Read Born Wild Online

Authors: Julie Ann Walker

Born Wild

Copyright © 2013 by Julie Ann Walker

Cover and internal design © 2013 by Sourcebooks, Inc.

Cover art by Craig White

Photography by Jon Zychowski

Model: Kenny Braasch

Sourcebooks and the colophon are registered trademarks of Sourcebooks, Inc.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems—except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews—without permission in writing from its publisher, Sourcebooks, Inc.

The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.

Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca, an imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc.

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To my sister, Shelly. You were my lullaby singer, my mac and cheese maker, and my second mama. You've never been afraid to be exactly who you are, and you've always accepted me just as I am. Thank you for all the support over the years.
A-weema-weh, a-weema-weh…

Courage is fear holding on a minute longer.

—General George S. Patton

Prologue

Chicago, Illinois

Thursday, 5:38 p.m.

Someone was trying to kill her.

As Eve Edens squeezed the brakes on her classic 1966 Vespa motor scooter and felt absolutely zero response, it occurred to her that all the misfortune she'd suffered lately could no longer be chalked up to coincidence. The mugging, the fire, and now this? Even
she
wasn't
this
unlucky.

So, it was official; someone wanted her dead…

Of course, she'd have to worry about who that could be later. Right now, she had to find a way to stop the scooter from plowing into the stalled traffic fifty feet in front of her.

Her breath punched from her lungs, and her brain buzzed with terror as she thumbed the button for the horn. But the pathetic
meep, meep, meep
didn't do a thing to catch the attention of the motorists parked on the roadway ahead. And even if it did, it's not as if they could get out of the way or anything. Traffic was at a standstill in all lanes. There was no place to go except…

Oh, geez.
She was going to have to try for the lake.

Yanking the handlebars hard to the right, she gritted her teeth as she bounced over the curb on Lake Shore Drive with head-whipping force. In a flash, she was on the grassy area separating the road from the jogging path and the greenbelt that ran the length of the city. Then, she was zooming across the trail at forty miles per hour, nearly plowing into a man wearing bright red running shorts. Missing him by no more than a hairsbreadth, she careened down the steep embankment on the opposite side. Dodging trees and gathering speed—which she
so
didn't need—she braced herself for the inevitable.

Sweet
Lord, help me!

And then the inevitable happened. She was airborne.

The smell of car exhaust and hot asphalt was replaced by the aroma of freshwater algae and fish as she flew past the high, man-made marina wall and over the cobalt blue of Lake Michigan. The Vespa whined beneath her, its engine revving uselessly, and she only had a split second to think, a split second to gather her scattered wits. Letting go of the handlebars, she kicked the scooter away right before she slammed into the water.
Sploosh!

Oh,
God!
It was like hitting a brick wall. A
cold
brick wall. Because even in late summer, the lake's temperature remained in the forties. For a moment, the hard jolt and shock of the frigid water paralyzed her, and she drifted down into the dark abyss. Then, her stalled synapses started firing like crazy, giving her the cranial version of a kick-in-the-pants, and she swam toward the surface with everything she had. But no matter how hard she scissored her legs or pulled with her arms, the sunlight glittering on the rippling waves above grew fainter and fainter, and the cold pressing in on her from all sides grew ragged, icy teeth that bit into the exposed skin of her arms and face.

She was drowning.

The woman who'd grown up on the water, knowing how to set a sail before she could read, was drowning. The woman who'd spent her entire adult life studying marine animals from both above and below the water's surface was drowning. The woman who was mere weeks away from delivering her doctoral thesis on the effects of tourist snorkeling and diving on the world's great reefs was drow—

Doctoral thesis?

Her books!

Her backpack was filled with her research material. All however-many-umpteen pounds of it. And it was dragging her down to a watery grave.

Reaching for the clip around her waist, she managed to squeeze the locking mechanism with fingers gone numb from the frosty water. Then she shrugged out of the shoulder straps and immediately kicked toward the surface. Her lungs were burning for oxygen, her blood pounding in her head with every thundering heartbeat, and the urge to take a breath was as instinctual as it was overwhelming. But to do so would mean death. So she bit into her bottom lip and beat back that desire even as she clawed her way through the water.

So close, so close.
Stars danced before her eyes; darkness closed in on the edge of her vision.
No! No! I'm not gonna make it!
And then…

“Uhhhhhh!” she raked in life-giving air the instant she broke the surface, coughing and sputtering as she sucked droplets of water into her lungs along with all that beautiful, delicious oxygen.

