Excerpt for Echo by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

This page may contain adult content. If you are under age 18, or you arrived by accident, please do not read further.

ECHO

The Extinction Series

Ashlyn Mathews

First Bite Publishing

TACOMA, WA



Copyright © 2017 by Ashlyn Mathews.

Sneak Peek: Luminescence Copyright © 2014 by Ashlyn Mathews.


All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher at ashlynmathews@msn.com.


Publisher’s Note: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are a product of the author’s imagination. Locales and public names are sometimes used for atmospheric purposes. Any resemblance to actual people, living or dead, or to businesses, companies, events, institutions, or locales is completely coincidental.


Book Layout ©2013 BookDesignTemplates.com

Cover design by Marianne Nowick



Echo/ Ashlyn Mathews. -- 1st ed.

ISBN 978-0-9963801-1-9


By day, you are your mother’s child. Too bad the night can’t strip you of your father’s sins. Your life would be less complicated.”


Demon hunter Echo Wren lives underground out of necessity. Isolated from others, she can’t hurt them with her touch. And presumed to have died in an explosion, her solitary existence safeguards her greatest shame and secret. She’s the daughter of Vicious, the master demon responsible for murdering her mother’s kind to the brink of extinction.


Betrayed and a kill order placed on her head, Echo is forced above ground and in proximity to the man hired to protect her. As her once quiet and safe life careen towards danger, Echo struggles with a different threat—her growing feelings for her sexy bodyguard and the mess of their tangled pasts. Rourke Summers blames her for his parents’ murders.


Cursed by her mother’s gods. Given away by her father. Betrayed by a man from her past.


Can Echo let go of past hurts and put her undeniable attraction for Rourke to the test? Or will she walk away from his scorching kisses and promise of a lifetime of his protection? After what happened in her past, Echo can never ask anyone to give up their life for her.

“Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness and the word 'happy' would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness.”

~ Carl Jung



Chapter One

In front of her, the dimly lit underground tunnel stretched beyond her range of sight, but Echo wasn’t worried for her safety. She was part pureblood, part demon, and the gods and the devil had gifted her with the ability to see in the dark.

After seven years of traveling the secret passageway spanning from the border of Mexico to Canada, she should be used to the drive, but she wasn’t. If given a choice, she’d rather fly, take a train, or use the interstate like normal folks.

But, Echo wasn’t normal, not by a long shot. Maneuvering past rubble, she gunned the engine of her Ducati. Above ground, people basked in the sunshine of a June day. Lucky them. She had mixed feelings.

Certain days she preferred the solitude of the tunnels. Other times she hated how the tunnels defined her life. For instance, right now. Her breakneck speed to make an important meeting drained her like a battery used to its last charge. Her body recharged not from food, rest or sleep but from the emotions in the voices of the unsuspecting above-ground normal people.

With strategically placed audio feeds, Echo caught snippets of people’s conversations laced with a wide range of emotions. Happy emotions didn’t give her as much strength as the bad ones did. Rage, jealousy, and hatred were emotions that could give her a transformer size charge.

The buzz of happiness and excitement along this last stretch of tunnel sent a clear message. She’d arrived beneath downtown Seattle. So intent was she in deciphering the emotions, she nearly hit the man who dared to step in front of her.

She braked, but there wasn’t enough time or distance between them. Gripping the handlebars, Echo vaulted onto the seat and propelled her body upwards, soaring over his head.

Behind her, her magnificent piece of machinery was split in half, cut by his sword. Landing on her feet, she yanked off her helmet and faced him.

He slammed his sword into its sheath. “How many times have I told you to slow down around these damn corners?”

Did he growl at her? When he marched toward her, Echo stood firm, though her heart hammered fast, and her breaths came out too rapidly from their close call with disaster. Clutching her helmet in one hand, she smoothed her hair with the other and gave Cage Steele a thorough once over.

She wasn’t afraid of him though she should be. He was six-foot-three of muscle, and a demon—a raven hair, green-eyed monster—who should be her enemy. But he was special. Cage was her friend, her boss, and her savior, not particularly in that order.

Ignoring his thinned lips and narrowed eyes, she pointed to her ruined ride. “Any closer to the gas tank and she would’ve exploded, taking you and me with her.” His face relaxed, but she didn’t care for the smirk.

“Why are all your motorcycles female?”

Echo shrugged and kept her finger pointed at the wreck.

“Okay.” He sighed and hung his head. “I’ll buy you a new ride.”

She beamed and when he glanced up, a sly smile crossed his face, which meant one thing—a bear hug. Skittering back, she stuck her arm out. “Don’t come any closer.”

He skulked after her. “You rarely smile, and I haven’t seen you in weeks.”

Before she could hurl a smartass comment in his direction, he rushed her, snatched her by the waist, and lifted until they were eye to eye. “God, Echo, you need to eat more.”

