Whispered voices filter through the watery realm of semiconsciousness and grow louder the closer I rise to the surface. Anxiety fills their muffled tones, both male and female. My body shakes, and sharp points dig into my back. The side of my face suddenly lights up with a sting.
“Tell me you did not just slap her,” a male voice accuses.
“She needs to wake the hell up.” The female reply sounds like music, even in its harshness.
“Vanessa, you can’t go around slapping our matriarch,” another woman’s voice reprimands.
The first one huffs. “She’ll get over it and then probably slap me back.”
As my fingers brush over my cheek, I try to open my eyes. My lids feel heavy and scratchy, but I manage a slit. Sunlight glares, and they shut again on their own. With a few flutters against the light, I finally focus on the scene before me. Or rather, above me. I’m lying on the ground with three faces hovering over me—two females and a male—and behind them gleams the sun through an entanglement of bare tree branches.
Where am I? What happened?
“See? It worked,” says the musical voice. My gaze finds her stunning face with skin nearly as white as her hair that’s pulled back into a tight ponytail. Her light blue eyes, however, are like ice daggers as they glower at me. But they fail to pierce through the fog in my mind. “Come on, your highness. Enough of the dramatics. Get up. We need to get out of here.”
A pale hand wraps around my upper arm before I can move, and I flinch.
“Vanessa,” the other female admonishes again, her brown hair hanging around her face as she looks down at me. Her breath plumes in a thin fog as she speaks. She places a long, thin hand over the first and pulls it away. “Give her a minute. She passed out.”
“We don’t have a minute,” Vanessa growls. “And she’s fine now.”
“Sheree’s right,” the guy says. Worry etches three lines between his sapphire eyes as he studies me. He rubs his chin covered with thick scruff, which is a slightly darker hue than the straw-colored hair sticking out from under his knit cap. “She looks out of it. Alexis, are you okay? It’s me, Owen. Can you see me?”
I blink, frown, and try to sit up. My vision wavers, and I close my eyes for a moment, pressing my fingers to my lids. What the hell has happened to me? I slowly open them again. Everyone’s stepped back to give me space, but their gazes remain heavily on me. I swallow, or try to. My throat feels like sandpaper. I lick my lips, tasting the slightly bitter odor hanging in the air, but the effort is pointless, my tongue as dry as my throat.
“Thirsty,” I manage to croak out.
“Aren’t we all,” someone else mutters.
My perspective shifts outward to find two other men beyond the circle around me, both dressed in thick parkas, knit hats, and gloves. They’re armed with a crossbow and a gun that they keep in ready position as they each make a slow circle, watching the woods surrounding the clearing where we’re gathered. The trees are half brown and half gray, with a few withered leaves fluttering from some of the branches as though hanging on even in death. Most branches, however, are bare. Something about them seems odd, as though the limbs aren’t naked only because of the time of year, but for another reason. I can’t pinpoint what I feel like I should know through my hazy mind. Off to my left, the surface of a large lake glitters in the sun, the far shore barely visible in the distance. I gnaw on my lip. I have no idea where I am.
“What happened?” I ask as I rise to my feet.
Vanessa’s hand darts out to help me, her touch cold as ice. I withdraw my arm from her hold as soon as I’m standing and take a step back. Her eyes narrow as they visually assess my condition, the look in them causing a shiver down my spine.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Sheree’s upper body leans toward me, and her head tilts. Her brown-eyed gaze never leaves my face, looking down at me from her much taller height. She has to be nearly six feet tall, her body rail thin and all legs in her cutoff denim shorts. A thick belt cinches the waist, a long knife hanging from it. She probably has another in one of her combat boots. Weapons hang from all kinds of places on everyone in the group, including me.
I press my fingers to my aching temples and rub circles into them. “No, not really.”
“Awesome,” Owen mutters as his long leg kicks a small rock across the clearing. “It’s gotta be dark magic messing with your head, too deep for me to reach.”
“This is your fault,” Vanessa snaps at him. “I can’t believe you let her drink the water.”
He rolls his eyes as his hands drop to his hips. “It’s not like I didn’t try to stop her. Besides, you know how she is. She does what she wants. If she wants to test the water herself before anyone else does, she’s gonna do it.”
“God forbid anyone else take a risk.” Vanessa’s voice changes to a higher pitch, mocking. “They might die, so I better do it instead.”
Owen snorts, and the other guys in the group chuckle.
Sheree frowns. “Hey, be nice. That’s who she is. She wouldn’t ask anyone to do what she won’t do herself. That’s why she’s here. Right, Alexis?”
My brow furrows as they all stare at me again, and I rub the back of my neck. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Of course you don’t,” Vanessa quips. “Come on. Let’s get the hell out of here before more of those little needle things start flying again. Whatever the hell they are.”
“We need to get these water samples back ASAP,” Owen agrees.
Sheree glances at me sideways. “Looking at Alexis, I’m not so sure about that water.”
Owen lifts a brow and holds his hands up, wiggling his fingers. “Do you doubt my magical abilities, woman? It’ll be as pristine as newly fallen snow by the time I’m done with it.”
The guy with the crossbow chuffs. “I don’t think newly fallen snow is so clean anymore. It was blue last time.”
“And purple the time before that,” the other guy adds.
Vanessa gives an impatient flick of her hand as she settles her gaze on Owen. “Are you going to make a portal or what?”
“What about our search for the others?” Sheree asks. “Are we giving up on them?”
Everyone turns and looks at me expectantly. I stare back at them, not understanding what they want. My thoughts bounce all over the place from trying to follow their conversation.
Vanessa sighs and shakes her head. “Let’s get the hell going.”
She strides out of the clearing and into the woods as though everyone would automatically follow, and pretty much everyone does. All but Owen and me. Sheree looks over her shoulder at me and stops.
“Aren’t you coming?”
I shake my head. Is she crazy?
“Do you want to portal back then?” she asks.
When I don’t answer, Sheree and Owen exchange a look. The others stop their movement into the woods.
“Damn water.” Owen gestures toward the lake. “What the heck did it do to you?”
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“I thought I hit the bottle out of your hand, but you dropped to the ground like a stone, lights out for a good two minutes. And now look at you. You’re all whacked out.”
“Whacked out?” I echo.
“Disoriented.” Sheree joins us back in the clearing. “Right? That’s how you feel?”
I squeeze the back of my neck again as I glance around. “That’s one word for it.”
“Hopefully, that’s all it’s done to you, and there’s no other damage,” Sheree says. “Does everything else feel okay?”
I look down at my black boots, leather-clad legs, and torso barely covered in a tight-fitting tank top. A dagger hangs from a belt on my right hip, and a knife is strapped to my left leg. Everything seems to be in order. No pains or aches anywhere but in my brain. “Yeah, I think so. It’s just my head.”
Owen shifts his weight. “I tried to pull the black magic out of you when you went down, but there’s apparently something I can’t reach alone. Let’s get you home, and Blossom can help figure this out.”
“Home . . .” I can’t picture home. My mind comes up completely blank.
“You know, The Loft?” Sheree says. “Where Tristan and the babies are, and the rest of our people?”
“The place we’ve called home for over a year now.” Vanessa returns to the clearing, too. Annoyance crosses her face when I show no recognition. “You know, since that day Lucas and the Demons pretty much destroyed the world with their nuclear and magic bombs?”
My gaze swings to the trees. That’s what I’d noticed to be wrong with them—many of them lack any color at all, even what remains of the leaves. Barely a trace of orange or even brown. I squint my eyes as I look out at the lake and the surrounding land. Lots of gray out there, too. Not all of it, however, as though color has slowly seeped into the landscape. Winter colors, though, except for some scattered specks of pink and yellow on the ground and tree trunks. Is that some kind of pollen? In the middle of winter?
Owen moves his hand closer to my back, a familiar yet hands-off gesture to move along. “Come on. We’ll get you all fixed up, and the whole hellish story will come back to you.”
My muscles stiffen, though, as a small stick, like a miniature arrow or a long needle, whizzes by my nose. A poof of colored dust trails behind it, although none of it lands on us, as if we’re each encased in an invisible bubble. Several more needles sail through the air around us.
“There they are again! What the fuck are they?” Vanessa takes off, running in the direction the sticks had come from.
Owen, however, somehow swoops me into his thickly muscled arms before I know what’s happening and sprints the opposite way.
“What the hell are you doing?” I yell and kick and squirm, the rough wool of his sweater scraping against my bare skin.
“I need to get you home.”
“The hell you are. Put me down!”
“I’m not fighting you on this. Tristan will—”
“I said to put me down!” With a burst of energy, I spring free from his arms.
At the same time, a ripping sound comes from behind me, large, dark shapes explode from my back, and I sail into the air, high out of Owen’s reach. I look over my shoulder and gasp. Purple and black wings spread out to span nearly five feet from each side of me. Although somewhere in the back of my mind I must have known they were there—that they’re a part of me—their unexpected appearance takes me by surprise.
“Come on, Alexis,” Owen growls as I hang in the air above him. “That’s not fair.”
He lifts his palm up toward me as though it’s some kind of threat. With a mere thought, the wings bat against the air, and I rise higher until I hit the tree branches and careen back to the ground. I barely adjust my legs in time to land in a crouch.
Owen steps toward me.
“Stay back,” I warn.
“Then pull yourself together and let’s go,” he counters.
“I’m not going anywhere with you!”
Owen takes another step closer. I draw the dagger from the sheath on my hip. I bend my knees, coiling my muscles, and hold the blade between us.
“Leave me alone!”
He moves to take another step, and I twitch the blade. His deep-blue eyes narrow.
“Alexis . . .”
I rock forward on the balls of my feet.
“Seriously?” He lifts a blond brow. “I’m not going to fight you.”
I glare at him, dagger still out, and then my gaze bounces to the others who’ve come up behind him. They all look at me like I’ve lost my mind. Maybe I have. But they also carefully watch me as though I’m a wild animal. And that’s okay. If I scare them enough, they’ll leave me alone and go back to their so-called home. As if anyone has a home anymore.
“I lost them, whatever they are.” Vanessa runs back over, so fast her body’s nearly a blur. “They must have flashed because they disappeared. Come on. Let’s get the hell out of here.”
When she stops, she glances at everyone, her eyes landing on me while I brandish a weapon at her companions. She blows out an annoyed huff.
“Enough of this. We’re taking you home.”
I don’t see her move, but she instantly has an arm braced around me like a steel bar locking me against her body. She carries me through the woods at an unnatural speed, the trees blurring by us. I thrash against her and dig the tip of the dagger across her forearm. She doesn’t even flinch, and the wound closes up right away. I kick her shins and throw an elbow into her ribs. Her hold loosens. I seize the opportunity and twist free, landing on my feet, dagger pointed at her. She stops in her tracks, and everyone else does, too, as they approach from behind her.
“I’m not going anywhere with you,” I snarl once again. “Who the hell do you think you are to expect me to? I don’t know where I am or who I am, and I certainly don’t know any of you!”
The admission flies out of my mouth before I can stop it. I’ve been trying to hide my loss of memory from them, not wanting to show these people any vulnerability. But I’ll be damned if I go anywhere with them! Not by choice nor by force.
No, I need time. Time to figure out who I am, where I am, and where I’m supposed to be. Time to remember . . .
I haven’t forgotten everything, of course. Bits and pieces of knowledge and information remain. I mean, I obviously know how to walk, how to talk, and how to defend myself. At least, by instinct, if not by training. I have wings, but I don’t remember how to use them, which is baffling since I use my legs and arms fine. I apparently know my words and have no issues with communication. My brain functions on some level much higher than an infant’s. That’s the good news.
