The Renegade Hunter
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"Are you all right?" Nicholas stepped over the rogue lying on the ground, moving toward the female standing just a few feet away. Her expression was shocked, her face pale, and he could smell blood in the air. Frowning with concern, he caught the woman by the shoulders and turned her away to examine the back of her head, silently cursing himself for not moving quickly enough to prevent her getting injured. He'd just arrived at the edge of the woods closest to the house when he'd spotted Ernie charging across the clearing toward the building. He hadn't spotted the woman the rogue was headed for until the man was nearly on her.
He should have shot him then, Nicholas supposed. It would have saved the woman one hell of a head banging, but he'd been worried the noise would bring Mortimer and the others down on him. He'd rather take care of the rogue and slip away than straight-out sacrifice himself, but Nicholas would if it became necessary. It wasn't like he had much to look forward to now anyway, but flat-out suicide wasn't in his nature, so he'd kept his gun in its holster and gone for brute strength instead, dragging the man off her and battling him hand to hand.
Unfortunately, Ernie was a wiry little bastard and he fought dirty. On top of that, Nicholas had been a tad distracted trying to see if the woman was all right. When she'd taken it upon herself to help him out by slamming a boulder over Ernie's head, Nicholas had decided it was time to stop playing. It had been obvious the woman wasn't smart enough to go for help, but would instead stick around and make herself a target should Ernie have gotten in a lucky shot and incapacitated Nicholas. So he'd resorted to his blade, stabbing the man in the chest but missing his heart the first time. He'd then stabbed him again, piercing the heart with the second blow. At least he hoped he had. Otherwise the guy would heal in a few minutes and be up causing problems again.
The thought made him release the woman to turn back to Ernie, but a gasp made Nicholas glance back in time to see that he'd released the woman so abruptly, she'd lost her balance and was even now tumbling to the ground. Nicholas reached out quickly, grabbing her up before she hit the dirt. He set her back on her feet, a frown plucking at his lips.
"Are you okay?" he asked, holding her to be sure she was steady on her feet.
"Yes," she breathed. "Thank you."
Nicholas released her more carefully this time, and then glanced to Ernie.
"Is he dead?"
The question from the woman brought his gaze back around to find her leaning to peer around his bulk at the man on the ground.
"No, he's just incapacitated for now," Nicholas said grimly.
"You must have hit him pretty hard to knock him out," she muttered, starting around him toward the body. "I've never seen anyone knocked out from a punch to the chest and I've seen a lot of bar fights."
Nicholas caught her arm to keep her from going near Ernie and raised an eyebrow in question when she glanced his way. "Have you now?"
"Hazard of the job," she explained, and then added, "I manage a bar by the university. Fights are a regular occurrence. Not in the bar itself," she added quickly. "We have bouncers to prevent that, but they start up outside sometimes."
Nicholas merely nodded and shifted to block Ernie from her view. It was obvious she hadn't yet noticed the knife sticking out of the rogue's chest, but then it was dark and she was mortal, without the night vision he enjoyed. He suspected she'd be upset if she did see it, though, so shifted to the side again when she tried to peer around him.
"You should go to the house. It's safer," he said quietly.
"Yes, but what about him?" she asked, trying to look around him once more.
Nicholas merely shifted his bulk to block her again. "I'll take care of him."
She frowned, her gaze moving back toward the house uncertainly, and Nicholas turned her in that direction and gave her a little push both physically and mentally. "Go on."
As far as he was concerned that should have been enough to send her on her way, so forgetting about the woman, Nicholas moved back to kneel beside Ernie. He needed to be sure the knife rested in the rogue's heart and that the man wasn't likely to get up and make a nuisance of himself. Then he could slip off the property, get back to his vehicle, and call to let Mortimer know he'd left him a little gift.
"What's your name?"
Nicholas stiffened and glanced over his shoulder with surprise. The woman should be halfway to the house by now; he'd pushed the thought at her to go back inside. Instead, she was standing right behind him, peering over his shoulder at Ernie. He saw her frown and squint to see better and then she asked, "What's that in his chest?"
Cursing, Nicholas stood and caught her arm to urge her toward the house. This time he actually tried to slip into her thoughts rather than simply send out a general thought. However, his footsteps came to an abrupt halt when he came up against a blank wall in her mind.
