I was back. Surrounded by darkness, two blurry forms crouched before an open safe, hidden behind a large hinged bookcase. They breathed heavily, working at a feverish pace to find what they had searched for the past months. One of the men froze and all movement stopped. He leaned further into the safe, using both hands to pull out a thick leather-bound book.
“That’s it. Dear God, that’s it,” Jack whispered.
Every corner of the room held a warning. Lit only by the moonlight filtering through the blinds of a single window, antique swords and axes hung on the walls, bordering hand-painted landscapes of war and death. The air was stale, lacking human lungs to circulate it.
I had been there many times before, but my hands still trembled, knowing the panic would begin soon. It was coming, but I couldn’t stop it. It would play over and over as if I were stuck in time, in a bad dream, or in Hell.
Jack’s fingers ran over the branded seal in the center and looked to his friend.
“Are you sure you want to do this, Jack?”
“Are you sure it’s her, Gabe?” Jack replied. Gabe nodded slowly, and then Jack continued with a sigh, “Then you know the answer.”
Hearing what Jack’s human ears couldn’t, Gabe’s head jerked to the side. “It’s too late,” he said, his eyes twitching back and forth as he listened. “They’re here.”
They shoved the documents, artifacts, and jewels back into the safe, and the fair-haired man effortlessly pressed the heavy bookcase flat against the wall in an attempt to conceal any evidence of their presence.
“Don’t worry about that now, Gabe! Let’s go!” Jack growled.
“I’m trying to buy us some time!”
Their shadows glided over the wooden floor as the men fled the room, and I stepped aside, watching them in silence, knowing their fate.
Gabe ran ahead, gun in hand, accustomed to Jack falling behind. He waited at the end of the hall for his friend, calculating a way out.
“The roof,” I whispered in his ear. “You always use the roof.”
A large, warm hand reached out, and Jack was pushed against the wall.
“What are you . . .?” Jack began.
Gabe lifted his finger to his mouth, and then pointed to the upper floor. Jack nodded quickly, pushing his tired body from the wall. They bolted down a corridor, tightly rounded a corner, and then launched themselves up the stairs. Both men took two steps at a time, their hands gripping the banister to pull them along with each leap.
“The roof!” Gabe called as many voices echoed below them, none of them human.
Jack’s eyes widened when a terrifying shriek came from below. His stride grew longer as he streaked through another door, climbing a second stairway. He heaved a breath of relief. The narrow walls of crumbling concrete meant the roof was just a few steps away.
Already at the top of the stairway, Gabe shouldered through an outer door and ran across the roof to the edge. He looked down, four stories to the road below, and then at his friend. “We’ve still got two minutes, Jack. Are you sure?”
“Do I look ambivalent to you?” he shouted, tightly grasping the book to his chest. “I have to find a way to stop it!”
I frowned. In the past, I had begged my father to leave the book behind. Dozens of trips to this place taught me that Jack and Gabe’s plight would replay exactly the same. Each time I attempted to change the outcome, it just made the end harder to watch.
Gabe sighed in submission and then jerked his head to the north, gauging the distance of their escape. “Then it begins.”
The shrieking grew louder, and Jack closed his eyes. “I have to save her,” he said in a low, grieved voice.
Jack’s body jerked forward. His tie slapped against his neck, and the wind howled past his ears as he flew through the night sky. It seemed as if the second he took flight, he had landed on another roof, four buildings away. Jack lurched forward with the sudden stop, bending at the waist, making a loud grunting noise as the air was forced from him with the sudden impact. Gabe released him then.
“I’ll never get used to that,” Jack smiled, smoothing out his jacket and tie.
“I could have let you take the fire escape, brother, but with those beasts on your tail, only parts of you would have made it to the street,” Gabe said with a smirk. His grin quickly faded when he looked up. “They are drawn to it. We need more distance.”
Jack nodded. A door identical to the one they escaped from was a few yards away. He yanked open the door, and then Gabe followed him down the stairs. After three flights, Jack slowed his pace; his chest heaved.
“Come on!” Gabe growled.
