That night, I dreamt of a prison of fires that bound the fallen angels deep beneath the heavens. I could smell the burning toxic fumes as if they were real. They weighed down heavy on my skin and grabbed hold of my lungs, squeezing the life from them.
Far away in the distance, I could hear a frantic voice calling my name, screaming for me, and pulling me to the surface.
The body of the voice slid onto my bed, pinning me down. “Grace,” it whispered. “Grace, please wake up!” The voice shook me violently.
I wanted desperately to answer the beautiful voice, but the air was too thick and my throat burned with sweet noxious flames, crushing me from within.
My eyelids were heavy and stung with burning tears. It took all my strength to pry them open.
“Grace,” the voice whispered, as I was taken up and cradled into its arms. A deep red burst of fire exploded across the ceiling, flames stretching toward me like fiery hands calling me home.
“Grace, baby, please, please wake up. Grace, please don’t leave me, please. I love you.” The strong arms nestled me into its chest and it carried me into oblivion.
I heard glass shatter and felt its icy sharpness rain down over my body. Ice-cold air exploded in my lungs and the blackness came.
I awoke, strapped to a gurney in the middle of the street with an oxygen mask covered my face. I breathed in greedily and coughed up putrid black ooze into the street.
The emergency medical technicians unstrapped me from the gurney and helped me sit up. The world spun around me in a torrid array of vibrant colors. Lea was next to me with tear streaks running down the black soot caked on her face. Conner was behind us talking to a firefighter as black smoke billowed out of our apartment windows.
Tucker, Ethan and Brayden ran down the street followed by others, but I didn’t know who they were. Voices were running over each other and I couldn’t make out any of what had happened. I still wasn’t sure if any of it was real.
Lea sat on the gurney with me and held me in her arms. Shane stood in the distance with his eyes fixed on mine.
“They are saying this is definitely arson,” Lea whispered. “The fire started in your room.”
“What?” I croaked.
She grabbed me tighter. “Oh God, Grace, this is the scariest thing ever. Somebody wants to kill you. Kill you!”
Ethan ran up to the gurney, grabbed me in his huge arms, and cuddled me close. “What would we do without you? Are you okay?”
I shook my head. Shane was still watching me.
Tucker grabbed me in his arms next, but he sat down on the gurney and pulled me into his lap. I was so tired that I had no energy to even stop him. Shane turned his head.
They talked me into riding in the ambulance to get checked out for smoke inhalation at the hospital. I just wanted to jump in my jeep and leave as I had planned, but Lea and Tucker practically threw me in the back of the ambulance, strapping me on the gurney on the way in.
Lea rode with me. She just sat next to me holding my hand and crying.
“How did I get out of there?” my voice cracked.
She looked at me and tilted her head, weighing if she should tell me. “Shane carried you out. But, I don’t think he wants you to know.”
“What makes you say that?” I coughed.
“Because, he told me not to tell you.”
I was rolled into the emergency room where I waited a total of fifteen minutes until a doctor saw me. Lea and I decided that was some sort of record. We weren’t even finished with all the paperwork they asked for.
The nurse that checked all my vital signs was a horror. However, when the doctor on call walked in, Lea straightened herself up and tried to wipe my face of debris.
He introduced himself as Doctor Tanner and began a monotonous speech about smoke inhalation. “Smoke inhalation contributes to the total number of fire-related deaths each year for several reasons...the damage can be serious...life threatening...its diagnosis is not always easy, since there are no sensitive diagnostic tests...you may not show symptoms until 24-48 hours after the event,” he droned on.
I knew I was fine, because I was picturing him completely naked with only a stethoscope around his neck.
Waiting for my release papers to be signed, Lea and I sat around the emergency room and told dirty jokes to two elderly men who had been waiting to be released along with me.
Within ten minutes, the entire emergency room was silent, listening to our banter. Curtains were pushed aside and laughter could be heard down the hallway.
Tucker walked in right before I was released and gave me another hug, holding me a little longer than was needed. “Here’s your superman to break you out of here,” he whispered in my ear.
“Where’s Conner and Shane?” Lea snapped.
Tucker chuckled, “Conner was still talking to the fire chief and the police. Shane probably met a hot chick in a uniform and got sidetracked, you know how he is.” He helped me down off the bed that I was sitting on and hooked his arm in mine.
