Their Cartel Princess: A Dark Reverse Harem Romance Box Set, page 118
Then he looked up, and saw a pair of feet sticking out of the doorway.
Two, perfect feet. Granted, one had a smudge of char on the inner arch but…
Kane stepped over the dog. His leg gave way when he put his weight on it. He crashed down beside Lars, let out a last cough that tore holes through his lungs, and tried to turn his head away from the smoke billowing out through the beach house’s doorway.
Something licked his ankle.
He laughed, thinking it had been Lars, and then remembered about the dog.
The gentle susurration of waves drew Cora from leaden sleep. She stirred, gasping at the pain even such a small movement spiked through her. For a frantic moment, she thought she’d lost all function in her arm. But when she rolled onto her side, blood poured back into the limp with a fizzing, stinging pain that still seemed dull compared with the slow, agonizing ache that radiated from every limb.
Her mouth was dry. Her lips cracked. Dirty hair that stank of smoke draped her face.
Cora winced and came into a sit. Her clothes were blackened and charred, especially her sleeves and hems.
When she moved her head, something felt wrong. With tentative fingers, she touched her scalp and worked her way down.
Her hair didn’t reach past her shoulders anymore. It ended in a crispy, uneven line that brushed against her neck. Some of it had been burned off close to her scalp, and that skin was tender compared with the rest.
Tender. She almost laughed, and coughed deeply and painfully instead. She felt like she’d been driven over by something that had fire instead of wheels.
Still too weak to stand, Cora pushed herself onto hands and knees and made her way to the beaconing rectangle of pale light.
A haze hung outside, as if thin clouds had veiled the sun, and a deliciously cool breeze swarmed over her skin, leaving a prickle behind.
A man lay face down in front of the door, one hand outstretched. Beside him, a little further away, lay Lars.
Their clothes were singed in places, sheared off in others. Red, weeping wounds showed on those exposed patches of skin.
Lady lay to one side, silent and unmoving as the men. She had fared little better in the explosion; her fur had been singed in streaks, and she had a gaping wound along her right side.
Where was Finn? Cora’s eyes scanned the porch, but she couldn’t see him.
She spun around, ignoring the pulse of pain this shot through her body, and scrambled back inside as quickly as she could without passing out.
Smoke layered the floor in the living room like a downy gray blanket, shifting reluctantly when she scrambled through it.
She immediately saw the body. Her throat closed around a sob as she crawled forward. The floor was still warm, and that trickle of heat made her skin pulse in warning.
There was nothing but blackened skin and seared flesh on the person’s back. Hair had been singed off, and flames had eaten away at the scalp until only pink bone showed through.
Nausea brought bitter bile surging into her mouth, making her shudder.
She paused, closing her eyes and tamping down her nausea until it flickered away. When she opened her eyes again, a figure stood a few feet away, ash-black robe barely discernable.
Bone clicked on charred wood as Santa Muerte drew near. Cora scrambled back, falling with a yelp of pain on her ass as she tried to kick away from the ethereal figure.
La Flaca studied her for a moment, two faint reddish dots where her eyes should have been, and then bent over the burned body.
Crispy skin flaked off as Santa Muerte’s skeletal hand dragged the corpse onto its side, before letting it fall onto its back.
Cora squeezed her eyes shut, shivering violently as she tried to force away the agonized grin on Zachary’s hardly recognizable face.
La Flaca was gone when she dared open her eyes again. Zachary’s body lay on its stomach, undisturbed.
But she did not need to turn that body over—she knew it was Zachary’s, and he was dead.
Finn was nowhere to be found. Cora did her best to stop crying, no matter how soothing those cool tears were on her cheeks, and rummaged through the house for a first aid kit.
She found one just as it began raining.
Put some ice on it
Christ, everything hurt. It was like the worst hangover he’d ever had, multiplied by that time he’d gotten sunburn in the Caribbean, squared by every time he’d ever stubbed his toe.
For a while—an eternity, it felt like—Lars just lay there staring up at rough wooden boards. Somewhere in the distance he heard waves crashing on a shore.
It should have been a peaceful sound, but the waves crashed seemingly in rhythm with the agony pulsating through his body.
He groaned when his arm twitched of its own. Then he heard the faint patter of rain — first isolated drops, and then a light but steady stream.
None of those drops landed on him, much the pity, but he had a feeling they would hiss if they did. Was this how lobsters felt the moment before their brains boiled out through their carapaces?
He would never eat lobster again.
Footsteps, uneven but light, made him turn his head.
Cora appeared from the gloom of the beach house’s front entrance. She hobbled a little, and wore a very un-fetching grimace on her face.
Fuck…if that’s what she looked like…
He groaned at her. She pivoted, squinting like she couldn’t see him. When her eyes eventually focused, nothing changed on her face.
His entire body sparkled.
Was that a good thing? It kinda hurt.
She stumbled closer, walking wide of Kane’s body, and half-fell, half-collapsed next to Lars.
He wanted to say something, but just breathing took enough out of him. Somehow, he thought she wanted to say something too, especially since her lips kept moving.
Then he realized she was trembling. Crying.
