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Sentinel Wars #6
Signet
March 2012
On Sale: March 6, 2012
Featuring: Jackie Patton; Iain
400 pages
ISBN: 045123605X
EAN: 9780451236050
Kindle: B006LU0I2I
Paperback / e-Book
$7.99
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Fantasy Urban, Romance Paranormal

Rescued from a horror worse than death, now it's Jackie's turn to become a savior.

Also by Shannon K. Butcher:

Willing Sacrifice, March 2014
Paperback
Kicking It, December 2013
Paperback
Falling Blind, April 2013
Mass Market Paperback
Edge of Sanity, December 2012
Paperback
Dying Wish, March 2012
Paperback
Bound by Vengeance, February 2012
e-Book
Razor's Edge, November 2011
Paperback
Blood Hunt, August 2011
Paperback
Living On The Edge, March 2011
Mass Market Paperback
On The Hunt, February 2011
Mass Market Paperback
Living Nightmare, November 2010
Paperback
Dark And Stormy Knights, July 2010
Trade Size
Running Scared, May 2010
Paperback
The Mammoth Book Of Special Ops Romance, May 2010
Paperback
Finding the Lost, November 2009
Paperback
Love You To Death, October 2009
Mass Market Paperback
Burning Alive, May 2009
Paperback
No Escape, October 2008
Mass Market Paperback
No Control, February 2008
Mass Market Paperback
No Regrets, February 2007
Paperback

Dying Wish
by Shannon K. Butcher

Excerpt

Missouri, April 2

Jackie Patton was dressed to kill, and if one more of those burly, tattooed Theronai warriors tried to grope her, she was going to do just that.

Her red power suit was far too dressy for the occasion, but it made her feel better, almost normal. The thought sent hysterical laughter bubbling up from deep inside her. Normal was such a distant concept that she couldn't even remember what it felt like.

Two years. That's all the demons had stolen from her. She could never get them back, but she was free now, and determined to live that way.

She smoothed her hands over her suit jacket, ignoring the way they trembled. What little she had was already packed. She'd regained access to her bank accounts. Her house was gone -- foreclosed and sold at auction -- but she'd find another. She had enough money to live on while she found a job, and despite the tight job market, her résumé was impressive. A good position was just around the corner. She could feel it.

All she had to do now was let Joseph, the leader of this place -- this compound -- know she was leaving. Today. Right now.

Jackie went to the door of her suite, hesitating with her hand on the knob. She was safe here. There were no demons roaming the halls, no monsters lurking around the corner. But there were men out there. Suffering, desperate. Dying.

She'd been told she could save one. All she had to do was give up her life and dive into this world of monsters and magic.

They said it like it was no big deal, like she'd gain as much from this bizarre union as the man she chose would. Not true. She was free now. There was no way in hell she was giving up that freedom after having lost it for two years. She wouldn't tie herself to any man. Not now, not while she was still broken and barely holding it together.

Don't think about that now. If you do, you won't leave your suite today. Again.

Jackie sucked in a long, deep breath and focused on her task. Simple. Fast. She'd be on the road within the hour.

That thought calmed her, and gave her room to breathe. She could do this. She had to. No one else could do it for her.

She grabbed what was left of her self-confidence and gathered it around herself like a cloak, holding it close. There had been a time when she could have faced a crowd and spoken to them without breaking a sweat, but those days were long behind her. Now simply leaving her suite made her shake with nerves.

She was a different person now, not the powerful, confident corporate exec she'd once been. She was a refugee.

No, a survivor. That sounded better. Stronger.

She left her suite, feeling moderately less miserable. She had almost made it to Joseph's office when she rounded a corner and came face-to-face with one of the giant warriors who called themselves Theronai. As he towered over her, nearly seven feet tall, his gaunt body seemed to grow taller by the second. A shaggy growth of dark beard covered his wide jaw, and his amber eyes, shadowed with fatigue, lit up with the realization of who she was.

Jackie's heart squeezed hard, flooding her body with adrenaline. Survival instincts honed in the caves where she'd been held captive kicked in. She went still, hoping he'd pass by and leave her in peace, as Joseph had ordered all his men to do. But this man didn't pass. He slowed, coming to a stop only a few feet in front of her.

