Maia tapped her fingers against the steering wheel as she waited for the garage door to open. All she wanted to do was retreat inside and let her frustrations melt away.
The day had been a bitch.
It began when she'd overslept. Instead of taking that as an omen and going back to sleep, she'd been foolishly grateful that she'd woken in time to grab a quick shower and stop for some coffee.
Traffic had been awful, but it always was. She'd had to brake hard to keep from rear-ending the idiot who'd cut her off, which made her cup topple out of the drink holder, drenching her linen trousers from knee to ankle.
She'd punched in at eight on the nose...which meant she was tardy. Tardy! Like she was a flipping eighth grader. She was never late, but did that matter to her new boss?
Every other manager she'd worked for had allowed her a little leeway because she was a good employee. Not this one. Maia took a deep breath and forced herself to relax--her knuckles had gone white from how tightly she squeezed the wheel. Next, she worked at unclenching her jaw, but the headache was bad enough that it was going to linger even after she took aspirin.
As soon as the door was up, she pulled her sedan into the garage, turned off the car, and headed inside. At least it was Friday. For two days, she could kick back and unwind. No more traffic. No more fires to put out. No more jerks to deal with.
The coolness of the air conditioning washed over her, making her home feel like a sanctuary. In a minute or two, she'd change clothes, make herself a salad, and head out to her garden.
Her peace was short-lived.
Maia picked up the murmur of voices and opened her eyes. It only took a second to realize the television was on. She frowned. The only person who might show up uninvited was her sister, but Ryne knew the hours she worked. That meant--
Her temper ignited. After the day she'd had, the last thing she should have to put up with was a burglary. That would just be the perfect ending--filling out police reports and dealing with the insurance company. Damned if she was letting anyone make her life more miserable than it was already. Balling her hands into fists, she headed for the living room to see if the bastard was still around.
Halfway across the kitchen she stopped in her tracks. It would be stupid to face down an intruder now that she didn't have her magic. The smart thing to do was leave and use her cell phone to call 9-1-1, but that went against the grain. She'd been trained to confront problems, not run from them.
If there were thieves, they were probably long gone by now anyway. What were the odds that a burglar had decided to take a break to watch Jeopardy?
To hell with it. Looking around, she spotted the pepper mill and grabbed it. It wasn't much of a weapon, but it was heavy enough to cause some damage. Taking a deep breath, she went to challenge her unexpected guest.
He wasn't a thief.
The man sitting on her couch, feet propped up on her coffee table, was Gineal. She'd lost almost everything when she'd given up her magic, but she still had the ability to sense what someone was. "Excuse me," she drawled.
With a casualness that told her he'd been aware of her presence, the man looked over his shoulder at her and she was able to identify him. Creed Blackwood.
Maia had never worked with him--she'd never even talked to him--but everyone knew who he was.
Blackwood's reputation for being cold and lethal was well-known, but if they'd met last year, Maia would have been prepared to like him. He'd been one of her sister's closest friends, but something had happened to change that. Ryne had refused to say what, but she was loyal to a fault, and if she was on the outs with this man, he'd been the one to cause it.
"What the hell are you doing in my house?" Maia demanded, irritated that he hadn't bothered to offer any excuses for his intrusion.
"It's about time you got here," he complained, and she tightened her grip on the pepper mill.
"If you don't like waiting, don't show up uninvited."
Blackwood clicked off the TV, tossed the remote on the couch, and got to his feet. For an instant, she thought he seemed unsteady, but as she tipped her head back to hold his gaze, she decided she'd been mistaken.
He had a jacket on. It was hot outside, unbearably humid, and her AC wasn't set that low. His banged up tennis shoes should have been thrown out months ago and the faded blue jeans that hugged his muscular thighs were so worn, they were white in a few interesting places. When she realized where she was staring, Maia hurriedly lifted her gaze.
