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DRIFTER

Underneath Book 2

Leslie Georgeson

Smashwords Edition


Copyright © 2017 Leslie Georgeson


This is a work of fiction. The events and characters described herein are imaginary and are not intended to refer to specific places or living persons.


* * *

This e-book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This e-book may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favorite e-book retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.



TABLE OF CONTENTS

Prologue

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty-One

Chapter Thirty-Two

Chapter Thirty-Three

Other Titles by Leslie Georgeson

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PROLOGUE

Mitch watched as the trader caravan neared the small well, a bedraggled group of six women and three men. The group stopped, gathered up their canteens and water bottles, then they lined up at the well head. He had no doubt the traders were headed to Aftermath. The colony was less than a mile away. This was the perfect opportunity and probably the only chance he’d get to sneak into Aftermath without Ronin’s army knowing.

Gabe, Claire and Honor were probably almost to the mountain by now. Mitch needed to find Gabe’s brother, Ethan, and get the hell out of Aftermath before the army detected him. He would have to use stealth, patience, and his keen senses to avoid detection.

He slipped toward the carts that the traders had parked several feet away from the well. Most were too small for him to hide inside. But the two near the back were large enough to hide him. A woman near the end of the line glanced back, as if she’d heard him. Or sensed him.

Mitch dropped back, hiding behind the termite mound. He waited several moments, then peered around the dirt. The first of the traders were now filling their water jugs. He didn’t have much time.  

Mitch snuck closer to the carts. The one at the end was covered with a thick gray tarp. He glanced back at the group of traders. The first of them had finished filling their water jugs and were now tipping their heads back and gulping down the water. Mitch yanked the tarp back and dove into the cart. He quickly pulled the tarp back over the top of the cart. Something soft and squishy shifted beneath him. He glanced down, his drifter eyes able to see clearly in the dark.

Vegetables. He was sitting smack dab in a pile of vegetables, squashing tomatoes and peppers and other produce beneath him.

Well hell. Why couldn’t he have picked the cart with something less messy inside?  

Not one to pass up an opportunity when it arrived, Mitch snatched up one of the tomatoes and took a bite. Sweetness mixed with a savory tang. It was delicious. It had been a while since he’d had a tomato.

Voices came from outside the cart. Mitch burrowed deep into the vegetables, trying to hide as best as he could.    

Then the cart jostled forward.

       He was on his way inside Aftermath.  

CHAPTER ONE

The late-afternoon sun beat down on Kate as the trader caravan moved forward, the first of them entering the tall, acacia thorn gates of Aftermath.

“There’re soldiers here,” Angeline whispered, turning to Kate and wiping sweat from her brow. “That’s not good.”

“No,” Kate murmured back. Not good at all. She tilted the brim of her flimsy sun hat lower to shield her face from the sun’s glare. She’d traded some squash and tomatoes for the hat over a year ago, and now the hat had just about seen its last day.

“Why don’t you get rid of that pathetic hat and try one of my hoodies?” Angeline was a seamstress and trader of fabrics. Hoodies were her most popular item. Everyone needed something to block the sun’s glare and protect their skin on this continent. Hoodies were perfect, because they could be raised or lowered at the wearer’s desire. Angeline traded a variety of sizes and colors and always had customers.

Kate nodded. “I just might take you up on that. You in the mood for some veggies?” Kate’s vegetables weren’t as popular as Angeline’s hoodies, but she wasn’t a seamstress. She’d inherited her mother’s passion for growing things, and had found a way to use that skill to keep her alive in these harsh times.

Angeline grinned and turned away. “I am, actually. I need more fiber in my diet. We’ll make a trade inside.”

This was the fourth colony they’d visited on their journey from the west that had been overtaken by Ronin Dred’s army. Times were changing. But not for the better.

Kate pulled her cart behind her as she followed Angeline, and stepped toward the acacia thorn fence that marked the entrance into the small colony of Aftermath. Dust rose up behind the caravan and swirled around them. Kate covered her nose and turned aside until the breeze pulled the dust away from her face and sent it into a small whirlwind across the savannah. She let out a cough and turned her head forward again.

The cart seemed heavier than normal today. Maybe that wheel needed fixing again. Or maybe it was just that she was exhausted. It had been a long week, trading at the small colonies they passed on their way east. Aftermath was the last colony on this side of the Serengeti. They would stop here for a few days, then head west again to refill their carts, then head south to the colonies in that direction. Kate planned to check the wheel once she was safely inside Aftermath.

Eight other traders were in front of her. She was the last in line. She’d started out in the middle of the pack, but earlier that afternoon, right after they’d stopped at a small well to fill their canteens and water bottles, her cart had suddenly seemed to get heavier and heavier, until she gradually dropped back to the end of the group. Now it was all she could do to get the cart the last few feet into the gate. It was a relief to finally reach Aftermath. The last time she’d come through here, the people had let her stay for a few days before she’d moved on. She was looking forward to a good night’s rest and the pleasant company of good people.

“What you trading, lady?” A soldier in worn-out green army fatigues stepped into her path, blocking any further entrance into Aftermath. The other traders, including Angeline, were already inside the fence, pausing to let people check out their wares.

Kate grew her own vegetables, but she didn’t know how to hunt or fish or raise livestock, so she traded her produce for meat, dairy and other items she wasn’t able to procure on her own.

Kate halted, the weight of her cart almost knocking her over as it rolled to a stop behind her. When had the damn thing gotten so heavy?

“Fresh vegetables.” She reached for the tarp covering her produce. Pulling the corner back, she leaned over to peer in. It was darker underneath the tarp, slightly cooler, which was why she kept her vegetables covered. The vegetables lasted longer if they were shaded from the heat. “I have tomatoes, corn, peppers, onions, green bea–” Kate broke off with a soft gasp as a hand came up from her cart, latching around her throat. She tried to jerk back, but the hand only tightened, holding her in place.

