Authors: Alysia S. Knight
“I learned to pay attention to things around me. Never know when it might save my life.” He grimaced, seeing her tighten as his words brought back whatever danger she was facing. It still needed to be addressed, though he hated to bring it up now that she’d started to relax.
He wondered what she could’ve gotten involved in that would threaten her life. Surely it couldn’t be that cutthroat for a flu serum. Then again, it was probably big money, and where money was concerned, there was danger.
“B-but you said you were an engineer.” She stumbled over the words again.
He switched his thoughts back to her question. “I am. Actually, I also have two majors, electrical engineering and computer science. I got them while I was in the military. I just got out a couple months ago. Spent most of my time in special ops.”
“M-m-military.” Fear flashed back into her eyes.
“Yes, my brother’s still in. We both joined at eighteen, right out of high school. Zach took another rotation, but it will be up in three months. He has his papers in to retire then. I was actually out on a medical leave then dumped my built-up leave on that.”
“Medical. You were hurt?”
“Yeah, it sidelined me awhile, but I’m back to a hundred percent now.” He thought that she was going to pursue the question of his injury, but to his surprise, she locked onto another subject.
“He’s still in?” Panic filled her voice.
“Yes,” he let the word out slowly. She looked like she was about to hyperventilate.
“He’s in special ops, active in military situations?”
He eyed her carefully. “Yes, we were both over different units, but our careers pretty much paralleled each other.”
She was off the couch, pacing back and forth. The blanket dropped forgotten, a wild look in her eyes. “We’ve got to do something,” she cried out. Her whole body trembled.
Zan came out of his chair, grabbing her by the shoulders. “Marley, Marley what is it? What’s the matter?”
Tears filled her eyes. She shook her head. “They’re in danger. They’re all in danger.” Her eyes flickered over his face, but he didn’t think she was seeing him. It was like she was looking at ghosts. He was afraid he was going to have to do something like slap her to bring her back to reality. When her head dropped to his chest, her arms locked around him, and she clung to him as if she was afraid for him. He closed his arms around her.
The clock chimed in the front hall. Lightning flashed outside, and thunder rumbled in answer.
Zan rubbed his hands over her back. “Marley. You’ve got to tell me what this is about.”
Tears were her only answer, futile, heartbreaking tears that ripped him to pieces. Zan didn’t consider himself good at comforting women and even more inadequate at understanding them, but he did know enough about human nature to recognize someone who had reached the point of overload. Whatever demons Marley was fighting to keep at bay were overrunning her.
He tightened his hold. “Marley, I’m here,” he growled out, not that it would do any good. Still she clung to him, sobs coming deep from in her soul. The thunder boomed, and she cried out as if shot.
“Marley.” Helpless, he clamped his hands on her cheeks and forced her head up. Terror dominated her eyes, sapping the life out of the amber. “No.” Clamping his mouth over hers, he kissed her in an effort to force life into her, much the same way he’d force air if he was giving CPR.
Her body tensed, and he eased the pressure, ready for her to pull back. Instead, she came forward. No sweetness or passion found its way into the kiss. Just an awkward demand for contact Zan happily gave.
He slid his hands up through her hair to the base of her neck where he began to massage the soft skin, working his fingers into the knotted muscle. With a gasp, her lips left his and her head dropped to his shoulder. A mixture of pain, relief, and pleasure groaned out from her. He softened the motion of his fingers, and she relaxed, her body picking up the contour of his as her legs gave out.
She made no objections when he lifted her into his arms and settled on the couch with her cradled in his lap. Her eyes were closed, but he knew she was once again alert to her surroundings. Thankfully, she seemed to have no fear.
He waited patiently until her eyes opened. The panic was gone, though touches of fear remained. He wanted to demand that she tell him what happened but forced himself to wait, afraid of shattering her control again. When she spoke, her question took him completely by surprise.
“D-do you know G-general G-gallup?”
“General Gallup?” he repeated, trying to get his mind around to where that could’ve come from. Surely she couldn’t be seeing him. He didn’t know much about him. What did they say about him, ‘all ahead full Gallup’. No, she couldn’t. The man was in his sixties. “I’ve heard of him, never met him.”
She pushed her fingers through her hair then dropped her hands to lock them together over her mouth. “I need help.” She looked up, pleading. “This is probably classified, but … I don’t know what to do.”
Zan felt his gut tighten at the word classified. At least it wasn’t a personal relationship. He tried to look at the positive, but it opened a whole new can of worms. “I have a high level security clearance.” He raised a hand to brush back her hair, caressing his fingers along her cheek.
“You’ll w-wish you didn’t know, but maybe you have the greater right.”
“I, I need to see G-general Gallup or s-someone else high in the military.”
