Light Me Up

Book Four in The Obsidian Files

All night long …

Tycoon and secret supersoldier Noah Gallagher never expected to beat the Obsidian Group at their evil game—genetically altering runaway kids—but he did, with the help of the brave and beautiful Caro Bishop, the love of his life. The two of them survived that wild adventure, but only just. Noah is crazy for his new bride, knowing all the while that being with him puts her at constant risk. Their love, their closeness, and the intense passion they share are shadowed by fear. Obsidian’s relentless hunt to recapture its rebels will never stop. Noah would die to save her—but now is not the time to tell her that.

Caro’s relaxing on their deluxe honeymoon in Italy, rediscovering treasures of Renaissance art, when they’re invited to the public unveiling of the latest secret sensation in the art world, the newly excavated Cross of Orazio. Caro is beyond thrilled. Noah is not. The guest list is packed with politicians, corporate moguls, celebrities, and entourages. Social media coverage will follow them everywhere.

Caro’s wild to go and Noah can’t deny her pleasure of any kind. They’ll stay off the red carpet. Admire the cross and leave for an erotic rendezvous he’s planned in advance, right down to the rose petals and silken cords. What could go wrong?

Everything. The fabled Cross of Orazio is more than it seems, and now he and Caro are right in the line of fire …

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Chapter 1

The wine was great, but it didn’t take the edge off Noah Gallagher’s razor-wire tension. Caro, his bride, was giving him that worried look from across the restaurant table.

Damn. There was no off-switch for the battle program raging in his head.

He wanted everything to be perfect for Caro. Including himself. Good goddamn luck with that. After the shitshow they’d barely survived a couple months ago, he was wound up even tighter than he’d been pre-Caro, which was really saying something.

Now it was all about her. Protecting her, defending her, pleasing her. His rebel band of mutant misfits back home were laughing at him, but he was too in love to care. He was the owner and CEO of Angel Industries, and the hundred-million-dollar biomed company he’d founded didn’t require his constant presence onsite. Besides, he’d organized his life so that he ran the show. Everywhere. Always.

But not with Caro. With her, all bets were off. She was fascinating, mysterious, brilliant. Bad-ass in every way. He was humbled by her. Dazzled. His Obsidian-modified eyesight saw and analyzed people’s energy auras, and Caro’s shifting clouds of color mesmerized him. Next he’d be taming a goddamn unicorn for her to ride.

Shit. He couldn’t afford to be giddy. Couldn’t stop it either.

He couldn’t dial down the hyper-vigilance, although everything here seemed OK…so far. The bistro Caro had chosen was hidden away in the medieval Trastevere district of Rome. Quaint, picturesque. He sat with his back to a stone wall painted an earthy terra-cotta color, blooming honeysuckle draping down so low the flowers practically tickled his shoulders.

Their corner table by the burbling fountain kept other diners at a safe distance. Caro had been charmed by the bronze nymph pouring water over the mosaic bowl. Copper lanterns flickered on the high garden walls, casting complicated decorative shadows. Candles glowed on the table. Very romantic. Good thing no one was hiding in the shadows. He was sure of it. He’d checked. More than once.

They’d fueled up on amazing spaghetti carbonara, then a plate of delicious local cheeses and fresh fruit. The waiter had just delivered Caro’s slice of ricotta cheesecake flavored faintly with orange. All excellent. There was nothing not to like.

He should be relaxed, mellow. Licking his chops at what the night might bring. Feeling smug for actually getting Caro to marry him, even after all the crazy shit that happened to them. Even after she learned the startling truth about him.

It still blew his mind that she’d said yes. It probably always would.

But he knew better than to take good things for granted. He was going to show Caro an amazing time in Europe. He meant to indulge her slightest whim. Only the best for his lady. Every hotel, every meal, every shopping binge, every experience had to be fucking epic.

He had no time to get data-slammed by programming permanently installed in his head. Bullet trajectories, facial-recog checks, threat assessments, a constant stream of kill plans—they buzzed in there like angry wasps. None of it had anything to do with her. It wasn’t remotely fucking fair that she had to deal with it. On any level.

He tried to hide it, but he couldn’t. Not from Caro. It stressed her out, too, though she was playing it cool right now.

