“You can’t do this to me.”
The harsh, grating voice took Saber by surprise as he stepped in the sliding metal door of his suite. He spun around to see who was speaking and, more importantly, who was in his home without his permission. The suite he and Lissa shared in the Kindred Mother Ship had been locked when he came in—he would swear to that. So how…? And then he saw him.
A hooded figure crouched in the far corner of the living area, his face hidden in shadows.
Saber knew it was a male—there was no question about that. The figure was half a head taller than he was, which was saying something since no Kindred warrior was under six foot six.
“You can’t…fucking…do this to me,” the voice snarled again.
“Who are you?” Saber demanded, taking a step toward the huge, crouching figure. “And what are you doing in my home?” He was glad that Lissa was out with Kat, planning the redheaded Earth girl’s joining ceremony. If he’d had any reason to think she was here with this strange figure and in any kind of danger…
“Saber? Is that you?” Lissa’s light, feminine voice drifted from the back of the suite, and Saber felt the short hairs on the back of his neck rise. What was she doing back? And what had been done to her in his absence?
“Lissa,” he sent through their link as he circled carefully closer to the hooded invader. “Stay where you are. Don’t come up here!”
“Who are you?” he barked aloud at the strange male, since the invader still hadn’t answered. “Goddess damn it, if you’ve touched my female—”
“Don’t worry, old friend. Lissa is perfectly safe.”
The invader raised his head, and at last, Saber was able to catch a glimpse into the shadowy confines of his hood. Pure silver eyes, like melted starlight, flashed at him and Saber felt the knot of protective tension and rage that had been building inside him suddenly melt.
“Reddix?” His voice was thick with relief. “Is that you?”
“Who else would it be?” Reddix growled. “Are you expecting another old friend you screwed over to show up this evening?”
“But what are you doing here? I wasn’t expecting you for at least another week.”
“I came early. Couldn’t wait to see you and try to talk you out of this madness.”
“Watch what you say, Brother.” Saber heard the growl enter his own voice and did nothing to try and stop it. “Loving Lissa and choosing to spend my life with her is the sanest move I’ve ever made, and I won’t hear anyone say otherwise—not even you.”
Reddix made a noise at the back of his throat as he rose from his crouching position and came into the light.
“Then you won’t want to hear what your mother has to say about it.” He unrolled a small vid screen and thrust it at Saber. “Here. She made me swear by the Goddess to be sure you watched her message.”
Saber pushed the screen away before the recording could start playing and sank down onto the couch.
“I don’t care what you or she or anyone else has to say, my mind is made up.”
Reddix sat down beside him, on the opposite side of the large leather couch.
“So you’re really going to do this? You’re going to give up everything, your home, your future, your position as the Clan Overlord—all for a female?” His gravelly voice was incredulous.
“I’m afraid so.” Saber sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “I know it’s hard for you to comprehend, Reddix, but for the right female, it’s worth it, and Lissa is the right one for me. Try to understand—I’ve loved her from the moment I saw her.”
“By the laws of our people, she’s your sister,” Reddix pointed out.
“I know.” Saber shook his head. “I know how wrong this seems to you—to everyone back home. But there is no blood tie between us, and for some reason, the kinship compounds didn’t take for either Lissa or me. So we’re not repelled by each other as any other male and female of our clan would be if they tried to be together.”
“I’m not judging you,” Reddix said heavily. “I’m in no position to judge. I’m just saying.”
“I know. And I’m just saying that the moment I saw Lissa’s face, so many years ago, I knew she was the one for me—the only one.” He put a hand on his friend’s broad shoulder. “You’ll understand when you find the one female for you.”
Reddix shook off his hand. “Right, just find a female—that’s the answer to everything. Except it won’t do me a damn bit of good unless she can somehow cure my disease.”
“Ah, yes…that.” Saber coughed, feeling stupid. How could he have been so insensitive as to talk about love and bonding with a female to one with his friend’s condition?
“Yeah, that.” Reddix’s deep, rasping voice was heavy with sarcasm. “That little thing that makes having a female impossible. That minor detail which has kept me hiding in the shadows half my life.”
You don’t have to hide with me—you can take off the hood,” Saber said quietly, indicating his friend’s shadowed face. “I’ve seen you before, you know.”
