Watching Diane Broen entering into a fight while the Breeds around her were taking bets on who would win, who would lose and how many blows it would take to do them in seemed fascinating. Still, Megan and Braden were forcing her away from the fray.
Actually, it was insanity.
The very Breeds who at first appeared intent on abducting her and the human enforcer, Diane Broen, now seemed to be working on the Bureau Breeds’ side. They had even encouraged the betting with the promise that if Diane won, they would walk away without the prize they had been paid to collect.
Namely, Liza herself.
She watched until she was pushed into a Dragoon and couldn’t see anything more. Damn them, she wasn’t a child anymore, yet that was exactly how she was being treated.
As the scene vanished from view, she turned and faced forward, her arms crossed beneath her breasts as she remained silent.
The earbud, all but hidden in her ear canal, was silent, deactivated at Cullen’s end. It wouldn’t be activated again until they arrived wherever she was being taken, or until the network’s agents following her lost sight of her.
Until then, she was on her own.
Swallowing tightly, she tried to put another inch of distance between herself and the big Breed sitting next to her.
Stygian Black. He was a bit of a lone Wolf according to the information Cullen had managed to acquire. A Wolf Breed who worked exclusively on missing cases that involved hidden Breed labs and/or missing Breeds or their mates.
He wasn’t a Breed who worked well with others, the report said. And he was one that would just as soon kill a man, or a Breed, who got in his way as he was to look at him. Yet, he’d been working with the Bureau of Breed Affairs for years, and he did so without killing anyone.
Was it a testament to Jonas Wyatt’s skill as a commander or simply his control over the animal genetics that were so much a part of the Breeds he commanded? Whichever it was, she could do nothing but admire his ability to work with a man whose animal was as close to the surface as this one’s was.
His gaze turned on her every few seconds as though to be certain she was still sitting there. Black eyes gleamed with amusement each time she caught him watching her. Each time she caught him, he would deliberately allow his eyes to flick to the upper mounds of her breasts where they rose above the exercise bra.
As she felt his gaze pin her once again, she turned her head and glared up at him through the veil of her lashes. The fact that she could tell when he was staring down at her, and all that had moved were his eyes, was distinctly disconcerting. Bothering her even more was the fact that her nipples were hardening further with each look. Having such a response to a man, any man, wasn’t a situation she wanted to deal with, especially with a Breed.
“Are you comfortable?” his voice rumbled with a primal, erotic rasp that sent a shiver of sensation racing up her spine.
“Not really,” she muttered.
She was distinctly uncomfortable with the warmth traveling across her nerve endings as the sensitive flesh of her clit tingled in interest.
As far as she was concerned, this was the wrong man, or Breed, and the wrong time for such an attraction.
“You could sit on my lap,” he suggested with a slow smile as he patted a hard, well-muscled thigh. “There’s plenty of room.”
The real problem where that question was concerned was that she was way, way too tempted.
“No, thank you.” Jerking her head forward, she stared between the front seats to the road beyond.
“I’d be more than happy to accommodate you.” Leaning closer, he all but whispered the words in her ear.
Oh, she just bet he would.
“No.” She didn’t have the breath to put that “thank you” in there a second time.
Chills were racing over her skin, tearing up her spine and, she swore, sizzling in her lower stomach. Her fl esh was warming, her nipples sensitive and the need for touch was like an ache just under her flesh. An ache she had no idea how to assuage because she was damned if she thought it was completely advisable to sleep with him.
But, yes, she did want to sleep with him. She wanted him to touch her, to hold her, to give her what she had so far managed to deny herself. To share a bed with a man, or with a Breed, and to learn all the things sexually that she hadn’t really had an interest in until now.
And why now?
Never had she ever had a reaction like this to any man, let alone a Breed.
As he sat back in his seat, she peeked up at him, swallowing deeply at the impression of pure raw power that surrounded him like an invisible mantle.
Dark- skinned, more so than any other Breed she had seen before, he was rumored to have the DNA of a rogue black Wolf and a voodoo priestess, and the dark bronze tone of his skin refl ected both.
His eyes were as black as midnight with what appeared at times to be small pinpoints of blue. His jaw was so hard, so arrogant and savagely hewn she knew he would be as stubborn as hell.
High cheekbones, strong, arched brows, and such long thick black lashes, they simply made her jealous.
His skin fascinated her. Darker than the strongest tan, but it wasn’t black. It was simply such a dark, dark earth tone that she wondered if it held the warmth and vibrancy of the earth it so reminded her of.
The name, Stygian Black; the name suited him.
