Chapter One: Welcome Home
Tom Fitzgerald hated this place. Memories hung in the air as he searched each room for suspicious items or objects. He held his pistol low with both hands, ready to shoot anything that moved. People were always trying to kill him; an occupational hazard. And his fledgling bloodline didn’t help matters.
The phone in his pocket buzzed. He knew who it was without looking. That detour he took to grab a few things from the store hadn’t gone unnoticed. Fucking GPS tracker.
He holstered his weapon after clearing the guest suite. It no longer resembled the childhood bedroom he remembered due to the renovations completed after his mother’s murder. His aunt stopped by weekly to keep the place up and running, which was a waste of time. No one lived here. Tom owned the family property and wanted nothing to do with it. Too many raw emotions were floating about, and no amount of redecorating would fix that. If it were up to him, he’d sell the place, but his father forbade it.
Tom hit speed dial on his phone as he walked towards the front of the cabin. His dad, who also happened to be his boss, picked up on the first ring and didn’t bother with a greeting.
“Your report is late.”
The days when Tom enjoyed his father’s brief calls were long gone. A consequence of their last few months together.
“I didn’t realize I was on a deadline,” Tom drawled. “Maybe you should have been clearer.” He suppressed the urge to add, asshole, to that statement.
“My directions were more than clear, Sentinel. Has the asset been moved to the appropriate quarters?” Of course his father would want to know this first. He was obsessed with the asset. Tom eyed the sedan parked in the gravel driveway through the front window. The asset is contained and unconscious, sir.
“Is this how this is going to go?” Tom wondered. “With you checking up on me every ten minutes? Because we both know I’m more than capable of handling this job.”
“Like how you handled the Stas situation?”
The reminder of why his father sent him on this mission made him cringe. All Tom wanted was to show Stas the truth about her blood-sucking boyfriend, but that plan backfired big-time. He doubted she would ever trust him again, and now he was stuck in the middle of upstate New York on a babysitting mission. At least she is safe here . . .
“The asset and I are on site. What other information do you require, sir?” Tom learned a long time ago that formality was the best way to placate his father. And he wanted nothing more than to end this conversation and go about his business. The sooner he completed this mission, the sooner he could go back to preparing for the inevitable.
“Is the asset secure?”
Tom looked at the black car outside. “Yes.” Just not in the way you want. The unconscious woman didn’t need to be restrained, which was why he removed the handcuffs the second they crossed the New York City limits. And fuck the idea of keeping her in a cage as his father wanted. This mission would operate according to Tom’s plans, and that did not include locking a female up like an animal.
“Why did you stop at the pharmacy?” his father asked.
Ah, and now we get to the real reason you called me. “I needed a few things.”
Tom recognized that steely tone. John Fitzgerald’s innate ability to force the truth out of others only worked in person, but that didn’t stop him from attempting it over the phone. Nice try, Dad.
“What, you want a list? Toothpaste, shampoo, deodorant, some pain killers for the headache I know you’re going to give me. Oh, and I got some cereal for tomorrow because I didn’t realize Rosalie was going to stock the fridge for me.” He’d noticed the abundance of food when he cleared the kitchen area. It brought a brief smile to his face. He hadn’t seen his aunt in over a year. As his mother’s only sibling, she felt obligated to take care of this cabin even though he told her not to. But family could be insistent.
“You’ll need to keep her away from the asset, Sentinel.” The ‘or else’ part of the statement hung unsaid at the end of that sentence. Tom already knew what his punishment would be should he fail: Assassinate the civilian. His father wouldn’t care that Rosalie was family. If anything, he’d consider it the perfect reprimand.
“Understood.” Tom had no intention of anyone meeting his charge. If his aunt insisted on visiting, he would join her in town for a meal. He walked outside towards the car. “Anything else, sir?”
“Nothing for now, but I expect a detailed report every evening until I say otherwise. Also, Anita will likely be in touch regarding a visit. She needs more samples.”
Tom eyed the female sleeping in the backseat of his sedan. He knew what samples meant, and it made his stomach roll. Arguing would accomplish nothing, and the relationship with his father couldn’t be more tenuous lately. Tom needed to lay low and follow orders if he wanted his freedom back.
