Inheriting a haunted house in notorious Pine Forest is the last thing Micky Gunn wanted, but escaping the Shadow People who haunted her world drove her toward the town and new terrors. When the Shadow People follow her, things go bump in the night and weird accidents occur, Micky decides it's time to stop running and to fight back.
Mysterious, gorgeous cop Jared Thornton came to Pine Forest to investigate his Aunt Eliza Pickle's mysterious death. When he discovers that gutsy Micky is in danger, he vows to protect her against the shadows that haunt her, and a thousand year old vampire determined to silence them forever.
Deep underground, the ancient one rests, plotting his next attempt to create havoc in Pine Forest. Nothing and no one will keep him from spreading his evil as Halloween swiftly approaches and the veil between worlds is thinnest.
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Ellora's Cave Publishing, Incorporated
November 13, 2009
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Excerpt from Night Watch by Denise A. Agnew
Pine Forest, Colorado
Tunnels beneath the Gunn Inn
The ancient one lay on the dirt floor in his new hideaway, listening to the rhythmic moans and sighs of a young couple having sex upstairs in the inn.
More time to heal and he would have the strength to feed on the foolish, unsuspecting humans. The thousand year old vampire tasted opportunity not far from reach as it called to him with the scent of sweat and sex. He would break from his shelter and tear into the humans, glorying in their screams and the spurt of tasty blood. A craving built in his system, burning like fire along his veins.
Smells, like those of rotting death, called to him. These tunnels harbored more evil than just his own, and he planned to tap into that iniquity soon. Down in these depths, he felt regeneration of power. Those who had hunted him would rue the day they'd attacked him.
His body, dead but not dead, struggled to rid itself of damage inflicted by a silver bullet. His entire side throbbed with each breath. How long had it been? Two days since vampire hunters Ronan Kieran, Lachlan Tavish, and sweet Dasoria--
No. She called herself Erin Greenway, but she only inhabited the woman's body. Whether she would admit it to herself or not, she would again be Dasoria and belong to him.
He shifted, angered at the thought of his Dasoria turning on him. Revenge tore at his insides, urging him to leave this sanctuary and wreck havoc on her life. He could kill her current lover, Lachlan Tavish, then finish off her friend, Gilda. She would be pliant then and willing to give herself to her true nature.
Some satisfaction could be obtained in blind, hateful vengeance. Then something stopped his escalating abhorrence.
Perhaps his mistake was in thinking Erin would realize she'd been reincarnated. He couldn't afford haste this time. That had been his mistake. Somehow he would force her to acknowledge her undead heritage.
Settling more easily into his curative state, he waited for the right time to resurrect from the darkness.
Ronan, Tavish, and Erin underestimated him. They didn't understand that once he regenerated he would arise more potent than before. Then all their machinations would come to nothing.
With a soft chuckle he settled into a vampire's deepest sleep.
* * * * *
Erin's breath came quickly, her chest on fire as she raced through the woods in pursuit of the bird of prey, the gargoyle flapping its horrid wings in the night. She aimed her weapon upward, hoping upon hope she would hit the creature and release its captive.
Red eyes like a demon turned to glance back at her. Fear rose like a violent ocean, threatening and unrelenting in its menace. Sweat broke out over her body as she tracked the animal threatening everything she knew.
The inhuman. The undead. The ancient one.
Sweetheart wake up.
She heard Lachlan's voice somewhere in her mind, urging her to awaken and leave behind the sinister dreams that often haunted her.
Branches reached out for her like skinny, naked arms. Dead limbs slapped her in the face, the sting sharp and angry as they scraped flesh. The trees hated her, as the gargoyle did, and they would do anything to keep her from reaching the only man she'd ever love. Fingers sprouted at the end of the branches and grasped at her.
"No! No!" She screamed the words, knowing if she gave up now she would be doomed and so would her beloved Lachlan.
The faster she ran, the quicker the gargoyle retreated, its hulking form sailing out of reach with Lachlan hanging from its hooked claws.
A feather light touch inside her brain said, Erin, it's me. Come on now, you're having a nightmare.
She wanted to break from the dream, but darkness held her in a tight grip.
