“You are the most beautiful woman in the room.”
Willow couldn’t help but tense as the rich, masculine voice seemed to wrap right around her. She’d heard him approaching, of course, and she’d known that he was closing in on her. She could feel him right behind her, not touching her, but now barely a whisper away.
She lifted the champagne flute to her lips and took a slow sip. The sweet liquid bubbled on her tongue, and she rather liked that feeling. What she didn’t like…
Willow turned to face the man who’d just complimented her. Tall and absolutely gorgeous, Jennings “Jay” Maverick seemed to dominate the ballroom. He wore a black tux that emphasized his golden tan, and his dark, blond hair wasn’t tousled for once. Instead, he’d shoved it back in a style that just emphasized his high cheekbones and the rough cut of his jaw.
More men in tuxes were behind him—dancing and flirting with women in gorgeous gowns. People who seemed to not have any cares at all. People who laughed and drank and had normal lives.
People who were not like her. “I don’t want to be here,” Willow whispered. She put her hand on his tux, right above his heart. “Why am I here?” He’d bought her a dress, some little piece of black silk that felt like heaven against her skin—she wouldn’t lie about that—but the dress didn’t seem to be her style.
Not that Willow had any idea what her style was.
Hell, she wasn’t even sure that Willow was her real name. She didn’t know a thing about her past or her life. But every instinct she had screamed that she’d never been the type for these fancy ballrooms. She didn’t fit in with these people, and part of her just wanted to vanish.
But Jay’s hand rose and his fingers—long and strong—curled around her hand. He was tall, over six feet, and he leaned toward her, his pose almost protective.
Not that she needed protecting. She was stronger than everyone in that room. Mostly because they were normal humans. And she…wasn’t.
I don’t know what I am.
“You are the most beautiful woman here,” he said again, his voice a sensual rasp. His eyes—a deep, dark brown—held hers. There was gold in the depths of his gaze. Gold that could burn with his anger. But he wasn’t angry right then. She wasn’t quite sure what he was. “You’re beautiful, Willow. So you don’t need to stand in the corner, away from everyone. You don’t need to hide a thing about yourself from the people here.”
Oh, he was so wrong. This was his world. Rich and powerful. Because Jay was apparently the man of the hour. A tech billionaire who could have anyone or anything he wanted with a snap of his fingers. But…
He can’t have me.
“The people here would freak out,” Willow told him, her voice soft, “if they knew the truth about me.”
The truth—that she was a lab experiment gone wrong. Part of the top secret Project Lazarus. A dead woman walking, literally.
She pulled her hand away from his. “How much longer do we need to stay? Haven’t I been on display long enough?” Granted, she had been standing in the corner, but she’d entered the ballroom on Jay’s arm. She’d walked into the building with him courtesy of an actual red carpet. Dozens of cameras had flashed at their entrance. She’d been seen by everyone, and Willow knew that was the point. Jay was using her to attract attention. Or rather, to attract specific attention.
Jay was hunting a very dangerous predator, and he was using her as bait in his hunt.
A muscle flexed along his jaw. “No, you haven’t been on display long enough.” His voice had roughened. Behind him, the band began to play a new song. A slow, sensual song. “Let’s dance,” Jay demanded.
Dance? Willow knew horror must have shown on her face. But it was too late to stop him because Jay had pulled her away from the wall. Eyes were instantly on them as he made his way to the dance floor, taking her with him.
Wherever Jay went, gazes followed. Women flirted. Men vied for his attention. Money truly did talk.
And, of course, the fact that Jay was sexy as hell just made him more of a media obsession.
He took her right to the middle of the dance floor. Pulled her close. Put one hand at the base of her spine, touching her skin because there was no back to the dress he’d picked out. His other hand cradled her palm, holding her carefully.
His head lowered toward her, and Willow turned her face to his ear, hissing, “I can’t dance,” even as she felt a flood of heat stain her cheeks. This was going to be another humiliation for her. Another in a long line.
