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Mind Gamesby Taylor Keating
River Weston thinks her problems are over. She managed to escape the virtual world of her video game--and the clutches of the Dark Lord who attempted to enslave her--with body and mind intact. But her return to the real world is anything but easy. Framed for monstrous crimes she didn't commit, and hunted by members of a dark government agency, it is all she can do… See more details below
River Weston thinks her problems are over. She managed to escape the virtual world of her video game--and the clutches of the Dark Lord who attempted to enslave her--with body and mind intact. But her return to the real world is anything but easy. Framed for monstrous crimes she didn't commit, and hunted by members of a dark government agency, it is all she can do to stay one step ahead of her pursuers.
Guardian Chase Hawkins gained his freedom from the Dark Lord's prison, but it came with a heavy price. Trapped in another man's body, his soul slowly deteriorating, Hawk knows he must return to his world--and his body--before the damage is irreparable.
Racing against time, River and Hawk know that in order to have a future together, they must work to reveal the secrets hidden in River's past.
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By Taylor Keating
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2011 Taylor Keating
All rights reserved.
They were being watched.
Chase Hawkins, Guardian of the Fae — freezing his ass off on an unfamiliar world while trapped in another man's body — sprang into action. Even though Hawk knew better than anyone that this particular Fae, River Weston, was far from helpless, he could no more stop the instinctive reaction to protect her than he could stop breathing.
He didn't plan to cease either activity anytime soon.
He pushed her slight frame behind him, her usual lightning-fast reflexes dulled by shock and lack of sleep. Whatever watched them from the thick undergrowth of the forest had the advantage on them. They had nowhere to run. At their backs a wide river, its cold, late autumn waters gleaming in the afternoon sun, blocked their escape.
Hawk hated the limitations this foreign body placed on him. It was tall enough, but lacked his muscle. He felt awkward in it, not to mention he had no love for its previous owner. That meant he felt no need to look after it, which was good. He clenched his fists and took a combative stance. So what if it acquired a few extra scars?
"What is it?" River asked, immediately trying to slip past him to see for herself what had made him react with such aggression.
"I don't know," Hawk admitted, grimly pleased that River didn't brush off his concern. They'd been through too much together in the past few days for her to doubt him, but she wouldn't take kindly to his attempts to protect her either. "It's there. In the bushes. This is your world," he added. "What do you think it might be?"
She didn't get a chance to answer him.
An enormous brown bear, silver tipping its shaggy fur, lunged from the forest to their left and hurtled toward them. The attack was unexpected because it came from a different direction than where their watcher lurked in front of them.
River, who in Hawk's experience feared very little, drew in a sharp breath and grabbed his arm, dragging him to the water's edge with surprising strength. Awed by the sheer size and silent speed of the approaching monster, Hawk didn't resist.
He thanked the Great Lords of the Guardians that he'd been able to step into Nick Sutton's body — may he rot in his own special hell — before River's virtual video game had failed, because her reality held every bit as much danger as the virtual one she'd found herself trapped inside through her use of untutored magic. If Hawk had let his soul return to his own body in his Guardian world and left her with no one to watch over her here on earth, who knew what might happen to her now?
Not that he would ever willingly leave her alone. Guardians protected the Fae. Except this particular Fae liked to prove she could take care of herself, which meant he had to do something. Fast. The bear, anger gleaming from its beady eyes, was almost on top of them.
Hawk yanked his arm from River's grasp, pushed her into the water, and squared off against the snorting beast.
An arrow, accompanied by the low whine of whirling fletching, breezed past his cheek and embedded itself in the bear's head, piercing its brain and dropping it in its tracks. Hawk dodged as its lifeless body fell with a heavy thump, a death groan rattling from deep in its throat.
River, wet and angry, surfaced gasping from the cold water.
"What the hell, Nick?" she shouted at him, her dark hair streaming around her shoulders, her blue eyes shooting daggers of ice.
Hawk's heart froze in his chest. This wasn't the time to be sensitive about the fact she'd called him by another man's name, even though technically he was wearing that same man's body and she could be excused for the mistake. Somewhere nearby, someone was armed and Hawk didn't intend for his next target to be River.
"Get down!" he ordered her, and with a Fae's instinctive response to the command of a Guardian, she dropped back into the water without hesitation. She was going to be angry with him later for that.
Hawk crouched in front of her, shielding her as best he could, and scanned the forest's edge. He could detect no signs of movement and yet he knew someone was there.
"Show yourself!" he shouted in the direction he guessed the arrow had projected from.
"Step away from River!" came the equally determined response.
At first Hawk thought he'd misheard and that he was being ordered away from the river. Then he realized the owner of the voice, undoubtedly male, knew River's name. And that he sounded unusually young.
That didn't mean Hawk intended to let the faceless archer have a clear shot at her. He'd learned to trust no one.
River didn't share his concern.
"Jake!" she called out. The warm welcome in her voice wasn't lost on Hawk. She knew the identity of the watcher lurking in the undergrowth.
