Lightstorm

LightstormSecond Place finalist, Maggie Award for Excellence 

Humanity’s survival lies in the hands of misanthrope Irina, and only her elemental bodyguard, Fontaine, can convince her to save them.

When Irina sees a man appear from a puddle of water, she considers checking into the nearest psych ward. Then he tells her that she is not only descended from elementals, but is the fifth element (the Spirit) and expected to save the human race from a rogue fire elemental. Correction. The sexy puddle-guy in her living room needs the shrink, not her. Mankind as a whole sucks. Why would she risk her life to save them?

Fontaine never expected his “mission of utmost importance” would be to babysit a stubborn human. To cement his frustration, she questions his sanity. He plans to deliver her to their destination as quickly as possible so he can earn his promotion and be rid of her. It doesn’t matter that she’s the only woman who has ever tempted him to choose mortality. He must resist—or lose the ability to protect her from those wanting to kill her.

Theme song: Only When I lose Myself by Depeche Mode

First chapter

Music from the party inside rattled the apartment door, and Irina hesitated before knocking, her stomach churning. God, she hated parties. Would Jenn even notice if she didn’t go in? At ten o’clock, the noise indicated most of their coworkers from the newspaper had already arrived, and Jenn would be busy hosting. Irina took a step toward the stairs, but she’d hesitated too long.

The door opened and Jenn, pointing to the sand-filled urn, ushered two guests outside. The two men, whom Irina recognized as sports reporters from the paper, lit cigarettes. Irina breathed deep, while the air was still somewhat clean. Well, as clean as it could get in downtown Chicago.

“It’s about time,” Jenn said, turning to face her. “Why didn’t you come in?”

“Just got here.”

“Uh-huh.” Jenn eyed her from head to toe, not buying Irina’s lie for a second. “Let’s get you a drink.” She dragged Irina inside.

The heavy scent of perfume invaded Irina’s nostrils, and she considered rejoining the smokers. They pushed through couples—gyrating in socially acceptable versions of sex—to reach the kitchen.

“What’s your poison?” Jenn stepped behind the bar, while Irina slid onto a vacant stool.

“Water.” Why hadn’t she taken a cab so she could indulge in something stronger? There wasn’t enough liquor in the entire apartment building to make her desire the company of these people after a long week, but she’d already canceled plans with Jenn at least twenty times in the last two months. Finally, Jenn had dangled a bargain—show up tonight and she’d leave Irina in peace until the holidays. A few hours wouldn’t kill her. She hoped.

“I like what you did with your hair,” Jenn said, handing her a blue plastic cup. “Looks good down, all bed-head and sexy.”

Irina reached up and smoothed her curls, regretting the decision to leave her rubber band at home. Her red hair screamed for attention in crowds, especially when loose. Instead, she focused on her cup. “You know how I feel about these.”

“Yeah, well, I’m not going to wash fifty glasses.”

“I sent you that link for bio-based cups.”

Jenn shrugged her off to serve another guest, leaving Irina to fend for herself and…mingle. Taking a deep breath, she surveyed the party. The “small office gathering” she’d been promised took on the feel of a rave, with bright lights instead of black lights. Music pulsed loud enough to require shouting to communicate. A couple on the white leather sofa were making out as though this was some illicit teen party in a campy B-movie. The woman came up for air and Irina recognized them before turning away, unable to hide her disgust. Their respective spouses must be home with the kids.

The office across the makeshift dance floor appeared unoccupied, judging by the darkened doorway. Only the glow from the aquarium shone. Refuge. If she hid for a couple of hours, she wasn’t breaking her promise to her friend, and then she would return home, guilt free. Her TiVo held three episodes of “Fast Forward” and a few other interesting shows on Planet Green recorded and waiting. Or she could catch the eighties movie marathon on AMC. She abandoned her stool and inched toward the office.

“Hey, I know!” Jenn shot Irina a warning look before her bright smile returned. “Let’s Ouija!”

Not a single person in the apartment was under the age of thirty, and yet several bounced with excitement.

