hearts of fire Page 17

Her heart was still pounding as they made their way up a short set of smooth, stone steps that connected the beach to higher ground. The light here was better but still dim and somehow grungy. And if she was hoping for a town that at all resembled Mirage, she was horribly disappointed. This was nothing more than a collection of leaning, ramshackle buildings with weather-beaten clapboard siding sitting on either side of a dirt road. Beyond, the road vanished into the dark. She didn’t want to think about what might be out there waiting.

“Yeah,” she said softly. “Probably better to go see the lightning guy in what passes for daylight here. You’re sure I can go out in it?”

“Positive,” he said, stopping in front of an ugly three-story building with a dirty hand-carved sign that simply said INN above the door. “This sun and moon aren’t real. They’re just shadows of the real ones, only here because the locals need them to be. The sun is one of the only things that can’t hurt you in this place. Now come on…it’ll be a long day tomorrow, so we should at least try to rest. Besides, we don’t want to stay out here.”

“I’m not tired,” she replied, “but I like the idea of getting inside.”

He pushed open the door, and she walked into the strangest tavern she’d ever seen. And considering all the places she’d been, that was saying something.

There were people here, all right, scattered about the dingy, low-ceilinged room. And they were the sorriest-looking lot imaginable, even knowing that they were essentially ghosts. They sat at tables and at the bar, some poking at food as insubstantial as they were, some draining glasses of smoking liquid. All color, all life had been drained from these souls. That had to be the cause of their misery. They were talking in low murmurs when she and Meresin walked in, but when people caught sight of them, eyes dropped, and she saw several men cringe. She was so busy taking it all in that she didn’t notice the only person willing to approach them until he was close enough to touch.

“You want a room? Food?”

She jumped, then berated herself for having done it. A short, balding man with a pasty complexion and glasses stood directly in front of Meresin. He wore a suit that might have been in style over a century ago and a no-nonsense expression.

“Just the room,” Meresin said.

“Hmph,” the owner grunted, his mustache bristling. He cast a critical silver eye on Dru. “No food for your kind here, miss. Don’t bother trying. Only blood here is out in the dark, and it’s probably yours.”

She made an effort not to grimace. “Got it. I’ll be a well-behaved vampire, promise.”

“Hmph,” the man said again, and then returned his attention to Meresin. “Don’t see many of the Fallen here these days. Last ones through didn’t pay. You have coin? I want payment up front.”

Dru could actually feel Meresin beginning to get angry. The air around her warmed, and the hairs on the arm nearest him prickled. Slipping her hand into his was instinctive, and there was no shock this time, just pleasant heat. She felt him tense, then slowly relax, his fingers loosening to fit more comfortably with hers.

“I’ve got money,” she said, glancing up at Meresin’s stony face. The innkeeper fixed her with a contemptuous stare and started to say something, but Meresin cut him off.

“I have money,” Meresin said, his voice utterly flat. “And before you say another word, I know what kind of coin you take here.” He reached into the pocket of his jeans and withdrew several strange coins that resembled carved and polished stone. Obsidian, maybe. Three of them went into the innkeeper’s outstretched hand, and though his attitude didn’t improve considerably, it did produce a brief smile.

Very brief.

“Up the stairs to the second floor, second door on the left. You’ll be out of here before breakfast. Won’t have you scaring off the customers.” He gave them both a wary look, then headed back toward the bar, clinking the coins in his hand.

“He ought to ferry us across the Styx for that,” she muttered.

“Careful what you wish for,” Meresin replied. Then they made their way through the tavern, and she could feel the accusing eyes on her. Were these people angry because she and Meresin were still alive while they weren’t? Or were they just generally unhappy? She wasn’t sure she wanted to know. As long as they refrained from attacking like zombies out of a horror movie, she was good.

As they ascended the wooden stairs, the murmuring started up behind them again. Dru whispered, “What were those coins you gave him?”

“Soulstones. The dead have their own currency. Good to always have a few on hand.”

She didn’t quite know what to say to that, so she simply followed him to the room they’d been assigned. When Meresin stopped short only a couple of steps into the room, she nearly ended up with a face full of feathers. Dru dodged at the last second and, when she did, immediately saw the problem by the dim light of the room’s single oil lamp. Not only was the room tiny, the bed—

“Why is there only one bed?” he growled.

She eyed the small wrought-iron bed with the shabby coverlet and wondered whether the two of them would fit in it even if they wanted to. And for all the smoldering looks Meresin had ever given her, he most definitely did not want to. In fact, he appeared to be fairly close to panic.

“Well,” she said lightly, “we didn’t specify, so he probably just assumed we’d want, you know, one. I’ll go down and get him to switch us.” Before you get twitchy and burn a hole in the floor, she silently added. He just might.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that being blood-bonded would be pretty insignificant to a loner like Meresin. Still, she’d hoped it might mean more. It probably didn’t affect angels as much as it did, say, vampires. Because she was having a hell of a time. The sight of that bed, the scent of him standing so close, even the casual grace in his smallest movements had her wanting to grab him, sink her teeth in…

Only picturing what he might do if she actually bit him stopped her. Most guys liked it. Meresin was not most guys, and she didn’t want their current shelter to go up in flames.

Frustrated beyond anything she could remember, she dumped her pack on the ground, crossed her arms over her chest, and tried to think of things that had nothing to do with Meresin being na**d.

“I’ll be right back,” she said.

“No, forget it.” He tossed his bag across the floor—a little too hard, since it put a dent in the wall—and moved away from her. “There’s a chair. I don’t need to sleep anyway. This is just to get us inside for the night. You take the bed.”