She had no memories of her past. No idea who she’d been before she woke in some godforsaken North Carolina lab. She’d been put in Project Lazarus, and Willow had lost her life. When she’d escaped that facility, she’d made the mistake of trusting the wrong man—a killer. If Jay hadn’t helped her, if he hadn’t gotten her to a safe place…
“Fuck me, baby,” Jay rasped. “I’m sorry. I didn’t think…Look, all you have to do is just hold on to me.”
He didn’t think…Hadn’t realized that while she might know how to kill a man in a hundred different ways, she didn’t know how to dance. Didn’t know how to laugh and flirt and act like she was a normal woman.
He pulled her even closer. The couples around them were moving in sync, doing much more advanced dancing. Were those couples waltzing or something? She didn’t know. Willow just wrapped her arm around Jay’s neck and buried her hot face against his tux.
She wanted this night to end.
“One foot,” Jay murmured, and now his mouth was near her ear. He’d curled his body into hers, and she felt almost protected. “Then the other. Just move with me. Sway. That’s all you have to do. Close your eyes and listen to the music.”
Her eyes closed.
His hand tightened on hers. “I’ve got you.”
The safety of his arms was a lie. She was smart enough to know that. She couldn’t trust Jay. Jay was Project Lazarus. He’d been the guy to help bankroll the operation. And now he was there, with her, because he was trying to atone. The guy didn’t get it. You couldn’t atone for some things in this world.
But she kept her eyes closed. She listened to the music. And she found her body moving in a slow, natural rhythm with his. They seemed to flow together as they moved across the dance floor. Murmurs teased her ears, whispers that she hadn’t been intended to overhear, but Willow’s senses didn’t work like an average human’s.
“Who is she?”
“Jay’s newest lover isn’t what I expected. He usually goes for a more cultured sort.”
“I’d fuck her.”
At that last, rough pronouncement, Willow stiffened. “I’d like to leave now.” Her head lifted. “I’ve been on display for long enough.” She’d done her part. Now she was getting out of there. And if Jay didn’t like it, too bad.
But instead of another argument, he gave a grim nod. Then he took her arm and tucked it into the crook of his elbow. He didn’t look to the left or the right as he led her out of the ballroom. Her heart was about to jump right out of her chest, and her high heels clicked over the gleaming floor. They were just at the wide, double doors when—
“Leaving so soon?” A tall, handsome man with dark, coffee skin had stepped into their path. West Harper. Jay’s best-friend. His head of security. And his only family. West raised one brow. “I think the party is just getting started.”
Jay shook his head. “Willow’s done.” His voice didn’t carry past their little group. “And if one more man looks at her like he can’t wait to get her naked, I’m going to lose my shit.”
Willow blinked. “Um, what?”
Jay turned his face toward her. The gold in his eyes was definitely burning. “Lose. My. Shit.” Each word was growled. “They are practically drooling, and I’m about to kick some asses.”
West clapped a hand on Jay’s shoulder. “Seriously, when is the last time you kicked ass? Remind me again?”
Jay bared his teeth at the other man. “Don’t push me right now. It’s been one hell of a night.”
She actually thought West was the only guy who could push him. Jay didn’t let anyone get close to him—well, no one but West—and she knew that was because those two had known each other for so long.
It must be nice to have a past with someone else. Actually, it must be nice to have a past at all.
“Stay at the party as long as you want,” Jay muttered. “I’m taking Willow home. You and I can talk tomorrow.”
A waiter came by with a tray full of champagne flutes. West snagged one, and then he was snagged by a gorgeous lady in red.
“Let’s go, Willow.” Jay’s voice was still clipped as they marched toward the elevator. Since she was more than ready to get out of that place, she kept a quick pace with him.
Several people tried to stop Jay as they closed in on the elevator. People were trying to push ideas and apps at him, but Jay just shook his head. “Not now. Call my office.”
An attendant held the elevator for him, and the same attendant made sure that only Willow and Jay got on the elevator.
