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“Only one minute left to place a bet.”
The amplified warning sent a shudder through me. As I watched the officers of the Animal Crimes Unit make their move solely by moonlight, I left the unmarked police cars at the edge of the lot that was an intended construction site. Animal Care and Control stood ready to take care of the animals once arrests were made. The heavens rumbled as if in disapproval, and dry lightning struck the area before me. For a moment, the horror of the dogfight arena stood out against the night like an old-time film negative.
A hand on my elbow made me jump. I whipped around and faced my brother.
“You shouldn’t be here, Skye,” Shade said, his voice low.
“Neither should you. You’re homicide, not organized crime.” This wasn’t my brother’s case, not unless there was a dead body involved. “What’s going on?”
Shade didn’t answer. Around us, ACU officers silently got in position close to the crowd surrounded by wooden street horses and snow fencing, both commodities confiscated from the city. Shade scanned the crowd through the darkness as if looking for someone.
Where the hell is he?
Reading his thoughts, I asked, “Who?”
Great. Well, I would get it out of him later.
Shade stepped in front of me and snagged something over my head. “Don’t take this off, and stay here until I tell you it’s safe.” With that, he moved in with some of the other men.
I looked to see what he’d thrown around my neck. From a length of cord hung what looked like a piece of sea glass. Some kind of good luck charm? It twinkled at me as if it were lit from the inside. I’d never seen it before, but the cops I knew were a superstitious lot. Undoubtedly, my brother’s way of ensuring my safety.
Still frustrated by his command to stay—Shade could be more than a little bossy with me—I looked around. I was here as a volunteer observer only to make certain the animals were treated well and to determine how many were fit to be taken on at the shelter when cleared.
A lot of people were gathered in the arena. What made my stomach roil was seeing kids with their parents, children being taught there was no value to life. One little boy was jumping up and down with excitement and his father was grinning with satisfaction.
Everyone was focused on the fight about to start, so they didn’t notice the ACU silently descending on them.
Despite another coil of lightning zeroing in on the crime scene, the night air was hot and still as if it were holding its breath. Tension coiled me for action, but not being able to do anything made my anxiety level escalate. Then a bell clanged and everything happened at once. The night exploded with growls and barks and screams.
Immediately, ACU officers tightened the net.
“Everyone here is under arrest!” their leader shouted as others cut their way into the middle of the arena to stop the fight. “Stay put!”
Weapons drawn, uniformed men blocked the exits, while others moved in to arrest and handcuff the felons—the organizers, owners, and transporters. And, thanks to a recent change in the law, the spectators could be arrested for felony crimes as well.
Beneath the cacophony, I swore I could hear whispers—voices that set my skin tingling—and an unearthly laughter skittered down my spine. Before I could tune in, I was rushing forward, determined to see that the animals were properly taken care of.
I spotted Shade in a struggle with a big guy who was fighting mad. With a knee in the guy’s spine, Shade cuffed the man’s hands behind his back. I wondered why his partner, Ethan, was nowhere around.
The vet was blocking my line of sight. I looked down beyond her. A wounded animal lay on the ground. Not a dog, but what looked like a scrawny coyote, its side open and soaked with blood. What was a wild animal doing here? Where had it come from? I went around the camera equipment and was able to sense its heartbeat. Wanting to know if it was aware, I tuned in to it and got the weirdest sensation… help me… please… almost as if I could hear what it was thinking rather than seeing images as I normally did. Animals never communicated with me like that.
hurt… can’t move… hide…
A little spooked, I rubbed my arms. We’re going to help you… won’t let you die. Then I looked to the vet.
“Um, in case you didn’t realize it, the coyote’s alive and needs your help.”
“It’s still alive?” The vet zeroed in on the animal. “Don’t get too close.” And glanced up at me. “Oh, it’s you.”
“Skye Cross,” I reminded her.
She knew my face like I knew hers. I had a habit of showing up when animals were in trouble, so many of the ACC vets and officers recognized me on sight.
“Hurry, before it bleeds out. I can hang on to the dog while you patch up the coyote,” I offered.
“You know I can’t let you do that.”
Seeing the blood ooze out of the coyote’s side, I tried to reassure it She’s going to help you. Hold on. As if the coyote could hear me.