But he wasn’t. Which drove home just how damaged he was by the creepy techno-shit done to him years ago in the Midlands labs. Genetic mods, cybernetic implants, brain stimulation. In his own particular case, aggressive ocular enhancement.

Augmented visual processing, otherwise known as AVP.

The better to see you with, my dear. Now that he had Caro to look at, his turbocharged AVP was finally good for something he gave a shit about.

Caro looked smoking hot in the dark blue dress he’d bought for her in Paris. Stretchy, silky fabric lovingly crisscrossed over her beautiful tits. His latest gift, a large diamond pendant, sparkled at the hollow at her throat. The diamond and sapphire engagement ring he’d given her glittered on one hand, her wedding band glowed softly on the other. He loved the way they looked on her slender fingers.

Her big, gorgeous gray-green eyes gleamed as she studied him. Her lips were full and red, curved by a cautious hint of a smile as she brushed back a lock of long, curly dark hair lifted by the breeze.

He wanted to reach across the table and stroke her face, just to remind his fingertips of the creamy fine, hot smoothness of her skin. To assure himself that she was real. This whole thing was real.

If he managed not to torpedo it with his bizarre modifications, that is.

He pushed the thought away and focused on the dress, remembering how the soft fabric yielded to his hands and mouth when he caressed the silken warmth of her breasts. The dress was holding up well so far. So it should, considering what he’d paid for it.

The waiter stopped at his elbow, startling Noah out of his erotic reverie and zinging him into full battle readiness—

No. Breathe. He forced himself to nod courteously to the waiter, who calmly refilled Noah’s wine glass. For a split second, the guy’s appreciative gaze dropped to Caro’s cleavage. Then he moved on to another table.

Noah’s phone hummed in his pocket. Caro’s eyes flicked toward it. “Hannah again?”

So she knew his ringtones. He didn’t want to answer. His relationship with his little sister Hannah was…well…complicated was one way to put it.

“I’ll see what she wants later,” he said.

“It’s the fifth time,” she observed. “Maybe you should answer.”

“I already know why she’s calling,” Noah said. “I read all the texts. She’s guilt-tripping me about not rushing to Asa’s bedside. And for not racing home to see Luke now that he’s finally been found.”

Caro’s graceful dark brows rose. “Family’s important,” she said. “No one knows that better than you.”

Noah grunted. “Luke’s not going anywhere. I talked to him. He’s doing great. He’s madly in love with that woman he met, Dani LaSalle. And he’s feeling no pain. I talked to Asa, too, several times. He’ll be released from the hospital soon. There’s no rush. For any of them.”

“Maybe not.” Caro took a bite of her dessert and considered his words as she savored it. “But I get why Hannah was scared for him. Bullet to the abdomen, nicked liver, massive internal bleeding. It was touch and go for a while.”

“He’ll be fine,” Noah repeated, more forcefully. Thinking about Asa at death’s door was the last thing he wanted to do on his honeymoon. His brother was a goddamn idiot, mixing himself up in Obsidian business. Asa wasn’t Midlands-modified, hadn’t been hardwired, didn’t have advanced sensory processing to protect him.

What the fuck had Asa been thinking, going off with the team on a rescue mission?

In fact, Noah was pissed at the entire crowd. They’d gotten into all kinds of near-lethal trouble since he’d left, as if to punish him for taking time away. First Zade and Simone almost got themselves killed, and he and Caro had ended up rushing back home for that whole drama. Then, on their second honeymoon attempt, Luke finally emerged from his nerve-rattling year of being MIA. Just in time for a huge firefight involving one and all, in which Asa had ended up gut-shot, dangling from a goddamn helicopter.

The fuck? Couldn’t they all just keep their heads down and behave? Just for a few weeks? Was that so much to ask?

“I’ll talk to them all later,” he said again. “They just keep pressuring me to make a decision about Brenner.”

A shadow flashed over Caro’s face at the mention of Brenner, the Obsidian slave soldier cruelly exploited by their nemesis, Mark Olund. They’d won their battle with Mark a few weeks ago—only barely. Noah, Caro, and the rest of his team survived. The same couldn’t be said for Mark’s kidnapped Obsidian slave soldiers.