I can’t grasp a single memory from my past, though. No history, as though my life began when I woke up ten minutes ago. Except . . . I somehow know the world has changed, that it had been different than it is now, but I have no idea how or why. I know being on the Earth’s surface is dangerous, that anything could kill you, including the monsters—both supernatural and human—roaming the land. I know this is a post-apocalyptic life of survival.
But I don’t know my own name, who I am, if I’m supposed to be alone or if other people are searching for me. I definitely don’t know this group who found me, who act like they know me, even gave me the name Alexis. But for all I know, they’re simply trying to con me. You can’t trust anyone anymore. Maybe you never could.
The strangers stare at me as I hold my dagger out, some with disbelief written on their faces, others with suspicion in their eyes. I wish they’d move on and leave me alone, but they’re determined to take me with them.
“What the fuck do you mean, you don’t know us?” Vanessa demands. Vampire. The word pops into my head out of nowhere as I glare at her, and right after it, the realization that she is one. Vampires are one of the creatures that ended the world. I don’t know how I know any of this, but I do, in my gut. “We’re all practically family!”
I shake my head, not believing her lies.
“Oh, this is lovely.” She stomps her heel into the ground and throws her hands in the air. They land back on her hips.
“Tristan’s so going to kill us,” mutters one of the guys who isn’t Owen.
“No shit. I don’t want to be around when he finds out,” says the other one.
“We just need to get her home safe, and we’ll figure it out,” Sheree says. She’s supernatural, I decide, based on her unseasonal clothing and the vibe I get from her, although she doesn’t feel like a vampire. What is she?
The first guy, probably a normal human since he’s dressed appropriately for the weather, snorts. “I still don’t want to be there. That dude is scary as shit when he wants to be.”
Vanessa turns to Owen. “He’s going to be so pissed at you. We could bail, you know. Make a portal and be halfway around the world.”
I can tell by the look she gives him that there’s something going on between them. Something about that seems weird to me. He’s tall, nicely built, and not bad looking at all, although he does nothing for me. She’s gorgeous with curves in all the right places and could have been a model in a past life. But it’s more than their appearances that doesn’t seem to quite match. Something about them . . .
“Moose doesn’t scare me.” Owen takes several steps toward me, his hand reaching out for my arm, and I snap back to attention. “Let’s get you home.”
I flick my wrist, waving the knife toward him. “Nuh-uh. Stay back. I told you. I’m not going anywhere with you.”
“Uh, yeah. You are.” Vanessa also moves for me.
Are they seriously going to abduct me? Well, of course they are. Owen has already tried. They’re going to take me away from wherever I’m supposed to be. Which is . . . I have no idea. But surely I’m supposed to be somewhere. Surely someone’s looking for me. Right? Or am I left alone in this world? Ugh! Why the hell can’t I remember? And what could they possibly want with me? What value do I hold to them?
“You’re our leader. Our matriarch. You have to go with us,” Sheree says.
I barely suppress a laugh. That’s a little over the top. No, way over the top. Who do they think they’re kidding? I may have lost my memories, but I’m not stupid. Their leader? Ha! But they’d probably tell me anything to convince me to go with them without a fight. But a fight is what they’re going to get if they don’t leave me the hell alone.
Before anyone can make another move, a huge, dark shadow passes over us and a horrible screeching fills my head. Everyone looks up, and after taking a quick glance of my own, I run. I don’t know what that thing is, but I’m pretty sure I don’t want to. I race through the woods, hurdling underbrush and fallen trees and ducking under low limbs, running away from the strangers as much as from the beast in the sky. The wings do me absolutely no good, hindering my escape as stray branches catch on them. I wish they’d go away, and they do. I still feel their presence, but they’re no longer visible and no longer in the way. I run faster.
A stream of fire shoots down from above, lighting up a dead tree a few yards ahead of me. I pivot to my left, away from the lake, and continue storming my way through the forest. More little needle-things zoom by my head, leaving a trail of pink and yellow dust on the ground. Shouts come from behind me as well as what sounds like crashing trees, but I don’t hear anyone directly on my heels.
Yet, suddenly I’m thrown forward into a tree trunk.
“You are not pulling this shit on my watch,” Vanessa snarls as I spin around.
She comes at me again, and with the dagger still in my hand, I jump up and lunge at her. We tumble to the ground together and roll around as she tries to pin me down and I fight her off. Knowing she’s a vampire, I expect her to easily take me down, but I’m able to hold my own. So what does that make me? I can’t worry about that now. I find an opportunity and manage to shove my boots into her pelvis and throw her off of me. I spring to my feet. We glare at each other for about a second. If my blade had connected at all, there are no signs of damage to her perfect porcelain skin. She must have already healed. Definitely a vampire. After that one second pause, we both spring into the air and lunge at each other.
But this time, we freeze in mid-motion.
I try with all my might and determination to move, but I have no control over any part of my body. I’m completely paralyzed, can’t even set my foot on the ground for balance. How do I not topple over? Vanessa blows out a sharp breath, and her eyes roll upward.
“Shit,” she mutters under her breath. “You should’ve just come with me.”
Okay, so we’re not completely paralyzed. We can move our mouths and eyes. I look up to follow her gaze. A figure descends down on us.
A man, powerfully built, with wings like mine, but black and silver rather than black and purple. And he obviously knows how to use them, unlike me. He’s not the same beast I’d seen in the sky moments ago. That hadn’t been a man at all, and its wings had been shaped differently. This guy, or whatever he is, lands in front of us, and the sight of him takes my breath.
Partly because of the power he exudes that leaves me feeling more vulnerable than ever. And partly because of how his tall, muscular frame strains against the black, sleeveless t-shirt and how he perfectly fills out the black leather pants. Then there’s his face, framed by shoulder-length, sandy brown hair. His features are inhumanly beautiful with a chiseled jaw and full lips, neither of which could be hidden under a few days’ worth of stubble. He has a face like you’d expect of an angel. But more than any of that, what really traps the air in my lungs, are his eyes as they lock on mine. Emerald green with brown and gold around the pupils and framed with long, dark lashes. They capture me . . . enrapture me. Even as they slowly travel down my body and back up again, sending tingles throughout every nerve of my body.
The feeling of helplessness escalates to a frightening level. I swear he knows everything about me with that slow inspection—that my heart hammers painfully against my ribs, that my insides flutter and flare with heat at the same time, that my nipples have grown hard against my top. Well, he could probably see that perfectly fine through the thin fabric of the tank I wear. And I can’t move my arms to hide them.
His eyes narrow as they return to my face and then move to Vanessa.
“Care to tell me what the hell’s going on here?” he demands, his voice low and hard, making me quiver with both fear and intrigue.
I try to move again, but I’m still paralyzed. His large hand, which he’d been holding up in the air, drifts to his side. At the same time, I lose my balance and fall to the ground. Vanessa drops to her feet, landing with the grace of an elite dancer.
“Hold on to her,” she warns, but she’s too late.
I spring up and sprint away, but I don’t go very far. I’m paralyzed again, caught in mid-step. I roar a string of profanities as the feeling of vulnerability enrages me. How is this happening? It can’t be the same magic that took my memory, because Vanessa had been stuck, too. She’s not now, though . . .
“What happened?” the winged man asks again as he and Vanessa appear in front of me. Hard eyes glare at me, a fierce stare that elicits a chill up my spine. “I felt your mind close off from mine, our connection cut. You never opened it back up.”
“She doesn’t remember us,” Vanessa answers although I think he’d been talking to me.
Not that I can answer. I don’t understand what he means, but even if I did, I don’t think my mouth would work. My brain’s barely functioning in his presence.
“She doesn’t seem to remember anything,” Vanessa continues, “including that she can fly or flash, thank the Angels.”
The beautiful man cocks his head as a small smile turns up one side of his mouth. “Surely, you remember me.”
Or maybe it’s an arrogant smirk.
I try to shake my head in response, but can’t. My throat and jaw work to answer, and my voice comes out small under his piercing stare. “No.”
The smirk disappears as his brows draw together, and he steps closer to me. His hand lifts toward my face, and my body trembles against whatever has me paralyzed. Then I realize he has me paralyzed, a special power he must possess. Is he really some kind of Angel? I sort of remember . . . something about Angels. Something that dangles on the very far outreaches of my memory, but not within grasp.
When his fingertips touch my cheek, electricity shoots through my entire body, and I yelp. Some kind of feeling of familiarity briefly tugs at my mind but disappears faster than it came. The man frowns, and the pain that shines in his eyes sends a crack into my heart. Although I haven’t done anything to cause the look, not that I know of, I so badly want to fix it for him.
“Where’s Owen?” he asks, his voice a low growl.
“Right here.” Owen appears next to the Angel dude, seeming somewhat smaller now in comparison. “I tried to knock the water out of her hands, dude, I swear, but I think some might have got on her anyway. In her.”
The Angel guy growls again, but it’s loud and frightening, more like a feral roar. Out of my peripheral vision, I watch both Vanessa and Owen exchange a glance as they slink several steps backward. I can almost hear Vanessa telling Owen, “I told you we should have bailed.” Then the next thing I know, the guy throws his arms around me and launches us high into the sky. My body sags for a moment when his paralyzing hold breaks, but as soon as I feel my freedom, I buck and thrash in his arms. His hold is like a steel vise.
“Let me go! You have no right,” I yell at him, but he acts as though he can’t feel my kicks and fists that pummel his arms and legs. What is with these people, grabbing me and carrying me off like I’m a child? No, more like a possession.
He ignores my commands as he flies over the treetops to the southeast, the wind whipping my hair in my face. Anger flares within me, and a burst of electricity explodes from my body. The power loosens the man’s hold, and I twist out of his arms.
And plunge toward the ground in a free fall.
He swoops down to catch me, but with a thought, my own wings reappear. I try to bat them against the air while turning away from him, but I only manage to pitch myself into the top of a tree. The branches scrape across my legs. Unable to control the wings and take off in flight, I let myself glide to the ground, planning to run as soon as I land. But the gorgeous man alights in front of me and grabs my arm in another vise-like grip. Current shoots through me again, a pleasurable feeling that lights me up in ways it shouldn’t. Not when I don’t know this man.
“Stop,” he orders when I try to free my arm from his grip. “I’m not going to hurt you. That’s the last thing I’d do to you.”
“Then let me go, or you’ll have to hurt me because the only way I’m going with you is if I’m dead.”
Another growl hums in his throat as he jerks me into him so that my chest presses against his hard one. His free hand grips my jaw, and he leans down and crushes his mouth to mine. His lips are persistent and demanding, and I can’t help it at first, can’t control the intense rush through my body, the electricity jolting pleasure through every nerve. My mouth opens for his automatically, my tongue unable to get enough of his tangy-sweet flavor, and my entire body molds into his as though it’s always belonged here. My head goes woozy, and I’m about to completely lose myself in the kiss.
But then my wits return, and I’m horrified at my behavior. I shove my hands against his chest, pushing him away.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” I jerk the back of my hand across my mouth, as though I could scrub away the tingles, wishing they didn’t feel so amazing. “You just go around kissing strange women all the time?”
Agony flashes across his eyes, so intense, I almost feel bad, but he quickly recovers with a scowl. “I can’t believe you don’t remember that.”
“You’re telling me we’ve done that before?” How can I possibly not remember that? It must be the best kiss I’ve ever experienced in my life. How can I not remember him? He’s the most beautiful creature I’ve ever seen. Not that I remember any faces or kisses from my past, but I can’t imagine anything more beautiful on this earth. Any kiss more spine-tingling.
