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ABOUT THE MICHAEL
HE IS A LETHAL WEAPON…
One of an army of soldiers created by a government experiment, Michael is different from the others involved, dangerous in ways no one quite understands. Even Michael himself, believes darkness lives within him, evil fights to control him. And only one woman, the woman he loves, can bring him back from the darkness and into the light. But she has become his enemy.
Cassandra is the daughter of the man who created Michael, who unknowing to her, tricked him into taking drugs he believed to be immunizations. She is torn between her love for Michael, and her love for her father. She’s also the woman Michael left behind, breaking her heart, seeming to shut her out without looking back. But now Michael is back, fully intending to show his enemies, Cassandra’s father included, his wrath. And he’s not leaving without Cassandra.
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The two Zodius soldiers traveling with Lucian faded into the wind, leaving Brock with only one Zodius to beat his ass. Anger flashed in Lucian’s eyes a moment before Brock was slammed against his rental car, the air walloped from his chest as his back hit metal. Brock flinched at the pain along his spine and vowed the day he was finally a GTECH he would kill Lucian. Rip him apart limb by limb. Oh, how he would enjoy every minute of that blood bath. And he would be a GTECH. He’d played his cards too well. Either Adam or Powell would give him that serum.
“You stupid sonofabitch!” thundered Lucian. “You were followed!” He glared at him suspiciously. “Or did you tell Powell you were meeting me? I swear to you, Brock, if I find out you’re working both sides, I will rip you apart piece by piece.”
“If anyone was followed,” Brock grunted back fiercely enough to defy the truth of the accusation, “it was you. I wouldn’t even be here if you’d left me the fuck alone. As of last night, you have the Green Hornet bullets. Those bullets are golden. They’re the only bullets that can penetrate the Renegades’ body armor and take them down, until you can use Red Dart on them. That is your proof of my loyalty, and it should be all you need.”
“Once I test the bullets and they prove effective,” he said, “perhaps it will.”
“Damn it, Lucian,” he ground out. “Those bullets are meant to be used with Red Dart. Use them to wound the Renegades. Tag them with Red Dart and capture them. Don’t use the damn things until we have Red Dart. I’m the only person who could give them to you besides Powell. He’ll know I betrayed him.”
“Maybe that is what I hope for,” he growled.
Sorry P.O.S. was trying to mess with his head, and it wasn’t going to work. “Let me do my job, Lucian. And that job includes fucking Cassandra Powell, not killing her.”
Lucian snarled. “The only person getting fucked is you if you’ve exposed our plans to Powell. Adam doesn’t just want Red Dart out of Powell’s hands, he plans to use it to gain control of the Renegades and force his brother to join him. You have no idea how pissed he will be if you screw that up. So I suggest you get me that Red Dart crystal with the GTECH method of application. That’s the only way you can prove your loyalty. And turn the lights out on Cassandra Powell before I snap your delicate little human neck.” The wind whistled around them a moment before Lucian disappeared.
Brock balled his fist and jerked his sore body off the hood, punching at the air. Damn it to hell, this was ending, and it was ending now. He had come too far from the shit hole, Chicago public housing where his father beat the crap out of him every day to allow Lucian or anyone else to use him as a whipping dog.
The writing was on the wall—GTECH was the future. He wanted to be that future. And he would not be played a fool by either Powell or Adam to get there. Powell had promised that Brock would lead a new generation of GTECHs. Stronger. Faster. Able to capture and control those GTECHs already in existence. He’d find a way around Red Dart once he controlled all the other GTECHs. The most important thing was being the one at the top of the food chain.
He charged toward his vehicle, already removing his cell from his belt to call Powell. If the information he had to share tonight didn’t convince Powell to step up the pace and give Brock the new, improved, GTECH serum that PMI had been working on, then nothing would. And then, Brock would know Powell did not deserve his loyalty, though he wasn’t keen on being one of Adam’s followers. But that would be better than remaining human. And following Adam would mean Powell’s baby girl was going down. A little detail he’d keep to himself, of course, since he’d be Cassandra’s assassin if need be.
Brock punched the autodial.
After turning in early Powell woke from a dead sleep at the sound of his cell phone ringing. He grabbed it from the nightstand and irritably eyed the caller ID before punching the answer key. “This better be good, West.”
“Michael has left Zodius,” he said. “He’s now with the Renegades.”
Powell sat up, instantly alert. Michael. The fucking bane of his existence. It was bad enough that someone in the White House had leaked Red Dart to the Zodius. Now, the Renegades would know as well. And now, if Michael was involved, Cassandra would be in danger. No one was supposed to know about Red Dart until this was over with control back in his grasp.
“What exactly happened, West?” he demanded impatiently.
“Lucian demanded a meeting. Adam intends to use Red Dart to force the Renegades to join him. He also believes Michael is using your daughter to find it and destroy it before that can happen.”
“That’s insanity,” Powell blasted through the phone. “My daughter is not helping Michael. Damn it to hell, West! The man tried to kill me. And the very fact that Caleb could trust Michael, an X2 positive that had been with the Zodius for two years, proves my point. All GTECHs must be controlled. We can’t trust any of them.”
“I agree, sir,” West said. “Give me the serum, General. I’m ready to fight. I’ll force the GTECHs back under your command.”
Powell could practically hear the man salivating over the serum that few knew he still possessed. The government was afraid of the serum, afraid it would make more Adams. They wouldn’t be afraid after they saw the results of Red Dart in action. But then, most humans were afraid; he was not most humans. And he could not wait until they got over their fear; he had to make more soldiers and properly protect this country.
“There are risks, Lieutenant Colonel West.” Like death.
“Soldiers take risks, sir.”
That was enough for Powell. He wanted to take risks—Powell would let him. “Get my daughter home safely, and we’ll talk.” Powell walked to the corner bar of his bedroom, poured a glass of bourbon, and sipped the amber liquid. “Put a surveillance team on my daughter,” he said. “Make sure they are equipped to put down a GTECH. Michael Taylor is to be killed on sight.” Powell wasn’t going to allow Michael to use his daughter to get to him again. No one made a fool out of him and lived to brag about it. He ended the call and dialed yet another.
“Hello,” came the smoky female voice that never failed to rocket heat through his loins. Jocelyn. One of the most knowledgeable weapons experts on this planet, and the woman who’d made both the Green Hornets and Red Dart possible.
His attraction to her was an unexpected complication that drugged him further upon each contact. He’d involved her for her resources and for the pain she could cause his enemies—a shared vengeance for one enemy in particular. Michael. She had a history with him as treacherous as his own. And a desire to see him pay.
Their shared desire to make Michael suffer had turned decidedly erotic, an aspect of their relationship untouched thus far, though that might soon change. He liked her as she was—angry and bitter, yet feminine. He saw no reason to tell her of Michael’s shift to the Renegades. No need to risk her falsely seeing him as rehabilitated. She was, after all, a woman, and generally weak, unwilling to take certain risks. Unlike Chin, who didn’t mind a fatality or two or three for the greater good.
Exactly why she was not involved in Chin’s work. “We’re ready to test Red Dart on a GTECH.”
An excited squeal filled the line. This work was her pride and joy. And as such, she refused, despite his prodding, to hand it over until she could test it herself, though she’d granted him demonstrations.
“How wonderful,” she exclaimed. “I can’t believe this is finally happening. Chin told me it would be weeks before the soldiers were ready for Red Dart. When?”
“Tomorrow night,” he said. “But I don’t want the lab’s location disclosed. Sedation will be required prior to the subject’s transport to the facility.”
“Of course,” she purred softly. “Whatever is necessary. This is too important to take unnecessary risks.”
Unnecessary risks. Yes. Exactly. She simply wouldn’t understand the necessary ones. So he focused on what they both would understand. “You’re certain it will work? You’ve found the right tranquilizer mixture to stun their immune system?”
“I can never be certain in the lab without a perfect test subject,” she said. “But I’m as certain as I can be.”
His lips thinned. “That is not the answer I want to hear.”
She laughed, soft, silky. “You’re very demanding,” she chided. “It’s going to work, General.”
A smile touched his lips, relief easing the tightness in his chest. “We’re going to save the world, Jocelyn. You do know that, don’t you?”
“Oh yes,” she said. “I know. And I can’t wait to celebrate.” There was a seductive promise in the words that tightened his groin. She aroused him, but not nearly as much as the power that would soon be his as the greatest general who’d ever lived. Never again would another country dare strike against America. The GTECHs were like the ultimate nuclear bomb waiting to explode. And he alone would hold the remote. It was absolutely fucking beautiful.
Skidding the motorcycle around a corner and to a halt behind a cluster of trees, Michael killed the engine to buy time and set Cassandra down on the pavement. He didn’t dare take her all the way to her car for fear she’d be spotted before he could distract the Zodius soldiers who followed them. The Zodius would scout before attacking and evaluate their prey as human or GTECH, which bought him about three minutes max.
Flipping open his helmet, he growled, “Damn it, I told you to be careful. This is not careful.”
“You also said trust no one, and I don’t,” she countered. “Not even you.”
Anger coiled in his gut. “In case you didn’t notice, sweetheart, I’m the guy saving your sweet little ass.”
“Guess you still need something from me,” she shot back sharply.
He ground his teeth against that remark, reaching for the Wesson strapped to his leg and handing it to her. It wouldn’t do her much good, but knowing she had it made him feel better.
