Their routine never changed. Smack the alarm clock for fifteen more minutes of grunting, snoring sleep. Grumble when the contraption bleeped its nauseating music again. Shower, wake the children in the next room, eat some sugary swill, and leave for a day of school or work. Day, after day, after day.
If I hadn't already hated these rotting people, their boring lives would've put me over the edge.
Unfortunately, my life, or lack thereof, mirrored theirs. An apparition only had so much to do to fill the time. My routine never changed, either, not for over two hundred years. Yes, the families would turn into other families as generations progressed—I lost count of how many had passed—but they were all from the same insane bitch of an ancestor. I wasn't too particular. All they required was the right name.
The little things kept my sanity. Push the clock out of reach. Adjust the water until it grew frigid or scalding, depending on my mood. If I were really on point, I dumped that slop they shoveled into their mouths every morning onto the floor for the mangy dog. So what if these specific Gypsies hadn't cursed me. A curse, I might add, undeserved. Two hundred years built enough anger to spread vengeance without prejudice.
Pathetic, but those little things were all I had. Not much else to occupy my time, and as any good haunt would do, I followed the man, Luca, to the city after he dropped his children off at school–every day.
I wouldn't have been a decent ghost if I hadn't at least tried to heave him into oncoming traffic as he scurried to his custodian job. I'd been practicing that trick for years, coming so close a few times. Once I perfected it, the push would probably be at the back of the wanker's grandson. Hell, great-grandson. Unlike them, I had eternity on my side. But one day, a few of the sodding Gypsies would decorate the windshield of a city bus.
Not today, though. Luca weaved around the crowd while I slinked through it, body after body. The beastly man tended to hurry, always late due to his nightly drinking binges, and I enjoyed tripping him up in his rush, a skill I had mastered. A millisecond of physical contact might not get anyone smacked with a speeding car, but stumbling in a hurry irritated even the most patient person, which Luca wasn't.
"Christ!" He grabbed a lamppost in time to save his face from the pavement. "Knock your shit off. I ain't got time for it today."
To an outsider, the bloated man appeared as if he spoke to himself. But I knew better.
"Well, good thing for you I've plenty of time for us both," I answered him. Even though he couldn't hear me, we'd had plenty of conversations over the years, as I had with his father, and his father before him. I used to rage, scream until my voice grew hoarse. Not a blooming soul ever gave any indication they knew I existed. To answer now became habit, needing to speak to him as if I had a voice left in the world.
Unfortunately, I'd become as much a part of this heathen family as every other bastard whelped by the likes of a Gypsy bitch. My story became an heirloom, passed from generation to generation. The angry ghost of Miryah Kotorara's curse. No one had the ability to see me, much less hear a damn word I had to say. Bad luck, a faulty alarm clock, a stumble on nothing, all of it blamed on something none of them really believed in. Me.
In truth, no one believed in me except for maybe Luca, probably the reason I chose him to annoy instead of his brother this generation. What good were all my efforts if the person I haunted thought me a fantasy? I was a curse to a god who didn't exist for the rest of the family. My attempt to scare, kill, or maim them in some way ended up being part irritation, part fun story to repeat at dinner parties.
Even vapor had pride, and the Kotorara clan stomped on it any chance they had.
Luca straightened his jacket and mumbled curses as the crosswalk light blinked to proceed. Oh, to have the power to push his fat, greasy body into a lorry. I swiped at his back, my hand disappearing through his skin and blubber.
One day, you tosser.
As soon as we hit the curb, Luca stopped. If I were matter, I'd have rammed into his back. Instead, I whooshed through his body. Times like these, I was grateful for the lack of senses, not particularly fond of body odor, sweat, and soft man flesh.
"Well, come on, then. Move your bloody arse."
Even if he could hear, I doubt he would have listened. Luca directed his attention to a sleek building in front of us, a scowl twisting his lips.
I followed his gaze, frustrated as if I were the one late for work. "What has your attention, fat man?" My eyes landed on a woman who focused on the building, her hair so dark it almost shined blue. Her slim shoulders stiffened before she turned—and saw me.
I kicked off my morning being late and irritated. Damn coffee shop I frequented down the street was closed due to renovations. I veered from my normal route so I could grab a cup of coffee—my liquid lifeline and only magical substance I believed in. The cute shop smelled like heaven but felt more like hell, since fifteen minutes dragged by before they got my goddamn order right.
Finally, the barista waved me over.
"Thanks." I paid, tipping the pimple-faced kid a ten-dollar bill. Generous considering the amount of time it took, but the boy was too thin, and I couldn't stand the thought of him not having enough money to eat later. One reason I chose to work in the medical field. My goal: to help as many as possible.
"Yes, ma'am," he said with a sloppy grin. "You don’t want the change?"
"Nah, keep it, kid. You saved me from killing someone today." I smiled back before trudging out the doors.
A decent cup of caffeine kept me on my feet; working ten-plus hours a day didn't allow much room for sleep.
I stopped and inhaled the rich aroma before taking a tentative sip. Mmmm, not bad.
In a rush around the corner, a heaviness slammed into my chest, and I slowed my pace. As the sensation grew, sending a shiver up my spine, I stopped again. The feeling, the pressure, not something I'd come across in so long. I stiffened and turned, not sure what—or whom—I'd find.
Every ounce of stored air evaporated from my lungs.
Beautiful, haunting hazel eyes stared back at me in shock. The heaviness from seconds ago lifted, replaced with a warmth that spread throughout my body. As if, for years, time had stood still, and now the veil had lifted and I could see. Even the sun shone brighter and the air smelled crisper.
