Security specialist Bowen Knight has come back from the dead. But there’s a ticking time bomb in his head: a chip implanted to block telepathic interference that could fail at any moment—taking his brain along with it. With no time to waste, he should be back on land helping the Human Alliance. Instead, he’s at the bottom of the ocean, consumed with an enigmatic changeling.
Kaia Luna may have traded in science for being a chef, but she won’t hide the facts of Bo’s condition from him or herself. She’s suffered too much loss in her life to fall prey to the dangerous charm of a human who is a dead man walking. And she carries a devastating secret Bo could never imagine.
But when Kaia is taken by those who mean her deadly harm, all bets are off. Bo will do anything to get her back—even if it means striking a devil’s bargain and giving up his mind to the enemy…
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Bowen Knight: Status unknown. Location unknown. Condition as noted in final verified medical report: "Persistent comatose state. Brain functional, but no evidence or indication of increase in brain activity regardless of all measures taken."
-Human Alliance Internal Register
Kaia hated hospitals.
The sharp antiseptic scent, the quiet beeps occasionally uttered by the machinery of life, the stark lack of color on the walls, the carpetless floors, even the perfectly blameless pale blue sheets on this particular bed-it all caused her gut to churn and air to tighten in her chest until the pain was a constant.
This patient was breathing on his own, so at least she didn't have to listen to the quiet whisper of the apparatus that forced air in and out of the lungs.
Such a soft sound. Such a terrible sound.
Fisting her hand just below her breastbone, she pushed in hard in an effort to dislodge the agonizing knot. "Breathe, Kaia," she ordered. "This isn't even a hospital."
It was only a small clinic and it had only a single patient. A single subject.
The reminder did nothing to calm her heart or warm her skin, her breaths still shallow inhales followed by jagged exhales. She should've told Atalina no when her cousin asked her to step in to check the subject's vitals and status. She should've pointed out that she was the cook for the entire station and had lunch to prepare. But then Atalina wouldn't have agreed to get off her feet and have a rest despite her advanced pregnancy.
And Kaia had once been a scientist who worked alongside her cousin. She could do this simple task that Atalina did multiple times a day. It wasn't as if Attie had asked her to titrate the subject's medications or run complicated neurological scans. Though, if she had, Kaia was trained in both.
Becoming a cook hadn't wiped out her years of study and experience.
It had just made her happy that she no longer had to pretend to be something-someone-that she wasn't. She'd leave the science to the Kahananui branch of the family, and surrender to her own artistic lineage. Because while Elenise Luna had been a doctor, Iosef Luna had made his living as a lyricist. And the smallest "Lunatic" of all, their baby daughter, Kaia, had once thrown a tantrum in a toy store because she wanted the toy oven so very much.
"Procrastinating won't get this done any faster," she muttered under her breath before closing the short distance to the end of the bed. A complex piece of machinery, that bed featured a large computronic panel at the foot. Data about Atalina's motionless subject glowed quietly on that panel.
It had been updated thirty seconds earlier, the bed set up for constant monitoring.
It was also programmed to alert Atalina if anything changed beyond acceptable parameters, but Kaia's cousin was too meticulous a physician and scientist to put all her faith in technology. She did a manual check every hour except the six hours when she slept. And then, she had the feed going to an organizer beside her bed, with multiple types and levels of alerts built in.
It was a good thing her mate loved her so much.
Kaia scanned the data, saw nothing problematic. The subject was stable, but his neurological profile remained unchanged-Attie would be disappointed. The well-built male was still in as deep a comatose state as he'd been in when they'd transferred him to this facility. Technically speaking, Kaia and the others had kidnapped him-she'd been roped into the team of felons because Atalina couldn't move that fast right now and they'd needed someone with the necessary medico-scientific expertise to safeguard the subject.
A flicker on the screen.
Frowning, she looked more closely and spotted another blip in the graph that charted the subject's neural activity. The profile was changing at last. Though from what Kaia could see, the change was minor. Nothing that would instigate an alert to Atalina. Satisfied all was as it should be, Kaia made a couple of notes on the organizer Atalina had given her, then slipped the slim computronic device into the pocket built into her ankle-length sundress and moved to stand beside the bed.
