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By Alexis Morgan
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He fought free of the mists, drawing in painful gulps of precious air, vanquishing the last fetid vestiges of death. Slowly his heart began to beat again, taking its own sweet time to fall back into a remembered rhythm. Breathing in, breathing out, each sip of oxygen reluctantly sending life back into his limbs.
Damn, he hated this. He'd already died too many times -- sometimes for a worthy cause, and sometimes for no good reason at all. Every time he came back from the edge was an agonizing process. And every time he brought back a little less of his humanity, until he barely remembered what it felt like to simply be a man. Over the decades, the shadows death had left on his soul made him stronger, but hard and edgy and angry.
"He's back." The familiar voice was not a welcome one.
"He needs to rest before you order him out again, Colonel," a female voice stated.
"He's needed now." The words had the clipped cadence of a man used to barking out orders and having them obeyed without question.
"Speaking as his Handler, I must protest your even being here. Sir." That last word was clearly a reluctant afterthought. "The transition is difficult enough for him without an audience. If you don't leave, I will have to register a complaint with my superiors."
Devlin smiled in his mind.That's it, honey, give him hell. Her protests would fall on deaf ears, but it would aggravate the man from Ordnance.
"Miss Young, I'm sorry," the colonel lied smoothly, "but as I said, he's needed as soon as he's up and about."
An unladylike snort followed. "It's Doctor Young. And according to Ordnance, he's always needed somewhere. If you keep putting him in these deadly situations without the proper care, you'll lose him altogether."
Despite her calm tone, there was a powerful undercurrent to her words, one Devlin couldn't quite decipher.
Colonel Kincade's voice took on an edge. "How I use him is none of your business, Dr. Young. He belongs to us."
The old bastard never could stand to be second-guessed, especially by a woman. The Handler had better tread softly.
"You may decide how best to use Devlin Bane's talents, Colonel, but I decide when -- and if -- he is ready for reassignment."
She stepped close enough to Dev's bed for him to feel the heat radiating off her. The normally calm Laurel Young's emotions were certainly running high today.
"You might as well take your papers and leave, Colonel. I'm not signing anything today, tomorrow, or maybe even the day after."
She'd grown some claws since he'd last been reborn, but the men from Ordnance had decades of experience in getting their way. When Devlin could speak, he would have to warn her to watch her back. He didn't need or even want her defending him.
He listened to the angry staccato steps of the colonel leaving the ward. Kincade would regroup and be back, but for the moment, he was gone. Already the air seemed fresher, more potent.
Cool fingers settled on his wrist, checking his pulse. He wondered why she didn't just accept the readings on the machines that beeped and whined and knew more about him than he did.
"You can come out of hiding now, Mr. Bane. He's gone."
Damn, he'd thought he'd done a better job of disguising his resurgence than that.
His eyelashes felt heavy as he struggled to open his eyes as ordered. It took several attempts and a considerable amount of effort before he could do more than squint up at his Handler. Her pixie face hovered over his, looking worried as she muttered under her breath. Laurel's face was more interesting than truly pretty, with wide-set, brown eyes the color of rich, dark chocolate. Looking up into that thickly lashed gaze had become his favorite part of reviving.
"I'm alive. Again." He wasn't sure he wanted to be. Not with the colonel and his friends already sniffing around.
"It took longer this time." Laurel frowned. "Almost too long."
Was that fear in her voice? He wished his hands weren't bound, so that he could offer her the comfort of his touch. The unexpected impulse shocked him. He'd jettisoned most of the softer emotions two Handlers ago, leaving him cold and detached.
Fighting against the Others made him that way. His nightmares were bad enough already, especially the one where he became one of them. That particular horror would become reality soon enough.
"Take off the straps," he demanded.
Regret shadowed her expression. "You know I can't. Not yet." She glanced past him to the clock on the wall. "We have to wait another hour at least. You ought to know the routine by now, Mr. Bane."
Yeah, but that didn't mean he had to like it. There were tests to be run, reflexes to test, various bodily specimens to collect and evaluate -- all of it a waste of time, something he had precious little of. Besides, if he had turned Other, she would have known it the second he opened his eyes. Since she hadn't called for help, there must be enough humanity left in him to pass all the tests they threw at him.
He clenched his fists and tested the strength of the bonds. There was some give in the straps, but not enough for him to break free without risking further injury to himself. His body was still utilizing all of its resources to repair the damage from the other night. It would only delay his recovery further if he insisted on tearing himself loose from the bonds, even if he could muster enough strength to pull it off. He drew a breath deep enough to hurt and forced himself to relax, concentrating on easing the tension that left him irritated and angry.
