I rearranged the best poker hand I’d had all night and stared at the grinning sphinx across the table.
Frank Sinatra’s “Luck Be a Lady” had a tinny sound on the ancient record player behind him.
Jeffe squirmed his muscular lion’s body, his tail whipping up a decent breeze.
I fingered a pair of sixes and fought back a smirk. The sphinx couldn’t bluff to save his life. His tail always gave him away.
And my cocksure attitude had cost me the last two hands. I straightened in my camp chair and fought the urge to fiddle with my nose.
The army-issue lantern flickered above us, casting uneven light.
“Would you like to bet more?” he asked, practically bouncing. He shook out the thick, tawny hair that framed his sharp, humanlike facial features. “I would be most interested in your stash of Junior Mint candies.” He turned to the preening vampire on my left. “And your collection of Justin Bieber albums.”
Marius went red. “I do not—”
Jeffe nodded in approval. “It is glorious music. Very bouncy. Whenever you play it or sing it, all the sphinxes gather.”
The pale, hook-nosed vampire stood, toppling his chair, his eyes blazing red, fangs out. “I do not listen to Justin Bieber!”
The sphinx stared at him. “Okeydokey. Too bad you will not bet. You would not beat me with that hand.”
Marius had left his cards facing up on the table. He sank down, a shock of hair falling stylishly over one eye, his arms crossed over his chest. “I fold,” he snarled.
I glanced at the only other player in the game—Marc, my boyfriend. He winked at me before tossing his cards on the table. “I know when to quit.”
Yeah, right. Maybe at cards.
I focused on Jeffe. “It’s just you and me, cowboy.” I blew out a breath and rearranged a two of spades that was doing me no good.
Marc ducked behind me to take a look. “You’ve already bet all your ice cubes for the next month.”
“Don’t remind me.” Ice was hard to come by where we were stationed. The mess hall issued three a day. Three. To think, I’d been an ice-cube whore before I’d been sent to this godforsaken desert.
Marc leaned close. I could feel the heat rolling off him. He was a shape-shifting dragon and they always tended to run a few degrees warmer than most.
His warm breath tickled my ear. “I don’t think the sphinx can lie.”
“He’s got to get a bad hand eventually.” I hadn’t seen anyone pick up the game so fast.
Jeffe tossed his mane over his shoulders. “I was born under a lucky star, and the cracks on the pads of my feet mean good fortune. Would you like me to show you?”
“No,” I grumbled, trying to concentrate.
“Full house!” The sphinx laid his cards out on the table, clearly unable to stand the suspense for a second longer.
I groaned and tossed him my two pair, glad I at least kept my Junior Mints. Jeffe had already won a back rub, half my Tootsie Rolls and my I’m Not Really a Waitress nail polish. Maybe there was something to this lucky-star business.
Since we’d taught him how to play Five Card Stud, favors and loot had piled up in Jeffe’s tent like spoils of war. Case in point, right next to him he had a box of hot chocolate packets, three lemons, werewolf hair conditioner, a bicycle, and a brand-new pair of loafers. Jeffe didn’t even wear shoes.
Good thing we didn’t have any money to blow. Well, we did, but it was useless. There was nothing to spend it on where we were.
Marc stretched, sliding his hands through his spiky blond hair that was forever in need of a cut. He gave me a quick peck on the head. “I’m going to look in on my bypass patient.”
I glanced after him as he grabbed his cup and headed out the door, glad he hadn’t made a big production of kissing me. I couldn’t say the same for the way he’d laid one on me in the mess hall this morning. Or yesterday morning when he caught me coming back from rounds.
It was strangely embarrassing. Or it could be that I was just bad at relationships.
Maybe it would be different if Marc and I actually had a real conversation from time to time. Talk, laughter, it used to come easy back in Louisiana before the war, but now, it was like we had nothing left to say.
The only thing we ever talked about was work. Half the time, public displays of affection seemed like they were more about proving our relationship than about us.
See. Look. We’re okay.
