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By Jacquelyn Frank Kate Douglas Jess Haines Clare Willis
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2010 Kensington Publishing Corp.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAmara couldn't even count the places she ached in.
She opened her eyes and for those two instants between waking and awareness, she hoped for the miracle of opening them to her gloriously dismal little room in the county workhouse. She never would have thought she would long for the days when she had worked hard labor just to have a dim little windowless cell to live in. The small gray mattress on the canvas and coiled struts had been big enough for only one person, and the cell itself had been long enough only to tightly fit the bed, and wide enough to fit a nightstand and a small dresser besides. The lights and digital readout clock alarm had been automatically shut off at sleep hour and had awakened her with a blare an hour before she was to report for her shift. It had been a tedious, cramped way to live, but it was better than the alternative of starving or being raped at night in the streets by local gangs because you had no safe roof over your head.
It was better than this.
She opened her eyes to the bright glare of overhead lights and shock-white walls. It gave her an instant headache, all that brilliant brightness, and she groaned as she tried to blink her stinging eyes into adjustment.
As always, within seconds of her first opening her eyes, the door opened and Raul stepped into the room.
"Good morning," he greeted her with his usual efficiency and lack of sincerity as he went about his morning routine, which consisted of taking several tubes of blood from the permanent port imbedded in her arm. He checked other vital statistics pertaining to her body just as he always did, and she lay there stiffly acquiescent.
It wasn't as though Amara had much of a choice.
"How do you feel, Amara?"
"Sore. Tired. Bitchy." She affected a sweet smile that was glaringly false. "And I have a headache."
Raul made his usual "hmm" of comprehension. He never pretended to give a damn, and it was obvious that he didn't. There was no use being nice to her, she supposed. From what she knew, she was one of many, many lab rats and it wouldn't pay to get too attached.
Especially when the so-called Phoenix Project had a rumored mortality rate of 90 percent.
"So tell me, Raul," she said conversationally, scooting herself up in bed and trying to avoid the tangle of leads they stuck in her hair, against her scalp, every night. Most of the women had shorn off their hair, keeping it peach-fuzz short or completely bald, the stickiness of the glue from the leads just making it easier to deal with, but Amara refused. They'd taken enough away; she wasn't going to let them have her long, platinum blond hair too. Besides, what else did she have to do all day? She could afford the time it took to wash and work free the adhesive. So what if her hair was thinner than it had been from being pulled out in the process? It was still long and it was still hers. "What's on the agenda for today? Drug testing? Narcos? I admit, I dig the narcos so long as they don't give me hallucinations. Those last ones were a bitch. Or are we gene splicing? Maybe ... ooo, don't tell me! Radiation therapy? No? C'mon, not even a teensy clue?"
"Do you have your period?" Raul asked, ever efficient and bored, even in the face of the questions they both knew he would never answer.
"Nope. I might be PMSing, though. Bitchy, remember?"
"And all of your implants are comfortable?"
He meant had any broken through her skin. She was very delicate skinned, and her body liked to push out their implants at various intervals, spitting them out in defiance as if to say, "Take that, fuckers!"
Amara loved her body.
Knowing Raul would check for himself despite his courtesy of asking, she showed him both forearms and calves where she had been implanted with tracking and disciplinary devices. They promised to keep her confined to the grounds or kill her if she dared try to escape. They could inject a reservoir of tranquilizers on command if she got rowdy. They could give her a bitchin' case of heaving nausea for punishment if she copped an attitude and didn't comply with the medical personnel and their constant testing and assessments.
Luckily, they didn't count being a smart-ass as having an attitude. Otherwise, she'd have been puking for the entire three months she'd been there.
"Big day today."
Raul turned and left after that rare parting remark and she gaped after him.
Big day today? What the hell did that mean? A cold feeling of dread infused her every cell as she wrapped her arms around herself against the chill and hurried into the small cubicle shower off her room. It was the only amenity this place had over the workhouse. A private bathroom. But that was probably because it made it easier to control other bodily samples and monitoring of private behavior. She had figured out there were cameras in her room and bath pretty quickly. She might have to put on a show every time she went to the damn toilet, but at least she'd caught on before they'd caught her masturbating or something. Perverted jerks. What in hell did science need to know about that required them to watch a woman pee?
Big day today.
Ninety percent mortality rate.
She doubted it was going to be a good day.
Then again, it never was.
