Authors: Shannon K. Butcher
Praise for Shannon K. Butcher and the Sentinel Wars
“[A] phenomenally dark and gritty series. . . . Ms. Butcher continues to deliver an emotionally dark, gritty, action-packed story that held me captive till the end. A fabulous blending of urban fantasy and paranormal romance . . . this book is an absolute whirlwind to read.”
—The Book Pushers
“This was truly a great story, with a lot of action . . . a great read, right from the start. Shannon K. Butcher does such a wonderful job hooking you into the story, into the lives of the men and women in this fantastic world. . . . If you have not started this series, please do not miss it.”
—The Reading Cafe
is the third installment of the Sentinel Wars and a really great one at that!”
—The Book Lush
Finding the Lost
“Exerts much the same appeal as Christine Feehan’s Carpathian series, what with tortured heroes, the necessity of finding love or facing a fate worse than death, hot lovemaking, and danger-filled adventure.”
“A terrific grim thriller with the romantic subplot playing a strong supporting role. The cast is powerful, as the audience will feel every emotion that Andra feels, from fear for her sister to fear for her falling in love.
Finding the Lost
is a dark tale, as Shannon K. Butcher paints a forbidding, gloomy landscape in which an ancient war between humanity’s guardians and their nasty adversaries heats up.”
“A very entertaining read. . . . The ending was a great cliff-hanger and I can’t wait to read the next book in this series. . . . A fast-paced story with great action scenes and lots of hot romance.”
—The Book Lush
“Butcher’s paranormal reality is dark and gritty in this second Sentinel Wars installment. What makes this story so gripping is the seamlessly delivered hard-hitting action and wrenching emotions. Butcher is a major talent in the making.”
“Starts off with nonstop action. Readers will race through the pages, only to reread the entire novel to capture every little detail . . . a promising start for a new voice in urban fantasy/paranormal romance. I look forward to the next installment.”
—A Romance Review (5 Roses)
“This first book of the Sentinel Wars whets your appetite for the rest of the books in the series. Ms. Butcher is carving her way onto the bestseller lists with this phenomenal, nonstop ride that will have you preordering the second book the minute you put this one down.”
Affaire de Coeur
“Absorbing. . . . Butcher skillfully balances erotic, tender interactions with Helen’s worries, and intriguing secondary characters further enhance the unusual premise. Fans of Butcher’s romantic suspense novels will enjoy her turn toward the paranormal.”
“Ms. Butcher offers fresh and delightfully creative elements in this paranormal romance, keeping readers engaged as the story unfolds.
is a well-crafted beginning to this exciting new series, and will have fans of the genre coming back for the next adventure in the Sentinel Wars.”
“An exciting romantic urban fantasy. . . . Shannon K. Butcher adds her trademark suspense with plenty of tension and danger to the mix of a terrific paranormal thriller.”
Midwest Book Review
is Shannon K. Butcher’s first foray into paranormal romance and what a doozy it is! Filled with sizzling love scenes, great storytelling, and action galore, fans of paranormal romance will rejoice to have Ms. Butcher finally join the genre!”
“A different twist on the paranormal genre. . . . Overall, Shannon K. Butcher has done a good job with
, and I will definitely be reading the next in the series.”
—Fallen Angel Review
Living on the Edge
OVELS OF THE
Finding the Lost
AN EDGE NOVEL
Published by New American Library, a division of
Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street,
New York, New York 10014, USA
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80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England
First published by Signet Eclipse, an imprint of New American Library,
a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
First Printing, December 2012
Copyright © Shannon K. Butcher, 2012
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do(USl not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.
SIGNET ECLIPSE and logo are trademarks of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party Web sites or their content.
For April Fowler,
who has done more for me than I’ll ever deserve
t was the blood that woke him.
Clay Marshall’s fingers were glued together, sticky and itching where the blood had dried. The heavy, metallic smell of it clogged his nose, choking him with the stench of violence.
