The youngest of their group of four stopped walking. She shielded her eyes with her hand and squinted up at the sky. Paige stopped walking as well and squinted in the same direction. She narrowed her eyes further, trying to see what Kelly was looking at. “Is that…” she began, still not entirely sure what it was.
“It’s a helicopter,” Kelly said.
The other two women were just up ahead. They stopped, turned back and then they also put their hands up to shield their eyes from the midday sun. Looking to the north. “Surely that’s not right.” Hayley sounded skeptical. “They must be lost or something.”
Paige’s thoughts exactly. Her heart began to pound. Exactly why she was feeling apprehensive, she couldn’t say. “Maybe we should head for cover.” She knew she sounded paranoid, silly even, but once the thought took residence in her mind, she couldn’t help but feel she was right.
“Why?” Sydney asked, hands on her hips. She made a face. “It’s just a chopper.” She shrugged. “Ignore it. Let’s keep on moving.” She pointed to the grassy fields up ahead. Open and exposed.
“Yeah,” Paige countered, sounding unsure, “but what is it doing all the way out here?”
“It shouldn’t be here…I don’t think,” Kelly added. “We’re in the middle of nowhere. Surely dragon shifters don’t use helicopters? They didn’t mention anything about them in the brief they gave us either. If it’s humans, what are they doing out here on shifter lands? This just doesn’t feel right.” She looked around them. Wilderness as far as the eye could see.
“Since humans don’t even know about the existence of dragon shifters ‒ I mean, we only found out yesterday ourselves ‒ how would they know not to come here?” Haley asked, still squinting in the direction of the chopper. “I doubt the shifters would use artificial means to fly. That just seems stupid. I mean, they can already fly, they’re dragons.” She said the last more to herself. “I doubt it’s anything to worry about. They’re probably lost or something.”
“If we can see them, I’m sure they can see us,” Sydney said. “Seems silly to run and hide now.”
“Not necessarily,” Paige responded. “They’re in a big machine in the middle of a cloudless sky. We’re four women, on a landscape. If we hustle, we might just make it to the cover of those trees before they see us.” There was a touch of panic to her voice as she pointed to a treed area.
“That outcrop of trees is at least two hundred feet away. Even if we ran, they would see us. Whoever is in that thing doesn’t care about us. Let’s ignore the helicopter and keep on moving.” Sydney tightened her ponytail, pulling some wayward strands of chestnut hair behind her ear. The lady was gorgeous. Big doe-like eyes. She was also a royal pain in the ass. At thirty-two, she was the oldest in the group, held down some corporate position and had somehow decided that she was the leader of their little team. Paige was only a year younger. She hadn’t been able to go to college but had taken a course ‒ one of those online ones ‒ and now she worked as a vet’s assistant. Haley had dark hair and green eyes. She seemed to just go along with whatever Sydney wanted. Kelly was the youngest and quite shy.
“Let’s put it to a vote,” Paige suggested, feeling both anxious and annoyed. Her gut was telling her to get the hell out of there. Her dad had always told her to trust her gut. His advice had been spot on over the years.
From the way Kelly was wringing her hands, she could tell the other woman was feeling nervous about this as well.
Hayley shrugged, looking completely indifferent. “It looks like that helicopter is on its way over here. They were originally headed more towards that direction,” she pointed to the mountains, “but seemed to have changed course. I think they’ve spotted us. No use running now.” Another shrug.
Paige swallowed thickly. “We can still run.” They should run…immediately. “I have a bad feeling about this.”
“I agree.” Kelly’s already pale complexion got a whole lot paler. “They shouldn’t be out here. Where are those dragons? Why aren’t they here? This isn’t right!”
“Stop already with the dramatics.” Sydney rolled her eyes. “Relax.” She flapped a hand. “We are in the middle of nowhere. I’m sure they want to check in on us to make sure we’re okay ‒ that’s if they even land. I’ll be shocked if they do.”
“They did change course.” Kelly’s eyes were wide. “Why would they have done that if they hadn’t seen us? I’m sure they’ll land.”
Smart girl! Paige agreed. The chopper was fast approaching. By now she could hear the whine of the engine and the sound of the rotors.
“We can’t tell them anything about why we are really here,” Haley said. “We signed those non-disclosures.”
“Not that they would believe us anyway.” Sydney widened her eyes. “Who would believe that a bunch of women were out here hoping to land themselves a dragon shifter?” She laughed. “We need to agree to a story and then stick to it. Once they know we’re fine, they’ll leave. I’m sure of it.”
