“You’re not stupid. Not in the slightest.”
Her smile was without humor. “Yeah, okay.”
“You aren’t.” The certainty in his voice nearly convinced her.
“Please. I’d almost rather go running into certain danger than head home because I’d be less lonely. If that doesn’t make me stupid, what does it make me?” She regretted the bleating, overly introspective words as soon as she uttered them.
“Human. We’re social creatures, Jules.”
“Yeah. I’m sorry, forget I said anything.”
“You know I’m always here. You don’t have to be lonely.”
So selfish: it wasn’t enough that he was on call around the clock for her, accessible at the touch of a button. She wanted to be able to reach out and tap him on the back whenever she needed him. Grab his arm. Run her fingers over his lips—
You need to stop those fantasies, kiddo. If there had been a hope in hell that he’d fall for her the way she had for him, she’d made it even slimmer tonight with all her bleating. “I know.”
“I didn’t know you were so unhappy.”
“I’m not.” Why would she be unhappy? She had food in her belly and a really fulfilling job. To be unhappy would be monumentally ungrateful. It wasn’t like she deserved anything more than what she had.
“Tell me what would make you happy.”
You. Someone of my own. “I am happy.”
“I should be,” he continued huskily. “But I’m not.”
“Why not?” He had everything. Family. Friends. Sure, they lived in a bunker, but at least he lived with them.
“For the same reason I guess anyone’s unhappy. Something’s missing.”
She drew her knees up to her chest. “Do you know what’s missing for you?”
He paused. “Yes.”
“What is it? Can’t you fix it?”
“Sometimes it’s easier to know what’s causing the void than to go about fixing it.”
He was absolutely right—those were two entirely different beasts.
She could, of course, tell him. Go past their constant flirtation and make it clear that somewhere along the line she’d developed feelings for her long-distance colleague.
Like a movie, she could see a split screen in her head of the two scenarios that would result: A) he would fall to her feet in worship or B) he would rebuff her. Gently, because that was his style. She wouldn’t lose him because he had no choice but to interact with her, but she’d lose this—these late-night conversations, the thrill of flirtation, his friendship.
The risk of B was too great to conquer the reward of A.
“I know exactly what you mean,” she murmured. It was still dark outside, and her internal clock told her there were hours to go before travel was safe. She lay back in her bed, unsure of what else to say to her handler.
She should hang up with him. But it felt nice to talk to him like this, in the dark, when the world was so quiet and uncertain all around her. A chill ran through her, and she wished she had a blanket. She’d been tempted to grab a comforter from one of the rooms in the house she’d broken into. They’d felt like silk and hadn’t been too dusty. Since the owners of them had probably died or been turned, Jules felt skeevy about using the belongings she found in her temporary abodes, though occasionally needs won out.
A change of subject was called for. “You never told me what you dream about.”
“Quid pro quo, right? I show you mine, you show me yours? I more than showed you mine, güey.”
“Oh. Um. I was joking.”
“You shouldn’t throw out jokes unless you’re ready to back them up with action,” she teased. “Come on, now.”
“Nah. I don’t dream, not really.”
“Now who’s lying?”
“Lots of people forget their dreams,” he protested.
“Not you. You’re too detail oriented and aware of everything to shut yourself down at night.” No, there was something he didn’t particularly want to tell her. He was rattled, and like always, it tickled her. “Tell me. Is it unicorns? You dream about unicorns, right?”
“Yes. Unicorns. I love ’em. They prance through my sleep on cotton-candy clouds.”
“Or maybe you dream that you’re naked in front of a crowd and you have to recite the Gettysburg Address.”
His voice deepened. “Occasionally, I am naked, no lie.”
Jules licked her lips. How he could send her from despair and sadness to laughter to arousal with simple changes in pitch and tone was beyond her. “Is that right? Well now, that image is sure to haunt me.”
“I’d worry over whether you meant that in a good way or a bad way, but since you’ve never seen me, I don’t think you can mean either.”
“That would be cool.”
“If I knew what you looked like,” she blurted out, and then felt immediately foolish.
Christ. Could she be any more of a girl?