Though that bed was designed to monitor every possible function, it remained good practice to physically check the status of a subject. After releasing the transparent "shell" around the subject's chest and lower body-a shell that protected and monitored at the same time-she made sure the sheet that covered him was undisturbed, then placed her fingers carefully on the inside of his wrist and began the quiet mental count of his pulse.
He might be human, might be the enemy, but right now, he was her responsibility.
His skin was surprisingly warm and healthy, though it looked to have lost its natural depth of color. She wondered absently what shade it became under sunlight. A deep golden-brown? More bronzed? The tawny color of that flowering plant she'd seen in the hydrogardens when she ducked in to grab a handful of fresh herbs?
Whatever shade it became, it was currently interrupted by hundreds of tiny "bugs" hooked into his system. Strangely adorable, the dull silver objects worked to ensure that the subject's muscles would remain strong and flexible despite his inactive state. The bugs were currently in the beta test phase but showed every sign of having surpassed their creator's initial targets.
Should Atalina's subject wake, he'd be capable of movement within a relatively short period.
Kaia's eyes went to his face.
He was pretty, she supposed-though the thought made her want to scowl. Square jaw, high cheekbones, tumbled black hair that made her fingers itch to touch. And an unexpected softness to his lower lip, as if his smile would be playfully sensual. She snorted inwardly. This was not a playful man. His reputation made it clear he was one of the most ruthless humans on the planet.
His pulse jumped under her fingertips.
Snapping her eyes to the machines around them, she saw sudden, dangerous spikes appear in front of her eyes. Everywhere. "Shit."
She broke contact with his wrist and took a single step toward the data panel to make sure it had shot an alert to Attie.
That was when Bowen Knight, Human Alliance security chief, and a pitiless man with a beautiful mouth, parted his lips and spoke.
Kaia, if you don't put Mr. Puggles in his travel box, he'll get hurt feelings and think you don't want him to come with us.
-Iosef Luna to his only daughter, Kaia
The last thing Bo remembered was smashing through the bridge wall and into the canal, the cold Venetian water closing over his head as his heart exploded in bloody shards inside him. He'd almost been able to feel the pieces of the bullet piercing and devastating the vital organ, had known he was a dead man.
He'd said something to Lily before he died. He'd told his sister to use his brain.
Maybe he wouldn't have said that if he'd realized he'd still be conscious while his brain was being chopped up.
"I am not chopping up your brain."
Bo frowned . . . Could a brain frown? And why was his brain talking back to him in such a coolly affronted tone of voice? Had it gone insane while being a disembodied brain in a jar that someone was experimenting on?
"And I'm not experimenting on your brain, either!" A long pause. "Someone else, however, is experimenting on it. But Attie needs your entire living brain for research, so you're safe from being sliced up."
For some reason, those words-spoken in a feminine voice as lyrical as it was husky-weren't very reassuring. Also, why was his brain suddenly replying in a woman's voice? Was that a side effect of getting shot and dying and having your brain scooped out to be put in a jar?
He'd really thought he could trust Lily to make certain he was actually dead when his brain was put into a jar. He'd have to have a serious chat with his sister when she made it to the afterlife. If he ever made it to the afterlife himself-because if he was stuck as a brain in a jar-
His foot jerked up hard before slamming back down to the bed. The reverberation pulsed up his entire body, disrupting his train of thought and making his shoulders jerk. Wait a minute. If he had shoulders, then he couldn't be a disembodied brain in a jar.
"That's what I've been trying to tell you," said the female voice that held an undertone of ice.
His breath kicked hard in his chest . . . No, that was his heart. But his heart had been fatally damaged, he was sure of it. Or maybe . . .
Things had been chaotic after the shooting, his memories a jumble of shocking pain entwined with raw fear for Lily. Maybe he'd gotten it wrong. Maybe his heart hadn't been destroyed after all.
But he knew. Bo was a security specialist; he understood weapons and he had zero doubts that what had gone into his chest had been a bullet designed to fragment and cause catastrophic damage.
Hearts didn't regenerate from that brutal an assault.
He shouldn't be feeling anything inside his chest, but he was, and he was having thoughts inside his head, which meant his brain hadn't exploded, either. Was it possible the medics had him on some sort of life support?
Yet he felt too alive to be nothing but a vegetable hooked up to a machine.
He needed to open his eyes. But he couldn't.
"Hold on a minute," the frost-kissed female voice said. "You have tape over your eyes."