The danger and mischief in the depths of his eyes could inspire any woman to fall hard for him. Cage was a great catch. Too bad there wasn’t any sparks between them, despite the way they teased one another.

“You know the rules about touching me.” She gave him her fiercest glare.

“I’ll risk it.” After setting her on her feet, he tugged her gloves off and stuffed them in the pockets of her jacket. “You go too long without physical contact. It’s not healthy.”

He intertwined their fingers. “Business waits for us in the bedroom.”

Echo fanned her face. “Wow, what a proposition. I’m ready to faint at your feet.”

Laughter rumbled from him and she ducked her head, smiling. She loved when Cage laughed.

His happiness took her back to carefree days of getaways to sunny places. Now, three years after the global attack that had robbed him of his brothers and his parents, Cage was a different man, and in need of more laughter in his life.

He picked up the pace and dragged her behind him. She attempted to catch up to his long strides.

At one of the few exits along the tunnel, he punched in numbers on the keypad in the wall. A rectangular panel opened, and he leaned forward. A beam of light scanned his retina. The lock clicked. He released his hold and gestured for her to take the stairwell first.

“That’s the longest you’ve held my hand, Mr. Steele,” she said with awe and irritation.

“I can tolerate the pain from your touch. My threshold is higher than most. And we’ve been together long enough my body is familiar with your energy.”

She started up the stairwell, agreeing with his dead-on observation, however, “I still don’t like that I hurt you.”

“You think I’m okay with your reliance on the tunnels for your fix of emotions? It’s not right, normal, or long-lasting.”

With her back to him, she stomped up the stairs. Cage might’ve said the words out of frustration and concern, but of all people, Cage should understand her curse.

Their fathers were the enemy. Lucky for Cage, his demon father loved his hunter mother. Her parents? She was conceived from rape and cursed by her mother’s gods when her mother had died giving birth to Echo. Echo’s touch inflicted pain. She’d never be right or normal.

“You might not approve of my situation but I’m fine with things as is.” She wasn’t. She’d grown tired of the status quo.

Someday, she would love to travel in the open without the overhanging fear of being hunted and killed by her mother’s kind for who her father is. However, she’d never admit her dreams to Cage. If she did, he’d insist on making them come true. Echo couldn’t stand the thought of someone doing something for her that she didn’t have to courage to do for herself.

“What we have borders on brilliance.” He gave her shelter and a job, and she supplied him with financial information she heard underground. “I can live like this for a long time.”

“We’ll see.”

Without saying anymore, Cage stormed over to the panel on the wall next to the elevator doors and went through another round of codes and retina scan. The elevator doors opened.

We’ll see? She followed him inside the elevator and leaned against the side farthest from him. He said those two words to her more often, and Echo didn’t like it. ‘We’ll see’ was a maybe, and in her uncertain world, she preferred certainty.

“How’s Princess Raine?”

“Small talk isn’t your thing, Echo.” He crossed his arms.

“But I care.” She mirrored his stance. “Did she get her happily ever after?”

“Do I hear a hint of envy in your words?”

She blew out a breath at Cage’s annoying habit of calling her out.

“I happen to enjoy a good love story, and you’re depriving me of one.” She sulked.

When the elevator doors opened, it’s be all business, again. Cage must’ve realized she needed some happy news in her life. He gave her a quick rundown of what happened with the princess.

“December was hurt badly but will survive.”

“And the happily ever after?”

“She’s with the ones who matter, her family.”

“Thank you.”

On the twentieth floor, the elevator doors opened. Ignoring the large abstract painting slipping into place and concealing the elevator shaft, Echo rushed to the wall of windows in Cage’s huge apartment and gave the city and water view an air hug.

Closing her eyes, she lifted her face to the sun and honed in on the noises below her. The city thrummed with the excitement of a big celebration—the Fourth of July.

It’s been several weeks since she was above ground, but below ground, the excitement in people’s voices along the west coast energized her.

“The bedroom.” Cage whispered in her ear. “That’s where I want you.”

Echo opened her eyes and stared at Cage’s reflection in the glass. “You drop innuendos like a desperate man would bad pick-up lines.”

“Only you get the brunt of them. They’re that bad.”

Agreeing, she followed him to the bedroom. It was a ritual of theirs; the bedroom is the priority destination before a meeting. Cage handed her a garment bag. Echo hesitated.

“I rode straight from San Diego with a breather in Portland. I hurt, Cage.” She loosened the backpack from her shoulders. “Can we skip the suit this one time?” She set her backpack and motorcycle helmet on the bed.

“You know the rules. The suit goes on for your safety.”

“But you can disregard mine?”

“That’s different.”

“How so?” Dammit, she wanted to win this conversation. When he responded to her with a scathing glare, her resolve slipped a notch, and she wasn’t proud of it.

“Keeping your identity concealed is a matter of life and death, and that is the difference.”

“I’m not the same thirteen-year-old girl my father gave away, Cage. The experiments changed me.”

