“You can be such a bore sometimes, Mal.” She blew out a breath. “How does your wife even tolerate it?”
Malachi’s face twisted in a snarl. “She’s too busy trying to keep you alive to worry about me being boring.” Hell, he and his beloved spent so much time worrying about Nessa that they didn’t have time to wonder if they were boring these days.
“Becoming a bit harder to handle me than you’d expected, eh?” She arched her brows and smiled at him.
Malachi wanted to shake her. She didn’t seem to bloody care about anything anymore, and it was getting more and more disturbing.
For a time, she’d done well. She’d seemed stronger . . . almost like she’d once been.
But then Malachi failed her.
He’d never forgive himself for that.
The loss of the girl she’d loved like a daughter had damned near destroyed her. Malachi hadn’t been able to do a damn thing to stop it. He hadn’t been able to stop a drunk driver from plowing into the car Mei-Lin had been riding in. He hadn’t been able to save the four girls, and he hadn’t been able to do anything but stand at Nessa’s side and hold her hand while she wept at Mei-Lin’s funeral.
Useless bastard. All these years he’d walked this earth and the few times one of his dearest friends had needed help, he hadn’t been able to do anything.
Just as he couldn’t help her now. She was slipping into madness, he feared. Kelsey, his love, his heart, his soul, seemed to fear the same thing.
They were losing her, bit by bit.
Remember why you came here, old man, he told himself.
Not that he thought he’d have any impact on her. But he couldn’t give up. And if he didn’t come, he feared Kelsey would. As mindless as Nessa was these days, Malachi feared his wife even being near her.
If Nessa wanted to court death, Malachi would do his damnedest to stop her and he’d do his damnedest to hold Kelsey at bay, too.
“You found a nest of feral vamps,” he said.
Nessa grinned. She looked like a damn schoolgirl standing there, a pleased grin on her face, her blond hair whipping around her face. Flinging her arms to the sky, she said, “Yes . . . yes, I did. And it was quite a lot of fun.”
She stood there like that for a moment, poised as if getting ready for the dive to end all dives. Then she lowered her arms, rubbed at her neck with one hand.
Malachi walked over to her, tugging the neckline of her sweatshirt aside so he could see the ugly bite mark on her neck. “Got bit, too, I see,” he murmured, keeping his voice neutral. He’d known that before he’d come. That was why Kelsey had sent him.
Nessa had been courting death with a vengeance ever since Mei-Lin had died. Each time, she moved a little closer. But he wasn’t sure what would claim her first—death or her own demons.
He’d been so grateful to have her back that he hadn’t noticed how broken she was. Hadn’t realized what returning had done to her.
Then Mei-Lin came into her life, and Nessa seemed to find herself again. She’d been whole . . . or closer to it than she’d been in a good long time.
She was worse now.
All these years, Nessa had been strong. He’d counted on that strength, he supposed. Counted on it to see her through this.
But even the very strong break.
Malachi suspected the girl’s death had proven to be too much.
Nessa wasn’t broken—yet—but neither was she whole.
He had been so pathetically grateful to have her back. Nessa was one of the few constants in his life. He’d known her when she was little more than a girl and he’d watched her grow into the powerful witch she’d become, a witch whose power was so great, it had kept her soul alive even after her body had shut down.
But they’d all been fools thinking that she would eventually adjust. And Malachi was the biggest fool of all for thinking it, because of all of them, Malachi knew her best. He’d known how tired she was, how lonely and it had nothing to do with a frail, weakened body.
Whatever miracle God had wrought upon Nessa, it wasn’t one that she would thank Him for. She hated every moment of her new existence. Right up until Mei-Lin. But that peace had been too short-lived and now, things were even worse than they had been before.
It was no longer simple loneliness and heartache tormenting the powerful witch. It was more.
Something dark had settled inside of her, something broken. She was fractured inside, a fact that all of them had overlooked until it couldn’t be any longer.
Now, he had to face every day and wonder if this would be the day he was forced to hunt down his oldest friend and kill her. As yet, she was no threat to any but the ferals and herself, but he wondered how long that would last. She chased death with a passion, and she moved closer and closer to a line that no Hunter could cross.
It was as though she’d forgotten who she was. What she was. He looked into her eyes and saw madness. He saw a decided lack of control, and she cared little. No, she wasn’t a danger to them yet, but he feared she would be. And when that happened, he would have to kill her. It was a knowledge that festered inside him. All this time, as long as he had walked this earth, nothing had broken him. It had been close when he had thought Agnes had died, but Kelsey had pulled him through.
