Chapter 1, No Surprise More Magical (in Unbound)
David had returned to the land of the living. Sort of.
He bled from a throbbing knot on his temple. The laceration across his chest burned and wept red. The paper on the exam table crinkled as he shifted, the pain in his body just slightly eclipsing the nerve-racking anticipation over seeing the woman he'd successfully avoided for two months.
After a week spent tracking the Ofarians' most-wanted fugitive through the wilds of the Sierras, the activity of the clinic jarred. The lights glared too brightly. The buzz and hum of water elemental magic, emanating from his fellow Ofarians scurrying about their work, played havoc with his already woozy brain.
And then there was Dr. Kelsey Evans, opening the door.
She looked far more relaxed than the last time they'd spoken. Less burdened. He'd done the right thing by ending their engagement, even though seeing her now reminded him of what he'd almost had. That loss thrust hard and jagged into his chest.
Still, he smiled, because when it came to her, even with pain spiking through his body, he couldn't help it. "Hey, Doc. Mind telling me why I'm here and not at your mom's ER?"
"You're not an emergency." She entered but left the door wide open. "And I want to try a new treatment on you."
"Always wanted to be a guinea pig. Do I get to run around in one of those huge plastic balls?"
Great stars, he lived to make her smile. So rare. Always beautiful.
In sophomore year health class, he'd dressed up the two room skeletons in awful 1970s clothing and posed them doing it in front of the blackboard. He'd amassed a long detention schedule for that stunt, but when he'd first seen Kelsey's small smile shining out from the front row—on the face of the bookish girl who'd always been the most reluctant to lighten up—he'd been instantly hooked. Now, more than a decade later, he craved it like water.
Kelsey smoothed her bright hair, the color of a brand-new penny, into her trademark ponytail. Not sparing him a glance, she went right to the sink to wash up.
In his dreams, he got to see her without her ever-present white coat. In his dreams, he slid out the rubber band at her nape and let that hair brush her shoulders. In his dreams, they kissed and touched, and not because a bunch of old people had told them to marry and breed.
He'd never known why the former Ofarian Board had matched them in marriage in the first place. Him from the working class, she from the ruling. Kelsey hadn't wanted it—she'd never loved anything more than her career—so when the Board had been deposed three months ago and the old systems crumbled, David couldn't bear to hold her to a promise she hadn't willfully given.
So he'd ended it. For her sake.
Kelsey opened cabinets and removed rolls of gauze, scissors, and a clear pouch of water that sparkled like the sun setting over a lake.
"Did you get Wes?" she asked, turning to him.
The reminder of his most recent failure hurt almost as bad as his injuries. "No. He got away." David touched his sticky forehead and groaned. "A steep ravine and a sharp boulder got me instead."
Wes Pritchart, the last former Ofarian executive remaining to be tried and imprisoned, had been on the lam since the Board fell. He'd been chief operating officer of the Plant, which had secretly manufactured Mendacia, the magic product that had kept the Ofarians steeped in wealth and privilege for generations. Then the shocking secret behind Mendacia had come to light, setting their society on a path to destruction. David was proud to say he'd been among the treasonous few to have taken down the Ofarian Board. Its members and anyone knowingly involved in the Plant had been imprisoned. Everyone except Wes, who'd managed to escape.
Kelsey came to the edge of the exam table and peered at his temple, her expression assessing and professional. "Can you lean back for me? Yeah, thanks. Just relax."
When her latex-covered fingers touched his face, he inadvertently sighed. Their first touch in nearly six months, since the night of their matching ceremony. They'd held hands then, as a ribbon of glistening, enchanted water had bound them together.
The sting of the antiseptic wash didn't faze him. Over the sharp tang of the medicine, he could smell her. Feel her.
"This'll need some stitches," she said in that low, careful way of doctors, "but I've been working on something new. Secondary water magic combined with Primary medicine. If I'm right, it could be . . . monumental. Do I have your permission?"
She was bending over him, her voice a caress to match the lightness of her touch. Her sky blue eyes shone like stars, and he knew it had to come from the excitement of her work, not from his proximity.
"Do it, Doc. Whatever you want." He wasn't entirely sure of the innocence of his command.
Kelsey lifted the glimmering pouch over his head wound and slit a corner. Words in the language of their birth poured out in time with the liquid. The sparkling water defied gravity to undulate in a cool bubble the size of a golf ball over his split skin. She whispered more Ofarian words, tapping into the magic swirling inside the bubble, and sent it surging into his body. Her words, her power, drifted inside him. Slipped into his bloodstream, his very being.
There was something else, too—the numbness of Primary medicine doing its thing alongside the Secondary magic. Monumental, she'd said.
"How does it feel?" she asked.
Holy hell, it did. The quiet pulse of magic traveled down his arms and torso. Lower even, stirring him. He shifted on the table, trying to hide the neon sign that would tell her his body was lighting up. He'd successfully hidden his desire for twelve years. He wasn't about to show her now, here on her table, when he knew he wasn't wanted.
"That should do it. The combo should accelerate healing."
In Ofarian, she commanded the bubble to roll off his temple and into her palm. No longer sparkling—the magic and medicine transferred into him—she carried it, whole and wobbly, to the sink, where it splashed into the stainless steel basin. As she came back to him, she murmured clinical approval, numbed his temple, and started to stitch.
He relaxed into her touch, feeling the tug of the needle but not the pain, and let his eyes trail out the door to the flurry of nurses and lab technicians outside. "This is great, Doc, what you've built here."
"Thank you." Pride swelled her voice.
