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They died with smiles on their faces. Three apparent suicides: a brilliant engineer, an infamous lawyer, and a controversial politician. Three strangers with nothing in common - and no obvious reasons for killing themselves. Police lieutenant Eve Dallas found the deaths suspicious. And her instincts paid off when autopsies revealed small burns on the brains of the victims. Was it a genetic abnormality or a high-tech method of murder? Eve's investigation turned to the provocative world of virtual reality games - where the same techniques used to create joy and desire could also prompt the mind to become the weapon of its own destruction . . .
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Nora Roberts is the number-one New York Times-bestselling author of more than 150 novels, including High Noon, Angels Fall, Blue Smoke, and Northern Lights. She is also the author of the bestselling futuristic suspense series written under the pen name J. D. Robb. There are more than 280 million copies of her books in print.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
Mind games . . .
At the flick of a switch, Eve’s face flashed onto a monitor, all pertinent data split-screened beside her. A fascinating woman. Birthplace and parents unknown. The abused child discovered hiding in an alley in Dallas, Texas, body battered, mind blanked. A woman who couldn’t remember the early years of her own life. The years that formed the soul. Years when she had been beaten and raped and tormented.
What did that sort of life do to the mind? To the heart? To the person?
It had made the girl a social worker and had made Eve Dallas into a woman who had become a cop. The cop with the reputation for digging deep, and who had come into some notoriety the previous winter during the investigation of a sensitive and ugly case.
That was when she had met Roarke.
The computer hummed, sliced Roarke’s face onto the screen. Such an intriguing couple. His background was no prettier than the cop’s had been. But he’d chosen, at least initially, the other side of the law to make his mark. And his fortune.
Now they were a set. A set that could be destroyed on a whim.
But not yet. Not for some little time yet.
After all, the game had just begun.
But I do nothing upon myself,
and yet am mine own Executioner.
There is rapture on the lonely shore.
The alley was dark and stank of piss and vomit. It was home for quick-footed rats and the bony, hungry-eyed felines who hunted them. Red eyes glinted in the dark, some of them human, all of them feral.
Eve’s heart tripped lightly as she slipped into the fetid, damp-edged shadows. He’d gone in, she was sure of it. It was her job to follow, to find him, to bring him in. Her weapon was in her hand, and her hand was steady.
“Hey, sweetcakes, wanna do it with me? Wanna do it?”
Voices out of the dark, harsh with chemicals or cheap brews. Moans of the damned, giggles of the mad. The rats and cats didn’t live here alone. The company of the human garbage that lined the sweating brick walls was no comfort.
She swung her weapon, crouched as she sidestepped a battered recycling unit that, from the smell of it, hadn’t worked in a decade. The stench of food gone over smeared the humid air and turned it into a greasy stew.
Someone whimpered. She saw a boy, about thirteen, all but naked. The sores on his face were festering; his eyes were slits of fear and hopelessness as he scrabbled like a crab back against the filthy wall.
Pity stirred in her heart. She had been a child once, hurt and terrified, hiding in an alley. “I won’t hurt you.” She kept her voice quiet, barely a murmur, kept her eyes on his, maintaining contact as she lowered her weapon.
And that’s when he struck.
He came from behind, a roar of motion and sound. Primed to kill, he swung the pipe. The whistle of it stung her ears as she whirled, dodged. There was barely time to curse herself for losing her concentration, forgetting her primary target as two hundred fifty pounds of muscle and mean sent her flying to the bricks.
Her weapon flew out of her hand and clattered into the dark.
She saw his eyes, the glint of mayhem heightened by the chemical, Zeus. She watched the pipe raised high, timed it, and rolled seconds before it cracked against brick. With a pump of her legs, she dived headfirst into his belly. He grunted, staggered, and as he reached for her throat, she brought her fist up hard, smashing it under his jaw. The force of the blow radiated pain and power up her arm.
People were screaming, scrambling for safety in a narrow world where nothing and no one was safe. She spun, used the impetus of the turn to deliver a roundhouse kick that shattered her adversary’s nose. Blood fountained, adding to the sick miasma of odors.
His eyes were wild, but he barely jerked at the blow. Pain was no match for the god of chemicals. Grinning as blood poured down his face, he smacked the thick pipe on his palm.
“Kill you. Kill you, cop bitch.” He circled her, swinging the pipe like a whistling whip. Grinning, grinning as he bled. “Break your head open and eat your brains.”
