He swallowed. Once, twice. “The darkness in you is gone. But I still can’t … Gods, Runa. What I did to you. I’ve never been able to protect the females in my life. I always hurt them. I hurt you.”
She pressed her finger against his lips, and he tugged her into his lap and held her so tightly she had to struggle to breathe. The sound of his heartbeat came to her in a rapid-fire punch, nearly drowning out the voices of his brothers as Eidolon tried to explain Shade’s gift for releasing females from whatever troubled them. From Wraith’s angry words, she guessed it wasn’t going well.
Gently, she pushed away, but stayed in Shade’s lap. “You need to tell me what’s going on with the disappearing act.” She glanced meaningfully at his left arm, which flickered in various stages of transparency. She felt him begin to shake beneath her, and her heart nearly broke. Whatever the problem was, it was bad.
“Remember when you asked about the Maluncoeur?” When she nodded, he continued. “It’s a curse. A curse I brought on myself.”
He reached up to stroke her hair, but when her hair passed right through his hand, leaving behind only a whisper of air, he dropped his arm. “Do you know how long it took me to stop being angry at the warlock who cursed me? How long I blamed him and not myself?” He shook his head. “I was twenty. My mom went hunting, left me to take care of my sisters. But while she was gone, I entered my first transition.”
She nodded, remembering what he’d said and what she’d read about a Seminus demon’s maturation process. “You need nonstop sex for days to get through it.”
“Yeah. I went out, prowling for females, taking what I needed. And when I say take, I mean it.” He blew out a long breath and looked up at the ceiling. “I’d never had sex before the transition hit me, and then when I did, it was insane, fast, violent. I just needed to get off to get through the transition, you know? So when it was over, I wanted it because I wanted it. Not because I needed it. Does that make sense?”
Not really, but she nodded, noticed that his brothers had moved to just outside the doorway to give them some privacy, and she wondered how much of this story they’d known and how much was new.
“So instead of going back to the cave to protect my sisters, I pick up this human starlet. We go to her place.” His gaze strayed to the tools on the wall. “That’s when I discovered that I’d inherited the Umber ability to sense the things females bury deep inside—and that when she needs to be free of it, I can help.”
“So you …”
“Yeah. I did. And while I was doing it, her husband came home. It wasn’t pretty. We fought. I killed him.” Shade shuddered. “But before he died, he cursed me. Cursed me to never know love, because if I did, I’d fade away.”
She listened in horror as he described what would happen to him. “Oh, my God.” She put her hand over her mouth. “That’s … that’s why you wanted to hate me. You didn’t want to—”
“Fall in love with you,” he croaked. “But it’s too l—”
“Shade!” Eidolon stalked into the room. “Don’t say it. Don’t say anything else.”
She watched in horror as Shade’s entire body flickered, and she had a sick feeling that if he actually said he was in love with her, it would all be over. No wonder his brothers had wanted to get rid of her. And though it still hurt that Shade had considered it, she understood.
“It was right afterward that you discovered your sisters, wasn’t it?” Wraith asked, and Runa recognized the attempt to get Shade off the subject of his feelings for her.
“Yeah.” Shade’s voice broke, right along with her heart. “I went back to the cave where I’d left them. They were dead. All but Skulk. If only I hadn’t picked up the starlet, maybe they’d still be alive.”
Hatred rolled off Shade in waves, along with grief so thick she could practically taste it. “Is that why you think you can’t protect females?”
“It wasn’t just them. My mother, too. And then there was Skulk—”
“Stop it,” she said softly. “I blamed myself for my mother’s death for so long, so I know I’m a terrible hypocrite, but none of that was your fault. You did your best. And Shade, you did protect me. You got me out of Roag’s dungeon. You saved me from him just today. And you lifted me out of that that dark place full of guilt over my past. I’ve never felt better. We just have to find a way to cure you of this stupid curse.”
“There is no cure,” Eidolon said. “Not now that he’s fallen … ah … yeah, anyway, there’s no cure. It can be transferred, but only to a loved one.”
Runa felt her hope drain away. Then anger rushed in, and hell no, she wasn’t going to lose him now. There had to be a cure.
“Where’s the phone?”
Shade frowned. “Why?”
“I’m going to call Arik. Maybe the Army can find something you guys missed.”
Wraith snorted. “The United States Army? They couldn’t find their dicks with a whore’s—”
“Wraith,” Eidolon said gently. “We need to take any help we can get.”
Wraith said nothing, but he brought her the phone. She thanked him and turned back to Shade. “Just hold on, okay?”
“I will.” For Runa’s sake he smiled reassuringly, but he had given up hope a long time ago.
God, she wanted to hug him, hold him, make love to him until all of this was forgotten, but she needed to keep her distance. She didn’t want to accelerate the curse. And she definitely didn’t want him to see that she was on the verge of a breakdown.
She dressed quickly in jeans and a tank top and then left the three guys in the bedroom to call Arik from the TV room. She hoped he’d learned something about the Maluncoeur. Pacing the length of the room, she dialed.
Arik answered, but she could barely hear him.
He replied, but she couldn’t understand him over the static. She moved to the kitchen, where the reception was better, but that made the connection on Arik’s end worse. Finally, she stepped out of the hidden cave door. Better. Not great, but she couldn’t risk moving too far from the entrance.
“How’s this? Can you hear me now?”
“Like a commercial,” Arik said, his breathing harsh and rapid.
“Did I interrupt something?”
“Just my workout.”
The usual. If he wasn’t at the office, he was at the gym. “Look, I have something for you. The Maluncoeur I asked you to investigate? It’s a curse.”
