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Neighborly Secrets. Deadly Desires.

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A summer of friendship, forgiveness, and fresh starts.

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Can a desire for revenge lead to redemption? Free!

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Danger, wealth, revenge, power, and fear were all a part of his life.

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How can they stay rivals when they're falling in love?

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Wedding season includes searching for a missing bride´┐Żand a killer . . .

Running Scared

Running Scared, May 2010
The Sentinel Wars #3
by Shannon K. Butcher

Featuring: Lexi Johns; Zach
400 pages
ISBN: 0451412907
EAN: 9780451412904
Kindle: B003NX7NW4
Paperback / e-Book
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"Entertaining series with thrilling characters, secret powers and the healing power of love."

Fresh Fiction Review

Running Scared
Shannon K. Butcher

Reviewed by Mandy Burns
Posted April 19, 2010

Romance Paranormal | Fantasy Urban

Lexi Johns is tired of running for her life and thanks to the group, the Defenders, she no longer has to, since they have given her the tools to fight. They feel the same way she does about the Sentinels, that they are killers without remorse and must die. Her call to Zach, the Sentinel following and tracking her for weeks, is guaranteed to bring him running. Her plan is to get to her friend, Helen, out of the Sentinel's clutches, reverse the brainwashing job and blow them all up. But first Lexi must get over her fear and convince Zach she has given up enough for him to take her with him where his forces are. To her dismay, the more she is with Zach, the more she hears a different side of the history, realizing his actions are not of a killer but someone else altogether.

Zach is running out of time; his tree of life is nearly empty of leaves and the pain due to the power he holds is crippling him. The phone call he receives from Lexi, the Theronia woman he has been chasing all over the county, runs his blood cold. She is frantic and scared, as well as being in serious danger. As he finally lays eyes on her, his relief of getting to her in time is enough to bring him to his knees. Unfortunately, Zach still can't trust Lexi, especially since he can feel her fear of him and his friends. Even though her comments regarding his Sentinel status is largely incorrect and completely out in left field, Zach's desire to protect Lexi and bind her to him is strong. Not only to save his soul, but to fight the war against Synestryn.

What an entertaining and thrilling series! The characters are forever evolving, secrets are revealed, powers are found, new details come to life and love is the cause of it all. I love it!

Learn more about Running Scared


Lexi Johns has one purpose: to free her best friend from the hands of the Sentinels. And the Sentinel she has been running from for months, Zach, has one goal: to convince her that their destinies are entwined. For the magic that Zach has absorbed could destroy him if he doesn't find the woman to channel it for him. And he knows Lexi is the one...


Texas, July 29th

After a lifetime of successfully evading the hunters, Lexi Johns was no longer prey. She was bait.

Zach was here. She could feel him nearby, drawing closer with every beat of her heart, as if somehow he'd become a part of her. She wasn't ready for him to show up yet. She needed more time to prepare herself for what she had to do and what it might cost her.

The fine hair along her limbs lifted, and she felt a tingling run over her skin. She'd felt it before, the night Zach had marked her skin, and she knew what it meant. Zach was closing in.

Lexi wasn't sure she could do this--lie in wait for him to come to her--but she had no choice. The fate of the entire human race depended on her ability to fool him into thinking she needed his help--that she believed the lie he told, that he was one of the good guys. She knew better. Her mother had made sure of that.

As far as she was concerned, most people weren't worth trouble she was bringing down on herself, but Helen Day was. And the Sentinels had her. Zach was her only way inside the compound where Helen was being held prisoner, her only way to help Helen escape.

Lexi's hands shook as she wiped down the worn wooden tables. The bar where she worked had just closed and was nearly empty. There was one man in back, cleaning the small kitchen. She could hear him singing in Spanish as he worked. Gus, the bar's owner, was at the cash register, figuring up tonight's sales. From the grin on his weathered face and the way her feet and back ached, she was pretty sure he'd made a killing.

The lump in her apron pocket from her tips wasn't as big as she'd hoped it would be. Not as many people paid with cash as they used to, and Gus liked to hold on to her money as long as he could, so she wouldn't see those tips until her paycheck. Not that she was going to be here long enough to collect it. She was sure Zach would find her before then.

