I took a couple of sips of his drink. Getting mine would mean leaving the warmth of his arm and I didn't want to do that. More than anything I wanted to keep him talking. In fact, I didn't care if we made love this morning, as long as I was with him.
“That's cool,” I said. “Was it old?”
“It was black and it had a rough pontil mark on the bottom, like it was hand-blown. It looked genie-made to me.” His tone was so calm that it took a moment for me to get the significance of what he'd said.
I pulled away from him. “Genie-made? What was it doing in this realm?”
“I figured it had gotten thrown through a weak point in the veil and ended up in the ocean somehow. Your grandfather and Kate thought I was being paranoid.”
“Paranoid? Why would they think that? It could have held a genie, maybe a criminal they didn't want in their realm. Someone could have let it out and thrown the bottle away.”
He laughed. “Don't worry about that. There wasn't a genie in it.” He shrugged, as if surrendering to the idea that he was wrong. “Five years ago, I had no idea that hand-blown bottles were made in this world as well as in the realm. I'd been so young when I was taken. Most likely it was an antique bottle made by a human, probably washed up from a shipwreck.”
My mind flashed back. Grandfather and Kate had thought Chase was being paranoid when he told them he believed Dad was possessed by a genie, a suspicion that had proven true. “But you could have been right,” I said.
“Perhaps, but when I found the bottle it was sealed and there was a note inside. It reminded me of... Annie, I left other people back in the realm besides your mother: friends, half brothers, they're all probably dead by now.”
I hugged myself against a chill. There had to be a solid reason Grandfather hadn't believed him. “I'm guessing the note wasn't written in the genie language?”
“If it had been, that would have made all the difference.”
“What did it say?”
He rubbed his branded collarbone. “It was faded.”
I frowned. That rub was one of Chase's tells. He was fibbing. Not a big lie, more like he was avoiding the truth. “But you still suspect it came from the realm, don't you? Was it signed?”
He took me by the shoulders, his ocean-deep eyes meeting mine. He let go with one hand and lifted my chin, like he often did before he kissed me. His voice deepened, thick with emotion. “You're beautiful. I don't want to stay away from you.”
My brain refused to register what he'd said, but the sadness in his eyes set free the fear I'd struggled to ignore.
“Annie,” he said. “We can't do this anymore, at least not until I get back.”
I shook my head. He couldn't be suggestingâI refused to believe it. “What are you saying?”
“When I'm with you, I feel more alive, energized. It gets stronger every time.”
“And that's a bad thing?”
“IâIt's overwhelming. More powerful than you can imagine.”
I laughed. “Actually I can. Being with you is amazing.”
He didn't smile and numbness spread through my body.
“Last night when I was kickboxing with Zachary,” he said, “the kid got a hit in. He thought I gave him the opening on purpose, but the truth was I'd let my focus slip. I was thinking about you.”
“Oh.” I wanted his thinking about me to always be a good thing, but I could see what he meant.
He looked down at his knuckles. “That's not all. When I felt that hit, I struck back.”
My thoughts reeled. He loved Zach like a little brother. “But you didn't hurt him, right?”
“I caught myself and pulled the punch just in time. But Annie, I could have killed him.” His fingers brushed my face, his eyes once again filling with regret. “I'm not talking about forever. When I get back from the realm, we can start over, take it slower. But I need to take a break right now. I have to train. Get my head in the right place before I go to the realm.”
Turning away from him, I swallowed the ache in my throat and wished to the heavens that it was getting dark instead of light, then there'd be no chance of him seeing the tears welling in my eyes.
His hands moved down my arms and he whispered gently, “We have to do thisâfor your mother's and father's sake. I need to focus on the mission.”
A lump tightened my throat. “That can't be all,” I said, keeping my voice steady, afraid he'd hear the trembling. This wasn't connected to his nightmares. At least I didn't think it was. “Tell me what's really going on. I deserve to know.”
