It was cold. So fucking cold.
He opened his eyes, but he saw… nothing. Groaning, he shifted, because he seemed to be facedown. Yeah… he was doing a face-plant, all right. But where was he? All he could see was snow. No, that wasn’t true; he could see trees laden with snow. And snowbanks laden with snow. And snow laden with more fucking snow.
So he was in a forest… with snow. But where? Why?
And who the hell was he?
The name slurred through his ears as if uttered by a drunken man.
Sounded vaguely familiar, he supposed. Reseph. Okay, he could work with that. Especially since no other names popped into his head.
Weakly, he tried to push himself to his knees, but his arms wobbled like rubber, and he kept falling on his face. After four tries, he gave up and just lay there, panting and shivering.
Somewhere overhead, an owl hooted, and a few minutes later, a wolf howled into the growing darkness. Reseph took comfort in the sounds, because they meant he wasn’t alone. Sure, the owl might fly over and shit on him, and the wolf might eat him alive, but at least he’d have company for a little while.
He didn’t know much about himself, but he knew he didn’t like to be alone.
He also did not like snow.
Curious then, how he’d ended up alone in the snow. Had someone abandoned him here? A tremor of anxiety shook him on the inside as hard as the cold was shaking him on the outside. Surely someone was looking for him.
He held onto that hope as he gradually became aware of a gnawing ache in his bones, accompanied by a stabbing pain in his head. Looked like he was in for a little unconsciousness. Cool. Because right now, he was both freezing and burning up, hurting and numb. Yep, passing out would be a good thing.
Real. Fucking. Good.
Idiot. Dumbass. Meteorological moron.
Jillian Cardiff mentally cursed the meteorologist who screwed the pooch on the timing of this blizzard. She had nothing against weather people; hell, she’d worked with them for years in the FAA. But this… this was ridiculous.
Now she was in a rush to get back to her cabin before visibility went completely to shit and her draft horse, Sam, got testy.
“Come on, boy.” She gave the big sorrel an affectionate slap on the shoulder. “The rest of the firewood can wait.”
Sam followed her, not needing to be led by the rope snapped to his halter. He knew the way home and was as eager as she was to get inside a warm, cozy building. The sled carrying a quarter cord of firewood dragged behind him, cutting through the five feet of fresh snow they’d gotten a few days ago. This new storm would probably dump another couple of feet, and by the end of December they’d have more snow than they’d know what to do with.
The wind shrieked like a living thing, and snow blasted her face. Hefting her rifle more securely onto her shoulder, Jillian put her head down and pushed against the gale. Times like this, she really missed Florida. Not that she’d ever go back. Some things you just couldn’t forget.
Like being torn apart by demons.
She shivered, but it had nothing to do with the temperature. She was not going there again. The attack was behind her, and as long as she didn’t watch TV, get on the Internet, or look at her scars, she never had to think about it.
A long, mournful howl pierced the late afternoon darkness. Had to be close if she could hear it over the wind. Sam snorted and tossed his head, and she slowed to take the lead rope and give him a pat on his white-blazed nose.
“It’s okay, buddy. The wolves won’t bother us.” No, wolves generally left humans alone. If anything, cougars were the big concern. In recent weeks, two area hunters had been found torn to pieces, the carnage blamed on the big cats.
She could handle a cougar. What she couldn’t handle was the dark. Demons lurked in the dark.
Abruptly, Sam reared up, a desperate whinny breaking from his big chest. The rope jerked out of Jillian’s hand, and she nearly lost her footing in the icy snow as she scrambled to catch it. Sam’s front hooves hit the ground and his shoulder rammed her, sending her tumbling down an incline. Her yelp cut off as she slammed into a tree trunk.
Pain spiderwebbed around the right side of her rib cage, and ouch, that was going to be tender tomorrow.
“Dammit, Sam,” she muttered, as she crawled back up the snowy slope, pausing to grab the rifle that had been flung into a snowbank.
Sam was snorting, going nuts as he pawed at a snowdrift. Jillian dug ice from places ice shouldn’t be as she clomped through the snow, wondering what in the world had startled Sam and now had him so freaked out.
“You’d better be digging up a pot of gold, you mangy—” She broke off with a startled gasp.
A man… a naked man… his body facedown and covered in a dusting of snow, lay in a messy sprawl just off the trail.
“Oh, my God.” Her hands shook as she stripped off her glove and brushed aside his long, platinum hair to put her fingers to his throat. His skin was icy to the touch, which she expected, but when the steady thump of a pulse bounded against her fingertips, she nearly jumped out of her own skin. He was alive. With a strong pulse. Holy cow, how?
Okay, so… think. She had to get help, but they were in the middle of an intensifying snowstorm, and there was no way off the mountain except by snowmobile. She couldn’t risk that in the storm, and it could take hours to get to the nearest town. He could be dead by then.
Praying this guy wasn’t a serial killer and trying not to think too hard on why he’d be in the mountains, naked, in the winter, she eased Sam up the trail until the sled was alongside the man’s body. As quickly as she could, she heaved the firewood to the other side of the path and tucked the ax into the loop on Sam’s padded harness.
Rolling the man onto the sled was not as easy as she’d hoped. The guy was heavy as a damned boulder and huge. And… handsome. And very, very naked.
“Really?” she muttered to herself. “You’re going to notice how hot he is now?”
Granted, it was impossible not to notice those things, but she still felt a little guilty as she ran her hands over him, checking for injuries. Aside from being unconscious and as frozen as a fish stick, he appeared to be uninjured.
Interesting horse tattoo on his right forearm, though. When she’d skimmed her fingers over it, she’d felt a dim vibration, as if the henna-colored lines pulsed with a mild electrical current. Too bad warmth didn’t ride in on that current, though, because damn, she swore the temperature plummeted twenty degrees in the few minutes it took to check the guy out.
As if Mother Nature had some sort of grudge against her, the biting cold wind picked up even more, and the snow, which she normally loved, became an enemy. It was probably stupid of her, but she stripped off her coat and laid it over the guy, tucking the coat’s sleeves carefully beneath him. The shirt layers she was wearing should protect her for a while, as long as they hurried.
“Let’s go, Sammy.” She urged the gelding to move faster than she’d normally like, but nothing about this situation was normal.
