Sunday, November 11, 2018
“Not in the party mood?”
Sara looked up from her beer to find the bartender eying her with concern. For a moment, she studied him. He appeared older than most of the other servers by a good ten years, but not in a bad way, and had a rangy, athletic build. For a moment, she saw him wielding a broadsword against a teenager, his strongly angled face a grim visage as he fought. It made little sense. Then again, she didn’t understand half of what the Witchblade told her until she had all the pieces of the puzzle together. Ignoring the ‘blade’s vision for the moment, she focused on the bartender’s question. “What makes you say that?”
“Thought you were with the rest of the gang.” He nodded to the group of off-duty cops exiting the bar, still talking smack and giving each other hell.
Sara half-turned to see the group he meant. Recognizing it as comprised of several of the beat cops who worked out of the same precinct as she did, she turned back to the bartender. “Not my party,” she answered. Reflexively, she glanced at the bracelet on her wrist, but it wasn’t acting like she had anything to fear from him. At least, it wasn’t showing her the flames of hell, and the sword image hadn’t come with a sensation of fear. “And it’s been a long day for me.”
“Want to talk about it?” he offered.
She stared at him. “Don’t you have other customers?” she asked, suspicious.
He chuckled. “It’s past two a.m., we’re closed; you’re the last customer in here. Since I heard you’re a cop, I cut you a little slack.”
“Oh, really? Think I won’t bust you for serving after hours?”
“You bought and paid before closing, and I haven’t served you or anyone else since then,” he pointed out. “I’m not about to let anyone walk out of here unless I’m sure they’re okay to drive. Aside from that, unless you owe someone in code enforcement, I’m wagering you won’t tell anyone, Detective Pezzini.”
Narrowing her eyes, she looked at the bartender. “How do you know my name and rank?”
He chuckled. “I’m just your friendly neighborhood barkeep.” He shrugged, and then smiled charmingly as he leaned on the bar. “Plus, I like knowing who comes in here regularly – helps me know what to make sure I have in stock. Like enough chalk and unbroken pool cues and that import beer you like.”
“You’re observant for a bartender.”
He chuckled. “Have to be. Gotta know when to toss out the drunks and kick out the other troublemakers.” He extended his hand to shake. “Name’s Nick Wolfe. I own and run this place.”
Sara shook his hand. “Nice to meet you, Nick. I imagine you’d like me to get going.”
“Only if you feel like going.” He smiled and leaned closer. “I live upstairs. You could crash up there if you like.”
“You trying to get me in bed or is this just a lame attempt at being friendly?”
He chuckled. “Depends. Do you want the company or the intimacy?”
She took another look at him, considering. He was her type, but she’d gotten sick of losing everyone she’d loved, even casually. Nick was a stranger…but he was a very attractive one. “I’m not that drunk.”
“I didn’t say you were.” He hesitated a moment, then added, “You look like you need someone to talk to, someone to hold you through the nightmares.”
Sara didn’t question the sense of trust she got from him; whether it was his personality or the Witchblade influencing her or both, she couldn’t say, and refused to analyze just then. He was attractive and offering comfort. That was enough in her book for tonight.
“Then let’s go,” she told him.
Slowly, they made their way into the back room, where Nick shut off the remaining lights and set the alarm. Then, he pulled open a drawer in a desk beside a door Sara assumed was a storage closet. She heard Nick tapping keys, and then a lock alarm release sounded. He then slid the drawer shut and opened the door, revealing a stairway. Even with a mild alcoholic buzz, the security struck her as being elaborate.
Nick saw the puzzled expression on her face as she stepped past him to wait on the first stair. “When some people get drunk, they’ll try anything to crash here,” he told her as he stepped up beside her and pulled the door shut.
Twelve steps up, they stopped on a wide landing, and Nick pushed open another door. Sara was glad for the railing, and for Nick’s hand on the small of her back; the stairs were steep, and she wasn’t as sure of her fine motor control as she would’ve liked. Her first impression of his apartment was that it was large, well furnished, and full of books. He guided her to lean against the open bookshelf that separated the living area from the dining space, then disappeared down the hallway.
He returned a few moments later, carrying a glass of water and a bottle of aspirin. “Take this now,” he told her. “It’ll help cut your hangover.” He shook out two tablets and handed them over to her.
“Thanks,” she said gratefully, taking it.
As she did so, he said, “Bathroom’s down the hall. Shower if you like; there’s a bathrobe on the back of the door. You have your choice of the futon that’s in the den across from the bathroom or the bed. Either way, I won’t do anything you don’t want. Personally, I’d choose the bed: I don’t snore, and it’s more comfortable than the futon.”
She handed back the glass and chose the bathroom and a shower, needing the privacy to clear her head a little more. She used the time to gather her thoughts, but realized that if she’d wanted to sleep alone, she wouldn’t have come here. The robe was exactly where promised, and she slipped it on. Mildly nervous, she gathered up her clothes, then walked out to the hallway. Seeing that the lights were off in the living room, she turned left and walked into the bedroom.
Nick had used the time to shower and change. She guessed there was another bathroom in the master bedroom. He now wore a pair of worn gray sweatpants and nothing else as he lay on the iron-and-metal-framed bed. He was reading a book, which he put down when she entered. Nick had turned the navy-blue covers down; the only light came from the lamp beside the bed on his side.
“There’s a shirt on your side of the bed if you want something to sleep in,” he told her.
Sara shook her head. “Thanks, but sleep wasn’t what I had in mind, not yet.” She dumped her clothes by the door of the bedroom. Then she let the robe fall to the floor, let Nick take his fill of looking over her body, before moving to the bed and straddling him so she could kiss him. Tomorrow would be soon enough for regrets; now was for not being alone. Nick kissed her back eagerly even as he held her close. Together, they fanned the flames of desire until they were both satiated.
The bed was empty when Sara awoke. Glancing at the clock on the nightstand on the other side of the bed, Sara saw it was 8:15 AM. Regret welled within her that her new lover wasn’t there to greet her, but given the hour, she wasn’t surprised. She’d wanted a one-night stand with a handsome, charming, sensual man who’d made her feel beautiful, wanted, and appreciated; Nick had delivered precisely that. Though today was Monday, Sara had taken the day off, wanting time to herself. Eighteen years ago, on November 11, she had become the Witchblade’s latest Wielder. Though she had long ago learned to accept the visions, near-immortality, and paranormal powers the Witchblade gifted her with, she also had lost so much.
Rising, she dressed quickly, unwilling to overstay her welcome. The Witchblade purred in the back of her mind, pleased that she was now awake. Sara rolled her eyes, though she was grateful that it wasn’t in a “the world will end in death and carnage” mood, and that it had let her sleep with no nightmares or visions. Some years it did, reminding her it chose its Wielders, not the other way around. She had learned violence and injustice fed its rage; sex sated its hunger for connection.
Stepping through the apartment, she picked up her clothes, jacket, and helmet, pausing to dress and wonder where her keys were. As she traversed the home, its neatness struck her again. Bookshelves flanked the TV in the living room, interspersed with Native American art. Nick had draped a patchwork quilt over the back of the green microsuede sofa; leather armchairs with a matching ottoman flanked either side of the sofa. The smell of coffee drew her to the kitchen, and she detoured to pour herself a cup, aware that she lived on the stuff.
Just as she’d taken her first sip of the rich brew, Nick came through the front door. His dark brown hair was damp and the brown leather jacket he wore had droplets of water clinging to it, as if he’d been out in the rain. Sara felt again the visceral attraction that had led her to have sex with him. Taller than her by half a foot, Nick had an angular face, a burly build, and an air of confidence that wasn’t cocky, just aware. She’d explored every inch of that fine, athletic body; remembered pleasure made her flush.
“Oh, you’re up,” he said, sounding pleased and surprised. “I hope you don’t mind – I moved your motorcycle out of the alley, so the punk-ass kids won’t mess it up. Sometimes they like to mess with vehicles that park there. I parked your bike in the garage downstairs.” Handing over her keys, he added, “That’s a sweet bike you have. Throttle’s a little twitchy, isn’t it?”
Sara chuckled. “A little bit, but I’ve gotten used to it. What do you ride?”
“A Harley cruiser I restored,” he told her, and took her coffee cup. Setting it down on the nearby counter, he pulled her close and kissed her tenderly. Steeling herself for goodbye, Sara didn’t respond as enthusiastically.
Nick didn’t let her out of his embrace, but he ended the kiss. Not hiding his sigh of regret, he asked, “Places to go, people to see?”
“Something like that,” she agreed. “Thanks for last night.”
“It doesn’t have to end here,” Nick told her. “I’d like to see you again.”
Sara shook her head. “I’m not good at relationships.”
Nick kissed her. “Let me be the judge of that,” he said as he stepped back. “I’d like to get to know you better, Sara.”
“You don’t understand,” she began. “I’m a cop. I have crazy hours.”
Nick chuckled. “I was in Major Crimes in a city north of Chicago,” he told her. “I understand what it’s like.”
The Witchblade chose then to flash an image of him being handed a lieutenant’s badge, murmuring restlessly as it did so, as if the badge was tainted somehow. Startled at the knowledge that the man she had assumed was only the bar owner he had claimed to be, Sara studied him.
“Why’d you stop being a cop?” she asked, curious.
“Some things aren’t worth it,” Nick told her, his mouth tightening in regret. “My captain wanted me to take a promotion and cover up we had a crooked cop on the force.”
Now the image made sense. Outraged on his behalf, Sara bit back the instinctive growl, and breathed carefully before stating, “You didn’t agree.”
Nick chuckled roughly. “No, I didn’t, but that was a long time ago. I’ve learned a few things since then.” He drew her close, and Sara let herself revel in being held. Casual closeness like this was a gift Sara rarely let herself have, and she was tempted to linger. Everyone she had ever let into her life to that degree rarely escaped unscathed. It was just easier to choose not to go there.
With sincere regret, Sara made herself step back. “I should go.”
Looking disappointed, Nick told her the key code for the garage before helping her into her jacket and handing her the helmet she’d left on the side table. He kissed her once more before walking her down the back stairway that led to his apartment, then pressed a business card into her hand.
“If you change your mind, Sara, my number is on the card,” Nick told her.
Nodding once in acknowledgement, Sara walked out the door, turning right to head to the garage. The rain had stopped, but the sky promised more, and Sara resigned herself to a potentially wet ride home. She found her motorcycle parked beside a polished, 1970s-era Harley and a battered, muddy red pickup truck. Nick had taken the time to point her bike in the right direction, so she had only to start it up and pull up to the garage door. As she’d suspected, the door was pressure-plate activated, so when she pulled up, it opened. As soon as she exited and was clear, the door closed. From there, she headed home, ignoring the voice of the ‘blade as it urged her to turn back, to take shelter in a willing man’s arms, if only for a little while.
The problem with that, Sara knew, was that ‘little whiles’ all had to end sometime, and she’d indulged as far as she dared. Nick was a nice guy, but nice guys wanted the happily-ever-after that Sara was certain she couldn’t give.
As soon as Sara exited his apartment, Nick sat down at the computer in the den and switched it to the program that monitored the security cameras on the building. He watched her leave, making sure she didn’t change her mind and come back around. Part of him hoped she would.
He was sorry to see her go. He wanted to know her, wanted to see her again, wanted to know what that bracelet grafted to her wrist meant, and why anyone would graft jewelry onto their bodies. She’d radiated such loneliness last night at the bar. Nick wanted to be the one to ease that loneliness, and one night wasn’t enough for him. He had a weakness for tough, competent, independent women, and while they had talked little, he got the sense that Sara was precisely his type.
Nick was not inclined to wait for her to show up in his bar again. He had found her wallet in her motorcycle jacket when he had gone looking for her keys but examining her driver’s license was a dead end. Like many police officers, Sara’s driver’s license listed a PO box address in Albany, for security and privacy reasons. Nick, however, was undeterred.
Picking up his phone, he dialed a friend. At her hello, he blurted, “It’s Nick. Sorry to bother you so early, Brenda.”
She laughed. “You say that like you assumed I was sleeping in, Nick. You know Connor gets up early for a run and I’ve never learned to sleep after that. What I can do for you?”
“I have a vague memory of Connor telling me you were a homicide detective here in the city.”
Brenda chuckled. “No, I was in forensics, but we would’ve never met if there hadn’t been a rash of homicides. What can I do for you?”
“If I wanted to send a bouquet and a dinner invitation to a homicide detective I met, would you call me crazy or would you be able to tell me where I could send them?”
“Crazy. Nick, don’t go down that path. You’ll turn her world upside down.”
“Brenda, tell me you regret any moment in the years since you met my teacher.”
“Yes,” came the surprising answer. “The twenty years we spent apart because I was so angry at him for driving the car, hoping to outrun a headhunter, even if the accident that happened wasn’t his fault. Honestly, I’m surprised we’re together again after so many years apart.”
“He loves you; you’re his wife. You never divorced him.”
Brenda sighed. “Couldn’t make myself do it. I knew he wouldn’t file, and Rachel kept telling me I was being foolishly stubborn. She finally wore me down.”
“And now you’re back together and have been for what? Five years now?”
“Seven, actually. Nick, I have people asking me if Connor is my son. Do I look that old?”
Nick smothered a chuckle. “No. That’s not enough of a counterargument, Brenda. You haven’t yet convinced me I shouldn’t pursue Sara.”
“How willing are you to reveal your secrets? Not just the ones about immortality, but who else matters to you? Why they matter to you, and why you’d drop everything to do them a favor, even if it kills you permanently?”
Caught by that point, Nick drew in a breath. “I haven’t thought about that.”
“You learned from him how not to talk about the people who matter in your life, Nick. If Amanda showed up in your bar tomorrow, would you drop everything for her, or would this Sara be your priority?”
“Depends on what Amanda wants,” Nick told Brenda honestly. “And whether I get any farther with Sara than I already have. Maybe if I had an address, I could get farther, and then Amanda could just do whatever she wants, like she would anyway. Sara’s last name is Pezzini, and she works at the 18th Precinct.”
Brenda sighed heavily. “You’ve already slept with her,” she guessed. “You know I can’t give you any police officer’s home address, Nick. Even presuming I had access to those databases, which I’m not saying I do, I’m a private investigator and police consultant; I’m oath-bound not to reveal that kind of info.”
Nick sighed. “I really want to see her again.”
“Inviting a homicide detective into your life, Nick, is risky,” Brenda warned him. “Sara will have questions about why you’re so paranoid, why you need a sword, why you look like you have money when you’re working a middle-class job, why your friends are scattered all over the world, why you know where every cemetery and religious house in this city is located, etc. Plus, you can’t get away with the stalking I did the first time I chased after Connor – she’ll arrest you for it, if she’s like any of the younger policewomen I’ve met.”
“I can’t live an empty life, Brenda,” Nick argued. “I need more than running this bar.”
“Then go volunteer for a charity,” Brenda shot back. “Plenty of need out there. You need not chase after a one-night stand, no matter how pretty she is and especially not someone who is a detective. Nick, you were one. Would you put up with someone poking into your life after everything you’ve been through?”
Nick closed his eyes briefly. “No.”
“Then give it time. If the Universe wants you to meet her again, it will happen,” Brenda assured him. “Until then, think about what you want to happen when it does.”
Reluctantly, Nick accepted her wisdom. “Thanks. Tell Connor I said hello.”
“I will. And Nick? Don’t take dating advice from Connor.”
Nick laughed at that. “Why not? He found you.”
“Only because I’m a stubborn old woman who likes stubborn old men with weird accents and rough charm,” Brenda replied tartly. “I’m at a point in my life where I’d rather be with someone who knows me and loves me for who I am, who won’t flinch at the things I need now I’m older and still have medical issues stemming from a near-fatal car accident twenty-four years ago.” More gently, Brenda added, “Nick, I know you’re lonely, but you have more options than the people in your bar.”
Nick sighed as he acknowledged her point. “She looked so alone, Brenda, like the weight of the world was on her shoulders.”
Brenda was silent a moment. “And if it is, would you be a help or a hinderance? If all that’s talking right now is lust, do more thinking and planning, Nick.”
