Don't miss Book Four, Southern Regions. Pre-order your copy now! Release date 2/28
A bead of sweat rolled down Kevin Collins’s brow. He’d given up. Staying cool in the bayou in June was impossible. The temperature felt more than a hundred degrees most days, and the nights weren’t much better. He smelled as rancid as the stagnant black waters and the foul critters that inhibited them. But, this wasn’t about comfort. There were lives at stake, and he couldn’t afford to forget that. General Floyd had taken extreme measures to conceal the whereabouts of the chemist and the highly sought after research. If either fell in the wrong hands, it could be—no, would be—catastrophic.
Normally Kevin spent his time in the cockpit of an F-35B instead of doing ground recon. He wasn’t about to let a branch of service or rules and regulations stop him from doing what was needed. Protect the chemist at all costs. Too many people had already died to ensure she didn’t fall into the wrong hands; he wasn’t about to let their sacrifice go to waste.
Although he, with the help of Mark’s team, had taken out a majority of the terrorists in West Virginia who were searching for her, everyone knew it was far from over. The terrorists would never stop until they had what they were searching for, and anyone in their way faced an untimely death. Which wouldn’t be so concerning if their deaths weren’t covered up by one side or the other. Everything that occurred on The Mountain in West Virginia was hushed, and no one could tell them why.
His phone vibrated. Mark. His brother never called to shoot the shit. It was all business on this line.
Even though he hadn’t seen another living soul in the area except for the chemist, he kept his voice down. Kevin trusted nothing and no one, with the exception of Mark.
“What’s the status?” Mark asked.
“All quiet.” Too quiet for someone whose life is supposed to be in danger. He’d expected to be watching a woman nervously pacing the deck, cautiously peering out the window. Instead, she appeared to be relaxed and confident as though this was an everyday way of life for her. All the more reason to track her every move. Something isn’t right. Someone so intelligent can’t be so ignorant as to what’s been going on all around her. She knows something, but what? Kevin wasn’t leaving until he had an answer to that question and many more that were haunting him.
“We have secured a safe location. I’ll send the chopper with some of my team to pull you both out of there.”
Mark led one of the elite Navy SEAL teams and was used to giving orders without being questioned. Kevin had a lot of respect for his brother and normally would abide by his call on such matters. This was one instance he needed to go with his own gut. Something told him leaving this place right now wasn’t a wise choice.
“It wasn’t a question, Collins,” Mark barked.
“I’ve been sitting here for two weeks. The only movement around here has been the thick moss that constantly moves in the trees. Not one other living soul has been here. Moving her is going to create a risk we don’t need to take.”
“This isn’t your call, Kevin.”
“Neither of us are under orders right now, so don’t try pulling rank on me. I’m telling you, for right now, this is the place to be. Unless you know something you’re not telling me.” Kevin knew that was very possible. No matter how close they were as brothers, Mark’s loyalty was to his team.
“Another member of General Floyd’s team was found dead. Same method as the general.”
A heart attack with no mention of a bullet through the head. Shit. That confirmed his concerns. This was far from over. Only a very select few knew where the chemist was, and each of them would die before divulging her whereabouts. Kevin still felt this was the safest place at the moment.
“All the more reason not to move.”
“You might be right, but this is not something that can be done alone. I’m sending Johnson and a few men to relieve you.”
Regardless of the lack of comforts, he still wasn’t going to walk away. Like Mark, Kevin was all in. There was no way he was leaving her protection to anyone else, even someone as qualified as Johnson. In the last few months Johnson had earned Kevin’s respect. He’d witnessed firsthand Johnson’s skills and determination. He was a valuable member of Mark’s team, and his being here would be an asset. That didn’t mean Kevin was stepping aside. I said I was all in, and I’m not backing down now. “Send him, but I’m not leaving or taking orders from him, understood?”
Mark didn’t argue. They may serve in different branches of the military, but they both knew what was at stake.
“They’ll arrive after dark. Do you need anything?”
A shower. “An answer as to what the fuck these bastards need her for.”
Kevin disconnected the call and slipped the phone back in his pocket. He’d heard the concern in Mark’s voice. With Floyd dead, no one seemed to know exactly what she was working on or why it was so highly guarded. Anyone who had any information about the project had met their maker early. It was evident those bastards found everyone expendable. The difficulty was finding the source of their information. Do they still have people in the government on their payroll? They’re still pulling someone’s strings, but who the hell is it?
Kevin hoped Mark could unravel that mystery in time. If not, more people would die, and these guys had no objection to collateral damage. He clenched a fist, thinking of Derrick Nash’s wife and daughter and how they died. He’d promised Derrick he’d make them pay for what they’d done, and he wasn’t going to stop until every last one of them was accounted for or dead, whichever came first.
