Authors: Raine Weaver
To Vanessa Jaye, for reading, sharing, and unwavering support;
To Cody, for hanging in there with me;
To Linda Ingmanson, for making this dream more lucid;
All my gratitude and thanks!
The fact that she had a penchant for long, clinging nightgowns had made his job difficult from the beginning. The fact that he wasn’t supposed to notice made the situation ridiculous. And the fact that she looked sinfully sexy in them was making his life a living hell.
Honestly—if other people weren’t trying to kill her, he might do the deed himself.
Parker Munroe deliberately rattled the grocery bag, making as much noise as possible, just because he knew he shouldn’t. Yeah, it was a childish thing to do. Having a quiet, stress-free environment was important to her work, and he might very well piss her off, but he was tired of playing the good soldier. Daylight had nearly dimmed to darkness, and just because
could sleep anytime she pleased didn’t mean
The nighttime made him edgy. He didn’t like not being able to see what was coming at him.
Wrinkling his nose in disgust, he read the labels as he arranged the cans in the kitchen cabinet. Tomato soup. Tuna. Spam.
. He’d kill for a grilled steak right now. Being slowly starved and forced to live with this woman was taking a toll. He had to complain about
“Man, couldn’t we manage some
rations on one of these junkets? Microwavable stuff, or even a little fast food?” His frustration boiled over in a long, slow hiss as he pulled a small jar from the sack. Decaffeinated coffee? That was fine for the girl, but for a man trying to stay alert? “And how about some spring water next time around? Every time I have to drink this rusty crap from the wells, I get the runs.”
Parker paused in his rant as Shepherd Bolt stared at him in the sallow kitchen light. Stained walls, cracked plaster and seedy furniture had become the norm to him, but his friend looked grotesquely out of place in this cabin with his Armani three-piece suit, gold watch and spit-shined shoes. Vindictive or not, the urge to kick dust onto his handler’s shiny new threads was nearly overwhelming.
As if reading his thoughts, Shep shook his head, smirking. “This is the thanks I get for grocery shopping? You must be getting soft, Munroe. Don’t forget, I’ve seen you live on jerky for days at a time. You’re just grumpy about being stuck in this dump. And none of this has a damn thing to do with food or water. How can anyone complain about spending time with a hot babe?”
“I’m not here to spend time with her. I’m here to keep her safe. You’re here to give me instructions. She’s here to do a job. It makes for nice symmetry. And she’s not just some hot babe.” Munroe unearthed a pack of generic cigarettes from the depths of the bag and gratefully tucked them into the pocket of his jeans. “She’s supposed to be special—remember? One of those secret vestal virgins or whatever the hell they’re called.”
” Shepherd threw his head back and howled. “This isn’t ancient Rome, Munroe. The lady is probably as advanced as they come. Rumor is she was part of that experiment. You know—that mad-scientist shit that produced the infamous One Hundred. The so-called mutants destined to be ‘the saviors of all mankind’. Or so the tabloids say. There are people who’d pay a pretty penny for that information. You’ve been living with her for three months, dude. Shouldn’t you know that?”
There were a lot of things about this assignment that Parker didn’t know. But he’d heard enough about the One Hundred to know he didn’t buy the hype. Since some second-rate investigative reporter had unearthed classified documents exposing federal funding for the mysterious group, it was the latest rage in conspiracy theories. Why had millions in tax dollars designated for research been spent on them? Why were they being hidden and protected? And did he believe that some experiment in a top secret lab had produced a small clutch of superhumans?
Not really. But it didn’t matter. He had an assignment. Keeping her safe was all that counted. “It’s not my business to know or to care.”
Shepherd shook his head, fisting his hands around the worn rungs of the wooden chair he straddled. “I know how you operate. You don’t worry about a specific enemy, because
is the enemy. I know it’s worked for you in the past. But ignorance isn’t always bliss. Sometimes you carry this governmental need-to-know garbage too far.”
Parker savagely crumpled the bag and tossed it into the trash. “Fine. If you’re so hip to all this covert-cult and tabloid crap, maybe
should be playing bodyguard.”
“Now, we both know you wouldn’t trust me alone with your pretty lady.”
He was right. Parker might trust him with his life, but Shep had few scruples and none at all when it came to women. The thought of the two of them possibly getting together made him want to open the cans with his teeth. “You couldn’t handle her. The chick’s determined to undermine every safety precaution. She’s a disaster waiting to happen.”
“That’s pretty much what the members of the Temple believe. That the One Hundred are unnatural, evil spawns of a science that will, eventually, interfere with God’s plan for us. Their members are nearly as secretive as the mutants. And if they have to use intimidation and violence in the name of religion, so be it. It’s all about God’s will, and they are his instruments. So, legitimate reason or not, the threat against your girl is real enough.”
Parker barked a short laugh, rummaging through a crowded utility drawer for a can opener. “You sound like you actually believe this bullshit, man. Mutant? The only supernatural thing about my charge is her ability to drive me crazy. And that she never seems to run out of lingerie.
Shep arched one eyebrow. “You say that as if it’s a bad thing.”
To a normal guy under normal conditions, it’d be a fantasy come true. The girl was more than easy on the eyes. But since involvement with a client was out of the question, it was more like standing outside a candy store window with a brick in his hand. Or something equally as hard. “I’ve got no say in what the lady wears.”
“No. We don’t have much say in any of this—or much information, either. Frankly, it pisses me off. I’m not like you. I don’t like flying blind. I’d feel better knowing what was supposed to be special about these folks. Were there really gene-altering experiments? Why doesn’t the government even acknowledge them? And what the hell are these people up to? I assume she follows the same routine I’ve heard the others do?”
