Rome wasn't a place where Stryker Wills was comfortable.Sure, the women were gorgeous, the food amazing, and fucking and eating weretwo of his favorite pleasures in life. But man, there was a lot of history herehe could potentially destroy. The cathedrals and the Colosseum, not to mentionthe Vatican, had all survived hundreds, or even thousands, of years and hecould take them out in one fell swoop with a flash of temper.
Knowing that made him more wary than usual. He'd beentense all morning, despite the beautiful women who'd been propositioning him ashe ate at an outdoor café-he didn't like mixing business with pleasure. Andthis trip was business, pure and simple, as he tried to get a bead on the fire-and-icewoman, a split-personalitied agent who'd killed his friend and nearly takenStryker out-twice-eight months earlier in the Amazon jungle.
Stryker had been out for blood ever since-his easygoingpersonality fading into the background as his hunger to avenge his fellowmurdered ACRO agent grew with each passing day.
Now the woman responsible for the murder was close. Hishands fisted and he realized that he was no longer the same man who'd left ACROfor this assignment all those months ago.
Itor operative Phoebe Milan had killed his supervisor andfriend, Akbar Shatar, setting him on fire while Stryker watched, helpless to doanything. And when Stryker returned to ACRO after Phoebe escaped, he'd gottenhis new instructions from
Devlin O'Malley, head of the ACRO agency.
Kill her, Dev told him. No further discussion needed.
It was an instruction ACRO agents heard often. As anoperative with rare abilities, he'd actually lived on ACRO's massive compoundsince birth, as his parents were also both longtime agents with the Agency forCovert Rare Operatives.
His parents had assumed he'd have abilities, but man, hadthey been surprised at both the type and the extent. Mating a telekinetic withan excedosapien with superstrength hadn't seemed like a crazy idea at the time-andmost agents tended to marry other agents anyway. But the first time two-year-oldStryker's temper tantrum ripped a fault through the middle of his house,everyone at ACRO had taken quite an interest in him.
So yeah, he'd grown up within the organization and,thanks to that, he was one of the few agents with special abilities who didn'thave major adjustment issues, but that didn't mean that sometimes he didn'tfeel intimidated by his own might.
He could cause earthquakes and volcanoes. Tsunamis too,of course. Mudslides. Avalanches. Thing was, once he started them, he couldn'tstop them, so he had to make sure to put just the right spin on his power.Typically, if he was forced to use it, he'd start small. Really, really small,because hey, there was always room to advance to life-threatening.
But there was a downside to his gift-there always was,for all the agents.
Stryker didn't have to watch the news to find out aboutnatural disasters that occurred globally. Most were underreported anyway, buthe was conscious of every single one, no matter their size.
Mainly, because they pulled at his libido, an unfortunateand common side effect for any elementalist. Mother Nature had a way of gettingback at humans who could manipulate her world, and her nasty punishment forStryker was a hard-on whenever someone used elemental powers around him-or whenthe planet rocked out an earthquake.
It was a constant-ranging from mild to highlyuncomfortable-reminder that he had no control over Mother Nature at all,because even though he got advance notice, it came only mere seconds before thedestruction, leaving no time to actually help any victims in the path of theoncoming natural disaster.
Most of the time, his sense of guilt was immense. Morethan once he'd gone to the ACRO scientists and psychics to seek a way to refinehis abilities into an earlier warning system, but to no avail.
You can't beat yourself up over this, Dev, the head ofACRO, would tell him, but Stryker would anyway.
Over the years, Stryker had watched men and women filterinto ACRO-most dragged in, kicking and screaming until they could get theirpowers under control. He'd been there, done that with the control thing, and bythe time he'd hit the all-too-volatile teen years, complete with raginghormones and plenty of testosterone, he'd gotten it. He knew, for the mostpart, how to keep his temper in check and, more importantly, the reasoningbehind the why.
The next years found him learning to temper his...temper,so he could use his power to help, not hurt. Because that's what ACRO agents did-theyhelped to save the world, thanks to their blend of extraordinary gifts.
Some could control the weather. Others could communicatewith animals, some with ghosts, and there was a small army of men-excedosapiens-whohad superstrength or -speed.
