© 2023 by Jordan Summers

CRIMSON CHAPTERS 1-3

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

Gina “Red” Santiago crawled out of the dark tunnel straight into the jaws of hell. The hot fetid breath of the desert hit her in the face as something growled near her ear. The hair on the back of Red’s neck stood on end.

Not bad enough that she’d been framed for murder, now she’d have to contend with being eaten alive.

The rumbling growl deepened.

Red gulped and glanced over her shoulder at the men coming out of the tunnel behind her. “Morgan?”

“Don’t move,” he said.

Morgan Hunter and Demery Wilson’s gazes were fixed on something to her left. Red’s heart stammered in her chest, as she forced herself to look at what held their attention.

Please don’t let it be a bear.

A large canid stood a few feet from her. It dipped its head and bared its teeth. Drool hung from its bottom jaw in long, liquid strings that dropped onto the sand. He was big, but he was alone. Thank goodness! Red’s relief was short-lived, as a mixed pack of canids poured over the dunes on silent feet and quickly surrounded them.

“Dung,” she muttered under her breath.

“It’s okay.” Morgan squeezed her hand, but didn’t look at her. “I’ve got this.” He rose to his feet and peeled his clothes off. His movements were deceptively unhurried.

The canid beside Red took a step back to assess the new threat.

She did a quick head count. “There are too many.” 

Demery came out of the tunnel and immediately took up position on her other side, so Red was sandwiched between the two of them. He pulled his dreadlocks back and secured them at his nape. As he stared at the circling pack, his dark chocolate-colored eyes took on a red glow and fangs pushed past his blunt teeth.

Without the ability to shape-shift, Red went for the only weapon she possessed—her laser pistol. Morgan stilled her hand before she could withdraw the weapon from its holster.

“Too noisy and far too visible at night,” he said. “We don’t want to give away our position.”

Red’s hands clenched into tight fists and her face flushed. They’d removed their indenti-chips so the satellites couldn’t track them, then she, Morgan, and Demery had slipped across the boundary fence that divided the republics from the lawless area known as no-man’s-land. Thus far, they’d evaded Roark Montgomery and the International Police Tactical Team, but one blast from her laser pistol would change that.

She cursed under her breath at her own carelessness. Red knew better than any of them how IPTT operated. As an officer with the tactical team, it had been her job to enforce the rules.

But there were no rules in no-man’s-land. Here her tactical team training was all but useless.

The largest canid, a coyote hybrid of some kind, stilled, sensing a change in its prey. Something in the canine’s bloodline had given it added size and darker coloring from the rest. It watched them for a few seconds, then yipped excitedly. The sound spurred the whole pack. Soon they were all barking, baying, and yipping.

Morgan watched the alpha break away from the pack. Things were about to get bloody. He’d already identified the animal as the leader. Alphas always recognized other alphas. The canine moved in for attack.

He didn’t want to hurt it if he could help it. The beast was fighting for its pack’s survival. Morgan knew a thing or two about that, but he was fighting for more than survival. He was fighting for his mate. He glanced at Gina.

The warmth and assurance he saw in her hazel eyes fueled his conviction. “Let’s do this,” he said.

Blood painted the sand crimson as Morgan’s bones snapped and his muscles reshaped. He fell to his knees and coughed. His blunt teeth tumbled out of his mouth onto the ground, before quickly being replaced with razor sharp canines. Morgan’s hair and skin thickened over his vital organs and talons sprouted from his fingertips. He let out a pained scream that fractured into a howl, as he became more wolf than man.

The second the change was complete, Morgan took off toward the alpha, ignoring the rest of the pack. If he could take down the leader, the others would fall. He was counting on Demery to protect Gina no matter the outcome of the fight.

Morgan tackled the alpha. The impact sent them tumbling end over end. Sand flew everywhere. The moment they stopped, Morgan lunged for the canid’s ruff. Before he could latch on, the hybrid struggled free and leapt to its feet. Its big head whipped around with surprising speed and its powerful jaws caught Morgan’s arm.

Blood welled in the beast’s mouth and it shook its head, attempting to tear off the limb.

Morgan cried out and clamped down on the canine’s ear.

The animal yelped, releasing him in the process and jerked its head away. Blood ran down the side of its face as it licked the bits of flesh from its teeth. The fur on its back rose higher and its tail stiffened, then the animal attacked again.

This time Morgan was ready for it. He felt the impact and allowed it to carry him over so he could roll the canine beneath him. Morgan grabbed hold of the alpha’s throat and sunk his sharp teeth into its neck.

Blood poured into his mouth. The coppery aroma filled his lungs, making him...hungry. Despite his instant revulsion, Morgan swallowed the warm, tempting liquid. The sweet taste hit his system like a laser blast to the gut. A sharp rush of power followed it.

The feeling spread through him until his body trembled from the onslaught. Morgan clamped down on the animal’s throat even harder. The alpha whimpered beneath him, but Morgan didn’t care as his senses sharpened and the world around him came to life.

What was happening to him?  Was this a side effect of Raphael Vega’s vampiric blood pulsing through his wolf veins or was this something else entirely?

Fear slowly replaced Morgan’s euphoria. He had lived with his wolf through war, loss, and pain. His feral nature was as natural to him as breathing. He didn’t know what he’d do if it went away. His wolf was what kept him bound to Gina. If Morgan lost that tie, then everything they’d sacrificed, everything they’d worked to protect would be for naught.

Without his wolf, who was he? What was he?