The murders were senseless. Floyd had moved the chemist before the attack on the top-secret lab in North Carolina. If they’d known about the dam breaking, Penny and Kim Nash would still be alive and so would the four Marines who were assigned to guard the “vacant” facility.
Kevin looked at the quiet cabin and wondered if she had any idea that what she’d been working on would cause such destruction.
He pulled out his phone again and scrolled through his photos. Until coming here, all they had was a name: Marina Brimlow. She wasn’t old and bookish as he’d pictured; Marina was anything but. The only time she made an appearance was when the temperature cooled enough to tolerate being outside for any length of time.
He’d come to learn she was a creature of habit. For the past two weeks, she’d appeared at exactly the same time. He’d looked forward to her brief appearances each night. Kevin would like to blame it on the heat or the solitude he’d endured, but it was something more. She was like a cool breeze in the middle of a heat wave, sunshine breaking through a blizzard. She was stunning, and he couldn’t get enough of her. I’ve been in the heat too long.
He looked at his watch and gave himself a ten-second countdown. He saw the cabin door open right on time. Picking up his binoculars, he watched closely. Sure enough, Marina was standing under the moonlight in a sheer tank top. He could see the outline of her large breasts and could tell she’d left her bra inside. Her red lacy panties screamed she had a hidden wild side.
Marina stretched her arms high above her head, pulling her tank up to reveal the sweet curve of her hips and flat stomach. Fuck. Like I need to be any hotter than I already am.
She stepped behind a solid cedar fence so she was only visible from the shoulders up. Slowly she lifted the tank over her head and put in on the fence. Then she bent out of his sight only to return holding her red panties. Turning her back to him, the water began to flow from the outside showerhead above her.
Kevin dropped the binoculars from his eyes and reminded himself why he was here. It was on him to ensure her safety. Nothing he was thinking at the moment had anything to do with protection. It was a distraction, and sweet as it may be, it was still one he couldn’t afford. His body was telling him one thing, but for all he knew her beauty was only skin deep. Floyd had hidden her away for a reason, one that no one knew. Both he and Mark suspected it was more than just what she was working on. Could it be who she was working with? Was she a traitor to the country just like Floyd? Did the general hide Marina for her protection, or was he holding out for a better price? Was she here willingly? There weren’t any guards holding her here, so he had to guess she knew something was not right. Yet there was no sign of any communication between her and the outside world.
There were too many important questions left unanswered. He would do his job and protect her. Hell, he might even enjoy the view at times, but he would never forget what was at stake. Too many people had already lost their lives because of her. He couldn’t change that, but he’d be damned if he’d let his physical attraction to her cause another person to suffer. Whether she was working with the terrorists or they were only after what she knew, Marina was one person he couldn’t afford to look at as anything more than a job.
He didn’t want to admit it, but having Mark’s team close by was a good idea, yet the thought of any of them watching her like he did rubbed him the wrong way. Remember Collins, for all you know, she’s the enemy.
Marina felt so useless, trapped. What had started as a short-term relocation quickly became a way of life. Over the past six years she’d been moved around from one lab to another so many times she’d lost count. No matter how she tried to explain what delicate, dangerous work she did, no one understood what she needed most: time to concentrate.
I should’ve watched what I wished for. Now all I have is time, but nothing to fill it with. I’ve been here so long I’m on a first name basis with the alligators. If I don’t get out of here and back into a lab, I’m going to go stir-crazy. The cabin had been stocked so well someone could stay there for years and never need to leave. It didn’t have any of the conventional comforts of home but had every canned good and non-perishable one could imagine. That should’ve told her something when she arrived four months ago. This stay wasn’t going to be brief.
At first it was nice, not dealing with lab techs or military officers hovering over her, but this was beyond anything she’d ever imagined. The only electricity was generated by solar panels. There was absolutely no Internet connection for her laptop or reception for her phone. She wasn’t sure if it was her location or if it was intentionally blocked, but one way or the other she was totally cut off from the world.
It gave her plenty of time to think and reanalyze her data, but there was a limit on how much solitude one could stand. Even though she didn’t have any Internet connection, she found documenting her theories prevented her from going completely insane from boredom. Marina wasn’t one who went to the gym to exercise but she did like to go out for a daily jog. Even that wasn’t an option out on the bayou. I’d probably get lost or eaten by a gator. No wonder why I was dropped here by chopper. No one is getting in or out of here any other way. I hope they calculated storm surges when they picked out this location for me.
She’d thought for sure she heard a chopper close by a few weeks ago and her heart raced with excitement. The thought of her stay being over elated her. Yet no one came. It seems you’ve forgotten me, General.
She didn’t have a husband or children to miss or look after. In fact all she had was her work. Normally that was enough, but calculations and simulations on a computer were only the beginning. She needed a lab, a full functioning laboratory so she could test her theories. Now all she could do was hope her findings were accurate. I don’t function on hope. I function on facts.
