Authors: Misty Evans
Savanna leaned over his shoulder, studying it more carefully. She smelled like shampoo and sex. “Why would Parker leave me this?”
He shifted slightly, hoping to hide his blatant erection with the laptop. Parker had an agenda. An agenda he was definitely a part of.
“The files are in code,” he told Savanna.
And I’m the only one who can figure that code out.
“A complicated alphanumeric code,” Rory said, his mug still sharing screen time with the decrypted file’s contents. “Without the legend, I have no hope of decoding it.”
Savanna’s hand rested on Trace’s shoulder. The memory of her tracing his tattoo flooded his mind, doing nothing to help him quench his need to take her again. “Do you think Parker hid the legend in the handbag with the USB?” she asked. “Did we miss it? Should we go back to my apartment and look for it?”
“I’ll send Cal and Emit to check on that,” Rory said. “Meanwhile, I’ll run it through all of my known coding databases to see if it’s close to anything. If it is, I may be able to figure it out, even without the legend.”
Trace fought the smell of sex, the shockwaves her touch sent down to his dick. He needed to think, to clear his head of the last few minutes and get back into bodyguard mode. No emotion, no wasted effort of any kind.
“What should we do?” Savanna asked, and he realized she was asking him, not Rory.
Rory scratched his beard and answered anyway. “Sit tight. I’ll get back to you as soon as I have a lead.”
His video feed went black.
“I know nothing about codes,” she said. “Do you?”
He knew about codes. Had used quite a few in his time. “A little.”
“Why do you think she used one on these files? They’re top-secret, aren’t they? That’s why she encrypted them.”
Top-secret? Hell, they were worse than that. “That would be my guess.” He dragged the laptop closer, his focus laser-beamed in on the lines of letters and numbers. “It’s a database,” he said. “One with twenty-four entries.”
“Whatever it is, I think Parker left it for me to decode and take to the media. It’s something big, probably something on the president. What do you think?”
“I don’t know yet.”
“But you have an idea, don’t you? I can tell by the way you’re avoiding my questions.”
He tried not to sound indignant. “I’m answering your questions.”
“In an evasive way. You won’t even look at me.”
He sighed and closed the laptop in case Rory was listening or decided to pop back in. Shifting it aside, he revealed a partial truth. His blatant erection.
“I’m hard because I want you again, but it seemed inappropriate to bring that up in the middle of our breakthrough with the decryption. So I was hiding it and avoiding your eyes because I was trying, and failing, to concentrate on work instead of the images in my head of you naked.”
“Oh.” She had the decency to blush. But then she laughed and whipped off her sport bra. “Seems like we have some time on our hands while Rory’s working on decoding Parker’s files. We might as well make good use of it.”
His good sense went out the window. Carrying the laptop with him, he chased Savanna up the stairs to the bedroom.
HEY RAVISHED EACH
other, showered, slept, ravished each other again. The master suite became their playground. One end held a king-size bed that they put to good use. The other held a sitting area with fireplace and TV. They found interesting ways to try every piece of furniture, every wall, the floor.
Coldplay brought her grapes and cheese and crackers in the afternoon. In between bites of cheese, Savanna took bites of him.
Then he fed her grapes while he bent her over a chaise and fucked her blind.
The suite was growing dark when she woke on that chaise sometime later, covered with a flannel blanket. She scanned the shadows of the room for Coldplay’s presence but didn’t find it. Her phone buzzed softly on the nightstand.
Caller ID showed it was her mother. Savanna hit the Ignore button and went to the bathroom.
She washed and dressed, taming her hair that was unruly from hours of lovemaking. Back on the chaise, she turned on the TV and found her news channel.
Top of the hour news was about President Norman and his trip to Jamaica. No wonder he’d left her alone for the past couple of days. He was visiting there to assess the cleanup and recovery after a hurricane had done tremendous damage in the fall. Video showed him walking through debris with top Jamaican officials and handing out bottled water.
A man of the people.
But what have you done to my sister?
Her phone buzzed again and Savanna checked it. She couldn’t help it. What if Parker called?
She was staring at the screen when Coldplay walked in, the laptop under his arm.
“Is it your mother again?” he asked, seeing the expression on her face.
“She stopped leaving messages, but she won’t quit calling me.”
He touched her shoulder, kissed her temple. “Maybe you should answer. She’s probably worried.”
Let her worry
But the old guilt made her thumb the accept button. “I’m fine, Mom,” she said without preamble. “But unless you’ve heard from Parker, I can’t talk to you.”
“Where are you?” Dory Jeffries practically yelled. “Why haven’t you returned my calls? Why is that woman on the news filling in for you? Are you sick?”
“No, my health and wellbeing are in danger, much like they were when I was fourteen, but this time, someone is going further than molestation. He’s gotten me fired and is trying to kill me.”
“Kill you? Oh, Savanna. You were always so dramatic. The misunderstanding with Coach Watson happened fifteen years ago. Get over it.”
Savanna’s hand tightened on her phone. “Get
it? He molested me. That was no
. And I know he was molesting Nora too. It was his baby she was pregnant with. If I had said something all those years ago, Nora might still be alive.”
Silence met her ears. Coldplay kept a hand on her, massaging gentle circles into her shoulders, the base of her neck.
“I’m hanging up now,” Savanna told her mother. “I don’t wish to speak to you again unless you hear from Parker. She’s in danger, too, and when this is all over, if I’m still standing, I’m telling everyone what happened to me all those years ago. I’m not going to be silent about it anymore, so you better prepare yourself. The Daughters of the American Revolution may have a few questions for you.”