“I’m keeping it on.” Reddix’s eyes flashed silver from the depths of the hood. “You want to know the truth, I almost never take it off now, not even at home.”
Saber frowned. “But surely at home, where everyone is used to seeing you…”
“It’s getting worse.” Reddix got up abruptly and began pacing, his big body moving smoothly with animalistic grace.
“You mean your RTS?” Saber shook his head. “I didn’t know it could get worse.”
“Well, apparently, it can,” Reddix snapped. “A hell of a lot worse.”
RTS was short for Reverse Touch Syndrome, a rare disease that affected only Touch Kindred males and only one in a thousand at that. The sufferers were almost all from the Star Clan, which Reddix’s father had been. But there had never been any RTS in his family before Reddix had been diagnosed with it not long after they had come to manhood together.
Since they had grown up in the same town, Saber could remember his friend before he had been afflicted with the dreaded disease. Reddix had been so happy when he was younger—outgoing and funny with a dry sense of humor. He had been teased some for his beautiful features—Star Clan members were notoriously lovely, and Reddix was no exception. Still, he took the teasing good-naturedly and fit in well with the group of young males they ran with, even though he looked different from the rest of them.
And then just at the age when they were becoming adults, Reddix had been dealt a crushing blow—his Touch sense had failed to develop. Or rather, it began to develop wrongly.
He’d kept it a secret for a long time—longer than Saber would have thought possible. Back when he and his friends were just starting to experiment, using their new Touch senses to play tricks like pulling a favorite female’s hair or blowing in her ear with newly developed whisper-lips, Reddix had begun to withdraw. He started wearing baggier clothes and jackets with high collars or hoods—anything to hide his muscular body and handsome face. Anything to avoid the curious stares of other people.
Finally, his parents had caught on and taken their only son for testing. Though the doctors had told them what they had feared all along, the shock was still so great it nearly tore their family apart. Reddix’s parents had distanced themselves from him, had allowed him to hide himself away out of shame. His friends had fallen away too. Only Saber and Reddix’s little sister, Minda, had stuck by him.
Watching his friend pace, Saber felt a great surge of pity for his friend. RTS was a diagnosis every male of the Touch Kindred feared above all else, because it was crippling on so many levels. It meant that Reddix would never be considered a man—not really. Because of his inability to Touch a female with his mind, he would never be able to bond with a female or truly satisfy her by giving her the Deep Touch, which was what the Touch Kindred considered necessary for a fulfilling sexual relationship. In addition, the poor bastard had to feel the emotions of every other person who looked at him or touched him as a physical sensation upon his skin. It was no wonder he preferred to keep his hood on.
Still, back home he had only worn the hood to special occasions—gatherings of the Clans where he knew a lot of strangers who hadn’t seen him before would be assembled. If it had become necessary for him to wear it around everyone, even old friends like Saber, he must really be in a bad way…
“Stop it!” Reddix barked, rounding on him suddenly. “Stop it, Goddess damn you!”
Saber jumped, startled. “Stop what?
“Stop pitying me! And don’t try to deny it.” Reddix stabbed a finger at him accusingly. “I can feel your pity like acid burning down my spine. And let me tell you, Brother, it isn’t pity you ought to be feeling—it’s guilt.”
“Guilt?” Saber raised an eyebrow at him. “Guilt for what exactly?”
“For screwing me over this way—for abdicating your responsibility. For forcing me to take your place as a public figurehead when you know perfectly well it’s my personal idea of the Seventh Hell.”
Saber did feel a stab of guilt at his old friend’s words, and Reddix nodded at him with bitter satisfaction.
“Now you understand,” he said, sinking down on the couch beside Saber again.
“Reddix, please—I never meant—”
His friend held up a palm to stop him.
“You don’t have to say it. I feel your remorse too—a stinging pain deep in my side like someone slipped a knife between my ribs, right here.” He pressed one large hand to his side.
“Goddess,” Saber murmured through numb lips. “You can feel it that distinctly?”
Reddix grunted moodily. “It’s not pleasant but it’s a hell of a lot better than what I’ll have to face if I become Clan Overlord. Greeting the people, going out to meet the crowds, feeling all of their emotions all over me…” He leaned forward, and Saber saw the glint of desperation in his pure silver eyes. “Saber, I can’t do this. You have to come back.”
