Chapter One- Heated Match

June 14, 2013 Beltsville, MD

Furor continues on the once quiet government land a few miles outside the nation’s capital. At a press conference held yesterday evening, spokesman Peter Shepard confirmed the existence of a top-secret program formed in conjunction with The National Institute of Health to breed genetically enhanced soldiers. According to Shepard, “The Program for DNA Manipulation and Eradication of Disease was founded in 1958 in an effort to wipe out genetic diseases in the world. While the scientists failed in their original endeavor, their research led to the development of DNA mapping and pairing.”

The process of mapping and pairing led to the creation of stronger, smarter humans. Shepard confirmed that multiple generations of these “super soldiers” have been living and operating on the Beltsville campus since the early sixties, although he did not confirm the rumors that he is one of these original enhanced soldiers. Nor did he confirm that different government branches, including the CIA, routinely use these soldiers in classified military operations.

The press conference was interrupted by protestors including evangelical Christian groups who are calling for the immediate termination of the Program. Several members of Congress and the Senate also expressed their concern over the secrecy and lack of knowledge regarding this major scientific and military development. A hearing regarding the future of these enhanced soldiers is scheduled for the fall.

Chapter One

“Your knight in shining armor is here. The toasts are about to begin, and you’re all the way back here without a glass of champagne?” Adam held out a delicate glass of bubbly to the woman standing so far in the back of the hotel ballroom, she may as well have phoned in her attendance. Tonight’s bodyguard duty dictated he investigate any anomaly, and the sexy blonde hovering near the door instead of gulping down free champagne and sushi definitely constituted further security questions. He’d had to dodge several flirtatious smiles and dance invitations from other females on the way here, but he was a man on a mission.

His boss, Shepard’s, parting words rang in his brain. Don’t mess this up, Blacker. This is our first job since we went public. Any screw-up will be fodder for the upcoming hearings. Shep had nothing to worry about. It couldn’t be that hard to keep an eye on the party. He’d done far harder jobs and had a near perfect record of getting his job done.

Only now that he was back here in his party-guest guise smiling down at the lady in question and offering expensive Moët, he couldn’t seem to move his feet more than a few inches away from her. He shifted and crossed his arms over his waist, trying to hide the sudden erection that popped up as if he were repeating seventh grade.

It had nothing to do with her long, honey-blonde curls or the way she filled out her little black dress, though those details were certainly nice. Every other woman in Ambassador Johannes Christenson’s party glittered from too much makeup and jewels. This woman shined all on her own without the fancy trappings. She held something more elusive that had Adam panting and staring at her. It was her scent or her skin…or something.

“How about a dance then?” he asked when she refused the champagne. Well hell, what allowed those words to pop out of his mouth? It certainly got the woman’s attention.

Her gaze traveled slowly up and down his front. “Back here? Or do we need to head down to the dance floor?”

He shrugged. “Here works,” he said and ignored his partner’s glare boring a hole in the back of his tuxedo, reminding him he was slacking in his guard-dog duties and possibly giving credence to Shep’s warning. But honestly, who hired undercover security for a baby’s first birthday? For that matter, what nutters invited two hundred people to a black-tie first birthday party? Adam didn’t know squat about babies, and had no plans of learning. Ever. But he was pretty sure the birthday boy would prefer to be home in his crib instead of dolled up in a one-piece baby tux, sleeping in his nanny’s arms.

He wasn’t going to question it though. Shep said to be here, and he knew better than to challenge his commander’s authority. Before they’d been exposed, the idea of doing bodyguard duty for a civilian would have been laughed out of the room, but for some reason, Shep had accepted this gig for Ambassador Christenson’s party. So here he was, offering champagne and a dance to a gorgeous party guest and keeping an eye on the well-dressed guest of honor.

“No champagne, but I will dance.” She looked surprised that she’d accepted. “I mean, thanks for the offer, but I’m working. I’m a journalist reporting on the party so no, I mean I can’t.”

