Like most people, Kimi Wicker didn’t see it coming when her world got knocked off its axis. It was just another Friday night at McMillan’s Tavern, including her roommate Amanda Cross showing up almost an hour late for her shift. Kimi held up her wrist, nodding at her watch when Amanda jogged by. She’d been busy cutting limes from behind the bar, preparing for a busy weekend night. “You’re late.”
“Sorry, sweetie,” Amanda replied, pointing at her hair. “Took longer than expected.”
Following a few steps back, a lean, middle-aged cowboy took a seat at the bar, his nostrils slightly flared from the lingering scent of Amanda’s perfume. Kimi wiped her hands on a towel as he dropped his beige Stetson on the empty seat beside him, nodding toward the swinging double doors. “What the hell that fool girl do to her hair this time? She got brain damage or somethin’? I ain’t never seen the likes.” He turned back to Kimi, his face bewildered. “Gimme a beer there, would ya, hon. A Bud’ll do.”
“You bet,” Kimi said, laughing. Like most bars in Oregon, McMillan’s was Country and Western through and through and her roommate stuck out like a strutting peacock in a flock of wild turkeys. Amanda’s wild hair attracted most of that attention, a natural blonde, spiked short. But tonight she’d shown up with the tips dyed shiny black, enough to shock even the more open-minded of their regulars.
By the time Kimi set the cowboy’s beer down in front of him and counted out his change, Amanda had returned, busy tying an apron around her waspy waist. “Looks good,” Kimi said, pressing her palm lightly against the stiff spikes of hair. “Goes with the dress anyway.” They all wore the same style, a short black cocktail number, only Amanda filled it out in all the right places. Kimi’s hung loose no matter how much she tried to alter the thing.
Amanda grinned. “Yeah, pretty awesome, eh? Think I’ll keep it like this for a while.” She stood on tiptoes and air-kissed Kimi’s cheeks. “Sorry I’m late. Boss having a hissy yet?” She reached across the bar for a serving tray already stocked with napkins and paper coasters.
“Not yet,” Kimi replied, holding out a stack of small bills. Saved steps running for the cash register to make change. “Alice came in early so I don’t think he noticed.” They always worked three girls on the floor weekend nights.
“Good deal. Guess I’d better hop to before he figures it out.” Amanda winked and walked away, the cowboy’s hungry gaze following. A woman sitting at the table directly behind him twisted the tips of her hair as Amanda passed, probably wishing she had the courage to try something so bold.
Kimi went back to cutting limes until the bartender’s hand closed over hers, pinning it to the counter when he popped her on the ass. Glaring down at the freckle-faced young man, she held back a growl, knowing it would only egg him on. “Idiot, you’re gonna get stabbed one of these days.”
“That’s why I pinned your hand, babe.” Keith Matson released her as he bent to retrieve stray pieces of lime off the floor. He tossed them in the garbage at her side, his bright blue eyes twinkling. “Wouldn’t want any accidents, don’t you know.” Grinning, he flipped dark red bangs out of his eyes.
“Jerk,” she grumbled, releasing the knife. “See if I try to help you again. Do your own damned prep work.” But they both knew she wasn’t upset. Keith lived to get a rise out of people. Not always a good deal when you added alcohol to the picture.
“Love you too, babe,” Keith said, grin still firmly in place. He slipped the bowl of limes into the refrigerator under the bar. “I can take it from here. The kegs are lined up and ready to tap. I miss anything?”
“No, not really. Amanda finally showed up.”
“Miracles do happen.” Keith softly snorted as Amanda skipped up to slap her tray on the bar. “Finally decide to show up, Highness?”
Amanda flipped him the bird. “Whip me up three blended margaritas, would ya?” When he didn’t move fast enough, she snapped her fingers under his nose. “Hup, hup, bar boy, I got thirsty customers out there.”
Keith’s face flamed the same shade as his hair. “Don’t hup, hup me, ya freak, or I’ll tell the boss you were late … again.” He wasn’t serious. Like a lot of men, Keith would do about anything to cover for Amanda. Women too, for that matter.
The cowboy chuckled as the blender whirred, lifting his mug of beer in a toast toward Amanda. “Got that one wrapped up tight, don’t ya, hon?” She winked back.
A few seconds passed and Keith returned with the Margaritas, setting them on the bar beside Amanda. “Nice fucking hair. You tryin’ to scare everyone off? What’d ya do, have a run-in with a porcupine on the way in?”
