GOD, my head.
Gabriel King opened his eyes, but only blackness greeted him. At first he thought he might have gone blind. But his lycan heritage would have healed him from any damage to his eyes. No, he concluded he had on a blindfold.
Gabe tried to move, but found he couldn’t. His hands and arms wouldn’t budge, and neither would his legs. He felt cold metal wrapped around his wrists, arms, waist, legs, and ankles, keeping him restrained in place. Enforced steel-titanium alloy most likely, Gabe ventured a guess as he tested the shackles that didn’t give him even an inch of mobility to work with.
Because he could breathe normally and didn’t feel anything else over his face, he knew there was no hood, blanket, or bag covering his face. Taking a good sniff, he learned several things at once. First, other than the scent of his own masculine sweat, there were no other odors lingering. A confined, sterile space, he surmised. Second, there was a very low hum in the cool, dry, recycled air from a ventilation system.
He had been positioned on his haunches, torso upright, with his hands held up above his head and apart with a metal bar. The platform where he had been restrained was definitely moving. A vehicle of some kind, perhaps a truck, he suspected, as there was a faint echo around him indicating an empty space. The lack of other human sounds told him he was the sole occupant.
Holding back a sigh, Gabe understood that this was no chance abduction.
He was held by specifically designed restraints in a clean environment, and they were on the move. All of it suggested a definite plan coming to fruition in a short amount of time. Gabe had been purposely taken, and a mobile place had been built to keep him captive and transport him to a destination wholly unfamiliar to him.
Everything suggested these people knew he was a werewolf, and they had taken all possible precautions to prevent Gabe from escaping.
Fear gripped his heart and made his stomach churn with burning uncertainty and then with ice-cold nails to rip his self-confidence to shreds.
After shaking his head to clear away the mists of concern and self-doubt, at least metaphorically, Gabe refocused on his surroundings. Leaning his head back a bit, he felt cold, smooth metal behind him, against his scalp. And the wall was shaking slightly. Gabe was certain that meant a well-maintained asphalt road, perhaps a highway since there were few to no turns he could feel.
He tried to listen acutely, but even with his werewolf senses, he could hear no roar of traffic, no people talking, no machines, not even the car’s engine. Could the vehicle be sound-proofed? That seemed like overkill, but then again, Gabe was a very powerful lycan.
Suddenly there was a new sound: sharp hissing.
Gabe took a breath, and immediately his eyes began to droop and sleep invaded his brain, his awareness turning to mush. Gaseous sedative, he realized. His captors must have some kind of medical indicators attached to him to discern he was awake. It was cold, detached, and professional.
Gabe fell into a drug-induced, dreamless sleep.
UNAWARE of the passage of time, Gabe awoke to a sudden jolt as the vehicle beneath him ground to a halt. He could barely keep his eyes open long enough to yet again see only the black blindfold, and his body felt sluggish and unresponsive. Whatever they had given him was potent stuff, perhaps genetically modified specifically for him.
My family must be going mad with worry.
At least he had one asset working for him. Since the Great Unveiling, there had been attacks against mythical creatures revealed in the world. Two years ago another lycan, a female, had been kidnapped in order to force her to bestow her wolf bite on a group of men seeking immortality. She had managed to escape, and in the process, she had killed three of them while wounding four others. Later the courts had set a precedent by ruling it self-defense.
So, if Gabe got free from his bonds, he could kill or disable his captors in self-defense.
But he was not a killer. He was just a cowboy, for God’s sake, raising cattle on a ranch in Wyoming. Sure, he was a werewolf, but he was no one important. And despite the sorry situation he found himself in, he wasn’t positive he could kill his captors even if the opportunity presented itself. As the eldest of the King siblings, he had been a peacemaker his whole life, the one others sought to calm themselves down. As a Beta of his pack, he had a responsibility to stay levelheaded and not allow his animal instincts or beastly emotions to dominate him.
A loud clank sounded when heavy doors opened, confirming Gabe’s notion that he was held in the back of a truck. Hard boots with metal tips hit the floor and approached him.
“He’s awake,” a man’s voice said gruffly, without a trace of compassion. This was the voice of a professional for whom a person was just like any other piece of merchandise to be hauled around. “I’ll tranq him.”
“Don’t bother,” another male voice said curtly. “He’s not going anywhere. And the owner will want to see the puppy up and about.”
