ATONE IN DARKNESS (The Paladin Strike Team, Book 2)
by Alexis Morgan
Publisher: Pocket Star
Release Date: June 4, 2018
The USA TODAY bestselling author of the Paladin series returns with this sexy, original title featuring a man discovering the paranormal world of the Paladins.
Brilliant doctor Marisol knows nothing about the mysterious man whose vitals she monitors and whose every move she's paid to track-other than the fact that he is brought to death's door each night by a squad of military grade thugs. She certainly can't ask the people who hired her. After all, they run this shady, hi-tech compound where she is now stranded, the only woman among huge, uniform-clad brutes.
Chase Mosely, Marisol's sole charge, knows nothing about who was behind his kidnapping, other than the fact that they want to know about his Paladin's ability to heal. Nor does he know anything about his pretty keeper, who seems to be working for the enemy, but still looks at him with compassion in her eyes.
Both held captive in a remote testing facility, their desperate stories intertwine. And, as they discover that they mean more to each other than they could ever have imagined, the two of them must find a way to escape, no matter the odds.
"Time to dance, Number Five. Let's go."
Chase stared up at the blank ceiling above his cot and didn't move a muscle. They'd been through this same routine too many times to count, but damned if he'd respond to a number when he had a perfectly good name they could use. No matter what they thought, he was a man, not a lab specimen. The small act of defiance might cost him some additional pain, but what the hell. Everybody needed a hobby.
The guards and the woman remained lined up on the other side of the glass just like visitors at a zoo watching to see what the predator inside the cage would do next. It was notable that although the guards outnumbered him three to one, they made no move to open the door to his cell. They'd learned early on that he was far more dangerous than they were even when they came at him armed with Tasers and batons.
The guard in charge rapped his knuckles on the thick glass. "You know, Mr. Mosley, you could make it easier on everyone concerned and walk out on your own."
Okay, even Chase had to laugh at that. They all knew that wasn't going to happen. Besides, even if he did try to cooperate with them, he was in for a lot of pain the second he left this cage. At least if he forced them to come in after him, he might have a chance to inflict his own special brand of hurt on them. That only seemed fair, but it wasn't how they liked to play this game.
An instant later, a familiar hiss filled the silence. As soon as he heard the sound, Chase's heart kicked into hyperdrive. No matter how many times he'd survived this same routine more or less intact, it was impossible not to panic as the gas began to fill his cell and then his lungs.
Damn, he hated this.
He finally turned his head to face the glass wall that separated him from the men who took such pleasure in torturing him. The woman was gone. No surprise there. His keeper never stuck around when the going got rough. There was no telling if they made her leave or if she walked out of her own volition. Regardless, he wouldn't see her pretty face again until after they dragged his bruised and battered ass back from whatever little party they were throwing for him.
For now, he focused all his attention on the clock on the far wall of the lab to see how long he lasted this time. When his lungs finally rebelled and forced him to draw in the tainted air, he smiled. Two minutes, forty-seven seconds.
Whoo-hoo, a new personal best.
Before he could celebrate, the world went black.
Marisol Riggs was many things—a woman, a scientist, a physician. She was proud of those particular attributes in her life. Unfortunately, she'd recently come to the realization that she was also a coward. When the guards ordered her to leave her lab yesterday, she should've protested. Should have found some way to stop what she knew was going to come next, but she hadn't even tried. Once again she'd failed to protect her patient from harm.
Thanks to the type of childhood she'd had, she was well acquainted with the flavor and texture of shame. It wasn't the secondhand clothes and food bank meals. Lots of people were poor. No, it was knowing she never mattered to anyone, despite how much she tried to earn their love. She'd worked so damn hard to put the effects of that pain behind her, but maybe she'd lived with the mistrust it had engendered so long that it had become embedded in her very bones. Because her family had failed her, she had failed Chase Mosely.
During the night, sleep had been hard to come by. Now it was finally morning and time to drag herself out of bed. Even if she felt like a slug, there was no telling what the guards had done to Chase in the hours they'd had him. No doubt it had been brutal; it always was. Now she needed to see what could be done about his latest crop of wounds. Banished to her quarters, she'd spent the previous afternoon and evening reviewing his latest battery of tests.
