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.
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.
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
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
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."
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
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
"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
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
"Obviously you've never lost the woman you love,"
"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
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
There's no getting past something like this," Torr
"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
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
"I Googled you. I thought someone here should know who
you really were, rather than daydreaming about who they
wanted you to be."
"Did you find a bunch of skeletons marching out of my
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.