Authors: Rebecca Zanetti
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This book is dedicated to my grandparents:
Dale and Helen Cornell, Jim and Naomi English,
Herb and Ruth Zanetti, and Harry and Janet Voltolini.
It’s with both excitement and sadness that I finish up this fourth book in the Dean brothers’ lives. This series found a wonderful home with Grand Central Publishing/Forever, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to work with so many wonderful, talented, and hardworking people.
A special thank-you to my editor, Michele Bidelspach, who has the rare talent to see how much deeper a book can go, and who works tirelessly to make sure the book gets there. She’s insightful, kind, and brilliant… and I’m truly thankful for the opportunity to work with her.
Thanks also to Jodi Rosoff, Marissa Sangiacomo, Megha Parekh, and Jamie Snider from Grand Central/Forever for the hard work, dedication, and attention to detail. Thanks also to Diane Luger and Elizabeth Turner for the spectacular covers, and to Joan Matthews for the excellent copyedits.
A big thank-you to my agent, Caitlin Blasdell, who understands world building better than anybody I’ve ever met, and who also protects me, even from myself. She’s the voice of reason in a wild industry, and I definitely owe whatever angel sat on my shoulder when I signed with Caitlin. Thanks also to Liza Dawson and the Dawson gang for the hard work.
Finally, thank you to Big Tone for the support, humor, and good times. Whoever said a marriage can get boring has never met you. I love you. Also, thanks to Gabe and Karlina for the fun and for being such great kids. I love you both!
Southern Tennessee Hills
Twenty Years Ago
ORY SET DOWN
the screwdriver and shoved the computer guts off his legs. The feel of the wires against his small hands sparked all sorts of creativity, and he knew he could make the processor run faster. Way faster. “I don’t want to train. Can’t I finish putting this back together?”
“No.” Nate, his older brother, crossed skinny arms at the door. Well, skinny for now. At about eleven years old, Nate was starting to get bigger, like their oldest brother, Matt, and would soon be all muscley, too.
Jory sighed and pushed to stand. Wires and electrical components dropped all around him. He’d never be big like his brothers. Even now, at seven years old or so, he was the shortest kid in the compound. “Training is a waste of time for me.”
Nate’s eyes blazed all sorts of gray fire in a bruised face. “Bullshit. You’re going to train like a demon until you finally grow and we don’t have to worry about the commander sending you away.”
Jory swallowed. What if he didn’t ever grow? Fear shook through his hands, so he slid them into his back pockets. He had to be tough like his older brothers. He needed to be a soldier and not a computer guy. “I think the commander’s gonna send me away.”
“Matt won’t let him,” Nate said, scratching a scab on his elbow.
The door pushed open, and Shane clomped his combat boots inside. Although Shane was probably only a year older than Jory, he stood almost as tall as Nate, with identical gray eyes. All four brothers had the same gray eyes, so maybe they’d all somehow grow big like Matt. Hopefully.
Nate glanced down at Shane’s hands before hustling across the barracks to nab a towel. “You’re bleeding.”
Shane swallowed and held out bloody hands for the worn cotton that might’ve been white at some time. “I can’t practice knife fighting any more today with all the skin wearing off my palms.”
“Too bad.” Mattie stalked into the room, bruises on his face, a Glock in one big hand. He’d probably been at the shooting range. His black hair had been buzzed short, showing welts down his neck from hand-to-hand yesterday. “You’re going back out to practice for at least another hour. Tonight, when you’re least expecting it, I’m coming at you. You had better defend yourself.”
Jory swallowed and leaned back against the concrete-block wall. His hands shook harder in his pockets. Matt was his big brother, and he loved him, but sometimes Matt got scary. When he got all determined to train them.
Shane winced. “I don’t think so—”
“Shane.” Matt didn’t raise his voice or move from his spot in the doorway. “Train.”
Shane scuffed his boots and eyed Nate, his shoulders straightening when Nate nodded. “Yes, sir,” Shane said quietly.
Jory gave him a sympathetic smile. Nate always backed up Matt, but Mattie seemed to need that, so it was okay.
