THE DARKNESS BEYOND
by Alexis Morgan
An online game of cat and mouse leads a Paladin warrior on a deadly rescue mission to claim the irresistible lover who should be his greatest enemy.
D. J. Clayborne has finally met his match. After weeks of playing cyber tag, a mysterious hacker bests D.J. at his own game. His nemesis downloads a top-secret history of the Paladins, forcing him to go on the hunt. The trail leads D.J. straight to Regina Morrison, a woman who is as sexy as she is talented in the cyber world.
Reggie has been working around the clock to stop a legendary computer hacker from accessing her clients' files. She just hasn't told her boss she found the intriguing culprit weeks ago. The last thing she expects to have D.J. show up on her doorstep and that he's even sexier than his evasive avatar. Now they're flirting with a dangerous line between duty and desire.
Reggie's deep investigation gets her kidnapped by the Others and forced across the hostile energy barrier into an alien world. Now it's up to D.J. to track down the captivating woman whose ability to break through his firewalls is also breaking through to his warrior's heart.
A ball of wadded up paper flew past Reggie's head to hit a bank shot into the trashcan. She ignored both it and the argument that had been going for the past ten minutes.
"I'm telling you, no matter what Big Ed thinks, it's going to be our very own Regina Morrison who is going to bring down the Knightwalker!"
Cody, her cubicle partner, was a college student who worked part-time for the firm, his hours arranged around his class schedule. The kid had more energy than any other three people combined, and she liked his enthusiasm. Well, at least when he wasn't trying to make a killing in the office pool by betting on her skills in tracking down hackers.
He threw another "ball" toward the garbage. This time it missed and landed on her desk. She picked it up and tossed it back over her shoulder, her aim spot on after months of practice.
Cody snagged the paper ball out of the air without missing a beat. "Seriously, I'm betting Reggie nails the target to the wall by Friday, next week at the latest. The Knightwalker's ass will be toast," he continued.
"Drop it, Cody," she told him.
He paid about as much attention this time as he had to her past dozen attempts to stop him. As he wadded up another piece of paper, he went right on talking her up.
"You know her skills are smokin' hot. If we pool our resources, we can make a killing."
Then the sound of heavy footsteps put a sudden end to the conversation. Reggie immediately cleared her screen and brought up another case just as a shadow fell across her desk and a meaty hand landed on her shoulder. She gritted her teeth and set her keyboard back up on the desk so she could move quickly if need be. Ignoring her unwanted company, she kept right on typing.
"Hey there, Cyber Queen, I know your little buddy Cody here is backing your play in this particular game, but don't let it go to your head. You and I both know that I'm the big dog around here when it comes to catching a hacker like the Knightwalker."
"Take your hand off me, Ed."
She'd give him two seconds to comply before giving into the temptation to demonstrate why she was the star pupil in her self-defense classes. Most men never saw past her dark blond hair and baby blues, sorely underestimating her strength and speed. The guys in her dojo only made that mistake once.
Ed would learn differently, too, if he kept pushing her. The mental image of Big Ed curled up on the floor, holding his personal package and squealing like a pig held a great deal of appeal. Luckily for him, he stepped back out of reach before she gave into the impulse.
She went back to ignoring him. Ed's sense of self-importance had taken a beating lately because Reggie had led the office in closing cases for five out of the past six months. Prior to her joining the team, he'd been the undisputed leader of the pack. Never one to accept second place at the best of times, losing out to a newcomer-especially a woman-was more than Ed's poor ego could handle.
She winced as Cody picked up right where he'd left off. "Ed, I still think our girl here is going to find the Knightwalker before you do."
Cody was one of her favorite people, but she really wished he'd shut up. His ringing endorsement of her abilities only made a bad situation worse. Sure enough, Ed's voice took on a new threatening tone. She braced herself for the inevitable. Somebody was going to get hurt, and it wouldn't be her.
"Like hell she will, kid, but go ahead and put your money on her. I'll enjoy eating a steak dinner at your expense." Ed leaned down over Reggie's shoulder to study her computer screen, his smoker's breath tickling her skin. Disgusting. Did he really think she was stupid enough to be working the new case where he could watch? Idiot. Then he whispered right next to her ear, "Play your cards right, Reggie, and maybe you and I will be ordering that steak dinner from room service."
