Under the rising sun in Grant Park, I bent down into a calf stretch, reminding me once again I’d forgotten to put underwear on. I’d gotten to bed just a few hours earlier after spending a night out with Mia at a new club, Z’s, only to wake up after falling from my bed onto the floor, terror seizing my breath while blood rushed through my ears and my heart galloped out of my chest. It’d taken a few heart-stopping minutes to realize it’d only been a nightmare. I couldn’t remember much other than the primal fear of being chased by a beast with a desire to rip out my throat as I screamed for my life, and then relief at being saved by a man in black. It’d left me unsettled enough I couldn’t go back to sleep, so here I was. At six in the morning. Apparently trying to run off my dream.
I stretched my other leg, again reminding me of my wanton state. Maybe it’ll make my run more exciting.
With Buckingham Fountain as my starting point, I jogged at a slow pace with the skyscrapers of Chicago a backdrop behind the trees. Already the heat rose up from the ground, though it wasn’t muggy, not yet. As I rounded up to the fountain, a figure emerged from the grove of trees and waved me over. My eyes flicked over him, but I ran on.
“Tora!” a deep voice yelled.
Breath heavy, my muscles tightened at the sudden stop. I looked back at the man in the shadow of the trees. I didn’t recognize him, but something about him seemed vaguely familiar.
“Don’t worry. I won’t bite. I simply want to talk to you.”
“Yeah, right.” I snorted. “Isn’t that what the boogey man says before he murders little children?”
“As I said, I won’t hurt you.”
He was at least six feet or taller. His dark hair waved past his shoulders, and he wore a suit. Who the hell went out to the park at six in the morning wearing a damn suit? God, wasn’t he roasting in that?
He motioned me over again, but before I could come up with another wiseass retort, he retreated into the trees.
I ran a hand through my hair. I could simply turn away and leave, but then I wouldn’t know who he was, what he wanted with me, or more importantly, how he knew my name and followed me here.
Isn’t this just craptastic. If I wanted information, I’d have to go to him. There went my plan of running away from danger. Apparently, I was stupid after all.
Taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly, I cautiously approached him.
As soon as I entered the grove, he stepped back and disappeared. Shit. I was probably about to get myself killed by a murderer with a penchant for well-tailored suits.
He stood a ways ahead in the dark of the trees. I could only see his silhouette.
My gut did a somersault and my mouth went dry. Should I stay or should I go? Now the damn song was in my head. “Who are you?”
He didn’t answer.
“What do you want?”
He hadn’t answered my first question so it was unlikely he’d answer the second.
Gazing at me, he stood very still.
I hadn’t seen anyone else on my run. If I screamed until my lungs collapsed, chances were good no one would hear me. Should I stay or should I go?
My curiosity won out and I decided to stay. Yeah, I’d probably just signed my death sentence, but from here he looked kinda hot, and not because he was overdressed for the weather. Plus there was a niggling thought in the back of my head telling me I knew him…somehow.
Keeping my gaze steady on him with every sense on high alert, I trudged deeper into the grove. Butterflies flew in the pit of my stomach. Why did he seem so familiar? The closer I got, I could make out more of his features…piercing eyes that seemed to burn through me and a face sculpted by angels on a very good day of high cheekbones, a strong jawline, straight nose, and full sensuous lips I was sure could make a woman scream.
His lips turned up into a slow, seductive smile.
That’s when it struck me. That smile. Holy shit! He was the hero in my dream!
My eyes roamed over him. No friggin’ way. I didn’t even know the guy and I’d dreamt of him? Had I met him last night? My mind raced, trying to remember. I didn’t recall anyone slipping anything illegal into my drink, and as far as I knew I hadn’t smoked, snorted or shot up anything. At least, I didn’t think I had. Then why did I dream about him?
My stomach dropped all the way down to my feet in a state of being utterly flabbergasted. “You’re real.” I moved my bangs out of my eyes. “How are you real?” I winced at how stupid that sounded. Of course, he was real…or I was majorly hallucinating, which brought me back to the question of whether or not I’d had anything illegal the night before. If so, then it must’ve been some reeeaaallly good shit. “I mean, do I know you?”
He gave a low chuckle. “Why wouldn’t I be real? And no, while you may not know me, I certainly know you, Tora.” He gave that slow smile again.
A blush rose over my chest, all the way up to my forehead.
He looked inhumanly beautiful, like a fallen angel with an air of dangerousness about him. He had the most amazing, deep, seductive voice I’d ever heard. It settled over me like a blanket. Just hearing his voice made me really—
Wait…did he say he knew me? He didn’t just know my name. I stepped back a number of paces to put space between us. “Who are you?”