He stared at his dirty hands, disoriented and numb from shock. Fatigue dragged at his bones. Pain pounded deep inside his skull, worse than any hangover.
The water stain on the ceiling was a familiar comfort, telling him he was in his own bed. Now, if he could only remember how he’d gotten here.
As the fog of sleep cleared, the meaning of the blood began to take hold. Concern gnawed at the edges of his numb haze, nibbling away at the false sense of calm. Reality squeezed around him, shoving out his breath like a giant boa constrictor.
Clay sat up, trying to control the fear before it became full-blown panic. His clothes were stiff and dark with drying blood, as if someone had splashed a bucket of it down his front. He searched for the source of the blood, seeking out the kind of physical pain this much blood loss would create.
He ripped off his shirt and jeans, only to find the skin beneath whole. His sheets were stained, but there was no pool lying where he’d been. Those smears were only from contact with his clothes.
Clay rushed to the bathroom on shaky legs and peered into the full-length mirror on the back of t athe door. No cuts. No gashes. Only a collage of bruises of varying ages and a body that was so thin he barely recognized it.
The blood wasn’t his, and yet he could find no relief in that knowledge. It had to belong to someone.
The need to scrub it away arose, compelling him to stumble into the shower. Cold water hit him hard, driving the air from his lungs before it slowly warmed. He lathered himself from head to toe, watching in disgust as the rusty suds spiraled down the drain.
Even though the hot water stung, he still felt detached from the world, as though he were covered by a thick layer of foam, preventing anything from really reaching him. His head was clouded with confusion—so much so that he was only just now realizing that he was confused.
He dried off and headed for his kitchen, where the coffee lived. After three cups and twenty minutes, Clay’s brain finally began to function. And with that relative clarity of thought came fear.
There were stains on his floor in the shape of his boots, leading from the kitchen door all the way to his bedroom. He followed them to where the bloody pile of clothes lay on the rug.
There was even more blood on them than he’d imagined. So much, he knew someone had to be dead. The question was who? And whether Clay had been the one to kill them.
A sick sense of dread settled over him, making the coffee in his stomach churn.
He had no memories of last night; he couldn’t remember anything since lunch yesterday. The sun was streaming in through the windows, but as hard as he tried, there was simply a gaping black hole where the missing time should have been, as if he’d been asleep since then.
The blood proved otherwise.
Clay turned on the local news and barely breathed as the anchor moved from one story to the next. He wasn’t sure what he expected to hear—reports of a building collapse or a giant pileup on I-35, maybe—but he knew what he feared: murder.
His hand shook as he surfed from one station to the next, seeking some sign of what he’d done. When they started repeating the same stories, he wasn’t sure whether he was more relieved or scared. Maybe he hadn’t hurt anyone. Maybe he’d saved someone’s life and gotten them medical attention. Then again, maybe they just hadn’t found the body yet. Or bodies.
This wasn’t the first time Clay had woken up with blood on his hands, but he had no way of figuring out how to make it be the last time. The only person he could trust was his best friend, Mira. She was like a sister to him, and he couldn’t stand the idea of burdening her with his problems.
Still, if anyone could help him solve the mystery, she could.
Clay dug his cell phone out of his bloody jeans and wiped it clean before dialing Mira.
Her voice was so cheerful and bright, it hurt his head. “Good morning, Clay. You’re up early.”
“Heya, squirt. I need a favor.”
“I need to know if anyone in the area was killed last night.”
The line went silent for a minute. “Uh . . . what?”
He hated lying to her, but there was no other way. “I saw a ton of blood on the sidewalk outside a club. I was wondering if anyone was murdered. Can you find out?”
“Where was it?”
Shit. He hadn’t been thinking clearly enough to consider even such a simple question. He was even worse off in the mental department than he’d thought. “I don’t remember. I was drunk.”
“Clay,” she said in that voice that told him she knew he was lying. “What’s really going on?”
“Can you find out or not?”
She let out a heavy sigh. They’d been friends a long time—since they were kids—and he was not easy on his friends. Especially Mira.