“I’m coming!” Jack snapped, taking another deep breath before descending the last two flights.
Just as their exit came into view, the shrieking and snarling grew louder. Jack looked over his shoulder and saw that Gabe had stayed behind, his firearm held closely to his face.
“We’re not going to make it. They’re too close.” Gabe breathed.
“GABRIEL!” An animalistic hiss cried above them. It was one voice, but it was also many.
Gabe cocked his gun and narrowed his eyes. “Go, Jack. I’ll hold them off.”
“If you want to save your daughter, then go!” Gabe yelled.
Jack clutched the book to his chest and made his way outside. He burst from the door and then grasped his knees, unable to catch his breath. He leaned against the door and lifted his face to the heavens, closing his eyes.
“God help me,” he whispered.
The shrieking stopped momentarily before piercing the air again.
For the first time, Jack looked into my eyes. He was afraid, something I’d never seen before. It felt strange at first, as though he shouldn’t have been able to see me. I watched a familiar look of resolve paint his face. “I’m going to save you, Nina.”
As if he’d never spoken to me, Jack’s eyes darted in every direction to determine the best route of escape.
Just as he had made his decision to flee, the wood splintered behind him, and dozens of long clawed hands exploded through the door. Jack’s eyes widened in terror as demons grabbed at his chest, his legs, his neck, and face. The sharp nails shredded his shirt, and sunk into his skin; blood spilling from his open wounds.
“Nina!” he screamed. His flesh ripped under the pressure of the long talons grating across it.
His arms and legs were thrust forward, and then his body bent in half and disappeared, sucked into the hell that awaited him inside.
“Daddy!” I screamed into the darkness.
Hands held my outreached arms and I slapped them away. “No! No! Daddy!” I wailed, trying to get away. I wasn’t strong enough.
“Nina, stop! It’s me!”
As reality sank in, I stopped fighting. Jared sat next to me in our bed, holding my wrists against his chest.
“Nina?” he said, leaning over to flip on the lamp.
My eyes squeezed shut, rejecting the light. Sweat soaked my cotton gown, and damp hair matted against my forehead. With trembling fingers, I wiped the wet strands from my face. It always took a few moments to calm myself, but it wasn’t fear this time. I was angry.
“They’re getting worse,” Jared said, concerned.
I had to clear my throat. “They’re so real,” I whispered. I could still smell my father’s cologne, and the screeching still rang in my ears. Returning to the same place almost every night to watch my father die felt like torture. Resentment replaced the fear, and that was a good thing; I felt better equipped to handle rage than the overwhelming helplessness that normally woke me.
I licked the salt from my lips. “I’m okay.”
“That’s the third one this week. I don’t think you’re okay,” Jared said, his face tense. “Same one?”
Reluctantly, I nodded. Jared worried obsessively each time he had to wake me from a nightmare. He was tormented by the screaming, the trembling, and the inability to stop it. The frustration and concern he felt was only exacerbated by our unique link. Jared was half human and half angel. As a hybrid, he was sensitive to small changes in my body such as blood pressure, hormonal changes, and my pulse, and because I was his taleh—the human he was charged with protecting—he felt my feelings as if they were his own.
He watched me for a moment before pulling me onto his lap. “Maybe you should talk to someone.”
“I don’t need a shrink, Jared. They’re just dreams,” I said, more to myself than to him.
He pulled me with him, resting his back against the headboard. I worked to relax. My days without him the previous spring had been good practice when I didn’t want to bother him with my ridiculous human fears and feelings. But I struggled after the nightmares, even after months of perfecting my talent.
I tried to think of anything but the terrifying image of my father being torn to shreds so that I could settle down and fall asleep. Jared’s feverish chest against my cheek was comforting, and I breathed in his amazing scent. Any other time I would have instantly felt at ease, but after the three-peat of the worst nightmare I’d ever had, it didn’t work.
“I’m going to take a shower,” I said, abruptly peeling off the blankets tucked around me.
“It’s three o’clock in the morning, Nina. You have to get up in three hours anyway for work. Why don’t you just try to sleep?”
