Secret Identity

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Linda Mooney


Published by TORRID BOOKS An Imprint of Whiskey Creek Press LLC Whiskey Creek Press PO Box 51052 Casper, WY 82605-1052 Copyright  2012 by Linda Mooney Warning: The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal. Criminal copyright infringement, including infringement without monetary gain, is investigated by the FBI and is punishable by up to 5 (five) years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000.

Names, characters and incidents depicted in this book are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental and beyond the intent of the author or the publisher. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher. ISBN 978-1-61160-162-6

Credits Cover Artist: Gemini Judson Editor: Fran Mathieson Printed in the United States of America

WHAT THEY ARE SAYING ABOUT THE TUB (Written as Gail Smith) “The Tub (written as Gail Smith) kept me interested the entire time. There was sex, albeit horrific toward the end, and horror that had me widening my eyes in shock. I don’t want to say too much and give the story away, but all I have to say is when Amanda pulled that head out of the water, I felt my stomach turn. The horror was definitely there, and despite this being a very short tale, it packed quite a punch!” Manic Readers “I have to admit this was my first time reading erotic horror and after finishing (The Tub). I’ll definitely be looking for more and more stories by this author. If, like me, you want to try reading erotic horror, this is a good pick.” Whipped Cream Reviews

WHAT THEY ARE SAYING ABOUT CUT GLASS: JEWELS BOOK 1: DIAMOND “Cut Glass: Jewels Book 1: Diamond has left me speechless. There are books that once you finish them you can’t find the words to describe what they are and for me Cut Glass: Jewels Book 1: Diamond is one of those.” Sizzing Hot Book Reviews

WHAT THEY ARE SAYING ABOUT POSSESSION “As you can guess, I loved Possession. This is not your standard ghost or cop story. And I have to warn you girls, you will need tissues around the end, but there is a HEA ending (I really worried

as I got to the end, hope this doesn’t spoil anything for you, but we do expect the HEA when reading romances). Possession is a great paranormal, and anyone tired of the standard romance will enjoy this unusual twist on a good ‘who-done-it’ idea.” Sizzing Hot Book Reviews “Author Linda Mooney has written a new and interesting book. Possession is definitely not the same old thing. This is such a unique storyline with so many unexpected twists and turns, that I recommend once you begin you plan to read it right through to the end.” Whipped Cream Reviews

WHAT THEY ARE SAYING ABOUT RHEA 41070 TwoLips Reviewer’s Choice Award

“Linda Mooney is one of my top five favorite authors, but occasionally she’ll write a book that I have to, if not struggle through the opening several chapters, keep turning page after page in hopes of getting to the real nitty-gritty of the story, at which time I know the book will take off in leaps and bounds. Rhea 41070 is one of those books. The first three chapters are devoted to extensive world building, setting the scene and flavor of what’s to come, plus extensive character development that you’ll be glad to have a feel for when the real kickass action starts tearing up the pages. Be prepared for some bloody scenes in this book, plus the last few chapters that will dig deep and pull so much emotion from you that you’ll need a box of tissues handy.” TwoLips Reviews


“The author gives outstanding and vivid detail so the reader can feel they are in the story experiencing what the characters experience. I truly enjoyed (A Different Yesterday) and would recommend it anyone needing a great book to curl up with.” Reviews by Nora

WHAT THEY ARE SAYING ABOUT FROM OUT OF THE SHADOWS “This was a very well written novel and it had me on the edge of my seat the entire time I was reading it. The love scenes were sensual, erotic and just graphic enough for me to be able to imagine what it would be like to have Croat make love to me. I really enjoyed From Out of the Shadows and would not hesitate to read another story by the author of such an enchanting story.” Happily Ever After Reviews

WHAT THEY ARE SAYING ABOUT RUNNER’S MOON SERIES “Wow! Runner’s Moon: Challa Book 4 has to be one of the best science fiction romances I’ve had the pleasure of reading this year!” Coffee Time Romance “Challa is one of those books you just can’t put down, but of course it is; it’s a Linda Mooney book! Like everything she writes, this story is captivating from beginning to end, but then, frankly I think Ms. Mooney could draw you into a scene about taking out the garbage. She’s just that kind of writer. Her plots are riveting, and she makes you feel her characters, right down to their toenails.” Two Lips Reviews Joyfully Recommended “Fantastic Sci-Fi story is the first thing that comes to mind when I tell people about (Runner’s Moon book 3) Simolif.”

Joyfully Reviewed “Go, Ms. Mooney, Go. I am thoroughly intrigued by the species she has invented and am hooked on reading how they adapt to the human race and lifestyles (in Runner’s Moon: Tiron book 2).” Joyfully Reviewed “Be warned, though. If you have not read the first book yet, odds are you will want to after reading (Runner’s Moon: Tiron book 2).” Coffee Time Romance Top Pick Recommended Read “Runner’s Moon: Jebaral (book 1)is an exciting and passionate romance that leaves you anxiously waiting for the next book in the series.” Romance Reader at Heart

WHAT THEY ARE SAYING ABOUT THE THUNDER SERIES “In this reviewer’s humble opinion, no one writes more touching, heartfelt romances (like Wings of Thunder) than Linda Mooney. She can haul you right into the story and make you feel her characters’ desires, happiness, passion and sadness better than any author I’ve ever read.” Two Lips Reviews Fallen Angel Reviews Recommended Read “The powerful and sensual sex scenes between Annie and Rion (in Passion of Thunder) add a deep, abounding passion to their devoted relationship. Rion’s commitment to Annie drew me to him more than any fictional hero ever has.” Fallen Angel Reviews

“I will never look at a thunderstorm quite the same again. Lord of Thunder isn’t just a play on words; it describes the main character of this fascinating new novel by Linda Mooney. A story of strength, determination, and love told with characters as rich as the Montana setting. Raw, intense and satisfying, are words that both describe the story and the romance. Reading Linda’s work is an escape like no other. Reading romance, always a guilty pleasure has now become a real joy!” Renee’s Book Talk, Blog Talk Radio Two Lips Reviews Recommended Read “I devoured this book, alternately smiling and shedding tears along the way. I guarantee that readers will want to read this book over and over again.” Two Lips Reviews

WHAT THEY ARE SAYING ABOUT MY STRENGTH, MY POWER, MY LOVE “The premise of this Science Fiction / Romance novel caught me off guard. I was blown away and completely enamored with the idea. Linda Mooney takes you on a beautiful journey to the stars and beyond. She has a wonderful ability for writing stunningly beautiful scenes and the expertise for making an emotional connection through her characters. She is a talented and powerful writer and I highly recommend My Strength, My Power, My Love. It is a necessary read for all lovers of science fiction or romance.” Renee’s Book Talk, Blog Talk Radio

WHAT THEY ARE SAYING ABOUT HEARTCRYSTAL “Linda Mooney has done a top notch job of world building. You get a story that will make you laugh a little but mostly it will

twist your heartstrings to pieces. You may want to keep a box of Kleenex nearby while reading (HeartCrystal).” The Romance Studio

WHAT THEY ARE SAYING ABOUT HEARTFAST PNR Reviewer Top Pick “(HeartFast is) Well worth the time to read—which won’t be too long, as you won’t be able to put it down!” ParaNormalRomance Reviews

WHAT THEY ARE SAYING ABOUT SANDEFLAY Outstanding Read “(Sandeflay is a) Great book, a definite keeper.” Simply Romance Reviews “Sandeflay is an absolutely stunning read by Ms. Mooney.” Romance Junkies

Other Books by Author Available at Whiskey Creek Press Torrid: Runner’s Moon Book 1: Jebaral Runner’s Moon Book 2: Tiron Runner’s Moon Book 3: Simolif Runner’s Moon Book 4: Challa Sandeflay HeartFast HeartCrystal My Strength, My Power, My Love Lord of Thunder Passion of Thunder Wings of Thunder From Out of the Shadows Rhea 41070 A Different Yesterday Possession The Tub (written as Gail Smith) Cut Glass: Jewels, Book 1: Diamond Cut Glass: Jewels, Book 2: Ruby Deep

Chapter 1 Rescue “It’s been a long, hard struggle to bring Dobbling Chemicals here to Fullerton. But three years and sixty-eight million dollars later, we’re here to celebrate the grand opening of the industry’s newest and most anticipated member of Dobbling Enterprises.” “Joining me today is the person everyone credits with this endeavor, Miss Brenda McKay, head of Design and Development for Dobbling. How does it feel, Ms. McKay, to finally see the results after such a hard-fought battle?” The reporter stuck the microphone in Brenda’s face, narrowly missing hitting her in the nose. Brenda instinctively jerked her head back to avoid it, then wondered how the whole thing looked on national television. Pasting on one of her patented company smiles, she replied, “It’s a dream come true, Karen! Dobbling Chemicals is quickly becoming well-respected and honored for its discovery and manufacturing of seco-resonant plastics.” “Plastics that are rapidly growing in demand from all sectors of the retail market, as well as for military use, isn’t that correct?” For military use. The phrase acted like a code word, instantly putting Brenda on full alert. If the reporter was hoping for some juicy tidbits to verify the rumors that Dobbling was being courted by the pentagon, she was going to be sorely disappointed.


Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity “I don’t know about any military purposes,” she smoothly contradicted. “But we have some applications coming up that we feel will completely revolutionize the field of medicine.” That comment put a sparkle in the reporter’s eyes. It was enough to get the woman off of the topic of the military for at least the next question. “By medical, are you talking about surgical or preventative, or…” “Pharmaceutical,” Brenda offered. “Although I can’t say anything more at this time.” The reporter nodded, taking her mic back and turning to face the camera. “Dobbling Chemicals has already hired sixty new employees from this area, and plans to hire at least sixty more. Which is why the town of Fullerton welcomes them with open arms, as this company pumps fresh blood and dollars into its tired economy. Reporting for Channel Eight Eyewitness News, I’m Karen Fox.” Brenda stood off to the side to thank the woman once the cameraman had killed the feed. It was always good policy to brown-nose the news media. It helped to keep them as close bedfellows, which in turn kept public opinion swayed toward the positive when it came to big business ventures like Dobbling Enterprises. Joe Common Man off the street had a natural aversion to big businesses, no thanks to huge corporations who squandered billions of dollars in the past, then expected Mr. Common Man to help bail them out. And then, once the bailout came through, basically gave their saviors the shaft as thanks. Which was why she had the kind of job she had. Behind her pretty girl-next-door face and her home-grown manners, she had a sharp brain and keen eye for dealing with the public. 2

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity The reporter raised an eyebrow to see her still standing there. Brenda gave the woman a warm smile. “Thank you again for the interview. If you don’t mind…” She handed the woman her business card. “Send me an email. That way when I’m ready to release more information, I can get in touch with you.” “Thanks.” The woman accepted the card, barely glancing at it as her cameraman relieved her of her microphone. “Say, is it true you’re from Fullerton?” “It’s true. Born and raised here. It wasn’t until I graduated from Fullerton High that I finally left town to go to college.” “Bet you’re especially excited to see this company come in then, aren’t you?” “You have no idea.” Brenda lightly laughed, then glanced at her watch. It was usually a ploy to end the conversation before it went any further, although the reporter didn’t need to know that. But this time it was also the truth. “Oh, my. I lost track of time. I’m late. I’m sorry, but I need to go. Don’t forget to email me!” With a little wave, Brenda turned to hurry back to where the small crowd was gathered at the front of the main building for the ribbon cutting. The explosion was unexpected and devastating. Wood slivers and chunks of brick shot outward, filling the air first with dust and particles, then with lethal intent as poison began to fill the sky. People screamed as shrapnel rocketed from the heart of the factory. An instant later, another thunderous boom of released energy destroyed what was left of the walls and windows. The roof literally melted like wet cotton candy. Pandemonium ensued. Workers ran for their lives, but the caustic gas was faster, and people fell, overcome by the burning fumes which robbed them of breath. Brenda saw the flames ripping through the top of the building, and immediately knew the worst 3

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity had happened. She turned to race for safety just as the wall of sound and debris swept over her and the rest of the crowd. Up ahead she caught sight of the news van. The cameraman was about to close the door when he spotted her and frantically waved at her, urging her to hurry. She screamed as her eardrums threatened to burst, and she fell into the open door of the vehicle as a scalding chunk of plaster narrowly missed striking her in the head. Somehow she managed to crawl over the carpeted interior until she was far enough inside as the cameraman gave the door a hard tug. The van’s side cargo hatch smoothly slid shut with a satisfying slam. Behind her, the reporter wheezed as she fought for air. They all were gasping. Through weeping eyes, Brenda watched as the cameraman hit a switch on a panel, and tried to croak out a plea for help. Something in the fumes was making their throats constrict. She panicked to think they could end up suffocating to death. Her ears were still ringing from the blast. Shrugging off her jacket, she held it up to her nose, hoping it might help alleviate some of the fumes. Wiping her eyes with the sleeve of her blouse, she rose up until she could peer over the seats in the front of the van, but there was little to see beyond the windshield. The yellowish cloud continued to boil, totally obliterating everything from sight. “Miss McKay.” Her head whipped around to stare at the man huddled behind her. The reporter lay unconscious on the carpet next to him. The man’s dark complexion had turned almost ghost white. “Call me Brenda.” She coughed. “And you are…” “Alan.” “Good to meet you, Alan. Sorry it had to be under these conditions.” 4

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity The remark earned her a wan smile as the man coughed behind a hand. “It’s too quiet out there,” he managed to gasp. The realization froze her blood. Too quiet. He was right. The screaming had stopped. An image of the ground littered with bodies flashed through her mind. Oh, God, no. It was too horrible to even consider, but there was no telling what all had been in those fumes. The air could still be toxic. Oh, God, and it could be heading into town! “Quick! Can you tell which w-way the wind’s blowing?” “Hell if I know.” “Can you drive us out of here?” “Which way?” the man asked, pointing out the windshield. “That stuff’s like s-soup. You can’t see past two inches out there.” “Well, we can’t stay here. Can you reach the TV station? Can you broadcast out? Call for help?” “The blast must’ve taken out the antenna. I can’t even get a signal. We’re stuck here.” “Don’t say that,” Brenda gasped. Breathing was like trying to suck air through a tiny straw. The harder she tried, the sides of the straw would collapse, blocking the flow. It took great effort to try and make herself calmly inhale. She watched as Alan struggled like her. “We can’t stay here,” she repeated. The cameraman held up a hand for silence. He was receiving something through his earpiece. Brenda strained to listen. “What?” she whispered. After a few more seconds, Alan shook his head. “I thought I heard something.” “From the TV station?” 5

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity “No. Outside. There’s a microphone in the base of the antenna.” “What kind of something? Could it be someone? Someone alive?” Maybe everyone outside wasn’t dead. She could only pray. Without warning, the van lurched to one side. Brenda gave a squeal of fright, and Alan yelled as they grabbed for something to hold on to so they wouldn’t be pitched about inside the interior of the van like loose marbles in a can. The vehicle bounced again, ending upright. Alan’s eyes widened, and he pointed out the front. “Look!” The yellowish cloud was dissipating. No. Brenda swiped the tears again from her eyes and tried to get a better look. No, it appeared as if the cloud was being blown away. Almost like it was being…fanned? There was a movement at the far edge of the windshield. She crawled to the front of the van, with Alan right behind her. Together they stared at the area where they could barely make out someone, a figure, standing not too far from them. As the fumes rolled away, they were finally able to see a man. Brenda gasped in shock and delight. Yes, it was a man. A very well-built man, with a wide chest, small waist and hips, and long, muscular legs. A total stranger wearing a shiny black leatherlooking jacket and pants. What appeared to initially be black paint across his face was actually a mask. But what was more astonishing was the fact that this man was gripping two of the factory’s huge steel doors, one in each hand, and was waving them up and down like enormous fans, breaking up the yellow cloud with a speed and skill that was astonishing to watch. “Who…the…hell?” Alan’s hushed voice commented over her shoulder. 6

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity “It looks like we have a new superhero,” she said in awe. “Are you shitting me?” “Infinity’s been gone, what? Sixteen years?” She started to smile. A new superhero. It was almost too good to be true. She gave a quick glance at the area around them and saw the fumes were almost all gone. As much as she would love to remain there watching this mysterious stranger in black save the day, she knew they needed to seek medical attention, especially for the reporter who remained unconscious. “Damn! Will you look at the guy? Those doors have to be at least four inches thick and solid steel. I betcha they weigh at least seven or eight hundred pounds each, and he’s waving them like playing cards!” “Alan!” Her tone got his attention. “We have to get her to the nearest hospital, and we need be checked out, too,” she told him, gesturing toward the reporter. “Monning Clinic is about four blocks away. Can you drive us there now? I’ll show you the way.” The cameraman never got the chance to answer because the van’s side door slid open. “Anyone in here needing immediate medical attention?” Dark blue eyes slid over Brenda before darting to the cameraman, who was already lifting the reporter into his arms. “Here.” The woman was transferred to the arms of the black-clad man, and a prick of unexpected jealousy went through Brenda. “Can you two make it over to the hospital on your own?” the man asked. His voice was rich and deep, and sent shivers through her. His glance paused below her waist. 7

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity “Better get that taken care of as soon as you get there,” he added. Brenda looked down to notice for the first time that her leg was bleeding. At some point she’d ripped her pants and cut herself during the explosion. “Okay.” It sounded so lame, but it was the best she could do at the moment. At Alan’s nod to his previous question, the superhero backed away from the vehicle. In the next second, he lifted off of the ground and flew away. Brenda hopped out of the van to watch him go until he disappeared in the distance. Her body felt as though she was holding onto an electric fence, and the current was setting off fireworks in her bloodstream. The moment the man had set his eyes on her, it was as though time and the universe had come to a screeching halt. At the same time, she could feel herself growing wet between the thighs. This man had called to her in the most primal way, and she had no idea who he was, or even what his name was. But she would find out. Whatever it took, she would find out, one way or another, if it was the last thing she ever did.


Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity

Chapter 2 News A can of soft drink floated into the living room from the kitchen and dropped down onto the coffee table in front of him. Lorne smiled and picked it up as his two brothers walked in with big grins on their faces. “Congratulations! Our late bloomer has finally gone public!” Luke crowed and whacked his younger sibling on the back. “Mighty fine intro, too,” Lee commented. “Hell of a lot better than having to rescue some old woman’s cat from a tree.” The men snickered as they watched Lorne’s ears flame, and sat in chairs on the opposite side of the table. “Hey, do you think Brenda recognized you?” Lee asked, getting directly to the point. Lorne shook his head. “No, she didn’t.” “But she was definitely interested,” Luke said. “So were you.” When Lorne shot his older brother a defensive look, Luke laughed loudly in response. “Oh, come off it, little bro! If she had coughed just one time, you would have scooped her up and taken her straight to Mercy General! Admit it!” “Yeah, Lorne. You’ve had a thing for her ever since we were kids,” Lee said. Shaking his head, Lorne pull the tab off of the can, taking extra care not to rip away the entire top. “Stop it, guys. I didn’t 9

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity pick the factory because Brenda was involved with it.” He paused with the drink almost to his lips and glanced at Luke. “Wait a minute. You knew she’d be there!” “So what if I did?” “Asshole. You did it on purpose! You deliberately sent me there because you knew Brenda would be, too!” Luke shrugged. “I sent you there because I knew how destructive the explosion would be. How many people did you save?” “You know how many,” Lorne mumbled, then took a sip of his drink. They had celebrated Luke’s first appearance as Mr. Mental with root beer, and the tradition had been repeated when Lee earned his moniker as Espionage. Frankly, Lorne wasn’t big on root beer, but at the moment it tasted just right, in spite of his brothers’ teasing. “Well, I don’t.” Lee pouted playfully. “I’m not the mental genius in this family, remember? So give!” Lorne gave a little shrug. “Sixteen or seventeen.” “Twenty-eight,” Luke corrected. “Plus he dissipated that poisonous cloud and put out that chemical fire in nothing flat. Congratulations again, Lorne!” “So, what’s your next plan of action?” Lee asked. Jerking a thumb in the eldest’s direction, Lorne replied, “Ask Mister Know-It-All.” To their surprise, Luke suddenly became serious. “Actually, I have no immediate plan of action because we’re going to be needed right here in town to help an old friend through a very serious crisis in her life.” The word “her” instantly raised the hairs on the back of Lorne’s neck. He gave his oldest brother a stern eye, as did Lee. 10

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity “Don’t hold out on us, Luke. You promised. We all gave the oath, so give!” “You remember me telling you there are two kinds of events I can foresee in the future, right?” “Yeah. The inevitable, and the consequential,” Lee provided. “This is an inevitable, isn’t it?” Lorne asked. Slowly, Luke nodded. “’Fraid so. Guys…we’re losing Mike McKay.” Lorne felt a sudden icy chill run through him. He nearly dropped the can of soda in shock as Lee softly whispered, “How?” “Heart attack. Blockage. It’s beyond our powers.” Beyond our powers. An “inevitable” event that no one had the ability to stop or alter in any way, no matter who they were, or what kind of powers they held. Like the plant explosion had been inevitable. But the people he had saved, those lives had been in the “consequential” category. Depending on his intervention, on certain criteria or “consequences”, the death toll could have risen as high as several hundred. Instead, there had been just three. Three deaths, and all of them at the heart of the explosion when the tanks had ruptured. Lorne knew he should be glad to have saved so many, but those three would forever remain on his conscience as those he lost. His first outing as The Defender, who failed to defend and protect. Those deaths were three too many in his book. But, as Luke told them, some deaths were inevitable. Just not all. And now, their brother with the incredible mental gifts was telling them that their next-door neighbor, a good man they had known as “Mr. Mac” for more than twenty years, was going to die soon.


Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity In the next heartbeat, Lorne grasped the full fact of what Luke was saying. “When?” The word was out of his mouth before he was aware of asking. “Tonight.” Luke paused, and it was as if a dark cloud passed over his face. He didn’t have to say anything further. For several long, silent minutes, the three brothers bowed their heads in tribute. It was Lee who finally sniffed and whispered, “Who gets to call Brenda to let her know after it’s over?” “I will,” Lorne volunteered. He glanced at Luke, who nodded. Yeah, it was inevitable that he would be the one to make the call.


Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity

Chapter 3 Lust Brenda opened her eyes and rolled over to check the alarm clock. Peeved, she laid back and sighed loudly. “It’s not even four o’clock, and I’m wide awake. Why?” Oh, girl, you know why. “Yeah, I do. It’s because of him. Mister Black Mask and Black Leather Pants. Jesus, if those things were any tighter, I’d be able to see his heritage.” Don’t forget the jacket. “Oh, God, no. How could I forget? I’ll bet a year’s pay his biceps are thicker than my waist.” In fact, there wasn’t a spot on the man that was forgettable. From his long, dark hair she would love to run her fingers through, to the man’s fathomless dark eyes. And that voice. Oh, God, that voice! So deep, it resonated through her bones. Brenda reached down, slipped her hand underneath the elastic waistband of her cotton pajamas, and slid her fingers between her thighs. As she’d suspected, just dreaming of the man was enough to make her wet. She moved her fingernails over her tightening clit, lightly scraping it, and a shiver of delight went through her. Smiling softly, she closed her eyes. “What if it was you doing those things to me?” she whispered. “What if you flew to my window and lightly rapped on the glass, 13

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity wanting to come in and have your way with me before flying off again?” It was so easy to imagine. Quickly, she shed her pajama bottoms, then reached for the battery-operated dildo in the bottom nightstand drawer. Lying back on the mattress, she first warmed the head of the vibrator between her legs as she set up the scenario in her mind’s eye. He rapped on the apartment window with gloved knuckles. The sound was loud enough to wake her, and she stared in surprise at the black figure outlined against the moon-washed night sky. She opened the window, allowing him to squeeze through the opening. He chuckled at the tight fight, and at the thought of where else there could be a tight fit, another shiver went through her in anticipation. “I know it’s late,” he began to apologize. She quickly placed a finger on his lips. “It’s never too late.” He smiled, dark eyes sparkling, reflecting the moonlight. Taking her hand, he kissed the finger, then slowly inserted it into his warm, wet mouth to run his tongue across the sensitive skin. Brenda felt her breath catch in her throat as she watched him suckle the digit, pumping it in and out like a lollipop. Or dick. Impulsively, her eyes dropped to his crotch, but his pants blended with the darkness, preventing her from seeing whether or not he was sporting a hard-on, but her instincts told her he was. He pulled her finger from his mouth, kissed the tip again. Then, to her shock, he lowered her hand to his pants where she could grasp the hard, thick roll underneath the layer of leather. Either the man could read her thoughts, or they were of like mind. Regardless, Brenda gave his cock a squeeze, and was rewarded with a hiss of pleasure. “I know we’ve only just met,” he started again. This time she shushed him. “Don’t ruin the moment.” 14

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity She waited for him to close the window. Once his attention was back on her, she scooted toward the headboard and waited for him to make the next move. Brenda turned on the vibrator and slipped the head between her lower lips. The dildo’s head kissed her clit with pulsating strokes, and it was so easy to imagine the stranger in black taking her with his mouth. Licking and sucking on the taut piece of flesh as his head dipped like a cat licking cream. She could almost feel his thick hair between her fingers, cool and slightly damp with dew. Rolling the warm, realistic-looking penis toward her entrance, she inserted it an inch at a time, teasing herself as her imagination envisioned the superhero unbuttoning his pants just enough to allow his erection to spring forth. Still fully clothed, he bent over her, and she pressed the dildo further up inside her. She screwed it inside her, turning it, letting it drill her as she turned it up another notch. Working the vibrator in and out of her weeping channel, she used her free hand to pinch her nipples. The same way the stranger would pinch or lightly teethe the tips as he rocked in and out of her. “Oh, yeah. That’s it. Give it to me, big boy.” He would be rough but gentle. He couldn’t spend all night, but he was determined to make these few minutes count. She sensed his urgency, and her hand moved faster. She could feel herself lifting, growing closer to completion, and in her imagination she could hear his dark voice urging her to come. “Squeeze me, Brenda. Oh, yes. I want to see your orgasm. I want to hear you scream. I want to feel your pussy squeeze every drop from me. Fuck me, Brenda. Fuck me as hard as I’ve been wanting to fuck you.” Her release came unexpectedly, and she continued to ram the dildo in and out, keeping her orgasm bright and hot. She was barely aware of the fact that she was holding her breath until the 15

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity sound of her pulse drummed in her ears. Gasping, Brenda felt her body begin its descent into a languid afterglow. Her muscles melted into the sheets. Her mind clouded over, surrendering to sleep. Switching off the vibrator, she barely had the energy to drop it over the side of the bed. Replete, the masked man sat back on his heels and stuffed himself back into his tight leather pants, zipping—no, rebuttoning the pants. Bending back over her, he gave her a soft kiss on the lips. “That was incredible.” “There’s always more where that came from.” He leaned up to open the window. Her imagination skipped a beat as her weariness washed over her. It had been a very nice dream. Very nice. A dream. It took a few seconds for her brain to register the fact that her cell phone was ringing. Reluctantly, Brenda groaned and crawled out of bed to stumble over to the dresser where she’d left her purse. The number on the phone’s display was unfamiliar, but the area code was Fullerton’s. For a split second she debated whether to let the caller go to voice mail, but her conscience urged her to answer it. “Hello?” “Miss Brenda McKay, please.” “This is her.” “Miss McKay? I’m sorry to call you at this time of night. My name is Dr. Randolph. I’m here at the county hospital in Fullerton. I’m afraid I have some bad news.”


Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity

Chapter 4 Home The day was muggy but breezy when Brenda pulled up into the driveway. As the garage door slowly opened, it reminded her once again that the split-level was hers. It was no longer “her family’s”. It was “hers”. No strings attached, as of four o’clock that afternoon. Pulling into the garage, familiar smells assailed her. The scent of motor oil and grease were predominant, since her father had loved spending many afternoons fine-tuning the antique Oldsmobile’s engine. Now, the Oldsmobile, the cans of oil, and Dad were gone, but never the memories or the residual odors of those memories. She had just walked into the kitchen from the garage when the front doorbell rang. Her first reaction was irritation. Go away. I just got home. I’m heartbroken, and I want to be alone, all right? The doorbell rang again. “Might as well get it, and get it over with,” she told herself. There was no telling if the intruder would continue to ring the bell, and maybe include banging on the front door. Plus there was no way she could go from the kitchen into the hallway leading to the bedrooms without passing in front of the door and not be seen by whoever was out there. 17

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity Resigned, she strode through the living room, into the foyer. A dark shape reflected behind the large oval glass inset in the door, but she had no qualms about opening it. After all, this was Fullerton. Hometown, U.S.A. Norman Rockwell heaven. “Hi, Brenda. Saw you pull in.” She gasped and stared in shock at the man standing on her front porch. The black hair was long and shaggy, and pulled back into a short ponytail at the nape of his thick neck. He wore a faded plaid shirt open like a jacket over a pristine clean white t-shirt, and baggy, tattered jeans, along with a pair of black flip-flops. Still, he was instantly recognizable past the days-old stubble by his shy smile and amazing gray eyes. “Lorne Palmer! Goodness gracious! How are you!” Impulsively, she hugged him, and immediately she became aware that there was a man’s body underneath the almost homelesslooking outer layer. There were hard muscles hidden by the blue plaid flannel. Wide shoulders. The college boy had grown up, just like she had. Quickly, Brenda pushed it to the side and stared at her neighbor. “God, I was hoping you’d come over. It’s been, what? Six years?” She glanced back over her shoulder at the disarray inside the house, then turned an apologetic face toward him. “I would invite you inside, but I just got here, and there’s nothing I can offer—” Lorne produced two soft drinks from where he had been shielding them behind his back. “I figured you might like a more welcoming homecoming than to face an empty house.” He gave a nod toward the porch. “Come on. Let’s have a sit like we used to.” They took their seats on the stoop, and the years fell away. Several minutes passed as they drank their sodas. Brenda marveled at how much things hadn’t changed despite time, and for that she was truly grateful. 18

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity “Thank you for calling me. I mean, it was nice to hear your voice after so long. And nice to have one of my almost brothers break it to me.” She graced him with a small smile. “Thanks.” She didn’t want to cry. She had just gotten off the phone with the hospital when he rang to let her know her father had died, which explained how the doctor had gotten her number. After hanging up, she’d cried herself into total exhaustion and into a state of calm where she thought she could face this return with a more somber spirit. But looking at the warm, sympathetic expression on Lorne’s face, and at his comforting arms, she felt her emotions give way. Burying her face in the curve of his neck, she inhaled his warm, manly scent. It was a natural smell, as Lorne never wore cologne. Not even after he shaved. His embrace was as tender as it always was. She couldn’t remember the last time he’d held her. She knew it had been while they were still in high school together. Good, sweet, understanding Lorne. God, she’d missed him, and never realized until now how much she treasured his company. It was several minutes before she could tear herself away from his hug. “Better?” he whispered. “Yeah. Thanks.” Her drink felt refreshingly cool going down her throat. Funny, she wasn’t a big fan of root beer, but for some reason she was finding herself with a tremendous thirst for it. “Any time. You know that.” He saluted her with his soda. “Hey, if it had been the other way around…” His voice trailed off, but she understood. His father had died a few years after they had moved to town twenty years ago. But back then she and the boys had been kids in grammar and middle school. 19

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity Already best of friends, but unable to cope with the serious consequences of death. “So, did you get to see the lawyer today?” His question broke through her reverie. “Yeah. He’ll probate Daddy’s will next week, but he doesn’t see any problems, considering the house and taxes are paid up, and I’m the only heir. He went ahead and let me have the keys so I could start packing.” She tucked away a lock of hair that had come loose from her bun. “Whatcha plan to do with the place? Sell it?” Brenda sighed. “I had thought about it, but, I dunno.” She glanced back over her shoulder at the only home she had ever known. “I considered renting it out, with me living in the city now, but…” “Well, just to let you know the offer’s on the table, we’d be willing to buy it,” Lorne said, glancing sideways at her. “For real?” He shrugged, and she remembered the feel of hard muscle underneath his shirt. Vaguely she wondered if his chest was smooth of body hair, or if it still had just a sprinkling across those iron pecs. Hey, girl. There’s no need to go there. He’s like a brother, remember? Yeah, always the brother, the same way his own brothers were like family to you, too. “Our place is getting a bit crowded, even though none of us are there most of the time. Working and whatnot. I’ve been thinking about getting an apartment, but I keep putting it off.” He turned those dove gray eyes at her and grinned. “If we took ownership, you’d still be able to come and visit…and stay if you’d like.” 20

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity Brenda stared into those soft depths she’d always adored, her mouth gaping open without realizing it. For some reason, when he had offered for her to “stay”, she could almost believe he wasn’t implying for a few days or a few weeks, but that he meant a lifetime. Which was impossible. “Thanks, Lo. It’s tempting. Hell, it’s very tempting. Let me chew on it a while, okay?” “Sure.” Gentle quiet settled back over them. A wren dropped down onto the ground a few yards away, grabbed a bug, and flew away. The sight of it reminded her of the mysterious gentleman who had saved her two days ago. “Whatcha been up to lately?” the equally soft voice inquired. It was at that moment that Brenda realized that, in all these years, she had never heard Lorne raise his voice or yell for any reason. Lee, on the other hand, had always been the agitated one. The youngest of the Palmer boys, Lee was the enthusiastic, overly optimistic son. And Luke, well, being the oldest brother, he had become a surrogate father after their parents died. And the funny thing was, only two years separated each of them, and Brenda fell right in the middle between Luke and Lorne. “Well, you’ve probably seen me on TV,” she began. “Oh, yeah. Hard not to, Miss I’m-Bringing-Dobbling-toFullerton,” he teased. Brenda giggled. “Hey, this town deserved it. Besides, it had everything the company was seeking. Cheap land, lots of available labor, and—” “And it made the medical profession richer,” he pointed out. At first, she tried to figure out what he knew about the medical patents the company was trying to obtain when she saw 21

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity him wave his soda at her blue-jeaned legs. Then it struck her. He wasn’t talking about the patents. He was talking about the explosion. Brenda reached down and gently placed a hand on her calf where the bandage wrapping was evident below the cuffs of her denim capris. She didn’t know how badly she’d been hurt when trying to escape the poisonous cloud and flying debris, until she and the television news crew arrived at the hospital emergency room, and someone pointed out the trail of blood droplets on the floor. The doctor pulled out a sliver of metal three inches long, and put in eighteen stitches. Fortunately, the cut had been shallow. “Yeah, well, there’s risks with any job.” “We saw your interview at the company before the accident. Are you okay?” “Yeah, I’m fine. Hospital checked me out, took some x-rays, sewed and bandaged up my booboo, gave me oxygen and a passing grade, then told me to go home.” “Bet the explosion was worse than it looked.” “Oh, yeah. Fortunately, I managed to hide inside the Channel Eight news van during the worst of it. For a while there, the news people and I thought we should kiss our asses goodbye.” “Until that guy showed up. Who was he?” Brenda shrugged. “I don’t know. I didn’t get the chance to ask.” The mere mention of the stranger in black leather was enough to put her back in a fog as she recalled the way the mystery man had lit her fuse, if just for a few minutes. “Think he’s going to be our next superhero?” Lorne inquired. “Has to be. You should have seen how he took two solid steel doors and waved them like playing cards to disperse the chemical toxins in the air.” 22

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity She could see him in her mind’s eye, hovering a few feet above the ground as he waved those doors, looking like a dark angel with steel wings. Who is that man? What will he call himself? An elbow nudged her arm. “Well, I’m happy to know you’re all right. It’s been a while since we’ve last talked. How’s it going, living in the big city? Gotta boyfriend?” Lorne gave her another one of those sideways looks, and added a grin to it. Brenda had to admit to herself that the unshaven, unkempt look worked for him. “Nope. You?” “Nope. No boyfriend,” he admitted with a straight face. She burst out laughing and gave him a hard shove in the shoulder. “I meant, do you have a girlfriend?” “No. No time.” Sighing loudly, Brenda nodded. “I can relate.” They continued to imbibe their drinks as the occasional car glided by, passing through a neighborhood filled with middle-class houses circa 1950s and ’60s. The shade from the gum tree next to the house made the porch a good ten degrees cooler than the temperature was out in the sun. Brenda breathed deeply of the fresh air. “I didn’t know how much I missed this place until now. Hey, you never told me what you’re up to these days. What have you been doing since college?” Lorne lifted his knees before propping his arms on them, and dangled his drink can between his legs. “Me? Not a whole lot. I stock goods and bag groceries over at the Supermart, and sometimes I help over at Luigi’s whenever they’re short-handed. Luke is a video game developer for a company out of Nashville. Lee is still employed at the factory.” 23

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity “That’s good to know, but isn’t it crazy how things worked out? Think about it,” Brenda said. “None of us ended up where we thought we wanted to be. I got a degree in music, then became the director of acquisitions at Dobbling Enterprises. You got a degree in criminal justice, but you work part-time at a grocery store and pizza parlor. Luke has a degree in physics, and he writes software. And Lee got his degree in telecommunications, but makes cardboard boxes.” She giggled. “What’s wrong with this picture?” “Mmmm, youthful wishful thinking?” Mr. Tumlinson from across the street came out of his house, checked his mail from the box mounted on side of the house next to the front door, then went back inside. “One of these days, Mr. Tumlinson won’t be around anymore to do that,” Brenda mentioned softly. Suddenly the meaning behind what she’d just said swooped over her like an enormous bird of prey, gripping her in its razor talons and rendering her into little pieces. She dropped her soda and barely covered her face when the tears came again, harder, heavier, and hotter. Strong arms wrapped around her and pulled her against him to cuddle. As her sobbing became less controllable, Lorne dragged her into his lap where she could safely fall apart within his embrace. He said little, allowing her to weep until she was spent. Minutes crawled by, and finally Brenda was able to get herself under control. Looking around for a tissue, she was surprised when Lorne lifted the tail of his plaid shirt. “Be my guest.” “Thanks.” She wiped her eyes before blowing her nose. When she was done, Lorne shrugged out of his shirt and bundled it into her lap. “I can’t believe I did that again.”


Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity “We were stunned to hear about your dad’s death,” his deep voice murmured against her hair. “He was a great man, and a wonderful neighbor. We’ll miss him.” She nodded, unable to answer. “Thank you for letting me and my brothers be pallbearers.” “Th-thank you for accepting.” More tears flowed. Brenda sniffed. “He…he was always a strong man. He was my superhero. Always strong. Always there, even after Mom died.” “Mr. Mac was a good man. My brothers and I always looked up to him.” “Even when he caught us in the swimming pool at two in the morning in our birthday suits?” Lorne laughed. It was a deep, chesty, man’s laugh, not the high-pitched giggle of an adolescence. “Bren, we were in elementary school then!” She managed a laugh, and they hugged once more. She felt like she had come home. For real. People were always bemoaning the fact that people could never go home, at least not emotionally. They were wrong. Either that, or she was very, very lucky. The Palmers had moved in next door when she was six. Immediately the three boys had adopted her as a sister, and she was included on all their escapades. They had persevered through the trials and tribulations of grade school and junior high, boyfriends, girlfriends, break-ups, proms, final exams, and graduation. As they grew up and filled out, and Luke went off to college, they began to hang out less and less. Brenda went to seek her fame and fortune a year ahead of Lorne. Lee, the baby, took a football scholarship to help with the financial burden. Boom, boom, boom, boom. Four years in a row one of the Fullerton Four, as they called themselves, left the nest. The Palmer boys remained in town, returning once they’d gotten their 25

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity degrees. But Brenda was on her way up and up, getting hired at Dobbling Enterprises as a clerk fresh out of college. From there, she worked her way up to assistant director. And now here she was, within the span of a year, suddenly thrust into the position of director and given charge of finding new locations and clearing the way for Dobbling to expand. Naturally, her first instinct had been to help bring prosperity back to Fullerton, and to her delight, the board of directors had okayed her plan to build in her hometown. Funny how circumstances had brought her full circle. That was when she realized how long she’d been gone, and how much she’d missed her hometown. Now with the factory gone, and Michael McKay’s sudden death, the brightness surrounding her homecoming was covered in a black pall. “Hungry?” “When am I not hungry?” she challenged, pulling back to look him in the face. Lorne grinned. “Guess some things never change. Come on. I’ll treat, but you drive.” “Don’t you have a car?” They uncurled themselves from each other and got to their feet. Brenda went inside to get her purse. “Luke has the car tonight,” he said. “One car, three brothers. The math doesn’t add up, Lorne,” she teased, locking and closing the front door behind her. “Hey, I can walk to work in ten minutes, and Lee rides the bus.” He followed her into the garage and waited for her to unlock the passenger door with her remote. “All right, smart guy. Where am I going?” she asked as they both hopped into her car. “Where else?” he smiled. “Pooches!” They laughed in unison. 26

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity

Chapter 5 Pooches Pooches had not lost its feel for nostalgia since the day it opened back in 1954. When Lorne escorted Brenda into the soda and burger shop, memories of yesterday seemed to rise up and greet them. The results made them feel as if, once again, they were naive teenagers filled with hope, ambition, and dreams. Brenda, with her desire to go to the big city and create a stir in the art world. And he with his predetermined destiny. At that time he had been waiting for his powers to show. Luke had already found out he had been blessed with tremendous mental abilities. Very little was beyond his reach—telepathy, clairvoyance, mental projection, telekinesis. By the time he’d graduated high school, Luke was already helping the police, FBI, and Interpol with their cases, but he was doing it very hush-hush. Very much incognito. No one knew him as anything other than Mr. Mental, and no one outside of law enforcement was even aware that he existed. If there came a time when he had to “appear” before a group, he did so as a disembodied face, a floating head like a pale, ghostly mask, with ink-black eyes. As for Lee, the first time he had disappeared into thin air it had shocked all of them, including himself. But when little brother managed to fold himself into a two-dimensional image no bigger than a business card, and slip between the cracks in doors, he had 27

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity gone on to help the government. Hence he took the name Espionage. But Lorne had been a late bloomer, and nearly twenty-one before he got his first inkling of what he was capable of doing. First came the power of flight, followed by his exponentially increasing strength. When he had discovered he could project that strength as a nearly impenetrable shield, Luke had suggested he be the one to take their father’s place and go public. Be the next superhero. Luke sure couldn’t do it, as his body would be too vulnerable if exposed. And Lee’s powers were not suitable for saving others. All Lorne had needed was the right opportunity to present himself while he honed his abilities. The right opportunity and the media. He just never expected Brenda McKay to be there when it happened. He waited for Brenda to plop herself down in a booth before he slid into the seat opposite. She gave a little cry of surprise to see the roto-songs jukebox still sitting at the end of the table, and she happily flipped through the selections. “Criminy! I can’t believe they still have this! Does it still work?” She glanced up to read aloud the price. “One song, one quarter. It was three songs for a quarter in our day.” “Yeah, and gas cost seventy-nine cents a gallon, too,” Lorne reminded her with a smile. He tossed her a menu seconds before a young thing in a pink uniform and white bib apron showed up to take their order. “You still like your cheeseburgers with tomatoes only?” he asked. Brenda stared at him in surprise. “You remember? Yeah.” “Two cheeseburgers, one with tomatoes only, the other all the way but dry. And two shakes, one strawberry and one chocolate.” 28

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity The waitress nodded as she furiously scribbled their order, then left. Lorne eyed the woman across the table and tried to get a firm grip on his heart. When Luke had announced that Michael McKay was at death’s door, Lorne had worried about Brenda. Did she have anyone who would comfort her in her time of emotional need? Was there someone in her life who would accompany her back to her hometown for the funeral? After calling her to give her the sad news, he had gone in search of his older brother to find out. “She’s unattached,” his older brother had informed him later, giving him a hard stare with those steel gray eyes. Lorne didn’t ask him how he knew or if he was sure. Luke was Mr. Mental. With the exception of his two siblings, the man could read anyone’s mind within a few hundred yards, or even further if he had a direct link to them, like through a phone call. Still, he had needed to hear it from her own lips. Even then, there had been something in her body posture, in her tone of voice, which had betrayed her. She may not have a boyfriend with her in the flesh at the moment, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t someone in her life. He waited for her to drop her two bits into the jukebox and press the buttons. B9. Lorne made a mental note to find out which song she’d chosen after the Beatle’s tune was over. “Sooo…tell me about him,” he ventured after the waitress dropped off their silverware in freshly-rolled napkins, and glasses of water. “’Bout who?” 29

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity Brenda’s eyes were clear and questioning as she took a sip of water. There was no subterfuge. She was being open and honest with him. He managed to give her another grin. “Who’s the guy you’re all bothered about?” The remark instantly made her face turn beet-red. Bingo! There is a guy she’s involved with! Good going, Lorne. Now how do you feel? Not worth a crap. He didn’t realize he was scowling until Brenda gave him a funny look. “What’s wrong?” “Huh?” “You look like someone just ate the last cookie you’d been hoarding. Why the sour puss?” She took a mental step back as her eyes widened. “Lo! You think I have a boyfriend?” “Wellll…” “Well, I don’t. But I wish I did. Sort of.” “Sort of?” He chuckled, not knowing if he should be relieved or worried. “You turned four shades of scarlet, Bren. That tells me there is someone in your life. So give! Who is he? Where is he? Why didn’t he come down here with you? Or is he going to join you later?” Damn! Why hadn’t he thought of that before? Maybe the guy was due to join her tomorrow in time for the funeral. “Lorne, I’m talking about that masked guy in black leather who showed up at the explosion and saved all our butts.” He nearly dropped his glass of water. Or would have, except that the glass cracked under the pressure his hand exerted on it. Glass fragments and water went everywhere, dousing the table and soaking their shirts. She gave a little cry of surprise at the miniature geyser flying toward her. 30

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity Lorne saw the bits of glass heading directly for her face and eyes. Instantly his body reverted, taking on his powers like cement solidifying. He gestured with the same hand that had accidentally crushed the glass, and the needle-sharp slivers bounced harmlessly off of the invisible wall he’d erected in front of her face. It was over in seconds. Quickly, he looked down at his sodden t-shirt as he willed himself back to normalcy. It took another couple of seconds for his eyes to resume their usual gray color as he prayed she’d been too surprised to notice. “Lorne!” “Sorry! I-I guess the glass had a crack, and I didn’t notice,” he apologized. A waitress hurried over to help pick up the pieces. “What happened? Are you all right?” “The glass was defective,” Brenda explained, wiping at her blouse. She gave a little giggle. “It’s a good thing it was just water.” “Yeah.” They finished mopping up and cleaning away the rest of the wet mess. Once the waitress left, Lorne leaned back in the booth. “Okay. Now you’re going to have to tell me all of it, Brenda. Didn’t you just meet the guy?” “Well, yeah.” “I mean, he saved you, but have you had a chance to talk to him? Get to know him a little?” “No, not yet.” “Have you seen him since the explosion?” “No.” “Do you know his name? What does he call himself?” “I don’t know,” she confessed, blushing again.


Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity He rubbed his chin, which reminded him he had stubble, but it was a deliberate part of the package that made up Lorne Palmer. “But you already have a soft spot for him, is that it?” The blush came back to her face, though not as strongly as the first time. “I’m no different than a hundred million other females,” she weakly protested. “Has this guy, whatever he calls himself, has he shown up anywhere else since the explosion?” “Not that I’m aware of. Of course, that doesn’t mean he can’t be over in some remote part of Russia, or Australia, or some other part of the world, saving lives and all.” She thanked the waitress, who brought them fresh glasses and wrapped utensils. “What’s his power? Other than the superhuman strength?” “He flies,” she reminded him. “Didn’t you notice that on the broadcast?” “Oh, yeah, that’s right. Anything else?” “Not really, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have other abilities.” Lorne cocked his head at her. “You mean the flying and ultrastrength aren’t enough for you?” He was teasing her, and she knew it. Brenda laughed. “Look, I’m just thrilled I was one of the first people who got to see him. I mean, think about it! A new superhero! I don’t remember much about Infinity. I was too young. All I know about him is what I’ve seen on TV, and in the documentaries and newspaper articles. I never got to meet him in person.” Oh, yes, you did. You just never knew who he was at the time. “So, do you think the world is ready for another superhero?” he asked aloud.


Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity “I think the world is crying out for one,” Brenda said. “I don’t know where this guy has been all this time, or why he chose to make himself known at the factory explosion, but I’m glad he did.” The waitress delivered their hamburgers, momentarily ceasing conversation. Lorne waited until he’d covered his french fries with ketchup before he approached the subject again. “This guy, he must have made quite an impression on you, didn’t he?” He was silently answered with another blush. Her spoken answer took him totally by surprise. “I think he woke up every cell in my body.” It was a good thing the ketchup bottle was made of plastic. Lorne gave her a wide-eyed stare. “He what?” Slowly shaking her head, Brenda also wiped her mouth, giving herself a moment to swallow first. “I said, I think he woke up every cell in my body. It was incredible, Lorne! He landed by the van and opened the door, and the moment I saw him standing there, it was as if someone turned on an enormous generator somewhere. The man was dressed entirely in black. Even his hair was black. And his eyes were the most incredible blue color. It was like he glowed with a white light!” “Maybe it was a reflection of some kind.” “No. Uh-uh. I was tingling all over.” She flexed a hand as she stared at it. “I can still feel it, sort of, and it’s been nearly a week.” “Maybe it had something to do with his power,” Lorne suggested, but immediately dismissed it. He had used his power to prevent the glass fragments from cutting her face, and she had not shown any reaction. Besides, why hadn’t he felt any kind of reciprocal electrical sensation when he had walked over to her? “Maybe.” 33

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity Another minute or two passed in comfortable eating silence. Lorne watched her devour her meal, but it was all mechanical. Her mind was definitely elsewhere, and he didn’t need three guesses to figure out who was occupying her thoughts. In a way, he felt flattered. But on the other hand, he was becoming jealous…of himself? This is nuts. “Hey, Bren.” She paused to look up at him. “What are you going to do the next time you see this guy?” “What do you mean?” “I mean, are you going to tell him how much he turns you on?” “Lorne!” “Well?” He laughed. “Hey, give the guy a break! Maybe he feels the same way.” “Yeah. Right.” Odd how a double positive could result in a negative. “Hey, you know us guys. We need a little incentive.” “We’re not talking about a normal, red-blooded American guy here, Lo. There’s no telling where the man came from. I can’t just walk up to him and say, ‘Hello. You’ve just melted my thong. Can I have your number?’” “Why not?” Lorne challenged, amused by the sudden turn of events. “How do you know he’s American? Maybe he’s from another country. Did he have an accent?” Brenda’s eyes rolled north as she thought back. “Noooo.” “Maybe he’s an alien from outer space. Would he turn you off if he was?” “Lorne.” 34

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity “Maybe he’s not even alive. Maybe he’s a cyborg of some kind. A robot from the future. Or maybe he’s a man from the future.” “Now you’re being silly,” she accused him. “Let’s get serious here.” “Awright, then. So why won’t you consider giving him a little moral boost next time you two cross paths? Start it off by introducing yourself, then asking him what his name is. Hey, you never know what might happen.” He watched closely as she stuck a french fry in her mouth and nibbled on it. She had a look on her face he knew all too well. But before he could remark on it, Brenda said, “I may not see him again. It’s a big world.” It was a remark that sounded nothing like the Brenda McKay he’d grown up with, and he told her so. “Imagine that. Little Bren’s finally met a guy who leaves her speechless. Give me a red pen so I can circle this day on the calendar.” She smiled almost shyly, then burst into giggles and threw her half-eaten french fry at him. He tossed it back at her, and a brief, impromptu food fight ensued. In light of what tomorrow would bring, it felt good to hear her laughing again. He didn’t know how much of his advice she would follow. It would all depend upon the circumstances. Brenda had slim hopes she would get the chance to meet her new superhero again, but that could easily be arranged. What he was really looking forward to was seeing how close she would allow him to get to her as The Defender. Emotionally, physically, and especially romantically close.


Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity

Chapter 6 Funeral “You need to shave, dude.” Lorne gave his brother a surprised look, then turned to stare at himself in the bathroom mirror. Dark suit, neat tie, dress shirt—check. Hair combed and tied back, teeth brushed, nails clipped—check. Glancing up at his brother’s reflection, he shrugged. “No can do, bro. Lorne’s going to have to stay a bit scruffy until this whole Defender thing is settled between me and Brenda.” Luke made a face, which basically told Lorne it was his choice, and left. As if Lorne’s stomach wasn’t already doing flip-flops. Today was going to be hell to get through. It wasn’t enough that this was Mike McKay’s funeral. That alone was going to tear their hearts out of their chests. But it was the first funeral any of the Palmer boys had attended since the death of their mother, and the memories would be unavoidable. Logan Palmer, a.k.a. Infinity, had been the world’s protector for nearly twenty years, as well as husband to Lisa Palmer. Except the world would never know that. Their superhero of yesteryear had “disappeared” one day sixteen years ago, never to return. After waiting months, then years for the man to return, Earth had finally resolved itself to the fact that Infinity would not be returning. But his family had known. They had mourned, even though they knew the husband and father had died protecting their world 36

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity while in the cold depths of space. Lisa, especially, had been inconsolable. Although she was human and had no special powers like her husband, she had aided him by working incognito like Luke and Lee were currently doing. Acting as Infinity’s go-between, secretary, and agent, fielding calls and special requests, and monitoring the computers when he was away. Yet, after Logan’s death, she had never been the same vibrant woman her sons knew she could be. Lorne was positive that when their mother had died four years later, it had been because of a broken heart, although Luke never revealed anything different from the coroner’s remark that it had been a brain aneurysm. He entered the kitchen to find Lee drinking straight from the milk carton. “Busted, dirtbag. You ready to go?” Lee nodded slowly so he wouldn’t spill a drop, but continued gulping. Rolling his eyes, Lorne walked into the garage. Lee followed behind him and beat him to the passenger side. Sighing, Lorne opened the door to the backseat as Luke hurried into the garage and over to the driver’s side. Lorne spotted the tiny, almost invisible, flesh-colored hearing aid in his brother’s right ear. In truth, the aid was a transmitter connecting him to the computers in the basement. If any sort of emergency came about, requiring the help of Mr. Mental, Espionage, or The Defender, he would be able to notify Lee and Lorne immediately. He closed the car door. “I think I’ll walk next door and get Brenda.” “Okay. I’ll pull up in the driveway,” Luke told him, hitting the garage door opener. Ducking under the rising door, Lorne hurried over to her place, leaping onto the front porch to ring the doorbell. It reminded him of the countless times he had rung that bell, then 37

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity asked Mr. or Mrs. McKay if Brenda could come out and play. He glanced down at his dark, navy blue suit. We’ve come a long way since those days. The door opened with little wait. Brenda stepped out, and Lorne couldn’t help but admire the simple black dress and shoes she was wearing. Her chestnut hair was pulled back into a soft bun at the nape of her neck, and other than her gold watch, she wore no jewelry. Not even earrings. He also noticed she had very little makeup on. Still, she was incredibly beautiful. Lorne knew she had gotten where she was because of her skills and talent. But her buoyant looks definitely helped, as well. Charisma and brains made a deadly but lovely combination. Silently, she took his offered hand, and they descended the same porch steps they had sat on the previous day. He helped her into the backseat of their sedan, where Luke and Lee greeted her with kisses to the cheek. Michael McKay’s services were held at Bistrough Funeral Home, the same funeral home which had held Logan Palmer’s closed casket funeral, and later on, Lisa Palmer’s. Walking through the front double doors gave him the same feeling of bleakness as it had all those years ago. Glancing over at Luke, he could see the place was affecting his brother the same way. Lee had already gone inside the chapel. “Stay with me?” Brenda’s cold hand clutched his again. He gave her a squeeze for reassurance before leading her into the chapel, down the aisle, and over to the front pew where the immediate family would sit. There were at least two hundred people already present, and more were filing in. Painful memories came back to him, even though several years had already passed. Lorne could clearly remember the day his 38

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity mother, eyes swollen from weeping, called her family together to break the terrible news. “Boys, your daddy is dead.” Luke, the quiet one, with his stormy, dark gray eyes, simply stared at her. It was Lee who pitched the first fit of denial. Lorne closed his eyes and bottled up the rising despair. Their mother continued. “He was helping bring that disabled shuttle in, when they were hit by a small meteorite storm. It was a freak accident. He…your father died instantly. He didn’t suffer.” “Where’s Dad now?” Luke asked, finally breaking his silence. “They brought his body into the cargo bay, and brought it back with them.” “They?” “The astronauts, darling.” She reached out to run her fingers through Luke’s mass of black hair. She did the same to each of them, trying to comb out some of the wildness in their manes. All of the Palmer males had pitch-black hair. And all the males had one shade or another of gray eyes. Only their mother, with her light brown hair and green eyes, stood out. Lorne glanced up to see more tears rolling down his mother’s cheeks. It was impossible to think that his father was never coming back. His dad was Infinity! His dad was a hero, and impervious to practically everything! “The space center is having your father’s body sent over to the funeral home. We’ll be able to go over there tomorrow to see it. I’ve been…” Her voice cracked, and she had to give herself several moments before she could resume. “I’ve made arrangements to have Logan buried on Saturday.” Lee squalled, too young to take on the trappings of seriousness needed at this time. Lorne glanced over at his older brother, who was staring back at him. They would need to be the pillars of strength for their mother to lean on these next few days. 39

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity “One other thing,” Lisa Palmer said after she’d paused to wipe her eyes and blow her nose with a tissue. “You know how we have to keep everything we do a secret, right? You remember your father and I talking to you about having a secret identity, right? If anyone asks you about Logan, tell them he died while away at work. You don’t need to go into any details. You don’t need to lie. I don’t think anyone will ask you that question now, but later on, when you get older, they might. Just tell them he died while he was at work. That’s all you need to say, okay? Have you got that? Luke?” “Yes, Mom.” “Lorne?” “Yes, Momma.” “Lee?” She pulled the baby into her lap and let him wail in her arms. She bowed her head and wept with him. Seeing that it was finally safe to leave, Lorne and Luke left the kitchen where she had gathered them. Luke went down into the basement where he always went to escape, and Lorne went out into the backyard. That’s where Brenda found him, hunched over in the treehouse, too overwhelmed by grief to know when she’d climbed up to join him. Lorne turned to look at the woman seated next to him. She was trying hard not to break down in front of the others. Casting his eyes over to where Luke sat on the other side of her, he saw his brother slowly shake his head. They were still holding hands. Giving hers a squeeze, he let it go and pulled her next to him until they were hip-to-hip, thigh-tothigh. Brenda rested her head in the crook of his neck, and cried. He draped his arm around her shoulders and held her against him as the pastor continued with his eulogy. At one point he vaguely sensed Lee leaving. He assumed it was a restroom call until Luke’s ethereal voice buzzed in his head. Small emergency. Local police need Espionage’s testimony on a case. He should be back before we head for the cemetery. 40

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity Lorne gave him a thumbs-up behind Brenda’s back. Her tears were lessening, just as the service was winding down. As people filed past the casket for one final farewell, many came over to offer their condolences. No one questioned why the Palmers were there. Most everyone knew the foursome had been inseparable growing up. He needn’t have worried about Brenda, or anyone, noticing Lee’s absence. Lorne helped her into the limo reserved for the family while Luke followed with their vehicle. The drive to the cemetery took less than twenty minutes, even with the slow motorcade and police escort. The graveside service took thirty minutes. Lee was back with them before the pastor gave his final prayer and dismissed them. They were walking back to the car when Brenda paused. “Hey. You guys have any plans?” “Plans?” Lorne echoed. “Yeah. I mean, are you hungry? What time is it, anyway? People have been stopping by the house with casseroles and stuff all day yesterday and this morning. I’ve got enough food to feed an army.” She blew her nose again, then balled the tissue up in her hand. “Come on, guys. It’s just us now, and you’re all the f-family I have left.” The last few words nearly broke her, but she managed to pull herself together. “I can’t stand the idea of being alone right now, okay? I mean, even if you’re not hungry, let’s go back to my house, okay? If just for a can of soda?” None of them were hungry, but the invitation made perfect sense. It was quiet on the drive back. Lorne couldn’t help but notice that Brenda kept herself pressed tightly against him the entire way. As much as he loved the feel of her—the warmth of her body, and 41

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity the weight of her head on his shoulder—he wished circumstances were different. But it was a start.


Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity

Chapter 7 Revelation Hey, Lorne. Luke didn’t break into his thoughts very often. Just when there was something that needed his immediate attention. He concentrated and sent back a reply. What? Come down here, would you? Getting up from his bed where he had been trying to nap, Lorne sidled into the kitchen, walked into the pantry, then hit the secret switch which opened the narrow door. The stairs were automatically lit on his way down. Luke was sitting in front of a bank of viewscreens, his back to the stairs. It wouldn’t matter if he turned around or not. Mr. Mental knew where everyone was at all times. “What’s up?” The man crooked a finger at him, gesturing for Lorne to join him. “I got a call from the Fullerton Police Department. They need The Defender to reappear and help them investigate that explosion at the chemical plant.” “All right. Any idea why?” “They believe it wasn’t an accident, but they’re requesting your help to find proof. Or rather, they asked Mr. Mental if I knew of you. I told them of course I did, and I would be happy to pass along their message.” 43

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity Lorne noticed that one monitor in particular held Luke’s interest. Stepping closer, he watched the scene unfold. “Is that video of the fire?” “What little there is, thanks to the media.” “So, what are we looking for?” “A pattern. A suspect. Visual evidence.” Luke swiveled around in his chair and looked up at his younger sibling. “I can’t prove this yet, but I’m quite certain the explosion was premeditated.” Lorne blinked. “Okay. Sabotage is not impossible.” “Because Brenda was there.” Surprised, Lorne stared at the dead serious look on Luke’s face. “Got any more bombshells you want to drop?” “And she was sent here to draw us out.” Lorne backed up until his butt hit the table behind him. Stunned, he sat down on it as he tried to grasp what Luke was telling him. A twinge marking the beginnings of a headache stabbed him between the eyes, and he pressed a thumb to the spot, closing his eyes as he gathered his wits back around him. “W-w-wait. Are you telling me someone already knew about The Defender before he made himself known to the public?” “No. I’m implying someone suspects Fullerton may harbor a superhero, and they’re determined to see if their theory floats.” “But…how? I mean, I did all my training in the remotest parts of the world. You yourself, you’ve never appeared in person, or even shown your real face when you project. And Lee wears a uniform and mask like I do, but he can also slip in and out like the proverbial fog on cat’s feet.” At the mention of their younger brother, a shadow crawled across the wall beside them. At first indistinct, it quickly coalesced into the shape of a man. A second later, Lee stepped into the room as easily as if he had walked through a door. The fact that he was 44

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity wearing his costume and mask proved he had been out on a call. “All right. I’m here like you asked, bro. Are my ears burning for a reason?” “Yeah. We may have a problem,” Lorne told him. Like The Defender, Lee wore all black when he became Espionage, except that his costume of choice was a simple longsleeved, black dress shirt, black gloves, and black pants with black dress shoes. A length of black material tied behind his head shielded the upper half of his face. No flashy fashion, as he liked to refer to it. His super persona was not meant to be public, hence the simplicity. Lee slid the mask up to his hairline as he waited for more detail. “It appears that we may not have been as careful as we thought we were,” Luke continued. “At some point, we must have given ourselves away.” “How?” Lorne challenged him. “We never leave the house publicly unless we’re Palmers. You never reveal yourself, and we know how elusive Lee can be. And I always have my shields up when I leave as Defender. So tell me, how could we have given ourselves away?” Luke shrugged. “I don’t know, but I’m trying to find out. In the meantime, it appears that one thing is very evident. Whoever is trying to out us is using Brenda as bait because they know she’s close to us.” He squinted at Lorne. “Every time you go out on a mission now, you’re going to have to be super cautious.” “What makes you think we might have inadvertently revealed ourselves?” Lee asked. “Where does Brenda fit in?” Turning back to the monitors, Luke punched a few buttons on the console in front of him. “It may not be all of us who are under 45

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity suspicion. I think whoever is behind this believes that one of us is a superhero, and they’re wanting to prove it by setting up a few traps.” “And using Brenda to lure us in,” Lorne repeated. Lee sniggered. “So this guy, whoever he is, thinks one of us has superpowers?” Luke smiled. “Yeah, well, it is rather funny, in a way. It’s to our advantage, though. Because all of us are empowered, we’re able to watch each other’s backs. Since I don’t leave here when I work, I can oversee the both of you.” “What if they’re suspecting Espionage?” Lorne suggested. “What if they’re wanting to see which one of us is him?” He looked to Lee. “Have you used your powers in front of witnesses?” “In front of law enforcement, yeah,” the youngest brother admitted. “But never in front of witnesses or the public. The only people who’ve seen me in action are in the highest echelons. I don’t bring in people, Lo, just evidence. You know that. Disks, papers, photos, that sort of thing. Or I get access to computers and drop the security screens, or email out stuff.” He gave a snort. “It’s amazing how often people don’t check their ‘sent’ mail to see what’s gone out until it’s too late.” Luke broke in. “What I’m getting are some serious mental vibes that I’m having difficulty sorting out. What little I’ve been able to discern is this. These people, whoever they are, suspect one of us has superpowers. Now, whether or not they know about our dad has not come into focus. Irregardless, they know of Brenda’s connection to us. Which is why they rigged the explosion at the factory.” He pointed a finger a Lorne. “The fact that The Defender is now open knowledge is a plus in our column. You won’t have to hide him any more, but you’re still vulnerable. And since you’re 46

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity the one who’s now public knowledge, you’re going to be watched closer than rash on a baby’s bottom. You’re our weakest link right now, Lorne. From this moment, every move you make, every word you say, will be filtered and sifted through, and examined for any clue as to who you are and where you’re from.” Sighing, Luke added, “The world has changed mightily since the days Dad defended this corner of the galaxy.” Lorne gave a nod at the monitor. “You said the police were wanting to question The Defender about the explosion?” “Don’t be surprised if you find other people there with them.” “Want me to shadow, hang in the back to see if anyone acts suspicious?” Lee suggested. Luke nodded. “It wouldn’t hurt.” “What about Brenda? She could be in danger if they’re using her to get me to reveal myself,” Lorne said. “I’ll keep a mental fence around the house, just to be on the safe side,” Luke assured him. He sighed loudly and rubbed his temples. “It would be nice if she’d sell us her house so we can expand underneath her foundation,” he added. Lorne crossed his arms over his chest. “I suggested it. She said she’d think on it. I honestly think she’ll sell.” “For sure?” asked Lee. “Yeah. She doesn’t want to give up the only home she’s ever known, but she doesn’t want to rent it out, either, since she lives in Ocean City, and can’t keep an eye on the property from that far away. On the other hand, I told her that if she sold to us, the place would still be open to her any time she wanted to come back to visit, and she knows it’s the truth.” “Or, she could decide to rent to us,” Lee added. “Well, many moons ago I swore I would not delve into her mind, and I’m not going back on my word. I can tell how she’s 47

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity feeling, but I won’t know her final decision until she either tells us, or I get a foreshadowing.” Luke yawned and shook off his weariness. “Better get over to the police station, Lorne. The sooner we get this mystery solved about the factory explosion, the sooner we can find out who’s trying to find out our secret.” He gave Lorne a worried look. “Be careful.” “I’ll do my best,” Lorne promised. Turning to Lee, who was dragging his mask back on, he smiled. “If you’re coming along with me, wanna ride in my pocket?” “Ha ha. Not funny,” Lee groused at the old joke. A second later, he’d folded himself and vanished upstairs. Lorne was right behind him.


Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity

Chapter 8 Investigation If it had been for any other reason, Brenda would have told Wilson Wagner to take a long leap off a short pier when he’d called. The man knew she was on funeral leave, and, damn it, she had the right to take as long as she needed before reporting back to work. Everyone back at the business knew she wasn’t the type of person who abused sick leave. Hell, she rarely took any because her drive to better herself and advance up the corporate ladder always superceded any sniffles or aches she was fighting at the time. Like last January when she had to act as escort to those five Japanese VIPs while stoking a high fever. Still, she had to give the man credit. He had profusely apologized for calling her, and Brenda had bit her tongue and let the guy finish. After all, he was a company bigwig, while she was still a subordinate. If it hadn’t been for him, she wouldn’t have been given the promotion and the chance to see Dobbling come to Fullerton. Both instances had come together so perfectly, she couldn’t have planned it any better. “The explosion,” her boss said, cutting right to the chase. “Who was the guy who came to put it out?” At the mention of the man in black, she could feel every nerve in her body spike with attention. “I don’t know. We didn’t introduce ourselves.” “We’ve been informed he’s heading over to the police station.” “Where?” 49

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity “Right there in Fullerton. Source says he’s going to help the police investigate the cause of that explosion. Now’s our chance to get some great PR with this guy, Brenda. And I was thinking, since you were the one who pushed so hard to get the factory built in your hometown, and since you’re already there…” The man’s voice trailed off. She could hear a slight pleading tone mixed with the almost order. He wasn’t begging. Not yet. But he gave her no leeway to decline. “Wil.” She sighed heavily. “I’m not an investigator. Other than working for the company, what would be the purpose of me being there? Want me to hold his hand while he looks around?” She was trying to be facetious, but the truth was a pack of wild dogs wouldn’t be able to keep her away. Not if it meant speaking to him again. Maybe getting to know his name. Or more. “You’re our official representative, McKay. We’re needing you to stay there until this mess is cleared up.” For some reason, those were the exact words she was wanting to hear. By being ordered to stay in Fullerton until it could be determined who, or what, was responsible for the explosion, Brenda felt the knot in her chest slowly loosen. She needed this downtime. “Someone’s head is going to roll,” Wagner continued without waiting for her to comment. “People died in that accident, and Dobbling is hoping it’s not our fault. That’s what we’re needing to find out, and the sooner the better. That’s why we need you to be there while this new superhero checks out the place.” “And what if it is our fault?” she asked. “What if Dobbling, or one of its employees, is the cause?” “We’ll deal with that issue if and when it becomes an issue. In the meantime, keep me posted, all right? I don’t care if it’s three o’clock in the morning.”


Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity She checked her watch. “It might not be a good idea to try to catch him at the police station. I’m heading straight for the factory and wait for him there.” “Great!” Wagner chuckled. “Make us proud.” Make him proud? “Condescending bastard,” she murmured as she closed her cell phone and stuffed it back in her purse. Hell, the superhero in the black leather pants stopped being a strange new phenomena the moment his male magnetism gave her female hormones a shot of adrenalin. She hurried to pull on something that would look halfway decent. She could see the factory was still marked off with police tape when she pulled into the parking lot. Most of the debris from the blast had been picked up, but some of those little orange flags still marked areas of interest. Parked not too far away, she also spotted the Channel Eight van, already set up and filming, as well as Mike Green from the Fullerton Free Herald. This is going to be a bitch. Not only was she going to have to watch out for the costumed superhero, but she would have to contend with the news media as well. Well, she should have known better than to think the newshounds wouldn’t be out for blood for this story. She could see the headlines now: Major Corporation Opens Its Doors to Death and Destruction. Fortunately, there were no other news crews around, which was surprising. It probably meant they were here just to get evidence of the blast for their files. They may not have a clue that the superhero was due to arrive. Silently, Brenda gave kudos to her boss for having first-rate insiders. Let’s hope whoever gave him the info is reliable. Getting out of her car, she hurried around to the side where she would be least noticed. Yes, she was planning on crossing the police barricade, but she wasn’t stupid enough to enter that toxic 51

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity dump that used to be a chemical factory. She just wanted to find a spot where she could attract the superhero’s attention when he arrived, and hopefully ask him some questions. She took a deep breath before she exited the vehicle. The moment the door was open, Brenda realized she needn’t have bothered. The area was cleared of all smoke and fumes. So far she hadn’t seen any sign of the black-clad man. Maybe he was inside. A few feet away, Brenda noticed where most of the wall was missing. Maybe if she went over there, she might be able to see inside— A sudden strong breeze gusting behind her made her turn around, and she spotted him up on top of the factory, balancing on a remaining bit of roof while still waving the huge steel doors. She frowned, wondering why he would still be fanning the interior, when his intent suddenly became clear. Oxygen fed the fires still burning inside, but the doors would act like giant gusts of wind, extinguishing the flames like a kid blowing out the candle on his birthday cake. But what about the coals? Wouldn’t fanning them cause more fires? She took a few steps toward the building to watch the blackclad stranger in action while his attention was directed elsewhere. He was all muscle. He also had a cute tush, and even though she couldn’t see the definition of muscles in his back because of the jacket, she knew they had to be as steel-strong as the doors he was holding. More intriguing was the fact that this man had shown up right after the explosion when he did. Coincidence? The slam of car doors told her more people were arriving to look over the mess. Some of them might be more news crews. If it was, her chances of being able to talk to the stranger would 52

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity drastically decrease. If she was going to get to know the man’s name, it had to be now or never. The stranger dropped the doors to the ground and turned to either take off or leave. Brenda yelled up at him and frantically waved both arms over her head. “Sir! Please, sir! Down here!” The stranger glanced down at her, but he appeared to hesitate. Brenda moved closer, and her action seemed to change his mind. “Stop right there!” he ordered, holding out a hand in warning. She stopped, never taking her eyes away from him. She watched as he took a deep breath, then stepped off the roof onto thin air. Wide-eyed, Brenda noticed how the stranger slowly floated down to the ground approximately twenty feet away. No wings, no cape, no showmanship. Just all business. Once his feet touched down, he came toward her. Like before, she felt she was being approached by a strong magnetic field. Her entire body pulsed the closer he got, drawn like a tiny planet to a sun. The nearer he got, the more he appeared to glow. Not dark, not black like his garments, but brighter and denser than anything she had ever encountered. He literally dazzled. Good heavens, I need shades! The man stopped about a yard away from her. Near enough to where she could barely touch him with her fingertips if she reached out. He looked a good foot taller than her, making her guess he was around six foot six. His black hair was thick and nearly shoulder-length. But his eyes…his eyes were as black as his suit, as his mask and his hair. But weren’t his eyes blue? “Are you okay?” he asked her. 53

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity His voice rattled her bones. There was genuine concern in his tone, just like there was honest caring in those ebony eyes. “I’m f-fine,” she finally breathed. “Look, I’m Brenda McKay. I work for Dobbling Enterprises. Would you mind answering a couple of questions, please?” One corner of the man’s mouth lifted. “I know who you are, Miss McKay. It’s not safe here. Please go back to your vehicle, or at least remain on the other side of the police tape. I need to find those victims who weren’t able to escape.” He glanced quickly over his shoulder, adding, “The coroner’s office is sending several ambulances to retrieve them.” Ah. That explained the sound of multiple car doors slamming. “Ju-just tell me who you are,” she hurried to ask. “What do you want me, I mean us, to call you?” “The Defender,” the stranger replied. A moment later, he was gone, boosting up and over her head, toward the parking lot where the police and ambulances were waiting. Brenda watched in awe as the stranger—The Defender—spoke with several uniformed men before turning to head back to the factory to begin looking for victims. What had started out as an order to discover the cause of the factory explosion had become a lot, lot more. Brenda could only thank her lucky stars she had been here when it had all come down. There was a new superhero in town, and his name was The Defender. He was here today to help retrieve the bodies. That explained why the police had called him in. Still, she knew she had to remain close by in the event something showed up that might help explain the cause of the accident. Brenda knew she had neither the training nor the experience to try and figure out the cause by herself. 54

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity Neither did she have the protective HAZMAT suit to enable her to walk amid the chemical-laced area where the initial explosion had taken place. But she did have the credentials, and she had the backing of the company. One phone call from Wil would give her that access. Or at the least it would enable her to tag along during the investigation. The thought of being able to remain within The Defender’s vicinity was enough to get her female hormones percolating again. Pulling her cell out of her pants pocket, she quickly called her boss. “Wagner.” “Wil? Brenda.” “Whatta ya got?” he immediately asked. No hello. No how are you doing. Straight and to the point. It was one of the reasons why she got along so well with the man. “He’s called The Defender.” She heard her boss softly repeat the name. “Has he found anything yet?” “Right now he’s looking for the bodies of the victims,” she informed him. “I’m guessing he won’t begin any intensive search for the cause until tomorrow, at the earliest.” She was answered with silence. Brenda could imagine the man nodding into his receiver. It was a bad habit he had when he was on the phone. “I need you to clear the way for me,” she continued. “Clear the way how?” “I need you to have the authorities grant me access during the search.” “You already have clearance,” the man said. 55