And since I don’t remember what should have been unforgettable, he must be lying.
For a moment, he looks as though I’ve slapped him, but again, he quickly recovers. “First, we’re getting you home and fixed up. And then, I’m going to kill that damn warlock protector of yours.”
His hand darts out and grabs my wrist again, too fast for me to escape.
“Please don’t,” I beg, taking a different angle. I hope whatever he thinks he feels for me will soften his heart since my strength isn’t enough to loosen his grip. “I won’t tell anyone I saw you. And I’m no good as a hostage.”
“You’re trying to abduct me in exchange for something, right? For food? Weapons? Or maybe for my blood for that vampire?”
Or maybe for something else. Do Angels abduct girls for sex? Maybe he isn’t an Angel. His wings aren’t white. My wings aren’t white, and I can almost guarantee I’m no Angel. And although he’s inhumanly beautiful like an Angel, he’s sexy in a sinful way. Maybe he’s something else, and a certain part of me aches to know more.
“So you do know the vampires?”
I jolt back to reality. No. Knowing more about him is dangerous. This man is dangerous. He’s too much for me. Too gorgeous, too frightening, too much for my mind and my body to handle. I need to get away from him before I do something stupid. Like kiss him again, because that one part of me really, really wants to.
“I know what they are, but I don’t know them specifically.” I try to yank my arm free, but damn, he’s strong. “Please. Just let me go.”
I hesitate. I don’t know, but that’s none of his business. “To my people. I’m pretty sure they’re right over that ridge.”
He lets out what might have been a snort, if beautiful Angel men snorted. “We’re your people. You don’t know where you need to go because you have nowhere else, and somewhere in that head of yours, you know it.”
Before I can answer, a screeching fills my head, like tires squealing on pavement, although I have no idea how I remember that sound. I flinch and wrap my free arm over my head as I squeeze my eyes shut.
“What’s wrong?” the guy asks, and then his voice softens. “Something’s in your head, isn’t it?”
I don’t know how he knows, but I nod as the sound dissipates.
“Can you hear my thoughts? Anyone’s?”
My eyes pop open. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“Your telepathy. Is it working, or did you forget how to do that, too?” He blows out a harsh breath at the look on my face that must show my bewilderment. “Fucking great. Come on. I’m taking you home.”
Before I can argue, another large shadow passes over us. He takes one look at the sky, pulls me close, and the world goes dark.
Only for a moment, though. The air whooshes out of my lungs, and when the light returns, I suck in big gulps of oxygen as I look around. We’re no longer standing deep in the woods, but in front of a garage door flanked by concrete walls jutting out of the side of a hill.
“What the hell?” I’m unable to hide the wonder in my voice. “How’d we get here?”
The Angel’s beautiful wings disappear, and at that thought, so do mine. His hand remains circled around my wrist, and ignoring my questions, he tugs me along as he strides for the tall, overhead door. Wings and the letters AK have been scratched into the paint of the metal surface of the door’s frame, along with strange-looking symbols made of lines and swirls.
“I guess you can’t give them a heads up we’re here,” he mumbles as he jabs his finger in a pattern over the symbols on one of the concrete walls. I don’t understand what he means.
As the door begins to lift, Owen appears by our side. “Tristan, man, I’m sorry. I didn’t think—”
The guy, Tristan, I figure, lifts his hand, and Owen’s mouth snaps shut. “Obviously. Do you ever think, Scarecrow?”
“But I tried to stop her,” Owen insists. “I honestly didn’t think she drank any.”
“Something did happen, though, didn’t it?” Tristan bellows. “And you were supposed to protect her!”
Despite the anger in his voice and emanating off his body, Tristan gently pulls me forward to duck under the door. This is probably a stupid move, but I still can’t pull free from his grip and have no choice but to follow. Besides, no instinctual voice screams at me to stop, and a part of me wants to go, the part that wishes this man would never release his hold on me.
“Get her to Carlie, make sure she’s physically okay,” Owen says. “I’ll get Blossom. Surely we can figure out something.”
“If you value your life, you better fucking hope so,” Tristan barks at the same moment Owen disappears into thin air.
Once we’re inside, the door behind us closes, and panic rises within me as total darkness swallows us up. I wave my free hand in front of my face, and at first, I can’t see, but then my eyes adjust although not the smallest glimmer of light intrudes. Where are we? What is this place? I have no concept of the size of where we are, although it feels rather small. Is this a cell? Have I made a huge mistake, trapping myself with an enemy? Or am I really supposed to be here? Who is this man to me? Is he really someone special? The look in his eyes—the pain when I didn’t remember him—tells me yes, he is important to me. Or, at least, I’m important to him. Unless he’s just a really good actor. Perhaps they all are, tricking me into believing I belong with them when I don’t.
For some reason, though, this man makes me feel like I do. Maybe he’s right and somewhere deep inside me, I know there’s some kind of connection between us. That I’m meant to be here. Or maybe I’m stupidly smitten from that kiss, as much as I hate to admit it.
“There’s nowhere for you to go. Can I trust you?” Tristan asks while letting go of my arm.
I feel more than see his shape move away, and a moment later, a line of light appears where I assume the floor to be. The sound of another door lifting fills the air. I stand in place as a large corridor, big enough to drive a truck through, opens up before me. A single overhead light casts a yellow glow, connected by wire to another far down the tunnel, and another beyond that. They’re spaced far enough apart that dark shadows pool between them. The underground driveway stretches a good fifty yards away and downward until I can see no further.
Tristan starts walking that way, leaving me behind. And talk about behind . . . he can’t possibly be human. His ass certainly isn’t. It belongs to a god.
“Come on.” He no longer growls or barks. He sounds weary. Or maybe defeated is the better word, although with his power and poise, I doubt he knows defeat.
I glance over my shoulder, but only the garage door is there, and I see no way to open it so I can escape. I survey the ceiling and eye a vent twenty yards down, but I don’t know where that leads. Otherwise, there are no other openings until way past Tristan. After a moment of hesitation, I follow him, hoping I haven’t walked into a trap. Of course, he hasn’t taken my weapons, which doesn’t seem like smart behavior when bringing someone into your safe place, so maybe this isn’t their safe place after all. Or maybe he’s stupid. No, that doesn’t feel right. But I can’t figure out why he hasn’t disarmed me.
He turns around, walking backwards, and his eyes fall on my hand still gripping my dagger.
“I can’t confiscate all of your weapons,” he says, “so I have no choice but to trust you. Don’t make me regret it.”
He returns to walking forward. I keep my hand on the hilt, just in case, but slip the blade into the sheath at my hip. At this point, I really have no choice, either, but to trust him. I don’t know what he means about not being able to take all of my weapons, but he doesn’t seem too worried about them, whatever they are. Probably because he has that debilitating power to paralyze me. All bets are off when he does that. I don’t ever want to feel so helpless again.
We follow the corridor downward, rounding a couple of bends, and pass by a space that opens up large enough for two or three trucks to park side by side. Adjacent to it is a closed off area with Intake written on its door. Tristan looks over his shoulder at me.
“That’s your office.” He indicates the door while studying my face, as though waiting for some sign of recognition from me. I glance at the door, but feel no sense of familiarity.
“So you’re putting me to work?” I ask. “You don’t know my skill set. I don’t even know what I can do.”
He sighs and continues on. “Guess we’ll figure that out later. Come on.”
We come to a junction where what I guess to be a map is embossed into the limestone wall. I assume the upside-down egg shape, with its lines and numbers, depict this shelter and its hallways, with a little dot between the numbers 103 and 104. I glance up and spy a numbered sign hanging from the ceiling to my right that shows 104.
We turn that way, passing rows and rows of industrial-type shelving stocked with various supplies, from toilet paper and hand sanitizer to buckets, boxes of cans, and bags labelled RICE, FLOUR, MEATS, and various other food. Many of the shelves are sparse, though, and we pass many empty rows, except for one shelf that holds several cases of bottled water.
“Storage area.” Tristan points down a corridor. “Conversions.”
He looks at me with more expectation in his eyes. I fail to meet it again. We walk silently except for the sound of our feet hitting the stone floor and the distant murmurs of people talking. He apparently gives up on getting anything out of me. We make two more turns and come to what appears to be a building within the shelter, with concrete block walls stacked to the ceiling. He takes me through a door in the wall marked Medical. My brow furrows. This isn’t the first place I’ve expected him to take me. Holding Cells or Torture Rooms is more like it.
The smells of the place have changed during our trek, from a somewhat damp, musky odor near the doors to the slight tang of recycled and conditioned air the further down we came. Here, the sharp bite of bleach hits my nose, with underlying threads of fragranced hand sanitizer, sour vomit, and metallic blood.
“Carlie,” Tristan barks from the reception area, and a blond woman, in her late twenties, maybe, rounds a corner. She wears regular clothes—a white t-shirt and faded blue jeans—and a stethoscope hangs around her neck.
Her blue eyes survey each of us, as though assessing us. Of course, she doesn’t find any injuries. “Can it wait? I’m trying to put an IV into Saundra. She’s dehydrated and becoming pretty ill.”
Tristan throws a look at me. “Hurry. Something’s wrong with Alexis.”
Carlie’s eyes bounce to me again, confusion filling her face. “Um, okay. Take her to two. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
“Make it faster,” Tristan orders as she disappears back around the corner from where she’d come. “Come on.”
“I don’t need medical attention,” I say. “I’m not hurt.”
“The hell you aren’t.” His large hand circles my wrist, and he tugs me as he turns to our right.
We come to a door marked 2 and enter what looks like a makeshift medical exam room. How can I remember what a stethoscope is or what an exam room looks like but not my own name? The table is in rough shape, appearing as though it’s been salvaged from ruins, not purchased from a supply company. Rather than the normal cabinets and sink, there’s a wooden dresser with a plastic bucket, a container of hand sanitizer, and other supplies in a neat row on the top of it.
Tristan nods toward the exam table, gesturing for me to sit on it, while he leans against the wall, lifts one leg to brace his foot against it, and crosses his thickly muscled arms over his broad chest. I don’t jump up on the table, as he apparently wants me to do, but lean against it and mimic his pose. Neither of us utters a word. I’m full of questions, but I already know he’s not so full of answers. I scowl at the floor, but can’t help stealing several glances his way. Yep. He’s too damn hot for my own good.
A quick rap on the door is followed by Carlie entering. Her eyes survey me again. “What’s going on?”
“Nothing. I’m fine,” I say.
“You look fine.”
“Ask her her mother’s name,” Tristan says.
Carlie looks at me expectantly. I try to search my uncooperative brain, but there’s nothing. I say the only name I can think of.
“Elli. She’s in a camp back near that lake, waiting for me.”
Carlie frowns as she studies me, then looks at Tristan.
“She remembers nothing about her life,” he says.
Carlie’s frown deepens, then she orders me, “Up on the table.”
“I said I’m fine,” I protest without moving.
With a sigh, she pulls a small flashlight out of her pocket and shines it in my eyes without waiting for me to mount the table.
“How many fingers?” She holds up three, and I tell her so.
She holds up more fingers to each side of my head and asks again. I give her the correct answers. She pockets the flashlight and lifts her hands toward my head, and I flinch away.
“I need to check for bumps,” she explains. “You don’t seem to have a concussion, but I need to make sure you don’t have a head injury.”
“Owen thinks it’s black magic,” Tristan says. “Probably from the water. Not an injury.”
“She drank the water before it was tested?” Disbelief colors Carlie’s tone.
“Owen supposedly tried to stop her, but she must have. She’s not right.”
