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By REBECCA ZANETTI
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2012 Rebecca Zanetti
All rights reserved.
The demon destroyer was beautiful.
Kane Kayrs settled back in the worn booth of the bar and eyed the blonde solution to his devastating problem. Long strands of hair flowed down her trim back, a messy and free tumbling that whispered of cool nights rolling under the stars. An organized chaos that somehow worked. Sun had kissed her angled face, leaving her slightly freckled and rosy cheeked. The cowboy hat perched precariously on her head was all sass. She maneuvered around packed bodies, an island of calm and grace as she delivered beer, hard drinks, and an occasional bottle of water.
A slight sneer lifted her pink lips every time she plunked a water bottle on a table. Interesting.
She stood to about five foot eight—tall for a human female. Ripped jeans molded to full curves, and a low-cut peasant blouse guaranteed she'd receive excellent tips for the night. The woman moved like a dancer, easily dodging groping hands without losing a step. A good-natured laugh, low and sexy, rumbled from her several times.
Kane finished the local beer he'd ordered while waiting for her to show for her shift. Odd that she hadn't acknowledged him. They were the only two people in the bar with power.
The jukebox against the side wall had played a combination of hip-hop and country music all night, and his head was beginning to ache. Dollar bills hung stapled from the ceiling, and a television in the far corner highlighted local rodeo footage from last spring, regardless of the snow currently whipping around outside. The stale scent of old beer permeated the area. Several inebriated women rode saddles masquerading as bar stools, their excited yips a prelude to falling on the floor. The peanut-shell covered floor.
Kane shoved away impatience. Hanging with the locals had never interested him, and the pull of his laboratory called. He had work to do.
Finally, she approached his booth, her gaze going from the empty bottle to his face.
A punch of raw power slammed from her black eyes.
The woman smelled like wild heather just blooming.
She smiled, a small dimple flashing in her left cheek.
"Would you like another beer? Huckleberry Ale, right?"
He tilted his head to the side, allowing her vibrations of energy to run over him. They were almost as sexy as her smooth, slightly raspy voice. An unwilling smile played with his lips. "Are you serious?"
Curiosity widened her smile. "Yeah. Most people like another when theirs is empty. If you didn't like the Colorado Huckleberry, you should try the Cooper Ale. The brewery next door makes it for us. It's lighter and not quite as sweet."
Irritation and a hint of respect filled him at her calm look. She gave absolutely no indication she knew who, or rather what, he was. "I'm not here to play games, sweetheart."
She stilled all movement, wrinkling her brow. "Um, okay."
He leaned forward, clasping his tapered fingers on the damaged table. "Are you really going to pretend you don't know why I'm here?"
Wariness filled her dark eyes, and she took a small step away. A quick glance over her shoulder toward the bulging bartender resulted in confidence tilting her lips. She focused back on Kane. "Listen, jackass. We're not selling the northern rocks. Do you want another drink or not?" The warmth in her smile had disappeared.
A chill swept along his skin. What the hell were the northern rocks? The animal within him, the one so rarely let loose, suddenly wanted to roar. He coughed. If she wanted to play games, he'd allow it until closing time. At that point, his patience ended. "I don't want rocks, northern or otherwise. Why don't you surprise me with the choice of beer?"
"Fine." She pivoted on beige cowboy boots.
Damn, he'd always had a thing for women in cowboy boots. Probably because opposites really did attract. Her ass was something in the tight jeans, too.
He shook his head and stretched his neck. Lust had no place in this mission. When was the last time he'd slept? Grabbing his phone, he speed-dialed his older brother.
"Did you find her?" the king growled across the line.
"Yes. She's broadcasting strong enough I'm shocked I'm the only one here." Kane eyed a couple of cowboys at the bar who'd zeroed in on the blonde. Human, drunk, and stupid ... they might create a decent diversion so he could grab the woman and go.
