Series: Dark Bonds 1
Couple: Winter Bennet & Marcus Black
First Published: January 2011
On a routine patrol human-demon hybrid, Winter, never imagined that not only would she be attacked and poisoned by three demons, but rescued by a nightwalker. She was grateful for his assistance, but now that she’s safe wishes he’d stay out of her head.
Marcus, the nightwalker Lord, isn’t about to disappear from her life, especially when it becomes clear she is still a target. As she rushes to discover why the demons are acting so out of character and where they’re getting their information from, Marcus is engaged in a different kind of race. He’s after Winter’s heart and he won’t stop until he gets it.
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It was her favorite part of the day, that last peaceful bit of daylight before the bogeymen came out came out to play. Funny how the edge of the day had been awakening the memory of her merging ceremony so often of late. Or maybe it wasn’t.
She hadn’t balked when the Order had made the offer to become one of them. Yes, merging her soul with a demon’s meant a part of her would become evil, but someone had to stand against the darkness. If it was the only way, she’d take it. Someone had to.
The merge made her stronger. Faster. Gave her supernatural powers and long life. Theoretically she was immortal, but unless she had a bonded mate she would eventually give in to the evil invading her soul and her own people would be forced to hunt her down and kill her. It had all been explained with great care before she’d joined the Order. She’d had decades before she needed to worry about that though and in the beginning when David’s loss was a fresh, raw wound that was fine. The thought of another man touching her had made her skin crawl.
But now, sixty years later, Winter Bennett was running out of options and was having a hell of a time concealing that fact. It wouldn’t be much longer before her demon half took over and her own people would be forced to exterminate her.
No. It was a denial born of steel-tested determination. She would never allow that to happen. When it was too late, she’d end it herself. Once the idea would have saddened her. But she was so tired, and a quickly repressed voice admitted, lonely that the end didn’t seem like such a bad idea.
She ignored the call of her old friend Gia Drake, one of her lieutenants and best friends, and concentrated on the encroaching night, on stilling the beast that lived inside her, that lately threatened to consume her. The demon refused to be denied and she refused to surrender to it. For the moment at least, they were at an impasse.
“Winter.” A soft voice, a softer hand coming to rest on her shoulder as the other woman came to join her at the glass doors.
Her lips twisted in the slightest smile as she turned to face Gia. She and Dupree Jackson were her oldest and most trusted friends. They’d merged in the same year and should all be feeling the same stress. But Winter saw no strain, no tension on her old friend’s face and knew there was only one possible explanation why.
“Who is he?”
The only way to save the hybrid soul was to bond it with someone else. Someone purer. Someone not reborn of evil the way those in the Order were, though of course there were always exceptions. Very occasionally two hybrids managed to bond together. It was as if the two human halves of their souls created something stronger, almost superhuman. Gia was the child of such a pairing. She’d grown up in the Order, understood the risks inherent in merging with a demon better than most and had taken it anyway. Now she frowned and shook her head. Denial was bright in her eyes.
“Don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Winter laughed. She had to be kidding. The change in her was plain to see. “Oh come on.”
“You know I haven’t bonded with anyone. I’d have to ask for your permission to do it.”
Not every couple was allowed to make the blood oath. Mistakes had been made in the past. Usually when the human half of the equation wasn’t mentally strong enough.
“You’d get it.” No questions asked. No hesitation. Winter had seen too many good people fall to deny her best friend the opportunity to be spared a brutal end. Not to mention sparing herself the burden of delivering it.
“It’s just an affair. A diversion to take the edge off.”
Coffee cups rattled on the desk. Winter waited while Gia got her telekinetic power back under control. She hid her curiosity about the emotional reaction to a simple question and response—pushing wouldn’t get her answers. Gia would tell her when she was ready.
“Sure it is.” Winter let a teasing note enter her voice, and kept her expression light as she examined her friend. Hid the worry for all of them—herself, Gia and Dupree—that was so often there in the past few years, as they’d aged without bonding. Interesting. She wasn’t imagining it. Gia really was at ease, her struggle with the demon less evident than it had been mere weeks ago. But there was no bond. Which meant…what exactly?
“Are you hunting tonight?” Gia asked and Winter let her change the subject. It was a mystery she’d solve in due time.
“Later,” she answered. “I think I’ll go see if Mitchell is up for a sparring match first.”
Gia opened her mouth to express her opinion on that, but Winter had heard it over and over again. She wasn’t interested in a repeat. No one approved of her close association with the alpha lupine, which was pretty hypocritical since several of their order had mated with lupines. It was okay for the regular rank and file but not a captain? That just didn’t seem right. Shaking her head, she slipped out the sliding glass door before Gia could get started. Rank had some privileges.
She closed the door behind her with a final-sounding click and paused at the edge of the concrete slab patio. Closing her eyes, she tilted her head back and inhaled deeply. Listened as the forest went quiet around her when she intruded upon it. She smelled pine, gardenia, and after a moment the crickets resumed their loud cacophony. When they did, she stepped out onto the short lawn and used her demon enhanced speed to enter the wood line.
Once she would have delayed, would have taken the time to explore and enjoy the night. Those days were over. The joy long gone from them. In her effort to control the demon she’d reduced her life to nothing more than duty and hunting.
She’d left the house prepared. Her long pale hair, the distinguishing trait that marked her, hung in a thick braid down her back. She smiled, fondly remembering earlier years. After merging, her light brown hair had slowly bleached out to nearly white and Benjamin, her first squad leader, had started calling her Winter. She rarely thought of herself by the name she was christened with anymore.
