I was going to die in a park surrounded by little kids. There was probably some irony there; I just couldn’t bring myself to focus enough to find it. Truthfully, I probably couldn’t bring myself to find my own nose at that moment. The prospect of dying had that effect on me.
The sun shone brightly, blanketing the grass in a yellow glow that hurt the eyes. Only in British Columbia could it be winter and sunny enough to wear shorts and a t-shirt. It was like the tropics of Canada. As final resting places went, it wasn’t too shabby. It was better than the dank, urine soaked alley we’d nearly died in last week, or the deodorant aisle at Walmart the week before that. It seemed like every week we found new and more creative places to meet our demise and frankly, it was getting tedious. There we were, adamant not to die while Garrison’s goons were adamant to change our minds, and we were just very stubborn people all around.
We were at a park, in the middle of December, watching a kite flying contest. For someone who had survived some of the worst winters in Canada, only in British Columbia was something like that possible in a sundress without freezing your pants off. But even this boggling climate mystery wasn’t enough to overshadow the fact that it was nearly noon, which meant we were minutes away from meeting someone, a man … my father to be exact. My real father, not Garrison who was the genius behind me being cooked up in a lab like an omelet with animal DNA and who knew what else.
Isaiah sat beside me, his confidence and assurance a toasty blanket. It took a great deal of resistance not to give in and curl up into his side. I knew he wouldn’t push me away. I knew he would draw me in close. It was solely the fact that we were surrounded by screaming children and their watchful parents that kept me at arm’s length. It was just a hunch, but I was almost certain they would not take too kindly to me jumping Isaiah and doing very non G-rated things to him in front of their offspring. Parents were just weird like that. They didn’t understand that I didn’t have a choice. Granted, even if I had, I would still jump the guy. He was freaking delicious and I was still just a teenage girl with raging hormones and a thirst for blood. You know, average.
There were often times when we were trapped in a motel with nothing but a black and white TV for company and I would find myself watching him, studying the powerful silhouette he made in the dim light. In the last month since our escape from Garrison’s clutches, I had noticed a few interesting things about my companion.
He never slouched. His body was perpetually frozen in an unyielding rigid tension that seemed to never lessen. It was as though his mind and body were continuously in attack mode. The first few nights after our escape, I understood. I was on edge, too. Every little noise had me bolting upright, heart wedged in my throat in panic. It was Isaiah who assured me nothing was out there. The guy had the senses of … well, a wolf. But eventually, I toned it down a notch. Isaiah, on the other hand, was hanging onto that promise he made to Ashton as though it were a brick of gold; he was going to protect me if it killed him. Sweet, right? Wrong.
If someone could reach into my chest and tear out my heart and turn it into a living, breathing person, Isaiah would be it. He completed me. Most people had to live their whole lives wondering if they would ever find their other half, their soul mate. Well, I didn’t. I shared a soul with mine, literally. But there was nothing remotely romantic about it.
Our love was genetically engineered to make us the ultimate weapon of mass destruction. So for all I knew, it wasn’t even real. Because being a teenager and worrying about break outs, pit stains and PMS wasn’t bad enough. I had a genuinely good reason to wonder if he really loved me or not. Plus, I perpetually had a guy in my head.
Isaiah knew every one of my secrets without me ever telling him. He knew what I was thinking and feeling before even I did. It was a major pain in the ass. A girl needed her secrets, needed to be able to ogle a guy coming out of the bathroom in nothing but a towel without him getting a full wash of her not so G-rated thoughts. It didn’t help that the guy could elicit dirty thoughts wearing a snowsuit. I may have been biased, but he really was just that sexy, and all mine. As odd as it may sound, I wasn’t all too pleased about the latter.
Guys like Isaiah didn’t pick girls like me in the real world. I knew that had, we met under normal circumstances, he would never have given me a second glance. He’d no doubt have his arm around some leggy blonde with big … personalities and … ugh! I couldn’t even think about it. The chick didn’t even exist and I wanted to throat punch her. That was how low I had sunk on the spectrum of things.
I blamed Isaiah for driving myself crazy wondering if he would just go away one day.
No. Wait. I blamed Terrell Garrison. He was the reason we were in this mess. He was the reason I was on the run. He was also the reason I would die if something happened to Isaiah, not just because I was just that deeply gone over the guy, but because I needed Isaiah’s blood to live. Seventeen years of human food, gone the minute I sunk my teeth into him. So when I say the guy was delicious, I don’t just mean someone better call Calvin Klein and let them know their underwear model was missing. The guy was literally delicious. His blood was just euphoric. There were no words for the taste.
