A Cursed Embrace Page 10

“Well, now we know for next time.”

Aric tightened his jaw. He didn’t say it, but he left me the impression there might not be a next time. My tigress wasn’t so sure about that. The evil I’d witnessed terrified me, more than any other magical entity I’d encountered. And yet it triggered such hate and anger that even now my fangs begged to protrude and tear out the throats of those who threatened to shadow the world with darkness. Hell existed for creatures like that. My tigress yearned to send them back, and my faith demanded they never return. I wasn’t were, but at that moment I understood their loyalty to the earth.

Aric slowed as the trees thinned out and we reached the grassy knoll near the bakery. Human voices pricked my ears. “Where the hell is your brother? He and Beverly were supposed to meet us hours ago!”

A man wearing jeans and a thick jacket loomed over a young woman on her cell phone. She disconnected the call and glared at him. “For the last time, I don’t know. Tara and Bill said they haven’t heard from them, either.”

“We’re going to lose the damn deposit on the raft ride!”

The woman’s growing annoyance and underlying aroma of fear made her smack her partner’s arm. “Will you shut up about the damn deposit! What if something happened to them?”

My eyes widened, but I kept my mouth shut until Aric placed me in the passenger seat of his Escalade. I motioned toward the alley. “Could the screams you went after have come from those missing people?”

Aric watched the storefront of the antique shop as if he expected someone he knew to step onto the cracked walkway. “It was that same couple we passed before we entered the forest. I recognized the man’s cologne the closer we neared where they’d been taken.”

I stilled. Taken. As in gone forever. Aric clasped my hands, sensing my anger and sadness. “What took them?”

Aric shook his head. “I don’t know. When we left you with Gemini at the mill, we picked up a bizarre scent. I’ve never smelled anything like it. It stank of dark magic and death, but the prominent aroma was human. We tracked it, and the couple, until they vanished.”

My brows knitted together. “It didn’t rain, though. How could so many fresh scents vanish so quickly?”

An odd sense of gloom filled the car and shadowed Aric’s light brown eyes. “My guess? Something with wings carried them away.”

CHAPTER 7

Aric slipped into the driver’s side and cranked the engine while I absentmindedly clicked my seat belt in place. I thought of the demon children twins, small enough to stomp, yet hard to catch and equipped with a mouthful of sharp incentives to discourage anyone from trying. The wolves had killed them before they’d grown too big. But had others managed to venture into adulthood? “You think there are grown demon children out there?”

Aric pulled onto the road, passing all the quaint little shops that had withstood the passage of time. “My nose tells me the scents are too distinct to be the same creature, but I can’t come up with another reason that couple disappeared without a trace.”

“And yet the demon children don’t explain the deaths of the men.”

Aric rubbed his five o’clock shadow, his eyes narrowing when they glimpsed my foot. “No. What they did to you and how they tore that woman apart reinforces the theory that they’re cannibalistic creatures.”

I swiveled my foot a few times. The skin felt a little tight due to the dried blood and the freshly healed muscles. “Yep, definitely like piranhas with wings.”

Aric reached for my hand. “More of a reason I don’t want you involved in this shit.”

My fingers interlinked with his. Considering that I’d been chomped on like a bucket of chicken, now wasn’t the time to argue that he needed my help more than ever. I’d wait until his wolf calmed before I made my argument. Aric’s reason stood no chance against his riled beast, especially since my injuries remained on the forefront of his mind.

Five SUVs passed us on the way out of town. Aric gave a stiff nod to the first one. I recognized the last truck as Paul’s. “Why did you call Paul here? Is he a homicide cop?”

“He’s actually a forensics specialist, but not a cop. His eyes and sharp nose pick up things even most weres would overlook. I’m hoping he’ll find something we missed.”

I crinkled my nose. “I find it hard to believe you’d miss anything, wolf.”

Aric’s hand released mine to find the nape of my neck. I rubbed my cheek against his arm, seeking more of his touch. He smiled softly. “I didn’t search as hard as I could have, knowing I’d left you alone. But when Koda heard Shayna scream, none of us were sticking around to continue the hunt.”

