Read an Excerpt
Oh , no! Make it stop! Nina Rainwater grabbed the steering wheel with both hands but still weaved over the white line. The guardrail and sheer drop below filled her headlights.
She gasped and jerked on the wheel.
Tires swerved right and hit the opposite shoulder. Gravel crackled against the undercarriage.
She braked the car to a crawl and straightened out, heart thumping, keeping time with her pounding head. Close call, that one.
Sunlight gnawed at the edges of ominous clouds but refused to break through. Their angry billows engulfed and eddied and animated the rounded peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains. A northern wind screamed downward and swept another huge, angry fist against her Taurus. The whole car shook.
It wasn't the impending storm that concerned her at the moment, but the terror and desperation that throbbed in her head and prickled her skin.
If she could only concentrate fully on driving. The shivers wouldn't let up. At the age of two, when she had first realized her own clairvoyant powers, she had innocently called her perceptions shivers because they made her feel as if she were trapped in a freezer.
If the entities involved were few, she could usually manage the shivers. But the more energies tangled up in the intricate web of thoughts, the stronger the connection and her reaction to them. The awareness she experienced now was legion, the massed fear a throbbing jackhammer in her brain, a siren song with no end.
The maddening thing was that her empathic abilities had limits. She couldn't tell if the shivers were coming from living or deceased souls. She had to actually locate the harmed being or animal, or its place of death, to detect that information. And if they didn't want to be found and stopped sending her messages, she couldn't find them at all. In those instances, she assumed they were souls and had moved on to heaven. Sometimes being a lightning rod for spiritual emotions was like playing hide-and-seek in a foggy labyrinth. But once she cornered and tagged the shivers, any physical distress she had experienced seemed insignificant when compared to the benefits of helping others.
A chill went through her, and she glanced at the outside temperature display in her Taurus: twenty-four degrees and dropping. She had already jacked up the heater as high as it would go, but she knew the closer she drew to the source, the lower her body temperature would drop. Until she found the source of the perceptions and helped the beings, the sensations of cold and her headache were hers to bear. As was this crazy northern clipper that threatened to toss her car over the side of the mountain.
Bits of sleet began to chime against the windshield. She turned on the wipers and slowly accelerated, fighting the wind to stay in her lane. Dark squiggles formed in her vision. Great! If she didn't do something soon, she knew the shivers would escalate into a fullblown migraine and she might end up running over the side of the mountain. She needed help and fast.
A relentless wind pounded the rooftops of Brayville, shaking shingles, testing wall supports, cracking icicles. Bits of sleet pinged the roof of Kane Van Cleave's Jeep as he drove down Main Street. The snarl of the wind drowned out the purr of the engine.
He coasted into a parking spot in front of the Wayside Cafe, then hopped out.
A frigid breeze hit him, raw against his face, piercing through his jeans and flannel shirt. He braced himself against the cold and easily fought his way inside the cafe. The cold didn't bother him. His inner-body temperature was five degrees warmer than a human's. But the wind was brutal this morning.
The bell on the door banged as he slammed it shut. His face and hands met the cafe's cozy heat. He felt them warming instantly as he scanned the seats.
Figured. No one in their right mind would venture out in this weather without good reason. His reason hadn't arrived yet.
His long legs quickly covered the length of booths. The Wayside hadn't changed in forty years, and the sameness of it pleased him. He liked the comfortable '50s feel, the red and stainless-steel counter, the black-and-white asbestos floor tiles. Retro at its finest.
He inhaled the familiar smell of coffee, cigarettes and fresh meat and felt his mood lifting a little. As he strode past the oversized Felix the Cat clock, tail swishing with a steady click, he felt the plastic eyes following him. A Bubbler jukebox hugged the back wall, its bubble tubes glowing yellow and orange. The jukebox hadn't seen a modern hit in half a century. It only played scratchy 45s. The denizens of Brayville liked it that way; so did Kane.
