EXCERPT #1 FROM
As bad ones went, her father’s paranoia attack hadn’t been that bad.
Ehlena was only a half hour late to work, dematerializing to the clinic as soon as she was able to calm herself enough to pull the travel trick off. By some miracle, the visiting nurse had been free and able to come early. Thank the Scribe Virgin.
Going through the various checkpoints to get down into the facility, Ehlena felt the weight of her bag in her hand. She’d been prepared to cancel her date and leave the change of clothes at home, but the visiting nurse had talked her out of it. The question the female had asked struck deep: When was the last time you were out of this house for anything except work?
Caregivers had to take care of themselves—and part of that was having a life outside of whatever illness had put them in their role. God knew, Ehlena told this to the family members of her chronically sick patients all the time, and the advice was both sound and practical.
At least when she gave it to others. Turned on herself, it felt selfish.
So she was waffling on the date. With her shift ending close to dawn, it wasn’t as if she had time to go home and check on her father first. As it was, she and the male who’d asked her out would be lucky to get an hour in before the encroaching sunlight put an end to things.
She had no idea what to do. Conscience was pulling her one way, loneliness another.
After she went through the last security checkpoint, she walked into the reception area and beelined for the nursing supervisor, who was at a computer by the registration desk. “I’m so sorry I’m—”
Cat dropped whatever she was doing and reached out. “How is he?”
For a split second, all Ehlena could do was blink. On some level, she hated that they all knew about her father’s problems, that a few had even seen him at his worst. Though the illness had stripped him of his pride, she still had some on his behalf. “He’s calmed down, and his nurse is with him now. Fortunately I’d just given him his meds when it hit.”
“Do you need a minute?”
“Nope. Where are we?”
Cat smiled in a sad fashion, like she was biting her tongue. Again. “You don’t have to be this strong.”
“Yes. I do.” Ehlena gave the female’s hand a squeeze in hopes of closing down the conversation. “Where do you need me?”
By this time several of the other nurses were coming over and expressing sympathy. Ehlena’s throat closed up, not because she was overcome with gratitude that they were thoughtful, but because she got claustrophobic. Compassion choked her like a dog chain even on a good evening. After a start like she’d had tonight? She wanted to bolt.
“I’m fine, everyone, thanks—”
“Okay, he’s back in the room,” the last nurse to arrive said. “Should I get out a quarter?”
Everybody groaned. There was only one he out of the legions of male patients they treated, and flipping a quarter was how the staff decided who had to deal with him. Furthest from the date lost, and heads or tails broke any ties.
Generally speaking, all of the nurses kept a professional distance from their patients. You had to, or you’d burn out. With some though, you couldn’t help but get emotionally involved.
With him, you stayed separate for reasons other than professional ones. There was just something about the male that made them all nervous, an underlying threat that was as hard to diagnose as it was evident.
Ehlena cut through the various years being chosen for the toss. “I’ll do it. It’ll make up for my being late.”
“Are you sure?” someone asked. “Seems like you’ve already paid your dues tonight.”
“Just let me get some coffee. What room?”
“I parked him in three,” the nurse said.
Amid a chorus of atta girls, Ehlena went to the nurses’ locker room, put her things in her locker, and poured herself a mug of hot, steaming perk-your-ass-up. The coffee was strong enough to be considered an accelerant and did the job nicely, wiping her mental state clean.
Well, mostly clean.
As she sipped, she glanced around the staff area. The banks of buff-colored lockers had names over them, and there were pairs of street shoes here and there under pine benches. In the lunch area, folks had their favorite mugs on the counter and snacks on the shelves, and sitting on the round table there was a bowl full of . . . what was it tonight? Little packs of Skittles. Above the table was a bulletin board covered with flyers for events and coupons and stupid comic-strip jokes and pictures of hot guys. The shift roster was next to it, the white board marked with a grid of the next two weeks, which was filled in with names.
It was the detritus of normal life, none of which seemed significant in the slightest until you thought about all those folks on the planet who couldn’t keep jobs or enjoy an independent existence or have the mental energy to spare on little distractions. Looking at it all, she was reminded yet again that going out into the real world was a privilege, not a right, and it bothered her to think of her father holed up in that shitty little house, wrestling with demons that existed only in his mind. He’d once had a life, a big life. Now he had delusions that tortured him, and though they were only perception, never reality, the voices were completely terrifying nonetheless.
As Ehlena rinsed out her mug, she couldn’t help thinking of the unfairness of it all.
Before she left the locker room, she did a quick check in the full-length mirror next to the door. Her white uniform was perfectly pressed and clean as sterile gauze. Her stockings were without runs. Her crepe-soled shoes were smudge- and scuff-free.
Her hair was as frazzled as she felt.
She did a quick pull-free, retwist, and scrunchie-again, then headed out for exam room three.
The patient’s chart was in the clear plastic holder mounted on the wall by the door, and she took a deep breath as she picked it out of its nest. The thing was curiously thin, considering how often they saw the male. His last visit had been . . . only two weeks ago.
After she knocked, she walked into the room with confidence she didn’t feel, her head up, her spine straight, her unease camo’d by a combo of posture and purpose.
“How are you this evening?” she said as she forced herself to look the patient in the eye.
The instant his amethyst stare met hers, she had no idea what had come out of her mouth.
Rehvenge son of Dragor sucked the thought right out of her head until nothing mattered except for those flashing purple eyes of his.
