by J. D. Tyler
Author: J. D. Tyler
Zan and Nick pulled Ryon to his feet. Rowan returned Jax's gun to him, then turned away while Ryon dressed, too eaten with guilt to appreciate the sight of his fine naked body. He'd sacrificed himself for her-a stranger-without a second thought and nearly died for his trouble.
As a cop, putting herself on the line for people she didn't know was what she did. Why did it bother her to be on the receiving end?
When everyone was ready, Nick gestured toward the back door. "Let's stay together this time and follow the ghosts' advice to get a move on. I'm sensing it won't be long before reinforcements show up. "
They headed for the back stoop and filed inside cautiously, Rowan in the middle of the line. She couldn't see as well in the gloom as they likely could, but her sense of smell didn't need to be equal to theirs to guess what waited for them. The stench clogged her lungs, and fear for Micah seized her heart.
"Holy Christ," Kalen gasped from somewhere in front. "I know Chappell and his docs don't care about how they hurt others with their experiments, but how can they stand to work in this awful smell?"
"Probably just used to it," Nick said.
Someone found a light switch and flipped it on. The group stood in the area that used to house the pews but now was a large, mostly empty room. A utility table and folding chairs were placed near one wall, and four camping cots topped with sleeping bags and pillows were in different corners.
"Where did the scientists go?" she wondered aloud.
Nick answered. "They're either hiding while waiting for more backup, or went into the nearest town for a while and have no clue we're here. This way. "
A set of double doors at the rear of the room took them into a hallway leading to what had once been classrooms where various groups had held their Bible studies. Now many of the rooms were full of computers and lab equipment. Methodically, the men checked each room along the way for booby traps, locating five trip wires attached to explosives, which they carefully disarmed.
At the end of the hallway, the smell, unbelievably, got worse. Nick eased the last door open, looked down, and pointed. Jax got busy dismantling the last trip wire, and then they were in. Jax flipped on the light, and they rushed inside-straight into a nightmare.
"Aw, fuck me," Hammer moaned.
Rowan stared, unable to process what she was seeing. Cages lined two walls of what might've once been a storage room, currently being used as a prison. And inside the small cages were men. Filthy, naked men too large for the restrictive space, lying curled on their sides. Some staring and unresponsive to their arrival, some unconscious.
There. A man with long, tangled brown hair. Could it be. . . ?
She was moving before she realized it. "Micah?" Reaching the cage, she dropped to her knees-and the air left her lungs. She'd know her brother anywhere, no matter how changed his appearance. She rattled the door and cried out. "Somebody find a key! Micah!"
Zan knelt beside her and sniffed the air. "By God, it is him!" He touched the bars and quickly drew his hand back with a curse. "Silver, and this stuff burns. We're going to need gloves," he called out.
"Aric's over here," Jax shouted.
Ryon jingled a key ring. "These were hanging on the wall. We'll just have to try them and see if any fit. " He tossed it to Zan, then walked over to a workbench, grabbed an old rag, and brought it over. "No gloves. Use this. "
First Zan tried the keys one by one until at last one fit the lock. He turned it, careful not to brush the silver bars again, then used the rag to open the door before handing the ring to Ryon by the correct key. "Hopefully this is a master that'll open the others. "
Ryon moved off, but Rowan's attention was solely on the still form of her brother. When Zan started to move forward, she pushed him back. "Let me. I'm strong enough to move a person and there's no sense in you getting burned. "
Not waiting for the man's answer, she got down into a low crouch, inching her upper half into the cage. Resolutely tamping down the rage at Micah's horrid condition, she grabbed him under his arms and began to drag him backward. When she had his shoulders out, Zan helped and together they laid him on the floor between them.
The physical mess that had once been a gorgeous man broke her heart. His once lean, athletic build was emaciated, his collarbones and every one of his ribs visible. His hair was matted and greasy, and his bearded face. . .
She sucked in a breath, tears pricking her eyes. All their lives, Micah had turned heads everywhere he went because of his nearly blinding beauty, which shone from both within and without. Someone had taken great pains to destroy that wonderful light. The left side of his face from the bridge of his nose, down his cheek, and curling under his jaw, was a puckered expanse of scar tissue that his uneven beard had not grown over. It appeared healed, and looked very much like the perpetrator had poured something hot over that side of his face.
"I'll kill them all. " She didn't realize she'd said that aloud until Zan spoke.
"You'll have to stand in line. " Zan's serious gaze met hers.
She looked back to her brother. "You're going to be all right now. I love you. "
"Come on, honey. Move back and let us help him. "
Normally she would've torn the man a new one for calling her "honey" while ordering her away from the one person who meant the most to her. It was a testament to how shell-shocked she was that she didn't argue, but simply stood and watched Zan perform what healing he could on Micah's scar-riddled body.
Elation at finding him alive warred with helplessness. She was a human out of her depth in a game of monsters, as ineffectual as a fly on a dragon's ass. The other activity in the space near her finally registered and she glanced around to observe the others, busy removing four more victims from their cramped prisons.
Immediately her attention was snagged by Jaxon bent over one of the men, his expression one of pure anguish.