Four had died. The fifth, Brenner, ended up comatose, cared for at Asa’s secret mountain fortress until some weeks ago. Until he woke up…and joined their team.

“You can’t put Hannah off forever.” Caro’s voice was neutral, but he sensed her disapproval. If he hadn’t been wearing full-protection shield contact lenses, he’d be able to see it in the shifting arrays of colors and patterns that pulsed around her body. Her energy signatures. Sigs, he called them.

Caro’s sig was special. Unique. The most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. He didn’t appreciate having a grim scroll of combat data racing across his field of vision while he was admiring it.

She forked up a bite of the dessert and held it out, a seductive challenge in her eyes.

“Try this,” she commanded him. “It’s amazing.”

He ate it, but was too busy monitoring the positions of everyone in the room to actually taste it. Diners, waiters, busboys, cashier. He’d run background checks on everyone already. Had to, for anyone in the same room as his wife for any period of time.

Yeah, it was paranoid overkill. He knew it, owned it. It changed nothing.

“Noah,” Caro said. “You’re doing it again.”

He went on the defensive. “Doing what?”

“I feel your AVP going full bore. All the time.”

“And?” He tried not to sound belligerent, with limited success. “So? What if it is?”

“Nothing.” She took another bite, closing her eyes with sensual bliss. “You can take a rest,” she told him. “Nobody’s gunning for us here. Relax. At least try.”

“I do try,” he said stiffly. “And I do relax. In the suite.”

Their hotel prepared excellent food and Caro was a good sport about ordering room service, knowing how badly he needed the down time. But that didn’t change the fact that she loved wandering around Rome, trying the little out-of-the-way places recommended by offbeat blogs and travel guides.

He had to bite a whole lot of bullets, but he hung in there.

“Right,” she said wryly. “With the blinds down. While you peer through the cracks. You’re on red alert all the time.”

He hated being the one who’d put that worried look on her face. “Caro, look. I’m stimmed up to be hyper-vigilant. I’d turn it off if I could.”

She propped her chin on her hand, studying him with narrowed eyes, like he was a puzzle she fully intended to figure out. “There must be a way.”

Hell. She’d just handed it to him. “Well, uh…now that you mention it…”

She laughed at his obvious lustful eagerness. “Of course, there’s that. You insatiable sex god, you. But we can’t always be rolling around in bed.”

“We can’t?” God, that smile just got him going. “I can tone it down, if you want,” he offered. “The insatiable sex. If I’m overdoing it. Say the word.”

“Like hell. I love it all. I don’t want it toned down, and you know it.”

“Yeah? Then I’m in. Strip me bare. Don’t ever stop.”

She said nothing, just swept a heavy lock of curling hair off her face, though the curls tumbled promptly back again. She reached out, trailed her fingers in the flow from the nymph fountain and flicked a few drops at him. “Cool down,” she said softly.

“Can’t. Your fault.” That secret smile of hers just stirred him up from someplace so deep, he couldn’t even hope to control it. He couldn’t block it out or breathe it down.

Ironic. Control was his big thing. It meant the difference between survival and disaster. Always had. But Caro blew his control to hell and gone.

He fought to reclaim it. They were in a crowded restaurant and all he wanted was to kiss her madly. Any kind of kiss. From just feeling her cheek with his lips to sensual neck nibbles to ravenously taking her willing mouth and everything amazing that followed. He couldn’t get enough.

He was rock hard and aching now, and they still had the walk back through Trastevere and over the Sisto Bridge before them. He just had to grit his teeth and suffer.

“Do you want coffee before we go?” she asked, all innocence. “Or another taste of this creamy, tangy, amazing cheesecake before it disappears forever? Last call.”

“I’m all done with the food part of the evening,” he informed her.

He gestured for the check and they left soon after, strolling on the narrow, cobblestoned streets. Wending their way through the labyrinth of old Rome on a warm spring evening with Caro by his side was a prelude to what they both were silently craving. Waiting was its own sweet, agonizing pleasure. But not for much longer.

On they went. Caro’s light handclasp, the now-and-then pressure of her sinuous body against his as she leaned against him was crazy sexy.

And still.