I fingered my cards. Maybe I was just tired. We were, after all, in the middle of an eternal war.
The younger gods had revolted against the older gods. Again. They’d been fighting since Rome was a tiny town where everybody knew your name.
The gods battled over women, treasure, cities. They destroyed said women, treasure, and cities. Pretty soon, they forgot what they were fighting about. It didn’t halt their obsession with war.
Our only hope came in the form of prophecies that could bring peace. They centered around a “healer who could see the dead.” Me. It was tricky because I had to keep it a secret. My particular gift was outlawed by the gods—probably because I could change things. If they learned who I was, they’d have me killed … or worse.
Still, life had been better since I’d managed to finagle a cease-fire back in the fall. It was spring now, not that you’d ever know it in limbo.
I’d been ready to give everything I had for that peace. There were only two people who knew my secret. Marc and Galen of Delphi, the special ops soldier who had put everything on the line for me.
Galen and I had shared three sublimely delicious, hot and frantic months, then his duty called, and he left. I had to struggle on with no closure and no answers. Sometimes I wished I’d never met him.
It hurt to think about Galen. I wondered what he was doing, if he was all right. The alternative was too painful to dwell on for long.
I had to believe he was using the fleeting peace for good. My colleagues and I were doing our best on this end.
We’d set up a temporary clinic in our MASH camp. Instead of putting soldiers back together, we were offering preventive checkups to creatures who’d never had good medical care before. We delivered babies, we vaccinated against basic diseases like tar fever and horn rot. We even performed some pretty complex surgery. We were making life better instead of simply preventing death. It felt good.
“Want to go one more?” I asked the grinning sphinx, gathering the cards. Heaven knows why I bothered.
Jeffe shifted from foot to foot. “Yes. Yes, I do. But, oh, how do I say this?” His eyes darted toward the door. “I think Dr. Belanger wants you to follow him.”
No he didn’t. At least I didn’t. I was having fun with my friends. If I left it would stifle that little part of me that just wanted to breathe.
I shuffled the cards, just like my dad taught me. “He’s checking on a patient.”
Marius gave me a long look. “Marc might need a second opinion.”
Jeffe nodded vigorously. “You should go after him.”
What? Were they afraid I’d win back Marius’s Polynesian fertility statue? I didn’t want it.
I did a one-handed double cut and sprang the cards back up. They didn’t even notice. “Marc is perfectly capable of handling a bypass on his own.” He was a heart surgeon, for God’s sake.
The door creaked open and Holly poked her head in. Curly tendrils escaped her ponytail clip. “I just saw Marc leave and Petra wasn’t with him.” She straightened. “Oh, there you are,” she said, as if she were surprised to see me.
“You people are starting to creep me out,” I told her, managing a swing cut. Holly saw, but she had a funny look on her face. Then it hit me. The camp rumor mill was working overtime. I gave her the hairy eye. “What?”
“It’s nothing!” she protested.
And my name was Steve. “Marc isn’t doing anything crazy, right?” He tended to be rash at times. It was enough to drive me up a wall, especially when it worked for him.
My friends sat in uncomfortable silence. “Come on,” I prodded, my eyes sliding over to Marius, who had taken a sudden interest in his fingernails.
Rumors didn’t merely run through this camp, they galloped. “Okay, fine. I don’t want to know.”
If Marc needed my help, he’d ask. Or maybe he wouldn’t. It was hard to tell with him these days. The entire relationship was beginning to feel like that time I shrank my favorite sweater in the wash and stubbornly insisted it fit.
Still, nothing in this camp stayed a secret for long.
Jeffe shook his head, talking to himself, watching me. “It hasn’t happened yet. I don’t know why it is not yet.”
I banged the cards down. “Out with it.” I glared from Jeffe, to Marius, to Holly, who had found a fascinating knot on the wall.
“Now you really screwed up,” Marius grumbled at Holly.
“The rumor is that it’s about a wedding!” Jeffe said, unable to contain himself any longer.
Holly gasped. “Jeffe!”
