The Golden Bell

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Published Date:31-07-2017
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The Golden Bell by Autumn Dawn Published by Autumn Dawn The Golden Bell Copyright © 2011 by Autumn Dawn www.autumndawnbooks.com All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners. CHAPTER 1 It hurt. Rain glanced over her shoulder, crouched on the gritty alley floor. The fall had skinned her palms and knees, and the wounds stung. But they were coming; she could hear them over the sounds of midnight traffic, though she didn’t try to peer into the glare of streetlights. She ran. Breathless, trembling with adrenaline and exhaustion, she forced herself into a stumbling lope. Her sweat-soaked jeans and t-shirt had turned clammy, adding to the misery. She would have loved to ditch her ragged jacket and pack, but didn’t dare; they comprised all of her worldly goods, and she needed them in the chill London fog. Scaling the chain link fence at the end of the alley was easy, evading the snarling Doberman who went for her throat was not. With no time for regret, she gave it a hearty kick, sprinted across the lawn and jumped, grabbing the top of the ornate stone fence. She swung her legs up and slipped over, barely making it before the dog sunk teeth into her. Another empty alley. Stink rose to assault her nostrils, and she groaned. Thanks, Fido. If she didn’t watch it, her hunters would smell her coming. To add insult to injury, she started to sneeze. Great. Wonderful time for canine allergies to strike. Trying to catch her breath, she moved cautiously down the white-lit brick canyon, praying she’d lost them. She sneezed again, tried to muffle it. She was so tired. The next time she fell, she might not get up. Listening, straining her preternaturally keen ears to catch any noise, she searched for sounds of pursuit. Finding none, she slowly relaxed and sank against the chilly wall, ignoring the trash at her feet. She’d made it. Suddenly light exploded into the alley. Deafened by the shouts of men and barking dogs, blinded by the sudden glow, Rain saw death coming and despaired. “Wake up” A slap accompanied the brutal voice, jerking Rain from the comfort of darkness. Moaning, she pried open her eyes and blinked at the murky cell. She didn’t remember coming there, but she did recall being jabbed with something. Cuffs bound her wrists behind her, and her rear was planted on a hard wooden chair. Did they mean to question her? The word torture flitted across her mind, and she shuddered. Please, God, no Her tormenter, a scarred blighter in working class clothes, took a narrow-eyed look at her and glanced at the other man in the cell, an older gentleman in a suit. What hair he had left was iron gray, perfectly matching the winter coldness in his faded blue eyes. He looked her over and smiled without humor. “Rain, is it? Daughter of Rian Miller?” She shivered. “Who are you?” The smile-that-wasn’t curved his lips again. “Taught you some unusual things, didn’t he? Lock picking, shooting…how to run and how to hide.” Nervous now, she felt the cold sweat start again. Her father had been dead for a year; killed by the very people she now suspected held her, but few people had really known him, known what he was. These people were not so blissfully ignorant. By the chill satisfaction in his eyes, he was enjoying her torment. “I have a few questions for you, my dear. Rory”A tall, dark man entered at his command, favoring the gent with a cold look. “I’m not deaf, Trent.” “Mr. Trent,” the scarred one said aggressively, stepping toward him. Mr. Trent held up his hand, stopping his goon. To Rory he said, “Question her.” Rory sent a cold look her way. “Question is all I’ll do. I’m getting bloody sick of your games, Mr. Trent.” “Strive to remember what happens when you fail me,” Mr. Trent said coldly, “and remember who gets hurt.” His lip curled, but Rory turned to Rain. Softening a little, he asked gently, “What’s your name, love?” Rain hadn’t lived twenty-two years without seeing some good-looking men. This one, however, put them all to shame. Black hair, deep green eyes and a face to make an angel weep were temptation enough, but there was something more, something she couldn’t place. Did he wear cologne? That had to be it, for a scent of tempting power hung about him, though she’d never known a fragrance to addle her so. Just breathing it made her tired blood stir, and the longer he stood by her, the worse the sensation became. Sex in a bottle, her muddled brain exclaimed, trying dimly for a warning, but whatever it was telling her became lost in his eyes. The goon said something to Mr. Trent. The haze she was under dulled their words, but she thought she heard the goon say, “This one’s got it bad.” Rory smirked at her, but the scent messed with her perceptions, because her heart insisted it was an expression of sympathy. “I don’t think we’ll be needing these, will we?” he said, moving slowly around her to touch her cuffs. She felt a key slide into the cuffs and they fell away, granting her blessed freedom. Rubbing her aching arms, she felt gratitude swell. “Thank you.” Rory looked her over. “What’s a sweet thing like you done to get yourself in this mess? Don’t you have mates who will be looking for you?” In the background, she could hear the goon telling Mr. Trent, “I’ll bet he asks for this one when he’s done. She’d be a looker if she cleaned up, and our Rory does like to have his fun before you dispose of them.” She heard, but the words meant nothing. So long as she could smell Rory, feel the thunder in her blood from breathing him in, nothing else mattered. “Friends…no, I have no friends.” Rory frowned. “How can that be? A nice girl like you must have lots of friends. What about your father’s mates? Won’t they help you?” She thought, very willing to tell him everything she knew. “I…I haven’t seen anyone since my father died.” He smiled comfortingly. “But you know where they are, right? Those mates of his?” He glanced at Trent, then moved closer to whisper in her ear, “I can help you. Tell me where to find your father’s friends, and I can help them find you.” The touch of his mouth against her ear sent shockwaves down her spine. Longing seized her. Just let him touch her… “Like animals for him, I hear. Scream and scratch while he’s riding him, and beg for more, they say. Makes me wish I were the charmer. Lucky bloke.” “Shut up And make sure that recorder is working. We want to get every name.” Blocking her view of the men with his body, Rory hunched down to her level, tracing the skin of her face with one finger. “Tell me the names, sweetheart. Tell me how to find them.” It was too much. Breathless, desperate to please him, she opened her mouth. “My father’s cousin used to live in…” An enormous blast shook the cell, obliterating her words. Screaming, she threw her hands up and ducked her head, instinctively protecting her face. Dust clogged the air and Rory cursed as soldiers in black burst into the room, killing the goon and capturing Mr. Trent. She didn’t spare a thought for Trent, but instantly got in front of Rory, protecting him with her body. She didn’t care what happened to her, but she had to save him. A tall man strode through the dust, and