“Come on. Take a minute to dance.” Adam practically scooped her off her feet in eagerness and ignored the raised hair on the back of his neck at the word journalist. The very last thing he needed tonight was scrutiny from a journalist, but his warning radar disintegrated as she stepped close. He swept the woman into his arms, whirling her toward a hidden shadowy corner of the room, all the while keeping an eye on the crowded dance floor. At first she stiffened at his refusal to accept her refusal, but gradually she loosened up and swayed along with him.

He pulled her tighter against his body, giving in to his urge to inhale her scent. She didn’t protest and stepped even closer. Adam sucked in a breath and struggled to keep the conversation light, rocked by his completely unprofessional behavior. He was insane to lower his guard and dance with this woman. He was the team leader for Christ’s sake and a damn good one. He’d never messed up a job before, but now that he had her in his arms, he couldn’t let go.

“A reporter, huh? Where can I read your work?” His body was glued to her personal space and couldn’t—wouldn’t—move unless yanked away by physical force.

A sweet blush stained her cheeks as she brushed her fingertips along his neck. “I work for The Post. Though we’ll see how long that lasts thanks to the latest budget cuts.” She muttered the last bit under her breath, but he still picked it up thanks to his above-average hearing.

A sudden buzzing in Adam’s ear distracted him from the perfect shadow of cleavage her dress revealed. “What the hell are you doing?” Chase hissed into his ear comm. “Your back is to the room, and you’re…dancing.”

He forced himself to swivel around enough to catch Chase’s attention and give him a curt nod then turned back to ogle his blonde.

Damn it. In the half second he’d turned his attention away, the tall, luscious reporter had unwound her arms from his neck and fled the room. Was it something he’d said? It took him a minute to get his head back in the game and stop staring at her retreating back. It was best for his own sanity she’d left, but his feet, along with another pressing part of his anatomy, itched to go after her. He couldn’t. Damn duty called.

Chase’s insistent diatribe in his ear forced him to turn around and head back to the crowd surrounding the ambassador and his child. The farther away he moved from the woman’s spot, the more his body and mind shook off the lingering arousal. Sure, she was appealing in a way no woman had been for a long while, but tonight was not the time. He had work to do.

“Chase, is all clear from your position?” he murmured under his breath as he swept up a glass from a tray dotted with champagne flutes to maintain the pretense he was like any other party guest.

“Looking good, Blacker.”

He glanced slightly to his right. Chase also stood in perfect position to observe the room and the baby they were hired to protect. Chase’s voice buzzed again in the hidden earpiece. The clamor of cocktail conversations and metal clashes emanating from the open kitchen doors made it difficult to hear.

“This sounds insane,” Chase said, “but the woman you danced with look exactly like my sister.”

“Your sister?” Adam managed to maintain his near-silent tone, though he wanted to shout. Man, talk about a small world. Of all places for Chase’s sister to show up. “You think it could’ve been her? I thought you’d never met her.”

His partner, also dressed as a party attendee, stood in the fray of the frenzied, toasting crowd drinking ever more alcohol. “It’s definitely looked like Loren.”

The hot reporter might be Chase’s sister. The idea blew his mind. “Does she know you, or even know about you?” This was a shit time for Q and A, but he wanted to know about the woman.

“I looked her up last year and followed her to work. I wanted to see my half-sister, even if I couldn’t introduce myself,” Chase said. “She doesn’t know I exist.”

“Did you know she’s a reporter?”

Chase’s sudden curse made the hair on the back of his neck stand on end.

“Gotta go. Black-haired male to my right is carrying. Maybe an H&K P30.” Chase said in a rush.

Adam snapped back to attention and watched his partner step into the path of a potential enemy. He was on a job and had nearly blown the whole thing after one sighting of a beautiful woman. Chase’s sister. Loren Stanton. Damn. Even as he put down the glass and removed his ubiquitous, untraceable Tomahawk dagger from his jacket, he envisioned Loren’s dark-blonde curls and delectable body in the silky sheath that caressed her curves.