"What is it?" she asked, peering up at him curiously.
"I can't read you," Nicholas admitted with bemusement.
"Read me?" she asked with confusion.
Nicholas merely shook his head and tried again to penetrate her thoughts, but again he came up against a blank wall... which could mean only one thing: She was his life mate. It was a shocking revelation. Some immortals only ever met one life mate in a lifetime. Some found and lost one and then waited centuries, even millennia to meet another. Nicholas had found his first life mate fifty years ago and lost her a few short months later. Truthfully, he'd never thought he'd encounter another. He hadn't thought he'd live that long.
"Oh jeez, not you too."
Nicholas blinked his thoughts away and quirked one eyebrow in question. "Not me too what?"
"The penis-eye thing," she muttered.
"Penis-eye thing?" he asked with complete confusion. It was a term he had never heard before.
She shifted impatiently, but explained, "Sam is holding a party tonight to introduce my sister Alex and me to some of Mortimer's friends. They're all male, and every single time one of them has been introduced to us, they stop and stare at our foreheads like we've got penises growing out of them."
"Ah," Nicholas murmured, and had to hide the smile that wanted to creep across his face. The desire to smile died as he realized he was actually having it. Nicholas hadn't had anything to smile about in a very long time. Clearing his throat, he asked, "And what happens after they stare at your foreheads?"
She shrugged, managing to look even more irritated. "They wander off without a word and talk to each other. Right now there are probably twelve decent-looking guys in the house all talking to each other while Alex is either standing by herself or is talking to Sam and Mortimer." She pursed her lips briefly and then admitted, "I think they're gay."
Nicholas raised his other eyebrow. "Sam and Mortimer?"
"What?" she asked with amazement and then clucked her tongue impatiently. "No. Sam is my sister, Samantha. She and Mortimer are a couple."
"I see," Nicholas murmured, and then offered, "My apologies for giving you the penis-eye look."
"Hmm," she murmured, and started to turn back toward Ernie.
"What's your name?" Nicholas asked, drawing her attention back to him.
She turned back, but merely arched an eyebrow and pointed out, "I asked you that very thing several minutes ago and you still haven't answered me."
"Nicholas Argeneau," he said quietly, and waited for a gasp of horror, or for disgust to enter her eyes. Instead, she held out her hand.
"Nice to meet you Nicholas Argeneau. I'm Jo Willan."
"Jo," he murmured, and thought it suited her. "Short for Josephine?"
She wrinkled her nose, but nodded. "I hate that name."
"I like it fine," he said, and then added, "But Jo suits you better."
She laughed at that. "You hardly know me. How could you know whether it suits me or not?"
"I know," he said solemnly.
She peered at him in silence for a moment, then shook her head and glanced away muttering, "Must have hit my head harder than I thought."
"Why do you say that?" Nicholas asked, eyes narrowing. "Are you having pain? Double vision?"
"No," Jo said quickly, and then grimaced and admitted, "Well, my vision is acting up. I could have sworn that guy had glowing gold eyes and fangs a minute ago, and just now your .eyes kind of looked like they were glowing silver."
Nicholas relaxed. There was nothing wrong with her vision, but while her lack of reaction told him she had no idea who he was, this comment made it obvious she knew nothing about the people in the house she was visiting. She was an uninitiated mortal, completely ignorant of the fact that immortals walked among them.
Recalling that she'd mentioned a party here to night, he asked, "Why are you at this party?"
Jo shrugged and smiled wryly as she admitted, "Because my sister Sam would have skinned me alive if I'd tried to duck out on it."
"Your sister Sam?" he asked. "You said she was Mortimer's friend?"
"His girlfriend," she corrected, and then added, "They're pretty tight. I'm thinking they'll be announcing a wedding date any day now."
"Ah." Nicholas nodded. Mortimer had found a life mate. Good for him. He'd always liked the man. No doubt this Sam was now trying to find life mates for her sisters to prevent having to leave them behind in the future. It wasn't an unusual reaction from a new life mate, and sometimes it even worked, but that was a rare event.
It just figured that fate would play its normal nasty tricks and make her his own. Jo's sister Sam certainly wouldn't be pleased about it if she knew who he was, and Jo's being his life mate would bring neither of them joy since Nicholas couldn't claim her. Well, he could, but he wouldn't. It would mean subjecting her to life on the run as he was; always hunted and always hunting.