everything stilled. He radiated command, powerful as the desert sun. Not all of his size was in his legs, either; those powerful shoulders gave her pause. His long blond hair was tied back, and though it was too murky to tell the color of his eyes, the expression in them chilled her. But those eyes were not fixed on her. “Hello, Rory.” Cold menace vibrated in every word. “Fallon. Fancy meeting you here,” Rory said flippantly. “Come to shoot the breeze, or is this business?” Fallon looked at Rain, and she quickly inched back. Rory was directly behind her, but she wasn’t taking chances. “Leave him alone” she warned the stranger. Rory laughed. “Feisty, ain’t she? What can I do, mate? Your women all love me.” “Move out of the way, Rain,” Fallon ordered her calmly. Beyond the point of wondering how he knew her name and why he was here, she tensed to fight. “No You won’t touch him He was trying to help me.” She saw one of the soldiers inching to her left, but was too distracted by the menace in front of her to do anything. Slowly, Fallon’s eyes lifted to Rory. “How many women has it been now, Rory? How many of us have you helped to kill?” “He’s a liar,” Rory told her soothingly, when she shot him a quick look. “Don’t worry over it, love.” She relaxed and glared at Fallon. “I won’t listen to you.” There was a game afoot, though she was oblivious to its rules. Somehow she was at the center, though why was elusive. Caring was elusive. In close proximity with Rory’s scent teasing her nose, it just didn’t matter. But Rory’s distraction had proved fatal. With a sudden roar, the soldier who’d shifted to their left charged, taking Rain down in a flying tackle. Shots were fired, but she was so tangled up she couldn’t see. Twisting, the soldier managed to land on the bottom, taking the brunt of the fall, and as they landed, she saw Rory jerk. His gun discharged, the bullet striking stone, and he toppled to the floor on his back. Rain began to scream. Fallon’s jaw clenched as he watched two of his men trying to subdue the wild woman. Taking Rory down had taken precious time, and they couldn’t allow this. Pity she hadn’t seen the gun at her head, threatening her life, but he wasn’t surprised at her fury. The charmer’s pheromone was a dangerous thing, and she’d already been in his power when they’d arrived. A nap would do her a lot of good.Striding to her side, he evaded her kicking foot and applied pressure to her carotid artery. In seconds she collapsed like a doll. “Bring her,” he ordered his men. They had to get to the choppers in a hurry, before the Cult figured out their bird had flown and sent reinforcements. They wouldn’t like losing an informant, though to his knowledge the Cult had already killed most of her friends and family, thanks to her cousin’s unwilling help. Fallon was determined that the Black Charmers wouldn’t get another shot at her, even if he had to shift her off-world. His fellow Haunt, as humans had labeled them long ago, closed in around him and their precious cargo. Females of their species were well protected, and not a man there approved of what had almost happened to her. Rory was Trent’s deviant son, and he’d had a bargain with his father. He’d used his sexual pheromones and suggestive abilities, effective only on female Haunt, to question the women. The names of other Haunt were coaxed from her, his father went on a killing spree, and Rory used the women until he tired of them. The bodies were disposed of when he’d finished. It was reason enough to take a man’s life, and Fallon had enjoyed doing it. They made it to the choppers, thankful that the blast had taken out the portion of Trent’s estate that had housed his troops. Fallon’s men picked off the remaining snipers. They needed no night goggles to pierce the inky night, and all of them were expert marksman. Fallon glanced at Trent and the girl. Trent would be questioned and disposed of like the carrion he was, and Fallon had to find a safe place for the girl. Off-world was best, but he didn’t know how much she knew, or even if she’d be willing to use the gate. It was going to take time to settle her, and there was only one place he would have leisure to do that. Rain woke in the chopper, but was wise enough to stay silent. She couldn’t have said much over the chopper’s blades, anyway, but she kept her mouth shut until they’d landed and herded her toward a sleek private jet. Dawn was beginning to lighten the horizon and a chill breeze had kicked up when she demanded, “Where are we going?” The one called Fallon glanced at her. “Home. Wait until we’re in the air and I’ll answer your questions.” Having no choice, she obeyed him. By his accent, he was an American, so she assumed she was going back to the States. She’d been born there, but had run to the UK when her father had been taken. That gambit hadn’t worked, but it no longer mattered. Whoever these men were, she wasn’t going to get away from them easily. Fatigue sapped what energy she had. She’d been running for thirty-six hours, and the strain was devastating. Whatever would happen next was beyond her control, and even her first sight of the inside of a private jet gave her little joy. Cold, hungry and parched, she sat where she was told and tried to ignore the smell of stale sweat and the dried dog crap still clinging to her shoe. “Water?” Fallon handed her a bottle, which she sucked down greedily. He gave her another one. “Bathroom?” He raised his brows in question, then gestured toward the tail of the plane. Grateful, she made her way past the half-dozen others settled into roomy leather seats and locked herself in the bathroom. The face in the mirror shocked her. Dirt smeared her skin, and her greasy hair was half-out of her braid, hanging around her face in shaggy brown hanks. There was nothing she could do about the clothes, but she washed up, pulled her hair back into a proper tail and ignored the shadows under her eyes. It took a bit to scrub the crud off her shoe, and it was a little wet when she finished, but at least it didn’t stink. Taking a deep breath, she carried her footgear back up front and sat down. Dinner was waiting for her. It was hot and she didn’t remember the last time she’d eaten, so she attacked it, uncaring at that point whether it was drugged or who served it. Besides, her backpack was gone, and she didn’t delude herself that her “rescuers” had come in with explosives and M16’s to collect her, only to use her for their amusement. Whatever their agenda, she was safe for the moment. After they got on the ground…she’d deal with that later. Exhaustion hit hard. She needed to lie down, but a few facts wouldn’t kill her. “Why did you come after me?” Fallon studied her. “We’d heard a rumor about one of our females being hunted. By the time we found your trail, the Cult was a step ahead of us. You know why we broke into the compound; they would have used your information to locate and wipe out others of our kind. Too many have died already.” Sluggish as it was, her mind was still awake enough to connect a few dots. “Rory was a charmer. How? I was taught that only human females had the pheromone, and only one in a million, at that.” The Black Charmers had been in existence for a long time, and they were frighteningly competent at wiping out