Authors: Callahan, Michele
Timewalker Chronicles Book 1:
by Michele Callahan
Timewalker Chronicles: Red Night
Copyright © 2011 by Michele Callahan
Cover design 2012 by Jennifer Zane
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced or copied in any form or format, by electronic, digital, or mechanical means including, but not limited to, information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the publisher. An exception is granted to book reviewers who may quote up to 250 words in a review.
Published by Michele Callahan
I dedicate this story to the women who have made my life so much more more than a series of dates on a calendar. What fun would life be without friends?
Mom and Grandma Opal (I miss you both so much!) Cyndi F, Cyndi O, Cindy W, Debbie, Indra, Jan, Janon, Jennifer, Kally, Kandi, Karen, and my dear sisters Rebecca and Trena. I love you all. Thanks for everything!Prologue
Timewalker Taken:Alexa, Seventeenth Daughter of Aryssa
Mission:Present Day, Earth - Destroy the Red Death
Despite years of warnings, Alexa was not prepared for the freezing shock of her journey to Earth. She wanted to scream in agony, but she had no air to breathe in this in-between dimension. Her mother had explained the frigid reality of the time strands, how her naked flesh would feel as if it were being systematically stripped to her bones by endless shards of splintering ice. This one-way trip to the past would last less than a minute. One minute in her own personal Purgatory, and her sins had been many. So, she gritted her teeth and waited. Waited for the agony to subside. Waited for the nirvana of soft green grass brushing at her skin like a thousand tickling fingertips.
Her mother had been Taken, and her mother before her, and so on, since the Archivers had begun recording the Chronicles Of Time. Death or Service. That had been her ancestor’s choice nearly four hundred years ago, and the eldest daughter in each generation now owed the Archiver a life. The family gift -- invisibility -- had been handed down from mother to daughter for seventeen generations. Her heritage swelled her head and chest with pride. But the unrelenting grip of her ancestry also squeezed her with arduous pressure, demanding she not fail. She did not want to be the first of her line to bring her name dishonor. However, a far heavier burden threatened to pull her into the suffocating quicksand of fear. Billions of lives were at stake. Billions.
She would not fail. She was ready. Her mother had ensured that, taught her how to use her gift to cloak her presence, prepared her for the call of the Archiver and the freezing strands. The Taken were never called upon to ride the strands of time unless the assignment was of catastrophic importance. There was no such thing as an easy task. She had also warned her daughter not to fall victim to the pounding of the blood, the passion of her Gift, until it was safe to do so. The distraction would endanger the strand of time she must now, and forever after, walk upon.
Forever. In a strange world.
Panic rose in a crescendo to choke her. Then, as quickly as her roller coaster ride through this icy hell began, it was over. Precious air flooded her starving lungs with heat. She lay semi-conscious on the soft ground and tried to get her bearings as a torrent of warm rain crashed down upon her. A single tear escaped and mingled with the rain on her face. Reality squeezed her heart so tightly she feared it would stop beating. She had arrived, unscathed. There was no going back.
Earth, Midnight, May 6, 2013. Unless the Archiver had erred.
Heaven help her then. Heaven help the world.Chapter One
Never once, in all the years of her rebellious youth, had she ever been a thief. How ironic that now, when the fate of this world hung in the balance, everything she had was contraband. She leaned back into the taxi’s sticky plastic seat and hoped the crisp white cotton Capri pants and shirt wouldn’t be ruined by the filth. A twenty-dollar bill burned in her pocket to pay the cabbie. Alexa sunk her teeth into a huge red apple and hoped the fruit would provide enough energy to keep her going for a few hours. Doom Central was calling her name.
Alexa laughed out loud at her own joke and ignored the cab driver’s questioning glance. The overworked cabbie should be used to seeing all sorts of odd things in a city the size of San Antonio. But even here, she knew she was unique. Her waist-length hair was braided and so pale it gleamed silver. Her eyes flashed a vivid blue in a heart-shaped face. Father had always said she was sixty-two inches of trouble wrapped up in a deceptively innocent looking package. The thought made her want to laugh. And cry.
Too soon the cab driver dropped her off at her destination, one of a handful of Biosafety Level 4 laboratories in the country. The lucky place which, in three days time, would be the epicenter of the end of the world. Earth 8 had died a slow and painful death. It took just under five years from the first diagnosed case of “Red Death” for ninety-five percent of the world’s population to be wiped out. And it all started here. No-Where-Ville, Texas. A party like any other…a night colored red with blood.
Yes. She had three more days to track down the two men in charge, erase every piece of data related to the virus, and break into that lab and kill every single cell of “Mutation-6 of Ebola” in existence. M-6 they called it, until it escaped. Then it became the “Red Death”, named for the hemorrhagic nature of the victim’s death. They should have called it, “stupid-what-the-hell-were-we-thinking?”
“Men.” The car stopped. Alexa slid out of the back seat of the cab, ignored the driver’s mumbling, and handed him the twenty through his open window with a bright smile pasted on her full pink lips. “Always think they can beat Mother Nature.”
Alexa turned away from the cab. The driver took off mumbling about the faults of crazy women. When she was sure he was gone, she quickly jogged to within sight of the eight hundred twenty-one acre complex.
It was still early. She stopped to lean against the fence and calm her mind. It took tremendous energy to draw the light to her body and redirect it, rendering herself invisible. Cloaking, her mother called it. The semi-dark of pre-dawn would help her avoid unwanted notice. Once she was forced to cloak her presence, she wouldn’t be able to sustain the illusion for more than a couple of hours without a break. And then she’d be so hungry, she’d probably kill for a sandwich.
She patted the protein bar and mozzarella cheese stick in her pants pocket for courage and mumbled to herself, “Such is the glamorous life of the Taken.”
The building employees changed shifts at 8:00 a.m. A quick glance at her stolen Tinkerbelle watch told her she had fifteen minutes. Already, parking lot activity was picking up. Time to move in.
Alexa closed her eyes and stilled the chaos of her mind, called upon the quiet, watchful awareness within herself that allowed her to use her gift. She envisioned herself a small white crystal in a river of light, and pushed the rays out and around her until it flowed like water over a small rock. Many times she’d watched her mother, practiced, and studied the effect in a mirror. It was like looking at something you thought was there, but could never quite see. Bright light made it harder to hide the soft edges of the effect. It wasn’t perfect, but no one could see her unless they knew what to look for.
Luckily for her, no one would be looking. Besides, no one could be truly awake at this ungodly hour. She needed at least two cups of coffee to form a coherent thought before noon. This morning she’d had five.
Silent as a shadow, she crept up to the double glass doors at the entrance and scouted the parking lot for someone she could follow in. Security demanded an access card to get in the front door. She must follow someone into the building, and find one of the two men she knew would have the highest level clearance, and direct access to the viral cultures. Trent Georges or Luke Lawson. Once she spotted either of them, she’d stick to him like a parasite would lunch, steal his badge, and start World War III against the bugs. Getting caught would mean disaster, so she’d have to be extremely careful.
Break into the lab, destroy every single deadly virus, erase all computer files and research materials, track down and follow two men to their homes, evaluate them as threats, kill them if necessary, and eliminate any study material they kept at home. Crush flash drives. Hack into their e-mail. A sigh escaped before she could stop it. Three days suddenly didn’t feel like very long at all. And she’d already been in this world for several hours.
A loud, and obnoxiously unconcerned whistle sang through the air, freezing her in place. A quick chorus of ‘Good mornings’ followed. Alexa turned to see who was making all the commotion and nearly jumped at her good fortune.
Target Number One was heading right for the front doors.
Luke Lawson was the microbiologist in charge of the Ebola studies. He answered to only one man, Trent Georges, head of the foundation. God had just given her a gift, wrapped up in a tall, sexy package, and she meant to follow him.
Alexa moved quickly, darted right in behind him, and glued herself to his back. She got so close to his muscular frame that his navy blazer sleeves lightly brushed against her breasts a time or two, sending tingles through her entire body.
Great. Hormone overload was just what she needed right now. Did her mother always have to be right?
Four people on an elevator shouldn’t seem like too many, but then she’d never been trying to hide in plain sight. Mr. Chatterbox wouldn’t shut-up with the morning cheer either. Sandwiched between Luke and two women, she flinched in preparation for flight at their every twitch. Stuck on an elevator, she had nowhere to run. No, she didn’t feel overly cheerful. All this happiness was going to give her a headache.
