Authors: Alexis Morgan
“Intriguing and uniqueâ¦compelling characters.”
“Great sexual tension and actionâI love these hunky, heroic guys!”
New York Times
bestselling author Katherine Stone
Jarvis's voice came from right behind her, his breath sending a chill dancing down her spine.
“Am I making you nervous, Gwen?”
She could feel his body heat all along her back. She lied. “No, what makes you think that?”
“Because I'd hate to think I'm the only one in the room wondering if we're ever going to kiss again.”
She ought to step away, out of his reach. But when she started to move, it was only to turn to face him. He fingered the edge of the fabric at her shoulder.
“Ever since that first morning when you were sleeping in the chair, I've been dying to see firsthand where all you have freckles.”
He leaned in close and whispered, “I have to tell you, Gwen, that I'd give anything to get the chance to count them all.”
The Paladin Series
Redeemed in Darkness
In Darkness Reborn
The Talion Series
Dark Warrior Unleashed
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright Â© 2009 by Patricia L. Pritchard
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever. For information address Pocket Books Subsidiary Rights Department, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020
POCKET STAR BOOKS
and colophon are registered trademarks of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Visit us on the World Wide Web:
This book is dedicated to one of my favorite people
in the worldâmy son. Evan, you make me laugh and
you make me proud. You've turned out greatâMom.
ust and the humidity made the air too heavy to breathe. Jarvis Donahue leaned against a tree and rested his weary body for a few seconds. Sweat stung his eyes, making it impossible to see clearly. When he used the hem of his T-shirt to wipe off his face, it came away stained with dirt, sweat, and old blood. Some of it was his, some of it not.
There was one more Other to track down and kill before he could think about some serious sack time. He was in no condition to fight, but there hadn't been anyone else left to send.
He reached out with his senses on full alert, listening for the presence of his enemy. Pushing away from the tree, he picked up his sword. At least he was still upright and functioning. That was more than he could say about Jake and several more of his fellow Paladins. The Handlers were scrambling
to patch wounded Paladins back together, shoving the walking wounded back out the door as fast as they could. Only the dead were given a chance to rest, but they'd be sent right back into the fight as soon as they had a regular pulse.
For the past two weeks the barrier had been down more than it was up, and anyone strong enough to hold a sword was ordered to hold the line against invasion. If those bastard Regents didn't bring in some replacements pretty damn quick, the whole state would be overrun with murderous Others on a killing spree.
Jarvis started down the slope toward the narrow river that ran along the valley floor. Some cool water would bolster his energy, and the going would be easier down where the ground was flatter. Slipping and sliding, he hauled his weary ass down the hill, not caring if the noise he made carried to his enemy's ears.
He wanted the bastard to know that death was on his trail. As long as the Other was busy avoiding the sharp end of Jarvis's sword, he'd be too busy to look for innocent victims along the way. Right now Jarvis still had the advantage, because the bright daylight would leave the Other all but blind. But once the sun dropped behind the hills to the west, all bets were off. He and his mortal enemy would be stalking each other in the darkness.
There was no sign of anyone along the river. His
sword at the ready, Jarvis knelt down and scooped up handfuls of water, splashing almost as much on his clothing as he got into his mouth. The cool, clear water tasted sweet, washing away the coppery taste of blood from his tongue. When he'd had his fill, he dunked his head underwater and then raised up quickly, shaking off the excess water and sending a spray of droplets sparkling through the air.
It was better than a jolt of caffeine for clearing the head. But now, it was time to get back to business. Once darkness fell, the Other would be in his element. Keeping to the edge of the water, Jarvis watched the top of the ridge.
There. Just ahead, someone crested the hill, heading away from the river. Jarvis charged up the hillside, the familiar sizzle of adrenaline surging through his veins. Out here in the countryside, he didn't have to worry so much about running into civilians. He and the Other would have privacy for this latest battle in the secret war between their two peoples.
Judging by the Other's speed, he knew Jarvis was closing in on him. Good. Panic made for poor judgment and wasted effort.
Keeping below the crest of the hill, Jarvis shoved through the underbrush as quietly as he could. Any element of surprise was better than none. Maybe he could get ahead of his quarry and stage a nice little ambush for him.
At the edge of a clearing Jarvis picked up his pace, loping through the grass and wishing he had some backup. Even one of the regular guards would have been welcome, but that wasn't going to happen.