"Good choice, Mr. Bane. Fighting it won't help either of us get our job done." Laurel stood a short distance away, her ever-present clipboard clutched to her chest. Her dark eyes flickered down the length of his body. "Would you like another blanket?"
He wasn't cold, especially not with that delectable female body so close by. One of the side effects of revival for him had always been the immediate and intense hunger to satisfy all of his body's basic needs -- food and sex being at the top of the list. When he was younger, he'd usually given in to that impulse with the first obliging woman he encountered. Lately, though, he'd been less willing to be some nameless stranger's good time.
His senses, always sensitive but especially so after the journey back from death, were screaming with awareness of Laurel's feminine scent, despite the strong medicinal smells that permeated the laboratory.
He deliberately turned away from her to stare at the ceiling overhead, noticing that she'd changed the posters she kept up there for her clients' entertainment.
The buxom blondes frolicking on a beach wearing not much more than their smiles were a vast improvement over the kittens and puppies from last time.
A smile tugged at Laurel's mouth as she glanced up. "One of your friends sent those to me after he got out. I didn't have the heart to throw them away without giving them a fair showing."
"Looks like something D.J. would have done."
She scrunched up her nose. "Right on the first guess. Personally, I preferred the kittens."
"You're not the one strapped to this damned table like some lab animal waiting to be dissected."
The brutal honesty of his words made her flinch, but it was the truth. If, in those first seconds after he came back, she had seen an Other instead of a Paladin looking up at her through his eyes, she wouldn't have hesitated to reach for the drugs that would end it all for him. For now, neither of them had had to face that little problem.
But eventually they would. Those were the roles they'd been assigned in this tragedy. Rather than talk anymore, he closed his eyes and pretended to sleep. She was too smart to be fooled, but she allowed him the small deception. A few seconds later, the lights dimmed and he slept for real.
Laurel wondered if Devlin knew he snored. She drew pleasure from listening to the rough, rumbling noise as she worked at the computer. It was such a homey sound, making Devlin Bane a little less frightening, a little more human. He wasn't -- not completely, anyway -- but she wanted him to hold on to whatever bit of humanity he had left as long as possible.
A small electronic ping announced that his waiting time was up, but she decided not to wake Devlin immediately. Since he'd actually fallen asleep on that steel slab, he probably needed the rest. She glanced back toward the dimly lit lab. No one had ever been able to explain to her why the table had to be so uncomfortable. Surely a little padding wouldn't compromise the strength of the steel. In her opinion, the Paladins deserved any possible comforts in their lives.
Not that any of them would admit it; they prided themselves on being the toughest sons of bitches around. And it was true. They all started off big and strong and added mean to the mix as time went on. Even the heavily armed guards posted outside her door moved carefully when a Paladin was in-house.
Especially Devlin Bane.
She sighed. Hardly a week went by that she didn't have one of the Paladins back in her care for at least a day or two. They fought, they died, and they came back to her to be repaired and replenished. Some were easier to deal with than others, but none of them was exactly easy to be around.
Even so, Devlin Bane was different.
His mere presence made her spacious laboratory feel cluttered and cramped, as if he took up too much of the air and most of the space. She turned again to study him.
His profile was strong and rather handsome, although his nose had been broken a time or two. His brows were two dark slashes across his face, one of them marred by a scar from some long ago battle. Her gaze lingered on his mouth. It was surprisingly sensual looking, almost out of place among his other features. Could he kiss as well as he did everything else he set his mind to?
Before she could mentally catalog anything else, she realized that his green eyes were open and staring right back at her with an intensity she could feel from all the way across the room.
"I'm sorry, I didn't realize that you were awake." She stood up, almost knocking her stool to the ground.
"That's all right. I guess you were too busy staring to notice." There was no humor at all in his words. "I want up."
She hid her embarrassment in a spate of medical talk. "I'll draw your blood first, then let you up. Once we've evaluated your current status -- "
He cut her off. "I know the drill, Doc. Just get it done."
His words shouldn't have hurt, since she'd heard far worse over the years. After all, being dead tended to make the calmest of men a bit testy. Most of the time she could ignore their grumbling, but it was harder to do with Devlin.
He'd hate knowing that. In fact, if he even suspected how much time she spent poring over his records, trying to learn one more bit of information about what made him tick, he'd be beating on her boss's door, demanding a new Handler.
And it was imperative that she continue to oversee his care. Devlin Bane was one of the oldest known Paladins; he'd already outlived the average lifespan of his kind by two decades. If she could determine why he was showing resistance to the usual pattern of a Paladin's life, perhaps she could help the others live longer.