At least the other two women on the elevator weren’t responding in kind. They seemed like much more reasonable people. Or, maybe Mr. Lawson had caffeine intravenously every morning. She snorted at the thought.
Luke stiffened, then turned to stare right down at her with chocolate brown eyes. Or rather, rightthroughher.
She didn’t dare move. A shiver threatened to explode from her body. Suppressing it forced goose bumps to jump out on her arms. Frozen in place like a panicked rabbit, Alexa held her breath, then retreated, and willed her body to shrink back into the unforgiving elevator wall. She prayed he wouldn’t see her. After a moment, he frowned and turned back around to stare at the glowing numbers as they changed above the elevator doors. Without his chatter, all the air seemed to have left the elevator. What was left was too thick to breathe.
Nerves. Damn. The air escaped from her lungs in a slow controlled hiss when he stepped off the elevator. Scurrying after him, she dodged people in the hallways as she followed him to his office. Slumped against the wall, she waited for his door to close behind him. Good fortune was smiling upon her yet again. Directly across from his office was another door with the name of Mr. Red Death himself, Trent Georges.
She cupped her hands above her eyes and peered through the glass.
A good ten minutes passed while she waited for the hallway to clear out. Someone would probably notice a door opening and closing by itself. Finally, after she’d stood there worrying about the entire mess long enough for sweat to pool and run down her cleavage, she managed to slip inside Trent’s office.
Now she was really grumpy. She hated sweat.
All she needed was ten minutes. She hoped. His computer was state of the art. Not that it mattered. It only took her a few minutes to reboot and scramble his hard drive beyond repair. His notebooks and papers were next. There just happened to be a shredder in his office. Rolling her eyes, she wondered just what that was for. Trent was going to annihilate the whole world and he was probably worried about his checking account.
She glanced at Tinkerbelle again. Ten minutes. One third of her mission for the day accomplished. Not bad. But she was getting tired. And hungry. Very, very hungry.
Hungry, tired, doomed to sneak around like this for another couple of hours, and, last but not least, her chest still tingled. Now, this whole libido thing was just going to be a pain in the neck. Never before had desire overwhelmed her, threatened her ability to think. Not like this. Every heartbeat sent blood pounding through parts of her body she didn’t have time to think about; and all because she’d walked the strands.
Her mother had tried to warn her of how years of sexual desire would exponentially explode after she reached her destination. Holy hell. Mom could have tried a little harder to convince her. Oh, well. She never was much for listening, anyway. And she sure as hell had never liked being told what to do. That’s why she’d waited so long to answer her Archiver’s call. The Archiver owned her. Had owned all the women of her line since time began. Something inside her really wanted to piss him off for that. For forcing her to leave everyone she loved, her parents, her eight brothers, her life. And for making the task so important that she wouldn’t refuse the call.
Sometimes being honorable was hell. She hated the Archiver for giving her the choice. Petty? Sure. But she just couldn’t help herself. She’d ignored him, hoping he would forget about her. Of course, her plan had failed. The Archiver operated outside the realm of normal time. Another ten years in her life would’ve made no difference to him. May, 2017 wasn’t going anywhere. Disaster had already struck once. She was just here to try to prevent it from happening again, from becoming a permanent apocalypse. Her job was to change the past. Change the future, and not just for this planet. The ripple effect of the Red Death had caused more accumulative damage elsewhere. Parallel dimensions. It was one hell of a mess. And he’d sent her.
“Fool.” Obviously he believed in her and her heritage. She wished with all her heart that she shared that faith.
Alexa listened to the muffled voices reverberating through the hallway for a moment before easing the office door open a couple of inches. Immediately Mr. Cheerful’s voice nearly knocked her back inside the room.
“Are you insane, Trent?”
Yelling. High volume. Yes. Absolutely perfect. Luke Lawson’s good mood seemed to have evaporated. A happy smirk slipped into place on her face. She couldn’t help it. No one could maintain that much good cheer for long. It just wasn’t possible. But even as the thought crossed her mind, she wondered what had happened to sour the morning for him.
“Look, Luke. If we don’t take this to the next level, someone else will.”
Alexa peeked around the edge of the door. A rather large man’s back half protruded from the open doorway of Luke’s office. She seized the opportunity and slipped out into the hallway while no one was looking. The big guy started talking again.
“We’re on to something big here. We’ll get millions in grants. If we don’t start animal testing this vaccine, we’re going to miss the boat. And then, when some freak attacks us with this shit, it’ll wipe us all out.”
Alexa slid across the hallway to get a look at the man’s face. He had light blond hair, cut short and balding into deep widow’s peaks. Alcohol had added a deep reddish flush to his cheeks and nose that contrasted starkly with otherwise pale skin. His eyes bulged from his head like an insect’s, or like a bloated fish that had been lying too long in the sun. Black slacks hugged his oversized rear-end a little too tightly and her foot was within easy striking distance of his family jewels. She gritted her teeth and held herself in check. All Alexa really, really wanted was to kick him in the nuts.
Trent Georges himself was within striking distance, sounding like the fool history had proven him.
“No. Number six is the most virulent. The worst of the bunch. I can’t believe I let you talk me into playing around with the damn thing in the first place.” Alexa managed a quick glance around Trent. Luke was advancing on his cohort. Anger twisted his face, but his voice was deadly calm. “If you start testing on animals, you’re exposing too many people. The vaccine hasn’t been tested. You can’t be serious.”
Trent’s voice could’ve been used to scold a two year old. “They’ll be in quarantine. It’ll be fine.” Trent crossed his arms over his chest. “I submitted the project for approval months ago. Got it back last week. Donovan is getting the lab set up. You start Wednesday, or you resign. This is my project, Luke.”
“Don’t tell me. Richards signed off on it for you.” Luke shook his head in disgust. “I don’t care what that idiot in Washington approved. I won’t do this, Trent.”
“Don’t be hasty.” Trent backed into the hallway. “Go home. Think it over. This is a huge project. You’d be in charge. Frankly, Luke, you’re the idiot if you pass this up.”
Alexa dashed into Luke’s office seconds before he slammed the door closed on Trent’s retreating back. She made herself as small as possible in one corner and watched Luke slump down into the high back chair behind his desk. “Damn it. He doesn’t even have the balls to work in the Hot Zone himself.” Luke ran his hand through his hair, then his fingers pushed into his chest, like he was suffering a muscle twinge there. “He doesn’t know what he’s starting.”
Thirty minutes later, obvious agitation quickened his steps as he paced his office. Back and forth. Back and forth. Desk to door. Door to desk. His nerves were waking hers up, feeding them more adrenaline for breakfast. Not good. Maybe if she could get to his computer, she could quietly get this part of the job done while he wasted time waltzing around his little playpen. And maybe she could stop staring at his tight buns in those khakis.
Yeah. Right. No chance in hell of that happening.
She edged closer to his heavy mahogany desk and the clutter splattered across its shining surface. Most likely, he would notice if she started tapping on his keyboard, but maybe she could get an idea of what he had around just by looking. What she really hoped was that her pulse would stop pounding in her ears.
Trent Georges had disgusted her. So why would his partner in crime turn her on? According to the history she’d been given, he was equally responsible for the outbreak. Just as many souls hung over his head. So, why didn’t she feel their oppressive weight destroying the attraction when it came to him?
The only possibility appalled her. Destiny. Fate. The meddling of the Archiver with her life. And his. A silent “No” fell from her lips. Her jaw dropped at the realization and she couldn’t tear her gaze from his muscular frame. Luke Lawson had wavy chestnut hair, just long enough to bury her hands in and sigh as its softness whispered over her skin. Chocolate brown eyes that would melt her on the spot if he’d actually been looking at her. Broad shoulders. Full soft lips. And his hands. Heaven help her. Every inch of her body begged to be worshipped by those incredible hands.
This can’t be happening. She remembered her mother’s throaty laugh when she’d boldly declared The Prize to be a joke. Alexa refused to believe the Archiver had the power to choose a mate for her before she’d even been born. Her mother had been happy to let the matter drop after a sly, “We’ll see, daughter.”
The Prize. The perfect man for her. A gift given in return for sacrificing her life to save others. A man genetically manipulated to be compatible with her DNA. A man who would sire the perfect daughter. A little girl who would be the next of her line to be Taken. A man who would boil her blood and be the ideal companion for her, for the rest of her life here on Earth 8. He was chosen by the wisest beings in existence, beings chosen by God Himself to protect all the planets, and the races on them, from themselves.