“You know I can’t.” Saber started to put a hand on his friend’s knee and then stopped himself, remembering that touching made the RTS worse. He sighed. “I’m so sorry, Reddix, but you know how our people would feel about Lissa and I being together. The Clans would be horrified that I had taken a female of my own clan as a bride, and I can’t give her up. I wouldn’t even if I could.”
Reddix’s muscular body twitched nervously, and then the big male jumped to his feet and began pacing again.
“So that’s it then. I’m doomed to a life of pure hell, because you couldn’t keep your dick in your pants.”
“I’m sorry.” Some of Saber’s guilt turned to anger. “I didn’t plan this—any more than you planned on having RTS.”
Reddix barked a laugh. “So you’re saying love is like a disease? Like a fucking cancer eating into your heart that you can’t cut out?”
“It’s not like that,” Saber protested. “You’d understand if you could just—” He stopped abruptly, biting the inside of his cheek.
But it was clear Reddix knew what he’d almost said.
“If I could just what, Brother?” he demanded. “Just find a female to love? One who won’t pity or resent me for not being able to give her the Deep Touch? One whose emotions I won’t have to wear like an ill-fitting suit of clothes every Goddess damned day for the rest of my life? Well, guess what?” He laughed bitterly. “My parents and yours have already gotten together and found me one.”
“What?” Saber frowned. “But I thought…who? Who did they pick for you?”
“Tilla. You remember her?”
“Of course I do—she was just a few years behind us at school.” Tilla was a gossipy girl, well known for her love of pretty clothes and expensive jewelry. Her father, a prominent merchant on Tarsia, kept her well supplied with both, but she wouldn’t have struck Saber as Reddix’s type. Not that anyone really was, not with his RTS. Still, if he had to pick anyone for his friend, Tilla would have been the last on the list.
“Feeling her emotions is like swimming in slime.” Reddix’s harsh voice sounded weary and disgusted. “And she hates me too. Nevertheless, she’s got the right bloodlines for succession, and she’s agreed to be my bride.”
“You know how important social position and prestige is to her family—she wants to be the wife of the Overlord, even if the Overlord is a fucking cripple who can’t give her the Deep Touch. Who can’t even stand to touch her physically enough to have sex with her.”
“About that…” Saber cleared his throat. “If you can’t even stand to touch her, how will you—”
“I’ll have to manage, somehow. I have to give her an heir and soon—before my RTS….” Reddix shook his head. “The line of succession must be upheld.”
Saber sighed. “Look, Reddix, this doesn’t have to be your life if you don’t want it. Give it up, like I did.”
The silver eyes glinted. “You mean abandon my post and abdicate my responsibilities? You know who’s next in line for the succession of Clan Overlord if I pass on it, Saber?”
Saber shifted uncomfortably. “Um…isn’t it Fendrick? He should do well as the Clan Overlord.”
Reddix looked away. “He might have—if he hadn’t died in a duel a few days ago.”
“Fendrick’s dead?” Saber couldn’t keep the shock out of his voice.
Reddix nodded grimly. “The damn fool was always too quick to take offense—this time he happened to take it from someone who was better with a knife than he was. Now that he’s gone and you’re off playing house with your amalla, there’s no one else besides me. And you know how hot blooded most of our males are—do you remember what happened the last time there was no clear leader to succeed the old Overlord?”
Saber felt sick. “The war of the Clans…” It had happened hundreds of years before, but the bloody conflict was still well remembered. Every clan of the Touch Kindred had brought forward a male they felt should be leader, and none had been willing to compromise. The resulting civil war had decimated the Touch Kindred and cemented the belief of the other Kindred races that they were too volatile and vicious to be allowed to consort with the rest of the Kindred as a whole. It had resulted in the banishment of the entire Touch Kindred people—what were left of them after a winner had finally emerged, that was.
That leader had been Saber’s ancestor and up until now, the line of succession had never been broken. But I’m breaking it now, he thought to himself sickly. I’ve already broken it. Reddix is right—I’m forcing him into the public eye—forcing him into a life that’s going to be a living hell for him. And all because I couldn’t help myself and had to have Lissa.