She was freezing and exhausted by the time she smelled the smoke from her wood stove, and her eyelashes were crusted with ice by the time she eased Sam up to the rickety porch. The frigid air burned her lungs with each breath as she dragged the man’s dead weight off the sled and then unhitched Sam. She’d remove the harness later. Right now she had to get the man into the house and the horse into the barn.
She ran the thirty yards to the barn and, battling the wind, tugged open the door. Sam trotted inside, but she didn’t bother taking him to his stall. He’d find it on his own.
Too bad getting the man to her bedroom wasn’t nearly as easy as putting up the horse. As a fitness freak who worked a small farm, Jillian wasn’t a wuss, but she thought she might have dislocated something as she dragged Fish Stick across the floor. She spent another ten minutes heaving and straining to lift him onto her bed.
Once he was sprawled out on his back, his broad shoulders taking up an enormous amount of room on the mattress, she cranked the electric blanket to the highest setting and checked his pulse. Still strong. Shouldn’t it be sluggish? She’d taken basic CPR classes as well as Search and Rescue training, and from what she remembered, hypothermia caused a slow, weak pulse. Fish Stick’s couldn’t be more opposite. Steady, surging, and she swore his skin had already pinked up a little.
Leaving the mystery alone for now, she checked the phone, and sure enough, it was dead. Next, she stoked the fire and turned up the electric heat to eighty degrees. She was lucky to have electricity at all, actually. The power kept flickering, and it was probably only a matter of time before it went the way of the phone line.
Ooh, and then she’d be alone, in the dark with no phone, in the middle of nowhere… with a stranger.
This was a horror movie setup. She even had the token small animal to prove the situation was serious and make all the women in the audience worry.
Her Bengal cat, Doodle, watched the activity from his bed in front of the wood stove, unconcerned that there was a strange man in the house. But then, nothing really fazed him. As long as he had food and someone to pet him, he didn’t bother to get excited about much.
“You’re a big help there, buddy.” She shot Doodle a dirty look as she changed into dry sweats and slippers. “I’m going to check on the complete stranger in my bed, but don’t worry about me, okay?”
Doodle blinked his green eyes at her.
Wishing she had a big dog right about now, Jillian slipped into the bedroom. As she entered, Fish Stick sighed and shifted in the bed, just the smallest movement, but enough to give her a bit of hope.
Then his eyes popped open.
Startled, she leaped back, slapping her hand over her mouth. His eyes… God, they were amazing. The lightest shade of blue, and crystal clear, like the edge of a shallow glacier. They bored into her, but there was nothing cold about them. The raw heat in them pierced her all the way to her core.
Feeling silly for her overreaction but with her legs trembling anyway, she returned to the bedside.
“I’m Jillian. I found you in the woods. You’re going to be okay.” She wasn’t sure if he understood or not, but his eyes closed, and his thickly muscled chest began to rise and fall in a deep, regular rhythm. His color was good now, and his full lips, once pale and chapped, were a smooth, dusky rose.
What now? Maybe she should get something hot into his stomach. Quietly, she started for the door to put some broth on the stove.
“Hey,” he rasped, his voice a broken whisper. “Did I… hurt you?”
She inhaled sharply and turned, risking a look at him. Once again, his eyes drilled into her, but this time, they seemed to… glow a little.
“No.” She swallowed dryly. “No, you didn’t hurt me.”
His long, golden lashes fluttered down, as if he was satisfied by her answer. But dear God, why would he think he might have hurt her?
Who the hell had she brought into her house?
Fish Stick didn’t wake up again for a full twenty-four hours.
When he did, it was only long enough to drink a cup of hot beef broth. He hadn’t said a word, had merely stared at her with those gorgeous blue eyes and then fallen back into a deep sleep, as if he’d been awake for a year.
Jillian had tried to call Stacey, a local sheriff’s deputy and her best friend of twenty years, but the phone lines were still down. Figured. The storm seemed to have stalled, and Jillian decided she was going to hunt down that meteorologist and beat him with his own anemometer.
Doodle had taken to the stranger, and if the cat wasn’t eating or chasing one of his toys, he was curled up on the bed. The little traitor.
At the forty-six-hour mark, Jillian went to check on Fish Stick, her heart doing a crazy little skip when she saw him sprawled in her queen-sized bed, taking up the whole thing. For some reason, her thoughts went to what he’d do with a woman in it. Someone his size needed a king mattress, especially if he had… company.
Stop it. Why in the world was she thinking like that about a total stranger whose name she didn’t even know? Maybe because, even in his sleep, he exuded power, an off-the-charts masculinity that made every female hormone quiver.
The covers had slipped low on his hips, revealing hard-cut lower abs and sinewy obliques that disappeared under the sheet. Just one inch lower, and there would be nothing left to the imagination. She’d gotten a good look when she’d brought him in, but now that his skin had color in it again, he was a totally different man. Before, he’d been like a marble statue, weak as a baby. Now… oh, boy.
His hair, a thick, long mane of white gold, had been hopelessly matted. A couple of times she caught him growling in his sleep and tearing at it, so she hoped he wouldn’t mind that she’d sort of… cut it.
She’d left it as long as she could, but the shoulder-length cut was still a good twelve inches shorter than it had been.
Now it spilled over the red flannel pillowcase like spun silk, and really, it was so not fair that a man had better hair than she did. Better hair and eyelashes. Dammit, women paid to get lashes as long and thick as his.
“This is getting ridiculous,” she muttered, as she sank onto the mattress beside him. He’s just a man. A man who appeared to be in his late twenties and gifted with a freakishly perfect body.
She palmed his forehead, relieved to find that he was neither feverish nor cold.
She reached for the covers to tug them up when suddenly, in an impossibly fast movement, he grabbed her, whipped her roughly beneath him, and slammed his forearm across her throat. Fear spiked, sharp and biting. Under his weight, she could barely move, and with his arm on her windpipe, she could barely breathe.
His eyes were shards of winter ice as they bored into her, and she immediately reevaluated her estimate of his age. He might look to be no more than twenty-eight, but his eyes… they were ancient.
“Who are you?” he growled. “Where am I?”
“I—” She coughed, trying to suck air into her burning lungs. He let up on her throat. A little. “I’m Jillian.” She gulped a breath. “You’re in my house.”
His gaze narrowed, and she felt like a deer pinned by a wolf. “Why?”
“I found you,” she rasped. “In the snow. You were almost dead.”
He frowned. “That’s impossible.”
“That you were almost dead or that you were in the snow?”
