Read [Southern Arcana 1] Crux Online

Authors: Moira Rogers

Tags: #paranormal romance, #urban fantasy

[Southern Arcana 1] Crux

eBooks are
not
transferable.

They cannot be sold, shared or given away as it is an infringement on the
copyright of this work.

This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the writer’s imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locale or organizations is entirely coincidental.

Samhain Publishing, Ltd.

577 Mulberry Street, Suite 1520

Macon GA 31201

Crux

Copyright © 2009 by Moira Rogers

ISBN: 978-1-60504-459-0

Edited by Anne Scott

Cover by Anne Cain

All Rights Are Reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

First Samhain Publishing, Ltd. electronic publication: M
arch 2009

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Crux

Moira Rogers

Dedication

Dedicated to Matt & Mike, the mysterious men who keep both halves of Moira Rogers well supplied with both chocolate and unwavering (if occasionally exasperated) support as we chase our dreams.

Special thanks also go to the following people for invaluable support: to Erin, for being our number one fan and our BFF at the same time. To Yvonne for coming up with a title when we thought the right one would never be found. To Theresa, who is a fabulous beta reader and an even more entertaining friend.

And to our wonderful editor, Anne, who makes us better writers daily by telling us everything we need to hear.

Prologue

She ran.

The earth flew under her feet, moving so fast it was nothing but a blur of greens and browns. Her ground-devouring lope felt effortless and, though the sun had long since set, she had no problem making out the landscape around her. Gentle rolling hills gave way to a flat, grassy plain on the left and a steep hill climbing into a dense forest on the right.

She altered her path, heading toward the hill and the safety of the woods. The woods offered protection from predators. The woods offered comfortable places to bed down, safe places to make a den. The woods offered prey.

She ran, but not because she had to. She ran because she loved to, loved feeling the wind rush past, the ground beneath her feet, the freedom of movement and speed.

She loved being
free.

The loud report of a gun startled her, interrupting her long, smooth stride. Her ears twitched as the shots sounded again, coming from the direction of the flatlands behind her.

She took off again, climbing the hill with ease.

The first strong tree she came to was her refuge, and she ascended into its lower branches with no difficulty. The leaves, aided by the darkness of night, would shield her from the interlopers and their weapons.

She flinched anyway when the gunshots rang out a third time, closer than ever before.

Closer. Always closer…

The shots faded, replaced by the sound of a wailing siren drifting through the thin walls, and Mackenzie Brooks shivered as she bolted upright in the bed, torn from her fitful dreams by the raucous noises outside. The air conditioning didn’t work in the aging motel room, and it must have been eighty degrees outside, even though the sun had gone down hours ago. Still, goose bumps dotted her arms as she forced herself off the hard mattress and over to the window.

There wasn’t much to see, just the cracked pavement of the parking lot and the garish neon sign belonging to the liquor store across the street. So far, Memphis had been ugly and depressing. The only thing the city had going for it was that no one had tried to kidnap her since she’d arrived.

She let the curtain fall and moved back to the bed, rubbing her arms as she considered turning on the television.

A brief attempt to find something to watch the night before had revealed only two working channels, but anything had to be better than pacing anxiously from the bed to the window and back for the rest of the night.

A nearby door slammed, the sudden crash enough to make her jump, and she stifled an embarrassing shriek. She sat frozen on the bed, her heart pounding in her chest until she heard the slurred, amused voices of people too far gone on drugs and alcohol to care if everyone else could hear them. It was a common occurrence in the dingy motel, as were the gunshots and the sirens. For someone who had grown up in midwestern suburbia, the motel was a place out of a nightmare.

Mackenzie took deep breaths as she rose and crossed the room, this time retrieving her large duffle bag from the floor and bringing it back to the bed. Inside an inner pocket she found the envelope containing her remaining cash. Her fingers trembled as she sorted through the bills, and she struggled to fight back tears when she realized how little was left. Not enough for a better motel, not even enough for more than another day or two in this one. Tomorrow she’d have to go out and find work, or find a way to leave town.

And she had to do it without running into Marcus or his thugs, all of whom seemed able to find her wherever she ran, no matter how carefully she hid. Everything bad that had happened to her in the past month could be traced back to the day Marcus had shown up on her doorstep with his killer good looks and his Hollywood smile, and proceeded to tear her life apart.

The sound of another door slamming shook Mackenzie out of her reverie. She shivered again and gritted her teeth to keep them from chattering as panic rose from nowhere. With it came the sudden certainty that she needed to get out of town.

Now
.

Mackenzie caught a glimpse of her reflection in the mirror, saw her own face staring back at her wide-eyed and panicked. Somehow she knew she couldn’t wait until the next day, couldn’t waste time looking for a job. She couldn’t stay a minute longer.

Listening to that inner prompting had kept her alive and ahead of Marcus. She rose from the bed and reached for her keys, then froze. They had to be tracking her somehow, and her car was the only thing she hadn’t abandoned yet.

Leave it.
Her motel wasn’t far from the interstate, and there was a truck stop right down the road. Maybe, if she was lucky, one of the truckers would be willing to give her a ride, and she could lose Marcus and his goons for good. Wherever she ended up, it had to be better than the last three cities.