"Aric, I'm sorry. So sorry," he repeated. "I had to save my mate, but you have to believe I didn't mean for this to happen. Please-"
"Jax?" Aric's voice was hoarse, and he swallowed as though talking was extremely painful.
"Shut the fuck up before you give me an aneurysm. "
Ryon covered Aric's lower half with a blanket, grinning. "You haven't lost your charm, I see. "
"Fuck you, too, twerp. "
Jax choked out a half laugh, half sob and fell quiet, but he didn't let go of his friend's hand. Curious, Rowan edged closer to get a better look at Aric. . . and the air left her lungs. This time for an entirely different reason.
The man was, quite simply, beautiful.
He was tall and lean, with a broad, muscular chest. A stunning Celtic tattoo swirled over his left pectoral and over his shoulder, the head of a howling wolf set in the center of the design. Long, dark auburn hair that must have fallen halfway down his back pooled around his head. His face was chiseled, with high cheekbones and full, sensual lips. A nice, square masculine jaw that weeks of not being able to shave couldn't hide saved his countenance from being too pretty, and piercing green eyes held more than a little cynicism, like life had taken a giant dump in his front yard one too many times.
He looked like a proud man, she thought. Gazing at the ceiling, muscles tense, tight lines bracketing his fine mouth. He hated being vulnerable in front of his Pack, hated to need anyone. Even them. How she knew this she couldn't say, but she did. Something about him drew her, and she almost smiled at the image of the proverbial moth and flame. Would have if the situation hadn't been so serious.
Then his head turned and those green eyes found hers. Pain and exhaustion shadowed their depths, but his spark of stubbornness refused to give in. Slowly, his lips tilted up. "Well, I must be dead after all," he said softly. "If this is heaven, sign me up, angel. "
His dark lashes swept closed and his body went slack. She tried to recall the last time a man had s
aid anything to her that was so. . . poetic, and sort of suggestive. Her brain came up pathetically empty.
Shaken, Rowan stared at the unconscious man for a few seconds, then returned to her brother's side, telling herself she needed to stay with him. She'd never run from anyone or anything in her life.
And she sure wasn't about to start with a smart-mouthed, redheaded wolf shifter with killer green eyes. She could handle him.
Aric awoke to the scent of clean sheets and antiseptic. He was lying on something soft, his body cocooned by warmth. A bed, cushioning his hurts.
For a while he lay still, wondering how that could be. He struggled to recall, and foggy images crept in.
Torture. His body invaded. Despair. Discovering Micah. Jax, his brothers, suddenly there-along with a stunning woman. Then he must've passed out.
Was he safe, then? His eyelids didn't want to cooperate, but he finally coaxed them open. When his bleary vision cleared, he could've wept. This was the compound's infirmary. After weeks of hell, he was home.
A wave of emotions threatened to drown him, but he fought it down. No sense to bawl like a damned baby now that he was tucked firmly in the bosom of his Pack. Compared to Micah, he wasn't even in such bad shape. He lifted one hand to his face and realized someone, probably a nurse, had shaved off the itchy beard. That made him feel somewhat better.
"Hey, how's my favorite redhead?" Mackenzie slipped into his room, shutting the door behind her, and came to stand by his bed. The woman had that pleasant doctor expression down pat-friendly and encouraging her patient to spill his guts.
"Ready to party. " Christ, he sounded like his throat had been scrubbed with a Brillo pad. "Get your dancin' shoes on and we'll paint the town. "
"Sarcastic as always, I see. " Taking his wrist between her thumb and forefinger, she did a quick check of his pulse.
"The day I'm not, that's when you really need to worry. "
A half smile curved her lips as she released his wrist. "True. But with a minimum of snark, tell me truthfully how you're doing. "
Wasn't easy managing a shrug while lying down, but he pulled it off. "I'm alive, healing. I'm good. When can I get sprung?"
"I'm thinking I'll just go chill in my room and-"
"Aric. " Pulling up a chair, she laid a hand on his forearm. "This is me you're talking to. It's not the scars on the outside that concern me. "
He snorted a laugh, ignoring the twinge of pain it caused all over. "Yeah, and this is me you're talking to, so you know I don't do the feelings and head-shrinking crap. Besides, no one wants to know. "
"I do," she stressed.
"You get paid to care," he snapped. "You're a doctor. "
Mac's eyes widened as she was taken aback, but she quickly composed herself. "I'm your friend, too, and I know you well enough to get when you're deflecting. I also know you don't take well to lazing around, so if you want to be cleared for duty again, you will open up. "
His gut clenched. "You wouldn't. "
"Try me. "
"Damn it, Mac. " Fisting his hands at his sides, he stared at the IV stuck in the back of his right one. A minute ticked by, two, while he struggled with how to put his damned feelings into words. "I'm not going to freeze up on the next op, if that's what everyone's worried about. "
"Okay. What will you do?"
"Rip them all to fucking pieces and torch the remains. What else?"
Her expression softened. "Now we're getting somewhere. "
"Why? Because I'm letting out healthy anger or some such shit?" He rolled his eyes. "I'm stating a fact-they'll pay. "
"Anger can be healthy if it's directed at the right target. "