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Shades of Midnight (Chapter Fifteen)

Daylight broke thin and overcast outside the wide mouth of the woodland cave. The predator had sought shelter there a short while ago, when the sun's first weak rays had begun to claw their way through the winter darkness. Few things existed that were stronger than he, particularly in this primitive world that was so different from the distant one he'd been born into many millennia ago, but as advanced a life-form as his kind was, his hairless, dermaglyph- covered skin could not process ultraviolet light, and just a few minutes' exposure would kill him.

From deep within the safety of the dark cave, he rested from the previous night of hunting and wandering, impatient for the thready light of daybreak to exhaust itself and retreat once more. He needed to feed again soon. He still hungered, his cells and organs and muscles requiring extensive rejuvenation after the long period of deprivation and abuse he had suffered while in captivity. The instinct to survive warred with the knowledge he had that he was, wholly and utterly, alone on this inhospitable chunk of orbiting debris.

There were none like him left here now, not for a long time. He was the last of the eight explorers who had crashed on this planet, a lone castaway with no chance of escape.

They had been born to conquer, born to be kings. Instead, one by one, his stranded brethren had all perished, whether by the harshness of their new surroundings or in war with their own half-human progeny centuries later. Through treachery and a secret bargain with his offspring, he alone had survived. But it had been that same treachery and covert dealing that had enslaved him to the son of his son, Dragos. Now that he was free, the only thing more attractive than ending his time on this forsaken planet was the idea that he might be able to take his duplicitous heir with him in death. He howled with remembered fury for the long decades of pain and experimentation that had been inflicted on him. His voice shook the walls of the cave, an unearthly roar that ripped from his lungs like a battle cry.

A gunshot answered from somewhere not too distant, somewhere in the woods beyond. There was a sudden crash in the frozen bracken outside. Then a steady, fleeting beat of animal footsteps–several sets–racing near the mouth of the cave.

Wolves.

The pack split up, half running to the right of the cave's entrance, half darting to the left of it. And behind them by only a few seconds, the sounds of human voices, armed men in dogged pursuit.

"This way," one of them shouted. "Whole goddamn pack ran up this ridge, Dave!"

"You men take the westerly path," a thunderous voice commanded in reply. "Lanny and I'll take the ridge on foot. There's a cave up this way–good chance one or more of the mangy bastards are hiding inside."

The buzz of revving engines and the stench of burning gasoline filled the air as some of the men sped off. A few moments later, outside the cave's mouth, in the daylight that barred the only route of escape, the silhouettes of two people holding long rifles took shape. The man in front was large, with a barrel chest and broad shoulders and a belly that might have been muscular in younger years but had since turned to flab. The man with him was a full foot shorter and about a hundred pounds lighter, a timid creature with a The man with him was a full foot shorter and about a hundred pounds lighter, a timid creature with a thready voice.

"I don't think there's anything in here, Dave. And I'm really not sure it's a good idea for us to split off from the others …"

Confined to the shadows, the cave's sole occupant shrank back behind a wall of jagged rock–but not soon enough.

"There! I just saw a pair of eyes glowing inside here. What'd I tell ya, Lanny? We got one of those goddamn bastards right fucking here!" The big man's voice was eager with aggression as he raised his weapon. "Shine that flashlight and let me see what I'm shooting at, will ya?"

"Uh, okay, Dave." His nervous companion fumbled the task, clicking on the beam and sending it in a shaky bounce around the floor and walls of the cave. "Do you see it anywhere? I don't see nothing in here at all."

Of course he didn't, because the glowing gaze the larger man had seen just a moment ago was no longer low to the ground but looking down on the pair of humans from where the hunter now clung to the rock ceiling above their heads, poised over them in the dark like a spider.

The big man lowered his weapon. "What the hell? Where the fuck could it have gone?"