With her height, she rarely had to look up to meet a man's eyes, but he was taller by about half a foot. She didn't like it. She didn't like his looks either. He was gorgeous--too gorgeous--and she didn't trust that, not after--
Maia cut off that thought and studied the man before her, trying to find a flaw. His face was sculpted perfection--high cheekbones, full lips, and a chin with a bit of a cleft in it. His black hair was longer than hers--shoulder length and slightly wavy--and it made her itch to run her fingers through it. Even the dark stubble on his chin added to his good looks. He didn't say a word, merely stared at her. Uncomfortable with the fevered intensity in his dark brown eyes, she asked, "What kind of idiot wears a leather jacket in August?"
"Troubleshooters are usually more welcoming to their brothers-in-arms."
"I'm not a troubleshooter." Not anymore, and that made her heart clench. He knew this--there wasn't a Gineal alive who was unaware that Maia Frasier had ceded her powers seven years ago. "Why are you here?" she repeated.
For a moment, Maia thought he was going to deliberately misunderstand her question, but instead he said, "I need a place to stay."
She immediately became suspicious. Troubleshooters followed protocols, and this was Ryne's territory. "Why didn't you check in with my sister?"
Blackwood shifted, planting his weight evenly on both feet. "What makes you think I haven't?"
"You're a visiting enforcer and the custom is that she offer lodging and assistance if you need it." Maia stared hard at him, daring him to lie. No one was more likely to follow the rules than Ryne.
"I plan to tell her I'm here."
His candor threw her off stride, but she regrouped quickly. "The code says you announce your presence upon arrival, not on your way out of town. Or are you afraid that you'll have to deal with Ryne's anger over what you did to hurt her?"
"That's part of it."
His admission stunned her; it was the last thing she'd expected. "And the rest?"
He didn't say anything for a long moment, then one side of his mouth quirked up. "Summers doesn't like me."
Now that Maia believed. Deke Summers was Ryne's fiancé, and if gossip among the troubleshooters could be trusted, Blackwood had been interested in Ryne himself. Despite talking to him for all of two minutes, Maia could tell Creed didn't back away from a challenge. Neither did Deke. Add a highly pissed off Ryne to the mix and things could go to hell fast.
Still, she didn't think a little thing like turmoil would stop him, so what was the real story?
Sweat dampened his forehead, his hair, and she watched a bead roll past his temple. "Take your jacket off before you pass out."
Something was going on. Did Creed look pale beneath his dark tan? All she needed was a Gineal troubleshooter with some exotic fever infecting her. He might be able to contact a healer and be back on his feet in no time, but she'd have to deal with her HMO.
"If you need someplace to sleep and are too cowardly to face Ryne, go find a hotel," Maia ordered. She couldn't allow herself to worry about him.
"And endanger humans?"
The tone of his voice put her back up. "I'm human now."
He shook his head. "You might not have your magic, but you're not human. You were raised among the Gineal and trained to be a troubleshooter. Our tenets are ingrained in you."
"That doesn't change the fact that I'm an outsider." And Maia hated that. She hated all the damn secrets, all the things Ryne couldn't tell her.
"I didn't say I wanted to consult with you. I said I needed a place to stay."
His tone aggravated her even more. "Blackwood, this isn't the Frasier Inn. Go away and find a hotel without a lot of humans in it, one where you can come and go without raising any questions about what you're up to."
Maia pivoted to leave the room, but he moved fast enough to grab her arm. She turned, ready to blast him, but when he stepped back, Creed staggered, nearly falling. Grabbing him to help him keep his balance, she demanded, "What's wrong?"
"Bullshit. You couldn't convince a five-year-old that you were fine, not even a gullible one. Want to try again?"
Instead of answering, Creed stepped away from her hold, as if to show her that he was perfectly fine. The look he gave her dared her to contradict him.
What was it with men? Gineal or human, they were all the same. Either they were big babies who whined about a paper cut or they could sever an arm and still insist they were ready to wrestle alligators. Blackwood apparently fell into the second category.
"If nothing's wrong, then you can leave." Never give a troubleshooter an inch. She'd had the training, knew they looked for weakness in an opponent and exploited it.
“'I will never turn from a laoch solas who comes to me. My home, my bread, my assistance is theirs, have they but need--'"
"I told you before," she interrupted, "that I'm not part of our society any longer. The oath doesn't apply to me!"
"You'll always be a troubleshooter on some level."