“Stop.” Reddix put a hand to the flat plane of his abdomen. “Now you’re making me nauseous. Your guilt is like a stone in my gut.”
“Sorry.” Saber shook his head. “Reddix, I’m desperately sorry about all of this. But I love Lissa, and we’re already bonded. There’s nothing I can do.”
“I didn’t think there was. I just had to ask. Don’t worry, old friend, I’ve got a plan B.” Reddix sat back on the couch.
“Plan B? What are you talking about?”
The melted silver eyes inside Reddix’s hood flashed dangerously. “I’ve been to see Xandra.”
“The swamp witch? You went to see her?” Saber shook his head, disbelieving. “You’re joking.”
“I wish I was,” Reddix said fiercely. “It wasn’t a very fucking pleasant experience. But I needed help, and there was no place else to get it.”
“All Xandra can offer you—can offer anyone—is death,” Saber protested. “You need to stay away from her, Reddix!”
“Too late.” Reddix laughed, a deep, harsh sound that hurt Saber’s ears. “We’ve already struck a bargain—a bargain in blood. See?” He held out his arm and pulled up the sleeve of his hooded jacket.
On the inside of his wrist, Saber saw something that made his gut clench with fear and loathing. There, on his friend’s pale skin was a black mark shaped like a small, slithering creature called a lthss. It looked remarkably like the Earth animal called a snake except that a lthss changed color after it fed, by sucking the blood from its victim, going from black to red. The mark on Reddix’s inner wrist was still small and still black. But what color would it be when Xandra was done with him?
“Reddix,” he said. “You can’t do this. There has to be another way.”
“To overcome the RTS long enough to get Tilla pregnant and make sure the Clans don’t kill each other?” Reddix barked a bitter laugh. “I don’t think so.”
“But this is extreme,” Saber protested. “I really don’t think—”
“No, you don’t, old friend. You don’t think about anyone but yourself. But you know what? I do.” Reddix jabbed a thumb at himself. “I’m thinking of my little sister—of Minda. Did you know she’s found a male from the Wind Clan? He doesn’t have much status, but he loves her and he’s good to her. They’re already joined, and she’s going to have a baby. What do you think will happen to that sweet, happy little family if the Clans go to war? How long do you think they’ll survive? And who should Minda side with—the clan she was born into? Or the clan she married into?”
He stood suddenly and swayed unsteadily.
Saber jumped up to help him, but Reddix shook off his hand and took another step back.
Stop touching me,” he muttered. “Just makes it worse.”
“Sorry.” Saber took a step back. For the first time it occurred to him that his old friend looked more than just tired—he looked sick. He couldn’t get much of a look at Reddix’s face with the hood in the way, but from the little he could see, his friend looked unshaven and unspeakably weary.
“I’d better be going,” Reddix growled. “I need to get back and tell your mother and father and the rest of our people I’m their next Overlord.” He snorted. “You can imagine for yourself their overwhelming joy at the prospect.”
“Don’t go just yet,” Saber protested. “Stay for a while and recuperate—you look terrible.”
“Don’t look nearly as bad as I feel,” Reddix rasped. “But don’t worry, I’m not running straight back to Tarsia yet. I have some unfinished business right here on that little blue-green ball of rock all our Kindred Brothers seem so fucking taken with.”
“On Earth?” Saber frowned. “What do you want there?”
“It’s not what—it’s who.”
“Reddix, if I could—” Saber began.
“Don’t say another word—your mind is made up, I can feel it. The certainty that you’re not coming back is like a weight around my neck. A heavy fucking weight.”
“And don’t worry.” Reddix pointed to the half unrolled vid screen, which lay on the floor. “I’ll swear to your mother you watched that and still wouldn’t come home. It’s doubtless only the first of many lies I’ll be forced to…”
His words trailed off, and he swayed again, much more alarmingly this time.
“Are you all right?” Saber took another step toward him in concern. “Brother?”
But Reddix never finished. His silver eyes rolled up, showing the whites, and he dropped heavily to his knees. Then, before Saber could take even one more step forward to catch him, he toppled forward like a fallen tree, face down onto the floor.
