In My Skin

Book Three in The Obsidian Files

Come back to me …

Luke remembers a few things. Just not his last name. Or anyone he ever knew. He knows that he’s a supersoldier, genetically enhanced and loaded up with brain implants. He recently escaped from a year-long hell of captivity, and to protect his family and friends from his tormentors, he blocked most of his memories. Now he needs them back, fast … or he and those he loves will die agonizing deaths.

Luke’s dangerous plan to reconnect with his past—and stay alive in the present—has drawn his enemies’ attention to the tough and sexy Dani LaSalle. He’s duty bound to protect the luscious beauty from the evil pursuing them, but he can’t control the scorching desire she awakens in him.

Dani’s strict routine has been trashed by Luke’s explosive arrival. This rock-hard slab of valiant, smoldering manhood appears out of nowhere, saves her life, spirits her away to his mountain lair, and bewilders her with tales of sadistic researchers and enhanced assassins. Is this gorgeous, problematic sex god just plain crazy—or is she? But hey. Luke can do things with his mind that are just as wild as what he can do with that body. She can’t say no.

And there’s no time to wonder. As their passion flares, Obsidian moves in. Luke and Dani must place their lives and their hearts on the line just to survive …

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Chapter One

Damn. The car Luke was following jolted off the freeway and onto the exit ramp. Sooner than he was expecting.

Luke put on a burst of speed. He searched the darkness for the retreating taillights. They had vanished into the night. Didn’t matter. His brain implant had connected with its onboard system several miles back.

Once he was in, that car was his bitch.

But Luke had hesitated to assume total control right away. Hadn’t wanted the courier at the wheel to panic and contact his handlers. No sense pissing off vicious, powerful enemies in advance.

Bad call. Now he had to improvise. And the guy was speeding through the residential neighborhood, drifting and correcting like he was drunk or high.

Shit. Luke had big plans for Braxton’s courier that didn’t involve witnesses with smartphones, car accidents or traffic cops.

He followed close behind. His ASP, the augmented sensory processor implanted in his brain by Obsidian, was monitoring the fleeing car’s data on a transparent screen that overlaid half of his field of vision. He could follow that car in his sleep.

Though he never actually slept. At least not how normal people did.

A sense of urgency thrummed in him. Time check, dude. Reality exists on a twenty-four-hour grid, seven days a week. Months vary. Watch out for February. He scrolled back in his memory.

It was exactly thirty-seven days, sixteen hours, and forty-three minutes since his escape. His ASP pegged the breakout from Braxton’s cage as his personal zero hour. Reborn, after three hundred and fifty-nine days, eight hours and forty-two minutes locked in an underground, soundproof glass box, outside of time. Every second free of that hellhole was a fresh start.

But as who? As what?

Freedom didn’t seem much different from captivity. He still felt like shit. Isolated, numb. Maybe that was the effect of his self-imposed brain block. He’d put up a protective wall in his head that Braxton couldn’t get through with torture or drugs.

It worked. It held. But who the hell was he protecting with it?

He couldn’t … fucking … remember.

Random things sometimes floated out of the fog. His first name, not his last. No address. No hard data on any family or friends. Nothing from his childhood. Sometimes, he got flashes of faces. Younger people, mostly. Male and female. Their worried eyes. He wondered if they really existed.

A family, an identity, a life. It was all like a mirage. Memories on the far side of his brain block shifted and moved. Elusive shadows behind frosted glass. They vanished when he tried to hang onto them.

Ironic, that he could recall every detail of the experiments Obsidian had conducted on him. Their torture was burned onto his mind.

But the memories he actually wanted were out of his reach.

Just as well. If there were people in his former life worth protecting, anyone at all that he cared about, he’d prevented Braxton and Obsidian from destroying them. He’d done the right thing. It just had a hellacious price tag, that was all.

Focus. You have a plan. Follow it.

He was a block away, closing in fast when he saw the courier’s car suddenly stop. When he caught up, the driver was gone and the car door hung open. Headlights on, motor running, the car straddled the sidewalk, crushing a low hedge in front of a small house. 2425 Camden Lane.

Luke parked his black Porsche SUV and did a swift, targeted data-dive, which revealed that the house was rented to a woman named Daniela LaSalle. A nurse at the local hospital.

He checked to make sure no one was looking, and used his implant to remotely shift the courier’s abandoned car into drive, sending it jouncing and rattling over the bushes and sidewalk and back onto the street again. He maneuvered it to the curb some distance down the block and killed the engine.

