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Dr Laura Johnson had a secret. She was different, able to manipulate objects with her mind, able to read people's emotions, and sense danger and tragedy before they became reality.
Her parents had always thought that hiding her abilities was for the best. They'd warned her that there were people who would be greedy and power hungry, people who would be enticed to misuse the power behind her secret. And now, fifteen years later, both her parents having passed on, she still remembered their words, understood them, lived the truth they held.
Hiding those abilities had become second nature. In fact, her research exposed her to others like herself, people with similar gifts, and still she remained silent. She knew it was the right choice. Pretending to be no different than everyone else around her was as much a part of each day as brushing her teeth and having morning coffee with her favorite vanilla creamer. Sometimes she even convinced herself it was true, that she was like everyone else.
Staring out the window of the government lab off the Texas coast where she'd been working the past two years, she watched the ocean crash against the rocks of the secluded island facility. It was eight in the morning, and she'd been up well before sunrise, unable to sleep. Every nerve ending in her body was raw, frazzled, and she didn't know why. Her instincts screamed with warnings, with a promise of danger. With the promise of her secret exposed.
She struggled with why she was feeling such a thing. She had felt unease for a while now, ever since Captain Walch had taken over the island's operations six months before. The man wasn't a good person. Not even close. He'd use her patients for the wrong things with a snap of the fingers; in fact, several times now he'd hinted at the power that duplicating their skills could wield. But Walch wasn't the cause of this uneasiness. Her instincts tingled with a warning like nothing she'd ever experienced before. The word malice leapt into her mind as if part of some warning system that her instincts had set off. And considering her instincts were uniquely accurate, she trusted them.
Behind her, the lab door opened and closed, and Laura turned to find her favorite patient, a firestarter named Kresley, walking toward her. With red hair several shades lighter than Laura's dark auburn coloring, Kresley drew fast attention whenever she walked into a room. Her striking blue eyes and waiflike figure reminded Laura of a sea nymph from a fairy tale.
Kresley was the only patient Laura had brought with her to the island. Now a woman of twenty, the young girl had become close to Laura's heart. After Kresley's parents had turned away from her, treating her as if she were a freak, Laura had taken her into her home.
"What in the world are you doing up so early?" Laura asked, knowing how fitfully Kresley slept most nights.
Kresley smiled. "I had a bad dream last night."
In her present state of unease, Laura wouldn't have thought she could laugh, but she did. "Most people don't smile over a bad dream, you know, but since the alarms in your room didn't go off, I assume that can mean only one thing."
"Yep," Kresley said, nodding. "I had a nightmare and didn't start a fire. I'm controlling my power even in my sleep."
"Wonderful!" Laura said. She moved forward and hugged Kresley, pleased she'd called her firestarting ability a power rather than a curse, as she often did. Maybe it was hypocritical, considering how she felt about her own abilities, but Laura had grown up with something that had given her the confidence these kids didn' t have parents who loved her, parents who made sure she knew she mattered and, although she had to be secretive about her powers, she was special to them.
While working for the University of Texas, Laura had discovered the genetic marker that created certain people's gifts, or powers. Once that discovery had been published, she'd been invited to the island to help a group of people with problems similar to Kresley's they couldn't control their powers. And now, two years later, Laura had finally found the missing piece of the puzzle and created a retrovirus correction. Thankfully, it appeared to be working.
Laura had inherited four other patients when she'd come to the island, all kept locked away like animals. They were prisoners because they lacked control over their gifts. She suspected they would all love a little trip off the island.
She was starting to tell Kresley this wish when the door opened, and Captain Walch appeared in the entryway. Tall, with a muscular build and dark hair, Walch wore stiffly pressed, army-green dress pants and a white button-down shirt sturdy enough to display medals. His dark hair was cut short, his cheekbones were high and sharp, his nose long and pointed. As usual, his face was emotionless, even militant. Except for his eyesthey raked over Laura with a lusty inspection.
His gaze narrowed on Kresley and then refocused on Laura. "We need to talk," he said.
Obviously he wasn't keen on small talk on Kresley's behalf. Not that he ever was. "Alone," he added.
Laura turned to Kresley. "I'll meet you in the coffee shop in a few minutes."
Kresley hesitated, protectiveness flashing in her blue eyes. The two of them were close, and Kresley knew how much Laura hated being alone with Walch. "It's okay," Laura assured her. "I'll only be a few minutes." Kresley nodded and headed for the door, never glancing at Walch again.
Laura crossed her arms in front of her body, wishing for her lab coatanything to cover her black dress. Not that the simple shell of a dress was anything but conservative, but Walch had a way of making her feel naked.
The door shut behind Kresley before either of them spoke. "You seem edgy, Laura," Walch commented. "Something on your mind?"
Laura felt more than edgyshe felt defensive for no good reason. "Actually, yes," she said, forcing herself to seize the opportunity. She knew Walch: he'd make whatever point he had come there to make and then dart away. She needed to be aggressive. "I think it's time to test the patients' control. A trip off the island would allow me to see how they respond to real-world stimulations."
His response came fasttoo fast, in fact. "You're feeling good about your progress, then?"
Why did this feel like a trick question? "It's moving along well," she agreed cautiously, "but they still need regular injections to maintain the corrections I've made."