"You won't be alone for long—I have no doubt the demons are heading your way." The sound of rustling papers came over the line. Dage must've been in his study. "Will she help us?"
"I don't know. So far she's acting like she has no clue I'm a vampire."
The woman sauntered toward him, a dark beer in hand. Depositing the frothing glass on the table, she stared him in the eyes. "Robust Rude Dark Ale. Seemed to fit" Two seconds later and she was busing a table across the room.
Her husky voice had Kane thinking thoughts he really shouldn't. He cleared his throat. "I may have to just grab her." In fact, his hands all but itched with the need to get ahold of her. Damn enhanced human females. They instantly sent a vamp into overdrive. Even a logical one like him.
"I don't care what you do. Just get her to help us." Desperation and something darker lowered Dage's tone. "I haven't had a vision, but my gut is telling me we're running out of time. We need to find Jase and now."
Kane rubbed his chin, forcing back despair and a now familiar fear. "Don't worry, I'll do what I have to do."
"I know." Dage sighed. "Have you come up with a plan for when we get him back?"
Kane shoved emotion down, his eyes never leaving the woman. He leveled his voice into logical tones, because logic was what the king needed. "I have several plans, and we'll decide which one works best when we get him and assess the situation." The idea of assessing how damaged his younger brother had become after being tortured by demons had Kane's eyes morphing to his vampire mode and back—hopefully before anyone noticed. Yet he kept his voice calm. "Jase is strong, Dage. He'll survive."
But would he? The demons had taken him nearly four years ago. Demons tortured with obscene mind games, often rendering the victim stark crazy and suicidal. After years of such agony, could any man survive? Kane blinked twice. Wallowing in fear wouldn't help.
"We've been so close to finding him, so many damn times," Dage said. "New intel is that the demons have created a base somewhere in the southwest. I'm hoping they've moved Jase there."
"Maybe." Kane wouldn't have. He would've kept any prisoner at home base and away from the known vampire headquarters in the States. Of course, vampires didn't keep prisoners. But as strong as the king was, he was also an older brother who needed something to cling to. Some type of hope allowing him to function. "We'll find him."
"Yes, we will. So tell me about the woman."
Kane shrugged. "White blond hair like a demon. Black eyes. Tall, graceful ... beautiful."
"Beautiful?" Dage breathed out. "Interesting. I always figured if we found a demon destroyer, she'd be a massive monster with warts. In my three hundred fifty years, I've never seen one. In fact, I'd thought they'd died out."
The woman certainly lacked warts or monstrosity. Kane took a drink of the dark ale, enjoying the rich hops.
"Which begs the question ... how has she hidden so well, and why stop now? Why is she broadcasting so damn strongly? I felt the vibrations the second I drove into this small Colorado town."
"Well, if there's a mystery to solve, you're the guy to solve it. Just get her to help us."
"I will." God help the woman if she refused.
One of the drunk women yipped loud, fell off her saddle, and crashed to the floor. A chorus of applause rippled throughout the bar.
Who the hell were these people?
Dage cleared his throat. "Ah, Kane, I know this isn't your kind of mission. But you were the only one I could send."
"Not a problem." Jesus. He knew how to deal with people—he merely preferred not to. "I have to go—see you soon." Clicking off, he took a deep breath, resisting the urge to cough from smoke and the scent of spilled tequila. Hunting werewolves was a hell of a lot easier than hunting one small woman.
He caught her eye and lifted his bottle in a silent toast. Oh yeah, sweetheart. We're both about to leave our comfort zones. Smiling as she flushed and broke eye contact, he swallowed a good drink of the brew. Let the real games begin.
Amber wove around another cowboy on his way to the restroom, her gaze on the full tray of tequila shooters, her mind on the guy by the door. Make that the man by the door. There was nothing guy-like about the smooth tourist. And if she didn't miss her guess, he was no tourist.
