"Have I died and gone to heaven?" Tessa muttered.
Without opening her eyes, she could feel heat permeating the deep chill that stole her energy as if she'd been frozen. Except for shivers and the tingling that slowly returned feeling to her numb limbs, there was no pain. No gunshot wound.
Just wondrous heat, like the touch of sun-kissed male flesh. Toned, smooth skin, sharing blessed warmth, rocking her. No, carrying her? A large gentle hand smoothed her hair from her forehead and a deep masculine voice assured her that she would soon be warm.
"You will recover."
Expecting the dream to fade, expecting to see a hospital room, a doctor, beeping machines, Tessa delayed opening her eyes. She didn't want to face her fellow agents who would tell her the sad news that she'd failed her assignment and that the President was dead. But she'd never been one to hide from reality. Tessa forced open her eyes. Instead of a hospital room and her detail, she found herself in a room she didn't recognize, alone with a stranger, her head pillowed on his shoulder. Her gaze locked stares with the amber eyes of a blond-haired giant, her hand curled intimately under the vest that didn't fully cover his broad chest.
A bare chest? She must be hallucinating. Out of her head from painkillers, the result of a bullet ricocheting inside her skull. She blinked, expecting him to vanish. He didn't.
Okay. He was real. Or she was crazy. She preferred the first option, but did a double check. Beneath her hand, his heart beat with disturbing regularity, and her fingers had somehow twisted around his crisp blond chest hair. She took a deep breath and his scent reminded her of exotic spices and sandalwood soap.
He might be a dream man, but he was no fantasy. He appeared quite the living, breathing person, carrying her as if she weighed nothing. No matter how baffled she might be, no woman in her right mind could fail to appreciate such a fine male specimen. Yet no human naturally possessed eyes the color of his tupelo-honey ones, the irises ringed with fiery gold, and framed by a perfect crescent of thick golden lashes. He sported a strong nose, a square jaw that suggested stubbornness, carved cheekbones of a highborn savage and flawless bronze skin of a hue that could knock a woman flat on her heels for a second look.
His generous mouth curled with a touch of sympathy, and yet his eyes shot off hints of irritation and impatience. "Are you warm?"
She was cold, already craving a hot cup of coffee. And naked. Naked in the strange man's arms. In a room that resembled no hospital she'd ever seen, he laid down with her on a shimmering metallic platform. A hundred questions burned in her mind. Had she been taken hostage? Where was she?
Before waking up in his arms, she'd leapt between a traitorous Secret Service Agent and POTUS. She recalled the driver's betrayal. Was this man or his group holding the President, too?
Tessa suspected she was a prisoner, kept naked to make her feel vulnerable. Or had she somehow ended up in a sanatorium? But then where was her hospital gown? Where were her clothes and her gun? Her detail?
The stranger briskly rubbed her arms, creating a friction that heated her numbed limbs. As he tended her, Tessa searched for an exit in the shimmering silver walls, floor and ceiling, all bare of any adornments and constructed of an unrecognizable luminous gray substance that made her question her eyesight. During her years in foster homes, she'd seen some strange decor, but nothing like the other-worldly walls that surrounded her. She must be hallucinating.
But when she held up her hand that he'd finished rubbing, she clearly counted four fingers and one thumb. And the hunk was still there, watching her with those strange eyes, efficiently and briskly rubbing her other arm. Even into adulthood, she'd had nightmares of abandonment, of losing her parents and her homebut she'd never had a dream this weird. Never been this cold, although his ministrations were helping her to warm up.
She tried to speak but her dry throat only issued a weak croak.
He picked up an odd-shaped vessel and held it to her lips. "Drink."
She peered suspiciously at what appeared to be water. Hell, if he wanted to drug her, in her weakened state, he'd have no trouble. She parted her lips voluntarily.
Cool water slid down her parched throat. Greedily she emptied the vessel, and refreshed, her mind kept working. Where was she? What had happened to the President? Why had this stranger carried her? What was going on? Why was she so stiff? Her vocal cords so rusty?
Frantic with worry and without her detail to back her up, she followed training procedures. She didn't ask her first questions out loud for fear that she might help the enemy.
Assess the situation.
Through a mouth cottony from disuse, confusion and suspicion, she forced out words that wouldn't betray anyone. "Who are you?"
He'd moved those large, capable hands to her icy feet. "My name is Kahn."
He'd answered her simply, with no embellishment, almost as if he expected her to panic if he said too much. She might be frightened, but she was too well-trained to let her feelings overrule her good sense. She'd always kept her emotions deep inside. In the past, cool-headed thinking had saved her. Tamping down a rising panic with the skill of long practice, she pulled her foot from the stranger's hands, uncomfortable with the intimacy of his touch. Off kilter, she breathed deeply but even the air didn't smell normal here. Her body felt too heavy. Each breath took extra effort. Keeping calm was all very well, but suppose her good sense told her the correct reaction was panic?
