Authors: Dani Worth
To my editor, Holly Atkinson, for her constant enthusiasm for my work and for her infinite patience when it came to this particular book.
Chase nearly stumbled into the chilly water of Clark Creek when he came up on the battle. Two men and one woman fought by a couple of narrow waterfalls. The water sparkled in the late afternoon light, the surrounding forest a wild, dead brown and gray—in sharp contrast to the gruesome streaks of bright red blood on the boulders. These people were the first humans outside of his brother he’d seen in nearly a year.
He could hardly take his eyes off the woman. Frowning, he noted the blood streaking her jaw, the way her lip was puffing up before his eyes. Her white blouse, ripped down one side, clung wetly to her soaked body, but swung out to reveal part of one full breast when she suddenly whipped into movement.
Wet black hair slapped her cheeks as she feinted to the left then right of the first man. She spun around, ducked and brought her arm up quickly. Sunlight glinted off the blade of a wicked-looking dagger right before she buried it in the man’s belly. He grunted, fell to his knees. Water streamed off her boots as her roundhouse kick sent him sprawling into the stream. He didn’t move.
Small, gorgeous…and apparently deadly.
Chase stayed out of sight behind a thick beech tree but aimed his rifle at the other man. He held his fire, afraid she’d jump in the way.
“Stupid cunt,” the bigger guy growled as he rushed her.
She snarled, quickly closed her hands into locked fists and brought them up to smash into his chin. He only stumbled back a step, grinned and taunted her with a wiggle of his fingers.
Straightening, she swiped water off her face, pulled another long dagger from a sheath on her belt and grinned back.
Chase held his breath. That wicked smirk sent heat zinging through his veins, made his groin stir. Here she was fighting for her survival, and the spark of zesty life in her called to him like nothing had in years.
She had a short, shapely body, currently revealed by her soaked shirt and jeans. Jeans in better condition than any he’d seen in years. Her thin, white top molded to her bra-less chest in a way that left nothing to the imagination—even if the rip hadn’t revealed quite a bit already. He wasn’t sure his imagination could have fired up something that beautiful anyway. She had full, soft-looking breasts topped with dark nipples. Her narrow waist smoothed out into rounded, feminine hips.
She had to be freezing. It was a warm day for January, even in Louisiana—according to what he’d read about the state—but not warm enough to be drenched in cold creek water.
He was about to let a bullet fly at the man she faced when dry leaves crunched in the woods near him. The sound was loud enough to be heard over the trickling waterfalls, so he squatted out of sight, and looked through the overgrowth. Here, like most places in the south, kudzu crept over everything. In the summer, it was a cushion of bright green, but in winter became tangled masses of dry, gray vines. He spotted three more people moving toward the creek and shock had his mouth falling open when he saw that one was another woman. Two women, when he’d seen only a handful of females in years, had him hesitating to shoot anyone. Plus, it was possible these were friends coming to help the woman in the water.
One was a swarthy, bearded giant of a man who had abnormally long arms and hair coming out in tufts from the neck and short sleeves of his shirt. Gorilla Man’s nasty smirk scrunched his already ragged and squished features and when he saw the woman, his expression sent a chill up Chase’s spine. He was no friend.
She spotted them just as the man she faced turned to look. She tripped him. He splashed hard into the water, then scrambled to his knees. She quickly pressed behind him and held a knife to his throat. “Stop or I’ll show you what’s inside his smelly neck.”
Her threat came in a smoky, deep voice that crawled down Chase’s throat and stole his breath. She was a curvy, petite warrior with a voice like the warm molasses he remembered loving as a child.
The furry giant shrugged. “Don’t care much ’bout Dale. Slice away.”
Her expression didn’t change, though she had to know she was screwed. Two of the newcomers stood next to the creek facing her now. The third, the woman, stayed hidden in the woods, watching. None had pulled their guns and that made Chase wary. He scanned the thicket but didn’t see anyone else. In his experience, most raiders were damned cocky, so he took a chance and stepped out just enough for his rifle to show. Leaves still kept his face and body mostly out of sight. He aimed his gun at the woman hiding in the woods. “I have a nice, clean shot at your lady,” he called out. “Maybe you ought to back off.”
Gorilla Man hesitated. Chase didn’t blame him. Most women hadn’t survived the Crux Virus that had swept through the world nearly eighteen years before, and those who had had grown up knowing to stay well hidden.
The lady in the woods turned his way and again, Chase felt shock run through him. Long, brown hair pulled high in a ponytail left her features stark. She had a rugged attractiveness to her face, shadowed by the years of Hell in her eyes. She was nearly as tall as him—at least six feet, and strength showed in the muscles of her exposed arms. Nobody here dressed like it was winter. He was the only one wearing a coat, but he was used to the colder, windier temperatures in Oklahoma. This woman looked close to his age of thirty-three. He waited for her to pull a weapon, but she only stared at him.
“Don’t shoot Delilah,” Gorilla Man finally said as he backed away from the creek.
The name didn’t fit that woman in the least. She was too tough looking for such a feminine name. He doubted it was her real one. He stared at her, taking in the intensity of her return stare and didn’t miss her slight nod toward the man in the creek. She wanted the gun on them. He wasn’t sure what it was about him that made her trust him, or think he would be on the opposite side of the raiders, but he moved the gun slightly. Only because he’d built up skill hunting and could have the gun back on her in a flash.
These men practiced another kind of hunting. One that threatened every survivor out there. A sick nausea built in Chase’s gut. He couldn’t let the raiders leave. The woman in the creek was on foot, which meant she lived somewhere in the vicinity. They’d hunt her down. His heart sank at the thought of killing them, even as Gorilla Man kept backing away.