her people. They used the charmers, willing or not, to capture and control the shape shifting Haunt males, using them as informants. To her knowledge, there’d never been a male with the pheromone. Discovering him hadn’t been a pleasant experience. Grimness tightened Fallon’s mouth. “Apparently they come in different flavors now. Our friends in the Cult are dabbling with gene splicing.” Oh, joy. Too tired to dwell on it, she grabbed a couple of the pillows that had been laid out for her and arranged them, reclining her seat as much as it would go. She had very little time before sleep snared her. “Where we going?” she slurred, closing her eyes. “Alaska. That’s where I’m based.” November in Alaska, not exactly a thrilling thought. “Am I free to leave?” He hesitated. “The Council of Elders will want to speak with you first.” No, she wasn’t free, he meant. She knew what happened to anyone who was rescued from the Cult’s clutches. Once their face was known, they were bustled through the gate to “protect themselves and others”. The Cult had a worldwide network of affiliates; shape shifter-hating psychos who’d stop at nothing to see her people dead. Not that she wanted to be captured again, but she wasn’t wild about letting the council dictate where she could live. Her father had raised her to take care of herself. She wasn’t going to be dragged to an alien world, and good intentions be hanged. Sleep sucked her down, and she went without a fight. When this thing landed, she wanted to be ready to bolt. Once they got her under formal guard, her chances of escape would sink out of sight. It was forty below and dark, with a sharp wind blowing. Scratching her idea to run the moment her feet hit pavement, she ducked her head instead and pulled the blanket she’d been given tighter. How did people survive in this frigid climate? A black Jeep was waiting for them. Fallon opened the door for her and she slid into the passenger side, grateful for the warmth. Had she been thinking faster, she might have thought to hit the auto-lock and attempt to steal the Jeep, but the cold and her awkward blanket distracted her. Just as well; she’d never learned to drive a stick. Fallon slid into the driver’s seat. One look at his big body convinced her that she’d been wise not to try and run. Guys didn’t like women messing with their autos. A guy like him…she had a feeling he’d go through the window. Curiosity made her ask. “What would you have done if I’d driven off?” He glanced at her mildly. “My insurance premiums would have gone up, but the body shop guy would have been very happy.” He looked back at the road. “You’re not that stupid.” Annoyed, she sniped, “I thought your type didn’t hurt women.” “We practice discipline, especially of our women. If you were mine, you wouldn’t tempt me.” This time his glance was speculative. If he was trying to unnerve her, it worked. She didn’t want any part of his ‘discipline’, and she definitely didn’t want to date him. A second glance confirmed that he was cute, no surprise she hadn’t noticed, considering; but good looks didn’t make the firearm at his side disappear. Frozen scenery and ice fog flowed past her window, along with occasional traffic. It was only four in the afternoon, and already dark. She had no money, no friends, and her last change of underwear had been lost when she’d been seized. Worse, she expected the day to go downhill from there. She felt tired. A year was a long time to run, and she was beginning to feel like the rope in a tug of war. The bad guys had her, then the…well, she wasn’t ready to call Fallon a good guy yet, but at least he hadn’t tied her to a chair. She sighed. “What’s wrong?” “I lost my toothbrush.” He choked, probably on a laugh. “We’ll get you another one.” “Are there any banks open? Trent and his buddies didn’t bother to check my pockets, and I’ve got a little money I’d like to exchange.” Two shillings was a little money, after all. “I’ll take care of it for you. Wouldn’t you rather shower first? You’ve had a rough day.” Debating the merits of escaping him in a bank while exhausted, nearly penniless, and hampered by freezing weather, she reluctantly grumbled, “Where are we going?” “My place. I’ve got good security, and it will make it easy for the council to speak with you.” “About that…I’m not real eager to chat with them.” He looked at her. “You have nothing to fear. You’ve done nothing wrong.” Her lips tightened and she stared back out the window. He was wrong there, but she wasn’t going to argue with a stonewall. Assuming she could refuel and evade him, she was going to run the moment she got the chance. Not everybody hunting her was human. CHAPTER 2Fallon watched her out of the corner of his eye. Something was scaring her, something other than the obvious. In spite of her attempt at careless chitchat, she was still wound tight. One wrong move on his part and she’d be off at a sprint, never looking back. Did she fear extradition? The Dark Lands, where many of their people had fled, was a wondrous place, but dangerous as well. It demanded strength from its people, and gave richly to those with the heart to rule it. A spirited girl like her would do well there, but perhaps she didn’t know that. The few of them left here were increasingly ignorant of Dark Land lore. Fallon was a guardian. Together with the Council of Elders, he protected the gate from criminals intent on escaping human justice and regulated the flow of emigrants fleeing the increasing power of the Cult. Only a few families still lingered on Earth. Almost all that remained of their young men had chosen to receive special combat training, protecting their people and the gate until the stragglers could make up their mind to cross over. Fallon hoped it would happen soon. Those that were left couldn’t escape the vigilantes for long. He checked on his passenger out of the corner of his eye. She was cute, in spite of the shadows under her eyes and eye-watering stench. Not that he begrudged her that; she’d had a rough day. A good shower would take care of the grime, and sleep would restore her color. A faint grin played around his mouth as he considered what rest would do for her feisty attitude. She’d be a handful, and he wouldn’t mind the distraction. Life had been dull lately. He had a feeling her visit might be just what he needed. The sound of gravel crunching under the Jeep’s wheels woke her from her light doze. Squinting with lingering sleep, she blinked as the motion lights clicked on, illuminating the miniature castle Fallon called home. She stared at the mullioned windows and round tower as one of the three garage doors slid up. He smiled in amusement when her eyes widened at the bad, black, and very expensive Lamborghini Diablo and custom made Harley parked on either side of the Jeep. Women had a thing for sports cars, even if most of them knew little about the specifics. Looked like she was no exception. “Bachelor,” she muttered, eyeing his toys with misgiving. The odds of him having a wife and kids tucked away in here had just drastically diminished. Fighting the urge to squirm at the thought of sharing his house unchaperoned, she paid close attention to his quick tour. “Laundry room. Toss your clothes out the door when you hop in the shower and I’ll throw