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~DARK GUARDIAN: PROLOGUE~
Last Updated: March 06, 2015 11:14:48

Lucian 1400 Walachia

Dark Guardian by Christine FeehanThe village was far too small to stand against the army advancing so quickly toward them. Nothing had slowed the Turk army. Everything in their path had been destroyed, everyone murdered, cruelly murdered. Bodies were elevated on crude spears and left for the scavengers to finish off. Blood ran in rivers. No one was spared, not even the youngest child or the oldest elder. The Turks burned and tortured and mutilated, leaving behind only rats and fire and death.

The village was eerily silent, not even a child dared to cry. The people could only look at one another in despair and hopelessness. There would be no help, no way to stop the massacre. They would fall as had all the villages before them in the wake of that terrible enemy. They were too few and had only their peasant weapons to fight off the advancing hordes. They were totally helpless. And then the two warriors came striding out of the fog-filled night. They moved as one unit, in perfect accord, in perfect step. They moved with a peculiar animal grace, fluid and supple and totally silent. They were tall and broad-shouldered with long flowing hair and eyes of death. Some said they could see the red flames of hell burning in the depths of those black icy eyes.

Grown men moved out of their way, women shrank into the shadows. The two warriors looked neither left nor right, yet saw everything. Power clung to them like a second skin. They ceased to move, became as still as the surrounding mountains as the village elder joined them just above the scattered huts where they could stare out at the empty meadow separating them from the forest.

"What news?" The elder asked. "We heard of the slaughters in every direction. There is nothing that can stop this storm of death. Now it is our turn. We have nowhere to go, Lucian, nowhere to hide our families. We will fight, but like all the others, we will be defeated."

"We are traveling fast this night, Old One, as we are needed elsewhere. It is said our Prince has been slain. We must go to our people. You have always been a good and kind man. Gabriel and I will go out this night and do what we can to help you before we move on. The Turks can be very superstitious people." The tone was pure and beautiful, like velvet. Anyone listening to that voice could do no other than exactly what Lucian commanded. All who heard it wanted only to hear it again and again. The voice alone could enthrall, could seduce, could kill.

"Go with God," the village elder whispered in thanks.

The two men moved then. Perfect rhythm, fluid, silent. Once out of sight of the village, without speaking a word aloud, they shape-shifted at exactly the same moment, taking the form of an owl. Wings beat strongly in the night as they circled high above the timberline searching out the sleeping army. Several miles from the village the earth below was strewn with hundreds of men.

Fog moved in, thick and white, low to the ground. The wind ceased so that the mist lay dense and stationary. Without warning, several dozen owls dropped silently out of the sky, razor-sharp talons directed straight at the eyes of the sentries. The owls were everywhere working in precise synchronization to target each guard so that they were in and out before anyone could come to the sentries' assistance. Screams of pain and terror filled the void of silence so that the army raised up, grabbing for weapons and searching for an enemy in the thick white fog. They saw only their own people, empty sockets for eyes, blood running down faces as guards ran sightlessly in all directions.

In the center of the mass of warriors, an audible crack was heard, then another. Crack after crack and two lines of men dropped to the ground with broken necks. It was as if hidden within the thick fog were invisible enemies moving quickly from man to man breaking necks with their bare hands. Chaos erupted, men ran in all directions screaming into the surrounding forest. Wolves boiled out of nowhere, packs of them, snapping with powerful jaws at the fleeing army. Men fell on their own spears as if directed to do so. Others rammed their spears into neighbors unable to stop themselves no matter how hard they fought the compulsion. Blood and death reigned along with terror. Voices whispered in their heads, in the very air, whispered of defeat and death. Blood soaked the ground. The night went on and on until there was no place to hide from the unseen terrors, from the specters of death, from the wild beasts that came to help defeat the army.

In the morning the villagers went forth to fight and found only the dead.

1400 Lucian Continued-Carpathian Mountains

The air reeked of death of destruction. All around were the smoking ruins of the human villages. The Carpathian ancients had tried in vain to save their neighbors, but the Turks had struck as the sun reached its highest peak. The vulnerable hour rendered the ancients helpless as their powers were weakest at that time. So many of them had been destroyed, men, women and children alike. Only those of their people who had been far away had escaped the crushing blow.

Julian, young and strong, yet a mere boy, surveyed the sight with sad eyes. There were so few of his kind left. And their Prince, Vladimer Dubrinsky was dead along with his lifemate, Sarantha. It was a catastrophe, a blow from which their species might never recover from. Julian stood tall and straight, his long blond hair flowing well past his shoulders.

Dimitri came up behind him. "What are you doing here? You know it is dangerous. We cannot be out in the open like this. There are so many that would destroy us. We were told to stay close to the others." Despite his youth, he moved protectively closer to the younger boy.

"I can take care of myself," Julian declared staunchly. "And what are you doing out here?" The young boy gripped the arm of the older boy beside him. "I saw them. I am certain it was them. Lucian and Gabriel. It was them." There was awe in his voice.

"It cannot be." Dimitri whispered it, looking in all directions. He was excited and scared at the same time. No one, not even the adults named the twin hunters aloud. Lucian and Gabriel. They were legend, myth, not reality.

"Come on, I am certain. I knew they would come when they heard the Prince was dead. What else could they do? I am certain they have gone to see Mikhail and Gregori."