"I guess I should thank you for saving me."
Nicholas peered down into her solemn face. Her eyes were wide and a beautiful brown that would probably turn golden were she turned. Her nose was tipped up and adorable and her lips were over full, swollen as if bee stung. They were kissable-type lips, sweet and soft-looking, and without giving himself time to think better of it, he reached out to catch her by the arms and lifted her up slightly even as he bent his head to claim her lips. He'd intended it to be a quick kiss, all he would allow himself. However, the moment their lips met, an explosion went off inside his body. It was as if little fireflies were doing a frenzied dance through his bloodstream... and she wasn't fighting him or pulling away.
Nicholas couldn't resist deepening the kiss. Slip ping his tongue out, he urged her lips apart to taste her fully... and was lost. She was as sweet as he could have wished, her mouth opening for him fully, her breath carrying a hint of lime and tequila. She was a margarita drinker, he thought. Nicholas had tried the drink fifty years ago when he was eating and drinking and never forgot the flavor. He'd enjoyed the sweet tartness of the beverage. He enjoyed it now as well as he kissed Jo.
It was her moan that brought Nicholas back to his senses. He was in the middle of enemy territory with a temporarily disabled rogue just feet away and a party full of enforcers just inside the building behind him... and he was stopping to kiss a life mate he could never claim. Nicholas had never realized he was such a masochist. This was like tasting the frosting of a cake he could never eat, he thought unhappily, and slowly eased and then broke the kiss. When he lifted his head, Jo's eyes were still closed and her lips still slightly parted and damp from his kiss. He was hard-pressed not to kiss her again, but resisted, and when she opened her eyes, he growled, "Consider me thanked."
A small smile curved her lips, and then Jo reached up to caress his cheek, saying, "Surely saving my life is worth more than one little kiss?"
Nicholas's eyes widened at the invitation, and he didn't resist when she drew his head down and pressed her lips to his once more. This time Jo was more than quiescent in his arms, this time she was the aggressor, pressing her body against his even as she urged his lips apart with her tongue. Nicholas managed not to respond for half a second, but then gave in to what he wanted rather than what was smart and unleashed the passion exploding inside him. His hands slid around her, one at her back pressing her closer, the other sliding to her bottom, cupping her there and lifting her slightly.
This time when Jo groaned, he didn't end the kiss, but deepened it further still, trying to devour her with his mouth. She responded in kind, her arms sliding around his shoulders, fingers digging into his skin as she kissed him back.
Jo had a lot of passion in her, a hunger to match his own, and Nicholas was actually considering carrying her off with him after all and fully tasting that passion when a blinding light suddenly hit his eyes. It had the same effect as a bucket of cold water would, and Nicholas and Jo broke apart at once. He turned sharply toward the first beam of light, but before he could even consider making a run for it, a second beam flashed on to his left and then another to his right. The one that suddenly came on at his back was completely superfluous.
"Mortimer?" Jo said uncertainly.
Feeling her bump up against his arm, Nicholas glanced down to see that she'd raised a hand to shelter her eyes from the light and instinctively moved closer to him. Frowning, he growled, "You've made your point. I'm surrounded. Now turn off the damned flashlights. You don't need them to see and you're just blinding Jo."
The lights weren't shut off as requested, but all four of them were lowered to point at the ground.
"Are you all right, Jo?" Mortimer asked, moving close enough to catch her arm and draw her away from Nicholas.
"Yes, of course. My head hurts a little, but Nicholas saved me before anything too bad happened."
"Nicholas saved you?" Bricker asked, and Nicholas grimaced at the surprise in the man's voice.
"Yes, from that blond guy." Jo gestured behind Nicholas, and all flashlights and eyes turned to where Ernie Brubaker should have been, but all they found was a bloody knife lying on empty ground.
"Christ," Nicholas muttered with disgust. He'd known he should have checked to be sure he'd hit the heart. Instead he'd-Nicholas caught himself, shook the self-recriminations away, and shifted his thoughts to what was important now. His eyes slid over the four men surrounding him: Mortimer, Bricker, Anders, and Decker. His gaze halted on Decker. "His name is Ernie, he came for your woman and her sister. He's probably fled, but you'd best get inside and stick close to them until you're sure."
