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If he discovered her true identity, the powerful Mage would kill her.
From across the bar, Keira Solomon studied her quarry. The glass of white wine gripped in her trembling hand rattled against the polished wood counter. She ignored the flirting drunk to her right and riveted her gaze to Lt. Commander Dale Curtis.
The navy SEAL commander of Team 21 sat by himself, his expression as lonely as she felt. Keira's heart went out to him, knowing she was the reason for his turmoil.
Careful, she warned herself. If you let him get under your skin, you're a dead woman. She concentrated on the man instead of her feelings, gauging how to approach him.
Though he looked no more than thirty-eight, the Mage was hundreds of years old. The commander had taut, angular cheekbones, a chin carved from granite, tempered by a full, wide mouth. His thick black hair, silvered at the temples, did not touch his starched collar. He looked like a powerful man of strong character, unaccustomed to compromise. But his most striking feature was his piercing gray eyes, shaded by thick, dark brows. Those eyes could become hard and unyielding, coaxing a confession out of the most tight-lipped prisoner, or turn seductive with promise, charming a woman into his bed.
She'd discovered all this about the man from listening to gossip in public haunts like this bar.
A severe khaki uniform hid a body firm with muscle that was now layered with deep scars. Keira knew the depth and width of each mark, knew how he'd endured, tight-lipped, as each one lashed his skin. And she knew the depth of his screams when the agony she inflicted became too much to bear when the Centurion demons forced her to hurt him.
No other man had survived such torture. Past victims had died from the force of her claws. Centurion demons had enslaved her to torture others. Now she had a rare chance to break free, because the man she'd tortured was strong enough to vanquish the demons for eternity.
"Hey, sweetie." Obviously determined to get her attention, the big, barrel-chested drunk put a paw on her arm. "Lemme buy you another drink."
Giving him a look of utter disdain, she pushed her glass aside. "No, thanks. I don't accept favors from gorillas."
The man narrowed his eyes as his companions chortled with laughter. "Ain't no ape."
"Okay, then. Chimp shifter." She gave him a singularly sweet smile. "I can't quite tell, but you all smell the same."
"Bitch." The shifter scowled. "I should drag you out to the parking lot, show you the meaning of respect. Flat on your back, your legs spread."
Demon blood surged. Keira held up a hand. Like flicking a switchblade, her claws emerged, each a razor-sharp talon. Ape Boy's eyes widened as she gouged the bar's surface. "Care to try?"
The men pushed away from the bar and fled. She sighed.
"I hate having to do that," she muttered to no one.
One day, she wouldn't have to worry about the demon blood inside her. The key to her freedom lingered temptingly close, but it wouldn't be easy to fool him. Curtis's piercing gray eyes could see straight inside her, and discover who she really was.
And if that happened, no point fearing the demons capturing and enslaving her once more.
Because Curtis would have at her first.
Ladies' night at the paranormal Dive Bar.
Once a month, Tom dropped the magick shield blinding humans to the bar's presence. He announced two-for-one drinks and the human women streamed inside as if he'd offered marriage proposals to millionaires.
The custom was for regulars, who liked human women warming their beds once in a while. Tom's bar was a short distance from Little Creek, home to SEAL Team 21's elite Phoenix Force in Virginia. When in town, the secret force of paranormal SEALs crowded the seats.
Dale ignored the chatter around him. He sipped his beer, waited for his burger.
Scar tissue pulled and stretched uncomfortably, reminding him of a body no woman wanted to see naked. While in the hospital, his sometime girlfriend had visited. Melissa had taken one look at the blood and bandages and left.
No Mage female wanted him. No human, either, even if she didn't sense he was a powerful Primary Elemental Mage who could fry her to ashes with a single flick of his finger.
Dale knew he was better off alone.
"You okay, Commander?"
Tom always called him by his title. Dale nodded. It had been the ultimate bitch of a day, back at work only ten days after two long months of mandatory medical leave. Paperwork piled to his nose, submerged in long meetings, most of his team deployed to dispatch a last-minute threat overseas. Only Ensign Grant "Sully" Sullivan remained at base. Chief Petty Officer Sam "Shay" Shaymore was in North Carolina, training in close-quarters combat with SEAL normshuman navy SEALs. He'd taken his new wife with him.
Dale relaxed into a smile as he thought of the much younger Shay. Last month the SEAL had married his girlfriend. Dale had proudly escorted the fatherless Kelly down the aisle. A wedding he'd never forget, as he was glad to see the two Mages declare their love in a lifelong bond. Those two had rescued him from the dark, dank basement where he had only memories of pain and blood.