“You need anything, Mr. Maverick?” The attendant’s gaze was wide, more than a little star struck. Apparently, being a tech billionaire was better than being a movie star. She’d been told a few of those had been in the ballroom. She hadn’t particularly cared to find out their identities.
“Make sure my car is waiting downstairs.” Jay’s hand reached out and shook the attendant’s. Willow saw the younger guy quickly pocket the money Jay had slipped him in that casual touch.
“Absolutely.” The attendant’s smile was huge. “You have a great night, Mr. Maverick.”
The elevator doors slid closed. Right before they did, Willow was pretty sure she saw a woman in a glittering, blue grown snapping a pic with her phone.
Such a blessed relief. “I don’t like being in crowds.” She stood with her shoulders against the back of the elevator. The walls were covered with mirrors, and her own reflection stared back at her. “I’m sorry if I was a-a disappointment tonight—”
“You could never be that.” And he caught her hand. At his touch, a little, electric spark seemed to shoot through her body. That always happened when he touched her. She became too aware, too sensitive.
He moved closer, putting his body in front of hers. They’d been on the top floor, so the elevator ride would take a little time, she knew that. Time in which she’d be alone with Jay.
His gaze held hers. “Every man there wanted to fuck you.”
Now Willow winced. “Not exactly what I wanted to hear.”
“My damn fault.” Now his gaze dropped to her body. “The dress…”
“You bought it.”
“And you make it look like a fantasy.”
That was, well, rather nice.
Jay shook his head. “You’ll be unforgettable. To the men and the women. That was the point.” He let go of her hand. Took a step back. Straightened his shoulders. “Your picture will be in the press. On the Internet. You’ll go worldwide, baby. Somewhere out there, someone will recognize your face.”
That was good and bad. “How much longer do I have to be bait?”
Now he flinched. “It’s not just about you being bait.” His voice was guttural. “It’s about finding your past. It’s about—”
“It’s about you wanting to hunt down Wyman Wright.” Wyman Wright. Just saying the name made her tense. Wyman Wright was the man who’d set the wheels in motion for Project Lazarus. The man who’d chosen the test subjects, the man who’d turned them into monsters.
Wyman Wright was also the man who’d seemed to vanish—quite literally—off the face of the earth. Only Jay thought he could coax Wyman out of hiding. Jay thought that Wyman would come after Willow.
And that’s why I’m bait.
The elevator dinged. They’d reached the ground floor.
The doors started to slide open.
Jay reached out his hand and pressed a button on the elevator control panel. Immediately, the doors closed. The elevator didn’t move.
But Willow’s heart raced a little faster.
“I want to make things right.” His face had tensed, and his gaze seemed to burn.
And there it was again. His guilt. Always between them. “I’m not some pet project.” Her words came out angry, crisp. “Not some mistake you just get to wipe away.” But…wasn’t she a mistake? Her chest ached, and she lifted her hand, pressing her palm against her racing heart.
“You’re not a mistake.” His gaze burned. “You could never be that.”
He moved toward her once more. Very, very close. And his hands rose to curl around her shoulders. She stiffened because that electric awareness was there again, and Willow tried to retreat, but there was nowhere to go. Her back was pressed to the mirror behind her.
Emotions swirled inside of her. Dark and twisting. Sometimes, she was twisted, too. She could do things, such bad things. She could slip into a person’s mind and turn fears into reality. She’d…hurt people.
And Willow knew she’d hurt others in the future. That was who she was.
“You shouldn’t touch me,” she reminded him, her voice hushed. “You know touching me is dangerous.”
Because if she touched her prey, it gave her power. The power to slip right into her prey’s mind—
“Do I look afraid?”
She blinked. No, he didn’t look afraid. He looked—
“Ever wonder what it would be like if we kissed, Willow?”
Her lips parted in surprise. Heat stained her cheeks because she felt as if he’d just gotten into her mind. Yes, she wondered. She fantasized, even though she knew it was wrong. He wouldn’t want to be with someone like her. He felt guilty, that was all.