“Okay?” Isaiah took my hand from my lap. I started to nod, because I sometimes forgot I didn’t need to lie about how I felt. Mostly because lying was impossible when he already knew my answers. Maybe it was because he knew how uncomfortable it made me when he poked around in my head, but he always asked anyway. It was his way of making an effort to give me a shred of normalcy in our bizarre relationship. “Nervous.” I moistened my lips and darted an apprehensive glance over the sea of faces. “It’s kind of … open, here, isn’t it?” There was so much movement. Too many people that could get hurt if Garrison was there amongst them. “How would we know?” I said the last part out loud, already knowing Isaiah had heard the rest without words.
“I would know.” He squeezed my hand. “He’s not here.”
Even while I believed him, I still couldn’t bring myself to relax, because there were bigger things to worry about than just Garrison, although he was reason enough.
“You look beautiful.” He pressed a kiss to my temple and stilled the restless picking I’d been doing at my clothes.
“What if he doesn’t like me?” I hated myself for confessing such a vulnerable fear, but I couldn’t help it. “Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.”
“Fallon.” He nudged me lightly with his shoulder.
I groaned, squeezing my eyes closed tight. He was right. I was overthinking it. Whether my dad wanted anything to do with me or not, I’d be fine. I was a survivor. It was the one thing my mom had spent my whole life teaching me. I just had to keep moving. I could do that. Being on the road was second nature to me. I didn’t need approval from a man I’d never met.
“He’s here. Ashton,” he said quickly when I bolted to my feet, gaze searching wildly for an oncoming attack. “Oh!” Except, that was equally as bad. It was just a different sort of attack.
I wiped the sweat off my palms onto my new dress, hoping he wouldn’t want to shake hands. I’d taken a shower that morning and had lathered on the vanilla scented deodorant, but it didn’t seem to be doing its job; my armpits were sticky with sweat. I also prayed he wouldn’t want to hug. Then, because freaking out was what I did best, I wondered about my makeup. I didn’t usually wear any, but it wasn’t a usual day. What if it was running down my face? Was my dress okay? Isaiah had sworn the soft, lavender sundress with its white knitted sweater brought out the mix of colors in my eyes, but he was a guy, what did he know about women’s clothing?
Still sitting on the bench, Isaiah chuckled. “The sales lady agreed with me.”
“She could have been lying just to make a sale.” I muttered, wringing my hands anxiously at my abdomen. “Will you get out of my head? It’s a mess up there without your prodding.”
I knew it wasn’t his fault. I was the one who had to calm down. My overflow of emotions was what sucked him into my head in the first place. It didn’t help that I was being swept away in a storm of emotions at that moment. There was no real stopping it.
He rose to his feet and took my shoulders in his firm grip. “Then you need to calm down.”
I did take a deep breath, closed my eyes and willed myself to remain as calm as possible. Yet, the second I opened my eyes, I was pulled under by my uncertainties and fears. I didn’t know what I was looking for and that made it worse. I had shared no resemblance with my mother at all. For I knew, he could be six feet tall, black and a wrestler.
Isaiah snorted a laugh. “He’s not.” He leaned into me and brushed the side of my head with a kiss. He’d been doing that a lot that morning, soothing me with his touches and kisses. It was his way of reminding me that I wasn’t alone. “You have his eyes and the color of his hair.”
As though for emphasis, he wrapped a strand of my unbound hair around his finger and gave a playful tug that made me laugh. He smiled and I felt my heart stutter in my chest.
The worry took a momentary backseat as I fell into his beautiful eyes, eyes so blue they could have been strips of raw electricity. They were surrounded by lashes that I would have killed for, long, thick and dark. They matched the perfect shade of ebony tumbling over his prominent brow and curling behind his ears. Glossy strands had escaped the band at the base of his skull and fluttered temptingly in the breeze.
I was always so fascinated by his hair. Maybe because he rarely ever took it down from its confinement, but I always had an inexplicable urge to tear the band away and replace it with my fingers.
I reached for him and touched the side of his rugged face in a feather light caress from temple to jaw. I caught a strand and nimbly tucked it behind his ear.
“How do you do that?” I murmured, turning my body to his and being rewarded by the feel of his hands going to my waist.
His head bent to the side. “What’s that?”
“Make me feel not so crazy.”
His eyes glittered as his lips pulled into a heart melting smile. “Maybe because you were never crazy to begin with.” He touched his brow to mine and I was drawn into his scent of toothpaste, soap, rain and leather. “Or maybe we’re both crazy.”
