Lyra Collins has made a life for herself in a sleepy artists' community in Arizona. Having escaped from a cult five years ago, she keeps a low profile, making a living as an artist. But when a mysterious man with a dark, dangerous look appears on her doorstep, she knows it's time to run again.
Former cop Dare Lancaster didn't mean to lead a bunch of fanatical cult members straight to Lyra's door. But now that he's gotten her into this mess, he's determined to get her out. The frantic heat their bodies generate whenever they're together makes him want to save her...
Neal Barker's grandfather was the first Prophet Jericho, and Neal now rules the Temple of Light commune unchecked. According to his visions, he and Lyra are destined to produce the new Messiah, so he will stop at nothing to make her his own. But soon Dare will discover just how far he'll go to protect Lyra--and never let her go.
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St. Martin's Paperbacks
March 01, 2007
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Excerpt from Chosen Prey by Cheyenne McCray
They'd found her. After all these years they'd found her.
Lyra gripped the plastic grocery bag tight in one fist and swallowed hard as she stood in her doorway and slowly turned to face the tall man on her porch. She hadn't even heard him following her until she'd opened her front door.
He'd called her by her real name. Only The People knew her real name.
"Lyra Collins?" the man repeated in a bass rumble that made her skin tingle. His eyes were shadowed by a Stetson pulled low over his forehead.
Her heart pounded as she took a step backward into her home. Adrenaline surged through her body and she fought a wild urge to run.
And run fast.
The man was frighteningly large, with broad shoulders and a tapered waist leading to lean hips. A black western shirt was tucked into black Wranglers molded to powerful thighs.
She ground her teeth at the thought of the bad guy from the Wild West, dressed all in black, coming togun her down. Any other day, in any other situation, the whole scene might have been funny. Lyra saw no humor in it now. This handsome bastard was probably a Wild West bad guy, modern-religious style, and he might just have a six-gun hidden somewhere she couldn't see.
The People were relentless.
She moved her free hand to the door frame. She clenched it so tight her nails dug into the splintered wood. Over the stranger's shoulder, she saw neighborhood children playing in the July sunshine-bright street, their laughter and chatter a stark contrast to the fear coursing through her body. Behind the children was the side of the hill where a steep set of concrete steps led down to Main Street. If she had a chance she could make a run for it. Head someplace she could disappear again.
The man frowned. "Are you all right, ma'am?"
Lyra raised her chin. She did her best to gather her composure, battling her fear and more tingles from the rich, deep sound of his voice. She cleared her throat, dismissing his almost hypnotic effect on her. "Who are you?"
"Dare Lancaster." He touched the brim of his hat in a gentlemanly gesture that surprised her--but didn't fool her. "One of your relatives has been trying to get ahold of you, and I thought I'd let you know. A man named Ryan came to my office and said a Neal Barker is trying to find you."
Neal? Oh, my God. So I'm not being foolish or paranoid. I should have known this couldn't last forever!
Blood drained from Lyra's face. She could feel itseeping down her throat and trickling from her body to the stained carpet beneath her feet.
Neal. The Prophet of the Temple of Light.
Her hand crept from the door frame to the canister she kept bracketed there.
"I--I haven't the slightest idea what you're talking about." She started to push the door shut, but the man stuck his booted foot between the door and the jamb.
Terror ripped through Lyra like an ice-cold wind. She dropped the grocery bag and vaguely heard glass shatter and the thump of the bag of dry cat food hitting the carpet. In a movement so fast she surprised herself, Lyra yanked the can of pepper spray out of the holster beside the door and aimed it at the man.
She pressed down on the release as hard as she could and a fine mist sprayed him full in the face.
"Ah, hell." Instead of dropping and writhing on the porch like she'd expected him to, the man merely pinched the bridge of his nose and moved his boot out of the doorway. "A simple no would've been better."
Lyra slammed the door, locked and bolted it, and slid the chain lock into place. Her body trembled so badly she could hardly stand. Her own eyes stung from a bit of the pepper spray that had floated back to her on the light breeze.
