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Midnight

Berkley Sensation
(September 6, 2011)

ISBN-13: 978-0425242995

Buy it Online


indiebound | b-a-m | b & n | amazon | powell’s | book depository | vroman’s

Their desire destroys her defenses.
Their love gives him a reason to live.

Three years of wandering the post-apocalyptic wasteland has stripped Dr. Chris Welsh of humanity and hope. He’s a dangerous man now, full of dark energy and yen for violence. A harrowing loss drove him from his home, and he hasn’t stopped moving since. Grim and sardonic, he never found anything worth sticking around for–until now.

Rosa Cortez runs Valle de Bravo, a haven of civilization amid the chaos of the Change. Soldiers take their orders directly from her–the iron hand within a velvet glove. The last thing she needs is a feral loner upsetting the town’s tentative balance. However, for the good of her people, she lets the sexy doctor stay. He evokes a delicious new longing, but she won’t submit to any man.

Tension rises as bloodthirsty raiders strike again and again, bent on possessing Valle and its resources. Together Chris and Rosa battle hellhounds and dust pirates while also fighting desperate attraction. To save them, love must overcome the pain of the past–and build a future in this brutal Dark Age…

***

CHAPTER ONE

“We move in ten. Jameson, you run the count.”

While Jameson was thin and quiet, he had a scary affinity for knives–and that meant nobody would question her choice. He was one of the few who had confided in Rosa about his past–the child of a Filipina mother and an American GI. When his dad died, leaving them destitute, he had fought his way to some renown and joined an underground circuit, where he earned enough money to bring his family to America. His background rendered him as deadly as any in camp. That was why Rosa chose him.

The man held up his fingers and everyone watched as he curled them down, one by one. Vibrations rocked the ground. Vehicles were few and far between these days; only the old ones could be coaxed into running, if they didn’t have computer chips or electronic components. It was also tough to find gas. But if things went well today, they’d be set for months.

As Jameson completed the countdown, Rosa circled two fingers in the air, giving the signal to move out. The roar of bikes cut through the silence like a saw blade. Her driver, Falco, gunned the throttle. The motorcycle jerked into motion. Whooping, the rest of the bravos followed her lead.

In tight formation, they burst out of the scrubby undergrowth and onto the road, quickly surrounding the truck. It was too big and bulky to have any real speed. This shipping concern looked a little smarter than the rest. They’d done some custom body work, installing extra plating, iron bars and barbwire across the windshield.

It wouldn’t do any good.

“Hold it steady!” Rosa shouted to Falco, who edged the bike closer.

He was her best driver–too bad he had delusions about what a great team they’d make in bed. So far she’d managed to keep him at arm’s length, balancing the Madonna/whore factor that kept her men both longing for her and afraid to touch her.

When the bike swung close enough, she levered into a crouch, using Falco’s shoulders to steady herself. The enormous wheels spun at dizzying speed. With one misstep, she would wind up a pile of bloody meat. Pressing upright on the narrow seat, Rosa grinned.

The muscles in her thighs bunched as she pushed off. For a moment, there was only the air streaming against her face. Flying. Then she hit the side of the truck, splitting her lip against corrugated metal, but she found a handhold and pulled herself up. Gunfire cracked over the growl of the engines. One of her men swerved. Later she’d find out whether he’d been hit and how bad it was. Right now she had to focus on the job.

The sun beat down as she climbed, her arms burning with the effort of holding on. Sweat slicked her palms, making it tough, and she ignored the sound of her men returning fire. They knew their roles.

The driver tried evasive action, slinging the truck side to side, but he’d roll it if he wasn’t careful. Surely he didn’t want to kill himself just to keep the supplies out of their hands. Nobody was that devoted to his work.

With a pained grunt, Rosa hauled herself on top of the vehicle and signaled her men to move on to phase two. The bike engines softened to a low purr as they dropped back. Now that she was in position, there was no point in them remaining as targets. They’d only waste gasoline.

Hot wind and stinging dust whipped her face while she crept along the roof of the truck, light as a cat. When she reached the cab, she slid her weapon from its thigh holster. A gun didn’t need to be big to kill at close range, and anything heavier would make it hard for her to jump and climb.

Small magnets in her boots made her work a little easier. She’d often wondered if the drivers thought she had super powers, that they could never seem to shake her off. Smiling at the thought, she dropped to her belly and set up her safety gear. Then she hooked her feet, dropped upside-down beside the driver’s door, and broke the glass between the iron bars with one blow–brass knuckles wrapped in cloth.

