Two months later
Ryder was hunting again, and damn, it felt good. To be on his own, with no one to tell him what to do and when or how to do it.
It was like being back in the military again—Special Forces—the best of the best and in charge of his own destiny. He'd loved the life back then, and he'd done it for ten years before deciding all the killing was just a little too enjoyable. That's when his loner status had ended. He'd gotten out, gone back home a hero, and then shortly thereafter been recruited for the so-called reality show that had made him a demon hunter.
Now he was killing again. But this time, he killed demons for a living, and he didn't work alone anymore. He liked the other demon hunters just fine, but he was used to this isolation, to a one-man operation, and this is what he preferred—stalking his prey one-on-one.
His lips curled as he thought about that prey—Angelique. Out of all the demon hunters, he was the most suited to find her. Ryder knew more about Angelique than any of the others, could complete this assignment better than they could. He'd touched her, gotten inside her head, had spent more time with her than they had.
He knew her lies.
And now that he'd found her, had her cornered, it was just a matter of sneaking up on her and grabbing her and the black diamond.
Providing she had it on her, which if she did would be really stupid.
Angelique might be a lot of things, but Ryder didn't think for one second that she was stupid. So she probably didn't have it there at the tiny house she'd rented.
It was isolated, but in an open area. He had good camouflage, though, since there was an abandoned, thickly covered vineyard behind the house, with dense trees and bushes, which was where he'd set up. The house was located in the midst of all this foliage. If not for the narrow road and driveway, the average person might never locate this place. Perfect spot for someone who didn't want to be found.
Ryder was good at finding people who didn't want to be found. He'd vowed to unearth every bit of dirt on her if he had to work twenty-four hours a day to do it. She'd screwed him, and not in the fun way. She'd used him to get her hands on the diamond, and then she'd run.
But not nearly far enough, because he'd found her. And now that he had, he wasn't going to let her go again.
Once he located her house, he'd hidden out, waiting to see how populated this area was.
It wasn't. At all. No traffic traveled this road, so he'd waited until nightfall, then hid his car within a dense area of bushes behind the property.
He'd followed a seldom-used footpath leading up toward the house. Thick with shrubbery along each side, it kept him shielded from the back of the house. He could see no light through the windows, so he hoped she was asleep.
The path wound around parallel to the curved drive—easy enough to keep watch for cars, though judging from the lack of traffic he didn't expect anyone to come this way. He finally found a spot where the house came into view, and he settled there. It was on higher ground, giving him a great vantage point to see everything. He could see the back door of the house, and keep his eye on the drive in case Angelique left.
He leaned against a tree, figuring he'd just watch for a while, see what she did, get a handle on her routine for a day or so. He'd been single-minded in purpose since Lou had given him the assignment. Single-minded with a vengeance, in fact.
And angry. Damned angry.
It was time to back off, gather a little distance from his subject, and make sure he remained detached from what he was doing.
Just a job, Ryder. She's just a job.
Yeah, right. He was thinking about his job. He was thinking betrayal, anger. They seethed inside him. He recognized them for what they were. Emotions. That was bad shit. He liked it better when emotion didn't enter the equation at all, when he could go about his business and not think about anything or anyone but his work. He wasn't his father, imagining slights and insults that weren't there, barreling through life with a tornadic fury of anger that was almost visible, all of it imagined, internal demons his old man fought no doubt his entire life. His father had been fucked-up for as long as Ryder could remember. Probably insane, but never got treatment, instead set loose upon his family to wreak whatever havoc he chose. And it had been bad havoc. Frightening. Ugly. Painful, both physically and mentally.
He'd long ago vowed to never be like his old man. The old man had just enjoyed inflicting pain. Ryder figured his father had done it to release his own internal demons.
Whatever. Ryder preferred being grounded in reality. And reality meant a laser in his hand, a demon he could see, and a kill he could verify. His reality was demon body count—not some mental bullshit that screwed with a warrior's reality. He could overcome the weird stuff. He wasn't at all like his father. Hadn't he spent his entire adult life proving that?
As long as he remained aloof, his focus on killing demons, he'd be okay. There was no emotion involved in demon hunting, which suited him just fine.
He'd screwed up with Angelique. He'd let her get close. He'd talked to her. He'd kissed her.
Angelique made him think, made him feel. She'd brought out emotion in him.
That made her dangerous.
He'd convinced Lou, their leader and a Keeper of the Realm of Light, that he could handle this—find Angelique, figure out where the black diamond was, and bring her, and it, back to the Realm of Light.
Ryder had never failed on a mission before. He didn't intend to now. All he had to do was wait it out. Angelique would lead him to the black diamond.
One way or the other.
Just as he started to relax, one of the curtains moved downstairs and Angelique's face appeared, peering through the window. This was the first time he'd seen a glimpse of her since she'd arrived in her car this afternoon and gone straight inside.
He peeked through the foliage, hoping like hell she wouldn't walk outside.
Nothing. The curtain was back in place, the light was on, and all he could see now was her shadow within the house.
The shades were all drawn and he watched her silhouette moving about in one of the rooms downstairs. He had blueprints of the floor plan of the house, so he knew the layout. Downstairs kitchen and living room. Upstairs one bedroom and bath. Small, cozy, room for one or two people, max. His audio equipment picked up everything going on inside. There wasn't anyone else in there with her, and she hadn't used the phone, because he was tracking her cellular calls, too. She didn't even talk to herself.
He heard the sounds of cooking, the shower running, then all the lights went out about eleven p.m., so she obviously went to bed.
