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Spanish Harlem, New York City
The saints' eyes followed him as he worked, scolding him for using them for his lie. Mocking him for denying the truth about what he was.
Ricardo Fernandez paused and laid his hands on the altar that embodied the fraud that was his life. All around him the statues of the saints condemned him. But he was used to such censure from those who refused to believe in his powers. Those whose fears forced him to hide behind the guise of a santero.
He looked down at his hands and, as he had countless times in his thirty years of life, considered why he had been chosen to carry this burden. Why these hands, which looked just like those of any other man, possessed the power to give life or take it away.
If he was a lesser man, he might have fallen into the trap of considering himself almost godlike. He might have opted to sell his abilities to those who paid the highest price to be saved. He could have even made a perfect assassin, able to kill without leaving a trace.
But Ricardo had done none of those things. Neither regrets nor revelry had a place in his life now, so he resumed his task. With a gentle touch, he removed the offerings he had placed on the altar the day before: the fine cigar, now just a half-burned stub and a pile of ashes, and the shot glass of fragrant rum, which had nearly evaporated from the heat of the radiator just a few feet away. After checking the water level in the vase of sunflowers he had placed beside one virgencita, he shifted to the last offering.
A small pile of coins lay at the foot of one statue. He gathered up the money in his hand and thanked the deity. While he himself was not a true believer in Santería, his customers held to this faith and he wouldn't besmirch their tenets. He hoped his prayer was deemed respectful enough by the deities that allowed him to use the powers with which he had been born.
Ricardo didn't like living a lie, but posing as a santero—a priest of the Afro-Caribbean religious Santería—was the only way he could use his healing gifts. Many of the people who sought him out might not have come to him if they realized his abilities were earthly. They preferred to think the powers came from rituals beseeching their gods.
Of course, if some god hadn't decided to give him this boon, who had? Ricardo refused to consider the alternative, since he had sworn never to use the dark side of his gift. Not even when someone asked for it.
As had happened just the other day with Evita Martinez.
He had been seeing Evita for just over a year now, ever since the doctors at one of New York City's more prestigious hospitals had told her that there was nothing else they could do for her cancer. They'd sent her home to enjoy what was left of her life.
But Evita hadn't wanted to die just yet. Having heard about his unique abilities from some of the other ladies in the neighborhood, she had come to him for help. She and her daughter, Sara.
Sara, he thought with a sigh, recalling the way she had stood before him nearly a year ago, condemning him with her body language as he talked about what he could and could not do for Evita.
He knew that Sara hadn't believed him. Worse, that she considered him a charlatan. Her bright hazel eyes had skewered him with disbelief, much like those of the saints.
The disbelief in her eyes turned to trepidation when, after finding out that she was a nurse, he had asked for payment of a most unusual kind—blood. For a moment he'd thought she might run, and take her mother with her, but then despair had crept into her eyes.
Sara loved her mother, and at that moment she had been desperate enough to do anything to help her—even if it meant bringing bags of blood to a man she considered less than dirt. Ricardo hated relying on that despair. He hated the lying, but he did what he had to so he could help people.
When Sara brought a blood bag later today, he would have to tell the prickly nurse that her mother's cancer was growing faster than he could contain it, and that Evita had asked him to help her pass peacefully when the time came, rather than suffer with the pain.
Healing and killing. His gift and his curse.
A tap sounded against the glass of his door. He turned from the altar and stared toward the front of his store.
Sara Martinez stood there, her chin tucked into the thick collar of the charcoal-gray down jacket she wore against the lingering chill of winter. A crazy gust of March wind sent her silky shoulder-length brown hair swirling around her face. With a gloved hand, she combed it back and shifted from foot to foot, impatient and intractable as always about these visits.
The early morning sun played across her pretty, heart-shaped face. She had a hint of a cleft in her chin, and hazel eyes that expressed so much with just a look. In his case, generally disgust. But he had seen how those eyes could warm to a molten caramel when they gazed upon someone she loved.
And her lips... They were full, at least most of the time. Not when she shot him a grim look, as she did right now as she waited at his door.
