Smoke & Mirrors Excerpt
SOUND EXPLODED in Dex’s ears. His head throbbed, and his face hurt. He tasted blood, and his body didn’t feel like his own as he struggled through the lethargy. His limbs felt heavy, like he was swimming in molasses. With a groan, he forced his eyes open. It was dark save for the halo of light floating somewhere above his head. Where was he? The last thing he remembered was Sloane’s strong arms around him, wrapping him up in warmth, holding him close. Sloane had nuzzled his face in Dex’s hair, then kissed him good night, followed by a soft “I love you.”
Dex bolted upright, a gasp caught in his throat as he surfaced through the haze. His eyes widened, and his heart beat furiously as he realized his wrists and ankles were zip-tied to a chair.
“What the hell is this?” He looked up and reeled from the stabbing white light. It seared his vision, and he shut his eyes tight for several seconds. A halo was all he could see before he was finally able to focus on the stretch of nothingness around him. Shadows surrounded him on all sides, the only light coming from the lamp hanging over his head. “Hello?” It struck him then.
They’d taken him from his home.
Oh God, where was Sloane? His blood ran cold, and he jerked against the restraints. “Somebody answer me!”
“You’re awake. Good.”
Dex froze. He peered into the shadows and could just about make out an outline, along with the glow of eyes. A Therian.
“Who are you? What is this?” Dex demanded, his voice hoarse from his dry throat. It was like his mouth was full of cotton. Most likely a result from whatever they’d given him to knock him out. He did his best to ignore the queasy feeling in the pit of his stomach. Someone had broken into his house and taken him from his boyfriend’s arms. He had no idea where Sloane was or the condition he was in. Was he hurt… or worse? Please let him be okay.
“I’ll be the one asking the questions here, Agent Daley.”
A tall wolf Therian in an expensive gray suit emerged from the shadows. “Looking for you, I imagine. I don’t really care. My interest lies with you, not Sloane Brodie.”
Dex had expected a thug or a raging psychopath. The Therian before him didn’t appear to be either, but appearances could be deceiving. Refined, smooth, chiseled jaw, and handsome, with rich black hair neatly styled, he looked to be in his late thirties, maybe early forties. The Therian cocked his head to one side, his sharp gray eyes studying Dex. He seemed to come to some kind of conclusion and pulled a chair out from the darkness to place in front of Dex.
Dex studied his adversary, noting how nonchalantly he unbuttoned his tailored suit jacket and took a seat. He crossed one leg over the other and placed his laced fingers over one knee, as if he were about to have an informal business chat.
“Where is it?” he asked smoothly.
“Why do you spooks always start with such cryptic questions?” Dex frowned down at himself. “Why am I in a suit?” He was pretty sure he’d gone to bed in a T-shirt and pajama bottoms. The suit was tailored to fit. Everything from the black dress pants to the pristine white button-down shirt to the black jacket fit like a glove. Even his shoes hugged his feet comfortably. “How do you know my shoe size?”
“I know everything about you.”
Dex glanced around the room. There were no cameras, windows, nothing but the bare concrete floor and walls. “Why?”
“Where is the file?”
“Why the tie?” This was bizarre. Someone had painstakingly fixed a tie around his neck while he’d been unconscious. Who kidnapped people and dressed them up in fancy clothes?
“Answer the question.”
“How about we start small,” Dex offered. “What do I call you?” He needed to figure a way out of this. There had to be a door somewhere behind the Therian. The guy hadn’t just materialized out of thin air. Of course, first Dex would have to get himself out of the chair. It was steel and bolted to the floor.
“Don’t act cute with me, Agent Daley.” The wolf Therian smiled pleasantly. “And you can call me Mr. Wolf.”
Mr. Wolf. Right. “Now who’s being cute?”
Wolf chuckled. “I do appreciate a man with a good sense of humor. You’re very charming.” He looked Dex over and smiled warmly. “You’re taller than I imagined, and your photo hardly does you justice. You’re far more handsome in person.” He motioned to his own eyes. “Beautiful color. Absolutely stunning.”
Dex leaned forward, his lips curling up wickedly. “You trying to get information out of me or date me?”
Wolf chuckled. “I can see you’re going to be a handful. All right, Agent Daley—May I call you Dex? Agent seems so formal.”
“Dex, your little ‘I’m just a ditzy blond’ act isn’t going to fly with me. I know perfectly well who you are and what you’re capable of.”
