Courting Darkness Excerpt
Olivia glanced down at her watch and frowned. Stepping into the elevator, she tapped her foot impatiently, waiting for the doors to close. Her doctor’s appointment ran behind—again—and she was nearly thirty minutes late for coffee with Ashley. They met every Tuesday at Karen’s after her therapy appointments, to chat and catch up.
Since her amnesia, the doctors had recommended she move back home—temporarily, anyway, and her parents had adamantly insisted. They believed if she surrounded herself with her family and memories from her childhood, it might help her regain her current memories sooner. So far, it’d been an epic fail. Not only had she completely lost all recollection of recent events, but she also lost pieces of her memory as far back as four years.
Her past was so full of holes, it was like Swiss cheese. The doctors had said her case was “interesting” and the strange patterning of amnesia was “rare,” but not completely unheard of. She’d been seeing a shrink every week since she’d gotten back home. So far, nothing helped, but they assured her these things took time and the best way to recover was to try not to force it. For weeks, that was exactly what she’d done. It seemed the harder she pushed to get her memory back, the more unattainable it became. It frustrated her to the point of tears, until she finally just stopped trying.
As the elevator doors slid closed, an arm shot inside at the last minute, jarring the safety bar and triggering the sensor. She rolled her eyes and huffed impatiently as the doors slid back open. A man who was easily six-four, two-fifty, stepped inside the small elevator. She moved back, pressing into the corner to make room for the guy. Even though it was just the two of them, the small square box suddenly felt like a sardine can.
He was huge, definably muscled and strikingly handsome. His jet black GQ hair set off the most stunning pair of dark violet eyes she’d ever seen. Too bad she’d sworn off men—at least until she got her memory back and the dull, constant ache in her heart subsided. Considering she’d made zero progress in the last eight weeks, she wasn’t holding her breath.
She hadn’t seen Mitch since she’d gotten back. He’d tried to contact her a few times, but eventually had given up. Or at least her parents had stopped trying to get her to see him. Her memories of Mitch were sketchy, at best. She felt nothing for her ex-fiancé and really just needed him to give her time and space.
She often thought of the faceless man from her dreams, the man who made her heart ache. The man her shrink worked weekly to convince her was nothing more than a figment of her imagination, someone her subconscious had made up to get her through a traumatic event.
But Olivia knew deep down in her soul that he’d been real. Unfortunately, her parents were of little help in unraveling the Liam mystery. They’d said Olivia had always kept her private life—well, private. And they didn’t know anything about him other than briefly meeting him a few times several years ago. She suspected her parents had somehow convinced Ashley to stonewall her, too, because she wasn’t talking either. Sometimes, she got the feeling they didn’t want her to get her memory back. But then Dr. Shriner assured her that distrust and paranoia were normal manifestations of her amnesia.
And the paranoia was driving her mad. Ever since she’d gotten back home, she’d swear someone was watching her. Every time the eerie sensation would hit, the fine hairs on the back of her neck would prickle, sending a shiver racing down her spine. She knew the moment she stepped outside and crossed the street to Karen’s, the feeling would return and he’d be there.
He wasn’t easy to miss—tall, lean, muscular and deceptively handsome in a don’t-trust-me-because-I-might-just-kill-you sort of way. From out of nowhere, she would feel those pale green eyes boring into her. And he was everywhere—watching her.
She’d stopped trying to point him out to whoever she might be with. No one could ever see him. Besides, he’d never approached her. He’d never even tried to speak to her. So after a while, she added “crazy” to her list of amnesic symptoms and just started to ignore him, too. If she pretended he wasn’t there, then perhaps her mind would get tired of imagining him.
The stranger startled her from her thoughts. “What?” Had he been talking to her?
Guess so, because the guy gave her a disarming smile and pushed the L. “Which floor do you need?” he asked.
“Oh, uh…the lobby, please.”
He stepped back to his side of the elevator, which took up most of hers, as well. From the corner of her eye, she could see him watching her as the floor jerked and the elevator began to descend. Her balance still wasn’t completely normal, and her hand shot forward to steady herself against the wall.
“I hope you don’t mind me asking, but are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” she replied curtly, fighting back a wave of nausea. Sudden motions often made her ill. Hearing how bitchy she sounded, she winced. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be rude. I guess my balance isn’t what it used to be.”
“I didn’t think you were—rude, that is. My name is Tate,” he said, extending his hand with a warm smile. “I’m your guardian.”