“I’ll await her call, sir.” A few blood samples never killed anyone. Besides, he’d be there to monitor. All good.
“Excellent. Do try to behave, son.”
He refrained from rolling his eyes. “Yes, sir.”
His father hung up without a goodbye. Typical. Tom pocketed the phone and opened the backdoor. Amelia’s dark hair hung in unkempt ringlets over her face, and her threadbare shirt hit her mid-thigh. No pants, shorts, or anything underneath.
“Un-fucking believable,” he muttered, not for the first time since this nightmare started. He was thankful for the exclusivity of their location as he gathered the woman in his arms. His father suggested keeping her in the basement, but Tom had other ideas.
He laid her slender form on the double bed in the guest room then went outside to retrieve his belongings from the car. Agent Stark said Amelia would be unconscious for a while, but failed to give a stringent timeline. Tom hoped she woke sooner rather than later, because the girl needed a shower. His father preferred she live in her own filth, but that treatment ended now. Hence his detour to the store.
Back inside, he opened his suitcase in the master bedroom and pulled out a t-shirt and a pair of gym shorts. He held them up and frowned. Too big. The woman needed to eat more. He swapped the shorts for a pair of boxers and added buy her some clothes to his mental to-do list. Grabbing the shirt and plastic bag of bathroom essentials, he ventured into the guest room and froze.
She was gone.
He dropped the items on the bed and checked the window. Locked. With the exception of a few boxes, the closet was empty as well. What the hell? The tiny cabin consisted of two bedrooms and a single bathroom. How had she escaped without his notice? He walked into the hallway, noted the unoccupied restroom and checked the living area. The front door hung ajar. So not only did she get up without him hearing her, she walked outside. That’s what he got for staying up all night to drive here.
“I don’t have the patience for this shit,” he muttered as he headed outside. Amelia didn’t have proper clothes or shoes, so she wouldn’t make it far in the woods. The closest neighbor lived over three miles away, and the nearest city was a half-hour drive. Secluded didn’t begin to cover it.
Keys in hand, he started towards the car. She most likely ventured down the long gravel driveway, hoping to find the road. The rocks against her bare feet would slow her down. And if she went into the grass, he’d see her from . . .
Movement in his peripheral gave him pause at the car door. He squinted and frowned. Wisps of dark brown hair danced in the warm breeze as his charge twirled in a circle near the lake about fifty yards from the side of the cabin. What was she planning to do, swim to her freedom? Because she would be in for a surprise when she realized it only led deeper into the wilderness.
Tom pocketed his keys and moved towards her. She didn’t seem to notice his approach, too lost in the bliss of the sun shining down on her. Her smile made him hesitate.
There was no question. Despite her frail condition, Amelia Wakefield was a gorgeous woman. Her long legs, subtle curves, and angelic face gave her an otherworldly appeal any man could appreciate. He suspected that was the reason his father withheld shower privileges and forced her to wear that hideous shirt. All the Sentinels were male, which posed a risk around an alluring female. Especially one considered to be the CRF’s greatest asset. Not that any of the men would necessarily act on it, but better to avoid the situation than to welcome it.
The girl paused mid-twirl to stare up at the sky and laughed. The broken sound echoed with disuse and went straight to his gut. What the hell have I gotten myself into?
Amelia Wakefield loved this dream. It was nothing like her usual trips into the darkness. First, she woke in a real bed, and now, she stood outside. Fascinating.
The sun warmed her hair and face and felt so real. It had to be the drugs. Agent Stark mentioned they were different than the normal pills he smuggled in for her during the healing process. She hadn’t really cared when she swallowed them. Anything to get rid of the pain. Then that strange girl came in, talking about my brother . . . A hallucination like this one? Her mental faculties usually recovered at unnatural speeds, just as her body did, a perk of being immortal, but maybe Jonathan’s beating had jarred her worse than she originally thought.
Amelia shook her head and spun around again. She didn’t care to think about what anything meant. This moment meant too much to her. When was the last time she experienced the outside world? Years, maybe? Decades? Time was an elusive concept in her cement prison.