Zan’s muscles clenched. He knew he was about to hear what was wrong, and already it had him nervous. He forced himself to remain still.
“M-my company is working on a drug for the joint milit-tary. I, I’m not on the program, but I know about it. It’s-s for use for men in combat areas. It’s supposed to boost st-strength and endurance. It’s to b-be released next month for field t-testing, but I need to st-stop it.”
“Why?” It was the first question he could get out.
She worried her bottom lip with her teeth. “It’s killing people.” The words were rushed with tears. “It can drive them insane. Turn them into bers-serkers. Cause suicides and c-coronaries. I don’t even know how they j-justified starting human testing on this but they did. Out of a hundred and sixty men, eleven have died. They made adjustments but not enough. They’re still planning on releasing it next month. They’ve d-doctored the data.”
“You’re certain?” Zan had to ask.
She nodded, accepting the question. “One of the scientists working on it was killed a couple days ago.” She swallowed. “He sent me a message. It popped up today.”
“Popped up? You mean on your computer, a preprogrammed delivery?”
“Yes, it said if I got it, they’d killed him. It gave me a file and password. It was all there, all the documentation of the deaths.”
Zan didn’t want to believe it, but the truth was there in her eyes for him to see. “What did you do?” He dreaded her answer.
“I copied the file then tried to leave.” Her trembling increased. “One of the s-security guards stopped me at my car. He d-drugged me.” Her voice rose with tension.
“I heard the security chief there also. They took me over the hill, off the road and s-searched me. They were going to run my car off the road, but Mills twisted his ankle and Jansen went to help him. The drug was wearing off. Th-they wanted it out of my system in case of an autopsy. I ran and slid down the hill and kept running. Jansen couldn’t catch me. I just kept going.”
That was an understatement, he thought. If she ran down and around the hill, that was easily over nine miles through trees, bushes and streams. It explained how she got there.
Anger burn in him. If she’d come off the hillside in the wrong area, she could’ve had a couple hundred foot drop. She was lucky to be alive. He tightened his hold, closing his eyes against the knowledge. He couldn’t think about that. She was safe with him, and now he had to decide how to keep her that way.
He opened his eyes and stared out the window. Darkness had closed in around the house. He shifted his eyes to the phone sitting on the table. Its failure to connect had a new ominous meaning. It was possible that someone was jamming transmissions. Standard procedure, if who was after her had the resources. And, with the link to the military, they could, especially, if they were led to believe it was a matter of espionage. They’d come after Marley with every resource at their disposal.
He had to get Marley out of there. The bridge was no good. It was completely blocked. No way could he clear it to drive off, but like he told her, they couldn’t get to her that way either.
He paused at the thought, a man could cross it. It would be tricky. He’d have to be good, but that was what he intended to do to set up a line for her. There was no way in the storm and dark to rig the line to get her over the river tonight. He felt her body limp against him. She was already exhausted. She couldn’t hike back up the mountain in the storm.
Zan didn’t like his options. Maybe he was being paranoid, but he didn’t think so. He wished he’d known what he was facing a couple hours ago, before it got dark. Well, there was no going back in time. He had to plan.
He turned his attention to the woman in his lap. Her hair tumbled loose over his arm. Her lashes closed to make dark crescents on her cheeks. With her burden lightened by telling her story, she was asleep.
He didn’t doubt a word of what she’d told him. He just didn’t think she got the full significance of what she was facing. She might have gotten away from Derrian’s security, but odds were they’d send others after her. Men trained like him.
The question was, would they use good men or hired mercenaries? He’d worry about that later, when the time came. Right now, he needed to get Marley down to sleep, so he could prepare for their departure at first light.
She didn’t even stir when he stood and carried her down the hall to the guest room. Zan managed to snag the edge of the spread and pull it back without jostling her around too much. He felt a moment of reluctance to put her down, but he lowered her carefully, stilling when she whimpered as if distressed at leaving his arms. Unable to stop himself, he reached out and caught a lock of the wild mass of hair, rubbing the silky strands between his fingers
She wasn’t boring, not at all. But, how did she get into so much trouble? He shook his head, trying to pull back but unable. What was it about her that got to him so? And not just physically, it was deeper, much deeper. Pushing away the thoughts, he pulled up the blanket and turned away. He had things to do.
Zan headed downstairs. Entering another spare room, he opened the closet. His dress uniforms were hanging in their protective plastic. On a shelf, his combat clothes waited.
He’d worked hard to put that life behind him, even went through counseling. As he picked up the camouflage pants, his mind slipped right back into it, going over the items he needed to gather. He shucked out of his clothes right where he stood, pulling on the others.
