The weather broke and a blanket of snow fell hard from the dismal clouds. Through random flakes, Reese Whittaker thought she saw two shadows by the building up ahead, but when she blinked, they disappeared. An eerie chill snaked up her spine.
She’d just left her archeology team at The Bistro. The back street had a couple of food places crowded with patrons and an occasional car drove by looking for a good parking spot. Music drifted from the pub on the corner every time someone opened the door, and two winos on the stoop were having a heated debate about fish.
She stopped at the corner before crossing the street. Even though this wasn’t the hub of the city, Friday night brought out its share of party-goers and drunks, those who would not be paying attention to a lone woman stepping into the street.
Something buzzed past her ear and the speed limit sign next to her pinged, as if hit with a rock. Before she could react, a large male body flew through the air and tackled her to the ground.
Reese couldn’t breathe. Every rock-hard inch of him pressed against her. She struggled, but her arms were held tight by his well-muscled chest. Was she being mugged? Would he waste time lying on top of her if he were a purse snatcher? Oh,God! Maybe he’d drag her behind the nearest dumpster and rape her, then leave her lying in the garbage ravaged or dead.
With a rush of adrenaline, she vowed she wouldn’t go down without a fight. “Get off me!” She tried to scream but couldn’t suck enough air into her lungs with him lying on top of her.
“Are you hurt?” he whispered softly in her ear with a deep voice.
Was he kidding? “A total stranger jumped on me and is crushing me into the cold pavement,” she managed in staccato breaths.
His stubble scratched her cheek as he turned to look back the way she’d come from. Wicked chills congaed up her body.
She struggled again. “Get the hell off me!”
His jaw clenched as if he was warring with himself. Deftly jumping to his feet, he held out a hand to help her up. She grabbed it and he jerked her flush against his body with hard impact. Reese immediately stepped back but he still held her wrist. He reached down and picked up something from the street to examine it.
“Excuse me,” she said, jerking the wrist still in his grasp.
He ignored her.
Mr. Personality was tall, at least six-four, dressed in black jeans, a black turtleneck and a leather duster that barely reached his calves. A strong jaw and high cheekbones suggested he was of Native American decent. In the dark, she couldn’t tell what color his eyes were, but his body was lithe, solid muscle. He had a wild, dangerous look like Mel Gibson in the first Lethal Weapon movie.
“What’s that?” She leaned closer to get a better look.
The stranger held some kind of dart between his fingers. “This is a melari.”
Her attacker gritted his teeth and shoved the object in his pocket. “Come on,” he mumbled and started across the street, dragging her with him.
“Let me go,” she yelled and tried to disengage her wrist from his grip. She raised her foot to kick him, but he side-stepped it, and she almost toppled over because he kept moving.
“Stop fighting me, woman, unless you want to die.”
That statement hit her like arctic water on a winter day. “Don’t hurt me,” she pleaded.
He stopped and glared at her. “I’m not going to hurt you. I’m here to protect you.”
He had a funny way of showing it. “Protect me from what?”
Exasperation laced his sigh. “From the death squad that’s after you.” He pulled the dart from his pocket and waved it in front of her face. “What do you think this is for?”
She narrowed her gaze on him. A hormonal surge of courage pumped through her veins. “I don’t know what that is, but the only thing I’ve seen threatening around here is you.” She couldn’t be sure but she thought she heard him growl.
An aura of danger surrounded him. He moved like a graceful predator and oozed raw sexuality. Her mouth suddenly went dry. She needed to find a way to get away from this he-man. Her attacker palmed the object and hid it away.
The sound of a car backfiring jolted her. He grabbed her shoulders and pushed her behind him. “Shit,” the stranger said and touched his hand to his shoulder. “Which one is your vehicle?”
Reese saw blood seeping into his coat. No dart caused that wound; someone was shooting bullets at them.
Another gunshot pierced the night and shattered the window of a nearby car.
The stranger turned to her. “Which one, dammit?”
“That blue one there.” She pointed to her Chevy Malibu.
Courage and strength poured from him along with his blood. They ran for her car, with him right on her heels. He grabbed the keys out of her hand. “Get in.”