She stopped her dancing to fondle a leaf. The lifelike texture made her grin. Beautiful. She needed to ask Stark to give her these drugs again. It would make her next beating worthwhile.
She jumped at the unexpected voice and whirled around. Of all the men she expected to visit her in this dream, Tom Fitzgerald was not one of them. But it didn’t truly surprise her. Amelia thought of the man often, a side effect of him being the only decent person in her life at present. He brought her things in captivity, like food and water. She recognized his role as the good cop to his father’s bad cop. Another game, no doubt. But she enjoyed playing along. It wasn’t like she had anything else to do.
“Hello, Tom.” Her voice came out softer than she expected and hurt a little. Almost as if she hadn’t spoken in days. Could this dream get any more realistic?
“What are you doing?”
“Enjoying the fresh air.” She twirled, wishing her shirt would transform into a sundress. One would think she would have more control over her dreams. Maybe she could build a bonfire and burn the offending fabric.
“When do you suppose I’ll wake this time?” she wondered aloud. “Stark warned me the drugs were laced with a sedative. Perhaps I’ll sleep longer than expected?”
Tom’s hands were in the pockets of his jeans as he studied her with those intense brown eyes. So much like his father. But the cruelty in his father’s gaze didn’t linger in Tom’s dark depths.
“Stark gave you drugs?” he asked with an arched brow.
“Mmm,” she murmured and faced the sun again. “He always gives me something, but this is definitely the best. It feels so real.” She knelt to touch the lake again. The water was cool against her palm. “I want to stay here forever and never wake up.”
Silence met her reply, making her wonder if Tom disappeared. Then his boots appeared beside her at the water’s edge. He crouched down and rested strong forearms on his knees. The grey shirt he wore stretched across his broad chest and strained over impressive biceps. If he wasn’t the son of a monster, she might call him handsome. As it was, she would kill him—and all the others—at her first opportunity.
She touched the metal choker around her neck and grumbled, “This bloody thing follows me even into my dreams.” If she ever got it off, she’d make Jonathan Fitzgerald eat it.
“Amelia,” his deep voice rumbled, “this isn’t a dream.”
“You’re not dreaming.”
She smiled and shook her head. Of course she was dreaming. What else could this be? There was water, sunshine, and trees. “I wish for you to go now.” No need for the handsome Sentinel to spoil her temporary reprieve from reality.
“I wish I could, but I’m stuck here for the foreseeable future.” Tom rose to his full height beside her and held out a hand. “Let’s get back to the cabin. You need a shower, and I need to get some sleep.”
She frowned at his long, masculine fingers. He wiggled them once in an impatient gesture that matched the tick in his square jaw. When she stood up, she found the top of her head barely met his chin. The heat radiating from his broad chest felt very real, so real that she pinched her thigh to test his theory. A slight pain radiated up her side, making her eyes widen. “I’m not dreaming?”
He gave her a small smile. “No, Amelia. You’re very much awake.”
She stumbled back and nearly lost her footing over a rock near the pond’s edge. What is this? A new CRF illusion? A simulation of some kind? She scanned their surroundings for a clue, but saw none. Where were all the researchers and Sentinels?
“What game are we playing?” Because this was obviously another one of Jonathan’s tricks. A manipulation meant to drive her insane. That seemed to be his favorite pastime of late.
Realizing she had no intention of taking his hand, he dropped it to his side. It drew attention to the pistol on his hip. “Not a game, Amelia. Just a new location.”
She peered up at him. “A new location?” What did that mean? She was no longer in the CRF basement? Impossible.
He palmed the back of his neck and blew out a breath. “Yeah, it’s a long story, but in summary, we’re staying here for a while.”
“In the middle of the woods,” she added. Where serial killers took their victims to dispose of them. Had Jonathan finally gotten what he wanted through all those tests? Was she no longer of use to them? Am I here to die?
She stared into those dark eyes that gave nothing away. Tom looked so much like his father, but more muscular, and taller. She took a careful step back, which had him raising a blond brow.
“I’m not going to hurt you, Amelia.”
Said the wolf to the lamb. She had trusted Jonathan once, and he’d done unspeakable things to her. Why would Tom be any different? They were in the middle of nowhere, where no one could hear her scream. She moved another step back while evaluating her options. If they were indeed away from the CRF, that meant she had a chance of escape. She just needed to take down the armed Sentinel in front of her. Easier said than done.
