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If the woman was trying to blend in, she wasn't very good at it. It'd taken Michael Quinn no more than five seconds to pick her out in the dim, crowded interior of O Diablo Dos Ángels, a rickety roadside barra in the bustling market town of Coroza, Brazil. He'd been traveling for two days now, working his way through the stifling, humid depths of the Amazonian rain forest, and it showed in his haggard appearance. Two days that felt more like weeks, each passing hour grating against his nerves like a rusty nail, until he was in what could only be classified as a category-five, off-the-Richter-scale, completely uncharacteristic foul mood.
Not that he was usually cheery. Normally Quinn just existed. It'd been years since anything, or anyone, had managed to touch him or throw him off his firm, even keeland now this. He couldn't explain it, but from the moment he'd been given Saige Buchanan's photograph, his cool, steady calm had begun to fade, slipping away from him like water spi-raling slowly down a drain. And in its wake, he'd been left with this seething intensity this gripping tension.
What made it even worse was the fact that Quinn hadn't even wanted the assignmenthad, in fact, been adamant in his refusal. And yet, here he was, with his damp shirt sticking to his skin, the heavy scent of tobacco and sweat making his head hurt, while something piercing and uncomfortably sharp slithered through his system at the sight of his prey.
Huh. So this is little Saige, he thought, moving along the wall, away from the door, careful to avoid her line of sight as she sat at a small table on the far side of the room, a bottle of water held in one delicate hand. At her side sat a young man who couldn't have been more than nineteen, his dark skin, hair and eyes attesting to his Brazilian heritage. The boy's lips were moving, and though Quinn's hearing was far better than a human's, he couldn't make out the words over the raucous cacophony of sound coming from the crowd.
It seemed a strange setting for an American woman and her young companion, and yet, no one bothered them. Not even the drunks. Was she a regular, then? Under the owner's protection? Or was there some other reason the locals kept their distance?
Whatever the answer, it couldn't be from lack of notice. Saige Buchanan stood out among the weathered patrons like a neon sign in the midnight pitch of night, glittering and bright.
Quinn rubbed his palm against the scratchy growth of stubble that came from going several days without a shave, then slowly shook his head, already revising his analogy. No, the reportedly brilliant anthropologist wasn't brash or bold, like neon. As bright as she shone, there was a soft, almost tender aura about her, which probably made her stick out even more than that angelic face, lush body or unusual shade of hair. Neither red nor brown, it hovered somewhere in between, picking up the soft, hazy glow of light that spilled down from above, struggling against the lengthening evening shadows.
A heavy wooden door suddenly slammed behind the bar and Quinn locked his jaw, marveling that the ramshackle structure didn't crumble down around them in a pile of mortar and bricks. Flicking a quick glance upward, he was surprised the stained ceiling actually managed to remain in place, even with the various thick support beams wedged between it and the sawdust-covered floor. Without a doubt, this place made him uncomfortable. He didn't like being closed in, confined, preferring the outdoors and the endless freedom of the sky.
And why don't you stop moaning and just get on with it? The sooner you get your hands on her, the sooner you can get out of here.
Sound words, and yet, now that he'd found her, the last thing on earth Quinn wanted to do was touch her to get his hands on her. Not that he was concerned he couldn't handle her if she decided to be difficult. Saige Buchanan may have been more than an average human female, but then he was hardly an average man. He could scent that her Merrick had yet to fully awaken and until it did, he would be able to retain the upper hand when it came to physical strength.
Later, after her awakening well, he'd never gone head-to-head with a Merrick female before, but he sure as hell hoped she wouldn't be able to kick his ass. If that ever happened, his friends back at the compound would never let him live it down.
As a member of the Watchmen, an organization of shape-shifters whose duty it was to watch over the remaining bloodlines of the original ancient clans, Quinn had been taught a little about the Merrick, once one of the most powerful nonhuman species to walk the earth. And since the crap that had recently gone down with Saige's older brother, Ian Buchanan, he now knew even more. But Saige was different. Unlike her brother, who experienced certain physical changes when the Merrick blood in his veins rose to the surface of his body, it was believed that Merrick females, while gaining in strength and agility and heightened senses, didn't change in appearance. She wouldn't sport talons on the tips of her delicate fingers. Wouldn't bulk up with thick, massive muscles. And her nose wouldn't alter its dainty, feminine shape.