Chapter Two"He's new," Mina said with an affected meow and growl as she leaned forward in her chair to peer with her usual obviousness at the man in question. He was dressed in the same heather gray sweats and T-shirt as everyone else, but even Amara had to admit he stood out from the others around him. But that was probably because he was at least a head taller than the others around him. "Wow. Look at the shoulders on him. No wonder they nabbed him. Talk about a physical specimen."
Okay, Amara grudgingly agreed, she has a point there as well. The guy was built like a brick institution. That would probably change, the boring days of playing cards in the sanitarium or the walks around the drab perimeter hardly made for an active lifestyle. The broad shoulders wouldn't stay so thickly muscled, and the tight six-pack abs would no doubt fade. It would be a shame to lose those thighs made like the trunks of two trees and the cut of his fine ass, though, because he was all kinds of juicy at the moment.
Amara indulged in a smile and watched as the dark-haired male turned again in the agitated circuit he was pacing in. The beauty of sweats, she mused, was that they clung very nicely to certain male body parts. She could definitely make out the hefty line of his cock beneath the snug fabric. Realizing where she was staring, Amara chuckled to herself and looked for neutral territory.
"He seems a bit tense," she noted to her companions as she took in his clenched jaw and fists. He looked like he would really like to punch someone.
"I bet I could relax him," Mina chuckled. "All that tension all knotted up inside him. I bet he'd come after just a few deep sucks."
"Mina!" Amara scolded. Still, she squirmed in her seat and laughed at her friend's blunt audacity, trying to quickly push away the imagery Mina's words drew up. "Don't you ever think about anything but sex and blow jobs?"
"Oh, please, like you aren't thinking about sex and blow jobs just looking at him? You know you are. He's oozing testosterone. He's out in the common room, so he's been here long enough to have learned the score, obviously, but he's not happy about it and is fresh enough from the outside that he hasn't grown apathetic yet. He's full of piss and vinegar. Look at him. He's prowling that corner of the room like a caged jaguar." Mina smiled. "He's all male animal."
"For now. He'll be like the rest of them soon enough." Amara sighed, nibbling her lip nervously as her attention left the new male and returned to Raul. Big day today. Why? God, what did they have planned this time? Which of them would never come back? Mina, Rachael, and Devona were the closest things she had to friends, despite her efforts not to get attached to anyone else around her. She had made fast friends in fear early on when they all had been new and in the dark, but when Julie had dropped suddenly dead right at her feet from the new drug they were testing on her, she had realized she would never survive if she continued to give parts of herself away to anyone else. Despite those intentions, the three tough women who had survived just as long as she had had begun as a coffee clatch, progressed to a breakfast clatch, and now they pretty much spent the entire day clutched together.
It had been necessary to gain friends, actually. There was no social or mental discrimination in the common population the experimenters had gathered together, so there were quite a few sickos, psychos, and weirdos. Despite all of the cameras watching just about everywhere, staff wasn't in all that much of a hurry to intervene when one of their lab rats was being accosted or, sometimes, raped. They often let the men work themselves up in acts of aggression and observed. Amara thought it was a cross between morbid fascination and the results of some sick drug testing. She had come to that conclusion after watching Spencer Holbrook, the sweetest, shyest guy on the planet, go totally ape-shit savage on some poor girl right on the recreation room floor. He'd torn into her like a rutting animal and he literally screwed himself to death. He'd had a heart attack or stroke or something after his sixth orgasm in about six minutes' time.
Then the security staff had strolled in on the scene and cleaned it all up, bodies and victims never to be seen or heard from again. Amara didn't know what was worse-that it had happened like that, or that six minutes had gone by without a single one of them moving to help any more than security had. But after three months of something awful happening every single day, all the fury and indignation and fight was dying in them as fear for when it was their turn to snap or die stole over them.
Amara had considered warning her friends of what Raul had said, but she never knew what was a psychological tactic and what wasn't. She might have to stress out over it, but she wasn't going to force her friends into the same thing. Whatever was going to happen was going to happen whether they knew about it or not. Avoiding the drink or food was a waste of time because they would just find another way if your time was up. In the end, they were just one big animal supply to the labs in the compound. Like rabbits, monkeys, and rats, they were kept in a clean, sterile environment until an order came up for their specifications. Then they would be tested, injected, and either released back into the captive populace ... or they were never heard from again.
Amara had a feeling her specifications had just come up.