Dex sat back with a smile. “Do you now? FYI, I’m more of a dirty blond.”
Wolf arched an eyebrow at him. The man wasn’t quite sure what to make of Dex. Despite Wolf’s calm and nonthreatening demeanor, something in his eyes warned Dex to tread lightly.
Wolf cleared his throat before continuing. “Dexter Justice Daley, born August 18, 1980. Only child to Gina and John Daley. Adopted by Anthony Maddock. Adopted brother, Cael Maddock. You were an HPF officer before becoming a detective like your father before you. Then you testified against your partner for shooting an unarmed Therian youth in the back. Your boyfriend at the time, Louis Huerta, walked out on you.
“You were hired by the THIRDS and appointed a Defense agent for Unit Alpha’s Destructive Delta. Your Team Leader is Sloane Brodie, a First Gen jaguar Therian who spent the majority of his youth in the First Gen Research Facility being prodded and poked like a lab rat. You’ve been together for a year and roughly two and a half months—he had a few commitment issues to work out. This month he moved in with you. He thinks you need to eat healthier, and he’s correct. You consume copious amounts of caffeine, sugar, and red meat, have a somewhat unusual obsession with the eighties, and enjoy karaoke. Have I left anything out?”
Who was this guy, and how did he know so much? Dex smiled widely. “Yeah, I love dancing, sadly can’t hold my liquor, and give great head.”
Wolf’s eyebrows shot up before his expression returned to its previous impassive state. He shifted in his chair, and Dex held back a grin. He could use this. Dex held Wolf’s gaze.
“Did you know I can make my boyfriend purr in Human form? And I don’t mean figuratively. I mean, I can literally make him purr.”
Wolf peered at him before brushing some nonexistent lint from his suit jacket. “Not possible.”
“Oh, but it is,” Dex replied, his voice low and husky. “I’m good with my mouth.”
Wolf smoothed down his tie before meeting Dex’s gaze. He carried on as if he hadn’t heard Dex. “I know you would risk everything for your loved ones. Your career, your heart, your life. You have a fierce sense of justice. I know at this very moment you’re considering your options and how you can get out of that chair. Those are Therian-strength zip ties, Dex. You won’t be going anywhere, and unlike most, I won’t underestimate you. You’re quite good at discovering your opponent’s vulnerabilities. Fortunately for me, I have none. I know you play the fool, act the class clown, hiding who you really are.”
Dex cocked his head to one side and smiled. “And who’s that?”
“A very dangerous man.”
Here he was tied to a chair, and he was dangerous? “That’s funny.”
Wolf stood and shoved his hands into his pockets. “It is funny, because even you don’t realize it.” He leaned forward, his gaze holding Dex’s. “Others may not see it, but I do. There’s darkness lurking behind those pale blue eyes. You never did quite recover from your parents’ murder.”
Dex opened his mouth to reply when the words sank in. His gut twisted. No. Absolutely not. “My parents weren’t murdered. They were killed in a shoot-out. Wrong place, wrong time.”
Wolf moved his chair closer to Dex and sat. “You didn’t believe it then, and you don’t believe it now. It may be what you were told, what you wanted to believe, but deep down inside, you know the truth you buried long ago.”
“What do you know about my parents?” Why was he asking? It wasn’t as if he could trust Wolf. For all he knew the guy was making shit up to rattle him, to make him talk.
“Do forgive me. I seem to have deviated from my intended path.” Wolf let out a pleasant laugh, as if he were conversing with a friend. “You’re very easy to talk to. Let’s try a different approach. Gina Daley was killed for interfering in business that was no concern of hers. Sadly, she dragged your father into it. I want the file she had in her possession the night she was killed.”
Dex closed his eyes, suddenly nauseated. He needed the room to stop spinning and his stomach to stop turning over. Wolf was right. Deep down, he’d always known, but this… this was just too much. All these years he’d tried denying the fact there might be more to his parents’ deaths than mere coincidence, but he’d never delved deeper. He’d been scared to. Afraid of what he’d find. To him, his parents had been two regular people who’d loved him very much and who’d been taken from him far too early in life. He’d wanted to preserve their memory. Dex opened his eyes and took a deep breath. There was no running from it now. He needed answers.
“It’s been almost thirty years. Why are you looking for this file now?”
“That information is inconsequential. I would very much like that file.”
“If there is a file, I don’t know where it is,” Dex replied truthfully. “This is the first I’m hearing about it. If you’ve been watching me, studying me, you’d know that.”