Knowing he meant it pumped her adrenaline to flash point. Live or die. Her breath came in pants, the sweat pouring like oil down her skin. She dodged the next blow, went down on her knees. Slapping a hand on her boot, she came up grinning.
“Eat this instead, you son of a bitch.” Her backup weapon was in her hand. She didn’t bother with stun. The stun setting would do little more than tickle a two hundred fifty pound man flying on Zeus. It was set to terminate.
As he lunged toward her, she hit him with full power. His eyes died first. She’d seen it happen before. Eyes that turned to glass like a doll’s, even as he charged her. She sidestepped, prepared to fire again, but the pipe slipped from his fingers. His body began that jerky dance as his nervous system overloaded.
He fell at her feet, a mass of ruined humanity who had played god.
“You won’t be sacrificing any more virgins, asshole,” she muttered, and as that wild energy drained, she rubbed a hand over her face. Her weapon arm dropped.
The faint scrape of leather on concrete alerted her. She started her spin, weapon rising, but arms clamped her, lifted her to her toes.
“Always watch your back, Lieutenant,” the voice whispered just before teeth nipped lightly at her earlobe.
“Roarke, goddamn it. I nearly zapped you.”
“You didn’t even come close.” With a laugh, he turned her in his arms, and his mouth was on hers, hot, hungry. “I love watching you work,” he murmured and his hand, clever hand, slid up her body to cup her breast. “It’s . . . stimulating.”
“Cut it out.” But her heart was thundering in reaction, and the order was halfhearted. “This is no place for a seduction.”
“On the contrary. A honeymoon is a traditional place for a seduction.” He drew her back, kept his hands on her shoulders. “I wondered where you’d gone off to. I should have known.” He glanced down at the body at their feet. “What did he do?”
“He had a predilection for beating the brains out of young women, then eating them.”
“Oh.” Roarke winced, shook his head. “Really, Eve, couldn’t you have come up with something a little less revolting?”
“There was a guy on the Terra Colony a couple of years back who fit the profile, and I wondered . . .” She trailed off, frowning. They were standing in a stinking alley, death at their feet. And Roarke, gorgeous, dark angel Roarke, was wearing a tuxedo and a diamond stud. “What are you all dressed up for?”
“We had plans,” he reminded her. “Dinner?”
“I forgot.” She tucked her weapon away. “I didn’t think this would take so long.” She blew out a breath. “I guess I should clean up.”
“I like you the way you are.” He moved into her again, took possession. “Forget dinner. . . for now.” His smile was slow and irresistible. “But I do insist on slightly more aesthetic surroundings. End program,” he ordered.
The alley, the smells, and the huddle of bodies winked away. They stood in a huge, empty room with equipment and blinking lights built into the walls. Both floor and ceiling were glass-mirrored black to better project the holographic scenes available on the program.
It was one of Roarke’s newest, most sophisticated toys.
“Begin Tropical Setting 4-B. Maintain dual control status.”
In response came the whoosh of waves, the sprinkle of starlight on water. Beneath her feet was white sugar sand, and palm trees waved like exotic dancers.
“That’s more like it,” Roarke decided, then began unbuttoning her shirt. “Or it will be when I get you naked.”
“You’ve been getting me naked every time I blink for nearly three weeks.”
He arched a brow. “Husband’s privilege. Complaints?”
Husband. It was still a jolt. This man with the warrior’s mane of black hair, the poet’s face, the wild Irish blue eyes was her husband. She’d never get used to it.
“No. Just an—” Her breath hitched as one of his long-fingered hands skimmed over her breasts. “An observation.”
“Cops.” He smiled, unfastened her jeans. “Always observing. You’re off duty, Lieutenant Dallas.”
“I was just keeping my reflexes sharp. Three weeks away from the job, you get rusty.”
He slid a hand between her naked thighs, cupped her, watched her head fall back on a moan. “Your reflexes are just fine,” he murmured and pulled her down to the soft white sand.
His wife. Roarke liked to think about that as she rode him, as she moved under him, as she lay spent beside him. This fascinating woman, this dedicated cop, this troubled soul belonged to him.
He’d watched her work through the program, the alley, the chemical-mad killer. And he’d known she would face the reality of her work with the same tough, terrifyingly courageous determination that she’d possessed in the illusion.
He admired her for it, however many bad moments it gave him. In a few days, they would go back to New York and he would have to share her with her duties. For now, he wanted to share her with nothing. With no one.