And the scent of a woman he could never forget.
Across the bar, Sully flirted with a pretty, slightly tipsy blonde. The woman rested her hand on the SEAL's arm, giving him a suggestive look. Someone was getting something-something tonight.
Dale hoped Sully remembered to glove before love. A half-human bastard faced a lot of hardship in the real world.
Children. Setting down his beer, he closed his eyes. One regret he'd had in his eleven-year marriage. Kathy hadn't wanted any. The Mage had used one excuse after another and finally, she just left, but not before admitting she'd been sleeping in another man's bed.
You're a good man, Dale. But you're never around, not when I really need you.
Deep inside, he still craved a home life, a wife and a family. But what woman would want him now, his body looking like a road map to hell?
Someday, maybe, he'd find someone else. But first, he'd find the demon wolf responsible for scarring his body and when he did, that shape-shifter would pay. Such evil must be eradicated before innocents got hurt. Dale would do so gladly, sending the SOB straight to hell.
Tom slid a steaming burger, with fries piled high, before him. "Here you go, Commander. My treat."
"Thanks, Tom," Dale said, surprised.
"No, thank you, sir. If not for you " Emotion shadowed the man's face. "What you did to free those kids, sacrificing yourself, hell, we're all grateful to you. I've got five kids and the thought of them enduring what you did."
The cougar shifter's spine stiffened. "I'm proud to call you a friend. You're more than a SEAL. You're a damn fine officer and gentleman."
Holy hellfire, the man actually saluted him. Uncomfortable with the praise, Dale nodded. "No thanks necessary."
A few of the bar's regulars studied him like a moth pinned to a corkboard. Damn, all he wanted was a burger, not this scrutiny. Dale began to eat.
The brunette next to him spoke. "Come here often?"
Once in a while, against the ladies' room wall, pushing deep and hard, a woman's long legs wrapped around his thrusting hips. Dale nodded.
She gave a sultry smile, red lips moist and pursed. The tight blue dress clung to a body that had caught quite a few glances from the bar's male occupants.
"You're a SEAL."
Wonderful. Human frog hog. He swallowed a bite, shrugged.
"My second cousin's best friend is a navy SEAL." Now she slid over, her long red nails on his forearm. "I adore you guys. I can't thank you enough for what you do for our country, to keep us safe. You're so brave and strong, and I'd love to demonstrate my appreciation."
Hollow words, spoken by a woman who just wanted to bang a SEAL. Maybe one time he'd accept her offer, follow her home and show her the alternative meaning of hooyah. Not tonight. Tonight he felt every single one of his 420 years.
The woman's nose wrinkled as she studied his right arm. Dale automatically moved to hide the jagged gash. "That's a nasty scar. Did you get it in combat?"
No, I got it, and a rash of others, when I was tied up in a basement and tortured by a wolf's claws. Care to know more?
Appetite turned to dust, Dale slid his plate back. "Thanks, Tom."
Clear disappointment showed on the woman's face as he pushed back his stool. She turned to her right, engaged a member of ST 21's support staff, the vampire enthralled with the woman's long neck.
Nice night for a quick bite, Dale thought in sour amusement. Like every human here, she would recall only a pleasurable buzz the next day, assume it was alcohol-induced.
As he went to leave, a familiar scent hit him. Not the floral perfume of the human women, nor the heavy cologne of the males pursuing them. Something deeper, richer, more fragrant.
It reminded him of crushed autumn leaves, the burning richness of smoke on a hearth, the musky scent of pure sex.
Dale whipped his head up, a memory pinging. Her.
There, across the bar. An ebony-haired woman, a wineglass before her. Eyes blazing with fire and life glanced up. His gaze fell to her right hand.
Each finger was a sharp black talon.
Shock slammed into him. And pain. Distant memories knives over raw flesh, biting back the screams that rose in his throat. Salt water dripping onto the fresh gouges, searing his skin with her tears.
He'd been tortured and left for dead, and recalled only flashes of memory. But that scent, it wound around him in an erotic ribbon, and pulled tight. His body hardened, blood pulsing to his groin.
Bleeding from a thousand cuts, the pain so deep he couldn't breathe, and that scent filtering through the agony, turning his cock to steel. Forgetting the pain, wanting nothing more than to roll her beneath him, spread her wide and drive hard into her soft, wet flesh.
