Tor Paranormal Romance (August 28, 2012)
eBook: Barnes & Noble Nook
“Filled with excitement and action, this third entry in the Guardian series is a video game come to life. As a human disease and a computer virus merge to wreak havoc on an already ravaged Earth, Keating gives new meaning to a virtual malfunction! With a wide, eclectic cast of characters, this follow-up to Mind Games delivers quite an emotional punch, including a healthy dose of discovery and growth.”—RT Book Reviews, 4 Stars
Video-game designer River Weston has seen her world torn apart. The streets of Earth have filled with looting, sickness, and fighting, but River knows that she is in a unique position to help. Drawing on her Fae magic, she creates a computer-generated program called Hollow Man, designed to protect humans during battle. Worlds away, Guardian Chase Hawkins has finally returned to his own body after years of astral projection. His mission now that he’s back: retrieve River, who is walking a dark path without even knowing it, and strip her world of the technology that has brought it to ruin. Hawk and his team arrive on Earth only to discover that River’s new computer program endangers the world all on its own. An old human virus has resurrected and mutated with a computer virus inside of Hollow Man, and it’s spreading uncontrollably. Hawk is convinced it’s too late to save Earth…but River isn’t ready to give up hope yet. River and Hawk find themselves on opposing sides, yet drawn together stronger than ever before. But a future with both of them in it could mean walking paths darker than either of them could ever have imagined.
River stubbed her toe on cardboard boxes stacked in one corner of the dark attic and tried not to swear. With a pencil-thin flashlight tucked between her teeth she stood still for a moment, listening, hoping no one had heard her, but the house below remained silent.
She didn’t want her stepmother to know she was here. More important, she didn’t want Jake to know either. Her half brother was too young for the problems life had thrust on him and it was better if he didn’t know about the shit going on in hers.
As River sifted carefully through the contents of the boxes—not sure what she was hoping to find but certain that whatever it was, it had to be here at her childhood home—she tried hard to swallow her worry for Hawk. She would have known if he were dead. She would have felt the hole. But he’d been gone for nearly two weeks, cutting himself off from her so that she could no longer sense his presence or feel his soul next to hers.
He’d said he would return for her, and the feminine part of her had wanted him to keep the promises he’d made to her no matter what.
Which just went to show that a woman could only rely on herself—exactly as she’d been taught by the father who’d raised her.
She had come here tonight in search of answers because of her father. Constable Jim Peters insisted he had been involved in top-secret government experiments. River refused to believe it.
“Trust me,” Jim had said to her a few days before he, too, had disappeared. “Your father was no simple farmer.” His blue eyes looked tired as he rubbed a freckled hand through his graying red hair and complained about needing a haircut. “Was he overprotective?” he asked. “Did he ever go off without explanation for extended periods of time?”
She’d started to say no to the last because the disappearances had been so rare she’d almost forgotten them, but looking back, there had been at least three. She had no idea if there had been any in more recent years, when she had been less a part of his life. She couldn’t deny other oddities either. She had no idea how he’d earned a living. He could fix anything with an engine and four wheels. He’d taught her to shoot a gun, a rifle, and a crossbow, skills he’d later taught Jake. She and her mother had signed up for self-defense lessons and practiced with him. He’d taught them a few moves of his own. These had all been necessary skills in the world she’d grown up in after the war, and they proved nothing other than that her father liked to be prepared.
But neither did they disprove what Jim had tried to tell her, and River wanted Jim to be wrong. She wanted at least one part of her life to be true. If she couldn’t believe in her own father, what was the point of believing in anything?
River carefully replaced the last box. She’d found nothing other than the photos she’d already seen, the ones of the poor creature that had died in a mountain cave not too far from the house. She didn’t know where her father had gotten these photographs and that was what made her uneasy, although she refused to believe they meant anything bad. The man who had raised her had been honest and caring. Without a doubt he had loved her. He had not, however, always been open. She had to admit that.