"So this is what you've been doing lately? Experimenting with mixed treatments?"
"Yes." Her hands left him and he gazed up at her. Damn, she was like the sun, her pale skin and coppery hair dazzling.
"Can I tell you something?" she asked, sitting back.
Anything. Please let it be what he wanted to hear. "Sure," he said.
"I was thinking that maybe, if my combined treatments work on Ofarians, they might work on Primaries, too."
Such an amazing thought. Such a dangerous thought. Right now, the Primary and Secondary human worlds—the former ignorant of magic, the latter dependent on it—didn't overlap. For Ofarians to reveal themselves as magic-users could be devastating. It had been one of the key issues behind the Board's destruction. But if Kelsey could actually help the Primaries, if her work could heal them . . . that could be quite the game changer. Or the world changer.
"Gwen and Griffin do want to better integrate into the Primary society," he said carefully. "Who knows? Maybe it'll happen."
"Thank you. For saying that. I worry about not being able to keep this place open, now that . . ."
The Ofarians don't have Mendacia, David mentally finished for her. Millions and millions of dollars had once poured in from that product, now all gone.
"Did you know," she said, returning to her work, "that the Board used to have access to all medical records? They had no concept of sanctity, of doctor-patient privilege. But here, all my work is confidential. I love that."
The Board had destroyed so much—and invaded even more—under the banner of "success." Griffin Aames, the first elected Ofarian leader, and Gwen Carroway, the woman who'd taken down the Board, wanted to build back up in the name of progress. David wanted whatever his new leader wanted because Griffin was fair and strong. Even though David was a soldier by birth, he remained in service by choice, and because Griffin was his best friend.
Kelsey cleared her throat, snipped off the thread. "Okay. On to the next. I want your shirt off."
If she weren't so professional, so frustratingly poised, he might have taken that statement another way. He wanted to take it another way. Instead, he reached for the buttons on his Ofarian-issued black shirt but couldn't disguise his wince. Pain streaked from his chest to his fingertips and his arms flopped back to the table.
"It's okay, you know." She held up the scissors. "You can say it hurts."
David looked into her impossibly clear eyes, surrounded by feathers of copper lashes, and laughed. "Then it hurts. Like a bitch."
But not as much as having to let her go.
She stretched for where the bloodied and shredded shirt was tucked into his black pants. He tortured himself by dreaming she reached for something else.
Though her hands were smooth with latex gloves, he imagined how she might trail her gentle fingers down his ribs, over his belly, and slide beneath the gap of his pants between his hipbones. Only the pain rippling across his chest kept him from getting hard.
She snipped the shirt up one side of the buttons. Tilting him on his side, she cut up the back of the shirt and pulled the two halves down his arms. Habit and his favorite defense mechanism longed to make a joke about his near nakedness, but she looked so serious, and there was only so much forced levity he could stand before it threatened to crush him.
As she patched his chest with another water-magicked pouch of liquid, he returned his attention to the open door, looking for someone in particular. There she was, right in his line of sight. A woman in her mid-forties, long hair pulled back at the sides, her body softened with age, sat at the central computer terminal. Her head in her hand, she stared unseeing at the monitor.
"Emily Pritchart," he muttered. Wes's sister.
Kelsey finished her quiet chanting. The healing magic coursed through the wound.
"Yes," she replied. "That's her."
"She's one of your nurses?"
"Not exactly. She's in charge of maintaining regular contact with our patients taking part in my test treatments. She interviews them, documents progress or problems, that sort of thing."
Weeks of frustrating chases ate at him. Wes eluded him far too easily, considering Wes had been a suit his whole life. It was like he had help or something.
David shifted his head on the thin, papery pillow and asked Kelsey, "Has her brother tried to contact her here at the clinic?"
Kelsey's eyebrows drew together. "Not that I know of. Why?"
"Has she mentioned him to you at all? Has she called him from here? E-mailed him? You guys are friends, right?"
Only when Kelsey's hand slid from his pectoral muscle did he realize she'd been holding it there. She adopted that opinionated, determined look he remembered from her spirited class debates back in high school. "What exactly are you getting at? That Emily is somehow helping Wes evade you? She's as devastated as the rest of us over what he was involved with."
David struggled up onto his elbows. "And Wes is also her brother. Blood is a powerful thing, Doc."
"She's distraught, David. Look at her."
As if Emily had heard them, the other woman glanced up and looked right at David—the man hunting down her brother. Emily jumped up from her chair, ducked her head, and hurried out of sight.
"Ouch!" His head whipped back to Kelsey, who'd slapped a huge bandage over his chest with none of her trademark gentleness.
"Can you sit up for me?"
He tried to do it himself, but in the end had to accept her help. Her cheeks flushed slightly as she wrapped gauze around his chest, passing the roll from hand to hand around his back. She had to move closer to do it, her body inserted between his knees, the short, sharp bursts of her breath on his neck. Her warmth coated his bare skin. He swallowed, willing away any pleasure his desperate body wanted to feel.
"I'm not trying to get at anything," he said. "I'm just asking. It's my job. Griffin wants Pritchart in custody. A lot—maybe everything—is riding on this capture."
Bottom line, ousting the old Board hadn't been a cure to what ailed their race. It had shattered Ofarian society into chunks and now it was Griffin's job to pick them all up and somehow glue them back together.
"I know." Kelsey backed toward the door, a steel veneer pulled down over her expression. "You're done. Come back after the Ice Rites for evaluation."
She left. And he'd been the one, again, to drive her away.
(c) 2013 Hanna Martine