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Hunger hit like an icy spear through his gut.
Ewan shuffled forward behind the bent gray men. To him, they reeked of sweated alcohol and death.
He gripped his cheap plastic plate as they held theirs--his need was no less than theirs but his patience was trained by more bitter years than they could imagine.
Five still ahead of him. Now four.
He fought the compulsion to stare at the woman. He couldn't afford to frighten her, but need nearly shattered him.
Finally, he stood at the front of the line.
"Welcome to the Sisters of Faith Kitchen." Her soft Midwestern twang would have made her stand out on the east coast even if she'd lacked the glow of energy. "I haven't seen you here before, have I?"
Ewan shook his head, but his eyes never left her.
This woman could fill a hunger as vast as the empty space between galaxies.
Her brown hair glinted with golden highlights. Her deep brown eyes glistened with sympathy for his plight and that of the other homeless around him. Although her abundant curves, visible despite the baggy long skirt and apron she wore, might not be completely stylish, they suited her, pleased Ewan. A scattering of freckles across her nose showed she hadn't completely left the country behind her when she'd moved to New York City. The pulse in her neck beat strongly with life and strength.
Ewan's knuckles, already pale like the rest of him, whitened on his tightly gripped plate and he forced himself to relax--he couldn't let her run now. But his hunger raged.
The woman's lips quivered just slightly as she smiled.
He inhaled deeply, gathering the woman's scent of flowers and female over the rancidstenches of unwashed males and fatty, congealing gray mounds of food she and the other women served with salt and compassion as spice.
Her scent wasn't enough.
The woman's faith splashed abundantly, like water spurting from a geyser. Its power teased at him, but filled him as little as would the small gray mound, nominally food, she heaped on his plate.
She was looking at him and he realized she was still waiting for him to answer her question.
"I haven't always been homeless." Even to himself, his voice sounded rusty, unused.
"There's no shame in it." The woman handed her apron to another worker, plucked at Ewan's sleeve, and tugged him toward one of the tables.
"Guys, I want you to welcome a new brother."
She didn't ask for Ewan for his name--the homeless and destitute often have reasons to clutch their names tightly to themselves. Giving a true name yields power to others. Anonymity can sometimes protect those with no other defenses.
He gave it to her anyway. "Ewan."
Faded men, a mix of races and nationalities glared at him as he approached the table.
Fear collided with hunger. Did they recognize him as different? Alcohol, drugs, and insanity might separate them from the rest of the population, but those same things altered their perspectives, let them see what no normal person could imagine. But no, they begrudged him the food and the woman's attention. The world offered so little to the truly poor and hungry that they hoarded what they could.
Finally, two of the men shifted, opening up a space large enough for Ewan to squeeze into.
One of the men, a tall man whose tanned complexion and substantial muscles with more than a bit of fat made him stand out from the others held out a scarred hand. "They call me Big Red."
Intelligent gray eyes stared out from beneath Big Red's bushy white eyebrows. His head gleamed bald where it wasn't covered by a grimy, Russian-looking hat. If Big Red had ever been a redhead, he'd left those days behind decades earlier.
Ewan wasn't used to human touch. He consciously relaxed himself, ungrit his teeth, and managed the briefest possible handshake.
"You're cold as ice, brother. I'll scare you up some coffee." Big Red turned toward the woman, already heading back to the serving line. "Hey, Tia, be a pal. My man here is near-freezing to death. How about getting him a cup of coffee?"
"No problem." Her smile lit the room. "Cream and sugar, right?"
Ewan shrugged, then nodded. Coffee and calories could do nothing for the cold and hunger in him. Still, a mug would do as a prop, and would bring the woman, Tia, back again.
"You don't talk much, do you?" Big Red demanded as Tia hurried away. "You've got to get over the pride thing. Being on the street doesn't mean you're a loser. You just don't have a regular home. One mistake, getting sick at the wrong time, and lots of other people would be here instead. It's not us who've screwed up, it's society."
Ewan adjusted the plate in front of himself and arranged his arms protectively around it. The soup kitchen didn't give seconds, and anyone who lost his meal would go hungry. More than a few faces at the table looked disappointed. They'd hoped to take advantage of the new guy. Two looked more than disappointed--they looked angry.
He ignored them and turned to the man who wanted to befriend him.
"I guess they call you Big Red because of your politics, not size or color."
