Darkfever, p.10
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       Darkfever, p.10

         Part #1 of Fever series by Karen Marie Moning
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  “Why are you helping me?” I asked him that night, when he returned to the store. I wondered where he’d been. I was still where I’d spent the entire day: in the rear conversation area of the store, the one that was almost out of sight, back by the bathroom and set of doors that led to Barrons’ private quarters. I’d pretended to be reading while I was really trying to make sense of my life and contemplating the various hair color shades Fiona had brought when she’d arrived to open the store at noon. She’d ignored my efforts to make conversation and hadn’t spoken to me all day expect for the offer of a sandwich at lunch. At ten after eight, she’d locked up the store and left. A few minutes later, Barrons had appeared.

  He dropped into a chair across from me: elegance and arrogance in tailored black pants, black boots, and a white silk shirt he’d not bothered to tuck in. The snowy fabric contrasted with his coloring, intensifying his slicked-back hair to midnight, his eyes to obsidian, his skin to bronze. He’d rolled the sleeves back at his wrists; one powerful forearm sported a platinum-and-diamond watch, the other an embossed, wide silver cuff that looked very old and Celtic. Tall, dark, and basely sexual in a way I supposed some women might find irresistibly attractive, Barrons exuded his usual unsettling vitality. “I’m not helping you, Ms. Lane. I’m entertaining the notion that you might be of use to me. If so, I need you alive. ”

  “How could I be of use to you?”

  “I want the Sinsar Dubh. ”

  So did I. But I didn’t see how my odds of getting it were any greater than his. In fact, in light of recent events, I didn’t see that I had any odds of getting the darn thing at all. What could he need me for? “You think I can help find it somehow?”

  “Perhaps. Why haven’t you altered your appearance yet, Ms. Lane? Didn’t Fiona provide you with the necessary items?”

  “I was thinking maybe I could wear a ball cap. ”

  His gaze flicked from my face to my feet and back again in a way that said he’d taken my measure and found me seriously lacking.

  “I could tuck it up and pull the bill down really low,” I said. “I’ve done it before, back home on bad hair days. With sunglasses on, you can hardly see me at all. ”

  He folded his arms across his chest.

  “It could work,” I said defensively.

  He shook his head once, just a few inches to the left and back. “When you’ve finished cutting and coloring your hair, return to me. Short and dark, Ms. Lane. Lose the Barbie look. ”

  I didn’t cry when I did it. I did, however—damn Jericho Barrons for doing what he did to me next—throw up all over his Persian rug in the back of the bookstore when I came back down.

  Page 36

 

  Looking back, I realized I began to feel it while I was upstairs washing my hair in the bathroom that adjoined my room. A wave of sudden nausea washed over me, but I thought it was an emotional reaction to changing my appearance so drastically. I’d already begun to wonder who I was and what was wrong with me; now I was going to look wrong, too.

  The feeling intensified as I descended the stairs, and grew stronger as I made my way back to the bookstore. I should have paid more attention to it, but I was feeling sorry for myself to the point of obliviousness.

  By the time I stepped through the second of the doors that separated Barrons’ personal and professional domains, I was shivering and sweating at the same time, my hands were clammy, and my stomach was a churning mess. I’d never gone from feeling fine to feeling awful so quickly in my life.

  Barrons was seated on the sofa I’d vacated, his arms stretched across the back of it, his legs spread, looking relaxed as a lion lazing after the kill. His gaze, however, was sharp as a hawk’s. He studied me with voracious interest as I stepped through the door. There were some papers on the sofa next to him that I had yet to understand the significance of.

  I closed the door and promptly doubled over and vomited what was left of my lunch. Most of the damage to his precious rug was water I’d drunk. I’m big on drinking lots of water. Hydrating one’s skin from the inside out is even more important than using a good moisturizer on the surface. I heaved until there was nothing left, then I retched a few times more. I was on my hands and knees again, for the second time in as many days, and I didn’t like it a bit. I dragged my sleeve across my mouth and glared up at him. I hated my hair and I hated my life and I could feel it blazing in my eyes.

  He, on the other hand, looked pleased as punch.