“Hold on.” Disappointment weighed on her voice.
Clay heard the clicking of keys in the background before she came back on the line. “There was a drug-related shooting that killed three. One fatal car accident. Three deaths from natural causes. That’s all I could find.”
“Any John or Jane Does?”
“You want me to hack into the morgue? That’s a little dark, even for you. What’s going on?”
“Nothing. Really. Don’t worry.”
“How can I not worry? You sound awful. Did something happen?”
The lie nearly choked him. “No. I’m sorry I bothered you.”
“You’re not a bother, Clay. You know I love you. Whatever you need, I’m there, okay?”
An unexpected spurt of emotion clogged his throat. She was the only person in the world he really cared about. He didn’t know why she stuck with him when he was such a mess, but he was glad she did. “I love you, too, squirt.”
“Then let me help you. The headaches, the blackouts—you need help.”
The pile of bloody clothes popped into his mind, staring at him in accusation. Until he figured out what was going on, he wasn’t safe to be around. “I’ll be fine. But I’m not feeling so great, so I’m taking a sick day. Will you let Bella know?”
“Sure. Get some rest and call me if you need anything, okay?”
“I will,” he lied.
* * *
Mira hung up the phone feeling sick to her stomach. Clay was getting worse. The bruises, the split knuckles, the dislocated joints. And now he wanted her to check death records? Even if her IQ had been co. Q had but in half, she would have been able to figure out what that meant.
He thought he’d killed someone.
Clay kept pushing her away, making up reasons why they could no longer hang out together. The more she tried to help, the harder he pushed.
If he wouldn’t let her help him, she had to find someone who could. And there was only one man Mira knew who had even a chance at getting through Clay’s thick skull.
What she was about to do would piss off her best friend, but that was just too bad. She owed him her life—even if he didn’t remember—and if she had to suffer through his anger, so be it.
With her decision made, she picked up the phone.
lay had just shoved the last of the bloody fabric into a trash bag when his doorbell rang. He took his time washing his hands, hoping whomever it was would just go the hell away.
The chime rang again, followed closely by a sharp knock.
“I know you’re in there,” came a man’s calm voice. “Mira called me.”
Payton Bainbridge. His boss’s right-hand man and an all-around buttinski.
“Go away,” called Clay.
“Not going to happen. Open the door.”
“I’m sick.” He forced out a fake cough to add texture to the lie.
Payton’s disbelieving tone said he wasn’t buying Clay’s story. “I’m immune. Open the door.”
The sooner he got this over with, the sooner Payton would leave and shove his nose into someone else’s business.
Clay unbolted the triple-locked door and let the older man in.
Payton was in his late fifties, with the suave kind of good looks that made younger women take notice. Or maybe it was simply his ridiculously expensive suits that spoke to them. He walked in, spine straight, hair perfect, suit without a single wrinkle, looking as if he’d just come from one of those celebrity makeovers. His pale eyes moved over Clay’s rumpled clothes and mussed hair, but rather than disdain for Clay’s lack of grooming, there was guilt in his eyes—as if he were somehow responsible for the way Clay looked.
“You need a doctor.” Payton shut and locked the door behind him, dimming Clay’s already dingy living room.
“I’m not that sick. Nothing a bit of rest and some chicken soup can’t cure.”
“You’re favoring your left knee and hunching over as if your ribs ache. No amount of soup will fix that. You need to be X-rayed for broken bones.”
Payton had looked at Clay for all of ten seconds and seen that? Shit. That meant he was going to have to take more time off work than just a day.
Clay straightened up, ignoring the throbbing pain in his ribs and shoulder. “My bones are fine.”
Payton pushed past him and walked into the kitchen like he owned the place. “Mind if I make coffee?”
“You won’t be here long enough to drink it.”
The older man ignored him and went about searching Clay’s cabinets, putting a pot of coffee on. “Mira says you’re in trouble.”
“Mira is wrong. Everything is fine.”
“Your bruises say you’re lying. Judging by the color palette you’ve got going there, you’ve been injured at least three times in the past two weeks.”
