He shrugged again, the action stiffer, more clipped. “He was supposed to be an in-and-out job. I tell you what you need to know, and that was something you didn’t need to know.”

“A target’s trainingis a need to know. He probably knew he was being watched the entire time.”

“I doubt that,” he said. “He was an okay agent. Good at finding people, which is why we kept him on, but not much else. He was too emotional, had too many vices. I guess that’s why he decided to make more money selling slaves. End of story.”

I closed my eyes for a brief moment. “So why is your boss glad he escaped?”

“The government now wants to know where those portals are, and they think EenLi will lead the way.” Michael leaned back in his chair, watching me. “They’ve decided they don’t want him dead until they know.”

“I followed him for weeks. He never revealed a single portal’s location.”

“Orders are orders. He lives until he divulges how he’s planet-traveling.”

What if EenLi never gave the information they wanted? Did that mean the murdering criminal would get to live a long, happy life? I didn’t voice my questions, though. Michael knew how I felt about law breakers. My gaze traveled the length of my T-shirt-and-sheet-clad body. I looked thinner. “How long have I been here?”

“Thirteen days, six hours, forty-eight minutes.” He propped his expensive Italian loafers on the cherry wood nightstand. “I had everything you needed brought here.”

“Even a doctor?” That would have totally defeated the purpose of keeping me here, out of the government’s watchful eye.

“No,” he said hesitantly.

I arched a brow. “Who patched me up?”

“Lucius Adaire.”

“That tells me nothing. Who is he?”

“A man.A human.”

My curiosity grew about this Lucius Adaire, and I studied Michael. Just the mention of this mystery man had caused the easy line of his posture to stiffen and a glimpse of uneasiness to enter his eyes.

Michael had seen the worst life had to offer—he’d even caused some of it—so he rarely became uneasy. Why now?

“Tell me about him,” I prompted.

“In a minute,” he said. He picked a piece of invisible lint off of his pants. “You remember anything else about that night in the warehouse?”

The job came first, always. I didn’t try to keep the conversation on my mysterious doctor. I centered my thoughts and replayed every minute I’d spent in that warehouse through my head. Then I leveled my gaze at Michael. “EenLi said a portal was going to open in a day. That day has already passed, of course, but that means the portals aren’t always open, that he can only send his cattle, as he calls them, through on certain days.”

“What opens them?”

“He never said.”

Michael scowled. “Damn, we can’t seem to catch a break. After I picked you up, I sent a group of men to the Pit. It was empty, top and bottom. There were cells underneath, but no one was in them.”

My stomach knotted, and I scrubbed a hand down my face. “Was there evidence of recent use?”

“Makeshift toilets that hadn’t been emptied. Manacles with dried blood—which we analyzed and cross-referenced with the victims’ blood types. Every drop had an exact match.”

“What about Sahara Rose?”

“Gone, her house abandoned. She packed in a hurry, that much was obvious.”

“Wonderful,” I muttered, almost afraid to ask my next question. But I had to. I needed all the facts. “What about the human woman at the warehouse? The survivor?”

Leaning back, he rested his hands behind his head and gazed up at the ceiling. His lips pressed tightly together as a long, protracted silence enveloped us. “You don’t want to know,” he said softly.

I pushed out a breath and shook my head in disgust—disgust with myself. With EenLi. “She’s dead, isn’t she?”

Michael nodded, his expression apologetic. “I’m sorry, sweetie. Her wounds were too extensive. She died before we got there.”

I bit the inside of my cheek and fought back a razor-sharp crest of regret. “What was her name?”

“Don’t torture yourself this way. You did what you could.”

“What was her name?” I insisted.

“Amy,” he supplied, reluctance heavy in his tone. “Amy Evens.”

Amy Evens. She’d been young, probably no more than twenty-five, with pretty blond hair and wide blue eyes. Like every young woman, she’d probably dreamed of love and a happily ever after, yet she’d been raped, abused, and had died alone.

