Unhidden (The Gatekeeper Chronicles, Book #1)
Release date: December 29, 2014
Book Genre: Adult Urban Fantasy / Paranormal Romance / Horror
It’s not always easy to differentiate between the good guys and the bad guys, especially when a trained killer may be falling in love with her evil hunter
Emma Hayes, a former military Special Forces Operative turned mercenary-for-hire, finds her tightly controlled world turned upside down when she becomes the target of attacks by powerful supernatural creatures.
Emma must use every skill in her arsenal to stay alive as she tries to solve the mystery of why she has been targeted. Her list of enemies keeps growing – from Zane Shayde, an evil Mage, to a secret branch of the US government – and she doesn’t know if there is anyone left she can trust.
To complicate matters further, Emma is inexplicably drawn to Zane in a way she does not quite understand, even knowing her life is forfeit if captured. Who is he and why does he have this affect on her? How can she fight someone who calls to her, body and soul?
Emma is left haunted by questions, doubts and fears as to why she has been targeted, when they will come for her next, and how she will possibly survive against an enemy she doesn’t understand.
Cold marble pressed against my face, numbing my cheek. My stomach roiled from the spinning of the room, threatening to release my dinner. I took a deep, ragged breath and tried to keep the dizziness under control. A voice in my head screamed at me to get up and defend myself, but my body wouldn’t obey. With a herculean effort, I pulled my legs under me in an effort to rise.
I felt the vibration in the floor before I heard the heavy thud of footsteps. The bastard was back for more. It must be my lucky day. A vice clamped around my ankles, and I slid along the smooth stone floors of the mansion. Crystal chandeliers and Renaissance paintings streaked across my vision as I was pulled through an open doorway.
I twisted and flailed, scrabbling to clutch the doorframe to stop my relentless slide into the darkened room. I tried to make it a rule to never be forced into a room when I didn’t know what lay within.
I managed a weak handhold on the doorframe, but with a sharp tug, my captor caused me to easily lose my grip. He—because only a man could own hands that large and strong—“accidentally” slammed me into a coffee table before coming to a stop without releasing me.
The concussive grenade that was triggered when I had been finishing my sweep of the last room in the mansion had left my temples throbbing, preventing me from lifting my head to get a good look at my captor. I needed to pull myself together if I was going to fight my way out of here.
Swallowing hard, I took a silent inventory of my injuries: a few bruises, no broken bones, no bleeding. Sweet. This was going to be easier than I’d thought.
Compartmentalizing the pain—a trick I had learned years ago in the Special Forces—I readied myself to twist sharply to the side in an effort to release my ankles and make a run for it. Then another set of bear paws clamped down hard around my wrists, pulling them over my head. Crap! This would make escape a bit more difficult, although not necessarily impossible. I simply had to be patient enough to wait for an opening, and patience was not one of my virtues.
“I know you are thinking about trying to escape, Miss Hayes. I would advise you against it,” said a smooth, male voice. He spoke very proper Queen’s English, as if he came from old money and would never dream of using a contraction. It made me think of those period British romance movies like Sense and Sensibility. I pictured him wearing a Victorian tailcoat and ascot, with a smarmy-looking mustache adorning his face.
I managed to lift my head a few centimeters off the hardwood floor. With my feet and the person holding them hidden in deep shadows, it was impossible to make out anything more than a crouched, hulking figure.
The English man was sitting in a cozy-looking, red leather armchair. A colorful Tiffany lamp cast a dim glow that didn’t extend very far into the room, and a thick folder sat next to it on the table.
When the Brit leaned forward, the scant light illuminating his features, I recognized him at once.
“Mr. Darko, I must say, it’s quite a surprise to see you here.” My visions of Hugh Grant disappeared, replaced by the sight of the father who had hired me to find and recover his little girl, Sarah.
Vincent Darko wasn’t wearing coat tails, but his well-tailored gray suit probably cost more than my Ducati. He wasn’t unattractive, yet I wouldn’t describe him as handsome. He was slim, almost slight, with an effeminate air about him. Maybe it was the way he crossed his legs at the knees or the way his hands hung a little limp at the wrists. Coupled with that egotistical over-confidence, he had the air of a man trying to prove he was no longer the little kid who could be bullied on the playground.
