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Just one touch, p.1
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       Just One Touch, p.1

         Part #5 of Slow Burn series by Maya Banks  
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  ONE

  SHE ran through the gnarled forest, her breaths of fear spilling raggedly from her lips as she sought to suck in precious oxygen. Another tree limb slapped her painfully in the face and she brought up her hand in automatic protection. She flung it out to protect herself from other obstacles shielded from her in the inky night where overcast skies hid the half moon, rendering her blind as she continued to crash haphazardly through the woods.

  It was only a matter of time before her absence was detected and they wouldn’t wait until dawn, just an hour away, to set the dogs loose to track her. They had the advantage. She had none.

  Her feet became entangled in exposed tree roots and she slammed face-first onto the ground, all the wind knocked brutally from her lungs. She lay there wheezing for breath as tears burned. Gritting her teeth in determination, she shoved herself upward and took off once more, ignoring the crippling pain that seized her entire body.

  They would find her. They’d never rest until they had her back. She couldn’t stop. Couldn’t give up. She’d die before going back.

  A shiver went up her spine when she heard a distant coyote howl. She pulled up sharply when she heard another and then a third, much closer than the first. The sound of the entire pack yipping and barking only to end in long, haunting howls made goose bumps rise on her skin, which was already prickled from the cold.

  They were in front of her. They were the only obstacle between her and the open land that represented her freedom. Possible freedom. But then she realized if the coyotes were near her, then perhaps the dogs sent to track her would be reluctant to follow her this closely to them.

  Her chances with wild coyotes were infinitely better than—and preferable to—the fate she knew awaited her if they dragged her back to the compound. Already the sky was beginning to lighten in the east, but not enough to give her a clear sight path. Knowing she had to keep moving at all costs, she plunged recklessly ahead, shoving thick bramble away as she tried to gain passage through the dense vegetation.

  Her bare feet had no feeling in them. Cold and the many scrapes and bruises had rendered them numb. For that she was grateful. The moment she regained sensation she knew she would be helpless.

  How much farther? She’d studied the maps, snatching stolen moments, taking great risks to delve into the off-limits areas of the compound. She knew the path she’d chosen—north—was the shortest path out of the heavy forest that encompassed the compound. She’d committed every marker to memory and had taken a due-north route from the northern edge of the compound walls.

  What if she hadn’t taken a straight line? What if she was merely running in circles? A sob escaped her bloodied mouth but she bit it back, purposely injecting pain by sinking her teeth into her bottom lip.

  And then another sound stopped her cold. Panic scuttled up her spine and she went rigid in terror. Dogs. Still a distance away, but the sound was unmistakable and one she was intimately acquainted with. Bloodhounds. And she’d certainly bled all over the woods, leaving a trail that would be child’s play for the dogs to track.

  With a sob, she pushed forward again, her flight more desperate than before. She hurdled stumps and downed branches, falling half a dozen times in her frenzied flight, fueled by desperation and a lifetime of despair.

  A cramp knotted her thigh and she gasped but ignored the crippling pain. And then another seized her side. Oh God. Slapping her hand over her side, pushing, massaging the taut muscle, she turned her tear-streaked face upward to heaven.

  Please help me, God. I refuse to believe I’m the abomination they named me. That I’m to be punished for what wasn’t my choice. They don’t do your work. I can’t—won’t—believe that. Please. Grant me mercy and grace.

  The dogs seemed closer and she could no longer hear a single coyote. Perhaps they were frightened away by the loud baying and sheer number of the dogs hunting her. Another cramp nearly sent her to her knees, and she realized that soon she’d no longer be able to continue running.

  “Why, God?” she whispered. “What is my sin?”

  And then suddenly she burst from the last snarl of bramble and bushes and was so shocked to have no further obstacle that she tripped and went tumbling forward, landing flat on her face on a . . . gravel road?

  She slapped her hands down on the ground, curling her fingers into the dirt and gravel. Droplets of blood soaked into the dirt, and she hastily wiped her mouth and nose with the arm of her tattered hoody.

