Excerpt from THE OTHERS: CONCEPTION

COPYRIGHT © SARAH MCCARTY, 2005

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED, ELLORAS CAVE, INC.

Deuce dropped silently to the ground beside Harley. As if part of the increasing storm, he slid between the flakes. To anyone but an Other, he would have been invisible.

“She’s about played out,” Harley murmured, not taking his eyes off the slow-moving figure. Snowflakes caught on his hair, collecting on the shelf of the deep blue bandanna he used to keep the long brown hair out of his eyes.

Deuce watched as Eden slogged through the heavy, knee-deep snow with muscles long since exhausted. She slipped, went down on one knee, and caught herself on a sapling. Her “Son of a bitch” reached them clearly on the crisp evening air. One hand clasped her middle protectively. For the space of a minute, she stayed bent over, slight shoulders heaving beneath the huge parka with the effort to draw a breath.

Deuce strained, but he could not detect her energy or that of the baby.

Harley smiled slightly. His canines gleamed in the purple of twilight. “She’s got quite the colorful vocabulary when she gets going.”

“She has a tendency to do everything well.” Including setting him up. “You saw a baby?”

“I can’t sense it any more than I can sense her, but yeah, she’s packing a little one.”

Deuce absorbed that information as Harley continued. “Got it in one of those little chest carriers.”

Deuce could feel the wolf’s eyes on him as he asked, “What do you want me do with her?”

That was a loaded question. What did he do with a ghost? Deuce sighed and ran his hand through his hair. Every instinct in him demanded that he protect her, shelter her from harm, while his baser self remembered all that she’d been part of and demanded vengeance. In spades.

“Damn it!” The woman threw her head back as if she sensed him. The blue pom-pom on her knit hat bounced with the gesture. “Dusan Knight! If you don’t show yourself in the next three minutes, I am going to fall down here in the snow and die. Come the thaw, you’ll find my body, but by then it will be too late. Not only will I be stinking up your precious mountain, I’ll be a spirit, and by God, if you let that happen, I’ll haunt you from here to eternity.”

From what he knew, she was a spirit now.

Harley interrupted his thoughts. “Hard to tell with the way she’s bundled up, but is she the type you want hanging round your neck through eternity?”

Deuce shrugged and straightened. “At this point, I am not sure.”

“So what do you want to do with her?”

Eden heaved to her feet. The thin wail of a hungry infant pierced the cold silence. A forlorn, painfully sad sound. Deuce stepped through the flakes toward the woman and child. “I will go see what she wants.”

* * * * *

He comes.

The whisper drifted through her weary mind in that female voice she neither trusted nor understood. A warning or an alert? Not that it mattered. She’d been following that voice’s instructions since she’d hauled herself off the operating table five minutes after they’d finished the C-section. It had gotten her this far. She just needed it to guide her a little longer. Deuce was coming.

She glanced up. In front of her was row after row of tall pines rising starkly from the smooth white blanket of fresh snow. The trunks blended with the shadows of the approaching night, standing as dark sentries to the fathomless corridors burrowing between. Eden dragged her foot out of the snow and moved it forward, heading toward the one set just off of center.

She didn’t even know if she was going in the right direction anymore. She just kept her head down, slogging forward, believing somehow, some way, this harebrained plan of hers was going to work for the simple reason that it had to work. She wouldn’t let those monsters have this baby. Hers or not, Deuce’s or not, she wasn’t going to let it be part of the Coalition’s hellish pursuit of immortality. Her foot snagged on something, and she went to her knees again.

“You are exhausting yourself.”

The simple statement resonated deep in her being. Beneath her exhaustion, beneath her fear, a tiny flutter of excitement pulsed to life.

“Deuce.” It was more of an exhalation than a word. Still, she shouldn’t have been surprised he heard. His hearing was extraordinary.

“Yes.”

“You’re alive.”

“I believe that should be my line.” Nothing in his voice let on how he felt about her, about the past, and what he had to believe she’d done.

She looked up. He stood twenty feet away, separate from the gloom, yet somehow part of it—lean hands on his hips, his long black hair blowing about his shoulders, his shirt pressing against his torso outlining muscle cuts a bodybuilder would love. He looked as wild and untamed as the wilderness around him. She blinked. She’d forgotten how big he was. “I’m sorry.”

With a short incline of his head, he acknowledged her apology. He started toward her. She took a breath and held it. Dusan didn’t look happy. The flat evening light played across his high cheekbones, shadowing the slant to his black eyes, accentuating the thrust of his square chin, lending a hard edge to a face already devastatingly masculine. She took a breath as he got closer, dropping her eyes, staying where she was, ignoring the instinct to run. The only thing running would accomplish would be to release against her all that seething energy shimmering around him. And she so wasn’t going there.