"We shouldn't be here, Dave. I think we should go find the others …" The big man took a few more steps into the cave. "Don't be such a pussy. Give me that light." As the smaller man reached out to hand it over, his boot caught on a loose rock. He stumbled, went down on his knees with a yelp of pain and surprise. "Oh, shit! I think I cut myself!" The coppery proof of it rose up in a sudden olfactory blast. The scent of fresh blood drilled into the predator's nostrils. He breathed it in and hissed it back out of his lungs through his bared teeth and fangs. Below him on the floor of the cave, the nervous little man's head jerked upward. His stricken face went slack with horror under the alien, amber glow of now-thirsting eyes.

He screamed, his voice as high and curdled as a human girl's.

At the same time, the big man wheeled around with his rifle.

The cave exploded with a sharp crack of gunfire and a blinding flash of light as the predator leapt from his hold on the rocks overhead and launched himself at the pair of humans. Alex couldn't remember the last time she'd slept so deeply or so uninterruptedly. Nor could she recall ever feeling quite so spent and sated as she did after making love with Kade. She stretched beneath the fluffy pile of blankets and sleeping bags on the floor, then rose up on her elbow to watch him as he added more wood to the fire in the cabin's little pipe stove.

He crouched on his haunches, the thick muscles of his back and arms bunching and flexing as he pivoted to place another log in the stove, his smooth skin bathed in the warm amber glow of the firelight. His short black hair was a bed-rumpled mess of glossy spikes that gave him a wilder air than normal, all the more so when he turned his head to glance her way and she was hit with the chiseled angles of his killer cheekbones and jaw, and the piercing silver of his dark-fringed eyes.

He was gorgeous, a hundred times more breathtaking when he was sitting there naked in front of her, his gaze intense and intimate, locked onto hers. Alex's body still hummed with the memory of their passion, the pleasant ache between her legs pulsing a bit warmer for the way he looked at her now, as if he wanted to devour her all over again.

"Did we sleep through daylight?" she asked, suddenly needing to fill the heated silence. He gave a brief nod. "The sun's been gone for a couple of hours."

"You've been outside, I see," she said, noting the fresh supply of split logs stacked up beside him.

"Yeah," he said. "Just came in a minute ago." She smiled, arching her brows. "I hope you didn't go out there like that. It can't be more than zero degrees in the dark."

He grunted, his sensual mouth curving with wry humor. "I don't have any shrinkage issues." No, this was definitely not a man who'd have the slightest insecurities about his masculinity. Every inch of him was lean, hard, sculpted muscle. At nearly six and a half feet, he had the brutal form of a mythical warrior, from the thick, ropey bulk of his shoulders and biceps, to the carved planes of his chest and the washboard abs that tapered to narrow, perfectly cut hips. The rest of him was impressively perfect, as well, and she could testify that he certainly knew what to do with it.

Good lord, he was a living work of art, which was only enhanced by the intricate yet subtly rendered pattern of ink–what kind of ink was that, anyway?–that tracked over the golden skin of his torso and limbs like the path of an appreciative lover's tongue. Alex followed the swirling, intriguingly strange designs with like the path of an appreciative lover's tongue. Alex followed the swirling, intriguingly strange designs with her eyes, wondering if it was only a trick of the firelight that made the henna color of his tattoos seem to flush a deeper shade as she stared at him in open appreciation.

Grinning as though he were used to women admiring him, he stood up and slowly walked back over to where she lay in their nest on the floor, totally uninhibited in his nudity. Alex laughed softly and shook her head. "Does it ever get boring for you?" He cocked a dark brow as he dropped into a negligent recline beside her. "Boring?"

"Women falling all over you," she said, realizing with a bit of stunned surprise that she didn't exactly like that idea. Hated it, in fact, and she wondered where the pang of jealousy was coming from, considering she had no personal claim on him simply because they'd shared a few sweaty–and, yes, okay, flat-out spectacular–hours enjoying each other's bodies.

He stroked a stray lock of hair out of her face and drew her gaze to his. "I only see one woman here with me right now. And I can assure you, I am anything but bored."

He cupped her face in his palms and kissed her, easing her back onto the blankets. His gaze smoldered as he looked down on her, and she could feel the rigid pressure of his erection nudging at the side of her hip where he'd stretched out beside her. "You're a special woman, Alexandra. More special than you know."

