Emma wasn’t going to die tonight, or any other night, if she could help it. She’d spent her entire life expecting this moment, dreading it. The moment her destiny would finally catch up to her.
Someone shattered the living room window with a bare fist.
“Run, Emma!” Her mother hastened to the small desk by the door and retrieved one of the weapons she’d hidden throughout the apartment, a butcher knife carefully coated with blood. “I’ll handle this.”
“No, I’m not leaving you.”
The man-beast squeezed through the window, followed closely by two others.
To the untrained eye, they looked human, but Emma recognized the darkness within them, knew at a glance what they truly were. There was no humanity in them, no light. They were an empty imitation of life, ruled only by greed and the sick need to consume the one thing they lacked—a soul.
And at the moment, the soul they craved was Emma’s.
Her mom firmly planted herself between Emma and the intruders. “You have to go.”
One of the creatures closed in on them, and her mom swung her blade at him, cutting him across the middle. With an agonized howl, he fell to his knees. The other two stopped their dogged advance, their eyes rounding with shock.
Emma wasn’t sure which of the creatures had spoken, and she didn’t care. The only thing that mattered was the hint of hesitation she caught behind the words.
Her mom lifted the butcher knife, swept down and rammed the blade in the kneeling man’s chest. Black smoke instantly spilled from his body, and the heavy scent of candle wax rose to saturate the air. The remaining two intruders stood momentarily frozen by the broken window. Using their distraction against them, her mom lunged forward and ran them both through with efficient, violent thrusts.
At seventy-one, Christina Russo was still a force to be reckoned with. Something had happened to harden her, something that had turned a pampered housewife into the fierce warrior who now stood between Emma and those determined to possess her.
Christina aimed a worried glance out the window. “You need to leave. More are coming.”
Reluctantly, Emma edged toward the door. They’d gone over the escape plan so many times, it should’ve been second nature by now. Grab the backpack in the closet—which was filled with stacks of money, fake IDs, a switchblade and several vials of lethal blood—and run for your life.
Simple, right? Wrong.
“Come with me.” Even as she said the words, Emma knew her mother would put up a fight.
Christina shook her head. “No time. I’ll distract them, give you a head start.”
Emma’s heart died a small death at the thought of leaving her mother at the mercy of these creatures. Maybe if she sprinted, she could make it to the bedroom where they kept the gun… She hesitated, then took a step in the opposite direction from the exit.
Her mother gave a sharp shake of her head. “Don’t even think about it.”
Tears rose in Emma’s throat, as thick and bitter as bile. “I can’t just leave you here.”
“You don’t have a choice. You have to survive. You’re the world’s only hope.”
As her mother had predicted, more creatures began pouring in through the narrow window, blocking access to the bedroom. Her mom’s gaze briefly connected with Emma’s, full of quiet despair. Time had run out. “Hurry. I’ll hold them off as long as I can.”
No chance of getting to the gun now. Emma had no choice. She had to flee. If she didn’t, all would be lost.
“Do it,” her mom urged. “Go, now. If I get out of this alive, I’ll find you. I swear it.”
The creatures attacked, and her mother grew silent, too busy fighting them off. Emma retrieved the backpack and made a run for the door. Laboring to breathe past the knot clogging her windpipe, she fled the small, rundown apartment.
All that kept her legs moving was the hope that she’d see her mother again soon, that she wouldn’t perish in that rat hole. She clung to that thought as she sprinted out the back door into a darkened alley, her feet striking the blacktop, the heavy backpack digging into her shoulders, weighing her down. A sob expanded in her chest, but she tamped it down. She wouldn’t cry, wouldn’t admit defeat. Not yet, when the frail wings of hope still beat within her.
When fate took everything from you, hope was all you had left.
Adrian circled the perimeter of his new townhouse development, ensuring no one stalked the darkened streets or lurked in the concealing woods surrounding his place. Ever since the Watchers had raided his location in Spokane a year and a half ago, he’d lived with the constant fear that Cal and his troops would invade his community again. He wasn’t sure if his tenuous truce with Cal was still in effect, especially after Adrian had killed a Watcher in self-defense.
