Authors: Micah Persell
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Romance, #Paranormal
This edition published by Crimson Romance
an imprint of F+W Media, Inc.
Blue Ash, Ohio 45242
Copyright © 2012 by Micah Persell ISBN 10: 1-4405-6032-3
ISBN 13: 978-1-4405-6032-3
eISBN 10: 1-4405-6031-5
eISBN 13: 978-1-44056031-6
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, corporations, institutions, organizations, events, or locales in this novel are either the product of the author’s imagination or, if real, used fictitiously. The resemblance of any character to actual persons (living or dead) is entirely coincidental.
Cover art © 123rf.com. iStockPhoto.com
For Cameron —
My Happily Ever After
Eternal gratitude goes to Stoney-poo, my best friend, sounding board, and fixer of plot holes.
Thanks to Chatom for the book’s ending and for calmly deflecting the panic of a writer who had felt she’d written a heroine too pig-headed for a happily ever after.
Thanks to Joyce, my storyline detective, for her sharp eye and flawless judgment.
Heaps of thanks to the beautiful Inés Saint and her wonderful friends Yvette and Leslie for giving up some of their girl time to help me with my Spanish. Any mistakes are, of course, all mine.
Thanks to Nathan, little brother, continuity genius, and father of the cutest nephew any girl could ever ask for.
And finally, double thanks to Carol Goff for her edits and to the incomparable Jennifer Lawler for all that she does, known and unknown, for the Crimson ladies.
The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground — trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.
Middle of the Garden:
Close to nine years ago, troops in Afghanistan stumbled upon what was thought to be the Garden of Eden. They found two trees buried in centuries of sand. All five troops who discovered the trees were coerced into testing the fruit. Three troops disappeared forever and are presumed dead. Two troops were given the fruit from the Tree of Eternal Life, and it proved to turn them immortal. The fruit’s use in modern warfare became a subject of heavy debate, and one Major Taylor was assigned the duty of testing the fruit further.
One of the subjects, Jericho Edwards, had a strong biological response to a female nurse: what came to be known as “Impulse-pairing.” They exhibited symptoms not unlike those of animals with their mates. Unfortunately, the female became pregnant and died soon after conception. The female nurse was a civilian, and rumors of testing on humans caused the government to shut down Operation: Middle of the Garden. Edwards was returned to the general public; the other subject, Eli Johnson, was reported dead.
Eli Johnson showed up very much alive eight years later with an Impulse partner, now-prestigious geneticist Dr. Abilene Miller. Johnson reported that Major Taylor had continued secret testing on Johnson, and he was forced to kill Taylor to escape horrific conditions (see reports). Operation: Middle of the Garden was re-opened at Johnson’s explicit request, and Johnson and one Sergeant Collins were placed in charge. Testing on the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in conjunction with the fruit from the Tree of Eternal Life commenced, this time with volunteer test subjects: Jericho Edwards and Dahlia Gutierrez, Major Taylor’s former assistant who is volunteering with the Operation to escape prison time for her role in Taylor’s crimes.
Testing so far has proven inconclusive.
In her dreams, Dahlia was a free-range, castigating bitch. In real life?
Dahlia was an imprisoned, castigating bitch.
She sat with her back against the headboard. She rested her wrists on her bent knees and examined her nails with a critical eye. Beyond her nails, Dahlia caught a glimpse of her cell wall, and her relaxed lips quickly morphed into a grimace.
Three months she’d been a prisoner in this damn facility. Three months of being poked and prodded daily. And for what? A failed experiment that proved to turn her into some cosmic judge of character. Which was a freaking laugh riot, considering she was completely devoid of character herself.
But she wasn’t in federal prison, and she had to remind herself often that all of this — testing both fruits; having to touch people over and over to determine if they were
, an ability they’d termed the “Knowledge”; having to listen to their incessant talk of how the Knowledge would change espionage; being stuck in this terrible room — was worth it. They were lax on security here at the facility, and Dahlia never knew what life was going to throw at her, or when she was going to need to bail.
But — hand to God — she was going to kill someone if they forced her to touch and fruit-test one more do-good freak.
She heard a clatter at her cell door. Her head snapped up, and she watched through narrowed eyes as the door swung open and a man she hadn’t seen before entered her cell.
Dahlia threw her head back and groaned to the ceiling. “God damn it. A new one?” She lowered her head and pinned him with a leer that had him squirming where he stood. “Is this really necessary, or are you just here so I’ll touch you?”
Eli Johnson, bane of her existence and co-director of Operation: Middle of the Garden, entered the room behind the man who now looked like he faced a firing squad instead of one curvy Latina in a cell. “Knock it off, Dahlia,” Eli said with a growl as he walked around his cohort. “He’s not here for tests. He’s here for — ” He broke off to plow his fingers through his hair, and Dahlia silently congratulated herself for managing to stress him out with minimal effort. He was usually more unflappable than this. Today was looking up.
Eli took a deep breath, and then, “How are you finding your accommodations?”
For the first time in a long time, Dahlia grew wary. “Um … why?” she asked.
Eli shrugged. “We’ve been re-evaluating the conditions of your imprisonment. It’s been suggested that you may enjoy visitation. Perhaps from friends. Or family.”