"You don't even know me," she protested quietly, needing to remind herself of that fact more than him. They'd known each other for what–a couple of days? It wasn't like her to allow someone into her life so quickly, or so deeply, especially after such a short time. So, why him? Why now, when everything in her world felt as though it were perched on the edge of a very steep cliff? One strong push from the wrong direction, and she was gone. "You don't know anything about me … not really."

"Then tell me."

She looked up into his eyes, startled by the sincerity, the raw plea, in his voice. "Tell you …"

"Tell me what happened to you in Florida, Alex."

All the breath seemed to squeeze out of her lungs in that instant. "I did tell you–"

"Yes, but you and I both know that it wasn't a drunk driver that took your mom and brother from you. Something else happened to them, didn't it? Something that you've kept secret all these years." He spoke with gentle patience, coaxing her trust. And God help her, she felt ready to give it to him. She needed to share it with someone, and in her heart, she knew that someone was Kade. "It's okay, Alex. You can tell me the truth."

She closed her eyes, feeling the awful words–the horrible memories–rise up like acid in her throat.

"I can't," she murmured. "If I speak it, then everything I've tried to put behind me … everything I've worked so hard to forget … it will all become real again."

"You can't spend your life running from the truth," he said, and something haunted crept into his voice. A sadness, a resignation that told her he understood some of the burden she'd carried for so long.

"Denying the truth never makes it go away, Alex."

"No, it doesn't," she replied quietly. In her heart, she knew that. She was tired of running and sick of fighting to keep the horror of her past buried and forgotten. She wanted to be free of it all, and that meant facing the truth, no matter how awful–no matter how unfathomable–it may be. But fear was a powerful enemy. Maybe too powerful. "I'm scared, Kade. I don't know if I'm strong enough to face it alone."

"You are." He dropped a tender kiss on her shoulder, then brought her gaze back to his. "But you're not alone. I'm with you, Alex. Tell me what happened. I'll see you through it, if you'll let me." She held his imploring stare and found the courage she needed in the steely strength of his eyes.

"We'd had such a good day together, all of us. We picnicked down by the water, and I had just taught Richie how to do a backflip off the dock. He was only six years old, but he was fearless, and willing to try anything I did. It had been a perfect day, filled with so much love and laughter." Until darkness had settled over the swamp, bringing unholy terror with it.

"I don't know why they chose our family. I've searched for a reason, but I've never been able to find one for why they came out of the night to attack us."

Kade caressed her carefully as she struggled for the words that came next. "Sometimes there are no reasons. Sometimes things happen and there's nothing we can do to make sense of them. Life, and death, isn't always neat or logical."

Sometimes death sprang out of the shadows like a wraith, like a monster too horrific to be real.

"There were two of them," Alex murmured. "We didn't even know they were there until it was too late. It was dark, and we were all sitting on the veranda, relaxing after supper. My mom was on the porch swing with Richie, reading us Winnie-the-Pooh before bed, when the first one came out of nowhere without warning and pounced on her."

Kade's hand stilled. "You're not talking about a man." She swallowed. "No. It wasn't a man. It wasn't even … human. It was something else. Something evil. It bit her, Kade. And then the other one grabbed Richie with its teeth, too."

"Teeth," he said evenly, no shock or disbelief in his voice, only a steady, grim understanding. "You mean fangs, don't you, Alex? The attackers had fangs."

She closed her eyes as the impossibility of the word sank in. "Yes. They had fangs. And their eyes … they glowed in the dark like bright coals, and in the center of them, their pupils were thin and long, like a cat's. They couldn't have been human. They were monsters."

Kade's touch was soothing on her face and hair as the terror of that awful night played out again in her mind. "It's all right. You're safe now. I only wish I could have been there to help you and your family." The sentiment was sweet, however improbable, given that he couldn't be more than a few years older than she. But from the sincerity of his voice, she knew he truly meant it. No matter their odds, or the enormity of the evil they faced, Kade would have stood with her against the attack. He would have kept them all safe when no one else could have.