Blinking away hot tears, she peeked out the peephole and watched the intimidating man shake his head, pause, then stride to a large black truck parked across the street.
Odd. The People didn't often travel alone, and they didn't give up so easily. They never gave up, in fact. And the men always wore their hair in a long fishtailbraid and had goatees. This cowboy must be a hired gun, so to speak.
She stared as the man gave his head one more shake and rubbed his eyes. He grabbed the door frame to climb into his truck. She could see the perfect lines of his powerful form and the graceful, decisive way he moved. No distractions for that cowboy. He seemed too sure of himself to belong to the Temple of Light. Too ... in control.
She blew out a ragged breath, coughing against the pepper spray. Just before hauling himself up and into his truck, the man turned and studied her home for a moment and her heart nearly stopped beating. The way his eyes narrowed and focused made her feel like the door wasn't there at all. That he was looking straight into her soul.
Her heart began pounding and her stomach churned, acid rising up in her throat.
But the man just climbed into his truck and slammed its door shut.
Lyra turned and sagged against the door and dropped the can of spray. She slid down the wood to land on her ass next to the ruined groceries.
The truth struck her full force again, erasing the remnants of gooseflesh with clammy waves of dread.
They'd found her.
Dare's eyes burned like shit as he sat in his truck. If it weren't for his police academy training years ago, he wouldn't have been able to walk straight after a direct hit.
"Well, hell." That hadn't gone exactly as planned. Obviously the woman was scared to death of this Neal Barker. Looked like he'd just have to contact Ryan Holstead and let him know that Neal Barker's "cousin" didn't want to be contacted--if in fact she was the man's relative.
In most situations Dare didn't contact--hell, in all previous cases he hadn't contacted--the client's relative or friend, just left that up to the client. But this time something in Dare's gut had told him to check out Lyra Collins for himself. Something in the sound of the client's voice had nagged at him.
Apparently his gut had been right.
Just who was Barker, and why did his name scare the woman enough for her to shoot Dare with pepper spray?
The laughter of the children playing in the street would have made him smile if his eyes weren't hurting so damn bad. The two girls and two boys scampered away and into the house next door, then the street was quiet.
Dare turned his attention back to the little house that wasn't much more than a hole in the wall along a street that wound around the mountainside. He figured Lyra Collins was watching him and no doubt she'd be calling the cops if he didn't get his ass out of there.
And he was in no mood to talk to cops. The memory of the reason he'd left the force in Tucson was always like a punch to the gut. He rubbed his right shoulder, remembering the incident from seven years ago when he'd let his partner down.
When his partner had died.
Dare had been a private investigator since and only dealt with the police when he had to.
He brought his attention back to Lyra Collins and blinked again from the burn in his eyes. His PI partner, Nick, would have a heyday--Dare would never live down taking a full-in-the-face from a scared mark.
He ground his teeth and grabbed a couple of the tissues from his glove compartment that his housekeeper always insisted he keep on hand. He rubbed the spray the best he could from the corners of his now-watery eyes. If it didn't normally make the sting worse, he'd stop at Manny's Restaurant and wash the crap out of his eyes.
After tossing the tissues aside, he turned the ignition, put the truck in gear, and glanced into his rearview mirror.
Dare frowned. A light brown van rolled up and parked on the canyon side of the street, two car lengths behind him. He recognized the van. It had been behind him as he'd driven up the canyon but had passed him once he'd stopped in front of the woman's house.
There weren't but so many roads up this particular canyon, and the type of vehicle wasn't unusual to the area, so he hadn't thought much else about it.
But now the hair at the nape of his neck told him something was off. He turned off the ignition and watched the van in his rearview mirror. A pair of men in the front seat of the van stared at his truck. Every now and then one of the men would turn and look into the back of the van as if checking something out or speaking to someone.
