Authors: Rebecca Zanetti
“Not gonna happen.” She started to turn back to the screen.
Fine. He’d get her attention one way or the other. “I’m assuming you met the boyfriend upon arriving in town?”
She snorted and shifted in her seat.
“Let’s see. What would a convenient but realistic meeting be? Is he a banker?”
“You’re an idiot.” She shook her head and brushed back her hair with trembling hands.
Not a banker. “Car salesman?”
She sighed and kept typing.
“No.” Her chin rose.
Ah. He was a realtor. “Don’t you think it’s a very nice coincidence that you met your charming boyfriend the second you came to town?” The guy probably could fight like a true killer, and Piper had no clue.
“No, and your attempts to make me doubt my job here are ridiculous.” She straightened her sweater.
He let off on the sensual attack, just a little, pleased he’d thrown her with his accurate guess. “I’m thinking he’s a realtor, which would lead to him being organized, ambitious, stable, and even a little controlling.”
Her back stiffened just enough to let him know she was trying not to react.
Yeah. He’d nailed that one. “You like being controlled, baby?” He allowed his voice to rumble down to a masculine tone while sending sexual tension her way.
A pretty pink wandered up her neck, and she glared at her phone. “I’m having you tranquilized just so you shut the hell up.”
Apparently he’d hit a nerve. The picture began to form. While Jory didn’t know much about her relationship with the commander, he did know the commander, who had always been present at the military compound, so he couldn’t have spent much time with his daughter. “So you like someone else taking charge,” Jory said, easily spotting her need to please.
He let his upper lip quirk. Little girl raised without a father falling for a control freak? Yeah, that was a new one. Not. “So you like this take charge guy, but apparently you got in a fight last night. I’m thinking he went too far and turned into a jerk, huh?” Damn, this was too easy.
She turned toward him and eyed the phone next to her, but didn’t pick it up to call for help. Little sweetheart didn’t want to have him shot full of poison, now did she? With a shrug, she reached for her coffee cup and took a deep drink. Her pink tongue darted out to lick her cup.
Jory’s balls drew tight and he grimaced. She had no clue what she’d just done to him. “So, ah”—he shifted on the cot to adjust a sudden rigid hard-on—“you do know that this asshole you’re dating is wrong for you, right?”
She shook her head. “This is my last warning.”
Jory opened his senses, truly reading her and ignoring the damn warning. “You need a good guy, one who knows the difference between right and wrong. One who is spontaneous, protective, and would kill or die for you.”
“Oh, do I?” she muttered.
Yeah. How would she take a bit more truth? He watched her carefully. “While you’re obviously independent and very smart, you do like to be told what to do, Piper. Possibly only in bed, but I’d bet the idea of an overprotective mate would make you feel safe. Whole and complete.”
She paled, her chin lowering, sparks flashing in those gorgeous eyes.
He kept her gaze. “The prick you’re dating isn’t just overprotective, or you wouldn’t have gotten pissed at him last night. My bet is that he’s condescending, and that doesn’t work for you.”
She swallowed. “Have you made up enough stories about me?”
“No. Your ideal guy would have to be absolute in his beliefs, and he’d have to end up on the right side of the line, every time. You’re a true believer, baby, and God help anybody who crosses the line.”
She set down the cup. “Are you describing yourself?”
“No. I lost the line a long time ago.” Had there even been a line? If the woman had an idea of what he’d done, who he’d had to become to survive, she’d run screaming from the room. “Although I think you should consider the timing with this prick. When you work for a covert operation, don’t trust anybody.”
She shifted on her chair. “Including you?”
“Definitely including me.” He’d use her to get to safety and rescue his brothers, whether he wanted to or not.
“I don’t trust you.” She spoke the words quietly, while he could hear her heartbeat speed up with what had to be anger. “And while I appreciate your attention to my love life, maybe you should be more concerned with your own. As in, you’re never going to have one… ever again. Might want to get used to solitude, asshole.”
Fuckin’ direct hit. Jory’s temper, already frayed by the close confinement, sprang free, surprising him so much he didn’t have a chance to reign it in. “I’m just trying to help you out, feisty. Don’t trust the commander. Blood or not.”