“How bad is the apartment? Can we stay there tonight? Do we need to get a hotel room?” I asked.
“Whoa, sweetheart, calm down. Don’t worry about anything. You girls can stay with us and we are definitely getting you out of town for a little while, Grace. The way it looks is that this was done on purpose.”
Tucker drove us back to the apartment he shared with Brayden and Alex. “Grace, you can stay at my place. It’s no problem, since we have an extra bedroom. My cousin Blake is staying in it now, but he won’t mind sleeping on the couch. Or you can just sleep in my room, whatever you’re more comfortable with.”
I looked at Lea in the backseat and cringed. “I really want to stay with Lea. That’s how I’ll be comfortable.”
He gave me one of his condescending smiles. “Don’t you think that Lea would want to be with Conner? The Bone Room is the only room they have there, and trust me; the sheets in that room will stick to you.”
I cringed again.
Lea moaned. “Ew that’s disgusting. I have no problem being at a hotel. How about we stay at the Waldorf for a few nights?” Lea’s tone became excited with the thought.
“That’s absurd,” Tucker snapped. “Grace has no job. You work, for what? Minimum wage at that little publishing house? And your apartment just caught fire. You can’t afford the Waldorf, let alone a roach infested seedy pay-by-the-hour motel. She’s staying with me tonight, and then we are going to my winter place. We’ll leave tomorrow before the snow starts really coming down.”
“Tucker, I thank you, but I’m not staying with you tonight. End of discussion.” I said.
When we reached Tucker’s apartment, he pulled his jaguar in behind a huge shiny black Cadillac Escalade. He pointed his finger at the monstrous SUV and gave a smug look. “That’s my cousin Blake’s ride. He just started working with me in my father’s firm and he already bought a shiny new toy. It’s hot, right?”
“Sure, if you’re attracted to giant things made of metal that mess up the environment and suck you dry for gas,” Lea quipped.
We followed Tucker into his apartment, where he threw his coat on a chair and hurried out into another room. He left Lea and me standing there, still full of ashes and soot, and feeling oh so very welcomed.
Tucker shared his apartment with Brayden and Alex. It was a stereotypical bachelor pad, if said bachelors were all fourteen and just hitting puberty. Posters of half-naked schoolgirls lined the walls and empty beer cans were lined up along the coffee table, artfully holding up fifteen pizza boxes. The smell of cologne and stale beer seemed to be their brand of air freshener.
I jabbed Lea with my elbow, “And you wanted to stay at the Waldorf, when we could have this,” I giggled spreading my arms wide.
“I rather stay in the burnt apartment. This is ridiculous. I don’t feel like you’re safe here, and I really want Conner and Shane with us at all times.”
“Shane?” I whispered.
“Grace, if it wasn’t for him, you’d literally be toast right now!” she hissed. “I’m calling Conner to get his ass over here. Tucker gets all creepy when he’s around you!”
She yanked her phone out of her bag and started talking in hushed whispers with someone on the other end.
Tucker strode out of one of the back rooms with a bottle of his precious champagne. “Would you like some of your favorite?” he asked, holding the bottle up for me to see.
Without waiting for either of us to answer, he busied himself with trying to find clean glasses to pour the champagne in.
A knock interrupted us at the door. Tucker cursed and opened it and cursed again. “Yes, Ethan. What do you need?” he snapped.
“I need Grace and Lea,” he said. He looked at the bottle of champagne Tucker was holding and threw his hands up in the air. “Hey, lover boy. They were just in a house fire, so why are you trying to give them champagne? Look at them, they need a shower and a good night’s sleep!” he yelled as he ushered us out and down the hallway.
Ethan walked us to the next apartment. “Don’t mind Tucker. He’s usually not such a jerk when it comes to women, but Grace, you seem to bring the idiot out in him. Are you guys okay? That must have been terrifying.”
“What? Being in the fire or the thought of having to sleep over at Tucker’s? Because both seem like a nightmare to me,” I whispered.
Ethan paused as he pushed his key in to unlock his door. He turned, hugged me tight and patted Lea on the shoulders. “Conner and Shane are coming back and you’ll be safe here. You both need a nice hot shower and sleep.”