No wonder why he seemed so familiar. I relaxed a smidge. Just some business tycoon. Though I’d never met him, I’d heard the name…which didn’t explain how he knew me or why I’d dreamt of him in the first place. I tensed up again and narrowed my eyes in suspicion. “How do you know me?”
“I’ve been watching over you since the day you were born.”
Goosebumps sprang from my scalp down to my toes and I hugged myself. “Since I was born? In other words, you’ve been stalking me. That’s the worst pick-up line in the history of man.”
With a laugh, he shook his head. “No. I’ve never stalked you, nor am I trying to hit on you. I’ve only wanted to keep you safe.”
Keep me safe. He’d saved me in my dream. Placing a hand on my hip, I flipped my hair back. “So how do I know you’re actually telling me the truth and aren’t some whacked out guy?”
He rubbed his chin and his brow furrowed. “Do you remember when you were fourteen; you’d run away from your foster family, again, late at night?” He tilted his head and regarded me. “You ran into an alley, which, by the way, why did you run into a dark alley in the middle of the night?”
“I remember that, though I don’t know why I did that. I think I was trying to hide.” I shrugged. “I guess it seemed like a good idea at the time.”
“What else do you remember from that night?” Voice soft, he nudged my memory.
That was something I hadn’t thought about for a long time. I hadn’t necessarily locked the memory away. If anything, I’d thought about it often afterward simply because it’d been so strange. “This guy…he came out of nowhere and slammed me against the side of a building. I was sure he was going to rape and kill me.” I wrapped my arms around my middle as I relived the feelings of helplessness and fear. “But he didn’t.”
My attacker’s face swam up into the forefront of my mind. I couldn’t perfectly recall his features, but his eyes I distinctly remembered. Though it’d been dark, his menacing leer shifted into absolute shock and terror as his own nightmare unfolded before him. “Instead he acted like he was having a seizure. He couldn’t breathe at first but then started screaming and ran like hell was after him.” My gaze sharpened on Ryk. “How did you know about that?”
“I was there.”
“You…” I stared up at him, unable to comprehend what he said. “But I never saw you. How could you have been there?”
He blew out a breath. “I guess it’s about time someone knew one of my secrets, but to explain how…” He shook his head. “Part of it is that I can move faster than the human eye can see. To explain it more might frighten you.”
He had to be crazy. I felt sorry for him. The beautiful man before me had a raging case of psychosis.
“I’m not crazy or psychotic, Tora. How could I have known what happened if I hadn’t been there? Yet, you didn’t see me.”
What he suggested was impossible. To believe it meant there was something mentally wrong with me. “It was dark. And I was scared up to my eyeballs. Obviously, I didn’t notice you.”
“How right you are. You didn’t notice me.”
Still, I wasn’t satisfied. To accept the alternative meant…he wasn’t human. That was something I couldn’t believe, not yet anyway.
Instead, I focused on other things. “You said you’ve been watching over me to keep me safe. You knew about the incident when I was fourteen. Do you know about other times—other things that’ve happened to me?”
His eyes bore into mine. His jaw clenched right before he gave a slight nod.
“You do know.” Memories I’d thought were locked away started to escape. My heart beat faster. My skin became clammy, and my breath came out in little pants. Craptastic didn’t even cover it—more like fuck—a panic attack was coming on.
“Tora, stop. You’re stronger than the past. Don’t let it have power over you.” He touched my hand, bringing me back to the present. “Come back.”
Clenching and unclenching my fists, I took deep breaths and counted to ten. Don’t lose it. Get under control. It was easier to gain control when I was mad, so I directed my anger at him. “Then I’d say you pretty much failed.” I lifted my chin and gave him an icy glare. “Why didn’t you ever save me from the childhood I’d had?”
He lowered his head without breaking eye contact, looking at me with such an intense gaze it made me squirm. “I know you’ve had many trials, Tora. Trust me when I say I wish I could’ve whisked you away from them. But if I had, you wouldn’t be the person you are today.”
“What the hell does that even mean?” His words only incensed me more. “You mean to tell me I was supposed to be abandoned, mentally and physically abused by people I should’ve been able to trust, almost…” I spun around and paced away. The memories wouldn’t go back into their lockbox. More and more kept coming. Heart pounding, stomach heaving, I wanted to hurl. Turning back to him with my fists clenched, my body vibrated with rage. “I was almost raped numerous times. I was fucking ten, fucking ten years old the first time someone tried to touch me, and you’re going to stand there and tell me it was supposed to happen?” Angrily I wiped at my eyes. I was not going to cry in front of this stranger.