The idea made her skin heat and her mouth go dry; it made her shake with fear and something else--something hot and illusive she couldn't name.

Too bad. It was time to suck it up. Helen needed her. Lexi had to free her friend, and then find a way to undo whatever brainwashing Helen had suffered. Thank God she had the Defenders of Humanity on her side. Those big ol' redneck boys seemed to know what they were doing, even if they were a bit...intense about it. If anyone could deprogram Helen, it would be the Defenders.

Lexi upended the chairs onto the table so she could sweep and mop. She'd just picked up the last chair when the skin on the back of her neck tingled with awareness. She looked over her shoulder to see who was watching. Gus's head was bent over a calculator. The mirror behind him reflected the dim room. She caught a glimpse of pale green eyes in the mirror and froze in panic for a split second, her heart pounding as it primed her limbs to flee. Then she realized it wasn't Zach. It was just the eyes of the leopard tattoo on her shoulder staring back at her from beneath the edge of her tank top.

Zach wasn't here yet. She still had time to get a grip.

Relief made her sag against the table. She was going to have to find a way to control herself before he showed up for real. And based on the tingling of her skin where his mark glowed beneath the tattoo, that wasn't going to be long. This time when he showed up, she wouldn't run.

Lexi had spent most of her life running, and she was sick of it. She wanted a real home with a real bed, not the backseat of her car and a rest-stop bathroom, or maybe a cheap motel room if she was lucky. If she couldn't have a real home, then the least she could do was make the Sentinels suffer as much as she had. After what they'd done to her mother, Helen and countless others, they deserved whatever they got. And then some.

Lexi turned to get the mop from the kitchen and caught sight of those leopard green eyes again, only this time, they weren't staring at her from a tattoo.

Zach was here. Watching her.

Lexi froze, unable to move, or even breathe.

She wasn't ready. She wasn't strong enough to face him yet. The urge to flee rose up in her, and she fought against the desperate panic, gritting her teeth and clenching her fists.

Zach made no move to attack her. Instead, he lounged in the doorway, one broad shoulder propped casually against the frame. He watched her with the uncanny stillness of a predator. His brown skin blended into the shadows falling over the paneled walls, making his light eyes stand out even more.

Lexi's heart kicked hard, though she wasn't sure if it was because he'd surprised her or because that was just what he did to her. Even in her dreams he had the ability to make her sweat with his hot stare.

He was bigger than she'd remembered, or maybe that faulty memory was just her mind's way of helping her face him down by making him less threatening. His straight black hair was different from the way it had been the last time she'd seen him--tied back like he was ready to go into battle.

Maybe he was. Lexi had no idea what to expect now. For all she knew, he was here to kill her despite his pretty words, and all the planning she had done with the Defenders would be for nothing.

I need you, honey. He'd said that only days ago. Said it in a way that made her resolve melt.

She had to stay calm and act casual. Move slowly. He was like a wild, predatory animal, and she was afraid that if she moved too fast, he'd pounce.

Lexi gave him a level stare, letting him know she'd seen him. Pretending that she wasn't afraid.

Zach smiled, showing off his bright white teeth. It wasn't a smile of greeting. It was a smile of conquest. Victory.

Lexi swallowed hard, trying to work some moisture back into her mouth. "Gus, I'm taking off early," she told her boss, keeping her eyes locked on Zach, watching for sudden movements.

"Like hell you are. Not until the floors are mopped."

"Sorry. Gotta go," she said. "Family emergency."

"You don't have any family."

"She does now," said Zach. His rich baritone voice sank into her skin, making her shiver.

"Who the hell are you?" asked Gus. "And how did you get in here? The doors are locked."

Zach didn't answer. Instead, he pushed off the wall with a powerful bunching of muscles and stalked toward her. Lexi held her ground through sheer force of will. She would not run. Not this time.

"Relax," Zach told her. "You're safe now." His green eyes held her still, mesmerizing her like she was some kind of prey--a timid little bunny rabbit frozen with fear. The image pissed her off enough to drive away some of that fear.

He was closer now. Too close. Lexi's breathing sped until her head spun, and she was sure she'd make herself pass out.