"My father tried to fight them off," Alex murmured, "but everything was happening so fast. And they were so much stronger than he was. They knocked him away like he was nothing. By then, Richie was already dead. He was so little, he didn't stand a chance of surviving that kind of violence. My mother screamed for my dad to run, to save me if he could. 'Don't let my daughter die!' Those were her last words. The one who held her sank his huge jaws around her throat. He wouldn't let go, just kept his mouth clamped down hard on her. He was … oh, God, Kade. This is going to sound crazy, but he was … drinking her blood."

A tear rolled down her cheek, and Kade pressed his lips to her brow, gathering her closer to him and offering much-needed comfort. "It doesn't sound crazy, Alex. And I'm sorry for what you and your family endured. No one should have to bear that kind of pain and loss."

Although she didn't want to relive it, the memories had been resurrected now and after keeping them buried for so long, she found she couldn't hold them back. Not when Kade was there to hold her, making her feel warmer and safer than she ever had before.

"They were like animals the way they tore at my mom and Richie. Not even animals would do what they did. And, oh, God … there was so much blood. My father scooped me up and we started running. But I couldn't look away from what was happening behind us in the dark. I didn't want to see any more, but it was so unreal. My mind couldn't process it. It's been years, and I'm still not sure I can explain what it was that attacked us that night. I just … I want it to make sense, and it doesn't. It never will." She drew in a hitching breath, revisiting a fresher pain, a more recent confusion. Looking up into Kade's sober gaze, she said, "I saw the same kind of wounds on the Toms family. They were attacked, just like we were, by the same kind of evil. It's here in Alaska, Kade … and I'm scared."

For a long moment, Kade said nothing. She could see his keen mind turning over all that she'd told him, every incredible detail that would have made anyone else scoff in disbelief or tell her she needed to seek professional help. But not him. He accepted her truth for what it was, no trace of doubt in his eyes or his level tone. "You don't have to run anymore. You can trust me. Nothing bad is going to touch you so long as I'm around. Do you believe me, Alex?"

She nodded, realizing just now how resolute her faith in him was. She trusted him on a level that was something more than instinctual, it was blood deep. What she felt for him defied the fact that he had entered her life only earlier that week, nor did it have anything to do with the way that she burned for him physically–hungered for him in a way she wasn't quite prepared to examine.

She simply looked into Kade's unfaltering eyes and she knew, down to her soul, that he was strong enough to carry whatever burden she shared with him.

"I need you to trust me," he told her gently. "There are things you need to understand, Alex, now more than ever. Things about yourself, and what you saw, back in Florida and here, as well. And there are things you need to know about me, too."

She sat up, her heart thudding oddly in her breast, heavy with a wary sense of expectation. "What do you mean?"

He glanced away then, his gaze following the soft path of his touch as his caress drifted down the length of her naked body, then lingered at the flare of her hip bone. With the pad of his thumb, he traced a length of her naked body, then lingered at the flare of her hip bone. With the pad of his thumb, he traced a skimming circle over the tiny birthmark there. "You're different, Alexandra. Extraordinary. I should have recognized that right away. There were signs, but somehow I missed them. I was focused on other things and I … damn it."

Alex frowned, more confused than ever. "What are you trying to say?"

"You're not like other women, Alex."

When he looked back up at her now, the confidence that normally sparked so brightly in his eyes was missing. He swallowed, the dry click of his throat making her blood run a bit colder in her veins. Whatever he had to say, he was the one who was afraid now, and seeing that trace of uncertainty in him made her anxiety spike a bit, too.

"You're very different from other women, Alex," he said again hesitantly. "And I … you need to know that I'm not like other men, either."

She blinked, feeling an unseen weight press down on her in the silence that spread out between them. The same instinct that told her to demand more answers pleaded with her to back away and pretend she didn't want to know–didn't need to know whatever it was that had Kade so tongue-tied and antsy. All she could do was watch him and wait, worrying that he was about to send her entire world into an even greater tailspin.