Black ice filled her veins. “I don’t have family.”
They both looked at her for way longer than was comfortable, but Dahlia schooled her features into a mask. They could look all damn day. The answer wouldn’t change. Not for them. Not for anyone.
“Okay,” Eli said. “Just thought I’d ask.” He then held his hand out, and the other man slapped an envelope into the open palm and then made a notation on the clipboard he carried. Eli strode forward and stopped right beside her bed. Dahlia realized she was holding her breath. “We had your mail forwarded here,” he said.
“This came for you today.” Eli dropped the envelope onto Dahlia’s bed.
With measured slowness, Dahlia picked up the envelope, saw there was no return address, and turned it over. She cursed. “It’s been opened,” she accused. Rage flooded her.
Eli shrugged. “You’re a prisoner.”
As Dahlia saw red, Eli and the stranger left the cell. When the door clicked behind them, Dahlia tore the letter from the envelope. One flick of her wrist, and it was open. The world tilted violently.
It’s happened. The Spanish words blurred before her eyes as the letter fell to the floor. Blood drained from her face. She tried to pull air into her lungs, but her body wasn’t cooperating.
Not this. Anything but this. Everything she’d done, all the people she’d hurt. Killed. She’d done everything to avoid this exact letter.
At the edge of hysteria, Dahlia managed to pull herself back. In the back of her mind, she’d always known this day would come. She would handle it. She would —
Her eyes flew to the door.
This was the reason she was here. Here and not in federal prison. Her eyes evaluated the riveted steel that separated her from the “good” folks. She strode to the door and kicked it with all her might. At the sight of her boot’s imprint in the titanium steel, a grim smile spread her cheeks.
She drew back for another kick.
• • •
In his dreams, his Emily was alive. In real life?
Jericho was alone. Tormented by her memory.
The worst part was when he woke up, and for a few blissful moments, he didn’t remember she was dead. He would roll over and reach for her, ready to pull her warm body into his own, and his hand would grasp air.
Just like it was doing right now.
The weight of his loss settled in on his heart, and Jericho squeezed his eyes shut tighter, prolonging the visual confirmation of Emily’s absence a few moments longer. But the delay only caused horrific scenes to flicker against the black of his closed eyelids. The longing to sift his fingers through Emily’s shoulder-length brown hair, to gaze into her large, expressive honey-colored eyes shifted as images of her sweat-soaked hair, screams of terror, and vacant eyes crowded happy memories to the back of his mind.
Jericho shook. The fruit forced his remembrances to maintain their perfect sensory detail. He could never forget her; his memories would never begin to fade.
And after eight years, he was ashamed to admit he wanted them to. He’d loved Emily with every fiber of his soul. He’d lived for her. He still lived for her, even though he’d been with Emily for only a handful of days.
He spent his time in equal parts grief, equal parts resentment that he couldn’t shake the hold his mate had over him after the unfairly short amount of time they’d had together. If anyone had told him he’d spend eight years grieving his mate of only five days, he might have run screaming at his first sight of her.
Might have. Oh, who was he kidding. Nothing could have kept him from Emily. Nothing but death. A death he’d caused.
He’d give anything to set that guilt aside.
A resounding boom ricocheted through Jericho’s room, pulling him from his thoughts. The picture frames on the wall shuddered and clacked. Jericho frowned and pulled himself to a sitting position, wondering if the noise had been dream or reality.
The boom sounded again, followed by a crash. Jericho’s sleepy confusion evaporated. Something was happening. Apprehension settled into his gut.
Jericho walked to the door. Shouts bounced in the hallway, and for the first time since entering this room months ago, Jericho placed his hand on the doorknob. He took a deep breath and steeled himself to leave the solace of his room. He turned his wrist. The knob didn’t budge.
Jericho frowned. His door was never locked. Granted, he hadn’t tried it in all this time, but he had always known he was free to come and go as he pleased. He just didn’t please.
The back of his neck tingled, and Jericho froze. The metal of the doorknob seemed to burn his hand. He brought his eyes up to the window of his door, and what he saw stole the breath from his lungs.
Eyes as dark as espresso. Smooth, luminous brown skin. Cascades of wavy, rich black hair. As he felt his own eyes widen in shock, hers did as well.
The One. She’s yours.
The words stopped his heart. They were the same words he’d heard a mysterious Voice whisper eight years ago when he’d first laid eyes on Emily.
His body moved on its own to press against the door. The tips of his fingers skimmed over the cool metal on their way to the window, and his hand splayed on the glass.
Those beautiful eyes zeroed in on his hand, and her lips parted. Her brows drew together as she watched her own hand rise to meet his on the other side of the glass. His hand dwarfed hers — he couldn’t even see it past his own fingers and wide palm — but he swore he could feel the heat of her skin through the barrier.
No, no, no. This couldn’t be happening. He’d found — and lost — his mate. He didn’t get another.
God, did he?
The weight of gloom lifted from his shoulders. Hope bubbled up through his chest, and he felt an unfamiliar pull at his cheeks. A quick check of his reflection in the glass showed he was smiling.