“I agree,” Hayley said, completely relaxed. “Okay, so, we’re a group of ladies out on a hike.” She lifted her eyes in thought. “We’re being picked up at three-thirty this afternoon and need to make it to the pick-up point. That’s all.”
“Good idea!” Sydney nodded. She smiled. “We were dropped off early this morning. We’re here to experience nature.”
“How do we know each other?” Kelly asked, frowning.
“Um…” Sydney shook her head. “I doubt they’ll care about all that.”
“They’re armed!” Kelly sounded panicked. “Look at the guns on the sides of the helicopter.” She had to raise her voice over the engine noise.
“Maybe they’re military or something,” Paige said, not fully buying it but praying it was true.
“Must be!” Haley yelled so she could be heard.
Paige felt ill. Worry coiled in her gut. “Here they come,” she said, watching as the chopper began to descend. Even though her hair was tied up, any loose strands whipped about her face. Dust and grass blew up. All of them shielded their faces with their hands.
Within minutes the chopper had landed and was powering down. Paige noticed that the others had removed their packs, so she did the same, placing it at her feet. There was no running at this point. That window of opportunity had firmly closed.
Three guys climbed out. They were in fatigues but didn't look like military personnel. The guy in front had medium-length hair. She didn't think that was allowed if you were serving. It was normally short, a buzz-cut type of a style. She wasn't sure though. The longer-haired guy seemed the youngest of the three, his skin was unlined and an arrogant smirk marred his face. The other two looked to be in their forties. They were serious, even severe looking. There were no labels or name tags on their clothing. If they were in uniform, surely they would have those? What worried her the most was that they all wore holsters. She could see the gun handles sticking out. They were armed. The young one had a big hunting knife strapped to his belt as well.
“I don’t think they’re military,” Paige whispered.
“Definitely not,” Kelly voiced.
“Stick to the story,” Sydney said, under her breath, there was an edge to her voice. No longer as sure as before.
Kelly moved closer, as did Sydney, so that the four of them formed a group. Paige swallowed thickly. She forced herself to smile as the men drew closer. “Afternoon ladies,” the youngest said. “I’m Tim and this is Mike and John.” Mike had thick dark hair. It was greying at the temples. John was bald with a bit of a paunch above his belt.
“Hi!” she said.
“Hello, I’m Kelly. This is Paige.” Kelly pointed at her, her voice was shrill.
“I’m Sydney and this is Haley.” Sydney at least sounded a bit calmer.
“What are you ladies doing all the way out here?” Mike asked, although she wasn’t convinced those were their real names. She couldn’t say why. Maybe because they were all so generic.
“Hiking,” Sydney replied, nodding her head vigorously as she spoke.
“Is that so?” John folded his arms. “You do realize that you’re thousands of miles away from any kind of civilization, don’t you? Strange place to pick for a hike.”
So they weren’t lost.
“Not at all,” Sydney went on. “Untouched wilderness is the perfect place for a hike.”
Paige had to hand it to the other woman, she sounded and looked perfectly calm. Paige’s heart was beating like mad. She could feel sweat beads forming on her brow and under her arms.
“You here for the day or…?” Tim asked, brows raised, a grin still plastered on his face.
“Just the day,” Haley answered.
Tim whistled low. “Out all this way for a day?”
This felt like too much of an interrogation. Who were these guys? Something still didn’t feel right. Even more so than before. “Sydney’s husband owns a helicopter. He graciously offered to take us out here. We’re fine.” She hoped they would leave.
“Oh.” John nodded. He stuffed his hands into his pockets. “What type of helicopter does he own?” He directed the question at Sydney, who’s smile tightened.
Her eyes flicked up. Then she giggled nervously. “I have no idea. I’m afraid I’m a real girl. It’s blue and I like flying in it. That’s all I know.” She giggled some more.
“Where are you gals from?” Tim asked.
“Mississippi,” Haley said.
“Boston,” Kelly said, at the same time. Shit! Two different states.
“The two of us are also from the Boston area. Haley is staying with me.” Sydney smiled.
“I don’t see a wedding ring,” John said. There was this glint in his eye that Paige didn’t like.
Sydney kept her eyes trained on him. “I don’t like to wear it when I work out.” She narrowed her eyes. “What is this? Twenty questions? We’re out here for the day. Why is that so hard to believe?”
“This is restricted airspace and privately owned land. Did you know that?” the younger guy, Tim, asked, rubbing his jaw.
“No, I didn’t.” Sydney shook her head. “We had no idea or we wouldn’t be out here. Look, we’re headed to the pick-up point and my husband will be there to meet us a bit later. We’ll be gone in a couple of hours. We’ll be sure to stay away from this area in the future. Now, if you’ll excuse us, gentlemen, we’ll be on our way.”
