Something is wrong with me, I thought when I hit the ground for what felt like the fiftieth time within the last hour. Pain exploded in my shoulder and a strangled cry left my lips. Something is seriously wrong with me.
I didn’t move for several moments, waiting for the pain to subside.
It took longer than the time before. It always did.
Because there was something wrong with me.
After four weeks of training, I should have gotten better at dealing with the pain. Instead, it seemed to be getting worse with each passing day.
“Come on, baby,” Jayden said, but I ignored him as I struggled to sit up.
Clumsily, I got to my feet. I straightened my shoulders and turned toward him––my knees were shaking slightly.
He gave me one second on the dot before shifting his weight and twisting to one side. Although I knew what he was about to do, I didn’t react fast enough and his leg connected with my calf. Another cry of pain left my lips and tears sprang to my eyes as I fell to the floor once again.
I had never fallen down as much as I had over the last couple of weeks. Every single time I got back up, I would rather stay on the ground most of the time.
“Keep your head in the game,” Jayden instructed and I shot him a murderous glance.
“At least give me some time to prepare.” I sat up and rubbed my throbbing elbow, which seemed to have gotten the hardest blow this time.
Jayden crossed his arms over his chest. He stared at me with raised eyebrows. “An attacker will not give you time to prepare either,” he replied and the arrogance in his tone made me mad.
Deep down, I knew that he was right. But at this very moment, my body was screaming in pain and it was hard for me to remind myself what we were doing this for. Why we trained like this every single day and why he was teaching me to defend myself.
It took all the strength left in my body to pick myself up off the floor. Dizziness spread through me and I staggered.
A second later, Jayden’s arm was around my shoulders, holding me upright. I tried to blink the stars away that had appeared in my vision.
“You all right?” Jayden’s voice was gentle. As gentle as his fingers that were brushing my hair back from my forehead. His skin was warm, but his touch didn’t send a shockwave of electricity through my veins anymore. Ever since the spell that had brought me back to life, that effect was gone. But this didn’t mean that I did not enjoy his touch.
For a brief, wonderful moment, I sank against his body and pressed my cheek into his chest.
Then I clenched my teeth and nodded as I stepped away from him, breaking the gentle hold. Reluctantly, he let me go and I took a couple of steps back, balling my fingers into fists and looking at him in expectation.
There was a tiny part of me that was hoping he would stop our session and pull me against his warm body instead.
But my hope was short-lived because he didn’t hesitate as he jumped forward. I ducked under his outstretched arm, spun around, and jumped onto his back. I wrapped my legs around his waist and pressed one of my forearms to his throat.
I’m not sure who was more surprised by my actions––Jayden or myself.
Probably him, because when I leaned back abruptly, he lost his balance and fell back. He twisted in midair, so I wasn’t crushed under his weight. I gasped when my shoulder hit the floor again.
In one fluid movement, he turned around and looked at me, his eyes full of astonishment.
“Not bad,” he muttered, but I couldn’t answer. I had trouble breathing. The awe in his eyes was replaced by concern and he used one of his elbows to push his body up so he could look at me. With his free hand, he gently stroked my cheek. “What’s wr…?”
“I’m fine,” I interrupted him, sitting up while still gasping for air. I didn’t want him to worry.
Although I should say “worry even more” because Jayden was constantly worried about me.
Ever since I had come back from the dead four weeks ago, he had barely left my side. No matter how many times I’d told him that I was fine and that no one was about to kidnap me again, Jayden didn’t seem convinced. And to be quite honest, neither was I. The fear of someone keeping me hostage again ran deeper than I wanted to admit.
But telling Jayden that I had been feeling nauseous for the last couple of days would cause his anxiety to reach new levels––I was sure of it. I wanted to avoid that at all costs.
I mean, come on! What’s some nausea? I had survived my own death after all.
This is different. Something is seriously wrong with me.
I shook my head to get rid of the worrisome thought.
“Just a little dizzy,” I assured Jayden, who was still looking at me with concern etched into his features. I was mostly talking to myself, trying to convince myself. Because I couldn’t shake off the feeling that something was wrong with me.
I forced a smile. “I’m alright, really.” I wanted to believe the words, but couldn’t.
Jayden frowned before jumping to his feet. “You won this round,” he told me and smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes. He gently grabbed my wrist and helped me up.
I nodded while trying to ignore the nausea threatening to take over.
Jayden’s smile vanished and his gaze was a mask of concern now. Before he could say anything, the door burst open and Raul entered the room.
“Hey Jay, Hey Ebby.” Raul’s tone was light as he slipped out of his jacket and threw his gray sports bag on the bench next to the door.
“Hi Raul,” I replied quickly, smiling at him. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Jayden study me intently before slowly walking over to his friend.
