hearts of fire Page 14

He ignored her, so she started forward, wondering whether he would just light her up when she reached him. She’d never seen him in a state quite like this. Close, maybe, but not this bad. His lightning raked the sand, hurtled off into the night, incinerating every little thing on the beach that was unlucky enough to be flammable.

In spite of all his impotent fury, or maybe because of it, he seemed so lost. The storm he carried within him was burning him up from the inside out.

“Meresin!” This time, he whipped his head around and met her eyes. Dru held his gaze, though it was like looking into the sun. His fangs gleamed in the light he gave off, and there was no recognition on his face. Still, she had to try.

“Don’t touch me, human,” he snarled.

She took a deep breath, steeled herself, and then grabbed his wrists. At the moment of contact, the pain was such a shock that her head jerked back, teeth clicking together. Still, she hung on, and in seconds the agony vanished, replaced by a low heat that flowed up her arms, into her chest. She clung to him, using his strength to hold her up as she willed her touch to get through to him.

“Listen to me, Meresin,” she said when he groaned in pain and frustration, trying to pull his hands away. “I’m no human. I’m a vampire. I’m Dru. You know me. Drusilla. You can get a handle on this. I’ve seen you do it before, and I know you can do it again. Focus. It’s just you and me on a beach. Nobody’s mocking you, nobody’s trying to hurt you. Focus and come back to me.”

For a few endless seconds, she thought she’d failed. Then he went still, and Dru saw sanity slowly return. It was a relief to see his eyes clear, then widen as he realized what he’d been doing.

He gasped, then shuddered. His fists opened slowly, and he looked at her like he’d just awakened from a bad dream and hadn’t quite gotten his bearings yet. She let out a shaky breath.

“There you are,” she said, feeling as though her legs might go out from under her.

As the fire in his eyes died, utter devastation set in. “Dru,” he rasped. “I’m…so sorry.”

An apology was the last thing she’d expected from him, much less a sincere one. But there was no indication he meant it anything less than wholeheartedly. They stood close together, Dru still gripping his wrists. She swore she could hear his heart beating—or maybe she could feel it. It was the oddest sensation, and it made the connection between them seem much more real than before.

“Did I hurt you?”

“A little,” she admitted. The gentleness in his voice left her strangely off balance. She opened her fingers, realizing how badly her palms stung.

“Let me see,” he said. She offered her hands to him, palms out, and watched the play of emotions across his beautiful face, none of them good. “I’ve burned you.”

“No, look, they’re healing already,” she replied, watching as the red and blistered skin became smooth and pale again before her eyes. “No harm done, Meresin.” She tried to sound stronger than she felt, wanting to give him a shred of stability, if nothing else. He couldn’t know how unsure she’d been that he would come back.

His laugh was bitter. “Bull. I could have done a lot worse than that. I almost did, Dru.”

“But you didn’t,” she insisted. If he didn’t have any hope, then he didn’t have a chance. “You wanted to know why I keep my distance,” he said. “This is why. It was never easy to control, but I did it. I was good at it. I had to be, because when I slipped…” He trailed off, and for a moment, she didn’t think he would finish. But finally, he lifted his eyes to hers again, and she could see something that surprised her: shame. “When I slipped, I paid for it. Dearly.”

Her heart sank, and the ache permeated her entire body. “They hurt you,” she said, her voice almost a whisper. Finally, she understood why he hated to be touched, why he sometimes reminded her more of a beaten animal than a man. He’d been tortured.

“The Council considered it training. Not…hurting. I learned to keep myself in check, no matter how hard it was, because the power I have is even stronger than Lucifer bargained for.” His smile was barely there, a bitter shadow. “He promised me power and glory. The power just sort of overwhelmed everything else.”

She had never seen him like this. His outburst had incinerated every wall he normally put up against her. But the defeat in his eyes wasn’t hard to see. Only now did she begin to understand how badly he’d been broken in Hell. And deep inside, she grappled with her rage that anyone could do this to him, whatever choices he’d made.

