Vengeance Borne (Sentry of Evil #1)

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 VB GR

 

Fated to Hunt…

As the local hunter, and a ward of the Sentry, a secret organization dedicated to eradicating the forces of evil, Jacquelyn has been protecting the small town of McCall, Idaho for the past five years. The hours are horrible, the pay is nonexistent, she has to work with her jealous ex-boyfriend – and forget about quitting. She’s in for life.

Destined to See…

When a rugged drifter comes through town, Jacquelyn immediately knows what he is – an Empath who can read emotions and sense what others are thinking – even though it’s clear the handsome stranger has no idea what, or how powerful, he is…

A Town in Peril…

When people in McCall start turning up dead, viciously ripped to shreds as if by a wild animal, Jacquelyn knows better. Furies are loose in Idaho and hell-bent on exacting revenge. But against whom? And for what purpose? Jacquelyn has until the full moon to stop the Furies’ killing spree and save the people of McCall, figure out how to work with her ex – oh, and there’s a handsome stranger in town who’s in desperate need of some schooling…

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EXCERPT:

Chapter 1

WHEN A BANSHEE sends a message, you’d be stupid not to listen. And tonight, her wail was low and mournful, carried to Jacquelyn’s ears above the din of No Business Tavern’s house band, the cavorting drunks, and her own silly laughter.

Time to get to work.

Despite her best friend Libby’s protests, Jacquelyn ushered her out the door to her Tahoe where Evan, Libby’s husband and tonight’s DD, waited with the engine running. His punctuality was a godsend. Nothing rounds out a night with your BFF like demon slaying. Especially after you’ve got a few vodka sodas—with a twist of lime, of course—in your system. Tonight had been one of those requisite “let’s drink to your recent breakup” sort of adventures with laughter, dancing, and a few shenanigans involving a dare, three flaming shots of tequila, and a bartender named Earl. Jacquelyn took the shots rather than smooch with Earl, and for the record, she hated tequila. Though she needed a girls’ night out, the evening ended with her feeling even worse about her split with her ex, while Libby out-drank an entire Hot Shot crew fresh off the fire lines at a burn up north, earning her official bad-ass status. She totally deserved the accolades, too. That girl was seriously impressive when facing off with Jose Cuervo.

It was time to call it a night, but no matter how badly Jacquelyn wanted to jump into bed and sleep off the vodka sodas that sent her just a bit past tipsy, she had to hit the bricks and get to work. Not her day job at the coffee house. Her real job. The one where she hunted the nasty things that go bump in the night.

Demon slayers don’t get a night off. And why was that? Didn’t demons want a night off every once in a while? Jacquelyn supposed there was something behind that old adage – no rest for the wicked. It really spoke to the work ethic of evil beings.

“You need a ride to work tomorrow, Jax?” Libby asked from the front seat as Evan pulled into her driveway.

Buffy Summers had it easy. At least her pals knew about her part-time gig as a destroyer of evil. Jacquelyn’s were doomed to remain blissfully ignorant of her nocturnal activities. “Nah, I’ll ride my bike,” she answered as she stepped out of the Tahoe. “I need the exercise.”

Libby shook her head sending coils of ash blond curls bouncing around her face. “You’re insane. If you ever see me riding a bike to work, assume my body’s been taken over by aliens. Your car’s been out of commission for six months, Jax. You training for a biathlon or something?”

“I’ve got to keep my body in tip-top shape, Libs. The forces of evil are everywhere and I lead a double life as a demon hunter and purveyor of otherworldly justice.”

“Riiiight.” Libby gave a too-loud, drunken chortle. “Okay, well, call me if you change your mind. Later.”

Jacquelyn smiled. Yep, Buffy had it easy. “Later, Libs,” she said before shutting the door.

Without a glance backward, she headed for her house. She kept her pace slow; the ground felt as if it were slipping out from underneath her, though it took effort not to charge through the front door. Another mournful wail meant for her ears only pierced the night and slid down her spine in an icy shiver. A beacon, or more to the point, a warning. Once inside, she quickly changed, throwing on a pair of heavy-duty cargo pants, a long-sleeved black tee, and her favorite pair of Docs. She slipped a holster over her shoulder and loaded the clip to her 9mm Glock with silver bullets, disengaging the safety before she slid the weapon home. If she met up with a hostile—and from the sound of the Banshee’s cry, she would—Jacquelyn didn’t want to have to fiddle with flipping a damned switch before she unloaded the clip into some nasty creature’s chest.

From under her bed, she produced a worn wooden box. She carefully lifted the lid and removed a long silver dagger, its hilt encrusted with jewels. The blade warmed her skin as she sheathed it at her side, obviously anxious to be put to good use. Magic. Always ready. Always hungry. After a lifetime of training and five years as the local hunter, Jacquelyn still couldn’t decide if that was a good or a bad thing. Armed and ready to go, she left her house prepared for a hunt.

A twinge of guilt tugged at her chest. Damn it. Though she had no problem handling the situation on her own, she really should call Finn for backup. But going out on a hunt with her ex just didn’t appeal to her. Not in the least. Not when their breakup had been so….what? She couldn’t even get a bead on her own feelings. And that, right there, was the problem with dating a Bearer. You never knew if your emotions were ever truly your own.

As if he’d known she was thinking about him—and odds were damned good he had—Jacquelyn’s cell played a muffled tune from her pocket. She dug the phone out and swiped a finger across the screen, holding it to her ear without so much as a “hello.”