He grasped her chin and tilted her face upward until their eyes met. “By day, you are your mother’s child. Too bad the night can’t strip you of your father’s sins. Your life would be less complicated.”

He was right. During the day, Echo was a brunette with blue eyes. At night, her hair changed to white, and her eyes were a royal blue rimmed by gold, her father’s will dictating that she accept who she was, a monster born to kill humans and demon hunters, his blood continuing to reverse the effects of Deacon’s experiments.

After Cage rescued her, he recounted the tale of how their mothers’ kind came to be protectors of the human race.

Over time, humans’ sins weakened the fragile line between Hell and earth. The gods who controlled that line created Embers and Blades to track and destroy the monsters that slipped out. Evil disguised as humans, her father’s kind.

“When your father is dead and the memory of you fades from his demons and hunters’ minds, you’ll be free from his sins. And with time, hunters will accept us half breeds as more than the monsters they judge us to be. We’ll live up to our mothers’ bloodlines and be the better species. Patience, little fleur. That’s all I ask for.”

Little fleur. A memory of him peeking in the entrance of a sewer pipe flashed in her mind. He cajoled her, reached out to her, and shivering, hungry and scared, Echo refused his bait of food and help until... until he called her his little flower.

Though she wasn’t a child but a sixteen-year-old teenager, she’d crawled on her hands and knees toward him. When he picked her up as though she weighed nothing and said, “You’re safe,” with fierce determination on his face, she believed him. They’ve been together ever since.

Warmth spread in her chest, and her throat tightened. He’d shown her nothing but patience and kindness.

“My request was short notice. After the meeting, come back here and rest.”

She nodded, but there’d be no rest. On her way to Seattle, she’d received a message from an old friend. Echo had intended on putting off her meeting with Cipher. He literally drained the life energy from her, and after her breakneck speed, Echo didn’t think she’d have any to spare. However, she rarely refused Cipher a meeting. She sighed. Theirs was a complicated relationship.

Holding still, she let Cage put the voice modifier around her neck and the headgear over her head. He was right. They haven’t seen one another in weeks, and she missed the attention he gave her.

As he helped her put on the Kevlar vest and military jacket, Echo stared at Cage’s tan throat through the glass of the headgear and blew at the black cloth covering her nose and mouth.

She wouldn’t need the get-up or the voice modifier, but a few years ago, hunters more powerful than Cage discovered the tunnels’ existence. Those hunters, along with Cage, drew up a set of rules to keep the tunnels from falling into the wrong hands.

First, only male purebloods could have the job. With his fingers crossed behind his back, Cage swore Echo was male and a pureblood. Two, the guardians’ identities were kept secret. Otherwise, the enemy could hack off a guardian’s head and use it to gain entrance into the tunnels, bypassing the retina security scan.

Disliking the thought of someone hurting her friends, Vulture and Stalker, Echo forced her shoulders to relax and spun a full three-sixty as Cage inspected her from head to toe.

What he saw must’ve been satisfactory. He strode over to the window and pushed aside the drapes. With his muscular back to her and deep in thought, Cage reminded her of a fierce warrior readying himself for a bloody battle where the odds were against him. Shaking her head, Echo approached him. It was wrong to give Cage grief.

He looked out for her, having every right to worry as rumors swirled of another global attack on hunters, set for Independence Day of all days, a week away. A revenge attack for the death of her father’s second-in-command, Shanks, a Sweeper demon whose name chilled her to the bone.

If her father hadn’t given her away, would Echo have become a monster like Shanks? She stared at her and Cage’s reflections in the glass. Cage was a demon, yet inside that hulking mass of potential evil was a man capable of great love and loyalty. Over the years, he’d shown her she also had the potential for love and loyalty, if only she’d find a way out of her self-imposed isolation.

“Beautiful view, isn’t it?” Her tone was light and cheerful, an attempt at a peace offering, and a way of distracting herself from thinking of the inevitable. Someday, someone would discover who she was.

“Cut the crap, Echo. I’d rather have your bark than this sickening sweetness.”

Ah, the old Cage was back. For now, he forgave her. She moved closer to the window and scrutinized the view below. The sight of those bodies and cars moving at a hurried pace grated on her nerves.

“If I was down there, I’d go crazy from too much noise and chatter. It makes me glad to be underground where I can control the frequency and volume of what I hear.”

His sidelong glance seared her, but she refused to squirm under the intensity of his gaze.

“In a few years, when you hit thirty, you’ll think differently. Hell, you might want a family,” he said with a stubborn set to his jaw she’d love to wipe off with a smack to his broad shoulder. “The life you live isn’t a life by anyone’s standards.”

At thirty, her view of the world might change, but no way would she want a family. Her curse might trickle down to her children.

“My living underground is not by choice but necessity,” she reasoned. “We both understand that.”

“It doesn’t have to be. Make the choice, Echo. Give me the word, and I’ll have your father exterminated like the rat he is.”

