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Eli Drake blinked his bleary eyes, unable to believe what he was seeing.
Shit. Had he drank so much he was hallucinating? If so, his pickled mind couldn't have come up with a more stunning, confounding vision. The hole-in-the-wall, small town Texas bar where he and his crew had landed for the night was a decent enough place to settle for a few hours while they tossed back some liquid therapyand after the last assignment they'd taken, they'd definitely needed it. Hell, they could have drowned themselves in whiskey and beer for days on end, and it wouldn't have been enough to wipe out the horror of what they'd seen in that little South American village.
So, yeah, the woman who'd just walked into the bar had to be a by-product of his inebriation.
Only as far as he could recall, he'd only had two whiskeys. For a man his size, even if he had been human, that wouldn't have been enough to make him start seeing imagining Damn it. He couldn't even get the words out within the privacy of his own mind.
Maybe it's a stress vision? I probably just need a break from my shitty day job.
Yeah, that was a better explanation than the alcohol, and extreme stress had been the riding theme of his life these past few weeks. Months. Years.
Squeezing his eyes shut, Eli focused on forcing the vision away. He didn't need crap like that screwing with his head. Sure, he was going to have to face her soon enough, considering he and his men were finally headed back to the mountains where he'd grown up, to his hometown of Shadow Peak, where the Silver-crest Lycans lived. But he wasn't ready for it now. Not tonight.
Facing Carla Reyes again after three years of banishment was something that would take battle armor and a heavy duty, steel-lined cup to protect his balls.
Fate, however, apparently didn't give a damn.
When the Lycan to his left softly swore under his breath, his deep voice rough with appreciation, Eli choked back a biting curse. Christ, he wasn't imagining things if others could see her, too. She was really there. In the flesh. Carla-Fucking-Reyes.
His next indrawn breath confirmed it, his dick hardening with ridiculous ease beneath the fly of his jeans. The soft, sleepy, feminine moan that followed made him look down, and he was momentarily surprised to find a woman straddling his lap, her face planted against his chest. He'd completely forgotten she was there, but then, it'd been a while since she'd spoken. He couldn't recall her name, but she wasn't in any shape to remind him. She was out cold, a line of drool slipping from the corner of her pink lips. Hmm Classy chick.
With a jerk of his chin, he signaled Kyle Maddox, his second-in-command and the guy who'd spotted Carla, to deal with the comatose blonde. But it wasn't the woman on his lap that had Kyle's attention, his nostrils flaring as he pulled in the Runner's scent. Eli knew the moment his friend pegged her as a half-blood Lycan, his dark brows slowly rising on his forehead.
Eli gestured again to the blonde in his lap. "Take her."
Kyle snorted as he moved to his feet and lifted the woman into his arms. "And do what with her?"
Keeping his gaze locked on Carla, Eli said, "Just make sure she gets somewhere safe for the night. I don't want one of these assholes in here taking advantage of her."
"She's definitely a local girl, so I'll talk to the servers. Maybe one of them can take her home with them."
"Good," he muttered, impatient for Kyle to get the hell away from him before Carla reached the table.
"Just do it."
Carla had spotted him in the crowd and was headed his way, her gaze sliding toward the nearby group of Lycans standing at the barSam, James, and Levwho were watching her with unmistakable interest. Even Kyle, who had moved over to join them with the blonde in his arms, had his full attention focused on Carla. She looked exhausted, but gorgeous. At five-six, she was just tall enough that she didn't look like a child when standing beside a man of Eli's height, but was still petite. Lithely muscled and battle-scarred, but somehow still incredibly feminine. Big brown eyes flecked with green and framed by thick lashes. Slim, delicate nose. Waves of thick, silky hair the colors of sunshine and honey and gold, the soft bangs falling across her brow. She was, quite simply, stunning. The most perfect, alluring, sensual female he'd ever known.