The big man laughed easily. "For sure it's not my hair." He removed his furry hat and ran a hand across his smooth dome. "Was a student activist after doing a hitch in 'Nam. After that, I never looked back. Most of the guys I hung out with back then sold out. Sold out or are dead. So far I'm admitting to neither."
Tia appeared at Ewan's shoulder, a Styrofoam cup of steaming liquid in her hand.
"Cut the new guy a break, Red." She patted Ewan lightly on the back. "He needs something to eat and drink, not political slogans."
Tia's simple touch warmed Ewan far more than the coffee would. He barely resisted the urge to seize her now. But it was too soon.
"The great socialist leader Jesus said it best," Big Red opined. "'Man does not live by bread alone.' If I don't help the new guy, who will?"
"Jesus was not a socialist," Tia insisted.
"Read the Bible lately? Listen to what Jesus says, not to what others say about him."
"I don't need any help," Ewan said.
"That's something no man can truly say."
Big Red didn't know it, but Ewan was no human. And he didn't need help, exactly, but he definitely had needs.
"Our new friend needs sustenance, not polemic," Tia said. "Let him eat."
Big Red and Ewan both watched Tia as she walked back to the counter. Every man at the table wanted her. Ewan craved her more than he had words to describe.
"Wish I was thirty years--hell, ten years younger," Big Red told him. "A woman like that--oh, my."
Ewan nodded. Human lives flickered by so quickly, like single frames in a video. By the standards of the street, Big Red was ancient, but to Ewan the man seemed little more than a newborn.
"She's not for the likes of me," Big Red continued. "Not for Sam or Hank, either." He nodded down the long table at two of the men who'd refused to move when Ewan had approached the table.
"If either asks, maybe she'd go out with him." Ewan didn't need magic to see the loneliness that rode Tia like a jockey.
"Those two? They're the taking kind."
Which described Ewan as well. He'd take what he needed if he had no other choice. He wondered, though, if the sense of danger that had roused him from his long sleep had been only those two homeless men conspiring against Tia.
Ewan watched Tia for the next half hour as Big Red tried to raise his political consciousness.
That little distraction barely helped him ignore the hunger that clawed at his insides like a weasel trying to escape. The food and coffee helped not at all. He needed the woman, needed to consume her essence--and he wouldn't let anything stop him.
It isn't really dark.
Tia Burns knew true darkness from long winter nights on the Nebraska prairie. Even on a moonless night, New York faded more than really sinking into blackness. Day and night were just different shades of gray.
Gray or black, the Atlantic's wet cold penetrated more completely than even the blizzard winds of home. Tia pulled her coat more tightly about her and tried to pick up her pace. She could have caught a cab, but she was running a bit short this month, and besides, she needed the exercise.
She recognized her mistake when two shadows she hadn't wanted to believe were following her transformed into men.
Walking faster was a mistake. Her leather boot bottoms slipped on ice and got away from her. Her butt hit the ground hard, knocking the wind out of her and her bag slid away.
The figures transmuted into Hank and Sam from the homeless shelter.
She tried to regain her feet, but Sam grabbed her shoulders and dragged her into a nearby ally, then pressed her down as her shoes skitted for traction and found none.
"What a nice surprise running into you here," he said.
Her ex-fiancé had warned her that New York was too dangerous. Maybe he'd been right. "My money is in my purse." She gestured toward the fallen bag. "Take it and leave me alone."
"Not happening," Sam said.
Her body dumped adrenaline into her bloodstream, but Sam held her tightly and her legs just thrashed against the ground.
"We rape her first," Hank said. "Then kill her. No witnesses, no mess."
This wasn't just a robbery. Oddly that knowledge calmed her. She forced herself to relax, as if giving up and then, when Sam's grip loosened just slightly, she twisted, bringing up her feet to kick at his head.
They never made it.
Hank smacked a filthy hand, open-faced, into her cheek, smacking her head back into the pavement.
His blow only knocked the fight out of he for a second, but that was all Sam needed to yank open her coat.
"Always did like those tits," Sam said.
"Well hold on to her, then. 'less you got a problem and want me to hold first.
"I've got a problem with this whole thing." The voice was quiet, nothing like the brash pseudo-confidence of her assailants, but it cut through the night like one of her roommate Lori's samurai katana blades.
The snick of Sam's lockback blade opening was loud enough to wake the dead. "Your problem is butting in where you aren't needed."
"If you ran now, you might still survive," the voice insisted.
