CHAPTER 14

The water boiled from the effects of the cursed gold leaving Aric’s body. Eventually Aric’s body gave out. He stopped thrashing and fell limp. It scared the hell out of me, but it allowed me to clean his wounds with a scrub brush Koda handed me while Gemini kept his head abovewater. My hands moved quickly, wanting to be thorough yet desperate to be done.

“What would have happened if Aric hadn’t been found?” I didn’t want to ask except it remained a passing question that continued to gnaw at my skin.

“With the hook and the bullets out, and no intervention, it would take his wolf a few weeks to excrete the poison.”

“What if the hooks and the bullets remained?” I asked quietly, wondering whether I truly wanted to know.

Koda tightened his jaw. “The gold would have stopped his heart over time.”

My throat tightened. “How much time?”

Koda shrugged. “Two, maybe three weeks.”

I stopped scrubbing just to take a few slow breaths and rub my face against Aric’s. His stubble scratched my cheek and moistened my skin, but I needed a moment—just one moment. Not caring who saw me have it. Two to three weeks—violently ill and in pain. Only to ultimately die. I sighed. Death by cursed gold seemed the most nightmarish way for a preternatural to go.

Aric’s lips opened and closed briefly. I interpreted it as him urging me on and returned to my work, saving the gaping holes from the hook for last.

Koda handed me a toothbrush straight from the package. I closed my eyes as he gave me instructions. “Scrub and twist all the way through. Don’t be afraid to be too rough. It will only help him.”

I kept my eyes closed when I asked my next question. “Do I—” I beat back my nausea, but just barely. “In order to clean the bullet holes, do I have to dig the brush through his chest and out his back?”

“No. Aric dug the bullets out fairly quickly. The salt water should be enough.”

I opened my eyes to catch Koda watching me carefully.

“The gold hook was lodged in his shoulder for more than two hours. It’s what did the most damage and kept his wolf from healing him.”

I thought I heard wrong. “Aric dug the bullets out . . . himself?”

“The others found a long screwdriver with Aric’s blood on it when they arrived.” Koda turned his back, facing away like he was afraid to continue. “He used it to push them through his body.”

I pictured the six bullets hitting Aric’s chest and getting lodged within. It made sense to push them through rather than to attempt to dig them out. The gold would have burned a path straight to the other side. I understood the logic. And the desperation. But that didn’t mean I liked it. I made a silent promise to Aric. If I found the surviving vamp, I’d kill him myself.

I let the water out of the tub with shaking hands when Gemini felt the wounds had been thoroughly cleansed. Gold had no effect on me. But I had the feeling even the residue would have sickened the wolves. They stayed loyally by Aric’s side. My sisters waited in the hall. I’d ignored Liam when he insisted that Aric wouldn’t have minded their presence.

“Should I bring your sisters in now? They’re worried about Aric.”

I ran the sprayer over Aric’s body. “Not until he’s dried and covered, Liam.”

Liam cocked his head. “Celia, I’m telling you it’s no big deal. Plenty of females have seen Aric naked.”

I paused my rinsing, praying to Saint Patrick to keep me from strangling Liam with the damn metal hose. I didn’t need reminding of how many females Aric had exposed himself to, whether through innocent changes before his pack mates . . . or in more intimate settings. Aric’s stature, his rippling muscles, his startling eyes, his deep tenor voice—everything about him screamed sex appeal. Were babes wanted him. And they would continue to want him despite our relationship. But sure, thanks, Liam, for the update.

I grabbed the stack of chocolate brown towels and spread them over Aric, using one towel per section, drying him carefully. I wished we were alone. And that he wasn’t so sick. Over the last week, I’d dreamt of seeing his naked body, of feeling his flesh slide over mine, of exploring him through taste and touch. Just like we’d done our first real night together. But not like this. Not while his injuries debilitated him, and definitely not while the pain froze his features into an agonized grimace. The next time Aric and I faced each other unclothed, it would be to make love again. There would be no pain, no worry, no hesitation.

