Brett’s body hummed with power and energy. Their hunt had gone well. Even in the dense woods and undergrowth, it hadn’t taken them long to track and bring down their prey. Not a bear, even though the area was rife with them. Bears were trouble. Wicked fast, and some had a mean streak a mile wide. Even the four SARAs, with all their enhanced abilities, knew to avoid them. They weren’t worth the hassle or the staples it would take to hold the claw marks together until they healed.
Instead, they’d brought down a deer. A large doe, without a fawn. Fredericks had been very specific about that, passing over a younger animal because they’d spotted its offspring at the last moment. He was funny like that. Particular about things. Like ensuring that the doe was dead before they tore into it. Only by half a second, but dead and gone before they tore into it with hands and teeth, consuming the blood and flesh before the energy of life they so desperately needed faded from the body, rendering it poisonous.
Doing something like that took absolute control and determination. Neither of which Brett would have with food right there in front of him, no matter how much the thought of what they did horrified the part of his mind that still thought of himself as human. But he was glad at least one of them had that strength, for the rest. They were abominations created by a lab. No natural creature deserved to suffer because of them.
The three of them reached the workshop just as dusk fell. They hadn’t seen Kelwood since before they’d taken down the deer, but that wasn’t unusual. The new energy surging through Brett’s veins and the delicate, feminine scent of the woman he’d left asleep in the back room made his heart ache to beat again, but he held it in check. Restarting his heart would use energy. Energy he wanted to hold onto as long as possible so he didn’t have to feed again soon.
As soon as he was through the door, he took a deep breath, seeking her scent. He didn’t know her name. She’d been too out of it for him to ask before, but he’d find out soon. She had to be awake or close to it by now, surely? He frowned. Her scent had teased him as they neared the workshop, but here, inside, it changed. Became sharper with fear and rage.
His head snapped up as a crash echoed sharply in the back room. The sounds of a fight, complete with snarls and cursing, filtered through the cheap wood of the false wall and door.
Shit. The Bloods had found them. Had found her.
He started towards the internal door, but the familiarity of one of the snarls struck him. It was way too deep for a woman and familiar. He looked over his shoulder. Fredericks and Dom were behind him, wearing identical masks of concern. Kelwood. Since he was prone to flitting off, Brett hadn’t thought anything of it at the time, but now his absence became more sinister.
A bellow escaped him, punching free as he strode across the floor to yank the door open. A small figure tumbled through the opening and right into his arms. The alluring scent hit him at the same moment that she did, burying a small fist right into his gut.
“Oomph!” The air exited his lungs in a rush, but he managed to wrap her up in his embrace. Like his heart beating, breathing was an optional extra these days, a habit he found hard to break. Which was good since she fought like a wildcat, and with trying to hold onto her, he couldn’t block all her blows. Her kicks and punches were delivered with a power and precision that was nowhere near human. She was stronger than any woman he’d met. Definitely a Blood’s strength.
He managed to hold onto her, turning to the side to shield her as a second, larger figure barreled out of the back room. Kelwood. The hissing and fighting woman in Brett’s arms moaned and stopping kicking him, burying her face against his neck instead. His blood went from ice-cold to near boiling point as he looked at his ‘brother’.
Kelwood pulled up in front of his three teammates, his posture turning defensive as he clocked their silent accusation.
“What?” He shrugged, his gaze latching onto the shivering woman in Brett’s arms. Hunger filled his eyes, twisting his features for a moment so that he resembled the monster they all were inside. “She’s a Blood. Which makes her fair game. Unless y’all forgot what they’re like?”
He lurched forward, heading toward Brett and his female. Brett bared his teeth, ready to take Kelwood apart if he had to. He didn’t get a chance. Fredericks moved first, stepping between them and blocking Kelwood.
“No,” their leader’s voice cracked like a whip in the sudden, tense silence in the room. “We are not this, and she is not them. They chose to join the Project; she didn’t.”
