MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
The slap rocked her, and not for the first time Becka tasted blood. The pain, however, no longer touched her. It would take more than a “well-deserved tap”—his words—for her to cry out.
Actually, crying was a proven waste of time. Tears never helped. Pleading never halted the abuse. And praying for hell demons to rip a hole between the dimensions and drag his ass into the flames of the pit never came to pass. Submission appeared to be the only way to survive.
But that was when I still had hope. When she believed someone might actually be looking for her, giving a damn about her disappearance. A hope dashed.
Her poppa was gone, dead in the fire that had taken her home, her things, her very existence. He’d had no choice but to tell her when she finally agreed to obey but only if she could see her beloved grandfather. A dead man, though, couldn’t reassure Becka that everything would be all right. Nothing would be all right, never again, but at least her poppa never knew of the abuse she now suffered. A month now, and counting, with no end in sight.
No one cared about the bruises on her body or the fact that, when he dragged her out of one of his many hidey-holes, she piled on the makeup, dressed in long sleeves, and then faked that everything was okay. It was pretend or pay the price later. Becka got the impression he rather enjoyed the punishment part.
Bastard. I wish he would die. She would even love to help. Show her a cliff and she’d shove him off. Hand her a gun and she’d shoot him. At this point, she’d settle for a butter knife and a running start.
Becka hadn’t been raised to be violent. Becka didn’t understand violence. He’d taught her. Usually with his fist. But she preferred that to the other things he did.
Where was justice when you needed it? Apparently, saving other orphaned women.
A second slap landed atop the first, and she barely noticed.
“Have you learned your lesson, wild rose?” He used the nickname he had for her, a supposed term of endearment. She’d never believed it, not when his eyes always regarded her with such coldness. When she’d first met him, by chance when on a coffee and donut run, she’d turned down his request for a date. He didn’t take no for an answer. He didn’t accept the word “no” for anything.
“I hope you get hit by a bus.” A swollen lip didn’t change her sentiments.
“So fucking stubborn.” Uttered with irritation. She braced for another slap. She’d earned the first one for refusing to eat her dinner, the second for not reacting. “I’ll deal with you later. I’ve got business to attend to.”
Ah yes, his mysterious business, which had brought them out of his last hidey-hole in Seattle to California. The land of sunshine and beaches. Not that she got to enjoy either. He kept her locked away even here. But she found it interesting to note they stayed in a hotel and not a reinforced bunker like before.
Why do we keep moving? Who does he hide from?
“Watch her.” The order was tossed to his second-in-command, a big brute of a fellow named Brian. She hated Brian almost as much as him. Think Neanderthal mixed with dog and you got a hairy, hulking moron with absolutely no moral compass, and with rough hands.
She kept hoping he’d choke on a chicken wing. He ate them, suicide hot, by the pound.
“Rest. I’ll be back later for our session.”
No. No more sessions. She didn’t know how many more she could stand. If it didn’t kill her, then the madness might just win.
With her back turned, she stood and stared at the wall rather than acknowledge her kidnapper leaving the suite. She hoped he tripped and smashed his face in a wall. Or that the elevator would plunge him to his death. She’d even take him getting mauled by sewer rats. The door clicked shut, and she didn’t hear any screams.
Time ticked, and her guard shifted restlessly at his spot by the door, the leather of his jacket creaking. Boredom made her want to do something, but what?
Turning on the television didn’t appeal. Seeing people laugh and smile was too hard to bear. She didn’t recall the last time something had made her giggle. To her, laughter equaled freedom.
One month. One month a prisoner. How much longer would she last?
She licked her lip, tasting the copper still coating the swollen surface. That would be hard to cover with makeup. Of late, he had gotten more careless with his slaps. It used to be she had to pretend for his staff and he took care to only leave bruises that could be covered by clothes. Not anymore. Something had changed. Has he gotten what he needed? Is this a sign I’m about to be discarded?
A girl could hope.
She stared out the window, the city vista awash with lights. For this trip, he insisted they stay in the heart of town at a high-end hotel—the kind that looked the other way when rich patrons skewed the rules.