She could hear people yelling to her from the top of the marina wall, asking if she was okay, but she was too busy restoring her body's air supply to answer. Once she hacked up the liquid from her heaving lungs, she flipped onto her back, concentrating everything she had on simply floating and slowing her frantic heartbeat. As the water closed over her ears, drowning out the sound of the concerned crowd, she let her gaze linger on the white, puffy clouds lazily drifting across the powder-blue sky.

For a few seconds, she found comfort in the quietness of the lake's embrace, in the weightlessness that permitted her thoughts to drift with the tide. But the seconds were fleeting. Because the taste of blood from her bitten lip quickly brought her slamming back to reality. Like it or not—and she most certainly did
not
—she could no longer overlook the fact that someone was out to get her…

And if the police ignored this latest incident like they'd ignored the first two, if they blew it off as bad luck, or being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or flippin' faulty wiring or something, she was going to be left with no recourse but to turn to the one man she'd sworn to avoid like a skin-diving expedition with tiger sharks. She was going to have to ask “Wild Bill” Reichert and his band of merry-covert-operative-men over at Black Knights Inc. for help.

Crap.

Chapter One

Black Knights Inc. Headquarters on Goose Island

Saturday, 3:54 p.m.

“It appears that Chicago's reigning socialite has had another accident.”

The shammy Bill Reichert was using to polish the chrome exhaust on Phoenix, his custom Harley chopper, dropped from his nerveless fingers to the grease-stained concrete floor.

Swallowing the unexpected lump in his throat, he quickly skirted the bike, crossing his arms over his chest in order to hold his galloping heart in check. “Is she…” He had to lick his dry lips and take a deep breath, sucking in the familiar scents of motor oil, fresh paint, and strong coffee. The smells grounded him enough to manage, “Is she o-okay?”

Bryan “Mac” McMillan, lounging on the leather sofa they'd dragged into the shop and pushed against the side of the staircase that led to the loft space on the second floor, folded one corner of the
Chicago
Tribune
back. He lifted a brow at what Bill assumed was his bloodless face. Because despite the fact that the ol' ticker wasn't simply ticking but hammering like crazy, he didn't think any of the red stuff was actually making it to his brain. He felt faint.

“Now don't go off with your pistol half-cocked,” Mac replied in his slow, Texas drawl. “She's fine.” The relief that poured through Bill was so overwhelming he had to lean back against Phoenix's hand-tooled leather seat or risk taking a header straight onto the shop floor. “Says here,” Mac continued, “she plowed her motor scooter off the marina wall somewhere between Museum Campus and Buckingham Fountain on Thursday evening. She nearly drowned because she was weighed down by her backpack.” The thought had the hairs on Bill's arms and neck standing on end. “Had to be scary as hell.”

A million half-formed questions buzzed haphazardly through his under-oxygenated cerebral cortex. He grasped the first one to take any sort of solid shape. “What the fuck was she doing riding a scooter? Those things are dangerous, especially in traffic and—” He slammed to a stop when Mac once again glanced at him over the top of the paper with that annoying eyebrow raised. “What?” he demanded.


Those
things
are
dangerous?
” Mac snorted. “Says the man who rides a quarter ton of hand-rolled steel.”

Bill made a face, briefly glancing down at Phoenix's large gas tank with its intricate, almost whimsical paint job: a mythical firebird rising from the flames. “Okay,” he admitted grudgingly. “Point taken. But the difference between me and her is that I can
handle
my bike where she, obviously,
can't
. What happened anyway? How did she manage to ditch the thing in the lake? Let me guess, she was texting.”

Bill could totally see it. The woman had a social life that, more often than not, made the society pages. One of the main reasons he avoided perusing the local news…

I mean, come
on
, it was bad enough he had to occasionally stomach her company because she happened to be his kid sister's best friend. But to read about some ooh-la-la party she'd attended on the arm of whichever rich-as-Croesus ass-hat happened to be Chicago's newest and brightest?
Yeah, no thanks
. He'd rather stand in the middle of a daisy-chained set of IEDs with the timer on the whole mess ticking down to
Boom
sville.

