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A Breed Apart - Part 1

Published in Sensuous Escapes newsletter (Dec. 4, 2004 edition)

Sandy Hook, KY.

            Serin was there, just ahead of him.  Talen watched his sister as she moved from tree to tree, her steps careful, her breathing controlled.  But not careful enough, not as controlled as she must be if she was going to elude the Genetics Council and the soldiers they would send out for her if they ever learned she was alive.

            Serin, like the five others she called family, was a human hybrid.  She had been altered in the womb; the DNA of the Cheetah biogenetically fused to the human cell structure to create a species that the Genetics Council had hoped would one day become the perfect killing machine.

            More than sixteen years after Talen and his mother's escape from just such a lab, Talen had taken Serin and the others from the similar labs during a fiery explosion that he hoped had concealed their escape.  And since that night, their lives had been haunted by the knowledge that any day, the soldiers the Council regularly sent after Talen, would somehow learn of their existence as well.

Talen moved through the woods that bordered his home, his eyes narrowed, his breathing controlled, and his steps silent as he stalked his sister.  She was just ahead of him, moving with careful precision over the dead twigs and loose rock that littered the ground.  She was quiet and careful.  Her wary surveillance of the area still wasn't good enough.  He would have her in a matter of minutes.

From the corner of his eye he saw their darker brother, Damen, pause in the hunt as he saw Talen move in on her.  The training exercise had been a spur of the moment decision to test Serin's abilities.  Abilities Talen was beginning to see that she did not have.

            Talen moved from tree to tree, blending with the shadows, careful to keep downwind of that sensitive nose he knew she had.  He didn't want her to catch his scent too soon; it could give her a false sense of security, causing her to rely on a trait that any trained soldier could get around.  She was going to have to learn that when the threat was downwind, her weakness could get her killed, or worse.

Despite her preparation, and the fact that she knew he was there during this training exercise, there would be no escape for her.  Serin was unprepared, untrained, and nowhere close enough to having the abilities to protect herself, or to aid her family should they be found. 

            Talen stepped behind her, not even a breath disturbing the air at her back, and locked his arms around her, securing them at her side even as he braced his legs wide apart to avoid the sudden thrashing of her feet as a bitter, defeated curse echoed between the tree-sheltered cliff walls.

            "Stop.  You lost.  Now deal with it."  His voice was harsh as he released her, watching without sympathy as she fell to the ground.

            Serin sat tensely amid the dried leaves and sparse grass of the forest floor, staring up at him in fury as he watched her.

            "Dammit Talen, you didn't even give me a chance."  The blonde came to her feet, fury reflecting in the eerie light green of her eyes as the long strands of her dark blonde hair fell over her face, and then was brushed back with a furious motion. 

            Her accusation hung in the air between them now, and Talen's temper sparked with a sudden fury.

            "Hell no, I didn't give you a chance.  You think the soldiers the Council keeps sending out after me will give you a chance if they ever learn you're alive Serin?  What kind of a chance do you think you'll have against them?"  He kept his tone even, but anger surged through him.  She wasn't learning fast enough, she wasn't hard enough.  By time that steel hard core of strength in her could be enforced, it might be too late, just as it had nearly been too late for him when the Council had found him.

            Serin hissed in fury, her small body shaking with anger as she faced him.

            "You're cheating."  He was amazed she didn't stomp her foot as she said the words.

            "Cheating?"  Talen asked her incredulity spreading through him as he wondered if the seriousness of the situation would ever sink into her head.  "You think the big boys are going to play fair?  Do you think they're going to give you a head start, a list of rules before they throw a net over your ass and haul you back to the labs, Serin?  And once they get you there?  Do you think they'll say pretty please before they rape you, breed you the way they intended to?  Will they care if they're cheating, Serin?" 

            As he spoke, fury surged through Talen as her face became more mutinous by the second.

            "Cut her some slack, Talen.  She's learning; that's what's important."  Damen, their brother, stood several feet from them, where he had come to a stop after Talen's move against Serin.   His handsome face was creased into a scowl, his dark emerald green eyes watching Talen with an expression of anger. 

            "Is it?"  Talen turned on him now.  "Will it be enough, Damen, if she's captured?  What will save her ass then?  She can't even find a way to break my hold.  What if she's caught unawares?  Her training isn't anywhere near good enough, and I'm losing time with her.  You should have taken care of this yourself."

            It had been Damen's job to train Laney and Serin while Talen drew the Council soldiers and assorted mercenaries on a nationwide goose chase for the past years.  Instead of training them as he should have, Damen had let his emotions stay his hand, the result was years of work lost with Serin, and he didn't even know if Laney could be trained at all.

            It was as though they had forgotten that they weren't safe.  There was always the danger that Talen hadn't covered their escape from the labs all those years ago, as well as he had hoped.  If the Council learned the others lived, then they would be doomed if they didn't have the instincts needed to evade capture.

            Damen, Dayan, and Webb had learned early.  They had been easier to train, their personalities better suited to the solitary lives they were forced to live, the necessity of staying hidden, of watching, waiting.  The girls were somehow lacking in those instincts, despite the horrors of their captivity.

            "Dammit Damen, how the hell are they going to survive if the Council finds them?  If they're somehow separated from us and on their own.  They'll be easy targets."

            "You're not a stranger, Talen," Serin raged, interrupting his furious tirade.  "It won't work.  I don't feel threatened by you or Damen.  It's different when I'm threatened."

            Talen turned back to her, his gaze raking over the long, lean lines of her body, scantily clad in shorts and t-shirt.  She was a damned beauty, with full breasts, and long thick dark blonde hair.  It would be no hardship for the soldiers the Council employed to breed her.  And they would breed her.  They needed her and her body to produce the small, specialized army they dreamed of having.

            "Then you better start feeling threatened, Serin.  They know I'm here; it's just a matter of time before they send out someone with more experience and with fewer scruples than what they've sent so far.  I may need you.  You may need yourself if they ever find out you're still alive.  How will you fight if you have no damned idea how to use your weapons?"  Talen moved with a sudden twist of his body, wrapping his arms around her again.  "Look at you, little girl.  You're helpless, just like you were then.  They'll hold you like this, and while they do, the rest of them will rape you.  Do you remember it, Serin, the feel of their hands on you?"  Disgusted with himself, Talen moved his hand, gripping her breast through her t-shirt, pinching the nipple as he laughed harshly in her ear.

            The feral cry that echoed through the forest came a second before lethal claws dug into his arm, surprising him, forcing him to release his grip.  When he did, the woman came out of his arms, twisting in the air as she jumped away from him, then around, crouching now on the forest floor, her teeth bared, her face pale as she watched him with betrayed, tear- filled eyes.

            Talen knew the memories of those years, held captive at the labs, raped on her fourteenth birthday and informed of her breeding status, could torment her as nothing else could.  She had been created and raised with breeding purposes in mind.  Even as a small child it had been commonplace for the rough, amoral soldiers there to touch her, jeering as they informed her of the fate awaiting her.  A fate Talen had only been partially successful in rescuing her from.

            Talen glanced now at the blood that ran in slow rivulets from his wrist and arm.

            "Damn, that might need stitches, Damen."  He watched Serin now, her harsh breathing, the wildness in her eyes.  "Think she's finished?  In the time she's been crouched there we could have thrown a net over her and had her stripped.  What was it the soldiers promised her there?  A whole round until her pretty belly became too large for them mount her properly?"

            A second later, she was gone.  No points for silence, Talen thought, as he watched her disappear through the forest, but damned if she wasn't fast.

            "Do you really think that was necessary?"  Damen stood propped against a tree, his arms crossed over his chest, a frown marking his face as he watched Serin run.  The need for violence vibrated in the air around him in the way muscles tensed. His  voice lowered and grew unemotional.  "Using that was wrong Talen."

            Damen was poised to go after her, his protective instincts flaring, his need to see to his sister's safety nearly overwhelming.  It was the reason Talen had taken the training procedures out of his hands.  After ten years, both Laney and Serin were still woefully lacking in the abilities they might need to protect themselves.

            Damen had followed Maria, Talen's mother, in her example of cosseting the girls, easing their way through life to make up for the horrors they had faced at the labs.  Talen couldn't allow the situation to continue.  After Maria's death the past year, he had learned how truly vulnerable all of them were.

            "Using that is the only way to make her remember how helpless she was there, Damen."  Talen shook his head as he fought his own self-disgust and guilt at what he had done.  "She has to learn, if she doesn't she's no use to me or to herself.  She'll get over it.  When she does, she'll be better."

            That didn't help, Talen knew.  Serin would have nightmares again.  Her screams would echo through the house and he wouldn't be there to console her as he always had been.  It had been harder for Serin.  At fourteen she had been nearly as beautiful as she was now, and fair game for the men who preyed upon her. 

Talen had to teach her now; in case the day came that he or Damen were no longer there to protect her.  Being the teacher was harder than being the student, and it ate at him that their lives forced them to relive the horrors and the pain of a life they should have never known. 

But before he could teach Serin, he first had to get past the need, the overwhelming desire she had for a normal life.  Serin was going to have to realize they weren't normal, and they never would be.  Until she realized that, she was a danger to herself.

            "The Council believes we're all dead," Damen reminded him.  "Serin and Laney aren't in any danger."

            Talen could only shake his head as frustration ate at him.  They couldn't be certain of that, they could never be certain that the Council wouldn't find them.  It was the hardest lesson of all to teach them.  The Council was always there, always suspicious, always looking.

            "That could change at any time, Damen," he bit out, turning his gaze to the sky that peeked through the thick tops of the trees around them. 

            When he looked back to Damen, he saw the maturity making its way into the creases along his eyes and mouth.  

A Breed Apart - Part 2

Published in Sensuous Escapes newsletter (Dec. 13, 2004 edition)

Three weeks later

Steven Taylor's home,

New York.

Steven Taylor took his seat at the dining room table, his gaze taking in the confused expressions of his children as they watched him silently.  Especially his daughter Maggie; the child who could hold the future of not just her own family, but a new breed of life, in her small hands if she did as he silently predicted she would.

Zane, the oldest child, sat across from him, relaxed; though his cold dark blue eyes showed a hint of curiosity.  This was the child Steven knew could cause the most harm.  The one whose hands were already stained with the blood of death and corruption, though his son was unaware his father knew of it.

Caleb and Darien, with their identical hazel eyes, and thick brown hair were the lead journalists of the family, but only due to the fact that they had brazenly stolen his daughters last two stories.  They would protest the loudest, and demand the story to come.  A story Steven feared they would lose.

Jason, fourth son in line, was also a journalist, but his aspirations had nothing to do with making his mark with a byline.  It was he who would step into his father's shoes as Editor and owner of the prestigious national magazine one day.

            Then, there was Brandon and Brock.  They were twins as well, but carried their mother's blue eyed, black haired coloring, as Zane did.  Brandon was an electronics wizard, and yet another journalist.  Brock was a detective with the New York Police Department, completely breaking away from the family business.

            Then, there was Gray.  Gray was an enigma, even to his father.  Quiet and studious, with blue eyes and his father's brown hair; he viewed the world with an air of amusement, and quiet cynicism. As the youngest son, he had yet to make his mark in anything, and didn't seem in any hurry to disturb the many wakes his brothers made before him.

            Then, there was Maggie.  She was the only daughter; a small, fragile young woman with her father's coloring, and her mother's delicate features.  She laughed often, and raged fiercely, and viewed the world as a never-ending source of amazement.  Steven worried that soon the day would come when his daughter, his last link to his beloved wife Mary, would lose that innocent belief in right and wrong, and fall hard into the stone cold reality that life truly was.  It was his greatest regret that he would be the one to give her that final push.

            Taking a deep breath, Steven picked up a folded letter that lay among the pile of photo's, memos, and communiqués from decades past.  Handing it to his daughter at the end of the table, he told her softly to read the information it contained aloud.

"My Dearest Steven."  Her voice faltered slightly as her gaze rose to meet his.  At his nod, she continued with the letter.

            "If you are reading this, then it is likely that for some reason, I have departed life and am quickly heading to hell for my sins against not just life, but nature itself.

            Ah Steven, if only my life had taken a different course, then I believe death would not hold such fears for me.  Had I made choices in accordance to what I believed was right and wrong, then I would not have cause to fear God's wrath now.

            But my choices led me to ignore the right and the wrong in the hope that eventually, right would persevere.  Or perhaps I just wanted so desperately to know I had been part of something so vast, so unknown, that I ignored my conscience and went ahead with my work.  And now, because of my selfishness, greed and ignorance, an innocent life is in more than danger than you can ever know.

            I write you in the hope that you can ease for me the plight of a man who deserves, even more than others, the right to survive.

            As editor and owner of a prestigious newspaper, I hope you could investigate this, and bring to light the truth of a vast injustice being committed.  The injustice of the decision to kill in cold blood, a defenseless child; and then a man that has committed no crime save the one of being created.

            Oh God Steven, what did we do?"  It was Maggie voice, slowly filling with horror, but it was Maria that Steven heard.  Her voice husky with tears as she left him, and now filled with rage and sorrow after death.  "You will think that perhaps we created a monster, and this is not true.  What we created was a child so vastly intelligent, and yet so instinctual and filled with life that it often amazes me that I had carried it myself, within my own body.

            It was just supposed to be an experiment, how could I have known the far reaching implications of it, or the decisions it would necessitate?

            I am a doctor, foremost.  A scientist who pledged herself to the task of saving lives and of making lives easier.

            The experiment began in just such a way.  The lion, a crafty, intelligent, merciless hunter was the perfect counterpart in this breeding program.  So the human cells were bio-technically engineered and fused with the cells of this beast. 

            It was I who volunteered to carry the child.  I never imagined the events that would arise from that single, moment of weakness.  I, who had no children, signed away the better part of my future to this group.  A clandestine group so shrouded in secrecy as to take their scientists and secure them on an island far away from other human habitation.

            Did I make a mistake in this decision?  There are times I say yes.  Had I made another decision, then when the time came to dispose of this project then I could have stood aside while the child was killed.  Or could I have?  I sit here, and I wonder if I could have truly done such a thing. The child was so innocent, so very intelligent, and so trusting of us, the adults who poked and prodded and tested him as though he were little more than the animal he had been bred from.

            But he was no animal.  Even at five he showed the far-reaching intelligence and advanced abilities that we, as scientists, had been hoping for.  It was astounding Steven, how quickly he learned, how easily he could catch onto even the most difficult assignments.  He learned quickly, surpassing his age.  In matters of science, mathematics, logics and strategies he has excelled, even into adult years.

            Instinctually, he is a wonder.  He is the wonder of science that we as the scientists, and those behind the project were hoping for.  He is a hunter unlike any other.  His special senses are so much more advanced than normal, that it amazes me.  He can sense danger, not in the psychic sense, but in the sense of one who knows and understands the undercurrents of nature, even when it appears nature is not present.  He has, many times, saved our lives by following these instincts.

Had the backers of the project waited, perhaps their decision in those early years would have been different.  But they didn't, and those who had financed our project, and who retained the decision of life or death over the child, gave the order to terminate him."

Steven watched the horror, the complete amazement that filled the expressions of his family. But it was the sadness; the anger that filled Maggie's voice that left a heavy weight dragging at his heart.

            "As far as they knew, the order had been carried out.  It was decided between the five of us, scientists who had created such a miraculous project, that we could not destroy it.  So we set about the elaborate charade that would fool the cruel organization set up to see to its end. 

            I know though, and have for years, that we did not obliterate all sense of suspicion.  They have sought us out for years, hunting us like animals, cutting off all hope, and all sense of security that we would seek.

            Of the five scientists involved in the project, two are now dead.  There is only myself, Dr. Max Leopold and Dr. David Sergei, who went into seclusion after they left the island.  I haven't heard from them, who knows if they are alive or dead.

            I know though, that if I do not leave, the child and myself will die.  I must hurry.  So I write you this letter, on this 23rd day of July, nineteen hundred and eighty six, in the event that we are captured, that perhaps you could at least bring to light the truth of this action our government has sponsored, and likely will try again.

            Enclosed are photocopies of the notes of the experiment, as well as memo's, letters and communiqués from the organization created to oversee the project.  As you will see, it had far-reaching implications to destroy the lives of the men involved.  Men whose wealth and power reach into areas you would never imagine.

            Where he shall be when this letter finds you, I am not certain.  I cannot tell you the location he had chosen to hide in, for fear of this letter reaching the wrong hands.  I will tell you though; the clues are out there to find him should you decide to take up this task.  I pray to God that you will decide to take up this task.  There are more lives than you know at risk.

            My death shall leave a mark upon him I fear, for we have spent these many years knowing our lives depend upon each other.  Mother and child, both running, both fighting against men who are greater in power than are we.

            And there, the first letter ended.  The next page was dated for March nineteen ninety-two, and held a horrorific accounting of the young man's life.

            I sit again, and write to you, even though I know you may never receive the letters, or the evidence.  Perhaps in some ways, it eases me, to reach out to you even in this small way.

            The past year has been hell.  Running, hiding, fighting to find him.  He disappeared one night, one day he was here, and hours later he was gone.  He had a date he had told me.  A pretty little girl he met outside the apartment we lived in.  I urged him to be cautious, but he is a young man, like so many young men, and eager to be with a woman.  That night he did not return though, and the young woman had disappeared as well. 

            They had him.  I knew this.  We had made plans for it, but I never imagined it would happen. I always thought we could stay one step ahead of the Council.  I left, as we had planned, staying in seclusion while searching desperately for some news from him.  A year later, he returned.  He was not the same.  So cold, so hard; there was nothing left of the young man he had been.

            I had thought he was surely dead.  The Council had decreed his death twenty-one years before, I had assumed they had carried out the order.  But it wasn't death they had in store for him.

            Dear God Steven not death, but a stable.  They took my child, and they imprisoned him, bringing to him scared, frightened virgins to breed.  Not one of the girls did he touch, and he killed three of his guards and was nearly killed himself in the escape after they murdered the first girl.  He was changed after this, and for a while I feared for his sanity.

            He is a natural born leader, and since his escape, those abilities within him have intensified. He leads, and excels in outwitting and outrunning our enemies.  He finds pleasure in humiliating the soldiers sent out for us, in watching them follow false trails while he attacks from behind.  He doesn't kill, he doesn't maim, but you can see the hard edge he has developed, and should the Council push him much further, than I fear he will be forced to kill once again.  He told me once that the blood he shed in those labs during his escape forever taints his hands.  His soul, he told me, was tainted with who, and what he was, and he fears it shall never be cleansed.  The bitterness of his DNA eats at him, just as the cruelties of the Council continue to haunt him.

            He deserves peace Steven.  He deserves life and love.  It was not by his choice, the DNA he was given.  It was not by his choice that he was an experiment created to kill.  It was not by his choice, and yet he lives with the decision daily, second by excruciating second, fighting just to live.

            Should this letter find itself in your hands my dearest friend, then I pray that you will do what you can to bring to this child the justice he deserves.  But I caution you.  Those who were behind this project  still yet hold an amazing depth of power and will do anything, everything to stop this knowledge from coming to light.  Be extremely careful of whom you talk to, and how you go about the investigation process.

Dr. Maria Morales"            

A Breed Apart - Part 3

Published in Sensuous Escapes newsletter (Dec. 27, 2004 edition)

As Maggie finished the letter, Steven watched the single tear that spilled down her pale cheek.  She raised her gaze to his, and he saw the fury, and the pain for both Maria, and her unknown son, in her eyes.  The same fury and pain that Steven himself had felt when he first read the letter and saw the contents of the box that came with it.

            There were indeed notes, memos, and letters from various men of political and financial power.  A Senator's personal memo that the new "Breeds" were disposable units only, soldiers to be raised, tested and trained with the ultimate care in regards to shedding blood.  They wanted suicide units built and prepared to die for the assignment. 

A billionaire once known for his philanthropy and charitable works had a hand written memo that the "Units" could be used to clear the streets of the 'ill-gotten maggots of society' known as the homeless.

Those were but a few of the notes arranged around the table.  There were memos from a President, not just from the United States, but several as well from differing countries.  The list of names was wide and varied between countries, and was similar in content.  They were spread out before the nine people, a collage of life, death, and horrendous miscarriages against nature. 

            There were stacks of photos, taken at various stages of cell fusion, as well as fetal development within the mother's womb during pregnancy.  The pictures then ranged from birth to twenty-one years of age.

            The child, unnamed within the letter, was strikingly handsome with dark skin, slightly tilted golden brown eyes, and a thick mane of tawny colored hair.  The last pictures showed a muscular, somber young man as he stared into the camera.  He wore jeans and a white t-shirt, and well-worn boots.  He looked like a normal young man, a bit exotic, and incredibly handsome, but there was nothing in his physical appearance to indicate that he was somehow different from anyone else.

            There were other pictures as well.  Horrendous, ghastly displays of those experiments that did not work, or were so deformed as to cause miscarriages well before they became full term.  They were gruesome in their graphic displays of abnormal growth patterns, and the evidence of a being neither human, nor animal but a mix of both.

            Several women had been used to carry those crimes against nature, and then promptly killed by the soldiers of the compound on orders from the organization.  Those women were then incinerated, and their ashes disposed of in the ocean waters that surrounded the island.

            The last attempt had held much more promise though.  That was when the scientists decided that instead of co-signing another innocent young mother to die, that one of the two female scientists would bear the child instead.  It seemed that Maria had drawn the lucky number, and had given birth to the child they named Leo.  A name Maria stated in another brief note, had been changed to protect him.

            There were pictures of the child; from the sonograms to twenty-one years of age, but there were none taken after that.  The last picture displayed on the table, was one Steven Taylor told his family he remembered well.  That picture was of a small, forested clearing in a little known Eastern Kentucky county where Maria had inherited land from her Mother's family.  It was there that Maria and Steven had spent several weekends camping before she had been called back to California by her father's family, and he slowly lost touch with her.

            The setting was within a forest, a clearing that led to a deep stream, across from it a sheer rock cliff from where a waterfall fell almost lazily from the top of the cliff.  Caney Creek, he thought he remembered her calling it.  The location had been a favorite of her childhood summers, where she and her cousins would often camp.  Maria knew there would be no clues needed, other than this picture, for Steven to know where to go.

            Of course, one of his best journalists, one of the four children seated around the table now, would be the one to go.  Steven knew now that he faced one of the hardest decisions of his life.

            Seated around the table, their eyes all focused on the notes, papers, and experimental formulas and years worth of disastrous experiments, were his children.

            There were seven boys, and a single daughter, and it was that daughter whose reaction worried Steven the greatest.  That and the promise he had given her several months before.  A promise he feared he would have to keep now.

            "This one's mine."  She spoke up just as he knew she would, her voice firm, and determined. Stubbornness reflected in her clear brown eyes, her pert little chin rose, daring anyone to deny her the right.

            (rest of this chapter missing - if you have it, please edit this page with the missing bit)

A Breed Apart - Part 4

Published in Sensuous Escapes newsletter (Jan. 6, 2005 edition)

Sandy Hook, Kentucky 

They were there.  For the last week the two-man team had scouted the mountain, settling on a sheltered rock house on the forested hill above him.  Talen watched them from the opposing hillside, his eyes narrowed, his body hidden in the thick laurel, rose brush, and ferns.  They were using regular binoculars today he estimated, as he watched one of them fit the thick piece of equipment against his face.

The infra-red was good only at night, thankfully Talen didn’t do too much mountain hopping at night.  Despite his excellent night vision, he preferred other avenues of entertainment.

“They’ve haven’t moved all day.  What are they up to?”  Serin whispered at his side, her voice barely lifting above a whisper.

He hadn’t intended to take her with him.  Her training had barely begun, but at the last minute he had changed his mind.  She needed to see, to be close enough to the danger to know its scent. 

“Patience.”  He shrugged, watching as one of them sat back and snacked on something from a bright yellow bag.  Potato chips, he thought, shaking his head.  Hell of a diet for a soldier.  “Ninety-nine percent of their job is waiting for the perfect moment.”

The perfect moment to send a bullet, or worse yet one of the highly effective tranquilizer darts they carried with them, sailing into his body.  He was worth more to the Council alive.  If they could make him breed, then they would have a ready-made army to train from birth.  Talen swore he would die first.

“Nerve-wracking.”  Serin settled deeper in the soft brush, though her eyes stayed trained on the pair surveying from the ridge.  “How can they stand to just sit there for that amount of time?”

“You can do a lot of things for a million dollars and like it just fine,” he told her with an edge of sarcasm.  “Unless the price has went up since last I heard, that’s the going rate for one live, healthy human/feline hybrid this year.”

“If you ask me, I think you’re overrated.”  The droll amusement in her voice sent his shoulders shaking with silent laughter.

“Think so, little sister?”  He grinned as he glanced over at her.  “Maybe you outta send them a fax and explain why.  Maybe they’ll lower the price and then leave me the hell alone for a while.”

“Then again, I could make them up the price too.  From what I understand, you could breed all night long and half the day if you’re in the mood too.  They could have you underrated.”  The smug suggestion of knowledge had his eyes narrowing now as he watched her.

“And just what do you think you understand, Serin?”  He grunted.  “Don’t women ever talk about anything other than sex?”

“Well, Mary Beth was a little ticked that you didn’t call her back after the night you spent with her.”  Serin kept her voice low, but Talen could hear the barely contained laughter.  “She regaled me with the full night’s encounter.  Really Talen, all you didn’t do was purr for her.”

Talen could feel his cheeks heating with embarrassment, and fought to ignore it.  He’d be damned if he would comment.  He’d rather sit and watch the soldiers, at least he understood them.

The soldiers were watching the small cabin below, with its unassuming black shutters, and chain length fence.  The gate was closed and locked, with only a few people aware of the combination to open it.  To the pair that watched, a vehicle drove up, blew, and the gates opened by some unseen person inside.  What they didn’t see was the automatic lock release that each of his family carried.  Not that they used the gate often, other than Damen.  For the most part, they used the hidden cavern entrance below the house to get to him.

The hidden entrance to the house was a secret confined to only the six of them.  The small cavern located under the cliff, and the hidden set of steps that led up to the cabin wasn’t known to many people, even the old timers of the county.  It had been ingenious, and a stroke of luck that Talen had found the shaft that led to that cavern during his earlier years at home.  He had seen then, the effectiveness of having an unknown, undetected escape route.

“These two are damned good,” he grunted as he watch one of them sneak from the rock house and make his way to the edge of Talen’s property while the other covered him.

Efficiently, the soldier set a small motion detector and covered it quickly with leaves and brush before returning to the shelter.

“How did you learn how to evade them, Talen?”  Serin asked him softly, interrupting his thoughts, her earlier teasing of him forgotten as she watched as well.  “I wouldn’t have known they were there if you hadn’t pointed them out.”

“You would have smelled them in time.”  Talen shrugged, knowing the mention of that particular trait bothered her.

“I wouldn’t have,” she whispered.  “And I would have likely ignored it if I had.”

Talen sighed roughly, wanting to close his eyes in frustration.

“You learn, Serin.  When you’re hunted long enough and hard enough, you learn how to control the self destructive instinct you’re carrying,” he told her roughly.  “You come to a point that you want to live, if for no other reason the fact that they don’t want you to.  And you want freedom because the need for it is a part of you.”

“You didn’t have such an instinct.  One determined to kill you.  Why do I?  Why does Laney?”  It bothered her, having a part of her take over in such a way.

“But my experience in the labs was different.  I knew what I was, but the scientists who raised me sheltered me from the cruelties of the soldiers.  I don’t have the self-destruct, I believe, because of that.  But the others do in one way or another.  It has to be faced, and mastered.  For Damen, it was fighting.  He wasn’t given the chance to fight for his life in the labs, so after he escaped, he fought everything and everyone. 

For Dayan, it was physical labor.  He would work himself unconscious if we didn’t watch him, because it was the only way he could live with the memories.  For Webb, it was sleeping.  Instead of staying awake, he went to sleep.  He said it was the only time he knew any peace.  You have to face what they did.  You have to face the fears, then you can turn the self destruct button off.  It’s the only way.”

For Laney and Serin, the self-destruct was more ingrained, and the fears deeper and harder to face, Talen knew.  They could ignore it, until the danger reared its horrific head once again, but when it did, the effects of it hit the girls harder.

“Do you think they’ll ever give up, Talen?”  Serin asked him, changing the subject, her voice holding an edge of resignation, despite the question.  She knew, just as he did, that they would never give up.

“They’re getting smarter anyway.”  Talen shrugged, ignoring the obvious answer to her question.  “These two haven’t tried the yard yet.”

The others had though.  At first, Talen had used guard dogs to hold them back, until the first time he had lost his dogs to the bullets.  One by one, they had picked the dogs off, then broke through the fence.  The electric sensors ranged around the house had been all that had stopped them.  The ear splitting sirens were enough to wake the dead, as well as the few neighbors Talen had further down the road.  Within minutes the Sheriff was speeding into the driveway, scaring the soldiers off.

The Council didn’t want to advertise itself, it just wanted Talen dead, or under control.  So far, Talen had thwarted them. 

“You would think they would get smarter eventually.”  Serin yawned; watching the soldiers sit and watch the house all day was getting boring.

“Don’t underestimate them, Serin,” he warned her.  “They’re smart as they come, they just haven’t been given the right opportunity to take me alive yet.  So far, the Council doesn’t want me dead.”

It was the only reason he was still alive, Talen knew.  The soldiers carried tranquilizers for the most part.  And waited for the right moment to cap one into him.  He hadn’t yet given them that chance.  They were effectively barred from taking him out in any public place, or killing him, or involving innocents.  Hell of a way for a soldier to have to fight. 

The Council, Talen knew, was paranoid on the subject of blood being spilled and questions being raised.  They wanted Talen to simply disappear, no questions asked.  If bodies suddenly started turning up, then questions would be raised, and nosy reporters, or God forbid, nosy federal agents would suddenly begin putting two and two together, especially if the notes and reports Maria had stolen made it to light.

“And when they do?”  Serin asked him.

“Then I’ll be dead.”  He slanted a look at her, seeing the fear in her face.  “They know about me Serin, I can’t hide forever.  But you can, if you’re smart, unless you let them find out about you.  Then you’ll have to hide, and hide deep, because they won’t let up on you.”

Reality wasn’t easy, Talen knew.  Serin should be enjoying her life, not fearing for each second of it.  She was twenty-four, and alone.  She had no lover, no husband, no children, and knew the risks should she ever decide to have the last two.  It made for a lonely life, but the cruel reality was that she didn’t have a choice.  Not if she wanted to live.

As he started to speak again, a soft pulse at his thigh brought a frown to his face.  Talen pulled the cell phone from his pocket and answered it shortly.

“We might have a problem.”  Damen’s voice was filled with irritation.

“It’s a certainty,” Talen grunted.  When was there ever anything else?  “What on your end?”

“A reporter.  Maggie Taylor.  She just rolled into town and she’s asking everyone she sees about you.  She’s heading out to Big Caney with enough camping gear for three families.  You better get out there.”

Talen cursed, flipping the phone closed and tucking it back into its leather case.

“Let’s go.”  He began scooting backwards slowly, heading for the curve of the hill where they could stand safety and retreat.  “I have to get to town.”

“Problem?”  Serin asked, following him slowly.

“Sounds like it,” he bit out.  “A woman reporter named Taylor.  Just what I need, another part of Maria’s past to haunt me right now.”

Talen cursed silently, profanely.  He didn’t need this right now, not on top of those two mercenaries camped out looking for him.  And they didn’t stay confined to the shelter they had taken as their own either.  He had watched them, tracked them several times as they made wide forays around the mountain, hoping to find a way to catch him.

They were smart enough to know he wasn’t spending all his time hidden in that house.  They just hadn’t figured out where he went, or how he got out yet.

The last thing he needed was for one of them to catch wind of the journalist asking for him.  It would be reported to the Council immediately, and then only God knew what would happen to Stephen Taylor and his family if the Council thought they had any information concerning him, or the experiments.

“What are you going to do?”  Serin asked worriedly as they made it to the pickup.

“Beats the hell out of me.”  He unlocked the door and jumped in before reaching over to unlock hers as well.  “Get in and let me get to town so I can find out just how much damned trouble we’re in.  Just what I need, a damned journalist, and a woman to boot.  Stephen Taylor must have lost his ever lovin’ mind.” 

He started the motor quickly and eased out of the spot he had hidden the truck in.  He was less then ten minutes from town, but he could feel the knowledge in his gut that every minute was going to count.

A Breed Apart - Part 5

Published in Sensuous Escapes newsletter (Jan. 21, 2005 edition)

Sandy Hook Kentucky.  It was even smaller than her father had told her it was.  As Maggie packed the first load of supplies from the SUV to the camping area her father had directed her to, she shook her head in amazement as she remembered the drive through the small, no horse town.

   One main street, a courthouse, a video store, a drug store and a dozen odd one-story offices lined the mile long elevated two-lane road.  It had a quaint, farming community charm, and a gas station attendant there had assured her that thought the natives might seem restless, they weren’t dangerous.  He had done so though with a slight warning in his sexy, drawl of a voice. 

   Several people had spoken to her when she went inside to buy ice and cold drinks for her spare cooler.  They asked her why she was there, who she was staying with, and who her family was.  They seemed interested when she told them she was a feature journalist for the National Forum, and was at present working on a story concerning the great outdoors.  They didn’t seem to believe her, but they were willing enough to go along with her.  Cooperation ended there, when she had flashed Maria Morales picture at them, and asked if anyone knew her.  No one knew of her, no one had heard of her or her son.  So Maggie had dropped the subject and answered the questions regarding herself.

   The idea was to let people know who Maggie was.  One of the notes Maria had sent her father had assured him that her son would recognize his name, as well as the name of the National Forum.  It was to be one of the first steps in initiating contact with him.  A contact Maria had assured Steven, that her son might be hesitant to make.

   “He’s extremely wary now Steven,” One of the journal style notes had revealed.  “The time he spent at the Genetic Councils lab after his recapture has scarred him I’m afraid.  He’s terribly mistrustful of everyone, leading me to believe that perhaps a friend betrayed him. We left the moment he returned, sneaking away in the dead of night to find yet another place to hide, another place that will be safe for but a short while.”

   The letter had brought tears to Maggie’ eyes.  To live such a life, always frightened, always on the run, it must have been horrific.  In her research, Maggie learned that Maria had come here after running that last time.  Hiding within a small town, drawing little attention to herself or her son, she had apparently found a place that the men searching for her could not find.

   Now, as Maggie trudged the half-mile or so from her campsite, back to her father’s SUV she understood why.  The area was practically primitive.  She wished she had taken up a few of the offers that she had received earlier from a few of the younger men to help her unload the SUV.  The rough trail leading to the out of the way campsite she had been directed to didn’t leave much room for the Toyota to join her.  Moocher had though.  He was merrily checking out scents and crevices, and poking his nose into places that Maggie was certain would lead him to trouble.

   The hundred and thirty pound German Sheppard seemed to have no fear.  He kept her in his sights, but other than that, made a nuisance of himself with the wildlife.  That lack of fear in her canine companion led Maggie to relax as well.  With the training Zane had given the dog, Moocher would not be relaxed and confident if there were any dangers lurking around.

   After lifting her sleeping bag, rolled foam pads and two medium sized coolers from the SUV, Maggie locked it up carefully, set the security alarm, and then breathed in wearily.

   She had meant to set up the tent before loading everything into the great beyond, but after struggling with the damned thing for an hour, she had finally given up and decided to pack her stuff in before dark.  It would definitely be past dark before she managed to get the Great Monstrosity her brother Brock had loaned her, into a clearly upright position. 

   She wanted this story, bad, but she wondered though why any self-respecting creature of research wasn’t located in civilization.  You would think New York would be a much better location.  At least they had take-out there.  Here, it was a good half-hours drive to the nearest McDonalds, and she hadn’t seen a good Italian restaurant period.  This place was locked in the middle ages.

   “Come on Moocher,” she called out to the dog as she lifted the camping pack onto her back, then reached down and picked up the more than heavy coolers at each side of her.

   This was going to be a hell of a trek, she thought. 

   “Too bad you aren’t a bit bigger, Moocher,” she told him as he nearly loped ahead of her, then turned back as though to ask her why she was moving so slowly.  “I’d strap this crap on your back and let you pack it for me.”

   Moocher looked at the load straining her arms then his turned his back on her once again and put still more distance between them.

   “Some friend you are,” she called out to her mutinous canine.  “I’ll remember that come dinner time.”

   Maggie realized though, that there was a smile on her face.  She was deep in the forests, her campsite more than half a mile away, and her arms were on fire from the load she was carrying, but she was smiling.

   The air was clean, the large creek running beside her was soft and quiet, disturbed only by the sounds of birds singing happily in the trees around it, and the splash of the fish in it.

   There were no loud, brash cries from her brothers, no macho jeers at her for lingering behind them.  She was beginning to think that perhaps it was her brothers that ruined her earlier camping trips, and not nature itself.

   Finally, panting from exertion, her arms aching from the strain, Maggie entered the clearing where she had attempted to erect her tent earlier.  She stopped, blinking in confusion as she stared at the fully erect, no longer sagging tent that was now sitting at the base of a large stand of boulders instead of in the middle of the large clearing.

   A fire ring had been set up in front of it, not too close, yet not too far away either, filled with deadwood.  Maggie narrowed her eyes as she gazed around, searching the sudden quiet of the trees, the almost dead silence that fell around her.  Apprehension flared in her chest as she realized that someone had been in the camp while she was gone, and was most likely hidden somewhere close by now.

   Carefully, she moved toward the campsite, watching the area suspiciously.  That tent had not been so straight and tightly stretched before she had left, neither had it been sitting so close to those boulders. 

   Maggie glanced at Moocher as he sniffed around the now well-ordered camp.  His tail was still wagging, and though his eyes were searching the area he didn’t seem alarmed or wary. Could she have made contact so quickly?  Maggie had hoped, but never dreamed that she would.  Yet, who else would have bothered, only to hide as she appeared?

   “Okay, where the hell are you?”  She called out, watching as Moocher sniffed carefully around the boulders.  “I kinda liked my tent just where I had it sitting.”

   Reaching the shelter in question, she dropped the coolers on the rock and sand packed ground before lifting the pack from her shoulders.  She watched Moocher closely.  He kept glancing around, as though searching for something, but he wasn’t concerned.  If Moocher wasn’t concerned, then he was either gone, which Maggie doubted, or had assured the dog he meant no harm during one of the times the dog had beat her to camp.  Maybe there was some sort of animal affinity from the DNA or something?  Maggie was still confused on the scientific aspects of the man she was searching for.

   “Moocher, some guard dog you are, you aren’t even growling.”  Maggie frowned as the animal stared back at her happily as he marked another boulder.

   “Great,” she muttered, throwing the pack in her tent and collapsing in front of it tiredly.

   Maggie opened the closest cooler and pulled out a bottle of icy water.  Uncapping it she took a long sip as she continued to look around.  Across the creek was a sheer rock cliff, with a steady stream of water falling eighty feet or better from the top.  The sound of the water splashing into the boulders below was oddly soothing to her senses, despite the proof of an intruder in her midst.

   “Zane, if it’s you out there, I’ll shoot you with Dads gun for sure,” she called out as she wiped the sweat wearily from her brow and continued to look around.  She doubted it was her brother, but a girl could never be too certain where such a brother was concerned. “Before I do, be kind enough to find a way to get the SUV closer to the campsite.  The porta-pottie is still in it, and I swear, I just don’t have the energy to pack it in tonight.”

   She really needed that little pottie sized unit, she thought as she closed her eyes, leaning her head back against the tent.  When she re-opened her eyes, and watched Moocher, Maggie felt herself calming back down.  Someone was definitely out there, she could feel them watching her, and she had a feeling she knew who it was.

   Her father remembered this area Maria Morales had talked about, and the fact that it was part of some family land she owned.  It made sense that her son Talen would now own it, and Maggie guessed that was who was watching her so closely.

   Maggie had wondered how she was going to find him, and now she knew.  He had found her instead, and that suited her just fine if it meant a straight tent that wasn’t likely to collapse on her the minute she feel asleep.

   Now, she thought, if she could just get that pottie out of the truck and placed where it would do her the most good.

   Stacked beside the tent was a pile of gear she had brought in through the day.  One was a pup tent that would serve as an outhouse type shelter for the pottie.  She just couldn’t imagine dropping her pants now, aware there were eyes out there to see, and relieving herself.  It was going to be a long night though, if she didn’t find some way to pee.

Damned if Damen hadn’t been right, Talen thought, as he watched the girl closely. She was loaded for the summer and looked like trouble with a capital T.  Just what he needed right now.  First the damned mercenaries camped out on his doorstep, and now this. What had Maria done before she died, written letters to anyone and everyone who could hassle him?

Maggie Taylor was small and slender, but temptingly rounded in all the right places. Dressed in khaki hiking shorts, a tank top and sturdy boots, she was the picture of a weary camper. 

   Her long brunette hair was escaping her ponytail, and lay in disheveled strands along her cheek and neck.  Her breasts rose and fell as she relaxed in the gentle shade provided by the trees that grew tall and strong behind the boulders.  Shade that Talen had been certain she would have.  He was a fool, he told himself with a touch of resignation.  A fool with a death wish, evidently.  He should have been scaring her away, not making life easier for her.

   Talen had moved the tent so she would be afforded the cool protection of those trees.  The summer days could be stifling beneath the hot noonday sun.  It looked as though she had come prepared to stay all damned summer too, just as Damen had said.

   That tent had been a hopeless case anyway, the way she had been putting it together.  She had placed rods C and G into rods R and T and it had no hope of ever standing properly. Whoever had taught that woman to set a tent must have been a moron.

   Talen grinned, a porta-pottie?  He couldn’t believe it.  Then again, maybe he could, she looked like a woman who didn’t care to rough it, but she was damned sure going to have her conveniences if she could manage them.

   The dog had collapsed down beside her now, his mouth open as she poured fresh water onto his tongue.  It looked like a favorite game between them.

   “My name is Maggie Taylor,” her voice was soft and sweet as it sounded through the clearing.  “My father is Steven Taylor.  I’m a journalist for the National Forum, and if I come up missing he’s really gonna pitch a stink around here.”

   It was all Talen could do to keep from chuckling aloud as she talked to him.  Of course, she had enough to sense to know he would still be around.

   “I have a gun too.  A big old automatic rifle my brother taught me how to use, and a pistol I can take your eyes out with, so you better not mess with me.”  She warned him, but he heard no fear in her voice, and saw the smile on her face.

   She must have been about to say something else, because she frowned in irritation as a cell phone beep began to echo from inside the tent.

   The woman reached into the unzipped door, and picked up the offensive piece of electronic equipment.

   “Oh you would have to turn this piece of shit back on.”  Her voice was filled with disgust. “See, I could have just sworn I couldn’t receive the signal, despite my brothers tinkering. But oh no, you have to turn it on.  Hello?”  She was quiet for long moments, but he watched as her frown deepened.

   “I guess I accidentally turned it off, Zane.”  She lied blithely, listening with an air of boredom as she held the small black phone to her ear.

   “I’m fine.  Stop worrying so much about me.”  She listened again. 

“Yeah, whatever big brother.  You just stay on your side of the nation, and I’ll stick right here for a while.”  Evidently, brother dear didn’t want her camping. 

“It’s my story.  Tell Caleb he can cram it.  He’s not stealing another one off me.”  She listened again. 

“I’ll call Dad.”  Talen wondered if that was the best threat she had. 

“Fine, you do that Zane.”  Boy, she was getting mad now, Talen thought, as he watched her face flush, and her eyes sparkle in anger.  “You just go right ahead and make an ass out of yourself, then I’ll write that sex novel I’ve been dying to get into, and you can bet your bottom dollar I’ll publish under my own name.  Better yet, I’ll dedicate it to you, because you showed me what not to look for in a man.”  She listened a while longer, slowly relaxing as she did so.

“Yeah, you just go ahead and get that belt ready, big boy, and I’ll tell Moocher you’re on your way over.  We both know how well he likes you when you’re pissed off.”  Ahh, another threat, Talen thought.  The woman knew well the way to her brother’s heart.  He wouldn’t want to mess with that damned dog himself.

“Yeah, whatever.  Kiss Dad and the boys for me, and I’ll be thinking of you when I fry my fish tonight asshole.”  She disconnected the link, nearly throwing the phone back into the tent.

“Since you’re being so helpful, whoever the hell you are, why not stroll back to the SUV and cart my porta-pottie back to me while I start the steaks?  You want dinner?”

Talen stayed quiet as she rose from the ground and began digging around in the canvas totes he had stacked along the outside of the tent.  He hadn’t had time to check them, but he had a feeling there was enough stuff there to keep her well and comfortable for quite a while.

“While you’re at it, find somewhere to park the truck closer to the campsite.  I know there’s a nice little spot right above the trees behind me, but for the life of me I can’t figure out how to get around there, and Dads gonna be really pissed if someone steals the tires off that hunk of macho muscle he bought.”

She blithely carried on the one sided conversation as she lit her fire, laid out several packages from a cooler, pulled a pan from one of the duffle bags, and unfolded a small metal table and chair and set it away from the fire.

All the comforts of home.  Talen shook his head once again, and wondered why the hell Steven Taylor had sent his daughter out here.

A feature story on the joys of camping his ass, he thought, as he turned and headed through the trees back to the main road.  No one in their right mind brought a damned porta-pottie to the great outdoors to enjoy the wonders of nature.  They learned to drop their drawers in the bushes and make due.

Porta-pottie.  The damned woman was insane.  As he walked, he pulled the small pack from his own back and checked his tools there to make certain he had what he needed to break through the shrieking alarm he knew would be on the SUV.

Talen hoped the potty was the only thing he had to lug back through the dense, rough trail to her campsite.  He was tired himself, and more than ready to head for his makeshift bed.  Watching this woman would be the most exhausting job he had taken in years.  Too bad it was him she was looking for.  He could have made the experience much more pleasurable than it was going to be.

One thing was for certain.  No pretty, sweet smelling little woman was tricking him again.  He had learned his lesson there years ago, and he was determined to not make the same mistake twice.  He wasn’t twenty-one any longer, and his hormones were now controlled by him; he wasn’t controlled by his hormones.  His first great love affair had taught him the value of self control.

His experience in the Council’s new labs had been less than pleasant, and the nightmares that still haunted him, as well the others, and was enough to ensure that he gave second, and third thoughts to who he dared trust.  That meant helping her out while he could, but making certain distance was maintained.  He didn’t really believe she was part of the Council.  Steven Taylor was known for his exacting honesty, and his determination to right injustices conceived at the government level.  But she could be a weakness, and the Council had learned early how to use weakness against those they singled out.

Talen would have preferred to just head home and forget about the pretty little woman that had the townspeople gossiping so hard.  The minute he heard the name Talen knew who she was, and the story she was after. 

He couldn’t give her the story, but Talen knew his mother would have never forgiven him if he didn’t watch out for her.  Maria had loved Steven until the day she died.  She would have expected him to watch out for the man’s daughter.

A Breed Apart - Part 6

Published in Sensuous Escapes newsletter (Jan. 31, 2005 edition)

Maggie could have sworn that nothing, or no one could sneak up on Moocher, or pull anything beneath his eagle-eyed gaze.  The German Sheppard was so fiercely protective of her, that even her brothers couldn’t raise their voices to her while he was around without a warning growl.

Yet, here was proof that someone, or something, had managed to invade their territory without upsetting Moocher.  Proof of it lay right outside the tree line of her camp. There, the porta-potty box, and the last two canvas totes she had been unable to haul into camp were sitting, waiting on her.

No doubt about it, someone had managed to sneak right in while her back was turned, and deliver the much-needed supplies.  And there was Moocher, his tongue hanging out, a satisfied look on his face, as though he had done the deed himself.  Maggie wondered if her brother’s training had somehow been wiped away by the manure-tinted air they’d driven through to get to the area of the campsite?

As she approached the supplies cautiously, Moocher sniffed them happily then went back to where the low fire was burning merrily; ready to grill the steaks Maggie had laid out.  At the moment, his priorities were food, not the cold bundles his mistress seemed intent on lugging to the tent.

As she bent to pickup the first tote, she saw the note that had been taped carefully to its side.  On it, were drawn clear instructions on how to move her fathers SUV closer to her camp.  Within feet of it actually, she thought as she glanced back behind the area she was camping in, to a slight, clear rise above it.  The road leading to the area was several miles away, but the clearing was almost in sight of her camping area.

“I hope you reset the damned alarm,” she called out to the silence that greeted her within the lengthening shadows of the evening.  “Because Dad will kill both of us if that truck is messed with tonight.  Dammit, I must have been crazy to do this.”

She hefted the box first, moving it quickly to the smaller tent she had erected, and then disappearing quickly inside it, zipping the door closed behind her.

When she emerged from the tent, she felt better, but still, the feeling of being watched raised the fine hairs along her neck and sent her heart rate up by degrees.  She knew he was still there, just as she had known earlier when he had left.

Maggie could have put Moocher on his trail, but had a feeling the dog would be quickly lost, and perhaps even the tenuous link she was establishing with him would be gone as well.

Getting him to trust her wouldn’t be easy, but at least he was willing to listen, so she talked to him instead.

Maggie wasn’t much of a talker, for the most part, she preferred writing.  Knowing that this man was standing out there in the darkness listening to her though, seemed to loosen her mouth, and all sorts of secrets began spilling out.

Well, perhaps not secrets, she assured herself as she revealed the fact that her brother was acing all Ex-qualifications, anyone who knew her knew her opinion of Zane’s flighty nature in the past few years.

She grilled her steaks, giving Moocher his own T-bone, and eating hers quickly as she sipped at one of her wine coolers and stared up at the stars that were beginning to peak out in the sky.

The campfire cast golden shadows along the ground, and her butane lantern did the rest to light the small area she had staked as her own.  Maggie was sitting comfortably in one of the canvas chairs staring out at the wide creek across from her when Moocher began to growl warningly.

Sitting up in the chair, Maggie moved the 9mm. pistol slowly from its holster, tucked it carefully along her thigh and waited as the loud shuffle of feet through the forested night came closer.

“Hey, there in the camp,” a male voice called out from the trees.  “Can we come in?”

Moocher growled again.

“Easy Mooch,” Maggie warned him quietly, then with a quick motion of her fingers called the dog to her side.

“What do you want?”  Maggie made certain the cell phone was still tucked in her shorts, and that her thumb was resting firmly on the safety of the gun.

The sounds came nearer, and out of the darkness a form began to emerge.  Tall, dressed in hunters camouflage green, right down to the soft wide brimmed hat that carefully covered his eyes.  And he was carrying a pistol strapped to his leg and a rifle in his hand. Maggie knew it wasn’t quite hunting season.  Caleb had made certain before she left. Moocher growled deeper, the warning a deep rumble from his chest.

“That animal bite?”  The man halted just outside the tree line.

“Only if he has to,” she answered him quietly.

“That’s the best kind.”  Easy laughter met her soft warning.  “You out here alone?”

“Why?”  Maggie held tightly to Moocher who was suddenly tugging at his collar.

“Curiosity.” The heavy shrug of his shoulders and the light tone of his voice seemed casual enough, but seemed to upset the dog further.

“Hey Maggie,” the slow drawl from behind her had Maggie nearly jumping in fright before she recognized the tall, taciturn local she had met as she parked her SUV earlier.

Turning quickly on her heel, she watched as the black haired man ambled from the other side of the clearing.  He paused when he saw the man that Moocher had yet to take his eyes off of.

“You forgot the ice.”  He held a large bag of ice before him as he walked slowly into the clearing, his eyes watching the stranger.  “Do we have company?”

Maggie silently admitted to being more than a little confused now.

“I was just looking for company,” the man across from them seemed stiffer now, less sure of himself, especially when Moocher pulled at his collar, his growl deeper as the man spoke.