“Until you, I'd managed toâ” His grip on my arms tightened and he groaned as if in pain. “Annie, I'm at the age where genies mature. The aura gets stronger. The instincts really kick in, aggression, other abilities. Testosterone and adrenaline bring on the change faster. It makes us hyped up instead of focused. It's especially bad for half-ifrit guys like me.”
My mind staggered at the enormity of what he was saying.
Sure, I'd known he wasn't the same as other guys. He'd even mentioned the maturing thing when I'd asked him why he didn't have any tattoos. “
One permanent one to commemorate each fight is allowed, but only after a warrior reaches maturity. Before that, temporary marks are applied and only for fights.
” He'd said it like maturing was a specific age, no different from being old enough to legally buy liquor or get a driver's license. Why hadn't he really explained?
He let out a long breath. “I can't stop what's happening, but I can slow it down, make it more manageable. What's most important is that I don't let it come on full force right now. I need to be at the top of my game when I go to the realm.”
I wanted to wheel around and shout that there was an obvious solution that wouldn't involve screwing with our relationship. He shouldn't go. He should let the other men do it. But I wasn't about to insult him. He knew what was going on inside him better than anyone, his limits and the risks. Besides, if anyone suggested I back off and not play my part in this rescue, I'd be blistering angry and would do it anyway. This was something he had to do or the guilt of escaping at my mother's expense would destroy him.
An empty feeling uncoiled inside me. I slipped from his grip and turned to face him. “Just until you get back, promise.”
Before I could think, his lips were on mine, hungry and forceful, opening, moving as if he couldn't get enough. He uttered a moan, a deep sound welling up from his very core. I kissed him back, lips parting, my tongue seeking his. He yanked the buttons of my shirt open, his tongue and teeth trailing shivers of pleasure down my neck. Gasping, I raked my fingernails across his hair, gripping his head as his mouth moved toward my breasts, sucking, licking. My nipples hardened, bliss and pain mingling into an unbearably sweet sensation.
My shirt fell away, the cool air titillating my heated skin. I gasped and trembled. His lips returned to mine. The full length of his sculpted, hard body pushed against me, coaxing me backward and down onto the quilt-covered chaise. His hips rolled against me, his mouth now grazing my shoulder blades. I closed my eyes, lost in the rush of his weight on top of me, and his kisses. I groaned and ran my fingers up under his T-shirt, feeling his silky skin, roped muscles, the ridge of a scar, his nipples. His fingers moved downward, stroking my whole body and sliding between my legs, touching, fondling. I moaned again. My body thrummed with desire for him. I heard his zipper open.
“Wait,” I panted. I wriggled one arm free, reached for my bag, and fumbled for a foil pack.
He guided my hand, helping me slide the condom over his eager cock. I wanted him. Wanted him so badly I couldn't wait. And this time, unlike ever before, he didn't tease or hesitate. There was a mad desperation to the way he made love to me, hard and fast, as if a battle raged inside of him, one side wanting to drive me to insanity, the other wanting nothing more than to reach the oblivion of climax.
His aura burned bright as a comet. It didn't just bathe me like it had before. This time its blue light melded into me, penetrating every cell of my body, my pores, my hair, my bloodstream, my heart, and my mind, all possessed by him. My ears rang and my head swam from the power of it. I could smell his passion, too, the white-hot scent of a welder's torch, the smell of rain sizzling on parched pavement. The rush of it was almost more than I could bear and there was no holding backâexplosive and fast as a summer storm, I came. He came a second later, his body shuddering on top of me, his breath hot and rapid against my neck.
But even as I lay there in his armsâhis fingers brushing the damp hair from my face, kisses soft and gentleâthe high still pulsed and lingered inside me, and the aura's soft blue glow shimmered in the air around us. And the truth of it all hit me again, hard. I wanted more. Of him. Of us. And I was afraid of losing it.
You can take me. You can mark my flesh.
