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Illuminated, page 7



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  And, though she didn’t want to even think the word, because that might jinx things…love.

  They both slept in, long enough that a pale wintry light peeking through the curtains woke them. Cameron leaned over and kissed her, pulled her into his arms. It seemed the most natural thing in the world to find warmth in one another’s bodies, to join once again — although she made sure to have him pause and put on another condom. Should she have been concerned that he was wandering around in a post-apocalyptic landscape, armed with a bunch of rubbers?

  He probably just had them in his wallet, she told herself afterward. Lord knows Seth always had a bunch on hand. It was second nature for a lot of guys, like carrying a pack of gum. Cam hadn’t mentioned a girlfriend, and Sarah hadn’t asked. If he’d been with someone, then she was gone now, just like the rest of the world’s population. A day might come when he’d feel comfortable talking about his past, about all the people he had lost, but she wouldn’t push him. After all, they had plenty of time.

  They both squeezed into the shower together to try out the new hot water. As Cameron soaped her back, Sarah had a hard time deciding what she’d missed more — hot showers, or good sex. She really couldn’t say, and it didn’t matter now. She had both.

  Breakfast was quick, coffee and oatmeal and dried fruit. After they were done getting the pine boughs, they’d need to swing by the henhouse and see what the chickens had come up with overnight.

  At least she and Cam wouldn’t have to worry about the weather keeping them indoors. The sky overhead was almost painfully blue, like the world’s most perfect sapphire. A few puffy white clouds floated in that blue expanse, and far off to the west, Sarah could see the familiar glint of White Sands, stark and pale against the San Andres mountain range.

  It was cold, though. They bundled up and trudged through the fresh-fallen snow, their breath rising like smoke in the still air. Cameron carried a folded-up tarp for transporting the pine branches, and Sarah had a Thermos of extra coffee to keep them going.

  “Did you say something about snowmobiles?” he asked after they’d gone about a hundred yards.

  “There are some, but the lot where people used to rent them is at the far end of town,” she replied. “Where we’re going to get the pine branches is actually a lot closer.”

  His face fell so much that she wanted to laugh, but didn’t. “Oh.”

  “We’re almost there. It’s not like I’m taking you all the way out to the forest proper.”

  Which she wasn’t. Pine trees crowded most of the lots in Cloudcroft, and it wasn’t as if they had to worry about taking foliage from someone’s private property, so she’d decided all they really needed to do was go down the hill a little bit, then jog over on Wren Place, where there were some particularly nice specimens. All told, the walk was really not much more than a half-mile round trip.

  Then again, trudging through freshly fallen snow was not exactly the same thing as walking blithely along a dry road. Sarah could feel her toes starting to get numb, despite the thick wool socks she wore. Well, this wasn’t going to take all that long. They’d be back inside the Lodge within an hour at the most, and then they could put their feet up in front of the hearth in the lobby, and warm their toes and dry their socks.

  “Over there,” she told Cameron, pointing toward the property she had in mind. Pine and fir trees crowded thickly there, in varying sizes and heights. No worries about having to reach low-hanging branches here, that was for sure.

  “Got it,” he said, then stopped so he could take the tarp he held and unfold it on the snowy ground. From inside his jacket, he produced the clipping shears they’d taken from the maintenance shed. Shears in hand, he walked over toward the trees she’d indicated. “About how much do you think we’ll need?”

  Sarah had been pondering this question on the walk over here. There wasn’t much point to decorating the entire Lodge when it was only the two of them. But a wreath for the front doors, and swags for the fireplace in the lobby and in the bar and dining room, and garlands to wrap around the banisters of the staircase from the main floor to the second level of the hotel, which had a sort of arcade where you could look down toward the lobby. That should be plenty.

  “Maybe around twelve yards’ worth, give or take,” she replied. “If it turns out we need more, we can come back. But I don’t think the tarp can carry much more than that anyway.”

  “Got it.”

  Cameron turned away from her so he could concentrate on cutting the first batch of branches. Sarah began to walk toward him so she could help with laying them on the tarp. It would have been better if they could both cut the boughs at the same time, but they’d only been able to find the one pair of shears. It made sense to have Cam do it since he was taller than she and could reach farther without having to shift his position.

  Movement out of the corner of her eye made her pause, however. For a brief second, she had the crazy idea that another survivor had heard them and was now approaching. But then as she turned to look, she realized that their new visitor wasn’t human at all.

  It was a large black bear.

  Apparently, it hadn’t gotten the memo that it was supposed to be hibernating right about now. The bear shuffled toward her, and Sarah went stock still. She knew that running was the worst thing she could do.

  “Cam,” she called out, her voice a desperate whisper.

  He looked toward her, smiling…a smile that faded as soon as he caught sight of the enormous animal. Lowering his shears, he murmured, “Don’t move.”

  “I won’t.”

