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The Demon Within (A PeaceKeeper Novel Book 1)(2)

By:Stacey Brutger


       
           



       

A three-quarter inch swath of twisted, melted skin marred her wrist. Proof of Oscar's fanatical search for a way to destroy the demons, proof he would do anything and everything to put an end to the creatures' existence, even if it meant killing her in one of his experiments.

Silence stretched. Only Oscar knew the truth about her past. Nobody else could know her connection to the very creatures they hunted. If Cunningham knew more, he'd kept his suspicions to himself, and she was pathetically grateful for the reprieve. But she couldn't hide any longer.

She swallowed past her painfully dry throat. "You know."

Cunningham shrugged and looked away. "When are you both going to accept that you deserve a chance to live in peace? That you're still human?" He let her go and marched ahead, the tense set of his shoulders a clear indication of his anger at her continual obedience to a man who had done everything in his power to destroy her.

"He saved my life." It was a twist of fate she'd even come to Oscar's attention. Funny thing, she hadn't decided yet if that had been a blessing or not.

"Bullshit. Both he and Juliet made your life miserable. What do you plan to do? Pay them back by dying here?" With a fierce expression, Cunningham dropped back a few steps. "You're more human than the rest of the team."

Caly frowned, refusing to contemplate his accusations, especially the last statement - no matter how much she wished it were true. She concentrated on the march, her gaze zeroing in on the man who'd orchestrated the trip.

Oscar strode next to the two guides, helping clear a path. The big, burly man had the look of an intrepid explorer intent on a mission, determined to win at any cost.

At seventy-eight years old, he had more stamina than a man half his age. The rigors of training, the intricate fighting styles he taught his pupils, were double what most men could handle at any age. More than one person had been broken by Oscar's sharp tongue and vicious temper.

Caly didn't know if it was a true accomplishment or a curse to be the only woman to ever pass his stringent tests. Her special enhancements made her the perfect soldier, but Oscar came from an old world where women had their place and men protected what was theirs. He hated that he couldn't break her and made no secret of the fact. Perversely, although he'd never admit it, Caly sensed a streak of pride for what he'd created in her.

A twig snapped behind her, followed by a loud thump and heavy cursing. Oscar's body froze mid-step. Time stopped for a second. Everyone waited for the flash of temper he'd been known to unleash on the hapless. The muscles of his shoulders flexed as he shook off his irritation and continued with the all-important mission.

Everyone seemed to let out a collective sigh.

"Bloody jungle." A whine tinged Henry's voice, but the underlying violence had her fingers curling into fists. Experience taught her to watch her back around him. Henry used women like toilet paper, and it gave her the willies to think she'd dated him for a week when she'd been sixteen before she'd wised up and realized all his charm was for Oscar's benefit.

He thought it was a game to aggravate her and made it his personal mission to knock her out of the way on his rise to the top. He seemed to think she was the only thing preventing his advancement. So anything he could do to make her look like a fool was a bonus.

She'd wish he'd get a clue and realize she didn't care about rank. She pushed away her animosity before she beat his ass, increasing her steps until her muscles tightened with a pleasant burn. The uneven jungle floor leveled out, a carelessly laid stone appeared every few feet. Twenty paces later, they were less random, closer together, forming a pathway.

The jungle vines closed in a little, crowded in on both sides. A tinge of claustrophobia shortened her breath, and the scars on her wrists throbbed. She beat it back by sheer will and focused on her duty, not the irrational fear of being imprisoned again.

The overhead canopy consisted of climbing vines knitted together, the vegetation melded to form a solid meshed structure that blocked the light. The place would be beautiful if she could overcome the sense that the jungle appeared to be herding them. The world around her fell silent from one step to the next, the lack of sound in such a vast place crept up and crouched heavily on her senses.

Late afternoon sun vanished as shadows darkened the area to an eerie, surreal world. They had to hurry. Darkness would fall soon, and the devil danced at night in her world

Oscar's clenched fist shot in the air. Halting mid-step, Caly scanned the undergrowth for any sign of movement, every muscle tensed for action.                       
       
