She could hear the sound of his strong, steady heartbeat as it filled her ears.
“How am I, doc?” Sawyer Cage asked as he flashed her a wide smile. The dimple in his left cheek winked at her and his dark blue eyes flashed.
Dr. Elizabeth Parker licked her lips as she pulled the stethoscope away from his bare chest. Her fingers slid over his skin, and she felt his warmth like an electric spark against her. “Your vitals are good.” Her voice was crisp, and her back was ramrod straight. She put down the stethoscope and moved to grab his chart. “Good…despite the fact that you returned from your latest mission with a gunshot wound to your shoulder—”
“It’s barely a graze. Didn’t even need stitches—”
“A stab wound to your right arm—”
“Okay, so that needed maybe…four stitches. Five, max.”
“And bruising on your ribs that indicate—”
“Things got a little…intense.” His smile dimmed. “Nothing that my team couldn’t handle, though.”
His team. Right. Because Sawyer Cage was one of the bad asses of the world. A SEAL leader who took his team on missions that most folks would never know about—because those folks just didn’t have the clearance to know. But she knew. Elizabeth knew everything about his missions, and they terrified her. On most days, he terrified her, too. “Intense is an understatement,” Elizabeth muttered as she dropped the chart and returned to the exam table. His legs were spread apart and she slipped between them as she shined her light in Sawyer’s eyes, checking to make sure his pupils responded appropriately.
He inhaled. “You smell good, doc. That a new lotion? Strawberries?”
She froze. The light was still shining right on him, but not aiming straight in his eyes any longer. They were in her exam room, just the two of them, and as per the requirements of his job—and hers—she was running a post mission check on him. He never said anything personal to her in the exam room. They’d been doing this same routine for over a year. He barely spoke to her at all when she checked him out.
She jerked her hand back from him, all too aware that her heart was racing. Sawyer was big, he was muscled, and he was sexy as hell. Tall, dark, and drop-dead handsome perfectly described the guy. And this was not the place or the time for her to be having any of those thoughts.
His fingers—with rough calluses on the tips—curled around her wrist. “You okay?”
He had to feel the mad rush of her pulse beneath his touch. Elizabeth notched up her chin and pretended that she was one hundred percent, completely okay. “I’m not the one coming off an adrenaline high. You’re the one crashing.” She stared straight into his eyes. “And my lotion isn’t really your concern.”
One jet-black eyebrow rose. He didn’t let go of her wrist. He did caress her lightly with his thumb. Their gazes held.
“Do we have a problem?” Elizabeth asked him. Her voice was still crisp, and her heart was still racing so hard she feared it would start to make her whole body shake. No, he’s the one doing that—he’s making my body—
His hand slid away from hers. “Not at all.” Sawyer’s half-smile came and went again as his dimple flashed. A man as tough and dangerous as Sawyer shouldn’t have a dimple. That dimple made him seem charming, easy. Total lie.
“Good.” She turned her back on him. Elizabeth could feel the heat stinging her cheeks. It is way too hot in here. Maybe the air conditioning wasn’t working. Yeah, right. “You’ll need a few days to recover. Try to avoid any strenuous activity. If you need something for the pain—”
“No dice, doc. I can handle the pain just fine without any drugs.”
Of course, what else would a guy like him say? He thought he was Superman.
She tucked her hands into the pockets of her lab coat. “Then you’re done here. You can get dressed.”
There was a faint rustle behind her. She reached for the door handle.
“I like the new scent, doc. It’s nice. But then, I always think you smell nice.” The faintest hint of his Texas accent slipped through Sawyer’s words.
Elizabeth glanced back. He was standing near the exam table, and he’d pulled on his button-up shirt. She could see the edge of the bandage on his shoulder, peeking beneath the cotton material. Sawyer had been right. The guy hadn’t needed stitches for the bullet graze, but she’d still cleaned the wound and covered it. And she’d thought about what would have happened if that bullet hadn’t just grazed him, if it had instead lodged in his heart. Killed him. Her gaze darted up to his blue eyes.
His stare was locked on her.
And Sawyer’s eyes burned with an intensity she hadn’t seen before.