“Don’t move the tarp,” a male voice whispered. “If that soldier sees me, he’ll kill me. And if I die, so do you. Understand?”

Kate froze. The voice was distinctly American, though she couldn’t ascertain which region. Northwest? Midwest? Maybe southwest? After hearing so many African dialects for the past ten years, it was rare to hear the once familiar speech of another American. Though that didn’t mean the person hiding in her cart wouldn’t hurt her.

No wonder her cart had seemed so heavy. How long had she been lugging the man around with her? Why hadn’t she thought to check inside the cart before now?

Because it had never occurred to her that a man would be hiding inside. She’d blamed the stupid wheel.

Kate jerked her gaze toward the stranger’s face, trying to make out his features in the semi-darkness of the cart. But his head was partially buried in her vegetables and it looked like he was wearing a hoodie—one of Angeline’s?—so she couldn’t get a good look at him. The shadowy darkness inside the cart helped obscure whoever was lurking amongst her vegetables.

Kate had no desire to die today. All she wanted to do was trade her wares and move on to the next colony.

“You gonna’ show me your veggies or what?” The soldier in green fatigues stepped forward, his legs filling her peripheral vision, but her head was inside the cart, thanks to whoever had a tight grip around her throat. “I ain’t got all day, lady. I want a tomato. Haven’t had one in a while. A big, fat juicy one.”

Kate sucked in a breath. “Just a…second.” The hand loosened slightly around her throat, but didn’t release her. The strength in the man’s hand indicated the rest of him would be just as strong. She had no doubt he was perfectly capable of killing her. He grabbed her right hand and stuffed a large ripe tomato into her palm.

“Don’t try anything stupid,” he whispered. “Give him the tomato and move on.” He tightened his hand around her throat, moving his fingers slightly and putting pressure on her larynx. It was a warning that Kate heeded. She swallowed hard and nodded. This guy meant business. American or not, she had no doubt he was dangerous and that he would do exactly what he threatened. He could easily strangle her before she was able to call for help.

She quickly weighed her options. She had no idea who was hiding in her vegetable cart or how he’d gotten in there. He’d said he would kill her only if the soldier discovered him. Why was he hiding from the soldiers?

The soldier, on the other hand, would no doubt kill her if she refused to show him a tomato. She’d witnessed what the soldiers did to people who didn’t do what they wanted.

Kate decided she would take her chances with the stranger hidden in her cart. He was an American. Like her. Stranded in Africa. Like her. They had that one thing in common, at least.

As her pupils dilated, adjusting to the semi-darkness, Kate was better able to make out the lean, sinewy shape of the muscular arm that held her in its grip. She noticed long, strong-looking legs bent at the knees, covered in dark gray pants, and large feet clad in lace-up boots. He wore a gray shirt with rolled-up sleeves that tucked into the waist of his pants. The dark clothing helped him blend in with her menagerie of vegetables. The jerk was sprawled out smack dab in the center of her produce, smashing a good portion of her only source of surviving in this world.

Outrage surged through her. How dare he smash her vegetables! He would pay for them, damn him! Didn’t he understand how difficult it was to grow vegetables in this climate? Didn’t he know how hard it was to constantly be on guard, protecting her crops from thieves and the local wildlife? Every single one of her vegetables had been painstakingly tended, guarded, and cared for to maturity so that she would have something to trade with. A way to survive.

She jerked her gaze back to his face, intent on giving him a piece of her mind.

Golden eyes locked on hers, glowing eerily in the semi-darkness of the cart.

She let out a soft gasp.

His eyes hadn’t been glowing a moment ago.

He’d switched them on like a light.

Crap.

He’d been bitten by the drifters.

If she’d been afraid before, she was doubly so now. Those who survived drifter bites were never the same, some even losing their humanity completely.

Kate shivered and tried to pull back, but he yanked her forward so she tripped into the edge of the cart and toppled over the side. Her hands splayed out as she landed on a hard, muscular chest. He let out a soft grunt, his hand releasing her throat. She sucked in a breath as his entire body tensed underneath her. The man was hard everywhere, his lean, powerful body oozing danger like a cornered cobra. Vegetables squished beneath them. Kate squirmed, trying to push away. His arm shot out, latching on to her wrist. Her face was a mere few inches from his.

“I warned you,” he hissed. “Don’t push me. I don’t want to kill you.”

His golden eyes glowed, hardening as he stared at her. And as she stared back, trembling at the threat of unleashed violence, she noticed his unusual amber-gold eyes had orange flecks in the irises. She’d never seen eyes like that before. What was he? Man or beast?

The darkness of the cart still obscured his features, though she was now able to make out a lean jaw shadowed by black beard stubble. Her earlier impression of a hoodie was correct. The gray fabric lay behind and around his head, obscuring his features, making his glowing eyes stand out like golden lanterns in the dark.

“Uh, I’m waiting for a tomato,” the soldier prodded impatiently. “You know, those reddish-orange things? Surely you’ve got one in that cart somewhere.”

Crap. If she didn’t get out of the cart and back on her feet right away, the soldier would become suspicious. And then they would both die.

“Just a moment, sir,” she called.

Kate turned back to the man in her cart. “Okay,” she whispered. “I won’t say anything. I promise.”

A heartbeat passed while they stared at each other.

Then he released her.

Kate stumbled back, breathing a sigh of relief, and rearranged the tarp over the vegetables so the soldier wouldn’t see the man hiding inside. Drawing in a deep breath, she jerked around and lifted the tomato for the soldier’s inspection. “How’s this, sir?”

The soldier snagged the tomato. He sniffed it, inspected it. Then he took a large bite. Juice and seeds squirted out, spraying Kate’s arm. The soldier grinned. “Delicious. You can enter.” He waved her inside. Sighing, she grabbed the handles of the cart and lugged it forward, entering the colony. He closed the fence behind her. Smirking, he strode away without bothering to offer anything in exchange for the tomato.

