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It was the fear he smelled first, a pheromone–laden scent almost irresistible to the hellhound within him. She was here—somewhere.
Risk Leidolf spun on one worn boot heel, searching the dim interior of the bar for his latest assignment. He didn't have much information: young and pretty, Lusse had said. She hadn't bothered to tell him anything more. It didn't matter. Whatever Lusse's latest target brought to the fight–talents or temptations—she would be no match for him. They never were.
The room was a kaleidoscope of sounds, smells and emotions—an onslaught that would be overwhelming to a less experienced hunter, but sadly for his prey, it would barely slow Risk down. He inhaled, dissecting the surrounding scents. Stale beer and human sweat. He shoved them aside.
Emotion was what he sought. What he craved.
A tinge of desperation wafted toward him. He ignored it, too. Despair and what followed, guilt and sorrow, held no appeal for Risk. No, much as he wished it different, adrenaline was what lured him—fear, anger. They called to him, making him a slave to urges he wished he could forget.
Clearing his senses, he concentrated, listening to the low murmur of voices around him. It was quiet for a bar, but an undercurrent ran through the place, a vibration of danger humming around him like a tuning fork held to his ear.
The bar held secrets, but Risk was unconcerned. He had one job tonight—to retrieve the female for Lusse, and save himself from another period of service in the kennels. Torture he could handle, but being forced to live with the other hounds, fighting daily just to survive, perhaps evenlosing the small piece of territory he had secured for himself in this world, that would surely drive him mad.
He laughed, a dry hollow sound. Like a hellhound could ever be called anything but mad, soulless, according to his owner.
Thoughts of Lusse caused his jaw to tense, brought him back to his purpose. Enough. Get on with it.
Adjusting his dark glasses down his nose until he could peer over their tops, he studied the room. Grizzled men and timeworn women filled battered tables around him. Not sparing them more than a glance, his gaze shifted to the back, where the shadows grew deeper. Instinctively, he knew that was where he would find her.
She might think the gloom would disguise her, but it offered no protection from hell's hunters. With a sigh, he continued his scrutiny.
The booths were empty—save one. Huddled in the cubby farthest from the door was a small lone figure. His prey. Even with Lusse's vague description he couldn't miss her. Young, pretty and fresh. She stood out in the place like an angel dropped into a pit filled with vipers.
Leaning against the rough paneling on the wall behind him, he took a moment to study her. Petite, probably only 110 pounds, and with dark hair that fell past her shoulders, she seemed lost in thought. Her hand hovered over a shot glass of amber liquid and a crumpled paper was smoothed out on the table in front of her.
Now that he had her located, he focused on her fully. Fear. The strength of it caught him off guard. Placing his hand on the unfinished wood, he inhaled, nostrils flaring. How did one so small contain so much emotion? Willing himself to stay controlled, he turned to her again. Yes, fear, but there was sorrow, too, and… She plucked the shot glass off the table with her finger and thumb, and tossed the liquid to the back of her throat… Determination.
She might be afraid, but it wasn't for herself.
This one was a fighter.
A sliver of respect sliced into him. With a shake of his head, he tamped it down.
Let her fight.
A lot of good it would do. The cynical thought should have urged him to action, but he waited still. She would be easy to capture—why rush?
The female slid the empty glass across the table and signaled the waitress for another. As she waited, she ran a pale hand over the crumpled paper in front of her, caressing it, as if trying to gain reassurance or knowledge from its length.
The waitress returned and his prey looked up to thank her, but her gaze wandered to Risk instead. Startled, he stepped sideways, farther into the gloom. Could she see him? He had guarded himself carefully tonight. Perhaps Lusse was right. Perhaps his human half was growing too strong, weakening the hellhound, weakening his hunting powers. And, as Lusse was fond of pointing out, weakness equaled only one thing–death.
He peered back at his prey. Did she see him?
