Mallory’s Hunt

MallorysHunt375

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Caleb North just needs to survive one last undercover assignment. He’s been sent to infiltrate what he believes is a vigilante group. To do it, he’ll have to get close to Mallory Cassel. But there’s a fine line between close and too close. He shouldn’t want her, but he does. She shouldn’t allow him into her life, but has no choice.

Mallory is hunting a man who molests and kills young girls—girls who look like her sister. She’s trying to outrun her destiny as judge, jury and executioner, but holding on to her humanity isn’t a sure thing. It’s not even a likely one, not when her Reaper Lord father has plans for her.

Reaper Hounds. Death Hounds. Hellhounds. The myths don’t get it right.

They’re all killers. Or killers in training.

And if Caleb’s not careful, he’s going to be on the receiving end of Hellhound justice.

Read an Excerpt

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Mallory rolled the black Rubicon to a stop in front of the white adobe apartment building. If her informant was right, they’d find Larsen’s skip inside.

Tommy Henderson. Bonded-out and free to prowl for his next victim, free to rape again, free to ruin lives. Hiding out and thinking he could escape justice.

Despite the cold blasting from the air conditioning, heat swirled like sinuous flame in her stomach. Don’t run, Tommy. Run and you could end up dead.

She didn’t want to serve as judge and jury and executioner. She didn’t want to lose her grip on humanity, not today. But Dane… Dane was already missing some of his.

She glanced at him, black menace and lethal promise, two-legged brother now on four thanks to their sire. The bulk of Dane’s mass was in the back of the Jeep, but his neck was draped over the passenger seat so he could take the hit of air conditioning in the face.

Reaper Hounds. Death Hounds. Hellhounds. The myths didn’t get it right.

They were all killers. Or killers in training.

She cut the engine and opened the door, flooding the Rubicon with the smell of diesel and asphalt and ocean. “Alive, Dane. Let’s take him alive.”

He didn’t follow her out of the car.

She leaned down and looked at him.

His lips lifted to reveal a hint of teeth. He glanced at the glove box then at her, his message clear. Use the fucking charm, Mal.

The street was empty except for an old lady pushing an equally old man in a wheelchair. That didn’t mean their presence hadn’t been noted. But with the temperature in L.A. ninety and climbing, the gangbangers weren’t obvious.

“The Jeep will be okay.” Though she could understand his protectiveness since her own Rubicon, granite-colored to his black, had been firebombed on another job.

He didn’t budge.

She dropped into the driver’s seat, not wanting to give Tommy Henderson time to run.

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Opening the glove box, she snagged the charm. Pulled the switchblade from her back pocket. A tap and it snicked open.

A quick stab and blood welled on her index finger.

She touched blood to the charm lying flat on her palm.

The stench of sulfur wafted upward. The stench of Hell-spawned magic. The stench she carried, along with the fear that the magic coursing through her was like black ink injected into the bloodstream to coat heart and soul.

She fisted the charm to suppress a shudder. Not that she could hide what she felt from Dane, not that she needed to. He struggled with his own desire to retain his humanity.

The old lady pushing the old man reached the building where Tommy Henderson was holed up. She propped the door open with a bag of groceries taken from the man’s lap. Turned the wheelchair so it faced the street then pulled it through the doorway, the two of them disappearing from sight before she returned to reclaim the bag.

Mallory hung the charm on the rearview mirror. They could leave the Jeep’s doors open, the key in the ignition and the engine running and the chance of having anything happen was slim.

She got out. Dane followed.

The building was a three-story with the entrance to the far left. He peeled off to the right to circle it. She went through the doorway, scent assaulting her.

Dirty diapers.

Burned bacon.

Spicy chicken.

Unwashed bodies.

Tide detergent and Febreze.

She forced her conscious mind to stop categorizing.

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Panted sounds of struggle and soft, sharp sobs had her hand twitching, her awareness of the 9 mm shoved into the waistband at the base of her spine heightening.

