets? What was going on? Who the hell had bullets
anymore? And they were in plain sight. I crushed my eyes shut and willed us safe, willed that whoever was firing at us would carry on being such incredibly bad shots.
Blake’s harsh breaths rasped against my neck. His weight pressed me into the grill. My heart thudded. His hand was in exactly the wrong
place. Someone was shooting at us, and all I could think about was the callused tip of his finger. The finger that caught the bare curve of my breast through the tear in my shirt, eliciting an unexpected jolt of need.
“Keep still.” The hot growl had heat curling through my flesh.
Obviously, the implosion had rattled my brain. I forced myself to focus and not think about the way he almost cupped my breast. Or the way his lips seared my skin with the hot pulse of need. Oh shit.
My focus was shot. I tried talking. “Why...why is someone shooting at you?”
That burned my lust to ash. “Someone wants to shoot me
?” I choked on laughter. “Destroying my workplace wasn’t enough?”
Blake didn’t answer. In one smooth movement, he leaped to his feet, and with his body still blocking mine, he bustled me from the bridge. He pushed me behind the curving safety of the high wall surrounding the dockmaster’s offices. The short wall, that ended only meters to the right, separated the buildings from the corniche and offered some protection. Only some. We would have to run into the open of the corniche to get to the old transport offices. Terror gripped me, the strange calm Blake brought gone again. What the hell
was going on?
Bullets burst around us, thudding into the grass far to our right, smacking into the bricks of the offices, striking against the cobbles on the corniche on the other side of the wall behind which we hid. It was insane. Someone was shooting at us, at me
. It made no sense. I led a dull, ordinary life. Not one filled with magic, implosions, and archaic weaponry.
Blake pressed me hard up against the wall, and I forgot all about the bullets. He turned his head from me, and I stared at the taut line of his throat. I swallowed, fighting the need to lick his warm brown skin. Head injury. Serious head injury.
I repeated that over and over and closed my eyes, desperate to deny the growing need in my flesh.
It didn’t help. With my eyes shut, I breathed in his clean, intoxicating scent. The delicious pressure of his body against my pelvis, stomach, breasts had my heart pounding. I balled my hands into fists and pushed them hard against the rough, old brick. Damn it, what was wrong with me? My wild mix of terror and lust had my thoughts spinning.
He covered my mouth with his hand, and his gaze fixed on me. Something lurked there, and my chest heaved. His fingers tightened in reflex against my jaw. With my breath short, my body surged with liquid fire.
He leaned in close, his lips brushing my ear. “Silence, Leona. They’re still here.” He took a deep breath, scenting the air like a...a beast...and the shift in his chest, his hips tightened the need in my body. “Their scent is everywhere.”