The mental image alone was enough to wake up his body and he struggled to refocus his attention on the job at hand. Across the room, Chase threw himself forward as if he’d been jostled by the crowd and tilted the burgundy contents of his wineglass onto the white dress shirt of the party guest next to him. Perfect timing. The idiot’s fingers had been reaching for his tiny almost-concealed weapon. Ambassador Christenson stood a few feet away shaking hands, blithely unaware of the threat.

Chase pulled off a Mr. Bean impersonation of a bumbling fool, pulling a linen handkerchief from his pocket and vigorously rubbing at the spreading stain. “My apologies, sir.” Chase’s voice carried over the din of the crowd. “You should go change. Please charge the dry cleaning bill to me. Here let me help.”

Chase propelled the fuming, dripping guest along toward him. Adam stood ready to grab the guy and get him out of the party before any guest realized something was wrong. He slowed his breathing, his knifelike vision homed in on the dripping target. His stomach squeezed into a balled fist. Icy sweat soaked his shirt. All noise from the party drained away and all guests faded into two-dimensional figures on a surreal painting. Time slowed to the tick, tick, tick of his heartbeat then sped up. Ten years of experience had not dulled the nervous anticipation of a close-range maneuver. He hoped it never dulled, because the minute that drug of anticipation stopped working you joined the walking dead. Adam had seen it in the eyes of his comrades doing the job too long.

Chase’s voice rang in his ear. “Three…two…one…you’re on.” He walked the man forcibly toward Adam, who grabbed him and took over Chase’s position, while Chase stayed in the party.

* * * * *

Loren Stanton made it halfway to the lobby before she spun on a precarious heel and marched back toward the ballroom on a mission. A hot man danced with her and what had she done? Like an idiot, she’d left, not just left, but run. The moment the man had stepped into her personal space, her visceral reaction shocked the hell out of her. She’d never been that aroused in her life with just a single touch. Her physical reaction to him frightened her, and she didn’t know how she’d found the inner strength to pull away when all she’d really wanted was to stay pressed up against the man.

In her normal world, if a guy sported a hard-on while dancing with her, he’d best have the good sense to take a step back. Instead, she’d wanted to rub up against him like a cat or dance him against the ballroom wall and explore his package further. What was in the champagne they’d been serving? Liquid pheromones?

It was an amateur move on her part to flee instead of making a bold move on the only man to interest her in a long while. Not only had she left without his name and number, but she’d left without much of a news story. What was she going to say to her supervisor tomorrow? Sorry, but I had to leave. I had a sudden appointment with my vibrator? Yeah, that wouldn’t go over well, and she’d never get the opportunity to get back on the serious news desk. Covering the DC social scene was fine for some, but she wanted the hard-hitting news stories, which meant she had to go back to get a story and the guy’s number. Thanks to the recent budget cuts affecting nearly every newspaper in the country, she’d kept her paycheck by agreeing to cover DC’s social scene instead of reporting on meatier stories as she desperately wanted.

She quickened her pace back into the ballroom, thinking of the mysterious man. Awareness of him had bubbled and fizzed up inside her as he’d held out the glass to her. Just looking up into a man’s eyes caused excitement. Because of her height, most men looked her straight in the eye. It was a joy to stare at his broad shoulders, which appeared strong enough to hold up any one of the columns posted around the room. Men wearing tuxedoes filled the ballroom. None carried off the penguin suit with the grace and elegance he did, as if he were born in black-and-white superfine wool.

She took a deep breath and ran a hand down her hair to smooth her unruly curls. She threw open the double doors of the ballroom and got hit with a wave of sound. The din of conversation had increased to ever-frenzied levels. She looked to where she’d last spotted the man. He stood with his back to her near a pile of dirty plates stacked on a tray. She smiled, tamping down the sudden rapid pounding of her heart and realized she was actually breathless as though she’d sprinted back to the ballroom. When she was roughly ten feet away he turned to the side and walked up to another party guest wearing a shirt stained with a deep-red splotch that looked like blood. He wrapped his left arm around the other man’s shoulders, and the pair strolled out onto the balcony of the ballroom, looking as if they wanted a private moment alone.

