Savage Australis, Book 2
New York, New York.
Four months ago.
The woman stared at Marshall Rourke, her expression both guarded and menacing. Don’t try it, her clear amber eyes said. Don’t even think about it. What “it” was, Marshall didn’t know, but he’d bet his left testicle it’d be fun finding out. Fun and dangerous. Probably painful too. A grin pulled at the corner of his mouth. He didn’t mind danger. And when it came down to it, a little bit of pain wasn’t too bad either. A certain type of pain, that was.
He studied the still image on his laptop, his grin stretching wider. This one would bite. Of that, he had little doubt. In both the metaphorical and literal sense of the word. Frozen in millions of vivid coloured pixels on his computer’s screen, the woman stared back at him, those striking light brown eyes of hers sharp and piercing despite the fuzziness of the photograph and the distance from which it was taken.
She stood in a busy city street, surrounded by pedestrians dressed in an array of business suits, jeans and short summer dresses. She could be standing in any big city in the world, but the short note accompanying the image told him she was in Sydney, Australia.
Marshall raised his eyebrows. That was not where he expected her to be.
He ran a slow inspection over the distance-blurred image, noting the confident straightness of her shoulders, the slim but athletic frame, the confident way she held the Glock 9mm in her hand.
She wouldn’t be easy to capture. He didn’t need to read the short dossier attached to know that.
He dragged his cursor over the image, zooming in on her face. Something about her eyes intrigued him. They were intelligent, almost arrogant, but somehow haunted as well. Like she’d witnessed events more than one lone female should, and had made her judgment.
He thought of the Glock, held so loosely in her long, slender fingers, of the menacing expression on her face. Of the coiled tension in her slim frame. What type of judgment had she cast to cause her to become what she let the world see?
Flicking his gaze to the printout beside his laptop, he scanned the dossier he’d already committed to memory. Family. Foster family she no longer had contact with. Relationships. None of any significance. There was one close girlfriend living in the small island state of Tasmania and one ex-lover living on the opposite side of Australia in Perth, but that was it. There was no one she was close to in Sydney. No real weakness to exploit.
Marshall rubbed his jaw, a distant part of his mind noting the stubble there. He’d have to shave before the hunt began, otherwise he’d look like an animal by the time it was done.
The absurdity of the thought struck him and he chuckled, returning his attention to his laptop’s screen and the woman on it.
How long would it take for Einar to hunt her down?
Marshall narrowed his eyes. It would be fast. The bastard never wasted time when hunting prey. The question was, would Marshall be able to find her faster?
He let his gaze move over her, noting the subtle feminine curves beneath the utilitarian suit, the glossy softness of her chestnut-brown hair, the fullness of her bottom lip. What would that lip feel like against his own? Between his teeth?
Something tightened in the pit of his gut and he scowled. He had to stay focused on the task, no matter how appealing her petite little package. Scowl growing deeper, he closed his laptop and stood, picking up his own Glock as he crossed his private suite to stare out the large window overlooking Central Park West. He knew what she looked like and he knew where she was. That was all he needed. Now he just had to get to her.
Launceston, Tasmania. The bottom of Australia.
Sydney detective Jackie Huddart stood motionless in the swarming, laughing, shouting, jostling airport-terminal crowd and cursed her best friend. She wished she had her gun. Not that she wanted to shoot someone, although the creep with the wandering hands and bad body odor walking behind her as she’d disembarked from the plane would have been her first choice. No, she wanted her gun because it kept her temper under control. And right at this very moment, her temper was well and truly on its way to snapping. Why the hell had she let Delanie organise her flight home? Delanie couldn’t organise a booze-up in a brewery.
Maybe your bad temper has nothing to do with Del? Maybe what you really wanted to do was stay in Sydney and track down who killed Detective Vischka?
A sudden image of the murdered detective flashed through Jackie’s head, followed just as quickly by an image of Vischka’s hulking bear of a partner, Detective Peter Thomas.
She released a sigh and hitched her bag higher up her shoulder. Detective Peter Thomas would find Vischka’s killer, of that Jackie had no doubt. Not just because that’s what the homicide detective did—his arrest rate was phenomenal—but because he and Vischka had been more than just partners on the force. When you killed a cop’s lover, you could start counting down your days.
Besides, if she started poking her nose around in a homicide case, she’d have to start dodging questions she wasn’t willing to answer.
Fixing her sights on the closest car rental kiosk, she began shoving her five-foot-three, one-hundred-and-fourteen-pound, wringing-wet frame through the horde of arriving and departing passengers and their grinning, hugging associates. She’d hire a compact and get out of Dodge, or in this case, Launceston, immediately. She didn’t have anything against the city, but when she’d agreed to come home—home. Such a dangerous concept—she hadn’t expected to be stood-up by her best friend.
Casting a quick look around the busy airport terminal, she shook her head. God alone knew where Delanie was. Probably buying another pair of shoes. Or getting her bikini line waxed. The life of a test consumer/shopper was not, if anything, boring.
Finally reaching the rental desk, Jackie crossed her arms on the counter and blew at her fringe. “I’ll take whatever you have that’s cheap and will get me to Pyengana without breaking down.”
The clerk raised her overly plucked eyebrows. “Pyengana? Why would anyone want to go to Pyengana?”
Jackie ground her teeth. Even in Tasmania the small coastal town of three hundred souls was derided. It was known in the state for its historic cheese factory. It was known on the mainland for one thing only: the last possible sighting of the very extinct thylacine. The Tasmanian tiger, an animal of ancient beauty and mystery, now just a symbol of Australia’s barbaric past.
As if the clerk read Jackie’s mind, she pursed her lips in a condescending smirk. “Going hunting, are we?”
Jackie bit back a low growl. Damn. It was a good thing she didn’t have her gun. “No,” she stated calmly. “Going home actually. To a funeral.”
Bright red heat flooded the clerk’s face. She stared at Jackie, mouth opening and closing like a drowning fish for a few moments, before she dropped her head and focused her entire attention on her computer terminal. “I have a Mazda convertible that I can do for the same fee as a compact. GPS unit and premium insurance free of charge.” She darted Jackie a quick, furtive look. “Special offer today.”
Jackie smiled, letting the woman see her teeth. “That would be lovely, thank you.”
It would take an hour and forty minutes to drive to Pyengana from here. One hour and forty minutes through some of the most lush and beautiful terrain on the planet. As tempting as it was however, she couldn’t risk putting the top down. That level of concentrated sensory exposure would call to the very spirit within her. The one she’d spent the last twenty years trying to suppress. She couldn’t risk that. It was too dangerous. Too—
“Heya, Huddart!” A loud but somehow husky voice called behind her. “What the bloody hell are you doing renting a car?”
Jackie chuckled. Rolling her eyes, she turned away from the clerk to watch a tall, willowy redhead weave her way through the crowd still amassed in the airport terminal. Well, weave probably wasn’t the correct word. The crowd seemed to melt away from the redhead’s path, the men gazing at her as she passed by, the women scanning her five-foot-nine frame for any sign of cellulite the snug denim short shorts and an even snugger white T-shirt she wore may reveal. Of which, there was none. Delanie McKenzie was every inch perfect.
She was also every inch the perfect pain in the arse, and Jackie’s best friend since they were little girls with scraped knees and snotty noses.
“What the bloody hell am I doing renting a car?” Jackie cocked an eyebrow at her friend and folded her arms across her chest. “Maybe it has something to do with the fact my ride left me in the lurch.”
Delanie laughed, the sound full and throaty and completely contagious. “Not in the lurch. I’m here, aren’t I?”
Jackie hitched her bag farther up her shoulder and gave her friend a pointed look before going up onto tip-toe to kiss her cheek. “Two hours late.”
Delanie kissed her cheek back before straightening. “And you expected differently?”
With a snort, Jackie shook her head. “I should have known better.”
Delanie grinned, her wide mouth stretching wider to reveal white, perfectly even teeth. “Yes, you should have. But I’m here now. Ready to hit the road?”
“Only if I’m driving.”
Delanie laughed. “Of course you’re driving. I’ve just had my nails done and I so very much miss your blatant disregard of the posted speed limit.”
Jackie laughed. “I do not speed.”
Delanie chortled. “No. Of course not. That’s why you came first in your driving skills component at the police academy, correct?” She nodded at the clerk behind Jackie. “Sorry. We won’t be needing you.” Giving Jackie a quick grin, she threaded her bag over her shoulder. “I’ll go get the car. Grab us a latte each from the cafe, will you? I need a caffeine hit before we get on the road.”
She turned on her heel and made her way back into the fray, once again parting the crowd like Moses parting the Red Sea. Jackie watched her go for a while, realizing how much she’d missed her friend since moving to Sydney. Delanie was a perfect example of ADD, and so extroverted she made a puppy Fox Terrier look calm, but she was honest and loyal and knew all of Jackie’s secrets. All of them.
Which made Delanie McKenzie the only living human in Australia to know exactly what Jackie really was.
Turning back to the clerk, Jackie gave her a cool smile. “Thank you for the ‘special offer’.”
The woman gave her a wobbly smile in return, her cheeks still flushed with embarrassed consternation. “I’m very so—”
“That’s quite okay,” Jackie cut her short.
With a sympathetic smile, she turned away from the counter and headed for the airport terminal’s cafe. One hour and forty minutes of winding roads and Delanie McKenzie. She’d better order a double expresso instead. Otherwise she’d have no hope of keeping up.
The waiting line extended beyond the store’s entry and Jackie bit back a curse. She hated standing in line. Especially for coffee in cardboard.
Suppressing an irritated growl, she scanned the crowd around her. Eighty percent of it was tourists—bright-eyed and eager at the beginning of their holidays. Shoulders still straight, suitcases and backpacks packed neatly, lacking the tell-tale bumps and bulges of luggage packed at the end of a trip, parents still patient with young children, teenagers still civil to their elders. In amongst them all, like blemishes of reality, stood the odd local, regarding the holidaymakers with wry amusement. Locals whose attire was suited to the cool evening awaiting them outside.
Jackie chuckled softly to herself. The rest of the country tended to forget Tasmania was not hot, hotter, hottest all year round, let alone international visitors. The summer days may be warm, but the nights still required a light jacket.
Unless you were Delanie McKenzie, of course. To this day, Jackie had never seen her best friend in anything more concealing than a long-sleeve T-shirt and jeans.
Thinking of Del turned Jackie’s thoughts back to the coffee line and her position in it. Damn it. She was no closer. Delanie would be sitting in the waiting bay, engine gunning before she even made it to the counter at this rate.
She huffed into her fringe, turning her gaze back to the crowd. She was on extended leave from work, called home to attend her foster father’s funeral, but that didn’t mean her cop’s instincts went on leave.