His words rang like a death knell in the room, and Brett looked down, ashamed. At the time it had seemed too hard to walk away, and doing the right thing…. Exposing the Project for what it was doing had been unthinkable. They all knew that anyone who asked questions ended up with extra ventilation in their skull and a shallow grave somewhere that couldn’t be traced.
Up until this morning, if asked, Brett would have said they should have taken the shallow grave. But now, with his arms full of a woman who smelled like temptation and heaven, he was beginning to see the upside to his continued existence.
“We, at least, knew what was going on, even if we were too cowardly to walk away. She didn’t. This was forced on her without her consent, and we will not stoop to their level.”
Brett blinked in surprise at the vehemence in Frederick’s voice. After what they’d been through, they all hated Bloods, the Project’s bully-boys, with a vengeance. So he hadn’t expected any of the others to be protective over his sweetpea. Hell, even he didn’t understand this hold she had over him. It was an all-encompassing need to hold her, see to her safety. Claim her. The only thing he’d seen that came close was the way Lycans looked at their soul mates.
Was that possible with them though…? Could a dead creature have a soul mate? Did they even have souls anymore?
“She. Is. A. Blood,” Kelwood snapped, the first real fire and animation in his voice since they’d been turned that any of them had seen. “Have you forgotten the ring? What they did to us?”
Brett caught the shudder of Dom’s shoulders out of the corner of his eye and was abruptly plunged into memory. Sudden and total recall, so clear that he might as well have stepped back in time, was another facet of his new nature. A blessing at times, but at the moment definitely a curse.
Within an instant, he was back on the Project base, in the underground bunker they kept hidden from the rest of the already top-secret base. The place they disposed of their more wayward creations by making them fight in cages for sport and profit. To the death.
The Bloods were by far the worst. Sadistic and cruel, they delighted in torturing their opponents. Playing games with them before granting a slow death with their vicious claws. Except SARAs couldn’t die. They just took damage and kept on ticking. They’d been thrown back in to fight time after time. Forced to fight. Forced to kill until they were so beaten down and hungry that instinct took over.
That was when their nightmare began. When they realized the true horror of what they were.
Unlike the Project’s other creations, the rest of the base hadn’t been aware of the SARA’s existence, and they’d been taken straight down to the cages. They hadn’t been created as super-soldiers. They weren’t anything as noble as that. They weren’t soldiers and they certainly weren’t the heroes the Project had called them when it wanted them to sign the transfer papers to the base.
They were something else. They were killing machines. Zombies designed to feast on living flesh.
“No.” Fredericks didn’t flinch from Kelwood’s hard look. “None of us will ever forget what they did, but killing an innocent woman just because she’s a Blood won’t make it right.”
The woman in Brett’s arms gave a small moan at Frederick’s words. He wrapped his arms tighter around her and brushed his lips against her temple in reassurance. She murmured and moved closer, as though seeking his strength. His male ego soared. She already trusted him, a little at least.
His determination increased. He was glad Dom and Fredericks had his back, but the brotherhood granted by their new natures aside, he’d have taken them all on to protect her.
“Are we clear?” Fredericks demanded, but Kelwood’s gaze had already begun to wander again back to the woman.
“Jared…. Jared! Eyes on me, man.” Fredericks snapped his fingers in front of Kelwood’s face. “No! Are we clear?”
Kelwood’s gaze finally latched onto Fredericks and the darkness receded from his eyes. His shoulders slumped, all the fight draining out of him. In front of their eyes he reverted to the broken man mourning the loss of his wife and child. Usually, the living grieved for the dead, not the other way around.
Fredericks looked over his shoulder at Brett.
It took a moment but Brett managed a small nod, then his expression hardened. He looked around, making sure to meet each of his brother’s eyes in turn.
“We’re good, but know this. She’s mine. And I’ll fight to protect her. Even against any, all, of you. Understand?”
They didn’t bat an eyelid. Respect flitted over Dom’s face, but Kelwood was out of it again, his eyes unfocused. After a moment Fredericks nodded.
