Sovereign Ysldred X’izith of the Hive paced back and forth, stopping every once in a while to stare into the bright green stone, about as large as a human palm.
The picture the stone showed was clear—a female sitting alone, staring into the horizon with a thoughtful look on her face. She had light brown skin and long curly hair—she was most lovely for an Earth female, he decided.
Not that it was her beauty which interested him. This female was special—a ten’sora—the only one they’d been able to find on Earth. Once they had hoped to find many more—dozens or even hundreds—but though X’izith had sent out scout after scout to collect DNA samples, this girl was the only one.
Never mind—he only needed one.
“Are we nearly ready? Is the scout in place?” he demanded of the sentient worker who was buzzing nearby.
“Yes, my Sovereign. And we have found a suitable host at last. Once the scout stings him and injects him with the mind-control venom, he will take the E’lo stone to the girl and she will be instantly transported.”
“And you’re certain the stones will work?” X’izith demanded. The theft of the Druvian E’lo stones had been a risky enterprise—one which had yet to pay off. He had finally been able to bend the green stone—the seer stone—to his will so that it showed him what he wanted to see instead of random images. But the small purple transport stones had only recently been declared functional.
He needed the transport stones to work—it was the only way to bring the girl to him—the only way to circumvent the protective energy net those damn Kindred had placed around the Earth to keep it safe. Nothing larger than an insect could get through the net but that was all right—X’izith specialized in insects, being one himself.
If an Earthling was to see him, they might think he most resembled a cross between a cockroach and a wasp, with the long hard shell-like wings of the former and the narrow waist and stinger of the latter. His head, bulbous and triangular, resembled that of an ant with its curving, serrated mandibles, mobile, twitching antennae, and huge black, soulless eyes. His entire body was shiny black, slashed with crimson, and his long, chitinous legs were lined with coarse, wiry hairs and tipped with gripping claws.
Regrettably, he was missing one of his long, thin arms and one eye was only an empty socket. The long, insectile abdomen at the bottom of his body was twisted with scar tissue and his black breeding barb, once so sleek and deadly, now appeared withered.
These injuries were the results of a battle with one of the Kindred—a male who had stolen his rightful Breeding-Queen, she who was to have born the legion of royal grubs X’izith was eager to implant.
And implant them he would, he vowed to himself. Though his barb was withered, it was yet functional. The girl the E’lo seer stone was showing him would be the mother of a new race—she would bear the royal grubs and then many, many more…
“Release the scout,” he told the worker at his side. “And be certain that the transport stone is ready. It must touch her skin to take effect.”
“Yes, my Sovereign,” the worker buzzed.
“Soon…” X’izith mused to himself as he stared into the green seer stone. “Soon you will be here with me, my dear.”
On the Breeding platform beside him the twin of the transport stone lay. It was small and purple and perfectly innocuous looking. The E’lo stones had originally been made to allow two similar individuals to switch places instantly from anywhere in the universe. But this particular pair had been calibrated to bring one special female aboard his lair, transporting her in the blink of an eye from Earth to the special base he and his workers had built under the mountains of Mars.
The Breeding Chamber was in readiness, supplied with oxygen and warmed by the light and heat generated by special workers whose abdomens glowed dull red as they supplied both.
The little Earth female should feel quite at home.
“Soon,” X’izith buzzed again. “Soon the royal nurseries will be full and the Hive will live forever.”
The Nameless Ones, Gods of Nothingness, grant it should be so.
It was the middle of January so of course, Harper Wilde was at the beach.
January—and parts of February—were really the only decent months to visit the beach, in Harper’s opinion. Living in Tampa, it was much too hot and humid the rest of the year. She always felt sorry for the summer tourists who came to Florida to do the theme parks—Busch Gardens and Disney and Universal—in July and August. The weather then was pretty much unbearable. You’d melt into a little puddle standing in line to get into Harry Potter Land or the Small World ride.
So not worth it.