If Cage could find him.

Looking at the thick black gloves covering her hands, she shook her head. “I can never ask you to give up your life for me.” No one survived a fight with her father.

“You’ll continue to hide underground?”

“Yes. As you’ve said, eventually my father will die and those who know of me will forget.”

They knew better. Sooner or later, Echo’s inner battery would lose the ability to recharge. Her father, Vicious, would outlive her.

Suddenly, a great emotion overtook the normally calm and composed Cage. He pulled her into his arms and her heart constricted while her throat ached. Every time they saw one another, he posed the same solution as a means to extract her from her isolated existence.

“What will I do with you?” He tightened his hold.

Shrugging, she relaxed into the solid muscles of his arms and inhaled the scent of him. His scent reminded her of the ocean after a storm—salt-laden, crisp air. She resisted purring like a cat.

“Remove the gloves and put your arms around me.”

“But—”

“Just do it,” he said close to her ear. “I know you want to.”

He dared her, and it wasn’t in her to turn down a challenge. After slipping off her gloves and stuffing them in her pockets, she placed her palms on his chest and trailed her fingers lower until she encircled his thick waist.

Liquid heat enveloped her body and suffused her with warmth she could get used to but had deprived herself of for the last couple of months.

“It’s wrong to get my high at the expense of hurting you.” She rubbed her nose on his shirt.

“Is what we’re doing wrong when I offer you your high willingly?”

He had a point. She nudged closer to him. His heart thrummed a fast beat beneath her ear. She concentrated less on the surge of euphoria sweeping over her body and more on the comforting sound of his heartbeats. If she’d let them, the beats could lull her to sleep.

Realizing Cage might be near his pain threshold, Echo stepped out of his embrace and walked to the mirrored closet. A slender figure in black, with no feminine curves, stared back. Yes, she could pass for a young man.


Chapter Two

The meeting was in the same building as Cage’s apartment.

“Let me do the talking. If anyone says anything to you, answer in the affirmative or negative only.”

Echo disliked restraints, rules or being told what to do, but this charade of theirs was important to Cage and vital to Echo’s survival. She nodded.

They walked inside the room.

Everyone was seated except for a hunter standing in front of the wall of windows with his back to them. The black shirt he wore clung to the muscles of his arms and expanse of his shoulders. She could make out the outlines of the swords strapped to his back, the hilts visible above his shirt. Lethal and sexy, double packing.

Worried she’d call attention to herself for staring too long and too hard at the mysterious hunter, Echo tore her gaze away. My, his cargo pants fit him well, giving her a delectable hint of his tight ass and the undeniable strength of his long and muscular legs.

“Everyone meet Echo.” Cage said. “Echo guards the west coast tunnels.” A simple explanation for the headgear.

When they didn’t draw their weapons, Echo released the breath she held. Thank the gods for the one ability she was grateful to have inherited from her father—the power to change her aura to her surroundings. In a group of hunters, her aura was white, that of a pureblood. When she was with her father and his men, her aura had shone red.

She waved then realized her mistake. The wave was too feminine. Wishing she had the ability of invisibility, Echo grabbed the closest empty seat with a straight path to the door, just in case their deception went sideways.

Seated at the head of the table, Cage glanced around. “Where’s London?”

Before anyone could answer, the door swung open and an Asian woman, wrapped in a gorgeous red dress, hurried in.

“Sorry, I’m late. Traffic was a bitch.”

Her cheeks were flushed and her voice breathy as she stared at the hunter sitting straight as a stick in cured cement.

“What the bloody hell are you doing here?” He stood and his chair tipped over and landed on the floor with a resounding thud.

“Nice to see you too, Maserati.” Her head held high, London eased into the chair next to Echo.

Maserati. The great Lucas Maserati known for killing an army of her father’s demons with one sword, surviving with barely a scratch on his body? No way. Echo leaned forward and watched the heated exchange, her body thrumming with renewed energy.

Lucas righted his chair and sat. Seconds ticked by. His attention riveted from the woman to the paper in front of him. Echo suspected nothing on that piece of paper mattered more to him than the beautiful woman who stood out of the crowd in her eye-catching dress.

Lucas and London must know one another on a very personal level. Her suspicion was confirmed when Lucas stormed out of the meeting.

“I… I should go to him.”

After London left, everyone talked at once. Cage ended their yammering with a slash of his hand in the air. “We’ve wasted enough time. Severins, make the introductions.”

Echo sat forward and waited for the only name that mattered.

“Behind me is Rourke Summers.”

Rourke Summers. Echo splayed her fingers on the table and waited for Mr. Summers’ next move. If he was to keep his head, he’d turn around and acknowledge the power and position of the hunters in the room. Mr. Summers didn’t disappoint.

He faced them.

With the sun as a backdrop, Echo couldn’t help but stare at the view. Mr. Summers had his hands clasped behind him, giving his stance an arrogance she didn’t care for. What worried and intrigued her most was the determined set of his mouth and the cold ruthlessness in his eyes.