Tension spiraled through the room. Jory cleared his throat. Sometimes, even though they were tough soldiers, so much emotion clogged the room he couldn’t breathe. Matt was fierce in his obsession to keep his brothers alive, while Nate was constant in his worry for everyone’s safety. And Shane. If Shane wasn’t exhausted, Shane was pissed. So much anger in him sometimes.
Emotion hurt, and Jory shoved it down deep and did what he did best. It was his job to get rid of the hard looks on his brothers’ faces. “Tomorrow is my birthday.”
Shane grinned, while Matt and Nate exchanged glances.
Nate tilted his head. “We don’t know when we were born, Jory.”
“I know.” Jory pointed to the computer he’d torn apart. “But I did some research earlier, and I found our birthdates.”
Matt frowned. “You found records?”
“No. Astrology,” Jory said, facing his brothers.
A grin split Nate’s face, and Shane snorted.
Oh yeah. He got them to smile. Jory rocked back on his heels. “Mattie is a Scorpio, Nate a Capricorn, and Shane an Aquarius.” Sure, he was probably wrong, but this was fun. Plus, he really had done some research, and the signs fit his brothers.
“And you?” Matt asked softly.
“I was born on August eighth. Eight-eight.” Jory smiled. “I’m a Leo.”
Shane coughed. “Why do you get to be the lion?”
Jory sobered. “Because even the smallest lion can have a big roar.”
Understanding filled Matt’s eyes as his chin dropped. “You’re going to grow, little brother. Your feet are huge.”
Yeah, and he usually tripped over them. “Maybe. But until then, I want to have a birthday party.”
Nate blanched. “We have training all day tomorrow.”
Yep, they sure did. Jory had memorized the schedule weeks ago, which was easy because his brain took pictures of everything he saw. But he forced a frown. “Shoot. Well, you could just give me a present.”
Shane bit back a smile. “Nice. What do you want?”
Heat slid down Jory’s throat to land in his stomach. So far, he hadn’t been able to get his brothers to agree to what he wanted. “Since it’s my eight-eight birthday, my golden birthday, it’s important. Reaaally important.”
Nate sighed and eyed the clock ticking on the wall. “What do you want, Jory?”
“A last name,” he whispered.
Matt blew out air. “I told you we’d pick a name when we got out of here.”
“Come on, Mattie.” Jory yanked his hands from his pockets. “You’re probably twelve or so… don’t you want a last name we can all share?” He looked down at his feet, and his eyes stung. His brothers never cried, and neither would he. “Just in case the commander sends me away, I want us all to have the same name. Just so I know what it is so I can find you guys.” His hands shook again, but this time he didn’t care. Plus, if he died, he wanted the right name on the grave marker. He didn’t even care if he got a cross or not, like the soldiers did in the cemetery outside of the nation’s capital. He’d seen pictures once.
“Jesus,” Matt muttered. “Listen to me, damn it. The commander is not going to send you anywhere. I promise.”
Jory looked up, and Matt’s face wavered through tears he wasn’t strong enough to get rid of. Matt was the strongest boy Jory had ever met, Nate was the best fighter, and Shane was brilliant. But they were just kids, and the commander
was a grown-up. “I know, Mattie. But I really want a last name.”
Shane bit his lip. “I do, too.”
Silence ticked around the room.
Nate lifted his shooting shoulder. “Um, I kinda do, too.”
Matt looked at each one of them in turn, his eyes darkening. Finally, his shoulders relaxed, which usually meant he’d made a decision. “Fine. Does anybody have an idea for a last name?”
“Asskickers?” Shane asked, hope in his voice.
Nate laughed. “We need something untraceable once we escape. Something that’s us but is a lot of other people, too.”
Jory nodded. “I got an idea last week when we snuck into the secondary command center and watched those old movies via satellite.”
Matt rolled his eyes, a real smile finally lifting his lips. “I’m not going to be Mathew Casablanca. Period.”
Nate grinned, his body visually relaxing as Matt joked with them again. “Um, no.”
“I meant that movie,
Rebel Without a Cause
,” Jory said, holding his breath.
“Rebel?” Nate asked.
“Stark—after Jim Stark?” Matt rubbed his chin. “I think that might be too rare.”
Jory shook his head. “Dean. After James Dean. He was kinda lost like us, and I think he would’ve liked to be in our family. The Dean family.” Jory held still, trying not to hope too hard.
His brothers all remained quiet for several heartbeats.
