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There were colors he'd never seen before. Overhead, a cloudless sky stretched in a shade of crystal blue, disappearing over a horizon of emerald, like the tall trees surrounding him. The ground beneath his feet was a rich dark brown, and when he crouched down to let it run through his fingers, the moisture in it took him by surprise. Every notion he'd had about the topworld was wrong. It was a lush paradise, thriving in the absence of humanity. This was what people had prayed for when they'd been driven underground by the ramifications of their own decadent lifestyles. But this was nothing like those in power continued to preach at the citizens.
He lifted his head to see the trio stripping out of the protective headgear. As he'd already figured out, there were two men and one woman. Both men were similar in looks--dark hair, dark eyes, with only their build for him to really distinguish them--but the woman was not. He stared at her, just as transfixed by her reality as he was of the world around him.
White-blonde hair fell in fine waves to her shoulders, framing a wide forehead and a structured face. Her nose was probably a little too large for her to be considered classically beautiful, but her wide-set eyes compensated. They were an icy gray, thickly lashed, and currently as unsmiling as her full mouth. It was a mouth made for kissing, her lips plump and soft. His body hardened just at the sudden wonder of what it would be like to actually feel them part beneath his, to touch his tongue to hers, to--
"We did this for you so you can make dirt patties?" she asked with a sardonic lift of her brow.
Andreas looked down at the dirt he'd clumped in his fist. Letting theclod fall back to the ground, he straightened and wiped his palm on his pants.
"So what happens now?" His voice seemed too loud in the quiet of the forest, and he flushed at the amused glance the two men exchanged. Clearing his throat, he lowered his voice and added, "Do I get to thank Reb Slater in person?"
It was her turn to look amused. "Who the hell do you think you've been talking to?"
The import of her question took a moment to sink in.
"You?" His startled gaze swept over her, noting the curves the sunshine delineated, the confident spread of her feet as she squared off with him. "You can't be Reb Slater."
"Because Reb can't be short for Rebecca?"
"Because Reb Slater is a vicious outlaw. Because he's dangerous. Because--"
"Oh, that's right, I forgot. Men have a monopoly on stupidity belowground." Her eyes flashed. "Because that's the only reason you could possibly believe any of that crap."
The blatant chuckles from her male companions only riled Andreas further. "All the rumors say Reb Slater is a man," he snapped. "Pardon me for thinking a woman would be better than being a thief and murderer."
His accusations brought an immediate response. Both men stiffened and reached for their weapons, while Reb went deadly still.
The single uttered word was nearly a whisper, and though she didn't move, both men dropped their hands away from their lasers. She stared at Andreas, unblinking, until he felt like squirming beneath its intensity. That was when she nodded.
"Good luck, Mr. Barken. Something tells me you're going to need it."
Turning on her heel, she began climbing down the slope, her steps sure in spite of the uneven terrain. Her team fell in behind her, and not one of them looked back as he stood there, watching them in shock.
She didn't stop.
He tried again.
"You can't just leave me here."
No response. Each passing second took them further away. Desperation shot through him.