“I joined a fight club. I would have told you, but you know the first rule of fight club . . .”
Payton turned around, his face tight with anger and something else Clay couldn’t name. “This isn’t a joke. She said you were asking about dead bodies.”
“Mira and I are clearly going to have to have another talk about oversharing information.”
“She trusts me. You should, too. I’m not here to judge.”
“Then why are you here?”
Payton’s direct gaze slid away to the empty mug he was holding. “We all make mistakes, Clay. If you’ve made one, I can help set things right. All you have to do is tell me the truth.”
The truth wasn’t going to help him any more than it was going to help the person whose blood he’d been wearing when he woke up. “I’ve got it under control.”
“Yeah. So you can take your coffee to go. Keep the mug.”
Payton stared Clay right in the eyes, daring him to lie. “Did you kill someone last night?”
In that moment, Clay’s world began to close in around him. The panic he’d felt since seeing the blood exploded until there was no room left to breathe. The edges of his vision began to fade out into gray nothingness. Sound became muted until all he could hear was the rapid, out-of-control beat of his own heart.
He needed help. He needed to find someone who could make sense out of the chaos his life had become. Mira was too vulnerable and precious for him to fuck over with his problems. As far as she stuck her neck out for him, one of these times, she was going to lose her head.
Payton stood there silently, patiently. He didn’t move a muscle or blink a lash. There was no hint of reproach on his face, only the faintest lines of regret.
Clay swallowed, barely able to work up enough moisture to move his tongue. His choices were simple: continue on alone and wakke lone ane up covered in blood again, or grab ahold of the lifeline Payton offered.
He didn’t want to hurt anyone. He knew he was completely capable of killing and not remembering much. The mission in Arizona a few months ago had taught him that. Even now, he had only vague flashes of images, like dreams fogged over by time.
What if he killed again? What if this time he hurt someone he cared about? What if he hurt Mira?
That couldn’t happen. He’d eat a bullet before he’d take that risk.
And yet he took that risk every day, never knowing when he’d lose another chunk of time and wake up bruised and broken, with no memory of what he’d done or where he’d been.
Today had to be his wakeup call. Mira was still alive and safe. That could all change so fast. She was the only family he had, and he couldn’t gamble with her life.
Clay met Payton’s stare and told him the truth. “I don’t know.”
“How can you not know? Either you killed someone or you didn’t.”
“I don’t remember anything about last night. That’s how. I remember grabbing a burger at lunch yesterday. After that . . . nothing. Until this morning, when I . . .” He couldn’t even say the words. If he did, they would make this whole bizarre nightmare real.
“What happened this morning?” asked Payton, his voice gentle but insistent.
Rather than reply, Clay fetched the trash bag and dumped it out on his kitchen floor. Bloody sheets and clothes tumbled out in a stiff clump. The meaty smell nearly gagged him.
“This happened,” said Clay.
A look of panic that mirrored Clay’s brushed over Payton’s aristocratic features. “Are you hurt?”
“Not enough to make this mess. It’s someone else’s blood.”
. It could be animal blood.”
Clay hadn’t even thought about that, and it brought him a sense of relief so heavy his knees buckled under the weight. He collapsed into a kitchen chair, dizzy and swaying. “You think?”
“It’s possible. I’ll have it tested.”
“I don’t want anyone else involved.”
“I understand. I’ll make sure the test is anonymous.”
Clay’s head was suddenly too heavy to hold up. He propped his elbows on the table and let it sag into his hands. “Things are all fucked-up, Payton.”
“I know. I’ll help you sort it all out. But you’ve got to be completely honest with me. No more evasion. No more lies. Agreed?”
Clay hesitated. As much as he liked the man, he didn’t trust anyone as much as he’d need to if he was going to spill his guts about everythiumbout eveng. Instead, he let out a grunt that could be taken as agreement.
“This has been happening for a while, hasn’t it?”
“The bloody clothes? Hell no. At least not like this.”