My disgust and hate for EenLi grew in intensity, but most of all, my disgust for myself grew. I was to protect the innocent; that was part of my job. I closed my eyes, hoping to block the images hovering there, images of both women alive and chained to the wall, neither knowing Death had knocked on her door. I’d failed in every way there was to fail. I had failed to kill my target; I hadn’t even managed to save one human life.

These wounds of mine…I deserved every one of them and more. A resolution to make it right solidified within me. “What do we do now?” I asked, once again facing Michael.

“My guess is EenLi’s still in New Dallas, putting together another crew. I want you to go there, find him, find those damn portals, and finish your job.”

A moment passed before his words sunk deep enough inside me that I was able to respond. Shocked, I said, “You’re letting me have another shot?”

“You know his MO better than anyone. You know his habits; you’ve studied him. Plus, I know you. You’ll want a chance to fix this, and I love you enough that I want to give it to you.”

“I—” I pressed my lips together. The fact that Michael trusted me enough to right my wrongs propelled a thrill of pride and happiness through me, and I had trouble finding the words to express my gratitude. I guess I’d assumed his protective instincts would surface, and he would command me to stay behind.

I truly loved this man.

“Do you think any of your agents are secretly working with EenLi?” I asked. “That would explain how EenLi knew to trade places with Mris-ste.”

“I already have a man on it, so don’t worry about it.”

I nodded. “Thank you for giving me another chance,” I said, allowing all of my appreciation to seep through my voice. “I know I don’t deserve it. I’m not going to let you down.”

“Don’t thank me yet,” he said wryly. “You’ll be working with a partner.”

What? “Absolutely not.” Shock quickly replaced all of my happiness, and I jolted upright, winced, and glared over at him. “I work alone. Always.”

“Not this time,” he said, resolute. Final.

“I’m perfectly capable of finding the portals and killing EenLi on my own.” Ineeded to do it on my own. I couldn’t allow someone else to fix what I had created.

He crossed his arms over his chest and stared over at me. “Then why isn’t he dead?”

That was entirely beside the point—even though he was right. “I will not work with one of your agents.”

“Yes,” he said calmly, assuredly, “you will. Lucius,” he called without removing his gaze from me. “Come meet your new partner.”

As if the man had been standing behind the entrance, guarding it, the thick metal doors instantly slid open. He strode stealthily inside, not emitting a single noise: not the swish of clothing, the plod of footsteps, or the rhythm of breath. He was as human as Michael, but where my boss was lean, this man was solid muscle. Where Michael was average height, this man was tall. Where Michael was aging, this man was all vitality.

He stopped at the foot of my bed. The scent of pine soap and sheer maleness wafted from him. He wasn’t near enough to touch, but I could feel the warmth of his skin, beckoning me, lulling me. That warmth, that scent…I recognized them. A moment passed, and I sucked in a breath.

Hewas the one who had carried me.He was the one who had given me sugar water last night.He was the one who had stripped away my clothing. My stomach knotted at the thought of his hands on me, undressing me, seeing my naked flesh. A shiver of awareness fired down my spine.

His lips were soft and lush, as pink as flower petals. The rest of his features, however, were granite hard, boasting deliciously rough planes and harsh angles. Cheekbones carved from stone. A nose sculpted from steel. Black eyebrows slashed over his eyes, eyes so blue they could only have been created from ice chips, regarding the world with an I’ve-seen-it-all acerbity. Right now those eyes bore down at me, into me.

He wore a tight black T-shirt, the same inky color as his chopped hair and form-fitting jeans. Simply standing there, he exuded a masculine intensity that shouted,I’ll fuck you or kill you—take your pick.

I suddenly felt vulnerable. Exposed. It didn’t matter that I was covered by clothes and a sheet. I was lying in a bed; I was injured. And he knew what I looked like naked. More than that, I was not operating at full strength and probably resembled a sick tabby kitten, mussed and disheveled.