The black eyes, the nut brown flesh, the air of power and strength.
Damn, she could feel him watching her again. Her shoulders were tingling.
Narrowing her eyes, she glanced up, glared—
She could do without another once-over, if he didn’t mind. If she became much more interested in the fact that he was glancing at the upper curves of her breasts—
The sound of Braden clearing his throat from the driver’s seat as he slid the driver’s-side window down an inch or so had a flush of raging embarrassment staining her face. It was probably staining her entire body, damn it.
Flattening her lips, she considered kicking him, but he was wearing those damned black boots Breeds wore with their mission uniforms. She’d read they were so tough that a snakebite couldn’t even penetrate them. She doubted he’d even feel her foot slamming into his shin.
“Leave me alone.” Pushing the words through clenched teeth as she clenched her thighs against those stirrings of arousal, she wondered if there wasn’t some way to get the door open and just push him out of the moving vehicle.
“How am I bothering you?” he murmured with such false innocence that the Breed on the other side of her actually chuckled.
If only she had a few more years’ training on her. That vehicle-tossing thing was something Callum was really good at; perhaps she could have convinced him to teach it to her.
As it was, in a physical confrontation with a man like Stygian, her only hope was in simply running.
And she had a feeling she couldn’t run far enough or fast enough to get away from this Breed.
If the look in his eyes was any indication, running wouldn’t be an option.
No, a Breed would expect her to mildly stand in place until he gave her the order to do otherwise.
She didn’t think so.
Turning back to stare out the front window, Liza tightened her arms beneath her breasts and gave him something to look at. Or to slobber over, she thought. He was definitely acting like a dog.
Yeah, she knew the sports bra plumped her breasts and left her belly bare. She knew her running pants were a little snug and she wasn’t wearing panties beneath them.
But did he have to act as though he knew it as well?
Because each time his gaze flicked over her, the warmth that suffused her flesh was just irritating. She didn’t need this. This was the last thing she needed. An attraction to a Breed would completely foul up her plans, and she really didn’t need that at the moment.
A hard turn to the right threw her against him before she could brace herself. Instantly, his arm went around her, the powerful, bare flesh of his forearm heating her skin where it touched her lower arm, while his hand quickly gripped her hip.
She had to swallow tight as she held on to the edge of her seat, refusing to look at him.
Breeds had no true body hair, she’d heard. What they had were tiny, almost invisible hairs more closely resembling a fi ne pelt.
She believed it now.
She could feel it.
Each invisible, silken hair caressed her overly sensitive flesh everywhere they touched.
The Desert Dragoon bounced across the rough terrain until it hit the smoother road leading to the hotel and, thankfully, stopped jostling her against him every other second.
Unfortunately, it did nothing to force him to remove his arm.
If it hadn’t been for that strength wrapped around her and the fingers gripping her hip, however, she would have been thrown into the driver’s seat when the vehicle came to a screeching stop at the back entrance of the hotel.
Breeds piled out. Stygian Black lifted Liza from the vehicle.
Then, surrounded by big, burly bodies, she was pushed through the entrance to an elevator. Within seconds, she stepped out onto the secure fifth floor, which was reserved for Breeds alone.
Would explanations now be forthcoming?
They damned well better be. The last she’d heard, Breeds were not exempt from the legal repercussions of kidnapping. Jonas Wyatt, the goons’ boss, better have some damned answers.
And didn’t it just figure that he wasn’t there?
Instead, a team of Breeds were in place with their electronic bug detectors.
Each member of the team that had brought her in was scanned thoroughly before Stygian took the device from one of the team members and turned to her with a grin.
“Just get it over with,” she ordered, frustration running rampant through her body as she lifted her arms and waited.
And prayed the earbud and skin tags were as undetectable as Cullen was certain they were.
“Testy today, aren’t you?” Stygian grinned before moving the paddle- shaped device over her body.
“You’d think with all the technology you guys have going for you, you wouldn’t be working with such antiquated electronics.” She eyed the twenty-year-old device skeptically.
“Don’t let looks fool you,” he murmured as he ran the wand over her head.
Her heart nearly tripped from her chest as he paused at her ear. A second later the device was moving again, then pausing on the other side as well.
Thank God Cullen had instituted shutting the earbuds down completely when in the presence of Breeds.
Giving her a small, flirtatious little wink, he turned and handed the device over to the Breed next to him before, surprisingly, striding to the door and leaving the suite entirely.
Liza turned to Megan questioningly. “Where’s he going?”
“He’s part of the independent security force,” Megan answered, her dark brown gaze amused. “Trust me, he’ll be back.”