Those eyes, so familiar, hadn't graced my dreams in years. His presence had been etched in my mind since I was a little girl; though seeing him triggered painful reminders of my past.
She poured a glass of wine, collected it along with the bottle, and headed straight for the bathroom.
Oh, now this I could get used to.
While she turned on the water and adjusted the temperature, I sat on the commode, crossed my legs, and prepared to enjoy the show. I might have been dead, but I was still a man. And a beautiful woman about to get naked was something I'd never grow tired of, especially this woman.
Mia set her glass next to the tub while she stripped. First went her shirt…with my sanity. All that golden skin, flawless and smooth, glowed in the dim light.
Mia shed her bra, and I slipped off the toilet and fell to the floor as if I were still alive. I didn't move, my eyes never leaving her perfect breasts. Christ Jesus, I'd been reduced to a pervert, but I couldn't look away even if I wanted to.
Off went her trousers and panties.
My…God. I slid back as if her nudity burned me.
She dipped a toe in the water, hissing as steam billowed through the tiny bathroom. While she acclimated to the water, I closed my eyes, feeling part disgusting and part out of control. If I could've touched her…
During my two-hundred-year stint as vapor, nothing had made me regret my predicament more than that moment. I peeled my eyes open to find her sipping wine and splashing water onto her flat stomach as the tub filled.
Torture, pure and simple.
She turned off the faucet with her toes and slid farther into her bath. I swallowed, out of habit, not necessity, and forced myself to keep my focus on her face. Looking at the rest of her turned me into a drooling prat—if I had the ability to drool.
Mia's eyes closed as she took another sip before setting the glass on the lip of the tub. Tension marred her perfect features, the water and wine obviously not working fast enough to relax her.
I wished I were the water. Wished for it more than I desired to breathe again.
After a moment, the stress left her face as her mouth parted and her breathing evened. Fear convinced my body to listen again. Odd, but I liked the woman better alive.
"You need to wake." I moved closer to the tub, getting an up-close look at heaven. I dunked my hand into the water in a futile effort to touch her. "Wake. Up."
The water rippled, but it did nothing to rouse her.
"Goddammit, woman. You need to—"
A feeling, like a vacuum, tugged at my body. I stared down at my fingers; they faded and disappeared.
"Hey, no. Hey!" I didn't have much of an existence, but I had one, and I sure as hell wanted to keep it. Desperation filled my chest when the tug turned to a squeeze.
I closed my eyes, fighting against the phantom energy. I'm not ready to go.
When the force died away, relief dropped me closer to the water.
Water. I felt it, sluicing through my fingers. What the hell?
I opened my eyes and peered down.
Mia stared right at me. "You…"
"Can you hear me?"
Something flashed in her eyes. Recognition. "How?"
"I don't know." I brushed an unsteady hand across her cheek without focusing on the movement. My palm seared as it connected with skin so soft, it could've been velvet.
As quick as it happened, the sensation disappeared.
A swoosh rushed through me, and I found myself flat on my arse, staring at the strange, gorgeous woman in the tub. She coughed and sputtered as she leaned over the edge, gasping. "Not again."
I reached out to her. "Who are you?"
This time, she didn't hear me.
My lungs burned as water gushed from my mouth. What was once steaming water had turned freezing. I got out of the tub and wrapped a robe around my body, but it didn't alleviate the chill in my bones.
Twice in one day.
Maybe Claire had a point. I'd been working too hard. A few days off would fix my problem.
A tremor shimmied down my spine, and I jumped, twisting around and searching for an intruder. No one.
I laughed. Being a workaholic had turned me into a paranoid freak, who hadn't been with a man in more months than I cared to admit. Maybe that had been the reason I summoned his face… eyes… and now his touch?
Another bit of laughter escaped me, followed by a sigh of disappointment. The only man I'd had in my apartment in some time wasn't even a real, breathing entity. He was a beautiful illusion. My beautiful illusion.
The shock on his handsome face must have mirrored my own. Shock… Why would my fantasy man be shocked?
Real or not, he was as gorgeous as always. His dark brown hair had fallen near his eyes, highlighting the green in them, and I wanted to run my fingers through his waves—but again, he was a simple fantasy, a sort of ghost who haunted my dreams. Dream ghost, remember that! I let the thought go.
A half bottle of wine later and I wanted to sleep like the dead. From grazing at lunch and skipping dinner altogether, the wine had more potency tonight. Good thing I'd bought plasticware. In a drunken attempt to set my glass down, I ended up missing my nightstand. The plastic clanked against the wood floors.
"Ghost boy, clean this mess up, would ya?" I hiccupped. "Whoops, that was rude." I laughed as a flush heated my skin. I fanned my hair across my pillow, more than ready to pass out for eight hours.
"Here's a tip." I yawned, my eyes fighting to stay open. "When you see a naked woman, try touching more than a cheek." Another hiccup, the movement drawing me closer to sleep. "I haven't been with a man in so long. I give you full permission to…" I tapped a finger against my numb lips and attempted to lift them in a grin but drifted to sleep instead.
Then I fell.
A rush of wind whirled like a tornado, stealing the air from my lungs. Wake up! But I couldn't. My head swam thick with fog, and my eyes refused to open while I struggled, trapped in the endless spiral downward. A spasm seized my body. Within seconds, or possibly minutes, a gentle force wrapped around and through me, shooting life into my soul. My heart raced, and heat coursed over my skin.
"Mia. My Mia." The deep voice vibrated against my lips, and a salty, ocean air scent filled my senses.