Finally, Nate nodded. “I like it.”
“Shane Dean,” Shane murmured. “Yeah. It’s good.”
Jory sucked in air and focused on his oldest brother.
Matt studied him for a moment and then slowly smiled. “The
family it is.”
N A COLD
and dismal cell, surrounded by concrete blocks, Jory Dean counted out push-ups, his brain shutting down pain receptors in his body. Sweat dripped onto the cement floor, and steam coated the bulletproof glass wall.
Yet he pressed on, aligning himself for maximum effect, strengthening each muscle in turn. His mind would save him, but he’d need speed and strength first.
For months, fighting insanity in the small quarters, he’d forced himself to behave like a good prisoner. But when he was sure he was strong enough, he ruthlessly pushed himself, knowing he’d need to be in top condition to get free.
He turned inward to listen to his heart rate and lung capacity. For the briefest of time, as he’d escaped a two-year coma, his blood had pumped slower than normal. But now, after three months of intense training in the freezing cell, he was back to normal.
The second his captors gave him an opening, he’d create the opportunity.
To flee this hell and finish what
His body had taken more time than his brain to repair, and the senses that once had been merely superior now thrummed with additional power. Something was about to happen, and he was ready.
High heels clicked several hallways away, and he kept punishing his biceps until the sound neared the outside door. The click was off to a slight degree, as if the woman wearing them was limping.
He stretched to his feet and grabbed a ripped towel to wipe off his face, knowing full well who stood on the other side.
Heartbeats had signatures, as did breathing rates and bodily scents. He knew the woman’s scent well.
Dr. Madison clicked inside the room, wearing her customary white lab coat over skirt and dangerously high heels. At around fifty years old, she appeared much younger. She’d piled her dark hair up on top of her head and had applied perfectly layered makeup that failed to mask a brutal black eye that extended to her temple.
Jory blinked, studying the pattern of the bruise. It was nonsymmetrical, not spread out enough to be from a fist, and looked a day old. A car crash?
Where had she been? Companionship, even hers, was better than being left by himself. Except for the techs who dropped off his food and picked up his tray, he’d been alone with his thoughts, and inside his head wasn’t a pretty place to be.
He hadn’t seen her in nearly three months. Should he give a shit about that? She was the closest thing he’d had to a mother, and even now, as an intellectual exercise, he couldn’t help but wonder. Did he care? If not, what did that make him? He hoped to hell he hadn’t become the monster
they’d trained him to be, but if so? Yeah. They’d meet that beast soon enough.
Life, like computer codes, held symmetry. They’d created him in a test tube to be a heartless soldier concerned with one thing only—the mission.
It was unfortunate for them that
mission, the one that mattered, would most likely mean their deaths. “What happened to your face and leg?” he asked softly, so unaccustomed to his own voice that his breathing paused for one beat.
She fingered the bruise and looked up more than a foot to his face, her forehead furrowing. “Your brother blew up our DC facility, and I was caught underground in an airplane hangar.”
The one word cut through protective layers of muscle to pierce his heart. He kept his expression stoic and forced his vitals to remain steady. “Which brother?” he asked, lowering his voice to keep it from trembling, even while his mind kicked into gear. He hadn’t felt or heard an explosion, so he must be somewhere far away from DC. Add in the air chill, and he figured somewhere in the Midwest.
“Nathan.” She pursed her lips in a tight, white line, studying Jory carefully. As usual. “He took my daughter with him.”
Jory jolted internally and yet remained preternaturally still, his gut lurching. Nate was still alive. Confirmation—finally—that at least one of his brothers had lived through the last two years. Deep down, where humanity still hovered, Jory fought against the hope washing over him. Now wasn’t the time for emotion.
He eyed Madison. Why was she sharing information? The woman always had a reason, and for now, he’d play along. “Good for Nate.” Jory’s big brother had never gotten over Audrey Madison, so it wasn’t exactly shocking that
he’d returned for her. “Was she willing to go with him?” He wouldn’t put it past Nate to toss Audrey over a shoulder while bombs detonated.
Madison sniffed. “I believe so, but maybe the pregnancy has messed with her intellect.”
Jory stilled. Only supreme control kept his heart from thumping against his ribcage. He lifted one eyebrow and pierced the doctor with a hard stare. “Audrey is pregnant?”