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity “Which means squat at the moment,” she argued. “This place is laced with God knows what kinds of chemicals and toxins. When they go in, they’re going to have to wear HAZMAT suits. Right now I’m no better than the average civilian. I need you to get them to let me accompany them while they investigate. I promise to stay clear and not touch anything.” Again, silence. “All right. I agree with you,” Wagner said. “I’ll get with the police department right after I hang up with you.” “Thanks, Wil.” “Anything else you need?” Other than a few hours alone with The Defender? “No. Not at the moment, but I’ll let you know if something pops up,” she promised. Saying goodbye, she shoved the cell back into her pocket, looking up in time to see a dark shadow moving inside another area where the wall was partially missing. She started to step over a shattered file cabinet for a better look, and nearly walked into a black-clad wall of muscle that suddenly appeared in front of her as if by magic. “You shouldn’t have gone past the tape, Miss McKay.” It took her four full seconds to recover. It took her another couple of seconds to realize The Defender had grabbed her elbow, turned her around, and was helping her back to toward the parking lot. “Is it true the police called you back in to help them try to find the cause of the explosion?” Thank God for instincts. Otherwise, her body was too wound up from the feel of his iron fingers clutching her arm. Or the sizzling streams of fire racing through her bloodstream. “Please, Defender. A moment of your time.” “I need that moment to do my job, Miss McKay.” 56

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity Funny, but he didn’t sound as peeved as his words implied. But this chance was going to be over before it had begun if she didn’t do something quick. “How did the police get in touch with you? Are you on someone’s Rolodex? Do you have a phone number where I could call you and set up an interview? I have a few questions I need to ask.” The man lifted the yellow tape and shoved her under it until she was on the other side before he released her. There was no doubt in her mind when he pivoted on his heel that he was going to vanish again, and she would never get the opportunity to see him again. “Please, Defender! Stop! I need you!” The words gushed from her before she realized what she’d said. Her mind was drawing a blank; her hands were cold and numb. The only thing she could think of was having him take her back. Or, for that matter, anywhere. I need you! Ohhhh, shit. Did she really say that? Did she really sound that desperate? With her mouth hanging open, she could feel her face turning a nice first-degree-burn red. To top it off, there was a definite glint of humor in Defender’s onyx eyes as he stared at her. “I-I-I meant…I meant I need you to, uhh, to let me ask you some questions. About the explosion. About the cause of the explosion. As a representative of Dobbling. Please?” Defender smiled at her. “I will release a statement to the police once I’ve finished investigating the cause of this explosion, Miss McKay, but I will be honest with you. I’m very tempted to grant your request.” He started to walk back the way they’d come, when he paused and looked back at her once more. God help her, her body 57

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity ached to see him standing there with his firmly-toned thighs and abs. “Miss McKay, may I ask you a question?” “Uh-huh. Yes. Anything!” She was slowly becoming a mindless groupie for this man, and she didn’t give a shit who knew. She’d sell her soul for a half-hour alone in his company. “What would you say if I told you I needed you?” She drew a complete and total mind blank as he lifted off the ground and flew back to the factory.


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Chapter 9 Thoughts If it had been any other circumstance, if it had been nighttime, and just he and her alone, Lorne knew he would have made a move on her. He also knew without any doubt that Brenda would have accepted his advances. Hell, she may even have initiated the whole thing on her own. His dick was bulging in his pants, he was so hard. At least he could be thankful his leather pants were tight enough to somewhat hide it. Still, it made walking somewhat awkward, which was why he had to lift himself over the debris field and over to the main part of the factory where the epicenter of the explosion was located. Unfortunately, part of his brain refused to let go of Brenda, standing behind that police tape with that wide-eyed plea on her face. “I need you!” Lorne grunted. He’d almost lost it, and that would have been disastrous if he’d let his grip on his powers slip. Of course, he would have continued to wear his Defender uniform, but the rest of him would have changed, such as his facial features and eye color. Brenda would have noticed the difference immediately. Hell, she might have recognized him, too, with those sharp eyes of hers. Behind him, he could detect the crime scene investigators coming in to help. Lee had been sidetracked to another mission 59

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity when they had arrived at the police station. Although Lorne knew he’d miss having Lee watch his back, Luke was still around to assist where he could. That was another thing they had to be cautious about, letting others know they were related. Lee had arrived at the police station ahead of Lorne. The captain had introduced them, and the two brothers had shaken hands like strangers. It wasn’t until after Lee had left that Luke had told him where their little brother was going. Lorne wasted no time. He let the police commissioner know he would be happy to help with the search for the cause of the explosion once all the victims’ remains were removed. But he had also made it clear that if he gave an order, everyone had to obey it. “Question me later,” he’d firmly told them. “But if I say ‘move’, everyone better haul ass for the nearest exit.” Okay, Lorne. Now’s your chance to put your powers to the test. And to see if your big brother was right about cotransference, Luke’s voice buzzed in his head. It was a theory Luke had proposed not too long ago. Lee’s powers were more of the mobility type, the way he could change the form of his body from three dimensional to two, which gave him almost limitless access to anywhere. So far, no kind of sensors or security alarms were beyond his capabilities. Hence, he was indispensable to all government agencies worldwide. Despite his powers, Luke could keep in touch with him, no matter where he was. On the other hand, Lorne seemed to have a different kind of connection with his older sibling. Yes, they were able to keep in mental contact. And at times Luke could open up a three-way between the brothers. But Lorne had found he could almost transfer psychic-type vibes to Luke, who would “read” them. 60

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity They intended to put their theory to the test, using the factory as their proving ground. Boy, I can feel how hyped up you are, Luke commented. Lorne couldn’t stop the smile from reaching his lips. Thank heavens the man could not read his mind, or else Luke would have known why Lorne was pumped. The eldest could read anybody if he had some sort of direct contact with them—through the phone was the most common source. Yet he couldn’t read his brothers. They assumed it was because they all held the Palmer gene, which designated what powers they would have once they reached a certain age. Knowing his secret was safe from Luke, Lorne felt free to let part of himself continue thinking about Brenda. There were three bodies left to recover, which Lorne quickly handed over to the coroner’s office. If there was anything to be thankful for, it was the fact that the factory had yet to hire its full, expected compliment of workers. Same for the lab area, where the brunt of the accident took place. That, plus it had been a Saturday. Dobbling had deliberately picked a weekend for its ceremony, so that after the ribbon cutting the media could be taken on a tour inside without getting in the way or interrupting any of the work going on. Lorne entered the back labs, which no longer resembled any kind of research facility. What was left of the area was filled with blackened and charred refuse. The walls still stood, but the ceiling was totally gone. Carefully, he stepped over, through, and around the debris, keeping his eyes and himself open for anything that looked out of place, or which beckoned further examination. Yo, bro. What am I looking for again?


Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity We know we can rule out accident, Luke stated. But until we can prove it, the cops can’t just take our word for it. So we either need to find evidence of that, or evidence of foul play. Like an explosive device? Or the remains of one? If you’re thinking bomb, Lo, that may not be the case. It could be something as simple as programming a computer to perform a certain function at a certain time. I’m walking blind here, Luke. I’m right here with you, Lo. Just turn on your protective senses, and let me see if I can detect anything. He held out his hands, seeing if he sensed anything. The whole place felt empty, like the aftermath of a major storm. The energy which had been released was totally spent. This place was calm. Lorne’s eyes went to his right hand. He had grabbed Brenda’s arm with his right. He had held her hand at the funeral with his right. Both times he had fought the urge to pull her into his arms and keep her there, letting her snuggle against him. Pushing his powers of protection a notch higher, he continued to sweep the rooms, methodically moving through them like a human vacuum cleaner, making certain he scoped out every square inch, including what remained of the walls and random portions of the ceiling. The further he moved away from the labs and into the main factory, the more destruction he saw evident. Here, very little remained that was bigger than a breadbox. Again, the room felt cold to him. As void as space. Luke, I’m getting a distinct vibe that the explosion may not have been centralized in the labs like we first thought. Ditto. Two of the victims I recovered came from this area. Already there, bro. Running background checks on them now. 62

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity The factory had been staffed by a skeleton crew. Fifteen people, max. The men he had recovered were identified by their colleagues, which meant they were supposed to have been there. So unless one of them was working as a mole, investigating that possibility would be fruitless. A glance to his left revealed a smaller room. It either had to be an office or a storeroom of some kind. Maybe a janitor’s closet. Luke, I have an alcove to my left. Leave it? Or catch it on the way back? Might as well clear it while you’re there. A vision of the floor plans remained in his mind’s eye, courtesy of his big brother. Nothing like a perfect memory to go with the guy’s other mental skills. Lorne could see the extra room on the blueprint, but there was no title or explanation for it. He started to walk through the narrow opening, when his hands started vibrating, as if he was holding onto an engine revving at top speed. At the same instant, Luke’s voice rang in his head. You breached something, Lorne! Get the fuck outta there, now! “Everyone out, now!” Lorne yelled, making sure his voice could be heard by those still inside as he threw on his protective shield and shot straight up through the remains of the ceiling and roof. A microsecond later, an ear-splitting blast sent shockwaves throughout the factory. He was ready for it, throwing an umbrella shield over the entire area, effectively encapsulating it. The smaller percussion roiled like a pot boiling over, filling the dome shape with smoke and steam. It was smaller explosion, and although it was not as bad as the first one, it was still capable of causing a lot of damage. He didn’t want to take any chances. Lorne glanced up to see the police and detectives who had gone inside had made it out safely. Plus, another news truck had joined the others. His actions were being filmed. The Defender in 63

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity action. No doubt it would be replayed countless times, ad nauseam, in the days to come. He glanced over at the parking lot where he knew Brenda had left her car. The vehicle was still there, but she wasn’t. Panic set in. Oh, shit, Brenda! Don’t tell me you went inside the building! A movement behind the trunk of a shattered tree several yards away caught his eye. Lorne let out the breath he’d been holding and willed his galloping heart to slow down. She had ducked behind the tree for safety, out of the line of fire. Once the smoke began to dissipate, Lorne lowered his defensive shield until it snuffed out the remaining fire. Explosions could be contained, but they couldn’t be avoided. The laws of physics were indisputable. As long as he let the force expend itself first, the rest would be a cake walk. Nice going, Luke praised. Honest praise. Lorne wondered if he had surprised the guy. I needed to get above the explosion and make sure I had it all within my reach. Either way, nice going. Can you go back in? Yeah. Let me cover myself. He rewrapped himself within his own powers, like a natural HAZMAT suit, and descended back into the building. The eerie feeling he’d gotten a second before the blast was gone, but he remained on the lookout. If another such event happened, he would be protected, but that wouldn’t mean everyone else would be. He had to be alert to another possible dangerous reaction. That second blast could have taken out any clues there were regarding the first, he informed his brother. Still, keep looking. You never know, Luke answered. His decision to use his abilities to defend others, rather than to use them as a covert weapon, was what had helped him decide to 64

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity go public. That, and the urging of his two brothers, who said their father would have wanted one of his sons to take over his legacy, the same way Logan had taken over for their grandfather. And their grandfather from their great-grandfather. And so on. The world needed a defender of good, they’d argued. A Defender of Good. The choice of his pseudonym was a given. Brenda’s worried. I don’t doubt it. You know, you really should give her an interview. Lorne chuckled as he hovered above the smoking ruins. And then what, Luke? She’s very interested in you. Tell me something I don’t know. She’s interested in The Defender, not Lorne Palmer. But she loves you as Lorne. Just like she loves you and Lee. We’re family. I agree, but you’re not getting the vibes I’m getting. The Defender is pushing her buttons. You should have felt the spike I got when that little whatever-it-was went off. Lorne knew he had a silly grin on his face at that moment, but he didn’t care. Let’s leave Brenda out of this so I can concentrate on the factory. I’m not getting anything now. Forget that little room. Go back to the main site of the original explosion. Mentally nodding, Lorne eased back into the main area. The place smelled of scorched wood and metal. Taking a deeper breath, Lorne tried to decipher anything that seemed suspicious. What he hit upon was entirely new to him, and therefore possibly dangerous. 65

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity Luke? Way ahead of you, bro. Let me check my records first to be sure. To be sure? That was the first time Lorne had heard his brother comment about needing to do a bit of research. What? The great Mr. Mental doesn’t know everything? Screw you, Lorne. At least once I learn something, I don’t forget it. Give me some more feedback on that scent so I can be certain. Closing his eyes, Lorne concentrated on the elusive, barely perceptible smell. It’s oily. Almost like something’s rotten or decomposing, but with a metallic whang. Okay! Got it! You’re smelling unguindene. The protective powers wrapping around him would keep out any dangerous microbes or organisms which could harm him, but the scents could still penetrate it. And this scent had “Warning!” written all over it. Requesting a definition of ‘unguindene’. The byproduct of acetal-diphilate prorestilyme, bicamphorate sulfide, and biphuromethanene. Easy for you to say. How about some one syllable words, bro? You just found the smoking gun. Literally. That’s it? We need a sample to test and tag as evidence. What am I looking for, then? If you can smell it, then trace amounts are still present. Hold on. Let me check on something real quick. He had reached the epicenter of the original blast. The heart of the factory. Are the rumors true? Did they really use this place to research toxins for chemical warfare? His next thought was for Brenda’s welfare. He had never tested his abilities to any great extent, and he was pretty certain he could protect her from just about any chemical 66

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity compound, manmade or natural. The trick would be to get to her in time before any of it reached her. Not that I’m aware of. But Dobbling was instrumental in trying to come up with more methods of chemical combustion. My guess is, whoever set this thing up knew that, and planted just enough of a conducive element in the mixture to upset the balance. When you find a shiny, light blue residue, you’ve hit paydirt. Lorne honed in on the scent, tracking it like a human bloodhound. Pushing aside burnt and demolished pieces of furniture and metal, he found a pile of ash and smoldering waste lying on the floor. Twisted bits of wire stuck out of the pile. He waved his hand over the ash, scattering it, and revealing more slivers of wire. Something made the wires shimmer, as if a light had passed over them. Luke? I’m here. That shimmer? It’s unguindene residue. Paydirt? Yeah. Be reeeal careful. What’s it going to do? Blow up on me? He was joking…sort of. Just in case, though, he double-surrounded the pieces of wire in an extra-strong force field, and lifted it out of the pile of rubble. It looked like he was holding what used to be a mesh trash basket. But because the receptacle had been made of interwoven bits of metal instead of being solid, the explosion had not disintegrated it completely. Uhh, it might. That stuff is more volatile than nitroglycerine. Lorne blinked. Then what in the hell is it doing in this lab? It’s not produced here, is it? One of the chemicals which form its base are produced here. But all three elements have to be combined in a specific order for it to go blooey. I’m going out on a limb here and saying that someone put some of one of 67

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity those elements inside the trash can, then made sure the can was near a storage area containing the other two chemicals. Then found a way to combine the three, to create the explosion. And now, because the area is dotted with minute bits of unguindene, smaller blasts could pop off at any time. You’re standing in a potential minefield, Lorne. Was that little volcano earlier brought on by some of that unexploded unguindene? Chances are, yes. Something you might have pushed against, or moved, and it fell on a bit of the residue. Accidental contact. There’s no telling. A good sneeze could set it off. Or a strong breeze. A rainstorm. Clumsy investigators. Lorne looked around. Then this whole area needs to be evacuated, and the entire place razed. A chuckle vibrated inside his head. This looks like a job for The Defender! Go suck an egg, Luke. Very slowly, Lorne lifted out of the building with the coated bits of metal held in stasis within his power. The only safe place he could take it would be to the containment center where the bomb squad of the local police force was located. There he could place it in a bombproof locker, where the experts could study it in relative safety. It was a good forty-minute drive by car, but Lorne could get there in a fraction of the time. As he rose higher in the sky, he glanced down to see the cameras still rolling. Even if he wanted to, he couldn’t call out to Brenda to tell her where he was going, as the vibrations from his voice could set off another explosion. No, first things first. Duty above all. Duty above all. It had been his daddy’s credo, and Lorne was determined to make sure the Palmer legacy lived on. 68

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Chapter 10 Event “Another minor blast has ripped through the Dobbling Chemicals factory, mere days after an initial explosion literally shredded this building to pieces. The Defender was brought back in by the Fullerton Police Department, to help them investigate the cause of the intial blast. “However, a few minutes ago, while our new superhero was inside the remains of the factory, another explosion occurred, forcing The Defender to erect what appeared to be a protective force field over the blast site. “Once the blast was contained, he went back into the factory again. Unconfirmed reports suggest the cause of the first explosion, and this second one, may not have been accidental. As you can see behind me, the area is littered with debris, some of which is still smoking. Onlookers and news crews have been asked by the Fullerton Fire Department to remain behind the barrier tape for their own protection. “It appears The Defender has emerged again from the factory, and he’s carrying what appears to be a container of sorts. “Please stay tuned. We will report more on this as it develops. This is Brian Witherspoon, WNN, reporting from Fullerton.” Brenda stood within earshot of the news crew as everyone stared up at The Defender flying away from the demolished 69

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity factory. At this distance, she could see he was carrying something smallish in his hands, but she couldn’t quite make it out. Where’s he going? “Is he holding something?” “Yeah,” the reporter replied. “It looks like a container of sorts. It’s hard to tell. It looks like it’s wrapped in something.” The cameraman zoomed in with the lens, but he was too slow. The Defender shot eastward. “Damn.” Yeah. Damn. Brenda continued to feel like one of those bobble-head dolls. Her body remained in one place, but her brain still rattled around inside her skull from the unexpected eruption that had sent them all running. All but her. For some reason, she knew they weren’t in any danger. That, somehow, The Defender would protect them. After all, wasn’t that his purpose? To keep them out of danger? Still, instinct had told her to run for cover, and she’d sought out the nearest large thing she could hide behind—a tree. She turned to see the news crew hurrying back to their van. She hustled to catch up. Her job now was to discover the cause of the blast, and who was behind it. Which was why she figured that tagging along with the news media might be her best bet to finding out anything. “Any idea where he’s going?” she managed to ask before they slammed the door in her face. “Looks like he’s heading for the police station,” the reporter called out the passenger side window as the cameraman gunned the engine. The news van screeched its tires as it peeled out of the parking lot. Brenda turned and ran for her own car. As intersections raced by her window, Brenda tried to get a grip on the feeling nibbling at her subconscious. There was a lot more going on at the factory than what she or the news media was being told. Of course, if this thing was a lot deeper than it looked, the authorities were going to keep as much of it under the blanket 70

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity as they could, so as not to lose whatever punch they had when it came down to prosecuting someone. She smiled. She was well aware of the tricks cops pulled to draw the news hounds off of the immediate trail. Yet, for some reason, she couldn’t get rid of the notion that The Defender was calling all the shots at this point in time. The news crew careened into the police parking lot where two lone cruisers were parked, with Brenda right behind them. As the two men jumped out their van, and headed into the police station, she remained sitting behind the wheel. Something was wrong. It felt all wrong. “This isn’t right. He can’t be here. Not here here.” But there was no denying the fact that she and the others had seen The Defender fly off in this direction with some evidence. She chewed on her tongue for a few seconds as she continued to look around. The police station was smack in the middle of downtown, near the main square where many businesses were located. Across the street was City Hall, and the next block over was the city jail. The Defender had just protected them from another, smaller, unexpected explosion, and soon after left with visible evidence. Would he take it straight to the police? Common sense told her yes. It looks like it’s wrapped in something. Brenda recalled watching The Defender hold his shielding powers over the blast that boiled over like a miniature volcano. From where she stood, the fumes and flames were silvery, like they had been sprayed with mercury. Or glitter. Very reflective and shiny. It looks like it’s wrapped in something. 71