Their apartment was the exact opposite of the one we were just in. It was impeccably clean, with lovely soft leather furniture, and actual artwork framed on the walls, all with a musical theme. There was not one naked schoolgirl poster to be seen.
I walked in and cracked up laughing. “No way. You, Conner, and Shane live here? This place is...”
“Surprising?” Ethan offered.
“Grown up?” Lea giggled.
“Um, yeah, both.” I answered.
Ethan nodded, “It’s the reason we live together. The three of us are neat freaks and I think Shane is a closet interior decorator, because he put this place together. Come on and I’ll give you the grand tour, Grace.”
Lea walked herself into Conner’s room and closed the door behind her as Ethan led me around. He left the bedroom doors closed though, and only pointed to each one saying the names of the owners. My stomach lurched when he named the Bone Room and a surge of jealousy crashed through me at the thought of how many girls Shane had been in there with. Jealous? Am I admitting this to myself now?
Ethan noticed my apprehension to the Bone Room and placed his arms around my shoulders. “Don’t worry; you can sleep anywhere you want if you feel weird about being in there.” He handed me a towel from a closet in the hall. “But, you do have to take a shower right now, because you smell like hell.” With that, he shoved me in the bathroom. “Use whatever soap stuff you like,” he said as he closed the door.
I looked around the small bathroom. It was clean, I mean really clean. The toilet paper roll was even on its little roller on the wall and not just sitting on the sink because no one could insert it.
I opened the shower curtain, turned on the water, and stuck my hand under the stream to gage the right temperature. Ah, scalding! That’s the perfect temperature.
I peeled out of my smoke scorched clothes and stepped under the jets, letting the water wash away the evidence of my almost death by fire incident. I used some sort of herbal flowery smelling soap and scrubbed the black ashes off my body.
Inhaling the warm steam made my already burning throat worse, but it made me focus on what I really needed to think through. Why would someone be trying to hurt me? Someone like Azazel? Was it just jealousy? He didn’t want Shamsiel to be with me because he couldn’t be with whomever he was with? Or was it more? After all these years, how did he find me? Was he roaming the earth? I thought they were all sent somewhere...Was he like me and could only possess a dying body?
The door to the bathroom opened, putting a halt to the inner dialogue I was having. “That better be Lea,” I snapped.
I heard Shane’s raspy low chuckle, “No, sorry. Just me. But, if you want me to get Lea to come into the shower, that’s a really entertaining thought.”
“Shane, get out of here!”
“Relax, Grace, I’m not going to jump in with you. I just came in to give you some of my clothes to wear. Unless you want to traipse through the apartment with just a towel on in search of clothes, because that’s just...Hey, you know you are absolutely right, that’s a much better idea than me giving you something to wear...I mean, I clearly remember the first time I saw that at your place. That image is definitely burned into my skull. I wonder if it would have the same effect on everyone else here.”
“Okay!” I yelped, poking my head out through the shower curtain. “Thank you! Please just leave the clothes and go!”
Shane stood leaning against the sink with his arms folded. The expression on his face didn’t match his teasing; he looked worried and exhausted. “Are you okay, Gray?” His using Lea’s nickname for me made my belly do a flip-flop. What am I, twelve again?
I stuck my face back in the shower and reluctantly turned off the water. There were a lot more tears that needed to be washed away. I held my hand out to him, “May I have the towel, please?”
He placed the towel in my hands and I dried myself behind the curtain. I wrapped the damp towel around myself and stepped onto the cold tile floor. “You’re still in here.”
“Yeah. I’m having trouble moving,” he whispered.
“Did you get hurt before?”
“No,” he murmured. He took the shirt he had brought in for me and smoothly pulled it over my damp hair. I lifted one arm at a time into the sleeves, strategically keeping the towel wrapped around my body. When the shirt fell to my knees, covering me fully, I let the towel drop. “Well, that’s something I’ve never done before,” he sighed.
I tried to smile, but I was beyond exhausted at this point, “I guess you do mostly the undressing of women, huh?”
Shane reached out his hands toward my face. I really should stop him; he really shouldn’t touch me. But man, do I want him too!
He laid his hands against my cheeks and gently wiped the moist skin below my eyes, as if wiping away my tears. “You were crying,” he murmured, as his thumbs trailed softly along my skin.