Her eyes hardened to green chips of ice. “You don’t know him.”
“The bastard raised me, so I think I know him pretty well.” The words popped out before Jory could stop them,
his laconic temper flashing in a rare moment. What the hell was going on with him? “Although I wouldn’t let him know I said that. How safe do you really think you are here?” He had to get his emotions under control, but even at the thought, the walls seemed to close in.
Who the hell was Piper?
She rose and hitched toward the cell wall. Her hands slapped together, and her boots stomped on the rough concrete. Red spiraled through the pink still under her smooth skin, and air hissed out of her mouth. “He raised you? My father raised you.” Her voice rose at the last.
“Not really.” Jory sighed. He was fucking losing it in the cell. The guy who
lost control suddenly couldn’t hold on to it with both hands. Damn it, he really shouldn’t have told her that, and while she remained unaware, he could hear the hum of cameras busily recording. “The commander and Dr. Madison were constantly there, training us and studying us. I have brothers, and my brothers definitely raised me. The best they could, anyway.”
Piper frowned. “What in the world are you talking about?”
She didn’t know her father at all. “We should forget this entire conversation. Trust me.” Man, he’d screwed up this time.
“Too late. Spill it, Jory.” She put her hands on fit hips. “Now.”
“No.” He stood, easily towering over her even through the glass. Although he appreciated her fight to stay in place and not move back. The woman had grit, now didn’t she?
“Then I’ll ask my father.” Her lips stumbled over the last word.
She wasn’t accustomed to referring to him as such, now was she? Interesting. Jory shook his head. “That would be an incredibly bad idea. The less you know about me, the safer
you are. Hell. The less you know about the commander, the better. He’s not who you think.”
“I know him better than you do.” A childhood hurt echoed in her fierce tone, and something in Jory’s gut ached.
“I’m sorry.” The words came out naturally and before he could think.
“For what?” Her gaze didn’t soften one iota.
For giving her the truth. For not giving her the full truth. For the pain she’d endure one day when she really got to know the commander, because even if he did have feelings for his daughter, he’d hurt her. For planning to use her to escape, which Jory would. She wouldn’t be the first mark he’d manipulated for a mission, although the idea of hurting her settled unease in his gut. He didn’t want to be a guy who’d hurt a woman, even one from the enemy’s camp, but he’d do what he had to do. He’d warned her not to trust anybody. “For everything, Piper.”
“I don’t like you very much right now,” she muttered.
“That makes two of us.” The subtext between them pounded pain in his temples. They were on the same wavelength, whether they’d wanted to be or not, and he had to jump off. “I do, however, like you.” He tried to pour charm into the words.
She lifted her head to meet his gaze. “Do you think that matters to me?”
Fire shot through her eyes at the direct hit. The truth sometimes pierced deep. She shook her head. “I don’t give one fig if you like me or not, traitor.”
“Liar,” he murmured, instinct pushing him to goad her. “You’re a smart woman, Piper, and you’ve already figured out something isn’t right here.” Maybe she had, or maybe she hadn’t. Either way, he’d planted the seed, disliking himself more and more with each deliberate move. Taking a
chance on the commander’s ego keeping her alive, even if she screwed up, was a shitty thing for Jory to do.
Yet his brothers came first.
She opened her mouth to say something, probably something scathing, when the door slid open and the commander strode inside. In his late fifties, his black hair had gone to gray, showcasing his black eyes. Not dark, not deep… just black. Tightly coiled and still in fighting shape, his very presence added a tension to the atmosphere that reached through the solid wall and rose the hackles down Jory’s back.
Jory’s lungs compressed, so he loosened his stance into a relaxed pose, hiding the fact that every instinct he owned just sprang to life. He had the oddest urge to tell Piper to run. Instead, he raised an eyebrow. “I was just having a nice talk with your daughter.”
The commander eyed Piper. “I’m not paying you to talk.” His deep baritone echoed around the sterile computer room.
She flushed and headed back to sit at her computer. Jory stiffened. There was no need to be such an asshole or to punish her for taking a moment to talk to Jory. Or rather, yell at Jory. “Funny I never knew you had a daughter.”