Decker nodded and turned away at once, but Mortimer stopped him by saying, "Take Jo with you."
"But I don't want to leave Nic-" The sudden halt to her words and equally abrupt blankness to her expression told Nicholas that one of the men, probably Decker, had taken control of her. He understood the need, but it still bothered him that he did. Nicholas didn't comment, however, but merely watched silently as Decker led Jo Willan away, knowing it was probably the last time he'd ever see her. It was a sad reality to acknowledge, and he felt heartsore and weary when she disappeared around the corner with Decker.
Feeling every one of his five hundred and sixty years, Nicholas turned his gaze to Mortimer. "You need to cut back the trees at least twenty feet from the driveway outside the gate and inside. You need to stop the vehicles between the closed fences for inspection rather than inside both gates, and you need to check under and all around the vehicle instead of just inside before you let them past the second gate. The rogue came in on the undercarriage of the catering truck, slid out, and ran into the trees while Bricker was talking to the driver."
Mortimer didn't look pleased at his lecture, but merely asked, "And you?"
"I had to improvise when I saw that Ernie had got in. Ernie Brubaker," he added. "He's one of Leo's immortal sons. I've been tracking him in the hopes of finding Leo's hideout and followed him here."
"And how did you get in?" Mortimer asked again.
Nicholas shrugged. "Fortunately, the cleaning truck pulled up right after he got in. I rode in on the back bumper of the van and slipped off into the woods inside while Bricker was checking the driver."
Bricker glanced to Mortimer and then back to Nicholas and asked, "Why?"
"Why what?" Nicholas asked quietly.
"Why would you risk coming in here?" he explained.
"Ernie," Nicholas said simply. "I knew you weren't aware he was in here and I thought I'd best run him to ground before he got to one or both of the girls."
"You expect us to believe that you risked coming in here to-"
"Believe what you want," Nicholas interrupted grimly.
"Why not just call?" Mortimer asked.
"I didn't have my phone," he admitted grimly and then glanced toward the house as a small army of enforcers came hurrying around the corner. Eyebrows rising, he asked dryly, "Jesus, is there anybody on the streets tonight?"
Mortimer ignored him and moved to meet the men. He started giving orders. Within moments the enforcers had spread out in all directions, some returning to the house to stand guard there, the rest heading off to begin searching the grounds. Mortimer then turned and made his way back to where Nicholas waited with Anders and Bricker.
"You'll be our guest tonight, of course," Mortimer announced quietly, and then smiled slightly as he added, "We won't take no for an answer."
"Ha ha," Nicholas muttered bitterly.
Mortimer gave up any attempt at humor, his expression becoming solemn as he added, "I'll call Lucian once we have you locked up."
"You have somewhere to lock up rogues here?" Nicholas asked with interest.
Mortimer gestured toward the building at the back of the property. It was a large structure sided with corrugated metal, Nicholas noted as Mortimer said, "It used to be an airplane hangar. It holds our SUVs now, and we built an office and three cells as well. You should be comfortable enough."
"Great," Nicholas muttered, moving forward when Mortimer gestured with his gun for him to do so.
"We put up the brick wall and fencing too," Bricker announced as they urged him along the side of the house. "And furnished the place. It's been a busy summer."
Nicholas merely grunted. He knew this wasn't the first house the enforcers had inhabited. They'd been in the other one only a couple of weeks when trouble with Ernie's father, Leonius, had made them pack up and move to a new location. It made him wonder if they'd decide to move again now that one of Leonius's sons knew the new location. He doubted it though. They couldn't keep the location a secret for long, and couldn't move every time their whereabouts were discovered. He supposed that was why they'd gone so hard on security... and if they listened to the advice he'd given them moments ago, they should be safe enough here. Not that it should matter to him, he supposed. Once Lucian was called in, he was a dead man.
Jo closed the door behind her and crossed the room, headed for the bed. She was very tired and eager to climb under the covers and sleep. That was the thought circling through her mind as she passed the window and spotted the men on the lawn.
Pausing, she moved closer to the window and peered out, recognizing Mortimer and Bricker, but not the third man with them. They were quite a distance away, but the stranger appeared to be a good-looking man. She didn't recall meeting him at the party, however. Curious, she moved to the balcony door and slid it open to step outside.