“I don’t feel any injuries,” she says as she massages my head. She looks into my eyes. “You don’t remember anything? Who I am?”
“Carlie,” I say.
“She already heard me say it,” Tristan reminds her.
Carlie steps back and studies me, one arm across her chest, holding her elbow as her other hand grips her chin. “I don’t know what to do with black magic. Sounds like you need a mage, not me.”
“Owen’s getting Blossom,” Tristan says. “I just want you to make sure there’s nothing physically wrong with my wife.”
“I’m really limited in what tests I can do, but . . .” Carlie goes on, but I tune her out, stuck on what Tristan had said.
Specifically, on the words “my wife.” He has to be joking. I’m married? To him? How could I not remember that? Although, it at least explains his forwardness in kissing me like he had. But still. This can’t be happening.
“. . . bring Elli and Brie here.”
Tristan’s speaking, but I hadn’t heard the words until now. The name Elli catches my attention, since it’d been the first name to pop into my mind only moments ago. There’s an actual Elli here. Is that the reason I’d thought of that name first? If so, then these people haven’t been lying to me. Not completely, anyway. I must come from here. If only I could remember.
Carlie leaves the room. Tristan doesn’t so much as budge.
“Are Elli and Brie the leaders of this place?” If I did belong here, there must be a reason I’d blurted Elli as my mother’s name. Whether she’s my actual mother or has taken on a motherly role here in the bunker, I don’t know.
One corner of Tristan’s mouth tilts up in a half-smile. “In a way.”
A few minutes later, I hear crying in the distance. A baby’s cry. And . . . Holy shit! My breasts suddenly grow hot and hard, becoming tight and painful. My shoulders hunch over, and I cross my arms over my boobs. I discreetly try to press my hands against them to massage them. They’re as hard and heavy as concrete, my skin stretching tightly over them. And dear God, do they hurt. As the crying moves closer, the pressure in my chest builds until I think my breasts might explode. Then . . . a sticky wetness fills my top. My eyes grow in horror. What in the actual fuck?
They did explode!
Tristan’s nose twitches, then his half-smile grows into a full one as he looks at me. “Are you leaking?”
“Leaking? Leaking what?”
The feeling becomes so gross, I have to turn away from him and look down my top.
“What. The. Hell?” I yell. Both the bra and the tank top I wear are soaked through, and my breasts swim in a white liquid. “I’m not leaking. I’m gushing!”
The man behind me chuckles, and I almost spin on him to let him have it, but I’m too confused by the state of my boobs. I pull the fabric away from my skin, and more white liquid streams from my nipples. The door opens, and the cries come clear and near—right behind me. My boobs become full-on geysers.
“I think they’re hungry,” Carlie says from behind me.
Oh no. Hell no. This can not be happening.
I look over my shoulder to find Carlie and a young woman with dark hair and blue eyes, each holding a crying baby. Carlie holds her baby out to me. I spin and back into the corner, shaking my head vehemently while holding my arm across my boobs. Pressing against the nipples seem to slow the flow.
“No way,” I whisper as I stare at them in horror. “Don’t tell me I’m a nursemaid! Where are Elli and Brie? I thought you were bringing them here. I want to talk to them now. And I want the fuck out of here!”
“Look at them, Alexis,” Tristan says. “Really look at them.”
I peer at the babies, and something nudges me in the heart. My mind doesn’t know what I’m supposed to be looking at, but my heart tugs toward them.
“They’re adorable, even crying,” I say. “But what am I supposed to see?”
“This is Elli and Brie,” Carlie answers.
I shake my head and look at Tristan. “I thought you said they were your leaders.”
He studies me for a long moment, then releases a heavy sigh. “Teah, get them some bottles. Carlie, can you get the pump?”
The women both nod and leave with the crying infants.
“You’re our leader, Lex,” Tristan says once they’re gone, his voice low and heavy. “Elli and Brie . . . Elliana and Brielle? They’re our daughters. Yours and mine.”
My breath catches. My eyes hurt, they bug so much.
“No,” I whisper. I shake my head again. “Impossible. Don’t you think I would know that I’m a mom? Don’t you think I would know my own babies? My husband?”
He watches me, and the agony returns to his eyes, this time not fleeting, but lasting. His voice comes out so heavy and so full of pain, my own heart hurts. “Yeah, Lex, I’d thought you would.”
Carlie enters the room at that moment. I blink back the tears threatening at the corners of my eyes, although I’m not sure why I want to cry. It’s almost as if I actually feel the man’s emotional pain in my own heart, even in my soul. I don’t know what to do or say to make it go away.
“What is that?” I ask instead, gesturing at the items in Carlie’s hands: a small machine, two tubes, two bottles, and a plastic cone attached to each bottle.
“A breast pump.” Tristan holds out his hands to take the pieces, but Carlie doesn’t turn them over to him. “You have to pump to keep the supply going.”
“What?” I demand as I cross my other arm over my breasts.
“Maybe I should help her.” Carlie’s tone makes it sound as though it’s more than an offer—more like a very strong suggestion.
Tristan eyes me, runs his hand over the back of his head, and walks out of the room without a word.
I cringe when the door slams shut. “He hates me, and I can’t do anything about it.”
“Trust me, the man can never in his wildest dreams hate you. He has more love for you than . . .” She drifts off and lets out a sigh. “Let’s just say every woman dreams to have a man love her half as much as Tristan loves you.”
My lungs shudder as I inhale. “Why don’t I remember that? Shouldn’t I remember something so huge?”
“I don’t know, hun, but we’ll figure it out.” She sets the items in her arms on the dresser and begins to assemble the pieces. “You’ll need to take off your shirt.”
“Gladly.” I grab the hem and yank the wet tank over my head, taking the bra with it. My boobs fall free, spraying milk everywhere. I quickly cover them with my hands, not out of modesty but to control the mess. Carlie stares at me with wide eyes. “What?”
“You’re, uh, not usually so . . . showy.”
“Oh.” I shrug. “The top was soaked. It was gross.”
Her gaze bounces down for a second before coming back up to my face, her skin flushed. I can’t blame her—I’d noticed my great boobs earlier. But then I see what she’s more likely looking at. An ugly scar of puckered skin stretches from my right shoulder to my sternum, cutting across the top of my breast. I wonder where it came from, but as soon as I release a hand to touch it, I quickly forget about it when the milk sprays again. Carlie approaches me with the contraption in hand.
“I know this is really awkward,” she says, “but it will make you feel better.”
Awkward doesn’t begin to describe the situation as she attaches the bottles to my breasts. And oh my God is the sensation weird when she turns the machine on, like a vacuum trying to suck my entire boob up. I watch with a mixture of horror and fascination as the milk begins filling the bottles, and I envision a dairy cow hooked up to a milking machine. That’s exactly how I feel, too—like a freaking milk cow!
Within a few minutes, though, the promised relief comes. I actually moan out loud as the ache and swelling drain away, my eyes drifting closed with the reprieve. When I open them, Carlie’s staring at my left boob. My eyebrows spring up, and her gaze flies sideways when she realizes she’s caught. Again.
“Uh, sorry.” She chuckles. “It’s just . . . your chest is so interesting.”
Her eyes drift down again, and I follow her gaze to my left breast. No scar on this one. Rather, swirls and arcs, darker in pigment and slightly raised, mark my skin over my heart. The stylized design looks almost like it could be a sword or dagger with wings. Embedded in the center, as though pressed into my flesh, is a stone, perhaps a ruby or a red garnet. I finger the stone, and a warm flush runs through me as the image of Tristan’s face pops into my mind. Something in my heart or soul stirs, making me gasp. As soon as I drop my hand, the feeling dissipates, but the heat doesn’t.
“I think I’ll go get something to clean you up and some fresh clothes.” Carlie hurries out of the room, probably thinking the flush came from embarrassment. I don’t know what any of it means, though, so I have no reason to be ashamed.
She returns at about the same time both bottles are nearly filled, and my breasts are beginning to hurt from the suction. She takes the bottles and hands me a washcloth and a bottle of water, half full.
“Sorry, but this is all we have,” she says. “Our water supply is about tapped. That’s why you were at the lake—looking for a new source. We only have a small amount left for everyone. I’ll leave your top right here and let you clean up.”
Carlie leaves once more, and I do my best in washing the sticky milk off of me and then pick up the bra she’d brought. With a body like this—and a man like Tristan to appreciate it—I feel like I should be wearing sexy lace and silk, but instead the bra’s plain white cotton with an underwire. Each cup has a flap that can be pulled down, presumably for nursing. I sigh. Is this really mine? Is this really my life? When I put it on, it fits perfectly. So does the t-shirt and leggings she’d brought me.
The evidence that this is, indeed, my life is piling up to the point I can no longer deny it. As Tristan had said, some part of me must know they’ve been telling me the truth all along. So why can’t I remember any of this? What really happened to me? Was it really something in the water? If we were there to test it, why would I have been so stupid as to drink it? Huh. Was I stupid? If so, they’re even more so, if Tristan had been telling the truth about me being their leader.
When Carlie returns, she draws some of my blood into a tube, and then has me pee in a cup. She also makes me lie down on the exam table and then prods around from my neck to my pelvis. Finally, not finding anything obvious, she leads me out of the Medical building.
“I’ll show you to the kitchen. Blossom should be there. She’ll be of more help than I am. I hope.”
“They keep saying Blossom and Owen should be able to help me,” I say as I follow Carlie. “Why them and not you? You’re a doctor, right? Or not?”
“Yes, I am, but nothing is medically wrong with you that I can tell. I’ll test the blood and urine as best as I can with what I have, and I’ll let you know if I find anything indicating internal bleeding, low cell counts, or the like, but I think you’re right. You’re physically fine. I wish I could do a brain scan, but we don’t have the equipment.”
“So what are Owen and Blossom—is that really her name?”
Carlie smiles at me as we approach another “building” of cinder blocks inside the cavern. “Yeah, it is. She’s your best friend. Besides Tristan, anyway. And maybe Owen and Vanessa. You’re close with all of them.”
I sigh. “And I remember none of them.”
“You will.” She opens a swinging door and holds it for me. “We’ll get you all sorted out. We have to. We need you.”
The fragrance of freshly baked bread immediately makes my mouth water, and my stomach growls with all of the smells of food cooking.
“Low water supplies means no soup tonight.” Carlie’s voice lifts a notch as we cross the large kitchen to the industrial-sized sinks lining a part of one wall. “I’m kind of glad, to be honest. Soup stretches out our supplies so they’ll last longer, but we have it almost every day. It gets old, no matter how good they are at coming up with new varieties.”
She demonstrates how to wash the breast pump paraphernalia since, apparently, I’d be doing this a lot, then shows me the refrigerator where they store the milk. Several bottles line the shelf, in addition to the two we slide in, placing them at the back.
“You’ll have to pump frequently to keep your supply up. Otherwise, you’ll go dry and then those babies will be in trouble. And that means staying hydrated and fed. Don’t you worry about taking more than your share of water. Everyone understands. But if we don’t get the water issue fixed soon . . .”
Carlie trails off, the concern weighing heavily in her voice. The water situation here seems to be dire.
“How did this happen?” I ask, but then I realize if I’m the leader, the water situation is my fault. I must not be a good leader. Maybe I am stupid.
“Hey, Alexis,” a soft voice says from behind me.