Following the sounds, she found the old lady struggling to pull the wheelchair backward up the stairs, the old man dragging himself after her.

Mallory’s gaze flicked to the hallway. Her thoughts spun to Tommy Henderson.

Another sharp sob snapped her eyes back to the stairwell’s occupants. What was she supposed to do? Pretend not to see?

She climbed the stairs, passing the man with his twig-thin fingers outstretched on stained and faded linoleum.

She reached the old woman with her fingers tight on the wheelchair handles.

“Second or third floor?”

Washed-out brown eyes measured intention. Arthritis-swollen fingers relaxed their grip on the chair, allowing it to rest against Mallory.

The sack of groceries was too valuable to leave at the bottom of the stairs, too valuable to surrender to a stranger The old woman lifted it off the seat, arms shaking until she had the bag clutched to her chest. “Third floor.”

“No elevator?”

“Broken. They said it’d be fixed yesterday. And the day before yesterday. And the day before that.”

Mallory collapsed the chair and maneuvered it past the old woman. She hauled it to the third floor and returned, taking the stairs several at a time.

The man had kept moving. She crouched next to him, unwillingly categorizing the scent of decay and death and despair, a body under attack and losing.

She doubted he weighed more than a hundred pounds. “Can I help you up to the third floor?”

He hesitated. Reluctantly nodded.

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On the first floor, a door opened. Rubber fast-slapped against linoleum toward the front door.

The instinct to chase flared. Mallory’s mouth watered and her tongue swept across her lips.

She forced her attention back to the old man. “Can you manage some of your weight?”

“No.”

The building door opened and closed.

She eased the old man across her shoulders in a fireman’s carry. His arms and legs were thin, brittle sticks. His gasp was fear and pain and the expulsion of pride.

On the third floor she put him in his chair then bounded down to the first, going to the apartment where Henderson was supposed to be, in case she was wrong about the footsteps and the hasty escape.

No answer.

She pulled picks out of her back pocket. The locks were cheap. It took less time to get them opened than it’d taken to reach the apartment door from the third floor.

The lack of heartbeat and breathing inside the apartment told her the place was empty. The heavier scent in it matched the trace of fresh in the hallway.

She left the apartment building at a run.

Henderson had vanished.

Dane separated from the Jeep’s shadow and flowed into existence.

“He just left.”

A head cock asked how the hell that had happened. But he trotted over and placed his nose to the ground, caught the scent and took off running.

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Mallory raced after him, heart tripping into a faster pace, doubling again when he broke from sight and began baying, the unmistakable sound of a hunting Hound whose quarry was in sight.

Past and present blurred. She stumbled, body stretching, arms out, not to brace against a fall but for hands to become paws though she didn’t possess the power to shift forms voluntarily in this world.

Saliva pooled in her mouth as quickly as the hot Los Angeles air dried it. Eight years of conditioning in her sire’s realm, the world she considered Hell, warred with a desperate grip on humanity.

Part of her was a hound running, chasing. Feeding on fear and shrieks of terror. Anticipating the kill, the shredding of flesh, the destruction of bone and the reeving of soul from body. And part of her was human, only human, clinging to the belief that she wouldn’t become the conscienceless killer her Reaper Lord sire intended her to become.

Residences gave way to industrial buildings the closer they got to the docks. A scream plunged adrenaline into her system.

She ran harder, faster, even though running was so very dangerous for the rapist she chased.

Alleged rapist.

Another scream cut through the thick, hot air like a knife-created rent in a circus tent.

She rounded the corner, sprinted.

Dane pulled Henderson off the chain-link fence he’d been trying to scale.

The scrawny man screamed all the way to the ground.

“Don’t, Dane, don’t!” she yelled.

He let go of the jeans.

Lunged at Henderson’s throat.

Mallory’s arm was there first.

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Dane’s teeth slid through skin and muscle to hit bone and fill the air with the scent of blood.

He released, eyes a Hound’s liquid gold instead of fiery red because he hunted beneath the sun instead of the moon.