A tall man with shortly cropped blonde hair near check-in caught her attention, killing the unwanted thought. He was looking at her.
The second Jackie’s eyes made contact with his he looked away.
Jackie frowned, studying his profile. Are you sure you’re not imagining it?
Her frowned deepened. Maybe he was just a typical bloke? See a woman alone in the crowd, check her out. After all, she wasn’t that uneasy on the eye. In a short, look-at-me-sideways-and-I’ll-kick-your-arse kind of way.
She sighed and turned back to the line. It had been too long since she’d had any kind of intimacy with anyone apart from her hand, and to make matters worse, she suspected she was coming on heat.
“What would you like?”
Jackie started, staring at the barely pubescent teenager looking at her with wary expectation from behind the counter. Heat flooded her cheeks. “Latte. Large. Two sugars. Double espresso. Short.”
She spat the order out like bullets, for some reason on edge. Twisting at the waist, she searched the crowd behind her for the blonde man, but there was no sign of him.
What did you expect?
Scowling, she turned back to the counter. Back in her home state for two hours and she was already jumping at shadows.
This is why you moved to Sydney, you know. Less history to rattle your cage. Less skeletons in the proverbial closet.
True, but since Declan O’Connell had killed Nathan Epoc, Sydney had more weres to take into account.
Yes, but how many werewolves can detect a thylacine? How many werewolves even know what a thylacine is?
Apart from Declan himself, none that Jackie knew of. Well, Yolanda Vischka, but the murdered detective wasn’t talking to anyone anymore.
Picking up the coffees from the end counter, Jackie made her way to the terminal’s exit, weaving through the crowd with a scowl.
It was a mistake coming back. Even with Delanie’s infectious craziness, she should have stayed away. The moment she saw her dead foster father in the ground she was on the plane and headed back to Sydney. It was safer that way.
Forty minutes later, her espresso long gone and Delanie’s latte now ice cold, Jackie pulled her mobile phone from her hip pocket—again—and flipped it open.
She was worried.
More than worried.
Del hadn’t come back from getting the car and her mobile was going immediately to her message bank. Still.
Growling silently, Jackie snapped her phone shut.
Her cop instincts were itching.
Just your cop instincts, Jackie? What about your—
She cut the thought dead. She had suppressed those instincts for many, many years. She didn’t need the instincts of an animal to tell her now something wasn’t right.
“Jesus, Delanie,” she muttered, throwing the cold latte into the rubbish bin. “What the hell is going on?”
She wriggled her fingers, a nervous tick she’d thought she’d gained control of when she was a teenager. The urge to shift, to transform into her true form had never been stronger. Delanie’s scent would be much easier to follow in her other form. She’d be able to track her trail without any problems, hopefully finding her friend well and safe and chatting up some hunky bloke in complete ignorance of how much time had passed since she’d told Jackie to get them both a coffee.
That’s not going to happen, Jackie, and you know it.
A ripple shivered up her spine and her blood grew thin. The transformation called her animal closer to the surface than it’d been since she was twenty-one.
Find her. Track her. Hunt her.
Jackie sucked in a sharp breath, grinding her teeth and digging her nails into her palms. She couldn’t change. She wouldn’t. She wasn’t that person anymore. She’d denied that part of her existence over a decade ago and she wouldn’t let it return.
But what about Delanie? What if she’s in trouble?
“I’m a bloody cop, for fuck’s sake,” Jackie stormed back into the terminal, “I don’t need to change into a bloody Tasmanian tiger to find a missing person.”
Besides, the last time she’d shifted she’d almost been captured on film, and she couldn’t risk that again, even for Delanie. The Tasmanian tiger was considered extinct to the world, and she needed to keep that misconception as it was. Stripping off her clothes, shifting in an airport toilet cubicle and sprinting through the crowd on all fours was not the way to stay out of the public eye.
Wishing more than ever she had her gun, Jackie approached the information desk, giving the man behind it a worried, harried look. She’d spoken to him three times in the last sixty minutes and she could tell he was beginning to tire of her. “She still hasn’t turned up,” she said, hoping he saw the worry in her eyes. “Can you make the announcement again, please?”
With a disdainful sigh, the man—David Lee, according to the name badge pinned to his shirt—snatched a mic from the desk before him and punched a button. “If Delanie McKenzie is in the terminal—” his voice boomed around the cavernous space, each word amplifying his irritation, “—will she please come to the information desk. Your friend is waiting for you.”
He removed his finger from the mic with a pointed flick and fixed Jackie with a patronizing look.
“Drop the attitude, David,” she snarled, before she could stop herself. “Or I’ll reach over this counter and give you something to have an attitude about.”
He blinked, a sudden flash of startled apprehension destroying the condescending expression on his face. “S-sorry, ma’am.”
Jackie suppressed a sharp sigh. She felt her canines lengthen in her gums, felt her blood run thin and hot again. Fuck. This was why she never came home anymore. Being too close to her natural environment lessened her control of the animal in her blood. Even the air in Tasmania was dangerous to her.
“Damnit, Del.” She forced her hands into fists to stop her fingers from wiggling and searched the faces in the crowd for her best friend’s. “Where are you?”
Twenty minutes later, and Delanie still hadn’t appeared. The information-desk attendant gave Jackie a nervous smile. “I suppose you want me to page her again?”
Jackie scowled at him. “No. But thank you for your concern.” Hitching her bag higher onto her shoulder, she pushed her way through the thinning crowd, heading for the exit. She didn’t know what was going on, but she knew she needed to try and find Delanie’s scent. If nothing else, to see if her best friend made it to her car.
The automatic doors parted as she approached them, the cool crisp air of a typical Tasmania summer assaulting her before she crossed the threshold. Her inner animal growled and flexed, hungry for release. Jackie shoved the powerful urge aside, focusing instead on the air. She pulled in a deep breath as she stepped outside the terminal onto the sidewalk, hunting for Delanie’s scent. Her senses weren’t as strong while in human form, but they were still hyper enough to hopefully find a trace of her friend.
She filled her lungs with air, tasting the breath as it streamed past her olfactory nerves. Melaleuca, eucalypt, gasoline, tar, spent cigarette butts, rotting refuse from a nearby rubbish bin, bad BO still lingering on her clothes from her annoying companion in the terminal, bird shit baking on the row of rental cars to her left and—
“Sorry!” Delanie’s cry came from behind, full with apologetic mirth. “Sorry!”
Jackie spun, glaring at her best friend running toward her across the car park. “What have you been doing? I was just about to—”
“I’ve locked the keys in the car.” Delanie pulled an embarrassed face, coming to a halt before Jackie. “And I tried to find someone to help me get them out.” She grinned. Sheepishly. “Obviously, I didn’t.”
Jackie raised her eyebrows, doing everything she could to stay calm. The soft tingle in her belly told her just how close she’d come to transforming. She hadn’t been that close for many, many years.
That’s it. You need to get out of here ASAP.
“How could you lock your keys in your car? Don’t tell me you still drive Bernie?”
Delanie’s sheepish grin turned to one of pride. “Okay, I won’t. Just close your eyes when you sit in him and pretend you’re in a Ferrari.”
Jackie rolled her eyes. “Okay, a Ferrari it is. Although I can’t imagine you’d lock your keys in a Ferrari.”
Delanie grinned wider. “Probably not, but where’s the romance in a Ferrari? At least Bernie has history.”
With a laugh, Jackie hitched her bag farther up her shoulder. “A history is right. In and out of the mechanics more time than on the road. I’m convinced the only reason you keep him is so you have a legitimate excuse for seeing that mechanic you rave on about.”
“Mmm, Shaun Whitmore. Now there’s a six-pack I could lap up.”
“That’s it.” Jackie shook her head. “I’m going back to the rental desk. Maybe I can get that convertible after all.”
“No, no, no.” Delanie draped her arm around Jackie’s shoulder. “We’re good. I’ve called roadside service. They’ll be here in ten minutes or so.”
“Called? With what? I’ve been ringing your phone for the last forty minutes.”
A pink tinge painted Delanie’s cheeks. “Ummm, my phone’s flat.”
Jackie pressed her hand to her face. “Damn, I’d forgotten what it’s like.”
“What what’s like?”
“Being your best friend.”
Delanie grinned. “It’s wonderful, isn’t it?”
A warm glow flooded through Jackie and she smiled. It was wonderful. Frustrating, irritating and down-right exasperating, but wonderful as well. Delanie reminded her to laugh. Delanie reminded her there was goodness in the world. Delanie reminded her she had someone real to turn to. That she wasn’t alone in her secret.
“Anyways, enough of this idle chit-chat.” Her best friend tugged her into a rough hug. “Let’s get our sexy, desirable arses back to Bernie so we can ogle the roadside assistant’s butt.”
Jackie laughed and shook her head. And then stopped. The tall, blonde man from the terminal stood beside a low, black Audi about ten yards to her left. Looking at her.
She blinked, and in the space it took for her eyelids to open, he dropped into the sports car and slammed the door.
Jackie frowned, staring at the vehicle as its engine kicked over.
The windows were dark. Too dark for her to make out the man behind the wheel, but she could feel his gaze on her. Her nipples pinched tight.
“Jack? What’s up?”
The Audi sat motionless in the car space, engine idling like a sleeping beast. Jackie studied it, a tingle growing in the pit of her belly. Current model S5. Tasmanian registration plates RRF 042. Small sticker on the top right corner of the windshield: Luxury Rentals.
“Earth to Jackie. Come in Jackie.”
With a soft growl of its engine, the car moved, rolling forward before turning right and smoothly purring away from her.
She tuned out Delanie’s voice. Her throat felt tight. Twice in the space of one hour?
Now you’re being paranoid, Jackie. It’s an airport. People come and go all the time.
True. But do they move as quick as this guy?
Do their eyes seem to bury into you, even from a distance? And are they as sexy?
The last thought turned Jackie’s frown into a scowl and she clenched her fists. Damn it. If she’d known she was coming on heat she never would have come back, regardless of her foster father’s funeral. Marsupials didn’t have mating cycles but, thanks to the combination of her dual existence, whenever she drew close to her human menstrual cycle, the urge to mate grew to a fever pitch. She’d suppressed that urge for the last eighteen years; the big-city air and taste of Sydney acted like an antidote to her primal needs. Being in her home environment however, with its sweet unpolluted air, its rich, fertile soil…
She stared at the taillights of the distant Audi and her sex constricted.
Bad timing. Damn it, bad timing.
“Jacqueline Huddart, if you don’t tell me what’s going on this very second, I’m calling animal control.”
