Roman paused at the door to his office suite. Nervous energy supercharged his senses. His hand clenched the handle, ready for a fight, needing to hit something, someone. This is why he should have stayed at the cabin. With his control slipping, only solitude would help him keep his sanity. For too long he’d put off the inevitable. Always placing the needs of others ahead of his desires, which hadn’t changed in two thousand years and he was no closer to achieving them. He pulled at the silk tie and shifted uncomfortably in the Armani suit he hated. His worn Levis and Timberlands were back at the cabin, along with his freedom and part of his sanity. The briefcase in his hand contained a few sheets of notarized paper. Two signatures and the company would leave his hands. The time for new leadership had come. He pushed the door open and assumed the mantle of CEO—for the last time. “Hey, Gracie.” He greeted his personal secretary seated outside his office. “Welcome back, Mr. Nicolis.” Gracie smiled. “How was your vacation?” He couldn’t tell his elderly secretary, he’d spent months in the woods with a sword in his clenched fist, reclaiming a skill acquired centuries ago and trying to justify his existence. “Fine.” He tugged at his tie again, loosening the noose. “Stop fidgeting.” She crooked a finger and motioned him to her. More parent than employee, he suffered Gracie’s attention as she fixed his tie. Roman enjoyed her motherly fussing. He would miss her, but at least he wouldn’t have to watch another person he cared about die a slow wasting death. Did that make him a coward? Yes, he could admit that. “Tell me again why I can’t wear jeans at work?” he groused, returning to their ongoing five-year argument. “Because you have to set a good example for the men.” Roman winced and his lips tightened. Since his fall from grace, he did that. He had too. Centuries ago his reckless, impulsive nature had cost him everything, leaving him without family or friends, cursed for eternity. But Gracie didn’t need to know his sorted history either. Enough people already shared that burdensome knowledge. She knew him as the thirty-something eccentric billionaire who griped to her. In these last days as her boss, he wouldn’t change that. He drew his eyebrows together, imitating a scowl. “Yes, you, good example.” She chuckled. With trembling hands, she brushed imaginary lint from his shoulders. “You were greatly missed.” “By whom?” With the exception of four, all his men were deployed on various assignments.

“The boys. Bianca’s also been by three times looking for you.” Gracie’s lips pursed, trying to suppress a smile. He sighed, his grimace no longer pretend. His fiancée needed to know the wedding was off. “Maybe I should marry you.” He offered with a wink. She burst out laughing. “Not on your life!” Her voice lowered to a conspiratorial whisper. “First, I don’t want Dragon Lady poisoning my coffee. And second, you couldn’t handle me.” At sixty, her eyes twinkled with delightful intention as she patted his forearm. He captured her knobby fingers with a hand that had seen many more decades than hers, and brought them to his lips. Her face broke into a smile and a rosy blush bloomed on her aged cheeks. Looking at her, all flustered and aglow, time peeled away and he could envision the girl she was forty years ago. “Now, don’t you tempt me. I’m a happily married woman.” She fussed with her messy salt and pepper bun. He laughed, but before he could respond, Bianca rounded the corner. She stopped short. Her eyes swept over him, narrowed briefly, then with fake surprise, widened. “Sweetheart.” Her voice washed over him, soft and alluring, yet moved nothing inside him. Pulled into her arms, Roman swore under his breath. A little more time before seeing her again would’ve been nice. He avoided her kiss and steered her to her office. “I missed you so much. You should’ve stopped by my office when you arrived.” The warmth of her smile didn’t thaw her icy eyes. “I just arrived, Bianca.” He tried to control the ire in his voice. Tall and leggy, icy blonde all over, with the palest hazel eyes and lipstick red lips, she was a beauty any man would want. His brother’s told him he was a fool and like a fool, he didn’t listen. He should’ve, especially about this. How could he have thought a marriage of convenience would quench the yawning hole in his soul? “How was your vacation?” Smiling, she leaned into him for a kiss. “Relaxing.” He moved away. “Still not going to tell me where you were?” She hedged with a slight whine. He shared the cabin with no one. His silence answered for him. “It’s seems like forever since we’ve been together,” she said. “It has been forever. Two months of loneliness.” Two months, try two thousand years.