“Between the eyes or don’t bother. They wear body armor now, since your father started popping them with tranquilizers for Lord only knows what purpose.”
“Trying to keep from killing them,” she countered, palming the weapon. “He doesn’t want to kill them or torture them.”
Right. Michael was buying that about as readily as he was Cassandra ever trusting him again, but now wasn’t the time for arguments.
He watched her do a quick inspection of the weapon, taking comfort in her confident handling of the gun. She’d need that confidence if one of the Zodius confronted her.
“Go to your room and lock the door, and don’t open it until I get there,” he ordered. The wind’s energy trickled down his spine, a charge he’d come to know as a warning. The Zodius were approaching. “Go now!” he hissed in a whisper. Instantly, Cassandra took off running, a good little soldier following orders, thanks to her father’s mentoring. One of the few good things that man had ever done for her.
Michael flipped his helmet down and sat behind those bushes, waiting until the wind whispered along his spine with enough intensity to tell him he needed to act. The wind was his weapon, as much a part of him as the blood racing through his veins. It was a living being to him, able to communicate, and under his command at all times. No one wind-walked with Michael nearby unless he allowed them to. Not even Adam and Caleb.
Unfortunately, using his abilities wasn’t an option. He had to convince them he was human with his helmet giving him the cover of anonymity. Anyone could be following Brock—certainly Powell had a track record of distrust that would support having Brock followed. A façade of humanity also meant they’d want him dead before they’d want him reporting back what they would believe he’d heard in that alley—which had been every damn word, including the part about Cassandra.
Revving the engine, Michael jerked the bike back into action, his intention to put himself in the path of the Zodius soldiers and give Cassandra time to depart unnoticed, while making them believe he’d been the sole person eavesdropping in those bushes. The two Zodius soldiers were instantly in his path, and he cut to the right toward the grass. They followed quickly on his tail, on foot, but he’d hoped they couldn’t wind-walk without risking exposure in such a public place.
He hit the curb and took it with a hard thud that sent the wheel and then the bike flying. Instantly, his spine tingled; the two soldiers weren’t being as cautious as he thought. Fuck! They were wind-walking, and though he could stop them, he didn’t dare without giving himself away.
Michael spread his legs and let the bike go, allowing it to fly forward while he tucked and rolled to the ground. He came down hard on his back into a rock formation that jarred his ribs and muscles. But he didn’t have time for pain. By the time he’d finished the roll, he’d drawn two guns—one with bullets and one with tranquilizer darts.
The soldiers were charging at him, a foot away at most, and he landed a tranq dart in both their foreheads, but not before one of them got off a silent shot of his own. Pain exploded in Michael’s rib cage as the enemy’s bullet penetrated what should have been his impermeable body armor.
The two soldiers stumbled and fell, giving him no more than a minute before their GTECH metabolism had them on their feet again. Ignoring his injury, Michael ground his teeth against the pain and kicked to his feet, feeling damn cranky and ready to get this over with. Sweat trickled down his brow, under the helmet, blood already matted to his T-shirt. He managed a quick sweep of the area even as he took aim at one of his targets. He’d noted no obvious witness, but he really didn’t give a crap if there was one. Let any witness and the dead bodies be Lucian’s problem.
Ruthlessly, he put a bullet into both their heads right between the eyes. He didn’t recognize either one of them, but that was no surprise. Adam’s scientists had assured him they could reproduce the serum with Adam’s blood, and hungry to grow his population of followers, he’d handed out the injections he’d confiscated from Powell’s stock like it was candy. That was, until he found out his scientists were wrong—they couldn’t duplicate the serum with his blood.
“You really shouldn’t have pissed me off,” he murmured at the dead soldiers, feeling no remorse for killing them. He was a soldier and a trained killer; it was all he had been his entire adult life. He did what others wouldn’t and couldn’t do, because somebody had to do it. And he didn’t know how to be anything but those things—not even for Cassandra.
Michael purposely left the tranquilizer darts behind. The army used the darts to slow the Zodius soldiers down enough to get a fatal shot off, which was exactly why Michael had used them. To stay off Adam’s radar as much as possible until he had Cassandra and the Red Dart crystal secure. Michael called the wind, fading into it as mist did into rain. His injury would soon force him to sleep in order to heal or risk collapsing. He had to get to Cassandra before he lost too much blood to protect her.
“Sonofabitch!” Lucian cursed, towering over the bodies of his dead soldiers, grimacing at the sight of the trademark army tranquilizer darts stuck in their foreheads right next to the bullet holes. Powell’s army. Which meant Powell now knew Brock was working with the Zodius. Lucian’s Red Dart connection was gone. He balled his fists, punching at the air in pure fury.
Sirens sounded in the near distance. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. The last thing he needed now was more humans. He grabbed his phone and called for a cleanup team the Zodius kept in hot pockets of activity, ending the call with a frown as his gaze caught on some blood several feet from the bodies. He walked to it and squatted, touching it, using his rare “tracker” ability to read the metaphysical energy that certain living organisms produced.
“Michael,” he whispered. It had not been Powell’s man here tonight. It had been Michael.
The wind shifted, and Lucian shoved to his feet. Tad appeared beside one of the bodies and bent down, grabbing the tranq dart from the soldier’s forehead. “Defeated by humans,” he said and snorted. “And you think you’re capable of replacing Michael? Do you really believe Michael would ever be defeated by a human?”
“Fuck you, Tad,” Lucian said.
The cleanup crew manifested near the bodies, and Lucian waved them into action. They grabbed the men and disappeared.
“No,” Tad said. “Fuck you, Lucian.” He made a growling noise meant to taunt. “You’re nothing but wolf bait when Adam finds out about this.”
“You’re nothing but trailer trash. You think Adam will allow the likes of you inside his royal circle? My father was a senator, my grandfather, a five-star general. I am the reason we know Red Dart exists. What can you do besides hunt down weak females?” He sneered at him, looking the brawny piece of crap up and down. “You are nothing but one of Adam’s pets. A dog who does tricks.”
Suddenly, the wind shifted, wicked, hot, and wild, a telling sign that Adam approached and that he was angry. Tad’s face transformed from pure anger to gloating arrogance. “We shall see who the ‘dog’ is now.”
Adam appeared dressed in black leather, two wolves at his feet. Much to Lucian’s distress, wind-walking didn’t kill the little bastards. At least not when Adam transported them.
“Why has my evening of pleasure been disturbed?” he growled. Pleasure being a group of humans thrown in a ring and fed to his wolves. Whoever survived would get a dose of the highly in-demand serum. So far, no one had survived.
Tad held up a tranquilizer dart to Adam. “Lucian went and got two of our men killed by Powell and his army.”
Adam arched a brow, his voice low, but tight. A deadly edge curled around the words. “Have you failed me, Lucian?”
The wolves turned on Lucian, growling as if picking up on their master’s anger. Adam did not like to lose GTECHs. Lucian seethed with anger. Those beasts would never have growled at Michael, and it pissed Lucian off they had growled at him. One day soon they would not. One day they would respect him as they had Michael. Lucian held up his blood-tinged fingers.
“It is Tad’s limited tracking abilities that have failed,” he replied, cutting Tad a short, demeaning look. “Michael followed Brock West here, no doubt trying to find out something about Red Dart.”
“In other words,” Tad observed, “Michael now knows your contact Brock West to be a traitor.”
“And that means what?” Lucian challenged. “To expose West to Powell is to expose the Renegades’ knowledge of Red Dart. They don’t want Powell to bury Red Dart someplace impossible to reach any more than we do. Everything is as planned, Adam. West is close to Red Dart. Michael is injured. He’ll be forced to sleep off his injury. By the time he is capable of approaching Cassandra Powell, she will be dead.” And Lucian wasn’t waiting for Brock to kill her. Not after tonight’s close call. He’d do it himself.
Police cars screeched to a nearby halt. Adam’s attention did not waver from Lucian. “Bring me proof she is dead by nightfall tomorrow or suffer the consequences.” He cut Tad a sharp look. “I do not enjoy being interrupted. I suggest you find a way to repay me for lost pleasure before you return to the city.” Adam faded into the wind, not even a leaf ruffling around him.
Lucian and Tad glared at one another, violence rippling between them, before they both wind-walked. One of them would die before this was over, but not before Cassandra Powell.
She’d be dead right now if Michael hadn’t shown up, and surviving was all that was on her mind as she pulled the rental car into the same spot she’d left, feeling certain that a Wind-walker was going to show up at any moment. Adrenaline raced at high-octane speed through her body as she shoved open the car door and headed for the stairwell, noting the absence of Brock’s car and praying that meant she’d beaten him back to the hotel. She wouldn’t feel certain she’d dodged the proverbial bullet until she was inside her room.
Nerves twisted Cassandra’s stomach in knots as she took the stairs to the main hotel level, trying to avoid the risk of running into Brock. The man wanted to kill her. She didn’t want to run into him in a vacant stairwell. Shoving through the door, she rushed through the sparsely populated lobby and found the elevators, thankful when the doors opened instantly.