Carlie and I both turn to find a thin woman with blond hair, big hazel eyes, and breasts that put mine to shame. She frowns when I don’t respond. “Um, Blossom? That’s my name. I’m a witch. We’re really good friends. I mean, I consider you my bestie, besides Jax, of course, but you have a lot of besties, so, um, anyway . . .” She glances at Carlie, who provides no help, but instead excuses herself to return to her patients. Blossom gives me a smile that I can tell is forced. “Come with me. Your council will gather later so we can figure out what to do. I’m sure Owen and I will get you fixed in no time, but for now, there are other problems, too. Owen’s out in the dining room. I’ll have someone bring you out a plate of food. I’m sure you’re starving.”
The woman goes on and on, and I wonder if her witchiness gives her some way to not have to breathe. Her witchiness . . . I seem to accept that as easily as I’d known about the vampires. But somewhere deep inside, I feel like I haven’t always known about these creatures. That they haven’t always been so out in the open with the Normans. Wait . . .
“What are Normans?” I blurt.
“Normal humans,” Blossom says. “That’s what we, the supernaturals, call the normal people. You remember that?”
“Yeah, I guess I do.”
“But nothing else?”
“Some stuff. But apparently, not the important things.”
We go through a different swinging door than Carlie and I had come into, exiting the kitchen into a vast area full of an eclectic collection of tables and chairs. Some are small, for two or four people, with mismatched wooden and plastic chairs, while others are cafeteria-style, long enough to seat a couple dozen on their benches. Vases of various sizes, shapes, and colors, holding plastic and fabric flowers, have been placed on many of the tables, a small gesture to brighten up the atmosphere. Owen sits at a square table for four, and Blossom drops down next to him. The only reason I join them is because someone follows right behind us with what smells like a grilled cheese sandwich, and my stomach rumbles.
“Are you claiming us yet?” Owen asks after I’ve devoured several bites. He’s finished his food and has been watching me with those deep blue eyes of his.
“I don’t think I can deny that I’m supposed to be here anymore,” I admit before taking another bite. When I finish chewing, I add, “But I don’t claim anything yet.”
“Blossom, you’ll need to pass off your kitchen duties to someone else,” Owen says. “Fixing our matriarch ranks up at top priority.”
“Agreed.” Blossom bobs her head. “Already done. I just wish I had all of my books, but I’d left them at home, so they probably don’t even exist anymore. The experimenting should be fun, though. As long as, you know, we don’t make her any worse.”
My eyebrows shoot up, and my voice rises an octave. “What kind of experimenting are you going to do on me? Wait—with magic?”
“Don’t worry,” Owen says. “Not on you.”
“We’ll have to run a bunch of tests on the water,” Blossom clarifies. “Try to figure out what specific kind of magic is in it to cause the amnesia. Hopefully, all that time Owen spent with Kali learning alchemy will come in handy.”
Owen frowns, but nods. “As much as we hate her, she knew her potions. I already have a couple of ideas to try.”
He pushes back his chair and stands up, then gestures for me to do the same. I cock my head as I hold up what remains of my sandwich.
“Can I finish eating?” I ask.
“Sure. I need to do a quick assessment, then you can do whatever you want. Just stand up for a minute.”
I eye him skeptically.
“He’s our most powerful warlock,” Blossom says. “And your protector. He won’t do anything to hurt you.”
Heh. Tristan doesn’t seem to think so. Tristan doesn’t seem to be impressed at all with Owen’s abilities, especially as my protector. I, however, don’t really know anything. I feel like a lost child in a grown-up’s body—one that apparently serves up milk like a soda fountain. So I stand up, put my arms out as Owen requested, and let him do some kind of magical scan.
“Meet me in the lab in ten,” he says to Blossom before rushing away.
“Sure thing.” She observes me as I take the last few bites of my meal. “I guess you need to be shown to your quarters, huh? You don’t remember where they are?”
I shake my head. “And soon. I need to use the bathroom.”
We put my dishes in the bin for washing, then Blossom leads me to the communal bathroom and gives me directions to my living quarters from there. I’m relieved to know I’d be left alone for a while, because I really need some space. Some quiet time to figure out what’s going on. Maybe to find myself again.
I pause at the bathroom mirror over the sink, surprised at my reflection. Big, brown eyes, hair the color of a dark penny, smooth skin with an olive tone—my features don’t startle me as much as my overall appearance. I hadn’t expected to be so pretty, even without a trace of makeup, and I look so young, especially considering I have babies. And I’m supposedly the matriarch of this place. Whatever that is, it makes me sound old, but I appear to be younger than everyone I’ve met so far. Maybe they have been lying to me, after all. Feeding me bullshit lines they think will keep me here and make me more cooperative.
Someone enters the communal bathroom, and I straighten up to find Sheree, a slight limp in her gait I hadn’t noticed before. Her face fills with hesitation as she steps around me. When she comes out of the bathroom stall, I still haven’t moved.
“Are you okay?” she asks, concern filling her dark eyes.
I shrug. “I guess so. I really don’t know that, either, though.”
“I’m so sorry this happened.”
“It’s not your fault . . . is it?”
She frowns. “I’m not as fast as I used to be on two legs. Otherwise, I would have been there sooner. I really thought Owen stopped you in time, though.”
I don’t know what to say to that, so I return to studying my reflection. “How old am I?”
Through the mirror, I watch her brow pinch together for a moment while she pumps a blob of hand sanitizer into her palm. “Twenty-nine? I think. In Norman years, anyway.”
I look at her reflection. “What does that mean?”
“Well, when you went through the Ang’dora, you aged backward. They say you went back to when you were nineteen, when you were mentally, physically, and emotionally strongest. That was three years ago, so I guess you’re more like twenty-two mentally, but you don’t physically age.”
I turn around and blink at her. “The Ang’dora?”
She pulls a funny face. “I’m a Were, a shifter. I’m tiger and human, much simpler than you. I can’t explain the Ang’dora as well as Tristan could, but it was a big change you went through. All of your kind do. Well, did. Now that you’re Earth’s Angels, I don’t know if your daughters still will. That was when you received all of your gifts from the Angels. It’s when I first met you, when you were going through the Ang’dora.”
“What kinds of gifts?”
“The telepathy, the electrical power, Amadis power, strength, speed, heightened senses . . . all kinds of gifts. You have all the best qualities of vampires and shifters without being either, as well as certain forms of magic. Now, you’re even more than all that. You and Tristan said the ascended matriarchs called you an Earth’s Angel. He’s one, too, and so are Elliana and Brielle. And all the Ames brothers.”
I stare at her, at a loss for words. She smiles at what must be the disbelief on my face.
“Honestly, Tristan can tell you more than I can. It’s a long story. But maybe you’ll just get your memory back. We all kind of need that.”
I nod as I follow her out the door. This life that is supposedly mine is totally baffling.
Sheree heads for the kitchen while I follow Blossom’s directions to my room. Maybe the familiarity there will help me remember. And if not, maybe some time by myself will help me process everything and pull forth those memories. I nearly break into a run as I hurry past the rows of residences that fill several sections, anxious to be alone. When I reach Section 608, which is mine, according to Blossom, I turn and almost fly up the middle flight of wooden steps to the second floor.
When I open the door, though, I freeze. How can I be so dumb to think I’d be alone?
Tristan sits on a large area rug covering a wooden floor, next to a queen-size mattress and box spring set that has no frame. He huddles over one of the babies, changing her diaper. The other baby lies on a cushion next to him, a small, white puppy curled at her feet. The baby’s little head turns toward me when I walk in, and her hands wave in the air, as though she recognizes me. How sad that she knows me, but I don’t know her.
Again, my heart feels a tug toward her and her twin. Toward this whole scene before me. I don’t know if it’s because something deep within remembers this is my family, or simply because it’s an endearing scene. In fact, watching this muscular man, whom I know holds great power in one finger, being so gentle and sweet with the tiny human in front of him, makes everything inside me go soft. When he picks her up and nuzzles his face into her neck, my heart melts into goo.
But it also twists and aches, and I have to blink against the pricks in my eyes.
I turn back to leave.
“You should stay.” Tristan’s voice comes low and soft.
I pause. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to intrude.”
“Lex, this is your home. You’re not intruding. Please, stay.”
Reluctantly, I turn around to face him, although I stand back, up against the door, my hands twisting around each other. He still sits on the floor, holding the baby in one arm. I glance over at the bed. “I, uh, just wanted to lie down. Try to think things through.”
He picks up the other baby with his free hand and stands up. “We’ll go then.”
My hand flies up, and I shake my head. “Oh, no. I’m not going to run them out of their own home.”
“I can leave them with you,” he suggests, and I don’t know whether I’m horrified or excited about that idea. I think a little bit of both.
“I’m not going to run you out, either.”
“Look, I’ll take them for a walk. You lie down with Sasha and get some rest. Maybe regenerating will do you some good. We’ll, uh, figure out the living arrangements later.”
Before I can answer, he crosses the room in two long strides. I sidestep away. His finger twitches, and the door opens on its own, and at the same moment, the walkie-talkie hanging on his belt loop squawks.
“Moose, we got a problem. Over.” Owen’s voice comes through the device.
Tristan twists, as though trying to figure out how to grab the thing while holding two babies. He looks up at me for help, but I’m not about to take it off his pants. I can’t trust my body with that kind of closeness. He begins to shift one of the babies to hold both in his left arm, but my hands lift on their own accord to take her. And next thing I know, I’m staring into warm, brown eyes almost exactly like the ones I’d been inspecting in the mirror.
The walkie-talkie squawks again, and Tristan grabs it. “Is this about Alexis? Over.”
“No. It’s about sick bay. Over.”
Tristan chuckles. “This isn’t a spaceship, Scarecrow, remember? You mean the medical unit? Over.”
“It’s not a military base, either,” Owen retorts. “Whatever you want to call it, Carlie’s getting swamped with patients. Severe dehydration, apparently, and we’re about out of bottled water. We need to turn the pumps back on.”
“We’ll drain the source in days,” Tristan says.
“I know, but we need to do something, dude.”
“Son of a bitch,” Tristan swears under his breath, though I have no problem hearing it along with another string of profanities. He looks at me and hesitates for a moment as our eyes lock, then he pushes the button to the communicator. “I’ll meet you there. Over and out.”
Tristan glances at the bundle in his arm and the one in mine, and then his eyes return to my face. “I’d ask Teah or Teal, their usual babysitters, but they’re teaching right now. This is normally our time with the babies. And I can’t exactly take them near the sick, in case it’s more than dehydration.”
My stomach flutters at the thought of taking care of these helpless little creatures by myself, but his beautiful, expressive eyes render me speechless with their pleas.
“They’re fed and changed and will be ready for a nap any time now,” he continues, and when I glance down at the one in my arms, her eyelids are already drooping.
I swallow, then nod, before reaching out for the one he holds. He explains how to tell Brielle from Elliana—“We put Brie in the warm colors and Elli in the cool shades”—and shows me where their diapers and clothes are stored. “Just in case,” he says.
“I’m sure they’ll sleep the whole time I’m gone,” Tristan promises as the walkie-talkie screeches again. “I’ll be back as soon as I can. Thank you.”
He’s thanking me for taking care of my own children. I give him a weak smile. “Of course. I’m their mother, right?”
He returns my smile with a small one, then hurries off. I think I hear him mutter something about my motherly instincts jogging my memory, although it’s more like I think the idea in my head but with his voice.
“Wait,” I call to him. “Who’s Sasha?”
“The lykora,” he says.
Lykora? I wonder to myself.
He turns the corner, but I still hear when he adds, “The dog.”
I use my shoulder to shut the door, and as I turn back toward the room, I look down at the babies in my arms and try not to freak out. They’ve both drifted off already. I hope that means I can get some rest, too. I lean over the single baby bed next to the mattress—since there’s only one, they must share it, as small as they are—and I can’t help it. I snuggle against each one’s cheek and give them a little kiss before putting them down. They smell so sweet, and their skin feels like velvet.
