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It was supposed to be an easy mission. An in-and-out job. A one-day extraction.
His boss had fed him that line of bullshit, and Grayson James had foolishly believed him. Upon first entering this lushly green, sea-kissed land known as Atlantis, however, Gray realized he would have had better luck trying to sell a Frigidaire to a goddamn Eskimo. At a goddamn jacked-up price.
Not a myth. Damn it. He'd hoped otherwise.
He scowled. In one hand, he held a beeping, miniature GPS system programmed from coordinates found on a map. An actual, honest-to-God map of Atlantis his boss had discovered in a missing millionaire's stash. Right now, the GPS signal bounced off the earth's magnetic core, helping him navigate his way through this Atlantean jungle. In the other hand, he gripped a machete. The sharp silver blade hacked at the thick foliage blocking his path.
No, Atlantis was not a myth. It happened to be home to the most loathsome creatures he'd ever encountered. And as an employee of OBI, the Otherworld Bureau of Investigations, he'd encountered plenty.
Made him wonder why he'd even joined the agency.
He knew the answer, though, and it wasn't because he'd (secretly) watched Star Trek for most of his teen years and knew how to speak Klingon. "Heghlu'meH QaQ jajvam," he sighed. Today is a good day to die.
When he'd learned (to his horrified shock) that there actually were other colonized worlds in the vast expanse of the galaxies, he'd left his job as a detective with the Dallas PD and began searching for a Men in Black-type operation. When OBI finally contacted him he'd signed on immediately. He believed fiercely in the need to learn about these otherworlders and protect his own planet from them.
How could he have known that the most fearsome creatures of all resided here, on his own planet? Simply buried beneath the ocean, protected by some kind of crystal dome?
As he dodged a stray limb, he ground his teeth together. "Atlantis," he muttered. "Code name, Hell."
After entering a swirling, gelatinous portal OBI had discovered underwater in Florida, he'd found himself inside an enormous crystal palace guarded by huge, sword-wielding men. Luck had been on his side as he stealthily maneuvered his way past them, unnoticed, and entered this jungle.
That's when he kissed that fickle bitch Lady Luck goodbye.
For the past two nights, a blood-sucking vampire, a fire-breathing dragon, and a hungry, salivating winged demon, aka the Welcoming Committee, had chased him, each sharpening mental forks and knives.
The memories made him feel all warm and fuzzy inside.
He knew the routine now. In less than one hour, night would fall and those…things would emerge again. They would hunt him. They would attempt to fucking eat him. And not in a good way.
His blood ran cold at the thought and not even the hot, humid air could warm him. For fifty-eight hours he'd been stuck in this seemingly never-ending maze, and for fourteen of those hours, he'd followed the exact same pattern: creatures track, Gray evade.
The first night, he'd tried to shoot them with his Beretta. He managed to nail the dragon between the eyes, but his other pursuers dodged the bullets, quickly and effortlessly gliding out of range.
The second night, when the two remaining creatures appeared, Gray utilized his combat skills and slit the vampire's throat. A pleasure, he had to admit, but he hadn't emerged unscathed. Five deep, raw scratch and bite wounds adorned his neck and thigh, throbbing constantly. Not festering, but never quite healing.
How he'd escaped the demon after that, he didn't know. Injured and weak as he'd been, he would have been easy to overpower. Hell, his bleeding body would have made a delicious dinner buffet. Many times he'd wondered if the demon had purposefully let him go, enjoying the thrill of the hunt a little too much.
Well, the demon wasn't the only one who was going to enjoy himself tonight. An anticipatory smile lifted Gray's lips. Smarter now, he wouldn't be caught off guard. Plus, he'd already worked up a plan affectionately dubbed Operation Kill the Bastard. If KTB unfolded successfully, the demon would soon join his bloodsucking friends in hell. If it didn't, well, Gray would resort to Plan B: Operation Oh Shit. He'd sprint like a madman and hide until light glowed once more from the seemingly alive dome above.
His gaze flicked to said dome. There was no sky here, only mile after mile of iridescent, pearlized crystal. Waves constantly washed over the outer side, and multiple-sized and colored fish swam in every direction. He like the naked mermaids best.