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity If the man had taken something that was potentially volatile, would he have taken it to the police station, where they would have simply marked and tagged it, and then shoved it into an evidence locker? It looks like it’s wrapped in something. A station door opened, and the cameraman came outside, strolling over to the van where he opened up the side door to get something. Brenda rolled down her driver’s side window and called out to him. “You said the object The Defender was carrying looked like it was wrapped in something. Did you mean, like he had possibly wrapped it in his powers to keep it from going off?” The man gave a quick shrug of his shoulders. “I meant he had wrapped something around it. Maybe it was his powers. Or it could have been something else. What difference does it make?” Without waiting for her answer, he grabbed a satchel and slung it over a shoulder, then slammed the van door shut and hurried back inside the station house. Like he had wrapped something around it? It had to be his powers. “That means whatever he had could be potentially dangerous,” she observed to herself. If The Defender wrapped his powers around it, that could mean he believed it had the ability to explode, or something equally catastrophic. “He’s not here. He wouldn’t bring something that could go off and cause damage here to the police station, in the middle of town. If it went off, it would cause major havoc.” But if that was the case, then where… Another idea came to her. There was a bomb squad here in Fullerton. Six years ago, when she’d left for the big city, there hadn’t been, but times had changed. When she had been researching locations where the company could put a factory, and she had been fighting to get it built in her old hometown, one of the main requirements was that 72

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity the town have a bomb squad and dispatch location. To her delight, she discovered that Fullerton had just acquired one. Since then, she’d been too busy to check out its location. A police officer exited the building and was heading in her direction to get to his squad car. Brenda took the chance to ask him, “Where are the offices of the bomb squad located?” The officer paused and pointed toward the east, in the direction The Defender had flown. “That way, past the city limits.” “How do I get there?” “Take Main Street until you hit the city limits. Take a right on Mill Road and follow it as far as it’ll take you,” the man directed her. “You’ll see a big concrete bunker in the distance. That’s it. Can’t miss it.” “Thanks!” She grinned, already backing up her little import in order to turn around. The city limits for Fullerton was another fifteen minute stopand-go ride, through another residential neighborhood, past strip malls, and through a half-dozen stop lights. Once she passed the city limits, it was another thirty-minute drive through the countryside, past open fields. The cop had been right. She quickly spotted the single-story concrete building in the distance as she turned off the main highway, onto a narrow paved road. It looked like one of those bunkers she’d seen in spy movies. The kind that were rumored to go several stories underground. She was stopped by a guard at the only gate leading in and out. Although she provided her Dobbling Enterprises credentials, security refused to allow her entrance. “Sorry, ma’am, but you don’t have clearance.” “Where do I get clearance?” she asked amiably. It wouldn’t do to piss off a man holding a gun. “You’d have to do that at the police station, ma’am.” 73

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity Brenda glanced skyward. “Did The Defender come here? Can you tell me that much?” This time the young soldier looked honestly puzzled. “Who, ma’am?” She waved it off. “Never mind. Thank you. I’ll go to the police station and see if I can’t get a pass or something. Thank you for your time.” In addition, she gave him a warm smile. He touched the brim of his cap, and she backed away from the gate to turn around and return to town. She was less than a quarter of a mile down the road when she pulled onto a private road. From there she could see the bunker in the distance. If The Defender departed from there, flying in the same way she’d seen him do when he’d left the factory, spotting him would be a cinch. Unless he flies so fast, no one can see him. Besides, you have no idea if he really went there. Which was true. For all she knew, he could have stopped off somewhere else. How long are you planning on sitting here, waiting for him, anyway? Another excellent question. Brenda sighed, closing her eyes and leaning her head back against the headrest. The idea of sitting here for God knows how long while she waited to spot The Defender was fast becoming unappealing. Besides, what would she do then? Try to tail him? How sensible would that be when he was unhindered up there in the sky, and she had to keep an eye on traffic? More than that, Brenda realized she just wasn’t up to it. It was too soon after the death of her father to think about the business, and she should have known better. It was the carrot named The Defender that had been dangled in front of her fact which had motivated her this time. Furthermore, she got the distinct 74

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity impression the excitement, for the most part, was over. It was time to call it a day. Reluctantly, she pulled back onto the farm-to-market road and headed for home.


Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity

Chapter 11 Responsibility She wished she had been better prepared for the grilling. It was a good thing Wagner had emailed her a prepared statement to present to the media, and especially to the families of the victims of the explosion. Facing the bank of microphones and, beyond them, the faces of the curious and the bereaved, Brenda took a deep breath before beginning. “My name is Brenda McKay, and I’m the Acquisitions Director for Dobbling Enterprises. But first and foremost I am a born and bred Fullertonite. Many of you know me personally, and you knew my family.” There were nods in the crowd. It was a busy time for the two mortuaries in town, as well as for the cemetery. “When I got my current position at Dobbling, my first initiative was to see that Fullerton was given a fair chance at what this dynamic company had to offer. I knew from firsthand experience that Fullerton was in dire need of an economic boost, and I fought hard for Dobbling to build its next factory here. When I was given the green light, I truly felt as if I was finally able to pay back my hometown for all the wonderful opportunities it had given me when I was growing up. So you can understand my dread and sorrow at the accident which occurred last week.” 76

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity She barely glanced at the memo she already had memorized. The email was rather stiff and formal, but she felt that by reminding everyone that she had also been deeply affected by the blast because of personal and family ties to the community, the public would be less harsh on the company. “To say that my heart goes out to those of you who lost a family member is an understatement. I knew most of them personally, and I knew all of them through some association or another.” She found the Macasca family sitting in the sixth row to her left. Brenda nodded in their direction. “Nick, Abrita, I remember when John Jay and I graduated together. And I remember him wearing those ridiculous plaid golfing shorts underneath his graduation gown, which he made sure to show the crowd when he went up on stage to accept his diploma.” The family chuckled amid their tears. She managed a watery smile as she turned to where another family was seated to her right. “Mister and Mrs. Postert, I’ll never forget your daughter Waneea. She and I played on the same volleyball and basketball team in high school. She was a superb teammate, but more importantly she was a wonderful person and friend to all who knew her.” She glanced back down at the single sheet of paper clutched in her hand. It gave her something solid to hold on to. Brenda sniffed and looked back up into the lenses of half a dozen cameras quietly taking everything in. At the far end of the room, she could barely make out three distinct figures also watching and listening. Lorne had told her he and his brothers would be there at the press conference, if for nothing else than to give her moral support. “They say no good deed goes unpunished, and ever since the accident, I have lived that saying every day. I am truly, truly sorry 77

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity for what happened. As a representative of Dobbling Enterprises, and as a fellow Fullertonite, I offer you our…my…deepest sympathies for your loss.” She gave a little nod to show she was finished. What she didn’t expect was for several additional microphones being thrust into her face. “Miss McKay, is it true the explosion was the result of a new chemical being manufactured and funded by the U.S. military?” “Miss McKay, are you aware of the number of lawsuits being filed against Dobbling by the families of the victims?” “Rumors say the real nature of this lab was deliberately kept secret from the public, and that Dobbling knew all along that the chemicals being kept here could cause this kind of reaction. Is that true?” To the last question, she returned with a hard stare. “One of those chemicals was being manufactured here. One, understand? And its manufacturing was clearly spelled out before the factory was given its permits. Every precaution required by law was exercised, and then some. At no time was there ever any danger of an explosion of this magnitude.” “Then what is your take on the explosion, Miss McKay?” the reporter asked, taking advantage of her momentary attention. “What do you think caused it? And who do you think is responsible?” “We’ll have to wait until the final reports are in,” Brenda informed the newsman. “I’m as much in the dark as you are.” **** Lorne picked up the remote and turned off the TV. “Enough of that. At least they’re not placing the full blame on you,” he told her. 78

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity Brenda nodded. “But, in a way, they are. I’m guilty by association. I’m guilty because I’m the person who convinced Dobbling to build here in the first place. I’m guilty because I talked up the project to everyone, urging them to apply for jobs there, and convincing them that this factory would practically pull Fullerton out of its economic slump.” She sighed heavily and buried her face in the sofa pillow. She was lying across most of the couch, leaving Lorne with just a small amount of space at one end to sit. “You didn’t cause that explosion,” he softly said. Reaching down, he tucked a bit of hair behind her ear. The simple gesture warmed her inside. “No, but who else are they gonna blame? The lab workers?” “So what happens next? Are you going to get to keep your job?” “I don’t know.” She gave a half-hearted shrug of one shoulder. “I can’t think anymore. I can’t anticipate what’ll happen next. I’m just…numb inside. Numb and tired.” Lorne patted her arm and got up from the sofa. “You’re still grieving. You need to rest. If you decide you want some company, give me a call. If you need anything, ditto.” “Thanks, Lo,” she sleepily said, already sinking into sleep. If she was lucky, she would dream about the mysterious man in black. If she was luckier, the dream would be filled with nice, nasty erotic images. Anything to get her mind off of her present situation. She never heard Lorne leave, closing and locking the door securely behind him.


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Chapter 12 Walk If she dreamed, she couldn’t remember any of it. But after waking from her nap, Brenda knew she needed to go to the market to stock up on some necessities. It was clear she wouldn’t be leaving anytime soon, and frankly she wasn’t ready to go back to the city. Lorne was right. She needed time to grieve and the chance to heal. This whole horrible mess with Dobbling was unavoidable, but for the moment it had to come second. Walking into the house, her arms loaded down, she paused in the doorway as a sense of relief washed over her. The place smelled the way she believed a home should smell, and looked the way a loving home should look. In fact, she felt more comfortable and content here than she did in the apartment she rented back in Ocean City. Coming back here, instead of staying at a motel as she had initially considered, was the smartest thing she’d ever done, her father’s funeral notwithstanding. Here, she could forget about the stressful pace of her job. Better yet, the people who meant more to her than anything else lived right next door. Almost unconsciously, her thoughts drifted to Lorne. Scruffy, shy Lorne. Handsome, reliable, gentle Lorne. In the next instant, The Defender loomed into her mind’s eye. She slowly shook her head. He was the one who made her inner thighs wet. He was the man who jolted her bloodstream as if 80

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity a hundred caffeine drinks had been dumped into it simultaneously. A man whose touch even now burned her skin at the memory. Yet, Lorne was more comfortable and trustworthy than a pair of old bunny slippers. If her heart had to make a choice, she wouldn’t hesitate to choose Mr. Palmer. He was more than a friend. Always had been. Except Lorne never looked at her that way. He never touched her, or eyed her, or gave her any nonverbal signal that said he wanted to become more than friends, no matter how much she wished he would. Too bad she was too chicken shit to make the first move, damn her. But she could see her and Lorne making a life together. Maybe even living in this house, right next door to his brothers. He’d like that. Only, there was one small obstacle standing in the way of believing everything would be all hunky-dory between them if they did become a couple. Lorne didn’t push her buttons the way The Defender did. It was late afternoon, getting close to quitting time. Brenda checked her watch as she phoned her boss. “Well, what have you found out?” Wagner asked right off, without a hello. “We’re starting to get some major feedback from our dissenters. Did you know we have at least six lawsuits pending? We’re talking millions of dollars, and that’s not taking into consideration having to pay for the clean-up of the grounds.” “Is the board considering rebuilding?” “It hasn’t come up yet. I’m thinking they’re going to wait to see what the final report says about the cause of the blast. We have to find out who’s responsible.” Who’s responsible. Or, in lawyer speak, who to blame. And maybe squeeze a few dollars out of. Brenda frowned. “I watched The Defender fly off with something in his hands. I believe it has 81

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity something to do with the explosion, but I’ll need more clearance to check it out.” “You got it. Anything else? Anything we can use right now?” “I’m sorry. That’s all I have. For God’s sake, Wil, I just buried my father! Can’t you just let me have some uninterrupted downtime just this once? If I find out anything more about the blast, I promise I’ll be in touch!” Brenda heard the pitiful, whining way her voice sounded, but it couldn’t be helped. She was tired physically and emotionally, and it wouldn’t take much for her to throw up her hands and call it quits. To her surprise, her usually obnoxious, overcompensating boss came back using a more understanding tone of voice than she’d expected. “I was just checking over your leave status. Take as long as you want, Brenda. As long as you feel is necessary. You’re overdue for some time off, anyway.” “Thank you,” she replied with a hint of sarcasm. Wouldn’t have mattered anyway. Wilson Wagner was impervious to that sort of thing. They signed off when Wagner received another phone call he had to take. Brenda tossed her cell onto the sofa, next to her purse. The man wasn’t as concerned over her taking leave as he was her remaining in Fullerton where The Defender was still attached. The only reason he was willing to coddle her was because she was a hometown girl, and he felt she would be able to open more doors than a total stranger would. The company would always come first and foremost to the man. Brenda felt a shred of pity for Wagner’s own family. Looking out the sliding glass door leading from the den to the backyard, she felt a twinge of hunger. Sighing, she went to the kitchen and opened the refrigerator door. Inside was dish after 82

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity covered dish of more food than she would be able to eat in a week, even after much of it had been devoured by the Palmer boys. Unsure what to reheat, she looked around for the half-gallon of milk, when it struck her. “Hell. No milk.” They had polished off the carton they’d brought with them yesterday, and she hadn’t picked up any more at the store. Well, no harm, no foul. There was a Jiffy Gas two blocks away. She debated whether to drive to it, but the late afternoon was inviting. This was her old stomping grounds where people could still stroll down the sidewalks in relative safety. Besides, the exercise would do her good. She could go there and be back in less than fifteen minutes. Grabbing her wallet and keys from her purse, she found one of her father’s old windbreakers in the hall closet and put it on, shoving the wallet in one of the deep, flannel-lined pockets, and her keys in the other. The air smelled pure, filtered clean by the countless trees lining the street and dotting the lawns. Traffic was practically nonexistent. Given another hour, the neighborhood would be bustling with people arriving home after work. “Wouldn’t it be nice to come home to this place after my kind of day on the job?” she softly wondered aloud. But she knew it was a dream. Fullerton had no airport, for one thing. And in her line of work, airline access was as crucial as her company credentials. If she needed to fly somewhere, she’d have to travel two hours plus to Ocean City and catch a plane at the Intercontinental Airport located on the other side of the metropolis. Once she got to the little combination mini-market and gas station, she met several people whom she knew, and who had known her father. By the time they offered their condolences, and Brenda had bought milk and a few other odd items, the sun was 83

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity beginning to set. Hoisting her two plastic bags, she rounded the corner of the store, and nearly ran into a familiar figure. “Lorne! What are you doing here?” He gave her a grin, and she felt her heart skip a couple of beats. “Stopping by on the way home for a soda. Hold on a sec, and I’ll help you carry those bags.” She opened her mouth to protest, but the man had already slipped past her and gone inside. It took him practically no time to grab a canned drink and pay for it before rejoining her. Mutely, he snagged the heaviest bag and casually rolled it over a shoulder. “You were on the evening news.” He began the conversation on their stroll back, and slowed his long-legged stride for her benefit. “Again? Did they superimpose a target over my face this time?” “They didn’t show your press conference this time. They showed you talking to that new superhero. Mr. What’s-his-name.” “He’s called The Defender, in case you’re wondering.” “Thank you. I’ll file that bit of information for further teasing. So, what were you two talking about? Looking for a date?” Brenda glanced up to see him silently berating her with those warm, woolen-gray eyes. “Lorne! My boss called with an offer I couldn’t refuse.” “Oh? He wants you to go on a date with the flying man in black? Excuse me. With The Defender,” Lorne teased. “You’re mean. No. He wants me to help investigate the cause of the explosion. Find out if it was caused by accident or from human error. I was hoping The Defender could provide some information.” She gave him a playful punch in the shoulder. It was like hitting rock. “Why do you tease me like that?” “Because you know I can read you like a book. Well?” 84

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity “Well, what?” “Did you tell him?” “Tell who what?” She gave him an exasperated look. “Lorne, have I ever told you how irritating you can be?” “Yeah. It can become one of my many middle names, like ‘crazy’, ‘thoughtful’, and ‘idiot’. I think I have room to add ‘irritating’.” Brenda felt the laughter bubbling up inside her. What was it about Lorne Palmer that always made her feel good, even in the worst moments? Luke didn’t affect her like this. Neither did Lee. “Did you tell him you had the hots for him?” Lorne reminded her. “Lorne!” She could feel her face burning, and it wasn’t from the sun. “Awright. You’re right. The Defender does turn me on, but I can’t tell him that.” “Why not? Guys usually like that sort of thing.” They took a couple of steps in silence, then he added, “Do I turn you on?” For some reason, she’d been expecting him to ask. Sooner or later. “Lorne” He quickly shook his head. “Never mind. That one word said it all.” “Lorne, look, it’s not that I don’t care. Truth is, I love you lots, but it’s notwell, you know.” “It’s not the all hot and bothered type of love,” he teased. “It’s not the ‘ooh, take me now, Mr. Defender!’ kind, right?” He had her laughing again, damn him. No matter how serious the subject could get, Lorne could always lift her spirits and dispel her melancholy. It was that ability that made her love him all the more. “So, are you going to tell him? Ever?” Brenda shook her head, still smiling. 85

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity “Why not?” “Because he’s The Defender! Hell, he could already be married!” “You think so? Does he wear a wedding ring?” She made a rude sound. “Superheroes don’t wear wedding rings. Nahh, forget I said anything about him being married.” Funny how the thought of the man in black already being spoken for was like stabbing herself in the heart. “Well, let’s pretend he’s not married,” Lorne assumed. “What if he approached you and asked you out? Would you go?” “In a heartbeat, but I’m not holding my breath.” “Why not?” “Because he’s too busy keeping the world a safe place without having to worry about mundane things like taking some girl out to the movies.” They turned the corner of the block and began strolling toward home. Already twilight was casting shadows on the sidewalk. Brenda glanced at the man beside her to find him deep in thought. Fishing inside her jacket pocket, she pulled out a penny from the change she’d gotten at the store and held it out to him. Lorne looked down in surprise. “What’s that for?” “For your thoughts.” “I’m thinking about what I saw on the news.” She gave a nod. “You mean the part where he snuffed out another minor explosion? Did you catch him flying away?” “Yeah. It looked like he had something in his hands.” “That’s what I thought, too. I tracked him to the bomb disposal barracks the police have outside the city, but I couldn’t get access in.” 86

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity They walked the remaining distance in easy silence, occasionally remarking about one thing or another as they passed by. Once they reached Brenda’s house, Lorne handed over the other sack of groceries. “Want to come in and have leftover lasagna?” she offered. “I could throw a salad together, and I can make some garlic bread, too.” “Sounds tempting, but Lee’s fixing dinner tonight, and you know how he is when he thinks no one wants to eat his cooking.” Lorne wrinkled his nose. “That’s because no one wants to eat his cooking!” Brenda laughed. “All right. Be that way, then. Tell the others ‘hi’ for me.” He nodded, and turned to head for his front door, but not before she stopped him. “Lorne?” He paused to look back at her. He looked so warm and inviting, she was sorely tempted to run up and throw her arms around him. If she did, she knew he would hold her until she was ready for him to let go. Another thought came to her, almost overwhelming her. Thank goodness the sun was at her back, hiding the growing redness in her face. In the meantime, he continued to patiently wait for her to say what was on her mind. “Will I see you tomorrow?” God, that’s so lame. “Sure.” He nodded and smiled. “Any idea when you think you’ll be going back to Ocean City?” “Maybe next week,” Brenda told him, although she hadn’t made any definite plans. “That’s good. It’ll give us a little more time to visit,” he said, throwing her a mock salute. “Later, Bren.” 87

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity “Yeah. Later, Lo.” She continued watching the tall, handsome middle brother until he disappeared into the next house. When he was finally out of sight, she went into hers, but not without feeling as if an opportunity had come and gone, and she had missed it.