He acknowledged them with a nod, his gaze touching on her face for a mere second. Electric energy sizzled in the air between them, warming her from the inside out. Surprised by how he energized her with open curiosity alone, Echo pushed back her chair. Cage’s hand settled on her thigh. She ignored his warning and walked over to the wall of windows.

Why does Mr. Summers separate himself from the group? There were empty chairs.

“Your curiosity will one day get you killed,” Mr. Summers said out the side of his mouth.

“I didn’t come over for you.” Echo clasped her hands behind her and rocked on her heels. “I came for the view.” From the corner of her eye, she watched him give her a slow appraisal filled with disapproval.

“Either way, you don’t get up during an important meeting unless you gotta take a piss or a life’s at stake.”

“Whew, thank the gods I have neither of those issues.” She edged closer to him. “The meeting’s boring.”

It wasn’t. However, she suspected that to get a rise out of Mr. Summers, she should do her best to be what his type—arrogant and business-minded—disliked. Echo would become a misbehaving, could-care-less hunter.

She dared chance a glance at him. His face was a mask of politeness. Had she read the situation wrong? His words did nothing for her other than she had the overwhelming urge to goad the seriousness out of him.

“Our kind’s future isn’t boring,” he said with an emphasis on the last word. “It’s in your best interest to pay attention.” He gave her a sidelong glance. “You’re young. The young don’t have the same priorities as the experienced ones.”

He might not have intended to insult her by equating youth with inexperience but Echo took it as such. On the misbehaving path, she raised her hand and swatted his shoulder. The resounding smack reverberated in her ears.

He leaned forward and growled in her ear. “Do that again, and I’ll put you over my knees.”

“Promise?” She volleyed with fake sweetness and innocence.

His eyes widened then narrowed with suspicion. Echo inwardly groaned at her mistake. Again, her response veered toward feminine. Not that she had a lot of practice acting like a young guy. In her seven years as a guardian, she could count on one hand the numbers of meetings she’d gone to with Cage.

She inclined her head toward the door. Lucas returned followed by London. From the expressions on their faces, whatever had happened between them was still unresolved.

“What’s their issue?” she asked, attempting to switch his intense scrutiny from her face to a different subject.

“Best to leave the personal to the persons involved.”

“You won’t put in a guess?”

His silence was her answer. Curious as to what kind of man Mr. Summers is, Echo moved forward with her next question, hoping she’d have better luck in getting him to speak with her.

“Is your separation from the group by choice or by command?”

While Lucas argued with the other hunters over the fate of London’s mission, Echo waited for Mr. Summers’ response. He took his time, also watching the tense scene unfolding before them.

Sophie, the new commander of Crimson Vice, was sending London undercover to gather intelligence from a heavily guarded Angler demon. Echo wouldn’t wish London’s mission on her worst enemies.

“And you, do you live underground by choice or by command?”

“Cage doesn’t command me to do anything I don’t want to do.”

He clasped his hands behind his back, his gaze forward. “Then we have something in common.”

Why stand separated rather than sit with the group? From what Cage told her of the hunters at the table, they were the greatest of the great, surviving against the odds when their ashes should’ve been scattered to the wind years ago.

Soon the meeting ended. Echo started for the door, confused as to why Cage wanted her here when he barely looked in her direction. And, London’s mission had nothing to do with the tunnels.

“Echo, take a seat.”

Wondering why Mr. Summers’ presence was also requested but not needed, Echo sat. Mr. Summers grabbed a spot across from her.

Cage looked everywhere but at her. Echo locked her jaw at the god-awful truth. Cage hadn’t wanted her in Seattle pronto to meet with the group. She was here to meet one man.

“Why is Mr. Summers here, Cage?”

Forget being polite, quiet and decent. Her personal space was at risk of being compromised by the arrogant and all-business Mr. Summers.

“You didn’t tell him?” Mr. Summers asked.

“Didn’t tell me what?” She looked from the surprise on Mr. Summers’ face to the guilt on Cage’s.

“I didn’t get the chance.”

Didn’t get a chance or he’d been stalling for time? She stood and smacked her gloved palms on the table.

“Tell me what?”

“Dammit, Echo, I’ve hired Rourke to be your Protector.”

What the hell?

Chapter Three

“Echo, get your ass over here,” Cage growled.

The kid had bolted out of his seat and avoided Rourke’s curious glances as soon as Cage spoke the words that sealed their fates. For however long Echo needed protecting, Rourke would guard the kid, for better or worse.

Echo. What kind of code name was that? Each guardian chose their names. Maybe it’d been Cage who had given the kid the name. Every word directed at the kid echoed in the room and fell on deaf ears.

The kid paced in front of the city view and glared at Rourke every chance he got, which was often. The view of the city skyline was beautiful, framed by floor to ceiling windows. Too bad Echo detracted from it with his fit-throwing.