He worried though that his wife wouldn’t be able to pull him through what he feared was coming. Not because she couldn’t. But because she wouldn’t.
Kelsey . . . he loved that woman more than life itself. For her, he could survive centuries in hell if he knew she would be waiting for him at the end. But if he had to kill Nessa, Kelsey might never forgive him.
In her heart, she still hoped that Nessa would survive this. But Malachi was a pragmatic man. He had admitted what Kelsey’s soft heart had yet to accept.
Nessa didn’t want to live and she was getting desperate enough to do the unthinkable, just to see that she got what she wanted.
This time, she’d almost found it. And at the hands of a mangy, miserable feral vamp that she could have killed with her hands tied behind her back, if she chose.
Nessa shifted and smoothed her shirt so that it mostly hid the bite on her neck.
Inside his mind, he could still see those ugly, gaping holes in her pale skin.
“He took too much blood,” Malachi said softly, his voice tight and controlled. Controlled, because if he wasn’t careful, he would start shouting and he’d learned quite some time ago how shouting affected Nessa—she either laughed, or did something that would make him want to shout louder. “You’re running a pint or two low there.” He could see it in the pallor of her skin, and more, he scented it in her blood. Another few minutes and she would have been completely drained.
Nessa shrugged. “Nothing I haven’t dealt with before.” Then she grimaced, glancing down at her rail-thin body. “Granted, not in this particular body.”
“That particular body is the only one you have. Perhaps you should care for it better. You need food, red meat. Rest. Hell, even a pint of Guinness would do you a world of good.”
“Hmmm.” She turned around and peered over the edge, staring down. The naked yearning in her eyes turned Malachi’s gut into a cold, empty pit.
She wanted to jump. If he hadn’t come when he did, would she have tried it? Would she try now . . . with him watching?
“Come back to Excelsior with me,” he said quietly. He held out a hand and watched as she turned around. “Come home.”
Come home, he thought. If he could just get her back to Excelsior, back to the school, they could help. There, perhaps she could find herself again. Perhaps she could heal.
He hoped. He prayed.
“Home.” A faint smile curled her mouth upward, but it didn’t reach her eyes. She never really smiled anymore. “Home is where the heart is, isn’t it, Malachi?” She slid her gaze east, east over land and ocean, to a village that hadn’t existed for centuries. “My heart’s been buried for so long, there’s not even dust left of him. I have no home.”
An impish grin appeared on her face and she added, “Besides, there are still some nasties out there that I missed the other day. A good Hunter never leaves the job undone and all that rot.”
“You don’t need to be Hunting right now, Nessa,” Malachi snapped. “You’re weak, you’re low on blood.” You’re insane. He kept that part to himself. He reached out, grabbed her wrist and jerked her back from the edge. She went flying and if he hadn’t still held her wrist, she would have flown halfway across the roof before she landed. “It’s a bloody miracle you can even stand.”
Tugging her wrist, she said, “Oh, nonsense. You don’t really believe a couple of pesky, bloodthirsty vampires are that big a threat to me, do you?”
His eyes raked over her from head to toe, lingering on the barely concealed bite mark at her neck. “Right now? Yes. You’re vulnerable, damn it. A toddler having a temper tantrum could well prove to be a threat to you in your state.”
“Vulnerable?” Blond brows arched over wide blue eyes. “I haven’t been vulnerable since—well, since I don’t remember when. At least not to vampires. And obviously, you haven’t spent much time around toddlers—toddlers in a tantrum are a threat to damn near everything.”
She tipped her head back and murmured softly, “They’re out there now, waiting for the sun to set. I feel them . . .”
Recognizing the look on her face, Malachi started toward her. “Fine, then,” he growled. “We’ll go after them together. Just like old times, eh?”
There was no way he was going to let this demented woman out of his sight, not until he knew she was stronger. If he were the hopeful sort, he would even wish that perhaps the two of them working side by side as they had so many times before might remind Nessa of who she was.
“Let’s go then.” He held out a hand to her.
But instead of putting her hand in his, she smirked. “I’m used to doing things on my own, Mal.”
A mischievous smile flirted with the corners of her lips.
Not this time, old friend, he thought, ready to grab her once more.
“Oh, no, you don’t.” Malachi lunged for her, but she disappeared, right in front of him, and his hands closed around thin air.