Good morning, all. Let’s get started with another sale announcement. I’ve lowered the price of Hunted to $0.99.
When Meg Finley’s parents died, the authorities classified it as a double suicide. Alone, hurting and suddenly the object of the clan’s alpha’s desire, her life was a nightmare. He didn’t care that she was grieving any more than he cared that she was only fifteen. So she’d run and she’d been running ever since. But now, years later, her luck’s run out. The alpha’s trackers have found her and they’re under orders to bring her back, no matter what. Without warning, Meg finds herself in a game of cat and mouse with the trackers in a downtown Dallas parking garage. She’s learned a lot over the years but, without help, it might not be enough to escape a fate she knows will be worse than death. What she didn’t expect was that help would come from the local clan leader. But would he turn out to be her savior or something else, something much more dangerous?
Here’s a snippet from Hunted:
THEY WERE HERE.
I knew it the moment I stepped outside. Despite all the precautions I’d taken, despite all the times I’d moved and left no forwarding address, they’d found me – again. It didn’t matter that I’d done everything possible to live off the grid. All it took was one small mistake and there they were.
Damn it. I really liked it here and now I had to move and move fast.
Assuming I lived long enough to do so.
Just moments before, I’d been thinking about the upcoming weekend. A couple of days off sounded good. I didn’t even mind the fact Dana had set me up on a blind date with her cousin. Not that I expected anything to come of it. Nothing ever did. Either my demons interfered or Michael’s trackers did – like now. Damn it, what’s a girl got to do to have a nice dinner and maybe some good sex?
Without breaking stride, I melted into the early afternoon foot traffic. A quick glance right and then left didn’t reveal my pursuers. But I knew there were there. I could feel their eyes on me. The back of my neck prickled. There was that itch between my shoulder blades. Instinct had kept me alive this long. Would it be enough now?
God, I was an idiot. I’d actually started believing Michael had forgotten about me or had decided it just wasn’t worth the effort to keep looking for my latest hiding spot. I should have known better. I’d embarrassed him when I refused his advances in front of the others. But that hadn’t been the end of it. He hadn’t let it go.
Bile rose in my throat at the memory of that long ago night. I’d learned what it meant to fight for your life then. If I closed my eyes, I could still feel his hands on me. I could smell the scent of him as he’d pulled me close. I’d fought back. That’s the one thing he hadn’t expected. It was over almost as quickly as it had started. That night I’d fled the only home I’d ever known, leaving him bleeding on the floor.
I’d run. I might not have looked back but I had kept a look out. I’d known Michael wouldn’t just let me go. But I’d never expected him to keep up the chase this long. God, would I never get my life back?
I’d arrived in Dallas almost a year ago, hoping to lose myself here. After fifteen years on the run, I was tired. I wanted nothing more than to settle down, find a mate and have a life. The thought of moving again, of having to establish yet another identity was almost more than I could bear.
Had I gotten careless because I was tired of running?
It didn’t matter what happened. The damage was done. If I wasn’t careful, I’d find myself once more facing Michael. This time there’d be no escape. He would view what happened so long ago as a direct insult to him, the clan’s Alpha. Michael had to bring me back. Otherwise the others would think he wasn’t strong enough to control a mere female. If he wasn’t strong enough to control a female, they’d question his ability to control the clan.
It didn’t matter that I had never been a “mere” anything where the clan was concerned.
None of that mattered. Only one thing did. I had to get away. The next person to bump into me could be the one I was running from. I’d never been one to act like a lamb awaiting the slaughter and this was no time to start. I might not be the Marine my father had been but he’d taught me well. He and my mother, God rest their souls, had taught me how to act under fire, real or metaphorical.
It was time to remember exactly who and what I was. I was the daughter of the former clan Alpha and his mate, who was an alpha in her own right. Let the fools Michael Jennings sent for me learn just what that meant.
If they wanted to play, I was more than happy to oblige.