A twig slapped his cheek, snagging his attention, slicing skin and adding one more item to his growing shit list. He lost all remnants of his good humor. At least the insects had stopped swarming him. A real silver lining, he thought bitterly. He never should have taken this job.
He veered left just as his wristwatch vibrated. He stopped abruptly. "Just what I need," he muttered. If it wasn't one thing, it was another, and now it was time to check in with home base.
He dropped his backpack, dug inside, and withdrew a small black transmitter, switching it to On. If he failed to check in at least once a day, the cavalry would sweep in and finish his job. He'd never failed a mission, and he wouldn't fail this one.
"Santa to Mother," he said, cringing when he spoke his code name. His unit had thought it was funny as hell, saying he swooped into other worlds and left little presents (like bombs and dead bodies), so the name had stuck. "Do you copy?"
A few seconds of static, before he heard, "Go ahead, Santa." He recognized the voice of his boss, Jude Quinlin.
"I'm still without the package, but all is well."
"Over." He ended the transmission and stuffed the receiver into his backpack, then kicked into gear again. All was well, his ass. To survive Operation KTB himself, he needed to find a small clearing with ample room to sprint, dodge, and dive for cover. So far, no luck. And he was running out of time, his hour ticking away unmercifully.
When a wall of trees blocked his path, he pivoted right, but the GPS erupted in a series of erratic, high-pitched beeps, a sign he'd taken a wrong turn. Growling low in his throat, Gray spun around and backtracked until the miniature device calmed. Sweat trickled from his temple and dripped onto his military fatigues.
He'd been due a vacation, damn it, a chance to see the brothers and sister he hadn't visited in over two years. He called them regularly, of course, but that wasn't the same as hugging them, laughing with them. Being with them. He wanted to play with Katie's children, wanted to make sure her husband Jorlan was treating her like the prize she was.
Working for OBI—which translated into constant planet-hopping through inter-world wormholes—didn't allow for frequent trips home. Hell, working for OBI didn't allow for trips anywhere except alien planets. And now underwater cities. It sure as hell didn't allow for dating and getting laid. Unless he wanted to have a one-night stand with a three-eyed, blue-skinned, slimy alien female. He didn't.
1. He'd never liked one-night stands, preferring instead multiple nights with multiple orgasms.
2. Three eyes? Slimy skin? Uh, gross.
3. Did he mention that he liked to take his time with a woman, lingering over every nuance of her body, savoring her scent, her taste? That he liked to hear her shout about his unbelievable sexual talents in English?
He grinned at the thought of "unbelievable sexual talents."
Another branch bitch-slapped his cheek, and he lost his grin. Your fault, man. You shouldn't have let your mind wander into the gutter. How true. Now was not the time to be thinking of sex and women. Or having sex with women. He blamed the heat for his wayward mind. That, and the fact that he hadn't gotten laid in a long, long time. Too long.
Way too long.
Why else would he have lost focus on what was important—his survival—in favor of picturing a naked woman. A naked woman with long, velvet-soft legs that wrapped around his waist and—
Yet another twig popped him, in the eye this time. How many would he have to endure? "Concentrate, boy." It's not like he suffered from ADD. You're here for a reason, James. Think of nothing but that.
One moment of distraction could cause a mission to fail. He knew that, and was surprised at how easily his mind kept veering. Perhaps being hunted by a cannibalistic demon wasn't exciting enough for him. If that was the case, he needed a total body probe and psych exam ASAP.
"The mission. Think only about the mission." As they had a thousand times before, his boss's departing words drifted through his mind. We found a book, Gray. The book, actually, titled Ra Dracas. It tells of dragons and vampires and other such nonsense, but the true message is hidden between the text, written in code.
"The text about dragons and vampires is nonsense," he mocked. Hindsight sucked major ass.
Once we broke that code, his boss had added, we learned about the Jewel of Dunamis, a jewel so powerful it can be used to predict the future. A jewel so powerful it can show who's lying and who's speaking the truth. Whoever holds it will have the ability to destroy any enemy. Conquer any army.