The animal stopped struggling beneath him and tucked its tail between its legs. A moment later, it exposed its abdomen in defeat. Morgan growled low and deep, then slowly released the canine. It staggered to its feet and dropped its head in submission. The pack’s excited yipping stopped. The silence that followed was unsettling.

Morgan shifted until he could stand like a man, then made eye contact with each of the animals. In turn they ducked their heads and kept their gazes averted. He threw back his head and howled. When Morgan finished, the pack scattered into the darkness. He slowly turned to face Demery, expecting to see the same submission.

The vampire’s red eyes glowed, then Demery grinned, flashing sharp fangs and deep dimples. “Way to go, wolfman,” he said, then clapped.

Some of the tension in Morgan’s body deflated, but not all. He grabbed a canteen and swished water around in his mouth before spitting it out, then he took a drink and swallowed.

“Is it over?” Gina asked.

“It’s done.” Demery glanced back at Morgan. “At least that part,” he amended. “I think I’m going to scout ahead. Be back in a few.”

Blood smeared Morgan’s body as he stared at Gina. He needed to see for himself that his mate was safe. Needed to reclaim what was his, so no one and nothing could ever take her away. Only then would he stand a chance of getting his beast under control.

Morgan’s body contorted. When it finished, the man Red loved was standing before her naked.

“Come here.” His guttural voice raked the air, scoring the night.

Her knees quivered and she felt her body tighten in anticipation.

“I said come here,” Morgan repeated. This time his words weren’t nearly as garbled.

Red hesitated, then slowly approached him.

Morgan circled her, much like the pack had earlier. He stuck his nose in her long, black hair and inhaled deeply. “You smell nice,” he growled.

Red wanted to point out that she was in desperate need of a shower, but one look at Morgan’s face stilled her tongue. Raw hunger etched his features and desire burned in his amber eyes, turning them molten gold. Her breath caught in her throat as she waited to see what he’d do next.

“Mine,” Morgan said, then whispered, “I need you to take your clothes off.” A plea and a demand.

Her fingers trembled as she unbuttoned her shirt. Red wasn’t scared, but she was nervous. Between fighting murder charges and Morgan’s false imprisonment, they hadn’t been able to spend a lot of alone time together.

She glanced around at the sand dunes surrounding them. Not exactly the place for this or the best timing, but Red wasn’t about to deny him pleasure—or herself. She pulled at the last two buttons and they popped off, dropping onto the ground before being swallowed by the sand.

Tension thrummed between them, creating waves of heat that electrified her nerves and ratcheted her need. Morgan’s breathing deepened and his muscles quivered.

“I’m afraid if I touch you, I’ll ravish you,” he said.

Red’s gaze locked on his mouth and she licked her lips. “You don’t see me stopping you. Do you?”

Morgan groaned. “Take off the rest of your clothes before I rip them off you.”

The air rushed out of her lungs as Red’s world narrowed on the feral male in front of her. One taste of his skin and she’d be lost. She inhaled, catching his musky scent on the hot breeze. She shucked her shirt and seductively shed the rest of her clothes.

Morgan tongued his long, sharp canines in anticipation. “I can’t wait to taste you. I’ve dreamed about it. Ached for it. I’m done waiting,” he said. “Get on all fours.”

Red’s stomach fluttered with anticipation and she dropped instantly.

The second Gina’s knees hit the sand, Morgan was on her. He pushed her onto her hands, did a quick check to make sure she was ready, then entered her. One thrust into Gina’s tight warmth and Morgan was home. The only home he’d ever need.

It seemed like forever since he’d last lost himself in her body. He trembled, caught between savage need and emotional overload. “Please forgive me,” he rasped. “I didn’t want it to be like this.”

“There’s nothing to forgive.” Gina wiggled closer.

There would be nothing gentle about this taking. Morgan was too far gone. He pulled back and drove into her. Flames raced along his spine as her tight sheath gripped him. Morgan held her narrow waist so he could watch their bodies join as he pounded into her. He couldn’t seem to get deep enough. He wanted to crawl inside her until they were one heart, one being.

Morgan brushed a kiss against her neck and felt Gina tremble beneath him. She pushed her long hair aside to give him better access.

At the sight of her bare skin, his canines lengthened into fangs. He should’ve been horrified, but Morgan was too out of control to care. He could smell the blood coursing through Gina’s veins. It would be sweet. One taste, that’s all he needed.

His mouth watered even as revulsion filled him. Morgan had promised himself he wouldn’t bite her again. Gina’s delicious scent wafted in the air and desire swamped him. His gaze fastened on his mark at the curve of her neck. The mark he’d left so the world would know that he’d claimed her. He tongued the spot, licking the salty sweat from her skin.

“I’m sorry,” he murmured, but I have to…

Morgan needed to mark her again to reinforce his claim. He kissed Gina once more. 

“Do it!” she demanded.

Morgan growled, then latched onto her shoulder, biting deep where he’d bitten her the first time they’d made love.

Red gasped and her legs nearly gave out as pleasure swamped her. It had always been great between them, but tonight seemed different. More intense.

Morgan rumbled deep in his chest as his rough tongue lapped at her tender flesh. Red could hear him swallowing as he drank in her essence. Her blood set fire to something inside of him.

He moved like a beast, driving his hard flesh into her. Skin slapped heated skin, bonding two bodies, while repairing wounded souls. He needed this. She needed this.

Red needed him.

A chorus of grunts and moans punctuated his movements as Morgan conquered her flesh and laid siege to her heart. “Mine,” he ground out, taking one last drink before licking the wound to seal it. “And I’m yours.”

“Always,” she said.