My nausea intensified and I stole a glance in Jayden’s direction. He seemed to have momentarily forgotten about me while talking to Raul. Without them noticing, I quickly walked over to the little bathroom, closing the door firmly behind me. I sank down on the toilet lid and put my face between my knees.
A minute later Jayden was pounding on the door. “Ebby!”
Why did he always worry so much? I just needed a couple of moments to enjoy my nausea and wallow in my own misery––was that really too much to ask?
I took a deep breath and finally, the pressure in my chest seemed to ease as the nausea subsided.
“I’ll be right there,” I called. My voice sounded strained and I grimaced. It took some effort to climb to my feet, but I managed to open the door and even smile an innocent smile at Jayden.
He stared at me, apparently not convinced by my fake cheerfulness.
Without saying a word I pushed past him, but his fingers closed around my wrist and he looked at me critically.
“What’s wrong?” he asked quietly.
I swallowed around the lump that had formed in my throat. The smile slipped off my face. “Just a little nauseous,” I murmured and lowered my gaze. “It’s all better now.” I pulled my wrist from his grip and walked over to where Raul was standing.
“Ebby.” I heard the warning in Jayden’s tone, but I ignored him. I stepped in front of Raul, starting my second round of training for the day.
For four weeks I had been training almost on a daily basis.
Our training room was located in the cellar of a peculiar little gym in the middle of Brooklyn. I had no idea what kind of facility it was and Jayden had only told me that his friend Marc knew the owner. This was the reason we were allowed to train here for free. And yes, that was the same Marc who had been able to make a dead body disappear a couple of months ago.
I had decided not to ask too many questions. Not knowing some of the details seemed like a good idea to me.
Jayden and I agreed that I had to learn how to defend myself in case I was attacked by another hunter. It hadn’t helped decrease his concern over my well-being so far, but at least I didn’t feel like a complete failure when it came to self-defense anymore.
But I was absolutely certain that my fighting skills were completely useless against a hunter––just like my magic. I was abysmal at fighting.
To my embarrassment, it had been Jayden who had told me that I also needed to work on my magical fighting skills, in addition to my physical training.
My friends Ashley, Sam, and Jess had helped me gain control over my magic last summer. But in this one tragical night it had all gone horribly wrong. I had been too forceful and killed a man. In my defense though, he had attacked and tried to rape me.
Since Jayden, a hunter, was immune to my magic, he had asked his friend Raul to be my “magical training partner”. Apparently, the two of them had trained together in the past and Jayden had helped Raul out of an unfortunate situation––his choice of words, not mine.
Whenever I asked for details, both of them suddenly went quiet. One day I would have to get Jayden to tell me what had happened, but I was still waiting for the right moment.
Anyway, Raul knew about witches and had been more than happy to help us out.
“Didn’t we agree on you not apologizing to me anymore?” Raul was just asking me. Doing exactly that was still pretty difficult for me. Most of the time I was able to refrain from apologizing, but this time I had thrown Raul against the wall with more force than necessary. That hadn’t happened in over a week.
Raul was wearing a helmet and lots of cushioning, but the impact still had to hurt.
Jayden had taken a seat on the bench next to the door, his elbows resting on his knees. He was studying me intently. Suddenly, he jumped to his feet and made his way over to me.
“I think that’s enough for today,” he said determinedly and nodded at Raul, who took off his helmet and walked over to where he’d set down his gym bag.
I wanted to protest and tell Jayden that I was more than able to decide for myself when I had enough. Who did he think he was, making decisions for me? But just at that moment, all strength seemed to leave my body and I felt too tired to argue with him.
So I decided to accept that he had made a decision for me. But only this once.
He stepped in front of me and put his fingers under my chin, forcing my head up, so I had to look at him.
“You alright?” he asked. When I opened my mouth to tell him that everything was terrific, he held up his other hand in warning. “Don’t you dare tell me you are fine. I noticed your trembling and you were really pale when you came out of the bathroom earlier. And you weren’t in complete control of your magic and that hasn’t happened in a while. So no, you are not fine.”
It still amazed me how casually Jayden spoke about my abilities. When I had asked him about it a little while ago, he had only shrugged and said, “Your magical abilities are a part of you, baby. And I love all about you. Besides, they make you stronger. And I fully support everything that makes you stronger.”
Of course, I had swooned on the spot.
Jayden had a talent for saying these really romantic things in the middle of the most mundane situations. I, on the other hand, had trouble voicing the easiest declarations of love. But I was working on it, hoping that one day I would be able to tell him how much he meant to me.
Of course, he really didn’t have to say anything. After all, he had sacrificed his own life for mine just a couple of weeks ago.
A debt I would never be able to repay.
“Hey.” Jayden’s voice cut through my thoughts. I blinked at him. His hands fell to my shoulders and his gaze held mine. “What were you thinking about?”