“No. It wasn’t supposed to happen, and I made sure certain things didn’t happen. But I couldn’t protect you from everything, and for that I’m truly sorry.” For a fleeting second, a look of pain crossed his face. “Every time you were hurt, I made sure you were put into a different home. Unfortunately, it wasn’t up to me which homes you went to. I know a few of them were good, but most of them were bad.”
Did he mean I had to suffer to make a better therapist? What was the saying—therapists and counselors were screwed up people too. If only he’d saved me from the heartache I’d lived, I was sure my life would’ve been better.
“Because you’ve been through so much, you feel others’ pain,” he continued. “You are compassionate almost to a fault, and you have the ability to help others better because of it.” He paused to let his words sink in. “Your experiences will also make you a better leader as well. And I did help you when you’d needed it most, but I’d had to keep my presence largely unknown.”
Shaking my head, I mumbled, “That’s insane.” None of this made any sense at all, but hearing him say he helped mollified me a little, though I was still pissed. “Why have you been watching over me? Are you some long lost cousin of mine or something?”
“No long lost cousin. More of a…family friend, you could say.”
“Uh-huh.” I eyed him skeptically. There was no way my mother sent him to watch over me, and I doubted my father knew him. “Who?”
He clasped his hands behind his back. “Your great-grandmother, Viktora.”
My breath came out in a rush, and my chest caved in as if being crushed. My great-grandmother died many, many years ago, like about seventy. There was no way in hell the man standing before me was over seventy years old. He looked to be in his early thirties at most. “You knew my great-grandmother?”
“I did, yes.”
Licking my lips, I pushed a lock of hair behind my ear. “But you couldn’t have. She died years ago.” It was impossible he’d known her. But if he’s not human. Would he chase after me if I tried to run?
“Don’t be afraid of me, Tora. Please. There’s a lot I want to explain to you, and if you want to run away after I’ve had my say and never see me again, well…” He spread his hands out in front of him. “Then that’s your choice and I won’t stop you.” He took a cautious step toward me.
Instinctively, I took a step back.
He stopped and raised his hands, palms out. “Please, Tora. Hear me out.”
Run, you stupid bitch, run! It took everything I had to stay put. “I’m still here, aren’t I?” I couldn’t keep the waver out of my voice.
He nodded and let his arms fall slowly at his sides. “I was with Viktora when she died. I didn’t let her die alone. She asked me to watch over her family, and that’s what I’ve done since. I made a promise to her to guard you.”
“Me?” I squeaked. “But. . .” That made absolutely no sense at all. “How could you make a promise to look after me when I hadn’t been born yet? Not even conceived?”
“Not you personally. As you said, you hadn’t yet been conceived. More like her descendants, which you are one.”
I studied his face. He had to be lying. There was no other explanation. Unless…nope. I couldn’t think of anything and shook my head. “There is no way you could be old enough to have known my great-grandmother.” I defiantly crossed my arms over my chest.
Relaxing his stance, he gave a half-smile. “How do you know that?” He held out his hand to me. “Walk with me, and I’ll answer more of your questions.”
I flicked my gaze down at his outstretched hand and then looked into his eyes. There was amusement in them, and he smiled. If he was truthful, then he wasn’t out to hurt me. If he was lying, then I was already dead. In his own words, he was faster than the human eye could see. If he wanted to kill me there’d be no way for me to escape, so what did I have to lose?
Reluctantly, I closed the distance between us and took his outstretched hand. “All right.”
His hand was warm and his grip gentle. He smiled at my acceptance. “Walk with me.” We strolled out of the grove and along the edge of the courtyard. Neither of us spoke for a minute. He tried putting me at ease, but still my heart pounded against my chest.
I slanted a look at his profile. “So…what was up with hiding out in the trees?”
He gave a crooked smile so boyish, it made my heart melt. “I like my privacy. Luckily it’s fairly deserted this early. I didn’t want anyone to overhear our conversation.”
Looking down at the ground and then our entwined fingers, I mulled over his answer. For someone who liked his privacy, he certainly stood out.
“Why didn’t you let me know about you before?”
“It wasn’t time. Now it is. Besides, I didn’t want to frighten you by showing up at your doorstep.”
No. Instead you got in my head.
My heart raced though not so much from fear. I was still a little afraid of him, but now it was more of an arousing fear. I was so screwed up. “So what are you? My guardian angel?” I joked.
He laughed long and low at that. His laugh was amazing and made me want to hear it again. I couldn’t help but smile in return.
