The loud hammering of Raine’s heart drowned out the single word bouncing around her mind—and the dogs barking at her back. Their angry growls faded the faster she ran. A little further. Just a little more, and she’d be home free.
Trees swooshed past her with every step she took away from the small isolated facility. She ignored the hospital gown swinging against her legs and the blood dripping down her arms from the torn IVs.
Barefoot, the rocks bit into the soles of her feet. None of that mattered. She had to survive. Her life depended on getting as far away from that place as possible.
Inhaling the comforting scent of mud, trees, and the wild, she barely heard the barking over the breeze rustling through the willows with each step she put between them. At any other time, she’d have dissected her reaction to the forest. Not now. And she didn’t stop. No way was she getting captured again without a fight.
Air beat in and out of her lungs in tandem with the pounding of her feet on the rocky ground. Moonlight filtered through the branches overhead, highlighting her path. Her hair caught on the tree limbs, snatching at the loose strands. Some of the hanging vines prodded her arms and stabbed her sides. Her breath hitched, and she missed a step, lurching forward. Something inside her tightened. Her arms swayed and her core muscles flexed. Before she face planted, everything balanced out. She blinked. More scared now than she’d ever been in her life. Something controlled her body and it had reflexes far superior to a normal human.
Moisture gathered in her eyes, blurring her vision. She blinked it away. Panic would only get her caught.
Raine glanced at the moon. It had shifted twice—now in front of her, rather than behind. She stilled. The trees rustled with the wind. An owl hooted. But she still didn’t hear the annoying bay of the dogs.
Ragged breaths beat hard in her ears. A horn’s blare sounded in the distance. Fear and excitement gave her a burst of energy. Cars meant help. She urged her body faster.
Street lights peeked through the trees. Air panted out of her chest. A second car honked, speeding past another. She was almost there. So close. Thank god. She was going to make it.
Slowing down at the edge of a hill, she darted glances around the now quiet street. No people milled about or walked around. Nothing. A big store, one she recognized from the one time she’d gotten lost in the shadier side of town, sat a block to her right. The sudden quiet made sense now. Nothing good happened this far south of Tempting Eats. It was known as the dead side. The thought alone gave her chills. Women went missing…all the time. That had been enough to keep her uptown in suburbia-peace-nation.
She glanced around, searching for anyone who might be waiting for her or even any of the dangerous men her neighbors said roamed the streets, but there was nothing, not a single being. Her feet hit the pavement in a rush. Once across the street, she hid inside a dark alley. The stench of rotting food and piss coated the air with a thick blanket of disease and chaos. Her throat convulsed, and the acidic taste of bile hit the back of her tongue.
Retreating, she took several steps toward the end of the street to a small motel. Its yellow, neon Vacancy sign blinked on and off with a buzz. A man’s yell pushed her to slink into the dark. The sound came from the shadows in front of the motel. She pressed her back to the cool brick of the building. Her gaze jerked to a couple leaving one of the rooms.
“Come back here, Irene!” A large, bulldozer of a man shouted at the woman walking out of the room ahead of him. His large frame was naked to the waist and covered in multiple piercings and tattoos. There was menace in his words, as if he was giving her a chance to reconsider before he became angry.
The woman he’d referred to as Irene whipped around. Eyes flashing, the woman didn’t appear worried over angering the man. Her profile was easy to see under the motel’s poor lighting. She tugged on her green strapless top while she buckled the glittery belt on her dark denim jeans, all the while tapping her booted foot.
“Listen up, cabron! I’m not a two-bit piece. You do not bring me here, and then call me some other bitch’s name.” Her dark-chocolate face, shiny with perspiration, twisted in rage. “I don’t give a fuck if it’s another language and you’re saying my name.” The woman’s hands slapped her hips. “My name is Irene, and that’s what I want to be called while being fucked. Get it?”
The towering figure in front of the woman huffed. He looked up at the sky as if trying to gather up patience. “Honey, come on.”
Surprise rose within Raine. He’d changed tactics with the woman.
“I’m going home, Andre,” she whined.
“But… I paid for the night!” He took a few steps and closed the distance between them, gathering her up against him. For a moment, she stood stiffly in his hold. “Please? Let’s not let our anniversary go to waste.”
“I don’t like this place.” She batted her lashes. “Let’s go to my apartment. My roommate is out of town.” Her tone turned husky. “We can continue what we started there.”
He smiled, nodding his head before following the woman to the main office. They left the door open. Clearly, they didn’t care if anyone went into the room now that they were no longer using it.
Perfect timing. They jumped into a beat up truck. Loud hacking sounded along with the roar of the engine. Raine ran across the street and into the vacated room. If she was lucky, no one would check it until morning.