“No, I mean the lost time—the blackouts. This isn’t the first time you lost your memory.”
Clay debated lying, but Payton didn’t seem too freaked-out by the possibility, which gave him the boost he needed to say what needed to be said. “It’s been going on for months now.”
“Not very, at first. These past few weeks . . . at least four times that I know of.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“There were a couple of times that I woke up and things weren’t where I thought I’d left them. Once I was wearing clothes when I was sure I’d stripped down before going to bed.” He lifted his head and forced himself to confess. “I think I’m going insane.”
Payton’s mouth turned down and a haze of regret dulled his eyes. “You’re not. I won’t let that happen. I’m going to see you through this. If you do what I say, everything is going to be fine.”
“I don’t see how. Once Bella finds out, I’m going to lose my job.”
“Bella won’t find out. We’re going to fix this. I swear it.”
For a glittering, hopeful second, Clay believed him. He clutched onto that hope and held on tight. “How?”
“First, you need to give me your phone.”
“Your cell phone. If I’m right, then it’s dangerous for you to carry one.”
Clay had no idea what to make of that, but he shoved his hand into his jeans and pulled out his phone. He set it on the table.
Payton stowed it in his pocket, his demeanor changing to one of all business. There was no more emotion showing through—just the get-it-done attitude that Clay had come to recognize. “I’m going to send you someplace safe. Isolated. I want you to take my car and go there right now.”
“I’ll explain everything once I’m sure, but for now, I need you to trust me.”
“Why send me away?”
Payton pulled a key from his ring and wrote an address on the back of his business card. “The farther you are away from here, the better. Don’t tell anyone where you’re going. Don’t speak to anyone along the way—not even a clerk at a gas station.”
“Payton, you’re freaking me out here. Why go to all the—”
“When you get there, unplug the phone. Don’t bring any electronics with you. Nld with yo laptop, no games, no GPS. Nothing—understand?”
“No. I do not.”
Payton shoved the key and the card at Clay. “I need a couple of days to gather some information, but you shouldn’t be alone. I will send someone to stay with you.”
“I don’t need a babysitter.”
“You do. If you don’t want to hurt someone else, you do. Trust me.”
“I don’t want anyone from the Edge to know I’ve gone off the deep end. I have to work with these people.”
“It won’t be someone from work. I’ll have your guardian show up at the back door at exactly six thirty-two. If anyone but me shows up at any other time . . .”
He trailed off as if debating his options, leaving Clay hanging.
“What? What crazy thing do you want me to do along with all this other cloak-and-dagger bullshit?”
“If anyone else shows up at any other time, kill them.”
* * *
Payton waited until Clay was behind the wheel and on his way before he left in the other man’s car.
First order of business: Burn the evidence. He didn’t need to keep a sample to see whether it was human blood. He knew it was. The things Clay would be used for had nothing to do with animal control.
The suggestion about it being animal blood had been a strategically timed diversion to keep Clay from breaking. The man was already on edge. There was no way to know how long he’d been suffering with his secrets. He’d said months, but chances were even Clay wouldn’t remember everything.
Payton was counting on it.
After a quick stop at one of the houses Payton kept set aside for extreme circumstances, the clothes and sheets were no more than a burning ball of ash. He watched the glowing embers while he made the call.
Dr. Leigh Vaughn answered on the sixth ring, leaving Payton biting his nails.
“This had better be good. I’m in the middle of something.”
“I’m sorry for the interruption, but it’s important.”
“It always is,” she said on a sigh. “What is it this time? Another secret gunshot wound I can’t report?”
“No. It’s a much bigger favor than that.”
“Spit it out. I don’t have all day. Patients are waiting.”
“Send them home.”
“What? No way. If your emergency is that serious, then go to the hospital.”
“If you do this, I’ll get you in Std get yoto see Garrett.”
The line went silent for too long.
“Leigh? Are you there?”
“Yeah,” she said, her voice thick with emotion. “I just . . . You’re not joking, are you? Because if you are, you should know that I’m really good with a scalpel, and you have to sleep sometime.”