Dare glanced at his watch. Back at the van. Back tohis watch. For a good fifteen minutes, nothing happened and Dare tried to shake off the feeling of wrongness at the same time he puzzled over the woman's reaction. Maybe she was a cheating wife. No--the fear in her eyes had been very real. Could she be an abused wife? Could the man who contacted Dare have been a stalker? Shit. What if she was in the Witness Security Program?
Nothing happened in the van behind him. Maybe he was overreacting. He brought his hand up to the keys still dangling from the ignition and started the truck. After he pulled out, he guided the vehicle down the winding hill.
When he reached Main Street, his skin prickled again. Goddamn. He had to go back and check out that van. Something wasn't right.
After a quick turn, he drove his truck up the street just in time to see men spill out of the van. His experienced gaze raked in their appearances. What the hell? All sported goatees and had long braids that hung straight down their backs. All were in jeans and light brown shirts.
Immediately his cop brain sized up their build, their manner and intent, and the organized, military way they deployed.
His muscles tensed and all his instincts went on full alert. The woman was in trouble--trouble he'd brought to her door.
The men crept toward Lyra Collins's home.
Five of the men broke away and eased down the street, skirting the side yards of the houses, until they reached the alley at the end. They slipped into the back alley.
The other two opened the front gate and started down the short path to Lyra Collins's house.
Lyra's hands shook as she started to clean up the spilled broken glass from the bottle of salad dressing. Mrs. Yosko's dry cat food had scattered across the floor like a mammoth jigsaw puzzle. The bananas and lettuce would surely go bad in no time, as hard as Lyra had dropped them.
What am I thinking? I have to get out of here!
She wouldn't let them take her back to the commune in Oregon. She wouldn't!
Tears came hot and unwelcome as she rushed to clean up the glass, but she couldn't stop them. She'd felt safe for so long now, happy in the small world she'd built for herself in this sleepy artists' community. Now she would have to go on the run again, establish a new identity and a new life.
What about the few friends she'd made? And what about Mrs. Y
With quick, angry jerks of her arm, Lyra brushed tears from her eyes with the back of her hand. No selfpity. She didn't have room for that or time for it. It didn't matter that this place had become home to her. She'd grab the pack she always kept ready and find a new town to live in. She'd move across the states to some place like Florida. There were definitely places easier to get lost in. Maybe she'd head up the coast to New York City.
She'd have to leave right away, before the man came back, perhaps with more of the cult's members. But first she had to finish cleaning up the broken bottle ofsalad dressing so the elderly woman who lived with her wouldn't step on any of the glass. Lyra's heart hurt at the thought she'd have to tell Mrs. Yosko goodbye. She'd have to find someone to check in on her.
What about Mrs. Y's medication? Lyra always picked it up for her at the drugstore when she ran out. She even cooked for Mrs. Y. Damn, damn, damn!
The thoughts raced through Lyra's mind as she rushed as fast as she could while she picked up every piece of broken glass and stuffed it into the grocery bag. It took her a few precious moments to do that and run to the kitchen to dispose of it in the garbage can beneath the sink. Her hands shook as she washed them, then rinsed the small amount of pepper spray out of her eyes before quickly rubbing a kitchen towel over her face.
What if the man was sending The People to her home now? She hated how her heart pounded and her head ached from fear. Any moment they would be ready to snatch her and take her back to the Temple of Light.
Lyra hurried upstairs to Mrs. Y's room. She had to say goodbye.
She knocked on the elderly woman's closed door. "It's Linda," Lyra said, raising her voice and using the name people knew her by in Bisbee.
She heard shuffling and the white-haired lady opened the door, her bright red muumuu unbuttoned at the top, showing her yellowed slip. "Did you get the cat food?"
"Dixie's favorite--it's in the kitchen." Lyra felt like she was going to hyperventilate as she did her best tokeep her voice calm. "I have to go out of town for a while."
Tears ached at the back of Lyra's eyes again. She'd really grown to love the old lady. Damn, but she'd miss her.
I have to hurry!
Just as Lyra turned to leave, Mrs. Y said in a calm voice, "Don't let them chase you off. You have to stop running."