“Hey!” she protested, until a dart whizzed very close, banging into the car door.
Without another word, Reese scrambled into the passenger side as he revved the engine to life. He slammed his foot down on the gas and sped away.
Dagan skidded off the main road onto a darkened side street. He needed to check for an exit wound on his shoulder, and hoped the bullet hadn’t lodged in the bone. They should be okay here for a few minutes.
He threw open the door and got out. The snow fell in heavy flakes joining the previous snow accumulated on the wintry landscape. He eased off his coat. The cold air added a sting to his skin. With his left hand, Dagan tested the tender flesh of his shoulder.
Reese opened her door and stood to glare at him. “Okay, while the whole tackle-me-to-the-ground thing was interesting, and being shot at definitely got my attention, do you mind telling me what the hell is going on?”
He glanced over the top of the car and held her gaze for a moment. He’d already broken the rules by coming into contact with her, but he’d had no choice. “All in good time.”
“Come over here. I need you to see if there’s an exit wound on my back.”
At first, she looked as though she would refuse, but then she stomped around the car. She tentatively touched his shirt. He hoped the dome light inside the car provided enough light for her to see clearly.
“There’s a big hole in the back of your shoulder. You’re bleeding,” she said dryly.
“Thanks, but I already knew that.”
The next couple of seconds happened quickly. She pushed him against the back quarter panel of the car, jumped in the driver’s seat, and threw the car in gear. He only had an instant to move before she ran over his foot.
He growled his frustration. With a flick of his wrist, a sudden gale-force wind exploded, swirling the snow into a blinding tornado. Dagan held his hand out and said, “Hold.” The car screeched to a halt. He could hear Reese gunning the motor as she pressed on the gas, still attempting to get away. Wincing, he bent over to retrieve his coat and silently cursed the blue-eyed vixen. Calmly, he strolled to the car, opened the passenger door and got in. The wind disappeared as quickly as it had erupted and the snow went back to falling lazily to the ground.
“Get out of my car!” she yelled.
His dark brow lifted. He’d never understand humans. Her life was in mortal danger. Kur would be drawn to Reese because of her ancestry, an ancient bloodline from Kur’s most hated enemy, Enki.
Dagan’s oath and duty required that he protect her whether she wanted it or not, and by the gods, he planned to keep her alive. Whispering the obedience spell in the old language, Dagan smiled when her eyes glazed over. The sprinkle of freckles on her nose and cheeks were light but gave her an impish look. Her brows were thin and perfectly arched over enigmatic blue eyes clouded with confusion. She put the car in gear and started driving.
“Where are we going?” Reese turned the knob so the air coming out of the vents got warmer.
“Drive out of the city. We’ll find a cheap motel to stay for the night.”
“I’ll go out of the city, but only so far as my house,” she countered.
Dagan gave her a penetrating stare. “You’ll do as I say.”
She growled. “I could go to the police station so they can arrest your ass for kidnapping.”
He couldn’t help but laugh. She had a feisty streak. And, for some reason, she had been able to subvert the spell. This warranted some serious investigation.
“You think this is funny?” She frowned. “You fly out of nowhere, knocking me down and bruising my…” He glanced over at her. “Never mind.” She sighed. “I only have your word that those people were actually after me.”
She had a point.
Dagan took a minute to study her before saying, “They shot the melari dart at you before I appeared.”
The truth of his words registered on her face as she absorbed what he’d said.
“I’m an archeologist. I don’t know anything important or top secret. My job actually bores most people, unless they love digging around in dirt to find pieces of ancient civilizations. Why would I be in danger?”
“It’s not what you know but who you are that puts you in jeopardy.”
“You make no sense.”
He gently trailed his fingertips down the sleeve of her coat. He used his mental powers of persuasion to calm her nerves and minimize her fear.
“I can’t be sure those demons are not following us. They may already know where you live and could be waiting.” He felt her fear escalating again, and a glimpse of her disappointment had him saying, “I’ll give you ten minutes at your place to grab some things.” Maybe having some of her personal belongings would make this ordeal a little easier, if that were possible. “Then we’ll find a motel. Once I’m sure you’re safe, I will answer your questions.”