Before she could respond, Mr. McMillan called from the end of the bar, “Okay, kiddies, back to work.” His gaze froze on Amanda, mouth open as he scratched his cheek. “Go on, get back out there,” he finally said, then turned to point a finger at Keith. “And you, buster, better watch that foul mouth. I don’t wanna hear that kind of trash in here.”
“Yeah, right,” Keith mumbled, careful to keep his back to Mr. McMillan. “Good luck with that one. It’s a fucking bar, for Christ’s sake.” He looked over his shoulder and motioned with both hands at Amanda’s hair. “Sorry ’bout that, boss, couldn’t help it.”
Mr. McMillan grimaced and waved them away.
Though boisterous customers kept Kimi hopping, she struggled to settle and couldn’t figure out why. Her skin crawled and she about jumped every time someone touched her. She’d be glad to get this night over so she could go home, take a hot bath and crawl into bed.
She stopped at the bar and yelled out an order to Keith, glancing at the clock above the enormous mirror along the back wall. “God help me,” she whispered, slumping. Only ten after eleven. Early yet, almost three hours till last call. And then another hour to clean up, if she was lucky.
Waiting for her order, she turned to watch the crowd, finding her gaze drawn to a young, well-built man standing inside the front door. He stood out with his long, wavy red hair and dark shades. Not to mention he towered over the six-foot bouncer beside him. Kimi narrowed her eyes and fought down a shiver as she watched him, his gaze moving slowly across the room. Though hard to tell for sure through the dark shades, she thought he paused a fraction of a second longer on her.
Alarm bells shrieked inside Kimi’s head and she found it suddenly hard to breathe, panic threatening to close off her throat. The stranger scared the bejesus out of her, bad enough she might try to run if he walked toward her. But why? She breathed a huge sigh of relief when he turned to walk across the room. “That’s right, big boy,” she whispered, “you go sit your badass somewhere else.” Amanda wouldn’t be so cowed by a guy like that. She’d think he was hot.
“You okay, babe?” Keith said, setting Kimi’s drink order on her tray. “Looks like you saw a ghost.”
Yeah, maybe so. Kimi shook her head and picked up the tray, trying to forget about the tall stranger. “I’m good. Just tired tonight, I guess.”
It only took a moment to drop off the drinks and she turned for the back of the room, planning to break up a young couple in the corner with more going on under the table than should be. When Kimi stopped to take an order she found herself shoved violently from behind, her tray full of money and empty glasses flying across the table.
“Dammit, I’m so sorry, guys,” she said as her customers jumped back, trying not to get wet. Kimi turned, prepared to chew ass, but found the sharp words lodged in her throat. Stunned, she watched the young couple she’d been about to separate crash into another table as they struggled to get to the front door. The guy was deathly white, still in the process of zipping his fly, the girl roughly pulled behind him, her hand fisted tight around his open shirt tail.
“What the hell?” Kimi murmured, catching the bouncer’s eye at the door. He lifted an eyebrow, then shrugged, allowing the panicked couple to pass when she didn’t motion him to stop them. Oh well, good riddance. It saved an argument she wasn’t in the mood for. After straightening her money, she set out again, too busy to worry about it. The abandoned table needed to be cleaned for new customers.
Kimi stopped dead in her tracks, startled by the sight of the tall stranger taking a seat at the same cluttered table, his back against the wall. It figured. “God, why me? I have such shitty luck!”
Not hard to guess who’d scared the bejesus out of the fleeing couple. With her internal alarms still pinging, Kimi wanted nothing more than to follow the frightened couple right out the door. Instead, she stiffened her spine and headed his way, fighting to mold her face into a pleasant mask. Even through the dark shades she could tell he was focused hard on her face and her smile faltered. Something is seriously off about this dude, she thought, tracking his movements as he removed the dark cowboy hat and dropped it on the table, totally relaxed as he fingered the brim.
Yeah, right, Kimi thought, tearing her gaze away from his hand, the longish fingernails almost sharp. He was trying too hard to fit in. She fought down a shiver and raised her eyes to his face. Dude, if you’re a fucking cowboy, I’ll eat my shorts. She could maybe see him in black leathers straddled over a Harley, but no way he’d be comfortable on the back of a horse. No freaking way! So why would he come in a place like this?
Couldn’t be anything good.
Kimi fought her instincts and stepped up to his table, ready to bolt if he made one funny move. “How ya doing tonight?” she asked, pleased when her voice didn’t crack. “It’ll take a sec’ to get this mess cleaned up and I’ll get your order.”
“Thank you, Kimberly. Take your time, I’m in no hurry.”
She froze, eyes narrowed, then looked up from the table to get a better look at his face. Did she know him? No one called her Kimberly. Not even family.