“Accordin' to this,” Mac lowered the paper to his lap, flicking a finger at it, “after the police fished her scooter from the lake, they discovered one of the couplings on her brake lines had rusted and come loose. Apparently, Eve didn't realize she was in trouble until she was almost at top speed. Then, with traffic stalled in front of her, she had to shoot for the lake or risk killin' herself or someone else.”

Shit.
Bill swallowed uncomfortably, the scene playing out very vividly before his eyes.

Too vividly…

And here he'd accused her of negligence when, in fact, she'd made the smartest decision possible given her pathetically few options at the time.

Well, smarts had never been something Eve Edens lacked. Loyalty? Sincerity? Fidelity? Now
those
were entirely different matters.

“The police are sayin' it was an accident,” Mac continued, frowning.

Uh-oh. Bill knew that look. He cocked his head, eyes narrowed. “But your Spidey sense is telling you something different?”

Mac was a former all-star FBI agent, and if the man said something smelled fishy, you could bet your left nut there was a goddamned blue whale in the room. And, yeah, so Bill realized that wasn't
technically
a fish, but the point was still valid.

“Just seems awfully coincidental, that's all. Nobody's
that
unlucky, are they?”

He frowned, considering Mac's words and remembering all the drama Eve seemed to trail behind her like a not-so-invisible tail. But before he could voice his opinion one way or the other, his cell phone sprang to life in his hip pocket. Pulling it out, the number for BKI's guardhouse lit the screen.

“What's up, Toran?” he asked after thumbing on the phone.

“A taxi just pulled up out front. Eve Edens is here,” replied the guard. Well, speak of the devil. Bill's heart, which had just returned to its normal rate, kicked itself into overdrive again.

***

Holy
moly.
Eve felt the need to whistle and shake her head as she glanced around the second-story loft with its multiple office doors and bank of state-of-the-art computers. She'd never get used to the fact that Billy and her best friend Becky operated a covert government defense firm—that's right; a real life James Bond-type enterprise—under the guise of a custom motorcycle shop. But that probably had a lot to do with the fact that she'd known them back in the day. Back when Becky was little more than a sullen teenager with a chip the size of Texas on her shoulder, and Billy was just a fresh-faced petty officer with pie-in-the-sky dreams of becoming a spec-ops warrior.

Although, as it turned out, those dreams hadn't been pie-in-the-sky at all. Because he
had
become a spec-ops warrior. He'd become one of the big, bad Navy SEALs who were so popular in the media nowadays. And as she let her gaze travel across the conference table to his face, she tried to see the young man who'd stolen her heart so long ago.

Um
,
yes
, and that'd be what the Black Knights referred to as a no-go. Because his ready smile and easy laugh were gone. Gone like the woolly mammoths. Gone like the homing pigeons. Long,
long
gone. Now his brutally handsome face was unyielding, fixed in grim lines of determination and impatience. His jaw was wider than she remembered, looking like it'd been shaped by a hatchet strike. His lips were harder and his tan skin was tougher. The corners of his dark chocolate-colored eyes were creased from spending years out in the elements, squinting against some far-away desert sun. And yes. It was official. There was nothing even remotely youthful about him now, save for the lush fan of his thick lashes and the plump curve of his lower lip.

This Billy Reichert—this hard, world-weary soldier—no longer resembled the young man who'd patiently and gently guided her toward the discovery of passion. No longer resembled the young man who'd teased her, laughed with her, loved her, and made her feel like she was…
the
only
girl
in
the
world
.

Okay, and great, she was channeling Rihanna. Which meant she'd mentally stalled as long as she could.

“I think I'm in trouble,” she blurted, and the words reverberated around the cavernous space of the chopper shop/super-secret-spy shop like foghorns echoing across open water. It was then she realized the place was unusually quiet. “Where is everybody? Where's Becky?”

“What kind of trouble?” Billy ignored her questions as his eyes narrowed dangerously.

There was a time she'd have laughed in the face of
anyone
who described Billy Reichert as menacing. But she wasn't laughing now. Because his expression was that of an executioner. Cold. Hard. Unyielding. Talk about
brrrr.
She tried to disguise her shiver as a half-shrug.

“Um,” she bit her lip and let her gaze swing over to Mac, seated at the head of the conference table.
That's better. At least
he
doesn't look like he ate babies for breakfast.
“I…I think someone might be trying to hurt me.”