He scanned every door, every window. Registered every knowing glance, every guy who checked Caro out. Sized up each tourist or street musician as a potential hostile. Peered up through the fluttering laundry strung back and forth over the narrow streets, scanning rooftops and garden terraces, shuttered windows and ornate balconies for snipers.

Caro took it all in, slowing down to study a few of the small religious shrines that they passed, admiring the bold graffiti painted onto the metal sliding doors of closed businesses. Noah let go of her hand, crossing in back of her to clasp her other hand.

“Keeping my dominant hand free,” he said, in answer to her questioning glance.

She frowned at him. “Why? For what? Are you wearing a weapon?”

He let out a harsh laugh under his breath. “Caro. I am a weapon.”

Literally true, if also an evasion. There was a knife strapped to his calf, after all.

She rolled her eyes and glanced pointedly down at his leg. “Oh please,” she said. “Get over yourself.”

OK, whatever. She was completely on to him. He’d just have to get used to that.

They reached Ponte Sisto, and Caro leaned over the stonework of the bridge to look down at the gleaming dark water of the river below. She had that worried look again.

He leaned closer to her. “Caro,” he said. “Give me a break. I have to be careful. We’re spending time in public places. Tourists are posting photos and videos all over social media that might include us. Facial recognition software could give us away. I have to be ready.”

She shook her head, her eyes rebellious. “I just wish you could take a break.”

“Do I look like I’m depriving myself? I’m dragging you back to the hotel where I intend to drag you into my vortex of savage lust. What more could a guy want?”

“I’m not talking about sex, Noah. But I wish there was someplace where your guard could come down. For real.”

“There is,” he said with alacrity. “With you.”

She slanted him a wary glance. “Aw,” she said. “That’s sweet.”

“Not really,” he said. “Just the truth. Only time it ever has. And believe me. I’m not complaining.”

He took her hand again, and they got moving, walking in silence after they crossed the river.

Caro squeezed his hand. “So how much longer do you want to stay in Rome?”

“You tell me,” he replied. “How much longer do you need?”

“Dangerous question. I could spend months here looking at all the glorious art and architecture. There’s so much to see.” The expression on his face made her smile. “But I won’t,” she assured him. “Don’t worry.”

“It’s OK,” he said, stoically. “I can take it.”

And he could. Truth was, Noah genuinely liked looking at art. Considerably more than most guys did. He collected art himself. Even created some of his own, if his animal carvings could be counted. But nothing could have prepared him for the kind of intense over-the-top art worship that Caro had in mind once they got to Europe.

Her every wish was his command, though. She was a goddess. She’d been through hell on earth, and she’d fought back the powers of darkness like a boss. She deserved to be indulged for as long as she fucking felt like it. He was fully committed to that enterprise.

His survival technique, when he’d had enough of paintings and frescoes and sculptures and yikes, gift shops, was as simple as it was effective. He just gazed at Caro while she wandered through museums, churches, palaces. She was particularly beautiful when she was looking at stuff that she thought was beautiful. He loved the way her eyes shone, the slowly revolving mantle of rainbow colors that fluctuated around her.

There was only so much medieval art he could look at in a given day, but he could look at her grooving on it all for-fucking-ever without getting tired.

Caro slowed down as they strolled past the Trevi Fountain. The massive sculptures of sea horses and mythical water gods were illuminated by glowing lamps that cast glimmering liquid shadows over the surrounding buildings. The effect was like a huge energy sig. Caro gazed around the square as the breeze lifted her dark cloud of ringlets.

He leaned down, on impulse. Kissed her swiftly and hungrily, savoring the flavor of her lips, her silken texture. A hint of the wine they’d shared.

She vibrated with emotion in his arms, pressing against him. He slid his hand up the warm curve of her back, and his calluses snagged over the fine fabric as he gripped her waist. “Let’s get back to the hotel,” he said thickly. “Now.

Almost there. They headed up the Spanish Steps at a swift clip. He had to exert all his willpower to not drag her at a sprint like a sex-crazed lout.

She didn’t have the shoes for it.

Chapter 2

Noah’s urgent pace had Caro panting by the time they reached the gated archway of their hotel. He kept her hand clasped firmly in his, his gaze constantly sweeping the empty street behind them for the brief time it took to be buzzed in by security.