Oh man, she’d read the whole thing wrong. Her sexy man batted for the other team, and her crazy reaction was totally one-sided. She waited a moment, hoping he’d return to the party, but he seemed to have disappeared. Perhaps she should double-check the balcony, just in case. She was probably going to regret this, but what was life without a little risk?

She hurried to the open doors and out into the sticky DC night, pausing on the balcony. The humidity enveloped her like a vat of boiling water. She glanced around, her excellent night vision quickly adjusting to the dark. The bulbous Capitol Dome glowed off to the left. No signs of the man and his partner that way. Where could they have gone?

Well that was a bust. It would be almost too embarrassing to find him at this point anyway. She’d have to explain why she was skulking around on the unlit balcony. She headed back into the air-conditioned ballroom and exited to the front of the hotel to catch a taxi home. Surely she’d seen enough of the event to send in a decent news story. Really, what was there to say? Spoiled kid turns one and parents throw a ridiculous over-the-top party instead of buying some balloons and baking some cupcakes.

* * * * *


Adam paused in his pursuit to listen to Chase’s yell coming through his earpiece. He was far enough away from the hotel that the reception crackled. “What?”

“Get your ass back here now.”

It was hard to tell over the static, but easygoing Chase sounded panicked.

“Negative. I’m still in pursuit of the suspect with the gun.” The idiot had twisted free of Adam’s arm, jumped over the balcony and disappeared. He’d sat on the railing, swung his legs over and leapt the nearly twenty feet to the ground. Adam had one leg over the balcony to follow him when Chase started yelling in his ear piece. His enhanced speed would make it cake to catch a regular human, but in the seconds he paused to listen to Chase, the dude had disappeared into the maze of downtown alleys. That was twice in one night people had escaped him, first Chase’s half-sister and now this.

“Forget him. You need to get back here. Now,” Chase said.

Adam froze then quickly got on the right side of the balcony wall to head back to the hotel. “What happened?”

“The kid…Christenson’s baby…he’s gone.”

* * * * *

“You fucked up, boys.”

Adam met Commander Shepard’s gaze eye to eye. He wanted to stare at his feet like a teenager, but Shep was right. They’d messed up badly, and now Christenson’s baby was going to pay for their mistake. The wrath they’d faced from Ambassador Christenson and his wife was nothing compared to Shep’s disappointment.

“Get in my office. Now.” After endless hours getting grilled by the local police and the FBI, Adam and Chase had finally made it back to their home base in suburban Maryland.

He shuffled into the commander’s office where he parked his ass in a folding chair and nodded to his father, William Blacker, who sat next to Shep’s formidable desk. The room reeked of cigar smoke, reminding Adam it was Thursday poker night for the old soldiers, where they relived the glorious Cold War days and jonesed about better days to come post 9-11.

Shep stalked to his desk and sank into his chair, demonstrating the ease of movement natural to their kind, even in their older years. “What happened? Christenson pulled us in because we’re bred to be the best. Please tell me why I spent the last hour apologizing to an irate ambassador and his sobbing wife? Not to mention,” Shep’s voice lowered dangerously, “the damn FBI laughing their asses off at us. They’ve been looking for an excuse for years to integrate the Program under their domain. Let’s not hand them the opportunity on a goddamn silver platter.”

Chase shrugged and raised his eyebrows in Adam’s direction. Adam knew what he had to do, but it didn’t mean he liked it. “I screwed up,” he said, hating the unfamiliar taste of a confession.

Shep and his father swiveled to face him directly. “Oh?” William Blacker asked. His tone was all hard-ass, but his eyes betrayed his concern that his son screwed up in a very public way.

“There was a woman there…she…I was distracted. I left the room with someone I thought was the greater threat but I judged wrong and exposed the baby to the kidnapper. I…” He stopped. There were no words to make it right.

“We got played. Pure and simple,” Chase said. “They threw out a red herring and we jumped on it.”

Shep’s eyes narrowed. “A woman distracted you? What did she do, shoot fireworks from her pussy?”

“Just about,” Adam muttered.

