"Hey, it's okay." Jenna stood up, giving Alex a sympathetic, if bewildered, smile as she caught her in a tight hug. "You've been through a lot. The past couple of days have been rough for everyone, but I'm sure especially you."
Alex pulled back and gave a vague shake of her head. "I'm fine." The church door opened and closed as another group of people walked out into the brisk night. Was he out there, too? She had to know.
"Did you see that guy in the back of the church tonight?" she asked Jenna. "Black hair, pale gray eyes. He was standing by himself near the door."
Jenna shook her head. "Who are you talking about? I didn't notice anyone--"
"Never mind. Listen, I think I'm going to skip Pete's tonight."
"Good idea," Jenna agreed as Zach stepped down off the raised platform of the pulpit and walked over to join them. "Go home and get some sleep, okay? You're always worrying about me, but right now you need to give yourself a little TLC. Besides, it's been a while since I had a burger and a beer with my old fart of a brother, just the two of us. He's been avoiding me lately, making me wonder if maybe he's got a secret girlfriend or something."
"No girlfriend," Zach said. "Don't have time for that when I'm married to my job. You all right, Alex? That was seriously weird and not like you at all. If you want to talk about what happened, with me or even a professional--"
"I'm fine," she insisted, getting irritated now, and thankful for the anger that was letting her put her troubling past on the back shelf where it belonged. "Look, forget what I said tonight. I didn't mean anything by it, I was just messing with Big Dave."
"Well, he's an asshole and he deserved it," Jenna said, looking more than a little relieved that she wouldn't have to call in the white coats after all.
Alex smiled with a lightness she didn't really feel. "I'm gonna go. Have fun at Pete's, you guys." She hardly waited for them to tell her good-bye. Her rush to the door impeded by a trio of little old ladies talking and walking in slow motion, Alex's pulse was racing by the time she got her first lungful of the frigid night outside. She stood under the snow-laden eaves of the log-cabin church and glanced in all directions, looking for the striking face that had burned itself into her memory that first instant she saw him. He wasn't there.
Whoever he was, whatever had brought him to Harmony when the rest of civilization was barred by bad weather, he'd simply walked out into the darkness and vanished into the thin, cold air.
Kade trekked deep into the frigid wilderness of the bush, leaving the tiny town of Harmony some forty miles behind him. There were only a handful of winter travel options for humans this far incountry: plane, dogsled, or snow-machine. Kade traveled on foot, his duffel and gear slung onto his back, his snowshoes carrying him over the surface of blowing drifts that could swallow a man to his earlobes. The brittle wind sawed at him as he ran up one steep rise then down through yet another gully, his inhuman speed and endurance all thanks to the part of him that was Breed.
It was his Alaskan heart and soul that relished the cold and the punishing terrain, calling to the wildness inside him--the wildness that was quick to rise again now that he was back on the familiar tundra of his homeland.
Following the frozen KoyukukRiver north toward the general location of the Toms settlement was easy enough. Once he got close to the area where the killings had occurred, his acute sense of smell led him the rest of the way. Despite the thick cover of fresh-fallen snow from the storms of the past couple days, to one of his kind, the taint of spilled blood still carried on the wind like a beacon lighting the path toward the scene of the recent carnage.
What he'd seen on the Web-posted video images Gideon had obtained in Boston had prepared him somewhat for his mission. He'd gone to Harmony's airstrip after the town hall meeting to get a private look at the dead who lay on ice in the yard's sole hangar. The wounds had been grisly on the video. Seeing them up close and personal certainly hadn't been an improvement.
But Kade had studied the lacerations--the near eviscerations--with a cool head and an objective eye. He hadn't found any surprises during his visit to the makeshift morgue. It hadn't been either animal or human that killed the Toms family.
Something else had brutalized them ... just as the young woman, the pretty brown-eyed blonde named Alexandra Maguire, had insisted in the gathering at the town church.
Now, she, on the other hand, had been a surprise.