Fumbling, Elizabeth yanked open the exam room door. Then she shut it, fast, as she stumbled into the hallway and—
And she ran right into the last man she’d hoped to see at that particular moment. She staggered when their bodies hit, and Dr. Landon Meyer grabbed her arm to steady her. Behind his glasses, his dark brown eyes narrowed with apparent concern.
“Are you okay, Dr. Parker? You’re flushed—”
The exam room door creaked open. The tension in the air suddenly seemed to rocket way up, but Elizabeth hoped that was just her imagination.
Landon’s gaze jerked over her shoulder.
“There a problem?” The question came from behind her. That was Sawyer’s deep, rumbling voice—a voice that contained a decided edge.
Elizabeth shrugged away from Landon. She pasted a smile on her face as she turned to Sawyer. “Just a clumsy moment. I’m glad Dr. Meyer was here to help me out.”
Sawyer’s face remained tense. “Yeah. Good thing he was here.” He sounded anything but thrilled. He moved forward, pushing right in the middle of Elizabeth and Landon. His gaze raked over the other man. Landon was a few inches shorter than Sawyer, and nowhere near as menacing. Landon’s features were handsome in a generic, non-threatening kind of way. The clean-cut guy.
“How are you feeling, Cage?” Landon asked immediately. “I heard about the firefight that broke out—”
“No big deal. Everything was under control. It always is.”
Cocky. Arrogant. That was Sawyer. But…
His fingers slid over her wrist. Such a careful caress. Then he gave a little salute to her and Landon. “Think I’ll go crash now. It’s been one hell of a day.” He sauntered away from them, moving with a lethal grace. That was the way he always walked—controlled, careful, but as if he were poised to attack at any moment.
Because the man is a weapon. And Sawyer is completely aware of just how deadly he is. Again…cocky? Or just confident?
“Don’t forget the event tonight!” Landon’s voice boomed after Sawyer. “We’ll need you and your team there! The boss wants to talk with you all.”
“His wounds—” Elizabeth began.
“I’ll be there.” Sawyer’s voice floated back to them as he paused near the elevator. “You said I had to avoid ‘strenuous’ things, right, doc? A boring black-tie ball won’t exactly make me sweat.”
Jumping into a warzone probably didn’t make the guy sweat, either.
Landon’s stare turned to Elizabeth. “I’ll need you there, too.” His voice dropped as he stepped closer to her. “Our boss is insisting on seeing you tonight. He’s excited about Lazarus, and he’s ready for action—”
Now Elizabeth was the one to grab his arm. “Landon. Not here.” Her gaze immediately jerked toward the elevator, and she found Sawyer staring right at her. His gaze glittered. She swallowed and let go of Landon. “Look, let’s talk privately, okay?”
“That’s why I was coming to get you,” Landon shot back, but his voice was low—only for her ears. “For a private talk.” Then he turned on his heel and headed for his office. Elizabeth straightened her shoulders and followed him, but with every step she took, she could have sworn that she felt the weight of Sawyer’s gaze on her. Her back seemed to burn from the intensity of his stare. She didn’t glance over her shoulder, though, not even when she heard the ding of the elevator.
Then she was in front of Landon’s office. He stood just inside the doorway, frowning at her. “Is there something wrong?” Landon asked this question as she slipped inside. He hurriedly closed the door behind her. “Did something happen with you and Sawyer during the exam? Because you came running out of that room—”
“Nothing.” An immediate denial. “Nothing happened. He checked out fine.” Her lips quirked in a faint smile. “He always does.”
Landon crossed the room and sat down behind his wide, cherry wood desk. “Of course.” His voice was flat. “He’s the leader of the Pack, isn’t he? Our superstar.” There was just the faintest touch of anger in his voice.
The Pack. That was the name given to Sawyer’s group. Their team wasn’t on the books, not officially, anyway. That way, the government could always have easy deniability if any of the missions ever went wrong.
But what even Sawyer and his team didn’t know…the covert facility that she was currently inside of wasn’t just used so that the elite team could be mended after their missions. The place was also heavily involved in military research.
