Resurrection Captain Betha Rhodes’ battles with smoldering Jackson Blake are practically legend to everyone in her viciously protected region. The dangerous mountain lion could have had his own territory long ago, but he refuses to leave the woman he wants as his mate and she refuses to give herself to a man she knows could own her body and soul.
When Jackson loses a confrontation with a vicious serial killer, he barely escapes with his life… but not his memory. Believing it’s best for him to find a new life—a new female willing to be his mate—Betha sends Jackson to Resurrection to start over. But when his strength begins to fail without her, she finally realizes that what his mind can’t remember, his heart will not forget…and neither will hers. Can she remind this lifelong rival of a love she was once too afraid to claim? Or will she find a deeper one with the stranger behind his eyes?
Jackson felt the blow, his chest giving under the tremendous pressure of the punch. He flew, his back crashing into the wall of hay bales lining one side of the barn. It could have been made of brick for all that it gave.
This beast, the man in full body armor with his strange mask and whirring optical lenses, gave him no time to recover. Before Jackson’s seemingly boneless legs could drop him to the floor, the Beast once again had his hand around Jackson’s throat, lifting him off the ground as if he were nothing.
Fight, damn it. She’ll die without you. She’ll die.
Betha Rhodes. The Hellcat of Resurrection.
A thousand memories, ten thousand, flew through his mind. The first time he’d first seen her, a baby clinging to her mother’s hand, he’d known what she was—his heart and soul, inexplicably walking circles around him. From that moment to this, she’d never stopped, becoming the centrifugal force that turned his entire world.
Every moment that had ever mattered in his life replayed, all of them featuring her. Their first kiss, their first fight, the first time they’d made love, a wild act that drowned his mind in sensuality as quickly as the memory of the last time they’d fought off a death squad seared him back to terror. They’d fashioned themselves into ruthless weapons together, practicing their skills, giving no quarter to anyone. Lightning fast, her claws as deadly as her blades, passionate, vicious and loyal as blood, Betha was everything he could want in a mate.
In a woman.
His enemy shook him savagely, either trying to rattle his brain or terrify him. That’d be the day. He’d lost his fear of these death squad fucks when they’d executed his family. All he cared about now was Betha and the lives of the shifters they’d sworn to protect.
Both his hands prying at the one clamped around his neck, Jackson’s mind raced for assurance that his mate could be safe. His only hope was their lack of a completed bond. For years, that lack had been a shard of glass tearing into his soul, but now he clung to the emptiness in his chest, grateful for it. Without that bond, she’d mourn, but she’d live.
He kicked out, his boots jarring the Beast’s shoulder with his frustration, but it changed nothing. All it earned him was another slam into the bales, snapping his head back.
This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. This mission was meant to be a simple intercept. Collect the traveler on the Underground and take her to Resurrection, the shifter refuge in California. Somehow, while he’d been patrolling the farm’s perimeter, it had become a massacre. All the other men—his men—were dead and it’d be minutes, maybe seconds, before he joined them. He railed at the unfairness, hating it more than any of the other injustices that had shaped his life by the mere virtue of being born a shifter. Always hiding the part of him that felt most true, just to stay alive. The only person he’d never had to hide from was Betha, but if he wanted to keep her from his fate, he’d have to let her go.
Even now, strangling slowly while the Beast watched him remorselessly, the thought of rejecting her made him ill.
It would have been only a short matter of time. No one doubted the bonding would happen, not even Betha, no matter how she hissed and snarled when he pressed her about it. Now that fine thread of resistance might be the only thing that would protect her when this Beast finally outmaneuvered him. Something that looked to have already happened.
If they’d bonded, she would have died the instant he did.
Instead the Wasting will claim her.
No, not Betha. She’d live. She was strong, stronger than him sometimes. She’d make it.
What if you’re wrong?
If he was, then he’d have left her to face a slow, excruciating death, her soul bleeding out through a broken connection to her lost mate, taking her body with it day by endless day.
