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Year One, Page 2

Nora Roberts

  “Oh, I’ll miss you,” Millie said as she pulled both women close. “Fly safe, be well.”

  “Come see us,” Angie called out as she got into the car. “Love you!” She blew a kiss as they drove away from the MacLeod farm for the last time.

  * * *

  They returned the rental car, infecting the clerk and the businessman who rented it next. They infected the porter who took their bags when tips exchanged hands. By the time they reached and passed through security, the infection had passed to an easy two dozen people.

  More still in the first-class lounge where they drank Bloody Marys and relived moments from the holiday.

  “Time, Jayne.” Rob rose, exchanged one-arm hugs and backslaps with his brother, a squeeze and kiss on the cheek with Angie. “See you next week.”

  “Keep me up on the Colridge account,” Ross told him.

  “Will do. Short flight to London. If there’s anything you need to know, you’ll have it when you land in New York. Get some rest on the plane. You’re still pretty pale.”

  “You look a little off yourself.”

  “I’ll perk up,” Rob told him and, gripping his briefcase with one hand, gave his twin a quick salute with the other. “On the flip side, bro.”

  Rob and Jayne MacLeod carried the virus to London. On the way, they passed it to passengers bound for Paris, Rome, Frankfurt, Dublin, and beyond. In Heathrow, what would come to be known as the Doom spread to passengers bound for Tokyo and Hong Kong, for Los Angeles, D.C., and Moscow.

  The driver who shuttled them to their hotel, a father of four, took it home and doomed his entire family over dinner.

  The desk clerk at the Dorchester cheerfully checked them in. She felt cheerful. After all, she was leaving in the morning for a full week’s holiday in Bimini.

  She took the Doom with her.

  That evening, over drinks and dinner with their son and daughter-in-law, their nephew and his wife, they spread death to more of the family, added it with a generous tip to the waiter.

  That night, ascribing his sore throat, fatigue, and queasy stomach to a bug he’d caught from his brother—and he wasn’t wrong—Rob took some NyQuil to help him sleep it off.

  * * *

  On the flight across the Atlantic, Ross tried to settle into a book but couldn’t concentrate. He switched to music, hoping to lull himself to sleep. Beside him, Angie kicked back with a movie, a romantic comedy as light and frothy as the champagne in her glass.

  Halfway across the ocean he woke with a violent coughing fit that had Angie shooting up to pat his back.

  “I’ll get you some water,” she began, but he shook his head, holding up a hand.

  He fumbled to get his seat belt off, rose to hurry to the bathroom. His hands braced on the basin, he coughed up thick yellow phlegm that seemed to burn straight out of his laboring lungs. Even as he tried to catch his breath, the coughing struck again.

  He had a ridiculous flash of Ferris Bueller speculating about coughing up a lung as he hocked up more phlegm, vomited weakly.

  Then a sharp, stabbing cramp barely gave him enough time to drag down his pants. Now he felt as if he shat out his intestines while sweat popped hot on his face. Dizzy with it, he pressed one hand to the wall, closed his eyes as his body brutally emptied out.

  When the cramping eased, the dizziness passed, he could have wept with relief. Exhausted, he cleaned himself up, rinsed his mouth with the mouthwash provided, splashed cool water on his face. And felt better.

  He studied his face in the mirror, admitted he remained a little hollow-eyed, but thought he looked a bit better as well. He decided he’d expelled whatever ugly bug had crawled inside him.

  When he stepped out, the senior flight attendant cast him a concerned look. “Are you all right, Mr. MacLeod?”

  “I think so.” Mildly embarrassed, he covered with a wink and a joke. “Too much haggis.”

  She laughed obligingly, unaware she’d be just as violently ill in less than seventy-two hours.

  He walked back to Angie, eased by her to the window seat.

  “Are you okay, baby?”

  “Yeah, yeah. I think so now.”

  After a critical study, she rubbed a hand over his. “Your color’s better. How about some tea?”

  “Maybe. Yeah.”

  He sipped tea, found his appetite stirred enough to try a little of the chicken and rice that was on the menu. An hour before landing, he had another bout of coughing, vomiting, and diarrhea, but judged it milder than before.