“I can see what you’re thinking, and . . .”
She didn’t wait to hear the rest of Tom’s statement, but took off in the opposite direction through the woods. Her bare feet screamed as she stumbled over rocks and uneven terrain, around the lake and towards whatever was on the other side of all those trees. She ducked and swerved to avoid branches and heard Tom’s muttered curses following her in the wind as she moved aimlessly through the wilderness.
He was too close for comfort, making her push harder and faster. Her lungs screamed for air as she tore through the underbrush as fast as her body would allow. Her size was an advantage, allowing her to move between the trees at an angle he couldn’t. I’m finally escaping. Maybe this is a dream after all? Why else—?
Her thought was cut off as she slammed into the trunk of a tree. She started to fall, but a pair of sturdy hands caught her before she could hit the ground.
“Ow,” she mumbled as she massaged her bruised nose. Peeking between her fingers, she realized it wasn’t a tree at all, but Tom’s muscular chest. He’d somehow gotten in front of her.
“Are you done?” he asked, his voice patient.
Amelia’s breaths came in heaves from the mad dash through the woods, and he wasn’t even panting. He hadn’t even broken a sweat. Realizing her body was pressed far too close to his, she pushed away with a huff and stumbled when he let her go.
“Don’t . . .” She paused for a necessary inhale and started again. “Don’t touch me.”
“You ran into me, sweetheart.”
“Because you . . . you . . . teleported or something.” She waved a hand, like that explained it all.
“You were running in circles around a group of trees, Amelia. No teleportation required.” His condescending tone made her want to hit something. Like his face. Deciding that sounded like a sound back up plan, she launched herself at him. If she could get ahold of his gun, she could shoot him. It didn’t matter that she’d never used one before. How hard could it be? She attempted to slap him, but found both of her wrists caught in one of his sturdy hands.
“Seriously? Who taught you how to fight? The Three Stooges?”
She had no idea who or what that was, but sensed he was making fun of her. She brought her knee up as hard as she could and hit his thigh. It felt like kneeing a steel wall, but the abrupt shift of his legs to protect his sensitive parts doubled as a distraction. Twisting a wrist free from his grasp, she curled her hand into a fist and aimed for his defined cheekbone. It connected with a hard thunk that sent pain shooting down her forearm.
“Christ, Amelia!” He grabbed her again, but this time pressed her up against a tree with his legs braced on either side of hers and both of her hands in one of his. Despite the aggressive hold, he maintained a gentle touch as he examined her throbbing knuckles. The pain was minor compared to what Jonathan had done to her over the last few years, but her ego was bruised. Here she was bleeding, broken, and out of breath, and Tom wasn’t even fazed. She wanted to crawl into a hole and hide. I’m hopeless.
“Doesn’t look broken,” he murmured after moving the thumb of her right hand. It was the one she used to punch him. Unsuccessfully. “Next time, curl your fingers like this, and put your thumb on the outside.” He demonstrated with his free hand. “If you were stronger, you would have sprained or broken your thumb doing that. Now, are you done?”
She glowered up at him. It wasn’t like she could move with his big body pressing her up against the tree. What choice did she have?
“Look, even if you get away from me—which you won’t—that metal collar around your neck is tied to an object in the cabin. You get more than two miles away and it explodes. And don’t get any ideas about me taking it off of you. It’s not going to happen.” He pushed away from her with those final words and dropped her hands. “Now, do you prefer to walk or be carried?”
She eyed the pistol on his hip again, making him smile.
He folded his arms and cocked a brow. “Try it. See what happens, sweetheart.”
“Stop calling me that.”
Tom chuckled and turned away from her with a shake of his head. “Suit yourself, asset. I’ll be making breakfast.”
She stared at his muscular back as he walked towards the cabin. It was still within eyesight, which meant she hadn’t run nearly as far as she thought she had. A glance down at her bloody feet told her maybe he was right about running in circles. Could anyone blame her? She’d been a lab rat for who knew how long in a tiny room without windows. Exercise hadn’t been part of her daily regimen.
