Funny, Jude thought. She’d expected it to hurt. She watched as a circle of dark crimson spread out from her body over the pavement. It traveled in small channels through the bumpy, imbedded gravel, creating miniature blood rivers. An ant was swept away by the flood. Poor little thing.
Jude tried to move her hand to help the struggling ant, but her body didn’t respond. All she could manage to move was her head. “Sorry, little ant,” she whispered. “You’re on your own. Head for high ground.”
With a great effort, she rolled her head right to check the other side of her body and found it a mirror image of the left. She was on her back, her arms thrown out from her body, her legs spread wide. The force of the gunshots hitting her body had propelled her backward off her feet to land spread-eagled. By some miracle her glasses had stayed on, but she wished she could raise her hand to push them up her nose. Her left shoe had gone flying off somewhere and she’d watched it spin away with a feeling of detachment.
Shouldn’t she be reacting to this? Twenty-eight years old and her life was over. Ten feet from the back door of her apartment building, in the upper peninsula of Michigan, on a beautiful June evening, all alone. It’s wasn’t fair, was it? She searched inside for some emotion—even panic would have been welcome—but found nothing, just the calm acceptance that had defined most of her life. Her ability to take whatever life threw her way with stoic passivity had always been her greatest strength, and at the same time, her worst flaw.
Never get too excited, never draw attention to yourself, never let anyone know what you’re feeling. If they don’t know you, they can’t hurt you, not really. Stay under the radar. This philosophy had worked just fine for her. Until today.
Today, a man in a mask, standing in the shadows of her apartment building had called out her name. When she’d turned to answer, he’d raised a gun and shot her twice in the chest. He’d stood over her for a moment surveying his work with cold gray eyes, the gun pointing at her head. Without a word, he’d tucked his gun in his shirt, took a quick look around, and left.
Why? He hadn’t even taken her purse. No one knew her well enough to want her dead. She didn’t matter that much to anyone, not even herself.
From a block away, she heard children playing on the baseball diamond. Other sounds of dogs barking, a car horn blaring, and from high above her, an airplane gunning its engine, all served to heighten her sense of isolation. Alone. She’d always known when her end came, she’d face it alone.
Moving her head again, she looked at the sky. The sun was setting, and warm oranges and reds trailed up from the west to fade into darkness as they headed east. She had a fleeting moment of regret, a flicker of what might have been, but she quickly pushed it aside. I’m ready, God, she thought to the sky. You can take me now.
A man’s head came into view above her and she let out a bubbly gasp. His chestnut hair fell around his face and neck to form a halo. The fading light spread intriguing shadows across chiseled cheek bones and a strong chin, with a hint of a cleft. But it was his eyes that drew her in. The light from the sunset reflected out from creamy butterscotch, infusing his eyes with a warm glow. They looked down at her kindly.
“I bet that smarts, doesn’t it?” he said.
Jude tried to answer but she didn’t have enough strength left to speak. She wanted to thank him for being there, for not letting her die alone, for finally showing up in her life. Even if he was too late.
Another head came into view. This time Jude managed a croak of amazement. Could God have sent her an angel? The second man had blue-black hair that fell in soft waves to his shoulders. Full red lips contrasted with his flawless pale skin. His eyes were dark blue, almost black, with hardly any white around them. There was something not right about his eyes, but they were so beautiful. A woman could lose herself in those eyes.
As he held his right hand over her injured chest, his eyes lost their focus. Jude felt a tingle in her chest, a slight burning sensation that caused pain. The first pain she’d felt since she’d been shot.
He drew his hand away, blinking his eyes back into focus. The burning stopped. The man stared down at her, a puzzled look on his face.
“Well?” the first man asked.
The dark one sighed and shook his head. “I do not know. I do not think she knows. I sense no evil in her, no guilt from wrong doing. She had no part in this, or if she did, she does not comprehend what she has done.”