“You think you can just go out on your own, huh?”

Finn. The consummate know-it-all, and always sooooo overprotective. It was a wonder he didn’t escort her to the bathroom every time she had to pee.

“I’m not sure I know what you’re talking about, Finn.” She infused her voice with innocence. “I’m just about to hop in the shower.”

“Liar.”

“Why would you say that?” A sound to her left drew Jacquelyn’s attention and she slowed her pace. Released the snap on her shoulder holster. A rabbit hopped out from the cover of brush and her hand eased off the butt of the Glock. She whispered into the receiver, “Are you implying that I’m not big on showers, Finn?”

“It’s been five years, Jax.” Finn didn’t sound like he was in the mood for smart-ass banter. Bummer. “And you’re still trying to bend the rules.”

Five years? Felt like five thousand. Finn had been with her every moment of those five years, too. He hadn’t left her side since the day she’d been assigned to the territory that encompassed two counties and the small towns of Cascade, Donnelly, McCall, and New Meadows. Which made her question his insinuation that she was lying about needing to shower. Obviously he thought she smelled good without one.

“I don’t need you for this one, Finn. I’ve got it handled.” More times than not, these hunts ended before they even began. If she had to guess, tonight’s excursion would be the equivalent of chasing off the neighbor’s dog after catching it eating out of your trash can. She didn’t get a sense of a big bad in the area, and her intuition was normally spot on. No need to ask for help shooing off a minor annoyance.

“Like you handled that rogue vampire last year?”

Shithead. He just had to throw that one in her face, didn’t he? “I can’t help it if he had that whole Lestat vibe.” Oh, man. If ever she’d considered letting a vamp bite her, it was that night. Of course, it had been her own fault that she’d met his gaze. One look and the vamp had compelled her into volunteering as a midnight snack. Though, honestly, if he’d quoted a few lines from Anne Rice, Jacquelyn probably would have volunteered without being compelled. Fortunately, Finn had followed her out that night too and saved her ass.

He snorted through the receiver. “If you like the broody, emo type.”

“As opposed to the controlling, overprotective type?”

A pregnant silence answered and made her wish she could take the words back. Sure, his controlling nature had, in part, spurred their breakup, but it wasn’t fair to throw it back in his face. As her Bearer, Finn had no choice but to be overprotective. It was encoded into his goddamned DNA. “Sorry,” Jacquelyn said under her breath as she followed a path down a small embankment. “That was below the belt.”

“You have to quit punishing yourself, Jax.” Great, Finn had shifted into compassionate mode. He was coming at her with a barrage of emotional artillery tonight. “You can’t take on the world alone. Going out and getting your fool head knocked off isn’t going to change the past. The only person who hasn’t forgiven you is you.”

What gave him the right to proclaim that she’d been forgiven by anyone? “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Finn.” Right. He knew exactly what he was talking about, and maybe that was the other problem with their relationship. He knew too much about her.

“It wasn’t your fault, Jacquelyn.” Finn didn’t call her by her full name unless he was getting down to business.

“I dropped the ball, Finn.” How many times did they have to rehash this? “If I’d paid better attention… stayed closer… something. He wouldn’t have died if I’d—”

“What?” Finn cut her off. “He was your partner, yes. But he shouldn’t have taken the lead. He rushed into the building without you. Ryan got himself killed that night. Period.”

True. But did it matter? Six years ago, before she’d been transferred to McCall, Idaho, she and her first partner, Ryan, had been out on a hunt that went wrong. He’d charged into a building after a Brimstone Demon without waiting for her to secure the area first. What they hadn’t known was that there was a pair of demons in that building and Ryan was killed before he even realized his folly. She should have made him wait for her. He broke protocol and Jacquelyn was in charge. But she’d been too green and not yet assertive enough to command. No way would she lose another partner ever again.

“If I’m not guilty of negligence, then why was there an inquiry?” When word of Ryan’s death made it to the ears of Jacquelyn’s superiors, they launched an investigation as to whether or not she should keep her position as Waerd—appointed protector from ghouls, demons, and their ilk—of that territory. And Jacquelyn took her job very seriously.

“They never would have sacked you and you know it. You’re special.” She really hated how his voice filled with wonder whenever he spoke of her Waerdness. Why were all Bearers so melodramatic?

“Not special, Finn. They’ll never forget that he died on my watch. I’m condemned. And if I don’t at least try to do a little good in this world, I’ll never be anything more.”

“Where are you?”

Besides being her own personal Jiminy Cricket, Finn was insufferably well-practiced at distracting her. You’d think she would have learned her lesson after five years. No doubt he was stringing her along, keeping her engaged in conversation so he could access the GPS on her phone and pinpoint her location.

“I’m headed your way right now.” Finn’s tone screamed concern. Yep. He was totally tracking her. What a butthole. The sound of his truck engine roaring as he switched gears echoed in Jacquelyn’s ear. Damn it. He was already on the road.

Pshshshsh… You’re… crrshshsh… breaking… blsssttt… up, Finn. Gotta go.” She hit the end button before he could get a word in and turned off her phone. Let him try to track her with the GPS disabled.