Shock rippled through Lyra as she met the elderly woman's watery brown eyes. Mrs. Yosko didn't know about Lyra's past. She couldn't. No one in Bisbee did.
"I--I've got to go." Lyra backed out the door, turned, pounded down the stairs and then to the hall toward her room. She passed her worktable, filled with creations she had made from strips of metal cut from old lunch boxes, aluminum cans, and other metal objects.
Her mind spun from what Mrs. Yosko had said to her need to get out of the house as soon as possible. A lump grew in her throat. She would miss her quiet life, but she refused to be caged again, ever, in any way.
And what Neal would do to her ... her stomach roiled and she felt like she was going to puke. Something she'd done many times because of him.
In her room she stuffed her cell phone into a side pocket of the worn army-issue canvas bag that contained a couple of changes of clothing and several tools of her craft. She snatched up a little yellow teddy bear from her bed and a small, flat tin from her bottom dresser drawer. Her hands were shaking even more as she jammed them in the bag before slipping her armsthrough both straps. She had plenty of cash in her pack--where she kept her stash. She always paid cash or used money orders for everything.
In seconds she was out of her bedroom and running down the hallway toward the living room. What had it been since the cowboy arrived on her doorstep--fifteen minutes, maybe more?
A knock at the front door brought her to a full halt.
Her heart pounded and blood rushed in her ears.
Knocking again. Louder this time.
Lyra started to back up.
Her mind raced and she grabbed the metal bat she kept by the couch. She'd head out the back door to the alley, then swing around and get to the concrete steps leading down the side of the canyon.
Something rammed into the door so hard the old wooden door frame broke with a loud crack and the slide bolt and chain lock tore away from the frame.
No, this can't be happening.
Another slam against the door. Lyra screamed as it was ripped off its hinges and flung against the wall with a loud crash. A piece of her artwork toppled off the wall and tumbled across the floor.
Two men stood in the doorway.
These two she recognized, traveling in a pair like she expected. Like she had seen in her nightmares a hundred times.
Mark and Adam. In her house.
"Lyra." Adam held out his hand and gave an enigmatic smile, as if he hadn't just ripped the front door off its hinges. His light blue eyes were filled with obviouspleasure at having found her. "It's time you returned to the flock. The Prophecy has to be fulfilled."
She stepped back, swallowed hard, and clenched the bat tighter. "I'm not going with you. I'm not the freaking one you want from your stupid Prophecy. Just leave me alone."
Oh, God, I hope Mrs. Yosko stays in her room! She could get hurt!
The two cult members approached Lyra. They wore faded jeans and had on tan shirts. The shirts were made of the same coarse cloth the women were forced to wear for robes.
The cult's members all looked the same. Dressed the same.
"The Prophet is never wrong." Adam's looks became harder, more intense, as he took a larger step toward her and was a mere couple of feet away. "This is your destiny."
"Tell Neal Barker he can stuff this up his destiny." Lyra grasped the bat in both hands and swung as hard as she could at Adam's gut. His hand snapped up, the sound of metal smacking his palm loud in the quiet house before he ripped the bat out of her grip. She stumbled back and her legs hit the arm of the couch as she shouted, "Get it through your freaking heads, I'm not going!"
Adam lost the gentle smile and Mark's eyes glittered steel gray in the artificial lighting.
They dived for her.
Lyra dropped and rolled, the items inside her pack digging into her back with the movement. She reactedso quickly that she came to a stop between them and the front door.
She had to get away, and she had to get them out of Mrs. Yosko's home.
Mark was fast, though. He grabbed her wrist and jerked her to her feet.
Fear mixed with fury rocked her and she could barely see or breathe.
With her free hand she swung her fist straight at Mark's eye. Her knuckles made contact with flesh and bone, and sharp pain shot through her hand. He shouted and grabbed her arms so that he had a grip on both her wrists and she was facing away from him. Lyra kicked Mark's shins at the same time she brought her elbows back into his chest. He shouted again and she jerked free.