His father leaned forward, elbows on his thighs. “Could the woman have been in on it? Maybe she was meant to distract you. God knows we’ve all been too distracted by women lately.” He didn’t say it, but Adam knew he referred to the exposé in the media the previous week. For more than fifty years the Program operated in total secrecy outside the Washington Beltway. One email from a disgruntled spouse had changed it all.

Chase sat up straight. “No. Not this woman.” Then he clamped his mouth shut, not wanting to reveal the woman in question was his sister.

Adam shot him a quick apologetic glance, but knew he had to reveal all if they were to get to the bottom of the kidnapping and find Christenson’s kid. “We think the woman might have been Loren Stanton, Chase’s half-sister.”

Dead quiet settled into the room as each man pondered the implications. Finally Shep gathered his wits. “You say she distracted you. How?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know…the closer I got to her, it was like we were alone in the room. I wanted to grab her and…” He did not want to tell Chase he’d wanted to fuck his sister against the wall of the ballroom without regard to the audience. In fact, just the memory of her smile and scent had him shifting in his seat to accommodate the sudden swelling of his cock. “But she left the room before I did. There’s no way she could’ve returned and taken the kid.”

Shep and his father exchanged a long, meaningful glance. What the hell was that about?

“Okay, we’ll get back to Ms. Stanton later,” Shep said. “For now, tell us everything you remember about the party leading up to the kidnapping. Officially, we are off the case. As the FBI put it, ‘the hired muscle is no longer necessary and the brains are taking over the operation.’ But I’m not convinced this was an ordinary kidnapping. We’ll need to work delicately, not step on toes.”

Hired muscle, his ass. As genetically enhanced government soldiers, they had perfect recall and higher than average IQs. Adam and Chase spent the next hour retelling the night’s events and analyzing them from every angle. When at last Shep felt they’d had enough, he ended the session, warning them to expect more tomorrow.

“You may go,” he said to Chase, but asked Adam to stay a few more minutes.

Chase stood, stretched and announced, “I’m heading for the pool.” He looked at Adam. “See you there in a few?”

Adam also stretched his arms above his head, flexing his stiff muscles then lowered them. “I’ll meet you there.” He watched with vague amusement as Shep scribbled onto a spiral notebook. No amount of ribbing would get Shep to change to a tablet or laptop. He suffered through email as a necessity, but that was the extent. Maybe it was his way of reminding himself of his humanity.

“Tell us more about Loren Stanton,” Shep finally said when the door had closed behind Chase. “Did you talk to her?”

“I spoke to her briefly. She left before I exited the ballroom.”

“She’s a reporter, correct?” the senior Blacker asked.

He nodded. “Yes, for The Post,” Adam said.

“We’re going to need to get every detail about her. Where she lives, shops, and what she knows about her father. We know next to nothing about Robert’s daughter,” William said.

“It’s possible she knew we were on assignment there tonight and was sent to follow up on last week’s news story,” added Shep. “I’m sick of making the news. If she so much as breathes the air near Beltsville, we shut her down.”

Adam thought their reaction was a bit overboard. Loren had seemed annoyed at having to cover an over-the-top first birthday party. More than likely she had no idea her father had been on the team of genetically enhanced soldiers who’d made the front cover of every newspaper last week. If a miniscule part of him wanted her to find the compound, find him, he pushed that emotion to the deepest recesses of his mind.

The senior Blacker jumped in. “We don’t want a repeat of last week’s top YouTube video.” Ever since Ryan’s wife went to the press to divulge the Program’s secrets, civilians had scrambled to catch glimpses of Program Soldiers.

Since the article, they’d had to scale back operations because it was damn near impossible to operate with people camping outside their compound, hoping to get a glimpse of one of the enhanced soldiers. Or worse, crowds of females hoping to be genetically compatible and get selected as a breeding partner.

“That’s right,” grumbled Shep. “I’ve never seen anything like this. Third time this month we’ve been caught on camera. People with their damn cell phone cameras and Face Space pages. What happened to good old Tom Brokaw for news? Why does any idiot with a keyboard and internet connection think he’s a credentialed journalist?”