ACRO was a pretty cool organization that assisted thegovernment in saving the world from evil-and from Itor Corp, its most dangerousenemy to date.
Dangerous not just because of its self-serving, take-over-the-worldgoals, but because of the operatives it employed. Operatives like Stryker'scurrent target. Phoebe was the fiery bitch and her alter identity was the icyone; from what little information ACRO had been able to gather, it seemed thatthe icy personality was the more vulnerable of the two.
Stryker had seen that firsthand, would wake nightly fromthe same recurrent nightmare that played out as it had in real life in thejungle, with the icy personality pleading with him for her life-but he refusedto let his resolve down.
He would kill her as soon as he got the chance, becausehis nightmares about the smell of burning flesh, and Akbar's screams of pain,were just as vivid.
"Can I get you another espresso?" The youngwaitress, dark and curvy, was asking, before peering into his eyes. "I'msorry, signor, I don't mean to stare, but your eyes-they look like...akaleidoscope."
He nodded, had heard that before. His eyes weredifferent, just like he was, crystal clear with a hint of blue and green, butthe rest of him was classic all-American-blond, lean, and tall. "I'm allset here."
He stood to leave, ignoring the woman's continuing gaze,and that's when he felt it. A chill passed through the air, as if someone hadpoured ice down his back. But when he raised his head, he noted he wasn't theonly one feeling the effects.
Spring had just hit and Rome was brimming with tourists.Although March in Italy was always iffy weather-wise, Stryker knew this suddenchill had nothing at all to do with Mother Nature.
And still, his body responded as if a major earthquakewas about to happen. A pull that got him up and moving fast, hands jammed inhis pockets to hide his sudden arousal.
He did not want to get closer to that bitch-not likethis, had not thought through the fact that her powers could be a major turn-onto him. Mainly because he hadn't been affected at all the first time they'dmet. He didn't know if it was because of the horror of watching Akbar die, butthis was an unfortunate development neither he nor his trainers had considered.
He hated her-did not want to need sex because of her. Hecursed her as he walked against the icy wind, taking in the icicles hanging offstorefronts and the hoarfrost coating windows. He knew he was close.
His gaze strayed upward, and he caught sight of a womanon a balcony, a blond woman who waved her arms wildly and was apparently havinga rather animated conversation with...herself.
It was the ice lady, and although he much preferred herto the one who shot fire, he had to stop both of them. ASAP.
Quickly but covertly, he stashed all but one of hisweapons and let himself into the secured building-illegally, of course-andheaded up the stairs to the third floor.
Her icy door knocker gave her apartment away, if the filmof frost on her door hadn't.
He drank the potion ACRO scientists had given him, theone that would render him immune to both of Phoebe's powers, albeit for only afew minutes, but it did nothing to stop his arousal. If anything, the saltyliquid seemed to heighten his sexual needs.
He cracked his fingers. He could control himself for afew minutes. That would be more than enough time.
Melanie Milan knew she'd just done something incrediblystupid, but at the moment, she was far too pissed off to care. She was sopissed, in fact, that if her apartment-or, more accurately, Phoebe's apartment-wereany higher than the third floor, she'd take a swan dive from the balcony justto teach her sister a lesson. A nice, long hospital stay would go a long way towardmaking Phoebe miserable.
All around her, the air had gone still. The mild Marchweather had taken a temporary vacation thanks to her temper tantrum, and on thestreets below, in probably a three-block radius, it was winter again, completewith frost and ice. Shivering, but from fury, not the cold, Melanie went backinside the apartment, which had also gone chilly, because her fit of anger hadstarted in the kitchen, where she'd found her pet goldfish impaled on the tinesof a fork.
The fish was Phoebe's handiwork, a punishment forsomething Melanie wasn't even aware of yet. And now, because she'd just drainedthe battery on their special powers, Phoebe would devise another way to tortureher.
She was so tired of this.
Cursing up a storm, she trudged to the bathroom where,sure enough, there was a note taped to the mirror-one of three methods ofcommunication she used with Phoebe.