The commander clasped his hands at his back, his gaze raking Jory. “You’ve recovered well and quickly. I made you strong.”
Piper’s shoulders stiffened while she typed away on a keyboard. Definitely listening.
Jory frowned. What was the bastard’s game? The less his daughter knew about Jory and his brothers, the safer she’d be. “We probably shouldn’t talk.” The bastard obviously trusted the pretty hacker, now didn’t he?
The commander glanced over his shoulder and back, amusement lightening his eyes. “She’s my daughter and could hack any system here. I don’t give a shit if she knows I trained you.”
But not created, raised, beat, or nearly killed. Fine. Jory could live with that. “She doesn’t look like you.”
“She has my mother’s eyes.”
Across the room, Piper jumped slightly.
The commander, his back to Piper, smiled at Jory. The smile that had once made Jory quake as a kid in combat boots.
Now, he didn’t show any reaction. “What do you want?” Jory asked.
“Just wanted to check in and see if my brilliant daughter has saved your ass yet.” The smile didn’t fade.
Piper’s shoulders went back at the word
The woman had no clue what a complete prick her father was, and no idea that he’d fuck with her mind just to mess with Jory. So he focused on the commander and tried to forget Piper was in the room. “Do you believe in God?”
“No.” Irritation curled the commander’s lip. “Why?”
“Just wondering if you ever considered what happens next. You created us, you trained us, and basically you’re trying to enslave us. Don’t you think there will be repercussions?”
“Of course not. You’re property. How can there be repercussions?”
The words shouldn’t surprise him. Not once while Jory was growing up did the commander show any affection or concern. Jory’s entire sense of self came from his brothers and their unity as a family. “You can’t beat us.” The second he said the words, he believed them. “I won’t let you.”
“You won’t let me?” The commander chuckled and glanced over his shoulder at Piper. “My hacker will save you, and then you’ll pay for your disloyalty. In ways you can’t even imagine right now.” Anticipatory threat rode the words.
Piper’s head jerked.
The sweet woman might not understand the subtext behind the threat, but she sure as hell felt it, didn’t she?
That easily, that quickly, seeing the man screw with his daughter freed Jory. All of a sudden, he realized he had to look down to meet the commander’s gaze. Several inches, actually.
The commander clucked his tongue. “Where’s Matt? It’s time we met back up.”
Jory shook his head. “You’re never gonna find Matt, that I promise you.” For some reason, the commander had had a hard-on for Matt for years. Probably because he’d never been able to break the oldest Dean brother. “Matt is better than you are, stronger than you’ll ever be, and you know it.”
Sparks flew through the commander’s eyes, and he leaned forward. “I’m going to rip the skin from his body while you watch. Inch by inch, I’ll make him bleed until he begs to die,” he whispered, his voice fierce.
Jory’s chin lowered while his shoulders went back. “No. No, you are not.” Any fear he’d lived with, any displaced loyalty he’d tried to find for the commander, disappeared. Deep down, in a place neither the commander nor Madison had found in their tests, training, or probing, he’d still held hope that they’d do the right thing and save his brothers. For history’s sake, if nothing else. Now, he kept his voice low. “You’d really rather see us dead than out free.”
The commander closed the distance until the tips of his boots touched the glass wall. “I created you, and I own you.” His voice lowered and probably didn’t carry across the room to Piper.
Jory’s jaw clenched. As a kid, he’d been afraid of that look and would’ve instinctively stepped back. Now he moved forward until his battered shoes also touched the wall. “You don’t own any of us.”
Awareness flashed in the commander’s eyes.
Yeah. Life had just shifted. Jory glanced around, shoving all emotion down hard before focusing back on the monster who’d haunted his dreams for too long. “I may not survive the implant, but my brothers will live and live
” He leaned in as close as he could without touching the glass and looked
“And know this, you fucking prick. Before I die,
will be the one to put you into the ground.”
IPER’S MIND SPUN
with calculation and computer codes, the sense of failure weighing her down. The last thing she had time for was dinner, but it could be important to solving her conundrum, if she played her cards right. Something told her the commander knew more about Jory’s problem than he’d admitted, and she needed the full story to continue her work.
she could get the commander alone for a few moments.