“Whose wedding?” I asked. “Is it Kosta and Shirley?” No wonder she’d skipped poker tonight. They’d only been together for a little while, but they’d sure pined enough.
Jeffe’s shoulders sagged. “I did not think of them. I was thinking of you.”
“Ha! No.” I grabbed up my cards again. “Marc is smarter than that.”
Jeffe choked on a hair ball.
“Breathe,” I told him. “There’s no way Marc is proposing.” When we’d first dated, back in college, he’d hinted around at it so long, trying to figure out what I’d say, that I was afraid I’d have to ask him.
Holly turned with a start as Marc leaned his head in the door. “Hey, guys.”
I jumped a foot. “Hey, yourself.”
He didn’t look like he was up to anything. Just your typical strong, gorgeous doctor boyfriend. Then again, he hadn’t been gone long enough to check in on a heart patient.
The deck dug into my fingers as I held on for dear life. Was nine o’clock too early to go to bed?
All four of them were grinning at me.
He wouldn’t dare. We weren’t wide-eyed medical students anymore. We were in the middle of a war.
Shake it off.
If I bought into every camp rumor, I’d think the officers’ club was built on an ancient Egyptian burial site, the mess hall hamburgers were made with swamp monster meat, and the mechanics were going to do the full monty on Saturday night.
Besides, if I was going to marry anyone, it would have been Galen. And he was gone.
Marc opened the door wide. “Let’s take a walk, Petra.”
I sat frozen on my camp stool. “Now?”
Every single one of them was nodding at me.
Hell. Now the rumors would really start. Knowing this camp, they’d have a betting pool set up on the sex, weight, and birthday of the baby before we passed the infirmary.
I stood. “Sure.” I could do that. I’d faced down wild imps and soul-sucking Shrouds and even a pair of giant scorpions who’d wanted to eat me. I could handle a bit of gossip. I knew Marc. He wouldn’t rush this.
I tried to smile at him as I ducked out the door, but Marc looked nervous. Jeffe wasn’t the only one who couldn’t bluff.
Get a grip.
It didn’t mean anything.
A line of sweat trickled down my back. Ten years ago, when he and I lived in New Orleans, I’d stumbled across an engagement ring in his dresser. He must have been planning for days to ask me. Weeks, maybe. He’d never managed to pull the trigger back then. And there had been so much less standing in the way.
He gazed down at me, his deep green eyes glittering. “I found something interesting in the minefield.”
“Fine.” Good. I rubbed at the tension in my neck. The minefield was rife with pranks. Maybe Marc had set up a new one. Or maybe it was the first leg of a little walk he had planned. I didn’t know.
Still, I didn’t feel like taking chances. I cleared my throat. “Are you positive you don’t want to get a drink at the officers’ club?” I asked, a little too cheerfully.
“Since when are you a big drinker?” he chided, leading me down the darkened path.
It was never too late to start.
The night air was chilly as we walked the paths through the low-slung tents of the MASH camp.
A group of mechanics passed us going the other way, calling out their congratulations. I pretended not to notice.
Stomach churning, I focused on the torches lining the walk.
We’d talked the new gods into a generator for the hospital, but, otherwise, they insisted we go old-school with lanterns and anything else we could set on fire. Because, you know, we were the progressive side.
Marc handed me a torch as we left the path and headed up through the unit cemetery, stopping at the edge of the minefield.
Now, the minefield wasn’t loaded with actual explosives, at least I didn’t think so. It was our junk depot, so full of broken-down vehicles, half-wrecked buildings, and machinery parts that the bored among us had seen fit to rig it with practical jokes. It was pointless and immature, but that’s why we liked it.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” I asked. Not just because I wasn’t great at relationship talks. But also because this was the minefield. At night.
“What are you afraid of?” Marc teased.
“You want a list?”
I didn’t like to wander too far from 3063rd. I was a doctor, not a soldier. And even though the minefield was on the edge of camp, the wards weren’t so strong out here.
Imps stalked the desert outside camp, along with lots of other cursed creatures that I didn’t like to think about. Like giant flesh-eating scorpions. Yes, Galen had saved me once, but I wasn’t keen on pushing it.