When he didn’t add anything, she picked up her tray without wiping the table and hoped he wouldn’t notice the tackiness left behind. Kimi found she no longer wanted him to remove the shades, afraid of what she’d find hidden beneath. His face bothered her enough, the skin pulled too tight over prominent cheekbones, the structure all hard angles. Just wrong! The ‘don’t-fuck-with-me’ vibes coming off him were impossible to ignore and she took a small step back, wondering why no one else appeared to notice.
His tight smile did nothing to ease her fear and she fought not to take another step back. Pretty soon she’d be back at the bar yelling out her questions to him.
Good lord, Kimi, cowboy-up your wimpy ass, she finally told herself, frustrated. It’s what Amanda would’ve said. She wouldn’t be afraid, or at least she’d never act it. Kimi cleared her throat and finally asked, “What can I get ya?” She focused on her pad, avoiding his hard face as her pen tapped out a nervous rhythm on the tray.
“Water would be fine, Kimberly, thank you.”
She had expected the deep voice from the size of him, but the odd accent threw her for a loop, not one she’d ever heard before. Though not unpleasant, it didn’t do a thing to calm her nerves, her imagination dreaming up all sorts of idiotic things, like maybe he was an assassin. After a few uncomfortable seconds, Kimi looked up and raised an eyebrow, forcing herself to exhale. “What else you want with that?”
“Nothing. Water is fine.”
She chewed on her lip, searching for a way out. “I’d still have to charge you a house drink price. Rules, sorry.” Trust me, I’d give you the damned stuff, gladly! “Sure you don’t want a drink?”
“I’m sure.” His smile widened and Kimi swore she caught a glimpse of fangs. She flinched, taking another step back, almost two feet from the table now. Sweat broke out over her upper lip and she cast a quick glance toward the bouncer, finding him busy checking IDs at the door.
“Relax, Kimberly. I have no intention of causing you harm. The water is fine. It doesn’t matter what you charge for it.”
“Okay, fine, I’ll be right back then.” She turned and skipped away, giving him no time to change his mind. Maybe she’d get Alice or Amanda to take him back his freaking water.
God, she needed to get a grip! But the bastard knew her name—her real name. No way that could be a good sign.
Kimi set his water on a paper coaster without making eye contact and bolted before he could pass her any money. She didn’t care if Mr. McMillan chewed ass, she’d pay for it herself, totally worth losing a few bucks if she didn’t have to look into that hard face again. Afterward she did her best to concentrate on work, thankful when the stranger didn’t appear thirsty. The last time she checked, he’d completely ignored the water, the ice slowly melting, his full attention shifted to Amanda.
No big surprise there.
And all Kimi felt was relieved.
* * *
Around midnight the band took a break and things calmed down enough for Kimi to lean against the bar for a short breather. She stood beside Amanda and slipped off a shoe to crinkle her toes.
“Holy shit!” Amanda said, grabbing Kimi’s arm. “Would you get a load of that? Oh! My! God!”
Great, she’d finally noticed him.
“Kimi,” Amanda said, “would you turn your skinny ass around and take a look. I swear, sometimes I think you’re completely dead below the waist. You don’t have a clue what you’re missing.”
Oh yes she did. But Kimi turned, fully expecting to find the fanged stranger standing right behind her. Probably needed another glass of water, the freak.
Kimi found a stranger all right, just not the same one. She sensed the new man was dressed in black, but couldn’t pull her eyes away from his face to double check. His features weren’t as fierce as the guy wearing the shades, softer, more flesh covering the bones. The biker guy had a chin shaped similar to Amanda’s, almost pointed. This new one had a strong, square chin, with only a hint of a cleft. She also found his mouth not quite so wide, his lips fuller.
Very kissable lips.
Where the hell had that thought come from? She found him attractive, almost perfect, or he would’ve been if not for the nose. Though straight enough, she found it slightly too large for his face. But who the hell cared about one small flaw? Not Kimi. Her gaze shifted a fraction to the blond hair, pulled back from a high, smooth forehead. Not all blond though. Silver streaks were laced through the light coloring, but not the kind of silver advancing age could give. This was brighter, shinier than it should be inside a room so dark.
The longer Kimi stared, the harder she found it to think straight. His green eyes pulled at her. They glowed, pulsing with a strange energy that held her locked in place. Her lower belly clenched and she swore the unnerving pulse in her groin tried to match the flickering light in his eyes. Everything outside of the man faded away: no sounds, no people, no building, nothing. Nothing but those glowing green eyes that threatened to consume her. Even the repugnant smell of spilled drinks and cigarette smoke had begun to fade, replaced with fresh, cold mountain air, rain and snow to wash everything clean.