You can raise me in any likeness you desire.
That will not change the heart of me.
Yes, blood is everything. But I am of two parents.
And even death will not drive my mother from my soul.
hase and I left the widow's walk behind, stopping only long enough to catch the tiger-striped cat. Now that the sun had come up, the oil's magic had worn off and he was totally visible. It wasn't like we could leave him locked inside the attic to starve to death or shit on more of Kate's things.
I hugged the cat against my chest as Chase walked me back to my room. In a way, snuggling the little guy was a comfort against the confusion and sadness roiling inside me. I didn't like the idea of Chase and me taking time off, not at all, especially when I knew neither of us wanted to. But I knew in my heart it was the right choice. Besides, he hadn't been the only one having problems focusing. I had as well.
At my door, I set the cat down. “I'll meet you and Selena in the garage at ten.”
He nodded. “Sounds good.”
For an awkward second, I lowered my gaze to the carpet. A kiss would be the normal next move. I looked up. Our eyes locked.
“See you later,” I said, turning away.
I bolted into my room and shut the door with the cat scooting ahead of me. Then I collapsed onto my bed and buried my face in the pillows. My head spun a million miles per hour, wondering if I should have given him one last kiss, and if putting our romance on hold was going to make any difference at all as far as his ability to stay focused instead of getting hyped up because of this maturing or change or whatever it was called, and about my dad and how powerful and enduring his love for my mom was, and how much rescuing her meant to himâand me and Chase.
Tears burned in my eyes, but the sound of purring close to my ear, combined with the cocktail and lack of sleep, managed to lull me into oblivion. I'd never really wanted a cat that much. But if I'd had one, he would have been striped like this one and I'd have named him Tiger. No. That was totally lame. I'd call him Houdini, the escape artist. That was a little lame, but not bad. He
escaped from Kate's cage.
My phone was buzzing and buzzing.
Half asleep, I fumbled around until I found my bag. “Hello?” I mumbled, pressing the phone against my ear.
“Still in bed, sleepy head,” Dad's voice said. There was a lot of noise in the background, like he was in an airport or train station. The alarm clock beside my bed read 9:13.
“I didn't sleep that well. We found a girl who might know something about flute-magic.”
“Kate told me.” His voice deepened. “I'm worried, Annie. Why is Kate sending you to Bar Harbor instead of going herself? There's something wrong about that.”
“It was my idea.”
“Put it offâwait until we get back. The more we look into this flute thing, the more dangerousâ” He covered the phone and talked to someone, telling them he'd only be a second. His voice returned to me. “Do you remember the story about Samuel and the fur coat?”
“Yeah.” It was a crazy tale about an explorer who was an ancestor of mine. In a flash, my mind connected Samuel's story to the thought I'd had yesterday at the museum when I looked at the medicine bag. Medicine bags or pouches traditionally contained natural things like herbs and stones. But in that story, the Indian who removed a curse from Samuel kept a living nature spirit inside his bag. Spirits in medicine bags. Genies in bottles. Malphic's full-blooded genie son, Culus, imprisoned inside a poison ring by us. “You're thinking the medicine bag in the story about Samuel might have contained a genie, not a nature spirit? But how does that connect to the flute?”
“Perhaps not at all. But we need to explore her magic and understand how it connects to other rituals before we jump into anything. Your grandfather, David, and I are headed up into the mountains tomorrow to get the flute. We'll know more about everything after that. You just hold off. Don't do anything.”
“We can't wait. She could leave the area.” I kept my voice firm.
Someone was talking behind him again. Uncle David and Grandfather, most likely. He waited while their voices moved off, then whispered, “All right, but be careful. Keep your eyes open. Don't trust this girlâor Kate. Trust yourself. Your instincts.” His voice lifted. “Love you, sweetie.”
“Love you too, Dad,” I said, but he was already hanging up, the distance between us far too great for comfort.
