“I don’t know,” I repeated.

“Goddamn it, Eden F.” He only called me that when he was mad, or seriously worried. “I told you not to take this case. I told you to leave it alone.”

“I’m sorry,” I said on a ragged breath. And I was. Because of my failure, a human slaver was even now roaming free. Worse, he knew he was being hunted. He’d be more careful now. I’d just screwed the entire operation. “I think some of the slaves are in cells inside the Pit. It’s a bar on the east side of town.” I opened my mouth to tell him the rest, but my mind went blank. A thick fog covered my thoughts. I blinked, shook my head and beckoned them back. “Some are with a human, Sahara Rose.”

“I’ll put a man on it. You bring the survivor to me. Goddamn it,” he snarled again and disconnected.

Silence greeted me. And in the silence, I noticed that the throbbing in my arm had increased. I looked down. Though my vision was clouding, I studied the gaping, oozing wound. The bullet had done more damage than I’d thought. I was losing blood fast. Too fast.

Fighting past the pain and weakness, I pushed to my feet. My knees wobbled, and my bones liquified, and neither showed any sign of improving. Even my stomach battled a sharp pain. I stumbled over to the woman. She flinched as I reached out and cut her free. Then she sank to the splinter-sharp ground and sobbed, her dirty hair covering her naked shoulders. I tried not to think about the other one, the one who wouldn’t go home this night or any other.

The crossbow strapped to my back suddenly weighed me down like a concrete block, and the ache in my stomach intensified. It was becoming harder and harder to breathe.

A wave of dizziness assaulted me, heavy and strangely seductive…lulling me to the ground beside the woman. When our arms touched, she uttered a terrified gasp and hastily scooted away. Her movements were so jerky, she flung dirt onto my legs. I wanted to comfort her, but my mouth refused to form the right words.

What the hell was wrong with my stomach? Slowly, so slowly, I lifted my shirt. There, just below my ribs, was another bloody, gaping wound. When had I received that? I hadn’t even felt the bullet go in. Wait. Yes, I had. When I’d run with the mini-grenade. Damn.

I set aside my cell unit and reached inside my pouch, withdrawing a thin silver Extractor. Bracing myself for what I was about to do, I bit my bottom lip, centered all of my strength, and jabbed the damn thing into my stomach wound. Instantly the metal-sensitive prongs elongated and probed for the bullet. A scream ripped from me.

How much time passed before the small, round tip was removed, I didn’t know. I only knew desperation, pain. And fear. I wasn’t ready to die. Not here. Not now. I laughed humorlessly. Not as a failure.

Concentrate. I had to concentrate. Though I craved a moment’s rest, a single moment to close my eyes, I repeated the entire process, shoving the now bloody device into my forearm. When I pulled out the last bullet, my shoulders and back sagged in relief. Distantly, I heard the woman crying.

Quickly losing energy, I found the syringe in my pouch and injected myself in the heart with pure molybdenum to slow the spread of copper or brass or whatever the bullets were made of. Searing pain erupted. I screamed again, long and loud, until my vocal cords cracked.

The now-empty syringe fell from my suddenly limp fingers. I hurt everywhere, but a comforting lethargy was already working through me. A minute, maybe less, and I’d be out.

I reached blindly for my cell unit, my fingers somehow closing around it. “Boss,” I said. The word emerged so weak and broken, I experienced a moment’s surprise when the phone began to automatically dial.

He answered on the fifth ring this time. “What?”

“I’m hit.”

“It just gets better every time you call,” he said, his sarcasm heavy. I caught the thick undercurrent of concern, however. “Can you make it to the safe house?”

“I’ll…” A murky web of darkness wove through my mind, blackening my eyesight, paralyzing my muscles. “Try.”

Oblivion seized me in its demanding grip.

Chapter 2

Iwas floating.

No, not floating, I realized a second later. Strong male arms cradled me tightly, securely. The scent of pine and man wafted to my nostrils, and male strength radiated all around me. Someone was carrying me. Who? Why? A thick, smoky cloud blanketed and scattered my thoughts, keeping the answers just beyond my grasp.