Why am I here? Why move me now? She wondered if it had anything to do with the blonde woman who visited her cell after Jonathan’s beating.
“He’ll come for you. Even if it means burning this place to the ground.” Were those words real? Did Issac know she was alive? She pressed her palm over her aching heart. Was her brother finally coming for her after all this time? Jonathan showed her articles and photos of Issac, a way of confirming that her brother had moved on and no longer mourned her. It hurt at first, filled her with both fury and hopelessness, but she understood. Everyone thought she was dead. She couldn’t blame them from moving on with their lives. But what if that woman hadn’t been a hallucination? Did her brother know the truth? Would he save her from this hell?
The hope blossoming in her chest hurt. She didn’t want to trust it. But why else would Jonathan move her if not to hide her? If she was here to die, surely Tom would have killed her already. Unless he wants me to suffer . . .
She stared after his retreating form as he entered the cabin. He hadn’t bothered to turn around once. Whatever his purpose, he was confident she would follow.
The damn choker. She pressed her fingers to the cold, abnormal metal around her neck and sighed. She didn’t doubt for a second the truth of his statement. The CRF’s technology was far superior to anything she had ever seen, and the simple metal necklace repressed her immortal gifts. She couldn’t shift while wearing it. She couldn’t even impart wisdom.
The tears welling up behind her eyes disappeared with a blink. One gift Jonathan had given her was the ability to hide her emotions. She was an expert at deception, something that could be a benefit in this situation. Fighting Tom physically wouldn’t get her anywhere, but mentally? She was up to that challenge. And if they were truly alone out here, that gave her an advantage.
Issac’s searching for me. She could feel it. All she needed was to gain Tom’s trust, and then she could use it to garner her freedom. Men were easy to manipulate, especially when it came to sex. She shivered. Seduction was a weapon she never contemplated in captivity, but with Tom? She could consider it. He was the only thing on this planet Jonathan cared about other than himself, which made him an ideal candidate. She would use Tom to escape and enact some semblance of revenge on the man who ruined her life. It wouldn’t be easy, nor would she enjoy it, but it would be worth it to escape this hell.
She gazed at the sky, hidden above the cloud of trees, and closed her eyes. Eli. He would understand this sacrifice and forgive her this sin. He had to. She didn’t have a choice. Then she could avenge him properly by murdering Jonathan.
Decided, she started towards the house and stubbed her toe on a rock. The pain reminded her that she was not dressed to impress in the ratty old shirt and bloody feet.
“All right, so I’ll shower.” She regarded her scrawny legs and thin arms and pursed her lips. If her limbs looked like that, what did her face look like? She hadn’t seen a mirror in, well, forever. But her hair was tangled, not smooth, and her skin felt dry and chapped.
Good thing Tom said they were here for the unforeseeable future, because she would need some time to ready herself for this task. Not only to improve her appearance, but to figure out how to entice the Sentinel. All of her experiences were tied to Eli, but she’d seen other women seduce men. How hard could it be?
Chapter Two: Doctor’s Call
Tom’s white lie about Amelia’s collar worked like a charm. It contained no explosive, only a mechanism that disabled her psychic abilities. Was it a kind lie? No, but he preferred it over locking the woman in her room. And it ceased her foolish escape attempts. She needed some serious training, and the last thing he wanted to do was accidentally hurt her.
They fell into a quiet routine during their first week together, which suited Tom. He preferred solitary work, and he suspected Amelia wanted her space. They only spoke when necessary, and mostly during meals. The first few times he gave her food, she watched him eat his half before tentatively nibbling on hers. By day four, she started eating like a normal person, which he took as a sign that she was somewhat trusting their situation. Tonight, she opted to dine with him on the couch while he enjoyed a baseball game.
He wasn’t sure how to react to the change in her pattern. She usually ran back to her room after finishing dinner, but she set the dishes in the sink and joined him in the living area instead.
Having a woman dressed in his shirt and boxers played tricks on his mind and made it difficult to focus on the game. Her dark hair held a healthier tint thanks to the daily showers and the brush he had given her, and she had it piled in luscious waves over one shoulder. He swallowed thickly as she curled her finger around the strand dangling against the side of her breast. The innocent gesture provoked all manner of inappropriate thoughts, making him regret not locking her in the guest room.