I straightened, unease and guilt making me think twice. Maybe Aric’s Elders had a point about my presence distracting him from his duties. He stopped the car at the town’s only traffic light and pulled me to him. He kissed me deeply, groaning almost as loudly as I did when an impatient driver and his very loud horn alerted us that the light had turned green. Aric released me, winking before resuming our trek out of town. “Don’t even think it, sweetness. No way in hell was I not going back for you.”

I gripped the edges of the leather seat, panting softly and trying to regain my composure. Aric planted one hell of a smooch, laced with a great deal of sizzle and emotion behind it. I believed his caring for me was genuine, although I still marveled as to why. Regardless, I couldn’t help wondering whether maybe the wolves would have found the couple if they hadn’t abandoned their efforts. A thought I couldn’t bear to contemplate. We didn’t speak again until we passed the exit for the Stampede Reservoir on 89. “Aric, if there are demon children—grown ones, I mean—wouldn’t they have left a royal mess long before this?”

Aric placed his hand over my knee, the knuckles relaxing and tightening as he massaged. Good Lord, so much had happened since we first touched in his car. “Celia, over two thousand people go missing every day in the States. Most are never found. They could very well have been abducted by demons and devoured somewhere obscure. Yet the demon’s rarity should make it impossible. And so should their vile stench. They can’t hide that shit from a human nose, let alone one of my kind.”

Aric had a point. About a lot of what went down. Yet still so much didn’t make sense. The distinct smells. The leeched men. The missing couple. And the mutilated woman. How were they all connected? “Is it possible the couple and the dead bodies are somehow related, you know, as in from the same family?”

Aric let out a long breath. “I doubt it. The men all appeared of different ethnicities and their clothes suggested varying socioeconomic backgrounds. But the weres investigating will look into it just in case.” He glanced out the side window, where the lush forest appeared to be greeting the arrival of spring. “You know, Tahoe is a great area. But when you consider its vastness and that three million people visit the area each year, it makes it hard to police when a new threat arises.”

I took in the sea of green firs and leaves. Every critter, vine, sprout, even the occasional dead tree with crumbling branches had a place among those that thrived. Malevolent dead things with serrated knives for teeth? Not so much. I lived in the northeast section of the lake in a small, mostly quiet and uneventful cul-de-sac. Yet I considered the entire region home, sweet home. I only wished I could keep it to myself and all the malicious bastards out.

Aric’s shoulders dropped and he breathed a small sigh of relief when we entered Dollar Point, probably thankful to reach my hometown with all our limbs still intact. “If you’re still up for it, I’d love to take you to dinner.”

“Don’t you have duties to attend to?”

Aric brushed his knuckles against my cheek. “I passed them to Gemini. I don’t like what happened to you, or what I exposed you to. My wolf needs to ensure that you’re safe before he can fully settle.” He grinned. “So how about you help us out and have dinner with us?”

My growling stomach responded for him and made him chuckle. I met his grin with one that would trump any tween meeting Gaga. “I’d love to go out. What are you in the mood for?”

Aric pulled onto the small incline leading into my neighborhood, humor dissolving from his face like an ice cube in boiling water. “Vampire on a stake.”

“What?” I thought I misheard him until I took in our Colonial.

I jumped out of my seat like I’d sat on burning tacks. The very naughty Catholic schoolgirls draped their long legs against the white porch railings like a bunch of lazy monkeys waiting to bite, pull hair, or sling poo. Misha and Danny were also there, standing at the bottom of the light blue wooden steps engaged in conversation. Neither appeared happy. Danny’s brows shot up over his Coke-bottle black-framed glasses when he caught sight of Aric’s Escalade . . . and his not-so thrilled expression.

Aric parked along the curb. Right behind Misha’s Hummer limo with the BYTE ME plates. “Please don’t do anything, Aric.” I leapt out of the SUV, and even though my side was technically closer to the sidewalk, and my speed was generally faster, Aric reached Misha first.

“What the hell are you doing here?”