"There won't be a trip right now. Not anytime soon, for that matter. I have a team of researchers joining you later this week. They've shown me enough documentation to convince me they can clone your patients' gifts in others. As I've mentioned on several occasions, the military finds this concept intriguing. More than intriguingit's an absolute necessity. This will happen. We expect it to happen."
She drew in a surprised breath. Visitors? A research team? No wonder she was on edge. "I didn't sign up for this. That's not what I'm here for."
He seemed unaffected by her response, in fact, was prepared for it. "If you want to continue receiving the funding and resources to complete your work, you'll make this happen."
"Is that a threat?" she demanded.
"Call it what you want, but we both know this is the next logical step in your work. We need to do this before someone else does. Our men must be the most deadly, the most well equipped."
"By creating weapons of war," she said. "I won't do it. I came to help these people, not to fight wars. That's your job, not mine."
"You came here because you wanted our money and resources. You have all the resources you could dream of here and a chance to be a part of changing the world. Fix them while you help us. Think about what the next step in your research can mean to the future. It's not about creating warit's about eliminating it." His expression turned intense, emotion actually evident for onceemotion laced with hunger and greed. "When one opponent is the strongest, the others don't fight. They don't dare. You will be creating peace."
She stared at him, swallowing hard. He was different from before. Darker. Evil seemed to cling to him, a second skin. She could feel it, primal, potent.
She had to get off this island. She would come back for her patients, but if she didn't leave they might all be stuck here. Despite her fears, her voice was low but firm. "I've overstayed my welcome here. I want to go home." He took a step toward her. Instinctively, she backed up. Already close to the window, her heels hit the baseboard. Her hands went to her sides, pressing against the ceiling-to-floor glass panels behind her.
"You have a job to do, and I suggest you accept that," he said. He stood so close to her that the toes of his shoes were almost touching her sandals. "You will welcome your new research team with open arms, and you will eagerly aid their efforts." He paused, his eyes lowering to her lips, lingering there before lifting. "And you will do so because it's in the best interests of both you and your patients."
"What does that mean?" she asked, fear fluttering in her stomach. It was fear for her patients, and fear because there was more going on here than she understood and she wished she knew what.
"It means that you are being monitored, Laura. You always have been. Anything you do that might interfere with our goals will be penalized. If you value the safety of your patients, then I'd stay on task." He leaned in, his body far too near, his mouth brushing her earlobe. "And remember
I'll be close." He eased back and looked into her eyes. "And I'll be watching."
For the first time since she was a teen, Laura fought the rise of her powers, fought the desire to use them against this man. No
Beast. The word came to her clearly. He was a power-hungry Beast. Her adrenaline raged, her nerve endings stood on end. With effort she reined in the rush of energy, drew in a discreet, calming breath.
"Fine," she said. "I'll do it. I'll help clone the marker."
He smiled, evil. "That's my girl." His finger ran down her cheek, and she shivered with repulsion. A second later, he stepped away from her, and Laura felt as if a heavy weight had been lifted from her shoulders. "Your new research team will be here Friday morning," he said. "I trust you'll be ready for them."
She glared at him, not agreeing, not daring to disagree. She couldn't say or do anything until she knew what her next step would be. But as he exited the room, giving her one more lust-filled look over his shoulder, she knew one thing for certain. She had no intention of doing what he demanded. Somehow, some way, she was going to get off this island, and she was taking her patients with her. Their own powers were resources they themselves could put to use for escape if it came down to it. But she'd need to stockpile their medication first and plan carefully.
Then, they were out of here. One way or another, they were getting off this island.
Rinehart stepped onto the sandy beach of his island destination, after a long night on a boat spent, in part, blindfolded. Behind him several military police officers followed, one of them informing him their ride would be there shortly.
Only these soldiers weren't men. Not anymore. They were Beasts in human disguises. Beasts that reeked of evil. The hardest part of the trip had been not killing them. No. That wasn't true. The hardest part was thinking about his past, about the time he'd spent in the military and then the FBI. About the night he'd led his men on a mission deep into Mexico, his mind distracted by personal matters, by a woman, to be exacta matter that should have been left at home. His team had fallen that night, ambushed by Beasts. He'd failed his men and his country. Why Salvador had saved him, converted him to a Knight of White, he didn't know. Still didn't. But when he'd finally pulled himself out of the self-hatred that day had created, he'd vowed to both himself and Salvador he would never fail the Knights.
Max, Rock, Des and their newest Knight, Lucan, joined him on the beachfront, reminding him of that vow. He had a damn good team who had worked miracles to get them here today. "My skin is crawling from being so near those bastards," Des murmured under his breath, touching the arrowhead necklace he wore around his neck as a reminder of his Native American mother. Something he did often in troubled times.
"I hear ya, man," Rinehart said. "We can't get this job done fast enough to suit me."
Rock came up on the other side of Rinehart. Like the rest of them, he wore khakis and a collar shirt. Gone was his standard attire of jeans, T-shirt and cowboy hat. But the more conservative clothing did nothing to contain his impetuous youth. "Remind me why I can't take their heads right now," he said.
Rinehart shook his head; that statement spoke worlds about why Rinehart kept Rock attached to his hip. If anyone were going to beat Rock's ass, it would be him. "You gotta learn some patience, kid," Max said, joining them, egging on Rock with the kid reference. They all knew he hated it.