The older boy gasped aloud. "Gregori is here also?" He followed the smaller boy through the thick forest. "He will catch us spying, Julian, he knows everything."

The blond boy shrugged, a mischievous grin curving his mouth. "I am going to see them up close, Dimitri. I am not afraid of Gregori."

"You should be. And I have heard Lucian and Gabriel are really the undead."

Julian burst out laughing. "Who told you that?"

"I heard two of the males talking about it. They said no one could survive as long as they have hunting and killing and not turn."

"The humans have been at war and our people have been destroyed. Even our Prince is dead. There are vampires everywhere. Everyone is killing everyone else. I do not think we have to worry about Gabriel and Lucian. If they were really vampires, we would all be dead. No one, not even Gregori could defeat them in battle," Julian defended. "They are so powerful no one would be able to destroy them. They have always been loyal to the Prince, always."

"Our Prince is dead. They are not necessarily loyal to Mikhail as the heir." Dimitri was obviously quoting adults.

Julian shook his head in exasperation and continued forward, this time making certain to be silent. He made his way through the thick vegetation until the house was in sight. Far off, a wolf howled, the note high and lonely sounding. A second wolf answered, then a third, both much closer. Julian and Dimitri shape-shifted. They were not going to miss the legendary shadow figures. Lucian and Gabriel were the greatest vampire hunters throughout the history of their people. It was well known there was no one that could defeat them. The news that they had single-handly destroyed an entire Turk army during the night had preceded their arrival. No one knew what their exact body count was but over the last few centuries, it was extremely high.

Julian assumed the shape of a small marmot, moving in close to the house. He kept a watchful eye out for owls as he approached the front porch. He heard them then. Four voices murmuring softly from within the interior of the house. Although he was young, Julian had the incredible hearing of the Carpathian people. He used the acute hearing of his people, determined to get every word. The four greatest Carpathians alive were in that house and he would not miss the event. He was barely aware of Dimitri joining him.

"You have no choice, Mikhail," a soft voice said. The voice was incredible, pure velvet, commanding yet gentle. "You must assume the mantle of authority. The bloodline is your inheritance. Your father had a preshadowing of his own death and his instructions were clear. You must assume leadership. Gregori will help you in this time of great need and we will do the job your father asked of us. The mantle of authority does not belong to our bloodline."

"You are an ancient, Lucian. One of you should rule our people. We are so few, our women lost to us, our children gone. Without women, what are our males to do?" Julian recognized Mikhail's voice. "They have no choice but to seek the dawn or become the undead. God knows, we already have enough of them doing that. I have not yet acquired the wisdom to lead our people in such time of great need."

"You have the blood and the power and most of all, our people believe in you. They fear us, our power and knowledge and all that we stand for." Lucian's voice was too beautiful, too compelling. Julian loved the sound of that voice, could listen to it for all time. It was no wonder the adults were afraid of his power. Even at Julian's young age he recognized the voice as a weapon. And Lucian was simply talking normally. What would it be like if he wished to take command of those around him? Who would be able to resist such a voice? "We give you our allegiance as we did your father, Mikhail, and will provide you with whatever knowledge we can to aid you in your difficult task. Gregori, we know you as a great hunter already. Is your tie to Mikhail strong enough to see you through the dark days that will follow?" Lucian's voice, although as soft as ever, demanded truth.

Julian held his breath. Gregori was blood kin to Gabriel and Lucian. The dark ones. Those of that bloodline were always the defenders of their race, the ones that brought the undead to justice. Gregori was already powerful in his own right. It didn't seem possible that he could be compelled to answer, yet he did.

"As long as Mikhail lives, so do I that I may provide for his safety and that of his line."

"You will serve our people, Mikhail, and our brother will serve you as we did your father. It is right. Gabriel and I will continue the fight to defeat the strangle-hold the undead have on the humans and our own race."

"There are so many," Mikhail observed.

"There is so much death, so much fighting and our women have all but been stamped out. The males must have hope for a future, Mikhail, you must find a way to provide them with one, or there is no reason to hold out when the darkness stretches on endlessly. We must have women to provide our males with lifemates. Our women are the light to our darkness. Males are wholly predatory, dark, dangerous hunters growing more deadly as the centuries pass. Eventually, if we cannot find lifemates, our race will be extinct and the dangerous males will choose to give up their souls. There will be such devastation, as we cannot imagine. That is your task, Mikhail, and it is a monumental one."

"As is yours," Mikhail said softly. "To take so many lives and stay as one of us is no small thing. Our people have much to thank you for."

Julian, within the body of the marmot, scampered back into the bushes not wanting to be caught by the ancients. There was a rustle in the bushes behind him and he turned. Two tall men were standing there in complete silence. Their eyes were dark and empty, their faces carved in stone. Around him the mist seemed to fall from the sky leaving Dimitri in a heap beside the smaller boy. Julian caught his breath and stared in astonishment. Gregori materialized just slightly in front of the two boys, almost protectively. When Julian moved his head to look around the larger body, the mythical hunters were gone as if they'd never been and the boys were left to face Gregori.

Lucian 1500 France

The sun faded from the sky leaving behind brilliant colors. Those colors slowly were taken over by the charcoal of the night. Beneath the earth a single heart began to beat. Lucian lay in rich soil. His wounds from the last terrible battle were healed. He scanned the area around his resting place noting only movement of animals. Dirt spewed upwards as he burst from the earth into the sky, drawing in the air to breathe. His world would be changed this night for all time. Gabriel and Lucian were identical twins. They looked alike, thought alike, fought alike. Over the centuries they had acquired knowledge in all areas and subjects and shared that knowledge with one another.