  A nod, but she could tell he was doing his best to avoid any sudden movements, anything that might put the animal on alert. For herself, Sarah was cursing her carelessness in not bringing her gun along on this little expedition. She’d been so wrapped up in her plans with Cam, she’d completely forgotten the precautions she’d been taking for the past two months.

  Well, there wasn’t much she could do about it now, except vow to never be so stupid again. Maybe the pistol wouldn’t have been enough to stop a charging bear, but it certainly would have been better than nothing.

  For a long, awful moment, both she and Cameron remained stock still, both of them watching the bear to see what it would do. At first it seemed to take very little notice of either one of them, was intent on snuffling around the base of a tall fir tree. What it might be smelling, Sarah had no idea. All the dogs had disappeared from Cloudcroft months ago, around the same time all the people were dying. However, she got the impression the animals hadn’t been affected by the Heat; it wasn’t as though she’d seen little dog-sized piles of gray dust around town. No, it was more as if something had called them away, although she couldn’t begin to guess who or what it might have been.

  But if it wasn’t the scent of dogs that preoccupied the bear, there had to be something else attracting it. Breath held, she watched as the bear gave up its sniffing of the one tree that had fascinated it, then moved on to a stump. However, the stump didn’t appear to hold much interest, because after another minute, the animal stopped smelling around and looked straight at Sarah.

  Oh, shit.

  She really didn’t know what else she was supposed to do. Already her feet had begun to feel like blocks of ice as she stood there, unmoving, in the snow. She couldn’t hold her breath forever. And Cam was a few yards away, too far to be of much use. Not that she really knew what he could do to help.

  Since she’d already been holding her breath, it couldn’t exactly strangle in her throat. Something seemed to choke her, though, as the bear let out a low growl, then went up on its hind legs before dropping back down to a crouch. And then it charged.

  A scream was halfway out her throat before she realized that the bear wasn’t the only thing moving. Behind it was a steep incline where the property sloped up to the next street above them. Out of nowhere, the half foot of snow that coated the hillside began to flow, going faster and faster, an avalanche that seemed to coalesc
e into a moving mountain, headed straight for the bear.

  It didn’t have a chance. The enormous mound of snow barreled right into the animal, knocking it off its feet and carrying it along in its relentless path, away from her and down the hill. Hand to her mouth, Sarah looked over at Cam in terror before she realized he wasn’t in any imminent danger, that the snow mountain and its victim had been swept harmlessly past.

  And as she looked at Cameron, she noticed something very odd. He had his hands raised, was making strange pushing motions, motions that seemed to echo the path of the mound of snow. The air glowed around him, blue-white, shimmering down his shoulders and arms. It was only after the bear had disappeared from sight that Cam lowered his arms. His chest raised and lowered, as though he had just run a hard mile.

  Staring at him, Sarah could think of only one thing. She didn’t know how it was possible, but Cameron had called the snow to protect her from the bear.

  “What…?” Her voice came out all scratchy and hoarse, rough with anxiety. She cleared her throat and tried again. “What are you?”

  Chapter Eight

  As soon as Kamal saw the bear begin to advance on Sarah, he’d known what he must do. At the same time, a wave of dread swept over him. He must save her…but in the process he would be forced to reveal himself.

  Unfortunately, he had no other options available to him.

  Snow was water, and so would obey his command. It was a simple enough thing to make the drifts on the hillside above them flow like liquid and move to carry the bear away. The poor animal probably had no idea what was happening to it, and he did his best to make sure that it would come to no permanent harm. However, Sarah’s safety was paramount. Everything else came a distant second.

  He had steeled himself against her inevitable response, but even so, the words of her frightened question were like spears to his heart. Not “who are you”?

  What are you?

  “I am a djinn,” he said quietly.

  She stared at him, her expression a mixture of fear and sudden annoyance. “A what?”

  “What your people sometimes called a genie.”

  No response at first. Sarah continued to stare at him with those wide, unbelieving eyes, as though she next expected him to sprout wings, or possibly turn green. “You look like an ordinary person.”

  “You perhaps were expecting a genie to be a large blue bald man?”

  “I….” The word trailed off, hanging in the air between them. She looked so positively upset, so betrayed, that Kamal wanted nothing more than to go to her and pull her close, tell her that this changed absolutely nothing between them. He didn’t, however. Somehow he knew that if he attempted to put his arms around her, she would only do her best to get herself free of him. Even though she was afraid.

  Now he noticed that she was shaking, although he didn’t know whether those tremors were caused by the emotion that had overcome her, or simply by standing there too long in the snow. Either way, he thought it best for her to get inside before she became truly chilled. “You’re shivering,” he said, his tone as gentle as he could make it. “Let me take you inside.”

  “I’m not going anywhere with you!” she burst you. “You — you’re not even human! You lied to me! And last night — ” She broke off there, as if it had just come home to her, as if she had just realized that she’d allowed herself to be intimate with someone from a strange and alien race. One gloved hand went to her throat. “How could you not tell me?”

  “Well, considering the way you are currently reacting, I think most people would understand the reason for my reticence.”

