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The Poconos, Pennsylvania
Caroline drank down the deluge of emotions around her, soaked up the haggard feelings like gravy. Serene and resolved, she ignored the contorting shadows in her cabin, the dance of darkness with his coy mistress, light.
Emotion throbbed from the people who'd come to ask her help. She tasted the mother's fear, the father's skepticism and the sheriff's impatience. But there was also John's unwavering faith in her and Dash's tranquil, canine contentment. With a steadying breath, she opened herself to take in the emotions of those who lived beyond her cabin.
She swam in a sea of human nature. Greed, hope, lust, love, devotion, angst, gratitude, lust again. She sampled and plucked at every thread of feeling that came to her, like a harpist feeling for the right string. The chord she sought was abject terror. She found it in varying flavors, in every nook and cranny of the night, terror mixed with sorrow, rage and hatred. But what she was looking for was pure terror in a tiny package of confusion named Megan Feinstein: five years old, blond hair, green eyes, freckles, a Barbie flashlight with dead batteries and a tendency to stray from her parents when they weren't looking. Megan was lost and alone.
Caroline knew how that felt.
She weeded through the stream, her stream, and let it flow in, out and away from her. All the while her inner wall of mental protection trembled, threatening to fall and leave her open to the tide of humanity where she could lose herself. She shored up her protective barrier with the reminder that these emotions were not hers, and chanted the words of her familiar safeguard over and over.
I am Caroline. The emotions within me are my own and no one else's. These other emotions exist beyond me and are not mine. I am Caroline Caroline Caroline
Her concentration snagged on a wave of hot confusion.
Caroline hesitated. It seemed there were two people out there who were drenched in the sort of fear she was fishing for, not just one. Both felt lost and abandoned. Both were in pain and needed comfort. One was small and female. The child pulsed like a star. That was Megan.
But the other? He was more like a supernova.
His confusion and pain yanked Caroline in his direction. She drew back with an inner wince but couldn't close him out. She pushed him to the back of her soul and followed Megan's thread of fear instead. The child's fear painted a picture of her in Caroline's mind. She was a spark of life huddled under a pine, crying for her mama.
Caroline opened her eyes. "Take the Fletcher trail east about a half mile, Sheriff. She's a few yards off the path, on the left."
The sheriff flushed red-purple and cleared his throat. "Thanks, ma'am."
The child's parents leaped up from Caroline's sofa and caught her hand in theirs with simultaneous thank-yous. Caroline flinched, gutted by the onslaught of their gratitude and disbelief, but she forced a smile.
"Glad I could help. You can thank me best by not mentioning me to anyone. Okay?"
They offered her moneypeople always didwhich she refused. Not that she couldn't use the cash. But people who got paid for services rendered were less anonymous and not nearly as forgettable as she needed to be. The couple left, taking their whirlpool of emotion with them.
But anguish lingered. The man lost out there in the night radiated agony in all directions. He was haunted by loneliness that was deep and old.
Caroline honed in on him again. His heart was a black hole, a hungry cauldron. His kind of need could drain her dry. But he had no one.
She slumped back in her chair and breathed deeply until she felt like she was alone in her own skin again.
John turned from the door with a grin and ran a hand through his tousled, salt-and-pepper hair. "That was awesome. The minute the sheriff showed up at my place to ask me to come along with the search party, I told him you were the one who could find that little girl."
Caroline inhaled and exhaled. "We're not finished, yet. There's someone else out there. Can you help me find him? It'll only take a few minutes. I think he's close, but"
Her evening bout with pain announced its arrival. A sliver of white-hot fire shot down her right thigh. She closed her teeth on a moan and reached beneath the blanket that covered her lap to rub her stump.
"Caroline," John admonished, "you didn't take your meds this evening, did you?"
"I wouldn't have been any help to those people if I had."
"Sugar, how can I help you with your pain management if you won't take the medicine I prescribe you?"
She followed the sound of his heavy footfall on the floor and the creaking door of the medicine cabinet in the bathroom. She winced again when he swore. "You haven't even touched these pills, Caroline."
"Spare me the lecture, all right? Those things make me feel like spaghetti all over, and I need all the muscle strength I can get." Another spike of pain shot through her half leg, and she nearly doubled over in her chair.
She felt John's arms around her. "Okay, hold on to me until you can swallow this medicine. And to think, Millie says I have a lousy bedside manner."
"I'll be sure to put in a good word for you next time she brings me groceries."
The burning contortions in Caroline's swollen knee joint subsided a little, but the twinge in the toes she didn't have anymore remained. Some nights it drove her mad. She sighed and laid her spinning head against John's shoulder.
"Well, while I'm here, let's have a look at you."
She gripped the blanket when he reached for it. "No time. We've got to go find that guy out there."
"In a minute." John lifted the blanket and her flannel nightie to examine her stump. His brow furrowed and he frowned at her. "As if you don't have enough pain to deal with, you have to go and do heaven knows what with what's left of your leg?"
She shoved her nightgown down to cover herself. "There was a cat. A really little, really helpless black cat."
"In a tree. Stuck. Okay?"
"Tell me you didn't climb a tree. It's only been six months since your surgery."
"She was very grateful when I got her down."
He shook his head. "You could've called me."
"But I'm always calling you. Besides, she doesn't like men. Smart cat, huh?"
"You know you can ask Millie and me to do anything for you. I'm not just your doctor; I'm your friend. You can talk to me about anything."
Caroline fixed her gaze on the dust bunnies in the corner of her two-room hideout. "No, I can't."
He sighed and kissed her forehead. "Okay, almost anything. Take that pill and get a good night's sleep. I'll go find the guy. He's probably a lost hiker."