"You need some help, Alex?" asked Gus.

"Alex?" asked Zach, lifting a black brow in question.

Lexi tried to give him an indifferent shrug, but her spine felt stiff and rusty. "New town, new name."

"New look, too," he said, his eyes roaming over her body like the territory belonged to him. "I like it."

She'd had blond spiky hair when he'd met her. Since then, she'd dyed her hair back to its normal color--a plain, average brown. It was longer, too, falling over her nape, baby fine and completely limp after her long shift.

"You look...softer." He said it like it was a good thing, and Lexi suddenly wished she hadn't gotten rid of her spikes. At least she could have used them to put out his eye if he got too close.

Which he was doing right now.

"Alex?" questioned Gus again, this time with more force. He had a gun back there behind the bar and wasn't afraid to use it. Typical Texan.

"I'm fine," she told Gus, lying through her teeth. "He's just an old friend."

Zach's smile widened. "I just came by to catch up on old times."

He reached for her, and Lexi knew she couldn't flinch away. Gus would know something was up, and although Gus wasn't exactly the nicest guy on the face of the planet, he had given her a job when no one else would. She couldn't repay him with trouble. And Zach was definitely that. More than six feet and two hundred pounds of walking, talking trouble.

His wide hand wrapped around her wrist, and he pulled her toward him. Lexi went, ensuring Gus's gun was kept safely tucked away. She let Zach wrap his arms around her. She wasn't sure what he was going to do. Strangle her? Grab her and haul ass out the door? Heaven knew he was big enough to fling her over his shoulder and run out of here before anyone could stop him.

But he didn't do any of that. All he did was engulf her in a hug.

Lexi's mind sputtered, trying to make sense out of his action. Her arms were limp at her sides. She couldn't even find the presence of mind to push him away. She tried to convince herself that it was because she didn't want Gus to get hurt, but part of her knew better. As much as she feared what Zach would do to her, as much as she hated him and his kind for ruining her life and the lives of countless others, there was still something about him that called to her--something that quieted the rioting corners of her soul. Maybe it was just his handsome face or his mouthwatering body. Or maybe he was already brainwashing her and she just didn't know it. That was how brainwashing worked, right?

His hands roamed over her back and down her bare arms. His skin was warm against hers, rough with calluses and utterly manly. She was pressed hard against him, subjected to every devastatingly muscular inch of his chest, abs and thighs. Her hands itched to reach out and see if he felt as good under her fingers as he did against her body, but she held back.

He was her enemy. Lexi couldn't forget that. Problem was, it was easy to forget right now. She couldn't remember the last time she'd been hugged, but she was sure it had been nothing like this.

His scent enveloped her, sliding inside her with every breath she took. She felt her body relaxing and knew this had to be some kind of trick the Sentinels used to subdue their prey. A chemical weapon. One that was working like a charm.

Against her better judgment, her cheek settled on his chest and she could hear the strong, steady beat of his heart. The shimmering necklace he wore pulsed with color, swirling in an almost hypnotic display. His arms were thick, hard bands holding her in place, locking her against him, but he wasn't hurting her, as she'd feared. In fact it was just the opposite. She could feel a subtle vibration running through his limbs, like he was being careful not to crush her.

Lexi pulled back, hoping to end the hug, but Zach didn't let go. His grip was desperate. Unbreakable.

He buried his nose in her hair and pulled in a deep breath. "You're okay," he whispered as if he'd been worried about her. "I didn't get here too late."

Those were not the words of a murdering madman, but Lexi knew better than to be tricked.

"Is Helen okay, too?" she asked.

Zach pulled back then, just enough to look down at her. "She's fine. Happy. Just like you'll be once I get you home."

Dear God, he was practically admitting he was going to brainwash her. She couldn't let that happen. Helen needed her.

"Tell me what happened," said Zach. "When the phone cut off last week; I was sure you were dead--sure I'd be too late."

Lexi prayed he couldn't see the guilty flush she could feel spreading over her face. That phone call last week had been one hundred percent theater, designed by the Defenders to get Zach to come running. She'd pretended to be in trouble, calling him for help. Her frightened voice, the pounding on her motel room door, the way she disconnected the call. It had all been a carefully devised lie to trick Zach in to coming for her.