Adam didn’t bother answering. Shep was old school and no explanation would change it. At the same time, a tiny part of him felt Loren deserved to know more about her family. She had a father who’d served his country faithfully and died for that patriotism and a brother who still served. But, nope. Never going to happen. No way Loren would ever discover the truth about her father unless Adam took out a front-page ad in a newspaper and gave the whos, whats and wheres. He kept his opinion to himself and got up to leave. His generation of the Program held their own Thursday night rituals, and he was late. He took a step toward the door but stopped at the sound of his dad’s voice.

“Hang on, Adam. We have one other thing to discuss.”

He turned around and retook his seat. “What’s up?”

A silent conversation relayed across the desk between his dad and commander. He folded his arms across his chest, leaned back in his chair and waited, sure it would be a request to monitor some minor operation or training class. But surprise hit at Commander Shepard’s first words.

“Adam, America changed after the terrorist attacks on our turf. Attitudes toward security changed. Shake-ups in the CIA, FBI, the creation of the department of Homeland Security, you name it.”

He bit his tongue in an effort not to tell Shep to shit or get off the pot. But he was dying to know where this was headed. His no-nonsense commander never minced words. Seeing him dance around a topic like a ballerina was unusual.

“As you mentioned, we have new challenges to face. Now that the world knows about us, it’s expected other groups will try to imitate our science and create their own genetically enhanced soldiers. We need to stay faster, better and smarter than the rest.”

He nodded. Shep still wasn’t telling him anything new.

Shep continued. “Ever since we were exposed, I’ve been flooded with applications and blood work from females offering themselves as breed partners. It’s foolish not to take advantage. We need more volunteers from the current ranks.”

Adam replied, “What are you getting at?” His head, which had already been hammering a discordant beat, upped the tempo.

William Blacker stared intently at Adam’s face, willing him to understand. “None of your cohorts signed up for the breeding program yet. The youngest child on campus is three years old. We need babies.”

Adam flew back out of his seat, banging into the doorknob. No. Oh hell no. “You’ve got to be kidding me. Is that really on the table? I thought required breeding disappeared in the eighties along with mullet haircuts. It’s a whole new millennium. We have the technology to abandon the breeding program. Can’t we do test-tube babies or something? ’Cause, I’m not participating.” He turned with a plea for his father. “Sir, you know why I’ve never signed up to be matched. Has Doctor Wise given her approval?”

“Doctor Wise feels there is a one in four chance of your child having a deformity. It’s an acceptable risk to her.”

“Because it’s not her fetus who’d be terminated.” At the uncomfortable silence, Adam clenched his fists. “That’s it, isn’t it? She’s happy to abort my children in the name of medical science. Fuck that. Go for test tubes, ’cause I won’t be part of it.”

Adam, you know why we can’t do test-tube babies,” Shep reminded him. “Doctor Rovinsky’s child-rearing theories are still applicable.”

“Oh, yeah, the good old Doctor Rovinsky. Well, fuck him and fuck his ass-backwards methodology. He’s been dead for nearly twenty years,” Adam said.

“We honor our founder.” Shep came as close to shouting as Adam had ever heard. As far as he knew, only a select, lucky few had seen Shep lose his temper, and they now mopped floors in Fallujah.

“Adam, if we did use your DNA in a test tube, would you really be able to ignore the fact that there would be a child on campus who’s technically your son?” his father asked. “You’re a good man. You couldn’t just ignore the child.”

“Watch me,” Adam muttered, but his protest was mild. He knew himself enough to know any child remotely related to him would fall under his direct protection.

“Plus, you’re going to want and love your DNA match, like I wanted your mother,” his father added.

Wait, what? His father was claiming to have loved his mother? Now that was shocking. In the fifteen years he’d lived with his dad, he’d barely mentioned his mom. Granted, they weren’t about the father-son bonding thing. They had more of a business relationship, but he still would’ve expected his father to protect him on this issue, especially given the family history. All Adam remembered was his mom running away with him and his baby brother. He’d been three at the time. If there’d ever been love between his parents it had died a quick death when his mom had given birth to a disabled child who didn’t meet Program standards.

Adam’s dad rose to his feet as did Commander Shepard. “We need you, son.”