“The dog appears to not want any company tonight.  He’s damned picky.  Sorry about that pal.”  The black haired man shrugged as he stopped by the tent, far enough away that Maggie was comfortable, but close enough to give an air of familiarity. 

“Maybe next time.”  A hand lifted in salute, and the man blended back into the darkness. 

Maggie turned to the other man, a thousand questions ready to flow from her lips.

“Not yet.”  His soft voice stilled the words.  “Let’s just walk over to the fire, and sit real friendly like till he’s gone.”

“Who is he?”  Maggie asked as he past her, but there was no answer forthcoming. “Who are you?”

Maggie released Moocher with a quick command to stay close.  The order would keep him in the camping area and from chasing after the stranger that had set his hackles. Right now though, she was more concerned with the stranger that didn’t.

Narrowing her eyes she watched as he opened the cooler to the drinks and set the bag of melting ice inside. 

She followed him carefully, watching as the dog neared for a quick pat on the back. He was tall enough, dark enough, though it was hard to make out his features as he sat within the shadows.  Maggie was beginning to suspect the man she had come looking for was now sitting right in the middle of her camp.

“Have a seat,” his voice was soft, commanding.  “I’ll know when they’re gone.”

“There was just one of them.”  Maggie handled the gun carefully as she sat on the ground across from him.

“Two.  And trust me, they’re not good guys.”  His voice was rough and filled with disgust.  “What the hell are you doing out here alone?”

She couldn’t be certain.  Maggie squinted against the light of the fire, but she couldn’t tell if this was the man from the earlier picture or not.

“Camping,” she told him, her voice just as soft.  “And how will you know when they’re gone?”

He raised his head, his gaze going to the tree tops as he seemed to listen to the sounds around him.

“I’ll know,” he finally answered, his gaze coming back to her slowly.  “You should leave tonight.  They could come back.”

“That’s why I have the dog.”  She nodded to Moocher.

“There were two,” he reminded her again.  “The other could have easily shot that dog of yours.”

Maggie shook her head.  She knew Moocher’s training, and she trusted in it. 

“We’ll see.”  She shrugged.  “I’ll leave here when I have my story, no matter how many bad guys decide to make a visit.”

If he was Maria’s son, then he knew why she was here.  The fact that he knew her name, when she knew she hadn’t given it, was a point to her opinion that he was Maria’s son.  A suspicion she had when she first came up on him earlier.

“A story isn’t worth your life,” he said softly. 

“This one is.”  She allowed her gaze to meet his now, probing through the shadows, fighting to find some resemblance to the picture of the younger man.

He was still for long moments, his head tilted as though deep in thought.  Finally, that dark gaze met hers again, and he spoke in a soft, rumbling growl.

“There are a lot of things worth dying for Ms. Taylor.  A child’s laughter, a lovers smile, or hot summer days filled with hotter, lazy sex.  But a story is the least of them. Especially those stories better off kept silent, gathering dust, away from the public eye.”  He rose to his feet, still staring down at her.  “I’d remember that if I were you.  Your friends are gone, but I wouldn’t count on them staying gone if I were you.  Pack up and go home where you belong.”  And just like that, he turned with lazy speed and disappeared behind the tent. She didn’t even hear the noise of him passing through the trees as she had with the other.

She was still silent moments later, shock holding her in place, her mouth still slightly parted.

“I’ll be damned, Moocher,” she told the sleeping dog beside her.  “I think we just met up with our prey and let him get clean away.”

Maggie shook her head, then rose to her feet as well.  She tamped out the fire, and prepared her camp efficiently.  She wasn’t about to leave but neither was she about to stay up all night in fear.

She could feel the presence of Maria’s son out there, watching her, keeping track of each move she made.  He had known when the other man arrived and had effectively run him off.  She trusted him to do so again should the need arise.  Maggie did not question that trust, she accepted it.

In the darkness of the tent she shucked her shorts and top, leaving her clad in nothing but the silky blue thongs she wore beneath.  She slid into the sleeping bag, aware of Moocher placing himself against the zipper door, and closed her eyes to sleep. 

She found it strange that she wasn’t worried about the visitor most likely still watching the camp.  She still had the feeling that she wasn’t alone, so she assumed he was still out there, somewhere.  She couldn’t explain the sense of added safety the thought gave her, so she chose to ignore it instead.

Moocher was sleeping against the only entrance to the camp, and she knew he would protect her, no matter what, so she felt quite comfortable closing her eyes and allowing her body to drift slowly into sleep.

Talen moved along the camp several hours later.  The campfire was a golden ember beneath the dirt Maggie had used to tamp it with.  Her tent was well zipped, the outline of the dogs sturdy body lying against it proved that she was well protected.

Everything was put up, even the porta-potty had been properly emptied, and the smaller tent secured before she went to bed.  She wasn’t perhaps a seasoned camper, but she didn’t appear to be a stupid one either.  If he was going to have to baby-sit, Talen was thankful that he wasn’t babysitting someone who couldn’t even walk in the forest for being nature dumb.  Unfortunately, her intelligence didn’t extend to leaving in the face of the danger that had come her way earlier.

The soldiers tracking him were too damned smart.  They had heard about the journalist, and were now stalking her as well.  The disguise he had worn into camp had worked for the time being, but he didn’t expect it to last, they rarely did.

He made his way carefully back into the trees, found his own sleeping bag, and settled down to doze.  In the morning, he hoped she went away for a few hours at least, he needed to get home, change clothes and catch some deep sleep himself.

A Breed Apart - Part 7

Published in Sensuous Escapes newsletter (Jan. 31, 2005 edition)

It was the harsh beep of the cell phone that awoke Maggie before Laney the next morning.  Growling in disgruntled, sleepy anger she found the offensive phone and unfolded it with a quick jerk.

“It’s not daylight yet,” she mumbled as she tucked the phone between her ear and the pillow.

Moocher whined sleepily from the other side of the tent, obviously not happy about having his sleep disturbed either.

“Wake up Sleepy head.  I’m tired and sleepy myself and tired of babysitting your pretty ass.  Go play in town or something while I get some sleep.”

Maggie sat up in the sleeping bag, her heart thundering as the soft, sexy voice came over the line with drowsy sensuality.  The rough pitch, and slow drawl sent shivers down her spine.  It was him, she recognized the voice now.

“Who are you?”  She whispered, watching as Moocher blinked at her, suddenly alert.

“The same moron who toted your potty over a mile so you’d be comfortable.”  She heard the slow yawn in his voice.  “The same fool who dozed outside your camp to make certain none of the local yokels decided to scare the pretty journalist again.  Now get your pretty ass in gear and go to town until noon, I need my sleep.”

That voice was affecting her stomach in the oddest way, Maggie thought, not to mention assorted other body parts.  It was like a rough, sexual lick over her senses, and had the power to elevate her breathing.  She controlled the breathing, but she couldn’t control the heat that spread through her body.

“I don’t need a guard.”  She frowned, pulling the sleeping bag over her pebbled nipples and cursing her body’s weakness.  “And that doesn’t tell me who you are.”

“Lady, you’re sleeping practically naked far enough in the woods that any one intent on mischief would have no trouble getting to you.  Last night should have proved that.  It only takes one bullet to take out that dog of yours, and you ain’t big enough to wrestle a kitten.  Now get the hell out of there for the day so I can sleep, or I’ll write you off as a lost cause and stay the hell away from you myself.”

The link was suddenly broken, and Maggie stared down at the phone as a blush stole across her face.  How had he known how she slept, she had kept the light off while she undressed the night before.

It had to be Maria’s son.  Maggie knew she was either on, or very close to his property, and she had given her name out several times before heading to the camping spot, hoping he would know she was there, and come searching for her.  She really hated tracking people down.  It was time consuming and nerve wracking, and she had a feeling Mr. Morales would be both of those without her having to track him down.

“He reminds me of Zane, Moocher.”  She stretched tiredly and then pulled on an oversized t-shirt, her shorts from the night before, and headed for the potty.

Moocher bounded out of the tent himself, racing into the woods, marking territory like it had become his life’s mission to wet every tree and boulder in the area at least half a dozen times before he wore himself down.  It wasn’t even Laney yet, but he was acting like it was an everyday occurrence to get up at such an ungodly hour.

Males.  They never ceased to amaze Maggie, no matter what species they were from or what age they lived to be.  After completing her morning duties, brushing her teeth, and taking a quick sponge bath, she dressed in fresh shorts, a clean t-shirt and her boots and headed for the SUV.

Tonight, she promised herself, she was taking a real shower, right out in the open underneath that gorgeous waterfall across the creek.  She had found the perfect place to cross the water, where it was barely ankle deep, and clear. 

Maggie had checked the area the evening before, and it seemed clear of obvious hiding places for snakes.  The waterfall was thick, though the force of the water didn’t seem too heavy to bathe beneath.  She could barely wait to experience the feel of that water rushing over her body.

And since she seemed to have collected herself a built-in bodyguard, she may as well make the best of it.  But first, she would do as he so nicely asked and disappear for the day.

She had work to do anyway.  If Maria Morales had moved to this tiny place, and Maggie had no doubt she had, then there would be some trace of her either in Sandy Hook, or in Carter County, the next county over.

Maggie’ father wasn’t a fool.  If she didn’t show she was working toward the story of her life, then he would jerk her home and place Caleb or Darien on the story instead.

That meant research.  Which also meant it was going to be a long week.  The locals in Sandy Hook didn’t seem the kind who would willing to open up and tell all they knew about someone who had lived there, especially if Dr. Morales had lived as quietly as Maggie figured she had.

And Maggie couldn’t take the chance that her son would just walk up and introduce himself, she was going to have to find him.  To do that, she was going to have to learn more about the mother as well and the son, and hopefully where they lived as well.

A quiet command to Moocher had him settling down sulkily in front of the tent, watching her walk away.  He didn’t like staying behind, but Maggie wasn’t comfortable leaving all those steaks and granola bars undefended.  She had her stomach to think about, she thought in amusement as she headed back to the main road, and the SUV she prayed was still waiting there.

Half an hour later, Maggie pulled the SUV into the parking lot of the L&M Café and truck stop.  The parking lot was nearly deserted that early in the morning, with only a few pickup trucks parked next to the faded red brick building.

Pulling to a parking spot, Maggie yawned slowly as she opened her door and got out of the truck.  After securing it, she looked around, liking the cheery effect of the red gingham curtains at the window and splash of green vines she could see through one glass pane.  Tucking her purse close to her side, she stepped carefully across the cracked pavement of the parking lot and walked into the building.

Looking around, she chose a table on the far side of the restaurant, away from the three or four middle-aged men converged on one table on the main side.  Placing her purse in an extra chair, Maggie opened the newspaper she had picked up on the way in.

“Coffee?”  The waitress sat a steaming cup of liquid on the table in front of Maggie, obviously recognizing a desperate person when she saw one.

“Thank you.”  Maggie fought to keep from yawning again as she picked up the cup and sipped at it slowly.

Laney was just breaking over the town of Grayson.  Maggie had tried Sandy Hook first, but it had been locked up tight.  There hadn’t been a car, a horse, or a straggling vagrant to disturb the peaceful, deserted streets.  Maggie just couldn’t understand all that quiet.  How did people actually live like that?

Whoever had been inconsiderate enough to call her that morning, if it wasn’t Maria’s son, had done so before four o clock.  Evidently Sandy Hook didn’t open its doors before daylight. 

“Can I get you some breakfast?”

(rest of this chapter missing - if you have it, please edit this page with the missing bit)

A Breed Apart - Part 8

Published in Sensuous Escapes newsletter (Feb. 8, 2005 edition)

Hours of searching, questioning, and biting her tongue at the vague runaround she was being given, Maggie finally managed to find someone willing to admit to knowing Jennifer Lyons, and confirming that the picture Maggie carried, was also a picture of the woman they knew as Jennifer.

“Jenny was a quiet little girl, you never heard much out of her.”  The Librarian for the small Sandy Hook Library glanced back at Maggie with a small, sad smile.  “She was a good woman, always takin’ in kids that needed homes, helpin’ whoever needed helpin’.  It was a shame, the way she was killed.”

Maggie leaned back in the hard back wooden chair and watched the small, bird-like woman as she blinked back a tear. 

“My father knew Ms. Lyons when he was younger, before he met my mother, the news of her death has really upset him.  When he checked into the story regarding it, he was told that her killer wasn’t found?”  It wasn’t exactly the truth.  It had been Maggie who had checked into the story, not her father.  And the facts she had found had not yet been reported to him.

“No one as even questioned.  Not that it was the Sheriff’s fault,” the Librarian assured her.  “There just wasn’t anyone that he could connect to it.  Her boy, Talen had been in town all that evening, it happened during the local Tobacco Festival, and he was helpin’ the Women’s Shelter with one of their booths.  When he returned home, he found her.  She died in his arms without tellin’ him what happened, or who killed her.”

“He must have been devastated.”  Maggie clearly remembered her own horror at her mother’s senseless death.

“It was a bad time for him.  We still don’t see him much here in town.  He stays away a lot.”  The Librarian gazed out the window beside her desk.  “He’s a good boy, Talen is.  This hit him awful hard though.”

“I’ve been looking for him,” Maggie told her softly.  “My Father wanted me to extend his condolences and see if there was anything Talen needed.  Could you tell me where to find him?”

The Librarian turned her gaze back to Maggie, the cloudy blue eyes intent as she watched her.

“I told you, we don’t see Talen around much,” she repeated.  “He tore the old house down, and never did rebuild.”

“Then perhaps there are friends he stays with?  Someone I could talk to who would get a message to him?”  Maggie asked hopefully.

“You can check with Damen, down at the Gass Up station.”  She shrugged.  “They were always pretty tight.  He might know where he’s at.  He owns the place, and knows where most everyone lives.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Waters.”  Maggie stood up, reaching over and shaking the frail hand extended to her.  “I really appreciate your help.”

Not that it had given her much, Maggie thought as she left the Library and got into the SUV.  Hopefully, Damen would have some information for her, but she wasn’t expecting it.  So far, the whole afternoon had been a waste.  She couldn’t even find out where the man lived.  She thought small town people liked to gossip about their neighbors?  So far, all anyone around her admitted to was in knowing Talen, and after that they clammed up. 

She started the vehicle and breathed a sigh of disgust as she pulled into the street and headed to the station the Librarian had directed her to.  If she didn’t start getting a few more results, then she may as well head home.  She didn’t like the veil of mystery that had suddenly been thrown over Jennifer Lyons’ murder though.  The people of the county were genuinely confused over who had killed her and why. 

If the Council had killed her, then surely Talen wouldn’t still be in the county?  If the Council hadn’t killed her, then why had she had she been killed?  Maggie admitted her curiosity was aroused, and she needed answers. 

The Gass Up station was the same service station – carry out she had stopped at the day before.  Maggie pulled into the blacktopped parking area, and got out of the SUV slowly as she looked around.

There were half a dozen vehicles parked here and there, several at the gas pumps, and one weary looking pickup with its hood raised, waiting to enter the garage section of the station.  Taking a deep breath, Maggie moved quickly to the garage section and the lone man standing outside, gazing rather intently at the innards of the old pickup parked there.

“Excuse me, could you tell me where I could find Damen Williams?”  Maggie asked him cheerfully, careful to stand well clear of the man.  Oil marked his gray t-shirt, and the snug denim that encased long, muscular legs.

The broad shoulders stiffened, then the head, covered in a red baseball cap turned just slightly, the eyes hidden by dark sunglasses.

“Not here,” he muttered, then turned back to the engine.

So much for small town hospitality, Maggie frowned.

“Do you know where I could find him?  Or perhaps leave a message for him?”  She asked the wide back.  Damn nice form, but hell on manners.

Those broad shoulders shrugged.

“Tell me.  I’ll tell him.”  Short and to the point, but he never did raise his head from the object of his attention, namely the motor, and not Maggie.

Maggie dug one of her small cards from her jeans pocket, and handed it to him. 

“This is my cell phone number, could ask him to call me as soon as possible.  It’s important that I get in touch with him.”  She was becoming irritated with the curt, who-the-hell-cares attitude he was displaying.

“He’ll get it.”  The card disappeared into oil splattered jeans.

Maggie narrowed her eyes at the man.

“Could you tell me where he lives?  I could just give him the message myself,” she finally bit out between clenched teeth.

Muscles rippled as he shrugged again. 

“Lives here for the most part,” she was told. 

Maggie waited, but there was no other information forthcoming.

“What about Talen Lyons?  Could you tell me where I can reach him?”  She was getting fed up fast.

There was a long pause as the man reach into the motor and adjusted wires, then thumped at the metal.

“Did you hear me?”  She asked him with false sweetness.  “Talen Lyons?  Do you know where I could find him?”

Those broad shoulders shrugged again, and Maggie gritted her teeth in anger.

“Who knows where Lyons is,” he finally said.  “He comes and goes.”

Maggie rolled her eyes.  It was like a damned conspiracy. 

“Fine,” she muttered.  “I’ll just check back later.”

“You do that, sweet thing,” he muttered, glancing back up at her with a tight smile.

Maggie narrowed her eyes.  The hair she glimpsed beneath the red baseball cap was the wrong color, lighter than that of the man who had shared her camp the night before and she couldn’t see his eyes for the dark lenses of the glasses, but she suddenly had the oddest sensation that the voice was the same, despite the deeper drawl.

He laid the wrench he was using on the inside frame carefully as he watched her as well.  She could feel that gaze, starting at her white sneakers, and moving slowly up her bare, tanned legs to the hem of her shorts, then up.  He paused at the small streak of bare, tanned abdomen, then over her breasts until he reach her face.

Maggie stared back at him, her eyes narrowed at the insolence she read in his body and his expression.

“Anything else?”  A single, burnished brow arched above the lense of his glasses.

Maggie shook her head at her own fanciful imagination.  That hick accent, the slight slur to the words was all wrong.  The voice on the phone that morning had been smooth, husky, sexy as hell, but lacking the hick drawl.

“Nothing else,” she muttered, turning and walking quickly back to her truck.

Talen watched her go, hiding his smile as she glanced back at him.  Damn she looked fine, he thought.  And she was definitely on the hunt.  A flare of regret rose in him as he admitted he would have definitely enjoyed the chase if circumstances were different.  If he wasn’t who he was, if his own life wasn’t hanging by luck alone, then he could have enjoyed a game or two.  And he’d be damned if that woman didn’t look good enough to play with.  It made his mouth water, looking at all the smooth, sexy skin, just faintly tanned and as tempting as sin itself.

But it was, and he was determined that Miss Maggie Taylor would neither become embroiled in his life, nor add to the danger.  He could watch her, but he’d be damned if he would let her get any closer.  But hell, watching her was damned near as enjoyable as anything he’d ever done in his life.  Dangerous woman, he thought.  A damned dangerous woman. 

“Be damned, she don’t give up easy does she Cal,” Webb, his younger brother strode slowly from the inside of the garage as Maggie pulled out of the driveway.

“No, Webb, she doesn’t give up easy.”  Talen grinned at that, remembering her courage the night before in the face of one stranger threatening her, another crashing into her camp with all the familiarity of a lover.  She had taken it all in stride, despite the unease he had seen in her eyes.

“She’s pretty.  All that thick brown hair and those big brown eyes.”  Webb grinned as he shook his head.  “I bet Damen will be real sorry he missed her today.”

They both knew better than that.  Damen was all for meeting up with the little journalist.  At least, he was.  Talen wasn’t so certain how he would feel now that Ms. Taylor was searching for him.

“Help me get this truck running, Webb.  I need to head home to sleep if I’m going to babysit again tonight.  And this motor is refusing to cooperate.”  Talen twisted at a wire, but still nothing.

“Ahh, you just don’t know how to talk to em right.”  Webb laughed, pushing Talen out of the way as he moved in to look at the motor.  “These older motors are like women, man.  You have to know how to stroke em, and how to speak real soft and sweet to em.”  He ended his words with a slight twist of his wrist.

The motor sang to life with the movement, chugging weakly, but willingly.

“Showoff,” Talen laughed.

“Bring her in later and I’ll tune her up for you.”  Webb pulled a stained rag from his back pocket with a grin and wiped his hands.

“Tell Damen to leave the keys to his truck and I’ll do that.”  Talen nodded as he headed for the drivers side door. 

“I’ll do that.”  Webb nodded with a broad grin.  “And if you need any help with that pretty thing later, you just let me know.”

“I’ll be sure to,” Talen laughed again, amused by Webb’s less than obvious ploy. “Keep your jeans zipped Webb, and we might keep you alive yet.”  More than one father was ready to take a shotgun to the hotblooded youth.

Talen didn’t wait for an answer.  He gunned the motor, then slid the truck into reverse, backing quickly away from the garage before sliding it in gear and heading home.

A Breed Apart - Part 9

Published in Sensuous Escapes newsletter (Feb. 15, 2005 edition)

That evening, Talen awoke swiftly, as he always did.  There were no lazy awakenings, no drowsy mornings.  The smell of coffee brewing. thanks to the timed coffee maker was enough to stir his senses, the need for the caffeine was enough to spur him from the sheets and send him padding barefoot across the rough stone floors to the cabinet where it sat.

He filled a cup, checked the clock on the wall, and grimaced.  It was nearly four, earlier than he wanted to be up, but later than he should have been.  Of course, he could have slept longer if it hadn’t been for the truck breaking down, or his little run in with Maggie. Damn, that women stirred his senses.  He could damned near smell the need in her when she had been standing so close to him at the station.  For a long moment, she had suspected, had almost known who he was.  At that moment, it was as though the hormones spiked within her body, and the intriguing, sexual scent of it wafted to him.

It had been all he could do to keep his hands off her then.  He had wanted to throw her over his shoulder and carry her kicking and screaming back to the cabin where he could ease the heat rising inside her.  He would have, if circumstances were different.  If he wasn’t what he was, if she wasn’t who she was, the option to touch her, to take her, would have been there.  But as it stood now, he was more of a danger to her than anything, or anyone else could be.  Those damned soldiers camped out above him proved that.

It had been all he could do to come up a quick disguise the night before to run them away from Maggie’s camp.  They had been ready for fun and games, and the chance to scare away a big time journalist that could stumble onto a story that they thought she was unaware of.  Thankfully, no one was certain if she was alone, or just buying supplies alone when she came into town.  So it wasn’t a surprise to them that she had someone with her.

Scratching his bare chest, Talen stared with narrow eyed intent out the window of the small house he had built, toward the rock house hidden by the screen of trees from the kitchen window.  The forest around the house was quiet, and nothing seemed disturbed, but there was an air of unease about the place.  It was a feeling he well knew, and had become used to over the years. 

In the friendly call of the redbird, the chatter of the wren, the call of the hawk, Talen heard the question being phrased.  Who were the strangers below, and what did they stalk? The animals of the forest knew the difference between the hunter searching for meat, and the stalk of evil.  What they sensed below was the stalk of evil.

The government soldiers usually sent out for him knew better than to cross the boundaries set up around his house.  There was no way to find the trick wires that would awaken him, and immediately set the large guard dog free, and the house alarms blaring.  If a soldier made the ultimate mistake of being caught in his crosshairs, then Talen wasn’t above firing the gun he kept handy.  He had yet to kill one of them, but he had left several maimed for life.  The hazards of hunting prey that could shoot back, he had warned the last one.

Talen was careful to be certain no one else was harmed though.  Local hunters, and most of the population knew better than to cross the property in any way other than the driveway.  After his mother’s death, Talen had made it plain that any man or woman sneaking around his place would have a decidedly unwelcome encounter.

But, they understood the reasons, if not the lengths.  His mother’s death had affected many of them, and the blatant mercilessness behind it had shocked them all.  So none questioned his paranoia.

The soldiers were harder to convince though.  They had learned their lessons the hard way, but Talen knew the amount of money the Council had on his head made him hard to ignore.  Now they sat and waited and watched, hoping to catch him off guard after he left the house that he never seemed to leave.

Talen grinned, reprogrammed the timer for the lights, and the television.  He would be gone through the night, and it would be best if those weary soldiers were none the wiser that he was prowling.

As he thought of prowling, he thought of the woman he had watched over the night before.  Maggie Taylor, he had half a mind to call the famous Steven Taylor and ask him what the hell he was doing sending his daughter out on this story.  He had actually picked up the phone more than once that morning to do just that.

One of his sons, Talen could understand and ignore, but the daughter he couldn’t. Maria had loved Steven, loved him so much that it had been his name she had whispered seconds before she had died.  Talen knew she would have never forgiven him if he allowed anything to happen to the man’s daughter.  But that didn’t excuse the father for sending her out there.

But he also knew why Maggie Taylor was there, and he wanted nothing to do with it, or with her.  She was too damned sexy, and too damned tempting for his peace of mind. And gutsy; damned if he had ever known a woman to haul so many unneeded supplies on a mile long hike without help.

But she had done it, or at least, had almost done it he thought as he remembered the weight of those last two canvas duffel bags.  His shoulders still ached from carrying that stuff through the woods.

As he drank his coffee, he was surprised by the low-pitched beep of his alarm system.  He moved to the back door, peeking between the blinds to see the pickup pulling into his driveway.

“Shit.”  Talen grabbed a pair of worn sweat pants and pulled them up his bare legs as he returned to the door.

Damen Williams stepped out of the vehicle, pushing his black hair from his face as he walked quickly up to the door.

“What’s up, Damen?”  Talen opened the door, moving back as his friend entered the kitchen.

“Those soldiers still aint gave up, yet??”  Damen frowned as he noticed the blinds on all the windows, and the shadowed interior of the house.  This pair had lasted longer than the others, a full month.

“Not yet.”  Talen shrugged as he closed the door then poured Damen a cup of coffee. “What has you out today?”

“That damned journalist in town is stalking me now,” Damen said as he accepted the cup, watching Talen with intelligent, suspicious green eyes.  “What’s going on?  Webb swears the air was hot enough to fry chicken in yesterday when she met up with you at the garage, and she wasn’t even sure who the hell you were.”

“The hell if I know.”  Talen sighed deeply as he pulled out a chair and sat down. “She’s camped out on Caney, just like you said she was, big as you please with a dog the size of a small pony and enough granola bars to feed a third world country.”

“That doesn’t explain the heat.”  Damen’s eyes narrowed on him darkly.

“Beats me.  That boy stays hot.”  Talen shrugged, unwilling to explain the strange desire for that woman that pulled at him.

“So why does she want me?”  Damen asked him again, still confused.

“Gladys, over at the Library told her about Maria, and the kids she took in.  I think she’s hoping to get some information out of you.  No big deal.”  They all worried that the slightest thing could tip the scales on the safety of the others.

“Old man Ben Steward says he saw some strange men sneaking around the ridge late last night too,” Damen said.  “Anything to that?”

“Just those boys on the ridge roaming a bit.  They came up on her camp just to check her out I think.  I managed to throw them off for now, but I don’t know how long it will last.”  Talen leaned back in his chair and regarded Damen with a frown.  “Why are you so worried all of a sudden?  We’ll take them on a little run here in a day or so and they’ll pack up like the rest of them do and head out.  Just make sure you keep everyone away from here for the time being.”

Damen was quiet for long moments as he watched him.  Talen frowned at the sudden worried look that crossed his friend’s face.

“They’re going to get tired of playing games soon, Cal, and they’ll send someone out you can’t snow quite so easily,” Damen said quietly.  “What do you do then?”

“Then I’ll start playing in earnest.”  Talen assured him.  “I won’t let them take me again, Damen.  They’ll have to kill me first.”

“Which may become their next agenda,” Damen assured him.  “They won’t play forever, Cal.”

Talen heard the unvoiced warning in the younger man’s words and watched him intently as he sipped his coffee.

“Why are you worried all of a sudden, Damen?”  Talen asked him bluntly. 

Damen’s lips thinned, and his green eyes darkened in concern.

“That girl is different.”  Damen finally told him softly.  “I’ve seen her, and Webb’s nobody’s fool.  If he says there was something sizzlin’ between you two, then it was there. She can be used against you, Talen.  That makes her dangerous.”

“Only if I let them.  I would have to get close to her first and that’s something I have no intention of doing.”  Talen stood and paced back to the coffee maker to refill his cup.  He sure as hell didn’t want Damen to see that the girl had already wormed her way in, to a degree.

“We’re not normal, Cal, and there’s no sense in pretending we are.  If they take you, then the rest of us are at risk.  If you talk to her, then we are at risk as well.  Serin and Laney’s training isn’t even halfway completed yet, as you said.  We can’t afford to lose you.”

The heart of the matter, Talen thought wearily.  Damen was just the messenger, but there were nearly half a dozen others out there whose lives would be placed in jeopardy.

“Any decision I make will go before the others first,” Talen assured him.  “I promised you all that, Damen.  And I won’t let them take me alive, you know that as well, so there will be no danger of them learning our secrets from me.  And you and Dayan are well able to take care of Webb and the girls if anything happens to me.  And it’s not my damned fault that Serin and Laney aren’t trained yet.”

Their secrets were closely held.  Talen knew of the letter his mother had sent to Steven Taylor.  She had told him about it, as well as the copies of all the evidence she had against the organization haunting them.  She hadn’t told Steven Taylor about the others though, the children Talen had brought back with him twelve years before, after his escape from the labs.  The children that the scientists, and the military believed had died in the inferno Talen had caused.

“We’re concerned about this, Cal.  Perhaps we should all leave.  Find someplace else to go.”  Damen suggested.

“They’ll just follow us.”  Talen sighed.  “Let me take care of this matter, and I’ll disappear for a few years again.  That will ensure your safety quicker than anything else would.”

Talen hated the thought of that.  So far, he had been able to stay in the small county Maria had brought him to for the most part.  He hid in the forests when the soldiers came, played his games and disappeared if it got too hot.  But as Damen said, soon, they would start playing in earnest.

“It might be the only way, Cal.”  Damen nodded.  “Just for a while.”

“Consider it done then.”  Talen drained his coffee cup, then looked at his friend expectantly.  “I need to shower now and make sure Beauty’s okay.  Soon as she’s gone, I’ll go as well.”

It wasn’t the first time Talen had been forced to leave to protect the others, and Talen knew it wouldn’t be the last time.  Or perhaps it would be, he thought.  He was getting tired of evading the soldiers, staying hidden and being unable to even walk down the street for fear of danger to himself, or those he protected.

“I’m sorry Cal.”  Damen watched him, regret shimmering in his eyes.  “But the risks…”

“It’s cool, Damen.”  Talen shook his head.  “Now get the hell out of here so I can shower.  I’ll call you when I know something.”

Damen rose to his feet and left the house slowly, leaving a quiet, thoughtful Talen watching him as he left.

No, not the first time he had been forced to leave, Talen thought again.  But perhaps it would be best if he made it the last time.

*

An unknown assailant had killed Jennifer Lyons late at night.  A blow to the head had resulted in a wound so severe she had died before medical aid could reach her.  The newspaper report was sketchy at best, and left few clues as to the nature of the attack, or any suspects being questioned.

The paper did relate that she had died in her son’s arms, Talen Lyons.  She was survived by one child and was unmarried with no living relatives.  Maggie bit her fingernail as she studied the newspaper article, her eyes narrowed against the dim lighting provided by the bulb shining dully in the basement of the newspaper offices.

The paper did provide an address, of sorts, Cold springs, just off Route One, it reported.  Now where the hell would Cold Springs or Route One be?  She definitely needed a better map than the one she had, Maggie told herself as she glanced down once again at the map she had bought at a convenience store in Grayson.  The map she had didn’t mention either area.

The next best idea would be to just start driving.  Surely there would be sign or something to mark the area.  She had noticed several small green signs indicating the names of some of the secondary roads in the county.  It might take a while, but it would alleviate the need of questioning anyone for the time being.  The mailboxes had names on them too; maybe she would get lucky and find one marked Lyons.

Picking up her purse, Maggie left the newspaper office, ignoring the curious look the two women gave her when she opened the door and walked back into the main area of the office and left the building.  This place was strange.  A newspaper office with only one reporter, no investigative journalists, and no screaming editors; it was like a nightmare.

Maggie shivered with a feeling of creepiness she usually reserved for horror movies as she exited the small building and unlocked the door to her truck.  Getting in she started the vehicle quickly and pulled out of the parking space alongside the main road.

This place was worse than the Mayberry shows her Father watched every evening. Even in the show, there were talkative neighbors, a feeling of small town gossip.  The minute anyone saw her now, she was tagged, “that journalist” and everyone seemed to shut up.  What was this place, a top-secret government training post or something?

Pulling away from the main street of the town and heading towards the next town or Morehead, Maggie slowed her vehicle under the speed limit, hoping to catch a glimpse here and there of the signs that indicated the road names.  Most of the roads were just gravel, one lane tracks, and had Maggie shaking her head in confusion as she tried to understand how people actually lived like this.

A few hours later, she was clenching her teeth in sheer desperation as she made yet another turn along one of the country back roads she had taken in her search for the Cold Springs area.  The map beside her was giving her few clues to where she was at, and the SUV was bumping and nudging itself along a pitted dirt road that seemed to lead to no where.

Applying the brake, Maggie sat and looked around in confusion.  How had she done it?  She could have sworn she had taken the right road a few miles back. 

“Lord, save me from simple minded directions,” she groused as she remembered the farmer a few miles back and his vague directions.

Pushing her hair back from her forehead, she put the SUV in reverse and turned around in the wide grassy shoulder that bordered the track.  Surely it couldn’t be this difficult, she thought.  Hell, she had never gotten lost in any big city she had ever been in, and now this little hick county was getting the best of her.  It couldn’t be happening, her brothers would laugh her out of the nation if they found out.

“Dammit.”  She pulled off the road again, several miles later, looked around and admitted defeat.  She was lost.  Truly and irrevocably lost, and she had no one to blame but herself.

How many times, she asked herself, had she called her brothers fools for not asking for directions?  If she had just asked, ignored the suspicions of the people in town and just asked for directions, she wouldn’t be having this problem.

Heaving a sigh, she looked around wearily.  There had to be a way out of here. Something she had missed somewhere.  Getting out of the SUV, she stretched tightly, then paced over to the edge of the road, looking into the valley below for some sign of civilization.

There wasn’t a sign to be found.  All she could see was the same thing around her, trees and thick brush, and not even the roof of a house or a barn.  Not that a barn meant anything around here, she had seen many of them, ransacked and falling down from neglect, no where near a house.

After looking around for a moment longer, she walked to the other side of the road, and began to climb the forested rise there.  Maybe, if she could get further up, she could she could see something.  There had to be a house somewhere.  It wasn’t like she was in the desert, or the rainforest dammit.  People lived here.  That farmer had assured her earlier that if there was a road, then it led somewhere.  So something or someone had to be out here. And she was going to have to find them soon.  It was getting dark, and she sure as hell didn’t want to be stuck out here alone after dark.

As she entered the thicker part of the forest, she turned around to make certain she could still see the SUV.  As she did, a noise behind her startled her, causing her to turn in fear.

The man stood several feet in front of her, his eyes dark beneath the camouflage brim of his hat as he watched her.  Maggie felt her heart begin to race rapidly in fear as his eyes traveled over her body, sparkling with a deadly intent.  Though she hadn’t seen his face then, she knew he was the same man who had come up on her camp the night before.

“Well, what do we have here?”  The man was tall, his camouflage hat pulled low over black smudged eyes, his face hard and menacing in the shadows of the forest.

Maggie felt fear skate through her body.  Her heart pumped quickly in her fear, the blood thundering in her ears as she took in the cold, harsh expression of the man’s face.

“I’m lost.”  Maggie backed up, fear flooding her system as the man loomed over her, a leer spreading across his face.  “I was just looking for a way off the mountain.”

“Lost are you?”  He sneered, his gaze stripping her.  “Poor little thing.  You need some help, do you?”

“I’m sure I can manage.”  Maggie backed away slowly, fighting the panic spreading through her body.

As she tried to back away, her arms were grabbed from behind, and fear shot through her with the force of a tidal wave.  She felt her system clog with hysteria as she felt the hard grip, felt the harder body behind her.

 “Maybe we can help you find your way.”  The voice behind her suggested as the steel hard hands pulled her closer against the tall male body.  “Maybe you’d like to party with us a little first though.”

It wasn’t a question; it was a statement of intent.  Maggie swallowed tightly as she fought to keep her sanity.

A Breed Apart - Part 10

Published in Sensuous Escapes newsletter (Feb. 21, 2005 edition)

Maggie awoke to a pounding headache, and a body that throbbed from her toes to the top of her head.  She opened her eyes slowly, blinking in bleary confusion at the roof of the tent above her.  For a long moment, the world seemed hazy out of focus, and her mind struggled with the reason why.  Then the reason, and the memory of it hit her.

 Gasping, Maggie jerked up, then groaned in pain as her ribs protested the action with a burst of pain so fierce like the teeth of a rabid animal.  Wrapping her arm around her waist as she cried out, she gritted her teeth against the pain and looked around the tent.  

 “Easy.  That was a hell of a fall you took.”  The tall blonde woman who moved quickly from the side of the tent eased her back against the sleeping bag.

 “Who the hell are you?”  Maggie bit out as her body protested each movement.

 “I’m Serin Tomas.”  Serin helped Maggie arrange her pillow, and then held a bottle of cool water to her lips.  “Take small sips, then I’ll give you something for the pain. Those bastards knocked you around pretty bad.”

Maggie sipped at the water, then swallowed the small white tablet she was handed. She had been laid on top of her sleeping bag, her boots unlaced and pulled from her feet. She moved her hand cautiously grimacing at the pain in her side.

 “Mostly scratches and a few bruises,” Serin told her as she sat back.  “It looks worse than it really is.”

Concerned hazel-brown eyes looked down at Maggie, a wide forehead pulled into a frown, a bow shaped mouth with a soft indent in the upper lip, and a narrow, aristocratic nose.  Serin Tomas was one of the five Maggie had been searching for the day before.  One of the children Maria had taken in and raised with Talen after his return from the labs.

Maggie knew she should be asking her questions now, but the pain radiating through her body halted her.  She couldn’t keep her mind on the answers if she could even think of the questions she needed to ask .  Besides, this woman didn’t look like she trusted easily.

“Here.”  Serin handed Maggie a damp, bulky towel.  “I wrapped some ice for you. Lay it on your side, and it should ease the pain a bit.”  Serin watched as Maggie accepted the cold comfort, then laid it gingerly on her side.

Maggie closed her eyes, gritting her teeth at the increased discomfort. 

“God, someone just shoot me and put me out of my misery,” Maggie groaned, opening her eyes as Moocher walked into the tent, whining in concern.  “Bet I take you with me next time, Moocher.”

 Maggie laid her head wearily against his back as he came over to her.  As she closed her eyes again, she remembered the golden eyes, the warm hard arms holding her. It was Talen, she knew it was.   She had to have been close to his home if he had somehow heard her screams and came running.

The men she had run into were soldiers.  She knew it, remember the same cold, hard expressions in some of the faces of the friends Zane had.  That meant that his enemies had found him too, and were watching for him.  She made a brief reminder to have a talk with Zane when she got home.  He would be furious with her for not calling him immediately, but she knew he would track the bastards down and pay them back in kind. If he could find out who they were.

“It would be best, Ms. Taylor, if there were no next times,” Serin informed her coolly.  “What you did was very foolhardy.  You shouldn’t have been there.”

“Who were they?”  Maggie gazed at Serin, watching the shadows that came into her hazel brown eyes.

 “Soldiers.”  Serin confirmed her suspicions.  “You’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, Miss Taylor.  You should go home.  There’s nothing here for you.”

Maggie was getting damned tired of that warning.  Her brothers told her to come home, her mysterious caller told her to go home, and now this woman.  If she wanted to go home, she wouldn’t have been out here to begin with.

 “Where’s Talen?  He was with you, I remember seeing him.”  She refused to comment on the woman’s warning.  

Serin breathed out roughly, crossing her legs as she sat down and regarded Maggie with resignation.

 “You’re not going to leave are you?”  She asked curiously, tilting her head as she regarded Maggie with a sort of amused indulgence.

 “Hell no,” Maggie told her roughly.  “Not a chance in hell.”

Serin’s eyes narrowed, and for a moment she bore an amazing resemblance to Talen.  But no, Maggie reminded herself, Maria hadn’t had any other children.  

 “I didn’t think you would.  But it would be better for Talen if you did, Maggie.  He can’t leave while you’re here, his honor won’t allow it.  And as long as he’s here, he’s in danger,” Serin told her quietly, shaking her head as she watched Maggie.  “He can’t afford to be distracted by you right now.”

 “Where is he?”  Maggie asked her again, though she was secretly pleased that Serin felt she could distract Talen.  “Tell him to talk to me, and I’ll leave.”

 “I tried that.”  Serin shrugged, “Suggested it more than once, but he seems to think you won’t leave.  I bet you’re like that dog with a bone, you’ll refuse to let go.”

 Maggie was silent.  It was the truth; there was no sense in lying about it.  Besides, she didn’t want Talen to come to her because he thought it would make her leave.  She wanted him to come to her because he wanted to, and no other reason.

 “I can’t let go,” she whispered, hoping she didn’t sound as desperate as she felt. “You know where he is, Serin.  I know you do.  Can’t you see that he’s going to get killed if he doesn’t stop them?”

 “I know more than you think I do, Ms. Taylor,” Serin sighed.  “But Talen figures it’s his fate to die.  Not that I agree with him.”  She held her hand up when Maggie tried to protest.  “But you don’t know what’s been done to him, or how he feels about who he is. Until that changes, no one can save Talen.”

 “And what could change that?”  Maggie whispered.  “Tell me Serin, so I can help him.”

Maggie watched the cool gleam that entered the other woman’s eyes.  It was as though Serin was calculating some unknown factor within her head, and coming up with the percentage she was looking for.

 “For most men, a woman is the only factor that can change their image of themselves.”  She finally shrugged.  “Give a man the right woman, and a coward becomes a hero.  For Talen, it could take more, or it could take less.  Who knows?”

 “You’re a lot of help.”  Maggie had a feeling she was being carefully led into an awareness of Talen as a man.  She wondered how surprised Serin would be to learn that Maggie was already intensely aware of him as a man.

 “What I am is late.”  Serin rose to her feet.  “I promised to hang around until you woke up, but I do have a life and a job of my own.  So I’m outta here.  I left a few more of the pain tablets in a bottle in your pack.  Use them when you need them.”

 “Serin, he can’t run any longer.”  Maggie caught the woman’s arm as she rose to her knees.  “It’s time for him to make them pay, surely he sees that?”

 The laugh that came from Serin’s throat held no amusement, and Maggie saw the pain behind it in the girl’s eyes.

 “You can’t make them pay, Maggie.”  She shook her head wearily.  “Talen can hurt them, he could even destroy them if he timed it just right.  But the Genetics Council will always exist in some form or another.  Perhaps that’s what he knows, and he knows he can’t change it.  I’d hate to see him hurt, or worse yet, killed.  But even worse, I’d hate to see him destroy himself, because he couldn’t save you.”

 “Who is he to you?”  Maggie asked her, praying she wasn’t his lover.  “How do you know so much about him?”

 “Talen has friends, Ms. Taylor,” Serin assured her.  “Friends who want to protect him.  Friends who will be in just as much danger as he is, if it’s found out we are protecting him.  You’re a danger to us all.”

 “Are you his lover?”  Maggie asked the question tormenting her.

 Serin shook her head, a real smile crossing her lips as she glanced at Maggie once again.

“No.  Talen doesn’t have a lover, Maggie.  At least...”  Serin’s voice was suddenly filled with laughter as she paused and regarded Maggie.  “Not yet.”

Serin didn’t give her a chance to respond, but moved quickly from the tent, and within seconds was gone. 

     Maggie grimaced as she shook her head then looked around the tent once again as this new problem rolled around in her mind.

 “Moocher, remind me of this next time I want to leave you at home,” she muttered as she collapsed back on her sleeping bag.

As she lay there, her eyes caught sight of the small pile of things she had bought in Grayson earlier that day.  She grinned ruefully, wishing she had stuck with her original plans that morning.

The granola bars and chips had been left lying by her sleeping bag, along with several romance novels.  If her brothers knew she was reading them, and why, they would definitely disown her, she thought irrationally.

“Definitely time to start my own sex novel, Moocher,” she groaned as she rolled over on her stomach, her hands digging into an opened pack and pulling out a washrag.

The idea of the novel had come about slowly over the years, due she feared, to her repeated threats to her brothers who thought such novels had ruined women’s minds.

Maggie almost grinned as she remembered one of her brother’s horror upon learning the fact that one of his prey was heavily into romance novels.  Fluff, he had called them, filling women’s heads so full of outdated, outlandish ideas that it ruined any man’s chance to have a nice, uncomplicated affair.

Maggie had laughed in his face then, and she smiled now as she remembered it.  But her brother’s were the last thing she intended to worry about right now.  All she wanted to do now was wallow in the misery of her pain.  Bastards.  Who the hell were they, she wondered.  They reminded her of her brother’s friends.  Those cold mocking voices, the emotionless eyes and the hard edge of control they displayed.  But why would soldiers be lurking in the woods?

Talen.  Maggie closed her eyes weakly as the answer came to her.  God help him, but they were after Talen.  And if Serin was right, he was in more danger than he ever had been. 

“Oh hell, what have I got myself into this time,” she whispered.  “There has to be an easier way to do this.”

Maggie pushed herself wearily into a sitting position and looked around the tent. Nothing had been disturbed, but she hadn’t expected it to be with Moocher guarding it.  To be honest though, she would have much preferred that Moocher been with her earlier.

Sighing wearily, she closed her eyes, and immediately his face came into view.  The expression had been harder than the ones he displayed in the pictures.  The features were sharp and angular, stubborn, and totally male. 

And as she remembered the look, she grimaced.  It was the same man she had seen at the Gass Up service station.  She had known then, but had ignored that internal voice that told her she had found him.  She had ignored it, walking away from the grubby, oil stained form as though he were nothing to her.

She wasn’t entirely to blame though, she assured herself.  He played the part of local yokel really well.  She should have known though, she berated herself then, the insolence in his expression.  The way he told her, “You do that, sweet thing,” as though he were mocking her.  And he was, she realized with a flare of anger.  Damn him, he was laughing at her the whole time.

Blearily, Maggie adjusted her sleeveless shirt, grimacing at the tear at the shoulder, and the rips along the bottom of it.  It was grungy, stained and abused beyond repair. Sighing, she stripped it off slowly, groaning in aggravated pain as it stuck to several scrapes on her back before tearing loose.

“Assholes,” she muttered as she struggled to remove the rest of her clothes before she wrapped a large towel around her body and fought to stand on her feet once again, determined to put thoughts of Talen out of her mind for now.  “I have to shower Moocher. Guard me honey.”

The words had the desired effect.  The dog tensed, his bearing becoming alert and watchful as he preceded Maggie from the tent.  As she picked her way slowly across the clearing, then the shallow end of the creek, the dog’s nose stayed high, sniffing carefully for intruders, watching for anyone to disturb the solitude she needed.

“Oh yeah,” Maggie groaned in relief as she stepped beneath the cool spray of the waterfall.  The water cascaded over her abused body, easing the aches and washing away a bit of the pain. 

She couldn’t turn her face fully into the spray, but she was able to lower her head and turn it just enough so the cool liquid could run over the bruised flesh.

“Someone get me their names,” she muttered as she poured a small amount of shampoo into her palm and moaned as she had to raise her arms to wash the dirt and grime from her hair.  “I swear to God, I have half a mind to call Zane and make him come take care of them.”

Of course he would, Maggie knew.  But first he would make her pack and likely have a couple of his tough buddies see her safely home after he did so. 

“This isn’t going to work, Moocher,” she muttered as the dog stood close to the spray of water.  “Finding that damned man has got to be easier than this.”

After washing her body quickly, Maggie wrapped the towel back around her body and headed back to the tent.  She needed to eat and sleep.  Thankfully, she wasn’t lying when she told her father she had stocked up on Granola bars, because it definitely looked like dinner for the night.

Son of a bitch.  Talen watched as Maggie limped slowly back into camp, her steps uneven and weak, her face creased into a mask of pain and concentration.  So far, she hadn’t called anyone for help, nor had she collapsed crying.  He heard several curses heaped upon the heads of the men who had inflicted the damage, but no sign of her packing up and heading for home.

The attack by the soldiers should have been enough to scare her off; instead she was showering under that damned waterfall, and then limping weakly back to her tent as though she belonged there.  Damn her, he had to get rid of her before she was hurt further, or his resistance was in tatters.  Either one could be fatal.

She was more stubborn than he had given her credit for.  She was gutsy, and strong, and had a body that was driving him crazier than hell.  He should have sent Serin home and stayed with her himself, as he wanted to.  But Talen had known he wouldn’t be able to control his rage had she cried when she awoke.  If she had cried, he would have torn from the camp and went looking for the soldiers himself.  His own self control was rapidly disintegrating where she was concerned.

A distant part of himself realized that he was marking her as his own.  He was circling around her, watching her, protecting her, and blaming it all on the loyalty to Maria’s name, but that distant part also recognized the truth.  A truth Talen wanted to fight and couldn’t.  Damen and Webb were right.  She was different, and Talen couldn’t figure out how to change it.

“She’s not going to leave, Talen,” Serin warned him softly as she watched Maggie as well.  “You’re going to have to talk to her.  Trust me, that woman is as stubborn as you are.”

Talen slanted his sister a dark look.  That was a hell of an insult, coming from her. She had sworn for years there was no one as stubborn as he was.

“I didn’t ask for advice,” he finally muttered, staring at the camp once again.

Damned near the whole family was all for him moving right in with her and blowing decades worth of secrets into Maggie’ delicate little ear.  Forget the danger it placed her in, and the ramifications to his own life.  Oh hell no, being tested, poked, prodded and questioned for years on end while a world debated on his humanity was no problem.  It was his ass, not theirs in the fire.

“You’re getting it anyway.”  She shrugged, ignoring his anger.  “I’m smart enough to see the way the wind is blowing here, and I’m willing to bet she’s not going to leave, and you won’t leave as long as she’s here.  The best thing you can do is just give it up and go to her.”

“And then what?”  He asked her bleakly.  “Live happily ever after?  You know better than that Serin.  No marriage, no family, no one to weaken you.  That’s what she would become, a weakness.”

“She’s already a weakness,” Serin informed him softly.  “And you know it as well as the rest of us do.”

Shaking his head at her acceptance and Maggie’ stubbornness, he removed his cell phone from its belt pack and dialed her number quickly.

“Zane, if this is you, go away.”  She answered on the first ring, sounding as tired and hurt as Talen knew she must be.

“Sorry Beauty, it’s not Zane this time.”  He smiled at the thought of her expression. He would have loved to see the look of surprise in her eyes.

“Where the hell are you?”  No surprise in her voice, just anger, hot and he admitted to himself, more than justified.  “Just like a damned man to run when he’s needed most.  I could use dinner.”  Talen frowned at the husky sound of her voice, wondering if that gentle rasp was due to tears.

“I saw all those snacks, you’ll do fine.  You had enough Granola bars packed to tide you over until next summer.  Besides, I doubt you’re hungry at all.  Are you feeling okay?” He asked her, concern tightening his body.

“I feel like some asshole hit me and knocked me around a little, but other than that, I’m fine.  Hell, my brothers used to do worse than this.”  She insulted the soldiers with an edge of fury.

Talen doubted very seriously her brother’s had ever left a bruise on her, but he knew better than to argue with a woman when her voice held that particular tone.

“I want you to pack and leave, Beauty,” he told her softly.  “You could have been killed.  They wouldn’t have cared a bit to cut your throat after they raped you.  You would have become another statistic.  Is that what you want?”

Silence greeted his question, and as he waited for her reply he watched the tent, wondering if she was still wrapped in that damned towel or if she had taken it off.