Disconnecting, she tossed the phone on the bed. It felt good to stand up for herself. Good to confront her mother, even if it was over the phone and not face-to-face. Good to take control of whatever future she had left.
The shakes started in her thighs, her hands. She folded her arms across her chest, trying to stop them from spreading. From letting herself shatter all over the floor.
But then the tears came.
So much anger. So much fear. Coach Watson had gutted her. Cost her a future in gymnastics and caused a good friend to commit suicide. She couldn’t hold it in any longer.
Coldplay sat on the bed and pulled her onto his lap, wrapping her in his arms and stroking her hair. “Shh,” he whispered. “You’re going to be okay.”
As long as he was with her, she believed it.
Ugly sobs tore from her throat and her tears soaked his shirt as she clung to him, never wanting to let go of his solid presence.
He held her and rocked her, murmured reassurances. Finally, the tears tapered off, but she clung to him anyway.
Beside them on the bed, the laptop dinged with an incoming message. Coldplay ignored it, continuing to hold her.
“You should get that,” she said, sliding off his lap, even though it killed her to leave the security of his arms. He was a good man to let her snot all over him, but she really should wash her face and get him a clean shirt. “It’s probably important.”
His hand trailed down her arm and gently squeezed hers as she backed away. In the bathroom, she avoided looking at her red, puffy eyes and blew her nose. She heard Rory’s voice on the computer. “Found something.”
Forgetting her disheveled appearance, Savanna raced back into the bedroom. Coldplay sat on the chaise, a muscle in his jaw jumping. “What?”
Rory’s image filled the screen. “I’ve been searching videos of the area around the place where the limo was ditched like you asked. ATMs, gas stations, traffic cams. Some took longer to hack into, but I think I found her.”
Savanna’s heart jackhammered against her breastbone. “Parker?”
Coldplay made room for her on the chaise. She gripped his hand.
“She left us another message,” Rory said. “This was recorded at the ShopIt convenience store two blocks from where she dumped the limo.”
A black and white image replaced Rory. There was no sound, only video. A woman in a chauffeur’s outfit entered the store, scanned the aisles, and grabbed a bag of peanut M&Ms. At the counter, she had to glance up to look at the clerk behind the counter.
The two exchanged conversation and Parker smiled. She paid for her candy and said something else. The clerk searched behind the counter and handed her a piece of paper and a pen.
She wrote something on the paper, then looked right at the camera. Raising the slip of paper, she faced it toward the lens.
Blocky handwriting spelled out
She crumpled the paper in her hand, stuck it in her pocket and nodded at the clerk who looked confused. She walked out with her M&Ms.
The video rewound to Parker’s face, the screen split, and Rory appeared next to Parker. “This video was taken about three hours after she ditched the limo.”
“Pat 13,” Savanna said, relieved Parker was alive and communicating with them. Why didn’t she just call her? “Who is Pat?”
“Not Pat,” Rory said. “P-A-T-period. It’s an abbreviation.”
An abbreviation for what? A location?
“Patent? Paternity? Pattensburg?” Savanna reeled off possibilities as adrenaline hit her. Her mind knew it was illogical, but her body wanted to run back to the city and start looking for her sister. “Pattern?”
Coldplay stared at Parker’s frozen face on the screen. His voice was low, controlled. “Patient,” he said. “It stands for Patient 13.”
“Patient?” The house’s furnace kicked on and Savanna felt a chill creep under her skin even as the dry heat fell from the vent overhead. She frowned. “How do you know?”
“I know…” He sat immobile, his face hard as stone. Gravel in his voice this time. “Because I was patient 13.”
HE ALPHANUMERIC CODE
is my full name plus the number combination in the thirteenth entry of the form,” Trace told Rory.
Then he closed the laptop screen, severing the connection.
Savanna had taken a step back. “Patient 13. What does that mean? Patient of what?”
Trace had faced every obstacle, every heartbreak in his life with head-on determination and bravery. He’d gone into battle, taken lives, and fought for his own on many occasion. He never backed down, never gave up.
Seeing the confusion and wariness in Savanna’s eyes, the tension in her body, he wanted to back down now. He’d known this moment was coming and it was time to face the truth. He had to come clean.
He was a fraud.
Everything he’d done up to that moment didn’t matter if he couldn’t convince her he wasn’t.
Hard to do when he didn’t believe it himself.
He set the computer on the floor, interlaced his fingers together to give his hands something to do. He tried to maintain eye contact, couldn’t.
“Project 24 was a joint Department of Defense and National Intelligence research program that included twenty-four test subjects,” he said. “We were given various drug cocktails to increase our natural abilities, then put through endurance trials and intense training modules to figure out which cocktails worked. The drugs increased our physical skills as well as our cognitive ones.”
“Holy crap.” Savanna stared holes through him. “Super soldiers?”
“The details—from our names to our outcomes—were highly classified. There were three people who knew about it, and a couple of the nation’s leading scientists, with exceptionally high clearance, who handled the program.”
The light of understanding came on in her eyes. “Parker was one of them?”
It was the only explanation to why Parker had been trying to contact him. Why she’d come to Witcher.
Savanna’s fingers twitched. She tugged on the hem of her T-shirt. Her eyes darkened and she took another step away from him. “That’s why she had this file. That means…you know my sister.”
Hurt, confusion, the seeds of betrayal—Trace wanted to reach for her, wanted to draw her near.