Lia snatched the vase off the shelf and threw it. The intruder ducked. The ceramic shattered against the wall. He grinned at her, holding long sharp blades in both hands. She bolted, trying to get to the gun in her nightstand.
The man blocked her path.
She jumped backwards into the kitchen, an easy hop in her tiny studio apartment.
Lia yanked open the cutlery drawer and began flinging silverware at him.
But all he did was grin that sick grin and pace toward her.
"Stupid Quikmart silverware," she muttered. She glanced around. There had to be something else.
There! She grabbed a large butcher knife.
"GET AWAY FROM ME!"
He smiled and flicked his hand at her.
Something invisible slammed into her legs, knocking her to the ground. Her glasses flew off her face as her head smashed into the kitchen tiles. Pain stabbed her head, causing her to roll to one side, just as he brought a fist down where her head had been. She couldn't see, but she could sure hear the tiles fragmenting at his blow.
The man howled in triumph as he raised his massive fist, dagger in hand for the final blow.
With all her might, she kicked upwards into his crotch.
The howl turned to a scream. His blades fell to the floor with a clatter, just narrowly missing her.
Did I really kick him that hard?
Suddenly, the man was lifted up and tossed into a wall.
Another man stood above her. He kneeled, reaching for her face.
The room swirled around her.
He has blue eyes.
His hand was warm and comforting against her cheek.
She moaned. "I hope you're with the police."
Darkness washed over.
* * * * *
There were voices.
Lia tried to open her dry eyes.
Her head thudded with pain as she tried to sit up.
An Asian woman ina camel colored trench coat burst into her apartment.
Lia blinked, rubbing her head. "I think he's gone."
The woman holstered her weapon and rushed over to her. "Stay still." She reached for her radio. "I'll call a paramedic."
"No. No. I'm fine." Lia knew what a head injury was like. The weird wavy feeling in her head was something else.
The cop introduced herself as Sgt. Wong as she helped Lia up off the floor and onto her loveseat.
"You sure you don't want medical help?"
Despite the fact that the room kept wobbling, Lia began telling the cop about how she was attacked when she had returned home from grocery shopping. She had left the door for just a moment to drop the heavy bags in the kitchen. When she had walked back into the living room, the man had been leaning with his arms crossed in her doorframe.
"He had this sick smile. And then he said, 'So you're the one that Master wants." Lia shivered. She ended her story with the description of the policeman who had saved her. Sgt. Wong frowned.
"Ma'am, I think you might have hit your head a little hard. There was no other officer around. And there is no evidence of forced entry, just the broken vase and scattered silverware. Are you sure your attacker wasn't someone you know?"
"No! I'd never seen him before in my life! Wait, if the other guy wasn't police, then who was he?"
Sgt. Wong shrugged, flipping her notepad closed. "The call came to us from one of your neighbors. He thought there was some kind of domestic thing with all the screaming and noise."
Sgt. Wong finished filling out the report and handed it to Lia. "Can you please sign here to file this complaint?"
The detective's radio barked with a loud buzz. "Sector Vlad, 10-85 in progress! Wong, you done with that call?"
Sgt. Wong jumped up with a curse. She grabbed the sheet in Lia's outstretched hand. "Crap. All the bad guys are out tonight." The cop grabbed her radio. "Central, done with the aided call. Responding to the 10-85 in Sector Vlad now!" She looked at Lia. "Lock the door. And be more careful next time."
Lia rubbed her forehead, still aching. "Thank you."
After Lia had locked the door, she stood there, staring at the dull brass knob.
What the hell had just happened?
She remembered her rescuer's bright blue eyes, burning into her.
How could she imagine someone like him?
She closed her eyes. Crap. Somehow she had to find her glasses.
* * * * *
Late afternoon sunlight filtered in the lone window. Finger-like shadows, cast by long leaves of bamboo stalks sitting on the windowsill, crossed a small ivy patterned rug.
The news blared on the radio.
Just a few feet away, Lia swept the broken vase pieces off the exposed hardwood floor.
Everything could have ended.
Lia threw the shards of the vase into the wastebasket so hard they nearly bounced out.
If it weren't for her mystery rescuer, she could have died.