Then his hand started to slide down over the front of her blouse. Okay, that did it. Abruptly, she shoved her chair back from her desk, running over his foot and making sure she elbowed him right where it hurt. Ed stumbled back, banging into the wall of the cubicle and almost knocking it over.
His face was red, his eyes furious as he waited for the pain to pass. She rose to her feet, ready to meet his next challenge head on. Her next stop would be the boss's office, but to leave now would only convince Ed that she was afraid of him.
"You bitch! You did that deliberately," Ed wheezed.
She balanced on the balls of her feet, ready for action and her adrenaline levels skyrocketing. "Damn straight I did. I've warned you before about keeping your hands to yourself."
Ed straightened up. "The boss will fire your ass when I tell him what you did."
Reggie really hoped Mr. DeLuca wouldn't do any such thing. She needed the paycheck too much. Fortunately for her, evidently Cody had called for the cavalry because the boss was standing right behind them. There was no mistaking the fury in his expression when he looked at Ed.
"No, I won't be firing Reggie, Ed. I heard what you said to her and saw what you did. Now you will apologize to her and then hobble your way to my office so we can continue this discussion in private."
Then he got right up in the other man's face. "I will make this much clear right now: If I find you back in here hassling Reggie again, you'll be the one looking for a job and with no references from me. Got that?"
Ed's jaw dropped in shock. "But-"
"A simple yes will do, Ed. Now go, before I rethink my decision to let you stay."
The big man shot Reggie a look that promised trouble in the future, but at least he started to leave. Mr. DeLuca stepped back to let the other man pass, waiting until he was out of sight before speaking again.
"Sorry about that, Reggie. I never thought he'd take things that far."
"And I probably overreacted."
Her boss shook his head "No, you didn't, and I meant what I said. If he bothers you at all, I want to know. He's good at his job, but you're better. The trouble is, he knows it."
Then he shot a look in Cody's direction. "And by the way, Cody, that betting pool you've started isn't helping things, either. You know what Ed's like when it comes to Reggie's record. Why rub his nose in it?"
Cody hung his head. "Sorry, boss. I'll put a stop to it."
"See that you do."
Reggie sat back down, hoping the two men didn't notice how badly her hands were shaking. Cody was usually oblivious to such things, but nothing much ever got by the boss. At least he changed the subject.
"So, any progress on the new case?"
She shook her head. "I've only just started. The client's firewalls haven't been breached again, but we know hackers of the Knightwalker's caliber are rarely able to resist coming out to play for long. I'll be waiting for him."
"Good, and keep me posted." He rubbed his hands together with a wolfish smile. "I've been hoping for a chance to go after this guy. God knows, enough people have tried to track him down, but with no success. If we pull this off, it will solidify the company's reputation. It won't be easy, though. This guy knows how to cover his tracks."
"I'll do my best, sir."
"I know you will." Her boss backed out of the cubicle. "Well, I'll leave you to it. Cody, I'll want those reports by closing today."
"You'll get them."
As soon as he was gone, Cody stopped all pretense of working. "Look, Reg, I'm sorry if the betting caused you problems with Big Ed."
She waved it off. "It's his problem, not ours. If it hadn't been this case that set him off, it would have been another one."
Cody lowered his voice. "To tell the truth, part of me will be really sorry if you do manage to nail the Knightwalker. He's been a hero among the geek crowd for a long time."
She knew just how Cody felt. Rumors about the shadowy hacker had been circulating for years. Most hackers she knew spoke his name with a note of reverence in their voices. She'd been following the uberhacker's career herself, but with one major difference. She'd actually found the Knightwalker and even knew his real name-D.J. Clayborne.
Now she needed to decide what to do with that knowledge.
Despite her determination to bring cyber criminals to justice, the Knightwalker was different, and not just because he was the best. If she had to characterize his forays into hacking, she'd have to say he was playful rather than destructive. Most of the companies he went after had actually benefited in the long run because he always pointed out the weaknesses in their security protocols.
Get in and get out. That's all he did. Illegal, yeah. Irritating, most certainly. But most of all, intriguing. What did that said about her? Unwilling to pursue that line of thought any further, she put on her headphones and cranked up her iPod. She couldn't afford to pick and choose which criminals she went after.
It was time to hunt.
RT Book Reviews: ". . . from burgeoning trust to love makes for a dynamic and touching read. Morgan aces another one!"
4 1/2 Stars
"As always, Morgan does an excellent job blending the action with emotional content. A great way to spend your precious leisure time." ~~ RT Book Reviews