With her other hand she cocked the gun. “If you don’t want to die right now, you’ll stop the truck.”

The driver gazed at her, wild-eyed, out of his periphery. He was hardly more than a kid, but this was a brave new world. You do what you have to. Rosa could shoot him, disengage from the harness and slide through the window fast enough to save the supplies. After all, she’d done it before.

From his expression, he guessed as much.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said on a little moan of fear.

Maybe it wasn’t nice, but given how powerless Rosa had been before the Change, his reaction was damn near an aphrodisiac. She bared her teeth in a fierce upside-down smile. “Good boy.”

The truck slowed gradually. Doubtless the driver didn’t want to risk having her finger slip on the trigger. Kill or be killed wasn’t just a cliché. But she knew she’d always come out on top in terms of her predatory nature. She’d grown up with that knowledge burnt into her brain. People took advantage of the weak.

When the truck stopped, her men roared back into play. She kept her weapon trained on the kid until Falco opened the passenger door and roughly pulled him out. She could see he was pissing-scared, but the story would only enhance their rep, so she didn’t rein Falco in. Instead Rosa levered back up, a feat made possible through the abs she’d worked to make rock-hard, and slid out of her safety gear. She quickly stowed her stuff, before vaulting down with lithe grace.

Her second spoke to the driver in a low growl. “On the ground.”

The kid complied, whimpering. He dropped face-down and put his hands behind his head without being asked. It looked like word was getting around.

Que padre.

Like a well-oiled machine, her men popped the trailer, making sure there were no hidden guards. But no, it was a good clean haul: bottled water, toiletries, canned goods, and best of all–pre-Change liquor. It had been a while since they had anything but tiswin or agave wine. The next Burning Night would be wild in Valle de Bravo.

Once the cargo was secured, Jameson fastened the doors and added extra security chains. It wouldn’t do for another gang to jack their stolen goods. The bravos ran back to their bikes.

“I’m leaving water and a smoke flare for you,” Rosa told the kid. “Next time one of your people drives by, use it. Then tell them I own these roads. If they want to ship through my territory, they need to pay the toll. Otherwise I have this unpleasant seizure policy.” She nudged him with a heavy boot. “Comprendes?

“Yeah,” the kid squeaked.

“I’ve also set a sharpshooter on that ridge. If you move before he counts to a thousand, you get a bullet between the eyes. I recommend you count slowly, just to be safe.”

Apparently too afraid to speak, the boy merely nodded. She couldn’t imagine why they had entrusted the delivery to him, but she suspected it was a rite-of-passage thing. Each outpost used professional wanderers who ensured the trade of necessary supplies. It was a dangerous task. Soon, more shipping concerns like the O’Malleys would arrive; they never fielded convoys without armed guards. Rosa need to would plan accordingly.

Falco was grinning. “You ready to roll, Jefa?

Claro. Let’s ride.”

With an ease born of practice, she slid into the passenger side. Falco could drive anything on wheels, and Rosa functioned better as muscle, which confused a few bigoted hijos de putas at first. She only needed to beat them down once to teach that particular lesson. The bravos arrayed the bikes around the truck as further deterrent to anyone who might mess with them. Still, she wouldn’t let her guard down until they reached Valle de Bravo.

Falco glanced over at her, one hand on the wheel. “We lighting up the dance hall tonight?”

Burning Night was a tradition everybody enjoyed. But they knew better to indulge on the same night as a successful raid. Such activity never failed to attract the attention of local nomads, who looked for any opportunity to catch the town unawares. Peltz, especially, the leader of a fierce band of raiders, seemed eager to exploit them. He was smarter than most. But Rosa was smarter.

“We’ll give it a night or two,” she said. “Then we can cut loose. The bravos deserve it.”

The liquor would make for a hell of a party. They’d have more fun if there were more women waiting, but Rosa didn’t mind the unique position of power. With the male to female ratio at such an imbalance, the bravos knew better than to demand monogamy–or they’d wind up with no tail at all. They’d had a little trouble at the start, but two castrations had ensured that the rest of the men got the message.

No always means no.

“You and me, then?”

Rosa glanced over at her second, suppressing a sigh. Falco was tasty, if you went for the rugged, muscular, sun-toughened type–brown hair with lighter streaks, nice blue eyes. But she knew his game. He figured if he moved into her bed permanently, he’d take the de facto role of boss man. Not that he was a bad guy, or devious in his intentions. He’d made those dead clear.

