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By REBECCA ZANETTI
BRAVA BOOKSCopyright © 2012 Rebecca Zanetti
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe present day
Damn it all to hell. The last place Max needed to be was outside the crappy motel trying to get a glimpse of the woman inside room thirteen. He shrugged his shoulders against the rain splattering his leather jacket. Switching from babysitting back to war and possible violence failed to provide the rush he'd expected. But he'd follow orders.
As a hunter, he was a Russian bloodhound—and Dage needed a bloodhound for this one.
The curtain slid to the side.
Max settled his stance in the center of the deserted parking lot. The woman had parked her stolen truck around the corner, a tactical move of which he approved.
A pale face peered out the window. Even across the torn concrete, he could see her eyes widen. Yeah. It wasn't like he was trying to hide. He held his hands up, palms out. Empty and harmless.
The curtain fluttered closed.
Well, it was worth a try. He hadn't wanted to scare her by knocking on her door. The hunting part of his job normally ended with cutting someone's head off—usually as a way to end evil. But this time, he was hunting and gathering. Any finesse needed for the second part of his plan didn't exist inside his hulking frame. He glanced down at his huge boots and rain-soaked dark jeans. No wonder the woman had cowered away from the window.
Biting back a sigh, he stalked over uneven concrete and deep puddles. Maneuvering around to the rear of the paint-chipped building, he found his prey.
Two long legs led up to a heart-shaped ass trying to wiggle out a window. He let her drop to the ground, waiting until she turned around.
"Please don't run." His boots were made for kicking down doors, not running.
She yelped, pressing back against the worn shingles, hand to her chest.
It was the worst self-defense move he'd ever seen. "I'm not going to hurt you."
Eyes the color of deep chocolate widened. Dark circles marred the smooth skin over her delicate features. Running had taken a toll. Sandy-blond hair framed her classic face. She stood much taller than Cara and Emma, the new mates of his friends and the only human females he'd been near in over a century.
This woman, the one he hunted, she stood tall with legs long enough to give him pause. Yet, even at about five foot eleven, she was several inches shorter than him.
Something sizzled along his spine. His body reacted to the gentle vibrations cascading off the woman. Instinct honed his focus on her. Special. He should've known by his obsession with her picture. The woman was a potential vampire mate. Enhanced. Maybe an empath?
He waited as she settled her stance. Then went for a knee shot.
It was the worse side kick he'd ever seen. Her worn tennis shoe bounced off his knee, causing no more hurt than a breeze. She stumbled, and he reached out to steady her. His hand easily wrapped around her bicep. "Where the hell did you learn to fight?"
"The internet," she gasped, trying to jerk away.
That explained it. "The knee shot was a good move. You just didn't aim the kick right." He was a big guy. If she dropped him, she'd be able to run.
"Should I try again?" Fire lit her eyes while a small smile flirted with her pink lips.
The humor caught him off guard. He matched her smile. "You'll just hurt your foot."
Rain splattered against her plain white T-shirt, outlining perky breasts. Awareness slid down his spine. Now was not the time. He needed to focus. Tightening his hold, he began to ease around the building. She dug in her feet, pulling back, but he continued on the way. Forget about those curves. He had a job to do and needed to be home to protect Janie by the end of the week. "Stop fighting me, Miss Pringle."
She stumbled again. "You know my name."
They reached the door to her room and he tried the doorknob. Locked. "I know everything about you." He'd read Sarah Pringle's file several times, intrigued by the former teacher's kind eyes. The dossier had failed to describe her killer body. "My name is Max. Where's your key?"
She glanced around the deserted area, eyeing the forest to the south. "I left it inside."
He pivoted, smashing his shoulder into the wood. The door splintered, swinging inward. The stench of moldy carpet assaulted him as he tugged her inside. What a dive. "Get your stuff. You have two minutes." Then he stilled. Blood. The spicy scent filled his nostrils, overcoming the stench. "Did you hurt yourself going through the window?" He grabbed her by the shoulders to take inventory. Red welled from a cut in her upper arm.
"I'm fine." She licked her lips.
Something warmed in his belly. Even worn down, the woman was beautiful. Her blood smelled like sex and sunshine. "You have a scrape." Two steps had them at the bathroom, where he grabbed a threadbare towel to gently wipe off the blood. "There, now. No big deal." He softened his voice as he'd learned to do when Janie had a small injury. Not that he let her get injured often.
Sarah cleared her throat. "Are you working for the monsters?"
"No." Damn. He should've told her that already. "I'm not working with the Kurjans."
Her skin was too soft. How the heck had she evaded them for so long? "You know about them?" Her breath caught, and she seemed to hold it. "They're called Kurjans?"
"Yes. I'll explain about them when you're safe."
She shook her head. "I'm not going back to the institution."
