“Hannah. Come on, Hannah. You need to wake up; you need to come back to me now.” A desperate male voice broke through the darkness. It sounded so far away. Where am I? The voice grew louder. Strong arms circled me, shaking me gently. It took a few more seconds, but slowly I was able to force my eyes open. Ethan’s concerned green gaze stared back at me.
“Hannah,” Ethan breathed.
“What …? How did you …?” My throat felt as if it was on fire, and my head was so muddled I couldn’t form a coherent question.
“It’s okay, don’t try to talk. Everything is going to be okay now.”
I blinked. I was still on the floor in the fireproof room, the dim bulb overhead illuminating the space in which I had almost breathed my last breath. Ethan slowly helped me into a sitting position. Even then he held on to me, firmly supporting me. I was thankful for that because the room spun around me and I fought back a wave of nausea.
It took me a minute to think through what he was saying, and then it all came rushing back. Adam and his quick and sudden transformation from smart, charming guy trying to woo me to dangerous assassin trying to kill me, not only to fulfill his duty as a member of the Bana, but also to take his revenge against Ethan.
“Is Adam …?”
The look on Ethan’s face stopped me before I could get out the word dead.
His eyes darkened, and he frowned. “He’s gone.”
What did that mean? The fall from the window would have been at least four stories. It seemed unlikely he could survive something like that. Ethan didn’t seem in the mood to discuss it though, so I kept my mouth closed.
I looked around, taking in my surroundings, and noticed that Ethan had pried the door off of its hinges with a steel bar. The door was bent and mangled. How strong are you really, Ethan, to be able to do something like that?
I wanted to keep talking, to tell Ethan how grateful I was to him for saving my life, but my head felt so heavy that before I could stop myself I had closed my eyes and slipped back into unconsciousness.
I’m not exactly sure how long I was out, or how I had gotten into the vehicle, but we were pulling into the driveway of my house when I opened my eyes again. Ethan helped me out of the Jeep. “I can carry you into the house.”
I shook my head, which was a big mistake because the world started spinning again. “I can walk.” He slid an arm around my waist and we made our way up the walk. My knees felt like they could buckle at any second and I leaned heavily against Ethan. How could I feel so weak? Perhaps it was the lack of oxygen for an extended period of time, Hannah.
My house was shrouded in darkness. In the panic Evelyn had created before we left, I’d forgotten to turn on the porch lights, but the full moon shone down, illuminating the path from the car to the porch. Ethan glanced around the yard, to make sure there wasn’t anyone watching us from the bushes, I supposed.
He unlocked the front door and pushed it open, then let me go as I stepped into the front hallway so he could flip on the lights. “Wait here.” He quickly inspected the house, before he came back into the entryway. “Everything’s clear. We should get you cleaned up. Do you have any first aid stuff?”
“In the upstairs bathroom.” I had been leaning against the front hall table as I waited for him, and straightened slowly. Ethan slipped his arm around my waist again. I opened my mouth to argue, to say that I could go upstairs on my own, but I looked up at his green eyes, still clouded over with worry, and silently accepted his help.
He held me tight until we reached my room and he’d lowered me into a sitting position on my bed. “I’ll just grab some bandages and disinfectant.”
I nodded and watched him go. Once I was in the room alone, I twisted on the bed to check myself out in my dresser mirror. I gasped at my reflection. A long scratch ran just above my right eye, and two on my left cheek from being dragged through the woods, unable to protect my face with my hands. Thankfully, the mask had protected my eyes from any stray branches, but my hair was a disheveled mess. Bracing myself, I looked down at Ethan’s sister’s dress. There were small rips all over, and a large section of material missing from the right side of the skirt. Blood stained the left side of the bodice, and I held up my forearm to see a large gash. Both of my hands throbbed, and the purplish tone of impending bruises had spread across my knuckles. How had all of these injuries occurred? I tried to remember, but the whole experience was fading into nothing more than a frightening blur.
“You don’t have a lot of stuff, but this should do.” Ethan returned and set the supplies down on the bed beside me.
“Thanks.” I reached for the disinfectant wipes but Ethan rested his hand on mine to stop me.
“It’s okay. I can do that.” He gave me a small smile and kneeled down in front of me, grasping my arm gently to inspect the gash before cleaning and bandaging it.
Neither of us spoke for a few minutes as he worked, until finally I couldn’t stand the silence any longer. “So, did you and Evelyn find Paige?” A tension lingered between us. I could feel it in Ethan’s touch and the way he avoided my eyes. I needed to find some sort of neutral topic until I’d decided how to handle it. He finished up with my arm and moved on to the cuts on my face. Adam had mentioned bad blood between Paige and Ethan. What was their story?
