July 8: Sunday, morning
Soaring on air currents, sensing movement and energy patterns, she floated high above the earth. Sunlight heated her wingtips. The sensual awareness of wind through her feathers soothed her jagged nerves, offering freedom from her self-imposed cage.
Floating from the bluff heights to the valley below, she encountered a void, a dead spot in the sea of energy, a danger to her survival.
A flash of blinding light followed by an explosion of life forces shattered the tranquil breeze. With the piercing cry of an eagle, she plunged back to earth—
And tumbled off the damned ledge she’d been sitting on.
With the breath knocked out of her, she couldn’t even swear. Mariah—as she called herself these days—shifted her bruised body, gingerly checking for broken bones.
What the hell had that been?
She lay there, trying to summon the sensation again, but it had been fleeting, simply a disturbance in the energies she detected when she meditated.
Flexing her wrists and scraped hands, she scanned the horizon for smoke or a sign of explosion. After a greedy Null had bombed Bald Rock last month, bringing down half a mountain side, she was understandably nervous about explosions—real or imagined. Earthquake?
No rocks rattled. No ground shuddered. The valley below appeared undisturbed, but Mariah felt as if a rip had been torn in her universe.
The Void, however, was still approaching. Damn.
“Miss Mariah, are you hurt?” A deep, Brit-accented voice called with masculine concern.
The Null of all Nulls. She hadn’t thought anyone could be more Null than the Kennedy brothers who pretty much owned Hillvale, but Keegan Ives equaled the two brothers put together, in more ways than one. He had to have run up that hill where she’d last seen him, but he didn’t sound out of breath.
“I’m fine, Keegan,” she said, hiding her impatience and the fact that she probably wasn’t fine. Her knee hurt like hell.
But she didn’t trust an intrusive Brit who walked the land like a giant black hole. Not being able to sense his energies made her exceedingly nervous.
“You fell off a twenty-foot ledge,” he protested in his elegant Oxford English. “I doubt that you are fine, Miss. . . Forgive me, but I never learned your family name. Let me assist you to your feet.”
If only he had snaggleteeth or even a broken nose, she might tolerate His Voidness. But no, even his nerdy reading spectacles didn’t detract from his sheer masculine perfection. Keegan’s hair was softer and more blue-black than hers, with a hint of curl. He had amber eyes that had darkened to a polished chocolate gleam of concern. Well over six feet, he topped her by a head, which most men didn’t. And worst of all—he had to be twice her not-slight weight and it was all pure male muscle.
She despised him just for existing. If she meant to survive—probably an unachievable goal—strangers were to be avoided at all cost.
“I’m simply Mariah, like the wind. And if I tell you I’m fine, then I am.” Although she winced when he clasped her bruised hand in his big paw to haul her up.
“The wind?” he asked in confusion.
“They call the wind Mariah? Never mind.” She reluctantly accepted his aid and tried to hide her wince when her knee rebelled at her weight. “What was that explosion? Did you see anything?”
“Explosion?” He frowned, puzzled. “Did you hurt your head? I don’t see blood. How many fingers do you see?”
She should punch him, except he was so damned earnest. If she could find just one single ulterior motive in His Voidness’s actions, she’d rip him to shreds. So far, unfortunately or not, he had been an open book.
A mourning cry split the stillness of the air, and a chill shivered her bones despite the July heat. Their local goddess of death was never wrong. Someone had died—someone she knew if she’d felt the rip.
“Valdis,” Mariah muttered as the mournful wail continued, echoing off the hills. Had it been Val she’d sensed earlier? No, the blinding light had been accompanied by what she could only call a joyful cry, one of discovery.
There was nothing supernatural about Valerie Ingersson performing her operatic moans in her chosen role of death goddess. It was just damned eerie to experience.
There wouldn’t be any resuming the freedom of her eagle spirit now. Returned to her earthly prison, Mariah hobbled on her aching knee down the path.
She almost fell flat on her face.
“You’re injured.” There wasn’t an ounce of male told-you-so in his voice, only concern. “Is it only the one leg? Take my arm, and see if you can walk using your stick.”
Her staff was so much a part of her that she’d picked it up without thought. She leaned on it now and eyed his offered arm in suspicion. “I’m only a little bruised.” She tested swinging the bruised leg and leaning on her stick in its place. Awkward.