She released his right arm from its restraints, then tied a tourniquet just above his elbow. Never a fan of having his blood drawn, he winced and looked away as she inserted the needle in his vein. The blood pumped into the tube, rich and dark and red. She changed tubes, filling two more before loosening the tourniquet. After covering the needle with a cotton ball, she tugged it out of his arm.
"Bend your arm." Gently shaking the tubes, she walked away to set them in a rack, then returned to his side.
"Let me see the wound."
He sighed and straightened his arm. She checked under the cotton for bruising before covering the small puncture. It took all she had to keep from giggling when he saw that the bandage was covered with bright yellow happy faces. He clearly didn't appreciate the small bit of cheer.
"They were on sale." Of course, so were the plain ones.
She unlocked the first of the straps that kept Devlin's legs chained to the table. Starting with his ankles, she worked her way up his body, studiously ignoring the fact that he was naked under the thin blanket. When a Paladin was first brought in, it was easy to remain clinical about such things. She tried to remember that as she undid the last of the restraints and Devlin sat up, the blanket pooling around his waist.
"How do you feel? Any dizziness or nausea?"
"No." He rubbed his wrists, working the stiffness out of them. "I feel just like I did the last dozen times I've been through this." He got to his feet, towering over her by nearly a foot.
She rolled her eyes in exasperation, not allowing him to intimidate her by his sheer size. "They won't open the doors unless I tell them to. I need answers."
He recited a litany of responses to her unspoken questions, all memorized from previous visits. "No nausea, no dizziness, I'm not seeing double or breaking out in strange rashes. And before you ask, I don't remember whether it was the sword stuck in my gut or the ax that shattered my leg that killed me. It didn't seem important at the time."
The list of wounds shouldn't shock her since she'd been the one to repair the damage, but to hear him recite the list with absolutely no emotion bothered her a great deal. "And how does your leg feel? Any weakness or pain?"
"Look, Dr. Young, everything is in working order." He deliberately dropped the blanket to give proof to his claim.
She managed to stand her ground, but that didn't keep her from blushing furiously at the sight of all that masculine power. Devlin was a big man -- all over. "I'll ring for your meal while you get dressed. Your clothes are in the locker."
He turned away. Rather than get caught staring at his backside, she retreated to her desk and picked up the phone.
"Please notify Dr. Neal that our patient is up and about. Also have Mr. Bane's favorite meal delivered asap. You know how testy he gets when he isn't fed right away." She deliberately pitched her voice so that Devlin would hear her.
"I can eat at home."
She jumped about a foot. How did a man his size move so darned quietly? He loomed over her, still buttoning his shirt and rolling up his sleeves. The combination of well-worn jeans and a faded chambray shirt did nothing to make him look less dangerous. His shoulder-length hair only added to his uncivilized air.
"Yes, you can. In fact, I'd recommend it. However, that doesn't mean you're leaving here until I know you can keep food down."
Before he could argue the point, the doors to the hallway slid open. Dr. Neal, Laurel's immediate supervisor and the head of Research, came through carrying a heavily laden tray.
"Devlin, you look a damn sight better than you did when you arrived five days ago." He set the tray down. "But I suppose none of us are at our best when we're dead. Go ahead and eat. I can wait."
Devlin gave Laurel's boss a thoroughly disgusted look before digging into his food.
"Dr. Young, may I see his data?"
She held out the clipboard. "I'll have the blood tests and other reports later this afternoon. So far, nothing surprising." Except he continued to hold off the changes normally associated with so many deaths with amazing success. She'd never mentioned her findings on that subject to anyone other than Dr. Neal, not even Devlin himself. Until she could account for the unexpected results, she didn't want to make a big deal out of them. Maybe they only meant that Devlin was lucky.
Dr. Neal flipped through the chart, his eyes quickly scanning her notes. When he'd read the last page, he handed her the clipboard. "I'd like him to return here every other day to repeat these tests until he reports back to the field." He made a couple of notes and then signed off on the chart.
Devlin looked up from his dinner glaring at both of them. "Like hell I will. Use someone else for a lab rat; not me."
Laurel's boss was a short, balding cherub of a man, but that didn't mean he was a pushover. "I'll remind you, Mr. Bane, that your orders are to cooperate with my staff at all times. Now, we can do this one of two ways. You can promise to return when you're told to or we can just keep you here. Which would you prefer?"
The doctor got a string of obscenities in reply. He calmly nodded. "I thought you'd see it my way. Now if the two of you will excuse me, I believe I have kept Colonel Kincade waiting long enough." He peered over the top of his glasses at Laurel. "He seemed upset when he called. Is there anything I should know about beforehand?"