Reese frowned, her brows dipping between her eyes. Waves of uncertainty coming off her battered him.
“Did you say demons just then? Demons, like in horror movies?”
“Not exactly like the movies, but demons they are.”
“Have you visited a psychiatrist lately? I know a good one. I can give you her card,” she offered dryly.
“I’m not crazy.”
She gave him a yeah-right look, but said nothing more.
It grew darker as the Denver city lights disappeared behind them. They drove in silence the rest of the way but still her confusion tangled with his resolve.
After Reese pulled into her driveway, he stopped her from getting out.
“Wait.” He scanned the darkened area. The snowfall had stopped. He detected no sign of the galla. “Your nearest neighbor is one point seven miles away?”
“How could you know that?”
He released her arm and got out of the car. Moving immediately to her side, he used his body as a shield to protect her. Once inside the house, he ordered her to stay put.
He glared at her. “Stay!”
She narrowed her eyes and mumbled something under her breath, but stood still.
He returned after checking the rest of the house and gave her leave to move. “You never told me your name,” she said while peeling off her wet coat.
“Dagan.” He locked the door, moved to the large picture window, and lifted the curtain back a few inches to stare outside. Everything seemed quiet but he felt a strange vibration. Reese stood with her arms hugged around her body, staring into space. “Pack enough clothes for one night, maybe two,” he urged, in hopes of getting her moving. They didn’t have much time.
She glanced his direction then went down the hall.
Dagan upped the voltage on his senses, projecting invisible sensors which would register all movement, sound, and activity. These would alert him should the Underworld soldiers be close by. Unfortunately, it also meant he could smell and feel Reese that much more. The little spitfire was very distracting.
He scanned the comfortable living area surrounding him. The tan walls were plain but rich in texture, and the dark wood floor gave them a warm glow. Simple furniture adorned the space, also with dark wood. Massive, framed oil paintings covered the walls, reverently preserved and cared after. Wooden shelves were sparse throughout the room and upon each were artifacts, ancient relics from Sumerian and Babylonian design. He recognized the markings.
One piece, a chalice, contained in a lighted glass case beckoned him with a singing in his blood. He knew this piece all too well. How had she come to acquire such a cherished and guarded secret of the deities? Did she realize the significance of the cup?
Beside the fireplace on either side were shelves built into the wall. Dagan walked toward them. On one side were pictures, he assumed of her family, because isn’t that what humans usually did, put up pictures of family?
In an antique gold frame which had recently been cleaned and polished, the first photograph had a young blond man with aristocratic features and a genuine smile. For some reason, Dagan felt as though he’d seen this man before, but how could that be? Leaning into him on the right sat a strikingly beautiful woman, her eyes the color of a Highland sky and her raven hair curling around her shoulder. The man’s fingers were lost in the locks. Down in front, sitting on the floor, were two girls. Although they looked very much alike, he could tell there was a difference in their ages. Reese and a sister. Reese had the coloring of her father; the other looked more like her mother. He would need to find out where her family members were. If the galla found Reese, they might find the others as well.
Family, something he held no hope of having. He took his life as a time walker very seriously. Again, the two young girls drew his attention. He stared in wonder at the feisty, strong-willed Reese smiling back at him. His nerve endings crackled.
His advanced senses experienced every movement Reese made. A jolt lanced him when she reached into the cabinet and brushed her breast against the counter. His nostrils flared, and it took the greatest willpower not to storm into the kitchen, lift her up onto the counter and feast upon her sweet flesh. What in blazing hell was she doing in the kitchen?
Reese poked her head around the corner. “I’m grabbing some tea bags. Did you need something?”
The hair falling about her beautiful face begged him to push it back so he could trail hot kisses along her cheek and jaw. A fierce longing speared his gut. You, naked on the floor, the couch or up against the wall. “Nothing,” he growled. “Get a move on.”
She scowled at him and disappeared back behind the wall when a small explosion rocked the house.
Reese ran into the living room. “What was that?”
Why hadn’t he felt the death squad’s presence? He’d been too absorbed with foolish longings, his rising libido and the intense attraction to this human female. “Stay inside,” he ordered as he crossed to the door, pulling his guns out.
