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Don't drown my boy!
Seawater soaked Bree up to the waist. When the rocky shore slammed into her knees, she wasn't sure if she'd fallen or if the choppy waves had thrown her. Her arms automatically folded around the child sheltered against her chest. Jonathan whimpered, his voice achingly small in the darkness. She scrabbled forward, hauling him with her in a one-armed crawl until she reached a scruff of grass and ferns. It was hard going, half stumbling, half climbing as the shore rose sharply from the beach.
Bree tried to look behind her but from where she knelt, she couldn't see the man below. For a fat, old, whiskery fishing guide, Bob was strong. And a coward. And cruel.
Curse him! She clung there for a long moment, palms smarting from clambering over the sharp rocks. Vertigo seized her, the tug of the surf still haunting her blood and bones. It's okay. We made it, at least for now. She cradled Jonathan, trying to give the four-year-old a comfort she didn't feel.
They'd left the ocean below, but not water. Rain pounded against her back and shoulders, dripping through her hair and down her face to mix with tears and sweat. The only light came from the boat below, where Bob was turning the craft around. She was still panting, still needed to rest, but she couldn't let the moment pass. Bree stood and wheeled around, instinctively pulling her coat closer around Jonathan.
"You promised to take me to town!" she screamed toward the bright light of the boat. It was a useless protest, but Brianna Meadows had never been the demure, silent type.
"Count yourself lucky!" Bob bellowed back. "I saw you to dry land."
"They'll kill us!"
"Better you than me. I'm sorry for your boy, but you're nothing but trouble."
He said something else, but the words shredded in the rain and wind. The motor roared as the boat picked up speed. It was a small, agile craft a shade too light for the brewing storm. She'd paid him well to get her to the mainland, where she could have found a bus going south. Instead, he'd dumped her ashore at the first hint of danger. Bob was used to tourists in pursuit of salmon. He wasn't cut out for dodging villains with live ammunition.
Maybe she should have warned him. Maybe she should have gone to the police back at the beginning. But then again, some of them were on the wrong side, weren't they?
You 're nothing but trouble. The old fishing guide wasn't the first to say it.
Bree watched the light from the boat shrink to a blurry splotch on the rainy sea. Wind shushed through the massive cedar trees overhead, making her feel tiny. All of her efforts had been spent keeping Jonathan out of the freezing waves. She'd been hot with exertion when she'd crawled ashore, but now the knife-edged wind on her wet clothes made her shudder with cold.
At least Bob had waited for shallow water before he'd forced them out of the boat, but then he'd done it so fast she had no time to fight back. The thought triggered Bree's fury all over again. How could you leave me here? How could you do this to my baby? She was literally at the end of the earth. The west end, with the Pacific Ocean gnawing at the rocks below.
She licked her lips, tasting salt and rain. She was a city girl. Her survival skills involved flashing a gold card at a five-star hotel. "Don't worry, I'll figure something out."
Jonathan looked up at her from the shelter of her coat, his eyes dark shadows framed by curls of damp hair. He didn't speak. He'd stopped talking months ago. It had been a call to a clinic that had given her away and started the chase all over again. Seeking help had clearly been a mistake, but what else could she have done?
Scraping wet hair from her cheeks, she tried to blink the scene into better focus. Bree took Jonathan's hand and moved under the shelter of the trees, their thick, astringent scent enfolding her. The ground was soft with rotting needles, her feet silent. All she could hear was the drumming of the rain, weirdly amplified by an utter absence of light. Scalp prickling with nerves, Bree made a slow turn, barely able to see her hand in front of her face. She snuggled Jonathan closer, afraid she wouldn't be able to keep him warm enough. Oh, please, I need a miracle!
No doubt she'd used up her stock of those long ago. Like when she'd escaped her pursuers in the Chicago airport. Or that incident in the Twin Cities. She was probably in miracle overdraft by now.
Except as her eyes grew used to the gloom, she caught a faint glimmer of yellow light if she shifted a smidgen to her left.
Someone lived in this forsaken wilderness! But her enemies were clever, and she'd been fooled before into thinking she'd found safety. A walk through the woods could save her life, or lead her straight into the monster's cave. As if sensing her indecision, Jonathan squirmed against her, letting out a weak whimper.
That was the problem with being a mother. Risk didn't mean the same things when your baby was at stake. Bree would dare anything if it meant Jonathan lived through the night.
Mark Winspear listened to the sounds outside his cabin, hearing each rustle of branch and bird. The cabin was sparsely furnished, the only light an orange glow spilling from the cast-iron stove. The dark wood walls disappeared into the shadows, giving the impression of a cave. Mark tossed another log into the stove's maw, watching as crimson sparks swirled. In a moment, fresh yellow flames licked at the wood. He settled back into his threadbare easy chair, letting the worn fabric embrace him.
The scene was domestic, even dull, but it was overdue. Out here, in the back of beyond, he could be what he was: a wild beast and solitary hunter. A vampire. Most of all, he could be alone. After five hundred years plus, he'd become less of a people person.
He willed his shoulders to relax, but his instincts forbade it. Tonight, something was different. His vampire hearing was on alert, the night birds and small furred creatures whispering of something new. An invader. Mark's fingers gripped the ragged arms of the chair. Who dares to come here?