His boots came into view. Black like his shirt and pants, they were strangely bereft of the snow accumulating on everything else. The breath she’d been holding rushed from her lungs. Her pulse pounded in her veins. One heartbeat, two, three. He didn’t move and didn’t speak. Just stood there. She clenched her hand into a fist, forced a ragged breath into lungs too tense to accept it, and made herself meet his eyes. If he wanted revenge, he was going to have to look her in the face while getting it.

It was a long way up and when her gaze got to his face, his expression didn’t give her any clue as to what he thought. His eyes, however, said everything. They glittered with red flashes of emotion, belying his calm. In their depths, where she’d expected to see anger and hatred, she saw…reproach?

“Why did you not contact me?”

She almost collapsed into the snow with relief. At least he was going to give her a chance to explain. She tugged at her foot. Instead of freeing herself, she wedged it deeper. Damn! Her day only needed this. “Things were complicated.”

“How complicated?”

“Very.” She yanked harder. The pull on her abdomen sent pain knifing through her gut. Without thinking, she doubled over, squashing the infant. The baby wailed a protest.

Immediately, Deuce was on his knees beside her. “You are hurt.”

It wasn’t a question. He paused before clearing the snow from her short boot with an elegant wave of his hand. “You bleed.”

She rubbed the baby soothingly through her coat with numb fingers. “Right now, that’s the least of my problems.” She shot him a wry glance. “Unless it’ll send you into some vampiric psycho moment?”

His hands were huge against her ankle. He could snap her leg with a flick of a finger. His strength had always drawn her. Along with his gentleness. He carefully extracted her foot from the fallen tree limb. There was no change in his expression as he said, “I will endeavor to resist.”

She bet he didn’t have to try hard. The last year had been hell, pure and simple. She no longer looked the pretty little naïve thing he’d claimed to be in love with.

“Where are you injured?” he asked, those sharp black eyes running over her body, head to toe. Even though his examination was clinical, her nipples tightened and her pussy clenched in anticipation.

She waved away his concern. “It’s not important.”

She touched his shoulder before he could stand, refusing to let her gloved fingers linger on the hard muscle like they wanted. He wasn’t hers anymore and never would be again. “I need your help.”

“We will talk of that later.”

She shook her head as she took the hand he held out. She didn’t know how long she had. She just knew that the foreign sense of urgency that came from her—that unknown woman who spoke to her—remained strong. “We need to talk now.”

He eased her to her feet. “Later. When you are well, I will have explanations.”

She was as good as she was ever going to be. The constant experiments her grandfather had performed in the pursuit of immortality had made sure of that. His hand stayed on her elbow. She leaned on it, needing the support. He seemed to understand, because his other arm slid around her waist.

At least one thing hadn’t changed. The old-fashioned manners that had first entranced her still existed. She could only hope that the old-world chivalry did, too, and if this wasn’t his daughter that he would still feel compelled to offer protection to the child.

The muscles in Deuce’s forearm shifted against her coat as he frowned. “You are too thin.”

It sounded like an accusation. She shrugged. “I prefer to think of myself as fashionable.”

He stared harder at her, his frown deepening. “I thought you dead.”

She shoved her hat back on her forehead. “You and me both.”

“But you live.”

If you could call it that. She batted the snowflakes away from her face. “You sound disappointed.”

“I am confused as to how you could live, and I could not know.”

She bit her lip as the baby kicked her incision, breathing through her nose until the urge to cry out had passed. “Just chalk it up to one of the great mysteries of life.”

“I think I would prefer to simply know how you have managed this.” He eased her forward with the same calm with which he spoke, for which she was very grateful. Just standing upright was taking all her strength. She couldn’t ever remember being this weak. Even at the beginning of her grandfather’s tests.

She tightened her grip on Deuce’s arm, feeling a pang of envy. If she had half his muscle, the success of the second part of her plan would be a given rather than a huge question mark. She dragged her foot out of the snow. “Do you mean how did I survive the explosion?”

He nodded, supporting her. “That would be a start.”

She caught her breath and her balance, gathering her strength for the next step. “My grandfather came up and took me down the stairs as soon as Dak left the room. There was some sort of bunker down below.”

Another one of her grandfather’s Plan Bs.

“I am grateful.”

“I wasn’t.”