Another baleful shriek rent the night air and she took off at a run. Her house wasn’t far from the highway, and from the sounds, she estimated her prey’s location to be no more than a few hundred yards away, in a vacant forested lot not far from the old tree nursery. The landscape company had abandoned the location a couple of years ago but most of the trees remained, leaving the perfect amount of cover for some nasty little creature to lie in wait of its next victim. She cut across Warren Wagon Road, slinking through a couple of yards—shortcuts were handy sometimes— before veering back onto the main highway, backtracking toward the town proper in the direction that she’d heard the Banshee’s cry. Finn was right. Going out alone wasn’t always a good idea, but she didn’t sense anything super dangerous so she wasn’t too concerned. She could take care of the situation herself; Jacquelyn didn’t need Finn and his magic emotion meter to help her tonight. Besides, she didn’t have time to wait for him to show up. The wail was more of a forewarning. Like a message meant only for her that said, You’d better hurry your ass up, hunter, or someone’s going to die a horrible death at the hands of a monster.

For centuries, Waerds and Bearers had teamed up as a force against the supernatural baddies that walked the earth. Jacquelyn never really liked the ancient term that described what she was: a warrior, protector, and weapon against evil. She tried not to buy into the propaganda, though it was pretty tough when she grew up surrounded by people who reminded her on a daily basis what her purpose was. Jacquelyn wasn’t exactly human, but she wasn’t one of the supernatural beings she’d been tasked to hunt either. According to the Sentry—the world-wide organization who owned her ass until the day some creature managed to put her down—Waerds were humans with a little extra kick. Hand-picked and blessed by Fate to protect innocent lives. Or something like that.

And yeah, okay, there were things about her that were a little off. Like the fact that her bones were pretty tough to break, she had a stellar metabolism, was stronger than your average NFL defensive linebacker, packaged in a five-foot-three frame, and she could sense the otherness in a supernatural being from a mile away. There were other things, her speed, reflexes, fighting skill… She wasn’t one of them, though. The things she hunted. Jacquelyn refused to think of herself as anything but human.

The Sentry didn’t fuck around when it came to recruitment and retention. They watch, wait, and collect Waerds straight from the cradle. For eleven years Jacquelyn was taught to fight, to use and manipulate magic, and to hone and rely on her senses before she was cut loose and thrown out into the field. But just because the Sentry let her leave didn’t mean they still didn’t own her. Once they get their hooks in you, you’re in for life. She doubted that any government in the world operated as efficiently, no military as diligent. The Sentry was a nation unto itself, super-secret, super-hardcore, and suuuuuper serious about their business. Conspiracy theorists would shit a brick if they could get their hands on just a sliver of the information in the Sentry’s possession. Like, for instance, who’d really been on that grassy knoll the day Kennedy was shot.

Jacquelyn veered from the main highway, deeper into the woods just outside of town. Her skin tingled, the air becoming dense, almost tight, with every step. If she’d pulled up her big girl panties and allowed Finn to come along, she would’ve found her quarry by now. Going out alone was her way of asserting her independence from their previous couple status. An “I don’t need a man!” declaration. She couldn’t deny now that it would have been handy to have him along, though. After all, he was the tracker. Sort of like a Garmin, but programmed to steer her toward evil instead of the nearest mall. But it was too late for coulda, woulda, shoulda. She was here now and Finn wasn’t. Whatever she stalked wouldn’t wait for her to gather the troops before it decided to kill.

A pungent tang burned her nostrils and caused her eyes to water, followed by a metallic tang on the back of her tongue that threw Jacquelyn’s taste buds into overdrive, like she’d sucked on a dirty penny. As if evil would ever taste anything but vile. From out of the brush, a body emerged and her heart sank into her gut. A Changeling. Which just so happened to be her number one least favorite evil doer. She shouldn’t have been so freaking impatient. Would it have killed her to act like an adult and wait for Finn? Damn it. This was the one entity she doubted she could take on alone. But if she didn’t at least try to stop the beautiful embodiment of evil smiling at her like a prom queen, someone would die tonight.

Hell, it might even be her.


Chapter 2

MICAH MARINESCU GAZED up at the soft blue light of the digital clock on the high-tech rearview mirror of his RV. If not for the Now Entering Idaho sign four hundred or so miles ago, he wouldn’t have even realized he’d crossed the Washington border. In the dark, he couldn’t make out much of the landscape. The last sign of civilization was a small community called New Meadows eight or nine miles back, but now the winding canyon road he traveled was nothing more than a dark blur. Shadows of tall mountains stood sentinel over miles of rolling hills, stands of pine trees and aspens, and a small creek that wound its way alongside the highway. But as the trees began to thin Micah noticed the speckled glow of lights indicating that civilization wasn’t too far ahead. Didn’t look big enough to be a respectable city, maybe a little bigger than the town he’d just passed. He was too tired to keep driving, though and he needed a stretch of relatively flat ground to park his motor home on. Blinking back the sleep tugging at his eyelids, he looked out as far as the RV’s headlights would allow, searching for a suitable place to stay for the night. Somewhere flat and quiet where the sound of semis as they roared down Highway 55 wouldn’t wake him.

From the corner of his eye, a flash of tan caught Micah’s attention and a burst of adrenaline shot through his bloodstream. He stomped on the brake pedal and the back end of the motor home swerved into the opposite lane of traffic. A frightened doe slid on the pavement, obviously as panicked as Micah, her hooves unable to gain footing. She stumbled away from the oncoming vehicle, jumping high and bucking once before she skittered off into the tree-line and out of sight.

