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By REBECCA ZANETTI
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Rebecca Zanetti
All rights reserved.
In his own mind, a sociopath is the sanest person in the room.
— Dr. Vinnie Wellington, Sociopaths
The nightmare clawed through Vinnie, ripping and gnashing until she awoke, her mouth opened in a silent scream.
Thank God. Finally, she'd been quiet. They'd had to move her quarters three times already because her night terrors scared the hell out of normal people. Now she lived in the bottom far corner of a sparsely populated residence in Vanguard territory, which was seven square blocks of relative safety in a dark world.
She leaped from the bed, her bare feet slapping ripped linoleum. Her lungs compressed and tremors shook her legs. She couldn't breathe. God, she couldn't breathe.
Bending over, she planted a hand on her chest.
She needed air.
Launching into motion, she ran through the dilapidated tenement to the creaky sliding glass door and yanked it open. Rain, cold and drizzly, cascaded inside on a burst of wind. Undaunted by the storm or the darkness outside, she pushed through weeds choking torn concrete and stumbled onto the abandoned road.
Sharp rocks and pieces of debris cut into her feet, but she paid no heed. Crossing the worn asphalt, she reached the chain-link fence protecting all seven blocks of Vanguard territory.
Her hands wrapped around the chain link near her face, and even in her panic, she remembered not to reach up to the barbed wire.
Thunder bellowed above as what was once the City of Angels gave itself over to the short but devastating rainy season. She held tight and lifted her head, allowing the rain to barrage her.
"You're early tonight." A voice, low and masculine, cut through the storm from the other side of the fence.
She blinked and stared into the darkness. The streets, abandoned to weeds, stretched in every direction across the empty, dark land. "Where are you?" she whispered.
He came into view, silent like any predator, stepping right up to the fence. "You're getting wet, Doc."
She wiped water from her eyes. "I didn't scream this time."
"I know." Raze Shadow, one of the elite Vanguard lieutenants, had rescued her from hell a week ago while on a mission.
If he hadn't heard her scream this time, was he just patrolling nearby? She shivered. "How is patrol going?"
His eyes, such a light blue as to be odd, lasered through the dark, touching on her toes and wandering up her bare legs and soaking white T-shirt to her damp face. Somehow, even in the cold and through the fence, the gaze heated her skin. "Go back inside, Vivienne."
"No." She couldn't. She just couldn't return to the nightmare and that dismal apartment. "I'm fine." Except her left foot hurt. A lot. She lifted her leg and stretched her ankle, squinting to see through the darkness.
Raze tucked an AK-47 over a shoulder, his gaze dropping to her aching foot. His shoulders straightened. "Damn it. Stay there." Long strides took him down the length of the fence until she couldn't see him any longer.
The wind whistled a lonely tune over the barren land, and somewhere in the distance, a lion roared. Probably Marvin. She hadn't seen the beast, but some of the other Vanguard residents had warned her about him. He'd escaped some zoo when the world had died from the Scorpius bacterium, and now he hunted survivors and other predators alike.
Cold blasted through her thin shirt and she trembled.
"Vivienne?" Raze gave her warning that he was near.
She turned, and he came into view on her side of the fence. "That was fast."
"Humph." He reached her in two strides. "It isn't safe out here."
"It isn't safe anywhere," she whispered.
His chest settled. "Inside."
The cold pricked over her skin and she nodded, turning. The second her damaged heel touched asphalt, the injury stung. She sucked in air.
He planted a large hand on her shoulder. "You okay?"
She stiffened. He'd taken great pains not to touch her during her one week in Vanguard territory, always remaining distant but polite. "Yes." She gritted her teeth and took another step, trying to balance on her toes.
He exhaled loudly. Shaking his head, he lifted her and pivoted toward the building. So easily.
Warmth and male surrounded her in the closest thing she'd had to protection in months. Her heart stuttered and her body softened into his strength. For the moment, safety surrounded her in the form of hard muscles. Yet Raze Shadow was nowhere near safe. "What's your real first name?" she babbled, suddenly aware of her thin T-shirt and panties. She should've worn yoga pants to bed.
"Raze." He kept his gaze straight ahead.
No. Raze was short for Razor, which was his nickname from the military because apparently he was a master with a blade. The man didn't owe her his real name, so she refrained from asking again.
His strides were long, and even holding her, he made no sound. She held herself stiff, trying not to brush against his hard body. The second she softened, she'd try to burrow right inside him, and when he rejected her, as he surely would, she'd want to cry. There was no crying after the apocalypse. "Why are you babysitting me?" she asked.