He was silent. No doubt thinking of how to extricate himself from this. She opened her mouth at the same moment he spoke. “Is that…important to you?”
“Knowing what you look like?”
“No.” She squirmed. “I’m sorry. It’s just that you’ve been in my head for so long, I felt like… I didn’t mean to cross any lines, so please forget…”
“No. Of course it makes sense that you would wish to see me, especially when I know what you look like.”
“How do you know what I look like?”
“Sometimes if I’m tuned in to you and you pass a mirror or your reflection, I catch a glimpse.”
Oh. That certainly made her feel vulnerable, though she knew that wasn’t his intent. “I guess when I said you’re detail oriented, I wasn’t wrong, huh?”
“Like I said, I know it’s not fair. If you want, we can try…” He hesitated. “Are you in a secure location? Can you put on your specs?”
As secure as she would ever get, and even with the VR specs on, she could still hear fine. Mystified, she leaned over the side of the bed and pulled them out of her knapsack. They looked like plastic goggles a mad scientist might wear, with a strong rubber band that went around the back of the head to keep them from slipping off. They were black, and a cord dangling off the side plugged them into a side slot on her collar.
“I have them. Am I training now?” She knew how to fight, but since Sanctuary had supplied her with this newfangled technology along with her collar, she’d started combat training with the virtual-reality goggles on. When she plugged it into her collar, James was able to upload virtual assailants for her to fight against.
It felt real to her. She supposed she looked like a fool, but no one was ever around to see her, and it served to keep her reflexes sharp.
“Not exactly. We’ve been working on something, and I want to see if it works. Put them on.”
She slipped them over her head and plugged them into the collar, staring into the blank nothingness of the glasses. “Done.”
“Give me a second.”
A second was all it took. For her combat training, James usually uploaded a program that gave her a weight room backdrop. That wasn’t what she saw now. This was a pastoral scene. Green grass lay in a rolling carpet, up to a house in the distance. Weeping willows kissed the ground.
Possibly the prettiest thing she’d seen in a while. The last time she’d come across a park, the overgrown lawn and weed-choked playground had depressed the hell out of her.
There was a moment of disorientation, and the scene became three dimensional. She wasn’t a watcher any longer, she was in it. The bed beneath her morphed into the soft grass. The chirp of birds sang in her ears, the trickle of a nearby river running merrily along.
Not pretty. Beautiful. Christ, how long had it been since she had experienced a quiet that was peaceful instead of fraught with the silence of those who had lived and died or run away?
She raised her hand to shade her eyes from the too-bright sun, watching as a colorful bird jumped from one branch of the tree to the next. The brush of her arm against something soft had her glancing down to find herself garbed, not in her usual rough clothes, but in a white satin halter dress with blue flowers strewn over it. Bemused, she touched the skirt. She didn’t own any dresses, and she certainly never wore white. It showed bloodstains too well.
She didn’t jump, though the temptation was there. No one ever, ever crept up on her back. But she knew that voice, and she knew who would be standing there.
ShadowLands, Book 1
Analyst James Bennett has spent the years since humankind fell victim to the Illness living underground. Part of an elite group of survivors determined to save their race, his only interaction with the blood-drinking Shadows roaming the Earth is through surveillance technology carried by his team of search-and-rescue agents. Scarred by vicious events, he has no desire to leave the safety of his bunker for the dangerous world outside—until he recruits a tough, haunted young woman clear across the country.
Former gang member Jules Guerrero learned two things early on: the value of loyalty and never backing down from a fight. Both of those teachings come in handy now that her job description includes protecting humans and kicking Shadow ass. But it’s hard to keep her mind strictly on her mission when all she can think about is the man whose voice keeps her sane through the depths of each dark night.
When Jules is captured and threatened by a rogue organization even more bloodthirsty than the Shadows, James must draw on all of his courage to fuel a furious cross-country chase through the lawless land…before the Jules he loves is destroyed forever.
Warning: Contains a hero who would fight monsters for his love, a heroine out to save the world, a treacherous wasteland, poetry as foreplay and flesh-eating enemies.
Available November 6, 2012