And it had worked like a charm.

He ran his hands along her arms as if checking for injury, or maybe trying to convince himself she was fine.

She didn't know what to make of it, and it left her reeling in confusion.

"Were you attacked? Did you get hurt?" he asked.

Lexi knew he'd have questions, and she had practiced her lie over and over, but with his hands running over her, so warm and caring, she could hardly remember the line. "No. I was in a cheap motel room. It was just some drunk guy looking for his cheating girlfriend. I shouldn't have called and bothered you, but I was scared."

Zach's eyes closed in relief for a brief moment, and she saw his mouth move as if offering a silent prayer of thanks.

"Excuse me," said Gus. "I hate to interrupt your little reunion, but this floor isn't going to mop itself."

"Sorry, sir," said Zach. "But Lexi's--Alex's--days of mopping are over. She's coming home with me."

Gus's eyes narrowed in suspicion. "That true?" he asked her. "You leaving with this guy?"

Best to just get it over with and get out of here before anyone else could get hurt. The longer she put off the inevitable, the worse it would be. "Yeah, Gus. I'm going with him."

"You've been running from something," said Gus. "Is he it?"

"No," she lied. "I'll be fine."

Zach still hadn't let go of her. His hand was splayed across her lower back, holding her close to his warmth. He looked down at her, and his leopard green eyes practically glowed with anticipation. "Time to go, honey."

Honey. He always called her that, like he cared about her. Like he wasn't planning on brainwashing her and killing her for her blood.

Then again, Lexi figured turnabout was fair play. Her trunk was packed with explosives, thanks to the Defenders' plan. Once Zach took her back to the compound where he lived, and she got Helen out, she was going to detonate all that C-4 and kill every one of the Sentinels she could. Including Zach.


Chapter Two

Lexi was safe. Zach could hardly believe it, even though she stood right there in front of him, so beautiful it made his eyes sting. He'd nearly collapsed with relief when he'd cleared the bar's entrance and seen her safe and sound. The doorframe kept him from falling, and he stayed there for a full minute, just watching her move, soaking in the sight of her whole and safe. Whatever trouble she was in, whatever he'd heard over the phone last week hadn't hurt her.

He'd found her in time.

It took Zach another minute to steady his breathing and get enough control over his emotions to even think about approaching her. He couldn't screw this up. He couldn't scare her away. Not again.

When he was sure he wouldn't hurt her with his desperation to get her in his arms, he finally allowed himself to go to her. And now here she was, pressed up against him, right where she belonged.

He stroked her arms, trying to rub away the chill that roughened her skin. He wasn't sure whether the goose bumps were from cold or fear, but either way, he was going to take care of it for her. Whatever she wanted, whatever she needed, anything in his power to give would be hers.

She felt good under his hands. Maybe too good. His fingers closed around her slim arms and he had to remind himself to be careful. Go slowly. Don't scare her away again.

Zach had planned for this moment for weeks--every day since he'd met her on June 27, a day he'd always celebrate as the beginning of his salvation. He'd gone over their reunion again and again--a million different permutations filling up his brain until it was clogged with possibilities. In every single one, she'd stayed by his side because that was what he wanted.

Based on the way she held herself stiff in his arms, apparently reality wasn't going to be quite so easy.

He'd lost her once. She'd run away. The bloodmarker he'd left on her hadn't worked right and he couldn't find her. Even though it was supposed to be impossible, she'd managed to find a way to hide from him. It could happen again if he wasn't careful.

Zach planned on being really careful.

"I brought you something," he told her. He dug in his back pocket and pulled out a small velvet pouch. It took some doing to open the thing one-handed, but he wasn't about to let go of her with his other hand. If he had his choice, he'd never stop touching her again.

He pulled the delicate gold chain from the bag and dangled it in front of her. The bar's neon signs glinted off the links, giving it a tacky sparkle.

"What is that?" she asked.

"A present. For you." One that would make sure he didn't lose her again.

"I can't accept it," said Lexi. Her dark eyes were locked onto the thing like it was a poisonous snake.