Turning back in the direction he'd last seen the Other, he paused just inside the treeline. All he could hear was his own ragged breathing. Even the cicadas were quiet. Should he risk another few steps? What choice did he have? Some innocent local would pay the price if he didn't track the murderous son of a bitch down and skewer him. Drawing on his last store of energy, he stalked through the woods with his sword out to the side.
A twig snapped off to his left just as the air stirred behind him. With the instincts born of years of fighting, Jarvis brought up his sword and swung to kill.
The Other jerked back out of range, avoiding being gutted by blind luck. He took off running, pounding downhill toward the river with Jarvis right on his heels. The Other, dressed in Kalith black, was a living shadow as he darted between the trees.
Jarvis didn't slow down, knowing this was his last chance to catch his enemy. If he failed now, the Other would blend into the darkness and disappear until a trail of human death led the Paladins straight to him. That wasn't going to happen on Jarvis's watch.
He flung himself to the ground to slide down the steep slope in a controlled fall. Bruises didn't matter but a broken bone would leave him vulnerable to attack. He reached the bottom and pulled himself to his feet.
When the Other went splashing across the river, Jarvis charged in right after him, coming out only a few feet from his enemy. The Other finally turned to challenge him, his pale eyes crazed and gleaming in the failing light.
“You know you're going to die if we fight. Why don't you come along like a good little freak, and I'll shove you back across the barrier to your own world.” Jarvis kept his voice reasonable, not sure why he was offering the bastard another chance at life.
Maybe because he was soul-sick with all the killing he'd done, and with no end of it in sight. But not once in all his years as a Paladin had an Other accepted his offer of clemency.
This one was just like the rest. He'd drawn his own sword and stood waiting for the fatal dance to begin. At the last second, his eyes flicked past Jarvis to focus just behind him. Oh, fuck no!
A sword hummed through the heavy evening air from behind Jarvis. He spun to block the blow, only to see at least two Others moving in to surround him. Even at full strength, he would've had a hard time taking on that many at once.
Bringing up his sword, he screamed out his rage
and prepared to dieâagain. Well, hell had room for a few Others, too. He might be fighting a losing battle, but he'd take his enemies with him.
An eerie howl broke the early evening quiet, startling Gwen out of the romance novel she'd stolen a few minutes to read. She stuck a scrap of paper in the book to keep her place and listened, waiting for a repeat performance. It wasn't long in coming, and then a second voice joined in the ballad, making her frown.
Larry, her brother's coonhound, was a young dog who'd bay at anything that moved in the woods, but Dozer usually showed more sense. Often as not, Larry treed some poor critter and just wanted someone to come admire his handiwork. Dozer spent most of his time sleeping on the porch or tagging along behind Gwen when she worked outside, but right now he sounded pretty darned upset. She pocketed her cell phone and got up to see what had them so worked up.
Dozer let loose with another long howl as she picked up a flashlight and grabbed the loaded twenty-two by the mudroom door. She followed the path toward the small river that ran through the woods bordering her property to the east. The dogs met her at the edge of the trees, looking worried and wagging their tails in obvious relief.
“Come on, boys, let's go see what you've found.”
She offered Dozer the comfort of her touch while Larry ran on ahead, circling back occasionally as if to hurry her along. Despite the cloying heat of the evening air, a chill snaked down her spine.
Dozer crowded closer to her legs and this time, when Larry circled back, he stayed with her. Their unusual behavior was definitely worrisome. Maybe she should have called the dogs into the house and locked the door rather than charging out on her ownâespecially without telling Chase where she was going.
She shone the flashlight in a wide arc, but its glow extended only a few yards. Dozer whined again and took a few steps forward before looking back at her and slowly wagging his tail. Larry might not have a lick of sense, but she trusted Dozer not to lead her into danger.
“All right, boy, I'm coming.” She rested the barrel of the twenty-two back over her shoulder and hurried after the anxious dogs.
A short distance ahead, Dozer stopped again, this time to raise his head and howl. Larry lay down beside the older dog and trembled. Gwen shined the flashlight on the path ahead of them but didn't see anything. Then she swung it down toward the river. Just a short distance from the path, she could just make out the shape of something lying half in the water.
It looked like a log, but that wouldn't have riled up the dogsâunless it had injured an animal when it went down. She never liked killing wild things, but neither would she let some poor animal suffer if she could help it.