And her man whistled, at six o’clock in the morning.
Her man was responsible for the end of the world.
Luke was still crisscrossing his office like an enraged army ant rebuilding his fallen fortress. And he was all hers. If she could keep them both alive long enough to claim him.Chapter Two
They must’ve made a mistake this time at the big meddlers’ meeting. The Archiver who summoned her ordered her to do whatever was necessary to prevent the outbreak. That included eliminating the scientists responsible. Luke couldn’t be hers. She was supposed to kill him. If she didn’t, M-6 would. He was the third victim of the Red Death.
Even as she flirted with the thought, she knew there was no mistake. The cabbie, Trent, and all the men in the small army of staff that worked in this complex had failed to draw her attention. Nope. The only man she wanted was him. The whistler.
There was always the chance he’d be reasonable. How cruel a fate to be forced to kill her mate. Or anyone else for that matter. She wasn’t at all sure she could do it. Hopefully, she wouldn’t have to find out.
The urge to unmask her presence and tell him everything was nearly impossible to resist. If he were her true match, he would have to respond to her. To believe her. But what if he didn’t? Could she risk billions of lives on a theory inspired by a hormonal surge? No.
Frustration built until it was gnawing a hole in her stomach two hours later. She couldn’t allow Luke to get out of sight, so he’d led her on a merry chase around the complex. To the lab. Back to his office. More pacing. Conference room for a meeting where a bunch of stiffs argued over details that wouldn’t matter in a week if the Red Death struck. Back to his office. Even more pacing. And mumbling. And cursing. She wanted to slap him upside the head and tell him to get on with it. He needed to go home so she could destroy any files he had there. He needed to get her inside the lab so she could wipe out all the bugs. And what was he doing? Sitting at his desk for the last half hour, working. There was nowhere she could hide in his Spartan office and relax for a minute. Two chairs, one huge wall-to-wall bookcase stuffed to overflowing, and his desk occupied the small room. That was it. The plain tile floor didn’t look comfortable, and the hallway was no better. No rest for the wicked. Problem was, she couldn’t keep this up much longer, especially without food. She’d been cloaking herself for longer than she would’ve believed possible.
A slight tremor vibrated through the waves of light she could see cascading around her and she hoped he couldn’t see her. The struggle to remain hidden drained her energy, and would soon force her to act in reckless desperation. Exhaustion made her hands shake and her right eyelid periodically twitch. All she really wanted was to devour several pounds of chocolate, then lie down and sleep for a week.
Fat chance of that happening.
But at least he wasn’t whistling.
Surprisingly, she missed the sound. As obnoxious as she’d first thought his habit, the noise had calmed her nerves, just a bit. Oh, well. She’d wanted him to stop, and now he had. No sense whining about it.
Alexa sat in the brown leather chair across from his desk and studied him. Luke was scowling intently at his laptop computer. No matter how hard she tried to remember to control herself, her foot rebelled and periodically tapped the floor, betraying her irritation. His concentration was so complete he didn’t hear it.
Enough!Time to get this fool out of here before she collapsed.
She sprang out of the chair and pulled the power cord out of his laptop. He frowned but didn’t stop working.
As quietly as possible, she glided around his desk to check the computer screen. Battery back-up. Hell.
Resisting the temptation to touch him, she arched one arm around his broad shoulder and pushed in the power button. A delicious mix of coffee and aftershave lotion invaded her lungs, made her want to…
“What the…” Luke reached around, plugged the computer back in, and started to reboot. Stubborn man. An ornery giggle nearly escaped before she could swallow it down. This could get interesting.
He rebooted the computer. She crashed it. They went through the dance again. She knocked over his coffee when his arm got close to it. Journals and papers flipped onto the floor. She loosened all the adjustment knobs on his brown leather chair when he bent to retrieve them, so he was simultaneously dropped several inches and flipped back into a reclined position when he sat back down. Leaning in close to smell him again, she blew in his ear. The line of his tall frame beckoned her and she and imagined herself on his lap. Now, that situation had definite possibilities.
Luke got up, fixed his chair, sat down, and stared, dumbfounded, at his computer screen again. “All right. Enough.” With an impatient shove, he closed the laptop and slammed it into its case. He grabbed a couple of periodicals off his desk and headed for the door.
Alexa would have jumped for joy, but she barely had the energy to keep up as his much-longer legs ate up the distance between the building and his black vehicle. The door said Cherokee, and for a fleeting instant she wondered if the Nation of United Tribes had started producing vehicles. This world was so like her own, and so not home.
She waited until he had the driver’s door open to knock the magazines out of his hand. While he retrieved them, she crawled over the front seats and into the back. The moment the engine came to life she curled into a ball, prayed he wouldn’t find her, and allowed exhaustion to overcome her.
When she awoke, she knew two things. It was dark. And she needed food. Her hunger went beyond the normal twinge of the stomach. The searing hunger pangs spread to her entire body, made every muscle quiver. She crawled into the back seat and looked around. She was in a garage. There was enough room for another vehicle, but parked there instead was a motorcycle with the words “Harley Davidson” on its side and several different styles of bicycles. A row of small windows stretched across the large door. Beyond them night had fallen.
A quick glance at Tinkerbelle’s green glowing dial assured her the day was gone. Ten o’clock. Time was racing. The Red Death would soon be waving the final flag.
There was a single door she prayed led into his house. She grasped the door handle and breathed a sigh of relief when it turned easily in her hand. “Ready or not, here I come.”
He was still awake. A light was on and background noise came from the other side of the house. She didn’t care. All she cared about was food. If she didn’t eat soon, the whole world could self-destruct and she wouldn’t even notice. Her mother had always laughed at times like this, when she’d nearly gone mad with hunger after practicing her cloaking. Dad had accused her of being unreasonable and grumpy. Well, yeah. So, what? A girl couldn’t save the world on an empty stomach. But it wasn’t just her stomach that screamed for food. Her entire body felt hollow, like someone had sucked the marrow from her bones while she slept.
One more tiny problem. She didn’t have enough energy left to hide her presence. The floor dipped and spun under her tennis shoes. Her stomach rolled and threatened the plush green carpeting in the hallway with a nasty deposit. “Damn.” The whispered curse flew from her lips before she thought to stop it.
Leaning heavily against the wall, she felt her way down the dark hallway. The flickering of his television lights allowed her to find the kitchen.
The kitchen was separated from the other room by a row of cabinets on the floor and a chest high tile countertop bar and eating area. If she crouched below the bar level she wouldn’t be seen. She was nearly too hungry to care. As quietly as possible, she eased open several cabinet doors until she found something edible. She examined the blue liquid in an unopened bottle that said “Gatorade”. After a quick glance at the label, she decided it wouldn’t kill her, and promptly drained it dry.
Her entire body sighed in relief as the sugar rush surged through her bloodstream. The stainless steel refrigerator door beckoned her from where she sat slumped on the cold tile floor. She needed more. What were the chances of him having a large turkey on wheat waiting for her, heavy on the mayo? Slim to none was her guess. But she was beyond being picky.
Luke was moving around in the other room. She heard a door open and close. Her eyelids drifted closed and she leaned her head against the oak cabinet door. How could she pull this off? How would she tell a complete stranger his bug was going to wipe out the planet? How would she convince him to destroy his life’s work?
A quick peek up over the edge of the counter assured her that he hadn’t moved in her direction, so she sank back onto the tile floor. Luke Lawson seemed like a decent man. He’d held his own against Trent. He’d been courteous to all of his staff during meetings when she was sure he would’ve been just as happy strangling some of them. What was going on inside his head? Would he think she was insane and call the police? Kick her out on her ear?
It didn’t matter; she had to find a way to make him believe her. Without help, she couldn’t get into the lab. She was no magician or electrical whiz. She wasn’t a spy or even a very good sneak. Nope, she was just a normal everyday girl who happened to be able to be invisible once in a while. But you didn’t need to be seen to be infected by a virus.
As much as she hated to admit the truth, she needed him, needed his help. She had to trust him. Unfortunately, thinking about it and doing it were two very different things.
* * * * *
Luke couldn’t believe this day from hell. First, Trent came to him with a crazy scheme for a new strain and animal testing on the Ebola mutation. No one else in the project meeting had any objections to Trent’s insanity. And, last but not least, he was sure he’d been followed all day. By an angel.