“No jokes. I wouldn’t do that to you.”
“Okay,” she said. “Whatever you need. Name it.”
“Be sure. Because once I drag you into this mess, you’re in it for good. Understand?”
“I don’t care. If you can promise me a visit, then I don’t care.”
“Good.” Relief poured over Payton like cool rain. Until now he hadn’t been sure exactly how he was going to keep Clay safe while Payton took care of his own mistakes.
“What do you want me to do?”
“Pack as fast as you can. Bring your medical supplies. And a gun. Make sure you pack a heavy se
dative. Chances are you’re going to need it.”
lay watched the clock all day long.
As posh as Payton’s vacation home was, done all in pale blues and greens, it did nothing to soothe the restless itch on the back of his neck. He couldn’t turn on the TV and distract himself. His mind was too scattered to read a book. When he’d tried, he’d read the first sentence sixteen times before finally giving up.
He was too nervous to eat, despite having gone all day with no food. If he shoved anything in on top of his anxiety, he knew it would come right back up. He couldn’t stand the thought of doing that to Payton’s plush carpet.
At six thirty-two and six seconds, a quiet knock sounded on the back door.
Clay had been waiting for it—wishing for that knock to come even as he dreaded it. And now that the moment was here, he felt glued to his seat, unable to stand.
His Sig sat on the little round table in the breakfast nook, next to a cold cup of coffee and a lace doily. He picked up the weapon, letting the cold steel ease his nerves.
Whoever was behind that door was going to know what a head case he was, and as much as he hated that, he knew Payton was right. Someone needed to keep him from slipping out at night to do whatever it was he did. If that meant letting some dude handcuff him to a bed, so be it.
Clay eased the door open two inches, letting his weapon ride along his thigh, out of sight. Standing under a yellow lightbulb, huddled inside a jacket, was a woman he’d never seen before.
He was so shocked by her presence—that she wasn’t aoma man—that he stood there like an idiot, staring. She had dark, reddish hair she wore pulled back from her face in a high ponytail. Small, fine curls escaped at her temples, springing away in defiance from the rest of the carefully smoothed strands. Freckles decorated her nose and cheeks, and the cold wind had rubbed a deep pink color over her skin.
“Clay?” she asked.
He nodded, mute.
“Payton sent me. I’m Leigh.” She didn’t offer to shake his hand, which was just as well, considering his hand was full of gun.
Her dark gaze drifted down his body and back up again, as if assessing him in a single glance. While there was a no-nonsense air about her—a directness in her stare that surprised him—he found himself relaxing.
He’d been expecting a confrontation—some big, burly asshole who was going to try to bully him around. He hadn’t considered that Payton would send someone Clay could easily overpower.
“Are you going to let me in?” she asked, her tone as brisk as the wind.
He stepped back, sliding his weapon into the back of his waistband as he moved.
Leigh stepped inside, brushing so close to him, he could smell her skin. Muscles along his spine began to loosen up, and he realized just how tightly he’d wound himself as he’d waited for six thirty-two.
She set two overnight bags on the counter. “Do you talk?”
“Of course I do.”
“Good. My sign language is rusty.” She stripped out of her jacket, making the buttons on her modest blouse strain to confine her breasts.
Clay froze, unable to look away, despite what manners dictated. He was completely captivated by the sight, marveling in how easily his brain switched from red alert to blunt male interest.
The pain in his ribs faded away, and all the tiny muscles lining his skull eased up their death grip. Until now he hadn’t realized just how much pain had been running in the background, shoved down where it wouldn’t distract him.
He was definitely distracted now.
“Do you have anything else to carry in?” he asked, looking for some excuse to leave her presence and get his shit together.
“No, I got it all.” She wasn’t looking at him as she spoke. Her gaze was on the kitchen, taking in the rich cherry cabinets and granite counters. “Swanky place Payton’s got here.”