them in. You can use one of my shirts and my robe until they’re dry, but there’s no way my pants are going to fit you.” She cleared her throat and suggested uneasily, “Boxers might.” Heat rose in her cheeks, but she didn’t feel comfortable strutting around without underwear at the best of times, and especially around him. “Don’t wear them,” he answered easily. They passed through a spacious kitchen. She glimpsed a large living room with leather couches, overstuffed armchairs and a wide screen TV as he guided her upstairs. He paused before a door and swung it open, revealing a sparkling bathroom with a huge tub, a shower stall and double sinks. The words ‘wife’ drifted through her brain, but she shook it off. There were no feminine frills, no soft touches of womanly possession. “You’ve got a housekeeper, right?” “Right. In that drawer, there should be spare toothbrushes. Soap and shampoo are in the shower and all the towels are clean. Be right back with some clothes.” Grimacing at her reflection in the mirror, she made good use of the toothbrush, thrilled to have clean teeth again. She’d been running hard for the better part of a week and had scarcely been able to draw a breath before that, so little things like pure water and the prospect of a clean soft bed held the emotional appeal of a vacation at Club Med. “Here you are. I’ll be in the kitchen working on dinner when you’re done.” Her host deposited a pile of clothes on the counter and left. Stripping, she gratefully tossed her dirty clothes out the door and locked it, suffering a brief pang for the mess she was about to make of his tiled shower. She stepped in and cranked up the heat. Hot needles of water rained down on her, heavenly forerunners of a hopefully restful evening. It took three shampoos and lots of soap, but finally she felt squeaky enough to leave the shower. Borrowing his brush, she worked the tangles out of her waist length hair, wishing in vain for a hair dryer. His shirt slid over her bare skin like a caress, making dormant senses prickle uncomfortably. “Stop it,” she muttered, belting on his maroon silk robe. “Quit stalling.” She took a deep breath and opened the door. True to his word, he was in the kitchen, stirring something in a wok. Ignoring her flash of awareness at the sight of his muscular back, and the way he turned and looked her over slowly, as if surprised, she cleared her throat. “Mind if I borrow this?” At his slight headshake, she took his bottle of olive oil and spread a drop on her palms, rubbing it on her face and hands. “Dry skin,” she explained at his curious look. Nodding, he gestured to the kitchen island and a plate of raw fruit and veggies. “Help yourself. This will be done in a minute.” Fallon was surprised. He’s suspected she’d clean up well, but he hadn’t expected sable hair that gently waved down to a trim little waist. Baggy clothes and sweat-streaked grime had disguised a clear complexion and nice curves. Full lips and smoky blue eyes that occasionally glowed green peeked at him warily from a frame of thick lashes. The girl was hot, and he was interested. Her fear was a hurdle, but time would cure that. A faint whiff of smoke caught his attention. Saving their dinner before it could burn, he tossed a potholder on the island and drew up a stool. He’d already set out plates and sundries, and Rain was making good use of them. “Care to pray?” His request caught her off-guard. Guiltily swallowing the bite in her mouth, Rain looked at him expectantly. With a self-deprecating smile, he moved around the island and reached for her shoulders. She grabbed a fork and spun around, breathing hard, jabbing the utensil threateningly into this stomach. “What are you doing?” He looked at her strangely. “I was about to bless the meal.” He looked askance at the fork, then up at her. “Do you always react this strongly to displays of religion?” “You d-don’t have to touch me to pray,” she said warningly. Touchy-feely men had not been a pleasant part of her last year. “I’m not going to hurt you,” he said slowly, confidently. Never taking his eyes from hers, he carefully reached down and closed his hand over hers, directing it away from his belly. Then, as if she weren’t still quivering with adrenaline, he softly intoned a short blessing. Releasing her just as leisurely, he moved away and reclaimed his stool. When he said nothing and simply served himself, she slowly uncoiled. The pattern of the fork was still imprinted on her hand, but she unclenched it with an act of will and returned to her eating, keeping a wary eye on him. “Wine?” he poured a glass and offered it to her, then filled his own glass. Rain knew about wine. It had little effect on her kind and went down like water, so she was surprised at the rich flavor and depth of her first sip. Drawing back, she eyed the golden liquid, then the decanter in front of Fallon. “This can’t be wine.” “Dark Land wine. Careful, it’s stronger than you’re accustomed to.” His green eyes were amused. Taking the caution to heart, she sipped curiously at the otherworldly liquid. “What’s it made from?” “Dream flowers. It’s a very rare and special vintage.” “What’s the occasion?” “Saving a woman is always an occasion.” She looked away. “I suppose it was worth it; I might have known some names, caused some needless deaths.” It disturbed him, the scant belief in her worth. Her expression said death hadn’t been such a fearful thing, and it was very bad when someone looked at death as a release. Maybe he could shake some sense into her. “If we hadn’t come, Rory would have abused you in ways I wouldn’t describe to my least favorite dog. The pheromone would have ensured you got some pleasure out of it…at first. I’ve seen what was left of the women he used. Their minds went long before their bodies go.” She still wouldn’t look at him. Her voice was hollow. “I know what he was. I’m glad he’s dead.” “The pheromone really shook you up, didn’t it? That’s normal. Time and a real lover will cure that.” Her eyes widened in shock. “I’m not…” she sputtered, and seemed flail for words. “What is this, Dr. Fallon’s Rx for love?” “If you like. I’ve had some experience with female charmers. The only real cure was lengthy separation and…” he trailed off, smiling with fond remembrance. The cure had been intensive, the relationship short. She’d sent him away, claiming affectionately that he’d exhausted her, but there’d been a smile on her lips as she wished him well. The smile grew wicked as he remembered what else she’d said. Find a woman who can keep up with you, love. I’ll be content with lesser wine from now on; you’ve proven how exhausting it is to drink from your vintage. Rain’s presence reminded him that it had been months since he’d last shared pleasure. Interest made his smile grow. “I could help you, if you like.” “I don’t like,” she snapped, far too quickly. “A cold shower works just as well.” Judging from the look in her eyes, that wasn’t the whole truth, but some playful flirting might be just what she needed to overcome the fear he read there. The girl needed to lighten up. “What about a massage? I’ve been told I have the magic touch.” Had she been a porcupine, her quills would have gone up. “Do you understand rejection, or do I need to get you a dictionary? I don’t bedrock