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Carter Baigneaux shifted uncomfortably in the auditorium-style seat. Being back in a college classroom felt like some sort of weird time warp. Several hundred students in front of him squirmed in their seats, too. Although given how hot the professor was, he figured their squirming had more to do with hormones than flashbacks.
The lecturer was Lily James. From up here she looked waiflike and fragile and impossibly young to be a Dr. James, assistant professor of astronomy at a major university. Or maybe he was just getting old. Lord knew he felt ancient sitting among these pimply teenagers. Who knew the longhaired, tie-dyed hippie craze was on its way back in? It didn't help that his hair was cut in a military buzz and his shirt was crisply starched. At least no one had called him a pig or railed at him about the system yet.
Professor James said something about a quiz and a collective groan went up around him. Her sweet voice announced over the loud speakers, "I'll see you next Tuesday. Don't be late. You'll need the whole hour to get through the test."
The students around him surged out of their seats. Anticipation quickened his gut. He was looking forward to meeting the young professor up close and personal. Just how attractive was she at arm's length? Carter moved into the aisle to make his way down to the long lab table stretching across the lecture hall. But he'd failed to take into account the flood of students rushing up and out of the double doors behind him, and he floundered like a salmon trying to make its way upstream to spawn.
He looked over the sea of heads sweeping toward him and saw Dr. James stuffing her lecture notes into a leather satchel. Dodging and weaving, he progressed only a few rows toward her before she slung the bag over her shoulder and turned to her right. She was heading for a door behind the podium marked Staff Only. He pushed harder, and only succeeded in making a bunch of students complain at him. Screw this. He stepped into an empty row and threw his leg over the seats into the next row. Descending awkwardly over the rows of seats, he made his way to the front of the auditorium. But he wasn't fast enough. She'd disappeared.
The door she'd used led to a storeroom crammed with supplies for science experiments. He looked left and right. There. A red exit sign. He dashed to the door and shoved it open. A glare of sunshine blinded him, and he squinted across the parklike expanse of grass before him. Hundreds of students crisscrossed it, hurrying to and from classes. Where was the petite frame and long brunette locks of his quarry? He thought he spotted her and took off running.
His thigh muscles twinged warningly. Not now, dammit! He wasn't even in combat. There was no reason for them to lock up. Concentrating hard on keeping Dr. James in sight and reminding himself continuously he was merely jogging across a college campus, he managed to keep moving, to stay functional.
She might be walking, but she was moving at a brisk pace, forcing him to run at a good clip to catch up to her. He pulled close enough to see that he had, indeed, spotted the right woman. But a street loomed ahead, lined with parked cars. If she'd driven here, she could get into her vehicle and be gone before he could get her attention and speak with her. Irritated, he put on a burst of speed that sent his entire body twitching in a threatening seize-up. Not. Now.
She turned toward the street as if to cross it. "Dr. James!" he called.
She slowed down. Started to turn her head toward him. That was when he registered the van sitting at a stop sign across the street. It surged forward and swung around the corner, pulling to a stop directly in front of Lily. The side door of the van slid open and two men leaped out in a jerky, stop-action sequence.
Two things happened simultaneously in Carter's head. First, he sworeviolently. And second, time shifted into distorted slow motion around him. He sprinted toward the professor full-out. The men ducked between the parked cars as Carter launched himself toward the professor in a desperate bid to keep her out of their clutches.
Impact. He slammed into Lily James, who was every bit as slender as she'd seemed, just as the first man reached out for her. Carter's momentum sent her flying beneath him and he clutched her close as he twisted in midair like a cat. He crashed, back first, to the ground, the concrete sidewalk knocking the wind out of him and sending time rushing forward to normal speed all at once.
"What the" Lily gasped, the wind knocked out of her as well.
The first man's arms closed on empty air as the second would-be assailant smashed into him from behind. The two men staggered as Carter rolled, depositing Lily on the ground before leaping to his feet.
Snarling, he stalked toward the two assailants as they untangled themselves and simultaneously spotted the large, angry man advancing on them. And he wasn't alone. Passersby were gathering quickly, buzzing with consternation. The men whirled as one and raced for the van. They dived into its dark interior and the vehicle peeled out, tires screeching, and turned the corner. Who in the hell were they? And why had they just tried to kidnap Lily James? He knew good and well why the U.S. government wanted to talk to her, but what did these jokers want with her?
Carter caught the license plate and memorized it as he turned to check on the woman he'd just laid a killer tackle on. A crowd of people had already gathered around the spot where she'd gone down, and panic kicked him in the gut. What if he'd seriously hurt her?
The same crowd that had chased off the other men was turning on him now. What? They thought he was one of the bad guys? But he'd kept her out of their clutches!
"I stopped them" he started. A man grabbed his upper arm. "The campus police are on the way, young man."
Dammit. He needed to talk to her. But he also emphatically did not need to make a scene about it. Although he supposed he'd already blown that right out of the water with his spectacular flying tackle.
He watched, frustrated, as someone assisted Dr. James to her feet.
She glanced back over her shoulder in his direction and made eye contact with him. Lights exploded behind his eyes and his body felt as if it had been struck by lightning. Her dark, huge eyes pierced him accusingly until his very soul bled. Aw, crap. He'd terrified the poor woman. And then she was gone, someone's arm looped solicitously around her shoulder, leading her away.
More people closed in on him, demanding, questioning. "I was only trying to help"
But the crowd wasn't in much of a mood to listen. Maybe the campus police would be calmer. A quiet call to his headquarters to verify his identity, a quick statement explaining how he'd saved the professornot assaulted herand he'd be cut loose. He hoped.