She was heavily involved in military research. And Uncle Sam was a very demanding employer. “You shouldn’t talk about Lazarus so freely,” she chided, and even though it was just the two of them in that office, her voice was hushed. “The program is far from ready for implementation.”
Very slowly, Landon removed his glasses. He sat them near the edge of his desk. “That’s not good news.” The overhead light gleamed on his perfectly cut blond hair.
A rough laugh escaped her. She did that. Laughed when she was nervous. Flushed when she was scared. Her body was always giving her away. Truth be told, Elizabeth wasn’t particularly comfortable around other people. She’d always preferred the security of a lab to the randomness of the real world—and to the emotions that bombarded her when she was surrounded by people.
“I thought you’d had positive results with the experiments.” Landon tapped his fingers on the desk. A slow, steady tap.
“I have experienced good results. But we are talking about working with lab rats, not humans. The rats reanimated, they came back, even stronger than they’d been before, but…some of them were showing serious aggressive tendencies—”
“They. Came. Back? Stronger?” His fingers had stopped drumming. He stared at her, unblinkingly for a moment, then Landon surged to his feet. “Why didn’t you tell me immediately?”
She actually didn’t have a ready answer for his question. Why hadn’t she told him? Technically, Landon was her immediate supervisor but…I was scared. I was sitting in a lab and I was playing God and I was realizing I was in way over my head. “We’re only beginning the experiments. Those subjects were rats, not people. We have a very, very long way to go before we could possibly—”
In a flash, he was around the desk and right in front of her. “We need to test on a human subject right away.”
What? Was the guy crazy? “We can’t. There are protocols in place, you know that. Federal regulations. There is no way we could possibly risk hurting—”
Now he was laughing. Hard. And she didn’t like the sound of Landon’s laughter. “Oh, my dear Elizabeth…” He smiled. “We’re talking about testing on the dead. How can we possibly hurt them?”
For a moment, Elizabeth didn’t speak. Project Lazarus was absolutely top secret. Only a handful of individuals knew of its existence, and the project was her brain child. She’d been the one to first make the breakthrough that allowed her to reactivate the brain cells of dead lab rats. The formula had taken her years to create, but she’d done it. Her last series of tests proved that her theories had been correct. She’d finally had her breakthrough. She’d done what so many had said was impossible. And why had she done it?
Because I wanted to stop death.
Only…A shiver slid over her skin. Only maybe death shouldn’t be stopped. Maybe I’ve been wrong. “Human trials are a very long time away. We are not even close to that point.”
The smile stayed on Landon’s face. “You know that our team doesn’t play by the rules that others have to follow.” He leaned in closer to her. “In fact, we can make our own rules.” Another laugh slipped from him. “Remember, we’re talking about the dead, Elizabeth. The dead. You can’t hurt them.”
Yes, you can. “I think you didn’t hear everything I said before.” Maybe he’d gotten distracted by the whole reanimated part. She’d try explaining again. Slowly. “The rats are exhibiting improved reflexes and strength, but there are other effects that are not so positive. Some of the rats that reanimated displayed aggressive behavior.” Behavior that made her nervous. “We must study them, we have to see exactly what short and long term effects could be happening—”
His phone rang, cutting right through her words. It wasn’t the phone on his desk that was ringing. Instead, his pocket was vibrating. Landon hurriedly pulled out the phone and frowned down at the screen. “That’s all for now, Elizabeth. We’ll talk tonight.” He waved her toward the door. “I’m very pleased with our progress.”
Our? Her eyes narrowed on him. “Lazarus isn’t ready yet.”
Landon put the phone to his ear and turned his back on her. Obviously, he was done with her. “Sir!” His voice was far too loud and jovial. “I’ve got excellent news for you. The recent batch of test subjects reanimated…”
And she knew exactly who was on the other end of that line. Their boss. The man who could make a president sweat. The man who knew every secret in the world and who never hesitated to use his power. Wyman Wright.
“Lazarus is on target,” Landon continued brightly. Without looking at her, he waved toward the door once more, tossing his hand over his shoulder in an impatient gesture. “Everything is exactly on target.”