Adam reached for her as she whirled and dodged him--and she smacked right into the cowboy who had come to her door earlier.
Lyra couldn't hold back another scream. She tried to duck around him. He grabbed her arm and jerked her hard against his solid frame.
"No! I won't go back!" She kicked his shins, punched his chest, raked her fingernails across his cheek, fighting like a wildcat. She couldn't get away from his powerful grasp. Tears of anger and frustration flooded her cheeks and she fought even harder and kicked him again.
Through her fury she heard Mark's falsely calm tone. "Release Lyra," he said. "She's coming with us."
She went still and her gaze shot up to the cowboy's.Welts and blood slashed his face from her nails, but he wasn't looking at her. His hard gaze rested on the men behind her.
"Only if she wants to go," the cowboy said in a deep and deadly voice that sent chills straight through her. "If she doesn't, then you'd better get out of here."
"We are taking her home," Mark said.
"Get lost," Lyra said as she tried to back away from Adam and Mark and the man who held her arm. But the cowboy still had a tight grip.
Mark lifted Lyra's bat with a two-fisted stance, as if he planned to swing and slam it into the cowboy's head. "Lyra's mentally disturbed. She needs to come back to our facilities to get proper care."
"You bastard!" At that moment Lyra would have clawed out Mark's eyeballs, but the damned cowboy wouldn't release her.
Mark held out one hand, reaching for her. "You don't want to get hurt again, do you, Lyra? Come home, where you belong. Where we can help you."
A metal click went off near her ear and everyone froze. From her side vision she saw the cowboy had drawn a gun. A sick feeling weighted her belly.
"This is all the help Lyra needs right now," the man drawled, gesturing with the gun. "Get your asses out of here before I shoot holes in your Goddamn knees."
Adam blanched and Mark's face turned so dark his skin was almost purple. He clenched the bat with both hands again, a dangerous look in his eyes.
"With the grace of the Prophet Jericho." Adam's voice squeaked as he grabbed Mark's arm. "You've got to understand she's a danger to herself and others."
The gun washed away her fear and left only anger. "I'll danger your ass," Lyra said as she tried again to jerk away from the cowboy. She was so pissed her entire body vibrated.
"Don't push it," the man said in that deadly calm voice, and he pointed his weapon at Mark's left knee.
Adam gave a bow from his shoulders. "In the name of Jericho and the Light."
The stranger pulled Lyra to the side and gestured toward the door with his gun.
Mark kept his hold on the bat and followed Adam onto the porch, then into the sunshine.
Lyra stared after the men who disappeared from view. Suddenly it became too quiet, and she was intensely aware of the man standing beside her, his callused hand firmly grasping her arm. Heat seemed to travel back and forth between them. The place where he was touching her felt like pure fire.
From her side vision she saw the cowboy still had a grip on his gun. She swallowed. She was so damned confused. She didn't know what to do, what to think. But one thing was obvious--the stranger wasn't with the Temple of Light.
He didn't release her. Instead he pulled her around to look directly at him. "There are more of them in the back."
A loud crashing sound came from the kitchen, and fear surged through Lyra. Her voice broke. "They won't ever give up."
"I won't let them get you, honey," the man said, a grim look on his face.
"I've got to get out of here!" Lyra jerked away fromhis hold. "Mrs. Yosko--she could come down any minute and get caught in the middle. They can chase me. Just get them out of her house!"
"Stay," Dare ordered, his body tense and in fighting mode.
But Lyra spun and headed toward a window on the south side of the house.
He cursed and ducked and kept himself hidden to one side of the door leading from the kitchen to the living room, his weapon ready. His eyes still burned like hell, but the adrenaline surge more than compensated for the pain.
Wood scraped wood as Lyra raised the window at the same time he positioned himself beside the entrance to the living room.
The entryway was so narrow, only one man could come through at a time. When the first came through the doorway, Dare slammed the butt of his gun against the back of the man's head, dropping him in an instant. The second man Dare caught with a knee to the groin, but not before the bastard punched him in the nose. Blood poured down Dare's face as he rammed his boot into the third man's kneecap and heard a sickening pop as the man screamed in pain.