That was the problem with peace. The damn thing never lasted.
One by one, he inspected the homes he’d had built with the money he’d earned from the sale of his previous development. Only a fraction of the townhouses were inhabited at the moment. He’d lost too many members of his community in the attack, knew it was time to start recruiting again.
But he kept putting it off. It was Angie who’d convinced him to create this place, Angie who’d insisted he had the power to make a difference and change lives. Now that she was gone, there was nothing left to drive him anymore. Nothing left to inspire him and compel him to be the man she’d fallen in love with.
So he’d become a recluse, hiding away in a remote corner of Arizona, where clear blue skies met lush meadows and the distant peaks of snow-capped mountains. The days were hot, the nights cool and best of all, it rarely rained.
He’d bought the forty-two acre ranch eighteen months ago and transformed it into a mirror image of his townhouse development in Spokane, but as ideal as this new location was, the place still didn’t feel like home. The house he now occupied was just an empty structure, void of warmth or memories, as soulless as he was.
In Spokane, he had only to look toward one of the numerous windows that spanned the outer walls of his home and he’d see Angie standing in a pool of light, gazing outside. He had only to walk into the living room, and he’d picture her curled on the couch she’d handpicked herself, a blanket wrapped around her thin shoulders. At night, he had only to stretch out in his empty bed, and he’d feel her beside him.
Now, even the comfort of those distant memories had been taken from him.
That old familiar clutch of grief gripped his abdomen again. He would’ve expected the pain to dull by now, but it was as sharp and fresh as ever. Not that he would have it any other way. He cherished his pain like a dear friend. It kept the loneliness from consuming him.
The rev of a motor drew Adrian’s attention to the townhouse across the street, where a car was pulling into the driveway. Eddie stepped out of the unmarked police cruiser, dressed in a pair of jeans and a plaid shirt, his badge still clipped to his belt.
Adrian crossed the gravel road, narrowing the distance between them. “Working late again?”
Eddie had been a homicide detective in Spokane. Now he was chief of police in Flagstaff. “I prefer to work at night when the precinct is deserted. Helps me focus better.”
Adrian understood exactly what the man meant. Interacting with humans could be exhausting for their kind. No matter how good a Hybrid was at subduing the dark energy inside him—and Eddie was better than most—there was always the risk of corrupting those around him.
“Good thing I did, too,” Eddie tagged on, “or I wouldn’t have heard the dispatch.” His dark gaze connected with Adrian’s. “There’s been another attack, practically in our backyard this time.”
Adrian’s back hardened to steel. “Where?”
“Phoenix, a few hours ago. Someone broke into an apartment complex. Witnesses claim they saw a bunch of men leaving the scene with an elderly woman. She looked like she was in distress.”
For the past eighteen months, scores of humans had been abducted throughout North America. At first glance, the victims had nothing in common. The abductees consisted of an equal blend of males and females of varying ages and ethnicities. Upon closer examination, however, Eddie had uncovered the one thing they all shared—a birthmark shaped like a heart.
The cop was convinced their enemies, the Kleptopsychs, were behind the kidnappings.
Normally, Adrian wouldn’t have intervened, leaving the case to the Watchers. His crime-fighting days were long behind him. He had no desire to prowl the streets again, in search of corrupt souls. He was no longer driven by the obsessive need to save humanity from itself, let alone from his own kind.
But this particular case had hit close to home.
On the right side of his chest, a mere two inches beneath his collarbone, a heart-shaped birthmark discolored his skin. Granted, only humans had been taken so far, but he couldn’t help but feel this case concerned him somehow.
“Does she bear the mark?”
A frown drew Eddie’s thick brows together. “No, but her daughter does. I spoke to the landlord, asked him if either of the women living in the unit had any distinguishing marks. He said the younger one, Emma, has a birthmark on the side of her neck. I’ll give you one guess what it looks like.”
