Whatever the trick was, it was useful. And disorienting. Five minutes later, she opened her eyes to find the world transformed. “Whoa.”
Andrew’s hand closed on her shoulder, strong and sparking purple flecked with silver. “What is it?”
If she turned around, she’d see him bathed in purple flames edged in inky black and glittering in the sun.
Purple for strength, the silver of protective instincts and black for worry.
“Colors,” she whispered, letting her gaze drift over the rainbow-shrouded crowd. “I see the emotions as colors when I do this.”
“A pro might not be nervous or upset,” he murmured. “Bear that in mind as you look around, okay?”
“Pros are your territory. I’m looking for a jumpy psychic.”
“Then let’s hope that’s what we get.” He went back to scanning the sparse crowd.
Kat did the same. Colors danced in the sunlight, some a thin mist, some so vivid they nearly obscured the person they surrounded. The first time she’d done this, Callum had taken her to the Skydeck at the Hilton. The idea of dropping her shields in the crowded business district had made her stomach flip-flop, but any hint of nerves disappeared in a rush of wonder when Poydras Street lit up in her own private light show.
Not just Poydras, either. Spikes of emotion had twirled up for blocks in all directions. In the fall she’d gone back during some big football game and watched sports fanatics light up the sky above the Superdome with a thousand shades she didn’t even have names for.
She didn’t have names for all of the colors surrounding her now, but she knew what they meant. Glossy red with marbleized black streaks around a nearby man showed intense stress, but the soft red cloud obscuring the couple half-hidden around the side of a building held sparkling glitters of gold so bright it made her heart ache. Passion, and giddy love.
Plenty of emotions twisted around them, but nothing seemed unusual. Not until she turned and saw a column of thick, shiny black shooting up into the air, inky nothingness streaked with the ice blue of terror.
Her body stiffened, and she leaned back into Andrew without thought, so fixated on the colors that she could barely see the person beneath them. “There.”
He slid his arm around her. “The woman in the green?”
“I can’t—” Breathe, Kat. Breathe. She slid her hand down and clutched the hard arm locked around her waist, letting the solid strength of him flow through her. Another deep breath and she managed to fight back the instinctive panic.
If she’d opened her shields and felt this woman’s fear, she’d be on her hands and knees, puking up her breakfast. As it was, she could barely fight past the writhing colors to catch a glimpse of her face—a pretty face. Blonde and freckled, with clear blue eyes and a perfect complexion, like a beauty queen who’d slid gracefully into middle age. Only the nervous pinch of her lips ruined the idyllic picture, and even that was nothing compared to the seething turmoil hiding just beneath the surface.
“She’s scared.” Kat kept the words to a whisper. Andrew’s shapeshifter hearing would pick them up easily enough, but no one else would be able to eavesdrop. “She’s so terrified I don’t know how she’s standing upright.”
His jaw tightened, and he lifted her half off her feet. “Let’s go find out.”
His body was an unyielding wall of heat at her back. She hadn’t been this close to him since the day he’d been changed, since he’d risen from near death and snatched her to him. Sometimes she’d close her eyes and remember how safe she’d felt in those first moments, clutched against his bare chest, the wildness of his new instincts curled around her with two needs. Keep. Protect.
He’d chosen the latter. Protected her from his uncertain strength and the turmoil of his adjustment. That first day he’d hurt her, held her so tight she’d had bruises around her waist for weeks. Not this time. His arm didn’t move when she pushed at it, but there was a fine edge of control in his unwavering grip. “You can let go.”
He did, immediately, dropping his hand to brush hers.
After a moment she twined her fingers with his. A practical thing to do when the empathic vision might leave her wobbly, but it wasn’t practicality that made her heart skip like a teenager’s. “Let’s do this.”
“Remember what I said,” he murmured. “If I give the word…”
Then they were in deep shit. “I know.”
The capitulation seemed to ease him, and he squeezed her hand.
The woman didn’t look surprised by their approach. White-hot relief cut a swath through the cloud of fear for a few trembling seconds before they slowly began to cancel each other out.
“You’re them,” she whispered. “Thank you, Jesus.”
Andrew’s paranoia must have been contagious, because Kat felt too exposed. “I’m Katherine Gabriel.
This is Andrew Callaghan. If you have requests for the Southeast council, you’ll have to ask him.”