This mission better end soon. And not just because of the alluring woman beside him.
Tom finished his beer and went to the fridge to retrieve another. He’d offered one to Amelia their second day together, and she gave him a look of such grave offense that he didn’t bother again. Apparently, she wasn’t a beer girl.
“I don’t understand the purpose of this sport,” she said as he returned to the couch. He intentionally put an extra foot between them. Attractive she might be, but she was still an asset, and dangerous. “At least football has a defined timeline of two halves. This nonsense goes on and on, and nothing interesting happens. How are you not bored to tears?”
Her English accent was sexy, but the same could not be said about her words.
“Okay, first? We call it soccer here.” He took a swig of beer before continuing. “Second, have you not heard of the Yankees? Nothing boring about them, sweetheart.” He inwardly cringed. Why do I keep calling her that? The endearment just seemed to roll off his tongue every time she walked in the room, and he couldn’t seem to stop it. The look she gave him said she liked it about as much as he did.
“I told you not to call me that.”
Yes, and I told myself not to call you that, either, but you see how well that worked out. Clearly, his mouth had a mind of its own.
“Yes, ma’am,” Tom replied. He gave her a mock salute with his bottle to loosen his tense muscles and went back to enjoying the game. Or trying to anyway. He loved baseball, but her presence absorbed his focus. Feeling her eyes on him, he glanced sideways at her. “Yes?”
“You never answered my question.”
“How are you not bored by this? It’s mind-numbing.”
He set his bottle down on the end table and turned towards her. “What would you prefer to watch, Amelia?” Not that he would change the channel. The one benefit to this new assignment was all the free time, and he planned to use it appropriately.
“Hmm, let’s see. I haven’t had the opportunity to watch a television in, honestly, I have no idea how long. But there has to be something better than this.”
“You realize you’re insulting one of New York’s proudest accomplishments, right?”
“Should that matter to me?”
He snorted. It was so much nicer when she stayed in her room. He opened his mouth to say just that when his pocket buzzed. Time for the evening check-in with dear old dad. Picking up the controller, he muted the television and answered the phone with a “Yo.”
“Very professional, son.”
Tom grinned. “You know, Dad, I try. I really do.” Amelia tensed beside him, her blue eyes going round at the device in his hand. Yeah, he could imagine she wasn’t very fond of his father. Join the club, sweetheart. “To what do I owe the pleasure, sir?” He couldn’t help the sarcasm on that last word.
These nightly conversations only seemed to further drive the wedge between them. His father used to call when Tom had done something to impress him, but now he only phoned to remind him how much he’d fucked up. It hurt to an extent, but it also pissed him off. Hence his attitude. The sooner his father disconnected, the sooner he could continue his discussion with Amelia. Someone needed a lesson in why insulting the Yankees was poor form.
“Have you been drinking?” his father asked.
“What, no status update first? The asset is fine by the way. And, yes, I am enjoying an adult beverage. Anything else before I hang up?”
The silence on the other end of the line told him he’d overstepped. He envisioned his dad’s expression turning darker by the minute. The familiar look used to terrify him, but now it only served to irritate him.
When Tom returned from the Special Forces to work for the CRF, his father had been so proud and excited to show him the ropes. They worked well as a team at first, managing the Sentinel unit and discussing future plans. As they delved into his father’s pet projects and the company’s secrets, however, Tom’s respect and admiration dwindled. Then he discovered Amelia in the research wing, and everything changed.
Her kinship to his biggest enemy didn’t detract from the fact that she was an innocent woman in captivity. He’d made his feelings known that day and openly disagreed with his dad for the first time ever in his life. The heated argument fractured their father-son bond, and their relationship had yet to recover.
His stomach hurt with the memory as his blood boiled. The convoluted response left him unsure how to feel, furious or guilty. He spent his every waking moment trying to please the only person in his life who loved him, and he betrayed that over a disagreement. But looking at Amelia now, with her wide eyes staring at the phone by his ear, he couldn’t help but feel a tiny bit of pride for sticking up for her. Not that it had done any good. Here she sat, a prisoner in a new outfit, awaiting her fate.