He dropped a quarter in the box and picked E6, "There Goes My Baby." He chose a booth opposite the door and slid into the seat, his jeans catching on the duct-taped plastic. The scent from the layers of chewing gum stuck under the table wafted up to his hypersensitive nose. He frowned. It was almost as bad as the smell of a public restroom. Both were hard to take at five o'clock in the morning.
He picked up the ketchup bottle and opened it, hoping the scent would run interference. He plopped it down near the salt and pepper shakers and noticed the many sets of initials carved into the table. He'd left his own graffiti on the counter when he was sixteen. Teens of Brayville were compelled to leave their mark in the cafe, a right of passage. Kane could hardly remember being sixteen. Too much had happened. It felt like he'd lived a hundred lifetimes in those twelve years.
The sound of the Drifters finally sent Carrie bouncing through the kitchen's swinging door. She hurriedly tied a white apron around her pink uniform while walking toward him. For a female of forty, she appeared in good shape. She was petite, a small waist flaring to wide hips, lean arm muscles rippling below her short sleeves. A China Doll haircut shaped her red curly hair and just touched the bottom of her collar. Wrinkles creased the corners of her slightly upturned eyes and lent her face a catlike appearance. Carrie was a pride female who in human form revealed more feline physical characteristics than most. Like him, she was a seniph.
When she saw him, she froze midstride. Her usual jovial expression melted and her hands dropped like lead weights near her hips. Burnt-umber eyes narrowed and her Adam's apple bobbed as she swallowed hard. Immediately she dropped her gaze as befitted his alpha-male status within the pride.
Kane could smell the fear on her. The perverse side of him enjoyed it. "Hello, Carrie." He deliberately kept his voice brusque.
She jumped, seemed to realize she stood there dumbstruck and forced her feet into motion. "Hey, Kane." The cusps of her white fangs flashed in an uneasy smile.
Kane caught the slight shift, but humans never noticed it. They just didn't pay attention to subtleties. Every seniph had the ability to hide behind a human guise, but they couldn't entirely erase their true sphinxhalf-man and half-lionpersona from the truly observant.
She paused well away from his table and drew out a pad and pencil. "How about that wind? Almost knocked me over this morning opening up. Never seen it so bad. Hope it doesn't bring us a foot of snow." Her voice hit on a nervous friendly note, but it sounded forced.
He enjoyed watching the pencil in her hand trembling as he said, "It might."
"Haven't seen you around for a while."
"The vineyard and the pride keep me busy."
"Right. Right. I guess you're wondering about the business." Nervous words tumbled out of her mouth. "It's doing just fine. I actually doubled the profits from last month. I think it was putting in that new warm cream machine that did it. And we got that new meat supplier. They know how to freeze raw meat"
Kane interrupted her. "That's good."
He, like his father and all the Van Cleaves before him, had used his wealth to keep the pride together, and that meant concealing their identities from humans. He owned all the real estate in Brayville and the surrounding mountains. The pride kept the few businesses in town running, along with the Van Cleave vineyard. It was perfect cover for the pride.
She shifted nervously from one foot to the other at his silence, then said, "Sorry, I guess I rattled on. What can I get you?"
"Scalded cream with a shot of coffee, a steak, bloody, tuna, hold the mayo, and lots of hash browns. That's it." Fried potatoes and coffee were one of the few conventional human foods he craved.
"Not very hungry? Sure you don't want some trout? Came in yesterday." She feigned an eager-to-please demeanor. "It's fresh."
"That's all." He shot her a look that sent her scurrying.
She shoved the pad in her pocket, saying, "Sure, sure. Coming right up." Then she ran around the counter and disappeared into the kitchen.
Movement through the glass door drew his attention, and he spotted the motivation for coming to town at this ungodly hour: Arwan. She muscled through the wind, heading for the cafe. The gale flattened her down parka and sheriff's blue uniform to her tall, lean body and thin curves. A .45 Glock rode one hip, the holster thumping against her thigh as she reached for the door. Her platinum hair usually hung down past her shoulders, but when in uniform she always wore it in a bun. Oddly, the rigid style seemed impervious to the wind and hardly any strands had strayed.