Once inside, she rushed to the bathroom, tripping on her bruised feet, and latching onto the stained porcelain sink. Her breath caught at her reflection in the mirror. Pale bruises marred her cheeks. She frowned as she stared. Her normally dark eyes had a ring of gold around them. Anger. She could feel it bubbling in up inside her, like a volcano ready to explode. A hint of wild danger came across from the woman in the mirror. This was not her. It couldn’t be. Her stomach clenched. Cold fingers of dread crawled up her spine, adding to the anxiety coursing through her.
Fear spiked inside her. Though she had cuts and bruises, her body didn’t hurt like it should. Her feet were bleeding from running barefoot, but had no signs of any aches. Nothing made sense. Her muscles felt tight, but not in pain, more with a sense of expectation—as if she were waiting to run from danger again. Must be the fight or flight reaction.
Stripping off the torn and dirty gown, she continued to worry over the absence of any kind of throbbing. Her gaze strayed to the full mirror on the bathroom door. Glancing over her body as if it were the first time she saw it, she studied her breasts. She frowned and cupped her full globes. Sensitive. Her skin felt hot. Tight. She searched for signs to indicate her body was different. Because the reality was, she knew there was something wrong with her.
Sliding her hands down her sides until she was bending and feeling around her ankles, she searched for other injuries and broken skin. Her nose brushed against her armpit and she winced. She couldn’t stand how she smelled. It was a hospital scent mixed with something else that made her stomach tighten.
She detoured from her injuries to focus on the shower. The warm water helped soothe her nerves, but the scent of the flowery soap made her grimace. She’d rather let the water run over her without the soap, than put the smelly stuff on her skin. When she finished, she grabbed a coarse, white towel and dried off.
A slow sizzle spread through her fingers. She glanced down and was filled with immediate horror. She jerked them up to her face and watched as her fingers elongated. Her normally short nails grew at warp speed, curving into long, dark talons. Something moved under her skin. One, loud, panicked shriek escaped her throat. She ran out of the bathroom, her heart thundering in her chest.
The low lit bedroom was a mess. It smelled of sweat, cigarettes, and cheap alcohol. Big man and his fiery woman had been too busy celebrating to worry about tidiness. Eyeing the torn dirty gown on the floor of the bathroom entrance with a frown, she made a beeline for the phone by the bed.
Her body trembled. She fell back on the mattress, muscles failing. She ground her teeth, mentally trying to stop whatever was happening. Cracking and popping sounded. No no no no no! Her chest expanded. A loud snarl worked up her throat. The towel fell open when her fingers locked up. She fought the urge to let go, to let her body do whatever it wanted. Her lungs burned from the deep panting wheezing out of her. She’d done all that running and hadn’t broken a sweat, but when her body decided to contour into some strange shape, her skin became slick with perspiration. As quickly as it had started, it stopped.
She sat up in a rush, glancing around the wrecked room. Raine breathed in and out and prayed that she was still under some foreign influence from her captivity. Adrenaline long gone, she was left with a sense of loss and confusion. And anger, lots of anger.
Her fingers shook as she cupped the old rotary phone from the bedside table and dialed her best friend—her only friend—Mandy.
“Hello?” The groggy whisper on the other end of the line could have been the bay of angels singing in chocolate fountains as glorious as it sounded.
“Mandy?” Raine’s voice was low but hard and thick with fury.
There was no stopping the slice of fear she kept tamping down, kept replacing with her usual self-control. But this, this was no usual situation. All hell had broken loose on her, and she wanted to hit something. Hurt something. Kill something and ask questions later. But no, that’s not how she operated. Someone had messed with her body, and now, she needed to find out what they’d done.
“Raine?” Mandy’s tone had gone from soft and tired to loud and anxious. “Where are you? I’ve been looking for you everywhere! You just left for a week and said nothing.”
“I…” Fuck. It was hard to get the words out. She couldn’t really answer because she didn’t know what had happened. “I need you.”
“Of course, baby. Where are you? Tell me, and I’ll come get you right now.”
Scuffling sounded in the background.
Mandy told someone, probably her boyfriend, Joe, she needed to go out before coming back on the line.
“I’m at the Corner Street Motel.”
A shocked gasp filled her ear. “What are you doing there? Never mind. Don’t answer. Just hang tight. I’m coming for you.”
“Please…can you come alone? I don’t think I can handle Joe right now.” Difficult at the best of times, Joe tested Raine’s usual boundless patience. At that moment, she couldn’t hold herself accountable for his wellbeing if he showed up. He was what she liked to refer to as super geek, which was like a regular geek, only he was lot more boring. He loved trying to impress everyone with his knowledge of the universe and science, but only came across as a snob.
“Don’t worry, honey. He’s got some big meeting tomorrow and needs his sleep anyway.” She could hear Mandy huffing, probably trying to dress herself and talk at the same time. “I’ll be right there, Raine.”