The gas-guzzling monstrosity squealed to a stop, rocking back and forth like a rowboat teetering against gentle waves. Rowboat, yeah right, he might as well be driving a submarine. The highway canyon didn’t seem wide enough to accommodate two lanes of traffic, let alone a twenty-five foot motorhome. And if the steep grade was any indicator, he was willing to bet that if he’d drifted another foot to the right, his ass would be plummeting down an embankment with a hundred foot drop. High tech and fancy or not, he’d never get used to maneuvering the damn thing. Micah sat, his arms braced against the steering wheel in an unyielding, elbow-locked grasp. Thank God there hadn’t been any other cars on the road. He could have killed someone. Hell, he’d almost killed himself. His racing heart began to slow its frenzied pace, and the sound of blood rushing through his veins reduced to a low thrum in his ears. Legs, weak and jittery, barely held his feet down against the brake pedal as he let out a shuddering breath.

Damn it, he should have pulled over to rest hours ago. Micah rubbed his eyes and his vision cleared. In the crooked view of the headlights, a narrow lane jutted to the left of the highway toward the trees and away from that wicked drop off. He maneuvered the motor home off the highway and found a clearing at the end of the dirt road that looked like it was set up to accommodate campers. Perfect.

After a shitty parking job, he blocked the tires so the damned thing wouldn’t roll and headed back inside. Micah shuffled to the rear of the RV and flopped down on the bed at the back end of his new rolling residence. Though his eyes were scratchy and heavy with exhaustion, his mind was slower to settle. As he wandered toward full-sleep, his last conversation with his mother ran a loop in his mind. She always could get under his skin. But he refused to feel guilty for leaving. It was the only way he’d gain any sort of clarity.

“You can’t run from who you are.”

Again with the “embrace your gift” speech. Micah’s mother missed her calling. She should have been a motivational speaker. “Not so much interested in your opinion at this point, Mom.”

A string of angry Romanian assaulted Micah’s ears as his mother rearranged the cut flowers she’d brought in from her garden and added water to a tall vase. “So, what? You sell everything you own, buy ridiculous house on wheels and desert family? It won’t stop the feelings, Micah. Leaving will not end the dreams.”

Why did he even come here? He should have just left a note in the mailbox like he’d planned. Of course his mother would throw a fit over his leaving. And yeah, maybe it wouldn’t fix his problems. But one thing was for damn certain: staying in Bellevue wasn’t doing him any good. “I need to get away. I’m not abandoning you or Dad. I just need some space.” Family was important to his old-school Romanian parents. They lived within a fifteen-mile radius of Micah’s various cousins, aunts, and uncles. And even he hadn’t strayed too far, putting down roots just thirty minutes away from where he’d grown up.

“What you find out there,” Micah’s mother jutted her chin to indicate the world at large, “you won’t find here?”

Clarity? Focus? A peace of mind he’d never known? “You know how it is for me, Mom. I need to be away from people for a while.”

She sighed, turning her attention back to her flowers. He knew she wouldn’t argue with him on that point. For as long as he could remember, Micah had struggled in the company of others. He couldn’t explain it. He just felt too much. Knew too much about the people around him, sensed their discomforts, happiness, anger… Their emotions were his, swirling around inside of him until he felt as though his body would burst at the seams from the fullness of it. Shit, he hadn’t had a girlfriend or even a causal relationship since college. Why bother when you didn’t need verbal confirmation to know that she’s just not that into you. He sensed his partners’ emotions. Known when one girlfriend had cheated on him, knew the moment another had decided that their relationship wasn’t going anywhere, and it had still been three agonizing weeks before she finally decided to dump him.

Micah’s mother let out an aggrieved sigh. Great. She was about to play the guilt card. “Those pills you take won’t stop dreams, Micah. You’re special. Embrace your gift, please don’t run from God’s blessing to you.” She sniffed as if about to cry. “If you leave it will break my heart.”

Oh, the theatrics! “Nice, Mom. And I don’t take the Ativan to get rid of the dreams.” Yes, I do. “They’re to help me sleep.” They’re to knock me the fuck out. “And they calm my anxiety.” They keep me from ripping my beating heart from right out of my chest.

“They are excuse,” she intoned in her thick Romanian accent, pointing an accusing finger.

Whoa. According to Romany superstition, you only pointed your finger if you were cursing someone. Mom meant business. “It’s a moot point. I’m weaning myself off of them.” Sure he was. Keep telling yourself that, buddy. Maybe you’ll make it true.

“Why fight the visions, Micah?”

Why? Micah shook his head. He couldn’t even form the words to answer his mother. Because they scared the ever living shit out of him, that’s why. Because when he closed his eyes, his mind was filled with visions of someone else’s life, and he had no way of knowing if what he’d seen was a portent of the future, or a highlight reel of someone’s unfortunate past. When he was eight years old, he dreamed that Jimmy Preston had been hit by a car. The next day, his mom told him that Jimmy was in the hospital with two broken legs and broken arm. Some idiot had run a stop sign and plowed right into him. And his freshman year of college, he dreamed about a woman who’d been killed in one of the dorms. Turned out it happened a couple of years back, she’d fallen from a fourth story window during a party.

His visions a gift? Micah didn’t think so.

“I won’t be gone forever, Mom.” That he knew of. He’d sold off everything he owned, closed his practice. Hell, maybe he wouldn’t be coming back. The only thing he knew for sure was that he needed solitude. Time to understand himself before he could begin to understand anything else.