  Elation swirled. She’d made it!

  Then she quickly got back to her feet, castigating herself. She hadn’t made anything yet. She was merely free of the woods, and now she was more of an open target than before. But at least she would know where she was going.

  She hoped.

  She began sprinting down the road, quickly moving to the ditch when the rocks tore into her tender feet. The grassy area wasn’t much better, but at least she wouldn’t leave such an obvious blood trail on the roadway.

  To her shock, just a hundred yards ahead was what looked to be a small filling station and fruit stand. She put on speed, her gaze darting back and forth as she neared it. She even glanced over her shoulder, terrified that she’d see the dogs behind her. And worse . . . the elders.

  Seeing nothing and no one yet, she continued to run toward the gas station, not having the first clue what to do when she got there. She knew little of the modern world outside of the books she’d snuck, the magazines and newspapers. It seemed strange and scary, enormous beyond her wildest imagination. But she’d armed herself with as much knowledge as possible in preparation for this day.

  Her freedom.

  As she reached the station, she observed an old truck parked out front with a tarp completely covering the bed. She glanced side to side and toward the station, thinking quickly of her options. Then she heard voices.

  She immediately squatted behind the truck, her heart thundering in her chest and her breath coming out in painful wheezes.

  “Gonna run this produce to our Houston stand. Expect I’ll be back ’round two this afternoon. You need anything from the city, Roy?”

  “Not this time, Carl. But be careful. I heard traffic is a real bitch this morning. Something about a pileup on the 610 loop.”

  “Will do. You take care too. I’ll see you later.”

  Making a quick decision, she eased the tarp upward to expose the open tailgate and to her delight, saw just enough room for her to huddle between the freight boxes containing fruit and vegetables. As quietly and as quickly as she could, she slithered over the tailgate, her body screaming its protest. She slipped the tarp back down, hoping she’d left it arranged as she’d found it, and then pushed her body forward as much as possible so she wouldn’t fall out.

  The older man was driving into the city. The thought terrified her. The very idea of being swallowed whole by a city as large as Houston was paralyzing. But it would also play to her advantage. Surely the elders would have much more trouble tracking her in a city teeming with life. Not to mention they couldn’t very well abduct her in broad daylight. Both things they could readily do as long as she remained where she was in the rural, isolated area well north of Houston.

  She held her breath as she felt the truck shake with the slam of the driver’s door, and then the engine cranked and the vehicle began backing up. She put a fist to her swollen mouth and bit into her knuckle when the truck halted its backward motion, but a mere second later it began moving again and she could tell they’d pulled onto the gravel road.

  Thank you, God. Thank you for not forgetting me. For letting me know I am not what they named me and that you aren’t the vengeful God they named you.

  TWO

  ISAAC Washington collected the to-go cup of coffee and two bagels and headed out of the small shopping center a few blocks from the DSS offices. Due to the popularity of the locally owned coffee shop and bakery and the fact that it was the morning rush hour in Houston, he’d had to park all the way on the other side of the highway in the extended parking lot by the strip mall.

  Good thing it was winter—or as close as Houston weather ever got to winter—so he didn’t sweat his ass off by the time he’d made the long trek. As it was, there was a slight chill to the air—courtesy of last night’s cold front—that was a nice change from the oppressive heat of summer and fall.

  He was almost to his SUV when he noticed that his driver’s side door was open. Son of a bitch! He was forever forgetting to lock his damn door and, well, he left his keys in the ignition more times than not when he was doing a quick in-and-out someplace.

  He dropped his coffee and bagels, quickly drew his firearm and then stepped between two cars before slowly advancing around the front, keeping low as he closed the distance between him and his vehicle.

  He continued to do figure eights around the remaining cars until he had just one left to go. He crept around the back, wanting to come up behind whoever was trying to jack his fucking SUV, trapping the punk between the open door and a loaded pistol.