And, Jesus, that mouth of hers had always been his undoing. Full, sexy, sweet. Velvety and pink, like the petals of a flower. He wanted to devour her. Kiss her until he drew blood, which wasn't surprising. From the moment she'd hit adulthood, this little half-breed had always drawn the hunger of both the man and the beast inside him. A hunger that was as visceral and dark as it was insatiable. How he'd fought it for so many years, when he'd been living with the pack, he didn't know. He should have been given a damn medal for not falling on her like a rabid, sex-starved animal the instant she came of agebut he'd somehow kept himself under tight control, his fears for her safety the only thing that had a chance in hell of keeping him in line.
He'd been a goddamn saint when it came to Reyes until that last week before his banishment.
As if they were some kind of penance for his sins, the memories of her from that week still woke him in the dead of night in a sweat, filled with an aching need that was primal, savage, and raw. So powerful he could taste it in the back of his throat. Here he was, three years later, and he still dreamt about her every night he didn't drink himself into a stupor.
Studying her expression, Eli wondered if she was about to make him pay for the carnal things that had happened that week. Is that why she'd tracked him down? To tell him she'd rather see him dead before letting him return to the pack? Because that was definitely hatred he could see burning in her beautiful, narrowed eyes.
Shoving his emotional reaction to her presence to the back of his mind, he focused instead on simply watching her waiting. Eating up the sight of her in the tight jeans and T-shirt and battered hiking boots.
At a quick glance, you would never guess she was a hunter of deadly werewolves. Certainly, the clueless humans in the bar, who had no idea they had shape-shifters in their midst, would have never guessed she was both battle and weapons trained. The Silvercrest Lycans would be surprised to know that much of that training had come from Eli himself, since it'd been in secret. Every aspect of their complicated "friendship" had been private and secret and forbidden.
God, he'd been so drawn to her. Though he was older than her, she hadn't been a typical giddy twenty-two-year-old when their relationship had developed. She'd been sweet, but reserved. Eager for friends, and yet, wary to trust. But she'd trusted him. Past tense.
Eli had never told a soul about them, and he could only assume that Carla had done the same. Though not for the same reasons.
He moved to his feet when she reached the table, fighting the powerful urge to pull her into his arms, and the next thing he knew her tiny fist was launching toward his mouth. Whack! Damn, she'd hit him so hard it jerked his head back, the coppery taste of his blood instantly filling his mouth.
Softly laughing under his breath, Eli lifted his hand and wiped the blood from the corner of his lip as he brought his gaze back to hers.
"What the hell is so funny?" Her soft words vibrated with fury.
"Nothing," he murmured, thinking he'd come close to getting what he wanted. Someone's blood had been drawn, just not hers. And not in the way he'd hoped for.
Contempt clouded her expression. "You never could just give an honest answer to a question, could you?"
"Insults and accusations already?" he drawled, sliding back into his chair. The worst thing in the world he could do was let her know how the sight of her affected him, especially when he could feel his own angry frustration with fate and life and her blatant hatred building inside him, desperate for release. "That didn't take long."
She drew in a sharp breath at his snide tone, the skin around her eyes tightening as she took the seat across from him and asked a passing server for a Scotch. It was clear from the look on her face that she hadn't meant to launch into the topic of their past. She was irritated with herself that she had, and seemed determined to get to the point of this strange, unexpected visit. "You know about your dad?"
"That he's dead?" He lifted a hand, rubbing his stub-bled jaw. "Yeah, I heard about it."
As soon as the words left his mouth, a painful mix of emotions flashed through her eyes before she managed to bank them. "And you didn't think to come home?" she asked in a careful tone.
Brows drawn together, he tried to reason out why she thought the death of his psychotic father would herald his immediate return. Had the entire pack thought he would come crawling back the moment he learned that dear ol' daddy had staged a bloodthirsty coup that resulted in the death of the pack's entire governing body, the League of Elders? An attack that would have led to Stefan Drake's total control of the Silvercrest Lycans, if not for the help of the half-breeds his racist father had tried so hard to turn the pack against.