Elizabeth flipped her middle finger at him as she marched for the door. A few moments later, she was in the hallway, her body tight with tension. She kept her head down as she walked, and her hands were fisted in the pockets of her lab coat. When she reached her lab, she fumbled with the door, and actually managed to unlock it on the second try. Once inside, Elizabeth immediately headed toward her test subjects. The rats were where she’d left them and—
Elizabeth stilled. She’d left three of the Lazarus rats together in one cage. But now, only one rat was still alive in that cage. Its red eyes stared unblinkingly up at her. Around him, she could see the ravaged bodies of the other two rats. It looked as if they’d been ripped apart.
Her breath froze in her lungs.
Everything is exactly on target. Landon’s words rang in her ears.
The hell it was.
The rat kept watching her.
The ballroom was filled with the rich and the powerful. Men wore elegant tuxes while women smiled as diamonds glittered at their ears and long, elegant dresses clung to their bodies.
A band played some soft jazz music. Waiters drifted through the crowd. Some offered champagne, some carried plates of hors d'oeuvres. Men and women danced. Flirted. And in the background, deals were made. Lives were changed.
“Same fucking shit, right?” The question came from Sawyer’s right. “Just a different night.”
Sawyer turned his head, and he saw his buddy Flynn Haddox. Flynn was staring at the crowd, disgust tight on his face. Flynn was a member of the Pack, and like Sawyer, the man would far prefer to be in the field, in the middle of a white-hot battle…than to be in that damn ballroom.
But being there was a part of their job. This wasn’t some typical event, and they weren’t typical employees of the United States government. The charity ball was a sham, as was so many of the other events like this they’d attended in the past. His boss—Wyman Wright—was at that ball. Making plans. Destroying worlds. The usual course of business for the guy.
And private donors were there, people who gave Wright money off the books. Sometimes, those people liked to come face to face with the team who did the dirty work. The rich got a rush from being in the same room with the dangerous.
He didn’t get a rush. He just got pissed off.
“Did you get your turn with the big boss?” Sawyer asked Flynn, nodding toward the closed door on the right. Sawyer had already gone inside that room and talked to the man who was supposed to be only a myth.
“Yeah, I did my part. Checked in. Said I was still good to go for whatever mission comes next.”
Sawyer had done the same. It wasn’t often that he was required to have an up-close interview with Wright, but when he was called up, Sawyer always handled the meetings with brutal honesty. Yeah, we needed at least five more men. We still got the job done. But we aren’t fucking miracle workers. We need more power.
Wright had promised him more power. Usually, the guy delivered on his promises. Wyman Wright. Probably a bullshit name. Wright looked like a pencil pusher, but he wasn’t. Though he wasn’t listed on the books anywhere, Wright was the backbone of D.C., the puppet master who’d seen plenty of FBI and CIA directors come and go, and he was always ready for action, no matter who might be sitting in the Oval Office.
“Since I’ve done my face time,” Flynn added with a slow incline of his head. “I’m ducking out of here. I’m sure I can find just the right something special to help me relax.” His gaze was directed across the room. On a pretty blonde woman in a long, red dress.
Sawyer lifted his glass—still full of champagne because he didn’t drink the stuff—in a small salute. “Have fun with that.”
“I intend to.” Flynn slapped him on the shoulder. Flynn was just an inch shorter than Sawyer’s own six-foot-three frame, and they were both built along the same rough, muscled lines. While Sawyer had jet-black hair, Flynn’s was brown. They’d both spent their adult lives working for Uncle Sam, in one form or another. Hunting was second nature to them. Killing… that was far too easy.
Flynn cleared his throat. “Maybe you should look for some fun, too.”
Sawyer found his gaze drifting around the ballroom. “Maybe I will.”
The door to Wright’s office—well, his office for the night, anyway—opened. And there she was. The star of Sawyer’s frequent fantasies. Dr. Elizabeth Parker. Her long, dark hair was loose tonight. Normally, she kept it secured at the nape of her neck. Every single time she gave him an exam, Sawyer had to fight the urge to pull down her hair. To touch the soft silk.
Her hair was down, and her habitual lab coat was long gone. Instead, Elizabeth wore a black dress that fit her like a glove, revealing far too much about the curves his hands itched to touch.
“Uh, right…not happening,” Flynn announced with a laugh. “You know Dr. Parker wouldn’t look twice at you.”