"You're the one," he said, his voice ragged, as if he'd been screaming for days.

"I'm late for a meeting," she lied.

His long arm reached for her, and she jerked back. "Let me touch you. Let me see if it's true."

Panic exploded in her chest, but she was used to that. She'd learned the hard way to hide her fear and terror, and now that skill rose easily, allowing her to speak.

"Leave me alone," she warned, trying to make her tone as stern as possible. It was a complete bluff. There was nothing she could do to defend herself against him. She was weak from her prolonged captivity, and even if she hadn't been, his overpowering strength was so obvious, it was laughable she'd even consider fighting him.

Angry desperation filled his gaze as he stared down at her. "I don't give a fuck about what you want. Grace is dying. If I claim you, we might be able to save her."

Claim you.

The words left her cold, and sent her careening back into the caves where she'd been held. The monsters who'd abducted her had treated her like a thing -- a trough from which they fed with no more concern for her than they'd have for the discarded paper wrapper from a fast-food burger.

She couldn't do that again. She couldn't allow herself to be used or she'd be all used up, with nothing left of herself to salvage.

But what about Grace?

Jackie had heard rumors of Grace. She was a human woman who'd sacrificed herself to save a Theronai warrior who'd become paralyzed. She'd taken on his injuries, freeing him, while she lay trapped and dying, her human body too weak to combat the poison that had caused his paralysis. No one had been able to save her. Not even the vampirelike healers these people called Sanguinar.

"Stay away," she warned, working hard to make her voice firm and unyielding. Sometimes that tone had worked to keep the smaller monsters away. For a while.

She backed up, holding her hands in front of her to push him away if he got too close.

His eyes shut as if he was waging some internal struggle. When he spoke, his voice was gentler, pleading. "I'm Torr. I'm not going to hurt you. But I need you. Grace needs you. You may be her only hope."

Jackie covered her ears before she could hear more. She didn't want to be anyone's only hope. All she wanted was to regain her life. "I can't. I'm sorry."

The man lurched forward and grabbed her arms. He moved so fast, she hadn't even seen it happen until it was too late. Violent, harsh vibrations battered her skin wherever he touched. They shook her bones and made her insides itch.

He stared down at the ring all the men like him wore on their left hands. A rioting swirl of colors erupted beneath the surface of the smooth, iridescent band. Jackie watched as his matching necklace did the same.

The luceria was what they called the jewelry. Two pieces linked irrevocably together by magic she didn't care to understand. They were used to unite couples the way her sisters had been united to their husbands -- to channel magic from the man into the woman. While that link allowed the women to do incredible things, Jackie wanted no part of it. This was not her world.

He took her hands in his and brought them to his throat, curling her fingers around his necklace. "Take it off. I need you to wear it."

The slippery band felt warm. A cascade of yellows and golds rushed out from her fingertips, flying along the smooth band.

"No. Leave me alone."

His lip curled up in a snarl. "I won't. I can't." His grip on her hands tightened until her fingers began to tingle from lack of blood.

"Please," she begged him. "Let me go."

The frantic desperation in his gaze grew until his eyes were fever bright. He backed her against a wall, pushing hard enough to knock the wind out of her. "Do it!"

Jackie couldn't bear to look at him and see his need. She knew he was in pain -- all the men like him were -- and she wanted to be the kind of person who would help, but she'd paid her dues. She'd been used for her blood, fed on for two years. She'd kept other women and children alive. Not all of them, but some. She couldn't let this man or any other use her now, not when she was finally free.

His body pressed against hers. She could feel the hard angles of bones and muscle, feel him vibrating with anger. She didn't like it.

Fear built inside her, but she was so used to it, she hardly noticed. Her fingers went numb and cold. She tried to shove him away with her body, but it was like trying to push a freight train uphill. He didn't budge an inch, and her efforts seemed only to anger him further.

"Stop fighting me. I told you I'm not going to hurt you."

"Then let me go."

He let go of her hands, wrapped his arms around her, and lifted her off the floor. "We're going to go see Grace. Then you'll make the right choice."