He’d finally done it, lost his mind. Willingly given himself to the insanity of her until he realized he was looking over his shoulder and actually hoping to catch another glimpse of silver hair. His angel had the fair face of an innocent young woman, but the haunted blue eyes of a woman who knew too much. His. The woman he’d dreamt about nearly every night since he was sixteen years old. The woman who’d marked him as her own when he was still just a boy.
On the night of his sixteenth birthday a strange man in a white robe had led him to her in a dream. In truth, he’d never believed it was real. But he’d never been able to stop thinking about her either. And in his dreams? No sane man would admit to the things he’d seen in his dreams.
Never before had his visions invaded the waking hours. Today, all day long, he’d caught glimpses of her flickering in and out, an illusion that stalked him. That’s what he’d believed anyway. He’d even hung around work longer, hoping to see more of her, until a couple of books had fallen from his bookcase. His computer had gone crazy. And, he swore he’d heard a feminine voice whispering in his ear to go home. A voice that made his spine tingle and his pulse leap. Not good.
He’d given in and gone home. Just as he’d feared, she vanished. He was thirty-two years old. Too old to believe in nonsense.
He’d spent the evening in his study, on the telephone. Trent wasn’t the only one with contacts in the Army’s Biological Defense Program and the NIH. Luke hadn’t worked very hard to convince the colonel the study was too dangerous. Especially once he read through the colonel’s copy of Trent’s M-6 report. Half of it, lies. Trent was obviously willing to do anything for a few million in grant money. Including risk the lives of everyone in the Hot Zone, a place Trent never entered unless he absolutely had to. The jackass always preferred someone else take the risks.
Luke chuckled to himself. He’d never liked Trent. Luckily, Trent had a few too many enemies in the Army. They’d been looking for an excuse to kick him off the project and transfer him out of BL4. Luke had happily supplied one. Day after tomorrow, more importantly, the day after their annual fundraiser, Trent was going to be in for one hell of a shock. The whole mutant project was going down. Every culture was to be destroyed. Luke was looking forward to doing the honors. He wished the colonel would let him do it tomorrow, but Trent was too good at schmoozing the moneymen. No one wanted to fire him until after he’d brought in the cash.
Luke leaned back in his brown leather sofa and propped his feet up on the mahogany coffee table. He’d won, beaten the slimeball at his own game. Tonight, he was going to sleep like a baby.
Shuffling?Was that his refrigerator door?Soft, muffled sounds drifted from the kitchen. Luke froze.
Someone was in his house.
Silent as a stalking panther, Luke eased off his couch and glided like a shadow into the adjacent room. He hadn’t turned his alarm system on yet, but he had too many friends who knew too much about electronics, security, and international espionage. They had insisted on installing a video surveillance system in his house. The cameras were on twenty-four seven.
Quickly, he scanned the split screen on the large monitor. For a moment he couldn’t move. His heart skipped a beat. She was in his house. Solid. Real. Classically beautiful, and not at all what he would’ve expected in a dream. Dressed in white from head to toe, she looked more like an angel than a thief. Capri pants. Short-sleeved shirt. Tennis shoes and bobby socks. She looked like a teenager on her way to a picnic. And she wasn’t armed.
For a split second he wondered if he was dreaming. Had he fallen asleep on his couch?
Luke pinched himself. Hard. It hurt like hell. No. This was no dream, but a real, flesh and blood woman. The same woman he’d seen flickering in his peripheral vision so many times today, he’d thought he was going crazy. So, what the hell was she doing crawling around in his kitchen, stealing food? She didn’t look homeless or malnourished. His gaze rested on the generous curves beneath her blouse. Quite the opposite. “Interesting.”
The thought crossed his mind that he should be concerned. But he worked in a lethal environment on a daily basis. Life took on a whole new perspective. He never had the privilege of panic. This small, unarmed woman wasn’t high on his worry list. He’d take his chances on her not being a true member of the heavenly host. If she struck him down with a lightning bolt, well he’d take it up with God when he saw him. But nothing was going to stop him from finding out what she was doing in his house.
He gave her no warning, just strolled into the kitchen, pulled open the refrigerator door, and turned around to where he knew she was sitting. “Anything in particular I can get for you?”
She gasped, her mouth forming a perfect ellipse, then disappeared into thin air. The smile he’d had in place to accompany the sarcasm fell like a two-ton rock and landed in his stomach. He shook his head to clear it, blinked several times. She was still gone. Vanished.
An angel, huh? Yeah, right. Years of Sunday school teachings were running rampant in his head. Maybe he was hallucinating. How many cups of coffee had he had today, anyway? Ten?
Fervently, he hoped she wasn’t an angel. She was most definitely the woman he’d seen in his dreams. If she was an angel, he’d surely burn in hell for the things he’d fantasized about her.
No. She must be real. The camera couldn’t lie. Neither could the heat in his chest.
The sound of glass shattering on the tile floor in his study broke the silence. The tight band around his chest eased. She was still here. Breaking things. He smiled. An angel wouldn’t break furniture. “There went Grandmother’s lamp.”
He followed the sound to the dark doorway of his study and squinted into the inky blackness of the room. “Don’t walk around. That lamp was glass.” No response. Then crunching. Obviously, she wasn’t a great listener. Slowly, enunciating every syllable, he took his voice up a couple of decibels. “I’m going to turn on the light. I’m not going to hurt you.”
The word froze him in place. He waited in the darkness while the silence stretched on. “Why are you in my house?” Silence. “And why were you following me around all day?”
Her quick gasp was his only indication that she’d heard him.
“I’m turning on the light now.”
“Please don’t.” The words were more a resigned sigh than a request.
“Because I’m not ready to talk to you yet.”
Too bad. He’d been ready to talk to her for sixteen years. With a decisive flick of his wrist, he flipped the light switch up. He blinked a couple times as his eyes adjusted to the shocking glow of the naked bulb in his antique glass table lamp. The broken lamp was lying on the hardwood floor, its faceted body in shatters. At least it still worked.
The light coming up from the floor cast shadows in reverse on his angel’s face. But was she an angel, or a beautifully seductive demon? And what was she doing here?
“Who are you and why are you in my house?”
Her clear blue eyes held censure, and fear. The fear held him in check and kept him silent. She eased around the edge of the desk and stood in front of the lamp. Once again, the shadows swallowed her face. He resisted the need to reach out and touch her skin, to make sure she was real and not some twisted game his imagination was playing to torture him.
Innocent but sassy. Sexy. Afraid. But of what?
“M-6.” Her voice was a mere whisper of sound but it thundered through his mind, whirling and destroying his thoughts like a mental tornado.
“How do you know about M-6?” No one knew. The project was classified. The first shiver of real dread raced up his spine. How could she know? He grabbed her shoulders and pulled her small frame directly in front of him. “Who are you?”
She squirmed for a moment in protest and he loosened his grip, but didn’t let go. She wasn’t going anywhere until he had some answers. He couldn’t risk her disappearing act again. If she escaped now, he’d truly believe he’d gone crazy. Lusting after a figment of your imagination for years was bad enough. Believing he’d held her in his arms and then lost her would make him certifiable. And he knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, she was not a woman he could ever touch and then forget.
No, he intended to hang onto her for as long as he could. With a slow, measured breath he took the scent of her into his lungs. A mixture of roses and fresh rain. She smelled good. Too good. Exactly like his dreams. But this was no dream.
“The bug gets out, Luke. You have to help me kill it.” She was staring him straight in the eye. In their depths he saw truth. And pity. The pity scared the hell out of him.Chapter Three
The implications of her statement struck instantly, like a sledgehammer poised over his skull slamming home. This was a possibility everyone in the Hot Zone hypothesized, planned for, and prayed would never happen.
“I’m responsible?” Her slight assent shook him to the core. He crushed her so tightly to his chest he could barely breathe and hoped he was having a nightmare.
She didn’t struggle, just waited, in silence. For over half his lifetime he’d waited, imagined her warm body pressed against his countless times. Now he was so ice cold inside he didn’t think even she could warm him. He’d believed in her for years. His faith left plenty of room for him to have his own personal angel. But for what? To love him? To end his solitary existence?
No. To tell him he was going to kill people with his research. “How many? How far will it go?”
Small, delicate hands shoved at his chest as she pushed away to look up at him. “Everyone.”