All Carpathian males eventually lost their emotions and the ability to see colors leaving them in a dark, bleak world where only their sense of loyalty and honor kept them from turning vampire while they waited for their lifemate. Gabriel and Lucian had made a pact with one another. If one were to turn vampire, the other would hunt and destroy his twin before walking into the dawn. Lucian had known for some time Gabriel was wrestling the demon, consumed by the darkness spreading within him. The constant battles had taken their toll. Gabriel was far too close to turning.

Lucian inhaled deeply, taking in the clear night air. He was determined to keep Gabriel alive, to keep him safe from harm. There was one way to do so. If he could convince Gabriel that he had joined the ranks of the undead, Gabriel could do no other than hunt him. It would prevent Gabriel from battling any other than Lucian. By not having to kill, by having a purpose, Gabriel would be able to hold on indefinitely. Lucian took to the air, searching for his first victim.


Lucian 1600 London

The young woman stood on the street corner, her smile painted on. The night was cold and dark. She was shivering continually. Somewhere in the darkness was a killer. He had already murdered two of the women she knew. She had begged Thomas not to send her out tonight, but he had slapped her several times before pushing her out the door. She crossed her arms over her chest and tried desperately to look like she enjoyed what she was doing.

A man was coming up the street. Her breath caught in her throat and her heart began to pound. He wore a dark coat and top hat and carried a cane. He looked like he was from the upper class, slumming in her part of town. She struck a pose and waited. He walked right past her. She knew Thomas would beat her if she didn't call out, try to entice this stranger to her, but she couldn't make herself do it.

The man paused and turned. He circled her slowly, looking her up and down as if she were a piece of meat. She tried to smile at him, but something about him frightened her. He pulled out a handful of money and waved it at her. His smile was taunting. He knew she was frightened. He pointed with his cane toward the alley.

She went. She knew better, but she was just as afraid of going home to Thomas without money as she was of going into the alley with the stranger. He was ruthless, forcing her to perform all kinds of acts right there in the alley. He hurt her deliberately and she endured it because she had no other choice. When he was finished he shoved her to the ground and kicked at her with an elegantly clad shoe. She looked up to see the straight razor in his hand and knew he was the killer. There was no time to scream, no reason to do so. She was going to die.

A man loomed up behind her killer. He was physically the most beautiful man she had ever seen. Tall and broad-shouldered with long flowing hair and icy black eyes. He materialized out of nowhere so close to her attacker she had no idea how he could have gotten there unseen by either of them. The man simply reached out with his hands, caught the murderer's neck and wrenched hard.

Run. Run now. She heard the words clearly in her head and could not even wait to thank her rescuer. She ran away as fast as she could.

Lucian waited until he was certain she had obeyed his order before he bent his dark head to the neck of the murderer. It was imperative that he drain the blood from his victim and leave the evidence for Gabriel to find.

"I find you here as I expected, Lucian, you cannot hide from me," Gabriel's soft voice came from behind him.

Lucian allowed the body to fall to the ground. Over the long years it had become a game of cat and mouse no other could play. They knew one another so well, they had choreographed their battles together for so many years that each knew what the other was thinking almost before he thought it. They knew each other's strengths and weaknesses. Over the years they had scored many mortal wounds on each other only to break apart and go to ground to heal. Lucian turned toward his twin brother, a slow, humorless smile softening the hard edges of his mouth. "You look tired."

"You were too greedy this time, Lucian, killing your prey before you fed."

"Perhaps it was a mistake," Lucian agreed softly, "but do not worry about me, I am more than capable of finding myself warm bodies. There is none that can defeat me, not even my brother who gave me his word to do this one small thing."

Gabriel struck hard and fast as Lucian knew he would. Lucian was no longer there. They came together in a deadly battle they had been practicing for centuries.

Lucian Present Day Paris

Gabriel crouched low, his stance that of a fighter. Behind him, his lifemate watched with sorrow-filled eyes as the tall, elegant man approached. He looked what he was, a dark, dangerous predator. The black eyes glittered dangerously, graveyard eyes. Eyes of death. He moved with an animal grace, a ripple of power.

"Stay back, Lucian," Gabriel warned softly. "You will not endanger my lifemate."

"Then you will do as you vowed so many centuries ago. You must destroy me." The voice was a whisper of velvet, a soft command.

Gabriel recognized the hidden compulsion even as he leapt forward to strike. At the last possible second, with his lifemate's denial loud in his mind, he whipped his clawed hand at his twin brother's throat and realized Lucian had opened his arms wide in acceptance of the kill. No vampire would do such a thing. Never. The undead fought with their dying breath to kill everyone and everything around them. To sacrifice ones life was not the act of a vampire.

The knowledge came too late. Crimson droplets sprayed the room, arced over the heavy curtains. Gabriel tried to go back, to reach his brother, but Lucian's power was far too great. Gabriel was unable to move, stopped in his tracks by Lucian's will alone. His eyes widened in surprise. Lucian had so much power. Gabriel was an ancient, more powerful than most on earth, he would have said Lucian's equal until that moment.

"You must let us aid you," Francesca, Gabriel's lifemate said softly. Her voice was crystal clear, soothing. She was a great healer. If anyone could prevent Lucian's death, she could. "I know what you have done here. You think to end it now."