Don't go there.
She tried another innocuous question to find out what was going on without revealing critical information about Secret Service standard operating procedures or POTUS. "Why are you holding me?"
"I was carrying you to the warming chamber, but you awakened on your own." If she was reading those amber eyes correctly, he'd answered her question easily, simply and possibly honestly, but she had the suspicion that his words meant one thing to him and another to her. Although the bone cold had diminished, she still felt chilled, yearned for coffee. She'd never heard of a warming chamber, didn't trust the sympathy in his tone and maintained her vigilance, especially after he added, "I'm from Rystan."
He lay beside her and pulled her back against his side, sharing his heat. There was nothing sexual about his contact, but she didn't appreciate being held so closely. However, she wouldn't verbally object until she had more clues to exactly what was going on.
He'd said he was from "Rystan" and acted as though the information he'd supplied should have meant something to her, but he might as well have spoken in ancient Greek. She'd never heard of the place and wondered if it was part of the new Russian republic and if he was a terrorist.
Tessa wanted to roll away, detach herself from his disturbing heat, but then he would have a much better view of her nudity than he did with her lying pressed against him. Besides, she needed his heat to throw off her chills.
Or did she? She was warmer now. And she sure as hell wasn't going to develop Stockholm syndrome and bond with her captor. But was she a prisoner?
Her silence tactic had gained her little information, so she did the unexpected, firing a slew of questions at him, hoping he might reveal more than he intended. "What happened to the President? What is this place? Where are my clothes?"
He shot her an I'm-not-falling-for-that-trick look. "I'm supposed to give you this." He handed her an official-looking envelope.
"What is it?"
"Your people said it would explain everything. If you have more questions after reading this, I will try to answer them."
He sounded cooperative and supportive, but his shoulders had tensed, and he regarded her with a watchfulness that reminded her of Master Chen, her martial arts instructor, when he'd considered her fifth request to take her on as his student. Her perseverance had paid off, and he'd finally agreed to train the persistent and skinny kid she'd once been. Master Chen had passed on three years ago, but if he could have been with her now, he would have advised her to assess, evaluate and plan before taking physical action. Good adviceespecially since she didn't know if this Kahn character had any knowledge of her fighting skills.
She allowed him to prop her head with his muscle-bound arm and kept the envelope between his gaze and her bare breasts. Stomach churning, she plucked the sheet of paper from the envelope, unfolded it and focused on the letter. Was the document a forgery? The date, 2324, over three centuries in her future, must be a typo. When she examined the official seal at the top of the page from the desk of the President of the United States of North America, she almost crushed the paper with her fist and flung the hoax aside. She might not be up on politics, but there was no United States of North America. However, she overruled her temper and read the short note.
Dear Ms. Camen:
This letter will undoubtably come as a shock to you, but our planet is in critical need of your services. Earth has been invited to join a galactic alliance. This union is not only propitious to our country, but possibly necessary to humanity's continued survival. Earth desperately needs advanced technological help to clean our environment. The Federation of Planets will only accept us into their alliance if one of our species passes their "Challenge." You are our chosen candidate and the good wishes, hopes and prayers of all of humanity go with you.
"Yeah, right." She chuckled, wondering if her Secret Service bosses with their oddball imaginations had thought up this bizarre hoax to determine if she'd fully recovered from whatever had happened to her. Usually, however, the Secret Service people came up with straight-laced scenariosnothing this far-fetched.
"You may not refuse," Kahn told her, as if he expected her to take the letter seriously.
"One always has a choice." She turned her head and inspected his strange amber eyes, wishing for her clothes. She'd been so proud the day she'd passed her final Secret Service exam and had worn the uniform that made her a part of a team, a family who didn't just guard the lives of important people but watched one another's backs. Without her detail, she was so alone. And the lack of clothing made her feel vulnerable; however, she didn't betray her worry. "Great contact lenses. I don't believe I've ever seen them in that exact shade of"
"The language translator in my suit doesn't always work properly. What is this contact"
"Artificial lenses that correct vision or change eye color," she answered, giving herself a moment to digest his offhand comment about a translator. His language was stilted but unaccented and that made reading his emotions difficult. Was it her imagination or was he sincerely sympathetic to her predicament? If so, how could she use that knowledge to her advantage?
"We do not have contact lenses on Rystan." He dismissed the subject.
"Oh, now I get it. Rystan is your planet. You are an alien and I have traveled through time." She chortled. "Great scenario. Tell me more."