No. Jackie didn't want that. She didn't want to witness any more suffering. She'd had her fill of watching the pain and torture of others.

She kicked him, landing a solid blow against his shins. He didn't even grunt. Instead, he tossed her over his shoulder. His bones dug into her stomach, and a wave of nausea crashed into her. She struggled not to puke over his back while she pounded at him with her fists.

"Put me down!"

A low, quiet voice came from behind them. "I suggest you do as the lady asks, Torr."

Iain. She'd know his voice anywhere. Calm. Steady. It slid over her, allowing a small sense of relief to settle in between the cracks of her panic.

Torr turned around and eased Jackie's feet to the floor. Her head spun, and she reached for the wall to steady herself. A hot, strong hand wrapped around her biceps, and she could tell by the vibration inside that touch that it wasn't Torr's. It was steadier, stronger, more like the beat of a heart than a frenetic flapping of insect wings.

She looked up. Iain stared down at her, his face stoic. The warmth of his hand sank through her suit jacket, spreading up her arm and down into her chest. She stood there, too stunned to speak or move, simply staring and soaking up that warmth as if she'd been starved for it.

His black gaze slid down her body and back up again, as if searching for signs of injury. When he saw none, he looked right into her eyes. The contact was too direct. Too intimate.

Like the chicken she was, she dropped her line of sight until she was looking at his mouth. His top lip was thin, with a deep delineation at the center, while his bottom lip was full, almost pretty.

That thought shocked her enough that her gaze lowered to his jaw, which was wide and sturdy, and then down his throat, where she hoped to find nothing intriguing at all. The luceria around his neck shimmered as it vibrated in reaction to her nearness.

That sight set her straight and reminded her that he was not a man. At least not a human one. None of these men were. Then again, she wasn't human, either. Or so they said.

"Are you hurt?" he asked.

Pride forced her to look him in the eye once more. She was not going to let anyone make her cower, not ever again.

There wasn't a single hint of desperation in his expression, and when his gaze met hers, it was blissfully empty of the same frantic hope she'd seen in so many others.

"I'm fine," she managed to squeak out.

Iain nodded and stepped forward, placing his wide body in front of her, so that she was safely out of Torr's reach. He paused for a second, his powerful body clenching as if in pain. Then he continued on as if nothing had happened. "You can't do this, Torr."

The loss of his touch left her feeling cold and shaky. It was ridiculous, of course, just a trick of her mind or some kind of illusion inflicted upon her by the luceria. At least he hadn't touched her bare skin. She'd learned that fabric muted the effects of contact with these men, and was never more grateful for long sleeves than she was right now. At least that's what she told herself, even as her hand covered the spot his had vacated, trying to hold in the heat he'd left behind.

Torr's voice came out pained, nearly a sob. "I have to claim her. She can save Grace."

"You don't know that," said Iain.

"You don't know she can't."

Iain's tone was conversational, without accusation. "This isn't how we do things. What would Grace say if she saw you throwing a woman around like that? Where is your honor?"

Torr's amber eyes filled with tears. "Grace deserves a chance to live."

"She made her choice. She saved your life. Don't cheapen her sacrifice by being an asshole."

"I can't watch her die."

"Then don't," said Iain, looking the taller man right in the eyes. "Leave. Come back when it's over."

Torr sneered and uttered through clenched teeth, "Abandon her to die?"

"She's in a coma. She doesn't know you're there."

Torr's jaw tightened. "What if you're wrong?"

"Then that's even more reason to leave. If she can somehow sense your suffering, do you really want to subject her to that?"

Torr gripped his head in his hands and bent over. A low moan, like that of a wounded animal, rose from his chest. "I can't do this, Iain. It's too much to ask. I have to save her."

Jackie tried not to listen. She'd already seen so much suffering. She didn't want to witness Grace's, too. It was selfish to wish for the bliss of ignorance, but she couldn't save everyone.

And that, in a nutshell, was why she had to leave.

"You've done everything you can," said Iain. "Let her go."

"Obviously you've never lost the woman you love," snarled Torr.

"Yes. I have. I know what it's like -- the pain, the guilt. You'll get past it, eventually." His tone was devoid of emotion, as if he were stating facts from someone else's life.

