Copyright © 2012 Jodi Redford
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
Neon City, Earth
Teague Younger’s hard-won patience was about to pay off. Big time.
He shrugged from his leather jacket and tossed it over the back of his office chair before settling in the seat and powering on his computer. Usually the delicate nature of vengeance would have been best played out in the comfort and security of his penthouse at the Neon Palace—or better yet, his safe house tucked deep in the underbelly of Tenement Row. But he couldn’t afford raising his quarry’s suspicion. If there was one thing you could count on, it was a supervillain’s innate distrust and overall skeeviness. Fortunately for Teague, both qualities would lure Hugo Winston exactly where Teague wanted him—into the trap that’d seal Hugo’s fate and end Teague’s eighteen-year quest for revenge.
He opened the inbox attached to his Winston Enterprises account and typed a brief draft. Rival Shadow Czars planning hostile takeover of Shadow Soda. Sweet and to the point. Hugo would be jumping on his private jet within seconds of receiving the communication.
Then his ass is mine. Grim satisfaction firming his jaw, Teague shot off the email and closed his inbox. When Reginald Winston—Hugo’s brother and the CEO of Shadow Soda—unexpectedly kicked the bucket three weeks ago, Teague figured his best and likely only chance at getting to Hugo had been buried in the ground along with Reginald. Considering how Hugo wasn’t one to get his hands dirty with the day-to-day running of Shadow Soda, the man had assigned the administrative and grunt work to Teague and the other managers while Hugo reaped the profits from the cushy comfort of his heavily guarded suite in Shadow Vail. A few sleepless nights had snapped Teague out of his frustrated funk and given him enough time to devise plan B. The threat of a takeover had been a brilliant improvisation, and entirely plausible. Every son-of-a-bitch Shadow Czar on this godforsaken planet was salivating in lusty glee at the prospect of seizing Shadow Soda and its multimillion-dollar income stream.
Even more enticing than the money was the power that came with this particular prize. Shadow Soda was the prime source behind the Shadow Network’s mind-controlling empire. Anyone lucky enough to hold the reins received highest favor with the queen. There was no way in hell Hugo would allow that honor to fall in the hands of anyone but himself. That right there guaranteed the son of a bitch leaving the security of his suite. Teague wasn’t worried about the handful of guards Hugo might bring along. If he had to take them out too, he would.
Teague started to rise from his chair just as a flicker of motion buzzed across the imbedded security screen at the top of his monitor. There were nine minions on patrol tonight. It would have been perfectly logical to assume what he’d seen had been one of those ugly-assed creatures. He might even have believed his own assumptions, if not for the brilliant gleam of red he swore he’d spied. He’d suffered far too many erotic fantasies revolving around that particular shade of crimson not to instantly recognize it.
His body stiffening in more ways than one, he inched closer to the monitor, his gaze glued to the screen. The image on his computer remained motionless. Whatever the security camera had captured was now gone. Punching the key that switched cameras, he panned through the next several views. The slowest five seconds of his life ticked by before the red flash reappeared, this time a good thirty or so yards from where he’d first glimpsed it.
Ruby. She ducked farther into the shadows before he got a better look at her face. Didn’t matter. He’d seen enough to know it was her. Hell, he could be blindfolded and his body would still be able to pick her out of a lineup. Just follow the pointing of his damn cock. Grimacing, he rearranged his fly.
What was she doing? Anyone skulking around the way she was must be up to no good. Then again, she was Reginald’s daughter. Good wasn’t exactly in a supervillain’s vocabulary. Sure, he’d heard the rumors about her foiled attempts at sabotaging the plant. He’d always assumed they were lies her cousins hatched in hopes of getting Ruby kicked out of the family biz. After all, supervillains were nasty f**ks, regardless if they were related to you or not.
Uneasiness festered in his gut as he stared at the darkened corner where he’d last spotted Ruby. What if the rumors were real? She was definitely up to something. Didn’t take much to deduce whatever it was would likely not end well.
This isn’t your problem, damn it. He had more pressing concerns than Ruby Winston. Whatever the f**k she was up to—
S**t. Growling at his stupidity, he disabled the overhead cameras and shoved from his seat. Scrubbing a palm along the back of his neck, he stalked from his office. “Something tells me I’m going to regret this.”