Creed swayed--just slightly--but Maia noticed and clenched her hands around the pepper mill to keep herself from rushing to his side. She didn't think he was faking it, but she couldn't let herself be dragged into his assignment. Whatever it was. "Go to Ryne. Even if she'd like to punch you, she'll help, and she's got the magic to be of assistance. I don't, and if you bring trouble to my door, I'll be a sitting duck."
Blindly, she turned, needing to escape. This time he didn't try to stop her, and on trembling legs, she retreated to the kitchen.
The guilt hit as she took a bottle of water out of the refrigerator. He'd been Ryne's friend. Maybe they were on the outs right now, but that didn't mean they'd never make things square. Besides, Creed had stood beside Ryne when few others had. Maia owed him for being there for her baby sister when she hadn't been able to do anything for Ryne herself.
But damn it, she didn't want to get involved in this mess, and it would be sticky, Maia didn't doubt that for a minute. Creed Blackwood was a roving troubleshooter--he specialized in hunting demons, no matter where in the world they might be. They were the most dangerous adversaries an enforcer could face, and without her powers, she should definitely steer clear.
Still, he was sick or hurt, and troubleshooters always looked out for each other, sort of like Special Forces soldiers and their principle to never leave a man behind. No matter how much she wanted to, Maia couldn't turn her back on him.
"Hell," she muttered and put the water down on her counter with a thump. She stalked back to the living room, hoping Blackwood was gone and she wouldn't have to deal with him or his mission.
No such luck. He was lounging on the couch, eyes closed, and he looked worse than he had a few minutes earlier. Maia approached cautiously, but when he met her gaze and seemed foggy, she stopped hesitating. It was second nature to reach out and rest a hand on his forehead to check for fever. He was burning up. She didn't know why he hadn't summoned help himself, but he definitely needed a professional. "I'll call Ryne and ask her to send a healer this way."
Creed caught her wrist. "No healers."
"You're not thinking clearly. You need someone who can take care of you."
"No." The word was tough, implacable, and left no room for discussion. That didn't stop Maia.
"If you think you're going to die here and leave me with a mountain of red tape, you better think again."
His lips tipped up at the corners. "It's not that serious."
Maia almost called him a liar, then she realized that he might not understand how bad off he was. "Blackwood--" she stopped, then restarted. "Creed, listen to me. You're running a fever. I don't know if you've picked up some virus or you have an infected wound, but either way, your temperature is high--probably dangerously high. You need a healer."
Without saying a word, he met her gaze and she could see the stubbornness. "Idiot," she muttered. More loudly, she added, "Fine, then I'll drive you to urgent care. An hour waiting there should make you more amenable to the Gineal way of taking care of this. I'll get my purse and be back for you."
She was nearly to the kitchen when he caught her. Maia never would have believed he could move that fast, not as bad as he looked. Loosely clasping her forearm, he said, "You can't bring humans into this."
Great. That meant whatever was wrong with him was something the doctors wouldn't be able to explain and might lead to questions that could reveal the existence of the Gineal. "No humans," Maia agreed, but his hand felt clammy against her skin, and standing this close to him, she could see he'd gone from pale to ashen. "You do need help, though."
"You heal me."
"No." Her tone was every bit as obstinate as his, but she didn't care. Sure, she could still heal--even humans were able to do that--but no one understood how working with energy tore her up inside. It was too reminiscent of when she'd been Gineal.
Maia pulled her arm free and the soft tug was enough to leave Creed off balance. "If you don't want me to involve Ryne, fine. I'll ask someone else to call a healer."
Blackwood made a grab for her as she stepped away. He missed and his body thudded into the wall, but Maia caught him, lowering him until he sat on the floor.
"Promise me," he rasped, "that you won't call anyone, human or Gineal."
"I can't swear to that. You need help."
His hand squeezed hers hard. "Promise me."
The urgency in his voice, the intensity in his gaze despite the glassiness of fever, had her saying, "I promise."
Creed's eyes closed and his grip relaxed. An instant later, he was unconscious. Maia didn't know if he'd fallen asleep or passed out, but it didn't matter--she was the idiot. Because she'd given her word, she was the one who had to take care of him, and if that meant working with healing energy, she'd have to use it. His body slumped into hers, and biting her lower lip, she eased him down until he was laying flat on his back.