“Now you sound like Connor.”
Brenda chuckled. “I’ll take that as a compliment.” She waited.
Nick considered the notion. “I want to be the one who distracts her from that weight, whatever it is. She wears this gorgeous carnelian and silver bracelet on her wrist, and it’s fused to her, like she deliberately made it impossible for anyone to take it off without breaking her arm to do it.”
“I know people do that with medical ID bracelets,” Brenda murmured. “Did she say why?”
“She promised she’d tell me later, then distracted me,” Nick admitted. “Didn’t think to ask about it this morning when she left until now.”
“And you can’t resist a mystery,” Brenda noted. “Oh, Nick. No wonder you’re intrigued by her. She left you with so many questions unanswered.”
“Yeah. Brenda, please, won’t you help?”
He heard the older woman sigh. “No promises, but I’ll see what I can do. Are you coming to dinner December 8?”
“Then I’ll see you then. Goodbye, Nick.”
“Goodbye, Brenda.” Nick disconnected the line and stared at his phone a moment. Brenda was right: he needed a better plan if he wanted to pursue Sara without looking like a crazed stalker.
Nick harbored no illusions about his safety, but he had learned he couldn’t live as if he was under siege, waiting for the next headhunter to strike. He had once blamed Amanda for the danger in his life. Time had proven she might have been a catalyst for some of it, but not all the blame was hers. He had been guilty of getting himself involved in higher-risk situations, thinking he could defend himself against immortals who not only had likely suspected he was a pre-immortal, but who had no problems with killing other people, immortal or not.
The bar gave him purpose while filling his need to be around people. If he wanted excitement and danger, one phone call would find himself once again embroiled in the world of international security consulting. He had burned out on that life and the endless ways the rich and powerful needed security. Nick promised himself he would not be making that call soon.
New York was home, more so than Torago, where he had grown up, or Paris, where he had fallen in love with Amanda. Looking back, he could see where she tried to keep him safe, and where he bulldozed right through her every attempt. Giving him a sword and connecting him with a teacher – Connor MacLeod – had been her way of apologizing. Nick had spent most of the year after his first death learning from the elder Highlander before Connor had deemed him ready to be on his own.
Nick had gone right back to Paris. He picked up where he had left off, running Sanctuary with Amanda, working part-time for Bert Meyers and his security consulting firm, Myers International, and trying to balance both with loving Amanda and playing the Game. That had lasted all of five years before Nick realized something had to go because he was not happy. His relationship with Amanda had hit a wall: they couldn’t go on as they were, not when everything they were doing seemed to ignite another argument. Amanda asked him if he was open to polyamory, hoping he would be amiable, since she wanted the freedom to be with other people and still be with him. After discussing what she wanted, what he might gain from the experience, and how it would work for them, Nick decided against it, choosing instead to break up with Amanda. Nick wanted to know he was the sole lover in someone’s life. Amanda had taken the breakup in stride, in a way that made him suspect she had expected him to react that way. Nick then spent the next year figuring out how to be her business partner and friend, with some help from a professional therapist.
Two years later, Nick parted ways with Amanda, certain he would love her forever, but convinced being her friend was less fraught with complications. Amanda bought out his share of Sanctuary, which Bert had gifted him with after seeing his devotion to it. Nick also quit Myers International, which made Bert unhappy, but Nick hadn’t cared. Nick then spent the next six months using his apartment above Sanctuary as a home base for traveling, trying to decide where he wanted to live while playing tourist. He took a few heads along the way, defending himself, but tried to keep a low profile. A chance run-in with Connor in Paris had convinced him to move to New York. Nick then sold his apartment to Amanda. As the years turned into a decade apart, their friendship had slowly dissolved into nothing. Nick preferred it that way. Amanda was a tornado, and she had upended his life in irrevocable ways. He did not relish what would happen when she came crashing through it again.
To date, Nick lived a quiet life. He perceived this period of quiet was coming to a rapid end – and he couldn’t say whether he was looking forward to it. What he knew for certain was that he wanted Sara to be a part of his immediate future. If Brenda wouldn’t give him her address, then Nick would have to figure out a new way to reconnect with Sara.
For now, though, Nick had personal errands to handle. Unlike most bars in the city, Dostoevsky Bar was closed on Mondays. Nick generally used the day off to do his laundry, shop for groceries, work out at the gym, and relax. Some weeks, he met Connor for a sparring session that usually turned into yet another training class. Although he had taken heads in the nineteen years since he had been in the Game, most had been in his early years, when he had been around Amanda and in Paris, which seemed to be a magnet for headhunters. The immortal grapevine believed Amanda had been his teacher. Nick would not correct that rumor, not when it meant few knew who had taught him how to survive in the Game.
Sara was at her desk, going over the case file for the murder trial she would be testifying at the following day, when her phone rang. “Detective Pezzini, how can I help you?”
“Sara, it’s Brenda Wyatt MacLeod,” a warm female voice said. “I hope I’m not calling at a bad time.”
Smiling, Sara sat back in her chair. She had met the former forensic specialist at a charity run earlier in the year that honored fallen NYPD officers, and had been charmed by the older woman. Brenda had quietly bulldozed through Sara’s initial resistance at making a new friend, offering coffee dates, dinner invitations, and event invitations, until Sara had to decide to either tell the older woman to give up or accept the friendship she had offered. The Witchblade had been uncharacteristically neutral, not offering advice or visions either way, and its lack of input had made Sara wonder if it knew something it wasn’t telling her. Experience told her it would eventually, but so far, it had resisted giving her any clue beyond confirming that Brenda had been in a near-fatal car accident.
“I can take a short break,” Sara assured her, ignoring the way the Witchblade chittered, scolding her for losing her focus on justice. “What did you need?”
“I’m hosting a holiday dinner party, and I would love for you to come. Are you free December 8?”
“I am,” Sara confirmed. Brenda’s dinner parties involved a diverse group, and so far, she had met no one twice. Brenda and her husband, Connor MacLeod, seemed to know many people from across the city and beyond. It had meant she had met several movers and shakers in the city in a more intimate setting than she had ever anticipated.
“Wonderful. You won’t need to bring anything but do please dress up. We’ll serve cocktails at six-thirty and dinner at seven. It’ll be at our place. Bring Jake with you.”
“How dressed up do you want me to be?” Sara asked, thinking of her one fancy dress, which she had worn to the three previous dinner parties she had attended.
Brenda chuckled. “Let me guess: the dry cleaners damaged the black dress you wore before. It’s the only one you have, and you’ve been so swamped by work that you haven’t had time to shop for a new one.”
“How did you guess?”
“Because I used to be like that, before I met Connor,” Brenda admitted. “I can help you find something, if you want.”
Sara hesitated. Based on the earlier parties she had attended, her chances of meeting someone important were high. “I’ll think about it,” she told Brenda, suspecting the other woman would spend more money on a dress than Sara was comfortable. The three-story home Brenda shared with her husband on Hudson Street was a throwback to an earlier age, when families worked the first-floor retail space and lived upstairs. The retail space belonged to an antiques store, which was Connor’s. Brenda had told Connor had come from a wealthy, well-connected family, and that the building had been in his family for generations.
“Thanks for the invite; I need to get back to work.”
“Of course,” Brenda said briskly. “Call or email me if you want to shop, and if not, I’ll see you on the eighth.”
Jake McCartey, whose desk was on the opposite side of Sara’s, leaned over the short wall separating their cubicles. “Going to something fancy?” he asked. As a teenager and into his early twenties, Jake had been a champion professional surfer based in La Jolla, California. Blond, tanned, and buff, Jake kept his California cool, but his laidback vibe hid an intensity for justice. He had been a supposedly rookie police officer eighteen years ago when he had been assigned to replace Sara’s recently deceased partner, Danny Woo. Sara had been inclined to distrust Jake, especially since the Witchblade told her Jake wanted her to be more than just police partners. His desire for that shift in their relationship had died a natural death. His rookie status had also hidden the fact he had been an undercover FBI agent, sent to bust a conspiracy. With Sara’s help, that conspiracy had been cracked, and Jake had remained her partner rather than return to the FBI. Now, Sara considered him to be one of her closest friends.
“Dinner party,” Sara told him. “Brenda Wyatt MacLeod.”
“Another one?” Jake asked, intrigued. “How come you never take me to these?”
“I did the first time, remember?” Sara countered. “You told me you hated the entire evening, even if it got you to meet the daughter of the mayor, whom you thought was cute.”
Jake considered it, pursuing his lips, then shrugged. “True.”
“But Brenda requested you come this time.”
Jake brightened at that. “Cool. Suit and tie dinner like last time?” At Sara’s nod, he said, “Awesome. Hey, did you get that information you were waiting for on the Taylor case?”
“Yeah. Did I not send it to you?” Relieved by Jake’s reaction, Sara dove back into work.
Connor looked at his wife as she hung up the phone. “And who are you inviting now?” he asked, stepping into the office.
“Sara and her partner,” Brenda said. “They’ll make a nice addition to the group.”
“Didn’t I hear you telling Nick not to chase after a police officer named Sara?”
Brenda tried for an innocent look, but Connor was not fooled, and the look he gave her spoke volumes. “He’s lonely, Connor. They both are.”
“You think Sara’s worth it?”
“You saw the bracelet she wears. You told me it’s a weapon of great power that protects its wearer, but it will drive its wearer insane if she doesn’t have someone to help her,” Brenda reminded him. “Nick needs more than that damned bar he won from that creep Lucas Demidov. He’s bored, and you know he’ll go right back to Amanda and Bert if he gets bored enough. That way will kill him.”
Connor sighed. He knew what the Witchblade could do, having heard its story from Ramirez, a story later corroborated by Marcus Constantine. Connor hadn’t quite believed either of them until he met a Wielder named Emma at the close of the American Civil War. “Brenda, matchmaking him with Sara might also kill him. The Witchblade is part sword. She might take offense we tried to play matchmaker. Danika would be better; she knows what we are.”
Brenda held firm. “Connor, if you’re thinking of matching Nick with Richie’s student, you will fail. He might find Danika beautiful, he might even flirt with her, but he won’t date her. Amanda ruined him for that sort of thing. Nick called me this morning, asking if I knew how to get a hold of Sara. He’s already intrigued. If I don’t help, he’ll find another way, and you know how tenacious he is.”
Grimacing slightly at the reminder of his former student’s bulldog tendencies, Connor surrendered to his wife’s wishes. “We’ll see who he chooses then,” he allowed, and stepped forward to kiss Brenda and distract her before she did any other scheming.
Tuesday morning found Nick working on inventory for the bar, making sure that the morning’s liquor deliveries were stowed and he noted any missing holes in the bar’s stock. As owner, he knew he could have someone else do the work, but the simple routine suited him. Tuesdays were slow days anyway. His evening shift bartender, Brittany, would not be in for her shift until four pm. Paying someone to cover the morning seemed wasteful, especially since the bar’s food menu was nonexistent. Dostoevsky Bar was a neighborhood dive. Nick had kept its name and its liquor-focused premise, upgraded the TVs, replaced the worn dartboards, and refurbished the pool tables, and was considering the cost of renovating to add in a kitchen, since the entire building was his. Food would increase his revenue, but it would also increase his liquor license fee, and Nick was not convinced the neighborhood needed another restaurant. He liked the simplicity of having a place to drink, watch a game, shoot pool or darts, and hang out; judging from the number of nights he had a full house, enough people agreed with him.
He had just ducked under the bar to restock the mixers when the migraine-strength signal of Immortal presence hit while he heard the tumblers on the front door click open, neatly bypassing the alarm. Warily, Nick stood, grabbing the pistol he kept in a drawer.
A tall, rangy, dark-haired man dressed in a brown bomber-style leather jacket, green shirt, black jeans, and black boots entered the bar. A set of lock-picking tools vanished into the jacket as the intruder came to a halt halfway through the bar.
“Bar’s closed for another hour and a half,” Nick said, not feeling friendly as he aimed his pistol at the intruder. He didn’t want to fight, and his sword was in the office, too far away to be useful. In a pinch, he knew he could and would use the chef’s knife that lay on the chopping board to his left, but he hoped it wouldn’t get to that point.
“I saw,” the stranger said cheerfully. “But I wanted to check it out before it got crowded.”
“So you broke in?” The other man’s gall annoyed Nick.
The stranger shrugged and closed the distance between them in a casual, but ground-eating stride. “Didn’t feel you until I was already committed. Could you put down that gun? I swear I’m not after your head, and I’d rather not play the Game when I can help it. Name’s Cory Raines.” His smile was charming, his manner friendly. Nick’s instincts told him to not trust this immortal any farther than he could throw him.
“Give me one good reason I shouldn’t shoot you now,” Nick demanded.
Cory scratched the back of his neck. “Because it’s too messy, and you don’t need my head?”
“Wouldn’t be the first time I’ve cleaned up blood, had a Quickening blow up the room I was in, or dealt with the cops. Try again.” Nick held the gun steady.
Cory paused at that. “You’re not Lucas Demidov, and you don’t act like one of his enforcers.”
Nick shook his head, never taking his eyes off Cory. “Demidov lost his head ten years ago,” he said flatly. “He was trafficking women. I objected. He thought I wasn’t good enough to take his head, and he bet his bar and his life on it.”
Cory looked surprised at that. “Well, then, good riddance. Look, I’m sorry. I thought this bar was still his. I needed to be sure I remembered where the exits were. He’s always been minor scum, but this place was useful – no one asked questions. I didn’t think he was that kind of bad.”
“No, it’s mine, and yeah, he was that bad.” Unwilling to discuss the details, Nick considered the other immortal, a memory of a thief Amanda had mentioned flickering to life. Not sensing an immediate threat, warily, Nick put down his gun. “Is that all you needed to know?”
Cory grinned. “No. Your name?”
“Nick Wolfe. If you’re planning on meeting someone here later, know that the precinct’s a half mile up the street, and the cops like to hang out here now that I’ve cleaned it up.” Nick smiled thinly. “I highly recommend you don’t use my bar for your meeting place, whatever it is you’re planning. I have nothing against thieves if what they’re stealing isn’t mine or a friend’s, or harms others who don’t deserve to be harmed.”
Cory inclined his head in acknowledgement. “Got it. I’ll be elsewhere. Sorry for interrupting your work.” He backed up and walked out the door, only to turn around and ask, “Amanda’s Nick?”
That raised an eyebrow. “You know Amanda?”
Cory’s smile widened. “Couple of centuries now, yeah. She misses you.”
Now Nick remembered where he had heard the name Cory Raines. He had been the reason Amanda had wanted Nick to be open to polyamory. “I don’t miss her,” Nick told him flatly. “Whatever you came here to do, do it elsewhere.”
Hearing the note of finality in Nick’s voice, Cory took his cue.
Once Cory was gone, Nick let out a breath. He had the unnerving feeling he’d just dodged something huge. After checking to make sure the alarm on the door had reengaged and the locks were secure, Nick returned to his work, wanting to finish so he could open the bar. As he did so, he debated calling Connor, suspecting his teacher would know Cory, but decided against it. Nick had no reason to believe the other immortal posed a danger to him. Calling Connor felt like overkill. Satisfied with his decision, Nick put the encounter out of his mind.
Cory whistled as he walked down the street, pleased at the outcome. He hadn’t gotten shot, killed, or arrested, and he now knew where the nearest precinct was. That was in line with the information he’d found on the Internet and what he remembered to be true from the last time he’d used the bar as a meeting place.
As a thief, Cory specialized in money – bank heists, robbing cash checking and payroll advance places, that sort of thing. He took the news of the bar’s change in ownership as a sign he should skip his next appointment entirely. David Bazhenov would just have to live in disappointment or find another thief willing to steal back a family heirloom bracelet. He sent the man a text cancelling the appointment and put the matter out of his mind.
Nick enjoyed Brenda and Connor’s dinner parties, though work had kept him from attending the last several. The parties had started as a way for Rachel Ellenstein, Connor’s adopted daughter, to meet more people outside her usual social circle. Connor had hoped by doing so, she would fall in love with someone who met Connor’s lofty standards. It had worked; Rachel had met her now-deceased husband through one such party. Rachel had tried to tell her father she was not interested anyone else, but he continued to hope and host the parties, supporting the friendships he had established and forging new ones. The result, Nick had learned, was that Connor and Brenda were well-connected, more than someone might first assume from their given professions.