           



       

"Why'd we stop?" Unheeding the command, Henry plowed forward, jolting against her. Two distinct palms slapped the center of her back, shoving her out of the way with a force that sent her staggering.

"Damn it all, woman, move." He marched forward shooting her a little smirk over his shoulder.

Momentum propelled her toward the vines on her left. Her hand shot through the green mesh as she fought for balance. Pain streaked through her palm and down her arm when it connected to something solid. Her foot slid, and she landed on one knee.

"Inconsiderate jackass." Cunningham quickly stormed after Henry. "That boy needs a beating, and I'm just the man to do it."

"Leave it."

Cunningham only waved her comment away.

Blood trickled from a gash, coating the rough surface beneath her fingers. Warming it. Pulling her arm back, she ignored the cut and parted the vines.

And caught a glimpse of stone.

Spreading the vegetation further, she stilled when powerful thighs filled her gaze. The voices of the men arguing disappeared in the background as she tilted her head back and looked up.

A black beetle so large it had to be on steroids paused in climbing the statue and flicked a perturbed glance at her. With a little hiss for disturbing him, the little critter launched itself in the air with a flutter of wings. She flinched, bowed backwards to miss being hit in the face.

And met the open-eyed stare of the stone man, forever captured in time. Thoughts of bugs vanished. Caly's lips parted, and her breath stuttered out of her mouth.

There was a God.

The man - and from her view kneeling on the moss covered ground, he was most definitely a man - was absolutely gorgeous. Not in the normal sense, not by Hollywood standards. Prominent cheekbones, a full, sharp nose and a strong jaw kept his face from being too feminine.

Desire twisted through her. A deep yearning tightened her chest, and a bubble of hope swelled. This was a man she could depend on to not let her down. When she looked at him, the chaos inside that defined most of her life settled.

She felt normal.

Then reality crashed over her.

Desire for a damn statue.

How ironic she could be attracted to stone when living men left her cold. But here, in the middle of nowhere, she found a man who turned her on like nobody else, and he wasn't real. It was enough to make a grown girl cry.

Little details filtered into her brain, and a thrill of excitement thrummed under her skin. The answers she sought about her condition were stuck in the past; she only had to uncover the clues. Since they've landed, he was the first concrete hint something was off.

This was why she came here. What quieted her protests against the mission. All for the chance to learn if there was a possibility for her to be fully human again and finally destroy the demon infection that had taken root and flourished in her body. Every day, it ate away her humanity. Relished the fighting a bit too much. Each time the darkness opened up in her, the more she wondered why she fought it at all.

The mission forgotten, Caly took her time to catalog the odd details. The statue wasn't what she'd come to expect from this region. Instead of native garb, the grey stone man had chiseled, close fitted pants.

Two inch carved straps crisscrossed his chest, appearing to almost dig into the stone. His long hair, wild with waves, was tied back from his face. Her fingers twitched to run her hands over him. Though his complexion was tinged green with age, the fierce expression drew her gaze instead of repelling her.

The turn of his lips was anything but sensual, yet their fullness made her think of sex and what a man could do with a mouth like his.

Strong shoulders led down to a lean, sculptured chest. His open shirt did little to disguise his physique. The statue shouldn't have impressed her, but it was as if the stone called to her. A streak of light filtered through the canopy, wavered a moment then illuminated him like an offering.

Something just for her. She had to curl her fingers into a fist to resist touching him.

As she watched, she swore his chest moved to breathe. It took a physical effort to pull her gaze away and longer to tuck away the desire to stake claim. The weird light faded, and her focus came to rest on a knife strapped to his right side.

The fifteen-inch dagger rested close to his body, the curved handle arched up, wrapping along his ribs. The intricate design etched along the outside of the scabbard and handle was too detailed for any stone crafting of the time.

Or it should have been.

She leaned closer, almost able to make out the designs.

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