Molly couldn't stop staring at the stranger's back. She squirmed in the molded-plastic subway seat and pulled her bottom lip between her teeth. He stood a few feet from her, gripping one of the silver support posts and seemingly unaffected by the velocity of the train rocketing through the tunnels beneath New York City. But that wasn't what kept her from breaking her gaze. It was his shape.
Easily six and a half feet tall, he sported muscle that spoke of strength not bulk. A black T-shirt hugged his lean torso, displaying his powerful upper body that tapered to slim hips and long legs. And his arms ... His short sleeves hugged his firm, lightly tanned biceps in a way that made her insides quiver when she thought of how it would feel to be held in his solid embrace.
For pity's sake, get a grip, she admonished herself, pulling her gaze away and adjusting one pant leg of her faded jeans. She hoped her arousal didn't show through her nondescript gray tee. After straightening the black-rimmed glasses that perched on her nose and were partially obscured by her mousy brown hair, she looked around the subway train.
No one was looking at her. In fact, everyone seemed immersed in their own business. Her gaze drifted back to the man, and her breath caught in her throat. He'd turned and now stared at her with obvious interest. Though her arousal didn't wane, panic joined the miasma of reactions flowing through her.
Molly wasn't one to be stared at. She'd manufactured herself that way. Truthfully, her name wasn't even Molly. It was Scarlett Mills, but Scarlett stood out in a crowd and that was something she'd worked hard not to do for the last seven years.
His head tilted slightly, and his dark eyes seemed to look inside her. Dark. Black appeared to personify him, and he'd run with it from his black shirt to black jeans to black brushed-leather shoes and belt to his black unruly hair. Before she could force herself to look away again, he crossed the short expanse of aisle separating them and slid into the seat to her left. His light woodsy scent filled the surprised intake of breath she sucked in.
"At the next stop, you need to come with me," he said, the deep rumble of his voice in perfect union with his dark persona. Unfortunately, his words overrode the fantasy that had started inside her.
"I don't think so," she replied.
"You're in danger. Do. Not. Look. There is a man at the back of the car--" He let out a sigh of disgust when she reflexively started to turn. Catching her chin with his fingers, he turned her face toward him and lowered his head. His firm lips covered hers, catching her gasp and commanding a kiss. Her fingers curled in his T-shirt, feeling the warm, unyielding flesh beneath it. Then suddenly he lifted his mouth slightly, nibbling at hers in between words. "If you don't let me help you, you'll be dead before morning. He intends you harm."
"What? I didn't see anyone," she murmured and tried to pull away. His fingers buried in her hair, keeping her still. She didn't dare move for fear of dislodging the brown wig she wore over the hair that matched her name. Dread settled into her stomach. Had she been discovered? Were the last seven years of hiding for naught? Or was this man full of shit?
"He's there," the man said.
"How do you know he's dangerous?"
"How do you know he's dangerous to me?"
"I think you're full of it."
He pulled back and grinned while keeping his fingers firmly in her hair. "I know."
"I don't think you know anything. I'm a nobody and nobody cares about me--not enough to pick me from a crowd and hurt me."
His jaw clenched and an eyebrow raised. "Somehow, I doubt you're wearing a wig because you have a hair-loss problem. You're someone of more consequence than you want to let on. The question is who--"
"Shut up," she snapped. Any fear she'd had sizzled away with the anger that shot through her. "I'm not coming with you, and you can damn well forget me."
"You don't want that. You have a strong will to live--I can feel that."
The train seemed to scream as they surged into the station and jerked to a stop. The doors whooshed open like a spacecraft's airlock releasing, and the man stood. He jerked on her hand, and she tugged back, silently telling him she wasn't going anywhere with him.
"Don't make me force you to come with me," he snapped.
"Janos," he interrupted. "My name is Janos, and at the moment, I'm the only one who can save you, so stop being difficult."
Without waiting for her response, he scooped up her bag, wrapped an arm around her waist and lifted her. With a giant leap she couldn't begin to fathom, he dove through the exit and onto the platform just as the twin doors slid shut. They turned in time to see the train pull away, the livid face of a tall, gaunt man staring at them, his long-fingered hand pressed to the window.
Terror knifed through Scarlett and her knees buckled. She knew that face. She'd never forget it. He was one of the two men who'd attacked her seven years ago and killed her fiancé, cousin, and two bodyguards. She'd been mortally injured and left for dead. Only a miraculous discovery had saved her, but her entire life as she'd known it had been over.
And now, the new life she'd built appeared to be over as well.
"How did you know?" she whispered.