  He leaned on Angie to get him through customs, passport security, and to handle pushing the baggage cart out to where the driver from their car service waited.

  “Good to see you! Let me take that, Mr. Mac.”

  “Thanks, Amid.”

  “How was your trip?”

  “It was wonderful,” Angie said as they wove through the crowds at Kennedy. “But Ross isn’t feeling very well. He picked up a bug along the way.”

  “I’m sorry to hear that. We’ll get you home, quick as we can.”

  For Ross the trip home passed in the blur of fatigue: through the airport to the car, loading the luggage, the airport traffic, the drive to Brooklyn and the pretty house where they’d raised two children.

  Once again he let Angie handle the details, appreciating her arm around his waist as she took some of his weight while guiding him upstairs.

  “Straight to bed with you.”

  “I’m not going to argue, but I want a shower first. I feel … I need a shower.”

  She helped him undress, which struck him with a wave of tenderness. He leaned his head against her breast. “What would I do without you?”

  “Just try to find out.”

  The shower felt like heaven, made him believe absolutely he’d gotten through the worst. When he came out and saw she’d turned down the bed and set a bottle of water, a glass of ginger ale, and his phone all on the bedside table, his eyes actually stung with tears of gratitude.

  She hit the remote to lower the shades on the windows. “Drink some of that water, or the ginger ale, so you don’t get dehydrated. And if you’re not better in the morning, it’s to the doctor with you, mister.”

  “Already better,” he claimed, but obeyed, downing some ginger ale before sliding blissfully into bed.

  She tucked and fussed, laid a hand on his brow. “You’re definitely running a fever. I’m going to get the thermometer.”

  “Later,” he said. “Give me a couple hours down first.”

  “I’ll be right downstairs.”

  He closed his eyes, sighed. “Just need a little sleep in my own bed.”

  She went downstairs, got some chicken, along with a carcass she’d bagged, out of the freezer, and began the task of running it under cool water to speed up the defrosting. She’d make a big pot of chicken soup, her cure for everything. She could use some herself, as she was dog-tired and had already sneaked a couple of meds behind Ross’s back for her own sore throat.

  No need to worry him when he was feeling so low. Besides, she’d always had a tougher constitution than Ross, and would probably kick it before it took serious hold.

  While she worked she put her phone on speaker and called her daughter, Katie. They chatted happily while Angie ran the cold water and made herself some tea.

  “Is Dad around? I want to say hi.”

  “He’s sleeping. He came down with something on New Year’s.”

  “Oh no!”

  “Don’t worry. I’m making chicken soup. He’ll be fine by Saturday when we come to dinner. We can’t wait to see you and Tony. Oh, Katie, I got the most adorable little outfits for the babies! Okay, a few adorable little outfits. Wait until you see. But I’ve got to go.” Talking was playing hell with her sore throat. “We’ll see you in a couple days. Now don’t come by here, Katie, and I mean it. Your dad’s probably contagious.”

  “Tell him I hope he feels better, and to call me when he wakes up.”

  “I will. Love y
ou, sweetie.”

  “Love you back.”

  Angie switched on the kitchen TV for company, decided a glass of wine might do her more good than the tea. Into the pot with the chicken, the carcass, then a quick run upstairs to look in on her husband. Reassured, since he was snoring lightly, she went back down to peel potatoes and carrots, chop celery.

  She concentrated on the task, let the bright chatter of the TV wash over her, and stubbornly ignored the headache beginning to brew behind her eyes.

  If Ross felt better—and that fever he had went down—she’d let him move from the bedroom to the family room. And by God, she’d get into her own pajamas because she felt fairly crappy herself, and they’d snuggle up, eat chicken soup, and watch TV.

  She went through the process of making the soup on automatic, disposing of the carcass now that it had done its work, cutting the chicken meat into generous chunks, adding the vegetables, herbs, spices, and her own chicken stock.

  She turned it on low, went back upstairs, looked in on Ross again. Not wanting to disturb him, but wanting to stay close, she went into what had been her daughter’s room and now served as a room for visiting grandchildren. Then dashed to the guest bath to vomit up the pasta she’d had on the plane.

  “Damn it, Ross, what did you catch?”