There were specific operational protocols she was obligated to follow if the study she'd been hired to do was to have any real scientific value. She'd draw more of his blood today and start the testing process all over again. Otherwise his suffering and her living every day in never-ending fear would have been all for nothing.
It was time to get her day started. She ate a bowl of microwaved oatmeal and washed it down with two cups of black coffee. After a quick shower, she dressed in her usual sensible blouse, black slacks, and a freshly laundered lab coat. After taking one more deep breath, she walked out of her quarters and immediately spotted two guards headed her way. Half expecting to be ordered back inside her room, she forced herself to meet their gaze head-on and prayed they wouldn't see past her pure bravado to the fear beneath. Neither one acknowledged her by so much as a nod, but at least they didn't try to stop her from returning to her lab, the closest thing she had to a sanctuary in this godforsaken place.
It was a relief to cross the threshold into her personal domain, pausing just inside the lab door to study her surroundings. Nothing appeared to be out of place this time. That didn't guarantee no one had invaded her space during the time she'd been banished to her quarters. Just last week, her notes had been rifled through and left out of order. She also strongly suspected her computer files were being monitored constantly. While her employer paid the bills and therefore had a right to know how things were going, she would prefer to provide formal reports that included both her data and her interpretation of what it all meant. Instead, it was as if they didn't trust her and felt the need to spy on her every move.
There was one positive change since she'd been ordered to leave yesterday: Subject Number Five was back in his cell. On several previous occasions, the guards had tossed his unconscious body through the door and left him lying wherever he happened to land. At least this time he was stretched out on his cot. Unmoving, but breathing. That much was clear even from where she stood on the other side of the room. Something inside her chest loosened and eased the tight band of fear there as she edged closer to Chase's cell.
Right now he was resting easily, so she moved slowly and as quietly as she could to avoid disturbing his slumber. Coasting to a stop about a foot from the thick glass that separated the two of them, she studied the man who'd become the sole reason for her existence in this place. Even sound asleep, he radiated an intensity unlike anyone else she'd ever known. Nothing the guards did to him ever diminished that in the least.
She noted his shirt was torn and bloody, and his sweatpants were ripped in places. Based on past experience, there would be an injury corresponding to each hole in his clothes: burns, cuts, bruises, even bullet wounds. She clenched her fists hard enough that her nails dug into her skin. What kind of people did that to another human being?
It was a stupid question with an easy answer. She knew exactly who was responsible for the damage that had been done to him. They prowled the halls and walked the perimeter of the compound twenty-four/seven. Back when she'd first arrived on-site, the guards had been a mix of men and women. A few had been friendly, and the rest had at least been respectful. Shortly before Chase Mosley had appeared in the cell with no warning, all of the original guards disappeared, replaced overnight with the current all-male crew. Thugs, every last one of them. They might style themselves as soldiers, but their cold eyes and vicious natures gave them away.
They liked hurting people. To date, they'd left her alone, but she didn't fool herself. It was only because whoever held their leashes needed her specialized skill set. The minute that changed, she would become a liability and therefore fair game just like Chase.
Any other man would've died the first time the bastards played their vicious games with him. Well, maybe not the first time, but the level of violence had escalated with each new session as if they were testing the limits of his endurance. In all of her years in medical training, she'd never seen anything like his body's amazing ability to heal.
The scientist in her wanted to know what about his genetic makeup made it possible. The doctor in her wanted to ease his suffering. And what the woman in her wanted . . . well, she didn't let herself think about that part. There was no denying he was a handsome man, big and ruggedly built. An alpha male in all his glory.
Her accelerated pace through school hadn't left much time for a social life, but she'd dated a few men along the way, most of the time other medical students. They'd all been bright, reasonably good-looking, and physically fit. The relationships had been short and not particularly intense. She'd always thought that was because school sucked up most of her time and focus. Neither she nor the individual men involved had much energy left over for building long-term relationships. They'd shared a few meals, maybe gone to a movie or two, and sometimes scratched a mutual itch. When it was over, they'd each walked away with few regrets. The bottom line was that their careers had been more important than emotional entanglements; at least that had been true for her.