His unwavering insistence upon both extreme luxury and absolute safety had narrowed their lodging options way down, but she had at long last found one that fit his exacting standards. The cost of the Residence Santa Sofia had left her speechless, but Noah didn’t care about the money. It was a beautiful baroque palace converted into a hotel. Classic columns, stunning statuary, and vaulted ceilings for her, top of the line security for him. Everyone was happy.

As happy as Noah would permit himself to be, at least.

She walked faster to keep pace with him through the flowering gardens in the central courtyard, into the lobby, and past the bar. They entered the elevator where they stood side by side, eyeing each other, intensely conscious of the security camera mounted high in the corner of the elevator cab.

The heat and strength of Noah’s hand said it all. He barely ever kissed her in public, taking his personal mandate of protecting her from danger very seriously, but when they were out sightseeing, wandering through ruins or palaces or museums, the sexual tension kept mounting all day long, until it swelled into something both delicious and excruciating. The constant pull of controlled desire. The fierce glow of his eyes, endlessly fascinated by her.

Whoosh. The bronze doors opened. Noah kept close by her side as they reached their suite, where he entered the long security code into the keypad. The door lock clicked. The door swung open.

Sometimes, the grip of his tension locked him in place for a while even after the door shut and they were finally alone. He’d just stand there, stiff and silent, gazing at her with a smoldering intensity that made her thighs press together. He was so fine. So big and strong, with that hard, massive body. So powerful, so focused.

So insatiably hungry for her.

She loved this part. Playing it cool while he burned red-hot. Trying to remember how to breathe as she bent down to unbuckle her high-heeled sandals.

She tugged them off. “Those cobblestones are killers. I’m wearing sneakers next time.”

“Want me to rub your feet?”

“Maybe after,” she murmured. “Like, after.”

“Before, after, whatever and whenever you want it. I’m your man.”

“Lucky me.” She smiled at him, scooping all her hair up into a loose coil on her head. It wouldn’t stay there long. She didn’t want it to. Caro arched her back and thrust her chest forward.

His smoldering gaze heated her up from the inside. He lifted his phone, tapping the app he’d recently designed that made the black full-protection shield in his contact lenses go suddenly transparent. She loved that moment, when the gorgeous blaze of luminous, back-lit amber in his eyes was finally revealed.

Her nipples had his full attention. Ever so lightly, she brushed her fingertips over them. The mesmerized look in his eyes turned her on so much she could barely breathe.

“Do you like to watch me do that?” she whispered.

“Yeah,” he growled. “Can’t look away.”

“Good. Don’t.” She released her hair, and let the coil unwind as she came a little closer, enjoying the soothing coolness of the ceramic floor tiles against her bare feet. “I love it that I can’t wear a bra with this dress. The back plunges too low.” She swept her hair to the front and turned, giving him a long look at her ass curves draped in silk. Cock-teasing him was pure delight. “It’s logistically impossible. See?”

“I’ll be damned,” he muttered.

She waited for more from him, but his words had dried up again.

But all was not lost. A quick glance at the fit of his pants showed that the dress and the nipples had done their appointed task. Good.

Time to take pity on him…and herself. Foreplay all day long, whew. A woman could only take so much of that.

One more delicate nudge ought to break his spell.

She turned around again, putting herself just outside his reach. “I’m so…hot,” she said huskily. “Gotta get this off.” She crossed her arms over her chest, hooking her fingers into the shoulder straps, easing them off her shoulders and peeling the stretchy bodice down with seductive slowness. The fabric dragging over her breasts felt good.

Then she was half-naked. Hands cupping her breasts. Waiting to breathe.

Your move.

In the dimness and the exquisite, time-stopped silence, she could just barely make out the panther flash of his eyes. His throat worked. He was getting off on this, too. The air was so charged with sex, she felt the weight and heat of it on her skin.

Noah stepped forward and seized her wrists, opening her arms. With one deft move, he pulled both her hands behind her back, letting her arch and strain luxuriously against him, her bare breasts pressed against his shirt.

His mouth flirted with hers, a playful dance that promised wild unbridled kissing. She loved the faint rasp of his end-of-day stubble against her cheek.

Finally, his lips met hers all the way. Warm and soft and searching…making her wait, straining for more contact, on tiptoes, gasping with breathless eagerness.