The first man took her chin in his hand and gently moved her head to face him. “Do you know who shot you, or why?”
Jude looked up at him, struggling for enough air to form an answer. When that didn’t work, she settled for shaking her head. For some reason she’d started crying. She never cried. Not since she was little and had cried for days waiting for her parents to come back for her. That’s when she’d learned crying did no good. All it did was draw attention. The bad kind of attention that landed you in the crazy ward of an orphanage.
Why cry now? It came to her in a flash of pitiful insight—just when her life was getting interesting, she was going to leave it. How typical. How sad.
“She cannot speak. The damage is too severe,” the second man said.
The first man searched her face again. “Can you help her, David?”
David’s eyebrows shot up. He examined the other man’s anxious face. “Two bullets entered her body. One went straight through, missing all her vital organs. The other pierced her left lung, ricocheted off her rib cage and continued on to sever her spinal column just beneath her neck. She is dying, Aiden.”
At his words, all the haziness fled from Jude’s mind as fear took its place. Had he said she was dying? It was one thing to think you’re dying, it was quite another to have it confirmed out loud. And how did the dark one know the exact path of the bullets? Even she didn’t know, and it was her body. Who were these guys?
More frightened than she’d ever been in her life, she looked back at the first man, Aiden, and saw he was studying her. The look in his eyes—was it pity or regret?—made something deep inside her break. Some inner wall she’d built between herself and the rest of the world. Even between herself and her heart. Emotion swept over her. After all the years of keeping them in check, it was as if a tidal wave of feelings flooded through her. Longing for a life she so desperately wanted, envy of those around her who seemed so happy, hate for a system too busy to help a strange little girl, and lust, yes, lust she’d never felt until she’d looked up into this man’s face.
All the feelings and emotions poured out of her eyes and shot up at Aiden. He looked down at her for a long moment, his face unreadable. Finally, he turned to David. “Can you save her?’
Jude turned her head to David and watched him sit back on his heels. She allowed herself a glimmer of hope.
“It is not our way, Aiden. You know that. Her time has come. It has been cruelly cut short, I agree, but she has reached her ending. We do not upset the Balance in these matters. We stand apart.”
“That’s not what I asked you,” Aiden shot back. “I asked if you could save her.”
“You surprise me. I thought you of all the partners understood us by now.”
Aiden’s hand shot out to clutch David’s wrist. He drew him back over her body. “Look at her, David. She’s innocent in this you said.”
Jude looked up into David’s eyes and tried to form one word—please.
He stroked her cheek. “The innocent die along with the guilty. It is the way of this world. I do not like it any more than you, but we must not interfere. There is no end if we start down that path.”
Aiden jerked at David’s wrist, drawing his attention from her back to him. “In all the long years we’ve been together, I’ve never asked you for anything. I’ve followed you into countless dangers without a second thought. I’ve done everything you’ve ever asked of me. So now I am asking you, David, can you save her?”
Aiden looked down at her.
Still unable to speak, Jude used her eyes to send her plea for help to Aiden.
“I don’t know why. I just know I can’t walk away from her. Not her.” He let go of David’s wrist and pushed Jude’s glasses up her nose. “Please, David.”
Jude couldn’t believe what she was hearing. This man actually cared about her, was willing to plead for her life. Even if she ended up dead, at least she had this. This one time she’d been championed.
But what could the other man do? She could feel herself slipping away. Besides, she wasn’t sure she wanted to live with a severed spinal column. It was severed right below the neck, he’d said. She knew what that meant.
Above her, the two men stared at each other. Jude got the impression something was happening between them, but she couldn’t tell what. Finally, David looked away and sighed. “I will do what I can here, but I need Damien to finish the process.”
“Thank you.” Aiden looked down at her and smiled reassuringly.
David shook his head. “Let us hope what we start here tonight does not unbalance us in the future. Prepare yourself, Aiden. I need to draw power from you for this."