Wolf stood and removed his suit jacket in no particular hurry. He took hold of his chair, placed it to one side, and draped his jacket across the backrest. Dex observed him, the way he moved, how he smiled warmly as he removed the cuff links from his sleeve cuffs. Once he’d slipped the cuff links into his jacket pocket, he rolled up his sleeves. Not in a half-assed way either. He wasn’t in any kind of rush. The fabric was folded meticulously. First one sleeve, then the other. From his pants pocket he pulled out a pair of black gloves and slipped them on.
“I hear you have quite the pain threshold.”
Dex sat up straight and rolled his shoulders. His heart raced, and his muscles tensed. He subtly closed his hands into fists to keep Wolf from seeing them shake. When he spoke, he made certain his tone gave away nothing of the fear shooting through him. “Moving on to the kinky stuff already. That’s not really my scene, but whatever floats your boat.”
With a chuckle, Wolf stepped in between Dex’s knees. He took hold of Dex’s chin, his smile turning apologetic. “Forgive me, but I’m going to have to bruise this pretty face of yours. I hoped to avoid it, but you’ve left me no choice. It’s nothing personal.”
Dex shrugged. He wouldn’t give Wolf the satisfaction of knowing he was scared. No point in him losing his shit. Wolf wasn’t like anyone he’d faced before. He was a professional given a job to do, a job he took pride in. The steel of his gray eyes told Dex all he needed to know. There would be no mercy coming from Wolf. Any and all pain inflicted on Dex was of his own making for not cooperating.
“Just part of the job description. I get it.”
“Thank you for being so understanding.” Wolf ran his thumb over Dex’s bottom lip. “I like you, Dex. In fact, I like you so much I’m going to start small.”
“That’s really kind of you.” He swallowed hard, his eyes never leaving Wolf’s.
“I know,” Wolf replied sincerely. “Now brace yourself.”
Dex nodded. He clenched his jaw and inhaled deeply through his nose, his fists balled so tight his knuckles were white. Think of home.
The first blow had him seeing stars. For all of Mr. Wolf’s sophisticated charms, he was a Therian, and one skilled in the art of causing pain. That much was evident right away. Wolf also managed to inflict damage without incapacitating. After all, if he wanted information out of his prisoner, a method of communication was key. The most intriguing part was how Wolf managed to beat the shit out of Dex while keeping himself looking impeccable. Even with Dex’s blood splattered over his white shirt, he looked elegant. Dex would have commended him if he could talk.
The worst of it wasn’t the blows to the face, the split lip and brow, the throbbing, or even the taste of his own blood inside his mouth as well as the blood trickling down from his nose. It was the fiery concoction that must have been brewed with the Devil’s piss because it burned like a son of a bitch when Wolf applied it to one of Dex’s open wounds. It scorched his flesh, and when Wolf applied it to Dex’s brow, he cried out. Tears pooled in his eyes from the sting, but he quickly blinked them away and gritted his teeth, pushing through the pain. His heart was pounding, and he jerked in his seat, sucking in gulps of air. Jesus, it burned.
“I know,” Wolf cooed. “I’m so sorry.”
He pressed his lips to Dex’s. It was brief but gentle, startling Dex. He tugged at his arm, instinct propelling him to punch Wolf in the face, but all that did was send more pain up his arm.
“Shhh, it’s okay.” Wolf wiped Dex’s blood from his lips with his thumb before he ran a hand over Dex’s head, soothing him. “Please. You can make this stop. Just tell me what I want to know.” He crouched down between Dex’s knees and slid his hands to Dex’s thighs, then to his hips. Wolf’s dark brows were drawn together, his lips pulled down in a frown. “I’m really not enjoying this. You’re a good man, Dex. I don’t like hurting good men.”
“You could stop,” Dex said with a shaky laugh that verged on a sob, but he pushed past it. His vision was growing blurry again, and he shut his eyes tight. For weeks his eyes had been bugging him, itching, blurring, and until recently it had been a minor inconvenience. He’d put it down to fatigue, but Sloane had been worried, so Dex promised he’d make an appointment with the eye doctor. He wished he’d done it sooner. Now was not the time for his vision to be giving him problems.
“I wish I could, but I have a job to do, and once I give my word, I follow through. Dex, please. Help me help you.”