A boy, perhaps twelve or thirteen, gangly limbed and with shaggy blond hair, stepped warily from the woods. He held a crossbow in his hands, another arrow nocked and aimed steady at Hawk's heart. Hawk didn't doubt for a second the boy would shoot him if Hawk gave him a reason. What was going on in River's world?
And who was this kid?
"Put down that crossbow," River said to the boy she'd called Jake. She waded from the water, soaked and shivering and clearly as puzzled as Hawk. "What on earth do you think you're doing, wandering around the woods by yourself?"
Jake kept the crossbow trained on Hawk, and Hawk felt a twinge of respect for him. He might be a boy, but he was a damned good shot and an even better judge of character. Nick Sutton had been the biggest piece of crap Hawk had ever seen.
And Hawk was going to be seeing the piece of crap in the mirror every day unless he could get his consciousness back to his own cryonically frozen body before it was too late. If he'd known when he accepted the mission to search for missing Fae souls that his own was going to be shanghaied by a pissed-off Dark Lord, he'd have requested a better contingency plan and possibly more danger pay. Finding River had been the only good thing to come out of the whole mess.
"Who's he?" Jake asked River with a jerk of his chin in Hawk's direction.
Hawk would be damned if he'd show fear of a little kid. He stooped to examine the still-warm carcass of the bear — not that he had to stoop far. He gave a low whistle. Crisos. That was one mother of a bear. Perhaps he should show a little fear of the kid, at that. He doubted if he would have been able to make such a shot at the same age.
"This is —"
"Nick," Hawk interrupted River smoothly, glancing up at Jake. "Nick Sutton."
River looked at him strangely, and a fierce gladness surged through him in response. This situation was going to take some getting used to — on both their parts — but at least she knew him for who he really was.
That didn't mean Hawk wasn't going to do his damnedest to get back to his own body. Or get River off this shithole of a world and to where she really belonged. Her birth father had been a Guardian, but the magic tied to her soul meant she was 100 percent Fae.
"Did you have to kill it?" River was scolding the boy. She had a Fae's respect for life. She was a healer, a nurturer, a grower. She was not a killer, although she could kick ass when need be.
That was definitely the Guardian genes coming out.
Jake's face grew sullen. "I thought about letting it rip this guy to pieces. But I wasn't sure if he was a friend of yours or one of the people who've been looking for you, so I let him live."
Hawk's head shot up. "Someone's been looking for River?"
"Don't you watch the news?" Jake retorted.
River swayed on her feet and Hawk moved quickly to steady her. She had transported them from the Dark Lord's disintegrating virtual prison to the place she'd been born and raised. She'd done so instinctively because she'd always felt safe here. To find out that she wasn't — not anymore — had to come as a shock to her.
She was wet and shivering. He shrugged out of Nick's jacket, wincing at the bullet hole and the damp patch of congealing blood, and wrapped it around her. Something had happened to River in the final level of the game. She'd disappeared from it suddenly, only to reappear a few moments later with Nick's dying body in her arms. Hawk hadn't yet had a chance to ask her about it, although the bullet hole told him quite a bit, and he was willing to bet whatever it was, it had something — everything — to do with River.
Someone else out there in her adopted world was aware she was ... special.
"I haven't seen the news recently," Hawk answered Jake. "I've been out of touch the last little while."
"You another gamer?" Jake demanded, a sneer of distaste curling his lip. The crossbow never wavered from its target.
Gee, Jake, tell me what you really think. Hawk turned to River and cocked an eyebrow. "Who's the kid?"
She ignored the question, all her attention on the juvenile delinquent. "Put the crossbow down," she ordered again.
When Jake finally lowered the weapon — grudgingly, Hawk noted with approval — River wrapped her arms around the boy and drew him close. He was tall for his age, although he hadn't yet filled out, and he returned her hug with all the embarrassed enthusiasm of any normal teenage boy. Still, it wasn't difficult to tell he was equally as fond of her as she seemed of him.
She turned her head to answer Hawk's question.
"This is Jake. My little brother."
* * *
River couldn't get over how big Jake had grown. She hadn't realized how long it had been since she'd last seen him.
She'd also forgotten how much he looked like their father.
She sat uneasily on the edge of her chair in the sunny kitchen of the farmhouse where she'd grown up, although it hadn't been a true home to her for years. Her parents — the ones who'd raised her — were long gone and the blonde woman across the table from her was little more than a stranger.
River tried to get her head around all that had happened.
Hawk, and regardless of how he looked on the outside River would always know him, pulled his chair closer to hers as if he sensed her disorientation and wanted to shield her from it. River pretended she didn't notice. This particular battle was hers, not his. Melinda had never welcomed her presence in this house. River's father had showered too much of his love on her, and Melinda never forgave him for loving an adopted daughter as much as he'd loved the two natural sons she'd given him. It hadn't mattered that River loved the boys, too. Melinda wasn't big on female competition of any kind.
In all fairness, River didn't care much for Melinda either. She'd appeared in her father's life a little too close on the heels of her adoptive mother's death. River could accept that her father had needed a woman's companionship. She couldn't accept Melinda's need to erase her mother's existence from her father's life.
