She opened her eyes to another world.
A world filled with grainy grayness, like a TV channel with no transmission. But she didn’t care.
This world had an angel watching over her.
And not just any angel. An archangel. If archangels were the personification of beauty and power, were hewn out of living rock and bronze and unadulterated maleness.
His image floated in the jumble of light and shadow, making her wonder if this was a dream. Or a hallucination. Or worse.
Probably worse. In spite of the angel’s presence. Or because of it. Angels didn’t watch over anyone who wasn’t in some serious trouble, did they?
Would be a shame if he turned out to be the angel of death. Why make him so breathtaking if he was just a life-force extractor? He was way overqualified. Such overkill was uncalled for, if you asked her. Or maybe his extreme attractiveness was designed to make his targets willing to go where he led?
She’d be more than willing. If she could move.
She couldn’t. Gravity overwhelmed her, squashed her back onto something that suddenly felt like a bed of thorns. Every cell in her body started to squirm, every nerve firing impulses. But the cells had no connection to each other and the nerves were unable to muster one spark of voluntary movement. Distress bombarded her, noise rose in her ears, pounding, nauseating her…
His face came closer, stilled the vertigo, swept over the cacophony, stifling it.
Her turmoil subsided. She didn’t have to fight the pull of gravity, didn’t have to fear the paralysis.
He was here. And he’d take care of everything.
She had no idea how she knew that. But she knew it. She knew him.
Not that she had any idea who he was.
But everything inside her told her that she was safe, that everything would be okay. Because he was here.
Now if only she could get any part of her to work.
She shouldn’t feel so inert upon waking up. But was she waking up? Or was she dreaming? That would explain the detachment between brain and body. That would explain him. He was too much to be real.
But she knew he was real. She just knew she wasn’t imaginative enough to have made him up.
She knew something else, too. This man was important. In general. And to her, he was more than important. Vital. “Cybele?”
Was that his voice? That dark, fathomless caress?
It so suited the sheer magnificence of his face…
“Can you hear me?”
Boy, could she. She more than heard him. His voice spread across her skin, her pores soaking it up as if they were starved for nourishment. It permeated her with its richness, its every inflection sparking an inert nerve, restarting a vital process, reviving her.
“Cybele, if you can hear me, if you’re awake this time, por favor, answer me.” Por favor? Spanish? Figured. So that’s where the tinge of an accent came from-English intertwining with the sensuous music of the Latin tongue. She wanted to answer him. She wanted him to keep talking. Each syllable out of those works of art he had for lips, crooned in that intoxicating voice, was lulling her back to oblivion, this time a blissful one.
His face filled her field of vision. She could see every shard of gold among the emerald, moss and caramel that swirled into a luminous color she was certain she’d never seen except in his eyes.
She wanted to stab her fingers into the lushness of his raven mane, cup that leonine head, bring him even closer so she could pore over every strand’s hue and radiance. She wanted to trace each groove and slash and plane that painted his face in complexity, wanted to touch each radiation of character.
This was a face mapped with anxiety and responsibility and distinction. She wanted to absorb the first, ease the second and marvel at the third. She wanted those lips against her own, mastering, filling her with the tongue that wrapped around those words and created such magic with them.
She knew she shouldn’t be feeling anything like that now, that her body wasn’t up to her desires. Her body knew that, but didn’t acknowledge its incapacitation. It just needed him, close, all that maleness and bulk and power, all that tenderness and protection.
She craved this man. She’d always craved him.
“Cybele, por Dios, say something.”
It was the raggedness, tearing at the power of his voice, that stirred her out of her hypnosis, forced her vocal cords to tauten, propelled air out of her lungs through them to produce the sound he demanded so anxiously.
“I c-can hear you…”
That came out an almost soundless rasp. From the way he tilted his ear toward her mouth, it was clear he wasn’t sure whether she had produced sound or if he’d imagined it, whether it had been words or just a groan.
She tried again. “I’m a-awake…I think…I hope, a-and I h-hope you’re r-real…”
She couldn’t say anything more. Fire lanced in her throat, sealing it with a molten agony. She tried to cough up what felt like red-hot steel splinters before they burned through her larynx. Her sand-filled eyes gushed tears, ameliorating their burning dryness. “Cybele!”
And he was all around her. He raised her, cradled her in the curve of a barricade of heat and support, seeping warmth into her frozen, quivering bones. She sank in his power, surrendered in relief as he cupped her head.
“Don’t try to talk anymore. You were intubated for long hours during your surgery and your larynx must be sore.”
Something cool touched her lips, then something warm and spicily fragrant lapped at their parched seam. Not his lips or his tongue. A glass and a liquid. She instinctively parted her lips and the contents rushed in a gentle flow, filling her mouth.
When she didn’t swallow, he angled her head more securely. “It’s a brew of anise and sage. It will soothe your throat.”
He’d anticipated her discomfort, had been ready with a remedy. But why was he explaining? She would swallow anything he gave her. If she could without feeling as if nails were being driven into her throat. But he wanted her to. She had to do what he wanted.
She squeezed her eyes against the pain, swallowed. The liquid slid through the rawness, its peppery tinge bringing more tears to her eyes. That lasted only seconds. The soreness subsided under the balmy taste and temperature.
She moaned with relief, feeling rejuvenated with every encouraging sweep of tenderness that his thumb brushed over her cheek as she finished the rest of the glass’s contents. “Better now?”
The solicitude in his voice, in his eyes, thundered through her. She shuddered under the impact of her gratitude, her need to hide inside him, dissolve in his care. She tried to answer him, but this time it was emotion that clogged her throat. But she had to express her thankfulness.