He ran a hand through his hair and blew out a breath. Time to play ball, he thought. If his father pulled him from this mission out of anger, he would send him somewhere worse, and he didn’t want to know what mind fuck his father would throw at him next. Tom intended to survive, with or without his father’s help, but his contingency plan wasn’t ready yet. He needed freedom to complete it, which meant he had to obey. For now.
“I’m watching the Yankees game,” he said, voice devoid of humor. “And enjoying a beer, yes. Sorry, sir.”
“I see.” His father fell silent for too long. Something bad is coming. “Please be advised that Doctor Patel and her team are five minutes out. Prep the asset and await further instructions.” The line went dead.
He stared at the phone. “Well, shit.” An hour warning would have been great. “Yeah, I’m going to need you to follow me to the guest room.”
Her eyebrows shot up. “Excuse me?”
“Doctor Patel is coming for samples, and I doubt she’ll approve of you hanging out with me in the living room.”
The indignation in Amelia’s expression fled as her face paled. “Anita’s coming?” Her soft voice sounded nothing like the stern woman of ten minutes ago.
“Yeah, and she’ll be here any minute.” He made a shooing motion towards the hallway. “Come on. I need to ensure the guest room looks un-lived in.”
Some of the color returned to her cheeks as she puzzled over his statement. “What? Why?”
“Because I’m supposed to be keeping you in a cage in the basement,” he muttered as he started towards her room.
“There’s a basement?” she asked as she followed.
“That’s your question? Seriously?” He took in the guest room’s immaculate appearance then glanced around for anything personal. Their clothing routine consisted of him leaving fresh shirts and boxers in the bathroom, and Amelia leaving folded laundry in its place. “Nothing incriminating. Go ahead and sit on the bed.”
He didn’t wait to see if she obeyed, but went into the bathroom to stow the feminine items, like her brush and deodorant, under the sink. If Anita’s team noticed them, he would say they belonged to his aunt. Then he would take on his father’s persona and ask why they were snooping. Sometimes it paid to remind CRF employees who he was destined to become.
Grabbing the laundry basket and Amelia’s towel, he moved into the master bedroom and tossed everything in the closet. The telltale sound of tires over gravel greeted him as he returned to the living area. Rocky driveways were a good warning system. He flipped off the television, picked up his beer, and relaxed against the wall with one ankle crossed over the other. His favorite pistol rested in its permanent spot on his hip, and there was a knife hidden in his left sock. Just in case. He only disarmed when he was naked, and even then, he had a weapon within arm’s reach.
Agent Stark entered first in his trademark jeans and t-shirt.
“Thanks for knocking,” Tom drawled. He should have known his father’s favorite Sentinel would lead Doctor Patel’s entourage. “Aren’t you supposed to be training Stas?” That was the whole point of this babysitting assignment. Tom guarded the asset while Stark trained the CRF’s first female Sentinel. Another punishment from his father, because he knew Tom wanted to manage his friend’s training. He loved the woman like a sister, and it hurt not to be there to help her.
“I gave her the night off. She has to maintain her cover with Wakefield.”
“Ah.” Tom sipped his beer to hide his grimace. Issac Wakefield made him want to play target practice with his favorite handgun. “And how’s the training going?”
“I didn’t come here to chat, Fitzgerald. Where’s the asset?”
Stark stopped two paces in front of him and lifted a blond brow. They were similar in size and stature, but the stoic man lacked a sense of humor. Something was very wrong with the Sentinel, his ability to heal with touch notwithstanding. Whatever he was, he wasn’t human.
“Why the late-night visit?” Tom wondered. “Why not wait until tomorrow?”
“Because I was in the middle of a case study when your father decided to move my asset,” Anita Patel announced from the doorway. The tiny woman boasted a no bullshit attitude. Tom supposed she had to be that way to lead the CRF’s research wing. She managed multiple assets at headquarters, most of which were rogue immortals who committed heinous acts. Amelia was the anomaly, a victim of circumstance.
“Doctor Patel.” He nodded a greeting to the dark-haired woman. Two male researchers entered behind her with bags and averted their gazes. Typical behavior from CRF employees. Not only was Tom a Sentinel, but their future CEO.
