SHEA Peterson’s eyelids flew open as she came instantly and fully awake. Her breath escaped in soft pants as agony crushed through her body. She went tense and her fingers curled into the tangled sheets at her sides.
She heard him again. Felt his despair in black, suffocating waves. She closed her eyes as his pain mingled with hers, lacing intricate patterns through her veins until they were merged, she a part of him.
Tonight more than any other time she felt his will to live dissolve. She felt his shame. The thought that he was a coward and didn’t deserve to die with honor.
Tears burned her eyelids. How long had she felt him suffer in silence? His strength had always amazed her, and now she could feel it crumbling under the weight of his despair. She hurt with him. She hurt for him.
She could no longer remain still. She could no longer remain silent despite the awful risk to herself and her sister, Grace. She couldn’t turn her back on this man. Not when his need was so great.
She drew in a deep breath, afraid and yet determined. She closed her eyes and reached out, following the trail of pain until she became hyperaware of the hell that he lived in.
The smell was pungent. She sucked in her breath as the scent of blood, dirt, sweat and death filtered through her nostrils.
Her instinct was to flee this place, break the link between her and the suffering man. Fear lodged in her throat, and pain was raw, sawing over her nerves.
In the distance, cries, grunts, muttered curses, a foreign language indecipherable to her. The man put a hand to his head. He knew something was different but he put it off as evidence of a losing battle for his sanity.
She huddled there, completely still in his mind, cautiously examining the surroundings through his senses.
He was imprisoned. A soldier. She caught fleeting images as they flashed through his head. His capture. The endless days of torture, starvation and misery.
He sat in a corner, his face in his hands, feelings of loathing and rage firing relentlessly through his brain. He hated his weakness, hated that he wanted to die. Hated that he wasn’t able to help the others who suffered with him.
He thought of his family. They brought comfort to him and yet he worried what his disappearance was doing to his parents and to his brothers. He thought constantly of his twin. Joe.
His name floated in Shea’s mind, spelled out in a flash of color before gradually fading away.
No one had come for him in two days. He felt a mixture of relief and dread because he knew that his reprieve would soon be over and he would suffer terribly once again. He wasn’t sure he had the strength to survive more. And he hated the weakness that made him question whether he preferred death to his continued existence. Caged like an animal.
He’d never felt so alone in his life.
Tears slipped down Shea’s cheeks, and she knew she could no longer be silent, no longer pretend she wasn’t connected to this man.
You aren’t alone. I’m here.
He went still, his head coming up as he stared through the piercing darkness. Despite his weakness and his broken-down spirit, the warrior within him immediately came to life. His muscles tensed and he turned, his nostrils flaring as if to scent the intruder.
“Who’s there,” he uttered in a cracked, hoarse voice.
Shhh. You don’t want to alert the others. Talk to me in this way. With your mind. If you think it, I will hear you.
“Jesus,” he whispered. “It’s finally happened. I’ve finally lost my goddamn mind.”
A chill stole over his body and he hunched farther down, wrapping his arms around his legs and rocking back and forth. He buried his face against his knees and closed his eyes. Weariness and sadness crept over him. And acceptance of his fate.
No. You mustn’t give up. I’m with you. I won’t leave you.
“Who are you?” he muttered, not picking up his head from his knees.
Why do you persist in talking? They’ll hear you. Don’t do anything to draw their attention.
It doesn’t matter whether I draw their attention or not.
The weary thought drifted into her mind, and the knot grew in her throat at the resignation so heavy in his consciousness.
You’re not alone. She pushed the thought at him again. More forcefully this time. Then she cradled him against her, imagined her arms sliding around him to give him what comfort she could.
She stroked her hands over his body and murmured soothing, nonsensical words in his ear. She pressed a kiss to his brow, ignoring the smell of sweat and blood surrounding them.
She didn’t know this man, but she could no more deny him comfort than she could deny anyone who suffered so much.
What she was about to do was dangerous. But how could she not do what she could to give him relief when she had the ability to help him just for a while?
She merged more fully with him, sent herself inside his very soul. She bit her lip to control the cry of agony as his pain swamped over her, through her. His pain became her own.
Tears ran freely down her cheeks as the full extent of his suffering blew over her like a scorching wildfire. It took all her strength and concentration to maintain the link between them.
What are you doing?
His quiet question was full of bewilderment. She could sense his disbelief, even as his body relaxed in brief respite from the discomfort tearing at him. He thought this was some bizarre dream that was a manifestation of his growing insanity. He thought she was a coping mechanism. Something his shattered mind had conjured as a way to cope with his horrific reality.
It took her a long moment before she was able to respond. She lay on her bed, shaking, her nerve endings shooting little jolts of fire through her body as she absorbed the pain from him.
Are you there?
There was hope in the uncertain question. She saw his battle between truth and hallucination and then his acceptance that he didn’t care. No matter whether she was real or not, he desperately hung on to the notion that he was no longer isolated.
Her voice was fainter in his mind now, and he frowned even as he raised his head and stretched his arms above and then around him.
What did you do?
She didn’t respond. It took all her strength to maintain the bond between them, but she could still feel it fading.
What did you do? His question became more strident. She felt a surge of strength through his body as he tested his arms, his hands and then his legs. How could you have done it? Who are you?
I’ll return to you. Her thought was a mere whisper in his mind now. I won’t leave you alone to face this. I swear it.
She caught traces of his frustration just before she let go and retreated from his mind. For a long while, she lay on the bed gasping and shuddering as she tried to process the waves of pain, both physical and mental.
She rolled to her side, pulling her knees to her chest in a manner reminiscent of his own posture in his filthy, dark cell. She rested her forehead on her knees and sucked in breath after breath until finally the pain began to recede.