“C’mon.” Jenn grabbed Irina’s arm and pulled her toward the place that was supposed to have been her sanctuary.

A beat reporter left to get more chairs, and Jenn left to retrieve the game. Irina hung back. There must be another escape from the madness. Slipping down the hallway, she moved to the room on the left. Her sweaty hand slid on the doorknob and she wiped it on her jeans before trying again.

Rustling sheets in the beam of light from the hall, muffled voices, and a shriek alerted her to the occupants, and she yanked the door shut.

“What are you doing out here?”

Dammit.

Jenn’s question may have sounded innocent, but there was no mistaking the lack of mercy in her eyes. “We’re going to play now.”

“Not a peep until Christmas,” Irina muttered.

“I promise, if you try to have fun. You spend too much time alone as it is.”

“I like it that way.”

“It’s not good for you. I mean, what does it say that I’m the only person who tries to approach you?”

“It says other people are better at reading my signals.”

Jenn waved her hand dismissively. “Please. I help you round out your giant brain with some social skill-building. How would you have made it through Northwestern without me?”

“With honors.”

“With a fat ass.” Snorting, Jenn linked her arm around Irina’s, tucked the Ouija box under her other arm, and pulled Irina along. “Your movies will be on TiVo when you get home later.”

They squeezed in around a circular table with ten other guests. A match flared as a wide pillar candle was lit, leaving just enough light to see the board. Jenn placed her fingers on the planchette.

“So, who wants to ask a question?”

How about why the hell am I here and not at home? Irina thought.

The planchette started moving across the board.

“Jenn, no one asked, yet,” a girl said, huffing and crossing her arms. She was from accounts or reception or somewhere Irina didn’t frequent.

“I know,” Jenn whispered. Her trembling fingers rose from the wooden plank, but it continued to crawl across.

I

“What, do you have that thing magnetized or something?” A scruffy man Irina didn’t recognize lifted the tablecloth to peek underneath. When he dropped it, he turned to Jenn.

“How are you doing that?”

“I’m not.”

R

A few people sober enough to be spooked left, while some were too drunk to realize what was happening. Jenn’s shocked gaze remained riveted to the board, even while she shook her head.

I

The beat reporter pulled a pad and pen out of his back pocket—did he go everywhere with those?—and scribbled.

“Was there anything after the second I?” he asked.

Accounts girl nodded, spellbound. “N.”

A

Hold on.

The others turned toward her when the movement stopped, their eyes as wide as hers surely must have been. The party in the next room continued, but in this one, silence dominated. Irina couldn’t even hear her own breath.

Then Scruffy chuckled. “How’d you do it?”

Good question. It had to be Jenn. She knew Irina didn’t believe in ghosts or other weird stuff, and probably thought it’d be funny to spell out Irina’s name to mess with her.

The others tittered, murmuring things like, “being had” and “jokesters.”

“You really had me there, Rina,” Scruffy continued.

Who the hell was he? She never saw him before and he was using a nickname for her like they were old friends? “I didn’t . . . ”

The little heart-shaped Ouija accessory was moving again. The four remaining guests leaned in, gazes glued to the board. It floated across the nicked veneer, slow and smooth.

W

From the corner of her vision, Irina noticed movement near the aquarium, but couldn’t pull herself from the table. Then smoke rose from the planchette.

“Do you see that?” she whispered to Jenn.

“Of course I do. How is it moving?”

A

“No, I don’t mean the movement. I mean the smoke.”

Jenn peered at the board. “There’s no smoke.”

The invisible smoke briefly formed the shape of a hand.

R

Irina closed her eyes and shook her head, and when she opened them, the aquarium once again caught her attention. A face—clear, defined—stared at her before swirling into nothingness. She blinked. Could be an optical illusion.

“War?” Accounts girl sounded confused.

“What?” Irina turned back to the table and saw the planchette had stilled.

“The thingy spelled out ‘war’ this time,” the girl said.

