A dull thump and something that sounded like glass breaking startled me awake. I blinked, confused and still half asleep. Had I imagined that noise?
For a moment, I didn’t dare move or breathe, straining my ears to make out any sound, but other than the soft humming of the lighting behind the headboard and a few distinct battle cries coming from the training halls, everything remained silent. Maybe the noise had been conjured by the remnants of a dream already sinking into oblivion.
I let my head fall back against the pillow, regretting it the instant pain shot through my skull. My fight with Cole a few hours ago had left a few nasty bruises. The reminder made my mind immediately drift off to Haylie, and how she’d tended to me in the bathroom later. Caring. Determined. Gentle.
Usually, I didn’t like someone else taking care of me, but with Haylie it was different. It had been my excuse to be near her. Her face so close to mine, her eyes focused on each of my body parts, her hands traveling over my skin like a lover’s caress.
And then she’d touched my abs, and I got a glimpse of the longing in her eyes while her hands traced my rippled muscles. It had taken every ounce of self-control to not lock the door from the inside, back her up against the wall, and devour her like the wild beast I was. My resistance had crumbled piece by piece so that I’d had to touch her and caress the radiant skin up to her face.
And that kiss...
I swear, I’d never tasted lips so sweet and luscious. I could have kissed her for hours if it hadn’t been for her stupid phone interrupting us before I’d even had the chance to catch up to what was happening. When was the last time she’d had sex, I wondered? No, don’t go there. Just thinking about another man touching her let me nearly tear my bedsheets into pieces.
Seriously, my control whenever she was around was next to nonexistent. For some reason, we kept getting caught in steamy moments, and it was so fucking excruciating. Next time, there would be no stopping the beast inside me that craved nothing more than to be unleashed and get a taste of her.
It would change everything, of course, but I knew with all my heart that I wasn’t strong enough to keep pretending I wasn’t yearning for more. I was a Fighter, one of the strongest of my race, but whenever it came to Haylie Bryceland—the only Natural that hadn’t died under my protection—I was stripped of all my strength, leaving me weak, powerless, and completely at her mercy.
Frustrated, I yanked the blankets away. As soon as I was up, my hand shot forward with the sudden need to steady myself.
My head was spinning so bad, I fell back onto the bed like a dead weight. What the hell? Probably a concussion caused by the clout I’d received from Cole.
With serious effort, I tried to get up again, but the task was harder than usual. Strangely, I felt twice as heavy, as if elastic bands were tying me to the bedposts, immobilizing me.
Stumbling into the bathroom in a slightly drunken state, I splashed cold water on my face in an attempt to clear my head. It wasn’t working. Maybe an energy drink or two might give me the caffeine boost I needed.
On my way to the main quarters, the dizzy feeling slowly ebbed off until it evaporated completely. Weird.
Just as I was about to open the door to the control room, distinct laughter and familiar voices reached my ears. With my hand hovering over the door handle, I slightly angled around the corner to see Cassie chatting idly with Phil. From the looks of it, they appeared to be laughing at a joke.
The scene displayed in front of me rooted me to the spot. What the hell was that about? Most of the time, Cassie dismissed Phil with nothing more than a glare or an annoyed scoff, which was also why I’d been baffled when Cassie had accepted Phil’s invitation to dance that night at Hell’s Trial. However, seeing them now, they looked like best friends with Cassie even clapping on Phil’s shoulder. When had I missed that? And when…
No fucking way.
Cassie was pregnant—a fact I still couldn’t wrap my head around. Could Phil be the one who’d knocked her up? No, it was too surreal even to consider this a possibility. Why would she sleep with Phil who was barely an adult and, to be honest, in no way a match for her? It would go completely against Cassie’s nature. No pun intended… I’d need to check the recordings later to see if something was going on between them.
I entered the control room with a frown on my face, not surprised to see Jimmy sitting behind his office desk while tapping idly on a calculator. I decided to have a chat with him.
“Hey, can I talk to you for a minute in private?” Jimmy nodded, rising from his chair, and we headed to the next Catcher-proof room. “Have you talked to Cassie lately?” I asked him when the door closed behind us.
Jimmy sighed as if I’d started a topic he wasn’t keen on talking about. Well, that made two of us. “Yes.”
