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Authors: Rie Warren

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BOOK: Under His Guard
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“What the hell's going on that this couldn't wait until the morning?” My boots resounded on the wood floors as I marched up to Linc. When he didn't answer and still wouldn't meet my gaze, dread funneled through me. “Give it to me straight, right now.”

“Denver came through with some intel.”

“You already said that.”

Liz placed a hand on my arm, her touch not soothing me at all when she said, “It's bad, Darke.”

I swung my gaze to her and then back at Linc. His eyes looked bleaker than I'd ever seen them, and seeing as we'd been through hell ten times over in Beta, I wasn't sure I wanted to hear Denver's info.

Linc passed a hand over his face. “Leon's a human time bomb.”

“What?” Sweat trickled down my back, as cold as the fear slicing through me.

“This is what our
meant when he told Liz he had a second wave planned. It's why he didn't really give a shit when Taft blew up the DCICs. The asshole masterminded a human delivery system. Leon's infected with the new Plague.” Linc exchanged bitter looks with his twin brother, Nathaniel. Once again the evil wrongdoings of their father, CEO Lysander Cutler, came home to roost. “I should've killed that fucking bastard when I had the chance.”

“What?” I asked again, grasping the edge of the table as my legs threatened to collapse from under me. My body, my brain, my heart, all shut down.

“To kill the Plague, we'd have to kill Leon—his body is a Trojan horse we won't be able to destroy, because…because…” Words failed Liz.

Bile rose in my throat. I swallowed it back. “Because he's ours.”
He's mine.
“That's why no one else showed at the water tower. There was to be no handoff, no delivery except to us.”

“The virus is implanted in Leon, but it's dormant.” Hatch scanned through the message that had been sent to Linc via Denver. Denver was feeding info to Linc because he played a dangerous game, straddling both sides of the war, or so he claimed. I wasn't quite a believer yet.

“Leon's body is a weapon for the Company.” Numbed through, I could barely raise my eyes to the others.

Nathaniel's hand was heavy on my shoulder. “Father let Leon go because he knew we'd take him in. Our exposure to the virus will be guaranteed. He wants us all dead.”

An incendiary blaze of hate for CEO Cutler fired inside me. “I'd still take Leon in, no matter what.”

Cannon rose so slowly, bearing such pain, it appeared the big, broad-shouldered man was made of no more than vapor. His voice was just as thin. “Imagine how many others Cutler's infected.”

“When?” All the life was leached from me in an instant.

“When what?” Linc asked.

“WHEN DOES IT GO LIVE?” I bellowed.

“Middle of August.” Linc grabbed Liz's hand.

“But that gives us only a couple weeks. There has to be an antidote, a cure, something!” I spun around, only to halt when I saw Leon just inside the door. Shock, fear, and concern all clashed within me. And want, foremost.

I could never get enough of him. I never would. No matter how hard I tried to push him away, I always pulled him back. His bright eyes looked almost kohl black and suddenly too big for his face. His hair was wild, tangled, down around his shoulders. I tensed, reaching for him. I didn't want him to know.
didn't want to fucking know.

Leon walked toward me with his loose-legged swagger.

My heart pounded. My mouth went dry.

He ambled closer, and everyone moved away from us. They fell silent, became nonexistent.

“Thought I heard a commotion.” He stopped in front of me.

. “How much did you hear?” My hands clenched beside me. I was desperate to touch him.

His slight smile was tremulous around the edges. “Jus' a little of this, a little of dat. Somethin' 'bout me bein' an incubator for the new Plague and set to infect.” He clicked his tongue against the roof of his mouth. “
I always wanted to be famous.”

eon.” I struggled to breathe.

“Guess we know what that Dr. Val did to me now, yeah?”

I let out a hoarse cry.

“Darke.” His hand ran along my jaw. “I wanna know who you are, what you mean to me before I die, 'cause I can
this thing between us,” he whispered.

Leon closed his eyes when I groaned at his touch. There was no one else. Never. Not like this. Guilt wormed its way into my gut, thoughts of Tam and Wilde warring within me. But I wouldn't deny this passion. I couldn't. Not anymore. Not if Leon was going to die as a pawn in the InterNations war.

,” he whispered against my neck.

A great gasping sob broke through my lips. I crushed him to me. He hadn't called me
since his abduction. He'd forgotten what we'd started, what I wouldn't let myself have.

Now it was too late.

He pulled back. Courage fought with sadness in his eyes as if he were looking at something that would never be his. I felt the same, and it made me clasp the back of his neck, bringing him against me once more.

“There might not be a cure.” His words, warm on my skin, instilled coldness in my heart.

“You do not say that. You do not
that.” I lifted him against me, strengthened by a new resolve. “You are not going to die, Leon.”

Nuzzling his hair, running my hands over his body, I barely noticed when the others departed. Filled with arousal and torment, I slid him down and stepped back. I was barely holding on by a thread. To love him and make him mine once and for all. To lash out and kill something, someone. “Go wait for me at my place. I won't be long.”

Leon brought his hands to my face. He kissed me sweetly, just a brush of lush lips. “You know there's only life or death between us now.”