He was a cobra, this male, mesmerizing because he was deadly and because he was beautiful. With his cropped dark mohawk and his hard, smart face and his huge body, he was sex and power and unpredictability all wrapped up in . . . well, a black pinstriped suit that clearly had been made for him.
“I’m tight, thank you,” he said, his voice much deeper than the average male’s. Much deeper than most oceans, it seemed. “And you?”
He smiled a little, because he was fully aware that none of the nurses liked being in the same enclosed space with him, and evidently he enjoyed the fact that he made them all uncomfortable.
At least that was how she read his expression.
She put his chart down on the desk and took her stethoscope out of her pocket. “I’m very well.”
“You sure about that?”
“Yes.” She turned toward him. “I’m going to take your blood pressure and your heart rate.”
“My temperature, too.”
“Do you want me to open my mouth now?”
Ehlena’s skin flushed, and she told herself it was not because that drawl of his made the question sexual. “Er— No.”
Rehvenge’s shoulders rolled as he removed his suit jacket, and, with a lazy flick of the hand, he tossed the thing onto the sable coat that was carefully draped over a chair. He always had a coat like that with him no matter the season. Usually he wore them, but not always.
They were worth more than the house Ehlena rented. Apiece.
His long fingers went to the diamond cuff link on his right wrist.
“Could you please do that on the other side?” She nodded toward the wall she would have to squeeze against. “More space for me on your left.”
He hesitated, then went to work on his opposite sleeve. Rolling the black silk up past his elbow and onto his thick bicep, he kept his arm turned in.
Ehlena took the blood pressure equipment from a drawer and ripped it open as she approached him. Touching him was always an experience, and she rubbed her hand on her hip to get ready.
When she clasped his wrist, the current that licked up her arm landed in her heart, making her think of that coffee she’d just downed. It was as if the male carried an electrical charge in his body, and considering that those eyes of his alone were enough to distract the hell out of her, the voltage routine didn’t help.
Damn it, where was her usual detachment. . . .Even with him, she was able to keep straight and do her job.
Kicking herself into professional gear, she moved his arm into position, brought the cuff up and— “Good . . . Lord.”
The veins running through the crook of his elbow were decimated from overuse, swollen, black and blue, as ragged as if he’d been using nails, not tiny needles, on himself.
Her eyes shot to his. “You must be in such pain.”
“Doesn’t bother me.”
Tough guy. Like she was surprised? “Well, I can understand why you wanted to come in tonight.” She gently prodded at a red line that was traveling up his arm, heading in the direction of his heart. “There are signs of infection.”
“I’ll be fine.”
All she could do was raise her eyebrows. Given how calm he was, clearly he was clueless as to the implications of sepsis.
Death would not look good on him, she thought for no particular reason.
Elhena shook her head. “Let’s take your reading on the other arm. And I’m going to have to ask you to take your shirt off. The doctor’s going to want to see how far up your arm that infection goes.”
His mouth lifted in a smile as he reached for his top button. “My pleasure.”
Ehlena looked away fast.
“I’m not shy,” he said in that low voice of his. “You can watch if you like.”
“No, thank you.”
“Pity.” In a darker tone, he added, “I wouldn’t mind you watching.”
As the sound of silk moving against flesh rose up from the exam table, Ehlena made busywork going through his chart, double-checking things that were absolutely correct.
From what she’d heard, he didn’t do this stuff with the other nurses. He barely talked to her colleagues, and that was part of the reason they were nervous around him. Her, though? He talked too much and always about things that made her think . . . very unprofessional thoughts.
“I’m ready,” he said.
Ehlena turned around and kept her eyes pinned on the wall next to his head. His chest was magnificent, a warm golden brown, the muscles defined even though his body was relaxed. Each of his pecs had a five-pointed red star tattooed on it, and she knew he had more ink. Because there had been a couple of occasions when she’d looked.
Stared was more like it.
“Are you going to examine my arm?” he said softly.
“No, that’s for the doctor.” She waited for him to say, “Pity,” again.
“I think I’ve used that word enough around you,” he murmured dryly.
Now her eyes shifted to his. It was the rare vampire who could read his own species’ minds, but somehow it didn’t surprise her that he was among that small group.
“Don’t be rude,” she said.
“Sorry.” But he wasn’t, given the way his lip curled up on one side.
God, his fangs were sharp. Nice and white, too.
Ehlena slipped the cuff around his bicep, plugged her stethoscope into her ears, and took his blood pressure, the little piff-piff-piff of the balloon followed by a long, slow hiss.
The patient was staring at her. He always stared at her.
Ehlena took a step back from him.
“Don’t be frightened of me,” he whispered.
This was the nurse he liked, the one Rehv hoped he would get each time he came in. He didn’t know her name, so in his mind he called her luhls because she was lovely all the way around, serious and pretty, smart.
With a good deal of “fuck off” radiating out of her. And how hot was that.
In response to his “liar,” her toffee-colored eyes narrowed and she opened her mouth like she was going to snap his chain. But then she gathered herself, her professional veneer returning.
“One sixty-eight over ninety-five. That’s high.” She ripped the cuff’s lip free with a quick jerk, no doubt wishing it were a strip of his flesh. “I think your body’s trying to fight off the infection in your arm.”
Oh, his body was fighting something off all right—but it had fuck-all to do with whatever was cooking in his injection sites. With his symphath side overpowering the dopamine, the impotent state in which he usually existed had been knocked right out of the park.
His cock was stiff as a bat in his slacks.
Shit, maybe it would have been better to have another nurse in here. It was hard enough to be around her when he was “normal.”
Tonight he was anything but.