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Some desires can be deadly
He needed a woman. In the worst possible, gut-wrenching way. And yet none of the women Riley Buchanan passed on his way through the quaint seaside town of Purity, Washington, fit the bill. None were quite what he wanted. What he craved. The redhead watering plants outside the floral shop was too thin, the blonde swishing her miniskirt-covered ass in front of him too tall, when what he needed was someone
He searched, trying to place a mental hold on the words, but they failed him.
Or you're just too stubborn to admit who you really want. Even to yourself.
"Shut up," he muttered to the annoying voice in his head, hunching his shoulders against the blisteringly cool breeze blowing in off the Pacific. The salt-scented airso different from the dry mountain winds he called home in Henning, Coloradofilled his head, and for a moment he caught a flash of scent that stabbed at his insides, striking him like a physical blow. It was familiar and yet mouthwateringly different, and he stopped in the center of the sidewalk, his narrowed eyes scanning Purity's bustling Main Street, struggling to discern its source. He stood there gripped in a knot of panic, stunned, while his chest heaved from the force of his breaths. But there was no sweet, surprising face from his past. No big, luminous eyes blinking back at him in stunned recognition. No tender mouth curved in a shy, soft-focused smile. No one that he could pick out in the chaotic swarm of townspeople that nudged his memory, taking him back to a time he'd done his best to forget.
Blowing out a rough breath, he accepted that it was just his mind playing tricks on him, which seemed to be happening more and more these days. He thought he'd shoved that period of his life into an impenetrable mental vault, locking it away forever, but the damn awakening was screwing with his sanity, making him remember things, and people, that were best left forgotten.
And yet isn't she the very thing that you crave?
"Not going there," he rasped under his breath, pissed at himself for letting his imagination get the better of him. Forcing the wave of unwanted memories from his mind, he set off again down the crowded sidewalk, while the edgy, restless need continued to slither beneath his skin. He knew its sourceknew from exactly where it sprang, but there wasn't anything he could do about it. The ancient Merrick blood within his body was coming alive inside him, and that meant only one thing:
His days were numbered.
Darkness was knocking on his door, but it wasn't Riley's life that hung in the balance. It was his soul.
Not that he'd done anything so stupid as to make a deal with the devilthough there'd been times over the years when he'd been tempted. At one point, he'd have been willing to do anything for a chance, the opportunity, to rid himself of the blackness festering within him. A toxic, destructive darkness that had formed the shape of his entire life since the age of seventeen, sculpting the years like an artist manipulating clay.
You're so full of bullshit. It's not the darkness twisting you up insideit's your weakness. It's knowing that you won't be able to handle it when it hits.
Choking back the graveled curse that threatened to erupt from his mouth, Riley shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans, while the gusting bursts of sea wind whipped his hair around his face. Despite the violent weather, Purity, Washington, was a beautiful place, caught between the rugged, majestic beauty of a towering autumn forest and a sheer rock face that looked out over the thrashing fury of the Pacific Ocean. On any other day he'd have been captivated by the town, but then this wasn't any other day. He and Kellan Scott had just arrived in Purity that morning, their purpose to retrieve the Dark Marker they believed was buried here in the sleepy little seaside community. His sister, Saige, had only just finished deciphering the ancient, coded map that gave directions to the Marker's location the day before, and Riley had immediately insisted that he be the one to go after the powerful cross. His brother and sister had argued like crazy, but in the end Riley had won with the sheer stubborn force of his will, as well as the threat that he'd simply leave. Just drive out of Henning without telling them where he was headed, if they didn't shut up and let him get out of there.
