Defender Hellhound - Zoe Chant

Chapter 1

It was amazing how much less time you wasted on the internet when you had only a year to live.

When Natalie took out her phone, she felt no desire—well, very little, anyway—to look up photos of cute puppies. Instead, she used it to double-check the diagram to make sure she’d put on her gear correctly. After all, if she messed that up, she’d have considerably less than a year to live. In fact, she’d have exactly six seconds.

But she’d made no mistakes. In her time as a trapeze artist, she’d learned a great deal about harnesses and buckles, not to mention the value of double-checking them when you intended to leap from a height.

She walked up to the edge of the cliff and looked down. It was a gorgeous view. The early morning light had a translucent quality, making everything seem delicate as glass. Sunrise tinted the clouds the yellow-pink of a ripe peach. The beach below was a golden stripe against the glittering blue-green ocean.

It was so unfair that she had so little time left in this beautiful world.

Natalie shoved that thought aside. Since there was nothing she could do about her situation, she had to focus on not wasting any of the time she did have.

The air was cold and clear, scented with wildflowers and salt. She spread her arms wide, readying to jump.

Someone grabbed her from behind.

Before she could react, her attacker was dragging her away. Whoever he was, he was strong. But she’d been trained in self-defense, and she’d fought a few times in her day. She was startled, but not panicked.

Her left elbow drove straight back, ramming into her attacker’s stomach. He let out a pained grunt, and his hold loosened slightly. She stomped on his foot as hard as she could, then kicked backward. Natalie felt his weight shift as he side-stepped, and her foot went through air rather than his kneecap. She took advantage of his distraction to drop down, hoping to use her trained agility and flexible joints to slip from his grip like a watermelon seed.

Triumph flared within her as his arms closed on nothing. Natalie rolled away, catching a quick glimpse of her attacker as she did: a tall man, lean and wiry. Broad-shouldered. He was stronger than her, and had a far longer reach.

She was trapped between him and the cliff’s edge. There was no escape.

Natalie looked into his eyes—very dark eyes, wide with some strong emotion—and laughed.

“So long, sucker!” Natalie shouted, and threw herself off the cliff.

He lunged forward with shocking speed, catching her around the waist. But her momentum overcame his strength. They both went over the edge.

Natalie plummeted through the air. It was exhilarating and terrifying—more so because she didn’t know if her attacker, who still clung to her, would entangle her parachute, killing them both. But she had no time to check or try to free herself from him. With no other choices, she could only experience the moment of freefall, the rush of adrenaline, the utter clarity of thought:

I’m alive.

This moment, I am alive.

That feeling was why she had come to the cliff in the first place; she was glad the attacker hadn’t ruined it for her. She counted down seconds, savoring the experience, then pulled the pilot chute.

The parachute inflated with a jerk. An instant later, she was floating gently down toward the beach—with the man who had attacked her still clinging to her like a limpet. But rather than being afraid, she laughed again, giddy with adrenaline. What a ridiculous predicament!

Her feet touched the wet sand. The parachute settled down behind them.

The man let go of her and stepped back. “You were BASE jumping.”

“Yes, of course,” Natalie said. “What did you think I was doing?”

“I thought you were throwing yourself off a cliff!”

She could hear the honesty in his voice. Their entire encounter rearranged itself in her mind like the shifting patterns of a kaleidoscope. No longer worried that he meant her harm, she unbuckled her harness and set it atop the parachute, then straightened up. “Were you trying to save my life?”

He gave a deep sigh, rubbing his forehead. “Yes. Did you think I was attacking you?”

“It was a reasonable assumption, considering that you snuck up and grabbed me from behind,” she pointed out, then politely added, “But thank you for trying.”

“You’re welcome.” The expression on his face made her stifle another laugh.

“And sorry for elbowing you. And stomping on your foot. And dragging you off a cliff.”

He gave her a