“We need to talk, Bianca.” “Yes, we do,” she said a bit too brightly. “But, I should get going. I’m already late for a meeting.” She slung her purse over her shoulder and grabbed some folders off the desk. “There are things we need to go over for the ceremony. I know you don’t want to be bothered, but it’s your wedding too and I need your help with a few decisions.” She tried to kiss him again. He turned his head and her lips landed on his cheek. When she pulled away, he produced a handkerchief from his breast pocket and wiped the lipstick from his cheek. Her eyes narrowed. Guilt clenched his gut. “We’ll talk tonight. Thane’s waiting.” He explained. Roman entered into his private office gritting his teeth. The situation with Bianca wasn’t the sum of his discomfort, but added to it. Anxiety ate at the center of calm that balanced his impulsive nature. He placed his briefcase and mail on the desk, then turned toward the window with the view of the murky East River. A garbage barge blasted its horn as a group of rower’s glided past. In the distance, the Williamsburg Bridge hid under scaffolding. Forty floors below, the FDR snaked along. Rush hour in Manhattan didn’t end. A twenty-four hour running of the bulls, endure the ordeal or take the subway. Just as the quiet solitude of nature soothed him, so did the honking and the drone of tires on blacktop. The river and traffic flowed like blood through his veins. Usually, the grit of New York was enough. Now, a violent storm churned his insides. He closed his eyes and remembered his last day at the cabin. The first rays of the sun cut through the swirling mist, peeking between the oak trees and reflecting off his great sword. The heavy weight in his palm called to the two thousand year old mercenary the twenty-first century could never erase. His arms to the sky, he paid homage to the rising sun before throwing his head back and roaring. He charged into the woods. On an obstacle course he designed himself; he attacked with his sword, taking chunks out of fabricated wooden men. A mercenary on the battlefield once more, he wielded his weapon in an arc and went through the Dance of Death he learned at his father’s knee. He moved with a warrior’s grace amidst the trees, disappearing into the mist, then reappearing yards away. Slashing and then fading away again. Sweat ran freely as the sun burned off the early morning fog and the July heat returned. Clear-headed and free of torment, pine scented air filled his lungs and the quiet calmed his soul, returning him to a time when he was but a man, mortal and frail. His second in command, Thane, entered his office and summed up the state of the business. Roman spared him his left brain, listening to where all the men were, while his right brain remained in the woods. “Roman.” Thane waited, holding a file out to him. “There is one more issue. Dr. Jacob Orley contacted the company. He wants to hire us to protect a friend.”

He took the file from Thane and studied his apprentice. Almost his height with sandy blond hair and green eyes, he still looked like he belonged on a beach instead of a boardroom. “You know we don’t protect individuals.” “I know you’ve been out of the loop and cut off from the world, but over the last few months nine bodies were found in Manhattan. There’s a file on your desk detailing each murder. This girl would have been number ten. She’s in a coma at St. Vincent’s and she may be able to identify her attacker. She needs our help.” Thane rushed through his speech, surprising Roman, but it changed nothing. He handed the file back to Thane. “There are other companies better suited for this. We don’t have the staff for personal protection.” Thane’s face turned hard. “Then you need to tell him yourself because I already said we would.” Roman leaned back in his chair. Never before had Thane questioned his authority. “Why is this so important to you?” He demanded. “You left me in charge—and I gave my word.” Thane turned and left. *** Roman walked into St. Vincent’s Hospital with tightness in his stomach. Hospitals and doctors. He hated both. Charlatans, quacks, and incompetents. Although having never suffered any sickness himself, as a man of many wars, he had seen scores of barbers and butchers practicing their skills. He hadn’t entered a hospital since it was called a Sanatorium. Much had changed since 1890, but not the smell. That lemony antiseptic, mixed with rotting bodies from his memory, made him suppress the urge to gag. As a soldier, death and decay were nothing new. But death wasn’t supposed to have the sweet overlay this place held. As if the people pretended death didn’t exist. They kept the stench of decay at bay with potpourri and disinfectant. He stopped at the information desk and asked for directions. The elderly volunteer smiled before directing him to the ICU on the fifth floor. Shaped like a donut, the nurse’s station sat in the center with a hallway dissecting the unit. An elderly man exited the patient’s room when Roman paused to greet the police officer stationed there. “Ah, Mr. Nicolis. Thane called and said you were on the way. I’m Dr. Jacob Orley.” Dressed in Arnold Palmer sportswear, with a Titleist visor framing his balding pate, the aroma of Ben Gay and Old Spice clung to him. At least seventy years old, craggily faced with hunched shoulders, Dr. Orley leaned against his cane and extended his hand. They shook and Roman noted the elder still had strength in his grip. “I understand you don’t take on individual clients, but your company came highly recommended. I’d count it as a personal favor, as would my nephew, Senator Orley.”

