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USAF Captain Taylor Chase slowed her rental car to a crawl and squinted through the deepening September dusk. She'd plotted her route using the latest satellite imagery. With its incredible detail, the digital map showed every feature of the surrounding countryside, from the round silo she'd passed two miles back to this stand of tall, primeval pines that seemed to have swallowed her whole. Now all she had to find was the turnoff leading to the Wolf's lair.
Amazing, she thought as she steered through the spiky shadows thrown by the pines. Here she was, smack in the middle of New Jersey. New Jersey, for God's sake! The Garden State. The truck-farm capital of the world. She had expected the rolling farmlands she'd driven through after leaving the Turnpike at the Princeton exit. The university town looked pretty much as she'd anticipated, too. And damned if ivy didn't actually cover the walls of the centuries-old center of learning that dominated the historic town.
But this This lonely stretch of road lined with silent, brooding pines made Taylor feel as though she were driving through a Transylvanian forest instead of rural America.
She supposed she shouldn't be surprised that her target had chosen this isolated spot to go to ground. The extensive dossier Pentagon analysts had compiled on Dr. Mark Wolfson only confirmed what Taylor already knew from personal experience. The zoologist was brilliant and sexy as all hell, but preferred the company of lab rats to humans.
With one notable exception. Grimacing at the memory of their brief, disastrous affair, Taylor switched on the car's headlights. White arcs sliced through the now-purple dusk. As the rental crawled along thetwo-lane road, she reviewed her strategy.
She'd opted not to call for an appointment with Wolfson at his Princeton University research center. She suspected he would flatly refuse to see her. More to the point, what she had to say to him was better said in private, away from curious lab techs or research assistants. Surprise, Taylor had decided, was the best tactic when confronting a man you'd once told to take his laboratory full of test equipment and shove it where the sun doesn't shine.
Hunching over the wheel, she peered through the gloom. Was that a turnoff? It was.
Ignoring the prominently posted Private Property, No Trespassing signs, she nosed onto the unpaved road. With each turn of the wheels, the broad-needle pines seemed to close in. Darkness, thick and black and unrelenting, now enveloped her. The sharp tang of resin spiked the night air coming in through the vents.
When the scent of wood smoke pierced even that heavy tang, Taylor knew she'd tracked the Wolf to his lair. Moments later she spotted the glow of illuminated windows staring at her like unblinking owls' eyes. Shoving the car into Park, she cut the engine and climbed out.
She stood for a moment, listening to the breeze that sighed through the pines. Reviewing her strategy. Remembering her last session with Mark Wolfson.
Her belly tightened. The tips of her breasts tingled. A tremor of dark, seductive pleasure shivered down her spine. As if it was yesterday, she heard the rasp in his deep voice when he'd whispered that her wild passion exceeded even his most optimistic calculations.
The physical sensations gripping Taylor were so strong, so intense, they almost obliterated the memory of her fury when his words finally penetrated her postcoital haze.
She'd been an experiment. Nothing more. A step up from the rats he usually worked with, granted. But an experiment nonetheless.
A sharp sting jerked Taylor from the past. She looked down, saw she'd dug her nails deep into her palms. Disgusted, she unclenched her fists and shoved the memories out of her head.
All that happened a long time ago. Almost eight years. She'd put the humiliating episode behind her. She hoped to God Mark Wolfson had done the same.
He'd better have, she thought grimly. The success of her mission depended on her ability to convince Wolfson to accompany her to a heavily guarded private island in the Caribbean.
"Okay, Chase," she told herself sternly, starting for the house. "It's showtime."
The low growl was her only warning.
It came at her from the trees off to her left. The hairs on the back of her neck lifting, Taylor reached instinctively for the weapon tucked inside her purse and spun around. She heard a branch snap. Saw a dark blur. Had less than a heartbeat to react before that blur took on the shape of a racing dog.
Not just a dog, she realized as her heart jumped into her throat. An attack dog. Big and fast and shaggy, leaping right at her.
"Down! Sit! Shit!"
Her fingers locked around the butt of her Glock but she didn't have time to whip it out. Fangs bared, eyes narrowed to slits, the animal went for her throat.
Taylor flung up her other arm. Her one hope, her only hope, was to put every ounce of her strength into a swing and bat the beast aside. She thrust back a foot to brace herself, felt her heel give, and went down.