Her cheeks were damp. The tendrils of hair over her ears were wet from her tears. She staggered to her feet and walked clumsily toward the bathroom, where she splashed cold water on her face.
Who was he? Why was she drawn to him? Why had she heard him amid the millions of other cries in the night? Her gift was so random. Her fist pounded down on the sink. She couldn’t control it. Not like the people who hunted her and her sister wanted.
Shea couldn’t heal others like Grace could. She could only ease suffering for a little while. She could hear people’s thoughts. Talk to them in the same manner. What use was that to anyone?
And yet she was pursued ruthlessly. As was Grace. The two sisters had made a pact. As painful as it was to be away from each other, they’d gone in separate directions, hiding, not contacting each other.
If either sister were found, one would be used to draw the other out. Shea wouldn’t allow that to happen. She wouldn’t be responsible for Grace’s capture.
Grace was special. She was vulnerable and her gift was as much a curse as it was a true gift. She could not survive in the hands of people determined to use her gift with no regard for the cost to Grace. They’d kill her because they didn’t understand Grace’s abilities. They wouldn’t mean to. They wouldn’t want to. But they’d force her to use her skills, and the result would be Grace’s death.
“I won’t allow it to happen,” Shea murmured fiercely.
Grace was good. She was tenderhearted to her detriment. She couldn’t bear to see anyone suffer, and as a result, Grace often suffered pain beyond Shea’s imaginings. Shea’s temporary agony of tonight was nothing compared to the days when Grace would be gripped by the very illness she took from others.
Shea hastily tossed her toiletries into a large case and then stood in front of the sink, her hands braced on the surface, eyes closed as she battled the weariness that beat at her.
She’d hoped by reaching out to him that she might somehow gain relief. But now sorrow blanketed her. She couldn’t leave him to suffer alone. He was so very close to giving up all hope. She could sense his desire to die and slip away from his awful reality.
She shook her head in denial. She wasn’t going to let him go.
NATHAN Kelly sat quietly in the corner of his tiny cell and stared broodingly into the darkness. He had no idea if it was night or day. For all practical purposes, he was in a box. A tiny, airless box. How long had he been here?
For the first weeks, he kept meticulous count, sure that rescue would come at any moment. Not only did he have the U.S. Army to count on, but his brothers ran a top-notch military ops group. They were a private organization that took jobs nobody wanted or had the means to complete. They often contracted with the U.S. government, but they just as often took assignments from the private sector. No way they’d let him stay imprisoned in some hellhole. Not after what had happened to Rachel. They would question everything. They wouldn’t blindly accept his death, no matter what they were told.
He closed his eyes and thought about his fragile sister-in-law, Rachel, who was married to his older brother Ethan. Then he shook his head. She wasn’t fragile. A fragile person wouldn’t survive an entire year imprisoned in hell.
Nathan couldn’t have been here for more than a month and already he was losing his grip on reality—and his sanity.
He moved again, waiting for the fresh resurgence of pain. But it remained at bay. It wasn’t that he was numb or that he’d finally gone beyond the parameters of pain. He was aware—hyperaware—of his surroundings. He could feel each bead of sweat that rolled down his chest. The pain was simply gone.
After he’d lived with agony for so long, having every waking moment be one of intense suffering, it was unsettling to suddenly feel nothing.
How had it happened? Was she an angel? The voice in his mind could only be a hallucination. Sweet. Warm. So soothing that he wanted to drown in the sensation.
For one brief moment he knew peace. His mind was empty, and calm had descended, wrapped around him like a warm, fuzzy blanket.
It was absurd to think that there was any peace in hell. It wouldn’t last, but he was grateful for even a moment’s respite.
He eased down onto the rough floor and curled into as tight a ball as he could muster. He was nearly lost in the corner, a mere shadow in darkness.
Fatigue held him in its relentless grasp. But then he felt the faint touch of another. It was as though someone stroked a hand over his hair. Whispers, like a gentle summer breeze, drifted through his ears.
He closed his eyes, determined to rest, to regain his strength. Whatever had happened today, whether he’d finally broken from reality or not, he felt a renewed determination to live. To fight.
He focused on his family. He’d live for them. This would pass. He would survive it.
Yes. You’ll live. I won’t let you give up.
The angel whispered, and he felt some of the horror in his mind recede. If he could, he would grab on and wrap the angel around him.
He felt her smile. It was like a burst of sunshine in his shattered mind. And then he felt her arms surround him and hold him close. Just as he’d imagined her doing.
Sleep now, she gently urged.
“Stay with me,” he said even as he drifted into healing sleep.
SHEA stepped into the crisp morning air and inhaled deeply in an effort to clear her mind. Flashes of her encounter the night before and the weight of emotion still haunted her. She’d tried to go back to sleep after she’d reached out to the man being kept prisoner, but she’d been too on edge to relax.
She pulled her jacket tighter around her body and stared down the street as the sky lightened around her. It was still relatively quiet, but in an hour or so, the hustle and bustle of early-morning rush hour would replace the calm. She only had one house to clean today and it wouldn’t take her long. She had never dared to find a job where she was required to give any personal information. She took what jobs she could find that would pay her cash and she moved on after short periods of time. Staying too long in one spot made her nervous, and she was determined to stay ahead of those who pursued her.
Already her gut was screaming that she’d remained too long here. It was time to go.
She bent as if tying her shoe and casually looked left and right, as if simply preparing for her exercise regimen.
In truth, she hated jogging. She was in shape out of necessity, not out of any love for exercise. She used the routine to carefully scout her surroundings, always looking for any change, anything out of the ordinary. She watched for those who hunted her.
You’re pensive this morning, Shea.
Shea frowned as she rose and began to stretch.
You can’t ignore me. I know you hear me. Talk to me, Grace begged softly.