In fact, the only way to live during summer—which was about ten months out of the year in Central Florida—was to run from your air-conditioned car to the air-conditioned house or office and just try to stay inside. Which was a shame, since Florida had some beautiful outside areas—most notably the white sand beaches.
The beach was Harper’s favorite place to be—when it wasn’t broiling outside. And January was her favorite time of year. The crazy hustle and bustle of the holidays was over, it wasn’t unbearably hot yet, and hurricane season was eight blissful months away. (It had been an especially bad season this past year so Harper was extra grateful for that.)
She liked to come to the beach all by herself at this time of the year and just relax and reflect on her life. Think about goals for the coming year—maybe lose some weight, (she was definitely plus-sized)—get into some charity work, join a book club…
Maybe try to get involved in a lasting, mature, adult relationship with a man who’s serious about his future, whispered a little voice in her head.
Then again, maybe she should take a little more time off before diving into the dating pool again. Breaking up with her fiancé, Jareth, last year had been pretty rough, especially since her entire family had expected her to settle down and start having babies with him.
But how could she have babies with a man-child who was barely more mature than a baby himself? The moment they’d moved in together, Jareth had lost all motivation towards helping out in any way around the house. He refused to help cook or clean or even wash his own clothes. He never wanted to take Harper out anymore either—even when she was paying. All he wanted to do was sit around all day playing Call of Duty and World of Warcraft with his online friends, drinking beer and eating greasy takeout pizza.
After six months of this, Harper had woken up to reality. Her fiancé was never going to change and she was basically nothing to him but a maid service with sexual benefits. She’d given back his ring, packed her bags, and moved back to her mom’s place that same day, thanking God that she hadn’t put her name on the lease.
Let Jareth find someone else to wait on him hand and foot—she had better things to do with her life.
And one thing you ought to be doing right now is finding a new apartment. You can’t stay with mom forever, you know.
Harper sighed as she picked up a shell and threw it into the softly rustling waves lapping along the coastline. The sea breeze blew briskly through her long, curly hair and the seagulls were crying monotonously overhead. Her mom had prevailed on her to stay through the holidays but now it was time to get her own place again. She was a grown-ass woman in her thirties after all. And anyway, the atmosphere at home was a little too thick lately.
Her last little brother had gone off to college this past fall which left nobody but her mom and her stepdad, Declan, at home. Declan wasn’t mean and he seemed devoted to her mom but he hadn’t come on the scene until Harper was ten—a little late for bonding, so they’d never really gotten close. Plus, her mom was always moaning about how she wasn’t getting any younger and she wanted grandbabies.
Sometimes Harper thought her mom was more upset about the breakup with Jareth than Harper was herself. Her ex-fiancé might have been lazy and shiftless but he would have worked just fine as a sperm donor.
“I want kids—I just want to have them with another responsible adult,” Harper muttered to herself, throwing another shell into the waves. “If I’d gotten pregnant with Jareth I would have had two babies to look after, not just one.”
She sighed. She’d put her career first for long enough and she’d reaped the benefits of her hard work and sacrifice. Despite being a woman—and a woman of color at that—she’d risen quite high as a marketing exec at HCP & Associates. High enough that she could take a breather and have a kid or two if she wanted—if she could find the right man to have them with, that was.
As her mom was always reminding her, the clock was ticking on that one. And Harper had to admit she was right, even if her constant harping on the subject did get on Harper’s nerves. It would be better to have babies in her early thirties, rather than in her forties when she’d probably have to start worrying about fertility treatments.
Why couldn’t she meet the right guy—a guy who was serious and responsible—someone with a no-nonsense approach to life? Sure, Harper knew it was the opposite of what practically every romantic comedy ever written told women they should want.
A woman was supposed to look for a man with a sense of humor. Someone who would make spontaneous gestures like dancing in the rain and bringing her flowers at midnight. Someone who would make her laugh with his unpredictable wit.