He was no stranger to back alleys that reeked of garbage and hopeless humanity. He’d grown up in them, escaped into them, and eventually had escaped from them. He had made his life into what it was—and then she had come into it, sharp and lethal as an arrow from a bow, and had changed it again.
Cops had once been the enemy, then an amusement, and now he was bound to one.
Just over two weeks before, he had watched her walk toward him in a flowing gown of rich bronze, flowers in her hands. The bruises on her face a killer had put there only hours before had been softened under cosmetics. And in those eyes, those big brandy-colored eyes that showed so much, he’d seen nerves and amusement.
Here we go, Roarke. He’d nearly heard her say it as she put her hand in his. For better or worse I’ll take you on. God help us.
Now she wore his ring, and he hers. He’d insisted on that, though such traditions weren’t strictly fashionable in the middle of the twenty-first century. He’d wanted the tangible reminder of what they were to each other, the symbol of it.
Now he picked up her hand, kissed her finger above the ornately etched gold band he’d had made for her. Her eyes stayed closed. He studied the sharp angles of her face, the overwide mouth, the short cap of brown hair tousled into spikes.
“I love you, Eve.”
Faint color bloomed on her cheeks. She was so easily moved, he thought. He wondered if she had any idea how huge was her own heart.
“I know.” She opened her eyes. “I’m, ah, starting to get used to it.”
Listening to the song of water lapping on sand, of balmy breezes whispering through feathery palms, she lifted a hand, brushed the hair back from his face. A man like him, she thought, powerful, wealthy, impulsive, could call up such scenes at the snap of a finger. And he’d done it for her.
“You make me happy.”
His grin flashed, making her stomach muscles curl in delight. “I know.” With easy, effortless strength, he lifted her up and over until she straddled him. He skimmed his hands idly up her long, slim, muscled body. “Are you ready to admit you’re glad I shanghaied you off planet for the last part of our honeymoon?”
She grimaced, remembering her panic, her dug-in-at-the-heels refusal to board the transport he’d had waiting, and how he had roared with laughter and had tossed her over his shoulder, climbing on board with her cursing him.
“I liked Paris,” she said with a sniff. “And I loved the week we had on the island. I didn’t see any reason for us to come to some half-finished resort in space when we were going to spend most of our time in bed anyway.”
“You were scared.” It had delighted him that she’d been unnerved by the prospect of her first off planet voyage, and it had pleasured him to keep her occupied and distracted for the bulk of the trip.
“I was not.” Boneless, she thought. Scared boneless. “I was justifiably annoyed that you’d made the plans without discussing them with me.”
“I seem to recall someone being involved with a case and telling me to plan whatever suited me. You were a beautiful bride.”
It made her lips curve. “It was the dress.”
“No, it was you.” He lifted a hand to her face. “Eve Dallas. Mine.”
Love swamped her. It always seemed to come in huge, unexpected waves that left her flailing helplessly. “I love you.” She lowered herself to him, brought her mouth to his. “Looks like you’re mine.”
* * *
It was midnight before they had dinner. On the moon-washed terrace of the towering spear that was the nearly completed Olympus Grand Hotel, Eve dug into stuffed lobster and contemplated the view.
The Olympus Resort would be, with Roarke pulling the strings, completed and fully booked within a year. For now, they had it to themselves—if she ignored the construction crews, staff, architects, engineers, pilots, and other assorted inhabitants who shared the massive space station.
From the small glass table where they sat, she could see out over the hub of the resort. The lights brightly burned for the night crew, the quiet hum of machinery spoke of round-the-clock labor. The fountains, the lances of simulated torchlight and rainbows of color running fluidly through the spewing waters, were for her, she knew.
He’d wanted her to see what he was building and perhaps to begin to understand what she was a part of now. As his wife.
Wife. She blew out a breath that fluttered her bangs and sipped the icy champagne he’d poured. It was going to take some time to understand just how she’d gone from being Eve Dallas, homicide lieutenant, to become the wife of a man who some claimed had more money and power than God.
She flicked her eyes over his face, smiled a little. “No.” With intense concentration, she dipped a bit of lobster in melted butter—real butter, no simulation for Roarke’s table—and sampled it. “How am I going to face the cardboard they pass off as food at the Eatery once I’m back on the job?”
“You eat candy bars on the job in any case.” He topped off her wine, lifted a brow when she narrowed her eyes.
“You trying to get me drunk, pal?”
She laughed, something he noted she did more easily and more often these days, and wit...
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