"Sure you can. I had it made just for you. You don't want to hurt my feelings, do you?"

She lifted her chin and looked up at him. Those bittersweet chocolate eyes were full of questions and more than a little apprehension, but Zach would take care of that soon enough. All he needed was some time alone with her to explain and everything would be fine.

It had to be. Zach was nearly out of time.

"Please, Lexi. Just let me put it on you. If you don't like it, I'll get you something else."

She looked at the bracelet again, licked her lips and pulled in a fortifying breath. Her chest vibrated with silent fear.

She was afraid.

Zach fought the urge to fold her in his arms again and hold her until she got used to him and knew he'd never hurt her. Unfortunately, that wasn't the way these things worked. She needed time. She needed him to prove to her that not only would he not hurt her, but he'd kill anyone or anything that tried to.

If things worked out, he'd have a lifetime to show her what she meant to him. Several, actually.

Pain pounded at his body, and the need to stake his claim screamed at him to act, but he held on. He still had a few more days--long enough to do this right. He'd already lived with the pain for decades, he could live with it for a few more days. Lexi was worth it.

Slowly, she held out her arm. Her fingers trembled, but Zach pretended not to notice. She was a little woman--only about five feet tall--but her independent streak was anything but little. Lexi was a fighter, and he still had the scar to prove it.

Every time he saw the small puncture wound on his arm, it made him grin. Once he'd calmed her and showed her how to use his power, she was going to be unstoppable. A fierce warrior maiden. Lexi the Avenger. The stuff of legends.

Zach fastened the bracelet around her wrist, loving the feel of her silky skin brushing against his fingertips. She had dainty bones, though he'd never dare say that to her face for fear of more scars.

He'd made the jeweler resize it twice so it would fit just right. And it did. It was loose enough to be comfortable, but didn't dangle so much it would get in the way. More important, it wasn't loose enough for her to slip it off over her hand.

He pretended to adjust it, straightening out the links while he pulled in tiny specks of power from the air around them. It hurt like hell to absorb any more energy, but he had no choice. He needed it to activate the magic Gilda had imbedded in the bracelet--the magic that would make it impossible for Lexi to escape him again.

With a subtle click, he felt the sleeping power inside the gold links come alive, sending sparks cascading up his arm and down his spine.

So did Lexi.

Her dark eyes widened and she struggled against him, trying to pull away. "What did you do to me?" she demanded.

The barkeep looked up from his tallying. His weathered face darkened, and his body shifted. He was reaching for a weapon behind the bar.

"Time to go, honey," said Zach. He took her by the wrist and tugged her along behind him toward the door.

"You hold on there," said the barkeep. "She's not going anywhere with you unless it's what she wants."

"Stay out of this, Gus," said Lexi. "You'll only get hurt."

"I'll show him hurt." The man cradled a shotgun in his hands, looking comfortable enough with the thing that he probably slept with it at night. Not good. Birdshot hurt like hell, and buckshot could blow his arm off or worse. Zach couldn't let himself become incapacitated now. Especially not when it meant that his blood would be spilled, the scent drawing every Synestryn demon from miles around, leaving Lexi unprotected.

Not going to happen.

He shoved Lexi behind him and held up his hands. "Easy, now," he said. "I'm not going to hurt her."

"Alex, come over here," Gus ordered.

"It's fine," said Lexi. "Really. I'll be fine."

"We'll just call the sheriff and let him sort all this out," said Gus. "Make sure your beau here doesn't have any unpleasant history."

Involving human police was only going to make things messier. And he certainly didn't have time to sit in jail while the last leaf on his lifemark withered and died.

"We're in a bit of a hurry," said Zach.

Gus reached for the phone, never once taking his eyes off Zach. "Sorry to hear that."

"Don't, Gus," said Lexi. "Just let it go."

"He's a big man, Alex. I don't much care for the idea of you being alone with him."

"I'm not going to hurt her," said Zach through his teeth. "I'd die before I'd let something happen to her."

"I want to be alone with him." Lexi's emphatic statement made Zach's heart sing. He wasn't sure if she meant it or if she was putting on a show for Gus, but either way, it worked for him.