Now, Nick admired Rachel’s modest navy dress. “You look beautiful tonight,” he told her, marveling, as he always did, that someone in their eighties was still so vibrant. He suspected she was determined to live to a hundred, just to prove to Connor she could. “Come, run away with me. We’ll go to Tahiti and live like beach bums.”
Rachel laughed and hugged him. “You are, as always, a flatterer, Nick.”
“That a no?” he teased her. “Rachel, you’ll break my heart.”
“Good,” Connor noted, stepping up to greet Nick. “Means you never had a chance.”
Snorting and rolling his eyes at the predictable answer, Nick hugged his teacher. “Yeah, well, that was a given, considering you raised her.”
Connor grinned, but his smile faded as he warned Nick, “Brenda is looking for you. And there’ll be another of us here tonight. Danika Patel is the Midtown Museum’s assistant director of special collections.”
Nick looked at Connor’s bland expression suspiciously. “You aren’t matchmaking, are you?”
“It’s the holidays,” Connor allowed. “You shouldn’t be alone.” He looked across the room to Brenda, love filling his expression, before returning his gaze to Nick. “And she’s new to the city, and I promised Richie I would introduce her around.”
Nick smiled briefly at the mention of Richie Ryan, whom he had met after rejoining Amanda in Paris. Though he was chronologically younger than Nick, Richie had been in the Game longer, and played it to a degree Nick never would. The younger immortal’s zest for life had impressed Nick, something Nick had not expected him to have given his status as a more active player in the Game. Nick owed Richie for taking a challenge that, in hindsight, he would have lost. Nick had been certain he could take any challenger, given who had trained him, but Richie had been insistent, claiming he knew how the challenger fought. The subsequent fight had been vicious, involved both multiple weapons and armor, and Richie’s experience in applied ruthlessness had proven decisive. Richie had become one of the few immortal friends Nick had. “Surprised Richie isn’t with her, if she’s pretty and available.”
Connor spread his hands. “She’s his student, and he’s in London,” he said, disclaiming responsibility for his cousin’s former student. “And we were discussing you. Do you have any objections to getting romantically involved with one of us?”
“Yes. Amanda broke my heart, promising me a forever she couldn’t deliver on, and one of us means that’s twice the risk for headhunters.”
“No more than being friends.”
Caught by that logic, Nick surrendered to the inevitable. “Fine. But I make no promises.” He stepped out of the entryway and, by going around the central staircase, made his way over to the kitchen, where Brenda was coordinating with a caterer. Brenda couldn’t cook, Nick had discovered, and Connor’s skills, while edible, were not to the level needed to impress a society crowd. Caterers were the only way either of them could carry out what they wanted. Nick did not begrudge them the delegation; he would do the same in their shoes.
“Nick!” Brenda exclaimed. “You’re early!” She excused herself from the head caterer, who looked relieved by the interruption. Nick tucked his smile in his cheek; he knew the caterer they used and had promised Maria he would come early so Brenda would stop fussing needlessly. The plated dinner would be staffed as if it were being held at a fine dining restaurant instead of a private residence.
“Had to come say hello to you and Rachel before your adoring fans descended,” Nick said, leading Brenda out of the kitchen. “And to make sure you sat. I can feel you trembling already.”
“Don’t you fuss,” Brenda warned. “I’ve already had the lecture from Connor. He wanted to cancel tonight.”
“Do you trust Maria and her crew?” Nick asked as he stopped at the dining table.
“Yes,” Brenda started, then sighed. “Yes. I just am nervous. We have a full table tonight, and I want this to be perfect.”
Nick glanced at the table, which had been set for sixteen. Where Connor had found such a grand table was a mystery, but the dining room was big enough to handle it. Given he had seen the table set for six, he suspected it was a table with multiple expansion leaves. “Who is paired with Rachel?”
“Her grandson is coming,” Brenda told him. “You met Daniel the last time you were here.”
“Ah, yes, the public defender,” Nick noted. “Anyone else I know?”
“Half the table, I think.” Now Brenda took a seat at the head of the table and closed her eyes. “I’ll be all right in a minute. Would you tell Connor I am going to sit here, and let Maria know she can send the servers out with the appetizers and drinks whenever she’s ready?”
“Of course.” He kissed her cheek and went to fill her requests.
Fifteen minutes later, the other party guests arrived. Nick was reintroduced to Rachel’s grandson, Daniel Elias, who seemed pleased to remember him. The other guests turned out to be a mix of art-affiliated and law professions, making Nick grin as he realized Brenda and Connor had split the guest list between them. A pair of black-clad servers circulated, making sure everyone had drinks and appetizers.
Nick was deep in conversation with Daniel when he felt the approach of another immortal. Looking up, he saw the door open, and excused himself, certain the immortal woman who entered was the Danika Patel Connor had mentioned. At six feet two inches tall, Nick was used to towering over most people in any room. Drawing closer, he saw that the stranger was a petite, black-haired, light-brown-skinned woman who had compensated for her lack of height by wearing high heels. When Connor took her wool cloak to hang in the closet by the door, she revealed she had worn a striking olive-and-navy dress with detailed embroidery. The style of the dress made Nick think of traditional Indian style dresses and made him wonder if she was from that country. The dress hinted at the stranger’s curves even as it concealed them. Nick appreciated her style sense. Drawing closer, he noted the woman’s deep-set eyes in her otherwise delicately shaped oval face and heard her warm laugh as she responded to something Connor said. The woman looked to be in her late thirties.
“You are a flatterer, Connor, and married to boot,” she told Connor. “Shouldn’t you be paying such compliments to your wife, not single women like me?”
“He’d have to be dead to stop noticing a beautiful woman,” Nick observed, making Connor chuckle.
“Danika, this is Nick Wolfe, a friend of mine and Richie’s. Nick, this is Danika Patel,” Connor made the introductions.
Danika smiled as she shook Nick’s hand and they made their way to the sunken living room, where Brenda had moved with Connor’s help. The living room was full of conversation. “What do you do for a living?” Danika asked. Her accent suggested she had grown up speaking British English.
“I own a bar in Midtown,” Nick told her. He accepted the glass of champagne a passing server offered and took a sip. He braced himself for the typical barrage of questions that statement usually generated.
Danika thanked the server and took a glass for herself. “What made you get into that?”
“Saw an opportunity I couldn’t pass up,” Nick told her, unwilling to get into exactly how he had acquired the bar. “What brings you to New York, and where were you before?”
“London,” she told him. “I’ve always wanted to live here, and when I saw the position at the Midtown Museum was open, I went for it. Richie worried I wouldn’t make any friends.” Amusement lit her face. “He mentioned your name and said you were a good friend.”
Nick nodded. “He is. Now I understand why he texted me to ask if I would be here tonight. Have you been in town long?”
“Less than a month. I was so grateful Richie knew about the city and could help me figure out where to live.”
“Yeah, it’s not cheap,” Nick agreed. “Do you like it so far?”
“I do. I’m looking forward to finding places to train, eat, and shop. Do you have any suggestions?”
“Depends on where you live, but yes, I do,” Nick said. “I’ve lived here since 2008, so I’ve been able to watch the city grow and change.” He heard the doorbell chime and looked over to see who it was. His heart leapt into his throat, and jealousy surged through him as he saw Sara was not alone, but accompanied by a blond, muscular man, who wore a neatly tailored gray suit under a long black winter coat. When Sara surrendered her coat to Connor, Nick saw she was dressed in a long-sleeve scarlet red dress with a silver lace overlay that shimmered when it caught the light. The dress emphasized her curves, and silver studs decorated her ears.
“Excuse me, but I see a friend,” Nick murmured, not waiting for Danika to object before moving to intercept Sara.
The Witchblade chittered excitedly but indistinctly as Sara stepped into the grand room, Jake beside her, his hand on the small of her back. The ‘blade’s excitement made Sara pause, as it indicated something chaotic was about to happen. Feeling her hesitation, Jake looked at her anxiously, but she shook her head minutely, unwilling to tell him such a vague warning.
Connor greeted them, amusement dancing in his eyes. “You look gorgeous, Sara,” he told her. “Brenda will be pleased you found something to wear; she was fretting since you didn’t call her.”
Sara jerked her head towards her partner. “Jake insisted I couldn’t look frumpy.”
Connor grinned and extended his hand to shake. “Good to see you again, Jake.”
“Thanks for inviting us,” Jake told him. “I hope we’re not too late. I always forget how long it takes to get here from my place in Laurelton on a Saturday, and I made Sara meet me.”
“Not too late,” Connor assured them. “Let me take your coats and come in, have a seat in the living room. We’ll be starting dinner shortly.”
Sara surrendered her rarely-used wool dress coat to Connor, who also took Jake’s coat. As she and Jake stepped down into the living room, she saw the seating area was full of people, with Brenda holding court. Uniformed waiters were passing appetizers and drinks, and Jake snagged two flutes, passing one to her as they made their way into the crowd. Sara maneuvered them, so they could greet their hostess, who exclaimed over her attire, and then introduced them to the others who surrounded them.
He can’t have us! the Witchblade screamed in Sara’s head as she was introduced to David Bazhenov. The blade morphed slightly, flaring out into a cuff, forcing Sara to will it to behave.
I will let no one else have you, she hissed at the symbiotic weapon. You have been mine too long.
Mollified by her conviction, the Witchblade retreated, but she could feel its agitation as it watched the scene through her eyes. Breathing carefully, she focused on the man in front of her. He was her height, so they stood eye-to-eye. David Bazhenov looked like an aging gym rat. His arm and chest muscles bulged under his suit, and the disproportion of his body was capped by the fact his torso was longer than his legs. His hair had gone gray and receded from his scalp to leave him with a perfect ring around the center of his head. The lines and creases in his face showed a tendency to frown rather than smile. He was frowning now, no doubt annoyed by the lack of response to whatever he had said.
“I’m sorry, I’m like a magpie tonight,” Sara excused herself. “So many new faces. What did you say?”
“I thought your bracelet reminded me of something that belonged to my family,” David said. “May I see it again?”
No, the Witchblade roared.
She felt a hand touch her shoulder. Without an ounce of regret, she told David, “Excuse me, I think someone needs me.”
Turning, she blinked as she found Nick standing there. He was the last person he had expected to be at this party, given the usual higher-class caliber of the attendees. Her resolve to relegate him to a one-night stand, even had it been one of the best she had ever had, was suddenly more difficult. In her head, the Witchblade was laughing, as if it had conspired to make her resolve crumble. Nick looked stunning in a dark navy suit that fit him perfectly, and her hands suddenly itched to peel him out of it, to see if his body was as fit as she remembered.
“Hello, Sara,” Nick greeted warmly. “Small world, isn’t it?”
“Getting smaller all the time,” she responded as the Witchblade shrieked in glee. Ignoring it for the moment, certain she would have time later to figure out why the ‘blade saw him as important, she focused on what she needed to know. “How do you know the MacLeods?”
“Connor owed my ex-girlfriend, Amanda, a favor,” Nick told her. “I needed help and was in a bind, and we’ve been friends ever since. That was eighteen years ago. You?”
“Met Brenda at the NYPD Memorial Charity Run back in May of this year,” Sara said. She turned to Jake, who was not hiding his interest and concern. “This is my work partner, Jake McCartey. Jake, this is Nick Wolfe. He owns Dostoevsky Bar.”
Jake shook Nick’s hand firmly. “Good to meet you. I wondered who owned such an awesomely unpretentious bar. Sara forgot to mention you’d met.”
Nick was not surprised. He had not always told his police partner who he had slept with or when, though Claudia could always tell when he had gotten lucky. “I’ve always appreciated a woman who wouldn’t kiss and tell,” he told Jake.
Jake barked a laugh at that. “Me too. Sara never wants me to meet people.”
“Because, even after all this time, you still believe most people are good,” Sara reminded him.
“Oh yeah, there’s that,” Jake said genially.
“How long have you been a cop?” Nick wondered.
“Eighteen years,” Jake replied. “Sara was my training partner and we’ve been partners ever since. Have you always owned a bar?”
Nick shook his head. “No, I was a detective for ten years. Major Crimes, Torago, Illinois. Quit to work for a friend of mine, who owned an international security consulting firm, and my then-girlfriend, who had an upscale pub in Paris, France.”
“Both at once?” Sara wondered, surprised.
Nick chuckled. “They had faith I could do both, what can I say. Looking back, I was a little out of my mind, agreeing to juggle everything like I did.” He smiled ruefully. “Didn’t take long to burn out.”
“I can imagine,” Jake agreed. “What made you want to quit?”
“My captain wanted me to cover up we had corrupt cops, one of whom killed my partner, Claudia. He tried to frame a known thief for her murder. Except I happened to be on the scene when he fired the shot that killed Claudia.”
“I’m sorry,” Sara said as Jake echoed her. “I can’t imagine doing anything other than police work. My father was a detective in the same precinct; he made me want to be like him.”
“Adjusting was difficult,” Nick admitted. “Probably why I tried to do too much.” Wanting a change of topic, he glanced over to see Brenda rising to her feet with Connor’s help.
“Attention please,” Brenda announced. “Dinner will begin in five minutes. Seating is assigned, so please take a moment to find your seat.”
“Guess that’s our cue,” Jake noted.
Sara saw she and Jake were separated. Nick had the seat to Connor’s left, while a petite, thirty-something Indian woman named Danika Patel had the seat to Connor’s right. Sara wound up seated between Nick and an elegantly attired man, who introduced himself as Evan Weise, a digital artist whose work had been featured in several popular video games. Across from Evan was Daniel Elias, a public defender whom Sara recognized from some of her cases. He smiled ruefully as they shook hands.
“Rachel’s my grandmother,” he told Sara, “and Connor and Brenda are family. I never know who’ll show up here at these parties. Once I had to sit across from my opposing counsel. Made eating difficult.”
“I can imagine,” Sara murmured.
Jake sat between Yumika Koike, an actress of Japanese heritage whom Sara recognized as in a TV series she had loved, and Jeanene Rodrigues, who had introduced herself earlier as an art gallery owner and dealer. The rest of the table included Latisha Jones, a rising star in pop music; David Bazhenov, who turned out to be an agent with the New York Port Authority; Margaret Shepherd, Brenda’s partner in her private investigation business; Madison Hardney, an art instructor at one of the larger community colleges in the area; and George Stroud, mixed media artist and sculptor. The mix of professions, backgrounds, and personalities turned the dinner conversation into a lively debate. The Witchblade chittered in Sara’s mind, pleased by the connections she was making, but she ignored it with the ease of long practice. It also continued to hiss at David as he tried, and repeatedly failed, to capture her attention.
Though he did not ignore Connor or Danika, Nick kept his focus centered on Sara, acutely making Sara aware of his attention. By the time the dinner concluded, Sara could not find an argument why she did not want to see him again. Added to her conviction was the sense Danika wanted him; she kept trying to pull his attention away from Sara.
Danika can’t have him, Sara thought darkly, and felt the Witchblade agree with her. Still, she hesitated. In the years since she had become the ‘blade’s Wielder, she had kept her romantic entanglements to one-night stands, believing no man was safe from the danger the ‘blade represented. Nick would be safer to pursue a woman like Danika, who was in a safe job that held no chance for spillover like the work Sara did.
“You could kill a man with that look,” Connor observed, his odd accent sounding more Scottish than usual, startling Sara from her position at the juncture of the living room and dining room, where she had retreated to consider her next move. Nick was in the living room, talking with Danika and George. “I’m sure Nick feels it.”
Startled, Sara turned to look at him. “Why do you think he would?”
Connor chuckled and considered the scene. “He’s waiting for you to make your move, Sara.”
“And why do you care?” Sara asked him.
“Life is too short to live without love,” Connor told her. His gaze settled briefly on Brenda, who was once again holding court in the living room, before returning to meet Sara’s. “And Nick is family.” His lips curved. “I’d like to see him happy.”