“You know Talen Lyons, I’m getting really sick everyone telling me to leave.  I’m not leaving.  I have a story to write, and a job to do.  I’m sure you’re aware of that.”  Her voice was quiet but tinged with fury.  “I need to talk to you Talen, you know that.”

Talen closed his eyes, wondering if anyone had ever been able to deny this woman anything.  He wanted like hell to give her what she wanted, and maybe get a little of what he wanted from her as well.

“There’s nothing to talk about.  Pack up, and head out.  Before you’re killed the next time.”  Talen flipped the phone closed quickly, afraid to hear her reply, afraid she would talk him into doing something he knew would only get them both hurt.

God, he was tempted to go to her now.  He had hated leaving her alone in that tent. She was likely scared, waking up dazed and disoriented.  He wanted to hold her, to assure her that she was all right.  Stupid, he shook his head as he lay back against his sleeping bag, the tent still in sight, his eyes watching, his body awaiting some sight of her.

He was in trouble he knew.  Staying away from her was impossible.  Hell, it was all he could do to keep himself from going to her now and comforting her.  He consoled himself that from here, at least he could see her if she decided to leave the tent, or the soldiers happened upon her camp.

Not that they were likely to come back after he and Damen got finished with them. The property around his cabin was the only land he was associated with, very few people knew about this land, or how much time he spent on it.  It was better that way, safer for himself, and the others.  But now Maggie Taylor had invaded it.  With her scent, and her laughter, and the sight of her moving gracefully among the trees, or cooking over the campfire. 

She had been there less than two days and already she was shaking his life up and messing with his concentration.  The knowledge that she was there for him, following a trail left by his mother infuriated him.  If she really had just been some society columnist looking for a camping story then he would have been more comfortable.  He could have helped her with the story, and gotten this attraction out of his system.  Instead, it was festering inside him, growing, changing, and creating havoc in his life.  And the sight of her under that damned shower sure as hell hadn’t helped matters.

“Give it up, Talen,” Serin whispered as she rose to her feet, staring down at him sadly.  “Damen was right, she’s different.  You should go to her, maybe she could help?”

“And maybe she could get killed too, just like Maria did, Serin.”  He shook his head at her suggestion.  “Go on home.  I’ll look after her a while longer.  Tell Damen to get ready.  I want to go after those bastards as soon as possible.”

Talen knew his voice was laced with violence, and the need to hunt.  He would go alone, but he had sworn to the others he wouldn’t.  The soldiers had stepped across the line when they attacked Maggie, and he swore they would pay.  For each bruise he had tracked on her body, they would shed blood.  They would learn that innocents weren’t fodder for their cruelties, and he would make certain that lesson was pounded home in the way men of that caliber understood.  They hadn’t heeded the lessons of the ones who had gone before them, and this time, they had crossed a line that no others had dared.  He would make certain they paid a price that none who came after them would forget.

A Breed Apart - Part 11

Published in Sensuous Escapes newsletter (Feb. 28, 2005 edition)

The next morning, Maggie awoke to the aches and pains of a sore body that was loudly protesting the abuse it had taken the past day.  She felt as though she was club whipped from head to toe, and didn’t appreciate it in the least.

Groaning miserably, she stared up at the tent ceiling, working up the energy to move and drag herself out of the bed despite the pain.  If she weren’t so damned scared Zane would make her go home, she swore she would call him and let him come out and take care of the bastards. 

She couldn’t do that though, she knew.  She couldn’t tell her father, or her brothers, and she sure as hell didn’t have anyone to complain to, so she may as well get her rear out of the sleeping bag, and start moving around.  As much as she hated the thought of it, she knew it would only be harder if she kept putting it off.

Cursing men in general, and the assholes that attacked her in particular, Maggie rolled over on her good side and began the arduous, painful task of getting out of her bed.  Moocher whined in concern at her moaning and groaning and the curses she muttered as she hauled herself weakly to her knees.  He licked her face, and then butted his head against her shoulder as though to encourage her actions.  All the while, Maggie relished the thought of the bastard’s screams if she ever met up with them again while the dog was at her side.

After getting out of her sleeping bag, visiting the smaller tent, and then brushing her teeth, she pulled Moocher a raw steak from one of the coolers, then wrapped ice in a rag and held it carefully to her face.

The swelling was definitely better.  She had no idea though, that an open handed slap could hurt so damned bad.  Then again, she figured that the fall to that graveled road hadn’t helped her situation much.  She reminded herself firmly that she was never, ever going onto those damned back roads alone again. 

Glancing at her watch, she grimaced then.  She knew she had better call home and check in before her father and all her brothers got worried and made plans to come after her.  All she needed right now was that army camped alongside her, messing up her plans to pull in.

She pulled the cell phone from beneath her pillow and dialed her father’s office number quickly.

“Taylor.”  He came on the line after the second ring, sounding harried and grumpy as he always did while at work.

“Hey, Pop, how’s it going?”  She smiled as she heard him bark a hurried command at whoever was in the room with him.

“Like hell,” he finally bit out.  “Your replacement here is an imbecile, Maggie.  What the hell made you think she could do your job?”

“I never imagined she could.”  Maggie tried laughed at his disgusted tone.  “But give her a chance, and she’ll do fine.”

He grunted, but that sound didn’t fool Maggie, she could almost hear the smile wreathing his face, even through the light static on the line.

“So have you found him yet?”  He finally asked her roughly, a hint of worrying coloring his tone.

“I’ve found him, but I haven’t met him yet.”  She sat down on her sleeping bag, staring out the opened tent flaps in concern.  “I’ve found Maria’s death notice though.  And thanks to Zane, the cause of death.  She was murdered.  Talen found her as she was dying, but she was unable to name the killer.  And you can thank Zane for the information, and ask him where the hell he found it.”

“Zane?”  Her father questioned her in surprise.  “How did he say he found it?”

“He says the internet.”  Like she believed that one, Maggie thought sarcastically.  “Do you know where he’s at, Dad?  You didn’t send him down here after all, did you?”

There was a short silence across the line, long enough to worry Maggie.

“No, I didn’t Maggie.”  Her father finally said after a rough sigh.  “But Zane’s up to something, I can feel it.  Don’t be surprised if he shows up.  He’s madder than hell that I allowed you to run off down there alone.”

“Dad, this will never work if Zane shows up here,” Maggie sighed wearily.  “Talen’s here, I know he is.  It will only be a matter of time before he shows himself.  If Zane shows up, we can kiss this story and Talen’s life goodbye.”    “I’m aware of that Maggie,” her father assured her.  “I’m doing everything I can to keep him here, and I’ll call you first thing, if he disappears.  But I can’t hogtie him to his bed to keep him here.”

“Why not?”  That sounded like a perfectly reasonable course of action to her.

Her father’s sharp burst of laughter assured her that he was thinking pretty much along the same course himself.

“I have Caleb and Darien keeping him busy for the moment with the story they have on a drug cartel here, but you better hurry.  That little investigation won’t keep him busy for long.”    Maggie sighed in aggravation.

“I’ll get it done as quickly as possible, you just give me advance notice if he disappears on you, okay?”

“Will do sweetie,” her father agreed.  “Other than Zane, are you having any other problems?”

“Nothing so far,” Maggie lied blithely.  “No one has approached me, though someone was kind enough to slip past the security on the SUV and tote my pottie to the campsite for me.  I’m suspecting it’s our resident feline genius, but who can be certain?”

That brought the long awaited reaction.  Her father’s pride and joy was that monster SUV, and the thought of anyone stripping the security sent him into fits.  Halfway into his tirade, the rest of her sentence filtered through to him.

“What pottie?”  He finally yelled.  “For God’s sake Maggie, you didn’t lug that camping pottie up there with you?”

“You want me to drop my drawers with HIM watching me?”  Maggie feigned acute embarrassment.  “Why Daddy, what you wouldn’t do for a story.”

She nearly laughed out loud at the curse that fairly sizzled the phone lines.

“Remind me to borrow that belt Zane keeps threatening you with, the minute you get home,” he told her, though there was laughter in his voice.  “You’re a brat Maggie.”

“Of course I am, had to be with seven brothers.”  She laughed.  “But who else could have slipped past the security, and who else would have.  He also found a way to get the cell phone number because he called me at four yesterday morning and told me to take my ass off to town while he headed home to get some sleep.  It seems I’ve acquired myself a babysitter.”  She ran through the events of her arrival quickly, knowing her father would want the full details and would be satisfied with nothing less.

“You’ve made contact then,” he told her softly.  “Stay there, give him a week and see if you can’t talk him in.

“Hopefully I’ll be able to soon,” she sighed.  “But I’m getting off here for now.  Moocher wants to go fishing, and I promised him lunch soon.  I’ll call back in a day or so to let you know how things are going.”

“Be careful Maggie,” he warned her, obviously still worried.  “And don’t be ashamed to call if you need help.”

“I’ll be fine.  Love you Dad, give the boys a kiss for me and tell Zane he gets to meet my baseball bat when I get home.  Talk to you soon.” 

Several moments later, Maggie pocketed the small cell phone and sat silently for long moments.  Zane could become a problem, she finally admitted to herself, whether she wanted him to be or not. 

He was fiercely overprotective, and obnoxious in the least when it came to how she lived her life.  It might not be easy keeping him home, and out of this story if he got it in his mind to join her.

“Moocher, we may yet have to deal with the boogeyman,” she sighed, caressing the dogs back gently as he stood beside her.  “I hope he’s still scared of your growl, because I’d hate to have to let you actually bite him.

Moocher and Zane had never managed to get on friendly terms for some reason.  Maggie though it was the cold, hard edge Zane had acquired in the last year or so.  What Maggie was certain of, was that each time Zane had visited her, Moocher was extremely wary of him.

The dog’s attitude toward her brother had worried her in the past months, and now it concerned her even more.  Zane was as hard headed as they came, and if he felt Talen was a threat to her, then she wouldn’t put it past him to hightail it down here and set up camp right beside her.

Maggie knew she would have to deal with him, but hopefully not for a while.  For now, she picked up a folded canvas chair from the corner of the tent, and picked up one of the novels, and headed out of the tent.  She would, like Ms. O’Hara, worry about this tomorrow, she thought.  Until then, she had some serious fake fishing to do, and a cat man to catch.

If there was one thing she had learned when fishing with her brothers, it was the males’ extremely limited patience when dealing with a novice fisherwoman, and an expensive rod and reel.  She hoped Talen Lyons would react true to form to the plan she had come with to draw him out.

“Come on, Moocher.”  Maggie picked up her fishing pole, book and drink cooler, juggling them all together as she left the tent.  “Let’s go see if we can catch us a catfish.”

It was high noon, and likely no fish would be biting, but she needed something to do besides sitting in front of the tent waiting on someone who evidently had no intentions of showing up yet.  Besides, there may be more than one way to catch a cat, and she was hoping he shared her brother’s paranoia where unattended, highly expensive rods and reels were concerned.

Not that she was certain that he was even out there.  He could have given up on watching out for her and decided to wait out her stay somewhere else.  Hell, he may not even like to fish.

 Her brothers had learned how stubborn she could be over the years, and Talen Lyons just may have to learn the same lesson. 

It didn’t take long to set up the chair, and position it beneath the shade of a large oak tree that grew close to the water’s edge.  She cast the line into the water, free of any wiggling little worms, and sat down and opened her book. 

The canvas chair extended long enough to stretch her feet out on, and she did so comfortably.  Her legs were still sore as hell and in several places were raw and abraded.  Maggie was thankful she had no more injuries than that, but she was still tempted to take Moocher on a little hunting trip of her own.

As Maggie settled back into the seat, she yawned deeply, and then watched as the water ran slowly along the wide creek, casting the reflection of the trees around it and giving it a deep, almost emerald hue.

The birds sang softly from their perches, and even a few fish had seemed to find the energy to splash playfully in the water.  The sounds of the forest around her, the soft breeze that rippled over the water, and played softly through her unbound hair lulled Maggie into a state of dozing contentment.

The Tylenol she had choked down earlier was easing some of the pain, and the feel of the breeze wafting softly over her skin was gently relaxing.  She could nap she thought, while she waited for Talen to rescue the bare hooked fishing line in the water.

Maggie laid her book on her stomach, settled herself deeper into her chair and closed her eyes as she let the peaceful surroundings wash over her.

Talen watched as the lithe little body of the woman relaxed, one arm dangling over the side of the chair, her head falling softly to the side.

He glanced at the fishing pole propped up beside her; its line drifting slowly in the current of the water, and smiled.  Beauty was playing Sleeping Beauty instead, and a damned fine job she was doing at it too.  If she were involved in anything but the story she thought she could find there, he would wake her up right properly.

At least, he would have if her face weren’t still so damned bruised.  The dark mark along her cheekbone, and the slight swelling in her lips attested to the tenderness she must still be feeling.  Even now, Talen remembered the rage that had fueled him when he heard Maggie scream and realized that somehow, someway she had found herself in the woods around his cabin, and that the soldiers had somehow found her.

He and Serin had barely made it to her in time.  Talen remembered the red haze that had come over him as one of the soldiers held her as the other worked at the closure of his pants.  What he hadn’t anticipated was Serin’s reaction.  Fear hadn’t frozen her; instead a guttural squall of feline rage had erupted from her throat as she went after the soldiers.  Talen had been but a step behind her, when she launched herself down the embankment.

At the sound, the soldiers had scattered.  They knew they didn’t want to tangle with Talen, and Talen was more than thankful that they hadn’t glanced back to see that they were in more danger from the she-cat racing towards him than they were from him.

As Talen watched Maggie now, he found himself wanting to go to her, to be certain she was truly okay, but she was involved in that damned story.  He had known the day would come when he would face this.  He had warned Maria of it when she informed him she had sent out the letter and the photocopies of the project.  He had also warned her that he had no intention of ever going forward.

Maria had thought his only safety would lie in revealing himself to the world, and bringing to light the criminal acts of the Genetics Council.  Talen felt the only way to survive was to stay one step ahead of them, and keep his identity hidden.  But how was he supposed to do that with Beauty running all over town asking for him.

A story on camping his ass, he thought.  She wasn’t even fooling the locals with that one, and they could be amazingly trusting on most occasions.  Thankfully though, everyone thought the story she was after involved Maria’s death, not his true identity.

Talen assured himself he would watch her while she was here, because it was what Maria would have expected of it.  But he would be damned if he would give her the story she was after.

And if she kept insisting on tempting him with those mouth watering steaks, and sleeping damned near bare assed naked, he might end up giving her something else, if she were willing.  But for now, he would just watch out for her, see if he couldn’t keep her out of trouble, and maybe even rescue that fishing pole she had so carelessly left in the water.

She hadn’t even baited the damned hook, and there she was, stretched out and dozing like the most hardened of fishermen.  That was a damned fine looking rod and reel too, he bet his last dollar she had only borrowed it.

The dog was likewise involved in an afternoon nap.  Laying in relaxed splendor on his side, at her feet, the animal she called ‘Moocher’ was obviously no stranger to his mistress’s lazy ways.

That was a hell of a fishing rod to trust to nature though, Talen thought as he watched the brightly colored bobber dip and sway in the water.  Even safely free of the succulent little worms that should have been there, the rod could become a casualty of the natural nosiness some fish could display.

A bare hook floating around could snag or be snagged by any manner of things.  A drifting log, a floating turtle, or even a curious trout could happen upon it and test out its shiny length.  And Talen was betting his bottom dollar it wouldn’t be her loss, but her father’s or her one of her brothers’.

Slipping silently past the boulders he was hiding behind, he moved toward the sleeping woman and dog.  The dog was sure to awaken, Talen knew, but a morning spent keeping the bored canine amused would pay off.  He hoped it would anyway. 

Moocher, hell of a name for a dog, merely opened one eye as he caught the man’s scent, watching him curiously, obviously no longer in the mood to play.  He wouldn’t trust him totally, Talen knew, but it appeared he would wait to see what he was up to before setting up the alarm.

Shaking his head, Talen moved to the fishing line, watching as the bobber was once again subjected to the playful nature of whichever capricious object below the water was testing it.  Grabbing the slender nylon length, he began hauling it in, shaking his head at the woman’s neglectful attitude.  It was a damn fine pole; he’d hate to see it lost.

Moments later, the damp length of line lay at his feet, and with his mission accomplished, Talen felt it safe now to return to the shadowed area he had abandoned, to watch her.  As he turned to walk back the way he came, he stopped short in amazement.

Rich, dark brown eyes filled with curiosity, and a small hint of satisfaction stared at him from a face so lovely and yet bruised that it nearly took his breath.  Her lips, full and softly curved were met with the quick lick of a nervous tongue, and those full rounded breasts rose with a sharp inhalation of breath.

“Hello, Talen,” she said softly, hesitantly as though frightened he would turn and run.  “I was wondering when you would come out of hiding.”

That voice was enough to harden any man’s body, and Talen knew it was having a disastrous effect on his own as his blue jeans became distinctly uncomfortable.

“Dammit,” he cursed.  “I should have known you were playing ‘possum on me.  One of the oldest tricks in the book and I just fell for it.”

Her eyes, as pretty as thick, rich caramel glanced to the fishing line at his feet, and a mischievous smile tried to cross her swollen lips.

“Hook, line and sinker,” she drawled.  “You’re just too easy Talen, what can I say?”

A Breed Apart - Part 12

Published in Sensuous Escapes newsletter (Mar. 12, 2005 edition)

Maggie watched Talen carefully as she came to her feet.  He was tense, poised to leave as he stared down at her broodingly.  It was more than obvious that he felt tricked. Maggie knew from experience that wounding a male’s ego was a sure fire way not to get what you want, but what else was she supposed to do when this particular male was being so damned stubborn?  She winged it, treating him as she would have Zane, the man who wrote the book on stubborn.

“You wanted to come out of your hiding place, or you wouldn’t have fallen for such an obvious trick,” she informed him blithely as she picked up the rod and began reeling the line back carefully.  “There wasn’t even a worm on it.”

She glanced up at his hard face, the dark golden eyes glittering down at her expressionlessly.  She could have tried bluffing her way through it, but he had to know who she was by now, and why she was looking for him.

“I know who you are, and you know who I am, so there’s no reason to playact here or play any of these good ole boy games I’ve had the pleasure of being subjected to in town when I asked for you.”  She tried again.  “Your mother asked for Father’s help, and I’m here to extend it.”

From the corner of her eye she watched as he carefully tucked his thumbs into the front pocket of his jeans as he watched her.  Damn, he was so good looking he made her mouth water just to look at him.  She could feel her hormones kicking into gear, screaming out to him hysterically, “Here I am, take me, take me,” the traitorous things.

Securing the line to the fishing rod, she turned to him now, barely able to suppress her gasp as she stared him full in the face.  Oh man, she and her hormones were goners for sure.  God, he was gorgeous.  His face was strong boned and rough, with just a hint of stubble lining his sun darkened cheeks.  His cheekbones were high, his eyes slanted almost exotically.  He had a rough, sensual appeal that attracted her, made her want to tease a smile from those hard, full lips even as she wanted to nip at them and beg for a kiss.

Right now, those lips were compressed, those golden eyes dark with a brooding anger.  Maggie glanced at Moocher, wondering why he wasn’t picking up on this anger. Moocher was merely watching Talen, his dark brown eyes quizzical as he stared up at the man.  How could she blame the dog, when she was damned near mesmerized by him herself?

Maggie sighed deeply when Talen refused to answer her, but now just stood there, staring down at her with that brooding expression.

“You were the one who rescued me from those men yesterday,” she said softly, trying again.  “Thank you for that.”

“Thank me by going home.  This is a dangerous place to be right now, Beauty.” Talen grimaced, shifting his stance, straining the denim that hugged his strong male thighs. Maggie fought not to look. 

Maggie shook her head.  She had paid her dues; dammit she wasn’t going anywhere until she got what she wanted.  This was her story; her last chance to prove that she was just as good as the boys were.

“Father has made arrangements, if you’re willing to accept them,” she told him softly.  “We want to help you, Talen.”

His eyes dilated as she spoke, the muscles in his jaw jumping, his nostrils flaring as he watched her.  Maggie glanced again at Moocher, watching as the dog nudged Talen’s hand for attention.

That made no sense.  Moocher had been trained to protect her, to warn her, to guard her, and he was unconcerned that this big male was standing before her, furious.

“The dog knows I won’t hurt you,” he suddenly announced, obviously interpreting her concern.  “But I suggest Ms. Taylor, you pack your gear and head your pretty little rear right back to New York.  My mother asked for your Father’s help, I didn’t.  I don’t want it, or need it and Maria is gone and can’t use it now.”

His voice was a rough, dark caress to the ears, sliding over her senses and causing her stomach to clench at the sound.  Maggie licked her sore lips nervously as that reaction flared through her, along with one sure knowledge.  He was going to leave, and if he did, she was afraid she would never get another chance to talk to him.

“Just give me a few minutes,” she asked him softly, smiling her most charming smile; the smile that never failed to generate a reaction in her brothers.  “That’s all I ask, Talen.  Just let me outline my father’s plan.”

She watched as he took a deep breath, his chest expanding as his head turned to look into the woods momentarily.

“Have dinner with me?  I’m a hell of a cook over an open fire, and I’ve had my steaks marinating since this morning.  We can eat and talk at the same time.”  She tempted him, casting him a small, beguiling smile.  “I promise you won’t regret it.”

Maggie swallowed tightly when those unusual eyes turned back to her, staring at her, watching her intently as they seemed to flare into sudden life..

“Now isn’t a good time for you to be here, Ms. Taylor.  Yesterday should have proved that to you,” he told her softly.  “And it’s sure in hell not a good time for you to be seen with me.  Do yourself a favor and leave.”

Talen took a step to walk away, and before Maggie gave herself time to think about it, she laid her hand on the hard, warm muscle of his arm.  It was like touching a low level current.  Her hand tingled and heat raced from his body to her own, pooling into a flare of arousal in the pit of her stomach.

The reaction she got from him wasn’t one she was expecting, any more than she had expected what she received.  He jerked his arm from her touch, turning to spear her with a look so intense she almost stepped back.

“I’m not going anywhere, Talen.”  She faced him firmly as he seemed to gather his determination to leave.  “I came here for a reason.  So, you may as well hear me out before you go running off.  Besides, if you’re going to lie up in the woods and watch the camp all night, you may at least get a good meal out of the bargain.”

“I won’t be camping out watching you any longer, Beauty,” he told her softly.  “I’ve warned you.  It’s dangerous here right now, and the best thing you can do is get the hell out of here.”

“And if I can’t do that?”  She asked him softly.  “Father is moving mountains for you right now.  Working behind the scenes and calling in every favor owed him.  Your mother was very special to him, and he’s determined to do as she asked.”

She knew he was distrustful, but the flare of suspicion that darkened his eyes surprised her. 

“If Steven Taylor had been so determined to help her, then he should have answered the first letters she sent him, not the one she had packaged with a death request.  We needed him when I was a child, starving and running and fighting to survive.  I don’t need his help now that I’ve learned how to take care of myself.”

The information was as surprising as the bitterness behind his words.  Maggie knew of no other requests, and considering how upset her father had been at the news of Maria’s death, Maggie was certain he didn’t know of any other attempts to reach him.

“There were no other requests, Talen.”  Maggie frowned, stepping in front of him as he turned to leave once again.  “Father just received the package and her letter several weeks ago.  Her death has really upset him.”

A mocking smile tilted the hard mouth as Talen Lyons stared down at her with a half sneer.

“Mother sent Steven Taylor several letters over the years, Beauty, he ignored them all.  Why is he so insistent that he can help me now, when he refused to help her before she died?”

The bitterness and regret in his voice tore at her heart.  The police reports said he had found her body.  The officer’s reports said he was still holding her when they arrived.  Her death must have been a terrible blow to him.

“Mother died over a year ago.  I know for a fact, she had made plans for the package to be forwarded to your father the moment notice was received of her death.  Your father’s had that package an awful long time before acting on it.”  The smile that twisted his lips wasn’t a comforting sight.  “Go back home.  Tell your Daddy the big bad cat didn’t want to be found, and he can stop looking.”

“That’s a hell of a chip you’re carrying on your shoulder.”  She crossed her arms over her breasts as she planted her feet firmly in front of him.  “My father isn’t a liar, Lyons, if he said he just received that package, then he did.  He said he hadn’t heard from her since she disappeared after graduation from college, and I believe him.  My father doesn’t lie.”

“And my mother had no reason to lie.”  His eyes narrowed as he stared down at her. “And neither do I.”

God, he needed to package that tone of voice and sale it to the military.  Talk about commanding, and brooking no refusal.  She would have shivered if she wasn’t certain that tell-tale answer would cause more harm than good.  Talen didn’t need to know how much he affected her.

“Then something happened to keep my father from getting her letters, because I know he didn’t.  Now we can argue about this all night, or we can sit down and act reasonable and discuss this like adults.”

Maggie tried another smile.  Cajoling and sweet, and always guaranteed to make her brothers at least consider her suggestions.

“Do those smiles actually get you anywhere?”  He asked her curiously as his head tilted and he watched her with interest.  “I haven’t seen such practiced smiles in years.”

Maggie frowned, her teeth clenching together as she fought the round of insults she could surely deliver to this inconsiderate brute.

“My smiles are not practiced,” she bit out.  “I was just trying to be friendly.”

“You were trying to sweetlip me into giving you what you wanted.”  He grinned now, and Maggie was furious at herself for the flush that began working its way over her cheeks.

“I promise you, if I were trying to ‘sweetlip’ you, you would be more than aware of it, and more than willing to compromise instead of standing there like an inconsiderate ass while I bend over backwards trying to help you.”  Maggie wanted to slap the smirk off his face.  Damn, he would get along well with her brothers.

“But I don’t want your help, Sugar.”  He grinned with real amusement now, and Maggie could feel the anger building in her chest.

How like a man, she thought.  Arrogant, conceited jackass with no more sense than to insult her then stand there grinning about it.

“No, you don’t,” she agreed.  “You need psychiatric help, that much is obvious.  But I really don’t think there’s a cure for a terminal case of assholeitis.”

He was laughing at her.  Maggie tightened her jaw to keep it from falling open as he threw his head back and actually laughed at her.

Maggie tightened her arms where they were crossed over her chest, her nails digging into the tender skin above her elbows as she stood silently and endured his twisted humor at her expense.

“I bet you give those good ole boys in New York what for,” he told her when his laughter finally died down.  “Lucky boys.”

“I don’t give any ‘boys’ anything.”  Maggie emphasized the word ‘boys’.  “I moved up to men a long time ago.”

“I just bet you did,” he murmured as he stood there, watching her now with an expectant look on his face.  “Bet those little practiced smiles of yours just worked wonders on them too.”

“Why, you’d just be amazed,” she mocked him.  “Now are you going to be decent and have dinner with me, or are you going to stand here and mock me all night long?”

His golden brow eyebrows lifted in surprise as she faced him angrily.

“I told you, I don’t have time to fool with you tonight,” he told her softly.  “As tempting as dinner with you would be, it would also be the height of stupidity on my part.”

“Well don’t let me accuse you of being too damned stupid.”  Maggie felt as though she were going to strangle on her own fury.  She wondered if she had ever met a more exasperating man.  He had her brothers beat and she would have never believed that were possible.

“Nope, don’t accuse me of that.”  He laughed again.  “Now pack up, Beauty, because this is my last trip here.”

“I’m not leaving.”  She stared up at him mutinously.  “And you can run and hide all you want to, but sooner or later, I’ll find someone willing to tell me where you live, and then I’ll camp out on your doorstep.”

That stopped him.  Talen halted in his move to walk away, stopped and stared down at her with narrowed eyes.  Maggie narrowed hers right back, sticking her chin in the air as she dared him to ignore her.  The look he was giving her was almost enough to cause her to hesitate though.  It was dark, and filled with the promise of retribution, if she didn’t obey immediately.  Maggie thanked Zane for teaching her early how to deal with assholes.

“Tenacious little bitch, aren’t you?” he finally muttered with a grimace.

A Breed Apart - Part 13

Published in Sensuous Escapes newsletter (Mar. 16, 2005 edition)

Or perhaps she wouldn’t have him eating out of her hand.  Maggie sat in front of her campfire, sipping at a cold wine cooler as she listed the many reasons why she hated men.  Highest on that list was their ratio of lies to truth.  And boy, had Talen Lyons told her a big one.  Now here she sat, alone, with no one but her dog for company. 

She should be used to it by now.  All her nights were spent alone, with just Moocher for company.  She loved her dog, but she admitted to needing more.  More, that she had hoped would come tonight.

She looked down at the white camisole blouse she wore, and matching shorts.  Camping was hell on white, but she had worn the outfit to impress Talen.  She knew it showed her body to its best advantage.  But there had been no reason to wear it, because he hadn’t shown up.

Moocher was still there though, lying beside her, still eyeing the T-bone steak that had grown cold on its wire rack beside the fire.  Beside it, wrapped in shiny foil was one of the precious baking potatoes she had prepared for him.

“Men suck, Moocher,” she muttered as she took another sip of the cooler and stared into the darkness of the woods.

Talen wasn’t out there.  There had been a sense of security and peace during the times that she knew he was there, a feeling that was curiously absent now.  Was he serious, she wondered?  Had he meant it when he said he wouldn’t be back?

Maggie hoped not.  The citizens of Sandy Hook made her nervous, so she didn’t want to go back there and start questioning them.  She hated to admit that their slow drawled speech and the open speculation in their eyes made her wary.  And she sure as hell wasn’t going to try finding him on her own again.

Maggie liked it the way it was in New York.  They didn’t know you, and they didn’t want to know you.  A ‘don’t bother me and I won’t bother you’ system.  It wasn’t that New Yorker’s weren’t friendly, they were, it was just that they respected your privacy in some ways.

God, give her a good self-respecting thief or mugger any day.  They didn’t ask questions, they didn’t ask who your parents were, or ask you about your strange accent or look at you like, New Yorker and nymphomaniac went hand in hand. 

She shivered as she remembered the feeling of a smile in her face and a knife in her back, as she left the gas station that first day.  And now, to add insult to injury, she had been stood up.  Dammit, she had never been stood up in her life.  It just didn’t happen to her.  Or at least it hadn’t, until now. Of course, her lack of dates in recent years could have attributed to that unknown state.

“He acts like Zane anyway, so who needs him?”  Maggie grumped as she finished off her wine cooler and tossed it into the plastic bag that held her garbage.  “Assholes.”

Breathing a weary sigh, she glanced at her watch.  It was nearly twelve; she could honestly say she had given him a chance.

“It’s yours Moocher,” Maggie told the eager dog, pointing out the lone steak and potato.  “Go get it.”

Of course, Moocher was nobody’s fool, Maggie thought.  He knew damned well how good her steaks were.  He did have to have to have help with the foil of the potato, but he was appreciative.

When he finished the meat, he heaved a long sigh; a muted burp, then walked complacently into the tent and settled down to sleep.

“Yeah, that might be a good idea.”  Maggie looked around the woods, shadowed in night, with the soft sounds of whatever animals, bugs, and so forth were prowling around. 

It sounded nice, she thought.  She was all-alone here, with no brothers to harass or taunt her because she didn’t do it their way.  It gave new meaning to the whole camping experience.  But, it still didn’t make up for the fact that she had been stood up.

**

Talen breathed in deeply, roughly as he braced his hands on his knees and fought for breath. Beside him, Damen did the same, his face gleaming dully with sweat beneath the light of the moon, his bare chest heaving with effort.

At their feet were two tightly bound incredibly furious, ex-Navy SEAL mercenaries.  They were a little worse for wear themselves, Talen was pleased to notice. 

“Damn, ole son, that was a hard one.”  Damen wheezed as his feet butted the thickly muscled leg of the man he had taken out.

Talen nodded, still breathing harshly, still fighting the adrenaline coursing through his system as the danger of the moment slowly wore off.

“Now, what the hell do we do with them?”  Damen asked as he collapsed to the forest floor, leaning wearily against the trunk of a young Oak tree, his hand falling weakly over his upraised knee.

“Hell if I know.  They’re the same ones that attacked that girl the other day though, I bet.  I think they should have to pay real well for that one.”  Talen shrugged despite the renewal of coursing fury the thought brought.  As he tamped it down, he caught the quick flare of concern in one of the bound mercenaries eyes.  “What do you think?”

“Well, they’re having that pig roast tomorrow night.  We could kinda substitute one of them. Hell, that old boys pigs are tougher than leather anyway, and by time anyone gets around to eating, they’ll be too drunk to know the difference,” Damen announced, his voice filled with sadistic pleasure.  “We could just pack them up there and stick them in the hole, ready to light.”

The furious mumbling from behind one of the gags had Talen grinning in pleasure.

“I don’t know.”  Talen shook his head.  “Maybe one of them would rather talk with us for a bit. You know, let us know why he’s out here and why they thought that little girl was fair game yesterday.  They could have a decent excuse.”

There was no excuse that would ever satisfy Talen, but the game was a tradition when one of the bastards was caught.  Hell, they’d even gone so far as to prepare the pit for one team of tough as nails mercenaries.  They weren’t so tough at the thought of being roasted alive then.  They had spilled their guts faster than whisky went down a drunk’s throat.

“I don’t know.”  Damen didn’t sound as though he liked that idea.  “We tried that with the last ones, remember.  I still think they lied.  Like there’s actually them human/beast hybrids they were spoutin’ off about.”

“Hey, you never know,” Talen, pointed out.  “I saw something in the papers about it a few weeks about.  Those stem cell things, ya know?”

This was a game he enjoyed.  It was always pleasant to watch these mighty commandos quake in fear as they listened to the many ways a country boy could kill them.

“I still say we stuff ‘em in the old man’s fire pit and just walk away.  No one will be the wiser, and dinner will go a hell of a lot further,” Damen grumped.  “I’m gettin’ sick of damn pork anyway.”

“Yeah, but hell, look at ‘em, they’d be tougher than the old man’s pig.  I bet there ain’t a tender place on ‘em,” Talen argued.  “Besides, I kinda enjoyed that last story those ole boys told us.  Gave me something to scare the kids with for a while.”

More squawking from behind the gags, a few desperate kicks of their legs, and Talen shook his head in amusement.  Damn, he thought these bad boys were tougher than this.  The last ones had thought the idea of being skinned, and their hide’s used for truck seat covers was the worse punishment.  The idea of roasting these had been inspiration.

“I just don’t know.  We let the last ones go, and look what it got us, more of them.  Sounds pretty dumb to me.  Let a few go missing and maybe we can keep them away.  Hell, the old man will kill us if they find that patch of weed of his, Bubba.”  Damen’s slow uneducated drawl had Talen shaking his head as he fought to rein in his laughter.

“Yeah, but I don’t think I like the taste of roasted man, ya know.  Come on; let’s give em a chance.  I want to hear what they have to say,” Talen appeared to beg.

“Fine.”  Damen gave a really good impression of a man out patience.  “Go ahead, but I bet you money they ain’t got nothin to say that’s worth hearin’.”

Talen moved carefully to the two bound figures on the ground.  They were smart, and they were good.  It had taken him and Damen most of the night to track and catch them, and then it had been a fight they had damned near lost.

Senses alert, his eyes watching for the tell tale bunching of muscle that would indicate the lightening fast reflexes of these men, Talen worked the gag loose from one of their faces.

“Okay ole boys, what you got to say for yourselves?”  Talen asked as he moved back quickly.

The commando’s eyes glittered dully in the darkness of the forest, breathing harshly as he fought both anger and fatigue.

“We’re not near as dumb as the last ones, Talen.”  His voice was low and resigned as he met his eyes.  “You got the best of us, so be it.  But we were the last team before they send in the big boys.”

Talen was silent as he watched the Commando, understanding now why the good ole boy routine hadn’t worked.  He knew this one.

“Son of a bitch.  Mike Noble.  Why are you out here?”  Talen shook his head as a feeling of betrayal washed over him.  He should have known, and admitted that in some ways he had known. He just hadn’t wanted to admit it.

“I was here to take you in.  The fact that I failed will earn me no more than the loss of my commission.  But it’s going to earn you much more.  They’re tired of playing around.”  Smooth, and cold as ice, Mike’s voice revealed Talen’s greatest fear.

Talen clenched his teeth but the growl of fury still rumbled from his chest.  He didn’t need this one.  The next person sent in would be impossible to fool now.

“I helped you, Mike, when you needed it.”  Talen shook his head bitterly.  “This is a hell of a way to pay me back.”

Mike Noble, hell of a name for a Judas, Talen thought.  They had been friends once, a long time ago, during the years he and Maria had moved from state to state from month to month.

He had rescued Mike from a gang, taking on their leader in a fight that had nearly killed him. Mike had sworn he would owe him for life.  This was how he repaid him.

“Wasn’t an easy job, Talen.”  Mike scooted around until he could prop himself against the tree behind him.  “I didn’t like it, but I saw the need for it.  Man, you can’t be allowed to run free, you’re too different.  You aren’t normal.”

“Fuck you.”  Talen breathed harshly as the cold words washed over him. 

His chest was heaving with fury; the peripheral of his vision slowly turning red.  He could feel the old, cold agony washing over his soul.  He wasn’t normal, not human, not deserving of basic humanities.  Why shouldn’t he go ahead and kill the bastard, which was what he had been created for; to kill.  Why not go ahead and show the Council how well they had succeeded, just how dangerous he could be.

A growl rumbled from his chest as his hands clenched with the need to act, to destroy the reason he ran, hiding for his life and the lives of his family.

“Talen, man chill out.”  Damen came to his feet, starting down at the Commando as Talen stood before him shaking.  “Killing these ole boys ain’t gonna get us nowhere.  Chill out, we’ll figure something out.”

“Nothing for him to figure out, boy.”  Mike drawled, but Talen could hear the fear in his voice. “Tell you what, one of you light me a cigarette and stick it in my mouth, and we’ll chat for a while.  I owe you that much at least, Talen.”

“You owe me a hell of a lot more than that, Mike.”  Talen swallowed tightly, fighting to erase the bitterness and hatred from his mouth.  “Light him a fucking cigarette.”  He ordered Damen, wishing to hell he had left the other man out of this fight. 

“Yeah, guess you could say I do.  But you should have been more careful of the prejudices of the people you’re helping, Talen.  You’re not natural, or normal.  Oaths don’t count there if one party is unaware of it.”  Mike clenched his teeth around the cigarette Damen shoved filter first into it. “Thanks boy, I appreciate it.”

“I should go ahead and kill you,” Talen whispered.  “That’s what I did last time I escaped.  They tell you that, Mike?  I tore those boys into so many pieces they couldn’t have put them back together. Men like you, who attack women aren’t worth the air they breathe.”

“Yeah, I saw the report.”  Mike nodded.  “Don’t blame you for it though.  What they did to that little girl was a killing crime.  Now a grown woman is different, especially a nosy little reporter, but that doesn’t change what you are, and it never will.  There’s no place for you on this planet.  You are unacceptable.”

Unacceptable.  Talen felt like ramming his fist down the man’s throat.  He was acceptable enough to play stud and killer for his government, but not acceptable enough to live in it in peace.

“Man, folks like you just don’t deserve to live.”  Damen started toward him now, his fists clenched.

Talen stepped forward, grabbing Damen by the shoulder and swinging him around.

“Get the hell out of here.  I’ll meet you at the truck then take you home,” Talen ordered him.

“Dammit Talen,” he started to argue.

“Go Damen.  I’ll meet you there soon.”  Talen stared at him, tying to impress upon him the importance that these men know nothing about him.

Damen cursed, kicked at the Commando’s foot and then stomped away.  His low pitched cursing could be heard for several minutes before it faded into the distance.

“That was right smart of you.  We don’t want the locals to know too much, do we?”  Mike suggested as he drew on the cigarette slowly.

“Talk.”  Talen rounded him, his fists clenched as he fought to keep from strangling the bastard to death.

Dark eyes glittered dully in the muted light from the moon.  Mike’s face was smeared with blood, one eye swelling rapidly, and Talen knew he had taken a beating to his ribs, because Talen had been the one to give it.  But he still managed to quirk a small smile as he stared up Talen.

“Tim and me.”  He nodded to the struggling soldier beside him.  “We were the last round of friendlies, Talen.  We were told to bring you in alive, no excuses for death.  But, if we failed, they were calling in the big guns.  The assassin is already on his way out.  They’ve lined up the best this time, and he ain’t totin’ no tranquilizers either.”

Talen felt a sense of resignation at this news.  Of course, he had known the Genetics Council would get tired of the games sooner or later.  He was sending their best soldiers back to them, stripped of their pride, and often painfully bruised. 

The Council would be aware by now that capturing him was a lost cause, and Talen was actually surprised that it had taken this long for them to decide to call out the big boys.

“And you’re telling me this for what reason?”  Talen asked him.  “Why warn a freak of nature, Mike?”

The words nearly stuck in his throat, reminding him, when he didn’t need reminding, of who and what he was.  Talen had long ago given up on a normal life, of being normal.  But he’d be damned if he would lie down and die for the bastards who created him.

“I owe you that much for saving my life all those years ago.”  Mike shrugged.  “I don’t think you deserve to live, but I’m glad it’s not my bullet taking you out.”

Talen stared down at the man, and wondered what in the hell had happened to the boy he had once known.  But he was smart enough to realize that it didn’t really matter anymore. 

Shaking his head roughly, Talen took a deep breath and stared down at the pair of them men who had been hired to bring him in.  He was tired.  Suddenly bone aching tired in ways he didn’t think he ever had been before.

“I should kill you both you both and sent you back to the Council in pieces,” Talen mused darkly as he stared down at Mike.  “It’s no less than you deserve.”

“And I should keep my mouth shut and not tell you that they hired Zane to take you out,” Mike smiled sardonically.  “But old debts are like bad blood, you have to pay your dues one way or the other.”

Zane.  The name echoed around Talen long, harsh seconds.  The government’s best.  His standards were exacting, his assignments never against innocents, but only the most dangerous, criminally intent terrorists in the world.  They had finally upped Talen’s status, and it meant death. 

Talen breathed in deeply, a sense of resignation, of almost relief coursing through his body.  It would be over soon.  You could run from Zane, but you couldn’t hide.

“I’m going home, Mike.  When you and your partner work yourselves free, get the hell out of here.  I see you again, and I’ll kill you.”  Talen didn’t even try to keep the harsh, rumbling growl from his words, and felt a flair of satisfaction as the man’s face paled.  Mike only nodded though, watching Talen with an edge of regret as he stared down at him.

Talen didn’t waste his time saying anything more.  He turned and stomped through the woods, his legs eating the more than a mile long distance to the truck he had hidden close to the main road.

Damen was waiting on him when he jerked the door opened and jumped into the driver’s seat. There was silence in the vehicle until Talen turned the ignition and gunned the motor to life.  Tires squealed and the smell of burning rubber followed them as Talen laid the gas pedal to the floor and sped down the treacherous mountain road.

“Trying to do their job for them?”  Damen asked him casually as the truck nearly slid into one of the hills they were passing at breakneck sped.

Talen lightened his foot on the gas, then applied the brakes just enough to slow their speed marginally.

“How well did you know him?”  Damen spoke again after several long, silent moments.

“Not very well evidently.  And not for a lot of years.”  Talen changed the gears in the truck jerkily.  “I guess I never knew him.”

Mike wasn’t the first man to call him a freak, Talen thought, and he doubted he would be the last.

“What are you going to do now?”  Damen asked him softly.

“Leave.  Soon,” Talen told him roughly.  “Get things ready, because the five of you may have to leave as well.  They might suspect, Damen.  They’ve hired Zane to come after me.  He’s the best, and I don’t want him suspicious of the rest of you.”

“Fuck!”  Damen breathed out harshly at this news.  “How the hell did they manage that?  He’s the reason we’ve never killed any of the bastards.”

In Damen’s voice,Talen could hear his own protest.  They had played by Zane’s rules all along, knowing he was their only threat.  It had done no good, Zane had evidently lowered his standards and resorted to hunting animals.

“And the pretty little journalist?”  Damen questioned him, the implication clear.  Could they use her now?  Would revealing themselves help in any way?

As that thought went through Talen’s mind, so did something else.

“Shit, she’s likely pissed as hell.  I think I stood her up.”  He growled.

“Stood her up?”  Damen laughter was strained, but the amusement there all the same.  “How the hell did you do that?  I thought you weren’t going to fool with her?”

“Suffice to say, I did,” he sighed roughly.  “Now, I’m in trouble.  That woman is a firecracker and a half.  Damn, I bet she’s pissed.”

“Well, good luck with her.”  Damen laughed as Talen slowed the truck, then stopped in front of Damen’s home.  “Let me know when and where, buddy.”  He told him, referring for the meeting they would need to plan their relocations.  Relocations none of them wanted, but ones they must all have now.

“Soon.  I’ll let you know in a day or two.”  Talen nodded.  “Zane doesn’t work fast, so we should have time.”

He watched as Damen loped up to the house and entered it quickly, before driving off himself. Talen didn’t go home though.  He turned the truck down up route thirty-two and headed for the little turnoff that would take him to Maggie’s camp instead.

Just to make certain she was okay, he told himself tiredly.  He wasn’t going there because he needed to see her, or because he wanted to smell the fresh, woman scent that was unique to her.  He was just going there to make certain she was safe, then he would head back to his lonely home, and his lonely bed.

A Breed Apart - Part 14

Published in Sensuous Escapes newsletter (Mar. 21, 2005 edition)

“I’d apologize if I thought it would help.””  Dark and roughly sensual, the voice whispered from directly behind her.

Maggie paused in the isle of the old fashioned little grocery store in shock.  She turned and came face to face with Talen, his expression apologetic, if a little worse for wear.

She had lain awake in her tent until well after midnight, and Moocher had been inconsiderate enough to wake up her up before sunrise that morning, wanting out of the tent.  She hadn’t had enough sleep, she was still sore, and she was pissed as hell at the very man standing before her looking like he’d been up drinking and fighting all night long.

Her eyes narrowed on the vivid bruise on his high cheekbone, a raw scrape at his chin, and his lips appeared a bit fuller.

“You look like you’ve been in a barroom brawl.””  She frowned disparagingly.  “Didn’t your mother ever teach you any better?”

She turned back to the array of steaks stacked in the cooler, eyeing the larger t-bones in consideration.  She had wasted one of her spares last night on the man who hadn’t shown up, and was now forced to buy more.  She hated to think of Moochers mood if he didn’t have his daily allotment of red meat. 

While she added up the cost, several were plucked from beneath her nose and tossed in her cart.  Beside them, went a few juicy rib eyes, and a thick, cheaper cut of sirloin.

“I’m not buying those,”” she told him as urged her forward.  “And I don’t like Rib eyes.””

“No, I am.  And I do.””  The hand at her waist, pushing her up the aisle was hard and warm against her cotton shielded skin.  But she was still mad.

“So why are you buying steaks, Mr. Lyons?””  She hurriedly grabbed several other t-bones and threw them in the cart as well.

“I buy them, and maybe you’ll cook them?””  She could hear the grin in his voice, but she refused to turn and look at him.

Oh, she really wanted to add a new bruise to that tough as hell face.  She wanted to yell at him until he tucked his tail between his legs and crawled away like the slug he was.  Instead, Maggie shrugged, she couldn’t afford to offend him too far, but she didn’t have to act like she liked it.

“You stood me up last time,”” she reminded him.  “What would make me think you would show up for dinner now?””

“Because I’m sincerely apologetic, and I want to make it up to you,”” he said he grinned down at her, his eyes crinkling in amusement.

She couldn’t turn him down, Maggie knew, but she didn’t have to trust him either.

“I’ll cook them, and you listen to what I have to say.””  Her counter offer was delivered in a tone that said anything else wouldn’t even be considered.

Talen paused for an instant as though considering her alternative.

“I have ears.  I know how to listen.””  He finally shrugged.

Maggie turned to look at him then, and wished she hadn’t.  That smooth, golden gaze was filled with humor as he watched her.  His gaze wasn’t in the least remote today, but warm and beckoning.  What the hell had happened to the cool, remote man she had met beside the stream the day before?

 Today, he was wearing a cotton dress shirt, and well pressed blue jeans.  His golden brown hair was pulled back in a short ponytail, and he wore a straw hat over it.

God, he was so damned sexy.  There should be a law against a man looking that damned good in public. What he was doing to her hormones should be a killing offense, she thought in irritation.

“Come on, Beauty, we’re holding up traffic.””  He smiled as he urged her along, nodding warmly to the gray haired old lady who moved around them.

“So whose fist did you run into last night?””  She asked him as she moved to the bakery section and looked over their selection of fresh cakes and pies. 

“Just a good ole boy lookin’’ for a little trouble,”” he drawled. 

Maggie frowned at the change in his voice.  One minute he was the slow drawling country hick, the next minute his speech would even out, and though the drawl was still there, became more civilized.

“Looks like you obliged him,”” she scoffed.  “Isn’t that a little juvenile?””

“All accordin’’ to what you’re fightin’’ over, Beauty.””  Smooth as honey and dark as the night his voice whispered by her ear.

“A woman?””  Maggie ignored the sharp stab of jealousy she felt at the thought of Talen Lyons wanting another woman enough to fight over her.

“No, not another woman.””  His fingers caressed the small of her back as she picked up the cherry cheesecake on a lower rack.

The caress sent a jolt of heat traveling through her body.  Maggie could feel the blood surging through her body as she straightened up, and those knowing fingers continued to roll against her spine.  For a moment, all Maggie could think of was how that touch would feel on her bare skin.

“So, you think you’ll make it tonight, then?””  She asked him as she pushed the cart slowly to the front of the store, and the single checkout stand waiting there.

“Barring any more fights,”” he said softly, his voice distracted now as another customer walked in. 

It was the same man from the service station, the tall, black haired busybody who made her feel like she was committing a crime when she first came into town.  Maggie watched as he shot Talen a frowning look, and Maggie knew she would have given anything to see Talen’s expression at that moment.

“Well, I’ll believe you’re arriving when I see you, I guess.””  She shrugged, her eyes following the other man as he walked through the store.  “That a friend of yours?””  She finally asked when the black haired man’s green gaze went to Talen once again.

“Yeah, he’s a friend,”” he said shortly as he followed her to the checkout stand.  “Come on, let’s get you checked out here and headed back to camp.  I should be along shortly.””

“I’ll expect you when I see you.””  Maggie frowned as his hand came away from her waist and he pulled his billfold from his jeans.  “I’ll pay for the steaks.””

“The hell you will,”” he stated calmly as the middle-aged woman rang up the purchases. 

“Twenty-seven fifty.””  The cashier looked up at Talen with a smile as he handed her the money.  “Why hello there, Talen, it’s been a while since I saw your handsome face here.””

“Afternoon, Betsy.  How’s Milt gettin’  around?  I ain’t seen him in a while.””  The good ole country boy was making a return in spades.

“He’s doin’’ fine, Talen.  Doc says he’s recoverin’’ fine from the last operation, so he’ll see a few more years with us anyway.””  The older woman smiled fondly at Talen, then moved questioningly to Maggie.

“You tell him I said to take care.””  Talen pocketed his change, picked up Maggie’s bag and moved to leave the store.

“Talen Lyons, your momma taught you better manners than that.””  Betsy frowned at him reprovingly as she fought to hide a smile when she watched his cheeks redden slightly.  “Now you introduce this pretty little girl to me.  Where did you find her anyway?””

Evidently, Miss Betsy wasn’t about to get away quite so easily though.  Maggie hid her own smile as the woman’s sharp voice halted Talen in his tracks.

“Sorry Betsy,”” Talen apologized, but Maggie had a feeling he would just as soon rush her out of the store.  “I found her on Big Caney.  This here is Miss Maggie Taylor.  Maggie, this is Betsy Lane.””

“It’s right nice to meet you, Miss Taylor.””  Betsy nodded, her hazel eyes twinkling as she glanced at Talen.  “We don’t get to meet any of Talen’s young lady friends often.””