Hurt?
Yeah
,
right
. More like annihilate. But she was taking this one step at a time…

“Unless you're the kind who's so clumsy you'd trip over a cordless phone, you
do
seem to have run into a whole lotta bad luck recently,” Mac drawled, his dark hair falling across his wide forehead, accentuating the deep, friendly blue of his eyes. And even though his expression was kind and his words sympathetic, Eve felt her cheeks heat.

Stupid
fair
complexion. And stupid nosy reporters!

Her entire life she'd been plagued by journalists who thought to capture for posterity—on film and in print—every folly, mishap, and humiliation she suffered. But she supposed that's what she got for being born the daughter of an East Coast heiress and Midwestern real estate mogul. Big buckets of money brought their own fame…of a sort.

“I guess you've been keeping up with the news,” she muttered, shaking her head, the skin on her scalp prickling with embarrassment at the thought of Billy reading those articles. Because, talk about catching a girl
not
at her best.

Like the picture that'd run in the
Tribune
this morning? The one captured as a still from the video someone had shot with their smart phone? Well, it'd shown her and her Vespa flying over Lake Michigan, which was…so
very
flattering…
Not!
Of course, the snapshot wasn't nearly as mortifying as the full-length video clip that some fine, upstanding citizen had been kind enough to upload to YouTube—along with the
Wizard
of
Oz
, Mrs.-Gulch-on-her-Bicycle music playing in the background. So far, the video had fifty thousand hits. And that was…pretty perfect. Par for the course, really, considering how her life had been going since she was about, oh, say eighteen or so.

But even as humiliating as the YouTube video was, the fact remained that it wasn't nearly as awful as the picture that'd run in the paper last month after she barely managed to escape the fire that engulfed her apartment. In
that
particular shot, she'd sported a crazy, wide-eyed look, made even more delightful by the smudge of soot under her nose in the exact shape of Hitler's mustache. The caption had read: Heil Heiress and Her Amazing Death Defying Fire Act!

Geez
Louise.
Maybe whoever was out to do her in wasn't actually trying to kill her with bullets, fire, or cut brake lines but was, in fact, attempting to embarrass her to death.

“You want to explain to us exactly what's been going on?” Mac pressed, and she looked up to find his expression gently encouraging. But when she glanced over at Billy?

Nada
. No encouragement there. Just a squint-eyed look of contemplation and was that…? Yep. That looked infuriatingly close to disbelief.

Oh, no he di-int!
She did a mental headshake, frowning fiercely as she vehemently declared, “I'm not making any of this up, Billy.”

One of his dark brows quirked, and it was like a lit match touching the fuel of her temper. She was instantly on the defensive—which really wasn't anything new. He tended to have that effect on her most days because he blamed her for…well,
everything
. But that didn't change the fact that she'd been nervous enough about coming here without having to deal with his enmity and snarky, high-handed attitude. “I'm not, dangit!” She slammed a palm down on the table, fighting not to wince at the resounding
crack
that echoed around the large space. “Where's Becky? She'll believe me!”

Or at least Eve
thought
Becky would believe her. Because, truth be told, there was a teensy, tiny, ever-so-miniscule seed of doubt planted back in the far reaches of her brain. The explanations the police gave
seemed
logical…

But, no.
No.
She wasn't crazy, and she wasn't paranoid. Someone wanted her dead. Period. End of story.
Alert the gosh-darned presses!

“You haven't said anything for me to believe or not believe, Eve,” Billy explained evenly, leaning back in his chair and crossing his arms over his chest. His biceps bulged, stretching the thin fabric of his gray T-shirt with its Black Knights Inc. Custom Motorcycles logo, emphasizing the hard planes of his pectoral muscles.

“Oh.” She shook her head, quickly looking away from the masculine temptation that was Billy Reichert lest her cheeks turn the color of vintage Cabernet. “Yep. I guess that's true, huh?”

Curses.
Billy had always managed to muddle her thinking. And it'd only gotten worse since they'd been reunited fourteen months ago after more than a decade apart. He'd blasted back into her life when he'd, you know, done her the itsy-bitsy favor of saving her from a band of bloodthirsty Somali pirates. She'd been doing research for her doctoral thesis out on the Indian Ocean when she and Becky found themselves the captives of a band of gun-toting, sea-faring desperados. It was then she'd been allowed in on the little secret of Black Knights Inc. Then when she'd been made to understand that Billy, and all the men who worked with him, were a whole heck of a lot more than simple motorcycle mechanics.

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