CovetedBy: Stacey Brutger
They nearly killed her the last time.
No wraiths or vengeful ghosts would be lurking about in the middle of the sea, waiting to ambush her, or so she tried to reassure herself. Not all were vicious, but the violent ones gravitated toward her, as though they sensed she was the key to their release. A spirit’s touch burned on contact. Their lightest contact left bruises that she would wear for days.
And those weren’t the only problems. The longer she lingered in the other world, the more repercussions she’d suffer, so she had to do this fast.
Taking the gamble, Shayla concentrated on her rescuer. The connection snapped together quickly. The water temperature dropped dramatically, her gift consuming the warmth from around her, needing the heat to fuel her search. The chill of the sea burned her skin raw, while her insides hoarded the heat like a greedy miser.
Her body stiffened as she swam, her lungs constricting painfully while her blood slowly overheated.
Darkness pressed in around her from every direction, and she concentrated on feeding the spark. The sea grew dim. The flickering glow of the flame burst into an inferno, spilling into the underwater world around her. Shapes began to take form as anything living or burdened with a soul reflected the light. Her head throbbed as she used a part of her brain that normally remained dormant.
At first she saw nothing but sea life, fish large and small like brilliant stars against the backdrop. Then her caveman’s body blazed like the sun some fifteen feet below her.
And sinking fast.
With a kick, Shayla pushed lower, more than a little unnerved to be virtually blind in the sea with lord knows how many hungry creatures swimming just out of sight. Her lungs protested the lack of oxygen.
She was so close.
Only when her fingers snagged fabric did she stop swimming. She dropped out of the Frost World, but the damage had been done. Her head pounded with a relentless thud. Her eyes burned, phantom shapes flickering in her vision. She could deal with them. They weren’t the real problem.
Her caveman was a dead weight, dragging them both further down into the murky, icy-cold depths.
She kicked. Muscles protested the abuse. The burn in her body lessened as the breath-stealing chill of the sea seeped into her pores. Her fingers cramped as she struggled to maintain her grip on her savior.
When she glanced around, everything looked the same. It was impossible to tell which way was up. Panic tightened her throat, and a bubble of air escaped. She watched the small circle trail through the water.
Toward the surface.
Shayla quickly followed. She swallowed repeatedly, fighting the instinctive need to inhale, fighting to prevent water from invading her nose and mouth.
Her lungs strained.
Her concentration broke when the corpse of the man she’d cracked over the head plunged into the water just feet away. Entombed inside the shell of his body, his soul screamed in silent terror, struggling to be free of the flesh imprisoning him while he was slowly pulled toward hell.
She jerked back, terrified he’d reach out and haul her down with him. His clouded eyes gazed beseechingly at her. One touch from her would free his soul, but it would also set off a craving in him for the life that he’d lost. He’d cannibalize her, absorb all the warmth she’d hoarded, just for the illusion of living for a few more hours. She could fight him off but not rescue her caveman at the same time.
Shayla resolutely turned her back and swam, thanking the faeries that his recent death kept him trapped inside his body. It was only a matter of time before he figured out how to escape his rotting corpse, and she wanted to be long gone by then.
Her lungs strained, and she couldn’t hold back as her body reflexively gasped for breath. Saltwater stung as it hit the back of her throat seconds before she broke the surface.
Shayla coughed until her throat ached with each breath. Minutes passed as she struggled to remain afloat and keep her savior’s head above water.
Knowing that no one would be out searching for them, that she had to rescue herself if she wanted to survive, she angled them away from the rocks and kicked toward shore. After ten minutes, she stopped searching for the coastline and just concentrated on staying afloat.
A large wave smacked her in the face, dragging them under for a few seconds. Using the last of her strength, she managed one last push upward.
The man exploded into action, fighting against her, shoving her under again. A blow landed on her already aching ribs, and she automatically inhaled water.
Then she was being hauled to the surface.
She didn’t have enough energy to spare to even glare at him. Her arms felt laden. It hurt to even move. “I swear, if you drown me, I’ll come back to haunt you.”
