Authors: Jennifer Probst
He'd spent many nights on these types of watches. The first was always the hardest. To watch a woman wake with violent confusion. The memory of what had happened and the terror that lurked behind their eyes was something that always ripped out a piece of his heart
But this was his gift. Once he'd thought of his powers as a curse. No longer. He'd be doing the world and his mother a huge disrespect by ignoring who he was.
So, he cut the bitching and took the heat.
But he never thought he'd need to heal Selina.
The burn ripped through his body, beckoning for blood. He fought it back, knowing taking lives was not his decision. He was forbidden to kill, no matter how violent the crime. Most of his sleepless nights revolved around the agony of letting them go, but he had no choice.
The call of fire had always been his gift, but he was unable to play God. Sure, it took years to learn to control the power of fire, especially as a young man full of testosterone and rage. Now his control was razor sharp. After all, he’d learned the hard way after taking his first life.
His last life.
Life was not about an eye for an eye.
Justice, yes. Healing. Forgiveness. And punishment.
But not a life for a life. This was not his call, as much as he'd love to be the final power in charge.
Dante gazed around the bedroom. Its twist of warmth and stark efficiency reflected her personality. The king size, four-poster bed was deep cherry, with matching furniture that held an almost masculine appeal. But the bright yellow walls, candles, and frilly throw pillows gave off a feminine touch uniquely hers. One wall boasted a bookcase that overflowed with treasures. The thick book of sonnets termed her a closet romantic. The impressive pile of business, statistics and marketing texts termed her an intellect.
He’d longed to see her personal space and dig deeper into her mysteries. The office only allowed a glimpse of her hidden soul to peek through, like a scatter of sunrays filtering through a partially closed blind.
A breathy hitch broke the silence. His gaze took in her bruised, swollen cheek and the upper cut on her brow. More marks on her hip. Black and blue on the delicate swell of her stomach. His gut twisted in nausea but he fought it back with an ironclad control. Nothing physically broken. Now he prayed he’d gotten there in time before sexual penetration. Her jeans had been on, so maybe she had been spared that horror. Of course, he learned early on a damaged soul was just as traumatizing as a shattered body.
Dante half closed his eyes, fists tight, as the tornado force of emotions shook him to the core. How long had he watched her from the sidelines, greedy to be invited into her inner sanctum? From the moment they’d met, an odd connection forged between them, as if they’d known each other in a previous life. She was so familiar, yet out of reach. She haunted his dreams on a regular basis. But never did he want to be close to her in this way.
How long had he been alone now? Chase teased him mercilessly about his monk ways and refusal to engage in another relationship. Since his last broken affair with Sara, he’d focused on Inferno Enterprises, and the many women who required his healing touch. Rarely did he experience any need to venture out of his safe haven, though Chase tried desperately to tempt him. There had been no women to stir either his body, mind, or heart.
She always smelled like a delicious ice cream cone—vanilla. His absolute favorite flavor. While he foraged her bathroom looking for first aid supplies he found the body lotion, gel and shampoo; all vanilla scent. Mystery solved. Long black lashes lay against her cheeks as she slept, but Dante knew the mysterious swirl of green and gold rivaled a pirate’s treasure chest, changing color depending on the light and her mood. There was gentleness in Selina's soul that cried out to his, as if finding its perfect match. As if deep inside, she was as lonely as him.
Dante smothered the humorless laugh. There was no soul mate meant for a modern day superhero with his mission. No Lois Lane. No Batwoman. No Piper. No Jane.
Just an endless line of broken women who needed healing.
As she stirred, Dante tamped hard down on the messy emotions mocking his very existence and used all of his strength to concentrate on the task before him.
She was awake.
Selina sucked in a breath as her heart thundered, and sharp pain battered every muscle in her body. As the scene of the assault suddenly emerged in her vision, she flew up from the bed with a scream lodged in her throat.
"You're okay. You're safe."
She turned her head, looking for the voice, blinking her eyes, unable to focus. Where had she heard that voice before? The strange familiarity reached deep within her subconscious and stroked like a velvet glove. The man. The one who'd saved her. He was here.
She paused in her bed, heart hammering, and took stock of the scene before her. She lay under the covers, fully clothed, in her own bedroom. The room was dark, the blinds shut tight, and the weakest flicker of light cast the man beside her bed in deep shadows, as he had appeared in the alley. He sat in a chair at the side of her bed. She rubbed her eyes and tried to focus, but only got a shadowy impression.
The safety of her own room allowed her to drag in a shaky breath and calm. She was home.
She reached out with a trembling hand and grasped the glass of water. Her aching throat welcomed the cool gush, and she took the next few seconds to study her savior.
Dark hair pulled back in a tight ponytail. Black t-shirt and jeans. Strong jaw, square chin. Carved lips. A stretchy black fabric mask hid most of his face, clinging to his cheeks, brows, and leaving only his eyes, nose, and mouth open. Almost like a Zorro mask but without the flash. But his scent...like his voice, seemed so familiar.
She forced the words out of a mouth that trembled. "Who are you?"
"My name is Dante. I saw you getting attacked and I was able to get to you before they…" He kept his voice low and soothing, as if trying to speak to a rabid animal. "You fainted, so I brought you here first."
"I live here."
Her hand touched her jaw, which felt double the size and hurt like hell. "How did you know where I lived?"
"I found your purse. Your license gave me the address."
"Why didn't you wait for the police?"
He hesitated. "I didn't know if you were ready. I wanted to check your injuries first, let you get your bearings. If you'd like, I can take you to the police station to make a report."