Blood drops stained the sidewalk. Hot blood, steaming and starkly visible to the thermal sensor in his eye implants. A trail of drops led around to the back of the house.

He heard a TV going. Lights on in living room and kitchen. LaSalle was home.

Fuck. This operation should have been smooth and secret. He had everything ready; knockout drugs, restraints, a scalpel, anesthetic, disinfectant, broad-spectrum injectable antibiotics. He didn’t want to hurt the guy, but that computer chip embedded in his pectoral muscle had to be extracted tonight, one way or another. It contained the drop-off info for a shipment of Manticore gear. And Luke needed it.

Manticore Tech was Braxton’s new enterprise, his latest supersoldier research lab. More advanced than the work he’d done thirteen years ago, back when Luke was an unlucky street kid, captured to be Obsidian’s lab rat.

Braxton had learned from his mistakes. He’d refined and honed his craft. He’d surpassed himself. Or so he claimed, bragging into the mic of Luke’s soundproof cell.

Braxton’s new supersoldiers were walking, breathing supercomputers. Invincible freaks of bioengineering. By all reports, Manticore Tech had gone above and beyond Obsidian’s sadistic research in the bad old days.

Because hell, things could always get worse. That was a fact Luke could cling to in an uncertain world.

The chip was crucial. That shipment contained a device Braxton had called his “wakey-wand.” Cute fucking name for a dangerous brain probe, one that dissolved memory blocks.

That was his plan. Just hoping like hell that Braxton’s wakey-wand would stimulate his own shredded brain. Enough to bring back memories of his vanished life.

Most likely it would just kill him. He was fine with that.

He wanted his memories back. At any cost. Without them, he was adrift to nowhere. No compelling reason to exist other than being pissed off. Wanting to punish the fuckheads.

But he didn’t want to punish Daniela LaSalle. She didn’t need to witness him carving the chip out of the courier’s chest while the unlucky bastard fought and howled.

That would look bad. It would be tricky to justify or explain. So would trapping the guy in the transport box he’d prepared, designed to block tracking implants inside the courier’s body. At least until Luke could figure out what the fuck to do with the guy. That was a blank he hadn’t filled in yet.

The obvious solution, of course, was to kill him and hide his body. The ASP processor tossed that up onto his retinal screen as the optimal plan of action, after running the numbers, calculating the data, and going off the deep end. Luke sighed. Murder was not a simple one-two-three thing, not in front of goddamn witnesses, and this quiet suburban neighborhood was not a fucking battlefield. His augmented sensory processor was useful sometimes, but totally amoral. And geared specifically for warfare. It defaulted straight to blood and guts every damn time.

Sure enough, as soon as his brain implant factored in Daniela LaSalle, the ASP promptly suggested that he kill and hide her, too. So simple and clear, whereas all the other alternatives were insanely complicated. A snap of a neck, and problem solved.

Classic Obsidian, all the way. Kill, kill, kill. They lacked imagination.

Fuck that. It just wasn’t his style.

# #

Dani stared down at her bare feet, which were propped on the coffee table, and contemplated how much energy it would require to make dinner. She’d picked up extra shifts lately at the hospital and today had been her first day off in what felt like forever. She’d had ambitious plans for it. Running, stretching, laundry. Repotting that spindly Norfolk pine, a birthday present from her work colleagues. Just looking at the poor thing made her feel guilty. Cooking a big healthy pot of chili or stew, most of which she’d ladle into single portion containers and freeze.

So far, all she’d managed was to plant her exhausted ass on the couch and stream cooking shows on her laptop. Desserts to die for were up next.

The magically speeded up assembly of a pan of apple dumplings made her think of her long lost friend Naldo and his crazy sweet tooth. The guy could eat sugar all day and never gain an ounce, the lucky dog. But Nal’s longing for goodies probably had more to do with his abuela and her fragrant kitchen back in the day. Food and love, always glued together. A subject too deep to contemplate when she was this tired.

But thinking about Naldo made her sad, so she focused her mind on the recipe.

Didn’t look hard. Store bought puff pastry sliced into ribbons, wrapped around apple chunks. Drenched in butter and sugar and cinnamon. Bubbling obscenely in the oven. She smelled it in her mind. Now she was the one writhing with sugar yearning.

Damn. Didn’t she have some wrinkly apples in the back of the veggie drawer?

Aw, bullshit. Nothing was as easy as those shows made it look. She didn’t have any store-bought pastry dough and she sure as hell wasn’t going to make it from scratch.

Get real. It was peanut butter toast for dinner. Best-case scenario, scrambled eggs.

