Authors: Paige Tyler
Jayson hadn’t been the one who’d taught Layla to shoot though. As much as it hurt to think about anyone other than him teaching her anything, at the end of the day, he was proud of her and everything she’d accomplished. He wouldn’t dream of trying to take credit for it.
“Nah,” he said. “She’s doing that all on her own.”
“If you say so.” On the other side of the table, Dick didn’t look convinced. “You know, when John told me that Layla was going to train to be a field agent, I thought it was a mistake. Even if she is a shifter, she’s still a psychologist, one with nothing in her background to even suggest she’d have the skills to be an operative. But I was wrong. She’s learning faster than almost anyone I’ve ever seen. In fact, I heard John mention she’ll be going on a mission soon.”
Jayson almost dropped the lower frame piece he was working on. Of all the things Dick could have said, that was the one thing Jayson least wanted to hear.
“That’s good,” he mumbled.
While he was thrilled for her, he couldn’t stop the nagging voice in the back of his head that kept reminding him that once Layla proved herself ready for full-time fieldwork, she’d be one step closer to the very worst part of this whole deal—getting a partner.
No matter how proud of her he was, he was never going to be happy about her going into the field with someone other than him. It would almost certainly be a man because all the female shifters were paired up with guys who were ex-military or ex–law enforcement. Jayson tried not to be jealous and failed miserably—mostly because he knew how close DCO agents had to get to do their jobs. That’s how his former A-team commander-turned-DCO-agent Landon Donovan and his partner Ivy had ended up married, even though no one in the DCO “officially” knew it. Wolf shifter Clayne Buchanan and his fiancée Danica Beckett had gotten together as a result of some mission to hunt down a serial killer in California, while Declan and Kendra MacBride had fallen in love while on the run from crazed hybrids in the rainforest of Costa Rica. Heck, even Angelo Rios, another former Special Forces guy, and his quiet hybrid partner, Minka Pajari, had gotten seriously close during their first mission in Tajikistan.
The thought that Layla would be out there spending a bunch of time with another man—laughing, bonding, and probably realizing she was wasting her life with him—just about tore out his guts.
On the flip side, Jayson also worried that Layla would end up with an asshole partner who wouldn’t watch her back—like Powell or Moore. If she was paired with one of those idiots, he’d never be able to sleep again.
“What kind of person do you think Layla would match up well with?” Dick asked, as if reading his thoughts. “As a partner in the field, I mean.”
Jayson’s grip tightened on the slide as he tried to breathe through a pain in his chest that hurt more than any back spasm ever could. Asking him which man he thought would be a good partner for Layla was a question he couldn’t—wouldn’t—answer.
If Dick noticed his reaction, he didn’t mention it. “Personally, I think the two of you would make a great team.”
Another spike of pain stabbed him. He swallowed hard. “Yeah, well I don’t think that’s ever going to happen.”
Dick glanced up from the spring he was meticulously cleaning. “But what if it could?”
Jayson frowned. “What do you mean by that? You know how screwed up my back is.”
Dick shrugged and went back to cleaning. “Some of our doctors have been working on a serum that might be able to repair the damage.”
Jayson froze. His heart began thumping harder even as he told himself to be wary. “You mean a hybrid serum?”
“Basically, yes. But it’s nothing like the stuff that was used on Tanner and Minka,” he added quickly. “While the basis for this new drug is the hybrid serum we’ve been studying, our doctors have refined it. They’ve eliminated the negative side effects, like the rage, and have optimized the serum so that the person who takes it gets the strength, speed, and healing abilities of a shifter without any of the more extreme physical attributes, such as claws and fangs.”
Jayson stared at him, afraid to believe what he was hearing. If what Dick said was true, a serum like that could heal his injuries. “And this stuff is safe?”
Dick nodded. “Absolutely. It’s already gone through a thorough review and animal testing. Now that we’re ready for human trials, I immediately thought of you.”
Jayson didn’t say anything. Was Dick telling him this because he thought a veteran with a screwed-up back would be a good candidate or because he thought he was desperate enough to agree to take an experimental drug?