Roman smiled. He respected a man who used every asset at his disposal. Even if those assets didn’t mean a damn thing to him. “Is Miss Walker a relative of yours?” “No. Just a friend. I was a plastic surgeon and she was my last patient before I retired nine years ago. She was brought in with a fractured cheek and a broken nose along with miscellaneous injuries.” “Car accident?” He asked. Dr. Orley shook his head. “Beaten in a group home. She’s an orphan. The right side of her face was a disaster, but the left, well she reminded me of my sister, Ester, when she was sixteen . . . so beautiful. The night they brought Stella in, I was on my final rotation and set to enjoy my retirement. I cut through the ER on the way to the parking lot. I wanted to say goodbye to some of the nurses.” He chuckled gave Roman a wink. “Her gurney was against the wall, out of the way. The ER was in chaos that night. A collapsed building had trapped three firefighters and some tenants. My hospital was the nearest trauma center. Since she was stable, they stuck an IV in her and left her there.” The doctor’s eyes misted over. “The beauty of her skin and sharpness of her features,” he sighed. “I’m drawn to symmetry, so I had to see the entire picture of her face.” He shook his head. “I couldn’t leave her like that. So I took over her case and fixed her up. Since then, we’ve been friends.” He paused to clear his voice. “I kept in contact with her throughout the years. She’s an orphan, you know,” he repeated absently. “Her stepmother put her in foster care after her father died.” His rheumy eyes met Roman’s. “She asked for nothing, nor accepted anything other than dinner. I’ve always respected that. She’s a good girl who’s had a hard time. This, she didn’t deserve.” “Why don’t you trust the police to protect her?” “Would you trust the police to protect someone you care about?” Dr. Orley ran a trembling, spotted hand across his aged face. “I respect the police, but they’re overworked and underpaid. Once she wakes and tells the detectives what she remembers, the policeman stationed outside her door will disappear. There’ll be no one to stop that animal from returning to finish what he started.” Roman followed the doctor into her room as he explained her current condition. “She has broken ribs, a collapsed lung, punctured liver and stomach, cuts to the back of her head, face and neck, and a concussion.” He beckoned Roman closer to the bed. “To keep her comfortable and speed up her healing, the doctor placed her in a drug-induced coma. She’s been out for the past week. Hopefully, they’ll bring her back soon.” As he continued, Roman approached the mummified woman. Bandages covered a good portion of her swollen face and long black hair draped the pillow. Drainage tubes led from her abdomen and chest.

What little skin he saw was pasty and sweaty. Machines surrounded her, tracking every heartbeat, forcing air into her lungs and drugs into her body. He couldn’t see the beautiful girl Dr. Orley described. Compelled, he touched the only part of her not bandaged or swollen, her hand. Calloused with unpolished, chewed nails, her strong fingers closed around his, seizing him in a weak, but electric grip that whipped through him and left his insides soupy. Her eyes opened. His heart seized and twisted hard in his chest. Her gray orbs pierced his soul. He jerked his hand from hers and backed away from the bed. No. His mind screamed. Yes. His heart cried. Her eyes turned yellow and glowed, tracking him. The glow only he could see, spread as a sparkling mist from her eyes to cover her entire body. “She shouldn’t be awake.” Dr. Orley checked her vitals and then left the room to get her physician. The telltale radiance faded and her eyes closed. Roman grabbed her hand again. “Elyssian . . . it’s too soon.”

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