Dex gazed down at Wolf, his voice a low growl. “You know what? Fuck you. At this point, even if I had the goddamn thing, I wouldn’t give it to you.”
“Such language.” Wolf tsked.
Dex let out a laugh. “Well, get used to it, Buttercup, because it just gets prettier from here on out.”
“I was afraid it would come to this.” Wolf stood and leaned in, pressing his cheek to Dex’s as he slipped one hand around the back of his head. He murmured softly as he stroked Dex’s hair. “I’m going to ask you one more time. Where is the file Gina Daley had in her possession the day she died?”
When Dex didn’t reply, he received a punch to the kidney. Fuck. At this rate he’d be pissing blood for a week. If he survived.
“All right.” Wolf straightened and released a sigh. “Just remember, you brought this on yourself.” He slipped into the shadows and returned with a long, narrow wrap of dark leather. After moving his chair closer to Dex, he pulled the ties loose and unrolled the leather on the chair’s seat. Dex’s jaw muscles tightened at the neat row of long, fine needles. They looked like the kind acupuncturists used. Dex twisted his wrists, the sweat on his skin only allowing for minimal movement, not enough for him to free himself.
Gently, Wolf took hold of Dex’s left hand and bent to give his fingers a kiss before taking hold of his middle finger. Dex’s body betrayed him, trembling under Wolf’s touch in anticipation of the pain. Nothing he’d experienced before could prepare him. All he could do was endure. Pray he could somehow find a way to get out of this. To survive. Wolf slipped one of the needles out, crouched down in front of Dex, and placed the tip under Dex’s fingernail. Wolf’s steel-gray eyes met Dex’s. “This is going to hurt a great deal. It’s all right to scream. Again, you’ve left me no choice.”
Dex’s eyes watered as Wolf began to push the needle in. His heartbeat skyrocketed, and he jerked against the restraints. Oh God…. He’d endured a hell of a lot in his life, in his career at the HPF and then the THIRDS, but never anything like this. He focused on his breathing, on finding a safe place inside his head. Sloane….
The needle plunged deeper, and Dex jolted, a strangled cry torn from his lips. He pushed against the floor with his feet, jerked his arms, and twisted his body in an attempt to get away from the agonizing pain, but nothing he did would ease his suffering.
“This is just the beginning, Dex,” Wolf assured him softly. “I will break you.”
“Fuck you,” Dex spat. Sweat beaded his brow, and his fingers shook. It was only going to get worse. With a sigh, Wolf moved on to the next finger, and Dex closed his eyes, his muscles straining and sweat dripping down the side of his face as the second needle was pushed in under his fingernail. Sometime between the third and fourth needle, everything went black.
“Stop! Stop, I can’t take anymore!”
Tears ran down Dex’s cheeks. His face hurt from laughing so hard.
“You give up?”
Sloane’s smile brought little creases to the corners of his amber eyes, making Dex’s heart skip a beat. He was so damned beautiful. New silver strands had appeared in his beard and at his temples, adding to his sex appeal. Sloane was one of those guys who grew even more gorgeous with age, and Dex’s heart swelled at the thought of growing old with the man he loved.
Those amber eyes had been filled with so much pain not long ago, and now they lit up with affection and laughter. With every passing day, despite the darkness they sometimes encountered on the job, Dex witnessed Sloane embrace the growing lightheartedness within him. It was their day off, and they’d been too tired to go out, so they decided to lounge around the house reading, watching TV, eating, and cuddling. In the afternoon they’d made love, then took a nap. Dex had never been happier.
“I give up,” Dex said with a husky laugh, drawing his knees up and pressing them to Sloane’s hips. “I’m tickled out. I’ll eat the rabbit food.”
Sloane planted his elbows on either side of Dex’s head, his eyes bright with laughter. “Am I going to have to tackle you every time I ask you to try a new vegetable dish?”
“If I’m going to start gnawing on bark, I should get something out of it.”
Sloane laughed. “You are getting something out of it. Good health.”
“But why does healthy food have to taste like boiled grass?”
“Hey, my veggie dishes do not taste like boiled grass.” Sloane’s expression softened, he stroked Dex’s hair. “Do you know why I’m always trying to get you to eat healthy?”
“Because eventually I have to be a grown-up and realize gummy bears are not one of the four basic food groups? Even though they should be. I mean, some are green, right? Like vegetables.”
“That’s not why.” Sloane lowered himself onto Dex, mindful of his weight. He held Dex close and planted a tender kiss on his brow. “Because I want you to live a long life. I want to have you with me as long as possible.”
