“Do you want to live?”
What the hell…? I focused on the brown hand thrust into my face, held onto it like a lifeline. Everything else around me was a scorched blur. My heart beat hard, and pain rode through my flesh. Did I want to live? Where was I? What had happened? Panic bubbled and words burst out. “What sort of insane question is that?” I choked, and agony shot over my skull.
“Make a choice.”
I breathed slow, wanting to ease the fear, the pain enveloping me. I focused on the man’s hand, on the ring on his third finger. Heavy, white gold, and ornate, it gleamed against his smooth brown skin. Something about it itched, tugging at my memory, but my dull brain couldn’t help me remember. I concentrated on his question instead and let out a slow breath. My throat hurt. “Choice?”
More sensation worked its way through my fogged brain, breaking the pounding pain beating against my skull. Flagstones scraped against my cheek, my jaw. Cold air brushed against my skin, and the thin taste of smoke, brick dust, and the river’s damp air slid into my lungs. I swallowed, and blood and grit filled my mouth. All right, I was lying down outside somewhere. Which made no sense. I’d been what…heading in to work? And then what? Collapsed, passed out? Then some freak had found me. Always my luck.
It was time to try moving. My arm lay at an awkward angle under my hip, and I pushed my will into my muscles. Big mistake. The twitch of movement lanced agony down to my fingertips. The sudden flare of pain brought with it an unexpected clarity, and the surrounding haze of light and shadow fell into brief focus.
Beyond the stranger’s hand, flagstones coated with red dust stretched away from me and a morning fog rolled in from the river, wreathing around the black lampposts and obscuring everything else.
“You have to answer me.”
I winced, and a hot flush of pain ran over my face. Damn it, what part of me didn’t hurt? “Answer you?”
“Do you want to live? You have to make the choice.”
His hand disappeared from my view, and for a panicked, confused moment, I thought he’d left me, alone, injured. Then came the light brush of his fingers over my hair in a slow, sure rhythm. My thudding heart slowed…but something about his touch seemed wrong. However, even with the fading beat of pain in my head, thinking was still hard, and I just wanted the relief of not hurting. I closed my eyes and let my body pull in air, bitter as it was. Slowly, I drifted, and the warm tug of sleep dulled the agony —
“Do you want my help?”
I winced. The pain was back. Hell, was the deep voice stabbing into my head simply a figment brought on by my obviously cracked skull? “No, I just want to lie here.” I spat out the taste of blood. “Maybe bleed a bit more. What d’you think?”
He cursed, something ripe and not very complimentary. “Leona Munro. Yes or no? Do you want to live?”
“I’ve told you. What sort of insane, crazy question –” I made the mistake of moving my head from the flagstone pavement. Pain spiked and my stomach roiled. Nausea surged. I sank back to the cold stone and tried to breathe away the agony ripping through me. It didn’t work. Damn it, I needed his help. If I had to answer his stupid question, then I’d do that. “Yes.” The word gritted out from between clenched teeth. “I want to live.”
His hand, still caught in my hair, pressed hard against my skull. And that was the something wrong. It didn’t hurt. In fact…the searing edge of pain dulled, faded, and a slow fire slid through my flesh, relaxing every screaming inch of my skin, bones, and muscle. I sighed, and I couldn’t stop my body from sagging deeper against the hard flagstones like a boneless doll. I didn’t care. I didn’t hurt. That was all that mattered in my world right then. “Thank you.”
“You may change your mind about that.”