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She glanced behind her, certain she'd heard something that sounded like a growl. When the sound did not repeat, she shrugged and pulled up the collar of her jacket to block the bite of the chilled autumn air. Now, she wished that she'd accepted an offer of a ride to the garage from her friends. At least then she wouldn't be alone, on a dark street, jumping at every noise.
She knew better than to go anywhere alone in downtown Chicago, especially after dark.
As she entered the parking garage, she let out the breath she'd been holding and laughed. All that worry for nothing. She climbed the stairs to the second level and there, in the middle of the empty bay, stood her car, a shiny, creamy, pearl-white Audi, the heated leather seats beckoning to her.
As she dug in her purse for her keys, she heard it again. This time louder. The deep rumble of an animal's growl sent shivers coursing down her spine.
It sounded as though it was coming from her car.
The growl burst into a roar, echoing off the concrete walls of the garage, so real and frightening she screamed and dropped her purse, keys and all, and ran back toward the stairs.
"No," she cried, her heart in her throat, her breath catching on a sob. "No."
Although hampered by high heels, she made it all the way to the bottom. As she turned toward the street, fifty feet away and still busy with traffic, something big and heavy slammed into her back, knocking her facedown on the concrete.
Too far from the traffic to be seen, she lay pinned beneath the weight of an animal, its heated breath sniffing at the back of her neck.
She whimpered, struggling to crawl from beneath it, her heart racing, her hands scuffed and bleeding. "Please
The creature's nose nuzzled the line of her throat, then a long, hot, wet tongue snaked out and licked her skin.
She screamed, renewing her frantic fight to free herself from the faceless beast.
The animal roared again and sank its teeth into the back of her neck, shaking her viciously.
Her arms and legs went numb and she couldn't move any part of her body, but her thoughts were clear and frightened beyond comprehension.
The creature dragged her from the garage into the shadows of an alley, pavement scraping her face. He stopped behind a stack of bound cardboard, dropped her to the ground and roared, the sound reverberating off the walls.
don't kill me."
Selene Chattox jerked awake, drenched in sweat, her heart racing.
don't kill me.
She snatched her cell phone from the nightstand and speed-dialed her sister, Deme.
who is this?" A loud banging noise was followed by a muttered curse. "Sorry, I dropped my phone. Selene? What's wrong?" Her voice was hoarse, filled with the gravel of sleep.
"Who's dying?" All raspiness cleared, Deme's words were clear and clipped. "I don't know."
"Can you tell where?"
"In an alley."
"Can you be more specific? Do you see anything else, a street sign, a building name, something?"
Selene inhaled, closed her eyes and let her mind drift back into the dream. Her cheek stung where the pavement had scraped against her skin in the nightmareblessedly, the rest of her body felt no pain. Hot breath snorted down on her neck and Selene jerked out of the vision, her hand shaking so hard she could barely hold the cell phone to her ear. "I smelled water. She was in a parking garage, leaving the theater, when she was attacked. It dragged her into a nearby alley."
"A theater near water
" Deme spoke to someone on the other end. "River or lake?"
"The Civic Opera House on Wacker Drive?"
"I'm coming over. Cal's calling Lieutenant Warner. We'll have someone there in minutes."
"Hurry," Selene whispered. "It's going to kill her."
Wind blasted down the back alley as Gryphon Leone emerged from the Civic Opera House, wrapping his long cloak around him. The chill of fall had settled in far sooner than he'd expected. He sniffed the air, his keen sense of smell picking up on the delicate nuances of coming rain and the dampness of the river.
He'd waited until the other theatergoers had departed before leaving the shadows of his box. He arrived early and left late, valuing his anonymity and privacy. The fewer people he encountered, the better. Despite years of exercising his control, he didn't trust himself with the people of the light and didn't put himself in too many situations that required him to remain in the public eye for long.
With the rise of his business and philanthropic ventures, he feared his anonymity would soon be a blessing of the past.
He hurried toward the street, determined to return to his apartment at the base of his office building, a haven beneath the surface of the oldest part of downtown Chicago, before the rain came.
The scent captured him, bringing him to a sudden halt. He lifted his nose to the air, a low rumble rising in his throat.