My heart grows about five times its previous size.
I hunt around the room for something personal that belongs to this Alexis, but the twelve-by-twenty-foot room doesn’t contain much to tell me anything. The queen-sized bed, the baby bed, a bookshelf full of baby items, a rocking chair, a baby swing, and a dresser, topped with framed Polaroid pictures of the twins, furnish the place. A lamp sits on top of the bookshelf, and white Christmas lights are strung in a zigzag pattern overhead. A rod with a few items of clothing hanging on it dangles from the ceiling in the corner. There are no books, although I don’t know if books have survived the world’s destruction. I imagine a mother to these twins and leader of this place doesn’t have much time for reading, anyway.
When I lie down, the side of the bed closest to the baby bed smells faintly of dark chocolate and raspberries. I roll over to the other side, and Tristan’s scent envelops me—the tangy-sweetness of mangos, papayas, lime, sage, and a hint of man. The fragrance makes my mouth water and my lower regions warm. I roll back over to the other, safer side, and try to ignore the tears welling in my eyes as I wonder how I can name those scents—foods that as far as I know don’t exist anymore and I hadn’t smelled in ages—but can’t recall what I did yesterday.
Sasha jumps on the bed and settles on her haunches in front of me while seeming to study my face for a moment. She’s small enough to fit in my hands, all white with big black eyes that seem to hold entirely too much wisdom for a little dog. With a snuff of approval, she lies down, curling up next to me. I dig my fingers into her thick, soft fur, and the scent of baby powder rises. I let her steady breathing settle my own.
Sleep brings dreams. Terrible nightmares of real Angels, with white, pearlescent wings, fiercely fighting Demons with horned heads, mottled skin, and tails. They fight with ancient weapons, such as swords and maces, and the clanging rattles in my ears. Below them, on the snow-covered ground, another battle wages, and I recognize faces I’d met today—a winged Tristan, Vanessa, Owen, Blossom, and others whose names I don’t know. Then suddenly, the fighting stops, and a deathly silence falls. An un-winged Tristan stands in front of me, but he disappears, along with the people he and the others had been fighting. Except, he also stands next to me, with wings again, and I realize they are not the same person.
“Dorian will be okay,” Tristan murmurs.
The piercing sound of screaming babies jerks me out of sleep.
My breasts are rock solid again, aching with pressure and the heavy strain against my skin. But I push the pain aside to focus on the babies. I pick them both up, but that doesn’t seem to help. I lay them down on the cushion and grab diapers and wipes off the nearby shelf, but when I check their diapers, they’re clean. When my boobs spring leaks again, I can’t ignore what I’d known all along.
I look around frantically for bottles. Do they not have a fridge up here, at least a mini one? Well, of course not. She—I—would have fed them directly. The thought of them on my boobs, though, freaks me out. I don’t even know how to do it!
I gather the crying girls in my arms and stride for the door. I’ll take them to the kitchen to retrieve their bottles and the pump, except I can’t figure out how to open the door while holding both babies. Could use an extra hand here! I mentally scream with frustration. At the moment I wonder if I have the same power as Tristan to open the door without touching the knob, it bursts open.
“Are you okay?” He swoops in and takes a baby from me.
Several others stand at the door. Blossom rushes in, too, and takes the other twin.
“They’re, uh, hungry,” I say, momentarily surprised by the response, as though they’re at my beck and call. Or at the babies’, anyway. Now that my arms are free, I press my fists against my aching boobs. “And, I guess I need the pump.”
“On it.” Blossom swishes her free hand in a flourish. A moment later, full bottles, empty bottles, and the pump soar through the air and into the room. She smiles at my wide-eyed expression. “I’m getting pretty good at summoning things, yeah? Owen’s teaching me.”
Everyone but Tristan leaves us, and Blossom closes the door behind her. He sits on the bed and props the babies on pillows, then teases their lips with the bottles’ nipples. They balk at first, refusing to take them as they continue crying, but Tristan speaks soothingly to them until they finally give in to their hunger. Guilt tugs at my heart strings—they want the real thing. I can’t bring myself to do that, though. I don’t even know how. Once they quiet, Tristan looks up at me.
I still stand in the middle of the room, holding the pump equipment and staring at their perfection. Until his stunning yet piercing gaze gets to me.
I clear my throat and hold up the pump. “Um, where can I go to do this?”
Confusion flickers in his eyes, and then he lifts a finger from one of the bottles and draws a line in the air with it. The rocking chair next to me spins around to face the corner, making me jump.
“I don’t think what people have is contagious, but I’d rather not risk taking the babies out there,” he says.
I shake my head. “No, of course not.”
“Don’t worry. I won’t watch.” He returns his doting attention to his daughters. If this man loves his wife half as much as he obviously loves his daughters, she’s one lucky lady. “But you can use a blanket, if you prefer.”
The pressure in my breasts, already leaking, can’t stand another moment, so I sit in the chair with my back to them, assemble everything as Carlie had shown me, and slip the bottles under my t-shirt. Oh, bra first. I figure out how to undo the flaps, then attach the cones to my engorged breasts. A brief moment of pain is followed by the dam breaking, and then relief comes almost instantly. I can’t help the sigh. I settle back to let the machine do its thing and close my eyes. As I begin to relax, the last image of my dream returns.
“Who’s Dorian?” I ask.
Tristan had been baby-talking with the twins, but he suddenly falls silent. He doesn’t answer at first, and in the quiet, I realize the pump’s sound has changed. I turn it off and remove the bottles, setting them on the nearby shelf.
“Do you remember him?” Tristan finally asks, hope filling his voice.
“Not exactly.” I use what might have been a burp cloth to clean myself off. “I had a dream.”
He falls quiet again. I fix my bra, make sure I’m covered, and turn the entire chair around using my legs. I watch him expectantly. He stares at the girls, whose mouths sucking on the nearly empty bottles makes the only sound. He finally looks up at me, and his eyes are sad again.
I tilt my head. “What’s wrong? Was . . . was he your brother?”
His mouth twitches, and a low, dark chuckle rumbles in his throat. “No. He’s our son.”
My jaw drops, leaving my mouth hanging open. Another child I don’t remember? How?
“We have a son, too? That old?”
Tristan sighs. “It’s a long story.”
I echo his sigh. “Everything seems to be a long story here.”
“Yeah.” He nods. “It is. You started to write it once. Our story.”
“You were a famous author, in the Before time. One of the most successful ever. Your books helped a lot of people. But our story . . . I think you wrote it to work through everything, not for anyone else’s eyes. You filled up a hundred or so notebooks, the equivalent of several full-length novels, before everything got really bad. They were never published, of course. You put them in the Sacred Archives, so who knows what happened to them. Maybe the Angels have them.”
Tristan shrugs. “Only Amadis daughters knew exactly what it was.”
“Was?” I pick up on the use of past tense.
“It was part of the matriarch’s mansion, which has been destroyed, along with everything else.”
“Oh. Of course.” I nod and frown at the same time. “I can’t believe I don’t remember any of this.”
“Hopefully, you will soon. Although, some parts I wish you wouldn’t have to.”
“Like what happened to our son? It’s bad, isn’t it?” The lingering feeling from the dream feels too strong to not be real.
The babies finish eating, and he puts the empty bottles to the side. He picks up one, Brielle, based on her yellow onesie, and hands her to me. He puts the cloth I’d used to clean myself up over my shoulder, then shows me how to burp her. He lays Elliana against his own shoulder and begins patting and rubbing her back, his hand like a giant’s compared to her tiny body.
“Dorian,” he finally says, “is doing what he needs to do. He’s with the Demon’s army.”
My hand pauses in midair. “Our son is with the Demons’ army?”
His only answer comes as a nod.
Oh my God. What kind of mother had this Alexis been? Obviously not a very good one. And what kind of leader would allow this to happen? Again, not a very good one.
I shake my head as I return to patting the baby’s back. This is too much, too difficult to believe. “What kind of woman gives her blessing to her son defecting to the evil side? What kind of leader does such a thing?”
“I wouldn’t exactly say you gave your blessing. You’ve always vowed to get him back. But you’ve come to accept that he is doing what needs to be done right now.” Elliana squirms, and he sits her on his leg, letting her lean into his palm. Her chin rests on the curve of his thumb and forefinger as he pats her back with his other hand. “You’re a good mom, Lex. And a good leader. And you’ll be even better now, as soon as we get your memory restored.”
I have a hard time believing that. Not from what I’ve seen and heard already. Maybe everyone would be better off if I never do remember and someone else takes over as leader. Tristan seems to be a good candidate.
Brielle lets out a belch so big, I can’t believe her little body can hold that much air. I can’t help but laugh, and then Elliana mimics her twin. Tristan and I both laugh as the babies coo contentedly. A moment later, they both begin to squirm and a distinctive stink hits my nose.
“Not too long ago, you were teaching me all of this,” Tristan says as he demonstrates how to change their diapers and what to do with the dirty ones.
“How old are they, anyway?”
“They’ll be six months in a couple of weeks.” He snickers. “You’d normally be able to tell us exactly how many weeks and days old they are.”
I give him a teasing smile. “And you can’t?”
A small return grin plays on his mouth, but he doesn’t admit to the obsession.
With the girls cleaned up and happy, we sit on the floor and let them play.
Tristan clears his throat. “So your telepathy’s back. That’s a good sign.”
My eyes cut sideways at him. “My . . . telepathy?”
He twists his head to return my stare. “You used it to call for help with the girls. We all heard you. In our heads.”
“You’re saying you can hear my thoughts?” I ask in disbelief, quickly followed by a panicked, “Can you hear them now?”
They’d mentioned telepathy before, but I’d paid it no attention. I’d thought I’d heard the word wrong or had misunderstood what they meant by it.
“Yes and no,” Tristan replies. “Only when you want me to.”
“Obviously not.” I stand up and walk across the room then back again, anxious energy filling me.
“Well, when you were new to it, you sometimes lost control. You probably don’t have much control now, since you don’t remember you even have the gift.”
Oh great. That’s comforting. I huff out a breath. He probably heard that thought, too. If so, he doesn’t acknowledge it. And what kind of gift is this?
Another thought sends my heart racing again. “Do you have it, too? Does everybody here?” Who’s been listening to me all this time?
He shakes his head. “Only you. It’s a powerful ability the Angels reserve for a select few. Those who can handle it without abusing it.”
I let this sink in as I pace back and forth in the small space. “So I can send out thoughts? Like mind-talk?”
“Yes. And you can receive them, too.”
“I can hear other people’s thoughts? As in go into their heads and listen to them?” This is crazy.
“Yes. That’s why it’s such a rare gift. In the wrong kind of person—in most people, really—the ability to listen to other people’s thoughts about anything and everything, whenever they want to . . . you can imagine the temptation. The power can be easily abused.”
I push my hands through my hair and dig my fingertips into my scalp, as though I can reach into my mind and remove anyone’s thoughts—or the entire telepathic ability. I can’t imagine wanting to know what everybody’s thinking all of the time. I mean, I can see how it would come in handy in certain circumstances, but mostly, it sounds like a huge headache. Literally.
“Why can’t I hear thoughts now?” I ask.
Tristan shrugs and returns his gaze to the girls. “It might be the black magic blocking it. That’s happened before. But since you called to us by accident, I’d say it’s more likely you don’t remember how to use it.”
“Do you know how she does it? Er, I mean, how I do it?”
