Predators, Book Two
Between working as a trauma medic and attending nursing school, Jenny Crosby has more than her share of stress. At least that's what she thought. Then her husband packed a suitcase, withdrew money from their joint bank account and abandoned her. She didn't buy it for a second. Nash wouldn't run. Something horrible happened but the police won't listen. Even her closest friends are encouraging her to get over him and move on.
A few days away from it all is exactly what the doctor ordered. She'll sit in the hot tub, drink hot chocolate and escape her troubles. If only it were that easy.
Nash Crosby is damn good as second-in-command of security. Perhaps too good. Discovering his employer's unethical practices turns him into a liability they can't afford. Nothing will be permitted to stop the Predator Project. Not even a few unwilling test subjects.
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November 13, 2009
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Excerpt from Eye of the Tiger by Nicole Austin
"Make illegal u-turn. What the fuck?"
Jenny Crosby shook her head in disgust. "Look, you crazy GPS bitch. I'm not about to try something so incredibly stupid in the middle-of-nowhere North Carolina on a curvy mountain road with no streetlights during a moonless night. Sheesh!"
Okay, so the GPS unit in her SUV wouldn't even hear her argument, but Jenny was sick of dealing with the damn thing. "I've seen nothing but trees and dark, winding roads for hours now. No other cars. No houses or hotels. Not even a lousy fast food joint. Nada!" In frustration, her fist slammed down on the console. "Just lots of 'sharp curve ahead' signs. If you made me take a wrong turn, I'm going to fry your little electronic brain. Ha! That would sure teach you who's boss."
Jenny shivered. "If I don't find the cabin soon, I'm gonna be screwed. And not in a good way." Hell, at this rate she'd be sleeping in the car and it was way too cold for that nonsense.
Whenever nerves got the better of her, Jenny ended up talking to herself. The random thoughts rushing through her mind flowed from her lips in all their unedited glory. Her husband claimed it was an endearing quality. She figured he probably said that just to bring her diarrhea of the mouth to an end.
She took another quick glance at the map displayed on the screen. "You and I need to come to some sort of understanding, find a way to communicate. Oh, and another thing--"
Her diatribe was cut off by a ding as the GPS alerted her she'd reached the point where it wanted her to turn.
"Make a legal u-turn." The modulated female voice remained calm and emotionless.
"A legal u-turn? That's a little better, but where the hell am I supposed to make a u-turn?" She slowed the car to a crawl and peered through the windshield. One side was mountain, the other a cliff with no guardrail. The road itself was only two narrow lanes with a solid yellow line dividing it in half. "There isn't even a freakin' shoulder along the side of this road. Only a long drop and a sudden stop, you dumb bitch." And another sign warning of a sharp turn.
A one-hundred-eighty degree hairpin turn.
"Infernal damn machine! That's not a u-turn." After coming out of the curve, the road straightened for a brief stretch, allowing her to go a bit faster. She hated driving in the dark and had been warned to watch for black ice on the road. Of course, since she was from Florida, she had no idea what that meant.
Jenny glanced down at the small square screen showing a map and her current position. "What now, genius?"
With her attention divided between the monitor and the road, she studied the details. The picture was very sharp, and a bit too detailed. It looked like she'd driven right off the map into uncharted territory, which is exactly how she felt. Yet according to the know-it-all device, she was within five miles of reaching the rental cabin.
"Wahoo! I am so ready to stretch my legs." She'd been traveling all day and late into the night. Her leg muscles were cramped, her rear end numb and molded to the seat. It would be a major relief to get out and walk around.
She had found the cabin rental notice through an e-mail posting at work advertising things other employees had for sale. An image of the rustic living room flashed through Jenny's mind. A fire burned in a large, flagstone hearth. This glorious amenity, along with the hot tub, had sold her on renting the place. "Damn, I can't wait to take a long soak in that baby." If her hands had been free she would have rubbed them together in anticipation.
For several days she'd dreamed about lying before the fire, sipping a glass of wine and reading a good book. She'd stocked up on supplies before leaving home and was ready to veg. "Mmm...some hot chocolate with marshmallows would go down real good right about now." The perfect vacation from her stressful job at the trauma hospital, plus much needed time to lick her wounds and let her broken heart heal.
Her demanding job as a trauma tech and simultaneously attending classes toward getting a nursing degree was tough, but she loved it. The drama, excitement and adrenaline rush of saving a life kept Jenny motivated. She'd learned a heck of a lot, made some great contacts, and was sure the hospital would hire her on as an ER nurse once she graduated.
Working evening shift kind of sucked, not allowing any opportunity to have a social life, but she still had a good time. Many times after work her co-workers would all get together at the sports bar down the street to relieve the strain of a difficult shift. She loved hanging out with the medics who also worked at the firehouse. They were a great group of guys and a ton of fun. She would miss her co-workers, but needed this time off to prevent herself from burning out.
