A FATHER'S SACRIFICE
DYLAN STRYKER looked down at his sleeping son. He'd been working with the virtual surgery program and missed Ben's bedtime again.
In the dim glow of a caterpillar night-light, he watched his little boy's lips move slightly with each gentle breath. He looked so small, so innocent--so vulnerable.
Dylan's heart squeezed with guilt and grief and stinging
regret. Looking away, his gaze landed on Ben's leg braces in the corner.
In stark contrast to his son's softly lit face, the ultra-light titanium
sucked up the light greedily, shining with the stark whiteness of bones.
They mocked him, a constant reminder that his child's handicap was his
"I love you Sport," he whispered. "I'd die for you if it would change the past."
The bedroom door opened. It was Alfred.
Dylan's senses went on full alert. His chief of security never interrupted him when he was with his son. He slipped quietly through the door to the hall.
"Sorry," Alfred said shortly.
"What is it? Another breach of the fence?" Next week was the third anniversary of the suspicious car crash that had killed his wife and injured his child. The vehicle that had run her off the road had never been found. And despite his and the government's best efforts to cover up Ben's survival, this time each year the tabloids always rehashed the sensationalist rumors surrounding the crash.
Alfred shook his head, his weathered face grim. "Campbell called me," he said. "We've been hacked."
Dylan cursed. "How bad?"
"In and out within a few seconds, according to Campbell. I should have waited until morning. Should have let you sleep." Mintz's face was lined with worry.
"No. I wasn't asleep. I need to know as soon as anything happens."
"What for? So you have something else on your mind to keep you from sleeping? You couldn't have stopped the hacker."
Dylan headed for the back stairs. "I could have tried."
Alfred followed, laying a hand on Dylan's arm. "He's gone now. Go back to Ben. Try to get some sleep."
"I can't sleep. You know that. I might as well work." Dylan rubbed his burning eyes.
"Son, this is almost certainly a domestic terrorist cell. Why don't you take NSA up on their offer of protection?"
Dylan sighed. "I talked to them today."
"You've decided to move to a secure location?" Hope tinged Alfred's gravelly voice. As proud as the ex-military man was of his security measures, he'd made it clear that he'd prefer having Dylan and Ben under the protection of the government.
Dylan shook his head and rubbed the back of his neck. "We've had this conversation. I'm not sending Ben away. The interface hardware is at a critical point--too delicate to be moved, and we're still debugging the software. I can't afford to lose even a couple of days--" He heard the desperation in his own voice. Alfred knew as well as he did the real reason he was working night and day.
Time was running out for Ben.
"So why'd you call NSA?"
"I told them that if they want their damn super-soldier technology, they'll find me the best computer expert in the country. They promised me someone within forty-eight hours."
* * * * *
SPECIAL AGENT Natasha Rudolph wiped her palms down her slacks as the doors slid shut, locking her in an elevator that was about to take her under the ground. Her boss, Special Agent in Charge Mitch Decker, had warned her this assignment would be difficult. However, he hadn't mentioned that the computer lab where she'd be working was twelve feet below ground on a secluded estate in the Hamptons.
She closed her eyes as the elevator started downward.
She opened her eyes to find the military type who'd met her at the front door eyeing her hands. She realized she was clenching her fists.
"Yes? Mintz isn't it?" She deliberately relaxed her fingers. "I'm fine. Looking forward to getting started. It's been a long day."
She bit her lip. She sounded like a babbling idiot. She set her jaw and silently commanded her heart to stop fluttering and her hands to stay serenely at her sides.
Alfred Mintz frowned at her as the elevator doors slid silently open. She wiped her palms again, and stepped out into a brightly lit hall. It looked like all the walls were made of glass.
Natasha swallowed nervously. Not very substantial. She resisted the urge to glance up at the ceiling. How did these walls hold up the tons of dirt and steel above their heads? Ignoring the burning sensation on her scalp that signaled rising panic, she concentrated on staying calm.
Mintz started down the hall, leaving her to catch up. "You may not get to meet Dr. Stryker tonight. If he's in the virtual surgery lab, we won't disturb him."
They passed empty offices, furnished cubicles with computer workstations, and a door labeled Restroom and Showers that thankfully was not walled with glass.
"I thought he was anxious for me to get started reinforcing the firewall," she said.
Just past the restroom was a longer, solid glass wall. She saw a dim glow through the glass, although the glare of the brighter hall lights kept her from seeing inside the room clearly. She had the impression of chrome and steel.
Mintz stopped at the door. He nodded, his gaze on something or someone beyond the glass.
Natasha shaded her eyes and squinted. The room was an exercise room--a very well-equipped exercise room. And as she watched, a very well-equipped man stepped off a treadmill and grabbed a towel.
A few seconds later, the man stepped through the glass door and walked toward her with loose-limbed grace. He wore a gray T-shirt and gray exercise pants. The T-shirt was dark with sweat, and hugged the planes of his chest and shoulders. Its tail hung loose, hinting at a flat, ridged belly.
The pants fit snugly over his lean hips and long legs. His biceps flexed as he toweled his face and hair, then slung the towel around his neck.
Natasha gaped at him. Who was he? Not Stryker, surely. This guy did not look like a famous neurosurgeon. Maybe he was the young bio-engineer she'd been told was building the interface implant--Jerry Campbell.
Mintz stepped aside as he approached.