“Lucifer did this to you,” she said, wishing it had been anyone other than a being she couldn’t possibly defeat on Meresin’s behalf. Because that’s what she wanted to do—to fight for him. Maybe it was time to accept that her need to fight for him was at least half the reason she was here to begin with.

He moved one shoulder in a faint shrug. “Yes…and no. I was the Angel of Storms, in the beginning. I was young, and often alone, and very unhappy. I wanted more without knowing what that might be. Power, I thought, would bring me everything else I lacked. I knew who could give me power. I must have looked like the perfect vessel for the kind of experiment Lucifer had in mind. But I never forget that I’m the one who sought him out.” He sighed. “And now I’ve hurt you.” He slid his hands beneath hers and traced the edge of her thumb with his. It was a simple gesture, but one that reverberated all the way through her.

He’d never spoken so much to her at once, at least not about himself. Nor had she ever seen this tenderness in him, not even last night. She wondered what he’d been like before he’d decided to become a ticking time bomb—and why he’d done it in the first place. Had it really been so bad for him in Heaven?

“I told you,” she replied, gentle but firm. “I’m not hurt. I can handle it.”

His eyes lifted to meet hers. “Didn’t you say something like that after you were stabbed with a fire sword? Didn’t work out so well.”

She shrugged. “I’m a glutton for punishment, I guess. We all have our quirks.” She sought to change the subject back to the matter at hand, before he tried to leave her here on the beach. After what she’d just seen, there was no earthly way she was letting him go running off to try to save their lives by himself. He needed her.

Remember…Caius needed you, too. Until he didn’t.

She pushed the nagging voice away and tried to follow her own advice: focus on the present.

“Call Uriel,” she said. “Try again. I won’t say anything this time.”

“It wasn’t you,” he replied. “You don’t understand the kind of darkness I’ve existed in. What you hear from the others about their lives in Hell…mine was very different. Everything that made me an angel was stripped away.”

“That can’t be true,” she said. “You wouldn’t even be here if Uriel thought you were a lost cause. He treats all of you like a project. A really frustrating project. He has to have a point with this.”

Meresin glowered. “He does have a point. This is his way of proving that I’m beyond help. Levi’s the one who let me out of my cage. Uriel had nothing to do with it. Now he just has to deal with me as best he can, but believe me—this isn’t some redemption project. I’m not much more than darkness and lightning now. He knows the storm is all I have left.”

“No,” she said. “If that were true, I’d be a nice little pile of char right now. You pulled back.”

“With help,” he replied, his eyes narrowing. “What do you think would have happened if you hadn’t grabbed me?”

“There are no what-ifs that are going to be encouraging here,” she replied, trying to feel as confident as she sounded. “Most of them are going to end in you lighting important things and people on fire. So just concentrate on reality.”

He sighed heavily and stepped back. “That’s what I’m trying to do. You’re just too damned stubborn to listen.”

Dru tilted her head at him, tucking a loose tendril of hair behind her ear as the breeze toyed with it. His honesty was refreshing, but it was also pretty depressing. Maybe he was right. But lying down to wait for destruction just wasn’t in her. Meresin had led armies once. He had to have had the same fight in him in the past. It was just a matter of helping him find it again. A fresh wave of horror and outrage washed over her. Did he even realize what he’d revealed—that he’d been kept in a cage? Somehow, she doubted that had been the first time. She tried to collect her thoughts and figure out where to begin. No one as strong and powerful as Meresin should have such shattered eyes.

“Give it one more try,” she coaxed. “We’re out here. We’re packed. I’m not dead yet. It can’t hurt.”

Meresin huffed out a skeptical laugh. “I think we’ve proved it can.” But something in his expression changed. Maybe it was just seeing that she wasn’t going to let him give up. Whatever he saw, it made him relent. “I guess I might as well. One more time.”

“Do it to prove Uriel wrong,” she encouraged him. “That alone should be worth the effort.”

He smiled a little, almost puzzled as he gave her a lingering look. His vulnerability was rapidly fading, she saw, but still, he seemed different to her. Whatever bond had been forged when he’d saved her life had strengthened. She could feel it and was actually drawing comfort from the connection. Somehow, she thought he might be, too. Not that he was likely to ever admit it.