Beneath her, her legs buckled. But her weakness didn’t register. Holding her up, he demanded more answers. “Everyone? How many?”
Her eyelashes dropped down to cover the truth in her eyes, the weakness. “Billions, Luke. Everybody. The whole world.”
“No.” He shook her gently. “I don’t believe you.” Every brain cell he had was firing, thinking, plotting, theorizing about how what she said could come to be. His mind wouldn’t accept that any of this was happening. Gut instinct disagreed. The mass of twisting intestines roiling in his abdomen knew she was real. Knew she was telling him the truth. Knew, and didn’t have a damn clue what to do about it.
“How do you know? How did you get in here?”
Slurred words were her only answer and he really looked at her for the first time. Her pale skin was translucent. The delicate snaking of vessels on her eyelids was acutely visible. Her eyes were brilliant blue, and so bloodshot he wondered how she could see at all. Her breathing was fast and shallow, and if he hadn’t been holding onto her arms so tightly she would have fallen. “What’s wrong with you?”
A wan smile served as her apology. “I need to eat.”
Without another word, Luke carried her to the kitchen and settled her in a chair at his oak dining table. Praying she wouldn’t topple over, he broke out his gourmet cooking skills and warmed up a can of tomato soup. Tears welled in her eyes when he set it and some crackers in front of her. He looked away, stared up at the marbled green and brown paint covering the walls and willed her tears not to fall. Hysterical women were not his forte. Hell, he should be the one in hysterics. If she was telling him the truth, he was taking the news pretty well. It wasn’t every day a stranger told you that you were responsible for the end of the world.
He stalked to his coffee pot. “Damn it.” Empty. Of course it was empty. It was after ten o’clock. He should be asleep, not wondering if this woman was real or a figment of his imagination. Warring parts of him were hoping for both.
He tried to be patient. For years he’d loved this woman, had obsessed about her so much in college his roommates had thought he’d lost his mind. More than one girlfriend had dumped him because he couldn’t stop thinking about her. Countless drawings of her face were upstairs. But it wasn’t supposed to be like this. He was supposed to meet her on the beach, or at a party, or… Hell. Anywhere.
“May I have something else?” Her voice sent warmth flowing back into his bloodstream.
“Sure.” A little of her color was back. Good. Two microwave dinners, several sodas, a bag of chips, and two plums later she was finally done. When her knowing gaze settled on him once again, he almost wished she wasn’t.
“Are you ready to hear the whole story?”
What choice did he have? All those years ago the man in a white robe had told him this woman would be his. That he would have to save her. Luke was convinced one of God’s personal messengers had given him an assignment. He was equally sure he’d pay in hell if he failed. So would she.
“Go ahead.” He sank down into the chair next to hers and hid his shaking hands under the table.
“My name is Alexa Antwyr. I was sent…here.” Her eyes darted away from his face, then back again. “I was sent here to stop M-6 from escaping.”
“This hasn’t happened yet?”
She shook her head and he knew his eyes were widening in shock. “You expect me to believe you’re from the future? Or some kind of prophet?”
He was about to say more, but she interrupted.
“In two days’ time, you, several people you work with, and a man named Matthew Kline are going to be exposed to M-6. Within four weeks of that exposure you are all dead.”
Two days. The date of the annual fundraising dinner. A couple hundred people would be there from all over the country. “How?”
“I don’t know.”
Luke’s head was going to explode with the possibilities. “Just a handful of us would be easy to track and quarantine. How does it get to the rest of the world?”
“The party, they think. It spread like the flu and started mutating on its own. Hopped on airplanes and flew all over the country and the rest of the world before any of you showed any symptoms. They speculated that you crossed it with some kind of flu virus because it’s airborne and hard to kill. Based on the three week incubation period, they decided May 9, was the day you were all first exposed.”
“It’s airborne?” That was a staggering realization. How many people could be exposed in twenty-one days? Twenty-one days when the carrier didn’t know he was sick, or show signs of infection…and a cough could kill. “That’s impossible.”
“We don’t know how he did it, but Trent crossed your strain of M-6 with some unknown type of influenza. That’s their theory anyway.”
“You’re from the future and all you have is a damn theory?” His head was threatening to pound off of his neck and this was all just speculation? If she didn’t look like a strong gust of wind would blow her over, he’d strangle her.
“No. I…” Her blue eyes held such sadness, such truth, he could barely bring himself to look at her. “There was no one left to record…”
“Stop.” Luke ran his hand through his hair and studied her face, looking for something, anything that would convince him she didn’t believe what she was telling him. He searched in vain. Nerves drove his fingertips to pound the tabletop. So, whoever sent Alexa to him thought Trent had mixed influenza with the Ebola mutation he’d been working with. Before today, he’d have laughed this woman out of his house. However, today Trent had laid out a plan eerily similar to what she was suggesting. Could Trent have gone in without his knowledge and started his pet project a little early? The hair rising on the back of his neck answered the question for him. “Okay. Start at the beginning and tell me everything.”
Long, warm fingers wrapped around his on the tabletop, stopped their awkward beat. As much as he wanted to be strong, he couldn’t pull away from the soft feminine touch. Her soft, confident voice whipped around, clearing the cobwebs of doubt, screaming inside his soul like a strong hot wind streaking through a canyon. “My name is Alexa Antwyr. I was sent back in time to stop the Red Death from wiping out this Earth.”
She squeezed his hand. “That’s what they called it after it got out.”
The images her words brought to mind were horrifying. He’d seen Ebola outbreaks, worked for the CDC when they had a couple of outbreaks in Africa a few years ago. First time he’d been on the front lines and it wasn’t pretty. The whole planet? “Did you say ‘this Earth’?”
Nodding, she pulled her hand from his and stood. “Can we go outside? I’m not used to being stuck inside all day.”
Escape. That was fine with him. Maybe it would be easier to hear about how he’d destroyed the entire world outside, in the dark, where he couldn’t see her face. Luke led the way to his back porch swing, but didn’t turn on the light. Instead of joining him, Alexa paced along the edge of his porch, her head thrown back to inhale the various aromas floating in the humid night sky. Roses. His neighbor’s lilac bush. Fresh-cut grass and rhododendron blossoms. Her small delicate hands glided over the cedar porch railing and he wished like hell she was touching him that way. He wanted to run as far away from her as possible almost as much as he wanted her writhing naked beneath him. Not a good combination.
Enough adrenaline pumped through his system he figured he could go run a marathon and not even get warmed up. Or make love to her all night. He shifted uncomfortably. “All right, angel. Tell me the rest.”
Alexa didn’t answer him right away. She stared at him as if trying to come to some monumental decision.
“What does that look mean?” Her hands ran up and down her arms, despite the warm damp air that held them in its unrelenting heat. Fireflies danced behind her in the yard like small fairies come to worship their queen. Their silent queen. Luke prided himself on his self-control and patience. She was pushing the limits of both. “What aren’t you telling me?”
“I can’t decide whether or not to really trust you. Are you really going to help me destroy your life’s work? Are you going to be able to accept the truth?” Her words rang in challenge and he realized she didn’t truly believe he was going to help her. She didn’t trust him. She couldn’t know about all the nights he’d already spent with her in his mind. He knew a gift from heaven when he saw one. And he’d been waiting for her for one hell of a long time. The price tag attached to her appearance was getting steep, but not insurmountable. Yet. Already, he knew he was going to throw away his career to help her in her quest to save the world. And she was wondering if she could trust him?Women.
“I think it’s pretty obvious we’ve both already made those decisions,” Luke said. She’d broken into his home, eaten in his kitchen, plagued him in dreams for sixteen years, and she was wondering if he was going to believe in her? He’d been marked for her, for God’s sake. He was going to do a whole hell of a lot more than that. For starters, he would see her naked in his bed, her body spread out before him like a pagan offering to the gods. He was going to worship at that altar all night. But first, there was the matter of saving a few lives.
He closed the distance between them slowly, like a big cat stalking his prey. His hands wrapped around her upper arms and he pulled her as close as he could without adding fuel to the fire by allowing their bodies to touch. There was only so much a man could take. “Alexa, I’ve known you for sixteen years. I’ll do whatever it takes.”
A quiver ran through her body and into his where he held her. He wondered for a moment if it was fear of him that caused it. Then he saw her pupils dilate with desire. Her tongue darted out to lick her lower lip. He’d wanted her in his dreams for so long that this felt like the thousandth time he’d touched her, not the first. Memories built into a tidal wave that carried him over the edge of control. He could no more resist those lips than force himself to stop dreaming of her. Luckily, the reality of her in his arms was so much better than his dreams.
