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Their mission was to save the world.
Their destiny is to fall in love.
It’s been twelve years since the Change, and Penelope Sheehan is one of the few still practicing magic for the good of humanity in this dark, dangerous world. Determined to infiltrate the notorious O’Malley organization, she poses as an abducted girl–until a furious lion thwarts her mission. When the beast turns into a devastatingly handsome man, she recognizes in him the troubled boy she once knew.
Since becoming a skinwalker, Tru Daugherty has allowed his animal nature to take over. Aloof and cynical, he takes no interest in making the world a better place. He’s a creature of instinct and impulse, living only to satisfy his senses–ignoring the scarred heart nobody has ever reached. He’s also the best man to help Pen bring down the O’Malley crime ring.
Fighting alongside the last holdouts of humanity, they unleash a passion that tempts them to risk everything for love. But if they succeed, Tru and Pen hold the power to brighten the Dark Age for all time.
Pen Sheehan twisted her right forearm. Wire dug in where guards had pinned her arms behind her back. The slack meant she could slip free. With time. But no telling how much she had. The camp could be anywhere, from a few kilometers away to a few hundred.
Only, she couldn’t work any faster. Just slow, patient movements. Should her unconscious mind tumble ahead of her goal, she’d panic. She’d realize just how terrifying it was to be bound as a sex slave.
Visceral fear jabbed at her, as real as the gouging strand of wire along the thin skin of her inner wrist. She closed her eyes and breathed steadily. But she only ever found her mother in the dark—her mother, Angela, who had been dead nearly twelve years.
Her pulse jumped. The tingling ache that radiated out from her marrow said she was too close to losing control. Panic meant transporting. Involuntarily. She’d blink the wrong way and find herself by the side of the road somewhere.
And with her magic, panic could mean much worse. So much worse.
As much as she’d love a breath of air untainted by filthy, sweaty bodies, she needed to stay put. Stay in the truck. Make it to camp.
She opened her eyes and met another woman’s wide, terrified gaze. Thin and grimy, she should’ve resembled muck hauled from a pit. But she had amazing cheekbones, smooth skin, and a remarkable figure revealed by tatters of dark wool. O’Malley would earn a fortune on her, especially if she was free of disease.
Wire wrapped the woman from palm to elbow, securing her arms overhead on a rusted hook. At least Pen didn’t have to wiggle out of that serpentine fastening. She might not have been able to hold back her terror.
Using magic wasn’t the problem. It was the dizziness and half-starved weakness that came from it, especially emergency bursts designed for self-defense.
And then there was the unpredictability.
She needed to arrive at camp strong and in full control of her senses. Anything less meant failure. No more innocents would die because of her.
She cleared her throat and locked eyes with the woman across the way. “What’s your name?”
No response. Only the shy skitter of a gaze that touched the two armed guards at the back of the truck, then ducked away to a neutral place on the truck’s filthy floor.
Pen sighed. While she struggled with the occasional flash of alarm, at least she had recourse that the other two dozen captives lacked. Not only could she heal and produce at will a host of spells, but she was in the truck by choice. The Change had done its best to wipe out humanity. She refused to let the nastiest surviving strain obliterate the remaining good.
Purpose infused her with new strength. She braced herself for the pain. With a quick jerk, she wrenched her elbow; the wire gave up a half inch of its grip. Blood dripped along the pad at the base of her thumb.
The boy trussed to her right ducked away. He cringed. No one wanted to be associated with a rule breaker. Rage simmered under her breastbone—a quiet burn that matched the ache at her wrist—at seeing people so victimized. She kept working, occasionally checking the guards. The bastards were, as always, distracted by the merchandise. One of them might find her worth staring at, which could be disastrous for her plan.
At least she didn’t fear rape. None of the slaves did. Not in the truck, anyway. Later, after a sale, daily abuse became a fact of life. But for a guard to sully the goods meant the loss of his dick. She’d seen O’Malley thugs stripped of all four limbs and left alive to serve as an example. A man who stole from General O’Malley might as well find a rope and hang himself.