Nina Kerrick sighed as she dusted the glass case containing the brightly colored Seminole dolls and the display of sweet-grass coiled baskets. Moving methodically but quickly, she cleaned the rest of the exhibits and straightened the stacks of brochures located near the front of the small tribal museum attached to the Hard Rock Casino. The museum didn’t pay much, but she only worked there two or three times a week. She loved being surrounded by the fascinating history of the Seminole Tribe even though she was only half Native American on her mother’s side.
Her father was Welsh, and the resulting combination gave Nina an exotic look with high cheekbones and warm copper-tan skin. She also had long, straight black hair with reddish highlights, but it was her deep blue eyes, so unexpected in one with her coloring, that drew the most attention. Nina liked her looks, but she wished she had inherited a smaller behind—her big hips and bottom were a constant source of consternation, but no matter how hard she worked and dieted, they never really got any smaller.
She moved to the small gift shop area, swiftly straightening the array of handmade items—the patchwork vests and jackets, the pillows, potholders, and ornaments, as well as the miniature dolls attached to key chains. Crafted of palmetto husk fiber and adorned in brightly-colored traditional skirt and capes, the doll key chains were by far the best seller. Every woman who nagged her husband or boyfriend away from the gaming tables for a second had to have one.
The small space was straightened and ready for the next day’s patrons—mostly bored gamblers who trickled in from time to time from the casino next door. It was time for Nina to go. She barely had time to run through the drive-thru and get Mehoo-Jimmy her favorite fast food burger before she had to be at her night job as a therapist at Massage Envy in South Tampa.
She paused in front of a framed black and white photograph depicting a Seminole woman from 1910. The picture was part of the Camera-man exhibit, taken by renowned photographer Julian Dimock. The photographs he’d taken revealed fascinating details of Seminole Indian life deep in the interior of the Florida Everglades back at a time when few whites dared to venture so far.
The woman in the picture caught and held Nina’s eye not because of her historical significance but because of what she wore—strands and strands of glass beads woven around her neck. Not just a few either—the woman was wearing literally hundreds of strands, so many that they started just under her chin, covered her entire neck, and dripped down the front of her breasts. Their weight must have been enormous but the woman stood straight and strong, staring into the camera with an unyielding look in her dark eyes.
Nina didn’t need a degree in Native American studies to tell her why the woman wore so many beads. In the past, it had been a matter of pride—of status—for Seminole women. The beads were an outward exhibition of their wealth and worth, not just received as gifts but bought with the money they made themselves, selling handcrafted baskets, blankets, dolls, and anything else they could make. Seminole women would wear the beads, only taking them off at night, even though the immense weight of them eventually led to severe back and shoulder problems. It was a matter of pride to keep them on, and more than once a female who slipped accidentally into the river was drowned because of the great weight around her neck.
“So heavy,” Nina murmured, staring at the woman from over a hundred years ago. “How did you carry that weight day in and day out? How did you keep standing so straight?”
Her own weight to bear was nothing so tangible as hundreds of strands of glass beads, but Nina still felt it pulling her down. It was the dreams, of course—they were like an anchor tied around her neck. If she didn’t stop having them soon, they would drown her as surely as the Seminole women, too proud to take off their necklaces, had drowned in the swamps of the Everglades. And like a woman adding strand after strand of beads, the dreams kept getting worse until she woke up every night in a cold sweat, feeling like she might be sick.
“It’s going to be all right,” Nina told herself bravely. She lifted her chin. “Everybody has weird dreams once in a while.” Except these dreams had been happening for months. At first, they were no big deal, but lately…
If only I didn’t feel so…funny every time I have one.
Except funny wasn’t really the word, was it? It was more like aroused. Incredibly aroused. Nina didn’t know why, but whenever she saw the faceless man in her dreams, her heart started pounding and her palms got damp. And that was only the start—when he came closer, her nipples tightened and her pussy suddenly got so hot and wet she felt swollen between her legs. And all the time the man whose face she couldn’t see was talking to her in a low, harsh voice. Telling her all the things he wanted to do to her. Saying that she was the only woman for him, that she was the only one he wanted to touch…
She always woke up from these dreams sweaty and disheveled. And confused—so confused. Had she had a nightmare or a wet dream? Part of her said nightmare—no question. A man with no face chasing her? That had to be a bad dream. Except…bad dreams didn’t make you horny out of your mind. So much that she had to touch herself before she could go back to sleep. Nina couldn’t help being ashamed of that—how could the idea of a huge, frightening man whose face was hidden make her so hot? And why wouldn’t the dreams leave her alone?