She was having none of it.

Rosa flashed a smile to take the sting from her words. “You wish, Falco. You couldn’t handle even half of me.”

She pretended she wasn’t tense, awaiting his response. Deliberately, she stretched her legs. Tight-rope walking for fun and profit. She’d been careful not to sleep with anyone. She wasn’t to be viewed as a sexual creature. Instead she was the militant Madonna for whom they’d die.

“One of these days, I’m gonna make you mine,” he said lightly.

Yep. Right after hell freezes over, cabrón.

When the ramshackle settlement came into view, she relaxed. She’d crawled to this place to die after a loss she couldn’t forget, but to her surprise, she hadn’t. For months she’d hunted, gathered and killed those monstrous hellhounds all by herself, too tough to lay down and give up. And from there, she’d built. When survivors started to trickle in, Rosa had made it clear that the town was hers, a place where only the brave survived. For that reason her men were named bravos.

She didn’t know what it had been called before, only what it was now. Valle de Bravo. The valley of the brave. The valley of her warriors.

The landscape was green in comparison with the dry land that surrounded it. An underground river ran through, filling the wells. That was probably why folks settled in this spot hundreds of years ago, perhaps abandoning it when the mines played out. When Rosa first arrived, it had been a ghost town with clapboard buildings and adobe structures standing empty. From the dirty white adobe church to the general store to the dance hall, it had been like stepping into a different world.

Now she took in the scene with a practiced eye. Everything looked normal. Good. No raids while they’d been gone. The possibility always concerned her when she took a large number of able-bodied men on a supply run. Any number of enemy factions would love to get a foothold here, Peltz most of all. His filthy gang moved camp too often to be found outside supernatural means.

But the perimeter was secure. The young bravo at the gate stopped them, just as he ought to. Rio was hardly old enough to shave but had hard, savage eyes. He’d crawled into town from gods only knew where, all alone, much as Rosa had been. There had been no question that she’d find a place for him. Some townsfolk bitched about her fairly lax immigration policy, but after having suffered the boot of the old world’s Homeland Security on her neck, she couldn’t refuse sanctuary to anyone. Newcomers only needed to prove willing to pull their weight and follow her rules.

As long as they were human.

She smiled at Rio, taking in his too-big khaki pants and the spiked leather wristbands Singer must’ve made for him. He looked fierce enough to tear someone’s throat out with his bare hands–and well, he was. Un cachorro del tigre. All her bravos had kamikaze souls.

“All clear?”

“Quiet as the grave,” Rio said with a wide, white smile.

He motioned for the gatekeeper to let them in, and the convoy passed through into the town proper. Half the population turned out to see what they’d brought back. A shout went up when they saw the cases of Grey Goose.

Viv, the woman who ran the taverna, took charge of those, ordering them delivered to the dance hall. She was a weathered little woman in her late forties, but hard work had kept her fit. Between her ageless features–maybe Chinese, maybe Pacific Islander–and the skewed ratio, she had six men offering to help. Attentive faces revealed anticipation, hoping for her company after the party.

Rosa kept herself above that game. It hadn’t been hard. She’d spent enough hours pinned under grunting, sweating men to be glad of the change. Apart from Falco, most of the bravos saw her as la Jefa, not a woman to be banged in celebration of a successful raid.

They knelt to her before each job and kissed her fingertips, having sworn blood loyalty to Valle de Bravo. Rosa insisted on the ritual because she knew such things strengthened spoken bonds. Now all her bravos bore tats, marking them as hers. She who took none as her own claimed them all.

Wicker, who ran the general store, assumed responsibility for the majority of items. The town ran on a barter system, and since the old man had once managed a store, he was in charge of keeping the books. Too old to fight now, he had a temperament well-suited to the task. That gave him a useful occupation to save his pride.

At the back of the truck, they found a rare cache of booty. Fabric. A soft “ahh” went up from the women. New clothes. Survivors had ransacked the stores long since, and Rosa couldn’t remember the last time she’d worn anything new, made just for her. Sometimes they traded amongst themselves for variety but it wasn’t the same. This would be good for morale.

For a few moments Rosa watched the work, overwhelmed with a quiet sense of accomplishment. She’d done this, a woman who hadn’t been able to get a decent job in the old world, no matter how smart she was. Pride swelled in her chest, making each breath hotter and sweeter.

I did this. These are my people.

And then the cry went up from Rio at the gate. “Raiders incoming!”

Rosa cocked her gun and ran.