with anyone, and definitely not total strangers.” That made him study her. A virgin? Untouched at twenty-two? Or so battered she refused to acknowledge want and need, possibly even emotion? His mood grew more serious. “Has someone forced you?” Anguish flashed in her face. Her jaw tightened as she hid her wounded eyes. “Not exactly.” Protectiveness made his voice darken. “You were attacked.” “Nobody finished what they started,” she said quickly, staring at her plate. “I’m not that helpless.” She sent him a quick, fierce glance and stabbed a bite of dinner, pushing it around on her plate. ‘Nobody’ implied more than one attacker, perhaps more than one incident. When had it happened? After her father’s death, while she was on the run? She was too tightly wound now to question further, but there would be another time. It grated that any woman would be attacked, but bit even deeper with this one. She was under his protection now, whether she cared for it or not, and he took that responsibility seriously. She couldn’t stay on the edge she was walking, one wrong step, and the knife’s edge would cut her in two. Fortunately, he was a man of many talents. Taking care of women ranked among his best. They were finishing their meal as the doorbell rang. Excusing himself, he answered it, then returned bearing the delivered packages. He set them on the counter before her. “Your clothes have arrived.” Clearly puzzled, she reached for a bag and stared at the contents. Slowly, she drew out a pair of folded jeans and looked at the tag. “These are in my size.” “I glanced at the tags on your clothes before I tossed them in the wash. We can exchange anything you don’t like, but I wanted you to have a selection.” He watched her as he casually started clearing the table. She looked overwhelmed. There was nothing extravagant in the bags, not knowing her tastes, he’d had the sales lady pick up common designs like t-shirts, a clingy knit top and a sweater. The white athletic shoes would do until she could choose her own, and though more personal, the packages of underwear and socks shouldn’t embarrass her beyond recall. Annoyed, he realized he’d forgotten to order a coat, but she could wear one of his when they went shopping tomorrow. He glanced at her to say as much, and stilled. Her eyes were wet. She was staring at a new hairbrush, but didn’t seem to be looking at it. “Thank you.” The words were strained, almost whispered. “Nobody’s ever…” she broke off and swallowed. Awkward. He didn’t do tears well, but Fallon instinctively understood the basics. Moving to her side, he gingerly wrapped an arm around her, carefully patting her shoulder. He was tempted to say, “There, there” like a fool, but resisted the urge. Rain sucked in a breath and stiffened her spine. “Too much wine,” she said a trifle damply, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. “I need to sleep it off.” Relieved, Fallon stepped back. “Good idea. You’ve had a rough day. I’ll carry this stuff up for you and let you get settled.” She leapt on the idea, padding behind him up the stairs. He entered one of the guest rooms and set the bags on the floor. For a moment they just stared at each other. “There’s a lock on the door, but you won’t need it. Nothing is going to bother you here.” He looked at her gravely, hoping she’d believe him. The girl deserved a little peace. She wouldn’t quite meet his eyes. “Thanks. I mean it. You’ve been…really nice.”Hm. He’d had more gushing comments made about him, but none quite as warming. The girl was refreshing and he wouldn’t mind keeping her around for a while. “You’re welcome, and good night.” Closing the door softly, he left her to her dreams. It wasn’t that she wasn’t grateful. Rain cast a guilty look up the stairs. At 2:00 AM in the morning, it was deathly quiet save for the muted hum of appliances. Stealthily, she lifted the phone from its cradle and dialed the cab company. With great care, she shut the phonebook and tucked it back in its place in the hall secretary. Leaving this way rankled. She hated taking anything he’d given her because it just drove the guilt deeper, but she’d desperately needed the socks and underwear, so she’d left him the last of her European money with the rest of her new clothes folded on the bed. She’d doubted he’d want the toothbrush back. It had been a trick to lock her door from the outside, but she was resourceful, and it made the illusion of her sleeping in more real. She had to get away from there before the council found out where she was. If she waited that long, it would be too late. Her father had waited on the council and paid for it with his life. “You’ve reached the Artic Cab Company. How can I help you?” A sleepy voice answered on the other line. Straightening, Rain opened her mouth to give directions… “Put it back.” Swearing, Rain whipped around at the cold words and stared. Just beyond the reach of the desk light’s glow, Fallon stood there in jeans and nothing else, staring at her with a hot golden glow in his normally jade eyes. Shivers chilled her. Even with her sharp ears strained for any sound, she hadn’t heard him coming. “Hello? Is anyone there?” Fumbling with the phone in her lax hand, Rain quickly said, “Wrong number,” and hung up. Guiltily, she shifted, waiting for Fallon to explode. His eyes narrowed. “Am I such a poor host that it’s worth risking frost bite? It’s cold as sin out there, and you’ve got nowhere to go.” She drew a deep breath. “I had a plan.” “So do I. Get back to bed.” The lethal words warned of impending retribution unless he was obeyed. She wasn’t stupid enough to attack a full-blood Haunt in his prime, so she eyed him, wondering if he’d move or force her to slip past him, passing through his personal space as she did. Intimidating thought, and she was already nervous. Slowly, he moved aside, never taking his eyes off of her. Giving thanks to his sketchy sense of chivalry, she slid past, holding her breath until she made the stairs. He stalked after her. Eyes widening, she hurried along, juggling her lock picks in her haste to get her door unlocked. Difficult become impossible when he paused behind her and stared at her hands. Giving her a look, he slipped the tools from her damp fingers and did the honors. Blinking in surprise, she slid into the room, unsurprised when he kept her picks. He drew her door key from his pocket and tossed it on the carpeted floor. “You’ll feel better having that, though there’s little point, is there?” He looked at the bed and his brows rose. Moving closer, he frowned at the piles of folded clothes and the foreign currency resting on top. He glanced at her. “I paid you back,” she said defensively. It wasn’t much money, but it was all she had. “Did you put a price on your rescue, too? I could present you with an itemized bill, if you like.” Arms folded, he looked at her with an unreadable expression. The posture did sinful things to all that naked muscle. Tamping down on her hormones and the sudden urge to weep, she looked aside. “I can’t pay you back for that. I can only say thank you.” A pitiful, inadequate phrase, but all she had. “That was all I wanted for the clothes, too. If you really want to return the favor, then stay here and get some rest. I’m not in the mood to track you through