It's a dream, lass. Only a dream. I'm safe and near you.
She reached out with her mind. I know.
Then come back to me. I love you. I want you.
Erin snapped from the dream with a gasp, her eyes dazzled by the mild glow of the bedside table lamp. Lachlan's powerful arms tightened around her, his naked chest pressing against her bare breasts as he murmured soothing words to her. Right away she recognized her bedroom and a sigh of relief flooded her. An emerald green paisley comforter lay over the bed, and she pulled it up over them.
His fingers caressed her hair and he pressed a kiss to her damp forehead. "It's all right. You're safe."
All around her familiar scents removed the last lingering horror. As she breathed deeply to calm her heart, the scent of sandalwood from an aromatherapy burner teased her nose. She kissed his shoulder and tasted the saltiness of his skin and recalled the wild time of lovemaking they experienced the night before.
Lachlan said, "Are you thinking about last night?"
"Of course. "
He smiled tenderly at her. "Good."
She snuggled against his naked body, relief moving through her like sweet wine as he kissed and caressed her into serenity. Warmth flooded the cold spots within her body and soul as he slipped his hands down to her ass. As he cupped her against his loins, his cock began to stiffen. Erin realized it wouldn't take much and she'd soon be under his ravenous lips, and on her back with his cock tunneling deep and hard into her center. His thorough lovemaking would erase dreams for the rest of the night.
Erin touched his rock hard stomach muscles and smiled. "What is it about making love that takes the fear away?"
"Damned if I know, lass, but let's keep trying."
She knew raw sexual energy inside him thrummed and ticked. She licked her lips.
His mouth covered hers, tantalizing with his mint taste and the heated thrust of his tongue. Beyond all the pleasure, she knew he wanted to make her forget the nightmares that came since their battle with the ancient one. When gently she pushed on his shoulders, he released her from the passion-rich kiss.
His eyes blazed down at her with concern and arousal. "I'm sorry. I only wanted to comfort you, lass."
Erin reached up and touched his stubble-roughened jaw. His gaze held hers, warm and rich with love. She basked in the glow, aware few people found the staggering passion they did. "I know. But I wanted to say something first."
Small lines appeared between his dark brows. "Of course."
She slipped her fingers into the rich fall of his dark hair and savored the cool, silky smooth feeling. "The ancient one isn't dead. He's only hiding. Gilda and I won't be safe. None of us will."
Lachlan nodded. "I know."
"But he'll appear again soon. You know it, and I know it."
"The dreams are the same?"
"Yes. I'm chasing him again." Tears stung her eyes and she took a deep breath. "And I can't get to you."
Lachlan's arms tightened around her, as if he could protect her from anything and anyone if he kept her close enough. "Ronan and I will take care of you. We've got another friend coming who'll be able to help. A pesky Irish vampire by the name of Sorley. Ronan contacted him yesterday."
"Oh, lovely. A Scot and two Irishmen in my house. And guess what, two of them are vampires."
But even his smile couldn't erase her biggest concern. "The ancient one...he feels powerful, and he is coming back sooner than we think."
Lachlan caressed her arm, his eyes sad. When he didn't speak she knew he agreed.
She sighed, her eyelids drooping as the comfort and safety of being with this wonderful man eased her back into sleep.
Micky Gunn didn't know if rabid paranoia and lurking insanity made her think something odd would happen tonight. Things--very frightening things--seemed to follow her, hiding in the bushes along the side of the road as she drove, and threatening to step out in front of her green Ford Escape.
What else is new?
Micky smirked, aware of her negative attitude and desperate to do something about it.
She'd left Colorado Springs earlier in the day, hoping if she moved away temporarily the shadow people would leave her alone.
She'd been wrong.
They haunted her thoughts, tormenting with doubts and a hunger to escape she couldn't shake. Did shadow people stay with a house or a place? Or did they cling to a person? Micky shook her head in denial and pressed on the accelerator the tiniest bit, unwilling to allow apprehension and panic stop her.
Perhaps she had lived with the shadows so long she would imagine them by her side forever, even if they left her alone in Pine Forest.
