The sky was still tinged with pink, the early morning crisp with the onset of autumn. The sun was climbing to its eventual ascendency, its warming rays gradually melting away the last faint traces of the past night's fog hovering over Stormking Mountain. A light breeze danced through the trees, making the lush oranges, reds and golds of the leaves flicker, teasing from them the first embers of color that in a little while would be set ablaze in seasonal conflagration. The spicy tang of pine mingled with the earthy scent of the woods, filling the air with the rich scent of life. Cardinals and meadowlarks, warblers and juncos, all called their greeting to the host of creatures emerging from den and hollow; chattering squirrels and plump rabbits, timid deer and grumbling opossum. Field mice and chipmunks darted here and there, gathering the seeds that would see them through the coming winter.
A doe raised her head from feeding, her ears swiveling to catch once more the faint sound that aroused her. Above her head the pair of squirrels that had been arguing over a hickory nut fell silent. One by one the other denizens of the wood, furred and feathered, halted in their daily activity to listen.
The object of their distraction came into view a moment later, gliding through the woods with the silent, deceptive speed of a born predator on the hunt. The animals all watched warily, ready to spring into flight should attention turn their way. They had seen this particular hunter before, and although she had never hunted them in the usual manner, all of them sensed in her a wildness unlike the others of her kind, a restrained lethalness in the careful tread of each booted foot that marked her as more dangerous than any other. The doe, deciding that discretion was the better part of valor, melted away into the brush.
Shalimar Fox paused beside a paper birch tree as a familiar scent tickled her nostrils. She carefully removed a peeling piece of bark, her nose wrinkling a little as she brought it close and sniffed. She was right. The object of her search had touched this tree, and not that long ago. The trail was freshening.
As much as she enjoyed hunting, Shalimar would have preferred to still be in bed. She was not a morning person, especially when she hadn't gotten to bed until after two a.m. Most people who knew her had sense enough to let sleeping cats lie under these circumstances, but not her elemental teammate. Only Brennan Mulwray had the audacity to haul her out of the sack at this ungodly hour. The diabolical louse had roused her from a sound sleep, bugging her mercilessly via comlink until all she wanted to do was to find him and strangle him. As it turned out, that was exactly what he intended. He had gone out and hidden somewhere on the mountain, and now was challenging her to come out and find him. Groaning, she stumbled out of bed, splashed some water on her face, pulled on some clothes and set out, muttering all sorts of imprecations about what she would do when she caught up with him. His one hour time limit didn't even give her enough time to grab coffee.
They had started this game a couple of months ago almost by accident. First it was a sparring match with a steak dinner riding on the outcome. Next came a race over an impromptu obstacle course. Now they were taking turns coming up with different head-to-head contests as a fun way to challenge each other's skills, with the winner accorded the privilege of naming the prize. Since paying for that initial dinner Shalimar had scored a chic pair of French black sandals with stiletto heels, a designer purse, and a sassy little black leather jacket. This time she had her eye on dinner at The Palace, the most expensive five-star restaurant in town. She was confident she would get it, too. Brennan had challenged her in a contest that played to all of her strengths. She took it for granted that he had some trick up his sleeve that he thought would overcome her advantage, but although they had worked together for years, he really had no clue just how sharp her senses were. Only someone who saw the world as she did could possibly understand how much information they gathered. She smiled to herself. Maybe she would wear the stilettos to dinner – not to rub her winning streak in, mind you, just to make their respective heights a little more comparable.
Yawning hugely, Shalimar left the confines of Sanctuary and walked out onto Stormking Mountain. The air was clear and sharp, filled with teeming scents and sounds that none of her teammates could hope to appreciate. They grabbed her feral senses, clearing away the sleep-thick cobwebs shrouding her mind. She inhaled deeply, embracing the pure, primal essence of life flowing around her with her whole being, feeling the call of the woods awaken her soul and purge the sluggishness from her blood. The anticipation of the hunt zinged through her neural pathways, setting her nerves to tingling. So Brennan wanted her to come out and play, did he? Just wait until she got her hands on him. He was about to get a whole lot more than he bargained for.
The sign was easy to follow, from the first footprints left in the soft earth to the less obvious bits of crushed grass and broken twigs. He had started off at a good clip and in a relatively straight line at first. Then he tried such elementary tricks as leaping sideways from the track and scrambling over every log and boulder he came across. After a while he tried doubling back to confuse his trail, and later tried to break the scent-track by doing a hand-over-hand stunt on some tree branches. It was an impressive effort for someone much more comfortable in urban confines than in this kind of natural setting, though none of it was enough to fool her; not by a long shot. She did, however, give him a reasonable amount of credit for trying.