“Is she going to make it?” someone asked. I recognized the broken, concerned voice. Michael, my boss. My father.

“Don’t know,” a second man said. I didn’t recognize his voice at all. The timbre was deeper, more raw than any I’d ever heard before. So distant, so uncaring. “She’s lost a lot of blood.”

Both voices seemed to drift from a dream, surreal and remote. Which man held me? My father or the stranger? Whoever it was, he emitted a kind of heat far different from any I’d ever encountered before. His warmth seeped into me, as soothing and gentle as a lullaby.

“We need to cut these clothes off her,” the stranger said. “Get her out of the mask so she can breathe.”

“Wait till we get her in the car.” Michael’s tone broke further, was more hurried. He always freaked when I was injured. Even the smallest scratch undid him.

Minutes passed. Maybe hours. I didn’t know, didn’t care. Time had long since become immeasurable. All I had was the solid embrace of my rescuer, but even that was soon denied me as my body was eased to the cool ground. Hands tugged and ripped my clothing, causing my wounds to throb. I gasped as air kissed my bare skin. In the next instant, the mask was jerked from my face.

Someone sucked in a breath, and it wasn’t me. Then…silence.

“Shit,” the stranger exhaled, his tone laced with…awe?

Fingers coasted gently over my cheekbone, then through my hair, comforting and soft. Sleep…I’d sleep a little longer.

I’d missed EenLi. I’d failed.

Over and over, those words echoed in my mind. I’d missed EenLi. I’d failed.

His smug face drifted into my thoughts, shimmering just beyond my consciousness. I reached for a pyre-gun, but managed to grab cool, soft sheets instead. The events in the warehouse flashed, playing out like an old video. The gunshots. The blood. The blinding pain. Is that why I felt so empty and hollow, like a nocturnal phantom whisking from cloud to cloud?

EenLi’s image wavered, then disappeared. I raced after him, but my limbs were suspended in motion, and I remained in place. He laughed. The sound taunted me.

You’re a failure, Eden. A failure.I’d had one job. Just one. And he had walked away from me without a single scratch.

When aliens first arrived so many years ago, humans had tried to destroy them all. They almost destroyed themselves instead, or so I’ve been told. To survive, a sort of peace was reached between the different races on the condition that agents be allowed to kill predatory other-worlders. My target had been predatory, no doubt about it. I should have destroyed him, but I’d let him get away.

Failure, failure.Failure. The word rang in my head and jarred me awake. My eyelids popped open. A gasp lodged in my throat. Deep breath in. Deep breath out.

I lay still for several moments, trying to calm my racing heartbeat. Shadows enveloped me. No, wait. Small streams of moonlight danced from the window, revealing a lacy canopy and high, vaulted ceiling. Where was I? I struggled to turn my head, to scan the rest of my surroundings, but my muscles refused to obey, keeping me in the same chin-up position. Using all of my energy, I tried again.

Still nothing.

What was going on? Why couldn’t I move? Sparks of panic lit inside me but were quickly extinguished by confusion. I heard the beep-beep of…something. Smelled the sharp tang of antiseptic. On a wave of relief, my shoulders sagged into the softness of the mattress beneath me. A hospital. I must be in a hospital.

Relaxed now, I licked my lips, realizing my mouth felt dry and cottony. Thirsty. I was so thirsty. My tongue flicked out, moistening my parched lips. “Thirsty,” I croaked out.

No one was there. No one could hear me.

“Thirsty,” I gasped again.

Perhaps a heartbeat later, a man stood beside my bed. I couldn’t make out his features, only that he was tall and muscular. A drugging warmth radiated from him and slid along my body. I wanted to turn toward him, sink into him. Inside him. I shivered.

“Where’s Michael?” I asked.

“Sleeping.Finally. Here,” he said, his deep, raw voice familiar to me. He held a cup and straw to me.

I drank deeply, the cool, sweet liquid flowing down my throat. Never had anything tasted so wondrous.

“That’s enough,” he said and tugged the straw from my mouth. “Sleep now.”

A direct order. His tone left no room for argument. Usually I didn’t respond well to that type of “do what I say or suffer the consequences” command. This time, however, I was too tired to argue.