Irina turned. Her vision swirled like a kaleidoscope, and the few colors visible in the dark room blurred together. Voices, muted and distorted, called her name from far away, like someone had slowed a sound mixer. Inky blackness enveloped her.

****

Irina’s head pounded. She lay prone, bright light pricking her eyelids. The thought of opening her eyes filled her with dread—it wasn’t going to be pretty. Easing herself to sitting, she squinted. Morning sunlight streamed in her bedroom windows and across the foot of her queen-sized bed. Normally, she pulled the shades down to prevent the light from waking her before her alarm, but they were halfway up the window. As her vision adjusted, her black Converse sneakers caught her attention. Higher, her rumpled jeans twisted around each leg, and the collar of the tee-shirt strangled her. Why would she go to bed without changing her clothes from the night before?

A glance at the clock told her it was early and she lowered herself to her pillow, hoping more sleep would stave off her headache. The mystery of her clothes could wait.

Pinching the bridge of her nose, she groaned. Today was the roadside cleanup, which started in the afternoon, and was another reason she didn’t drink last night—a hangover in the bright sun was hell. She bolted upright and ignored the agony. How did she get home last night? No recollection of saying goodbye, driving home, or getting into her apartment. Dear God. Had someone at the party slipped something into her drink? Did roofies work in water? A quick mental inventory of the rest of her body established that she had no pain below her neck.

If she had been drugged, it would explain all those weird visions she’d had. And her black-out. And her throbbing head. Damn. She should call Jenn—maybe she’d have answers. Dizziness claimed her as soon as she swung a leg off the bed, and she fell back. Nothing was getting done until she got rid of this headache.

A few hours later, she woke again, feeling much better. She would address the panic of a coworker drugging her later—right now, she was happy to be able to think without pain. She rolled out of bed and walked to the adjoining bathroom. Flipping on the light switch, she cringed.  Brushing her tangled curls might take a while. Sheer mocha lipstick smeared halfway up her cheek, and dark circles pooled below her eyes—not her best look. On closer inspection, she saw the circles weren’t beneath her skin, but from eyeliner run amok.

First order of business: brush her teeth and get the nasty taste of morning breath out of her mouth. Second, wash up. Irina started the shower as she brushed, giving the water some time to heat up.

A hissing noise sounded over the steamy spray. She banged on the nozzle, but pressure remained constant. Not a clog.

“Get out of there!”

As her heart tripped, she whirled around. That was not hissing from the pipes. Holding her breath, she turned the water off and listened for any noise out of the ordinary.

Nothing, save the rapid pounding in her chest and subsequent throbbing in her temple.

“Hello?” Idiot. If this was a home invasion, the intruders weren’t likely to respond. Her gaze darted around until she saw the free-standing, toilet paper holder. Perfect. Heavy on one end, and easy to grip on the other. She hefted it over her shoulder, ready to swing, and crept into her bedroom.

Her familiar furnishings remained undisturbed. In fact, each room of her home appeared satisfyingly normal. After she checked and rechecked her front door’s locks and all the windows, she returned to her bathroom, convinced she was overreacting. Or paranoid from the drugs. Her inner voice reminded her she never left her cup unattended, so drugs weren’t a real possibility, but something had to have caused the visions and today’s headache. Shaking her head, she told herself there was nothing out of the ordinary. A shower would help. She set the toilet paper holder down and replaced the roll.

Thick steam swelled in the room as she undressed and climbed into the tub. The temperature was just hot enough to make her yelp as it blasted her skin, but she soon adjusted. She turned her back to the spray and let it hit her neck, trickling over the front of her body, keeping her warm all over and making her shudder.

Her showers usually lasted less than ten minutes, but it had been an odd morning after a strange night, so some extra time was justified. She washed and rinsed her long hair, forgoing the “and repeat” instructions on the bottle. Who did that, anyway? The second she started lathering soap on her body, images from a recent dream flashed. In her dream, water from a nearby lake reached out to her, urging her forward. She stepped toward the edge, and the liquid shifted and grasped her hand. Flowing up, it caressed her, encased her, and shielded her against a sudden firestorm.