Her gaze passed over him, and he relaxed. Just coincidence, but still…he hesitated. There was something different about this female, something that made him reluctant to deliver her to Lusse, the witch who kept him chained in her service.
He shook his head. This was insane—he should just be done with it, lure the female to the parking lot, change and carry her to Lusse.
The female downed her second drink, picked up the paper and stood to leave. This was Risk's chance. One husky whisper in her ear, and it would be over. Another soul, another power, in payment toward his eternal debt.
The female strode past him, close enough he could smell the undertones of spice in her perfume, and he let her pass.
He pushed his glasses back into place, hiding eyes that almost surely glimmered red by this time. What was wrong? Why was he reluctant? Why did a piece of him almost wish she had seen him—proven he was more human than beast? Why did the thought of destroying one more life seem a much bigger price than the torture and loss he faced if he didn't?
Cursing, he concentrated on that loss. This female was nothing to him, but he, he had an eternity to suffer.
Damn Lusse, and her quest for souls.
He forced his hand to the silver chain around his neck, letting the ancient metal links dig into his palm. This was who he was—property, nothing more. Pulling his coat more closely around him, he turned to follow.
A cold blast of air hit Kara Shane as soon as she left the bar. The two whiskeys she'd drunk did little to warm her now, and they'd done nothing to lessen the pain of losing Kelly.
Her sister had been missing a full week today. The police seemed to have given up hope, but not Kara. Kelly was out there somewhere—she had to be; Kara couldn't accept anything else.
She gathered her coat more closely around her and walked into the wind. Maybe the frigid air would do what the whiskey hadn't—knock loose some idea that would lead her to Kelly. Something different than the dead end that had brought her here tonight. A discarded matchbook, how cliché. Was she really so pathetic she'd jump at any straw?
She'd known she was out of her element as soon as she'd stepped into the bar. Part–time employees of cute little tea shops did not stride into a place like the Guardian's Keep and leave with the name of their sister's abductor in hand. No, part–time employees of cute little tea shops were lucky they left…at all.
She'd thought she could brazen it out. Even borrowed Kelly's floor–length leather coat—very Matrix—but it couldn't make her strong, confident, something she wasn't. The bartender hadn't bothered to look at the "missing" flyer she'd edged under his nose. The waitress was worse, coarsely suggesting she take her size–four ass back to the mall while she still had a chance, and the patrons…well, Kara didn't even have the courage to approach them.
She was failing, and Kelly was somewhere, suffering because of it.
Lost in her thoughts, it took a few seconds for her to realize something wasn't right, that she was being followed. There was no sound, just a sensation. An eerie knowledge that something was behind her and getting closer. With an uncharacteristic calmness, perhaps brought on by the whiskey or the numbness from losing Kelly, she slipped a hand inside her coat and removed the can of Mace her sister always kept tucked in the inside pocket.
Kelly with her "I can take on the world" outlook wouldn't be afraid—neither would Kara. She slipped her thumb under the safety cap.
Despite her resolve, the combination of alcohol, pain and adrenaline made her almost giddy. Why didn't the bastard just jump her and get it over with?
She didn't have to wait much longer. Within seconds, the heat of his breath crawled over the back of her neck. She spun, the can hissing as it released a steady stream of Mace.
Instantly, she realized her error. Too soon. Her would–be attacker was still fifteen feet away, and…she took a steadying breath…wasn't human.
A shaggy–looking dog stared back at her. "Go home, puppy," she called, suppressing the sudden surge of panic that threatened to drive her to her knees. Dogs; she hated dogs. Had since… Refusing to let her mind slip back in time, she gripped the Mace can, the feel of the cool metal against her palm reassuring.
Stay calm, she recited mentally. That was what the trainer she'd talked with afterward had told her. Don't panic. Don't run. It is very rare that a dog attacks for no reason. Don't give him one. Filling her lungs with air, she forced herself to stand still. "No food on me," she murmured.
The ginger–colored dog tilted his head as if studying her, then lifting his nose, took a long whiff of the frigid air.