When she first arrived, it was a nice change from the freezing cold weather and snow up north. But now in June, she felt like she’d melt. All she had were large ceiling fans that did nothing but move the hot air around. It was better than nothing, but Marina found the heat unbearable. She was grateful she’d hidden her experiments before being dropped here. It was so hot there was no amount of air-conditioning that could cool her, never mind keep her prototypes viable. The specimens needed to be in a climate-controlled environment, and her living arrangements were anything but. At least my work is safe. I just have to live through this heat to get back to it.
Marina wiped herself dry from the outdoor shower and put on a clean tank top and panties. She stopped putting pants and a bra on months ago when she realized there was no one to dress for. The critters outside are just going to have to enjoy the view. If I wasn’t so self-conscious, I’d be naked all day, but at least no one is here to complain about what I look like.
She was tired of being cooped up in the cabin all the time. Tonight there was a breeze, and even though it was hot, she was going to be outside to enjoy it. Grabbing her laptop, she went out on the deck. Putting the computer on the table, she walked over to the railing and looked out into the dark. Although the moon was bright, she could only see fireflies flickering off in the dark and the reflection of the gators’ eyes.
Looking up, she spotted a shooting star. The average woman would be all excited for such a sight and take it as a good sign. I don’t even know why people wish on shooting stars. They aren’t that special. It’s just a space rock burning up as it falls through the atmosphere. It’s a rock, just a falling rock. Never before had she wished upon a star. That was something a child would do, but tonight she closed her eyes. Star light, star bright, or however the hell it goes. Even though no one could see her, she felt foolish. If any of her colleagues saw her now they’d question her sanity. They should too. With everything that’s been going on since my discovery years ago, any person would break.
That’s exactly how she felt at that moment. Broken and all alone with no end in sight. What do I have to lose? I’ve already lost my freedom. Squeezing her eyes even tighter she began again. Star light, star bright. The first star I see tonight. I wish you’d send me someone. Someone to make me feel . . . alive again. I don’t want to be alone anymore.
Marina opened her eyes and looked around. “Just like I thought, I’m still all by myself. What was I thinking? That a tall, dark, handsome man would magically appear before my eyes and make love to me until I forget how hot and miserable it is right now?” She laughed out loud at how ridiculous this all seemed. She was one of the government’s top chemists, and here she was outside in her underwear, wishing on stars, and the only thing she wanted was some sexual gratification. I could have wished for world peace or an end to world hunger, but I wasted the world’s one wish on a hot piece of ass. The government may need to rethink my qualifications when I leave here. The heat obviously has gotten to me.
What troubled her most came from a place deep within her. It was a yearning she’d thought no longer existed. Years of being only the chemist, she forgot she was still a woman inside. One who wanted what every woman did. Someone to love me. To care if I make it home at night. Someone to bring me coffee in bed just because he thinks I deserve a bit of pampering. And me so irresistible that he can’t keep his hands off me. I really must have heat stroke.
There was only one problem. She needed to love and forgive herself first. Until she fixed what she did, forgiveness wasn’t going to happen. Marina never intended things to go as they had. Logically she knew she was innocent. She was only doing the job she was paid to do, research and development. Yet if she had stopped long enough to look past what was in front of her, see the big picture, and think about what it all could mean if she moved forward with her research, she never would’ve continued.
Instead she had become absorbed in her findings; each one intrigued her more. Everything would have been wonderful if the final product had been what she intended it to be. What should’ve been a cure turned out to be more deadly than any biological weapon they already had in the arsenal. How could my vision have been so clouded that I couldn’t see how something so good could be used for evil?
The answer was simple: she’d been so focused on gaining General Floyd’s approval as a scientist that she forgot just how cruel the world could be. Marina let herself be used and manipulated. Even now in the bayou, she was still his pawn. Stuck here until he needs me again. Guess what, General? I quit working for you a long time ago. You just haven’t figured that out yet.
Marina would continue her work here. If she could create something so powerful, she knew she could also create the vaccine against it. It wasn’t needed now, but if her specimens or even more dangerous, the formula, ever got out, it was going to be needed or life on this planet would change. I need to get my head out of the stars. No one can help me. Heck, no one would believe me even if I told them. So face it. I’m all alone. No amount of hoping and wishing is going to change that.
She was about to sit on the chair next to her computer when she heard a soft hum off in the distance. It was barely noticeable but slowly became clearer as it approached. Planes flew over all the time, but this wasn’t one of them. That sound was all too familiar, and one she’d almost given up hope hearing again. A chopper.
