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By KATE DOUGLAS CRYSTAL JORDAN LYNN LAFLEUR
APHRODISIA BOOKSCopyright © 2011 Kensington Publishing Corp.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIn orbit behind Earth's moon—present day
Zianne? Is he the one? Is he strong enough? Smart enough?
I think so. He's very strong—I heard his voice over such a great distance, but I don't know. We've waited so long. How can I be certain?
We're dying, Zianne. All of us. There's no time to hesitate. There are hardly enough of us left to matter.
No. Don't say that. We matter. We must.
Then go. Even I sense this one. His world will nurture us for now, but this man ... this one man will be our salvation.
Silicon Valley—April 1992
"Fucking chicken scratch." Mac Dugan wadded up yet another lined yellow page covered in pointless doodles, equations, and code. He reached overhead, aiming for the Sloan's Bar and Grill sign over the trash can.
Powerful fingers closed around his wrist.
Jerking his arm free, he spun around, prepared to take a swing at whatever idiot had interrupted his mini-tirade. When he saw who it was, he laughed. "Christ, Dink. Haven't seen you in ages. You trying to get yourself killed?"
"Nope. Just trying to save your stupid ass."
Mac grabbed the beer Dink handed to him. "Who says my ass needs saving?"
Dink grinned. His wide smile, along with the collar-length blond hair and thick dark lashes framing light blue eyes, made him almost too pretty for a man. "I do," he said. "That redhead, Jen? The one who was with you last month? She's all cozied up to the bar with your nemesis."
"You mean Bennett? Crap." Mac took a sip of his beer and fought the compulsion to glance over his shoulder. "I didn't know he was here. With her? Shit. Why'd I ever go out with her?"
"Because you were horny?" Dink snorted. "She keeps looking this way. Maybe she wants to get laid again."
Mac shook his head. "Not by me. What about Bennett? Is he watching us?"
Dink chuckled. "Nah. He's too busy staring at her cleavage."
"Fucking jerk. Weird she'd be here with him after ... well, shit. Maybe I'm just paranoid." He avoided turning in his seat to stare at Phil Bennett. Even if the guy was responsible for totally fucking over his life, Bennett was more than welcome to the redhead. Except ... It was like that stupid cartoon light-bulb flashed on in his mind. What if Jen and Phil had been an item before she came on to Mac? What if she'd been using him to get stuff—like his project notes?
"Of course you're paranoid." Dink was obviously reading his mind. He took a swallow of his beer and cocked one eyebrow. "You have a right to be, after what happened." He glanced once again at the couple. "On the other hand, you sure you don't want to get laid? She looks interested, and she's hot."
Mac laughed. "How do you know? You like guys."
Dink flipped him off, but he didn't deny it. At least his sexual preferences had never gotten in the way of their friendship. "I know gorgeous when I see it, male or female. She definitely fits the description."
Mac shrugged. "I know the red hair's not natural."
"It didn't seem to matter at the time." It hadn't. He'd met her just a couple of days before the shit hit the fan. She'd come on to him, made it patently obvious she wanted to get laid, and it had been too damned long since he'd gotten a piece of anything but his right hand. "What can I say? She caught me in a weak moment." He waved his hand at the pile of discarded notes in the trash. "That's what counts. I know what I want, how it should look and what it needs to do, but I can't get the damned program to work."
Dink held up both hands and shook his head. "Hell, don't look at me. Starving grad student, future TV news guy here, not developer of weird software. You're so far past me on all this computer shit I wouldn't know where to start. What about the guys in the lab? I hear they're doing amazing stuff."
"I'm barred from the lab after what happened." He practically snarled. "Bennett's lies got me booted out of the program, cost me the grant and the rest of my scholarship. I'm just about out of cash." He held up the beer Dink had bought him. "Thanks for this, by the way."
"Well, fuck." Dink glared at him. "They were wrong, Mac. You know he stole your work. I still think you should fight it."
Mac forced a quick smile. "Thanks, man. Unfortunately, Phil had the notes, not me. In his handwriting. My originals are missing. Even the floppy disks are gone, so there's no reason to believe me. Besides, his uncle's the dean of the department."
"And Bennett's a lying turd."
"I agree, but it earned him a clean shot at the grant we were competing for." Mac shrugged, but he couldn't let it go. When he lost his access to the campus computer lab, he'd lost his only link to the new World Wide Web and contact with other software developers. His scrapped-together computer was too limited to test the programs he hoped to design, the ones he knew could bust him out of obscurity.
Right now, his future was totally fucked.
Keeping his back to Bennett and the redhead, Mac finished off the rest of his beer and shoved away from the table. Then he carefully stuffed his notepad in his backpack and looped the pack over his shoulder.