Tall and lean, with a simple beauty that needed no enhancements, the female had stunned Kade when she stood up and declared that she had seen something strange in the snow. For one thing, Kade had not been aware of any witnesses, except the idiot who'd recorded the video and had the bad sense to post it online. Locating and silencing that particular problem was among Kade's top mission priorities for the Order, just below the priority of identifying the Rogue vampire--or vampires--responsible for the bloody attack and seeing that justice was served with a cold, swift hand.
But now there was an added complication in the form of this female, Alex. Just one more wrinkle in a situation already full of them. Whatever she saw, whatever she knew about the killings out here in the bush, she was a problem that Kade would have to deal with before things were complicated any further. He could sure as hell think of worse things to do in the line of duty than pump the attractive blonde for information.
One of those worse things loomed ahead of him in the darkness--the shadowy cluster of houses and outbuildings that comprised the Toms family settlement. Kade's nostrils twitched with the scent of old blood beneath the white cover of snow that blanketed the site. From this distance some hundred yards away, the scene looked picturesque, peaceful. A quiet frontier outpost nestled among the spruce and birch of the boreal woods that surrounded it.
But the stench of death clung to the place even in the cold, growing more pungent as Kade walked up to the stout log building nearest the trail. He removed his snow-shoes and walked up the two steps to the porch. The rough-hewn door was closed but unlocked. Kade squeezed the latch and gave the door his shoulder, pushing it open.
A large pool of frozen blood glistened like black onyx in the scant glow of the moonlight spilling in around him as he stood on the threshold of the house. His body's reaction to the sight and scent of the crystallized red cells hit him like a hammer to the skull. Even though the blood was spilled and old, of no use to Kade, whose kind could only take nourishment from the veins of living human beings, his fangs punched out from his gums in response.
He hissed a low curse through those stretching fangs as he lifted his head and caught sight of more blood--more signs of struggle and suffering--in the smeared, dark trail that led from the main room of the cabin toward the short hallway that cut down its center. One of the victims had tried to escape the predator who'd come to kill them. Kade set down his duffel and snowshoes, then followed the corridor. The human had only sealed its fate by fleeing to the back bedroom. Cornered there, the garish splatters on the walls and unmade bed told Kade enough of the brutality of this slaying, as well.
There had been two more lives cut down in this place, and Kade took no satisfaction in piecing together the horrific scenarios of their murders as he walked the rest of the settlement and analyzed the attack. He'd seen enough here. He knew with heavy certainty that the deaths had Bloodlust written all over them. Whoever killed the humans here had done so with a fervor that exceeded anything Kade had ever seen before--even that of the most savage, addicted Rogue.
"Son of a bitch," he muttered, his gut tight with disgust as he wheeled away from the ghostly settlement and staggered toward the surrounding forest in need of fresh air. He gulped it in, dragging the taste of brisk winter deep into his lungs.
It wasn't enough. Hunger and rage twisted around him like tightening chains, suffocating him in the heat of his parka and clothing. Kade tore it all off and stood naked in the biting November night. The chill darkness soothed him, but not by much.
He wanted to run--needed to run--and felt the cold arms of the Alaskan wilderness reach out to embrace him. In the distance, he heard the low howl of a wolf. He felt the cry resonate deep in his marrow, felt it singing through his veins.
Kade threw his head back and answered it.
Another wolf replied, this one markedly closer than the first. In minutes, the pack had moved in, inching toward him through the tight clusters of spruce. Kade glanced from one pair of keen lupine eyes to another. The alpha stepped forward from the trees, a big black male with a ragged right ear. The wolf advanced alone, moving as shadow across the pristine white of the snow.
Kade stood his ground as first the alpha, then the others, walked a slow circle around him. He met their inquisitive eyes and sent a mental promise that he meant them no harm. They understood, as he knew they would.
And when he silently commanded them to take off, the pack bolted into the thick curtain of the starlit woods.