“There was no sign of her. Evelyn was able to track down the room she’d been staying in and it had been stripped already. The only thing in it was a gold bracelet with the inscription, to my darling, Hannah.”
“That’s mine. My mom gave it to me.” I glanced over to my jewelry box. I hadn’t even realized it was missing.
“I figured. I’ll make sure I get it back from Evelyn for you.”
“Thanks.” So Paige had been the one moving things around in my room. I shuddered; how truly unnerving.
“As soon as I found that out, I knew we were being pulled away from you. Paige had probably been gone for days. I should have known.” Ethan stopped what he was doing for a moment.
I shrugged. “You didn’t know about Adam.”
“No, I didn’t.” Ethan’s face hardened. He was clearly hurt by Evelyn’s betrayal. If she’d only said something he could have been prepared for Adam’s presence. I almost felt a little sorry for her, but then again, I’d almost died because of her.
“The scratches on your face aren’t too deep. The one on your arm is going to take a while to heal though. Are you hurt anywhere else?” Ethan set the supplies down but maintained his close proximity to me while he waited for my answer.
“I’m okay.” I gave a dismissive wave of my hand, but Ethan’s eyes darted towards it and he grabbed it.
“Then what’s this?” He held my hand and circled his thumb tenderly across the bruises that were beginning on the knuckles.
I slowly raised my other hand to show him the same damage on it. “I sort of tried to punch my way through the glass to get some air in the room. It obviously didn’t work. I guess I’ve seen too many movies.”
Ethan was still. He stared down at my hands as he turned them over in his own, taking in the bruises one at a time. After a second he looked up at me, distress in his eyes. “Hannah, I am so sorry.” His voice was barely above a whisper.
“It’s okay. You got there; you saved me.” I gave his hand a reassuring squeeze and then pulled mine back and tucked them into my lap so he wouldn’t be able to keep looking at them. “You need to take care of your injuries too.” I reached up and gently touched his cut lip with my thumb.
“I’ll be fine. I should let you get changed though.” Ethan rose to his feet and took a step back. I stood up too and bit my lip. I did need to change, but I had something to share with Ethan while I still had the nerve. When I’d thought I was going to die, I’d admitted my feelings to him, and now that was hanging in the air between us.
The thing no one ever considers when making a near death confession is what happens if they don’t die. Ethan wasn’t going anywhere. Adam’s attempt on my life had been well calculated, and far too close a call, so I doubted Ethan would be leaving my side anytime soon.
And I knew how Ethan felt about me. He’d made that very clear when he was talking to Evelyn, and I wanted to make sure that he knew there wasn’t going to be any awkwardness between us. I’d told him what I wanted him to know, it was out there, and now I just wanted to move on.
“Ethan …” My voice still sounded a little hoarse. I stopped and swallowed. “Ethan, I love you. What I told you when I thought I was going to die is every bit as true now as it was then. It wasn’t just some whim brought on by the intensity of the moment. I’ve known how I feel about you for a long time, and I understand that the feelings aren’t reciprocated. I know I’m just a job; I heard you talking to Evelyn and I get it. I’m okay with that. For as long as you are in my life I promise I can be okay with that.” I kept eye contact as long as I could, but the words had proven more difficult to say than I’d thought they would be. I finally dropped my gaze down to my ruined dress.
I waited for Ethan to respond, but he was silent for what felt like forever. When I forced myself to look up at him to see what he thought, emotions played across his face. His eyes were closed and his brow creased, but as though feeling my gaze on him, he opened them. My breath caught when he took a tentative step towards me and slid my hand gently in his.
“Hannah, I need you to understand something. I’ve never opened up and confided in anyone about the Hleo or myself like I have with you, and I’ve never been overcome with jealousy by someone going on a meaningless date with some high school boy.” Ethan’s eyes probed mine and my heart beat harder.
“I’ve never wanted to brush someone’s hair behind their ear before, just so I could touch them.” Ethan softly ran the back of his free hand across my cheek before tucking a loose tendril behind my ear. His fingers barely grazed me, but tingles of electricity ran across my skin.
“I’ve never wanted to pull someone against me so I can breathe them in,” he continued, slipping his arm around my waist and pulling me closer until our bodies were just touching. My heart thudded so hard in my chest I was sure Ethan would be able to hear it.
“I’ve never wanted to …” Ethan lifted his hands to my face and brought his lips to mine. His kiss was urgent and passionate, as though emotions that had been pent up for a long time were finally being released.