But she’d had all that with Jareth, and she’d found that wild, funny personality had also come with a marked inability to see the dirty dishes in the sink or to put down the damn toilet seat.
Harper wanted someone steady—someone serious, she told herself. Someone practical who knew what the hell he was doing and had a clear vision of what he wanted in the future.
Little did she know how soon she would get exactly that…and how much she’d regret wishing for it.
But for now, blissfully ignorant, she threw another shell into the ocean and absently scratched her upper arm. She’d been stung there by the strangest looking wasp the other day—it had been as long as her thumb, its body a bright, shiny, almost metallic green—and its wings had been a blur of gold and black.
The sting had resulted in a painful lump which still hadn’t gone down completely even though it had been two days since the wasp had landed on her arm. It was red and slightly raised on her café au lait skin, and it itched from time to time.
Harper’s mother wanted her to go to a doctor and get it checked but Harper was in no hurry. Yes, the wasp had been weird, like no kind she’d ever seen before, but this was Florida. You could walk out in your backyard and find ten bugs you’d never seen before on any given day—if you wanted to, which Harper, having no entomological interests, did not. Plus it didn’t really hurt and she didn’t want to spend one of her precious days off from work sitting in a doctor’s waiting room.
The lump would go down eventually. She wasn’t allergic to bee stings or anything so she would be fine, Harper told herself, scratching again. It wasn’t like a wasp sting would ruin her life.
“Hi there. How are you doing?”
Shading her eyes against the sun, Harper looked up to see who was talking.
A nice-looking guy wearing red shorts and a lifeguard shirt—a white tank top with a big red cross on it—was smiling down at her. He had skin about the color of her own warm, creamy brown although it was difficult to tell from his features if he was Latino or mixed like her. She wondered if he got the same kinds of questions about his heritage that she got about hers.
Harper’s father had been white and her mother was black, which accounted for Harper’s café au lait skin tones, jade green eyes, and long, corkscrew curls that were a lush toffee brown. It was an unusual enough combination that she’d regularly been asked if she was adopted when she was young—a question which had long since stopped hurting her heart though it still annoyed her deeply.
Well, at least he’s not white—Mom would approve.
Her mother, who had certain trust issues after Harper’s father had left when Harper was just five, was always warning her to “stick with her own kind.” Harper didn’t bother pointing out that since she was mixed, her own kind should be anyone she was attracted to. Still, to appease her mother she mostly dated inside the African American community.
“Hi,” she said, smiling up at the lifeguard. “I’m not in any danger of drowning, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
The lifeguard—who she estimated to be quite a bit younger than her own thirty years but what the hell, a cute guy was a cute guy—scratched the back of his neck and frowned, in a confused kind of way.
“No, I didn’t think you were drowning. I just saw you and, well…I really wanted to come talk to you.”
He crouched down in the sand beside her, his mild brown eyes looking handsome, if a little puzzled.
Harper felt a little wary. He might be a lifeguard but he was still a man and she was a woman alone on a deserted beach. Was he going to try something? She thought of the small pocket knife attached to her key ring at the bottom of her wide straw beach bag. But he just sat there, smiling at her in a calm, almost zenned-out kind of way.
“Okay, well…I’m flattered I guess,” she said. “But I kind of like to be alone at the beach. It’s a meditation kind of thing—you know, thinking over the old year and making New Year’s resolutions? That kind of thing.”
“Sure, I understand. I’ll leave you alone—I just thought you might like this.”
He opened his hand and Harper caught her breath.
A deep purple stone, about the size and shape of an M&M candy, sparkled in his palm.
“Wow…what is it?” she murmured.
He shrugged and scratched the back of his neck again.
“Don’t know. I just found it in the sand and thought you should have it. A pretty stone for a pretty lady, right?”
It was a cheesy pickup line but Harper found herself charmed all the same. The lifeguard guy really was cute, in a multi-ethnic boy-next-door kind of way. Plus, she hadn’t dated anyone since she’d broken it off with Jareth and it had been a long dry spell.