Morgan cupped her sensitive flesh, then squeezed.

Red exploded on a long, drawn-out gasp, taking him with her into oblivion. Strong hands clamped down hard and he bellowed as his body jerked.

Spent, they collapsed onto the sand.

“I don’t deserve you.” The hot brush of his breath bathed her neck as tears silently fell from his eyes. His fingertips glided over her skin lovingly as if he were trying to memorize every inch of her.

Red hugged him.

“I’m sorry I bit you. I promised myself I wouldn’t, but...” his voice trailed off.

She tried to see the tender spot. “You know I love it when you bite me.”

Morgan frowned. “You don’t understand. I’m different now. I’m not sure what’s happening to me. Raphael’s blood... It’s changed me somehow. I’m a wolf, but my desires have altered.”

Red stared into his amber eyes. “You are still the man I love. I’ll take you in any form I can get you,” she said.

Morgan slid out of her.

The loss of warmth was acute.

“Just don’t ever leave me again. Okay?” She touched his cheek.

“I won’t.” Morgan pressed his lips to her palm.

“Promise?” she asked.

“On my life.” He tenderly brushed the hair off her forehead. “I’ll die before I allow anyone to separate us again.”

Red smiled. “Good, because I’ll kill you myself if you do.”

Morgan laughed, a big belly of a sound, then pulled her close. “I wish we could stay here like this forever.”

Red snuggled against him. “Me, too.”

“But I doubt Demery will wait for us much longer and we don’t want to lose the cover of night,” he said.

“Are you guys about done?” Demery called out from nearby as if on cue. “I’d like to walk for a few hours before we make camp.”

He didn’t sound three dunes away. If the shifting sand was any indication, he was on the other side of the dune they were lying on. Morgan looked like he was trying not to smile.

“You better have just walked back,” Red warned. “Or I’m going to kick your ass.”

Demery was silent.

Morgan chuckled and gathered his clothes. He slipped on his pants, then picked up her clothes and handed them to her.

Red wrinkled her nose. “I’m never going to get the sand off me.”

“Are you two coming or do I have to come over there and get you?” Demery asked, amusement in his voice.

“He wouldn’t dare.” Her eyes widened as she looked at Morgan.

He grinned. “I learned a long time ago it’s a bad idea to encourage a vampire.”

CHAPTER TWO

 

Red had thought the Republic of Arizona was barren, but two days of wandering in no-man’s-land had changed her mind. This place made the backside of the Mars look subtropical. She wiped at the sweat clinging to her face. There wasn’t as much as there had been yesterday. Didn’t take long for dehydration to set in.

She glanced at Demery. His white protective suit glowed in the sunlight. He looked nice and cool despite the hideous temperature. For a moment, Red was jealous, but the emotion passed quickly.

There was nothing to envy about Demery’s situation. His body didn’t change temperature—thanks to the genetic alterations he’d received during the last war—unless it was exposed to the sun. If that happened, he’d die.

Morgan trudged along beside her. The heat didn’t appear to be affecting him either. At least not as much as it was getting to her. Of course, he was used to living in the town of Nuria, which had never had a protective biodome.

Red had always considered herself prepared for anything, but nothing could’ve prepared her for the harsh, unforgiving desert landscape that lay before them. She’d never seen so much sand. She was beginning to hate it.

“Should we seek shelter before the sun gets too high?” She hoped they’d take the hint without her having to admit that the heat was making her tired.

Morgan scanned the horizon. “I don’t see anyplace we could hole up for the day,” he said. “Demery, do you know of any shelter nearby?”

“Might find something over the next rise,” he said.

“Where did you rest the last time you crossed?” Red licked her chapped lips and came away with a mouthful of sand.

“I didn’t come this way. Too barren,” Demery said.

Red stopped walking. If the place was too barren, then why in the hell were they going this way? Unease rippled through her, but she forced herself to shrug it off. Demery had always had her back in Nuria. He’d risked his life and freedom to help them escape.  He’d given her no reason to stop trusting him now.

“You do know where you’re going, right?” she asked. “If you’re lost, just admit it.”

“I’m not lost.” Demery chuckled. “I know where I’m going...more or less. We went this way to throw off anyone who might be following. They wouldn’t think to look for us here. They’d assume we’d head west where supplies are more plentiful.” He pulled out a canteen and tossed it to Red. She caught it without thinking. “Take a drink. It’ll make you less grumpy. I’ve enhanced the water with minerals that will counteract some of the dehydration.”

“I’m not grumpy!” Red muttered.

Morgan and Demery laughed.

She was uncomfortable. There was a difference. Red took a drink. When she finished, she secured the lid and handed it to Morgan, who took two big swallows before sealing it and giving it back.

“We have to find someone we can trade with. We need more provisions,” Demery said. “Should make it a few more days, but after that…”

They’d die, Red thought.

Nothing turned out to be over the next dune or the one after it. Grit covered Red’s face and hands until it became part of her skin. They walked through the heat of the day and into early evening. The sun was dropping below the horizon when Red spotted firelight flickering in the distance.

“Am I seeing things?” she asked. Hallucinating wasn’t out of the question.

“No.” Morgan stepped forward. “I see it, too.” He sniffed the air. “Purebloods.”

“Get down,” Demery said. They all three hit the ground without question. “We need to figure out if these are squatters, drifters, or Sand Devils.”

“What are Sand Devils?” Horned creatures with forked tongues and red skin flashed in her mind.

“Bands of outlaws who rove the dunes in search of unsuspecting squatters and drifters. They’re seriously bad news,” he said. “Though they can be reasoned with on occasion.”