I groaned against his lips, tasting mint and scotch. “I need you in my bed.”

, you din't want me earlier.” Leon stepped away.

Despite his recent, intimate words, he stood defiantly in front of me. How could I have forgotten about his fire? The bright flame that had first surprised me and then enthralled me.

I grabbed his arm as he spun away. “Yeah, I did.”

He wrenched free. When I advanced, he slammed a palm to my chest. “Pull me one way, push me another.” He flicked his hair back, his eyes going from soft and sultry to hard and flinty. “Changed my mind. I'll be fine without you.”

I wouldn't be. I'd never be fine again if something happened to him. But words failed me as I watched him sweep out into the night. I barely contained myself from running after him, dragging him home with me. If I went after him right now, I'd have him bent over and screaming for my cock. Just to be inside him where nobody and nothing—not the Revolution, not fucking Cutler, not my ghosts—could touch us.

After he left, I waited as long as I could until rage overwhelmed me. I overturned the table, roaring to the rafters, “NOT HIM!” Tears ran down my cheeks unchecked. “Not Leon, not now. Please. If there's any god at all. Don't. Don't take him, too.”

I hunched over as pain gripped me from the inside out. “I've already lost everything once.”

Eventually I reined in the dry, racking sobs coursing through my body. It felt like a lifetime had come and gone during the past hour. I looked around the room. The town hall had seen some of the best moments of my life. My handfasting with Tammerick and Wilde. My nomination as the head of the Chitamauga militia. The night Cannon and Nathaniel had promised themselves to each other and Leon had caught my eye. He'd coaxed that first smile from me, and I'd thought he might be someone worth living for again.

Now the town hall was the scene of one of the most dreadful moments I could ever have imagined. I had to leave.

Outside, the village was quiet at this late hour. Only the loud, blaring crickets sounded as agitated as I felt. The humid July heat hit me and clung to me as I headed down to the forge.

As I entered the barn where Smitty did his ironwork, the smell of hot coal and metal stung my eyes. I made my way to a pallet covered with a ratty blanket, a mirage of all the different sides of Leon swimming around me. Bold, confused, hurt, protective, playful…sexy as hell.

The pallet creaked when I shifted, and the red haze of the never-ending fire in Smitty's cavern reminded me of the last time I'd been in here with Leon. Before he'd run away from me in the dead of winter to Beta and straight into harm's way. I'd asked him to tattoo me with Tammerick's and Wilde's names.

I tore off my shirt and tossed it aside. As I stretched on the pallet on my stomach, the heat of the fire beside us baked across my skin. Leon sat back on his heels, sweat forming in the hollow of his throat. He shrugged off his shirt. In the orange and yellow and red light, his skin glowed. A dusting of caramel-colored hair thinned from his belly button to his pants. His smell was mouthwatering, and I swallowed through the need to touch him.

Do it. Mark me.” I lay my head on my arms.

He found his pouch and perched beside me, cleaning the sharp bone awl that would pierce me. A vial of black dye was set beside my head. I arched and hissed when he touched me, not with the tool but with his hand. I had to lift my head and watch him. He swept under the waist of my pants. My muscles tensed, and I threw my head back, on the brink of coming from one little touch from this gorgeous man who had marked my heart as indelibly as he was about to mark my skin.

, I don' wanna hurt you, Darke.” The white shard of his tool quivered above my skin.

“Been hurt through a lifetime. A little tattoo won't kill me.” I rolled over and caught his wrists, bringing him across my body. “Do me, my angel, my devil. Make it so I'll never forget my lovers.”

Leon cursed quietly, prodding me onto my belly. I moaned when the bone cut into me. Leon groaned through every needle tap that pushed ink into my skin.

For Tammerick and Wilde. Not for him.

I burrowed my face deeper into my arms as the guilt washed over me.

He took his time, but the pain didn't affect me. It was his touch that had me on tenterhooks for hours. His breath washed across my shoulders when he leaned close to fill in the lines. I bit into my arm to muffle a moan when his moist lips roamed up my spine with soft kisses, the tools set aside.

No one had touched me like this since Tam and Wilde had died, and now their names were etched onto my skin by Leon's hand.

Leon's forehead rested against my neck. His hot tears splashed against the warm blood. “I want my name on you, too,

As soon as he cleaned me up, he pressed a small kiss to my shoulder and left. The agony I felt wasn't just of the flesh. It was of the heart. But it didn't stop me from sliding my pants to my thighs and gripping my cock. My hand came away slick with precome, as sticky as the blood that had dripped from my back, the same blood that was on my soul. My shaft throbbed thickly with veins, and my head craned back. Three strong strokes and the sting of the tattoo was all it took. Come splashed my sweaty chest and slid to my groin. It was the first time I'd let myself orgasm since Tam and Wilde had died.

They weren't the ones I thought about when I came.

I growled into the dark room. Every place held memories of the two of us when what I really needed was to be with him. I'd almost made it to the door when Old Tommy and his mutt shuffled in.

