Authors: Cate Dean
he door to the station swung open. Expecting it to be Simon, Claire didn’t prepare herself for anyone else. And the power, the breath-robbing cold that radiated from the stocky man who strode in, slammed her against the back of the chair.
He kept coming, a smile spreading over the square, lined face. Here was the darkness that held Heather, that hovered over the town, barely contained inside the body of a man who held his own kind of power as chief of police.
“So,” he crossed his arms, like a woman would, fingers tapping his left bicep as he studied her. “You must be Claire. Where did you come from, little—no, not a witch.” Frowning, he leaned in, sniffing her. “What is that—I’ve yet to scent a power such as yours. What are you, Claire?”
She clutched the chair, shivering, decided it was safer to say nothing.
One hand shot out and grabbed her chin, his grip like cold fire. “Answer me.”
“A shopkeeper,” she whispered.
“Oh, you are so much more than a mere shopkeeper. And I am afraid you chose the wrong place to hide. Heather, dear, come release her for me.” He smiled as Heather obeyed, pulling Claire to her feet. “You are under arrest, Claire, for the crime of witchcraft. Fetch some sweats from the storage room, Heather, so we can return Joe’s clothing to him. Bring them back to the cells; I will require your assistance.”
He wrapped one arm around Claire’s waist, half-carried her to a doorway at the back of the station. The stink of his power clogged her throat, and the cold that poured off him left her gasping at the close contact. His smile widened.
Two cells filled the back room, a small desk taking up the rest of the floor space. He opened the closest cell, dropped her to the metal cot attached to one side of the bars.
“Ask,” he said. “I know you want to—I can feel the itch of your need.”
“Who are you?” She barely recognized her voice.
He leaned in, trapping her as he braced his hands on either side of her. “I am vengeance. Someone here betrayed me, and I died for that betrayal. Now I have returned, and I will destroy any who oppose me.”
“I am sorry for what happened to you.” Her throat felt raw, her lungs aching from the constant assault of his ice-edged power. “But I never met you before today, and I don’t mean you any harm.”
“You are a witch—or close to.” He sniffed her again. “Why can’t I peg—it does not matter. You will die, with your conspirator. And I will be rid of you and your threat.”
Claire shoved down her panic. She had never felt as helpless, as vulnerable. “I promise you, I am not a—”
“You reek of goodness!” Those hands caught her arms, shoved her against the bars. The cold grip burned through the plaid shirt and straight into her skin. “One of your righteous kind tried to send me to Hell.” After a few deep, ragged breaths, he seemed to gain control. “They failed. It took years, but I learned how to control the living, then how to become one with them—why am I telling you this?”
He let her go and stumbled backward, one hand fumbling at his throat. His fingers finally grabbed a heavy chain and pulled it free of his shirt. A clear crystal point, wrapped in gold, hung from the chain. Smoke appeared in the center of the crystal, twisting and pushing against its prison. Even diluted, its power burst through the chill surrounding them, left Claire sweating and nauseous. He watched her as he held it up in front of him, dark eyes narrowing.
“You should be on your knees—” Footsteps cut him off. Heather stepped into the room, a neatly folded pile of navy blue fabric in her hands. “Well done, my dear. Now, help her change.”
He lounged against the cell door. Claire ignored him, let Heather undo the overalls. Strong, icy hands held her while she stood, letting the heavy denim slide to the floor. She stepped out of them, the oversized shoes slipping off her feet. The chief raised one eyebrow when Claire hesitated, fingers on the waistband of the boxers. She pushed them over her hips, watched his gaze drop to her pentacle tattoo. A thin, red scar bisected the tattoo, and he studied it, obviously satisfied that the broken symbol was no threat to him.
Swallowing, she gripped the hem of the oversized shirt, eased it over her head. Cold air blew across her bare skin, and she shivered, both arms crossing over her breasts.
With a curse the chief pushed off the door and grabbed her left wrist.
“Why did you not tell me she wore protection?” Heather recoiled, the deadly quiet voice more frightening than a shout. “Fetch my knife. Now!” He picked Claire up and threw her on the cot, one hand closing around her throat when she tried to sit. She stilled, flinching as he ran his fingers along the new scar on her hip, following the path Eric had forged with iron and pain. “Someone has already marked you. I will finish their work, and we will see how much you can hide from me.”
nnie waited, all but dancing in place, while Eric’s plane slowly turned and headed toward the hangar. He had the door open almost before the plane stopped, climbing down the wing and jumping to the ground, wind from the propeller tossing his sun streaked hair.