Dressed, he reached in and pulled out his pack. It was already loaded, but there were only enough MRE’s for three days for himself, so he selected several others from the shelf for Marley. He didn’t expect to need them, but you never knew. He added a spare emergency blanket then, on second thought, grabbed up his lightweight sleeping bag and hooked it into its place.
Punching in the combination on his gun safe, he swung the door open. He didn’t hesitate at pulling out his holstered gun and fastening it around his hips then added several smoke and flash bombs. Next his knives, the first went into the sleeve on the backpack strap, and another strapped onto his thigh.
On the other ankle, just above his boot, he attached his second gun. He prayed he wouldn’t need so much firepower. He didn’t plan on killing anyone, but nothing was going to happen to Marley.
His hand stopped in the motion of doing up the strap. What would Marley think when she saw him? Well, best get it out in the open. Underneath, this was who he was. Still, it would have been nice to have had a date first.
Before closing the door, he grabbed up the emergency cash he kept on hand and stuffed it in his snapped hip pocket. Swinging his pack up on one shoulder, he snatched up his rain poncho for Marley. It would be huge on her, but at least it would keep her mostly dry and give her some camouflage.
Again, he hoped they wouldn’t need it. Marley would probably think him nuts, some kind of obsessive, backwoods survivalist, but he opted for being prepared.
Going back upstairs, he paused in the doorway to the spare room. Light from the hall filtered in, illuminating the woman in the bed. He felt his heart lurch. Why was his need to protect this woman so strong?
He watched her. Marley slept the deep sleep of exhaustion. Her flight and terror had sapped her strength. She needed to regenerate. He’d give her what time he could but at first light they’d be moving.
Zan felt the urge to step into the room but pushed it back. There was still much to prepare. In the laundry room, he removed her clothes from the dryer, folded and placed them in the pack.
Her shoes and jacket were in the big room next to the fireplace. Zan ignored the leather jacket, going for the shoes. Deciding they were still too wet, he left them there. On his way down the hall, he placed his pack outside Marley’s room.
He stopped in his room to grab his wallet and then spent the next hour setting up simple traps, mainly to give him warning if anyone came near the house. He figured whoever came after Marley wouldn’t think they’d face much opposition. He planned to use that advantage if needed.
Back inside, he made one final check of the house. Getting Marley’s shoes, he went to her room. Entering silently, he placed the shoes beside the bed, turned out the light, and settled on the floor.
He knew he should’ve gone to his room but couldn’t force himself to do it. Besides, the carpet was plush enough, and he was used to sleeping in a whole lot more uncomfortable situations.
Still, with Marley in such close proximity, his thoughts went to her. He could smell her soft fragrance. He’d noticed it earlier, raspberry and something he didn’t know, but he liked it.
He closed his eyes and brought up the image of the woman. He liked that too. Trim body but nice curves. He wondered if she liked hiking and backpacking. Being a runner, she might. Her being brilliant didn’t bother him, though he could tell by her reaction it did a lot of other men.
She didn’t seem like an overindulged woman. That would’ve been a problem. He’d learned fast that high-maintenance women didn’t appeal to him. He wanted a woman who’d try new things and not be squeamish if she messed up her hair or got dirt under her nails.
Not that he’d mind pampering a woman, he just didn’t really know how. Marley might be his type. She just had to be encouraged, taught. She needed challenging a little. Yes, she’d meet challenges, Zan thought as he eased himself into a light sleep.
Zan opened his eyes, all his senses on full alert. He could hear Marley’s faint breathing in the bed above him, but that wasn’t what had awakened him. Someone was approaching the house.
He was on his feet in one fluid motion. Not stopping to notice Marley’s beauty in sleep or contemplate his actions, he dropped his hand over her mouth, pressing down so any sound she made would be trapped.
Her eyes flew open, she tried to scream. Her arms came up to hit, bouncing off the tensed muscles of his chest. He calmly leaned closer. “It’s Zan,” he hissed in her ear. “Someone’s here.”
Her struggling continued a second more before her sleep-laden mind wrapped around the words, and she assimilated where she was and what was happening. Her hands stopped against his chest, eyes stayed wide with terror, but she nodded her understanding.
“Don’t make a sound. Slip off the bed. Your shoes are on the floor below you. Put them on.” He waited for her to nod again before he removed his hand.
He turned to the hallway and eased his pack into place on his back, strapping it down tight so it wouldn’t hinder any of his movements. When he turned back, Marley waited by the bed. Good girl, he thought. She needed to wait to do as he directed. He motioned to her, and she slid across the floor.
Even in the darkened room, he could see trust in her eyes. If his gear frightened her, she didn’t let on. She didn’t doubt him that someone was there or that he’d keep her safe.