  Cautiously he rose just enough to get a good sight line to the perpetrator and frowned when he saw a slight figure in a hoody with several holes in it. The jeans weren’t in any better shape and the hood of the top was covering the guy’s head. Judging by the size, it looked to be a teenager looking for a joyride.

  Whoever it was sucked at stealing a vehicle. The guy wasn’t even checking his six to make sure the owner—or anyone else—was coming up on him. When he started to slide behind the wheel, Isaac knew he had to act now and hope to hell the dude wasn’t packing firepower.

  “Hold it right there,” Isaac said, coming into view, his gun trained at the back of the kid.

  The body in front of Isaac went rigid and then the teenager slowly turned around to face Isaac. All the wind rushed from Isaac’s lungs in one forceful exhale when he got his first good look at the “kid” trying to steal his ride.

  A young woman stared back at him with huge, frightened eyes. She’d gone unnaturally pale, which made the blood and swelling around her mouth and nose even more evident. Even dressed as she was, in the condition she was in, the only thing that came to his mind was that he had to be staring back at an angel.

  Strands of pale blond hair stuck out from the hood of her top, framing marred but otherwise porcelain skin. The blood looked incongruous with the image she projected. As his gaze drifted down her poor attire, he noticed she wasn’t even wearing any damn shoes. It wasn’t freezing by any means, but it was too cold to be running around dressed as she was and barefooted.

  “Please, don’t hurt me,” she whispered, her lips trembling.

  Her entire body shook, her hands held upward in a gesture of surrender. His earlier anger over having his vehicle stolen fled and was replaced by a strong sense of protectiveness—and rage at anyone who would hurt such a tiny, innocent-looking woman.

  “What’s your name?” he asked gently as he lowered his gun before sliding it back into its holster.

  Terror flared in her crystal-clear blue eyes. He’d never seen such an unusual shade of blue in someone’s eyes before. That, paired with the blond silky hair and her delicate-looking, fair skin, further cemented the image of an angel in his mind.

  “I-I c-can’t tell y-you that,” she stammered.

  His face softened. “Are you in some kind of trouble? I can help you. My job involves helping people who are in trouble.”

  She shook her head emphatically. “Please just let me go. I’m so sorry about . . .” She broke off and her hand fluttered weakly toward his vehicle. “I just didn’t know what else to do.”

  “Honey, I don’t think you’ve taken a good look at yourself,” he said gently. “You’re bruised and bloodied up pretty bad and you’re not dressed for the weather. You don’t even have shoes on.”

  “I need to go,” she whispered. “I have to go.”

  Isaac took a step forward, sensing her urgency and her impending flight. He didn’t know why it was so important to him not to let her just leave, but hell, could he let anyone just walk away after seeing the condition this mystery woman was in?

  She shrank back, drawing into herself, a protective measure that was likely instinctual and not at all conscious. He could feel his expression blacken at the thought of why she might assume she had so much to fear from a complete stranger. But then again, he could see her point. They hadn’t exactly met on the best of terms. Certainly not when he’d been pointing a gun at her.

  “Let me buy you something to eat. I just came from the coffee shop in the strip mall, but when I saw my door open, I ditched my coffee and bagels. I think you could use a little warming up too.”

  He could see the yearning in her eyes at his mention of food and hot coffee and his gaze automatically swept over her slight figure, noting her thinness. There were hollows under her eyes that suggested lack of sleep as well as lack of having anything to eat.

  God damn it. She had all the hallmarks of a domestic abuse victim. Boyfriend? Husband? Hell, maybe it was her father. She looked young enough to be a teenager. Her eyes were the only thing that made her appear older. Eyes that had seen too much. Old beyond her years. Educated the hard way, at the University of Life Sucks.

  “I swear to you I won’t hurt you,” he said in a soothing voice one might use with a wild animal. “I’m sure as hell not calling the police or turning you in for attempted auto theft.”

  Her face went even whiter at his mention of the police and he cursed his reckless words.