“I’m in room twenty-two.” She swept her damp hair behind her ear. “Can you…can you bring me something to wear?”
“Oh, sweetie!” Mandy’s voice filled with sympathy, but Raine wanted her to hurry. Her skin burned. She needed to go home. “Joe said you might have been with some guy. But I didn’t believe you’d disappear for over a week without telling me.”
Keys jingled and a car’s beeping sounded on the phone line.
“If it wasn’t for the distress in your voice, I’d be doing the Spanish inquisition on you.” An engine roared to life followed by squealing tires. “But I can wait until you’re feeling up to it to tell me.”
Swallowing past the knot in her throat was near impossible. “Please hurry,” Raine whispered. Desperation for…something made her stomach twist in knots.
“Don’t worry, babe. I’ll be right there, hang tight.”
Raine’s fingers shook again when she hung up the phone. She glanced down at the spot she’d torn the IV from. The wounds, which had been bleeding and purple, had all faded. Tension flared inside her. It muddled her mind. What had they done to her? What was that place?
She jumped to her feet, gripping the towel. She paced the room from the bathroom to the front door. Then she’d stop, check the window, the vicinity, and listen for anything strange, before going back to pacing in the other direction. After what felt like an eternity, soft knocking had her muscles tightening. Her heart raced—angry gallops—filling her ears with the sound.
“Raine? It’s me, Mandy.”
Streetlight filtered under the door, showing the silhouette of feet. She knew it was her friend. She’d smelled her unique body wash the moment the knock sounded at the door. Tugging Mandy inside, she enveloped her in a hug and was calmed when she hugged Raine tight.
“Oh, honey. What did that bastard do to you?” Mandy caressed her back in circles, and Raine could actually feel the anxiety diminish.
Stepping from her friend’s embrace, she allowed Mandy to take in her face.
“Raine?” She took a hasty step back. Brows dipping in a frown, marring her smooth ivory skin, she gaped. “What happened to you?”
“I-I don’t know.”
Oh, damn. There was no way to stop the trembling in her voice. Stupid emotions were tugging her in a million different directions. Worst part was, she didn’t know what had happened. But she did know she needed to find someone to help her. This was not good. Hell, this was worse than bad. It was still inconceivable in her mind that she wasn’t herself.
“It’s okay, honey. I’m sure, after you get some rest, things will look better.” She handed Raine a shopping bag full of clean clothes and shoes. Exactly what she needed. “I just don’t understand. I thought you’d stopped seeing that last guy you dated. Eddie?”
She had. Raine hadn’t seen Eddie in weeks, but for some reason she didn’t think admitting that to her friend was a good idea. Whatever happened to her was something that could bring danger into Mandy’s life, and she would never be able to live with herself if her friend were to get hurt because of her.
Once she’d dressed in Mandy’s too tight clothes, she scanned the room. The stale-smelling motel room disgusted her. “Let’s go. I can’t stand being here anymore.”
Concern drifted from Mandy as she drove. The sharp scent of fear wrapped in worry permeated the car, making her stomach churn. How was that possible? Mandy’s concern for her was genuine and growing with every mile they traveled. With each of her friend’s sad glances, Raine’s guilt grew. It had been a bad idea to call her, but she had no one else. Mandy made a sharp turn, and they were on her street.
“Pull over for a moment.”
Mandy’s face creased, crystal-blue eyes filled with worry. “Don’t you want to get home first?”
Raine wrapped her fingers around the door handle and gritted out, “Stop.”
“Stop!” She snarled. “Please…” She breathed. “Just—stop.”
She was fighting something for control. Her muscles locked. On top of all that was happening with her body, she now felt threatened. Why?
Breaks squealed. Tires rubbed against the pavement. They stopped at a curve several yards up her street. She shifted in her seat, clenched her hands into fists, and took a calming breath. Who could she go to for help? The police? No. They were likely to lock her up for sounding crazy. Talking about her body being possessed and weird shit happening to her. There was no man in her life to run to. Her parents were dead. She had no family. She needed help. That meant she’d have to go find someone to do the job for her. “What’s the name of that guy you mentioned everyone’s afraid of?”
“Who are you referring to?” Mandy asked “There’s quite a few men I’ve heard are dangerous in this town.”
“You’d mentioned a particular man who worked for hire. Someone you’d heard of?”
Mandy gulped. “I’m not sure I know who you’re talking about.”
Her friend was lying.
“Yes, you do. You’ve described him before. Saying how one of your patients had tried to hire him to do a job, but had been turned down and almost killed when he tried to push the matter.”
“I… Raine. We’re talking about people you and I don’t associate with.”
Not anymore. “I need to know who that guy is.”