“Irina,” a voice whispered.

Her eyes flew open and she retreated from the shower spray, slipping in her haste. Heart racing and hands shaking, she shut the water off.  Her phone’s ring tone filled the silence.

She tucked her bath towel around her and walked to the living room to answer it, willing her heart to slow.

“Hello?”

Silence. The display showed 1 Missed Call, so she punched the buttons to view the last number.

Dale Rogers. The notification chime indicated a new message.

“It’s Sunday.” Grumbling, she dialed her voicemail to see what her editor-in-chief wanted. She had already turned in her weekly column, and only the journalists were on call during the weekends.

“Hey, Irina,” Dale’s voice, gravelly from years of smoking, said. “I wanted to let you know your emergency request for vacation time was approved. You had four weeks accumulated since last year. The intern can cover your column until you return. I hope everything’s okay.”

She listened to it three more times. Emergency request for vacation? Sure, she wanted to get away and relax for a while, but she hadn’t put in a request for any time off, much less for an emergency. What the hell?

Dialing Dale’s number, she shook her head. “There has to be some mistake.”

“There’s no mistake.”

Turning, she screamed at the strange man on her sofa, and dropped the phone. She scrambled away from him until her lower back collided with the edge of the marble-topped bar separating the kitchen from the living room. Pain radiated through her core.

“I told you you’d frighten her.” Another male voice, this one without a visible origin. “But you didn’t listen, did you?”

Irina searched to find the source of the second voice, but it seemed to come from beside the first guy. A walkie talkie? Speakerphone? She looked closely at the visible one, for the first time, and her jaw dropped open. Smooth skin, strong cheekbones, his features suggested refined aristocrat , not much older than she was. Pale blond hair dripped water as though he’d just left the shower, too. His eyes, a perfect blend of blue and green—reminiscent of Caribbean waters—watched her with amusement. She blinked again. Nobody looked that good in real life. Maybe she was dreaming. That would explain why she couldn’t remember getting home. Like in Inception, when Leo said we never remembered how we got to the place we dreamt about.

“Please don’t be frightened,” he said, rounding the plush armchair with controlled grace.

For some reason, his voice soothed her. She should be terrified to find a strange man in her apartment, but she wasn’t. Startled, certainly, but not afraid. She kept staring at him, bemused. This was one hell of a dream. Jenn always said those movies she watched gave her an overactive imagination, but she wasn’t about to pinch herself awake yet.

She tilted her head, and water dripped from the ends of her hair, running down over her chest. The sensation of cooled water on her skin caused her to question her assumption that she wasn’t awake.

“Fontaine, let her get dressed, at least,” the disembodied voice said.

If she looked down and she was naked, it would prove it was a dream. Everyone had the naked dream. A glance showed her towel secured around her chest, but she was naked beneath. Did that count?

“We’ll wait while you get dressed,” Sexy said.

“If I leave, the dream will shift to something else.” Damned if she didn’t sound like she was pouting. Jenn was rubbing off on her.

“Dream?” The man’s lips twitched.

Her gaze raked over his tall frame. A plain white tee shirt stretched across his shoulders, snug around his torso until it disappeared, tucked into his loose black pants. She smiled in silent approval. There was no quicker turn off than a man in skinny jeans. Black shoes peeked out from the cuffed slacks, so shiny they, too, looked wet, and she returned her attention to his chest. The power he radiated wasn’t in bulging muscles, but in tight, sinewy strength. A cheetah, rather than a tiger.

He cleared his throat, shifting his weight.

“I’m not sure I’m ready for you to disappear,” she said.

He smirked. “I’m not going anywhere.”

“Promise?”

His eyes flared.

Flirting usually went against her nature, but this was a dream—and a damn fine one at that. It better not switch if she left the room. Who knew how long it would be before she had another like this? She should invite him to follow her, but dream or not, she didn’t have the cojones for that sort of suggestion.