The first thing Maia did was visually assess his physical condition. She saw no outward signs of trauma, and to her disgust, she found herself thinking again about how gorgeous the man was. Shaking her head, she reached for the zipper on his leather jacket. She needed to make him comfortable and check him more closely for injury.
Maia didn't have to go any further to find the problem. On either side of his torso just above the kidneys were two dark red stains on his burgundy T-shirt. "Hell."
She hesitated, then left him. Maia collected her first aid kit, a few towels that had seen better days, and a washcloth. She placed them on the floor next to him, then went to fill a pan with warm water.
His T-shirt was tucked firmly into his jeans, and because of his injuries, she didn't dare yank it free. Gingerly, she reached for the button at his waist and opened it before lowering the zipper. Leaning over him, Maia first pulled the shirt free in back, then carefully eased one side up in front. She kept a close eye on her progress, but fortunately, the fabric wasn't stuck to the wound, and she inched the other side up too.
Two ugly punctures continued to seep blood--and some kind of orange gel. Something about it teased her memory, but she couldn't quite bring it into focus, and until she did, she couldn't risk touching it. She leaned closer and took a whiff.
Maia jerked backward so fast she fell on her butt. The odor was horrible, but didn't travel far. "Zortir!" Good God in heaven, he'd tangled with a zortir.
Taber, her mentor, had been wounded by one of those creatures. One of the first things the poison affected, she remembered, was telepathy. That explained why Creed hadn't called for help himself.
What mattered was trying to recall how the healers had dealt with the venom. It was potent enough to hurt her if it touched her skin. No wonder he hadn't wanted humans involved. Not only could the orange toxin kill them, it would also raise questions and they'd undoubtedly test the substance. Maia didn't know what answers their labs would come up with, but it couldn't be good for the Gineal.
With a sigh, she pushed her hair out of her eyes and considered what to do next. She'd been twelve when Taber had been attacked, and twenty years was a long time--too many details had faded from her memory.
What she did know was that she couldn't sit here. Her magic was gone, and even if she still had it, her talents hadn't earned her a spot in the healing temple. The question was what could she do right now to help Blackwood?
Slowly getting to her feet, Maia went to her shelves and pulled down her home remedies book. It was written by humans for humans, but they dealt with their own venomous creatures; there might be something in here she could try.
She found it in the section under bee stings. The paste was a mixture of baking soda, vinegar, and meat tenderizer. There was a papain enzyme in the tenderizer that might break down the toxins in the zortir venom. Until that was taken care of, she couldn't touch the punctures and she had to be able to put her hands on them to do an energy healing.
Using her finger to mark her page, Maia made one last check on Creed. No change. She went into the kitchen to mix up a big bowl of paste.
Grabbing an old silicone spatula and a pair of rubber gloves, she returned to the spot where she'd left Blackwood. Maia used the spatula to scoop the paste out of the bowl and smoothed it over the wound nearest to her. Creed didn't move.
From her position, she couldn't see the left side of his body clearly enough to put on the application, and he was too close to the wall for her to kneel on that side, so she came up with an alternate solution. She straddled his thighs and leaned forward. For a moment, she was distracted by the overt sexuality of the position, but she ignored the way her body tightened and concentrated on carefully covering the second puncture.
As she waited for the poultice to work, Maia moved off him and tried again to recall what she knew about zortirs.
Think, she exhorted, forcing herself to focus.
Okay, zortirs walked on four legs and they were fast. The venom was delivered through two horns on their heads. They had some basic magical abilities, but nothing more than that. What else? There was more she should remember, Maia was sure of it.
As she removed the first layer of paste from Creed's torso, an important fact came back to her. Zortirs lived in a dimension that centuries earlier had been declared forbidden.
He'd probably been in pursuit of something, like Taber had been. Probably. Except if that were the case, why didn't he want her to get him a healer? It raised questions she didn't like to consider. The only Gineal who traveled to that environ were long-time users of black magic.
Had Blackwood turned?