When the hunter becomes the hunted, it’s time to reap what you sowed…
The world didn’t end in fire and explosions, instead it collapsed slowly, like falling dominoes, an intensifying panic of disease, food shortages, wild weather and collapsing economies, until what remained of humanity battles for survival in a harsh new reality.
After vowing to never again put his life on the line for another’s ambitions, Reaper, leader of Fate’s Vultures, has earned himself a formidable reputation. Unfortunately, that reputation isn’t enough to stop an old enemy from retaliating. With bounty hunters sniffing at their heels, Reaper vows retribution and takes the Vultures to the one person no one expects-Lilith, the woman he once loved.
As leader of the Rocky Mountain territory, Lilith has paid dearly for a position that kept her secrets safe. When a looming threat draws close, every devil’s bargain she’s made falls by the wayside and she is forced to partner with the man who walked away.
With no choice but to work together against a common enemy, Lilith and Reaper need to find their way through the minefield of past betrayals and broken promises to ensure a future for those they’ve sworn to protect … before it all goes to hell.
A child held her mother’s greatest hope and deepest fears. Sitting next to her sleeping daughter, Lilith couldn’t escape the terrifying truth as sweeping waves of love and worry fought against the tide of guilt eroding her heart. She blinked back the hot pressure, bringing Tabby’s sleeping face back into focus. Needing the reassurance her baby was alive and here, she gently untangled her fingers from Tabby’s loosened hold and traced a feather light touch over the endearing scatter of freckles, being careful to avoid the fading shadows of exhaustion under her child’s closed eyes. Those shadows were evidence of Lilith’s failure to protect the thing she held most dear. So were the nightmares that stalked her precious daughter.
Not for the first time Lilith wondered what good was it to be queen if you couldn’t protect the one who needed it the most? Bitterness rose, but she choked it back. It wasn’t easy. Capricious and corrosive, her emotions were a mess. It hadn’t helped when the well-intentioned offered their empty words of comfort. Had one more person made some asinine comment about how lucky Tabby was, Lilith couldn’t guarantee her knife wouldn’t end up buried in their sanctimonious heart.
Yes, Tabby escaped the Raider’s captivity without being physically violated, a point Lilith got on her knees in thanks for every damn night, but the emotional damage remained. The horror—of being taken, beaten, watching another young girl being brutally raped—had shattered her daughter’s innocence beyond repair. Her compassionate, outgoing baby had turned quiet, withdrawn and wary. Watching the changes in Tabby left Lilith in a destructive rage fraying her calculated control. A dangerous thing when you wielded as much power as Lilith did. Those fucking Raiders and whoever they were in bed with would pay for what they stole—from Tabby, from Lilith, from all those other grieving parents whose children didn’t come home—no matter how long it took.
A mother’s vengeance was a terrifying thing—merciless and patient. Two of Lilith’s defining characteristics. Various scenarios of how to enact her vengeance played through her mind in brilliant, bloody detail. Visualisation was a key factor in any successful endeavour, and in this she would accept nothing less than success.
Tabby gave a soft whimper but didn’t wake. Lilith set her bloody plans aside and hummed a soft lullaby until Tabby settled once more. Assured her daughter would sleep undisturbed for a bit, Lilith leaned forward and pressed a kiss to Tabby’s forehead. ‘Sleep well, baby.’
She tucked in the blankets, before leaving the lamp’s soft light on. Tabby didn’t do well waking in the dark. Lilith slipped out of the room, leaving the door ajar. Padding barefoot into the living room, she nabbed the blanket off the back of the couch and the half-filled glass from the low-slung table. Wrapping the blanket over her shoulders, she sipped the watered-down whisky and stood in front of the tall window staring into the night. In the immense fireplace behind her, flames snapped and crackled, licking over the wood. Its light reflected in the night-blind glass, dancing with the shadows in the room. The heat beat back the chill pressing against the dark window.
Outside, clouds passed over the moon, playing peek-a-boo with the surrounding trees leaving them veiled in shades of black. The cabin, built decades ago by a paranoid bastard with more money than sense, served as her private retreat and blended into its surroundings effortlessly. It backed into the mountain leaving the only approach a winding, narrow trail. Only she and one other knew of its existence and its special properties—hidden arsenals, solar generators, a panic room, bullet proof, non-reflective glass, and camouflaged escape routes. It was the perfect safe house, which was why she brought Tabby here.
That, and because it was time to make some decisions.