Kate seethed. Asshole. But it wasn’t as if she could do anything about it. If she made a scene, they would kill her. Ronin Dred allowed the traders to pass without harassment from colony to colony as long as the traders shared their wares with his soldiers. Once in a while Kate would encounter a soldier who was fair and gave her something in return. But that was rare.

“Thank you for not giving me away,” the voice whispered from the cart. “They’re hunting me. They will kill me if they find me.”

“Who are you?” she whispered back, glancing around as she moved forward. “Why are they hunting you? And how did you get in my cart?” A few bedraggled women leaned against the edge of a building, while small children sat in the dirt near their feet, their expressions filled with misery. The colony was nothing like it had been the last time she’d passed through. Then, it had been filled with laughter, happiness, and children playing. The people had been friendly and welcoming. Kate had no doubt the women had been turned into sex slaves, the men had either been killed or forced to join the army, and the children were treated like dogs and beaten if they didn’t obey. It was sickening. It was happening to all of the colonies. And there was nothing anyone could do about it.

“It doesn’t matter who I am or how I got into your cart,” the man whispered. “I’m here trying to find someone. Once I locate him, I’ll be gone. I just need you to hide me for a few hours. If you do that, I will be in your debt.”

Kate pulled the cart to a halt behind the other traders. Very few people came forward to check out their wares. The last time she’d been here, people had swarmed around, eager to see what they offered and anxious to trade. Times had definitely changed.

“You’re already in my debt,” she whispered. “You ruined my vegetables. You’ll have to pay for them somehow.”

He made a sound from under the tarp that sounded like a snort, or maybe a laugh, but she couldn’t be certain. “I’ll repay you. When I get out of here, I’ll go hunting and bring you some meat. Okay?”

Kate glanced around. People were slowly coming forward to trade with the other traders, but no one approached her cart just yet. Walking around to the back of the cart, she flipped the corner of the tarp back. Anyone who was looking would think she was organizing her vegetables. In actuality, she was curious to see the face of the man who’d stolen away in her cart without her knowledge.

Kate peered in at him, her gaze landing on his. His head was only inches away, supported by various produce. His eyes filled with wariness as they bored into hers. Again, she was struck by his unusual eyes. Amber-gold with orange flecks in the irises. His pupils were round and black, but they shrank as she stared, becoming slender and elongated in the light, until his pupils were nothing more than vertical slits. Like a reptile.

Kate shivered. He might look human, but his eyes were definitely lizard-like.

She let her gaze roam down. The light illuminated his face, outlining his handsome features. The beard stubble obscured the lower half of his jaw, but what she could see was definitely handsome. She wasn’t sure why, but she hadn’t expected him to be good-looking. She’d expected him to be ugly, mean-looking. Rough. He was certainly rough. Perhaps a little mean-looking—in his strange eyes, at least. But he definitely wasn’t ugly.

Her breath caught as they continued to stare at each other. Heat crept into her cheeks. Her heart did a little flip-flop in her chest. He wasn’t very old. About her age. Late twenties, his features smooth, chiseled, well proportioned. And those soul-searing, amber-gold eyes with their reptilian-like pupils…

“Do you mind?” His voice was low, gruff. “Someone is going to see me if you don’t lower the tarp.” When she continued to stare, he quirked a brow. “Does seeing my face make you feel better?”

Kate dropped the tarp, her heart pounding furiously. No. Not really. He left her feeling rattled. Shaky. Breathless.

Get a grip, Kate. You don’t even know who the guy is.

He’s dangerous. He’s a beast.

She would be wise to just help him find his friend, then bid him farewell.

She yanked the cart forward again, his soft laughter ringing in her ears.

Kate would be wise to stay as far away from him as possible.

CHAPTER TWO

Mitch chuckled as the vegetable trader pulled the tarp back over the cart, hiding him from view. She was spunky. Bold. Unpredictable.

Which made her dangerous.

He was beginning to suspect he’d chosen the wrong cart to hide in. He couldn’t predict what she might do next. For all he knew, she might yank off the tarp and hand him over to Ronin’s soldiers.

Which would mean certain death for him.

The cart jostled as she pulled it forward, bouncing over ruts and rocks in the dry ground. Mitch bounced along with it, smashing vegetables beneath him, the juices soaking through his clothes. The cart came to an abrupt halt, tossing him backward. His head slammed into the back of the cart. Ouch. Was she trying to knock him out? He rubbed his sore head. He suspected she’d done that on purpose. Not that he blamed her. He wouldn’t be in her cart if he had another way into Aftermath without detection.

Feminine voices came from outside the cart, then the tarp pulled back and the trader’s deep-set, dark chocolate-brown eyes locked on his.

Something long dead stirred inside him. Awareness.

Damn, she has pretty eyes.

He let his gaze travel over the rest of her face. The funny-looking hat on her head shadowed her features, so all he was able to see was her pursing her lips before she looked away and tossed vegetables aside, searching for something. Finally, she lifted an orange bell pepper and three Roma tomatoes from the cart and turned away, lowering the tarp back over the cart.

“Here you go, miss. Thank you.” The tarp lifted again and she tossed a brick of cheese inside.

Mitch caught the cheese and grinned. His stomach growled with hunger. It had been days since he’d had a decent meal. He’d sampled a few of the trader’s tomatoes, and a red bell pepper, but most of the other vegetables were inedible until cooked. He unwrapped the cheese and sank his teeth into the brick, tearing off a large chunk. He sighed with pleasure as he chewed the fresh goat cheese.

The cart jostled forward again, bouncing him around. Voices came and went as she traded with other people. A loaf of bread sailed over the side of the cart. Mitch tore off a chunk, chewed and swallowed. He needed a drink.

She reached in and grabbed more vegetables and turned away. Then her slender arm came back and set a jug of milk near his feet.

Mitch unscrewed the cap and gulped down several swallows of fresh milk. His hunger dissipating, he settled back into the vegetables to wait until dark. He didn’t stop to think about how rude he was being. He was hungry and the food was there. What more could he say? Besides, he planned to make it up to the woman once he found Ethan and got out of here. He would bring her some meat in exchange for everything he’d taken from her.