Confusion flashed in his eyes, and he let up on the pressure a little more. “I’m not sure.”
“Okay,” she said slowly, not wanting to agitate him again. “Let’s start with something simple. What’s your name?”
“I think… I think it’s Reseph.”
The pressure on her throat lessened to almost nothing, but each breath still burned. “Reseph is the only name that comes to me.”
He wasn’t sure about his own name? And what an odd name it was. His deep, resonant voice did have the slightest accent, though. Not that she could identify it. “Do you know where you’re from?”
“No idea. I can’t remember… anything.” He pushed up, his shoulders and biceps flexing with power, and looked down at his naked body. “Did we fuck?”
She nearly choked. “No.”
“Why not?” He eased back down on top of her and buried his face in her neck, inhaling deeply. This time she felt the distinct presence of an erection settling against her pelvis. The buzz in the very air around him shifted suddenly from menacing to blatantly erotic, but no less dangerous.
Oh, God. “Because we’re complete strangers.”
He lifted his head. “So?”
So? This was not going well. “Look, maybe you should, ah, get off me, and we’ll discuss everything over dinner.”
“Dinner?” He grinned, and good Lord, he was stunning when he wasn’t scaring her half to death. “Totally on board with that. I’m starving. Maybe we could fuck first?”
This time she did choke. “Sex is not on the table. But chili is.”
“You can have sex on tables,” he said, and great, she was now picturing doing things in the kitchen that had nothing to do with eating. At least, not eating food.
“Chili,” she croaked. “No sex.”
He appeared to consider that, and she nearly passed out from relief when he rolled off her. “Okay, so where’s the food?”
“Kitchen.” She leaped off the bed, ignoring his amused grin and trying not to look at his erection… his very nice erection… which he wasn’t making any effort to cover up.
Nope, he lay on his back, legs spread, one arm behind his head as if he was in his house, in his bed, and she was merely the date he’d invited home last night.
Again, she wondered just who she’d brought into her house, because this guy was not flying with a full crew. Definitely not right in the head.
Averting her gaze, she backed toward the door. “I’m going to see if I can find you something to wear. Feel free to use the shower—”
He was already halfway to the tiny master bathroom. Despite her annoyance, she couldn’t peel her eyes away from his body as he strode across the wood floor. Every muscle was a fluid work of art as they powered his strides, bunching and rippling. And that ass… sweet Jesus, he had the nicest set of glutes she’d ever seen.
He disappeared into the bathroom, and she swore the last flex of his butt muscles was just for her. Oh, this guy had to go.
While he showered, she headed to the kitchen to stir the Crock-Pot of chili before taking the stairs down to the cellar. Half of the underground space was dedicated to food storage, but the other half was piled high with the remnants of her life in Florida, and with huge Rubbermaid containers of Christmas ornaments and things that had belonged to her parents.
She hadn’t been through any of this stuff since she moved here, and she cursed her misty eyes as she pawed through one of the plastic tubs of her parents’ clothing. Every shirt brought back a memory, every pair of shoes a story.
Just grab something and get it over with.
Jillian wasn’t sure “grabbing something” would be adequate. Although her father had been a tall man, there was nothing of his that would fit Reseph well. She supposed he’d have to make do with the forest green flannel pajama bottoms and the oversized black sweatshirt.
Glad to be done digging through memories, she trudged back up the stairs and nearly swallowed her tongue when she stepped into the kitchen at the same time that Reseph sauntered in.
“Um… you couldn’t find a towel?”
He looked down at himself. “I found a towel. I’m dry.”
The man apparently had absolutely no inhibitions. “Right. Silly me.” She shoved the clothes at him. “Do you think you hit your head?”
“Might be why my memory is gone,” he said, and okay, sure, that might explain the amnesia, but that wasn’t what she’d been getting at.
While he dressed… reluctantly, it seemed… she spooned chili into bowls. As she reached into a drawer for spoons, she sensed a presence behind her. Reseph’s warmth engulfed her as he peered over her shoulder.
So Reseph had no inhibitions and no concept of personal space. At least he’d put the clothes on.
“It is good,” she said, scooting out from under his shadow. “It’s my mom’s recipe.” She placed the bowls on the table—opposite ends.
“I wonder if I have a mom.” There was a thread of… sadness?… fear?… worry?… in his voice. Maybe it was a mix of all three.
She could only guess at how she’d feel if she woke up in a strange place with no memory of how she got there or who she was. The idea that there was a family out there who might be looking for him—including, maybe, a wife—had to be unsettling.
Especially since he’d wanted sex from a complete stranger. Jillian hoped to hell he wasn’t married.
“Let’s get some food in you, and we’ll see what we can figure out.” She opened the fridge. “I have milk, water, orange juice, Sprite—”
“Sorry. Out of beer.” She liked a cold one now and then, but it just wasn’t a winter drink.
“Chili without beer is a crime in some places,” Reseph said. “Well, it should be. Sprite, please.”
She grabbed two cans and two glasses, and when she turned around, Reseph was seated. But he’d moved his bowl to a seat closer to hers. She sighed. Her mom would have said he needed to be house-trained.
“Thank you,” he said softly.
“It’s just chili.”
He shook his head, his wet hair brushing the sweatshirt collar. “For that, and for taking care of me.”
As if he were embarrassed, he looked down at the bowl and dug in.
Reseph had never seen a woman as beautiful as Jillian or tasted anything as awesome as her chili. Well, he was pretty sure of the never part. With her chin-length dark hair that was clipped shorter at the nape and brilliant green eyes, Jillian drew his gaze as often as his bowl drew his spoon. He was ravenous for both company and food, which made him wonder how long he’d been without either.
He finished off the bowl before Jillian had eaten a quarter of hers.
“I’ll get you more.” She started to stand, but he gripped her forearm and held her down.
“You’ve done enough. I can get it.” Though he supposed if he let her serve him, he’d be able to watch her fine ass sway in those worn jeans that hugged her perfect curves. Not even the worn black and blue flannel shirt she wore could hide what he suspected was a fantastic body.
No, he’d felt enough of that body when she’d been beneath him on the mattress to more than suspect.
She looked a little flustered… from his touch, maybe? He got that, because her warm skin felt so good under his hand, good enough that he wanted to leave it there. And he did, for a few seconds longer than was appropriate.
Because somehow he knew what appropriate was. He just didn’t care.