“No can do, ma’am. You need to come with us,” John said, shaking his head.
Paige’s heart sank.
“Don’t look so afraid,” Tim smirked at Kelly. “We’ll take good care of you. Escort you back home. Get you there safe and sound.”
“Thanks, but that won’t be necessary. We are perfectly safe.” Sydney shook her head. “My husband knows which route we are taking and…”
“You say you’re from Boston?” Tim raised his brows. “Then we’ll know which direction he’ll approach from and head him off. We’ll direct him right to you. We can’t leave you out here.” His eyes hardened.
“This isn’t a discussion, ladies.” There was a hard edge to John’s voice. “You’re trespassing. We should arrest you. Come willingly and we’ll let you off with a warning.”
* * *
It had to be. Flood could scent fuel in the air. It made his nose twitch. He kept up the brutal pace. A flat out run. One moment he’d been hot on the heels of the group of humans, ready to catch his future mate, and the next, he’d seen the helicopter approaching. A feeling of dread hung in the pit of his stomach. It was an old military model, armed to the teeth, same as before. Fucking slayers! Only, instead of horses, nowadays they rode in on choppers. Instead of silver spears and swords, they used silver-infused bullets and bombs. No matter how they arrived or what they used, there was one thing he knew for sure at that moment ‒ those females were in danger. Grave danger. He wished he wasn’t so far ahead of the others. He could do with some help.
The chopper descended a couple of hundred feet ahead of him. He pushed himself to run faster, jumping over fallen trees and rocks. His lungs ached, his thighs burned with fatigue.
At last, he had a visual on the group. Flood slowed, picking his way from tree to tree, rocky outcrop to rocky outcrop. Not wanting to give himself away. If he could help it, he would hang back. Maybe the hunters would leave a group of human females be. That was a big ‘maybe', and one he didn't really believe would happen.
Within a minute, he was close enough to hear what they were saying.
“This is restricted airspace and privately owned land. Did you know that?” the youngest male asked, rubbing his jaw.
Yes, motherfuckers, it was privately owned. By them, the shifters. It was these assholes who were trespassing right then. Not the females! “No, I didn’t.” The same dark-haired female, Sydney, shook her head. “We had no idea or we wouldn’t be out here. Look, we’re headed to the pick-up point and my husband will be there to meet us a bit later.” Attending the dinner the night before had allowed him to memorize each of their names. Flood grit his teeth, hating how powerless he felt right then. The females were trying to talk themselves out of this. He hoped it worked. “We’ll be gone in a couple of hours. We’ll be sure to stay away from this area in the future. Now, if you’ll excuse us, gentlemen, we’ll be on our way,” Sydney continued.
“No can do, ma’am. You need to come with us,” one of the asshole males said, eyes narrowed.
He hadn’t wanted to race in half-cocked. Three armed males against him. Three on one unarmed would be no problem. The silver they were packing put a different twist on things. It looked like he might not have much choice though, because it didn’t look like the humans were going to dissuade the hunters. It just wasn’t working. This was about to go bad. Flood could feel it. He still couldn’t hear anyone behind him. No snap of a twig, no footfalls. The others were most likely too far away to offer any kind of help.
“Don’t look so afraid.” The younger male had this cocky grin that Flood wanted to punch off his face. “We’ll take good care of you. Escort you back home. Get you there safe and sound.” His eyes dropped to the light-haired female’s breasts before moving back to her face. Flood scented testosterone. That and arousal.
“Thanks, but that won’t be necessary. We are perfectly safe.” Sydney shook her head. “My husband knows which route we are taking and…””
“You say you’re from Boston?” the other male asked. “Then we’ll know which direction he’ll approach from and head him off. We’ll direct him right to you. We can’t leave you out here.”
Like hell they would!
“This isn’t a discussion, ladies.” The unfit male shook his head. “You’re trespassing. We should arrest you. Come willingly and we’ll let you off with a warning.”
It was all a lie. A ruse to get them to go willingly…and then what? What did these males have planned?
“Who are you?” Paige stepped forward, she folded her arms. She had light colored hair like the other female, but she was quite a few years older than the one named Kelly.
The young male looked over at the other two. The one with the thick middle scratched his chin. “We’re military personnel. We need to escort you off of this restricted area as a matter of urgency.”
“No problem,” Paige said. “Let us see some credentials and we’ll go with you.”
Clever. This female was smart.
“Credentials?” the young male said, frowning heavily.
"We don't need to show you shit," he continued, his heart rate quickening. His fists clenching. This was spiraling out of control.
“Actually nothing,” the younger male snarled, pointing a finger in the female’s face.