A disembodied hand had just scooped a perfect ball of vanilla ice cream and placed it tenderly on top of the luscious dessert when the banging started.

Back door? Front door? Dani jolted up, adrenaline jangling. She held her breath, listening hard.

More banging. Scraping. From the back of the house. Like the zombie apocalypse had begun, and the zombies were at her kitchen door. Hello. How are you. We want to eat your brains.

Fuck. No joke. She was afraid. And she’d left her phone charging on the counter. She got to her feet, padding to the kitchen. Listening, listening.

Silence. Except for a low, distant throb from Garson Arena, five miles away. The band sold out the venue every year. A few fans got carried out on stretchers every time.

Her footsteps slowed as she reached the darkened kitchen entryway and peered at the small windows of the back door. No one appeared to be standing out there, but the motion sensor had switched on the porch light.

She moved closer. Felt a draft, though the door appeared to be closed. Her skin crawled.

Thud, boom. The door rattled and she stumbled backward, lunging for her phone and yanking it off the charger cord.

More banging. Louder. She jabbed at the keypad, relieved to hear the flat voice of the 911 operator. “What is the nature of your emergency?”

“Break-in. Happening now. I’m alone.” She gave her address in a low voice, moving back a few steps. Maybe she could run out the front door.

An almost inaudible moaning sound stopped her. It didn’t seem faked. It sounded like someone in pain. An accident victim or …

Dani listened for sirens. Nothing yet. Then she heard another low, grinding moan.

She eased toward the back door and peeked through the pane of glass, looking down this time. The porch light revealed a bright red smear on the steps, and then a man’s sprawled legs.

Holy shit. Someone was lying on her porch. Someone who was wounded.

She threw the door open and crouched down. The guy was short, dark, extremely thin. He lay on his side, his hand against his shirt, which was torn wide open over his bleeding chest.

He looked up into her face. She gasped in shock. “Naldo?”

“Dani.” His voice was thick and slurred.

“Oh my God. What happened to you?”

He moaned, unable to speak. She forced herself to focus. “Don’t move, Naldo. Stay down.” She scrambled up, dropping her phone, and ran back into the kitchen for clean tea towels, pulling open drawers. Bang. Not in that drawer. Bang. That one. She grabbed several and dashed back to find Naldo somehow dragging himself over the threshold of the open door.

“Whoa!” She seized him under the armpits and pulled him all the way inside, trying to be careful and gentle. “I got you. Let me do the work.” He was so thin and scrawny. Always had been, but he was almost skeletal now.

They’d been troubled kids back in the day. Forever in the deepest of shit and never escaping the consequences. Best friends, come hell or high water, with a powerful bond.

Then, about six years ago, Naldo had vanished. She’d looked everywhere for him, worried sick. No trace of him had ever turned up.

Years had crawled by … and nothing.

“Can you talk?” she asked.

He gritted his teeth. “Y-yes.” A fading whisper. “Hurts, though.”

“Stay with me,” she said, keeping her gaze on his unfocused eyes. Keeping him in this world. Naldo let out a cry as Dani pressed a folded tea towel against his chest wound.

Her dropped phone rang. She glanced at the screen. The 911 operator came on, calling her back. Why? She realized that the faint sound of a siren had faded away.

Fuck. The police had to be all over that arena for the big concert.

Dani reached with her free hand, tapped the screen to connect the call and activated speakerphone. She explained and gave her address again when asked. “Send an ambulance,” she said. “Not for me. For a friend. He’s been stabbed. Hurry.” Her voice sounded tinny and small in her own ears. He might bleed out, she wanted to shriek.

Naldo stared up at the ceiling. His eyes looked vague and blank.

Do not die. Do not die.

Her training kept right on mechanically doing what needed to be done.

The operator said something she didn’t fully hear. “… will be there in mumblemumble minutes … ” Something like that. Naldo lifted his hand but not for long. It fell onto her bare thigh, right below her frayed shorts and slid off again, leaving a bloody handprint above her knee.

She circled her fingers around his wrist, feeling for a pulse. Irregular. Barely there. Naldo was in shock and going down fast.

His dark eyes were sunk deep into their shadowy sockets, but they had a crazy glow, and his pupils looked strange, one larger than the other. The blood dripping onto the kitchen floor made her gently turn his head to see if—

Yes. He was bleeding out of his ear. Brain trauma.

Do not die.

His face gleamed with sweat, though his skin was cool and clammy. “Dani,” he croaked. “Don’t have much time. Have to … tell you—”

“Later. Don’t worry, I’m sticking to you like glue, buddy.”