“Did you grow a set of balls and choose to find your daughter on your own?”
He chuckled deeply in response, though the amusement never reached his eyes. “I’m glad to see that, even in your current predicament, you haven’t lost your usual charm.”
“Oh, I’ve been in worse situations.” I managed a small shrug, which also served to test the grip of my captor who had my wrists. It was solid, but he clenched tighter for a moment when I moved, telling me he was somewhat relaxed and not holding me as tightly as he could have been. “So, what brings you to the Mexican jungle? Wait, let me guess. Your daughter never was kidnapped, was she?” I made a show of eyeing him up and down. “I actually have a hard time believing any woman would have sex with you, so I’m willing to bet Sarah doesn’t even exist, does she?”
“Oh, but that’s where you are wrong. Come!” he called, like he was commanding an unruly puppy.
The child who emerged from the shadows was a scrawny, bedraggled little thing. Her emaciated frame gave her the appearance of a six-year-old, not the ten-year-old that Darko had claimed her to be. Tear tracks stained her grimy cheeks, and she was hunched over, hugging herself, her matted hair falling into her face.
I ground my teeth together as I looked upon her. A fury rose up through my gut and threatened to explode, but it would have been impotent in my current situation. I choked it back down, holding it in reserve for the right time.
“I did need sufficient motivation to get you here, after all, and most humans seem to have a soft spot for these little creatures,” Darko said.
Humans? His odd word use put a chill on my fury. What was that supposed to mean?
Not only was Darko a jackass, he may also be a little crazy. In my experience, crazy was dangerous because of its unpredictability. I needed to break the hold on my wrists and ankles, overpower the guards, grab the girl, and make my way out while avoiding pursuit and capture. That was a tall order, even for me.
I did have accomplices outside of the building; however, Darko would have known I hadn’t come alone. He knew I had assembled a small team for this mission. His men were likely scouting the surrounding jungle, looking for Jason and Daniel right now. I assumed they hadn’t been found yet; otherwise, Darko would use them as hostages against me to more easily get whatever he wanted. If Jason and Daniel hadn’t been compromised, they would come for me when our pre-arranged twenty minutes was up and I didn’t show. So, at most, I only had to stall for about another eight minutes.
I forcibly relaxed my body. I needed my captors as loose and off-guard as possible. “Besides my obviously sparkling personality, why else would you want to bring me here?”
“Possibly for nothing.” He paused, a small smile tugging at one corner of his mouth. “And possibly for everything.” He reached for the folder and slowly opened it without taking his eyes from me. The cover of the folder was labeled TOP SECRET: DESERT FIRE. That didn’t ring any bells for me, and I knew about most of the top-secret military operations conducted in the last century. Darko lowered his gaze to the top sheet of paper and began reading. “Emma Hayes, female, brown hair, green eyes, five-foot-four, birth date unknown.” He paused dramatically on that last statement. “How is it that your birth date is unknown?” he asked with false curiosity.
“I know what my birth date is. But don’t you know it’s rude to ask a woman her age?”
He ignored me and continued, “You were in a car accident at the age of sixteen that killed your parents and put you in a coma for one year. Upon awakening, you exhibited severe memory loss. After rehabilitation, you went into the foster system.” He looked up at me, clucking his tongue. “That must be quite disconcerting.”
“I appreciate your heartfelt concern, but that was a long time ago, and I turned out just fine.” I tried to sound flippant, ignoring the sudden and familiar tightness in my chest.
“That remains to be seen. So, tell me, how does a young woman such as yourself join the military, get accepted into the Army Special Forces’ Delta Force unit, and then become a mercenary for hire?”
“Why don’t you free my hands and I’ll show you?”
“I am certain you are quite impressive.”
“I assure you, I am. Thanks for the trip down memory lane, but I could have told you all of that back in New York, without being restrained.”
“What I need from you isn’t in New York. As for being restrained, I doubt you would have come willingly if you knew what I had planned for you.”
“Why don’t you enlighten me?”
“Oh, but I rather like surprises.” He steepled his fingers under his chin and stared hard at me, as if trying to discover my secrets by sight alone. “You were a very difficult woman to find, Miss Hayes. Even after all this effort, I am still unconvinced you are the one we have been looking for. However, my employer is quite adamant that you are. No matter. We shall find out soon enough.” He looked past me to the goon who was holding my wrists and nodded.
