Kissed by Fire(5)

By: Kimber White


“I know where we are,” I said, more to myself. After everything else that had happened. I have no idea why that mattered at that particular moment. I needed something real. Something familiar.

I turned to him. “This is the Brandhart Building. Why are we in the Brandhart Building?” It was one of the privately owned high-rises along Lake Shore Drive. I didn’t have the first clue who the Brandharts were. I just saw the name as a sponsor to a ton of different events downtown.

He took a few steps toward me, slow, methodical. Like he was some expert horse trainer walking up to a skittish colt. Shit. I guess that’s what I must have seemed to him.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “Maybe I should have started with that. My name is Xander Brandhart. This is where I live. You’re safe here for now.”

That barking laugh popped out of me, unbidden. Safe. God. My knees felt weak again. Professor Marvin’s colorless face floated in front of me. I started to shake.

Xander moved so fast. One moment he was across the room. The next, he was at my side, guiding me gently to one of the leather couches. Again, his touch ignited some sort of pull inside me. I wanted to let him fold me into his arms. Crazy. I tore myself away and took the far end of the couch.

“We have to go back for him,” I stammered. “I can’t leave him like that. He could still be…”

Xander sank to the cushions beside me. He was careful not to touch me, holding his hands out, palms up. Shit. Whatever it was, he sensed what happened when he put his hands on me.

“Shae, Professor Marvin is dead. I’m so sorry. There was nothing either of us could do for him.”

I rocketed off the couch and started pacing. Swirling grief threatened to pull me back down. Professor Marvin was dead. Dead. No. No. No. No. No. No!

“Shae…”

“Why?” I screeched. “He’s just a harmless old man. There’s nothing of real value in that shop. He doesn’t have anything! He’s up to his ears in debt. Is that what those were? Some sort of awful shifter bill collectors?”

Xander took a breath. His eyes swirled with color, almost hypnotizing me. I blinked hard. I don’t know if he was doing it on purpose, but I felt a little dizzy around this man. The logical part of my brain told me this should raise a million red flags. It didn’t though. More than anything, sitting this close to him made me feel...safe. God, I really was losing it.

“Shae,” he said. “I know it’s a lot to take in. I’m a lot to take in. And you don’t know me. You have no reason to...but...for at least the next few minutes, I’m hoping you can trust me. I need you to think. Had you ever seen those wolves before?”

“What? No.”

“He had friends though, Professor Marvin. Acquaintances in the shifter world, no? How long did you work there? How long have you known him?”

My breath left me. With the next beat of my heart, the grief slammed into it once more. “I...he...was. We were family.”

“Your father?” Xander scowled. Deep lines creased his forehead. I don’t know why it mattered, but I tried to figure out how old he was. I think it was just my spinning brain trying to distract me or hold on to something solid and normal. There was no hint of silver in Xander’s hair. No real wrinkles around his eyes. He had the kind of face that could pass for thirty or forty easily. And yet, I had the strongest sense that he might be much, much older.

“Not my father,” I finally answered. My voice felt distant and hollow. How in the world could I explain what Professor Marvin was to me? I flicked my eyes up, meeting Xander’s.

“He wasn’t my father. Not my real one, anyway. He is...was...my foster father. We sort of found each other when I was thirteen years old. I ran away from a group home. Hid out in his store. Then...I don’t know...he kind of collected me.”

Xander went very still. He studied my face as if maybe he could read the truth in my eyes. It unsettled me a little. At the same time, that intoxicating warmth spread through me.

“I started doing his bookkeeping,” I said. “Every day for the first month, he threatened to kick me out. But, he didn’t. He let me stay. He got me out of the system and gave me a job.”

“He was a mage,” Xander said. Something about his tone made it both a question and a statement.

“Yes,” I answered.

“You said he collected you.”

I smiled. “It’s a thing he says. It’s who he is. Marvin’s a collector. Trinkets. Baubles. Odd bits of useless knowledge.”

“Was there anything recent? I mean, trinkets or baubles. Anything special he laid his hands on lately? Something he said was valuable or rare?”

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