the ice fog.” His tone had softened. Firmly, he reached out and lifted her chin. “If you leave, I will find you…and you won’t like my mood when I do.” With that final warning, he released her and strode out of her room. It was a minute before she could breathe normally. Just standing next to him sucked all the air out of her lungs. Standing next to him while he was half-naked… Groaning, she moved the clothes onto the dresser and threw herself down on the bed. How did he manage to make her feel like an erring child and a hormone-plagued teen at the same time? It confused her, added to the stress in an already stressful moment. Now he thought she was ungrateful. That hurt. Maybe she hadn’t stopped mentally running long enough to really consider what he’d done for her, but she didn’t have time. He was going to make her speak to the council, and she had to avoid that. Her father’s murderer was on the council. She couldn’t prove it, had no idea who it was, but the last time she’d spoken to her father he’d told her he was going to share one of her inventions with his friend on the council. The next thing she’d known, their home was being raided and her father was dead, his workshop ransacked. She’d barely gotten away with her life that time and she wasn’t dumb enough to tempt fate twice. How was she going to escape Fallon? Clearly sneaking away would be bloody difficult. Killing him wasn’t an acceptable option, even if she could manage it; a doubtful prospect at best. Incapacitating him might work, but he was wily enough to make that tough. Getting the drugs to make him sleep, let alone getting him to take them, would tax even her sneaky mind, and coshing him on the head… She shuddered, imaging his expression if he weren’t knocked out, or worse, his retribution if she tried to bash him and failed. Haunt men made Navy Seals look like babes in nappies, and her pitiful street fighting wouldn’t save her. If he wanted to, Fallon could power through her moves like a full throttle locomotive, smashing her in the process. You didn’t take on a Haunt male unless you were suicidal, and she hadn’t reached that point yet. She could seduce him. As soon as the notion presented itself, she rejected it. Stupid idea. Bedding him wouldn’t relax his guard, especially when she’d flinched from him like a caged sparrow at dinner. Not only would he not believe it, she just couldn’t do it. Men scared her. It wasn’t because she’d suffered any hideous hurt at their hands. Her father had been her best friend, but she’d always been shy, not the kind of girl that appealing males coveted. As a result she’d had no boyfriends and had experienced only a couple of forgettable kisses. Flirting aside, someone like Fallon wouldn’t even want her, and she didn’t need to deal with rejection on top of everything else. Left with no options, she settled on waiting on opportunity. A distraction would come, giving her the chance to bolt. As a plan, it sucked, but she’d worked with less on shorter notice. She’d make it work. She couldn’t afford not to. CHAPTER 3 A blood-curdling roar jerked Fallon out of a deep sleep. Half scream, half battle cry, it had him out of bed, gun in hand before his mind registered why. Tearing open his door, he bolted down the hall to Rain’s room. Before he could kick the door open, it flew inward, and a wild-eyed fury burst out. Eyes wide and golden-lit with fear and rage, she snarled at him and converted her charge to a flying kick. Habit made him dodge, surprise made him stomp on his instinctive reaction. She was in her nightshirt, his shirt, and shaking with adrenaline. A nightmare? Flashback? Kirk, a friend and one of the men who’d helped with her rescue, charged up the stairs, a wicked blade in his hand. He’d arrived on a late flight and his body clock was still set time zones away, so he’d volunteered to guard the TV and fridge while Fallon went to bed. His entrance spooked the girl. Snarling, she ran down the hall, flinging open the door to his study. “What’s up?” Kirk demanded, looking for someone to disembowel. “Check her room. I think it’s a flashback,” Fallon supplied, dashing after his houseguest. Peeking around the corner of his study with a great deal more caution than he’d approached her door, he barely saved his face as the small statue of a knight whizzed by his head. Swearing, he slipped into the room, dodging missiles as he went. “Rain” No response. Looking around wildly, she noticed the moonlight coming through the diamond paned window and raced for it. A fleeting prayer ran through his head as he dove for her, tackling her just over the chaise lounge. The velvet cushions broke her fall, but his weight sent a fresh rush of panic through her. Damp with cold sweat, blinded by her loose hair, she fought against his hold, trying to bite. In the end, she exhausted herself, unable to defeat his superior strength. Only then did he relax his rigid hold, fractionally giving her freedom as he shifted more of his weight off her. “Rain?” He brushed the wet hair from her eyes, careful not to release her wrists yet. “Did you have a bad dream?” She blinked and drew in a shuddering breath. Slowly she looked around, dawning bewilderment in her eyes. The study light came on. Kirk stood at the door, gingerly avoiding broken pottery and debris with his stocking feet. “Doozy of temper you’ve got there, love.” He started picking up the mess. Fallon relaxed a little more as she stared at Kirk, comprehension emerging. Certain she was no longer going to attack, he moved off her, sitting beside her on the chaise. “Bad dreams. What were you dreaming of?” She slowly sat up, shivering. The borrowed shirt barely covered her thighs, and it was cool by the window. “The night my father died.” Fallon snagged the throw blanket and covered her. “What happened?” “We were swarmed with Haunt. My father sensed something and made me go down the emergency chute. He didn’t have time to follow without being seen. I didn’t dare go back because they were watching the house. I saw what happened through the spy hole.” She shivered. Fallon and Kirk exchanged glances. Carefully, Fallon asked, “Would you recognize anyone?” She shook her head, still lost in memories. “They were shifted. They looked alike to me.” The strangeness of her statement made him frown. Shifted or not, every Haunt had recognizable and unique characteristics. “Nothing stood out?” She shook her head again. “Would you recognize a scent?” All of them had infallible scent memories and sharper than human noses, even without shifting. She should at least be able to do that. Avoiding his eyes, she muttered, “I couldn’t smell anything. My nose isn’t very keen.” What did that mean? Even with a stuffed up nose, she should have scented something. Was she suppressing the memories? The color had leeched from her skin. “I-I’d like to go lie down now.” Wincing at his impatience in the face of her distress, he picked her up and headed for her room, grimacing as the shards Kirk had missed cut his feet. They’d heal in a day or two, and she didn’t need more injuries. “I can walk,” she said shakily. “Humor me.” The last thing they needed was her playing tough and independent. It wasn’t going to hurt her to be cosseted a little. Tomorrow was going to be a rough day for her, and she