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There was nothing unusual to a casual observer about a hot woman in a white string bikini, lounging poolside, a few feet from where undercover Renegade soldier Damion Browne leaned against the cabana-style bar, a beer in hand. In fact, from a purely male standpoint, there was absolutely everything right with this particular woman-a brunette with long, silky, dark hair brushing creamy white shoulders. But then, he was on duty, and he took that duty too seriously to allow primal urges to distract him. Still... something about this woman set his blood pumping, and like it or not, that translated to a distraction that was out of character for him.
He told himself it was because she'd shown up ten minutes into the outdoor excursion of a Russian nuclear scientist and his family that Damion was covertly ensuring didn't end up in Adam Rain's arsenal of weapons. The last thing the Renegades wanted was the leader of the Zodius GTECH movement getting his hands on the nuclear technology Lev was selling the United States in exchange for citizenship. That's why this woman was a potential risk, he told himself, not because she had long, shapely legs that belonged wrapped around a man's waist-his waist, Damion thought with a rush of pure male heat. They belonged around his waist. Damn. What was wrong with him?
Inwardly he shook himself, not sure what it was about this woman, but she could easily drag him into the linger zone when he didn't go to the linger zone on duty. Scratch that, he thought, as he glanced at Lev and family and back to her. She already had him in the linger zone, and there was no forgiving his distraction, unless... That gnawing gut feeling was telling him that underneath all that sex appeal, she was trouble, despite Adam's dislike of female operatives. Add that to the fact that the CIA team watching Lev had allowed him outside in the first place, and Damion had a bad, bad feeling about this. Suddenly, as if she sensed his suspicions, the dark-haired beauty's head snapped in his direction, her attention settling on him, her eyes shielded by white-rimmed sunglasses. Time stood still for an intense, crackling moment. Certainty filled him. She had known the entire time that he was watching her.
The microphone tucked discreetly inside Damion's ear hummed a second before the voice of his Harley-loving, wild card, second-in-charge, Chale Bonner, spoke, "We reported Lev's barking dog to the front desk several times. Looks like security is headed his way. We'll have him inside the building where he's less exposed in a flash."
Damion didn't reply. He was still watching the woman, who, as abruptly as she'd given her attention, jerked it away. Reaching for her bag, she stood up, offering him a nice, heart-shaped backside view as she sashayed away. Her pace was slow, confident, but a bit too precise. She was hiding something, beside the intimate details of her body, details he wanted to discover beneath those tiny pieces of white material. Damion knew Adam didn't typically work with women-he believed they were inferior beings-but somehow, someway, this one was the source of the warning in his gut.
"Alert," Chale added. "Doggy Patrol has arrived. Get ready for movement." Damion eyed the back door of the hotel to find two uniformed security guards and a woman dressed in a suit headed toward Lev and his brood. "I see them," Damion said, his gaze shifting to the fast-departing, bikini-clad female. But had she seen them? Was that why she couldn't get away from this place fast enough?
Damion set the beer down and discreetly touched the mike hidden in his ear. "Cover Lev. Something about that woman is bothering me." He pushed off the bar and started walking, unable to use his GTECH ability to travel inside the wind without risk of garnering unwanted attention. This woman was dangerous. The kind of dangerous a soldier, a Renegade, didn't let escape.
Lara's hand slipped discreetly into her oversized bag, wrapping around the hot steel of the weapon there, even as she rounded the diving board of the pool, carefully pacing herself, despite the urgency coursing through every pore. She was driven by the certainty that the man with the hot stare-and hotter body-by the pool was one of those GTECH monsters who'd killed her family.
She'd suspected as much the minute he'd walked to the bar, looking like an all-American soldier, no matter the absence of a uniform-his swagger confident, his jeans and T-shirt molding a perfectly honed physique, and his light brown hair neatly trimmed. A lethal air crackled off him, belying the casual way he leaned back against the bar and sipped his beer with an air that said that he could not only kill you if he wanted to, but he was ready to do so at the drop of a hat.
The hard edge of his assessing stare had settled on her, hot as it flickered across her barely clad body and then returned to her face. Lara had felt the intensely probing inspection with the unnerving feeling this man-this GTECH-could see beyond her dark glasses as surely as he'd glimpsed beneath the thin strips of fabric covering her. Heat had flooded her limbs at the daring way he'd looked at her, and having been warned about the unique, unpredictable abilities the GTECHs developed over time-that she too might develop over time-she'd jerked her gaze away.