  “What just happened, Barrons? What did you do to me?” I accused. Improbable though it seemed, I was certain that somehow he’d had everything to do with my sudden malaise.

  He laughed and stood up, looking down at me. “You, Ms. Lane, can sense the Sinsar Dubh. And you just became very, very useful to me. ”

  ELEVEN

  I don’t want it,” I repeated, backing away. “Get it away from me!”

  “It won’t harm you, Ms. Lane. At least not in this form,” Barrons said again.

  I didn’t believe what he was saying the fifth time any more than I had the first. I flung an arm behind me, at the rug still damp from my cleaning efforts. “What do you call that? If I had anything left in my stomach at all, I’d still be on my hands and knees. I don’t know about you, but I call impromptu vomiting harm. ” Not to mention the deep sense of dread I still couldn’t shake. The fine hair on my body was standing on end as if I’d been hit with a high-voltage charge. I wanted to put as much distance between “it” and me as was possible.

  “You’ll get used to it—”

  “So you keep saying,” I muttered.

  “—and your reactions will lessen in time. ”

  “I have no intention of spending that much time around it. ” “It” was photocopies of two pages allegedly ripped from the Sinsar Dubh. Photocopies—not even the real thing—he was thrusting at me. Mere facsimiles had me plastered up against the wall in my frantic efforts to avoid it. I could feel a Spidey-moment coming on. If he didn’t back off, I was going to scale the walls using only my Gentlemen-Prefer-Blondes-Blush nails as rappelling spikes, and I seriously doubted it was going to work.

  “Take slow, deep breaths,” Barrons said. “You can overcome it. Concentrate, Ms. Lane. ”

  I gulped air. It didn’t help.

  “I said breathe. Not do a fish-out-of-water imitation. ”

  I looked at him coldly, inhaled, and held it. After a long moment, Barrons nodded, and I exhaled slowly.

  “Better,” he said.

  “Why is this happening to me?” I asked.

  “It’s part of being what you are, Ms. Lane. Thousands of years ago, when the Fae still ran the Wild Hunt, destroying anything in their path, this was what a sidhe-seer felt when the Tuatha Dé riders approached en masse. This was her warning to lead her people to safety. ”

  “I didn’t feel it when I saw any of the Unseelie,” I pointed out. But as I reflected on those first two times, I realized I had gotten queasy, and both times a general, inexplicable sense of dread had preceded my “visions. ” I’d just not recognized it for what it was because I’d not been able to pin it on anything. With the last monster, I’d been so obsessed with getting to Alina’s, and I’d crashed into it so fast, that I couldn’t decide whether I’d felt anything in advance or not.

  Page 37

 

  “I said, en masse,” he said. “Alone, or in pairs, their impact is not as great. It is possible only the Sinsar Dubh will ever make you this sick—or perhaps a thousand Unseelie bearing down on you. The Dark Book is the most powerful of all the Fae Hallows. As well as the deadliest. ”

  “Stay back,” I snapped. He’d closed to less than a yard from me, holding those terrible pages. He took another step forward and I tried to make myself into wallpaper. Very yellow, very spineless wallpaper.

  “Master your fear, Ms. Lane. They are mere copies of the real pages. Only pages of the Dark Book itself could do
you lasting harm. ”

  “They could?” That certainly put a problematic spin on things. “You mean even if we manage to find this book, I’m not going to be able to touch it?”

  His lips curved but his eyes stayed cold. “You could. I’m not certain you would like yourself afterward. ”

  “Why wouldn’t I—” I broke off, shaking my head. “Forget it, I don’t want to know. Just keep those pages away from me. ”

  “Does this mean you’re giving up the quest to find your sister’s murderer, Ms. Lane? I thought she begged you to find the Sinsar Dubh. I thought she said everything depended on it. ”

  I closed my eyes and sagged back against the wall. For a few minutes there I’d completely forgotten about Alina. “Why?” I whispered as if she were still there to hear. “Why didn’t you tell me any of this? We could have helped each other. Maybe we could have kept each other alive. ” And that was the bitterest part of it all—how things might have turned out, if only she’d confided in me.