“Pretty much,” Parker agreed. “She keeps that space-age cell phone with her at all times. The thing never loses power. And whenever it rings, day or night, she stops what she’s doing and heads for bed.”
“Weird,” Shep said thoughtfully. “One hundred people, all diving under the covers at a given signal. Maybe they’ve discovered a mystical power in masturbating.”
“Anybody ever tell you that you’ve got a one-track mind?”
“No.” He winked. “Which means I’m usually on the right track.”
Parker shook his head, unable to resist a smile. “Seriously, man. It’s bizarre. Meals, showers, what time she gets up in the morning—everything in her world revolves around that phone. I’ve seen her curled up in bed with the thing, clutching it right to her heart, as if her life depended on it.”
“Ah.” There was a note of satisfaction in that single word. “You’ve watched her sleep?”
Damn straight he had. It was one of the few pleasures he allowed himself in this gig. She didn’t sleep fitfully, as he did, but in a completely relaxed state. And once in a while, a slight, blissful smile, like that of a newborn peeking back beyond the veil, touched her lips, making her look even lovelier.
But that was none of Shep’s business. And Parker intended to keep it that way. “I’ve had to wake her up often enough—which doesn’t make me a happy man. It pisses me off to run away from these fights.”
“But remember, you’re protecting a member of a group that isn’t supposed to exist. Brawls and dead bodies would attract unwanted attention. Besides, maybe they’re doing something simple after all. Prayer sharing. Or some kind of subliminal text messaging. Or they’re learning a new language in their sleep.”
“Hey, why not? I don’t believe in labeling or judging the lunatic-fringe stuff. My old man always said, ‘Don’t be surprised if it’s the nutcases that bring home the truth.’ I’m just here to keep our lambs safe and do my job. Like fetching supplies for ingrates like you.” Shepherd stood, sliding the chair under the crooked table. “But vestal or not—if that lady’s still a virgin, mankind doesn’t deserve to be saved. And if you can’t see how luscious that woman is, you’ve been sleeping with your gun too long.”
“You’re assuming that he ever sleeps, Mr. Bolt. And I’m not so sure that’s true. But he wears it well. He’s the best I’ve ever had.”
Parker busied himself selecting soup as Carlotta Phelps breezed into the kitchen, presenting Shepherd with a handshake and a heart-seizing smile.
. Easy enough for his buddy to take it all in stride. He didn’t have to
with the woman, keep his thoughts and hands to himself, or pretend that her delicate, feminine scent didn’t fill a room every time she entered.
And Shep didn’t have to try to ignore this evening’s choice of nightgown—a little ice-blue satin number that flowed like water with every move she made.
At least she wore a short, quilted bed jacket this time. It covered the mouthwatering nipples and a curve or two—but not nearly enough for his liking. Still too much cleavage showing. And the sensual movement of those hips was enough to blind an adolescent boy.
No wonder he was going stir-crazy.
Carly’s unfortunate habit of wearing lingerie 24/7 had always been a…well, a boner of contention between them. She claimed the gowns were necessary for comfort. Convenient, for someone who needed to go to sleep at a moment’s notice, for whatever reason.
He was pretty sure they were carefully calculated to slowly drive her caretakers mad.
Not that he really blamed her. Boredom made people do peculiar things. They were constantly on the run, so they couldn’t exactly tote video games around, and hotel cable service was notoriously dull. There was little else to do on these junkets other than pitting a man’s sense of duty against his libido.
Invariably, it worked. He was already having a hard time resisting the urge to break Shep’s face for holding on to her fingers too long. “It’s almost dark, Ms. Phelps. Shouldn’t you be asleep by now?”
“I haven’t gotten my call yet, big guy. And I didn’t want to miss our gourmet supper, or Mr. Bolt. We don’t get many visitors.” Her voice was wistful as her smile for his partner blazed brighter. “It’s so good to see you again. Maybe you’d like to join us for dinner? I’d love to have somebody to talk to.”
Parker battled with the blunted can opener in a useless effort to ignore the implication. It was fine with him if she thought he was incapable of holding decent conversations. It was an image he’d cultivated, an attitude he used to keep her at a distance. His ego could take the mild bruising, as long as it enabled him to do his job—and keep a platonic distance between them.
And he knew how lonely she was. He couldn’t blame her for that either.
“Won’t you stay?” she continued, earnestly clasping their visitor’s hands.
Parker glared a warning at his friend, a well-known ladies’ man, whose eyes were bright with mischief. “Shep’s a busy fella, Carly. I’m sure he has to be moving along.”
Shepherd’s grin was all for him. “Actually, I have a little time between contacts, Carlotta. I’d love to stay. Maybe we could… Excuse me.”
Flipping open his chiming cell phone, he took it to a corner near the doorway, speaking quietly as Parker dumped their dinner into a pot and stirred it with a vengeance.
He was being ridiculous. Overly protective. That was it. It couldn’t possibly be jealousy. He had no right to be possessive of the girl. This was a routine protection gig, short-term at best. And other than flirting out of sheer boredom, she had no real interest in him.
If he could be objective, he’d say Shepherd would be a good match for her. He was solid and reliable, and nearly as pretty as she was. A stand-up sorta guy, not a rival. Hell, they took angling trips together twice a year. Parker never completely trusted anyone—but he’d shared the locations of his favorite fishing holes with his handler. The man had a casual way of putting people at ease, making them relax their guard.