“Think we can sneak around them without them seeing us?” she asked.

“Doubt it,” Demery said. “Even if we could, these are the first people we’ve encountered. We should try to trade with them if we can.”

Red reached for her pistol.

“Relax.” Demery touched her shooting hand. “Let’s find out who we’re dealing with before we kill them all. Okay?”

She shrugged casually, but her gaze slid to Morgan. His entire body was tense.

“If they’re squatters, they’ll have two lookouts. One stationed on each side of the group. They check in by signaling each other. The signal changes from group to group, but we should be able to catch something within the next few seconds,” Demery said.

Red watched the inky horizon, waiting for a sign to tell them they wouldn’t have to fight their way past this group. She was tired and hungry, and doubted she’d have the energy to put up much resistance if the situation called for it.

Tension increased as they waited. An orange fireball rose into the night sky, then exploded with a thunderous boom. A minute later another occurred in a different location. Demery exhaled loudly and grinned.

“Looks like we’ve found our first band of squatters.” Demery climbed to his feet. “They should have sufficient supplies to trade. At the very least, we’ll be able to get enough supplies to make it to the next encampment.”

Red and Morgan were slower to stand, since they weren’t in a hurry to become an easy target for a nervous lookout.

The camp sat a couple hundred yards away. Circular tents and lean-tos were huddled like melted marshmallows in the center of a ring of fire. Morgan couldn’t tell what they were using for fuel, but the flames burned steady and were a good barrier moat between the inhabitants and any intruder that might wander by.

“How do you want to do this?” Morgan asked.

“We’ll take a direct approach,” Demery said. “If we’re out in the open, they’ll have plenty of time to see us coming.”

Gina frowned. “What if they shoot us on sight?”

Morgan squinted. “I’ll be able to smell the guns before we’re in range.” He didn’t add that his acute senses wouldn’t help if they had a sniper in their midst.

They headed toward the vagabond group. Loose rags covered the people who were by the firelight, leaving very little skin visible. A few wore big cat and coyote hides. Morgan had seen similar clothing before. It had been worn in the Middle East by nomadic tribes. It was one of the few things that had survived from that area after the last war. 

“What are they wearing?” Gina asked.

“Whatever they could scavenge or kill,” Morgan said. 

“Doesn’t seem practical,” she said, but her hazel eyes were wide in wonder.

Despite the danger they were in, she was absorbing it all like a kid who’d just spotted her first flying shuttle. Something melted in the vicinity of Morgan’s heart.

“Actually,” he said. “Those outfits are great for this harsh climate. It cools you during the day and keeps you warm at night. The key is layers. They can be removed or added as needed.”

Demery watched the people. “Hey mon, I think I know this group,” he said.

“Is that good or bad?” Morgan asked. The last thing they needed after their long trek was to run into hostiles—or worse, someone Demery had crossed in the past.

“It’s all good,” Demery said. “The Sand Moles welcome traders. Wait here and I’ll make contact.”

Morgan tensed. “Thought you said we should go in together?”

“That was before I recognized who they were,” Demery said. “This particular band is a little skittish. If anything happens to me, head south.”

They ducked back down to watch. Morgan didn’t like it. The idiot was going to get himself killed. Could he lead Gina across the desert on his own? Morgan didn’t like the answer that popped into his head.

“What do we do if they kill him?” she asked, following the same train of thought.

“It won’t come to that,” he said.

“But what if it does?” Gina asked.

Morgan slanted her a glance. She’d gone from amazement to fear in record time. Her golden skin paled despite the heavy amount of sun it had received the past couple of days.

“We run,” he said. “And eventually head south like Demery said.”

They watched the vamp slowly approach the encampment. He held his hands in the air so the lookouts could see he wasn’t armed. A horn sounded. It was followed by the blast from another. People rushed to their tents and came out carrying guns, bows, and pipes.

Morgan took a quick look around. Other than the ridge of sand they were perched on there was no cover. If he and Gina had to make a run for it, they’d be easily picked off if the lookouts were a half-decent shot.

“What are they holding?” Gina asked. “They look like weapons, but I’ve never seen anything like them.”

“Those are rifles.”

“Laser rifles?”

Morgan shook his head. “No, those are antique rifles. They’re made out of wood.”

“Do they fire metal?” She inched forward to get a better look.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.” Morgan caught her leg and pulled her back. “The bullets can travel quite a distance. Getting hit hurts like hell.”

“You’ve been shot with one of those.” Her tone was incredulous.

“Not that exact model, but yes. It’s an experience I’d like to forget.” He rubbed his shoulder where he’d taken a bullet. It still ached when it rained. Fortunately, on the dead world, that didn’t happen often.

“How did they get them? The International Police Tactical Team confiscated all of the weapons after the war. Houses were checked, buildings were scoured,” she said, sounding bewildered.

Morgan grinned. “They obviously missed a few.”

“Are our laser pistols any match to those weapons?” Gina pulled her gun out of its holster.

“Yes, but those have us on distance. We’d need a laser rifle to compete.”

She slumped against the dune. “I should’ve brought a rifle.”

Morgan kissed the tip of her nose. “We could only carry so many weapons. We had to leave room for food and water.”

“I know.” She sounded dejected.

Demery reached the group and stopped.

One of the men in the group stepped forward and patted him down. “All clear,” the man said, then quickly rejoined the group.

The murmur of voices rose.

“I’m here to trade, but I also seek shelter,” he said. “My name is Demery Wilson. Does anyone here know that name?”