I became painfully of his lips hovering dangerously close to mine and his hands burning through the fabric of my dress. The rest of the world faded as the rush of his blood racing through his veins roared in my ears, calling to me, begging me to do what I swore I wouldn’t. The gums above my canines began to itch deliciously. My fingers tightened in the fabric of his shirt. My lips parted, my breathing ragged even to my own ears.
His gaze sharpened. They became dark slits of hunger I recognized all too well. His fingers gouged ten holes into my side as he tightened his grip on me. In a single yank, I was crushed into the shelter of his chest. His heart tattooed a desperate beat against mine. I trembled. My body ached in places I could do nothing about. I felt his fingers tangle into my hair to cup the base of my skull.
His breath burned the side of my face, coming out gruff when he growled into my ear, “I told you to feed.” He had … insistently for a month.
“You know we can’t.” My hands trembled and I was sure I was cutting holes into his shirt with my nails and causing irreparable damage to the fabric, but I couldn’t let him go. “We agreed—”
His eyes narrowed, reflecting his anger and frustration. “I never agreed to anything.”
What we were doing was playing with fire and toying with things that neither of us fully understood. What we did know was that our need for each other, our insatiable hunger was the thing that would burn the world to the ground. The fire between us was as wild and dangerous as it was beautiful. The world may not have wanted to burn in its glorious embrace, but I did. I wanted nothing else. Succumbing to the untamed temptation was vastly more alluring than the alternative, which was the perpetual distance I had to put between us.
“There’s still time,” he murmured directly into my mind. “You’ll feel better once you’ve eaten.”
Screw the world, this is what you want! A very persistent part of me insisted and it wasn’t wrong. I did want this.
It wasn’t fair. Being strong and resisting wasn’t quite as simple when I was being prodded from all sides.
He touched the side of my face, tracing the contours of my cheek with his finger and coaxing me to nuzzle his palm. My eyes closed as I leaned into him.
There were insane moments when I saw no reason to stop, but then commonsense always prevailed and I forced myself to step back. Lately, those lucid moments were becoming few and far between.
“I hope I’m not interrupting.” And just like that, the calm within me erupted.
I was slammed with an avalanche of panic and dread that had my heart jumping into my throat. Sweat returned to my palms and I was left with no way to wipe them without giving away how nervous I was. “Ashton!”
Isaiah stepped forward, hand extended to the other man. I heard the slap of palms and happily shared murmurs. I let it all wash over me, biding my time before facing the man responsible for bringing me into the world—more or less.
He was handsome, all chiseled features, twinkling eyes and blinding smiles. He stood brushing six feet, slender with a head full of salt and pepper hair and eyes the same turquoise-blue with flakes of green, gray and brown as mine. He wore casual clothes; black slacks and a white dress shirt. There was nothing intimidating about him, or so I thought until he finally turned those eyes on me, and I froze like a deer caught in the headlights of a semi.
“Fallon.” His smile was soft, sad, but blazing with a light only my mother had ever worn when looking at me—love. “You’ve grown.”
It was a lame joke, yet it was kind of funny. The last time he’d seen me, I’d been four so, yeah, I had grown since then.
“Yeah…” I voice hitched embarrassingly.
As tense, awkward moments went, it was the worst. My mind remained stubbornly blank, probably giving me an air of idiocy. I didn’t know what to do with my hands; they suddenly seemed so big and dumb hanging at my sides uselessly and I couldn’t stop wondering if I was slouching.
“How are you?” he asked.
I did that stupid shoulder jerk thing. It was a toss between a shrug and a nervous twitch. “Okay. And you are? Okay, I mean. Are you okay?” I grimaced at my own rambling. “How are you?”
His lips curled in the faintest smile. “Nervous.” It was comforting how easily he said it. It was also really good to know I wasn’t the only one. “I’ve been waiting for this moment a very long time.”
He moved then. It was quick, or maybe I blinked, but he was suddenly in front of me and I was engulfed in a fierce embrace so tight I almost couldn’t breathe. I didn’t complain. It wasn’t tight enough. He smelled like a dad, or what I always imagined a dad would smell like—warm, loving and strong.
“I’ve missed you,” he murmured vehemently into my temple.
“I missed you, too,” I replied, still grappling with the knowledge that I had a dad, a dad I was told was dead my whole life. A dad who wanted me.
He pushed me back to arm’s length and stared down at me, his eyes unnaturally large and bright. Mom used to get that look during romance movies, just before she started crying. But nothing about Ashton suggested he was a closet romance crier. No, he was impenetrable, resolute … sturdy. Still, his eyes shone down at me like liquid pools. My own were filmy.