I paused before the main display window for Neiman Marcus and glanced around, careful not to be too obvious about it. Yes, someone was definitely there. Again. As much as I’d like to believe whoever was watching me was more interested in my good looks – hah! – or even in stealing my backpack, I knew better. Despite all my attempts to tell myself differently, I’d felt their presence for a week now. Never at the same place and never at the same time – and never this close.
Damn it, I had gotten careless.
Fortunately, so had they. They were close enough I could scent them. Yes, them. There were at least three trackers close by. I probably ought to be flattered Michael had decided a single tracker wasn’t enough to bring me in. Hopefully, three wouldn’t be enough either.
I didn’t have time to wonder why Michael had suddenly changed tactics. Had something happened within the clan to force his hand? Or was he, like me, growing tired of the hunt
God, why couldn’t this be over? I like a good hunt as much as the next person. But only when I’m the hunter. This being the hunted didn’t sit well. One way or another, I had to end this game of cat and mouse. But I had to bide my time. Downtown Dallas wasn’t the place for a confrontation, at least not the sort I usually found myself involved in. So, unless I wanted our secret made public, I had to find some place secluded and I needed to find it quickly.
A hint of worry licked at my confidence. These hunters were better than the others Michael had sent for me in the past. They’d been able to track me no matter what I did to throw them off. That meant they were at least as good as I was, perhaps even better. So I had to be careful. No unnecessary risks. Well, at least no outrageously unnecessary ones. My whole life was one of risk. The fact that someone was stalking me – again – only proved it.
Fortunately Dallas, even downtown Dallas, wasn’t without out-of-the-way areas where I could put my plan into action. All I had to do was get to one before my unseen trackers decided to make their move.
I started down the block. Attorneys and their clients hurried down the street in the direction of the courthouse, briefcases swinging like weapons to part the crowd before them. Men and women in business suits strolled only slightly more leisurely back to their offices from lunch. One or two may have staggered, a bit worse for wear after one too many margaritas at lunch.
As the crowd pressed on down the street, I paused near the entrance to Renaissance Tower. I carefully shifted my backpack, settling it more comfortably over my left shoulder, leaving my right hand free. I wanted to be able to drop it without hesitation, or use it as a weapon, when the time came – and something told me that time would be soon.
I had to get off the streets.
A man bumped against me and I stiffened, relaxing only as he mumbled a quick, “’Scuse me” before moving on. One thing about Dallas, it’s a polite city. Even though I looked like the average college – okay, post-grad – student wandering the streets, people still greeted me and begged for forgiveness for whatever minor breech they thought they might have committed. Strange town this.
A slight smile touched my lips as I ducked inside the building. I knew it was a risk. There were any number of security cameras here, cameras that would capture my image. But they’d also capture the image of whoever followed me. It might not help me, but in the long run, it might help any who looked into my disappearance. That really was the best I could hope for.
The glass doors closed. For one moment I relished the cool air that greeted me. But I couldn’t stand there enjoying it. Too many others wanted inside, politely but insistently pushing past me. Then there were the trackers. I could feel them even if I couldn’t see them.
“May I help you, ma’am?” the uniformed security guard asked as I approached his desk. Then he looked up and grinned. This was the third delivery I’d made there this week. “Hi.”
He really did have a nice smile.
“Hi, Gil. I’ve got a delivery for George and Chandler from the Jessup Firm. They’re expecting it.”
I waited as he called upstairs to confirm my story. I hadn’t realized when I took the temporary job as runner for a local law firm that it would come in handy as a way to keep alive. I’d been surprised enough when it led to some very interesting dates. Now it seemed I had another reason to be thankful for those bottom feeders called lawyers.
“Twenty-fifth floor, Finn. Sign in and put this on.”
He pushed a clipboard across the desk in my direction with one hand and handed me a guest badge with the other. He glanced at the page as I scrawled my name on the first available line. I handed him back the clipboard and then attached the badge to the right front pocket of my jeans. There, I was official.