No. There must be a way. She would stop the shadow people once and for all, or die trying. Taking a shuddering breath, she envisioned in her mind's eye a light shielding her entire body against all negative influences. But something kept the image weak, a mere touch of white and gold at the edges.
"Damn it," she whispered.
She could blame her affinity for reading Edgar Allan Poe as a child for filling her head with nonsense. She remembered a creepy passage from The Fall of The House of Usher that described her situation and feelings to the maximum. And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain thrilled me--filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before.
Would she find her own purple curtain at the Gunn Inn?
She brought her musings back to arriving in Pine Forest in one piece. Snow threatened as little crystals of icy moisture touched the car and the surrounding wilderness. Amazing how such a pretty show of nature could become deadly. She drove cautiously, conscious of her impatience to arrive at her destination, but unwilling to risk a wreck. Moments later she saw the sparkling street lights of Pine Forest. She brought the car to a crawl as she rolled onto Main Street.
Micky scanned the street. Pine Forest used to be vital and thriving at night. At least that's what she recalled from visits when she was a kid clamoring for a new ghost story or two. Around Halloween the town went whole-hog with decorations and this year appeared to be no exception. Scarecrows made of corn husks and old clothes stood in many doorways along with their Jack o'Lantern friends and filmy ghosts hanging from unseen threads. Not that this crazy town needed decorations to scare the life out of people.
In the fifteen years since she'd been here, the town's eerie atmosphere hadn't changed much. On the other hand, she'd always liked the weird ambiance of the place, even if she didn't believe the tales Uncle Carl once told her about the bed and breakfast. After all, a kid with her imagination should have been able to see ghosts at the inn if there had been any. What could she expect of this little town spread out below the Rocky Mountains, lush with critters, replete with ponderosa pines, and ghosts a-plenty?
Nosiness brought ghost hunters into town on a regular basis, people wanting to stay at one of the local inns and rub elbows with the neighborhood ghosts.
Then horrific murders brought the tourist trade almost to a dead stop a couple of weeks ago.
She could have allowed the knowledge that a serial killer prowled the streets delay her travel to Pine Forest, but what she left behind in Colorado Springs worried her at least as much as a serial killer. Maybe worse.
She thought back to her childhood days when she consumed H.P. Lovecraft stories as well as Edgar Allan Poe. She remembered yet another passage from a story, this one Lovecraft's, The Whisperer in the Darkness.
Most people simply knew that certain hilly regions were considered as highly unhealthy, unprofitable, and generally unlucky to live in, and that the farther one kept from them the better off one usually was.
She shivered, unnerved by her own thoughts.
Most of the shops looked deserted with a few exceptions, and she wondered if she should have scheduled her arrival in town for tomorrow morning.
But no. I had to get here tonight, didn't I? I had to outrun the snow.
I had to run, period.
The little devil on her right shoulder argued with the angel on the other, and tonight the devil and angel worked overtime. Second-guessing herself seemed to be the cr�me de jour lately. She imagined her stepmother's voice, long dead, harping in an accusatory tone.
You're always going off half-cocked, Micky. When are you going to learn to settle down? After all, you're thirty years old.
Thirty years old as of yesterday, as a matter of fact.
Emotional pain made her stumble back from the thought. So what if yesterday had been the most boring, uneventful birthday she'd experienced? She would get over it, if she put the day aside and concentrated on the future. She had a mission to accomplish with her uncle's old establishment. Before long, restoring the place to its former glory would occupy all her thoughts.
No more shadow people. No more hurting birthdays in her past.
Self-doubt rambled in her head. You want to run a big old guest house all on your own? Are you insane? You ought to take the money the old coot left you and invest it in something viable.
No. She must find where she should be and where her life could blossom into something manageable and fulfilling.
Abruptly she realized she'd left the address for the Gunn Inn somewhere back at her apartment in Colorado Springs. From her memories of the place, the Gunn Inn nestled somewhere on the outskirts of town, hidden by tall trees and hedgerows. At the same time, she couldn't remember how to get there without the map.
Great. What to do now?
Her stomach growled.
Okay. Food first, directions afterwards.
She noted a dusty neon sign that spelled in red letters, Poppa Joe's UFO Diner. The sign featured a caricature of the stereotype alien head with large head, big black eyes, and almost nonexistent mouth.
