Chasing the Shadows
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Nikki's breath caught in her throat, and her heart began to pound so fast she feared it was going to gallop out of her chest. Oh God, I don't want to do this. Her fingers twitched as she battled the urge to drop the bra and break the contact.
Then don't. Pull out.
I can't. Not if she wanted to be his partner rather than merely a spectator. Concern and annoyance washed down the link. Now is not time the time or the place to be trying to prove anything to me. If you think it's too dangerous, pull out. We'll find her another way. But they'd never find Dale in time to save her. That much was evident from the images. It left her with no real choice. Taking a deep breath, she clenched her fingers around the bra and dived deeply into the pool of memories.
And became one with Dale Wainwright.
Dale drew her legs close to her chest and wrapped her arms around them. She felt cold, so cold—like it had seeped deep into her bones and she was never going to get warm again. The air itself was damp, its touch icy against her bare skin. But it wasn't so much the cold chilling her bones, but fear. Her lip trembled, and she closed her eyes, trying to ignore the sounds outside her cell. The slap of flesh against flesh, the groan of ecstasy. Laughter, high and insane, followed by a quick, desperate whimper. Don't think, she thought. Don't imagine . But how could she not, when all she could see was darkness and all she could hear was those sounds?
She knew it was only a matter of time before they came for her. Before they started doing to her what they were doing to that other woman.
Terror rose, and for a second, she couldn't even breathe. Her chest felt so tight it ached, and her left hand tingled. She frowned and wriggled her fingers, wondering if it was just the cold or something more. She shifted slightly, trying to get more comfortable. The mattress scraped harshly under her buttocks—it was little more than straw and scratched like sandpaper. But it was softer, and warmer, than the bricks—her only other choice of seating.
A gurgling broke the momentary silence, followed by the sound of someone slurping. Messy drinker, Dale thought distastefully. She licked her lips and wished they'd give her some water. Then thought better of it. The less she saw of her captors, the better off she'd be. The whimpering died, but the silence was, in some ways, more frightening. She stared into the darkness, unable to see her toes let alone the door six steps away. For several moments, all she could hear was the rattle of her own heart, the harsh sound of her breaths. Then the lock scraped, and air stirred as the door opened.
She couldn't see him, but she could smell him. He reeked of death and blood and water long gone stagnant. She edged back into the corner, a small whimper escaping her lips. He laughed. The sound crawled over her skin and sent her heart into overdrive. The aching in her chest leapt into focus.
"Just a taste. Just a little taste,” he murmured. His voice was childlike, innocent, and yet somehow evil. “I need it. He has to see that, he can't deprive me of that." He ambled toward her, something she heard rather than saw. “Just one little taste,” he continued. He skimmed a hand up her leg, his touch fiery against her skin. She screamed...
...the silent scream reverberated through Michael's soul. He drew Nikki into his lap and sat back down. She didn't say anything, just wrapped her arms around his neck and hung on tight. He rubbed his hands up her arms and lightly touched her thoughts, carefully detaching the remaining threads holding her mind to Dale's.
She sighed. Thank you .
Her mind voice was clear, unfettered by pain or shadows that belonged to Dale. Relief surged through him, and he brushed a kiss against the top of her head. She never seemed to realize just how dangerous this developing ability of hers could be—or if she did, she didn't seem to care. What worried him more, though, was the fact it seemed far stronger now than it had been the last time she'd used it. I'm going to have to teach you how to control that gift of yours. Uneasiness washed through the link. I'm not sure it's something I really want to control. Are you intending to stop using it?
She hesitated. No.
Then you must learn to control it. I don't want to lose you in the mind of another. He caressed the silk of her hair. She'd cut it sometime in the last three weeks. It now brushed her shoulder blades rather than the middle of her back, but had more of a wave in it than before. She shifted slightly, and her gaze met his. Fear lurked deep in the rich amber depths. “Can that really happen?"