Her grip on the broom tightened. Why hadn't she been smarter? She didn't need to rely on anyone, let alone a strange man, who didn't even to exist.
There was no way she could have made up the warmth of her rescuer's hand against her cheek, the magnetic way his strange blue eyes drew hers, or the way strands of his dark hair fell over his eyes, highlighting the hard planes of his face.
Even his touch didn't tell her anything about him.
Lia yanked open the tiny closet door and threw the broom in. Something crunched. She slammed the door shut.
What was the point of being able to read people's emotions through touch when she couldn't even control it? The power was so stupid; it only worked with people she didn't know. As she found herself caring for others more and more, the ability to read that individual would fade.
Those closest had the ability to hurt the most. That's why you couldn't trust them.
Which is why Jon had so easily deceived her.
Fear had defined all too many of her years. After she had broken up with Jon, he had stalked her throughout college. With a shiver she remembered the dead roses he had sent to her, the mysterious phone calls at 2 a.m. and the time she had woken up in the middle of the night, to find him standing on her street, staring up at her window.
She had been afraid for so long.
Until Abuela reminded her who she was. She was a daughter of Mexican demon hunters and Spanish knights, not to be cowed by some stupid little man.
Lia had found the courage to stop being afraid and had learned her lesson. She would never let anyone get so close that she couldn't read them anymore. It was one of the reasons she lived in New York City and worked with dead languages. Ironic, that one could more easily stay aloof from others in a city of millions.
She tapped a button on her kitchen radio.
"Investigation into last week's burglary of the National Galleries in Washington D.C. has revealed the theft of several one-of-a-kind Aztec codices dating back to the 14th century. These thefts are in addition to the disappearance of a number of items ranging from 16th century samurai masks to 15th century Aztec ritual knives. Many of these artifacts were not on display and were housed in the Gallery's basement storage area."
Even better news. Lia punched the counter. Those codices could have been invaluable in her attempts at deciphering the yet untranslated Aztec language. Why hadn't she made the trip to D.C. when she had the chance last month?
"Video footage from the night in question has shown that the items seemed to vanish into thin air. Although the burglary has been referred to the P.P.A. for further investigation, film experts are currently examining the tapes to determine if they have been doctored."
Hmm. Maybe the guy was one of those P.P.A. agents.
She snorted. Yea right. Superheroes like Centurion were like celebrities; you saw them everywhere, but that didn't mean an average person like her would ever meet one.
Her cell phone buzzed, alerting her of a voicemail.
Lia sighed, but a thrill shot through her as she listened to the message. The copies of Friar Bartolomeo Da Cenza's notes, had arrived at the University!
* * * * *
A noisy car alarm went off, adding to the cacophony of street sounds. As she headed down the sidewalk, bundled up in her winter gear, her thoughts wandered back to Da Cenza's notes. She paused at a newsstand.
"CENTURION: EARTH'S SEXIEST CHAMPION!" "SILK! IS SHE SOFT AS SHE LOOKS?" Lia ignored the superhero tabloids, scanning the headlines for more news of the National Galleries burglaries.
Nope. No luck.
Yup, she thought. Only a true dork would be more concerned with the notes of a dead 17th century Franciscan priest serving in the Yucatan, than the fact she had nearly died the night before.
Lia splashed through a slushy puddle, grateful for her comfy warm winter boots.
An odd feeling sent tingles up the back of her neck. On a hunch, she looked upwards.
Was someone standing on the roof of that building?
As she squinted, the presence disappeared.
She shook off the feeling. Now that she probably imagined.
Still, she drew her coat closer.
Cutting through the park, Lia finally made it to the campus. She relaxed as she saw groups of students moving about.
No one would ever make her afraid again. It wasn't Jon. It couldn't be him. Jon was locked away in California, doing time for the murder of three women. He would never get out.
Lia quickly retrieved the package and ducked out of the department office. She couldn't use her own office; it was being repainted, and all of her notes were on her computer at home. She headed back toward the park. The sun set too quickly this time of year. If she cut through the park, she'd get home in ten minutes. But if she went around, it meant she would be walking out in the cold and dark for almost another hour.
Of course, she could always take a cab.