“It’s nice to meet you as well, Mrs. Lane.””  Maggie smiled back, then glanced at Talen as he shifted impatiently.

“You ain’t from around here, are you?””  The woman frowned, adjusting her glasses on her face, as she looked Maggie over closely. 

“No, Ma’am, I’m from New York.””  Maggie suppressed her sigh. 

“So what’s a pretty little New York girl doin’’out here?””  Betsy cast Talen a speculative look.

“I’m a feature journalist for the New York Forum.  I’m writing an article on camping in the area.””

“New Yorkers read stuff like that?””  Betsy Lane frowned, ignoring Talen as he shifted the bags from one hand to the other, his impatience becoming more obvious.

“Some of them do.””  Maggie smiled, beginning to like this woman and her curious nature. 

Maybe all the citizens of this little town wasn’t alike she thought.  This one seemed friendly, if a little curious, but not a bit suspicious.

“Well, I’ll be.””  Betsy shook her head.  “I never expected that.  I had an Aunt that lived in New York for a few years.  She swore it was the Devil’s playground.””

“Oh no,”” Maggie denied the charge with a grin.  “That’s Los Angeles.  New York is where he makes his home.””

Laughter burst out of the little woman at this comment and Maggie felt as though she had finally found someone in this town she could relate to. 

“And I’d better be gettin’’ her back to her campsite, before one of the boys around here walk in and steal everything she owns,”” Talen announced, moving behind Maggie and gently urging her to the door.  “We’ll see you later, Betsy.””

“You come back, Miss Taylor, and we’ll sit and chat for a spell,”” Betsy invited her warmly.  “Leave that Talen at home when you do.  That boy always was in too much of a hurry.””

Maggie had no time to answer her as Talen pushed her through the door and walked her quickly to the SUV.

“That was rude, Talen.””  She unlocked the door, opening it so he could deposit the bags in the front floorboard.  “If you wanted me to get rid of me, you should have just said something.  I would have left fast enough.””

“Naw, that was self-preservation,”” he assured her with a quick smile.  “Get Betsy started, and you’ll stand there chattin’’ with her all day.  That woman has more mouth than a duck has quack.  And I wouldn’t have followed you here, if I wanted to get rid of you.”

Shaking her head at that comment, Maggie closed the truck door then walked to her own side.  Unlocking the door quickly, she jumped into the truck and started the motor.

Before she could close the door, Talen moved into the space it afforded him, bending slightly to stare into her surprised expression.

“I’ll be a few hours.  But I’ll be there,”” he promised, his voice growing soft, his speech pattern once again shifting.

“You bought the steaks.””  She shrugged.  “You don’t show up, and I’ll just let Moocher eat yours.””

“There ya go, keep me in line.””  He smiled down at her, but the expression in his eyes had her swallowing tightly. 

Maggie couldn’t think of a word to say in reply to his comment.  With him staring at her, his eyes going warm and soft, she could do little else but fight to keep from reaching up and caressing his lips with her own.  Hell, it was all she could do to keep from jumping his bones where he stood.  This man was dangerous.  The thought skated through her mind as his hand raised, his finger running lightly down her arm.

“I could kiss you silly right now,”” he whispered down at her.  “But the gossip would get crazy if I did.”” 

Maggie breathed in roughly at his statement.

“That’s quite a turn around from yesterday morning,”” she reminded him huskily.  “You were ordering me to leave then.””

For a moment his gaze turned bleak, then the look shifted and became warm and sensual once again.

“I have a day or two free now,”” he said wryly.  “Want to share them with me?””

Maggie licked her lips nervously, fighting the need to move that small space it would take to touch his.

“Not here, Beauty.””  He breathed in roughly as he watched the action.  “Go on to camp now.  I’ll be along later.””

He moved back, closing her door for her softly and watching her from the other side of the window.  Maggie took a deep breath, and fought to still her racing heart as she turned the key in the ignition and put the truck in reverse.

Assuring herself that the heat in his gaze must have just been a bad reflection of the sun, she backed out of her parking spot, and pulled away from the man who was now striding intently back into the store.

She would have given anything to return as well to see what was so important that the other man had followed Talen into the store, causing him to rush Maggie through the checkout.  One thing was certain; the other man disapproved of the fact Talen had been there with her.

Maggie had felt that disapproval to the soles of her feet in those few seconds when her eyes had met the dark green of the stranger’s gaze.

A Breed Apart - Part 15

Published in Sensuous Escapes newsletter (April 4, 2005 edition)

Talen had expected Maggie to be waiting on him, the fire going, steaks ready to grill, instead he found her lounging in a canvas chair, napping peacefully, a romance novel laying face down in her lap.

Shaking his head, he nudged at her arm gently, wondering how offended she would be if he kissed her awake.  Her eyes drifted open, narrowing for just an instant before she stretched and blinked up at him.

“Well, look who showed up.  I must admit, I’m more than surprised.”  She smiled as she settled back in her chair comfortably.  “Finish your business so soon Mr. Lyons?”

There was nothing quite like being the object of this woman’s humor, Talen thought darkly as he stared down at Maggie.  Warmth and light glittered in her gaze, her lips were quirked in a smile that invited him to share in her humor, and her body was relaxed as she reclined in his company.

Talen had seen very few times that a person relaxed around him after learning who and what he was.  Not that many people knew; his life depended on the secrecy.  But over the years, there had occasionally been a few people Maria had trusted, much to her and Talen’s pain.

Maggie sat before him, her eyes soft and drowsy, relaxed, inviting him to smile down at her, and she knew who and what he was.  There was no fear in her eyes, only curiosity, and above all else, heat.  She was attracted, more than she knew, he suspected, if the guileless innocence he glimpsed in her eyes was anything to go by.

Talen had found the file she kept hidden in her tent, the one that contained nearly every copy Maria had kept from the experiments.  Old pictures had been included, as had pages upon pages of notes concerning development in both social, and intellectual categories.  His mother, despite her loving nature, and gentle smiles, had also been a scientist, and that was reflected in the report she had compiled over the years.  A report this woman had obviously read more than once; a report that didn’t seem to extinguish the light of interest in her caramel gaze.

Talen’s eyes narrowed as he watched her.  He hid his surprise a second later when hers narrowed as well in imitation of him.  Oh man, Talen bet she drove her brothers crazy.  There didn’t seem to be an ounce of give in her expression, if anything she appeared more amused by his stern look than anything else.

Talen’s eyes flickered to the steamy novel laid out on her flat stomach.  His eyebrows arched at the cover, a picture of a nearly nude woman bent over the arm of a muscular male as his head lowered to her.

There might have been a flicker of embarrassment in her eyes, but her easy smile and light shrug indicated her unconcern that he had seen it.

“That the type novel you’re out to write?”  The huskiness of his voice surprised even him, as he revealed his shameless eavesdropping.  “The kind you keep threatening your brothers you’re going to research?”

This time her face flushed, though her smile got wider.

“Yep, a lurid sex novel as Caleb calls them.”  She laughed at this, picking the novel up and carefully marking her place.  “They’ll get over themselves after I publish the first one.  That is, if they can convince themselves I really didn’t line men up at my bedroom door for the research.”

His brow arched at this information.  He had thought he had a journalist going for the jugular; instead he had a soft sex kitten staring up at him instead.

“A whole line?”  He asked her softly.

“Well, one would do to start with, but I don’t want them to know that.”  She laughed easily; unaware of the little gem of information she had just given him.

Lord, she couldn’t be a virgin, not in this day and age?  Talen could hardly believe it was still possible.  Wasn’t it a law that a female had to lose that innocent before graduation of high school or something?  He really didn’t need this.

Talen knew he should run, not walk back to his little cabin up the ridge.  Instead, he stood there, out in the open, exposed as he watched the light dance in her eyes, and the gentle flush that washed over her face.

Talen wanted to speak, but first he wanted to lean down and taste the sweetness of her lips, hear her breath catch as she felt him against her.  The interest was there, he could see it in her eyes and the tenseness of her body.  She wasn’t immune to the attraction though he could tell she hadn’t decided exactly what to do with it yet.

*

Maggie stared up at Talen; unable to believe he had actually shown up.  He looked tired though, as though he hadn’t slept in a while.

“Did you sleep any last night?”  She finally asked him, wondering how she was managing to speak past the dryness in her throat.

God, he was gorgeous.  Tall and muscular, the white shirt neither emphasized nor hid his taunt stomach and broad chest, but those jeans cupped and caressed every inch of his hips and long legs and everything in between. 

His face was sun-darkened, broad and almost savage.  His cheekbones were high, his nose an aristocratic slash down the center of his face, his chin was strong and determined, and his lips were so soft and yet looked so firm.  That hard, uncompromising line they were set in tempted her to run her tongue over them and tease them into a smile.

“Finally,” he answered, and Maggie wondered if it was her lips those golden brown eyes were staring so intently at. 

“Maybe you’ll get more sleep tonight,” she suggested licking her lips nervously, then stopping in mid-stroke as she remembered it was a major turn on for men in those books.  A second later, she repeated the action though as curiosity got the best of her and she decided to see if that was true.

“I might.”  His cheekbones reddened as he watched the action, then his gaze came back to hers with a knowing look.  “Then again, maybe not.”

It was Maggie who flushed now, and she was certain the color was extending all the way to the tips of her toes.

God, he was gorgeous.  He had changed a lot in the past twelve years, which was the length of time that had passed since the last picture they had was taken.

His hair was no longer that golden, summer brown.  It had darkened, and seemed streaked with several different colors.  Dark brown, summer wheat, and strands of black mixed and combined in a long mane that fell just below his shoulders. 

The texture appeared not silky, but a bit coarse, and she wondered how it would feel against her fingertips as she ran her hands through it.

Oh, dangerous ground, Maggie thought as he continued to stare down at her, his expression dark and hot, his eyes half closed giving him a slumberous, passionate look that made her insides melt.

“Beauty, you are playing an extremely dangerous game,” he whispered huskily as he hunched down beside her, his knees bending, the muscles in his thighs flexing beneath the snug denim as he was suddenly at eye level with her.  “That look could tempt a man to do something he damned well knows better than.  And if you lick those lips like that again, we’re gonna have to find another way to keep them nice and moist for you.”

Maggie felt as though the breath had suspended from her chest as she pulled her tongue back in mid stroke.  Oh, how tempting, she thought, to see just how far she could tease him. But the dilation of his eyes was a warning in and of itself, and that sudden bulge she had glimpsed in his jeans looked more than intimidating.

“Dangerous ground?”  She whispered, breathing roughly.  “Damn, you’re the one that’s dangerous Talen Lyons, in more ways than one.”

He was quiet as her words hung between them, the air becoming thick with tension.

“I should know better than to even be here, Beauty.”  He reached out, his fingertips grazing the skin of her cheek as he watched her with eyes much too serious, much too intent.  “You should show more intelligence by packing up your daddy’s SUV, and head back to New York as fast as you can.  Leave, before it’s too late for both of us.”

Maggie licked her lips again.  God, she couldn’t help it, they were bone dry, unlike other areas of her body.  Or maybe she just so desperately wanted to feel this man’s lips on hers that she wasn’t above a little petty begging.

“I can’t do that, Talen.  I have to finish this.” 

“The story is not going to happen, Beauty,” he promised her.  “You know it and I know it.  And I’m telling you, all those bright little dreams of yours are going to get broken if you stay here.  Leave now, while I can still let you go.”

“And admit to my brothers that fishing got the best of me?”  She opened her eyes wide, injecting just the right amount of indignation into her voice.  “Surely you wouldn’t want that, Talen?  Why, they would laugh me right out of the Big Apple were I to do something like that.  Besides, you promised to listen to my proposal, if I grilled those damned steaks of yours.”

His eyes narrowed once again, and Maggie wondered if he would hesitate in doing that if he knew how much he resembled Zane when he did so.  The only difference was, Zane would grow cold and hard when he did it, while Talen retained his warmth and humor as those dark, too long lashes drifted over his eyes.  If anything, there was too much heat there, too much sensual knowledge for her to be comfortable with the feelings it evoked in her.

“Very dangerous game you’re playing here, Beauty,” he warned her softly, rising to his full height as he continued to stare down at her.  “Get out of here, while the getting’s good.”

“Why should I leave?”  Maggie looked around the clearing as she fought for breath.  “It’s beautiful here.  Nice and quiet with no brothers or hassles.  I could stay the entire summer.”

“You’ll be in a world of hurt.  There’s nothing here for you, no way for you to get what you’ve come looking for.  So pack up and tell Daddy the wildlife was too rough to suit you.”

His eyes were dark and haunted, and Maggie knew she wanted nothing better that moment, than to wipe that quiet sadness out of them. 

The life he had lived had not been an easy one, but he had lived, and she knew he could still laugh, and he could still play.  She had seen it in his eyes before he had felt the sudden need to warn her away.

She wanted that man back.  The one whose golden brown eyes sparkled with humor, and warmth, and a just bit too much sensual promise.

“But it isn’t too rough to suit me.  It’s warm, and natural, and quiet and sad.  Maybe I want to stay for a while and get to know it.”

Talen was quiet for so long, that Maggie wondered if she had angered him with her husky plea.  It wasn’t the story, God help her, it was the man. 

Talen was tall and rough, sexy and warm, and she wanted to get to know him, not for the story, but for the woman she was.  She had known the first moment she saw his picture that it would never be just for the story.

“Those bruises should be enough proof for you, Beauty, that this ain’t no place for you.”  He shook his head.  “And it could get worse.”

“My name is Maggie, by the way,” The nickname didn’t offend her, but it confused her.  “Or Beauty,  if you prefer.”

“Beauty,” he whispered.  “That’s what I prefer.”

“Beauty’s prince charming was the Beast,” Maggie reminded him.  “I don’t see any those around here, and I’ve never believed in Prince Charming anyway.”

“The Beast is here,” he told her, his voice suddenly darker, dangerous.  “You just don’t want to see him.  And Prince Charming never did exist except in a virgin’s fairytale.  Now hightail your pretty ass home before I get tired of watching out for you and leave you to the tender graces of the night.”

As he started to move away from her, Maggie came to her feet, stepping solidly in his path.

“I’m not scared of the night, Talen,” she assured him. 

“You should be.”  He looked down at her, his eyes dilated, his voice hard and cool.  “The night is no place for Beauty, she could get into all kinds of trouble.”

Maggie shrugged, her glance going to the waterfall across the creek.

“Tonight, Beauty is going to take a shower beneath the summer moon, then relax with a beer and a sex novel.  Now how could that get me in trouble?”

His face flushed, and Maggie was amazed at how roughly he was suddenly breathing.

“I’ve been a long time without a woman, Ms. Taylor.  And until you hightail your ass out of here, I have no choice but to watch out for you.  But do you really want what you’re daring me to give you?  What’s wrong, baby, never made it with a freak before?  Sorry, but this one’s all booked up for a while, better luck next time.”

Maggie narrowed her eyes this time, and not in fun or play as the freak remark hit home.  Suddenly, the knowledge that she no longer had to hide her true purpose for her stay here, was forefront in Maggie’ mind.  But even more, was the knowledge that Talen saw himself as something less than a man.

“That’s your opinion.”  Her finger poked him lightly in the hard chest.  “I see no freaks around here and I never did.  And I’m telling you, Mr. Lyons, I will be staying here this summer, and I will find myself beneath that waterfall tonight, unless I am otherwise occupied.  We can eat steaks together, enjoy a few beers together, or fish together; I really don’t give a damn.  But when you disappear from my sight, then it’s no holds barred.  So, what the hell do you think about that?”

Not much, if his surprised expression was anything to go by.

“Who the hell could fish with a crazy woman who refuses to bait her hooks or keep her eyes opened?”  He growled down at her, his brows snapping into a frown.

“I caught what I was fishing for though, didn’t I?”  She asked him sweetly, arching a brow just enough to taunt him with the knowledge that she had been well aware he could not resist the lure of that unprotected fishing rod.

Maggie had taunted her brothers for years.  Teased them mercilessly, jeered at them when the opportunity arose, and constantly tried to make a pest of herself.  She had honed her skills on seven of the hardest rocks in the world, but she hadn’t tested them against a man skills.  A man who shared no blood with her, and no history, or fear of her sibling’s revenge. 

She hadn’t tested herself against Talen before either, and there she wondered if she had perhaps made a serious error when his face darkened, and his hands suddenly jerked her into his arms.

A Breed Apart - Part 16

Published in Sensuous Escapes newsletter (April 15, 2005 edition)

Maggie heard Moocher’s warning growl, and would have cried out a warning had she not been shocked into silence with what she heard next.  Her eyes widened as a growl emitted from Talen’s throat, when he stared down at the dog.  Dark, warning, a feline rumble of danger as his eyes dilated until there was barely any of the golden brown color left to be seen.  When Moocher had settled back in confusion, Talen turned back to her, his dark face intent, lean and almost savage as his gaze speared into hers.  Moocher whined, but neither Maggie nor Talen was paying attention to him.  Maggie could do little else than to stare up at him in dazed disbelief.

The rumble sounded again.  Softer, yet deeper than before as he pressed her closer to him, and her breasts brushed against the hardness of his chest.

“Still want to play games with the freak, Ms. Taylor,” he whispered darkly, his voice deep, a silky rumble through his chest as his hands drew her closer, fitting her body against his, and nudging the hardness beneath his jeans against her lower stomach.  “Or do you want to keep teasing me?”

He was trying to scare her.  Maggie knew this clear down to her bones.  He was showing her who and what he was, and what he could be, but it did little to scare her off.  She could feel her bones weakening as he held her against the incredible warmth and hardness of his body.  She felt a thrill of anticipation that she had never felt in another man’s arms, and this did more to scare her than that throaty growl he had given Moocher ever could.

But he wouldn’t hurt her.  Maggie looked into his face and she saw the heat and the desire, but the threat was curiously absent.

“I’m not teasing you, I’m giving you a choice.”  She swallowed tightly as she felt his fingers scrape the skin of her lower back.  “If you’re going to watch me all night, then you can talk to me.  If not, I’ll just pretend you aren’t here.”

Maggie wondered if her mouth was going to end up getting her in trouble this time, as Zane had always warned her it would.

“And when it’s time for Beauty to curl up in her big double sleeping bag, and turn out the lights to sleep?”  He pressed her tighter against his body.  “What do I do then Maggie, disappear into my lonely hole and wait till the sun comes up to see you again?” 

From the tone of his voice, this was not an acceptable course of action to him. 

“You could bring your own sleeping bag?”  She asked him faintly.  “I’ll share the tent.”

He blinked.  For a moment amazement crossed his face, then he shook his head, a grin crossing his lips as a chuckle erupted from his throat.  For a moment, the tension had been so thick; Maggie had felt smothered by it.

“You have guts, I’ll have to give you that much.”  He shook his head as he released her, breathing in deeply as he reach down to pat a concerned Moocher on the head.  “But any woman who would name her dog Moocher would have to have.”
Slowly, silently, Maggie released a pent up breath as he turned away from her.  The tension had been unlike any she had ever known, or had any clue to deal with on her own.

“My own sleeping bag, huh?”  He glanced at her again from beneath his lashes; his eyes still dark, his body still tight and hard with suppressed arousal.

“Sounds like a plan to me.”  She smiled up at him, eager to spend more time with him, even as she fought the need to curl back into his arms.  “The tent is plenty big enough.”

Talen was thinking about it, Maggie could tell.  His face became thoughtful, his eyes lightening as the arousal abated slightly and his darker emotions were brought swiftly under control.

“Who does the cooking?”  He finally asked her.

“Me, I guess,” she said in disgust as she rolled her gaze and shook her head.  “How like a man.”

“Steaks?”  She could almost see his mouth watering as he remembered the smell of those steaks grilling.

“Since you bought them.”  Maggie turned and walked back to her tent.  “But you forgot the potatoes, so you’ll have to share Moochers tonight, I guess.”

“Why can’t I share yours?”  His voice held a threat of male disappointment, as though a favored treat had been snatched from his grasp.  “Hell, you offered me my own yesterday.”

“That was before you stood me up.  Bring me a potato and I’ll fix it tonight.”  She informed him archly, now that her objective was in sight, there was no sense in giving in easily, and thereby giving him the upper hand.  Her brothers had taught her that if nothing else.

“Next thing I know, you’ll be telling me to bring my own tent,” he grumped as he followed behind her.

Maggie turned back to look at him and saw the fierce frown on his face.

“If you give me half a chance.  Like I need all six feet and four inches of you taking up space in my tent.”

“No way.”  He sped up as she neared her own tent.  “If I have to stay and keep you company, and listen to you question me till hell won’t have it, then by God, I at least get to share the tent, even if I don’t get to share the sleeping bag.  You can’t renege.”

“I said tent, not potatoes.  There’s a limit to how far I’m willing to go to spend time with any man.  Take your pick.”  She opened her coolers and peered in anxiously.  “Beer and pretzels would be nice too.  Oh, and Moocher likes cheeseburgers, if you have to go to the store for anything.  He’ll pout on your for growling at him if you don’t bring him a treat.”

“Well hell, what am I getting out of the deal?”  He argued as he came face to face with her once again, giving her his most wounded male look.

“You get to sleep in the tent.”  Maggie propped her hands on her hips.  “And turn your head while I take my shower.”

Dead silence welcomed that announcement.  His face cleared of emotion for one long instant then surprised outraged filled it.
“Now dammit, the deal was no shower.”  He bared his teeth at her this time.

“The deal was, you wouldn’t have to watch.”  Maggie tilted her chin, staring him down with a frown.  “I have to have a shower.  And I am not driving thirty minutes to get one at four o’clock in the morning, so deal with it.”

No backing down.  When confronted with a wild animal, more namely the male of the species, her mother had told her to never back down, if you did, you would pay for it in spades. No backing down, no matter how fierce and angry he looked.

“And I’m supposed to just turn my back?”  He asked her incredulously.  “Awful damned trusting aren’t you, Beauty?”

His head lowered until he was almost nose-to-nose with her.  The soft scent of pine and a clear mountain stream seemed to surround him, just as sheer male indignation covered his expression.

“What, you have no self control?”  She scoffed.  “How like a man.  He is male, so any excuse to jump a woman’s bones will do?  Get real.  I’ll cook and share the tent, you turn your back and buy your own steaks; that’s the deal.”

“That wasn’t the deal, Beauty,” he bit out, half angry.  “How the hell am I supposed to keep my damned eyes away from a sight like it?  Dammit, it’s a full moon tonight too.”

Maggie regarded him silently for long moments. 

“Tell you what?”  She bargained, wondering how much further he could be bargained with.  “I’ll fix you one of my spare potatoes with your steak, and you keep your eyes turned while I shower.”

Maggie remembered the delicate scent of last night’s steaks and baked potatoes herself.  She seasoned her potatoes as delicately as she did her steaks.  Her brothers never could resist them, she wondered if he could.

Talen watched her silently, and she knew she had him when he swallowed tightly.

“Be damned if you don’t have a hell of a way with negotiations.”  She could practically hear his teeth gritting.  “Those are unfair conditions.”

“Then bring your own damned tent, and your own damned fire and your own damned potatoes then.  Because I won’t cook for you and I damned well won’t drive out of here in the middle night again so you can sleep either.  Your choice big boy, take it or leave it.” 

*** 

Now he knew how such a little thing had survived a family of seven brothers, Talen thought in amazed anger.  She tricked them.  With that sweet smile, and that innocent face, she tricked them until she had their heads so twisted they didn’t know which way was up or which way was down.

So Talen did the only thing he could think of.  No way was he going to give up so much as one bite of that meal that had nearly driven him crazy the day before.  No way would he let the chance to share her tent pass him by either.  And he could always peek while she showered.  But neither had he promised not to kiss her.

Before she could avoid him, his arm snagged her waist and she was against his chest.  Before she could finish her gasp of surprise, his head lowered, his lips a breath from hers, when his tongue licked at that lower morsel of passion slowly.

“Careful, Beauty, you push the Beast too far, and he might just take you up on that challenge you’re throwing out.  I’m not a brother, and I’ll only be treated like one for so long.”

Talen thought he had the upper hand.  Her eyes were rounded in surprise and even a bit of fearful passion.  But there was no fear in the little tongue that turned the tables on him, running slowly over his suddenly sensitized lips as her hands ran slowly up to his shoulders.

“You may be bigger,” she whispered against his lips with a smile.  “And you may be much more experienced, but if I were you, I’d remember who has the steaks and potatoes tonight.”

Maggie pursed her lips, kissing him softly at the corner of his mouth.  Talen could feel his body trembling, need and desire warring with honor and tenderness as she stared up at him so trusting.

God help her, he thought, she had no idea what she was getting into.  She was staring up at him as though she was as safe in his arms as she would be in the bosom of her family, and Talen knew from experience that his arms were a very dangerous place for a woman to be.

Slowly, he released her, still watching her closely, well aware of the pleasure she was receiving from touching him, from being held by him.  A pleasure he shared, and one that sent fear chasing through his heart.  She would be the death of him.

A dangerous game, Talen warned himself now.  Spending time with this woman, allowing her to call the shots when he should be safely hid in the forest around her, merely watching, merely protecting her.

Instead, here he stood, allowing her to dictate to him, to tease him in a way he wasn’t certain he could resist.  In a way, he was certain no other woman had ever teased him.

“Okay, big boy, you bring your camping gear, and get some extra supplies and you can keep me company for a while.”  She smiled saucily as she turned away from him once again, but he saw the fine trembling in her delicate body, and knew his touch; his kiss had affected her as badly as her’s had him.

“I’ll figure out how you managed to railroad me so damned easy, Beauty.  And when I do, be careful, because I will get you back,” he warned her, but he knew his voice lacked heat.

“You keep telling yourself that,” she laughed.  “And while you’re reminding yourself, remind yourself to get Moocher his cheeseburger when you’re out.  He’s definitely pouting.”

Talen turned back and looked at the dog.  Son of a bitch, he thought, she was right.  The dog was lying on the ground, his head pillowed between his front paws as he watched Talen with a hooded, distinctly pouting expression.

Talen shook his head.  A damned dog pouting on a cat was what it boiled down, who would have ever believed it?

“Fine, I’ll get the damned cheeseburger.  But that dog is too damned spoiled, Beauty.”  Talen muttered as he followed her up to the tent, his mouth watering.  But was his hunger from the thought of the meal coming, or the shower he would watch later, Talen wondered.

This was the height of stupidity, Talen warned himself.  He had very little time before the assassin would arrive.  He was confident he would know when he was here, it was damned near impossible for strangers to move about the county, no matter where they were, without someone, somewhere seeing them.  And since Maria’s death, that information made it to Talen before the person went far enough to do any damage.

Maggie could become a weakness, and a weakness could be used against him.  Even though this particular assassin never involved innocents during his missions, it didn’t mean he would shoot around one if the target was handy.

But Talen couldn’t help the need to spend just a few days in her company, to hear her laugh for just a while, and maybe kiss those pouting lips just one more time.  As soon as Zane arrived, then he would leave.  Surely that was soon enough.

As Damen had said, his life was no longer a game, and his enemies were now deadly serious in their intent.  Talen knew his options were limited, just as his life span most likely was. He wanted to enjoy a few days of it, with this woman.  The one person in his life who saw him not as an animal, but as a man, and a man she desired.

***

She was going to be a threat.  Anger coursed through the man as he hid silently in the brush, close enough to hear them, but far enough downwind that neither dog nor cat could sense him.  He had learned long ago to mask his scent, he had no fears, but it was always best to be safe.

The woman he watched was smiling, flirting, her gaze watching Talen with more than a little interest.  This reporter could become a problem, a serious one.  He wouldn’t have worried if Talen didn’t seem so taken with her.  He wouldn’t have concerned himself if Talen’s voice didn’t soften whenever he spoke of her.  But Talen did all those things, and the knowledge that Maggie Taylor was there to get Talen to turn himself over to the world was a bitter knowledge.  Even worse was the fact that he could tell Talen was considering the offer.

Dammit, it would ruin everything if he did that.  All the plans made over the years, the fight to survive and to just live a normal life that Talen had fought.  He couldn’t let her destroy it all.  He couldn’t let her take the years of preparation; the choices already made, and make them seem inconsequential.

She was a risk, God, why couldn’t Talen see that?  She was only using him to get the story she wanted, and then she would drop him the minute she had him by the balls, standing in front of the world proclaiming who and what he was.  Then she would turn and walk away and leave him to fend for himself.  Just as Maria had meant for him to do.

He clenched his fists as he thought of Talen’s mother.  She had almost convinced Talen to go forward, to reveal himself, to reveal everything.  Talen hadn’t wanted to do it, but he respected Maria, and thought the bitch knew everything.  But he had showed Talen, and he had shown her the truth of it.  Maria had not been invincible.

He would have to show this woman too.  With her whore’s face and tempting body, he would have to show her that she was nothing, and that she couldn’t just walk in and mess up a lifetime of planning, a lifetime of surviving just because she wanted to.

He wouldn’t be easy, he knew.  That damned dog was smart, smarter than any dog he had ever run across.  Dealing with him would be hard, but he was smart enough to do it.  He could do it.  He had to do it, or watch everything he believed in be trampled, and taken away from him.

Talen was a fool, allowing himself to be swayed by swinging hips and pert breasts, and a woman’s false smile.  He was a fool to consider the temptation and the end to his life as he knew it.

Oh yes, something would have to happen to the woman, then Talen would see the error of his ways, and he would run and hide once again, leaving the world as it should be.

A Breed Apart - Part 17

Published in Sensuous Escapes newsletter (April 20, 2005 edition)

This wasn’t going to be a good idea.  Talen could see it now, staring at the tent roof, his head pillowed on his arm as he listened to Maggie, tucked safely in her own sleeping bag, breathing softly beside him.

The woman was evil.  There was no other word for it, no other way to describe the deliberately cruel manner she had in teasing him.

A shower.  Mother of God, he had a raging hard on, even now, hours later, from the sight of her standing beneath the moonlight, the waterfall flowing over her as she tilted her head back and luxuriated in the water’s caress.

He had, of course, promised not look.  Talen made a sound of disgust.  Yeah right, he wasn’t going to look.  He closed his eyes, then opened them again as the sight of her was permanently branded into his brain.

Her breasts were full and beautiful.  The natural curves were made for a man’s hands, hell not just any man’s hands, his hands.  Her hips were softly rounded, her legs long and lush, and her body made to tempt and torment him. 

Talen knew there was no way he was going to survive this summer.  He may as well go back home, and wait for the assassin soon to come.  A bullet to the brain would be preferable to the hell he had cosigned himself to.

How long did she intend to stay anyway, he wondered.  How long would it take her to realize he wasn’t going to give her the story she was working so hard for?  His luck, his dick would force him to open his mouth and spill all his secrets for just a chance to bury itself into the warmth of her body.

Maggie was making him crazy. Less than a week around her and he felt like a volcano, his cock spike hard and ready to erupt.  He suppressed a groan as he turned his head to look at her.  At least she was wearing a t-shirt tonight.  The night before, his quick peek into the tent had revealed pert breasts, their nipples hardened from the cool summer air, uncovered and beckoning him to taste the ripe little points that tipped them.

Now, the top of the sleeping bag had been pushed down to her waist, the soft gray clothe of the shirt covering temptation, but clearly defining the hardened nipples.  Talen licked his lips, mentally ordering himself to close his eyes, to forget the sight of her, the feel of her as he held her close, the touch and taste of her silken lips.  Dammit, he needed to sleep.  At this rate he would never stay alert enough to keep himself ahead of the Genetics Council and their determination to end his freedom.  At least now, it had come down to death.  Talen refused to be a willing participant to their plans, so he became a liability instead.  Liabilities were disposed of within the Council.

Damen was right; it was time for him to go.  He had been playing games here too long, tempting fate too far for it last much longer.  The past six years, instead of running when the Genetics Council found him and started sending their men after him, he had begun playing games instead.  It was amusing, hiding and watching them scurrying after him, desperate to recapture him, to hide the knowledge of their experiments from the world even as they continued them.

“You’ve exceeded our expectations, Talen.  You would want for nothing, have no desire refused if you return to us, allow us to continue the research, and to create the perfect army we need to keep our country free of the general, corrosive elements being allowed into it.  You would be protected, sheltered…”  That had been their promise to him years ago, after they had managed to recapture him.

They had brought him six virgins.  Young, terrified women who had no idea why they had been kidnapped, or why they were being ordered to breed with the horrified young man.

Talen closed his eyes as he remembered the fate of the first young woman he had refused.  She had died in his arms within hours after the soldiers had finished with her.  She had cried for her mother, he remembered, praying that God would forgive her for disobeying her and allowing this to happen to her.  Talen fought the growl of fury that rose in his chest now.  She had been so fucking little, so young, he thought, and she had died, never knowing who had taken her or why they had hurt her so fatally.

 Then, they had brought him Serin and Laney, believing his aversion to the breeding was somehow linked to his DNA.  Talen remembered his horror on learning that they were created from the same experiments he had been created from as well.  And Serin, already so traumatized, had stared at him as though he held her life and her sanity in his hands.

Even now, years later, how he had managed to escape with the other five wasn’t clear to him.  In his nightmares, he became the beast the Council had created.  Filled with fury and blood lust when the soldiers had taken Serin and Laney, intent on killing them as they had the other young woman.  They had nearly succeeded.

But he had escaped, and miraculously managed to get the others out with him.  Then, he had just stood outside, watching the labs as they exploded from the fires he had created in the main facility.  The blast had knocked him on his ass, but he didn’t turn away.  Even when the heat had threatened to burn blisters on his skin, he had watched.  He had watched and he had celebrated the destruction of everything inside it.  Everything, including the incubators that held the beginnings of life within them.  Life, so like his own, cursed before it could even be born.

Talen had sworn then that he would never allow himself to be taken again, and that never would he allow another to die because of him.  Yet, here he was, putting this woman’s life in danger.

Talen looked at the tent door, blocked by the big, sturdy body of the massive Shepard, and wondered if he could slip past the animal without waking her.  Most likely not, he answered himself.  Maggie swore the animal weighed only one thirty, but Talen knew better.  That overgrown ball of muscle topped that by at least ten or fifteen pounds.  He was the largest Shepard, Talen had ever seen.

Moocher.  What a name to give to a dog that would take your balls off with a single command from the woman sleeping so peacefully now.  Talen knew the animal could become lethal, if Maggie gave the command.  He would also alert Maggie, if Talen tried to leave the tent.

Talen knew the signs that a professional, one whose main objective had been Maggie’s protection had trained that dog.  The animal would be as docile as a lamb until it came to Maggie.  Talen would bet his last dollar the dog also had training that Beauty was unaware of.  Talen had only seen a few dogs of Moocher’s caliber.  Dogs trained exclusively by a man named Zane, a shadowy, mysterious mercenary for hire.  The same assassin slated to end Talen’s lonely existence forever.

Talen frowned as he remembered Maggie mentioning her brother, Zane.  How else would she have come by a guard dog with all the characteristics of the animals he trained exclusively?  This situation was becoming more charged by the second, Talen thought.  If Zane, the mercenary, was Zane, Maggie’ brother, then he could have some serious problems, or a savior in disguise.  If Zane the assassin, and Zane the brother were the same, then there was no way in hell he would let his baby sister be in the same county as that of the bounty he was determined to collect.  Or would he?  Would he use the sister to draw out the prey?

As he worried over this new development, a familiar silence descended outside the tent.  Talen noticed the development at the same time Moocher became aware of it.

The dogs head raised, his burnished gold eyes narrowing as he stared at the wall of the tent.  No growl, no sound, no movement.  The dog’s body was tense, moving slowly to a standing position as he tracked whatever had caused the sudden silence of the night creatures beyond the tent.

Talen rose as well, crouched in the darkness of the flimsy shelter.  As he glanced at Maggie, he saw her eyes opened, her expression concerned as she watched Moocher’s suddenly alert attitude.  Placing his finger to his lips to indicate silence, Talen moved to the zippered door of the tent, and then slowly, careful to make no sound, unzipped it enough for the dog to duck through.  Vicious snarls and a few quick barks was all it took.

That was when he heard the intruder.  A sudden crash behind the tent, indicating the location and Talen was out the door in a quick second.  He ignored Maggie’ desperate whisper for him to stay put, running quickly into the night, ducking close to the boulders and disappearing into the shadows that would lead to the area that the dog was now barking towards.

As Talen disappeared, Maggie quickly dragged on her shorts, and then crawled through the opening of the tent.  Calling Moocher to her, she gave him a frantic command that ceased the ear splitting sound of his barks and sent him on a silent stalk.

“Protect Talen,” she whispered the words to the dog, knowing what the command would mean to him.

Then, she moved quickly to the shelter of the boulders, wedging herself into the dark crevice between two of them provided and waited impatiently for what may come.  She covered her face with her hands, stilling the fear now raging through her, and the need to race into the darkness and drag Talen back to the safety of the tent.

Zane had often sat and lectured Maggie for hours about how easy it was to die, and to get a partner killed when rushing blindly into a hot spot.  During the few visits he had made before she sat out on this camping trip, he had insisted on giving her advice that she had only rolled her eyes at and listened to because he was so insistent.

He had trained Moocher to protect her, he reminded her.  Use him the way he was trained.  The dog was better than a gun, and more dependable than a man, Zane promised her, that was why he had trained the dog especially for her.  Moocher wouldn’t attack unless it was warranted, and he wouldn’t rush in blindly.  Hide, make yourself invisible and let the dog do the work, he had told her sternly.  At the time, Maggie could not have foreseen any danger to this trip.  Now, she was imagining danger in its worse form.

She had no idea how long she had sat there.  She ignored the cramp in her leg, the tingling in her feet.  Silence.  Don’t move, don’t speak, don’t blink, she had heard Zane say these words over and over to her brothers as well; as they talked about the investigations they were on.

She blinked, but she did so very slowly.  Her body was shaking, but bones didn’t actually rattle, she assured herself.  And surely her heart wasn’t really beating loud enough for anyone else to hear it.

“God dammit.  Maggie, where the hell are you?”  Talen’s harsh voice at the tent entrance had her scrambling out of her hole, only to fall flat on her face when the cramp in her leg refused to allow it to bend properly.

“Moocher?”  She gasped out weakly when Talen came to her side, helping her quickly to her feet.

Moocher was suddenly beside her as well, his big body shielding her from the opening to the forest as Talen helped her to scramble to the tent.

“What the hell is that dog?  Part commando?”  He snarled as he pulled her over, pushing her against the furthest boulder, the only one that afforded three-sided protection.

“Who was it?”  Maggie rubbed her leg slowly as she looked around campsite, checking the belongings they had left outside.

“I don’t know.  A hunter most likely.”  Talen watched the night, and Maggie could feel the tension in his body.

“If it was a hunter, Moocher would have brought him down.  If he was carrying an unholstered gun, or rifle, Moocher wouldn’t have barked first, he would have attacked.”  Maggie assured him.  “And Commando isn’t far off when describing him.” 

Maggie pulled the dog against her, finding comfort in the warmth of his body as he lay down beside her.

“Who the hell trained that bastard anyway?”  He asked her.  “I’ve not seen anything like him.”

“There are very few.”  She breathed out roughly.  “My brother Zane trains them.  There’s only perhaps a half dozen.  Moocher has had the most extensive training of any of them.  He was specially bred, then trained from six weeks old to his first birthday for nothing, but protecting me.  And here I thought Zane was going overboard with it.”

One suspicion confirmed, Talen thought.  Zane the mercenary, and Zane the brother had to be one and the same.  Great.  This was exactly what he needed to deal with right now.

“Damn good thing he did,” Talen said quietly as he settled against the boulder beside her.  “Damned dog almost had him too, but he had a vehicle parked on the rise.”

“Is Dad’s truck okay?”  Maggie wasn’t really concerned.  The security system on that truck wasn’t real easy to bypass.

“The truck looked fine.  Moocher checked it over real close though.”

“Moocher wouldn’t have bothered with it if no one had been around it.”  She frowned.  “You sure it looked okay?”

“They didn’t hurt the truck, but I’ll check it out in the morning just to be on the safe side.”  His voice was too quiet, Maggie thought.  Like Zane got when he was thinking too hard.

“We have a deal, Talen, you can’t run and hide on me now,” she reminded him, having a good idea what he was thinking about so hard.

“Sorry, Beauty, but maybe it’s time for me to go.  Whoever’s looking for me won’t care to hurt you to get to me,” he sighed roughly. 

“If they were trying to get to you, they would have tried it before Moocher went out that tent door,” she informed him.  “They were trying to steal my steaks most likely.”

Maggie ignored the look of complete disbelief he turned on her.  She wished she could look him in the face, but had a feeling if she did, she would be unable to suppress her own laughter.

“Are you crazy?”  His question was voiced with only mild curiosity, as thought he was only looking for confirmation.

“Nope, just sleepy.”  Maggie rose to her feet and headed back to the tent.  “Come on, I’ll fix you breakfast in the morning.  I make great biscuits and eggs.”             “Maggie, I can’t stay here any longer,” his voice was firm as he watched her.

“Fine.”  She shrugged.  “Leave me alone to fend for myself, see if I care.  Stay, Moocher.”  Maggie pointed to the shadows of the boulders where the dog could easily hide, and yet warn them in time if their intruder returned.

Maggie entered the tent as though his decision made no difference to her.  She shucked her shorts and cuddled deep into the sleeping bag, determined to finish the night in relative comfort.

“Maggie, let’s pack you up, and get you out of here before whoever that was comes back.”  Talen stood at the entrance now, his voice filled with determination.

“Forget it, Talen.”  She yawned.  “Come back to bed, I promise, no one can even get close now, with Moocher guarding outside.  He won’t allow it.”

“A bullet can stop a dog, Beauty,” he growled, bending low to enter the tent.

“They have to see him first.”  She closed her eyes, hiding her smile as he settled slowly on his own sleeping bag.  “Goodnight, Talen.”

Seconds later, she was surprised by the sudden movement that had Talen straddling her, his big body braced, his hard legs surrounding hers as he stared down at her.

“I’m not your damned pet, Maggie,” he growled the warning as his head came closer, his breath tinged with spice, his eyes glowing in the dim light of the tent.  “You can’t just pat me on the head and tell me to go on to sleep.”

Maggie blinked up at him, suddenly aware the hard length of his arousal beneath the soft cotton of his shorts, padded only marginally by the thin material of her sleeping bag.

She licked her lips as she wondered nervously what to say.

Talen’s eyes tracked the movement of her tongue, narrowing intently on the action as his breathing began to roughen.

“I warned you about licking your lips that way, Beauty.”  His voice was harsh in the dark confines of the tent.  “You don’t listen real well, do you?”

Maggie could feel her own blood pumping, rushing furiously through her body as his arousal pressed against her, and the air in the tent suddenly became heated and heavy.

Adrenaline is the result of any dangerous situation, she had heard Zane tell one of her brothers, your first reaction when the danger is over, is sex.  To fuck it off until your body collapses, and your mind forgets the danger you were in, and what could have happened.

Adrenaline, that was all it was.  But her life had not been in constant danger since she had met him.  The danger of moments before had only heightened her knowledge of the need she had for him.  The desperation to feel his touch.

“Oh God, Talen, if you don’t go ahead and kiss me, I’m going to die,” Maggie whispered, unable to wait a moment longer as she stared up at the full contours of his lips.  “Stop teasing me with it.”

Maggie wondered at her own brazenness, but didn’t have the time to analyze it as Talen’s lips descended and covered hers with a harsh growl.  Damn, she loved it when he growled. 

Her hands went around his shoulders, her nails biting into the bare flesh there as his tongue opened her lips and dipped into her mouth to twine with hers.  He tasted dark and spicy with just a hint of chocolate.  Sexy and rough, hard and hot, the kiss sizzled through her nerve endings, zapping harshly into her stomach and beyond as his tongue played slowly, erotically with hers.

His hand cupped her head, the fingers tangling into the long strands as he held her still for his kiss.  Maggie ran her hands over his back, along his chest to his bare waist, then around again to his back.  His skin was smooth and soft and tightly muscled.  It was hot and hard, and she wanted to rub herself against him and drive him as mad as he was making her.

“Damn you.”  Talen raised his head, staring down at her hotly, his eyes black in the silence of the tent.  “I should know better than this, Beauty.”

As he spoke, he was pressing his knee between hers, opening her, and creating a wedge against her body that he could settle into.  Maggie cursed the sleeping bag that still lay between them.  She wanted to feel him, hard and heavy against her bare flesh.

“Is kissing me so bad?”  She asked him, staring up at him as she wondered how to make him kiss her again without begging; make him jerk the sleeping bag away and make to love her with the same heat and desperation his kiss had held.

“Kissing you is so damned dangerous it’s about to destroy me.”  A harsh sigh was torn from his chest as he moved away from her, dropping back on his own sleeping back as he threw his arm over his face and muttered under his breath.

He was gone.  Maggie wanted to scream at the loss of the heat and pressure had been pressing between her thighs.

“Well, don’t let it be said I put you into any danger,” Maggie griped, offended and dissatisfied by his actions.  He didn’t have to jerk away from her as though she was contagious or something, she thought.  All he had to do was say no.

“Dammit, Beauty,” he burst out furiously.

“Oh, just go to sleep, Talen.”  Maggie turned over on her side, her back to him.  “I’m sure you’ll find some way to build your resistance to me even higher by morning.  Consider it a temporary lapse of sanity or something.”

There was a long silence, then she heard him muttering in a low voice.  The words ‘women’ and ‘crazy’ were quite distinct.  She rolled her eyes disparagingly, took a deep breath, fighting now to go back to sleep.

Tomorrow she knew, would be a long day.  She had appointments to speak to several of the people who had known Jennifer Lyons, and were willing to be interviewed.  Hopefully, when Talen saw she wasn’t willing to just drop the story, he would give in peacefully and give her what she needed.

Until then, she was going to try to ignore the fact that someone else was obviously watching her campsite and that they were brave enough to approach it to get to Talen.  A sudden flash of the soldiers, and her close call the day before had her suppressing a shiver of fear.  Talen and Moocher were both here, no one could hurt her now, she assured herself.

Talen was in more danger than he admitted to evidently though.  She had to get him to realize there was only one way to save his life, and that way was by exposing it.

A Breed Apart - Part 18

Published in Sensuous Escapes newsletter (May 11, 2005 edition)

The next morning, Talen didn’t wait for biscuits and bacon before he headed away from the campsite.  He was gone when Maggie awoke, a note laying on his pillow informing her that he would be back that evening.  Maggie clenched her teeth in frustration.  Pinning him down was harder than she had thought it would be.

   Rising from bed, she brushed her teeth, visited the smaller tent, and then dressed in jeans and a soft white cotton blouse for her job for the day.  She was becoming more curious over Maria’s death, and the mystery that seemed to surround it.  At first, Maggie had suspected that the Genetics Council had found Maria, and killed her.  But that didn’t make sense.  If they had killed her, why didn’t they wait around for Talen, and kill or kidnap him? 

   The crime scene photos she had managed to get a peek of, showed a wealth of violence.  The room she had been in had been torn apart, as though someone had been looking for something.  Couch pillows were ripped to shreds, pictures torn off the wall, and in the center of it, Maria’s broken body.

   The Coroner’s report stated she had died of massive internal injuries, but she had been alive when Talen had found her.  Had she told her son who her murderer was? 

Maggie doubted it.  Maria’s main goal in life had been to protect Talen. If it had been the Council, they would have been waiting on him, and either there would have been more bodies, or Talen would have mysteriously disappeared once again.

   Her brow furrowed in thought as she jumped into the SUV and turned the key.  Her uncle, Sam Taylor was a Senator in Washington, overseeing a committee created to legislate and police the new scientific knowledge coming about so rapidly.  America had banned experiments of this sort, he had told her during a phone conversation.  But there were rumors, rumors that he had been unable to substantiate or find proof for that certain government bodies were involved in funding the horrendous ventures. 

   Maggie’s father had then spoken to Sam regarding the information they had, and the story they were after.  Sam had been ecstatic.  Find the man, and convince him to allow the tests that would prove his story, and Sam Taylor would see to it that he was protected, and the Council taken down. 

   Maria had proof, and now her father had it.  But they needed Talen, Sam had informed them; the paper proof would mean nothing without the flesh and blood, DNA intact man to back it up.

   Maria had wanted Talen to go forward.  According to her journal, they were making plans for just that before her death. 

   Convincing him to go forward was not easy to accomplish, she had written, but I have finally convinced him to visit Steven, to talk to him.  I don’t know why my earlier letters remained unanswered, I can only assume he didn’t receive them, or didn’t believe me.  We should be leaving within days; there are only the final plans to finish, before we leave.

   There had been no entries in the journal after that.  Maria Morales had died three days later.  So who had killed her?  Talen wouldn’t talk about it, so she had no idea if he knew or not.  The police report hadn’t mentioned any suspects, and there had been no suspicious deaths afterwards, so Maggie doubted he knew.  She couldn’t imagine him allowing the murderer to live.  Maggie wanted to know what happened, and why there were no suspects.  As much as she hated talking to the slow drawling, suspicious townspeople, she had picked up her nerve anyway and headed out for a day of frustration.

   Frustration didn’t describe it though.  Six hours later, hot, aggravated, and more than a little disgusted, Maggie pulled into the parking lot of the local diner.  After carefully locking her father’s truck, she walked into the cool, dim atmosphere of the building and found a small corner booth to relax.

   The waitress was a teenager, snapping her gum and tapping her foot in time with the jukebox as she took Maggie’s order.  Minutes later she returned with a Coke and a promise to return with her food.

   Maggie took a sip of her Coke, pulled the cell phone from her purse and dialed Caleb’s number.

   “Yeah.”  His voice was distracted as he answered, and Maggie could imagine him hunched over his desk, working at his computer.

   “Hey, I need some info,” she told him quietly, keeping her voice pitched low enough that she couldn’t be overheard.

   “What kind?”  Her brother’s voice was instantly suspicious.

   “The Genetics Council that Maria mentioned in her journal.  Did Jason ever find anything out on it?”  She asked him, well aware that her father had put him, Darien and Jason on the story concerning the Council.

   “Jason’s out there now,” Caleb informed her.  “He called last night with an interesting set of rumors, but nothing substantiated yet.”

   “Anything concerning Morales’ death?”  She asked him.

   “That’s the only one he doesn’t have.”  Caleb grumped.  “But he did find a couple of old hunters who saw the labs go up in flames the night Talen supposedly escaped.  One of them even saw six people, fairly young, running from the compound and into the hills.  No one knew who they were, or where they went, but both were fairly certain they were all together.  What appeared to be four young males, with two females between them.”

   “Any rumors who they were?”  She asked with a frown.

   “Plenty of rumors.  Nothing clear yet, but despite security, it seemed word leaked from the labs about experiments on animals and humans alike.  Jason thinks they made more.”

   For a moment, Serin’s face came instantly to mind.  The slightly tilted eyes, the exotic appearance of her face, similar to Talen’s immediately fired her suspicions.

   “What about you?”  He asked her.  “Anything yet?”

   “Just more questions.”  Maggie shook her head, knowing better than to relate her attack, or the prowler outside her tent to her brother.  “Call me if Jason hears anything else interesting, especially concerning Maria.  It seems her death was murder, but I’m putting money on the fact that it wasn’t the Council.”

   “How much?”  A bet was a bet was Caleb’s motto.

   “This is a sure thing, brother.”  Maggie smiled at his question.  “I’ll bet you my twenty to your ten that it wasn’t them.  It looks too personal.”

   “Talen?”  Caleb asked her.

   “Not Talen, he has an airtight alibi for the time of the attack.  The Sheriff arrived at his home exactly half an hour after he left town.  That gave him just enough time to get home, and call 911, the Sheriff reported.  From everything I’ve been able to learn, there’s no way he had time.  The house was torn apart, and Maria was beaten to death.”