The woman traded with people for the next hour or two, striking up conversations with the residents as she went. Mitch listened to their banter and learned that Ronin had recently returned to Aftermath. Ronin must have lost control of the drifters. While that was good news, it meant Mitch needed to be extra alert. Ronin could sniff him out like a bloodhound. Mitch couldn’t dally here too long. He needed to find Ethan and get the hell out of Aftermath.

The trader woman concluded her trades and set a few more items into the cart: a pink hoodie sweatshirt, a basket of eggs, a bag of flour. Finally, she chucked a ham into the cart. The ham landed right on his stomach. The breath left his lungs in a startled whoosh. Then he chuckled. She’d done that on purpose. She was definitely expressing her displeasure with him. She probably couldn’t wait to be rid of him.

The cart moved forward again.

The voices faded away.

Finally, after several minutes, the cart drew to a halt. How much time had passed since they’d entered the colony? Two hours? Three? Had the sun gone down yet?

It was quiet. Too quiet. Had she gone away, leaving her cart unattended? Not likely. She wouldn’t abandon the items she’d just traded for.

Had she alerted the soldiers to his presence and at that very moment they were sneaking up on him? Mitch tensed. He very slowly lifted his bow from the squished vegetables. Slipping his other hand into the gooey pile, he felt for his quiver of arrows. He extracted an arrow and fitted the nock into the string of the bow. And waited.

The tarp pulled away in a quick swirl of fabric. Mitch lifted the bow and pulled the arrow back, leaping to his feet and crouching low, all in one swift movement.

The trader woman stood before him, hands on her hips. She’d removed the ugly sun hat and now clutched it in her right hand. Mitch let his gaze jog around, noting that they were in an alley of some kind, behind the main building. Alone. The sun was almost down now. Thank God.

He slowly lowered the bow, but he didn’t let go of the arrow. Just in case.

The woman swallowed hard, drawing his gaze to her slender, delicate throat. The soft, tender throat he’d gripped in his hand not long ago. Though he tried not to check her out, his eyes disobeyed him. He was only human, after all—or, at least, mostly human. He hadn’t been able to see her clearly earlier because the sun had been behind her when she’d stuck her head into the cart and the ugly hat had obscured her features. His poor eyes had been starved of feminine beauty for so long that he couldn’t help but stare. Mid-to-late twenties. Straight black hair that was pulled back with a piece of leather and ended just above her ass. His gaze traveled down her body, noting her thinness, her small breasts and round, feminine hips, her flat stomach and lean, toned arms, then raked back up until it finally rested on her face.

Her features were intensely feminine, soft and perfectly sculpted. Well, maybe not perfectly. Her nose was a little big. And she looked tired. She was certainly pretty, though a bit ragged, probably from her travels across the dry landscape. But it was her eyes that drew him in, capturing his attention and making him curious about her. Big and dark and cautious, they hinted at a strength he suspected went much deeper than he’d witnessed thus far. This woman had suffered. And it had made her stronger. Who was she? What was her story?

I don’t care. I’m only here to find Ethan and get the hell out.

Her lips puckered into a scowl. “I hide you and this is how you thank me, by almost shooting me with an arrow?”

Mitch cleared his throat. She was definitely not a pushover. “I didn’t know it was you. I thought it might be…a soldier.”

Her eyes narrowed. “You look very much like a soldier yourself.” She let out a soft gasp and backed away from the cart. “Oh my God, you’re one of them, aren’t you? What is this, some kind of con? What do you want with me? I’m warning you, I won’t go down without a fight.” She yanked a small pocket knife from the front pocket of her faded jeans. Flipping it open, she held it out in front of her defensively. The hat fell from her hand, forgotten in the dirt.

Mitch let out a snort. She thought he was going to rape her? As if. He snatched up his quiver of arrows and hooked it over his shoulder. Then he hopped out of the cart.

The trader woman leapt aside, her eyes wide and wary, pointing the knife at him.

He paused, studying her for a moment. He supposed she was right to be afraid of him. There were many men who would try to rape her. And judging from the wariness on her face and the fear he sensed coming off of her, some may even have succeeded.

He could easily disarm her. But he didn’t need to. She was harmless. And she wouldn’t stand a chance against him—with or without the knife.

“I used to be one of them. Not by choice, and not anymore. And I told you, I’m only here to find someone, then I’m leaving.”

Mitch slipped into the shadows at the side of the building and yanked the hoodie over his head. He wrinkled his nose at the stench of vegetables, sweat, and grime that radiated off him. He needed a bath. And clean clothes. Neither would be easy to come by now that the soldiers had overtaken Aftermath and Mitch had been labeled a traitor.

The woman hesitated a moment, glancing around. Features that had been wary moments ago were now filled with curiosity. She hurried after him.

Instinct caused Mitch to jerk back until he hit the wall. He didn’t like people in his personal space. And touching was to be avoided at all costs. He preferred that she be afraid of him and stay back. Way back.

She paused. “You’re afraid of me?” Her disbelief wrapped around him. She lowered the knife, folding it and stuffing it back in her pocket. Then her lips curved into a smirk. “Seriously?”

Her amusement irritated him. “No. I’m not afraid of you. But you should be afraid of me.” He shoved away from the wall, marching toward her, attempting to scare her away.

She bounced aside, her eyes widening. Her fear returned, radiating off her, pulling at his predatory instinct to chase and subdue. He ignored it. He was not in the mood to go hunting. Especially for women.

Mitch glanced both ways down the alley. Garbage spilled out of a bin against the wall about ten feet to his left, the stench overwhelming his nostrils. Now that Ronin’s army resided primarily at Aftermath, the trash had more than doubled. In the opposite direction, an old woman entered the back of the building with a basket of dirty laundry, closing the door behind her without even looking at him. No one else was around.