"Yes,” he said softly. He brushed a strand of hair from her eyes. “And I don't really have to tell you that, do I?"
She bit her lip and didn't answer. She didn't have to. The fear washing through the link was answer enough.
"Promise me you won't try that again without me nearby,” he continued. She hesitated and met his gaze, her expression suddenly defiant. “Are you going to reconsider your position about me working with you?"
He bit down on a rush of anger and said as calmly as he could, “No."
"Then I will make no promises.” She pushed off his lap and moved back to the other sofa. “I found her,”
she added, looking across to Jake.
"I gathered as much,” Jake said. “What's happening to her?" He was still standing near the window, but his arms were crossed, and his expression annoyed. And with good cause, Michael thought, glancing at Nikki. Every second they sat here arguing was another second in which Dale might die. Heat flushed Nikki's cheeks, but she gave little other indication she'd heard his silent rebuke.
"She's alive and relatively unhurt.” She hesitated again, and fear flashed through the link between them. Dale might be alive, but something had certainly happened to her. He wondered why she wasn't telling Jake. Wondered why he could no longer see the images in her mind. Had her ability become so strong she was somehow able to block him? “Did you see or hear anything that would give us a starting point?" She shook her head. “No. It was pitch black—no external sounds, other than—” She paused, and cleared her throat. “Someone having sex nearby. A vamp came into the cell she was in, and he smelled like blood and putrid water."
"Nothing else?” he asked softly, knowing from her fear that there was. She rubbed her arms and glanced at him. The vamp was about to feed on her. I gathered that. Why aren't you telling Jake?
Tell him that his best friend's wife is currently some desperate vampire's meal? I'm not that insensitive.
Her mental tone implied that he was. He pushed away his annoyance and met her glare. Jake is aware we are hunting vampires.
Maybe. But he doesn't need to know what is happening to her right now. How could he keep the horror of that from Mark? They've been friends all their lives. Mark would see it in Jake's eyes. Jake has been a private investigator a long time. I think he'd be able to conceal a truth or two from a client.
Not this truth. Not everyone is as an accomplished a liar as you, you know. His annoyance rose another notch. I have never lied to you. She gave a mental snort. How true. You work on a need-to-know basis—and I never seem to need to know it all, do I?
For my own safety, she finished tartly . Yeah, I know. He pushed away his growing irritation and the need to keep arguing. Now was not the time for this sort of quarrel. We have a woman to rescue. Let's save our petty squabbles until after that job is done. This is far from petty, believe me.
Not when compared to what has already happened to two women, and what might currently be happening to Dale.
She stared at him for a minute then looked away, but not before he'd glimpsed the brief sheen of tears in her eyes. He frowned, not sure whether the cause was his continuing refusal to discuss her working with him or the thought of Dale's life being sucked away. Either way, it didn't really matter—he still felt like a bastard.
Damn it, why couldn't she just see sense and give this insanity up?
"So you saw nothing that gives us a clue as to where she might be?” Jake said into the silence. "No.” She hesitated and glanced at the bra on the table. “But I can try to track her. If the bra is in the plastic, maybe I can hold the images at bay long enough to get a fix on her direction." She didn't sound convinced, and he certainly didn't wish her to risk going into Dale's mind again so soon—especially if the vamp was still feeding on her. He studied the daylight behind Jake for a moment, then said, “Maybe you won't have to."
Nikki raised an eyebrow. “Why not?"
He pointed toward the window. “How did that vampire get into the hotel? Wasn't dawn rising when you arrived?"
She nodded thoughtfully. “And he was carrying the mother of all knives, yet he wasn't a strong enough telepath to take over the mind of more than one guard at a time. Jake has two stationed at the exits." He nodded. “So, if not secured exits, where from?"
"Basement?” She glanced at Jake. “Or parking garage?"
"They're one and the same,” Jake said. “It won't hurt to check, though I know the cops have gone over them thoroughly."