“Can’t wait,” he whispered feebly. “Almost gone.”

“Help is on the way. I’m here. Look at me.”

He did, raising his hand again like he wanted to touch her face. It spasmed into a claw that hooked his torn shirt, opening it more. Dani hissed between her teeth at the sight of the nasty slash dripping fresh blood. The tea towel she’d used was soaked. She tossed it aside and pressed a dry one against the wound.

Then she saw the scars on his sunken chest. Someone had carved the living shit out of him. But it had happened long before whatever had happened tonight.

Just looking at that ugly, snarled crosshatch of raised white marks made her sick at heart. She might never know who’d tortured him, but if she did and when she did …

He reached up, shifting the tea towel so that his fingers pushed on the side of the wound, not over it. Blood welled out, gushing down his chest.

“No!” She cried out in protest and tried to stop him, but he batted her hand away in a surge of strength.

Then something caught the light. Even smeared with blood, it gleamed as it poked out of the edge of the wound. Bright and metallic.

Naldo groped for it, gasping as the pressure of his fingers popped it out of his ravaged flesh, along with another rush of blood.

It rolled over his chest and clinked on the floor tiles. A bloody metal capsule. A bullet? Didn’t look like one. Didn’t look like anything she’d ever seen, in fact.

She covered the wound with the tea towel and pressed down, fighting panic. Where was the goddamn ambulance? She could answer that question. Picking up overgrown brats who’d overdosed on bad molly in the mosh pit at the arena. While her best friend in the world once upon a time lay here dying on her kitchen floor.

His mouth quivered, trying to form words. “J-j-juvie,” he gasped out. “Listen, Dani. Juvie. It’ll show you the key.”

“Show me what?” She was trying to calculate how much blood he might have lost before he got to her door, and he was raving now, irrational, his mind going back to their long-ago stint in juvenile detention. “I don’t want to remember that place.”

“No. No. It’s in your skin now.” His voice had gained a little strength.

“What about my skin? You’re the one who’s bleeding, Naldo.”

“Juvie,” he panted out. “I’m sorry to put it on you. So sorry. No choice.”

“It’s OK.” But she was totally bewildered.

“You have to help her, Dani. I tried. Didn’t … couldn’t … ”

“Help who?”

“Ivy. Please … help Ivy.”

Dani shook her head, still lost. “Who is she? Someone we met in juvie? I don’t remember an Ivy.”

He breathed in heavy wheezing gasps, white-rimmed eyes staring wildly. “Manticore. Watch out for them. They’ll … come after you now. I put you in danger.”

“Naldo, enough. The ambulance will be here soon. Whatever happened, you’re safe now.”

“No time left. You gotta stop them.” Fluid was bubbling in his throat. He stopped to cough, wincing. “You’re strong. Smart. You could try … to stop them.”

His voice trailed off. His pulse fluttered. The tea towel was soggy with blood but the gaping wound wasn’t pumping it out. Maybe he would live.

Of course. If her magic chant—do not die—actually worked. If only.

Time was running out. Naldo had the look and vibe of someone sliding past the point of no return, probably because of what was going on inside his skull, about which she could do exactly nothing, and where was that fucking ambulance? A distant wail grew faintly louder.

Dani grabbed a fresh tea towel with her red, sticky hand, folded it and pressed it to his chest. “Stop who? Stay with me, buddy. You’re gonna be OK.”

“No. I’m done,” he whispered. “Too much stim. Coming apart. Sorry.”

“Don’t say that!” There was a frantic edge to her voice that she couldn’t control. He was slipping away. She’d waited for Naldo to come back for years. Here he was at last, but mortally wounded.

What a fucking cosmic joke.

She focused on his other hand for the first time, and saw a flash of steel. His fingers clutched a small but deadly looking knife, drenched in blood.

A horrible thought came to her. “Naldo … did you cut yourself?”

His eyes flickered open. Blood trickled from his nostrils. “Had to.” A faint puff of breath. “Juvie. Read it. Help Ivy. Stop them. You always wanted to stop people from … hurting. That’s … what you do.”

“You have to help me,” she told him desperately. “Come on, Naldo! Don’t do this to me! It’s not fair! I just found you!”

He could no longer hear her. He was unconscious, his heartbeat barely perceptible.

All she could do was hold the towel to his chest, which no longer even seemed to rise and fall, and stare at the gray stillness stealing over his face.

Like a shadow on a tomb.

End of Excerpt