Dex blinked up at him, surprised by Sloane’s heartfelt confession. “Really?”
Sloane kissed Dex’s lips, a soft, lazy kiss that had Dex letting out a sigh. He was so madly in love with this man.
“Are you trying to guilt me into eating healthier?” Dex teased, nuzzling Sloane’s neck.
Sloane’s rumble of a chuckle sent a delicious shiver through Dex. “Maybe a little.”
“I know.” Sloane nibbled on Dex’s earlobe before whispering in his ear. “Time to wake up, babe.”
“Wake up, Dex.”
Dex snapped his eyes open, and his body shrieked with pain. A jolt went through him, and he cried out. His cheeks were wet from tears, his fingertips bloodied and throbbing, his hands shaking. His body was like one giant nerve ending, exposed and in agony. He started to shiver horribly. He was cold, his skin crawled, and sweat dripped down his face. Inside his blood boiled, and he was having trouble breathing. Swallowing past the bile in his throat, he glanced down at the five needles sticking out from under his fingernails on his left hand. His right hand had another two. Oh God, why the hell had he looked?
“Were you dreaming of him?” Wolf asked serenely as he began to slowly remove the needles one by one.
Jesus, what now? Please don’t let me throw up. Please. Wolf sat in the chair again, the wrap of needles now on the floor by his pristinely shined shoes.
“It sounded like a good dream. Your man’s quite something, isn’t he? Despite his time in the First Gen Research Facility, he’s managed to lead a relatively normal life. Friends, love, a successful career? Not everyone who survived was so lucky. Granted, he wasn’t able to leave the demons behind, but it would seem he’s learned how to cope with the darkness inside of him. How are the nightmares, by the way? Better? I think they’re better now that he has you at his side.” Wolf’s smile faded, his expression becoming troubled. “He’s lived through so much pain. I hate to think what would become of him if you were torn from his life.”
Dex didn’t reply. He was pretty sure Wolf could see the loathing in his eyes.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Wolf said with a sigh. “What kind of person feels nothing when bringing another so much pain?” He dropped the last needle onto the floor by his chair.
What time was it? Better yet, what day was it? How long had they been at this? Dex had lost track of how many times he’d passed out. Wolf liked to change things up. He’d alternate between the needles to his fingernails and the ones to various pressure points around his body, to beating the shit out of him one vital organ at a time. His body was bruised inside and out, his skin was caked in blood, and his left eye was all but swollen shut. Dex groaned, feeling his empty stomach lurching. He reeked of sweat, blood, and bodily fluids he couldn’t give a second thought to or he’d retch. Fuck, was Wolf still talking?
“I feel no remorse, take no pleasure in what I do. Breaking you is akin to picking up a gallon of milk at the grocery store or doing my laundry.” Wolf shrugged. “It’s a talent I suppose. Perhaps a rather unorthodox one, but a talent nonetheless.”
“Well, that’s nice,” Dex muttered, feeling his eyelids growing heavy. It was easier to give in to the darkness. It didn’t hurt there, and he could dream about being in Sloane’s arms. He tugged at his wrists and his ankles. Nothing. Maybe if he took a short nap, tried to regain his strength….
“I’m sorry, Dex, but I’m going to need you to stay awake a little longer.” Wolf stood and reached into his jacket pocket—Mary Poppins’s pocket apparently—and pulled out a syringe with a clear liquid.
Fuck me, seriously?
Dex wavered on the edge of the abyss, slightly aware of his head being gently tilted to the side, his hair stroked absently before he felt the tiniest prick to his neck. One minute he was ready to surrender to the encroaching blackness, and the next he feared his heart would explode. He gasped for air and twisted in his seat, his muscles straining as he pulled. Tears welled in his swollen eyes as his senses sharpened. Every dull ache and throb flared into a shrilling agony. His eyesight sharpened, and his breath came out in pants.
“Fuck!” Dex blinked a few times before shutting his eyes tight. Everything was so bright. Even the shadows seemed to fade. “What did you give me?”
“Just a little concoction of mine. Not at all dissimilar to Therian epinephrine. The dose was lower, of course. I don’t want your Human heart to give out on me.”
Dex squinted and tried to open his eyes again. It still hurt, but he was stunned that he could see all the way across the room to the closed door, as if someone had turned up a dimmer switch. There was a steel table next to the door Dex hadn’t seen before because it had been too dark. On it was a pitcher of water and a stack of plastic cups. Whatever Wolf had given him seemed to clear his vision enough to see past the shadows.