Had he always been like that? He was kind of a dick, wasn’t he?
With a mental shrug, he fetched a heaping bowl of chili and returned to the table. “So. Where are we?” When she gave him a startled look, as if he wasn’t sure he was in a kitchen, he laughed. “In the world. Where are we in the world?”
“Oh.” She smiled in obvious relief. A beautiful smile on a generous mouth and lips the color of a ripe apple. Made him wonder if they’d taste as sweet. “Colorado. We’re in the Rockies, near the Wyoming border.”
Her sable brows shot up. “Why?”
The spoon clacked as he dug into his bowl. “Why do you live here?” Why was he here?
“Um… because it’s where I grew up. I inherited the cabin from my parents when they passed away.”
He dug deep into his brain, trying to find a memory that involved his own parents, but there was nothing. “What do people do around here?”
“For a living, you mean?” When he nodded, she sipped her drink, as if needing time to come up with an answer. “Well, I guess they mostly work in the ranching, logging, or hunting industries. The nearest town is barely a speck on the map.”
“So why would I be here?”
She shook her head, making her hair sweep against her jaw in soft waves. “I have no idea.”
“Maybe I was hunting?”
“You were naked. And you didn’t have a gun or bow.”
Bow. For some reason, having a bow… it sounded familiar. Naked? That sounded familiar, too. But maybe not naked in the snow.
He considered the winter-nudist scenario. “Were there tracks near me? Maybe I was attacked.”
“If so, you don’t have a mark on you.” A soft blush spread across her cheeks, and he grinned.
“Got a good look at me, huh?”
“I was checking for injuries.” She cleared her throat. “In any case, you weren’t injured, and there weren’t any tracks near you, but the blizzard would have covered up any.”
He thought about that for a second. “What were you doing out in a blizzard?”
Her spoon clinked against her bowl as she fished for a kidney bean. “I was collecting the last of the firewood I cut yesterday.”
“Firewood…” He recalled the trees he’d seen while he was lying in the snowbank. “What’s the date?”
Cool. He might not like snow, but December was his favorite month. “It’s Christmas time. Maybe I was out here to get a Christmas tree.”
“Naked, with no ax or vehicle? And if you were, you were trespassing on private property.”
Reseph finished off his soda and asked, “You found me on your property?”
He watched her stir her chili, her hands delicate but work-roughened. “You live here by yourself?”
She shrugged, making the embroidered black wolf emblem on the pocket of her shirt dance. “I like being by myself.”
Reseph definitely did not like being alone. “Do you have a mate?”
One dark eyebrow climbed up. “Like, a friend?”
“Like a lover. You know, a mate.”
“I’d sure like to know where you’re from,” she muttered. “But no. No… mate.”
For some reason, he liked that answer. “Why not? You’re pretty. You should have lots of them.”
She coughed a little. “Maybe we should concentrate on your situation.”
She was probably right, but he wasn’t sure where to even start. “Do you have a computer?”
“I do, but the Internet is dial-up, and it’s twitchy. Like the electricity.”
“What about TV?”
“I have a satellite dish, but it doesn’t always work.”
Twitchy Internet and electricity, spotty television, and snow. Christ, Jillian lived in hell. “What do you do out here? How do you keep busy?”
“I read a lot. Hike in the woods and hunt mushrooms. It isn’t hard to stay busy. The farm takes up a lot of my time.”
Hunt mushrooms? Who did that when you could buy them at the store? “Sounds like you’re massively tied down.”
Annoyance flickered across her face. “I’m not tied down. I love it here.”
“But you’re alone.” He eyed her, thinking she was too beautiful to ever be alone. “And a farm is a lot of responsibility.”
“Neither of those things are bad,” she said, but Reseph wasn’t so sure. Being alone sucked, and responsibility was just another way to say tied down. “And how did we get back onto me as the topic of conversation?”
“I have a history of a snowbank,” he said simply. “And I don’t even like snow.”
“I’m sorry, Reseph.” She dropped the spoon into her half-eaten chili, as if her appetite had gone. “When the storm dies down, we’ll take the snowmobile into town if the road isn’t clear. I’ll take you to the sheriff’s office and they’ll help you.”
Alarm rang through him, stealing his appetite as well. “You can’t take me there.” His voice was a humiliatingly low rasp.
“I have to,” she said, reaching for a napkin. “They’ll be able to help more than I can.”
His pulse kicked into high gear, and a load of hot adrenaline seared his veins. He wanted to find out who he was, but right now, the only thing he knew was Jillian and her cabin. He couldn’t deal with more unknown. He couldn’t be abandoned again. Assuming he’d been abandoned in the first place, anyway.
Hastily shoving back from the table, he stood, startling Jillian to her feet.
“What is it?” she asked. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing.” Son of a bitch, that wasn’t true. He shook his head, which was starting to pound, almost as if there was someone on the inside, tapping on his skull. “Everything. Fuck, I don’t know.”
She started to move toward him, but he wasn’t ready to be touched or to be talked down or to answer questions. Some sort of sensory overload was making his brain tweak out. Or maybe he had hit his head. Whatever was freaking him out, he didn’t like it.
Before she could get closer, he grabbed his empty bowl and glass and darted to the sink. Then he stood there like a dolt, his palms sweating and his heart pounding.
“Reseph?” Her voice was tentative. Soft. “Are you okay?”
Not even close. “You have a dishwasher.”
“It’s old, but it works.”
He swallowed. “I don’t know how to use it.”
“Every model is different—”
“No. I don’t think I’ve ever used one.” It was such a stupid thing, but it made him feel so… lost.
“You have amnesia, Reseph.”
“It’s not that. I mean, I might not remember anything, but some things are familiar. I knew I liked chili. I know I like sex. I know how to use a computer. But I don’t know what to do with a dishwasher.”
Her hand came down on his as he held onto his bowl in the sink, and he changed his mind about not wanting to be touched, because her hand soothed him as quickly as a shot of fine tequila. Which was another thing he knew he liked.
“I’ll do this,” she said gently. “Why don’t you get some rest?”
“I’ve gotten enough rest.”
“Then go watch some TV. I have DVDs if the satellite isn’t working.”
He didn’t want to leave her, but he wasn’t even sure why. Still, he sensed that she needed some space, and why wouldn’t she? He was a stranger in her house, where she was clearly used to living alone. Really, it was a miracle that she’d taken him in. A lot of people would have left him to die.