"You need babysitting." His voice was deep and dark with an inflection of power. The voice of a man in control of his environment. She'd heard the same tones from seasoned soldiers, retiring neurosurgeons, and hard-edged survivors. He carried her through the glass door and into the dingy apartment, which was such a far cry from her former condo in Boston that it wasn't even funny. "Lantern?" he asked.
"Um, on the counter?"
He moved the short distance to the L-shaped area that had once served as a kitchen, somehow able to see in the dark. The fridge was gone, the sink didn't work, and the oven now held extra socks. Once electricity had stopped flowing, kitchens for the most part had become useless.
Setting her on the chipped counter, he twisted on a halogen lantern and immediately crouched down, one broad hand wrapping around her ankle. "What the hell, woman?"
She winced. "I panicked."
"No shit." He opened the oven and drew out a pair of socks, having been the person who'd put them there in the first place when he'd helped her to move. Gently, much more gently than a man his size should be able to touch, he wiped grime and blood off her aching arch.
She tried to remain still, but tingles wandered right up her foot to her leg and then to her girly parts. Only Raze Shadow could remind her of her femininity while surrounded by such destruction.
"Seems okay — just scraped." He looked up, all intent. "We're out of antibiotics and you can't injure yourself like this."
A panic attack didn't wait for reason. "All right."
He slowly shook his head. "You need a roommate."
Not a chance. Often she awoke screaming like a banshee and she couldn't do that to another person. Even if she could find somebody willing to stay with her, which was doubtful. "Okay."
"Stop agreeing with me." His voice remained level, always in perfect control.
He sat back, still on his haunches, a shield over his expression. As usual. "You've been here a week and nobody has pushed you, but this isn't working."
She swallowed and tried to sit back. Such complete focus from him launched butterflies — the crazy wild ones — through her abdomen. "I'll be okay."
"Stop saying okay."
His eyebrows drew down. "If you talk about what haunts you, you'll get rid of the nightmares." He placed both hands over her cold knees, instantly warming her legs.
His touch sent electrical zaps through her skin and she tried to focus. "I don't want to talk about it." Hell, she didn't even remember most of her time in captivity. The president of the United States, one of the most dangerous Rippers of all, had held her captive and drugged the hell out of her. "I don't remember."
"You remember." Raze's attention didn't waver.
Yeah, but if she shared the agony of that time, she might reveal too much. "Listen. I was held captive and beaten a little bit, but that's all. In fact, although it sucked, it wasn't so bad until he used the drugs from the CIA to try to get me to cooperate." As odd as it sounded, she'd been given food during her imprisonment, which was more than most people had these days.
Raze cocked his head, just so slightly, to the side. "I saw the vials. Those kinds of drugs rarely get the desired results, so for him to shoot you up like that was crazy."
"He's a Ripper, which by definition means he's insane." The Rippers were survivors of the Scorpius bacterium whose brains had somehow been altered by the disease so they now lacked empathy. They were still humans, still capable of feelings and thoughts. However, some became serial killers ranging from crazy wild to brilliantly deadly. "How do you know so much about those kinds of drugs?" she asked.
"Training in the military." His sharply cut face didn't give anything away. As usual.
Right. She didn't want him probing into her life, so she should offer him the same courtesy, even though curiosity had always been her cross to bear. The rain droned outside, lending intimacy to the room. She cleared her throat. "Thank you for rescuing me last week, by the way."
He shook his head. "I told you to stop thanking me."
She couldn't help it. The president had planned to kill her, or worse, and her time had definitely run out. She'd never forget the sight of Raze Shadow bursting through the door of her makeshift prison to rescue her, so big and strong ... and gentle when he'd released the restraints. "I may never stop thanking you," she mused.
Amusement darkened Raze's eyes. "Any idea what President Bret Atherton wanted from you so badly?"
She hunched into herself, her gaze dropping to her knees. "No." Silence ticked around the dismal apartment. She shivered.
"For an ex-FBI shrink, you're a terrible liar." Lazy contemplation leavened his tone.
She fought another shiver, this one from something other than fear. A tension, one she barely recognized as sexual, heated the air around her. Her gaze slammed up to his face.
He continued to scrutinize her, seeming perfectly comfortable in doing so. The atmosphere shifted with the sense of male intent.
Heat rushed through her, rising up and filling her face. "Stop staring at me."
"Can't help it. You're something to look at."
Look who was talking. Raze Shadow was six and a half feet of hard-muscled badassery with cut features and the most unique light blue eyes she'd ever seen. Add in the thick dark hair, the weird ability to move without making a sound, and an intensity only the most dangerous of people could ever hold? Yeah. She'd stare at him all day if he remained unaware of it. But Raze noticed everything. "Stop watching me."
He straightened and leaned back against the wall. "There's nowhere else to look."