Guardian? Olivia’s pulse kicked in her throat, choking off her air in a startled gasp. At the last moment, she jerked her hand back before Tate could make contact. Oh shit, this guy was crazier than she was. Stumbling away from her “guardian,” her retreat was halted when she collided with the wall, smacking the back of her head.
Tate winced with a that-must-have-hurt grimace as the bang echoed throughout the elevator.
It did. A lot.
“Actually, I’m your new guardian.”
She reached up to rub away the sting, scowling at the stranger as if this was his fault. Two thoughts crossed Olivia’s mind. One, you’re about to become a skin suit. And two, play along with this nut job until the elevator stops, then run like hell.
Swallowing back the panic, she forced a negligent shrug. “New guardian, huh? What happened to my old one? He get fired or something?”
At her sarcastic bark of laughter, the stranger gave her a disapproving scowl and grumbled, “Something like that. And he’s not too happy about it, either.”
Could this elevator go any slower? Looking at the very large, very attractive man, no one in their right mind would ever suspect he was bat-shit crazy. Perhaps that was how he lured unsuspecting women into his web of death—right before he Ted Bundyed them.
Humoring the guy and yes, stalling while this elevator took the painfully slow journey from the sixth floor to the lobby, she asked, “So, what did he do to uhh… get fired?”
“The fact that you don’t know is precisely the reason.”
The elevator suddenly came to a jarring halt between floors, pitching Olivia forward. Her hands shot out, bracing for a fall, palms planting solidly against his chest. The rich scent of muted spices enveloped her, reminding Olivia of…nothing. Dammit, another black hole.
Trying to play it cool, she hastened an apology and quickly retreated to her respective corner of the elevator. Pinching the bridge of her nose with her thumb and forefinger, she closed her eyes and drew a deep breath that failed to calm her jangled nerves. “I’m trying to follow you here, I really am. But I don’t see what my having amnesia has to do with you or my so-called ‘guardian.’”
“You don’t have amnesia.”
A cynical bark of unladylike laughter tore from her throat. “Well, that’s good to know. But I’ve got about twenty-thousand dollars worth of medical bills that beg to differ with your diagnosis, Dr. Tate.”
She reached over and slammed her palm against the “emergency” button on the control panel, sending a shrill alarm up the elevator shaft.
Tate scowled, making no attempt to disguise his irritation as he reached in front of her and very pointedly hit the button again. The sharp ringing abruptly ceased. “Look, Olivia, your free will has been violated, and it’s imperative that I speak with you about this. I— Why are you looking at me like that?” he snapped impatiently.
“Because I never told you my name. How do you know me?”
“I already told you. I’m your guardian. I assure you, I have no intention of harming you, Olivia.”
“Guardian of what?” she challenged. “Because you certainly don’t look like an angel to me.” Just how naive did this guy think she was? What kind of a creep would hang out at a psychiatrist’s office and prey on emotionally damaged women? Did this guy really have nothing better to do with his time?
He exhaled an exasperated breath, muttering something about stubborn women and never wanting this job in the first place. When he looked back at her, he seemed to have rallied a measure of patience. “Exactly what is it we’re supposed to look like, Olivia?”
Well, for starters, how about not huge, hot, and terrifying?
“Am I to have a halo over my head, wear a white flowing dress, and sprinkle fairy dust about wherever I go?”
The sudden arch of his dark brow suggested he was poking fun at her. She was having none of it. “Well, that would help,” she quipped back with equal snark to his sarcasm.
“Sorry… I’m not that kind of an angel.”
An angel! Seriously…? He wasn’t even denying it!
Suddenly, as if a light clicked on, it all made sense to her. This guy must be one of Dr. Shriner’s patients. He had to have been in the office and overheard the secretary calling her name—that’s how he knew her. Oh shit…then this guy really was crazy, which was a hell of a lot more terrifying than hypothetical nuts.
Her hands swung up to back him off. “Look, Tate, maybe you don’t mean to scare me, but you are. Honestly, you’re really freaking me out right now. If you truly believe that you’re my guardian angel, then you need some serious help. Perhaps you should talk to Dr. Shriner about this God complex you seem to have. I’m sure she can help you, but please, leave me alone.”
At her request, the elevator jerked and continued its descent. His furrowed brows were a combination of frustrated and pissed off, and neither look said “hey, you can trust me not to kill you.”
