Authors: Sherri L King
“It sounds great,” she said.
“Be sure to lock your door after me, and don’t answer it for strangers.”
Marla nodded. She didn’t have to be told twice. Steele gave her a small bow, turned and left the way he came, closing the door softly behind him. Marla moved to engage all three locks on her door and leaned heavily against it when she was done.
She’d been having weird days ever since awakening from her coma. But this was, by far, one of the weirdest she’d ever experienced.
Later that evening, after the sun had sunk in the sky, Steele walked into Ryan Murdock’s office without knocking. “I put two guards on her,” he said without preamble. “Siren got to her first and scared her pretty badly. But she’s agreed to come in with us.”
Ryan pursed his lips. “I knew Siren would want her, but I didn’t think they’d act so fast.”
“It’s no wonder. She’s as strong as we believed. Maybe stronger. That’s why Siren wasted no time in contacting her. But they made a huge mistake in trying to bully her. She may still be weak on the outside, but she’s strong as stone on the inside. She didn’t stop fighting, even when they backed her into a corner.”
Ryan mulled over this. “They must want her pretty badly to try and force her like that so soon.”
“My sentiments exactly,” Steele replied.
“Keep a guard on her at all times when she’s away from the compound. I don’t want anything else to happen to her while she’s under our care. The less stress she has, the better we’ll be able to work with her.”
“Siren will try again to get her,” Steele pointed out.
“I know. The persistent bastards. But we’ll just have to deal with that when the time comes.”
There came a knock at Ryan’s door. “That’ll be Vicious.” He reached out to hand Steele a manila folder. “Here’s tonight’s assignment.”
Steele moved, file in hand, and opened the door. The dark-haired man on the other side gave Steele a nod as he passed out of the office, then took his place within. The door closed on the two men and Steele rubbed a hand over the top of his head.
It was time to shave again. He could feel persistent spikes of hair trying to grow. He hated his hair—a cross between red and blond, it curled like crazy and only served as a distraction when he was working. Enemies could easily grab one’s hair and yank savagely. He couldn’t—and wouldn’t—have that.
He looked down at the file in his hand and opened it. Pictures of men stripping down stolen cars lay within, as well as a schematic of the building they were using to carry out their illegal activities. Steele clenched his jaw, shut the folder and went to prepare for the long night ahead of him, putting the last lingering thoughts of Marla aside.
* * * * *
Marla lay in bed, mind running furiously, keeping her from sleep. Night filled the room—she’d unplugged all of the electrical appliances—and a slight cool breeze came in from the open window. Oh how she’d missed the feel of fresh air washing over her skin!
She couldn’t stop thinking about the events of the afternoon. Everything had changed for her within the space of a few minutes. If Steele was to be believed, and strangely enough she did believe him, then she needn’t worry anymore about her hospital bills or her lack of a job. From near bankruptcy, she now had a fortune to look forward to.
All she had to do was allow Sterling to study her. And that couldn’t be too bad, could it?
Her thoughts took a turn and, with a sliver of anxiety, she dwelled on the odd and dangerous behavior of the two men from Siren. They’d actually dared to pull a gun on her! She didn’t know what to think about that. She’d been scared, of course she had, but she’d also felt assured that she could gain the upper hand. Would they have fired on her had they known of her daring? How badly did they want to study her—if studying her was all they wished to do, which she doubted?
Marla admitted to herself that she wasn’t entirely surprised by the offers from both parties. She’d suspected that, once the headlines in the papers had revealed her new quirks, something like this would happen sooner or later. She just hadn’t expected it so shortly after her release from the hospital.
And what to think of the giant, Steele? He was a hulking brute of a man…but she’d sensed gentleness in his nature right away, and she sure as certain liked him better than the men from Siren. His eyes, nearly silver they were so gray, had spoken volumes to her. She knew instinctively that she could trust him.
She rolled over in bed and tried once more to find rest.
Seconds later she heard a faint sound coming from the front of her house and froze. The sound came again, a rattling sound like that of a doorknob. Marla crawled out of bed and went to her window. She looked down from her second-story room and saw the dark figure of a man by her front door.
Her heart thundered as a thrill of fear took her. She flew over to her closet and rifled within it. She came out holding a baseball bat and steeled herself for what she knew she must do next.
She crept down the stairs, careful not to make a sound, careful not to stumble on her still unsteady legs. She went to the side of the door, leaning against the wall for support as her knees suddenly went weak. With a click, the last lock turned and the door opened inward. Marla hardened herself, locking her traitorous knees in anticipation.
The dark, shadowy figure stepped into the room.
Marla raised the bat over her head and brought it down on the man’s shoulder. He went down with a bellow of outrage, flailing out at her. Marla raised the bat again, swung and missed.
But it was just as well. Another man came through the door, moving so fast he was a blur, and she could barely follow him with her gaze. She staggered, fear choking her. But instead of coming for her, the newcomer zeroed in on the fallen man sprawled on her parlor floor.
“I’m sorry about this, Ms. Rivers,” the new man apologized. “I looked away for a second and there he was.”
Marla went weak against the wall. “Who are you?”
“They call me Vicious, but you can call me Johnny. I’m from Sterling. I was supposed to be guarding you while you slept.”