“If you’re talking about Ryder Storm, then I really think you should forget it. He’s not just dangerous; he’s the definition of danger. He doesn’t follow rules.”
“Is he the one that does jobs for hire?”
“Well…I’m not one hundred percent certain… but I think so.”
“Is it him, yes or no?”
Mandy clenched her hands around the steering wheel. The leather squeaked in her grip. ”Yes, but you don’t want Ryder Storm, Raine.”
But she did. “Do you know where I can find him?”
Color drained from Mandy’s face. “Oh, Raine. He owns a bar called Blood Hounds, but I really don’t think you should be messing around with that guy. I’ve heard things—”
Raine lifted her brows. “What things?”
“Well…” She licked her lips and glanced away.
She curled a hand around Mandy’s arm and repeated the question with more force. “What things? I need to know.”
Fear filled the depths of Mandy’s baby blues. “I’ve heard bad things. That dangerous people hang out at his bar.”
“It doesn’t matter who hangs out at his bar. I may need to talk to him.”
A black town car sat parked in her neighbor’s driveway. She frowned. There should be no one there. Most of her block was away on vacation.
She turned back to Mandy, who was still studying her with alarm. “Do you mind dropping me off at my mom’s house tonight? I know it’s empty, but I always feel safer surrounded by their stuff.”
“Anything to make you feel better. And I don’t want you talking about Ryder Storm anymore. He’s dangerous.” One sharp U-turn and they were driving away from her house.
Things were different now. Her vision was clearer. Focused. Different scents drifted into the car and lingered during their drive. Some were pleasant, others not so much.
Her parents’ white and yellow Victorian came into view. The car slowed until they were sitting in the driveway. She turned to her friend. “I’m sorry for worrying you.”
Mandy sighed. She released the wheel from her tight grip. Frowning, she turned to Raine. “I’m not sure what’s wrong, but I don’t know if you should be left alone. You look so…lost.”
Raine gulped. It was exactly how she felt. But it wasn’t fair to Mandy for her to push her problem on her. “I’m fine. I promise.”
Instinct propelled her to hug her friend. Mandy clutched her tight. “Oh, honey. I’m here for whatever you need. You’re not alone.”
Her throat closed up. Mandy had always been the type of friend who cared more about others than herself. Raine wouldn’t share her worries with her and stress her. “Thank you. I know.” The door creaked as she stepped out of the car. “Be careful going home.”
“You’re sure you don’t need me to stay?” Mandy’s features were filled with doubt.
She shook her head, marching toward the other side of the old car. Thank god she kept an extra key under the flowerpot in the shape of a yellow and white spotted frog. There would be no need to break a window or call a locksmith to get inside.
At Mandy’s insistence, she scurried inside and shut the door.
Fear and anger battled inside her. Her mind struggled to piece together the events of what had happened after she’d fallen asleep at the center. Cold dread filled her, turning her entire body numb with shock. Nothing, absolutely nothing, she’d ever experienced came remotely close to what she was feeling.
She bypassed the living room, where she’d spent countless hours reading to her parents or connecting them via video to some of their friends overseas, straight to the bathroom. Air struggled into her lungs. Why couldn’t she remember?
For one entire week of her life, she’d been gone, and not a single memory of that time popped up. Fury unleashed inside her. She glared at the woman in the mirror. Her eyes were bright gold, no longer plain brown. She curled her lips, showing off elongated canines.
Even her voice sounded like she was suffering from a sore throat—raspy and deep. She shut her eyes and gripped the sink, choking on the anger and fear burning down her veins.
A quick image of hazy people in lab coats flashed through her mind. They had needles.
The more she strained to remember, the more her fury grew.
What sounded like nails raking glass made her jerk her eyes open. Her fingers were no longer fingers. It was happening again. She uncurled her hands from the sink and lifted them to her face. Long, sharp claws had replaced her nails. Nausea rolled up her throat. She hammered down the sick sensation back to the pit of her stomach. A light coating of fur covered her arms. She glanced at the mirror.
Oh dear god!
Her jaw fell open in shock. Her facial structure had altered. It was getting hard to breathe. Spots danced before her eyes. Panic took hold. Dread slashed down her spine. She was losing the control she had over her body. Fur appeared on its own. Her eyes glowed and her face elongated. No way. It couldn’t be. Never a fan of horror movies due to finding them unrealistic, right now she was living in her very own flick.
She was a monster.
Her breaths hammered hard in her ears. She needed to do something before the anger inside her consumed her. What if she hurt an innocent person? She’d never be able to live with herself.
Never had she considered the possibility of taking her life, but this…whatever was wrong with her, it was bad, it was terrible. She needed to stop things now, before whatever evil monster inside of her decided to get out. She wouldn’t be able to fight the powerful aggression growing by the second.