Lucian's white teeth gleamed. "Gabriel has you to keep him safe. That was my task and it is ended. I go now to rest."

Blood was soaking his clothes, running down his arm. He made no attempt to stop it. He simply stood there, tall and straight. There was no accusation reflected in his eyes or voice or in his expression.

Gabriel shook his head. "You did this for me. Four hundred years you have deceived me. You prevented me from the kills, from turning. Why? Why would you risk your soul this way?"

"I knew you had a lifemate. Someone who would know told it to me many years ago. I asked it of him for you and knew he would not tell an untruth. You did not lose your feelings and emotions quickly, as I did. It took centuries for it to happen to you. I was a mere fledging when they ceased for me. But you merged your mind with mine and I could share your joy in life, see through your eyes. You made me remember what I could never have for myself." Lucian staggered.

Gabriel had been waiting for the one moment when Lucian would weaken and he took advantage, leaping to his brother's side, sweeping his tongue across the gaping wound to close it. His lifemate was at his side. Very gently she took Lucian's hand in hers. "You think there is no more purpose to your existence."

Lucian closed his eyes tiredly. "I have hunted and killed for two thousand years, sister, my soul has so many pieces missing that it is like a sieve. If I do not go now, I may not go later and my beloved brother would be forced to destroy me. It would be no easy task. He must remain safe. I have done my duty. Let me rest."

"There is another," Francesca told him softly. "She is not like us. She is mortal. At this moment she is young and in terrible pain. I can only say to you, if you do not find her, she will live a life of such agony and despair, as we cannot imagine with all of our great gifts. You must live for her. You must endure for her."

"You are telling me I have a lifemate."

"And that her need of you is great."

"I am no gentle man. I have killed so long I know of no other existence. Tying a mortal woman to me is sentencing her to live with a monster." Even as he made the denial, Lucian was not resisting as Gabriel's lifemate began to work on the savage wound. Gabriel filled the room with healing herbs and began the ancient healing chant as old as time itself.

"I will heal you now, my brother," she said softly. "A monster such as yourself will be able to protect her from the monsters who would destroy one such as she."

Gabriel cut his wrist and pressed the wound to his twin's mouth. "I offer my life freely for yours. Take what you need to heal. We will put you deep within the soil and guard you until you are at full strength."

"Your first duty is to your lifemate, Lucian," Francesca reminded softly. "You can do no other than find her and remove her from danger."

*****

Jaxon at five --Florida, US


"Look at me, Uncle Tyler," Jaxon Montgomery called proudly, waving from the top of the high wooden tower she had just climbed.

"You're crazy, Matt," Russell Andrews shook his head, shading his eyes against the sun as he stared up at the replica of the high platform used for training recruits. "She could break her neck if she fell." He glanced at the small, fragile woman lying on the chaise lounge, cuddling her newborn son. "What about it, Rebecca? Jaxx isn't even five yet and Matt has her training for Special Forces."

Rebecca Montgomery smiled absently and looked up at her husband as if asking his opinion. She didn't even glance at her daughter.

"Jaxon's great," Matt said immediately, reaching to capture his wife's hand and bringing her knuckles to his mouth. "She loves this stuff. She was doing it before she could walk."

Tyler Drake waved to the tiny girl calling to him. "I don't know, Matt, Russell's right. She's so small. She takes after Rebecca in her looks and build." He grinned. "Of course we were rather lucky in that department. The rest of her is all you. She's a daredevil, a little fighter, just like her daddy."

"I'm not so certain that's a good thing," Russell said, frowning. He couldn't take his eyes off the child. His heart was in his throat. His little girl was seven years old and he would never allow her near the tower Matt and Tyler had constructed in Matt's backyard. "You know, Matt, it's possible to force a child to grow up too fast. Jaxon is still a baby."

Matt laughed. "That baby can cook breakfast for her mother and serve it to her in bed and change diapers. She's been reading since she was three. I mean really reading. She loves physical challenges. There's not much on the training course she can't do. I've been teaching her martial arts and some Judo. Tyler has been working survival training with her. She loves it."

Russell scowled. "I can't believe you're encouraging Matt, Tyler. He never listens to anyone but you. That child adores both of you and neither of you have any sense where she's concerned." He manfully refrained from adding that Rebecca was a washout as a mother. "I hope to hell you don't have her swimming in the ocean."

"Maybe Russell's right, Matt," Tyler sounded worried. "Jaxon's a little trooper with the heart of a lion, but maybe we push her too much. And I had no idea you were allowing her to cook for Rebecca. That could really be dangerous."

"Someone has to do it," Matt shrugged his wide shoulders, "you can't expect Rebecca to do it. Jaxon knows what she's doing. When I'm not home she knows very well I hold her responsible for Rebecca's care. And now we have little Mathew Jr. Just for your information, Jaxx is a good swimmer already."

"Are you listening to yourself, Matt?" Russell demanded, "Jaxon is a child, a baby. Rebecca! For God's sake, you're her mother." As usual, neither parent responded to anything they didn't want to hear. Matt treated Rebecca like a porcelain doll. Neither paid much attention to their daughter. Exasperated, Russell appealed to Matt's best friend. "Tyler tell them."

