Night Falls on the Wicked
Author:Sharie Kohle

FOUR

When Niklas looked back, she was gone.

He quickly scanned the small parking lot and spotted her ahead, continuing down the sidewalk with her bag of groceries and her blue hood pulled low over her head, obscuring her profile. He suspected this wasn’t just because of the cold but because she didn’t like to draw attention to herself. She had a way about her—a quiet way of moving, almost as though she didn’t touch the ground when she walked. Of course he noticed her. He missed nothing or no one.

He’d known instantly it was her. The woman he’d seen walking across the street from the B&B yesterday. Aside from his recognizing the coat she wore, his body had reacted instantly, his skin jumping and tightening the same way it had yesterday.

He felt a stab of disappointment to see her go. A strange sensation. He had barely viewed her face and he hadn’t even glimpsed her hair. Just a vague impression of a pale face and wide hazel eyes. Nothing remarkable—on the surface. But there was something more there, something lurking beneath. Something that caught his attention. Yesterday and now. Something that held his rarely caught attention.

He frowned at her brisk pace. She was practically jogging. It was almost as if she were fleeing. From him? Had he frightened her? Those hazel eyes had stared at him with a wide-eyed awareness. At first, he thought she recognized him. Impossible, he knew. He knew no one. Had no one. He was all alone in this world and had been for too many years to count.

He considered following her. She wouldn’t live far if she was on foot in this climate. He took one step in the direction she’d fled and then stopped himself. Shaking his head, he wondered why he should care where she lived. But he knew that answer deep and swift in his blood. Just as he knew himself.

He hadn’t spent this long keeping himself tightly in check without coming to understand precisely what he was.

She turned a corner in front of the town diner. Out of sight. His breath came easier. He’d felt a connection to her. A response. It was all tied up in his baser instincts. No matter how he struggled to suppress his nature, the essence of what he was rose up inside him now and then. A bitter reminder just in case he started to feel normal. In case he started believing he was an average guy.

There was no formula as to what female might arouse a reaction in him. No predicting. Yesterday, the maid, Holly, had been easy enough to pass by, to reject. But this one …

He shook his head, the satin-soft sound of her voice still running through his mind

Certain women affected him more than others. Every once in a while he got within breathing distance of a specific female and a primal need seized him to take her, have her, possess her. She was one of them, he guessed. Nothing more.

Usually he walked away as fast as he could manage when one of those situations occurred. A few times, admittedly, he didn’t walk away.

A few times he succumbed. Sometimes when he was feeling particularly weak he took what he craved, what the woman invited, and then he left. As quickly as possible.

Tonight, she was gone before he had a chance to decide for himself if he wanted to pursue her. A heavy sigh welled up inside him and pushed past his lips. Just as well.

He returned his attention to the idiots cheering over a few wolf corpses. It was the same story everywhere. Sad, really, that wolves got blamed for the attacks.

Alleged. That was the word the girl had used. He hadn’t missed that. She was smart. He’d heard it in her voice, watched it in the movement of her body. She held herself guardedly, with a certain awareness. She knew that wolves weren’t behind the attacks. Although, he knew, she couldn’t fathom the true reason. Who would? But for him, the conclusion was obvious.

The killings had occurred in the last moonrise. He only hoped it was the pack he was after. He’d lost track of them in Calgary, but from the moment he arrived here he knew they were close. He felt them, scented their presence. He slid a glance up at the night sky. The waxing moon burned through the clouds, almost full. There wasn’t much time. Just a few more days. With any luck, he’d find them before moonrise.

Before someone else died.

AS SOON AS DARBY got home she hurriedly put away her groceries and changed into her running clothes. As exhausting as work could be, running brought her back to life. She figured it was the endorphin release. She read somewhere that endorphins made you happier. In her case, it probably staved off the despair from consuming her. Not to mention it kept her in shape. Something necessary with the amount of diner food she ate.

For some reason, her run-in with the hot guy in front of the store only made her feel more on edge than normal. She definitely needed to pound out some frustration on the pavement.

She passed the front of the diner, waving to Maggie through the windows. She and Corey had the late shift tonight. Tomorrow would be Darby’s turn.

She deliberately didn’t look in the direction of the store. She didn’t want to know if the stranger was still standing there. She didn’t want to look at the hot guy that made her skin ripple, her body ache and long for a man’s touch. Nor did she really want to see a bunch of locals cheering over some wolf carcasses.

She pushed on, moving into the quieter section of town. The cold didn’t affect her once she got her heart pumping and legs moving. She stayed within the town, working her way from one end to the other.

It was already dark, but the streetlamps lighted her way. She glanced up past the craggy mountain peaks to the moon. Not quite full. It wasn’t as if she had that to worry about. Yet.

She passed the B&B and noticed a black Hummer parked in front. Immediately, her mind went to the guy from earlier tonight, the stranger, and she just knew it was his. No one around here drove anything like it. Her gaze skimmed the several windows dotting the front of the quaint B&B, wondering which one might be his.