“I think he’s dry enough, Celia,” Gemini stated.

His words snapped me back to reality. I hoped the leftover steam excused my blush. I went to lift him, but then thought better of it. I didn’t want to hurt his pride, so I moved aside so Gemini and Koda could reach him. “Please get him out of the tub fast. When his fever breaks, the sudden cold may be too much for him.”

I tossed the thick cotton towels on the rust-colored tiles, forming a giant pile. The wolves pulled Aric from the tub and wrapped him in a soft blanket, fresh from the dryer.

“Where do you want him, Celia?”

“On my bed please, Koda.”

“Are you sure? He might ruin—” Koda stopped arguing when he saw my sisters had padded my bed with cotton hospital pads.

I reached for the bandages on my dresser. “They’re waterproof, too.” Fear made my voice crack. There was still more to do. I took a deep breath, hugging the packages of gauze against me. Aric’s skin shone like alabaster and just as white—sadly, a tremendous improvement from that deathly gray. “What’s next?”

Liam opened the door. Emme entered carrying a metal bowl filled with, oh, fantastic, more salt water. The scent made me cringe. I was grateful when Gemini motioned me over. “This won’t be as bad,” he assured me. “The majority of the poison from the gold’s curse has been excreted. All you have to do is pack his wounds and then bandage them tight.”

My large bedroom allowed plenty of space between my king-size sleigh bed and the picture window, so the ample berth Gemini gave me surprised me. “What are you doing?”

Gem cocked his head as if I missed the point. “Keeping our distance from Aric. His wolf remains protective and may lash out if we disturb him too much.”

I didn’t quite understand. “But he’s been fine with me.”

Koda’s eyes reminded me of the center of a twister, so dark and menacing I barely managed to keep his stare. And yet for once, they didn’t appear so threatening. “That’s because he would never hurt you, Celia.”

I touched the hard muscles of Aric’s uninjured shoulder, knowing Koda was right. Aric would never hurt me, physically. But I feared that one day he’d break my heart. I sat on the edge of the mattress. The bullet wounds had begun to seal shut, but the damage from the hooks still needed a great deal of care. My stomach clenched. “I have to slip the gauze through the holes . . . don’t I?”

Gemini nodded. “And make the dressing changes as they soak through.” He placed a hand on my arm, but jerked it away when Aric snarled. He remained unfazed, despite Aric’s sudden outburst. “Don’t worry, Celia. It will be a long night, but he’ll be much improved by morning.”

“We can take turns,” Shayna said. “Ceel, you look beat. Why don’t you take a nap and I’ll take the first watch . . . ?”

I shook my head but wouldn’t speak to her. Any normal, sound being would have taken her up on her offer. How could I logically explain Aric was mine alone to take care of?

“What’s wrong, dude?”

Koda put his arm around her and led her to the door. “I think Aric would prefer Celia’s touch. Come on, baby. Let’s go to bed. We’ll be down the hall if they need us.”

The room emptied out as I went to work on Aric’s shoulder. The moment I was done, I wrapped him in another warm blanket and took a quick shower. I tugged on a pair of panties, pausing when I caught his body convulsing from the breaking fever. I dropped my robe and crawled into bed with Aric, abandoning the shirt I’d originally planned to wear. I pulled his chilled body against my bare skin. His hand gripped my hip and squeezed before exhaustion finally claimed his weak body and mine.

“Thank you,” he whispered.

* * *

I dreamed of flashing lights just before my cell phone jolted me awake. I rolled to the opposite side, searching blindly for the small, sleek rectangle. My eyes burned as I focused on the blaring glow of the screen. Almost four a.m. I slipped the blankets from Aric’s shoulder. Only an hour had passed, but his blood had already saturated the surface of the dressings.

I shimmied out of bed and gathered my supplies while my iPhone continued to ring, insisting bandages be damned. “Hello?” I mumbled.