  She got the thermometer, turned it on, put the tip in her ear. And when it beeped stared at the readout in dismay: 101.3.

  “That settles it, chicken soup on trays in bed for both of us.”

  But for the moment, she took a couple of Advil, went down to pour herself a glass of ginger ale over ice. After sneaking quietly into their bedroom, she pulled out a sweatshirt and a pair of flannel pants—adding thick socks because she felt chills coming on. Back in the second bedroom she changed, lay down on the bed, pulled around her the pretty throw that had been folded at the foot of the bed, and almost immediately fell asleep.

  And into dreams about black lightning and black birds, a river that ran with bubbling red water.

  She woke with a jolt, her throat on fire, her head pounding. Had she heard a cry, a shout? Even as she fumbled to untangle herself from the throw, she heard a thud.

  “Ross!” The room spun when she leaped up. Hissing out an oath, she raced to the bedroom, let out her own cry.

  He was on the floor by the bed, convulsing. A pool of vomit, another of watery excrement, and she could see the blood in both.

  “Oh God, God.” She ran to him, tried to turn him on his side—weren’t you supposed to do that? She didn’t know, not for sure. She grabbed his phone off the nightstand, hit nine-one-one.

  “I need an ambulance. I need help. God.” She rattled off the address. “My husband, my husband. He’s having a seizure. He’s burning up, just burning up. He’s vomited. There’s blood in it.”

  “Help’s on the way, ma’am.”

  “Hurry. Please hurry.”


  Jonah Vorhies, a thirty-three-year-old paramedic, smelled the soup cooking and turned off the burner before he and his partner, Patti Ann, rolled MacLeod out of the house and loaded him into the ambulance.

  His partner jumped in the front, hit the sirens as he stayed in the back, working to stabilize the patient while the wife looked on.

  And held on, Jonah thought. No hysterics. He could almost hear her willing her husband to wake up.

  But Jonah knew death when he saw it. Sometimes he could feel it. He tried not to—it could get in the way of the work—tried to block out that knowing. Like, sometimes he knew that some guy who brushed by him on the street had cancer. Or some kid running by would fall off his bike that very afternoon and end up with a greenstick fracture of his right wrist.

  Sometimes he even knew the kid’s name, his age, where he lived.

  It could be that specific, so he’d made it a kind of game for a while. But it spooked him, so he stopped.

  With MacLeod, the knowing came on fast and strong, wouldn’t let him block it out. Worse, this came with something new. A seeing. The seizure had stopped by the time he and Patti Ann had arrived but, as he worked and called out details for Patti Ann to radio in, Jonah could see the patient in bed, rolling over, vomiting on the floor. Calling for help before he fell out of bed and began to convulse.

  He could see the wife rushing in, hear her voice as she cried out. He could hear it, see it all as if watching it on a big screen.

  And he didn’t fucking like it.

  When they rolled up to the ambulance bay, he did his best to turn off that screen, to do whatever he could to help save the life he knew was already gone.

  He rattled off vitals, the details of symptoms, of emergency treatment given so far, as Dr. Rachel Hopman (he had a pretty serious crush on the doc) and her team double-timed the patient toward a treatment room.

  Once there, he took the wife’s arm before she could push through those double doors. And released it as if burned because he’d seen she was dead, too.

  She said, “Ross,” and put a hand on the door to push it open.

  “Ma’am. Mrs. MacLeod, you need to stay out here. Dr. Hopman’s the best. She’s going to do everything she can do for your husband.”

  And for you, pretty soon now, for you. But it won’t be enough.

  “Ross. I need to—”

  “How about you sit down? You want some coffee?”

  “I—no.” She pressed a hand to her forehead. “No, thanks. No. What’s wrong with him? What happened?”

  “Dr. Hopman’s going to find out. Is there someone we can call for you?”

  “Our son’s in London. He won’t be home for a couple of days. My daughter … But she’s pregnant, with twins. She shouldn’t be upset. This will upset her. My friend Marjorie.”

  “Do you want me to call Marjorie?”

  “I…” She looked down at the purse she clutched, the one she’d grabbed automatically, just as she’d grabbed her coat, yanked on shoes. “I have my phone.”

  She took it out, then just stared at it.