needed to rest for what remained of the night. Stiffening when she saw her bed, she actually turned her face to his chest. Brows rising, he paused, realizing that she might fear dreaming again. He thought for a moment. “Would you like me to get a radio for you? The music might help. Either that or you can sleep on the couch. I’ll even wrestle the remote away from Kirk for you.” She actually smiled and risked a glance at him. “I’d like that.” Pleased by that small smile, he turned and headed for the stairs. She stiffened when she saw he planned to carry her down. “Ye of little faith,” he chided, not pausing. In moments she was deposited on the couch, the lights on, remote in hand. Raising a brow at the impressive selection of snacks Kirk had lain out, Fallon fetched her a glass of juice and a blanket. “Just yell if he tries to change the channel. I’ll bring you a stick.” Leaving her smiling wanly, he went to find Kirk. Kirk raised a brow when he stepped into the study. “Get some clothes on, mate. I’m surprised the girl didn’t run screaming at the sight of your tallywacker hanging out.” Fallon actually looked down before he caught Kirk’s smirk. “Funny. You know I always wear pants when I’m expecting trouble.” Not that he liked the black silk pajama bottoms, but they were cooler than flannel. Besides, any man would feel ridiculous facing down attackers with his better parts hanging out. Kirk grunted. “Our pigeon remembers nothing and has flashbacks that make my sister’s PMS look like a Brady Bunch reunion. I’d say toss her back, but she’s a menace to society.” Unamused, Fallon sat down in his office chair and started picking splinters out of his feet. “Someone thinks she remembers something. One of our own had to have tipped her hand to the Cult. She’s too good at running.”Kirk laughed. “Bold move, calling a taxi on your phone.” “She’s not listed as a genius for nothing. She failed half of her high school classes and made perfect scores on her GED. Intelligence found textbooks on computer hacking, advanced electronics, chemistry and physics in her room, along with a host of gadgets that made the hair stand up on the investigator’s heads. If her father hadn’t got in their way, whoever had raided their house would have had their own captive prodigy.” No longer amused, Kirk dumped the last of the shards in the trash. “Trying to market her inventions was the dumbest thing her father could have done. Probably would have saved his life if they’d continued to pretend she was nothing special.” “He couldn’t have known.” Fallon watched the blood run from the cuts on his feet and frowned. It was going to stain the carpet. Tomorrow was going to be busy, and he could use some more rest. Kirk would be up for hours yet. “Keep an eye on her. I’m going back to bed.” Answers would come in the morning. “I fixed your DVD player.” Fallon blinked at his sleepy-eyed guest. The DVD player had been broken for weeks, and he hadn’t gotten around to buying a new one. A glance at Kirk revealed him smirking over his breakfast. “Oh?” “Kirk got me the tools.” Kirk saluted him with his toast. “She knows her way around a Philips and a soldering iron, I’ll give her that.” Debating the possible attractions of the Brit’s close-cropped black hair and rakish goatee in the eyes of his female guest this early in the morning was beyond him. Fallon put her ease in Kirk’s company down to bonding over too much late night TV and junk food and then ignored it. Kirk wasn’t interested, and Fallon was too old for childish displays of jealousy. “Thanks.” She smiled at him, and he blinked. The girl was beautiful when she glowed like that. Hiding his smirk behind his coffee mug, Kirk caught his eye. His expression seemed to say, “Too young, too green, too available, my friend. This one will trip you up yet.” Uncomfortably aware of just how well Kirk knew his usual tastes, his usual liaisons, Fallon frowned and concentrated on eating. He’d seen what a fresh young thing had done to his jaded friends; not that it was a fate to fear, but it certainly wasn’t something he had time for. As an ambassador between worlds, he wasn’t looking for a young consort, and this one carried a lot of baggage. Baggage that was going to get publicly rifled through in about fifteen minutes. He waited until she finished her toast before speaking. “The Council of Elders will be meeting very shortly. It’s a video conference via satellite, so we don’t have to leave the house.” A sickly shade of gray replaced her normal color. “Why do I have to meet with them? Don’t they have something more important to do?” Fallon studied her. “They have to decide whether to extradite you to the Dark Lands. You’re in danger now that the Cult has identified you.” “I won’t go.” He let that go. She wasn’t going to have a choice, and it was his job to carry out the transplant. Standing up, he offered her his hand. “We need to go.” Ignoring his hand, she pushed her chair out with angry defiance, pointedly keeping her space from him. With a sigh he led the way, allowing Kirk to bring up the rear, boxing her in. They adjourned to his study. While Fallon raised the wall hiding a wide screen TV, Kirk seated Rain in a leather chair that swallowed her, taking up guard behind her. In moments the screen began to fill with faces, some very old, a couple apparently in their middle ages. In moments seven faces stared at her, studying her with curiosity or dispassion, depending on the Elder. It was all she could do not to claw her way up the back of her chair and escape. The most ancient of faces, a man with a white beard and the dignified essence of Sean Connery, looked at Fallon. “Good morning, my lord. Felicitations on your latest mission. I trust all goes smoothly?” Fallon inclined his head. “As can be expected, Elder Azion.” He glanced at Rain. “This is Rain Lilly Zephyr Miller, daughter of the late Rian Miller.” Rain winced. She hadn’t known he knew her full name, and thanks to her hippie mother, it was a gruesome mouthful. Ignoring her reaction, Fallon introduced the seven elders. “Elder Azion, Elder Traforte, Elder Rite…” Most of the names were quickly forgotten, but Rain remembered Azion and Rite. Azion had the advantage of first introduction, and Rite…the man was creepy. Middle aged like her father would have been, but with night black hair and startling blue eyes, his face was average, but the intensity in his expression was anything but. Against her will, her gaze kept darting to him, and she felt grateful that he wasn’t there in person. Azion’s words drew her attention back to the conversation. His gaze steady, he said calmly, “As I’m sure you’ve been told, we’re here to decide on your future, on whether you’d be better off here or installed in the Dark Lands.” Her eyes narrowed with defiance. “I’m an American citizen, and I choose to remain here.” “It’s not that simple. You’re now a target of the Cult and a danger to the rest of us. How do you propose to defend yourself?” “I’m skilled at making myself disappear,” she said grimly. This time she would stay that way. Kindly, Azion asked, “But what kind of life is that, running and hiding? Living in fear? Do you feel you’d be happy?” “I’m happy if I’m free.” She tried to ignore the hollowness his words invoked. It had been so long