Gabe’s mouth wasn’t gagged, so he could’ve spoken to them, shouted for help, or even growled. But he saw little point in attempting any of those things. If these truly were consummate professionals, possibly hired mercenaries, they wouldn’t answer his questions or show any signs of empathy. If he screamed out, they’d hit him or use the tranquilizer gun on him. And if he growled like an animal, they’d probably laugh scornfully—and then clobber him unconscious.
Instead of dealing with the men, Gabe took a sniff of the air rushing into the back of the truck, trying to ascertain where he was from the smells reaching him. The sharp fragrance of coniferous trees at the ranch had changed into sugary, sweeter deciduous trees and rich smells from wet soil. Perhaps it was an estuary, a delta, or a swamp, Gabe thought, now more worried, knowing he was definitely not in Wyoming anymore, but in a southern state, like Louisiana, Mississippi, or Alabama.
Gabe was far away from home turf.
Someone was close to him. The creak of leather combat boots and the rubbery squeak of some kind of hard-plated body armor were loud in his ears, and the smell of coffee and sweat came through clearly. Also, there was a tension in the air, not quite as thick as what you could cut with a knife, but palpable nonetheless.
I make them anxious.
“Keep still, mutt,” the man said, practically grunting his words out.
Gabe could discern no accent in his voice, nothing to indicate his origins. He could have allowed himself to get provoked and still keep an emotional distance, but thanks to the fresh air and new stimuli, he had regained his strength and awareness. The effects of the sedative had completely worn off.
One mistake from any of these men would be their last.
Wind was rustling in the trees and the scent of jasmine reached him in gushes of wet warm air. Absolutely in the South, he thought, wondering who that far away could possibly know he was a lycan. In his many wandering years centuries ago, Gabe had traveled all over the South, but he had not been there in several decades, fifty or sixty years at least, not since WWII.
Then, in a blink of an eye, everything changed.
He caught a new scent, bewildering and bewitching, alluring and arousing. Gabe was instantly rock-hard in his jeans, his whole body craving, his senses on high alert. He might not have ever been on the receiving end of this particular scent, but he knew instantly what it meant.
My mate is near.
The nearest man tested his shackles. “He’s secure.” A pause was followed by a light chuckle, bemused. “He’s real calm too—for a little bitch.” Inwardly, Gabe grinned. Only female dogs were bitches, and regardless of the suggestion, the ridiculous taunt missed its mark by miles.
“Keep your opinions to yourself. He’s a person too.”
There it was, Gabe felt, and closed his eyes to relish the sound of his mate’s voice.
The nearest man laughed derisively. “Wanna pet, pretty boy?”
“Come closer and say that again to my face, motherfucker!” As he spoke, his Irish accent was pronounced, and Gabe could imagine how that tongue forming those fierce words would curl around his own in a feral display of passion.
Oh yes, his mate was indeed a man. However, he was clearly a man with a rash temper and the physical strength to respond to danger, because the other man snorted, but in a conciliatory tone that indicated he was backing off.
It was interesting but didn’t bode well for their relationship. A man who spent his time on the wrong side of the law as a volatile and combative mercenary would not have been Gabe’s first choice for a mate. In fact, a man like that wouldn’t have been on the list at all.
Yes, that type of man would be Gabe’s opposite and could therefore complement him. But even though he had never had a mate, Gabe knew that stable, lasting relationships were built on a foundation of commonalities, not differences.
Trying to tell from what he was sensing where his mate was, Gabe turned his head to focus his werewolf senses, but a sharp slap on his head snapped him out of his attempt, and he lost track of his man. Pain radiated through him, but was gone in a heartbeat, and clarity was restored.
“Be still, pardner,” the man sneered at him with an exaggerated Western accent.
Gabe wasn’t fazed by the words of a stranger, let alone an enemy. This man didn’t care who Gabe was, and every jeer was just his professional courtesy, so to speak. Mentally, Gabe shrugged it off and tried to relocate his mate with only his hearing and sense of smell.
But whoever his mate was, he was gone. Gabe couldn’t sense him anywhere. Cursing inside, he knew better than to move again, which would incite the retaliation of the mean man at his side. For this man, cruelty was a part of his job he obviously took to like a fish to water. So Gabe forced himself to take a calming breath and resigned himself to wait for what was to come.
It was silent again. The men didn’t speak. Gabe could tell there were at least four of them, three who had spoken out loud—one of them being his mate—and one who had not said a thing. But Gabe could smell the differences in their natural odors even though his mate’s lingering scent dominated his sensory awareness and left him yearning for more than the whiff he’d gotten so far.