Jayson’s first instinct was to say hell no. He didn’t like being the crippled guy everyone stared at when he walked down the street, but he wasn’t crazy enough to voluntarily take a drug that might kill him. He’d heard what the hybrid serum had done to Tanner Howland and Minka Pajari. Besides having to fight the animal inside them for control every day, they were also subject to violent rages. He didn’t want any part of a drug like that. But as Dick went on to explain how thoroughly the new serum had been tested and how it wouldn’t merely heal the damage that fucking RPG had done to his back, but also help him get back to the man he’d been before—maybe a little better—Jayson found himself considering it.
“At least think about it,” Dick suggested when Jayson didn’t say anything. “I won’t lie and say there aren’t any risks involved here. But you’re a soldier and you understand that sometimes you have to take some of those risks. Look me in the eye and tell me that the possibility of you walking without pain stabbing you in the back every time you take a step or covering Layla’s ass in a firefight on a mission—hell, maybe even picking her up and carrying her across the threshold someday—isn’t worth a little risk?”
Jayson couldn’t tell him that. Because when Dick put it that way, of course the risk was worth it. But there was also the minor fact that something could go wrong when he took the drug. Then there wouldn’t be any issues with back pain or covering Layla’s ass in a firefight or carrying her across a threshold either. Because he’d be dead.
* * *
Layla carefully wiped the dust off the large picture frame sitting on the top shelf of the bookcase in Jayson’s living room. The photo of the tall, handsome soldier dressed in military camouflage with gleaming stars on his collar and the smiling, beautiful woman at his side was one of the few keepsakes Jayson still had of his parents. He treated it like the most precious thing in the world, so she did too.
Jayson had told her about his parents a little while after they’d first met, back when he’d still been at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. They’d died in a house fire several years earlier while he’d been finishing up his senior year at West Point. He’d barely had the chance to process what had happened, bury his parents, and come to grips with the fact that the only family he’d ever had was gone before he had to ship out for Special Forces training less than a week later. He never talked about it, but Layla got the feeling that not having the time to grieve properly had been the hardest part of the whole thing for Jayson.
After she finished dusting, Layla looked around, checking to make sure she hadn’t missed anything. That was unlikely considering she’d been cleaning for the last three hours. Luckily, she’d finished training with Ivy and Landon around noon, so she’d been able to come over and clean up before Jayson got home. Even though he knew she was just trying to help him out, he still got touchy about her cleaning his apartment, like he thought her doing it meant he was less of a man. Trying to make a relationship work with Jayson was harder than she’d ever imaged it would be. She’d been in love with him practically from the moment they’d met, but to say he was pushing her away as hard as he could was an understatement. She knew it was all wrapped up in a complicated knot thanks to his injuries, his lack of self-worth, and, at some level, a fear of losing her. Sometimes she expected him to come home, find her there, and tell her to get out and not come back. There were times when it was that bad. The thought of him breaking up with her brought tears to her eyes.
Cursing under her breath, Layla tossed the disposable dust cloth in the trash can in the kitchen, then washed her hands. She was just checking the lasagna she’d put in the oven earlier when she heard Jayson’s heavy footsteps on the stairs in the hallway. He sounded like he was limping more than usual. Damn, she hated that he’d gotten an apartment in a place without an elevator, but he was so stubborn. Then again, that was part of why she loved him so much. He never let anything stop him from doing what he wanted.
She was still thinking about all the different reasons she loved such an adorable, frustrating guy as keys jangled in the lock and Jayson opened the door. That’s when she remembered why he’d caught her eye the first time she’d seen him, at Ivy and Landon’s wedding. He was absolutely gorgeous. Tall, with broad shoulders and well-muscled arms, he had dark-blond hair, piercing blue eyes, and a square jaw covered with just the perfect amount of stubble. Then there was his mouth… There were books written about lips that kissable.
Layla didn’t have to fake the smile that tugged up the corners of her lips. No matter how crazy things were between them on any given day, seeing Jayson always made her happy. She hurried across the room and wrapped her arms around him in a welcoming hug. That’s when she was reminded of the second thing that had attracted her to him at her sister’s wedding—his scent.