Tyler nodded slowly in agreement. "You shouldn't put so much pressure on her, Matt. Jaxon is an exceptional child, but she's still a baby." His eyes were on the small girl waving and smiling. Without another word he got up and began striding toward the tower where the little girl was calling to him persistently.

Jaxon at seven

The screams coming from her mother's room were horrible to hear. Rebecca was inconsolable. Bernice, Russell's wife had called the doctor to administer tranquilizers. Jaxx put her hands over her ears to try to muffle the terrible sounds of grief. Mathew Jr. had been crying for some time in his room and it was obvious her mother was not going to go to her son. Jaxon wiped at the steady stream of tears falling from her eyes, lifted her chin and went across the hall to her brother's room.

"Don't cry, Mattie," she crooned softly, lovingly. "Don't worry about a thing. I'm here now. Mommy is very upset about Daddy, but we can get through this if we stick together. You and me. We'll get Mommy through it too."

Uncle Tyler had come to their house with two other officers and informed Rebecca her husband would not ever be coming home again. Something had gone terribly wrong on their last mission. Rebecca had not stopped screaming since.
Jaxon at eight

"How is she today, honey," Tyler asked softly, stooping to kiss Jaxon on the cheek. He laid the bouquet of flowers down on the table and turned his attention to the little girl he had loved since the day she was born.

"She isn't having a very good day," Jaxon admitted reluctantly. She always told Tyler the truth about her mother, but no one else, not even Uncle Russell. "I think she took too many of those pills again. She won't get out of bed and when I try to tell her things about Mathew, she just stares at me. He's finally out of diapers and I'm so proud of him, but she won't say anything at all to him. If she does pick him up she squeezes him so hard he cries."

"I have something to ask you, Jaxx," Tyler said. "It's important you tell me the truth. I don't like you living here all by yourselves. Your mom is sick most of the time and you have to take care of Mathew, manage the house and go to school. I was thinking maybe I should move in and help out a little."

Jaxon's eyes lit up. "Move in with us? How?"

"I could marry your mother and be your father. Not like Mathew of course, but your stepfather. I think it would help your mother and I'd sure like to be here for you and little Mathew. But only if you want me, honey, otherwise I won't even talk to Rebecca about it."

Jaxon smiled at him. "That's why you brought the flowers, isn't it? Do you think she'll really do it? Is there a chance?"

"I know I can persuade her. The only time you get a break around here is when I've got you on our training course. You're getting to be quite a marksmen too."

"Marksperson, Uncle Tyler," Jaxon corrected with a sudden teasing grin. "And the other night in karate class I kicked Don Jacobson's butt." The only time she found herself laughing anymore was when Uncle Tyler took her off to the Special Forces training area and they played soldier. Female or not, Jaxon was becoming someone to contend with and it made her proud.
Jaxon at thirteen

The book was a mystery and well suited to the stormy night. Tree branches were rattling the window and rain drummed heavily on the roof. The first time she heard the noise, Jaxon thought it was her imagination, just because the book was so scary. Then she stiffened and her heart began to pound. He was doing it again. She knew it. As quietly as possible, she crept out of bed and opened her door.

The sounds coming from her mother's bedroom were muffled, but she heard them all the same. Her mother was weeping, pleading. There was the distinctive sound Jaxon knew so well. She had been in a karate class as long as she could remember. She knew what it sounded like when someone got punched. She ran along the hall to her brother's room to check on him first. Thankfully he was sound asleep. When Tyler was like this, she hid Matthew from him. He seemed to hate Mathew at times, his eyes cold and ugly every time they rested on the little boy, especially if Mathew happened to be crying. Tyler didn't like it when anyone cried and Mathew was little enough to cry over almost every little scratch or imagined hurt. Or every time Tyler glared at him.

Taking a deep breath Jaxon went to stand just outside her mother's bedroom. She found it so hard to believe Tyler could be as he was with her mother and Mathew. She loved Tyler. She had always loved him. He spent hours training Jaxon like a soldier and everything in her responded to the physical training. She loved the courses he set up to challenge her. Jaxon could go up nearly impassable cliffs and slither through tiny tunnels in record time. She was in her element out on the range, firing weapons and fighting hand to hand. Jaxon could even track Tyler now, a feat most of those in his unit were unable to do. She was especially proud of that. Tyler always seemed proud of her and very warm and loving towards her. She had always believed Tyler loved his family with the same fierce protective loyalty she did. Now she was very confused, wishing her mother was someone she could talk with, reason it all out. Jaxon was coming to realize that her stepfather's easy charm hid his constant need to control his world and those in it. Rebecca and Mathew didn't meet his standards of what they should be and he made them pay dearly for it.

Jaxon took a deep breath and very quietly pushed the door open a crack. She stood perfectly still as Tyler had taught her to do when there was danger. Tyler had her mother pressed against the side of the wall, his hand squeezing her throat. Rebecca's eyes were bulging and wide with terror. "It was so easy to do it, Rebecca. He always thought he was so good no one could ever do him, but I did. And now I have you and his kids, just like I told him. I stood over him and watched the life go out of him and I laughed. He knew what I would do to you, I made certain of that. You've always been so useless. I told him I would give you a chance, but you just couldn't manage it, could you? He spoiled you just like your daddy did. Rebecca, the little princess. You always looked down on us. You always thought you were so much better than us just because you had all that money." He leaned close so that his forehead was bumping Rebecca's and sprays of spit washed over her as he enunciated each word. "All your precious money would go to me if anything happened to you, wouldn't it?" He shook her like a rag doll, an easy thing to do when Rebecca was so small.