He smiled, giving my shoulders a squeeze. “Call me Ashton, unless you prefer Dad or Ash. Whatever is easier for you.” He paused, before adding, “You must have a million questions.”
My smile quivered. “Yeah.”
He gave my shoulders another squeeze. “Let me take you home. You must be starving.”
Home … I’d never had one of those before. I grew up in motel rooms on greasy, cardboard food and plastic cups. I lived out of a single duffle bag, out of the back of my mom’s Impala. The closest thing I’d ever come to healthy living was the tomatoes and lettuce on my burger and remembering not to fall asleep against the car window while the sun was highest in the sky. But I didn’t eat food anymore. At least, I hadn’t in almost a month.
“Actually, there are a few things we need to tell you first.” Isaiah took a step forward.
Ashton glanced from me to Isaiah, curiosity bright in his eyes. He straightened, removing his hands from my shoulders, leaving a cold sensation behind. “Is here all right?”
Isaiah glanced around at the people rushing around us. “Perhaps somewhere else?”
Ashton nodded, all business now. He surveyed the park, the movement quick, but I knew it was thorough. He didn’t seem like the sort to leave anything half-assed. “There is a café down the block. It’s usually very quiet around this time and the staff doesn’t meddle.”
I learned quickly what that meant. As soon as we walked into the tiny corner café, the staff vanished. Not into thin air, but they got one head nod from Ashton and walked a straight line into the back room, closing the door behind them.
“I own the building,” Ashton said when he caught me staring in awe.
“I guess being a doctor pays really well, huh?” I mused.
“Doctor?” Ashton peered over his shoulder at me, his features perplexed.
I looked towards Isaiah, waiting for him to explain, because he’d been the one to tell me my father was a doctor. But he was equally puzzled by Ashton’s confusion.
“Oh!” Ashton seemed to realize something. He nodded. “Yes. Doctor.” He closed and locked the glass door behind us. He turned and motioned towards the fifteen or so empty tables around the place. “Why don’t we talk?”
After a curious glance between me and Isaiah, we took the seat furthest from the wall of windows, right in the corner so we had a clear view of the whole café, including the front door.
“You are a doctor, right?” I pressed. “I mean, that’s how you met Garrison, isn’t it?”
He cleared his throat and I could tell right away I wasn’t going to like what he was about to tell me.
“I’m not a doctor,” he said slowly, looking from me to Isaiah. “That was what I'd told your mother I was when we first met.”
“So what are you then?” This was from Isaiah, who looked even more betrayed by the confession than I felt. Ashton lowered his gaze to the tabletop. “I’m many things,” he began slowly.
“But all these years…” Isaiah shook his head. “You told me—”
“I know.” Ashton looked him square in the face. “I will explain everything in due time, Isaiah. For now, I think we have more important things to discuss.” He cast me a pointed glance.
The muscles in Isaiah’s jaw flexed, but he reined in the frustration I could feel pouring off him into me. I had to restrain the urge to reach for his hand.
“Garrison has become more persistent in his hunt for Fallon,” Isaiah mumbled, unable to conceal the grudge in his tone. “We can hardly go a day without an attack. Whoever his tracker is, they’re very powerful. I haven’t been able to sense them anywhere near us, yet they always seem to know where we are.”
Ashton nodded as though this made sense. “My sources have informed me of a great surge in numbers this last few weeks. Terrell has found a new source of power from somewhere and he’s not wasting any time using it. I think it’s only a matter of time before his forces close in on you.”
“Are you a spy?” I blurted.
Ashton blinked. Then he broke into a deep rumble of laugh. “No, but I make it my business to keep feelers in all things noteworthy, and Terrell has particular place in my interests.”
“Isaiah tells me you’ve been rescuing the children Garrison—”
“He’d be both wrong and right,” Ashton interrupted. “I do my best to rescue those I can, but they aren’t as many children as there once had been. There are a few, but those remaining, Terrell guards very closely. I haven’t rescued anyone in nearly a year.”
“If not children, then what—”
Ashton put his hand up, stopping my tumble of questions. “Let’s talk about all that later. Right now, I want to hear your news.”
I wanted to press. I still had so many questions. But he was right. We could talk about those things later. We had, after all, all the time in the world.
“I told you about our run in with Maia and Yuri,” Isaiah began.
Ashton nodded. “Yes, how they found Fallon. Terrell no doubt sent them out of desperation. Maia is not someone Terrell would send if the situation hadn’t gotten out of hand. She’s the most evil creature I have ever encountered and that is saying quite a bit.”