The good memories were tainted with the weariness of the present, however. Those times were so much simpler. She’d just been a soldier. Her old mentor had just been a lieutenant. Now she ran a quadrant and Ben was regional commander.
Forcing the memories away, she did a mental inventory and checklist. She was dressed in the solid black most of the Order wore with no insignia or sign of her rank. Her knives were strapped to thigh holsters and the insufferable cell phone was on her belt. There were spare blades tucked down the sides of her knee-high boots. She was as prepared as anyone could be.
Most of the demon hybrids also carried guns. She was proficient with everything in their arsenal, but she didn’t care for them. Preferred the death she dealt to be a little more up close and personal. Some thought she had a death wish of her own. They were wrong, but she never bothered to correct anyone. Besides how could she explain that she used the horror of what she was capable of as a reminder to be ever vigilant with the demon? She snorted at the partial truth, the self-deception. Because, hell, there was an undeniable adrenalin rush involved and it was addicting.
She was going to feed that craving.
Winter was careful to keep her mental shields in place so that none of her thoughts, none of her plans could possibly leak to Gia or Dupree. They’d had a strong connection from the beginning, the three of them, and all the years in between had only made it stronger. She hadn’t been completely forthcoming about her intentions when she’d set out from the compound. The rule was no one hunted alone. An unofficial law she’d broken years ago and continued to break, but would never allow any of her people to get away with. Before she could begin that part of the night however, she needed to check in on the other compounds she was responsible for. She’d moved up the ranks faster than most and now controlled the northeast quadrant of Camden. She’d grown up here, in middle Georgia, but it didn’t resemble the small town of her youth anymore.
Normally she’d teleport to make her nightly rounds, at least to the outer reaches, but tonight she was too restless. The demon was too hungry. It wasn’t particular about what kind of blood she spilled either. They merged with demons so they’d have the strength to fight the others, the real demons. But the soul that shared hers was nothing but instinct. No thought. No reasoning. And it was growing in power, becoming harder and harder for her to control.
She needed to burn off some of the excess energy, a task that was getting more difficult by the day. She set off into the woods. After checking up on her squad leaders, she’d swing by Mitchell’s. A good fight always helped tame the beast. Sex would be an excellent alternative, but she couldn’t even remember the last time she’d met a man she was interested in who was also strong enough to take her on. She needed a strong take charge type, an alpha who wasn’t an asshole, but there weren’t many who could share control of a relationship that she was interested in. Everyone else she eventually reduced to tears.
The narrow path she followed switched back down the side of a hill. She didn’t pay much attention to her surroundings until the forest went eerily silent and she knew she was no longer alone. Then she smelled them, the rank sulfur scent no demon could completely hide heavy in the formerly sweet air. When she came around the last corner into a clearing, three demons waited. They glowed orangish-red under the full moon, short pointed horns announced their low status as much as the fact they hadn’t bothered, or more likely hadn’t been able, to disguise themselves as human. But despite their status and limited abilities, they were three mature demons. Dangerous and probably deadly if she took them on by herself. If she followed procedure, she would teleport far enough away for safety and wait for backup to arrive.
She never even considered following the rules.
Drawing her knives, she rushed them. All training, strategy, caution was forgotten. She let her control of the demon half of her soul slip. Felt, even shared, the euphoria that filled it at the thought of battle, of bloodshed and carnage. Winter let the rage at finding three of the enemy in her territory take over her actions.
Just as she expected, they gathered close to each other with just enough room between them to fight. Lesser demons didn’t have enough brain power for strategy. They depended on brute strength and bloodlust. She used her superior speed and agility to whirl through the clump, slashing out with her blade as she went. The first fell dead before she was through.
Then she smelled the blood. Not the viscous black stuff demons oozed, but hot and tangy and human. Hers. One of them had managed to slice the back of her leg with the razor-sharp edge of the triangle tip on its tail. It burned. Rage nearly blinded her and she fought against it, forcing her demon half to submit so that she could think as the other two began to circle her.
Her mind was slowing, her movements already growing sluggish. Shit. The tip of the demon’s tail was poisonous. How had she forgotten that? Eventually her body would fight it off, but she’d be left defenseless for days first. She concentrated on her home, tried to fix the image in her mind, but it was too late to teleport, her abilities already too dulled.
She’d fucked up. Royally. She’d walked into a trap, that much was obvious now. Her death would leave her people open and exposed. Too much of her energy was directed at fighting the poison to try to send a message to Gia with telepathy. She whispered a prayer begging forgiveness then mentally grounded herself in the here and now. She might not walk out alive, but she’d take at least one more with her. As if sensing her body’s losing battle against their poison, the demons moved closer and she gripped her knives.
They split apart, one approaching from the front while the other moved to her left. She twisted her head as much as she dared to watch, tried to keep an eye on both of them. When he moved beyond her field of vision she lunged forward, using the last of her strength to thrust a knife at the heart of the demon before her. She had the satisfaction of feeling it crunch through his ribs and hit home before her legs gave out. Falling to her knees, she caught herself on her palms, waiting for the blow and bracing herself. She refused to die facedown in the dirt.
A thump came from behind her but she didn’t feel it. She found the energy to twist her body, fell more than sat down on her ass. The sight before her was confusing. Her synapses just refused to work anymore.