Stepping inside the car, she prepared a story to explain where she had been in case of a confrontation with Brock. But thinking was hard, her nerves working her over, clouding her mind. She was terrified over that order Lucian just gave to kill her, but she was also worried over Michael. He was in trouble; she could feel it in every inch of her body and practically taste it in every laden breath she drew. Which was nuts. She was the human with Zodius GTECHs after her. She’d watched his abilities develop and seen the mighty force that was Michael. But this did nothing to calm the worry creating a roller-coaster ride of emotions inside her.
The bell chimed as she arrived on her floor, and she rushed into the hallway, thankful it was vacant. The minute she approached the door to her room she had the sense of Michael being near, but it wasn’t the same vibrant rush of awareness she normally felt. He was hurt—the thought came to her with a clarity she didn’t question.
Anxiously, she swiped her entry card through the lock and was about to enter her room when the door next to hers opened, and Brock appeared.
“I wondered where you were,” he said, walking toward her. “I was worried. I’ve been knocking for a while now.”
A while, her ass . It was a miracle he’d beat her back to the hotel, and she wasn’t exactly sure how he’d managed to do so. “And here I thought only my father worried,” she replied, sarcastically. “I tried to find a twenty-four-hour pharmacy with no success. Looks like I’ll be paying an arm and a leg for a toothbrush at the airport in the morning.” She cringed at the horrible excuse when she could have called room service, but it was out now, and she had to live with it. He sauntered closer, too close. She didn’t turn to face him, but still she could smell his cologne, and his scent turned her stomach—it never had before. This man who would be her killer if she allowed him to be. It was all she could do not to confront him. But she was smart enough to know she needed to think—to process what came next if she wanted to stay alive.
“It’s late to go out alone,” he commented dryly, suspicion in the depths of his eyes.
“I’m a military chick,” she reminded him, trying to jest, but her voice sounded stiff even to her own ears. “We’ll risk life and limb for a toothbrush.”
He studied her a moment, looking none too convinced. But there was that lusty haze to his eyes that had her wanting to kick him right below the belt, especially after what she’d overheard. Did he want to bed her once before he killed her?
“We’re both awake,” he said, leaning against the doorjamb to her room. “Why not share a little nightcap?”
Her fingers curled around the metal knob in her palm a bit more firmly, ready to push her door open and make a fast escape, but found herself forced by his posture to turn and face him. She willed herself to offer a smile. “I’m exhausted, and we leave early,” she said. “We said tomorrow night, if we aren’t too tired. Let’s leave it at that.”
A heavy-lidded inspection followed, along with a thick silence that ended when he finally said, “Lobby at straight one thousand hours, then?”
“Yes,” she said and made a disagreeable face. Ten o’clock was going to feel early tomorrow morning. She waved. “Night.” And she didn’t wait for a reply. She shoved open the door and quickly closed it firmly behind her. Immediately, she flipped the security latch into place.
“I’m going to really enjoy killing that sonofabitch.”
Cassandra’s heart skipped a beat as she whirled around to find Michael propped against the headboard of her bed, his dark hair hanging loose around his face where it had escaped the tie at his neck, long muscular legs stretched out across the bed, and a bloody red towel pressed to his side.
Her chest tightened. “Oh God.” It was clear the towel he was holding against himself was drenched and that he was bleeding horribly. She rushed forward and crawled on the bed to his side.
“Why don’t you have on Zodius body armor?” she asked, removing the bloody towel and trying to inspect his injury, but there was too much blood to see how bad it was, so she reapplied more pressure. “You’re not invincible no matter what you think. You might heal quickly, but you can bleed to death just like the rest of us.”
He tugged his T-shirt upward, displaying the thin suit he wore like a second skin. “Whatever they hit me with wasn’t standard issue ammo.”
Her eyes went wide at the sight of the thin bodysuit, impermeable to bullets, state-of-the-art technology that Adam’s scientific team had somehow managed to manufacture and that her father was dying to get his hands on.
She pressed her hand to his stomach, memories of so many intimate moments shared with this man rushing over her. “How is this possible?” she asked. “My understanding was that no bullet should penetrate your armor. A grenade or rocket launcher, something more powerful, yes, but not a bullet.”
“Clearly the Zodius have a new weapon,” he said. “Once you cut the bullet out of my side, I’ll get it to the Renegades’ lab.”
Her heart tripped. “The bullet is still inside you? Are you sure?”
Strain etched his handsome features. “Believe me,” he said. “It’s in there, and the sooner you get it out, the sooner I can go wipe the ground with Brock’s ‘nightcap’ ass.”
“You heard that?” she asked, shocked, recognizing that no normal person could have heard clearly through that door from the bed. It was an ability he hadn’t possessed two years before.
“I heard everything,” he said, shackling her arm with his free hand. The next thing she knew, he’d pulled her on top of him, pressed to that long, hard body. “Including the order to kill you.”
Their eyes locked and held, and for just a moment, she forgot everything but how much this man had once meant to her. How safe and right he had felt. And she desperately needed to feel safe right now.
“Let me go before you hurt yourself,” she protested way too late and far too weakly, her hand flexed on the solid wall of his chest. Adam had ordered her murdered; she was scared, and Michael’s lips were close, so very close.
“You could have been killed out there tonight,” he countered, his voice darn near a growl.
“But I wasn’t,” she whispered. “And I needed to follow him. I needed to know who I could trust.”
“Because you don’t trust me,” he challenged and didn’t wait for a reply—they both knew he’d nailed the truth. “I did what I did that day at Area 51 to protect innocent lives, yours included.”
“This isn’t about one day,” she amended. “Two years, Michael. Two years of silence. You could have talked to me.” She pushed up on his chest, trying to escape, but he held her firmly. “Let me up before you bleed to death.” Seconds ticked by, his eyes were blazing, his jaw hard. And her heart—well, it hurt. Desperately, she whispered, “Please. Let go, Michael.”
He released her, and she scrambled off him and to the edge of the bed, feeling like a doe-in-headlights that had barely escaped a head-on collision. Looking into his eyes always did her in. She felt a connection, felt she knew him. Yet, really—how much had she really known about Michael?
She reached for the phone to call the front desk. Without turning, she said, “I’m going to order some supplies.”
Michael lay on that bed only moments from holding Cassandra in his arms and listened to her phone conversation with the front desk operator. And he heard the quaver in her voice, the emotion that he knew he’d created. He wanted to protect her, but it seemed he knew only how to hurt her.
He blinked against the spots forming in his vision. Damn it, he could not pass out. Not until this bullet was out.
With all his will, Michael forced himself to move and somehow managed to remove the weapons strapped to various parts of his body, setting them on the nightstand. He took the utility knife from one of the straps around his thigh and laid it on the edge of the bed, deciding it was the best bet at removing the bullet. Then, with supreme effort, he heaved himself past the pain to a sitting position to remove his shirt. Somehow, he had to get out of this worthless armor.
Hanging up the phone, Cassandra turned to him and gasped, “Are you crazy? You’re gushing blood. Stop moving around.” She scrambled to his side, her hand on his chest.
Their eyes locked, collided with the impact of a concrete slab right in his chest. Memories. Desire. She swallowed, and he watched that delicate little throat move. No amount of pain or blood loss could stop him from thinking of kissing it, of kissing her.
“Lie down, Michael,” she ordered, her voice cracking, defying the steadiness of her stare.
“I need to get this shirt off,” he said, his voice not much stronger than hers. He was powerful—a man people feared—yet what he feared most was this woman judging him unworthy. God, he never wanted to face that day. He wouldn’t face that day. Damn. He’d left her so he wouldn’t have to.
“Let me do it,” she said quietly, a plea lacing the words. “Put aside everything between us right now, and let me do this. Michael. Please.”
How many times had Michael wished to hear his name on her lips again and thought he never would? He longed to pull her back down on top of him—he didn’t care that it was the wrong choice—that it would be dangerous to his ability to walk away. He didn’t want to hurt her again, knew that was where this was going if he wasn’t careful—if he didn’t ensure that she stayed angry and distant. Despite this, raw possessiveness rose inside him. He had to make love to her one more time. And he would—soon, very soon. Maybe that made him selfish, but he didn’t care anymore. He needed that one more time to survive a lifetime without her.
“Hold the towel on the wound,” he said, his voice as tight as every muscle in his body. “Once I get the shirt off, you’ll have to unzip the armor. You’ll never get the bullet out as long as I have it on.”
She nodded and quickly applied pressure to his wound. Michael yanked the shirt over his good arm and then over his head, letting it dangle off the shoulder near his injury. Cassandra helped him inch it down his arm and then tossed it to the floor. He reached down and held the bloody towel against his wound.
Cassandra winced at the blood running down his side. “You’re bleeding way too much. We need to get this done. Hold on.”
She reached forward, and their hands connected. A combination of pain and arousal rocketed through his body as she softly said, “I can’t reach the zipper.” It was the only warning he got before she climbed across his lap, using his shoulders to steady herself.
Again his eyes held hers—emotions, past and present, thick with implications and unspoken words. “And here I thought you were pissed at me,” he commented in a low voice.
She cut her gaze, but not before he saw the sadness crossing her lovely face. “I got over being pissed a long time ago,” she whispered.
“You seemed pretty angry at the gazebo,” he commented.
She glanced at him, and then back down. “Maybe I’m still a little angry.” She focused on working the zippers lining the top of his shoulders and his healthy left side. His armor fell free, connected only along his injured side, which he held in place with the towel, using what little energy he still had. His head was spinning, the blood loss taking a toll.
