By: Stacey Brutger

Pictures of missing people flashed in her mind, but he appeared to have been there long before the last two had disappeared. Indeed, his gaunt body was skin and bones, his flesh having long since melted away. His clothes hung on him, two sizes too large, indicating he’d once been a big bastard. There wasn’t an ounce of fat anywhere on him.

That wasn’t vanity.

It was starvation.

The lack of grooming was a stark contrast to the city men she dealt with stateside. His hair had clumped together and tangled around his head, while heavy shadows ringed his eyes. Any tan had long since faded, leaving him with the sallow, pale look of someone grievously ill.

Shayla slowly lowered her arm, the weight of her wooden weapon leaving her muscles trembling with fatigue. She jiggled her bag until her phone brushed her palm. Pulling it out, she flicked on the light.

The man flinched, but he didn’t look away.

Green eyes.

The man had the most vivid eyes she’d ever seen. They would’ve been beautiful except for the fact that they stared at her unblinking, like a starved animal ready to pounce. She braced for him to charge, the hunger in him a visible thing, and she shivered to have it directed at her.

He cocked his head, clutched the rat’s squirming body to his chest with shaky fingers. Then he held out his hand as if offering her the poor creature.

She must have made some noise for he dropped the critter and launched to his feet. “You’re real?”

* * *

The woman jerked back at his sudden move, losing her hold on the phone. They both watched it plop into the water, the bright light barely penetrating the murky soup.

A second passed as they eyed each other before lunging forward at the same time.

Only by random chance did the current shove the phone toward him. The device swept by so swiftly it nearly slipped through his fingers. Despite his edge, she almost captured it first. He jerked the phone out of the water and stood with the prize clutched in his fist.

The bright pink phone appeared fragile in his rough hands. The display was lit, revealing no service. He turned it over to see elegant writing on the back, nearly indecipherable in the darkness.

What’s lost can be found. Call Shayla.

He gave a little startled jerk at her name.

From a fairy place.

“Shayla.” He whispered it softly, savoring the sound of it. The woman lifted her chin, straightening from her crouch.

“Did someone hire you to find me?” Wild emotions tumbled through him too fast to grab. Freedom was so close he could almost taste it.

“I don’t do people.” Her face scrunched adorably, but he noted she didn’t say couldn’t.

Vague plans about hiring her to find his men began forming. Her presence here couldn’t be a coincidence, but was she friend or foe?

“That’s mine. I answered your question, now give it back.” She tightened her grip on the rotten piece of driftwood, hefting it as if she would bang him over the head if he dared refuse. She looked spitting mad enough to do it, too.

Desperately needing to see her clearly, not quite convinced she wasn’t some figment of his imagination, he shone the light on her.

“Hey.” She lifted her arm to block the glare.


Dainty and next to worthless.

He should’ve been disappointed.

She should’ve repulsed him.

He scowled that she didn’t.

Fear and hope burned through him. The hair on his arms stood on end, her very presence calling to him on a visceral level that was almost mesmerizing.

It made no sense. She resembled nothing more than one of his drowned rats, but he was willing to bet she tasted better. A hunger of another sort curled through him, and he hardened in an instant.

Her blue eyes sparkled in the darkness as she peeked up at him, her gorgeous eyes growing larger as she took in his deplorable appearance. Wet clothes were plastered to her, leaving nothing to his imagination. She was a little bit of a thing, all hips and curves that had his hands flexing to explore. Her lips were full and inviting, and he found himself drawn closer as if to steal a taste. Dripping strands of hair rested around her shoulders, a curl to it that would turn wild when it dried.

And despite her bedraggled appearance, she was the most exquisite creature he’d laid eyes on in years. He inhaled, and her light citrus fragrance sent a shock to his system. He’d dated beautiful women, but he’d never had such a visceral reaction to one, where every part of him demanded he claim her immediately.

But he’d read about it once.

A mate.

Hope clawed up his throat, so desperate that he forgot how to form words. Aiden shook his head to banish such foolishness. True mates no longer existed. Hadn’t for centuries. A cheap imitation did nothing for him. He’d just been too long without a woman. It was the only reason that made any sense.

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