Going without physical affection was hard on Harper. She was old enough and confident enough to know exactly what she wanted in bed and she craved it when she didn’t get it. While Mr. Lifeguard with the cheesy pickup line and the pretty purple rock was probably a bit young and inexperienced for her, Harper thought he looked teachable. She’d never been into one-night stands but maybe—
She’d started reaching for the stone automatically as she thought all this, but as her fingertips brushed the lifeguard guy’s arm, she got a sudden flash she couldn’t explain.
His mild brown eyes disappeared and she saw bulging compound eyes instead. His face was suddenly insectile…wedge shaped…alien. Twitching antennae sprouted from his forehead and cruel, serrated mandibles curved from his lower jaw. They clacked menacingly as the strange, bug-like face leaned towards her own.
Gasping, Harper drew her hand back as though she’d been burned.
“Hey, is everything okay?” The lifeguard guy was back, a look of mild concern on his blandly handsome features.
“Just…just fine.” Harper laughed nervously. What was wrong with her? Had the Starbuck’s frappuccino she’d had on the way to the beach this morning been spiked with something?
Whatever the reason for the strange flash, she abruptly lost all interest in the nice-looking lifeguard guy. The sexual stirrings she’d been feeling were doused completely—as though someone had thrown an ice-cold bucket of water over her head. Now all she wanted was to get away from him.
“Look,” she said, scooting back to put some distance between them. “I just remembered I have an appointment so I really need to get going.”
To her relief, he didn’t push.
“Sure, I understand.” He rose easily and waited for her to stand as well.
Harper did, gathering her beach bag under her arm and shaking the sand off her towel which she folded hastily over her other arm.
“Well…goodbye. Nice meeting you and Happy New Year,” she said lamely.
“Nice to meet you too.” He scratched the back of his neck and turned away. When he did, Harper saw a raised red welt just under his hairline, like the one on her own arm.
She wondered uneasily if he’d been stung by a wasp like she had. The image of the bright, metallic green and gold insect flickered across her mind and then was gone in an instant.
“Oh wait,” lifeguard guy said, turning back. He held out the shiny purple stone, as if it was an afterthought. “Don’t forget this. It might bring you luck for the New Year.”
“Oh, I couldn’t,” Harper protested but he made as if to drop it into her hand and she was already reaching out reflexively to catch it when a hoarse voice shattered the peace of the quiet beach.
“Don’t touch it, Harper!”
Harper’s head jerked up and she saw a man running across the sand dunes toward her. He was big—bigger than big, huge—and he had the blackest hair she’d ever seen. It was made blacker by the paleness of his skin—he looked like he’d never been outside in the sunlight before that moment. There was something strange about his eyes too, but Harper couldn’t tell what it was—she was more distracted by the fact that the wild-looking stranger was not only some kind of giant but also completely naked.
“Don’t touch it!” he shouted again, his deep voice rising over the sound of the rushing surf. “It’s death to touch it. Fucking death!”
“Take it. You have to take it!”
Suddenly lifeguard guy had her by the wrist. There was an intensely focused look on his face, but his eyes were strangely blank. He had a frighteningly strong grip on her arm and he was trying to force her to take the shiny purple stone.
Harper drew back instinctively, attempting to get free. What the hell was going on here?
“Let me go!” she demanded, yanking at her trapped wrist. “Let me go, Goddamnit!”
“Touch it,” lifeguard guy insisted. “Just touch it!”
“No, I don’t want to!”
“You heard the lady.” Suddenly the huge naked stranger with black hair and blazing eyes was upon them. He seemed to have covered the last few feet of sand at an almost inhuman pace. Balling up a fist that looked to Harper to be as big as her head, he punched lifeguard guy hard in the face.
The grip on her wrist loosened abruptly as the formerly nice-looking lifeguard went down in a boneless heap, sprawling at their feet. His other hand loosened too and the shiny purple M&M stone skittered across the sand.