“When you going to finally agree to go have a drink with me, Finn?”
“When you don’t have a family to go home to, Gil.” That was one of my only rules. No married men, and especially no married men with kids.
I gave a little wave and moved toward the elevator bank. I needed to be smart now. More than my own future depended on it. I didn’t want to be the one responsible for letting the world-at-large know that shape-changers really do exist and that we walk among them. Michael might be willing to risk it but I wasn’t.
Ten minutes later, my delivery made, I stepped into the corridor and glanced around. No one else was visible. But that didn’t mean anything. My pursuers could very easily be waiting for me in the lobby. It would be easy enough to flank me as I stepped off the elevator. They’d rely on the fact I wouldn’t want to create a scene. By the time we were away from the crowds, it would be too late – at least for me.
They could be closer, hiding in the restrooms down the hall or in one of the stairwells. I doubted they had given up, but I could no longer feel them bearing down on me. I didn’t know whether to be relieved or not. All I knew for sure was I had to get out of the building without being forced to either surrender or reveal much more to the public than any of our kind wanted to.
The elevator doors slid open and I tensed. Instead of the demons from my past appearing, a couple of well-dressed women stepped out instead. From their whispered conversation, I knew they were talking about a different kind of assignation than the one I’d been expecting. No, they were comparing notes on their love lives, oblivious to all around them.
Inspiration hit. I reached out and stopped the door before it could close. I punched the buttons to make the elevator car stop on the twenty first, nineteenth and tenth floors before coming to a stop in the lobby. Unless I missed my guess, the car would stop on at least one other floor along the way which was all to the good. The more stops it made, and the more people who got on and off, the more difficult it became for my pursuers to realize where I had actually gone
Now, to get out of the building. Then I could make sure that any confrontation happened on my terms and not theirs.
I resisted the urge to run as I walked toward the stairwell door. I could hurry once there. Then I’d take the stairs up six floors and then take the elevator down. Everything above the thirtieth floor used a different bank of elevators than the one I’d come up on. Those elevators opened out of sight of the main lobby. Even better, they opened just across from the stairwell door that led down to the parking garage. If I could just cross to that door, I’d be in the garage before anyone knew it.
Of course, that was a very big IF….
The elevator doors opened and I let myself be swept out by the other passengers. I glanced around, every sense alive and seeking. Much as I’d hoped my shadows had given up, at least one was still there. I could feel him. He was close, too close for comfort. But where? Why couldn’t I see him?
Praying the explanation was as simple as whoever it was happened to be on the opposite side of the elevator bank and blind to my return, I looked for the stairwell door. All I had to do was get to it. That’s all. Only ten feet separated me from potential freedom.
With my backpack thumping against my side, I hit the door at a dead run. Now we’d play it my way. Let’s see just how good he – or she – happened to be. I’d bet my life – hell, I was betting my life – that he hadn’t. Dear God, I hoped I wasn’t backing the wrong horse this time.
I pelted up the drive, climbing, climbing until I saw daylight. Cars lined up at the gates, waiting for their tickets to enter or to pay so they could exit. I slipped between them, emerging onto the street. Even then I didn’t slow. I couldn’t. Not when I could hear someone behind me. Running feet, labored breathing. Good. He wasn’t in the physical condition I was and he’d pay for it. Then he’d tell me what I wanted to know or pay an even greater price.
I veered to my right into another parking garage, an above-ground one this time. We’d already run more than a city block, not counting the time in the bank’s parking garage. I could feel my pursuer flagging. Good. Just a little longer. I had to be careful about where I chose to confront him. But soon, very soon, this would be over.
There’s something about the hunt that excites at the primal level. It doesn’t matter if you’re the hunted or the hunter. At least it doesn’t matter to me. My senses seem to sharpen as my pulse increases. My mind clears and a sort of calm settles over me. I know how good I am. I’ve managed to survive combat situations and too many chases like this one because of it. This hunter, if you dared call him that, was no match for me.