"You sure?" asked Gus.

Lexi gave Zach a hard shove, pushing him aside so she could step out in front of him. Zach kept his hands to himself, barely. And then he saw the tattoo of a leopard on her shoulder and was shocked to stillness. Jungle vines and stylized leaves started at the point where he'd place his bloodmarker on her right biceps and wound up her arm and over her shoulder. The leopard was peering out of that foliage, staring right at him from underneath the strap of her tank top.

Zach had seen his reflection in the mirror often enough that he recognized his own eyes when he saw them.

It was odd seeing them in the skull of an animal--like he was some bizarre kind of Slayer. What was even odder was the fact that Lexi would permanently mark herself with any image that reminded her of him. Last time he'd seen her, she'd tried to kill him. He liked to think that the few conversations they'd had on the phone since then had convinced her to let go of her violent urges, but he sure didn't think he'd sweet-talked her enough for something like this.

"I'm sure, Gus," said Lexi. "Just let us go in peace. We won't bother you again."

Now she was talking. He wanted to kiss her for defusing the situation before it could escalate and complicate things further.

Hell, he just wanted to kiss her, period.

Unfortunately, that would have to wait until he got her out of here. At least until he got her to his truck.

"You got my cell number?" Gus asked Lexi.


"Use it. Call if you need me. I'll keep it on all night."

"Thanks, Gus. Sorry about the floor. Keep whatever you owe me."

Gus's eyes narrowed and he scowled at Zach. "You make it sound like you're not coming back."

Lexi looked up at Zach and there was a deep sadness darkening her eyes. He wanted to wipe it away, destroy it so it could never come back to haunt her again. Problem was, he was convinced that most of that sadness was somehow his fault.

"I'm not. Good-bye," said Lexi, then led Zach through the door out into the night.

The night air was warm and thick, and filled Zach's lungs with the scent of earth and asphalt. A pair of aging lights high overhead drew a cloud of bugs, and lit the cracked parking lot just enough to destroy his night vision and create deep pockets of shadow around the few remaining cars.

Lexi headed for her beat-up Honda and Zach was hot on her heels. He hadn't quite forgotten just how pretty her ass was, or the way it made his mouth water with the need to feel his hands cupping her cheeks while he kissed her senseless. As much as he hated it, he ripped his eyes away from the lovely sight and scanned the surrounding area for Synestryn. He wasn't about to let one of those snarlies take them by surprise and ruin his chances of fulfilling every one of his fantasies with Lexi.

And after so many weeks, he had a lot of those. Now all he needed to do was get her to go along with his plans.

"I'm not riding with you," she announced on her way to her car.

She didn't know that the bracelet she now wore prevented her from getting more than a few yards from him, but he didn't think it was diplomatic to bring it up just yet. If she tried to run, then she'd know. And if she tried to run, she deserved finding out the hard way.

"Why not?" he asked.

"I don't trust you."

Her words hurt, but he ignored the pain. He was good at that. "Why not?"

"You know why."

Zach grabbed her arm and gently pulled her to a stop. "No. I don't."

She stared up at him for a long moment. Anger tightened her mouth, making him want to kiss it away.

She poked a finger into his chest. Hard. "You put your mark on me and chased me all over the country, making it nearly impossible for me to stay in one place long enough to find work. Do you have any idea how much gas costs? I had to pawn nearly everything I own just to keep my car moving so you wouldn't catch up with me."

The thought of her suffering like that made him sick. That hadn't been his intention. She ran; he followed her. How could he not follow her when he needed her so much?

"Why did you run?" It was a question he'd been dying to ask. Why was she so afraid of him? He'd never hurt her.

"Why did I run? Are you serious?"

Zach nodded.

"You kidnapped Helen. And Miss Mabel. I didn't want to be next."

"Kidnapped?" Well, Zach figured it probably had looked like that now that he thought about it. "Drake needed Helen. And we couldn't leave Miss Mabel behind to fend for herself once the Synestryn showed up."

"They showed up because of you," she said, poking him again.

At this rate, he was going to be bruised. "Well, yeah, but it's not like we can help that."

