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Sexy Beast II
By KATE DOUGLAS NOELLE MACK KATHLEEN DANTE
KENSINGTON BOOKSCopyright © 2007 Kensington Publishing Corp.
All right reserved.
Chapter One"If he hits her again, I'm going to kill the bastard."
"Why? So she can testify against you and send you back to Folsom? Been there, done that. Look at her. She's not crying-she's glaring at him. The guy's probably her pimp, just making a point. Don't interfere with business. Finish your beer and let's get out of here." AJ Temple threw a couple of five-dollar bills on the scarred surface of the bar and stood up.
Miguel Fuentes rose slowly to his feet, his attention still on the couple at the other end of the bar. The beer can he left on the counter resembled a small chunk of crushed and mangled aluminum. AJ seemed to recognize Mik was just about ready to blow, and grabbed his arm to steer him toward the door.
Unfortunately, they had to walk right by the muscle-bound jerk hanging on to the fragile-looking waif with the big, sad eyes. The lighting inside the tavern was dim, but it wasn't dark enough to hide the distinct marks on the girl's arm where square, meaty fingers kept a tight grip.
Mik planted his feet and refused to move beyond the mismatched pair.
"Let go of the lady."
When AJ tugged at his arm, Mik jerked loose. "I said, let her go. Now."
The stranger at the bar turned slowly and glared at both AJ and Mik through narrow, bloodshot eyes. Then he lumbered to his feet. As tall as he was, and as broad, he still had to look up at Mik, but that didn't appear to bother him a bit. He curled his lip in a soundless snarl. "Who the fuck are you?"
Mik almost laughed. If only he could tell him. Even better, show him. He could shift, right here in this seedy little bar. Change into a ferocious, snarling wolf and rip the guy's throat out, just for effect. Damn. Times like these, Mik wished the Chanku weren't such a deeply guarded secret. Wished he could follow his true nature as a shapeshifter.
He'd go for the bastard's throat and settle the problem, once and for all. It might make a mess of the place, but it would certainly shut the jerk up. Unfortunately, Mik knew he had to control himself no matter how badly the beast in him wanted a bite of this idiot.
That didn't mean he couldn't go for a little alpha-male posturing. Mik straightened his spine and puffed out his chest. His open hands hung deceptively loose at his sides.
Of course, now the die was cast, AJ seemed to think it prudent to add his bulk for emphasis. He stepped up beside Mik, not quite as big, but every bit as powerful. "My buddy asked you to let go of her arm. It's obvious you're hurting the lady."
Before the jerk could answer, the woman slipped off the barstool and moved to one side. The big guy released his grip slowly, reluctantly, almost as if he caressed her bruised skin. She glanced nervously toward the back of the tavern, then wrapped her arms tightly around her narrow waist. Her long dark hair floated over her shoulders and down her slim back, almost to her butt. Thick bangs obscured her forehead and eyes. "It's okay. We were having an argument. I ..." She stepped away, a small step, but it took her farther from the man who'd hurt her and closer to Mik. "I was wrong. Jimmy here, well, he had a right to get upset."
I told you so. She'll side with the bastard. AJ's silent comment, mindtalking in the way of their kind, echoed in Mik's head.
She's scared out of her fucking skull. What else is she gonna say?
C'mon, Mik. Out of here. Now. This guy's not alone. For emphasis, AJ nodded to his left, in the direction the woman had glanced. Mik turned slightly, but it was enough to see the half dozen rednecks lounging near the pool table, just waiting for a fight.
He felt his hackles rise in response. Natural in a wolf but damned uncomfortable in a human. The bully was a local. AJ and Mik were fair game. Cursing under his breath, Mik turned away from the hopeless expression on the woman's face and followed AJ out of the bar. He couldn't help taking one final glance back at her, though. She looked frightened but still defi- ant next to the muscular bully. Her gaze lingered on Mik and AJ. Then her face twisted with pain as the man wrapped his fist in her long dark hair.
Mik's gut twisted, as if the bastard had reached inside and grabbed him as well. It almost killed him to turn away, but he followed AJ. He had no choice. Years of experience had taught Mik to trust his partner.
It didn't mean he always had to like it.
Once outside the tavern, Mik took a deep breath of hot, dry air before he turned on AJ. "We could have taken them. There were only seven of 'em counting that sonofabitch."
AJ laughed and headed down the dusty street. His shadow stretched straight out in front of him, long and thin as the setting sun dropped lower in the sky. "That's almost word for word what you said when you beat that last guy half to death. She is not worth seven to ten years in prison. Didn't your first incarceration teach you anything?"
Mik shook his head, trying unsuccessfully to erase the waif's lost look from his mind. "Same thing your five years in Folsom taught you-not to get caught. Poor kid. She looks like she's used to getting beat up."