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Chapter 13 Seduction She read the paper she’d bought at the convenience store, then watched a couple of numbing hours of television before deciding to go to bed. After a brief shower, Brenda opened the bedroom window a little ways to let in air. It was a pleasant night, if a bit on the cool side. It reminded her of the times the Fullerton Four would camp out in the backyard, telling ghost stories behind their flashlights, and eating bags of buttery, greasy popcorn Mrs. Palmer would bring to them. She stared at the little twin bed with its pink patchwork spread. It looked incredibly small, but there was no way she could sleep in her parents’ bedroom, much less in their queen-size bed. Sighing, she grabbed a quilt from the top of her closet and opened it over the bedspread. That done, she pulled back the coverlet and top sheet, and sank onto the mattress. Despite it being noticeably smaller than her bed back in Ocean City, it remained inviting and overwhelmingly comfortable. And it still fit her curves and bumps, as it should. After all, it was home. She could hear the frogs croaking outside, and the occasional car going by. They were comforting sounds. Last night, she had been too distraught after the funeral to enjoy them. Ditto the night before that, her first night home after a long absence. Tonight, however, she could relax. Ease into sleep, rather than bolt down a couple of sleep aids and hope they worked. 89

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity At some point she did slip into unconsciousness. For how long, Brenda had no idea. But something awoke her. Nothing frightening or out of place. She felt nothing threatening. Regardless, she continued to lay in her little bed and looked out at the moonlight-filled backyard. There was nothing out there moving about. Not even a dog or a cat left outside to stray. Sighing, she pulled the bed linens up over her shoulders, and rolled onto her side, curling into a fetal position to preserve warmth. She sensed him standing there the moment she faced him. “Who?” Odd, but she felt no fear. It was as if she had been expecting him. Propping up on one elbow, she waited for him to make the next move. Like a shadow detaching itself, The Defender stepped into the pale moonlight streaming through the window. At the sight of him, her entire body went on high alert, and Brenda sat up further in bed. The Defender moved closer, holding out a gloved hand palm up as if to quiet her as the other hand placed a single finger to his lips. “Shh. I’m not here to harm you,” he whispered. “I know that,” Brenda replied, also whispering. “What’s wrong? Why are you here?” “You’re why I’m here.” Two more steps, and he was next to the little twin bed. Brenda felt the mattress jiggle when he hit it. The moon shone across his shoulders, giving the leather outfit he wore a wet sheen. “You came through the window,” she stated. Of course he did. If he’d tried to come through the front door, she would have heard him. She was hit with a strong sense of deja vu. This was so 90

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity much like the other night when she had dreamt this exact same scenario. Wide-eyed, she waited for his next move. The Defender sat at the foot of the bed. The tingling was back, crawling up and down her skin, leaving behind goose bumps that her lightweight flannel pajamas could not keep warm. “If at any time you feel I must leave, you only have to say so,” The Defender murmured. Brenda nodded. “Okay. So why are you here?” she repeated. “Because earlier you said you needed me. From the tone of your voice…” He paused, then said, “I came to see if your need was the same as mine.” He reached out with one gloved hand to cup her chin, lifting her face until the moonlight caught it and reflected in her eyes. Brenda remained resolute and unafraid, even while her breath quickened with the increased rhythm of her heart. She had never been one to openly speak her mind. Neither was she the kind to cause waves or act impulsively. However, tonight felt as though she was standing on a precipice, ready to jump off. But instead of falling to her death, she would be falling into this man’s arms. Unfortunately, there remained a few questions she had to have answered, if only for her piece of mind. “Are you married?” The Defender smiled. “No. I’m not legally attached to anyone in any way. I’m not even engaged.” “You’re kidding.” The words popped out of her mouth before she even thought of them. Brenda felt her eyes widen when The Defender chuckled. It was a deep, throaty, and extremely sexy sound. She would swear it vibrated all the day down into her panties. “Tell me, Miss McKay. How are you needing me?” 91

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity No, Miss McKay, you are not the impulsive sort. But, honest to God, if you don’t make the first move— She launched herself into his arms, reaching for his mouth with her own. They connected, and it was as if the entire world began to shimmer from the heat. Quickly, she wrapped her arms about his head and shoulders, mentally begging that he do the same. As if he could read her mind, arms like bands of iron embraced her and drew her tightly against him. Within seconds he had drawn her across his lap, until she was firmly nestled between his crotch and his chest. There was no turning back now. No retreating. And definitely no time for regrets. His lips were cold and hard, demanding everything from her, which she was more than willing to give. She felt his gloved hands bunch at the back of her cotton pajamas, and in the next instant, he tore the top from her like it was made of paper. Brenda gasped as the chilly air washed over her bare skin. The Defender grabbed her by the arms and pushed her far enough away so he could see her breasts in the moonlight. A slow, lazy smile crept over his face, and his black eyes glittered. “You are more beautiful than I imagined.” His confession sent shivers all the way to her core. Before she could respond, he pushed her back onto the bed, for which she was grateful. The quilt helped to keep the air off her back. Now, if he would only lay on top of her to keep her front warm. His hand reached up to gently pluck one hard tip. When she tried to cover herself, he stopped her, reaching over with his other hand to continue playing with her erect nipple. Again, he seemed to read her mind, and leaned over to close his lips over it. Hot, sweet desire surged through her, and Brenda arched her back to force more of her breast into his mouth. His tongue 92

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity tickled, suckled, and pulled so hard at times it was nearly painful, but she wanted more. Needed more. It felt so damn good. Her fingers dug into his hair and encountered a strap. Vaguely, she realized it was the mask. At the same moment, The Defender reached up and carefully removed her hands before she could inadvertently unhook the disguise. Instead of rebuking her, he moved to her other breast in order to torment it the way he had the first. Brenda wiped her wet nipple to keep it from becoming too cold. When she lifted her hand back to him, her fingers brushed across the zipper track of his leather jacket. Immediately, she sought the little lever. The Defender chuckled again. “Getting impatient?” He reared back without waiting for an answer, and Brenda watched as he unzipped his jacket and shrugged out of it, dropping the black outfit on the floor beside the bed. She could barely make out the fact that he wore a black t-shirt underneath. He quickly jerked the hem out of his pants and tugged the shirt over his head, revealing a chest as expansive and muscular as she had believed it would be. A wide wall of warm, sweatglistening skin that almost glowed in the moonlight. She lifted a hand to touch it, and immediately something didn’t feel…right. Where was the soft mat of dark curls? Where was the provocative path of tiny hairs trailing down into the waistband of his pants. With a shiver, Brenda realized what she was doing, and the knowledge stunned her. The Defender didn’t have chest hair but Lorne Palmer did. Lorne had a sprinkling of dark hairs covering his chest and nipples because she’d seen him countless times in the past without a shirt on—when he was mowing the lawn, or changing out the water sprinkler. In fact, there had been many times when 93

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity she had wondered what it would be like to wake up next to that chest on a lazy Saturday morning. Her thoughts were interrupted when The Defender grabbed the waist of her pajama bottoms and literally peeled them off of her with one strong tug. He was completely bare on top, and although his sculpted upper body was beautiful, Brenda couldn’t help the small disappointment niggling in the back of her brain. She watched as The Defender tugged off his gloves and his boots, then stood to shuck his leather pants. He wore no underwear, to her astonishment, and as soon as he stood back up straight, his erection sprang forward, reminding Brenda of a diving board. The analogy was so funny, she fought to smother a giggle. Either The Defender didn’t notice, or if he did, it didn’t matter. He crawled upon the tiny bed, nearly engulfing it as he pushed her back down. This time when he lowered himself over her, she could feel the heat emanating from his body, and she entwined her arms around his neck. He kissed her again, but his lips continued to be cool as they pressed down on hers. At no time did he try to breach the inner recesses of her mouth. There was no tongue. No “spit swapping”, as Lorne used to laughingly refer to it whenever they’d seen such a thing while watching TV. Lorne again. Frowning, Brenda tried to wipe her neighbor from her mind and concentrate on The Defender’s lovemaking. There was no denying the fact that his hands and his body were doing delicious things to her sex drive. She wriggled her hips, and the man broke the kiss. “Do that again,” he half-demanded, half-begged. Smiling, she spread her legs and lifted her mound, bouncing it provocatively against his thick erection and low-hanging balls. He immediately grabbed himself and shoved the head between her 94

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity lower lips, giving his own hips a little bounce to firmly embed it at her entrance. “Is this what you meant? Is this how you were needing me?” he asked. He was breathing heavily now. It smelled slightly of garlic and mint toothpaste. Brenda started to reply when he shoved himself partway into her. The invasion made her gasp. “You are like fire,” The Defender murmured above her. His hips moved, sinking himself further inside her. And it felt wrong. It all felt so wrong. “Come on, baby. Set me on fire.” He withdrew slightly, then plunged into her again. “No.” Brenda struggled to get him out of her. She pushed against his chest, shaking her head. “No. Stop. I can’t. We can’t.” “Why not?” He continued to move his hips, dragging in and out of her channel with increasing speed. “You are so wet. It’s like sliding inside perfection.” Brenda cursed her body. It was like fighting a rising hurricane, tormenting her. Her blood was burning her alive. She wanted completion. She needed it. But not with this man. Not with The Defender. “No!” She managed to plant her feet on his seesawing hips. With one hard shove, she managed to push him all the way out while at the same time, she shoved him away with her hands. “No more!” The Defender remained motionless, suspended over the bed, and stared at her in surprise. An instant later, he disappeared. **** 95

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity Brenda lay in a tight little bundle, horny, unfulfilled, and aching. No telling what time it was, or how long she had been lying there, unable to go back to sleep after she had woken up to find herself still in her pajamas, and to find she had dreamt it all. Now she was afraid to go back to sleep. Afraid she’d dream about the dark stranger coming back to her bedroom to make love. Thank God her sex toy was back at her apartment in the city. Good going, girlfriend. Nothing like having another fantastic wet dream about Mr. Walking Hard-on. But not only do you turn him away, you dream he’s someone else! Having such a dream didn’t surprise her. And the fact that she’d had this second dream about the man wasn’t unusual, either. Many times in the past she’d fantasize about some movie star or rock star, and end up dreaming of a sexual encounter with him. But she’d always go through with the act. Or at least wake up in time to grab her vibrator and finish herself off, so that it felt like she’d gone all the way. But this was the first time she had turned anyone away, dream-wise or other. Why did it have to be The Defender? Why did the thought of making love with him suddenly make her feel as if she was being unfaithful? Stranger still, why did she keep comparing him to Lorne Palmer?


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Chapter 14 Breakfast “Lorne?” Lorne walked into the kitchen to find his older brother sitting at the table and eating a bowl of cereal. Corn Flakes, he noted, instead of the usual sugared stuff, as big brother was on one of his short-lived attempts to lose weight. “Morning.” He went straight to the refrigerator’s freezer compartment to grab the box of waffles. As similar as the boys were in appearance, their differences in tastes, likes and dislikes, were as vast as their powers. Luke preferred cereal or oatmeal, he wanted his waffles or eggs, and Lee was hooked on those healthy but perverse-tasting shakes. He glanced at the sink where the empty blender pitcher sat, waiting to be washed. “Where’s number three?” “Over at the PD,” Luke mumbled. “Hey, can we talk?” Curious, Lorne grabbed the syrup from the fridge door and plunked it on the table before straddling a chair to listen to what his sibling had to say. Can we talk? It had to important for Luke to make that comment. Even more so since Luke was not a morning person, and didn’t like to broach difficult subjects until after noon. Lorne patiently watched as his brother wiped his mouth with a paper towel. “It’s about Brenda.” “Thought so.” Lorne smiled. 97

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity Luke shot him a warning look. “Really. I’m serious. It’s about Brenda.” Lorne went immediately on the defensive. “Is she okay?” He started to rise to his feet when Luke waved for him to sit back down. “It’s not an emergency. Go ahead and eat.” Lorne opened his mouth to question him, when the waffles chose that moment to pop out of the toaster. He went to retrieve them, throwing them onto a paper plate and grabbing a fork from the silverware drawer to take everything back to the table. “Can I get some coffee first?” he inquired with a bit of sarcasm. Unaffected by his brother’s growing irritation, Luke nodded. Once Lorne was settled back at the table, he continued. “I thought you might like to know. Brenda had a hot, erotic dream about you last night. Or rather, about The Defender.” His piece of waffle fell off his fork. Shaken, Lorne frowned at his brother. “How—” “No, no. I didn’t invade her mind. She was giving off such strong vibes, they woke me up. I just skimmed over the surface to see if she might be in trouble. She’s been through so much these past few days, I was thinking she might need someone to go over and offer a shoulder of condolence, know what I mean?” He shook his head. “Honestly, Lorne. The sexual vibes she was giving off could have melted a glacier.” “Why didn’t you awaken me?” “I was about to, but then, suddenly, she went cold. I mean fish cold. Almost as if she’d been frightened.” “Frightened?” Lorne’s stared numbly at his brother. “Frightened of The Defender?” 98

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity Luke shrugged. “Something in her dream turned her off like that.” He snapped his fingers for emphasis. “Any idea why?” “Not without a little probing. And I promised you years ago I wouldn’t do that to her unless it was an emergency.” He twirled his spoon in his cereal. “She finally got back to sleep, but it was fitful the rest of the night.” “What do you think it meant?” “Other than the fact that she dreamt she was making love to you as The Defender, and you did or said something that turned her off?” Lorne winced. “Ouch. But it wasn’t really me.” “We know that. She knows that, too. Listen, Lo. I think Brenda’s turned on by your secret identity, but she probably inadvertently compared you to some of her past sexual encounters. And when she did, you came up…uhh…lacking.” Lorne silently cursed himself for the flush that came over his face. “So, what are you suggesting? That I seduce her as The Defender and prove to her I’m not ‘lacking’?” “It’s up to you. After all, Lee and I know how long you’ve been trying to get her to look at you as more than a pseudobrother. Maybe now’s the time to get closer to her, but as your superpowered persona. Take it a step at a time. Slowly let her know you care for her in a romantic way. Hell, if Lorne Palmer can’t catch her, there’s a good chance The Defender can.” “Is this one of those inevitable or consequential events?” Lorne asked. Again, Luke shrugged. “Sometimes I can see things as clearly as if I’m watching it live. Other times, it’s fuzzy and filled with static. I think the fact that the four of us grew up together like one enormous family is why Brenda is coming across in hazy bits and 99

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity pieces. That, and her proximity. After partially witnessing what she was going through, I thought you’d want to know what happened last night.” “Does this have anything to do with the warning you gave me the other day?” “It may. It may not. Right now I can only catch a thread here and there. Nothing really screams out at me.” He smiled. “You know, Lo, Lee and I would be thrilled if you two ever managed to hook up permanently.” Lorne stared down at his empty plate where he was making tracks in the leftover syrup with his fork. To say he had been pining after Brenda all these years would be putting it mildly. Once he reached puberty, the majority of his dreams had been about her, and all of his wet dreams had included only her. “Luke, I just came out as The Defender. How can I juggle that career and woo Brenda at the same time?” “Easy. She’s under orders to find out the cause of that explosion. So are you. Just combine the two. Let her in as you investigate. Her bosses have called in to the PD to up her credentials. That woman has more brains than we give her credit for. She’d make a great ally.” “But what if I still want to be with her as myself?” “Still easy. Of the three of us, she opens up to you. And there’s still that house of hers she’s thinking of selling. Damn it, Lorne, short of duct taping the two of you together, what’s it going to take for one of you to make the first move?” “What are you saying? That I make a move on her as both myselves? Myself and I?” He laughed at the absurdity. “However you say it?” “Why not?” 100

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity “But why now? Why not a week from now? Or a month from now? Give her a chance to recover from Mr. Mac’s death, and for this whole thing with the factory to be resolved? Even if she goes back to the city, it would only take me a few minutes to fly up there.” Luke sighed loudly. It was then Lorne felt a streak of ice go up his spine. “Don’t answer that,” he hurried to say, already suspecting the truth. Luke nodded and replied anyway, as Lorne knew he would. “If not now, there will never come another time. Ever.” And Luke was never wrong.