The isolation of the cabin might leave most people unsettled, but not Lilith. Not anymore. In fact, she craved the privacy. Too many years of being submerged in the demands of her position and the weight of responsibilities left her empty. Only when she was with her daughter did the hollowness threatening to swallow her whole back off. And finding time to spend with her daughter was a damn crapshoot. Lilith’s position required keeping a variety of secrets, including hiding Tabby’s familial connection. Keeping that quiet had been far from easy and required ugly concessions. The kind that left a layer of grime coating Lilith’s heart. Then came Tabby’s abduction and every devil’s bargain fell by the wayside as Lilith’s skewed priorities came home to roost with brutal talons.
God, she sucked as a mother.
Guilt loosened the hold on her darker emotions, and they surged forward, hungry for acknowledgement. Hundreds of ‘what-ifs’ echoed in her head, each dragging along an alternate scenario until she wanted to scream in frustrated fury and self-directed disgust. Instead, her fingers tightened on the crystal glass in her hand. For a moment, it was a fight not to throw it against a stone wall and watch it shatter. Dealing with the clean-up would be a bitch. So instead, she deliberately raised the glass to her lips. The bitter bite of whisky echoed her thoughts. For a heartbeat, she wallowed in her self-pity, then she kicked the entire mess back into a dark hole. Time to focus on the decisions needed to move forward. Her top priority—keeping her daughter safe.
Better late than never, a snide little voice mocked.
A flash of light hit the glass. She stilled, her inner turmoil silenced as another burst came. This time she caught its direction—behind her. Turning, she zeroed in on the silent, repetitive signal coming from the lamp sitting next to the couch.
Someone just breached the basement escape route through the abandoned mines. Considering the maze those unmapped tunnels created, to make it all the way to the basement indicated her visitors must be friendlies. Still … Predatory anticipation left her senses sharp and muscles coiled.
She moved to the mantel, set her drink down, then went to the coffee table in front of the couch. Crouching, she let the blanket fall to the floor and pressed a finger against the hidden lever underneath the table’s edge. There was a quiet click. She shoved aside the thick wood top to reach into a hidden compartment to retrieve the gun inside.
With practiced ease, she checked the magazine, then the chamber, before thumbing the safety off. Straightening, she crossed the flagstone floor, her bare feet silent, and brushed her fingers over the old tech security panel. The muffled sounds of locks releasing followed. She opened the thick door leading to the basement and slipped inside. Darkness greeted her. With the gun held ready in one hand, she reached back and reset the security that would lock the door behind her. Old tech or not, it would offer an impenetrable layer of protection for Tabby.
She eased the door shut behind her, waiting until the locks reset before gliding down the stairs. At the bottom, she didn’t bother with lights, relying on the darkness to mask her presence. Using her memory of the room’s layout, she crossed the room, avoiding furniture and stepping to the side of a heavy reinforced door set on the back wall next to an empty fireplace. Keeping the gun aimed at the floor, she used her other hand to unlatch the well-oiled lock.
Carefully twisting the knob, she pulled the door open just enough to squeeze through, taking the time to close it behind her. It left her in a stygian darkness at the top of a short flight of stairs. The darkness was deeper, heavier than the one on the other side of the door. Cool air curled around her, carrying the familiar scent of the Colorado Mountains and leaving behind a bite of chill against her skin. A sixth sense, the one that warned when you were being hunted, kicked into high gear.
Someone waited below.
Cupping the gun, she raised it, keeping her arms bent and her finger soft against the trigger as she inched down the stairs, letting the barrel lead. She made it two steps before grit shifted under her heel. The sound was overly loud in the humming quiet. She stilled, waiting, barely daring to breathe.
A low question came out of the darkness. ‘Lilith?’
Her name in a familiar voice shifted her finger from the trigger to lay along the slide. Tempting though it was, it wouldn’t do her any good to shoot her unexpected visitor. ‘A little late to be visiting, isn’t it, Charity?’
A soft click produced a spill of light from the soft glow of a solar lantern. ‘I wasn’t expecting you to be here.’ A shadow within the shadows, Charity stayed just out of the light’s reach.
Stifling her sigh, Lilith moved down the last few stairs, keeping the gun down at her side. ‘Considering your entrance—’ she tilted her head towards the opening stretching behind the other woman, ‘—I kind of figured.’ She stopped when a few feet separated her from the road-stained blonde, not missing the signs of a hard, long journey. ‘What happened?’
Charity held her gaze, her normally electric blue eyes dark with exhaustion. Dirt, sweat and dust left her hair a lank mess. ‘Ran into a situation.’
‘Did you now?’ Lilith murmured as the sound of someone approaching shifted her attention to the tunnel. ‘I see you brought the situation with you.’