“Now, now,” the thickset male said in a soothing voice. “Let’s all calm down. There are dangers in these parts. Terrifying creatures that could cause you ladies untold harm. We can’t leave you here unprotected.”
“Terrifying creatures?” Haley laughed, sounding tense. “I don’t think so.” She shook her head. “Wild animals are more afraid of us. We don’t plan on sleeping out here. I’m sure we’ll be fine.”
“We are perfectly capable of taking care of ourselves.” The youngest, Kelly, stepped forward. She was very small, even for a human. “Thank you for your concern, but—”
“Let’s not let things get nasty ladies. They can get nasty and fast. We aren’t going to leave you stranded out here.” He spoke carefully and calmly.
Flood could hear the female’s heart racing. Kelly was afraid. They all were. Justifiably so.
“We’re not stranded!” Sydney yelled, putting her hands on her hips.
“From where I’m standing,” the older male rubbed his chin again, “you look stranded to me. My mama taught me to look after womenfolk and I’m going to do just that, whether you ladies like it or not.”
“I’m thinking maybe your version of looking after us and our version are two different things!” Sydney half-yelled.
The male ground his teeth. Even from where he was, Flood caught the acrid scent of his anger.
“Calm down.” Paige put a hand out and touched her friend. “Shouting at each other isn’t going to help things. Please, let’s discuss this calmly.”
Flood pushed out a breath as he watched the male visibly relax. “You are right about staying calm.” He nodded once. “I’m afraid though, our stance on this hasn’t changed. It’s not up for discussion. Let’s go.” He pointed to the helicopter. It was an old military chopper and packing some serious firepower. All silver-infused, like the bird that had gone into their territory almost four months earlier. Flood couldn’t let the females get into the chopper. He wouldn’t be able to help them once they became airborne. Following them without being seen would not be possible either.
"We told you, we're not going!" Sydney cocked her head, her voice was hard. "My husband will be here soon."
“This is your last chance,” the thickset male growled between clenched teeth.
“Or what? Are you going to kidnap us? Tie us up and cart us away kicking and screaming, because that’s the only way any of us are getting into that helicopter with you.” Haley folded her arms.
“If we have to.” The whelp smiled broadly, looking like he was enjoying himself. Looking like he’d like nothing better than to tie them up. Sick bastard!
Flood was quickly running out of options. At almost two hundred feet away, there was no sneaking up on them. No taking out the males quickly and quietly without putting the females in even more danger. Right then, they were at a stand-off, one that wasn’t going to last long. He could guess where this was going.
Flood looked down at himself and huffed out a heavy breath. There was no way he was passing as human. Certainly not while wearing just a pair of cotton pants. No shirt, not even shoes. He was bigger than most shifters, which made him enormous compared to a human. His entire chest was covered by a silver marking, much like a human tattoo, only it wasn’t one. It glinted like metal in the sun. He ran a hand over his short hair, cropped close to his scalp. He wished for once he’d chosen to style it like some of the others. Maybe then he wouldn’t look like he did. Hardcore and mean, with eyes like the darkest night. So black it was almost impossible to tell his iris from his pupil. Humans were scared of him. The moment he stepped out from behind that boulder, they would know who and what he was. The moment he showed himself, he would be a sitting duck. His only hope was to delay them long enough for back-up to arrive.
His other option was to sit back and watch these males take the humans by force. Sydney yelped when the human whelp grabbed her by the arm and pulled. “Let go!” She added, more forcefully. “No!” She sounded terrified. It hit him straight in the gut.
No! There was no way he could stand by and watch this happen. These hunters were bad news. He sucked in a deep breath and stepped out from behind the boulder. The hairless male had grabbed another female by the arm and was trying to pull her towards the chopper. The third male was just unclipping his weapon when he spotted Flood. He nudged the bald one, having to do so twice before he let up on the female and locked eyes with Flood. “Well, I’ll be…” He smiled like the cat who had just got the cream.
The youngster kept dragging the female; it took several long seconds before he realized something was up. He first turned towards the others before looking Flood’s way as well. His jaw dropped open and he released the female. They all turned to stare at him, eyes wide.
The whelp smiled. “That’s one of them. It is, isn’t it?” He sounded excited.
The bald male made a shushing noise, designed to tell the others to keep quiet. It worked.
The thickset male pulled his weapon. Fuck! The coward grabbed the nearest female and yanked her against him, holding the gun to her side. Flood might not know much about guns but he knew a shot from that close range would most likely end her life. He also surmised that the silver bullets inside that chamber might just have the same effect on him.
“That’s far enough,” the male warned as Flood drew closer to where they were standing.