  Jonah stepped away, snagged a nurse. “Somebody needs to look after her.” He gestured toward Mrs. MacLeod. “Her husband’s in there, and it’s bad. I think she’s sick, too.”

  “There’s a lot of sick going on around here, Jonah.”

  “She’s running a fever. I can’t tell you how high.” He could: 101.3 and rising. “The patient’s running one. I have to get back on the roll.”

  “Okay, okay, I’ll check on her. How bad?” she asked, lifting her chin toward the treatment room.

  Against his will, Jonah saw inside, watched the woman he hadn’t worked up the guts to ask for a serious date look at the clock, and called it.

  “Bad” was all he said, escaping before Rachel came out to tell the wife that her husband was dead.

  * * *

  Across the East River, in a loft in Chelsea, Lana Bingham cried out, soaring on the long, rolling orgasm. As cry slid to moan and moan to sigh, her fingers unclenched from the bedsheets, lifting so she could wrap her arms around Max as he came.

  She sighed again, a woman replete and loose and content with her lover’s weight on her, his heart still drumming its mad beat against hers. She ran her fingers, lazily now, through his dark hair. He probably needed a trim, but she liked when it had some length, when she could twine the ends around her finger.

  Six months since they’d moved in together, she thought, and it only got better.

  In the quiet aftermath, she closed her eyes, sighed yet again.

  Then cried out as something, something wild and wonderful, burst through her, in her, over her. Stronger than the orgasm, deeper, and with a ferocious mix of pleasure and shock she’d never be able to describe. Like light exploding, a lightning strike to her center, a flaming arrow to her heart that flashed through all of her. She all but felt her blood glow.

  On her, still inside her, Max’s body jerked. She heard his breath catch even as, for an instant, he hardened again.

  Then it all quieted, smoothed, s
oothed to no more than a glimmer behind her eyes until even that faded.

  Max pushed up on his elbows, looked down at her in the light of a dozen flickering candles. “What was that?”

  A little dazed yet, she blew out a long breath. “I don’t know. The world’s biggest postcoital aftershock?”

  He laughed, lowered his head to brush his lips to hers. “I think we’re going to have to buy another bottle of that new wine we opened.”

  “Let’s go for a case. Wow.” Under him she stretched, lifting her arms up and back. “I feel amazing.”

  “And look the same. My pretty, pretty witch.”

  Now she laughed. She knew—as he did—she was a dabbler at best. And was perfectly happy to stay one, to try her hand at little charms and candle rituals, to observe the holidays.

  Since meeting Max Fallon at a winter solstice festival, and falling for him—hard—before Ostara, she’d made some attempt to work more seriously on the Craft.

  But she didn’t have the spark and, to be honest, knew few who did. Most—try pretty much all—she knew or met at festivals, rituals, meetings, ranked as dabblers, just as she did. And some were just a little crazy by her gauge. Others were way too obsessed.

  Some might even hit dangerous, if they actually had power.

  Then, oh yes, then, there was Max.

  He had that spark. Hadn’t he lit the bedroom candles with his breath—something that always aroused her? And if he really focused, he could levitate small things.

  Once he’d floated a full cup of coffee across the kitchen and set it down right on the counter in front of her.


  And he loved her. That was the kind of magick that mattered to Lana above all else.

  He kissed her again, rolled off. And picked up an unlit candle.

  Lana rolled her eyes, gave an exaggerated groan.

  “You always do better when you’re relaxed.” He did a slow scan of her body. “You look relaxed.”

  She lay comfortably naked, her arms behind her head, her long butterscotch hair spread over the pillow. Her bottom-heavy lips full, curved.

  “If I were any more relaxed, I’d be unconscious.”

  “So give it a try.” He took her hand, kissed her fingers. “Focus. The light’s in you.”

  She wanted it to be, because he did. And because she hated disappointing him, she sat up, shook back her hair.


  Preparing herself, she closed her eyes, leveled her breathing. She tried, as he’d tried to teach her, to draw up the light he believed she held.

  Oddly, she thought she felt something stir inside her and, surprised by it, opened her eyes, released a breath.

  The wick shot light.

  She gaped at it while he grinned.

  “Look at you!” he said, with pride.