“You continue to surprise me, Dex.” Wolf shook his head. “Would you like some water before we move on?”
Dex nodded. At least Wolf was keeping him hydrated. He placed the plastic cup of cool water to Dex’s lips and helped him drink. When he was done, Wolf smiled at him before returning the cup to the table across the room.
“As much as I’m enjoying your company, Dex, we’re going to have to hurry this along.” Wolf came to stand before him. “Your boyfriend or your brother?”
Dex stared at him. “What?”
Wolf walked over to his chair. “I was hoping you would be like the others, eventually look to save yourself and thereby give me what I want, but I see now you’re every inch the man I believed you to be. You have no trouble sacrificing yourself for your cause.” He removed his gloves before turning them inside out, then tossing them onto the chair. With a sigh, he rolled down his sleeves. “I can’t get through to you like this. The only way to get to you is through someone you love.”
Dex’s heart almost stopped.
Wolf finished with his cuff links, then slipped into his jacket. “I’m going to bring back your boyfriend or your brother, I’ll let you choose which, and then I will take him apart piece by piece until you give me the information I want.”
“I’m telling you the truth! I don’t know what file you’re talking about. There was nothing like that left behind. No letter, note, nothing addressing a file. Please.” Dex struggled against the restraints. The thought of Sloane or Cael in this room terrified him. “I’ll do what you want. Just leave them out of this.”
Wolf walked over and bent forward, his gaze holding Dex’s. “Who’s it going to be? The love of your life or your baby brother?” A thought seemed to strike him, and he snapped his fingers. “I have a better idea. How about I bring them both, and then you can look them in the eye when I make you choose who lives and who dies. Either way, I’ll make them both bleed.”
Rage erupted through Dex like a fiery geyser. He let out a fierce cry and wrenched at the zip ties with all the strength he could summon. They snapped. The ones around his wrists first, then his ankles.
Wolf’s eyes went wide, and Dex thrust his head forward, head-butting Wolf and sending him stumbling back. He rubbed his forehead before staring at Dex.
“How did you do that?”
“Guess you don’t know everything,” Dex growled, lunging at Wolf.
The two of them hit the floor, thrashing and trying to do as much damage to the other as possible. Wolf was undoubtedly cursing his luck right now. If he hadn’t pumped Dex with that Therian shit, Dex wouldn’t have had the strength to stand much less fight.
Wolf was a trained professional and a Therian, but Dex wasn’t without skill. Thanks to Sparks, months of special training, of getting his ass handed to him by TIN specialists, of pushing himself beyond his limits, was finally paying off. He was never more grateful to Sparks for kicking his ass like she had than he was at this moment.
They got to their feet and circled each other. How many people had Wolf tortured and killed? And who the hell did the guy work for? Whoever he was, Dex couldn’t let him near his family.
“How did you get out of those restraints?” Wolf demanded.
Dex had no idea, but he wasn’t about to let Wolf know that. “Who are you working for?”
Wolf charged him, using his elbows in the hopes of inflicting as much damage as possible, but Dex remembered Sparks’s training. Wolf’s blows were continually blocked, with Dex quickly picking up on the guy’s technique. He matched Wolf’s speed, anticipating where Wolf would hit rather than reacting. It was something Dex discovered he was good at. Sparks had noticed right away, so rather than simply teaching him new techniques, she had him mimic his opponent’s and use what he’d learned against them. Dex threw his hands up, blocking the blow Wolf intended for Dex’s ears. Recovering swiftly, Dex threw an uppercut, catching Wolf under his chin, followed by an onslaught of fierce punches before Wolf could get his bearings.
Dex’s muscles pulled and burned, but his adrenaline had spiked. He was so close to freedom he could taste it, so he reached even deeper, putting all his strength behind every blow, making sure not to get too cocky. Wolf let out a fierce growl and lashed out, snatching a hold of Dex’s jacket. Dex went with the momentum, spinning and pulling his arms out of the sleeves. With a frustrated grunt, Wolf chucked the jacket to one side and lunged at Dex, who spun out of the way. If Wolf got his hands on Dex, it’d be over. He couldn’t allow that. Sloane…. He had to get back to Sloane.
“You won’t make it out of here,” Wolf warned, his breath unsteady.