The low rumble of the men's voices drifted to her on the night breeze, and Jo frowned at the cadence and rhythm of the stranger's voice. It sounded vaguely familiar, but she was sure they hadn't met. She watched them walk to the building at the back of the property, listening to them talk and trying to place where she'd heard the voice before. Even after they disappeared inside the building, the question of where she knew the man from continued to nag at her rather irritably. Jo had the feeling it was important, but couldn't seem to figure it out.
She was still fretting over the matter when the sound of a door closing drew her attention. Mortimer and Bricker had come back out of the building where her sister Sam said he housed his car collection, and were walking toward the house. Jo watched them for a moment, but then turned and slid back into the house before they could spot her. She really was very tired and eager to climb under the covers and sleep. Unfortunately, she now had a rather nasty headache. Frowning, she raised a hand to the back of her skull as she headed for the bed once more, but her footsteps slowed and then stopped as she felt the bump there.
What the heck? Wincing as her fingers slid over the swelling, Jo changed direction, heading for the bathroom instead. She stepped into the small room, flipped on the bright overhead light, and then moved to the mirror, turning her head to the side in an effort to see the goose egg she had. Of course, that didn't work. Grimacing, she started opening drawers and cupboard doors in search of a hand mirror or something she could use to see the back of her head, but there was very little in the cupboards and drawers, just towels, washcloths, and various soaps.
Jo closed the last door and straightened with a sigh. Not only had she not found a mirror, but there was no aspirin or pain relievers of any kind in this guest bathroom either. It seemed, tired and eager to climb into bed and sleep as she was, she would have to go downstairs and find some sort of pain reliever first. There was no way she was going to sleep with her head pounding as it was.
Maybe she could find out what had happened to her head while she was at it, she thought. Jo had no recollection of bumping it or anything and certainly should, considering the whack she must have taken to cause the swelling there now. In fact, she couldn't understand how she didn't recall what had happened to cause it, and began to worry that something might have been dropped into her drink tonight, one of those date rape drugs or something.
The thought raised enough worry in her that Jo suddenly wasn't so tired and eager to climb into bed and sleep anymore. In fact, she was wide awake and alarmed as she slid into the hall. Jo was halfway to the stairs when she heard the front door open below. Heavy footsteps entered the house, and then there was the tap of high heels rushing up the hall.
"Oh, Mortimer," she heard Sam say anxiously. "What's going on? Decker brought Jo inside all blank-faced and wouldn't tell me what had happened. He took Jo upstairs and sent her to her room and then went to check on Dani and Stephanie and hasn't come back. He was controlling Jo, wasn't he?"
"Yes, honey, he had to."
Jo froze in the upper hall at Mortimer's words. Decker had been controlling her? He had to? What the...
"Why?" Sam asked. "What's happened?"
"A rogue got onto the property," Mortimer explained. "One of Leo's sons. He attacked Jo. It's all right," he added quickly as Sam gasped in dismay. "She's fine. Nicholas was following the rogue and saved her before he did more than bang her up a bit."
"Nicholas?" Sam asked even as Jo repeated the name in her head. She suddenly had a flash of the man she'd seen on the lawn with Mortimer and Bricker. They were standing in the dark and he was peering down into her face, telling her his name was-
"Nicholas Argeneau?" Sam spoke the name running through Jo's mind, and then added, "The rogue Nicholas Argeneau. He was here too?"
"Yes. He was apparently tailing Leo's son and followed him onto the property to keep him from causing trouble. He saw him attack Jo and stopped him."
A moment of silence fell below and Jo eased for ward, moving close enough to the railing that she could see the tops of Sam and Mortimer's heads, but no more. She had no desire to be caught. Jo suspected they would stop talking if they knew she was there.
"So this Nicholas Argeneau," Sam said grimly, "the rogue Nicholas Argeneau... helped save Dani and Stephanie at the beginning of summer and has now, again, risked getting himself caught to save my sister?" Sam asked slowly in what Jo fondly thought of as her sister's lawyer voice. "Does that make any sense to you?"
"No." Mortimer sounded weary, and his hand came into view as he ran his fingers through his hair. "But that's what's happened."