It was time for me to go, or I may not get another chance. I grabbed onto my captor’s large wrists. Using him for leverage, I jerked my knees up, breaking the hold on my ankles. Before anyone could react, my legs went up and over my head, wrapping around the neck of the one holding my wrists. I squeezed my thighs, trying to pop his head like a grape.
Men usually panicked at the asphyxiation and started clawing at my legs to loosen them. This one didn’t seem affected by my squeeze play at all; however, he didn’t like me wrapped around his neck. Clamping his ham hands around my thighs, he pried them apart much more easily than should have been possible.
Placing my palms on the floor, I pulled my knees into my chest and donkey-kicked him in the gut. A deep rumble rose from the shadows, guttural and hungry. I imagined it was what a giant prehistoric bear would have sounded like.
I landed on my feet, spinning into a roundhouse kick. Making contact with my captor’s thick skull, I knocked him to the floor, silencing his growl.
I leapt away and found the wall with my back so I could scan the entire room. Darko still sat in his chair, looking very focused yet also entirely too unconcerned at the activity around him.
Oozing out of the darkness, the brute that had been holding my ankles revealed himself … and he wasn’t human.
I froze, dumbfounded by what I was looking at. The creature stood about six and a half feet tall, all sinuous muscles. He had a humanoid shape with arms, legs, torso, and head, all where they were supposed to be, though that was where the similarities ended. He was completely hairless with arms that hung to his knees, ending in large, clawed hands. His knee joints were bent the wrong way, and a long, black tongue snaked out from a lipless, gaping maw.
My addled brain screamed, Weapon. Find a fucking weapon!
Military training kicking in, I compartmentalized what I was seeing for processing at a later time, focusing only on survival. I grabbed for the radio in my vest pocket and realized it was missing. They must have taken it off me when they had dragged me into the room. My head had been so fuzzy at the time I hadn’t even noticed. Okay, so I was on my own. It certainly wasn’t the first time.
Instead of running for the door, as I was sure they expected, I leapt toward Darko and grabbed the Tiffany lamp off the table at his side. Swinging it like a bat, the cord unplugged from the wall, plunging the room into complete darkness. My senses went on high alert, straining to hear the sounds of movement coming closer. All was silent.
I held the lamp in my right hand and felt for the table with my left. I found it quickly and followed it around to the back of Darko’s chair in an effort to put a barrier between the creature and me.
I knew I was at a serious disadvantage on all fronts. This thing was clearly bigger, badder, and stronger than I was, and at the moment, I had nothing to fight it with other than an expensive, decorative lamp. I didn’t even know the layout of the room. I could easily run into unseen obstacles. I needed something to give me an advantage.
Suddenly, that bear-like growl caught my attention. Then I heard shuffling and rustling noises coming from the far corner of the room. I could only guess it was my second captor, the one I had sent sprawling with a roundhouse kick. If I had thought one monster was going to be difficult to beat, two of them were going to be virtually impossible. My only chance was to make it back into the hallway and to my gun, where it probably still lay after they had knocked it from my hands.
I could feel them circling me, readying an attack from either side. I heard the groan of floorboards getting too close.
“Are you just about ready to concede, Miss Hayes?” Darko’s smooth voice oozed out of the darkness, causing me to flinch. I was glad no one had seen that. “Or would you like to play the odds, which I can assure you are not in your favor?”
Unwilling to admit defeat, I realized I still had my night vision goggles propped on top of my head. I reached up and slowly eased them over my eyes. “Actually, Darko, I don’t like to gamble, so I think I’m going to change the game.” Even as I adjusted to the contrasting black and white images, I sensed the first creature more than saw it.
I swung the lamp at where I judged its head to be, but it lifted an arm to block the attack, and I ended up hitting its forearm instead. The glass lampshade shattered into thousands of colorful shards. Darko raised his arms over his head to try to protect himself from the raining glass, yet he remained seated in his leather chair, like a king on his throne.
Using the distraction, I leaned over the back of the chair and wrapped the electrical cord around Darko’s neck. Holding the chord and using the back of the chair as leverage, I vaulted myself up and over, landing gracefully to face Darko.