Realizing he meant well, Sara took a breath and stepped out of the shadows. She was waylaid in her mission by Evan, who wanted to ask her about a comment she made at dinner, then by Daniel and Rachel, and again by Brenda, who wanted to ask her about her Christmas plans. As she had none, she accepted Brenda’s invitation to join her and Connor for Christmas dinner.
Jake then interrupted, telling her he was leaving, since he had a longer commute than she did; he lived on the northeastern part of the city, while her condo was in the northern end of Harlem. That led to Sara getting caught up in a discussion with Yumika and Latisha about housing costs in the city, and how once-cheap neighborhoods had gentrified and become more expensive. By the time she extricated herself from the conversation, which had wandered into other topics, Nick was gone, as was Danika, and the party was winding down. Not seeing her hosts, who had apparently vanished, Sara retrieved her coat from the closet and put it on, intent on leaving.
Daniel noticed her action and intercepted her before she could leave. “I hope you had a good time; it was good to meet you.”
“Where did your grandmother, Brenda, and Connor go?” Sara wondered.
“My grandmother lives here,” Daniel revealed. “She went to bed about an hour ago, after insisting Brenda accompany her and stay up there.” He smiled. “Brenda really isn’t feeling well. Connor went up to make sure she took some medicine and went to sleep. He asked me to make sure everyone got home safe. Do you have far to go?”
Sara shook her head. “It’s about a forty-five-minute subway ride, but it’s a straight shot from here.” She glanced at her watch, seeing it was past eleven pm; with any luck, she might catch the next train home.
“Be safe going home, then. Let me give you my number so you can text me when you’ve gotten home; Connor won’t let me hear the end of it if I didn’t request you do so.”
“Even if I’m a trained police officer?” Sara asked, surprised.
“Someone once kidnapped Brenda,” Daniel noted. “She was still in the NYPD then.”
“Ah,” Sara said, and pulled out her phone. She had just exchanged numbers with Daniel when she heard footsteps on the stairs and saw Nick coming down.
“Oh, good, you’re still here,” Nick greeted her breathlessly. “Headed home?”
“Mind if I join you?” He offered her a guileless smile. “If I go home, someone’ll want me to fix whatever problem’s happening in the bar.”
Sara could see that, but certain he wanted only another booty call, she hesitated.
Seeing her hesitation, Nick pressed his advantage. “Then I can text Connor, Daniel, and Brenda, and tell them I made sure you got home. You know the subways get creepy this late at night.”
Do it, the Witchblade urged, and she shivered at the warning underneath its tone. It was not out of the realm of possibility it would warp reality to suit its darker nature. Sara had learned the hard way its thirst for violence sometimes manifested in personal jeopardy, as if it needed to prove she could not survive without it, and that she needed to listen to what it wanted her to do.
“You realize I grew up in this city?” Sara hedged.
“I didn’t,” Nick said cheerfully as he retrieved his coat, which turned out to be a long brown leather trench, lined in a matching fabric. “So you can prove I’m wrong?”
Sara laughed. “You’re on.” Turning to Daniel, she said, “Please let your family know I enjoyed dinner.”
“I will,” Daniel said, his eyes widening slightly as he registered the use of ‘family.’ “May I give you a hug goodbye?”
Smiling, Sara hugged him. As they did so, the Witchblade revealed a vision of Daniel conversing with Connor upstairs a half hour earlier. In it, Daniel called Connor his great-grandfather, and Sara made a note to explore that tidbit later.
Daniel hugged Nick goodbye as well before Sara and Nick exited the MacLeod home. As they headed in the direction of the Wakefield subway station, Sara asked, “Is Connor Daniel’s great-grandfather?”
Nick smiled. “Yes.”
“He doesn’t look that old,” Sara noted, and heard the Witchblade laugh. Eyes narrowing, she realized the ‘blade knew something she didn’t. Deciding that was a rabbit hole she didn’t want to explore in favor of focusing on Nick, she said, “One of those people who holds their age well?”
“Something like that, yeah. They have become family. My parents died when I was in college, and Rachel feels like the grandmother I never had.”
“I feel like they have adopted me.”
“You probably have been. Connor and Brenda are picky about who they invite to dinner, and if you’ve been here more than once, it’s a good bet they like you. Did Jake go home with Madison?”
Surprised by his observation, Sara looked askance at him. “Not that I saw, why?”
“He seemed pretty fascinated, is all.” Nick shrugged. “Not that I can blame him. She seemed intrigued by his choice of career.”
“He used to be a pro surfer,” Sara told Nick. “He still gets a few groupies now and then, who are disappointed he isn’t risking his life for a giant wave and a wad of cash.” She rolled his eyes. “Somehow, the notion he’s risking his life to catch a murderer pales in comparison.”
“Not everyone gets how difficult it is to look at crime as a cop,” Nick commiserated. “Most of my cases were residential burglaries, with some commercial and vehicle thefts thrown in for good measure. I’d also get pulled into homicide and kidnapping cases, too; I was part of the Major Crimes department, so we got it all.”
“I can’t imagine doing that and making any progress,” Sara said after a moment. “Did you?”
“Enough I got selected for a special week-long seminar hosted here,” Nick replied. “I thought I was hot stuff, coming from a small city in Illinois. Made me realize I wouldn’t do as well in a bigger city.”
“Do you miss it?” Sara asked, looking at him.
Nick shook his head. “I’ve been out of it too long. I like knowing I set my hours and I’m the boss. Flip side of that is that it’s too easy to let being the boss suck me into thinking I can’t delegate or take a day off.”
Sara chuckled at that, then sobered, remembering how many of her fellow officers had problems with alcohol. “How do you deal with people who say you’re contributing to alcoholism?”
“I tell them Prohibition didn’t work,” Nick replied. “People died drinking bathtub gin. I also cut someone off when they’re too drunk and teach my bartenders to do the same. I offer people a safe ride home and there are breathalyzer kits under the bar.” He met Sara’s gaze. “I do what I can, but if you’re an addict, you’d get your fix, including drinking rubbing alcohol if that was all you could get.”
Sara nodded. “What would you do if you couldn’t run your bar?”
“Work for Connor in his antique store,” Nick said with a grin. “He works for the auction houses, sourcing and verifying certain antiques. Part of the way he paid off the favor he owed my ex-girlfriend was to give me a job in his store.”
“That sounds like a huge favor,” Sara noted. “Why did you need a job?”
“I had a work visa in France that was tied to working for Bert Myers, a friend of mine from high school, who had – has – an international security firm. I’d been away from the US long enough it looked like I had made France my new home, and a job here would cement my claim I had moved.” Nick grimaced. “Immigration rules are complex and byzantine.”
“That sounds complicated,” Sara frowned. “Do you owe your ex-girlfriend anything for what she did for you?”
Nick shook his head. “No. That was twenty years ago. I haven’t talked to Amanda in ten years.” He shook his head. “There was one point where I was sure I’d die for her. Now, I’m not so sure.”
Nick barked a laugh. “No. Not even. I was married once – we met in college – but the marriage didn’t last. I married a rich girl, whose daddy wanted me to be his pet private investigator for his law firm. I said no, the marriage ended.”
“On Daddy’s orders?”
Nick shrugged. “We agreed it was mutually beneficial to part. A few years later, she wound up in Paris, trying to find what happened to her brother, and we reconnected briefly. What about you? Did you ever love anyone you thought was the light of your world for a while?”
“His name was Conchobar, and he was an Irish musician. I only had six weeks with him, but it was the most intense six weeks of my life. Only problem was he used to be a terrorist. His friends wanted him to rejoin their cause, and when he said no, they shot him.” The grief was old enough that telling the story barely made a ripple. “He’s why I think the whole one-soulmate-for-you-thing is a crock of shit.”
That made Nick’s eyebrows rise. “I never understood that one. I mean, what if you live to be over a hundred? Or you fall in love with someone who matches what you want in a life partner? Do they not count as a soulmate?”
“That feels weird if they didn’t,” Sara said as they reached the Wakefield subway station and made their way down the stairs. “How can someone like that be less completing than anyone else who qualifies as a soulmate?”
“Agreed,” Nick said. He glanced at the reader board that announced incoming trains, noting that several lines ran through that subway station. “Which subway line are we catching?”
Sara told him, and they were in luck; it arrived shortly after they did. At midnight, the train was not as empty as one might expect, given it was coming from a popular tourist area of the city. Nick and Sara continued their conversation, though they lowered their voices out of respect for the others on the train.
“What do you want from me?” Sara asked. “Because it feels like Connor and Brenda were matchmaking tonight. If you’re doing this just to please them, you can get off at the next stop.”
Looking unsurprised by the question, Nick replied, “I’m not. I told you before I wanted to see you again; this is me, seeing you again. Where you want to go from here is up to you.”
Sara drew in a deep breath. “I want to be with you. Beyond that, I haven’t thought it through; I wasn’t expecting to see you tonight, but I don’t want to lose this. It feels right.”
Trouble coming, the Witchblade whispered to Sara with maniacal glee. You will need him. She had a flash of a sword cutting through flesh, but nothing more. She took a deep breath and added, “I need you.”
He dropped a chaste kiss on her lips. “Then we’ll run with that.”
Sara’s condo was on the northern tip of Harlem. Guided by the Witchblade, Sara had purchased her condo, which was on the third floor of the three-story building, back in 2001, just before the neighborhood had gentrified. The space had been a foreclosure, partially gutted, and she had to hire a contractor to finish it out before she could live there. Now, it was a large, two-bedroom, two-bath unit, complete with its own laundry closet and a private balcony off the living room, in a building now prized for its location and rarely-sold units. She had furnished her space with a carefully chosen selection of furniture, purchased piecemeal over the years.
Now, she led Nick into the space, and wondered what he thought. Compared to his home, which was felt like a gallery of Native American art, hers was starker. She knew little about art, and therefore had hung nothing up. The extent of her décor was limited to painting a wall in the living room a vibrant yellow to break up the white walls. She had also painted one wall in the master bedroom a soft blue-gray. She had turned the second bedroom into a workout room; it had a futon for guests.
“Nice,” Nick approved after she finished the tour. “Are you renting or is this yours?”
“Mine and the bank’s; I almost have it paid off,” Sara said proudly. She hesitated, then looked at Nick, who sat on her couch.
“There’s something I want to ask you, though. Who the hell did you arrest that you have so much security, even after all this time? That door from the garage has a camera and a coded lock, and I saw you had a camera on the garage, too. I get you have the occasional rude customer or rude tourist, but that feels like a lot.”
“It’s not who I arrested,” Nick answered. “It’s who I didn’t.” He sighed. “It’s a long story.”
“You said you left the force because you found out some things weren’t dying for. What were they? I got the impression it wasn’t just your captain’s wishes.”
Nick didn’t answer for a long moment. From his expression, Sara could see he was trying to find the words. “No, it wasn’t. What he wanted was just the last straw,” he said at last. “I used to think the world was black and white, and it’s not even shades of gray. It’s something else entirely.”
“I thought I was the only one who discovered that,” Sara said in surprise.
The Witchblade fed her an incredible vision of lightning channeled into Nick’s body, with no context of how, lifting him several feet into the air, and him crashing back down and standing as if nothing was broken. Nick’s face reflected victory and regret. The vision seemed to be of an event that had happened and would happen again, a sensation that made Sara confused.
Deliberately, Sara relaxed. The ‘blade wasn’t chattering urgently, a sure sign that whatever was to come wasn’t immediate, and Sara wanted to enjoy the rest of the night. “Just an odd feeling; it’s nothing,” she said dismissively. With a laugh, she said, “Maybe I’ve been a cop too long.”
Nick’s eyes narrowed, and she knew he didn’t buy her excuse. After a long, telling moment, he offered a wry chuckle and said, “I was a cop for twelve years. How long have you been one?”
“Twenty-six years,” Sara told him. “My captain’s pushing for me to retire; he thinks I’d be happier doing something else. He changed my responsibilities so I’m not homicide supervisor anymore, but it means I’m doing more administrative stuff and cold cases.”
“Would you be happier doing something else?”
From anyone else, Sara would have bristled at the inquiry. Nick made the question seem reasonable.
“Not sure,” Sara noted. “All I ever wanted to do was be a cop. But –” she sighed “– I’m considering it this time. Some days I feel like I’m swimming in the gutter and it’s hard to see anything good come out of what I do.” She met Nick’s eyes. “Who the hell am I if I’m not a cop?”
“Then don’t retire until you have that answer,” Nick replied. “Trust me, if you don’t, accepting what your life is like at that point takes longer and is more painful.”
“Might not have much choice,” Sara said sourly. “I haven’t been NYPD’s poster child for recruitment.”
“Was it your goal to be?”
Sara chuckled at that. “No.” She paused. “I don’t know what kind of options are out there. You’ve adjusted.”
Nick laughed. “Don’t take my example. Getting away from my hometown helped. I also had some good friends who helped me figure it out, including Connor. But if you’d asked me then if I’d own a bar and like it, I’d have laughed.” He smiled. “Nothing says you have to figure it out tonight.”
“True,” she acknowledged. “Maybe we should figure something else out.”
Nick’s eyes sparkled with interest. “Such as?”
Sara leaned forward and kissed him. Talking about life issues could wait; she wanted to lose herself in passion.
Nick accepted his cue. He made her feel treasured and precious, and Sara did her best to return the feeling. As they lay in her bed later that evening, he held her close and said, “I hope you know that if something’s bothering you, you can talk to me. I’m good at listening.”
Sara looked up at him, feeling the ‘blade purring, as if to confirm his words. Maybe she was being too hard on herself again, she thought. Nick had been a cop; he knew the way the job ate everything. “Being with you right now isn’t something I’ve let myself do in years. You remember how being a cop takes over everything else.”
“Doesn’t mean you have to let it,” Nick said mildly. “Unless you really, really believe that pursuing justice comes first.”
“I used to,” Sara admitted. “But when a murderer goes free despite all the evidence, all the paperwork I filled out...”
“Then maybe you need someone to remind you that while life isn’t fair, he still thinks you’re beautiful and amazing and smart.”
Sara rose to meet his gaze more easily. “Are you volunteering?”
Nick smiled. “If you’ll let me.” He kissed her again.
She closed her eyes briefly. “Okay.”
He held her close for a moment before asking, “Did someone try to steal your bracelet?”
For a heartbeat, Sara froze, and her breath caught. Amused by her reaction, the Witchblade flared into a wide cuff bracelet, its carnelian stone turning into an alien eye that stared at Nick before shutting and condensing back into a slender silver filigree bracelet with an innocent-looking stone. Time became suspended while the ‘blade considered the man holding Sara close. Satisfied by what it saw, the ‘blade whispered, Trust him.
Sara let out the breath she had been holding. Time sped back into motion. She studied Nick, seeing curiosity and genuine concern. “People want to steal it,” she acknowledged. “But that’s because it’s not an ordinary bracelet.”
Nick raised an eyebrow. “I guessed as much, seeing it’s welded shut. What do you do when you have to fly somewhere?”
“I don’t know,” Sara admitted. “I haven’t been on an airplane since a collegiate spring break trip. How’s your tolerance for the strange and supernatural?”
Nick pursed his lips and considered. “Pretty good these days.”
“The bracelet I wear is the Witchblade. It’s been passed down from one Wielder to the next through most of recorded history. Only women can wear it successfully long-term, but men have tried – and they’ve usually gone insane. I only know one man who’s worn it briefly, and the glimpse he got of its power made him want to control the next Wielder.”
Startled and intrigued, Nick shifted to look at her right wrist more closely. “How come? And how does it come off if it’s welded shut?”
“Some have taken it off a Wielder by force, and sometimes, it comes off of its own volition,” Sara told him. “The bracelet is semi-sentient; it has a consciousness that can compel its Wielder to see through time.” She braced herself for rejection as she added, “And it’s not always a pretty-looking bracelet. It can transform into a half-arm gauntlet complete with sword or a full suit of armor. If the Wielder can control the Witchblade, it will protect her and serve her interests, but as it’s a child of the Light and the Darkness, it likes chaos best. Thanks to it, I can see the past, the present, and the future.”