I closed my eyes. The last thought to drift through my mind was,I’ll instruct that man on how best to speak to me tomorrow.

“Wake up.”

The strong, determined voice prodded at me relentlessly.

“Wake up.”

A callused hand shook me, working in sync with the voice. Evil. They were both evil and deserved to die a horrible death.

“Wake up, sweetie.”

I attempted to roll over and bury my head in my pillow, but my sore, tired limbs resisted. That caught my attention in a way nothing else could have. I jerked at my arm. Nothing. I kicked out my leg. Nothing. Panic rushed through me, and I struggled to open my eyes.

“That’s my girl,” the man said, relief heavy in his tone.

Stark white light pounded into the room, its unwelcome fists leaving nothing untouched. Too bright, I thought, squinting, still struggling. But slowly, very slowly, my eyes adjusted. My gaze locked on the glowing restraints that bound me, on the plain white T-shirt I wore and the white silk sheet that covered my lower half. Then I narrowed my gaze on my uninvited guest. Michael Black. My boss. My adopted father.

The panic dissipated completely, leaving me weak, and I settled back into the auto-adjust mattress, my spine stiff with anger.

Every line of Michael’s weathered face was etched with concern, from his piercing hazel eyes to his broad, unsmiling mouth. His graying hair, usually styled perfectly, fell in disarray around his temples, and his expensive suit possessed more wrinkles than a Genesi.

“Why am I banded?” I asked, my vocal cords hoarse. Bands were stronger than handcuffs and could not be removed without severing an appendage. They bonded to alien skin, locking the prisoner in place.

“You were thrashing uncontrollably, which kept opening your wounds.”

“Unband me. Now.” I gave the order, making sure there were no emotions in my tone. I would not show weakness. Not to this man who seemed to have no weaknesses himself. But Michael knew me better than anyone, and he knew I didn’t like the feeling of helplessness. I never had. Besides, I doubted I had the strength to move upon threat of death, so the bonds were unnecessary.

He did as I requested, pressing an ID button and causing the lasers to unwind from my skin. He settled back into the plush azure chair beside the bed. “How are you feeling?”

“Good,” I said, surprised that I meant it. Except for a sense of weakness, fragility, and the dull ache in my side, I remained mostly unscathed. “Thirsty, though. Will you get me some sugar water?”

A cup was perched on the nightstand, and he handed it to me. I downed the cool, sweet contents and closed my eyes in surrender. Sugar acts as a revitalizing agent for my kind. Though there aren’t many Rakas left, the ones that are here are probably responsible for consuming three-fourths of the earth’s annual sugar crop.

“That copper really worked you over,” he said.

“It always does.” I scanned the room. Thick crimson and navy carpet adorned the floor, and several imperial gold floor lamps climbed toward the arched ceiling. There were three open windows, the holographic shade turned off. The walls boasted bronze stucco and ornately carved, gilded mirrors. Obviously, this was not a hospital. Even my coverlet shouted wealth. Soft emerald velvet and white silk sheets surrounded my skin in a delicious cocoon.

“Where am I?” I asked.

“My house.”

That told me nothing. The man owned thirteen estates all over the world. “Which one?”

“New Mexico. Closest one to New Dallas.”

“You redecorated since I was last here.”

He nodded.

I arched a brow. “Would you care to tell me why I’m here instead of a hospital?” There were special hospitals specifically designed for agents like me: paid killers, as well as alien. I’d been a patient numerous times.

“One, you were delirious and I didn’t want anyone to hear the things that you were saying. You were moaning and groaning about your failure with EenLi. I want everyone to think you let him go on purpose. Two, I didn’t want your name on record as having received gunshot wounds. And three, I didn’t want anyone else brought in on this case.”

Though I was glad, I sighed deeply. I would have liked him to be able to sit back and simply bask in my success, no interference required. “Playing my protector again, Michael?”

He shrugged, but glanced away. “Actually,my boss thinks this situation works out for the best. EenLi used to work as an agent, and he—”

“What?” I blinked. Surely I had misheard.

“EenLi used to work as an agent. For me, specifically.”

I tried not to gape. “Why am I just now hearing about this?”