Authors: Alysia S. Knight
“What’s the old term,” Zan volunteered, “valley-girl?”
Marley laughed. “Actually, yes. But everyone liked Julie. She was on the drill team and was homecoming queen.”
“Well, if it makes any difference, I think I’d find−” Zan stopped talking in mid-sentence and froze. Marley followed suit. She listened, trying to detect what alarmed him. Her mind barely registered the faint sound before Zan’s order came. “Three feet to your right is a ledge, get there, now.”
Marley didn’t hesitate. She shifted directions in climbing. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Zan push off the mountainside and make a leap for the ledge. In one motion, he landed and stretched out his hand for her. Marley reached out for him. He caught her wrist and pulled her up onto the rock outcropping.
He shoved her as she dropped. Rolling her over, he wedged her body back in the corner. His body came down over her. One arm snaked its way under her head, creating a headrest, forcing her face against his neck, while wrapping his forearm over her hair. Zan curled his other arm up over his own head to hide his hair and shifted his body slightly to better align their bodies.
Marley couldn’t keep in her gasp at the feel of the hard planes of his body pressed into her.
“It’s okay.” His breath stirred the hair at her temples. He shifted again, trapping her feet between his legs.
Marley could now make out the sound of a helicopter and understood he was trying to cover her gym shoes. She pointed her toes out to flatten them against the muscle-corded limbs.
“Good girl. Now stay still.”
! She was afraid to breath. People in a helicopter were searching almost directly above them, and, she was in the most intimate contact with a man she’d ever been in in her life. She wanted to laugh at the absurdity of it. She wondered what Zan would say. The thought dropped away as the sound of the helicopter came closer, and the edge of hysterics dug deeper. If they were seen, they’d be trapped. She shivered at the thought.
Zan shifted his head slightly so that his chin pressed against her temple. He whispered her name but if he said anything else it was drowned out by the sound of the helicopter coming closer to the cliff.
Marley clamped her eyes shut and held her breath as dust filled the air. She dug her fingers into Zan’s shirt, pulling him tighter down, pressing her face into his neck. Small pebbles dislodged by the wind from the rotator blades peppered around them. Marley felt Zan flinch and guessed a bigger rock struck him.
His arms tightened around their heads, but he made no other movement. Marley bit down on her lip to keep from crying out. Seconds seemed to take hours to pass before the helicopter moved away.
Marley didn’t need his command. She wasn’t going to move until he told her. Her breaths were labored from being pinned down by his weight. She didn’t care. Zan was security.
As the dust settled, she became aware of his scent − musky, masculine, male. It was familiar, and she relaxed but didn’t loosen her hold. Above her, Zan too relaxed, though he didn’t move other than his hands that burrowed into her hair.
Zan lowered his arm from over his head and went to push up only to find Marley’s hands were fisted in his shirt and arms locked so tight, he couldn’t move without taking her with him. He tried to ease off her, but she tightened her hold. He managed to get a look at her face. Her eyes were shut.
“Marley, it’s okay now. You can release me.” When he tried to move, it remained impossible. “Marley.” He touched her cheek, running his thumb over her smooth skin. “Come on Marley, open your eyes. You can do this. I need to make sure they are gone, and we need to get to the top, in case they come back. We can’t afford to be trapped here. Understand?”
He felt the intake of breath against the entire length of his body, then she opened those incredible amber eyes, and he was trapped in their honeyed depth. Fear and trust wrapped around him in one.
“Marley.” Her name was torn from him in a groan. Unable to stop himself, he dropped his head, taking her slightly open mouth with the storm that raged through him, spurred by adrenaline and the feel of Marley pressed so intimately along him. He detected her little gasp then her untutored lips followed his in the dance of tasting and caressing.
She was as sweet as the honey of her eyes, and he wanted to feast on her forever. For a moment, there was only Marley, then a rock bit into the skin of his arm, and reality burst back on him.
“No.” He ripped his mouth away and shoved up in one movement. He knelt over her, gulping in the air that had escaped him.