“I told you, I’m not tired. You don’t sleep much, right? Maybe give it a shot. You’re the one who’s got to deal with the physical part of this. I’m just along for the ride.”

The words, though innocently spoken, sent her on a happy trip right back into the gutter.

“I’m fine. What is it you always say? I can take it,” he replied, walking stiffly to the small, rickety chair. He paused, gazing down at it. She wished she could see the expression on his face, mainly because it was in no way built for a man his size. A different shade of silver on one of the legs caught her eye, and she couldn’t help it—she burst out laughing. He whirled on her, his eyes flashing.

“What?”

Dru pressed her hand to her mouth to try to stop it, only partially succeeding. It had been an extraordinarily stressful evening so far. That was her only excuse.

“It’s, um, the leg of the chair. I think it’s duct taped. Seriously. They have duct tape in Purgatory.” She spoke through giggles, which only got worse when he bent down to see it for himself. His shoulders slumped.

“Fuck.”

That sent her off into fresh gales of laughter, leaving him to just shake his head, run a hand through his hair, and finally wrinkle his nose at her with obvious bemusement.

“I’m glad someone’s having fun,” he said.

“This place sucks,” she said. “It’s full of grumpy dead people, horrible monsters, and a busted chair. And duct tape.”

“That’s why it’s Purgatory,” he said. “You’re not supposed to want to stay here.”

He looked so normal right then, disgruntled and a little tired and faintly amused. His spiky hair was tousled, his expression surprisingly weary. His mouth, normally set in a hard line, was soft and inviting, making him far more approachable. The wave of affection that hit her caught Dru off guard—and was all the more powerful because of it. Dark and angry Meresin was hot…but she liked this guy better.

Sensing he’d be receptive, she walked to the bed, sat on the edge of it, and patted the spot beside her. Small talk might be crazy at this point. Anything but abject terror was probably crazy at this point. But she’d been through two thousand years of things that were only a little more weird and terrifying than this. It was the little things that got you through. She knew that from experience. And Meresin’s company was something she was discovering she enjoyed very much, above and beyond the lust. Might as well take advantage of it while she could.

“Sit, at least. We’ve got time to kill, and that chair is toast if you even try to sit in it.”

She could see the uncertainty in his eyes, but he barely hesitated before coming over to join her. His wings folded and vanished, making it easier for him to get comfortable. Not that he could possibly be comfortable sitting as stiffly as he was. The bed creaked as he shifted.

“This isn’t taped together, too, is it?” he asked, leaning to get a better look at the legs.

Dru grinned. “Some questions are better left unanswered.”

“Hmm.”

She thought a moment, and then decided to throw caution to the wind. They were stuck here together.

“Here’s one I would like answered,” she said, and received a wary look in response. “Oh, stop it. Why aren’t you like this all the time?”

He arched an eyebrow. “Like what?”

“Well, you can string more than five words together at a time. I didn’t know that. You have a sense of humor. I also didn’t know that. And aside from the complete freak-out on the beach, you don’t seem as angry as usual. Why is that?”

He frowned, appearing to consider the question. “I suppose I’m…not all that angry right now. I mean, downstairs I might have given the owner a zap for his trouble, but it just didn’t, ah, didn’t strike me as all that important. Which is probably for the best, since it’s hours before sunrise.”

It’s because I calm him. She didn’t understand it, but there was no escaping it. Just as there was no escaping the reason he hadn’t fought her on coming. It would be pointless to flatter herself into thinking there was anything more to it. He hadn’t known she could fight. Her political value hadn’t mattered to him—actually, it was a hindrance if her brother decided to call out the cavalry. That left her with no visible merits except the strange effect she had on him. That was at the heart of it, no matter what his reasoning was. Not passion or care. Just utility.

Well, at least she knew she was being used this time. It wasn’t like he was stringing her along. That alone gave him a leg up on guys like Caius. It was amazing that Justin had even thought to compare the two. Though maybe it was less the men and more her stubborn refusal to accept reality.

“Honestly, when you do that I swear I can almost hear you thinking.”

She blinked rapidly. “What?”

“When you make that face,” he said. “You look like the people downstairs.”

She narrowed her eyes. “I hope you’re joking.”

“Not really.” But his smirk said otherwise. It was only that rare, sensual expression of humor that kept her from punching him. “I should pepper you with questions like you do to me. What did you do back in Rome? Did you want to be a vampire? Is your leather-pants fetish meant to be ironic? So many questions.”

She heaved a long-suffering sigh. “Maybe you should write those down and submit them. Let me see. In Rome, I was an ornamental pawn, like most women. No, I didn’t want to be a vampire, but nobody asked me. And no, I just really like leather pants. See how easy that is?”

“I answer you,” he said.

“You’ve only been speaking to me in complete sentences for two days. As far as questions go, I have a pretty big backlog.”

“Like?”

“Like why did you kiss me last night?”

The panic she’d seen when he walked into the sparsely furnished room returned with a vengeance. “Uh…”

“Not an answer.”

It was interesting to see him get so flustered, but Dru found she really wanted to know.

“You weren’t just going to kiss me, either,” she continued, fascinated by the absolute horror in his expression. “We were just a few seconds from committing some serious sacrilege on the floor of the ch—”

“No!” he said, nearly shouting it.

She froze, startled by his tone.

Meresin seemed to realize this and immediately softened his voice. “No,” he repeated. “I forgot myself. Last night, I mean.” He gave his head a rapid shake. “I shouldn’t have let it happen.”

“Why not?” she asked. “I liked it, if you didn’t notice. Just like the first time.”

His brows drew together. “The first time? That was just a trick. You got what you wanted when Ember escaped. And it wasn’t like you asked me to dinner afterward.”