Laurel sensed Devlin's interest in her answer even though he didn't look in her direction. "He was here just before Mr. Bane woke up. He expressed his desire to see my patient released for immediate return to duty."
"And you said?"
"I simply reminded him that it wasn't his decision to declare Mr. Bane fit for duty; it was mine. I told Colonel Kincade that I will not sign any releases until I am satisfied that Mr. Bane has no lingering effects from his latest battle."
"And when do you expect to make that decision?"
The stress of the past few days, when her patient had hovered between this world and the next, had taken a toll on her temper. She glared at both men. "I'd like to know why everyone is suddenly in such a hurry!"
Dr. Neal frowned slightly. "I'm sorry, Laurel, but Ordnance will be demanding to know when they can expect Mr. Bane to report back."
"I won't know for certain until I complete the follow-up examination in two days." Three, if she could stretch it that far.
"Thank you, that's better. I will pass that information along." He gave her a smile that was meant to be reassuring. "Mr. Bane, I hope I don't have to see you again for quite some time."
"Me, too, Doc." Devlin turned his attention back to his food.
When the doors swished shut behind Dr. Neal, Laurel sat down and stared at her computer screen. Her eyes burned with near exhaustion.
"How much sleep have you gotten since they brought me in?" he asked.
She rolled her shoulders, trying to ease the stiffness, then shrugged without looking in his direction. "I'd tell you that it was none of your business, but that has never stopped you before. Dr. Neal relieved me for about four hours each day." She leaned forward to rest her forehead on her arms and closed her eyes.
As he absorbed the meaning behind her answer, Devlin attacked the last of his meal. Judging from the dark smudges under her eyes, Lauren was close to collapsing.
"Laurel?" He rarely allowed himself the privilege of using her first name.
Finally, he picked her up in his arms and carried her to the cot she kept handy for when she had a critical patient. She stirred only long enough to find a comfortable spot on the pillow. He picked up the blanket that he'd dropped earlier and draped it over her, resisting the urge to press a kiss to her forehead. When he tucked a lock of her dark hair behind her ear, she smiled in her sleep. He felt it just as if she'd reached out to touch him.
He backed away. Damn, he needed to get the hell away from her. Even if she'd die before admitting it, her interest in him obviously went beyond that of a doctor for her patient. As long as he only saw her when he was chained down to her table, he could deal with it. He had to. She was the only thing that kept him anchored in this world, a lifeline who fought long and hard to drag him back from the abyss that he lived and fought in. He had a horrible suspicion that anyone else would have set him adrift years ago.
It was time to get out of there. He pressed the button that would summon the guards.
"Yes, Dr. Young?" The disembodied voice was a familiar one.
"No, it's Devlin Bane. Sergeant Purefoy, is that you?"
"Yes, sir, Mr. Bane. What do you need?"
"Dr. Young is resting right now, but she's signed my release." At least, he hoped she had. He wasn't about to wait around for her to wake up.
"I'll be right in."
No doubt armed to the teeth, with two or three others as backup. Devlin positioned himself in the middle of the room, doing his best to look harmless. It never worked; his reputation as one of the Paladins was too firmly entrenched for that.
The doors slid open and Sergeant Purefoy entered, his men right behind him. They fanned out, their weapons powered up and ready, until the sergeant checked to make sure Laurel was indeed sleeping and safe.
"Welcome back, sir." The man's smile seemed genuine. "I'll just verify the signature and then we'll see you safely out of the building."
"I'm in no hurry." Like hell. In here, he felt trapped and exposed.
The sergeant rifled through the clipboard, pausing every so often to read something. "Everything seems to be in order, sir."
"Good. Let's go."
Devlin walked between the men and out the door, relieved to leave the lab and the delectable Laurel behind. The last thing he needed right now was to break in a new Handler. There was too much at stake for that: the hands on the sword that had brought him down hadn't been those of an Other.
He closed his eyes to remember every detail he could of those last few minutes. The smell of blood and fear-tainted sweat. Grunts and groans as weapons were swung and made contact. The flash of a sword as it slid all too easily into his side. The shock had driven him to his knees as the blood splashed out of his body and onto the ground.
He never saw his attacker's face, but he had seen the hands gripping the sword as it was shoved through him and then twisted. Those hands had definitely been human. His last thought as he'd bled out onto the ground was the knowledge that one of his own people had tried to kill him.
Copyright 2006 by Patricia Pritchard
Excerpted from Dark Protector by Alexis Morgan Copyright © 2006 by Alexis Morgan. Excerpted by permission.
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