The trader woman continued to study him. Her intense scrutiny caused him to twitch and squirm with discomfort. Mitch turned his head and glared at her, making his eyes glow in warning. “Go away, woman. I don’t need you anymore. I’ll finish this task on my own.”

She let out a soft gasp, her hand flying to her mouth, her gaze locked on his. “What are you?”

“Hey! You there!”

Mitch jerked his head to the right. A tall, black soldier stood at the end of the alley.

Lionel. Ronin’s right-hand man.

Shit. Mitch glanced at the opposite end of the alley. He closed his eyes and imagined himself there.

He opened his eyes moments later and found himself at the opposite end of the alley. The trader woman stood at the other end, glancing around, wide-eyed, looking for him. Mitch slipped around the corner before she discovered where he’d gone.

And found himself face-to-face with Ronin, the leader of the Slayers.

The man who was hunting him.

* * *

Ronin blinked.

What the fuck?

He was seeing things. He had to be. Mitchell couldn’t possibly be standing right in front of him.

Before Ronin could determine whether that were true, Mitchell disappeared.

Ronin blinked again. Mitchell was not where he’d been moments before.

Ronin was losing it. The damn drifters had messed with his mind.

He’d almost made it to the mountain a few days ago before the little bastards had suddenly stopped following him and turned around, heading back across the savannah.

Which could only mean one thing: Honest Gabe hadn’t died after all.

Ronin had had no choice but to come back to Aftermath. Without the drifters, he couldn’t control the mountain. So he’d returned, arriving just hours ago. He now had to find and kill Honest Gabe before a new leader emerged from within the drifter pack. Which seemed unlikely at best, impossible at worst. Ronin had stopped at Honest Gabe’s on his way back here, but the place was deserted. Honest Gabe had somehow survived and slipped away. Now Ronin would have to start all over again. And that pissed him off. He was on a mission now to kill. Determined to eliminate Mitchell, Honest Gabe and the redhead. All of them must die. And soon. That mountain and all its power were destined to be his.

Which lead him back to what he’d thought he’d seen moments ago.

Had he imagined coming face-to-face with Mitchell, the betrayer? Was his mind really playing tricks on him?

No. He hadn’t imagined that. Mitchell had been there.

Mitchell had disappeared once before. Right after Ronin had beat the shit out of him.

No fucking way. Why hadn’t he figured that one out before?

Was Mitchell able to teleport?

Son-of-a-bitch!

Ronin darted around the corner just in time to see Mitchell disappear again.

Ronin teleported to the end of the alley where a slim, dark-haired woman stood in confusion, glancing around.

“Where did he go?” Ronin grabbed her arm. “Tell me where he went.”

Her eyes widened as she stared up at him. “Who? The used-to-be soldier? I have no idea. One second he was here, the next he was gone. I don’t think he’s human.”

Ronin snorted and released her. “Oh, he’s human.” I just don’t know how much. He glanced up and down the alleyway, watching for movement. He sniffed the air, searching for Mitchell’s scent.

Nothing.

Instead, he detected the smells of vegetables, pork, flour, dairy…all coming from the trader woman’s cart.

Normally, Ronin could scent a person without any effort. But Mitchell was wily. He’d probably masked his scent with something stronger.

Lionel strode forward, along with two other soldiers. He twirled one end of his bushy mustache between his fingers. “I think I saw Mitch a moment ago, but I can’t be sure.”

“It was him.” This confirmed it. Mitchell had returned. What was the traitor up to? “I want the entire place searched. Gather all the residents into the main room. No one sleeps until he’s found. Check all the traders’ carts. He must have snuck inside in one of them.”

The woman inched away from him, her eyes growing huge.

Ronin snagged her arm, bringing her to a halt. “You know something, don’t you? Tell me.”

She swallowed hard. “I-uh, found him in my cart. He jumped out and disappeared before I could figure out who he was or what he was doing there.”

Ronin eyed her for a long moment. She was quite stunning, long black hair, big dark eyes, smooth, olive-colored skin. Unfortunately, she was too skinny for his taste. He preferred round, full, voluptuous women. Despite her prettiness, she wouldn’t do. He needed to go find himself a woman with lots of curves. Like the redhead who had gotten away. Thanks to Mitchell.

He thrust her aside.

Mitchell would pay for that too when Ronin caught him. Traitors deserved to be punished harshly. Traitors deserved to die.

“You will join in the search, woman.” He snared her with his gaze. “Come along. You will tell me everything you know. You will help me bring the traitor in.”

CHAPTER THREE

The last thing Kate needed was coming under the radar of Ronin Dred. But that was exactly where she now found herself. He dragged her over to her vegetable cart while the alley filled with soldiers who searched for the stranger. What had the man done to make Ronin hunt him like this?

Ronin peered into the cart, noting the squashed vegetables. He reached in and pulled out a hand-made arrow. Turning it slowly, he inspected it, sniffed it.

“Yep. This is Mitchell’s arrow. His scent is here. He was here recently.”

Mitchell? That was the stranger’s name? Who was he? What was he?

Ronin jerked his hard gaze to hers, his eyes black as death. “You sure you don’t know where he went?”

Kate swallowed hard. I will not be afraid. I will do whatever he wants. I don’t want to die.

She shook her head. “He was here one second, gone the next. He just…vanished. What is he?”

Ronin snorted. “He’s a traitor. The enemy. He must die.”

Kate shivered. Maybe she shouldn’t have told Ronin about the man. A trickle of guilt slithered under her skin. Mitchell hadn’t done anything to hurt her other than scare the crap out of her. In fact, now that she thought about it, his hand really hadn’t been that tight around her throat. Had he used her fear to make her think he was dangerous? Had he been bluffing the whole time?

Kate had to admire a man who was brave enough to betray Ronin Dred. Everyone feared Ronin. Including her. And for good reason. Ronin was evil. Far from human.