“Yes. With Nate’s baby.” Madison reached for a computer tablet from her pocket, avoiding his gaze. She’d started averting her eyes the second he’d learned to infuse power into his stare. “Congratulations, it appears the Gray family can procreate.” She smiled, revealing sharp teeth, having control back into place.
Warmth burst through Jory, and he allowed himself a rare moment to ban the ever-present chill. Nate was going to be a father? Unbelievable. He’d make a great father… if he lived beyond the coming week. Jory wanted to smile but refused to give the doctor the satisfaction of reading his emotions.
Her focus dropped to his groin. “I wonder if we could—”
Jory fought the urge to cover his balls and stepped closer to the partition. “Not a chance in hell.” He spoke low and kept eye contact as he gave her the absolute truth. She’d been the one woman as a constant in his life from the beginning, even tending his hurts after he’d trained as a kid. But not with motherly love. Instead she had stitched him up a time or two while taking copious notes at how fast he healed.
Still he’d rather not have to snap her neck. Yet.
She clucked her tongue. “It’s hard to imagine you were the good-natured brother.”
“Getting plugged in the chest several times and ending up in a coma for two years tends to piss a guy off.” He kept her gaze and stretched his torso, trying not to go crazy in the small cell.
Dr. Madison licked her lips and eyed his scarred chest. “Your workouts and diet regimen have returned you to excellent shape in such a short time. I did a marvelous job with your genetics.”
He rubbed his chin. “Yeah. You really did.” Of course, the woman had no clue about his enhanced abilities or how successful she’d been in creating something new.
God only knew what she’d combined with soldier DNA to create him, and even now, he didn’t want to know the particulars. He was Jory Dean, he had three brothers, and that was enough family history for him.
Her gaze traveled to the tattoo above his heart. “Freedom.” She shook her head.
His hand moved on its own volition to rub his inked skin. The week they’d escaped, he and his brothers had created the matching design before finding the perfect artist to tattoo them. Now that he’d been recaptured, the design mocked him.
He swallowed and forced his body to relax when all he wanted to do was punch through unpunchable glass. When she looked at him like he was steak on a plate, he wanted to puke. So he turned and yanked a ratty T-shirt over his head. “Were Matt and Shane with Nate when he blew up DC?” The more information he could get about all of his brothers, the easier it’d be to plan now that he was strong enough.
Time was up, and he needed to strike.
Madison just looked at him.
With a sigh, he gave up the pretense. “Please tell me if they’re still alive.” Yeah, he could play her game if it earned him information.
“You know you’ve always been the easiest of your brothers to read,” she said.
“I know.” That’s what she thought. Madison was tough
to play, but he’d figured out years ago how to manipulate her. False vulnerability and full truth worked because she liked to see reactions. So he reacted outwardly while his brain raced internally. For now, he’d allow her to believe she was smarter than he was, but at this point, she wasn’t even close.
“I wonder if your weakness is from being the youngest, or if you inherited such traits from your maternal egg donor?” Madison tapped her chin.
“I don’t know.” Jory shrugged, changing tactics to keep her off balance and camouflage how much he needed an answer about his brothers. “Who was my maternal egg donor?”
She sighed. “Who cares? We paid for eggs from extraordinary genetic pools, and those women never wanted the ensuing children.”
Jory kept his face blank, not even feeling the words that should cut deep. Who the hell cared about what came before? The Dean brothers shared a paternal donor, and their identical gray eyes served as a genetic marker. They’d given up long ago of finding any information on maternal donors—they didn’t have mothers and never would. “I care little about genetics,” he said.
“Yet it’s so interesting how similar you boys are but how differently you handle the same situation,” she mused.
“How would my brothers handle you?” he asked.
She smiled. “Shane would try to charm me for the answer, while Nathan would harass me like a rottweiler fighting for a bone. Matt? Well, Matt would play mind games and twist me up until I gave the information.”
“I’m aware of my brothers’ talents.” Jory preferred hard drives to humans, which made Madison’s brain easy to mine. The woman was almost a computer, completely lacking in emotion. Long ago, he’d given up his soul, so begging didn’t mean much to him, even if he had meant it. “Please tell me.”