I scooted to the edge of the bed, and planted my feet on the floor with my back to Jared. “Have you slept?” I asked him.
After a short pause, he let out an exasperated sigh. “Yes.”
“Then there’s no reason for me to go back to sleep. I don’t want to sleep, anyway. It’s the same thing every time I close my eyes.” I waited a moment, and when Jared failed to argue, I pushed myself off the bed and walked into the bathroom.
The pipes whined when I turned the shower knobs, and I stood in front of the sink in quiet thought, waiting for the water to warm. Visions from my dream flashed in short, loud scenes—the screeching and the sound of my father’s shoes running up the stairs—it wouldn’t stop. I closed my eyes tightly, willing the memories away. Were they even memories if it was just a dream?
“Nina? Are you okay in there?” Jared called.
I leaned over, cupped my hands together under the running water of the sink, and then splashed my face. I let the drops of water fall from my nose and chin into the basin and watched as they followed each other in a trail down the drain. Concentrating on masking my emotions was easier when I focused on something trivial.
“I’m fine,” I said, righting myself to stare in the mirror. My features had changed from the time when Jared and I had first met. Spending much of the summer indoors while my leg healed had left my skin pale and lifeless, and I was sporting a matching pair of purple circles under my eyes.
Our near-death experience in the restaurant seemed like a lifetime away. Aside from the occasional news story about the police department’s finest meeting untimely ends in bizarre and unrelated accidents, our days went by as if Graham, Shax, and the book had never existed.
I let my nightgown drop to the floor and then stepped into the shower, sighing as the stream of water poured over my face.
Jared walked in and leaned against the sink, crossing his arms across his chest.
“Everything okay?” I asked.
Jared shifted uncomfortably. “It’s you I’m worried about.”
“The fall semester is getting ready to start. I have extra classes, and with my internship, it’s probably just stress.”
“I don’t understand,” Jared said. “It’s been months since any of them have come around. This is the least I’ve seen of them in my entire life, and yet you’re . . .” Jared rubbed his neck. “It doesn’t make sense for you to be having these dreams now.”
“Jared, people have nightmares all the time without demons present. It doesn’t mean anything,” I said, scrubbing shampoo into my hair.
“That’s what you think.”
I rolled my eyes. “Oh, come on. You’re blowing this out of proportion. If I promise to quit having the dreams, will you promise to quit freaking out about them?”
“You’ll promise to quit having the dreams,” Jared repeated, his voice thick with sarcasm.
I poked my soapy head from the shower curtain, lather dripping down my face. “Okay, I can’t promise, but you’re giving me a complex. Unless you know something I don’t, they’re just dreams.”
Jared smiled and wiped the line of soap from my forehead, promptly kissing my lips. “Okay. They’re just dreams.”
I nodded in approval and then closed the curtain. “I have to stop by the office today. Do you mind?” I asked, knowing he would.
“You mean more than any other day?”
Escorting me to Titan Mercantile was just another day at work for Jared, but as often as I asked him to come in, it had become an inside joke between us. Every day I asked, and every day he politely declined. For years, Jared’s father, Gabe, walked the halls of Titan Mercantile. Jared didn’t talk about it, but I assumed his refusal to go in had to do with unresolved feelings concerning his father.
The hours before dawn crept by slowly, and after my shower, Jared and I spent the remaining moments of twilight at the breakfast table. When the morning sun finally poked through the blinds, I smiled at the glowing light painting rectangles against the walls. I had spent hours staring at those walls, waiting for my leg to heal. Beth visited infrequently, busy decorating her new apartment, Kim had taken her summer vacation on the road, and Claire was relentlessly eliminating any threat to us. Jared spent much of his time warding off loneliness and keeping me entertained. We had grown closer, and life had been more normal than ever. The only reminder of the night I almost died was the scar on my thigh.
Jared, working busily in the kitchen, caught my eye, and I listened to the pan pop and sizzle with our breakfast. He placed omelets on the table along with a small stack of mail.
“Anything interesting?” I asked as he thumbed through the envelopes.