Isaiah nodded. “We managed to evade him for a while, before we were captured. We were taken to Garrison’s home just north of Whistler. I don’t know the exact location, but I can find it if I tried.”
Ashton shook his head. “That won’t be necessary. I’ve known for a while where he calls home. However, had I known you were there, I would have come to get you myself.”
“Contact was impossible,” Isaiah replied. “We were heavily guarded, right until the end when we managed to escape.”
“And did he ever tell you what his plans were?” Ashton wondered.
I shook my head before Isaiah could tell him otherwise. Ashton may have been my father, the man whose blood ran through my veins, but he’d also been partners with Garrison once upon a time and I was too paranoid to trust anyone. I trusted people who lied even less. Whether or not he’d ever been a doctor was a moot point. It was him lying about it that only increased my distrust. Plus I hadn’t forgotten Mom’s last warnings to me not to trust Ashton.
Isaiah must have sensed my need not to share the fact that we were potential weapons of mass destruction, because he didn’t bring it up. Instead, he veered the topic back to our escape.
“Fallon saved my life.” Isaiah cast me a level glance as though daring me to contradict his claim.
He was wrong. I hadn’t saved his life. He may have gotten shot, but with his accelerated healing, he hadn’t been in any real danger.
“Well, you did what you had to,” Ashton said at once, voice unwavering. “Had it not been them, it would have been you.”
Was that how murderers looked themselves in the mirror? Justification? How did one justify taking a life? “After we escaped, we laid low for a couple of weeks and tried to regroup before we contacted you,” Isaiah finished at last.
By laid low, he meant me vehemently dragging my feet on the whole situation and him needing a month to convince me that it was time I met my father.
Despite my need for answer and safety, I could never shake the uncertainty the idea of meeting Ashton always provoked. But I was really tired of running. I was tired of not having options. I was tired of being tired. Plus, Isaiah was so adamant that Ashton was the good guy. Maybe he was right.
Ashton, who had been listening attentively to Isaiah, beamed. “Remarkable!” he said, shaking his head. “Absolutely remarkable. I always knew Terrell was unstable, but this proves that his lunacy goes much deeper than face value.”
You think? I wanted to say. His brilliant observation was, oh, seventeen years too late.
“There’s more,” Isaiah murmured, hesitant. “Garrison’s still alive and out for blood.”
Ashton nodded. “You’ll be safe at Luxuria. I made the mistake of letting you fend for yourself once. I won’t—”
“I didn’t fend for myself!” My tone came out sharper than I’d intended. “I had Mom and we were doing fine until this crap happened.”
Ashton visibly winced. “Yes, of course. I apologize.” He lowered his head. “I should have done more to protect you both and for that, I am eternally guilt ridden. I failed you.”
“You couldn’t have known,” I murmured.
He wouldn’t meet my eye. “Perhaps.” He placed a gentle hand on mine. “I can’t replace what you had with your mother, Fallon, but I promise that I will protect you in every way that I can. You’re safe now.”
It was daunting to accept. It seemed too easy, and even as a part of me salivated at the possibility of being wholly and truly in the clear. Yet the part of me that had seen and done too much, refused to believe it. Also, I knew firsthand what Garrison was capable of. I knew that he would never give up looking for me. I was too valuable. But my options were slim. My life was in danger and because of me, Isaiah was in danger. In order to keep him safe, I had to trust Ashton. I had to believe that he meant what he said about keeping us away from Garrison.
The shriek of Isaiah’s chair sliding viciously across the smooth laminate sent my heart scuttling up into my throat even before he shouted, “We need to go!” and grabbed my arm.
I was hauled to my feet and dragged behind him.
Ashton was up and out of his seat with much less haste. He twisted his body to the window even as his hand went around behind him. The movement was so quick, so fluid like he’d done it a million times, a frightening thought when, a second later, he was cradling a sleek, black handgun. It was almost reassuring to know my father packed heat like some mafia guy, if not a bit daunting. But even that wasn’t as blood chilling as the three familiar silhouettes making their way with great ease across the street in the direction of the cafe.
“Take her through the back.” Ashton passed Isaiah the gun, who took it and seamlessly slipped it into the waistband of his jeans. “I’ll deal with them.”
“Wait!” I lunged after him when he made for the door, ignoring Isaiah’s grip on me when I grabbed Ashton’s arm. “You can’t go out there without your gun! You have no idea—”
Ashton smiled calmly at me. It was so off-putting considering the situation that I dropped my hand.
“Don’t worry about me, dearest. I don’t need a weapon.”
Then, with a wink that only sealed my theory that my dad was suicidal, he strolled out of the café to meet the Shadow Brothers.
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