What did these men want? The King family was wealthy and renowned, so ransom could be a reason. But considering all the security precautions in place, Gabe suspected that his being a lycan was the more likely reason. So, the question wasn’t what these men, who were clearly mere hired guns, wanted, but who were they working for?
“The car’s coming. We can take him outside.”
Gabe’s heartbeat sped up as his mate’s voice came closer. His throat was drier than a desert, and his hands were sweating. It was hard to concentrate on anything other than his mate inching nearer.
Then, the touch.
His breath hitched when his mate’s fingers made contact with the skin of his wrists. All the fight left him, which under the circumstances wasn’t good at all. But Gabe couldn’t help the reaction; it was so instinctive and natural. Then the blindfold was removed, and through the dark blond strands of his hair, he got his first glimpse of his mate.
The man was tall, lean, and strong, like a racehorse, powerful and quick on his feet. His dark hair had been shaved into a crew cut, giving him a hard countenance emphasized by his streamlined musculature and angular bones. Wearing black army-style clothes with a ceramic bulletproof vest, also black, and an assortment of other body armors, and almost casually carrying a Heckler & Koch MP7, this man was as professional as the other man, but unlike his more ruthless colleague, his features were either schooled not to reveal emotions or he felt nothing special about this assignment.
Well, that was going to change.
As Gabe gazed into the man’s clear blue eyes, it was there—the strong, immediate connection.
The undeniable recognition that Gabe knew was a turning point.
WHAT. The. Fuck?
For the first time in his life Kieran Knight was mesmerized. He had not been on the recovery team but functioned as a backup on a nearby rooftop, his experience lying in, among other things, sniper rifles and long-distance accuracy. This was the first time he’d been close to their target, one Gabriel King, son of Rebecca and Daniel King, the owners of the Howling Creek Ranch and Alphas of their pack. Gabriel King, age indeterminate, best guess three to four hundred years, dark blond hair, dark brown eyes, six-six and two-thirty-five.
All that was statistics. What was in front of Kieran was something else: powerful and alive, beautiful and perfect….
The raw physical reaction overpowered his rationality. He couldn’t breathe, and he shuddered down to his very core. He had never understood what it meant for a heart to skip a beat at the sight of another human being—but now he did. He felt like his heart had jumped from his chest up to his throat and lodged itself there, making it impossible to swallow or breathe.
Those brown eyes peered up at him, as if they held within them a secret just out of Kieran’s reach. He felt that gaze all the way down to his toes, but the sensation centered in his groin, pooling at the base of his stomach like boiling lava. He was sweating profusely too. Despite being caught in the grip of that primal gaze, Kieran took note of the bulging muscles of the man’s ripped physique, the sun-kissed skin, and the laugh lines around the man’s eyes.
Kieran sighed at the sight, then quickly shook his head and forced the thoughts out of his mind. This man was their prisoner, their ticket to job completion, their paycheck. This man came with a price tag attached, and Kieran could not allow personal attraction to get in the way. Before becoming a hired gun for the rich, the powerful, and the totally evil and corrupt, he’d fought in the fucking IRA, for God’s sake! He was no pansy-ass poofter….
But his conviction that the job came first rang hollow as Kieran saw the flicker of light die in the man’s dark eyes as they lowered to the floor. The resignation coming from Gabriel as his shoulders slumped was too much for Kieran.
I can’t do this.
He had no idea where the thought came from, but wherever and from however deep it did emerge, that single resolution dominated him from then on.
Kieran’s creativity worked on overload as he scrambled to find a coherent and workable strategy to destroy everything he had worked and bled for over the past three years. But as it stood, the realization that he had zero regrets about consigning himself to this future path was so fierce and compelling that nothing else existed.
How can I do this without getting myself or him killed?
Kieran got up from his previous hunkered position to release the wide, bracelet-type restraints from the metal bar to which they were attached, keeping the prisoner’s hands apart so there was no chance he could break free. Kieran had fought against a lycan twice, both times with about two dozen men at his side. Both times they’d lost more than half the men.
But this man, Gabriel King, was different. He was cool and composed. He didn’t try to fight back or break free. He silently and calmly waited for what was to come. How could Kieran relay to Gabriel without words that he was on Gabriel’s side?
God almighty, I’ve gone off the deep end for sure.