As the elevator chimed, announcing they’d reached the lobby, Olivia made a final attempt to diffuse the situation. “I thank you for your concern, but I don’t want a guardian and I don’t need a guardian.” As the metal prison doors slowly slid open, she bolted for the exit, slipping out sideways before they could even open all the way.
“You’re wrong, Olivia. You need me,” Tate called after her. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here.”
At this taunting reply, she glanced over her shoulder, making sure he wasn’t following her. With each hurried step, her sandals clapped briskly against the gray tile floor. When the elevator doors slid closed, she caught a glimpse of Tate dragging his hand through his hair, growling what she could only imagine was a very unangel-like curse.
Olivia exhaled a sigh of relief to be away from the nut job and hastened her steps. The moment she was safely locked inside her car, she’d call up to Dr. Shriner’s office and report this Tate, whatever his last name was. Someone definitely needed to adjust that guy’s meds.
Rushing out the glass doors, her poorly anchored sandals slapped against the marble steps with rapid-fire clap, clap, clap. She was nearly to the sidewalk, her black Camaro in sight, when the stranger suddenly materialized out of thin air.
Olivia let out a startled yelp. Headed right for him, she put on the brakes, but the laws of physics were not in her favor. Momentum pitched her forward, her foot slipping off the step and hitting the one below. White-hot pain exploded in her ankle as it rolled beneath her. Her knee buckled under the duress and she reached for the iron railing, trying to catch herself before face-planting into the now scowling man.
He looked as if he wanted to come to her aid, but wisely stayed back. “Are you all right?” he asked, sounding genuinely concerned.
She wasn’t buyin’ it. He was probably worried she’d scuff her knees and damage his skin suit.
“Are you all right, dear?” an elderly woman asked, hobbling over to her. The well-meaning geriatric looked like she needed more help than Olivia did, but she was limited on her choice of saviors, so granny was gonna have to do.
“No. I’m not all right,” Olivia replied, unable to keep the panic from edging into her voice. Lifting an accusing finger, she directed it at the stranger and accused, “This man is harassing me.”
Following the direction of Olivia’s outstretched arm, the old woman’s cataract-grayed eyes squinted to the bottom of the marble steps. After a moment of hard looking, she readjusted her glasses and gave it another try. “Dear, there’s no one there.”
“Oh Lord, I really am crazy,” she murmured.
Grandma laid a sympathetic hand on Olivia’s arm and gave it a patronizing pat.
“You’re not crazy,” the figment of her imagination piped in.
“Let me get someone to help you,” sweet granny offered. “Here, take my cane and sit on the bench.” She gestured to the vacant wrought iron bench on the sidewalk, precisely four feet from Olivia’s very large, very muscular illusion.
“She can’t see me,” he explained, taking a step up the marble stairs. “Let me help you, Olivia.”
The familiarity in the way he used her name added insult to injury. Ignoring his offer, she tested the strength of her ankle. When it refused to hold her weight, she begrudgingly accepted the old woman’s cane. “Thank you. I just need to sit for a minute. I’m sure my ankle will be all right.”
“I’ll get you some help.”
Before Olivia could protest, the Good Samaritan hobbled away, leaning heavily on the railing as she snail-paced it up the stairs.
“Are you always this stubborn?” her illusion asked, folding his arms across his wide chest. He followed a few steps behind as she gimped to the bench. On the plus side, if she was going to start imagining guys, at least she made them hot.
“Ignoring me won’t make me any less real,” he persisted.
Then Plan A was a bust, because that was exactly what she’d intended to do. “Will it make you go away?” she snapped.
“No. Not until I tell you what I came here to say.”
Somehow, Olivia wasn’t so sure that even then, he would leave her alone. But the way she saw it, she had two things going for her. One, if Tate was a figment of her imagination, then at least he couldn’t kill her. Two, if by some unexplainable phenomena he really did exist, then it was doubtful he’d whack her right here in public. So either way, it was unlikely death was imminent. Besides, Grandma was going for help, albeit not as quickly as Olivia would have liked, but help was on its way.
“All right then, talk,” she snapped impatiently, looking down at her watch. Shit…she was going to be late. “Tell me whatever it is you have to say and then go.”
He stood before her, dark brows scrunching in displeasure. Clearly, he didn’t appreciate her candidness—or perhaps being told what to do. This guy looked like he was more used to giving orders than taking them. She had to admit, for a figment of her imagination, his commanding presence felt pretty damn intimidating.
He watched her a moment in contemplative silence. Then, as if deciding on something, knelt on the sidewalk before her. “Let me see your ankle.”