Jared paused, eyes narrowing as he read over the handwritten address.
“It’s for you,” he said, sliding it toward me.
The top left corner explained Jared’s expression. It was from Ryan.
By Jared’s expression, I knew it wasn’t good news. “You already know, don’t you?” I said, pulling out a single sheet of notebook paper.
“I have an idea.”
“Something you should have told me by now,” I accused, scanning the letter quickly.
I wanted you to hear it from me, but didn’t know how to say it, so I’m just going to write it. I’m not coming back to Brown. I talked with an Army recruiter, and I feel that ’the Army’s the best place for me at this point. I know you better than you think I do, and right now, you’re feeling guilty. Well, don’t. You’re happy, and that’s all that matters to me. That’s the truth. I’m sorry you have to find out in this stupid letter, but everything happened so quickly that I didn’t have time to call. Take care of yourself, Nigh. I’ll think about you every day.
The letter slipped from my hands and fell to the floor, quietly and slowly. The numbness was unexpected but welcome; I knew guilt would soon wash over me and that it would be unbearable.
Jared touched my hand. “Claire called. He’s doing well.”
“Claire’s gone?” I wailed, standing up from my seat. Once again, although the swing of emotions startled me, anger was always preferable to pain. Jared took a step toward me, but I stepped away from him. “You didn’t even let me say good-bye to her! To either of them!”
Jared’s eyebrows moved inward, creating a deep crease. “He wanted to do this, Nina. You couldn’t have stopped him anyway.”
“But you knew it was happening,” I said softly. “You should have told me.” The lack of sleep was already wearing on me, and my body felt heavy. I didn’t have the energy to be angry. My eyes drifted to the letter on the floor. “This is my fault.”
I nodded. “I did this. I broke his heart, and he couldn’t stay here.” I shook my head. “I should have left him alone. He’s going to die out there.”
“Ryan made his choice,” Jared said.
His dry tone was hardly convincing. He had a right to be angry, watching his fiancée anguish over the man she was meant to be with. To Jared, Ryan being Claire’s taleh meant that I belonged to someone else, and I used that to drive Jared away when I thought being with him meant putting his family in danger. My brilliant plan had been enough to drive Ryan to join a war halfway across the world. No matter what Jared said or how much he hated to see me upset, he wasn’t sorry to see Ryan go.
As angry as I was, the only one to blame was me, and we both knew it.
I shook my head. “I have to get going. I have to get those documents faxed by eight.”
Jared sighed. “If I had told you, what would you have done besides worry?”
I pulled my purse over my shoulder. “I don’t know,” I said, pulling out my cell phone. I scrolled through the address book until I found Ryan’s number and then held the phone to my ear. As I expected, his voice mail immediately answered.
The sound of his voice made my insides wrench, but when the beep cued me to speak, my temper kicked in.
“I need you to call me. Call me right now. I mean it. I just got your letter and you can’t do this. You just can’t. You’ve got to call me so we can figure this out. Please.”
Jared took the phone from my hand and let it slowly close. “He’s not going to get that message, sweetheart.”
“I had to try,” I said, opening my purse for him to drop the phone inside. “Someone had to.”
Jared touched my arm. “He’s the safest enlisted man in the Army, Nina. He has Claire.”
“And how is that going to work, exactly? Has Claire joined the Army?”
Jared smiled. “No. We’ve talked about this. She’s keeps an eye on Ryan the same way we were allowed to train. We have connections.”
“That’s not the point.”
“I know,” Jared said, opening the door.
I didn’t kiss him when I passed through the door or when he opened the passenger side for me as he always did or before he left me for the driver’s seat. He didn’t attempt to apologize, which he only did when he felt he was right, knowing that infuriated me further.
“I’m sorry you’re angry,” he said.
I glared at him. “That’s lame and you know it. You didn’t tell me Ryan had enlisted in the first place! You didn’t let me say good-bye to Claire! Sorry I’m angry.” I muttered the last words and crossed my arms, settling into an unyielding foul mood. When Jared didn’t reply, I peeked at him from the corner of my eye. He was trying not to laugh.