Blood. Fresh blood and animal musk.
His apartment, and the need to return before the rain, slipped through his thoughts, forgotten as his inner animal pushed to the surface.
Gryph fought back, breathing deeply in and out until the growling abated and all that was left was the scentblood, tantalizingly fresh, tainted by the musk of another animal and the accompanying stench of fear.
He wanted to turn and walk away, but he couldn't, his feet moving of their own accord, closer to the source. Rounding a corner, he spied a parking garage and something dark staining the sidewalk near the stairs leading up.
The stain spread like someone had taken a large paintbrush and dragged it along the walkway, until the paint ran out at the entrance to an alley.
Go home. Return to your apartment. Don't get involved.
Balthazar's words echoed in his head, the old man's warnings etched firmly in Gryph's brain since as far back as he could remember.
Still, the trail begged to be followed. He'd go as far as the entrance to the alley, no farther.
Gryph crossed the street, keeping out of the inky liquid staining the concrete, and worked his way quietly to the entrance to the alley.
As he stepped into the opening, a bellow blasted against the brick walls, followed by a woman's scream.
A huge shadow rose up from behind a stack of wooden pallets, the shape that of a giant wolf, rearing back on his hind legs.
Gryph's beast exploded from inside, answering with a deeper, more ferocious roar, thundering into the alley, echoing against the brick walls. His skin and bones moved, spread and stretched as his physical form altered, expanding, his clothing ripping at the seams. He shrugged out of his cloak, the long folds falling to the ground at his feet.
The creature in the alley rumbled again, launching itself toward him.
Caught in midtransformation, Gryph was helpless to defend himself.
The wolf, equal in size to Gryph's inner lion, hit him full in the chest, knocking him back into the side street. The air slammed from his lungs.
His attacker flew past him and hit the opposite building, his feet glancing off the bricks, then landed on all fours, launching a new attack within seconds.
His transformation complete, Gryph dodged to his side and sprang to all fours, reaching out to pound the animal with a powerful swipe from his forepaw.
The wolf tumbled across pavement, sprang back on his feet and tore into Gryph, his fangs slashing for Gryph's jugular.
Gryph twisted to avoid the worst of the bite, but not all of it. The wolf's teeth sank into his skin, ripping through his shoulder near his collarbone. Pain rocketed through his senses, blinding him briefly.
The wolf pounced on him, pinning him to the ground.
Had the creature wanted to finish him off, it could have with one more fatal bite.
Instead it stared down at him, its chest heaving, and it growled low and menacingly, like a warning. Then it leaped over Gryph and disappeared out of the alley and around a corner.
His shoulder bleeding, Gryph pushed to his paws, his racing heartbeat slowing.
A moan alerted him to another being's presence in the alley. With his focus on survival, Gryph hadn't moved on to the source of the long, thick bloodstain.
He staggered toward the banded stack of compressed cardboard boxes, his nostrils filled with the scents of blood, woman and fear.
Before he reached her, his body began its transformation back to man, the change made more difficult given his wounds.
His arms and legs completed before his face and head, allowing him to reach out to the woman and feel for a pulse.
Her eyes blinked open, widening, a scream bubbling up in her throat.
Gryph tried to reassure her with words, but all that he could emit was a rumbling growl.
The woman's eyes rolled back in her head and she passed out.
The pavement was soaked with her blood from a wound in the back of her neck. If she had any chance at survival, she had to get to a hospital as soon as possible.
He left her on the ground for only a moment to retrieve his cloak, his cell phone tucked in the inside pocket.
Quickly he dialed 911 and gave a description of the victim, her injuries and her location. When the dispatcher asked his name, he clicked the off button and pocketed the phone.
He returned to the woman and applied pressure to her wound to stem the flow of blood from her body, but her face was deathly pale.
As he leaned over her body, blood dripped down on her.
Until now, he hadn't realized how much blood he'd lost. He could tell he was weakening, but he couldn't leave the woman until the police or ambulance were close.
A siren sounded in the distance, growing closer by the second.
Gryph had to leave before the emergency personnel arrivedhow else would he explain his tattered clothing? And given his injuries and the pain they caused, he couldn't risk being around surface dwellers should the pain increase, summoning his inner beast.