There were more murmurs. This time louder as his name rumbled through the crowd on a tide of voices. Finally a single voice rose above the rest.

“I do.” An older man with silver at his temples stepped forward. He wore similar clothes as the rest and had a scruffy beard that started at one ear and ended at the other in a smile of hair.

“Gray?” Demery stepped forward.

The guards notched the rifles against their shoulders.

“It’s okay,” Gray said. The man smiled, showing a gap in his teeth. “Been a long time, dread man. Didn’t think I’d see you around these parts after your last encounter with Reaper.”

Demery shrugged casually, but Morgan could see the tension in his large frame. His scent changed, too. It was subtle, but the sour tang of fear was still there.

“You know me, mon. Nothing can keep me away from a good trade.” Demery grinned, showing the dimples in his dark cheeks. His body relaxed as he slipped on the jovial, happy-go-lucky mask he used freely around others.

Morgan wondered—not for the first time—what the real Demery was like. It had taken him fifty years to understand Raphael and what motivated him. It had only been a week and change with Demery. A long way to go before the word “trust” would enter the picture.

“This man is known to me. Show him Sand Mole hospitality.” Gray stepped forward and lowered his voice. “For your sake, I hope you brought Reaper what you promised.”

Demery patted his shirt. “I have it right here.”

Gray frowned in confusion, then threw his head back and laughed. “It’s nice to know your sense of humor survived intact.” He clapped Demery on the back.

“What’s he talking about?” Gina asked.

Morgan shook his head. “I don’t know. Now shh, let’s listen to see if we can find out,” he said.

“Do you know where I can find Reaper?” Demery asked Gray. “He still has something of mine.”

“We don’t run with the likes of him. You know that.” Gray’s brow furrowed at the mere suggestion of association. “We are a peaceful people unless we’re provoked or deceived.”

Demery smiled. “I know, mon, but you always seem to know where the devil hides.”

Gray grinned back. “That I do. That I do. Speaking of which, tell your friends they can come out now.”

Morgan tensed and Gina slipped backward into the darkness.

“Could never get anything past you, old man. It’s okay,” Demery called out. “They won’t harm you. Come on out.”

“What do you think?” Gina thumbed her pistol.

Morgan looked at the darkness squeezing in around them. “I think we don’t have a choice. We need provisions and shelter or we won’t get much farther.”

She grasped his arm. “I don’t like it.”

“I know, but down here Demery’s the expert,” Morgan said.

Gina shook her head. “It’s not Demery I’m worried about.”

She put her gun away. Morgan followed, positioning his body between her and the armed men.

When they got close, Morgan said, “My name is—”

“Hunter,” Demery provided, cutting him off. “And this is Red.” He pulled Gina close.

The gesture was both friendly and possessive. Perhaps a warning. Morgan couldn’t tell, so he said nothing, even though his first instinct was to rip the vamp’s arm off and use it for a chew toy.

We are outnumbered, he reminded himself. If Demery’s little act would protect Gina, then he’d go along with it...for now.

“I’m Gray. And these are the Sand Moles. Welcome.”

The group turned out to be quite hospitable. They offered Red and Morgan food, shelter, and water in exchange for a laser pistol.

Red was hesitant to give up one of their weapons, but it wouldn’t do them any good if they died of thirst or hunger. Despite the circumstances, the people and their customs fascinated her.

Women danced around a crackling fire in the center of the compound to music that was created using scraps of metal and wires. Red had never heard anything like the high-pitched pings and pops, but found herself tapping her foot and swaying to the music.

One woman with a thick braid of blond hair approached. She tried to coax Red into joining the other women in the dance. Red begged off. She’d never danced a day in her life and wasn’t about to start now. But she was tempted. It looked like fun.

The men watched avidly. All the men except Morgan. He kept staring at one of the digital diaries they’d found hidden in his cousin Kane’s home. He hadn’t listened to any of the recordings yet. The loss of his only family was still too fresh in his mind.

“Why don’t you put that away and try to relax?” Red pointed at the digital recorder in his hand.

Morgan looked at the device and pain momentarily hardened his austere features. In a flash, it was gone. He shoved the recorder in his pocket, then stared at the fire. He didn’t seem to notice the women, but Red couldn’t keep her eyes off them.

Maybe when this was all over she’d learn how to dance. She continued to watch as activity went on around them. The Sand Moles seemed so poor, yet moved with such freedom that for a moment Red envied their lot in life. The thought brought her up short.

These people were criminals. She’d have shot them if she had come across them on patrol with IPTT. Now she was relying on their generosity and goodwill. Shame warred with duty and weighed heavily on her conscience. She was so distracted by her thoughts that Red nearly missed Demery as he passed her on his way to a nearby tent.

“Where are you going?” Red thought it prudent to know where everyone was just in case they had to leave in a hurry.

His brown eyes sparkled mischievously and his dimples deepened. “To get a little refreshment.” Demery nodded at the woman who’d just poked her head out of the flap.

She’d momentarily forgotten all about his need for blood. “Sorry,” Red said.

He took another step.

“Wait, I have a question for you,” she said.

Demery paused, his impatience showing, along with his fangs. He must really be hungry. Or maybe he was just horny from watching the women gyrate seductively around the flames.

“Who’s Reaper?” she asked.

Demery’s cheerful expression faded. “Nobody.”

“Then what did Gray mean earlier when he asked if you brought the item for Reaper?” she asked.

“Nothing, mon. Just old business that needs tending to while I’m here,” he said, then kept walking.