Wait… how did he know that? If he was right about people leaving him to die, he must have known some real scumbags in his life.
Which didn’t speak highly for him. In fact, in the deepest recesses of his brain where the strange tapping was going on, there lurked a nasty suspicion. The suspicion that Reseph himself might be a scumbag.
“How are you doing there, you hot, naked hunk of angel?”
Reaver opened his eyes just long enough to glare at Harvester, a fallen angel who seemed to delight in annoying the shit out of him.
Closing his lids, Reaver settled back against the wall of bone behind him. “I’m an angel trapped in hell, and I’m being slowly digested in the belly of some giant demon. How do you think I am?”
Harvester snapped her fingers in front of his face, startling him into opening his eyes again. She crouched at his feet, her ebony hair cascading all the way to her hips over her black leather and lace minidress, a backpack next to her on the ground. “You do regenerate. Quit being dramatic.”
He sighed. “It’s interesting how your latest torture method is to annoy me to death.”
“Annoy?” In a surprising move, she sat down beside him, back to the wall. “I call it conversation. Would you rather be alone in here?”
“Ah. So you’re revealing your softer, gentler side. Sacrificing yourself to keep me company.”
“You’re so cynical.”
“Maybe that’s because a year ago, you tricked me, held me captive, cut off my wings, and tried to get me addicted to marrow wine.” He shot her a sideways glance. “Clearly, my cynicism is unwarranted.”
She shrugged. “Maybe I didn’t want to do those things. Maybe I was under orders.”
The Horsemen Watcher Council in Sheoul operated much the same as the Council in Heaven, meaning they offered suggestions and passed along information from Those In Power. But ultimately, it was up to the assigned Watcher himself to take responsibility for any action he or she took. Harvester, as the Four Horsemen’s evil Watcher, would know that.
“Holding a Watcher captive is a violation of Watcher rules. It doesn’t matter if your orders came from the Council or Satan himself. You’ll be punished.” Probably by both Sheoulic and Heavenly forces. Each side was responsible for punishing their own Watcher, but sometimes both sides demanded the right to mete out punishment.
“Eventually.” She waved her hand in dismissal. “Right now everyone is too busy putting the human realm back together. Besides, I’ll get a slap on the wrist. Maybe have Watcher duty taken away. I’ll live.”
“That would be a shame.”
Though he was being sarcastic, there was a part of him that would prefer she remained alive and kept her job. As the Horsemen’s Heavenly Watcher, Reaver had to deal with whoever would replace her, and as fallen angels went, there were a lot worse than Harvester.
He shifted, wincing at the agony of his skin scraping on acid-coated taste buds. “How long have I been here, anyway?”
Time worked differently in some regions of Heaven and in Sheoul-gra, and you never knew if one hour spent in one of those places meant three months in the human realm, or if it meant three seconds. Time shifted as often and as quickly as the wind, with no discernible pattern.
“In the half hour you were here with Reseph, three months passed in the human realm. After you threw him out, time here went the opposite way. You’ve been here for three months, but only minutes have passed in the human realm.” She lifted one slender shoulder in a shrug. “Basically, it all evened out. Three months for both realms.”
Which would mean that Reseph would have only recently awakened.
“How do you know I threw Reseph out?”
Harvester rolled her eyes. “You didn’t come here to chat with demon souls. No angel would risk coming to Sheoul, let alone Sheoul-gra, without a damned good reason. Reseph was your reason.” She smirked. “Plus, Hades told me you did something to Reseph to make him disappear.”
“That blue-haired bastard,” Reaver growled. “As if running demon purgatory doesn’t keep him busy enough? He had to rat me out to you?”
“He has to amuse himself somehow, I guess.” Harvester tapped the backpack. “I brought you clothes.” She raked him with a naughty gaze. “Not that you should put them on, you sexy thing.”
Suspicion churned in his gut. “What’s the catch?”
“No catch.” Standing, she unzipped the pack and tossed a pair of bright pink sweats dotted with kittens into his lap. There was the catch… looking stupid. “So where did you send Reseph? I can’t sense him at all anymore.”
“I’m not telling you.”
“I need to know. He’s in danger.”
Clutching the goofy sweatpants, Reaver popped to his feet. “What do you mean, he’s in danger? Reseph’s Seal was repaired and he’s no longer Pestilence. The Daemonica’s prophecy was thwarted.”
There had always been two apocalyptic prophecies about the Four Horsemen, one catalogued by a demon holy book, the Daemonica, and one accounted for in the human Bible. The differences lay in how their Seals would break and what side the Horsemen would fight on… good or evil. Reaver was relieved that only the “good” prophecy was left, but whatever Harvester was babbling about sent a tremor of alarm through him.
“Fool. You know prophecies can change. Reseph’s Seal may not be able to break again until the Bible’s prophecy comes to pass, but the events of the last year have caused a disruption in what was originally foreseen. The Horsemen are still predicted to fight on the side of good in the biblical Apocalypse. But…”
Reaver ground his teeth. “But?” he prompted.
“But Reseph’s evil side was awakened when he became Pestilence. His demon isn’t dead. It’s merely locked up.”
“I know.” And that was actually Reaver’s doing. He’d been in possession of Wormwood, the dagger that could have destroyed Pestilence, but it would have killed Reseph, too. Instead of giving it to the other three Horsemen, he’d let them use Deliverance instead, a dagger they’d wrongly believed would kill Pestilence. “That’s why I took his memory and sent him away.”
“Well, I recently received word from Those In Power that when his memories come back, if he’s not strong enough and he’s subjected to evil again…”
“Pestilence could return,” Reaver said grimly. Damn. He supposed he should be grateful to Harvester for delivering the news, seeing how he was cut off from his own Watcher Council.
But he couldn’t afford to be grateful for anything Harvester did. She would never forgive a debt.
“He won’t have the same powers if he comes back,” she said, “and he can’t bring about the same kind of destruction on the Earth that he did before; at least, not on the same scale. But he can still spread plague and disease, and it will still mean that he can plot, disrupt lives, raise armies in preparation for the biblical Apocalypse. And it would mean one less Horseman to fight for you Goody Two-shoes in the future.”
Through a filter of skepticism, Reaver considered what Harvester was saying. “You’re playing me, Fallen. You only want to find him so you can help that evil side of him come out again.”
“Trust me,” she spat. “I don’t want Pestilence to show his bastard face anytime soon. I want to know where he is so I can keep it from happening.”