Clay hadn’t noticed how nice the kitchen was until he’d watched her notice. He didn’t give a shit what the kitchen looked like so long as it had a coffeepot and a microwave. But he didn’t want to be rude, so he grunted at her so she’d know he’d heard.
Leigh turned and lifted an eyebrow at him. It was slightly darker than her hair, but with the same warm coloring.
He’d always had a thing for redheads. Especially C. Ee what maones who were stacked. It was predictable and clichéd, but there was no help for it. The hormones wanted what the hormones wanted.
And Clay’s hormones were going to continue to want. No way was he going to hit on this mystery woman when he had no clue who she was or what Payton had told her.
What if he’d warned her that Clay was a potential nut-job, blacking out and slinking around at night, hurting people?
Even worse, what if he hadn’t warned her?
Her gaze swung back to him, and he was struck by how pretty her eyes were. Big, conveying an open kind of innocence, but also dark, glittering with keen intelligence. She was watching him closely, but he couldn’t tell whether she was trying to figure something out or making sure she could get out of the way if he took a swing.
“You look hungry,” she said. “Have you had dinner?”
“Good. That’ll give us something to do while we get to know each other.”
She opened the bottom freezer drawer and leaned over to rummage inside.
Clay’s clichéd hormones had a predictable response when presented with what was possibly the finest ass he’d ever seen. Her slacks molded to her curves, hiding more than they showed. And yet it was more than enough for Clay’s dormant libido to sit up and stretch.
His mouth watered and a slow burn began heating his skin as he stared in helpless fascination. He was like some kind of hypnotized, drooling idiot, his eyes following where she led. Each minute sway of her hips pulled him along for the ride, leaving him standing there, too dumbfounded to realize she’d been speaking to him.
She turned around, frowning at him. “Did you hear a word I said?” There was no heat in her tone, only gentle curiosity as she crossed the big kitchen to where he was standing.
“Sorry. I’m not myself lately.”
Leigh was close enough now that he could touch her if he so much as swayed forward. Too close. He could smell a trace of vanilla and something sweet he couldn’t identify. Beneath that was the scent of heat and woman—something he hadn’t noticed for a long time.
When was the last time he’d so much as gone on a date? Like so many other details, it was something he couldn’t remember.
A starburst of golden green radiated from her pupils, brightening her dark brown eyes. On her right cheek was a cluster of freckles that were thicker than the rest. There was a slight dent in the center of her chin that seemed almost too masculine for such a soft, pretty face.
She reached up toward his head. Clay grabbed her wrist, riding along on a wave of pure instinct. Her delicate wrist bones shifted inside his grip, shocking him back to something resembling rationality.
He let go of her fast, but the heat of her skin clung to his palm all the same.
To her credit, she C cr, but didn’t flinch away or cower, even though he was much bigger than she was.
“I wasn’t going to hurt you,” she said, her gaze fixed on his.
Clay almost laughed at how ridiculous the thought was. If his laugh hadn’t been rusted shut from disuse, he would have. “I know.”
“Are you going to let me touch you or not?”
He wasn’t sure. Part of him wanted her to stroke him from top to bottom and back again, but the rest of him screamed out a warning of danger. She wasn’t going to hurt him, but he couldn’t guarantee the reverse.
Leigh waited, giving him time to decide. The fact that she didn’t push relaxed a few more of those muscles that had been tied into cramped knots.
He gave her a tight nod and braced himself for whatever it was she was going to do.
She moved slowly, as if he were a wild animal she wanted to tame. Her hand settled on his forehead, as light as the touch of a butterfly. Her fingers were cool, drawing away some of the heat she’d ignited beneath his skin.
Clay closed his eyes and let his world contract until it consisted solely of the few square inches of skin that connected her to him.
A fine trembling fluttered through her hand. The faint beat of her pulse flickered along his brow, barely perceptible. Her skin warmed, soaking in his heat.
Clay had held himself apart from his friends for the past few months, slowly retreating inward. He’d spent less time with Mira and more time alone, his instincts telling him that he was becoming a danger to her. It had been so long since someone had touched him that even something as simple as this brush of skin on skin had the power to rock him to his core.