Drawing a deep breath, he prepared himself to break the news that would surely devastate her.
Sara peered through the glass door of the botánica. It was early, but she had just come off a double shift and wanted to get home, sink into bed and not get up until it was time to go back to work again. Before that, however, she had to make her payment to the santero. Plus, she wanted to hear what he had to say about her mami. Her mother had been looking pale lately and Sara wanted to make sure he was doing everything he could do.
The plastic sign hanging behind the glass door said Closed, but she could discern the silhouette of someone at the back of the shop. Even in the dim light, the size and shape were familiar. Over six feet tall. Broad-shouldered and lean-hipped. Powerful.
She could go on and on about his many physical attributes, but there was enough of that talk from the women in the barrio.
So what if his hair, the color of rich soil, hung in thick waves to his shoulders? Or if his eyes were so green they reminded her of the deepest part of a pine forest? Or if his face, composed of finely chiseled lines and high cheekbones, was inherited from some Aztec ancestor?
None of that changed anything. She had sworn off handsome men some time ago. Especially handsome men with little means of support.After her one bad experience, the bitter taste of being used still lingered in her mouth.
She rapped on the glass with her gloved hand and he turned.
He must have noticed her, for he sauntered toward the door, moving with a grace that should be illegal. As the light from outside spilled in, illuminating his face, she noted his serious demeanor and the harsh, thin line of his lips.
He was angry.
When he opened the door, she immediately began an apology. "I'm sorry I came so early, only—"
"It's not a problem, really. I was working," he said, stepping to let her enter.
Working. A funny word to use. She wondered if the priests of her own faith, Catholicism, considered what they did work and not devotion.
She walked into Ricardo's store. The smells of the various herbs, flowers and candles he kept calmed her nerves almost instantly.
The anteroom of his shop invited her in. He had set up a small sitting area in front of a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf and a display of candles and icons related to various religions. She had waited in one of the comfortable armchairs more than once when she'd brought her mother for treatments.
Ricardo followed her there and held out his hand toward the small sofa. "We have to talk."
"Sure," she said with a nod. When she sat, she opened her knapsack and removed the paper bag containing the blood bank pouches. She handed it to him.
He hesitated before taking the sack and peeking inside. One dark brow arched upward as he noted the contents. "Two?"
With an uneasy shrug, she said, "I thought that maybe with more blood..."
She looked away, unable to finish, because in truth, she didn't understand what he did with the blood, nor did she really want to know.All that mattered was that her mother seemed to have gotten better thanks to whatever rites he performed. Until lately. In the past week or two, her mom had started failing once again. Sara was too astute a nurse not to notice the signs of her mami"s pain and weakness.
She raised her face and met his intense gaze. Understanding mingled there with something else. Something she wasn't prepared to admit. "You wanted to talk," she said.
He barely dipped his head in acknowledgment, and shifted forward to the edge of his chair. Leaning muscled forearms on his knees, he clasped his hands together. They were strong hands, she noticed, with long, well-shaped fingers. Magical hands, her mother had said after the first time he had laid them on her during a treatment.
"Your mami..." He stopped, and his hands moved up and down nervously a few times before he continued. "The cancer's back and it's spreading. More quickly than I can—"
Sara waved her own hands to stop him. "If two blood bags aren't enough—"
"It's not that," Ricardo said, but he could tell that she had shut down and wasn't likely to listen.
She shook her head. "What do you want, then? Money?"
Ricardo sighed harshly and raked his hand through his hair in frustration. "It's not about money."
"Bullshit. How much do you want? I don't have a lot, but whatever I have, it's yours." She grabbed her red knapsack, opened it and pulled out her wallet.
Ricardo reached out to stop her. As soon as his hand connected with hers, he sensed her life force. Within it existed a bit of power similar to his own, creating an unexpected harmony. The synchronicity of their forces sent a tingle up his arm, followed by heat. A strong wave of sexual heat that swiftly raced to his groin. But it was the wrong time for such emotion, so he tamped it down.