“Wha—?” he managed. He could have made a fucking excellent demon; he had the right voice for it.
A broken sob tore from Cora. She sat back, lifting her hands before letting them fall down again.
“I d-don’t have enough b-b-bandages.”
Lars laughed. And then coughed. And then almost fucking died from the pain. “Rip up something,” he suggested in a croak worthy of any Stephen King novel.
So she pulled off her shirt, and ripped up what was left of it.
And he had no intention of complaining.
* * *
Finn opened his eyes a crack, and then quickly closed them again. They felt grainy and puffy. In fact, everything felt grainy and puffy—his eyes, his skin, his head.
Voices bickered above him, swarming in and out of earshot.
“…didn’t think to mention that?” came Lars’s voice.
“I did!” Kane yelled. “Soon as I’d figured it out!”
“Yeah, a second before the explosion is always the best time to figure these things out.”
“Fuck you, man.” Kane sounded raspy; in fact, they both did.
“I suppose you think you saved my life or something.”
“I literally did! Literally!”
“Yeah, well, don’t let it get to your head, you arrogant piece of—”
Finn groaned, and Lars’s voice cut off.
“Shit, Milo? How you feeling, buddy?” Cool hands brushed the top of his shoulder.
He didn’t want to open his eyes, but he also couldn’t bear to let himself slip away again.
“The light,” he croaked. A soothingly dark shadow fell over him. He risked opening one eye to a slit. He took a while to focus on Lars’s concerned face, but when he did the man attempted a grin.
He might have succeeded, but the movement looked painful. Red splotches covered his normally pale skin, and his hair had been singed off in a few places.
“Better?” Lars asked.
He tried a nod, but his neck was stiff and resistant to movement.
“I should probably go check on the dog,” came Kane’s voice, the sound growing faint as the man moved away.
Finn focused with effort, and got a vague sense of a room with wooden walls. Everything was white; the paint, the furniture, the lace curtains billowing behind Lars.
He opened his mouth, but Lars pressed a finger to his lips. “You were the hardest hit, so you need to rest now, not speak.”
His brain was a strange, muddled place. If he tried to think back, all he found were flames and a guttural howling that made him want to puke.
Lars slipped another chip of ice between his lips. The man shifted where he’d perched on the edge of the bed Finn lay in, wincing at the movement.
“Look, it could have been worse, right?” Lars said, his eyes moving half-heartedly over Finn’s face. “I mean, you’ve still got all your limbs. There’s that.”
Could have been worse?
Finn tried to move his body, but it lay limp and unresponsive on the bed. He opened his mouth, but Lars widened his eyes in warning so he closed it again.
“You got a ton of painkillers in you. I’m shitting myself for you at the thought that they’re gonna wear off—” Lars glanced away, and then turned back “—but fuck it, you’re alive. At least, when you’re hurting, you’ll know that more than ever. Rather hurting than dead, amiright?”
Finn gazed up at Lars, becoming aware of a deep throbbing throughout his body. It was dull, muted almost, at the cusp of sensation.
He didn’t want the painkillers to wear off either.
“Lemme get you up to speed at least,” Lars said, although sounding reluctant to do so. “You’re alive.” He touched fingertips to his chest, grimaced, and then dropped his hand to the bed. “I’m alive, obviously. This isn’t a dream. You’re not dead and I’m not a dead person. Right, you keeping up?”
Finn managed a tiny nod. He would have smiled if he could.
“Awesome. Kane’s alive, obviously.” Lars moved his head from side. “It’s not like I was bitching at myself.” He narrowed his eyes. “That guy’s got a real attitude on him. Apparently, Zachary was holding a dead man switch all along. So, when you took a shot at Cora—” Lars broke off, leaning conspiratorially closer to Finn as he murmured “—that was just to get a better shot at Zachary, right? Because you hit her in the shoulder, and I’m pretty sure you didn’t miss.” Then he straightened again, waving as if to dismiss the question. “Anyway, the switch went off when you shot Cora. According to Kane. Zachary obviously thought you’d shot him, he stopped holding down the switch, we were all blown to kingdom come, yada yada…”
“Lars,” Finn croaked, grimacing how the word stung his throat.
Lars turned back from the distant stare he’d been sending out the window and gave a brief smile.
“Bailey almost died of exposure, seeing as Kane had knocked him out and tied him to a tree.” Lars glanced back at Finn, looking as if he was trying to scowl. “Told you that fucker’s got an attitude problem. But…he saved my life, so I guess I can’t be too mad at him. Bailey’s sworn vengeance on him, of course, but I think he’ll wait until we’re back in North America before trying anything.”
“Lars.” Another croak, this one hoarser than the last.
“Oh, right.” Lars fed him another ice chip before speaking again. “Yes, the dog’s alive. Real champ, that one. Cute, too, once you get over all the scars and stuff.”
Finn’s fingertips trembled, brushing against the back of Lars’s hand. When the man looked at him, Finn stared hard at him, willing him to utter the words he needed to hear.
Lars let out a long breath, and gave Finn a rueful smile. “She’s alive. Our Cora’s alive.”