“You are so romantic.” The words burst from my mouth and he raised both eyebrows.
“I have my moments,” he replied.
I went to stand on my toes and pressed my mouth to his. His lips were warm and soft and I wanted nothing more than to hold on to him and never let go.
Instead, I leaned back as another wave of nausea hit me.
“Let’s go,” I said and he wrapped one arm around my shoulders.
We left the gym a little while later and stepped out onto the sidewalk. Cold November rain hit my skin and I tilted my head up toward the gray evening sky.
Raul said his goodbyes since he wasn’t going back to the hotel but to his own apartment. Jayden and I still lived at the Elysium, the luxurious hotel Raul worked at as a manager. And yes, it was time for us to find a new apartment, but the search had proven to be more difficult than anticipated. Which was possibly my fault.
Alright alright, it was completely and utterly my fault, because I had rejected each and every apartment we had went to see so far.
But I had my reasons.
Jayden opened the passenger door of his car for me and I slid into the seat. My hair was wet from the rain, clinging to my forehead. Icy droplets of water kept running down my face. They felt nice on my hot skin. I put my cheek against the cold window and closed my eyes.
Just for a little while, I told myself. Only until we got to Manhattan.
Comforting warmth surrounded me and I pressed my face into the soft fabric, inhaling peppermint, rain and something undefinable.
Then my eyes popped open and I gazed around, startled.
“What…?” I winced, but Jayden’s arms tightened around me. He pressed me closer to his body as he carried me through the lobby of the Elysium.
He smiled down at me. “You fell asleep and I didn’t want to wake you.”
“Oh.” I had no recollection of the drive or getting out of the car. That kind of deep sleep was unusual for me. “You can set me down,” I told him and put my palms against his chest, but he just tightened his hold.
“Not a chance,” he replied and pressed a kiss to my forehead.
I was too tired to argue about the fact that I was more than able to walk by myself. Instead, I pressed my cheek against his shoulder and closed my eyes.
When I opened them again, I was lying next to Jayden in our huge hotel bed. The room was dark.
How could I have been so exhausted not to even notice Jayden putting me in bed? That was not normal.
Of course, it’s not normal, I thought. Because something is wrong with you. Won’t you finally admit it?
I turned onto my back and stared at the dark ceiling.
The dizziness had set in first. Then the shortness of breath. And now there was this complete exhaustion. And as if that wasn’t enough, I felt overwhelming nausea that bothered me even in this very moment.
I tried to analyze the symptoms, but my medical knowledge was pretty limited and I had no idea what any of this could mean.
Careful not to wake Jayden, I pushed the covers aside and swung my legs off the bed. Then I padded over to the bathroom and sank down to the cold floor next to the toilet. The nausea wasn’t getting any better and I threw my arm over my eyes and leaned my head against the tiled wall. For a long time, I simply sat there until Jayden’s voice made me look up.
Only when I saw shock etched into his features did I notice that tears were streaming down my face. A second later he was kneeling next to me, pulling me against his chest. His fingers brushed over my back and I sobbed loudly.
“What happened?” he asked, concern thick in his voice.
“Nothing. I’m fine,” I replied, but my voice sounded thin to my own ears and Jayden looked at me disapprovingly.
“Stop lying to me. What is wrong?” he demanded and I lowered my eyes.
“I don’t know,” I whispered and dug my fingers into the soft fabric of his shirt. “Something…something is wrong, Jayden.” His arms tightened around me and for a long moment, he didn’t answer.
“I know,” he said finally. My gaze flew to his. He took a deep breath. “You have been pale for a while, you keep running to the bathroom, and you are obviously completely exhausted.” I stared at him in silence and instead of answering, I sobbed again and buried my face in his chest.
It felt like all the desperation I had been feeling for the last couple of days seemed to break free. All this time I had spent thinking about what could be wrong with me. Time and again I had tried to convince myself that nothing was wrong. Hadn’t been willing to consider the fact that I might be sick. But Jayden’s words seemed to make all these fears, all these presumptions, a reality. And when they were real I couldn’t ignore them any longer.
Carefully, Jayden pushed one arm under my knees and lifted me up. “We’ll go to the hospital tomorrow,” he said and his voice was low. He pressed a kiss into my hair and I looked at him through a screen of tears. He tried to smile but it didn’t reach his eyes.
At eight the following morning we showed up at the emergency room of the hospital. It was a testament to my absolute desperation when I didn’t object as Jayden handed over his credit card for check-in.
I didn’t have health insurance, because I didn’t have a job after my many days of absence at the bookstore last October. I couldn’t even be mad at my former boss, because I didn’t have a good excuse. It didn’t seem like a good idea to share the truth with him––that I had been kidnapped, tortured and killed by a witch hunter.