Aromatic scents of garlic, cheese, and spices filled the warm kitchen as Piper uncorked a bottle of Silver Oak Cabernet. Maybe inviting her father to dinner had been a mistake, although Brian should arrive any minute, and he definitely knew how to relax a group of people. Being a realtor made him good with folks, which was something she admired since she’d rather be alone on a computer than in a group. She tried to force a smile to calm down her mother before the commander showed up.
Rachel fluttered around, her face pale, her hands shaking
as she straightened the placemats for the tenth time. “This isn’t a good idea,” she muttered.
Piper sighed and finished tossing the salad. “Why not?”
“Because that man isn’t one to trust.” Rachel pushed unruly hair away from her forehead, revealing a line of blue paint along her hand she’d failed to wash off. She’d taken up the hobby of painting like she did everything else—completely. “You don’t know Franklin.”
Piper’s shoulders went back. “That’s what I’m trying to remedy. Seriously. What’s one dinner?”
“You don’t understand,” Rachel whispered, way too pale.
Piper paused. “Don’t understand what?” She strode around the table to reach for her mother’s hand. “Did he hurt you?” God, had he forced her?
“No.” Rachel rubbed her chin. “He didn’t hurt or force me. We got drunk, I took him home, and you know the rest.”
Piper studied the circles under her mother’s pretty eyes. “Are you scared of him?”
Rachel straightened a napkin, her gaze on the table. “Of course not. I barely know the man.”
Okay, the guy could be definitely intimidating. Plus, her mom had to feel odd about them having a child together and not really knowing each other. Nobody liked to admit they got knocked up by a one-night stand, but it happened all the time. Piper hugged her mom. “Just because I want to know him better doesn’t mean I had a bad childhood or any regrets.”
Rachel snorted and hugged her back. “Well, duh.”
Plus, Piper had to figure out the truth about Jory. She’d spent many hours that day typing outside his cell, and he’d talked while she’d pretended to ignore him. The man understood computers as well as she did. And he’d hinted more than once that she didn’t know what was going on.
In fact, she’d already determined it was time to mine the
servers a little deeper and discover more about him. If nothing else, she might find a clue for how to deactivate the chip. Hell. How to reach the chip.
But she’d been warned about his charm and his intelligence, and the warnings rang true. While she didn’t trust Dr. Madison as far as she could throw the bitch, she did believe her father, who’d never lied to her. Even so, she wanted to dig a little deeper just out of curiosity, if nothing else. The hacker inside her demanded answers.
A knocking pattern pinged on the back door. Piper and her mother both straightened.
“Um,” Piper said.
Rachel hustled toward the glass slider and pushed it open. “Earl. What a lovely surprise.”
Piper jerked back her head. Lovely?
“Please come in. We’re having company for dinner, and you’re more than welcome.” Rachel tucked an arm through Earl’s and all but dragged him into the kitchen. “Piper, set another plate, would you?”
Earl flushed a charming crimson. As usual, he wore dark jeans and a nice golf shirt. “My computer is acting up again, and I was hoping Piper would take a look.” He glanced around the cozy kitchen. “I wouldn’t want to intrude.” He tugged on his collar.
“You’re not.” Piper reached for another plate. Maybe having Earl there would diffuse any awkwardness. “I’ll check your computer later tonight.” The doorbell pealed, and she handed the plate over to her mother. Her heart sped up, and her hands grew moist. Taking a deep breath, she hurried to open the door. “Brian.”
He smiled and handed her a bouquet of fall flowers. Charming and perfect.
Too perfect? Jory’s words about not trusting anybody echoed in her mind.
Brian had dressed in khakis and a button-down shirt that matched his sparkling blue eyes. His blond hair was tousled from the wind, and his smile wide as he took in her forest green dress.
She grinned, her abdomen warming. “Thank you. Come on in.” Humming, she hurried into the kitchen to find a vase to place the flowers in the center of the table.
She liked flowers, right? Yep. Safe and secure, that was for her. Not sexy and deadly. Not at all. Her odd physical reaction to Jory could be discounted as stress, plain and simple.