She moved passed Charity, grabbing another lantern from the shelf on the wall. Twisting it on, she held it up, sending the illumination in to the earthen passageway. Just outside the edge of the light, shadows morphed into distinctly human shapes.
Lantern in hand, Charity came up to stand on the other side of the opening. The additional illumination revealed Charity’s tag-alongs. ‘I didn’t have much choice.’ There was an edge of an apology in her voice.
Picking up on the unspoken warning, Lilith braced. Charity was the only other person who knew the secrets of this cabin, so of course she’d choose this as a safe house. Which meant there was another reason for the apologetic tone. Her attention sharpened and centred on the figures moving towards them. As the one in the lead came into view, her heart seized for a single moment, before resuming a heavy beat. Karma established she was the ultimate bitch as the one man guaranteed to upend Lilith’s life strode into view. ‘What the hell?’
‘Hello to you too, babe.’ There was no mistaking Reaper’s sardonic drawl. From his devil dark eyes to the inky strands tied back at his neck and the heavy beard, he was the epitome of the shadows he moved within, and just as disturbing.
‘There’s a bounty out on the Vultures,’ Charity explained. ‘They needed a place to lie low.’
Oh hell no! It was a struggle not to say the words aloud. She caught the unmistakable mix of frustration and arrogance on Reaper’s face indicating he wasn’t any happier about this solution than her.
Not that it would stop him from taking it. Nope, not the infamous Reaper. Typical. Resentment strained her self-control. ‘So naturally, you bring them to my door?’
‘Alliance, remember?’ That lovely barb came from the man himself as he stopped just shy of entering the basement and shifted to the side, making room for the ones behind him.
‘As if I could forget.’ Not like she needed the reminder, since the alliance was her idea in the first fucking place. At the time, it seemed like a necessary evil. Now? With him here, in her space, she could come to regret it. The urge to kick his ass out of her cabin rode her hard, but she couldn’t. She wasn’t her own person. Hadn’t been for a long while. She held his mocking gaze, refusing to look away first.
Charity braved the tense silence. ‘The last place anyone would think to look for them is here.’
Lilith didn’t bother to comment as two more men, one a shorter haired version of Reaper, the other lean and mean with a wild tangle of gold-streaked brown stepped forward. Recognition came quick—Math and Ruin. Both were upright and moving under their own volition but looked decidedly worse for wear. Whatever trouble trailed them had managed to get in some solid shots.
She shifted aside, allowing them to move into the basement. Ruin tilted his scruff-covered chin in silent acknowledgement and made a beeline to Charity.
Reaper’s almost twin, Math, gave her an impudent grin before catching her in a hug. ‘Surprise.’
Ignoring the scent of night and travel clinging to him, Lilith returned Math’s affectionate squeeze, even as she managed to hang on to the lantern and gun. ‘You look better than expected.’
He pulled back, letting her go, his dark eyes serious despite his grin. ‘You listening to gossip again?’
‘It’s not gossip if it’s truth.’ Despite not seeing him in close to a year, she fell easily into their familiar byplay. ‘You find what you were looking for?’
The forbidding assassin lost his amusement, regaining his normal grim demeanour. ‘And then some.’
‘Play catch up later.’
Lilith’s spine stiffened at Reaper’s irritated demand. In front of her, with his back safely to Reaper, Math dared to roll his eyes before he made his way over to where Charity and Ruin stood. Math’s juvenile reaction gave her a second to check her initial sharp retort. She replaced her intended question with another. ‘What happened?’
Reaper’s gaze stayed on her as he folded his arms over his broad chest. ‘We found the mole in Pebble Creek.’
Not the answer she expected. Curiosity hit hard. ‘Who?’
‘It’s a long story,’ Charity cut in, gaining both of their attention, ‘that can wait until we bring the others here.’
The ‘others’ being the rest of the mercenary arbitrators that made up Vultures—Vex, twin sister to Charity’s man Ruin, and Havoc, Reaper’s second-in-command. Lilith suppressed her sigh. ‘Where’d you leave Vex and Havoc?’
With an arm wrapped around Charity’s waist, Ruin answered, ‘They’re hanging back with the bikes.’
Seeing her plans of spending a quiet few days making life-altering decisions go up in a puff of smoke, Lilith let out a soft sigh. Resigned to the inevitable, she turned and set the lantern on a nearby shelf. ‘Who’s going to go get them?’
‘That would be me.’ Math stepped forward.
‘Make it quick. I don’t want to keep this passageway open for long.’ Besides, she wanted to get them in, get some damn answers, and then get them settled so she could get away from Reaper’s disquieting presence. ‘Pull the bikes beyond the first bend. Should keep them out of sight.’