AJ stopped and stared at Mik for a long, uncomfortable minute. "She probably is. Get over it. You cannot right every wrong. You can't rescue every stray. Face it, you can't save the world. You can only do what you're able to do, then move on to the next job."
Mik stared into the eyes of the man he loved more than anyone else in the world and realized he'd never yet won an argument with AJ. He felt the anger flow out of him, leaving only disappointment, and he sighed. "I know you're right. Unfortunately, being right doesn't make it any easier to walk away." Mik shoved his hands in his pockets, took another deep breath and let it out. "Let's get dinner and get moving. I can't stay here in this dump, not knowing that little girl is hurting."
AJ slapped Mik's shoulder. "She's not a little girl and she's not hurting. She's probably just getting ready to go to work. Like I said, that guy's most likely her pimp. She's a whore, Mik. She's probably a lot tougher than she looks, but if she's broken, it's too damned late for you to fix her, okay? C'mon. I'm with you ... let's find a bite to eat and get out of this dump."
Mik looked around the squalid town square, at the scattered papers and trash blown into filthy piles in corners and up against fences, at the broken benches and dry grass in what might, at some point, have been a park. Now the area reeked of decay and misuse, and the few men standing on the corner opposite them were obviously there for reasons that would get them arrested in any other town.
This place was ugly clear through, but they hadn't come here for the scenery. Mik stared at AJ, looking into eyes so much like his own it would have been eerie if the similarity weren't so comforting. "I really thought we'd find her. Baylor was so certain she'd still be hanging around here."
AJ shrugged. "Not if she's smart. She's probably long gone." He stopped at their car, an oversized SUV parked under a gnarled, leafless tree, and tossed his jacket inside. Then he and Mik walked across the street toward the only restaurant in sight. "Bay said he hadn't heard from his sister in years, and as good as Luc is at finding folks on the Internet, he's not had any luck. No one around here even blinked when we asked about Mary Ellen Quinn. Without a picture or any real identification other than short, round, and blonde, I think finding her is a lost cause."
Mik felt a lump in his throat and swallowed it back. Lost cause. Just like the girl they'd abandoned back there in that seedy bar. He didn't want to abandon Mary Ellen, either. Not with Chanku females so few and far between.
Not that he and AJ needed a woman. They had each other. The two of them had realized their love was special shortly after they met, both of them serving time in Folsom on assault charges. They'd bonded years ago as fellow prisoners. Then, once released from prison by Ulrich Mason, the head of Pack Dynamics, they'd mated as wolves beneath a harvest moon and discovered an even more powerful love. The profound link that occurred during that mating had bound them with the sharing of every secret, every dream they'd ever held.
Mik glanced at AJ as they stepped up on the curb in front of the restaurant and felt the familiar clench in his gut, the hot flow of blood to his damned cock. AJ Temple embodied every sexual fantasy Mik had ever had. Even better, Mik knew AJ felt the same about him. It was impossible to keep secrets from a bonded mate.
Still, even knowing he didn't want a woman for himself, the fact that they might be leaving one of their kind in this desolate town sickened Mik. The mere thought of a Chanku female, unaware of her heritage, unawakened, out there in the world with a mind filled with questions ...
AJ held the door open to the diner. A rush of cool air spilled out into the dry heat of the desert evening. Mik tabled his worries and followed his lover inside.
AJ dug into his rare steak with obvious pleasure. Though their meal was surprisingly good, Mik spent more time shoving his food around the plate than actually eating.
He couldn't get the girl off his mind. Neither one of them. Not Mary Ellen. Not the whore.
"It's still early," AJ said between bites. "We can probably make Phoenix by midnight if we leave now."
Mik nodded. Maybe distance would make him feel better. Right now he felt as if he wore his sense of gloom like a shroud.
When the waiter came to clear their table, more than half of Mik's huge slab of blood-rare prime rib was still sitting on his plate. He had the waiter pack it in a Styrofoam container, tucked the leftovers under his arm, and followed AJ out the door.
The sky had turned from blue to black and the few working streetlights gave the town an even more ominous appearance than it had in daylight. It was time to go. Mik tossed the keys to AJ. The two of them had become a running joke within the pack, the fact that Mik carried the keys but AJ almost always drove. Mik wasn't sure where the habit had formed, but for whatever reason, he felt perfectly comfortable with AJ behind the wheel.
Maybe because it was so much fun to heckle him.
Mik tossed the bag with the leftovers in the back of the SUV and hoped it wouldn't get lost amidst the piles of gear they were hauling. They'd pulled the back seats out for this trip and thrown in a foam mattress in case they got caught out in bad weather without a hotel room available. Messy, but it worked. As part of Pack Dynamics, Mik had learned long ago to be prepared for the unexpected.
This trip had been no different, following up on an international smuggling operation along the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast. The side trip through this southern part of New Mexico in search of Baylor Quinn's missing sister had been an added bonus, if he could call it that. Not finding her didn't sit well with Mik, or AJ either, for that matter.