After a tense minute passed, the boy sat. For formality reasons, Rourke stood and extended his hand to the kid. The kid slouched into the chair. Rourke squared his shoulders and took a seat.

The kid’s rejection should’ve pissed him off. Instead, Rourke gave the dismissal a passing thought. He understood his worth. As an ex-chosen executioner, he was nothing compared to the brave and fearless hunters he worked with and had known.

Yet what did the lines carved into his body say about his self-worth?

You saved twenty-two lives, Rourke. You’re more than worthy of earning a lifetime of happiness, Rourke’s wise father would say. Yet how could Rourke be worthy when he failed to save the two most important people to him?

A man’s worth shouldn’t be tied to the number of lives he saved. A man’s worth was earned by keeping the ones he loved safe from harm. Rourke had failed many times over. He’d lost his parents and closest friends to Vicious and Vicious’ demons.

Tenting his hands over his mouth, Rourke studied the kid beneath hooded eyes, attempting to forget how he’d been too late to save his parents and his friends. Under his scrutiny, the kid didn’t squirm, blink or look away.

That the kid possessed more confidence than his peers wasn’t surprising. Echo lived and worked underground, monitoring stretches of tunnels few would tolerate being confined in. However, the kid’s overabundance of confidence and tenacious curious could get him killed.

Behind the glass of the headgear, the kid’s eyes looked feminine. Dark, arched eyebrows and long lashes drew Rourke’s attention to the cinnamon of Echo’s eyes. Eyes that dared him to look his fill, the juxtaposition of annoyance and inquisitiveness in them heating Rourke’s blood, sending hot need to his cock.

Rourke blinked. What the hell? He wasn’t into men. Rourke cleared his throat and lowered his gaze.

“Stop with the death glare, Echo. He’s your Protector. As your Proctor, he’s deserving of your loyalty, respect and obedience.”

“I’m not a pet, Cage.”

“I didn’t say you were,” Cage said with exasperation. “Just listen and stay open-minded.”

The kid crossed his arms. “Why do I need a Protector?”

Cage slid a piece of paper toward Echo. “My men found this on one of my operatives, the body sent without his fucking head.”

Echo glanced at the note. Had the kid not have the headgear on, Rourke would guess the kid’s face was ashen from seeing his own kill order.

“I’m sorry for your loss.” Echo tossed the paper back to Cage. “But the kill order doesn’t change a thing. No matter how hard he tries, Trace can’t breach the security systems.”

Rourke winced. The kid’s confidence would definitely get him killed. Hold up… “I’ve seen the kill order. The only name on it is yours. How do you figure Trace is involved?”

“I’ve studied Vicious’ assassins. Trace is the obvious choice for one reason. He’s the best Tracker under Vicious’ command.”

“Then you’re aware he won’t go into the tunnels to kill you. He’ll smoke you out.”

“That’s what the sprinklers are for, Mr. Summers.” The kid clasped his hands on the table and matter of fact said, “I’ll continue to do my job, underground.”

Cage scoffed. “Above ground, you have a chance. I’m taking that chance for you.”

Rourke slid Echo an envelope. “Inside are earbuds. What you hear underground, you’ll hear above ground twenty-four seven. You can wear them in the shower, they’re waterproof. Embedded on the side are volume and frequency controls.”

Flyn briefed him this morning. Echo warranted certain above ground accommodations though Flyn hadn’t given a reason.

Echo ignored the envelope. “And the video feeds?”

“The images are being rerouted to my place as we speak.”

“What does that mean?” the kid asked with suspicion in his voice. “Wait, don’t answer.”

The kid stared at Rourke and tilted his head as though peeling away Rourke’s layers. “You don’t give off the aura of a pureblood. What are you?”

As a double agent and an ex-chosen executioner, Rourke walked a fine line between truth and deception. To earn Echo’s trust and acceptance, he opted for the former though he disliked speaking of his failed genetics. His failed genetics further proved he was unworthy of earning any semblance of peace or happiness in this lifetime.

“I’m an UnMarked. I wasn’t born with powers though my parents were purebloods.”

A reason wasn’t found for why a child of two pureblood parents was born sterile.

“Were?” The kid asked with an open curiosity that unnerved Rourke.

Rourke wasn’t accustomed to being on the receiving end of what he perceived to be an interrogation by a young punk that didn’t like the idea of having Rourke as his bodyguard.

“Vicious murdered them a decade ago. His child, Snow, helped.”

“Snow killed your parents?” The kid’s voice upped a pitch.

“Snow didn’t kill jack shit. She was nothing more than an innocent child used as a pawn. If anyone killed your parents, it’s Vicious. You got that?”

The edge in Cage’s tone surprised him. Vicious also slaughtered Cage’s family. To keep the peace, Rourke agreed. Later, he would think over the possibilities of why Cage had defended Snow. A different issue required his attention—Echo.

“Assign someone else as my Protector. He’s not qualified.”