You stupid, lazy cow. You know I hate to find dishes inthe sink. How many times do I have to tell you to make sure the kitchen isclean? And do the fucking laundry today. I want my favorite jeans to be cleanand pressed.
Melanie's hands shook as she ripped the note in half andtossed it into the garbage. She was sick of being Phoebe's slave, sick of beingabused, and sick of the face that stared back at her in the mirror. It wasn'thers. The long, blond hair was Phoebe's-Mel would prefer a chin-length cut. Theice-blue, bloodshot eyes that spoke of late nights and drugs that left Melanieexhausted and hungover were Phoebe's doing. Worst of all, the swollen lips thathad probably done some wicked things to God only knew how many men and womenwere all Phoebe's.
Phoebe liked sex, drugs, and violence, often all at thesame time, and it was always Melanie who paid the price when she woke up in thebody Phoebe had used hard.
At least this morning Melanie had awakened in their ownbed instead of some stranger's. That was always a plus.
Melanie tightened the sash on her robe, though even that wasn'thers, was it? Almost everything in the apartment, from the furniture to theclothes to the food, was Phoebe's. Every time Melanie bought something forherself, Phoebe destroyed it. Melanie's only possessions consisted of a fewpaperbacks and college textbooks in the nightstand drawer, and her mother'sgold ring in the wall safe that Phoebe had promised not to break into.
Mel also had a few files on the computer-her collegecourses. It was stupid, she knew, but she wanted desperately to do somethingfor herself, even if that something was an art degree she'd never use.Obviously, when she had possession of the body she and Phoebe shared for onlyaround ten hours a day, the degree was going to take forever to earn, and atsome point would require Phoebe's cooperation.
How Melanie was going to manage that was the question ofthe century. Especially when all they did now was fight and see who could hurtwho the most. Mel had no idea how she was going to pay Phoebe back for killingher fish...though as she eyed a pair of scissors on the counter, she wonderedhow her sister would like really short hair...
The buzzing of a cellphone reminded her that she neededto get her butt in gear. The ringtone belonged to Itor's big boss, Alek.
Who was also their father. Not that he behaved like one.And why should he? He was nothing but a sperm donor who had jerked off into acup so his semen could be used to fertilize an egg in a petri dish. Melanie hadno idea how he treated Phoebe, but she knew very well how he treated her. Theson of a bitch despised her, acted like she was a traitor, even though she hadnothing to do with Itor, didn't know anyone inside the operation, and, really, didn'teven know what the agency's entire purpose was. Phoebe had kept everything amystery, and only by piecing together tiny chunks of information over the yearshad Melanie learned what little she did know.
Such as the fact that Phoebe was some sort of superagent,and Itor employed a lot of people like her.
Like Melanie, whose gift of ice was the opposite ofPhoebe's fiery touch. But since Mel had refused to use her ability to hurt people-evenafter being tortured-Itor considered her useless.
Melanie might be useless, but she wasn't helpless. Eight monthsago, she'd encountered Itor's enemies-and what was that saying, the enemy of myenemy is my friend?
Since then, Mel had spent every spare moment trying tofind the people she'd seen in the jungle, had questioned Phoebe about them, hadscoured her memories raw in an effort to glean any information about the groupof individuals who might be able to help lift her out of this hellishexistence. So far, she had very little to go on, but she wasn't giving up.
The cellphone rang again, and Mel hurried to the bedroom.The text message was in code, as usual, so she had no freaking clue what itsaid. If it had been important, there would have been nothing on the screen butan exclamation point-which meant that Melanie had best retreat into thedarkness of her mind and force Phoebe out.
Thank God that wasn't the case this time. She'd justdrained their abilities, and she needed to charge. Quickly. Before Phoebe tookover and discovered that she couldn't use her gift.
The problem was that charging up meant finding a man, andnot only was Melanie not practiced in that particular skill, but she wasn'tallowed to leave the building. Phoebe had made some very dangerous enemies acouple of weeks ago when an arms deal went bad, and apparently the small butdeadly organization was hunting her.
Excerpted from Taken by Fire by Sydney Croft. Copyright © 2011 by Sydney Croft. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.