Without missing a beat, the naked stranger scooped up the stone along with a handful of sand and threw it as hard as he could. Harper saw it sparkle in the sunlight and then it plopped into the ocean, far enough out to make her gape. Wow, with a pitching arm like that he could be a major league player! Not that she followed sports much but they were pretty much all her younger brothers could talk about and she’d seen more than of her share of Rays games.
Then her eyes drifted lower. Wow, this guy was huge everywhere.
Looks like he’s packing a bat and balls to match that pitching arm, whispered the little voice in her head and a semi-hysterical giggle rose in her throat.
Harper swallowed it back down.
“Who—?” she began, backing away from the stranger.
“Give me your towel,” he demanded.
“What?” She clutched the blue and white striped beach towel to her chest protectively.
“Give me your towel,” he said impatiently. “It makes you nervous that I’m naked. Let me cover up while we talk.”
“Who said I want to talk to you?” Harper demanded but she was already handing over the towel. There was an air of authority about this huge man that was impossible to ignore.
He wrapped the towel around his waist, hiding his considerable endowments and looked at her intently. His eyes were white, Harper saw—not just plain chalk-white though—they were a shifting, opalescent hue that seemed to be every color and no color at once. A thin ring of black around the outer irises accounted for the strange piercing quality of his gaze. She’d never seen such eyes in her life—they made her uneasy, as though the stranger could see right through her.
“Listen to me—we don’t have much time,” he said in a low, clipped voice. “I’m Shadow, a warrior of the Kindred, but most who know me call me Shad.”
A Kindred—of course! Should have known. There was no way he could be human—he was at least seven feet tall, literally hung like a horse, and extremely muscular. Not to mention those eyes…It made sense that he was one of the alien warriors who guarded the Earth and occasionally called human brides to live in their huge Mother Ship orbiting the moon.
Harper had a sudden thought and her stomach dropped—she’d just gone down to the Tampa HKR office last week to register herself for the bride draft, as was required of all unmarried Earth females, according to the treaty the Kindred had with the leaders of Earth. She hadn’t thought anything of it at the time—statistically not that many women were called as brides. In fact, she’d made a little celebration of it. It was just another sign that she was no longer tied to the good-for-nothing Jareth—that she’d broken her last tie with her former fiancé and had no intention of going back.
“Did…did you come to call me as your bride?” she asked anxiously. “Because I’m not…I never…”
“No,” he said harshly and barked a laugh. “Gods, you always ask me that. No, I’m here to save your life—and with it, the life of everyone on the Mother Ship and many on Earth. But in order to do that, you have to listen to me.”
“No, I don’t think so. This all sounds too crazy for me.” Harper took a wary step back from him. She’d never heard of the Kindred having any kind of psychosis or doing mind altering drugs but this guy was definitely high on something. Saying he was here to save her life? Save it from what? The still unconscious lifeguard guy and his threatening purple M&M?
Nope, whispered the skeptical little voice in her head. I don’t think so.
But the huge Kindred wasn’t taking no for an answer.
“Listen to me,” he repeated in that low, intense voice of his. “Your name is Harper Lee Wilde. You were named so because To Kill a Mocking Bird is your mother’s favorite book. You like to joke it’s lucky she didn’t name you ‘Scout’ or ‘Boo Radley.’”
Harper stopped in her tracks. That was something she sometimes said when people remarked on her name. But he might have overheard it somewhere—maybe at a party she’d attended when she was meeting new people. Her mother had dragged her to a fair number of Christmas parties that year and she was certain she’d made plenty of introductions.
But don’t you think you would have noticed a seven-foot-tall white guy with blazing white eyes staring at you if he was anywhere in the room? whispered the little voice in her head.
Still, though—it was too weird. She took another step, putting distance between them. But Shadow—Shad—wasn’t done yet.
“You had a stuffed rabbit when you were younger—given to you by your father. You named him Mr. Bun. He was lost when you took him to the amusement park—the Gardens of Busch, I think. You believed in the tooth fairy until you were ten and you woke up and saw your mother putting a dollar under your pillow one night.”
