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Nightfall

Berkley Sensation
June 2011

ISBN-13: 978-0425241691

Buy it Online


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


Their instincts will save them.
Their passion will transform them.

Growing up with an unstable, often absent father who preached about the end of the world, Jenna never thought, in her wildest nightmares, that his predictions would come true. Or that he would have a plan in place to save her–one that includes the strong, stoic man who kidnaps and takes her to a remote cabin in the Pacific Northwest.

The mysterious ex-Marine named Mason owes a life-debt to Jenna’s father. Skilled and steadfast, he’s ready for the Change, but Jenna proves tough to convince. Until the power grid collapses and the mutant dogs attack–vicious things that reek of nature gone wrong.

When five strangers appear, desperate to escape the bloodthirsty packs, Jenna defies her protector and rescues them. As technology fails and the old world falls away, Jenna changes too, forever altered by supernatural forces. To fight for their future, she and Mason must learn to trust their instinctive passion–a flame that will see them through the bitter winter, the endless nights, and the violence of a new Dark Age.

***

CHAPTER ONE

“Don’t move.”

The hot rush of breath against the nape of her neck made Jenna juggle her keys and then drop them. She had pepper spray on the key ring, received as a gag gift, but at hearing that raw, gravelly voice, she lost all control of higher motor functions. A shiver jumped up her spine.

Something prodded her back. A gun? Jenna didn’t even shift.

Her reply came out in a nervous squeak. “Are you mugging me? I don’t have much cash on hand.”

Liar.

Her dad had always insisted she keep at least five hundred in the house in case of emergencies. He hadn’t liked banks, lines of credit, or the federal government. But he’d also said there would come a time when skills would become the real commerce, and that the entire world monetary system would fail. Of course, trouble clung to her father like ticks on a hound, so she didn’t agree with his philosophies. He’d gone around quoting obscure prophecy and claiming insight into great doings to come, and she wanted nothing to do with any of his crazy friends. She’d seen what that life had done to her mother.

Hence the move to quiet, dull, out-of-the-way Culver. Sure, she’d heard the talk of trouble on the East Coast–blackouts and riots–but the city wouldn’t be NYC if there wasn’t something crazy happening. It was like LA in that regard. At one point, there had been so many fires, mudslides, and earthquakes that fringe factions claimed California was about to slide into the sea. There was no more substance to these East Coast rumors. It was just normal crime.

But muggings didn’t happen in Culver. Maybe this guy was an escaped con from the correctional facility in Northbend. It wasn’t unheard of for them to break out and live rough until they emerged in dire need of food and supplies. Her breath puffed out in a smoky devil’s sigh. Cold. It was so cold. He’d need winter gear too. If she gave him what he wanted, he might go away. She hoped.

Because of her dad, Jenna nursed a secret soft spot for outlaws and renegades, but that didn’t ease the fear in her stomach.

She tried to stay calm. “I have things inside you can use. Soup, an insulated sleeping bag, pretty much everything you need to rough it. You don’t have to steal from me. I’ll give you the stuff. No strings.”

Silence.

Please don’t let him take my credit cards. Those take forever to replace.

But maybe she should be worried about something else. Something worse. Jenna couldn’t even make herself shape the words mentally. Things like that never happened in Culver. She should’ve been safe walking down the driveway to get her mail. Her mind had been on heading into town and joining Deb and Mara at The Louie: beer, laughs, friends–not defending against armed psychos. It was their weekly girls’ night, where they drank too much, laughed a lot, danced with strange men, and generally cut loose after a week in the cubicles.

“Are you Jenna Barclay?” he asked.

Her heart thudded in her ears. She wondered if she ought to lie. Would that make it worse? Fear tasted sharp on her tongue. She wouldn’t give a desperate man a reason to hurt her. Sometimes they didn’t need a reason, but she’d play it smart. And she’d walk away from this.

“Yes,” she managed to say. “I’m Jenna. What do you want?”

Instead of answering that question, he returned to one she’d posed before. “No, this isn’t a mugging.”

“Then what is it?” Surely they weren’t conversing while he held a gun on her. She thought she felt the barrels through the thick down of her jacket and refused to think about bullets tearing through her flesh, blood-spattered feathers wafting up.

No running, no sudden moves. She’d be all right. She just had to make him think of her as a person. Not an object he could take into the forest and have fun with.

“It’s a kidnapping,” he said, and stuffed a cloth in her mouth.

He moved too quickly for thought–even faster than the panic that followed his words. Jenna heard a ripping noise before he sealed a strip of duct tape over her mouth. When he slung her over his shoulder, her stomach slammed against his back. The wind knocked right out of her, and she had the irrational thought that he smelled like the forest–a tangy sharp whisper of pine, cut with fresh air and moss.

Hauling her as if she weighed nothing, he squatted, snatched her keys, and then sprinted up the drive toward her garage. He levered it up one-handed and taped her ankles. Her wrists came next, and that was when the fear sunk all the way in.

He wasn’t kidding.