Reaver almost believed her. She hated Pestilence, and he couldn’t blame her. Pestilence had hurt her in ways even she didn’t deserve.
He tugged on the sweatpants. They were ridiculously tight, no doubt thanks to Harvester’s sense of humor. “I can’t tell you.”
“You do realize you’ve violated a massive Watcher rule by casting him out of here, right? And by not telling me where he is, you’re violating another. I could have you so punished.”
“No doubt you will,” he muttered. “But I can’t risk telling you. If what you’re saying is true, and anyone else knows he’s out in the world, he’ll have every evil being in Sheoul after him, all trying to bring Pestilence out. If they even suspect that you know where he is, you’ll be tortured for the information.”
“Aw, thanks for caring,” she said with a flutter of eyelashes. “But I can handle it.”
Yeah, he’d seen how well she’d handled it when he found Gethel, the Horsemen’s ex-Heavenly Watcher and a black-hearted traitor, working Harvester over with treclan spikes. Harvester had been broken.
“Speaking of torture, any news on Gethel?”
Harvester’s eyes gleamed. “Rumor has it that she’s recovered from your ass-kicking and is on a mission to find Reseph and bring back Pestilence.”
“What?” Beneath him, the ground shook, the giant digesting demon’s reaction to his roar. “You couldn’t have started off the conversation with, ‘Oh, hey, you didn’t kill Gethel, and by the way, she’s trying to locate Reseph to turn him back into Pestilence’?”
“Why? It’s not as if you can do anything about it.”
She had a point, but he wasn’t going to tell her that. “How does she know Reseph is out in the world? Did Hades tell her, too?”
Harvester smoothed her hands down her dress, as if the skintight sheath was wrinkled. “I have no idea. I can only assume that she or Lucifer has spies. But you can bet they won’t keep the knowledge a secret. That’s why I’m here. I need to find Reseph before they do.”
So the choice came down to evil or… evil. Awesome.
Reaver wasn’t prepared to consider either option. What he needed was more information. And a way to get out of here. Right now, his only hope for either was to play nice with Harvester. Finding common ground was probably his best bet.
“How are the other Horsemen doing? What did Regan and Than name their son?” A pang of regret that he hadn’t gone to see the new baby before he’d come to Sheoul-gra ran through him.
“They’re all well, and Than and Regan named the baby Logan Thanatos.” Harvester smiled, and Reaver nearly fell over. She actually seemed happy for them.
He also realized that this was the first time they’d ever had a civil conversation. It was almost… friendly. Weird, since Harvester generally reacted to friendliness with bitchiness.
The scream of a demon in agony echoed from somewhere outside of the gullet of the creature they were standing inside, reminding him that no matter how polite their chat was going, they were still in hell. “What’s Logan look like?”
“He has Than’s blond hair and Regan’s hazel eyes. He smiles a lot.” Harvester twirled a strand of hair around her finger as she eyed him. “I’ll get you out of here to see him if you tell me where Reseph is.”
“Stubborn git.” She toyed with the ends of her hair, brushing them playfully across the deep furrow of her cleavage. “I have one other offer. If you don’t take it, you should know that Azagoth has been pressing me to torment you with more than annoying conversation. He’s furious that you released Reseph. He had serious plans to make Pestilence pay for torturing his daughter.”
And that was one of the reasons Reaver had freed Reseph. Azagoth, Sheoul-gra’s gatekeeper, wouldn’t care that the male trapped here was Reseph, not Pestilence. Reaver couldn’t allow Reseph to suffer for his demon half’s deeds.
He narrowed his eyes at his fellow Watcher. “What’s the offer?”
Slowly, seductively, Harvester licked her generous lips, and Reaver’s gut twisted. “Sex,” she said, her voice all silk and sin. “You agree to pleasure me at the time of my choosing.”
“What?” He blinked like a dope. “Why? You hate me.”
“My reasons are my own.” She trailed one slender finger down her throat, continuing lower, until she was caressing her nipple through the sheer fabric at the bodice of her dress. “Well? What’s your answer? Give me sex in return for your freedom.”
The very idea made him want to hurl. But it wasn’t as if he was rolling in options. “When? Where? And for how long?”
“When I wish it. Could be tomorrow, could be in two hundred years. Where? We’ll make it fair and say in the human realm so neither of us has a power advantage. How long? Twenty-four human hours.”
“And what,” he said through clenched teeth, “will you have me do?”
Her eyes sparked with hunger. “Whatever I want you to do. But you should know that I’m into pretty much everything.” Her voice became a throaty, honeyed drawl. “And I especially appreciate a talented tongue.”
He really was going to throw up. Closing his eyes, he considered her offer and in the end decided that twenty-four hours in Harvester’s bed couldn’t be worse than an eternity in a Sheoul-gra torture chamber.
“Fine,” he ground out. “But just you. No threesomes, no spectators, and no commands that aren’t directly related to… pleasuring you.” He barely managed those last two words.
“Deal.” She sauntered up to him and placed her palm over his heart. “A kiss to seal it.”
Lifting her face, Harvester slanted her mouth over his. He wasn’t sure what he expected from her, but soft lips and a flavor like fresh rose water wasn’t it. Neither was the vague sense of familiarity. Had she kissed him before? Maybe when he’d been held captive in her house and under the influence of marrow wine?
Her tongue slid along the seam of his lips, and okay, if she wanted to play, he’d play. She thought she was stealing a kiss from an angel, thought she had the upper hand.
Never. Gripping her shoulders, he spun her into the wall and pinned her with his body. His wings flared high, draping them both in darkness. She grunted as he plunged his tongue into her mouth, taking instead of giving.
“You like it rough then, do you?” she murmured against his lips. “I can do you that way.”
A surprisingly pleasant sting sizzled through his mouth, and then Harvester was licking at his lips and tongue. He tasted blood, knew she’d clipped him with a fang. Heat rushed south, stirring his loins.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. He hated Harvester. Despised everything about her. And yet… damn.
Before she discovered the extent of how much his body was betraying him, he kissed her savagely hard and stepped back, summoning every measure of icy composure he had.
“Deal sealed,” he said.
Harvester’s eyes were glazed as she dabbed at the blood on her lips with the back of her hand. “Sealed.” She smiled, flashing shiny white fangtips. “Now, I’ll get you out of here. But remember, angel. When I call, you come running. And make sure you’re fully clothed. I want to strip you myself.”