She rolled her eyes and shoved her hand into her apron pocket to retrieve her keys. "Whatever. Just tell me where we're going, and I'll follow you."

"That's not going to work."

"I'm sick and tired of running, Zach. It's over. You've won. I give up."

He reached for her, wanting to smooth away the pain he saw lining her face. The weariness. In the dimness of the bar, he hadn't been able to see just how tired she looked, but now he did. She had dark circles beneath her eyes, and they were red, like she hadn't slept for days.

Zach knew how that felt. He couldn't even remember the last time he'd slept. He'd been too busy searching for Lexi ever since that terrifying phone call.

Before he could touch her, she flinched away and took a big step back, bumping into her car.

"Get whatever you want to bring with you, and I'll put it in my truck," he told her.

"No. I'm driving."

Zach didn't want to fight with her. They were a team now--or at least they would be once he got Lexi alone and explained everything to her. Surely she wouldn't deny him. He needed her too much to even consider the possibility.

"Your car looks like it's going to fall apart."

She lowered her head and stared at the cracked asphalt. "It's my home," she whispered.

Zach looked into the back window and saw a pillow and blankets. Tucked in the back window was a ratty teddy bear with one missing eye. Taped to the back of the passenger's seat were half a dozen photos of a woman Zach guessed was her mother. Lexi was in some of them, young and smiling. Her mother hadn't been smiling in any of the photos.

She meant it literally. She lived in her car.

Zach's heart broke. How long had she been living like this? And how much of that was his fault for not finding her sooner?

There was no place for her to move away from him now with the car at her back. He could have hugged her and given her comfort, but he worried it would only bruise her pride. So, he pretended that he didn't feel sorry for her and said, "Fine. You drive. I'll ride with you."

Her head shot up and she gave him a skeptical frown. "You will?"

Zach shrugged. "Sure. I don't mind. It won't kill me to leave my truck here overnight."


Chapter Three

Lexi's car wouldn't start. She used every trick she knew, and none of them worked. Twelve years and nearly two hundred thousand miles and this was the first time her faithful Honda had ever failed her when she really needed it.

Maybe the thing knew she was planning on blowing it up.

Lexi pounded her palm against the wheel and let out a frustrated growl.

"It's okay, honey," said Zach, his deep voice steady and soothing. He reached over from the passenger's seat and cupped her shoulder, stroking warm, gentle circles over her bare skin. "I'll get someone to tow it back home. I have a friend who knows how to fix damn near anything. He'll have her up and running again in no time. You'll see."

He was trying to make her feel better. Why was he being so nice when he was planned to killing her eventually? It didn't make any sense, and made Lexi want to scream.

"I'm not leaving my car," she stated.

"It'll be fine. Don't worry."

Lexi had too much C-4 in the trunk not to worry. She repeated, more emphatically this time, "I'm not leaving my car."

"Well, it's not moving and I'm not about to let you sleep in it. It's not safe."

She snapped her head around and glared at him, thankful for a reason to be angry--to vent some of her frustration and fear out on him. "You don't get to tell me what to do. I'll sleep in my car if I damn well please, and there's nothing you can do to stop me."

Zach blew out a resigned sigh and nodded once. "I can see you're not going to make this easy, are you?"

Lexi just glared at him.

"Okay, fine. Have it your way. I can't exactly say I'm surprised." He got out of the car and strode toward a shiny black truck parked about fifty feet away.

When he was ten feet away, Lexi started to fidget. She felt restless and twitchy. She wanted to get out and go after him, though she had no idea why. Maybe it was her sense of duty bugging her--if she didn't go with him, he couldn't lead her to the Sentinel compound. She would never find Helen to rescue her.

By the time he was twenty feet away, she felt like her insides were covered in mosquito bites, and it was getting harder to breathe. She itched all over, but couldn't figure out where to scratch to make it stop. Her eyes kept going back to Zach and his long, powerful strides.

She needed to follow him. Get closer.

At thirty feet, Lexi gave up caring about why she needed to go to him and just went. She jumped out of the car and grabbed her suitcase from the floor of the backseat. Every step she took toward him made some of the itchy restlessness inside her ease.