"The cops do not know they're looking for vampires,” Michael commented. “It gives us a certain advantage."
"I'm not sure it's an advantage I really want.” Jake pushed away from the wall. “I'll go collect some flashlights, just in case we need them, and meet you down in the lobby." Michael nodded and headed into the bedroom. Nikki followed him but stopped in the doorway, her expression an endearing mix of fear and determination. “Why does knowing we're after vampires give us an advantage? Surely if there was anything to find in the basement or parking garage, the cops or FBI would have found it."
"Not necessarily.” He sat on the bed and pulled on his socks. “Vampires have become very adept at hiding. Many of us have literally had centuries in which to learn. Getting in and out of buildings is just another method of concealment."
"So you think they have a hidden entrance somewhere?"
"It would be the most logical explanation.” Though it didn't exactly explain how they'd gotten into the second victim's home. They certainly wouldn't have been able to cross the threshold without her inviting them.
She frowned. “But how would that help them avoid the sunlight?"
"They're probably using the sewer system to get around. It wouldn't be the first time it has happened.”
He slipped on his shoes and walked across to her.
Her gaze searched his. “The vampire who attacked Dale smelled like dead water." He wrapped his arms around her waist and held her close. Her pulse was a rapid beat that pounded through her body and his. “Then that would certainly suggest my guess is right.” He brushed a kiss across her lips and wished they had the time to do more. This morning had been wonderful, but he still wanted her. Would always want her, physically and emotionally—something she still didn't seem to understand.
“You will do as I ask down there, won't you?"
Her expression was the picture of stubbornness. “Just don't try ordering me out, because I won't go unless you leave with me."
He smiled and tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear. “Right now, I have no plans to go anywhere without you."
Amusement and love washed through the link, and a smile touched her lips. “Good. Because I have no intention of letting you go."
"So I discovered,” he said dryly. He caught her hand, weaving his fingers through hers. “Shall we go?" She sighed and cast an almost wistful glance toward the bed. “Yes." On the way out, he grabbed the plastic bag containing Dale's bra, tucking it into his pocket. If the vamps were in the sewers, they could literally be anywhere. And with Dale Wainwright slated as the next victim, speed was of the essence. As much as he hated using Nikki's unpredictable psychometric abilities, it might be their only real chance of finding this woman alive.
Jake was waiting in the lobby. He tossed Nikki a flashlight and led them toward an exit. “This will take us down to the basement.” He swiped a keycard through the lock and opened the door. “From there we can get into the parking garage."
"Do the elevators go down to the garage?” Michael touched Nikki's elbow, stopping her from entering before he could. Her annoyance clouded the link, but he ignored her, his gaze searching the darkness for any sign of life—or un life—below in the basement. Nothing moved, and the only heartbeats he could hear were Nikki's and Jake's. Both were erratic.
"One does,” Jake said, locking the door behind them. “But there are several security cameras in the structure, and they're monitored twenty-four hours a day."
"Did the cops check the tapes?” Nikki asked, her voice soft yet edged with tension. He wondered what it was she sensed.
"Yeah, but they didn't find anything,” Jake said. “Whoever took Dale didn't take her out through the parking garage."
Nikki's flashlight beam swept across the darkness. He wondered why she was bothering. Her night sight was almost as good as his these days. If he could see in this darkness, she certainly should be able to. Not that there was anything to actually see. He swept his gaze past the huge clumps of machinery and frowned. Nothing stirred, and yet something waited in the far corner. A hint of depravity and death. Frown deepening, he led the way down the stairs. Both Nikki and Jake made a racket on the metal steps and the noise seemed to echo across the room.
"Are the garage cameras still being monitored?"
"Yep,” Jake said. “And I checked them earlier. Nikki's attacker didn't appear on any of them." No surprise there. Michael reached the basement floor then stopped. Nikki paused beside him, and apprehension stirred the link.