Trust her? At one time, years ago, she had trusted Megan Fields with her life. Now, trust wasn’t so easy. She was a Breed mate, and because she was a Breed mate, her fi rst thought was for the Breed community, rather than friends, and in many areas, even family.
Trust her? Trust any of them?
Liza looked around the room, taking in the hard gazes and ready stances of each person in the room.
She really didn’t think so.
Stepping into the connecting room, Stygian glanced at the monitors on the wall, watching as Ms. Liza Johnson shifted uncomfortably and gazed around with a resigned expression.
Turning to Jonas, he was at fi rst taken aback. He always was, whenever he saw the hard- assed, merciless, manipulating director of the Bureau of Breed Affairs cradling the too-delicate toddler he’d taken as his own.
Amber was curled against his chest, delicate and frail, her normally bright blue eyes closed, her breathing gentle and easy for a change.
It was one of the rare times he hadn’t sensed the baby’s pain when in her presence. For now, despite the hell she’d been through in the past two years, she was at peace.
“Just keep your voice low and you won’t disturb her,” Jonas assured him.
Wiping his hand over the back of his neck, he pushed back his frustration before grimacing. “They attacked, as we knew they would.”
Jonas nodded, thoughtful for a moment before replying.
“Malcolm’s team moved in the minute they thought she was unprotected,” he murmured as Stygian watched him closely. “I was listening to the reports as they came in. Lawe and Diane are fine, by the way. They’re heading back to the hotel now and should show up in the next five minutes.”
“She kicked his ass then?” Stygian asked with a grin as he thought of the cocky, traitorous Malcolm.
“Was there any doubt?” Jonas grinned. “She’s a hell of an addition to the Bureau, though Lawe has definitely bowed out of the assistant director position.”
That wasn’t really a surprise.
“Lawe prefers the field and now he has a mate to share that with,” he agreed as Jonas’s lips tightened.
The director had been certain Lawe Justice would take the position of assistant director.
Those who knew Lawe had known better.
Jonas glanced at the monitor then, watching Liza thoughtfully, before murmuring, “Ms. Johnson wasn’t alone either, was she?”
Stygian grunted at the comment. “That girl is never alone. She had two shadows on her ass and two lying farther back from the minute she left her house, just as she’s had every morning. And they’re damned good. They’re always damned good. And she knew they were there.”
Jonas turned his head, his brows lifting curiously at the information. “Really?”
“Damned straight,” he growled. “To add to it, she has a deactivated earbud tucked completely out of sight in that dainty little ear of hers and three skin tags. One on each hip and one on her left shoulder.”
“Then her shadows are friendly?” Jonas leaned back in his chair carefully, propping one expensively shod foot on the coffee table as he ensured not so much as a shift of movement disturbed his toddler.
She didn’t budge. One little hand lay at his neck, the other beneath her cheek. The soft pink- and-white frilly dress she wore looked at odds against the black shirt and shoulder holster it lay against on Jonas’s chest.
“The shadows are friendly.” Stygian nodded. “Between her and them is the enemy.” He sighed. “The ones I glimpsed the other morning as she went to work are not part of Dog’s team. But we already knew that.”
Jonas nodded slowly as he gently, rhythmically, rubbed his daughter’s back.
She was the reason Jonas was there; the reason he was searching desperately for ghosts.
“What do we have, Stygian?” he asked as he stared out over the tiny head tucked beneath his chin.
The girl’s once-brown locks, still thick with a slight curl, were now tricolored. Golden blond and sunset red streaked the once dark brown strands as though nature hadn’t yet made up her mind what color the child’s hair would be.
“Hell if know.” Stygian breathed out roughly. “She’s important to someone though—damned important. She and her housemates, Claire and Chelsea Martinez.”
“Cousins,” Jonas said softly.
Stygian nodded. “Before the attack on Malachi’s mate, only Liza Johnson and Claire Martinez had these shadows, though. Chelsea picked up hers after her sister’s attack.”
“Liza was bait this morning then,” Jonas suggested.
Stygian nodded. “The earbud was active until Braden and Megan rushed her to the Dragoon. It disconnected before she entered the vehicle and hasn’t reactivated since.”
“You have the frequency locked yet?”
Stygian nodded again. “We managed that before we took the Jammer over it. Their connection should be interrupted for the next few hours.”
“Let’s let her wait for a while then,” Jonas suggested. “See if her shadows come out of the woodwork again. I want an ID on them.”
“You think if we hold her here long enough they’ll make a move?”
That was Jonas, manipulating and calculating as hell when he was after something.