His hands flew to his neck, trying to loosen the cord, but I leaned back, tightening the noose, not giving him a chance to get his fingers underneath it. He wheezed and gurgled, trying to suck in a breath, as I lifted him from his seat by pulling roughly on the cord. I twisted him so his back was to my front, using him as a hostage and human shield. Then I backed toward the door that led to the hallway … and to my gun.
The two creatures were following, but cautiously, staying back a few feet without making any sudden moves. Rumbling growls sounded deep in their chests.
“Hey, kid,” I called to the child who still stood hunched in on herself, trying to stay out of the way of the fighting. Her head snapped up at the sound of my voice, but I couldn’t see the expression on her face through the goggles. “Do you know how to find your way out of the building?” When she gave a small nod, I continued, “Don’t stop running until you are through the front gate. I have friends out there who will help you. Go!” At that, she darted through the door and down the hall in the direction I had come from. I knew Jason would see her in his sniper riflescope and clear a path for her through the gate if she was pursued.
“Call off your goons, Darko, or I’m going to squeeze the life out of you and enjoy doing it.” I tightened the noose, emphasizing my point.
He responded with another gurgle, so I loosened up on the cord just enough to allow him to speak. He gasped for air and hoarsely said, “You’re doing well, Miss Hayes, but you will not succeed in escaping.”
I jerked the cord tight again, continuing to back toward the dimly lit corridor. My head spun to the left and right, eyes darting around for my weapon. As my hands grew clammy at the thought of being defenseless, I finally saw it about fifty feet down the hall to my left.
That’s when someone flipped on the lights. White light burned into my retinas. A spotlight flared behind my closed lids, shards of pain driving into my eyeballs. With my hands on Darko’s leash, I was unable to remove the night vision goggles.
Darko suddenly dropped to the floor and twisted, pulling the cord from my hands and rolling away from me. The two creatures were on me instantly. One backhanded me across the face, knocking my goggles off and sending me careening down the hallway. The wall rushed up to stop my slide, stinging my back. I could feel my face swelling up, and I wiped a trickle of blood off my cheek. Luckily, I landed that much closer to my weapon.
Before I could measure my next move, the creature dove at me. When I rolled to the side, it missed crushing my chest with its bulk, but it landed on my left shoulder, dislocating it. Lightning pain shot through my arm, and I let out a sharp cry.
Claws, teeth, and a slavering black tongue rose over me as I lay prone on the floor. It could have easily ripped my throat out or killed me in a dozen hideous ways. It seemed to realize this, too. Its jaw cracked and popped, unhinging so wide it could make a meal of my head in one bite. Hot, putrid saliva dripped onto my face, leaking into my open wound and searing it like acid. I hissed at the sensation and turned away; however, I couldn’t escape its fetid breath.
It leaned in, eager and hungry, while I was frozen. I would meet death in the jaws of an inhuman beast. It would drink my blood, feast on my organs, and gnaw on my bones for dessert.
Darko’s hoarse voice called from down the hall. “Don’t kill her! We need her.”
The thing paused and let out a high-pitched wail of anger at being deprived of its dinner. The sound shattered my fear.
I threw up a knee, violently slamming it in the creature’s crotch. Thankfully, it was humanoid enough, that it had the same effect as any other male. He howled and rolled off me into the fetal position. I immediately scrambled backward, sliding along the marble floor. My left arm, screaming in pain, remained limp at my side.
With my right arm, I reached over my head to grab the gun. As my fingers wrapped around the grip, the familiar feeling was like coming home again.
I pointed the Glock down the length of my body, and without a moment’s hesitation, I pulled the trigger in three quick, precise squeezes. The head of the creature I had nut-cracked exploded in a spray of blood and gore.
Shifting the gun’s sight, I found the second creature barreling down the hall toward me. The first three shots hit him square in the chest, yet he hardly slowed. I lifted the gun slightly, took a deep breath and held it, then squeezed the trigger, putting a round straight through its eye and into its brain. That time, it stumbled yet still kept coming. I put four more rounds into its head, not missing a shot, before it finally crashed to the floor only inches shy of my feet.