After I showered and pulled on my favorite jeans and a summery top, I texted Selena to tell her I was headed for the garage. Like it or not, I had to shove back the ache in my heart and the fear, and focus on what needed doing. Get going and get her done. That was it. No distractions like Chase said. Or at least I had to try.
I rubbed my neck, thinking about yesterday and the way Lotli had eyed Chase, like she was daydreaming about jumping his bones. Cooling his and my relationship was one thing, but I wasn't going to be stupid. As much as I hated to admit it, Lotli was beautiful and, if her music was anything to go by, super talented. Though Chase had never given me a reason to think he was anything other than loyal, he was a guy. Boobs and a body like Lotli's could turn a blind man's eye. I smiled and undid the first two buttons on my top. I couldn't leave Chase behind and go in search of Lotli with just Selena, but I could make damn sure her distractions weren't the only ones visible.
Satisfied, I slung my bag over my shoulder and marched into the hallway with Houdini close behind. When I got to the gallery, I paused and glanced toward the alcove where the statue of the goddess Hecate stood, as well as the invisible weak point in the veil between the mortal and djinn realms. Looking at that spot had become a ritual, a way of reminding myself of what I'd survived as a child and again a few weeks ago, that I was strong enough to face anything. It also gave me a chance to smile at Hecate. Perhaps I wasn't a formal worshiper of hers, but that hadn't stopped her from watching over me and it wouldn't prevent me from respecting herâor from once in a while adding an offering of salt to the warding bowls that sat at her feet. Salt was one of the best ways to keep supernatural things from entering rooms or wherever.
I reached down and stroked Houdini. He rubbed his face across my hand, then dashed across the gallery and out through the doorway on the farther end. I hurried after him. But when I reached the doorway something swept my mind, a touch as light as a curl of mist. It urged me to turn around.
Mystified, I looked back at the alcove and Hecate. Her steadfast gaze trapped mineâand an arctic chill raised the hair on the back of my neck. Something terrible was going to happen. I didn't know what or how or when, but I was suddenly certain of this, and the strength of that knowledge drove the breath right from my lungs.
I grabbed hold of the doorframe to steady myself, my mind staggering. Soon the wards that guarded the weak point would have to be destroyed, so Chase and Dad, and maybe David as well, could use the flute-magic to pass through that very spot. They would vanish into the djinn realm, just like my mother had done. Was that what Hecate was warning me about? Was something awful going to happen to them?
I looked back at her. But the chill had left my skin. And she had nothing more to share.
* * *
Chase insisted we take Grandfather's Land Rover to Bar Harbor, since we didn't know what kind of back roads the scrying might lead us down. Once again, I drove, Chase took up the shotgun position, and Selena got the backseat.
“What's in the bag?” I nodded at the shoebox-size gift bag on the floor between Chase's feet. It was brown and basic. Perhaps something he wanted to return to a store in Bar Harbor or a gift Kate had sent along to bribe Lotli into coming back to Moonhill with us.
“It's yarn, for my mother,” he said bluntly. “I want to stop and see her before we do anything else.”
As if I'd gulped one of Dad's brandy-laced coffees, my pulse jumped and excitement zinged into my veins. On its heels a wave of worry about his need to stay calm and the maturing thing washed over me. “That's great, butâ”
His voice dipped lower, totally unwavering. “I need to get it off my mind.”
“As long as you're sure,” I said. He knew better than anyone what was going on inside him. This would definitely help with the nightmare problem. I drummed my fingers on the steering wheel, thinking about his mom: how medicated she might be and how she'd react to seeing him, and how we were ever going to get into the facility.
Selena leaned forward. “I bet she'll like seeing you.”
He rested his head back and closed his eyes. “I hope so.”
She nudged his shoulder. “The yarn's from our sheep's wool, right?”
“No. It's dyed, not black,” he mumbled.
A drop of sweat wound its way down his temple. My stomach tensed. He might have been determined to do this, but he was no less terrified than yesterday when we'd gone to his mother's house.