Morgan waited for him to enter the tent, then whispered in her ear. “He lied.”

Red kept her eyes trained on the flap. “I know. His scent soured before he opened his mouth.”

“You want me to go after him?” he asked. “I can find out the truth.”

“No, this isn’t the time or the place to interrogate him.” She shrugged. “He may just be overly hungry. I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Besides, unless his business directly involves us, it really isn’t any of our concern what he does on his own time.”

“You’re right.” Morgan nuzzled her neck. “I’m probably being paranoid.” 

Red pulled back so she could look at him. “What’s going to happen to us?” she asked softly.

His brow furrowed. “What do you mean?”

A couple strolled by within earshot. She closed the distance between them, hoping the music would help mask her voice. “We are fugitives. How are we going to prove our innocence if we’re on the run and don’t even know if we’ll make it out of here alive?”

“I won’t let anything happen to you.” Morgan brushed her cheek with his palm. “Once we locate a communications device and find out what Roark Montgomery’s up to, we’ll make a plan. If nothing else, we’ll broadcast about our innocence until someone listens.”

“I don’t need you to protect me,” Red said. “I need you to make sure nothing happens to you.” She could handle anything no-man’s-land threw at her as long as Morgan was by her side.

He was silent for a moment while his molten eyes searched her face. “I’m sure that Raphael Vega and the others are working on a way to help us from their end.”

Red shook her head. If only that were true... Nuria had turned on her during Morgan’s absence. No doubt their opinion of her was worse now. Raphael, Takeo Yakamura, and Juan Sanchez were the only ones who’d tried to help, but three men couldn’t take on Roark Montgomery’s army. If the politician decided to have another go at Nuria, they’d be massacred.

She thought about Raphael’s brother, Michael Travers. What would become of him? As Roark’s assistant, he’d been their only chance to keep one step ahead of the politician and he’d failed. If Morgan was correct, Roark had gotten to him. Hell, for all she knew Michael was dead.

The thought saddened her. Not over the loss, but what Michael’s death would mean to poor Raphael. He’d just found his brother after years of separation and believing he was dead. Now he may have lost him all over again. She closed her eyes and tried to mentally call him.

Can you hear me?Raphael, it’s Red.

Silence met her.

Red tried again.

Still nothing.

She opened her eyes to find Morgan staring at her.

“Did it work?” he asked.

“Did what work?” she countered, feeling self-conscious.

“Calling Raphael,” he said as if it were obvious.

Had he heard her thoughts or guessed? Red could live with guessing, but she wasn’t sure how she’d handle another invasion of her mental privacy. It was bad enough knowing Raphael could hear her thoughts whenever he felt like it. “How did you know?” she asked.

“I’ve been trying to contact him, too,” Morgan said.

“No luck?” she asked.

He shook his head.

“Do you think he’s okay?” she whispered, afraid to voice the question any louder for fear it might be true.

“Raphael is a survivor. He’s been through far worse than what Roark can throw at him,” he said.

Her shoulders slumped. “Then I guess we’re too far away to reach him. I don’t even know if I’m doing it correctly.”

“Me either,” Morgan said quietly. “But we have to keep trying. There’s no other option.” His gaze grew distant. “I need to know that Nuria is okay.”

Even after everything they’d been through, Morgan continued to take responsibility for Nuria’s wellbeing. For his sake, Red hoped the town was still standing. He wouldn’t survive its fall. The guilt would be too much.

She went back to watching the dancers twirl this way and that, their skirts flowing out away from their graceful bodies. After a few minutes, Red tuned out the music and focused her mind.

Raphael, where are you?

CHAPTER THREE

 

Raphael Vega sat in his rented room above the water trader bar in the town of Nuria. The plush room lay in shadows thanks to the heavy burgundy drapes covering the windows and the sun’s slow demise.

It had been a week since he’d tried to find his brother, Michael Travers. He’d attempted to telepathically contact him multiple times to no avail. He was still alive, but that was all Raphael knew for sure.

Red and Morgan should be across the boundary fence by now, if Demery had kept his end of the bargain. He’d checked the remains of Kane’s house to be sure they’d gone and hadn’t found any trace of them.

Raphael didn’t fully trust the vamp, not that Demery had given him any cause not to, but there was just something off about him. For one thing, he was too damn cheerful. It wasn’t naturalto be that happy. Not after the war. In addition to that personality flaw, it was dangerous having another genetically engineered vampire bouncing around town.

Vamps were territorial. It was part of their bioengineering. The governments had wanted solitary assassins when they created vamps and they’d gotten them. Raphael should know—he was the most territorial bastard of them all.

He rolled his shoulders. He had other things to worry about. Morgan would take care of Red. Not that Red couldn’t take care of herself—she could, but she was out of her element. She’d gone from a world of rules to one of utter chaos. She would need her inner wolf now more than ever.

A smile flitted over his lips as the word “chaos” crossed his mind. Raphael glanced at the shadowy naked figure lying in the middle of his well-used rest pad. Catherine Meyers’ hair was a tangle of short red curls as she lay on her stomach, giving him a tantalizing view of her pale back. She made soft snuffling noises while she slept.

Raphael could make out the curve of her luscious spine as it snaked down to reveal the arc of a ripe rump and a firm thigh. Those same thighs had clutched his hips as he slid inside of her. The room still held the scent of sex and hot, moist woman. His abdomen clenched and he groaned.

He’d taken his little Chaos an hour ago, but Raphael wouldn’t know it by his body’s eager response to her nudity. He thought by now he’d be tired of the woman. Instead, his need had only grown, along with his hunger, which was a constant throbbing ache.

