Theirs to cherish, p.42
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       Theirs to Cherish, p.42
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         Part #8 of Wicked Lovers series by Shayla Black
Page 42

 

  Cursing softly, Thorpe opened the first file on the SD card. Sean looked over his shoulder. Together, they began to read.

  Chapter Seventeen

  AFTERNOON had come and gone when Sean and Thorpe finally stepped into the little galley. Callie had long ago stopped pacing, stopped trying to recall the terrible night of the murders . . . stopped hoping that her men hadn’t found anything.

  As they stepped into the small space, filing in through the doorway and looking at her with a gravity that scared the hell out of her, she stood and felt her stomach drop to her toes. “You know why someone is after me? Why they killed my family?”

  “We think so, yes,” Sean said heavily.

  “How bad is it?” No sense in dancing around the truth or letting them BS her. Someone was after her, and she was damn tired of running, of not knowing why her life was in shambles, or not understanding how all her tomorrows had fallen apart at once.

  If she was reading their faces right, anything that might resemble a happy future was nothing but a pipe dream.

  “Sit down, lovely,” Sean said softly.

  So whatever they’d discovered was not just bad, but awful.

  “I don’t want to sit down. I’ve been doing that for hours. Damn it, just tell me. ”

  Sean glanced at Thorpe. Though Callie wouldn’t have thought it possible, he looked even more grim. Her caretaker for the last four years firmed his jaw as if steeling himself.

  Panic slipped an icy chill through her bloodstream. “I’m already expecting bad, but you two are scaring the hell out of me. What is going on?”

  “Your Master gave you an order, Callie. ” Thorpe pointed to the chair.

  Did they think she was going to faint? She plopped down into the little aluminum chair with the bright blue vinyl seat and glared.

  Before she could demand that they spit it out, Sean dropped to the floor in front of her and took her hands in his. He swallowed. “How much do you know about the research your father paid for when you were a child? What was Dr. Aslanov supposed to do exactly?”

  “Find a cure for cancer. That’s all Dad ever said. Is this . . . about the research?”

  Sean hesitated, so she looked up at Thorpe. He nodded. “Your father didn’t just want to find a pill or treatment that would make cancer disappear. He told Aslanov to find a way to cure it genetically to ensure that no one ever had to hear again that they or a loved one had a disease that would eat away at them from the inside. Aslanov wasn’t just a researcher; he was a controversial young Russian geneticist. He had theories many of his colleagues eschewed. Turns out he was right. And wrong. ”

  “Aslanov figured out how to genetically prevent cancer from ever happening?” Callie had to pick up her jaw. Was that even possible?

  “Not exactly,” Sean hedged. “If we’re reading your father’s notes right, Aslanov took the principles of genetic engineering used in fields like agriculture and medicine and expanded them with mixed results. Your father later described this sort of genetic research as the ‘lawless frontier’ of science. But he didn’t know that’s what his money was buying until it was too late. ”

  “What do you mean?” Callie gripped Sean’s hands, her stomach tightening in knots. “Aslanov killed him?”

  The guys exchanged another cautious look that made her heart stutter.

  “No,” Thorpe finally supplied, looking as if he had more to add. But he clammed up.

  “When your mother first got the diagnosis, she apparently wasn’t given more than eighteen months to live. Your father searched for someone who believed they were close to a cure or something at least to put her in remission. But he couldn’t find anyone willing to bypass all the safety precautions and government regulations to test their solution on your mother. Knowing that she was going to die if he did nothing, he veered in another direction and found Aslanov. In the previous five years, the Russian had been to some third-world countries that wouldn’t bind him in a lot of red tape. According to Aslanov, he performed his research on others with great success. He told your father that with a little research and funding, he might be able to save your mother. Of course, that didn’t happen. ”

  “Her cancer progressed faster than expected. ”

  “But Aslanov insisted he was close, so your father continued funding him for another four years. ” Sean paused, then glanced at Thorpe again, whose mouth took a grim turn.

  “If you’re editing this speech in your head, don’t,” she demanded.

  “We’re not, pet,” Thorpe promised. “It’s just complicated. ”

  “All right, then. How did this research lead to the killing of my family?”

  Sean stood, paced, obviously agitated. Thorpe took over the storytelling. “In researching to cure cases like your mother’s, he stumbled onto additional genetic changes that your father wouldn’t be interested in . . . but others would. ”

  Callie frowned. “What others? Spit it out. I’ve waited nine years to find out what the hell happened to the family I loved and to stop looking over my shoulder every five minutes because someone wanted to kill—”

  “Aslanov had a wife and three children—and financial problems. While researching for your mother, he claimed to have found ways to mutate the genetic structure of a person to improve their immunity, stamina, strength, and even their intelligence. No idea if that was true, but he sold that bill of goods to someone else, we think in the military because there were notes about an investigation on a camp somewhere in Latin America, experiments being done to soldiers using some of the initial research. But exactly who was behind that isn’t something your father outlined. ”

  None of what Thorpe said computed. “Wait. You’re telling me . . . what? That Aslanov sold his research to someone in the military, who later killed my family?”

  “I’ve always said that you’re quick. ” Thorpe nodded. “Eventually, yes. ”

  “But why?”

  “Your father found out what Aslanov had done and ordered him to stop,” Sean continued. “He pulled the plug on the research and threatened to blow the whistle. Aslanov bowed to the pressure and gave the remaining research his money had paid for back to your father, who burned it, according to his notes. But Aslanov had apparently already sold the information to his military contact, who was expecting delivery. Here’s where we have to guess a bit what happened, but it makes sense. This military contact went to Aslanov for the most recent data he’d purchased. When the scientist no longer had it to give, they killed the man and his whole family. ”

  “Even the children?”