It
had
to be.

Chapter One

“Nicole Peyton, as I live and breathe.” Jackson Holt grabbed a stool and flashed the woman behind the bar a grin he knew matched his smooth drawl. “You get prettier every day.”

“Can it, Holt,” Nick shot back good-naturedly. “Save the flirtatious Georgia-boy act for someone who isn’t immune to your dubious charms.”

“Hey, there happen to be many,
many
women who find my charms enticing.”

“Mmm, yes.” She wiped a glass with a clean white towel and placed it in the plastic rack beside her. “But are they of sound mind, or just body?”

“Don’t much check their minds, usually,” he admitted with another grin.


Non compos mentis
, I tell you.” Nick fixed him with an admonishing glare. “And there you go again with the flirting. I asked you down so we could talk business.” Jackson frowned. Nicole Peyton never wanted to talk business. Despite her family’s connections, she kept her nose
Moira Rogers

clean and stayed out of trouble, choosing instead to focus her energies on running her small but popular bar. “You’re not in some kind of difficulty, are you, Nicky?” The petite brunette waved a hand and crinkled her nose.

“If that were the case, I wouldn’t waste time joking about your endless stream of hot, vapid blondes.” She held up a glass.

“You working?”

“Yeah. Alec and I are on a case.”

She poured him a soda. “I need a favor.” Jackson frowned again. Coming from anyone else, the words might be innocuous. But coming from Nick… “This isn’t going to be like the time during Mardi Gras when I had to explain to that cop why I was carrying a half-naked woman on my back, is it?”

She laughed and shook her head, sending her ponytail swaying. “No. Less nakedness, and hopefully no police involvement.”


Hopefully
? Now, that doesn’t sound too promising.” Nick leaned forward, her brown eyes and expression serious. “I just hired a new girl, Mackenzie.”

“Did someone quit?” Curiosity quirked his brow. “It’s off-season.”

“No,” she admitted, shaking her head again. “Tourism is picking back up this year, but not that much yet. She seemed 10

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Crux

desperate, though, so I took pity on her. Then she asked me to pay her in cash. Daily.”

You didn’t have to be in his line of work for
that
to set off a cascade of warning bells. “You think she’s on the run?”

“Maybe, but I don’t really get a criminal vibe from her.

It’s more like…” She trailed off and seemed to be searching for words. “Every time the door opens, she nearly jumps out of her skin. She’s skittish as hell.”

Jackson pondered her words. “As if she keeps expecting someone to walk through it.”

“Right.”

“Someone she doesn’t want to see.”

Nick nodded. “Exactly.”

He tapped a beer mat on the dark, polished wood of the bar. “Has she mentioned a boyfriend or husband? Any other kind of bad situation?”

Nick blew her bangs up and gave him an exasperated look. “Would I be offering to slash yours and Alec’s bar tab in half if she seemed willing to regale me with her life story?” Now she had his full attention. “In half, you say?”

“Uh-huh. All you have to do is follow her home.” Nick bit her lip. “She told me she had a decent place to stay, but I don’t think I believe her. I just want to make sure.” It seemed easy enough.
Too
easy, in fact. “What are you not telling me, Nicky?”

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Moira Rogers

The pretty brunette pursed her lips and flashed him a sheepish look. “I think she might be a shapeshifter.” Mackenzie had an excellent memory for faces and had developed an equally good memory for drinks. By the time the tall, well-tanned man slid onto a bar stool in front of her she’d already poured him a pint of the same beer he’d ordered the last two times. She tossed a coaster on the bar, set the beer in front of him and offered him an open, vaguely flirtatious smile. “I’d never forget a man who likes fine imported drafts, but I’ve forgotten your name again.”

“I’m Derek. Derek Gabriel.” The man grinned at her, the gesture transforming his face from rugged to handsome. It was nothing unusual for the bar; Mahalia’s always seemed to be full of attractive men. Even better, they tipped well, a fact that was refilling that envelope in her duffel bag more quickly than she’d dared to hope.

Mr. Imported Draft Beer—
Derek Gabriel,
she reminded herself—was no different. He seemed to enjoy flirting with her, though Mackenzie had already discerned he wasn’t serious. It didn’t take a genius to notice the way his eyes followed Nick whenever she was around.

Mackenzie shifted her gaze to her boss. Nick stood at the other end of the bar, holding a low conversation with a man Mackenzie hadn’t seen before. Even if she hadn’t had a good 12

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Crux

memory, his was a face she would’ve remembered, with a strong jaw, a tiny cleft in his chin and a mouth made to smile.

He was laughing when she glanced at them, and she was struck by the bright blue of his eyes as they glinted with amusement.
Oh, I’d flirt with you, all right…if Nick wasn’t
busy doing it already.

Derek had been joined by a short black woman, who eyed him with a no-nonsense gaze. He didn’t notice. He was, predictably, watching Nick. The newcomer snorted in amusement. “He’s about as subtle as a kid in a candy store, huh?”

Derek jerked his head back around and glared. “Shut up, Penny, and order a damn beer.”

Penny’s humor didn’t fade as she slid onto the stool next to him, offering her hand to Mackenzie. “You must be the new girl. I’m Penny.”

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