He’d derived great pleasure in memorizing the location of every freckle and secret spot on her. The urge to explore them again had him rising from his chair. Raphael forced himself to sit back down.

If he were prone to worry, he would be concerned about his building attachment to the woman, but Raphael had learned a long time ago to take life as it came.

His dark gaze caressed her once again and possessiveness welled inside him. He couldn’t keep her, but Raphael wasn’t quite ready to let her go. He stood and gathered his clothes, then silently dressed. A couple of minutes later, Raphael slipped out of the room, leaving Catherine fast asleep.

He pressed his palm to the door and punched several buttons. When he was done, the only way the door would open was with his code and handprint. A twinge of guilt tugged at him. Raphael quickly squashed it. It was too late for guilt, too late for a lot of things.

Raphael made his way down to the bar. Evening kept the shadows in the water trader long and deep. Its faded walls and pillars showed its true age. A few tables had been scattered throughout the room and were mainly used for customer overflow.

He looked around at the last of the patrons bellying up to the long bar to fill their orders as if nothing had changed in Nuria. Raphael didn’t know whether to be glad or upset. He settled on the latter.

The least Nuria could do was mourn the loss of its sheriff—their alpha. Morgan Hunter had led these people well. Protected them with his very life. In the end, he’d given up his freedom and so had Red. Did anyone in here acknowledge their sacrifice? No.

Raphael stared at the people standing around the bar laughing and visiting. His scowl deepened. He was about to head back upstairs to his room when Juan Sanchez and Takeo Yakamura entered. The two men had taken on responsibility for training a new Nurian Tactical Team in Red’s absence.

Juan, an average-sized man with dark cropped hair and an unnerving ability to divine the future, gave him a wave, then indicated an empty table near the back.

Raphael hesitated, then joined them.

“Any news?” Takeo asked, his almond-shaped eyes narrowing on the crowd in suspicion. He’d dumped his trench coat onto a chair and tied his long, black hair into a tight queue. His powerful Asian frame practically vibrated with unused adrenaline—thanks to the chimera living inside him.

“Nothing yet,” Raphael said. “We would’ve heard if they’d been captured.”

“How can you be so sure?” Juan asked. “Roark has done a good job of controlling the news thus far.”

“They would’ve tried to mentally contact me or at least send out a distress signal. I don’t think Morgan and Red would go quietly this time,” Raphael said. “Not after what they went through. Their bodies would’ve turned up by now if Roark had found them.”

The men’s gazes met in silent agreement.

“It’s been over a week, when are you going to release Chaos?” Juan asked.

Raphael stiffened. “When I get good and ready.”

“You can’t keep her forever. She’s not a puppy. She’s a woman. A woman who happens to be a member of the International Police Tactical Team.” Takeo absently fingered the ends of his long, black ponytail. He motioned to the man standing behind the bar, then held up three fingers. Three synth-beers arrived a minute later.

Raphael’s jaw clenched. “Don’t you think I know that?” he snapped. He didn’t want to talk about Catherine. She wasn’t their business. She was his responsibility.

“IPTT will eventually send in a squad to look for her. I’m surprised it hasn’t happened already. Do you really want them raining down upon Nuria again after what just occurred?” Juan asked.

Raphael thought about it. No, he did not.

The International Police Tactical Team had swarmed the town looking for Red and Morgan. They’d arrested Red, claiming she’d been behind Morgan’s escape from prison. It had all been an elaborate ruse organized by Roark Montgomery in hopes of leveling the town. If it hadn’t been for Red’s peaceful surrender, he would’ve succeeded.

Raphael reeled in his temper. He wasn’t mad at the men—he was mad at himself. “Have you seen anything in your visions?” He didn’t take much stock in psychics, but Juan had been right about some things, so he couldn’t dismiss him outright.

“No.” Juan stared at Raphael with a pained expression, then picked up his beer and took a drink. “Nothing like that,” he said, but didn’t elaborate further.

Raphael watched him closely. There was something the psychic wasn’t telling him. He could see it clearly in Juan’s eyes. He opened his mouth to ask, but then closed it and exhaled loudly. Truth was Raphael didn’t want to know what the future held. He’d already considered all the possibilities, including IPTT intervention. None of the scenarios he’d spun in his mind had ended well.

“I’ll make sure she’s returned,” he said.

“When?” Takeo asked.

“I told you I’d handle it! Now enough with the questions.” Raphael shoved his chair back from the table. It hit the wall behind him with a bang.

Everyone in the bar stopped what they were doing and gazed toward the commotion.

Raphael glared at the weathered faces around him.

Wariness overrode their initial curiosity and they went back to chatting, but the volume had dropped considerably.

Satisfied, Raphael turned his attention to Takeo and Juan. “You both worry about building the new tactical team and let me handle the woman.”

Juan and Takeo looked at each other, then Juan held up his hands. “You know we wouldn’t say anything, if the circumstances were different, but you’ve kidnapped an IPTT member. It’ll be a miracle if you aren’t arrested on sight.”

Raphael’s gaze cooled to a slow burn. “Don’t you think I know that? It couldn’t be helped. She’d been sent to kill Morgan and Red,” he said. “Hell, she tried to kill me. If I hadn’t subdued her, she might have succeeded.”

“We know.” They snickered. “What we don’t get is why you slept with her, when you should’ve killed her and dumped her body near the boundary fence.”

Raphael’s gut clenched at the thought of any harm coming to Catherine. He flashed his fangs and hissed.