Eyes narrowing, Nick stared at her. “How protective will it get?”
“It’s helped me survive a massive shootout at the Rialto Theatre that killed my first partner, Danny, and an explosion that decimated my apartment meant to kill me. It’s warned me against people who want to take it away from me by any means necessary. It saved my partner, Jake, from getting killed about ten years ago. Flip side is that it told me I would lose Danny, and it told me I’d meet Conchobar but that I’d lose him. It also gives me visions and nightmares; sometimes, I can’t tell the difference. Often, if the visions are about the future, they’re possible outcomes, not certainties. If they’re of the past, they’re of things that happened.”
Concerned, Nick leaned in closer. “How graphic are these visions?”
“Like watching a scene from a TV show,” Sara replied. “Sometimes I even get multiple angles of the same scene.”
Nick grimaced. “Do they get triggered by things you touch or see or is it random?”
“All of it. Once it was some guy down in Times Square playing a saxophone for money. That was not a good day.”
“Does your captain know about it?”
Sara shook her head. “I’ve never told him. Jake, my partner, knows, but that’s because it’s touched him, and he’s grabbed my wrist over the years for myriad reasons. If my captain knows what I am beyond a high-ranking detective in his department, he’s never given me any sign. He thinks I get spooky hunches, but I always find evidence to back up whatever the ‘blade tells me.” She took a breath. “And it’s telling me you somehow survived what looks like a massive electrocution by lightning, and that you will do it again.”
Nick chuckled ruefully. “Guess that means I can’t hide the truth from you, if it saw that. I’m immortal – can’t die unless you decapitate me with a sword or similar sharp object. The lightning storm you saw is a transfer of power and knowledge from one immortal to another, usually when one of us fights the other and wins. We call it the Game, but it’s a genocide. No one knows why we fight other than if someone evil wins and becomes the last immortal standing, the world will suffer in darkness for eternity. Some people want to see that happen.”
Sara blinked at that. “Is that why you wouldn’t let me handle your coat?”
“Yes. I have a sword in a cross-body sheath in it.”
“How do you get through airport security then? Or anywhere with a metal detector?”
Nick half-smiled. “Plan like hell for it, first off. Most immortals aren’t interested in the Game and don’t want to deal with the hassle of playing it. The more heads you take, the easier it gets to hide a sword in plain sight, in part because you know more of what not to do. My teacher also taught me how to do a few slight-of-hand tricks.” He gripped Sara’s hand. “I don’t like playing the Game or killing people, but I will if someone threatens me or the people I care about.”
“I’m a little tougher to kill these days, thanks to the Witchblade.”
“But if it’s got a mind of its own, will it leave you of its own accord?”
“It can. The Witchblade always chooses its Wielders. Back when I didn’t know enough of what it could do for me, it tried to leave,” Sara admitted. “Now, if it ever decided it didn’t want me, I’m not sure I would survive the experience. Most Wielders don’t. The Witchblade, should it find a different Wielder, leaves one parting gift to the last person who wore it.”
“The ability to see what the new Wielder sees and the futures that spawn out from her choices,” Sara noted softly. “The problem with that is that the Witchblade will tell the new Wielder that the last one is not to be trusted.”
“Then you become Cassandra, shouting in the town square about the army about to descend, and no one is listening.”
“Well, that seems cruel.”
“It isn’t in its nature to be kind,” Sara pointed out. “It knows how because of the Wielders who have hosted it, but it also feeds on all things negative.”
“If you wanted to give it to someone else, would it let you?”
“I don’t dare ask, not anymore,” Sara confessed. “The last time I did, Jake and I both nearly died because I chose wrong. That Wielder wasn’t ready, and she wanted to sell the Witchblade to the highest bidder, as if money alone would make it better. I took it back from her. That was seventeen years ago. In return for the visions it gives me, I also age more slowly. I’m part of a bloodline that includes Joan of Arc, Cleopatra, and so many other strong, independent women – some famous, some infamous, and some who were neither.” Sitting up, she willed it to manifest into the forearm gauntlet. “I admit: I don’t want to go back to who I was before the Witchblade found me. I’m too used to being able to do things like this now.”
Nick marveled at the gauntlet and reached to touch it. He was surprised to feel it was solid, with a metallic feel. “It’s beautiful.”
Sara nodded as the ‘blade shifted of its own volition and turned into a delicate silver-and-green filigree version. One tendril curled and touched Nick, who shivered at the touch.
“That feels cold,” Nick noted, surprised. “And it looks like it could turn into razor-sharp claws.”
Sara nodded again. “It steals my body heat and my energy, so when it manifests into a full suit of armor, I crash hard afterwards. It’s taken me years to understand what I can do with it, the supernatural power it gives me, and how to balance being a cop who believes in justice with its thirst for violence and order.” She studied him, seeing a complete vision of him fighting another man to the death, clearing the scene, and then calling the police to report women being trafficked out of a warehouse near the port. “You killed Lucas Demidov by taking his head.”
Startled, Nick’s eyes widened, then he blew out a breath. “Gonna arrest me for it?” he asked quietly. “There isn’t a statute of limitations on murder in this state.”
Sara met his gaze. “On what evidence? Your word alone isn’t enough. I’ve had the Witchblade eighteen years. I know what I can and can’t get entered as evidence backwards and forwards, especially the things it helps me see. Besides, we’re talking about things that will get us both killed if people knew the truth.”
She took a breath before adding, “Given what the Witchblade’s showing me about Demidov, I can’t disagree with your decision to play the Game. What I don’t understand is how you found out he was trafficking women.”
“One of my friends from grade school, Bert Myers, runs an international security consulting firm called Myers International. He knew I was in New York, wanted me to investigate the disappearance of a friend of a friend, and before I knew it, I was looking at enough evidence to prove she had been a victim of sex trafficking. The cop I talked to said no one could make evidence stick to Demidov, and I realized why the moment I stepped into his bar. He took advantage of his bar’s position in Midtown to pull in cops who would do him favors.”
“You aren’t working for this Bert Myers anymore, are you?”
Nick shook his head. “No. Told him Demidov was the last one, and he finally listened. I don’t play the Game any more than I must; most headhunters go for bigger targets than me. Do you have people looking for the Witchblade?”
Sara nodded. “David at the party is looking for it; he tried to get a closer look at it and kept trying to get my attention.”
“I noticed,” Nick said, concerned. “But he can’t do anything while it’s fused to you, right?”
“Oh, he can make my life miserable,” Sara countered. “He’ll try to get to me through my work, if he’s like the others before him. If I had to guess, he’s from the other bloodline that can wear this bracelet successfully, but the last Wielder from that line was the woman before me, and the Witchblade tells me it doesn’t want another from that line until long after I’m dead. Beyond that, I don’t know enough about why David thinks I should give him any time out of my day.”
“The Witchblade won’t tell you?”
“It can be contrary that way,” Sara said sourly. “Sometimes it likes the attention.”
“Oh, kind of like a cat,” Nick said, amused.
Sara chuckled. “You’re taking this really well.”
Nick kissed her. “I’m pretty good at rolling with the punches and coming up swinging. You’re not the first woman I’ve been with who had a secret to keep. I spent a year learning about immortals, thanks to a friendship I had with one, before I ever knew I was one. It expanded my definitions of what is a legend and what could be true.”
“Is that why you have a lot of Native American art?”
Now Nick’s lips curved. “No, but the first immortal I ever met is nicknamed ‘the Raven.’ I’ve always had a love for myths and legends; got really interested in Native American culture when I was a kid because someone told me I might have Indian blood.” He shrugged. “I’ll never know for sure; all immortals are orphans, and outside of who raises us, teaches us to live as immortals, and who we choose to be our family, we don’t have blood relations.”
Sara stared at him. “Connor’s like you.”
Nodding, Nick said, “Yes. He taught me how to fight with a sword and helped me see through the anger and hurt I was feeling.” He grimaced at the memory. “The friendship I had with that immortal I mentioned had, by then, turned into love. It got tangled, because Amanda has had centuries to perfect the art of not talking. I thought I was mortal, and my last act of love was to save her from an immortal trying to cheat his way into taking her head. She shot me, after three days of me being in pain from a poison her challenger had given me, and I was furious she never mentioned I’d be like her. Or hell, killed me sooner to save me from the gut-wrenching pain I was in instead of taking me to doctor after doctor who told me the same thing – they didn’t know how to fix me.”
“How did you meet Connor, then?”
“Amanda knew I wouldn’t listen to her, so she contrived to get him to help me. By the time he did, I was being hunted by a ruthless headhunter, who liked to play with his victims before he took their heads. Connor saved me.” Nick studied her. “How did you get the Witchblade?”
“I was investigating a break-in and a death at the Midtown Museum, where the Witchblade was being displayed. I didn’t know it then, but the owner of the Witchblade conspired to arrange events so I was the one who the Witchblade found. He was a billionaire named Kenneth Irons, and he wanted a Wielder he could control, because he had previously had one and she had helped him be successful.”
“You objected,” Nick surmised, certain.
Sara nodded. “I did. He kept offering money and power; even showed me where he kept the previous Wielder in a cryogenic chamber, hoping that someday he could use the ‘blade to revive her.” She shuddered at the memory. “I decided then he would never have it. He died about a year after I gained the ‘blade, so all his efforts went to naught.” She studied Nick a moment before saying, “Now that our secrets are on the table, do you still want to be with me?”
“Yes,” Nick said firmly. “And if that guy from dinner thinks he can have you, he’ll have to deal with me. Unless you don’t want more than what we’ve shared already?”
Sara kissed him. “I want you, Nick. If I ever change my mind, I’ll let you know, but I want to spend more time with you.”
“Same goes.” He kissed her. “And I don’t have to be anywhere tomorrow, not even to open the bar. You want to stay up and talk some more or do you want to sleep, and then get breakfast?”
“Shower, then sleep,” Sara decided. “If you want to join me, I can grab you a towel.”
“Sounds like a fine plan.”
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“Thought you said I shouldn’t pursue a cop,” Nick told Brenda on the phone the following afternoon.
“Connor wanted to introduce you to Danika. I wanted to even the playing field,” Brenda told him, unrepentant.
“I would never date another immortal,” Nick said firmly. “Not again anyway. I’m happy to show Danika around but as I told Richie, she must make her own life. And regarding Sara – thank you, Brenda. I didn’t think I’d see her again.”
Pleased, Brenda said, “Good.”
Nick paused before asking, “Do you know about the bracelet she wears?”
Brenda’s indrawn breath was answer enough.
“Is that why you wanted me to meet her?” Nick asked evenly. “Or why you tried to convince me to see someone else?”
“Yes and yes,” Brenda replied. “Nick, Connor can tell you more about it. He’s out of the house but I’ll tell him to call you. I know it leaves its wearers lonely and alone, and I want no one I know to be like that.”
“You’re a helpless romantic, Brenda.”
“Yeah, well, takes one to know one. Be careful, Nick; that’s all I ask.”
“I will, Brenda, but I don’t think knowing Sara is the Wielder of the Witchblade will change that much in my life. I’m reassured she can handle herself in a fight.”
“If you say so,” Brenda said. “I worry that it makes you both more likely to assume you can handle anything, and that’s a dangerous assumption to make sometimes.” She paused a moment before asking, “Did I ask you if you were coming for Christmas dinner?”
“No, but given you and Connor usually expect me there, I figured I didn’t need an invitation.” Amused, Nick leaned back in his chair. “I’ll make sure Sara comes with me. Did you want her partner there as well?”
“If he has no other plans, sure. He only pretends to be shallow, Nick. It’s what people expect of him.”
“I noticed,” Nick agreed. “Did you get a weird vibe off David? I didn’t like the way he kept looking at Sara and I thought maybe it was jealousy talking, but he rubbed me the wrong way.”
“No, Connor didn’t like him either,” Brenda noted. “And Latisha told me this morning that he completely ignored her all evening, except to tell her that he didn’t speak to black women because they always turned him down. She said she told Connor, who kicked him out.” Annoyed, Brenda added, “David’s not getting another invite. I don’t care if he came recommended by someone Connor trusts.”
“He’ll want to come back anyway. Guys like that tend to, especially if they realize they could make connections they might not otherwise. And Sara said he was interested in her bracelet.”
“I’m not putting up with a racist in our house,” Brenda stated firmly. “Or anyone who won’t accept people different from them. He can go find someone else to make a replica if he thinks he deserves one.” She let out a breath. “And I’m getting worked up, so I will let you go so I can calm down.”
“Sorry,” Nick apologized swiftly.
“No, you’re fine; you asked a question, I answered. My reactions are my own. But do make sure Sara knows she doesn’t have to bring a present, just herself?”
“I will. Thanks again, Brenda. Be safe.”
“You as well, Nick.” Much like her husband, Brenda did not waste breath on a goodbye, but disconnected the line.
Connor called Nick a half hour later. After revealing that yes, he had known about Sara’s bracelet, and had met a previous Wielder, Connor asked if Nick had questions.
“You don’t think it’s a bad idea to get involved with Sara?” Nick worried.
“In what way?” Connor prompted.
“You didn’t want to tell me she’s wearing a mystical object of power. Stuff like that draws people who want to take it for themselves. Were you worried I wouldn’t be able to handle it?”
“You might have fooled Sara into thinking you’re okay, but I know you haven’t always reacted well to the paranormal. Are you prepared for what roads it may lead you? From what I know of the Wielder, her life is often lonely and full of danger.”
“I’m still processing how I can help her, how to protect her,” Nick admitted. “But I have a few ideas. I–” Nick let out a breath as he tried to find the words to articulate how he felt. “Think this feels bigger than finding out Amanda withheld that I’d be immortal like her. I get why you didn’t want to tell me. I’m not sure I’d believe if Sara hadn’t show me a little of what it can do. I wouldn’t have told her about immortals, either, or that you and I are both are. Connor, that thing gives Sara the ability to see secrets other people are keeping. She told me it showed her me taking Demidov’s head.”
Connor was quiet a moment. “I’ll tell you the same thing Ramirez and Marcus Constantine told me. The Witchblade chooses its Wielders. If you don’t want to be a part of that Wielder’s life, including the many ways it will find trouble, then walk away now.”
“You knew what she is, and you didn’t run.”
Connor chuckled. “This is the second time a Wielder has crossed my path, and I don’t believe in coincidences. Do you?”
“No.” Nick rose to pace the length of his living room before sitting back down. “You said you met a previous Wielder back around the American Civil War. How long did you know her?”
“Six months,” Connor replied. “She told me I would meet it again about two hundred years and laughed when I said that didn’t sound feasible. When I saw that bracelet on Sara’s wrist, I remembered what Emma told me.”
“You aren’t scared of what it might want with both of us?”
“No. Are you?”
“I feel like I should be,” Nick admitted, “but I’m not. You taught me to be ready, especially if you believe all the legends are true.” He chuckled roughly as he added, “Not that I have a clue what to do if it turns out to be something out of the weirdest and creepiest legends I’ve ever read. Do you?”
“Beheading works,” Connor noted dryly.
That made Nick laugh. “True. Whatever threat is near, I doubt it’s from Sara or from the Witchblade.”
“There are new immortals in the city,” Connor advised. “I recognize one of them but the other one is new. Watch your head, Nick.”
“Take your own advice, Connor; they’re usually not hunting me. Not when you’re the bigger target. Everyone knows the Highlanders. Speaking of – is Duncan coming to Christmas dinner or is he staying in Seacouver?”
“He’s staying in Seacouver,” Connor affirmed. “He has a new girlfriend.”
“Not ready to meet the family?” Nick guessed.
“He wouldn’t say, which means yes.” Amused, Connor added, “You should call him, ask him questions. He told me I was being too nosy.”
Nick snickered. “Which means you were, and he won’t tell me either, because he’ll know I’m asking on your behalf.” He took a deep breath, remembering something he had forgotten to ask Connor. “Cory Raines broke into my bar. He said he would meet someone and thought the bar still belonged to Demidov. Do you know who he is?”
“I do. He’s sometimes been a friend. That explains why he’s here; he rarely stays long in the city.”
“He isn’t someone I need to handle, is he?”