"No, you're not." Max tried to put on his most reassuring expression. From the wary glint in her eye, he'd failed. "You're safe, Sarah. I promise."
A pretty blush wandered across her face. "Um. Why do you have blue nail polish on your pinky?"
"I lost at Go Fish."
The rain was increasing outside and battering through the destroyed door. Too much cloud cover for his peace of mind. He glanced at his watch. "We need to go."
"No. If you're not with them, you're with the institution. I'm not going anywhere." Determination had her chin lifting. She edged away from him, sidling around the ripped bedspread.
"I found you. They'll find you." The woman might suck at fighting, but she'd done a good job covering her tracks. He'd needed an entire week to hunt her down. The Kurjans couldn't be far behind.
The empty beer bottle she grabbed from the bed table snapped the slow temper he'd shoved down. Although he appreciated a woman who liked a beer, he didn't have time for this crap. His nape itched—they had to go. "Ah, sweetheart. You want to stop playing with me now."
"Playing?" Her lips tightened into a white line. "You've misread me, bounty hunter."
Even pissed, he couldn't help the grin. "You think I'm a bounty hunter sent by a loony bin?" It probably was rude to refer to the mental institution as a loony bin.
"Why else would you be here?" She wrinkled her forehead, backing toward the door, the harmless bottle stretched toward him.
"What's your plan here, brown eyes?" He cocked his head to the side.
She swallowed. "Well, move and I'll aim this for your head—or I'll break it and, ah, cut you."
Jesus. The woman couldn't even give a decent bluff. A sweetness lived in her that somehow warmed him. A sweetness he wouldn't have recognized had he not spent the last four months learning to nurture rather than destroy—though he still knew how to destroy.
Sulfur tickled his nose. Shit.
Max leaped for Sarah, tossing her on the bed and pivoting to ram headfirst into a Kurjan soldier before he could clear the doorway. They went down hard, Max scrambling for the gun tucked beneath his jacket. He dug his knee into the Kurjan's groin, yanking the gun to shoot green lasers into the neck.
The white-faced monster went limp. Not dead, but certainly out cold.
Max jumped up, his gaze on the dark sky. It gave the Kurjans free rein. Pity. The sun fried the bastards.
A black van screeched into the parking lot, and three Kurjans jumped out. Max turned toward Sarah. "Get in the bathroom. Lock the door and don't come out until I yell."
But she wasn't looking at him. Her wide eyes stared at the scout on the ground, her hand shaking on the bottle. "I knew it. I knew they existed." She swayed, her dark eyelashes fluttering against her pasty-white skin.
Shit. She was going into shock. "Now!"
Her gaze darted to Max, but she didn't move.
Damn it. He lunged for her, picking her up and shoving her into the bathroom. Muttering about women who didn't listen, he yanked the bed away from the wall to rest against the door. She wasn't coming out, and nobody was going in. Of course, she'd head out the back window again. But the Kurjans didn't know that.
Pain ripped into his neck. A knife thrown—and thrown well. His fangs dropped low, and he hissed. He drew air through his nose, yanking the blade out of his jugular. Blood burned as it slid down his skin. He'd have to deal with these guys fast. Before he passed out.
Chapter TwoSarah jumped out the window, running for the forest. She couldn't go back for the truck—her only transportation. She'd seen a Kurjan. One of the monsters. They existed. She wasn't crazy. She hoped she wasn't crazy.
Thunder ripped overhead. Rain soaked her in minutes as she ran between forbidding pine trees. An exposed root tripped her, and only raw terror kept her upright. Fleeing.
Max had trapped her in the bathroom. So he could fight the other three Kurjans. She hoped he won. But no way would she wait around and see—and let either Max or the monsters take her.
She kept running.
So much for her plan to reach safety. She'd only made it to the center of Washington State, and was in a random forest. Did moss really grow on the north side of a tree? North was Canada. Maybe she could reach Canada.
Minutes passed. She stopped, pressing her hands against her knees, sucking in air. She needed to keep moving.
She hurried as long as she could, taking several breaks along the way and listening to the forest. Nobody followed her. The storm attacked the trees around her, their branches providing some cover. Soon, too tired to hustle, she began walking doggedly uphill through rough brush and wet trees, not even feeling the rain anymore. She'd gone from bone cold to numb. North. She was still going north—climbing a mountain.
Two more hours passed and night fell like an ominous blanket. An earlier lightning strike had illuminated a forest service lookout tower up the mountain. It meant there had to be a town somewhere. Maybe on the other side of the mountain.
Lightning crashed into the treetops. She shrieked, halting. Ozone filtered through the wet smell of pine. Shelter. She needed shelter. If she didn't warm up, she wouldn't be able to function at all. Taking a deep breath, she hustled the last mile to the tower. The worn wooden structure rose high into the air, no doubt providing an amazing view of the forest. She gazed up the steep flight of stairs. Towers had lightning rods, so she'd be safe inside to wait out the rest of the storm. At least, she'd read that somewhere.