Marley’s eyes were open and dazed. Her breathing was just as labored as his. Her lips were full and rosy from his kisses. As he watched, her tongue came out and touched them in a light caress. It was a tempting but innocent gesture. He wondered if she could taste him there. Her taste was branded on him, and he wanted to drink again.
“No!” He forced out again, tearing his eyes from her, scanning the area. Never had he lost focus in a dangerous situation. He wanted to tell himself it was from being out of the military that his instinct had gotten lax, but he knew that wasn’t it. Marley pulled at him as she had since he first laid eyes on her, even before he knew her name.
“I’m sorry−” His apology didn’t get far.
“No!” She cut him off.
Her hand locked on his arm. He didn’t want to look back at her but couldn’t stop himself. She was up on one elbow. Her hair was an array of wild waves of mahogany around her face. But again, it was her eyes that held him. This time, they glowed like molten gold.
“Don’t you dare apologize.” There was no stuttering of the words, but it was as if she had to force them out each individually.
“Marley,” his voice softened on its own accord.
“No.” Her fingers shot out to cover his lips, her head shaking. “Do not apologize. I have never been kissed like that. Don’t you dare ruin it by apologizing.”
Reaching up, he caught her fingers, pulling them away from his mouth but not releasing them. “It’s not safe,” he started to explain but she took over.
“No, it’s not. I’ve realized I might die. But for fifteen seconds of my life, I felt desirable. Please don’t take that away from me.” Pleading was strong in her voice.
“It was a lot more than fifteen seconds.” Zan didn’t realize he said the words aloud until the shocked looked and color blossomed on her face.
This time, he knew the words wouldn’t come out because she was flustered.
“We’ll talk more about you being desirable later, since I find you utterly so. For now, I plan on doing everything I can to keep you alive. And that means not kissing you, because I can’t think of anything else when I do.” He felt satisfaction at the stunned expression on her face.
“Come on, we need to get to the top.” He used his hold on her fingers to help her up. At the last moment before releasing them, he brought her fingers to his lips brushing them lightly. Zan turned, reaching for a handhold, pulling himself up.
Marley couldn’t take her eyes off the man who had just rocked her world. Zan Masters thought she was desirable. She wouldn’t have believed him, except she could still feel the hunger in his lips on hers. She hoped it wasn’t just her imagination because she knew she’d never shake him from the place he had burrowed so easily in her heart.
The rope on her waist gave a little tug bring her back to reality and reminding her she was supposed to be climbing. She managed a deep breath then followed after him, surprised at how rejuvenated she felt.
It was only another twenty minutes until they reached the top. Once again, Zan’s hand extended down to pull her up over the edge. He released it as soon as she made it to her feet.
“Over there.” He hurried her to the cover of some trees. “You okay?” he asked, working on untying the rope, not even looking toward her.
“Yes.” She followed his actions, releasing the rope from her own waist.
“Thanks.” He finally looked up at her. His gaze shifted away from her then came back. “Marley, I don’t want you to think you owe me anything for helping you.”
“What?” She stared at him in utter disbelief. “You th-think.”
“Look, I … we better go. We’ve still got a long way.” Zan turned and headed off through the trees in his normal ground-eating pace.
Marley wanted to smack him. Wanted to yell and throw a tantrum. Why couldn’t she be more like her sister? It always worked for her. The man had said she was desirable. She’d never understand men. Her shoulders dropped in resignation.
She always thought tantrums were foolish and childish. Catching a brief glance as he disappeared amongst the trees, she knew for once she really wanted to be childish. Could he really think she’d kissed him out of gratitude? She opened her mouth to scream, but at the last second kept it in, remembering that there were people after them.
“Marley.” Her name came in a hoarse bark, spurring her into motion. She darted after him fuming inside.
Zan couldn’t believe he’d kissed her. He had totally lost it. Forgot all about where they were, the people after them, the danger. All he’d thought of was Marley. Not keeping her safe but that she was his.