“Why did you not inform me you were attacked?”

There were many advantages to having a guardian angel master vampire. Before-the-crack-of-dawn phone calls were not among them. “Misha, you really shouldn’t call at this hour. You’re only reinforcing the creature-of-the-night stereotype your people have tried hard to avoid.”

“Celia.”

“You know, considering your fanged butt woke me, you’re awfully testy.” I yawned. “Besides, I’d figured your spider sense would tell you eventually.”

Misha’s low, deep hiss informed me comic book humor was lost on Dracula’s BFF. I sighed and tried not to bang my head. “Aric was attacked by vampires draining a human.”

“My vampires did not assault that mongrel.”

Aric growled behind me. He’d heard Misha’s voice. And he wasn’t happy. I covered him again with the blankets. “Don’t call him a mongrel. Look, I need to ask, are your vampires all accounted for? Even those new to your family?”

“The play for dominance is over. Those who survived are under my complete control and carefully managed.”

“I figured as much, Misha. But thanks for letting me know.” The planes on Aric’s face had softened, now that his pain had significantly decreased. Relief flooded me down to my toes. If Gem was right, his wolf had started to accelerate his healing. Perhaps by early evening he’d be able to eat.

“None of my keep would have dared to attack you,” Misha said, reminding me our conversation wasn’t over.

“I know.” I smiled into the phone. Despite my natural distrust of vampires, I did trust Misha. I just hoped that trust wouldn’t come back to bite me.

“Tell me more about the attack.”

I tucked the phone against my chin and opened more packs of bandages, lining them carefully along the bed. “There were close to thirty. I’d never seen so many vampires outside the presence of their master. They also dressed like . . . foreigners.” I hadn’t thought about it until I verbalized it, but most of them resembled the European tourists who visited Tahoe. They’d also donned similar clothing—simple dress slacks and shirts. The vamps from Tahoe only wore original designer creations . . . or Catholic schoolgirl uniforms.

I had a thought. “Any chance your master is after me?”

The subtle sound of sliding sheets suggested Misha also had company in his bed. “No. My master credits you with helping to save him. He would not insult you by asking for your heart.”

Misha meant that literally. I pushed my long waves from my face. “In a way I wish Uri was after me.”

Misha paused. “Why would you desire such a peril?”

“Because at least then I’d know what we were dealing with. Misha . . . the wolves have a theory. They think—well, we think, a demon lord may somehow be controlling the rogue vampires.”

A female voice squealed just before I heard a thump on the other end. I gathered Misha had sat abruptly and, well, caught his companion off guard. Poor, dumb, iron-deficient bimbo.

“No demon in history has ever managed such a task.”

“I don’t think we’re dealing with an ordinary demon.” I explained Danny’s interpretation of “demon kin.” Misha took it as well as I had.

“Demons. Who pass equally through hell and earth. Following events—such as a vampire regaining his soul!

I threw my hand out. “I know what you’re thinking—I thought it, too, but this is so not our fault.”

“No, no, of course, many changes have occurred as of late.” He paused. “I take it your band of wolves now know?”

“I know we pinky-swore not to say anything, but it sort of slipped out.”

The silence that followed suggested Misha wasn’t happy at the news. Except his hard tone wasn’t one of anger. In fact, it was downright cocky. “The mongrels know better than to spread such news. Especially if their Leader’s bedmate was who caused my rise in power.”

I hadn’t thought of it that way. Crap. Way to score more points with Aric’s Elders. I fell against the wall. My God, I was tired. “Misha, do you think a demon lord exists, one that could also serve as a master to vampires?”

“I would be a fool to dismiss the theory so easily.”

I bit my bottom lip. Very few things scared a vampire, especially one so strong. And while Misha’s voice didn’t quiver with fear, I sensed his trepidation, no matter how much he tried to hide it.

Aric stirred in the silence and attempted to sit. I leaned forward and tried to settle him back down. “Misha, I have to go.”