He couldn't have stayed. His awakening was coming on too strong, which meant that he was, more than likely, already being hunted by a monster. A Casus. One of the ancient enemies of the Merrick, and the very things that were causing the awakenings to begin. With each Casus who escaped from the holding ground that had imprisoned the vile race for over a thousand years, it was believed that the primal blood would awaken within a descendant of the Merrick clan. And though he'd fought it, Riley's turn had finally come. Now he would join the fight against an unholy evil, and hope like hell that he was able to take at least one of those bastards down before he
No, he didn't want to think about that. About where he was headed. He needed to focus on the coming battle, so that he could destroy the Casus coming after him. That was why they needed the Dark Markers beautiful ancient crosses that could be used not only as a talisman for protection, but which were the only known weapons capable of killing a Casus's soul and sending it straight to hell. God only knew how many of the things were already on his trail, and Riley had no intention of hanging around Henning, where they could pick off the locals one by one just to mess with his mind. That was how the bastards worked, and he'd seen just how evil they could be when the first escaped Casus had gone after his brother toward the end of the summer. It had killed four women in Henning alone, two of them women Ian had dated. Ian had finally used the first Dark Marker that Saige had found to kill the sadistic son of a bitch, but Riley knew his brother was still learning to cope with the unsettling fact that he was now more Merrick than man.
Riley wished he could accept the primal blood that flowed through his veins as easily as Saige had, but he was too much like Ian. A wry smile twitched at the corner of his mouth with the thought. He could well imagine Ian's reaction to the comparison. Whereas his brother had mostly lived a hard, dangerous life, Riley had done his best to keep himself on the straight and narrow, like a goddamn Boy Scout. And yet they were more alike than Ian realized.
Though his brother and sister didn't know it, Riley had lived in fear of his awakening for years. Since he was seventeen. Since he'd turned his back on the life he'd wanted, casting it aside. That was why, from the moment he'd realized the awakenings were actually coming, he'd been consumed by thoughts of the past. It was pointless and stupid, he knew. Regret wasn't going to save him, and it sure as hell wasn't going to ease the seething, visceral hunger scraping him raw, tearing at his insides like so many claws. But the two events went hand in hand, impossible to separate. Facing his awakening inevitably made him think about the things that had happened so long ago. The circumstances that had changed his life.
That had shaped him into the man he'd become.
But there was nothing to be done. He couldn't avoid his future, and he couldn't go back and change what had come before. The very fact that he was awakening was proof that he'd made the right choices all those years ago, no matter how painful they'd been. No matter how angry they'd made him. No matter the cost. Or how they'd hurt the people who'd cared about him.
Still, he lifted his nose to the air, searching for that scent again, but the violent wisps of the sea-scented breeze were too strong, and he finally gave up.
"It wasn't real," he grunted to himself, shaking his head as if to clear it of an alcohol-induced fog. Spotting Kellan coming from the opposite direction, he sidestepped a group of mothers chattering around a circle of strollers, and made his way beneath the awning of a brick-faced hardware store, stepping out of the harrowing wind as he waited for the Watchman to reach him. They'd split up not long after arriving in town, Riley heading to find out what he could about the land where they believed the cross was buried, and Kellan to check the local news database to see if any strange happenings or disappearances had recently been reported. They were almost positive that the Casus, who had briefly held possession of the mysterious maps a few weeks before, hadn't been able to decode them. But they weren't taking any chances. Though they didn't understand why, they knew the Casus were as desperate to get their hands on the Dark Markers as they were.
"Find anything?" he asked the Watchman as he neared.
The younger man shook his head, the sunlight glinting like copper off the deep, auburn strands of his hair, his blue-green eyes glittering with an ever-present spark of mischief. Kellan Scott was a brawny, muscular bastard, which was why he'd been sent along with Riley to find the Marker. As one of the Watchmenshape-shifters whose job it was to watch over the ancient nonhuman clansKellan and his unit had broken with tradition and stepped in to help in the Merrick's fight against the Casus. Like his brother, Kierland, Kellan's inner beast was a wolf, and though Riley had yet to see him shift, he had no doubt that the twenty-six-year-old lothario could be lethal when he needed to be.
"What about you?" Kellan asked, while two early twentysomethings strolled past, their bright gazes eyeing them with obvious appreciation. Kellan flashed the blonde a wicked, come-and-get-me smile, before Riley glowered them both away.