“I know. But that’s about all I know.”
“Apparently, it can be transferred to a loved one, but there’s got to be another way to get rid of it.”
“There’s not a lot of information for me to go on.”
“Do whatever it takes. You’ve got to find out more, and fast. It’s killing Shade. It’s some sort of vengeance curse that causes the victim to fade away if he falls in love.”
“What are you saying?”
The tears that had threatened earlier fell. “I love him.”
“Son of a— He’s a demon, Runa!”
“And I’m a werewolf. No one’s perfect.”
“Not the time for humor, sis.” She heard a thump that sounded suspiciously like a fist hitting a wall. “This is unacceptable. I’m sending a team for you.”
“You are not,” she snapped, and then softened her voice, because getting Arik riled was only going to bring out his hyperprotective, controlling side. “And I don’t want the Army messing with the hospital.”
“That’s not your call. They heal demons there. Our enemies.”
Her blood ran cold. “Sounds like maybe that’s what I’m becoming.”
Arik’s curse burned her ear. “We’ll discuss this later.”
“There’s nothing to discuss. I love Shade.”
“You can’t have it both ways. The military kicks people out for freaking sleepwalking if there’s a danger that they might spill secrets. You think R-XR is going to let you work for them and then go home to a f**king demon?”
“That f**king demon saved your life.”
No doubt Arik didn’t appreciate the reminder. “That doesn’t change the fact that this won’t go over well with command.”
“If they can’t deal with it, that’s their problem.”
“So you’re ready to give up your job, your life, for Shade?”
The past year came at her in a rush, all the interesting research and exciting missions. All the poking and prodding and experimentation. The loneliness. Shade holding her tight. “I’m not giving anything up.”
There was a lot of cursing, followed by a long silence. “Kynan made contact,” Arik said finally, but his tone said their conversation about Shade wasn’t over. “Said you talked to him.”
“Is he going to help you?” Betray the hospital?
“He’s not playing ball right now, but he’ll come around.”
She doubted that, not after seeing the expression on Kynan’s face. She swatted at some huge insect buzzing around her face. “Look, I need to go, but I’ll call later to see if you find out anything.”
“I don’t like this.”
The insect dive-bombed her, and she swatted again, ducked away from it as she spoke. “You’ve made that clear. Just make the Maluncoeur a priority.” When he didn’t answer, she had a sudden suspicion that he wasn’t going to do anything to help. “Remember the bond I mentioned? If Shade dies, I do, too.”
She didn’t even feel guilty for lying. “Yeah. So get the info.”
“I will,” he breathed. “And Runa?”
“I love you.”
She smiled weakly, because as crazy as he made her, he’d always had her back. “Love you, too.”
She hung up, and the stupid bug, an orange thing with a wingspan of a bat, landed on her neck. She squealed, leaped around a little, and geez, she was a wuss. The creature whizzed away in a flurry of wings, and she sighed in relief. Having grown up in the city, she wasn’t big on nature, and this was as natural as it came.
The smells, the sounds … she frowned, becoming aware of the silence in the forest. The last time this happened, Shade had come at her from out of nowhere, his eyes glowing red as the s’genesis ravaged him.
She pivoted around as Shade emerged from the brush, dressed as always in black leather. And he was solid. No transparency at all. It wasn’t Shade.
Her heart threw itself against her ribcage as though leading the charge toward the cave entrance. It was only three yards away, but it might as well have been the distance between goalposts on a football field. She darted toward it. The Not-Shade shot forward, grabbing her around the throat and cutting her off with a strangled cry.
The phone fell from her fingers. She clawed at his hand, kicked at his legs, but he just stood there, his hand squeezing and loathing burning in his eyes.
His features began to swim, half-blotted out by the red spots swimming in her vision. The last thing she saw before darkness swallowed her was Roag’s face.
“Take my hand.”
Shade stared at Wraith as he sank down next to him. “What?”
Wraith forced Shade’s palm into his. “Now say these words: Solumaya. Orentus. Kraktuse.”
“Just do it.”
Shade jerked his hand away and, still sitting on the floor, tugged on his pants. “Tell me why.”
“I didn’t have a chance to explain it all in your office, mainly because you were pummeling me—”
“Wraith,” E interrupted, “what’s going on?”
“I was getting to that.” Wraith impatiently shoved his long hair back from his face. “I sought out an old sorceress friend. Enemy, really, but that’s all behind us now.” Eidolon cleared his throat, and Wraith rolled his eyes. “Yeah, yeah. On with it. Okay, so we know the Maluncoeur can be transferred to a loved one, but we didn’t know how. She gave me the way.”
“The words you just said?” Shade asked.
“Yep. So lay it on me.” He held out his hand. “We have to be touching. Glad you put your pants on.”
Shade scooted back, wishing he didn’t feel so shaky, because he’d be on his feet and out the door if he could. “Are you crazy? I’m not transferring it to you!” He kept backing up, but Wraith stalked him.
“Yeah, bro, you are.”
“I’m never going to fall in love, Shade. The curse won’t affect me. Ever. So just do it.”
Shade shook his head so hard his hair stung his face. “I will not.”
“Damn you, Shade.” Wraith’s voice was pure whisper. “You’ve saved my life so many times. Let me do this for you.”
Shade broke off as a feeling of unease centered in his chest. Evil prickled over his skin and tightened around his neck like a noose.
“Runa,” he gasped. “Where is she?” He bounded to his feet, grabbing Eidolon’s arm when a wave of dizziness nearly sent him to his knees.
“Probably still talking to her brother,” Wraith said.