   “Damn.  Any suspects?”  She could hear the gears working in Caleb’s mind.

   “None,” she told him quietly.  “But the Sheriff is certain it was someone she knew.  There was no sign of forced entry, and the shape of the house suggested someone was searching for something in particular.  Talen and Maria had agreed to leave in two days to head to New York, and talk to Father.  I’m thinking it’s someone who didn’t want him to.”

   There was a long silence over the line as Caleb digested this.  Maggie wondered if he was going to come to the same conclusion she had.

   “There were more.  Talen brought them out when he escaped.”  Bingo.  Maggie knew her brother wasn’t stupid.

   “Exactly,” she answered.  “Someone who didn’t want them coming forward.  Didn’t want it so bad, they killed Maria.”

   “And they could kill you.”  Damn.  Why hadn’t she thought about Caleb coming to that conclusion?  “Time to come in, baby sister.”  She could practically see the smug look on his face, and the “I’ll tell Dad,” suggestion in his voice.

   “Mary Elizabeth Jennings,” Maggie whispered the words guaranteed to make him back off.  Their father had no idea Caleb was currently involved in an affair with his secretary.  If he knew, he would skin Caleb alive, then start on Miss Mary.

   The four-letter curse sizzled the phone.

   “How the hell did you find out?”  He bit out furiously.

   “I have my ways.  So you keep your big mouth shut.  I told you, if I need any help, I’ll let you know.”  Maggie crossed her fingers carefully.

   “Damn, you’re getting sneaky Maggie.  You’re starting to remind me of Zane,” he grumped.

   “Yeah, well, he teaches some hard lessons.”  Maggie grinned.  “I’m out of here then.  I’ll call you if I find anything out.”

   “You better.  Same here.  Take care, Maggie.”  The line disconnected, and Maggie drew in a long, careful breath.  Talen wasn’t the only one; there was surely Serin, and then four others.  No wonder the Genetics Council was so damned hot to get him back.  And could one of those others have been the one to kill Maria? 

   “Stop thinking so hard, you’ll give yourself wrinkles.”  Serin sat down across from Maggie, laughing at Maggie’ shock.  “I saw your truck outside and thought I’d join you for lunch.”

   Maggie looked at the other girl carefully.  As with Talen, there was no way to prove she had been part of the experiments, just by looking at her.  But it was there in the tilt of her eyes, they slight indent in the center of her upper lips, the almost feline grace the other woman exhibited.

   “How did he get you out, Serin?”  Maggie asked the girl quietly, watching as she stilled, the blood draining slowly from her face as her hazel brown eyes widened.

   “Shut up,” the woman hissed, looking around carefully to be certain no one could overhear them.  “Have you already ordered?”

   “Burger and fries.”  Maggie leaned back in the booth, watching as Serin took a deep, controlling breath, and then pasted a smile on her face.

   “Why not get it to go, and come over to the office with me?  I keep the desk at the Motel.  We can chat for a while there,” she suggested in a normal tone of voice.

   “Why don’t I get it to go, and we can just chat out in my truck,” Maggie countered, not quite certain how far the girl could be trusted.

   Maggie watched as Serin fought to control her breathing, and the fear filling her.  And it was fear.  Maggie could see it glazing her eyes, dotting her forehead with moisture.

   “Suits me.  I’ll tell Dana to fix our orders to go and we’ll head out.”  Serin nodded, her smile strained as she motioned the teenaged girl back over to their table.

   Twenty minutes later, Maggie got into her truck, watching Serin carefully as she entered the passenger side.  When the doors were closed, and the air conditioner blasting, Serin turned to her.

   “How did you guess?”  She asked Maggie her gaze bleak and wounded.

   “I was lucky.”  Maggie shrugged.  “My brother is investigating the Genetics Council, and their labs out west.  He found two men who were in the hills that night, outside the compound.  They saw four men, and two women running from it as it exploded.  I thought immediately of you.”

   A low moan, much like pain echoed past Serin’s lips as she closed her eyes for long seconds.

   “Shit.  This is bad.”  Serin’s hands trembled as she sat her lunch in the floorboard of the truck.  “The Genetics Council was supposed to believe we were dead.”

   “They might, they might not.”  Maggie shrugged.  “My brother is damned good, but that doesn’t mean the Council’s men aren’t as well.  What happened, Serin?  How many of you are there?”

   Serin shook her head.

   “Serin, I can help you.”  Maggie leaned forward intently as she spoke.  “Do you understand me?  Whoever killed Maria was looking for something.  It could have been the Council, looking for proof that you escaped?  Could they have found that proof?”

   “There was no proof of us.”  Serin shook her head.  “We didn’t come here immediately.  Talen kept us safe and hid until he could bring us in without suspicion.  Maria’s death wasn’t related.”

   “Maria’s death had to be related, somehow, Serin,” Maggie told her tightly.  “Listen to yourself.  Talen isn’t safe, what makes you think you are.  My brother found that information, what makes you think the Council didn’t find it as well?”

   “Talen has his ways of knowing.  Damn, Maggie, you can’t let Talen know that you are aware of this.  He’ll leave.  He’ll run so fast and so hard you’ll never catch up with him,” Serin warned her.  “You don’t know what this means, to all of us.  We thought we were safe.”  The low, desperate words were whispered with pain.

   “Serin, what about your lives?”  Maggie asked her softly.  “Always hiding, always living in fear.  It has to be hell.  It has to stop.”

   Serin’s lips thinned as she stared back at Maggie.

   “No, Maggie, hell is being fourteen and being raped, not just once but over and over and each day, enduring the tests to see if you’ve conceived yet.  And when you do, it’s having that life surgically removed, and knowing beyond all doubts that it will be raised the same as you.  Hell is looking in your face and seeing dead eyes, a dead life, and knowing that as long as you’re breathing they’re going to rape you.  Knowing that once you conceive, that child will be torn from your body, placed in an artificial womb, and it will begin all over again.  That, is hell.  That is what Talen took us away from.  If I was living in mud, and eating only enough to sustain life, it would be heaven in comparison.”

   Maggie felt shock vibrate through her system as she stared into the dark, haunted eyes of the woman she faced.  In those eyes she could see the pain, the lack of hope, the never-ending horror of what she had faced over and over again.  Maggie couldn’t imagine the cruelty it took for one human to inflict such damage on another.

   “Serin, they’ll find you,” she whispered, her throat tight with tears.  “Sooner or later.”

   “They might find me, but they’ll never take me.  I’ll die first Maggie, if I have to die by my own hand.  It’s the same for Talen; he’ll never allow them to take him again.  But you’re right, we need to come forward, and that’s what we’re trying to convince Talen of, but it won’t be easy.”  Serin looked down at her trembling hands, and Maggie caught the sheen of tears in her eyes, the shudder that went through her body.  “We don’t know if the Council knows the rest of us are alive.  If they don’t, then we need to keep it that way.”

   Maggie shook her head, fighting to process this information, to figure out where she went from here.  As a story, it was stupendous.  It would shock the world, and bring her instant recognition, but she knew it was a recognition she didn’t want.

   Taking a deep breath, Maggie started the truck, and then pulled out of the parking lot of the diner.

   “Where are we going?”  Serin looked up, watching as Maggie pulled onto the main road.

   “Your office.  We need to talk.  I need to know everything you can tell me, if I’m going to convince Talen to come in.  And you have to level with me Serin, I can’t help him, or any of you, if you aren’t willing to cooperate with me,” Maggie warned her tightly.

   “I’ll tell you what I can.”  Serin shrugged.  “But I won’t go forward myself, not without Talen.  And you’ll never convince Talen to do it before he has to leave.”

   “Leave?  Where?”  Maggie’ hands tightened on the steering wheel.  “Why would he leave?”

   “Because the Council is tired of playing with him.  He sent another two-man team of mercenaries back to the Council battered and defeated.  The same ones that attacked you the other day.  They’re sending out an assassin next.  Talen’s being hunted, and sooner or later, Maggie, they’ll catch him.”

   Talen’s being hunted, and sooner or later, they’ll catch him.  The words haunted Maggie.  She left Serin several hours later, packed with notes, names, dates, and locations.  She stopped long enough to call Caleb and give him what he needed, swearing she had found the bits and pieces of information from the box of notes Maria had left.  No one else had gone through them but Maggie, and in a small part, her father.

   Caleb was nearly ecstatic with the extent of the information, and the gaps it would fill for Jason.  They might get lucky, and not even need Talen, he had crowed, but Maggie knew better.  Without Talen, or one of the others, there would be no proof. 

   As she pulled into the small area she used to park the SUV, she saw Talen’s truck already parked there.  She grimaced as she glanced at her watch, realizing it was later than she thought.

   She took a deep breath, grabbed the bag of uneaten food, and headed to the camp.  Moocher would be happy when he saw the bag, she thought, trying to compose herself, and wipe any sign of distress from her face. 

   “’Bout time you got here.”  Talen looked up, his eyes narrowed as Maggie entered the campsite.  “What’s wrong?”

   Instantly, his gaze went to her eyes, and she knew he was tracking the paleness of her skin, and the slight evidence still left of her tears.  She sat down on the ground beside him, propping her back against the boulder as she pulled the food out for her whining dog.

   “Nothing much.  Family crap.”  She shrugged as she watched the canine devour the food.  “How long have you been waiting?”

   “Long enough to catch and clean the fish.”  He grinned, though his gaze was still suspicious.  “I figured you could at least cook them.”

   “I’ll cook them.”  Maggie allowed a grin to shape her lips as she pushed the knowledge she had been given to the back of her mind.  Serin had warned her not to tell Talen yet, and though she was hesitant to take the advice, she knew that Serin would know this man better than she did.

   “I heard you were in town asking questions about Maria,” he said as he began stacking the wood on the fire pit.  “Why?”

   He glanced at her over his shoulder, and in that look Maggie read his suspicions, and his displeasure.

   “She was murdered.”  Maggie refused to apologize or back down.  “She was special to my father, Talen.  I could tell by the way he talked about her.  I want to know who killed her, and why.”

   He was silent for long moments, placing the wood, saying nothing, but Maggie could see the tension in his shoulders and along his back.

   “Did you kill the person responsible, Talen?”  Maggie forced the words from her mouth, needing to know the truth.  She wouldn’t blame him if he had, but she had to know if he had done it.

   Talen took a deep breath, dropping his head, his hands stilling as he backed away from the fire pit.

   “I don’t know who killed her, Maggie.”  He shook his head as he rested against the boulder once again, his gaze going to the canopy of trees above them.  “I wish I had, and then I wouldn’t have to wonder anymore.”

   The resigned pain in his voice had her heart clenching with the need to hold him, to wipe away the threat in his life, and the circumstances of his birth.

   “But you suspect someone?”  She asked him.

   “Hell, I suspect everyone,” he bit out.  “It could have been anyway.  The Council is good at getting nice, ordinary folks to do their dirty work.  I know, I’ve seen it done before. My list of suspects is as long as four different counties and just as wide.”

   “Do you know what they were looking for?  Surely Maria said something before she died?”  Maggie probed cautiously, aware of the tension in his body, and the buried anger in his heart.

   “What she said, didn’t matter,” he finally sighed.  “She didn’t name her killer, she asked for your father.  I begged her to tell me who did it, and she refused.  She protected them, and I swear I haven’t been able to figure out yet who she was protecting.”

   “Who would she have protected?  Who was that close to the two of you, Talen?”  She asked, fighting to keep her voice even, the knowledge she held to herself.

   “We trusted no one, and those close to us couldn’t have done it.  They wouldn’t have done it.”  He shrugged.  “Whoever it was will show themselves eventually, and when they do, I’ll be waiting.”

   The finality of his voice sent a shiver down Maggie’s back.  It was cold and hard, and filled with menace.

   “Talen…”

   “Enough questions, Beauty.”  Talen shook his head, standing to his feet and extending his hand down to her.  “Come on, we’ll fry those fish I caught and have dinner before we bed down.  I have to get out of here early in the morning to do some things.”

   As he pulled her to her feet, Maggie allowed her body to fall against his, her arms gripping his shoulders as she stared up into his face.  She wanted him, but God help her, she wanted him safe, too.

   “Talen, you have to do something soon,” she whispered.  “You can’t keep hiding.”

   He lowered his head until his forehead touched hers and she was staring into his eyes.  The bright, golden brown depths were filled with sadness, arousal, and regret.

   “When I can hide no more, then I’ll leave here, Maggie.  And I’ll leave alone.  My life is no place for you, or any other woman.”  His hands framed her face as he spoke, his thumbs carefully wiping the tears she didn’t know she had shed, from her cheeks. 

   “We could help you, Talen.”  She tried to stem the tears, but they only fell harder as she felt her heart breaking not just for him, but for Serin and for herself as well.

   “No, Beauty.”  He kissed her forehead as he pulled her into his arms, holding her against his chest as her shoulders shook from her tears.  “No one can save me, and we both have to accept that.”

   “I can’t let you go, Talen,” she cried against his chest, feeling her heart breaking, realizing her brothers were right, she wasn’t hard enough, she wasn’t cynical enough to accept death and failure.

   “Then hold me while I’m here.”  His hands ran over her back, pulling her closer, holding her tighter.  “Just hold me, Maggie.”

   Her arms went around him, her cheek pressed to his heart, and she held him.  Supper was forgotten in the need they shared, not sexual, not physical; a need born of their souls, and the pain of the past.  He didn’t kiss her, though she could tell he wanted to.  He didn’t caress her, though she needed him to.  He held her as they snacked on Granola bars, chips and beer, and watched as Moocher consumed the fish.

   They didn’t talk about the past, though it was there between them.  She didn’t mention Serin, and he didn’t volunteer the information.  He told her about parts of his childhood, the good parts, after Maria had stolen him from the Council.  He told her about hunting, about learning who he was, and how to benefit from it.

   And as he shared those parts of himself, Maggie felt a hunger for him that she had never known in her life.  She didn’t just desire him, or want him.  The need wasn’t just sexual.  She knew that night, that he had touched her heart, and before they lay down to sleep, she knew he possessed it.

   She wouldn’t let him go, Maggie swore.  There had to be a way to convince him, to make him understand that he had to come forward, not just for himself, but for the others, and for her as well. 

A Breed Apart - Part 19

Published in Sensuous Escapes newsletter (May 11, 2005 edition)

Maggie awoke slowly, aware of Talen’s presence in her tent, and the fact that his big, warm body was lying much closer to her than it had been the night before.  Opening her eyes, she breathed in roughly as she saw his face above her own, those golden eyes dilated until there was barely any color left in them besides the black centers.

“The bruise is almost gone now,” he whispered gently as one long finger moved to run slowly over her chin.  “I wanted to kill them for what they did to you.  I would have killed them then if I could have, Beauty.”

Maggie licked her dry lips, unable to come up with a reply or any words that didn’t involve a distinct plea for him to kiss her, but she had begged last him before, she wasn’t going to beg this morning.  And after the past night, filled with the tension of longing, and the pain-ridden accounts Talen gave of his life, Maggie knew she couldn’t push him.  Not yet.

“I’m going to kiss you, Beauty,” he assured her, his gaze going to her lips slowly.  “It’s the most stupid thing I’ll do in my life, but I’ll be damned if I can stop myself.”

He leaned over her, his head lowering slowly, and Maggie could do nothing but close her eyes weakly.  When his lips touched hers, she opened her own with a whispered sigh.  He didn’t take them as she expected though.  First he licked them gently, his tongue a gentle rasp on her sensitive skin, as his hand touched her cheek, holding her still as she rose towards him, needing more.

“Slow, Beauty.”  His voice was a guttural growl, a rough, throaty sound that sent shivers racing over her skin as his hand moved slowly from her waist to her breast.

“Nice and slow and deep.  The kind that makes you crazy for more.”

His tongue penetrated her lips, still licking in slow deep probing movements while Maggie moved against him with a fractured moan.  Her lips opened and she let her tongue play with his as well.  Mimicking his movements, wanting him as hot and as needy as she was becoming.

Moving a bit, Talen pulled the sleeping bag away from her then pulled her closer against his nearly nude body.  His only covering was the soft cotton of his sweat shorts, and that was a scant barrier against the raging hardness she could suddenly feel against her stomach.

Maggie clutched at his shoulders now as she felt his bare, hair roughened legs against her smoother ones.  Her t-shirt had ridden up past her belly button, and the soft silk of her thong panties ended below.  She was nearly naked in his arms and it still wasn’t enough.  She wanted to be closer, skin-to-skin, and mouth-to-mouth as he touched her.

Slowly, Talen moved back from the kiss, his eyes nearly black now, his breathing harsh as his gaze went down her body.

“Lord, love us, but look how pretty you are.”  His hand smoothed over the bare, tanned skinned of her stomach.  “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything so pretty in my life.”

Maggie cried out, arching against the lips that were suddenly moving delicately over the bare planes of her abdomen, moving dangerously close to the hem of her shirt, and the passion hardened mounds of her breasts.

His hand was at her hips, those long, warm fingers moving slowly against her skin, driving her crazy with the desperate need to feel them closer, harder against the needy portion between her thighs.

And still his lips played with her skin.  Small, sipping kisses that had her crying out raggedly and arching against his touch in mindless pleasure as she reach out, her fingers gripping his thick hair as he drove her crazy.

“Oh God, Talen,” she sighed in pleasure, her eyes opening to look at him, watching as his tongue came out and he licked her abdomen gently. 

Maggie shivered, her body trembling as he did it again, watching her from beneath the veil of his lashes. 

“You taste better than candy,” he whispered against her skin.  “Like the first morning dew, all sweet and light, and making you hungry for more.”

As he spoke, his hand drew a lazy pattern from her hip to her thigh, pushing her legs apart slowly, his gaze never leaving hers, his eyes darkening by the second she arched into his touch.

“One more kiss.”  He smiled softly, sensually, moving up her body as his hand moved lower.

Maggie nearly screamed against his mouth as his lips covered hers at the same time his hand covered her mound, his fingers slipping easily beneath the elastic of the leg, his hand cupping the heated flesh firmly.  She wrapped her arms around his shoulders as she twisted against him, her mouth hungry, her body burning for him as he stroked her, drove her crazy with pleasure.

The tension mounted in her body, trembling along her flesh, building in her stomach as his hand ground against her, and then suddenly he was gone.  Jumping away from her with a muted snarl, Talen threw the material of the sleeping bag back over her vibrating body.

“Son of a bitch.”  He cursed raggedly as he stared down at her with eyes that seemed more black than gold.  “I was just going to kiss you, Beauty.  I swear that was it.”

Maggie was breathing harshly now, her body in shock, her mind unable to accept the abrupt cessation of pleasure it was being given.  She stared up at Talen, her gaze then flickering to the jutting proof of his own need that tented the loose shorts he was wearing.

“I’m a damned fool.”  With an abrupt shake of his head he stared down at Maggie in frustration.  “I’m getting the hell out of here.  Don’t wait up for me, because I doubt very damned seriously that I’ll be back.”

Grabbing his jeans, shirt and boots, Talen flung himself from the tent as Maggie was jerking the sleeping bag off and following him.

“Where are you going?”  She stood outside her tent, dressed only in the long t-shirt and thongs and watched as he jerked the jeans on over his shorts, then stuffed his feet into his soft leather boots.

“Home.”  He breathed roughly, refusing to look at her.  “And I suggest you do the same.”

“Coward.”  The word hung in the air after she said, and for a brief moment Maggie wondered if she had stepped over the line.

“What did you say?”  He asked her softly as though he hadn’t heard her.

“I said you’re a coward.”  Maggie swallowed tightly.  “What’s wrong Talen, did the heat get a little too intense for you?  Gotta run and hide from it now?”

Talen’s face flushed as his eyes began to sparkle angrily.

“What’s wrong Beauty, can’t handle rejection?”  He sneered as he jerked his shirt on.

“Rejection?”  Maggie arched a brow in amusement as she glanced to his jeans, and the area where the material was stretched taunt, clearly defining his still present erection.  “I didn’t feel rejected at all, Talen.  But I bet a certain part of your body is raising all kinds of hell right now.”

Talen glanced down, and then back at Maggie with narrowed eyes.

“I’ll worry about my body parts,” he assured her.  “You worry about packing up and moving out.  This is my property and you’re trespassing.”

“Fine.”  She shrugged, crossing her arms over her breasts and ignoring the fact that her t-shirt was riding dangerously close to the crotch of her panties.  “I’ll go to the motel and start asking all kinds of questions in town.  Then, eventually, I’ll find out where you live.  Then, instead of pestering you any further, I’ll just go ahead and write my damned story and see what the hell happens.”

Those eyes narrowed further.  The long lashes effectively hid the color, but nothing could dim the expression on his face.  It was dark and dangerous and proof that Talen Lyons did not like being threatened.

“Want to get fucked that bad, Maggie,” he sneered.  “Anything for the story, right?”

That hurt.  Maggie controlled the instinctive flinch and clenched her teeth at the insult in his expression and his voice.

“I couldn’t care less right now,” she bit out.  “What I care about is the fact that you’re running.  But go ahead and run Talen, see who cares?  It’s not the story that has you scared, it’s me.  You finally met someone you can’t just brush off that tough hide of yours and you can’t stand it.”

Maggie stood her ground, squaring her shoulders stubbornly as Talen stalked slowly towards her, his face lined with anger, his eyes glittering savagely beneath the lowered lashes.

“Your brother’s should have drowned you when you were a baby,” he muttered as he bent his head and came almost nose-to-nose to with her.  “Because you are a damned menace.”

He didn’t give her the chance to defend herself.  Oh no, tough and mighty king of the woods went stomping away from her and headed up the hill to his own truck.

“Temper, temper, Talen,” she called out to him.  “Bring a pizza when you come back, cause now Moocher won’t be the only one pouting.”

Damned man.  Inconsiderate jackass.  Maggie turned and re-entered her tent with a curse.  Grabbing clean clothes and her bathing articles, she stuffed them in her backpack, and then pulled on shorts and shoes.  Grabbing her keys, she gave Moocher a hasty command to watch the camp, and then left.

She was running late, letting him distract her, then piss her off.  She needed to shower and change, then head to the meeting she had set up with the Dean of Morehead University.  Maggie was hoping that in finding out some information about Jennifer Lyons, then perhaps a few kernels of truth would come to light regarding her son, because it sure as hell didn’t look like he was going to volunteer any information.

**

Maggie knew she was being followed.  The big black four-wheel drive truck had pulled out behind her as she left Sandy Hooks city limits and stayed with her on the full half hours journey to Morehead.

Sitting at the traffic light outside town, she glanced in her rearview mirror once again, frowning at the figure in the truck behind her.  He wore dark glasses and a baseball cap pulled low on his forehead, and he didn’t look none too pleased with her.  The memory of the attack several days before went through her mind, and Maggie fought to remember if either man had been black haired.  She couldn’t remember which only increased the anxiety going through her.

Glancing back once again, she swallowed tightly.  Despite the dark glasses she could feel the malevolence and anger of the look being directed towards her.  She was getting scared, Maggie admitted as the light turned green and she headed into the small college town Maria Morales had worked in under the assumed name of Jennifer Lyons.  She had assumed the attack before had been a coincidence, a one time shot perhaps by men who were looking for Talen, but now she was starting to wonder if someone didn’t mean to hurt her instead.

Maggie drove around town carefully, keeping her eye on the black truck following her, and its driver whose face was still set in a scowl.  She was starting to have some deep worries concerning this trip.  First to find out that Jennifer Lyons, otherwise known as Maria Morales had been murdered, and now, after asking about her in Sandy Hook, she suddenly had a tail.  A very angry, darkly menacing one at that.

Maggie breathed out slowly as the turn to the college grounds came up, and then made the turn onto it hesitantly, feeling the weak pitch of relief in her stomach when the truck drove on by. 

He had been following her though, Maggie thought.  She knew he had been.  There had been no mistaking the intent on the man’s face as he stayed practically on her bumper all the way from Sandy Hook.

There had been more than one opportunity for him to pass her on the long, curving stretch of the road between the two towns.  Traffic had been exceedingly light, and Maggie had slowed down through many of the long, straight stretches of road in case that had been his intention.

It had obviously not been his intention though.  He had slowed down as well, the shiny black hood of his truck reflecting in her rear view mirror as he kept only a slight distance between them.

Growing worried, Maggie had then sped up, pushing the SUV to a speed that made her stomach clench as she went around the rough curves of the road.  The truck had sped up as well.

So why had he gone on by when she had pulled into the college grounds, Maggie wondered.  Evidently the driver hadn’t cared if she knew he was following, as long as she wasn’t in a position to call attention to him.

Maggie pulled the SUV into a parking slot in front of the administration building and sat there for a few minutes, watching the vehicles, and the pedestrians moving through the grounds carefully. 

There was no sign of the black truck, or the dark sunglasses and blue baseball wearing country hick who had tormented her on the drive over.  Maggie wondered if he was one of those Rednecks she had heard so many jokes about in New York.  She hadn’t understood the concept until now.

Pulling her own glasses off Maggie stuck them in the sun visor then checked her appearance quickly in the rear view mirror.  She was ten minutes early for the appointment the Dean of the University had given her.  Not that he had seemed enthusiastic about talking to her, but he had agreed.

Locking the SUV up securely, Maggie took a deep breath, and then walked quickly into the administration building.

“I have an appointment to see Dean Williams.  I’m Maggie Taylor.”  Maggie stopped at the receptionist’s desk, smiling down at the young woman sitting there.

A quick frown, and a concerned light lit the girl’s hazel eyes as she stared up at her.

“One moment.”  It was obvious the girl had prepared for her arrival, and possibly the Dean’s hesitancy to talk to her.

The receptionist turned her back on her, picking up the phone and pressing in a number.  The conversation was too quite to eavesdrop on, so Maggie was thankful when the girl turned back to her.

“Dean Williams’ office is at the end of the hall, he’s expecting you.”  She pointed to the closed door at the end of the first corridor.

The administration building was laid out in three wings, with a steady stream of people, both students and faculty going from office to office.  It seemed well staffed and running quite smoothly.

Thanking the girl politely, Maggie adjusted her purse on her shoulder and strode quickly down the hall.  As she did so, she could feel the strange prickling sensation she had when the truck had followed her earlier.

Turning to glance behind her, Maggie noticed the tall, black haired man leaning against the counter talking to the receptionist now, his back her.  There was no baseball cap, or sunglasses in sight, and she couldn’t tell from the dark shirt if it was the same the driver had been wearing, but she had a distinctly uneasy feeling about it.

Stopping at the Dean’s door, she knocked quietly, glancing behind her once again and catching the man turning from her quickly.

“Enter.”  The voice from behind the door drew her attention from the unknown male, to the job at hand.

Taking a deep breath, Maggie put a smile on her face, and opened the door.  The office inside was spacious, and modern.  A large walnut desk sat on the far side, in front of a wall of windows that were shaded in consideration of the hot afternoon sun pouring in.

The big man who rose from the chair behind the desk was scowling at her.  Dean Williams was perhaps in his fifties, his short military cut hair was gray, his eyes a cool pale blue.  He was tall, and wide, and starting to spread just a bit in the middle, but he was still an intimidating figure.  Intimidating enough to make Maggie wonder if he used that scowl often to reinforce the impression, or if it was just a natural part of living in the area.

It seemed to Maggie that everyone around here viewed strangers with suspicion.  In New York, if you saw more than three people you knew in the same place, you suspected a conspiracy.  Here, everyone seemed to know everyone else, and they all seemed suspicious of anyone they didn’t know.

“Dean Williams, thank you for agreeing to see me so quickly.”  Maggie moved to the desk, extending her hand to the man standing beside it.

“Hello Ms. Taylor.  It was no problem.”  Dean Williams smiled, a wide, well practiced show of teeth and humor, but his eyes were cool and assessing.  “I must say though, I’m still quite confused regarding your purpose here.  Why would you need any information on Ms. Lyons?  She’s been dead for nearly a year now.”

Maggie sat down slowly, her eyes still meeting the Dean’s as he did the same. 

“As I attempted to explain on the phone, Dean Williams, my father and Ms. Lyons were college friends.  When I chose Elliott County as the location of my feature, he asked if I would check into what had happened to her.  I assure you, the matter is one of personal interest.”

“I’m aware Ms. Taylor, of who your father is.  We do get the National Forum here.  How can I be certain your interest is personal?  Ms. Lyons never mentioned knowing your father, which seems strange to me, considering his fame, and that of his paper.”  Dean Williams was definitely of a suspicious nature, Maggie thought, restraining her impulse to sigh once again.

“Dean Williams, I’m a Features reporter, as I am certain you’ve checked.  If my father were after a story, he would have sent one of my brothers.”  Maggie assured him, even though saying the words made her want to grit her teeth.  Until this story, that had been the truth.

Dean Williams watched her silently for long moments, his graying brows drawn into a frown as he considered her words.

“What was it you wanted to know, Ms. Taylor?”  It didn’t seem as though he were convinced.  “Ms. Lyons was a quiet woman, a good woman.  What more can I tell you?”

Maggie tried another smile.  One soft and understanding of any pain he may have in talking about a friend who was murdered so brutally.

“My father was very upset over the manner of her death and the apparent lack of suspects in her murder.  Why would any want to kill her?”

“Why do people kill each other in New York, Ms. Taylor?  To my knowledge Ms. Lyons had no enemies, yet neither did the Grandmother who was killed several miles from town last week.  No reason, no suspects.  It happens, unfortunately.”  He shrugged.  A powerful movement of his shoulders that implied impersonality.  An impersonality that his carefully cool demeanor belied.

“Dean Williams, all I want to do is piece together a picture of Ms. Lyons’ life for my father.  This is important to him.  To do that, my only options are to question those who knew her.  There is no offense intended in my questions.”  Maggie wanted to scream as she spoke with a soft apology.

Dean Williams frowned once again.  He leaned forward in his chair, bracing his arms on his desk as his large fingers linked in the center.

“Perhaps you should talk to her son, Ms. Taylor?  Have you contacted him yet?”  Dean Williams suggested, still unconvinced that Maggie’s questions could be of a personal nature.

“Mr. Lyons is a hard man to contact.  It’s been suggested he’s prone to disappear for extended periods, just as his mother was.  Perhaps this is one of those times.”  Maggie shrugged as though the knowledge was regretful, but unavoidable.

Dean Williams sighed roughly and leaned back in his chair, watching her contemplatively.

“As I said, Ms. Lyons was a very quiet, almost secretive woman.  She didn’t encourage close friendships or the sharing of confidences.  I wish I could be of more help to you.”  He sounded regretful, Maggie thought.  She would have been almost convinced if she hadn’t glimpsed the furtive look in his eyes that signaled the lie.  He knew something, perhaps not much, but something he thought was important.

“What about the year she quit, after her son left home?  Did anyone know why she would suddenly just quit so abruptly?  Surely she had some reason for it when she returned over a year later?”  Maggie frowned as though confused by the event.

Maggie was very well aware of why Jennifer Lyons had quit that year, but the Dean’s evasive attitude was making her wonder at how much he knew.

“Ms. Lyons took several long absences, to visit family for the most part.”  Dean Williams frowned as though trying to remember the various incidences.  “As I recall, that first leave though was due to health reasons.  Ms. Lyons had delicate health, and she was often off work because of it.”

“Do you know what sort of health problems?”  Maggie questioned him, wondering if he were lying, or if Maria Morales just had not included this development in the letter she had sent to her father.

“As I said, Ms. Lyons did not encourage questions concerning her life.  We didn’t probe.”  And he obviously didn’t think much of Maggie for probing now, she thought.

“But you were her friend?”  Maggie suggested softly.  “As such, you would know her better than others who were not.”

Dean Williams blew out a sigh as he shot her a look of frustration.

“I knew her as well as she let anyone know her I guess,” he finally said regretfully.  “Jennifer wasn’t a trusting person by nature.  But she was a kind person.  I do know, that right before her death, she had taken a leave of absence, supposedly to travel to New York, another family matter she told me.  I approved the leave, but Jennifer seemed worried, and uncertain of when she would return.” 

“Do you know why?”  Maggie asked him frowning, wondering why she would be so concerned if the Council was unaware of where she was or what she and Talen were about to do.

“I don’t know.”  He shook his head slowly.  “But the last day she worked, I overheard her on the phone, arguing with someone over the trip.  She assured whoever it was that it was the best for all concerned, and that no one would be affected but herself and Talen.  I could tell she was very upset by whatever the party was saying, but she wouldn’t confide in me when I asked her about it.”  There seemed to be an edge of anger there, as though she would have confided in him at any other time.

“Was there anyone, besides Talen, that her trip would have affected?”  She asked, leaning forward as he seemed more willing to speak to her now.

Once again his eyes narrowed on her in suspicion.

“You sound more like an interrogation officer than the daughter of a friend,” he accused her, then shrugged as though it made no difference.  “She had several other children she had raised from various ages.  I could have been one of them.  I’m more inclined to believe it was one of them.”  He finally revealed slowly.  “But I told the Sheriff this as well during his investigation.  It wasn’t one of them.  Besides, they were all devoted to her.”

There was the edge of regret once again.  Maggie had the feeling that Jennifer Lyons meant much more to the Dean than he had admitted.

“My father hadn’t seen her since college, when they camped here for the summer.  He knew nothing of her life here,” Maggie said softly.  “It hurt him though, to realize how alone she seemed.”

“She was alone by choice, Miss Taylor,” he assured her a bit bleakly.  “She was a beautiful woman, inside and out.  But a very self contained woman.  She needed no one and wanted no one else in her life.  She made that painfully clear to anyone who tried.”

There was nothing Maggie could say to this.  She had learned from the questions she had managed to get answered to this point, that it was painfully true.

 “Thank you for your time, Mr. Williams.”  Maggie rose to her feet, extending her hand for a brief handshake, and glimpsing the relief that shadowed the Dean’s expression.  “I really appreciate it.  Would you know if Ms. Lyons had any friends who would be willing to talk to me?”

“As I said…” Dean Williams began.

“She did not encourage friendships.”  Maggie nodded as she adjusted her purse on her shoulder and turned to go.  “Thank you once again, Dean Williams.”

Maggie left the building quickly, uncomfortable with the pain lurking in the Dean’s expression, a glimmer of the same emotion she had glimpsed in her father’s as he spoke of her as well.  It was saddening, the lonely life the woman had led, when there had been those more than willing to bring love into it. 

But on the other hand, Maggie understood her reluctance to allow anyone into her life.  She had spent a lot of years hiding, running, finally returning to a home that no longer held family, but held memories instead.  She must have been terrified of losing that last piece of solace.

Maggie shook her head as she exited the building, and put the thought aside.  She couldn’t afford to step into Jennifer Lyons pain, and her fears.  If she did, then her own emotions would overwhelm her as well.  Just as Jennifer had lived her life to protect Talen, Maggie was terribly afraid that she would follow in the other woman’s footsteps.  She couldn’t allow that to happen.  She couldn’t give up, not now, not when he could protect himself by accepting her father’s offer.

As she approached the SUV, her eyes narrowed on the door of the truck where a letter had been taped securely to the door of the vehicle.

Looking around carefully, searching for the dark figure in a blue baseball cap and dark glasses, Maggie lifted the paper from the window.

She unfolded it slowly, fighting to still the trembling in her hands as the words seemed to leap out of the page at her.

TALEN LYONS KILLED HIS MOTHER TO HIDE HIS OWN SECRETS!  The note accused in bold black letters.

BEWARE MS TAYLOR, YOU COULD BE NEXT!

Maggie stared down at the note.  The bold blocked letters, the furious slash of the exclamation point.  Someone definitely wanted her off this story, and away from Talen Lyons.

Folding the letter and sticking it quickly into her purse, Maggie unlocked the SUV and jumped in, careful to lock the door as it closed behind her.

Breathing in deeply, she picked up her cell phone and keyed in her father’s phone number.

“Taylor.”  His voice came over the line as harried as ever. 

“Dad, we might have a problem here,” she told him as she stared the SUV.  “I have a few tails, and an anonymous note that Talen was somehow behind his mother’s death.” 

Quickly, Maggie filled him in on what she had so far concerning Maria Morales death, which wasn’t much she knew.  The information was sketchy, but she knew there was something there, something besides the random attack it had been written up as.

“What do you think?”  She could hear the concern in his voice and could nearly see the frown marking his face.

“I think its bull.  I’ve met Talen, and spent quite a bit of time with him yesterday.  Moocher loves him, and though he’s stubborn as hell, and determined to keep his secrets, I don’t think he’s a killer.  But the killer wasn’t caught either.”

“But it also indicates that the killer could very well be someone Talen knows.  Someone determined that Maria’s secrets would stay hidden.”  Steven suggested.  “How are you going to go about finding out?”

 “I want you to get Brandon to start working his magic on the computer, and see what you can find out about Gladys Maynard, occupation Librarian at the Sandy Hook Library.  Dean Roger Williams, Dean of the Morehead State University, ages or socials unknown.  I also need information on the Sheriff, and anyone else involved in the investigation,” Maggie asked him.  “Maybe if I could learn a bit more about the people that seem closest to them, I can figure out what happened.  Then I might have more ammunition to talk Talen in with as well.  He’s being very stubborn.”

Her father was quiet for long moments, obviously scribbling the names down hurriedly as she rattled them off.

“You suspect any of them of being behind the murder?”  He asked her as he finished.  “I didn’t send you there to investigate her death Maggie,” he finally reminded her.

“I know you didn’t Dad,” she sighed.  “And I don’t know if I suspect any of them of killing her but I do have reason to suspect any or all of them of knowing something, or having a connection to Talen and Maria that they aren’t telling.  I’ve been tailed today, and I found that note on the window of the SUV when I left the Dean’s offices.  The Dean by the way does not like being questioned about his former secretary.  See what you can find out for me, and I’ll see what I can find out from Talen later this evening.”

“You’re seeing Talen this evening?”  There was an edge of surprise in her father’s voice.

“Yeah, for some reason he thinks he has to guard me all night long.  He’s been at the campsite since I arrived, but I only caught him at it that other day.  Oh, and talk to Zane, discretely if you can.  For some reason, Moocher never alerted me to Talen’s presence, and he acts like he’s known him all his life.  I need to know why.”

Steven Taylor was quiet for long moments, causing Maggie to frown in impatience as she waited for his answer.

“Maggie, maybe you should let me go ahead and send one of the boys.”  Her father was using his, ‘I’m your father and I’m worried’ tone.  Maggie rolled her eyes and sighed in irritation.

“I’ll be fine, Dad.  I have Moocher, and Talen has taken to watching the camp all damned night long.  If you send one of those boys out, I’m not going to be happy.”  Maggie hoped the disgust in her voice was enough to allay his fears, but she had a feeling it wouldn’t.

“I’ll get on this information you need,” he told her, not commenting on his suggestion or her reaction.  “I’ll get back to you in a day or two.  In the meantime, you watch yourself.”

“I promise to be very, very careful,” Maggie sighed.  “It’s not like I’m getting anywhere anyway, so stop worrying.”

“Call me back tomorrow, I’ll see if Brandon has something by then.”  Still no comment on the fact that she did not want her brothers out there.

“Dad, if one of the boys ends up out here, I promise you, I’ll leave the paper.”  Maggie could feel the dread rising inside her.  If one of her brothers showed up, Talen would disappear for sure.  “I’ve just made contact with him, at least give me a chance.”

There was silence on the other side, and she could feel the indecision she knew her father was feeling.

“A week, Maggie.”  His voice was quiet, his tone reflecting his own determination.  “If you haven’t made progress by then, then I want you home.  Do you understand me?”

“Would you be pulling Caleb off the story in a week, Dad?”  She asked him quietly, knowing he wouldn’t be.

“This isn’t about Caleb, Maggie, it’s about you.  And I would do the same with any other reporter going it alone.  Good reporters are hard to come by, I don’t risk them unnecessarily.”

“I understand, Dad,” she said softly, but she had a feeling a week would never be enough time to get Talen to open up to her.  “I’ll let you know how things are going.”

“I’ll talk to you tomorrow then.  Goodbye, sweetie.”  The line disconnected, and Maggie closed her eyes as she leaned her head back against the seat.

A week.  How in the hell was she going to get Talen to agree to anything within a week?

A Breed Apart - Part 20

Published in Sensuous Escapes newsletter (May 23, 2005 edition)

Maggie arrived back at the camp late that afternoon, despondency weighing heavily on her.  Her father was losing faith in her.  Perhaps she shouldn’t have called him and told him the problems she was having.  No man liked to learn that his daughter could be getting into trouble.

He wouldn’t have threatened Caleb, she knew.  But then again, Caleb had already proven his journalistic abilities without her father’s help, or his knowledge on the story he was working on.

“Hey, Moocher.”  Maggie plopped down beside the sulking dog and stared up at the branches of the tree above them.  “Here’s your dinner.”

She dug out two super cheeseburgers from the Hardees in Morehead, and an order of fries and dumped it all in front of him.  The meal was gone in seconds, but at least he loved her again, Maggie thought as his tail began wagging.

“No guests today, huh?”  She looked around the empty campsite, checking to make certain everything was where it should be.  “Well, at least no one’s robbed our steaks yet.”

She propped her head on her upraised knees and watched as Moocher lay back down to doze.  Now she remembered why she hated camping.  It was boring.  There was nothing to do until dinnertime, which she had no stomach for now anyway, and she was all-alone with only a dog for company.  Which pretty much described her life at home as well.

“Maybe that novel isn’t such a bad idea, Moocher,” Maggie told the sleeping dog.  “You know, I’d have to research the damned thing though.  At least I wouldn’t be bored on Saturday nights anymore.  It’s not natural, a woman my age being alone, you know?”

And it wasn’t that Maggie enjoyed being alone.  She just didn’t enjoy the groping sessions she had been subjected to on most of her dates.  Sadly, to her own bitter disappointment, she was still a virgin at twenty-four, without even a prospective lover in sights.

Maybe she was too picky?  Her last date had politely assured her Prince Charming didn’t exist and it was a damned good thing, because she sure as hell didn’t have the manners of a Princess.  He had seemed to take bitter offense when she pulled back from his kiss and informed him that his tongue did not belong down her throat.

Now this.  She was a failure at the dating thing, and evidently she wasn’t very good at the journalism thing either.  But she hated features.  They were always so sweet, and so strange.  She didn’t want to know how Granny Jones grew her garden, or how a nudie senior citizens colony was started.  She wanted to do something exciting, something that would get her recognized.  She wanted to something that mattered, and she was failing at every attempt.

And now she couldn’t even be certain that Talen would show back up.  Damn he had been pissed earlier, and that wasn’t a good thing.  She had a feeling he would be even more pissed though if he knew what she had begun considering earlier in the afternoon.

Someone had killed Maria Morales, and Maggie was beginning to wonder who that someone was, and if they were the same someone suddenly so interested in the questions she was asking.  That little note taped on her truck door hadn’t been intended as a sole prank.  Someone wanted her to leave the questions about Maria alone, which made Maggie want to ask that many more.

Why would anyone care, if it had been a random murder, why she was asking questions?  If the murderer were still hanging around, wouldn’t he just lie low until she was finished and gone?  Unless that murder had something to do with Talen.

Maggie couldn’t believe that Talen had killed his mother, but what if it had been someone who had known him?  Perhaps someone who had found out his secret themselves?  Wouldn’t that person then become concerned over the time she and Talen were spending together?  If so, then that would mean it was someone close enough to know how much time they were spending together, or someone who watched Talen enough to know where he was spending his time lately.  Someone it would effect if he decided to reveal himself to the world.

It was getting confusing.  Maggie had envisioned a much nicer, less harrowing visit than this.  For some strange reason, she had thought Talen would be pleased that her father had a Senator, an entire newspaper staff, and several dozen doctors prepared to help assure his safety.  She had never imagined he would balk at the chance to live outside the threat that had stalked him all his life.

The sex novel was starting to sound better and better everyday.  She seriously considered it as she closed her eyes and leaned against the tent.  Just imagine, if her heroine was in this mess, how much easier it would be to write her out of it, than it was turning out for Maggie to think her way out of it.

The quiet surroundings, the soft serenade of the birds and the gentle rippling of the creek beside her soon lulled Maggie into sleep as well.  Despite the hard packed ground beneath her, she stretched out, her head pillowed on Moocher’s back and drifted off to sleep.  As she did, the image of her sexy hero became Talen, and his innocent heroine was herself.

*** 

He was a fool to come back, Talen knew.  He should have stayed as far away from her as possible.  He should have packed and loaded his truck and headed out of town just as he had told himself he was going to.  But here he was, following his dick instead of his head again. 

Talen watched Maggie sleep, lying stretched out on the ground, her head pillowed on the sleeping dog’s back and shook his head at the sight.  Any other woman would have just dragged herself into the tent and slept in relative comfort, but not her.  She just knocked off wherever she was laying.

He felt a grin crease his lips as he continued to watch her.  She was fun to be around, and she surprised him when he thought no woman could.  Of course, she could make him madder than hell too, but he found that another stimulation he hadn’t expected.

Despite Damen’s warnings and Talen’s own knowledge that she was going to be more trouble than she was worth, Talen found himself returning to her.  He was eager to be in her company again, to watch her smile and hear her laughter, and even to listen to her quiet breathing through the darkness of the night.

The night before he had slept close to her, listening intently for any signs of the intruder to return, and realizing as he did so that he was more comfortable sleeping in that tent with her than he had ever been sleeping in the same bed with another woman.

He never slept with women, actually.  Never shared the same room with them.  His unique physical characteristics left that option out for him.  He had to hide who he was, what he was, and not take the risk of being realized.

But Maggie knew who and what he was.  Due to his mother’s fears for his life, she had made the knowledge of his creation known to someone else, and that man had sent his daughter to find him.

Talen had known when he got the call that a Miss Maggie Taylor was heading to his private camping spot, who she was and why she was there.  He had beat her there by an hour, and had waited impatiently, determined to send her on her way.

The dog had shown up first, coming up to Talen first thing, sniffing him, watching him with intelligent canine eyes as though assuring him that his secrets were safe with him and his mistress.

Minutes later, Maggie had arrived, and Talen had felt his breath suspend in his chest.  She had been gorgeous.  Sweat dampened, heaving from carrying the load of camping equipment, and cursing the dog for not walking on two legs and helping her.

She had been filled with laughter though.  Even when the tent refused to sit upright despite her careless attempts at erecting it, she had laughed as she cursed.  Evidently, she was more than aware that she was helpless at certain things.

“Good thing I know how to cook over a campfire at least, otherwise, we’d just be screwed, Moocher,” she had chuckled as she propped her hands on her slender hips and surveyed that sagging tent. 

Now, she was sleeping like a child.  Curled up on the ground, uncaring that the tent would offer more comfort. 

She had seemed depressed though when she had first arrived, or angry over something.  He had seen the pale cast of her cheeks and knew that something had happened on her little fact-finding mission to upset her.

Talen frowned, wondering what sort of trouble she could have run into.  Dean Williams was a nice enough guy, and though Talen was certain he would have been hesitant to talk about the woman he knew as Jennifer, Talen also knew he would have been polite about it.

Adjusting the two large pizzas in one hand, and the cooler in the other, Talen took a deep breath and walked slowly into the tree-sheltered campsite.

Moocher opened one eye and watched as he walked toward them, but he made no move to get up, or to disturb Maggie.  The dog had accepted from the first, that Talen was a friend, and just as interested in Maggie’s well being as he was.

Sitting the pizzas and cooler down by the fire ring, Talen squatted beside Maggie and watched her sleep.  Her soft pink lips were parted and moist, her dark brown lashes lying serenely against her flushed cheeks.

“Hey sleepyhead, it’s not supposed to be nap time.”  He nudged her shoulder gently with her fingers.  “Wake up, I brought that damned pizza you were hollering so loudly about earlier.”

Her lashes fluttered, opening to reveal sexy, drowsy brown eyes as she looked up at him blearily.

“You’re early.”  She yawned, pushing herself upright as she gazed up at him.  “Didn’t think you came out until dark or something.”

“Yeah, I’ve been known to see the sun when good food is involved though,” he told her with a chuckle as he sat down in front of her, propping his arm on his bent knee as he watched her.  “So what have you been up to today?”

 ***

Maggie narrowed her eyes at Talen’s far too innocent expression.  His golden brown eyes were watching her with a knowing glint that would have been hard to miss.

“You know, that sex novel I want to write is sounding better every day.  I’ve just about decided to give up the journalism business.”

“Not going well, huh?”  He nodded as though sympathizing with her predicament.  “That’s a shame.  But hey, you have pizza and beer tonight and friendly company.  What more could you ask for?”

Maggie narrowed her eyes on his handsome, too-innocent face.  Oh, he was good, she gave him that much.  Too damned good in some cases, but in this one, he didn’t have her fooled.

“The truth,” Maggie told him quietly.  “What I was sent after.”

Talen sighed roughly, turning his head to stare out at the creek as it ran lazily, peacefully through the valley.  He rubbed his chin thoughtfully, and Maggie watched as he began to plan.  Oh, what she wouldn’t give to be able to read that man’s mind right about now.

“The truth can be many things to many men, Maggie.  Sometimes, the truth is better kept hidden, the lie perpetuated, for the greater good.  Sometimes there is nothing good that can come from the truth.  Besides, all you’re after is a camping story, what more truth do you need besides the beauty God gave us here?”

Maggie had never subscribed to that theory.  The truth should always be there, wrongs should always be made right, and the peace of everyone else should not be bought with the life of another.

“Tell me about your mother,” she asked him, knowing that the time for games was quickly coming to an end.  A week went by quickly, and her father always meant what he said.  “I can’t do anything without your physical presence back in New York, but at least let me know what I’m dealing with here.  She was murdered.  Do you want her murderer to go unpunished Talen?”

Talen was silent for so long, that Maggie was beginning to think that he had no intentions of answering her.

“You’re dealing with something far greater than yourself, Maggie.”  He shook his head, still staring out at the creek, refusing to look at her.  “My mother’s death was unexplained.  There were no suspects, and no one was caught.  That’s all the truth I have for you there.”

Maggie felt her stomach clench at the bitterness, the anger she could feel emanating from him.

She sighed deeply, her eyes falling on the pizzas and the cooler sitting beside him.  She nearly smiled, knowing exactly what it contained.  The man liked his food if nothing else.

Pulling one of the large boxes towards her, she opened it, and pulled out a thick slice of double cheese, and mile high toppings.  Taking a quick bite, she chewed as she watched him, considering her own words carefully.

“My time will run out soon, Talen.  I’ll keep asking questions where I can.  Wouldn’t it be easier to answer them for me?”  She asked him, pulling out another slice with her free hand and handing it to Moocher.

Talen turned back to her, his eyes hooded, his expression closed as he watched her.  Then those golden eyes flickered to Moocher staring longingly at the pizza box.

“Beauty, I told you, you’re wasting your time.  I know why Steven Taylor sent you out here, just like I know exactly what my mother sent him.  She thought the exposure would protect me.  I say it will cause more harm then good.  Now let’s leave it there for now.”  Following her example, he pulled out a piece of pizza for himself, and one for Moocher.  Then going one better, he opened the cooler and pulled out a cold beer.

Twisting the cap off, he handed her one, then opened one for himself.

“Talen, you can’t run forever, surely you see that?”  She whispered painfully, overcome by the worry that one day soon, the men looking for him would find him again.  “Don’t you want to live?”  The pizza was forgotten as she stared at him.

Talen has a hard, self assured expression on his face as he ate his pizza, and took a long drink of the beer before answering her.

“What I want doesn’t always matter, Beauty.  It never has, and it won’t start now.  What I sure as hell don’t want is a bunch of scientists poking and prodding at me while the government decides if I or any children I may sire, have a right to live.  Now goddamn it, let it go,” he bit out angrily.

