Authors: Paige Tyler
Not that there wasn’t some touching too. As he stood beside her cutting tomatoes for the salad, their arms and hips would occasionally come into contact, and she could feel the spark that was always there between them. It reminded her of why she fought so hard to stay with him and how good it could be—when it was good.
Layla was spreading garlic butter on the bread when Jayson leaned over and kissed her neck, then slowly ran his warm mouth up to her ear, making her shiver all over even as he whispered softly to be careful with the knife. She put down the knife and turned her head to capture his mouth in a quick kiss.
He returned the kiss with a laugh. “We’re going to burn dinner if we’re not careful.”
She couldn’t care less about the dinner. Man cannot live on lasagna alone, and a woman definitely needed a few good kisses every now and then, she thought as she gazed up into Jayson’s twinkling, blue eyes. This was the guy she had fallen in love with. A part of her wondered why he couldn’t be like this all the time and why he was like this right now.
She resolutely pushed those thoughts aside. Right now, Jayson was laughing and joking and happy. When he was like that, she couldn’t help but be happy too. It was on the tip of her tongue to tell him how she felt about him, but the same thing that always held her back stopped her this time too. She was afraid he didn’t feel the same. The thought of him rejecting her love hurt so much it made her heart ache.
So, instead, she gave him another kiss, then busied herself by taking the lasagna over to the table. As they ate, Jayson told her about his day, including his run-in with Powell and Moore.
Layla gaped. “You pulled your weapon on them?”
She hadn’t had much in the way of interactions with the two men, but she knew there was a good chance Powell and Moore were working directly for the people on the Committee who were in charge of the DCO as well as behind the hybrid research facilities. She had no doubt that Jayson had been justified in pulling his weapon on them, but she wasn’t sure they were the kind of people you wanted as enemies.
Jayson must have picked up on her concern because the smile disappeared from his face. “I know I should have found a better way to deal with the situation.” He pushed a big piece of pasta onto his fork with a chunk of bread. “But it’s not in me to stand around and let someone say that kind of crap about my friends.”
She smiled. “I know, and I appreciate that you were sticking up for Ivy and me and the rest of the shifters. Just watch yourself around those two, okay? I wouldn’t put it past them to try and get back at you somehow.”
She expected Jayson to disagree and say she was worrying for no reason, but he surprised her by nodding as he helped himself to more lasagna. “Yeah. I think I’ll be watching my six for a while when it comes to Powell and Moore.”
Layla relaxed. Was it too much to hope Jayson’s good mood was permanent? She was itching to ask him what had happened today, but she was so happy they were having such a good time that she didn’t want to jinx it.
“Dick mentioned that you’re doing well in your training,” Jayson said as he set his knife and fork on his empty plate. “He said you’d probably be heading out on your first mission soon.”
Suddenly, the lasagna didn’t taste nearly as good as it had just a few seconds earlier, and she pushed it aside. Of all the subjects Jayson could have brought up, this was the absolute worst.
Layla hadn’t been looking forward to telling Jayson about the mission because she knew he probably wouldn’t handle it well. It was something they were going to have to talk about soon, considering she was on standby to leave at any moment, but a part of her had been hoping she might put off telling him until tomorrow morning—preferably while they were lying naked in his bed.
“Do you know where you’ll be going?” Jayson asked softly. “Or who you’ll be going with?”
She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. She’d stopped talking to Jayson about her training because he always got so depressed after their conversations. In some ways, he was like the sick kid stuck at home while all his friends got to go out and have fun. Layla didn’t think of what she was doing as having fun, but as a former Special Forces soldier, Jayson almost certainly did.
She would have dropped out of the training if she could have, anything to take at least this one burden off Jayson’s shoulders. But she’d made a deal with the DCO director more than two months ago to become a field agent if he would hire Jayson and give him a job at the DCO. John Loughlin had done his part, so she would do hers. Even if things hadn’t gone the way she’d expected.
None of that mattered now. What was done was done. And whatever she said now would almost certainly ruin this night beyond repair.