“Knock it off, dumbass,” Takeo said. “You aren’t the only one in the room with fangs.” He opened his mouth wide enough to expose his large feline incisors.

A deep sound rumbled out of Raphael’s chest.

“Terrific,” Takeo snapped. “You’ve woken the chimera. You happy now?” A hiss punctuated his words as the viper uncoiled from his back and slipped out from beneath his shirt. A forked tongue slashed the air and the snake’s head rose over his shoulder in preparation to strike.

“What’s next? You going to whip off your shirt and show me the goat’s head poking out of your rib cage?” Raphael dismissed the threat.

“The only goat trait I have is in the form of my libido.” Takeo smirked.

“I’m sure it’s just as quick, too.” Raphael snorted.

“Fuck off,” Takeo shot back.

“Children, play nice,” Juan said. “Or you can’t sit at the big kids’ table.”

“Put your toys away, chimera.” Raphael wiggled his fingers. “I’m in no mood to tangle.” He pulled his chair away from the wall and dropped into it.

He wasn’t mad at Takeo for stating the obvious. Raphael had been asking himself the same question since he’d found out the truth about Catherine’s murderous deeds. She’d killed two people and tried to frame Red for murder.

Why hadn’t he killed her?

She was trouble in more ways than one. His nature warred with his compassion and his nature had lost. Badly. It was a first. Which was why he’d resorted to picking fights and grasping at straws for answers.

“He started it,” Takeo said.

“I’m ending it,” Juan said.

Raphael sipped his beer as he gathered his thoughts. “Catherine helped us break Red and Morgan out of Roark’s prison. I don’t think she’s going to be quick to turn me in for detaining her, since she’d have to implicate herself.”

Takeo shook his head. “I wouldn’t bet it on it. She tried to kill you once. What makes you think she won’t do it again?”

Raphael considered his question. “A feeling.”

“You’re joking, right?” Takeo laughed. “Do you really think you should base your future and the future of this town on a feeling?”

“No, but I’m going to anyway,” Raphael said.

“You are kurutta, man,” Takeo said.

Juan quietly watched the exchange, then glanced at Takeo to silence him. “He’s not crazy, but I do believe our vamp has a case of bloodlust happening.”

Raphael flushed. Not an easy feat for one such as him. “I do not...I-I am not...It’s preposterous,” he denied.

Lust was definitely involved in his decision to detain Catherine, but there was more to it than that. An elusive more that didn’t have a name as of yet. Whatever it turned out to be, Raphael wouldn’t be discussing it with the likes of these two.

“I’d better get back to the room.” He downed his beer and rose from the table. “I don’t want her to wake without me being there.”

Takeo’s brow arched and he glanced at his watch. “Has she been asleep all day?”

Raphael grinned. “Not all day. I woke her up a time or two.”

“How much blood did you take from her?” Takeo asked.

Raphael’s smile widened. “It wasn’t the blood loss that wore her out.”

Juan and Takeo laughed, then quickly covered the sound with coughs as people at the bar looked their way.

“Enjoy your beers,” Raphael said, then left to go back upstairs, but not before snagging a canteen of water off the bar.

Let them have a laugh at his expense. It didn’t matter. They did not understand that the situation with Catherine called for care and finesse. 

When he was out of view, Takeo turned to Juan. “Man, he has it bad.”

Juan nodded in agreement. “Vamps are normally detached from their food,” he said.

Takeo chuckled. “She means more than food to him. Did you see how he nearly took my head off at the mention of killing her?”

“Yep.” Juan played with the label on his beer. “I’ve seen this in the wolves. Not a surprise given they are pack animals. But never in a vamp.”

“Seen what?” Takeo asked. “Insanity?”

“Some may call it that. Others call it the drive to bond—to mate.”

Takeo looked back toward the stairs. “Do you think he knows?”

Juan laughed. “Nope, but I do think he’s beginning to suspect something is up. He’s wound pretty tight.”

“What’ll happen if she leaves him?” Takeo asked.

“Depends.” Juan shrugged.

“On what?” he asked.

“On where she goes and if she plans to come back. I’m pretty sure he’d be able to track her blood anywhere on the planet, now that he’s tasted her. And if Raphael is bonding to her like I suspect, he won’t let her go easily—if ever.”

Takeo shook his head. “Better him than me,” he said, as a shiver sliced down his spine. If he were a gambling man, he’d say it was a sign. Lucky for him, he wasn’t, but it still took several seconds for the sensation to fade.

Raphael was a fool to let a woman get under his skin. He should know better given how many years he’d walked this planet. Takeo lifted his beer to his lips. No thanks. He didn’t want any woman sinking her claws into his hide. He’d avoided feminine traps thus far. He should be able to hold out for another fifty years or so.

Juan canted him a glance. “I hope I’m around to see you fall, big guy. From the look on your face, it won’t be long now. That woman won’t know what hit her, and neither will you, when it happens,” he said.

Takeo glared at him. “Don’t hold your breath. It hasn’t happened yet and there’s been plenty who’ve tried to tie me down in the past.” He held up two fingers. “Tender, bring us another round of synth-beers.”

Juan’s dark eyes sparkled knowingly.

Takeo didn’t like the way Juan was looking at him. It was as if Juan knew something he didn’t. Damn psychic! They could be wrong sometimes. Right? Right!

“I’m not going to end up like that miserable bastard Raphael,” Takeo said. “Mark my words.”

Juan laughed softly.

“What’s so funny?” Takeo asked.

“I’m sure Raphael thought the same thing, before encountering Chaos.”

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