Cassandra eased her weight off his legs and took the armor and the bloody towel with her, quickly throwing it aside and shoving another towel onto his wound before applying pressure with both hands.
“Where the heck is housekeeping with those damn supplies?” she murmured.
His eyes were heavy. “We can’t wait,” he said. “The bullet has to come out now.”
“We have nothing for pain,” she fretted. “Nothing to sew you up with. No bandages. They’re bringing everything. And I don’t want to get started and then have them show up.”
A knock sounded on the door, and she let out a sigh of relief. He willed himself to move, to grab a gun. Cassandra stared down at the gun, but said nothing, scooting off the bed and rushing toward the door.
“Just a minute,” she yelled, stopping long enough to shrug off her soiled jacket and wipe off her hands before pulling on a clean shirt and tossing the dirty one aside. She grabbed her purse and the cash inside before discreetly cracking the door. He heard the attendant ask if she was okay, heard her murmur about falling and a make-believe trip to the ER to explain the bandages. A few seconds later, she’d gotten rid of the attendant and wheeled a tray inside. He set the gun down—it seemed suddenly heavier than normal.
Cassandra crawled to his side and handed him a bottle of vodka. “It’s not much of a pain reliever, especially not with your metabolism, but it’s something. Drink it down while I get some hot water. I know alcohol doesn’t have much of an effect on you, but, well, maybe if you drink a lot and fast, it’ll help some. It’s worth a try.”
He accepted the bottle of vodka as she scurried away despite his distaste for it.
With a low curse, he downed several long gulps, the clear liquor burning a path down his throat, the irony of Cassandra’s unknowing choice of the vodka not going without notice. It was as if his father were laughing from his grave, reminding Michael that no matter what he did, where he went, he was still born of his father’s blood, still of his birthright.
Cassandra returned and set the water on the night table, next to the supplies she’d laid out moments before. She drew a breath.
He sensed her hesitation and headed it off. “The sooner we do this,” he commented, “the sooner I can start healing.”
“I know,” she said heavily. “I know.”
He downed another long swallow of vodka, capped the bottle and handed it to her. There was no need to sterilize his wound; he didn’t get infections. “Did I ever tell you how much my father loved a good vodka martini?”
A look of shock crossed her face. “You never spoke about your father.”
Or the mother who hated his guts. Not that she’d said she hated him, but she didn’t write, didn’t call, didn’t give a damn where he was or what he did. Sounded like hate to him. Michael offered her the knife, and she reached for it, but he didn’t let go. Part of him wanted to try and explain why, but it wouldn’t change who, or what, he was. He released the knife and turned onto his side, somehow keeping the towel in place. “I talked about my father,” he said. “I remember precisely telling you he was a bastard.”
She pressed her hand over the towel. “I’ve got it. And yes, now that you mention it, I do remember the bastard description rather clearly.” She shifted to the matter at hand. “Okay. Let’s do this. I’m going to try to see the bullet first.” She lifted the towel for her inspection, and he felt her wiping and wiping at the wound, clearly trying to get a good visual. She let out a shaky breath, then, “I have to pull back the skin.”
“Do what you have to.” She didn’t wait for another invitation, and he jerked and grunted as the bullet scraped his rib.
“Sorry,” she whispered. “It’s deep, Michael. I can’t get to it. Not without cutting you.” She pressed the towel down on the wound and leaned over him, staring at him, desperation in her face. “Call for help. We need a doctor. You have to have a painkiller, Michael. I’m insisting.”
Using the last bit of energy he possessed, Michael reached up and laced his fingers through her hair, pulling her across his body. “Listen to me,” he said, locking eyes with her. “You have to do this. There is no one else.”
“The Renegades have only human doctors. Meaning they can’t wind-walk, and I can’t wait for them to take a plane. I need you to do this.”
She inhaled and shook her head, her bottom lip trembling. “I hate this so much.”
That made two of them, he thought, as he let her go and lay back down. His lashes lowered, his eyes heavy, the room suddenly spinning. He’d lost too much blood. How he’d kept going this long he didn’t know. He swallowed against the nausea threatening to overcome him.
“Ready?” she asked.
Grinding his teeth, Michael willed his stomach to calm. “Yes.”
She didn’t give him time to change his answer. Steel cut through his flesh, the acid burn of radiating pain following. He was stiff. Sweat gathered on his back, his face, his entire body. In a distant corner of his mind, he knew Cassandra was crying, but still she worked, still she did what had to be done. And he knew the second she hit the bullet; his body jerked despite his best efforts to remain still, and he barely contained a scream as pain splintered through nerve endings.
“I’m sorry,” Cassandra whispered a minute before he felt the blade slicing through his skin again and her finger digging inside him. Little pulses of light spread before his eyes, into his head, into his limbs, a moment before darkness pressed down on him. Panic formed—he never panicked. In his mind, he clawed through the darkness. If he died now, who would protect Cassandra? But it was too late—everything simply went black.
Hours after completing Michael’s surgery, Cassandra sat on the edge of the bed, holding a cool rag to his head, scared for him, unsure what to do. She’d seen the GTECH healing process many times, which ranged from tingling skin for a small cut, to violent muscle spasms for more intense injuries. But never, ever, had she seen the kind of torture Michael’s body was putting him through. He was burning up with fever, his muscles jerking and spasming. She could see them pulsing beneath his skin.
She rested her head on his chest, overwhelmed with worry. How much more could his heart endure of this kind of pain? What if the bullet had been poisonous?
She had to call for help, and the only person she knew to call was Caleb. Cell phone , she thought. Michael had to have one. Maybe it would have Caleb’s number in it. She ran her hand over his pockets, and sure enough, another super slim phone was in his front pocket.
“Yes,” she whispered, retrieving the phone and quickly tabbing through the saved numbers, her heart stopping as she saw one noted as “Adam.” Her stomach clenched at that name, and unable to stop herself she thumbed through his call log. Her stomach rolled this time. He’d called Adam recently. Her mind raced as she saw the date and time. Oh my God. He’d called him the night he’d visited her in that Washington restroom. He’d told her he had already left Zodius that night. Who had she talked to on the phone? Caleb or Adam?
Suddenly, Michael sat up, and Cassandra gasped at this unexpected action, certain he was about to grab the phone. Instead, he was on his feet and headed toward the bathroom, hunched over—sick, she realized. She raced after him.
She found him hugging the toilet, throwing up. Cassandra grabbed the doorjamb, forced herself not to go to him, despite the instincts that told her to.
She held the phone, considering a call to Caleb again. Call for help or wait it out? She watched as Michael threw up over and over, so sick—too sick. Her mind raced, fear twisting her in knots. She’d heard Lucian clearly state that Michael was no longer with Zodius, but what if it was a setup? What if he hadn’t left at all? That should make her more ready than ever to call Caleb, but Lord help her, it didn’t. Because what would Caleb do to Michael if he were Zodius? And more importantly, why did she care?
Michael gasped as he sat straight up, searching the room around him and realizing he was in a bathroom on the floor, and holy hell, Cassandra was, too. He sucked in air as he tried to gather his bearings.
“Easy,” she whispered, her hand going to his chest where he could feel the light spasms that meant his body was healing.
The scent of her—soft, female, deliciously Cassandra—insinuated into his nostrils and drew him back into the present. Memories rushed over him. The attack, the bullet. The hours hugging that damn toilet while Cassandra soothed him. “How long have I been out?”
“About six hours,” she said.
“Damn,” he murmured. He needed to call Caleb. He reached into his pocket and found it empty.
He started to push to his feet, and Cassandra grabbed his arm. “You were sick like I’ve never seen a GTECH sick before, Michael.”
“I’m fine,” he said, touching her cheek. Damn. “The healing sickness has been getting worse for a lot us. But once it’s over, it’s over.” He pushed to his feet, moved his arms, felt on the mend. “I’m nearly healed, just weak, and in need of food.” He offered Cassandra his hand and helped her up.
“What’s the cause of the reaction?” she asked. She looked tired, the pale skin beneath her eyes now dark from lack of sleep. “It was bad, Michael. I was afraid your heart couldn’t handle what your body was doing to you.”
“The doctors don’t know the cause, but they’re working on it. The best they’ve come up with is an extreme vitamin C deficiency that is much more severe during the healing process.” He patted his pockets. “Have you seen my phone?”
She stared at him a moment too long and then said, “Nightstand.”
Michael frowned, sensing something in her that wasn’t quite right, but shook it off and turned away, the need to communicate with Caleb winning his attention. He walked toward the bedroom, grimacing at the sight of the blood all over the bed, a mess he’d have to deal with before she checked out of the room.
Snagging the phone, he glanced at the clock, noting the early 6 a.m. He was about to hit the autodial for Caleb when Cassandra spoke from behind. “Which brother are you calling?”
Michael froze and turned to her, narrowing his gaze on her pale features. She looked fragile in an inexplicable way that drew his concern, because it was not natural for her. “What does that mean, Cassandra?”
“I was going to call for help, but I saw both Caleb’s and Adam’s numbers in your phone. I wasn’t sure which one would help you and which one would kill you.”
He inhaled at the implications of her words, anger climbing through his veins. “Maybe you should have just killed me yourself while you had the chance.”