“The country needs you,” echoed Shepard. “Finding the perfect genetic match for you ensures the next generation of elite soldiers. You’re already thirty. Who will take over for you when you’re too old to do your job? I, myself, retired from the field comfortably knowing my sons and friends’ sons were there to take over.” He stared at Adam intently. “Don’t give me an answer now. Think about what we’re asking, and let us start some blood work, testing and searching. But as the leader of your group, if you get on board, the rest of your cohort will follow.”

Silence followed. Adam didn’t trust himself to speak. His fists clenched with the urge to tear a chunk out of the wall. “With all due respect to the country, sir, I won’t do it. I can’t let history repeat itself. Ask Gavin. Ask Chase. But don’t ask me. Find some other stud horse.” He turned and slammed the door. Adam walked in silence down the hall. If he’d had running shoes on, he’d have taken off for a good, long run around the compound. Adam came to an abrupt halt and pounded a fist against the wall. How could they ask this of me? Of all people? Did they forget what happened to my family?

He strode down the hallway and headed to the pool. He padded silently along the corridor, enjoying the cold that penetrated his overly fancy suit. Cold felt good after the day’s scorching heat. He’d grown up with DC’s summer humidity but never learned to enjoy it. At least now he lived in a place with a pool. The Beltsville, Maryland compound boasted an Olympic-quality indoor and outdoor pool for resident use. The best he had in childhood had been an open hydrant on a dirty city corner.

Adam looked up to see Xander, his best friend, ambling up the corridor. Xander rarely moved faster than a controlled, steady gait, but when he did, look out. Adam thought of him like a jaguar. Sleek, deceptively lazy and mean as hell.

Xander took one look at Adam’s mug. “What’s eating you?”

“You mean besides fucking up on the job and letting a kid get kidnapped?”

A trace of a smile flashed on Xander’s face. “Yeah, besides that. Everyone’s talking about it. No one can believe Mr. Perfect screwed up.”

“Thanks. Don’t call me that.” He frowned. “They want me to lead our cohort in signing up for the breeding program.”

Xander winced in sympathy. “Shit, they tapped you? I’d heard rumors.” He smirked. “You think they’ll ever ask me? I already have a tux for the wedding.”

The only reason Xander owned a tux was to fit in at fancy parties on assignments. Plus rental tuxedos didn’t come with hidden pockets designed to hold a Glock. Adam snorted. “Yeah, Shep wants to reproduce your genes like he wants to hold a press conference on our latest mission.”

Xander nodded, unhurt by Adam’s assessment of the truth. “I’ve heard it’s cool though. You go crazy for the female, some kind of pheromone thing. I wonder what that would be like to want a woman more than you want your next mission.”

Adam kept walking, ignoring the warning signs and flashing lights in his brain telling him he may have made that connection with Loren Stanton, if the blonde woman was Loren. It may have been a connection, but it was nothing he could or would follow up on.

Xander slowed his gait, staring off into the distance, and then gave his head a shake. “Or you could end up like Ryan,” he said, naming the poor bastard whose wife had exposed the Program to the media last week. She was currently on lockdown on campus. Rumor had it Ryan had her chained to their bed in retaliation for her betrayal.

“Come on. I can think of one cure for all ailments. Skip the pool, let’s hit the gym. Now.” He eyed Adam’s dark suit. “Go get padded up. I want to work on my takedowns.”

He fell into step alongside Xander, grateful his best friend knew him well. A little physical challenge was exactly what he needed now. Xander was one of the few soldiers who could pin him and keep him down. Each guy had a specialty—knives, sharpshooting, you name it. Adam prided himself on being a true renaissance man. He excelled in all forms of combat, but he favored close-contact hand-to-hand. The pair walked along the corridor and exited the main office in companionable silence. They passed by the pool deck. Chase’s whoops permeated the humid night air as he shot off the diving board for a cannonball.

“Man, I don’t get that guy,” Xander said.