"At first, I didn't then..." He lifted a shoulder in a half-shrug and left his explanation hanging in the air. Obviously, he wasn't going to tell her. It really didn't matter. She just needed to get out of town before that killer caught up with her and finished what he'd started.
"I need to ... thank you for..." For what? Saving her? She shook her head, unwilling to reveal too much. She mirrored his movement and lifted a shoulder. "I need to go."
"You need to come with me. It's the only way to keep you safe until we find your mate." His hand manacled her upper arm and he half-led-half-dragged her up the stairs to the bustling sidewalk of uptown Manhattan.
"Mate? What the--let me go," she demanded through clenched teeth, unwilling to cause a scene. His huge hand nearly encircled her upper arm, and there was no way to escape the determined grip.
She grabbed the handrail at the top of the stairwell and dug in her heels. Thankfully, in the early evening haze, lit only by the lights coming off the surrounding buildings, their battle of wills wasn't obvious. No one paid heed to the dueling couple.
"Are you always so difficult?" Janos growled.
"Are you always so pushy?" she returned.
"Yes. C'mon." He pried her fingers loose and started down the sidewalk as she jogged along beside him to keep up with his long stride. He veered around a corner to a nearly deserted street. At this time of night, in this area, the crowds thinned drastically. That was why she'd chosen now to travel.
"You could be in danger being with me," she tried.
He raised an eyebrow. "Not any more than usual."
She suppressed her own growl. This man irritated her as much as he attracted her--and that was an awful lot. Given the right circumstances, she could see herself willingly surrendering herself to him for an evening of passion, but that evening wasn't tonight and she was three seconds from kicking him in the shins and driving her palm into his windpipe.
Her brow furrowed as she realized she was aroused--irritated, yes, but remarkably, fear-free and needy. No one had dampened her panties like this in years. And why wasn't she afraid of him?
She tried again to tug free. "Where are you taking me?"
"My hotel suite."
"Hell, no," she exclaimed, digging in her heels once more, this time startling him enough that his grip broke. Taken by surprise, she toppled backward and landed hard on the cement.
Janos towered over her. "You are the most obstinate woman."
And what was she supposed to be? A docile sheep going off with him?
She scuttled away then jumped to her feet a short distance from him. It didn't matter how much she wanted him, there was no way she was going to his room.
"And I'm supposed to just let you kidnap me?" Her exclamation drew shocked looks from a few passersby, but they moved on quickly, determining that nothing was awry.
"Kidnap? Is that what you think?"
"I suppose you're hoping for some sort of Stockholm reaction. Ain't happening, buddy."
"Stockholm syndrome? Baby, I don't need to kidnap women for sex."
He stared at her as if she'd lost her mind, and she supposed she had a little. Something about him stole her usual calm and turned her into a babbling irrational mess. Was it because he was so hot and she hadn't had sex in so long, or because of her near miss with the man who'd almost killed her before? Her skin crawled at the remembrance of him, and suddenly, going with Janos didn't seem like such a bad idea. He had saved her from the guy on the train. She knew the faces of both men who'd attacked her--Janos wasn't one of them.
"I'm sorry," she mumbled. "I guess I kinda freaked out."
He gave her a half-smile and held out his hand. "I'm just trying to save you."
Her fingers wrapped around his. "I know. I ... I need to make a call," she told him. He still had her bag, and she reached for it.
"That's not wise."
"Look, after what happened to me before, people will freak out if I don't show up." Her cousin's stepsister, Athena, was getting married, and despite the fact that Scarlett and Athena weren't related by blood, Athena was the closest thing Scarlett had to family, and she needed help with the last week before the big day. Scarlett wouldn't let her down though she was terrified of coming out of hiding and the thought of attending a wedding opened old wounds that were far from completely healed.
No one would know her. She was merely posing as Athena's friend. People might expect the rock star, Scarlett, with flaming red hair to attend, but they wouldn't notice mousy Molly in her ill-fitting and otherwise nondescript clothes. That gave her pause. She was wearing the Molly disguise now. She looked nothing like her former self. Yet ... the killer had recognized her? How? That scared her almost more than anything else. She'd always felt somewhat safe since she was able to 'be someone else'.
"What happened before?" Janos asked, interrupting her rising panic.
She shook her head. That was something she didn't talk about. The emotion from that night, the fear and anguish, still drove her to tears after all this time. A child prodigy, she'd started in the music business as a preteen, both writing and performing popular music. She'd been famous, an award-winner, at the top of the world, with her compositions sought after by other stars. At sixteen, she'd started producing both music and movie ventures, but at twenty-one, she'd been shoved off the high precipice where she'd dwelt by violence she once could have barely imagined. She'd just performed the last scheduled concert of a tour and had gone back to her hotel room to celebrate with her fiancé Mark, her bodyguards, who were close friends, and her cousin Muriel, who was her best friend and her only family.