The thought made her nauseous. That last time she had taken a cab, the overwhelming chemical pine freshener smell had left her ill for the better part of the night. And with Da Cenza's journal just waiting to be examined, there was no way she was going to risk being sick.
As she crossed the street over into the park, she was glad to see couples and groups of people still out.
But as she kept walking, the crowds thinned out until she was the only one left on the path. Lia quickened her pace, her hand closing around the pepper spray key chain in her coat pocket. Turning a corner, she was relieved to see a group of five walking on the path as well. Her relief quickly gave way to uneasiness. Though it was dusk, all wore sunglasses. All were well dressed.
And yet all were oddly silent.
She had hoped to pass by them quickly, but their intentions became clear as they blocked the path by walking shoulder to shoulder in a single line.
"Excuse me, do you need something?" she asked as they stopped ten feet away from her.
One of the women laughed. "Yes, honey. You."
Lia yanked out her pepper spray.
"Get away from me."
The blonde woman stepped forward. "Try, baby."
Before Lia could react, the woman kicked her wrist. Lia dropped the pepper spray as pain shot up her arm.
What the hell is wrong with me? She hadn't taken all those self-defense classes for nothing.
She tried to swerve away from the woman's punch but her comrade knocked Lia's feet from under her.
Pain exploded as her head hit the pavement.
Her vision blurred. She couldn't see a thing. Glasses. Where the hell did her glasses go?
Towering above her, a roar suddenly echoed through the park, bellowing a challenge.
Her right hand closed around her glasses. She smacked them on.
The group saw their challenger and collectively snarled, baring fangs that should not have been able to fit in their mouths. They left her to deal with the new threat. She forced herself up.
Even before her eyes focused, she knew it was him.
The blue-eyed man.
She watched in amazement as he fought them with the grace of a well-trained martial artist. Like a black cape, his long black leather jacket flew behind him. It was almost like watching a ballet.
Until he wrapped his hand around one man's neck, single-handedly lifting him from the ground.
The man screamed with a sound that should not have come from a human throat and dissolved into little sparks of light. The remaining four backed away in panic.
She bent her head to the ground.
This isn't happening.
The stranger strode over to her as she staggered to her feet. She had hit her head harder than she had thought. He reached out to steady her from behind, supporting her arms with his, subtly forcing her to gain support by leaning her back against his broad chest.
Oh, he was definitely too solid to be a hallucination. Even in this dazed state, Lia could feel the wall of hard torso that supported her. His arms seemed huge compared to hers. Even hidden by his leather jacket, they conveyed a rare strength.
A deep masculine voice caressed her ear, sending shivers down her neck.
"Are you ok, Dr. Mendoza?"
She steadied herself, and turned to look at him. His beauty was mesmerizing, more perfect than she remembered. His midnight black hair, short and messy, framed his stormy blue eyes perfectly. A five o'clock shadow lay across his well-defined jaw, only highlighting his full lips.
She stammered, "I'm...ok."
He kept her enfolded and supported by his strong arms, as if afraid she would fall again. Lia couldn't help copping a feel of his very solid biceps as she tried to thank him for saving her. She added softly, "Again."
Reluctantly, he released her from his embrace, but kept one arm around her waist and another arm free for her to steady herself.
Despite the danger in his aura, somehow she felt safe with him. The man whispered into her hair, for despite her height at 5'8" he was still much taller than she was. "I...was looking for you, Dr. Mendoza. I need to ask a few questions and explain. Let me walk you home."
Lia nodded. You have questions?
"Wait. How do you know my name?"
He pointed to the package containing Friar Da Cenza's notes, she displaying her name in big black letters. She flipped it. "Don't call me Dr. Mendoza. That's my mother. Just Lia."
"Lia," he repeated, his voice curling around her awareness with a strange sensuality.
She didn't like the fact that she was showing him where she lived. Then again, he already knew where she lived. If he had wanted to take advantage of her, he could have done it the first time.
Her body leaned against him, savoring his warmth and strength.
"Who are you? Are you a P.P.A. agent?"
He carefully kept his eyes ahead. "Jasper Ravinov. No I don't work for the P.P.A., but for the Paranormal Bureau."