The worry in Delanie’s sardonic statement snapped Jackie’s stare from the Audi. She turned to her friend, forcing down the unexpected surge of animal agitation. “I’m sorry, Del.” She smiled, the action feeling brittle. “I’m a bit off at the moment.”
Delanie fixed her with an intent look. “I get that. I didn’t expect coming back to be easy.”
Jackie’s wry chuckle caught her by surprise. “Easy is not the word I’d go for right now, no.”
With another closer inspection, Delanie nodded her head. “Well then, let’s get this farce of a funeral over and done with then, shall we. I want to make your brief time home enjoyable. Maybe I can find a ball and we can play fetch.”
Jackie gave her a sideways glare, her lips twitching into a grin. “Maybe I can bite you on the butt and ruin that perfect backside of yours.”
Delanie laughed. “Ooh, now that would be interesting in a kinky, paranormal male-fantasy kinda way.” She began walking, smiling broadly even as she squeezed Jackie closer to her side in a tight embrace, as if she worried Jackie was going to run off.
A deep, ancient longing stirred in Jackie’s gut at the thought of running away.
Run off, run wild, run free, run, run, run.
Jackie slid her arm around her best friend’s waist, shutting the enticing, dangerous notion down. Damn, she wished she had her gun.
* * * *
The hunter studied the two women walking through the car park—one tall and animated, one petite and radiating controlled savagery. Jacqueline Huddart. A creature of forgotten myth. A creature of primordial magnificence and ancient spirituality.
A shape-shifting thylacine. Part-human, part-Tasmanian tiger.
And he’d found her.
A small thrill shot through him, clenching a cold fist in his chest. To discover a living Tasmanian tiger in itself was something considered impossible. Hunted to extinction in the nineteen thirties, the animal now only existed in the dreams of scientists deluded enough to believe they could resurrect the species through DNA cloning.
To discover the existence of a shape-shifting thylacine…
The thrill in his chest spread to the pit of his belly, his groin.
The moment he’d learnt of her existence, he’d flown to Australia. He’d hunted more deadly game before, he’d tracked more unpredictable, but Jacqueline Huddart had proved the most difficult to find.
With no name for his quarry, he’d only had a location to start with, a last known sighting: Pyengana, a tiny town with barely more than one hundred and twenty people living there.
Moving about the small town unnoticed was not hard. Trying to decipher whom of the one-twenty was his target proved a bit trickier. Two months spent tracking each one, following their every move, studying their behaviour, their garbage, their interaction with the other townsfolk finally revealed what he’d begun to suspect on his second day of observation. The shifter was not there.
Another month and he had located the whereabouts of every person once living in Pyengana. A month after that, he narrowed his target down to two: a female in Far North Queensland and Jacqueline Huddart.
All it had taken was one precise act of violence—the brutal murder of a werewolf bitch in Sydney—to draw her out. He’d found her.
And then she left Sydney.
Just as he was about to begin the true hunt.
Which brought him back here. Tasmania. An island state at the bottom of a country older than time.
Shifting his weight slightly, he watched her move across the bitumen, the deepening shadows of dusk folding around her.
She moved with animalistic grace. Fluid. Smooth.
He felt himself smile. It was a thing of perverse beauty to observe. He doubted any man would not find her walk hypnotic. A steady, purposeful stride. Hips swaying, spine straight, shoulders square. An ancient energy radiated from her. He could feel it even from this distance, some fifty-five yards away. Like the trapped fires of a dormant volcano simmered through her veins.
She would not succumb easily.
Nor would she be easy prey. That was evident in the way she surveyed everything around her. To a casual observer, she would appear calm and composed and confident. To a trained eye however, an eye specializing in the behaviour of such creatures, Jacqueline Huddart was in a constant state of heightened anticipation. Alert. Ready.
Just the way Daeved Einar wanted his quarry to be.
He smiled, sliding his stare over the shifter’s petite form.
“So begins the hunt.”
Jackie stood motionless, watching the coffin lower into the ground. She knew she should feel something. She knew she should shed at least one tear, feel a lump in her throat, anything, but she didn’t. Her foster father had meant little to her besides a hard fist, a swift kick and a contemptuous meal twice a day.
She looked at the spray of peace lilies adorning the coffin’s deeply polished lid, a white blanket of beauty hiding the lies and violence. If only those sobbing around her knew the truth.
About what? Richard Smith? Do you really think they’d care? Or do you mean the truth about you? About why you became a child of the state? About why you stayed one?
Removing her gaze from the wooden box, she studied the handful of mourners standing beside the open grave. Dairy farmers and cheese makers. All dressed in their rarely worn Sunday bests, suits pulled from the back of the cupboard, moth balls withdrawn from pockets, replaced with handkerchiefs and eulogies printed at the Photo-Copi-To-Go in nearby St. Helens. All standing there with red-rimmed eyes, not wanting to look at her, not wanting to see the lack of misery in her face.
She sighed, wriggling her fingers by her side. The black, tailored trousers and shirt she wore prickled her skin, the material of each sucking up the sun’s rays like a thirsty child, turning her clothes into a pliable oven she longed to be rid of.
God, she didn’t want to be here.
A soft hand threaded through her fingers and she turned to look at Delanie.
You’re growling, her best friend mouthed.
The silent words stabbed into Jackie’s chest and she sucked in a hiss, earning more than one furtive glance from those beside the grave.
She looked back at the rectangle hole on the ground, before studying the artificial grass spread out around its edges. Growling?
Run, run, run wild, free run, run.
The latent urge to run away snaked through her, an insistent itch she wished she could scratch. The delicate scent of melaleuca threaded through her breath, the damp earthiness of freshly turned soil teasing her taste buds, feeding the primitive longing to transform. Jackie closed her eyes, her pulse rapid.
Shift, run, hunt, kill, mate.
Wild impulses assaulted her. Potent and all too compelling. Her stomach knotted. Her chest tightened. She felt her muscles begin to tingle. A blistering cold heat—fire on ice—rushed over her flesh.
She turned away from her foster father’s grave. “I have to go,” she muttered. The words sounded strange. Her mouth felt full, like her tongue was battling too many teeth. Wicked, sharp teeth designed with one purpose only, to kill. Teeth evolved to tear and rip and rend raw flesh asunder.
“What?” Delanie’s surprised whisper scratched at Jackie’s senses, but she ignored it. She had to get away. Before she lost control of her animal.
She pushed through the silent mourners, head down, shoulders bunched. The sweet Pyengana air streamed into her nostrils, fire to dry tinder. Another tingle rippled through her muscles and she bit back a curse.
Not a curse, Jack. A growl.
The sound of disgusted grumblings rumbled behind her, like thunder on distant clouds, her foster father’s friends following her rapid escape with disapproving glares. She could feel their contempt stabbing into her back. Her skin prickled.
Run, shift, kill, mate.
She shouted the denial, breaking into a sprint. The heels of her shoes sank into the soft soil, releasing the rich scent of earth to the air. It threaded into her breath and a surge of icy heat blossomed in her belly. The transformation was beginning. She couldn’t stop it.
Oh, God, no. No, no, no, no, no, no.
She vaulted a headstone, stare locked on the dense grove of melaleuca and eucalypts edging the cemetery. Cover. Concealment.
Her palms itched. Her pulse roared. She ran, wind-whipped hair tugging at her temples, beads of sweat popping out on her forehead. She ran.
Until she saw the man from the airport.
Her feet stumbled beneath her. She scrambled for balance, her gaze locked on his tall, lean frame.
He stood under a large snow gum on the cemetery’s perimeter, the ancient tree’s branches shrouding him in deep shadows, muting the golden streaks in his short hair, turning the dark sunglasses on his face to a black mask. Yet even from this distance, she felt his stare drilling into her. Hard. Unrelenting.
Her sex constricted and she pulled in a sharp breath, forcing her feet to stop. What did she do?
Run, mate, fuck.
Jackie clenched her jaw, shutting out the primitive suggestion. She wriggled her fingers, her hand moving toward her torso before she realized she was reaching for her gun.
Why? Are you going to shoot him, or fuck him?
Her forehead pulled into a scowl. Neither.
Fixing him with a steady stare, she began to walk in his direction, ignoring the pulse between her thighs and the hammer in her chest. Just a question. That’s all she wanted to ask. Just one question: who are you?
She quickened her pace, feeling his gaze move over her body, a slow inspection that turned the beat in her sex to a damp tightness.
One question, Jackie. Just one.
Will you fuck me?
Delanie’s shout—high and stretched with worry—snapped at her focus. She blinked, shooting her best friend an impatient frown over her shoulder.
Not now, Del. Later. Later. After I’ve run. After I’ve mated. After I’ve—
Jackie froze, her throat squeezing shut at the wild notion thrumming through her consciousness. She swallowed. God, what am I doing? A tingle racing up her spine, she turned back to the man.
Rooted to the spot, she searched the tree line, her mouth dry, her sex heavy.
Nothing. Just ancient eucalypts, blossom-heavy wattle and callistemon.
Jackie reached to snatch her gun from its holster before she remembered it wasn’t there. What the hell was going on?
“Are you okay?”
Delanie’s husky, breathless question made Jackie start. She jerked her stare from the shadows beneath the snow gum up to her friend’s face. Jesus, what had she been about to do?
“Jack? Are you okay? What’s up?”
Jackie studied the tree line, searching for any hint of the man. She pulled in a deep breath, straining to detect an unusual scent.
“Jack?” Delanie’s voice grew taut with worry. “This is the second time you’ve done this to me since coming home. Answer me. Are you okay?”
Nothing. It was as if the man never existed.
Are you sure he did? Three times in the last twenty-four hours? And seriously, in Pyengana?
She released a sigh, turning back to the hovering Delanie. “I’m okay, Del, honest.” She gave her a small smile. “Just having difficulty keeping my calm.”
Delanie raised her exquisitely shaped eyebrows. “Yeah, I’d say sprinting away from an open grave and jumping over a gravestone constitutes as not keeping your calm. You know you almost knocked over Mr. Carmichael.”
Jackie pulled a face, dragging her fingers through her hair. “Did I?”
“This is not like you, Jack. Even when you were living here you were the epitome of control.” Delanie’s forehead puckered into a frown. “Is there something you want to tell me?”
I’m about to go into heat, I keep seeing a mystery man who may or may not be real and something about him makes me horny?
Jackie shook her head. “No.”
Delanie didn’t look convinced. “Hmm.”
“I’m fine. Honest.” Jackie smiled, just to show how fine she was. The action felt forced. She wasn’t fine. She was on edge. Not just because she was home, not just because she felt her inner animal clawing its way to freedom, not just because of her now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t, maybe-maybe-not stalker, but because things felt…wrong. Like the way the air thrummed just before an electrical storm—angry and charged with sleeping violence.