He rose to his feet and stomped to the creek, leaning, wearily it seemed to Maggie, against the shelter of a tree there.

Maggie rose to her feet and followed him.  Stopping beside him, she laid her hand on the bunched muscles of his arm, staring up at him as she tried to make him understand.

“Talen, I care about what happens to you.  I don’t want to see you dead.”  Her heart clenched at the thought of anything happening to him.

“Then leave, Beauty.”  He pushed his hands through his hair roughly as he stared down at her.  “Pack your daddy’s truck up and drive out of her now, because sure we’re standing here, if you don’t, you’re going to end up in just as much danger as I’m in.”

“Talen,” she whispered her hand touching his chest beneath the faded gray of his t-shirt.  “You can’t run forever.  Sooner or later you’ll have to stop, and when you do…”

Talen’s arms went around her, pulling her closer against his hard body, then sudden lowering of his head cutting off her words as his lips met her.

Maggie felt her breath sputter in her chest as a small hitching whimper escaped her lips only to be swallowed by his.

His tongue licked softly at her lips until they opened, then it was exploring her mouth slowly, driving her crazy with the soft, tender caress.

Her hands clutched at his shoulders as she rose on tiptoes to get closer to the heat and madness of his kiss.  All thoughts of why she was there, and the story she was after dissipated beneath the arousing touch of his lips on hers, his hands caressing her back slowly.

Maggie could feel something inside her burning.  A raging heat gathering in the pit of her stomach and extending throughout her body as her nerve endings became sensitized, peaked with arousal at his touch.

He growled, God she loved that sound, like a rough purr against her lips as his hands gripped her hips and pulled her closer to the hardness of his thighs.

“Damn you,” he cursed her.  “Why do you always have to taste so good?”

Maggie could feel the heat of their bodies melting her, burning her from the inside out like nothing she had ever known before.  Her arms were around his neck now, her fingers burrowing into the rough texture of his hair as he held her hips still and pressed the hard length of his arousal against her.

She would have pleaded for more.  Would have fought to get her hands beneath his t-shirt to touch the smooth, hot skin of his body had Moocher not chosen that moment to go completely wild.

The furious, ear splitting sound of his barks, the heavily implied threat of the sounds, and the angry male cry from the campsite brought Maggie and Talen abruptly apart.

A Breed Apart - Part 21

Published in Sensuous Escapes newsletter (May 31, 2005 edition)

Moocher had the man on the ground, his mouth at his neck as throaty growls erupted from his chest.  The man beneath him was still, his expression horrified as his hands were braced at the dog’s jaws, trying frantically to release the steel hard grip Moocher had taken.

Maggie recognized the man instantly as the one who had filled her truck with gas at the small station she had stopped in Sandy Hook.  He was also the “friend” Talen had claimed at the small grocery store.  What the hell had he been doing sneaking around the camp?

There had been no warning, no sign from Moocher that there was anyone in the vicinity until his attack.  The dog had taken no chances in warning Maggie of the intruder, but had taken care of the matter himself, the way he had been taught.

“Moocher, hold him,” Maggie called out to him as she and Talen raced to the tent.

While Talen began to yell at the man furiously, Maggie jerked her father’s .9-millimeter gun from the holster inside the tent and aimed it at the man still lying on the ground.

“Get the hell away from him, Talen,” Maggie screamed as she flipped the safety off the gun and faced the intruder with her legs planted apart, the gun braced in both hands and locked on the man’s chest.

“Goddammit, put the fucking gun away and call this bastard off him.”  Talen turned on her, disgust radiating along his expression.  “He’s fucking stupid, not threatening.”

The sheer fury in Talen’s expression and voice had Maggie doing as she was told.

“Moocher, come here,” Maggie called him back; though she kept the gun aimed on the man and watched him carefully.

As the dog released him, the man eased up, his eyes never leaving Moocher until Talen reach down and hauled him roughly to his feet.

“What the hell do you think you’re trying to do?”  Talen jerked him around to face him. 

“Hell, Tal, I sure wasn’t up to a dog fight.”  The man brushed his jeans, shaking his head as he glanced at the dog again.  “Where’d she get that mother anyway?”

“Be more concerned about how damned hard I’m going to kick you back up that hill,” Talen snarled.  “Did you want your throat torn out?  I warned you about that damned dog.”

Maggie frowned, watching the two men closely as they both seemed to settle down from some pumping adrenaline high.  Both were breathing harshly, their teeth clenched in a kind of male anger Maggie had never understood, and their bodies tense and wired.

“For God’s sake, the dog settles down easier than you two do,” she bit out as she reached into the tent and placed the gun back into its sheath.  “Talk about testosterone overload here.”

Sitting down roughly, one hand petting Moocher as she grabbed her forgotten beer with the other, Maggie watched them with no small amount of confusion.  They were staring at her like she was insane.  She shook her head, wondering if she would ever understand the male of the species.

“Who is he?”  She finally asked Talen after taking a small sip of her bear.  “If he’s an enemy, too late, I’ve all ready put the gun away.”

Talen gritted his teeth.  Maggie noticed he did that a lot around her.

“I’m sorry ma’am.”  White teeth flashed in a ruggedly handsome face as the stranger turned back to her.  “I’ve seen you a few times, but never introduced myself.  Damen Williams, at your service.”

Maggie looked down at the hand he had stepped forward to extend to her.  She shook it briefly, still watching him carefully.

“Thought you didn’t know Talen,” she told him thoughtfully, her head tilting as she watched the two men exchange a telling look.  “That was what you said the first day I arrived and asked about him, wasn’t it?”

“Lady, I tell everyone who asks that I don’t know him,” Damen assured her with a relaxed, easy smile.  “It’s a way of life.  This boy has more soldiers after him than Suddam did at the height of the war, I do believe.”

“The Mother of all Prey, huh?”  She asked, hiding her grin as Talen’s frown increased.

“Well, the Brother of ‘em anyway.”  Damen laughed as he stepped back, glancing uneasily at Talen as he did so.  “Look, I wasn’t tryin’ to interrupt anything, I just wanted to discuss something with you is all.  No big deal.  I didn’t expect that dog to attack first and ask questions later though.”  He rubbed his neck with a grimace.

“I do recall warning you.”  Talen scowled.  “More than once.”

Damen shrugged, grinning over at Maggie as Talen stood impatiently waiting on him to leave.

“Hell, that looks like pizza and beer.  Can I join you?”  Damen smiled easily in Maggie’ direction

“No,” Talen snapped.

“Sure.”  Maggie spoke at the same time Talen did, and shook her head at his negative response.  “Ignore Talen, I think he’s had a bad day.”

Maggie fought to keep the amusement from her voice, but she was aware she was sadly failing.  That glitter in those golden eyes was a warning, and she knew he wasn’t going to let her get away laughing at him much longer.

That thought sent a shiver down her spine as she remembered the ways he had punished her before.  With his lips, and his hands, good gracious, that man was like an aphrodisiac himself.

Handing a bottle of beer to the man from the cooler, Maggie watched as the muscles in Talen’s jaw jerked.  He wanted Damen Williams to leave, and Maggie has a feeling she wanted him to stay.

“Have you know Talen long?”  She asked Damen as he sat down across from her and took a healthy bite from his pizza.

“Hmm, while now,” he mumbled around his pizza, and Maggie thought she detected the quick tightening of his lips as he fought a smile when Talen plopped down beside him with an irritated grunt.

“You can’t stay long,” he assured Damen.  “So finish that damned pizza and get the hell out of here.”

Maggie gave him a surprised look.

“It’s my camp, he can stay as long as he likes,” she argued.

“Well it’s my damned pizza and beer and I say his time is limited.”  Talen’s look practically dared the other man to argue.

“Talen Lyons, you’re rude,” Maggie told him with a frown.  Why did men always have to act like such babies?

“Yeah, you’re rude, Talen.  Let me enjoy my pizza and beer.”  From the looks of it, Damen was having a grand time thwarting Talen anyway.

“Go ahead and enjoy it.”  The smile Talen gave his friend wasn’t so friendly anymore. 

Maggie watched as Damen swallowed tightly, then hurriedly finished the beer and pizza and stood to go.

“Been great.”  He waved at Maggie as Talen rose as well.  “Guess I’ll see you around, Ms. Taylor.”

“Yeah, I bet you will.”  Maggie propped her head on her hand as she watched Damen back slowly out of the camp while Talen followed menacingly.  “Be careful there, Damen, I’m sure Talen’s bark is worse than his bite.”  Or his meow, Maggie thought, barely controlling her laughter as she did so.  But suspicion was flaring in her as she watched the slow easy grace of the man named Damen.  It was the same smooth way of moving that both Talen and Serin shared as well.  Her eyes narrowed, watching as they disappeared through the trees.  So, she wondered, did that make Damen Williams number three?

“What the hell are doing here, Damen?”  Talen turned on Damen furiously as they reach Damen’s truck.  “I told you to stay the hell away from here.”

“Sorry, Tal, but we had to talk.”  Damen shook his head as he glanced back towards camp, catching sight of Maggie as she moved around the fire pit, preparing it for whatever the hell she would do with it.

“About what?”  Talen bit out.

“There’s a real dangerous looking stranger in Sandy Hook going by the name Zane Masters.  He checked into the motel a few hours ago, and Serin recognized him from the picture I managed to snag from the Council’s computer records.  I don’t think he’s here just to look after his little sister either, cause he’s packing.  Serin said the smell of guns is thick as hell in his room.”

Talen breathed in roughly, then jerked his cell phone from the leather case on his belt.

“So why didn’t you call instead?”  He asked him harshly as he quickly dialed Serin’s office number.

Damen grinned and shrugged, and Talen knew the other man was just playing another of his damned games in trying to outsmart Maggie’s dog.

“Serin Tomas.”  Serin’s voice came over the line, soft and cool, and Talen knew just slightly nervous.

“You alone?”  He asked her, his voice pitched low.

“Yeah, we’re pretty busy tonight,” she told him with a soft laugh.  “Can I call you back later?”

“Be sure to.”  Talen grimaced, snapping the phone closed as he cursed roughly.  “Get to the motel, Damen, and watch her.  Zane’s obviously close enough to eavesdrop on her, and I don’t want her hurt.”

Damen nodded even as he dug his keys from his jeans pocket and jumped into his truck.  Talen watched him drive away as he clenched his teeth in fury.  He had hoped Zane wouldn’t take the job, but he should have known better.  An assassin as coldly objective and precise as Zane Masters hadn’t lived this long by letting his emotions get in the way of the job. 

He shook his head, still not convinced that he would be out for blood, and not just watching over his baby sister.  Zane would be heavily armed either way, and only time would prove what he was after, Maggie’ safety, or the man who was quickly losing his objectivity where the woman was concerned.

*

Caleb felt himself paling as he read Jason’s report on the Genetics Council, and the “supposed” rumors he had managed to substantiate.  The two old hunters who had told Jason about the six young people running from the labs that night had suffered a mysterious “accident” the night before, and Jason was now on the run himself, heading for home after a close call of the bullet kind on a deserted highway.

There was more than just Talen.  Five more to be exact, according to the scientist Darien had managed to track down.  Supposedly, the other five had suffered the same fate as everyone else in the labs that night, blown to hell and back, but they knew now that wasn’t true.  That placed Maggie in too much danger to allow her anymore time on the story, or Talen Lyons trail.  The stakes were too high now.

“Darien, head out for Sandy Hook.  Don’t let her know you’re there, stay out of sight, but get out there.  Zane’s disappeared, so I’m guessing he’s already out there.  See if you can make contact with him and keep an eye on her.”  Caleb ordered his twin as their father sat back silently in the chair he had taken.

“She’s going to be pissed.”  Darien smiled at the prospect.  He had always been the one to enjoy her fireworks the greatest.

“Don’t let her know you’re there,” Caleb warned him again.  “We don’t need her pissed unless we have no other choice.  “I don’t doubt a bit she won’t leave the paper if we don’t toe the line on this one.  You want to try keeping an eye on her while she’s working for a competitor?” 

Darien’s wince was enough to convince Caleb that his brother would stay in line.

“Did Brandon come up with that information she wanted this afternoon?”  He asked his father.

“He’ll have the information by tomorrow evening, he thinks.”  Steven nodded.  “We’ll see what it says before we make any further plans.”

Caleb nodded.  This wasn’t about the story; this was about keeping Maggie safe, as well as Talen.  Caleb was not impressed with the reasons his father had sent Maggie to Sandy Hook.  Hell, they had all known what Zane did for a living for years now, and he couldn’t understand why his father refused to allow Zane the knowledge that they did know.  So he killed terrorists for a living?  It wasn’t as though they hadn’t deserved it.

Caleb didn’t agree with this job that Zane had taken though.  He should have refused, for Maggie’s sake, if for no other reason.  They all knew their baby sister was going to get personally involved with this, and he couldn’t understand Zane’s insistence on going after the man anyway.  But then again, they all knew that Zane did not regard Talen Lyons as a man at all, but an animal, and one that shouldn’t be allowed to live.

He sighed deeply, pinching the bridge of his nose as he closed his eyes momentarily. 

“This is getting ready to turn into a shit case,” he breathed out wearily, opening his eyes to stare his father, then his twin Darien.  “Maggie could get hurt bad, or worse if she tried to get between Talen and Zane.”

“Zane wouldn’t hurt Maggie, Caleb,” Darien denied the charge heatedly.

“But what if Maggie jumps between Talen and Zane?”  Caleb asked him softly, his heart beginning to hammer at the thought.  “What happens then Darien?”

A Breed Apart - Part 22

Published in Sensuous Escapes newsletter (June 8, 2005 edition)

Maggie was waiting on him when he walked back into the campsite, his hard face cast in shadow by the glow of the small fire she had made.  Moocher was standing beside her, his tail wagging as she petted his back gently, watching as Talen approached the camp hesitantly.

Maggie felt a frisson of alarm as she realized how glad she had been to see him return earlier.  She hadn’t admitted it to herself, but she had been terrified he wouldn’t come back.

“I was starting to get worried,” she said as he sat down slowly in front of the tent, watching her quietly.  “Everything okay with Damen?”

“Fine.”  He nodded.  “He was just being nosy.”

Maggie nodded, suddenly unsure as she watched him, noting the golden glitter in his eyes, the tense, watchful stance of his body.

“Are you leaving tonight?”  She asked him softly, fighting to hide the pain in her voice.

“I should,” he muttered, running his hands through his hair as he watched her.  “I really should, but I don’t guess I am.  Dammit, Beauty, we should both head the hell out of here and go in opposite directions.”

“What happened?  He was here for a reason, Talen.  I’m not stupid.”  Maggie remembered her conversation with Serin, and the threat that an assassin would be sent for Talen.  Could one have been seen?  Was Talen somehow in more danger than he was before?

“Nothing happened,” he told her, but she didn’t believe him.  She could see the worry that filled his eyes; that had his body drawn tight.

“Don’t lie to me,” she shook her head in fury as she stomped over to the fire pit and knelt beside it to light the fire.  “I hate it when I’m lied to.  Poor, stupid little Maggie, let’s just keep her in the dark so she doesn’t know what the hell is going on.  Let’s just lie to her, and call it protecting her.”

She was unaware of the tears that had began to fall as the fire flamed and she sat there, fighting the fear and the pain, and the knowledge that he was going to leave her soon.

“Beauty.”  Talen knelt behind her, his hands on her shoulders as he turned her to face him, then pulling her into his embrace as her shoulders shook with silent sobs.  “Come on, don’t cry on me.  That’s an unfair advantage.  I bet you don’t cry on your brothers.”

Talen was getting desperate.  There were no female wails, not pleading or screaming, just the silent tears, and the shudder of her shoulders.

“I hate being lied to.  I hate being protected.  Tell me what the hell is going on, Talen,” she whispered against his chest, fighting her need to scream, to demand and plead with him that he not keep her in the dark.

“I’m not certain yet, Maggie, and that’s the truth,” he told her quietly.  “When I know for certain, you can bet I’ll tell you.  I won’t lead you into anything blind.”

“Then talk to me.”  She drew back from him.  “Tell me what I need to know, let me help you.”

His hand reached up and wiped her tears gently from her face as he gazed down at her sadly. 

“Fine.  What do you want to know?”  He settled her in his arms as he moved to the boulders, leaning against them comfortably.

She drew a deep breath, feeling him strong and solid at her back, and suddenly she realized there were so many things she wanted to know, and wasn’t certain how to ask.  So she started with the easiest one.

 “Why didn’t Moocher let me know you were here when I first set up camp?”  She finally asked him.  “He knew you were here, but he didn’t even attempt to let me know. Why?”

Talen sighed deeply, his hand running slowly down her neck as he pulled her closer to him.  .

“He knew I was just watching out for you.”  He finally shrugged.  “This is my property.  I spend a lot of time here, and my scent is everywhere.  Besides, I have an, affinity, with animals.” 

The way he said the word ‘affinity’ had Maggie’ frowning in confusion.

“You can talk to animals?”  She asked him curiously.

Breathing out roughly, Talen shook his head with a quick, jerky movement. 

“Nothing so simple,” he said mirthlessly.  “But there’s an awareness.  An instinctual sort of knowledge that I suspect is part of the DNA I was given.  Moocher recognized that, as well as the fact that I was no danger to you.  That’s why he had no fear.  Now why weren’t you afraid?  You knew I was here, yet you acted as though it were an everyday occurrence.”

He looked down at her as she moved slightly so she could see his dark face as it was lit in savage lines by the light of the fire.  Intelligence and primal awareness seemed to shimmer on the air around him.

“Moocher wasn’t alarmed, so there was no reason for me to be.”  She shrugged, staring into the fire now as she digested this information.  “Besides, I had a feeling it was you.  According to Maria’s letter to my father, you would recognize my last name as well as the name of the paper.  Your being here already wasn’t a surprise to me.  Your ability to get past Dad’s security on the SUV was, though.”

Talen shrugged.  “It isn’t so hard, if you know how.”

“How did you learn?”  She asked him. 

She heard him sigh roughly, and watched the resignation that filled his face as she sought some way to ask the questions she knew she had to.  She was more than relieved when he began talking.

“It’s not as simple as learning.  I have a heightened sense of smell in most cases.  I can purr and I can growl, and I can sneak through the forest so quietly even Moocher couldn’t hear me.  My IQ is exceptionally high, though I’m a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none, as the saying goes.  I can pick any lock, and get through most security systems.  It’s just something I learned how to do through my training before Maria left the Council.  I was bred to kill, Maggie, but I don’t kill.  I can if I have to, but those bastards messed up when they created me.  They allowed me to have a soul.”

Tears came to Maggie’ eyes as she heard the pain in his voice, the bitter acceptance of who and what he was seemed to be even more than he could bear at times.

 “Tell me about the Genetics Council.  At least give me something here to help you, Talen.  They’re going to kill you.  You know that, as well as I do.  You can only run for so long,” she pleaded with him.  “Tell me how to help you.”

Weary resignation had him sighing roughly and staring into the darkness of the forest as though he could find the solutions he needed there.  He looked tired, but not beaten.  And though she knew he could see the need to answer her questions, he still didn’t accept it.

“The Genetics council is a group of very wealthy, very powerful American’s who believe that genetics can create the perfect, heartless hunter.  They want an army to weed out the undesirable elements in American society and kill them.  Something disposable.  An army they can control and kill at will when they’re finished with them.”

Tethered rage vibrated in his voice.

“My brother has found proof that there are more than just you.”  Maggie stated as she swallowed tightly.  “Have the others found you yet?”  She wanted to ask him about Serin, about Damen, but she dared not.  Not yet.

“I found them,” he stated, and she could tell by the closed expression on his face that he didn’t intend to say anymore about it.

“They’re like you?  They have the same DNA in their blood that you carry as well?”  She asked him softly; aware she was treading on thin ice while questioning him about the others.

“They have the same DNA.”  Talen answered her carefully. 

“So the project wasn’t terminated like Maria thought.  They continued even after they disbanded the original scientists?  Why did they do that?”

Talen’s lips compressed, and she see the muscles at his jaw bunching.

“They didn’t get what they wanted when they made me, and the scientists on the project that created me, weren’t willing to go further.  So they tried to get rid of them and start over.”

“And the others were the result?  Who are they, and how did you find out about them?”  Maggie shook her head; unable to accept that there were men and women heartless enough to play with lives in such a way.

“No more questions, Maggie.”  Talen shook his head.  “I won’t answer any more questions about the others.  I’ve warned you that this is too big for you or your brothers. Now you tell me about the man following you?  I know you told Serin about it, because she told Damen.  Now I want to know.”

Maggie could see that for the moment, Talen was indeed finished with the questions she had.  Briefly, she filled him in on her morning’s activities and the man who had followed her after she left Sandy Hook.

“I’ll find out who it is.”  He nodded.  “Now, I brought a cooler filled with beer, and sodas and that pizza Moocher is eyeing is damned good.  I suggest we eat, and see about getting some sleep.  We’ll get up first thing in the morning and pack you up so you can head for home.”

He didn’t want her to go.  Maggie could hear it in his voice and see it in his face.  He knew that whatever this emotion was developing between them was important, just as she did.  He didn’t want to lose it anymore she was willing to let it go.

Maggie watched as he rose to his feet and walked over to the tent.  She let him unzip the shelter, drag the cooler out and open it before she spoke.

“I’m not going anywhere tomorrow, Talen,” she told him softly when his gaze finally met hers.  “And if you try to run, I’ll just follow you.  I’ll make the Genetics Council look like teddy bears in my hunt for you.”  How she would do that, she wasn’t certain.  But she knew that more than half of the threat was in the determination behind the bluff.

Maybe her bluff worked.  Talen stiffened as though offended, but she glimpsed the spark in those golden brown eyes as he turned quickly from her.

“Maggie, what the hell am I going to do about you?”  He shook his head as he looked into the cooler rather than in her eyes.  “I keep telling myself to walk away, but I’ll be damned if it’s doing me any good.”

“Why can’t you walk away, Talen?”  She asked him softly.  “I’m not holding you here, I’m not forcing you to watch out for me.  Why would you stay if you didn’t want to?” Maggie placed careful emphasis on that last line.

Talen shook his head as he glanced at her, and Maggie felt herself becoming lost in those dark gold eyes, and the secrets she could sense buried within this man.

She wanted to touch him, to ease the pain she could feel radiating along his body.  God help her, but she thought she was falling in love with him.  Only days after meeting him, and her heart ached to hold him, to heal him.

“Stop it, Beauty,” he whispered, his hand moving to cup her cheek as she stared up at him.  “It’s too late to save me.  Too late to do anything but just walk away, and I swear, I’d give everything I have, if you would do that just that.  I’m not a good bet, I’m not even fully human, and I can’t protect myself much longer, let alone someone else.”

Maggie rose to her knees, her hand cupping his, holding it pressed to her cheek as she faced him and lifted her other hand to cup his.

“I can’t walk away from you Talen, and I can’t give up so easily.  They will kill you.  How can I live with myself if I don’t do something to try to stop that from happening?”

“But I should have never been created in the first place, Maggie.  I should have joined the fate of those they created before and been left to die.  Don’t you understand?  I’m a freak.  A creation of science and the world will never be ready to accept it.”

The disgust in his tone was aimed more at himself than anywhere else.  Talen didn’t feel worthy of life because he wasn’t ‘normal’, because his very cell structure had been decided by something and someone other than God.

“Oh Talen, that’s not true,” she whispered as her arms went around his shoulders, holding him close despite the stiffening of his body.  “You are not a freak, and you are very acceptable.  The world just needs to know.  It has to know what those men are trying to do and why.  And the only way they will know, is if you tell them.”

Talen’s arms slowly came around her, his hands splaying against her back, his chin resting on top of her head.

“Enough, Beauty.”  She could hear the weariness in is voice, and see it in his body.  “Come on, let’s have dinner and just enjoy tonight.  In the morning we’ll argue about it as we pack you up to go.”

Maggie smiled sadly.  There was no way in hell she was going anywhere and Talen just may have to learn that one the hard way.  But for now, she would drop it, and enjoy the night with him.

Talen held Maggie close, his arms wrapped around her as he inhaled the fresh, warm scent of her body.  God, he wondered if any other woman had ever felt so good against him.

Her body seemed to fit him, from hip to head, she tucked into his body as though she had been made for him alone.

His hands were splayed flat on her slender back, feeling the warm skin beneath the soft cotton of her shirt.  He wanted to stay like that forever, cradling her in his arms, with hers wrapped tightly around his shoulders.

Real life was getting ready to intervene though, and as much as he hated it, he knew there was no avoiding it.  Now, if he could just get the woman in his arms to accept it.

“Come on.”  He kissed the top of her head gently as he moved back from her.  “I brought the Pizza just like you told me to.  I swear though, you eat more pizza and steak than any woman I know.”

Talen’s attempt at humor fell flat when he pulled back and looked into the shimmering depths of her eyes. 

He wanted to hide from what he saw there.  He wanted to run from it harder than he wanted to run from the Genetics Council.  There, shadowed by the light of the fire, the soft dark depths of her eyes reflected an emotion he didn’t want to see.  An emotion he didn’t know how to deal with from a woman.

“Yeah, I promised you some steaks too didn’t I?”  She smiled weakly, though her eyes never left his, and the warmth he saw there heated his own blood.

“Come here.”  He leaned close, not quite pulling her into his arms, yet not letting her go either. 

His lips touched hers gently, his tongue peeking out to lick at hers erotically.

Maggie’ lips parted, her tongue touching his, causing that warning growl he had little control over with her, to vibrate against his throat.  He felt her shiver at the sound, and almost smiled at the way it seemed to arouse her.  Any other woman would have been running in fear, but not this one.

“The Pizza,” he whispered on a sigh, pushing her back regretfully as he rose to his feet.  “Come on, it’s getting late, and we need to get some sleep tonight.”

Damn, his cock was steel hard from a single kiss, and the touch of her hands.  At this rate, he would end up giving her what they both wanted so much, then the situation would really be out of his control.  Because Talen knew that once he had her, it would destroy him to ever let her go.

A Breed Apart - Part 23

Published in Sensuous Escapes newsletter (June 16, 2005 edition)

Maggie didn’t leave the next morning, but not because Talen wasn’t determined that she would.  He had her up just past dawn, packing her supplies together, urging her to hurry and dress so she could get an early start.

Maggie began unpacking behind him, putting her things back where she had them, determined to stay.

“Dammit, there’s no story here, Maggie.  I’m not going back with you.”

“Says who?”  She argued, facing him outside the smaller tent that held her porta pottie.  “I haven’t finished charming you into it yet.  And I’ve only got to sweet lip you a couple of times.  Come on Talen, give me a break.”

His face went slack with surprise as her words registered.

“You think you can charm me into standing before the world and telling them what I am?  You think a few kisses has me so enamored I’ve forgotten my common sense? ”  He asked her, incredulity thick in his voice.  “Baby, you have charm, I’ll admit.  But there ain’t a chance in hell that ones ever going to happen.”

“That hasn’t been determined yet.”  She shrugged.  “I’m not finished and I’m not leaving until I am.  Besides, Dad will never trust me with another big story if I don’t bring you in.”  She tried her most pathetic expression on him.  “I’ll have to line up lovers at my bedroom door and start writing that hot sex novel instead.”

It almost worked.  Outrage flashed across his face a second before he erupted into laughter.

“Beauty, I’m not nearly as easy to work as your brothers are.  I’ll be first in line to help you with your research there, but no way in hell am I giving you what you need for your father’s paper.  So you may as well hightail it back to New York,” he told her amid his laughter.

“And just trust you to be first in line?”  She arched her brows questioningly.  “You’d renege on me and there I’d be stuck with some moron who likely wouldn’t even know how to put it in right.”

She shocked him.  She could see it in the way he suddenly stopped stuffing her clothes into the backpack and turned to face her.  Or maybe it wasn’t shock, she thought as she saw the deep glitter in his gaze as it roved over her body.

“Beauty, any man who got you beneath his body would definitely have no problem figuring out how to put it in right.”  His voice was harsh as he spoke, rumbling in a half growl.

“Maybe I’d want to be on top.”  She shrugged, willing to carry on any kind of conversation as long as it meant he would stop packing for her.  “It would take someone who definitely knew what he was doing, wouldn’t it?”

Talen’s throat seemed to spasm as he swallowed and his face flushed as her words hit him.

“You’re dangerous,” he muttered, clenching his hands at his sides as the pack dropped to the ground and left the tent.

Maggie breathed a sigh of relief as she followed him, watching as he stopped halfway to the creek and drew in a deep breath.

“Control, Talen.  You can do it,” she told him, not bothering to hide her laughter as she propped herself against a tree and watched as he fought for that very thing.

He turned on her then, anger radiating through every muscle of his body.

“That’s it, I’m finished.  Pack your own shit, I’m out of here.  And I won’t be back, Maggie,” he warned her as he stalked from the camp site and headed for the clearing above.

“I’m catching fish this afternoon.  Don’t be late Talen, I’ll need you to clean them before I cook them tonight,” she called out to him, watching as he hesitated within the tree line, his fists clenched, his body nearly shaking with his anger.

“I won’t be back, Beauty.”  He turned on her, determination stamped on his hard face.

“You better be.”  She crossed her arms over her breasts and watched him as frown creased her brow.  “No way in hell am I cleaning the damned things.  If I can catch them, then dammit, you can clean them.”

“You’re crazy.”  Talen threw his hands up explosively as he turned away once again and stalked through the woods, his voice carrying back to her.  “God help me, that woman is fucking crazy.  I quit, I just quit…” the words drifted away, until a few minutes later she heard his truck start up and speed quickly away.

Maggie glanced down at where Moocher was laying beside her, his head on his paws as he had watched the confrontation curiously.

“Any advice, Moocher?”  She asked him as she stared down at him.

The dog turned and looked at her as though she had lost her mind.

“Yeah, I probably have.”  Maggie propped her hands on her hips and stared at the direction Talen had taken.  “But I’ll be damned if he wouldn’t be worth it.”

Shaking her head at the problems now confronting her, Maggie stalked back to her tent and donned her bikini.  Gathering up soap and shampoo she skipped across the rocks that bridged the wide creek and took a long shower beneath the waterfall.

The feel of the water against her skin was heavenly, and even though she would prefer to do this in the nude, she wasn’t about to tempt any more crazy behavior from Talen if he had managed to sneak back and was now watching her.

Finished with the shower, and dress in fresh shorts and a tank top, Maggie slipped soft canvas sneakers on her feet, then laid a small amount of deadwood in the fire ring and lit it.

She needed coffee and breakfast, then she would see what she could figure out in salvaging the story that Talen was refusing to cooperate on.

He is male, therefore he must be stubborn and intractable, and as infuriating as possible even at the best of time, Maggie thought, remembering fondly her mother’s various excuses for the male race.

Soon, the coffee was heating with a mouth-watering aroma, and the big black iron skillet was sizzling with bacon as Maggie mixed flour and dried milk and water into a bowl.

Within an hour she had biscuits, bacon, and eggs ready to eat.  As she scooped Moochers portion into a Styrofoam plate, she was distracted by his low growl, and the alert stance he had taken as he peered into the woods.

Standing to her feet, Maggie watched as two young woman hiked merrily along the rough path from the main road.

“Hey, in the camp.  Does that monster bite?”

Blonde and sophisticated, dressed in jeans, a dark burgundy cotton blouse and hiking boots, Serin called out a greeting, of sorts.

“Settle down, Moocher.”  Maggie patted his head, recognizing his warning as one used merely to alert her to visitors.

“Only if he has to,” she called back, smiling as the two women entered the clearing.  “You two are out early?” 

Maggie eyed the fishing poles the two women carried, and the tackle box in the blonde’s hand.  They sure as hell didn’t look like any fisherwomen she had ever seen.  Of course, Maggie could say in any degree of certainty that she had met any true fisherwomen.

“We were trying to get away from men, but the smell of breakfast drew us up here.  Damn, how did you do that?”  The blonde eyed the fluffy biscuits and bacon with longing. “Besides, I figured you were getting lonely out here.  I saw Talen racing past the motel earlier, and when he didn’t go back through, I figured he was pissed over something.”

“Pissed doesn’t describe it.”  Maggie laughed.  “He was cursing women in general and me in particular when he left.”

“That’s what I figured, so I rounded up Laney here, and decided to come keep you company if you didn’t have any other plans.”

 “Hello, Laney.”  Maggie laughed.  “Sit down and join me.  I have plenty of coffee and biscuits and bacon, but be warned, Moocher there is a terrible beggar.  You may not get to eat much of it.”

“Moocher.”  Laney’s drawl was country and fresh as she looked at the dog in horror.  “That poor animal.  You should have named him something that suits him.  Maybe…” she looked at Moocher, seeing the woebegone expression on his face as he eyed the large biscuit heaped with bacon that Maggie handed her.  “Moocher.”  She giggled.

“Yep, so now you know.”  Maggie leaned back against her tent, sipping from her coffee as she eyed the two women.

“You sure Talen didn’t send you two out here to talk me into leaving?”  She asked them as she watched Laney’s sudden look of horror.

“Oh no, if he knew we were here, he’d kill us both.”  Laney looked around as though she expected him to jump out at her at any minute.

“Why?”  Maggie frowned.

“Well, to be honest, we’re not supposed to be here.”  Serin’s green eyes were filled with humor and no small amount of determination.  “He gave us all strict orders to stay away from you.”

Maggie grinned, wondering what made Talen think he could make this woman do anything.  It was written all over her that she would hesitate to take orders from any man.

“Why did he do that?”  Maggie asked her, a bit confused now, though she had an uneasy suspicion she was about to learn more than she wanted to.

“I think he’s afraid Serin would do exactly as she did, and spill her guts,” Laney spoke up.  “He knows how we feel about all this, and he didn’t want us drawn into it in any way.  Besides, he thinks you’re investigating Maria’s death as well, and he didn’t want us hurt.”

Guileless light hazel eyes met Maggie’ with a hint of hesitation.

Maggie shrugged.  “I’m not really investigating her death.  Meeting Talen just made me curious though.  I told him the story I was here for.”

“Yeah, camping in the great outdoors.”  Serin laughed as she lifted her coffee cup to the perfect bow of her lips and sipped.  “I read a few of your articles in the Forum.  The one on Granny Jones was good, but you really should have told us more about the ghosts she claimed were in her attic.”

Maggie knew it was a good thing she wasn’t sipping her own coffee at the moment, or she would have spit it out in the laughter that erupted from her throat.

“I thought no one caught that.”  She shook her head as she laughed.  “I couldn’t say ghosts, so I just said spirits.  Would you believe my brother asked me what year they were, thinking old Granny Jones had hidden some old liquor in her attic?”

Both women erupted in laughter at that one.  Their mirth echoed around the clearing, and for Maggie, who had always had a hard time making friends, or being comfortable around others, she found herself relaxing with the two.

Their slow drawl’s and unique phrases had her laughing so hard her side ached.  While her ‘Yankee” accent as they called it, had them clutching their sides just as hard when she said something unknown to them.

They sat around the fire until nearing noon before Maggie put out the fire, and set off the empty coffee pot.  Then she dragged out the cooler filled with cold drinks.

“Let’s put those fishing rods to use.”  She nodded at the poles the girl’s carried.  “I hope you brought your own bait, cause I’m kind of low.”

“Of course we brought our own bait, we wouldn’t have wanted you to think we were lying to you if you’d brought the fishing act.”  Laney laughed, slowly warming up and becoming a talkative, if sweet young girl.

“Good, let’s grab Talen’s sleeping bag and use it to sit on.  He’s not supposed to be back anyway.”  Maggie dragged the heavy blue bag out of the tent and faced the gaping women.

“My God, he’s been sleeping with you?”  Serin asked her almost reverently.  “You gotta tell me what it was like, Maggie.  I swear, you gotta tell me.”

Maggie would have laughed at the comical expression if the situation weren’t so pathetic.

“What was what like?”  Maggie growled.  “He curled on his side and I curled on mine and I got to listen to him snore all night long.  Is that what you were talking about?”

After delivering that shocking bit of news, Maggie collected her fishing rod and the little cup of worms she had transferred to a small bucket filled with dirt.

They were still wiggling around.  Fat and sassy and as happy as a worm could get, Maggie thought as she opened the lid and peeked in.

Tucking the hole punctured lid back into place, Maggie picked up the cooler filled with drinks and looked at the girls expectantly..

“No, Girl, you’re lyin’.”  Laney took the sleeping bag, her soft gray eyes rounded in disbelief as she assimilated the information Maggie had given.

“I am not lying.”  Maggie shook her head as she dragged the cooler to the water’s edge.  “Throw that bag down there.  I’ve been dying to get in it for days, and haven’t had the chance, so we’ll just fish on it instead.”

“Talen slept with you in that tent and hasn’t touched you?”  This seemed to be too much for Serin to take in.

“What, Talen doesn’t know how to pass up a willing woman?”  She asked them.  “Trust me, that man has incredible self control.  Don’t let anyone tell you different.  By the way, does either of you know how to clean a fish, because I refuse to, and I really don’t know if Talen is coming back.”

Both women looked at her with expressions of complete horror and refusal.

“If Talen doesn’t come back, I’ll call Damen and make him do it.”  Serin patted the cell phone holder on her hip.  “Now tell me you’re lyin’.  And of course, we know Talen has self control, I can’t even get a kiss out of the miserly little bastard.  Has he kissed you yet?”

“Oh, he kisses real good,” Maggie drawled, a poor imitation of their slow country voices, but the women erupted into shrieks of laughter then begged for details.

Maggie had never thought much of sharing such tales.  Personal information, she had always thought.  But as she sat by the creek, her bobber merrily bouncing in the current as the hook held one of the fat little wigglers she’d bought just for that purpose, she opened up.

She needed advice, and experience, and Serin Meyers acted like a woman with both.  Surely between the three of them, they could come up with a way to break his self control and get into his pants.  It was at least, worth a try.

As noon turned to early evening, and the revelry between the three women picked up, they ditched the fishing poles, hid the small line of fish they had managed to pick up and drove to Morehead to the liquor store.

If they were going to talk sex, Serin had decided, then they needed the proper atmosphere of booze and fishing hats.  They bought a case of Budweiser’s, several bottles of wine, and a cap apiece proclaiming that Fisherwomen Caught The Early Worm.  A quick stop at the pizza house and three large pizza’s with the works were purchased and within an hour they were headed back to their fishing, and the rather naughty conversation Serin had started about the stranger that had rolled into town the night before.

Maggie had laughed more in the past hours than she ever had in her life, and the company of these two women was quickly showing her the life she had missed in turning away from the men talk of her co-workers.

She drove the SUV back to Elliott County, armed with beer and pizza, and some wicked looking wine, and an evening that promised to be filled with laughter, and hopefully a lot more information on her favorite subject, Talen.

*

He followed them from a distance, not wanting his truck recognized, he didn’t want her to know who he was and the two women with her would surely recognize him.  He had to be careful; careful not to be seen or suspected.  He could do that, he had done it before.  Then when the time was right, he would take out that demon mutt of hers, and then kill her as he had Maria.  She couldn’t be allowed to destroy all his careful plans and the life he had.

And those two sluts with her, they thought they were so smart.  They thought that by banding with her and convincing Talen to reveal who he was that they would somehow be free.  Didn’t they know they would never be free, never be able to escape?  He would have to show them that, just as he would have to show Talen once again the cost of betrayal.

A Breed Apart - Part 24

Published in Sensuous Escapes newsletter (June 26, 2005 edition)

Talen cursed explosively when the small beep of his driveway alarm interrupted his packing and drew him away from his furious thoughts.  Early evening had come and went, and within an hour the sun would set and darkness would fall.  That was when Talen would slip out and let the dogs loose with their last command, then disappear from Elliott County as quietly as his mother had arrived.

The arrival of a visitor wasn’t a welcome distraction.  Talen had finally worked his anger high enough that he could get in his truck and get the hell out of town.  He didn’t need the hassles anymore, he didn’t need the government agents tracking him anymore, and he sure as hell didn’t need a nosy reporter trying to make her name on his life, while her brother lined him up in the crosshairs of his assassins rifle.

Let her line up as many lovers as she wanted at her bedroom door, see how much he cared?  Hell, he could get a woman any time he wanted one, and one surely more experienced than she was.

Stomping to the kitchen, Talen looked out the door window and hissed in fury.  Damen was striding quickly up the walkway, his own face set in stern lines, which always indicated trouble.  Dammit, like he needed anymore trouble right now.

Talen threw the door opened as Damen reach it.

“I’m leaving, so you go fucking relax.  Lock the gate behind you as you go.”  He turned and stomped back to his bedroom and his packing, leaving Damen standing in surprise on the doorstep.

“Sounds like someone really made a mess in your cheerios today,” Damen told him as he followed him through the house.  “But ole son, you got a bigger problem than all the government boys sent out to fetch your fine ass home.”

“And what problem could that be?”  Talen grumped, thinking of Maggie.

“I just got a call from Serin.  She’s drunker than hell and wants me to come out the little reporters campsite and clean their fish.  Seems they been fishin’ and drinkin’ pretty much all day and they just aint got the stomach to slaughter all those pretty bass and cats they caught.  I thought maybe you might want to help me for a bit, before you head out that is,” Damen suggested mockingly.

Talen stopped packing.  His fists clenched in the dress shirt he was in the process of folding and his teeth gritted at the information and Damen’s sarcastic voice.

“What the hell is Serin doing there?”  He turned on Damen, his body vibrating with his fury.

“Well.”  Damen tipped the bill of his ballcap back on his forehead then pushed his thumbs into the front pocket of his jeans.  “Seems Serin aint the only one there.  Laney’s there too, and she’s just as drunk as the other three.”

“Three?”  Talen fought the growl rising in his throat.

“Yeah, they called Webb to clean the fish first.  But you know how squeamish that boy’s stomach is Talen.  He’s whooping it up with the rest of them though.  And I aint certain, but I could have swore I heard him growling at Serin cause she hissed back at him.”

Talen felt his body vibrate with shock.  They were morons, every damned one of them were morons.  They knew why Maggie was there, and they were giving her all the ammunition she needed to fry all their asses.

“Fuck!”  Talen covered his face with his hands.  “God, I should get in my truck right now and just drive as fast from here as I can.  Those fools have lost their ever lovin’ minds.”

He lowered his hands, staring at Damen with a sense of resignation.

“Why the hell didn’t you join them?”  He asked him furiously.  “Why the hell come up here and bother me with it?  I could have left town easily never knowing any different.”

“Well, to be honest, I considered it.  But I figured we might as well make it a family thing and get you there too.  Doesn’t look like you’re going to get rid of that woman anytime soon, so if you can’t beat em.”  He shrugged, his face assuming the lines of a man sorely put upon, but Talen detected the twinkle of laughter in his eyes.

A twinkle he didn’t appreciate in the least.

“And where’s Dayan.  With them as well?”  Talen threw the shirt he was holding to the floor as disgust seared through his gut.  This was just what the hell he needed. Dammit, Maggie would know all their damned secrets before it was over with.

“Naw, he’s out in the truck waiting on me.  Said he wasn’t staying at home and if I was going to party with the enemy then by God I was going to take him with me.”  Damen shook his head at this, as though he clearly couldn’t understand Dayan’s reasoning.

“This is insane.”  Talen didn’t growl, but he hissed instead.  A short, sharp expulsion of breath that seemed to rumble in the silence of the cabin.  “All of you are insane, do you know that, Damen?”  He practically yelled at the other man, ignoring the flare of amusement in Damen’s dark green eyes.

“Yeah, well that reporter friend of yours is where you can lay the blame, old son, not at my feet.  She has thoroughly corrupted our women with booze, and Webb is just besotted.  What can I say?  So it looks like we get to join the party at least in time for the fish fry.”

“Fools.  Every damned one of you are fools.  I should be shot for even trying.  I should just walk out there in the yard and invite those bastards waiting on me to take their best shot,” Talen yelled as he headed for the cliff side entrance.  “Get the hell out of here.  I’ll meet you on the back road.”

Talen rushed down the steps that had been carved through the cliff tunnel and led to a small cave where he kept his truck parked.

Within minutes he was backing out of the sheltered area and speeding quickly for the rough back road that led to the clearing above Maggie’ camping spot.

Dark was quickly settling in when Talen and Damen parked beneath the shelter of the Oaks growing there, and made their way down to the site.  Not that it would have been hard for anyone to miss.

Someone had a radio playing country favorites, and the raucous laughter could be heard a mile away.

“Webb, you touch my damned leg again, and I’m gonna have Mooch bit your hand off.  I told you boy, that’s Talen’s property.”  He heard Maggie laugh as he spotted her pushing the big man back from her, nearly falling on him as she did so.

Hearing his name Moocher moved against her quickly, and Maggie caught herself on the massive dog as he laid between her and the tall, rawboned boy laughing over at her.

“Leave her alone Webb, that’s brother Talen’s woman, you know how possessive he can get.  Man, go figure, a cat fight and it wouldn’t be women this time.”  Talen winced at Laney’s informative words.  Just what he needed.

“Now, Laney, Talen would get pissed being compared like that.”  Serin laughed.  “God, have you guys noticed how we’re named?  Laney, Talen, Damen, Webb, Dayan well hell, I must be the bastard of the family, my name doesn’t end with an N.”

They were all gathered around the campfire, several empty bottles of wine scattered around them, and more beer cans than Talen wanted to count.

“Ahh, Serin, I still love you,” Webb told her with a dazed look of drunkenness.  “Let’s go get naked now?”

Laughter erupted again.

“Okay guys, time out.”  Maggie raised her hands to shush them all.  “We’re getting off track here.  You promised to help me figure out how to get him.”

“Get ‘im what?”  Webb’s head was wobbling on his shoulders.  “What are we gonna get ‘im?”

The women laughed at that question now.

“My suggestion still sounds best.”  Serin announced.  “Just go to your knees and start unsnapping that studs breeches and he won’t say no.  I aint never seen a man who would say no to a head job.”

“Oh My God.  Give me a headjob, Serin.”  Webb moaned watching her in adoration.  “I promise not to run from you.”

The women nearly screamed in laughter, and Talen could only shake his head.  Webb had lost it.  He was drunker than hell, and Talen didn’t doubt he had drunk most of the beer there.  The women were pretty well gone, but still alive enough to walk if Maggie was any indication as she threw another log on the fire.  She was weaving, but she had yet to wobble.

“We’re fucked big brother.”  Damen stood beside him shaking his head as he snickered.  “Those women are just drunk enough to be trouble.  And from the sound of it, your virtue is heavily in some serious danger.”

“Those damned women are always trouble, or haven’t you figured it out yet, Damen?”  Talen cursed.  “And don’t you doubt for a minute that Maggie is going to remember every word she’s heard tonight.  Leaving won’t do any of us any good now.  And my virtue was shot the first minute I laid eyes on her.”

Damen shrugged philosophically.  “Hell, we didn’t want you to go anyway.  Might be better this way.  And you’re a damned sight easier to get along with when your laid regular anyway.”  Damen laughed quietly.

“So you want to be the first to stand up and describe your DNA to the world, Damen?”  Talen asked him in disgust as he ignored the comment on his sex life, but before he could answer, Serin’s voice drifted back to them.

“That’s what I’m going to do Tall, Dark and Handsome when he comes back to the motel.”  Serin’s voice interrupted them with that dreamy quality that never failed to signal danger to the male of the species.  “I swear, I’m going to lay that boy down and show him what for.  He’s going to think he died and went clear on to Heaven.”

“What’s his name?  I didn’t see no stranger.”  Laney questioned her, her voice just slightly slurring. 

“Zane Masters.”  Serin drawled the name out.  “Oh man, he is so hot.  But I swear, he has to be one of the rudest men I’ve ever laid my eyes on.  Good thing all I want is a night of sex, and not a long affair.  He’d be hell on the nerves.”

“Sounds like my brother, ”  Maggie laughed at the description.  “King of the assholes.”  She raised her beer can in a mock toast.  “To the asshole Zane’s of the world.”

“Here, here.”  Serin toasted her back laughing uproariously.

“Damn, maybe he is my brother,” Maggie suddenly frowned.  “I’ll kill him if it is.  I gotta check Serin.  What the hell’s his room number?”

Serin started answer, but Talen chose that moment to step into the clearing.

“Oh my God, we’re all fucked now,” Laney announced as the light of the fire flickered around him.  “Who called big brother?  Fess up, cause you just got us all killed.”

Four pairs of eyes turned on him in varying degrees of horror as he stared down at the little party.

“Oh man, aint he just so fucking sexy?  Just look at those gorgeous legs,” Maggie breathed out on a sigh, breaking the atmosphere of fear he had sought.

Gales of laughter erupted around the campfire as Serin and Laney held their sides, watching him with a look bordering hysteria as he frowned down at them.

“Hey, there’s Damen and Dayan.  Go clean them fish boys,” Serin ordered them, waving her hand towards the creek.  “We got plenty, but damned if we aint hungry.  Old Moocher over there ate most of the pizza.”

“He was pouting on us.”  Maggie stroked the dog’s smooth flank.  “Poor baby, he had to sit around and guard the camp.  We owed him.”

“Not our pizza we didn’t,” Laney argued.  “I’ll figure out how he managed to swipe it though.  Theivin’ dog.”

Maggie laughed, then looked back up at Talen, her eyes heavy lidded and sensual, her cheeks flushed from the laughter and the beer.

“Come sit down here beside me, honey,” she taunted him with a smile, and a pat at the ground beside her.  “The natives are restless, but I promise they’re not dangerous.”

“The natives are getting ready to leave,” Talen announced as he stood over her, staring down at her, fighting to hold in his own chuckle. 

He’d be damned if she wasn’t the prettiest sight he’d seen in a long time.  Her hair was unbound and flowing around her shoulders, drifting onto the full breasts that rose beneath the soft gray tank top she wore.

She was barefoot, and dirt smudged in places, and definitely flying on whatever she had been drinking.  Her eyes were glowing beneath those thick lashes, her face flushed, her lips moist and beckoning.  Oh, he was in so much trouble, he thought as her eyes drifted to his hips, then jerked back to his eyes as though she couldn’t quite get up the nerve. 

The thought of it though, was killing him.  He was intensely interested in whether or not she intended on taking Serin up on her advice on how to ‘get’ him.

“Come on Dayan, let’s round up little sister’s here, and get Webb into the truck.  They can sleep it off at the house.”

“The hell we will.”  Serin came to her feet faster than Talen would have thought she was capable of.  “What you can do is clean those damned fish.  We still have beer and we haven’t had dinner yet, and Maggie promised.  Didn’t you Maggie?”

“Yeah.  I did.”  Maggie turned a confused look on Serin.  “What did I promise anyway?”

There was that laughter again.  Female shrieks of playfulness unlike any Talen had ever heard from Serin and Laney, or from Maggie.

“To fry those fish, Maggie.”  Laney waved her half full bottle of beer at Maggie.  “Remember, you promised to fry those fish in a beer batter so good we’d smack our lips and beg for more.”

“Naw, she said she was going to smack Talen’s ass and make him beg for more.  I heard her.”  Serin laughed, then when she glanced at the flushed laughter in Maggie’ face laughed that much harder.

“You could have left that little tidbit out, Serin.”  Maggie fell back against Moocher as her laughter left her weak.  “My God, you don’t stop telling him everything you know, and I’ll never fix that fish.”    “Ah hell, Maggie, you’re taking all the fun out of it.”  Serin smirked, her laughing green eyes going over Talen’s body as he stood on the other side of the fire.  “Boy Talen, I almost feel sorry for you.”

Talen could only shake his head as the women collapsed again, their laughter rolling over him, taking the edge of his anger away and replacing it with an amusement he didn’t want to feel.

“Come on Damen, let’s get those fish cleaned so Beauty can fry them.  If there’s a God, their hangovers will be so bad tomorrow that we won’t have to deal with them the rest of the day.”