Dane backed away, snarling and growling, the hair along his nape lifted, his muscles taut and limbs rigid.

Pain pulsed up her arm in throbbing, heated agony. Nausea accompanied it in waves.

Henderson scrambled to his feet and bolted.

She was on him in two steps, switchblade in hand, the sharp edge against his neck, the rich, metallic scent of his blood filling her nostrils and coating her tongue with memory.

Next to her, Dane’s body vibrated with the urge to kill and hers echoed it, as if together they were a perfectly pitched tuning fork. Purpose hummed through her. Rip this soul from its fleshy body and cast it directly into the realm their sire ruled.

Knife. Gun. Hands. A Hound’s glistening teeth, it didn’t matter. All of them would accomplish the task.

“No!” Panted. Fought for. Because it would cost her far more than it would cost Henderson.

The acrid stink of piss merged with the lush scent of blood. Henderson trembled beneath her, prey now, not predator.

Alleged predator.

He hadn’t been judged guilty.

Yet.

Dane’s hot breath hit her face. His low growls urged her to finish the hunt with a kill.

“Enough! Back off, Dane!”

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Henderson’s rabbit-paced heartbeats marked time.

A minute.

Two.

Three.

Dane’s fur smoothed. His eyes lost the amber sheen, but that was only an illusion of safety. He retreated but didn’t sit.

Her mouth inches from Henderson’s ear, she said, “Don’t run again, Tommy.”

She took the blade from his neck, wiped the blood on his shirt then closed the knife to exchange it for cuffs.

“Hands behind your back.”

He complied.

She secured his wrists, blood rolling down her forearm and dripping onto his shirt. She stood, wrenching Henderson to his feet, the front of his jeans piss-wet.

“Let’s go.”

She attached Henderson’s cuffs to a tie-down ring in the back of the Jeep then tilted the passenger seat so Dane’s only choice was to cram himself into the front.

The adrenaline rush dropped, bottoming out in her stomach with a nauseating lurch. Her arm throbbed.

Close one. The third or fourth since Dane had left his apartment human and days later showed up outside hers as Hound.

She shuddered. Accepted that she couldn’t put off visiting Bastian any longer. He held the answer to what it would take to get Dane out of fur and into skin.

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At the jail she left Dane in the Jeep, the engine on, the air-conditioning blasting.

She dumped Henderson off and got a receipt for him.

Now Bastian.

Her stomach roiled even before she stepped into the jail’s visiting area.

She hardly dared to breathe, could barely handle the body odors and emotional stink. Every surface held scent. It permeated every air particle. It coated her tongue with a residue no amount of rinsing would dispel.

Her heart thump-thump-thumped like a Black Hawk over jungle at imagining herself behind bars. It could happen. It could so easily happen.

A chill swept over her, at what it would be like to be caged, her movements controlled. At what it would be like to be trapped in a place full of prey.

She’d been created to hunt, kill, to deliver souls into her sire’s keeping.

Her mouth watered despite the revulsion, the soul-deep longing to be fully human, not Hound. The urge to bolt spun her toward the exit. The announcement ending one visitor session and beginning the next kept her from fleeing.

She went to the station where she was directed. Crossed her arms and stood.

Bastian appeared on the other side of thick Plexiglas, a nightmare déjà vu of her own future. Coal-black hair, pitch-black eyes, their sire had marked them with his looks as thoroughly as he’d marked them in a thousand other ways.

She’d spent the last eleven years avoiding Bastian. In the beginning, when she returned to this world, she’d tried to stay away from Dane. But the pack instinct was too strong to deny, and the challenges of coping in this world after being in their sire’s care, too much to handle alone.

The Plexiglas barrier prevented Bastian’s scent from reaching her. It didn’t matter.

Meeting his abyss-black eyes was enough to trigger the nighttime smell of their sire’s forests. It was enough to fill her head with the sound of baying Hounds and piercing shrieks and terrified screams.

Bastian lifted the phone receiver. She did the same.