The fourth man's fist closed in on Dare's eye, but Dare ducked just in time. He slammed his fist into the man's jaw, knocking him back on his ass. With a side kick, Dare drove his boot into number five's gut. The man toppled sideways and crashed onto a table filled with artwork that Dare had noticed earlier.
After taking the men down, Dare wiped blood from his face with his sleeve as he bolted for the open frontdoor. He reached the doorway just in time to see the top of Lyra's head disappearing down the hillside, the first two men following her. With one sweep of his gaze, he saw the tires of his truck had been slashed.
Shit! They'll pay for that.
He heard shouts behind him as his boot steps echoed on the stairs and then the walkway. He swung himself up and over the gate before running across the street and making it to the narrow concrete staircase that shot straight down the side of the steep hill to Main Street.
Lyra was fast, but she stumbled. Her feet slid out from under her and she landed on her ass. Just as she started to slide down the hard concrete stairs, the cult member closest to her caught her by her backpack, jerking her to a stop.
Dare lunged at the first man and grabbed the man's braid. The cult member shouted, lost his balance, and fell sideways. Dare lost his grip. The man flipped over the rail but caught the handrail. He barely clung to the metal, keeping himself from falling down the long drop of the hillside.
Dare's breathing came hard as he reached the second man, who had clamped his fingers around Lyra's wrist. The man looked behind him just in time for Dare to slam his fist into the man's nose, dropping him to the concrete steps.
After stepping over the man, Dare grabbed Lyra's upper arm, and yanked her to her feet.
Ahead of them was Main Street. The stairs ended between Manny's Restaurant and a bed-and-breakfast. Their shoes thundered on the stairs as they hurried down, Dare leading the way. At the end of the staircase, Lyratripped and stumbled into him. He barely caught her and kept them both from falling. This time he pulled her close to keep his balance. When he looked over his shoulder he saw three cult members following them.
Dare gripped Lyra's hand and dragged her into the back entrance of Manny's Restaurant. Smells of refried beans and tortillas greeted his senses as they ran through the kitchen, past Manny's wife, to come up short behind the bar, face-to-face with Manny.
Lyra was breathing heavily when they came to a stop, almost running into the large bartender. Her face was bright red, her green eyes wide with fear.
Dare spared her only a glance before he turned to one of his friends and informants and said, "Manny, car keys."
The heavyset dark-haired man raised one eyebrow as he shoved his hand into his pocket, pulled out a set of keys, and tossed them to Dare. "One dent and your ass is grass, Lancaster."
Without responding Dare yanked Lyra behind him as they rounded the bar and headed through the maze of tables filled with people and out the front door. He spotted Manny's cherried-out neon blue El Dorado, hurried to unlock the passenger side, and shoved Lyra onto the seat. His breathing was heavy, his blood pounding in his temples, as he made it to the driver's side and unlocked it. He tossed his Stetson on the seat and ducked into the vehicle. He started the engine, threw it into gear, and slid into the light traffic heading down Main Street.
Lyra glanced behind them to see if they were being followed, and it felt like her heart leaped into her throatwhen she saw two cult members bound from the staircase onto the sidewalk. But they were on foot and had no way to catch up.
We'll be okay. We've got to be okay. Her gaze whipped around to look at the stranger who had just saved her. "Are they following us?"
The man's jaw tightened. "I'm keeping an eye out."
She struggled to catch her breath and turned her gaze back to the road. Her cheeks were hot, sweat plastered her hair to her face. Her heart pounded in time with the throb in her head, and the metallic taste of blood filled her mouth. Her ass ached from that last fall, and she had scraped the heels of her palms raw when she tried to stop herself from sliding down the concrete staircase.
"Goddamnit," the cowboy said as he glanced into the rearview mirror.
Lyra jerked her head to look through the back window of the El Dorado. Terror rode her hard as she saw the van speeding behind them.