“No. No angel indeed.” Chuckling, he shook his head. “I’m definitely not that.”
My mind drifted to him being a fallen angel again. “Okay, that obviously amused you. Then…my guardian?”
“That’s better.” He nodded once. “Yes, I suppose you could call me your guardian.”
“But not an angel.”
“No. The damned can’t be angels,” he said, voice soft.
Hmm. I filed that tidbit away. There were only two species I knew of who were so-called damned. “Why did my great-grandmother want you to keep an eye on me?”
He stopped walking and turned to me. “I promise I will tell you in due time. But first, there’s more you need to learn about yourself: who you are, where you come from; your history.”
“You already know everything, and I really don’t mind if you tell me.” I put on my most pleading expression. “In fact, I wish you would.”
He slowly shook his head. “You wouldn’t believe it.”
I opened my mouth to protest, but he brought his hand up, effectively stopping me from saying more.
“I wish I could tell you everything. But trust me when I say you wouldn’t even consider it.” He dropped his arm and lowered his gaze, giving me that intense look again.
Now that we were in the sun, I could see his eyes were a deep sapphire blue ringed by long, thick, black lashes. Mmm, bedroom eyes. I quickly blinked that thought away. Hopefully, he couldn’t read minds, though I had an inkling he could.
“There are certain things you need to discover on your own, so you’ll have no choice but to believe. If I told you outright, you’d probably run, leaving me in the dust.” He reached up and gently stroked my cheek with the tips of his fingers, his voice barely a whisper. “I don’t want you to run.”
Tingles ran through my body at his touch, and I inhaled sharply.
“If you find out your history on your own, you’ll not only accept it, but you’ll understand it and make it yours.” His fingertips slid down along my cheek to the side of my neck before they dropped away completely. “I’ll be there along the way to help, but I won’t freely give out information you’re not ready to hear.”
I pulled back. Granted, I was still on the fence about his humanness and state of mind, but he could at least tell me. “If what you’re saying is true, then you’re the one person who should know I make my own decisions. I’ve been taking care of myself since I was ten. It’s up to me to decide whether or not I’m ready. Not you or anyone else.” Pressurized anger built in my chest. “You gave me the tidbit about Viktora, told me you knew about the incident when I was fourteen, admitted you’ve got some superhuman skills, and yet think I can’t handle some jaw-dropping information about myself?” My nostrils flared as I glared at him. “I’d call that being an asshole.”
He sighed but didn’t rise to my anger. “You need to understand the sacrifices that were made rather than wallow in self-pity. That won’t happen if I simply give you the details.” He took my hand and gave a gentle squeeze. “I want you to become what you’re meant to be and rise to your fullest potential.”
Rise to my fullest potential? The pressure in my chest started to wane, but I wasn’t ready to let go of my anger just yet. “So, what, this is like a journey to self-discovery?” The snide remark popped out of my mouth.
He grinned. “Exactly. That’s exactly what this is. Of course, once you discover the secrets of your family, you’ll still have the option to walk away if you so desire.” He stepped close to me, so close I could feel the heat of his body radiate to me. He slowly raised his hand, but then made a fist, dropped his hand and stepped back.
I narrowed my eyes. What the hell was that about?
“You need to be careful, Tora. There are those who don’t want you discovering who you are. The more you find out, the more danger will lie ahead. I’ll try to be there for you and to keep you safe, but not even I can be everywhere at once.” Nodding, he smiled and started to turn away.
“Ryk!” I called.
He pivoted back and tilted his head.
“How can I get a hold of you if I need to?” Not that I believed him yet, but at least I’d get his number.
Smiling, he held out his hand. “Your phone?”
I pulled my phone out of my back pocket and handed it to him.
He tapped a few buttons. “There, I’m number one.” Giving me a quick grin, he turned away into the trees and then seemed to just…disappear?
I checked my contacts and found him. I stood there for a minute longer, taking everything in but yet still unsure as to what to make of the situation. He was old enough to have known my great-grandmother. How?
He’d known about the incident when I was fourteen. He said he wasn’t an angel but my guardian. What in the world was he? Holy hell, this was too much information for my brain to process.
“Oh, crap.” I noticed the hour and realized I’d spent way too much time here. Class started in half an hour, and I’d barely have time to get home to grab my books. I glanced down at my red tank-top, jean cut-offs, and sneakers. Oh yeah…and no underwear.
My run had turned out to be exciting after all. Snickering, I headed for home. Since I didn’t have time to change, I wondered what would be in store for me at school.
Maybe I should go braless too.