He closed the distance between them. Slow. Deliberate. Her lips were millimeters from his own, still he waited. Savored the contact. Enjoyed the soft push of her full breasts against his chest. The moist heat of their mouths mingled in the air between them.
“Luke?” She whispered his name against his lips.
“Yes.” The soft skin of her arms enticed his palms. He brushed the sensitive curves of her breasts through the thin white shirt as he slid his hands down her arms to settle on her hips. Heaven. She was pure heaven.
“I’m supposed to kill you.”
He smiled and pulled her hips against his erection.Thatmight kill him. “Can it wait?”
The smile was her undoing. It pulsed through the hot air that hovered between their mouths, wrapped around her heart and squeezed. Killing Luke Lawson was definitely out.
Rock hard chest muscles were hot beneath her wandering hands. Before wrapping her arms around his neck, she massaged every ounce of flesh. She buried her hands in the silky waves of his hair, exposing her body, inviting his touch to wander up from her hips to her breasts. Still he didn’t close the distance between their mouths. She ached. Waited. Realized he was building the tension between them purposely. Her blood pounded in a wicked beat everywhere, throbbing. Especially between her legs, where she wanted him most.
“Kiss me.” She didn’t recognize the breathless need in her own voice.
“Thought you’d never ask.”
Relief coursed through her until his hot mouth took possession of hers. Then she was on fire. Her world narrowed to him. His lips. The unforgiving muscles of his chest pressed against her hard nipples. He splayed his hands and slid them up and down her hips, so agonizingly close to where she wanted him to be, to touch. He invaded her mouth with his tongue, glided in and out, surrounded her with heat. The taste of him drove every sane thought from her head. A driving need to taste him forced her tongue to dart into his mouth to explore. To stake a claim.
A trail of fire burned over her where his hands slid around to cup her buttocks. He lifted her slightly, rubbing her against his arousal. She thought she would die with sweet pain. Her body wanted, needed him inside of her, filling her. Inner muscles pulsed to life, throbbed in desperate invitation. She arched back against the porch railing, forcing her body more firmly against his.
Hot lips traced her pulse down her neck. He nibbled at her shoulder and torturous pulses of shock rippled through her, to her very core. She was going into meltdown. “Luke.”
His only answer was to lift her higher, until her nipple hung suspended in front of the searing heat of his mouth. Unable to resist, she pulled him to her. A soft moan escaped her lips when he softly bit the peak through her thin cotton shirt. Her legs wrapped around his waist, his body her only anchor in a hurricane of sensations more intense than anything she’d ever experienced.
One of his hands moved to her waist, then up beneath her shirt. Sweet torture glided over her flesh as his hands teased, grazed her skin with the lightest touch, and finally pushed the offending fabric to bunch at her shoulders. Exposed, her nipple was peaked and hard, begging for more. His tongue found her first, flicked. Then he closed his mouth around the mound, sucked until she moaned his name.
Her entire body tuned to the accelerated beat of her heart. Throbbing with need. Burning through her skin where the mark of her calling was now blazing with a life of its own. With his tongue, he found the heated birthmark on her breast and traced the hot design, searing the symbol into her consciousness. Branding her as his forever.
Her birthmark. Her heritage. Her destiny.
“Stop.” It was going to kill her, and probably him too, but they couldn’t do this. Not yet. Every lecture she’d ever had from her mother had touched on this subject. Her mother must have known what it would be like for her, once she met Luke. Memories of heated gazes that constantly passed between her mother and father jumped to the fore. Judging by her parent’s relationship, this thing between them wasn’t ever going to cool down. But they had work to do first. She wasn’t going to fail because this man drove every drop of blood from her head to other parts of her body.
“Luke, I’m sorry.” Gathering every ounce of self-control she’d ever had, she unwrapped her legs from his waist and slid back down the hard length of him to stand on the porch. Still exposed, her nipple slid along his chest on the way down, and she gritted her teeth at the bittersweet agony. “We have to stop.”
He didn’t answer, just rested his head against hers with his eyes closed and stilled his roving hands. They rested on her hips, torturing her with their heat through her thin cotton Capris.
“I’m sorry.” She felt like the worst kind of tease. But she was suffering too.
Her hands had a mind of their own and still explored the planes of his chest. His body was too close, too hard, too tempting. She pushed away from him and hurried over to the cushioned porch swing. Legs curled beneath her, she sat on her hands so she couldn’t reach for him, and watched Luke get himself under control. Gradually both of their breathing rhythms returned to normal. Unconsciously, her hand moved to her chest and massaged the still pulsing symbol there. The symbol her daughter,theirdaughter, would carry.
When his eyes finally opened, his attention was immediately drawn to the hand over her heart. “What does the mark mean?”
Alexa lifted one shoulder in a quick shrug. “It’s a birthmark. The Shen, my mother called it.” For probably the thousandth time in her life, she traced the half-inch ring with her fingertip. Such a simple mark. Her mother said it was a rope looped around. No beginning. No end. It looked like a circle sitting atop a straight line. How she’d hated that mark growing up. Kept it hidden. Resented what it meant. Only when the Archiver’s call had come had she begun to understand the honor. And the cost. “It means eternity and protection in a language so old and powerful only the Archivers are trusted with the knowledge.” Their gazes locked and held in the shadows. “It’s the mark of the Taken.”
“Yes. I've been told that Timewalkers and Archivers carry the mark. As do their descendants.” He seemed to be taking this pretty well, considering. But what had he said earlier? She almost regretted the fact that her brain had begun to function again. “Did you say you’ve known me for sixteen years?”
That was all she got out of him. Great. Come to think of it, he hadn’t said more than about two words the entire time. He was accepting all this much too easily. “How?”
Had he truly dreamt of her? She struggled to speak over the lump in her throat. “What kind of dreams?”
“When the time comes, I’ll be happy to show you. Until then, don’t ask if you aren’t ready for the answer.” Luke’s smile melted her insides and she was thankful the semi-darkness covered the flush rising on her face.
“So, you knew I was coming?”
His gaze locked her to him, the intensity she saw in his eyes left her unable to move, or breathe. Like a predator, he came to kneel before her and started to unbutton his shirt. Her pulse skyrocketed. The hard back of the swing stopped her retreat. Trapped. “What are you doing?”
Now open to his waist, Luke pulled his shirt aside. Suddenly, Alexa wished the porch light was on. He grabbed her hand and pulled it, slowly, toward his heart. “I didn’t know you would find me.”
He pressed her palm to his heated skin, to the flesh she desperately needed to taste. Alexa closed her eyes to keep herself from lunging at him. An unnatural heat radiated beneath her palm, pulsing in time to her own throbbing birthmark. She gasped in shock and lifted her hand to inspect his chest in the dim light shining from the window behind her. There, branded into his flesh, was a mark that exactly matched her own. “How -- ?” Once again, she met his gaze and another rush of heat threatened her self-control. “Your dreams?”
He nodded. “Sometimes, I thought I was crazy. But after the first dream, I woke up with this.” Hand locked over hers, he cradled her palm against the mark on his chest. “So, I didn’t know you were coming, but I was promised. And I hoped.”
“I can be a difficult woman to deal with.” She pulled her hand away from the gentle seduction of his caressing fingers, the nearly irresistible call of the mark on his skin.
“I’ll take my chances.” His snort made her want to jump up off the swing and show him just how difficult she could be. She held herself in check. Barely. What was wrong with her? Her moods were never this mercurial. With eight younger brothers, she was used to much worse.
Hormones. She hated hormones. And the meddling of a jerk in white. How dare he choose a mate for her, brand him, and then tell her she may have to kill him? There could be no doubt now. He was hers.
A Cheshire cat grin fell into place on her face. “Listen. I won’t deny that I would love to go roll around naked with you and explore this…” She searched for a word to describe the miniature explosions that happened inside her body every time she even looked at him. “…attraction between us.”
“Attraction?” Six feet of pure temptation slid onto the seat next to her. She pulled back from his warmth as if burned. He had the nerve to notice. And grin.
His long index finger reached out and rubbed the sensitive skin above her knee through her pants. “I like the rolling around naked idea.”
God, so did she. She bit into her lower lip. Hard. She wished he’d button that damn shirt. His hand lifted from her knee to caress her cheek before he spoke.