Wearing black silk trousers and shirt, he hinted at money. Dark hair that curled over his nape, deep eyes so blue as to be almost violet, and rugged features hinted at intelligence. Dig deeper, and the hints ended to a blatant display of ... maleness. He had it.
Lounging in the booth, he apparently couldn't care less he didn't belong in the Western bar. And the rest of the patrons stayed clear of him. Quite unusual, considering most of the women had given him "come take me" eyes all night. But not one of them had the guts to approach the stranger. He might as well have had a "stay the hell away" sign on his chest. Or on his chiseled face.
She'd delivered no less than eight beers to him, and he appeared as alert after the last one as he had when she'd arrived for her shift. Thank God it was almost closing time and she could get away from his constant appraisal.
Those dark eyes never left her. They cataloged, watched, and kept track. But there was no leer, no creepy expression in them. He just ... watched.
She'd had about enough of him. Her feet ached from being on them all night, and the muscles along her neck were killing her. But she needed the money, so she'd taken the waitressing job a week ago.
Too bad she wasn't trained in anything other than nurturing plants and trees. It was definitely time to sign up for some night classes at the college.
With a sigh, she headed his way, having to concentrate to keep from tripping over her boots. Something about the stranger reminded her of her femininity. The silly thought caught her up short. Man, she had to stop sneaking away from the group and reading goofy romance novels.
But she couldn't help herself. Sure, she'd been taught to rely on herself and that she had to create her own happy ending. But wasn't that what the heroines in those books did?
Finally she reached his table. "Last call, buddy."
A smile curved his full lips ... one that had odd tingles wandering down her spine. The grin failed to soften the harsh angles of his face, making him seem even harder than before. Man, he was good-looking. Almost too much so. He slid the empty beer bottle across the table, his fingers long and tapered.
"Buddy? That's a new one on me. Thanks, but I'm finished." Reaching for a wallet in his back pocket, he slid a fifty toward her. "You haven't taken a break in five hours. Please sit down while you count my change."
Smooth, cultured, his deep tone zinged butterflies through her abdomen. She glanced around at the now nearly empty bar. She could spare a moment. Curiosity forced her to sit, even while warning whispered in the back of her head. She knew better. "Why have you been looking at me for five solid hours?" Not reaching for the fifty, and certainly not reaching for her change pouch, she stared him right in the eyes.
A flash of temper filtered across his face that he quickly banished. "I don't have time to dance with you. You know exactly why I'm here."
"I do?" She frowned. Her heart sped up. "You lied about the northern rocks?"
Danger lived in his frown. "Sweetheart, I don't know a thing about any rocks. I do, however, need your help."
Oh, for goodness' sake. Was this some sophisticated-guy come-on? "I'm really not interested." She softened her voice to appease him. While he appeared classy, there was no doubt the guy was dangerous. The way he filled out the expensive shirt showed toned muscle. But the danger lived in his eyes and on his skin. Instinct kept her alert.
Anger flattened his full lips. "You won't help?"
She inhaled deeply. The scent of cedar and musk—maleness—tickled her senses. Perhaps the guy was merely lost. "Maybe I've misunderstood. What kind of help do you need?"
He paused, taking her measure. "The demons have my brother."
Her mouth went dry. Alarm bells in her brain widened her eyes. "Ah ... demons?"
"Yes." Calculation and an odd sorrow flashed across his face. "The demon nation captured him, and they've imprisoned him for almost four years. I need your help."
"Oh. Well now." Moving slowly, scooting from the booth, she sighed in relief when she reached her feet. "I'm so sorry to hear that. Those demons, well now." Subtly, she nodded to Butch, who had just finished wiping down the bar. "But, well, there's nothing I can do." Except send the wacko back to his spaceship.
Butch's cowboy boots clomped through peanut shells on the wood floor, all three hundred pounds of him showing grumpiness. "Problem?" His bald head glinted under the dim lights, and pure pissed-off male shone in his eyes as he glared at the crazy guy.
