Even if you tightly controlled the conditions of something in order to get a desired result, one tiny, unforeseen element could change…everything.
The bright, balmy day smelled of spring flowers, but Levi knew that all would change. He waited for the stink of burning plastic, for the grating buzz to begin in the back of his brain, for the lazy peace to be shattered by some disaster.
Chaos was more than a theory, it was a fact. He knew how it operated. One minute, things could be fine, and the next, everything could be upended. His job was to make sure that didn’t happen.
Elementals had always played a part in human evolution and history, moving back and forth freely at times. Despite being unknown to most mortals, they viewed Earth as our neighbor in the cosmic universe. Now, only a few were allowed here for the purpose of fighting Chaos.
With the aid of the other warriors, Levi searched for Sleepers—humans with latent elemental powers—in hopes of draining them before the enemy, the Chaolt, caused them to self-destruct. And in so doing, caused damage and loss of life, and increased the amount of chaos in the world.
Self-destructing Sleepers were easy prey. More bang for less buck. Flash floods, blizzards, avalanches, tornadoes, the earthquake in 2008… They could all be blamed on the Chaolt. And that was just in Nevada. The loss of human life could be staggering, the amount of chaos released, catastrophic. Pompeii, for example. Which is why Sleepers drew the forces of Chaos like ants to sugar.
But Sleepers were rare. Even in large cities, only a handful could be found. Unless, of course, the city had a portal, a doorway between the Elemental and Mortal worlds. Sleepers felt drawn to the portals, usually settling nearby, their subconscious happier close to ‘home’. This desire to be near the portal made Topaz Ridge, and other portal cities and towns around the world, home to many Sleepers and ground zero for the war against Chaos.
Chaos had the ability to destroy the very fabric of the universe, Levi’s own world included, and for reasons unknown, that seemed to be their goal.
And they were winning. All anyone had to do to see they were losing the war against Chaos was to watch the TV or read the newspaper. Every day, there was a new disaster in some part of this world, often several. In North America alone.
Just last night, there had been an unseasonal fog so thick that no one could see through it, causing a handful of car accidents, as reported in the news this morning. And while the sun had burned it all off, Levi knew the Chaolt had gotten to a water Sleeper, albeit a very weak one. Somewhere in the obits would be the death of the unfortunate victim. But with only four warriors for hundreds of miles, they couldn’t save all of them.
On high alert, Levi walked the streets of Topaz Ridge on a pristine spring day, waiting for any slight change signaling a shift from normal.
He hadn’t expected it to come so soon.
His senses tingling, he slowed to a stop on the sidewalk. Another elemental brushed along the edge of his awareness, there and gone before he could identify who or what. He’d been with the others of his team long enough that he could recognize their energy instantly. This was unfamiliar.
He looked ahead, searching the few people in the town square to see if he could determine who the strange vibes were coming from. As far as he knew, their team was the only one for hundreds of miles in all directions. Other teams worked other hot spots, near other portals, of course, so he thought for a moment maybe one of them had traveled here. But why would they be so far from their own territory when his team covered this one?
He slowly turned in a 360, eyes and senses searching. His gaze zeroed in on a woman across the street and his heart gave a few rabbit-kicks in his chest.
Unfamiliar feelings rushed through him, making his head spin and his vision tunnel. Different sensations than what he felt when he found a Sleeper. He pressed a hand to his chest as if he could hold his heart still, and sweat beaded on his forehead as he took deep breaths, studying her. Why did this woman cause his body and mind to go haywire?
Mine, he thought.
But she wasn’t his. He didn’t know her, had never seen her before.
She walked down the sidewalk, clutching newspapers to her chest, a small smile on her lips. She was lovely, no doubt about that, but otherwise seemed normal. Human. He couldn’t feel latent powers from her, so she wasn’t the elemental he had sensed, nor was she a Sleeper. Or at least, not a fire one. Like sensed like, and while his internal flame blazed brightly at the sight of her, it wasn’t because she matched his element. As far as he could tell, there was no reason for her to cause all the sensations flooding him. All the heat, and it wasn’t from his powers.
He looked past her at the few people scattering the sidewalks. The elemental he’d been looking for wasn’t among them, was no longer even registering on his senses. Could it be someone or something else causing this? No, his eyes were drawn right back to her.
He hoped she’d look his way—still searching for a connection between them—but she didn’t. He jogged across the street, lured for a closer look, but got there just as she turned to open the post office door.
Her scent reached his nose, something fruity and fresh, with something darker, sweeter underneath. It made him hungry. And it took a moment for his brain to kick in to say anything at all.
Brooke unfolded the newspaper with a little shake, but it continued to quiver from the fine tremor in her hands. The convenience store faded into the background as she scanned the print.
There it was. Her name, on the bottom of the last page. Finally.
Senior Graphic Designer: Brooke Simmonds.
Her breath caught in the center of her chest. All these weeks to prepare, and she was still in shock. There were only a few advantages to working as a graphic artist for a small town newspaper, but she was looking at the biggest one. Every logo, every ad, every photograph was her doing.