Somehow, the women found that funny as well, and amid the pops of fresh beers being opened, their laughter echoed through the woods as Damen, Dayan and Talen went to the creeks edge to begin cleaning the catch.

“We should be leaving instead.”  Dayan told them as Talen pulled the string of fish from the water’s edge.  “She’s going to get you killed Talen, and you know it.”

“Chill out Dayan,” Damen warned him softly.  “One more night isn’t going to matter one way or the other.”

“Unless that brother of hers has his sights trained on Talen while he’s here,” Dayan bit out, facing Damen almost angrily.

Talen watched the exchange silently as he began to clean the fish himself.  This was a side of Dayan he had never seen, the one the other man kept carefully controlled, nearly hidden from the rest of them.  It was interesting to watch him reveal it now.

Damen was well used to being in control though.  He was the second leader of the group, stronger, older than all of them but Talen.

“If he was around here and intending to kill Cal, it would have happened by now.”  Damen’s voice lowered, the drawl becoming lethally quiet. 

Talen watched as Dayan’s eyes narrowed, then he frowned in surprise as he watched the other man grip the long knife attacked to his belt.

“Enough,” Talen told them both quietly, but his gaze caught Dayan’s and Talen knew the other man could read the warning in it.  “I decide for myself what to do, neither of you think for me.  Now help me clean these fish so we can get them fried and get the girl’s out of here.”

Dayan’s hand tightened on the leather sheath at his side, and Talen was certain the other man was gauging his chances at taking him.

“Try it, Day,” Talen whispered.  “And you’ll learn more about that blade than you ever wanted to know.”

Dayan’s hand moved slowly.

“I wouldn’t try you Talen,” the forced amusement in his voice didn’t fool Talen for an instant.  “I’m sorry, this whole Masters thing just has me worried.  Tense, you know?”

“Yeah, I know Dayan.”  Talen caught sight of Damen’s surprise and knew  he hadn’t seen Dayan going for the knife.  “Put the blade to use, or get out of our way while we do it.  Your choice.”

Talen moved back several steps then returned to the chore of cleaning fish.  But he watched Dayan carefully, careful of the distance between them now, and the threat his brother had exhibited.  

It was normal for Dayan to try him, Talen assured himself, but with his fists, his strength or his cunning, never had Talen expected that the other man would go for blood.  It was a surprise, and Talen admitted, something to worry about.

A Breed Apart - Part 25

Published in Sensuous Escapes newsletter (July 10, 2005 edition)

Midnight was rolling over when Damen and Dayan finally managed to load Webb and the girls into his pickup and head for home.  They were busted, both men knew that already.  Serin and Laney had both regaled Maggie with so many tales of their youth, and Talen’s supposedly daring rescue of them, that he knew Maggie would have more questions than a dog had fleas come morning.

For now though, she was sitting alone beside the dying fire, her chin resting on her knees as he collapsed beside her.

“Have fun?”  He asked her softly, his fingers touching a long, silken curl at her shoulder.

He had watched her laughter, the easy camaraderie she had with his family, and in it saw that it was something Maggie had been longing for.  The wistful expression in her eyes as Serin and Laney teased their adopted brothers, the gentleness and open laughter they had all shared together was something she had longed for.

She wasn’t an only child, Talen knew, but she was the only girl, and he suspected her older, bigger brothers did more to protect her than they did to amuse her.

“I’ve never had so much fun.”  She turned her head; her cheek now laying on her upraised knees as she watched him.  “Serin and Laney were so much hilarious.  I wish I had a sister, we could have been close like they are.”

The loneliness in her voice tugged at his heart.  She looked like a little girl, sitting there before the fire, her expression reflecting how deeply she had lost herself in her memories.

“Come on to bed.”  He wrapped his arm around her shoulders as he rose to his feet.  “I rescued my sleeping bag by the way.  Good thing it wasn’t wet, or you’d be sharing yours.”

She turned to him, wrapping her arms around his waist, her face tilting up to his as she stared at him with soft, heated eyes.

“I could share mine with you anyway, Talen.  You know that,” she whispered.

Talen took a deep, steadying breath.

“Yeah, I know that Beauty.”  He kissed her cheek gently.  “I might even remind you of it when you’re sober.  But tonight, you sleep.”

“Spoilsport.”  She yawned, leaning tiredly against him as he led her into the tent and tucked her gently beneath its folds.

“I’ll take care of the fire.  Go to sleep now.”  He kissed her cheek, smiling as she tried to cuddle against his chest.

“You’ll come back?”  She asked him softly, her eyes already closing.

“I’ll be right back,” he promised, watching as her eyes finally drifted shut and her breathing evened out gently.

He touched her cheek with his fingertips, and felt his heart laying heavy in his chest as he realized he couldn’t let her go.  Hell, he didn’t even know when it had happened, this strange need he had for it.  It went beyond the need he had to bury himself inside her, into a realm he was unfamiliar with.  He wanted to hold her, share her laughter and her kisses, share her tears and her sadness.  But he also wanted her safe, and being with him was anything but safe. 

Talen rose to his feet, knowing his life as he knew it, was over.  He was seriously considered Steven Taylor’s plan, but he wondered how happy Steven would be with that knowledge when he learned that the only reason Talen came in was so he could share Maggie’ bed?

**

“We’re here, Serin, you sure you don’t want to head home instead?”  Damen asked her as he pulled into the deserted parking lot of the motel.

“No, I promised I’d take this shift.  Besides, I can nap in the back room.  We’re not likely to have anyone check in this late,” Serin assured him as she opened the door and climbed out of the pickup.  “Thanks anyway Damen.”

“Serin, you need to sleep,” Damen berated her as she rounded the front of the truck.  “You can’t keep up like this.”

“I told you, I’ll nap in the back tonight.  I’ll be fine,” she assured him, flashing him what she hoped was a confident smile.  “I’ll catch you tomorrow.”

She waved as she passed the truck, but she knew she hadn’t reassured him.  He knew her too well, sometimes he understood her too well, and it made her uneasy.  She didn’t like having him or anyone else know when the demons were eating at her soul.

She breathed in deeply as she opened the door to the entrance of the motel.  The foyer was large, with groupings of comfortable chairs and love seats throughout it.  Across from it was the registration desk, and behind it the office space and a small roll out bed she could make use of.  Beside that was the coffee pot that would get most of her attention, she thought.

“You’re late.”  The voice had her jumping, turning around in startled fright.

He was sitting slouched in one of the chairs nearest the registration desk.  His long, muscular legs were stretched out in front of him, his bright dark blue eyes were dark and sensual.  He was temptation, and the utmost danger.  He was Zane Masters and from the first moment she had seen him, she had known who he was, and how dangerous he was to her.

“So I am,” she answered him after the few long seconds it took her to get her heart rate to return to normal.  “You going to report me?”

He rose to his feet, standing nearly a foot above her as he walked the small distance to her.  He stared down at her, those blue eyes glittering, filled with promise and speculation.

“Should I tell?”  He asked her, stopping within inches of touching her, forcing her to bend her head back to meet his gaze.

Serin fought the rapid beat of her heart, but lost the battle within seconds.  She tried to tell herself to steer clear of him, to brush him off as she did every other man who came onto her, but she couldn’t do that either.

“What do you want?”  The question was tinged with fear, causing her to avoid his gaze, fearing he could read the truth in her eyes.  God help her, she thought, why now, why this man?

She jumped when she felt his fingers touch the hair at her neck, pushing it behind her shoulder, stroking her skin as he did so.

“Are you frightened of me, Serin?”  He seemed surprise that she would be.  “Why?”

“Oh, I don’t know.”  She moved away from him slowly, fighting for distance, for air.  “It’s late, we’re alone, and I have no idea what the hell you want from me.  What are you doing here so late anyway?”

“Waiting on you?”  He followed her, though when he stopped he wasn’t as close as he was before.  “I thought you would be, expecting me.”  He paused before speaking the last two words.

She had been expecting him, she thought.  The attraction had sizzled between them when he checked in, and the hours he had spent in the reception area after that, just talking to her, flirting with her, had deepened it.

“It’s been a long night,” she began.

“We could make it longer alone, or make it move faster together,” he suggested, his voice soft, warm, suggestive.  “Your choice.  Tell me to leave and I’ll go.  Give me the word and I’ll take you with me.”

“I’m supposed to work,” she whispered, tempted.  She was so tempted.

“You’re late,” he whispered back.  “The other girl is sleeping on that little bed in the back.  Let her sleep, she looked like she needed her rest.  Keep me company.”

Serin looked into his eyes.  Those weren’t the eyes of a killer, she assured herself.  He was merely a brother, wanting to protect his sister.  He wasn’t really there to kill her brother.  But she had remembered the smell of the guns in his room, and she was terrified she was wrong.

She glanced towards the office.  The light was out, and Karen hated being awakened.  She glanced back into the warmth of his gaze and felt herself weakening.

“Your choice.  I promise, it goes only as far as you want it to, Serin.”  He held his hand out.  The palm was broad, his fingers long.  If she went with him, those fingers would touch her, his hands would caress her.  She had not wanted that with another man, until him.  She needed to see, to know if she could accept what she needed so desperately.

“You don’t understand.”  She swallowed tightly, feeling the words choking her.  “I might not be able to…”  She couldn’t make herself say the words.  “I’m…” She stopped, fighting her fears, the demons that raged inside her.

“Serin?”  His hand cupped her chin, raising her face so his gaze could meet her. 

Her lips trembled, she couldn’t stop them.  Her eyes were damp with unshed tears and the fears of the past.

“Son of a bitch,” he whispered gently, his thumb stroking her cheek as he held her gaze.  “I wouldn’t hurt you.  I swear…”  He shook his head; his eyes softening and she knew he could see the terror in hers.

“I’m frightened,” she admitted weakly.

“I don’t blame you,” he admitted softly, his other hand raising to cup her other cheek.  “But I swear to you, I won’t hurt you.  Whatever you want, as much or as little as you want.  Just enough Serin, to keep the demons away.  For both of us.”

It was his voice that made the decision for her.  Dark and tormented, his gaze darkening as he admitted to fearing the night as well.

She nodded hesitantly, taking the fear in both hands and fighting for one night.  One chance to be a woman instead of a thing.

He took her hand, his larger one clasping it gently and led her slowly from the reception room and back into the night.  His room was at the back, the walk was slow, unhurried, and silent.

When they reach his room, Zane unlocked the door and opened it slowly as he stood back.  Once again Serin could smell the scent of guns, and she trembled. 

“I promise Serin,” he whispered again, his voice dark with need.

Slowly, ignoring the scent and the danger, Serin entered the room then turned to watch as he closed the door behind them.

Maggie awoke to find Talen laying much too close to her, his head propped on his hand, his golden brown eyes watching her intently.  His muscular chest was bare, darkly tanned and looked so damned smooth and warm she had to clench her hands to keep from touching it.  Her gaze went back to his, and she swallowed tightly at the expression on his face.  God, if a man could say sex without ever speaking a word, then he was doing it.

Talen was staring at her lips, his own slightly parted as a flush darkened his cheekbones.

“Please God, don’t lick your lips,” he whispered.  “Don’t speak, don’t move.  Close your eyes and pretend you’re asleep, and just maybe I can get my ass out of this tent, and way from you.”

Maggie’ could feel her breath becoming labored and heavy as he stared down at her, his gaze flickering to the rapid rise and fall of her breast.

“God, Maggie, your nipples aren’t supposed to get that hard, that fast,” he breathed roughly.

Maggie licked her lips as his eyes rose quickly, catching her in the action.  Those golden brown depths seemed to flame and a deep, dark growl rumbled in his chest.  She whimpered when she heard it.  She could feel that sound echoing deep in the pit of her stomach, making her melt, making her need.

“I told you not to do that,” he whispered, that dark growl rumbling in his chest again.  “I warned you Beauty.”

Maggie fought to breath, to drag in air when he moved from his sleeping bag, fully nude, and so fully male her eyes widened in part fear.  Before she could do more than gasp, he had the zipper released to her own sleeping bag, throwing it away from her body as he stared down at her, his expression so intent, so hot Maggie could feel her own body flaming in answer.

“My God, you’re going to kill me,” he groaned, his hand laying flat on her stomach, below the area where her shirt had ridden up and just above the band of her bright red thongs.

Maggie could feel the incredible heat of his hand, the strength of his calloused palm and felt her stomach clench in reaction.  A startled breath of sound escaped her throat as that hand moved, pushing her t-shirt up, slowly baring her to his gaze.

“Maggie, get the hell out of this tent,” he whispered as though in agony as his head began to lower, his eyes watching her with savage intensity.

“Talen, kiss me.”  Her hand rose, her fingers spearing into the course length of his hair as he pulled him down to her.

Maggie groaned roughly when his lips covered her, opening them, his tongue wrapping around hers deliciously as his lips possessed her.  She arched against the hand at her stomach, the heat spearing through her body like a lightening strike of arousal that she couldn’t escape, even if she wanted to.  Then the world began to tilt around her as his arms came around her, lifting her against him as one hand tore the t-shirt from her body.  The heat in his eyes, the warmth of this body seared her, and when his teeth scraped along her jaw, her throat, then his lips covered the swollen peak of her breast, she cried out at the force of desire that zipped through her body.

Talen’s hands were behind her now, one supporting her back, one wrapped around her shoulders as he held her to him.  Maggie looked down, seeing his face so close to hers, his lips covering the sensitive flesh and arched closer.

Never had she known anything so erotic as the sight of him suckling her.  His eyes were closed, those incredibly long lashes curling against his flushed cheeks, his lips and tongue playing at her nipple, his teeth scraping the intensely sensitive flesh.

Maggie clenched her hands in his hair, trying to pull him closer, trying to merge her body against his as the heat inside her own body surged.  She could feel herself flying out of control, the needs of her body taking away any rational thought, any concerns other than those of his touch.

She whimpered when he suddenly moved back, then gasped in surprise as she was lowered to the sleeping bag once again, and Talen’s nude body came over her own.  His thighs wedged between hers, his hips settling against her, his head falling back as a hoarse moan erupted from his throat as the heat and hardness of his body was pressed against the soft, moist barrier of the thin scrap of silk still covering her.

“God!”  The hoarse cry was accompanied by a thrust of his hips that had her gasping, arching closer to the hardness.

As he leaned over her once again, Talen cupped her breast in his palm, then licked it gently, almost reverently.  His tongue curled around the nipple, his teeth nipped her sensually.

Maggie closed her eyes weakly, her hands going to his shoulders, reaching around to his back as she moved slowly against his hips.

“Stay still, Beauty.”  One hand gripped her hips as his mouth moved to her neck.  “For Gods sake, let me find my control.  We have to stop this.”

Stop?  Did he say stop?  The thought rioted through Maggie’ body.  No, he can’t stop, God help her, it would kill her if he stopped touching her now.  Not now, now that she had found the secret, the truth to the myth, the incredible surge of emotion and sensation she had never believed existed.  God, please, he can’t stop.

Her nails bit into his shoulders; she turned her head until her lips touched his neck.  She didn’t bother with a kiss; her teeth sank lightly into the skin there, her tongue laving the small amount of pinched skin.

And there was the secret.  His hips surged against her as his own cry echoed around them.  His mouth became a weapon of desire; his fingers became ammunition as they strummed against her skin.

Maggie fought the heady mix of sensations.  She wanted to stay just sane enough to drive him as crazy with desire as he was making her.  As he ducked his head, moving his neck from reach, her mouth moved to his shoulder, her teeth nipping, then her fingernails pressing into the skin of his back, his shoulders.

Their breathing was rough and strained in the suddenly heated confines of the tent.  Their bodies pressed fiercely together, their hands moving, learning, and driving each other mad.

Maggie thought she finally had a handle on it.  She was sane enough to keep him hot, to keep him from even considering stopping.  Her little nips with teeth and nails, the rough licks of her tongue, the clenching of her thighs around his, and he never mentioned it again.

Then Talen reach down, and with one swift rend of the material, tore the thongs from her body.  And he didn’t stop there.

Maggie lost her sanity.  It escaped her in the moment one broad hand moved between their bodies, and touched the fiery hot core of her.  His fingers touched, then slid smoothly over her, before sliding gently into her, as his thumb raked the pulsing, agonizing knot of nerves above.

“Talen.  Oh God, Talen, it’s killing me.  It’s killing me.”  Her voice was a ragged cry of surrender.  A plea for easement as his fingers thrust slowly into her, his head turning, his body moving back to watch the penetration of her body.

Maggie felt him sliding down her body, his lips burning a trail of fire, his breath puffing quickly against her skin.  She could only lay there, her hips moving against his fingers, her arms falling weakly to her sides as she arched into the caress.

Then the touch was gone.  Maggie cried out, her body heaving forward to catch him, to bring him back.  But the hand at her abdomen forced her down, at the same moment his head lowered to the melting core between her thighs.

Maggie couldn’t breath.  She couldn’t think, she could do nothing but react, and her body now had a will of its own.  As his tongue parted her, swiping lightly over the flesh as his fingers tormented her once again, her body, hot and infused with passion and unwilling to finish without the finale she knew should be there, took control.

Maggie locked her hands in his hair, her hips pushing against him, her head twisting madly against the sweat dampened material of the sleeping bag..

He growled.  A long, low, deep vibration his throat that echoed against the burning core he was caressing.  She felt the sound echo through her body, then a second later felt the rough caress of this tongue there, and she exploded.

A thousand stars shot around her, her heart stopped.  Her breath locked in her chest until all she could do was mew with the pleasure raking over her sensitized skin.

“Beauty.”  His voice was a ragged plea against her skin as she shook against him.  “Damn you.  Damn you.”

He rose above her, his face taunt with arousal, the fight for control, the resignation that all control had been surrender all ready.

Talen positioned himself, his body shaking, his arms wrapping around her as he leaned over then thrust fiercely into her.

The burning pain was a momentary shock.  Maggie gasped, stiffening against his body, her nails biting into his shoulders as she felt his shaft sink quickly into her.

She tightened, her body feeling so full, so filled, she wondered if it would tear in accepting him.  Then slowly, the burning pain eased and in its wake she felt something that even the agonizing arousal of minutes before hadn’t prepared her for.

As the jolts of pleasure winged through her body, Talen fought fiercely for control above her.  His hips flexed, his face twisted into lines of strain as sweat ran in slow rivulets down his gleaming chest.  Maggie moved against him, then moved her head just enough, her mouth opening, her teeth sinking delicately into the hard male nipple she had sought.

The growl was more of a sexy snarl now.  The sound came a moment before he pulled back, his hands gripping her hips, his hips beginning move deeply against hers.  His thrusts were driving, his breathing a mix of gasps, and a deep rolling rumble in his chest that had to be the most sensual sound she had ever heard.

Then she could think no more.  The driving force between her thighs, the pistoning thrusts, the electrifying caress against her sensitive skin had her clenching around him.  She cried out against the pleasure.  She arched closer to it.  She felt the world darken, then recede when the currents of sensation built then exploded inward, taking her on a journey of such burning release she wondered if she had died.

She heard Talen’s hoarse, exhalant cry a moment later, the series of quick, harsher thrusts, then the powerful, jerking release that tore through his body.  As he collapsed against her, his breath hitching in his chest much as hers was, his arms wrapped tightly around her, Maggie nestled close against his body and smiled weakly as she felt as small, weak rumble of a shattered purr against her ear.

Satiation, satisfaction, and a rosy glow of pleasured aftermath washed over her, and her eyes closed, sleepiness overtaking her.  And there, cuddled against his sweat-dampened body, the scent of passion and sweat drifting around them, Maggie slept.

Talen stared up at the tent roof, his brows drawn together in a frown as he considered the complications he had just allowed into his life.  Maggie was curled against him, nestled along his body despite the heat invading the tent, and Talen had no desire to push her away.  But he wanted the desire.  He wanted to find the strength to move away from her body and leave the tent and never return.  And now, he no longer had that option.  In his own careless passion, he had drawn Maggie as deeply in danger as he was as well.

Talen sighed deeply.  It hadn’t been bad enough that he had taken her.  That he had torn the innocence from her body, from her eyes, but he hadn’t even used the condom he had been certain to keep in his jeans.  He had taken her with no barrier against pregnancy. 

Talen had never lost control in his life as he had with Maggie.  Never before had a woman tempted him to that degree, but sweet mercy, never had a woman bitten him either. The moment Maggie had locked her teeth into the skin of his neck, he had been a goner.

He remembered the feel now, and felt his body harden once again in his need for her.  She had slowly slid into sleep hours before, satiated, satisfied, her body languid and graceful as she sprawled against him, and it was killing him to lay there awake, watching her, needing her.  He was a fool, and he well knew it.  He was besotted with her, and knew it would likely be the death of him.  He had a fifty-fifty chance of living through this, and he didn’t like the odds.

Zane Taylor, also known as Zane Masters was somewhere in the woods around them, even now.  Talen could feel the threat he represented.  He wasn’t there to protect Maggie, or to help her.  He was there to kill the animal his government had created.

Talen looked down at Maggie’ sleeping face, and wished he was strong enough to leave her now.  To just walk away as he should have done weeks ago, and forgot about her. But he had been so certain the brother she so obviously loved would do nothing to hurt her.  But that brother hadn’t become such a successful assassin by allowing emotions to drive him.

He had tried to tell himself it wouldn’t happen, but he knew better.  Now he had to find a way to get Maggie to New York before her brother caught him in the crosshairs of his rifle.  He was going to have to find someway to protect Maggie, even as he kept her with him.  He knew he was treading a thin line, but he consoled himself that at least he knew Zane wouldn’t kill his sister.  At least, Talen was praying he wouldn’t.

A Breed Apart - Part 26

Published in Sensuous Escapes newsletter (July 31, 2005 edition)

There was no way to get off a clear shot into the camp site, even if the bastard did chance moving out of the shadows of the trees, Zane thought.  Even Maggie was being more careful now as she prepared breakfast.  When the sun had risen, Zane had smelled the mouth watering scent of her fire-baked biscuits, and frying bacon.  No one made biscuits as well as Maggie, since his mother’s death.

Sitting beneath trees at the top of the ridge across from the campsite two days later, Zane watched the activity below closer.  Moocher kept glancing up, his eyes meeting Zane’s across the distance, and Zane sighed in exasperation.  That damned dog would give him away before it was over with, and there was no way to avoid it.

The Shepard was too well trained to protect Maggie, her safety and well-being was his number one priority, which had been Zane’s intention, but now it was becoming an irritation.

The intruder several nights before had given Zane a glimpse into the relationship that appeared to be developing between his sister and the freak.  While Talen had gone after the intruder, Maggie had hid within the boulders, and given the dog the signal to protect Talen as he would her.

Zane had not anticipated this when he gave the dog to her.  He had expected that one day she would marry, have children, and when she did so, he wanted her to have the option to give the animal’s loyalty to her children.  He had never intended that she have him give it to a freak of science that was doomed to die anyway.

God, how was he was going to keep Maggie from getting hurt in this?  The intruder that came after them the other night would not have hesitated to kill her as well, when he took Talen out. 

As he watched the small area of the campsite that he could see, he smiled faintly.  Maggie had called the dog back from the clear view Zane had of the clearing.  Damn, he was proud of her.  Despite the fact that she had sent the dog out to protect Cat Boy, she hadn’t taken any chances.  She had hidden within the boulders, never moving, never making a sound until Moocher returned to her.

Now, she was being careful to stay beneath the trees, despite the fact that her feline friend had left before dawn.  A dawn too late, Zane thought, remembering the cries that had echoed through the campsite yesterday morning, and through the night.  Zane had been too slow, too careful, and the bastard had been given the chance to touch his sister

Talen had left at dawn this morning, and yet Zane had stayed, despite the opportunity it would have afforded him to take the freak out.  Zane would complete his job, but he would first make certain that his sister was safe; nothing else mattered.

He wiped his face wearily with his hand; aware of the risk he was taking where his relationship with his family was concerned.  It had been strained for years already, ever since his mother’s death and his refusal to attend the funeral.  He had taken an assignment instead, going overseas and taking out his fury on the terrorists he had been sent to take out.

When he returned, it was to a home painfully silent, void of his mother’s laughter and soothing influence.  His father had been quiet, though forgiving of Zane’s inability to face her death.  Zane had thought he could survive it though, Maggie would be there, and her laughter would ease the pain.

But she hadn’t been there.  Those fool brother’s of his had stepped on her dainty little toes, and stolen one too many of her prized stories.  She was living with a friend from the newspaper until she could get her own apartment.

So Zane had trained Moocher during the day, watched out for her at night, and grieved alone.  He pushed the anger inside, fought the need to break the man who had so careless drank one drink too many and killed his mother, destroying Zane’s life.

He shouldn’t have argued with her when she found those papers.  He should have lied to her, denied what she was so obviously holding; soothed the maternal need she had to believe the best of her child.

Instead, Zane had admitted the truth.  He was a soldier for hire, and the papers she was holding was his kill record, the pictures proof that he had accomplished the various jobs he was assigned.  He was a paid assassin, and it had broken his mother’s heart.

The next day, she had been blindsided by a drunk driver and taken away from them forever.  Eight children left alone, a husband who had shed tears for the first time that Zane had seen in his life.

Zane sighed, his hand running caressingly down the barrel of the gun as he watched the area shielding Maggie’ campsite.  He had to protect Maggie now, he told himself painfully.  She was the last link to the family, and if anything happened to her, the last image of his mother would be gone, and it would destroy them all.  And he would protect her, then he would kill the bastard who had slept with her the night before.

Even now, the rage of that knowledge ate at Zane’s guts.  The son of a bitching freak had dared to touch his sister.  He had shared her tent, and her bed, and Zane would kill him for that alone.

If Cat Boy needed a whore, then there were plenty of willing women slinking around that dead end town he had passed through, he could have gone to one of them.  Instead, he was sleeping with Zane’s sweet, once virginal sister.  That would not be tolerated; he would die, Zane swore, for daring to touch his sister with his tainted hands.  When he was finished, he would then follow Maggie home and they would both eventually forget this town, and what they had found there.

As that thought went through his mind, some distant part of him protested as the image of Serin came to his mind.  She was different.  Warm and sweet, and so filled with life and warmth that it made his soul ache.  He hadn’t expected that.  Hadn’t expected that her touch would fire him as it had. 

But he would have to let her go.  He would let her go he assured himself.  It might hurt a little at first, but it was easier than seeing the pain he would cause her if he tried to stay.  Or Lord forbid, should he try to take her with him.  She was too soft, too innocent to be able to accept the truth.  She was like Maggie, and like Maggie, she would have to be protected, no matter how much that protection might hurt later. 

***

“Moocher, what the hell is wrong with you?”  Maggie propped her hands on her hips as she watched the dog with exasperation.

Moocher refused to come away from the creek, his eyes trained on the ridge above the large creek that ran lazily through the center of the valley she was camped in.

Moocher looked back at her, his gaze intent, almost worried, then turned back to watch again.

Maggie had checked the ridge out earlier with her binoculars but had seen nothing of interest.  The dog was chasing shadows since last night, and that worried her, because she knew Moocher never chased shadows.

“Come on, Moocher, let’s get out of here for a while,” Maggie called him back to her after securing her coolers and various camping articles in the tent.  “We’ll go to town or something and get you a cheeseburger.”

She tacked a note on the tent for Talen in case he returned, and then followed behind the dog as they made the walk to the SUV.

Talen had assured her that the truck hadn’t been bothered, and was safe to drive, before he left at dawn, but Maggie let Moocher sniff around it anyway before unlocking the door and letting him in the vehicle.

She needed to get out of the woods herself, before her paranoia did her in, she thought.  Ever since Serin had mentioned the stranger in town, she had been spooked.  And now Moocher was acting weird as hell.  She needed to get closer to town and contact her family, find out where Zane was, and if her father had managed to get any of the information she had asked for.

As she pulled off the ridge and headed toward Grayson, the cell phone at her side beeped insistently.

“Are you ready to come home yet?”  Zane’s querulous voice came over the line when she flipped it on.

Despite the confrontational tone, Maggie smiled in relief.  She couldn’t trust him an inch, but damn was it good to hear his voice.

“Not yet, Sweetie.”  She laughed.  “And how are you doing?  I’ve been thinking about you.  Dad okay?”

“We’re all fine.”  Maggie frowned, wondering at the softening of his voice, the shade of regret she heard there.  “Now when are you coming home?”

“When I get my story,” she reminded him.  “Or did you forget about that?”

There was a long silence on the line, causing Maggie’ frown to deepen.

“What did you want, Zane?”  She finally asked him impatiently, wondering what the hell was wrong with him.

“I want you home.”  His voice was uncompromising.  “Come back, and I’ll help you get a story.  Just the two of us Maggie like you wanted last summer.  A story that will throw you to the top.”

Maggie thought for a minute.

“Or you could help me here, Zane,” she suggested lightly, wondering if her brother’s experience in the Army could help Talen, and wondering if she could get him to admit he was already there.  “When I bring Talen in…”

“Forget it.”  His voice was harsh.  “Let whoever wants the bastard have him, Maggie.  He’s a freak, and has no place in life.”

Maggie felt tears come to her eyes at the hard tone of his voice.  Zane had been her favorite brother until that summer before her mother’s death.  He had always been the one who laughed with her, and took up for her against her other brother’s ribbing.

“Why don’t you kiss my ass, big brother,” she bit out.  “Better yet, go play war games somewhere, because you’re starting to bother me.  And tell me where the hell you are.  Did you follow me?”

“I’m right here at home, ask Dad if you don’t believe me,” he bit out, but there was something in his tone that left her suspicious.

“Well, go find someone else to harass then,” she told him angrily.  “If you aren’t willing to help me, then I don’t want to talk to you.”

Maggie flipped the phone closed, then turned it off with a jerky flip of the switch.

“Asshole,” she muttered as her feet pressed the gas and the SUV sped down the road.  “He is male, therefore he has the brains of a turd.”

Then she reopened the unit and quickly dialed her father’s number.  She needed the information she had asked him for, but more than that, she needed him to find out exactly where Zane was.  She didn’t believe for a minute that he was home.

***

Talen entered his cabin quietly from the hidden entrance against the cliff wall it was built against.  The interior was dim and cool, with no signs of intrusion.

Breathing in deeply he walked to the coffeemaker, and turned it on quickly, then headed for the shower.  He had perhaps, an hour before Damen and the others arrived to answer the summons he had sent out.

He needed a shower and the caffeine to stay alert, then he needed to make some serious plans.  Maggie wasn’t going to scare out and go home not after the past couple of days, and he would be damned if he was going to let her stay camped down there with only God knew what creeping around the forest at night.

The past nights had irrevocably changed not just their relationship, but both their lives as well.  It placed her in a position that was eating away at his conscience.  Talen knew well the type of men who would be searching for him.  A lone girl, in the middle of nowhere would be easy prey for them, a game, and a diversion while they searched him out.  The fact that Zane was just waiting to take him out didn’t help matters.  So far, the tally was three assassins.  Two were currently engaged in trying to extricate themselves from the steel chains and handcuffs Damen and Webb had fitted them for, and Zane was perched on the ridge above Maggie’ camp just waiting to get a clear shot.

But what would it take to get her to leave?  Nothing Talen knew, except the story and the proof she needed.  He had stepped over the line when he made love to her.  She was even more determined now that he would come back with her, reveal to the world who and what he was, then live happily ever after with her.  He couldn’t make her understand that there were no happily ever afters for them.

The idea of giving her what she wanted was beginning to gain merit though.  If he was going to die anyway from an assassin’s bullet, wouldn’t it be more satisfying knowing that at least the world knew who he was, and why he was dying?

Talen showered quickly as these problems ran through his mind, then dressed in clean jeans, and a fresh t-shirt.  The coffee was finished when he entered the kitchen and he was just pouring a cup when the cliff side door opened.

There were five of them, and Maggie now knew about every last one.  Until twelve years ago, there had only been Talen himself, and he had believed he was the only one. 

It had been his kidnapping when he was twenty-one and his incarceration as the Genetic Council’s new labs in Arizona that had showed Talen and Maria that the experiments had not stopped.  At least, they hadn’t until Talen had killed the rogue scientist who had returned to the council.

The youngest was twenty-three years old, and one of the two females of the group.  The oldest, besides Talen, was thirty, and that was Damen.  They moved into the house, each silently going to the coffee maker and pouring a cup of coffee before they turned to face him.

“Well, what do we do?”  Damen appeared tired, worried and worn down as he faced Talen with the question.  “Those two assassins we have locked up now are taken care of for a while, but Zane’s still out there, and I ain’t so sure he ain’t lookin’ to kill you, Tal.”

Talen breathed out roughly, running his hands through his damp hair and taking his seat at the kitchen table.

“She’s so nice, Talen.  Isn’t there any way she can help us?”  The youngest, Laney, watched him hopefully.

“Optimistic little thing aren’t you?”  Webb, one of the younger males watched her mockingly.  “We told you Laney, this woman can’t help us.  We have to get her out of here, then Talen will leave so the assassins will follow him.  Maggie is too nice.  Those bastards would eat her up and spit her out if they thought she knew our secrets.”

“It isn’t fair that Talen has to leave, and be alone.”  Laney turned on him fiercely.  “If we help her, give her the truth…”

“Dammit, Laney,” Damen bit out roughly.  “Drop it will you, I’m getting sick of hearing it.  Do you want the world to know who we are, and what?  You think that will make it easier on us?”

The anger in Damen’s voice had the girl shrinking, her small, delicate face paling.

“That’s enough.”  Talen reach across the table and squeezed Laney’s hand gently.  “It will be okay, Laney.  One way or the other, I promise.”

Damen turned an incredulous look on him and started to speak before Talen raised his hand for silence.

“I asked for some information, do any of you have it?”  He looked to each of the five facing him.

“The contracts are out, and rumor has it that Zane definitely picked it up. We’re in deep shit if he did, Talen.”  Damen shook his head worriedly.  “We know he’s here and in place.  Serin found signs of a lone male watching the camp the other morning.”

“How close to the camp was he found?”  Talen turned to Serin now.

“Too close.  He may have even been your late night visitor you were telling Damen about earlier. There was mud droppings on the rise across the camp consistent with that found around the clearing of the creek, and it was fairly fresh.  And the scent left in the area was similar to the scent of the man who checked in last week.”

Serin wasn’t comfortable with imparting that knowledge, Talen could tell.  Her heightened sense of smell was greater than the rest of them, and to her, it marked her as much more different than the others.

“The watcher is still on the ridge too,” Laney told him softly.  “I saw him up there when I was coming in today.  Cute, but real dangerous looking.  He’s the same one Serin’s lusting so hard over.”

“About six two, dark brown hair, and built like a soldier?”  Talen told her, his suspicions confirmed when she nodded in surprise.

“Damen, get all the information you can on Zane.  I’m going to need it.”  Talen shook his head, wondering what the hell he had managed to get himself into.

 “God damn Talen, just get the hell out of here.  He’s the best.  There’s no way you can anticipate where he’ll strike or how.”  Damen bit out furiously.  “The rest of us will follow later.”

“Terrorists are rumored to be his only prey,” Talen informed him.  “We know he’s Maggie’ brother, so that gives me a measure of safety.  That dog of hers is one of those damned devil dogs he trains.  Smarter, faster, and a hell of a lot better trained than any I’ve ever heard of.”

Silence descended around the table as five gazes locked on Talen.  They were all well aware of Zane. They both feared, and respected his abilities, and unknown to the fierce mercenary, he had once called Talen friend.

“Shit.  What do we do now?”  Damen’s voice broke the silence.  “Why do you think he took the contract, Talen?”

“I think he’s here to protect Maggie.  She’s an independent cuss, and it would piss her off good if she knew, so he’s staying hidden.  But at this point, there’s no way to be certain.”  Talen didn’t add the instinctive sense of danger he was feeling himself.  He knew Zane was after him, but there was no sense in alarming the others when there was nothing they could do to help him.

“What the hell are you going to do, Talen?”  Damen asked him again.  “That girl is trouble, and you know it.  You have to get her out of here.”

“Won’t work.”  Talen shook his head, fighting his smile as he thought of trying to make her leave. “Besides, I’m giving some consideration to the proposal.  If I die, then the secret still threatens the five of you.  If I go forward, then perhaps, if I still die, then the threat will die with me.

Shock reflected in their all their faces.  They stared at Talen with rounded eyes, anger and fear mixing in expressions of hope.  There was a chance, a slim one, that Talen would survive revealing himself and the atrocities of the Genetics Council, and if he did, then the sway of national opinion would determine all their fates.

“No.”  Dayan’s voice was a rough hiss in the silence of the room.  “No one can know.  We agreed after Jen died.  No one can know about any of us.”

“Just me, Dayan.”  Talen assured him, understanding his fears.  “The rest of you will leave if I decide to go in with Maggie.  Because sure if I do, this county is going to be overrun with journalists, and I sure as hell don’t want any of you in the cross fire.”

“What if Zane is here, and he’s here to take you out instead of watching Maggie, Talen?”  Serin asked him softly.  “What do we do then?  I don’t have a good feeling about this.  I think you’re right about going in, but the risk is so high.”

Talen rubbed the back of his neck in frustration. 

“We need to know why he’s here, and what he wants.  If he’s just watching Maggie, then we’re safe. If not, I may have to revise Maggie’ plans a bit.”  Talen stated.

The deciding factor would be Zane, Talen knew.  That assassin was good, too damned good not to worry Talen.  But from Maggie’ comments on her brothers, they all loved her, and worried about her, surely he wouldn’t attempt to kill her lover?  Or would he?

“Maybe I could find out more.  I’ve talked to him a bit,” Serin’s face flushed lightly as she revealed this.  “I could slip into his room while he’s out, see what I can find there.”

Talen cursed the situation his family was suddenly in.  The fact that they didn’t share blood didn’t change the fact that these were his brothers and sisters, and once again, their lives were endangered by the fact that they lived.

“Be careful, Serin, Zane’s no fool.  No one should know for certain that the five of you survived that fire I set, despite the rumors her brother picked up.  But we can’t be certain if we fooled their DNA analyses or not.  We don’t know for certain why he’s here, and until we do, he’s a danger to us,” Talen told her.

There was no way to avoid the risks, or the need to know, but Talen couldn’t help but worry.  He would give anything if there were a way to handle this situation alone, but he knew that the others would never stand for it. 

Serin shrugged her slender shoulders, the silk of her brilliant blue blouse rippling over her full breasts. 

“I can handle Mr. Tough Mercenary.  You just do what you have to do.  And Talen, I agree with you.  Perhaps it’s time the world does learn the truth of what those bastards are trying to do.  Only God knows how many more of there are.  I trust Maggie to keep our secret if you decide to disappear, but how far can you trust someone when they’re being tortured.  And if they suspect she knows anything, she will tell them.”

Serin swept from the room, her words echoing behind her, the heels of her shoes clipping angrily against the wood floor.

“I’ll see what I can find out about Zane,” Damen sighed, standing to his feet now.  “Maybe we’ll get lucky and he’ll help us.”

Talen doubted that one, but he guessed it was worth hoping for.  But hell, it was worth hoping that the Council would give up today too.

Talen sat silently as one by one they left the cabin, leaving him to stare into the dim interior alone as he considered his options.

He was getting too close to Maggie.  She was affecting him in a way no other woman ever had, and that could become a danger to them all.  He had to get her out of that damned forest and headed home, no matter what it took.  And it would take him going with her, Talen knew.

Breathing wearily, his shoulders aching with tension and weariness, Talen finished his coffee and then looked around the room in regret.  God knew he would miss this place, and chances were he would never return to it again.  He just hoped he managed to live long enough to bring down the men who had decided his fate in that little lab all those years ago.

A Breed Apart - Part 27

Published in Sensuous Escapes newsletter (Aug. 166, 2005 edition)

“Damn,” Zane cursed as Maggie and Moocher left camp.  “Where the hell is she going now?”

He ran quickly to his jeep, jerking the door open and pulling the electronic tracker from its case.  Thankfully, he had found a chance to place an electronic bug on his father’s SUV the night before.  He was getting tired of Maggie running off, and having to cool his heels while he waited on her.  Such maneuvers resulted in a day like the one two days past, where that sexy little number at the motel had waylaid him.  He could feel his body heating up at the thought of the afternoon he had spent in her bed.

She was sweet, shy, and so damned innocent it made his heart race with the thought that many of the things they had done had been a first for her.  He could see it in her eyes, feel it in the way she trembled, hesitating as though unsure, and wary of the passion spiraling out of control between them.

His body hardened at the memory, causing him to grimace with his lack of control.  He was within a step of heading back to the motel instead of chasing after his baby sister.

Finally, the little big black box lit up, the direction beacon beeping hollowly.  He watched it, his eyes narrowing as he estimated her direction.  Cranking the engine of the jeep, he threw it into gear and pulled out of the small space he had hid the jeep in.  He should be able to catch up with her by following the road he was on, coming out just as she rounded the dangerous curves that ran along the ridge.  He should be far enough behind her to keep her in sight, but not close enough for her to catch a glimpse of him.  Only God knew what kind of a fit she would throw if she actually saw him.

*

The fucking bitch was going to pay.  The black pickup obeyed the hard press to the gas pedal, shooting up the winding road that led to Morehead, intent on catching up with the black SUV he had seen turning onto the main road.  She wouldn’t be allowed to mess his life up like this, ruin all his careful plans.  It wasn’t fair, he screamed silently as a growl rose in his throat. 

He had killed Jen for nothing if he allowed this.  Killed the only woman who had ever mattered to him, to keep this from happening, to keep all the carefully laid plans in place.  He couldn’t allow this bitch, this journalist whore to mess it all up now.

If she hadn’t shown up here, then Talen would have left on his own, leaving the others to fend for themselves; at his mercy.  He wouldn’t have hurt them, but he would lead them, guide them, as they needed guiding.  Serin and Laney should have been his by now, depending on him, following his lead and carrying the children he would need to protect the life he was creating.  The Council couldn’t hurt them, if there were too many of them to kill quietly. 

Now everything was being taken away from him.  Already plans were being made, hiding places found, and Talen was preparing to leave with the whore, and to reveal himself.  If he did that, then there would be no reason for the others to follow him, no reason for them to need him.  They would leave, expecting him to just throw away the farm he had put blood and sweat into all these years.  Just throw it away.  It was inconceivable.  What else did he have to live for?

The treacherous curves of the narrow mountain were taken at a screaming speed.  Rubber burnt, and tires howled as he tore around them, until finally he could see her, cruising innocently along the road, unaware of the destruction she had brought to his life.  She was going to pay, and by God, she was going to pay now.

Maggie glanced in the rear view mirror, her brow furrowing as she caught a glimpse of the black truck coming up behind her at an amazing speed.  She checked the road ahead for someplace to pull off, but there was nothing in sight, just the steep rising mountain on one side, the steeper fall down on the other, and the flimsy metal barrier at the side of the road.

She checked the mirror again, her foot pressing down on the gas pedal as the truck drew closer.  Dear God, it was the same one; she knew it was, that had followed her to Morehead before.  Moocher whined, his canine expression worried as the sound of screaming tires could be heard on the curve they just passed.  Maggie pressed the gas harder, her heart in her throat as terror struck her. 

There was no way the truck could pass her safely, and he sure as hell didn’t act like he was going to slow down.  As that thought went through her mind, a bone crushing jolt shuddered through the SUV as the truck slammed into the back bumper.

Maggie cried out in terror as Moocher growled viciously as he was slung to the floor.  The jolt came again.  Maggie tightened her grip on the steering wheel and pressed the gas harder, praying for a break in the twisting curves, for a break in the sheer drop on the other side.

Then glass shattered, and Maggie jerked the steering wheel as her terrified gaze went to the side mirror and she glimpsed the rifle being aimed from the driver side window.

He was trying to kill her.  Amazement flashed through her in the second it took her to realize how little her chances were of escaping him.  He wasn’t trying to just hurt her, or to frighten her; he wanted her dead.  Her eyes went frantically from the curves ahead to the rear view mirror.  As she did, she cried out in terror as she watched the deadly barrel of the rifle being aimed once again.

“No.”  She pressed harder on the gas, taking the next curve at a speed she knew was too fast and too steep for her.  She felt the SUV shudder, fishtail, then heard the shattering crunch of metal as the SUV was now off the road and tearing down the deep ravine beside it. 

She twisted at the wheel, fighting the sensation of the SUV toppling, praying, crying, screaming as Moocher howled out in protest as he was thrown to the floor once again.

Pain ripped through her head, and Maggie was only distantly aware that it had hit the steering wheel.  She fought it, nearly gagging on the nausea that rose in her throat as the blinding pain threatened to throw her into unconsciousness.  She couldn’t pass out, she told herself, nearly hysterical.  She couldn’t fight if she passed out.

Somehow, she managed to hold onto consciousness, though she realized it was a tenuous victory at best.  The SUV came to a jarring stop finally, throwing her against the seat, snapping her teeth together.

Moocher was growling, nudging against her, pushing her against the door when she finally realized the truck had come to a stop at an angle, its nose buried in brush and boulders as the bottom of the ravine. She shook her head, then glanced behind her as she heard the sharp retort of a gun. 

“God.  He’s going to kill us, Moocher,” she whimpered as she jerked her door opened, allowing the dog freedom, then ducked and fell from the vehicle herself.

A sharp command had Moocher following her, instead of tearing off after her assailant.  A bullet grazed the rock above her head, then again at the dirt at her feet as she scrambled further into the dense brush of the ravine.

“The phone, where’s the phone,” she sobbed, almost hysterical as she dug into the fanny pack she had put on before leaving camp.

Bracing herself behind a boulder, holding firmly to Moochers collar, she dialed the numbers she knew would bring help.

“What?”  Talen’s voice came over the line, querulous, irritated.

“Oh God, Talen help me!”  Maggie sobbed.  “Oh God…” she screamed as another bullet ripped into the stone.

“Fuck!  Where are you Maggie?  Tell me where you are?”  She could hear the motor cranking in his vehicle; hear the whine of the engine as he put into gear.

She gave him directions quickly, crying, praying as another bullet came closer.  Moocher growled, and then barked viciously as rock fragments sprayed them both.

“Let the fucking dog go, Maggie,” Talen screamed at her as Moocher growled again, jerking against her grip.  “Let him go.”

“They’ll kill him,” she screamed into the phone, sobbing as Moocher nearly jerked from her grasp once again.

“God dammit Maggie, let the fucking dog go.  Now!  He’s trained for this, let the mother go now.”  As he screamed in her ear, Moocher tore himself from her grip as a bullet whizzed by her head.

“Moocher,” she screamed his name as he tore through the brush, his howls shattering the air as he went after man at the top of the cliff.  “Oh God, Talen hurry,” she screamed again as fire burned her shoulder, knocking her to her side.

Moocher was howling, then the sound of tires squealing and one last shot shattered the air.  She could hear the dog in pursuit, and was terrified for him.  If Moocher was killed, she didn’t know what she would do.  She cried out his name in desperation.

“Maggie, are you okay?”  She flinched as Talen screamed into the phone at the same time she heard tires squealing above once again.

A Breed Apart - Part 28

Published in Sensuous Escapes newsletter (Aug. 29, 2005 edition)

He was back.  Maggie dropped the phone, scrambling for cover as she heard someone tearing down the steep bank.  Oh God, there was no way she could escape him now.  Moocher was gone and he would kill her for sure.

“Maggie.”  Talen’s voice was suddenly beside her, filled with fear, with fury as his hands gripped her waist and he turned her over carefully.  “God.  Oh God, Maggie are you okay?”

Relief flooded through her, making her weak as she fought to grip the shoulders that suddenly filled her vision.  One arm didn’t seem to work, but it didn’t keep the other one from latching onto his neck as she pushed herself as close as possible against Talen’s hard chest.

The terror ripping through her system wouldn’t go away though.  She still shook from it, still felt the glazed panic of knowing she couldn’t avoid bullets, and neither could her beloved dog.

“Moocher,” she cried out as he pulled her tighter into his arms.  “I can’t find him, I can’t find him Talen.”

“He’s fine.  He’s here, honey,” he swore as he lifted her to her feet, steadying her against his bigger, stronger body.  “Come on, I have to get you out of here.”

“No.”  Maggie pulled against him, looking around the ravine wildly as she fought to find a hole big enough for both of them to hide in.  “He’s up there.  We have to get away.”

“He’s gone, baby,” he swore, his hands framing her face as he forced her to look into his pale face, his wild golden eyes.  “I swear he’s gone, but you’re hurt.  We have to get you out of here now.”

“I’m fine.”  Maggie shook her head, wishing she could stop crying, and that she could gain control of her body once again.

“Stop arguing with me Maggie,” he growled, turning and pulling her along with him.  “Now come on, we have to go.”

He didn’t wait for her answer.  His arm went around her waist as he lifted her against him and began to rush for the rough slant of the ravine that led back to the road, and the truck he had left running at the top.

He fell once, the steep slope of the hill making it nearly impossible for him to climb with the added burden of her weight.  He cursed, his voice harsh, ringing in her ears as she fought the fire that seemed to radiate from her shoulder through her chest and back. 

“Come on, baby,” he whispered as he urged her closer to the truck.  “Come on Maggie, I can’t carry you up this hill, you have to help me.”

Maggie fought the pain, gripping his arm as she forced her feet to find traction on the rough slope as he pulled her along side him.

As they reach the road, Moocher came running up to her.  His barks rang in her ear as he ran around her, and then turned to stare down the road once again.  She recognized the movements, the way he was covering her and Talen until they could get to the truck.

“Get in the truck.”  Talen all but threw her into the vehicle, standing aside as the dog jumped in behind her. 

As Moocher cleared the door, Talen was behind him.  The vehicle was slammed into gear and with a rough, screaming squeal of the tires he was tearing away from the ravine.  Within seconds they were speeding up the road as Talen dialed his cell phone with one hand and a string of curses.

“Serin, get ready I’m heading there.  Maggie is hurt and she needs Doc,” He listened a second.  “She’s been shot.  She was run off into a ravine and the bastard was shooting at her from the road…Hell, yes, I know who it was.  Get everyone up there, I’ll be there in ten minutes or less,” he ordered her as he flipped the phone closed and threw it to the seat.

Both hands gripped the wheel now as the truck lurched forward, gaining speed as he ripped along the ridge, taking curves at a speed Maggie thought would send them hurtling over more than one cliff.

“Hang on,” Talen yelled a few minutes later as he threw his hand in front her to brace her as he jerked the steering wheel, turning onto a gravel and dirt road that had the truck fishtailing from the speed they took it at.

Moocher was thrown into the dash, then scrambled back onto the seat, somehow managing to throw himself in front of Maggie as she fell forward.  Everything seemed to happen in slow motion for Maggie. The whine of the engine, Talen’s curses, Moochers whines. 

It seemed like hours before they turned into a narrow driveway, then drove quickly into the opened garage.

Maggie bounced against the seat as they came to a stop, gasping at the pain that shot through her as the back of her shoulder connected with the seat.

“Where is she?”  Suddenly there hands gripping her, voices merging into one long whine of noise that buzzed in her head, dimming light and sound until slowly, mercifully, it took over, and she collapsed into the hard arms waiting to catch her fall. 

“What the hell happened?”  Damen jerked the door to the truck opened as Maggie collapsed in Talen’s arms.

Talen glanced down at her, the blood oozing from her shoulder, the deathly pale cast of her skin and growled in fury. 

He picked her up in his arms, swinging her carefully from the truck seat and maneuvering around the cramped quarters of the garage as he headed for the door that was thrown open.

“In here, Talen.”  Serin was there, leading him into her bedroom.  “I called Webb, he’s on his way with Doc.  Who the hell would try to kill her?”

“It was Dayan,” Talen laid Maggie gently on the bed, and then turned to Damen.  “The son of a bitch was shooting at her as I drove up.”