But in the meantime, Lily James was gone. The crowd thought he was one of her attackers. The van was long gone. And worst of all, he'd totally screwed up the first operational mission he'd been given since well, since. Disgust rolled through him like acid. All he had to do was find a woman on a nice, safe college campus and talk to her, for God's sake. And he couldn't even pull that off.
He closed his eyes and prayed for the earth to swallow him whole. No such luck. The people around him began to make increasingly radical and ugly comments, and he was actually relieved when the campus police arrived and escorted him to a squad car.
His supervisors at H.O.T. Watch headquarters were going to kill him. The Hunter Operations Teams that ran out of the supersecret facility were not in the habit of failing in their missions. And as of now, a serious national security problem was going unsolved because he couldn't manage to find and talk to one lousy scientist.
Not to mention he was deeply alarmed by his near freeze-up back there. If he couldn't overcome his humiliating affliction, and soon, he was well and truly done as a Special Forces operator. Any dreams he'd ever harbored of getting back out into the field would be irrevocably smashed to smithereens by a brown-eyed assistant professor of astronomy.
Lily James paced her living room, eyeing the sky outside out of long habit. The night was clear and crisp, the heavens dusted with twinkling stars just begging her to come out and play. And on any other night she would have packed up her gear, driven out into the desert and done just that, spending the entire night gazing up into their fathomless wonder, imagining who might be out there gazing back at her.
Except today, a bunch of guys had tried to kidnap her and, had the biggest attacker of the three not knocked himself silly by tackling her like a madman, they might have succeeded. The walls of her house were closing in on her, suffocating her by slow degrees. But for once, she didn't run from the claustrophobia. For once, it felt safe to be trapped inside, locked in this little box.
Not that it was a bad room. Her books lined two walls from floor to ceiling. The sofa was a sloppy, down-stuffed affair perfect for stretching out on to read or take a nap. She had a nice flat-screen TV, a combined Christmas/birthday gift from her parents last year, but she didn't watch it often.
And then, of course, there was the huge skylight in the ceiling that opened up to her beloved skies. It had been a royal pain finding a contractor who would install an actual window in her roof, but she didn't want the view distorted by a domed skylight. It was nearly the size of a double plate-glass door, and she could see a substantial chunk of the northern hemisphere through it while lying on her sofa.
The phone rang and she checked the caller ID to see who it was. Ugh. She didn't feel like talking to her mother tonight. Her parents had, understandably, been deeply alarmed when she'd told them of the attack upon her. But then, in their usual hopelessly intellectual fashion, they'd rationalized the whole thing as some sort of misguided student prank.
Lily rejected the notion. She'd seen the looks in those men's eyes. They'd been dead serious and had emphatically not been students. But her parents lived in their own clueless bubble, safe from reality, and she knew better than to try to change their minds. Sometimes she wondered if they'd both done just a little too much LSD in the sixties and fried a few too many mental circuits.
She headed for the sofa to lie down and stargaze when a new noise stopped her in her tracks. Who could be at her door at this hour? She didn't have the kind of friends who would come over to check on her after her harrowing experience. Not only were most of them online buddies, but they were hardcore scientists who tended to run a little thin in the sympathy department.
Frowning, she moved over to the front door. "Who is it?" she called through the panel.
"My name is Carter Baigneaux, Dr. James. I work for the United States government and I need to speak with you."
The U.S. government? What could they want with her? Were the stories about extraterrestrials hidden away in government facilities true after all? Maybe they'd seen her paper on what aliens might look like and needed help analyzing one. Or maybe they'd received a transmission of some kind. She was an expert in radio signal analysis, her current work in superfast intergalactic particle smashing notwithstanding. Or maybe
"Dr. James? Are you still there? If you'll open the door, I can show you my identification."
Oh. Right. Let the government man in so he could tell her what was going on. She unlocked both of the dead bolts and threw open the door. She recognized the big man instantly from his earlier tackle and tried to slam the door shut. But he was too fast and shoved a foot into the doorway. Even though he grunted as she slammed the door on his shoe, he didn't withdraw the block.
"Dr. James. I really am a government agent. Here. Let me pass my ID card to you. I swear I'm not going to hurt you."
She leaned against the door with all her weightwhich wouldn't do a lick of good if the giant on the other side decided to shove back. Her heart slammed against her ribs in panic. What to do? If she quit pushing, the door would fly open and he'd be on her in a second. Her cell phone was on the coffee table halfway across the room. Should she make a jump for it and try to dial 911 before he caught her?
But she wasn't on campus, now. The local police would take several minutes to get here. Plenty of time for her attacker to drag her out of the house and into his van. She didn't stand a chance of overpowering him. The guy had to be at least six foot four. And it didn't take an astrophysicist to see he was seriously buff.
As she frantically tried, and failed, to come up with a plan, a white-and-green plastic card poked through the narrow opening in front of her nose. She stared at it as she continued to push with all her might against the door. Captain Carter Baigneaux. United States Army. She noted his date of birthhe was thirty-three years old. Brown hair.
Blue eyes. Cute picture. Okay, not cute exactly. Handsome and all-American were more precise descriptors. But neither of those captured the sheer physical power and intimidation factor of the man.
Still. He was in the army? Why did the army need to talk with her? She pushed a little less urgently against his foot. "What do you want?" she demanded. Rats. Her voice sounded all squeaky and terrified. No help for it. She was terrified.
"To talk, ma'am. Just to talk."
"Your work, ma'am. You may have discovered something of interest to us."
"I already told you. I work for the government. It's classified, and I can't exactly yell about it while standing on your front porch."
"Why did the government try to kidnap me, then? They could've just asked me about my work. I'd have told them."
"The government did not try to kidnap you, ma'am."