Dink tossed back his beer and rose as well. "Not so fast, brain-boy. You're coming with me."
"Where?" Mac folded his arms across his chest and gave Dink the kind of stare that generally intimidated most guys.
Except Dink, who just laughed. "Don't try that 'death to evildoers' look on me, big guy. My computer crashed. That's why I was looking for you. I want you to retrieve a paper I just finished. Gotta have it for tomorrow, man, or I'm screwed."
"That I can probably do." What threw Dink for a loop was usually a simple fix for Mac. He loved computers, and with the way technology was improving, it was obvious the twentieth century was going out with a bang.
Mac intended to be part of the explosion. He'd built his own system—and Dink's, for that matter—from scratch, but Mac's wasn't anywhere near as fast as the computers in the lab on campus. He needed faster, more complex equipment to accomplish his goals. It was so damned frustrating, living in Silicon Valley where everything was happening at warp speed, aware of so many new innovations, and yet stuck on the fringes without the equipment he needed to handle his ideas.
Shit. Just one more thing totally out of his control.
He glanced at the bell tower marking the center of the campus he'd thought of as home for the past seven years, and fought back a surge of anger. The dean had accepted the project Phil Bennett turned in, decided Mac was lying when he accused the bastard of theft, and then had the balls to say they'd let him drop out of the postgraduate program rather than formally charge and expel him.
He'd lost his scholarship and access to the lab. Lost any chance of qualifying for the grant he needed to continue his work. Lost everything because that little weasel had somehow stolen his project, lied about it, and gotten away with it.
Even worse, the incident was going on Mac's record. A black mark against his name, against the honor and integrity he'd always valued so much. No matter how bad it got, he'd never compromised. Never. Now this.
Why the fuck was it always an uphill battle? He was so damned tired of fighting life on his own, but other than Dink, he'd been alone since the foster care system booted his ass out at eighteen. The academic scholarship to the university had saved him. Until Bennett screwed him over.
If he could just get his life in order, maybe things wouldn't look so damned bleak, but now—right now—it all sucked.
"Dinkemann, you are such a horse's ass." Mac kept his voice down as he stopped to throw a blanket over Dink's prone form on the couch. He stood over his sleeping buddy, remembering. They'd been through so much together. Growing up with a guy in the same crappy foster home created a link like nothing else. Even though they were complete opposites, Mac loved Dink in a way he couldn't explain. There was nothing he wouldn't do for him.
Well, almost nothing, though Mac couldn't deny he'd thought about it. Dink was gay and loved Mac, and while the thought of sex with his buddy had crossed his mind, Mac himself hadn't crossed the line. Yet.
Maybe it was all the beer he'd had tonight, but for some reason the thought of loving Dink that way didn't bother him as much as it had. You've had way too much to drink, Dugan.
It was definitely time to go home. Quietly, Mac closed the door to Dink's tiny apartment. Fueled by more beer than he'd needed, he hoped he'd be able to make it back to his apartment without getting arrested for public intoxication.
He rarely drank this much, but seeing Jen and Phil together tonight had thrown him. The more he thought about it, the more he was sure she'd stolen those pages of notes the night they'd fucked like bunnies until he finally fell asleep. She'd been gone when he finally dragged himself out of her bed and went back to his own place. Maybe she hadn't slept as soundly. Was she the one who'd ripped out the pages that had turned up in Phil Bennett's precise handwriting?
Had Phil used those hours to break into his apartment and steal the floppy disks with the research and all his notes?
There was no way to prove it. The pages were gone, along with the disks, something he hadn't noticed until it was time to prepare the grant application. And then it was too late.
Only Dink believed him, but their bond went deeper than mere friendship, sometimes so intensely visceral it was barely a step away from sexual attraction. Sort of how he'd felt tonight.
Except Mac knew he was straight. He'd never questioned his own sexuality, never doubted how much he loved women. In fact, tonight he'd gone off on a riff, rhapsodizing over the ultimate fantasy female. He could still see her—tall and athletic with long black hair and violet eyes. Dink had thrown in a computer nerd personality. What had he called her?
"A nerdette." Mac laughed, his voice echoing in the quiet night. "Just what I need."
Mac figured he was nerdy enough for two.
Dink, of course, had fantasized over the ideal guy—a guy who sounded suspiciously like MacArthur Dugan—tall, lean build, thick waves of caramel hair, a killer smile, and sapphire blue eyes—Dink's terms, not Mac's.
Dink had never hidden his feelings from Mac. So why did Mac feel as if he were keeping secrets from Dink? He loved Dink. Just not that way. Or did he? Damn. Mac stopped, grabbed the front of his jeans, and adjusted the crotch. Why the hell was he getting hard? Thoughts of Dink, or of his fantasy woman? Shit.