“Well, I was just in a fire that Tucker says someone purposefully set, so yeah, I’ve been crying.”
His hands stilled on my face, “Tucker said that, huh? That ass couldn’t just give you one night of rest?” He glared at me, “I swear, Grace, I will not let anything happen to you here, and tomorrow we’ll all go up to Tucker’s place and get away from Carl Sumpton and his sick twisted games. No one will know where we are.”
So, everyone still thought this was Carl Sumpton trying to kill me, just some sick delusional guy that’s been stalking me for the last six months. I wished it were so simple. I felt myself shudder and Shane’s expression softened.
He drew me into him, slid his hands around my back, and held me close. Every point of his body that touched me sent shivers down my spine. The shivers became much worse when my hands, all on their own accord, slid up the length of his arms and gripped his shoulders. Far worse was the thought that there was only a thin layer of material covering me and it was riding up as I lifted my arms, and I didn’t even have underwear on!
As if he had read my thoughts, Shane leaned back, reached for something, and shoved it into my hands. “Here, I can’t stand here with you like this, so wear a pair of my boxers, please.”
Without taking my eyes off him, I slid the boxers up my legs. Ripples of heat surged through me as his jaw clenched tighter and his eyes dilated into huge pools of blackness. My God, did I want to dive in.
We just stood there, face-to-face, eye-to-eye until I felt the room start spinning.
“I’m really tired, Shane. In fact, right now I kind of feel like I’m going to pass out.” I leaned my hand on the sink to help myself stay upright. Before I was even aware of what was happening, Shane picked me up and cradled me in his arms. My eyelids were so heavy that I automatically wrapped my arms around his neck, slumped my head on his shoulder, and closed my eyes.
I felt him open the bathroom door and the cold air from the hallway sent goose bumps up my arms; I could have sworn he held me tighter. I heard Ethan’s voice mumbling near us.
“She just conked out in my arms,” Shane said.
“Yeah, Lea just passed out on Conner in the living room. He had to carry her into bed. Where are you going put her to sleep?”
Shane was moving through the hallway with me, the motion rocked me gently. “Open the door to my room,” Shane said.
“Shane, that’s not the best idea. She’s going to wake up pissed at you.”
“I’ll sleep in another room. I’m not putting her in the Bone Room, Ethan.”
I opened my eyes as Ethan flicked the light on in Shane’s room and I lifted my head off his shoulder.
Ethan smiled at me sweetly, “Hey, Grace, can I get you anything?”
“No, Ethan, thank you. I’m just wiped out. I don’t care where I sleep, I just need to sleep.” I looked around the room quickly. A beautiful dark cherry wood bed took up my view, and my guitar case was leaned up against it. I turned my face into Shane’s, “You saved my guitar?”
Pulling back the covers of his bed, Shane delicately laid me down and sat beside me. His bed was soft and smelled like freshly washed linen; I closed my eyes.
“Get some sleep, Grace. We’ll be right outside if you need anything,” Shane whispered.
I reached my arm out and tugged his arm toward me. I can’t even say why I did it. I was tired, scared, and angry, and it was the only thing that felt right. “Don’t leave, Shane,” I whispered back.
Shane squeezed my hand softly and moved off the bed. I opened my eyes to see Ethan close the door and Shane stroll across the room to his dresser. He pulled off his shirt and jeans and threw them into a large wicker basket in the corner. I watched the tattoos move against his muscles as he looked through his drawers wearing only a pair of boxers. He pulled on a pair of pajama bottoms and nothing else.
He switched off the light and crawled under the covers right beside me. He ran a single finger along my arm from my shoulder to my elbow. “Are you okay?” he asked.
“Yes, I just didn’t want to be alone. I’m sorry,” I whispered.
He pulled me closer to him and my body fit into his perfectly, “Don’t be sorry. I get to hold a beautiful woman in my arms all night, so I’m definitely making out on the deal.”
“Thank you,” I said.
I could feel his raspy chuckle against the back of my neck, “For what, saying you’re beautiful? Like you don’t hear that from every freaking guy that looks at you.”
“No, not that. For saving my life tonight. You could have gotten killed, Shane. Don’t do anything like that for me again.”
He softly placed his lips on the nape of my neck, just below my ear, and kissed me. “Shut up and go to sleep, Grace.”