"Why would he do that?" Sam asked, and then, voice serious, said, "Are you sure he's a rogue, Mortimer? A man who'd risk himself to save complete strangers just doesn't sound like a-"
"He's a rogue, Sam," Mortimer interrupted firmly. "And I don't know why he did what he did tonight. Maybe he's trying to make up for the past. Just be glad he did and Jo is safe."
Sam released a little sigh, and her head moved as she nodded. "I should go check on Jo."
"Leave her be, honey," Mortimer said, and Jo eased a little closer to the rail to see him catching Sam's arm as she made for the stairs. "Decker wiped her memory and put it in her head that she's tired and wants to sleep. Leave her be until morning. You might stir some of her memories if you talk to her tonight. They'll be more likely to stay wiped if you leave her until morning."
"Are you sure?" Sam asked, sounding worried.
"So long as she doesn't see Nicholas or Leo's son again, those memories should stay buried," Mortimer assured her. "Now come on. I need to call Lucian and I'd rather not be too far away from you until we're sure Leo's son isn't still prowling the property."
"Is there a possibility he is?" Sam asked with dismay.
"We think he's fled. The gate was open when the men went to search. We think he slipped back through the woods while Nicholas and Jo were kiss ing and slipped out through the gate when Bricker left his post to investigate the noises he heard."
"Nicholas and Jo were kissing?" Sam asked as if Mortimer had said they'd been having sex on a coffee table in the living room in front of the whole party. Jo understood, however; she was a little shocked at this news herself. She'd been kissing some guy she didn't know but who'd saved her from some guy who'd attacked her?
"I'll explain in a minute," Mortimer promised. "I really have to call Lucian. Come on."
"But why were they kissing?" Jo heard Sam ask as Mortimer led her away from the entry and into the library.
Much to Jo's regret, the door closed before Mortimer could answer. She would have liked to have heard that answer herself.
Jo stayed where she was for another moment, her mind spinning a little. Most of what had been said made no sense to her. Decker had wiped her memory and put it in her head that she was tired? She'd been attacked by a rogue, whatever that was, and some fellow named Nicholas, also a rogue, had saved her... apparently risking himself in some way to do so? And she'd been kissing him?
It was the bit about wiping her memory that bothered her most. What did that mean? And how could it have been done? Oddly enough, however, while she wondered about that, Jo was also having strange flashes of memory in her head, just bits of memory that were very disjointed and didn't make a lot of sense. Mostly she just kept seeing the dark-haired man's face.
Raising one hand to her head, Jo closed her eyes as the headache she'd been suffering suddenly increased tenfold. Forcing herself to breathe deeply and not think at all, she waited for the intense pain to ease a bit. It had just reduced to being bearable when she heard the front door of the house open again.
Jo stiffened where she stood as what sounded like a small army stomped into the house. She heard the library door open then and Mortimer asked, "Well?"
"All clear. He definitely got away," someone answered.
"Right. I want two men on the gate in future. We stop all vehicles between the gates and do a thorough search, inside, outside, under, and on top before the vehicles are allowed past the second gate from now on. I don't want this happening again. Understood?"
There were several murmured agreements and then Mortimer sighed. "Nicholas is locked up, but I couldn't reach Lucian. I left a message, but he and Leigh have been traveling a lot since she lost the baby and it could be a couple hours before he gets back to us. So, in the meantime, I want you..."
Jo couldn't hear the rest of what he said. His voice had grown fainter, as if he'd turned back into the library, and the sound of shuffling feet as several people moved out of the entry completely muffled the rest of his words. The men had followed him into the library, she supposed, and peered cautiously down over the railing when the sound of a door closing was followed by complete silence.
Sure enough, the entry was now empty.
Jo stared at the closed library door for several moments, and then began tiptoeing down the stairs. She didn't know what the hell was happening, but suspected the only way she was going to find out was to talk to the man who was locked up. Any other time she would have gone straight down and confronted Mortimer and Sam, but that bit about Decker wiping her memories as well as the strange flashes of memory that had come to her moments ago had combined to make her wary of doing so. And Mortimer had said that as long as she didn't see this man, the memories would stay wiped.
If they really had messed with her mind, Jo wasn't giving them the chance to do so again. She would rather go down and talk to this Nicholas fellow who had risked himself to save her, get those memories back, and keep them. They were hers, dammit, and no one was taking them from her.