Sawyer’s gaze snapped back to his soon-to-be ex friend. “What the fuck? Why would you say that?” Now he was legitimately insulted. Shit.
Flynn held up his hands. “Sorry, bro, but I don’t think she likes fighters. She’s more into the…intellectual type, I’d say. I mean, not that you aren’t but…” He shook his head. “She’s delicate, you know? Dude, you’d break her in two if you got her in the sack.”
The hell he would. “Get your ass out of here. Your blonde is getting away.” He didn’t wait to see how Flynn responded. Sawyer strode through the crowd, his focus on the prize he wanted.
At that moment, Elizabeth looked up. Her gaze landed on him—such a dark, deep gaze. Chocolate. He fucking loved chocolate. Her lips were painted red, and they were sexy as hell. Those lips trembled for a moment when she saw him, but then Elizabeth spun on her heel and headed out onto the balcony.
“Told you man…” Flynn’s annoying voice called from right behind him. “Not interested.”
The asshole had followed him. “Fuck off.” Sawyer rolled back his shoulders. “I’m not going to screw the doc. I know the rules.” And rule number one in their program was no fraternizing. That had been made clear to him and his team as soon as they had agreed to join Wright’s covert group of operatives.
Sawyer shoved his champagne glass at a nearby waiter. He yanked at the neck of his dress shirt and jerked at his tie. He hated having to put on fancy clothes, and he hated having to act civilized at these stupid events. Sawyer was far more comfortable in the field. Working a mission. Holding a gun in his hand and stalking his prey. He hated being in this freaking circus of a ballroom.
He slipped onto the balcony. The doc was the only other person out there. Her hands were curled over the wrought-iron railing, and the wind lightly teased her thick, dark hair. He stilled for a moment, just staring at her. Did the woman have any idea just how beautiful he thought she was? Did she know exactly how many times she’d starred in his dreams? He’d fucked her in them, endlessly.
She glanced back at him. The moonlight fell on her face. To him, she was utter perfection. Oval face, sweet cheekbones and that stubborn little chin. Her lips were sin, and he’d spent far too much time thinking about her mouth. When he’d been in the exam room with her earlier that day, she’d been standing between his thighs, and he’d wanted to lean forward and take her mouth with his.
“You look good.” Her voice drifted to him. “Your injuries don’t seem to be slowing you down any.”
He moved closer to her. The woman drew him in. Moth to a flame. “Nope. Not slowing me even a little bit.”
Her lips curved in a faint smile. “Do you think you’re Superman?”
“Only some days.” Only when I’m close to you.
Her smile faded. “No one is immortal.” She bit her lower lip, and her gaze seemed to look right through him. “I don’t…I’m starting to think no one should be.”
An odd thing to say.
“Guess it depends on who you are living forever with.” He took up a position right next to her on the balcony. His shoulder brushed against hers. When she didn’t speak again, he tried to figure out what the hell to say to her. And, of course, Flynn’s asshole words rang in his ears. She’s more into the…intellectual type, I’d say. He should have punched his jerk of a friend. “Big crowd here tonight. Aren’t you supposed to be inside? Charming everyone so that the funding keeps going to our program?” The people back in that ballroom were the power players in D.C. Wright liked to take donations from private parties who shared his interests. It was easier to keep his activities out of the government—and media’s—spotlight that way.
“I’m not good at charm.” Her voice was soft and husky. “That’s not why I’m on Wright’s staff.”
“You do a good job of charming me.” He moved even closer to her.
Immediately, she slid away. “Sawyer—”
A man’s sharp laughter cut through the night. Sawyer turned his head and saw that a fellow in a tux had wandered onto the balcony. The guy was laughing it up with some redhead. Dammit.
“Meet me downstairs,” Sawyer rasped to Elizabeth. “Five minutes. We need to talk. Privately.”
Then, taking his time, Sawyer strolled off that balcony. He didn’t look back. Maybe Elizabeth would come to meet him. Maybe she wouldn’t. But what he had to say to the doc—it couldn’t be said with someone else’s eyes on them.
He needed her alone.
And that’s how I’ll get her.