“Because I do,” Jay continued in his dark, rumbling voice. “I wonder about it, oh, a thousand times a day. I think you wonder, I think you feel the need, too. This…desire. This craving.”
“It’s not natural.” Her voice was so low.
But the narrowing of his eyes told her that he’d heard her words. “Why do you say that?”
Because nothing about her was natural. She’d come back from the dead. She was a monster. Maybe she was evil. She didn’t know. Willow didn’t answer his question. She stood there, feeling the heat of his body press to hers, inhaling his crisp, masculine scent.
And she fought her need.
“Do you want me, Willow?”
Her lashes lowered, concealing her gaze. She needed him to back away. Her emotions were all over the place and… “You’re the man who financed Project Lazarus.” She made her voice flat. Willow eased out a low breath, schooled her expression, and forced herself to meet his stare once more. “How do you think I feel about you?”
Jay flinched. His hands immediately fell away from her shoulders. “Right. My mistake.” He backed up.
She missed his warmth.
Her hands fisted at her sides because Willow almost reached out to him. She couldn’t do that, though. Touching—her touch—was too deadly.
He turned toward the control panel, giving her his back. “Let’s go home.” Suddenly, he sounded weary. Weary beyond belief. “Don’t forget, when the doors open and we head outside, cameras will be flashing.” He glanced over his shoulder. “So just try to pretend that you don’t hate me.”
The doors opened. He offered his arm to her.
She looped her arm with his. I don’t hate you. She didn’t. Her high heels clicked on the gleaming, marble floor. Attendants rushed to open the lobby’s double doors for them, and then the cold night air was whipping against them. Jay bent protectively toward her as cameras flashed. Voices shouted. Questions rained down on them.
She and Jay were on the red carpet. A long, thick, red carpet that led through the throng of reporters. She could see the limo waiting up ahead. Less than ten feet away now. She could make it to the vehicle. No problem. The circus was almost over. Willow pasted a smile on her face.
“Kiss her!” A voice shouted.
Her gaze jerked toward that voice. She found a man in a big, thick, gray coat grinning at her. He had a whole film crew with him.
“Let’s get a video,” the guy called. “Viewers will love this shit!”
Her attention snapped back to Jay. He’d paused on the carpet, making her stop, too.
But he shook his head. “She isn’t for your viewers.” He smiled at Willow, and it was such a tender, warm smile.
More cameras flashed.
“She’s only for me,” he added.
Her chest ached again. If only he meant those words.
Then they were walking once more. She was smiling, only the smile felt easier now. Almost real. Jay was warm and strong beside her. His body moved protectively with hers. For just a moment, she could almost imagine what it would be like to really be his date. To be the focus of his intense attention.
To kiss him.
To make love with him.
The driver was holding open the back door to the limo.
She bent, preparing to go in first but…
Willow glanced back.
Jay had turned to respond to a reporter. He was answering some question about a new security feature he was adding for his users, and she heard…
A sharp crack. The thunder of gunfire.
The questions stopped. The screams began.
And Willow found herself in Jay’s arms. She didn’t remember lunging toward him. Didn’t remember grabbing him, but his arms were around her, and he was staring down at her in absolute horror.
She tried to smile. He’d said that she needed to smile for the cameras. The cameras were flashing. People were screaming, but cameras were still on her and Jay. Still watching.
“Baby, baby, you’re bleeding.” Jay’s voice was shaking. Emotion blazed in his eyes as he held her tightly. He surged toward the limo, shoving them into the back of the vehicle. “Get the fucking car moving! Get us to the nearest ER!”
She distantly heard a door slam. Had the limo driver done that? He shouldn’t be walking around outside. Someone was shooting out there.
Jay’s voice snapped her attention up to his face even as she felt the limo lurch forward. Tires squealed.
“Baby, you’re bleeding badly.”