“Hey…” Harper felt all the blood drain from her face. “How…how can you possibly know all that about me?”
He looked at her intently.
“Because you told me, Harper. You told me all of it before.”
“But I’ve never met you before in my life!” Harper protested.
“Not in this life,” he said obliquely. “But you have and you probably will again—it depends on which path the loop takes—if there are any paths left.” His voice was grim.
“The loop?” She shook her head. “What are you talking about?”
“There isn’t time to say more. The Hive aren’t able to get large agents through the security net the Kindred have around the Earth during this time period, but they can send out smaller scouts and mind-poisoners like the one that stung your friend there.” He scuffed at the fallen lifeguard with one foot.
“The Hive?” Harper had heard rumors of them—an insectile race which abducted human women—or tried to anyway—for nefarious purposes. But she’d assumed it was just an urban legend. Or in this case, a Kindred legend.
“They’re after you, Harper,” Shad said patiently. “Because you’re a ten’sora—the only one on Earth they’ve been able to locate. I won’t tell you what that means now, but it’s not to your benefit.”
“Will you come with me or will I carry you? I have done both but I prefer it when you come willingly.” He waited, frowning intently and Harper had the feeling he would absolutely swing her over one broad, bare shoulder and carry her off, kicking and screaming, without a second thought.
Despite his strange knowledge of her—or maybe because of it—she didn’t want to go with him. This was all too weird to wrap her head around. Plus, he kept talking like he’d known her in some past life or something. Harper enjoyed Yoga and meditation but she didn’t go in for that reincarnation crap.
She wanted in the worst way to get away. But if she ran he would surely catch her. She’d seen how fast he could move—for such a huge male he was incredibly quick…and frighteningly strong. Maybe she could just pretend to come willingly and then make a break for it once they reached the parking lot? That seemed like her best bet.
“Okay,” she said at last. “I’ll come with you. You don’t…don’t have to carry me.”
“Good.” He made a strangely courtly gesture with one large hand—after you—and nodded across the sandy expanse towards the parking area, as Harper had hoped he would.
She started walking with the huge Kindred on her right, glad that her beach bag was on her left arm. As unobtrusively as she could, she reached into it with her left hand and began to feel around for her keys. The small pocket knife she carried on her key ring wasn’t much of a weapon but it was the best thing she had and she needed to make a break for it the minute she got in reach of her car.
Her heart was pounding as she found the small knife and flipped it open, clutching the handle in her sweaty palm. Too bad she was right handed and she’d be fighting with her left but maybe all she’d have to do was slash him once to startle him. Then she could bolt for the car and—
“Give me the knife.”
“What?” She looked up at him, shocked. How could he have possibly known?
“The small knife you have in your hand. Give it to me—I need it.”
Fear gripped her and Harper held the knife tighter in response.
“I’ll give you the knife all right!” she hissed. Letting the straps of her beach bag slide down her arm, she withdrew her hand and pointed the three inch blade at Shad. It was a laughably small weapon to use on such a huge male but she wasn’t going down without a fight!
She feigned one way and jabbed the other, just as she’d been taught in the one self-defense course she’d taken way back in college. But Shad wasn’t just quick—he also seemed to know exactly which way she was going to move before she knew herself. He simply caught her wrist and plucked the knife, still attached to her jangling mass of keys, from her hand.
“Hey!” Harper couldn’t believe it. “How did you—?”
“How did I disarm you so easily? Because this isn’t the first time you’ve attacked me with this pathetic little weapon,” Shad growled. “However, it does come in handy.”
He grabbed her by the elbow and before Harper could even start to scream, he’d used the small knife to slice right down the center of the itchy, red welt on her upper arm, which had been left by the strange green wasp the week before.
Terror and the sharp pain of the blade knifed through her.
Oh my God, he’s some kind of serial killer and I’m his next target! He didn’t even wait to get me in his car before he started cutting me!