“I’m going with Clayne and Danica,” she told him. “They’ve been chasing an arms dealer for weeks. I’m supposed to provide backup when they finally catch up to him, but I don’t know exactly where that will be or when.”
She held her breath, waiting for Jayson to flip out because she hadn’t told him about any of this before now, but to her surprise, he didn’t say a word. He simply sat there, nodding his head and gazing off into space like he was thinking over what she’d just said.
“I know you can’t give me any details, but this guy you’re going after, is he dangerous?” Jayson finally asked.
Layla mentally cringed, not sure how she should answer his question. Of course the guy was dangerous. The DCO wouldn’t be going after him if he wasn’t. The guy had a reputation as a stone-cold killer and a businessman who would sell weapons to whomever could pay him the most.
But if she told Jayson that, he’d lose his mind for sure. On the other hand, she hated lying to him. Besides, she was a terrible liar. Jayson would see right through her.
“He’s a scary guy,” she admitted. “He specializes in selling chemical weapons technology and is responsible for the sudden increase in that kind of stuff showing up in places like Syria, Northern Iraq, and the Sudan. The worst part is that no one is even sure exactly what this guy looks like. Based on the name he goes by, the analysts assume he’s from a Slavic nation, maybe Yugoslavia before it broke up, or Poland. All they can say for sure is that he’s very good at knowing when he’s being tracked and that it rarely ends well for the people who go after him.”
Jayson’s eyes widened in alarm. Crap, she probably should have left out that last part.
“Fortunately, I’m just there to help run the operation from a remote command post,” she added quickly.
Jayson slowly let out a breath, the panicked look disappearing from his eyes. “So you won’t be directly involved in apprehending the guy, right?”
She shook her head. “Nope. I’m only going to keep an eye on everything with cameras to make sure this guy doesn’t turn the tables on Clayne and Danica.”
While she wasn’t exactly thrilled at the idea of going up against someone as dangerous as the arms dealer her first time in the field, it didn’t make a lot of sense to send her halfway around the world just so she could sit at a computer and watch other operatives do their job. She didn’t say that to Jayson, though.
Across from her, Jayson was staring off into space again, lost in thought.
“You okay?” she asked.
He jerked, snapping his head up to look at her. “Yeah. Why?”
“Because you look like you’re a million miles away,” she said. “I know you don’t like the idea of me being a DCO agent, but…”
“It’s not that,” he said. “I mean, I’m still not thrilled about you going into the field, but I’m dealing with it. I was actually thinking of a conversation I had with Dick today.”
Layla’s stomach clenched. Jayson’s relationship with the DCO’s deputy director had made her uneasy from the first time she’d seen them together. Even though she, Ivy, Landon, and every one of their other friends had told him that Dick Coleman was dangerous, Jayson seemed to consider the man a friend.
“What did you talk about?” she asked.
Jayson shrugged, picking up his glass and taking a long drink of iced tea. “He was telling me about a new drug he thought might be able to heal my back.”
Layla’s heart started beating faster. There was only one “miracle” drug that could ever heal a shrapnel-shredded body. “A new drug? As in a hybrid serum?”
Jayson met her gaze, his blue eyes steady. “Not exactly.”
“What does that mean? Either it is or it isn’t.”
Jayson sighed. “Okay, the drug
based on a hybrid serum, but Dick assured me it’s nothing like the stuff that was used on Tanner and Minka.”
“Dick assured you?” Layla shouted, finding herself on her feet and having no clue how she got there. “And you believe him? That serum kills people. Or drives them insane. You know what Tanner and Minka went through, and they were the lucky ones! You can’t seriously be considering letting him put that stuff into you.”
Jayson stood, wincing as he straightened up too quickly. But he paid no attention to it. “Yeah, actually, I am. His scientists have worked out all the bugs, and they don’t expect any negative side effects. I won’t even get fangs and claws. Dick would never let me take this drug if he didn’t think it was safe.”
Layla suddenly couldn’t breathe. This was what Dick had been planning all along. The deputy director had befriended Jayson because he knew a disabled soldier would willingly take an experimental drug for a shot at being whole and healthy again. He’d been planning to use Jayson as a test subject for the next generation of hybrid serum from the day they’d met.