Not because he’d failed her.
A burst of power roared through him, giving him the strength to kick again, this time right into the bastard’s face. He took a savage satisfaction in watching his own foot slam into the mask, wrenching the Beast’s head so far to the side a normal man’s neck would have broken.
The neck didn’t break, but the Beast’s hold did.
Jackson dropped, his claws—black and razor sharp—shredding the front of the Beast’s tactical suit on the way down. He didn’t feel a weakness in the lightweight kevlar, the smooth plates fitting together as if molded to the animal’s huge body. His attack didn’t last long, the Beast’s blade slashed at his face, unbalancing him backward. The Beast couldn’t capitalize, hindered by that weak leg, giving Jackson precious seconds to find his feet and attack again. Running wasn’t an option, not from this monster. So he fought, with everything his body had left.
They circled the space in front of the car parked in the interior of barn, weaving, driving at each other for endless seconds. The moments slowed, every heartbeat thudding painfully in his ears. But as hard as he tried, he could feel himself getting slower. Blocking two brutal blows, missing the third. Soon the second. Lungs burning, muscles screaming, bones actually beginning to crack under the force of the unrelenting barrage, Jackson could only face the cruel truth.
He wasn’t going to win this battle.
He wouldn’t taste the sweetness of her mouth again, never feel her leanly muscled body beneath his, quivering with passion, quaking with need. Her strong arms wouldn’t hold him again, her heartbeat guiding his…
This creature, whatever it was, would leave him as dead as the bodies inside the farmhouse. Broken and discarded like trash. Worse, when he moved onto the next life, he’d go alone, unable to even hope that he’d find her again on the other side.
I’m sorry, Betha. So sorry I failed you…
His body moved by rote, losing ground, scraping one more brief millisecond of life, but his mind blurred with regrets.
Please, God, he thought as the world rocked to the left, sucking the air from his lungs and turning his vision a painful shade of red. His body lost all it’s control, his muscles gone slack and boneless. If you have any mercy at all, you’ll make it so she never loved me. Never needed me. Never gave me any piece of her heart at all.
He could face eternity alone, empty without her, if it meant she lived. That the Wasting never sapped her life, her strength, day by soul-draining day, because she longed for a mate that would never come back to her. To live that kind of slow death was a cruelty his kind feared and his heart broke at the realization that she could face it.
Make it so that we never loved at all. Even if she was all that he was, all that he’d ever wanted to live for. He let go of his connection to her, pushing her out of his heart and mind with a feral desperation. Rejecting her hold on him, leaving him empty inside, body and soul.
Every slice and break in his body combined paled beneath the agony of it.
For Betha’s life, that kind of Hell was worth it.
It was all that mattered.
He watched, strangely detached, as the Beast stalked forward, blade already raising to make the killing slash Jackson knew he couldn’t deflect. That was when they both heard it, the distant dragging sound of someone’s feet on the dirt path outside the barn. More than one person…
The Beast stopped, the lenses on his strange mask whirring and shifting. It stared at the black blade, then the hay-covered ground of the barn. Strange how Jackson could understand what the Beast was thinking—the knife would take too long, spread too much blood. Whoever was out there, inexorably coming closer, the Beast wanted nothing to tip them off. The knife went back into its sheath on the Beast’s leg and he pulled out something infinitely more deadly to replace it. A gun, the long barrel of the silencer already secured. The Beast grabbed him by the throat, dragging him effortlessly past the car, to the shadows where the hay bales created a haphazard set of steps to the loft above.
The Beast jostled Jackson onto his shoulder, lifting them both into the open loft above. Carefully, the Beast lay him down, determined to make no noise it seemed. No, his blood wouldn’t give them away here, Jackson decided macabrely. His voice certainly couldn’t. Not even when he looked into the barrel of that gun and watched as the Beast pulled the trigger.