But you're forgetting the fangs.
Ahh, right. Evidently, that was one of the changes the Merrick women did experience, in order to feed the primitive parts of their nature. Lifting his hand, Quinn rubbed at an odd tingle on the side of his neck, as if he could already feel the pleasure-pain of Saige Buchanan sinking her pearly whites into his flesh, taking the hot wash of his blood into her mouth, at the same time she took him deep into her body.
Scowling, he lowered his hand, fingers curling into a tight fist, and wondered what was wrong with him. Had the heat gone to his head? Had going without sex addled his brain? Or was he truly losing his mind?
Leaning his elbow against the small counter built into the side wall of the bar, Quinn shook off the irritating thoughts and signaled a stout, middle-aged woman who roamed the room with a tray, delivering drinks while she chatted with the customers. As she stepped closer, he could read the name Inez embroidered onto her apron, and despite the friendly way she'd handled the crowd, she leveled a cold, chilling look at him. Her dark eyes were wary now, and as they slowly inspected him from his scarred boots, up over his dirt-streaked jeans and damp black T-shirt, he said, "Uma cerveja, por favor."
"Tell me," she replied in heavily accented English, the corners of her wide mouth pinched with suspicion. "Why do you watch our Saige like you are hungry?"
Quinn locked his jaw, angry that he'd revealed the focus of his attention to those watching him.
"Well?" she persisted with an air of command that made him suspect she was more than a barmaid.
"No idea what you're talking about," he countered in a low, graveled voice, returning her hard stare. When it was obvious he wasn't going to back down, she muttered under her breath and turned around, making her way back to the bar.
Mentally kicking himself in the ass, Quinn purposefully withdrew his attention from the American and looked around the barm. In a strange way, he felt as though he'd walked onto a movie set. It was that surreal, complete with braying donkey outside the front door, the veil of smoke from cigarettes and cigars so thick you could all but slice it with a knife. The only thing that made it bearable was Saige. Her scent wrapped around him like a soft, clinging vine, enticing and warm and sweetly addictive. It was like like a rain shower, refreshing and clean, washing away the suffocating grime. It even eased the tension he felt at being in such a crowded, noisy, closed-in space. With a conscious effort, Quinn focused on that mouthwatering scent, drawing more of it into his lungs, desperate to block out the rest of his surroundings.
Unable to help himself, his gaze slid back to Saige, greedily soaking up the visual details, hungry for the data. For the way her wavy hair fell around the delicate angles of her face. That impish sprinkle of freckles and the lush shape of her provocative mouth as she spoke with the young Brazilian.
Even without the photograph tucked into his back pocket, Quinn knew he'd have recognized her the second he set eyes on her. Though her coloring was fairer than her brothers', her feminine frame slight compared to their brawny strength, she still bore the marks of the Buchanan bloodline. Despite the thick smoke that filled the room, he could see the dark, deep blue of her eyes as if he were sitting at her side. And there was something about the angle of her jaw that attested to the Buchanan stubbornness he'd dealt with on a firsthand basis since meeting her siblings.
The small, tight T-shirt she wore fit her body like a glove, hugging a pair of lush breasts that were surprising on a frame as slight as hers, and his mouth almost curved with an appreciative male grin. Just because he didn't plan to touch, didn't mean he couldn't appreciate the view. The frayed khaki shorts and flannel shirt tied around her waist did nothing to disguise the womanly curve of her hips, and Quinn found himself wondering if her ass would be as enticing as the rest of her. He guessed her height to be somewhere around five-six, and though that wasn't overly tall, she looked smaller, somehow fragile. Still, her muscles were toned beneath the peaches-and-cream complexion, testament to the fact that she lived a physical life. She probably spent her time crawling in and out of archaeological digs, climbing up the treacherous sides of mountains, traipsing through the rain forestall places where a fey little creature like herself didn't belong.