  “I doubt you would have believed, even if she had. You’ve been a tough sell, Ms. Lane. As much as you’ve seen and heard, you’re still trying to deny it. ”

  His voice was much too close. Barrons had moved. I opened my eyes. He was standing right in front of me, yet my sickness hadn’t intensified—because I hadn’t seen him coming. He was right; my reaction was as much mental as it was physical, which meant at least part of it was controllable. I could retreat, go home, and try to forget everything that had happened to me since I’d arrived in Dublin, or I could figure out how to go forward. I touched my short, dark locks. I hadn’t butchered my beautiful blonde hair for nothing. “You see the Fae, too, Barrons, yet you have no problem holding those pages. ”

  “Repetition dulls even the keenest senses, Ms. Lane. Are you ready to begin?”

  Two hours later, Barrons decided I’d had enough practice. I couldn’t bring myself to touch the photocopied pages, but at least I was no longer retching in close proximity to them. I’d figured out a way to close my throat off against the involuntary heaves. Nearness still made me feel perfectly miserable, but I could muster and maintain a presentable mask.

  “You’ll do,” he said. “Get dressed. We’re going somewhere. ”

  “I am dressed. ”

  He turned toward the front of the store and looked out the window at the night. “Go put on something more . . . grown-up . . . Ms. Lane. ”

  “Huh?” I had on white capris, dainty sandals, and a sleeveless pink blouse over a lace-trimmed tank. I thought I looked perfectly grown-up. I circled around in front of him. “What’s wrong with me?”

  He gave me a brief glance. “Go put on something more . . . womanly. ”

  With my figure, nobody could ever accuse me of not being womanly. Understanding might come slowly to me sometimes—but it comes. Men. Take them into a classy lingerie store and I guarantee you they’ll find the only thing in there made of cheap black leather and chains. My eyes narrowed. “You mean sleazy,” I said.

  “I mean the kind of woman others are accustomed to seeing me with. A grown one, if you think you can manage that, Ms. Lane. Black might make you look old enough to drive. The new hair is . . . better. But do something with it. Make it look like it did the night I woke you. ”

  “You want me to have bed-head on purpose?”

  “If that’s what you call it. Will an hour be enough?”

  An hour implied that I needed a lot of help. “I’ll see what I can do,” I said coolly.

  I was ready in twenty minutes.

  My suspicions about the building behind the bookstore were confirmed; it was a garage, and Jericho Barrons was a very rich man. I guessed the books and baubles trade was pretty darned lucrative.

  From the eye-popping collection of cars in his garage, he chose a modest-by-comparison black Porsche 911 Turbo that roared deep in its masterfully engineered five-hundred-and-fifteen-horsepower throat when he slid the key into the ignition on the wrong side of the steering wheel and turned it. Yes, I know cars. I love fast, pretty ones and the subtle class of the pricey Porsche appealed to every shallow bone in my twenty-two-year-old body.

  Page 38

 

  He put the top down and drove much too fast, but with the expert aggressiveness any high-performance vehicle capable of running zero to sixty in three-point-six seconds demanded. One neighborhood melted into the next as he worked the engine, shifting up and down through the stop-and-go traffic of the city. Once past the outskirts of Dublin, he opened it up. Beneath a nearly full moon, we raced the wind. The air was warm, the sky brilliant with stars, and under other circumstances I would have tremendously enjoyed the ride.

  I glanced over at him. Whatever else he might be—obviously a sidhe-seer himself and a royal pain in the petu—ass most of the time—Barrons was now just a man, lost in the pleasure of the moment, of the finely crafted machine in his hands, of the wide-open road and the seemingly limitless night.

  “Where are we going?” I had to shout to make myself heard over the dual roar of the wind and engine.

  Without taking his eyes off the road, for which I was eminently grateful at a hundred and four miles an hour, he said, “There are three main players in the city that have also been searching for the book. I want to know if they’ve found anything. You, Ms. Lane, are my bloodhound,” he shouted back.