  She opened her mouth to speak when Isaac heard the familiar whine of a bullet, and then the car next to him shuddered violently on its frame as the shot struck the tire, the echo of the shot reverberating loudly in the distance.

  “Down!” he yelled, lunging for the woman.

  As he circled his arms around her waist, he turned to thrust her to the ground so he could cover her with his body. He was simultaneously reaching for his own gun when more shots struck his SUV and the car beside it, and then pain exploded through his chest.

  His mouth fell open in shock and for a moment he was rendered incapable of movement. Then the strength left his legs and he collapsed like a deflated balloon, hitting the ground with a thud right beside the woman, who was sprawled on the concrete a mere foot away.

  “No. No!” the woman said hoarsely. “No, no, no!”

  Her face appeared over his, concern and agony making her features starker than before. A sense of shock—and failure—assaulted him as he felt his body begin to shut down. After everything he’d encountered and fought against over the past few years, this was the way he was going out?

  “Listen to me,” he rasped, startled when his voice came out as the merest thread of a whisper. “Get in my SUV. The keys are in it. Haul ass out of here. Get yourself to safety. There’s no helping me. I’m dying.”

  “No!” she denied. “I won’t let you! I won’t!”

  She scrambled to him and suddenly her face hovered over his, her blue eyes flashing nearly silver as her hoody fell back, and a cascade of curly pale hair blew around her neck as wildly as her hands ran over his bloody chest.

  “Go,” he croaked, coughing and then choking as the metallic taste of blood coated his tongue.

  Then she closed her eyes and her forehead creased in agony, and he gasped when her palms pressed deeply against his chest. It was like being hit by lightning. An electrical charge. His heart stuttered, then paused and his vision went blurry, her delicate features growing dimmer.

  He stopped fighting the inevitable—death. He relaxed, expecting the end to come at any moment as coldness reached the inner core of his body. But then the most amazing sensation jolted him to awareness. Warmth. The most beautiful warmth he’d ever felt in his life slowly seeped into his veins, carrying with it the whispers of hope, of a new beginning,

  He tried to speak, to protest, to ask if this was the end, but all he could do was gasp as his vision cleared once more and he saw the unbearable strain etched into every facet of her face.

  Never had he felt a more wonderful sensation. Being warmed from the inside out. His laboring heart and lungs seemed to relax and still, and there was no pain, only . . . a resurgence. As if a surgeon had his hands inside Isaac’s chest, meticulously repairing the mortal damage done by the bullet.

  He lifted his hand, shocked that he had the strength to do so. He greedily sucked in sweet, life-giving breath and marveled that not only was there no pain, but that what he felt couldn’t be described. No drug, no narcotic or pain-relieving agent could ever produce such a wonderful feeling.

  He reached for her wrist, shackling it with his fingers, unsure of what she was doing but knowing she had to stop. She was in danger. The shooters were still there. Could be coming for her even now.

  Her eyes flickered open the instant he touched her and his own eyes widened when he saw the turbulent whirl of flashing colors that made the once pale-blue orbs undetectable.

  “Don’t,” she gritted out between tightly clenched teeth. “I am not finished. You must let me finish. I will not let you die.”

  He let his hand fall away, numb with shock over what he was witnessing—no, experiencing. He’d thought by now nothing could shake him, catch him off guard, that nothing unbelievable was ever so in the world he lived and worked in. But never had he imagined such power, such an ability. Surely only God had the power over life and death?

  But no, that wasn’t true. Men and women killed one another every day. Humans decided death far more than they ever decided life, and yet this woman . . .

  His entire body shuddered and the upper half jolted upward as if he’d been defibrillated. He felt the cold concrete through his blood-soaked jacket and realized that he was warm. Alive. Whole. And breathing.

  He stared at her in awe, only to see utter despair wash through her soulful eyes. Her hands fell away and she pulled her knees to her chest, hugging them as she rocked back and forth, tears sliding down her cheeks.