The corner of Quinn's mouth twitched as he pondered her reaction to that chauvinistic observation. The impudent set of her chin told him that Saige Buchanan was the kind of woman who went where she wanted, when she wanted, her safety and the opinion of others be damned.
The boy said something, smiling at her, and she reached out, ruffling his thick black hair with an easy camaraderie that spoke of friendship. Of closeness. Quinn's eyes narrowed, and he about jumped out of his skin when the serving woman, Inez, came up behind him, smacking his beer bottle down on the counter. She muttered under her breath some more as she stomped away, and he grabbed the bottle, taking a long swallow of the lukewarm beer, while silently lecturing himself.
Wiping the back of his wrist over his mouth, he grimaced, thinking it was impossible that he could be jealous of a kid. It was moronic to think he could be jealous at all. Jealousy stank of possession, and he gritted his teeth, unwilling to go down that particular road.
Still, Saige was his responsibility until he delivered her safely to Ravenswing, a Watchman compound in Colorado and Quinn's home, where her two brothers were waiting for her. He knew the Buchanans hadn't wanted one of the Watchmen alone with their baby sister, just as he knew Kierland Scott, his best friend and unofficial leader of their unit, would have assured the Merrick that they had nothing to fear from him. From the others, yeahbut not from Quinn. His bed partners, when he needed sex, were always ones he was never likely to run into again, which meant soon-to-be housemates were off-limits.
Rolling his shoulder in a hard, irritated gesture, Quinn focused his thoughts back on the task that lay ahead of him. He needed to get her home, in one piece, and it wouldn't be easy. A Merrick female was going to be considered easy pickings by those who were hunting her. He and the Watchmen had hoped that Riley Buchanan, the middle son, would awaken before his sister, but now that he'd set eyes on Saige, Quinn knew that wasn't going to be the case. He could scent the coming change in her, the awakening of her ancient bloodline, and though she hadn't fully awakened yet, it was on its way.
Which meant that a newly liberated Casus was most likely already onto her, and Quinn's job had just gone from dangerous to deadly. Though there was still so much they didn't understand, it was firmly believed that the Merrick awakenings were triggered by the presence of the Casus, a race of preternatural monsters who preyed upon the Merrick, feeding from their flesh for power, as well as revenge. The immortal Casus, who'd been imprisoned for centuries for their indiscriminate killing sprees, had finally discovered a way to escape from their holding ground back to this realm. And though their numbers were still small, Quinn and his fellow Watchmen feared what was to come.
Taking another long swallow of beer, he watched Saige from beneath hooded eyes, wondering how much she knew. What was she doing in South America? Did she know the Casus were hunting her? And where the hell was Paul Templeton?
Templeton was the Watchman who'd been assigned to Saige for the past several months, but when they'd put in the call for him to bring her back to America, there'd been no response. Either Templeton had gone AWOL, which no one believed, or he was already a casualty of what was set to become a war of deadly proportions.
Circumstances being what they werewhich was about a mile deep in shit and sinking fastQuinn knew he didn't have any choice but to move as quickly as possible. He needed to act. Now. But something kept him back. Kept his ass planted against the rickety counter, his body vibing with a hot, angry restlessness.
When someone accidentally knocked over a chair, Saige turned toward the sound, angling her head to the side, revealing the vulnerable length of her throat. It was at that moment that hungers too long restrained stretched to awareness within Quinn, the animal side of his nature blinking its eyes open to a lazy, dangerous, smoldering fire. He didn't take blood in the way that a Merrick did, but he still longed to clamp his teeth onto that tender, provocative part of her, while sending himself as deep into her as he could get.
As if she felt the press of his stare on that pale, feminine curve of flesh, she lifted her hand to the side of her neck. Then she suddenly twisted in her chair, scanning the room, and Quinn quickly turned toward the wall, giving her his back. His fingers clenched around the bottle, nearly shattering the glass in his grip.