“Did she tell you about… what’s going on with her?” I tested in case Cassie hadn’t confided in Jimmy. I’d promised to keep her secret for now, but I felt it was time for at least Jimmy to know.
“You mean that she’s pregnant?”
I exhaled audibly, relieved I didn’t need to be the messenger. “So, she told you?”
“Yeah, she did.”
“What do you think of it?”
Jimmy laughed, rubbing a hand over his black, curly hair. “Don’t know what you want me to say. I couldn’t believe my ears when she told me.”
“Did she tell you who the father was?”
“No. She sidestepped the question very professionally.” No surprise. “Did she tell you?”
“No, but I suspect it was someone from the inside. I went through the recordings and couldn’t find any proof that Cassie left the compound for the last few months.”
Jimmy chuckled—a reaction I hadn’t expected. “Man, I’m glad. I already wanted to ask if you were the one who—”
“Seriously?” I exclaimed, my ego hurt. “You thought I got her pregnant?”
“You two had a thing for a long time.”
“I told you I ended things with her. I would never be so stupid as to—”
“Okay, okay!” Jimmy held up his hands in surrender. “Message received. I suppose we’ll need to wait until she tells us. I think we can rest assured now that she’s not the traitor in our circle.” I agreed. Her alibi was bulletproof. So, who was the one working with the Hunters behind our backs? “Is there anything else? I’ve got an urgent call in a few.”
I shook my head. “No, go ahead.”
Following Jimmy back to the control room, I plopped down in my office chair. I snorted when I saw Jimmy had loaded my desk with stacks of paper of the newest guidelines of Pedagogical Education for Students. Really, they could stick this shit up their asses. Grabbing the stack, I crammed it into the garbage can without a second glance.
“What are you doing here? You were supposed to take the day off,” Chris complained in my direction upon entering.
“I have a few bruises, not the flu,” I retorted gruffly.
“I offered to take over your surveillance duty, and you decline? Who are you, and what did you do to Dylan Dwight?”
“Very funny,” I muttered and updated the status on the monitors. I let my eyes swerve over the screens showing the training halls, as usual hoping to spot Haylie, but she was nowhere to be seen.
“Ah, I know what this is about,” Chris drawled, bending over my table. “You’re stalking a certain dark-haired beauty.”
Before I could come up with a lie on my part, Cole—Racer, arrogant asshole, and, until recently, my archenemy—strode in. He sported a split lip, and a set of bruises peeked through from under the hem of his shirt. One eye was slightly swollen. I smirked. Yes, the view satisfied me greatly, knowing I was the one who’d beaten him blue and purple.
“Are the guards in position?” Jimmy asked Cole, referring to our new security team Serena had sent us.
“Yes, sir!” Cole called out with a mock salute, making me roll my eyes. Count on Cole to put on a show whenever he got the chance. “Ian and Xanders are guarding the northern exit to the cemetery, Patricia and Tamara are positioned at the southern entrance, and Harvey and Kim are preparing for their next shift.”
I turned back to my monitors. New cameras were already installed, recording the exit to the cemetery to cover up any blank spots. After Haylie had been lured out by that Racer bitch, Aitana, and her minion Hunters, we’d agreed on investing in more security, especially as the compound’s location was no longer a secret. If the Hunters intended to sneak in through either of the two exits, we would be prepared.
As Cole had said, two guards were positioned next to the entrance, one of them being Xanders. I squinted my eyes to get a better look. The second man was unfamiliar. He was nearly seven feet tall and as bulky as a bodybuilder. I was certain I’d never seen this guy before.
“Who the hell is this?” I demanded sharply, addressing no one in particular.
“This, my friend, is Arnie,” Cole answered from behind me when seeing what I was frowning at. “It’s his nickname. I told you he had skills.”
I threw Cole a puzzled look. “What are you talking about?”
“This is Ian, our Freshman. His shifting abilities are unique. Most Shifters can only play with their superficial appearances like eye color or hair length, but Ian can modify his height and muscle mass.”
My eyes flicked back to the screen. On closer inspection, the face was familiar. “This is your Freshman? The little guy with the bald head?” I asked in disbelief, remembering Ian—one of the seven Roes Serena had sent us as backup, including Cole as their team leader. I’d been quite pissed Serena found it useful to help us out with a Shifter who was also a Freshman as well.