Plus, with the cease-fire signed, the army was cleaning house and dumping a scary amount of new junk in here.
Marc nudged me along. “Let’s go.”
We could barely see three feet in front of my torch.
A bloodred slice of moon shone above as I buttoned my rust-red flack jacket.
Maybe I’d get hit with a bucket of pickled eggs and have to go home.
Marc was way too confident as we eased past the wrecked ambulance at the entrance.
I squeezed in my stomach as far as it would go and inched between a gutted Humvee and the shell of a burned-out guard tower. I took a second look. That wasn’t even ours. “This is such a bad idea.”
“I know,” he said, taking my hand. He kissed me at the wrist, his lips brushing my sensitive skin. I went a little breathless.
Damn the man.
“I didn’t mean it as a compliment.” I looked out over the twisted, darkened path ahead of us. We were definitely headed somewhere. You’d think if it was the latest, greatest prank, he’d at least be telling me about it by now.
I ducked away from him, edging around a musty-smelling archway, avoiding the trip wire strung across it.
He followed, grinning.
“You’re enjoying this too much,” I said.
He tilted his head. “You’re not enjoying it enough.” I felt the rough tug of my torch as he slipped it from my fingers and propped it up on a pitted, half-falling-apart hospital gurney.
He pulled me close, his lips bent to mine. “Here. Let me show you what I mean.” He kissed me once, twice, his mouth teasing me. His warmth washed over me as he nibbled at my lower lip.
Heat flushed through my body, along with fear. I felt like I was agreeing to something, without having any of the facts.
Besides, we had to keep our guard up out here. Gently, I pulled away.
He watched me intently. “Is there something wrong?”
“No,” I lied. “Nothing.” He should be everything I wanted. I slid my hands up his well-muscled arms, over his chest, and felt his beating heart. He was a good person. It should be enough.
Somehow, it wasn’t. I’d been seeing Marc for less than three months. Sure, I’d been ready to get engaged ten years ago, before we’d been separated by war, before they’d told me he was dead. It had been enough of a shock to see him alive and well. I was just starting to get to know him again.
It wasn’t as if we could still pretend we were naïve residents back at Tulane and that the last decade had never happened. It had and now both of us had changed.
“Come on,” he said, leading me forward, waiting a second while I reached back for the torch. “I worked hard on this.”
I offered up a quick prayer that he was still talking about a prank.
We walked until we came out of the side path and onto the main one. We waited a moment before emerging.
Father McArio lived just down the way, supposedly for the peace and quiet. I knew it was because he liked to minister to the lost souls that lingered just beyond the wards.
I didn’t want to wake him, or more to the point, be in a position where he was asking where I was going with Marc. The rocks just beyond the minefield were a huge make-out spot.
Marc took my hand and silently tugged me deeper into the darkness, toward the rocky plain beyond. Damn it.
Unlike some couples, we didn’t need to go to the rocks in order to be alone. Marc and I shared a tent. That was enough of a commitment for me right now.
Marc had never been as much of a risk taker back in New Orleans. Now that he was stuck in the wilds of limbo, that had changed. Lots of other things had too. Give me a few years and I might be able to figure him out again.
My nerves tangled as he led me onto a path that lay just beyond the largest outcropping of rocks. We’d never been this way before. Sweat dribbled down my neck. I was aware of every single step as my boots crunched against the rocky soil.
He led me down into a hidden enclave. It was cooler than above, as each step took us farther from the surface of the desert.
We found ourselves in a low, rocky clearing. I planted my torch in a holder near the edge.
Marc continued on to a large stone slab at the center. Shadows danced across the hard planes of his cheek and jaw.
The fire caught a dark red wine bottle and two glasses. I blew out a breath. I could do this.
He reached down and withdrew a wrapped black bundle. A grin tickling his lips, he unwound it to reveal a single, red rose. The soft petals were just beginning to open.