Marina ran back to the railing and looked up. There wasn’t anything in sight, no lights, no movement in the reeds, just stars and gators. What would’ve discouraged others only gave her more hope than before. If the general sent for her, it wasn’t going to be some flashing rescue. It would be some covert mission that everyone was left in the dark about. Not that I’m excited about it or anything.
The sound abruptly ceased and her heart sank. Please don’t let this be heat exhaustion. I know what I heard. This has to be over. He can’t leave me out here forever. I know he’s sending someone for me.
Although her heart still held hope, logic prevented her from rushing into the cabin to pack her belongings. Instead she stood there, gripping the rail tightly as though if she squeezed hard enough her desires would become a reality.
There was nothing. Not a sound. It was as though everything became silent all at once. “Please just come and take me away from this. I can’t stand it any longer. Can’t you see what this is doing to me?” Marina shouted out into the darkness. Her voice didn’t even call back with an echo. Is this how alone I’m meant to be, that even my own voice won’t return to me?
She was normally a strong confident woman, but over the past few years she’d changed. And the last few months seemed to have broken her. Her pain and guilt were almost too much to bear. No longer caring what happened to her, she just wanted out. Out of this place, out of the controlled labs the general put her in, and out of this project. This is not what I signed up for. I want to do good, but all I’ve become is . . . a pawn in some horrible game between powers. I’m not sure anyone even cares what happens to me anymore. All anyone wants is what I know and finding my specimens or formula. Guess what? You’re getting neither, General.
Tears began to stream down her sweaty cheeks. “Good. Let me die in this heat, and you’ll never find what you’re looking for. Never! You’ll have done all this for nothing. You hear me? All this will have been for nothing!” Marina shouted again into the emptiness. She was filled with anger, hurt, and frustration. That was exactly how she felt, her life and existence had been for nothing. What good had she done anyone? I just want to go home.
Dropping down to her knees, she sobbed into her hands. Home. It was a funny word because she had no home to return to. Her mother had been killed in a crash when her brakes failed, sending her car into a ravine. Marina had been a freshman in college.
Growing up, her mother had told her that her father had been killed while serving in the military. As she grew older she wanted to know more about him, but her mother wouldn’t divulge anything, not even a name. Her lack of information only made Marina want to know more. Eventually she stopped believing he was dead and started researching on her own. Against her mother’s wishes, not only did she find her father but contacted him as well. Her mother had begged her not to. She told her he was a self-absorbed man who could never love anyone. She’d been so right, and now Marina regretted the day she called him.
Her father only saw her as a genius he could use to his own advantage. She could never recall him asking how she was doing. As far as she knew, he didn’t know her birthday or her likes or dislikes. There was only one topic he ever spoke about with her. My research.
When she called him about her mother’s accident, he sounded indifferent. She begged him to come to the funeral, but he told her he was busy with work. That was the day she stopped referring to him as Father and only as his rank, General. Even when they spoke she called him General Floyd. No matter how much she hated him, he was still her father and the only family she had. Like any child she wanted his approval. She’d gotten it, and now wished she hadn’t.
Maybe I could have had a normal life if I’d listened to you, Mama. Instead I’ve spent almost half my life in a lab. The closest thing I have to friends are the security guards taking pity on me during the holidays. How she wished for friends and family, anyone to be close to. If only she could get away from here and disappear, start a new life where no one knew her.
Tears flowed harder. She could run, but she couldn’t hide from herself. She’d created a biological chemical that, if in the wrong hands, could kill thousands of people. It wasn’t the life-saving drug I’d been working so hard to create. Now my life has to be spent preventing the evil I’ve created.
Although she’d wiped out as much of the information as she could and hid the specimens so not even the general could find them, she couldn’t erase what her mind held. No matter how hard she tried to forget, it was impossible. Her photographic memory was a curse. Because of that she had no choice but to do everything the general said. He made it very clear that if she fell into the wrong hands, they would torture her until they got what they needed, kill her, and use the information against the country she loved so much.
Marina would never let that happen. So no matter how much she wanted a normal life, it wasn’t possible. It was the price she had to pay for what she thought had been a gift. I wish I never took a science class, never earned that scholarship. All it’s done is brought me heartache.
Her body shook as she cried. She was thirty-six, trapped, and helpless. Why did I get on that helicopter? The general has had me on the run for so long I don’t think it’s ever going to end. I’m not just his prisoner. I’m a prisoner within myself.
She grabbed the rail and pulled herself up. The emptiness came in waves and tonight she felt like she was drowning in it. Wiping her tear-streaked face, she looked into the darkness. There was only one reality for her, and this was it. No one cares about “Marina.” They only care about “the chemist.” Well, to hell with them. From now on, she doesn’t exist. Neither of them do. From now on I’m going to be . . . anyone but me. Looking up, she saw a bright light. Venus. If anyone asks, from now on, I’m Venus from the bayou.