The bitterness in those two words pulled Deuce up short. He looked down into Eden’s set expression and the lines of strain etched into her face. Her features were as familiar to him as his own, from her big blue eyes to the softly rounded cheeks beneath. Everything about her was soft. Giving. At least, it had been when they’d first met. She was outwardly harder now. Wherever she’d been the last year had changed her.

Another wail came from the depths of her coat.

“Sssh, baby,” Eden whispered in her soft voice, ducking her head to peer inside the coat so all he had to look at was the bedraggled pom-pom flopping on the top of her knit cap. He suppressed an urge to snatch the hat off her head so he could see the bright yellow curls he knew were hidden beneath. He didn’t like the changes in her. The mystery that shrouded what once had been clear. She was his. There could be no secrets between them.

She rubbed her hands over the bulge in her middle. “It’s going to be all right,” she whispered to the fussing baby. “We’re here. You’ll be safe now.”

Deuce did not need a psychic connection to hear the desperation in her voice. He doubted the baby did either as it continued to wail. Anguish and guilt clouded Eden’s scent as she stood in the frigid night, rubbing the baby’s back, collecting snowflakes and bravado with every second that passed, managing to look fragile and strong in the same breath. His path became clear. She was his, given to him by the Maker. His to protect. To cherish. To pleasure in this life and the next. He could not turn away from her any more than he could stop his next breath. She was his mate, and she needed care.

Deuce forestalled Eden’s effort to walk by simply sliding an arm under her knees and lifting her up. The scent of fresh blood immediately intensified. As she threw an arm around his neck for support, the underlying taint of infection mingled with the soft scent of woman. He frowned, gliding quickly over the snow to where Harley waited. Before all else, her injuries needed to be tended.

The wolf said nothing as he approached, though the amused lift of his brow had Eden stiffening in Deuce’s arms.

“He’s one of yours?” she asked, blinking at him as a snowflake landed in her eye. Her weight shifted as she reached into her pocket.

“Yes.” He tipped her against his body, using her imbalance to remove the small handgun from her grip. He tossed it to Harley who caught it easily.

Eden glared at Harley as he deftly emptied the bullets out of the chamber and tucked the gun into his pocket. “I should have aimed higher.”

Deuce forestalled Harley’s response with a slight shake of his head. “I would have been displeased had you hurt him,” he advised her softly, turning slightly to shield her from the wind when she shivered.

Eden’s wry “As if that would ruin my day”, dry with sarcasm and weariness, was muttered into the pad of his chest. The words breathed through the silk of his shirt melted hot and sweet against his skin, triggering memories of when she’d teased him with her wit as well as her body. After a year of deprivation, his flesh welcomed the incidental caress. He shifted her higher in his arms, so her next breath drifted past the open collar of his shirt, gliding across his throat in a moist promise of what could be.

Beneath the veneer of civilization, all Chosen were prone to baser emotions. He more so than most, apparently. He wanted nothing more than to lay her down in the snow and stake his claim, despite her injury, the baby, or Harley’s assessing gaze. Maybe more so because of the other male’s presence. There was too much admiration in the wolf’s eyes when he looked at Eden.

The baby cried again, drawing his attention. The faintest tickle of its scent touched his nose. Female and…familiar? He frowned as the cry warbled higher. There was more anger in the cry, but its timbre was weaker, as if the little one also suffered. It was not the way of his people to harm children. As much as he resented what this child represented, he could not resist the high-pitched plea. With a thought, he sent the zipper of Eden’s yellow parka down just enough to slide his finger through. All he could see was a round head covered in delicate blonde peach fuzz. The touch to the baby was meant to be soothing, calming, but as soon as his finger connected with the downy cheek, all hell broke loose inside him.

Pain. Hunger. Loneliness.

The torrent poured over him in an unrelenting wave. The depth of the rage that swelled in response shocked him. His fangs exploded into his mouth as the child’s scent encompassed him. His grip on Eden tightened to the point that she grunted in protest. He closed his eyes and summoned the calm he normally took for granted. He turned to Harley who watched him in wary confusion, all indolence gone from his posture, no doubt scenting his loss of control.

With a jerk of his chin, Deuce directed Harley’s attention to the broken path in the snow. “Remove all traces of her approach.”

Harley pulled to his full six-foot-three-inches of height beside the snowmobile. He was one of the few Others tall enough to look Deuce in the eye. “Are we expecting company?”

“Yes,” Deuce responded, touching his mind to the baby’s, soothing her tears with a thought, struggling to cope with the emotions overwhelming him. “But no harm will come to my daughter.”

He ignored the wolf’s shock along with Eden’s startled protest, and launched into the air. As soon as he had his mate and daughter to safety, he would have answers.

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