Once Gabriel was freed from the bar, there was still a chain that kept his wrists locked together. Both Kieran and Slade, the other merc who had accompanied him into the truck, took a few steps back, held their automatic weapons tighter to their chests, and pointed them at Gabriel to avoid any possibility of responding to a threat too slowly or too late. Neither of them was taking any chances with their quarry.
Only, Gabriel did nothing. Slowly, as if showing the men he was no danger, Gabriel got up, using his bare toes to lift him from his position sitting on his haunches. His bound hands lowered to rest in front of him as he stood in nothing but blue jeans and a brown-plaid shirt, but he made no sudden moves, nor did he test the solidity of the restraints.
Kieran couldn’t understand the man’s placid behavior. Could Gabriel still be under the influence of the drugs? He should not have been if they had timed the dose right, and considering the amount they were paid for being professional, they could not have gotten it wrong.
Perhaps his defeatist attitude was because of Kieran.
Half-hard in his pants, Kieran backed up so he could keep his eye on Gabriel but at the same time take a sharp look outside. There were three men holding position behind the truck, one of them being Deck, the commander of their mercenary team. Kieran went over the possibilities in his head, discarding them just as fast. Because of Gabriel, they were all on high alert, and getting the drop on them would be next to impossible.
Yet, the thought of not helping Gabriel, or his dying, made Kieran’s stomach clench and the pain in his chest tightened to a strangling grip.
He had to help Gabriel—or die trying.
STARING at the cool gray polished floor of the truck was the only thing that kept Gabe holding onto his precious self-control. His mate was so close that he was ready to pounce on the guy. That impulse was driving him insane with want—and the timing could not have been worse for these sorts of feelings.
But did the other man feel the same? Gabe had seen how the man’s blue eyes had widened and then grown darker as his pupils dilated with something akin to need. He had smelled arousal in sweet male musk and known he’d had an effect on the mercenary. Yet, the moment had slipped away and vanished, along with Gabe’s hope of silently communicating to his mate that they were meant to be together.
For all Gabe knew, the man didn’t even know what a lycan mating was.
“There’s a good puppy,” the cruel merc taunted from his side, chuckling low. “He’ll make someone a great pet. So docile and obedient. Roll over! Bark! Woof-woof!”
After nearly four hundred years, getting Gabe upset was well-nigh impossible, and he had other priorities at the moment anyway. He had to escape—but how? Though no longer attached to the truck wall, Gabe still had his hands, arms, legs, and ankles bound, so he was going nowhere in a hurry.
“Get him out,” a commanding voice called from outside.
The touch burned Gabriel’s skin as his mate grabbed his bare arm below the rolled-up sleeve. Together with the other mercenary, Gabe’s mate lifted him up enough so he could move a bit even with the ankle restraints. With a combination of hopping and sliding, Gabe was brought to the edge of the truck, and he could feel the open air beneath his toes as he stood there. The two mercenaries took a hold under his arms and lowered him to the ground carefully. As his mate’s hands left him, Gabe thought he felt the man’s fingers brush against his nape in a gentle, reassuring manner.
Unsure whether he should dismiss the gesture that, for all he knew, could have been mere wishful thinking on his part, Gabe made a conscious choice not to respond to it in any way. Even if the act had been intentional, if these men knew that one of their own guys was Gabe’s mate, the man undoubtedly would become a threat requiring elimination. The thought of causing his mate’s death made Gabe’s stomach twist in painful knots.
“He’s magnificent,” a woman spoke nearby, her tone filled with awe. Gabe followed the sound and saw a young, blonde, fair-skinned woman, likely in her midtwenties, with soft girlish features and a practically smitten look on her face, her full lips rounded in an amazed O like an odd kissy-face. Then for a moment, she looked puzzled. “He looks surprisingly… tame. Is he still drugged?”
One of the men, who, judging by his distinct air of authority, was the leader of these mercenaries, shook his head. “Nah. The tranqs have worn off by now. He’s just… housebroken, I guess.” Though his crooked smile was more wry than amused, the other men—twelve of them all in all—laughed, indicating the man was definitely the top dog of the unit.
The woman shrugged as if indifferent. “Well, he will do nicely anyway. Father will be so proud of him—and me.” Gabe watched and listened intently. Was there a hint of a southern accent in the woman’s voice? Her floral scent came from an expensive perfume, indicating class and wealth, and the way she spoke suggested she was the one in charge—but only because she was one of those people who expected everyone to serve her. “Take him to the cage.”