Misha’s voice sharpened in severity just before he disconnected. “I will find what did this to you.”

I placed my phone on the nightstand and gently pushed my hand over Aric’s uninjured shoulder when he sought to rise again. His skin remained as cold as a marble. “Where do you think you’re going, wolf?”

“I need to drink.”

The haze in his eyes continued to spin. He failed to see the giant water bottle beside him, and probably failed to scent it, too. I lifted the straw to his lips. “Here. Drink. When you’re done, I’ll change your bandages.”

The liter of water disappeared within moments. In reward, I swept my lips across his when he finished. His fingers reached out and held my chin, allowing our kiss to linger. The soft pecks weren’t deep, but as sweet and addicting as always. His fingers slid down my neck and chest, stopping just above my nipple. He closed his eyes. “You’re not dressed,” he murmured.

I dropped my head, slightly embarrassed by my boldness. “You were cold. I wanted to warm you. If you prefer, I’m sure I could throw a Florence Nightingale ensemble together.”

“I’d rather see more than just your sexy ankles.” He rubbed his eyes. “Shit. If I could see at all.”

“The water should help detoxify your body from the gold’s curse. Lie down and I’ll change your bandages.” I took off the dressings, cringing as I rinsed the wounds with more salt water. “Am I hurting you, love?”

Aric’s cloudy gaze focused hard where he heard my voice. “It burns my skin, but just a little. Nothing like before.” His hand found my shoulder. “You’re pretty good at this, sweetness. Maybe you should stick to nursing instead of taking on demons.”

“I do prefer to deliver babies. But I also think other things are more important.”

Aric clasped my arm. “I don’t want you involved in this anymore.”

Aric’s grip didn’t hurt, but it did emphasize the concern behind his words. “It’s too late for that, wolf.”

I continued to tend to him. Aric held me, but he remained weak. Slowly his hand relaxed as his body sank into the mattress. When I tried to redress his wounds, he shook his head. “Leave them open to air for a moment.”

“Okay.” I slipped on my robe and took his water bottle downstairs to refill. When I returned, Liam was there. He stood watching Aric as he slept.

“Hey, Celia. I heard you get up and thought I’d check on Aric. He looks way better.”

I placed Aric’s bottle on the table and tightened my robe. “Yeah, but he’s exhausted.”

Liam leaned over him. “That’s because his beast is working hard to heal him. See?”

Liam stuck his two fingers through the holes in Aric’s shoulder. Aric scrunched his brows but kept his lids shut. Liam pulled back his bloody fingers and wiggled them at me. “Look. No pus. Great job, Celia.”

I didn’t see, so much as feel, myself go white . . . then green. I beat down my gag reflex and choked out my words. “Liam. Please don’t ever do that again.” Or I will beat your ass to death.

“Liam?” Emme stood in the doorway, dressed in one of Liam’s T-shirts. “Is everything all right?”

I gripped the edge of the table, still feeling faint. “Fine. Everything’s fine. Emme, the poison seems to have left Aric’s system. Could you please help him heal?”

Liam blocked Emme’s path when she advanced, shaking his head. “Aric’s wolf could still be on the defense. I don’t want Emme near him just in case.” He patted my back. “Give a holler if you need me. He’ll respond better to me since I’m one of his Warriors.” Seeing how Aric hadn’t bitten Liam’s hand off when he poked through his skin like a skewer, I tended to believe him. Still, I’d rather have called the Catholic schoolgirls.

“Oh, and, Celia?” Liam paused with one foot in the hall. “Aric’s going to wake up very grateful to you for taking care of him—very grateful. He’ll probably want to have sex for a few hours, so be sure to get some shut-eye. Night.”

I nodded, stupidly, though his back was now to me. In his own, boyishly naive, unfiltered, inappropriate way, Liam meant well. Knowing that kept me from launching the water bottle into the back of his skull. I locked the door after them and bandaged Aric’s shoulder, then crawled back into bed with my wolf.

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