Her hand went numb. Her knees, too, ached from the way she’d been forced to sit. Hunger gnawed at her belly. The hot wind snaking between gaps in the tarpaulin left her missing her cloak, because that would’ve kept the dust out of her mouth. She adored that damn cloak. Blanket and disguise and protection, all in one. But giving it up had been essential. Be meek. Be subservient. Anything else risked betraying her real purpose.
Taking a break, gathering her patience once again, she craned her neck toward the truck’s covered top. A gray-green grime covered the canvas like mold. Elaborate twine stitching revealed where scraps had been pieced together to form a whole sheet of fabric, or repaired
through the years. The tarp stretched over a lightweight frame of sturdy chicken wire that arced like an igloo over their heads. Hooks stuck out from metal studs spaced two meters apart. Loops screwed into the floorboards held fast to chains and shackles.
Custom-made for hauling human beings.
Red soaked over Pen’s vision. Hatred and purpose fused. She yanked hard. Her wrist popped free, smeared with her own blood.
She quickly turned her back to the guards and set to work on her other arm. The tingling in her fingertips as sensation returned was almost as painful as the gash on her wrist. She ignored it, concentrated, freed herself.
Slaves pulled their bare feet back from the guard’s boots as he used the handholds along the studs to maneuver toward Pen. “Face front, you!”
She tucked her hands out of sight, slipping her wrists back into the loosened restraints. Worst case, she’d disorient him with a touch of magic. Again, she’d be left vulnerable and depleted, but it was a better option than losing control.
Stay in the truck. Keep the prisoners safe.
With her shoulders hunched forward, she angled her body to face forward once again.
“Look at me.” The guard used the toe of his boot to raise her chin. The stench of mildewed leather dominated her next breath, as if the rot of the Everglades had hitched a ride.
Long ago, when the Change upended the whole world, Pen had been a frightened little girl. She didn’t like how easy it was to return to that feeling. But it always came back, as did seeing her mother when she closed her eyes. She channeled that helplessness and utter despair.
Whatever she dredged up from those dark places must’ve been enough to satisfy the man. He didn’t check her fastenings. Only grinned. A puckered scar that looked like a silver ladder ran down his throat. It shook when he chuckled.
Strange that of all the disgusting sights and smells in the truck, and of all the horrors that likely awaited her at camp, Pen shuddered because of his scar. She couldn’t say why. But the revulsion and fear he’d needed to see in her eyes felt real enough. She couldn’t look away from his ruined skin.
“Another pretty one,” he said. “O’Malley will be pleased. We don’t get many as pretty as you up in the mountains. Man’d have to turn queer or fuck a pine tree just to give his hand a break.”
Pen grabbed the man’s fl ash of memory. She could discern geographic features and weather patterns, although not as precisely as an actual map. She squirreled away the clues he inadvertently provided. Rumor had long since suggested that General O’Malley lived in a fortress hideaway, somewhere in the Appalachians. What this guard revealed didn’t change her best guess. But she still needed to confirm its location, which meant arriving at an O’Malley camp staffed by more than just hired thugs.
Only then might she be able to convince the Mäkinen camp to mount an army. She’d die for the right cause, but trust her own leadership?
No way. Too many ghosts and auras and blood-streaked memories made her doubt her sanity, let alone her ability to see to the safety of others.
But that meant finding the camp. Arturi Mäkinen was as much the stuff of legend as she was. Only, what if the pull she felt toward his haven was just another of the crazy voices she’d battled for years?
Pen fought her despair, only to find the guard leering at her breasts.
You’ll never get a taste.
A guard like him wouldn’t ever earn enough to sample the flesh he peddled. Not unless he turned on his boss and went rogue. And that never ended well.
The brakes squealed. The truck lurched as it slowed.
With his hand only loosely gripping a handhold, the guard tumbled toward the front. Pen fell from her relaxed restraints and somersaulted into another woman’s thigh, killing her momentum.
Another shriek of the brakes brought the truck to a full stop.
She threw a glance over her shoulder. The other guard was too busy checking his weapon to notice her. Keeping low, she crawled back to her spot. But before she could return her wrists to the wire fetters, she froze. A tingling prickle of awareness clawed like a cat walking up
her spine. Someone was coming. Someone with magic.