Math jerked his head in acknowledgement, then shared a look with Reaper, who tilted his head back the way they came in an unmistakable command. Heaving a sigh, Math reached past Lilith, took the lantern she set down and then headed back into the tunnel.
For a long moment, silence reigned as everyone watched Math disappear.
Reaper stepped out of the shower and into a steam-filled bathroom. At least there was one pro to dealing with Lilith and all that was her—hot water. Grabbing a nearby towel he dragged it over his body, grateful his bones no longer felt like they’d been dumped in ice. Wrapping the towel around his hips, he shoved his wet hair out of his face. God it felt good to be clean and warm. The thought barely cleared his brainpan before it was followed by, Shit, I’m getting old.
Maybe, or maybe he was just hitting the end of his rope. God knew it had been fraying for months. Between running herd on the supply routes, disrupting the depraved Raiders flesh trade, uncovering moles, and navigating the dirty waters of power and politics—it was enough to drive anyone crazy.
If he’d known the end result when he answered the panicked call from Crane, who controlled the Central Territories, he might have just hung the fuck up. But nope, instead, Fate’s Vultures hit the road to Pebble Creek and drove straight into the bloody aftermath of a Raiders’ ambush. While the settlement reeled from Crane’s death, Reaper and the Vultures were forced to step in to hold shit together—a role none of them asked for or wanted.
Not that anyone actually asked them to, but they couldn’t leave Pebble Creek undefended. It was too critical to the western supply routes. So, yeah, they stuck around until that damn bounty hit. Now they were so far up shit’s creek with no damn paddle in sight, it wasn’t even funny.
Rubbing both palms over his face, he blew out a breath as the stress of it all dug its claws a little deeper. Two days on the road and a brutal run-in with unfriendlies left his patience AWOL. Not to mention a shitload of aches and bruises. Although after his shower, his body’s complaints were manageable. The patience part, yeah, not so much. At least everyone was still breathing. He’d count that as a win, something he needed right now.
He braced his hands on the stone counter and gave headspace to what brought him here. Seeing Lilith again raised old ghosts and left him with an overwhelming urge to bury her in blame, or burn rubber getting the fuck away. Exhaustion cracked his mental vault and memories rushed the unusual breach. He warned the ghosts off with a low growl. They retreated, not by much, but enough to create a workable distance so he could focus on more immediate concerns.
A faint hope that a solution would fall into his lap circled but failed to land. A bitter bark of noise escaped. If Lady Luck decided to favour Fate’s Vultures, Reaper would probably drop in shock. Her mercy was in short supply, as evidenced by the fact the Vultures currently topped every mercenary’s to-do list. Going from hunter to hunted was a hell of a reality shift.
Not that it was unexpected. Nowadays, change was the only constant thing around. Seventy, eighty years ago Mother Nature taught humanity a vicious lesson before leaving them to deal with the horrific aftermath. Barely surviving her temper or the ravaging bitch-slap of viruses and famines, man barely got to its knees before massive economic collapse left governments shattered. But humans were stubborn bastards and after the world was nothing but ash, humanity shoved to its feet and rebuilt. Decimated populations scattered, and world powers disappeared, replaced by territories ruled by the ones who could hold them. In humanity’s current rendition of society, survival was a risky bet, but it was a skill Reaper honed to perfection. It hadn’t been easy, but those things never were.
After learning the hard way that right and wrong was a matter of perspective and rules were a joke, he chose his own path. Disgusted by the arrogance of those bloated with power, he picked the one role that meant he didn’t have to play by anyone’s rules. Especially not the powerhouses that divided the land west of the Mississippi.
And there were plenty to choose from.
After the rising oceans devoured the western coastlines and widened inland rivers, the collapsing infrastructure of what used to be the western states was now held by three people: Michael, Lilith and, Crane’s successor and latest addition, Simon.
Michael’s Northwest Territories spanned from the Northland border, encompassing Washington, through Oregon into California and down into the Tahoe Forest. Lilith’s Rocky Mountain domain stretched from Colorado into the unclaimed portions of New Mexico and Texas all the way to Albuquerque and the coastal town of Houston.
This left Simon with the Central Territories, home of the western supply routes. Those routes centred in Idaho before spidering out all the way down into Utah and northern parts of Arizona, while tendrils stretched from the west coast all the way east to the Mississippi, and up over the Northland border.
Then there were the other players in the cesspool. When the dams supplying much needed water to the desert climes failed, the Raiders, a violent collection of psychopaths, set up shop in the bones of Nevada, which meant they could play havoc with supply lines, hence the importance of the Central Territories. The other dams that survived in the Southwest were held by the Free People who were led by Istaqa, a strategic leader who managed to keep his people neutral, for the most part. Unfortunately, thanks to recent events his position was being forced to shift. That left a swath of the Southwest open—from Lost Angels, to Phoenix, and encompassing El Paso and San Antonio—until the Mexican Cartel families ruthlessly recaptured them twelve years ago during the tail end of the Border Wars.