Kate cleared her throat. She would join in the search for the stranger, Mitchell, but instead of turning him in when she found him, she would help him escape. Helping someone elude Ronin’s evil clutches would give her great satisfaction. And maybe, just maybe, Mitchell would help her in return.

Is that really a good idea, Kate? You don’t know anything about this Mitchell person. You don’t even know if he’s human.

He’d said something about a person he was there to find. If she helped him, maybe he would help her. She needed someone to teach her how to defend herself better in this harsh world. Her little pocket knife wouldn’t deter everyone. If she helped him escape, would he teach her how to use a bow and arrow to protect herself and to hunt for food?

She glanced back at Ronin. “What did he do?”

Ronin snapped the arrow in two and looked down at her. “He betrayed me. That’s all you need to know.” He paused as he continued to study her. “If you help me find him, I will reward you handsomely.”

Kate swallowed hard, forcing herself to hold his hard stare. “What kind of reward?”

Ronin shrugged. “You find him, we’ll talk.” Turning away from her, he barked orders to his men. Then Ronin strode away with his soldiers, leaving her alone in the alley.

Kate remained perfectly still. Should she help search for the man and see what kind of reward Ronin gave her?

The air stirred next to her, making a wisp of loose hair tickle her neck. She jerked her head around, her heart pounding.

The man, Mitchell, stood a few feet away, smirking.

She gasped. “How did you do that? What are you?”

He shrugged. “It’s called teleportation. Psychokinesis. I use my mind to take me to another place.”

She stared at him. “I thought that was only in the movies. And we don’t even have movies anymore.”

“Sad, but true. I can assure you, you’re not in a movie right now.”

Kate slapped her hands on her hips. “This is no time to joke. Ronin is hunting you. He wants me to help find you. He promised me a reward if I found you and turned you in.”

Mitchell quirked a dark brow. “So what are you waiting for? Turn me in and see what he rewards you with.”

Kate hesitated. Why was he acting so nonchalant? Did he want her to turn him in? “I don’t trust him.”

His smirk returned. “You have good instincts. You’d be foolish to trust Ronin.” He turned away from her, his gaze scanning the alleyway. “I could use your help, after all. Would you be willing to help me find my friend? His name’s Ethan. He’s tall, with brownish-blond hair. He was injured by the soldiers, so he may be lying low somewhere, hiding out. Last I saw him, he was hiding in the cellar, but he may have moved since then. If you go search Aftermath for me while I hide out, I will be forever in your debt. If you help me find him, I’ll reward you much better than Ronin ever will.” He turned back to her, his eyes glowing golden in the dark alley. How did he do that? Make his eyes glow, then turn off, then glow again, like a light switch?

“How do you do that?”

“What?”

“Make your eyes glow on and off.”

He shrugged. “It takes practice.”

Kate waited for him to say more, but he didn’t.

She sighed. “If you can teleport around, then why do you need my help?”

He glanced at something behind her, stiffened, then relaxed. “I can only teleport to a place I can see. I can’t see through walls, so I would have to gain entrance into Aftermath in order to teleport around inside. And now that the soldiers are looking for me, I won’t be able to sneak in undetected. That’s why I need you.”

Kate considered that for a moment. “So that was how you went from one end of the alley to the other in a blink of an eye.” She glanced up at him again, took a step toward him. “Where did you go after that?”

“Around the corner.” He backed away from her, his gaze filling with wariness.

Kate paused. So she hadn’t imagined that earlier, when he’d deliberately stepped back. He didn’t like her in his personal space for some reason. “But there were soldiers everywhere.”

He nodded. “Not only can I teleport, but I can do it as fast as a cheetah. So I can bounce around, moving from one place to another, which can confuse the human eye into thinking I’ve disappeared into thin air, especially if I teleport behind something.”

“Like the building,” Kate finished softly. That was why he’d just vanished. He’d teleported out of her line of vision. Wow. That was…fascinating. Who was this guy? A smartass—certainly—with strange, piercing eyes and a lean, muscular body who made her extremely aware of him in a way she’d never been aware of any other man before. Men, in her experience, were pigs. But this guy was different. He looked like a man on the outside, but who—or what—was he underneath the handsome exterior? He didn’t like her standing too close to him, but he’d said he wasn’t afraid of her. He exuded a natural wariness that reminded her of a wild animal. Was he even human?

The only way to find out would be to agree to help him. Kate wanted to find out. More than she wanted to admit. The man had spiked her curiosity. She was eager to peel away his layers and find out who he was underneath.

She pulled her gaze back to his. “I’ll help you on one condition.”

His lips twitched in another smirk. “And that is?”

Kate held his gaze. “You teach me how to use a bow and arrow. You teach me how to defend myself. You teach me how to hunt.”

* * *

The woman was full of surprises. Mitch hadn’t expected her to agree to help him, and he certainly hadn’t anticipated that she would make any demands for doing so. Admiration swelled in him. He was starting to like this woman. She was tough. He imagined she hadn’t had it easy since the asteroid shower. He’d never cared about hearing anyone’s story before. Life was hard. So fucking what. That’s just the way it was now. But he was curious about the trader woman. What had brought her to Africa?

Helping her would be a small price to pay for finding Ethan. Mitch planned to make Ronin pay for what he’d done. He just couldn’t do it alone. He needed Gabe and Ethan’s help. And now, this woman’s.

He didn’t even know her name.

“Agreed. But only if you tell me your name.”

She held out her hand. “Katherine Davis. Call me Kate. I understand your name is Mitchell.”

Mitch stared at her hand. Touching her would send any emotions she might be experiencing directly into him. Not good. “Mitch Duncan. Call me Mitch. And I can’t touch you.” He turned away without shaking her hand. “I’ll wait here. You go see if you can find my friend. A woman named Maddy was helping him. The people around here call her Dr. Maddy. If you find her, you might find him.”