She realized he was pressing down on her chest. Odd, she didn’t feel his touch. Or any pain. She barely seemed to feel anything at all. “Sh-shot…”
“Yeah, you were shot.” For an instant, she could have sworn that he looked afraid. “But I’m going to get you to a hospital. You’re going to be all right.”
She wasn’t so sure of that. “Can’t…hospital…” Her words were softer. Talking was an effort. But she couldn’t go to a hospital. The doctors would realize how different she was. “H-home…” He just had to take her home. “Heal…” Jay knew she’d heal. He understood about her differences.
“Look at me.” His voice was a fierce demand. “Look at me, Willow.”
Her lashes lifted. She hadn’t realized her eyes had closed.
“I think the bullet…God, there is so much damn blood! I think it nicked your heart. Or got an artery or—shit, I’m not a doctor, I don’t know! I just—it’s bad. Very bad and you—”
Her lashes closed again. She couldn’t make them stay open.
And she also couldn’t hear Jay. Not any longer. That was strange. Her senses were so strong. She should be able to hear him.
There was just nothing.
“Willow?” Jay pressed his hands down harder on her chest. He could feel her blood on his fingers. Willow’s blood.
She didn’t react. Didn’t flinch. Didn’t move.
His right hand flew up and pressed to her throat. The limo was bouncing and flying down the road, weaving and jerking to the left, then to the right. His fingers shook as he searched for her pulse.
A pulse she didn’t have.
No. Fuck, no.
This shouldn’t have happened. The goal had been to attract attention. To get eyes on Willow. Not to get her hurt.
The limo screeched to a stop. He heard the slam of a door. Jay knew the limo driver was rushing back to help him.
Jay’s fingers were still on Willow’s throat.
The door opened. The interior lights immediately came on, illuminating everything with a soft, warm glow. Illuminating Willow’s beautiful face. Her small nose, her delicate jaw. The heavy, dark mass of her hair.
The blood on her neck. Blood that had come from his fingers.
“We’re at the hospital,” the driver managed to choke out between quick pants of breath. “Let’s get her inside, let’s—”
“We don’t need the hospital.” He had to play this scene carefully. When she’d been hit, he’d freaked the fuck out for a moment. He’d just seen her blood. He’d felt her go limp. And he’d lost his mind. Jay cleared his throat. He moved to Willow’s side, and he pulled her into his lap.
Her head sagged limply against him.
Swallowing, he wrapped his arms around her. Willow’s black dress hid most of the blood.
“Sir?” Now the driver sounded worried.
He should be worried.
Jay pressed a kiss to Willow’s head. He swallowed once more to clear the lump in his throat. “The wound wasn’t nearly as bad as I feared.” He glanced at the driver. The man gaped at him. Jay gave a brisk nod. “She’s just resting now. Willow has requested that we go home, and that my personal physician, Dr. Elizabeth Parker, attend to her.”
The driver didn’t move. “She…she isn’t moving, sir.”
No, she wasn’t. He held her tighter. “She’s resting. Now, hurry, get us home.”
The driver still hesitated.
“Home,” Jay snapped. “Cops and reporters are going to chase me down, and I want Willow safe and taken care of before I have to face them.” He jerked his head. “The hospital is the first place they’ll look. I won’t have Willow subjected to that hell, not after—not after some bastard shot at her.” He could still hear the thunder of gunfire in his head. “Get us home. She’ll be safe there, and I can take care of her at our house.”
The driver slammed the door shut. Either the fellow had decided to listen to his boss—or he’d just decided that Jay was insane and that his employer was cradling a dead woman. Either way, didn’t really matter. What mattered was that the limo was soon moving again.
Jay’s eyes squeezed closed as he held Willow. “You’ll come back to me.” His body began to rock just a bit as he held her. “That’s what you do. The Lazarus subjects always come back.” The subjects were supposed to be able to survive anything, except a bullet to the brain. They died, but they came back. Just like the original Lazarus. They were the dead, rising.
She just had to rise.
“You’ll come back,” Jay said again. He pressed another kiss to her temple. “You’d fucking better.”