“This is not funny, Jared!”
His mouth immediately flat-lined. “I didn’t say it was. You’re just,” he shook his head as he pulled to the curb of Titan Mercantile, “trying to be angry, with a series of annoyed expressions on your beautiful face; it’s amusing. I’m sorry.”
“Stop being sorry and start being—I don’t know—sorry!”
A corner of Jared’s mouth rebelled and turned up slightly before he straightened it again. “Have a good day.”
I slammed the door, beyond trying to have an argument with him. At times it was maddening how in love with me he was.
I took a few steps toward the building and then stopped. I returned to the Escalade and opened the door. “Are you coming in?” I asked sheepishly.
“Not today,” he smiled.
Jared had spent endless hours at Titan Mercantile as a child, and it was his least favorite place to go with his father. It didn’t help that the other employees stared at him as if he were a zoo animal. They couldn’t figure our relationship out; although, most of them knew that Jared was Gabe’s son and my security.
In the days when my father walked the halls, seeing Gabe was just another day at the office. From the first day of my internship, it was apparent that I also needed protection, and my appointed bodyguard also happened to be my fiancé. Those facts alone began more than one string of rumors about my family.
One of my fellow interns in particular had an immediate interest in Jared. Sasha wasted no time with the saccharine-laced pleasantries; on the contrary, she was downright hateful to me on the subject.
“So Jared,” she began as I walked into the office we shared. She eyed his Escalade from the window as she spoke.
“I have a lot to do, Sasha.”
“He protects you?” When I didn’t answer, she walked over to stand in front of my desk, tapping on it until I looked up. “From what?” she asked, dubiously.
I glared at her long nails clicking against the wood and then up at her. “I’m busy.”
“But he’s your boyfriend, right?”
“No?” she said, her voice an octave higher.
“Isn’t that, you know, a conflict of interest?”
“Not really,” I said, thumbing through a stack of papers.
“I just don’t get it. I mean,” she puffed an airy laugh, “I realize you’re the princess of Titan Mercantile, but don’t you feel a little ridiculous when you stand next to him? You’re such an odd couple.”
Recognizing what she meant, my head jerked up, and my eyes narrowed. “Excuse me?”
Sasha shrugged then, running her finger along the edge of my desk as she slithered around me. “Doesn’t it make you self-conscious? Women must be throwing themselves at him all the time.”
“Not really, no,” I snapped as she walked toward the door.
Sasha smirked, backing away from my glare. “Hmm. Very interesting.” Her long red ponytail flicked as she turned the corner, and I felt the heat radiate from my face.
On cue, my phone rang.
“Everything okay?” Jared asked on the other end of the line.
I covered my eyes with my hand, attempting to calm myself before I spoke. “Everything’s fine. It’s . . . Sasha was just here.”
“Oh. That explains it. Is she leaving her coffee mug on your papers, again?” Jared chuckled. For whatever reason, it amused him that the woman got under my skin in such a way that I couldn’t think straight.
I sighed. “No. She’s . . . I can’t say what I want to, so I just won’t.”
“You do own the company, you know. You don’t have to work with her.”
“Right now, I’m an intern, Jared. And,” I sighed again, watching her flirt with the human resources manager, “don’t tempt me.”
“Think you could slip away a bit early today?” Jared asked.
“It’s your first day back to Brown tomorrow. I thought we could get on the bike, head to the oak tree, and have some lunch.”
“The oak tree?”
“The one I’ve wanted to take you to: where my father took my mother.”
I smiled. “That sounds fantastic, but I have a meeting first.”
“Right,” Jared said, pretending he’d forgotten.
I straightened my skirt at the waist and then pressed the button for the third floor. My entire last day of freedom could have been spent with Jared, but Mr. Patocka asked that the interns come in for one last meeting before school began. Some of them were leaving, and he needed to redistribute responsibilities. I had looked forward to this meeting all week only because it was Sasha’s last day. That alone was cause to celebrate.
“Interns.” Mr. Patocka began looking through the papers in his hand. He always said “interns” as if it left a bad taste in his mouth.