“Maybe I should have,” she spouted back. “You called Adam the night you visited me. The night we… you know—in the restroom. Yet you told me you’d left Zodius. So who was I talking to on the phone? Adam or Caleb?”
There was nothing he could say to Cassandra that would matter. Instead, he punched Caleb’s autodial number on the phone and gave her his back.
The instant Caleb answered, he said, “We have problems.” He then relayed his concerns about the new weapon technology and the connection between Brock and Lucian. Finally, he said, “I need Sterling on the line. Cassandra needs to be reassured that I am a Renegade by someone who does not resemble your brother in voice or appearance…” He hesitated. “And ask him to confirm the last night I was undercover inside Zodius.”
He turned and found Cassandra still standing in the bathroom doorway. Their eyes collided, tension shimmering between them as he held out the phone. “For the record, that would be the night before we were in that hotel restroom. You looked at the caller ID wrong. A little too eager to condemn me, I guess. But talk to Sterling.” She knew Sterling from Area 51 and had heard he’d joined the Renegades. “Ask him whatever you want to. Get that peace of mind that I can’t give you.”
Distress washed over her delicate features. “I don’t know what you want from me, Michael.” Strain tightened the words. “How can you expect me not to question you?”
“I’d consider you a fool if you didn’t. Give your trust to Caleb, not me.” This was what he wanted. Her distrust, her hatred. A way to leave without hurting her. He’d get her to Sunrise City, and he’d leave. Get the hell away from her and keep her safe. Work for Caleb from a distance.
She inhaled and walked toward him, taking the phone.
“Hello,” she said. “Is this Sterling?” They exchanged a few words, her side of the conversation softly spoken, edged with discomfort. She ended the short talk and handed him back the phone.
Michael quickly confirmed that all was well with Caleb and ended the call. Preferring to save the confrontation with her over what was, or was not, between them for later—or better yet, never—he flipped the phone shut and shifted the conversation.
“Where is the bullet you removed?”
She shook her head. “Just like that? Where’s the bullet? We aren’t going to talk about why—”
“You needed to talk to Sterling,” he said coldly, “because you don’t trust me. And you shouldn’t trust me. End of conversation.”
Her jaw went slack. “That’s it?” She inhaled, then forced it out. “I see. I get it. This is business. Talk to Caleb. Get Red Dart. Leave the personal out of it. Except when you think it might convince me to help. Anything to achieve your mission. Right? Kiss me. Touch me. Oh yes. Why not just fuck me while you’re at it? Just to be sure I do what you want? Not necessary, by the way. I not only want to stop Adam, I intend to prove to you that you’re wrong about all of this. Adam has manufactured this Red Dart torture story to divide the Renegades from the government. So please! Leave personal out of this. Stop… with us. With our past. Stop everything but business.”
She started to turn away, and he knew he should let her go. He couldn’t. “Cassandra. Wait.” She paused, but didn’t face him. Seconds of tension-filled silence swelling between them before he softly said, “You are my Lifebond, and I would die for you.”
She half-turned, anger glistening in the depths of her green eyes. “I haven’t seen or heard from you in two years, Michael,” she said. “So don’t give me that Lifebond crap, because it obviously doesn’t mean anything. You’re a soldier, Michael. You would die for your cause, and I am a part of that cause right now—though I have no idea exactly what that is. You were with me at Groom Lake. Then you were gone. You were Zodius. Now you’re Renegade. I don’t know who you are. I wonder if you even know.” She didn’t wait for an answer. “Your damn bullet is in the glass by the bed. It’s green and spiked. Nothing like any bullet I’ve ever seen before. I’m taking a shower. I have a flight to catch.” She disappeared into the bathroom and slammed the door.
Now probably wasn’t the time to tell her she wasn’t taking that flight, Michael thought, as the door shut. Nor was it the time to explain that he wasn’t worried about “who” he was; he was worried about “what” he was. No normal person could communicate with the wind. No normal person felt the sense of unnamed power growing within them as he did, that might or might not, be about the wind. Nor was any other Renegade tainted enough to endure the brutality of living among the Zodius as he had.
But this wasn’t a conversation for now, or ever, in his book. She hadn’t slept, hadn’t eaten; she was beaten up over his return. Oh yeah, and the little detail about Adam wanting her dead. She was definitely not going anywhere but underground, inside the Renegades’ Sunrise City headquarters. She’d hate him for that, too. Which sucked. But it was good. She needed to hate him. Then he couldn’t forget himself and throw her on the bed and fuck her until there was no tomorrow, and then do some stupid shit like admit he loved her.
And on that happy fucking note, he walked to the room phone and called the lobby. His shirt was shredded, his pants bloody, and he couldn’t leave without replacing them, without drawing unwanted attention to himself. As expected, an offer of a big tip scored him the promise of new clothes. He added an order for orange juice and hung up. Feeding his metabolism so he could fully heal had to be high on the priority list, as did getting rid of all the blood—which unfortunately might include the mattress. That would all cost money, lots of it, but he didn’t really care about the cash. His money had been his father’s, after all, and what he hadn’t donated to charity, he now used to fund the Renegades. The Renegades couldn’t depend on their own personal resources or government funding. Not when Zodius was recruiting from private sources in any way necessary—be it promises of power or intimidation.
He reached for the green-spiked bullet in the glass beside him and went cold when he felt the rubbery texture. “Hello Mother,” he murmured, bitterly, all too familiar with the technology he held. Upon his father’s death, Michael had inherited a chunk of stock from the company, which still ground his nerves. He hadn’t spoken to either of his parents since the day he’d found out his father was selling to terrorist operations, and his mother had defended him. She’d sworn his father hadn’t known and sworn Michael was lying when he told her his father had admitted he had.
To the day his father had died, that man had been certain that Michael would come around, that Michael was a chip off the ole block. That the army would make a man out of him, and Michael would come back for the good life. Michael didn’t dispute that he was like his father—he felt it, accepted it, knew on some level he removed emotions and acted when necessary in ways others simply could not. He didn’t give that part of himself time to mature, to take root and grow into something that he would recognize as his father.
Michael had sold that stock like hot potatoes, but not without doing a good share of research on its operations and contacts. He’d seen the published data on the Green Hornets, including a number of manufacturing mishaps endured during testing that had gotten it—temporarily, it seemed—shelved. Oh yeah. Green Hornets came from Taylor, all right. Which meant his mother was the one supplying them to Adam. And if she took a clue from his father, she’d sell to the army as well. A bloodbath in the name of money was, after all, the Taylor legacy.
Cassandra stood under the hot spray of the shower, her hands pressed to her face, willing herself not to cry. More confused than she’d ever been in her life. Seeing Michael again was tearing her up inside. She was pretty sure she loved him and always had. And that probably made her insane.
She thought of his vow. I would die for you . She laughed bitterly into the water. Right. Like the man didn’t invite death to come for a visit every day of his life. She was his duty. It was all about duty to Michael. Exactly why soldiers equaled pain. Her mother had warned her, and she’d been right.
“Damn you, Michael,” she whispered, thinking of that day by the elevator when he’d been so damn devastatingly hot. I should have walked away. She pressed her hands to her face again and then mentally shook herself. This was not about her and Michael. This was about protecting the world from Adam. How had she ever walked away and pretended something so big didn’t exist?
She could only hope and pray that the accusations against her father were not true. He was all she had in this world. A little girl’s hero, one she’d felt she’d lost after the Area 51 nightmare. She’d believed he deserved a chance to mend the past, and she’d wanted to help. And she knew there was no choice but to imprison the Zodius. They were now terrorists against humanity. But she wasn’t okay with torturing them. That would be inhumane.
In their own way, all the GTECHs, Zodius and Renegade, were victims of the government’s experiment. Unwilling ones too. They’d been told they were getting immunizations. No, they didn’t deserve to be tortured, and her father wouldn’t be a part of that. Yet… in the back of her mind, she admitted seeing glimpses of a power-hungry man, desperate to save himself and regain his position of authority.
Resolve formed as she reached down and turned off the shower. She was getting on that flight this morning and copying that hard drive. If Red Dart was detailed on Brock’s computer, she could prove there was no torture mechanism. That easily. One hard-drive copy. Then, the Renegades and the government could refocus together on defeating Adam.
Cassandra reached for her towel and started to dry off when she suddenly froze with a realization. She squeezed her eyes shut. Her clothes were in the exterior room— with Michael. Great. Wonderful. She could put her bloodied clothes back on, which really did not appeal to her. Or she could walk out into the room to her suitcase with only a towel to cover her. Flashes of herself and Michael making love, their bodies pressed close, the wildness they’d shared, flickered in her mind. Oh no. The towel was really not a good idea. Her robe made sense. She’d simply tell Michael to grab it from the suitcase.
Quickly, Cassandra towel-dried her hair and cracked the door open. “Michael?” No answer. “Michael?” Still nothing. A fizzle of fear raced through Cassandra. Had he collapsed? Fallen ill again? “Michael!” She yanked the door open, holding the towel tight around her body, scanning, heart pounding a wicked beat against her breast bone. The sheets and blankets were gone, the mattress changed or maybe flipped.
Her gaze swept the room, and still, she did not see Michael. He was not lying on the floor, dead or dying, which was a relief, but neither was he anywhere in sight. Her breath lodged in her chest. Had he left without saying good-bye yet again?