The rain-slicked steps tripped her several times, but she finally slipped over the top step and shoved open the door. Rain on the metal roof drowned out her sigh of relief. A lantern hung next to the door, and she twisted the knob to illuminate the small space.
A cot sat against the far wall, and glassless windows lined all four sides, showcasing the fantastic greenery extending for miles and miles outside. Heavy eaves outside provided some protection from the whipping wind and rain. Laminated maps covered a table in the center of the room. Cabinets recessed into each wall. A phone and walkie-talkie set perched below the table ... but she had no one to call.
Her legs shook from cold and fear as she staggered across the rough wooden floor and dropped onto the cot. Vibrations, images, and thoughts of people who'd sat there before bombarded her, and she shoved them away. She could handle her gift—she just needed to relax. Three deep breaths later, she tried to slow her racing pulse. She needed to warm up. Her shoulders shook so hard her teeth rattled.
Someone knocked on the door.
She leaped to her feet, sliding on the wood floor. Her hand went to her throat. Thunder rolled high and loud.
"Miss Pringle? I'm coming in." The door opened on a gust of wind, and Max stepped inside.
"Jesus." She could only gape.
His wet brown hair, thick and wavy, was plastered to his head. A soaked black T-shirt and jeans revealed rock-hard muscle. Not even winded, he was the largest man she'd ever seen. His face was rugged ... strong. Not handsome ... but, well, masculine. Yeah. That was the term. Deep, dark, and shielded brown eyes took her measure.
A shiver slid down her spine, some fear, some intrigue. "How did you find me?"
"You left a trail a first-week Boy Scout could follow. I saw you heading for the tower, so I kept pace until you got here." He eyed her sopping clothing, his dark gaze wandering up to her face. "Your lips are blue."
Three steps had him at the cabinets, yanking them open to grab a sealed bag. His large hands ripped open the bag and yanked out two wool blankets. "Take your clothes off."
"No." It came out on a croak. How insulting. He'd been tracking her, easily keeping her in sight. So much for getting to freedom. "We need to run. If you're here, they're coming."
He wiped his forehead with his arm. "No, they're not."
Her mind spun. If the Kurjans weren't coming—they were dead. "You killed four of them?" She backed away, knees hitting the cot. Unwelcome vibrations wandered up her legs. She shoved the images away. Her teeth chattered and she clenched her lips together. Her shoulders shook she was so damn cold.
How had he survived the fight? She struggled to focus. "What the hell are you?"
"A damn good fighter." One broad hand ripped his wet shirt over his head to hang on a nail. "We'll wait the storm out—but you need to warm up."
A good enough fighter to kill four deadly monsters? That good a fighter didn't exist. Neither did absolutely perfect, harder than granite, sculpted male chests. Oh she wished he'd put his shirt back on. The breath heated in her lungs. "No."
"No to what?"
"No to you beating the Kurjans. No to there actually being Kurjans. No to taking off my clothes. No to it all." Hysteria had her blinking rapidly.
"Stay calm, sweetheart." Max moved toward her, slow and steady, like an animal stalking prey. Except he looked more like a mountain than an animal. Not one of those rolling hills from home ... but a real mountain. Jagged and wild—yet solid. Unmovable.
Instinct had her raising both fists, preparing to fight.
He stopped cold. His eyes warmed and he cocked his head to the side. "Honey, take your thumbs out of your closed fists."
She frowned. "Why?"
He sighed. "Because you'll break them that way." A scowl shaped his rugged face into something dangerous. "Didn't anyone ever teach you how to fight?"
Why did he sound angry? "No." Irritation began to well up. "Don't patronize me. I can handle myself."
"Can you, now?" He stepped closer, bringing the scent of male and freshly cut cedar with him. "Prove it."
Her entire body stiffened, and then she sneezed. Twice. Shivers wracked her shoulders.
His sigh stirred her hair. He held the blanket out. "We can do this your way ... or my way."
She lifted her chin. "What's the difference?" Cold. She was so damn cold.
"Your way is I turn around, you drop the wet clothes and wrap yourself in this nice, clean, kinda rough blanket." No expression showed on his stony face, but something lingered in those too dark eyes. "My way is that I help you."
Lightning zigzagged outside the wide windows, illuminating the entire world. It was almost as if the electricity aimed for the interior of the small space. She jumped, grabbing the blanket.
"Wise choice." He turned around. "If you've never seen a lightning storm from a watchtower, you're in for a treat, Sarah."
Excerpted from Tempted by REBECCA ZANETTI Copyright © 2012 by Rebecca Zanetti. Excerpted by permission of BRAVA BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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