Stop thinking about it! You’re only making it worse. And anyway, it’s time to go.
Nina glanced down at her watch and gave a low curse. She’d been thinking about her bad dreams so long she had forgotten about how late it was getting. It was past time to be out of there.
Flipping off the light switch, she locked up the small museum and ran for her car, parked at the far end of the employee lot. The hot Florida sun beat down on her, but Nina was used to it. She slid into her little hatchback, barely noticing that the interior was like an oven. The heat she could handle—it was the few cold days a year that got to her. Luckily, living in Tampa, those days were few and far between, so she was generally pretty comfortable.
She went through the drive-thru and got a double cheeseburger for Mehoo-Jimmy and a chocolate shake for herself from the dollar menu. It was a small splurge, since she was trying to save every penny to go back to school, but after the particularly bad dream she’d had the night before, Nina decided she deserved it.
I just need to let the dreams go, she told herself as she sipped the shake and drove toward Mehoo-Jimmy’s little bungalow. Need to forget about them and just breathe.
Pulling up in front of the little green house, she saw that Mehoo-Jimmy was sitting out on the front porch, petting one of her many cats and probably humming to herself. Sure enough, when she got out of the car, Nina could hear the soft, wordless crooning that was surprisingly tuneful drifting through the air. It was this soft sound that had comforted her after the death of her mother, when Mehoo-Jimmy held her and whispered that all was not lost, that she would see her again someday on the other side.
Nina had only been twelve when her mother had died of breast cancer, and Mehoo-Jimmy had taken her under her wing and protected her when Nina’s father was out trying to drown his grief in whiskey and gambling. In some ways, he had never gotten over her mother’s death—or at least that was the excuse he always gave when he came home drunk or lost his paycheck at the craps table.
But Nina didn’t want to think about her father now. She ran lightly up the path to the tiny pea-green bungalow, the white paper sack with the cheeseburger crinkling cheerfully.
“Mehoo, how are you?” She took the porch steps in two bounds and bent to kiss the soft cheek, wrinkled with age. As always, Mehoo-Jimmy smelled of baby powder and the herbs she grew in her garden out back.
“Hello, eecho.” The affectionate name meant “little deer” in Miccosukee, one of the Seminole dialects. The old woman gave her a wide smile, revealing teeth too white and even to be anything but false. “What you doing here? Don’t you have to be at that Greedy Massage place?”
“It’s Massage Envy, and I have a few minutes. Thought I’d bring you lunch.” Nina handed her the bag and pulled up a wicker chair to sit beside her. “So how are things?”
“Not bad, not bad. Except…” The old woman frowned at her. “I got a worried feeling about you, eecho. Early this morning when I first woke. Are you all right?”
“I’m fine, Mehoo.” Nina shifted uncomfortably under her adopted grandmother’s ancient stare.
“Tell the truth to your mehoo.” The old woman spoke sternly though her eyes were gentle. “I can tell when something is on your mind.”
“I had another dream,” Nina said, looking down at her hands. “A dream about the man…the man whose face I couldn’t see.”
As she spoke, the half-remembered dream came back with a force that left her feeling uneasy and ashamed. Besides the shameful way the strange dreams turned her on, there was something else about them—a feeling she got that the faceless man needed her help. That he was in terrible trouble, and only she could save him. But it was hard to say how she could possibly do that—he was so big, and his face was always shadowed…
“A man who hides his face? Hmm…” Mehoo-Jimmy hummed thoughtfully as she unwrapped the burger Nina had brought her. “That’s not good, child. He sounds like a bear.”
“He could be, I guess,” Nina admitted, frowning. “He’s huge—as big as a bear, anyway.”
“The bear is your spirit animal, Nina,” Mehoo-Jimmy said sternly. “You’ve dreamed of him before, remember?”
“Well, yes…” Nina sighed. She had had several dreams about a bear that talked to her when she was little, but that was years ago—a childish fantasy. Not that she would say that to Mehoo-Jimmy.
“When your spirit animal comes to you in a dream, you need to listen. What does he want, this bear?”