Tristan looks up at me again, his eyes dark, probably from my slip-up, then lifts his chin toward the rocking chair. “Sit down and relax. Try to blank out your own thoughts, then open your mind and feel out for mine.”
I peer at him while hesitating with my butt hovering over the chair. “That’s it?”
He makes it sound entirely too simple.
He shrugs again. “That’s what worked the first time you learned to do it. I know it came more naturally after a while, but since I don’t have the power, I can’t really explain it. You said the thoughts are simply there for you to pick up on if and when you want or need to.”
I drop into the chair and after a moment of staring at him, I lean back and close my eyes. After making my mind go blank, I mentally reach out toward his. I gasp at what feels like a little flicker of energy in my mind. Actually, three, although two are so light, I barely register them. I focus on the thicker one, connecting with it . . . linking with it. And Tristan’s voice, sounding very much like his real one, comes in my head, singing a vaguely familiar, though old, rock song about hurricanes.
I hear you, I say with my mind.
“I hear you, too.”
My lids pop open, and I stare at him. His eyes flicker—a sadness crosses them again, but mostly relief and hope show in them. I try to grab the thought that went with the look, but it was too fleeting.
“What was wrong just now?”
He sighs. “Nothing. Something you apparently don’t remember. But that’s okay. You’re making headway. See if you can pick up anyone else’s mind signature.”
I lift a brow.
“That’s what you call people’s brain waves,” he explains. “You say everyone’s is different, like their mental thumbprint. It allows you to identify people without actually entering their minds.”
He must mean the energy flickers. “I picked up on the babies’, I think.”
“Not surprising. You said they’re easy to read. Almost everything’s physical to them.”
I close my eyes and focus on one, although I can’t determine which baby it belongs to.
“She adores you. I can feel that.” My throat tightens. “And me. They both do.”
“Of course they do. You’re the best mom they could have.”
I snort. How can he say that? I don’t think Mom of the Year awards go to mothers who can’t even remember their own children. Or let them go with the enemy.
“Do you sense any others?” he asks. “Any other mind signatures?”
I open my mind up again, but besides the three here with me, all I feel are very faint points of pressure, like little pokes not even noticeable until he said something. I shake my head.
“I sense other people around us, but that’s all.”
Tristan’s lips press together for a moment, then he stands up. “I’m going to see if Teah or Teal can watch the babies. Then you and I should go for a walk.”
“Um . . . okay.” I don’t mind the idea of getting out of this room and checking out the shelter.
He disappears and returns a few minutes later with the same dark-haired, blue-eyed girl who’d brought the babies to the medical unit earlier. “This is Teah. She and her cousin Teal babysit for us. They’re also teachers.”
“There’s a school?” I haven’t considered there being other children here.
“Yeah, but it’s pretty empty now,” Teah says, and her lips flatten. “The kids are all getting hit the worst. We’ve all been borderline dehydrated for weeks, but they’re worse off. And now . . . they just can’t fight it.”
Tristan lifts his hand toward me, as though reaching for mine, but he quickly changes his motion and gestures toward the door. As if there’s electrical energy jumping between us, I feel his hand near the small of my back as I walk out.
“It sounds like there’s a crisis here,” I say once we’re down the stairs. “Should you be somewhere else?”
He turns to our right and begins walking. I hurry to catch up with him.
“I will soon. But you should be helping, too. Getting your memory back is a top priority. Your people need you.”
Hmph. “Are you sure about that? As bad as things seem to be, they might be better off without me . . . her.”
He stops in his tracks and stares at me. Well, more like glares at me, the hardness in his expression pulling me to a halt, too. “Don’t think that for one minute, Alexis. There’s a reason you were placed in the position you are. Everyone here believes in you because the Angels believe in you.”
I don’t argue with him. I really have no idea what he’s talking about, so I don’t have much of an argument. When he realizes I have no reply, he resumes walking.
“Try to reach out again and find people’s mind signatures.” His normally buttery voice comes out gruffly. “This is how you first learned.”
As he shows me around the shelter, which he calls The Loft, I try to do just that. Again, I feel tiny, vague pokes, but nothing else. There are more in the residential area when we pass through it, but not many when we enter the vast space marked Training. It seems to take up at least half of the developed area of what Tristan says had once been a limestone mine and converted into a bunker by a doomsday prepper. The training section includes an archery range, a shooting range, a weight and machine room, a sparring ring, and open spaces for practicing martial arts and various weapon use. At the front, classrooms line each side, and a library section takes up the middle with bookshelves spanning the front wall.
“The people who are well are saving their energy,” Tristan says as we leave the nearly empty area.
Except for a couple of die-hards on the gym equipment, the only people in here are a handful in the library. I find a big cluster of pulses in the dining area, though, and then another in the nearby medical unit. He shows me the farming space, with its acres of crops and a small barn for livestock, way in the back, surrounded by several sections that are still undeveloped, only wide, empty spaces separated by thick pillars. It’s dark here, with only a few light bulbs scattered about, and the pillars and walls are still marked from the equipment that originally dug out the limestone.
“It sounds like you’re only able to sense other people like I can.” He sounds disappointed, which makes me feel bad.
“Sorry.” I don’t know what else to say.
We return to the brighter, more colorful, main part of The Loft, where someone’s been working at making the place feel less like an underground bunker. There are murals painted on a few of the walls, giving the illusion that you’re looking out a window. One depicts a snow-topped mountain range and another rolling green hills that meet the beach. A third, a cityscape, remains unfinished. They’re all beautifully done, showing that some seriously talented residents live here. Framed pictures that have been scavenged hang on some of the interior walls, as well.
“It had been bare down here for a long time as we tried to reserve resources,” Tristan says, “but the longer we stay down here, the more we realize our sanity requires something more than drab walls to look at. And the artwork gives some of us something constructive to do with our time.” We come to a stop at the main intersection where the dining, training, and residential areas meet. “So, I guess that’s it. The Loft.”
With the tour over, we go to the kitchen to grab a late dinner. The crowd has dissipated with only a few stragglers still eating in the dining area. I wonder if he’d purposely kept me away from everyone. It probably isn’t a good idea for the whole place to know their so-called leader can’t remember a thing about them.
My breasts fill up again—I’m really starting to feel like a cow and hating my udders—and as if on cue, we can hear the babies’ cries from the kitchen. I don’t think it’s normal to be able to hear them from so far away, but as Sheree said, I have super-senses. Tristan must have them, too. We add a couple of bottles for the twins to our box, as well as the pump, and return to our quarters. Although there’s no sun down here, I feel night has fallen. The residents are settling down, a quiet growing throughout the shelter. And we haven’t yet talked about our sleeping arrangements.
“I’m not really tired,” I say after finishing my meal. I’d already pumped, Tristan had fed the babies, and we’d put them down in their bed, sound asleep. “I think I’m going to go back to the library you showed me. Maybe something there will help me.”
He rises to his feet, and since the room doesn’t exactly have much open space, he stands right in front of me. The closeness causes electricity to zing through my nerves, and my heart picks up a quick rhythm. His tangy-sweet scent envelops me, making my head light.
“I can find another place to sleep,” he says, his voice low, but I can still hear the underlying layer of hurt in it.
Unable to look up at him this close, I stare at the floor and shake my head. “No. I’m serious. I couldn’t sleep right now even if I tried. I slept half the afternoon, remember? And you should sleep in your own bed.”
After a moment of tension sparks between us, he moves to the side. I look back at the twins, an involuntary movement to check that they still sleep soundly, then head for the door. The sigh I hear from Tristan as I leave makes my heart squeeze. I know I’m hurting him, but I have no idea how to change that, except to do what I can to regain my memories. I try to reach my mind out for signatures as I walk, but still have no luck. He was right—sensing the others nearby is just that, sensing them and their physical presence. It’s not the same as the flickers of mental energy I’d felt in our room, especially not like his.
After a quick stop in the kitchen to deposit the bottles and clean the pump, I head to the library, where I find shelves and shelves of books about survival in the wild, homesteading and farming, basic technology, and military training. Almost all are non-fiction covering everything from horticulture and canning to establishing a government. I do find a couple of shelves of fiction books, however. Although I should probably be reading about leadership or something equally as helpful and relevant, I’m drawn to the novels.
The one I find most intriguing sits out on a table. A lot of people must think it’s interesting, because the paperback is well-worn, with a cracked spine and dog-eared pages. I discover others in the series, and a couple of duplicates. They are the only books in the library that have multiple copies, and every single one is much loved. As I flip through the pages, I notice several passages are highlighted, most of them having to do with fighting supernaturals. Notes about using silver and characters’ weak spots are written in the margins.
I read the first few pages, and the story immediately sucks me in. There’s something familiar about it, though, almost like a feeling of déjà vu. I must have read the book before, and some part of my subconscious mind knows it already. When the time comes, I take the book with me, stop in the kitchen for the pump, and then pause, not knowing where to go. I don’t want to disturb Tristan and the babies, although if I’m aching, they’d be waking up any time now, crying with hunger. I can’t bring myself to hurt him again, but know I’d be unable to stay in the room afterward.
I hate this more than he knows, more than I let on. Wandering the dark, quiet Loft by myself with these strange breasts that don’t feel like my own, not knowing where to go or what to do, I feel like an alien trying to settle on a planet I know only by distant observation. I know the basics, but not who I really am or where I fit in. Except unlike the alien who’s totally new, there are already set expectations for me—shoes I don’t know how to fill, even if they are my own.
Not everyone’s asleep. This is a place where half the residents are supernaturals who either don’t need sleep or have inherent preferences for the night. Not wanting to be bothered by wandering souls, I end up in the communal bathroom, sitting on the floor with my back against the wall and trying to read while pumping. Unable to focus, I close the book and drop it facedown on the floor. A woman who looks like an older version of myself stares up at me from the back cover. I peer closer. A.K. Emerson is her name, and she has the same eyes, nose shape, and chin as me, although she has the hint of a second chin and her cheeks are much fuller than mine. She’s pretty, but more like what I would look like if I were entirely human, I suppose—closer to the physical age Sheree claims me to be.
I gasp with a thought. Is this me before the Ang’dora, when I’d aged backwards? Is this what Tristan had been telling me before, about being a bestselling author? Somewhere deep inside, I know the truth in this, and that’s why I feel like I already know the story. I’d not only read it before—I’d written it.
My chest tightens as more thoughts flood over me. I have this whole life as a bestselling author, a mom, and a wife, with friends and who knew what else? Do he and I have a good relationship? Carlie said he loves me like crazy, but do I feel the same? How long have we been together, anyway? Would he ever love me like that again? Could he, if I never become the Alexis he’s always known? I finger the author’s picture, wishing she could give me answers, as a tear rolls down my cheek.
For the first time since waking up at the edge of the lake, my situation really hits me, and I feel utterly lost and alone.
I spend a good portion of the night wandering around The Loft while trying to push through the block that hides all of my memories before that one moment in time. But it’s like a solid wall, and everything beyond it remains unreachable—any information about who I am unattainable. Several times, I come fully to the present to find myself stopped at the bottom of the stairs to our room, staring up at the door. Although I’m drawn to that place like a magnet, I can’t bring myself to climb the steps. Because I know I’m drawn to him, but all I do is hurt him. The best I can do is sit on the wooden step, close but not too close, and read.
“You know, I have a double compartment all to myself.”
The female voice startles me awake. When did I doze off? I straighten up from leaning against the wall and look up to find Sheree’s lithe body standing over me. I blink at her.
“You put all of us on your team directly around you,” she says, using her long fingers to indicate the compartments on this row, including Tristan’s . . . mine.
My brows furrow. “We need protection down here?”
