CHAPTER 3

Zoey

“Is he going to be okay?” I tried to whisper so I wouldn’t wake Stark and was, apparently, unsuccessful, because his closed eyelids fluttered and his lips tilted up slightly in a painful ghost of his cocky half smile.

“I’m not dead yet,” he said.

“And I’m not talking to you,” I said in a much more irritated voice than I’d intended.

“Temper, u-we-tsi-a-ge-ya,” Grandma Redbird rebuked me gently as Sister Mary Angela, prioress of the Benedictine nuns, helped her into the little infirmary room.

“Grandma! There you are!” I hurried to her and helped Sister Mary Angela ease her into a chair.

“She’s just worried about me.” Stark’s eyes were closed again but his lips still hinted at a smile.

“I know that, tsi-ta-ga-a-s-ha-ya. But Zoey is a High Priestess in training and she must learn to control her emotions.”

Tsi-ta-ga-a-s-ha-ya! That would have made me laugh out loud if Grandma hadn’t looked so pale and frail, and if I hadn’t been so, well, worried in general. “Sorry, Grandma. I should watch my temper, but it’s kinda hard when the people I love most keep almost dying!” I finished in a rush and had to draw a deep breath to steady myself. “And shouldn’t you be in bed?”

“Soon, u-we-tsi-a-ge-ya, soon.”

“What does tsi-ta-ga-a-s- whatever mean?” Stark’s voice was thick with pain as Darius spread a thick cream over his burns, but in spite of the wound he sounded amused and curious.

Tsi-ta-ga-a-s-ha-ya,” Grandma corrected his pronunciation, “means rooster.”

His eyes glimmered with humor. “Everyone says you’re a wise woman.”

“Which is less interesting than what everyone says about you, tsi-ta-ga-a-s-ha-ya,” Grandma said.

Stark barked a quick laugh and then sucked air painfully.

“Be still!” Darius commanded.

“Sister, I thought you said you guys had a doctor here.” I tried not to sound as panicky as I felt.

“A human doctor cannot help him,” Darius said before Sister Mary Angela could respond. “He needs rest and quiet and—”

“Rest and quiet are fine,” Stark interrupted him. “Like I said before: I’m not dead yet.” He met Darius’s eyes and I saw the Son of Erebus shrug and nod his head briefly, as if he’d conceded some point to the younger vampyre.

I should have just ignored the little interplay between them, but my patience had evaporated hours before. “Okay, what aren’t you telling me?”

The nun who’d been assisting Darius shot me a long, cold look and said, “Perhaps the injured boy needs to know his sacrifice was not made in vain.”

The nun’s harsh words gave me a jolt of guilty shock that closed my throat and didn’t let me respond to the hard-eyed woman. The sacrifice Stark had been willing to make was his life for mine. I swallowed past the dryness in my throat. What was my life worth? I was just a kid—barely seventeen. I’d messed up over and over again. I was the reincarnation of a girl created to trap a fallen angel, and that meant deep inside my soul I couldn’t help loving him, even when I knew I shouldn’t… couldn’t…

No. I wasn’t worth the sacrifice of Stark’s life.

“I already know it.” Stark’s voice didn’t waver; suddenly he sounded strong and sure. I blinked my vision free of tears and met his eyes. “What I did was just part of my job,” he said. “I’m a Warrior. I’ve sworn my life into the service of Zoey Redbird, High Priestess and Beloved of Nyx. That means I’m working for our Goddess and being knocked to the ground and burned a little really doesn’t mean shit if I helped Zoey beat the bad guys.”

“Well said, tsi-ta-ga-a-s-ha-ya,” Grandma told him.

“Sister Emily, I relieve you of your infirmary duties for the rest of the night. Please send Sister Bianca here in your stead. I believe you should, perhaps, spend some time in quiet contemplation of Luke 6:37,” said Sister Mary Angela.

“As you wish, Sister,” the nun said and hurried from the room.

“Luke 6:37? What’s that?” I asked.

“ ‘Judge not, and ye shall not be judged: condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned: forgive, and ye shall be forgiven,’” my grandma said. She was sharing a smile with Sister Mary Angela when Damien knocked softly on the half-open door.

“Can we come in? There’s someone who really needs to see Stark.” Damien glanced over his shoulder and made a stay-there motion behind him. The soft woof! that came in response told me the someone was really a somedog.

“Don’t let her come in.” Stark grimaced in pain as he abruptly turned his head away so that he couldn’t see Damien or the doorway. “Tell that Jack kid she’s his now.”

“No.” I stopped Damien as he began to back away. “Have Jack bring Duchess in.”

“Zoey, no, I—” Stark began, but my raised hand stilled him.

“Just bring her in,” I said. Then I met Stark’s eyes. “Do you trust me?”

He looked at me for what seemed like a really long time. I saw his vulnerability and pain clearly, but finally he nodded once and said, “I trust you.”

“Go ahead, Damien,” I said.

Damien turned and murmured something over his shoulder and then he moved aside. Jack, Damien’s boyfriend, came into the room first. His cheeks were pink and his eyes were suspiciously bright. He stopped after a couple of feet and turned back to the door.

“Come on. It’s okay. He’s in here,” Jack coaxed.

The blond Lab padded into the room and I was surprised by how quietly she moved for such a big dog. She stopped briefly by Jack’s side and looked up at him, wagging her tail.

“It’s okay,” Jack repeated. He smiled at Duchess and then wiped away the tears that had escaped his eyes and were slipping down his cheeks. “He’s better now.” Jack made a motion to the bed. Duchess’s head turned in the direction he’d pointed, and she looked directly at Stark.