“A heart.” Adrian closed his eyes and sighed. What was the meaning of that mark, and why was it so important to the person instigating these abductions?
“There’s more,” Eddie informed him. “Several weapons were found on the scene, all coated in blood. They were bagged and sent to the lab for a DNA analysis. The results haven’t come in yet, but I’ve got a feeling they’ll be inconclusive.”
An uneasy prickle sprouted in Adrian’s gut. “You think it’s angel’s blood?” His grip tightened around the porch railing, until the uneven wood dug into his flesh.
Eddie shrugged. “It’s just a hunch, but it makes sense. If the Kleptopsychs are really behind this, the daughter would never have gotten away without a weapon of some sort.”
No ordinary blade could cut their kind, not unless it was first dipped in angel’s blood. But the stuff was extremely rare. Only the Watchers had access to it.
“How would a human get her hands on angel’s blood?”
Another shrug, followed by a frown. “Haven’t got a clue.”
Silence swelled between them, until Adrian felt compelled to break it. “Where’s the daughter now?”
“No one knows. She was seen fleeing the premises a few minutes before her mother was taken. After that, she vanished.”
“A person doesn’t just disappear.” A brisk breeze blew, making the trees shiver. It was early October, and the air was crisp and smelled faintly of juniper.
“No, but the cops have squat.” Eddie’s voice echoed his frustration. “I get the feeling these two have been on the run for a while. They rented the place in Phoenix three months ago. Before that, there’s absolutely no record of them.” He exhaled long and hard. “I highly doubt the police will be able to track this woman down.”
The hunter within him stirred, then slowly awakened, infusing his blood with renewed purpose.
Eddie was right. The police wouldn’t be able to track her, but Adrian could. Perhaps the time had come for him to leave the safety of his isolation and venture out into the world again.
If he didn’t, and if the Kleptopsychs truly were after her, this woman was as good as dead.
Gazing at the impenetrable woods surrounding him, he made the decision before he could talk himself out of it. “I’m going to Phoenix. Tonight.”
Another seedy motel room with a stained yellow ceiling and a greasy carpet. Another night lying on a lumpy mattress listening to the wind hiss through a loose windowpane.
Emma sighed, struggling to stay awake. Fatigue pulled at her lids, but she knew the moment sleep claimed her she’d see the monsters’ faces in her dreams. She’d see them squeezing through the ravaged window, rounding on her mother…
Her tears had dried hours ago, but the painful throb in her chest had yet to relent. She doubted it ever would. A lethal blend of guilt and regret poisoned her blood.
She’d run. Run, like a goddamn coward. How could she have left her mom behind? Sure, they’d agreed years ago as to the right course of action should the creatures ever back them into a corner, but this was different. This was real. What kind of person left her mother at the mercy of soul-thieving demons?
Because there was no doubt in Emma’s mind that these things were demons, an evil unleashed upon the world to suck the light from humanity the way a dark cloud sucks the light from the day. They were everywhere, walking among humans, and no one could see them for what they were.
No one but Emma.
She felt the black energy they gave out, saw how it stole the joy and hope from people’s souls and replaced it with anger and despair. Only she seemed immune to the dark power they emitted. For some reason, her soul could not be manipulated or controlled, and the demons knew that, which was why they kept coming after her.
The wind howled, and a branch whipped at the window. Emma shot up in bed, wrapping her arms around her legs. She flung a reassuring glance at the switchblade by her bed. A blade she’d coated with blood and placed on her nightstand, within easy reach should she need it.
Holding her breath, she waited for the familiar sound of glass shattering. But all she heard was the sigh of the wind and the gentle rasp of shoes scraping the pavement. It was probably one of the other motel guests, but Emma had been on the run long enough not to discount a potential threat. All her instincts went on red alert.