She looked at the gold bracelet dangling on her wrist and scowled. He'd done it again. He'd marked her, only this time, there was no way she could cover it with a tattoo to mask its power, the way her mother had taught her to do.

Lexi tried to unclasp the thing, but it wouldn't budge--like it was welded shut. She tugged at it, but all she managed to do was scrape some of her skin away. Damn it!

Zach waited by his truck, holding the passenger's door open for her. He had known this would happen. She could see satisfaction glowing in his eyes.

"You did this to me, didn't you?" she demanded.

"You gave me no choice."

"You could have stopped chasing me."

His strong fingers pried the suitcase from her hand, and he set it in the bed of the truck. When he leaned past her, she caught the scent of his skin, warm from the night air. He smelled spicy and completely delicious. Her head spun and she resisted the urge to grab his massive shoulders to steady herself.

"No. I couldn't have," he said.

"Liar," she shot back.

It was a big mistake.

Zach whirled around and grabbed her by the waist. He lifted her up onto the high bench seat and he didn't let go. He held onto her, his big hands nearly spanning her waist. His fingers curled into her flesh, and his green eyes glowed with anger and something else she couldn't name. Something dark and desperate.

"I need you, Lexi. And I don't mean that in the sense of I need you so I won't be lonely or some shit like that. I need you to live. I need you to help me keep the rest of my people alive. I'm running out of time fast, and you're the only one who can save me from becoming a monster. I'm not taking any chances that you'll get away again, even if it means chaining you to me."

Wow. Okay. She hadn't been ready for that kind of confession. Nor was she ready for the way it made her feel...important. Necessary. She had no family and few friends, and she'd always been sure that if she disappeared no one would really notice. Maybe she'd been wrong.

Then again, maybe this was the way the Sentinels got to their victims, telling them what they want to hear.

Lexi straightened her spine and stiffened her resolve to stay immune to his charms. She lifted her wrist and the gold links glinted under the security light. "You already have chained me."

His mouth lifted in a slight grin full of naked desire. "Not nearly as tightly as I want to. I'm trying to give you time to get used to the idea, but let me be perfectly clear. I plan on making you mine. I plan on tying you to me as close as a woman can be. I'm not playing games, and I'm not taking no for an answer."

"Slavery. Mom was right about you. You enslave humans and bind them to do your will."

He gave an amused grunt. "Hardly. You've been listening to too many bedtime stories."

"I know what you are, Zach. You can't fool me."

He slid his hands up along her spine and leaned in closer. He surrounded her with his heat and his strength, and for the first time in a long time, she felt safe. And totally confused.

His mouth was level with hers and she couldn't help but notice how soft it looked. The crazy part of her that had already been brainwashed wanted to kiss him. The sane part of her was screaming at her to run away before it was too late.

"Just what do you think I am, honey?" he asked.

"A killer." Who made her feel safe, even though she knew it was only a trick.

"That much is true," he admitted. "But I try to be selective about the things I kill."

"Are you saying you only kill the bad humans?"

"Never. I would never purposefully hurt a human, Lexi. At least not so long as I remain myself."

She wasn't sure what he meant by that, and she was too distracted by the feel of his warm fingers stroking her nape to figure it out. Every time he touched her, it felt better. If she wasn't careful, she'd lose herself. Forget her mission.

She had to get her car to the compound where he lived. She didn't dare risk taking the explosives out of her trunk for fear he'd figure out what they were and ruin their plans.

"Remain yourself? What, are you like Jekyll and Hyde or something?"

He stared at her mouth and licked his lips. She was sure he was thinking about kissing her. And God help her, now she was thinking about it, too.

"Something like that," he said. "It's time to go. It's not safe out here in the open. I feel like we're being watched."

The Defenders. She'd nearly forgotten about them. They were probably watching right now, making sure she did what she'd said she would. Making sure they didn't have to kill her, too. They'd warned her about what would happen if she turned on them--if she let the Sentinels brainwash her, too.

"Where are we going?" she asked.

"Somewhere safe. Where we can be alone."

Alone with Zach. Alone with his kissable mouth and sexy body. Alone with his casual strength and tempting lies.

Lexi was so screwed.

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