It still blew her away how he moved among regular people without any of them realizing what kind of monster hid underneath the suits. Evil had a face, but no one seemed to recognize it.
Evil should be ugly and wear a dark cape. But no, he bore the face of a chubby accountant and the body of a pear. Add in a unibrow and she mocked him mercilessly, which peeved him to no end.
A knock at the door took her and her guard by surprise. Room service had come and gone, leaving behind a tray she refused to touch. At this late hour they expected no one else. The fewer people who saw her, the better.
Her guard, Brian the bastard, ignored the pounding.
“Shouldn’t you answer that, Lurch?”
A glare and a grunt were the reply.
Whoever it was outside in the hall didn’t leave. Someone knocked again, firmly. “Hotel security. We’ve had a report about suspicious activity in this room. If you’re in there, please let us in.”
Brian didn’t budge, and she had to wonder what he’d do if she yelled Save me! Hit her for sure. But he also had strict orders to not cause any permanent or meaningful damage. Must protect the investment. However, whatever innocents stood beyond the door might not fare so well. Only once had she begged a stranger for help. He tried and got rewarded with a bullet.
She held her tongue.
The lock clicked as the hotel employee used a key, and she whirled in time to see Brian facing the door, hands empty. Guns were noisy and brought trouble. Besides, Brian claimed the personal touch was always more fun.
The door swung open, and Brian snapped, “Get ou—”
He never did finish the sentence, as a shotgun blast hit him in the chest and pushed him back. As if that would stop Brian. All the guards wore body armor and were tough as nails, tougher actually, and they filled the rooms on this floor. But how many of them were here, and how many had gone with their boss?
The attacker in the doorframe was dressed head to toe in black combat gear from his mirrored visored helmet to his black combat boots.
“Give us the girl.”
Brian got to his feet, his brow furrowed. “Like fuck, asshole.”
The guy with the shotgun tossed it to the side and pulled a knife from a sheath at his side. That didn’t daunt her guard.
With a snarl of rage, Brian went barreling at the attacker, taking the scuffle into the hall.
From her spot in the suite, Becka could hear them thumping and banging. The door slammed shut, muffling the sounds, and for a moment she stood there as if frozen. What should she do?
Move, you idiot.
She flew to the door, opening it and darting through, only to hit the wall hard as a pair of grappling bodies bumped into her. The force of it knocked her down, but she didn’t let that stop her from scrabbling on the carpet, moving in the direction of the elevator.
A hand grabbed at her ankle, and she peered over her shoulder to see Brian gripped her tight. Her free foot kicked out and connected with his nose. He yelled but didn’t release her. The visored assailant managed to loosen Brian’s hold on her with an elbow to the back of his head.
As soon as the fingers gripping her ankle loosened she yanked, freeing herself. She got to her feet and ran toward the bank of elevators, only to halt abruptly as someone stepped into view from around the corner, taking up a position between her and the elevator. Given he also held a gun and wore a black helmet as well, she immediately distrusted him. The weapon rose and she squeaked and ducked, but he wasn’t aiming at her. The shot went wild, hitting the ceiling and showering the hall with plaster because someone, another guard dressed in jeans and nothing else, hollered “Drop the weapon, asshole” before tackling the fellow.
The distraction got her moving again, only she didn’t get far, as an arm curled around her waist and hoisted her off her feet. “Come with me.” She recognized the voice as being that of Brian’s usual partner in crime, Jim. She’d thought he’d gone with the boss, but apparently he just guarded from another room.
Like hell was she going anywhere with him. She struggled like a wildcat, squirming and twisting, hearing her blouse rip as seams gave way.
“Stop fucking fighting me,” he snarled, turning to slam her into a wall. Old bruises screamed at the impact, and new ones surely formed.
“Let me go!” Becka yelled.
Instead, the grip tightened, but only for a moment. Jim grunted as someone hit him. More than one person, actually. More black-clad bodies wearing the concealing helmets filled the corridor, and one of them shouted, “Don’t shoot. You might hit her!”