The trader woman, Kate, stepped up to him, pausing only about a foot away. “Okay. I’ll go look for him.” Her gaze sought his, drawing him in. Damn, the woman really had pretty eyes. Stunning. Up close, he could see they were darker than he’d originally thought. Nearly black, her eyes were the color of coffee without cream, lined with thick black eyelashes, and brewed with strength and determination. And a mystery that intrigued him.

Her scent reached him, sweat and dirt mixed with a hint of strawberry shampoo, soap and soft femininity. Mitch’s nostrils flared. His heightened senses told him she’d probably bathed the night before, which was why he was able to detect the faint hint of soap and shampoo that still lingered on her skin and hair. Unexpected desire surged in his loins. It had been a long time since he’d noticed the opposite sex. His gaze darted down, skimming over her small breasts, then jogged back up to hers. She blushed, but continued to hold his gaze. Something flashed in her eyes, then floated over him. Attraction.

Mitch swallowed hard. This was not good. She could become a distraction he didn’t need. He had a job to do. He couldn’t get involved with her.

Not since Lisa had died had he really paid any attention to another woman. But something about this woman got to him. He couldn’t pinpoint exactly what it was, but she intrigued him like no other woman had before. The sudden desire to get away from her nearly overwhelmed him. She was too close.

Mitch took a step back.

She eyed him a long moment, her expression contemplative. “You are scared of me. Why? I’m human. I’ve never been bitten. Unlike you.”

Mitch had already determined she was human. Humans gave off a different scent than those who’d been bitten. Teaming up with her might end up being a bad idea. She was too observant. She could ruin him. Yet he didn’t detect any fear coming off of her anymore, just determination. Which was good. Determination he could handle. Fear might trigger his predatory instinct to hunt.

Mitch took another step back. “As long as you remember I’m not all human, that I’m dangerous and unpredictable, then we should get along just fine. And I’m not afraid of you. I just don’t like people in my personal space. So. Back. Off.”

Color crept into her face. “Sorry.” She stumbled backward rapidly, giving him his space, and continued to back away until she bumped into her cart. “You’re a strange one, you know that?”

Mitch snorted. Can’t deny that. But if you keep moving away, I’m going to chase you.

The hunting instinct flared inside him, compliments of the cheetah he’d once bonded with. When his cheetah friend had died, Mitch had inherited not only the beast’s superior senses, but also his predatory instinct to chase and kill anything that moved. Most of the time, Mitch could control it. But sometimes, like now, it was all he could do to hold it back. For some reason, this woman triggered his instinct to hunt. But it wasn’t a killing instinct. It was pure lust. A mating instinct. Which was completely foreign to him.

“A word of advice, woman. Don’t ever run from me.”

Her eyes widened. “Why not?”

“Because it triggers my predatory instinct to chase and subdue.”

Awareness flashed in her eyes. She swallowed hard. “What exactly does that mean?”

An answering desire surged through him. Fuck. He didn’t need this. Especially not now. The desire to slam her up against the building and take her was almost too much to ignore.

“Go now. See if you can find my friend. Or you’ll find out exactly what that means.”

She held his gaze for a long moment, her face slowly filling with color again. Then she raced around him.

“I said don’t run!” Mitch ground his teeth. He clenched his fists.

She halted, then carefully tiptoed around him. She paused and turned back to him. “You never said why you couldn’t touch me. Does it have anything to do with your instinct to chase?”

Mitch hesitated. The woman asked too many questions. Ethan was the only one who knew about all of Mitch’s “gifts” from the drifters. But if he was going to team up with Kate, she would figure it out eventually. Or think he was weirder than a two-headed rhinoceros.

“I’m an…empath, for lack of a better word. It was one of my ‘gifts’ from the drifters. Touching makes it worse.” Mitch wasn’t sure why he told Kate that, except he wanted her to know the truth up front so she wouldn’t be confused by his actions later. Keeping his distance from people was necessary for his very survival.

Her eyes widened. “That was why you tensed when I fell on top of you in the cart. Did it hurt to grab me by the neck?” The expression on her face said that she hoped it had.

He smirked. “Not exactly. I felt your terror. Your indecision. You couldn’t decide if I was the lesser evil or if the soldier was.”

Embarrassment crossed her face. “How did you know that? Can you read minds too?”

Sometimes. He shrugged. “Trust me, I don’t enjoy it. In fact, I hate it. Human emotions can be overwhelming. If you stand too close, I can sense your feelings, your urges, your energy.”

She swallowed, her eyes huge with wonder. “That’s why you don’t like me in your personal space.”

Mitch nodded. “Keeping my distance from people helps repel their emotions. The closer they get, the more I can feel what they feel. Touching makes your emotions spiral into me. And that can be very painful, especially if you’re giving off a negative energy.” He turned away from her. He was done talking about his “gift”.

He felt her standing behind him, staring at his back, probably thinking he was a freak.

“Go now. Find my friend so we can get the hell out of here.” His dismissal was firm. Non-negotiable.

He felt her slight hesitation, then her soft footsteps echoed down the alleyway as she walked away.

He didn’t watch her leave.

He couldn’t watch her leave.

Because he could no longer control the urge to hunt.

The urge to chase.

To subdue.

To mate.

The predatory urge had never been this strong before.

And never had he felt this way toward a woman.

What did it mean? Why was the desire to chase her so strong? Especially when he instinctively kept his distance from people? The animalistic urge to catch her, subdue her, and mate with her was undeniable. His body still hummed with lust, the heat flowing through his veins like hot lava. Was this what a male cheetah experienced when he encountered a receptive female?

Lisa had never brought out this hot, lustful desire in him. Then again, Lisa had been fragile, delicate. A gentle soul. Mitch had always exercised the ultimate tenderness with her. Losing her had ripped out his soul, left him cold and empty inside. And filled him with the desire for vengeance.

Mitch couldn’t lose sight of his goal. He couldn’t let his lust for Kate interfere with his plans.

Ronin must pay. And Mitch intended to see that he did so.

No matter the cost.