The sharp trill of her cell phone jolted her like a kiss from a live wire. It rang again and she ped for it, welcoming the excuse to escape the strange, dark shift in Kade's demeanor.

"This is Alex," she said, recognizing Zach's number as she flipped the phone open and took the call.

"Where are you?" he demanded, not even sparing a second on hello. "I just drove by your house and you're not there. Are you out at Jenna's?"

"No," she said. "Jenna was at my house this morning, before I left. She must have gone home."

"Well, where the hell are you, then?"

"I'm out on a call," she said, bristling a little at his curt tone. "I had a, um, a charter client book a flight this morning–"

"Well, we've got a bad situation here in Harmony," Zach cut in harshly. "I'm in the middle of a medical emergency and I need you to fly a critical injury in from the bush." Alex snapped out of the emotional fog that had held her before she took the call. "Who's been injured, Zach? What's going on?"

"It's Dave Grant. I don't have the whole story yet, but he and Lanny Ham and a bunch of other men from town were out hunting west of town today. They ran into trouble, serious trouble. Lanny Ham is dead, and apparently it's not looking very good for Big Dave right now, either. The guys are afraid to put him on a snowmachine, for fear that they won't get him back here in time enough to save him."

"Oh, my God." Alex sat back on her folded legs, a cold numbness crawling over her skin. "The injuries, Zach … what happened?"

"Something attacked them out there, according to the other men. Dave is delirious and he's lost a lot of blood. He's in and out of consciousness, talking a lot of nonsense about a creature lurking in one of the caves west of Harmony. Whatever it was that got ahold of him and Lanny, well, it's bad, Alex. Real bad. Tore both of them up something awful. The news is all over town already and everyone's in a panic." She closed her eyes. "Oh, my God … oh, my God …"

Kade's hand came to rest lightly on her bare shoulder. "What is it, Alex?" She shook her head, incapable of forming the words.

"Who's that with you?" Zach demanded. "For fuck's sake, Alex. Are you with that guy from Pete's the other night?"

Alex didn't think she needed to answer to Zach Tucker about whom she was spending time with, not when one man was dead and another man's life was hanging in the balance. Not when the horror of her past-the horror she had feared had visited the Toms family just a few days ago–was now raking her heart open all over again.

"I'm out at the Tulak cabin, Zach. I'll leave right away, but I'm probably forty-five minutes out."

"Forget it. We can't afford to wait on you. I'll track down Roger Bemis instead." He disconnected, leaving Alex sitting there, frozen in shock.

"What happened?" Kade asked. "Who's been hurt?" For a moment, it was all she could do to concentrate on breathing in and out. Her heart banged miserably, guilt gnawing at her. "I should have warned them. I should have told them what I knew instead of thinking I could deny it."

"Alex?" Kade's voice was cautious, his fingers firm but tender as he lifted her face up toward his.

"Tell me what's going on."

"Big Dave and Lanny Ham," she murmured. "They were attacked today in the bush. Lanny's dead. Big Dave might not make it."

And if Kade had gone with them, instead of coming out with her? The idea that he might have been close to that danger–or worse, a victim of it–made her heart lurch. She felt ill with fear and dread, but it was her anger that she clung to.

"You're right, Kade. I can't run away from what I know. Not anymore. I have to face this evil. I have to take a stand now, before anyone else gets hurt." Fury buoyed her where fear threatened to hold her down.

"I need to tell the truth–to everyone in Harmony. To the whole damned world, if that's what it takes. People need to know what's out there. They can't destroy an evil they don't even know exists."

"Alex." He pressed his lips together, started to shake his head as though he meant to dissuade her.

"Alex, I don't think that would be wise …"

She held his stare, incredulous. "It's because of you that I feel strong enough to do this, Kade. We need to stand together–everyone–and defeat this."

"Ah, Christ … Alex …"

His hesitation felt like a cold blade slowly pressing into her sternum. Confused by his change in attitude, but too determined to do what was right–to do what she had to do now–she backed away from him and started getting dressed. "I have to get back to Harmony. I'm leaving in the next five minutes. You can decide if you're coming with me or not."

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