“Stop! Help! Somebody help me!” she screamed—or tried to but Shad had dropped the knife and clamped his hand over her mouth.
“I’m not a serial killer, as you are thinking. Nor am I a rapist, which is what you’re going to think next,” he growled in her ear. “I had to get the Hive’s tracker out of your arm. Look.”
He took his hand from her mouth and pinched the bump on her upper arm, which was now bleeding freely. Something green and metallic came out. It wasn’t much bigger than a speck and it was coated in her blood but when Shad rubbed it between thumb and finger to clean it, it winked at her in the January sunlight.
“See? The tracker.”
Shad gave her a moment to study it before flicking it away. Then he leaned over and did something even more shocking than cutting her—he licked the wound he’d made, his hot tongue swiping across her cut flesh in a way that made Harper gasp and cry out.
“You…I…” She could barely get the words out, her thoughts in a chaotic jumble.
“Now you’ll heal clean and they can’t track you,” the big Kindred rumbled. “But we can’t stay here—they know this location. It’s the start of the loop. We have to go. But first you have to get undressed. Come on—now. Strip down to your skin.”
“What?” Harper wanted to get away from him but he still had her by the arm—the one he’d cut and then licked. She clutched at the sundress and short-sleeved cardigan she was wearing, her eyes wide. There was no way she was taking off her clothes for this big Kindred asshole! No way in hell. She looked around wildly for some help but there was no one in the parking area of the secluded little beach. Except for herself and Shad, it was completely deserted.
“What are you?” she demanded. “Some kind of a—”
“Rapist?” He cocked one coal-black eyebrow at her. “Didn’t I tell you you’d think that? No, Harper, I have no interest in defiling you in any way. I just want to get you out of here before the Hive come.” He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “Please just take off your clothes willingly this time? I hate having to strip you—makes me feel like a fucking brute.”
“Strip me?” Harper looked at him, disbelieving. Then, suddenly, she had a flash. It was not unlike the strange moment she’d had the first time she’d touched the lifeguard guy. But this time, instead of seeing a giant bug’s face, she saw Shad.
Not wild and grim and determined as he was now, though. She saw the big Kindred with a warm, open look on his face. It almost made his grim, chiseled features look kind.
“Come on, Harper sweetheart,” he was murmuring. “Don’t cry—everything is going to work out this time. I’m sure it is.”
Then the flash was gone and Harper was left contemplating the harsh, tense face of a man who had just threatened to strip her naked in public.
She blinked. Had she imagined what she’d just seen…what she’d heard? His voice had been so soft, so gentle…different from the world-weary growl she’d heard when he told her to get undressed.
I don’t know what’s happening but maybe he’s telling the truth somehow. Maybe the Hive is after me for some reason and he’s trying to get me to safety.
It would have seemed preposterous but for the fact that she’d seen him get the tracker speck out of her arm…and the previous flash she’d had with lifeguard guy when she’d seen the giant insect as she touched him.
“All right,” she said warily, taking a deep breath to try and calm her nerves. “Tell me why I have to get undressed.”
Shad sighed and ran a hand through his hair again.
“Because,” he said roughly. “You can’t time-loop wearing clothes. Not unless you want them permanently and painfully grafted onto your skin. The loop fuses flesh and non-flesh if given the chance.”
“Time-loop?” Harper shook her head. “What—are you going to take me back in time to save me from the Hive or something?”
“I only wish I could go back in time to stop them from finding you.” He sounded sincerely regretful about that. “But I can’t. You can’t go back past the beginning of the loop. No Harper—I’m going to take you to my time.”
“Your time?” She frowned at him, still half-disbelieving. “And where—or I guess I should say when is that?”
“The future.” Shad pinned her with those strange, opalescent eyes of his, the colors of a thousand rainbows shifting in their depths as he stared intently into her face. “Harper, I’ve come to you from the future and I have to take you back with me or you’re going to die.”