“Not unless he stole something you want back,” Connor said. “And he’s usually stealing to fund something charitable. He doesn’t need the money for himself.” Connor was silent a moment before concluding, “He may be here for the Witchblade, and doesn’t know that he’s looking for that specific thing.”
“Is it worth finding him and asking?”
“I’ll take care of it,” Connor assured him. “He knows me better than you.”
“Thanks, Connor. Let me know how it goes.”
“I will, Nick,” Connor acknowledged, and disconnected the line.
For a moment, Nick stared at his phone, debating with himself. He meant what he had told Sara the night before: he wanted to see her again; he wanted a relationship with her. Given what he knew now, Nick still couldn’t find a counterargument. He had survived the hurricane known as Amanda upending his life and his heart. Now, he wanted to make Sara smile.
Picking up the phone, he dialed a delivery service.
Sara heard the knock on her apartment door just as she was finishing a cup of coffee. Thinking it was Jake coming to meet her for an early dinner, she was surprised to find a young man holding a mini-tablet in one hand and a balloon bouquet in the other.
“Delivery for Sara Pezzini,” the young man said, extending the tablet for her to sign. “From an admirer, looks like.”
She looked at him suspiciously, seeing he wore a uniform indicating he was an employee of Flowers & More, then took the tablet.
He dug into his pocket for a stylus and handed it to her. “If you could just sign in the box at the bottom, please?”
Quickly, Sara scrawled her signature, and exchanged tablet and stylus for the brightly colored balloons, which had been tied together, and the card. “Thanks,” she said, and was just about to step back into the apartment when Jake, her partner, walked up.
“Balloons?” Jake wondered.
“Good afternoon to you, too,” Sara said dryly.
Deftly, Jake snatched the card out of Sara’s hand and read it. “‘Sara, I enjoyed our night together. Want to have dinner together later this week? Nick.’ Ooh, you have a boyfriend?”
“And what does it matter to you?” Sara snapped, not amused by Jake’s teasing and snatching the card back.
“Hey, I’m just asking a question,” Jake protested, following Sara into the living room where she tied the balloons to the leg of the coffee table, and dropped the card onto the table itself. “You know I worry about you. Nothing’s been the same since that damned gauntlet chose you.” His voice gentled and he reached to touch her shoulder. “Who is your secret admirer? No, don’t tell me – it was Nick Wolfe, from dinner at the MacLeods’ last night.”
“And if it was?”
Jake shrugged. “Seems like a nice guy. A little too intense for me, though. He acted like you were the only woman in the room.” He toyed with a balloon before studying his partner. “Did you tell him about the Witchblade?”
“Just like that. You took two years to tell me.” Jake looked incredulous. “And even then, I had to nearly die. You used the power of the Witchblade to save me, and I still don’t quite understand how you did it. Rewinding a moment so that I stepped left instead of right? And all you had to was sacrifice everything that would’ve happened if I had died, including–“
Sara looked away, unwilling to remember that he had demanded she tell him, wishing she had not revealed that alternate timeline to him, but Jake didn’t let her reaction stop him from finishing his thought.
“–a chance to start your life over somewhere else, in a city where the mystical is welcomed?” Jake moved so he was in Sara’s line of sight. “All these years, Sara, I’ve never thanked you for that sacrifice. I’m thanking you now, and reminding you that outside of me, it hasn’t let you get anyone else close.”
Sara let out a breath. Jake had seen how the semi-sentient gauntlet’s visions had given Sara an edge in solving cases, even as it slowed her aging, kept her from being injured, and occasionally drove her crazy with glimpses of things she didn’t understand or could change.
“Even when the Witchblade doesn’t hiss at someone, you rarely let them become more than a one-night stand. Way you were acting last night at the MacLeods’, you had that one night already, and want more. What makes Nick different? Besides the fact he’s damn pretty?”
“The Witchblade likes him.”
Jake tossed up his hands, incredulous. “That’s it? That’s what makes him different? How do you know it’s not toying with you and setting you up for something awful?”
“I don’t,” Sara snapped. “But I’ve trusted it too many years now to guide me that I can’t go back and undo what I’ve said. Not unless I want to risk undoing things. Jake, I rewound two minutes of our lives and changed the world in ways I still don’t understand. What if that choice I made back then means I get to meet Nick now? I don’t want to be alone. I’m tired of it. I may look like I’m only twenty-six, but my mind isn’t, and in my head, I’m forty-four. Forty-four-year-old me wants a future with a guy who won’t run because of this gauntlet.” She drew a breath. “Nick has a strong code of honor. That means a lot.”
Jake sighed, aware he would not change her mind.“And how did Nick respond?”
Reluctant to give away Nick’s secret, Sara chose instead to indicate the balloons.
Jake rolled his eyes. “That’s it? He sent you a balloon bouquet asking you on another date?”
“I asked him to think about it, in case he’s one of those people who agrees to something in the heat of the moment and then freaks out later. You have a problem with that?” Sara asked as she put on her shoes and grabbed her wallet and jacket. “I like that Nick didn’t send me flowers. If you were him, what would you send me?”
Jake grinned. “Old me – that is, the guy you were training who had that massive and inappropriate crush on you – would’ve sent you roses – long-stemmed ones, red, ridiculously expensive ones. You would’ve handed them to the homeless guy down the street.”
Shrugging into her jacket, Sara raised an eyebrow. “And the new you?”
“Would buy you a new holster for your gun,” Jake admitted. “You’re a hard woman to buy anything for, Pez.”
Sara made a face. “Which is your way of saying, please will you give me a hint, so I can buy you a Christmas present?”
Jake’s grin widened. “See, you make it easy. Are we doing our traditional Chinese-takeout for Christmas dinner or did you snag an invite somewhere?”
“What makes you think I got an invite?”
Jake jerked a thumb back at the balloons. “From what I gathered last night, Nick’s been friends with the MacLeods for about as long as you and I have been partners. Bet you get an invite to Christmas dinner. Bet he goes every year, too. His bar is one of the few bars in Midtown that’s closed on Christmas.” So saying, he held open the door to Sara’s apartment. “Speaking of eating, let’s go before my stomach thinks I’ve forgotten it exists.”
Shaking her head, Sara picked up her keys and stepped out, locking the door before they left. “You just hate every restaurant within walking distance of that apartment you found.”
“Yeah, well, I can’t afford Midtown, and I don’t want to buy anything. I’d like to have that first-time buyer discount on a real house.”
“You’ll never afford it unless you want to touch the winnings from your pro surfer days,” Sara reminded him. “Do you even know how to mow a lawn?”
The familiar discussion and good-natured teasing carried them out to the street.
Thanks to all the readers reading this: those that comment, give kudos, and simply read. You make me want to continue writing.
“Connor!” Opening the door, Cory feigned surprise. While Cory was three centuries older, Connor’s experience in the Game made his immortal signature distinct, so Connor did not buy his surprise one iota. “What brings you to my humble and temporary abode?”
“A bracelet someone wants you to steal.”
The seven-hundred-year-old, boyishly handsome thief winced at that and ushered him into the apartment, which looked to be one of the nicer units in the high-rise building and an Airbnb rental, judging from the lock box on the coffee table. After shutting the door, Cory looked at Connor. “Do you want a drink? We can agree on the finder’s fee.”
Connor shook his head. “Who did you promise the Witchblade to, Corwin?”
“Aw, fuck,” Cory swore and sat down on the couch. He ran a hand through his light brown hair in an unconscious gesture of frustration. “Is that what the damned family heirloom is? David Bazhenov told me it was a silver bracelet with a red semi-precious stone. That was vague enough that I didn’t think it was the Witchblade.” He met Connor’s gaze. “No way in hell am I going to pass that onto anyone. It bites back.”
“You’ve touched it?”
Cory smiled ruefully. “The Vatican hired me to take it off the woman to whom Joan of Arc had given it to and put it in the catacombs for safekeeping. Matthew yelled at me for agreeing to such a task, but,” he shrugged, “by then, that was nothing new. He’s been yelling at me for being stupid since he hanged me, buried me, and then dug me up back in 1285. It wasn’t until he told me the story of a bracelet with mystical powers that I understood what I’d messed with.” He studied Connor a moment. “I thought for sure that was the last I’d seen it, but the look on your face says you know the woman who has it now.”
“Then I’ll leave you to its idea of fun and get out of the city.” Cory paused before he added slowly, “Do you know what that cursed thing’s idea of fun is?”
Startled by the disappearance of the other immortal’s usual carefree manner, Connor eyed him warily. It was rare he saw Cory look like his true age, instead of the twenty-nine-year-old he appeared to be. “Tell me then,” he bargained, “and we’ll compare notes.”
“Chaos. It thirsts for blood and if its woman isn’t strong enough, it will destroy everyone she loves, just to prove it can. Then,” Cory grimaced, raising a finger to underscore his point, “it will break her and leave her behind unless she can convince it to stay.”
“And how do you know that?”
Cory drew a breath. “It told me when I touched it. Told me I was not worthy to even hold it. Felt like it wanted to kill me. I told it if it wanted justice for its last Wielder’s death, I was not to blame, but the priests shepherding me to the vault were. Last thing it told me would wait for a better time, that a woman with the strength to wield it would wear it.” Cory looked haunted. “Connor, that thing has a mind of its own. I’ve never felt something so cold and alien before or since. No way am I going to be anywhere near it. I made the mistake of telling it I was hard to kill. The notion intrigued it; tried to convince me a Wielder would be better with a protector by her side.”
“You don’t want to be the man who helps give the Wielder reason to believe she’s worth more than whatever bullshit it feeds her?”
Cory held up his hands and shook his head. “You want to, go right on ahead. Just make sure you’re wearing armor around your neck because that cursed thing knows how to kill us. Speaking of avoiding dying, I’m getting on a train tonight and out of here. Have a good Christmas.” Cory rose and went to grab a suitcase out of the bedroom.
Connor waited until the other immortal returned to the living room, coat on, suitcase in hand. “Who’s the immortal I don’t know in the city?”
Already halfway to the door, Cory paused and turned back, startled. “No one I know, no one I want to know, and given the odds, someone who wants your head. Good luck with that. Oh, and you might want to leave when I do; I picked the renter’s lock and hacked the listing to stay here.”
Unsurprised by that announcement, Connor chuckled dryly and preceded Cory out of the apartment. Cory pulled the door shut behind them, replaced the renter’s lock, and told Connor, “Seriously. Good luck.”
“Tell Matthew I said Merry Christmas,” Connor said, amused as he watched Cory leave, certain the first place the other immortal would go was to his teacher, who was living in D.C.
Cory waved in acknowledgement but did not stop, taking the stairs instead of the elevator. Connor followed him down at a much more leisurely pace. The old thief was no slouch with a sword but far more likely to convince someone else to fight on his behalf and then steal the Quickening, and just as likely to run away from a challenge. Connor bet that Cory wanted to be anywhere but near the Witchblade, which, if Connor remembered what Emma had told him, would remember what Cory had tried to do with it.
That left what to do with David Bazhenov. Connor grimaced, annoyed. It was rare he took a recommendation from someone he trusted and found said recommendation lacking in enough detail. Banning him from dinners in his house would not be enough. Those who obsessed over a mystical artifact, especially if they believed it to be a family heirloom, tended to not stop in their pursuit of owning such items. The Witchblade was not the first legendary object Connor had ever held; both his and his cousin’s katanas were one-of-a-kind swords. As an antique dealer, Connor had traded in rare, highly prized, and old objects for decades. As a man with honor, he could not pursue David as he might another immortal. He would also have to warn Nick and Sara and see if Sara had avenues open to her as a police officer closed to him.
One of the handier abilities Connor had gained from taking the Kurgan’s head was the ability to know where the other immortals in the city were. From what he could tell, the other immortal was in a hotel in Manhattan near the Grand Central Terminal. Given that most inner-city hotels had upgraded their security to require key card access to guest floors, Connor could bluff his way into getting in close to meet the unknown immortal, but then Connor was meeting the stranger on his turf. That felt a little too much like giving up a home field advantage. If that immortal wanted his head, he would have to come see Connor.
For a moment, Connor let his frustration fill his blood before he let it go in one breath. He had family to protect, and connections he could use. That, he reminded himself, was more than some challengers to his family’s safety ever gave. He let those thoughts carry him forward to his next destination.
Murder never stopped. Monday’s new cases were fresh out of the Midtown overnight police blotter. Being one of the senior detectives in the division meant Sara had the choice of passing the case on to someone more junior or taking it on herself. She used her authority to pass it on; dead non-American tourists in Manhattan was not the circus in which she wanted to spend the days before Christmas. Instead, she chose the second of the new cases, feeling the distinctive sensation of interest from the Witchblade when she pulled up the electronic case file. That usually meant something that looked ordinary – like a dead woman in a rented apartment – was something more than it seemed.
Sara and Jake’s solve rate was one of the highest in the entire city police. Half of their casework went beyond the Midtown precinct’s borders. Sara set the new case aside for the moment to focus on resolving the oldest in their queue. Hours passed as they traded information on cases, updated what they could, and familiarized themselves with the newest case.
“You going to see Nick again?” Jake asked as he passed her a sandwich from the deli down the street.
“Yes, this Friday,” Sara said absently. “You’re invited to Christmas dinner at the MacLeod’s.”
“Can I bring a plus one?”
“Don’t know. Who would you bring?”
Jake shrugged. “Pretty sure I could find someone decent enough to meet the MacLeod standards. Those two have money and connections, and I don’t think just anyone makes their dinner list.”
“Does that bother you?” Sara wondered.
Jake took a moment before he answered. “More because the last time you dealt with anyone with that kind of money and connections, they wanted the Witchblade and its Wielder. Thing is,“ he held up a hand to forestall any objections, “if the MacLeods know what you are, they didn’t act like they were as interested as that David creep. I was so glad when Connor kicked him out of the party.”
“I wondered what happened to him. I was with Brenda because the ‘blade thought she was not feeling as well as she was pretending.”
“Is she all right?”
“She has fibromyalgia, among other problems,” Sara noted, scowling at the idea that such a vibrant person could be subject to such a debilitating disease. “Probably a good thing Connor has money. Oh, hey, it looks like we got the warrant for the Lehigh case.”
“Sweet, let’s go check it out.” Jake pulled his gun out of its safe in his desk, holstered it, and put on his jacket as Sara did the same. “You don’t seem worried about the MacLeods.”
Sara shook her head. “I’ll tell you why in the car.”
“You don’t want everyone to know you’re moving up in the world,” Jake said lightly.
Sara played along, shooting him a glare. “Yeah, because I’m already in a gutter thanks to you.”
Once in the privacy of the unmarked police car they got from the motor pool, Jake glanced at Sara inquiringly.
“I keep getting flashes of a Wielder named Emma and Connor,” Sara said.
“Oh, from when?”
“End of the American Civil War,” Sara told him. “She was a nurse on the battlefield.”
“What does that make him?”
“Immortal,” Sara replied. “Or least, mostly immortal. He can die if someone decapitates him.”
“Ugh, that would be ugly,” Jake said, grimacing. “Who would want to do that? And how come he gets the lucky prize of mostly immortal?”
“I don’t know that one,” Sara replied, “and neither does the Witchblade. It says it’s just something it doesn’t know.”
“Great, now that will keep me up at night, wondering what other legends are true,” Jake griped. “Thanks to your bracelet, I know Hell is real, the Devil is real, and now immortals. What’s next? Vampires and werewolves?”
“Given our luck?” Sara’s voice was dry. “All of them.”
Jake shook his head and started the car. “I really don’t want to encounter vampires and werewolves. Remind me why I left the FBI to be your partner?”
“You were hopelessly in love with me.”
Jake chuckled. “Oh, yeah. Good thing I came to my senses.”
Sara glanced at him. “They’d take you back, you know.”
“Eh, I’m good where I am. Besides, I heard they were going to put you with that idiot, Paul Pruitt. Remember him?”
Sara groaned. “How could I forget? He told me I wouldn’t be able to handle a crime scene and then he was the one who vomited after seeing how grisly it was.”