“You may be bossy,” he said, “but sometimes I do like the way you think. Very well.”

He closed his eyes, his wings lifted and flared again. And this time Dru closed her eyes along with him. She didn’t have a clue what she was doing, but she tried to focus all her attention on Meresin, hoping to bolster him. His essence was a part of her now. There had to be a way to use the connection. She breathed in, and her head was full of the smell of a forest after a summer storm. Her heartbeat slowed, and somehow it began to keep time with his. Gradually, she became aware of a faint thrumming that filled the air, a low-frequency vibration that rippled through her like a gentle, mysterious song. It was beautiful and strange, echoing in her own mind. Whatever surrounded Meresin, it was natural, both essential and ancient.

This was what he meant by calling to the angels.

Then she heard it, a single word that burst through her like a thunderclap, echoing out into the universe even as it left behind a lingering melody that was at once beautiful and heartbreaking. Joy, sorrow, every tiny facet of emotion all contained in the name that tore through her body and sent her crashing to her knees in the sand.

URIEL!

As the wonder of it faded, leaving nothing behind but a wild, sweet longing for something she didn’t even understand how to describe, Dru finally remembered where she was, what she was. The sand was soft beneath her knees. The night breeze was warm, toying with tendrils of her hair. And strangely, her cheeks were wet with tears. What she’d just experienced had never been meant for humans, she realized, or those who had once been human. Meresin had called to an angel.

And when Dru opened her eyes, she saw that this time his call had been answered.

Chapter Eleven

He’d done it. There was a gentle ripple of power through the air, and, for just an instant, a faint echo of the joy he had once experienced at the arrival of one of his kind.

Even after thousands of years, he hadn’t forgotten after all. He’d thought it would be terrifying if he even got close to summoning Uriel—that it would backfire somehow. More likely, though, was the possibility that nothing would happen. Nothing at all. Just like his frantic, fruitless efforts at Heaven’s gates three years ago, when his damnation had been sealed.

You didn’t have Dru then. The idea startled him, and he pushed it away. It was dangerous to depend on anyone, blood-bound or no. Still…she had helped him. More than he’d known she could, more than he’d had any right to expect.

“I see you remembered after all.” Uriel’s resonant voice banished any lingering good feeling he might have had over his success.

“I did. Try not to be too disappointed,” he said, opening his eyes and remembering that in order to get what he wanted, he needed to not let the white wing get under his skin. The problem was, it was already happening, and he’d never been able to do much about it.

“You’ve done many disappointing things, Meresin. This isn’t one of them. You tapped into the Divine within yourself. It’s still there.”

“Unless by ‘Divine’ you mean the desire not to die a terrible, soulless death, I think you’re missing the mark,” he replied, trying to sound far more casual about it than he felt. There’d been something, yes. But divinity? That would indicate an essential goodness, a lightness in his nature that he just didn’t feel.

“You’re more than you think,” Uriel said, and the words sent an odd chill down Meresin’s spine.

“Whatever I am, it wasn’t enough,” he said softly, trying to keep that particular wound from tearing open and ruining his only chance at survival.

The archangel looked neither remorseful nor impressed. “I could tell you until the skies fall that my judgment isn’t what matters, but you wouldn’t listen.”

“You’d know all about that,” Meresin said flatly.

Uriel had the special distinction of being, outside of the members of the Infernal Council, the last person he wanted to see on any given day. The archangel was big, seven feet tall and as imposing as a medieval knight. His gold curls and chiseled features, however, lent him an air of angelic innocence that Meresin found annoyingly misleading. Archangels were warriors, and this one would take his enormous sword and hack through any evil in his path without batting an eye. At least Uriel generally left his armor at home and arrived in suits or khakis, which he considered a small favor to be thankful for. It surprised him to see Uriel in shorts and a golf shirt today. His wings, a blinding and gold-tipped white, weren’t visible at the moment. He was grateful for that, too. Archangels were normally no better than peacocks.