“Make sure you’re not, son,” his mother said, sad. “Make sure you come back.”

~

Jacquelyn double-checked the clip on her 9mm before sliding it from the shoulder holster. The silver bullets stacked inside would be more than effective. Sure, a regular bullet could do the job, but she liked the added oomph of the silver. The Changeling’s outer body was no more immortal than hers. An unfortunate part of tonight’s hunting expedition. The body had become merely a shell, holding the Changeling’s ethereal form. The person who had once inhabited that body was dead and gone, expelled by the creature’s magic.

The dagger at Jacquelyn’s side vibrated with energy as if reminding her of its presence. Dry heat soaked through her pants and warmed her skin. Magic was never cold. A smile lit up her face. She’d need the dagger’s magic after she drove the creature from the girl’s body. It was the only way to kill a Changeling once it left its host behind. Every Waerd carried one. And Jacquelyn loved her dagger.

A stillness consumed this forested area on the outskirts of town where the Banshee’s cry had led her. Like air sealed vacuum tight, the atmosphere sat stagnant, dead. She knew the feeling well. She’d felt it too many times to recount. Elbows slightly bent, hands wrapped firmly around the grip of her Glock, Jacquelyn lined up her thumbs side-by-side, marrying them together to ensure a steady shot. She brought the gun up and aimed it at the Changeling’s forehead. The creature looked like she’d stepped right out of a frat party and onto this empty stretch of dirt and dry grass. The girl couldn’t have been older than eighteen when the Changeling stole her body. Pink satin corset, black leather micro-mini, hair perfectly coiffed, and lips sporting some of L’Oreal’s finest. Jacquelyn’s gaze wandered to the Changeling’s feet. Seriously, stiletto heels? How did she even walk out here on the uneven ground?

One shot; all she needed to decimate the body and release its inhuman squatter. A clean kill. Painless and quick. The girl wouldn’t have to suffer… Stop. The command resounded in Jacquelyn’s mind spurred by years of conditioning to look past the illusion to see the creature beneath. There was no girl. No person. Just a shell, a body without a soul. She had to quit thinking of this body as human. It wasn’t. Not anymore.

“C-can you h-help me?” The Changeling had its damsel in distress impression down to a tee. “I was looking for a party that was supposed to be out here somewhere, but I got lost.” A single tear spilled from her eye, running in a dark mascara smear down her cheek and she brushed it away with her hand. “Sorry,” she sniffed. “I’m a little freaked out. I’m pretty sure there are wolves or something out here! Thank God you came along.”

Wolves? They weren’t that far from town. Seriously, she needed to work on her delivery. Despite the Changeling’s painful impersonation of vapid sorority chick, Jacquelyn’s arm lost some of its tension and her elbow bent further as the gun dropped a fraction of an inch. The voice, so human, spoke to her conscience, stealing a little of her conviction.

“I’m really scared.” The girl crept a tentative step closer. “Can you help me? Please?”

Not a person. Not a person. The words rang in Jacquelyn’s mind, but her eyes played against her senses and instinct. Changelings had always been the hardest for her. The juxtaposition of evil encased in innocence was tough for her to reconcile. To ignore the deception and realize a monster lived in the guise of a once living human being tore her heart in two.

Jacquelyn stumbled backward, tripping on a fallen branch. But still, the Changeling walked toward her, the down-turned mouth flipping over into a sweet smile. “I’m so lucky you came along. I don’t know what I would have done out here all night. And I’m super cold.” She laughed. “I’m not exactly dressed for chilly weather. Can you give me a ride back into town?”

The gun seemed to drop by itself. Jacquelyn stared into the glistening tear-filled pools of the girl’s blue eyes. Her grin widened—much too wide, showing a bit of the monster inside—as it climbed up her cheekbones. The Changeling swooped toward her, the expression on her face twisting into something grim and hungry. Inhuman.

Slowly and with purpose, Jacquelyn began to intone a set of ancient words, infused with power and ingrained in her memory since she’d first learned to speak. She didn’t have to see the dagger sheathed at her side to know that it glowed white hot, the heat permeating her pants was evidence enough. The Changeling stopped dead in its tracks, eyes wide with disbelief.

“How dare you utter those words to me!” it hissed.

The Changeling moved fast, despite the binding words that Jacquelyn spoke in an attempt to weaken it. It swiped out with its right arm, catching her in the face. A juicy pop of skin breaking preceded a warm trickle of blood down her cheek. Great, that’d look good at work tomorrow. It only took a moment for Jacquelyn to regain her bearings and she threw her body at the creature, taking it down in a tackle. An enraged shriek echoed in her ears, a sound that drove into her skull like an iron spike and rattled her brain. Jacquelyn rolled away from the Changeling’s body, her hands pressed tight over her ears.

“You’re not strong enough,” the Changeling said in a too- sweet, sing-song voice as it came to its feet and dusted itself off, “and tonight, hunter, you’re going to die.”

The Changeling lunged at her, its speed nothing more than a black and pink blur. Jacquelyn scurried away before it could get its hands on her, fumbling for the 9mm as she scrambled to her feet. A snarl tore from the Changeling’s throat and it lashed out with its left fist catching her in the jaw this time. “Jeez,” Jacquelyn said through clenched teeth. “Can you please at least try to watch the face?”