Good to know they didn’t want to kill. Bad to know they wanted her. But the guards on this floor knew better than to lose the master’s prize. Several doors were open now, and his minions filled the hall, wielding fists and, in one case, a metal rod.
She wanted to shout at them to go away. She didn’t need more people standing between her and freedom, but at the same time, the distraction proved her salvation. Jim lost his hold on her, and she stumbled away from him, streaking past an attacker grappling with Brian. She could have cried in relief when the elevator doors opened and disgorged hotel security, adding to the general chaos. She darted into the cab and slapped the ground-floor button as the hotel guard yelled, “The police have been called!”
“You shouldn’t have done that.” One of the attackers, his face an expressionless mask of black plastic, twisted Jim’s neck. Crack. Jim dropped like a rock. The hotel security guard fumbled for his weapon, and as the elevator doors closed, Brian yelled, “Get back here, you little bitch!,” and the attackers shouted, “Don’t let her get away!”
The doors sealed shut, and the elevator descended, rendering her safe for the moment, but that would prove fleeting. Brian and the others would surely take the stairs, and if the elevator stopped for even one floor she might not arrive before them.
She hyperventilated in the cab, her palms sweaty as the ride to the main level took forever. Her heart pounded so fast she feared dropping of fear.
When the doors slid open to reveal the lobby, she fully expected to see someone waiting for her and wasn’t disappointed. She came face-to-face with a hotel manager, whose eyes widened upon seeing her. “Ma’am, are you all right?”
“No.” The word bubbled from her, edged with hysteria. She stepped out of the elevator, shying away from his hands when he would have touched her. “Don’t. Just leave me alone. I have to go.” Go before her brief stint of freedom ended.
She burst through the glass doors of the hotel, hitting the sidewalk, where the noise of cars passing, mufflers belching, engines roaring, and at times cars honking muddled her already-frantic mind. She didn’t know where she was. She had no clue where to go. Where could she hide where he wouldn’t find her?
Nowhere. He’ll find me wherever I go. But she had to try. Had to make an attempt.
She ran, choosing a direction at random, ignoring the prying glances of those she passed, the evening hour still early enough for pedestrian traffic. That was good for her. It would make following her that much harder. However, blending in might prove hard, given her bare feet and ragged appearance. I look like a woman running from something. She should have trained for this day—done a few laps around the bunker room they kept her locked in—then maybe she wouldn’t huff and puff so noisily.
The first street corner she stumbled on she turned, sprinting its length before making another sharp right. Sirens wailed in the distance, the cavalry to the rescue. Cops wouldn’t stop Brian or him, and she had a feeling it wouldn’t stop those that also came after her.
Everyone wants me, and I’ve yet to figure out why.
The next street she turned on had blaring neon signs, noise, and more foot traffic. Welcome to the club district. The thump of deep bass from more than one spot provided a cacophony that masked her own panting breaths, but it couldn’t mask the distant yells of people.
Someone chased her, but she didn’t want to be found. I won’t go back.
She ducked into an alley and ran the length of it, only to cry out in frustration at the dead end. No escape. She headed back to the mouth of the alley but hesitated. Out there, anyone chasing could see her, but what if she were to hide? Hide where, though?
There were some doors lining the alley, none with handles, all locked from the inside, but the alley wasn’t completely bereft of hiding spots. Between the trash bins, she spotted a wedge of space, big enough for her. She ducked in, the miasma of garbage almost gagging her as the hot, humid air rendered the scraps rancid.
Ass hitting the ground, she hugged her knees and huddled, wondering how she’d gotten here. What bad thing had she done to deserve this?
I did nothing. She’d been just a regular girl, with a regular job, living with her grandpa, when he entered her life. From that day on, her world changed, for the worse.
For a moment the music trying to hum through the building walls got louder as someone opened a door. She tucked tighter into her hole. No need to freak. Probably someone having a smoke.