Now we were seated in Dr. Seymour’s office, right after she had done a thorough exam and bloodwork. I kept shifting in my seat, my nerves getting the best of me, as she looked at me.
“Mr. Williams,” she said and turned her gaze to Jayden. “I need you to leave the room for a moment.”
“No.” Panicked, I looked at him and my fingers tightened around his hand. “He can stay,” I assured her but she shook her head.
Dr. Seymour got up and walked over to the door. “Mr. Williams,” she repeated when she opened the door and gestured out into the hallway.
Jayden frowned before getting up. He pressed a gentle kiss to my forehead and pulled his fingers out of my grip. “I’ll be right outside,” he promised and shot me an encouraging smile. Then he left the room.
My heart was racing when I stared at Dr. Seymour, who closed the door behind Jayden. She sank back into her chair, interlacing her fingers.
“Miss Scarborough, I have a couple of questions and I want you to be honest with me.”
I swallowed audibly. I had no idea where she was going with this.
When I didn’t say anything, she continued. “I want you to know that this is a safe space. Anything you say will be treated absolutely confidential.” She looked at me imploringly. “But I can also promise you that I will help you.”
I stared at her with big eyes. What did she want to help me with?
“During your exam, I couldn’t help but notice your injuries,” she said and I frowned at her.
“The bruises?” I asked and she nodded, her face hard.
“These are severe injuries, Miss Scarborough.”
I shrugged. They weren’t pleasant, I had to agree with her on that. But how was I supposed to learn to defend myself without fighting? And the bruises weren’t the result of any direct hits. I had gotten them from falling down because I obviously wasn’t able to defend myself.
Dr. Seymour’s next words seemed to come out of nowhere.
“Is Mr. Williams abusing you?”
I gaped at her. Was she serious?
When I didn’t reply, she continued. “Is he forcing you to have sex with him?”
I pulled my eyebrows together. Then, suddenly, I burst out laughing. It was a hysterical, humorless sound and Dr. Seymour stared at me, appalled.
Back when my stepfather had done unspeakable things to me, things no child should ever have to endure, no one had ever asked me if he had raped or sexually assaulted me. No one had ever asked how I was. I had been all alone with the pain and desperation.
Now that I was with the most caring person in the whole world, someone was concerned about my wellbeing.
“No,” I finally answered. “Jayden would never hurt me.”
Dr. Seymour looked at me for several long moments, then she nodded curtly and wrote something in a folder on her desk. “In that case, it might be a good idea if he came back in,” she said and walked over to the door.
Jayden gave me a quizzical look when he stepped back into the room, but I had lost the ability to speak. If the doctor now thought it was important that he was here, whatever she had to say couldn’t be good.
I felt detached, far away, while she explained the catastrophic results of my bloodwork. My kidneys seemed to be about to collapse and I tried to listen as she gave a myriad of medical reasons. I stayed silent until she told me that I would be admitted to the hospital so they could do more examinations.
“No,” I said, shaking my head vigorously.
The doctor, as well as Jayden, looked at me with an expression of shock on their faces.
“No!” I repeated. “You may do more examinations if you think it will help but I am not staying here.”
Tomorrow was my first day at my new job and for two weeks I had been looking forward to starting at Gigi’s store. First of all, because I would finally have a purpose again. Second, because I really needed the money.
Two weeks ago, Ashley had announced with a huge grin that Gigi needed help with her “magical store”, how she liked to call it. My expression must have been very memorable when I showed up to my job interview and found out that I knew Gigi already.
She was the one who had recommended the website that had led me to Sam, Ashley, and Jess. I was forever in her debt because I had no idea where I’d be without my three best friends.
And Gigi had been more than happy to give me a job.
Tomorrow I would finally start working for her and nothing could stop me from showing up.
Besides, my contract included health insurance and it looked like I really needed that.
When Jayden said my name again, it sounded like a warning, but I ignored him. Instead, I focused on the doctor.
“I could come back tomorrow at five.” She gave me an incredulous look and started to protest, but I held up my hand. “It’s my body and my decision.” My tone was hard and out of the corner of my eye, I saw Jayden’s shoulders slump. He gave me a knowing, though sad, smile.
“We will be back tomorrow,” he promised the doctor and after settling all the details for my next appointment, we finally left the hospital.
Jayden didn’t say a single word on the way home, but his jaw was clenched whenever I shot him a look.
When we got to our room, he sank into one of the armchairs and stared at me out of dark eyes.
“Maybe it’s not so bad,” I said, my voice quiet.
“Mh,” was all he said, his eyebrows pulled together.
I walked over to him and sat down in his lap. He wrapped his arms around my waist and pressed his lips against my temple.
“Everything will be fine,” I murmured, almost inaudibly, but I didn’t believe myself.
And I could tell from his expression that he didn’t believe it either.