“No. For easy access. And since I’m the only unattached person on your team, I get a place to myself. I have an extra bed is what I’m saying.”
“Oh. Well, I wasn’t really tired. Couldn’t sleep.”
“Yeah, I could tell.” With a soft snort, she turns toward the end of the row. “Want some coffee or breakfast?”
The sounds of people waking and beginning their day fill The Loft as Sheree and I sit down to a breakfast of banana bread, peanut butter, and coffee. I’ve barely finished when I sense the twins are up. I wait as long as I can possibly stand before excusing myself to do my thing, only to round the corner and find Tristan coming down the stairs with a baby in each arm. I’d hoped they’d already left the room. We meet at the bottom of the stairs, and I force myself to lift my eyes and meet his gaze, knowing I can’t avoid him forever. He seems to be scanning me for information.
“You should have come in last night,” he says, and my head tilts ever so slightly on its own. “Yeah, I knew you were out here, but wanted to leave the choice to you. I’d never do anything to make you uncomfortable, Lex. I have no problem sleeping on the floor. Whatever would make you feel better. I don’t like you sleeping out here on the stairs when you have a home and a bed.”
I swallow the thick lump in my throat, unable to speak. I don’t know what to say. After a moment of silence, he gives a slight nod and walks in the direction from where I’d come.
“I’ll take care of the twins and get some breakfast, then we have work to do,” he says over his shoulder.
Part of me wants to hide in the room all day, but I know that wouldn’t last long when he comes looking for me. Besides, a bigger part of me is tired of feeling so alone. Camping out in here all day wouldn’t bring me answers or fix anything. So once I’ve dressed in a tank top and black jeans and given my hair a good brushing, I reach my mind out, trying again to find all the mind signatures surrounding me. The only one I feel, after a lot of effort and focus, is Tristan’s. I begin to think we have a deeper connection than through my telepathy. Even the stone in my chest seems to warm when I reach out to him.
“As you mentioned last night, we’re in crisis mode here,” Tristan says a few minutes later as he leads me down the main corridor in the direction from which we’d entered only yesterday. “I don’t think leaving you out of the loop will help. If we can’t get your memory back, I can at least teach you and bring you up to speed. It might be the best we get.”
“What do you mean?”
He pauses at the door to what he had said yesterday was my office. “As your second, I’m here to do what you can’t, but part of my job is to ensure you can do yours. We need a contingency plan in case Owen and Blossom can’t figure out the antidote or remedy to your situation. And that plan is to teach you everything you need to know so you can get back to work.”
“As the leader here,” I say as he opens the door.
He waits for me to enter first and gives a nod. “We’ll start with that.”
We pass through a fairly large room with folding tables arranged in a U-shape and white boards hanging on the wall that the mismatched chairs face. A list of lakes and streams mark one side of the white board, and a map has been drawn on the other side with The Loft noted in the center and bodies of water indicated around it. It’s not a crude sketch or sloppy doodle, either, but created by someone with artistic talent. On the far side of the room, to the left of the white boards, Tristan opens another door. Through it we enter a much smaller room with an old, metal desk that barely leaves enough space for a chair on either side of it.
“Not quite the office you had at the mansion or the safe house, but it works.” Tristan lifts his hand out to indicate the chair on the far side. “You may as well take the seat you’re supposed to fill and get used to it.”
My arm brushes against his as I make my way around the desk, and electricity shoots through my nerves. I pretend not to notice it and take the seat behind the desk. A slow breath leaks out of my lungs as I stare at the overwhelming mess of papers in front of me. It takes me a moment to notice there’s no phone, no computer, nothing of the sort in the office.
“The digital age came to an end with the bombs and EMPs.” He begins sorting through the papers. “We’re back to paper and ink. You should read these and get caught up on everything.”
“What are they?”
“Reports brought in while you were gone yesterday.”
I look up at him, confused. “From where?”
“Everywhere we have contact throughout the world.”
My chest feels tight, though I don’t know why. I resort to joking. “And let me guess—brought in by courier pigeon? Or wait—by owl?”
One corner of his mouth lifts. “Falcon, actually.”
My brows raise.
“Robin, a were-falcon, is one of our messengers. She’s on your council.”
I stare for a moment too long, then blink and nod. “Yeah. Of course.”
Is he freakin’ for real? This life—my life—surpasses all standards for weirdness. Sheree had mentioned my team and now Tristan refers to my council. They’d called me matriarch. Of what, I’m beginning to wonder. I thought they meant leader of The Loft, with its Norman and supernatural inhabitants, but now I think it’s more than that.
“Tristan, what, exactly, am I leader of?”
His lips squish together in what’s probably supposed to be a purse or maybe even a scowl, but makes me think of a kiss. And then I can’t stop thinking about the kiss and how amazing it had been . . . what I would do for another. What would I do? That’s a ridiculous thought I quickly try to shut out. Tristan’s still talking but I’m too distracted to hear, except I do hear the words, “the world.”
“Come again?” I say, bringing myself fully back to present.
He leans against the desk, his perfect ass settling on the edge, and I wonder what it feels like. Shit. I’m distracted again.
“Did you hear me?”
I swallow and look up at him, trying to hide the heat flushing through my body. “Sorry. A bit, uh, overwhelmed here.”
He studies me for a moment, and I have to look away because everything about him distracts me. Even his voice is beautiful, deep and smooth like warm honey and butter, but at least I can allow myself to focus on that.
“You’re the Amadis matriarch and leader of Earth’s Angels. The Angels have put you in charge of everything here on Earth, so basically, the world is yours.”
My gaze shoots up at him. “Say that again?”
He sighs. “I know it’s all new to you, but can you please focus? We have a lot of work to do.”
“Oh, no, I heard you this time. At least, I think I did. I’m just trying to make sure the words you said were the same ones I heard. Because I thought when you all called me matriarch and leader, you meant of this place. Like somehow I’d been elected mayor or whatever of The Loft. But that’s not what you said. Is it?”
He shakes his head. “No.”
I listen intently as he gives me a quick history lesson—my history. My bloodline had led the Amadis, the Angels’ army on Earth, since its beginning, so I’d been in line to take over as matriarch when I was born. By the time the war had started, I’d taken on that role. When we won the war, the Angels themselves told us I was to lead the effort in helping humanity to rebuild.
“That’s the gist of it,” Tristan finishes, although I feel like he held a lot back. He’d said everything matter-of-factly, as though reciting a section in a history book, withholding the personal parts, the emotions, of everything that had happened.
I stare at the papers on the desk, snatches of words floating through my mind as I try to comprehend.
“That’s . . . um . . .” I take a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Overwhelming is a bit of an understatement.” Questions flood over me, too many and too fast to pick one. So I take his lead and try to focus on the task at hand—my current role. I look up at him again. “What does it exactly mean? What do I do?”
The explanation never included the words “rule the world,” but the implication hangs from each sentence. How does one person rule the entire world, anyway? Especially in what has practically become the Dark Ages? How is it even possible?
“You’ve been following the Angels’ lead with a philosophy of interfering only when necessary. And so far, with the majority of the population remaining under the Earth’s surface, where it’s safer, we haven’t had to do much but monitor and assist when needed, such as with Demons.” He taps a finger on the pile of papers. “These reports will give you updated information from our sources. Some places have had a few issues, but you’ve given them direction. Honestly, things have run pretty smoothly.”
“Direction or orders?” I mutter, still trying to grasp my role as leader . . . of the entire damn world.
“Direction,” Tristan replies, though it had been a rhetorical question not even meant for him to hear. “That’s the kind of leader you’ve been, and it’s worked so far. That will likely change when more people return to the surface, and when it does, I know you’ll be up for it.”
I snort. “You sound a lot more confident than I feel.”
He chuckles. “It’s always been that way, but I’ve never doubted you, Lex. I’ve always seen the greatness in you. You’ve only recently discovered it for yourself, especially during that final battle. You really came into your own then—became what the rest of us had been waiting for. And I know you will again.”
He places his hand over mine for a brief moment—long enough for sparks to shoot up my arm—before he seems to remember himself. He withdraws it and leaves me with the pile of reports to pursue.
I can hardly believe what I read. First of all, I’d been spelling Amadis in my head phonetically, like Uhmahdeese, but that’s wrong. And what I’d heard as Daymahnee is spelled Daemoni. The reports come from members of the Amadis, which is comprised of the supernaturals who consider themselves on the good side, soldiers of the Angels’ army. Tristan has already clarified that the Daemoni are the opposite—the Demons’ army. The reports also mention the Demons and Earth’s Angels, as well as what they refer to as newly discovered and developed species, including dragons and a variety of faeries.
Mostly, however, the reports relay information about underground communities, some Norman and some a mix of Norman and Amadis. They’ve figured out new ways to grow food, repurpose items to produce electricity or filter water or provide some other need that had been destroyed by the collapse of infrastructure. There are some needs listed—items that are no longer being produced in factories but have to be scavenged. From what I can gather, the were-falcon and other messengers bring these needs lists to us, and we somehow provide from here. I’ll have to find out how that’s done.
Tristan explains when he brings me lunch and the tit-sucker. “We send the messages out to our contacts, and if anyone has an item someone else needs, they let us know. Then Owen creates portals to transport the items.”
“Sounds like that could take eons.”
He nods as he chews a bite of his lunch. “That’s where we are right now. Hopefully, some day, we’ll be able to rebuild to where we used to be, only better.”
“But for now we’re literally in the Dark Ages.”
He gives me a small smile. “That’s not what the Angels call it. They’ve declared this the Age of Angels.”
“Guess that sounds promising.”
“Hope is what we all need right now.”
I can’t argue with that.
When night comes, Tristan convinces me to sleep in our compartment. He sleeps on the floor, as promised, and of course, I feel as guilty as I knew I would. But apparently, I’ve needed the sleep, because guilt or no, I’m out like a light.
“You slept in your room last night,” Blossom notes the next morning when she joins me for breakfast. “I take that as a good sign.”
I frown. “I guess, but it’s weird. I feel bad for Tristan for making him sleep on the floor.”
She focuses on spreading peanut butter on her toast. “You know, I could put up a magical barrier in the middle of the bed so you can both sleep on it without getting close. But wouldn’t that be weirder? I mean, you’re married. Maybe you should try living normally, like a married couple would do. It might help with your memories.”
“You know what would help with her memories?” Tristan asks as he sets two baby carriers on the table and then sits down. “If you and Owen figured out the damn antidote.”
Blossom looks at him with wide eyes—bigger than her already large ones. His words aren’t surprising, so it must be his harsh tone. Tristan plants his elbows on the table and drops his forehead against the heels of his palms. His shoulders rise and fall with deep breaths.
“Sorry,” he mutters. He stands back up and grabs a baby carrier in each hand. “I miss my wife. They miss their mother.”
Leaving his untouched plate behind, he strides off with the twins. I blink against the burn in my eyes and push my own half-eaten food away. A small but warm hand lands on mine.
“We’ll fix you, don’t worry,” Blossom assures. Then she stands up. “I’ll get back to work right now. Owen’s been up all night and needs relief.”
I watch her walk away but only have a moment to feel sorry for myself before a blonde vampire drops into the seat in front of me.
“Good morning,” Vanessa says, the joy in her voice laced with a sharp edge, as though cheerfulness isn’t quite natural for her. “You look like you could use a good fight. Want to spar?”
We go to the boxing ring in the nearly empty training area, and once we start, the moves come naturally to me. She knows exactly what I need—the physical release of slamming my fist into something and the pain that answers. We’ve only gone a couple of rounds, though, before Vanessa’s called to a real fight.