I forced a cool facade, hoping I exuded regal composure. I didn’t know this man, and I didn’t want him seeing me as anything less than controlled.

“Have you ever killed anyone, Sparkie?” I asked, hoping to put him on the defensive. He’d take over if I let him.

Not a glimmer of emotion lit his features. He remained in place, silent, unconcerned. Distant.

With a conscious effort, I tore my gaze from him and attempted to ignore his very existence. “I don’t need or want a partner,” I told Michael.

“Tough,” he said, his expression hard.

“I work alone,” I said again, my tone colder than ever before. I was surprised ice chips didn’t form from my breath.

“Not anymore,” he replied again.

“I will not—”

“Your protests will change nothing, sweetie. I want you to work with Lucius, and so you will. That’s an order.”

“He’ll get in my way.”

“He knows what he’s doing.”

“I doubt that. Men like him are all brawn and no brain. How can I do my job if I have to watch his back too?”

The man finally deigned to speak.

“Listen,cookie ,” he said, his voice rough, low, as if his vocal cords had once been damaged. “The day I need you to save my ass is the day I’ll find myself a new job. Maybe cloning flowers. Maybe walking robotic dogs. I’ll decide when the time comes. Until then, you take care of yourself, and I’ll take care of me.”

With that, he exited the room as quickly and silently as he’d entered.

The moment the door clicked shut, I pinned Michael with a fierce stare. “Did he just call me ‘cookie’?”

Michael’s lips twitched, and amusement turned his hazel eyes to a bright, vivid green. “You deserved it after that ‘all brawn and no brain’ crack.”

“How can you expect me to work with that man?”

The twitching became a full-blown smile. “Consider it penance for your sins.”

I didn’t let his amusement soften me, though I did love to see him happy. “I’ll tell you one more time, Michael. I don’t need a partner.”Let me do this , I silently beseeched.

Something deep and dark flashed across his features. “You’ll work with him, or you’ll work for another agency. Understand?”

He meant it. Michael never threatened. Only promised. And with it put like that, I couldn’t refuse. I nodded stiffly. My hands fisted at my sides, but resolve slowly moved through me. “Can he do anything besides look pretty?” And tough.

“I guess you’ll just have to wait and find out.”

“That’s comforting, Michael. Very comforting.” I knew Michael, knew when he was turning stubborn. Anything I learned about Lucius, I’d have to learn on my own.

He sighed. “If you’re on edge with him, you’re less likely to make mistakes with him.”

How wonderful to hand out little gems of wisdom at a time like this. Thanks. For nothing. “Any other bits of ingenious ramblings you want to toss my way before I kick you out and get some rest?”

“Yeah.” He chuckled. He always liked when I reverted to my old spoiled-princess ways. “I want you operating at full capacity in three days. Otherwise, I’ll let Lucius have the mission all to himself.”

He left me alone then. With his parting words, he had sealed my fate. I’d be back in fighting shape withintwo days and not a moment more. Whether it was feminine pride or simple arrogance, I would not let Lucius have this mission for himself.

I still had something to prove. More now than ever.

I would not be a failure. Not again.

“‘Cookie,’ my ass,” I muttered.

Chapter 3

Later that night I forced myself out of bed. My muscles screamed in protest, but I managed to stay upright. The white T-shirt I wore hit my knees, leaving the rest of my golden legs bare. Darkness and moonlight mingled together, offering a hazy cocoon. Only silence touched the air. The rest of the house slept peacefully.

My movements slow and halting, I maneuvered down the mahogany staircase and into Michael’s office. I loved this room, with its intricately carved desk, the high shelves filled with real books—not the holobooks sold in stores—and the fresh scent of leather. I traced my fingertip over the world globe, over the maps of the universe lining the walls. Over the chessboard. Michael and I had spent many nights in this room, talking and laughing. Strategizing.