Anger like she’d never felt consumed her, and she felt little stabs of pain on the tips of her fingers as her claws extended too fast. Dick was flat-out using Jayson’s insecurities about his injuries to manipulate the hell out of him, and if the deputy had been there right then, she would have ripped off his lying face.
“Don’t you see he’s using you?”
Jayson flushed beneath his tan, and Layla immediately regretted her choice of words. She’d made it sound like she thought he was the kind of guy who could be used in the first place—a victim. It was the worst, most hurtful thing she could have said.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean—”
“Yes, you did,” he shot back. “Dick isn’t using me. On the contrary, he’s doing everything he can to help me. He’s not looking at me with pity. He’s not reminding me to use my cane. And he’s sure as hell not telling me to stop fighting and get used to being a cripple.”
“Don’t call yourself that!” she snapped.
“Why not? It’s what I am!” He muttered a curse and ran his hand through his hair, making it stick up every which way. “Look, I might barely be able to walk some days, but I’m not blind. I know how much you and everyone else hate Dick, and maybe you have your reasons. But knowing what it’s like having people prejudge and dismiss me two seconds after seeing my limp, I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Regardless of what you think, he’s not using me. He’s giving me a chance to flip the script and get my fucking life back.”
Layla knew it would be better to let it go for now and try to talk to Jayson when he’d cooled off. He had to believe Dick was being honest and that this drug could fix him. Because if he didn’t, he’d be admitting he was never going to get any better than he was right now. But how could she let it go? How could she let the man she was in love with take a drug that might turn him into something she didn’t even recognize—or worse?
“Get your life back, huh?” she asked. “By taking a drug that could end it?”
When he didn’t answer, Layla stepped closer and took his hand. She wanted him to know that she was there and wasn’t going anywhere.
“I know how hard your injuries have been on you, but are you so desperate to get back what you had that you’re willing to risk your life without even thinking about us?”
“I am thinking about us,” he said softly. “What kind of life do you think we’re going to have if I can barely walk?”
“Our life will be just fine.” She squeezed his hand. “I don’t care about your physical limitations as long as we’re together.”
He yanked his hand out of her grasp with a snort. “That’s easy for a person to say when they can jump out a two-story window and land on their feet. It’s even easier for a person who’s likely to be somewhere on the other side of the world in the next few days, chasing arms dealers and saving the world. But it’s not nearly as easy for the person left behind.” He shook his head, the pain in his eyes breaking her heart. “Layla, I can’t even pick you up and carry you to my bed.”
Tears stung her eyes and she blinked them back. “Then we’ll walk there together.”
“There are some days I’m not even sure I can manage that.” He shook his head, his blue eyes as sad as she’d ever seen them. “You don’t get it. You never will.”
He picked up their plates and slowly walked across the kitchen to put them in the sink.
She followed. “Jayson—”
“Maybe you should go,” he said in a voice so low she barely heard it even with her keen shifter hearing.
Layla froze. Her heart felt like someone had ripped it out and stepped on it. The pain was so intense, she had to grab the edge of the table for support. Thirty minutes ago, she thought things were back to the way they used to be. Now, it looked like this might be the end for them.
She turned to leave, tears blurring her vision. She hoped Jayson would stop her before she reached the door, but he didn’t. She paused, her hand on the knob, then turned to look at him. He was still standing at the sink, his back to her.
“I know I don’t have any right to ask this, but could you at least wait until I get back from wherever it is I’m going on this mission until you do anything?” she asked. “Please.”
Jayson didn’t answer.
Stifling a sob, she whirled around and jerked open the door. His soft voice stopped her.
“I’ll try, but I can’t make any promises. This is a decision I have to make on my own.”
The words were like a knife in her already trampled heart. “Then the decision should be a lot easier for you to make without me around to complicate things.”
Layla bolted out the door and ran down the hall. She didn’t even make it to the stairs before regret overwhelmed her.
Why the hell had she said that?