With a shout Annie sprinted forward, leapt into his arms with such enthusiasm she knocked him back a step. He held on to her, a smile curving those beautiful lips.
She kissed him, needing the contact, the connection. With a groan he deepened the kiss, one hand cradling the back of her head with such gentleness it tightened her throat.
They broke apart, gasping, and grinned at each other.
“God, I missed you,” she whispered, then buried her face against his shoulder when the tears she had been holding back all day stung her eyes.
“Just hold on to me, Annie. I’m not going anywhere.” He stroked the length of her back, his touch soothing, pushing back the tears again. “Ready to meet my friend? He’s heard about nothing but you the entire trip.”
She raised her head, smiling at him. “I hope I can live up to the hype.”
“You always do.” He winked at her, took her hand and led her over to the lanky man standing next to the small plane. “Jeff, this is Annie.”
Clear, ice blue eyes studied her. She forced herself not to squirm, wanting to make a good impression for Eric. He looked like he’d spent his life outdoors—lines radiated out from his eyes, his skin deeply tanned, and his blonde hair faded to almost white at the ends.
She couldn’t stand the scrutiny anymore. Stepping forward, she held out her hand. “Happy to meet you, Jeff. I owe you big time for hauling Eric out my way. So, dust any interesting crops lately?”
After an endless second, wishing she could take back her stupid question, he burst out laughing. The amusement changed his face so dramatically he looked like a different person. Those icy eyes warmed, and the smile that flashed across his face was brilliant, like sunlight on a window. Annie was dazzled.
“You didn’t exaggerate this time, man. She’s charming.” He took her hand, his palm hard and calloused. “The pleasure is mine, Annie. I understand now why he’s been chattering about you like you were the next sliced bread. Nothing like a tall, knock-me-out gorgeous blonde to rob a man’s breath. I’ll just get your bag, Eric.”
He bent over her hand and kissed it, then let her go, jogging around the back of the plane.
“He’s really—something,” Annie said. She felt a little breathless herself.
“A lady killer. I’m just glad you met me first.”
Turning, she wrapped her arms around his waist. “I still bless the day you snarled at me in the pub.”
Eric laughed, kissing her scarred ear. The touch of his lips on the spot where Natasha had sliced off her lobe always made her shiver. “How are you, Annie?”
She knew what he asked without asking—how was she doing without Claire.
Sighing, she tipped her head up and met his eyes, saw the concern in those clear blue depths, the love that made her tingle all the way to her feet. “Getting through the days. Some better than others. How long are you staying?”
“I wanted to talk to you about that. Later.” He let her go, went to meet Jeff. Shaking his hand, Eric took the duffle bag and returned to Annie. “He has another stop before he’s done. Are you hungry?”
“Starving.” She smiled. “But I’d like to have dinner first.”
With a laugh, Eric leaned in to kiss her. “I missed that. Damn, I missed you, blondie.”
She put a hand on his shoulder, halted him inches from her lips. “You start now, and we’ll just embarrass the poor bystanders. I want to call Marcus before we leave, so you can take that time to cool down, store it up—whatever you need to do to keep from jumping me. I’ll do the same.” She dug around in her purse, frowning when all her usual spots for her phone came up empty. “Where—damn it, I left it at the store. Can I—”
Eric was already holding out his phone.
“I never want to find out what I’d do without you,” she said. “Stay put—this will just take a minute.” She tapped Marcus’ number into the phone. “Hey, Marcus—I just met up with—”
“Are you still at the airport, Annie?” The urgency in his voice shattered her mood. She knew that tone, all too well.
“What’s going on?”
“I am on my way to Sacramento. My plane is on the runway, so I have to make this short. One of those attendants is giving me the evil eye. A man called on your phone and said a woman is in trouble, a woman we know. Don’t be jumping to conclusions—just get yourself up to Huntsville as soon as you are able. I may have need of your skills—” His voice shifted, faded, like he pulled away from the phone. “All right, the phone is going off. I can hear what you are thinking, miss, and you should be ashamed of—”
His voice cut off. Annie ended the call by habit, staring at the ground, terrified of the hope that welled up.