I raced up the ramp, one level and then two. My running shoes, carefully selected for just such an emergency, cushioned my steps. Only a muted slap-slap-slap with each footfall betrayed me. Even though my pulse raced, my breathing was barely labored. I was born for the hunt.
I hit the door leading to the stairwell. Time to add some distance between us. The door slammed behind me, just as I wanted. I wanted him in the stairwell. I wanted him to wonder which direction I’d gone. When he started up the stairs, he’d be even more tired. That would make him an easier target when the time came.
Three flights up, I slammed through another door. I didn’t think about anyone else who might be on the other side. This was between me and the man following me. The world had shrunk to just the two of us. There wasn’t time to worry about anyone else. Not until this was over. Until he was over.
Then I could worry about consequences.
I slowed, my eyes scanning the level. Almost every parking space was filled. The cars and vans increased the shadows on the level, making it easier to hide. And hide I was going to do. Now was the time for patience and cunning. Maybe it was even time to play with the fool a bit before pouncing. This mouse had very sharp teeth and the cat had better be battle-hardened before going after it.
He was close. I could feel it even as I heard him coming nearer. The fool. Why wear boots if you’re trying to stalk someone? Every step he took reverberated, even through the closed door. Soon, very soon, it would be over.
I crouched behind a van near the top of the ramp, hidden in the shadows. My backpack rested on the concrete beside me. Down the aisle, the stairwell door clanged shut, followed almost instantly by a sharp curse. I couldn’t help smiling. It just kept getting better.
I remained where I was, secure in the knowledge the shadows were, as always, my friend. For a moment, the only sounds were those of my heart beating and my slow, even breaths. There! A step. Then another. His pace quickened. He wasn’t running, but it was close. If I’d had any doubts about being followed, I no longer did.
Waiting, listening as he moved up the aisle, memory intruded. This was wrong. There had been at least three of them when I’d ducked into the bank building. Why had they split up? More importantly, where had the others gone? I might have little respect for Michael but he wasn’t a fool. He’d have sent a team that worked well together. So why was this team breaking all the rules?
Leaving my backpack, I edged around the rear of the van. The backpack, if the tracker found it, would delay him further. It would divert his attention and give me the chance to act. But I had to take care not to blow my chance before it arrived.
I crept behind another vehicle, this one big and black. Some sort of SUV. I really didn’t care what it was as long as it offered me protection. Now was when hunter became the hunted and the thrill of it raced through me. If only we were away from town where this could become a real hunt. It had been too long since I’d allowed my jaguar out and now it strained against my control, confident it was better at this game of cat and mouse than I.
Hell, it probably was, not that I dared do anything about it now. The trackers might be willing to risk exposing our existence, but I wasn’t. I couldn’t. There were too many others who’d suffer if the normals discovered the things of their nightmares walked among them.
Footsteps neared. Slower now, more relaxed. It was almost as if someone was taking a leisurely stroll down the aisle. Had I misjudged? Was it possible my stalker had been playing me? No, I didn’t believe that. There had to be another explanation.
I shrank further into the shadows. My heart hammered. Fear clawed at my throat. For one moment, I closed my eyes. I prayed this was all some horrible dream I’d soon awaken from. But it wasn’t. I’d learned long ago that the only nightmares are the ones we’re forced to live, day after day after day.
A car door opened just a few yards away and I started nervously. My hands flew to my mouth in a desperate attempt to silence my gasp. It wasn’t him. By all that was holy, it wasn’t him. It had been an innocent, that’s all. Whoever it was, they weren’t a part of this. All I had to do was wait for them to leave. Then I could finish this, once and for all.
If I had time. For all I knew, the hunter had heard my gasp and even now was using the sounds of the car starting and backing out of its space to distract me as he closed in on my location. Dear God, what should I do?
Patience. I had to stay patient and not move too soon. I couldn’t risk getting careless now, with the end so close.