She grabbed the switchblade, flipped it open and slid across the wall toward the door. It was nearly dawn, and fog drenched the budding day. Drab gray light trickled through the window, peeling back the shadows.
There were only two points of entry to the room she occupied—the window and the door. Emma stood between the two, gripping the pitiful blade, trying to calm her racing heart. She couldn’t move, couldn’t so much as breathe. If she did, they’d hear her.
She closed her eyes, mauled her lower lip and waited. Branches tapped at the window again, and her stomach folded.
Just the wind.
A bird serenaded the imminent break of day, then grew suspiciously silent. Nature had a way of going mute whenever a predator drew near. Emma’s fingers tightened around the switchblade. Her lungs began to burn, and she had no choice but to inhale.
She hated this. Hated the clench of fear that gripped her, the dreadful anticipation coursing through her veins, the sense of helplessness that inevitably followed each attack.
What would it feel like to know peace, if only for a day?
The doorknob jiggled, and her muscles turned to stone.
Here we go again.
There was a time when weeks—even months—had elapsed between incidents. In the past year, however, the attacks had escalated.
The lock clicked, and the door swung open. Emma’s palms grew damp around the handle of the knife.
Come on. What are you waiting for? Show yourself, you bastard.
Just as she was about to burst out of her skin, a man’s elongated shadow spilled through the open doorway. Then he was standing in her motel room, his wide back turned to her, his dark head angled in concentration. Hatred saturated her bloodstream, fueled by pain and anger.
He was one of them.
She sensed the darkness inside him, the emptiness. No soul beat in his chest. Emma was sure of it.
With a sharp intake of breath, she gave in to the fury and pounced. The man sensed her and turned, skillfully deflecting her blow and sending her stumbling backward. Raising the switchblade, she launched herself at him again.
She wanted to hurt him, badly. She wanted him to pay for all the years his kind had stolen from her, for all the sleepless nights she’d endured, for all the worry and pain she’d suffered these past few hours. But above all, she wanted to punish him for being the inhuman creature he was.
His iron grip closed around her wrist, prying the blade from her fingers as he immobilized her against the wall. His hard body pressed into hers, a living barrier boxing her in, knocking the very air from her lungs.
Emma struggled, striking his broad chest with her fists, knowing she was no match for him but unwilling to surrender yet. She growled like a cornered animal, raising her leg and attempting to knee him in the groin. Anticipating her move, he took a step back, and Emma missed her target.
“Take it easy.” He wedged his forearm over her sternum, nailing her to the wall again. “I’m not here to hurt you.”
“Don’t lie to me.” She exhaled in short, quick puffs. “I know what you are.”
Her assertion surprised him, and his hold on her slackened. Taking advantage of the opportunity, she dropped to her knees and scrambled to retrieve the switchblade he’d wrestled from her grasp. Her fingers brushed metal just as he flung her around on her back and flattened her wrists against the grimy carpet.
“If you didn’t come here to hurt me,” she challenged, “what the hell do you want?”
“To help you.”
Dawn slowly swept in, and soft, pink light spilled from the window to illuminate his face. Emma’s lungs squeezed in surprise. He looked like an angel—a dark angel, with an angular jaw, sharp, chiseled features and eyes as blue as the midnight sea. Tousled black hair brushed his forehead and curtained one of his brows. His sensual lips hovered a few inches above hers, and she could feel the heat emanating from them…from him.
For a moment she lost the ability to form a coherent thought. He was beautiful, hard and defined, a Greek sculpture pinning her to the ground. His muscular leg was slung across hers, his fingers encircling her wrists like a pair of steel shackles.
She couldn’t stand feeling trapped, even if a dark angel was doing the trapping. “If you want to help me, let me go.”
He hesitated, his gaze capturing hers. Confusion pinched his brows as he studied her face. Then he did something so unexpected, so tender and intimate, Emma’s next breath snagged in her throat.
He reached up and caressed her cheek. Shock and affection gleamed in his navy-blue eyes, roughening his voice. “Angie?”