The League of Elders might have banished Eli for the unsanctioned kill he'd made on one of the rapists who'd attacked his sister three years ago but they weren't the only reason he'd stayed away. Hell, they weren't even at the top of the list. No, his reasons for staying away had far more to do with Well, with things he spent a lot of time trying not to think about. Things he was still trying to figure out how to deal with.
And every damn one of those things had to do with the woman sitting across from him.
Voice low, he finally responded to her question. "Once I heard that you and Eric and Elise were all right, I didn't see any reason to rush home. But I didn't plan on staying away forever, Rey. I was coming back."
"When?" she asked, as the server set her drink on the table.
"Now, if you can believe it. That's where we're headed."
"Bullshit." She gave a bitter laugh. "You know what I think? I think you were waiting for me to come to you. And here I am," she offered with a sharp smile, spreading her arms wide, and he couldn't help but notice the way the cotton shirt stretched tight across her mouthwatering breasts. Then she leaned forward, bracing her palms flat on the rickety little table with its scarred surface and dirty ashtray, and lowered her voice. "But I'm not here to beg for myself, Eli. I just need you and your ragtag little group to come back with me and do what you do best."
Hoping to rile her into hitting him again, like some kind of masochistthough he was pretty sure he just wanted to feel her hands on himhis lips curled in a cocky smirk. "You have no idea what I do best. You only got part of the show, if you'll recall."
"Not interested," she grunted in response to his silky, suggestive tone, before taking a drink of her Scotch. She winced as she swallowed the smoky alcohol, then wiped her mouth and shot his cocky expression right back at him. "And let's face it, Eli. The only thing you've ever done well is kill."
"Ouch, Reyes. If I didn't know better," he murmured, clucking his tongue, "I'd say you don't like me anymore."
She rolled her eyes. "Just get your band of Merry Men together and let's get out of here."
"Merry Men?" he snorted. "I'm no bloody Robin Hood."
She smirked. "Yeah, what was I thinking? The idea of giving something to the less fortunate is probably a little sappy for a guy like you."
"A guy like me?"
Lifting her brows, she said, "You know, the big bad mercenary who doesn't give a shit about anything or anyone, except for how much they can pay him. I hear you've cultivated the reputation well."
Irritation burned through his veins, not easy to hide. But he managed with a lazy grin and a slow drawl.
"You shouldn't believe everything you hear. A lot of men will lie when it suits them."
"Oh, God." She suddenly started to laugh so hard it made him scowl. Wiping the tears from her glittering eyes, she finally managed to splutter, "D-don't I know it."
Hell, he'd walked right into that one.
A fraction of his control began to slip, his hands flexing as he fought the urge to reach out and grab her, yanking her into his lap. "You're pushing it, Reyes."
Her laughter faded, and she kept her gaze on the Scotch as she swirled it in her glass. "If you're uncomfortable with my attitude or reactions," she murmured, "then I gotta tell you that I don't really care. I'm not here to make you feel better, or to talk about the past." She stopped swirling her drink, her dark gaze lifting, locking with his. "I'm here because your family needs you. You do recall that you have a brother and sister, right? And I can only imagine they have a hell of a lot to say to you right now, considering you haven't been returning their calls." She pushed back from the table and gave him a look that would probably scare a lot of men into doing whatever the hell she wanted them to. "Now get off your ass and let's get out of here."
"No," he rasped. "Not until you answer a few of my questions."
"Like we have the time," she started to argue, but he cut her off.
"We have as much time as we need, because I'm not going anywhere until you fucking spill." He took a deep swallow of his whiskey, and waited for her to bring her chair back to the table, before asking, "You came here alone?"
"Of course." At the look on his face, she said, "What? You thought someone needed to come with me and hold my hand?"
His jaw got tighter. "Why now?"
She glared back at him as if she couldn't understand what his problem was. "War isn't enough of a reason?"
"From what I've understood from Eric's messages, the Silvercrest have been in trouble for a while now."
"With no help from you, huh?"
He narrowed his eyes. "Like I said, I was planning to head back."
"Right. How kind of you."
"Why now, Reyes? Why you? You didn't rush out and try to track me down months ago, when this all started. So tell me the truth. Why Now?"