Presently she became aware of the drifting scent of ozone, as from an electrical discharge. She followed it. It grew stronger as she walked until finally she came to a halt in front of a huge, majestic pine towering over a smaller stand of trees and shrubs. The ozone stench was concentrated here, and oddly enough, it was ascending. The corners of her mouth curved into a satisfied smile. So this was his ace in the hole, the trick card she had been expecting. Brennan had used his electricity as jet propulsion to lift himself away. No doubt he thought that by ending his ground trail here he could delay her from catching up to him long enough for the time limit to expire. He just didn't realize that to one such as she, electricity provided just as much of a trail as his scent did.
Her feral hearing picked up the clincher – the faint scraping of a shoe against wood. Her eyes tracked upward to a point where the sound of the scraping converged with the smell of electricity at a thick cluster of drooping boughs about 30 feet up, wide enough and tall enough to conceal a man of Brennan's size. Peering closely, she caught a slight movement behind the branch. Bingo. She checked her watch and grinned triumphantly. Ten minutes to spare. She had just won herself dinner at the five star with all the trimmings. Maybe she would tack on a show, just to get even with him for starting this nonsense at such a ridiculous hour. There was a play at the Ambassador Theater that she wouldn't mind seeing.
She was just about to call out to him when something rustled in the grass. That something leaped up and seized her ankles with the speed of a striking snake. There was a twanging sound like the release of a tautly-strung bow, and she found herself whipped off her feet and flung high into the air. An instant later she was bouncing helplessly in a cleverly laid rope snare, dangling upside down from the branch of a sturdy bay tree.
Brennan edged out of concealment from behind the boughs and stepped off the sturdy limb he had been standing on, using the jet propulsion facet of his power to lower himself safely down from the big pine. Once on the ground he strolled nonchalantly over to where she hung gently swaying and looked up at her with an extremely smug look on his face.
"Dunlop D402's," he said happily.
She glared at him, breathless, startled, and thoroughly nonplussed.
"Motorcycle tires. Two of them. Dunlop D402's with twenty-one inch rims."
From his unaffected manner one would think it was the most natural thing in the world to converse with her while she was hanging upside down from a tree with a rope around her ankles. Shalimar couldn't say which irritated her more – his provoking expression or the fact that he was making absolutely no move to release her. Her first impulse was to take a swing at him, but she couldn't quite reach him. She ground her teeth in frustration.
"Are you just going to stand there?" she snapped.
He gave her his most innocent look.
"Oh I'm sorry – do you need help getting down?"
Shalimar gave him a fulminating look that promised retribution as soon as she was free and muttered something about a cold day in hell. Brennan just stood there, smirking. When he first set out to end her winning streak he fell back on his old con-man talent to slowly string her along, letting her think she was in complete control when in reality he was using her own vanity to sucker her right into his snare. He knew that daring her to find him was a challenge to her tracking skills that she just couldn't ignore. He also knew that if he made it too easy she would smell a rat. To that end he laid out a careful plan and spent several days researching the details; how to lay the snare, how to confuse his trail, and most importantly how to use her own feral senses to decoy her into his trap. He couldn't have been more pleased with the results.
Shalimar swung twice and then, using the momentum to whiplash her lithe body upward, grabbed the rope about a foot above her ankles. Hand over hand she pulled herself up, then twined her left arm in the rope to take her body weight while she reached down with her right to loosen the noose around her feet.
The familiar sizzle of a newly-formed Tesla coil smote her ears. A second later a bolt of blue lightning flashed above her head, severing the rope. She barely had time to utter a startled yelp at the abrupt sensation of free fall before she plummeted straight into Brennan's outstretched arms.
He was grinning at her in that lopsided, boyish way of his that never failed to steal her heart, and she knew she couldn't stay mad at him. Much as she hated to admit it, she had been overconfident, and it cost her. He won fair and square. On the plus side she was still up three to two, and there was always next time. She would have to think of something suitably fiendish in the way of payback. The corners of her mouth tugged upward.
"Purely self-interest," he assured her, "I couldn't take the chance of you hurting yourself. You promised to help me wash down the Helix today."
She brought up one hand to cradle her chin, cocking her head sideways and pursing her lips as she pretended to be reconsidering her offer. Brennan retaliated by lowering his arms and leaning forward, tipping her a bit as if he was going to drop her. She screeched in mock fear and tried to grab his shoulder, his neck, anything, because with her feet bound she was at a serious disadvantage. He dipped her lower, pulling his neck out of easy reach.