Watching out for snakes, she made her way down to the river's edge, only to realize that the dark lump wasn't a log at all, but a man.
“Hey, mister, are you all right?” She had to ask even though it was obvious from the way he lay sprawled across the rocks that he wasn't. “I don't want to spook you, mister, but these woods are no place to be at night. You shouldn't be here.” And maybe she should listen to her own advice.
The dogs crowded closer to the limp body, risking a quick sniff now that she was there to protect them. Larry gave the stranger's face a tentative lick, which got no reaction at all. Either the man had ironclad control over his reflexes or else he was unconscious. She refused to think he might actually be dead.
Her heart in her throat, she knelt at his side and pressed two shaky fingers against the side of his neck. His skin was cool and clammy, but she felt a faint pulse. What to do next? She used the flashlight to catalog the stranger's injuries.
He looked as if he'd tangled with the wrong end of a buzz saw, with deep cuts along his arms. She reached out to touch his shoulder and her hand
came away wetâbut not with water. Dear God, his shirt was soaked through with blood! She gagged as her stomach roiled.
Quickly rinsing her hand in the water, she tried not to think about the possible infections his blood might carry. Who or what had done this to him?
But she wouldn't be any good to either of them if she gave in to panic. She started to reach for her cell phone to dial 911, then froze and blinked her eyes to make sure she was seeing straight.
Unless she'd taken leave of her senses, one of the shallow cuts on his face had all but disappeared while she watched. She peeled off the chambray shirt she wore over her T-shirt and dipped it in the river. Using the damp cloth, she wiped more of the mud and blood off his face and the closest arm to study his injuries. After a few seconds she reached for the phone again, but this time she called the house and waited for her brother to answer.
“Chase, I'm down by the river with an injured man. Bring the garden cart and some old towels. And don't tell anyone.” She disconnected before her brother could ask any questions.
In all her years, she'd seen only one other person heal that quickly: Chase, her half-brother. If this man had that same ability, he wouldn't appreciate being at the mercy of the local medical authorities. If he didn't, well, then she'd call for help as soon as they got to the house.
But maybe, just maybe, she and Chase would finally have some answers about his peculiar gift.
It took considerable pushing and shoving to get the garden cart through the door of the guest room, but they'd finally managed. Gwen quickly stripped the blankets down to the foot of the bed and spread out an old shower curtain to protect the mattress until they got the stranger cleaned up.
“On a count of three, we'll heave him up onto the bed.”
Chase nodded and took the stranger's feet while she worked her hands under his armpits. She counted aloud to three, then strained to muscle his deadweight up and onto the bed. It worried her a great deal that the wounded man hadn't even whimpered, no matter how much they jostled him. It had to hurt, even though his wounds continued to heal before their eyes.
“Who do you think he is?” Chase stared down at the man, worry and curiosity an equal mix in his expression.
“No idea. I've never seen him before.” Despite all the grime, he was a strikingly handsome man, one who'd be hard to forget. “We can look for his identification after we get him out of those wet clothes. He's starting to look a bit blue.”
When she started tugging at the man's wet
shoes, Chase frowned and reached out a hand to stop her. “Maybe I should be the one to strip him.”
Although Chase was almost ten years younger than she was, he'd recently developed a protective streak a mile wide. He was several inches over six feet and starting to pack on some muscle, yet she still had a hard time seeing him as anything other than her little brother.
“I need to check his injuries, Chase. You put the cart back outside and then grab the first aid kit. I'll get warm water, soap, and towels.”
“Butâ¦” He started to protest again.
She already felt half guilty about not calling for an ambulance; the least they could do was get him cleaned up and comfortable as quickly as possible. “Chase, let's just get this over with. Please.”
He grumbled about her stubbornness under his breath, but she let it pass. When Chase left, she started peeling off the stranger's wet socks and jeans. She left his boxers in place, figuring the soft cotton would dry fairly quickly. His T-shirt was a goner, though, so she cut it off with scissors.
Despite his goose-bumpy skin and streaks of mud, it was impossible not to admire all those well-defined muscles. Judging by the way he filled up the old double bed, he had to be at least Chase's height, well over six feet tall. She noted the calluses on his hands and feet, the kind common to those dedicated to martial arts.
Could he be in the military or law enforcement? Or was he some sort of criminal, left to die by his fellow thieves or injured in a heist gone bad? She wouldn't go there. For the moment, he was helpless and in need of care.