When Natasha pulled her gaze away from his sweaty, sexy body and met his gaze, the lines around his red-rimmed blue eyes and the exhaustion on his face came into focus.
This was no kid. But who--
His sharp blue eyes burned into hers.
"Dylan Stryker, this is Special Agent Natasha Rudolph," Mintz said.
"Ah yes. NSA said you'd be here by this evening." Stryker said wryly, lifting one brow.
It was him.
"Well, NSA and the FBI tend to respond more favorably to requests than demands."
"I don't have time to wait for the bureaucracy to process a request." His gaze flickered down her body and back up. Then he held out his hand. "So you're the best hacker-buster in the known universe."
She stared at the elegantly long, blunt-tipped fingers and neatly trimmed nails. His hands were the only thing about him that fit the information she'd been given. They looked like surgeon's hands. The only recent photos of him were long-range, grainy tabloid shots.
From them she'd gotten the impression of a thin, hatchet-faced, obsessed scientist.
Boy was she wrong!
"Hacker-buster?" She shook her head. "No. Computer expert."
Her voice was steadier than her insides. This was Dylan Stryker. Her head spun as lurid headlines filled her vision.
It was typical tabloid fare and it made her shudder each time she thought about it, made her dread meeting Stryker's child, whom Decker had told her was paralyzed.
How could anyone keep a child in this place? Underground dungeon--underground lab. Close enough.
"Dr. Stryker." She took his extended hand, and his intensity hit her like the back draft from a fire. Shock and awareness skittered along her spine. His grasp was firm and brief, leaving her palm feeling singed by his touch.
"So, Agent Rudolph, are you really the best?" His voice held a challenge.
"Yes, I am," she said without hesitation.
His straight mouth tilted slightly at one corner. "Good. Perfect." He nodded, dislodging a trickle of sweat that slid down over his temple and down his jawbone. He glanced at his watch, used the towel on his damp hair again, then turned to Mintz.
"Get her settled and put her to work. What about equipment?"
"Brought it with her. Where do you want her?"
"In the office across from the virtual surgery lab." He pointed further down the hall.
Then he looked at her. "How much equipment do you have?"
Natasha started to answer, but Mintz beat her to it. So she clamped her mouth shut.
Stryker nodded as Mintz listed the basics.
"Is there anything else you need, Agent Rudolph?"
Windows. Lots of windows. "Not right now," she said, thankful her voice was still steady. She had a job to do. And that meant forgetting that there were truckloads of dirt and an entire mansion over her head.
Her career was on the line. She had to succeed--windows or no windows.
"I'll know more after I get settled in. I should start right away." The quicker she got started, the quicker she could expose the hacker and get out of this hole in the ground.
"Alfred'll take care of anything you need," Stryker said with a wave of his hand. As he turned away, his gaze met hers in a fleeting, intense glance that seared her to the bone. His clear blue eyes burned as brightly as an oxygen flame, warming her cheeks and stirring a cauldron of unexpected emotions to life within her.
He might be tired and unkempt, underfed and distracted, but Dylan Stryker exuded an air of command and--she searched for the right word--masculinity--that hummed through her like the ring of a perfectly pitched tuning fork. She blinked and dropped her gaze.
"Thanks, Alfred." Stryker headed back to his lab.
Natasha felt stunned. According to his file, Stryker was thirty-three, and already known worldwide for his breakthroughs with computer-assisted mobility in nerve-damaged patients. Natasha had studied everything the FBI had on him, including clippings from the tabloids. He'd been thirty when his wife was killed three years before.
Natasha stared at his broad shoulders and lean hips until she realized Mintz had left her behind again. She hurried to catch up. He used his thumbprint and keyed in digits from a passcode generator.
The door clicked open to reveal a small foyer banked with elevators.
"Where are we going? I need to start work."
Mintz punched the call button. "I'll show you to your room first, so you can freshen up. Have you eaten?"
She nodded, finding it difficult to pull her thoughts away from Dylan Stryker.
He was so completely different from her expectations. He was driven, maybe even obsessed. But there was something else about him. Something dark and haunted lurked behind his brilliant blue eyes.
"I assume you've been fully briefed on our situation?" Mintz asked.
"Yes, sir. I'm here to stop a hacker and construct a firewall. And of course, to help with physical security."
Mintz shook his head. "Physical security is not your job. There are two of your fellow agents on the outside to help my staff handle physical security. You concentrate on the computer."
Irritation stiffened her shoulders. "I've studied the aerial photos. You've done a good job of camouflaging the house." Too good for her taste. This was her first assignment since her injury. And now she understood why her boss, Special Agent Mitch Decker, had given her a choice.
He'd told her that the staff psychiatrist had declared her minimally qualified. At the time she was furious, and eager to prove the shrink wrong. Now she got it. How ironic that this job tapped into her worst fears.
Before her injury, this would have been just another assignment, and her mild claustrophobia would be manageable. But now she was fighting for her career. If she couldn't conquer her irrational fear of closed spaces, she'd lose her job.
She suppressed a shudder, drew in a lungful of conditioned air, and repeated the mantra Dr. Shay had given her to calm her panic.
Quiet and safe. Plenty of fresh air. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.
Maude Lucenda Enis Ricks
January 23, 1922-February 28, 2008
my beautiful, heroic mother.
January 26, 1920-January 13, 2010
My handsome loving father and my mother's knight in shining armor.