With a shake of her head and a groan, she increased her speed and turned off Main onto one of the older residential streets. It was a street she liked running down because the houses were older. Charming and picturesque with large, wraparound porches. Colorful gardens in the spring and summer. Not that she was ever here to see them then, but she bet they looked beautiful. She liked to imagine them, liked to fantasize about the sun on her face.

The Christmas lights were down now, but they’d been beautiful. It was as if all the neighbors had some sort of unspoken agreement to try to outdo one another. Her aunts used to take great care over Christmas, including decorating the house. Such things had never been priorities for her mother, but for her aunts Christmas was big. They would have arguments over what color lights should go on the outside of the house. A pained smile flitted over her lips. She shook her head and pushed her legs harder, fighting through the burn in her lungs.

Her breath puffed out in front of her as she followed the curving sidewalk, turning with the street as it ended in a cul-de-sac. She backtracked on the opposite side of the street now, the cadence of her thundering feet feeding her spirit.

The world slipped away, fading to nothing save dark night ahead of her, the only sound in her head the sawing of her own breath.

AS NIKLAS NEARED THE front door of the B&B, ready to tackle the night and scour the area for Cyprian and the others, he spotted her through the window. She was across the street, running. Stepping outside, he burrowed into his coat and watched as she moved down the sidewalk at a fast clip.

He shook his head. Who jogged in weather like this? And at night. Alone. Alone at night.

He scowled as this occurred to him, sinking in. She was the perfect target for Cyprian and his pack. She probably thought she was safe in town. No way could she predict the danger that lurked.

Even without the full moon it was dangerous. They were never harmless. Although he told himself it wasn’t his concern—she wasn’t his concern—he took off after her, moving swiftly, faster than the eye could process. Like the curls of icy air traveling over the frozen streets, he followed her without detection. That was his gift. Or curse.

She jogged through a neighborhood, fast for a human, bounding effortlessly it seemed. He admired her movements as he kept a safe distance. She wore a jogging jacket, fitted and smooth against her body, designed for winter. Her thumbs poked out of small holes in the sleeves. From her flowing, natural stride he surmised she ran a lot. The neighborhood sat silent, nestled among shadows and trees. His lips twisted and he felt an unreasonable flash of anger. She made an easy target, so easy to claim. Careless fool. Even without blood-hungry creatures wandering the night, the woman should be smarter.

He stilled at the end of the street, leaning against the frozen post that held up the crooked street sign as he waited for her to return.

She almost didn’t see him until she was on top of him. She jerked back with a startled yelp, her wide-eyed gaze falling on him. Her hood fell back from her head and he was granted his first view of her hair. Even in a ponytail he could see that it was a dark red, thick as a horse mane in its band.

She hopped a little where she stood, her hot breath blowing clouds in front of her. “I didn’t see you there,” she panted.

“You should pay attention.” He crossed his arms across his chest. “It’s called situational awareness.”

Her flushed cheeks burned brighter, almost as bright as the frozen red tip of her nose. “Thanks for the tip. You’re right, of course.” She looked him up and down. “You never know what dirtbag you can run into.”

He had to stop himself from laughing. She wasn’t scared of him. Or at least she didn’t show it. Nor was she hot to rip off his clothes and get dirty in bed with him. Those were the two reactions he was accustomed to inciting in the opposite sex. Fear and lust. He was mildly disappointed the latter was missing.

Instead of desire, she looked at him with annoyance.

“With the wolf attacks going on, you should reconsider jogging at night,” he advised.

“Yeah? Somebody make you the neighborhood watch on your second day in town?”

He smiled. “How do you know it’s my second day?”

“Lucky guess.”

He dug his fists deeper into his pockets and scanned the silent street. “Anyone else new come to town recently? About a month ago? I’m looking for a few buddies …”

Her hazel eyes narrowed on him. “And you lost them? Mustn’t be too tight with these buddies of yours.”

She was smart. He’d give her that.

“Look.” She sighed and reached up to pull her ponytail tighter. “All anyone can talk about is the wolf situation lately. The first attack was around a month ago. If any newcomers arrived around that time, they wouldn’t have earned a lot of attention. You want to know anything, ask Dollie at the post office. She knows everything.”

“Dollie. I’ll keep that in mind.”

She gave a brusque nod.

“You really shouldn’t jog alone at night,” he couldn’t resist adding, still bothered at the idea of her putting herself at risk.

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

With that, she pulled her hood back over her head and continued running. He watched her as she advanced down Main, tempted to follow her again. At least she was beneath the bright streetlamps now. For some reason that mattered to him.

Instead of pursuing her again, he moved toward his car. Playing hero was a wholly new sentiment for him. It was especially pointless when the damsels didn’t want rescuing.

He had a mission. The longer he delayed, the more people died. And the longer vengeance went unserved.