He checked the numbers painted in glossy black over each hallway entrance leading to different sections of the bottling plant. The last area he’d seen Ruby had been sector ten. He strode in that direction. Usually he tried to keep a firm distance from Ruby. In the three short months he’d been working as her father’s right-hand man, he’d perfected the art of resisting his overpowering magnetic attraction to her. It should have been a lot easier, considering her family tree. With anyone else, he would have gotten her between the sheets and exorcized every last one of his sexual fantasies from his system before walking away. Ruby’s connection to Hugo made that impossible. Plus he had a sinking feeling that one night would never cure him of his fascination with her.
It was that damn obsession that was currently f**king up his plans. He should be concentrating on the trap he’d laid for Hugo and the immense pleasure of ending the man’s life.Not following Ruby in hope of uncovering what the hell she was up to.
No matter how many times Teague reminded himself of that, his feet continued edging him down the corridor. A rustling noise sounded ahead. Slowing his steps, he inched closer to the concealing shadows ringing the perimeter of the tunnel-like hallway before proceeding forward with deliberate stealth. If that was Ruby up there, he didn’t want to give her a heads-up to his approach.
He reached the entrance to sector eleven. Hugging close to the wall outside the entry, he scanned the cavernous room for any sign of Ruby. Other than the motorized whir of the conveyor belts in the distance, no further sound reached his ears.
Narrowing his eyes, he surveyed the dim surroundings. Another soft swishing noise broke the silence. His attention slashed toward the enormous stainless-steel vats that contained Shadow Soda’s patented mind-controlling mix. A streak of red bobbed near the dispensing line before Ruby suddenly popped into view. Darting a cautious glance over her shoulder, she hunkered next to the vat and snatched the ballpoint pen clamped between her teeth. She inspected the panel on the metal container before scribbling something on a piece of paper. Stuffing the pen into the pocket of her long trench coat, she scurried toward sector twelve.
Intrigued and suspicious, Teague abandoned his post and followed after her. Still keeping out of sight, he watched her perform the same mysterious task she had in the previous room. Once finished, she surveyed the paper she’d brought along. Concentrated frown lines furrowed her brow. The sight of her teeth sinking into her full, rosy-pink bottom lip distracted him to the point he didn’t immediately notice the four minions entering the sector from the opposite corridor. Ruby—quicker on the uptake—jerked her head in the creatures’ direction. Her green eyes widening, she scanned for a safe hiding spot.
She was in the middle of the f**king room. Where did she think she could go?
After one last desperate glance, Ruby dropped onto her stomach and crawled beneath one of the nearby conveyor belts just as the minions stepped through the entrance. The quartet of uniformed creatures ambled forward but stopped suddenly, their blunt, black, scaly snouts lifting in unison. Four pairs of beady eyes narrowed.
Aw s**t. The ugly bastards had better noses than a Rottweiler when it came to sniffing out intruders. Giving himself no time to rethink his actions, Teague left his shadowy station and strode toward the minions. “You’re needed in sector seven.”
A mulish expression slithering over its reptilian-like features, the lead guard crossed its brawny arms over its rotund middle. Teague reached for the electro-prod he always kept holstered at his hip when he was on the grounds of the plant. Flicking off the safety shield, he nudged the prod warningly against the stubborn minion’s slanted forehead. “I said move your bony ass. Now.”
After a brief and silent battle of wills, the guard hissed in response and sidled sideways down the hall. The creature’s comrades slinked after it. Teague tailed them through the exit and halfway down the hall before he doubled back to sector twelve. He reached the entrance but didn’t see Ruby anywhere. Growling beneath his breath, he started to bypass the doorway. Muffled cursing stalled him short.
A hollow, metallic thud preceded a shapely, boot-encased leg swinging out from beneath the conveyor belt. “You’ve got to be freaking kidding me,” Ruby whispered in a fierce undertone. “Now is a crappy time to be stuck.”
She was stuck under there? Oh bloody hell. Debating whether it wouldn’t make more sense to leave her aggravating ass where it was, he stalked forward. Another thump and colorful swear word issued from Ruby before she wiggled out from beneath the belts, this time minus the trench coat. Gripping the side of the conveyor for balance, she rose to her feet.
Teague slammed to a halt, the air gusting from him like a stabbed balloon as he stared at the skintight silver cat suit Ruby was poured into.