"Do I hear an 'uncle'?" Brennan leaned a little further.
She managed to hook an arm around his bicep, but she knew it wouldn't hold if he really did dump her. Laughing, she surrendered.
"All right, all right! I'll still help you wash the Helix!"
He quickly gathered her back into his arms, grinning triumphantly. Neither of them would have gone through with their threats, and both knew it. This was just a typical example of the spontaneous horseplay that frequently seemed to crop up whenever they were together. Settled comfortably once more, Shalimar tilted her head to look up at him.
"So where did a city boy like you learn how to set up a snare like that?" she asked.
"Downloaded video from the Survivalist Channel," he explained, "I actually set it 3 days ago so it wouldn't tip you off by being quite so new. All I had to do today was lure you into it." With a playful little swing he set her on her feet and knelt down to see to the rope around her ankles. She steadied herself with her hands on his shoulders.
"I've watched you enough to know that you use scent and sound at least as much, if not more, than vision," he continued, trying to work the knot loose. He wasn't having a lot of success, partly because he was trying not to jerk her off balance by pulling too hard. "So that's what I had to divert. I knew the smell of the electrical discharge would draw you here, and used the jet burst to hold you in place. I figured that between that and scraping my feet on the limb it would distract you from looking at the ground." He glanced up at her with a quick smirk. "I was right."
Impressed in spite of herself at the thoroughness of his planning, she was equally annoyed with herself for underestimating him so completely. That wouldn't happen again. He could gloat now, but next time the tables would be turned. She bounced a light slap off the top of his head.
"Will you just get this thing off me?"
He gave the knot another fruitless tug, then reached toward his back pocket and the knife he always kept there.
"It's pulled too tight to loosen. Hold still."
Shalimar did as she was told. He slipped the lethally sharp blade between her ankles. With a flick of his wrist the knife parted the rope like it was butter. It gave way with an audible pop. Satisfied, he closed it down with the practiced flex of one hand and slid it back into his pocket.
As soon as the weapon was safely stowed, Shalimar struck. String her up by her ankles, would he? She pushed vigorously on Brennan's shoulders, dumping him on his butt. Unfortunately for her, he anticipated just such a move. His long arm hooked behind her knees, pulling her with him as he went down. She let out a little shriek as she toppled across his chest, and the two of them went tumbling through the leaves. Over and over they rolled, laughing and thrashing, each one trying to get the upper hand and neither one really succeeding. They finally came to a stop against a spreading mulberry bush, Brennan flat on his back and Shalimar sprawled on top of him. They were both grinning like mischievous children as they caught their breath. Shalimar propped her elbows on his broad chest, resting her chin in her small hands as she regarded him impishly.
"Motorcycle tires, huh?"
"…with twenty-one inch rims. I got it." She rolled her eyes theatrically. "Boys and their toys."
"What about girls and their clothes?" he riposted, "At least tires are necessary. How many pairs of shoes do you have?"
Her eyes twinkled. "Not enough. You'll be adding to my collection next time."
"Next time you'll be buying tickets to the auto show."
They both grinned in response to the other's challenge. Then after a moment Brennan's grin softened. He reached up and gently removed a leaf from her tousled golden hair. It was an innocuous gesture, nothing he hadn't done before, but somehow to Shalimar it suddenly seemed to be more than that, almost …intimate. Before she could gather her wits enough to wonder why that particular word had even crossed her mind or make any sense of the unexpected flush of heat to her cheeks, Jesse's voice came over the comlink.
"Hey, Shalimar, where are you?"
For a split second she wondered what his reaction would be if she told him the literal truth – that she was stretched out comfortably on top of a certain six-foot-four living sofa - but the thought was fleeting. She opted for a safer response.
"Out on the mountain getting some …exercise." Brennan arched an eyebrow and started to make a comment, but she put her hand over his mouth and gave him a warning glare. "What's up?"
"A message came in for you through our coded website," Jesse replied, "It's marked 'Urgent and Confidential."
That was interesting. Who did she know who would try to contact her through the generic site instead of her direct line? No one she could think of off the top of her head.
"Is there a name on the message?"
"It says 'Olivia Sheffield.'"
Shalimar went very still.
Seeing her expression Brennan's head came up, the action making her hand slide unheeded from his mouth. His arms tightened automatically around her waist.
"Who's Olivia Sheffield?" he asked in a low voice.
Shalimar blinked. She looked back at Brennan with eyes the size of saucers.