"Quaint," she said, and parked across the street on the right. "Let's see what Poppa Joe's got to eat. Alien eyeballs, perhaps?"
Smiling, she grabbed her handbag and stepped out of the car. She waited for traffic to clear then crossed the street to the diner. A welcome blast of warm air hit her in the face as she opened the glass door. The place was almost obnoxiously bright, making her squint.
Light comforted her on most occasions. For the shadow people came in the dimness, hiding in corners and flickering in the corner of her vision. Still, they could appear in the most brilliant day, and she couldn't do a damn thing about it.
A waitress with curly black hair and a broad smile seated her in a booth. Micky ordered coffee and wrote down directions to the Gunn Inn. After the waitress left, she removed her navy fleece hat and waterproof fleece parka. She pivoted her head from side to side and groaned in relief when her neck cracked, releasing tension.
Feeling a little braver, she glanced around the room. A couple with three teenagers sat in a booth talking and smiling. An older man sat at the counter with a cup of coffee. A scruffy man with unkempt black hair sat there, too, munching on fries. His gritty, harsh expression sent a chill through her.
A man sat two booths away with a menu up so high it covered his face. He lowered the menu and their eyes locked.
Micky never believed in attraction at first sight. At least not the kind she felt when she saw this man. A wave of instant, burning attraction seared into her soul and claimed her.
My, oh, my.
The man possessed a masculine face that could look boyish one instant, take-no-prisoners the next. With his thick, dark mocha hair trimmed close to his skull, she thought he might be in the military or maybe another occupation requiring similar discipline. His eyes looked hazel from this distance but she couldn't be sure. Intensely focused, he examined her with equal curiosity. His nose seemed almost perfect; not too small, not too large. And his mouth boosted kissable lips with a curve that begged exploration.
The intriguing man wore a toasty-looking navy cable turtleneck sweater. She wished she could see whether he was a causal slacks or jeans kinda guy.
More than individual physical features, he owned a look of know-a-lot without the arrogance some possessed; he'd been around the block without becoming jaded. Micky got the immediate impression of leashed power, a man who welded his physical skills with discipline. Danger crackled around him like a live wire, a part of his exterior, his force of personality for all to see.
Most of all, he didn't flinch from her blatant stare.
For a searing second she imagined his lips on hers, his touch exquisite and gentle. His cock would slide inside her, stirring into a steady pumping motion that reached every inch of her sopping wet channel.
As a wave of pure lust surged through her, she popped out of the high-intensity fantasy with a jolt.
The man continued his appraisal, and she inhaled sharply as heat filled her face. His steady gaze said he'd read her mind and liked what he saw.
I'm certifiable. I can't believe I'm gawking like this at a total stranger.
A strange noise jolted her attention back to the counter.
The guy who'd been consuming fries picked up his plate and threw it toward the waitress behind the counter. "Bitch!"
As the plate sailed toward the waitress, the woman let out a blood-freezing scream and ducked. Glass shattered as the plate crashed into the coffee machine. The enraged man stood, his hand going under his long dark coat. A big handgun emerged in his grip, and he pointed it dead on at the waitress.
Cold death gripped Micky, a sub-zero sensation that made her body seize in place.
Horrified, Micky managed a warning. "Look out!"
Before she could react in any other way, the man swung toward her and took a bead on her head.
Instinct kicked in. She dropped, diving toward the guy's legs.
A blur whooshed by Micky, knocked the weapon out of the man's grip and slammed him into the counter with tremendous force. The madman slumped to the floor in an unconscious heap.
Menu man stood over the menace with feet spread wide and hands fisted at his sides. His chest rose and fell heavily.
Then he looked at her, sprawled on her belly like a fish out of water.
Seconds crawled as he kept his attention pinpointed on her. Her insides tensed, her muscles cramped.
"Call the cops and an ambulance," the man growled at the stunned waitress behind the counter.
Wide-eyed and trembling, the woman who'd been attacked rushed from behind the counter and toward the back room. Another server followed.
"You all right?" menu man asked as Micky got to her feet.