The vet tied the muzzled dog’s leash to a wooden horse, then quickly brought her bag over to the coyote and stanched the blood. I gave it a last worried look before focusing on the dog. It was gangly with patchwork fur and had a dark face that reminded me of pictures I’d seen of wild dogs in Africa. A wild predator. What the hell? With the vet’s attention focused elsewhere, I moved closer.
“I’m not going to hurt you, I promise.” I held out the back of my relaxed hand so the animal could smell me. Growling, it backed up. I got down on my knees and crawled closer. I slowly slipped my arms around the bloodied animal, whispering, “It’s okay now. You won’t have to do this anymore.”
I took a quick look around to see who’d said that, but couldn’t pin the owner of the voice. I rocked the strange-looking dog gently until it stopped resisting me.
Get away I heard the warning again, less stringent this time.
Where was that strange voice coming from?
I touched foreheads with the dog.
Caged… what looked like an animal habitat spread out before me… wild animals pacing… ahead, darkness… lit skyscrapers and the planetarium glowing against the night sky…
Confused by the images, I broadcast calm.
“Please, get away from the dog.”
The vision ended abruptly, and I turned to see the vet glaring at me.
Sighing, I did as she ordered. “Sorry, boy.”
“Either keep your distance, or I’ll have someone escort you out.”
Knowing she must be overwhelmed, I looked past her. “Hey, what happened to the coyote?”
The vet looked around. “I don’t know how, but it must have gotten up and wandered away. That coyote could be a danger to the people here.”
“I’ll find him.”
I skirted her, scanning the area until my gaze lit on the arena wall. A blood smear told me which way the coyote had gone. Another flicker of dry electric heat zapped the area. Swallowing a healthy dose of fear, I jumped the makeshift wall and walked outside the cordoned-off area into the dark. Whistling as I passed a couple of construction trailers, I broadcast soft thoughts to reach out and curl around the frightened animal.
I heard a low growl to my left. I followed the sound, putting distance between me and the fight site. No lights here. In the distance, yes, but with the moon under the cover of clouds, the night blanketed me. I glanced back and realized no one knew I was out here.
And maybe this was a mistake.
My breath catching in my throat, I turned to go back when I heard another growl, this one louder, from behind me. And a snarl to the right. A spine-tingling roar to the left. The flesh below my throat sizzled and I put my hand to the sea glass pendant Shade had given me. It felt alive against my fingers and seemed to give me courage. Part of me wanted to run, but the other part—the part that connected with animals—told me to hold my ground.
So, pulse threading unevenly, I stopped. Waited. The sounds grew louder, more insistent. I realized I could be in danger and started backing up very slowly.
The cloud cover inched off the moon. The area around me glowed blue and I could see them. A lion. A wolf. A hyena.
More wild animals.
My mouth went dry and my heart threatened to pound out of my chest. I kept inching away from them, skipping my gaze from one to the other.
“Hey, did someone raid the zoo?” I choked out, but no one answered, and it occurred to me they could be the product of illegal wildlife trade.
The clouds lifted completely, giving me a better look at the predators that stared back at me with molten eyes. The breath caught in my throat. There was something truly unnatural about them. What was I facing here?
I fought the knot growing in my gut, attempted to tune in to the animals, to convince them I offered no threat. As had happened earlier, whispers and laughter and an odd tickle of heat brushed along my spine and through my skin.
She ought to be.
Looks like she might make a nice snack.
I heard the animals’ thoughts, which further confounded me. I communicated with animals through images, not words. So how was I hearing what they were saying to one another? And why did they sound like humans talking?
The predators moved in on me. Trying not to show the anxiety that threatened to consume me, I curled my hands into fists and continued to edge backward. They continued to advance on me. My heart was pounding, my blood racing. Knowing they could sense my fear, I tried to control it. Futile. No escape.
The hyena broke from the pack and rushed me. If I turned my back on it, I was dead for sure. I kept putting one foot behind the other and the wolf and the lion picked up their pursuit.
The hyena’s muscles bunched and it flew through the air at me. I threw up my hands to protect myself, but it never reached me.
Instead, it was as if an invisible wall stopped it cold. It shrieked and fell to the ground in a heap.
What do you think you’re doing? Go!
The predators stopped and I sensed their sudden fear.
Now! the voice in my head thundered.
The animals fled and quickly disappeared into the night.
I flipped around. At first I didn’t see him. Then I caught a movement to my right and nailed him where he stood.