The pressure of her hand on his head eased, and he knew instantly that she was going to pull away. He didn’t want that. Couldn’t stand the thought. Not yet.
Panic took over his body, hazing out the edges of reality a bit more. He grabbed her arm, instantly realizing his mistake. He didn’t know this woman. He shouldn’t be touching her at all. And yet there wasn’t a force on the planet strong enough to get him to let go.
* * *
Leigh wasn’t sure what she’d expected when Payton had asked her to come here, but it wasn’t Clay’s hyperobservant state of relative calm. He wasn’t raging or out of control. In fact she felt the strands of control vibrating through his touch, pulled taut but not yet breaking.
Even though he’d jerked into action when she’d tried to move away, his grip on her arm now was careful, if no less insistent.
At least his reflexes were still excellent. He hadn’t reached that sluggish, fevered point that Hollis had right before he died. And there was no rage, nor was he dripping with paranoia—wide-eyed and twitchy.
His pupils were a bit dilated, but maybe that was simply an illu Cimp1" sion created by his eyes’ striking amber color. Vibrant, like sunset, almost glowing in their brilliance, his eyes pulled her in. There was pain there—something beyond merely physical. And fear. She wasn’t sure what a man his size had to fear, but that latent terror was unmistakable.
His clothes were too big, as if he’d recently lost weight. Deep grooves of fatigue were carved around his mouth. Shadows sagged under his eyes. He hadn’t shaved in a couple of days, and his messy brown hair was in need of a good brushing. Still, as disheveled as he was, something about him called to her.
Maybe it was the desperation that radiated out from him as he clung to her wrist, as if he was certain that she could save him.
She hadn’t been able to save Hollis, a fact she needed to remember before she let Clay and his hopeful gaze go to her head.
“You don’t have a fever,” she said. “That’s good.”
Leigh tugged against his grip, hoping he’d take the hint and let go. Grudgingly, he did, releasing her so slowly it felt like a caress.
The skin where his hand had been tingled with warmth. She could still feel the rough slide of his fingertips across the inside of her wrist. As closely as he was watching, she didn’t dare rub the feeling away, as much as she wanted to rid herself of that tingling so she could think straight.
This job of watching Clay was dangerous. Not only to her, but also to him. She had to remember that above all else.
Professional distance. That’s what she needed with this man. She’d known him for less than ten minutes and he’d already pulled her in, making her curious and all too aware of his presence. She had to find a way to shove a wedge of space between them—one that included no more touching.
Squaring her shoulders and donning the mask she wore at work, she took a long step back. “Are you hungry?”
“Not really,” he said, but the look he gave her—the scorching heat of his gaze as it traveled up and down her body—told another story.
“Well, I am. There were some chicken breasts in the freezer. I’ll make us some.”
Leigh went about finding pans and spices, trying hard to pretend she was ignoring Clay while tracking him closely. He hadn’t moved from where he stood, simply watching her as she cooked. The mix of blatant male interest and desperation sliding off him had her on edge, fumbling as she flipped the chicken in the skillet.
“You can help if you want. I saw some canned veggies in the cabinet.”
He was still for so long, she wasn’t sure he’d heard her. Finally, he crossed the space, passing so close behind her she could feel the disturbance of air he caused.
With her back to him, she couldn’t see what he was doing. She heard the clink of glass on the counter, an electric can opener, the sound of metal pans tapping together, and then water running.
The hair along her arms lifted in awareness a second before his lean arm reached Cn at s past her, setting a pan of water on the stove. His heat blanketed her left side, and his voice rumbled low, close to her ear. “I found a box of mac and cheese, too. It’s easier on my stomach than meat.”
She turned to face him, finding him only inches away. She could smell the scent of dryer sheets clinging to his plaid flannel shirt. The sleeves were rolled up, revealing sinewy forearms layered with lean muscle.
“Have you been having trouble eating?” she asked.