Talen couldn’t believe it himself.  When he had seen Dayan with that damned rifle in his hands, aiming into the ravine where Maggie’s vehicle rested, a shocking sense of agony had gripped him.

Dayan was a brother to him, despite the other man’s temperament, and his arrogance, Talen had loved him as well as he did the others.  But in some strange way, it had made sense.  Finally, the pieces had come together for Talen, and the mystery of Maria’s death had become startling clear. 

Of course Dayan had went after Maggie, she had talked him into going in, into revealing himself, just as Maria had.  Maria had paid for it with her life, and now Dayan was trying to make Maggie pay as well.

“Dayan?”  Damen shook his head in confusion.  “Why?  Dammit, Talen, why would Dayan do such a thing?”

“Because she was a threat to him.”  Talen said bitterly as the doctor was rushed into the room. 

“Talen, what’s happened here?”  Doc Harbor moved to the bed and began to tear the blouse from Maggie body. 

Talen looked at the blood soaking the garment and wanted to scream out in fury.  He wanted Dayan’s throat between his hands so he could squeeze the life out of it for what he had attempted to do to Maggie.

“Dammit, Talen, it doesn’t make sense.”  Damen grabbed Talen’s shoulder as he turned to the doctor. “Dayan wouldn’t do this.”

Talen turned on him, seeing in the other man’s eyes the inability to grasp that his brother, a man he thought he knew as well as he knew himself, could attempt to kill an innocent.

“I saw him, Damen,” Talen cursed furiously as he turned on him.  “He was there, standing beside that fucking black truck of his and aiming his rifle down at her.  “I know it was him.  I saw his face as plain as I see yours now.”

Talen was aware of the others in the room, watching him with varying degrees of disbelief and fear.  Disbelief that one of their own could act in such a way, and the fear of the consequences.  They all knew that Maggie was Zane’s sister.  They all knew he would retaliate if he were aware of the attack.

But beyond this, they all knew that one of their own had crossed a line that none of them believed they were capable of.  Dayan was the most temperamental of them all, yet beyond that was a core of steel that had aided him as a teenager in their escape from the labs.

“He’ll be at the farm.  We’ll have to go after him.”  Damen shook his head, shock reflecting on his face, in his eyes.  “God, Talen, what do we do when we find him?”

Talen couldn’t answer him.  He knew the fury ripping through him now demanded blood.  Dayan had betrayed them all, first with Maria’s death, and now with the attempt on Maggie’ life.  He couldn’t allow the other man to live, and to kill again.

Shaking his head, he turned to the doctor instead.

“Flesh wound.”  Old Doctor Morris shook his graying head as he cleaned and bandaged the jagged wound.  “She’ll hurt pretty bad, but she should be okay.  She’s in a bit of shock right now, that’s why she passed out.”

“How long will she be out, Doc?”  He asked, hearing the edge of a growl in his voice and fighting for control.

“Couple of hours.”  The doctor raised his gaze to Talen.  In those faded eyes, Talen saw understanding and acceptance.  “You go do what you have to son, she’ll be fine here.”

Talen turned back to Webb and the girls.

“Webb, the three of you stay here with Doc, and watch Maggie,” he ordered them softly.  “You know what we have to do.”

Serin swayed against the hard male arm holding her.  Laney whimpered, and it was that sound that tore hardest at Talen.  Laney was the youngest, and the most fragile of them all.  Webb swallowed tightly but managed to nod.  He was the youngest male, but he was by no means the least in intelligence.  He understood what had to be done, but he was damned glad he didn’t have to be part of it.  Talen only wished he were so lucky.

“Go on Tal, I’ll take care of them,” Webb promised, his expression as bleak as the sound of his voice.  “We’ll be here when you get back.”

Talen nodded shortly then turned on his heel and stalked to the kitchen, and the pantry it held.

“God, Talen, no.”  Damen was behind him, his words a breath of misery as Talen went into the pantry and pried loose the board that hid several guns that Serin kept hid there. 

Talen glanced back at Damen impatiently.

“He’ll be armed, Damen.  You know he will be.”  Talen chose the modified automatic SKS hanging in its padded slot and several extra rounds of ammunition. 

He pulled the gun and it’s large clip from place, then reunited them with a quick, efficient snap of his wrist.  The sound echoed in the small room with a sharp retort of finality.

“Sweet Jesus.  He’s our brother.”  Damen swallowed tightly as he stared back at Talen.  “We can’t kill him Tal.”

“He killed Maria and he tried to kill Maggie,” Talen told him softly.  “Do you think he would hesitate to kill us?”

Damen shook his head.  “Not Maria.  He loved her.”

“And she was going in with me.  She was wanted me to expose who I was.  She wanted the rest of you to hide, to leave all you have here until it was safe to come back.  And he was there that night, I passed him on the way home, Damen, I just didn’t put it together until I saw him trying to kill Maggie.”

“He’s our brother.  Maggie is nothing.”  Damen growled.  “There has to be a reason for Maria, Talen.”

The denial was plain in Damen’s face.

“She’s my woman, Damen.”  Talen leaned close to him now as he snarled out the words, the fury and heat of his emotions backing the sound.  “And Maria was my mother.  Now do you go with me, or do I go alone?”

Damen fought it, but Talen had known he would.  For long moments he stared into Talen eyes, fighting the need to go after the man he had helped raise.  One who had turned killer in the blink of an eye.

Finally a sense of resignation filled Damen’s gaze as he nodded abruptly.

“Let’s go.  I’m driving.”  Talen nodded as he led the way quickly from the kitchen and back to his truck.

“This is insane, Talen.”  Damen burst out as the truck sped back down the driveway.  “Why would Dayan do something like this?”

“Because I decided to go forward with revealing the truth.”  Talen clenched his teeth, furious with himself that he hadn’t recognized Dayan’s fury before this.  “Remember how furious he was when Maria and I were planning it last year.  Then suddenly Maria was killed.  Now Maggie shows up, and talks me into it, and he tries to kill her.”

“Tal, he loved Maria,” Damen told him again, still fighting the truth.  “I can’t believe he would do this.”

“He loved what he had here, that was it.”  Talen shook his head, knowing this for the truth.  “He’s well taken care of with the trust fund she set up.  He has his own farm, a life he enjoys.  I should have thought, should have known it was him.  Of all of us, Dayan had the most to lose, and nothing to gain if I went forward.”

Damen shook his head, disbelief and pain reflected in his expression.

“I saw him, Damen,” Talen told him again, furiously.  “As I came around the curve, I saw him clear as day, then he jumped back in his truck and got away.  I know it was him.”

“Shit!”  Was the extent of the response Damen could come up with.

The sound of his voice reflected Talen’s own emotions though.  Despair and betrayal.  There was no other way to describe what Dayan had done to them.  He had risked not just Talen’s life in what he did, but all of them. 

Zane would not hesitate to kill every last one of them if he learned that Maggie had been hurt.  Talen couldn’t be certain that he hadn’t either.  There had been the jeep at the other end of the road, the unknown driver who had watched as Talen tore down the hill after Maggie and Dayan tore off in his own truck.

Talen could only pray the driver had been an innocent bystander.  A witness they didn’t need, but one they could deal with.  God help them all if it had been Zane.

A Breed Apart - Part 29

Published in Sensuous Escapes newsletter (Sept. 28, 2005 edition)

Dayan rushed into the big red and white farm house, his heart pounding with fear and regret, and fury.  He knew Talen had seen him, Dayan had seen the shock on his face as he rounded the curve, and Dayan knew Talen would come after him. 

He screamed out his rage as he rushed to his bedroom and fought to bring himself back under control.  There would be no explaining to Talen, he was too deep under the whore’s spell to ever understand that needs that drove Dayan.  Just as Maria had controlled him before, Maggie now controlled him as well. 

Dayan had never understood the bond Maria and Talen had shared.  She may have carried him in her body, but they shared no blood as a true mother and son did.  But that wouldn’t matter to Talen, Dayan knew.  All that would matter to him now was vengeance.

Talen would manage to put two and two together as well, and he would realize who had killed his precious mother.  Stupid bitch, he screamed silently.  She had been unable to see how wrong she was.  She had smiled that firm, no nonsense smile at him and assured him everything would work out well for him, but just like the others, she didn’t understand.

Dayan couldn’t believe his life had gone to hell so quickly.  It was all that little whore’s fault.  Damn her.  Damn her to hell, he thought furiously as he rushed into his bedroom to collect the hidden money and pack a single suitcase.  He would have to leave, for a while at least. 

He hated leaving the farm.  It was all that kept him going when the bleak dark pain of the past rose to torment him.  It was all that could blot out the memory of his screams, and the pain inflicted on him by the cruelty of the soldiers who held him within those labs.

Talen and Dayan thought poor little Serin and Laney had it so rough when the soldiers had finally been given permission to breed them.  They hadn’t known the pain he knew though, the agony of taking their place until they were of age to screw.

Dayan had been smaller, weaker than even Webb, and fair game for the rough games the soldiers played in that hell hole they had been held in.  But he had hid it, he hadn’t allowed the others to be hurt by it, he had endured it.  He had given blood for what he had now, and it wasn’t fair that it was all being taken from him this way.

But he would take it back, he assured himself.  He would hide for a while, and soon Talen would be too busy to find him, he thought as he jerked the suitcase from the closet and threw it on the bed.  He would be too busy pleasing the whore who had come for him, and jumping through hoops for lab doctors once again. 

Talen would forget about Sandy Hook, about the others and about Dayan.  And while Talen was busy, Dayan promised himself he would make the others pay.  Serin and Laney would come to him just as he envisioned, especially when Damen and Webb were too damned dead to protect them any longer.

“Going somewhere, little man?””  Zane stood in the shadows of the bedroom as Dayan threw opened the first dresser door.  The door was pushed closed softly, and Zane moved in front of it, his gun held carefully in front of him, where Dayan couldn’t help but see it.

Frightened brown eyes widened in alarm as a hiss sputtered from his chest.  The hiss of a cat, or the unnatural breed that Zane knew now deserved only to die.  Zane’s eyes narrowed. 

“Who are you?  What do you want?””  There was a growl in the words as teeth were bared, showing sharp canines at the side.

Zane narrowed his eyes, noticing the flattened contours of the nose, the cleft in the upper lip, the slant of the eyes.  Oh yeah, there it was.  He was a brother to the bastard he was searching for, if he didn’t deserve to die for hurting Maggie, then he deserved to die for that alone.

“I’m your executioner,”” Zane promised him with a smile.  “That was my sister you ran off the road earlier.  My sister you tried to kill.  If you didn’t deserve to die for your DNA, you deserve to die for that alone.”

Zane watched as the bastard blinked, shock reflected now in his face.

“You’re Zane,”” he whispered.  “You’re not supposed to be here to kill.””

“Says who?””  Zane taunted him softly.  “I admit, I thought I was only taking out one animal on this job, I wonder if I’ll get a bonus for doing you?””

The younger man shook his head, his nostrils flaring as he fought the reality that his death was but a second away.  The smell of fear radiated from his body, and Zane wondered if he could have killed him, if he hadn’t attacked Maggie?  It was a question he didn’t want to answer, because he knew that soon he would have to kill the very man who had rescued her.

“You don’t understand.””  The man shook his head, swallowing tightly.  “He’s going with her, to New York.  He’s going to tell everyone.  She’s his lover; she’s convinced him to go in.  She can’t do that.””

“She can do whatever the hell she pleases,”” Zane informed him as he raised the gun.  “Tell me Cat boy, do you have a God?  If you do, you better start saying your prayers now.””

Brown eyes blinked in frozen wonder at the barrel of the gun aimed at his head.

“You’re supposed to be after Talen,”” the breed whispered, his voice raw with fear.  “Just Talen.””

“You’ll do as a starter,”” Zane assured him, wondering himself why he hadn’t yet pulled the trigger. 

This was the bastard who shot his sister, Zane told himself furiously.  Why hadn’t he blown him to hell and back yet?

“Will I?””  Quicker than Zane would have anticipated the man ducked, drawing a pistol from the waistband of his jeans and bringing it up.

Instinct kicked in and before Zane thought, he aimed and fired.  Surprise flared for a long seconds in the eyes that stared back at him.  Disbelief came a second later, then his body fell slowly to the floor.

For a long moment Zane stared down at the body with a sense of regret.

“One down, I wonder how many there are to go?”  Zane whispered, ignoring the flare of regret he felt in his chest as he thought of Talen.

Talen had arrived before Zane could get down the hill to his sister, or get a clear shot off to the assailant.  He had glimpsed Talen’s face though, and the naked horror and fear he had felt for Maggie had been clearly reflected there.  The monster felt something for Maggie, had been more concerned with her safety than his own.  Zane almost regretted the next bullet he knew he would use.

He breathed out roughly, the toe of his boot nudging the corpse laying face down on the floor.  He pushed the body over, unwilling to see the fist sized hole in the back of the head any longer.

Brown eyes stared up at him once again, the disbelief glazed by death, the face slack now, the single neat hole in the center of his forehead attesting to Zane’s training and excellent aim. 

“You should have stayed the hell out of my way,” Zane whispered coldly.  “You should have stayed the hell away from Maggie.”

Zane watched those dead eyes a moment longer, then holstered the gun and looked around the room.  The bastard had been trying to leave, which meant he was running from someone he knew would be coming after him.  Only Talen would have reason to do so.

Zane left the house, slipping silently into the sheltering woods around it, he settled himself comfortably against a tree and waited.  Talen had seen the truck, Zane knew.  Zane had seen the recognition, the shock on his face when he rounded that curve.  He would be there as soon as he took care of Maggie.

Zane wouldn’t kill him now, because he wanted to know where Maggie was.  She had been hurt; Zane had seen the blood at her shoulder, the shocky movements of her body.  The bastard had put a bullet in her right shoulder, hurting her, scarring her.  Zane clenched his teeth at that thought, and wished he could kill him again.

Long minutes later, the sound of a racing engine shattered the silence of the wood.  Standing up, Zane watched as the blue pickup truck came to a jarring stop in front of the house, and the two men raced out.

“Surprise, surprise, Cat boy,”he muttered as the front door to the house slammed closed behind them.

A Breed Apart - Part 30

Published in Sensuous Escapes newsletter (Nov. 4, 2005 edition)

Son of a bitch, the guttural growl that issued from Talen’s throat sounded harsh in the dim light of the bedroom.

The evening sun pierced through the glass of the windows, the brilliant rays falling warmly over a body growing colder by the minute.  There, his eyes staring up at them in lifeless disbelief, Dayan lay.

Talen stood still, looking down at the body of his brother with a pain bordering agony. Dayan had died with a look of surprise, his eyes rounded in shock.  He had died alone, facing the cold blooded fury of a brother with the experience of a killer.  Talen would have preferred to have killed Dayan himself, at least then, he wouldn’t have died alone, without the comfort of the love Talen held for him.

Talen knelt beside him, his hand moving slowly as he gently lowered the eyelids, bringing at least the appearance of peace to his brothers face.  He didn’t bother to wipe the tears he could feel on his face, Dayan deserved this much at least.

“Masters,”” Damen’s accusation hung heavy in the air.  “It had to have been Zane’s Masters.””

Talen rose slowly to his feet, then stepped carefully around Dayan’s body, letting the scents of the room, the smell of blood and death, and under it, the smell distinctive to each human.  Dayan’s scent was strongest, but under it, still wafting silently on the air, the smell of another.  The same scent Talen had detected around the camp each time he and Maggie had left it.  The scent of Zane Masters.

Talen sighed roughly, raking his hands over his face as he stared around the bedroom.  The fine hairs at his nape prickled, warning him.  Once again Talen was the hunted.

“He’s waiting on us to leave,”” Talen told Damen quietly.  “He’s hiding out there, somewhere, waiting on us.”

“Then we’re sitting ducks?””  Damen asked him incredulously.  “For God’s sake, Talen, surely he wouldn’t actually be here to kill you?  He wouldn’t do that to his sister?””

Talen looked into Damen’s shocked green eyes.  Even after the horrors of the labs, Damen had retained parts of his soul that even Talen had lost.

“Look what Dayan did to Maria, Damen, and then to the woman I had chosen as my own. Do you think all love is innocent and warm, even now?  Zane accepted the job, and he intends to see it through.”  Talen knew this, as surely as he knew that Zane had killed Dayan as well.”

Talen watched as resignation and regret filled Damen’s gaze.  But he saw something more as well, a knowledge, and one so filled with pain it tore at Talen.  Damen’s own dreams would be but dust now, and the young woman he dreamed of would be left behind in their race for safety.

“Zane doesn’t know about you, or the two girls; so far just myself, and possibly Dayan.””  There was no time for regrets.  Talen had to get his family moving quickly.  “We’ll return to Serin’s cabin, I’ll get Maggie and we’ll split up from there.  You take Serin, Webb and Laney and head out of town, I’ll contact you by cell phone when I can,” Talen told him softly.  “We have to move quickly Damen.  The girls must be protected.””

“No.  Dammit, Talen, you’ll never make it now.””  Damen cursed softly, his gaze moving around the room as he searched for another answer.  “We have to leave Maggie here.  You come with us, or head out on your own.  He’ll find you too easily with her and that damned dog with you.  He’ll know where you’re headed.””

“I don’t think he’ll kill me while Maggie watches, Damen.””  Talen shook his head as he turned quickly to leave the room, and the death behind him.  “Her brothers love her, and Zane is still her brother.  She could be my best protection until we reach New York.””

“I don’t like it.””  They stood in the living room, their voices low, so softly pitched that if that the rooms were bugged, they wouldn’t be clear.

“You don’t have to like it,”” Talen informed him, heading for the front door and the truck parked outside.  “Come on, it’s not safe to talk here.”

They left the house, running to the truck, as Talen expected any minute to hear the sharp retort of a rifle, the burning sting of a bullet.  When it didn’t come, he felt no satisfaction in being right.

The engine cranked on the first try, Talen threw the truck into gear and sped quickly away from the farm.  He wouldn’t have much of a head start on Masters, and he knew that Damen and the others would need all the time he could get them.

“We’ll stop by the garage and pick up another truck,”” Talen told Damen as he turned back towards town.  “He knows this truck now.  We’ll stick to the back roads, but Zane will most likely wait to see if we show up at camp before he makes his move.””

“So what do you intend to do, oblige him?””  Disgust laced Damen’s voice.  “Dammit, Talen, this is insane.  Ditch the damned girl until you’re safe, then you can make arrangements to go in.””

Talen shook his head, knowing he would be unable to do that.  He couldn’t let Maggie go, as she had become too important to him.

“As long as Masters is tracking me, then he’s not concerned with you or the others.  Take the others with you as soon as we reach the house, and you and Webb get them hell out of here.  I want you out of town within the hour.  Draw as much as you can from the bank before you leave, it should still be opened.  Don’t close out the accounts, but take the better part of the money, you don’t know how much you’ll need.”

“Dammit, I’m not trading my life for yours, Talen.””  Damen’s fist hit the dashboard as they pulled into the garage.

“You’re saving the others, Damen.  There’s no trade involved.””  Talen turned, seeing the anger and pain in Damen’s expression.  “Now let’s go, and get it together.  The others have to be safe.  If they catch Laney and Serin, think of what their lives will be?  Remember what it was like there Damen, and ask me again if I would trade my life for theirs.””

There was no argument there, and Talen knew it.  Talen, Damen, and Webb had all three been forced to hear Laney and Serin’s screams in those labs.  The breeding process implemented there was nothing if not clinical, and coldly cruel.

“Talen, man, this is suicide,”” Damen whispered.

“You said the same thing when I outlined my plans in the lab.””  Talen flashed him a confident smile.  “Come on, let’s move now.  We’ll give Masters a chase he won’t ever forget.””

They switched vehicles and within half an hour Talen was pulling back into Serin’s garage.  They had to move quickly if they were going to get the women to safety.  There was no time to lose.  Zane would be hot on their trail, and Talen didn’t want to kill or be killed in the fight that would come when he showed up.

“Thank God, you’re alright.””  Maggie jumped from the chair at the kitchen table, throwing herself in Talen’s arms as he entered the room.  “I was terrified for you, Talen.””

Moocher was standing at her side, and Talen took a second to pat his head before wrapped both arms around Maggie, pulling her close, inhaling the healthy scent of her, as he reassured himself that she was all right.

“Talen?  Where’s Dayan?””  Laney’s soft, frightened voice had him raising his head to gaze into her frightened soft gray eyes.

She stood uncertain in the doorway to the living room, her face pale, her hands twisting together in a way that revealed the agitation inside her.

Talen took a deep breath, his throat tight with emotion as he faced her.  Laney and Dayan had been closer than the others.  They were closer in age and had clung to each other during the horrors of the labs.

“Laney, I need you and Serin to get ready, and leave with Damen and Webb.  We found Dayan, but the assassin got to him first.””  Talen tried to soften the blow, but as he watched Laney stumble, clutch at the doorframe, and heard her whimper, he knew he hadn’t managed it.

“Come on, Laney.””  Serin was beside her, her face pale but her eyes lit with determination and fury.  “Webb has the Bronco loaded by now.  We have to get out of here.””

“But, we can’t just leave Dayan.””  Laney gripped Serin’s arm tightly as the other woman attempted to move her from the doorway.  “We can’t just leave him Serin.””

“Laney, we don’t have a choice.  He’s gone sweetie, we have to save ourselves now.”” Serin hid her tears, her own rage and fear beneath the cold, remote façade she had developed years ago.  “Come on, we’re leaving.””

“Talen.””  Maggie looked up at him, feeling dazed, confused as Damen began to bark out orders to the other women as they rushed from the house.  “What about you?””

“I’m going in with you, Maggie.””  His hand cupped her cheek as he stared down at her, seeing the fear in her eyes.  “Let’s get going.  That assassin isn’t far behind us, and we have a long haul into New York.””

Talen heard the Bronco race from the garage, then took Maggie’s hand and led her outside.  The ride would be hard, and he knew the pain in her shoulder would soon be giving her hell once again.  He had to get them started though.  He couldn’t wait around for her brother to put a bullet through his brain as well.

A Breed Apart - Part 31

Published in Sensuous Escapes newsletter (Nov. 4, 2005 edition)

Dusk was beginning to shed long shadows over the tree-sheltered area where Serin made her home.  He had stayed long enough to get the others packed and out of the house.

Serin had cried when she took one last look at the small log cabin she had lived in for the past few years.  It was her home, her something all her own, she had once told him.  He knew it was breaking her heart to leave it.  He only prayed that one day soon she would be able to return to it.

 As soon as Damen drove off with the others, Talen led Maggie quickly out of the house, and towards the blue pickup he had taken from Damen’s garage.  Five hours and they could be in New York if they got a quick enough head start on Zane.

“Come on, Moocher.””  Maggie turned around as the dog stopped, a whine issuing from his throat as he stared at the corner of the house.  “Let’s go.””

Talen opened the door to the pickup, turning to help Maggie into the vehicle when he saw a shadow move.  His hand jerked out, quickly pulling her behind him instead as the tall male form stepped from the corner of the house.

“You were quick, Lyons, I’ll give you that.””  Zane said softly, then issued a soft whistle to the dog as it began to lunge at him.

Moocher jumped back, confusion marking his canine expression as he stared at his trainer.

“Zane, thank God!””  Maggie cried out as she moved from behind Talen and rushed towards her brother.

Talen watched as Zane’s arms seemed to open for her, but the eyes of the assassin, and his gun stayed steady, trained on the prey he had been hunting.  Talen wanted to cry out in denial.  He didn’t want Maggie here, he didn’t want her in the middle of this.

“Are you okay, Maggie?””  Zane asked her as he watched Talen.

Talen saw the regret in his eyes as well, but he also saw resignation.  He fully intended to carry out the job he had taken.

“Just a little hurt, but okay.””  Maggie pulled back from him, and Talen heard the tears of joy in her voice as she looked up at her brother.  “You have to help us Zane, there’s an assassin after Talen.  We have to get him home quickly.””  And there was the hope in her voice.

Talen watched as Zane took a steadying breath.

Yeah, it wasn’t easy was it, Zane, he thought.  Betraying your sister isn’t going to set as well as you thought it would.

“Maggie, honey, I need you to do something for me.””  Zane glanced at her, but Talen knew his peripheral vision still had him clearly in focus.  “I need you to go to the back of the house and get my bag for me.  I’ll stay here with Talen.””

Maggie moved quickly from his arms and started for the corner of the house, just as Talen knew she would when he heard Zane speak the words.  He watched her turn from her brother’s arms, heading for the corner of the house when Moocher issued a warning bark. She turned back, a frown marking her face, and Talen knew the minute she realized the gun Zane was holding was aimed at her lover’s head.

Talen watched the confusion, then the fear that entered her expression.  And he knew that Zane saw it as well.

“Zane?””  Her voice trembled as she looked from Talen, to her brother.

“Go on honey, Talen and I will be right here when you get back.””  The gun didn’t waver, but the voice softened.

Talen closed his eyes briefly as he saw Maggie tremble.  God, he didn’t want this for her.

“Zane, lower the gun away from Talen.  You’re starting to scare me.””  Talen opened his eyes as Maggie’s voice trembled and her gaze flickered to Talen.

Talen fought to keep his expression steady, encouraging.  God, he didn’t want her here when Zane fired that damned pistol.  He didn’t want her to see.

“Go on Maggie, Zane is just being cautious.””  He attempted a reassuring smile, but as his eyes flickered to Zane, there was a warning in them.  Don’t let her see, you bastard, he thought.

Zane nodded, though his gaze flickered as he glanced once again at Maggie.

“Hurry, Maggie, so we can get out of here,”” Zane told her softly.  “It’s just right around the corner.””

Maggie paused, her gaze locking with Talen’s, and in those dark eyes Talen saw the knowledge.  She knew, and it would destroy her.

“Then get it yourself.””  She stepped between Talen and the gun.

“Get the bag for him, Maggie.  Hurry, honey, and we’ll get out of here.””  Desperation clawed at Talen’s throat.  He’d rather die now than see the pain in her eyes that would be there when she realized there was no way to stop her brother from killing her lover.

“Zane, put the gun down.””  Maggie faced Zane, and Talen heard the tears that he knew were now wetting her face.  Dammit, he didn’t want this for her; he didn’t want her hurt this way.

Talen clenched his teeth; fighting the rumbling growl he could feel building in his chest.

“Go get the fucking bag, Maggie,”” Zane’s voice was nearly a scream, causing Maggie to flinch violently.

Talen clenched his teeth at the sharp warning bark from Moocher at Zane’s tone of voice. The dog was desperate to jump at the man, to take the gun from his hand.  Moocher could feel Maggie’s fear and her pain, but Zane’s training was too ingrained for him to do more than bark in protest until the threat turned to Maggie.

Maggie flinched at Zane’s voice, and Talen watched the shudder in her shoulders.  He could imagine the tears rolling down her face as she watched her brother.

“No.  Put the gun down.  Oh God, Zane, please.  I love him.  Please don’t be this.”

She knew, Talen thought.  God help her, she knew and he could hear the pain in her voice.

He watched Zane’s finger tighten on the trigger, then the sharp whistle as Moocher tensed to lunge for him at Maggie command.

“You bastard!””  Maggie screamed when she realized the counter order in the whistle. The shock and pain in her voice rocked his soul.  “Put the fucking gun down, Zane.””

Maggie turned, running to Talen, intent on putting herself between her brother’s bullet and the man she loved.

“Maggie.”” Talen closed his eyes as she fell against him, her arms wrapping around his shoulders.  “No.  Baby please, go inside the house.  Go now.  I don’t want you here.””

He gripped her arms in his hands, moving her back from him gently.  He could feel the moisture in his own eyes as he gazed down at her tormented features, the tears flowing from her eyes.

“He won’t shoot me.””  She was crying, just as he knew she was, the tears raining down her face, her lips trembling in pain.  “Let me stay with you.  He won’t shoot me.  He won’t, Talen.””

“No,”” he whispered, shaking his head as he stared down at her, his hand shaking as he tried to wipe the tears from her face.  “No, Beauty.  Now do as he said, go around the house.””

“No!””  She turned.  “Moocher.  Attack.””

The dog bunched his muscles to lunge once again, and that sharp whistle issued again. Moocher settled back, confusion rife on his face as he looked in distress from his mistress to his trainer.

“Attack,”” Maggie screamed at him, crying, fighting to stay on her feet as fear weakened her legs.  “Attack him, now!””

Zane whistled again, and the dog began to back away in fear.

“Stop, Maggie.  He trained him.  You’re only hurting Moocher,”” Talen fought the knot of pain in his throat as her sobs tore through his soul.  “Go now, Beauty.  Leave like he asked you to.””

“No!  I won’t leave,””she cried, facing her brother now.  “Don’t do this, Zane!  Please God, I love him.  I love him.””

Talen watched the finger tighten on the trigger with a sharp sensation of shock.  Dear God, he was going to try to shoot around her.

“For God’s sake, not with her in front of me, you fucking bastard.””  Talen felt a tear slip from his own eyes.  “You could shoot her.  Get the fuck away, Maggie.””  He shoved her.

Talen felt the bullet that slammed into his body, throwing him against the truck.  He heard Maggie’s screams, felt her body try to brace his, and felt himself falling.  Falling until the hard ground was suddenly beneath him.  Dazed, Talen blinked, felt the warmth of the blood at his chest, heard Maggie begging, pleading with him not to die.

“Oh, God.  Oh, God.  No.  No.””  Maggie pressed her hands to Talen’s chest, fighting to stem the blood, as she gazed into his eyes.  She was so beautiful, he thought distantly.  So damned beautiful, and nearly, so nearly his.

“Beauty,”” he whispered, fighting the pain.  Damn, he hadn’t thought it would hurt this damned bad.  Shouldn’t a fucking assassin have better aim?  “I love you, Beauty.””  He couldn’t stop the words, he needed her to know.  He needed her to always know she had been the one.  She had been the only one to hold his heart.

  “I love you.  I love you.  Oh God Talen, please.  Please… Stop!”

 *

Maggie fought the hands that tried to drag her away from him, screaming, kicking, and pleading until her voice was hoarse.

“Stop it, Maggie.  Fuck.  Stop it.””  Damen pushed her into Webb’s arms as he knelt beside Talen, tearing his shirt from his own back, then pressing it into the wound at Talen’s shoulder.

Maggie looked to where Zane had been.  There, Serin stood behind her brother, a wicked knife was pressed at his windpipe, a pistol in his back.  Shocked dazed her, disbelief tore a yawning hole through reality as her focus seemed to shift, to waver on the man that had once been her brother.

He had shot Talen.  The thought ricocheted through her soul as she stared at him, disbelief fighting reality.  Zane had shot Talen, even though she begged.  Zane had never denied her anything she begged for.  Never.  God help her, why had he had started now?

“I love him, Zane,”” she whispered painfully, watching him, fighting to understand, to make sense of it.  And still she couldn’t forget the sight of his finger slowly pulling the trigger back, his eyes cold, hard as he killed the man she loved.

“Let me go!  I’ll kill him.  I swear, I’ll fucking kill him!”  Maggie fought the hands that held her, hearing herself crying, cursing the man who had fired at her lover.  Cursing the brother who had once been the brightest light in her world.

“Okay, little sister, ease up now.””  Webb pulled her against his chest, rubbing her back as she cried.  “Ease up.  We’ll get Talen out of here, but you have to help us.””

Maggie fought to drag herself together.  She had to, quickly, she knew.  For Talen’s sake. God, she had to get it together.

“Anything.  Anything.””  Maggie nodded against his chest, forcing control, forcing herself to fight the need to hurt Zane as desperately as she was hurting now.

She turned from Webb, her eyes going to Zane, her throat closing on a scream pleading to tear from her throat.  He looked the same.  He still looked like her brother, not the monster she now knew him to be.  Her fists clenched, her arms raising as though she would tear through him with the strength of her rage alone.

“Don’t try to hit him, little sister,”” Serin warned her, her voice brittle.  “He moves the wrong way, and he’s dead for sure.  I don’t want his blood on my hands.””

“Leave her alone, Serin, she will do as she pleases.””  Zane’s voice was soft, laced with the gentleness that once indicated his love for her.  Now Maggie knew it for the lie it was.

Maggie looked up at Serin, seeing the tears on her face as well, the agony that distorted her pretty features, and drew them into tight lines of pain.

“Maggie, listen to me.  I had to…” Zane’s voice shook now as he watched her, his blue eyes pleading with her for understanding.

“Shut up.””  Maggie stood in front of him, shaking with fury, with a pain that seared her soul to its quick.  “Webb, see if his bag really is behind the house.  He should have something we can use to tie him up and shut him up.””

Zane looked down at her in shock, and Maggie wanted to slap it from his face.  She prayed for the strength to do just that, knowing it would be his death, and couldn’t.  She was weak.  A useless woman in the face of danger.  She couldn’t even assure her lover’s life.

“I’ll never forgive you,”” she whispered as Webb rushed back to her, steel handcuffs and restraints in his hands.

“Yeah you will,”” Zane’s voice was ragged, his face white.  “It will just take a while.””

“Will it, Zane?” She whispered painfully.  “How long does it take to forget that the brother you loved has just killed the man you love?  Tell me Zane, how soon to forget betrayal?”

She ignored the flinch that showed only in his eyes, the flash of pain, of fury.

“I found them.””  Webb came back to the yard, the steel restraints in gripped in his fist.

“Put them on him.””  Maggie heard the ragged sound of her voice, watched the amazement in Zane’s face.  “Lock them tight, Webb.  Real tight.  Then shackle his feet too.  Zane’s as dangerous with his feet as he is with his hands.””

Assured that Zane was restrained, Maggie turned slowly to where Laney and Damen were kneeling beside Talen.

“Damen?””  The raw fear in her voice caused her to wince.  “Talen?””

“He’s alive.  Webb, help me get him in the truck.  Let’s get the fuck out of here.”” Damen ordered the younger man.

Maggie watched them lift him into the front seat of the Bronco.  His eyes were closed, his face deathly pale.  She moved slowly towards him, but the door was closed before she could touch him.

“Maggie, we have to go.  We have to go now.””  Damen grabbed her arms as she attempted to open the door.  “You have to stay here, little sister.  You have to make sure he doesn’t get lose.  That he doesn’t come after us.  You have to, Maggie.””  She felt him shaking her as she tried to open the door again.  “Talen’s barely alive goddammit, we have to get him out of here.””

Maggie backed up, staring at Talen’s face, watching as Serin braced herself against him, and Webb started the truck.

“Call me.  Let me know,”” she whispered, unable to look anywhere but at Talen’s face.

Damen only nodded.  He turned from her, jumping into the back of the front of the Bronco with Webb and yelling out the order to drive.  Maggie was left standing in the dust as they sped off.  Dazed, watching the back of Talen’s head until the vehicle was out of sight.  And still she stood, fighting the demons inside her that ordered that she follow.  That she run, catch up with them and demand to be allowed to go as well.

Instead, she stood still, silent, her heart bleeding with an agony she never believed possible as she watched the truck slowly recede in the distance.

“Talen,”” what she had intended as only a whisper became a scream of agony as she lunged forward, her hand reaching out as though she could somehow draw him back to him. “Talen.””

She fell to her knees, no longer able to hold herself upright as the pain tore through her. Great, rolling waves of it washing over her body, tearing through her soul with the force of the bullet that had torn through Talen’s body.

His name began a mantra as her arms wrapped around her chest and she fought the brutal reality she seemed trapped in.  Surely to God it was all a nightmare, her heart screamed.  She would awaken, and Talen would be beside her, his golden eyes staring down at her in passion and in heat, and the world would be right again.

A Breed Apart - Part 32

Published in Sensuous Escapes newsletter (Nov. 18, 2005 edition)

“Let me go, Maggie.” 

It was the voice from her childhood.  Soft, husky, a brother’s voice, a brother’s love; the brother who had betrayed her.  “

“Dammit, Maggie, let me go. I have to finish this.””

Maggie rose to her feet and turned to him. He was laid out on the grass, his hands and feet shackled with the steel restraints Webb had found in his pack. The pack was lying beside him, his cell phone lying partially out of it.

She walked slowly over to it, lifting it up as she stared down at her brother.  She wanted to hurt him, but she couldn’t.  She wanted to kill him herself, and she couldn’t.  Instead, she opened the phone and dialed Caleb’s number.

“Caleb.

He answered on the first ring.

“Caleb?” Maggie swallowed tightly, fighting the hysteria building up inside her.

There was a long second of silence, and in it, Maggie couldn’t halt the whimper of pain that escaped her throat.

“Maggie? Maggie, honey what’s wrong?” She could hear Caleb’s confusion across the digital line.

“Caleb, help me.” Maggie collapsed. Her legs weakening, falling from beneath her until she was kneeling on the grass, holding desperately to Moocher as he rushed to her.

“For God’s sake, Maggie.  Where are you, honey?  What’s wrong?  Dammit, Maggie, talk to me,” his voice was screaming from the phone.

“Caleb.” She fought the agonized wails of pain rising in her chest. “Oh God, Caleb help me.”

Maggie rocked herself, dying from the pain inside her heart.

“Maggie, honey it’s Dad.” Her father’s voice was frantic as he took the phone from Caleb. “Baby, where are you?”

“Daddy.” She couldn’t stop the wails of grief. “Oh, God.  Oh, God Daddy, please make it better.  Please make it better.”…”

Her sobs were ripped from her throat.  She was barely aware that Zane had rolled over to her, and was taking the phone from her grip.  She heard him speak, and wanted to knock the teeth from his mouth so he couldn’t.

“Caleb, call Darien. Have him pick us up.” Zane’s voice was harsh as he spoke to his brother. Maggie rocked harder, assuring herself this wasn’t her brother.  She gripped the keys to the restraints in her hand, and when he rolled closer, she jumped to her feet and hurled them as far as she could.

“God damn you, Maggie!” She heard Zane scream, watched him struggle to rise, and as he nearly gained his feet she knocked them out from under him.

She moved slowly away from him, and then sat down on the ground.  She had heard him giving Darien directions, which meant her other brother was somewhere close.  Did he have a gun as well, she wondered?  Was he just waiting for the right moment to put a bullet in Talen’s head?

Talen. She rocked slowly, vaguely aware of Moocher whining as lay against her, and of night falling. But it didn’t matter.  Nothing mattered anymore.

“He’s not dead, Maggie.” She heard Zane’s cold, brutal voice in the darkened void behind her.  “I know how to aim dammit and it didn’t kill him. You have to let me go. Maggie, please, I can help him.””

“Talen,” she whispered his name, closing her eyes against the pain, the bleak, soul shattering pain that seemed to wrap itself around her, assuring her that life would never be the same again.

She had been so close. So close to knowing happiness and the joy her friends had assured her was out there, just waiting for her, in the arms of the right man. God help her, she had found the right man, and her brother had taken him from her in the most destructive way possible.

*

“Maggie?”  Darien stood over her, hours or days later, it didn’t matter to her which. His voice was soft, almost frightened as he knelt in front of her, his fingers reaching out to touch her cheek.

She hadn’t heard the car drive up, yet there it was, the lights shining mere feet from where she sat on the ground, rocking against the cold invading her body.

As Darien reached out for her once again, Maggie flinched away from him. God, don’t let him touch her. She couldn’t bear it.

“Are you going to kill too?” She looked up at his shocked face, seeing the brother who had pushed her in the swings, who had taught her to play baseball. “Did you bring your gun, Darien?”

 *

Darien stared down at his sister, his chest locked tight with fear at the pale skin, the huge shattered eyes. God, what had happened here?

“Why would I have a gun, Maggie?” He knelt beside her, his hands shaking as he fought his fear for her. He ignored Zane’s harsh commands to release him from the restraints someone had locked him into. “Tell me what’s going on, honey? Come here, let me hold you, let me see you’re okay.””

She was unresisting now as he drew her into his arms, but she didn’t embrace him in return, she just endured his embrace instead. She was shaking, trembling as though chilled to the bone.

“Maggie, honey, tell me what’s wrong?” He pushed her hair back from her face, staring into eyes so filled with sheer agony that he felt his heart break at the sight of it.

She was terrifying him. Sweet God, he had never seen another human so broken, so filled with agony and yet not a wound on them.

“He killed him, Darien.” He heard her voice, ragged and torn with pain and tears. “I can’t hurt him.  But he killed me.””

“Maggie? Honey, what are you talking about?” Darien could only shake his head as he fought to make sense of what was going on.

“He killed Talen.” She looked up at, her big eyes now raining tears as her body trembled like a leaf in a storm. “He killed him, Darien. I begged him. I told him I loved him. Don’t hurt him, please. I loved him, I told him. Please don’t hurt him.  And he killed him, Darien.””

Darien shook his head, feeling his own eyes widen in horror as he looked over at his brother, clearly visible in the lights of the car Darien had driven up in.

“What in the name of God have you done, Zane?” He asked his brother with a sense of horror as he pulled Maggie back into his arms, staring into the cold, hard face of a man he didn’t know.

“Let me go, Darien. Then get her out of here. He isn’t dead. I know what the fuck I’m doing.”  Zane gritted out between clenched teeth.

Maggie grabbed Darien’s shirt in both hands, jerking back as he stared down at her.

“Do you love me, Dare?” She whispered desperately. “Are you still my brother? Do you love me?”

Darien shook his head unable to believe that the tear soaked, horror filled face he was looking into was actually his sister. His laughing, joy filled Maggie. Where was she?

“Of course I love you, Sunshine,” he told her, using the nickname he hadn’t used since she was a teenager.  “You know I do.””

“Don’t let him go, Dare. If you love me, don’t let him go. Get him in the car, take him to Daddy.”

Daddy? Darien hadn’t heard her call their father Daddy in years.

“Take me home too, Dare. Please, take me home.”

She was sobbing, weakly, as though she had sobbed for hours.

“Zane, what have you done?” Darien swallowed tightly as he lifted Maggie in his arms and carried her to the passenger side of the car.

“Let me go, Darien,” Zane ordered him as Darien dragged him to the car next, practically throwing him into the back seat.

Darien couldn’t speak. He shook his head then walked wearily to the driver’s side and got in. He looked over at his sister, huddled against the door, then the dog that jumped into the back seat and growled at Zane.

Darien reach over, buckled Maggie seat belt himself, then put the car in gear and drove slowly away from the house.  As he drove, he could hear Maggie sobbing softly, every now and then she would whisper Talen’s name.

“What did you do, Zane?”  Darien glanced in the rear view mirror as he pulled his cell phone from his jacket pocket.  “Father is frantic. I don’t know what shape Maggie was in when she called him, but Caleb assures me Father will be in the hospital, if I don’t get her home soon.”  He punched in his father’s cell phone number, aware that Zane was ignoring him.

“Darien, is that you?”  Steven answered on the first wring, his voice strained.

“It’s me. They’re both okay, but Maggie seems to be in some kind of shock. Damn, I think he killed Talen in front of her, Dad.”  Darien couldn’t shake the fury he felt at that thought.

“No.  No, Zane wouldn’t do that to her,” his father whispered.

“I don’t know, Dad. She says he did, and Zane refuses to talk to me. She has him restrained with his own cuffs. I’m leaving them on until I get home. I don’t know what the hell is going on, but Zane did it, whatever it is.”

“He killed him, Darien.” Maggie turned her head, her face so pale it caused his heart to speed in terror. It was like staring at the dead. “Tell Daddy Zane killed Talen. He killed him, and I begged him, Darien…”

She broke off, shuddering, drained of even the strength she needed to sob.

“Dear God.” Darien heard his father’s weak exclamation. “Get her home, Darien. We’ll be waiting for you at the house.”

“I’m driving straight through. Better have Doc Williams there, Dad. Maggie doesn’t look so good. I think she might even be in shock or something. See if you can’t get Uncle Sam to get me some clearance on the highways and we should be there in three or four hours.”

“You’ll have it. I’ve already called him. The State Police are waiting your side of Lexington. You’ll have an escort all the way through.”

“We’re headed there then.” Darien promised, and then closed the connection.

“Throw me that blanket in the back, Zane. Unless you want Maggie sicker than she already is,” Darien told him bleakly.

The blanket landed on the seat between Darien and Maggie.  It took several minutes to get the covering over her, as he handled the curves leading to the interstate, but he finally managed it.

“We’ll be home soon, Maggie.” He ran his hand over her tangled hair. “Hang on, honey, we’ll be home soon.”

***

“Hang on, Talen,” Serin breathed roughly as she held his head. She looked up the doctor working over him, praying they had gotten him there in time.

“I’m almost done, Serin,” he assured her as he pulled the bullet out of Talen’s chest. “It wasn’t too bad. He’s lost a lot of blood though.”

“Maggie?” Talen clenched his teeth as the pain seared his chest despite the injections he had been given.“Is she okay?”

“She’s fine, Talen. Zane won’t hurt her. Webb called in just a few minutes ago. Another of her brothers showed up. He hauled Zane, still restrained, into the car after he put Maggie in and headed towards the interstate. She’s on her way home.” Serin assured him, knowing Talen would never rest until he knew she was safe.

“Son of a bitch. Cold hearted bastard,” Talen cursed Zane. He couldn’t believe he had done it, couldn’t believe he would hurt his sister in such a way.

Serin agreed with him. It had been all she could do to keep from revealing herself to him as she held him at her mercy. Let him know that he couldn’t defeat them. But she hadn’t, because she had known that all their lives might well depend on her silence

“We need to call her soon, Talen. What should I tell her?” Serin asked him, knowing it was his call. His decision.

Talen was silent, staring bleakly at the ceiling above him, and Serin knew what his answer would be.

“Tell her I’m dead. Tell her it’s over.”

“God, Talen, it will kill her,” Laney whispered from beside him.

Her face was still pale and strained, remembered horrors and present fears were battling inside her as she watched the doctor stitch the wound.

“No, she’ll live.” Talen breathed deeply, fighting the anesthesia and the sleep that tried to wash over him. “It may hurt for a while, but she’ll live.”

But would he? Talen was surprised at the strength of his own pain in the face of losing Maggie. She hadn’t been with him long enough to love her. Or had she? He asked himself. Because he admitted, he did love her. He had known it the moment he had thrown her clear of his body, taking the bullet willingly rather than risking her, or even using her as a shield. Zane could have shot her if he tried, and Talen couldn’t risk it.

But now, their lives were all endangered. Zane wouldn’t rest until he found Talen, or a grave that contained his body. Talen could run, but he wondered how far he could go, or if there was even a place in the world that he could hide. And he wondered if death wouldn’t be preferable to the pain he felt at the thought of never seeing Maggie or touching her again?

A Breed Apart - Part 33 - FINAL

Published in Sensuous Escapes newsletter (Nov. 18, 2005 edition)

The next night, Maggie sat in the living room, surrounded by her father and her brothers. Zane was there. He sat in the corner of the room, staring at them broodingly; waiting on the same call they were all waiting on. Maggie stared at him, knowing he was avoiding her gaze, avoiding the guilt.

He wasn’t her brother, she assured herself. The man who could kill an innocent in cold blood; who could stand, rock steady, and kill someone she loved. No, he wasn’t her brother, but he used to be. What had happened, she wondered, to the kind man, the one who had taken her to the park when Momma and Daddy were busy? The one who had taught her to drive? What had happened to the brother she had loved above all others?

Maggie curled tighter against Moochers warmth as the TV droned in the background. The message had been left on the machine earlier assured her that she would receive a later call. They had been out of the house. Maggie had a doctor’s appointment her father insisted she keep.  Her brothers had tagged along for the verdict. A verdict none but Maggie seemed happy about.

She was pregnant. Not very far along, barely a week in fact, but the blood tests had been conclusive. As she left the doctors office,  Maggie had begun to plan. She watched Zane now, knowing she would be lucky to ever escape him, but she knew she had to. As soon as Serin told her where to find Talen, she would finalize those plans. She knew that was why she was calling, to tell her Talen was fine, and where to meet him. She had to be.

The cell phone beside her rang. Maggie jumped, startled, as did the others. She grabbed at it desperately, flipping it open and answering it before the first ring had finished.

“Little sister?” Serin’s voice was soft.

“It’s me. Tell me where he is?” Maggie demanded quietly. “Tell me Serin.”

There was a long silence. Maggie felt it building in her soul, shattering her from the inside out.

“I’m sorry, Maggie. I’m so sorry…” Serin began to cry.

“No, just tell me where he is.” Maggie fought to breathe past the pain killing her.

“He didn’t make it. I’m sorry.”

The line disconnected.

 *

Maggie was unaware of her screams echoing through the house, the sound of Talen’s name drowning out her father, her brothers as they rushed to her. Only Zane held back, his eyes narrowed as he watched her, watched as she clutched her stomach, as she screamed out the name of her lover.

His fists clenched as Caleb shot him a killing look. His teeth clenched as Brandon cried with her. It wasn’t supposed to happen this way, he thought to himself. Maggie hadn’t been with the bastard long enough, surely not long enough to love him?

Her cries slowly diminished, Zane looked up as Caleb lifted her in his arms and carried her from the room. Then his father was standing before him, his expression shuttered, his eyes bleak.

“Pack your bags, Zane,” he told him coldly. “It’s time you move out.”

“Are you disowning me, Father?” He asked him quietly, trying to ignore the pain of that thought.

“Don’t push me, Zane.” Steven shook his head wearily. “Don’t push me. Pack your stuff, I want you out tonight.”

“Father.” Zane gripped his arm, guilt and fury tearing through him in equal parts. “He isn’t dead. She wouldn’t let me explain. There has to be blood proof for the Council. They trust my word, but I have to have proof. I have to go back.”

His father flinched, jerking his arm from Zane’s grip as he stared at him in fury.

“You go back, and you are no longer my son, Zane. You’ve done enough to Maggie. Let it go.”

Stephen turned quickly from him and walked from the room. Zane stared at his back, seeing the droop in his shoulders, the age that seemed to weigh him down.

“Dad thought you loved Maggie more than you loved your job, Zane,” Darien told him softly as he stopped beside him now. “We all did. I guess we were all wrong.”

Then he walked away from him as well. No one else stopped to speak to him, no one bothered to ask him about regret or his own tears. No one stopped to care. Zane lowered his head, swallowing tightly as the full force of his actions suddenly slammed into his heart. And the brutal part, he thought to himself, was that at the last minute, he had only wanted to save the bastard.

Talen wasn’t dead, and Zane knew it. He knew though that to convince the others of this, he would have to show them the living, breathing, meowing proof that the son of a bitch was alive.  So much for trying to help.

*

Later that night, the silence wrapped around the house as Zane stood in the hallway, a single suitcase at his feet as he closed his bedroom door. He walked slowly, two doors up the hall, and pushed the door opened carefully.

She even cried in her sleep. His heart clenched at the sight of the tears on her face. He moved slowly to her bed, kneeling down beside her, his fingers moving to push the dampened hair from her face.

“I’m sorry, Sunshine,”he whispered bleakly, then his heart stopped as her eyes opened.

At first he saw hatred, fury, then unimaginably pain and love. She did love him, but God, how he had hurt her, he now knew.

“He’s gone, Zane,”she whispered.

“I’ll bring him back, Maggie” He felt the tears that rolled down his face, her pain clenching his heart. “Please believe me, Maggie. I swear he’s not dead.”

She was silent, matching tears wetting her cheeks, but for a brief moment, Zane thought he saw hope flare in the depths of the misery. Then it was gone, as her breath hitched against the continued sobs.

“Will you kill my baby too, Zane?” She whispered, and in that moment Zane knew a torment unlike any he believed could be survived.

“I swear to you. I’ll never hurt you again,” he begged her tearfully. “I swear to you, Maggie. I’ll love your child, I’ll protect it as I didn’t protect you.”

She shuddered, she trembled, God knew she couldn’t have the energy left to sob.

“I love you. But I can’t forgive you yet, Zane. Not yet.” And his heart broke and she turned away from him. 

His heart broke, even as he watched her soul crack wider.

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