He stayed until the last possible moment. When the flashing lights of an emergency vehicle pulled into the side street, Gryph leaped over the chain-link fence behind him, raced for the opposite end of the alley and rounded the corner to the next street.
Keeping to the shadows, he ran until his feet slowed, the blood running in a stream down his arm, dripping onto the sidewalk, draining his strength. The police would follow his trail. He couldn't let that happen, he couldn't let them find him. Then he remembered how close he was to the river, its scent drawing him to the corner of Washington Street and Wacker Drive. Making a sharp left, he stumbled toward the bridge. An ambulance passed him, its lights blinding. A police car followed, slowing as it passed by.
Exhaustion pulled at Gryphhe wanted to sleep, but he knew he couldn't. He leaned against the bridge railing and stared down into the water.
The police car stopped and backed up.
Gryph leaned out and let himself tip over the edge. Then he was falling, racing to meet the black shiny surface of the river.
When he hit the water, the force of the fall sent him deep into the murky black depths.
His shoulder burned, the effort to move it too much. But he kicked his feet, propelling himself upward, hoping the current would carry him far enough away they wouldn't find him.
He surfaced a hundred yards from the Washington Street Bridge. A cop stood at the rails shining a flashlight below, sending a sweeping arc back and forth across the water.
Gryph sucked in a breath and sank below the surface, letting the current carry him farther away. As he flowed downstream with the river, he wondered what it would feel like to drown, to let his lungs fill with water and the river claim him. His chest burned for oxygen and he kicked his feet to send him closer to the river's edge. Dying in a river wasn't in the cards for him tonight.
When he came up again, he had drifted far enough that the cop's light couldn't find him. Tired beyond endurance, he kicked and pulled with one arm to the side of the river, searching for a place he could crawl out. Several minutes later, he found a metal ladder pinned to the concrete walls of the river and dragged himself up the east embankment onto a walkway, where he collapsed, the night sky of the city fading to black.
* * *
Selene staggered to the door of her basement apartment below the vintage dress shop she owned that was situated among the quaint little buildings of old-town Chicago.
She could barely breathe and her shoulder ached unbearably, the pain draining her strength, sucking the life from her body.
Holding on to the handrail, she pulled herself up the steps to ground level. Headlights flashed on the street in front of the building.
Once outside the door of her shop, Selene met Deme, as her sister climbed out of her Lexus SUV. "Thank the goddess, you're here."
"Were you going somewhere without me?" Deme asked.
Selene lurched toward the car and leaned against the door. "We need to get there."
"Are you all right, sweetie?" Deme started to round the car.
"I'm okay, but we need to move fast." She opened the car door and slid into the passenger seat. "Hurry."
"Where exactly do we need to get?" Deme climbed back into the driver's seat and inserted the key in the ignition.
"Head toward the Washington Street Bridge."
Deme shifted into gear and spun the SUV around in a tight U-turn, bumping over the curb on the other side of the street. When they'd gone several blocks, she looked across at Selene.
"Is it the girl? The one you called about earlier?"
Selene shook her head. "No. Someone else. He's injured and alone." She closed her eyes, shivering. "And cold. He'll die if we don't get to him soon."
"What about the girl?"
"The EMTs are with her now. But he's alone."
Deme's foot sank to the floor, shooting them along the streets, dodging the occasional driver unfortunate enough to be out on the city streets so late into the night.
As they crossed the Washington Street Bridge, Selene leaned forward, her gaze panning the landscape, the steel, glass and concrete buildings rising high into the night sky, blocking the moon. "Turn left on Wacker."
On such short notice, Deme slammed on her brakes and skidded into the turn. The rear end continued around and she goosed the accelerator to keep her SUV from making a complete three-sixty.
As they shot down Wacker, Selene dug her fingers into the dash, leaning so far forward her nose almost touched the windshield. He was near, very near. Selene leaned back in her seat, braced herself and yelled, "Stop!"
Deme hit the brakes, bringing the vehicle to a standstill, tires burning into the asphalt.
Selene burst from the door, rounded the car and raced across the street. So intent on reaching the wounded man, she didn't see the car until almost too late.