He hadn't been merely tortured, but humiliated and debased, getting turned on, and then feeling something raking cold claws over his warm flesh .
This woman had something to do with those long, dark hours in the basement.
Dale went preternaturally still. The woman stared at him, wide red mouth parted in apparent shock. Then she slipped off the stool and fled.
Not so fast, he thought grimly. Dale raced after her. In the parking lot, against a parked SUV he caught her. Dale grabbed her arms, pinned her against the vehicle. The scent faded, leaving only the exotic smell of expensive perfume. But he hadn't imagined it. Wasn't going crazy.
"Who the hell are you?" he roughly demanded.
Fear clouded her gaze. "Not hurt, not hurt," she whimpered.
Gentling his voice, he loosened his grip. "Who are you? I remember only darkness, pain and your scent."
The woman wriggled away, lifted a hand to his face. The velvet of her voice stroked across his senses. Sexual energy jumped between them at the mere brush of her fingers. "Strong and courageous is your heart, yet lonely and hurting so much pain."
Dale lost all sense. He lowered his head and did what he'd lusted to do all those long, anguished hours in the dark after he'd been turned into a pitiful, whimpering shell of a man.
Crushing her against him, he fisted a hand into her hair and kissed her hard. She responded back with a moan, her tongue tangling with his in a fury of erotic heat.
And then she began to struggle and nipped him on his lip, hard enough to draw blood. Dale jerked away in shock. Son of a
His mind fogged. Closing his eyes, he fell into a dizzying vortex, where memory was once more a clouded dream. When he opened his eyes, he was alone.
The woman, if there had been a woman, vanished into the shadows. Just like before, he could not recall her, making him wonder if she were a dream.
Or his worst nightmare.
The moon hung like a silver nickel in the sky.
Hovering in the woods, Keira waited for Dale to arrive home the next night.
Other houses on the street showed signs of life. Lights flicked on. Children ran around their backyards, and then ran inside as their mothers called them in for supper.
Or their mothers threatened to zap them inside. It was a paranormal neighborhood, after all.
Hiding in the shadows, she felt a pinch of deep melancholy. She'd adjusted to loneliness during the infrequent intervals when the demons gave her brief freedom so she could find new men for them to torture. Keira had beaten the demons. She'd refused to associate with anyone, refused to give them new victims, but stalled them by promising them new ones.
They found one on their own. This last time had sliced off a piece of her heart. Dale Curtis had taken her spirit and turned it inside out. She'd almost killed him. And then, a miracle happened.
The commander's friend had arrived in the house where Curtis was being held prisoner and chanted a cleansing spell to vanquish evil. The spell had sent the demons temporarily to the netherworld and freed her, as well. But in a few weeks, as they always did, the Centurions would use their bolt-hole to this world and break back in.
Then the real fun would start. They would find her, find Curtis and force her to torture the SEAL once more, maybe until he died. The demons would steal all his strength and courage and become solid entities, able to taste the pleasures of the flesh once more.
Keira touched the valise containing the silver armband, which enslaved her to the Centurions. When the demons had vanished unexpectedly, the bracelet unlocked, freeing her from their spell. Only by enslaving herself to another could she escape them.
And Lt. Commander Dale Curtis was the only living person with enough power and courage to destroy the Centurions. She had to overcome her personal fear of seeing him again if she wanted to achieve her goal.
For twenty-three years she'd lived under the demons' control. No more. Emotion clogged her throat. Dale Curtis looked thin and haggard. The demons had sapped his strength, his vitality. If she didn't help him recover soon he'd weaken and die.
She needed him strong, needed his resources to find and destroy the demons' bolt-hole and imprison them forever in the netherworld.
Crouching down, Keira watched the commander's house. Beneath the light of the nearly full moon, she waited hopefully, and wondered if this brave man would be the one to kill her captors and finally set her free.
Another day of keeping the world free of paranormal terrors. At least free of the terror of paperwork.
Hell, he was so tired, he could barely function. Dale looked forward to a cold beer, a quick sandwich, a little light reading and then crashing. It was a lonely life, but right now, he preferred it that way. No complications or interference.
Yet as he drove home from the ST 21 compound on the base, Dale imagined a loving woman greeting him at the day's end. Someone who rushed to the door, eyes lighting up as he walked inside, the good smell of a delicious dinner cooking in the oven.
Instead of always coming home to an empty, silent house.
Dale snorted. He cherished his privacy. He didn't need a woman in his home, rearranging his life, turning things upside down.
Especially now, he needed to be alone to recharge and recover.