  That retort made her delicate features go still and cold. A spot of color burned high on each cheekbone. When she spoke, her voice sounded considerably calmer, although it, too, was as chilly as the wintry December morning. “That doesn’t change the fact that you lied to me. So just — just leave me alone. Go back to wherever you came from. Just get the hell out of Cloudcroft.”

  A flicker of irritation moved through him. While he could understand why she might be angry, she clearly had no idea what she was asking of him. “I can’t do that. It would not be safe.” Should he tell her about the other djinn, the ones who had made it their goal to wipe out all traces of humanity, save for those who were Chosen? No, better not. He feared she would think he was only trying to frighten her into obedience. There should be time. Those djinn would not be done with clearing out the cities for a good while yet. Tiny Cloudcroft might not even be on their collective radar.

  He hoped.

  “I was fine before you came along. I’ll be fine after you’re gone. So get out.”

  Having delivered this ultimatum, she turned away from him and began trudging through the snow, headed back toward the Lodge. All Kamal had to do was reach out with his powers and immobilize her so she could go no further…but he did not. He knew an action such as that would only make her that much angrier. Better to let her go, allow her time to cool down and accept who he was. Sooner or later, he would have had to tell her the truth anyway. He only wished he could have done so on his own terms.

  “I’m leaving,” he said quietly. She kept moving, head down, hands curled into fists as she followed the trail they’d already broken through the snow, and gave no sign that she had heard him.

  “…but I’ll be back.”

  No crying. If she cried, her tears might freeze and stick to her eyelashes, and that would be a hell of a lot more uncomfortable than the quiet shattering of her heart.

  Oh, don’t be a drama queen, she told herself in some irritation. You’ve only known the guy for a couple of days, and you slept with him once. How can your heart be breaking when you weren’t even in love with him?

  Problem was, she thought she might have been in love with him. Or at least was beginning to be. And now it turned out he wasn’t even human.

  A djinn. What in the ever-loving hell?

  She’d always prided herself on being matter-of-fact, a realist. No head in the clouds for Sarah Wells, that was for sure. No fairies and fancies and unicorns. She lived close enough to Roswell, but she didn’t believe in little green men, either. Grey men. Whatever.

  But now Cameron was saying he was a djinn, something out of Aladdin, or Scheherazade, or whatever. He didn’t look like a genie. He looked like…well, a man. An extremely good-looking man, but still. It wasn’t as if he had scales or horns or something.

  Well, of course he didn’t. He was a djinn, not a demon, although, if pressed, she wasn’t sure she could have explained the difference between the two in any sort of a coherent manner. The supernatural was not a subject she’d studied or cared anything about, except when it came to telling tourists the story of the Lodge’s resident ghost.

  She stomped up the front steps of the hotel, barely pausing to knock the snow off her boots before she went inside and locked the doors behind her. Would those locks even make a difference? Cameron’s display a few moments earlier hinted of powers she couldn’t begin to guess at. For all she knew, he could pop right into the building without even touching a doorknob.

  And she kind of doubted “Cameron” was his real name. Just another lie he’d given her. Everything was a lie, wasn’t it? He didn’t come from Roswell. He sure as hell wasn’t some kind of working-class former ranch hand without the money for piano lessons. Nothing he’d told her was real.

  Last night…had that been real? Right then she wished with all her heart that it wasn’t, that she’d only dreamed of him making love to her. Making love. There was a joke. Call it what it really was. Having sex. Or maybe just plain old fucking.

  Thank God she’d insisted that he use a condom. Otherwise, she could be walking around with a little half-djinn embryo inside her, or at least the beginnings of one.

  A shudder wracked her then, and she hurried over to the couch so she could sit down, fearing her trembling knees might not support her for much longer. Her fingers shook so hard, she could barely undo the laces on her snow-soaked
boots. Eventually, though, she got them off and set them on the hearth to dry. The fire had burned low, but it still gave off enough warmth that it would speed up the drying process. Worse come to worst, she had a spare pair in her room, but these ones were more comfortable.

  As if any of that mattered. She wasn’t planning on going anywhere.

  Angry as she was at him, she couldn’t help but wonder exactly where Cameron had disappeared to. Somewhere else in New Mexico, or to some otherworldly plane altogether?

  There was just so damn much she didn’t know. Somehow she doubted she would ever find out.

  “You cannot leave her there like that,” Zahrias said, a formidable frown knitting his brow.

  “You think I do not know that?” Kamal sent a glare of his own at the leader of the djinn community in Taos, nestled in the Rio Grande valley of northern New Mexico. Because he’d returned to the resort town without his Chosen, he’d been compelled to give Zahrias an account of what had happened. The wound was raw enough that he had no fondness for the task, but at least Kamal did not have to worry about being accused of hiding something. “I cannot bear to think what might happen to her if one of the other djinn were to find her. Still, Cloudcroft is a small and obscure place. There is no reason to think that anyone would be seeking to cleanse the town so soon. Not when there are so many other places that can yield richer hunting.”

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