Finn managed another stiff nod. His eyes fell closed, and he slipped away. The last thing he heard was Lars’s panicked voice.
Someone to protect her
Finn started awake. He opened his eyes to an unfamiliar place; satin wallpaper he wouldn’t be surprised had flecks of actual gold inside. When his fingertips twitched, they brushed Egyptian cotton. The air was tempered; not too hot, not too cold. Orchids scented the air and, when he turned a stiff neck, he saw a slender pot in one corner of the massive room.
He took a moment to realize he was hearing music; he’d assumed the steady thump he’d been feeling had been his heart, but it was a bass line. It had to be loud if he was hearing it through the walls.
A headache pulsed sullenly in his head, but it felt more familiar than the room or the strange bed he lay in.
Maybe he’d had it for a while.
A fragment of memory; Cora’s body ricocheting backward, her mouth an ‘o’ of shock. Eyes drilling into him, demanding to know what she’d done to deserve his bullet.
Finn blinked, squeezing moisture from his eyes so it would stop stinging him.
Where in the name of fuck was he?
He pushed himself into a sit, wincing as that did something painful to one of his ribs. His breathing came with difficulty, and several stripes of pain lashed out across his body when he swung his legs over the side of the bed.
He wore bandages on each leg. More around his waist. Three on one arm, and one on the other. An IV drip speared into the crook of his elbow, although the pain of jerking it out was insignificant compared with the whole-body ache he had to contend with.
As if summoned by his waking, he heard a door open and turned to face it.
Fuck. He was hallucinating, wasn’t he? Or was this another of those crazy dreams he kept having?
Cora stood in the doorway, radiant as an angel.
The same Cora he knew and loved, but different. Her hair cropped just below her ears, sleek and shiny how it lay against her scalp. Her neck, now swan-like, curved delicately into narrow shoulders. She wore a strappy dress that came just above her knees, showing off a round scar that marred the skin just below the curve of her deltoid.
They stared at each other, Cora with a hopeful smile, him with what he assumed was resignation.
The dream was always the same. She came to him. Whispered loving words in his ear. And was torn away seconds later by soot covered hands.
Like always, he couldn’t look away. He was forced to watch her step tentatively closer.
He tentatively lifted his hand. Fingers touched uneven flesh on his jaw, his neck. He’d thought it was just his blurry vision, but now he knew he was covered in burn marks.
Confusion and wonderment warred in Cora’s golden eyes the closer she came.
And no wonder; he truly was a beast now.
Her voice was as he remembered. Perhaps a little huskier, as if she was fighting back emotion.
It could only be disgust.
He turned away, pressing his eyes closed in an effort to make the nightmare end, to suffocate it with his despair.
When cool fingertips touched the back of his hand, Finn flinched. His eyes flew open, darting to Cora where she stood by his side.
“Lars wants to see you,” Cora murmured, tears brimming in her eyes. “Can I send for him?”
This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. Cora was meant to kiss him, whisper something sweet in his ear, give him hope before being torn away by an anonymous evil.
But the touch to his hand was real.
The love in her eyes was real.
She caressed the bridge of his nose with a fingertip, her eyes darting over his face. “You’re magnificent, you know that?”
“I shot you,” he murmured, voice hoarse from disuse.
“You saved me. You saved all of us.” She straightened, blinking hurriedly, and then turned away to wipe her face. “I’m fetching Lars.”
He wore only loose boxers, which made it easy to tally up his wounds.
That fire had chewed him up and spat out what was left. It had ruined his body. He got his legs back up and just tugged a sheet over the lower half of his body before Lars barged through the door.
The man was at his side an instant later, crowding against Finn’s legs as he tried to find room to perch beside him.
“Je-sus!” Lars crooned, his eyes taking in Finn with a greedy sweep. “Aren’t you a sight for sore eyes?”
Heat touched Finn’s face. He’d never in his life felt embarrassed by his appearance, but this wasn’t his body anymore. It was a desolate husk.
“My fuck, am I making you blush?” Lars asked, cocking his head to the side. His hair was shorter, too. It made him look younger where Cora’s shorter hair made her look older.
Lars ran a self-conscious hand over his head. “Yeah, thought it was about time I stopped looking like a hippy.” His green eyes glimmered with mischief as he reached over and tweaked Finn’s nipple. “Doc says you’ll be on solids later this week. Exciting stuff, right?” Lars leaned closer still, his mischievous expression filling Finn’s world. “Says you might even be able to get rid of your blue balls before the end of the month. Believe me, I’m counting the hours.”
Finn shifted, dropping his eyes. “Where are we?”
“You don’t recognize this place?” Lars sat back, frowning at Finn. “Should I get someone in here to check if you lost any ducks in the fire?”
“Cora’s place. Swan Manor. Oh, right…” Lars pointed a finger at him. “You’d only ever been in her bedroom, not the master.”
He waved a hand at the vaulted ceiling. “This is daddy Swan’s. Or, was. It’s hers now. Ours, I guess.” Lars looked around, pouting a little. “Well, soon as you’re off the drip, anyway. We’ve all had to try and fit into Cora’s little bed. It lost its appeal pretty fucking quickly.”