CHAPTER FOUR

Kate slipped around the corner, her heart pounding. Dear God, the blazing look in Mitch’s golden eyes…

She’d felt his lust like a caress along her skin. He wanted her. And Lord help her, she wanted him too. An instant, all-consuming attraction had pulled from her very core, aching for him. What the hell was wrong with her? Life had taught her in her twenty-seven years that men were beasts. Animals. Not to be trusted. Brutal. Heartless. To be feared. It was true that Mitch scared her. But he also fascinated her. She didn’t understand why she was attracted to him when she’d never been attracted to any other man before. What was it about him that drew her to him so strongly? He’d said he was an empath. If that were true, then she understood his desire to keep his distance from people. If he was able to perceive and experience other people’s emotions, that would be…overwhelming. Possibly even unbearable. Sympathy tugged at her. Followed by admiration. He must be very strong to be able to deal with that. And what had he meant by “predatory instinct”? Was he some kind of predator? Was there any humanity inside of him, or was he all beast?

She shivered involuntarily. How could she be frightened of Mitch and intrigued by him at the same time? He didn’t give off an evil vibe like Ronin. She wanted to know his story. All of it. She wanted to know who and what he was.

Kate had never been one to back down from a challenge. And Mitch was certainly a challenge. So she would help him. And he damn well better help her in return. She’d been screwed over by too many people. Betrayed by those she’d trusted. Now she trusted no one.

Except she had no choice but to trust Mitch. She had to give him the benefit of the doubt. Just because nearly everyone else in her life had betrayed her, didn’t necessarily mean he would too.

Kate opened the front door of Aftermath. Soldiers rushed about, obviously searching for Mitch. The residents—all women and children—huddled together in a group near the far wall.

Ronin spied Kate the moment she closed the door behind her. He strode forward, his black eyes piercing. Ronin was a large man, way over six feet tall. Kate felt extra small standing next to him, though she was of average height at five and a half feet tall. Ronin wasn’t just intimidating. He was scary with that short-cropped blond hair, those mean black eyes, and his hulking, muscle-bound, tattooed body.

“Any luck finding Mitchell?” He stared down at her, his eyes hard.

Kate shook her head. “I thought I saw him coming in the door a moment ago. I must have been wrong.”

Could he tell she was lying?

Ronin narrowed his eyes. “If he came in this door, I would have seen him.” He spun around, his gaze skimming every corner of the room. Finally, he turned back to her. “What powers does he have? Do you know?”

Kate swallowed hard. “I-uh, think he teleports or something. He disappears, then reappears in a different place.”

Ronin nodded. “I already knew that. But it’s more than just teleporting. He’s got other powers too.” He stared at her, his black gaze delving deep, searching…for what? Could he read her thoughts?

Kate’s skin heated. Dear God, she hoped not.

Keep your thoughts hidden. Don’t think about anything at all. Keep your mind blank.

Ronin chuckled. “You find him attractive, don’t you?” He smirked. “Did he promise he would repay you if you helped him?”

Her face grew hotter. How did he know that?

Ronin shoved his ugly face into hers. “You want to fuck him, don’t you?” He snickered.

She lifted her chin. “Well, he is good-looking, all that raw, sexy masculinity. I’m sure any woman would agree.”

Ronin snorted and stepped back. “Mitchell, a ladies’ man? Ha! He’s too much of a loner. Not since I got rid of that pathetic excuse of a woman he loved, has he shown any interest in women.” He scratched his head. “And that was three years ago.”

Kate inhaled sharply. What had Ronin done?

“Did you murder his wife?”

Ronin chuckled. “I only did what I had to do to get him to see things my way. If anything, I just put her out of her misery. Africa is mine. Those who defy me have to learn the hard way that I’m the boss around here. I’m going to be king someday. I’m going to rule it all.”

Kate puffed out a breath. “You’re awfully full of yourself.”

Ronin cocked a brow. “And you’re awfully brazen to challenge me. Do you have a death wish, woman?”

Kate lowered her gaze. Easy, Kate. Just do what he wants, then get the hell out of here.

“Mitchell is going to pay for his betrayal. You can either help me out, or I can hand you over to my men and let them do what they want with you. What’s it going to be?”

Heat crept into her cheeks. No way in hell was she letting Ronin’s men touch her. She’d witnessed what men did to women, had seen with her own eyes the brutality they inflicted. She’d sworn that would never happen to her. Which made her attraction to Mitch that much more confounding. How could she long for something she’d never known? Something that ultimately disgusted her?

Because deep down she knew not all men were like that. Mitch was unique, unlike any man she’d ever met.

By some miracle, Kate had managed to escape being raped by the rutting beasts who’d raided and overtaken the colonies one by one. Becoming a trader had secured her safety from Ronin’s men to some extent, though she still had to be vigilant. Wary. A lone woman was never safe, no matter where she went or what she did. Kate had had a couple of close calls over the years from overly eager men, but so far her knife had deterred any would-be rapists. Ronin’s own soldiers were terrified of him. If he told them to leave the trader women alone, they did, for the most part. No one wanted to face the wrath of Ronin Dred.

“I’ll help you,” she said at last. “What do you want me to do?”

Ronin contemplated her for a moment. “Mitchell can’t stomach violence very well. He gets a little green in the face when I have to torture someone.”

That’s because he’s an empath, you asshole. It hurts him when others are hurting.

Kate barely managed to keep from blurting that thought out loud. If she gave away Mitch’s secret, it would give Ronin an advantage over him.

Sympathy tugged at her again. Mitch had said he’d once been part of Ronin’s army, but not by choice. It must have hurt him deeply to witness and be involved in so much violence. How had he escaped? What had he done to make Ronin want him dead so badly?

And why did she even care? Her life was hard enough as it was without getting tangled up in this mess. But she couldn’t help wanting to defend Mitch.

“Not everyone enjoys violence, you know.”

Ronin chuckled. “True. Maybe if I threaten to torture you, he’ll come out of hiding.”


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