That did not bode well, Gabe thought, but he had little choice but to comply. Needing to stay conscious to get a better sense of his surroundings, he made no effort to run or fight, and the mercenaries seemed to sense this. They may not have taken any chances with him, but they weren’t hurting him either. The woman—and her mysterious father—were obviously footing the bill for this little involuntary get-together, and they didn’t want the merchandise damaged. Of all the things that had happened to Gabe today, that was the second best. The first had been finding his mate, though that was unlikely to help him.
He was quickly blindfolded again—and he couldn’t for the life of him figure out why the cover had been removed at all, except for the check-up by the lady in charge—and led down a path past the long black Bentley the woman had been standing next to. The gravel crunched beneath his bare feet, and the smell of a freshly cut lawn hung heavy in the hot, humid air. The sun was high, suggesting noon or thereabouts. Scents of cypress, dogwood, magnolia, and oak trees, along with exotic flowers, filled his nostrils. The place was definitely well maintained and high-end. Then again, poor people could not have afforded this special treatment Gabe was being given. The walk didn’t last long, and then he was taken into a house, the air dry, cool, and perfumed, again giving a definite impression of wealth and class. A heavy metal door opened with an ominous, deep clank, and he was escorted down a flight of steep metal stairs until they came to a halt on the floor. The sound of a cell door being unlocked and swung open confirmed his fears, but this was the wrong time to act, so as docilely as he could, he let the men push him in, still restrained, and close the cell door before they departed.
“I’ll take first watch,” Gabe heard his mate say, chuckling. “There’s a game on later, and I won’t miss it on account of you losers.” Laughter and receding footsteps followed the friendly statement, and next the bang of a metal door closing—and then there was only silence.
“REMOVE the blindfold.” The woman’s order was swiftly followed by Gabe’s mate’s scent closing in on him, and then the black cotton cloth was yanked off of him. Blinking in the cold, harsh light of the prison cell—from the looks of it underground, perhaps in a bunker—Gabe made a quick assessment of the situation and his surroundings.
Only three people in the room: the woman, Gabriel, and his mate. Gabe was the only one behind bars, though, and still bound by shackles.
“Look at you,” the woman cooed appreciatively as she walked closer to the bars, her blue eyes like crystal-clear mountain water, open wide like those of a startled child. “So beautiful.”
Her purring voice gave Gabe a hint of why he was here, and inwardly he shuddered at the thought. Yes, in his lifetime he had slept with both men and women, but the latter had never sat well with him. With women he had never been able to let go, and he had felt empty emotionally. He just connected more with men.
And at the moment, his mate stood on the other side of the bars, not realizing the truth of it. That was a depressing thought Gabe quickly dismissed for fear of exposure.
The woman’s slender fingers caressed the bars in a suggestive manner while she bit her pouting lower lip and batted her long eyelashes. “You may not be aware of this, Gabriel, but you and I have met before.” Gabe frowned. She didn’t seem familiar. “Of course, at the time I was just a little girl. I still had pigtails, then, and I wore a petite pink dress with cute tiny shoes with red ribbons on them.” Her giggles might have sounded endearing to someone without a brain, but Gabe felt only chills down his spine, though he showed none of it.
Pacing back and forth by the bars, she was clearly getting anxious about Gabe’s mutinous silence, and this time her lip biting wasn’t the least bit seductive. “Don’t be so despondent, Gabriel. I’m not going to hurt you.” She stopped, put both hands on the bars, and gave him what was obviously her most charming expression. “I’ve adored you from afar for years. I told my father I wanted you, or no one. And here you are.”
Her glee made Gabe’s blood run cold. Dammit, another wolfie. Most of the beings from the formerly Unseen World had accumulated fans and followers since the Great Unveiling, and his kind, the lycan breed, were no different. The King family had had run-ins with werewolf groupies before, usually with violent results. Gabe would be damned if he allowed this woman to get her way with him.
“Oh goodness, where are my manners?” she suddenly exclaimed, giggling and tossing her long tresses around in a gesture Gabe assumed was meant to be alluring, but missed its mark by miles. “My name is Victoria Adler, and my father is William Adler, a devout supporter for mythos rights. You met him when he bought a pony for me when I was just a little girl, remember?”
Gabe could not in good conscience say he did because he didn’t. The Howling Creek Ranch was renowned, but honestly, too many kids got their first horses from the ranch for Gabe to recall a specific child, let alone a parent. This probably had something to do with the fact that he raised bulls and cattle with his brother Uri, while his younger brothers Michael and Rafe handled the horses and their training.