Sure enough, she'd just put down her empty cup of coffee when Raul and two beefy orderlies came up to stand behind her meaningfully. Mina's eyes narrowed angrily, her hands fisting furiously on the table. There was nothing she could have done, and Amara was glad when the women didn't start any trouble. She didn't want them to suffer over her. They would suffer for themselves soon enough, given the current trends.
She stood up and obediently walked between the orderlies as Raul led the way. She noticed a scuffle of temper when the new male was also chosen and led from the common room. The man was pushed roughly forward, his orderlies readily armed with the remotes that activated his internal disciplinary measures. She couldn't help but look down at his forearms to see just how old the surgical scarring appeared to be. His incisions were almost completely invisible, which told her he had been putting up a long, long fight against his captivity. Amara was glad he had finally acquiesced, however unhappy it made him, because she knew they would have killed him and written off the expense eventually.
He was pushed again, the orderlies clearly getting off on having the upper hand over someone of his obvious strength and build. Some of them were like that. Some were nice. Most were just Raul.
The shove sent that wall of muscle slamming awkwardly into Amara. She stumbled and hit the heavily waxed floor with a face-planting sprawl. Before she could even feel the stinging of her skinned knees, elbows and the bruise on her chin, however, large hands were sliding around her body, gingerly turning her over into strong arms and the amazing warmth of intense body heat. She hadn't been so warm since she'd been kidnapped from her bed at the workhouse and dragged into this icebox environment that discouraged the growth of any germs.
"Are you all right? I'm sorry, the Asshole Twins here knocked me right into you."
Amara looked up into sea-green eyes full of honest concern and she had a ridiculous urge to cry. It would be so very sad the day those eyes stopped giving a damn just like everyone else's had. They were so very pretty when they were being kind. He even smiled a little, making them warm softly for her, and he reached to pull away some of the long tendrils of hair that had wrapped over her face.
"You've kept your hair," he remarked, almost as if he hadn't meant to say it aloud. "It's nice to see a pretty woman with long hair. Been awhile."
"Thank you," she said softly, not knowing what else to say. "It falls out a lot."
His smile faded and he gave her a jerky little nod. Then they both felt the prodding feet of the orderlies against them.
"Are you okay? Think you can stand?" he asked.
"Sure," she agreed.
In a single surge of confident movement, they were both back on their feet. He held her in the circle of his arms, close enough that her nipples brushed his chest through the cotton of their matching T-shirts. Since she had never been allotted any underwear, just like everyone else, it felt strangely exposing. Probably because she hadn't been touched by someone who wasn't medically examining her in a long time. As sea-green eyes wandered slowly down her length, she was quite sure there was nothing scientific about his examination.
"Move it!" the orderlies barked at them.
They moved. Some were known to be trigger happy, and neither of them felt like puking their guts up for the next three days or riding an electrical current of punishment. Amara felt his arm fall around her waist.
"Hope you don't mind," he said softly. "Figure maybe I'll spare myself a few shoves if you're close by. They are starting to piss me off and I'm two seconds away from buying myself a puke festival. Be worth it to crack a couple of jaws, though."
"Be careful," she whispered back to him. "They won't hesitate to kill you if you're too much trouble."
"Yeah," he grimaced. "I figured that out. So, I'll just be occasional trouble." He gave her a flashing grin at that. The lines of his slightly longer than military haircut and the strength of his rugged jaw and cheeks made him seem tough, but that disarming smile that reached deep into his jade eyes made him seem almost as mischievous and guileless as a boy. "So where'd they get you from?"
Amara frowned, not wanting to exchange captivity stories, but as they were herded down the imposing white corridor, she needed anything to calm her racing nerves.
"The Reeceville Workhouse. They took a bunch of us in our sleep. You?"
"I'm a cop. A Federated States cop. Something tells me I got a little too close to this operation," he said drolly. He grimaced as he looked at her. "I am sorry."
"For?" she asked in surprise.
"For not doing my job right. All I can do is hope my coworkers can figure out what I was doing when I disappeared. I was working alone and got in too far too fast. Before I could make the right reports, I got made. I guess I should be glad I'm not dead."
"I wouldn't be too sure about that," Amara whispered sadly.
Excerpted from NOCTURNAL by Jacquelyn Frank Kate Douglas Jess Haines Clare Willis Copyright © 2010 by Kensington Publishing Corp.. Excerpted by permission.
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