She could barely recall the names of the men she'd dated, and their images had faded to the point that the specific details had blurred into a sort of mishmash of hairstyles and eye colors. Maybe it was because of the dangerous circumstances that had brought her and Chase together, but she knew she'd never forget a single detail about him. That warrior's body. Those odd calluses on his hands that nothing in her training or experience could explain. The predatory way he moved. Those intensely intelligent blue eyes, which were currently full of ice-cold fury.
He was awake and glaring at her from his cot.
"I'm coming in. If you give me your word that you won't attack, I won't call for the guards."
Chase's temperament was unpredictable, especially when he first returned from his sessions with the guards, but he'd never tried to hurt her. Not so far, anyway. Still, it wasn't as if their relationship was based on mutual trust. Calling in the guards for support might guarantee her safety, but she was reluctant to do that again having learned early on their presence only complicated the situation.
He jerked his head in a quick nod. Good. "Are you hungry?"
When he nodded a second time, she pulled a box of breakfast sandwiches out of the freezer and put them into the microwave to heat up. When they were ready, she arranged the four sandwiches on a paper plate and grabbed a bottle of orange juice from the refrigerator for each of them.It took some careful juggling to hold on to all of it while she keyed her access code to open the cell door. By the time she stepped inside, Chase had pushed himself up into a sitting position. She handed him the plate and the orange juice and then stepped back out of reach. They both knew the small amount of distance wouldn't keep her safe if he ever decided to go on the attack, but she needed that little bit of space right now. His mouth quirked up in a hint of a smile as if he liked knowing that he scared her even when he was at his weakest.
He devoured the sandwiches in a matter of minutes. The orange juice didn't last much longer. She held out her hand for the plate. "Do you want seconds?"
"Not yet. Shower first."
His voice sounded as if he'd swallowed broken glass, another sign of how rough his night had been. She didn't blame him for wanting to wash away the stench of sweat and blood that permeated the small room. "I'll get you some clean clothes and towels."
The cell had been designed to afford its occupant very little in the way of privacy. At least the combination toilet and sink unit sat behind a half wall. The shower in the back corner was separated from the toilet by a slightly higher partial divider. As a doctor, she was used to seeing the naked human body, but only in a clinical situation. It bothered her that so much of Chase's day-to-day life was on open display for anyone who cared to watch.
She made a point of focusing all of her attention on paperwork or her computer whenever he needed a few minutes of privacy. After setting the clothes and towels on the end of his cot, she beat a hasty retreat and locked the door on her way out. So far, he'd never attempted to leave his cell except when ordered to by the guards or when she needed to run some tests. It was easy to tell when he was feeling claustrophobic from the way he'd pace back and forth in the small amount of open space in his cell. When that happened, she would put him through another round of tests on the gym equipment in the corner of her lab. Although she dutifully recorded the results in case anyone were to check, the real purpose was to give him a chance to burn off some energy the only way she could.
The thick glass didn't muffle the sounds coming from the cell all that much. Even so, she found herself leaning in the direction of Chase's cell as if those few additional inches would help her assess how badly he was hurt from the way he moved as he showered and dressed. It took longer than normal for him to strip off his clothes and turn on the shower, and there was no missing his sharp intake of breath when the hot spray first hit his skin.
The water ran for a long while, the heat probably doing a lot to ease his aches and pains. She'd give him as much time as she could before she started putting him through his paces. But based on prior occasions, one of the guards would likely come strolling in uninvited and unwanted at some point to check up on Chase or maybe her. She was never quite sure which one of them was under such close scrutiny.
With that in mind, she listened to see if the water was still running. No, he'd shut it off. Time to get busy. She quickly zapped another box of sandwiches for him. He normally ate seven all by himself, sometimes more after one of his sessions with the guards. Just in case, she heated all four. If he didn't want the last one, she'd eat it herself. It would be nice if she had something more nutritious to offer him to go along with the sandwiches, maybe a big salad. When she'd said that to him one time, he'd laughed and told her he didn't much care for greens. Evidently he was a carnivore at heart.
He tapped on the glass to let her know he was dressed just as the microwave dinged. She grabbed the sandwiches and headed back to open his cell door.
"You might as well eat these out here. I need to check you over for injuries."