Dex met Wolf’s eyes and grinned. “Like how I wouldn’t be getting out of that chair? How’d that work out for you?”
Wolf smoothed back his hair, and Dex readied himself. The guy was rethinking his strategy. Dex gingerly inched away from the door, his eyes locked on Wolf. He didn’t have to wait long. Wolf’s gray eyes turned hard, empty, and he charged Dex, fangs elongated as he attacked, just as Dex had hoped.
Dex had maneuvered Wolf exactly where he wanted him. Before Wolf could grab him, Dex snatched hold of Wolf’s chair, swung it around, and slammed the steel piece of furniture into Wolf. The guy hit the floor hard, his head banging against the concrete. He didn’t stir. Dex quickly rummaged through Wolf’s pockets. There was nothing.
Leaving the guy on the floor, Dex ran farther into the shadows, and he immediately spotted the faint light coming in from under the door. He grabbed the handle and carefully cracked it open. There was no one on the other side. Slipping out, he closed the door behind him. More darkness and more concrete walls. Where the hell was he? Why was it so damned dark?
It was time to get the hell out of here. His body protested every movement, his head was killing him, but he got moving, sucking in a sharp breath and holding on to his side in a feeble attempt to keep some of the pain at bay. His ribs were bruised, and his lungs burned as his breath quickened. He wouldn’t be able to stay on his feet much longer, but the thought he might blow his only chance at getting out of here, at getting back to Sloane, had him pushing forward.
The corridor seemed to stretch on forever, and he stilled when he caught a whiff of something familiar. It was faint, but he could smell it. Something mixed with licorice. Dex hated licorice. One too many shots of Sambuca in college. Ahead of him in the shadows, he spotted movement. Shit. Had he really thought he could just walk out of here? Several pairs of glowing eyes grew nearer, and Dex stopped, leaning against the wall for support as the figures stalked forward, their shapes soon becoming visible. Three Therians. Dex grinned. One of them had a tranq gun holstered to his belt.
Dex pushed away from the wall and put his hands up in front of him. “I don’t want any trouble, fellas.” He turned his gaze on the lion Therian with the tranq gun and motioned to his face.
“You know, I got a friend with that same scowl. Is that, like, a lion Therian thing, or are you both members of the same Scowler’s Association? No? Okay.”
The guy was short-tempered. Not surprising. The lion Therian lunged at him, and Dex dropped to his knees, twisting his body despite the cry from his muscles. He swiped the guy’s tranq gun, then shot him in the back and sent him stumbling forward. Not skipping a beat, Dex jumped to his feet and fired at the two Therians charging him. One managed to grab him by the neck, lifting him off his feet. Dex grabbed the guy’s wrist while shooting him a second and third time in the chest. Another gasp for air later, Dex was released. He dropped to the floor and coughed before staggering forward. A red light flared to life up on the ceiling, and Dex cursed under his breath. The jig was up.
“Time to get out of Dodge,” Dex grunted, willing his feet to move faster. It was like running through a fog. His vision blurred, and he alternated between squinting and shutting his eyes tight in an attempt to clear them. He took a wrong turn and ended up in a dead end.
“Fuck.” He doubled back quickly, the tranq gun held close. Rounding a corner, he was met with two more Therian goons. He fired, taking one down, and then he was out of darts. Fucking fuck fuck! Tossing the gun to one side, he charged the leopard Therian. He had no idea what the hell he thought would happen, but when he tackled the guy and sent him slamming into the wall behind him, Dex was just as surprised as his foe. Swiftly recovering, Dex pulled back a fist and punched the guy across the head. The guy crumpled to the floor, out cold.
“Holy shit.” Had Wolf given him fucking steroids or something? Whatever it was, Dex was glad for it, though he feared what the repercussions would be. Pushing that aside for now, Dex hurried down the corridors. Up ahead he saw the Exit sign. He could have cried he was so happy. Not waiting for any more goons to show up, he pushed through the door and ran down the dark corridor, not questioning how it was he could see through the darkness. He rushed up the stairs, ignoring his burning lungs.
Bursting out into the night air would have brought him to his knees if he hadn’t kept pushing. He had to get away from this place. Phone. He needed a phone. Trees surrounded him on all sides, and he glanced back to find the door he’d come from was set in a brick wall hidden by grime, moss, shrubbery, and foliage. In the distance he heard the faint sounds of city traffic. Was he still in the city? He was certainly in a city. As he moved quickly through the trees, he spotted a small road with a narrow sidewalk at the bottom of an incline and beyond that, homes. He’d never make it to any of those houses. Voices carried through the air, and Dex hurried down the incline to the sidewalk, trying his best not to fall, because if he did, he wouldn’t be getting back up.