Nothing to be afraid of. Just a lost dog, a stray. She wasn't in his yard, his territory. Nothing about her was threatening. It would wander off now. She willed the thought to be true.
Kara waited, her breath puffing white in front of her. The dog lowered its head then lifted it one more time to study her.
Kara froze. "Go home, puppy," she whispered.
The dog glanced over its shoulder, then turned to face her. Taking two steps forward, it glanced up.
Kara's next breath caught in her chest.
Its eyes…were red.
Kara blinked, unable to believe what she was seeing. The dog moved forward a step, then two. His head held low, his tail stiff behind him, he glanced at her, an almost human intelligence in his eyes. The cold determination she saw there sent a shiver dancing up her spine.
This was no ordinary dog.
No, she corrected herself. It was. It had to be. Her mind was just playing tricks on her—too many sleepless nights worrying about Kelly causing old phobias to come back and haunt her.
Now firmly in the circle of light, the dog stood facing Kara, its jaws gaping, drool streaming from its mouth, red eyes flickering like windows in a burning building.
Ordinary? Not quite. What was wrong with the thing? Her hand tense around the Mace, Kara kept her gaze steady. When you looked away, that was when they attacked. Or at least that was what had happened with Jessie.
The dog had been there one second, staring her and her friend down, then Kara had looked away, just to search for an escape, and the dog had sprung. Not on Kara, no, on Jessie. Just on Jessie. Kara didn't remember much after that, except the screams—always the screams. She still didn't know if they were hers or her friend's.
Tears threatened to spill from her eyes. This wasn't helping. Forget the past.
Blinking hard, she edged backward, making what she hoped were soothing sounds. "Nice dog. Nothing to eat here." Be strong. Think like Kelly. Kelly who had saved her that day, and had kept her sane every day since.
Cell phone. She had her cell phone. Tugging it from the pocket in her backpack with her free hand, she continued talking. "How would you like to meet some new friends?"
Friends with shock collars and nice strong steel cages. The dog raised his lip in a snarl, revealing three–inchlong canines.
Maybe a friend with a nice .38 would be better. Kara used her thumb to flip open the phone, and began punching. She would survive this.
She had to survive this.
The squeal of a wrong number answered her. Damn. She glanced down to redial…and instantly realized her mistake.
The dog backed up, bracing itself on its hind legs as it prepared to leap. With nowhere to run, Kara pointed the can in the creature's direction and steeled herself for the impending attack.
For the second time that night, the can hissed, but the dog didn't waver. With a chilling growl, it shot off the ground soaring directly toward Kara.
The world slowed around her. She should run now. She knew it, but somehow she couldn't. All she could do was wait, knowing there was no way she would survive this attack.
As the parking lot swirled around her, the dog close enough she could smell the stench of his breath, a blur of silver shot forward from the shadows, knocking her assailant to the asphalt.
Elation swept over her. A second dog, a silver one, stood poised above the first. Kara used a shaking hand to brush hair from her face. he'd saved her.
The new arrival glanced up. Red eyes glowed back at her. Her own rounded in horror.
The second dog barely had time to give her a snarl before the first began thrashing beneath him. Dropping his head, he attempted to grip the first dog's neck in his jaws. The ginger–haired dog bucked beneath him, placing its hind feet on the larger dog's stomach for leverage. The two grappled for control, ginger hair mixing with silver until they looked like one throbbing mass.
Her palms damp with sweat, Kara took advantage of their distraction by quickly pressing 9–1–1 on her phone and then Talk.
The dogs rolled across the ground toward her, their teeth flashing as each tried to lay claim to the other's throat. The ginger dog twisted to the side, latching onto the larger dog's neck. His teeth embedded in fur and flesh, he grappled for a stronger hold. Blood seeped through silver fur, staining both animals.
Kara stood frozen, waiting for the scream of pain, the crunch of breaking bones, the smell of the blood. How could she be going through this again?