It can’t be—she’s been gone so long—oh, God—
“Annie?” She jerked at Eric’s voice. He gripped her arm, caught the phone when it slipped out of her hand. “Tell me.”
“Any chance your friend is headed north?”
eather shoved the cuff of the sweatshirt in Claire’s mouth to muffle any screams, caught her right arm and pinned it to the cot. The chief straddled her, trapping her left hand under his knee. Cold poured off him, surrounding her until she felt like she had been thrown into a freezer. He took the ugly, curved knife Heather held out to him.
“This is going to hurt,” he said. His laughter startled her, high-pitched and almost manic. “I will destroy your last line of protection, and we will see what you have been hiding from me.”
The tip of the blade dug into her wrist. Claire closed her eyes, bit the thick fabric to keep from screaming. Tears slid back into her hair, and blood slid down her skin, hot as the pain that burned up her arm. The chief took his time, the blade inching across her tattoo.
Claire jerked when the knife hit her wrist bone, agony shooting though her. He twisted the knife, and finally got a raw, muffled scream from her. She arched off the cot, trying to escape the grinding pain, and collapsed when the blade finally pulled free.
Opening her eyes, Claire met the chief’s angry, confused gaze. “How are you hiding from me?” Before she saw it coming he slapped her, hard enough to snap her head sideways. “I will have answers, before I kill you, slowly, and with great pleasure.” He stood, wiping the blade on the edge of her blanket. “Clean up the mess, Heather, and get her dressed.”
Heather helped her sit, using the bandana that tied Claire’s hair back as a makeshift bandage. Her touch felt warm in comparison. “He’s only trying to protect us,” she said, avoiding eye contact. Carefully, she got Claire into the oversized sweats, lowered her back to the cot. “He only wants to keep us safe.”
“You tell yourself that, while he tortures an innocent because of his twisted belief.”
Heather slunk out of the cell, locking it. The sound echoed, like a death knell. Once she left, Claire curled around her throbbing wrist, still half-frozen from prolonged contact with the chief’s body. She would survive this—she had to survive it, so she could warn Annie. So she could go home—
“Can I help?”
The quiet voice jerked Claire upright. She saw the slight figure, sitting on the cot in the next cell—and realized that she had been forced to witness everything.
“Can you tell me what’s going on here?”
The girl stood, not much taller than Claire’s barely five foot two. As she got closer, Claire saw the bruises on her face, on the arm that reached through the bars.
“Let me rebind that wrist.” Claire scooted closer, watched her expertly tie off the bandage so it would actually stay in place if she did more than breathe. Nothing surrounded the girl—no darkness, no bone-cracking cold. “You’re going to need stitches—he cut just deep enough to make your wrist an ugly mess, but the bandage will hold it for now. I’m Lea.”
“Claire.” She studied the twisted fingers Lea held close, the bruising from the hand that broke them. “Did the chief do this to you?”
“You do know it’s not really the chief?” Claire nodded, and saw the relief in Lea’s hazel eyes. “Bertram is a good man. It hurts to see him like that. I’m so afraid he knows what’s going on, that he’s helpless to stop it.”
“Your fear is well-placed. I’m guessing that a ghost is possessing him.” Lea looked at her, obviously surprised. “The cold was a giveaway, though I’ve never felt such bitter, numbing cold from one. And I’ve never been able to see them before.”
“You—this isn’t your first ghost?”
She flashed a smile. “I have bumped into my share, over the years. It’s a woman, a witch, from what I could understand of her one-sided conversation.”
“I recognized her aura.” Lea blushed when Claire looked at her. “I can see them, yes. But only if the person has power, like you—but yours is weak, like you lost what you had—”
Claire flinched, held up her hand when Lea started to apologize. “You’re right. I did lose it, fighting someone who tried to hurt my friends.”
“I’m so sorry. But you didn’t let me finish.” Lea touched her wrist. “Your power is weak, because it’s hidden, behind some kind of barrier. I’ve never felt anything like it before.” Claire closed her eyes. Azazel. Protecting her from herself, no doubt. “Claire?”