"You won't find him without my help. He's I don't know hidden. Covered up. Something. Give me a few minutes to get dressed."
She was perfect for Grabian.
Neshi watched Caroline Bengal and her companion rumble away from the cabin. This time it might work. Grabian might live long enough. He could take his place among these humans as if he were one of them and feed in a way that was natural and harmless to his prey. And the woman, the empath, would know his needs and respond to them in a way that would ensure Meical's survival.
Neshi allowed himself a moment of self-satisfaction. If he could do this, literally rebuild Grabian, reconstitute and enliven human tissue that had lain dormant beneath vampire flesh for two hundred years, what else might he eventually accomplish? And not just for vampires, but for preternatural beings of all kinds. He could allow them to live in perfect symbiosis with humanity.
If Grabian survived the next few hours. Nothing must come between him and his prey tonight. Caroline Bengal must take Meical home with her. He'd make sure she did.
Neshi wrapped himself in a gust of wind and followed the humans.
Storing her slalom behind her seat, Caroline shoved her foot into her ski boot and fixed her entire focus on the lost man. A rivulet of hunger, power and misery seized her. It was as if somebody's rejected god had crash-landed in her forest. No way was she walking away from this one.
"Found him," she murmured to John. "South of here."
But what could she do for him? A need like his would turn her inside out. She couldn't afford to help strangers. He could be anyone. For all she knew, he was one of the men Rivera had sent to kill her. Maybe even Burke himself.
She gripped the handles of her crutches until her hands tingled. No, no, no. Burke couldn't find her in a little one-store town in the Poconos. She had to believe that. She'd had enough practice picking up on his presence to know he wasn't around. He couldn't find her here. Not yet.
Still, just to be on the safe side, she expanded her senses to take in the surrounding woods. Lots of life out there. Lots of emotion. But the only trace of humanity she encountered was the man they were trying to rescue, and even though his life force had a peculiar vibration, it wasn't the throb of psychopathic hatred and fanaticism that made her nemesis stand out in a crowd of thousands.
Burke was just like Rivera. He couldn't hide his presence from her. No one could. He wasn't here. He hadn't found her yet.
Caroline breathed a sigh of relief and fixed her concentration on the woods ahead. She tried to hold on to the object of their search. But an anomaly of some kind kept getting in the way. She held her breath, tracing the pulsing aura to its source. It fractured and dissipated suddenly.
The anomaly was human-like but not human. Nor was it pure spirit. Spirits felt more like a mix of quicksilver and cotton candy, swift and sweet. This being was physically present and much more powerful spiritually than any spirit she'd encountered.
Caroline focused on the silent presence with her whole being, tuning out the Suburban's noisy heater and jostling, squeaking seat, until nothing existed in her world but the being who scrutinized her.
There was an absence of light in him, yet his soul lit up the cosmic river. There was no death in him, yet she couldn't feel his presence as she could a living soul. He was all intelligence and cunning. The only thing that made him seem to belong on this plane was his connection to the man she was trying to help.
What do you want with him? she asked the being.
He didn't answer her. Instead, he penetrated her shield with an ease that sent Caroline surfacing as fast as she could.
Words formed in her mind from nowhere. If you think that's something, wait until you see what he can do. "Hey, are you all right?" John asked.
"Fine," she gulped.
She'd come across a lot of different entities in her time, but thiswhatever he waswas as unique as the man she was trying to rescue. What was their story?
She fixed her concentration on the lost stranger again. She'd find him, help him out and that would be it. Whatever his situation was, she didn't need his baggageor his cosmic companion.
His agony filled the night, condensing into a choking mass of despair that lay just yards away from them now. Caroline tapped John's arm and pointed. "There. See where the ground dips into a hollow?"
The doctor drove up the rise and stopped on the perimeter of a snow-filled knoll. He helped Caroline out of the Suburban, fetched her slalom and helped her put it on.
She stood in the icy stillness, feeling for her quarry. Snow fell like dandelions cast to the wind. His pain filled her with pain that penetrated her to the marrow of her bones, but she felt his life force tremble inside of him and a sense of alertness in him that startled her. Unconscious or not, on some level, he knew they'd found him.
Was he an empath, too?
He knew he was alone. He didn't know what he'd done to be abandoned like this. He wanted relief from his pain, the comfort of the human touch, a place to be safe. Who had done this to him, left him alone like this to die? No one deserved this.
She hadn't deserved it.
Caroline's head pounded in time with her racing heart. Night, snow and trees faded, suddenly eclipsed by a pungent basement illuminated by a single naked bulb. She lay on the filthy floor, bound, gagged, bleeding and feverish. No one would come for her. Her only companions were pain, thirst and terror.
Dash's bark brought her back to the present. The dog had found something. John was already plowing after Dash through the snow. Caroline licked the beads of sweat and melting snow from her upper lip and glided along after them, stabbing her crutches into the snow and pushing herself along on her slalom.
Panic bloomed inside of her. The stranger's or hers? She couldn't tell. Their emotions merged too well, which wasn't good. She breathed deeply, fighting the stark terror that consumed her self-control, and followed John toward a motionless mound of snow at the bottom of the knoll.
Dash was already there, standing stiff-legged with her head down and her ears up. The closer Caroline got to the stranger, the more his hunger devoured her. He was emotionally emaciated.
She set her flashlight on the ground so that it shone on him, sat down and whipped off her slalom. John knelt beside the man with a pile of blankets they'd brought along and swept the snow off him. He felt for a pulse, then slipped a penlight out of his pocket. Drawing the man's left lower eyelid down with his thumb, he flicked the light back and forth across a pewter gray eye and returned the flashlight to his pocket.