All in all, it was a crowded fucking pool. Not to mention Reaper had a justified hard-on for one of the players who was a complete bastard—Michael. His betrayal still haunted Reaper’s nightmares. If he let them, those nightmares would pull him under.
Instead, he fought them back in his self-made role of arbitrator, and occasional executioner, in hopes of balancing the scales. He and the other members of Fate’s Vultures managed to carve out their place without having to owe their allegiance or souls to anyone. With Havoc, Ruin and Vex at his side, they travelled the Western Territories offering their services. Sometimes for a price, sometimes because it needed to be done. Unfortunately, one of those jobs led him here—hiding out from the bastard Michael with the one woman he didn’t dare trust. Once was more than enough to learn that painful lesson.
A rap of knuckles at the door, followed by his name, jerked his head up and knocked him loose of his thoughts. ‘Yeah?’
Recognising the muffled voice as Math’s, he pushed up from the counter and went to the door, pulling it open. Just like every time he saw his kid brother’s face, it was like looking into a mirror from the past. ‘Yeah—’ he stepped around Math, ‘—it’s all yours.’
“Bout damn time,’ Math grumbled before slipping inside and closing the door behind him.
‘You’re welcome,’ Reaper muttered, too tired to call Math on his attitude. Not that it would do any good. Bridging the years-deep rift would take more than a matter of days and a handful of bonding moments over the bloodied remains of mutual enemies. Reaper headed to his saddle bags propped against the couch. Getting his first good look at the piece of furniture made him grateful that Lilith lost her earlier bid to banish Reaper to the basement with Havoc. No way he’d be comfortable crashing on that. Lilith’s frustration when she discovered each of the Vultures, except Reaper, was hooked up with one of the tag-a-longs, almost made him laugh.
Not the hooking up part. Nope, no way he was laughing at that, since it still blew his mind. Seriously, a few months ago, the Vultures had only themselves to worry about. Now? Ruin hooked up with Lilith’s master spy, Charity. Havoc got tangled with Mercy, an assassin, who just happened to work for his brother, Math, who was joined at the hip with Vex, Ruin’s twin. It was enough to make a man consider becoming a hermit.
Memories of soft laughter and softer skin from a past he’d rather not claim snuck past his guard, but he refused to acknowledge them. No way would he go there. Not again.
Since no-one else was in the basement, he tossed aside the towel and pulled on a pair of jeans, going commando. Doing up the last button, his stomach made itself known with a loud growl. Right, next stop kitchen. He grabbed the damp towel and his bag, then headed for the stairs.
On the main floor, he did a quick recon through the layout. Movement upstairs indicated the others were settling in, but down here it remained quiet. In a small utility room, he found a pile of dirty clothes and added his towel. Going back to the living room, he dropped his bag behind the couch. Skirting a blanket puddled next to the squat coffee table, he took a moment to pick it up and toss it on the couch before aiming for the kitchen.
His bare feet hit cool tile and he reached out to hit the switch just inside the entryway. The light bounced off the fridge. Goal in sight, he skirted the counter and sink and pulled it open. Standing there while the chilled air brushed his chest, he pursued his options, then began pulling out the necessary items for a sandwich. Another growl from his stomach had him amending that to two sandwiches. A search of the cabinets unearthed a plate. A few minutes later he put the perishables back, grabbed a bottle of home brew hiding in the back of the fridge before he closed the door. He grabbed an apple from a bowl on the counter, sank his teeth in to hold it and freed his hand so he could pick up his plate. Hands and mouth full he headed to the couch.
So focused on his destination, he almost ran Lilith over. Her unexpected squeak was drowned out by his muffled grunt as her body hit his. Curves and heat jolted his system lighting up his nerve endings and blasting through his iron-control. His dick sprang up in hopeful attention, even as a series of curses ran through his over-stimulated brain. It didn’t help when she jerked back, one hand going to his stomach to brace. His muscles contracted violently, but somehow, he managed to keep his plate and drink safe. Since his mouth was full, he resorted to glaring at the redhead frowning up at him.
‘Watch it,’ she snapped. Her palm pressed against the bare skin of his stomach as if to push him away.
Instead, it added another layer of fire under his skin he tried to ignore. Despite the apple in his mouth, he managed to curl his lip.
She met his glare with one of her own before dropping her hand and brushing past him.