A shot—not from her Glock, but a familiar Berretta—popped in her ears, the sound contained in the barrier of the Changeling’s magic. Jacquelyn squeezed her eyes shut, flinching at the sound. The dull thump followed by the rustling of brush signaled the creature’s temporary immobilization and she opened her eyes. Goddamn him. But she couldn’t deny Finn’s appearance was welcome. He’d done what she’d failed to do, and now she had to kill the Changeling before it could find a new host. This was her territory. Her town. And she’d be damned if she let evil get the upper hand here. It was now or never.

Jacquelyn pulled the dagger from the sheath at her side and watched as the creature freed itself from the body. It snaked across the dry grass, a mass of grayish skin, black hair and sharp teeth. With a quick stabbing motion, she plunged the dagger into the creature, reveling in the heat that nearly burned her palms as it spread through the hilt, snaking down the steel blade and into the Changeling. A glass-shattering screech cleaved the night air as it writhed beneath her. Foul smoke billowed up from the grotesque shape, burning her nostrils as the magic buried itself deep, incinerating the creature in a matter of seconds. A ring of charred autumn grass was the only thing left to betray the Changeling’s existence.

Jacquelyn locked her gaze on the blackened grass, refusing to turn her head and acknowledge the man she felt standing behind her. Why in the hell did he have to be so good at his job? He’d seriously shown her up. And why did she still feel a surge of tender emotion when he was near?

Why can’t the earth just swallow me whole?

The veil of silence lifted with the Changeling’s death, and the familiar sounds of night returned to Jacquelyn as though she’d just removed plugs from her ears. Along with the sound of his heavy sigh behind her.

“You’re going to get yourself killed one of these days.” Finn always scolded her like a father, one of many reasons to have dumped him.

“How did you find me?”

“Tracking dot on your Glock. You couldn’t possibly think I’d still use your phone to locate you. Not after you got wise and started turning it off.”

The smile in his voice only sparked her ire. “Go home, Finn,” she said, and turned to face him. “I told you I didn’t need your help tonight.”

“I’d say that’s up for debate. Someone needed to make sure you didn’t get yourself killed. And wouldn’t you know, that’s sort of my job.” He kicked a booted foot through the Changeling’s ashes, scattering the proof of its existence among brittle leaves and unyielding grass. “What the hell’s up with you lately? I’m starting to think you have some sort of death wish. You’ve got to have your head in the game, Jax. If you can’t hack it, resign and we’ll find another hunter who can do the job.”

Right. Like that was even an option. Finn knew better than anyone that there was no resigning from this job. “I can’t manage to get the job done, but you can—right?” she asked, her voice like vinegar. “You’ve always been able to hack it, right Finn? So you didn’t come out here because you were concerned. You were just doing your job and making sure I did mine.” Ugh. It stung to think that doing his job outweighed his concern for her. It shouldn’t have, damn it, not anymore. But it did.

“If that’s what you think,” Finn said simply.

He lifted his gaze to hers and finally looked at her. Or rather, through her. Finn had an insufferable habit of looking right through a person, as if they weren’t worth his trouble when he was upset or hurt. Guess they both still felt the sting of their breakup. Jacquelyn could remember a time when he’d looked at her with love and tenderness. Apathy was no upgrade.

A corner of his full mouth twitched, and for a moment she saw something spark in his brilliant blue eyes. But just as quickly as it surfaced, the apathy swallowed it up and his dead expression left her feeling hollow and sick.

This must be what gum feels like when it’s stuck to the bottom of a shoe. As if she deserved anything more. She’d been the one to end things between them, after all. He had every right to be bent out of shape. Jacquelyn holstered her unused Glock, dusting herself off as if Finn weren’t there at all. If she had to, she could play his game. She didn’t have to like it, but she could pretend.

“I would have done it,” Jacquelyn murmured. “You just didn’t give me the chance.” The smell of rotting flesh made its way to her nostrils and she wrinkled her nose in distaste. The girl’s body had already begun to decompose, an effect on the body after it’s taken over by a preternatural creature. It would be nothing more than pile of dust by morning. Changelings were the worst. They always went for the youngest bodies they could manage. And it made her stomach sour.

“Whatever,” Finn quipped out of the blue. “Whatever you say. If we’re done here, and you’re not hurt, I’m going home.”

Jacquelyn shrugged her shoulders. Finn wasn’t hers to care about anymore and she wasn’t his. The sound of his departure echoed all around her as he tromped through the woods—back to wherever he’d come from.

She knew he wanted to work things out. To try to salvage what they’d had. But she was tired of pretending. Tired of letting Finn manipulate her emotions whether intentional or not. She needed a clean break. She needed her life to belong to herself for once. But since she wasn’t interested in transferring to another territory, it looked like she was doomed to her fate. She had no choice but to spend quality time with the one person she didn’t want to see.

Awesome.

Thanks a lot, Fate.


Chapter 3

MICAH SAT UP in bed and wiped at the sweat trickling down his temple. His chest ached like a motherfucker and he massaged his sternum before bringing up his knee to rest his arm upon. The keening cry of some ungodly creature still bounced around in his memory, along with the vision of a woman’s face, frozen in terror.

“Goddamned dreams.” He shook his head as if to banish the residual effects of the nightmare, still too real in his mind. He sucked in a lungful of air and held it for ten… twenty… thirty seconds before letting it all rush out between his lips.

If he had it his way, he’d never dream again.