Jenna thrashed and fought. If she let him take her away from here, she’d never see home again. She didn’t care about the threat of a bullet any longer. A quick death would be better than whatever he had in mind. Tears seared the corners of her eyes and felt hotter because her skin had chilled in the late autumn air.

But he handled her struggles with impersonal proficiency. She managed to elbow him in the sternum, and he didn’t even grunt. Iron man. Unmoved. Maybe begging would work. Nobody will pay the ransom, she tried to say, but it came out more like, “Mmdy wuh puh,” before she gave up.

Oh, God. Oh, God. Oh, God–

Nightmare. It had to be. She’d wake up soon.

Terror flared like a struck match as he popped the trunk of her car. He deposited her inside with curious care. Once he closed the metal top, it would be like a tomb.

No. Please, please, please.

With the setting sun behind him in a nimbus of fire, he looked like a dark god, broad shoulders and features blurred by her tears. But Jenna saw one thing clearly. He wasn’t wearing a mask, and that meant he wasn’t ever letting her go.

The trunk slammed and took all the light with it.

Minutes turned into hours, and hours into eternity. After she’d died at least a million times in her mind, in almost as many different ways, the car slowed and stopped. She listened to the engine ticking over.

A key clicked in the lock. Jenna expected her captor to yank her roughly out of the trunk, so she braced. But he might not need an excuse to hurt her. To her surprise, he drew her up with the care one would use with a sleeping child. His gentle hands belied the tape across her mouth and her bound limbs.

Wordlessly, he set her on her feet. As her blinking eyes adjusted to the rich twilight, she saw there was no reason he’d fear she might run. In addition to the hobbles on her ankles, they stood in the middle of a deep forest. They might still be in Oregon–she’d lost track of time while he drove–but in a remote region she’d never seen.

A reassuring bulge in her left pocket meant that her cell phone had made it out of the trunk with her. She just needed to bide her time and humor him until she could text someone for help. If cop shows were to be believed, they could track her phone and find her that way.

I just have to stay calm, make him think I’m buying whatever he’s selling long enough to get a minute alone.

She stood quietly, awaiting instructions. Crazies liked feeling in control, didn’t they? She wouldn’t give him any reason to search her–or worse. Giving him a quick once-over, she reassessed what she’d hoped back in her driveway. He didn’t need winter gear. A knit cap stretched over his skull, and he wore dark, heavy-gauge Carhartt jeans and a woodland camouflage jacket that looked military. He slung a serious semi-automatic sniper rifle across his back, and the gun he’d poked into her back must be the 9mm in his hip holster.

Fighting him was completely out of the question. A one-man army. Oh, shit.

“I’m sorry it had to be like that,” the man said, his voice rough. “But we had to get away from the city. You wouldn’t believe me without proof.”

Believe what?

Jenna stared at him in silence. How was she supposed to answer through the duct tape anyway? Not that there was any point. It was a stretch to call a burg like Culver a city, which proved he was mad as a hatter. A frisson ran through her as the sun filtered out of the dense foliage entirely, drenching the world in shadow. Nightfall had never been so sinister.

“Anyway, we should get inside. We can talk in the cabin. It’s freezing out here, and I promised your dad I’d keep you safe.”

Now that was just pure bull. Mitch Barclay had been dead for over three years, and even before that, he’d never been particularly interested in her well-being–except when it suited him. Over the years, he’d faded in and out of her life like a ghost, and each time he seemed a little more disconnected with reality. His last visit had been so strange that she hadn’t wanted to see him again. He’d come just to stare at her, it seemed, like he could x-ray the inside of her head.

The man knelt and peeled the tape from around her ankles. She wanted to run, but taking off ill-prepared in the cold might be stupider than staying put. Besides, her feet had gone completely numb. Blood rushed back in splinters of pain.

Distracting herself, Jenna tried to memorize the dwelling’s exterior. Maybe she could put some detail in her text message. They stood in a clearing ringed by heavy trees. The split-log cabin looked like someone’s hunting retreat, rustic but not shabby or ill-maintained.

When the man straightened, he was bigger than she’d realized, perhaps as much as a foot taller than her own five-foot-six. His swarthy skin bespoke some mixed ancestry, and he was built like a Mack truck. Solid muscle. Quite simply, she could hit him with a brick and he wouldn’t even notice.

She’d have to outsmart him.

With a gesture, he indicated she should precede him. It wasn’t good manners as much as him keeping an eye on her. She stumbled a little, her legs still stiff and tingling. To her surprise, he steadied her with a hand on her back. She flinched and pulled away, but a small part of her was thankful that she hadn’t fallen. Keep my balance. Stay calm.

Jenna crossed the small porch, her shoes clunking heavily against the plank wooden floor. Dread churned up her nausea when reached the door. He leaned past her and opened it–again, probably not a courtesy, but in recognizing the limitations of her bound hands. The inside of the cabin matched the exterior: woven rugs, hand-carved furniture with homey sewn cushions, and a big stone fireplace. Avocado appliances decked out an antiquated kitchenette, and a ladder led up to what might be a loft.

“Go in,” he said. “I need to take care of some things. Then I’ll cut you loose, so you can ask all the questions I see burning in your eyes.”