“I knew from the moment I saw you that you’d be my mate.” Her tone spoke of pink dreams and girlish desires that had nothing to do with reality, and her blue eyes didn’t seem to see him as much as her gaze was directed inward to a fantasy of a man.
“But I am not your mate. And I never will be.”
IT WAS the first time Kieran heard Gabriel King, their captive cowboy werewolf, speak, and he fell in love instantly. That deep, rumbling voice washed over Kieran’s senses, like a velvety caress, and he had nothing to compare this strange new feeling with. He had never fallen for anyone so hard and fast, let alone a guy—until now.
Refocusing on the conversation, Kieran kept his expression blank, though he had to dig his fingernails into his palms to do so.
“Don’t be silly, sweetheart. Of course you are mine.” Giggling, she shook her head as if truly baffled by Gabriel’s response. “You’re here, aren’t you? Oh, stop goofing around, Gabriel, my pet. We will be so happy together. You’ll see.” Letting out a long, enchanted sigh, she inspected the prisoner from head to toe, admiringly.
Now Kieran was worried. This woman who paid them to do a job, Victoria Adler, was clearly a few cards short of a full deck. It was hardly unexpected for a person who was after mythical beings, but still….
Then again, Kieran was in the dark when it came to mating anyway. All he knew was wolves mated for life, and apparently so did werewolves. And they were immortal, so that was one hell of a commitment. But how did mating work then? Was Gabriel being honest when he said she would never be his mate?
Suddenly Gabriel spoke again, startling Kieran out of his confused thoughts. “How do you feel, Victoria? Do you feel flushed and hot? Is your skin tingling? Are you out of breath? Does your heart beat itself right out of your chest? Do you want nothing more than to tear open that cell door, run in and tear my jeans off so you can take my cock down your throat and then so deep inside your pussy you’d think we were born one person?”
It was Kieran who was so hot and bothered that he barely knew which way was up and which down. Every one of Gabriel’s descriptions seemed written with him in mind, and he felt all those things, the sensations pooling in his groin like a boiling lake of molten lava. He couldn’t take his eyes off the prisoner, who didn’t look at him but whose attention for some reason echoed through every fiber of Kieran’s being.
Holy. Shit. Gabriel King is my mate.
While Kieran was busy trying to come to terms with the fact that his whole life had just turned upside down in the span of a heartbeat, Victoria didn’t seem to know what to say, and she kept opening and closing her mouth like a fish on dry land. “Do not speak to me in that lewd manner, mister. I am a lady.”
Gabriel shrugged. “Lady or not, you still understood my meaning.”
Victoria’s fair cheeks blossomed a rosy pink as she blushed vehemently. “I see that this is the wrong time and place to get through to you. After a few days in here all by your lonesome, I am confident you will see things from my point of view.” All of a sudden, she let out a happy cry of girlish glee and clapped her hands in excitement, practically bouncing on the soles of her high-heel-clad feet. “Oh, you will love being with me! I have so many wonderful things planned for us. I thought about honeymooning in Paris. France, of course, not Texas. Or maybe in Firenze. Oh, Venice is absolutely gorgeous this time of year.”
As Victoria rambled, lost in an inner world, Kieran had a bad feeling, and it pressed tight in his chest. Accustomed to working for greedy, selfish people who desired some kind of edge over mythical beings, Kieran found Victoria Adler’s obsessive madness much more worrisome. The unit leader, Deck, had not mentioned any specifics about their client (he rarely divulged that kind of superfluous information), but surely he must have noticed that this woman was missing a few marbles.
Unless… maybe this woman was not their client, but just a representative. Yet she spoke in a possessive manner, as though she were the one signing their paychecks, so to speak. Not usually uncomfortable being kept in the dark, this time Kieran was painfully aware of all that he had given up by surrendering to Deck’s authority without question. How many Gabriel Kings had he sent to people just like Victoria Adler without question and without so much as a thought of what he had done?
Kieran shuddered, and he couldn’t look at Victoria anymore, so he sought out anything else to distract himself from a wave of remorseful nausea. It was in this moment of utter weakness, when his defenses were down, that his gaze found the darkened flames of Gabriel’s chocolate-brown eyes as the man stared at him from the other end of the room—behind bars, not backing down, and showing no sign of recognition or warmth. If this man was Kieran’s mate, he was certainly playing it cool, Kieran thought glumly.