A glint of annoyance flickered in Misha’s cold gray eyes when he caught my hands clasped over Aric’s. Aside from that, Misha ignored him to face me. I only wished the good Catholics had disregarded us, too. Instead they soared off the porch, over the rhododendron bushes, and landed in crouches hissing at Aric. “Oh, shut up!” I snapped. I glanced between Aric and Misha. “I don’t think I need to remind either of you about the treaty forbidding you to tear out each other’s throats.” Both ignored me. The tension between them bitch-slapped the air, so yeah, a gentle reminder appeared worth mentioning. I cleared my throat, adding as much force as I could muster considering that I stood between two of the world’s deadliest preternaturals. “No bloodshed allowed—especially on neutral territory.”

I said it. I meant it. Too bad I was dealing with a pair of hothead Alpha males who hated each other.

Danny backed away, tripping over the steps in his haste to reach the front door. He swung it open, yelling at the top of his lungs, “Bren, Bren. Get out here. We got trouble!”

A deep voice called from inside, “Keep your panties on, Dan, I’m coming.” Bren sauntered down the steps barefoot, wearing a stained white T-shirt and black basketball shorts. Potato chip flakes stuck to his dark, scruffy beard as he munched. As a lone wolf, he and Aric weren’t exactly pals, but his dislike of vampires made him take a position on Aric’s other side. He shoved his hand into the Lay’s bag tucked under his arm and reached for more salty goodness. “Hey, Ceel,” he said between bites. His laid-back disposition suggested indifference, but in the end, lone or not, Bren was very much a werewolf. His beast nature would attack if provoked, and so would the loyal friend within if the vampires threatened my safety.

Misha’s long blond hair draped against his high cheekbones, eclipsing his already hard stare. “Where were you today, Celia?”

“She was with me,” Aric answered.

Misha continued to watch me, which was very much a good thing. Treaty or not, had he met Aric’s glare, his wolf would interpret it as a challenge and I’d spend the next week scrubbing fur and blood off my walkway. Misha’s tone hardened, not a good thing considering that it hadn’t started as cheery to begin with. “Then why did I sense her distress?”

Aric leaned back on his heels. “How did you—?”

It probably took every last bit of control Aric had to hold back his beast when Misha snatched my right wrist. He held it in the air while the middle finger of his opposite hand traced a line down my forearm. “I gave Celia the ability to call me.”

Aric turned his glare from Misha to me. Oh, goody. “He gave you his call?”

He wasn’t really asking. He was more telling me he didn’t like—no, he despised—what I’d allowed Misha to do. I jerked my hand away from Misha as if he’d taken a bite. “I, ah . . .” I looked to Bren and Danny, unsure how to respond. Bren, good ol’ Bren, choked on his chips with how hard he laughed. I failed to see the humor. Especially then.

My eyes narrowed at Misha, certain he’d somehow screwed me. When he’d first given me his supernatural digits, he’d said, “Should you ever need me, call my name and I shall thunder through hell itself to reach you.” At the time, I considered it a generous offer. Now, not so much. There was no thundering through hell, just a lot of gloating. And judging by how Aric’s heart pounded like a racing Thoroughbred, I started to believe I should have asked for a gift card instead. “Um” remained my only response.

Misha flashed his famously wicked smile. “What troubles you, mongrel? It’s my understanding Tahoe’s head witch passed you her call.”

My jaw fell hard enough to scrape against the sidewalk. Genevieve, Tahoe’s head witch, was supermodel stunning. We’re talking waist-length ebony hair that cradled perfect and perky br**sts, large blue eyes, fair skin that had never seen a zit, full luscious lips, and a magical whoop-ass staff capable of turning weregorillas into krill. Genevieve was smart, powerful, tall, wealthy—and did I mention stunning?

I crossed my arms, this time, my turn to raise an eyebrow. At Aric. “Did she, now?”

Aric didn’t blink. “Our relationship is strictly business.”

“Your relationship? Oh. I’ll. Just. Bet.”

Slapping Aric across the face with a dead fish wouldn’t have earned me the same expression of shocked confusion. “Why, are you jealous?”

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