Tommy, he was the town crier. Knew just about everything about everyone. It came as no surprise he and his dog—the shaggy gray mongrel he simply called Gal—were up and about at this otherwise deserted hour, or that he already seemed to know what had gone down earlier.

Instead of laying on the pity, he looked me over with his fierce bushy brows pulled low over his eyes. “Is hidin' in the dark any way for a warrior to behave?”

“I was just heading home.”

“Shoot. You ain't goin' nowhere 't'all.” Taking my spot on the pallet, he motioned Gal to one side of him and me to the other.

I grumbled but took a seat anyway, and he started right in.

“Lemme see if I got this straight. Now, remember, Old Tommy here ain't the sharpest tool in dis here shed.” He flashed me a mostly toothless grin. Summer teeth, he called them.

I fought the urge to tell him to mind his own business, but the nosy old son of a bitch wouldn't pay me any attention at any rate.

“So your boy—”

“He's a man.”

“I'm mighty happy to hear dat, the way you coddle him like he's still in a romper one minute, then run from him like he's gonna jump dem big bones of yours the next.” He plugged a wad of raw tobacco inside his lower gum so his speech slurred even more. “Your young man got taken from you up in Beta and you went off your rocker. And when he came back, he din't remember you.”

I was hit by all the memories I didn't want to relive.

“But y'all decided after a fashion there was a good way to play dat mind-scrub thing of Leon's, yessir. Keep dat son of gun at arm's distance 'cause you're too damn scaredy-cat to get close to anyone again.” At the mention of
, the dog's ears perked up, and her long, wet tongue rolled out. “Ain't no cat here, Gal. Jest me and Darke settin' things straight.”

“Where's this going, Tommy?”

He spat a line of brown juice onto the rough wooden floor and scrubbed it in with his boot. “See now, I don't rightly know. You were fixin' on lettin' Leon go all this time. In fact, ya never did claim him as yer own. But you ain't cut him loose yet. I know dis 'cause I see the way you watch him, and so does ever'one else with eyes in their head.”

I exhaled a frustrated curse. Tommy the goddamn gossipmonger was good for nothing but telling me my fucked-up love life was the talk of the town. “I should probably be on my way. Make sure he's all right.”

Tommy locked a wiry hand onto my thigh. “I reckon you ain't ready to face dat demon yet, son. Leon's got dat sickness now, and you fell apart as soon as nobody was watchin'. Ain't no good for him if he sees you like dat.”

“Dammit! Have you got the whole fucking commune wired or something? Yeah, I lost it.” I shoved his hand away and jumped to my feet. “He's gonna die. Do you get that?”

He didn't blink in the face of my outburst. Gal growled at me but put her head back down on her paws when he petted her. “Cool dem heels and sit down. Won't do if Gal takes a bite out of you. We don't need to add rabies to the list of ailments.”

Dropping beside him, I rested my head in my hands.

“Do you want dat boy to remember you? Because it sure do look like he loved you before and he's fixing to get dat way again.”

“That doesn't really matter now.” My hands curled around my head, but there was no use blocking him out, not when he hit me with the bare-knuckled truth.

“Never thought I'd see the great warrior Darke defeated.”

I lifted my head and glared at him. “Fuck you, old man. I'm not defeated.”

Leaning over to spit again, he wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “And I never thought I'd see you get attached again. Not after Tam and Wilde. That was some love right there between the three of you. Don't imagine I've ever seen the likes of it before; nor will I again. Dat don't mean there's not enough room in dat big ol' chest of yours for someone like your boy to be given some space. I seem to think he might deserve it, and you're just a stubborn jackass.”

“I am not attached,” I spat.

Tommy went right on ignoring me. “Don't know what's happenin', all dis love in the air.”

“I'm not in love.” My demeanor quickly changed from defiant to defeated. “Leon scares the shit out of me.”

. There's some truth right there.” His gnarled hand moved to my shoulder. He squeezed and then patted me, like I was his dog. “What're ya gonna do about dis here Plague business?”

“Keep him alive. Fight for him.” Steely determination pulled me upright.

“Don't dis seem like a damn fool place to spend the night? Me and the old girl are gonna hit the hay.” Tommy made a big show of cracking his back and wincing, trying to make me feel sorry for him.

The old coot wasn't getting any sympathy from me. “You're the damn fool.”

“Hey, now. My place is right next ta Nathaniel and Caspar. Dem boys are screamers. I gotta wait until they pass out from fucking before I get any shut-eye. Oughtta be old enough to be deaf already.” He slapped his scrawny thigh and whistled. “C'mon, Gal.”

“You know, Liz thinks Gal's a guy,” I called after him.

“That's 'cause she don't want no competition when it comes to her menfolk.” His eyes twinkled with glee.

Left alone once more, I walked to the door and looked out. Up and down the lane, lights were off in the mess hall, the schoolhouse, the trade hall. In the distance, beyond a sentinel of trees, the lanterns glowed from the neighborhood of caravans.

I squared my shoulders and walked down the road, alone but resolved.

No one was gonna take Leon from me. Not Cutler, not the Revolution, and certainly no fucking Plague.

BOOK: Under His Guard
6.92Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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