“Anna, Brad, and Evan will be leaving us, leaving Shannon, John, Nina, and Sasha with new responsibilities. I would like to say . . .”
Mr. Patocka’s words blurred together after I realized he’d put Sasha in the wrong category.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Patocka?”
“Yes, Miss Grey?” he said, obviously irritated. I was well aware that had any other intern interrupted him he or she would have been promptly asked to leave the meeting, but everyone knew, including Mr. Patocka, that I wasn’t just an intern.
“I think you’ve made a mistake. Sasha isn’t staying,” I said as professionally as I could manage.
“Still not paying attention to your briefs,” Sasha snapped. “I’m staying on through the school year.”
“What?” I said, my tone sounding more disgusted than I’d meant. I looked to Mr. Patocka, who nodded while looking incredibly bored with the turn the conversation had taken.
“I . . . She . . .” I stumbled over my words, trying to think of a way to save face after I’d made it so clear that I was shocked and dismayed at the news.
“It’s okay, Nina. We still get to be office mates,” Sasha purred. Her smile was that of a cat being polite to the bird just before she ate it.
“Moving on,” Mr. Patocka continued. “Sasha, you’ll be taking over Brad’s duties, Shannon, you’ll be taking over Anna’s duties, and John will be taking over Evan’s. I expect those departing to make sure those staying behind have exact instructions.”
“What about Nina?” Sasha said, glaring back at me over her shoulder.
Mr. Patocka sighed. “Nina will be training with Grant during the school year, Sasha. Try not to make me feel as though I’m babysitting more than I already do, please.”
“With Grant?” Sasha groused.
Grant was second in command at Titan. When Jack died, he assumed the management responsibilities until I was ready to take over. Working with him was not something I looked forward to; I had spent my teenage years watching Grant suck up to my father and, to Jack’s amusement, shamelessly flirt with me.
Jack saw something in Grant that I couldn’t—or wouldn’t—see. Not only did he give Grant promotion after promotion he tirelessly tried to persuade me to go out with his up-and-coming, incredibly intelligent, star employee.
While being within five feet of Grant usually made me a bit nauseated, Sasha had been scheming to land a job as his assistant since her first day. Mr. Patocka’s decision to place me in the very position she’d been working for all summer would no doubt push her beyond any irritation she’d had for me before.
I smiled at the thought. This would mean an all-out war.
“Is there a problem, Sasha?” I asked, trying to preserve a bit of respect from my future employees.
“Problem? Not at all,” Sasha said with the sickeningly sweet laugh that liberated her from most awkward situations she’d created for herself. “I apologize, Nina. I didn’t realize you were so sensitive,” she smiled.
I looked to Mr. Patocka. “Are we finished here?”
“I’m finished with the meeting, but I need you to come to Grant’s office with me, Nina. He needs to brief you on a few things before you start back next week.”
The other interns filed out of the room, shaking hands and saying their good-byes. I nodded to each of them as they made a bee-line to the elevator, but not before meeting Sasha’s cheap grin with one of my own.
Mr. Patocka escorted me down the hall and into the elevator, punching the button for the fourth floor, where my father’s office still resided. Grant’s office was on the opposite side of the floor, parallel to Jack’s. Half of his walls were covered in degrees and pictures of polo ponies, and the other half allowed the sunshine to pour in from large windows that overlooked Fleet Rink.
Mr. Patocka knocked on Grant’s half-opened door. “Er, Mr. Bristol? Nina’s here to see you.”
“Bring her in.”
I walked into his office, sitting in a puffy green chair, feeling amiable for a change. Grant had worked for my father for ten years, and, like every clichéd rise-to-the-top story, Grant started at entry level. The only thing that would have made his story any more boring would be if he’d begun in the mail-sorting trenches, had we kept a mail room. But Grant didn’t begin his days at Titan as a mail boy.
He’d begun as an intern.
“Nina,” Grant greeted me over his thin square glasses.
“Grant,” I acknowledged with a nod.