“Come inside. There’s something I want to show you.”Chapter Four
Strong hands enveloped hers and led her through the dark hallway. Blindly, she followed, taking on faith that the Archiver knew what he was doing when he chose Luke to be her mate. Already, his body lit hers on fire. He’d listened, promised to help her, and hadn’t accused her of being crazy. Three big marks in his favor.
“Close your eyes.” Luke backed into a darkened room, pulling her inside after him. She grinned in anticipation and allowed her eyelids to drift down. When she was somewhere in the middle of the room, he left her. “Don’t move, and don’t open your eyes.”
Like a whisper, he moved past her back toward the door leaving her alone in the shadows. Light burst through her closed eyelids, tinged pink from passing through her flesh. Her toe tapped impatiently as she waited for the command to see. Luke’s warm body pressed into her back and she inhaled sharply. Eyes open, he was enticing. Eyes closed, pure sensation ruled and Luke Lawson was devastating to the senses. Her body hummed with awareness. The emptiness she’d felt before flared back to life with a vengeance.
Hot breath tickled her ear, her neck, sending shivers racing down her spine.
“Okay. Open your eyes.”
“Oh, my God.” Nothing could’ve prepared her for this. Four large canvasses covered the wall in front of her. Lovingly drawn, in exquisite detail, was her face. Four different angles. Four different expressions. But her, right down to the tiny mole on her cheek and the small scar over her left eye. The scar was a gift her brother, Bryne, gave her when she was eight years old. Her legs were so weak, only the intoxicating arms wrapped around her waist held her upright. “How did you…?”
“There’s more.” Gently, he turned her to the opposite wall. There, much smaller but no less detailed, was a perfect rendering of every member of her family. Everyone she loved was on that wall, dispersed between framed black and white photographs of nature. Scattered. Faces she thought to never see again.
White-hot pokers stabbed behind her eyelids. Her head felt like it was being squeezed by a giant fist. Deep inside her chest, her heart actually hurt. Oh, how she loved them all. Missed them. Now she’d never forget their faces, never forget the people who were everything to her. This gift Luke gave her was priceless, and filled with love. Tears streaked her face, but she didn’t fight them, didn’t close her eyes to trap them inside. Greedily, her gaze roamed the room. Luke’s arms tightened around her waist.
“Do you like them?”
She tried to answer, but a soft sob was all that managed to break through the tightness of her throat. Luke turned her to face him. With a lover’s tender touch, he wiped away her tears with his thumbs. Worry creased his brow.
“I’m sorry, Alexa. Maybe I should’ve waited to show this to you.”
“No.” Turning her head, she kissed the palm of first one hand, then his other. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. But it wasn’t supposed to make you cry.”
He looked genuinely upset at her reaction. Heaven help her. She was pretty damn sure she’d just fallen head over heels in love with the man. And she wanted to make love to him. Right now. To hell with waiting. He was hers. He’d beenbranded!Not to mention that they might both be dead in a few weeks anyway. She wanted every precious moment she could get.
Fingers curled around the hem of her shirt, she lifted it off over her head. His hungry gaze devoured her naked flesh. Stepping close, she slid her hands up his chest and shoved the already gaping white dress shirt off his shoulders. He shrugged out of it and pulled her roughly against him. With a soft moan, she pulled his head down to hers, tasted his lips, his tongue, before sliding down to caress the mark on his chest with her tongue.
The Shen pulsed with heat beneath her tongue. Hers answered, sent an electric shock straight to her core.
Luke’s hands slid over the bare skin of her back. His thumbs linked in the waistband of her pants. Stopped. “Now will you admit that you’re mine?”
“Yes.”Hewashers,but she could remind him of that fact later. Right now, his scent filled her nostrils. The emptiness of her body ached to be filled by his.
His lips nibbled a trail of fire down her neck, over her collarbone. Cupping her breasts in his palms, he teased her nipples into hard peaks. “Tell me what you want.”
“Good.” That fast her gentle lover was gone. Shoving her pants down her legs, he dragged her lace thong with them. When she tried to step out of them he simply lifted her off her feet and crushed her to him. He took command with his mouth, tasted, invaded, demanded a response while one hand cupped her bottom, held her throbbing core against his cock. Frantic, she tugged at his pants. She needed him inside of her, filling the emptiness.
“Not so fast.” Luke laughed at her, lifted her to raze her nipples with his five o’clock shadow as he carried to another room, to his bed. “I’ve waited a long time for this.”
She didn’t notice much. Sparse furniture of dark wood. Huge windows flooded with moonlight. Dark sheets that felt like silk beneath her heated skin when he laid her across the bed. For a moment he left her, then returned, naked. Hard. Ready. Alexa held out her arms and he covered her with his body, crushing her into the pillow-top mattress.
A sigh of pure relief escaped. Then he took possession once again. Dominant, his mouth captured hers, ruled. Sliding lower, he kissed her stomach before lifting his body off to her side. Sucking one nipple into his mouth, he gently nibbled with his teeth. She arched up off the bed, needing more. He sent one hand to wander over the smooth plane of her stomach, then lower to cup her moist heat, to grind his palm against her. His mouth wandered over her rib cage, down the soft plane of her stomach. Lower. One hand pulled her folds apart, offering her throbbing nub up for attention. Hot, hard, his tongue stroked the sensitive flesh while he slowly pushed two fingers from his other hand inside.
Alexa’s only thought was that she was going to die of pleasure. Without conscious thought, she shoved her hips against him, pushed forcefully against the dual onslaught of his hands and mouth. She moaned. She writhed. She whimpered with need.
Relentless, savage, he claimed complete ownership of her body. Flicking faster, the heat of his mouth incinerated her flesh. Moving in and out, his fingers stroked her to a frenzy. When she was close to shattering, his mouth closed over her, sucked, pulled rhythmically. Deep inside, he attacked the tip of her womb with his fingers, rubbed against her deepest core until she shattered in his arms.
Without giving her a chance to breath again, he inched his way up her body, rubbed his heated skin over hers, settled his hips in the cradle of hers. She lifted her hips in welcome, giving him a better angle. Moving feverishly, he coated himself with her juices before ramming home in one strong thrust.
Searing heat leapt between their Shen, binding them together. Alexa felt the difference in her body, knew she’d be able to find Luke anywhere on this earth. Bonded until death. Luke moved harder, faster, burying himself so deeply inside of her she knew she’d never get him out. The power of the Shen surged through them, heightened their senses and sizzled their blood, until her body exploded with pleasure. The muscles of her core clenched and pulsed around him, pulled him over the edge with her.
* * * * *
“I’ll go in alone. I don’t want you in there.” Luke knew he looked like a fool whispering to himself as he walked down the hallway. He didn’t care. Alexa could hear him. Her hand was scorching the skin on his shoulder where she hung onto him, making him remember things he’d rather not be thinking about right now. Like her…naked.
She pinched him.
He paused at the door to the men’s locker room, then punched in the security code. How had she talked him into this? He should’ve left her at home, like he’d wanted to. There wasn’t a chance in hell he was going to risk her life, or anyone else’s, by allowing her into the Hot Zone. But he hadn’t thought of the locker room. The thought of her looking at the other naked men made him crazy. Undressing himself, knowing she was watching. Wishing she’d touch him. Wondering if she would.
This was a terrible idea. Time to turn around and drive her home.
As if she could read his thoughts, she shoved him through the door and three friendly faces looked up in greeting. They were all partially undressed, their clothes thrown haphazardly into the steel lockers. He hurried to the far side of the room and the oversized locker with his name on it. Gritting his teeth, he fumbled with the combination lock. Cold awareness nearly made him shudder when her hand abandoned his shoulder. Now he had no idea where she was, what she was doing. Who she was looking at.
The friendly banter of his buddies didn’t help his mood. He tried to sound normal, to speak when spoken to, but he wasn’t sure how successful he was. They were all going in to feed the mutants this morning. Make sure all the cultures were growing. Count bacterial colonies. Count cells. Count petri dishes. Count death.
With great care, he peeled the clothing from his body slowly, thankful for all the hours he’d spent in the gym. Hoping she was watching, he took his time and made damn sure the others were gone by the time his pants came off. They’d all wonder why the hell he had an erection if they saw him. He hoped Alexa saw him. Saw him, and wanted him slamming home.
