Temptation by Fire(2)

By: Tiffany Allee


Miriam turned to walk out of the cafeteria when she suddenly froze, her eyes widened, and her gaze locked on something over my shoulder. She let out a quiet whistle. “Wow, cute. Forget Colin Firth.”

As casually as I could, I snuck a glance behind me.

The man was anything but cute.

He could have been anywhere from his late twenties to midthirties. His good looks weren’t marred by the thick and ropey scar that ran down the side of his face and neck. I could see him playing Double Oh Seven, not Darcy. But the way he carried himself—arrogant but guarded—seemed out of place in the quiet hospital. His gaze weighed and categorized everything it took in and made my stomach clench and my heart speed up. Fight or flight?

I looked at Miriam. “Quit grinning at him,” I whispered. “He looks like a thug.”

“He looks sweet.”

“Hardly,” I threw out.

“Oh, him? I’m not grinning at him.”

It dawned on me Miriam was looking at the young blond man who stood next to the man who’d caught my attention. No wonder she’d said cute—this guy was pretty—in a frat boy sort of way. He didn’t look a day over twenty-one. Young, and without the intensity of his friend. How had Miriam even noticed him next to the darker-haired man?

“They’re going to get the wrong idea with you gaping,” I said, gathering my purse. The blond might be harmless, but I was certain the man next to him was anything but. Time to leave.

“God, I hope so.”

Movement caught the corner of my eye; the blond was swaggering toward us. Great.

“Hello, ladies,” the blond said, oozing confidence in a way that made me immediately want to get away. A chill ran over me, like the air conditioning had kicked on.

“Hi.” Miriam grinned, toying with her hair.

“I’m Thomas. This is Karson.” He jerked a thumb at the man I’d mentally labeled Tough Guy, then offered me his hand.

Instinctively, I stepped back, only to catch my foot on the chair behind me. I stumbled, and before I could move away, the blond man grabbed my hand to steady me.

Cold flashed up my arm—a sharp pain followed by a chilly, almost numb feeling, as if someone had dipped my hand into a vat of ice. It ran up my arm into the rest of my body. I shivered.

Then I burned.

I smelled the smoke first, searing its way up my nose and into my lungs. Fear started then, building from my chest and spreading outward into my limbs. Panic set in, and I almost couldn’t smell the smoke for how much the mind-gripping fear overwhelmed my senses. I wanted—no, needed to run, but couldn’t.

Couldn’t move.

Then pain engulfed the panic, driving it relentlessly forward. Sound roared in my ears—a thumping heartbeat and screams that had to be coming from my mouth. A thundering voice sounded like it was coming from my own mind, uttering foreign words that scared me even though I couldn’t understand them. I could smell again, the scent of ordinary smoke now pungent with another scent.

My burning flesh.

I blinked and tried to see, but couldn’t make much out through smoke and darkness. Only a flashing light touched my stinging eyes—a neon sign. The words were blurred by pain and smoke and I couldn’t focus, couldn’t see. I silently prayed for darkness. But darkness didn’t come. Only pain and fear.

Then, another sound, a voice. A voice reaching for me through the din.

A voice I reached for, desperate.

“…You all right? Ava?”

Miriam.

She was there, next to me. There for me.

I took a deep breath and leaned heavily against her. A few moments of confusion passed before I could orient myself. A hospital worker in a set of pastel scrubs walked by, a concerned expression on his face, but he didn’t stop. I swallowed the bile in my throat and looked at Miriam. Her face was pinched, eyebrows drawn together with worry.

“Miriam?” The hospital. I was at the hospital. Not tied up in a room. Not in pain. Not burning.

“I’m here,” she said quietly.

I pulled away from her, careful not to touch her skin to my skin, teetering a bit as I regained my balance.

“Was it…you know?” she asked.

“Yeah.” I swayed, and Miriam reached for my arm. I pulled away from her, leaning against the chair instead. I hated myself a little, for the hurt that flashed in her eyes when I rejected her help, but my special touch-me-not instincts were at an all-time high. I looked around the hospital cafeteria for the young man who’d triggered my curse, but didn’t see him or his intense friend.