The voice sounded familiar. Her spirits sank when she placed it--not a cop, just the new guy, Ewan, from the soup kitchen. The pale guy so gaunt he looked skeletal.
"Get away from here. Call the police," she screamed.
Hank slapped her again.
He must have been holding back the first time he'd hit her. Her head bounced off the concrete, then hit again and pain washed over her like an incapacitating wave.
"That was a mistake." Ewan's voice would chill an arctic wilderness.
Hank grinned, showing a mix of brown enamel and a gap where his upper front teeth should be. "Your mistake. Prob'ly your last."
"The guy behind me has a knife." Tia was past help, but Ewan had a chance if he took off running.
Instead, the idiot stepped forward. Like he was some maiden-rescuing knight.
Sam dropped his grip on Tia's shoulders and stood. He cupped his switchblade against his wrist, hiding it as he faked what looked like a clumsy attack toward the new guy.
Ewan took an unhurried step out of the way, let the knife miss him by a tiny fraction of an inch, then struck twice--his hand moving so quickly it blurred.
As quickly as he's struck, he stepped back, his gaze flickering between Sam and Hank.
Sam stood perfectly still for a good second, then dropped the knife on the ground and collapsed like a lightning-struck tree.
Before Sam fell, though, Ewan had already gripped Hank by his collar and belt, lifted him away from Tia, and held him over his head like a professional wrestler about to launch a smack-down.
It shouldn't have been possible. Ewan had hardly looked strong enough to pick up a good-sized paperback.
"They've earned death." His voice sounded almost bored. "Shall I kill them for you?"
Bile fought its way up her throat. Why was everyone so violent? "Killing them would make you no different than they are."
"Nothing would make me like them." Still, he lowered Hank until he held the murder wanna-be comfortably at waist level. Then he shifted his hips and slid Hank across the ice like a hockey puck, smashing him into his still-grounded friend.
He turned from the two muggers as if they'd ceased existing. "I'll walk you home."
There was no way she'd let anyone connected with the shelter follow her home.
"I need to call the cops." She fumbled for her cell.
"You don't have to do it here."
She stared at him. His face was so gaunt, his high cheekbones threatened to burst through the skin of his face. His dark eyes seemed to absorb rather than reflect light. She'd have said they were black, but she couldn't even say whether that meant dark brown or dark blue. His too hair was black and he didn't wear a hat despite the night's bitter cold.
"Listen, Ewan. Of course I have to call the cops. And I appreciate your help, but I can get home by myself."
"I'll make sure of it."
Her blood felt as cold as the city sidewalk. He'd sat at the same table as Hank and Sam. Was this just a fight over dividing the spoils?
She watched him as she took out her phone and entered the 9-1-1.
The operator promised someone would check out the scene, but couldn't guarantee a time.
Ewan said nothing.
"Look, I'll be all right. I don't need your help." She stepped toward a nearby subway station.
She wobbled when she took her first step. Her knees shook so badly from the adrenaline reaction to her assault that they repeatedly buckled beneath her.
"You will be fine. I intend to make sure of that." He grasped her hand, helping her balance.
Her mittens covered her hands, but one of his long, slender fingers extended to that narrow gap between the mitten and her coat and touched the bare skin of her wrist.
His touch burned.
Big Red had claimed Ewan was cold. She'd assumed the loud but friendly religious socialist had meant chilly. But Ewan's touch was closer to the harsh cold of the worst Nebraska freeze, when the arctic air poured down from the north and froze every cloud from the sky.
She shuddered, then her feet skidded on an ice patch, and she slammed headfirst into his chest.
Ewan stood on the same slick patch of ice, but he seemed as set as hardened concrete.
"Sorry." Was all of his body so cold? The question was scary, and just a little sexy.
"No problem." He caught her shoulders, helping her balance.
He smelled wonderful, but it wasn't a cologne she recognized. His scent put her in mind of mountain forests--something piney, musky, but also secret and dark.
"You probably saved my life. Thank you."
"Yes, I did. You're quite welcome."
Not a modest response. But Ewan didn't seem the modest type.
"But I want you to leave me alone now."
His smile started at the corners of his lips but didn't even reach the middle, let alone his impossibly dark eyes. "You are frightened of me. We will need to change that."
His eyes looked like they were peeling away her skull to get inside her brain--no way was she not going to be scared. "I guess I'll see you next time I'm working the kitchen."
"Day after tomorrow? Yes. I shall be there." He paused, staring into her eyes. "I could hardly stay away."