A sharp rap on the door had her pausing. Okay. Good. This was good. Forcing a smile for Brian, she once again headed into the living room to open the door for her father. She blinked. He stood in black slacks and a button-down shirt, freshly shaved. Good Lord. She’d never seen him out of his black uniform. The sense of danger still clung to him, but in regular clothes, he seemed even handsomer. No wonder her mother had been charmed.
Piper opened the door wider. “Come in, ah, Commander.”
He strode inside, his gaze taking in the entire living room.
She looked at the gleaming wood tables and freshly plumped pillows. For hours, after returning home, she’d worked her butt off to clean the house.
He nodded. “You should probably call me Franklin outside of the facility.” Then he stalked toward the kitchen, his back straight, his body visibly on alert.
Well, that was a start. Her chest rose, and she took several deep breaths. Then she followed him into the kitchen, where Brian had clearly taken over for Rachel and was ushering people into seats. Earl hovered protectively near Rachel and held out her chair, while the commander—make that Franklin—studied Brian, his dark eyes inscrutable as he quite naturally sat at the head of the table. Earl
sat at the foot like a vibrating cocker spaniel facing a bored Doberman.
Nerves jangled along Piper’s arms as she delivered the food to the table. “Everyone dig in.” Forcing a smile, she took a seat next to her mother, not missing Rachel’s sigh of relief when she partially blocked the commander’s gaze.
Piper shook off unease. Her mother’s nerves were sending out panic signals strong enough to slicken Piper’s hands with sweat. Why was Rachel so out of sorts? If she were frightened of the commander, she would’ve said so, right? Maybe the dinner had been a bad idea.
Brian winked at Piper from across the table, and her shoulders relaxed. He then dished salad and handed the bowl to the commander. “So. Piper says you own some type of security firm?”
Piper nodded and reached for the lasagna. While she’d hated lying to Brian, and her own mother for that matter, she understood national security. Not being able to discuss her work with either her mom or her boyfriend had made for more than one uncomfortable conversation. “The company monitors alarm systems,” Piper lied smoothly.
Rachel snorted next to her and reached for the nearest wine bottle.
The commander lifted an eyebrow. “You’re a realtor?” He said the last word as if asking if Brian handed out fliers on a street corner.
“Yes,” Brian said calmly, amusement darkening his eyes.
“And you’re dating my daughter.” The commander leaned to the side to view Rachel. “I don’t believe I was consulted regarding this.”
Rachel poured herself a healthy glass of red wine. “It’s a little late for you to be consulted, don’t you think?” She took a gulp… and then another.
Piper blinked. “Ah, I’m all grown up.”
The commander kept his gaze on Rachel. “I believe we had a nice talk a while back, and that I’d be kept apprised.” His voice remained low and level, but a tenor hinted there that Piper couldn’t quite discern. When had her parents had a talk?
Rachel shrugged and downed the glass, not looking his way. “So consider yourself apprised.”
“Appraised,” Brian said automatically and then flushed.
Oh, the dinner might’ve been a bad idea. Piper shot him a desperate look for help.
His lips pursed, and his gaze hardened. He appeared neither amused nor exactly willing to lend her a hand. “So, Franklin. I take it you don’t like realtors.”
Piper’s hand brushed Rachel’s as they both reached for the bottle of wine. At this point, she might as well open a couple more.
The dinner continued with Brian irritated, Earl bristling, and Franklin arrogantly unamused. At Piper’s third glass of wine, the night took on a Cabernet mellow glow, and she finally relaxed.
They all sucked.
Finally, by some miracle, the dinner ended. Franklin politely thanked Rachel for the hospitality as he moved to go. Rachel may have snarled from a very happy place.
Piper scrambled up and pressed a hand to her forehead. The room swam as if it, too, had too much to drink. “Let me show you out.” Stubbing her toe on a chair leg, she bit back a wince and hurried after her father.
He opened the door and gestured her outside into a chilly fall night, where he’d left an innocuous-looking SUV. For some reason, Piper had expected a Hummer. She grinned. “That was fun.”
“A realtor?” the commander asked, looking down. Way down.
She shrugged. “It’s a little late for fatherly concern, don’t you think?”
One eyebrow darted up. “No. However, he seems all right.”
Piper tilted her head. “Really?”