“On what grounds?” Did the kid have a bias against UnMarkeds?

The stigma of being less than a pureblood in skills and abilities followed him though he’d proven he could fight and hunt as well as the best pureblood.

Echo shrugged. “Two reasons. One, I don’t trust you. Two, I don’t like you.”

Before he could reassure the kid those barriers could be overcome, Cage voiced his dissatisfaction.

“I don’t give a rat’s ass whether you like Rourke or not. What you lack, he’ll make up for. Rourke can detect Drifters.”

Spotting a Drifter—a demon with a soul—wasn’t in the repertoire of all demon hunters. Detecting Drifters set him apart from other operatives.

“Trace isn’t a Drifter. He’s Vicious’ son and prefers to work alone. I doubt Vicious will send anyone but Trace.”

Echo studied Vicious’ assassins well. Trace was one of many children Vicious fathered with countless women. The blasted demon had no preference for hunter, human or demon women.

“I won’t take that chance for you,” Cage said. “We cover all bases.”

Trancelike, Echo stood and walked over to the wall of windows. He stared forward and in a voice devoid of emotion, muttered, “When is Mr. Summers’ assignment considered done?”

“When my men cut off Trace’s head,” Rourke said. “They’re on his trail as we speak.”

“Trackers can find their targets but they themselves are difficult to locate.”

“I have two Trackers under my command,” he reassured.

“Not good enough.” Echo turned, his gaze settling on Rourke before he addressed Cage. “I’m sorry, but I won’t go along with your plan.”

“You are my responsibility.”

“At work, yes. This is personal.”

“No one survives a kill order, don’t you understand?”

“I’ll be the exception. I have connections. Give me a chance to speak with my contact.”

“Speak to your contact and you’ll return without your fucking head.”

Echo pointed a finger at Rourke. “He stands between Trace and me. I won’t put his life in danger, Cage. Null the contract.”

“He’s signed the papers. There is no going back.”

“There is.” Echo lifted his chin in defiance. “You didn’t get my consent.”

Cage pounded his fist on the table. “Consent isn’t needed. Your life is at stake.”

“Please, Cage, rescind Mr. Summers’ contract. I can never ask anyone to die for me.”

Echo swayed, looking ready to pass out. Rourke hurried to the kid but Cage reached Echo first, knocking Rourke aside with a shove from his shoulder. With the kid propped against his body, Cage grabbed the kid’s hands and tried yanking off the gloves. The kid wrenched away and staggered to the door.

“Echo?”

“I… I need to return to the tunnels.” The kid leaned a shoulder against the door and avoided looking their direction. “Deliver my ride, soon.”

“Of course.”

Cage rushed over and handed the kid a key card before saying something in Echo’s ear. Echo shook his head then elbowed Cage in the stomach. He pointed a finger at Rourke. The kid wanted Cage to deal with him. Fine.

He’d have his chance soon to show the kid Cage made the right decision though the odds were against them.

“Will Echo be okay?” he asked.

“Yeah. The kid’s exhausted, that’s all. Excuse his manners. Echo’s isolated himself for too long.”

Rourke agreed. The other guardians monitored their sections above ground. Echo was the exception rather than the norm. He walked Cage to the elevators. “Don’t kill me for saying this but I plan on teaching the kid lessons on respect.”

Cage tolerating the kid’s behavior surprised Rourke. He was nothing short of rigid and by the books.

“Have at it but good luck. Echo is set in his ways. Then again you might be good for him.” Cage’s brows slammed together. “Shit, I forgot the motorcycle. Echo will have my ass.” He yanked out his cell, saying a quick, “Follow the damn rules, or else.”

As the elevator doors closed, Rourke overheard Cage putting in an order for a Ducati motorcycle. Before he could give more thought to the conditions of the contract, his cell buzzed. Rourke glanced at the screen. Silver.

“Aren’t you in a remote location without cell connection?”

“I arrived in Seattle last night.”

“For business?” He questioned the new commander of chosen executioners without repercussions. They were friends, almost lovers, until Fate intervened and chose Silver’s soulmate. Rourke wasn’t the one.

“Yes. The Elders sentenced a hunter for murder. I hold his contract in my hands.”

“Is his sentencing justified?”

“He killed his mate, so yes I’d say he deserves his sentencing.”

A murderer held to a contract to commit more murders to earn his freedom. “When will this nonsense end, Silver?”

“With this hunter. He will not kill humans. Instead, his contract is to kill Vicious’ demons.”

“And the humans, how will you conceal their life force from our gods?” Become aware of the existence of the supernatural and that human would be marked for death in this secret war of theirs with the demons.

“We use a different means of sparing their lives.”

“How?”

“A new weapon.”

Silver must have complete confidence in this weapon if she risked her life defying their gods’ laws.

“My father informed me of your contract with him. I have information that can help you find Snow. Do you recall a creature by the name of Cipher?”

“Deacon’s son?”