“Hello, Tom.” The doctor bowed her head in a gesture of respect, something she also did with his father. “Where’s my test subject?”
His hand tightened around the beer bottle—a bizarre reaction to an innocent question, as was the knot forming in his gut. Playing warden meant guarding the asset from potential escape and discovery. It did not mean protecting her. But his fingers twitched like they wanted to caress his favorite gun. Not a good sign.
“What are you planning to do with her?” It wasn’t like him to pry, but he couldn’t help himself. Anita clasped her hands in front of her and pursed her lips. She didn’t seem to care much for his interest. Well, too fucking bad. “I only ask because this cabin isn’t exactly built for extensive lab research, and I don’t have a lot of supplies on hand.”
Understanding brightened her dark gaze, and she gave an approving nod. “Of course. I have all the supplies I need to run my routine tests and obtain a few samples. But it may take a little longer than usual, so I’d like to get started.”
“Right.” Tom shrugged to loosen his stiff shoulders. What she said seemed legit, but something about this situation didn’t sit well with him. Ignoring the strange vibe, he gestured to the hallway behind him. Better to get this over with as soon as possible. “She’s in the guest room.” At Anita’s raised eyebrow, he added, “I didn’t think you’d want to do this in the basement. Bad lighting.” Growing up around a human lie detector made him skilled at telling half-truths.
The doctor nodded, pleased. “Excellent. We’ll let you know if we need anything.” She snapped her fingers at the researchers who trailed after her like obedient dogs.
Stark didn’t follow, his expression void of emotion. Tom eyed the man over his bottle as he took another swig. Yeah, definitely not mortal. Not Hydraian or Ichorian, either. He suspected Stark was one of Anita’s pet projects. That would explain his ability to heal through touch and his bizarre demeanor.
“Are you providing protective detail for Doctor Patel and crew?” Tom asked.
“No.” Flat response with no elaboration.
“Okay, then.” He finished his beer and tossed it in the kitchen trash bin. He paused near the hallway to listen for any signs of struggle coming from Amelia’s room, but heard nothing. Doctor Patel administered his medical exam last year and was a complete professional, but something about her always struck him as dangerous. Morbid curiosity lurked in that woman’s gaze, which was a typical trait for a researcher, but it rubbed him the wrong way sometimes. And tonight was one of those occasions.
The instinct to grab his firearm hit him again. Hard. “Any idea how long this is going to take?” he asked, ignoring the sensation. What the hell is wrong with me?
“Why?” Stark’s light green eyes flicked towards him. “Do you have somewhere to go?”
Tom gaped at him. “Did you just make a joke?”
“Some might refer to it as a taunt.”
“Or a joke.”
Stark shrugged. “Sure. I’m going for a run.”
“Yes. We’re going to be here a while, and it was a long drive.” He rolled his neck and shoulders while he spoke. “And I’m bored.”
Because that’s normal. “Okay. Have fun.”
Those eerie eyes looked Tom up and down. “You know these woods better than me. Show me around, and I’ll tell you how the training with your friend is going. And maybe we can talk about what I have planned.”
Tom started. “You want me to go running with you?”
“That’s what I said, isn’t it?”
If it was any other Sentinel, he wouldn’t have batted an eye. But Stark, the lone wolf on the team, asking him to go running? He never expected that. Maybe he really was bored. Or maybe he’s up to something.
His instincts warred. Leaving Amelia alone with the researchers felt wrong, which was ridiculous. His father was the one who enjoyed beating the shit out of her, not the researchers. She was safe here, away from the lunatic CEO of the CRF. And so far he hadn’t heard any sounds coming from her room to indicate distress.
I’m overthinking this. A run would be good for him, and he wanted to know what Stark had planned for Stas. She might be pissed at him, but that didn’t keep him from caring about her.
“Yeah, okay.” The June heat would be hot as hell in jeans, but if Stark wasn’t putting on jogging shorts, neither would he. Part of their conditioning was to train under unnatural circumstances. Sounded like they would do just that tonight. Together. He laced his tennis shoes and met Stark by the door. “After you, Agent.”
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