Claimed by the Assassin. Copyright 2018 Nancy Corrigan. All rights reserved.
After tonight, I need to hand in my good citizenship badge. I’m officially turning into a criminal.
No lights shine from inside the cabin in the woods, confirming what I already know. Ilan Kane, the owner of this place, is gone.
The metal key I stole bites into my palm. I ease my tight fist and exhale slowly, fogging the air around me. I shouldn’t care that Ilan skipped town. He’s nothing to me. A coworker. That’s it. Except I do care. I care a lot.
My hands shake, but the key turns in the lock. Nobody jumps out to tell me I shouldn’t be here. There’re no flashing lights from a cop car. No blaring alarms. Absolutely nothing happens, except for a fresh wave of guilt to churn my stomach.
I swallow hard against the tightness in my throat. There’s no turning back now.
Why anyone would make an important delivery this late on a Saturday night is beyond me. Especially a night as cold as this one. It’s single digits out. Ilan’s friends had been very clear, however. He’d be getting a delicate package tonight.
And I promised he’d be home after Rick and Mya’s wedding reception to receive it. Now I get the joy of telling Ilan’s friends he’s not going to be living here anymore, and I don’t know where he’s gone.
The door to the darkened cabin opens soundlessly with my push. The rich scent of man and pine hits me. I grip the door handle as my eyelids lower. Ilan smells better than any man I’ve met. He looks better too. Defined muscles, strong features, lips made for kissing—he’s beautiful.
Too beautiful for me.
My shoulders slump. In the next breath, I roll them and lift my chin. Screw Ilan. I get hit on enough at the bar. Maybe it’s about time I flirt back. It worked for my friend Mya. She married the customer who hit on her. They couldn’t be happier.
Flipping my hair over my shoulders, I flick the light switch and step into Ilan’s home, kicking the door closed behind me. Or his old house, technically. He left the key for Josh, my boss and the owner of the Black Widow, to rent out this cabin for him.
Basic furniture fills the room. There’s a couch, an end table, and an empty bookshelf. A desk is tucked into the corner by the stairs. A fireplace takes up another wall. Without pictures or anything personal, the room appears cold. With its rustic features and the inherent coziness of a small room, this place would be a decorator’s delight.
Heck, I’d love filling a house like this with life. The spot by the fireplace would be perfect to sit and read a book. Too bad the heavenly smell of man lingering in this room will soon fade. Once it does, this place won’t remind me of Ilan.
“Ugh…as if that matters.” I can count on one hand the number of times Ilan’s spoken to me over the past six years. He means nothing to me. If I say that enough, I might believe it too.
I scan the room, looking for a television and finding none. Wonderful. I can’t even distract myself from thinking about Ilan with mindless sitcoms. His friends need to show up. Now. Then I can go about my life and pretend like I haven’t committed a crime by breaking in here.
With my eyes closed, I fight the irritation my own thought spurs. I’m being ridiculous. I know it. Darn if I can stop it. I’m too much of a Goody Two-shoes. That’s what everyone says about me. And guilt is going to choke me over tonight for a long time even though nobody will probably ever find out what I’ve done.
Arms crossed over my chest, I pace. The short encounter I had with Ilan today repeats in my head. He wasn’t happy I knew about this package coming. Or that I called those men who spoke to me his friends. What else could they be to Ilan? Enemies wouldn’t give him anything. Business associates? Maybe, but why would they deliver a package on a Saturday night?
“Geez. If it’s drugs or something, I’m calling the cops.” I shake my head. My imagination will get the better of me if I let it. Ilan never struck me as someone who’d commit a crime. Any troublemakers who came into the bar took one look at him and left. It’s one of the reasons I loved working when Ilan did. I always felt safe. Actually, I always felt as if my world was right, even if the man responsible never acted as if he knew I was in the room.
On a slow pivot, I study the furnishings, looking for anything that’d remind me of the man I’ll never see again. My gaze settles on a plaid blanket draped over the back of the couch. The frayed edges and the faded color hint at its age. Why had Ilan left it? It’s beautiful.
I take a step toward it.
A pop sounds. Then another. Something heavy hits the ground.
My brow hurts from the deep frown pulling at my mouth. For the life of me, I can’t place those noises. All I can say is that something fell. A picture, maybe? Of course, it’d have to be a very large picture to make that much noise.
With nothing better to do, I make my way to the kitchen to satisfy my curiosity and fumble for the switch. Light bathes the room. My gaze zeroes in on the red liquid sprayed over the refrigerator. The wet streaks mark a path down the stainless-steel door. More of the red liquid is splattered on the cabinets next to it.
My mind supplies the detail. Tiny hairs stand up on my arms. I rub them, but I don’t move. My feet are frozen in place. My gaze is locked on the blood. It’s dripping down the fridge door.
I turn my attention to the room. Nobody else is here. There’s no sign of a break-in. No sign of a struggle. Somebody got hurt, though. I can’t see who. The kitchen island blocks my view.
My stomach lurches. I press my balled fist to it. The pressure doesn’t help. I’m going to be sick. “Ilan?”
No answer. The only sound is my ragged breaths. I take a step forward, then another and another, before rushing around the kitchen island.
A sob shakes my chest. I cover my mouth, muffling the raw sound.
The two men I’d spoken to earlier this morning lie unmoving on the floor. Their faces are bloody messes. I know what the sight means, but it can’t be true. I just spoke to them.
“Oh God. Please, no.” Needing the confirmation, I press my fingertips to the closest man’s wrist, then the other man’s wrist. No pulses.
Dead. They’re dead.
A large tote bag is propped next to the farthest man’s slumped form. I tug it closer, looking for the package they’d meant to deliver. Behind the bag is a sight that freezes my hand.