Cold instantly assailed her without his nearby warmth. She shoved herself off the counter, and the second her feet touched the ground, pain sparked along the arch of her foot. "I appreciate your help tonight."
He grinned, transforming his face from predatory to stunning. "That's a brush-off."
Yes, it was. "I should get some more sleep." Not a chance in hell.
"You're done sleeping." He glanced toward the rainstorm outside. "I have another round of patrol to do — any chance you want to get out of here and get some air?"
Her lungs seized. "No." The idea of leaving the safety of the gate stopped her breath. There were Rippers, scavengers, gangbangers, and even Mercenaries out there. The Mercs were a group from northern California who were even more feared than the insane Rippers.
He scowled. "Okay. It'll be dawn in about two hours. Pack your things and I'll help you move to the main headquarters."
She bit her lip. While she'd like nothing more than to leave the apartment, she didn't want her nightmares to keep the elite soldiers at the headquarter building awake. "I don't think —"
"You're about to start working for Vanguard, and being at headquarters makes the most sense." Raze rotated and moved, all grace and muscle, toward the slider. "Be ready in a couple of hours." Without making a sound, he slid into the night and closed the door.
Thunder rumbled outside. She hesitated, looking at her meager possessions. It was lonely so far away from most people, and she did start work the next day.
As she reached to gather her socks, her mind flared awake. There weren't any empty apartments at headquarters.
Just where did Raze think she was going to sleep?
* * *
Raze nodded to a soldier guarding the rear exit of Vanguard territory and strode into the darkness, appearing to be patrolling. The rain drowned out most of the night sounds, but in the distance a wolf howled.
Wolves in east central Los Angeles. How crazy had life become?
With ninety-nine percent of US citizens killed by Scorpius, nature had quickly retaken the earth, and animals now reclaimed territory.
He wiped rain off his cheek and caught Vinnie's scent. Though he'd barely touched her, even now he could smell calla lilies. A soft, sweet, delicate reminder of the woman he'd just left behind.
Her softness, her very fragility, called to him in a time when such traits invited death. She needed protection, and a part of him wanted to provide exactly that. Unfortunately.
Making quick tracks, he scouted the area to the north of Vanguard, moving between abandoned buildings smelling of rot and decay. Most of the Rippers and homeless would be seeking shelter from the storm, but again, because they were nuts, a few roaming Rippers might attack anyway.
His senses remained on alert as he passed a looted jewelry store, an empty quick-loan store, and an abandoned convenience store. Beady green eyes stared out at him from the corner.
Cat's eyes. A huge black cat sat in the still intact window just watching him.
He jerked his gaze away. He might have fought hand-to-hand with knives an ocean away, he might have been tortured and nearly killed on one tour, but cats freaked him the hell out.
He crossed over rubble and dodged around a several-car pileup in the middle of what was once a busy street. Rust covered the vehicles, and part of a decomposed body was visible in a Chevy.
The tiniest of scraping sounds came from Luke's Bar on the corner. No light, no movement, but a couple of breaths. He stopped moving and focused all of his senses.
He could make out the breathing of one person only. His senses had been honed in the military, but he could still be walking into a trap. Yet he didn't have a choice this time, so he crept quietly and remained on high alert.
He reached the heavy metal door and pulled it open, waiting for his eyes to adjust before walking inside.
A lantern ignited.
"You're late," Ash said from behind what was left of the bar. Pieces had been removed, probably for firewood, leaving only a thin strip running end to end, attached with bolts to the floor.
"You're inconvenient," Raze drawled, keeping his expression bored. The door shut behind him and he surveyed the room.
Ash rolled his eyes. The twenty-something former meth dealer still had the blank eyes and fidgety fingers of a man who'd sampled too much of the goods.
A cracked mirror decorated the dingy wall behind him, which was lined with empty shelves that had once held liquor. Dirt, blood, and moss covered the floors, while a couple of tables without chairs were broken on the far side of the room. A jukebox — a real one — still sat in the corner.
It was probably too heavy for any of the early looters to take.
Ash shoved back his jacket to reveal a Glock stuck into his waistband. His greasy hair cascaded out of a knit cap, which didn't cover enough of his long, crusty face. Apparently it was difficult to find medicine for impetigo nowadays. "Well?"
Raze kept his arms loose at his sides. "Well what?"
"Where's the woman?"
"Not here," Raze said.
Ash shook his head, his entire rail-thin body moving with the effort. "We made a deal."
"No. We don't have a deal," Raze said silkily, allowing every violent urge he was feeling to show in his eyes.
Ash swallowed, his Adam's apple bobbing. "I represent Greyson and you know it."
Excerpted from Shadow Falling by REBECCA ZANETTI. Copyright © 2016 Rebecca Zanetti. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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