Shifters had a tremendous advantage over the rest of the world when it came to their senses. Since the day she’d gone through her change when she was seventeen, Layla had been able to see, hear, and smell things that the rest of humanity never even noticed. And when it came to Jayson’s scent that was a pity because he smelled better than anyone else in the world.
As she hugged him, Layla surreptitiously buried her face in the crook of his neck and inhaled deeply.
, he smelled so good. It would be tough to describe his scent to anyone else, even another shifter or hybrid. None of the workplace smells could ever cover his natural, yummy aroma, not even the metallic odor of the guns he handled or the sharp smells of smokeless powder and cleaning solvents. When she was this close to him, all she could smell was his personal musk. It was so perfect that sometimes it was hard not licking him.
Layla hadn’t been able to do something that intimate in a long time—not since she started field training and Jayson had started working at the gun range. Hugs like this were all they managed these days. Though she had to admit, a good hug could go a long way for her.
“You worked late.” She reluctantly pulled away from him, not wanting to push her luck. “Somebody having problems getting through their qualification course?”
Jayson looked around the living room of his small apartment, and she tensed, knowing he could tell she’d been cleaning. She braced herself, waiting for him to get upset. But it didn’t happen. Instead, he smiled and shook his head.
“Nah. Just had a lot of weapons to clean. Then a shipment of 40mm grenades came in and I had to get them inventoried and locked away in one of the ammo bunkers before closing up for the day. They aren’t something I like to leave sitting out on my desk like a box of doughnuts.”
She couldn’t help but laugh, both at what he’d said and in relief that he didn’t seem upset at her for cleaning his place. “I don’t know, 40mm grenades might be less dangerous than doughnuts—at least as far as my hips are concerned.”
Jayson chuckled as he followed his nose to the kitchen. Opening the oven a crack, he took a sniff.
“Mmm, smells good.” He turned to give her a big smile. “Is that homemade lasagna? Special occasion or something?”
Layla had seen the hesitation in his stride when he’d walked over to the oven. Which meant he’d either pushed himself too hard at work today or moved the wrong way and made his back flare up again. Either way, he was in pain. That made his obvious good mood all the more surprising.
She followed him into the kitchen. “No special occasion. Do I need to have a reason to do something nice for you?”
Jayson floored her yet again by wrapping his arms around her and pulling her close. “No, you don’t need to have a reason. I’m just glad you’re willing to put up with me, considering that I can be such a jackass sometimes.”
Layla opened her mouth to tell him he was never a jackass, but before she could say anything, Jayson dipped his head and kissed her. Not a little peck on the lips either, but a real, honest-to-goodness kiss. It took her a second to get over the shock, and when she did, she melted against him. It had been so long since he’d kissed her like that, and while she had missed his touch, she hadn’t realized how much until that moment.
He slid one hand into her long hair, tugging that little bit like she loved as his tongue tangled with hers and made her moan. Heat pooled between her thighs. God, it had been so long.
She reached down to massage his hard-on through his cargo pants when he suddenly pulled his mouth away from hers. The kiss ended so abruptly that she almost fell over. She caught herself just in time and looked up at him in confusion.
Jayson didn’t seem to notice. Or if he did, he didn’t let on. “Need some help getting the rest of the dinner made?”
She’d rather he turn off the oven and take her to the bedroom so they could get to work on dessert, but she didn’t say that. Jayson hadn’t been romantic with her in weeks, and she was never sure if it was because he wasn’t attracted to her anymore or because he felt he wasn’t physically up to the task. The one thing she did know was that the fastest way to upset him was to push too hard.
So as difficult as it was, she put her arousal on hold and nodded. “Yeah, that’d be great. Can you make the salad while I fix the garlic bread?”
He flashed her a grin. “Babe, I live to make salad.”
She couldn’t help laughing at the silly words.
Within minutes of working side by side in the small kitchen they were laughing and joking like they used to do before their relationship had fallen off the rails for reasons Layla didn’t really understand. She couldn’t even remember the last time she’d heard Jayson laugh. Months at least. It wasn’t until now that Layla realized she had missed that as much as she’d missed his touch.