“Yep. His ability is quite convenient when it comes to guarding duties.” I couldn’t disagree. The guy looked pretty scary. Few people would be so stupid as to take him on.
“And what if it comes to a fight? What use is his appearance if he can’t fight back?” As much as I remembered Ian from our brief introduction, he was small and chubby. He wouldn’t stand a chance against a trained Roe, least of all Fighters or Racers.
“Oh, he can, just not in the usual way. He can multiply the density of his muscles and skin. Punch him, and it feels like connecting with concrete. You might as well fight a steel wall. He’s quite robust, to say the least.”
“How long can he keep it up for?” Chris wanted to know, leaning in closer to the screen.
“One shift, easily. Not that long in battle because it drains his energy quickly, but in general, he can keep the façade as long as needed.”
“Impressive,” Jimmy muttered, stopping by my side. “How is he able to achieve that before the Awakening?”
My thoughts exactly. Every Roe could tap into their abilities before their Awakening, but their full power only came through afterward. Haylie had yet to undergo the process, although she still had nearly two years left until then, thank God…
It was said that the Awakening was much more intense for Naturals—not just more painful in phase one, the Inferno, and phase two, the Glaciation, but also more arousing in phase three, the Revival. Lisa, our unseeing Watcher, who had the gift to feel a person’s vibes, had suggested I stay with Haylie during the Awakening, but even thinking about being present when she hit the Revival, all hot and needy, made my cock go wild.
“The reason he came to us in the first place,” Cole continued to explain, bringing me back to reality, “was that his parents—both Fighters—forced him to use his ability on a high level since he was a child. We assume this caused his ability to grow faster, similar to a bodybuilder injecting anabolic steroids.”
“Both his parents were Fighters?” Chris repeated in surprise. “A strange combination.”
My attention switched to Cassie as she entered with Phil in tow. I threw him a suspicious look, trying to find any clue that something was going on between the two, but his face gave nothing away.
Cole squared his shoulders when he followed my gaze, eyes raking over Cassie like a lion watching his deer. I didn’t mind as long as he kept his eyes away from Haylie. Far, far away.
Oh, Cassie would love this. Nothing better to make little Cass happy than a good portion of male attention.
“Now, this is a new face,” Cole announced loudly, back to his playful self. Gathering from where his eyes trailed over her super tight jeans, Cassie’s face was secondary to him at the moment.
“I don’t think we have been introduced, yet.” A puff of wind, and Cole was in front of Cassie in the blink of an eye, as usual showing off the Racer in him.
Cassie’s eyebrows rose, her expression bored. “And you are…?” she asked as if Cole was stealing her valuable time. Chris threw me a look as if to say What’s going on with her?, but I was just as clueless and shrugged in response.
Cole didn’t allow himself to become agitated by her, though, stretching out his hand for her to shake. “Cole Thompson, and more than pleased to meet you.”
Chris snorted, and I nearly did the same. I couldn’t believe women were falling for Cole’s shit.
Reluctantly, Cassie took Cole’s outstretched hand. She didn’t seem to be the least bit taken with him, much to my surprise. Either Cole was losing his charm, or Cassie got brainwashed.
“Cassie Steward, and frankly, not interested in ass-kissers like you. If you’ll excuse me, I’ve got work to do.”
My eyebrows nearly connected with my hairline for the second time that day, and Chris’ mouth popped open as we both stared at her. She plopped down in her office chair, not gracing Cole with another glance. My eyes trailed to the Racer. His composure wavered for a second before he caught himself and strolled back to us.
“Hot,” he muttered in awe, eyes glued to Cassie.
“I’d be careful if I were you. That means if you value your balls hanging where they are now,” Chris cautioned, nodding his head to Cole’s pants.
“A challenge. I like that,” Cole retorted, unfazed by Chris’ warning.
The door banged open again, and Scott and Josh tumbled in, both of them laughing their asses off for some unknown reason. Scott howled with laughter, tears already streaming down his face. He clapped Josh on the shoulder in a dude-like gesture, keeping his hand there to steady himself.