The injured boy and the dog just stared at each other while I swear we all held our breath.

“Hi, pretty girl.” Stark spoke hesitantly, his voice choked with tears.

Duchess’s ears perked up and her head cocked.

Stark held a hand out and made a beckoning motion. “Come here, Duch.”

Like his command had broken a dam inside the dog, Duchess surged forward, whining and wriggling and woofing—basically sounding and acting way more like a puppy than her one hundred plus pounds said she could no way be.

“No!” Darius commanded. “Not up on the bed!”

Duchess obeyed the warrior and contented herself with stuffing her head against Stark’s side and sliding her big nose under his armpit while she wagged her entire body, and Stark, face glowing with happiness, petted her and told her over and over again how much he’d missed her and what a good girl she was.

I hadn’t realized I’d been bawling, too, until Damien handed me a tissue.

“Thanks,” I muttered, and wiped my face.

He smiled briefly at me, and then he moved to Jack’s side, putting his arm around his boyfriend and patting his shoulder (and handing him a tissue, too). I heard Damien tell him, “Come on, let’s go find the room the sisters have ready for us. You need to rest.”

Jack made a sniffling, hiccupping sob sound, nodded, and let Damien begin to lead him from the room.

“Wait, Jack,” Stark called after them.

Jack looked at the bed where Duchess still had her head pressed against Stark, who had his arm wrapped around the Lab’s neck.

“You did good taking care of Duch when I couldn’t.”

“It wasn’t any trouble. I’ve never had a dog before, so I didn’t know how really great they are.” Jack’s voice broke only a little. He cleared his throat and went on. “I’m—I’m glad you’re not, uh, evil and awful and stuff like that anymore so she can be with you again.”

“Yeah, about that.” Stark paused, grimacing as the pain of his movements caught up with him. “I’m not exactly one hundred percent yet, and even when I am, I’m not sure what my schedule’s going to be. So I’m thinking that it would be a big favor to me if you and I could maybe share Duchess.”

“Really?” Jack’s face lit up.

Stark nodded wearily. “Really. Could you and Damien take Duch back to your room, and maybe bring her to see me again later?”

“Absolutely!” Jack said, and then he cleared his throat and continued. “Yeah, like I said before. She hasn’t been any problem.”

“Good,” Stark said. He lifted Duchess’s muzzle in his hand and looked into the Lab’s eyes. “I’m okay now, pretty girl. You go with Jack so I can get all better.”

I knew it must have caused him agony, but Stark sat up then and bent to kiss Duchess and let the dog lick his face. “Good girl… that’s my pretty girl…” he whispered, and kissed her again and said, “Go on with Jack now! Go on!” and he motioned to Jack.

After one last lick of Stark’s face, and a single reluctant whimper, she turned from the bed and trotted to Jack’s side, wagging her tail at him and nuzzling him in greeting while he wiped his eyes with one hand and petted her with the other.

“I’ll take really good care of her and bring her back to see you as soon as the sun sets today. Okay?”

Stark managed a smile. “Okay, thanks, Jack.” Then he collapsed onto the pillows.

“He needs rest and quiet,” Darius told all of us, and he continued to work over Stark.

“Zoey, perhaps you can help me get your grandma to her room? She, too, needs rest and quiet. It has been a long night for all of us,” said Sister Mary Angela.

Shifting my worry from Stark to Grandma, I looked back and forth between the two people I cared so much about.

Stark caught my gaze. “Hey, take care of your grandma. I can feel that the sun will be rising soon. I’m going to go out like a light about then.”

“Well… okay.” I went over to the side of his bed and stood there awkwardly. What was I supposed to do? Kiss him? Squeeze his hand? Give him a thumbs-up and a dorky smile? I mean, he wasn’t my official boyfriend, but he and I had a bond that went beyond just friends. Feeling confused and worried and basically out of my comfort zone, I put my hand on his shoulder and whispered, “Thank you for saving my life.”

His eyes met mine and the rest of the room faded away. “I’m always going to keep your heart safe, even if mine has to stop beating for that to happen,” he told me softly.

I bent and kissed his forehead, murmuring, “Let’s try not to let that happen, ’kay?”

“Okay,” he whispered.

“I’ll see you when the sun sets again,” I told Stark before finally hurrying over to Grandma. Sister Mary Angela and I eased her to her feet, almost carrying her out of Stark’s room and down a short hall to another hospital-like room. Grandma felt tiny and fragile under my supporting arm and my stomach twisted anew with worry for her.

“Stop fretting, u-we-tsi-a-ge-ya,” she said as Sister Mary Angela propped pillows around her and helped make her comfortable.

“I’m going to get your pain medication,” Sister Mary Angela told Grandma. “I’m also going to be sure the blinds in Stark’s room are closed and the drapes drawn tight, so you have a few minutes to chat, but when I come back I’ll insist you take your pain pill and sleep.”

“You’re a hard taskmistress, Mary Angela,” Grandma said.

“It takes one to know one, Sylvia,” said the nun. And she hurried from the room.

Grandma smiled at me and patted the bed next to her. “Come sit close to me, u-we-tsi-a-ge-ya.

I sat beside Grandma, tucking my legs up under me, trying to be careful not to jostle the bed too much. Her face was bruised and burned from the airbag that had saved her life. Part of her lip and her cheek had stitches darkening them. She had a bandage on her head and her right arm was swathed in a scary-looking cast.

“Ironic, isn’t it, that my wounds look so terrible, but they are far less painful and far-reaching than the invisible wounds inside of you,” she said.

I started to tell Grandma I was really okay, but her next words sliced through what was left of my denial.

“How long have you known you were the reincarnation of the maiden A-ya?”

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