She didn’t miss the note of impatience in his voice. Before she could refuse, he reached out and gently but firmly grasped her foot, slipping off her sandal.
His touch sent a jolt of awareness flooding her veins. “You are real,” she gasped, unable to deny the power coursing through his hands and seeping into her ankle. Liquid heat spread up her leg as the throbbing pain steadily diminished. “Why can I see you but that woman couldn’t?”
Tate stopped the assessment of her injury and glanced up at her with a dark violet gaze that made her heart ache with unexplainable loss. She didn’t like the way he made her feel. The emotions he stirred to life were painful and confusing. As a surge of overwhelming grief knifed into her heart, she suddenly found herself fighting back the urge to start sobbing.
“That old woman couldn’t see me because I wasn’t in corporeal form. You can see me because you have the gift of Sight, Olivia. Your eyesight can transcend dimensions, which means you possess the ability to see angels and demons. I can block your sight, demons cannot, which is why you’re in danger. You are a threat to the Dark Court because you can expose them. They want you dead. My job is to make sure that doesn’t happen. Your job is to let me do my job, and so far you haven’t been cooperating very well.”
He focused his attention back on her ankle, and Olivia winced when his fingers found a particularly tender spot. His grimace looked genuinely remorseful. Maybe, just maybe, he was telling her the truth. And if he was…God help her.
“Back in the elevator, you said you were my new guardian. What happened to my old one and why can’t I remember him? What was his name?”
Seeming overly focused on his task, he looked reluctant to answer, his dark brows furrowing in contemplation. “Look, Olivia, I’m not even supposed to be here, and I’m sure as hell not supposed to be telling you this. But the way I see it, you haven’t given me any other choice. Your life is at stake—”
“Tell me his name,” she pressed, believing Tate more and more with each passing second. Something told her he spoke the truth. The comforting heat infusing her ankle warred with the dread churning in her gut. Could it be possible that this…angel held the answers she’d spent the last eight weeks seeing a shrink to get? After two months of therapy, she wasn’t any closer to the truth now than before. “Tate…”
He gave a pensive sigh and met her stare. “His name is Liam.”
Her heart hammered against her chest at hearing the same name her mother had spoken the night she’d picked Olivia up from that hospital in Duluth. She hadn’t uttered it since, and wouldn’t talk of it now, even when Olivia had pressed her for answers. Her mother claimed she didn’t know anything. The only thing she could tell her was that Liam was an “old boyfriend” from several years ago. Minutes before she was to walk down the aisle and marry Mitch, he’d snuck into the church and abducted her. Kim didn’t know anything beyond that, other than there had been an accident. She’d been in a coma for days before Liam had called her mother and father to come and get her. By the time Olivia had awoken, he was gone, and so was her memory.
“There were rumors…that he loved you. That he…” Tate cleared his throat, seeming uncomfortable to continue. Casting his gaze to the ground he murmured, “That he…crossed boundaries of an intimate nature with you.”
Oh Lord…had he? Did they? She couldn’t remember.
“I should say, in his defense, that these allegations were never proven in court. But ultimately, he lost his guardianship of you because he violated Universal Law. Even though his bond to you has been severed, and he can no longer feel your emotions, I believe your connection to him remains. Although you can no longer remember him, I think you’re still in love with him, Olivia. And as long as you are, I cannot bond to you. Without that bond, I can’t sense you. I cannot tell when you’re in danger so I can’t keep you safe.”
Tate’s hands left her ankle to grasp one of hers—pleadingly. Were someone to see them across the street, one might think he was proposing to her. His grip was strong, surprisingly gentle. It seemed crazy, but she’d swear she felt his energy coursing through her veins as he looked up at her, imploring, “Olivia, you have to let him go. If you don’t, I can’t protect you and you will surely die.”
“This is crazy. How can you expect me to stop loving someone I can’t even remember? And what exactly does that mean? Violating Universal Law?” Her mind was reeling, trying to absorb the information he’d just dumped on her. She was still stuck back in the conversation where her guardian was in love with her. And she loved him, too? Really? Was that why her heart ached so? Why she felt like a part of her was missing?
“Universal Law demands that at all costs, a human’s free will must be honored—even unto death. You don’t have amnesia, Olivia. Liam stole your memory—”
“There you are, dear,” an aged voice called from the stairs.
She swung her head to look over her shoulder. A security officer was escorting the hobbling old woman toward Olivia. The warm hands that held hers disappeared, and when she glanced back, Tate was gone.