It was hard not to wince to see how he grabbed his side as he climbed up on the step at the end of the examination table and turned around to sit down. She looked away to give him a few seconds to catch his breath while she picked up the pad of paper she used to jot down brief notes during the exam. Once he was back in his cell, she'd transfer it all to his computer records.
When she returned, she noted his face was pale and his skin looked clammy. "Can I get you anything for pain? At least a couple of ibuprofen?"
Chase rarely accepted even that much no matter how badly he was hurting, but he didn't hesitate this time. "Sounds good."
Translation: He was in worse shape than usual.
She fetched the tablets and another bottle of orange juice to wash them down. He'd already eaten two of the sandwiches and was starting on the third. He held out the plate. "Eat yours, Keeper, before it gets cold."
She hated when he called her that and corrected him automatically. "We've had this discussion before. My name is Dr. Riggs."
It's not like he could forget it when her name was embroidered right there on her lab coat for him to see every day they spent in this hellhole together. On the other hand, she couldn't quite blame him for striking back in any little way he could, and he'd made it clear why he considered her his keeper. After all, they treated him like a cross between a lab specimen and an animal on display at the local zoo.
Rather than argue the point any longer, she accepted the sandwich and sat down on the rolling stool she'd pulled over by the table. The croissant, bacon, and egg combination tasted better than the oatmeal she'd had earlier. It didn't take long for them to finish off their makeshift meal.
"Can you take off your shirt by yourself or do you need help?"
He managed it on his own, most likely out of stubborn pride. Just as she'd suspected, he had a whole new crop of bruises and lacerations scattered across his broad chest and back. "Does it hurt to breathe?"
Translation: a lot.
"I'll get you an ice pack for your ribs when we're done here."
"If it makes you happy."
Translation: anything that will make the pain go away.
She checked each cut. Most were pretty minor, but even the larger ones were scabbed over and healing. The smaller bruises had already faded to green and yellow. Next, she took pictures to document his condition. She'd take more over the next few days to track the progression of his recovery. "The good news is I don't think you'll need any stitches this time."
That took care of his upper body, but the condition of his sweats made it clear that his legs had also sustained damage. "I'm sorry, but I should've reminded you to take your pants off before climbing up on the table."
Translation: The bleeding has already stopped and nothing was broken this time.
"I'd rather be the judge of that. I don't want to risk infection setting in."
The jerk actually snickered. "Come on, Doc. You know as well as I do that I don't get infections."
And if she didn't at least get a look at his wounds, her records would be incomplete. She suspected he wouldn't give a damn about that. "At least tell me how bad the injuries were."
His face was a blank slate as he stared at her for several seconds before finally answering. "Fine. They used a fixed-blade combat knife to slice open my right thigh. The cut was about six inches long. For the record, it hurt like hell, but they didn't nick any major blood vessels or do much muscle damage. Otherwise, nothing else noteworthy besides the usual assortment of bruises and minor cuts."
Those bastards. What kind of men did stuff like that to a fellow human being?
Some of the anger Chase had to be feeling finally leeched into his expression. "The kind that get paid a lot of money. Of course, I'm sure some of those guys would do it free of charge just for shits and grins. Don't let it upset you. I'll be fine."
Her face flushed hot with embarrassment when he spoke. Had she actually asked that question out loud? Well, duh, obviously since he'd answered her. What could she say to that? It wouldn't help either of them to admit how scared she was. "And you're sure you don't need stitches or at least some butterfly bandages to make sure that wound stays closed?"
"No, the gash is already healing, and the ibuprofen will help with everything else. Just give me the ice pack for my ribs, and I'll be good to go."
"Fine." While she got the pack out of the freezer, she gave him the rest of his instructions for the time being. "Let me know if you want more ibuprofen or even something stronger. Rest will help more than anything."
She stepped back to give him room to slide down off the exam table but stayed close enough to offer assistance if he wasn't steady on his feet. Even though she knew he never appreciated her hovering, she trailed after him to make sure he made it all the way back to his cot safely. While he got settled, she debated whether or not to lock the cell door. The guards wouldn't like it, but each second's delay could be critical if his condition took a sudden turn for the worse.
Chase rolled over on his other side to face the back wall. "Just close the damn door on my cage. I'll be fine."
She did as he ordered even though he was wrong about that last part. The truth was neither of them would ever be fine again.