“I don’t know.” Nina raised her hands helplessly. “He never speaks, and I can never see his face—just these strange, glowing eyes like he’s hiding somehow.”
“Dreaming of a bear means fever coming,” Mehoo-Jimmy announced. “A fever you can’t put out with water alone.”
Nina nodded respectfully, though she wasn’t completely sure she understood. Mehoo-Jimmy’s late husband had been a respected medicine man of the panther clan, and the old lady had studied with him until she too was known as a doctor of Seminole medicine. She would never be as powerful as a medicine man, but her herbal remedies and medicinal rubs got good results and were favored above “white medicine” by many of the older tribe members. Her homemade medicine earned her just enough to let her keep up her house as well as feed herself and the many cats that could always be found wandering through her garden.
“This fever—could you put it out with your special tea?” Nina asked. Personally, she swore by the herbal tea Mehoo-Jimmy brewed for colds and flu. She was almost never sick herself, but when she was, the tea helped her bounce back within a couple of days.
“No medicine will be strong to quench this kind of fever,” Mehoo-Jimmy said mysteriously. “The power to heal such a fever will have to come from within. From here.” Leaning forward, she tapped one crooked finger above Nina’s heart.
“You know I don’t have power like you, Mehoo,” Nina protested.
The older woman had tried to teach her some of her cures and remedies, claiming she had the “healing touch” but Nina had never learned to make much more than the tea and a few herbal rubs. She always promised herself she would come and learn more, but these days she was so busy she barely had time to spare a few minutes with her adopted grandmother before it was time to rush off to the next job.
“Of course you do, eecho. Why do you think those clients of yours at the Jealous Massage place keep coming back over and over? Why else are you saving to go back to school and be a doctor? Because when you touch people, they feel your power—the power of your heart to heal.”
“Oh, Mehoo…” Nina made a shooing motion. “I just want to be a physician’s assistant. And it’s not like that—I’m just a good therapist. That’s why my clients come back. Not because of any ‘power’ I have.”
“You have more power than you think.” Mehoo-Jimmy nodded solemnly. “You have a strength in you, eecho. A strength that won’t let you break, no matter how far you have to bend.”
Nina felt sudden tears prick her eyes, and she looked away, trying not to let the older woman see her cry.
“I…I certainly hope so,” she said, trying to keep the emotion out of her voice. “Because lately, sometimes I feel…feel like I’m going to break. These dreams…” She looked back at Mehoo-Jimmy and tried to smile, but the other woman shook her head.
“Tell me, Nina,” she said softly. “Are the dreams really so bad? Or is there another reason you’re upset. Is it that no good father of yours? What did he do this time?”
“Oh, Dad’s always in trouble.” Nina sniffed and sighed. “I am disappointed, though—I thought he was doing better. I had him going to Gambler’s Anonymous every Friday night. He hadn’t been in the casino in ages. And then…”
“Then what?” Mehoo-Jimmy’s eyes were hard, but the anger in them wasn’t directed at Nina.
Nina sighed. “Oh, I found out he’d been in the casino again. That’s all.”
“How much?” Mehoo-Jimmy asked. “How much did he lose?”
“I’m not sure exactly,” Nina lied uneasily. In fact, she knew to the penny how much her father owed. But if she told Mehoo-Jimmy, the sum might give the old lady a heart attack.
“Nina…” Mehoo-Jimmy frowned at her. “Are you helping him pay it off? Is that why you’re all the time working, eecho?”
“I’m helping a little—it’ll be okay,” Nina said. “Mostly, I’m saving for school. It’s just…I haven’t been sleeping well, so I’m a little tired right now, that’s all.”
In fact, she felt near the ragged edge of exhaustion lately. All the hours she was working combined with all the stress of the dreams to make her feel half-crazy most of the time. But she couldn’t let her mehoo know that.
“You shouldn’t be helping that dog of a man,” Mehoo-Jimmy snapped. “All he does is take, take, take. Probably doesn’t even care that you’re working yourself away to nothing, trying to keep his worthless hide from being nailed to the nearest tree.”
“Of course, he cares,” Nina protested. “He feels terrible about what he did. He just hasn’t been the same since Mom died. You know that.”
“That was twelve years ago, Nina. The death of a loving spirit is a terrible thing, but you can’t use it as an excuse forever.”