She stumbled back into the booth, sitting down with a thump. "Yes." She swallowed around the hard lump in her throat. "Thank you."
She watched the quick-thinking man in fascination. Now he was in plain view, she saw he stood maybe a hair less than six feet tall, with command radiating from every inch of him. Menu man wore jeans that curved over his muscled thighs with intimate closeness. He bristled with tensile strength, chained by the veneer of civilization.
His gaze flicked to her and the fire in those eyes caught her up once again. A dazzling combination of grey and green, his gaze stayed intent and blazing. With the assurance of a woman who followed her instincts, she knew he worked to serve and protect in some capacity. Either that or he loved to kick butt and take names. In any case, she'd seen he could be extremely dangerous in the right circumstances.
Just like Davy.
She'd dated too many men like long-gone Davy Benjamin. Cops often possessed a hard edge that couldn't be breeched, cynical and sometimes ruthless. They were often blinded by the horror they saw and the politics they might play to survive the system.
Davy had been an A-number one player. Handsome and impossible.
Until the day he died.
Micky jerked out of her memories, realizing she stared rudely at the man in front of her. She half expected him to ask why she gawked like a fool.
Davy would have said, Whatcha lookin' at, girl?
Instead it crossed her mind to fear this stranger. Any man who could move that fast and take out a person bent on destruction...well, he deserved respect.
Mumbled exclamations of relief and worry filtered into Micky's psyche, and she realized the family with teenagers sat huddled in their booth with alarm etched into their pale faces. On the other side of the room, the smattering of people seemed shell-shocked.
Quicker than she expected, sirens split the night and Pine Forest police officers arrived and took control. Questioning ensued. As she heard menu man's deep, resonant voice explaining what happened, she calmed. His voice held authority and assurance.
"I'm a cop." He showed his badge identification. "Denver police."
I was right.
"Jared Thornton," one uniform said as he looked at the ID. "You don't have a weapon on you?"
"Didn't think I'd need it. It's in my car."
The officer nodded. "What brings you here?"
"I'm here to solve my aunt's murder."
Menu man's words hung in the air for so long, Micky thought everyone waited for him to continue.
But he didn't and the officer spoke. "Your aunt was one of the people killed in this rash of serial killings?"
"I'm very sorry for your loss, but you're out of your jurisdiction."
One corner of menu man's mouth turned up, sarcastic before he replied. "I understand that."
When Thornton didn't elaborate, the uniformed officer handed the identification back to him.
Paramedics checked out the half-conscious criminal on the floor, and Micky moved to another booth farther away from the action. Her body trembled deep inside, a constant vibration she couldn't seem to stop. After a time the police reached Micky, and she gave her side of the story.
"I'm assuming you'll want to press charges. He did point the weapon right at you," one officer asked.
"Of course she will," Jared Thornton said.
Micky's mouth opened to protest Thornton's presumptuousness, but the policeman seemed to take his word. Anger slow-burned inside her. She couldn't let these men get away with treating her like an insignificant weed.
After signing the paperwork, she turned away and got ready to leave. Thornton took a step closer to her, and she felt his heat, a power thrumming and humming although he no longer needed it.
When he didn't speak, she drew her shoulders back and stood. "I didn't appreciate you taking over. I can speak for myself."
Challenge entered his expression and toughened his countenance. He stuffed his hands into his pockets. "You don't look like you're ready to handle anything without a little help right now."
So that's how it is. Disappointment warred with a desire to smack him. Her admiration for his physical form and take-charge personality started to fade as irritation arose inside her. So much for the wild fantasy she'd experienced when she first saw him.
So much for common sense. She'd allowed herself to become attracted to the same type of man again, something she couldn't afford at this point in her life.
"Like I said, I don't need your help."
"You can trust me." His voice held gathering impatience. "I'm a cop."
"I'm not questioning your ability as a police officer, Mr. Thornton, but I don't appreciate the domineering attitude."
Micky turned away before he could reply. Hot new resentment made her want to escape. A few deep breaths lowered her anger, but not all of it.
A few moments later the Pine Forest police officers told everyone they could depart.
Strange weakness hit her and her stomach protested with mild nausea. She pressed a hand to her midsection and took a deep breath.