Suddenly, the patio door opened, a gust of wind lifting the dark floral curtains, the sheers beneath fluttering wickedly. Michael stepped into the room, and the wind died. He looked like a warrior, dangerous, primal. He was bare to the waist but for the bandages she’d wrapped around him, his jeans hanging low to display sculpted abdominals, his feet bare, his long, raven hair loose around his shoulders.
And despite the proof that he was not Zodius, that she had no reason to fear him, she did feel fear. So much that she could barely breathe. Fear of what she wanted. Of her inability to resist this man when she knew damn well he was going to hurt her again if she gave him the chance—a realization driven home as he cast her in a heavy-lidded inspection so intimate that her knees went weak.
Instant heat spread through her core and then sizzled like a wildfire through the rest of her body. Her nipples tightened, her thighs ached. In the midst of the flames burning her inside and out, there was relief that at least he had not left her again, no matter how much she should want him to.
She had two options. Refuse to be intimidated by her state of undress and march over and get her clothes, or turn and run back into the bathroom. She had a flight to catch, along with Brock’s computer drive to copy, and Michael had already seen her in her towel.
“You didn’t answer when I called you,” she said, her eyes flickering to his, her fragile bravado already faltering under their heat, her voice raspy, unfamiliar. Her fists balled tighter around that terry cloth at her chest. “I was afraid you were sick again.”
He stared at her, said nothing, an animalistic quality crackling off him, edgy, dark—powerful. Hot. So damn hot. She swallowed hard, the sensual touch of his dark eyes flustering her, arousing her. “Say something, damn it!” So much for keeping a cool head and acting unaffected.
And still Michael did not speak—he simply stood there, immobile, his eyes holding hers, sexual tension between them, magnetic, impossible to resist. The desire between them had always been intense; their lifebond connection simply turned up the heat another ten notches, transforming the desire to something darker, more intense—all-consuming. As if the desire had a life and mind of its own.
Desperately, she cut her gaze and charged toward the closet. Touching him would be a mistake. It would cloud her judgment and skew her ability to judge the man beneath the Lifebond. But she barely made it a few steps before he was there, pulling her into his arms.
“You didn’t really think you could walk out here in a towel without this happening, now did you?” he half growled a moment before his lips came down on hers.
Cassandra lost herself to Michael in that moment, to that hot, hungry kiss, a mating of mouths that she longed for. The spicy male scent of him seemed to pour through her veins like an aphrodisiac. Her hands were all over him, his all over her. It was wildly exciting, intensely addictive. And there was no fighting it, no understanding it. His hands were in her hair, hers in his. Teeth nipped, lips caressed.
The towel disappeared, her breasts pressed against his bare chest, his hands caressed her body as he picked her up, one hand curving along her backside, the other laced through her hair. Her arms wrapped around his neck, her legs around his waist. She didn’t resist; in fact, she clung to him, far more desperate to feel him close to her, to feel him next to her, inside her, than she had been to get away from him.
Somehow, someway, a semblance of real life slipped into her mind, and her fingers shoved into his hair, pulling his mouth from hers. “You left,” she whispered hoarsely. “You left and never said a word.”
Their eyes collided much as their passion had—wild, emotional. “You have no idea how many times I’ve burned to feel you like this again,” he said, low, guttural. “How many times I was hard just thinking about it.”
She shook with his words, shook with the magnitude of the passion between them, though it solved nothing, explained nothing. But her body didn’t care; her body simply wanted and needed. Don’t ask a question you don’t want the answer to . She didn’t ask. Not now.
“Prove it,” she challenged. “Prove it now.”
Cassandra couldn’t get enough of Michael. She clung to him. Burned for him. Breathed him in as his mouth slanted over hers, punishing, hot, as dominating as the man. There was nothing gentle about the way he took that kiss, the way he claimed her. Raw, animalistic passion that burned away the past and left only this moment and then the next.
They went down on the bed, her on her back, his broad masculine frame commanding hers, his lips traveling her jaw, her neck. He pressed her breasts together, lapping at her nipples with his tongue, suckling and licking until her back arched. He rolled the stiff peaks with his fingers, tugged and nipped to the point of near pain, yet it was so much pleasure. She was panting, watching him in wonder, stunned that this was really happening. He lifted his head, his eyes finding hers, her breasts still intimately molded to his palms. Time seemed to stop as the unanswered questions, the unspoken words, burned between them, a spell of sorts, holding them, compelling them to deal with more than the physical need. Michael pushed out of her embrace, standing up and reaching for his jeans.
Emotionally shaken, but no less physically enthralled by the sheer male power of Michael, Cassandra rested on her elbows, her legs still spread where she wanted him to return.
She watched as he shoved his jeans and underwear down powerful legs and bare feet and stood in all his naked glory for her inspection, his cock jutting forward, thick with readiness. Inhaling a lust-laden breath, Cassandra crawled toward him as surely as he was reaching for her. His legs touched the end of the mattress as they came together in a deep, frenzied kiss, one of his hands palming her backside as he picked her up, caressing along the cheek and intimately sliding along the cleft.
Again, Cassandra wrapped herself around Michael, her arms draping his neck. His erection wedged thickly between her legs, and she moaned into his mouth, the anticipation of having him inside her almost too much to bear. He reached between them, used both his fingers and his cock to stroke her sensitive flesh, before he pushed the pulsing head of his erection inside her and sunk deep to her core. Their lips froze in a caress. For several seconds, they clung together, bodies joined in the most intimate of ways, his powerful one wrapped around hers. Every inch of her body tingled with pleasure, a connection beyond anything she’d ever known.
Michael brushed his lips over hers in a long, languid motion, drawing his erection slowly along the inner walls of her body. Cassandra gasped into his mouth as he thrust hard and hit her core—gasped with pleasure, with fulfillment, with need. A wild rush of passion followed, a frenzy of hips swaying and pumping. And in one long, hard thrust of movement, they went down on the mattress, Michael’s muscular legs spreading her in a V, demanding what she did willingly—open for him.
Their bodies moved in wild abandon, hands exploring, caressing, clinging. She lifted off the bed, hips pressed to his, meeting his thrusts, desperate for more of him, desperate in a way that she couldn’t escape. Desperate for far more than the deep thrust of his cock, but for something she knew in the far reaches of her mind was part of their lifebonding process. It was a feeling she had felt before, but never like this, never so intense, never so all-consuming.
He tore his lips from hers, his hair draped around his shoulders, around hers. As he stared down at her, his dark eyes wild, hungry, tormented—she knew he felt what she felt—that he understood her burning need.
Slowly, Michael thrust into her—a long, deep, sensual stroke of his cock that had her arching into him, tilting her hips to take more of him. To get closer. She could never be close enough. And when she wanted more, he pulled back, teasing her as he traveled a slow, torturous path of pleasure along her sensitive core. With only the tip of his thick erection inside her, he paused, before he drove into her once, then over and over, until they were in another wild frenzy.
Riding on the edge of release, Cassandra wrapped her legs around Michael’s, wrapped her arms around his back, moaning as he kissed her again. A deep, torturous, wonderful kiss that took her over the edge of bliss. The combination of his tongue and his hips shattered her control, causing her muscles to spasm around his cock, her body shaking with the intensity of her pleasure. With a guttural moan, Michael pushed deep into her core, buried his face in her neck, and she could feel the pulse of his release.
Time stood still for long moments as they held one another, their bodies vibrating with energy, until slowly, slowly, muscles eased and tension unraveled.
And with the unraveling of passion came the formation of another kind of explosion, and this one had nothing to do with passion. At least not the kind of passion made of pleasure. The kind made of confrontation. Confrontation that started forming in her chest, with the hurt of the past, with the hurt that was Michael.
“Let me up!” she yelled, suddenly claustrophobic. They’d had sex. Fine. It was good. She didn’t want what came after; she didn’t want to look into his eyes, to face the past or even the future.
“Easy, sweetheart,” he purred near her ear. “What’s the rush?”
He rested on his elbows and forced her to do what she didn’t want to do—stare into his eyes. Those damn eyes that always made her think that nothing but the moment mattered. Made her think they had something real when she knew better.
Her throat went all cottony. Her tongue thick. “I have a flight to catch. I need to get ready.”
His eyes glimmered with determination. “You aren’t taking that flight.”
He couldn’t be serious. “Of course I am,” she said. “We need that hard drive.”
“We don’t,” he said. “Brock told Lucian he knows nothing more than we do.”
“He could have been lying,” she said. “We can’t take that chance. The return flight is a perfect opportunity to get that drive.”
“The only place you’re going is to Sunrise City where I know you’ll be safe.”
Safe. He wanted to keep her safe. Right. She glared at him. “I can’t find Red Dart in Sunrise City, and what am I supposed to tell my father?”
“Whatever you need to,” he growled. “Be creative.”
“And then we don’t get that hard drive and the data on Red Dart!”
“We’ll find another way.”
“There is no other way, or we both know you would never have come to me in the first place!” Frustration boiled inside her. “For two years you didn’t give a damn about where I was or what I was doing. What right do you have to tell me anything?”
He glared right back at her, his jaw clenched, his eyes glistening—looking as if he was about to explode—like he might actually, for once, yell back at her. And she wanted him to. She wanted him to say what was on his mind. To let her inside that hard shell of his. But it didn’t happen. He rolled off her and leaned against the headboard.