The same uneasy sensation had twisted through her the second she’d learnt of Detective Yolanda Vischka’s brutal murder. Who was capable of murdering a werewolf? Especially one as old as Vischka? One as unassailable? Or more to the point, who was capable of hacking a werewolf to pieces until little remained but a few body parts?
Swallowing the sudden bile in her throat, Jackie smiled at her friend again. “I’m fine.” She curled her arm through Delanie’s. “Except I need coffee.”
“You need to say hello to your mother.”
The smoke-course voice behind her turned the bile in Jackie’s throat hot. She turned, fixing her foster mother with a flat stare. “I would, if she was alive.”
Rhonda Smith didn’t react to the blunt statement. She stood in the late afternoon sunshine, hair the colour of rust, lips and nails shining with equally abrasive colour. Blue eyes flinty and cold, she ran a slow look over Jackie. “I am surprised you deigned it necessary to come back.” She pulled a cigarette from her handbag, placed it between her lips and lit it with a dime-store lighter. “Or are you here to take pleasure in my grief?”
Jackie drew a deep breath in through her nostrils. “I’m not here to fight, Rhonda. I came, now I’m going. My sympathies for your loss.”
Rhonda laughed, the sound low and humourless. “Your sympathies? I half expected you to break into song and dance beside Richard’s grave.”
“Mrs. Smith,” Delanie began, sliding her arm around Jackie’s waist.
A small smile pulled at the corners of Jackie’s mouth. Just like Del to feel she needed to protect her.
“I see you’re still the upstart little know-it-all you were as a child, Delanie McKenzie,” Rhonda snapped, flicking Delanie a savage look through the rising tendril of smoke leaking from her mouth. “Things haven’t changed much. Shut up. This is not your concern.”
“You’re right, Rhonda.” Jackie lifted her chin. “Things don’t change. You’re still the same rude, bitter woman you were when I was a teenager.” She turned away from her foster mother, her gaze falling to the ancient snow gum on the cemetery’s perimeter. “The funeral is over. There’s no reason for me to be in Pyengana.”
“There was no reason for you to come back,” Rhonda snarled. “We were done with you the day the government stopped paying us the foster-family allowance.”
Jackie closed her eyes, her palm itching for her gun.
No, it wasn’t her gun her skin itched for. It was the shift. The transformation. The carnal urge to sink teeth, long and sharp, into Rhonda’s neck and tear it wide. Tear it open until the woman’s blood flowed, staining the grass around her still, lifeless corpse the colour of her hair. Tainting the sweet air with the scent of raw flesh and sustenance.
Jackie opened her eyes, staring at the snow gum. Forcing the potent hunger down, she turned her head, giving her foster mother an empty smile. Rhonda’s words didn’t cut her to the core, didn’t tear her apart. They just made her angry. Angry that such a woman had abused the system for so long. And in that anger, Jackie realized she didn’t care what her foster mother thought anymore. “No, Rhonda, you were done with me long before that. I just kept hoping you weren’t, stupid, naïve kid that I was.” She cocked her head to the side a little. “I’ve often wondered what closure felt like. Now I know. Good bye, Rhonda. Be kind to yourself.”
From the corner of her eye, she watched Delanie give the woman a broad grin. She let out a silent sigh and began walking away. From the cemetery. From the snow gum. From the man who may be lurking in the tree’s shadows.
No. He’s not there. Not now. You can’t feel him studying you.
She swallowed at the stubborn lump in her throat and ignored Rhonda’s blustering shout. Closure, did indeed feel good. As cutting and hurtful as it was. Throwing Delanie a quick look, she headed for the car park. “Did I already mention I need coffee?”
Delanie nodded. “I believe you did.”
“Does the Healey Cheese Factory still make those delicious lamingtons?”
Her friend’s laugh was answer enough.
Jackie smiled. “Okay. Caffeine and cake first, then it’s goodbye Tasmania.”
Delanie stopped walking. “Really?” Her bottom lip protruded in a comical pout, but Jackie could see the disappointment in her striking green eyes.
“I can’t stay, Del.” She shook her head, flicking her gaze toward the distant tree line and the ancient snow gum. “You know why. The air is getting to me. The smell of this place is intoxicating. I’m fighting the transformation every second of every minute.” She dragged her fingers through her hair. “I need to get back to Sydney where all I can smell and taste is saltwater, smog, sweat and eucalypts. I need to get the animal back under control before I surrender to the pull and lose myself.”
“I’ll keep you safe,” Delanie offered. “You can run amuck in my apartment. My neighbours aren’t going to care. The noises they hear coming from my place most nights must—”
“I can’t, Del,” Jackie interrupted. She took a step forward, smoothing her palms up her best friend’s arms. “You know I love you. I don’t have to tell you that, and I miss you like hell every single day, but if I don’t leave soon I’m gone.”
Delanie sighed, turning her stare to the few remaining mourners hovering by Richard Smith’s grave. Jackie gave them a disinterested glance, wishing she could take away Delanie’s despair. For all her extroverted bravado, Delanie McKenzie was a small-town girl who missed her one true friend.
Perhaps you could stay a few days…
The thought came from deep within the lonely shadows of her mind. Alluring and enticing. And dangerous. She couldn’t stay. She had to go. Delanie would just have to understand. It wasn’t just for Jackie’s sanity. It was for her safety as well. If she transformed here, in Tasmania’s lush, unspoiled beauty, she may never transform back.
Threading her fingers through Delanie’s, she gave her friend’s hands a gentle tug. “I’ll make you a deal—coffee and cake at Healy’s, my shout. Then we’ll drive to St. Helens for a movie, crash at the most expensive hotel we can find for the night and, after a ridiculously indulgent breakfast, we’ll drive back to Launceston where I’ll let you shout me copious amounts of coffee before my flight back to Sydney.”
Delanie didn’t take her stare from the mourners.
“I’ll even let you steal the hotel robes without pitching a fit. How does that sound?”
The sides of her friend’s lips twitched. “Throw in a bottle of champagne at dinner and it’s done.” She swung her gaze back to Jackie, giving her a wide grin. “We have to at least celebrate the last conversation you’ll ever have with the Wicked Witch of the arse-end of Australia.”
A warm glow spread through Jackie’s chest and she squeezed Delanie’s fingers. “Deal.”
* * * *
Okay. This is getting ridiculous.
Jackie turned on the spot, studying the car park around her. A few cars stood silent and still in the hotel’s parking bay, the late afternoon sun bouncing off their windshields in glinting spears of white-orange light.
She frowned, turning back to the hotel they’d only just checked into. The Tasmanian Gardens’ entryway doors stayed shut, the glass panels revealing an empty check-in foyer. No sign of Delanie there either. “Where are you, Del?”
Swallowing an uncomfortable sense of foreboding, she crossed the car park, heading for Delanie’s beloved Volkswagen Beetle. Bernie stood between a black convertible BMW and a silver Toyota 4x4, jarring and smug in his eye-stinging bright green paintwork, dented hubcaps and hot-pink windscreen wipers. Nothing looked out of place. All the doors were locked.
Jackie circled the car, fingers wriggling. She narrowed her eyes, studying the ground, car park, surrounding buildings and trees. After checking-in, Delanie had returned to Bernie to retrieve their overnight bags while Jackie found their room. Ten minutes later, the mini-bar, bathroom and balcony overlooking the pool thoroughly inspected, Jackie had perched herself on the foot of the softest bed in the room and waited for Delanie to arrive.
Eleven minutes after that, she’d begun to gnaw on her lip. Two minutes later, she’d begun to clench her fists to keep her fingers still. Another minute and she was out of the room, doing everything she could to stop herself sprinting through the hotel’s hallway on her way to the car park.
The second she’d pushed through the foyer’s main doors the pre-dusk air assaulted her, as if waiting for her to step into its intoxicating sweetness. Her thylacine growled, surging though her being with rapid ease. Snatching back control had been hard. She’d shoved the need to transform down into the pit of her existence and half-walked, half-ran down the hotel’s stairs into the car park, scanning the area for any sign of Delanie.
And now here she was, walking around her best friend’s car, breathing shallow for fear of losing herself to her inner animal when she knew she should be breathing deep to detect any hint of Delanie’s location.
Then stop being a chicken shit and do it.
Coming to a standstill, wishing—again—she had her gun, Jackie closed her eyes and pulled in a long, slow breath.
Faint, almost dispersed to nothing, but there. To her right. Delanie’s scent tinged with…
She turned, lifting her head slightly and pulling in another breath.
Her heart clenched. Fear. Delanie’s scent was tinged with fear. The acrid kind of a sudden fright.
God, what is going on?
Following the scent, the thylacine inside her itching for release, she moved through the car park. Clapped-out combi-vans stood beside shiny hybrids. Dented station wagons shared the asphalt with lovingly looked-after sedans. Each waited for their owners to return, the setting sun casting their paintwork in a fiery orange glow.
Jackie pulled in another breath, tasting the air. Del had been here.
She narrowed her eyes, approaching a low red convertible. Heat rolled from it in unpleasant waves, the stench of burning motor oil almost choking her. Reaching out, she placed her right palm on the car’s hood. Hot. Hot enough to tell her the engine had only recently been running.
She took another breath, separating the car’s fumes from the delicate scent of her best friend. Delanie’s scent grew stronger here. More concentrated.
Jackie’s chest squeezed tight. It wasn’t just Del’s scent that was more potent here. Her fear tainted the air like a thick mist.
Damnit, Del. What’s going on?
She took another breath. There was more on the air than Delanie’s fear-laced scent. There was something else, something she couldn’t put her finger on. A scent that wasn’t a scent.
That doesn’t make sense, Huddart.
No, it didn’t, but she didn’t know how else to explain it. There was a void to the air, as if something had erased the particles of which it was comprised. Removed them from existence.
Her pulse quickened. Removing something from a crime scene—and worryingly, this is exactly what this seemed to be—meant Delanie wasn’t just missing. She was…
“Taken,” she whispered.
Her stomach rolled and she ran her stare over the red convertible. She could do one of two things. She could call the local police force and report Delanie as missing, and aid them in finding her by following standard police procedure. Or she could track Del herself. Alone.
She straightened, removing her hand from the car and turning into the gentle breeze at her back.
It blew against her face, barely strong enough to move the strands of her hair. Closing her eyes, she drew in another breath, through her mouth as well this time, tasting Delanie on the air. No, it wasn’t just on the air. It was on the ground as well. Whoever had taken Del had left a scent trail on the road.
The question slipped through Jackie’s mind, making her already fast pulse thump faster. Who would do that? Who would take her best friend and leave a scent trail?