As Sara had expected, their execution of the search warrant produced nothing of substance. It did, however, confirm a detail the Witchblade had provided to Sara, so she considered the trip a win. They were halfway back to the precinct when Sara’s phone rang.
Glancing at the caller ID, Sara saw the line showed as “Nash & Ellenstein Antiques.” Curious, she answered, “Hello?”
“Hello, Sara. This is Connor MacLeod. Are you still at work?”
“Yes. What can I do for you?”
“Has David Bazhenov tried to contact you?”
“No. He seemed obsessed about my bracelet.” Sara held her breath, willing Connor to admit he knew about the Witchblade. “Was he a friend of yours?”
“No, his colleague, Doug Spenser, recommended him to me. I have Doug known for years. Doug wanted David to meet me; I suspect now Doug wanted me to verify his opinion of David.”
“What, that he’s an asshole?”
A wry chuckle met her assessment. “I want to be sure he isn’t a problem, Sara. Will you stop by after work so we can talk more?”
Wanting answers, Sara agreed. “Is six-thirty too late?”
“No. Come to the store.”
“See you there,” Sara agreed. She disconnected the line as the Witchblade murmured nonsensically, a sure sign that something important was to happen.
Jake glanced at her before returning his focus to the road. “Anything I should know about?”
“Connor wants me to meet him at his store,” Sara said.
“Do you want me to come along?”
“No,” Sara decided. “He was worried about David Bazhenov approaching me. I want to hear what he has to say. If I need you, I’ll call you.”
Sara flashed him a smile. “Always.”
Next update will likely be closer to Christmas; I am currently working through a holiday challenge fic. :-)
Thanks to everyone who's read this far! :-)
The antique store was still open when Sara walked in, but Connor turned the sign to closed and locked the door as soon as she stepped inside. Connor led her to a desk near the back corner that served as the transactions counter; Sara smiled at the incongruity of a tablet-style register on top of what had to be a priceless antique. She took the silent invitation to sit. To her surprise, he did not take the seat behind the desk, but the one opposite her.
“Thank you for coming tonight. I’m sure by now the Witchblade has told you things about me.”
Sara blinked, surprised by his bluntness. “And if I had such an item– “
He favored her with a sardonic smile. “I’m old but not stupid, Sara, and I am an antique dealer. Many have come here, looking for the Witchblade, as if I could be its temporary keeper for longer than it wished.”
Realizing he knew its capabilities, Sara let out a breath. “It did not say anything about you until after it showed me how Nick won his bar.”
Now it was his turn to look surprised. “Nothing? And yet you still came to our house?”
Sara shrugged. “Curiosity at first, and Brenda doesn’t take seem to take no for an answer – at least, not without a ‘why’ attached.”
He chuckled. “That is Brenda.” He met Sara’s worried gaze. “You’re the second Wielder I’ve met. Ramirez, my teacher, warned me it was not for men or the weak of spirit.”
Ramirez’s name caused the Witchblade to hiss. “He tested the metal, trying to figure out what it was,” Sara blurted as the memory seared through her. “It scratched him.”
“Serves him right,” Connor replied, amused. “I’m not a believer in coincidences. Twice now, the Witchblade has crossed my path. That makes me think one of my kind has been hunting it for centuries.”
As if to confirm his hunch, the Witchblade transformed into a forearm-covering gauntlet, hissing and snarling in Sara’s mind as it did so. She forced it to transform back. “That’s a yes,” she told Connor. “Is David Bazhenov like you?”
Connor shook his head. “I spoke to Doug Spenser after I talked to you. He wanted me to see if I could find out what David’s obsession with antiques was, since Doug knows I deal with antiques, and thought it might be something harmless.”
“Did your friend say how recent the obsession was?”
“About three weeks,” Connor told her. “Which coincides with an immortal I don’t know arriving in the city.”
“You can tell that?”
Connor nodded. “I’m one of the more powerful of my kind.”
“Nick said your kind kills each other, calling it a Game, but I’m surprised I haven’t come across more headless bodies.”
“Some years it’s more active than others,” Connor told her. “And where it’s more active changes as well.”
“That make sense. But he made it sound like there would be more people after you than him.”
Connor nodded again.
“If that’s the case, then why hasn’t this other immortal moved in to challenge you?”
“Because I’m not his target. You are. How long have you been the Wielder?”
“Eighteen years,” Sara said. She sighed heavily. “Long enough for everyone with intentions on controlling a Wielder to come forward. You don’t know who this immortal is?”
Connor shook his head. “He hasn’t come here yet, which tells me he’s being careful.”
“Can’t you challenge him on principle?”
“Sure, and then I can’t claim I was defending myself. You’d be oath-bound to arrest me on that alone.”
“Damn it.” Sara rose and paced the store. “I will not stop living my life just because someone wants the Witchblade.” She turned to face Connor. “What do you suggest I do instead?”
“Can you find out who’s staying in a specific hotel if I gave you which one?”
“Not without a warrant or probable cause,” Sara said flatly.
Connor nodded, looking as if he expected that answer. “Take Nick with you when you talk to Bazhenov.”
Sara eyed him. “What makes you think I will go anywhere near him?”
Connor smiled grimly. “If he’s with an immortal who wants the Witchblade, his chances for living decrease the longer he takes to convince you to see his master.”
The Witchblade flashed a scene through Sara’s mind at those words – blood splattered against a bedroom wall, a pirate’s cutlass in man’s hand. Sara breathed through it, aware the ‘blade had confirmed Connor’s hunch, though it did not give her a sense of when the death happened. Her slight movement caught Connor’s attention.
“How much does it tell you?” he wondered.
“Just enough to make me curious,” Sara told him heavily. “I’ve learned not to go chasing after whatever it shows me every time it shows me something. I can’t save everyone.” She rose. “I’m not a helpless woman, Connor, and as long as I’m the Wielder, I’m difficult to kill. Thanks for letting me know more about Bazhenov.” Something made her ask, “Do you know who would fight with a cutlass?”
Connor shook his head. “It’s a common weapon, since so they made many of that type and many immortals had their first deaths because of piracy. You’d have to be more specific than that.”
Sara nodded and moved towards the door. Connor let her out before locking the door. She mounted her motorcycle and headed home, disappointed he could not give her more information.
Halfway there, her phone rang. Thanks to the Bluetooth headset in her helmet, she could answer it with no need to pull over. “Pezzini, this is Captain Mahoney. I need you as soon as you can get here,” and he rattled off the address, which she committed to memory.
“Yes, sir,” Pezzini said crisply, and kissed her evening off goodbye. The address was a condo in one of Midtown’s grand old buildings, where residences sold in the millions of dollars. Already, police cars blocked the entrance, and Sara braced herself for the questions her motorcycle would bring. She parked it behind one of the squad cars and flashed her badge at the doorman.
The seventh-floor unit buzzed with activity when Sara exited the hallway, looking for her captain or the homicide team lead. She found Captain Mahoney, who fit the stereotype of an Irish-descendant police-officer, at the end of the hallway closet to the unit where the homicide occurred. A glance told her that other officers were already interviewing witnesses and getting other evidence from the scene while the body itself was being loaded onto a gurney for transport to the morgue.
“Who’s the victim?” she asked, ignoring the full-color detail of his decapitation-by-sword the Witchblade supplied her. It sometimes gloried in death scenes, especially the gorier ones; she would decide later whether the detailed vision mattered.
“We’ve ID’d him as Michael Byrd,” Captain Mahoney said. “Professional photographer who often works for the gossip mags and private investigators. He’s done some work for the DA. I remember him testifying on a case about faking photographs.”
“You knew him?”
“Knew he was on the list of approved consultants,” Captain Mahoney returned. “Someone decapitated him. But that’s not why you’re here. Thought you might want to see this before it lost context.”
Captain Mahoney led her to the smaller of the two bedrooms.
Sara stepped into the room as the Witchblade hissed in her mind. She found photographs tacked to one wall – most of her, but some of Connor, Nick, and a third man she did not recognize. The third man made the ‘blade hiss, telling Sara, He is immortal; he took us to the catacombs. He will not be tempted to steal us even when he steals everything else.
Intrigued by that, Sara let her eyes half close and her head drop slightly onto her hands as she crossed her arms with her right wrist in front, letting the ‘blade see the photos more completely. Who is he?
Corwin a’Green, better known these days as Cory Raines, the Witchblade told her. He is a thief. He does not want us and wants nothing to do with us, and Sara could almost hear a petulance in its declaration.
Sensing her amusement at its crankiness over being unwanted, the ‘blade spat, We are better without him.
Tucking her tongue firmly in her cheek, she asked, Is he connected to who is watching us?
No. The one who took the photos lies on the gurney, the Witchblade said. The one who paid him is someone else. Someone who will kill to own us.
Who? Sara asked, and the ‘blade flashed on David Bazhenov, talking to an outdoors-catalog-model-handsome man in a well-tailored suit. Grimacing, Sara moved to collect evidence to prove the connection between this murder scene and what she suspected would be her next one.
“Any idea why he would’ve taken photos of you?” Captain Mahoney asked.
“He’s not the first stalker I’ve had,” Sara reminded him. “And Connor MacLeod has no shortage of enemies. He’s old money and power in a city that worships both.”
Her captain grimaced at that reminder. “All right. What’s your connection to MacLeod?”
“His wife and I have become acquainted. She’s taken a liking to me since I met her at a charity marathon earlier this year and I’m now on their dinner guest list.”
Captain Mahoney’s grimace deepened. Ignoring it, Sara put gloves on and moved to open the closet door in the bedroom, wanting to know if the photographer had stored his cameras there. The Witchblade’s shriek of glee warned her, and she stepped aside as she pulled open the door. The body that fell out was male, clad in a white dress shirt and khakis.
For a moment, she goggled at the sight, but professionalism took over. Donning gloves, she rolled the body over and blew out a breath as she recognized the man as David Bazhenov. Pain contorted his face in a permanent expression; he had not died peacefully. Blood splattered on his chest confirmed the Witchblade’s vision of him dying because of a sword through his heart.
Captain Mahoney saw her flinch. “You know this man?” he asked her.
“He was at the last dinner party at the MacLeod’s. He was racist, misogynistic, and creepy. He kept asking me about my jewelry. Connor kicked him out.”
Captain Mahoney raised an eyebrow, considered the situation a moment. “Where were you when I called?”
“Leaving Connor’s antique store,” Sara admitted. “Was there about half an hour. Before that, I was at my desk.”
“I’ll need a list of where you’ve been the past forty-eight hours,” Captain Mahoney said. “Email it to me as soon as you can. As of now, you’re on leave until we sort this out. Go home. I’ll call you.”
Sara glanced at the photo wall, then at David’s corpse, willing the Witchblade to help her remember all the details later. She nodded her acknowledgement of her orders to her captain before exiting the scene.
Sara did not head home. Experience told her that if left to her own devices, she would obsess about not being able to do anything, and that the Witchblade would urge her to take matters into her own hands. That way often led to more death, more bloodshed, more violence, and often, Sara had learned, to more regrets than she wanted to add to her ledger. Instead, she pointed her motorcycle towards Nick’s bar while calling Connor, asking him to meet her at Nick’s, before calling Nick and warning him that she was on her way.
Half an hour later, Connor joined Sara and Nick in Nick’s apartment above the bar.
“What happened?” Connor asked her.
“David Bazhenov is dead,” Sara told them. “He was in a luxury condo owned by a photographer named Michael Byrd, who is also dead.”
Connor stiffened at that.
“You knew him?” Nick asked.
“He made his money as a celebrity photographer,” Connor told them. “He tried to blackmail me a few years ago, claiming he had seen me taking a head.”
“Byrd had photos of you both and someone named Cory Raines,” Sara said. “The one he had of Connor and Cory looked like someone had pulled it off a security camera.”
“Was it in a hotel hallway?”
Connor grimaced at that. “Should’ve remembered to look for that.”
“They’re ubiquitous these days,” Nick commented. “I’m more concerned with what this guy was doing with the photographs. Selling them to the Watchers?”
“At least with me it was,” Connor agreed. “I reported him for stalking. He’s not allowed within a hundred feet of me or my family.”
“Who are the Watchers?”
“Immortals have our own fan club,” Nick said sourly. “Officially, they observe and record our history for posterity and vow never to interfere in our lives, but they’ve been at it for centuries, and they’re human. To do the detail needed for a fully documented record means they’re in our lives and not sitting on the sidelines with a telescope, camera, and a notebook. I’ve met a few over the years.” He looked at Connor. “You make friends with yours?”
Connor nodded. “After I got over the fact the same family had been spying for them for years.” He turned to Sara. “I don’t think they’re a part of this.”
She considered the notion a moment. “Agreed. The Witchblade showed me Bazhenov talking to a man about my height, broad shouldered, about 200 pounds, dark brown or black hair, with a squared-off face. He was dressed well, but–“ Her voice broke off as the ‘blade flashed on an image of him dressed as the captain of a sailing ship from late 1800s. Sara took a breath to settle the image more firmly before she spoke again. “The Witchblade remembers him as being the captain of a ship named the Trinity James.”
“Sounds like Efim Filat Sudovshchikov,” Connor said, “although I heard he prefers to go by James Philip or J.P. now, and pretend he is an American born of Russian immigrants.”
“Friend of yours?” Nick asked.
“He’s never been my enemy,” Connor replied. “But he and I have known of each other since our paths crossed in 1897. He was sailing the Trinity James then; we were captaining gun runners on the same side. Last time I saw him was a decade ago; he owned a small international shipping company and wanted me to invest in it to keep it from going under.”
“Did you?” Nick wondered.
Connor shook his head. “I did the math; he wouldn’t see a return on my investment at the rate he was spending money. I told him he was pissing away a fortune and if he wanted to have money to see another hundred years, he would be better off asking a bank than asking another immortal to gamble on his financial plan.”
“That would explain why he hasn’t said hello to you,” Nick noted, sitting back in his chair. “Does he not know you can feel him?”
“We’ve never been that close,” Connor pointed out. “I don’t know what he’s heard about me.”
“And you can’t be certain he hasn’t hated you,” Sara said. “Do immortals ask other immortals to invest in their businesses just on the sole premise of being immortal?”
“Some do,” Nick said. “I wouldn’t. Friends and money don’t mix unless said friend is backed by a reputable financial institution and we’re transacting in said institution or on their website. Even then, I’d hesitate.”
“I’ve done it,” Connor acknowledged. “Sometimes it’s been a favor traded.”
Nick studied him a moment. “Do you owe anyone a favor this Sudovshchikov might cash in on?”
Connor shook his head. “It would be a stretch to cash in a favor that belonged to someone long dead.” He looked at Nick. “Demidov do any business with him?”
Nick started to shake his head, then paused. “Nothing springs to mind but given what he was doing, I wouldn’t be surprised.” He turned to Sara. “Did your captain put you on administrative leave because of your connection to the case?”
“Yeah, and I’m fighting the urge to go track down this Sudovshchikov,” Sara replied. “I keep seeing him put a pirate’s sword through Bazhenov. He also cut off the photographer’s head.”
“Was the photographer pre-immortal?” Nick asked Connor.
Connor shook his head, then froze. A moment later, so did Nick.
“Company downstairs,” Nick told Sara. He moved quickly to the room he used as an office and flipped on the monitor that displayed his security cameras. Connor and Sara followed him and looked over his shoulders.
The cameras showed a tall man in a long black coat approaching the front door. Nick exchanged looks with Connor, who nodded once.
“Please stay here with Connor,” Nick asked, kissing Sara briefly. “I’ll be back.”
The Witchblade growled in Sara’s head. “No,” she told them. “He’s here for me. I won’t hide behind either of you, but I wouldn’t mind the backup.”
Nick pressed his lips in an unhappy line. “Let me let you out through the bar. He won’t expect to see you that way, and I’d be happier if you had your conversation outside where other people won’t get hurt.”
“He’ll come for you if I don’t stop him,” Sara countered. “Clear the bar. You’re the owner. I don’t want to have this conversation in the street.”
“Give me ten minutes,” Nick decided.
Previous chapters have been edited for grammar and consistency.