She hit hard. The back of her head whacked the ground. The arm she'd flung up crumpled, leaving her defenseless.
The last thing she saw were glistening, salivating fangs.
His jaw tight, Mark curled his fingers in the ruff of the animal hunkered beside him. Emotions he'd thought long dead stormed through him as he studied the unconscious woman he'd carried into the house.
He hadn't recognized her at first. Her face was thinner than in her college days and she'd cut off the careless tumble of curls that used to spill over her shoulders. She now wore her dark mahogany hair in a short, shining cap instead of the silky mane that had trailed across his pillow.
His hands clenched in the shaggy ruff. The dog at his side lifted his head in question.
Smoothing the animal's fur, Mark continued his inventory. The full, sensual mouth was the same. So was the chin she could set at such a stubborn angle. Of all the graduate assistants assigned to the zoology department at the University of Michigan, Taylor Chase had given him the most grief literally and figuratively.
She'd also given him the most intense pleasure he'd ever experienced, before or since.
Before he could block them, the images jumped into Mark's head. Taylor laughing at some inane joke made by one of the other assistants. Frowning as she tried to interpret test results. Grinning wickedly as she unbuttoned her lab coat to reveal nothing but smooth, sleek skin.
Sweat popped out on Mark's brow. Swearing viciously, he reminded himself this woman had put him through hell. He'd returned the favor, he recalled with brutal honesty. The difference was, he hadn't intended to.
So what was she doing here? Why had she tracked him down after all these years?
He glanced at the shoulder bag he'd retrieved after carrying her inside. The blue steel automatic in her purse gave the questions swirling around in Mark's head a sharp, serrated edge. That, and the leather case containing a shield and an ID that identified Taylor Rebecca Chase as an agent with the USAF Office of Special Investigations.
A low moan brought his gaze whipping back to the woman stretched out on the leather cushions. The creature beside him tensed.
She's friend, Tikal. Not foe. I think.
The qualified endorsement confused the animal. His ears went back. A rumble rose from deep in his throat.
The growl appeared to penetrate Taylor's daze. Her brow creased. Her lids fluttered. With a sound that was closer to a grunt than a groan, she opened her eyes.
Confusion blanked their emerald depths for a moment or two. When they fixed on Mark, disgust and distrust swept through them in equal parts. Then her gaze dropped to the creature at his side. To her credit, she didn't so much as flinch.
Green eyes locked with blue. Woman and dog measured each other warily. After a short staring contest, Taylor met Mark's gaze once more.
"That's quite a welcome you give visitors, Wolfson."
"Only those who arrive unannounced and un-invited. What are you doing here?"
"I want to talk to you."
"We said all we needed to say to each other eight years ago."
With an impatient frown, she started to sit up. A warning growl from Tikal kept her pinned to the leather cushions.
"Call off your watchdog."
"Not until you tell me why you're here."
Her mouth twisted sardonically. "Is the big bad wolf afraid of little me?"
"I'd say I had good reason to be, wouldn't you?"
A swift retort rose to Taylor's lips. With some effort, she bit it back. The anger and hurt had been mutual, although she had to admit Mark had taken the brunt of the blame after word leaked that he'd not only had an affair with a grad student, but he'd also experimented on her without her knowledge or consent.
He'd denied it, of course. When hauled in front of the University of Michigan's Faculty Review Committee, Dr. Wolfson swore he'd confined his experiments to laboratory animals and had never attempted to remotely influence the behavior of any human, Taylor Chase included.
The Committee had determined there was insufficient evidence to substantiate the charge of improper experimentation, but had censured the professor for tumbling into bed with a student. They'd also imposed such restrictions on his research that Mark had eventually resigned in disgust.
His reputation in the areas of psychic research and remote influencing was so well established by then, however, that a dozen other universities had courted him with offers of fat grants and dedicated research facilities.
Taylor wasn't surprised he'd ended up at Princeton. The university had been one of the first in the nation to establish an institute devoted to the scientific study of consciousness-related psychic phenomena. The institute's interdisciplinary staff of engineers, physicists, psychologists, behaviorists and humanists included some of the greatest minds in the country, probably the world. Mark Wolfson certainly fell into that category.