“Yes. Good posture, admirable eye contact, reasonably in control of himself.” The commander lifted a shoulder. “Not everybody can be soldiers.”
Geez. Had Franklin just given fatherly approval for Brian? If so, why did that make her uneasy? “Um, thanks.”
Piper shuffled her feet and turned toward the frozen porch swing. “Ah, care to sit?”
“No.” Franklin settled his stance. “Why?”
She rubbed her hands together for warmth. “I was hoping you’d tell me more about Jory. About his mission and about his past.” How well did they know each other?
She cleared her throat. “So I could have a more complete picture. Did you really raise him?” A tiny part of her, one she didn’t like, reared its green little head at the thought.
“No. We recruited Jory when he’d turned eighteen.” Franklin clasped his hands behind his back. “I guess he might consider that his childhood, considering his earlier childhood consisted of him being a delinquent thief.”
Piper frowned. “If he was a thief, why did you recruit him?”
“Because he was a master at it. Brilliant, charming, and ambitious. I thought if I could harness that talent, I could make an excellent soldier.” Franklin sighed. “But once a criminal, always a criminal, I guess. Apparently I didn’t make much of an impression.”
Piper patted his arm. “I assume not many soldiers betray their country for the Russians. Nobody could’ve seen that one coming.”
“Perhaps.” Franklin ran a hand across his buzz-cut hair.
She bit her lip. “Jory mentioned he had brothers.”
“Figuratively. The recruits often band together as brothers.” Franklin winced. “Jory betrayed them, too.”
What would make a man do something like that? Jory didn’t seem like he’d betray somebody he’d cared about. What had her father and Jory been whispering about, and why couldn’t she listen in? “I’m sorry,” Piper murmured.
“Me, too. Good night.” Franklin stiffened his shoulders, turned on his heel, and headed for the SUV, not looking back.
His feelings almost seemed hurt by Jory’s defection, which signaled an emotional connection. What in the world was really going on? The air cooled her heated cheeks, although her head still swam as she hitched back inside to find Brian stretched out on the couch, the TV remote control in his hand.
“Your father is rather intense,” he muttered.
“Yes.” She peered into the empty kitchen. “Where—”
“Earl and your mom headed over to his place to fetch more wine.” Brian tossed the control onto a pillow, his gaze serious. His gaze hardened, and his jaw firmed. “I’m afraid your mother is a lush. The amount of wine you consumed isn’t exactly admirable, either.” His tone could only be described as nasal.
Piper shook her head. “Excuse me?”
Brian stood, towering over her. “You drank too much,” he said flatly.
Why the hell were all the men in her life so damn tall? She looked up at his face, her cheeks heating. “Watch your tone, jackass.”
He grabbed her arm and yanked her toward him. His lips thinned into a tight line. “I’d watch your mouth.”
Pain lanced up her elbow, and she jerked away. Who the hell did he think he was? “It’s time for you to leave.”
He stood to his full height. “I agree. Call me tomorrow when you sober up.”
“No.” Life was too damn short to deal with assholes, and the relaxed, almost relieved sensation sliding through her veins reassured her that she didn’t want him. In fact, she should thank him for giving her an excuse to end it. “We’re done. Don’t call me again.”
He sighed. “We’ll discuss it when you’re sober. Tomorrow.” Smooth as any alley cat, he skirted the table.
She set her feet. “Look at my face, Brian. We’re over. Don’t call me, don’t drop by, and please move on.”
With a pretty impressive roll of his eyes, he let himself out.
Piper glanced around the now empty room. Well, that was a night of grand fuck-upery. She’d just lost another boyfriend and hadn’t improved her work situation at all. While she’d discovered more about Jory, the information wasn’t anything helpful. More than ever, she wanted to get the job of saving him done so she could get on with her work. The man didn’t deserve saving.
The clock ticked quickly above the mantle, and the night turned to the next day. As of the moment, Jory had exactly five days to live.
Jory bit back a chuckle, sitting on his bed, his elbows on his knees. He’d finished a breakfast of runny eggs before Piper had finally arrived, being even more prickly than the day before. Whatever she’d learned about him had pissed her off apparently. “Stop ignoring me,” he muttered.