A plaid blanket covers a large uneven shape. An identical plaid blanket to the one in the living room. I know what’s hidden underneath without lifting the wool cloth. My friend Mya had a similar carrier when her girls were babies. I’d lugged their car seats enough between her car and mine.
With my heart in my throat, I step over the bodies, sliding on the blood covering the floor, and drop to my knees next to the baby seat. With my chest tight and a lump in my throat, I lift the blanket.
The plump face of a newborn greets me. The blue cap on his head partially covers his closed eyes. He’s burrowed his cheek against the cushion supporting him.
Bubbles form at his parted lips. His nose twitches.
A shaky breath escapes me. He’s alive. I push the cap away from his eyes and adjust his head so his neck is at a more comfortable angle.
He makes an annoyed sound, that pre-scream whimper that warns he’s about to exercise his lungs. I slowly move my hand, and he settles, slipping back into his contented nap.
I can’t help but smile. I love babies, especially at this age. He can’t be more than a couple of days old. Tension slips back into my shoulders in the next heartbeat, though. Whoever shot those men can’t be too far. The blood is still dripping down the cabinets.
And I’m here with an innocent life.
Looking over my shoulder, I study the sliding patio door. It’s opened a crack, allowing cold air inside, and mini-blinds give me a glimpse of the splintered glass, preventing me from seeing much of anything outside. Besides, it’s too dark. With the light on in the kitchen, anyone out there could see me or at least my shadow, however.
A sense of urgency grips me. I need to get out of here and call the cops.
Tugging the blanket over the car seat, I grab the handle and scramble away from the bodies, then race through the house and bolt out the front door. Nobody attacks me or takes a shot at me. We’re safe. I don’t feel safe, though. My heart wants to escape my chest.
The cold air presses down on me. Glad I never took my jacket off, I pull it around the carrier, shielding the precious child inside from the cold as best I can. The wet edge of the jacket brushes my leg. Blood. There’s blood on my jacket. It’s on my shoes. The reality of what I’ve done hits me. I walked through a murder scene.
And stole a baby.
Saved a baby! Not stole. I saved this little boy. Now I need to get us out of here.
I hurry to my car. My purse with my phone in it is still sitting on the front seat where I’d left it. With numb fingers, I manage to unlock the passenger door and shove my purse to the floor, making room for the carrier. Without a base, holding on to the seat while I drive is my best option.
Something hits me, knocking me sideways. The car seat lands next to me. The baby inside whimpers.
I reach for the car seat. A huge tawny paw whips it out of my reach, spinning the carrier. I scream and scramble for the car seat. Another paw flips me before I can get to it. My head smacks into the hard ground. My vision wavers as my stomach lurches. I’m rolled again. Gravel bites into my skin, sending more bolts of pain through me. I grab a handful of loose stones and throw it at the animal attacking me. It roars.
A lion. It sounds like a lion.
Screeching, I crawl on my hands and knees away from it. Better it chase me—hurt me—than go after the baby. The lion knocks me down. I crack my forehead off a rock. My breath rushes out. Blackness threatens to drag me into oblivion. Blinking against it, I roll on my back.
The dark mane of the lion staring down at me fills my vision. My scream gets stuck in my throat.
I’m not imagining this. It’s real.
Saliva drips from the lion’s mouth, landing on my cheek. Every instinct I possess demands I run. Or fight. I can’t. My muscles won’t work. I can’t even breathe. The tightness in my chest promises to stop my heart.
A black blur of fur rams into the lion’s side. The lion crashes into the ground with a wolf on top of it. A huge, muscular wolf. A wolf bigger than any I’ve ever seen. It goes after the lion. They snap at each other. The lion’s claws rake bloody marks over the wolf’s flanks, ripping at its sides. Muscle shows in the gaping wounds.
I choke on bile, but I can’t move away. My gaze is locked on the wolf. It came to my rescue. Now it’s hurt.
The need to go to the animal overwhelms me. I ignore the dizziness and weakness in my body and push to my knees.
The lion and wolf roll in a blur of fur and snapping teeth away from me. The horrid sounds of growls and snarls mix with the ripping sounds of flesh as they tear at each other.
Blood flows from the wounds on the wolf, then slows almost immediately.
With a hand planted on the ground in front of me, I lean forward. The gaping wounds on the wolf’s flanks are gone. Black fur shows where the damage had been. I shake my head. The black fur is still there. No sign of the injuries it had. Blood soaks the lion, though. Part of its shoulder is gone. It limps backward, baring its teeth as if conceding the fight.
The wolf lowers its head. Its gums show on a silent snarl. The hairs on its back rise.
Another lion’s roar sounds off in the distance. The wolf whips its head to look in that direction. The lion lunges at the car seat.
“No!” I fling a rock at the lion, cracking it in the head. It bares huge fangs at me, then takes a step toward me.
The wolf is there in the next heartbeat. Its body shimmers, then fades. A man’s form replaces it. Long nails extend from his hands. He yanks them across the lion’s throat, tearing the front of it out. Then he grabs its head and twists it, yanking it free on a wrenching sound that drops my heart to my stomach.
Blood sprays. The headless lion body drops to the ground.
He killed it. The man—the wolf—he killed it. Leaving me and the baby I saved alone with him.
Snatching my car keys from the ground, I push to my feet, grab the handle of the car seat, and run toward my car. The door is open. I set the carrier on the seat.
An arm hooks around my waist and yanks me against a solid chest. I scream. My cry’s cut off with a large palm over my mouth.
The scent of pine and man surrounds me.
He’s the wolf. He’s the one who killed that lion. He’s the one who saved us.
He’s also not human.
Ilan crowds me against the side of the car and brushes his cheek against mine before pressing his lips to my ear. “If you want to live, Sara, you won’t tell anyone what you witnessed tonight.”