He pointed a finger at her, his expression stern. “Do as I say.”
She darted to the door as Dagan hurtled himself off the porch and whirled around with guns in both hands. He shot two rounds, hitting what looked like shadows to Reese, but when they fell, she realized they were alive.
Heart pounding, she dashed to the railing to watch the macabre scene when three more came at Dagan from the other side and he easily dispatched them with deadly aim. Transfixed by terror, she barely heard the shuffling to her left. Her attention drawn from the fight, she saw one of the shadows coming toward her. It blended with the darkness which now settled as a backdrop for this nightmare. She needed some kind of weapon.
Running back into the house, she picked up a lamp from the end table near the door and held it like a tennis racket.
“Don’t come near me or I’ll brain you, sucker.” She lifted the lamp a little higher.
The shadow creature laughed, if that’s what you could call the cackling sound it made. It advanced like fog, creeping closer. When it got to the doorway, it reached out for her. Reese hauled off and crowned it with the base of the lamp. With a loud crack, its head fell sideways and it dropped. She kicked it to make sure it wasn’t moving.
Another figure grabbed her from behind, wrenching her arms and making her drop the lamp. She stomped on its toes and kicked at what she thought were its legs but it did no good. The thing had a tight grip around her arms and jacked them higher behind her back.
She cried out.
More shadows of varied sizes dropped down from the porch roof. She screamed and frantically looked for Dagan. A crowd of the creatures huddled in the front yard with Dagan in the middle. He fought hard, like a seasoned veteran. Using his elbow, he knocked one in the face and shot it in the head. It withered and disintegrated. He holstered the gun, unsheathed a wicked-looking knife, and with an upward swing, he sliced through the shadow’s throat, decapitating it. The figure disappeared with a fiery flash.
Reese struggled against the thing that held her, trying to loosen its grip so she could break free.
Dagan leapt onto the porch. He reached around one body with his left hand and swiped the knife across its neck, killing it. The creature that held Reese turned her to face him. His eyes glowed bright red and in his hand, he held one of the darts. In a downward stroke, he stabbed toward her neck.
“Don’t even think about it,” Dagan yelled, as he kicked one in the stomach and punched the face of the soldier that held her.
The creature let go of her and stumbled back. Dagan withdrew two six-point metallic stars, and threw them at his target. With a pop, it disintegrated.
“Look out,” Reese screamed.
From behind, the one that Dagan had kicked now jumped up and ran toward him. Dagan easily drew another gun from its holster and fired three times. The demon was gone. A loud moan floated from the one at Reese’s feet. The creature she’d bonked with the lamp woke up and didn’t look happy.
Dagan stabbed the creature through the middle and when it swung around to face him, he sliced off its head.
Wide-eyed, she stared at the black mess pooled on the porch and splattered across the walls. The substance smoked like a dying fire and had an acrid smell. Her body shivered. She hadn’t paid any attention to the cold when she’d run out the door. The temperature had dropped considerably and her breath created puffs of swirling smoke.
“Come on.” Dagan grabbed her arm and ran to the car.
“But my clothes, my coat,” she yelped.
“We can’t stay here. They’ll be back.” He opened the driver’s side door. “Keys.”
“They’re in my purse in the house.”
“Shit.” He raced over, grabbed her shoulder, and shoved her toward the porch. “Let’s go, quickly,” he said and pulled his gun.
The hold he had on her wasn’t bruising, but light. A frisson of electricity passed between them causing her fingers to tingle. She looked up to see if he’d noticed. His eyes were in constant motion around the entire area. If he’d felt the jolt, she couldn’t tell from his actions or his face.
He rushed them inside and locked the door. “Get your purse,” he said as he snatched her coat from the back of the chair where she’d laid it.
She hurried into the kitchen and grabbed her purse, taking a moment to breathe deeply. A sick feeling clawed at her stomach. When she got back to Dagan, he slipped her coat on her, took the keys, and clasped her hand.
“When we get out there, don’t stop.” He gave her a stern look. “If I say run, you run to the car and lock yourself in. Understand?”
Reese gazed into eyes she now realized were green. The intensity in them made her nod her head in response to his order. At the moment, this gorgeous stranger was her lifeline.