Small wonder his government wanted so desperately to own it.
Gray was to find and steal this precious jewel, then bring it home. If his mission was compromised in any way, he was to destroy it so that no one else got their greedy hands on it.
It was that simple.
Simple? Yeah, about as simple as routine brain surgery. Gray paused briefly and sipped from his dwindling canteen of vitamin-enhanced water. The cool liquid slid down his parched throat, offering a much-needed burst of energy before he jolted back into motion.
For an eternity he pushed himself onward, never slowing, ever conscious of what awaited him if he didn't find a spot to enable Operation KTB. His gaze darted to his wristwatch, the digital red light barely visible under the dirt and grime covering him. Twenty minutes until showtime, so he had to find a workable patch of land now. He scowled and—
Watch out for the quicksand.
His eyes jerked swiftly across his surroundings as he searched for the speaker, a woman. He didn't duck for cover, didn't stop walking, preferring instead to be mobile. Plus he didn't want to scare her with any surprising movement. That's how trigger-happy fingers were created.
He did tighten his grip on the machete. The odds were fifty-fifty the woman had a weapon, and even higher that she'd actually use it. Still. A man couldn't be too careful.
Are you listening to me? I said, watch out for the quicksand!
The husky, heavily accented female voice slammed into his mind once again, so richly sensual and commanding he acquired an instant, unwanted, and surprising hard-on—before he promptly began sinking into a large pool of quicksand.
"What the hell?" Instinctively he attempted to raise his legs, which only caused him to sink farther and faster. He stilled and glared at the ground, watching it slowly rise, covering his feet… his ankles.
Now you've done it. Exasperation clung to the edges of her words. She might even have added, Dumb ass, but he wasn't sure. I tried to warn you.
"Where are you?" he asked, using his gentlest, most reassuring tone as he eyed the lush green bushes circling him. The leaves here were thicker than any he'd ever encountered, barely moving in the gentle wind.
There was no hint of person or clothing peeking from the shrubbery, still no rustle or snap to indicate movement. She'd tried to save him from the quicksand, so she hopefully meant him no harm. God knew he needed all the help he could get right now.
"You can come out," he said. "I won't hurt you. You have my word."
Think for a moment, Gray. You don't hear me with your ears, but with your mind.
"How do you know my name?" he asked sharply. Then he blinked, shook his head, blinked again. The voice remained, echoing from each corridor of his brain. She was right. Her words were actually inside his mind.
How was that possible?
How the hell was that possible?
"I'm schizo." The statement burst from his mouth, too shocking and surreal to keep inside. "I've finally jumped over the ledge of sanity with thousand-pound weights tied to my ankles." He'd seen some weird shit in his lifetime, and it had finally caught up with him.
He should have known it would come in the form of a split personality. A sexy as hell female personality, at that. Her whisky-rich voice…he'd never heard anything quite so erotic.
Down, down he sank as the sand covered his calves with its gooey wetness. The scent of stagnant water and decaying—he wrinkled his nose. He did not want to guess what was decaying.
Insane or not, he hadn't survived two days and nights of torture to die by stinky sand. No matter what he had to do, he'd save his life—or rather, lives—from this mess.
God, this sucked.
Unwilling to lose a single supply, he tossed his GPS and machete to dry ground. Careful not to jostle too much or too quickly, he removed his backpack and tossed it beside the blade, wishing to God his propel wire hadn't been lost during a battle with the Welcoming Committee.
He scowled for, what… the thousandth time in as many hours? The expression well represented his views of Atlantis. Meanwhile, he continued to sink, slowly, slowly, the wet sand working its way past his knees, up his thighs. The thick liquid grains were cold, and his body temperature fell a couple hundred degrees. His blood pressure was the only thing on the rise.
Amid the popping and gurgling of wet suction, he searched his surroundings again, this time looking for a lifeline. No branches, no vines were nearby. Only a large white rock, but it was too far away to reach with his hands.
Take off your shirt,the sensual, I-want-you-naked-and-in-my-bed voice said.