At that moment, Jaxon knew Tyler was going to kill Rebecca, that he wanted to kill her. He hated her, and he hated Mathew. Jaxon was bright enough to realize, although she was hearing something out of context, that Tyler had very likely murdered her father. Both of them were on the Seal team and not so easy to kill, but her father wouldn't have been expecting his best friend to betray him.

She could see her mother's eyes trying desperately to warn her. Rebecca was afraid for Jaxon, afraid if she interfered, Tyler would turn on her.

"Daddy?" Deliberately Jaxon said the word softly into the menaced-filled night. "Something woke me up. I had a bad dream. Will you sit up with me? I really need you. You don't mind, do you, Mommy?"

It took a few moments before the tension seeped out of Tyler's ramrod stiff shoulders. His fingers slowly loosened from around Rebecca's throat. Air rushed back into her lungs yet she remained cowering against the wall, frozen with terror, trying to suppress the cough welling in her raw throat. Her eyes had jumped to Jaxon's face. Rebecca desperately, silently, tried to warn her daughter of the danger. Tyler was completely mad, a killer, and there was no escape from him. He could find them, he had warned her what would happen if she tried to leave him and Rebecca did not have the strength to save them. Not even for little Mathew.

Jaxon smiled up at Tyler with complete childlike trust. "I'm sorry I disturbed you, but I really did hear something and the dream was so real. When you're with me, I always feel so safe." Her stomach was cramping, protesting the terrible lie, her palms were sweaty, yet she managed perfect wide-eyed innocence.

Tyler sent Rebecca a hard stare over his shoulder as he took Jaxon's hand. "Go to bed, Rebecca. I'll sit up with Jaxon. God knows you've never done it, not even when she was sick." His hand was strong, she could still feel tension in him, yet Jaxon could also feel the warmth that he always exuded whenever they were together. Whatever had possessed her stepfather in those earlier moments seemed gone once was he was physically linked to Jaxon.

In the two years that followed, Jaxon and Rebecca tried to hide their growing concern with Tyler's mental state from Mathew. They kept the child as far from Tyler as possible. The little boy seemed to be some kind of a catalyst to bring about the change in what once had been a loving man. Tyler often commented that Mathew's eyes were following him around the room. Mathew learned to avert his gaze when Tyler was in the same room. Tyler looked at the little boy coldly, unemotionally, or with absolute hatred. He looked at Rebecca with a stranger's eyes. It was only Jaxon who seemed able to connect to him, to keep him centered. It frightened her, that terrible responsibility. She could see the evil thing within Tyler was growing ever stronger and after a time Rebecca relied completely on Jaxon to cope with it. She stayed in her room, taking the pills Tyler supplied, ignoring her two children. When Jaxon tried to tell her that she was afraid Tyler would harm Mathew, Rebecca pulled the covers over her head and rocked back and forth with a keening sound.

Desperate, Jaxon tried to tell the other members on Tyler's team that something might be wrong with him. The men merely laughed and passed on what she had said to Tyler. He was so furious Jaxon was certain he would kill them all. Although she was the one who had told, he centered the blame on Rebecca, repeating over and over that she had forced Jaxon to lie about him. He beat Rebecca so badly, Jaxon wanted to take her to the hospital, but Tyler refused. Rebecca remained in her bed for weeks and was confined to the house after that. Jaxon spent a great deal of her time creating a fantasy world for Tyler, pretending to believe that all was well in their home. She kept her brother far away from him and deflected his anger from her mother as much as possible. More and more she spent time with Tyler on the range, learning as much as she could about self-defense, weapons, hiding and tracking. It was the only time she knew her mother and brother were truly safe. The others on the Seal team contributed readily to her training and Tyler seemed normal at those times. Rebecca had retreated so far from the real world, Jaxon dared not take Mathew and run, as she would have had to leave her mother behind and she was certain Tyler would kill her. Little Mathew and Jaxon had their own secret world they dared not share with anyone, they resigned themselves to live in constant fear.

Jaxon's fifteenth birthday

Sitting in science class she suddenly knew. She felt it, an overwhelming premonition of danger. She remembered gasping for breath, her lungs refusing to work. Jaxon ran from the classroom, knocking her book and papers from her desk so that they fell in a scattered shower, floating to the floor behind her. The teacher called to her, but Jaxon ignored him and continued running. The wind seemed to rush past her as she sped down the streets, taking every shortcut she knew.

As she neared the house, Jaxon slowed abruptly, her heart pounding. The front door was gaping open, an invitation to enter. At once darkness took hold of her mind. She felt a sharp demand to stop, to turn back, the premonition so strong it held her frozen for a moment. Mathew had stayed home from school, little Mathew who looked so like her father, who could send Tyler into a killing fury so easily. Her Mathew.

Her mouth was dry and the taste of fear was so strong she was afraid she was going to be sick. Her stomach clenched and the pounding in her head increased until it nearly drowned out the overwhelming urge for self-preservation. Jaxon forced her foot forward. One step. It was difficult, like forcing herself to walk through quicksand. She had to look inside the house. She had to do it. The pull to do so was stronger than the instinct for self preservation. A smell was flowing out to her, an odor foreign to her, yet every instinct she possessed told her what it was. "Mom." She whispered it aloud, a sacred talisman to make her world right again, to drive away the truth and knowledge that was in her pounding in her head.