The door shut, muting the music, and she heard nothing. Not even the scrape of a shoe or a hint of cigarette smoke. Had they left? Just in case, she ducked her face, hiding it in her tucked knees, hoping to make herself invisible.
It didn’t work. Her skin prickled, and she couldn’t help but peer outward. She saw a man staring down at her with the most curious brown eyes, and for some reason she blurted out, “Save me.”
The coppery undertone of blood hit him as soon as he entered the alley, the unmistakable scent waking his inner beast.
The heavy metal door clanged behind him as he tucked his cigarettes back into his pocket. Nasty habit that he kept trying to quit. He didn’t smoke much anymore. Often, he’d light one only to stare at the smoldering tip before tossing it to the ground to stub it out. And yet he always kept a pack on him. They provided cover when he needed an excuse to lurk in places he shouldn’t, like dark alleys at night.
Never know what you’ll find.
His nose twitched at the bloody scent of violence, but his bear didn’t rumble in warning, nor did he sense any danger. He let his refined sense of smell lead him, his shifter side stronger than most, even in his human shape. It was what made him such a good detective—before he got kicked off the force. Who knew they’d care about the baggie of weed he took to make brownies? The stuff was legal in just about every other state.
The loss of his legal career didn’t bother him too much. There was plenty of work in the city as a private eye, so much work that he could pick and choose his jobs. He often chose the ones that took him to strip bars where wives suspected their husbands of cheating. The eye candy was fun, even if the beers were kind of pricey, but that was where creative invoicing came into play.
Given he stood in the alley of Bubble Butt Babes, he wondered if that was who hid out here: a stripper looking to make a few bucks, only to end up with a client who got rough.
The bass of the music emerged in a muted thump in the alley. While it was close to the witching hour, the street out front still had a decent amount of foot traffic. If someone wanted privacy, then there were few places to hide. The alley itself was a dead end, finishing in a roll-down garage door, which was currently bolted. A pair of trash bins, tall suckers on wheels, were lined like sentinels along the brick wall. They might have been emptied that morning, but the smell clung, a miasma that made his inner beast grunt in annoyance.
Yes, it did, and above it all lingered the sharper scent of blood. Something wounded this way came, and he couldn’t leave it alone.
With a silent tread, he paced the alley until he found her wedged between two trash bins, her head turned away from the alley, as if by not seeing she could prevent being seen.
He crouched down and noted she stopped breathing, her body going still.
An anticipatory hush fell, and he studied her, studied her hunched frame, the tattered clothes, the scratches on her arms, the fading and fresh bruises.
So much trouble. Despite her wounded status, a part of him urged him to walk away, knew if he didn’t run that his life would change.
He didn’t budge. How could he leave when she turned bright green eyes his way and said in the softest whisper, “Save me”?
Save her? As if she had to ask. His cousins always claimed he had a hero complex. More like he couldn’t stand to see women and children getting hurt. Which meant he couldn’t turn his back on her.
He reached out and touched the exposed skin of her arm, just a poke that caused her to flinch as if he’d slapped her, while he fell on his ass. No grace at all.
His voice, his bear’s? Did it matter? The realization kicked him in the gut. She was his mate. His fated mate. His one and only. Forever and ever and …
“Fuck.” He said it aloud, and she flinched again. Not good. “Who are you?”
For a moment he thought she wouldn’t answer. “Becka.”
“Who hurt you, Becka?”
A shudder went through her, and she didn’t reply. Someone else did. “No one hurt her. She’s fine and needs to come with me.”
Getting to his feet, Stavros held in a sigh as he beheld the big brute at the end of the alley. Stavros had met his type before while on the force, too many times to count. A big bully and, worse, a bully who picked on women.
Can’t stand those guys.
Let’s maul him.
Sounded like a good plan. Now to get the guy to swing first—it helped in case the police and lawyers got involved later on. “I’m afraid I can’t allow her to go with you.”
The guy with the goatee sneered. “This is none of your business.”
Actually, it totally was. She’d become his business the moment he set eyes on her. And even if she weren’t his mate, he’d still get in this asshat’s way just on principle. “I’m making this my business. See, I’ve got a problem with guys who think it’s okay to hit girls. My mother always taught me”—usually with a wooden spoon—“that only pussies and cowards hit women.”