Adam understood Xander’s comment. He wanted to know how Chase had managed to shake off the events of the evening and be caterwauling in the pool with his buddies by midnight. All of the soldiers faced death on a regular basis, both as a target and taker of life. For most, the responsibility weighed heavily. They were prone to seeking isolation and quiet in their off hours. Some went to a monkish extreme like Xander, but Chase took it to the opposite degree. Adam shrugged in response to Xander’s comment. He had his own head to wade through without delving into Chase’s too.

“Where are you two lovebirds headed?” A shout came from the pool deck. “Get your butts over here. We have many beers with your names on them.”

Xander ignored the catcalls and continued next to him in silence. Adam felt his responsibility as team leader. He was a model for both missions and downtime.

“Going to spar,” he called back, but did not slow down his gait. He hoped the others would take the hint and give them privacy. Impromptu matches often became rowdy competitions with money thrown down. He wasn’t in the mood. He sought quiet and concentration for sparring with Xander. His hint didn’t take. He heard the sluice of water and the slaps of wet feet on concrete as Chase and crew exited the pool. “Shit, we got company,” he muttered to Xander.

“Let them watch.” Xander shrugged. “Unless you’re scared of losing your authority when they see me wipe the floor with your pretty face?”

“My money’s on Adam.” Someone’s voice carried through the night air.

He continued walking toward the gym. He was anxious to feel the cool bite of air-conditioning and get started before the audience grew larger.

“Adam’s good, but Xander could best him,” Gavin said.

“No shit?” Amazed murmurs filled the air. It sounded like some of the college-aged kids were home visiting for the summer.

He wasn’t surprised. Xander kept to himself and rarely fought. He stayed in shape running the trails alongside the Potomac. If he ever left the Program, he could open his own martial arts training studio. Most of his cohort knew of Xander’s prodigious and mad-scary skills. They took one look at his blank, icy-blue eyes and knew to stay back at least fifty feet. Only Adam got close and caught rare glimpses of Xander’s emotions and offbeat sense of humor.

When necessity forced Adam to leave his mom and move back into the Beltsville compound at age fifteen, he’d met Xander, who had arrived two weeks later, escorted by his heavy-handed, demanding father. They’d been stuck together as dorm mates, both outsiders. The room remained as quiet as a morning following a snowstorm for the first three months of living together. The two boys spoke only when necessary. Adam hadn’t been sure Xander even knew his name.

But then his quiet roommate had done the unexpected. Xander had covered for him when he’d taken an unauthorized off-campus jaunt to visit his younger brother and mother. But he’d been caught and both boys had been slapped with kitchen duty and an extra five-mile daily run as punishment for lying. One morning while up to their armpits in carrot peelings, a strong bond of friendship formed. Sure, they’d never gone girly and shared their innermost thoughts. Xander didn’t know Adam had a younger brother. No one did. And he only had hints of Xander’s early life with his dad. They operated on more of a need-to-know basis.

Adam eyed his friend with a sidelong glance as they reached the gym’s steel doors. He shook off his maudlin thoughts and swallowed the anger that the administration wanted him to match and mate. Usually there was a choice, or Shep went about it more stealthily. Part of him was relieved his mom was no longer alive to see him strong-armed into matching. After all the trouble it had caused her, she’d be tormented the system was still in place and affecting her eldest son.

“Ready?” Xander flung open the door with a gleam in his eye.

“Bring it on.”

“Let’s do it.” Xander jogged over to the far side of the room and perched on a metal bench to untie his shoelaces. Then he crossed over to a cabinet and threw it open. He pulled out some headgear and large, rectangular pads with straps on the back. Adam headed for the locker room to pull on his sweats and cup. He knew Xander would go full contact. No sense in getting injured. Though at the moment, getting a few groin kicks seemed as good excuse as any to avoid kicking off the next generation of Program soldiers. Even if he agreed to reproduce, there was no guarantee his kid would sign on to the Program at age eighteen. There was always a choice, unless Shep planned on removing that too.

Xander joined him in the locker room and lifted a faded Jane’s Addiction t-shirt over his head and dropped it where he stood. Then he pulled on a plain black t-shirt. “Let’s go.” He gestured with his head toward the door then headed out.

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