Dark hair whipped around features so rugged they could have been cut from granite. High cheekbones. Broad forehead. Square chin. His eyes appeared silver in the moonlight, and they glowed at me, tightening my stomach and making it hard to breathe.
Trembling, I gasped. “What just happened?”
“You got into something that doesn’t concern you.” Forget about it.
I started. He hadn’t said the last bit out loud. There was something about him so powerful I almost agreed.
I fought the desire to give in. “I’m not forgetting about anything. Who are you?”
I felt as if he were trying to push the command into my mind.
Glaring at him, I pushed back.
“What are you?” he asked.
“Someone who protects animals.”
His silence told me that wasn’t exactly the explanation he was looking for. My pulse threaded as he stepped closer. I sensed both threat and something less tangible, something that made my stomach knot and my throat tighten. I’d always had a psychic connection not only with animals, but with my brother. No one else. Not until now. And this guy being able to mess with my mind went beyond any previous experience I’d had.
“Did you have something to do with the fight?” I gasped. “Where did those predators come from? What kind of power do you have over them?” It had to be something supernatural.
He stepped closer, and I sucked in a breath as his power cut through me, speeding my pulse, drying my mouth.
“You need to forget about them, Skye.”
This time he said it aloud. And he used my name.
“How do you know who I am?” I demanded, my heart beating so fast I could feel it bump up against my ribs. “What were you doing here? Who are you?”
Rather than answering my questions, he reached out and slid a palm along my cheek. The touch seared me, reminding me of the time I’d inadvertently touched a live wire. Wanting to move, wanting to run, I stood frozen instead. He was so close I imagined I could feel the heat of his body as he splayed fingers around the side of my head. My insides trembled and my breasts felt full and tight.
What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I move? Or speak?
You never saw me. You’ll forget about me the moment I disappear.
Every fiber of my being longed to do what he wanted. But something in me, the thing that made me do what I do, was stronger.
“Disappear to where?” I demanded through a parched throat. “I have an excellent memory.”
Appearing frustrated I’d been able to hear the silent command, he dropped his hand. “What are you?” he asked again.
The tension in my body eased and I frowned at him. “I don’t understand.”
I heard footsteps behind me. He peered over my shoulder.
I turned to look as Shade yelled, “Hey, what are you doing out here?” His gaze shifted over my shoulder and his expression went dark. “And what the hell are you doing with him?”
I glanced at the stranger, who was staring at my brother with an equally dark scowl. Their mutual dislike cut through me.
The stranger shifted his focus. Are you his?
Without thinking, I responded to the unspoken question. “Shade is my brother.”
“And my sister is off-limits!” Shade yelled.
The stranger turned to him with a pointed expression when he said, “As sisters should be.”
“What’s going on?” I whipped back to Shade. “You know him?”
Rather than answering, he said, “I told you to wait where you were.”
The air around me shifted and flickered lightning-white for a second, and the tension that held me diminished. When I looked for the stranger, he was gone.
Set free from whatever spell I’d been under, I pushed past Shade and started back toward the arena. “One of the animals in the fight escaped. I was trying to find it. It’s still out here somewhere. It was a coyote, not a dog.”
He didn’t sound surprised. “So you got out here and what?”
“The coyote was gone. But there were other animals. A wolf, a lion, and a hyena.”
Shade believed me. He knew something, but he was blocking me from finding out what exactly that might be. We were usually on the same wavelength psychically, but not tonight. Tonight he was holding secrets from me. It was as if he’d created an invisible wall to lock me out.
I stopped and asked, “What’s going on here? Explain.”
“Go home,” he told me, “where you belong.”
I tried to read him, but I couldn’t sense him the way I normally could. The same thing had happened the other day. Weird.
“I am where I belong,” I argued. “You’re the one who is out of his element. Unless you’ve quit homicide for animal control.”
“Why I’m here doesn’t concern you. And for God’s sake, don’t tell anyone about what you saw.”
When he got like this, there was nothing I could do. “You can be such a jerk. Leave me alone.”
Irritated, I stalked away. He was directly behind me as I passed the arena, but when I stopped to unlock my car door and glanced back, he was standing some distance away watching me. Obviously, he wasn’t going to tell me what he knew.
And what about the mysterious stranger? He seemed to have power to control the predators.
But most importantly…
Why did he think he had the power to control me?
End of Excerpt