Blood rushed to my head, and pounded in my ears as I sank into the kiss. His arms tightened around me and I lost all track of anything else going on. When he finally pulled back, we stood there looking at each other, breathless.
“I’ve wanted to do that from the moment we met.” His eyes searched mine, as though trying to read my thoughts.
“Me too.” I smiled.
Ethan still held me, as though reluctant to let me go. “It has been nearly impossible for me these last few months not to just grab you and kiss you every time we’re together. You have no idea.” Ethan’s green eyes, with their tiny flecks of gold, glowed.
“I have some idea,” I said mischievously and raised an eyebrow. “I wish you would have just gone for it. I really thought my feelings were one-sided.”
“It’s not exactly acceptable behavior on my part.” Ethan slid his hands back, breaking contact with me. A small frown creased his forehead.
“Adam mentioned something along those lines; something about breaking rules.” I sat down on the edge of my bed. My stomach churned, even after Ethan’s admission, would we be kept apart by his refusal to go against Hleo regulations?
“It’s the rule.” Ethan joined me, slipping his fingers through mine and taking hold of my hand securely. “Don’t get involved with a protected in a romantic capacity, ever.”
“So what does that mean for us?” I played with a strip of material hanging from the dress and held my breath.
Ethan put a finger to my chin and turned my face to look up at him. “I’m not letting you go. Not for anything.” He brought his lips to mine again and I wrapped my arms around his neck as relief washed over me.
“I should let you get some rest. You’ve been through so much today,” Ethan said, when he finally pulled away again.
“I guess so.” I shifted back on the bed so I was sitting against my pillows. Ethan stood to go, but I held my hand out and he took it.
“Can you stay? Just for a bit. I feel like this is a wonderful dream and if you leave I’ll wake up and all of this will fade away.”
“You almost died. You have a funny idea of a wonderful dream.” Ethan laughed, but sat down beside me.
“Well, it was worth it to end the evening this way,” I replied as he settled in beside me. He wrapped an arm around my back and I laid my head against his chest. Now that I knew how Ethan really felt, I didn’t want him anywhere else but by my side.
“Nothing was worth watching the life draining out of you like that. Adam’s inventive, I’ll give him that.” Ethan tensed at the mention of what had happened, and of his old nemesis.
I was curious about Adam. My brain had been muddled when I’d first woken up at the library, but now I thought about Ethan’s words ‘he’s gone.’ I had to know if he meant the ultimate ‘gone’ or if Adam had somehow managed to escape. Since Ethan had brought him up, I figured it couldn’t hurt to ask. “What about Adam?” I tilted my head so I could look up at him.
Ethan’s emerald eyes grew dark. Before he even opened his mouth I knew that Adam was still very much alive. “I’ll be ready for him the next time he decides to return. I don’t want you to worry about him, or give him another thought. He’s gone for now, and I’m sure for the foreseeable future.” Ethan’s tone was reassuring, but his grip on me tightened just a little.
I decided to drop the subject. Thinking about the very real and very dangerous threat of Adam, free and running around, wasn’t overly pleasant, and I was so happy at that moment I didn’t want anything to ruin it.
As we lay quietly together in my room, my head started to feel foggy again. The adrenaline that had surged through me when Ethan had kissed me was wearing off, leaving me drained and exhausted. My eyes drifted closed.
“You should probably get out of that dress,” Ethan whispered, shifting a little on my bed. I sensed that he was debating whether to let me be for the night but I leaned into him more. I didn’t want him going anywhere yet. This was the definition of a perfect moment.
“I will in a bit,” I murmured.
I was almost asleep when the word ‘future’ popped into my head. Ethan’s mention of it had jogged my memory about the important discovery I’d made during my ordeal. I had painted the future. I was struggling to stay awake, but I wanted to share my revelation with him before I was fully out and forgot about it again. I pulled back and looked at him. “Ethan, I painted the future. My painting for the gala of the man and woman escaping up the stairs together, that was Adam pulling me up the library steps.”
“Huh.” Even in my sleepy state I could tell that Ethan wasn’t nearly as shocked by this news as I had been. “I had sort of thought that could be a possibility but wasn’t sure how we would confirm it until it had happened. It’s just one more thing we’ll have to try to sort out, I guess.”
“So what happens now?” I buried my head a little deeper into his shoulder and wrapped my arm around his waist securely. It felt completely natural to be connected with my protector on this level, to be held safe in his arms, and a smile spread across my lips.
Ethan’s arms tightened around me as well; obviously he was content to stay right where he was for the time being. He pressed his lips to the top of my head. When he spoke, his words didn’t fill me with apprehension like I would have expected, but with excitement.
“Now, it begins.”