Darko merely stood there, a sly half-smile tugging at the corner of his mouth while I unsteadily got to my feet, pushing myself up with my gun hand. Despite the fact that Darko carried no weapon I could see, for a moment, I considered shooting him. He had set me up, kidnapped an innocent girl, and commanded those creatures. Even though he had stopped them from killing me, I was sure he wouldn’t hesitate if he got what he wanted from me.
With him only a few yards away, I had a clear shot. I pointed my weapon at him, and for the first time today, he reacted. The blood drained from his face, his eyes darting around, seeking escape. He quickly came to the same conclusion I had—there was no escape for him.
My finger tightened on the trigger, but before I could get off the shot, a large animal bounded from the shadows behind him. It leapt past Darko, springing at me on all fours. I didn’t have much time to take it in, but it looked like a cross between a bear and a crocodile. It was the size of a bear with dry, scaly skin, and a mouth full of sharp teeth. Two tusks extended from the roof of its mouth, past its jaw. It bellowed like a foghorn as it charged.
I discharged the shots meant for Darko at this new monster; however, they bounced off its tough hide like harmless insects.
Turning, I sprinted for the exit and all but flew down the stairs, taking three and four at a time. The beast slid past the stairs, slamming into a wall as it tried to slow its momentum, buying me a few seconds.
I hit the foyer and flew through the open front door. I could only pray Jason still had his sniper rifle at the ready and was looking through his scope at that moment.
The beast charged through the front doors behind me, gaining quickly now that it had more room to maneuver. I didn’t hear the crack of rifle shots, thanks to Jason’s silencer, but the beast crashed to the ground like a fallen tree. It slid several feet from momentum, coming to a stop directly behind my fleeing form. I hadn’t realized how close it had been. Only a few seconds more, and I would have been a goner.
I slowed and stopped, turning toward where I knew Jason was hiding in the trees, giving a small wave of thanks. Barely sparing a glance at the creature, not wanting to acknowledge its existence in my world, I staggered to the gate, my chest heaving under the exertion of that sprint.
A small figure stepped out of the shadows directly in front of me, moving with uncertainty. My gun was up in an instant. Seeing the little girl, I jerked the barrel away from her and re-holstered the gun.
“Hey, sweetie. Why didn’t you run out of here like I told you to?” She simply dipped her head, averting her eyes. I kneeled in front of her and tried to sound reassuring. “You don’t have anything to worry about now. You’re safe, and I’m going to get you out of here.”
As she slowly lifted her head, I looked into her serious face yet didn’t find the eyes of a child—not a human child, at least. Her pupils shifted into cat-like slits. Gone was the terrified little girl, and in her place was a cold, calculating creature. I registered momentary shock, but that was about all the time I had to react.
She struck as fast as a viper. I felt a piercing sting in my neck before it began to numb, the sensation radiating out from the wound and spreading throughout my body as her venom pumped quickly through my bloodstream. My body instantly went slack, and I toppled onto my side.
Anger overwhelmed the fear. I sure as hell wasn’t going to go down without taking Darko with me. Although it took considerable will to move my quickly numbing fingers, I fumbled clumsily at a vest pocket. It took a few tries, but I finally managed to grasp the small, green box and pull it out. With the last of my strength, I squeezed the trigger. The C-4 explosives I had planted in each room of the mansion before my capture detonated with a deafening boom. The entire west wing of the building was transformed into an inferno.
The force of the blast threw the girl backward, and I heard a sickening crunch as she slammed into the stone wall surrounding the compound. I wanted to smile at having wiped both Darko and the child creature from the face of the earth, but my facial muscles wouldn’t respond.
Unfortunately, my satisfaction was ended prematurely. Watching the flames as choking, black smoke poured forth from every window, a lone figure emerged from the front door of the mansion. The figure moved through the devastation unscathed, as if surrounded by an impenetrable bubble. Sparks appeared in the air close to the figure, ripples spreading out from them. I realized that Jason was shooting, and the bullets were bouncing off some sort of shield.
Whoever, whatever it was, approached me purposefully.
As it came nearer, I groaned inwardly, my lips and vocal cords no longer able to make a sound. Darko. How was he doing this?
Before I could contemplate the strange sight further, he reached me and knelt down. Putting his face close to mine, he whispered, “You have done well, Miss Hayes. Now we shall see who you really are.” At that, my consciousness shut down, and I plunged into a deep well of peaceful silence.