A nervous giggle escaped Amber. "Ah, no. It's just, this man should probably get going."
Butch nodded his massive head. "Pay and get out, fella."
"Kane." Most men immediately rushed to do Butch's bidding. Not this guy. With an appraising glance, he slid the fifty closer to Amber, his gaze on her. "Kane. Instead of 'fella' or 'buddy.' Kane."
Her mind spun. "Cain?" Okay, wait a minute. The Bible story about brothers. "Like Abel and Cain? I mean, demons never took Abel." Sympathy wafted through her. "Do you think you're Cain?" Poor guy—and the one shrink in town was usually drunk.
He lifted an eyebrow and shook his head. "Ah, no. Kane with a K. And no, the demons didn't have Abel from the Bible." His look whispered he was doubting her intelligence. "I'd rather discuss this privately, if you don't mind."
"I mind." Butch grabbed for Kane's wrist.
The air moved. Somehow Kane reached his feet and trapped Butch against the table, arm pinned between his shoulder blades. "No touching ... fella."
Amber stepped back, her breath quickening, goosebumps springing to life along her arms. Who the heck moved that fast? "Let him go."
Kane immediately released Butch and backed away from the red-faced brute.
"Get out," Butch hissed through gritted teeth.
Kane nodded, his gaze on Amber. "We're not finished." Smooth strides and he was out the door.
Good Lord. Who was that fast, strong, crazy man? And he'd forgotten his change.
Butch rounded on her. "Who the hell was that guy?"
"I don't know. At first I thought he was one of Hanson's guys, but he denied it. Just some lunatic who likes beer." She shrugged off the unease. They were finished—whether tall, dark, and smooth liked it or not. She had enough problems, including the two drunk morons at the bar.
Before she could give Butch a hint, the mammoth grabbed both guys by the necks and tossed them out the door.
Grinning, Amber finished busing her tables. Handing Butch his share of tips, made much larger than usual by Kane's fifty, she dodged into the back room and grabbed her coat. Tugging her calculator from the pocket, she double-checked her math to make sure she'd been fair with Butch. Yep. It was after two in the morning, and her yawn cracked her jaw. The other two waitresses had already headed home; one with a sleek-looking cowboy, the other to pick up her kid at the sitter's.
"Wait a sec, and I'll walk you out." Butch threw a towel into the sink and squinted past the small windows to the snowy world outside. The phone rang and he grabbed it, his wide face splitting in a smile.
Amber laughed. "Say hi to Sandy for me." No way was she waiting until Butch got off the phone with his sweetheart, who was attending a real estate conference in Wyoming.
Tugging on threadbare gloves, she slid outside into snow and beauty. Soft, the moon glinted across sparkles of now-peaceful snow, more than a match for the myriad of stars now revealed since the storm had passed. But thick clouds were quietly moving in again.
Drawing her coat closer around her shoulders, she glanced around the quiet parking lot, ready to run back inside the safe bar in case the drunks hadn't left.
The door opened and nearly smacked into her back. Butch stomped outside. "I said I'd walk you to the car." He held out his arm like a prince at a ball.
Amber grinned, sliding her hand along his elbow. "I figured you'd be a while."
He shrugged, the cold not seeming to bother him even in the thin T-shirt. "I'll call Sandy later tonight."
Ice and snow slowed their progress toward Amber's ancient Volkswagen Bug, but they finally crossed the parking lot. The metal had faded to a barely-there green, but the car ran. Amber stomped snow off her feet, glancing at the blue tinge marring the powder. "You said you'd switch de-icers to an environmentally safe type. This stuff will poison any animal that tries to eat the snow."
"I will. As soon as I use up the old stuff." Butch scraped ice from the windows with a credit card.
"Fine." The old stuff was going to magically disappear the next night Amber worked.
Excerpted from Provoked by REBECCA ZANETTI. Copyright © 2012 Rebecca Zanetti. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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