A sliding sound, a new and breathless woman's voice saying, "He's awake?"
"Yes, and thinks he's a brain in a jar. Can I take the tape off his eyes?"
"Do it. I need to monitor his vitals as he rises. It's possible he might not make it all the way out." More huffed breaths. "This is incredible. I never expected this response. The compound clearly works on human neural tissue far more efficiently than it does on ours."
Bo wanted to scowl. He was right here. Could they please stop talking about him as if he couldn't hear them? And if they weren't human, where was he?
"I think you're speaking Italian now," said the one with the cool but throaty voice. "I only speak Hawaiian, Samoan, English, Japanese, and a bit of very bad Cantonese and French."
Bo felt a whisper of movement against his face, caught the edge of a lush scent that made him draw in a deeper breath. Some kind of exotic flower . . . and sugar. Cinnamon. He liked cinnamon.
"Good to know. But don't start thinking I'm going to bake you a cinnamon cake, Security Chief. I save that for friends."
Bo tried to settle his brain. But he kept on being distracted by the waves of luscious scent rippling across the air. That scent had nothing to do with the otherwise astringent smell all around him.
It was a hospital smell he'd been ignoring. Every single person in the world probably knew that smell. Whatever antiseptic they used to clean hospitals, it seemed to be the same regardless of location. Maybe they got a bulk discount.
Flowers and cinnamon whispering across his perception again.
A tug on the skin of his face near his eyes.
"I'm sorry"-an unexpectedly gentle touch, her fingers stroking back his hair-"the tape isn't meant to stick so hard."
"Here," the other woman said. "Use this to warm it up first. It's probably stuck because I used a new roll. Christ, his vitals are insane."
"Good or bad insane?"
"Unlikely. He could come up only to dive back down."
A sensation of warmth against his skin, then the tug again. "Keep still-moving your head's just making it harder."
Bo was coming to the realization that he was alive, very alive, and the woman with the gentle hands, frost-coated voice, and luscious scent appeared to be a medical technician or a doctor. If she was, her bedside manner was terrible.
"Of course you're a critic," was the distinctly annoyed response. "And for your information, I'm a cook. An excellent one."
He had to be hallucinating. Why would a cook be taking medical tape off his eyes?
He also didn't recognize either woman's voice, and he knew every single senior medic in the Alliance, knew each and every one of the doctors to whom his grievously wounded body would've been taken. So where was he? Was it possible the Alliance had brought in others to help? They had allies now, friends.
"I'm going to prick your feet. It won't hurt." Words spoken by the woman whose voice didn't make his skin . . . itchy.
His leg jerked seconds later. It had been a test, he realized, to see if he had sensation in his feet. Breath held, he flexed both his fingers and toes.
Everyone had their nightmares and Bowen's was to be helpless. He'd been exactly that once, a long time ago. He'd never forget the agony of the telepath's psychic fingers shoving into his brain while he fought helplessly against her control.
It had all ended in blood.
Hers and his.
He'd made it clear to Lily and his parents that he'd never want to be kept alive only by machines, his body and mind beyond his control. It was the most vicious horror he could imagine. But his brain seemed to be functional, and as the last of the fog flickered away, he confirmed he had no physical blank spots, no numbness.
It was odd but he could also sense hundreds of tiny objects on his skin, and it felt as if they pulsed his muscles.
The tape disappeared. "Okay," said the cook with the smoky, bluesy voice that held an inexplicable anger, "try to open your eyes-don't force it. They may feel heavy."
Bo could be patient when he needed to be, but he found he didn't have that control today. He flicked open his lashes.
Mal, are you sure this is safe? I know we have to let Attie run her experiment, but Hugo's information changes things. Bowen Knight is a cold-blooded murderer and he's targeting our people.
If he doesn't wake, all we've done is give Attie what she needs. If he does, then we have him under our control.
-Messages exchanged between Kaia Luna and Malachai Rhys
The angry cook had huge brown eyes that snapped with electricity against skin of a softer brown, her long dark hair in a loose braid that had fallen over one shoulder. She'd tucked a creamy white flower behind her right ear and her features reminded him of a movie he'd once seen about a Tahitian princess. Except this woman was no princess. She was a warrior. One Bo was dead certain was fighting the compulsion to stab him.