Hunching himself over, he stumbled by the two Humans walking by, bumping into one of them.
“Watch it, asshole,” one guy grumbled as he kept moving. Yep, definitely still in New York City.
“Sorry, man.” Dex staggered toward the small hill he came from and climbed back up, his legs growing shaky. Normally the darkness would make him nervous, but now it was his sanctuary. There was plenty of light for him to see movement, in case someone tried to get the drop on him. The expanse of trees stretched on for miles, and he kept going as long as he could. When his knees gave out from under him, he dragged himself over to a tree and sat up against it. He pulled out the phone he’d swiped from the guy he’d bumped into. After one ring, Sloane picked up.
“Who is this?”
“It’s me,” Dex choked out, tears filling his eyes. It was so damned good to hear Sloane’s voice.
“Oh thank God. Dex, where are you?”
“I… I have no idea. There’s lots of trees. I don’t see any signs. There was a road, but I don’t know what it was. Can you get Cael to find my location using the phone’s GPS?”
There was some faint murmuring before Sloane’s voice returned.
“He’s on it. Are you okay? Talk to me. What happened?”
“It’s a really, really long story. I just… I need you.” He let his head fall back, and a tremor went through him. His need for the man he loved was crushing, and he blinked back his tears.
“I’m on my way, sweetheart. Are you somewhere safe?”
“Home was safe.”
There was a long pause. “We’ll sort that out. Right now, let’s get you to me, okay? I’m your home.”
Dex smiled despite his split lip. That’s right. Sloane was home. It didn’t matter where they were. As long as Sloane was with him, he was home. “Thank you. I really needed to hear that right now.”
“We have your location. I’ll be there soon. Stay on the line with me.”
“Stay awake, sweetheart. Please.”
“I don’t think I can. I’m kinda in bad shape here.” His adrenaline was crashing and with that his strength, causing his whole body to shake violently. He’d be lucky if he didn’t go into shock. It was so cold all of a sudden.
“Sing with me.”
“Come on. Listen.”
Sloane turned up the radio, and Dex smiled at the familiar sounds of strumming guitar followed by clapping. It was the Romantics’ “What I Like About You.” Sloane sang and urged Dex to sing with him. Dex did his best to keep up with the lyrics. He loved this song. He’d danced to it around the kitchen last week while making dinner. Sloane had even joined in after Dex grabbed him and begged him to dance with him. It was the most fun Dex had ever had making baked potatoes.
“Keep singing, sweetheart,” Sloane pleaded.
Dex tried. His voice was rough, his words barely audible, but he tried to keep from slipping into the darkness threatening to drag him under. He wanted to be awake for Sloane, wanted to see his beautiful smile and glowing amber eyes. The light around him seemed to dim, and he couldn’t tell if it was the last of whatever Wolf had given him leaving his system or if he was beginning to lose consciousness. It was all so quiet, or at least it appeared that way, as if time had stilled. His sharpened senses dulled, and he tried to push himself up, but his body refused to cooperate. He had no idea how much time had passed or at what point the phone had slipped from his blood-caked fingers.
“Dex! Dex, where are you?”
“Sloane,” Dex croaked.
Was Sloane really there, or had he simply heard what he was desperate to hear? One moment there was quiet, nothing but shadows, and the next dozens of lights burst through the trees. Sloane emerged alongside three figures in black suits, and when he spotted Dex, he sped over. He dropped to his knees and cradled Dex in his arms. Dex was aware of more people calling his name. Cael? Ash? Thank God they were safe.
“Dex, I’m here, sweetheart. I’m here.” Sloane gently hugged him close, one hand around Dex’s back, the other cradling Dex’s head to him, enveloping Dex in warmth. Sloane was always so warm.
“I stayed awake,” Dex murmured, nuzzling his face against Sloane’s shirt, inhaling his scent. He smelled so good.
“You did good, babe. It’s okay.”
Dex nodded, or at least he thought he did. There was chaos around him, quiet chaos. He could hear the many whispers, the orders given to span out and search. All Dex cared about was that the man he loved had come for him and he was once again in Sloane’s arms. Now safe, the darkness came for him.