  Sean and Thorpe wore identical expressions that didn’t give her a happy feeling, before Sean finally spoke. “That’s the assumption. The bodies of two of the three children were recovered at the crime scene. The third was a five-year-old girl, but she’s never been found. The Aslanov case is something I’ve been looking into as a possible tie-in to the murder of your family because they shared a professional connection and the execution of the crimes was so similar. I could never prove they were linked, however. What we found on the SD card isn’t a smoking gun, but we’re getting closer. ”

  Callie couldn’t sit still. The information pinged around in her head like a pair of dice, rolling and tumbling. She paced, clenched her fists . . . felt Sean’s and Thorpe’s gazes watching her every move.

  “Talk to us, pet. ”

  “My father tried to do a good thing. He tried to save my mother and end cancer. It was probably Pollyanna and too ambitious, but someone killed him for it? I don’t understand. And why would they kill my sister, too? She didn’t know anything more than I did. ” Callie scoffed. “She probably knew less, even. Dad paying Aslanov for all that research happened when she was just a tyke and—”

  “Collateral damage,” Sean said softly, rising to embrace her. “That’s why they killed your sister and Aslanov’s family. They were all witnesses these scumbags didn’t need. Whoever paid for that research had
no idea what Charlotte might have known and if they’d asked . . . well, then she could have identified them. I’m sure they saw her death as a precaution. ”

  Callie saw the whole thing as senseless—her father’s murder, Charlotte’s slaughter. For DNA research? Logically, she could connect the dots. Emotionally, she just couldn’t understand anyone capable of pulling the trigger. “Whoever killed my family and the Aslanovs . . . what can they do with this research?”

  “Piecing together the puzzle from what your father wrote? I’d say someone wanted to build a faster, better soldier. Maybe even a whole army. ”

  Super-soldiers? The implications of that were astonishing. Possibly world altering. She’d already known they weren’t dealing with amateurs or people likely to give up. But this information terrified her beyond anything she’d ever felt.

  Suddenly, Thorpe’s arms were around her, fitting her back against his broad chest. Warmth, comfort, protection.

  Sean cupped her face in his big hands. “You’re trembling, lovely. Deep breath. You’ll never be alone in this. ”

  “We’re by your side,” Thorpe promised. “Until you’re safe, we always will be. ”

  Callie wanted to burrow deeper between them and pray that the danger went away. Or shove out of their embrace and rail at the world until something changed. “Safe? There is no safe. We have to start being realistic here. Given who and what I’m up against, it’s a miracle I’ve escaped them for this long. But can I really do this for the rest of my life? Like you said once, I’m alive, but I’m not living. I’ve already done this for nearly a decade. How much longer—”

  “We’re going to get this information into the right hands at the FBI. ” Sean stared down into her eyes, determination stamped all over his face. “I’ll figure out who we can trust. We’re going to work until we make you safe. I put a collar around your neck. Someday, I’m going to put a ring on your finger. Don’t for one instant think I’m going to let anyone harm you. ”

  His vows were staunch and so lovely that they made her heart sing. They were also most likely hopeless.

  Behind her, Thorpe tensed—and remained utterly silent. He made no such promise for the future. He cared, but he didn’t love her. And he’d probably never tell her why.

  Hell, she might not even be alive long enough to miss him.

  “If whoever this is finds out that you two have been secluded with me, I won’t be the only one they kill,” she pointed out.

  “Stop that speech there,” Thorpe growled. “We’re not leaving you to handle this alone and we’ve already amply covered that point. Don’t bring it up again. ”

  “Precisely,” Sean added. “You may not see the way to safety now, but there must be one. We’re going to find it, and it starts with getting this information into the right person’s hands. I’ll figure out who that is. But without Internet, we’ll have to deliver it in person. ”

  That made sense, though it scared her half to death.

  “I think we start by leaving here at first light. As soon as I can see well enough to dock the boat, we’ll sneak back onto land. I’ll find a secure cell signal then and I’ll start making phone calls. At that point, we’ll arrange something, whether they send reinforcements to us or direct us to a safe house—something. We’ll prove you weren’t involved in the murders. They’ll protect you while we figure out who killed your family and the Aslanovs, then—”

  “That’s a lot ‘ifs’ and ‘thens. ’ How do we know we can trust everyone at the FBI? How do we know that we’ll ever have enough information to figure out who was willing to kill so many innocent people for that research?”

  “Leave all that to me,” Sean insisted.

  Callie stared out the galley window to see the sun setting. She had no idea what the actual time was, but she wished she could stay here forever with these two amazing men who held her heart. She wished she could give them a lifetime of love, kneel and obey . . . and get into trouble now and then just for the fun of it. She wished she could pour out her heart to Sean every day and be the best wife and submissive possible. She yearned to heal Thorpe so that he could be whole again, so he might stay with her and fill that other missing part of her. None of that looked likely now.

  But they were right about one thing; running wasn’t the answer, not anymore. Whether she had eight hours or eight decades left, she wanted to spend as much of them with people she loved. These murderers had taken away her family and her past. By damned, she wasn’t giving them her future, too.

  She nodded at them. “All right. What’s next?”

  ***

  BY that evening, they’d packed up everything they needed to take when they debarked, secured the egg and the SD card, and eaten a light dinner. They sat around the galley’s little table in near silence, drinking a bottle of red wine.

 
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