Mik climbed into the front passenger seat, buckled his seatbelt, and leaned back as AJ pulled out into the main street and headed for Phoenix. There was no rush to get home to San Francisco. Most of the pack was off on one assignment or another. Baylor Quinn had gone back to Maine to settle in with Shannon and Jake. Tinker, Luc, and Tia had something going on with the Montana pack. Ulrich Mason, head of Pack Dynamics, was off on one of his solitary hunts for more Chanku.
Mik wished he had Ulrich's uncanny ability to spot others of their ilk. Wished he'd been able to find at least one of Baylor Quinn's missing sisters. The ex-secret agent hadn't seen his two siblings for almost ten years, but if Bay was Chanku, so were they.
Two women carrying the genes of the wolf. Unaware of their potential, their wolven heritage alive merely as unsatisfied longings and unfulfilled dreams.
Mik settled back into the soft leather seat and closed his eyes. AJ turned on a country western station, all they'd been able to pick up in English out here in the desert, and headed west. They'd sleep in Phoenix tonight, maybe make it home tomorrow.
Home. Nothing more than a room shared with AJ. One job after another. Mik thought of Luc and Tia, and of course, Tinker. Would Tinker ever find someone of his own, or was the relationship with Luc and Tia enough? The big guy seemed happy and Tia obviously had more than enough love to share.
Still, Tinker always looked so lost, as if he were searching for something or someone. Pondering on Tinker and other questions of note, Mik drifted off to sleep to the glorious sound of Patsy Cline telling him to stand by his man.
Tala never expected to sleep, not with every bone in her body aching and her eyes almost swollen shut from the beating Jimmy had given her, but she realized she was awake and her hiding place was moving. More importantly, she smelled food. Something warm and delicious and not too far out of reach.
Tala stretched her hand over the piles of camping gear and miscellaneous duffle bags and bit back a groan. Every move was agony. Damn Jimmy and his drunken pack of fools. After those two gorgeous men bailed out on her, back at the bar, Jimmy'd just turned her over to the guys. For punishment, he said. To teach her a lesson she deserved.
She could still hear the click when he'd turned the lock on the front door. At the time, Tala hadn't been sure if she was going to come out of that damned bar alive, but she should have known Jimmy wouldn't let anyone do anything to injure her permanently.
Tala wanted to think it was because he cared, but the truth of it was she was worth too much to Jimmy alive. She'd always known he didn't mind seeing her hurt. She knew he liked to watch, too. Jimmy'd been laughing when he shoved her into the waiting arms of his buddies.
Not that Tala didn't like sex, but taking six stinking idiots in just under an hour had almost pushed her over the top. Her ass hurt, her throat burned, and she didn't even want to consider what kinds of STDs they'd exposed her to. As bad as it was, though, Jimmy's beating had hurt more. Somehow, somewhere along the way, she'd convinced herself he actually loved her.
Now how pathetic was that?
Tala felt an unfamiliar burning at the back of her eyes. It took a minute to realize she was crying. No! Tala did not cry. Never. With an act of supreme will, she stopped the moisture and gritted her teeth against the pain.
She'd wanted to leave Jimmy Cole for a long time now. Maybe this time she'd make it. At least the road was smooth and she'd found a good spot behind the driver's seat, tucked down on some kind of soft mattress on the floor and wrapped in an even softer blanket with a couple of unrolled sleeping bags to hide beneath.
If only she couldn't smell food. Mouth watering, Tala steeled herself against the ache in her belly and hoped like hell the two men just on the other side of the seat wouldn't hear her moving around.
They'd wanted to help. At least the big one had, the one with the flowing black hair and the gorgeous cheekbones. He reminded her of an ancient warrior, almost like he'd ended up in the wrong century. She'd felt his concern. It had been the strangest sensation, almost like a voice in her head. He'd looked at her with compassion, not pity, and for some reason she'd felt as if they had something in common, as if they both understood suffering.
Well, after tonight, Tala was through suffering. Jimmy might have taken care of her in his own rough way for the past three years, but tonight was the last straw. He'd called her a whore, which she was, of course, but then he'd gone and thrown her to that pack of sex-starved lunatics like she was nothing more than a piece of meat.
They'd fallen on her, dogs after a bitch in heat. Three at a time, stabbing into her like she was just a convenient hole.
And isn't that all you are? Damn. Tala wished the voices in her head would go away, or at least shut the fuck up. It was bad enough she couldn't remember anything before Jimmy found her in that stinking alley, but between the voices and the dreams, sometimes Tala felt as if she were losing what little mind she had left.
Excerpted from Sexy Beast II by KATE DOUGLAS NOELLE MACK KATHLEEN DANTE Copyright © 2007 by Kensington Publishing Corp.. Excerpted by permission.
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