since anyone had cared, so long since she’d had friends. Experience told her that friends would be difficult to make on the run. “What of a family? Most of our young men have already left. It will be difficult for you to find a mate here on Earth.” Her heart twisted, and she answered harshly, “I choose not to have one.” Her words caused a murmur to go through her audience. Azion’s brows rose. “Why is that? You are young, pretty enough to easily attract a husband. Even if you aren’t ready for children now, you may be later.” Feeling sick, she looked aside. She wasn’t going to win unless she confessed. Her father had warned her, once she’d finally learned the truth. It had been horrible enough finding out what he was, but he’d warned her that his kind wouldn’t take well to knowledge of her. Some of them might be incensed enough to kill her, and he’d loved her too well to let that happen. He’d installed the escape tunnel in the house and secrecy in her heart. Flinging it away now was ten times worse than giving away her virginity could ever be. The silence stretched. They were content to wait her out. Clearing her throat, she said hoarsely, “My mother was human.” A flurry of murmurs followed her confession, making her shift in her seat. She almost expected someone to strike her dead on the spot. Her father told her shape shifters hated mixed blood. Little as she knew of the race, she didn’t doubt it. Surely this would result in freedom, one way or the other. Personally she hoped Fallon would kick her out; her blood would make an awful mess of his carpet, and he had gone through a lot of trouble to save her hide in the first place. Her father had told her that mixed-blood children rarely survived the first trimester, as the seed did not mix gracefully. She’d been born two months premature and her mother had never really recovered from the pregnancy. She’d died when Rain was five, leaving a grieving husband and a sad little girl in her wake. Her father had concealed the knowledge of what she was from her when she exhibited little of his race’s characteristics, thinking that she’d be happier believing she was fully human. He’d been right, for the day she had learned otherwise had sent her world into a tailspin from which she’d never recovered. The murmur died down. Azion considered her thoughtfully, and she had the sudden suspicion that he already knew about her mixed blood. “Interesting revelation, but to my mind it makes little difference. You’ve got our blood. As rare and impossible as that may seem, when combined with your susceptibility to the male charmer, it makes you our responsibility. I do not believe you will be happy here. Indeed, it’s clear that you’ve been miserable for some time. I move to extradite you to the Dark Lands.” One by one, the Elders voted to send her through the gate, sealing her fate. Her lips parted on a silent protest. They were crazy She was not about to meekly go along, dumbly complying with their stupid decree. She knew nothing about the Dark Lands, only that it had a creepy name and was inhabited by a race of beings her father had warned her wouldn’t appreciate her existence. Gritting her teeth, she fought the urge to tell them where they could shove their verdict. The less she said, the less they would know of her plans. She wasn’t going to the Dark Lands. Azion’s eyes shifted inquiringly to her left. That brought Rain to her feet. Fists clenched, she gritted, “I’m twenty-two years old and past the need for a guardian.” “I accept the responsibility,” Fallon’s calm voice cut off her tirade. She whirled on him, within a fingernail of attacking him. “I don’t want you as my keeper” Azion said calmly, “Lord Fallon will be protecting you until such a time as you find a mate and he can hand the responsibility over. He will help you to get established and will see to your well being until you are settled. This is the will of the Council. Good luck, and good day.” Mute fury riveted her to the spot as the screen went blank. Ignoring Kirk and her new “guardian”, she stalked to the exit, whipped open the door, strode down the hall and slammed into her room. Locking the door, she threw herself on the bed and screamed into her pillow. “That went well.” Fallon shot Kirk an annoyed look and dropped into his office chair. He could see the hallway and Rain’s bedroom through his open study door. He hadn’t known she was a half-breed. It explained a lot, but made little impact on his decision to protect her, other than to make him more certain that she needed it. Elder Azion was right; she wasn’t happy here. No matter how she felt about the move, she was sure to have a better chance of survival in the Dark Lands. Retirement had been looming for some time, and he’d be glad to go home. Kirk was ready to replace him, and there few of them left on this side of gate to warrant Fallon’s continued presence. He had lands and duties in the Dark Lands, both of which had suffered his absence for over a decade. Dealing with one small woman wasn’t going to tax him. Toying with the latch on his laptop, he let his eyes wander over the shelves of books. The sun shown through the window Rain had almost leapt through, reflecting off the snow and illuminating the red velvet couch. Three moons rode the sky in the Dark Lands and the climate was tropical. He’d miss this place, but it had never held his heart like his home. He pictured Rain there and smiled. She’d probably attack the first shifted soldier she found, and since all males remained in their more powerful, mute form when on duty, she’d see one almost immediately. Growing up around humans might even have made her fearful. Frowning, he considered how long it would take her to become acclimated… CHAPTER 4 It was still dark when Rain woke up, but that wasn’t unusual for Alaska. Sunrise wouldn’t happen until ten-something that morning. Growling at the dark, she flipped back the covers and hunted for her socks. She wanted to slap herself for her tantrum last night. Granted, for the last year she’d been hunted, sleep-deprived, half-starved and almost seduced by the bad guy, but that didn’t excuse her childish behavior. You’d think the last year would have pistol-whipped the remains of giddy youth out of her. She was going to the Dark Lands. She hated to admit it, yet there it was. With the entire bloody Council against her, the Cult’s deathwatch waiting for her to show her face and Fallon and Kirk babysitting, there was no way she was going to be able to run. Then there was the little matter of the trinket she carried… Rain slipped her hand into her frayed leather jacket and pulled out a red rubber ball. A lopsided smirk curved her lips as she peeled it apart at the seams and spilled the contents into her palm. As heavy as gold, the intricately carved metal ball slowly warmed in her palm. Topaz gems winked at her from their settings, inviting her to touch, to wake them from their slumber. Giving in, she held the device next to the bedside lamp, giving it just enough light to operate. With a hum, the device lifted from her palm and hovered, slowly rotating. The gems lit up, began their opening notes. Rain shivered as unearthly music, barely heard and intensely felt, vibrated in the air.

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