“You meddle in things you don’t understand.” The crack of knuckles was probably meant to intimidate.
Ha. This goon had obviously never met his uncle Marcus. “I think you should leave before I teach you a lesson in how to treat a lady.”
“I think your face needs rearranging.” The brute began stalking toward him, and Stavros felt more than heard the woman rise behind him.
She stepped around his frame, careful to not touch any part of him, her arms hugging her body. “I’m coming, Brian. Don’t hurt him. He was just trying to help me.”
Did she seriously think he was going to allow her to hand herself over to this douche bag? “Get behind me,” he ordered.
Eyes the color of spring grass looked at him with weary resignation. “I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but I won’t let you be hurt on my account.”
She didn’t get to decide that. “Who says I’m going to get hurt? I’m rather insulted you think this big goon can take me.”
“You don’t understand. He doesn’t play fair. I won’t have someone else killed on my account.”
Killed? Ooh, things just got a lot more interesting. Just who is this fucker who likes to hit women and kill people? This inquiring mind wants to know. Because you’re in bear country now, which means I am the predator, not you.
“Stand aside, sweetheart. I’ve got this. I’m a cop.” He didn’t tack on the used-to-be part.
The big dude heard him and snorted, “Here, piggy-piggy.”
The idiot poked the bear, and Stavros replied by charging. The goon didn’t sidestep his rush, and so Stavros hit him midsection and no further. Buddy was solid as a brick wall and held his ground.
Oooh, a little bit of competition. Usually that only happened with others in his sleuth—fancy word for his giant bear clan that ruled these parts.
Since pushing Brian over didn’t work, he resorted to a bit of grappling and thrown fists. More like mallets, given they both had a granite-hard punch.
Grunt. Smack. Jab. Oomph. Poke. Pummel.
They traded blows for a bit until Stavros noted his lady trying to inch past. She’s not leaving without me. He’d never find her again in a city this size. Never mind the smart thing to do involved letting her go.
I don’t want a mate. Don’t want. Don’t want.
That was the man part of him. The bear part?
Lick her! Yeah. His beast side had simpler needs.
Time to wrap things up. He drew on his bear strength and got an edge on the dude, his blows hitting faster and harder until the guy staggered. A foot hooked around his ankle sent the goon tumbling to the ground, and in a moment Stavros had him handcuffed, arms behind his back. Not being a cop didn’t mean Stavros had gotten rid of all his cool toys.
“Release me,” Brian snarled. “You don’t know who you’re messing with. If I don’t bring her back to him—”
I should hope so. Stavros rather liked the ominous tone. A man could use a little spice in his life, and a woman—especially the one who’d scurried off. “Tell your boss that if he comes near her, I’ll make him wish he was the load his mother swallowed.”
“Suck my dick.”
“Not my style, but don’t worry. I’m sure you’ll find someone to play with where you’re going.” He patted the goon on the cheek. “Say hi to my friends in blue. I hear the cells are nice this time of the year. Expect me to come by later for a little chat.”
Sirens blared nearby, and he’d wager they were looking for the prick at his feet. As Stavros rose, he juggled his phone from his pocket and sent a quick text to a buddy at the precinct—Left you a present in the alley—with the name of the bar.
Then he went after his woman.
He could see he and his bear would need to have a talk, because Stavros sure as hell wasn’t ready to settle down, despite what his mother and sisters seemed to think. “We need a son to carry on the name.” “You’re not getting any younger.” Never mind his uncle Horatio had just fathered his eighth child at fifty-five. If the women in his family caught wind of this woman, his single life as he knew it would vanish and the shackle of mating would bind him.
Choke. Gasp. He could feel the invisible collar of fate squeezing.
Copyright © 2018 by St. Martin’s Press.
Copyright © 2018 by Eve Langlais.
Copyright © 2018 by Milly Taiden.
Copyright © 2018 by Kate Baxter.