Grant looked at Mr. Patocka and smiled politely. “Thank you, Eugene.”
Mr. Patocka ducked from the door and shut it behind him. Even though I saw Grant as somewhat of a weasel, the rest of the employees regarded him as their personal savior.
“Okay, what’s with all the formalities, Grant?” I said, crossing my arms.
“Give me a break, peanut,” he smiled.
He sat in his chair, leisurely crossing his ankles on top of his desk. I frowned at his ridiculous argyle socks. They resembled the very thing I hated about Grant Bristol. He was handsome in an annoying, maddening way. His light brown hair and clean-shaven baby face made most women at our office swoon. He was well dressed and well spoken, and I suppose he was even funny at times. All of which made me want to plant my fist straight into his square chin. He reminded me of the typical soap-opera star. His words were fake, his smile was fake, and his very presence affected me like nails on a chalkboard.
“Ugh! You know I hate it when you call me that. If we’re going to work together, you’re going to have to stop that, Grant. I mean it.”
“Anything you say.” He smiled with his too-straight, too-white teeth. “I want you here when you’re not in class. If I could do it, you can do it. No excuses.”
Attempting to keep my temper in check, I stood and offered a small grin. “See you tomorrow.”
“One more thing,” Grant said. I turned and waited. “Nice skirt, peanut.”
I stomped out of Grant’s office, trying not to kick anything on my way out. When I pushed through the front door, I saw Jared’s Escalade parked against the curb across the street as usual, only this time he stood against his door looking extremely uncomfortable while Sasha leaned against his car with her shoulder not six inches from him. I could see that he was trying to be polite as he kept his arms crossed, careful not to react to her flirtation, but my eyes zeroed in on Sasha giggling and touching his shirt, chest, and arms with every other word.
“Nina! Hi, Sweetheart,” Jared said, my interruption a relief. He pulled me into his arms and made a show of planting a kiss on my lips.
“Hey, Nina,” Sasha gushed. “I was just telling Jared that we should double date sometime.”
“No,” I snapped, my patience far beyond its limit. Jared walked me to the passenger side and opened the door. “I can get into the car on my own,” I said acerbically.
“Nina.” Jared smiled, amused at my mood.
“Don’t Nina me,” I said, looking straight ahead.
“Well,” Sasha called from the other side of the SUV, raising her eyebrows. “I guess I’ll see you on Monday. It was nice to finally have a chance to talk to you, Jared.”
Ignoring Sasha’s final attempt for his attention, Jared watched me for a moment, trying to decipher my emotions. Finally, he walked around to his side and slid in beside me. He watched Sasha trot across the street and then shook his head. “You don’t honestly think I was—”
“No. I don’t think you were flirting with her,” I grumbled.
Jared pulled away from the curb and nodded. “Good because that is completely ridiculous. Not only am I madly in love with you she’s . . .” Jared shook his head, making a series of disgusted faces as he tried to think of the correct description. “She’s something else.”
“That’s a word for it,” I said, crossing my arms.
“How was your meeting?” he asked.
“You mean you don’t know?”
“I kept tabs, but it was difficult to get the details with Sasha two inches from my face. Is Grant still a jackass?”
“Yes,” I nodded.
“What’s wrong?” Jared paused a moment and then his eyebrows shot up. “Oh.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing. I didn’t mean anything,” Jared said, trying not to smile.
I shook my head, watching the trees pass by the window. Eli had once told us that when we made a commitment in a physical way, Jared’s senses concerning me would be heightened. I still wasn’t sure what that entailed. Jared never let on that anything had changed, but when his former urgent curiosity about the motives behind my moods or feelings had all but disappeared, I knew something was different. I cornered him on more than one occasion to explain his new attunement, but he always seemed to maneuver his way out of the conversation with an efficient and irresistible diversion.
“Do we still have lunch plans?” My attention focused on the passing landscape outside the window.
“Absolutely. I have a surprise for you,” Jared said, taking my hand and pulling it to his mouth.
My mood quickly changed as the warmth from his lips shot up my arm. “I love surprises.”
“I know,” he said against my skin.