Then it hit him.
Gabriel is trying to protect me. He doesn’t know me as anything other than an enemy who abducted him and took his freedom—and yet he’s protecting me.
Kieran wished for the ground to open up and devour him right then and there as the full weight of his shame landed on his shoulders.
Shaking himself out of his reverie, he fought for calm. What was his next play?
Victoria sighed, and buried in her voice was fatigue. With all that bouncy energy, she must have depleted her resources, and she waved a hand through the air in an elegant but languid gesture. “I’ll make sure you’re fed the finest courses, Gabriel. You will not want to leave me ever.” Throwing her plentiful head of hair about, she gave a shining bright smile and left.
It wasn’t until the reinforced steel door closed that Kieran realized even now he and Gabriel were not alone. Cameras with microphones would record their interactions and their every move. He prayed silently that Gabriel would not try to speak to him yet. For a moment, unable to distinguish between relief and frustration, Kieran watched as Gabriel’s gaze dropped to the floor and stayed there, his whole position seemingly at ease—even in chains.
Moving cautiously, he stared at Gabriel, who didn’t react in any way. Kieran turned to face the camera in the corner on the outside of the cell and used military hand gestures to indicate he was leaving his post and coming up to the control room. Without waiting to hear a reply through his earcom, he went up the stairs and left the room, closing the door behind him.
The guard change would be in two hours, now less than that. Victoria’s talk with Gabriel had eaten up precious seconds that Kieran did not have. Deck led a group of twelve men, himself and Kieran included, and the Adler mansion undoubtedly had its own security forces. At the moment, though, Kieran’s main concern was his own men—who he was about to betray.
HIS mate had disappeared up the stairs five minutes ago, and Gabe had little doubt that his message about the physical responses of the mating process had fallen on deaf ears. As he discarded the possibility his mate could help him escape, Gabe was forced to conclude that he had only his own wits to fall back on since he had been left to his own devices.
Despite her apparent lunacy, Victoria was Gabe’s best bet. She was in love with her own image of a man, but perhaps with a little persuasion and charm he could convince her to—
The door opened with a metallic clank, and two pairs of feet descended. Keeping his eyes aimed at the floor, Gabe wondered if it was chow time or if they had come to mock him or even hurt him.
“See? The lock looks defective. Thank God the puppy’s still in chains, or we’d be in some serious shit.”
Barely containing his confused frown, Gabe listened to his mate’s low cadence and his words, which made no sense. But he didn’t get the chance to ponder too long because as soon as the other man stepped closer to the lock to inspect it, Gabe’s mate grabbed him from behind, one arm wound tight across the man’s chest while his other hand was busy injecting something into the man’s neck. After groaning and flailing about for a few breaths, the man slumped, his eyes closed, and he went down.
“Quickly,” Gabe’s mate ordered with a low hiss. He twisted the cell door keys off the man’s belt, unlocked the door, and dashed close to Gabe to unlock his restraints with a fast snap of his wrists. “My name’s Kieran, and I don’t have time to explain. Take that man’s clothes and put them on. Fucking hurry! It won’t take the rest of the unit long to discover the control room empty and the cameras turned off.”
Practical as always, Gabe resisted the urge to pull his mate near. Every whiff of him was like an aphrodisiac, calling out to him. But he also didn’t fail to notice that Kieran veered off and intentionally avoided touching him. I guess he did notice his instinct to mate after all.
Gabe walked closer to the unconscious guard and disrobed him. Without a word he shucked off his jeans and plaid shirt and put on the pitch-black uniform. The pants were too tight and too short, and the button-down shirt looked about ready to burst at the seams. The small boots would not fit him, though, not even when he used a knife to cut open the tip of the shoes so that his toes could stick out. They were simply too cramped and uncomfortable, and he had to forgo them, praying no one would notice an absence of shoes.