And she’d find a way to do it, too.
The man stared at her, incredulous. “You saved me.”
Shayla rolled her eyes. “No, the mermaids did.”
She shifted to her back, battling to stay afloat, and allowed the tide to draw her toward shore. The man struggled silently at her side, but she was too tired to help. By the time the waves tossed them onto the sandy beach, she didn’t have the energy to do anything but balance on her hands and knees. Agony throbbed through her. Breathing was a chore as she struggled for air. Her throat was raw, her body battered and bruised, and her head pounded relentlessly from the use of her gift.
The frigid air stole the last of her warmth. They had to get out of the water. Shayla groaned at the thought of moving, then forced herself to stand. Her legs trembled like a young colt’s, and she staggered toward her much too silent companion.
“We have to get away from the shore. We need shelter.”
The man lifted his head. Blood dripped from his face, pooling in the sand. Unfocused eyes settled on her.
He didn’t move.
Stooping, Shayla draped his arm over her shoulder and tried to drag him to his feet. Despite being skin and bones, the man weighed a ton. She couldn’t budge him.
Urgency rocketed through her. “Get up, damn you. I didn’t save your ass just for you to die here.”
On her second heave, he lumbered to his feet. Whatever little color he’d gained quickly drained from his face, and he nearly crushed her when he stumbled. It took two tries to find the right balance for them to walk without crippling each other. “That’s it. Now we just need to find shelter.”
Dogs bayed in the distance, and the man stiffened.
Shayla heaved a sigh of resignation. She and luck had never been close friends. “I suppose it is too much to hope that it’s a rescue party.”
Piercing green eyes landed on her before he very deliberately set her away from him. “You should run. They’ll be after me. I’ll hold them off as long as possible.”
Shayla could only gape at the idiot, noticing his accent had thickened to a deep brogue. “And how long do you think you’ll last?”
Ignoring the way he stiffened, she wrapped her arm around his waist again. Solid muscle greeted her touch, and she marveled at the heat of him. He was like a furnace, and she wanted nothing more than to cuddle right up and try to get feeling back into her skin. To get her mind off the feel of him, she sized up their situation.
Towering cliffs blocked their exit.
They were trapped on the beach.
“At least it’s stopped raining.”
The caveman grunted. “Easier to scent us now.”
Shayla wanted to drop the big lout on his backside, but he only spoke the truth. The wind howled, flinging their scent directly toward the beasts. She tightened her grip around him and increased their speed. A glance behind them revealed a yawning darkness waiting to devour them.
“Do you know where we are?”
As soon as she spoke, Aiden pulled away to walk on his own, as if he’d forgotten her presence until she opened her yap. Shayla cursed and shivered, already missing his warmth. Without the overpowering stink of the caves, the combination of his body heat and his masculine scent was both soothing and distracting.
She glanced at the man, hardly recognizing him with the dirt gone. The female in her wanted to know what he looked like without the facial hair, but the logical side of her warned she was better off not knowing. He wasn’t a type of man easily forgotten.
He surveyed their surroundings, not missing a detail.
More than six feet tall, he towered over her, far from the hunched, filthy creature she’d first seen. He had dark hair, a sharp nose, deep, brooding eyes and firm, sculpted lips that made her own tingle as she imagined how he would taste.
Despite his haggard appearance, there was a symmetry to his face that drew her gaze again and again.
He was attractive.
She tripped and nearly fell on her face at the realization.
He pinned her with his gaze, and she shivered at his ferocious expression.
“I have a pretty good guess.”
She shivered again, but this time at the sinful, raspy sound of his voice. It dripped with danger and sex, and Shayla looked anywhere but at him, grateful the darkness covered the fiery heat that filled her face. She wanted to banish those thoughts, but they wouldn’t leave completely, teasing the back of her mind.
She took a deep breath. This was not the time or the place, and he was most definitely not the man. “How far to civilization?”
When he didn’t respond, Shayla peeked up, then swallowed hard at his bleak expression. Okay, she wasn’t going to make the meeting with her new boss in the morning. If she even survived the night.