  I glanced at the clock on the dash. “It’s two in the morning, Barrons. What are we going to do, break and enter and creep around in their houses while they’re sleeping?” It was a measure of how surrealistic my life had become that, if he replied in the affirmative, I suspected the first thing out of my mouth wouldn’t be a protest but a complaint that he’d made me get overdressed for burgling. High heels and a short skirt would certainly make running from the police or angry, armed property owners very difficult.

  He slowed a little so I could hear him better. “No, they’re night people, Ms. Lane. They’ll be up and just as willing to see me, as I am to see them. We like to keep tabs on one another. They, however, don’t have you. ” A slow smile curved his lips. He was hugely pleased with the new secret weapon he had in me. I had a sudden dismal view of my future, of being led around and asked incessantly, like one of those Verizon commercials, Do you feel sick now?

  He sped up and we drove another ten minutes or so in silence, then turned off the main road into the entrance of a walled estate. After being cleared by a pair of coldly efficient white-uniformed security guards who, after a quiet phone call, retracted an enormous steel gate, we purred down a long, winding drive, framed on both sides by huge, ancient trees.

  The house at the end of the drive was anachronistic to its setting, which seemed to suggest a stately manor house had once stood there but had been razed to be replaced with this sprawling, chilly, brilliantly spotlighted Meet-the-Jetsons’ affair of steel and glass. See-through skywalks connected five levels that slanted at slight upward angles, and metal-framed terraces sported New Age furniture that looked positively miserable to sit in. I admit it; I’m old-fashioned. Give me a wraparound porch with white wicker furniture, swings on each end, slow-paddling ceiling fans, ivy-covered trellises, and hanging baskets of ferns, all beneath the shade of waxy-blossomed magnolia trees. This place was way too artsy and not nearly homey enough for me.

  As we got out of the car, Barrons said, “Keep your wits about you and try not to touch anything that doesn’t look human, Ms. Lane. ”

  I nearly choked on a nervous laugh. Whatever had happened to good, old, wholesome advice like, “Stick together, hold hands, and look both ways before you cross the street?” I glanced up at him. “Not that I would want to, but why shouldn’t I?”

  “I suspect Fiona is right,” he said, “and you are a Null, which means you’ll give us away if you touch any of the Fae with your hands. ”

  I looked at my hands, at the pretty pink nails that didn’t complement my new look so well. My darker ’do would be
better accented by slightly bolder tones. I would need to implement some wardrobe and accessorizing changes. “A Null?” I had to work to keep up with him in my heels as we hurried across the shimmering, white crushed-quartz drive.

  “Old legends speak of sidhe-seers with the ability to freeze a Fae by touching it with their hands, immobilizing it for several minutes, preventing it from moving or even sifting place. ”

  “Sifting place?”

  “Later. Do you remember what to do, Ms. Lane?”

  I eyed the house. It looked like there was a party going on. People milled on the terraces; laughter, music, and the clink of ice in glasses floated down to where we stood. “Yes. If I start to feel sick I should ask to use the bathroom. You’ll escort me to it. ”

  Page 39

 

  “Very good. And Ms. Lane?”

  I glanced at him questioningly.

  “Try to act like you like me. ”

  When he put his arm around me and pulled me close, the shiver went clear down to my toes.

  The house was decorated in unrelieved white and black. The people were, too. If it were up to me, I would carry a great big paintbrush around with me all the time, splashing color everywhere, decorating the world with peach and mauve, pink and lavender, orange and aquamarine. These folks seemed to think leeching the world of all color was cool. I decided they all must be deeply depressed.

  “Jericho,” a stunning raven-haired woman in a low-cut white evening gown and diamonds purred throatily. But her smile was teeth and viciousness, and for me, not him. “I almost didn’t recognize you. I’m not sure we’ve ever seen each other with our clothes on. ”

  “Marilyn. ” He acknowledged her with a brief nod that seemed to piss her off royally as we passed.

  “Who’s your little friend, Barrons?” a tall, anorexically thin man with a frightful shock of white hair asked. I wanted to pull him aside and give him the gentle advice that wearing all black only made him look thinner and sicker, but I didn’t think now was a good time.

 
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