She shivered as his eyes began to change again, a misty-white light pulsing outward around them. Tendrils of energy began to shoot across their surface, the sparks quickly growing in strength. They were building, hot fingers reaching out . . . reaching out for her.
Please don’t, she thought. Please don’t do this. Let me go.
“I am sorry, eillelé, I cannot. Forgive me.”
His words came through clearly in her mind. And though deeper than the first stranger’s, his voice carried that same odd accent. Kimi tried to scream, but like the sound of his gentle voice, she heard it only in her mind.
The white mist began to swirl around Kimi, a storm that trapped her inside the now empty bar with the stranger. The tornado began to spin faster and faster, Kimi caught firmly in the eye.
They moved slowly forward, the electrical charge emanating from them only seconds away. Kimi couldn’t think, couldn’t breathe.
An explosion of blinding pain almost dropped her in her tracks. Sparks zapped through her brain, agonizing even as they filled her with an incredible sense of power.
“Stop! It hurts!”
“I’m sorry, eillelé. I can do nothing to stop this. You were not supposed to be here. It is a gift you were not prepared to receive.”
A Gift? No freaking way!
And just like that, it was over, or the worst of it anyway. Kimi’s death grip on the edge of the bar was all that kept her on her feet. “Mandy,” she whispered, grateful to find her voice again. “Help me. Are you there?” Her stomach rolled from the sickening sweet scent of mixed perfumes and spilled beer. “Mandy!”
“Yeah, sweetie, I got ya the first time. What’s up?”
Kimi bit at her lower lip and fought back tears as the shaking grew stronger.
“Hey,” Amanda said, concern creeping into her tone. “Baby, what’s wrong? Here, lean on me.” When Kimi’s legs started to buckle, the pitch of Amanda’s voice raised. “Christ, what the hell. Hey, come on, let’s get you in the back.”
Amanda sounded worried, but not afraid. The bar had to be a complete mess and yet Kimi heard only music and laughter, no screaming in the background.
At Amanda’s gentle touch on her arm, Kimi released the edge of the bar, leaning hard against her friend. She gasped, her lungs still half frozen with fear.
“Don’t let me go,” Kimi whispered. “Please, Mandy, don’t let me go. I’m blind. He burned me, fried my eyes. Help me! Make it stop!”
“Keith,” Amanda yelled. “Get your sorry ass over here! Now! Kimi’s sick.”
A strong arm slipped around her waist. As the shaking grew worse, Kimi let Keith take most of her weight, her teeth chattering a rapid Morse code no one could understand.
“Shh, baby, relax,” Amanda whispered. “Let’s get you sat down and then you can tell me what’s wrong, okay? You need Keith to carry you?”
Kimi shook her head as they stumbled through the swinging double doors into the back room, fuzzy images trying to come into focus. She whimpered, in her mind visualizing long blond hair with heavy silver streaks.
And bright green eyes, eyes filled with so much power. It made no sense. Lightning had reached out between them, passed through her. But not all of it had gone back. When he turned to leave, a portion of it had stayed behind. Stayed inside her. Even now she could feel the power moving through her head, growing stronger, taking hold.
Nausea hit without warning and all Kimi could do was lean over and heave. She dropped to her knees and silently begged for the spasms to stop. A small garbage can was pressed into her hands and she gripped it tight, praying it would end.
“That’s it, baby,” Amanda whispered, pressing a cool, damp cloth to Kimi’s forehead. “Get it all out. Jesus, girl, what did you eat today? Has to be food poisoning, but I’ve never seen anything come on so fast.” She wiped the mess from Kimi’s mouth and tucked a few loose black strands of hair behind her ear. “We need to get you home so you can lie down.”
“Christ!” Keith said before Kimi could reply. “Who gives a flying fuck what she ate. That shit’s all over my new Tony Lama boots. I just bought em yesterday. You know what these fucking things cost? I’ll never get that goddamn crap cleaned off.”
“Shut up, asshole,” Amanda hissed. “Why don’tcha take your dumbass back out front and get Mr. McMillan. He’ll have to drive Kimi home. I’ll take her to the hospital later if she isn’t better.”
As the doors slammed against the wall, Kimi buried her face against Amanda’s chest and let her friend hold her while she shivered and cried. She should be hot with all that electric energy zinging around, but only felt cold. Kimi wanted nothing more than to go home, crawl into bed, and forget this freaky night.
If she could.