She frowned. Everyone denied that the Paranormal Bureau even existed until after the Joran invasion. Even now, the Paranormal Bureau remained a shadowy organization that no one knew much about. "If you work for the Paranormal Bureau, why the hell are you telling me? Why did you disappear last night?" And what did you do to that man in the park just now?
"I'm telling you because you may be in danger and I need your help in catching some of your attacker's associates. As for last night, I had to go after one of his partners before he could hurt anyone else." He looked ahead. "But I've gotten in touch with the local police regarding the other night and the case is under my jurisdiction."
His hand closed around hers, warm and protective.
The truth of it all sidled into her thoughts, warm, embracing, seductive.
He stopped and looked at her, as if he knew of her abilities.
He did know.
She tried to drop his hand but he held on to her.
She raised her eyes to his face. For a moment, she thought his blue eyes glowed.
"I'm not here to hurt you."
And just as easily as she could read him, the sense faded, leaving nothing but the warmth of his hand enveloping hers.
She jerked her hand away, stuffing it in her coat pocket. "So you just left me lying on the floor? You didn't even call the police to make sure I was ok?"
She caught a glimpse of their reflection as they passed a dark storefront, looking like a pair of young lovers out for an evening stroll.
"I did call the police. You don't think your neighbors really made the call did you? It's not that hard to tap into phone lines. Believe me, when I say I wanted to stay. I had to rescue a hostage that his associate had taken."
She arched an eyebrow. "And you didn't call for backup when you were going after that other guy?"
"It was a... situation only specialists like myself are trained to handle."
Lia snorted in disbelief. "Why are you telling me? Shouldn't it be top secret?"
He laughed suddenly, a loud and lovely masculine sound that brought a smile to her lips. "I'm so tempted right now to turn my reply into a bad line from a movie."
He turned those eyes on her. "Like I said earlier, I have to tell you, because I think you might be able to help me catch more of his associates."
She stopped at the curb, waiting for the traffic to let up. "What makes you think that? I have no clue why I've suddenly become a magnet for crazies.
He took her hand in his again. His thumb began to caress the back of her hand in slow warm circles.
"No idea at all?"
She felt a shiver go through her. Too much.
Lia yanked her hand away from him. She rammed them back into her pockets, brushing past him to cross the street. He followed her and suddenly yanked her back. A yellow cab zoomed past, honking angrily where Lia had been just moments ago.
Startled by the depths of his gaze, Lia found herself mesmerized.
He linked his arm with hers and walked her across the street.
Great. Now I can't even cross the street without getting myself nearly killed.
The pair reached the door of her apartment building.
She moved to stand on her own, turning to face him. His dark aura of danger was so thick she could almost taste it.
"I...I don't want you to think I'm ungrateful for all you've done. But I just...can't deal with you right now."
To her surprise, he nodded and pulled out a business card, handing it over to her. His fingertips briefly brushed the back of her hand, a casual, everyday motion that should have meant nothing, but seemed to mean everything.
As she looked up into his eyes, she saw a mix of something strange. All too quickly, it was replaced by a guarded look.
"I will call on you tomorrow then. 6 p.m. And we shall talk." She stepped up onto the stoop. Before she could stop him, he kissed her.
Electricity shot through her, sparking sensations in odd places. Desire heated her blood as his tongue delved into her mouth. She trembled as her abilities surged once more. He tasted forbidding, mysterious, in a way that awakened a simmering heat low in her belly.
He wrapped his arms around her waist, his hands on her ass, pressing her more closely against him. She molded her body against his. She felt drunk on his kiss. The heat unfurled in gentle, demanding waves of warmth. It sent shivers throughout her body.
He was telling her the truth.
But there was so much more that lay underneath.
Startled, she pushed him away. She adjusted her glasses.
His eyes were unreadable. "You know the truth now."
She brought a hand up to her lips. She could still feel the aftershocks, skittering around her skin.
What could she say? Something witty, clever, and probing.
He nodded to her and waited. She unlocked the second door, with trembling hands and when she finally turned around once more, he had already disappeared.
* * * * *
She had tasted like wild green magic, earthy, mortal and wonderful. No wonder so many demons were after her.