Selena glanced in the rearview mirror to get my attention. She widened her eyes and raised her brows as if to ask why I wasn't helping to keep the conversation going.
Her forehead wrinkled in thought. Then she tilted her head toward Chase, and then me. She stuck out her bottom lip in a sad pout. I took that to mean that she'd decided we'd had a fight, which made sense. Chase was being pretty closed off.
I nodded. It was probably best to have her believe that for now.
Selena let out a long breath. “So, how are you planning on getting in to see her? If you tell them who Chase is, eventually a nurse or someone will mention the visit to his stepfather. That could cause a problem. You said he's an ass.”
My brain engaged, and I smiled. “We'll tell them I'm the relative. If Chase's stepfather hears a woman stopped by, he'll most likely assume the nurse got confused about who visited which patient, rather than instantly thinking of Chase. I can use a fake name too.”
Chase opened his eyes and sat back up. “That's a great idea,” he said.
When we got to Beach Rose House, I parked in the facility's visitor area. As Chase and I got out, Selena swooped in and took over the shotgun seat, so she'd have room enough to scry for Lotli while we attempted to see his mom.
Beach Rose House was small, two stories, and modern. Gardens teeming with pink rosebushes flanked the walkway. More gardens and hedges screened the tall fences that enclosed the side yards. When we reached the front door, I tucked Chase's gift bag under my arm and then risked breaking the boundary between us by rubbing my hand across his back. I couldn't not touch him. He'd plastered on a stern face, but his Adam's apple bobbed like he was on the verge of throwing up.
“Ready?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said.
“It's going to be fine. I'll do the talking.”
Taking a steadying breath, I pushed the intercom buzzer beside the door and got ready to lie. A buzz came from the door and a click, indicating someone had unlocked it for us without even asking our names. A total shock.
Inside, the entry area was cool and dim with soft classical music playing in the background. We went straight to the reception counter. A woman in a turquoise nurse's top and yoga pants looked up from her computer. “May I help you?”
I set the gift bag on the counter. “We're here to see Josette Abrams.”
Her forehead wrinkled. “I'm sorry, but I don't recognize you. Are you family?”
“I'm her niece, Katie Woodfordâfrom California.” I hooked my arm with Chase's and snuggled in close to him. “This is my new husband. We're here on our honeymoon. I haven't been able to come see my aunt in so long.”
Chase's arm muscles tensed, but he nodded his agreement and gave her a flicker of a smile.
The woman's gaze flashed from us toward a set of French doors, just to the left of the reception area. On the other side of the doors, a group of women sat on a porch, some in bathrobes, another in a wheelchair. Clearly patients. Her eyes came back to me. “Let me check the list. You have been here before, right?”
“Yes,” I said. As she started searching on her computer, I added, “It's been a while. It would be under my maiden name, Katie Brown. Right, babe?” I gazed lovingly at Chase.
His lips had paled and his eyes were fixed on a dark-haired woman sitting on the porch away from the other patients, on a bench, knitting. He stepped around me and walked stiffly toward the French doors, like he was walking in his sleep.
Though the woman on the porch was thin and middle-aged, the resemblance between her and Chase was striking, the strong jawline and straight nose. I swallowed dryly. Hopefully the nurse wouldn't notice that.
The nurse stood up, edging toward the French doors. Her voice filled with sympathy. “I'm sorry. You're not on the list. If you'd like to call Mr. Abrams and have him speak to my supervisor we could arrange a timeâ”
Suddenly reanimated, Chase did an about-face. “No, that's fine. We should go.”
In two fast steps, he had me by the arm, turning me toward the front doors.
Stunned by his change of heart, I pulled against him. “Are you sure? You know, get it done. No distractions?” I whispered.
“We should leave her in peace,” he said, his voice straining toward panic.
At the front doors, he released me and hurtled outside.