She typed something in on her tablet. “As far as I know, Mathew and Shane are alive. They didn’t help Nathan on the ground in DC, but I have no doubt they assisted in planting explosives.”
Electricity sparked down Jory’s torso, and his shoulders straightened.
His brothers were all alive. Now he had a short time to keep it that way. “Thank you,” he murmured.
She glanced up, and her eyes slowly focused. “There’s more.”
Man, she loved to see him beg, didn’t she? “Oh?” Jory had given her all the satisfaction she’d get this morning. Either she’d give him the rest of the details, or she wouldn’t.
“Yes.” She frowned, irritation sparking through her blue eyes. “Shane went back for that woman he’d used on a mission once, and Matt kidnapped one of our doctors who’d betrayed us. They’ve committed themselves to women.”
Now Jory did smile. “Bullshit.” Whatever game she played, she could roll the dice by herself. He could see Nate rescuing Audrey since they’d gotten together so long ago, but no way would Shane or Matt drag a woman into the shitstorm of their lives. “Nice try, Madison.”
She nodded, her forehead smoothing. “I don’t understand, either. Soon we’ll have them back home, and I can figure them out.”
Oh, hell no.
His brothers were never getting caught again, and Jory needed freedom to deactivate the kill chips near their spines implanted almost five years ago. He eyed the outside door. So close and yet so damn far. “Why do you want us here? I just don’t get it.”
“The commander and the organization are being attacked, and your skills and training are needed.” Her voice remained level, but fire lit her eyes. “From several sides. The U.S. government is looking at our financials, there are competing
firms out there getting stronger, and an organized fundamentalist group wants the commander shut down.”
“Good. Then leave us the hell alone.” He’d love to light the entire organization on fire, and he would. The second he got out of the cage and saved his brothers.
“That will never happen. Our base inland will be much more appropriate to contain you and yours, and it is a good place to retrain you. You’ll be transferred within a few days.” Madison glanced back down at her tablet.
His head lifted. If he allowed the transfer to a more secured facility, he’d never get free, so it was time to make a move. “I’m tired of gym shorts and T-shirts, and these tennis shoes are a size too small.” He rested broad hands on his hips and glared around the dismal cell. One cot sat in a corner, and a bare-bones bathroom took residence around a partial wall. “Get me out of here.”
“Why?” She arched one fine eyebrow. “That kill chip by your C4 vertebra will detonate in one week and you’ll die. Your best chance of survival is staying here.”
His eyelids slowly rose, so he flattened his hands on the bulletproof glass and leaned in. “The chip you screwed up? Yeah. I’m not expecting a rescue there.” The bastard scientists had implanted kill chips near the Dean brothers’ spines, and if the correct code wasn’t entered in the right computer program in a week, the chips would activate and sever their spines. Unfortunately, the code changed every thirty seconds, so getting a lock on it from a distance had been all but impossible.
Of course, no damn code worked for Jory. “We both know I’m fucked.”
“I do wish you’d watch your language. As a child, you were so well mannered.” Dr. Madison typed something into her tablet. “I didn’t make a mistake on the chips. When you got yourself shot, a bullet ricocheted off the chip, and it’s
damaged. It’s shocking the device didn’t explode then and there.” She pursed her lips as if pondering what to have for dinner. “Just shocking.”
“Who shot me?”
Madison lifted a slim shoulder. “You have the highest IQ ever recorded, young man. Those memories are in that impressive brain, and you need to access them.”
Jory rubbed his eyes. Having no memory of a devastating event was normal, damn it. He might never remember who’d shot him.
But he remembered blowing his cover at the scientific facility where he had been gathering information about the commander’s organization. He’d scanned the wrong computer system and had set off alarms, resulting in a flash grenade and drugs pumped into his system.
Damn rookie move because he’d been in a hurry and so close to finding the program to deactivate the kill chips. He’d deserved to get shot for his carelessness.
For now, he was a fucking monkey in a cage, and he had to get out of there before his
brain melted. So he tried reason. “Madison? I have one week to live. For once, have a heart and let me live out my last days.” It was the closest he’d come to asking the brilliant scientist for anything after she’d started hitting on him when he’d reached puberty. She had a record for playing with cadets, and he’d kept his distance, as had his brothers, he was sure.