She ground her teeth. No one. She was being dramatic. Ridiculous. She had to stop standing here wasting time with stupid notions of malevolent intentions and find Delanie. Find her and then teach the bastard who took her what happens to those who mess with a cop’s best friend.
Heart racing, she began running, nose into the breeze, Del’s scent flowing into her body.
Four blocks passed. Five. Six. The houses flanking her became light industrial buildings and warehouses. And still, Delanie’s scent pulled her forward. Faster. Her inner animal ached for release. Hungered to track, to run…
She ran, her blood roaring in her ears, and skidded to a halt, heels digging into the now gravel road when a man stepped toward her from behind a big black van. A tall man with impossibly broad shoulders and narrow lean hips.
The very man she’d caught looking at her inside the airport terminal yesterday. The same man who’d driven away from the airport car park in a black Audi an hour later.
The same man she’d seen standing under a snow gum at Pyengana’s cemetery.
Cold fury ripped through her. “You’ve been following me.” She bunched her fists by her side and took a step closer to him, fixing him with an unwavering glare. “What the hell have you done with Delanie?”
A tiny dimple creased his left cheek beside lips curled into a small grin, giving Jackie the impression he knew a secret he found entirely humourous. Dark honey-blonde hair fell over his forehead in a tousled mess, brushing straight eyebrows a shade darker. “I have, Detective Huddart. But I’m afraid I haven’t taken your friend.”
He studied her from behind impenetrable black sunglasses, the intensity of his unseen but wholly felt inspection making Jackie want to shiver.
And smash her fist against his far too square jaw.
“I’ve seen you three times in the last twenty-four hours and now my best friend is missing.” Her heart thumped hard in her throat. “That’s not coincidence. Who are you and how the hell do you know who I am?”
She could hear her control cracking, hear the violence of her animal’s soul cutting each word she said, but she didn’t care. He—whoever he was—had the advantage over her. She didn’t like that. Not as a cop. Not as an animal. She didn’t like it at all.
He however, seemed unaffected by her obvious aggression. His lips curled into a broader grin. “Marshall Rourke, at your service.”
Jackie didn’t return his smile. “You’re American?”
Long, straight fingers came up to tip an imaginary hat. “Texan, actually, but it’s pretty much the same thing.”
“Enough of the charm, Mr. Rourke.” Jackie snapped. Damn, she wished she had her gun. And her badge. She’d wipe that far-too-sexy grin from his face in two seconds flat. “Time to tell me why you’re following me, how you know who I am and where the hell Del—”
Her best friend’s name slipped from her lips before she could stop it and she bit back a sharp curse. Damn it, cop law 101—don’t give away information not already revealed. She clenched her fists, glaring at Marshall Rourke.
“I know you have no reason to trust me.” He removed his dark sunglasses, and Jackie’s chest squeezed. His eyes were stunning. Piercing light blue the colour of Antarctic ice. “But if you want to see Delanie McKenzie alive again, I recommend you come with me.”
* * * *
Delanie lifted her head from the cold, dirty floor. At least, she thought it was dirty. What felt like grit ground into her right cheek and jaw, like tiny stabs from an even tinier blade, but the room was too dark to make out exactly what scattered the floor. If in fact it was a room.
Pressing her palms to the cold surface, she pushed herself partially upright, wincing at the sharp pain stabbing through her head and down across her shoulders. Damn it, she’d just finished a bout of chiropractic sessions. Now, she’d have to start all over again.
Start all over again? Is that what you’re worried about? Someone you still haven’t seen knocked you out, you wake up in a dark bloody room on a cold bloody floor and you’re worried about more sessions with Dr. Templeton?
Biting back a groan of agony and a growl of exasperation, she pushed herself farther into a sitting position and peered about. Dark. Very dark. Looming shadows in the darkness that may or may not be boxes, a window high off the floor to her right, boarded up from the outside by the look of it, weak slivers of red light spearing through the miniscule cracks. Cold floor. Cold, gritty floor.
Which you’ve already established, Del. Focus. You’re in serious trouble here.
Ignoring the uneasy knot trying to tighten in the pit of her belly, Delanie shifted onto her knees and sniffed. A musky, slightly rotten odor threaded into her breath and she crinkled her nose. The room smelt like a long-forgotten kitchen.
“So, why would someone clock you on the back of the head in the hotel car park and bring you to a kitchen, Del? They want you to cook them dinner?”
Stop it, Del. You need to take this seriously.
Delanie scowled at the dark thought. She was taking it seriously. Someone had abducted her. But whoever that someone was, they weren’t that smart. For starters, they hadn’t tied her up. Her wrists and ankles were still free, which meant she could kick the shit out of whoever came near her, or scratch their face off. Secondly, they hadn’t taken her keys from the back pocket of her shorts, effectively leaving her with a weapon—of sorts. Clench her car keys between her fingers while making a fist and she had a pretty decent way of taking out someone’s eye. Or puncturing their neck. Thirdly, they’d snatched her from the car park while she was with Jackie.
Del squinted into the darkness, picturing her best friend. That latter reason was probably the best argument for the low intelligence quota of her abductor. Who would abduct a girl whose best friend was not only a cop, a bloody good cop at that, but a friggen’ were-Tasmanian tiger?
But now you’re assuming the person responsible for this unexpected gloom and doom knows what Jackie is and who you are. What if it’s a random snatch-and-grab? Just some nutter who saw you in the car park and thought, why not? She looks like an easy target.
Closing her eyes and clenching her fists, Delanie straightened to her feet. As scary as that scenario was, it was also unlikely. Not in Launceston, at least. The mainland, yes. Sydney or Adelaide, you betcha. But Tasmania? Nothing that random ever happened in Tasmania.
No, this was premeditated. Which, given the fact she was on her feet and had her keys already in hand, made the situation not so much worrying, but puzzling.
“Whatever is going on, I’m not happy.” Her grumble reverberated around the room, bouncing back to her in soft echoes. Delanie raised her eyebrows. The room was bigger than she thought. “So where am I?”
“Far enough away from the hotel to make your friend shift.”
The voice, low and deep and tainted with an accent Delanie could not place, sounded to her left and she turned. A shiver raced up her back and she clenched her fists tighter on her keys-slash-weapon. Someone stood in the darkness with her.
“I have left a trail, as such,” the voice continued, disembodied by the deepening blackness of the room. Whatever was casting the red glow outside was going, leaving a cold lack of colour and light. “You may notice, when you stop thinking about tearing open my throat with those keys and how little light there is left in the room, that you no longer wear your watch, your necklace, your earrings or your bra.”
Delanie jumped, her hands going to her wrist, throat and ears seconds before the unseen speaker listed the last item. She slapped her hands to her breasts. The feel of her nipples, pinched hard from the room’s low temperature, rubbing against her palms through her shirt, brought a wave of hot anger to her face. The bastard had removed her bra?
“So, you are a pervert after all,” she shot into the darkness.
A chuckle followed. “I did not look or touch, I assure you. I am not interested in you at all.” There was a pause, and Delanie got the feeling her newfound chum was moving. She couldn’t hear a sound apart from her own rapid heartbeat, but something about the way the calmly spoken words rolled through the darkness made her think he, whoever he was, was moving to her left. Slowly.
“You are but a means to an end, Delanie McKenzie. Your bra was the only item of clothing I could deposit that would exude your scent and still leave you sufficiently attired.”
Delanie narrowed her eyes, glaring into the black shadows. “A means to an end? My scent? What are you, a hunter?”
Another chuckle rolled toward her. “Exactly. I am a hunter.”
“And I’m the bait?” Delanie crossed her arms, doing her best to keep her voice disdainful. A hunter. In Tassie. Right when Jackie arrived? Not good. “The only thing you’ll catch with me as bait are debt collectors.”
The chuckle came again. Closer. And definitely on her left. “I think we both know what I will catch with you as bait, Delanie McKenzie.” Something touched her cheek and she flinched, disgusted shame flooded her face with heat.
A finger, Del. That’s all. Just a finger. He’s trying to freak you out.
“And what’s that?” she snarled, fisting her keys. “Brad Pitt? Sorry. We broke up last week. I dumped him for Hugh Jackman.”
“A shape-shifting thylacine,” the voice answered, calm. “That’s what I will catch. The only shape-shifting Tasmanian tiger to survive man’s ignorance.”
Delanie’s chest grew tight. She stared into the darkness, trying like hell to see the man concealed there. “I’m not sure what medication you’re on, mate, but I’d ask your doctor to cut the dose back a bit. A shape-shifting thylacine? As in a werewolf? A werethylacine? Seriously?” She laughed, a scoffing snort she hoped sounded believable. Jesus, how did he know what Jackie was? And why was he after her?
This is not good, Del. Not good at all.
“I applaud your loyalty, Delanie, but there is no need for artifice. The truth of Jacqueline Huddart’s true species is something I have known for quite some time. At this point in time, I would say I know Ms. Huddart’s true nature better than you.”
Delanie pulled a face, anger replacing her apprehension. “Is that so?” She glared into the deepening shadows. “Well, guess I don’t have to warn you then what Jackie’s going to do to you when she tracks you down. You know, the pain, the blood, the ripped open throat…that sort of thing.”
The responding laugh sent a chill up Delanie’s spine and the hairs at her nape stood on end. It was an empty laugh. An insane laugh.
A purposeful laugh.
There was a slight scraping noise, a shifting in the air beside her, and suddenly a man stepped out of the darkness. A tall man with skin like leather, hair blacker than pitch and eyes the colour of a cloudless sky. A tall man holding a wicked knife roughly the size and length of Delanie’s forearm. “Ms Huddart is going to do exactly what I tell her to,” the man said, tracing the tip of the knife’s blade along Delanie’s jawline.
Delanie’s heart smashed into her throat, but she held her ground, staring hard into the man’s cold blue eyes. “And what is that? What is the big, bad hunter going to make a tiny slip of a woman do?”
“Why, roll over and show me her belly, of course.” White teeth flashed at her as he gave her a wide smile. “Right before I plunge my knife into her guts and mount her dead, stuffed carcass on my wall.”
Marshall Rourke studied the woman glaring hard at him. She wanted to hurt him. She wanted to tear him a new one, and going by the absolute fury radiating from her in pungent waves—like the smoke from burning brimstone—she’d come damn near close to doing so if he gave her the opportunity.
Christ, he hadn’t been prepared for this.
Didn’t prepare for how hard your prick is while watching her either, did you?
No, he hadn’t. From the first second he’d seen her in the airport, her petite frame almost swallowed by the crowd, the ancient potency of her croi making his blood sing and his beast stir, his body had been in a constant state of semi-arousal. That he’d reacted so quickly to the woman was a problem. That his inner beast enjoyed the entirely carnal reaction was even more of a problem. It was a complication he could ill afford.