Gethel stood atop a rocky outcrop in Scotland, her gaze focused on the castle in the distance, its bottom half shrouded in mist. Her sharp eyesight caught a glimpse of two Aegis Elders, Lance and Omar, as they stood on the south wall smoking cigarettes. She wondered if they were discussing her; she’d given them enough to talk about for a month straight. All lies, of course, meant to trick them into doing her bidding.
Well, the fact that the Horsemen hated The Aegis wasn’t a lie, but she might have exaggerated about how many Aegi the Horsemen planned to kill in retaliation for The Aegis’s role in trying to kill Thanatos’s child.
All the better to scare The Aegis into following her blindly. And why wouldn’t they? She was an angel, after all.
Twin wisps of smoke rose from the Elders’ cigarettes, dissipating quickly in the brisk breeze. She could almost smell the tobacco, and her mouth watered. Tobacco was a distinctly human and demon pleasure, and as such, most angels turned up their noses at so much as standing downwind of the smoke. But in her meeting yesterday with Lucifer, she’d been offered a plethora of sinfully decadent drugs, drinks, and foods, and there was no way she could turn down everything. Not when Lucifer, Satan’s right-hand man, insisted.
The cigarette had represented yet another step down a path from which she couldn’t return, and each step was another knife in her soul.
She’d spent three months denying that helping Pestilence had really been so bad, but with each new sin, each action she took against Heaven, it began to sink in.
Still, she felt like she was straddling the line between good and evil, had yet to jump into either pool with both feet. As proof that she wasn’t all bad, she hadn’t revealed the location of The Aegis’s headquarters to the forces of hell… maybe because she’d always supported the demon-slayers’ cause. For thousands of years, they had been all that stood between demons and humans, and she respected their awesome sacrifices.
That, and for now, The Aegis had no idea she had taken a few turns at playing for Team Evil. They still believed she was a Heavenly angel, and she supposed that was true enough. None of her angelic brethren had found her, tried her, and ripped her wings from her back before drop-kicking her straight into Sheoul.
Her crimes would not earn her a stop at the halfway point, the human realm, the place most disgraced angels went to make a choice: try to earn their way back to Heaven, or enter hell and become irreversibly evil, a True Fallen. No, as Reaver had pointed out during their battle three months ago, she was Fallen… she just hadn’t lost her wings.
Reaver was such an obnoxious bastard.
This was all his fault. If he’d refused to replace her as the Horsemen’s Heavenly Watcher, she wouldn’t have grown angry. She wouldn’t have plotted against him and the Horsemen by working with Pestilence and Lucifer. What had the Archangels been thinking by appointing him? Reaver, who had once done something so egregious that they’d wiped his past from his memory and that of every angel in existence? Reaver, who had disobeyed too many rules to count and had been stripped of his wings just thirty years ago?
Yes, he’d earned his wings back by saving the world with some idiot incubus, but it had been clear to Gethel even then, when she’d awarded him with his angel status, that little had changed. He was still the same arrogant, defiant fool he’d always been.
He was going to pay for what he’d done to her. For what he’d forced her to do. But first, she needed to find Reseph.
Closing her eyes, she turned her face to the sky and repeated a summoning spell she knew by heart. She’d already made the appropriate sacrifice, even though it had pained her to do it—a human male virgin and a pregnant human female. Now she need only wait for the agent of her summons to appear.
When he did, she barely kept herself from recoiling.
The creature, his oozing flesh hanging off his skeletal frame in jerky-like strips and crawling with maggots, materialized before her. He clacked his sharp teeth, and the sound pierced her eardrums like a blade.
“Beautiful angel.” His voice gurgled, as if he was speaking through oil. “What can I give you today?”
“I need khnives and Soulshredders.”
The creature hissed. “Soulshredders don’t do anyone’s bidding.”
“They will this time.” She paused, taking a moment to enjoy the skepticism in the demon’s rheumy yellow eyes. “Their master, Pestilence, is somewhere in the world, and they need to find him.”
“Lies,” the creature rumbled. “Pestilence is dead.”
Drawing on a current of Heavenly power, Gethel flared her wings and came off the ground to hover over the demon. “Angels do not lie, you pathetic wretch.” Her voice boomed like thunder, and the demon cringed. “Pestilence lives, trapped inside his brother’s body, and every Soulshredder in Sheoul needs to be looking for him.” The khnives, horrid opossum-like creatures, could help as well… they excelled at spywork.
The demon nodded vehemently. “A rescue.”
“Exactly.” Gethel cut herself off from her Heavenly power source, praying no one had sensed her while she’d been connected, or if they had, that the connection had been too weak or too brief to trace. To be safe, she needed to get away from here. “Off with you,” she said, shooing the demon away with a flick of her hand. “Get the word out to the Soulshredder Council. I want Reseph found, and if they have to torture and kill everyone who means something to him to do it, it’s a price I’m willing to pay.”
Pay? Seeing Reseph’s loved ones die would be a bonus.
Jillian took her time cleaning the kitchen, allowing Reseph a chance to unwind. He’d seemed so sad and confused, and while she might not know him very well, her heart had broken for him.
The TV blared from the living room, and when she finally finished in the kitchen, she found Reseph lounging on her couch, feet up on the coffee table, with Doodle purring in his lap. He’d been eyeing the pictures on the wall, skimming over the nature artwork and focusing on the photos of her skydiving and skiing. She used to be good at those things before the demons came.
Jillian nodded at the cat. “He likes you.”
She stood there, hesitant to take a seat next to Reseph, but the couch was the only place to sit. She’d moved her father’s ratty old recliner down to the cellar a few months ago. Her mom had, for years, complained about the thing, saying it was fit only for the local landfill, and while Jillian agreed, she couldn’t bear to part with it. Not yet.
Reseph ran his hand over the cat’s spotted brown fur in long, even strokes. “What’s his name?”
“Doodle?” He winced. “No wonder he’s so friendly. He’s begging me to call him something like Fang, or Chaos, or Styx.” He patted the empty cushion next to him. “Have a seat. I won’t bite.” A cocky smile accompanied a waggle of his brows. “Unless you like that kind of thing.”
Her cheeks burned at the unbidden image of him nipping at her sensitive spots. “Do you like that kind of thing? I mean, do you think you do?”