He rose, gliding to the cupboard beside the stove. He unlocked it using a key he hung around his neck. Inside, he kept a rifle and a pistola Browning Hi-Powerand a curved kukri knife. Logic said to take one of the guns, but it would be infinitely more satisfying to hunt as a vampire with fang and hunger, and not with human weapons. Still, there were other hunters who knew exactly how to kill his kind. As a compromise, he picked up the knife and relocked the cupboard.
He did not leave by the front door. Instead, he climbed the narrow staircase to the loft and raised the sash window. Clean, cold air rushed in on a gust of wind. Mark crouched by the sill, listening. He zeroed in on the disturbance within seconds. Footsteps. Human. Coming this way, no doubt drawn by the firelight in the cabin window.
Mark searched the darkness for any sign of movement. Feathery cedars, tall pine and thick fir trees blended their heady scents in the pounding rain. Enemies aplenty hunted him, many of them professionals. Trapping him here at the cabin, when he was alone, was a logical choice.
Whoever came would be the bestor they would be dinner. He worked for the Company, what his friend Faran Kenyon laughingly called an army of supernatural super-spies. Kings and presidents called when their own experts failed. Solving kidnappings, thefts, smugglings and every other kind of nefarious plot was the bread-and-butter work of Company agents. Dr. Mark Winspear preferred healing people, but he had other skills that came in handy more often than he cared to admit.
In a single smooth move he was perched on the window frame, and then sprang to a nearby tree. The wet, rough bark scraped his palms as he moved from one tree to another, positioning himself for a view of the intruder. Where the limbs were too soft to bear his weight, he used his vampire abilities to fly silently from trunk to trunk. Branches snagged his hair and shoulders, dripping rivulets of rain down his neck. Mark ignored the discomfort and focused on the ground below.
Territorial instincts triggered a wave of hot anger. These were his hunting grounds. Whoever dared to enter would feel his wrath. He leaped, silent and agile as a cat, barely a branch crackling as he moved.
A rare smile played on Mark's lips as he caught a whiff of warm blood. Warm female blood. It made his mouth water. Clever, to send a female assassin. No doubt she was a seductress, meant to disarm him. He knew better. Women killed just as easily, sometimes better, than their brothers.
Nice try. After a steady diet of black-tailed deerwell, he was ready for dessert.
Then he saw her, stumbling through the trees. She'd found the deer track that passed for a path and was making good progress, but she didn't move like someone accustomed to the woods. He leaned a little farther, balancing in the perfect spot to peer between the branches. The hood of her coat was pulled up, so he could tell little outside the fact that she was tall for a woman, around five-nine. No flashlight. Obviously, she was trying to sneak up to the house.
Mark shifted his weight, poised to drop on top of the woman as she passed beneath his tree. Then shock rippled through him as he saw she was leading a small child by the hand. In his surprise, his foot nearly slipped. Who took a kid through the woods on a night like this?
A cougar stole through the brush a dozen yards behind. Adrenaline tightened his muscles. No! One rush and a spring, and the cat would have the child.
Mark dropped between the woman and the cat. His boots landed with a hollow thud on the needle-strewn path. The woman stumbled, letting out a yell of surprise. Mark rose, turning to see both her and the cougar. The cat padded backward a few steps, ears flattening.
A need to protect his domain flashed through Mark. He gave a warning growl, hoping the cat would turn and run. Compact and muscular, this male was nine feet from nose to tail-tip and as heavy as a grown man. Mark suspected it was also every bit as smart.
Except tonight. Instead of running, the cougar bared its fangs in a rattling hiss.
It was too much for the woman. She bolted, dragging the child with her, tripping and crashing as she went. The cat lunged forward, but Mark was there in an instant, crouched in its path. The cougar swiped a huge paw. Mark caught it before the massive claws touched his flesh. The cat strained against his grip, rearing up. Mark grabbed both front legs, struggling against the steel of its muscles and tendons. If he had been human, the cougar would have flayed him in a heartbeat.
With a roar, Mark thrust the cat away, the force of it making the creature slide and skitter into the brush.
"Not tonight," he said evenly, using a touch of vampire compulsion. "This prey is mine."
The cougar gave a long, slow blink, ears flat against its head. Mark waited. The moment stretched, the cat lashing the ground with its tail, its emerald eyes sizing Mark up, choosing whether or not to obey. Mark raised the knife, letting the cougar see it. The cougar hissed again, a nightmare of long, ivory fangs.
Go. I don't want to kill you. The moment stretched, Mark still and silent, every muscle poised to strike.
At last the tension broke. With a disgusted swish of its tail, the cougar wheeled and stalked away, shoulders hunched with displeasure. Mark watched it go, relieved to avoid the fight. Good hunting, brother.
He retreated a step, then two, making sure the cat did not change its mind. At last, Mark turned and sprinted after the woman, dodging roots and low branches. She hadn't gone far. Mark caught another wafting cloud of warm, human blood-scent, now spiced with extra fear.
She ran, too much like a doe fleeing through the woods. Mark's instincts to chase and devour sparked and flared, roused by her slender, panicked form.