The flat palm of Hawk's hand went to the slight curve between her shoulders, resting in a casual but protective manner, and Melinda's pale eyes didn't miss the intimate gesture. The room was too warm and River was tired, mentally and physically. She stifled a yawn and tried to focus on what Melinda was saying to her.
"You can't stay here." Melinda widened her fingers and pressed her hands atop the old oaken table as if to brace herself for a fight. "I have children to think about."
Jake, who'd taken up a watchful stance by the wood stove, opened his mouth to protest. River held up a hand to silence him, her eyes pleading with him not to make things more difficult.
"I understand," she said to Melinda, and she did. The friends River had worked with for months were now dead, and River was wanted for questioning. That was a polite way of saying she was the prime suspect. Being the prime suspect meant River was guilty until proven innocent, and anyone caught helping her would be considered guilty as well. It wouldn't matter that Jake and their other brother, Sam, were only thirteen and eleven. She was lucky Melinda didn't take this opportunity to plant a bullet between her eyes. She'd be well within her rights to do so, and call it protecting her property. River would bet the only reason she hadn't was because of Jake standing watch.
Jake couldn't watch over her forever, which meant she and Hawk weren't safe here. They needed to go. But go where?
"Well, I don't understand," Jake declared. His feet were planted wide and he fixed his mother with a look of such disapproval he again reminded River of their father, and she would have laughed if she'd been able. "This is River. She's my sister. And I'm not a child," he added as an afterthought, suddenly picking up that his mother had included him in her reason for denying River a place to stay. He patted the strap of the crossbow still slung across his shoulder. "Anyone else tries to come after her, they won't get close enough to the house to even know she's here."
Things might be settling down somewhat in the cities after the war but here in the mountains, vigilantism was alive and well. River hated this life for her brothers, and their father had, too, but Melinda seemed to accept it and River had no say.
"One night and all day tomorrow," Hawk said. "We'll be gone by tomorrow night, as soon as it's dark."
River wanted to leave immediately. "That's not a good idea," she said to him quietly. "If we stay, we put them all in danger."
"You need to sleep," he pointed out in return. His gaze went to Jake although he continued to address River. "You've gone too long without it. And if you're going to sleep, I want someone I trust standing guard over you."
That comment scored him major points with Jake. The boy glowed from the compliment and River tried not to roll her eyes. She looked at Melinda, stone-faced across the table from her, easily interpreting her stepmother's thoughts.
"I think we should leave now," River said.
Melinda bit her lip and looked at Jake. It occurred to River then that Melinda didn't want to alienate her son, and that she relied far more on the boy than she should. Jake had become her protection, and River felt fury rise in her that Melinda would put a child in such a position.
Her fury died as quickly as it rose, replaced by guilt. Melinda had never been able to look after herself. Therefore, had Melinda put Jake in that position, or by walking away from them after her father's death, had River?
"One night," Melinda said, and River could tell that it almost killed her to make the concession. "But I want you out of here as soon as the sun goes down tomorrow."
Another blond-headed boy, smaller than Jake and with baby fat still rounding out his cheeks, dashed through the door of the kitchen, banging it loudly behind him. He drew up short when he saw who sat at the table. His feet began moving again as soon as he recognized her.
"River!" he shouted, launching himself across the kitchen and into her arms. Laughing, he wrestled her from the chair and onto the floor.
She had him on his back with his shoulders pinned beneath her knees before Hawk could decide to take offense to the assault.
Hawk, however, seemed more amused than offended. He leaned back in his chair. "Another brother?" he guessed.
"This is Sam," she said, getting to her feet. "Sam, meet ..." Again, she stumbled over the name. She found it difficult to look at Hawk in Nick's body. She couldn't quite meet his eyes and she felt his amusement fade when he realized it.
"Nick," Hawk said easily, holding out his hand for the eleven-year-old to shake.
River hoped Hawk pretending to be Nick wasn't a permanent situation. Nick had died because of her, and more than anything else she hated that reminder every time she looked at him.
Supper was awkward, not that she'd expected it to be one big happy family reunion. They all sat at the round table, Sam and Hawk chatting easily, Jake sullen and silent, and Melinda and River trying to ignore each other's existence. Melinda kept looking at the drawn curtains as if worried someone might somehow be looking back.
Jake got up from the table and flipped on the television.
The news was on. River's picture filled the top right-hand corner of the screen as the story of the dead gamers scrolled across the bottom, over and over, while the anchor delivered the local weather in a nasal monotone.
Hawk's knife clattered to his plate. "Turn it off. River doesn't need to see that."
"Yes, she does," Melinda replied, delicately sliding a forkful of peas into her mouth.
Jake's hand hovered near the television's control and he looked at River, clearly not knowing what he should do.
"Leave it, Jake." River's eyes fixed on the words on the screen as her dinner turned to ice in her stomach. She flinched when her picture was replaced with shots from the bloodstained crime scenes.
It was true. Her friends were dead. Johnny, Tanner, and Marcia, who'd never done anything bad to anyone. Okay, maybe Marcia had been a bit of a trashy bitch. That didn't mean she'd deserved to die. Especially not the way she had.
Excerpted from Mind Games by Taylor Keating. Copyright © 2011 Taylor Keating. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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