"The land where Saige told us to search is owned by the same woman who owns that café we saw when we came into town, out by the cliffs. Her name's Millicent Summers," he said, when Kellan finally took his odd-colored gaze off the blonde's ass and looked back toward Riley's scowl.
sounds sweet. Let's go meet her," the Watchman murmured, grinning as he waggled his brows.
"I think Millicent might be a little old for you," he grumbled, trying to reroute the direction of Kellan's thoughts. The guy's mental compass seemed to be permanently pointed toward sex.
Kellan's smile twitched at the corner as he lifted his shoulders. "Women are like wine, Ri. They only get better with age."
Riley narrowed his eyes. "Do you remember one word of the lecture Kierland gave you before we left the compound?" he demanded in a gritty slide of words, while Millicent Summers's name kept looping through his brain, driving him mad, same as it'd been since he'd first heard it from the "Chatty Cathy" at the land registry. Millicent had been the name of Hope Summers's aunt, but he knew it was just coincidence. One more thing to mess with his mind. Fate couldn't possibly be that cruel. Jesus, he needed to get a grip before his useless obsession with the past made him lose his focus.
He couldn't afford to be distracted, damn it. He needed to stay sharp. Alert. Not walking around in a daze, searching for things that weren't even there.
"Yeah, I remember the lecture," Kellan offered with a tired sigh, pulling Riley's mind back to the conversation. The Watchman lifted his right hand and crossed his heart. "Will it make you feel better if I solemnly swear to keep my filthy paws off the lady, no matter how tempting she is?"
Shaking his head at the idiot's teasing, he grunted, "Come on. We might as well go check the place out." They headed down the crowded sidewalk, and though Riley was aware of the female attention they were drawing, he ignored it. He could honestly say that he'd never had trouble finding a woman when he wanted one. He wasn't being arrogant about itit was just the way that it was. The only difference was that now, when he needed one, he
couldn't. Couldn't act on the offers. Even if a miracle occurred and he found what he craved, he wouldn't be able to do anything about it. Not with at least one Casus on his trail, hunting him down, looking for ways to hurt him, while waiting for him to fully awaken
and more Casus most likely on their way. Until Riley had fed and the Merrick blood within his body had gained full power, they would bide their time. Feed from his flesh too early, and he wouldn't give the monsters the power charge they needed to bring back more of their kind from the holding ground they'd named Meridian.
"If you don't want to draw more attention than we already are," Kellan drawled, "then you need to loosen up, Ri."
"Not gonna happen," he muttered, scanning the crowd, bitterly aware that he was subconsciously searching for a thick, healthy fall of long, chestnut-colored hair. The flash of bright, topaz-colored eyes. He struggled to let go of his tension, to find the smooth, easy well of calm that he'd mastered over the years, but it wasn't there.
"Seriously," Kellan rumbled, slanting him a worried glance. "I can feel the vibes pouring off you, man. It's getting bad."
"I'll handle it," he shot back, unsure whether Kellan was talking about his awakening
or his growing sexual frustration, not that it made a difference. He had no intention of discussing either with the cocky Watchman.
A smiling brunette strolled across their path, flashing a lip-glossed smile in his direction, and Riley looked away. Again. Same as he'd been doing for weeks now.
"Look, it's obvious you don't have trouble attracting women," Kellan murmured, while they turned left at the next corner. "So just pick one and get laid already. And I'm not the only one who's thinking it. Everyone back at Ravenswing is saying the same damn thing."
"It's not a case of just picking one," he said, slipping one hand beneath his jean jacket to readjust his shoulder holster. He'd been out of uniform since finally taking some long overdue leave the week before, and it felt strange. Like a part of him was missing. Thankfully his job as a sheriff enabled him to travel with his piece, so he hadn't been forced to leave his gun behind when they'd left Ravenswing, the Watchmen compound where his brother and sister were now living.