In this case, he was after two women and two Bengal Breeds. The two girls had disappeared twelve years before, and many believed they were dead.
Of the two Breeds, they knew one was alive and killing his way through the lab techs and scientists who had run the secret experimental labs of the pharmaceutical company Brandenmore Research.
“I don’t think they’ll make a move.” Jonas smiled. “Unjam the transmission, let’s track it back to her friends when it reactivates and see what they know.”
Stygian’s brows arched. “They could have abandoned the link once it was jammed. That seems to be normal procedure.”
“But we also blocked the locator tags,” Jonas pointed out. “If she were important to you, what would you do?”
Clenching his jaw, Stygian knew exactly what he would have done, whether she was important or not. She was a woman and part of a mission. There wasn’t a true Breed alive who would have walked away.
A true Breed was one whose sense of loyalty and honor was greater than those of the Council Breeds, whose honor was closer to those of human criminals.
Which was exactly where most of the genetics of those particular Breeds—Honor Roberts, Fawn Corrigan and the Bengals Judd and Gideon—had come from. “I’m a Breed,” Stygian finally stated after considering Jonas’s question of the choice he would make. “Her shadows are human. They’re wild cards.”
Council Coyotes were more human than Breed, more mercenary and merciless than loyal.
Council-loyal Breeds weren’t known as the most fastidious or the most reliable. They were a boil on the ass of the Breed communities and avoided at all costs.
Or until the Council sent them out. In that case, any and every Breed associated with the Breed communities jumped between them and their goal.
This time, Stygian was certain the Council’s goal was the same as the Breeds’: the search for the four victims once held by the pharmaceutical giant Phillip Brandenmore in a secret genetic and medical experimental lab.
“Wild cards or not, they’re protecting someone,” Jonas disagreed. “They’re not imprisoning or attempting to apprehend or control. They’re shadowing, and they’re protective. That’s the difference.”
Crossing his arms over his chest, Stygian glared down at the director. There were times when Jonas seemed amazingly naïve when it came to humans, which was surprising considering the Breed’s stone-cold manipulation tactics.
Jonas smiled back at him. “Review the vids the enforcers have made of her shadows,” he suggested. “That’s what they are, literally, and she knows they’re there. She communicates with them often through that damned ear link and she has affection for whoever’s on the other side of that transmission.”
“I’ve watched the vids,” Stygian growled.
He hated to admit it, but Jonas just might be right.
“You’re a hell of a commander, Stygian,” Jonas stated then. “But the lone Wolf thing you like to do hasn’t helped you to understand humans.”
“Who wants to?” Humans weren’t exactly his preferred type of company.
Coming into the Bureau hadn’t been easy for him, but once his team had begun mating and settling down, Stygian had found himself at a crossroads. The paths he had been offered weren’t exactly ones he would have preferred.
Train a new team, or take the position Jonas offered and command a team already trained and needing only a commander willing to guide them? They were Breeds he had known, Breeds he’d fought with on at least one occasion, and Breeds he trusted. But nothing was the same as the team you’d fought with, gotten to know and could count on no matter the situation.
“You need to understand them,” Jonas warned him as Amber moved, a childish little mumble of displeasure sounding from her pouty lips.
Stygian’s gaze jerked to the little girl. She wasn’t emanating any pain, but something was distressing her.
Jonas continued to rub her fragile back, his gaze locked on the little face that came into view when she shifted position and stretched out against his chest. Her head lay in the crook of his arm before she finished maneuvering for the position she was after.
The smile that quirked the director’s lips was damned surprising.
“This meeting is over,” Jonas stated firmly though softly. “Go back to her, keep her occupied. Once the link reactivates, I’ll meet with her. Let’s see what happens when her friends learn what we’re really searching for.”
“Is that a good idea?” Stygian had never been one to give the suspected enemy any information at all.
“She’s going to tell them anyway,” Jonas reminded him. “This way, we can track the transmission to the source and identify her shadows. That could help us figure out why they’re tailing her and why she’s working with them.”
“Have you considered they could simply be friends who are worried about her? Friends with the same paranoia and resources that you have?” Jonas’s mate and wife, Rachel Broen-Wyatt, stepped across the open door frame that led to the suite’s bedroom.
Leaning against the wood frame, one hand tucked into the pocket of her jeans, the other propped on a slender hip, love suffused her expression as her gaze settled on the man and child across the room.
No Breed could ever doubt the pure, soul-deep love that existed between the couple. The room was suddenly scented with the power of it. Sensual, yet pure, innocent and yet erotic, the emotions that swept between the two were almost too intimate for Stygian’s comfort.