It was also time to accept the unsolicited advice everyone kept giving her. "Time to face facts and move on. He left you in the dust, Jenny." Her broken heart wouldn't heal until she came to terms with reality.
She would never forget arriving home in the early morning hours to an empty apartment. The red light on the answering machine winked at her from the darkness. When she pushed the button, it had not been a message from her husband. Instead she heard her own voice letting him know she'd be late. Jenny had gone to bed alone, not really worrying about her husband until she woke the next day ready to rip him a new one.
She'd walked through the apartment searching for a note and cussing him but found nothing. On further inspection, she'd discovered some of his clothes and a suitcase missing. The idea he'd gone on a business trip without a word made her even madder. The first twinge of unease had surfaced when she'd called his office at Nanotech.
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Crosby. We haven't heard from him since yesterday morning." The department clerk had acted as if the whole thing put her out.
Jenny had tried calling his supervisor but the man was out on medical leave. At the police station a bored detective informed her nothing could be done until her husband had been missing for forty-eight hours. She'd been checking their bank balance online when she discovered the large withdrawal that had been made the day before.
The policeman who helped her fill out the missing persons report had been helpful but offered no hope. Every day she called the station, at least twice, to see if they'd discovered anything. Every day the overworked officer assigned to the case told her the same thing. "Mrs. Crosby, your husband left you. He packed his bags, took some cash, and drove away. He may come back or contact you at some point, but that's doubtful. There's nothing else we can do for you."
Friends and co-workers had been supportive...for awhile. She knew what they believed. She was beginning to wonder if they might be right, even though she still had faith in her husband. With so much time gone by doubt plagued Jenny, tearing her apart. "Maybe I have been dumped and I'm just too stupid to admit it. Abandoned by the love of my life. The man who vowed we'd have a lifetime together." The idea took away some of the shock and numbness, allowing anger to creep in.
"Son of a bitch took off. Probably with another woman. Typical rat-bastard man!"
A glance at the small navigation screen showed she was getting closer to the cabin. "Almost there," she sighed in relief.
Jenny shivered a bit and shifted in her seat. She was anxious to sit before a roaring fire and warm up. The cold night air had long ago seeped into her bones, but she kept the window partly opened and the heater off. The drive from Florida had left her fatigued and sleepy and the chilly winter air helped her stay awake and focused. The last thing she wanted was to wreck her car on this lonely mountain road.
She glanced up through the windshield and a shill scream rose from her suddenly tight chest. Her heart stopped beating and everything moved into slow motion. She held the steering wheel in a white-knuckled grip and reacted on sheer adrenaline.
Some suicidal maniac stood in the middle of the dark street not fifty feet ahead. Jenny did everything possible to avoid hitting the person, but her options were limited. Turning right meant crashing into a solid wall of rock. Probability of survival--slim to none. In a split-second decision she yanked the wheel to the left. Crashing into the trees or a drop down the side of the rolling mountain seemed the better choice.
She stood on the brakes, hard. The tires began to squeal then slide. Jenny said a quick prayer the heavy SUV wouldn't roll and stared in horror at the thick tree trunk illuminated by the headlights and coming closer by the second.
"This is so not going to turn out good," she said to the GPS bitch, who all of a sudden had nothing to say. Then everything went black.
Adrenaline pumped through his system, keeping Nash going. He didn't know where he was and it didn't matter as long as he kept moving. If he stopped, he'd be a dead man.
He considered shifting into his tiger form. The newly acquired ability to alter his physical shape frightened him. He hadn't mastered the phenomenon and wasn't sure he could control the animal. And a tiger would scare any rational person. They'd run rather than offer assistance. Not to mention tigers didn't have thumbs and there'd be no way of hitching a ride. He would have laughed at the thought if he wasn't running for his life.
Things were dire. No ifs, ands or buts about it. When the bastards from the lab caught up with him, they'd kill him, drag his dead carcass back to their diabolical hellhole and continue to experiment on his decomposing remains.
Normally, he had a great sense of direction. Too bad it seemed to have failed him now, when he needed it most. He was having a hard time determining which way was up, much less north from south. For several precious moments, he leaned against a tree praying for his head to stop spinning. A rustling sound somewhere nearby got him moving again.
He might stand a chance if he could reach a town, or even a house. If not...
He shuddered, not wanting to consider what would happen.
He had no clue where he was. His captors had been too careful. All he remembered was being yanked from his car, blindfolded, drugged and taken God only knows where. He didn't know what state he was in, or even what country for that matter.
He was well and truly lost, not just his body. His mind had taken a hike too. He didn't remember anything prior to being snatched. It was as if his memory had been wiped clean leaving no trace of the past. Erased as easily as a chalkboard and left blank.