He focused on Bennett and the stolen project, and fury spurred him on. With his gait not quite steady, Mac made it up the stairs to his fourth-floor apartment in a matter of minutes.
He and Dink had discussed how absurd it was. Why would Mac lie? If he didn't know the material, his ignorance would prove him wrong, but the dean refused to allow Mac to defend himself.
He'd never cared much for the dean, and the feeling had obviously been mutual, but the man's response to Mac's claims went beyond mere dislike. He'd been absolutely irate with Mac and had immediately taken Phil's side. What could Dean Johnson gain from his nephew winning the grant instead of Mac? Family unity or something stupid like that? Was that worth risking his tenure? Possibly, but probably not. But what else? Shit ... Mac knew the program inside and out, with or without the notes and floppies. Did Bennett? No. No way.
Yet Mac still hadn't been allowed to defend himself.
Which left him guilty with no recourse. Cursing, Mac dug through his pants pocket for the key, fumbled with the damned thing, and promptly dropped it.
He leaned over to pick it up and almost fell on his face when the world spun a little too fast. "Oh ... shit." He grabbed the key, stuck it in the lock, and after a couple of fumbles, got the door open. Moving very carefully, he managed to get inside his apartment without falling on his ass.
He leaned against the closed door a minute and let the world right itself once more. Then he tossed his backpack on the floor and slipped out of his jacket, but when he turned to dump his coat on the chair, something sweet tickled his senses.
He sniffed the air.
"What the hell?" Mac inhaled again, drawing the rich scent into his lungs. Vanilla? Honey? It was vaguely familiar, but he couldn't quite place it. Flipping on the light in the kitchen area, he glanced around to see if he'd left anything out.
The counters were clean, the sink empty except for a coffee cup and a cereal bowl. He sniffed the air again, but the scent that had seemed so pervasive eluded him now.
Yawning, seriously regretting those last few beers, Mac headed to the bathroom for a shower. If he relaxed enough and went to sleep thinking about the new graphics program, maybe he'd dream a solution. With any luck, his subconscious—what Dink called his lizard brain—would figure it out.
Except once he'd stripped and stood beneath the hot spray, his damned lizard brain focused on his dick instead of the program. Mac glanced ruefully at the tip of his cock.
The broad head with its dark slit stared up at him as if begging for attention. "Shit. You're supposed to be ready for bed." Grinning like an idiot, he wrapped his right fist around his shaft and cupped his testicles in his left hand. "Wonder what it means when a guy has conversations with his cock?"
He refused to answer himself. Instead, Mac leaned against the tile wall with the hot water beating down on his chest and shoulders and stroked himself with a firm grip, stretching soft, pliable skin over hard meat with one hand, rolling his balls between the fingers of the other.
His mind wandered as the pressure grew. He wanted a visual, but the redhead just pissed him off and her image quickly faded. He thought of Dink, but that was more than a little unsettling. Then his fantasy morphed into a woman with long black hair and intelligent violet eyes.
She smiled at him, and he knew her. The one he'd described earlier to Dink—the perfect woman. Mac's ultimate fantasy.
His cock actually jerked within his grasp. He was leaking pre-cum now, almost faster than the shower could rinse it away. He tugged harder on his balls, rolling the solid orbs between his fingers, squeezing his fist tighter around the base of his dick, finding a rhythm he knew couldn't last.
His balls sucked up close between his legs. He tightened his grasp and squeezed them almost painfully as his fantasy woman floated just inside his field of vision. He concentrated on her face, on the deep, violet eyes and cascade of coal black hair curling around her shoulders.
She was too real, too perfect for him to have invented her, but Mac had no idea where he'd seen her. She was beyond gorgeous, miles beyond any woman he could recall. The scent of honey and vanilla filled his senses and raised his temperature. She gazed up at him with the water cascading over her shoulders, across the fullness of her perfect breasts. Her nipples were a deep rose against porcelain skin, their tips drawn tight.
She smiled and then slowly dropped to her knees and nuzzled his groin as the spray slicked long, dark hair back from her face and steam filled the shower stall. The tip of her tongue slipped between full lips and she licked the side of his shaft, nipping daintily just at the juncture where his cock rooted to his groin. His entire body tensed.
The room spun. Too much beer, too much sensation, but her mouth on his dick anchored him. Deep crimson lips encircled the broad head. He groaned, thrust his hips forward, and she took him deep. His hands dropped to his sides as she worked more of his cock into her sweet mouth.
Excerpted from NightShift by KATE DOUGLAS CRYSTAL JORDAN LYNN LAFLEUR Copyright © 2011 by Kensington Publishing Corp.. Excerpted by permission of APHRODISIA BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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