As Thornton put on his thick parka he frowned. "You all right?"
He clasped her shoulder and his hand felt strong through her sweater. She twitched a little at the unexpected contact. "Everything's all right now."
"I know," she said softly.
Micky reached for her coat and the movement made him let her go. She wouldn't let weakness show. She didn't care if she had to crawl out to the car. After she shrugged into her coat, she reached for her handbag and slung it over her shoulder. Then she reached inside one pocket of her coat and retrieved her hat. She pushed it down over her hair and ears, grateful for the warmth.
"You're looking shaky," he said.
She tried a smile and failed. She leaned back against the side of the booth, weariness making her voice soft. "I won't ask if you've ever had a loaded gun pointed at you."
Without answering her question, he asked one of his own. "Do you have someone to pick you up, or did you drive here?"
"I've got my SUV." Suddenly he reached up and pressed his fingers to the side of her throat. She flinched. "What are you doing?"
He looked up and down her body, his inspection a professional surveying for injury. He took his hand away. "When was the last time you had something to eat? Your pulse is fast and you're pale as hell. You look like you're about ready to pass out."
"Around eleven o'clock this morning, I think. I was about to eat when that--that creep started..." What other explanation did she need?
"Your blood sugar is probably low. Come on. We'll get something to eat somewhere else."
Before she could protest, he took her upper arm in that proprietary grip. She stopped under the awning as they went outside. "You don't get it, do you, Mr. Thornton?"
"If you get in your car and have a wreck, I'll feel responsible, all right?"
"I'm not your responsibility."
Keeping his light grip on her upper arm, he stepped closer and looked down on her. Micky half expected him to ask her to call him by his first name. Instead he said nothing, a damnable silence she imagined unnerved everyone he encountered.
His eyes widened the tiniest bit. Caribbean sea-green and earthly gray combined in his penetrating gaze. Intrigued, she stilled and experienced Thornton, allowed his essence to fill her sensibilities for a lingering moment. She didn't let people this close often, and she didn't allow their emotions to pierce her. Again, she wondered what his carnal mouth would feel like on hers. Would all that seriousness etching his face soften and turn passionate? What would this hard-nosed, indomitable cop look like in the throes of making love? Wild and free, her imagination allowed a picture to form. She craved to know what his naked body would look like.
They stood under the awning in blowing snow simply staring at each other like two loons. Waves of unaccountable, strong attraction seemed to vibrate between them.
Or am I imagining it? Maybe it's just me that's attracted. God, I've got to try and maintain my sanity. After tonight, I'll probably never see him again.
"A lot of power in silence," she said without thinking.
His attention landed on her lips, as if he read her thoughts. "Silence is a technique I use in police work. Scaring the shit out of a suspect because they don't know what I'll say next. Gives them time to think."
She managed a smile as cold wind blasted under the awning. Instead of following his conversation, she sighed. "I'd better go if I'm going to make it to the Gunn Inn."
"Where is that?"
"Outside of town."
"In this weather?"
She nodded. "I'm a Coloradoan born and bred, Mr. Thornton."
"So am I, but I also use common sense."
Renewed irritation united with fatigue. "I'm not allowing a little snow to stop me."
Before he managed another word, she turned away and headed back to her car. But not before she caught his smile. His mouth curved into the most attractive, all-out-gorgeous grin, an amalgamation of wise-cracking and sweet.
Wise-cracking and sweet? One minute the guy glared at her like the hard-nosed cop, the next he flashed a smile more gorgeous than a movie star's.
After she started the car and headed down Main again, she decided not to think about the unusual Jared Thornton for the rest of the evening. Now that she'd survived the strange occurrence in the eatery, she no longer felt dizzy or uncertain. Tonight's incident would be a weird event she could tell her friends about some day.
Right now Micky didn't want reality, because she knew if she thought about how her life might have ended this evening, she would start to shake. Instead, she would head to the one place she'd found sanctuary in her young life, the place where good things had happened.
Relaxing, she watched the snow covering the road and realized she didn't have long to check out her uncle's establishment, get back to town, then catch some sleep. If she explored the place now, she would sleep better tonight.