The only way she could force her body to move was to lock herself against the side of the house and inch her way painfully forward. She was fighting her own instincts, fighting the reluctance to face what was in there. Keeping her hand pressed firmly against her mouth to keep from screaming, she turned her head slowly to allow her eyes to see into the interior of the house.

The living room looked the same as ever. Familiar. Comforting. It did nothing to stop the fear, instead, she felt terrified. Jaxon forced herself forward to the hallway. There was a smear of bright red blood on the doorjamb to Mathew's room. Her heart began to beat so hard she was afraid it might pound right through her chest. Jaxon edged her way along the wall until she was right outside Mathew's room. She prayed fervently as she took the tip of her thumb and slowly pushed open his door with it.

The horror of that sight would be imprinted on her brain for all time. The walls were sprayed with blood, the covers soaked with it. Mathew lay sprawled sideways on the bed, his head hanging off at a right angle. His eye sockets were empty, his once laughing eyes gone forever. She couldn't count the stab wounds on his body. Jaxon did not go into the room, she couldn't, something far more powerful than her will was stopping her. For a moment she couldn't stand, sliding unexpectedly to the floor in a huddled heap, a silent scream tearing through her body in absolute denial.

She hadn't been there to defend him. To save him. It was her responsibility. She was the strong one, yet she had failed and Mathew, with his shining curls and his love of life, had paid the ultimate price. Jaxon didn't want to move, didn't think she could at first. Her mind seemed to go mercifully blank so she was able to drag herself back up the wall and proceed down the hall to her mother's bedroom. She already knew what she would find. She told herself she was prepared.

This time the door was wide open. Jaxon forced her eyes to look toward the interior. Rebecca lay crumpled on the floor. She knew it was her mother by the mop of blonde hair that spilled out like a halo around the crushed head. The rest of the body was too mangled and bloody for recognition. Jaxon couldn't pull her gaze away from the terrible sight. Her throat was closing off, strangling her in reaction. She couldn't breathe.

There was a sound. The hint of a sound really, but it was enough to trigger Jaxon's years of training. She leapt to one side, whirling to face her stepfather. His hands and arms were wet with blood, his shirt splattered and stained. He was smiling, his face serene, his eyes warm with welcome.

"They're gone now, honey. We won't ever have to listen to their whining again," Tyler held out his hand to her, clearly expecting her to take it.

Jaxon backed a cautious step down the hall. She didn't want to alarm Tyler. He didn't seem to notice he had blood all over him. "I'm supposed to be in school, Uncle Tyler." Her voice wasn't natural to her own ears.

A sudden scowl crossed his face. "You haven't called me Uncle Tyler since you were eight years old. What happened to Daddy? Your mother turned you against me, didn't she?" He was moving toward her.

Jaxon stayed very quiet, very still, a look of innocence on her face. "No one could ever turn me against you, that would be impossible. You know Mom doesn't want to have anything to do with me."

Tyler relaxed visibly. He was close enough to touch her. Jaxon couldn't allow that, her tremendous discipline would not extend far enough to let him touch her with the blood of her family on his hands. She struck without warning, jabbing her fist straight into his throat, her foot lashing out so that the edge caught his kneecap hard. The moment she connected, Jaxon turned and ran. She didn't look back once, she didn't dare. Tyler was trained to respond despite being injured or hurt. In any case, she was very small compared to her stepfather. The blow might stun him, but it would never incapacitate him completely. With luck her kick might have broken his knee, but she doubted it. Jaxon ran through the house and straight out the door. They were living on base, Rebecca had always liked the protection of living on base, and Tyler felt more in control of them that way. Jaxon was grateful now. She screamed at the top of her lungs, running straight across the street to Russell Andrews' house.

Russell's wife, Bernice, came running out to meet her, distress on her face. "What is it, Dear? Are you hurt?"

Russell joined them, circling Jaxon's slender shoulders with his arm. "Is your mother ill?" He knew better, he knew Jaxon. She was always a child in complete control, calm under fire, always thinking. If Rebecca were ill, Jaxon would have called for medical aid. Right now her face was so pale she looked like a ghost. There was horror in her eyes, terror in her expression. Russell glanced across the street at the silent house with its door wide open. The wind was blowing, the air crisp and cold. For some unknown reason, the house gave him the creeps.

Russell started across the street. Jaxon caught his arm. "No, Uncle Russell, not by yourself. You can't save them, they're already dead. Call the MP's."

"Who's dead, Jaxon?" Russell asked quietly, knowing Jaxon wouldn't lie.

"Mathew and my mother. Uncle Tyler killed them. He told Mom he killed my Father too. He's been so strange and violent. He hated my Mother and Mathew. I tried to tell you, but none of you would believe me." Jaxon was sobbing, her hands over her face. "You wouldn't listen to me, none of you would listen." She felt so sick, her stomach rebelling, her mind replaying the scenes until she thought she might go insane. "There was so much blood. He took Mathew's eyes. Why would he do that? Mathew was only a little boy."

Russell pushed her toward Bernice. "See to her, honey. She's going into shock."

"He killed everyone, my entire family. He took everyone away from me. I didn't save them, I couldn't save them."

Bernice hugged her tightly to her. "Don't worry, Jaxon, you're with us."