If there’d ever been an outfit designed to send his mind straight into the gutter, he was looking at it. The fact that the woman of his darkest forbidden fantasies was the one wearing it only made it a million times hotter…and more tormenting. The stretchy fabric clung lovingly to every lush, feminine curve Ruby possessed, and the low-cut neckline threatened to let those creamy, magnificent breasts spill free at any second. Desire—hot, thick and heady—pooled low in his groin.
It wasn’t until Ruby pivoted and sprinted toward the corridor that he finally snapped out of his trance. Shaking his head to clear the remaining dregs of lust, he hurried after her. He eyed the tempting curve of her ass and spine underneath the shiny fabric of the cat suit, a niggling sense of déjà vu poking at the edges of his mind. Before he could fully latch on to what his brain was trying to tell him, a roving security bot darted in front of Ruby. A muffled yelp squeaked from her, and she jolted, her arms swinging up in front of her as if she were attempting to block her face from the camera. An arc of brilliant white energy emanated from the silver cuff circling her wrist and shot sideways like a lightning bolt gone haywire, striking the security bot. The two-foot-tall device issued a high-pitched shriek and catapulted into the air, its cylindrical top spinning. A second later, the bot crashed to the ground, a stream of curses flowing unchecked from its vocal port.
Teague staggered against the corridor wall. The stunned disbelief buzzing in his head competed with the sudden wail of the intruder alert blaring through the central intercom. Ruby leapt past the still-cursing bot and hurtled toward the exit. For several seconds, all Teague could do was stare dumbly at her retreating back as the shrill decibels of the alarm assaulted his eardrums.
There was no way he’d seen that right. It was impossible. Ruby Winston was not a goddamn Light Guardian. For f**k’s sake, she was the daughter of a notorious Shadow Czar.
The scuffle of work boots and excited hisses announced that the minions had been roused and were storming toward the exit.
“I knew I’d live to regret this.” Gritting the words between his teeth, Teague barreled down the hall. He tore through the darkened warrens snaking through the central belly of the plant. Up ahead, he finally spotted Ruby. The four minions he’d sent packing earlier jumped from the shadows, blocking her avenue of escape. A second later, the remaining five minions circled her from behind. The ringleader of the guards facing Ruby stretched its scaly fingers, extending its claws. Menacing delight danced in the creature’s slanted pupils.
Ruby took a wavering step back before firing another bolt of energy from the bracelet. The charge slammed the creatures into the tall storage vat across the way. Sparks of dazzling white energy ricocheted over the reflective surface of the metal, creating a macabre light show as the liquid within the vats became electrified and began roiling with bubbles. The stench of fried minions permeated the air. The remaining guards behind Ruby hissed in tandem and lunged at her. She had no chance to react, much less defend herself.
“Definitely going to regret this.” Goddamn it. Drawing every ounce of energy into his limbs, Teague centered himself and directed the power surge outward. A blinding luminescence bled into the darkness, followed by a deafening crack that shook the foundation of the building. The meteoric blast of crackling energy engulfed the five minions pouncing at Ruby. Their angry howls renting the air, the creatures burst into flames.
Ruby turned and surveyed the charred remains of her attackers. Her eyes comically wide, she raised her arm and gaped at her cuffed wrist. “Wow. Who knew I was capable of that?”
Right then would have been the ideal moment for him to disappear into the shadows and get the hell out of Dodge while he still could. Unfortunately, his energy had other plans. A stray crackle emitted an audible pop, drawing Ruby’s attention. She spun in his direction. There wasn’t enough time to reel in the remainder of his power before she could see it. She blinked, her body going motionless as she stared at the rippling white currents receding into his fingertips.
A lifetime passed before she lifted her gaze to his. No doubt there were a million questions brewing in that head of hers. None of them he was prepared—or willing—to answer.
F**king stupid. All these years protecting his secret…now flushed down the crapper.
His whole life he’d lived by the code of keeping his neck out of the illuminating spotlight of the Shadow’s radar. Hell, he’d become so damn proficient at it, he’d nearly forgotten what he truly was. But within a matter of five seconds, he’d ruined everything. All of his carefully laid plans gone to s**t. His one shot at destroying Hugo wouldn’t amount to anything, not when he wouldn’t be able to get within spitting distance of the bastard now.
Grinding his teeth, Teague straightened and stalked toward the smoking pile of trouble he and Ruby just created.