“Hello, Stygian.” Rachel straightened from her position and moved slowly into the room. “I see you’re once again enmeshed in one of Jonas’s schemes.” Pure pride enveloped her despite the teasing tone of her voice.
“So it would seem,” he agreed, suddenly uncertain what to do with himself.
Shoving his hands into the pockets of his mission pants, he waited impatiently as she crossed the room to her husband, then bent to him.
Her hair cascaded over her face, hiding the greeting kiss as Jonas’s hand lifted, his fingers spreading to obviously cup her cheek or neck.
That scent; Stygian had learned to associate it with the deepest emotions shared between mates. What Jonas and Rachel shared was as deep as that of couples mated for a decade, though.
It was rare to sense such depths of emotion after only a few years.
The kiss lasted only seconds. A true greeting kiss, but the impact of the dedication between the two sent a chill racing up Stygian’s spine.
Without one, the other would cease to exist, he thought, and such realization would be terrifying for the babe cradled between the two, should it ever happen.
Then, as the mother drew back and her attention joined Jonas’s on the child, he felt a chill of foreboding tearing through him.
Amber had awakened, and suddenly what had been shared love between two became a circle of pure emotion.
There was nothing sensual or erotic in this. It went beyond soul deep though, and for the first time Stygian could sense the enormity of what Jonas was facing if he lost the battle for the little girl’s life.
“Momma, Da sings.” Amber lay back in Jonas’s arms and clearly told a secret Jonas would have preferred she kept to herself. “Da sings purty, Momma.”
Rachel’s laughter was filled with love as she straightened and stared down at her mate. “Da sings, does he?” she asked the little girl. “What does Da sing, Amber?”
“Uh, Rachel—” There was a definite thread of amusement in Jonas’s tone.
“Da sing bad cotie go bye-bye.” Amber laughed, obviously aware she was telling a great secret. “Ba’ cotie go bye-bye, boom boom,” she suddenly sang as Jonas fought to hold back his laughter and Rachel turned a look of mock anger on him.
“Jonas, shame on you,” she chastised him, though her tone lacked anger. “I thought we were teaching Amber to be compassionate and kind?”
“To be fair, it’s called putting them out of their misery.” Jonas laughed, handing the little girl over to her petite mother. “Snitch,” he accused the little girl, but his smile and tone of voice was anything but chastising.
“Da called me ‘itch, Momma,” Amber gave a mock little pout, though her blue eyes were gleaming with childish laughter as her arms wrapped around her mother’s neck as she turned back to her da. “Don’ call me ’itch, Da.” She wagged a little finger at him, obviously mimicking his actions.
Jonas chuckled at the childish order before moving to his feet and stealing a kiss from the girl’s cheek. “Then don’t snitch on Da,” he warned her, the laughter in his voice another surprise.
Stygian would be damned if he could ever remember seeing laughter in Jonas’s gaze, let alone hearing it in his voice.
“Come on, snitch, let’s get you bathed and dressed for dinner. Do you think you and your da could refrain from the food fight tonight? Those carrots were not easy for Erin to clean . . .”
She continued into the other room as her voice trailed off and Amber’s laughter became indistinct, leaving Stygian to miss it more than he was willing to admit.
That moment of tenderness, of family intimacy was nearly more than Stygian could bear. And in that moment, the young woman waiting in the other room jumped into his mind.
Skin like the softest silk; eyes the sweetest, softest gray; and a body that would tempt a monk. Full breasts confined beneath the sports bra, gently rounded hips and toned thighs. Lips with the slightest sensual pout and a temper that would test even the most patient Breed.
Being next to her in the Dragoon had tested not just his patience, but also his self-control. He had wanted nothing more than to taste those sweet lips before moving on to certain other body parts.
“Control your lust, Wolf, or I’ll start thinking she’s your mate,” Jonas murmured, amused.
Stygian frowned back at him. “Hell, a Breed can’t even get horny anymore without being accused of mating.”
Jonas’s lips quirked in a hint of a smile. “True, Wolf. Very true.” Then he nodded to the monitors. “Go on out there, distract her a bit. Once the link reactivates, I’ll join the rest of you. Have the others keep their distance from her in case the skin tags she’s wearing are programmed to shut everything down once Breed body heat has been detected.”
Breeds had a body temperature that ran a degree or two higher than humans and made some electronics much easier to shut down if they were programmed correctly.
Stygian nodded, turned and headed back to the sitting room where the young woman waited.
And he started praying—
Praying she wasn’t his mate. Praying she was his mate.
And praying he could keep her alive.