I was taken aback by the completely unexpected beauty of it. Nothing grew in the dusty red soil of limbo.
“Happy birthday,” he said, holding it out to me.
Relief and gratitude whooshed over me. My birthday. “It’s not until next month.” I didn’t care.
He shrugged a shoulder, obviously pleased. “I couldn’t wait.”
I brushed my fingers over the delicate petals, smelled the sweet fragrance. I hadn’t seen a flower in eight years, since I’d left home. “How did you get this?”
His eyes shone with pleasure. “It wasn’t as hard as finding this.”
Marc pulled a small red box from his pocket and I froze. It looked just like the box I’d found in his dresser when we worked together at Tulane.
He’d been ready at that time to give me a ring. And then he was kidnapped by the gods, brought down here to fight an eternal war. I’d lost him.
I was afraid to move, terrified to think.
Please let it be a necklace. I’d love a necklace. I’d wear it everywhere. I’d never take it off. I’d cherish that necklace until I went old and gray.
He stood over me, his expression earnest.
My heart stuttered and I felt my desperation rise as he bent down on one knee and opened the box. It held the simple diamond solitaire from so many years ago.
I squeezed my eyes shut.
“Hey.” He touched my hand. “Look at me.” When I did, I saw the worst thing of all—hope, happiness. His sincere belief that this was a moment he’d want to cherish. I still couldn’t believe this amazing man was kneeling in front of me. “I know I only just found you again, but Petra, I love you. I can’t imagine life without you.” He stood, a smile tickling his lips. “Will you marry me?”
Hell and damnation.
I would have. I should have. But that didn’t matter now.
Yes, he’d been my first love and I’d been overjoyed to find him again, but I’d just found him again.
I wet my lips, realized I was shaking. He’d been gone for ten years. Now we were in the middle of a war. We couldn’t expect it to feel like it used to feel.
Or maybe I was just a complete commitment freak. Marc was a good man. He was smart and considerate and he had that annoyingly beautiful adventurous streak. He came from a warm family, a loving home. And he wanted to re-create that here, as much as we could. I loved him. There was no reason not to want to be with him.
For the rest of my life.
“I can’t.” I said it quickly, before I lost my courage. My head buzzed and it almost felt like someone else saying the words.
He sat back, shocked. “Why?”
I froze as my brain searched frantically for an explanation. There was nothing either one of us could say that would make this right.
God, I wished he would just get up off the ground.
My eyes filled with tears. Marc was loving and strong and smart and, I hiccupped, gorgeous. He was perfect on paper. But that didn’t mean I should marry him.
I owed it to him, and to myself, to take a step back from this. For now, at least.
My fingers trembled as I gripped the stem of the rose, like a lifeline. It snapped in half. “Damn it,” I said, focusing on the broken stem, unable to look at the man in front of me. “I’m sorry,” I said, as if that would somehow make it whole again.
But it was broken.
Pebbles rained down from the ledge above. It took me an extra second to even feel them as they landed on our heads and scattered at our feet.
I wheeled around to see Horace the sprite. He was about half the size of the average man, with golden wings fluttering on his heels and at his shoulders.
“Finally.” He exhaled, planting his tiny combat boots on the stone slab. “Do you know how hard you were to find?”
Marc stood, eyeing Horace. “Not hard enough.” His eyes were guarded, his expression stony.
“Hurry,” the sprite said, ready to take off again. “It can’t wait.”
I tried to wrap my head around whatever Horace wanted. “What’s the matter?”
“Two critical cases,” he said, his pointy ears twitching. “Both stabbed. Most likely poisoned as well.”
I didn’t understand. “Did the attending on call send for us?” They should have been able to handle two casualties.
Marc and I needed to focus on what had just happened. I owed it to him to talk this through, to try to explain why I’d put a bullet in his heart.
Horace shook his head so hard that glitter rained down. “The attending surgeon is unaware. Absolutely no one can know about this.”
It was unheard of. “Why not?”
Horace’s wings trembled as he hovered above us. “It’s Galen.”
Copyright © 2013 by Angie Fox