His voice turned smoky. Rich. Decadent as hell. “I know I do.” He scratched Doodle’s chin. “See, I know some stuff.”
Now she was burning all over as she sank onto the couch, putting as much space between them as she could without looking like she was trying. Still, he knew, shooting her an amused glance before turning his attention to the TV.
“So what’s going on in the world?” He gestured to the CNN news anchor talking about recovery efforts in Sydney. “What happened in Australia?”
Oh God, he didn’t even know about that? How could he be a blank slate? Was that even medically possible?
She tucked one leg under her and got comfortable, because this was going to be a very uncomfortable conversation. “What’s the last thing you remember about the world?”
Doodle nudged Reseph’s hand, clearly not happy that his new best friend had stopped petting him. “I don’t remember anything before the snowbank.”
“Okay, what’s the last thing you know?” she asked. “Like, do you know who the president is?”
“Of what country?”
“The United States.”
He frowned. “I have no idea.”
“Who is the last one you remember?”
“Washington.” He sounded proud of himself for remembering something, and she hated having to crush him.
“You couldn’t remember him,” she said faintly. “He’s been dead for more than two hundred years.”
Throwing his head back, Reseph lowered his lids and concentrated. “I’ve got other names in my head, but I can’t place them. Like Napoléon and Hitler and Azagoth. It’s like I have all these puzzle pieces in my head, but I can’t fit more than two together.” Azagoth? He uttered a mild curse and opened his eyes. “I give up. So what’s up with the news showing destroyed countries? And why have they been blathering about economic meltdowns and recoveries? And apocalypses.”
“Because up until three months ago, the world was under siege by demons.” The last word came out as a broken whisper. It still didn’t seem real, and all at once, too real.
Reseph’s hand stilled on Doodle’s shoulders. “And now it’s not?”
“Thankfully, no. All of a sudden, demons all over the world were burned to ash or disappeared. People are calling it WV-Day, for World Victory Day. Every government is taking credit for the WV-Day, but no one can say why or how it all went down.” Conspiracy theories were off the charts, though. There were as many rumors floating around as there were trees on her property.
“All the demons are gone?”
“That’s the story.” God, she hoped it was true. Sightings were still reported, but authorities claimed that no demon sighting since WV-Day had been substantiated and that most likely people were just seeing things.
He cocked his head at her. “Did you see any demons?”
A chill slithered up her spine at the memory she could never quite get away from no matter how deeply she buried herself in the forest. “Too many.”
She started to get up, but Reseph’s hand snapped out to circle her wrist. “Is that why you live out here in the middle of nowhere? So demons won’t find you?”
Jesus. Had he seen through her so easily? Very deliberately, she peeled his fingers off her arm.
“I have to check on the animals.” She practically ran to the door and shoved her feet into her boots. It was dark outside, but as much as she hated the night, she hated the subject matter more.
“Jillian.” The soft but commanding tone froze her as she reached for the doorknob. “It’s weird, isn’t it, how I don’t remember anything, and you remember too much.”
“I think,” she said quietly, “that maybe you got the better deal.”
Reseph sat with the cat for a few minutes after Jillian went outside. He was still trying to process what she’d said about the demons. It wasn’t that he found it difficult to believe—on the contrary, it felt disturbingly familiar. And almost… casual. As if demons were part of everyday life, but that couldn’t be the case, because even with his lost memory, he was certain that most humans hadn’t been familiar with demons before their appearance.
And why the hell was he thinking about humans as if he wasn’t one of them?
Frustrated at the direction of his thoughts, he gently nudged Fang-Doodle off his lap and headed to the barn to see what Jillian was up to. Didn’t matter that he didn’t have shoes or a coat. He just went. The cold hit him like a million tiny icicles, but he ignored the sting as he trudged through the snow, following her tracks toward the barn, which was outlined in faint streaks of light that escaped from between the wood slats and tiny windows.
Felt good to get out of the house and into the open. Jillian’s cabin was cozy but confining, way too home-and-hearth for him. Which made him wonder how he normally lived.
The crack of gunfire shattered his thoughts. Jillian. He sprinted down the path, heart racing as fast as his feet. He skidded around the side of the barn and nearly did a body slam into the fencing surrounding a chicken coop. Jillian stood a few feet away next to a bloody scatter of feathers, a rifle in her hand, staring into the woods.
“What happened?” He came up behind her, his senses on high alert as he focused on the forest around them.
“Marten,” she muttered. “Damned thing got one of my chickens.” Cursing, she swung around to him, her windblown hair whipping at her cheeks. Her breath, visible in the cold air, blew out like steam when she looked down at his bare feet. “Get back in the house! You nearly froze to death, and now you’re out here with no clothes? What are you thinking?”
He snorted. “I have more clothes on than when you found me. Besides—” He broke off as a tingle of awareness skittered over his skin. Something flitted in his peripheral vision, a dark shadow melting between the trees where the marten tracks disappeared.
A nasty growl rumbled as if coming from all around them, the sound of a boulder rolling down the side of a mountain. Without thinking, Reseph tore across the yard, his focus narrowed and honed, his heart pounding, his body hard and primed for battle.
And, he realized as he was running, sex.
Holy shit, he was jacked up, as if he’d just spent half an hour engaged in foreplay and was now on the verge of sinking into a hot, willing female.
Jesus, what kind of sicko was he that gearing up for a possible fight made him horny?
Jillian’s voice throbbed through him, adding fuel to the burn in his veins, but he couldn’t go back to her, not now, when violence and desire were both warring just under the surface of his skin.
The metallic scent of blood slammed into him, and that fast, the violent urges beat down the sexual one.
There. Movement. With a snarl, he ripped a fallen branch off a stump and snatched the beady-eyed creature behind it by the scruff. The demon hissed, its sharp teeth snapping, blood spattered on its fur.
“You little—” Reseph stared. “Marten.” Not a demon. The weasel stared back, fear glinting in its dark eyes.
“Shit.” He dropped the critter into the snow and watched it scamper off, wondering why the hell he’d sensed danger.
Feeling like a fool, he jogged back the way he’d come. He’d run a good third of a mile in pursuit of the weasel, and for what? Jillian was going to think he was nuts. And she might be right.
At least the maddening lust had eased. But then, humiliation had a way of deflating the dick, didn’t it?
Excerpted from Rogue Rider by Larissa Ione Copyright © 2012 by Larissa Ione. Excerpted by permission.
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