Who was she? Sometimes a dream was just that, but this time he knew it wasn’t so simple. A gift, his mother called it, but he knew it for what it really was: a curse.

Rolling, Micah slung his legs over the edge of the bed to sit up. He stretched his neck from side to side and ran his hands over the short stubble of his hair. His knee knocked against the nightstand and he flipped a switch. The small bedside light spread its twenty-watt glow in the confines of the motor home. Micah pulled open the drawer of the built-in oak dresser and retrieved a yellow legal pad and a pencil. He sat for a moment, the tip of the pencil hovering above the first line, and then began to recount every detail of the dream still intact in his memory.

The woman was outfitted—not the damsel-in-distress sort. Decked out in military-style fatigues, with a shoulder harness and gun accenting her black t-shirt. Holding a dagger, its jewel encrusted hilt pressed into the flesh of one hand, her other gripped a gun. But rather than pointed toward a target, her fist had been raised defensively in front of her. A small gash at the top of her cheekbone oozed blood that trickled in a fine line down her dark skin. A deep purple bruise marred her opposite jaw line. She’d looked pretty pissed off.

What didn’t make sense about this dream wasn’t necessarily the woman or her predicament. He’d seen enough visions of terror to seem commonplace. No, her antagonist wasn’t common at all. A girl. A teenager, maybe a little older, it was hard to tell, she had the damsel-in-distress thing going for her. Fair-haired with the still cherubic cheeks of youth and a pouty, yet angelic mouth, only the evil and menace in her smile alluded to the fact that she wasn’t what she appeared to be. His fear for the tough girl facing down such an innocent foe confused him even more.

Micah tried to recall what the dream woman had said. Something foreign. Ancient in sound and cadence, perhaps a language that wasn’t spoken anymore. The girl laughed in response to the dream woman’s words and pointed a finger at her face.

“You’re not strong enough,” she’d said in a lilting, sing-song way. “And tonight, hunter, you’re going to die.”

The pencil fell limp in Micah’s grasp as the scene in his mind faded to black. That’s when he’d woken and he still couldn’t banish the look of fear on the woman’s face at those sweetly spoken words.

Micah stared at the dream journal, one of many he’d kept since the age of fifteen. He had at least that many years’ worth of notebooks boxed away in a storage unit back home. Pages and pages of useless shit, a destiny he’d been running from since before his teenage years. Now, pushing thirty, he was still running.

For years, his mother urged him to embrace the dreams and strange emotions that accompanied them. Thanks, but no thanks. Micah fought against his instincts, tried to ignore his abnormality. Psychotherapy hadn’t helped. Alcohol had a tendency to enhance the visions. And his mother’s encouragement to embrace his so-called gifts only made matters worse. The only thing that had ever made a difference was the pills.

“Why you take those drugs?” Her voice rang clear in his imagination as if she were standing right beside him. “You’re not crazy. You have the sight!”

Micah massaged his temples in an attempt to erase the memory of his mother’s chiding words. He’d lived with her superstitious Romany crap all of his life. He pushed himself off the bed and shuffled down the narrow hall separating the bedroom from the rest of the RV, peering out the window above the kitchen sink. A three-quarter moon rose above the stand of trees in the distance. He should have known. The visions were always clearer when the moon was about to reach its zenith.

Micah took a step to his left and opened the small refrigerator door. The light bathed his body in a golden halo as he rifled through the narrow shelves for water. Pulling out a cold plastic bottle, he held it to his throbbing forehead for a moment before cracking the seal and taking a sip. A second glance out the window revealed a darkened landscape made more eerie as moonlight filtered down through the trees. The bushes looked more like goblins ready to pounce than simple foliage. And the trees, giants holding their arms aloft to the sky. He turned his back to the window, and the cursed moon that brought him nothing but misery. A distant cry reverberated through the trees and a familiar chill swept over him. Bringing the bottle again to his lips, he drained it in a couple of gulps, and tossed it in the sink, the hollow thud drowning out the faint cry that echoed in the distant woods.

Probably just coyotes.

Damn, he was exhausted. Micah returned to the plush memory foam mattress but sleep wouldn’t come. The dream woman’s face loomed in his thoughts. His mind raced and his muscles ached, the effort it took to suppress the emotions swirling within him almost unbearable. Anxiety congealed into a tight knot in the pit of his stomach and he felt flushed and overwhelmed, unable to escape the one thing he needed to find peace: himself. He flung the constricting covers from his body and turned on every light in the RV. Checked the time on his cell, two o’clock in the morning.

He turned on the TV and said a silent thank you for satellite television. Twenty-four hour programming was an insomniac’s best friend. But channel surfing only added to Micah’s frustration and it didn’t take long before he abandoned his search for mind-numbing entertainment. A sketch pad and charcoal pencils were tucked in a cubby above the dining table and he brought the notebook down, flipping it open to a blank page. He picked a few of the pencils from a bundle bound with a rubber band and began to feather out the shape of the dream woman’s face. Within minutes he’d sketched her perfectly from her soft russet complexion and mysterious pale green eyes to her dark, curling hair. He even managed to capture the furrow of her brow and darker area on her chin where the bruise had been. The dream woman stared back at him from the paper, her expression no less haunting.

“Who are you?”