It was a good thing he was retired. He’d lost his edge. He couldn’t believe it. When had it happened? When he was injured? He hadn’t felt it. He’d just felt that it was time, that something else was waiting out there for him, and he needed a change.
All he could say was it was a good thing he’d gotten out before he put his men in danger. He tried to clear his thoughts and focus on his surroundings. He could hear Marley about ten feet behind him.
She was keeping up fine, but he had to get Marley somewhere where they could keep her safe, because he sure couldn’t. He couldn’t keep the thought of her lips from his mind. He wanted to kiss her again and again.
She’d let him kiss her. Not just let him kiss her, she’d kissed him back. It was obvious she hadn’t kissed many men. Even if she hadn’t said what she did, he’d have known. But she had knocked his socks off as his grandmother would have said. His grandfather would’ve laughed and said it was a good thing he had his boots laced on so he hadn’t lost them.
He wanted to believe she hadn’t kissed him out of gratitude, did believe it. Still, he had to keep his thoughts in line. He forced his thoughts to go over all the details of the trail. They’d follow the tree line, keeping in cover for about two miles before breaking down the other side, through the next valley. The river on the other side would probably be a bit tricky to cross. It was wider and carved its way through the valley.
He debated shifting and heading back toward the town just over the ridge, but he knew they’d never make it. It’d be locked up tight. No, they’d keep heading the way they were, as if headed for town, then shift, cross the next valley and drop into the town there. He’d see if he couldn’t find a vehicle for sale, then put some distance between them and the people hunting Marley and get help.
He glanced back. She was there, and utterly amazing in the way she faced the challenge, and if he didn’t miss his guess, she was also still mad. Well, good. She could use the energy it brought. And it served her right.
How could she doubt she was desirable? He just really hoped her feelings for him weren’t locked in gratitude. He envisioned the fire in her eyes when she thought he had suggested it and grinned. No, it wasn’t just gratitude. Marley was attracted to him. And, she was still ready to hit him.
Marley still wanted to smack him hours later when they crested the hill and dropped down into the valley. She just didn’t have the breath to do it. So much for thinking what great shape she was in. If Zan didn’t stop and let her get some rest soon, she was going to smack him for that, though she didn’t know how she’d catch him to do it. The man was like an automaton. No cancel that. He was a super soldier.
She shivered as it brought up thoughts of Gladiator. That had to be stopped. It couldn’t be allowed to be used on any more people, on Zan’s brother. Marley forced back tears that wanted to rise as she pictured Zan dead like the men in the reports.
She couldn’t believe what they were doing − people she worked with. She thought of all the people on the program. She knew, when it started out, there’d been about a dozen people. Last year, they cut it down to just four. Shouldn’t that have been a red flag when it was such an important project? No, a couple were like her, who had their own projects, and were just part timers on it. Dr. Hutchkins had retired, and Dr. Seaver was killed in a car accident while on vacation. She stumbled.
“Marley.” Zan caught her arm.
She looked up into his worried expression. “Did they kill Dr. Seaver, too?”
“What?” Confusion crossed Zan’s face.
She understood the feeling. It was how she felt. It all seemed so unreal. It couldn’t be happening, but it was. The tears she held back filled her eyes. “Dr. Seaver, he went on vacation with his wife about six months ago. They were an older couple. She worked as a research assistant at the lab. They had no children. Their car when off a steep embankment and they were both killed.” The similarities of how her death would’ve looked if Mills and Jansen had succeeded came to her mind. Her breathing quickened and tears burned her eyes.
“Marley, you can’t think about it.” He gripped her wrists, pulling her attention to him.
“How can I not?” she cried as pain hit her.
“Marley, suck it up.”
If it wasn’t so absurd, she would have thought there was a touch of panic in his eyes.
He gave her a little shake. “Marley.”
She forced in a breath and swallowed back the tears. “I’m okay.” She got herself together, forcing it to be so.
Zan studied her a moment before he nodded and released her. “Why don’t we take a break? Here.” He pulled another energy bar from his pack and handed it to her with a water bottle.