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“Long time no see, Mallory,” Bastian said, voice dripping with twisted amusement, with secrets he’d go to his grave before telling. “What brings you here?”

“Why?”

Why kill when you didn’t have to?

Why kill in a way you knew you’d never get away with?

Not the answers she’d come for, but the ones her soul demanded.

“Worried for yourself?”

“No.”

He laughed, knowing it was a lie.

“I got tired of fighting my own nature. Why bother? You’ll find that out for yourself.”

“I won’t make the choice you did.”

“Tell yourself that if it makes you feel better. But it just makes you more of a fool.” There was savagery in his smile, in his eyes, in the bond between them.

“You’ll fall in love with someone, and if that doesn’t bring out your true nature, you’ve got that nice little family you should have walked away from when you got back to L.A. Eventually someone will threaten one of them, someone will hurt one of them.”

A steel fist gripped her guts and twisted. She didn’t want to be judge and jury and executioner. But for her mother, for Sorcha and Austin, even for Phillip…

“I won’t make the choice you did.”

“Grow up, Mal. We’re a necessary evil. Jail isn’t redemptive. Humans adapt. That’s why they’re not walking around with their knuckles dragging on the ground. No one sits in here and rots. It’s home. It becomes the only world that matters.”

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“Some lines shouldn’t be crossed voluntarily, Bastian.”

“And some things are inevitable.”

His eyes bored into hers and the wildness howling inside him sliced through the Plexiglas like the sound of the horn through still air, signaling a hunt.

“You’re too soft, Mal. Always have been. You’ll fail because of it, then what will happen?”

“I won’t fail.”

He smiled, a mocking stretch and curve of lips, so reminiscent of the one their sire wore that hate blazed through her. And that reaction made him laugh. His gaze flicked to the bandages covering the punctures and bruises on her forearm.

“I take it Dane is still mostly useless to you.”

So he knew Dane was trapped in fur. Because one of the others had been here and told him? Because he was alpha? Or because the link between an alpha in this world and a Reaper Lord in Hell meant their sire’s thoughts and will could reach him? She shuddered at the possibility.

“He’s not himself,” she said, careful with her words given the lack of privacy. “I’d like him to be.”

Bastian’s laugh was a sharp bark. “Let him loose on the streets of L.A. and he’ll be nothing but himself.”

“Is that the reason for the change in him?” To kill? And be killed in this world?

“You’ll figure it out soon enough.”

“Could you help him return to normal?”

“Why would I?”

“Is that a no you can’t?”

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His smile was a Hound’s lip curl. “Summon our sire. Take my place and find out what’s really possible.”

Her heart fluttered with the wild panic of a trapped finch. Her thoughts arrowed into Hell, to the alpha bitch of her sire’s pack, a Hound without a human form who’d had the power to force her into a different shape.

“What’s wrong, Mal? Don’t love Dane enough? He’s not really family, so you’ll sacrifice him and pretend you’re somehow different? News flash, no good deed goes unpunished. Yours won’t keep you from ending up like the rest of us.”

She dug her fingers into the bite wounds. “I’m not taking your place.” Dane and I will manage somehow.

The mocking smile returned. “You can’t outrun what you are, what he means for you to be.”

“I can.”

Bastian stood. “Learn the hard way. Don’t come back, Mal. I’ve said all I’m going to say to you.”

She slammed the receiver into its cradle. Wiping her palms against her jeans, she turned away from the Plexiglas, her skin tight and uncomfortable.

Long strides took her away from taunt and threat and possible truth. Outside she pulled her phone from a pocket, rolled it in her hand as she walked.

She stopped with the Jeep in sight and scrolled to an LAPD direct line. Bastian was wrong. The things she did mattered, they’d keep her from becoming a cold-blooded killer.

Detective Nathan Davidson answered and she asked, “Need me for anything?”

His laugh was more tire going flat than amusement. “Ever thought about taking a vacation?”

“Can’t afford to right now. But I have some time to hunt.”