“You’re not getting on that plane.”
He’d shut her out again. Damn him. Damn him to hell. With a sound of frustration bursting from her lips, she rotated to her knees, facing him. She didn’t know if she was more angry at him for shutting her out again or for being a bossy, arrogant ass. “I am getting on that plane, Michael, and you cannot stop me.”
“Watch me,” he said with dark menace.
She shook her head, agitated. She wasn’t going to argue with him. It wasn’t even an argument anyway—he didn’t talk to her. “No,” she challenged. “ You watch me.”
She scrambled toward the edge of the bed and toward the closet. In a flash, he was sitting on the edge of the mattress, pulling her between his thighs. Awareness came instantly, her nipples inches from his face. His hands branding her hips. His brushed his cheek against one of her breasts, his lips against her nipple.
She shivered, and damn him, she struggled to retain her anger. To remember why she had to get dressed. His tongue laved her nipple. Her thighs tingled, her core ached. Need built inside her, and she fought it. She craved this man, his strength, even his damnable bossy, silent treatment. Which meant she was really in need of some counseling, because he was going to hurt her again. She knew it. She figured he did, too. Yet knowing she had a hard drive to copy, maybe even a world to save, she was seriously considering climbing back in bed with him.
Clinging to what resolve she had left, angry at her weakness, she shoved at his shoulders. “Damn it, Michael. I am not having sex with you again. This won’t work. I won’t be manipulated.” He sucked her nipple, all that silky dark hair erotically tickling her skin. Desperate to stop him, before she no longer possessed the will, her hands went to his head. “Stop, Michael!”
He tilted his chin up, a challenge in his eyes. “Is that what you really want?”
She glared. “Yes. I do.” Or she wanted to and that was what counted. “I’m getting dressed, and I’m leaving.”
He arched a brow. “Care to bet on that?”
Michael had barely thrown out his challenge when Cassandra’s eyes flickered and turned solid black. Wild, uncontrollable need to claim her right then and there overcame him, like a mating call that demanded satisfaction, the need to throw her on the bed and bury himself inside her again almost too intense to ignore.
He cursed. “Your eyes just turned black, Cassandra.” His gaze raked her naked body.
She said something to him, but he didn’t hear her. His mind filled with potent, white hot need—his cock thick, pulsing. Whatever was happening to him, to them, was primal, powerful. Not at all the scientific lab version of bonding as he knew it. It was as if his body and soul believed if he took her again, the process would be complete. She would never want another. She would bear his children. She would die if he died. That jolted some sense into him. He set her away from him, nerve endings raw.
She stumbled with the unexpected action, and he started to reach for her and stopped himself. “Holy hell,” he said, running his hand over the back of his neck. She was naked, and so damn hot. His woman. His . Fuck. Not his. Couldn’t be his. He was X2 positive. He was… not what she needed. “I can’t touch you.” He snagged his jeans from the floor and shoved his legs inside. “Get dressed before I don’t let you.”
“Get dressed, Cassandra,” he ordered, balling his fists by his sides. He’d tried to do everything in his power to protect Cassandra.
A shaken look crossed her face, before she darted toward the closet and started to dress.
He tried not to watch. He failed. His gaze followed every inch of the pink silk panties as they slid up her long legs and over that little triangle of dark hair. He turned his back, inhaling a breath, trying to calm the sudden raging lust ravishing his body.
“They turned black in the hotel restroom after we… saw each other,” she announced from behind him. “They changed back to normal in a few minutes.”
Before he could stop himself, Michael turned to face her. Mistake. Big mistake. She was putting on her bra. Pink like the panties. Sheer. He wanted to rip it off. He jerked his gaze to her face. “And you didn’t tell me? How could you not tell me something like this?”
“At first I thought you knew and then…” She slipped on a pair of slacks and reached for a crème silk blouse. “I would have told you.”
“When?” he demanded. “I wouldn’t have touched you again had I known we might become bonded without a blood exchange, Cassandra.”
She made a sound of disbelief and slipped on her shoes. “Right.” She crossed her arms in front of her, but not before he saw her hands shake. “Of course. Well, now you know. It happens when you touch me. So don’t touch me.”
The icy cut of her words rippled over him. Crap. “Cassandra. I didn’t mean that how you took it. This isn’t how lifebonding, as we know it, works. We have no idea what is happening to you or how dangerous it might be.”
She held up a hand and waved him off, slipping on her shoes. “Oh my God, Michael. For a man who says so little, you are really good with excuses. The eye color changes back. So stop panicking. We aren’t lifebonding. And believe me I don’t want that any more than you do. Why would I want to be bound to a man who might decide to leave me again tomorrow and go another two years without talking to me? Oh wait. If we lifebond, long-term separation would make you physically ill, right? Isn’t that what I read in Ava’s research? No wonder you don’t want this to happen. You’d have to commit. You couldn’t leave.”
Anger rolled off her in hard, biting surges of energy. It was all Michael could do not to go to her. He didn’t know what to say. Everything felt wrong. He only knew how much he needed this woman, how much… he loved her. His voice hung in his throat, with the confession in his head he didn’t dare say out loud. “I want you, Cassandra. I want you so badly I can barely breathe sometimes. I’m X2 positive. I contain what is inside me, while others do not, but that doesn’t mean that you would. I’ve seen what Ava is. I will not let you become that.”
She scoffed, looking away and then back at him, her jaw set firmly. Her words came out through clenched teeth. “We both know Ava was an evil bitch before she ever completed the bonding. If lifebonding is some joining of kindred spirits, then Ava and Adam’s were tainted before they ever met. No more excuses, Michael. I don’t need them. Nor do I need you if that is all you have to offer. When this is over, we part ways. Just don’t touch me in the meantime, and we’ll get through this just fine.”
“Damn it, Cassandra,” he growled. “You have no idea who I am or what my family is.”
She drew back, the look on her face wounded. “You’re right. I don’t know because you never really let me inside, now did you?”
He scrubbed his jaw. “I was—I am—trying to protect—”
“Don’t you dare say, ‘protect me,’” she said, jabbing a finger at the air. “ Don’t say it. If you need to believe that to make yourself feel better, fine, but keep it to yourself.”
Michael forgot distance, stepping toward her. “Cassandra—”
She retreated backwards. “I said, don’t.”
A knock sounded on the door. “Room service.”
“Great,” he mumbled. “Now they get here. An hour after I ordered.”
“I’ll get it,” she said, turning toward the door.
He was there in an instant, pressing a solid palm on the wooden surface, stopping her from opening it. “If one of Adam’s spies sees your eyes, he’ll know you’re my Lifebond. He’ll use you to get back at me.”
She paled and backed away, and he could feel the tension in her. Michael silently cursed his brilliant delivery of that information and quickly got rid of the attendant. He wheeled the cart into the room, his new clothes draped over the top. Cassandra stood in the center of the room waiting for him, a stricken look on her face. He wanted to say something, the right something, but his last effort had gone over about as smoothly as a tornado.
“So this is my life now? Hiding from Adam?”
His gut twisted at those questions, because there was no good answer. He had a sudden flashback of that first day they’d met at the elevator inside Groom Lake. Her smile. And that musical laughter he replayed in his head when that dark, empty place he hid in wasn’t big enough to hold all the hell messing with his head. She’d been happy. Before her damn father stole it away. He grimaced at that. Who was he kidding? Until he stole it away. He was just as guilty as her father. He’d known not to get involved with her. She wouldn’t have that mark, if not for him.
“You’ll be safe in Sunrise City. We’ll charter a plane home and get back without notice.” And then he’d find a way to destroy Adam if it was the last thing he ever did.
She nodded, hugging herself. “Yes. Safe. Okay.”
It was all he could do, not to go to her, to pull her into his arms. But touching her, daring to believe they could be together, was the very reason she wore that mark on the back of her neck. He had to fix this, not make it worse.
“I’m going to shower and change,” he said. “Try and eat something.” He forced himself to walk past her and managed to make it to the bathroom without reaching for her. But he stopped there for just a moment, guilt twisting him in knots. This was why he didn’t do relationships. His life had a way of bleeding onto the lives of those around him. “I’m sorry, Cassandra. I never meant for any of this to happen. I’ll make this right for you. Somehow, I’ll make it right.” And then he disappeared into the bathroom.
The minute the shower turned on, Cassandra headed for the door and quickly zipped her bag. Of course, half her stuff was scattered and unpacked, but she didn’t have time to worry about that. She’d forget the bag if it wouldn’t look odd to Brock.
She snatched her purse and her computer case, and she was in the hallway in a flash, easing the door to a silent closure, and then darn near running to the elevator. If this was her life now, then fine, but Cassandra wasn’t going to sit back and wait for Michael, or her father, to make it better. Nor was she going to tuck her tail and hide from Adam. She was going to be a part of the solution. And once she copied the hard drive on Brock’s computer, she’d call Caleb for help.
Her and Michael… well, that was an emotional subject she refused to think about right now. To say they had history to deal with was an understatement, and she wasn’t sure they could get past it or even if she wanted to at this point. He’d hurt her two years ago, and today in that hotel room. She didn’t want to hurt anymore.
Halfway down the hallway, Cassandra managed to hoist her computer bag on her shoulder and dig her sunglasses from her purse. She slid them in place as the elevator opened, thankful to find several people inside. Michael would never be able to stop her now without making a scene. She would have been relieved if not for the sudden feeling of nausea that washed over her.