“Ready?” Kieran spoke to him, and for the first time Gabe had the chance to actually look at his mate. There were gray slivers of steel within those blue eyes, and his hard-lined face had more than a few old white scars. Gabe wondered if the man ever smiled. The absence of laugh lines around his mouth and eyes suggested he never did. “Take his ball cap. Hide your face as much as you can.” Gabe put on the black baseball cap, and added to the disguise with the sunglasses from the guard’s chest pocket. “Take his gun.” Gabe complied without argument. He did not like guns in any way, shape, or form, but he was fluent in their use. “That is a semi-automatic, and you load it—”
Before Kieran could finish, Gabe had already taken a clip, inserted it into the gun, and made sure the safety was on before sliding the gun into the hip holster and strapping it on. He noted the mix of prideful awe and disconcerted suspicion in Kieran’s eyes as he took stock of what Gabe had just done. Then Kieran shook his head, as if to clear it from wayward thoughts, and went up the stairs to the door. Glancing over his shoulder, he said gruffly, “If we come across anyone, let me do the talking. Our destination is the side entrance. There’ll be vehicles there. You understand?”
Gabe nodded in response. No point in wasting time with small talk.
The outside corridor was empty, but there was a breeze, suggesting a doorway nearby. Gabe remembered they hadn’t walked far inside before he’d been led down the stairs to his underground prison. Painted light yellow, the walls around them closed in narrowly and indicated they were in the back of the mansion, far from the wide-open spaces reserved for guests.
The scent of gardenia, jasmine, and waxflower filled the fresh, cool air even with the occasional hotter gust from the outside, and Gabe felt like sneezing. He preferred cold mountain air and the scent of grass, the earth, and pine trees. He’d hated the pungent smells of the Deep South when he’d been here nearly a hundred years ago, and not much had changed since then.
His clothes constricting his movements, Gabe followed Kieran down the hall to the back door, which was, surprisingly, unguarded. Outside, under the shade of massive magnolia trees with moss hanging amid the foliage, there were two parked black SUVs and no one in sight.
“Must be my lucky day…,” Kieran murmured under his breath as he took quick stock of the area before hurrying to the first car with a silent Gabe in tow. The car doors were unlocked, and the keys were in the ignition. Kieran started the car and eased down the driveway. “If and when we make it to the front gates of the estate, keep your head down, but for Christ’s sake, play along if necessary. Can you do that?”
Gabe took a good look at his rescuer and saw how pale his skin was, slick with a light sheen of sweat, how shallow his breathing was, and how his features had hardened into sharp angles and rough lines in anticipation of their escape plan going awry. All Gabe said was, “Yes.”
CAN the fucker sound any calmer?
Kieran gritted his teeth, annoyed at how little emotion Gabriel seemed to display, but he knew this would have been the wrong time for that mess anyway. All he could do at the moment was hope they got out of the compound in one piece.
The driveway was at most three hundred yards in length, but the drive from the back of the mansion to the front gates felt like a hundred miles. Fuck. Cursing inwardly, Kieran was aware that the only reason he felt so nervous now was because he had a charge he needed to protect. If it had been just him, he would have been able to bluff the pants off the president of the United States. As it was, his anxiety was palpable.
Squaring his shoulders and fidgeting in his seat, he searched for a laid-back position, and by the time they reached the gate, he was secure enough to hustle. There was a small booth by the closed gates, with a house security guard inside. The big man in the natural white uniform of the security company exited the booth as they pulled up.
Kieran rolled down the window of the passenger side with a flick of a button, and with a wicked smile, he leaned over Gabriel to speak to the guard—who had a slight paunch and breath that held a hint of bourbon. Easy peasy.
With a courteous nod, Kieran said almost lazily, “Deck and the guys wanted a drink, and your fucker friends in the house wouldn’t let us near the liquor cabinet. So now I gotta haul ass to the closest liquor store after the fucking retrieval’s done just to sate their fucking drinking habit. You believe that?” Shaking his head as if mortally wounded, he ground out a low-pitched curse and huffed indignantly, “But the boss is the boss, you know?”
The guard chuckled. “Yeah, I hear that. Ain’t no ‘no’ when it comes to the boss.” He waved toward the road and said, “Go on through.” Back inside the booth, the guard pushed a button and the front gates opened.
“Hey,” Kieran called out to the guard, recapturing his attention. “Where is the nearest fucking liquor store anyhow?”
Now the guard was really laughing out loud, snidely. “Go south. There’s a gas station a couple of miles away. Behind that there’s a hardware store and a liquor store.” Then he winked more than a little maliciously. “You pussies have fun now.”
Kieran flipped the guard a finger, eliciting a new set of chortles from the man. With as much composure as he could muster, Kieran eased the SUV through the now-open gates and onto the tarmac, heading south just like the guard had suggested.
And just like that their ordeal was over—for the time being anyway.
Kieran was damn near bursting at the seams with all the questions bubbling inside him.