As she slid the box farther back on the shelf, she met with resistance. Curious, she reached her hand in behind to see what was blocking it. Her fingers brushed cold, smooth metal. A familiar jolt of energy made her smile and she drew a long cylinder off the shelf.
This was the first toy she and her father had built together. Similar to a kaleidoscope, it could be held to the eye and the tube spun to create images. He’d been far more fascinated by it than she. Anytime she’d played with it, he’d impatiently waited for his turn.
A branch scratched against the windowpane and River started, spooked by the sudden noise disturbing the stillness. She put the toy back onto the shelf.
It wasn’t the noise that had unsettled her, she realized, the skin on her arms beginning to crawl. The house was too silent. No matter how quiet she’d tried to be, and she could be very quiet, Jake would have heard her. He had a sixth sense for things out of the ordinary, something he’d inherited from their dad.
She didn’t walk to the door. Instead, she used her magic and transported herself across the room so as not to make the floor joists creak. She did not, however, dare jump to the main level because she had no idea what she might find if she did. She opened the door and started down the stairs, carefully stepping where the wood had been nailed to the frame. On the second level she passed the open door to Melinda’s bedroom. The room was empty.
She wished Hawk were with her. She might have been taught to look after herself, but there was something to be said for backup. Seriously panicked, and even more cautious, she peered into the other two bedrooms. They were also empty.
A scraping noise came from directly below her, in the vicinity of the kitchen. It sounded like a chair being moved.
She didn’t like the thought of having to take that second flight of stairs to the main level because she’d be exposed, but she had no choice. It was either the stairs or go out a window. If she went out a window, she’d have to get back into the house again.
At the foot of the stairs she paused in the darkness to let her eyesight adjust and to orient herself. She turned to the kitchen door and placed her hand on the wood, listening hard but hearing nothing now. A funky smell seeped through the cracks, coppery and rank. Hope died. She pushed the door open.
And jerked her head to the side, her lightning-fast Fae instincts reacting to danger a split second before her brain caught up. The bolt from a crossbow quivered in the doorframe a few inches from where her face had been.
“Jake!” she cried out, knowing immediately where that bolt had originated. “It’s me, River.”
Her words met with silence and she waited, debating what to do next and not daring to move. He was scared. She could taste his fear, as thick in the air as the unbearable stench. His next bolt might not miss. He was good, and now he had a better sight on his target.
The overhead light clicked on, flooding the room. River blinked a few times, not wanting to accept what she saw. The walls, the floor, even the ceiling were coated in blood. The television had smashed onto the tiles. One overturned chair sat on its side. Two mangled human remains lay near the kitchen table. And Jake, her beautiful, blond-haired brother, not yet fourteen, stood near the exterior door with one hand on the light switch, the other gripping the shaft of the crossbow that rested against his shoulder. He’d jammed a chair under the knob of the door. That was the scraping noise she’d heard.
River didn’t ask him what had happened because she already knew. Rage unfurled inside her, sliding through her veins like floes of ice on a swift stream. Bright red dots of fury obscured her vision. Weres had come looking for her, finding her stepmother and youngest brother instead. Only Jake remained.
A stern voice in the back of her head ordered her to focus on him. Her vision cleared, the rage subsiding but not disappearing. She stored it away, ready to withdraw it at a later time. Right now, Jake needed her.
So did Melinda and Sam. Her throat hurt with the effort of keeping her emotions in check.
“We have to bury them,” Jake said, so matter-of-factly he sounded exactly like their dad. River nodded, unable to speak.
They worked through the night. By the time they finished, she had already decided where she would take him. What was important was getting Jake to safety. She had no idea when, or if, the ones who had done this might possibly return.
The psychological damage done to him would have to be dealt with too, but at a later date. She didn’t want him to spend his life planning revenge against creatures that had been following orders.
Neither did she want Weres following her and Jake. She had an excellent method of travel that would not leave a scent.
“Hang on, Jake,” she said, taking his hand. “We’re going for a little ride.”