The blonde licked her lips nervously. “I—I don’t know how these things work.”
“Why don’t you start off telling us what you know?” Andrew suggested.
She laughed, the sound bordering on hysterical. “How much time do you have? I know too much, that’s the problem. I can’t hide forever, no matter how good I am at it. They’d find me eventually, so here I am.”
Kat clutched at Andrew’s hand and braced herself. “You knew my mother?”
The woman’s expression evened. “Yes. Yes, I knew your mother. We were part of the same—the same group.”
Standing in the bright January sunlight, it was impossible to force the word cult past her lips. “Your email said you have information about the Gabriel family. It wasn’t just her?”
A sliver of doubt spiked out from the woman. “They never told you.”
Those words never heralded good news. “I know that being a Gabriel psychic was such a big deal to my mom, and I know we were both strong.”
“And your grandmother and aunt, and all the women before them.”
“So? Lots of people are strong.”
“Not like the Gabriels.” The woman took a half-step back. “Not so strong it drives them—it—” Crazy.
Andrew didn’t let her say it. “Enough. You said you had information.”
He couldn’t protect her from everything. He sure as hell couldn’t protect her from whatever genetic legacy had been handed down to her. Kat squeezed his hand. “That is information, Andrew.”
“Helpful information,” he growled.
Kat drew in a breath, deep enough that the cold air burned her lungs. “Give us something. Something that satisfies him that you’re not trying to take advantage of me. Then we can go somewhere safer to talk.”
The woman nodded and reached into her pocket, jerking when Andrew’s growl grew in volume. “Just this. Your mother gave it to me to hide.” She pulled out a small brass key and held it out to Kat. “Safe deposit box at Winchester Bank & Tru—” A high-pitched whine filled Kat’s ears a moment before red bloomed on the front of the woman’s shirt.
Kat’s fingers clutched tight around the key, an instinctive reaction to pain she didn’t notice until the woman started to fall.
Andrew grabbed Kat before the body hit the ground.
The world shattered into agony. Callum’s ruthless training kept the synesthesia in place while her mind fractured. Her arm throbbed, worse when Andrew began to move.
She stumbled along next to him because there wasn’t a choice. Her feet remembered how to move, which was good because the rest of her was replaying the scene over and over again.
Andrew’s boots kept getting under her feet, because he was so close to her that she bumped into him with every step. Shielding her, she realized belatedly. Someone had shot at them, and Andrew wasn’t going to let it happen again.
Probably a good idea. She got one hand up to her injured arm and felt something warm and wet. Blood, but maybe not so much that she was dying.
God, she had better not be dying, or Andrew was going to kill her. Then Derek would kill him-Shit, she was losing her mind.
Andrew jerked her behind a building and covered her with his body as he looked around. “Where is he? Where the fuck is he?”
Kat leaned her forehead against his leather jacket and focused on breathing through the pain. “I’m bleeding. I don’t know how bad.”
“Shh, I know. Let me see.” He didn’t wait for her to act. Instead, he got her jacket off, tore her shirt and swore again. “Press your other hand to it,” he told her as he ripped at the bottom of his own shirt. “I know it hurts, but try to do it anyway.”
She obeyed because he sounded confident, and she couldn’t focus. Tears stung her eyes as she pressed her fingers over the spot that hurt the most. “I’m a wuss. I’m not a shapeshifter warrior.”
“Don’t think about it.” He wound a strip of fabric from his shirt around her upper arm. “There’s no safe cover here. We have to head for the car. You ready?”
Kat lied. “Ready.”
His hands slid around her body and coaxed her away from the wall, and Kat choked back a moan and gathered every scrap of nerve and will she had.
Then she walked.
She tried to walk. Andrew’s long legs ate up the ground, and she struggled to keep pace without attracting more attention than they’d already garnered. Most of the people were running toward the water —toward the body, she was sure, to gawk and stare and tell everyone they’d been there when a woman had been shot.
Two women. Blood stained Kat’s shirt, and she spent a moment hoping no one had gotten a camera phone out quickly enough to take pictures of her stumbling and bleeding. That was all they needed—to go viral online as a crazy couple escaping the scene of a crime.
She was losing her mind. Shot and bleeding and possibly stalked by a sniper, and she was thinking about the internet.
This had to be what shock felt like.
Andrew must have noticed her distraction. Closer to the lot, he practically picked her up off the ground.