“The one and only.”

“He died in the same explosion that killed his father.”

Rourke would know. Seven years ago, Silver’s father, Commander Stone, sent Rourke in to kill Cipher and his father, Deacon. Deacon was a crazy demon scientist obsessed with the theory of symbiotic existence. But he never started the assignment. An Elite had hauled him in to answer for the crime of murder.

“Cipher isn’t dead. We have proof, a photo of him with his girlfriend, Snow.”

Rourke paced. His job as Echo’s Protector didn’t end with Trace’s death but Snow’s. That was the contract he’d signed with Stone and the reason for hiring on as Echo’s Protector. He’d received his own intelligence pointing to some type of relationship between Echo and Snow.

If Echo had a crush on Snow, and Cipher found out, Echo was as good as dead. Dammit, this new information complicated the situation.

As he wore down the floor, a solution came to mind that would solve his complication. He’d kill Cipher. Yeah, that’s what he’d do.

“You can’t kill Cipher.”

Rourke knew for a fact Silver couldn’t read minds. “Why the hell not?”

“He’s important.”

“How so?” How could one damn demon hold any importance in a cesspool of thousands?

“Hidden in Cipher’s memories are clues to finding the new weapon.”

“Hold up, I thought you already have possession of this,” gods-defying, “weapon.”

“Flyn will brief me in an hour.”

Flyn was at the meeting earlier. “Can’t he give you the information over the phone?”

“He refuses.”

“His reason?”

“To protect the innocent and unknowing.”

“Were those his words?”

“Yes,” Silver said.

Rourke could hear the smirk in her voice. They understood too well Flyn’s preference for speaking in riddles.

“Certain days, I have the urge to wring a straight word from him.”

“But you won’t because he’s your brother-in-law.” Rourke smiled.

“And a damn great Seeker, too,” Silver said with a certainty that proved Flyn’s value in their fight against evil.

Seekers could unearth someone’s darkest secrets by being in the same room with them. No wonder Seekers were the priority targets of Vicious’ plan for the annihilation of hunters. Was Echo a Seeker, the reason for the mark on the kid’s head?

“Flyn killed the demon that tortured you.”

Delilah’s death should give him peace. Instead, memories of her would haunt him. Gods, the things they’d done for her dark amusement. Perverse. Cruel. Sinful.

“You’re free to love and live,” Silver said with hope in her voice. “When you find the one, don’t hesitate to tell her how you feel.”

“You mean like I failed to do with you?”

“Not a fair question. You and I can never be together in that manner.”

Right. “How is Armor?”

“Breathing.”

He imagined her beautiful smile on the other end of the line. “He’s still hot on your tail?”

“Hot but far from close.”

“Someday, you’ll have to tell Armor who the father is.” Few knew of Silver’s little girl.

“I can’t. He’ll double kill me.”

Rourke smiled. Silver had the oddest way of talking, reminding him of her smart-ass twin, Alexandra, or Alex to her friends. A heavy silence weighed down the line. He didn’t wait long for Silver’s disapproval.

“Your deal with my father isn’t in your favor. Rescind. You have time.”

Forget revenge and honor for his family? Snow led his parents into an ambush. One person survived that bloodbath. Arriving at the scene too late to save them, he’d found his way to Stone’s headquarters, wounded but alive. After he woke up from his drug-induced coma, Rourke swore he’d kill Snow.

“At the start of my contract, I was told Snow was dead.”

Fate had not only robbed him of his life when he’d been sentenced as a chosen executioner but of his sole purpose for existing—avenge his parents’ murders.

“Then your father informs me he has proof she’s alive.” Seven years after her reported death, a photo of her arrives at headquarters, dated for a month ago. “Am I to disregard the intelligence?”

“Killing for revenge will stain your soul.”

The sincerity of her words and the concern in her voice almost swayed him into rescinding the contract. Almost. “The kill is to restore honor to my family’s name,” he reasoned.

“You’re the only one left, Rourke. Forget the past, live in the present, and create your own future of honor.”

“And your father’s promise to strip the files of my life as a chosen executioner?”

As the leader of Blades, Commander Stone’s contract superseded Cage’s. Rank and influence mattered in the unspoken hierarchy of power. Simple yet complicated, similar to his feelings for Snow.

Rourke hated her for her part in his parents’ murders. Yet, he couldn’t fault Snow completely. Her destiny as Vicious’ daughter was one beyond her control.

“My father can have your file purged from the databases but somehow, somewhere, someone knows your secret. To be free, you will have to kill everyone until there’s no one left to remember who you’d once been. That’s not what you want, is it?”

“Not lives, but one life, Silver.”

“She was under her father’s influence. You can’t be her judge and executioner. You just can’t.”

He might not be, but... “I’m sorry, Silver, but I won’t break my contract with your father. My family’s honor is on the line.”


Purchase this book or download sample versions for your ebook reader.
(Pages 1-26 show above.)