When he should be thinking about the next stage of his plan, all he could do was think of the various ways he could press his body to hers.
The pit of his belly stirred and his balls grew heavy.
Damn it, Rourke. Get control of yourself.
He stood motionless, doing everything he could to project an air of calm confidence. It only took one look at Jackie—one long, lingering look—to know she’d attack if she sensed even the slightest hint of weakness in him. Whether as a cop or an animal, he couldn’t tell.
Do you blame her, Rourke? Her best friend’s been abducted. That wasn’t part of your plan was it?
No, his plan had been to follow Jackie Huddart everywhere she went until Einar made his move. Then, after two freaking years of trying to catch the bastard, Marshall would finally take him out.
Instead, Einar had abducted an innocent human and Marshall’s plan had gone to hell in a hand basket.
The same hot guilt that had flooded through Marshall the moment he’d realized what Einar had done surged through him again. Delanie McKenzie’s abduction wasn’t part of the plan. But his damn lust had let it happen, and he couldn’t do anything about it now. Now, he had to rework the plan—the original plan, no matter how bitter and cutting the guilt flooding through him was.
Is that why you’ve made yourself known to Jackie? Instead of following her as she tracked Delanie’s scent? That would have achieved your goal far more effectively. Follow her to Einar’s obvious trap and catch the bastard as he tries to catch her.
Marshall stared at Jackie’s face, unable to miss the fear and pain in her eyes despite the fury burning there.
That was why he’d approached her, why he’d thrown his well-organised plan to the wall. The agony and terror he’d seen in her eyes when she’d realized her friend had not just gone missing, but been abducted. Pain and fear he’d caused. That was why he stood before her now. The way his body stirred at the thought of comforting her, speaking to her, had nothing to do with it.
Yeah. Sure. Right. Jesus Christ, you’re a piece of work, Rourke. You know that? A grade-A piece of—
The contemptuous thought didn’t get the chance to finish. Before Marshall knew what was happening, Jackie attacked. So fast he didn’t see her move.
One minute he was looking at her, the next, he was flat on his back, the heel of her shoe pressing into the base of his neck as she rammed her foot against his collarbone.
Holy smokes, how did she do that?
“I’m going to give you two options, Mr. Rourke.” Her voice was even and smooth, like buttered whisky. She glared down the length of her petite body at him, eyes still unreadable, heel pressing harder to his throat. “You can tell me exactly where my friend is, or I can call the cops and have your Texan arse thrown into jail.”
A cold ribbon of unease unfurled in Marshall’s chest. It wouldn’t do for the local authorities to be made aware of his presence in the country. He wasn’t in Australia on official business. In fact, he wasn’t on official business period. If his boss found out where he was, he’d face the dressing down of a lifetime, with a suspension and possible confinement period thrown in for good measure. The P.A.C. Unit Director had no tolerance for agents doing their own thing, no matter how right that thing was.
He shifted underneath Jackie’s foot, the asphalt biting into his shoulder blades as he did so.
Jackie’s heel shoved harder still to his neck, pressing on his windpipe and he stopped moving. “Time’s running out, Mr. Rourke.”
A low growl deep in his dual existence rumbled through his chest. He may be experiencing an increasing level of discomfort, but his beast, the ancient, primal creature that it was, seemed highly amused by his situation. And aroused.
Marshall stopped himself from rolling his eyes. Great. Just what he needed. A horny, laughing dire wolf tainting his judgment.
“Listen,” he began, but her driving heel cut him short. Christ, she was going to asphyxiate him with her goddamn size-six shoe.
Amber eyes regarded him. “Thirty seconds, Mr. Rourke.”
“I know what you are.”
Jackie’s eyes widened—a fraction. “And what am I, Mr. Rourke?”
He looked up at her, her heel making it difficult to breathe, her sweet subtle scent making him want to drag in breath after breath after breath. “A were-thylacine.”
Jackie Huddart didn’t move. She became a statue, her stare fixed on him, her knuckles white. “A were-what?”
Despite the heel cutting off his air supply, Marshall grinned. She was good at hiding her surprise. With a face like hers—stunningly gorgeous and completely expressionless—she’d win a lot of poker matches. “A were-thylacine,” he croaked, curling his fingers around her ankle in a tight grip. If he needed to he’d flip her off him. “A shape-shifting Tasmanian tiger.”
Her poker-face didn’t change. Neither did the position of her foot. “I think you’ve been watching too many movies, Mr. Rourke. This is Australia, not Transylvania.”
He gave her another grin, the discomfort in his lungs beginning to turn into a painful burn. This was not how he’d seen this unfolding. “Transylvania is traditionally the home to vampires, Ms. Huddart.” He shifted slightly, the minute action earning him a sharp increase in pressure on his throat. “Australia however, is the home to many vampires and werewolves, Declan O’Connell being one of them.” Her eyes widened again—the reaction to the Irish alpha wolf’s name almost undetectable. She was good at hiding her emotions. Very good. But he was better at exposing them. He pressed his fingers harder to her ankle, the fine bones like hot steel under his grip. “Tasmania however,” he continued, preparing his body, his beast, for whatever came next, “is the native habitat of the shape-shifting thylacine. To be precise, the last shape-shifting thylacine.” He let her see his teeth in a grin he knew was borderline wolfish. “You.”
Once again, her reaction surprised him. He expected to be attacked. Or for her to shift into her other form and then attack. What he didn’t expect was for her to remove her foot from his neck and step back away from him.
He snapped to his feet, brushing down his backside, still half convinced she was going to throw herself at him with that same preternatural speed she had before.
Could be fun.
He looked at her, ignoring the suggestive comment, as enticing as it was. Having Jackie Huddart throw her tiny little body at him in the right circumstances was downright appealing.
“Tell me who has my friend.”
Her voice was cold. Very calm, almost indifferent, but cold all the same. She stared at him, fists bunched, her small frame radiating an energy he understood all too well—pent-up fury and tenuous restraint. She was having difficulty controlling her inner beast. A state of being he existed in twenty-four seven.
Especially since Einar’s “retirement”.
The dark thought extinguished the rising heat in Marshall’s body and he clenched his jaw. His ex-partner was never long from his mind. Nor were the man’s actions since P.A.C. had “let” him go. Daeved Einar’s activities were not only thoroughly documented by the Paranormal Anti-Crime Unit, they were classified security-level red.
That he’d contributed to Einar’s freedom was an atrocity he could never forget.
“Who has my friend?”
Jackie Huddart’s low growl snapped Marshall’s mind from his ex-partner with a start, a part of him disturbingly pleased that she no longer assumed he was a part of Delanie’s abduction.
But if she really knew…
He focused his gaze and his senses on the woman standing before him. The fingers of her right hand were wriggling. What did that mean?
You will have the time to figure that out. If she falls for this next bit.
“I can’t tell you that, darlin’.”
“You can tell me who took her, or I can arrest your arse and charge you with aiding and abetting an abduction.” Her eyes flashed gold fire. “Or I can snap your neck and leave you here on the side of the road. In case you haven’t noticed, we’re not really in a busy part of town. It’s after work hours on a Friday. No one will find your body for over forty-eight hours.”
The pit of Marshall gut tightened. His inner beast growled. He studied her, weighing his options. He needed her. She, on the other hand, didn’t need him at all. She’d find Delanie McKenzie without his aid, of that he had little doubt. But she wasn’t expecting someone like Einar waiting for her when she found Delanie. She wasn’t expecting to walk into a trap. A trap Marshall had a certain amount of responsibility for.
Ha, that’s an understatement.
The idea of Jackie getting hurt had become inconceivable the moment her eyes connected with his. The moment she’d regarded him with steely, confronting strength when inside he knew she must be broken with worry and fear. He couldn’t let her walk into Einar’s trap unprepared. Besides which, he couldn’t ignore the fact his best chance at catching Einar was still by Jackie’s side. Staying near her and remaining undetected hadn’t worked. All it had achieved was an ache in his groin that wouldn’t quit and a guilt in his soul that wouldn’t leave him. It was time to try something new.
Just pray to God you’re not fucking it up even more, Rourke.
“I can’t tell you who took her, detective,” he said, emphasizing her rank. “But you need to believe me when I say the person who has taken Delanie will have her skinned and gutted before the cops can even think about putting out an APB.” He paused. “Or before my body begins to rot, if that’s the path you chose to follow.”
The brutal description of her friend’s possible fate drained the blood from Jackie’s face. The first true reaction he’d elicited from her.
“I can help you, detective,” he hurried, before her terror overrode what little control she still held. “I am here to help you. I know the MO of Delanie’s abductor and I want to help you get her back.”
Her jaw bunched and she stepped toward him, closing the small distance he’d left between them. He wished she hadn’t. Her unique scent, unlike any he’d tasted before, filled his breath, and his balls, already heavy with a carnal interest, grew heavier. Oh, boy, he hadn’t counted on this at all.
“Who are you, Mister Rourke?” Her heat folded around him, a thrumming contradiction to the icy rage in her eyes. “If I’m to trust my best friend’s life to your oh-so-mysterious hands, at least tell me who you are.”
He looked down into her face. A gentle wind blew at her hair, lifting the burnished chestnut curtain from her temples, and his chest squeezed. This close he could see the faint smattering of freckles across her nose. This close he could see the gold chips in her eyes. This close he could see the fine bone structure of her skull, the soft fullness of her lips.
This close his inner beast could feel the ancient croi of her inner animal.
Feel and crave.
Damn it, he needed to get himself under control. Now. “I’m no threat to you. That’s all I can tell you.” It was a lie—he was a threat. At least, what he was doing threatened her life, but he couldn’t think about that now.
She studied him; face expressionless, eyes conflicted. She wanted to tell him to go to hell, but the fate of her friend held her tongue. The fingers of her right hand wriggled. “You have exactly thirty minutes to ‘help me’ find my friend. After that I will call the cops.” She paused. “Or snap your neck.”
Again, his inner dire wolf reacted to her—a deep, base reaction. It wanted her. It wanted to mate with her.
And so does your inner man, Rourke. Fess up.
A sudden lump filled his throat and he swallowed. He did. She was sexy. Sexy on every level. Dangerous sexy, feisty sexy, gorgeous sexy, petite sexy, determined sexy, animalistic sexy. He was attracted to her already. Wanted to taste her sweat, her sex, her cream. Wanted to feel her body move under his as his fingers entwined with hers. Wanted to look into her face while one orgasm after another claimed her. Wanted to ride each wave with her until they were both drained. Damn, as clichéd as it was, he’d never felt like this before.
Which made lying to her now all the more problematic.