Get a grip, Lawson.He had a job to do. The sooner he destroyed all the mutant cultures, the sooner he could pursue his other, much more enjoyable, interests.
His research career with the Army was going to be over after today. Today he was going to deliberately break an order. He had pending orders to destroy M-6, but he was going to jump the gun a little. In light of everything Alexa told him last night, his career was irrelevant. Money wasn’t an issue. More than enough was stashed in investment accounts. He’d get a job teaching at a university. Something low key. Low stress. Somewhere a single mistake couldn’t get him, and the rest of the world, killed.
He’d found heaven with Alexa last night, holding her in his arms while she slept. Lying there, awake all night, his fingertips memorized the soft curves of her face while his analytical mind pieced together their future. Afraid to go to sleep. Afraid if he did, when he woke up, she’d be gone.
That’s why he’d been so easy to persuade this morning. She insisted this was her mission and she needed to see it through. Only one thing had swayed him into allowing her to tag along. Plain and simple, he didn’t want her out of his sight.
Hell of a lot of good that logic was doing him now. He couldn’t see her anyway.
The other men moved into the next room to suit up. Alone at last. “Alexa, I want you to wait in here. Don’t move. It shouldn’t take me more than a half hour to get them all in the oven.”
Cold fear squeezed Luke’s diaphragm, making it difficult to breath the canned air. She wouldn’t. If she went in there… She didn’t have any training in the suits. She was going to get them all killed. “Shit.” Pulling his pants off in a frenzy, he threw them in the general direction of his locker. He wanted to strangle her. But even more powerful than his anger was his fear that he’d lose her. “God, woman. You’re going to get yourself killed.”
“Relax. I’m not an idiot.”
All the air left his lungs in a giant whoosh. Alexa was taking him on one hell of a roller coaster ride. The touch of her hand on his bare shoulder jolted him back into high gear like an electric current. “Don’t even think about going in there.”
“I admit, I was going to try. But after your lecture last night, I’d have to be suicidal to go in there with no training.” Soft, delicate, her hand glided down his back to linger on his left buttock.
“Damn right.” There was only so much torture a man could take. Whirling around, he grabbed at the spot where he knew she must be standing. Closing his arms around her soft frame, he pulled her to rest against his naked flesh.
“This was a bad idea.” Shimmering into view, she locked her blue eyes onto his. “I’m sorry. I’ll be a good girl now and wait out in the hallway.”
“Too late.” Lowering his lips to hers, he breathed a question into her mouth. “Do you like what you see?”
After a quick kiss she shoved him away from her. “Go.”
He reached for her, but she vanished. In vain he tried to grab her, but she was bent on hiding from him now. Her voice echoed off the cold tile floor. “Go. Kill them all, Luke. Kill every single one of them.”
Why did thirty minutes have to feel like an eternity in this cold locker room where her own heartbeat echoed too loudly in her ears? She hoped she wasn’t making a mistake, trusting Luke to finish it. But she couldn’t go in there. She didn’t know how to put on the suit or run the equipment. She didn’t know where the cultures were kept or how to destroy them. Not a chance in hell she was going in there. Talk about a fish out of water! A guppy flopping around in a room so dangerous just breathing the air would kill her. “C’mon Luke.” Raw nerves drove her sandaled feet across the cold tile floor. Back and forth. Waiting.
She didn’t dare let down her guard and allow her cloak of invisibility to fall. Anyone could walk through that door at any time. The men’s locker room wasn’t somewhere she wanted to be found. Might be a little tough explaining to someone what she was doing in here. But holding the energy pattern was beginning to take its toll. Her eye was twitching again. It wouldn’t be long before she was blinking in and out of sight. Before that happened, she had to be out of the building.
A loud rush of sound alerted her that the decontamination showers were on.Thank God.Six minutes of chemical disinfectants pounding him inside the suit. Then he’d be back in the locker room, naked. Heat rose to her cheeks. Her pulse leapt. The memory of her breasts sliding against his hard body drove every sane thought from her head and made her birthmark heat up. “Stop it. Stop it. Stop it.” There was no time for this. They had a job to do. Her feet quickened the pace and she bit her knuckles.
The breath she’d been holding escaped in a rush when the door finally opened. Wearing nothing but a towel slung low over those sexy hips, he stepped into the room. “Alexa?”
“I’m here.” Her voice sounded strangled, even to her, and she was glad he couldn’t see her staring at the sculpted muscles she was dying to touch.
He didn’t appear to notice anything wrong with her voice and didn’t bother trying to look for her. “We have a problem, angel.” First he ran his hand through his damp hair, then rubbed a kink in his neck. “I destroyed everything in there, but two of the cultures are missing.”
Like a shock of cold water dumped on her steaming libido, his words sank in. She shook her head. No. This couldn’t happen. “Trent.”
“Yes.” Luke strolled over to his locker and pulled his shirt on. “The other guys told me he was really worked up when he came in earlier this morning.”
After pulling a pair of boxers on underneath the fluffy white towel he threw the towel onto the floor. “He got canned.”
Shaking her head, she tried in vain not to stare at Luke’s bare legs. What did that mean? “I don’t understand that term. What’s canned?”
“They fired him. Took him off the project. Gave him his walking papers. Told him to get his shit and get out. Canned.”
Alexa was surprised the seams in his pants didn’t rip open, Luke was shoving his legs into them with such force. “His employment was terminated? Why?”
“Because I had to be an ass and make a few phone calls.”
Was Luke clenching his teeth? She drifted closer, close enough to touch him, but didn’t. “I don’t understand.”
“I don’t either.” Fully dressed and ready to go, he slammed his locker closed. “Damn it! They weren’t supposed to do this until after tomorrow night. I guess the Colonel hated him too much to wait.”
Tomorrow night was the big party. The time and place, it was believed, where the Red Death launched its attack on the world. “So, Trent got mad and managed to walk out of here with M-6? Why? What’s he going to do with it?”
“Sell it, probably. He’s the only one who could’ve taken the cultures. I’m sorry”
Her knees buckled and she sank down onto the hard metal bench. “We have to find him.” The bug was out. She’d failed. And now, they only had twenty-four hours left to find Trent and stop him from killing them all.
“Damn it. I hate this. Where the hell are you?”
Alexa gladly allowed her energy pattern to return to normal. The moment she did, he pulled her into his arms.
Her mind in turmoil, Alexa rested her head against Luke’s chest and allowed the steady beating of his heart to calm her. Hell. It looked like she was going to have to kill a man after all. Trent had to be stopped. She couldn’t let anyone, or anything, stand in her way. And that included her own traitorous heart.
Reluctantly, she disentangled herself from his embrace. “Who’s he going to sell it to?”
“I have no idea.” Luke looked like he wanted to reach for her again, but thought better of it. “But he’ll be at the fundraiser tomorrow. That’s where the initial outbreak takes place.”
Alexa nodded. “How would you like to be my escort tomorrow evening?”
His smile turned her bones to jelly. “We’re going to need a plan. It’s not too late to stop this thing.”
“What I’m going to need is a dress for the party.” And a gun.Definitely a gun.Chapter Five
“How long should we wait out here?” Alexa asked. They’d been parked a half block away from Trent’s home for over an hour. It was after midnight and they hadn’t seen any sign of him. Alexa shifted uncomfortably in the soft leather bucket seat next to Luke and looked through his binoculars toward Trent’s two-story colonial style home. The house was new, but built to look old. Red brick spanned the front and was accented by two white columns. Climbing rosebushes and vines covered the front of the home up to the top of the first floor windows. Several lights were on, but every single curtain was closed.
“Hell, I don’t know. Let me check my spy handbook.”
The annoyed look she cast his way made him want to kiss her. Before he could, she focused her attention on the house again. “Got a copy of ‘Breaking And Entering For Dummies’?”
“This isn’t funny, you know.”
Of its own volition, his right hand caressed her neck and his thumb feathered over her left cheek. As hard as he tried, he couldn’t stop touching her, couldn’t stop thinking about her. She was the only thing standing between the entire world and Death. And she’d trusted him. It was humbling. And terrifying.
Lightning quick, she pressed a kiss into his palm, then opened her door. “I’ll be back.”
She was out of the vehicle before he could protest, her black slacks and shirt melting into the shadows. If not for her hair, he’d have lost track her. Then, with a little wave, she vanished. “Damn it.” How was he supposed to keep her out of trouble if she kept disappearing? At least this time he knew where she was going.