Nick cleared the bar by the simple expedient of declaring it closed by an emergency. Connor helped him chase out the remaining stragglers and assure the bartenders on duty they would be paid in full for the evening. Meanwhile, Sara walked up to Efim Filat Sudovshchikov, who seemed amused by the exiting crowd. He stood at one of the tall tables in the middle, ignoring the stools, likely because of the way he had sheathed his sword. This close, Sara could see his coat looked like a traditional pirate’s brocaded, double-button coat. The coat was unbuttoned enough to show he wore a three-piece suit under the coat, as if he fancied himself an upscale businessman.
“What’s going on?” he wondered, mistaking Sara for one of Nick’s staff. “Is this a welcome for me?”
“And if I said yes?” she returned. Deliberately, she rested her right arm on the table, wanting his reaction.
His eyes immediately dropped to check her wrist. Recognizing what she wore, Sudovshchikov studied her, seeing her leather jacket, red t-shirt, jeans, and motorcycle boots. “You’re the Wielder.” His tone conveyed derision. “Detective Sara Pezzini of the NYPD. You’re not worthy of such a fine thing.”
She favored him with a smirk. “If you’re trying to convince me to go with you, you’re failing, Mr. J.P. Sudovshchikov. Or should I say Efrim Filat, which was your original name?”
His eyes narrowed. “Nobody knows me by that name.”
The Witchblade hissed at him even as it filled Sara’s head with the memories of what he tried to do to the first Wielder he had met back in 1909. “Anna should have killed you when she had the chance,” Sara told him as the ‘blade shifted to cover her forearm and transform into a gauntlet with sword. “You took the only thing she had to give and then you killed her when she got pregnant. As if you didn’t know how babies got made.”
“A ship is no place for a child,” Sudovshchikov snarled, rising to his feet while drawing a pirate’s cutlass. “She promised me she would take care of it.”
“Yes, and love it because it was yours and hers,” Sara snapped. “And you thought you could sell her bracelet to the highest bidder, only to be shot dead when it turned up missing when your buyers came to call. You didn’t know what you had, did you?”
“She never said,” the Russian-born immortal shot back. “I thought she had a gift from God to know which way to sail, to know which ships had the most treasure. Wasn’t until later I knew she had been the Wielder and what that bracelet could do.”
Sara favored him with a pitiful smile. “And did you think you could convince me to just turn it over to you?”
“No,” Sudovshchikov countered. “I figured I’d just kill you and give it to the woman I’ve picked to wear it.”
“Sorry, but the Witchblade stays with me,” Sara said.
The pirate charged, only to be met with a clash of steel as Sara’s blade parried his. “You can’t fight me,” he sneered. “You don’t know how. Sure, the bastard you’re bedding has skills, but he’s nothing compared to me. I’m older than him, killed men like him for breakfast.”
Sara parried his next moves, holding to a defensive line even as he tried to force her across the room, closer to where Nick stood. Angered by his tactics, Sara fought back, forcing him back to the table where the fight started. “You’re nobody,” she told him. “You just got lucky in the life lottery and you think you could handle the Witchblade? You think you could hold on it long enough to give it away?” Her next move punched through his clothing and speared through his stomach, a parallel of the wound he’d given Anna, the Wielder who had dared to love him. He gasped at the non-fatal wound. “You wouldn’t last a day.” The Witchblade made her turn its sharp point and twist as its rage fed a desire to kill. Breathing deeply, Sara fought to control its hunger to right a wrong given to an earlier Wielder. “You’re just lucky I’m not Anna.” She withdrew the ‘blade, turned, and walked away.
Sudovshchikov staggered to his feet, still clutching his gut as immortal healing kicked in. He tried to go after her, only to be stopped by the sword at his back.
Nick ran after Sara, who ignored him and mounted her motorcycle before he could stop her. Disappointed but concerned about Connor, Nick headed back inside to find the Russian immortal frozen in place.
“Come now,” Connor told Sudovshchikov. “There’s an alley out back, and you and I can settle this.”
“I have no quarrel with you, Highlander,” Sudovshchikov tried.
“You do when you want a friend of mine dead for the jewelry she wears.”
Acknowledging that point, Sudovshchikov accepted, and the two immortals exited the bar via the back door. Nick followed.
The fight between Connor and Sudovshchikov was brutal. Connor had noted how his opponent swung his cutlass, giving him an advantage in the fight, but the former pirate was a skilled and ruthless swordsman. From the sidelines, Nick watched, sword at the ready. It had been a long time since he had watched his teacher fight someone who was more than competent with a sword. Nick winced as Connor took a hit on his left arm to bait a trap for his opponent, a move Nick would’ve never tried. It worked, enabling Connor to switch hands and reveal he was not a left-handed swordsman. The Russian pirate could not switch tactics fast enough to cope with this sudden shift and soon lost his head.
When the Quickening was over, Nick helped Connor to stand before retrieving a tarp from the garage.
“Where’s Sara?” Connor asked as he picked up the now headless corpse and moved it to the tarp.
“She kept on walking,” Nick told him, regret heavy in his voice, “right out the door. I think she knew what would happen next and wanted to say she was not a witness.”
Connor studied his former student. “Call her in the morning,” he recommended. “Let’s get this out of here and buried.”
Nick nodded grimly. They would bury Sudovshchikov in one of the city’s old, forgotten cemeteries, with no marker to his name. Connor, having lived in the city for centuries, knew some that weren’t on any ‘forgotten places of New York’ map. Nick had a truck with a tarp that covered the bed, which made transferring the corpse to its destination easier. It was not how Nick had envisioned spending his evening, but he was glad not to be the one processing a Quickening. Connor handled it well, but Nick knew how taking in another’s life skills and memories could linger, sometimes for days. Digging a hole in the ground sometimes helped burn off that lingering essence faster.
“What would he have done with Sara?” Nick asked after the grisly task was complete and they were driving back to Nick’s bar.
“Cut off her arm to get to the Witchblade, not knowing it has a mind of its own and won’t be taken by force.”
“Does that mean Sara’s stuck with it forever?”
“Or until it decides it likes someone else better,” Connor returned. “You saw how controlled she is with it.” He studied Nick. “If you want to walk away, she’s expecting it now.”
Nick said nothing until he pulled the truck to a stop inside his garage. “I’m not a quitter.”
Connor gave him a small smile before exiting the truck.
Nick didn’t wait until morning. He spent a few minutes checking to see if his security tapes held footage of the fight, but the recording appeared to malfunction in the timestamp between when the fight started in the bar and when he backed out of his garage, playing what looked like electronic snow instead. He reset the system, then showered and changed clothes before heading back out again and taking the subway to Sara’s place.
She wasn’t home, and her motorcycle was not in the lot. Disappointed, Nick left her a voicemail.
“Hey, Sara. I’m in the parking lot of your building but looks like you’re not home. I wanted to say I still think you’re an amazing woman and I love you. Connor took care of your stalker, so he won’t bother you again. Call me, please.”
Hidden in the shadows by a line of evergreens planted near the edge of the building, Sara watched him, her heart aching. When she was sure he had left, she nosed her motorcycle back into its customary reserved space and headed up to her apartment. She had almost killed a man tonight, and that was something she needed time alone to process. She hadn’t wanted anyone dead like that in years. Knowing that Connor had used the Game to complete the task didn’t make it feel any less guilt-inducing.
Connor was not surprised to see Sara in his store the next day. After making sure Rachel knew he would be gone a while, Connor escorted Sara to the living room of his home. They took seats on the sectional couch, Sara at one end, Connor opposite.
“It feels weird to say thank you for what you did,” she began.
Connor shook his head, cutting off her protest. “I come from a time when defending your land, your family, and your friends was worth dying for,” Connor noted. “I still think it is. You couldn’t have arrested Sudovshchikov. He would have pinned the obsession on the photographer or David or both.”
“And lawyered up,” Sara guessed. She studied Connor a moment. “I still feel guilty for stabbing him the way I did. That was revenge for what he did to Anna, and that was more the Witchblade acting through me than anything I wanted.”
“You have a conscience,” Connor pointed out. “And you’re trained to kill only in specific situations.”
“I swore an oath to upload the law. I should arrest you for what you did, but–” She exhaled heavily. “I can’t do it, Connor. Sudovshchikov would’ve killed me to get what he wanted. Did he have someone picked out?”
Connor shook his head. “He planned to keep it in a box until he found someone malleable enough to be awed by it.”
The Witchblade hissed at that notion, shifting on Sara’s arm into a filigreed forearm gauntlet with razor-sharp tendrils. Sara glanced at her arm, then looked wryly at Connor. “He didn’t know it does what it wants.” Breathing deeply, she willed the gauntlet into something less deadly. It morphed into a cuff bracelet twice its usual size, sans razor tips. “Or that its Wielder has a certain amount of control.”
Nodding his understanding, Connor reached over and grasped Sara’s hand reassuringly.
“Am I wrong for thinking Nick deserves someone less complicated? Someone who won’t have people like Sudovshchikov hunting me?”
Connor’s face reflected his sympathy. “Your heart is already committed, lass. Walking away won’t make your heart hurt any less. When someone else comes looking for the Wielder, and Nick finds out you handled it on your own, he’ll still want to check to see if you’re okay. He cares deeply about the people he loves, and that includes you.”
Sara looked away for a moment. “The Witchblade says it likes you because you have introduced its Wielders to people who made them happy and didn’t try to manipulate them. It says you were attracted to Emma. Why didn’t you pursue her?”
“Right person, wrong time,” Connor said. “She needed someone who would take her away from that battlefield and give her hope to keep on living. That wasn’t me.”
Sara eyed him warily. “Are you doing that again with me and Nick?”
Connor shrugged. “You know your heart, Sara. What you do from here is your choice. I’ll support you either way you go.” He paused. “The last time the Witchblade drove you to hurt someone, what happened?”
Sara closed her eyes briefly. “He died – not that day, but the day after, when the man who had hired him decided his wounds were proof that he was incompetent and shot him. I thought justice was served, but…” She met Connor’s concerned gaze. “Being the Wielder makes me want blood to be shed and I know that it isn’t always a good thing to want.”
Connor chuckled roughly. “I’m no priest, Sara. I only know this: men like Sudovshchikov don’t stop. The Witchblade wasn’t the only thing he’s tried to get by force. He started as a gunrunner and became a pirate when he saw he could get more by stealing than serving a single country. The means he used to make his fortune were as ruthless as he was.”
The Witchblade flashed confirmation of Connor’s words through Sara’s head, and she looked down at her hands as she exhaled, accepting the truth. Lifting her chin, she said, “The ‘blade says if I went looking, I’d find more reasons to see what happened last night as justice served. How do you know what he did?”
“It’s part of what we win when we play the Game – the knowledge of everything our opponent was.”
Sara said nothing for a moment. “Why didn’t Nick fight him?”
“I didn’t give him the choice,” Connor said evenly. “And he was more worried about you than Sudovshchikov. He still is.”
“I need some time to think about it,” Sara replied. “I’ve had no one in my life who can able to handle what the Witchblade does and who isn’t likely to die easily.”
Connor nodded his understanding. “You’re welcome to stay for lunch.”
Sara shook her head. “Appreciate it but I need to get going; I have some errands to run.”
“You’re not working?”
Sara shook her head. “No, I’m on leave for another few days until my captain can firewall the evidence from Byrd’s apartment and clear me from being a suspect. Ordinarily, a double homicide case would come to me and Jake because we have the seniority and experience to process it.”
“He doesn’t think you killed them?”
“No, but he has to follow procedure.”
Connor smiled in understanding before escorting her out. Sara mounted her motorcycle and headed out of Midtown. She needed the drive to clear her head and figure out what to do next.
One thing was clear: the Witchblade had picked a few immortals as people it trusted to do certain things. That gave Sara hope she wouldn’t be alone as she grew slowly older, since a gift of being the Wielder was decelerated aging. Already, she had seen how she still looked as young as the day she had gotten the Witchblade, while Jake had gained all the signs of being a man in his forties.
As she often did when she needed perspective, she drove to the cemetery where her first partner, Danny Woo, was buried. His ghost had visited her less often in the years since she had embraced the Witchblade, but his presence was strongest at his grave. It was also easier, in her head, to be talking to a ghost in a cemetery; no one looked at her weird for talking aloud.
“Hey, Danny,” she greeted. “You here?”
He came up behind her on her right, dressed for the weather in his usual gray trench coat, as if a ghost could feel cold. “Been a while, Pez. You haven’t needed me,” he noted. “You okay?”
“Rattled,” she admitted. “And scared.”
“Because you have two men willing to fight for you, who won’t die so easily?” he asked.
“Connor’s five hundred years old,” Danny told her. “He’s the strongest of his kind. He taught Nick how to live as an immortal. Nick’s not as old – he’s fifty-two. They have enemies, Sara, people who will kill them as part of their Game. Will you mourn either of their deaths any less if you stayed away?”
“No.” She half-laughed and looked at her partner. “But what if being with me means those enemies come looking for them sooner?”
“They would accept it as part of the risk of having friends and lovers. You rewound time two minutes to save Jake, but you couldn’t justify rewinding an entire year. Not even if it saved me. Meeting Nick and Connor are part of those ripples from those rewound minutes. Don’t you think it’s time you considered their friendship and Nick’s love to be a reward for all the pain you’ve endured?”
Sara stared at the ghost. “God, I’ve missed you, Danny.”
“Missed you, too, Pez, but you’ve been doing fine without me.” He stepped closer and pressed a kiss to her forehead. The kiss felt ghostly cold, and Sara shivered at the touch. “You’ll do better with Nick to remind you why you keep fighting, Pez. He’s a good man.”
Sara smiled past the old grief. “Thanks, Danny. I needed that.”
Danny returned her smile and vanished. She stood at his grave a moment longer, then headed back out on her motorcycle to loop through the city until she got to the interstate and could open the throttle to a higher speed. The thrill of being on two wheels had yet to get old, even after so many decades of riding. The rhythm of shifting and the challenge of being on a sport bike usually helped Sara to think.
Two hours later, having circled through the city and exhausted all her usual paths to clear her head, Sara parked her bike in a narrow spot a few car lengths down from the entrance of Nick’s bar. As she made her way through the bar, looking for Nick, she saw that it was half full, but the end stool at the bar was empty.
“What can I get you?” the bartender asked a few minutes after Sara had settled into her seat. The bartender was a middle-aged woman of medium build with turquoise shoulder-length hair, who radiated a veteran bartender’s confidence. Her reddish-brown eyebrows and pale freckled skin contrasted with the anime-style hair coloring, but Sara had seen more shocking combinations.
“Is Nick working today?”
The bartender paused. “Are you Sara Pezzini?”
“Do you mind if I check?” the bartender asked apologetically. “He’s paranoid about security.”
Surprised by her caution, Sara showed the woman her badge. The bartender smiled in genuine pleasure. “Thanks. I’m Mara, his assistant manager. He said if you came in to tell you he’s at the Temple Gym. They don’t allow cell phones to be on at that place, so I wouldn’t try to call him. He should be back by 5 if you want to wait.”
Sara glanced at her watch; it was 4:45 pm. “In that case, I’ll take a glass of water,” she told Mara. She pulled out a five-dollar bill to make up for the lack of a sale, which Mara accepted gratefully.
Mara brought her the glass of water, and Sara settled in to wait. Fifteen minutes later, Nick walked into the bar from the back. He didn’t see Sara until he stepped behind the bar, and then he hurried to the front, stepping to Sara’s right.
“Hi, Sara. Did you want to go upstairs to talk in private?”
Sara shook her head. “This won’t take me long. Jake and I usually do a mad last-minute holiday shopping run on Christmas Eve. Want to join us?”
Nick smiled. “Sure, as long as you know we’ll be doing Christmas dinner at the MacLeods’.”
“Sounds like a plan.” Sara gave into impulse and kissed Nick. He returned the kiss enthusiastically, but mindful they were public, pulled back.
“Guess that means you aren’t walking away,” he declared.
Sara grinned. “Not in your lifetime,” she promised. They still had issues to discuss, such as how to handle the next time someone immortal came hunting for the Witchblade, and the basics of being committed to each other. Looking at Nick, Sara felt confident they would work it out as long as they communicated with each other.