She’d been assistant designer at the Topaz Ridge Times for three years, but with her supervisor’s unexpected job offer from a national magazine, it had left her and her boss, Debbie, to man the place themselves. Brooke had been the natural choice to replace him. She’d earned it, she’d deserved it, and she’d hit it out of the park this week. Now instead of assisting, she had complete creative control. Not only did she design the whole newspaper, but the magazine inside as well. An annual special publication, the insert was a huge moneymaker for them because it was also featured in every other paper in the area and had large, glossy, expensive full-color ads.
She’d probably need to hire her own assistant now.
She let out a little squeal and paid for two copies at the counter. Her mother would want to see it, might even frame her copy. And of course, she needed one for herself. Once outside, she slung her purse over her shoulder and cradled them with both hands to prevent creases.
With a bounce in her step, she set off walking toward the post office. But now that she held her paper in her hands, she didn’t need to rush. One of the advantages of small-town living was being able to walk around. Everything important was in the square or the surrounding streets.
She felt lighter than she had in months. Years, maybe. It felt amazing to finally see the reward for all her hard work. Besides, it was her first day off in a few weeks, and she was going to enjoy it.
Breathing in deeply, she smiled at the smell of spring in the air. She’d loved Topaz Ridge from the day she’d set foot in this old mining town nestled at the foothills of the Independence Mountains in the far northeast corner of Nevada.
She couldn’t think of a better name for them.
The whole town seemed to be brighter this morning; crocuses and daffodils bloomed in window boxes and the sunshine made the old buildings look decades newer. It felt like the town was celebrating along with her.
Because of its location, it was much more temperate than the rest of the state, and orchards, farms, large sparkling reservoirs, rivers, and lakes dotted the land. She loved living in an area with so much water. This special place soothed her soul. It felt more like home than anywhere she’d ever lived in.
She even considered buying some plants for her balcony to celebrate. It was the closest thing she had to a garden for now. But maybe she could change that soon, too. Buy a little cottage with a yard somewhere. She fully intended to use this project as a stepping stone to a job with a big design firm, with her boss Debbie’s knowledge and blessing.
She reached for the post office door when a large hand grabbed it and opened it for her.
“Allow me,” a deep voice said.
She looked up to say thanks, and her breath caught. Butterflies instantly danced in her stomach as her heart raced. The man was…magnificent. He had dark hair, tan skin, and light amber eyes framed by eyelashes that would make any woman jealous, and the kind of muscular body that would make men envious. His face held the sharp cheekbones and chiseled jaw of a model or a movie star. This close, she caught his scent, a combination of leather, mysterious woods, and a clean smokiness that reminded her of campfire on a summer night.
His lips were hard, with a slight angry twist to them. At her? Surely not. Maybe he thought her rude for staring speechlessly at him.
“Thank you.” It came out breathier than she’d intended. Her dazed once-over melted the irritation in his expression, prompting a sharp, sexy smile in return.
Brooke sucked air back in. Unfair. That look blinded her, burned her, and she couldn’t help beaming back as she slowly walked past him. And because she was in such a good mood, and feeling happy and confident, she did it boldly, with full eye contact. Whiskey brown eyes followed her, unblinking.
The door swished shut behind her, and she dared a look over her shoulder. He wasn’t there. She couldn’t help the little bite of disappointment, but she blew out a breath and grinned to herself. Wow. Her pulse had sped up when she’d met his eyes, and it had yet to slow down, still pounding in her throat. As she stood in line, she kept picturing his smile, and felt a new wash of sensation each time. Brooke looked out the windows to catch another glimpse of the man who’d brought her libido to life with one searing look, but he was gone.
She shook her head to clear it of his image before she approached the counter to mail the paper to her mother.
Levi walked away from the post office with regret, a little dazed. He should have followed her inside. But instead, he’d just opened the door for her, trying to spark some kind of interaction that might give him a clue about this strange reaction he was having. But even up close, he hadn’t discovered any reason for the race of his heartbeat or the unfamiliar feelings inside him. Other than her being really pretty. And damn, that smile she’d given him had been full octane. One that made him think of dark rooms and cool sheets, and them burning up together.
She’s not your type, he reminded himself.
His type was quick, discreet, and anonymous. Looks barely mattered.
But if he had a choice, his type might be a piece of sunshine materialized into a floral skirt and a jaunty ponytail with beautiful blue eyes and a smile that lit a spark inside him as quickly as striking a match—one so hot he could probably melt metal with it. There was power in that look of hers. Not elemental power, but something strong all the same. But he couldn’t reason it out. Why did she pull that reaction from him? Was she important in some way? Did the other elemental he’d sensed before he saw her have something to do with it?
He needed to try to speak to her again, because even now, his chest hurt and he felt like a magnet pulled him back toward her. Mine. He’d walked over a block from the post office but turned around to go back. He had no idea what he was going to do or say when he caught up with her, but he’d play it by ear.
She exited the post office ahead of him, digging in her purse as she slowly walked his direction with her head down. He changed his path to intersect hers, but she was so absorbed with whatever she was searching for, that she didn’t look up in time.