Without warning, a knife sailed from the woods and thunked into the back of the giant’s hairy neck. He gurgled, stumbled and Chase fired at the other two men in rapid succession. The woman in the water jumped back, so he got off a clean shot, then whipped the gun toward the lady in the woods. But all he saw was the back of her ragged black tank as she sprinted away.
thrown that knife at Gorilla Man. Said a lot about her willingness to be in that group.
Disgust hit him.
“Why won’t you come out where I can see you?” Splattered with blood, the brunette curled her lip at the bodies, and stepped away from them. She squinted, obviously trying to see him through the leaves. “Who else is in the woods with you?”
“There was a woman with those men, but she took off. She also threw the knife so I don’t think she was willingly with them.”
She moved upstream and knelt in the clean water to wash the blood off her arms. She grimaced at the splotches on her shirt, then seemed to realize the side of her blouse was open to the waist…and that it was see-through. She crossed her arms, hunched her shoulders and grabbed the ripped sides of her blouse in one fist. “Let me see your face.”
“Trust me, you won’t be happy you asked,” he muttered to himself before stepping into the sunlight.
He didn’t blame her. Raiders had thought it would be great fun to race up and down the streets in pickup trucks while firing into rows of “empty” houses. He’d been sharing one of those houses with his younger brother, sister and two other people. A bullet had shattered his right cheek. Two more had hit his upper chest. None had healed well in the year since it had happened. He’d been too busy grieving over the three who’d died, including his sister, Maggie. She’d been standing in front of the window when the first bullet struck.
The woman stood. “Why did you help me if you were with them?”
“I wasn’t. I’m passing through with my younger brother. We stopped to hunt and I followed the sound of a gun. Were you shot?”
She shook her head, frowning when wet black hair stuck to her lips. She reached up fast to pull her hair off her face, then re-crossed her arms. “They weren’t trying to kill me, just scare me into going with them.” Her lips turned down as she looked at the bodies. “I hate this. Hate that people act like this, make me kill.” She looked up. “There are so few of us left. I can’t understand the way they think.”
“You said you were passing through? To where?”
“I heard there was a settlement near here. I’m taking my brother by The Myrtles Plantation on the way.”
Dark eyes went wide. “Why would you want to go there? Most of the roof caved in years ago—the place is a moldy deathtrap.”
“I have—had—reasons.” Damn. It had been a gamble and the trip here had been a bitch. Most of the roads were overgrown with trees splitting them into barely passable chunks of old asphalt. He’d hoped the place would finally lay to rest Tripp’s ridiculous obsession with the afterlife. The Myrtles had been reputed to be the most haunted place in America once. The boy, well, he was really a man now at twenty-three, couldn’t get past his twin’s death and the longer they traveled without finding other people, the more often he stayed in these scary, depressed silences. The more he talked about ghosts and what happened after a person died.
“Suppose your reasons are your own.” She knelt in the water again—this time to wash her knives. She stayed hunched.
He guessed she thought the position hid her breasts. It didn’t. The wet blouse slicked to her like a second skin. Damn, her body was fine. He had to work hard not to let his gaze lock onto her chest again. But he didn’t say anything, didn’t want to make her more uncomfortable than she already was. As it was, needs he’d kept rigidly suppressed his entire adult life suddenly raged through his bloodstream, making sweat pop up on his forehead.
She must have been able to see some of what he felt in his expression because fear crept back into her pretty, brown eyes.
He shut his briefly before opening them and offering her a rueful smile. “Look, I won’t hurt you. I promise. It’s just been a long, long time since I saw anyone as beautiful as you.” He hoped she wouldn’t look down and catch the very uncomfortable evidence of his desire, but she did. He groaned. “Ignore that. I can’t help it.”
Her chuckle was husky and it brushed over his skin like velvet. “I’d be flattered but when was the last time you saw a woman?”
“About five minutes ago…in the woods.” He cleared his throat, told his dick to settle down. “Are there more people where you come from?”
“Not anymore, though I probably shouldn’t tell you that.” Keeping her arms over her breasts, she walked out of the water.
He frowned at the rate her shivering was increasing and reached up to remove his jacket, hesitating when she lifted her knives.
“What are you doing?” Her voice had gone lower.
He instantly thought of that low, husky voice whispering things close to his ears and had to keep himself from shuddering. It took effort. “You’re cold. I’m going to toss you my jacket. It’ll help if you cover those up anyway.”
“From the looks of your clothes, you should keep that jacket. I’ll warm up fine once I’m on the move and it’s time to do that. Where’s your brother?”
“We have an RV parked a couple of miles or so from here.”
“An electric RV? How do you charge it on the road?”
“No. it’s solar, with panels along the top—some we found and installed ourselves. It’s why we park in the middle of the day when the sun is like this. So they can power up. You have an electric car?”
She nodded. “Don’t use it much—just to take the odd short trip into town to dig through the rubble. My house is solar powered.”
She looked healthy, too. He wondered if she had a garden. He and Tripp had broken into a freeze-dried food factory and hit pay dirt, but they were always on the lookout for any overgrown mass of green that looked like it might have a few surviving vegetables. They got lucky with wild asparagus once in a while, but it had been a long time since either had seen a green bean or a bell pepper. He’d hated peppers as a kid, then spent most of his adult life craving the taste of one so much he dreamed about them. The ones his mother had stuffed with sausage, rice and cheese—three other foods he hadn’t had in years.