“Understood. Just make sure she doesn’t wander off, kill any humans, or otherwise jeopardize our mission. And find out if she knows what the Bloods are up to.”
Brett nodded, turning his precious bundle and urging her toward the back room. “On it, boss.”
Hard arms around Julia made further resistance impossible. Not human. The words rang in her head over and over. She felt the truth of them in her body, in her limbs and reactions, every time she moved. It was like a drug. One movement swept into another seamlessly, like a finely choreographed dance piece, doling out kicks and punches like a cross between Rocky and Bruce Lee on speed.
Not human. She grit her teeth, determination flooding her system. She’d use that against them, not caring if she hurt or even killed them. They weren’t human, and neither was she, but one thing was for sure. After Buddy, the asshole vampires and now this? She was so done with being the victim. This time she was going down fighting.
The first one she’d fought hurtled out of the doorway behind her and she tensed, expecting an attack from behind. Instead, her captor yanked her closer to his body and turned, shielding her in the same movement.
His scent washed over her and she froze. It was him. The one from her dream-memories. The owner of the t-shirt with the fantastic scent that she’d woken with.
The fight leeched out of her limbs and she moaned, burying herself as deep into his embrace as she could get. Her thought processes scrambled, all she cared about was getting closer, even ignoring the sound of deep, male voices around her. It sounded like they were arguing, but she didn’t care. He’d found her, and right now nothing else mattered.
Pressed against him like this, her softer body pressed against the hard, muscled planes of his, the nightmare of the last few days fell away. Regardless of how she’d felt about the one who’d attacked her, the deep, visceral hatred was absent.
Instead, the darkness inside her that sent a small portion of her brain into hysterics receded and became quiet. As though the very action of his hand moving up and down her back soothingly put the beast to sleep. She moaned in pleasure, content to stay in his arms, but the conversation between the men seemed to be over, and the man holding her moved.
“Come on, sweetpea. Let’s get you comfortable.”
She pouted. She was comfortable where she was, thank you very much. He turned her to usher her back through the door, and she got a split-second look at the three others. The one who’d attacked her was at the back, his face turned away, but the others made her breath catch in her throat as hatred surged up again. Her claws punched from the end of her fingers, and there was an ache in her gums as her fangs tried to descend. Ready to fight, ready to defend herself.
But before she could move, he whisked her through the door and into the smaller room. She stepped away hurriedly, turning to face her companion and study him.
She swallowed, hard, a thrill running down her spine. He was gorgeous, utterly gorgeous. Tall and broad-shouldered, he had the sort of build that didn’t belong in the centerfold of a glossy magazine, but in that of a serious pro-sports one.
The fact that he was naked to the waist allowed her to see the hard, lean muscles that rippled as he moved, lifting an arm to run a hand over his close-shaven hair. That brought her attention to his face, and she almost quit breathing altogether.
Other than his scent, her memories of him were scattered and fragmented. Power. Strength. Gentle touches. A deep voice and a kind pair of eyes so blue that she could drown in them. All that put together in the package in front of her was devastating.
Heat and need hit hard, almost bringing her to her knees right then and there. She shook her head and backed up. Quickly. It was that, or throw herself at him like some sex-crazed nympho. Where the hell had that come from? She’d never felt such intense, visceral need before. Ever. In fact, Buddy had always complained that she was frigid because she wouldn’t open her legs for him whenever he clicked his fingers. So why did she want to crawl all over this guy and find out what every inch of his skin tasted like?
Away from him, her head cleared a little and she could think. Heat of a different kind suffused her cheeks. Holy crap. All he’d needed to do was grab her like some sort of latter-day caveman, and she’d gone all submissive, weak female.
“Okay. Time out,” she blurted, backing up until her calves hit the overturned couch. “Where am I? Who are you, and which fucking rabbit hole did I fall down?” She lifted her hand and showed him her new claws. “Because the last time I checked, these weren’t on special at the beauty salon.”