Champagne and merriment had flowed. It was a joyous night. The hard work of the tour was over and they'd be going home to Southern California where she'd get ready for her impending wedding. She and Mark were due to marry in three months on her twenty-second birthday. In a matter of minutes, every dream she'd cherished had been shattered. Two men had broken into the room. She'd never understand how they'd moved so quickly. The other four in the room were slashed down, killed, then the two had turned to her. She'd run, tripping to get away. Over and over, their knives had sliced into her back. Almost twenty times. How she'd lived no one quite knew. She'd passed out. When she'd awoken, she'd been in critical condition at the hospital and her loved ones were dead.
Janos gave a slight nod, as if he read her mind. Silently, he handed her the bag and waited while she made a call. Athena answered on the second ring.
"Where are you?" she asked.
"I'm not coming," Scarlett replied. "Look, I'll get there, but not tonight. I ... I saw one of them."
"Oh my God! Please, Scar, get out of town. I can't lose you, too. You're all I have."
"You need me--"
"I need you alive, bonehead! Go! Stay safe for me. Please..."
Scarlett closed her eyes. "I love you, Theenie."
"Love you, too. Call me when you can." Athena hung up before Scarlett choked out another word. She snapped shut her phone. Janos took it from her limp fingers. He opened the back, flicked out the battery and, before she could stop him, slid out the SIM card then snapped it like a brittle match.
"What are you doing?" she demanded, outraged that he'd dare to destroy her property. And he was cutting off her most effective means of contacting the outside world. Maybe going with him was a very bad idea after all. Her mother had always told her as a child that danger lurked in pretty packages ... and he sure was pretty.
He tossed the two pieces, the battery and the useless phone into a nearby trashcan. Then taking her arm, he started down the sidewalk again. "If you want to be invisible, you can't send up beacons about your location. Your phone is like a homing signal, and trust me, it's very easy for the wrong people to get their hands on it."
"What are you? A cop?"
He snorted. "Hardly. But I'm not one of the bad guys, either. C'mon."
"Why should I believe you? This could be a trick. You could just be taking me to them."
Janos growled low in his throat.
"The most difficult..." he muttered under his breath. His dark gaze pierced her attitude, deflating it like an old balloon. "These people don't play games. If I was one of them, you'd already be dead. They don't wait for privacy, they just kill. And the longer we wait, the more danger you're in. That one, the one you saw on the train ... by now he's contacted his comrades, and I can promise you, they're headed here now. They want you dead, and they'll see it done this time."
"But there was only one other man," she said weakly.
"There are many. Two might have attacked you before, but there's an entire army, and they all want you dead. Now you can trust me and let me help you, or ... I can force you to come with me. Like it or not, you're under my protection."
An army? They wanted her dead? Why? She'd never hurt anyone! "I don't ... Why do they want me dead?"
"Because of who you are to my people."
He was so matter-of-fact it sent panic racing through her. "What--"
Exploding brick and glass beside them threw her into Janos. His arms went around her like iron as she looked over her shoulder. A swarthy man with glowing blue eyes stood no more than twenty feet away--no! He wasn't standing. His feet were six inches above the ground while he levitated. His fingers glowed the same blue as his eyes and balls of light surrounded his palms.
What was he?
Janos growled, his arms tightening. He seemed to grow taller ... and thicker, muscle building against her body. Stunned, she glanced up at his face. A gasp tore from her, ripping from her tight throat like razor blades. Blackish green scales--she could only describes them as scales--cascaded over his face like dominoes tumbling over one another. His head changed shape, becoming more triangular, sharp teeth protruding from his mouth, his nose disappearing. The scales tumbled down his body, covering even his clothing. She screamed when wide leathery wings curved high above his shoulders. As she struggled to get free, they wrapped around her, surrounding her entire body and holding her as tightly as his arms.
They blocked out all light, allowing her to only see Janos' face above the wings enclosing her. But it wasn't Janos' face. It was ... something reptilian.
An impact knocked them back a few feet, and ever through the wings, she felt the energy sizzle over them. Janos roared. While she watched, wide eyed, he opened his mouth. A harsh rumble ground against itself beneath her ear. His chest expanded then his torso curved slightly down, bending her with it. Suddenly, his belly hollowed and a blast of fire shot from him. The light of it blinded her. As the streak of flames continued, the pressure of his wings stole her breath, crushing her into darkness.
"Dragon..." she whispered, the sound lost in the fury above her. "But dragons don't exist..."