“Oops, sorry. Excuse me,” she said, stepping aside. His movements mirrored hers, and they found themselves doing the uncomfortable shuffle of strangers trying unsuccessfully to get out of each other’s way.
She let out a sheepish laugh and finally looked up at him. He heard her intake of breath, and her blushing smile dazzled him. “Sorry, are you trying to get around me?” she asked.
Just like before, his fire jumped within him when she met his eyes, and the odd feelings inside ramped up. He didn’t know what to do or say to her, but he needed her to stay for a few moments so he could figure out what was going on. He should try to be charming. “No ma’am, I’m trying to dance with you,” he said, a grin spreading across his lips, even though a bead of sweat dripped down his back. He held his hands up in a waltz position, copying something he’d seen on TV. Wanting to pull her closer, taste her. “But you’re making it awfully hard.”
Her laugh bubbled out at his unexpected response to their awkward situation, and his smile grew. She stepped into the circle of his arms and placed her cool hands in his. He waltzed her across the sidewalk, simply copying the moves he’d seen on human television so many times over the years. He spun her out to the side, her skirt swirling around her knees, her hair swinging out behind her. She grinned up at him, and that image froze in his mind as if he’d taken a photo. With his hand still holding hers and his eyes on her face, he bowed. She curtsied in response, laughing, and let go to pull her purse back up on her shoulder.
“Listen, this may be insane…” she started. Her words were breathy, washing over him like a cool breeze. Yet giving more oxygen to the fire inside him, raising his temperature a few more degrees. “It probably is insane, since I don’t know you and you don’t know me.” She stopped for a second and took a big breath. “But there’s a coffee shop around the corner. Would you like to go with me? Have a drink?”
The “Hell yes” was forming on his lips when all his senses went on high alert again. Something different this time, a fire Sleeper. Nearby. He felt the affinity between their powers pulling at him. Powers that could be tapped, used by the Chaolt to cause a lot of damage when that Sleeper self-destructed. Son of a bitch.
The curve of his lips faded into a disappointed frown. “As much as I’d like to, I can’t.” His eyes scanned the square for any sign of the Sleeper. “I’m looking for someone.”
“Oh, okay. Of course,” she said, blushing again, her expression drooping. Seeing that bright smile of hers falter made him feel like an asshole but he couldn’t change his mind, even though he really wanted to. But he had a job to do. “Well, maybe some other time then.”
He nodded, hands in his pockets. There couldn’t be another time. He needed to do his duty, and she’d move on. He’d exchange numbers, except he felt sure she wasn’t going to be interested in a quick, shallow liaison, and that’s all he could offer. The Premiers forbid relationships with humans.
He’d never find the reason for the strange pull she had on him, and that sent a disappointed ache across his chest. He’d never felt anything like this, in all his time on the mortal plane.
She sent him one last, small smile. “Thanks for the dance.” With a little wave, she walked away.
He watched he for a few moments until she went into a building nearby, then he pivoted with a curse. No matter how much he wanted to do something as normal as get to know a pretty lady over a cup of coffee, his job—his mission—came first. He had to find that Sleeper and drain his or her powers. Because if there was a Sleeper nearby, then the bastard Chaolt weren’t that far behind.
The buzz in the back of his head started up, more vibration than sound, and a twitchy, wild energy filled him when the enemy got close. The smell of burning plastic drifted on the air.
Shit, too late. The Chaolt were here.
He spun in a circle on the sidewalk, prompting looks from the people walking by. He was drawing too much attention to himself today, but what could he do? Where the hell was it? He couldn’t sense him. Usually, his internal radar would lead him in the right direction, tell him how far away a Chaolt was. But not today. Like a perilous game of hot and cold, he had to pick a direction and see what effect it had on him as he moved. Which is why he now paced up and down the sidewalks like a madman instead of having coffee across from a pretty woman.
So far, no matter which direction he walked, he found nothing. He pushed both hands into his hair. Fuck.
A bitter taste in his mouth, he took out his phone to dial the other soldiers, but he didn’t hit SEND. They wouldn’t be able to get here in time. He could find that Chaolt, even without tracking it, if he was lucky. Their features differed from a normal human’s. Like him and the other warriors, the Chaolt came to the mortal plane from their own, but trying to wrap Chaos up in a nice, fleshy, mortal package didn’t work so well. There were…consequences. The subconscious mortal mind usually chose to ignore the differences out of fear, but elementals could see them. Constantly shifting features, static eyes. A bit like someone packed a bunch of worms into a human-shaped balloon. All he had to do was pick the right direction, find the Chaolt, and kill it before it had a chance to get to the Sleeper. Without all the people on the square noticing. And he would, dammit.
He’d only gone a block when an explosion rocked him on his feet. A building burst into flames behind him—the building his lovely, smiling woman had entered. His heart fell down to his knees. Legs pumping, he dialed 911 on his cell.
“There was an explosion. The building is on fire! There are people inside.” He shouted the address and hung up on the dispatcher.
His next call was to the other warriors. Then he sent a breathless prayer up to the Prime Elemental, hoping they would arrive before anyone else.