Micah waited, as if the black and white sketch would answer back. He traced a finger along the delicate lines of her face, pausing at the cut he’d drawn on her cheekbone. “Fucking dreams,” he muttered, tearing the page from the spiral and crumpling the paper into a tight ball. He tossed the paper somewhere toward the driver’s seat and stalked back to the bed, pausing at the dresser. Several prescription bottles peered up at him from the paper-lined drawer, and his hand hovered over them for a moment. He swore and snatched one of the amber plastic bottles from its resting place, popped the top and shook three white pills into his hand. He’d told himself he was done with the drugs. But if he’d really been done, he wouldn’t have brought them along, would he? Fuck it. He placed the quick dissolving pills under his tongue, flopped back on the pillows and threw the covers over his head.

Gift my sorry ass.

Great thing about the quick-melts, they worked fast. Finally relaxed, Micah’s body took the lead and his mind followed, drifting into a state of non-awareness. He floated for a brief and wonderful moment. The anxiety was gone, the worry—gone. The emotions that settled in his chest without reason or rhyme fled like leaves blown by the wind. Peace held him in a warm embrace and he let out a sigh that turned into a soft and pleasant groan. The transition from wakefulness to sleep felt like slipping into a warm, deep pool of water. If he had a single dream the rest of the night, it wouldn’t matter, because thanks to the Ativan, he wouldn’t remember.

~

“I’m glad I dropped your ass,” Jacquelyn muttered to no one. “Couldn’t even give me a ride? Asshole.”

She had to rely on weak, shaky legs to get her home. Though she was better than fit, a three-mile walk in the middle of the night when she was already ass tired, not to mention still a little buzzed, seemed too much.

The sound of breaking branches drew her attention, and Jacquelyn stopped dead to allow her ears to fully absorb the sound. An uneasy feeling crept over her, like fingernails massaging her scalp. Or invisible eyes watching her.

She reached for the gun under her left arm and paused, her hand hovering just above the grip. Her heart skipped a beat as the brush rustled violently, and a doe jumped from the brambles, skittering off into the dark.

Jacquelyn sighed and turned around, then let out a frightened shriek as she made contact with a solid form. Very warriorish. “Shit! Finn, what in the hell are you doing here?”

Amusement flickered across his features for a brief moment before he tucked it away, replacing it with detachment. “I wanted to make sure you made it back all right.”

She looked over his broad shoulder toward her porch, lit up and welcoming. A hot shower and soft mattress waited. “I told you, I don’t need a babysitter. And if you were really concerned, you would have given me a ride home. Though I appreciate the effort it must have taken you to drag yourself over here, I’m fine.”

Finn’s indifferent façade fell away and he reached up a hand, placing a warm palm against her uninjured cheek. “Not quite fine.” His rich, soft voice touched every nerve on her body, providing a comfort that she missed. “But you will be.”

She tried to pull away but he held her fast. He was a Bearer after all, and besides being able to aid in her healing, he knew how she felt, sometimes without even touching her. Jacquelyn had had her fill of empaths. That was the real reason she’d broken it off with him. She couldn’t stand him using her own emotions against her every chance he got. Nothing was secret to a Bearer. They could climb right into your heart and mind—with or without your permission. And in her opinion, that was totally unfair. Dirty pool, Finn, you big fat cheater.

“I know dealing with Changelings is hard on you,” he said. “Just relax.”

Finn used his free hand to brush a few errant strands of hair from her forehead and closed his eyes. This was the only good thing, if any, about a Bearer. He could make all of her troubles go away if he wanted. Like a weight lifted from her shoulders, the pain of the innocent girl’s death at the hands of the Changeling and destruction of her left-over body lifted from her, absorbed by Finn. Just part of his job description: bearing her pain. And he’d done it often enough to know how much she truly appreciated it.

This was the side of Finn she’d fallen in love with. Compassionate. Tender. Understanding. Those personality traits were common in all Bearers, but their abilities often made them high-handed, judgmental, and erratic. Bearers experienced emotion with an intensity that Jacquelyn would never truly understand. That still didn’t give Finn the right to mess with hers and for that reason, she had to put distance between them no matter how painful.

Finn opened his eyes and stared down at her. Too intimate. It had clouded Jacquelyn’s judgment and prompted her to become involved with him in the first place. The way he could see into her soul without her permission, feel what she felt had become more of an intrusion than a deep connection. It was nothing more than false emotion, contrived by his calming effect on her. She couldn’t allow herself to be fooled tonight or any other night ever again. Not until she knew her feelings were hers and not an echo of something he wanted her to feel.

“Thanks.” She pulled away and wiped her clammy palms down the front of her jeans. “I’m going to bed. I can barely stay upright. ’Night.”

“Whatever,” Finn said, draping himself again in cruel apathy. He turned and headed for his truck. “Don’t go out without me again. Next time you might not be so lucky.”

Jacquelyn fought the urge to call him out on his own bullshit attitude, mouthing a couple of her favorite swear words at his back instead. Even though she blamed Finn for things that weren’t necessarily his fault, it didn’t change the way she felt. He’d always be too overprotective, and she’d always be too proud to let down her guard.

Finally inside, the thought of a shower didn’t seem as appealing as it once had. Instead, she flopped face first on her bed and breathed in the smell of fresh fabric softener on a clean comforter. A pang of regret shot through her as she realized she’d washed all traces of Finn from the bedding. It didn’t smell like him anymore. A lump formed deep in Jacquelyn’s throat, but she swallowed it down.

Hunters don’t cry.

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