At least he was out of the lab. He had bided his time, watched and waited for a lapse in security, and then took matters into his own hands.
When he found the road, Nash wanted to weep with relief. Instead, he held his emotions in check. A road was good, but he wasn't home free yet. Not by a long shot. He didn't know where to go, where his home was or even if there was anyone he could trust.
He stumbled out onto the blacktop, struggling to stay upright as violent shivers assaulted his body. The temperature must be somewhere below freezing, and the thin medical scrubs he wore were soaked from a tumble into a frigid stream. He had no feeling in his fingers or toes, and his lungs burned with each wheezing breath. Shifting into his feline form would help with the cold, but there were other risks he wouldn't take. Like the possibility that once he became the tiger he might not be able to change back. He was terrified of becoming trapped within the animal.
Bent over, gasping for air, he figured things couldn't get much worse.
"Aw shit!" He was so fucking wrong. Things can always get worse!
Bright headlights cut through the inky darkness from around a curve and there wasn't enough time to avoid being run down. It might even be the goons from the lab. If so, they wouldn't slow down anyway. In fact, they'd probably run right over him to eliminate the threat to their insane project.
His thoughts scattered in a million different directions, and time did that funky thing. It slowed, moving through thick molasses. The vehicle raced forward, and Nash stared into the shocked face of the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen. It was like watching a sports instant replay. Imminent death or not, nothing seemed more important than drinking her in, memorizing her features.
Golden blonde hair framed an oval face. Her mouth opened to form a perfect O, and her big brown eyes widened in surprise. At the last second, she seemed to pull herself together and wrenched the wheel.
He wanted to clamp his eyes shut but stared in stunned fascination, frozen in place, as the car came closer. Too close for comfort. A blast of glacial air hit him as it skidded past with mere inches separating them.
Wasn't your life supposed to flash before your eyes when you came close to dying? He didn't see the past, only the frightened expression on the woman's face.
Unable to maintain traction the tires locked up and the woman lost control of the SUV. He watched in horror as the driver's door slammed into a huge tree and the vehicle came to a shuddering halt. At least it had saved her from going over the side of the steep mountain and plunging to certain death.
He wanted to check on her, make sure the woman was all right, but he couldn't breathe. Nash clutched at his chest, felt his heart thudding against his sternum. If the woman had been hurt it was his fault. "Please let her be okay!"
If she survived the crash, this could be the answer to his prayers. It would be warm inside the vehicle, and since it hadn't been going too fast or taken the tree head-on, it might still be drivable. He tamped down the hope. Better to not get excited before investigating and making a thorough assessment of the situation.
Instinct and training kicked in and he went to work. His first priority, assure the safety of the innocent woman. Only then would he start revising his impromptu escape plan according to the new circumstances. He hated the idea of drawing her into his troubles but she was his best chance at making it out alive.
Nash entered through the passenger door and was engulfed by a fog of white powder hanging thick in the enclosed space. The airbags had deployed making it difficult to see. He found the woman crumpled against the driver's door, her body cushioned by the side-impact airbag. She appeared to have been knocked unconscious. He placed two fingers on her neck, relieved to find a steady pulse. He watched the even rise and fall of her chest, relieved she had no trouble breathing. Bruised and battered for sure but she should be all right.
After several minutes of careful maneuvering, he got her settled into the passenger seat, fought the airbags into submission, and slid behind the steering wheel. He shifted into park and turned the key in the ignition. The engine turned, but didn't catch.
They both desperately needed the SUV to work. Neither one of them would make it through a night exposed to freezing temperatures.
Nash resorted to sweet talk. Hey, it worked with temperamental women. At least he thought so but what the heck did he know. "Come on, baby. Turn over and I'll get you a nice oil change as soon as possible."
This time when he turned the key, Nash lightly pumped the gas pedal. The engine coughed, sputtered then roared to life.
"Yeah, baby!" In triumph, he punched his fist into the air then turned the heater to full blast wondering why the hell it hadn't been running.
It took infinite patience and agonizing time they didn't have to slowly work the car off the tree. He put the SUV in reverse and moved a few inches, switched to drive and gained a few more. Finally, with a sharp squeal, the twisted metal peeled away from the tree.
Now the remaining issue was to find adequate shelter.
The map on the glowing LCD screen caught his attention. The unit had been programmed for a destination within a few miles' drive. After a bit of snooping in the center console, he discovered a rental contract, keys and pictures of a cabin.
"Good a place as any," he muttered, glancing over at the unconscious woman.
He drove slow and easy, not wanting to push the mangled vehicle too hard. Almost a half-hour later, following the computer's directions and limping along, they arrived at a cozy A-frame cabin tucked away on a private dirt road. Nash hoped it would prove to be a safe haven for the night. Some rest would do his tired and battered body a world of good.