“Thirty minutes,” he said, holding his hand up as if taking the Pledge of Allegiance. “And it’s Marshall.”
Jackie didn’t say a word. Just looked at him, poker face firmly in place. Yet her fingers were no longer wriggling. Which meant something, he just didn’t know what. Yet.
He held out his arm, turning to his left as he gave her what he hoped was a reassuring, trust-me-I’m-the-good-guy smile. “My chariot’s this way. It will get us to Delanie faster than your legs.”
Still not a word in response. But she began to walk in the direction he indicated.
He grinned behind her back.
All right, P.A.C. Unit Special Agent Rourke. You’ve got her. She’s with you. Now do what you came here for. Before she discovers just what that really is.
* * * *
What are you doing? Are you insane?
The questions punched through Jackie’s head—incredulous and accusatory. She suppressed the urge to fidget in her seat, staring fixedly at the road before her instead of looking at the man behind the Audi’s leather-bound steering wheel.
Marshall Rourke directed the luxurious car through the quiet streets of the industrial area of St. Helens, the deepening dusk sky turning his face into a mask of shadows. He kept shooting her sideways glances, as if waiting for her to do or say something. He was on edge. She could detect it in the minute tension of his muscles. She did nothing to ease his current state. There was nothing about the situation she liked, no matter how quick and ardent her physical reaction to the man was. Finding Delanie was all that mattered. Besides, her sexual response to Rourke had little to do with the way he looked and everything to do with her stupid thylacine/human cycle. Of all the time to come on heat.
She curled her fingers into tight fists, driving her short, no-nonsense, cop fingernails into the centre of her palms. God, she wished she had her gun. That she was relying on a complete stranger to take her to her abducted friend made her antsy. Was she doing it because she was coming on heat?
She shot Rourke a quick look. No. Not because of her mutated human/thylacine cycle—although heaven help her if she got a whiff of the man’s blood. As mysterious as he was, something about him made her feel, of all things, safe.
Which made no sense at all.
She pressed her nails harder to her palms. He knew what she was, he knew what Declan O’Connell was, he knew who Delanie was, he’d been following her since she landed in Launceston, and who knows for how much longer before that, and yet when her eyes made contact with his, she felt her animal relax. Even as a wicked sexual hunger made it stretch and preen and strain for release.
Jackie bit back a snort of disgust. This was why she’d stopped listening to the creature—raw instincts alone didn’t make for a smooth existence. Just a confusing one.
She stared at the road illuminated by the fading sun and streetlights only just flickering to life. The wind from the car’s open windows whipped into the cabin, playing with her hair and filling every breath she took with Delanie’s scent.
At least you know he’s taking you to Del. He’d not lying about that. If he wasn’t you’d have to incapacitate him.
Flicking Rourke another look, she suppressed a sharp sigh. Incapacitating him may not be as easy the second time round. She’d caught him unawares back on the roadside, but something about the straight set to his shoulders, the coiled strength in his biceps told her that was unlikely to happen again.
There you go, checking out his muscles again.
Jackie ground her teeth. Damn it, she was insane.
“Do you always growl under your breath when in a car, or is this just a one-time thing?”
Rourke’s drawl made her start and she glared at him. Growling? Again? She was closer to losing control of her thylacine than she thought.
White teeth flashed in the muted glow from the Audi’s dashboard. Grinning. He was grinning at her.
“I know you want to ask me a ton of questions,” he went on, the grin on his lips echoed in the tone of his voice. “Hit me with one and I’ll see if I can answer it.”
Jackie narrowed her eyes. “Why are you so glib? Is it a defense mechanism?”
“I’m not glib. I’m sardonic.”
“Ah, and that is so much better.” Her fingers wriggled before she could stop them. “You want questions? Let’s start with the obvious. Who are you? Who has Delanie? How do you know? And why do you want to help me?”
A low chuckle floated through the cabin. “That’s a lotta questions, darlin’. I guess I did ask you to hit me.”
Jackie gave him a cool smile. “Trust me, if I hit you, you’re not making lame jokes afterwards.”
Rourke chuckled again. “And here I was trying to break the ice, and you’re thinking about breaking my head.”
As infuriated and worried as Jackie was, she couldn’t stop her smile twitching into a reluctant grin. “Not your head,” she said. “Your ambiguity.”
“I’m sorry. If I could answer those questions I would. It would make you trusting me so much easier.”
Jackie cocked an eyebrow. “Yes, I’m all for trust in this relationship. Oh, wait a minute, we don’t have a relationship. We have a situation. You stalk me, my best friend goes missing, I kick your arse, you take me to her. That’s our situation.”
He hissed in a long breath. “Damn, darlin’. That’s cold.”
“No, that’s the truth. Which is exactly not what I’m getting from you.”
Silence followed her blunt statement, and the darkening shadows in the car’s cabin hiding his expression.
She twisted in her seat, staring hard at him. “Who has taken Delanie?”
Another silence filled the Audi, before Rourke let out a sharp breath. “An enemy.”
“Whose enemy? Mine?”
Rourke kept his stare on the road. “No. Yes.” He made a face. “It’s complicated, darlin’.”
Jackie clenched her jaw. “Try me.”
He didn’t respond for a moment. Jackie studied his profile. High forehead, long, strong nose, blonde bristles not even coming close to taking the smooth perfection off his square jaw.
Perfection? Is that your damn thylacine libido talking or you?
“Someone wants something from you. Your friend unfortunately has been caught up in the trap.”
His statement turned the twisting heat in the pit of her belly to a cold knot. “Someone? Who? And what?”
Rourke shook his head. “It’s better I don’t answer those.”
“Better for who? You? Me? This mysterious someone?”
He shot her a quick look, the dashboard light catching in his eyes for a split second, turning them to twin silver discs. “You.”
The tone of his voice—flat, serious—made Jackie’s stomach clench. She swallowed, not liking the sensation at all. “Okay,” she said, staring at the side of his face. She wished he’d look at her. She wanted see his eyes again. She wanted to gage his reaction to what she was about to say. “Seeing as you’re reluctant to share information, let me tell you what I know about you already.”
His eyebrows dipped into a brief frown and his jaw bunched. “Okay, darlin’.” He inclined his head a fraction in a shallow nod. “Give it your best shot.”
“You’re not a cop, but you’ve had training of some sort, possibly military, most likely government funded. You move like you are constantly prepared to attack or be attacked. You didn’t like being bested back in the street, but there was a part of you that was impressed. Secrets are second nature to you. You try to pretend you’re laughing at what’s going on around you, but you are really observing every little detail. You catalogue everything you see for future use, either as a weapon or as a weakness. Your right arm moves slightly farther from your body than your left, meaning you are used to a holster being under your right armpit. This makes you left-handed, another trait you try hard to conceal by doing most things with your right—removing your sunglasses, scratching your nose, adjusting your shirt. But when you do something with your left hand the action is more fluid, less contemplated. You have a callous on your left thumb pad from years of cocking the safety on a gun. The indent on the inside of your middle left finger indicates your new weapon—most likely a Glock—is heavier than your old one. You’ve spent many hours at a firing range, and you tend to squint slightly with your left eye when you take aim.” She cocked her head to the side. “You should do something about those wrinkles before you lose your Texan good looks.”
She paused, noting with a perverse sense of satisfaction the white tightness of his knuckles on the wheel and the balled muscles in his jaw.
“You’re older than you look, but not by much—maybe mid-thirties. You give off no scent whatsoever, which I have to admit, both irks and intrigues me, and you know what I am, which leads me to consider you yourself are not strictly human.” She paused again, her throat tight at the fact.
If he was not human, what was he? Shifter? Demon? Or something else?
Rourke didn’t say a word. Silence stretched between them as the Audi ate up the road.
Jackie cocked her eyebrow again. “How did I do?”
“You did very well.”
She smiled at the begrudging compliment.
“Except I’m in my late thirties, thirty-eight to be exact.” He gave her a crooked grin. “In human years, that is.”
Jackie’s chest grew heavy. “What are you?”
He shook his head. “That’s irrelevant to our situation.”
She narrowed her eyes. “Our situation still is in a state of ambiguity.”
He chuckled. “No, our situation is just as you stated. I stalked you, your best friend went missing, you kicked my butt and I’m helping you save her.” He gave her another grin, this one not so lop-sided and way more mischievous. “Oh, wait, there’s a new element. You think I’m good looking.”
Jackie stared at him. After all that, the one thing he latched onto was a throwaway line about his looks?
A throwaway line completely unnecessary to proving your point.
She bit back a muttered curse. This was getting her nowhere. Except closer to a headache she didn’t need and a state of interest she didn’t want. She had to focus on Delanie. “I’ve had enough of the word games, Rourke,” she snapped. “Who the hell are you, who the hell has Delanie and what do they want from me?”
His grin disappeared and he turned his attention back to the road. “I’m the man here with you now, not the man holding your friend. Remember that.”
Jackie shook her head. “What the bloody hell does that mean?”
“It means,” he answered, directing the car into an abrupt right turn, “things are about to get nasty.”
The Audi jolted to a sudden halt, the tires biting into what sounded like gravel seconds before Rourke released his seatbelt, flung open his door and leapt from the car.
Jackie blinked, snatching her stare from the man’s empty seat. She looked out the window, the abrupt change in their “situation” making her chest tight and her pulse rapid.
What were they doing at the abandoned St. Helen’s greyhound-racing track?
Is this where Delanie was?
The realization she was still sitting in Rourke’s rental while the Texan stood looking at her from the Audi’s grill smacked into her like an open palm. With a low snarl, she yanked her seatbelt off and shoved open her door, cheeks filling with disgusted shame.
She moved on silent feet to stand beside the man professing to be Delanie’s only hope, wishing she had her gun more than ever. Her gun would not only help with whatever waited for them inside the racing grounds, but its solid steel weight and texture would keep her animal in check.
She didn’t want to transform. Whatever went down behind the high, corrugated fence surrounding the track and derelict buildings, she didn’t want to transform. Not unless Delanie’s life depended on it. No matter what her animal and her body were trying to tell her about the mysterious Marshall Rourke, she didn’t trust him. Not enough to let him see her shift.
Rourke leant at his hip to bring his lips even with her temple. “This is it, Detective Huddart.”
She studied the dilapidated fence before her, the dying sunlight turning the rusted metal a dark old-blood black. Somewhere on the other side was Delanie. Lifting her chin a little, she drew in a deep breath.
The acrid stench of ancient dog piss, beer, excrement and rabbit threaded into her lungs, drowning out Del’s scent. She curled her lip. The St. Helens’ dog track had closed down years ago, but the remains of its purpose lingered in the soil—death and sweat and drinking. Dog’s trained to run faster than any other, petrified rabbits used to frenzy them before a race, owners and gamblers alike drinking excessive amounts of alcohol as the greyhounds ran themselves almost to death chasing a lump of metal doused in rabbit urine. Mankind at its finest. It was the perfect place to hide from someone capable of tracking by scent.