The first flick of his tongue against hers made her control snap.

She yanked her hands free to seize him, fingers sliding in frustration over the shirt. She unbuttoned it fast, dragging it out of his pants. Heard his shoes rolling as he kicked them off.

His wordless growl of excitement vibrated against her throat as he scooped her up against his chest. The shadowy room tipped and spun…and then she was draped over a stack of fat satin pillows piled on a long couch. Head thrown back, hair spread around, spilling everywhere. Offering her breasts to him. Moaning with pleasure at the deep pull as he suckled one nipple, then the other. Her taut body rose eagerly against his skillful mouth as Noah teased and coaxed and insisted, tender and relentless.

Erotic sensations crashed and throbbed through her, deep and rhythmic.

After, she lay there on the pillows, floating on air. Boneless, shimmering. Her head fell to the side, cradled on cool satin.

Noah was nuzzling her breasts and caressing her pussy through her lace panties. Light circular strokes, promising more to come. There was no hurry. They had all night.

He looked pleased with himself. Still wearing his shirt, even though she’d managed to tear it open. But his belt was still holding up his pants. And that just wouldn’t do at all.

She grabbed the buckle. Tugged imperiously until Noah rose up to his feet, his ripped-steel torso blasting heat at her. Blatantly displaying himself.

“Get those clothes off,” she commanded. “Double quick.”

He shrugged the shirt off and dropped it. “Fast enough?”

She was about to reply when they heard the muted buzz. They both froze at the sound. They looked around for the source. A text alert. The phone in her evening bag.

In any other universe, she would never have interrupted anything this excellent to check a phone, but recent events in her life had left their mark. Danger stalked them and everyone they cared about. Any news could be bad news.

Noah always checked texts as soon as he got them. So did she. They didn’t even apologize to each other for doing it any longer. It was understood.

Noah retrieved the phone from the bag and handed it to her as she pulled up the top half of her dress.

Caro peered at the glowing screen. “It’s Asa,” she said, startled.

“Huh? Asa?” Noah’s brows drew together. “What the hell?”

She tapped the screen. Weird. She and Noah’s brother Asa knew each other, but they’d only met a few times, under wild and stressful circumstances. Apart from the wedding, of course, which had been wild and stressful in its own right.

“What does he want?”

Caro scrolled through the texts. “Hang on. There’s a bunch of them. Five, actually. No, six.”

“Why is he texting you?” He ignored her reproving look. “Never mind. Read them.”

“So he asks, what do you give a couple who has everything,” she read, frowning at the phone. “And asks if I remember what we talked about at the reception.”

“I don’t remember you talking to him,” Noah said. “Was that before or after we fed each other double chocolate fudge cake and pledged our undying love?”

“After,” she said absently, though she’d noticed the edge in Noah’s tone. Something about his younger brother always got his back up.

“Uh-huh. And he needs to discuss it again, like right fucking now because…?”

“I don’t know why now. You’d have to ask him.”

Noah made a move for the phone, but Caro held on to it. “I didn’t mean that literally. Anyway, he’s referring to an article we both read. About the excavation of the Cross of Orazio di Coronna.”

“What’s that?”

“A legendary five-hundred-year-old cross, twelve feet high, decorated with carved religious scenes and covered with priceless gold and gems,” Caro explained, still reading. “Lost to the world for centuries, until recently. It was found, and the art world went nuts.”

“Really. And when exactly did Asa become an art lover?”

She shrugged off the pointed question. “He’s just sharing the update, Noah. He knows I love that legend, and it turns out to be real. It was so awesome.”

“Uh-huh.”

“OK, next-to-last text. Oh, wow. This is incredible.” Her eyes were fixed on the phone’s screen. “They’re unveiling it! At a conference on global economic innovation.”

“Woohoo. We weren’t invited and we’re not going to gate-crash.”

Caro ignored his noticeable lack of enthusiasm. “There’s a big ceremony at the Palazzo Bellocchio, right outside of Rome. Politicians and celebrities and God knows who else. And Asa knows a guy who can get us in!”

She looked up at Noah’s face, and was taken aback by the fury in his eyes.

“The fuck?” he growled.

End of Excerpt

Light Me Up by Shannon McKenna

Dec 10, 2018

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