Jackie almost wondered if he was lying, but something in her gut said he wasn't. Iain didn't look like the kind of man capable of love. He seemed too cold for that, too emotionless.

There's no getting past something like this," Torr nearly shouted.

"You can't see a path forward now, but you will find one. Give yourself some time."

"You're a cold fucking bastard, you know that, Iain?"

"I know. And by the time you're over Grace, you will be, too. For that, I'm truly sorry."

Jackie stood there, unsure of what to do. This conversation had nothing to do with her, and yet she couldn't bring herself to slink away like a coward without thanking Iain for stopping Torr.

She backed up, well out of arm's reach. Torr stalked off, causing her to flinch as he passed by.

"I think he'll leave you alone now," said Iain. He didn't move to touch her again, as so many men had. He stood still, just breathing, watching her with calm, black eyes.

He wasn't as tall as Torr, but still nearly a foot taller than she was. His broad shoulders seemed to fill the hallway. Even though he was dressed in casual clothing, power emanated from him, radiating out in palpable waves. His arms and legs were thick with muscle, his chest layered with it. Faded jeans clung to his hips, the waistband tilted slightly with the weight of his sword, which she could not see, but knew was there.

She could still remember the way her fingers had tingled at his touch the night he'd pulled her from her cage. Every Theronai here who managed to touch her had the same disconcerting effect, but with Iain, it had been different. She wasn't sure what it was about him that had the ability to straighten out her jumbled nerves, but whatever it was, she found herself soaking it in, hoping he wouldn't hurry off as he'd done so many times before during their infrequent, chance encounters.

She looked at the ground, uncertain of what to say. "Thank you. For stopping him. He's obviously not himself right now."

"It's polite of you to make excuses for him, but that's not going to help him in the long run. He needs to face facts. So do you."

Her spine straightened in indignation. She was the victim here. Who the hell was he to treat her as if she'd made some error in judgment? "Excuse me?"

"You heard me. You go traipsing around here, acting as if you're not a catalyst for violence."

"You think I asked for this? That I did it to myself? Torr was the one who went too far. I just left my room."

"That's all it takes. You're torturing these men, making them think they have a chance with you. If you had any sense at all, you'd pick one of them and get it over with."

One of them. Not one of us. She noticed the slight distinction and found it intriguing. Why wouldn't he count himself among the rest of the men? He still wore both parts of his luceria, which meant he was available.

Maybe it had something to do with the woman he'd loved and lost -- the one whose death had left him a self- acknowledged cold bastard.

She forced herself to look him in the eye while she lied, tipping her head back to make it possible. "I'll pick someone when and if I'm ready."

"Yeah? Well, let's hope that no one gets killed while you take your sweet time."

"It won't come to that."

"And just what are you going to do to stop it? These are big, armed warriors you're dealing with, not pansy-assed suits, like the men you're used to."

How had he known? She hadn't told anyone about her former life. She didn't trust anyone enough to risk giving away more information than was necessary. "Did you check up on me?"

"I Googled you. I thought someone here should know who you really were, rather than daydreaming about who they wanted you to be."

"And?"

"And what?"

"Did you find a bunch of skeletons marching out of my closet?"

He crossed his arms over his chest, making his shirt stretch to contain his muscles. The tips of several bare branches of his tree tattoo peeked out from under his left sleeve. "You're smart. Educated. A barracuda when it comes to business. People respected you. Feared you."

"You say that like it's a good thing."

"In our world, it is. Of course, I don't see any sign of the woman you used to be. All I see is a scared little girl who would rather hide than do the right thing."

"I've been through a lot these last two years," she grated out through clenched teeth.

"Who hasn't? Life's hard. Wear a fucking cup." With that, he turned on his heel and left her standing there.

Jackie shook with anger as she watched him walk away. And there was only one reason she would have been as infuriated by his words as she was: He was right. She was merely a shell of her former self, and she didn't like who she'd become. She didn't like being afraid all the time -- not just of the monsters, but of the people who lived here. And of her future.

She gathered herself and marched the last few yards to Joseph's office. It was time to take back her life.

Excerpt from Dying Wish by Shannon K. Butcher
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