Mehoo-Jimmy was only saying what she herself had often thought, but Nina couldn’t help the surge of guilt she felt when hearing it spoken aloud. Her mother had begged her to take care of her father when she was dying, and Nina had done her best, though she was scarcely twelve at the time.
Cooking and cleaning the house as well as doing her homework had been a heavy burden at such a young age, but somehow, she had managed. And no matter how much she might hate her father’s drinking and gambling, she could never forget all the good times. The way he and her mother would laugh and dance in the little kitchen to the tunes coming out of the scratchy old radio… The way her father with his charming Welsh accent and deep blue eyes—the one feature Nina had inherited from him—would tell silly jokes and tickle her mother until she laughed so hard she cried…
“They were so in love,” she murmured, looking down at her hand again. “I guess…I can’t blame him for missing her so much.”
“He had a problem with gambling fever a long time before he met your mother.” Mehoo-Jimmy sighed and put a withered hand to Nina’s cheek. “Just don’t work yourself to death for him, eecho. He’s had his life, and he used it badly—don’t let him take away yours too.”
“He’s not,” Nina said a touch defensively.
“Yes, he is.” Mehoo-Jimmy sounded sad. “Look at you—you’re halfway through your twenties, and you still have no house or family of your own. You ought to find a good man to love you—someone to cook my special fry bread for.”
“You do make good fry bread,” Nina admitted, glad to change the subject. “I’d eat it all day if it wouldn’t go straight to my behind and hips.”
Mehoo-Jimmy made a disgusted hmmph sound. “You’re too skinny as it is, eecho—you ought to be eating a whole plate of fry bread every day.”
“The top of me, maybe. But this…” Nina patted her too-generous hips and ass. “This is never getting skinny, no matter what I do.”
“Nothing wrong with having wide hips,” Mehoo-Jimmy said with certainty. “It shows you’re fertile. The right man will come along and want to put a baby between those hips.”
“Mehoo!” Nina shook her head, laughing in embarrassment. Mehoo-Jimmy was known for speaking her mind, and she didn’t mince words. Half the time, Nina had no idea what she was going to say next.
“It’s true,” her adopted grandmother insisted. “Just you wait and see.”
“Well, I promise if I find a man who actually wants a girl with big hips and a wide behind, I’ll bring him home and feed him your fry bread—how about that?” she said.
“Hmmph,” Mehoo-Jimmy said again, frowning. “I’ll believe it when I see it. You don’t have time to find a man with all the hard work you do.” She narrowed her eyes at Nina. “The best I can do is send out a prayer that the man will find you.”
For some reason a shiver went down Nina’s spine. She thought again of the man in her dream, the one whose face was always shadowed.
“Don’t do that, Mehoo,” she begged. “I’m fine just like I am, really.”
“We’ll see.” The old lady turned her attention back to her half eaten burger. “We’ll just see.”
“Well, right now, I see it’s time for me to go.” Nina glanced at her watch. Actually, it was past time. She hopped up and dropped another kiss on Mehoo-Jimmy’s wrinkled cheek. “Love you, Mehoo. I’ll see you later.”
“Good-bye, eecho. Be well and safe. And thank you for lunch.” The old lady smiled and shooed away a cat before taking another bite of the burger with her big false teeth.
Nina waved as she slid behind the wheel of her car. Time to go to her shift at Massage Envy, which would last until nine. She loved working at the museum, but it did make for some long days.
She sighed wearily as she took a back road that led to South Tampa. The long hours had never bothered her before, but back when she first started her demanding schedule, she hadn’t been woken at least once a night by the dreams. And once she woke up, she couldn’t get back to sleep. Couldn’t get him out of her head.
How much longer could she keep going like this with little to no sleep? And why couldn’t she stop having the dreams?
Not for the first time, Nina wondered uneasily if something was wrong with her. Was she having some kind of mental breakdown? Going crazy?
Of course I’m not going crazy, she denied to herself uneasily. Everything is going to be fine. I’m sure tonight I’ll be able to sleep without dreaming. Tonight will be the night the dreams finally end.
But she didn’t believe it—not really. The man with the shadowed face was too real to just fade away like that. He wanted something from her—something Nina was afraid to give.