Marla’s eyes went wide with surprise. “You’re from Sterling?” she asked, dazed.
“Yes,” he answered, lifting the intruder to his feet. “Now to see who Mr. Sneaky is here.”
The intruder was dressed all in black, with a stocking cap pulled down over his face. Vicious tore the cap from his head and Marla was surprised to see one of the men from Siren standing there. “What the hell?”
“You’re a persistent son of a bitch, aren’t you?” Vicious shook the man by the nape of the neck. “Didn’t the lady already tell you no?”
“You can’t win every time, you Sterling bastard,” he snarled.
Vicious laughed and shook him again. “Didn’t your mother teach you that breaking and entering is a crime? Or was it that your mother didn’t like you enough to teach you anything important like that?”
The man twisted in Vicious’ grasp, but Vicious held fast.
“I’m sorry you had to witness this, Ms. Rivers. Why don’t you head back to bed? I’ll take care of this asshole, pardon my French.”
Dazed, Marla nodded and trudged over to the stairs. Then turned resolutely back. “What had you hoped to accomplish here?” she asked the intruder.
“We contacted you first. You’re our project,” he sneered. “You just haven’t accepted that yet.”
“Well, you can rest assured that after your behavior today and tonight, I’ll do my very best not to ever have anything to do with Siren.” Marla turned and went upstairs, content that Vicious would take care of things for her. She didn’t know what to think about having a guard from Sterling watching over her, but in this instance she was grateful.
It was a long time, however, before she found sleep. It wasn’t until the first faint pink streaks of dawn were showing through her curtains that she finally dozed off and found peace. And, strangely enough, her dreams were filled with images of Brian Steele.
Steele waited patiently while Marla prepared herself for her first day at Sterling. He looked at the pictures on her mantel and marveled at how lovely Marla was. She had been heavier before the coma, full of breast and hip, and where before she looked much like a woman unafraid of a good time, she now looked fragile and breakable.
She had lovely red hair, long and curling down around the middle of her back. Her eyes, a startling cross between blue and green, were wide and large on her face. Her nose was a pert button, her lips a fullness that begged to be kissed. She had a small overbite that gave her a gamine look, one he had already started to appreciate despite himself.
Marla came down the stairs and walked over to him, her purse clutched tightly in her hands. “Should I bring anything else?” she asked, suddenly looking nervous, as if she didn’t know how to proceed.
“No. Sterling will provide you with anything you might need.” He led her out of the house. “Come on,” he said, directing her to his idling Expedition outside. She had to crawl up into the seat and ordinarily Steele would have helped her into the cab of the vehicle, except that he was afraid to touch her. Afraid of what he might do. She was too beautiful, too fragile still, to get close to. And he was a brute at best.
She let out a huge sigh as she settled back against the plush seat. “So what exactly do you have to do with Sterling?” she asked softly, eyes closed.
“The same thing as you.”
She started. “You can mess with electricity?”
“No. But I have an ability, the same as you do. Sterling acquired me when I was only thirteen. Back when my boss’ father was in charge. I’ve been with them ever since.”
“Yes.” He refused to elaborate.
“What’s your ability then?”
“I’m generally the strong guy at Sterling. I take care of all the grunt work. I guess you could say I’m tough as steel.” He smiled wryly at his own use of words.
Marla digested that. “That doesn’t seem like an unusual ability. I mean, no offense, but aren’t there a lot of people with the same gift? I once saw a guy take a cannonball to the stomach.”
“I’m not at all like that,” he said, keeping his eyes firmly focused on the road as he drove. “I’m something more.”
“You’ll find out soon enough. Now,” he said, changing the subject, “are you ready for your first day at our compound?”
“I don’t know. Ask me that later.”
Steele saw her smile out of the corner of his eye, her overbite evident, and he tensed. He realized his cock had grown hard and he tamped down on the rush of desire he felt. He didn’t know this woman. She was lovely, yes, but that didn’t account for his suddenly powerful hunger for her, not entirely. He needed to maintain control. She looked as if she might break under too much pressure.
“How are you feeling?” he asked, and hoped she didn’t notice how hoarse his voice had become.
“Good,” she said. “I feel a little better every day.”
“Sterling will help you feel even better. The scientists working there are really…uh…nice. You won’t feel awkward or weird around them. They’ll accept you, extraordinary gifts and all, you’ll see. It’s a good place, Sterling.”
“I hope so,” she sighed. “I didn’t thank you for putting a guard on me last night. I really appreciate that.”
“I had a feeling Siren wasn’t through trying to get to you.”
“I don’t know what I would have done without Johnny.”
“He’s a good man, if a little confused,” he said enigmatically. “I knew he wouldn’t let anything happen to you.”
Steele felt compelled to say more. “Don’t worry about Siren anymore. Everything will be okay. Trust me.”
Marla looked at him and he stared resolutely at the road. She smiled. “I’ll try.”
“I couldn’t ask for more,” he said softly.
They drove on in silence, heading for the Sterling compound at a swift pace.
* * * * *
Steele accompanied her to Ryan Murdock’s office and then turned to leave. “Will you come and see me later?” she asked hurriedly. She didn’t exactly know why she asked it, but she’d been at ease in his presence and she wanted more of that feeling.