She knew the difference between ordinary humans and those blessed—or cursed, depending—with gift s bestowed by the Change. No one in the truck. Whoever she felt was coming from the outside.
Two shots fired. Shotguns, by the sound.
The guard with the scar scrambled to his feet. He made it to the middle of the truck, halfway to his partner, when he froze, too. Likely not because he felt magic.
Likely, it was because of the lion’s roar.
The hairs on Pen’s arms lifted. From deep in her chest came a primal response. In ancient times, men had learned to craft weapons to defend their families from that sound. Hunter and hunted. Kill or be killed. Predators fighting for control of their territory.
The roar came again, this time as the rear canvas split down the center. A huge male lion leaped into the truck. Captives screamed, but none so loudly as the guard at the back. His frantic burst of terror didn’t last long. The golden beast’s powerful jaw cut it short. A quick shake of his massive neck ensured his opponent was dead.
Pen gave up on pretense. She freed her arms and scrambled to the end of the truck nearest the cab. The guard with the scar stood between her and the massive cat. No telling what the beast intended. Feral skinwalkers were as much a danger as human scum like O’Malley’s people.
The guard raised his weapon—something automatic with a sight for night vision. Leaping, the lion closed the half-dozen meters and landed on the man’s chest. The gun fi red. More than one bullet. Screams erupted from the back of the truck. The guard hit the bed of the truck with the sickening crack of fracturing bone. Maybe his sternum? His spinal column? Not that it mattered. He lay motionless, eyes blank, beneath the lion’s broad paws. The impressive weapon lay idle in his lifeless hand.
Pen scoped out the situation. She’d have only a second of warning if the animal went for the prisoners.
Instead, the lion sniffed the air. He swiveled his strong neck, thick with a wild mane, as if appraising the truck’s contents. An eerie, sky-blue gaze locked with Pen’s.
A hot spark of déjà vu replaced cold fear. She frowned. The lion sniffed again but moved no closer. She stood, her fingers at her back to use the chicken wire as support. Her thighs trembled, but the tingling return of sensation to her lower legs bordered on misery.
“May I have the gun?”
Her voice sounded peculiar in the near silence. No engine noise. No shouts. Only a few sniffles as the slaves took stock of the mangled bodies.
The lion glanced at the weapon in the fallen guard’s useless grip. He almost seemed to . . . shrug. And turned away.
Pen wasted no time in claiming the weapon. Staying in the truck was useless now, her mission scrapped. Even if the lion had left any of O’Malley’s people alive, they’d be unlikely to give up additional details of the camp’s location. The best she could do now was free the captives and see that they escaped.
Her best opportunity. Ruined.
Finger on the trigger, she was tempted—just for a moment—to take out her frustration on the lion as he stalked away.
But he had obviously acted with purpose. Killing the guards. Walking away from the defenseless. Some skinwalkers became entirely animal—not as vicious as the demon dogs that still roamed unchecked, but without enough humanity to make distinctions. Flesh was food. Simple as that.
This big cat obviously thought otherwise.
Pen followed him, signaling the others to remain still. She kept the gun at the ready, although she doubted her reflexes. The guard hadn’t stood a chance when the lion decided to strike.
The air at the back of the truck glowed. Warmth coated her exposed skin like the sun emerging from clouds. Pen stared in momentary amazement as the lion shifted. She rarely got to witness the transformations. Jenna Barclay, one of her guardians for many years, had been a skinwalker unashamed of her abilities. But most lived like creatures in the woods, unwilling to be seen. Others retained their human forms within little clusters of society, because O’Malley had
hunted them since he came to power.
This . . . this was incredible.
The lion’s skeleton realigned, shrinking and warping into the form of a naked man. His lean street fighter’s body was a map of sinew and defined muscle. Fur retracted to reveal skin. Pale skin. Dark hair. She stared for long moments in captivated silence. Something about him
plucked at her memories.
Pen hadn’t expected goose bumps. But then, she hadn’t expected to recognize him either.
“I know you,” she whispered. “I know you.”
He raised a brow. “Then what’s my name?”