He glanced down at his watch. Almost midnight. Good thing it was warm outside. He crawled out and parked it on a thick slab of rock, figuring his equipment would alert him if anything happened. He had to get at least a little sleep or he'd be useless. Though he could go a day or two max without any rest, he preferred to maintain mental alertness, since he had no idea what to expect. As far as the Realm of Light knew, Angelique may have already made contact with her sister, Isabelle, and the two of them had planned to do something with the black diamond. And since none of them had managed to find Isabelle yet, they were hoping Angelique would lead them to her. Though the hunters were out searching for Isabelle, too.
Maybe they'd find Isabelle first.
It was a waiting game now. Ryder hoped he didn't have to wait too long.
He jerked awake at a sound, immediately glancing down at his watch. It was three in the morning. Shit. Blinking away the fog of sleep, he listened intently, wondering if Angelique was up. No lights. So what had he heard?
Something crashed inside, like a lamp. He shot up to a standing position, saw a flicker of light, then darkness again. His senses on full alert now, he wondered if maybe she'd just gotten up and knocked the lamp over. Maybe she had a bad dream.
He knew all about nightmares. He'd lived through a few of them. The shit going down around him the past six months seemed like a living nightmare. Sometimes he didn't want to close his eyes.
He didn't hear anything now. Not wanting to reveal his hand and go running in there, he paused, but grabbed his weapon and readied himself, just in case.
He wished he'd had time to install surveillance cameras inside, but that was going to have to wait until the next time she left the house. Then he'd have eyes and ears. Still, his skin prickled with unease, and whenever that happened it meant something bad was going on.
He didn't like this. Something wasn't right. He moved through the bushes, into the vineyard and toward the house, making no sound. Approaching the back door first, he made a slight turn on the knob. It was locked. That was a good thing. He moved to the window, peering in through the sheer drapes, using his night vision shades to help him discern objects in the pitch blackness.
No activity. Angelique wasn't downstairs. His ear comm was connected to his audio equipment, and he could hear her breathing now.
But it wasn't normal, restful breathing like she was sleeping.
It was deep and ragged.
The breaths of terror. She wasn't speaking, as if her mouth was covered. He didn't know how the hell he knew this; he just did. She was being restrained, and she was petrified.
Goddamit. He had to get in the house now.
So much for surveillance.
Though he'd like to kick the damn door down and rush upstairs, he couldn't do that. Not without assessing the situation first. Which meant he had to take the time to pick the lock.
Precious seconds ticked by as he grabbed his pick and worked the simple lock. Thankfully, she didn't have major armor installed on the door. Bad move on her part, really good for him. In a few seconds, the lock clicked. He winced at the sound and pushed the door open, hoping it wouldn't creak.
It didn't. He left the door open, and moved inside, taking each step with care. He already knew where the stairs were and headed at them, wanting to bound up there, but resisting.
Slow. Measured steps. Make sure not to alert whoever was upstairs.
Patience, something that was in short supply right now. Weapon trained, he reached the top of the stairs and heard the whispers.
"Tell me where the black diamond is or I will cut out your heart and eat it. And you'll still be alive to watch me."
Cold dread poured through Ryder as he surveyed the scene. A dark shadow loomed over Angelique. She was lying in bed, her body pressed to the mattress, the man's hands wrapped around her throat.
But who held her? Was it a demon? It definitely wasn't a hybrid. They smelled so bad he'd have known one was in the house as soon as he walked in. And those foul-smelling hulking bastards didn't speak.
Angelique must be frozen in fear, because she hadn't uttered a single word, her eyes wide as she stared at her attacker, whose face was only inches from hers.
The bastard was going to die. First thing Ryder had to do was get the guy's—or thing's—attention. He pulled a knife out of the sheath at his belt, took careful aim, and let it sail through the air. It caught the guy in the upper back, right between the shoulder blades.
Instead of jumping up or falling in pain, the creature—because that had to be what it was—calmly stood and turned to Ryder.
Well, hell. Its eyes glowed a pale blue. Pure demon, maybe? Their eyes were pale blue, but Ryder didn't remember seeing their eyes glow in the dark like that. Almost fluorescent.
The creature advanced on him.
"Angelique, get ready to run," Ryder said, unable to determine if she was in shock, or hurt, or whether she could even hear him. All his concentration was on the thing headed his way.
"She's not going to do anything you say. She's mine now," the dark thing said, inching closer to Ryder.
Without hesitation, Ryder raised his laser and fired a stream of ultraviolet light. Human or demon, it didn't matter. Either one would die.
The light struck the creature and it paused, looking down at the blue fluid spreading over its chest and midsection. Its arms raised out to its sides as it frowned at Ryder, then let out a pained growl.
It kept coming. Okay, not supposed to happen. UV lasers killed demons. And it sure as hell would toast a human. So what was this thing? Ryder braced and fired another round, but obviously his laser wasn't going to work. He shouldered it and went for the microwave gun, blasting the creature and hoping to melt it from the inside out.
Again, nothing. Other than irritation and a slight pause, that was about it. The damn thing smirked at him. It knew Ryder's weapons would have no effect.
Fuck. Ryder backed up, wanting to draw the thing away from Angelique. He moved down the hallway toward the stairs. The thing kept pace with him, not rushing him, as if he was toying with Ryder, as if this was some kind of game.
Fine with Ryder. As long as he could get the creature away from Angelique, he was willing to play. He backed down the stairs, one slow step at a time, hoping it would follow.
Ryder continued backward, pulling his knife as he did. The high-tech weapons weren't working, so maybe something more basic would.
"Come on," he said to the creature, widening his stance and holding the knife out.
The thing looked at the knife, then back at Ryder. "You can't kill me."
"Everything can die," Ryder returned as the creature maintained its distance. It didn't seem to be in any hurry to attack Ryder. Maybe it was waiting for him to make the first move, or maybe it was just confident that it was going to win.
Excerpted from The Darkest Touch by Jaci Burton. Copyright © 2008 by Jaci Burton. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.