Quiet filled the line where once it wouldn’t have, fallout from being so obviously related to Bastian. Her hand tightened on the phone. A Hound’s hearing allowed her to pick up the muted tap tap tap of fingers drumming on a paper-covered desk.

Wariness had crept into the eyes and scent of more than one of the cops she’d dealt with on a regular basis. They knew her history. They knew about the missing years, though not where she spent them. And now at least some of them knew of her connection to Bastian.

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A soft sigh preceded Nathan’s lowered voice. “I’ve got a runaway you can look for. Not my case, but I’m willing to go out on a limb.”

“I’ll be there in a few.”

“No hurry.”

She pocketed the phone. Her right hand went to her left upper arm. Her palm rubbed over the ridges and scar tissue beneath the shirt sleeve as if she could force the skin to become smooth, unblemished.

You can’t outrun what you are, what he means for you to be, Bastian’s voice taunted.

“I can. I will,” she whispered, lengthening her strides and getting to the Jeep, heat shimmering off concrete and asphalt in rippling waves.

Habit had her reaching beneath the seat, fingertips brushing the 9 mm and switchblade.

Dane’s low growl expressed his disgruntlement at the seeming lack of confidence in his ability to guard the weapons.

She laughed, her mood lightening.

He growled again when they approached Nathan’s station house. This time she ignored it.

A call brought Nathan out to collect her. His slight frame always made her feel like an Amazon. His loosened tie and sweat-stained underarms made her aware of her dry skin.

“Come on back,” he said, eyes cataloging her appearance, lingering on her injured forearm. “The dog?”

Was gossip already making the rounds about the slice on Henderson’s neck and the piss on his jeans?

“Hazard of the job.”

The mix of body washes, perfumes and burned coffee clogged her throat and made her struggle against sneezing.

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Folders covered Nathan’s desk. He pulled a sheet of paper from one of them, handing it to her. The girl pictured on it was blonde, blue-eyed. The resemblance to Sorcha sent unexpected uneasiness sizzling down Mallory’s spine like acid dripped on steel.

“You recognize her?”

“No. Made me think of my sister, that’s all.”

Mallory read the details—Amanda Edson. Fourteen, not Sorcha’s eleven, but she could pass for it. Under identifying marks, a flower tattoo at the base of the spine was listed. On the original copy, someone had scribbled a note: described as garish, probably looks more tramp stamp than art.

“Aunt was the one to report her as a runaway,” Nathan said, “not the mother. Addresses for both are on the back.”

The light drum of his fingers had Mallory meeting his eyes. “But they’re off limits?”

“Like I told you on the phone, this isn’t my case.”

She left the yes, they’re off limits to you, implied.

“Reason for running?”

“When the mother finally got around to responding to inquiries, she said the girl has been out of control and playing with drugs since she was eleven.”

“Any leads?”

“Not that haven’t been checked out.”

Mallory folded the picture and slipped it into a shirt pocket.

Nathan walked her back to reception.

At the door she asked, “You have any contacts in San Pedro?”

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“Police or other?”

“Someone who could put some pressure on a building owner. I came across an old man and old woman in a bad way, having to use the steps to get to the third floor because the elevator was down and has been, sounded like for a while.”

“Text me the address. I’ll make a couple of phone calls.”

“Thanks.”

She texted it on the way to the Jeep.

Dane’s bulk was crammed into the front passenger seat with spillover into the driver’s. His gaze followed his nose to Nathan’s scent on the flier in her pocket.

“Move and I’ll show it to you.”

He climbed into the back, circled and draped his neck over the seat.

She tugged the flier out and unfolded it.

His low whine said he saw the resemblance to Sorcha. His growl said he’d kill to defend a kid whose only relation to him was through her.

Mallory’s throat tightened. Guilt crept in at not being willing to summon their sire in order to free Dane from fur. And Bastian’s mocking taunts about good deeds and family and Dane gnawed and shredded and stripped at her insides like Hounds on a carcass.

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