The memory of hands ripping at her, touching her was too much. She shuddered and clutched the blankets in an effort to ward off the horrible feelings. "Where are they? What happened to them?"
"I tied them up. Sirens were close by so the police probably took them into custody."
Selina shook her head, and then stopped as the shooting pain stabbed behind her eyes. "No, there was more. I remember…I remember..." she trailed off and reached for the misty tendril of memory. "Fire. There was fire."
"Perhaps you imagined it."
The image exploded before her in slow motion. Screams. Flames. A symbol marking burnt flesh. "You caused a fire. They were marked with something strange on their arms, and you said something..."
He sighed deeply. "Okay, so you did see it. Selina, listen to me. I can't explain what happened in that stairwell. All I can tell you is they will never be able to hurt another woman again. Ever. I swear to you on everything I hold dear."
Selina would've blamed the whole messed up evening on a bad dream, but her head throbbed, her stomach ached, and bruises covered her body. It had all happened. It was all real. She had almost been gang raped, and if it hadn't been for this man, she could've still been there.
She usually believed in logic, hard work, and success. But right now, she believed in only one thing. Dante. The man who saved her. Her words broke on a whisper. "I don’t understand what’s happening. How could you have—have done those things?”
He nodded. "I'm going to ask you to trust me. I only want to help you. Will you let me?"
The warped reality of the scene hit her. She didn’t know this man who wore a mask to cover his face. He’d come in a burst of fire, brought her home, and swore he meant no harm. What if it was a set up? He had her ID, her keys, and the power to do whatever he pleased. If she was smart, she’d thank him, ask him to leave, and deal with the aftereffects herself. Like she always did.
Her body shook as if gripped with fever. God, she was so tired of being alone. Yes, it was her choice, but tonight, she needed someone to help. Her mind was so foggy and confused; she didn’t trust herself not to shatter in a million pieces if he left.
As if she now lived in an alternate universe where superheroes lived and little green men were ready to take over the planet, Selina nodded. Agreeing to trust this stranger with her care. Usually fiercely independent, she ached body and soul with a fear she'd never experienced. She craved someone gentle to tell her what to do, someone to take care of her. Just for a little while.
Just for tonight.
"Thank you, Selina." His hand reached out and gently stroked her swollen cheek. She stiffened, and then consciously relaxed as she realized he wouldn't hurt her. "I treated you for shock and put a robe over your clothes. No broken bones, but I need to take care of these cuts. I need to ask you something very important."
He leaned forward. She sucked in her breath at the dark swirling depths in those twin orbs. Like quicksand, Selina fought to keep from drowning in the raw mixture of emotions he revealed. More vulnerable than she'd ever felt in her life, she waited for him to speak.
"If you want, I will take you to the police. They'll take a report, and examine you for evidence. A rape kit. They will check for witnesses. You may be asked to identify your attackers in a lineup, and then a case will be brought against them. This is our law. Society's justice. We may not like it, but it's the only system we have in place."
Her body convulsed. God, she couldn't do it. She may die if she laid her gaze on them again. But didn't she need to press charges? Tears sprang and leaked from her eyelids. "What will happen if I don't go to the police?"
Dante reached over and took her hand. "They'll go free.” Those eyes burned and blazed with scorching heat. "Even if they go free, they've been marked for life. They'll never be able to touch a woman in violence without extraordinary pain. They will never be able to hurt another woman again."
It was official. She'd been transported into a science fiction novel where villains were marked by mysterious burning symbols and strange men sat in her bedroom. She gave herself up to the night and the paths it took her.
"As long as I know they can't attack anybody else, I don't want to go to the police."
"Okay. Let me clean these cuts.”
“I want to shower.” Her lower lip trembled. She needed hot water to cleanse the dirt from her body. And the feeling of grabby, hurtful fingers.
Dante nodded and held out his hands. “Let's get you into the bathroom." He helped her in and turned the shower to hot. "I'm going to be right outside the door if you need help."
Knowing he was close helped soothe her anxiety. Her fingers shook so hard, she could barely get out of her ripped jeans. The button hung lifelessly from one strand of thread where the men had tugged to free it. The thought floated somewhere in the recess of her mind, unable to hurt her yet as she finished undressing and stood under the steamy, stinging spray. She washed her body with a clinical, detached air, put on fresh underwear, and wrapped herself back in the plush terry robe.
"Here." He stepped into the foggy powder blue and white bathroom and motioned her to sit on the toilet seat. With competent, brisk motions, he examined her cuts and applied cream and bandages. His touch was clinical, like a doctor, and calmed her. Finally, he led her back to the bed and tucked her under the covers. Then brought a washcloth wrapped in ice, and pressed it to her swollen cheek and jaw.
"Do you want to talk?" he asked.
Selina wondered if she'd ever want to talk again. Or laugh. Or want to go out into the world. Or put on another pair of designer jeans. Or have a drink with her team at the bar. She almost felt worse at the moment, because the tears wouldn't come. Just a dry, waning grief that shook her body like a thunderstorm. She shook her head, unable to speak.
Dante didn't seem to care. "Rest."
He stood up and she shot forward on the bed. "Don't leave!" Selina despised her helplessness and need, but the humiliation ranked second to being alone.
He sat down on the chair and held her hand. The strong warmth of his grip cut through the chill and helped her settle. "I won't leave until you go to sleep. Promise."
She closed her eyes, so physically drained a wave of fatigue battered through her. "Sorry," she mumbled. "So sorry."
His voice came out hard and determined. "I am too, sweetheart. But I'm going to make it right. I promise you're going to be alright."