It had been a foolish, amateurish reaction, unworthy of the training she'd received when she'd joined Project Serenity. Part of her welcomed the man to follow her, welcomed a chance to unload her weapon between his eyes where even a GTECH would be vulnerable, where their incredible healing abilities wouldn't matter, nor would their high-tech, second-skin armor protect them. But she couldn't risk failing General Powell and making a misstep that would allow the GTECH to get his hands on Lev. Powell had given her her life back, given her a chance to protect innocents. She now had a reason to fight and a reason to live. Her orders were clear, as well as her intel on Lev and his security detail. She was to be the silent, second level of security for Lev Egorov, the protection against the threat the GTECHs represented, Renegade or Zodius. Neither GTECH group could be trusted with nuclear technology-or trusted at all. The GTECHs outside of those on team "Serenity" were to be disposed of, before the public ever knew they existed. Only a handful inside the government knew, and the agents protecting Lev weren't included in that circle.
Determined to quickly and efficiently complete her task, she'd reached the trail directly behind the pool that led between this hotel and an adjoining property. A young couple walked toward her, delaying her plan to slip into the foliage and trees lining the path. She gave a friendly smile to the man and woman, a gesture that belied her racing heart and the worry that the GTECH would appear at any moment. She took that moment on the path to yank a red-and-white-striped cotton dress from her bag and pull it over her head. Then she kicked off her sandals and dropped a pair of Keds white tennis shoes to the ground before shoving her feet inside them. Not the perfect fighting attire, but better than a bikini.
By the time she was done, the man and woman had disappeared down another path, and from her earlier surveillance, she knew that their path lead to a duck pond.
Another quick glance around confirmed Lara was alone. She slipped off the path, behind the thick line of trees several feet deep that gave her ample cover, a mixture of pine needles and rocks crunching beneath her feet.
Lara stopped behind the thickest patch of foliage beside a chain-link fence, the steel laced with thick ivy. She inched her gun, complete with silencer, over the edge of her bag and peered through the greenery.
Surveying the pool area, Lara's breath lodged in her throat as she found the GTECH missing. He was coming for her, and if he wind-walked, he could appear near her at any moment. Focus, she silently reminded herself. Do the job, then catch some wind of your own, and be gone.
Quickly, she took aim at Lev, who was standing up and arguing with what looked like hotel security. They seemed to want him to go inside, where he should have stayed. It was too late for that. Too late because he was already on the GTECH's radar, just like she was.
The sound of female voices on the trail behind her stilled Lara momentarily. The instant they faded, her finger lifted to the trigger only to once again pause as one of Lev's little girls rushed to his side. Lara hesitated at the unexpected tightness in her chest, urging her not to take the shot. Why couldn't she take the shot? This was a big-picture job, about saving the world. She'd trained for this. She had prepared mentally and physically to do whatever was necessary to protect the innocent. She was a soldier. It hit her then, and she knew what was bothering her. The little girl. She didn't want the little girl to see her father drop dead at her feet, which was insane and completely unacceptable. She was part of Team Serenity, part of a greater cause to save the world from a GTECH takeover, from GTECH enslavement. She was defending millions of little girls, not one. With that thought, a steely cold began to reshape inside her. A hardness that was part of her training, part of her destiny, had taken shape the day the GTECHs had slaughtered her family.
Her finger moved a millimeter. She was ready to fire, but again, that tightening in her chest halted her. In that split-second of hesitation, an odd, dizzy feeling set her swaying. With one hand, she steadied herself on the fence, but before she'd even righted herself, a screeching sound ripped through her eardrums.
A rush of images flew through her mind like a reel from a film on fast forward. Unfamiliar images of herself, of a life she didn't know, of a man she seemed to love like a father. Of being dragged up the stairs by her hair, by someone she couldn't see, to watch that man die. A shrill sound blasted through her skull, and just like that it ended.
Lara came back to the present in a jerk and a gasp, unsure how long she'd been lost to whatever had just happened to her. Her head. God, her head was still pounding as if someone had beat it like a drum. She brushed at the dampness on her cheeks, shocked to realize she'd been crying. She hadn't cried since the night Powell had saved her life, since he'd given her a chance to fight back, given her a purpose.
A sudden gust of wind touched her hot skin and jolted her with full recall-the GTECH, her mission. The GTECH was coming. The GTECH was the wind. In a blast of adrenaline, Lara pushed herself off the fence where her fingers had somehow curled, reaching for the gun she'd apparently abandoned in her purse during her blackout, but she was too late. She could feel the heat of the body that materialized in the wind behind her a moment before strong, powerful arms surrounded her, held her.
"I wouldn't do that if I were you, sweetheart," came the rich male voice that whispered against her ear, his warm breath brushing her neck and sending a shiver down her spine. A voice that she knew instinctively, on every level, matched the man who'd been by the pool. The GTECH had found her.