“Man, that was hilarious!” Josh snickered, causing me to groan. I’d bet my Fighter blood they were stoned. Count on Scott to be high like a kite any time of the day.
“What the hell is going on with you?” Chris asked, eyeing them dubiously.
“Oh, man.” Scott snickered with a shake of his head that made his dreadlocks bounce. “Josh and I were just walking down the hallway and suddenly, we both tripped over our own feet and made a simultaneous face-plant. I’m glad no one saw us.”
“A pity I missed that.”
“No idea what happened. Josh even checked the ground for a rope or something in case someone wanted to set a trap for us, but there was nothing.”
“Yeah, it was crazy,” Josh continued. “We both felt dizzy all of a sudden and fell like sacks at the same time.”
“Seriously, guys, I’m not a Tracer, but even I can smell the weed pouring from your pores,” Cole commented dryly, and I smacked his shin with my foot. Why couldn’t the dumbass keep his stupid mouth shut?
“Guys,” came Jimmy’s warning voice from behind. I groaned. Too late. “I’d rather you don’t say another word about that. I don’t want to know any of the shit you’re smoking, swallowing, injecting, or sticking up your asses. Understood?”
“Hey, what’s going on with that camera?” Chris asked, and I turned around to see where he pointed.
The camera monitoring the corridor of my room flickered. The image switched on and off, interrupted by gray and white streaks like a television missing a signal. Typing on my keyboard, I checked the connection.
“Strange. The system tells me everything’s fine.”
“I’ll look at it,” Cole offered, and with a low whoosh, was out of the room before I could reply and appeared on the screen a few seconds later.
While Cole fumbled with the device, I scanned the other screens. There were recordings of the corridors, the training rooms, and the main hall, but Haylie was nowhere in sight. As usual, my stomach made an uncomfortable flip.
“Hey, Chris. Did you see Haylie before you came here?”
“Just wondering because she wanted to train this afternoon.” And she’s not in any of the training halls.
“At lunch, she said she wanted to meditate.”
“But she’s not in the cemetery where she usually meditates. That only leaves Jenna’s old training room.” And I hadn’t seen her going there.
Chris shook his head. “Just came from there. The room was empty.”
I inhaled on a tremble as a horrible déjà-vu struck me, recalling the day Lauren had been kidnapped by the Hunters, and Haylie took off after her. I forced myself to quickly dismiss the thought. Cole’s team of guards was here now to prevent exactly that.
“Dylan, you need to stop this,” Chris pleaded in a low voice so no one could overhear him. “You’re getting overprotective. Just because you can’t see her on the screen doesn’t mean she’s not here. She’s probably in Lauren’s or Sarah’s room.”
I heaved a frustrated sigh but nodded. Chris was right. My obsession with Haylie was getting out of control. She was smart and a grown-up with a powerful ability on her side. She didn’t need me to babysit her all the time.
“No idea what’s wrong with that camera,” Cole’s voice came from behind when he returned. “And you won’t believe me when I’m telling you that I just had a similar accident as Scott and Josh did.”
On hearing this, Scott cracked up again, Josh joining in quickly. I raised an eyebrow in question. I knew Scott was permanently stoned, and it was no secret Josh enjoyed a smoke or two from time to time, but Cole?
“What happened?” Chris asked.
“I got dizzy when I got there and nearly tripped over my own feet, but I caught myself at the last second.”
“Don’t you think it’s one hell of a coincidence?” We all whirled around at hearing Cassie speaking. Ever since her return, she only spoke when being addressed—another strange behavior of hers lately, as Cassie always spoke her mind.
“What do you mean?” Cole pressed.
“Think about it. Scott and Josh are falling over their own feet at the same time. Then, the same thing happens to you. I bet all of you fell in the same spot, right?”
Scott threw Josh a puzzled look and answered for both of them. “It happened exactly here.” Scott pointed to my screen. “In front of the camera.”
“Yeah, right,” Cole agreed in a thoughtful tone.
“Wait, wait, wait,” Chris threw in with raised hands, head shaking. “Could somebody please tell me what Cassie’s talking about? What is so special about the spot? There’s nothing in that aisle except for a few rooms.”
“Just saying.” A mischievous grin formed on her face, and she clicked her tongue before adding, “Sounds very much like someone is playing with… gravity.”