Jaxon at Seventeen

"Hey, beautiful," Don Jacobson leaned down to ruffle Jaxon's mop of wild blond hair. He tried not to act too possessive, Jaxon always shot down anyone who tried to get too close to her. She had a wall erected so high around her, no one seemed to be able to break into her world. Since the death of her family, Don had seen her laugh only with Bernice and Russell Andrews and their daughter, Sabrina. Sabrina was two years older than Jaxon and home for spring break. "Where you off to in such a hurry? Master-Chief told me your times were better than his new recruits."

Jaxon smiled rather absently. "My times are always better than his new recruits every time he gets a new group. I've been in training my entire life. I'd better be good or Master-Chief would have thrown me out a long time ago. Too bad women can't serve in the Seals. It's the only thing I'm suited for. I graduated early with so many college credits, and now I have no idea what I want to do." She shoved a hand carelessly through her hair, tousling even more. "I'm younger than most of the other students, but, to tell you the truth, I feel so much older than most of them, sometimes I want to scream."

Don had a burning desire to hold her close, to comfort her. "You've always been smart, Jaxx. Don't let anyone get to you." He knew it was really because she could not get over the trauma of what had happened to her family. How could she? He doubted if anyone could. " So, where are you running off to?"

"Sabrina is home and we're going to the movies tonight. I promised I wouldn't be late this time." Jaxon made a face. "I'm always late when I come to the training center. I never seem to get out of here on time." The training course was the one place her mind was so occupied with other things that she couldn't think, couldn't remember anything else. She worked herself hard physically, keeping the demons at bay for just a little while.

Jaxon hadn't felt safe in so long she couldn't remember what it was like to get a good night's sleep. Tyler was still out there somewhere, hiding out. She knew he was close by, she felt him watching them sometimes. Only Russell believed her when she told him, Russell knew her now. Jaxon didn't give in to her imagination. She wasn't prone to hysterics. She had some kind of sixth sense very strong in her that warned her when danger was close. She had trained beside Tyler for years. If she identified a sign as his, Russell believed her absolutely.

"What show?" Don asked, "I haven't been to a good show in a long time." He was blatantly fishing for an invitation to go along.

Jaxon didn't seem to notice he was trying. She shrugged, suddenly distracted. "I'm not sure, Sabrina was going to choose it." Her heart was beginning to pound. It was crazy. She was standing out in the open with a boy she had known all of her life, yet she felt detached, far away and peculiarly alone. Darkness was spreading within her and with it a terrible dread.

Don did touch her then. She had gone so still and pale, he was afraid for her. "Jaxon? Are you sick? What is it?"

"Something's wrong." She whispered the words so softly he nearly missed them.

Jaxon sprang passed Don, brushing him aside. He raced beside her, reluctant to leave her in such a state. Jaxon was so cool and withdrawn all the time, Don couldn't believe he was seeing her like this. She didn't glance his way, instead running flat out toward her foster home. Russell and Bernice Andrews had taken her in and given her a loving home. Russell and the other members of the Seal team had continued her training, recognizing she needed the physical action to alleviate the memories of her traumatic past. Don's father was part of that team and often talked to his son of the tragedy. No one was absolutely certain whether Tyler had really killed Mathew Montgomery as he had bragged to Rebecca, but there was no doubt he had killed Rebecca and Mathew Jr.

Don had a bad feeling as he sprinted along beside Jaxon. It wasn't all that hard to keep up, he was in good shape and far taller than she was. His strides made three of her steps, yet he was sweating. Jaxon had a look on her face that made him certain she knew something he didn't. Something terrible. He wished he had a cell phone. As he rounded a corner, he spotted an MP uniform.

"Hey, follow us. Come on, something's wrong." He yelled it with conviction, not even afraid of making a complete fool of himself. He knew this time, he knew it the same way Jaxon knew it as they raced up the street toward her foster home.

Jaxon stopped abruptly in the driveway, staring up at the door. It was partially open as if in invitation. Don started passed her, but she caught his arm. She was shaking. "Don't go in there. He might still be there."

Don tried to put his arm around her. He had never seen Jaxon so shaken up. She looked fragile and grief-stricken. She pulled away from, her eyes darting around the yard, searching the terrain above them. "Don't touch me, Don, don't come anywhere near me. If he even thinks I care about you, he'll find a way to kill you."

"You don't know what's in that house, Jaxx," he protested. A part of him didn't want to go see if she was right. The house looked evil to him.

The MPs swaggered their way up the driveway. "You kids better not be wasting our time. What's going on here? You know whose house this is?"

Jaxon nodded. "Be careful. I think Tyler Drake has been here. I think he killed everybody in the house." She sat down abruptly on the lawn, her legs giving out.

The two MPs looked at one another. "Is this for real?" Everyone knew about Tyler Drake, a former Seal operative who had murdered his family, eluded capture and who was still hiding out somewhere. "Why would he come here?"

Jaxon didn't respond. The darkness in her was her answer. Tyler had killed the Andrews family because they had taken her in. She was his and they had usurped his position in his twisted mind. It should have occurred to her that he would do such a thing. He had murdered her father thinking her father had no right to her. The same with her mother and with her brother. Of course he would murder the Andrews. It would make perfect sense to him. She drew up her legs and began to rock herself gently back and forth. She only glanced up when the two MPs rushed from the house and began to vomit over and over all over the immaculate lawn.



CHRISTINE FEEHAN, #1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLING AUTHOR

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