“Come on. Not far now.”
It wasn’t until he dragged her past a startled woman that she realized the most terrifying truth. The old woman’s confusion rippled through the air in bright yellow and black, a swarm of angry bumblebees. The pain from her arm hadn’t disrupted the synesthesia—it was still going strong.
And Andrew was…nothing.
Colors faded around him. By the time he got her to the car he was etched in black and white, an old-fashioned action hero cast in terrifying shadows. She couldn’t see the green of his eyes or the color of his clothes, just a thousand unrelenting shades of gray.
He didn’t ask why she was staring, just unlocked the SUV and urged her into the passenger seat. “Can you buckle up?”
She had the key clutched so hard in her right hand that uncurling her fingers revealed a deep imprint of the damn thing. She lifted her hips to shove it deep into the pocket of her jeans, then fumbled with the seatbelt.
“Kat.” His gaze was riveted to the strip of cotton wrapped around her arm. “Talk to me.”
The seatbelt buckle clicked, and she squeezed her eyes shut. “Get me out of here before my empathy implodes. I can’t hold this much longer but I can’t let it go, either. Not while I’ve got enough energy left to project.”
“I’ll try.” The door slammed, and the driver’s side opened so quickly he must have run around the vehicle. “Just hold on.”
She had to. Whatever Andrew had done to her arm might have staunched the bleeding, but she clearly lacked the badass shapeshifter gene that kept them all running with bullets in them. If she let go of the empathic synesthesia, she’d shove her pain into every driver they passed. They’d be lucky to survive.
The engine rumbled, and Kat concentrated on breathing. Slow, deep breaths, while she tried to decide how best to describe the feeling of being shot. Throbbing pain was too mild, stabbing was too…sharp.
Though when Andrew spun them out of the parking lot fast enough to shove her against the door, stabbing became a serious contender. So did blinding. Agonizing.
“Sorry.” Andrew kept his eyes on the road, but the first hints of panic began to creep into his voice-and his aura. “Shit.”
“It’s okay.” That was the least convincing lie ever. “I’ve got two choices here. I can let go of this empathic trick and try to shield, but I don’t think I’ll be able to. Not while I’m hurting this much.”
“What’s the other option?”
“Controlled burnout. It’s already starting. It won’t hurt me, but I’ll be useless until tonight. Maybe tomorrow morning.” Though the giddy euphoria and vaguely stoned feeling might make being shot a little more tolerable. “You’d have to feed me and find me a place to sleep it off.”
He ground a curse between clenched teeth. “Is that safe for you?”
“It won’t hurt me,” she repeated, putting more strength into it. “But I’m going to be even more of a burden than I already am.”
He cast her a quick, disbelieving glance. “I can take care of you. If burning it out won’t hurt you, do it.
You can trust me.”
Trusting him had never been the question, but she didn’t have the energy to argue the point. Instead she closed her eyes and fought to find the half-trance again.
It was harder this time. She could smell her own blood, and if the scent bothered her, God only knew what it was doing to Andrew. Her arm ached, and it was getting worse instead of better. Fear formed a sick knot in her belly, and beneath all of it a wild, terrible excitement gathered.
They’d found something. Something big, something real. Later she’d be horrified that a woman had died and she’d been shot and Andrew had been placed into danger, but for the first time in her life, answers were within her grasp.
Or maybe she’d just found more questions. She dropped her hand to her hip and traced the outline of the key in her pocket, using the slow, repetitive motion as its own sort of ritual.
Once she found the quiet place, it was easy to lock her mind into a carefully controlled spiral. Callum might have been obsessed with a mysticism she didn’t care for, but he’d earned his reputation for being the most powerful empath on the planet. Not through strength—he’d happily acknowledged that she outstripped him in raw magic—but with a skill and control that bordered on artistry.
He’d also been a brutal teacher. Burnout was the first defense he’d taught her, and the one she’d been most motivated to learn. A nice, safe recursive loop that drilled down to the heart of her gift and exhausted her too much to hurt anyone.
With her eyes closed, she could almost see her empathy, its usual raging flames winnowed down to a cheerfully flickering campfire. Soon it would be a candle. Smoke.
She could only hope that half-drunken numbness would give way to unconsciousness before she did anything truly humiliating—like tell Andrew the truth of why she’d spent so much time avoiding him.