The cries from below were more insistent. Now there were more than one, and the weeping raised her hackles.
“Are they holding some kind of prayer circle?” he asked, studying the valley in bafflement.
“That’s Val’s death watch cry.” Which was why Mariah’s bones were cold and her hackles raised. Who? Who would have torn a hole in her universe? She didn’t have enough friends to spare even one. Panic crept in and she hobbled forward.
“I would go down to see, but I can’t leave you here.” Without a hint of warning, Keegan grabbed her waist and swung her up in his massive arms.
Mariah nearly dropped her staff in shock. “Damn you, put me down! I’m fine, I tell you. You go do whatever it is you do and leave me be!”
He was already striding down the hill in big loping gaits, covering ground faster than she could even if her leg had been functioning, which it clearly was not. He didn’t waste breath replying.
She considered beating him with her walking stick, but the wails below were so grief-stricken that she didn’t want to spend the next hour hobbling down. Someone had died. And the only person regularly down on the abandoned farm was Daisy. Mariah had to clench her teeth to keep them from chattering.
She couldn’t plead with the universe that it not be Daisy, because that would mean a younger friend had died—but Daisy was the closest thing to family Mariah had these days. Her birth family had disowned her, moved and left no forwarding address. She couldn’t really blame them for not wanting to be hounded into eternity.
So she had returned to the home of her ancestors, to where she’d remembered sunny summers of her childhood spent with her Nana. Daisy had been there then. Daisy had always been present—physically if not mentally.
A world without Daisy—would be a cosmic explosion, a rip in her universe. Recognizing what she’d experienced earlier, Mariah closed her eyes and forced back the tears, already knowing what they would find when they reached the bottom.
Closing her eyes was a mistake. It made her far too aware of the faintly erotic aroma of Keegan’s skin, the rough calluses on his broad hands, the power of the muscle carrying her like a piece of lumber.
It had been a very long time since she’d had a man’s arms around her. And none had ever dared carry her.
She opened her eyes again, only to notice the dark bristles emerging on his square jaw. Damn, but she despised helplessness with all her heart and soul. She turned to see where they were.
The Lucys were gathering from all across the mountain, up from the town, down from the resort, even Harvey was striding down from Menendez land, drawn by the cry of death. Mariah shivered and sent prayers winging to the universe.
The universe seldom listened—but Val did briefly shut up when she caught sight of Mountain Man Keegan loping down the path carrying Mariah. The silence was almost as haunting as the wail.
With a passel of eccentric kooks turning to watch their progress, even Keegan faltered. That cheered her considerably. “Put me down and give me your arm, but I advise disappearing quickly once we’re there.”
He snorted. “I wish.”
Given his size and looks, he had a point. But he set her down just outside Daisy’s circle of foot-high stone guardians surrounding the old farm house foundation. Perversely, Mariah missed the strength of Keegan’s embrace once she balanced on one leg, his arm, and her stick.
Cass wasn’t here yet, but Samantha was striding up the path from behind the town hall. Standing on the remains of a stone chimney, Valdis returned to her wailing. Mariah waited for Sam before hobbling over to join the circle of women forming at the long-gone farmhouse. Afraid of what she would find, she needed a sensible head to keep her grounded.
Samantha Moon was the most sensible head Hillvale had produced in ages—probably because she hadn’t grown up here. Slender, with wild platinum-blond hair and classic Nordic features, Sam was physically everything that dark, mixed-heritage Mariah was not. But Sam was young and not entrenched in Hillvale’s superstitions and grudges, and she was a pragmatic scientist—so Mariah considered them sisters under the skin. Of course, Sam had no notion of who Mariah was, so there was that.
Sam eyed Super-Null Keegan with Mariah hanging on his arm. “I don’t think I’ll even ask.” She proceeded onward, keeping pace with Mariah and Keegan so they arrived together.
Daisy’s shabby, red-feathered cloak lay at an awkward angle across the sticks and stones of her artistic inventory. Wind lovingly lifted her long, graying hair, but the body hidden in feathers didn’t move.
Mariah clutched Keegan’s arm to keep her knees from buckling under her.