A red sedan slowly passed my hiding space. Behind the wheel sat an attractive, gray haired woman. From where I crouched in the shadows, I could see she hadn’t locked her doors. It would be so easy to slide into the backseat as she drove past, to force her to drive me out of there and away from my pursuer. It was so tempting. . . .
No! That wasn’t the way. It was far too dangerous to involve someone else, someone outside the clan. In this day and age of lo-jack tracking on cars and global positioning software in cell phones, it wasn’t a risk I was willing to take. One phone call to the police and they’d know within minutes where the car was. I might be willing to do a lot of things but risking a police shoot out wasn’t one of them.
The car disappeared around the curve and I sank back against the wheel of the SUV. Where was he? My ears strained and my heart pounded. No matter how many times I’d been in this position – and I’d been there more times than I cared to count – it never got any easier. But this time was different. I could feel it. The hunter was alone and a one-on-one fight suited me just fine.
I wouldn’t kill him unless he forced me to. Not that I wouldn’t do whatever was necessary to find out how he’d found me. Once I knew that, I could disappear into the shadows again and move on, another town and another identity.
Leather scraped concrete and my muscles tensed. I waited, ready to pounce. All he had to do was come a little closer.
Wait. Something was wrong. This was all happening too easily. Was it possible this was all some sort of elaborate trap they’d laid to capture me?
Fear licked at my confidence and without thought I glanced down, frantically searching for that tell-tale red dot of a laser scope. Nothing. If anyone besides the two of us were there, they hadn’t tagged me, at least not yet. Maybe I was worrying for no reason.
I dropped to my stomach and looked under the cars, searching for another set of feet, for anything to prove or disprove my fears. Nothing. Only the boots and jeans of the lone tracker.
I sat back up and drew a slow, deep breath. My lips pulled back, baring my teeth and a low, primal growl fought for release as my jaguar fought for control. My muscles all but quivered in anticipation as each step brought the tracker closer, ever closer.
From where I crouched, I saw his legs first. Faded blue jeans. Black, worn boots. Interesting. That wasn’t the usual attire of the trackers but it did make sense if this one was trying to blend in. Maybe he wasn’t quite the amateur I first thought. Or maybe not. Although he moved slowly up the aisle, checking first one direction and the other as he scanned between the parked cars, his hands were visible and very empty. My well-trained eye saw no hint of a weapon anywhere on him. Good. That would make things much easier.
I slipped further into the shadows cast by the SUV and the wall behind me. All I needed was for him to take another couple of steps forward. That’s all. Then I’d be in his blind spot and could move. He’d never know what hit him. By the time he figured it out, it would be too late and they would both be well away from there and anyone who might be looking for him.
Silently, I rose from my crouch and stepped into the aisle, ready to attack. My head jerked up, the scents of the other trackers suddenly assailing me. Damn it! It had been a trap. Somehow, I’d played into their hands. But how? How had they known this was where I’d come?
My mind may have frozen, but my body acted on instinct. I turned and took first one step and then another. I had to run. It didn’t matter where. All that mattered was getting out of there. I’d made the worst mistake possible. I’d become over-confident and I’d fallen into their trap.
The screeching of tires filled the air. A moment later, a black Mustang slid to a stop beside me.
“Get in!” the driver yelled as the passenger door swung open
For a moment, hope flared. Escape was at hand.
Three sharp jabs hit my back, like needles or nails, as I dove into the car. Then my system lit up. It felt as if a thousand – no, a million – hot needles suddenly pierced me. Every nerve seemed to catch fire. No longer would my body answer my commands. Muscles tensed, spasmed and I slumped forward. There was pain – I think there was pain – as I hit the dashboard face first. Then I was thrown back against the passenger seat as the Mustang sped off.
Breathe. I had to breathe. But my lungs wouldn’t work. Panic filled me. This is what Hell must be like. A mind alive and terrified in a body that does nothing but scream in agony. Dear God, was this really the day I’d die?