Her phone rang again. Jenn, this time. She shouldered the handset, walking to the bedroom. She dropped the towel and reached for her clothes.

“Jenn, I’m having the most amazing dream. You’re going to ruin it.”

“I would think you’d be doing more than dreaming with that hottie.”

Irina froze, her leg poised in mid-air over her jeans. “What?”

“Why didn’t you tell me you were dating someone?” Jenn’s tone conveyed her expression better than if she’d been standing there in person—pouty-lipped disappointment. “You could have brought him to the party last night.”

“I’m not dating anyone.”

“Don’t lie. He took you home. Said you didn’t answer your phone—remember, you fainted—so he got worried and came to get you. He’s hot! Where’d you find him? Does he have any brothers?”

Jenn’s voice faded as Irina let the phone slide off her shoulder. It landed on her toe, and she howled.

“Are you okay?” the man from her living room said.

This couldn’t be happening. She pinched herself. Twice. Then she squeezed the flesh between her thumb and forefinger.

Oh, dear God.

There was a strange man in her apartment, and she’d flirted with him. Stared at him. Imagined doing all sorts of erotic things to him. Because he could not be real.

But he was.

Her mind snapped off the embarrassment and ran through all the scenarios she’d planned for home invasion. Jenn constantly complained she was paranoid, but it looked like her planning would come in handy.

She finished pulling on her jeans, grabbed a tank top, and picked up the phone—hitting the End Call button as she ran into the bathroom. Jenn would have to deal. She slammed and locked the door, then dialed 911 with trembling fingers. Her hands shook so violently, she nearly dropped the phone again.

“9-1-1, what’s your emergency?” the operator answered.

She whispered, “There’s a man in my apartment.”

“Can you get out without being seen?”

“I don’t think so.” She gave the operator her address and apartment number.

The knock caused her to scream.

“Irina, we need to talk.” The voice belonged to the sexy man from her living room. No, she amended, not sexy. Dangerous. The bad kind of dangerous. He’d conned Jenn into letting him take Irina home, and now he was in her apartment. Ted Bundy conned women with his charm and good looks, too. No way was she falling for that.

She glanced down and saw a puddle of liquid flowing under the bathroom door. Oh, God, was that gas? Was he planning to light her apartment on fire? Stepping away from it, she bumped into the wall. Then the unexplainable happened.

The liquid rose and formed the shape of . . . the man from the living room. Her bathroom suddenly seemed smaller. She squeezed her eyes tight and shook her head. It wasn’t possible. When she opened them, he dominated the space, too close for her comfort. Her thoughts jumbled together and refused to congeal into anything coherent.

“You need to come with us,” he said.

Thank God she’d called the cops, because they needed to take her away to Lakeshore Hospital.

“Irina?” This time, his voice was more hesitant. “Are you okay?”

Still, words refused to form on her tongue.

He inched forward and grabbed her upper arm. The contact blasted her from her shock, and she pushed past him. After fumbling with the lock, she raced to the living room and slammed into an invisible wall, landing on her backside.

Strong hands hauled her to her feet, but they didn’t release her. She kicked, scratched, wriggled, and did everything in her power to get loose from Sexy Psycho, but his arms banded around her and squeezed, enough to send a warning. Point taken—he was stronger.

If she could convince him to let her go, she could grab her purse from the counter, dig out the pepper spray, and use it to get free. She forced herself to remain limp like she’d been taught, and felt him relax.

His breath on her ear caused her to shiver. “Your pepper spray won’t work.”

Was that supposed to calm her down? “What the—?”

“I can read your thoughts.”

Impossible. She lifted her foot, planning to kick her heel into his kneecap and hopefully break something. Before she could blink, she was lying on the floor, the wind knocked out of her, and his body covering hers.

“Now, since you called your law enforcement, we’ll have to leave this conversation for the trip. Do you come willingly or do I carry you?”

“I’m not going anywhere with you.”

“Your choice.” He looked up. “Aether?”

Her world dissolved to black. Again.

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