  Realization was swift. By saving him—healing him—she’d given up any opportunity to run, to escape. The resignation on her face broke his heart even as he lay gasping in wonder at being alive. He cautiously ran his hand over his chest and drew it away to see the smear of blood on his palm. But it came from his clothing. No longer was he bleeding. No longer was there a gaping wound in his chest. But there was residual weakness, or maybe he was just in shock—who wouldn’t be? He was in no shape to haul himself and her into his vehicle and make a getaway. He’d just end up getting them both killed, or rather himself killed again. Her only shot was to get the hell away and leave him behind.

  He reached over and snagged her ankle, shaking her gently to gain her attention. She glanced up at him with dull eyes and he gestured to his SUV.

  “Hurry, before they come! The keys are there. Go!”

  She shook her head even as more tears trickled down her face.

  “God damn it, get out of here! I have backup coming and I still have my gun. Someone will be here for me in a few minutes. For God’s sake move!”

  For the first time, hope flickered on her face even as shock registered in her eyes. He started to shove himself upward when he found himself flattened by her entire body as the sound of more bullets punched a dozen holes into the side of his SUV.

  Her eyes were wide, a swirling vortex of pain, grief and abject terror. He felt her intense stare to the bone, the weight of her stare drawing him straight into its turbulent depths. There wasn’t a single part of her that wasn’t pleading with him, and when she spoke, he flinched at the anguish so thick in her every word.

  “You have to hide. They can’t know of what I did. No one can. Never tell anyone about me. Please,” she begged, wrapping her tiny hands around his, lifting them and pressing them to her chest. He felt the erratic beat of her heart against his knuckles and then registered the fact that she was shaking violently.

  He didn’t dare draw attention to the fact that the pool of blood he was still lying in would be a dead giveaway or she’d completely fall apart. As it was she was only holding on by the thinnest thread. Letting go of her hands, losing her touch left him feeling suddenly bereft and hollow, like a part of him had died. But he pushed her toward his vehicle anyway, his tone purposely harsh and commanding as he pinned her with his most forceful and authoritative stare.

  “Go while you can, damn it. I said someone will be here for me any minute now. Don’t you dare let those fuckers get their hands on you.”

  God, he hoped he wasn’t lying to her about his back up. He’d managed to activate the “oh shit” button, as his teammate Eliza had named the transponder they all carried with them. He wasn’t far from headquarters. Hell, someone should be on the scene already.

  “For fuck’s sake listen to me” he bellowed. “I don’t know who the hell you are, lady, or what the hell you did, but I’m not about to let someone who just saved my life get her ass killed instead.”

  She scrambled up, keeping her head low, and slithered between the door and the interior. She turned and looked one last time at Isaac and he could swear she was pleading with him for forgiveness. The door slammed behind her and the engine cranked. He winced when the SUV lurched forward, stopping then going, the brakes screaming in protest.

  Well, fuck. Maybe it hadn’t been such a good idea to send her away. It didn’t appear that she even knew how to drive. Hell, she didn’t look old enough to be driving. He ground his teeth in frustration over his inability to provide her with the protection she so desperately needed and just prayed he’d made the right decision.

  Testing his body’s responses, he rolled to his stomach and then belly-crawled around the front of the remaining vehicle, his knuckles white from his fingers being wrapped so tightly around his gun. He leaned heavily against the grill of the car and waited, one hand still rubbing his chest in disbelief.

  “Isaac,” a low, distant voice called. “Sitrep.”

  Isaac blew out his breath in relief when Zeke, one of the newer DSS recruits, announced his arrival.

  “You got backup?” Isaac said in a voice just loud enough to carry.

  “Dex is with me. What’s going on, man?”

  “Shooters. Didn’t get a bead on their location, but they weren’t close when they first shot. No idea if they’re still on scene or if they’re closing in. Watch yourselves, and I hope to fuck you’re packing some serious heat.”

  He heard Dex snort and took that as an affirmative.

 
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