Most females would look manly in a sheriff's uniform, but not Arwan. She was the pride's alpha female; she could make army fatigues look sexy. Her feminine mystique would always shine through. Although Arwan never flaunted her sexuality. In fact, she deliberately tried to disguise her beauty behind a tomboy persona.
The wind shoved her through the door. She banged it closed and rolled her eyes, taking a moment to recover and take off her gloves. Bits of sleet salted the floor and her boots. She spotted him and said, "Whew, some morning." She knocked the snow off her boots, then walked toward him.
"Yeah, we should both be home." He was eager to find out what had been so important that she couldn't speak to him over the phone.
She took off her jacket, then bent and sniffed him, rubbing first one cheek against his, then the other one. It was a casual greeting ranking officers shared in the pride. His highly developed senses picked up on the odor of twenty hours of perspiration clinging to her clothes, and he wondered what she'd been doing.
He scented her alpha pheromone, an instant love potion for most of the pride's males. But Kane had trained himself to ignore it. The slight vibration of her throat was harder to disregard. It wasn't audible to humans, only to seniphs. And it wasn't something she could control. All female seniphs of child-bearing age purred when they neared another virile male. It broke the ice, so to speak, when finding a mate. Earlier in his life, he would have been driven to pursue her and mate with her, but that felt like eons ago. He had a tight rein on his baser instincts now.
He turned his face away and motioned to the seat opposite him and said, "Sit."
She didn't seem to notice or care about his indifference and her expression remained a closed book as she sat. They knew each other too well.
She gazed directly at Kane in that forthright way of hers. "I'm glad you could meet me so early."
He noticed the heavy exhaustion in her eyes and recalled her scent and said, "You been out all night?"
She nodded, rustling the few platinum wisps around her temples. "Tracking."
He knew the extent of Arwan's self-reliance. She had to be desperate before she asked for his help. His brows furrowed in worry as he asked, "That why I'm here?"
"Yes, but " She hesitated, using caution in choosing her next words.
It wasn't like Arwan to tiptoe around a subject. He'd known her all his life. She was the only seniph in the pride who didn't fear him. After that one night that had changed his whole life, he'd made certain he kept his distance and was never alone with anyone, Arwan included. And there hadn't been an incident since the first one. He had hoped he'd convinced her of that, but it seemed he'd never be rid of his hellish mistake or the monster within him who had made it. He didn't blame anyone for being cautious, but he still thought Arwan had a good deal more mettle than most. Though here she was guarded and angst-ridden about telling him something.
"But ?" He encouraged her to finish her thought.
"I don't know how to tell you this " Arwan leaned back and sighed. She opened her mouth to say something, but Carrie approached their booth and set Kane's steaming cream on the table, along with a tiny pitcher of coffee.
She shot Arwan a sympathetic look at having to share Kane's booth, then said, "Hey, Arwan. What would you like?"
"Got a way to mainline caffeine?" Arwan forced a grin.
"Haven't slept good for the past week. My oil furnace has bit the dust. The radiators knock all night. Crummy luck, huh, since it's the coldest week of the winter."
Kane heard the lie in Arwan's voice, but Carrie seemed oblivious.
"Better get that thing fixed. Can't have you falling asleep on the job." Carrie noticed Kane's eyes on her, and she quickly glanced down at the table and said, "I'll brew up some strong coffee."
"Thanks. And give me the breakfast special."
"Rightcream, eggs, bacon and herring." Carrie nodded, then disappeared behind the swinging kitchen door.
When Carrie was out of hearing range, Arwan lowered her voice to a soft whisper. "Look, I couldn't say anything. You know how Carrie gossips, but we've got a gleaner in our territory." Annoyance tightened her lips. "And the bastard is wily as hell. I lost his scent and went around in circles all night."
They lapsed into silence, both frowning at the same time. Each knew what the other was thinking. Their unspoken words swung like a scythe between them.
Arwan's eyes filled with worry, and she gave voice to their fear, "What if it's Ethan?"
Kane flinched at the name. He waved a hand to stop her. "Don't say any more."
"If it is my brother, the less you know the better. If you're questioned by the council, then you can tell them you came to me for help in tracking the gleaner."