After a fast trip to the restroom to check her eyes and slap on some makeup, Cassandra nervously scanned the lobby, praying Michael wouldn’t show up. She spotted Brock standing near the bell desk dressed in tan slacks and a button down with a military-issue, tan tie.
Cassandra walked toward him, forced to endure the far too intimate inspection of a man who wanted to kill her. She held her sunglasses in one hand, ready to put them on at an appropriate moment, because though her eyes were more green than black at present, they were also glossy and dilated. Just barely able to pass as normal. Right. Normal.
“Morning,” Brock said, pushing off the bell desk as she neared. “You look like walking death.”
Her jaw went slack at the comment—no doubt about the hidden meaning. And then she got mad, just barely taming her retort to below hostile. “I thought they taught you military men more manners than that,” she said, shoving her sunglasses on her face, her nerve endings prickling with the sudden awareness that Michael was nearby. “Migraine,” she complained. “And no, it’s not a good morning. Not a good night, for that matter.” She crinkled her nose. “I left my drugs at home too, so it won’t be a good ride home either. Pity for you, sitting next to me. I’ll try and use the doggy bag and not your lap.” She was definitely aiming for his lap.
“You won’t mind giving up the window seat then, I guess,” he commented dryly. God, the man was a bastard. A lying, arrogant bastard. A fool, too, if he thought he would be using her father. No one got anything over on her father. They might think they did, but they always ended up playing his game, his way.
Brock flagged a bellman and handed him a bill. “We need a cab, ASAP.” He shifted his attention back to Cassandra and motioned her forward. “Shall we?” He inspected her with suspicion. “Were you after pain medication when you went out so late last night?” Brock inquired, setting a duffel bag on the ground. You could take the honor out of a soldier, but never strip him of his duffel bag. Soldiers used them for life.
She had no pain meds, so she didn’t want to claim otherwise. “Could have sworn I said toothbrush,” she said, casting him a sideways look and offering nothing more, remembering her father’s often spoken warning. Your words can be the enemy’s weapons . In short, keep your mouth shut.
Well-timed, the cab pulled up in front of them, saving Cassandra from further prodding, and she quickly scooted in to the far side next to the door. If Brock dared sit too close to her, she might just use her foot as a weapon.
Thankfully, Brock kept his distance and talked on his cell phone for most of the short ride to the airport—to her father of all people; her stomach rolled the entire time, and she was glad for the distraction, to rest her eyes if only briefly.
Minutes later, standing at the curbside airline desk, she felt a twist in her stomach. She swallowed against the bitter taste in her mouth. Cassandra had no idea what was happening to her, but she didn’t think it was lack of sleep.
It was becoming clear that she couldn’t ignore the implications between her connection to Michael and her illness, not after the eye color change and not when she knew the lifebonding process included a short, violent, physical transition, nausea being par for the course. Much more intense than her random eye color shift and some mild nausea. And she and Michael had most definitely not exchanged blood. But now wasn’t the time to let her worries, or her stomach, get the best of her. She had to get that computer hard drive copied before she keeled over and couldn’t complete the task.
Inside the airport, Cassandra quickly stepped into the security line that Michael had designated for the laptop switch.
“That one is shorter,” Brock argued, pointing to the next line over.
“This one is closer to the restroom,” Cassandra countered, and with a grimace, Brock followed her lead.
Soon she was tossing her shoes in the plastic tray on the conveyer and then setting her computer in one as well. Beside her, Brock did the same thing. Nerves churned her stomach a little harder as she shoved her sunglasses into her purse, her gaze downturned as she worried about what her eyes might look like.
Quickly, she passed through the metal detector without challenge, but behind her, Brock set it off with a loud buzz. He grumbled, checking his pockets as she retrieved her sunglasses and slipped them into place. The female security guard behind the conveyer gave her a weird look.
“Migraine,” Cassandra explained as the buzzer on the metal detector went off again.
“Wand check!” yelled the guard by the metal detector.
“Oh hell,” Brock complained rather loudly. “I’m army. We protect the nation, not blow it up.”
“Sir,” the guard said. “I don’t make the rules. I just follow them. Please step to the side.” He walked to the plastic trays and motioned to Brock’s computer and bag. “Is this yours?”
“Yes,” Brock said grumpily. “Now can we get on with this?”
The male guard picked up Brock’s bag and with a quick shift of his body to block the view, snagged Cassandra’s computer rather than his. Adrenaline rushed through Cassandra’s blood as she toed on the shoes she held in her hands and then stuffed Brock’s computer, rather than her own, into her bag and zipped it closed. Shoving her purse and briefcase over her shoulder, she turned to find Brock’s back to her, his arms outstretched as he endured the wand inspection. No doubt this would be when the guard would put her computer inside his bag so he wouldn’t know there was a mix-up.
“I’ll meet you at the gate, Brock,” she called out. “I’m going to the restroom.”
“Yeah, yeah,” he said as the wand buzzed near his knee, indicating a need for further inspection. “You have got to be kidding!”
“Please raise your pant leg, sir,” the guard said.
Cassandra didn’t wait to hear more. She was already rushing toward the restroom sign, unzipping her purse as she did and retrieving the flash drive. Twelve minutes. She needed twelve minutes.
Rounding the corner of the restroom, Cassandra quickly noted the line of six stalls and went to the handicapped one, shoving the door shut and hunching over against the churning in her stomach as she unzipped the computer bag. She shoved the baby changer down and opened the computer, but a sudden need to throw up had her yanking away her sunglasses and leaning over the toilet. Thank God the toilet and floor were clean. Dry heaves followed, her empty stomach wrenching in hard spasms that felt like they were tearing her inside out, her hand still clenched around the flash drive. Finally, the nausea subsided.
Cassandra hooked her glasses on the top of her blouse and unrolled some toilet paper to dab her mouth, her hand shaking as she did. The flash drive slipped from her grip. Cassandra watched in dismay as it hit the ground and bounced under the door.
Inhaling a calming breath, she yanked the stall door open only to be greeted by a short, gray-haired woman, wearing a badge and holding a cleaning rag—clearly this was the restroom attendant. She was also far more attentive than Cassandra wanted her to be right now.
“Is this yours, honey?” she asked, holding the flash drive up between two fingers and peering over Cassandra’s shoulder at the computer open on the changing table.
“Yes,” Cassandra said, snagging the stick. “Thank you.” She shut the stall door, hating that she had to be rude, but she had no time for politeness. She quickly inserted the stick into the computer, and it started showing progress.
The announcer’s voice came over the speaker. Her flight was boarding. “Damn it!” she murmured. She was never going to have time to finish. Minutes passed like hours as she watched the computer tick off progress, but not nearly fast enough. Think Cassandra, think.
She looked at the toilet paper in her hand and placed it over the latch on the computer, so it couldn’t fully close and power off. She shut the lid over the paper and then shoved the computer back into the bag. She’d go straight to the airplane restroom when they boarded and then remove the paper and the stick before she took a seat.
Cassandra put the sunglasses back in place, wishing she had time to inspect her eyes. She grabbed her things and half jogged toward the exit.
She rounded the restroom entryway and came toe-to-toe with Brock, all but barreling into him.
“You have my computer,” he said. “I need it back.”
Her heart jackknifed. “I do not have your computer,” she said, trying to step around him.
Brock moved in front of her. “Yes,” he said. “You do. The security guard remembers mixing them up.”
She motioned with her hands in defeat. “Okay, well, maybe they did.” She patted her briefcase. “It’s not going anywhere.” She motioned to the gate. “And boarding call has already been issued. Besides, I’m way too sick to deal with this right now. You can switch them on the plane where I can sit down, before I throw up yet again.”
He clenched his jaw, ignored the announcement and her suggestion, then he looked suspiciously at her glasses. “Since when does a migraine make you throw up? I thought it was a headache.”
“It is a headache,” she ground out between clenched teeth, thinking how offended her mother, a sufferer of migraines, would have been at that comment. Brock just dug himself deeper into jerk territory every second. And knowing that he wanted to take her to bed, she’d hate to think how he’d treat her if he did not. “Migraines are the volcanic eruption of headaches.”
His probing attention continued, his stare so deep she thought he might see through her glasses. “I have a confession to make,” he said finally. “After you declined meeting for a drink last night, my ego was a bit wounded. Then, this morning with the headache again, I was convinced you were faking a headache to get out of dinner tonight. I apologize. Male egos really can be monsters.”
His apology reeked of insincerity. “No one fakes being this sick,” she said. “Or looking like ‘walking death.’”
He grimaced. “Sorry for that, too. Again. The ego monster.” Last call to board sounded over the intercom, saving her from further argument. “We better get going.” He reached for her bag. “Let me carry that for you.”
“No, no,” she said, trying to hold onto it. “Really. It’s fine.”
His hand remained on the bag. “I insist,” he said, refusing to let go. “You’re sick, Cassandra. I’ll carry the bag. It’s what any gentleman would do.”
Cassandra reluctantly let him pry the bag from her hands, aware she’d just been well manipulated. He wasn’t going to let her take that bag to the restroom, so how the heck was she going to get the flash drive out of the computer without him knowing? She was more than sick. She was drowning in trouble.
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