Kade fell in alongside them and ran with the wolves as one of the pack. Elsewhere in the cold, dark night, another predator strode the frozen, forbidding terrain. He'd been walking for hours, alone and on foot in this empty wilderness for more nights than he could recall. He thirsted, but his need was not as urgent as it had been when he'd first set out into the cold. His body was nourished now, his muscles, bones, and cells infused with power from the blood he had taken recently. Admittedly, too much blood, but already his system was leveling out from the overfill. And now that he was stronger, his body revived, he was finding it difficult to curb the thrill of the hunt.
That's what he was, after all: the purest form of hunter.
It was those predatory instincts that pricked to awareness as the quiet of the woods he crept through was disturbed by the rhythmic gait of a two-legged intruder. The stench of wood smoke and unclean human skin assailed his nose as the dark shape of a man wrapped in a heavy parka materialized not far from where the hunter watched and waited in the darkness. A metallic jangle sounded with each step the human took, emanating from the steel chains and sharp-toothed clamps he gripped in his gloved hand. In the other hand was a dead animal held by its hind feet, a large rodentlike creature that had been gutted along the way. The human trapper trudged toward a small log shack up the trail. The hunter watched him walk past, unaware of the gaze that followed him with greedy interest. For a moment, the hunter debated the merits of cornering his prey within the confines of the tiny shelter versus indulging in a bit of sport among the trees and drifts outside. Deciding on the latter, he stepped out from the cover of his observation spot and made a low sound in the back of his throat--part warning, part invitation for the now-startled human to run. The trapper did not disappoint.
"Oh, Jesus. What in God's name--" Fear blanched his bearded face and rendered his jaw slack. He dropped his paltry prize into the snow at his feet, then stumbled into a terrified dash for the woods. The hunter's lips curled off his fangs with anticipation of the chase. He let his prey crash away some sporting distance, then he set off after him.
Alex packed up her snowmachine and hit the trail with Luna on board in front of her about an hour before daybreak. She was still rattled from the town meeting the night before, and more than a bit curious about the stranger who'd apparently vanished into the bush as oddly as he'd appeared in the back of Harmony's little log church.
Who was he? What did he want in tiny, remote Harmony? Where had he come from when the recent snowstorm had left most of the interior cut off from all of the nearest major ports?
And why had he been the only person in the entire assembly last night who'd listened to her account of the footprint left in the snow out at the Toms place and not made her feel like she had lost her mind?
Not that any of that mattered today. Mr. Tall, Dark, and Mysterious was long gone from Harmony, and Alex had a sled packed with as many supplies as she could carry--bare necessities for a few of the folks she'd had to neglect when her plane run to the bush was cut short the other day. Now she had a scant three hours of daylight and just enough gasoline stowed on board and in the Polaris's oversize fuel tank to make the hundred-mile round trip.
She had no good reason to detour toward the Toms settlement about an hour into her drive. None, except the gnawing need for answers. The hope--futile as she feared it to be--that she might find some kind of explanation for the slayings that didn't involve bloodied footprints in the snow and memories dredged up from the pit of her own private hell.
As Alex steered the snowmachine onto the drifted-over trail that led to Pop Toms's place, Luna jumped off to romp in the fresh, glittering powder.
"Stay with me," Alex warned the eager wolf dog as she slowed her sled on the approach to the small cluster of dark wood structures.
Watching Luna's eagerness to race ahead brought on an unwelcome flashback to that awful moment three mornings ago and to the grisly discovery of young Teddy's body.
And, just like that day, Luna tore off now, ignoring Alex's calls for her to wait.
"Luna!" Alex shouted into the stillness of the early afternoon. She cut the gas on the snowmachine and leapt off, then huffed and waded as best she could through the deep drifts that had hardly slowed Luna down at all. "Luna!"
Up ahead several yards, the wolf dog ran up the steps of Pop's porch and disappeared inside. What the hell? The door was open, even though Zach had made certain everything was closed up tight before the bodies of Pop and his family had been taken away. Had the wind blown the door open?
Or had it been something more dangerous than an Arctic gale that swept through here in the time since the killings?
"Luna," Alex said as she drew closer to the log building, hating the small shake in her voice. Her heart rate started to jackhammer in her chest. She swallowed past her anxiety and tried again. "Luna. Come on out of there, girl."
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