Which made Jackie even more suspicious. Whoever took her best friend knew she would follow the trail here.
She took another breath, searching…seeking… “Damn it.” She couldn’t detect Del’s scent at all in the putrid odors hanging heavy on the night air. It was all just muddied smells now.
She gave Rourke a level stare. “Are you sure?”
Sharp ice-blue eyes stared back at her, their intensity almost hidden in the growing darkness. “Yes.”
The word sent a shiver down Jackie’s spine. “How do you know?”
“I’ll explain later, I promise.”
Biting back a muttered curse, she turned back to the track, taking another breath. If she could just get a lock on Delanie’s location herself she could knock Rourke out and deal with the situation without being distracted.
Distracted? Don’t you mean turned on?
“Can you detect her?”
Rourke’s voice seemed strained. She looked at him, noting the tightness around his eyes, the flaring of his nostrils. Her stomach knotted. Something didn’t feel right. “No.”
He turned his attention back to the track. “Building at three o’clock. Two different scents—one male, one female. Both very weak.” He licked his lips, as if tasting the air. “He’s tried to conceal their location. I smell fresh blood—rodent.”
Jackie frowned, staring first at Rourke and then at the dark shape rising above the fence to her right. It looked like the old bar and cafeteria. Her stomach twisted again. How could Rourke detect Delanie’s scent when she couldn’t?
What was he to have such a highly developed sense of smell?
And why did she feel so aroused by the fact?
Her animal stirred, sending her pulse into an erratic tattoo. Her nipples pinched into hard peaks and her sex grew heavy. Her teeth pointed. Her flesh began to itch. Ripple.
Jackie drove her nails into her palms. Damn it. Not now. Not now.
Rourke’s growled command jerked her body back under control. He moved, long, lean frame somehow folding into the deepening night, crossing the graveled clearing in front of the track’s gaping entryway on silent feet. Every step he took made the pit of Jackie’s belly twist. The way he moved was almost familiar. It was like watching a foreign film without the subtitles. The story ensnared her but she couldn’t fully comprehend it.
It pissed her off.
Casting the surrounding darkness one last look, she followed the Texan across the clearing, making no sound at all. Her palm itched for her gun. Her muscles itched to transform. Her animal growled for release. She fixed her eyes on the black shape looming up behind the fence, drawing an image of Delanie into her mind.
Her friend. Rescuing Del was all that mattered now. After Del was safe, then she would turn her attention to Marshall Rourke. Pin him down and extract his secrets.
Until then, he was just someone in her peripheral vision.
Stepping past the broken gate into the racing track’s grounds, Rourke but a few steps in front, Jackie pulled another breath. Every scent she detected was old. Faded. She dropped into a crouch, touched her fingertips to the cracked concrete beneath her feet and then raised them to her nose.
Canine. Blood. Urine. Saliva.
Human. Urine. Sweat.
She bit back a curse. No hint anyone had been here recently, let alone Delanie.
Straightening to her feet, she continued toward the building Rourke insisted her friend was in.
So why can’t I smell her?
A soft scrape sounded to her left, shattering the silence.
Heartbeat tripling, she stared into the darkness, her animal vision seeing everything.
Which was nothing.
No indication anything had been—
A powerful stench hit her. Wild. Angry.
She gasped, the distinct scent of an alpha canine flooding her senses. Spinning about, she looked for Rourke.
She was alone.
Sucking in another breath, she searched for the animal. The ghost of its scent tainted the sweet night air, ribbons of refuse and excrement twisting around the odor. Jackie frowned, her throat squeezing. Was it an animal? Maybe she was mistaken? Too much filth coated the scent to be certain. Made it difficult to taste.
She clenched her fists, her gut churning, her skin tingling.
Run, chase, track, hunt, kill.
Her thylacine surged upward, growling for release. She sank her nails into her palms, forcing control through her body. Just.
Something moved behind her.
She spun about, ready to—transform—attack.
A massive black blur darted behind a small brick building—a toilet block by its foul odor.
Jackie’s pulse pounded in her ears.
She took a step forward, tasting the air again.
And smelt Delanie.
The deep murmur at her ear made her jump. She struck out, her elbow connecting with something hard and hot.
Fists ready to strike, she snapped around, her stare locking on Rourke’s face but an inch from hers.
“Damn, you’re fast.” The muttered exclamation slipped past his lips as he rubbed his hand over his abdomen.
Jackie ignored him. “I’ve found—”
“Delanie,” he finished. Sharp blue eyes flashed silver in the moonlight. “Let’s go.”
He turned and loped away, heading for the derelict bar and cafeteria, fluid and graceful and fast. She followed, zeroing her senses on the almost nonexistent trace of her best friend.
The square building sat silent, its rust-blemished roof reflecting the waxing moon’s glow, its serving windows covered with weather-bleached boards. A door at the back of the structure hung on a single hinge, the entry a light-devouring rectangle that seemed to mock Jackie. She’s in here. Are you brave enough to come in too?
Jackie curled her lip. Don’t be bloody ridiculous, Huddart.
Rourke veered left, his stride slowing somewhat. He shot her a quick look over his shoulder, indicating she should go right. Jackie frowned, a ripple flowing over her flesh. Her animal didn’t like it. She didn’t like it. Was it a perimeter search? Taking their foe by surprise? Or a tactic to divide and conquer?
Keeping her senses locked on Delanie’s weak scent, she approached the cafeteria. The smell of burnt sausages, stale beer and vomit assaulted her, tried to overpower her friend’s trace. She wouldn’t let it. Pressing her back to the cool brick wall, she steadied her heart. This close to the open door, Delanie’s scent was stronger, but not by much.
Jackie’s heart smashed against her breastbone. Her hair stood on end and she wriggled her fingers.
Hunt, track, hunt, hunt, hunt.
She shut out the alluring, feverish want and inched closer to the black entryway.
A noise, like velvet rubbing against stone, whispered behind her, but she didn’t look. There was no new scent, just the ghosts of dogs and humans long gone. Nothing to draw her attention from the inside of the cafeteria. Delanie. She needed to keep her focus on Delanie.
She drew closer to the door, the sour stench of human vomit and rotting meat slipping into her breath. All old. All tired.
Hunt, hunt, hunt, hunt, hunt, hunt.
Her pulse tripled.
The bricks rasped against her palms as she moved along the wall, tearing minute wounds into the pads of her fingers.
The noise came again. Closer.
She froze beside the doorway, ears straining.
Silence. Not even the sound of scurrying cockroaches.
She drew another breath—pinpointing Delanie’s scent. Four metres inside the building, to the left. Her chest tightened. This close, it should be stronger. This close, she should be able to hear her friend breathing. This close, she should know Delanie was there.
But she didn’t.
Trap, trap, run, hunt, kill, kill.
She closed her eyes for a split second, wriggled her fingers and stepped into the blackness.
Moonlight streamed into the building, pouring through a section of roof where the ironing sheeting no longer existed, illuminating the gutted kitchen and vandalized benches. Rubbish was strewn everywhere. Decayed rat carcasses littered the floor, discarded food wrappings and empty beer bottles blanketing them in refuse.
Jackie stood motionless, her blood roaring in her ears. Not a sign of Delanie. Not even a clearing of rubbish where she may have once been.
She scanned the filth. Nothing indicated someone had been here recently, let alone two someones. One of whom, Jackie was certain, would have been putting up a damn good struggle.
That’s assuming Del’s conscious.
Jackie snarled at the dark notion. She took a step deeper into the cafeteria, pulling in a long, deep breath. Something with Delanie’s scent was here. The floral note of happy cheekiness Jackie had known most of her life whispered on the air, teasing her. Taunting in its fragile existence.
Closing her eyes, she shut everything in the derelict room out but the allusive hint of her best friend.
So faint. So faint.
She let her animal surge closer to release, closer to control. It was dangerous, but she didn’t care. She needed to find her friend. Her body tingled. Her heart hammered. She felt a million pinpricks of icy fire raze her flesh. She felt every hair follicle thrum with ancient magick.
Hunt, track, run, kill, mate.
Her sex grew heavy, her breath short. She wriggled her fingers, controlling her Tasmanian tiger as it came closer to freedom, its heightened senses tasting the cool night air, feeling the vibrations of the earth, the shifting of the planet. Hearing the frantic heartbeats of petrified mice hiding in the refuse. She opened her eyes, scanning the moonlit debris under the far window, near the cafeteria’s old freezer room. Delanie’s scent tickling, mocking, teasing…
Track, run, kill, mate.
Mate, mate, fuck.
A glint of something gold caught her eye. Something tiny like an earring. Cast aside in the rubbish and filth. An earring just like the pair Jackie had given Del for her eighteenth birthday.
An earring on which Delanie’s scent lingered, like beads of mist on a spider’s web.
Delanie’s scent and someone else’s. Someone ancient and powerful and—
Rourke’s muttered curse smashed into Jackie’s ears. She jumped, spinning around to stare at the man standing directly behind her, her pulse pounding, her thylacine growling.
Face etched in a frown, Rourke ignored her, raising his hand up to his face, fingers spread to study something on his palm.
Jackie’s thylacine tasted the blood on the air before she saw it. A crimson trickle of pure male life force seeping over Marshall’s wrist bone and down his arm from a wound she couldn’t see somewhere on his hand. A trickle of blood ripe with potent pheromones and virulent power.
Her animal tasted the man’s blood on the air. Tasted it and detected something different about it. Something ancient. Animalistic.
Fire erupted in Jackie’s core. An ice-storm of primeval power followed. Her thylacine howled. Shift, shift, mate, mate, fuck, fuck, fuck.
Her body trembled. She staggered back one step, her stare snapping from Rourke’s hand to his face.
Transform, shift, mate, fuck, fuck, fuck.
Rourke’s frown deepened, his eyes unreadable silver discs in the room’s cool light as he moved his gaze to her. “What’s wrong?”
His voice—low and gravelly and far too sexy—stabbed into her core, a wicked blade of carnal stimulus. Her Tasmanian tiger clamored for release, its base instincts surging for control. Forcing the shift. Forcing the transformation from human to thylacine. From woman to bitch. A bitch in heat and wanting to mate.
Icy fire consumed her. Flooded her sex—mate, mate, fuck, mate, fuck, fuck—and she did the only thing she could to stop the shift claiming her.
She threw herself at Marshall Rourke, her hands fisting in his hair, her mouth crushing his, her tongue invading his mouth before the savage transformation could begin.
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