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Chapter 15 First Base Her parents’ bedroom was the way she remembered it. Her father had never removed her mother’s things after her death. Dresses still hung in the closet. The hairbrush sat on the white doily on the dressing table. Brenda bet herself her mother’s undies and all would still be in the bureau drawers. Do I begin clearing everything away? Or do I go back to the labs and hope to find out something about the explosion? Her stomach clenched, reminding her that she hadn’t had breakfast. Time to raid the refrigerator and larder to see if there was anything she could whip up. She was passing through the living room when someone knocked at the front door. She didn’t need three guesses to know who it was after seeing the familiar figure. She was already grinning when she opened the door, only to be met with a cardboard box with a smiley face drawn on it. “What are you doing?” She laughed. “Good morning! My name is Box. I’m here to help you pack up the things that make you unhappy.” The voice was squeaky but unmistakable as the box jiggled from left to right. Still laughing, Brenda peered out onto the porch where she saw at least a dozen or more empty boxes. “Lorne! What are you doing here?” 102

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity He dropped the box to grin at her. “Delivering coffee.” Today he wore a black t-shirt with a Fender Stratocaster guitar emblazoned on the front. Although the shirt was well-worn, the jeans looked brand new, right down to the neat creases in the legs. Red high-top sneakers and a lightweight navy blue windbreaker completed his typical scruffy but incredibly handsome look. To her surprise, he reached down where he had set a travel mug, and handed it to her. “One artificial sweetener and just enough milk to turn it from black to a gross-out diarrhea brown, just the way you like it, madam.” Brenda stepped back to let him enter, bringing the boxes with him and dumping them in the living room as she sipped her coffee. “Mmm. Thanks. I don’t suppose you brought breakfast with you, too.” Lorne reached inside the pocket of his windbreaker to pull out a foil-wrapped package. “Scrambled egg on toast was the best I could do. It’s Lee’s turn to get groceries, and you know much he loves that task,” he remarked with exaggerated irony. Brenda peeled back the foil and pinched a bit of the sandwich, stuffing it in her mouth. He’d even buttered the bread. “Oh, God, Lorne, you’re going to make some woman a great husband some day.” She giggled. “Now, the truth. What are you doing here? Why aren’t you at work?” “Still on bereavement leave,” he said. She could understand that. Nearly everyone in town knew how close the two families had been. “And speaking of, I didn’t like the idea of you having to remove all of Mr. Mac’s things all by yourself. That’s what family is for.” Before she could protest, he snatched up two boxes and strode down the hallway toward the master bedroom. Dutifully, 103

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity she tucked her coffee in the crook of her arm, grabbed a box with her free hand, and followed. For the next two hours they packed nearly all of the empty boxes with clothing and odds-and-ends, folding the four lid flaps inside one another on top like an envelope, rather than taping the box shut. Every so often Brenda would come across an item she couldn’t bear to part with, and she’d add it to the small pile on the bed. “You know, if you plan to stay here or keep the place, I have a suggestion,” Lorne commented as they took a break. They were seated on the bedroom floor, enjoying the last of the coffee she had fixed an hour earlier. “What’s that?” She looked around the room, now devoid of everything except the furniture. The packed boxes were waiting in the living room for him to cart off to Goodwill. “Keep the bedframe, but buy a new mattress, and use this as your bedroom now.” “Oh, I can’t.” She shook her head. “This is where Mom and Dad slept. I couldn’t use it.” “All right. Buy a new mattress anyway, and let guests use it. Would you have a problem with that?” he gently asked. “No. I can handle that.” She gave him a watery smile. “Thanks, Lorne. For everything.” “Hey, what are best buds for?” He grinned back. “No, I mean it. You…you’ve been there for me every step of the way. I don’t know if I could have done it alone.” “Yeah, you could have. You’re intelligent and strong, and I don’t mean just physically. You’ve got grit, as Luke would say. Look at how you kept our butts in line while we were growing up! Took a lot for a measly girl to hold sway over us three guys!” 104

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity She was laughing again, remembering all the times in the past when she’d go one-on-three over some issue or another. Leaning over, she gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. Or rather, on the stubble. Although it was scratchy, she caught a whiff of his scent, familiar and heady. Reluctantly, she pulled away. “Thank you,” she started to say. Lorne caught her arm, stopping her face mere inches from his. A moment became two, stretching into timelessness as they stared at one another. Brenda could see herself reflected in his smoky gray eyes which seemed to soften with every passing second. Breathing stopped, and then Lorne moved forward, closing the distance. The next thing she knew, warm lips closed over hers, taking away every thought as she sunk into his embrace. The room disappeared. The day disappeared. Every atom of sadness that had been hanging over the room and their chore vanished in the strong warmth of Lorne’s arms. She moved slightly, and without having to ask, he picked her up and set her in his lap where she could nestle under his chin. She dug her fingers into his t-shirt and relished the sweet movements of his lips on hers. She felt his hand cup her cheek as he delved deeper, lightly tonguing the edges of her mouth and licking the center of her lips to open them. She let him part them, waiting to see what he would do next. She could taste and breathe the sweet coffee he’d drunk, and it left her craving for more. This was not the Lorne Palmer she knew, but it was the Lorne Palmer she’d dreamed she’d discover. He was still the caring, insightful human being she’d always known he was. Grown up, he’d added strength and character. She had never seen him lose his temper, unlike his other brothers. Maybe that’s why she had come to love him, because she knew he would never condemn anything 105

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity she said or wanted to do. Make fun of, yes. Tease almost mercilessly, most definitely. But not get upset or angry. His tongue touched her teeth, moving further past them to find hers. When he did, he began to suckle on it with gentle, rhythmic pulls. The sensation sent shivers through her, like titillating bubbles of lust and desire popping in her bloodstream, making her moan in response. She wanted this to last and go as far as they both dare. All the way to home plate, if he would. But first, they had to take it one base at a time. Taking his hand from her face, Brenda placed it on her breast. She felt his gasp of disbelief, and he lifted his mouth from hers. “Brenda, are you sure?” “Shh.” “Bren—” “Shh,” she hushed him again. “Don’t stop kissing me. Don’t ever stop,” she whispered. He answered by holding her tighter and claiming her mouth with greater ferocity.


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Chapter 16 Promise Her kiss made him dizzy. Her mouth was paradise. Her body, snuggled against and clinging to his, was his greatest dream come to life. She wanted him. He wanted her. He knew how far he was willing to take this moment, but there was still the smallest shred of doubt whether or not she’d let him. His heart was beating so hard in his throat, it nearly choked him. Her breast filled his palm with firmness and warmth, and when the taut nipple scraped across his skin, it was like a match being drawn across the striker, setting every cell aflame. His jeans were too tight. His dick was caught next to the seam, but it would be the jeans that would give first if he didn’t do something about it, and soon. It was costing him to keep his movements gentle. With his increased strength, he was afraid of hurting her, possibly injuring her. Groaning softly, Lorne massaged her breast as he removed his lips from hers, and began to nibble the side of her neck, trailing down to her shoulder. “Lorne.” Her hands were tangled in his shirt, holding on with desperation. With every little wiggle of her butt, his hard-on increased, sending him spinning closer and closer to perfection. 107

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity They had made that critical first move. It was like unlocking the door and leaving it open to the future. A door either one of them could pass through to reach the other whenever they needed to. When they wanted to. Gradually, he laid her on the rug, sliding his body across hers, next to hers. Almost cradling her between his thighs and shoulders. Pulling up her pullover sweater with one hand, he managed to pull down the bra cup enough to reach her warm breast. The sweet pink tip beckoned like the cherry on a sundae, and Lorne closed his mouth over it with relish. Brenda arched her back against this new onslaught and moaned. The fingers of her free hand threaded through his hair. But the one underneath his shirt continued to tease his sensitive nipples, tweaking them unmercifully. He could suckle on her hard little raspberry nipples for hours if she’d let him, but the musky scent coming from between her legs was beginning to drive him crazy. Releasing her breast, he scooted down, hooking his fingers inside the waistband of her jeans. He pressed his face into her lower abdomen and breathed in deeply. She was wet and squirming underneath him. Her breathing had become quick, shallow gasps. A glance up at her revealed she was clutching her breasts, manipulating them, and bringing herself closer and closer to her cusp of completion. Gentle urging made her spread her thighs. Lorne carefully teethed the moist juncture. Her scent called to the most primitive part of his brain, bringing forth the raw male instinct to forego the foreplay, and tear her clothes off and claim her. Subconsciously, he rubbed his aching hard-on against the floor as he snagged the zipper on her jeans with his teeth. Lorne. 108

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity Lorne felt the zipper’s vibration through his gums as he drew it downward. Go away, Luke. Can’t. Sorry. This is important. So is this, he mentally growled, pressing his nose to her sweaty skin. She wore a thin cotton thong that was soaked with her juices. She tasted of salt and smelled of passion. One of her hands had started to jerk his t-shirt over his head. Another glance up at her, and he could see she had already divested herself of her sweater and bra. Her breasts were full and natural, her nipples stiff and waiting for his return. Lorne, we need The Defender. He groaned. Brenda was tweaking her nipples. His mouth had breached the top of her thong to discover a soft, manicured triangle of dark curls awaiting his kisses. If they kept up this pace, he would explode before they ever got to the main act. Luke, you’re killing me. Can’t you tell we’ve passed first base? And we’re both running like hell for home! I’m happy for you, Lorne! But you can always pick up where you two leave off. This can’t wait. We’re looking at a consequential event. The simple phrase was like spilling cold water into his veins where it started to cool his burning blood. Cool, but not completely extinguish. As for extricating himself from the promise of her body, it was like trying to pry two powerful magnets apart. Gritting his teeth from the effort, Lorne pulled away and slipped her jeans back up around her hips, zipping her with trembling fingers. “What?” she asked, dazed with passion. Picking her up and setting her back on the floor next to him, Lorne gathered up his courage and forced himself to look into her disappointed gaze. “I think we’re moving too fast,” he managed to blurt out. 109

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity “On the contrary, Lo. I think we’re making up for lost time.” She was angry, she was confused, and she was horny. He could wholeheartedly relate. “Brenda, I would not hesitate to carry you into your bedroom and make love to you until both of us are too exhausted to move,” he confessed. “But—” “Then do. Let’s do it,” she challenged him, her voice shaking with sexual frustration. He slowly shook his head. He didn’t hide his own agony. “No. This is not the way I envisioned it.” Lorne? Screw you, Luke. I’m coming! Her eyes widened. “The way you’d envisioned it? Are you telling me you’d been planning on—” He grinned. “Seducing you? Yes, but not like this. I wanted it to be in a more romantic setting. Something to make it memorable for both of us. You know, the way you’d told me you were hoping it would be like.” “With candles and soft music?” “And maybe some chocolate-covered strawberries with champagne.” Her smile returned. “I never talked about strawberries and champagne, but I like where you’re going with this.” “Sooo, what are your plans for tonight, Miss McKay?” Lorne inquired as he got to his feet. There was no way he could hide his wood, and frankly she already was aware of it. Very much aware of it, since her eyes kept dropping back down to it. They both needed a break to collect themselves and learn to breathe again. Striding toward her, he stopped directly before her and ran a thumb over her lips. Bending over, he tenderly kissed her again, lingering for a several seconds against her moistened mouth. 110

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity “Nine o’clock,” he whispered. “Is it a date?” He felt her shiver. “Yeah. Nine. Don’t you dare be late.” Lorne chuckled and gave her a wink. Without another word, he hurried into the living room, piled one box on top of another, and picked up both to take back to his house where he knew Luke would be waiting and tapping his chair arm in anticipation.


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Chapter 17 Insurance “All right. What’s the emergency?” Lorne growled, striding into the basement office where Luke was waiting. After dumping the two boxes he’d taken from Brenda’s place in their garage, he’d hurried to dress in his black leather uniform and make it down the secret passageway. His erection had softened, but it hadn’t entirely disappeared. If Luke noticed the bulge in the front of his pants, he couldn’t care less. Yet, Lorne realized the interruption may have been for the better. Now that he’d had a minute to let his head clear, he realized it could have been a mistake to have their first time be in her parents’ bedroom. Better to delay it until this evening, where it could turn out to be the beginning of every dream he’d ever had of Brenda. Let him get this emergency over with, and he could spend the rest of the afternoon hunting up candles, strawberries, and a bottle of Dom Perignon. And if everything worked out the way he thought it would, the way he hoped it would, they could spend the weekend looking at engagement rings. Yeah, and at what point are you going to tell her you’re The Defender? Lorne came to a sudden halt. He couldn’t tell if the little voice in his head had come from Luke, or if it had been his own subconscious. And because Luke’s mouth didn’t move when he 112

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity communicated telepathically, there was no way of knowing unless he asked. “Lee’s waiting for you at the police station.” “You said it was a consequential event. Are we talking loss of lives?” Luke nodded, sending cold chills down his back. “Hurry,” the oldest brother ordered, and the tube leading to the surface opened as if by magic. Lorne shot upward, fast enough so as not to be seen if anyone should be looking in the direction of the exit. It took him another minute to reach the police station. He landed near the back doors, which were shielded from public view behind a tall wall of white cinder blocks. Several officers, including two men he recognized from the bomb squad division, exited the building to greet him. Lee was nowhere to be seen, but that wasn’t surprising. Hell, the man could be just about anywhere. One of the bomb squad members by the name of Dees walked over to shake hands. “Defender, glad you got here. I don’t know how you found out we were needing you, but I’m glad you did.” “I was given the news it was an emergency,” Lorne said. He wasn’t about to tell them the truth about how he found out he was needed. In fact, he and his brothers were determined to keep law enforcement, the government, and the public from learning there were three superpowered Palmers. “Yeah. We ran some tests on that blue substance you brought in,” Dees continued. “Unguindene.” The bomb squad captain nodded. “You were right. It’s highly volatile and extremely unstable. But thanks to your suggestions, we were able to piece together the chemical makeup. Our men are in contact with the FBI lab, working on an answer to negate its 113

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity effects. In the meantime” The man pulled a small spiral notebook from his hip pocket and flipped it open. “We did a little investigating of our own. Defender, may I introduce Agent Queens and Agent Trail. They’re with the ATF. And Agent Betts, who’s with Homeland Security. Gentlemen, The Defender.” Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, and Homeland Security. It figured the big boys had been called in. Lorne smiled but didn’t offer to shake the men’s hands. They merely greeted each other with head nods. “Where do I fit in?” Lorne asked. “We want you to go back over the remains of the lab and the factory with a fine tooth comb,” the one introduced as Agent Queens said. “We need to find every last molecule of this substance, because even a loose molecule of it can be deadly.” “We’re in the process now of trying to figure out how the unguindene got here,” Dees added. “Once we can pin that down, we’ll be able to track down who brought it, and maybe why.” “Who manufactures unguindene?” Lorne asked. Agent Betts spoke up. “That wasn’t too difficult to find out,” he said. “There’s only one company who does.” Lorne nearly took a step backwards in surprise. He already knew the answer before the man answered. “Dobbling Enterprises.” One of the agents got a call on his cell phone. The man excused himself and walked a few feet away to take it. Lorne gave him a hard stare. Luke? Already taken care of, bro, his brother reassured him. Lorne relaxed. Although he could easily listen in on the agent’s call, it would take some practice before he could handle 114

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity two or more conversations simultaneously. In the meantime, his brothers would provide what back-up they could. “If you find any more of the substance, we need you to take it immediately to our disposal facilities,” Dees continued. “And any other evidence here to the police station,” Agent Queens added. Lorne nodded. “I’ll do the best I can, gentlemen. However, you realize there may be nothing left after those explosions.” From the corner of his eye, he saw the agent on the phone hang up and rejoin the group. “We aren’t holding our breath,” Dees admitted. “Still, we figured you were our best shot. Your enhanced abilities may be the edge we need to solve this case.” Enhanced abilities. The remark almost made him smile. Luke had said people wouldn’t start referring to what The Defender had as superpowers until they realized that normal people couldn’t perform the way he could, and never would, no matter what they did. Forget the fact that he could fly. He started to lift off from the sidewalk, but was stopped when the ATF agent waved for his attention. “I got a heads up from headquarters,” Trail interjected. “Dobbling has just filed against their insurance for the explosions. They’re claiming the blasts were a result of sabotage. If they can prove it, Dobbling is off the hook for this fiasco, not to mention four hundred million dollars greener.” Sabotage? “Where are they getting their information?” Lorne asked. “What makes them so sure it was sabotage?” The agent grinned. “Because if it was an employee accident, the payout would be a paltry one hundred fifteen million. Terrorist threats pay out four times the contracted amount.” 115

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity “Doesn’t that seem odd that they would have that stipulation put in their policy? What are the odds such an event would occur?” Dees shrugged. “At this point, all we can do is add that question to our already long list.” Lorne frowned. “I wonder why they believed they would be subject to a terrorist attack? What was this lab manufacturing that we haven’t been told about?” “We can send you all the details,” Agent Trail offered. Ha ha, asshole. Nice try. Lorne smiled at his brother’s remark. These guys weren’t here only to investigate the explosion. They must be chewing at the bit to find out what they could about The Defender. “Thanks,” he said, leaving it at that. “Any idea if they plan on rebuilding?” “We haven’t heard anything definite yet,” Agent Betts said. But we know someone who might, Luke said. He didn’t have to say her name. They were on the same wavelength. “Looking at what they’ve sunk financially into the place, Dobbling must have been banking on this lab to bring in some major income. But I find it highly suspicious they would insure themselves against sabotage.” Sighing, Lorne admitted, “You’re right. There’s too many unanswered questions. This whole thing smells funny.” “We agree,” said Dees. “That’s why your help is so crucial if we want to get to the truth, and do it as quickly as possible. Because the longer we take, the longer the people responsible have to pile up more shit to hide behind.” Lorne lifted further into the air as he mentally chewed over what he’d learned. “I’m heading over to the labs now, gentlemen. I’ll see you there.” Without waiting for a reply, he shot into the 116

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity air. But instead of heading directly to the destroyed facilities, he made a quick detour first to try and get some answers.


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Chapter 18 APB She’s not there. Lorne paused in midair. Luke had surmised he would head over to Brenda’s to ask her a few pertinent questions about Dobbling. Concentrating, he began to scan the area, looking for her little car. He quickly discovered it far in the distance, heading away from the house. Heading north. “Turn right on Sutherland,” he muttered. “Turn right…atta girl!” She was aiming for the labs. Lorne reversed direction and flew over to the destroyed facilities. Before he went unguindene hunting again, he wanted some honest answers from the one person who had to have a few of the missing puzzle pieces. He waited for her near the mobile HAZMAT unit set up on the grounds near the debris field. Several men greeted him as they came and went. Lorne said hello back, shook a couple of hands, but didn’t instigate any conversation or answer any questions. The scientists and specialists quickly understood he was there for a reason, and left him alone. Brenda came straight to the unit from the parking lot. She was still wearing the thin pullover sweater and jeans she’d had on earlier when he had been at her place as himself. The only 118

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity difference was she’d scrubbed her face, added a little makeup, and put her hair up in a ponytail, which made her look so much like the young high school girl he’d agonized over when it came time for the prom. Fortunately, with Luke and Lee both urging him on, he had worked up the courage to ask her to go with him, and she had accepted. Unfortunately, the fantastic evening only ended with a kiss and nothing more. Not even first base. The memory of her in his lap sent a resurgence of desire shooting through him. Even though he was upwind of her, he could still smell her rich, womanly scent, which dove straight into his crotch. He shifted his stance, hoping it would ease the tightness in his pants. The movement must have alerted her of his presence. Seeing him standing near the sterilization tent, Brenda stopped and stared at him in surprise. Lorne wasted no time for niceties. “Miss McKay, I need to ask you a few questions,” he bluntly greeted her. She nodded. “Okay. Now?” Lorne held out a hand, suggesting they simply move a few yards beyond the setup where they could talk in relative privacy. He noticed how she kept sweeping her eyes over him, probably remembering fragments of her dream from last night. Smiling slightly, he made a note to be his most gracious and enigmatic self, knowing how much Brenda enjoyed mysteries. Once he figured they were out of earshot, he turned to face her. “Miss McKay, tell me what you know of unguindene.” Her face paled slightly, but she didn’t seem upset that he knew about it. Meanwhile, Lorne knew Luke would be monitoring everything about the woman to check for any sign of deception. He crossed his arms over his chest to await her response. 119

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity “It’s a highly top secret experimental explosive,” she answered without hesitation. He had to give her credit for not trying to evade the issue. “Tell me all about it.” “Dobbling holds the patent. It’s unique in that a very tiny amount is needed to create an explosion big enough…” Her voice trailed off and her eyes widened. “Is that what destroyed the lab?” “We’ve found traces of it, yes. Who funded unguindene?” “Dobbling Enterprises, as far as I know. I was told it was initially created for mining use, and for companies who specialize in blowing up old buildings. That sort of thing. But I wasn’t surprised to hear rumors that the government had handed over a large wad of cash to use it for military purposes.” “A large wad of cash? How large? Did rumor say?” “At least a billion dollars.” Damn! Luke’s shocked exclamation echoed his own. “Okay. Now tell me the real purpose of this lab.” “It’s actually one of three labs. You see, there are three components needed to create unguindene. Each factory manufactures one of the components, then ships it off to a specially designed bunker our company has located in New Mexico where the three parts are mixed to make the explosive.” Which was the exact story the city had been told when Dobbling first arrived and broke ground. The same story Luke related to him when he was investigating the cause of the explosion, right when the second blast occurred. “The only problem with your story, Miss McKay, is that all three components were here at this lab. Those two blasts were caused by unguindene.” 120

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity “That’s not possible,” she quickly argued, then paused. “The other day, when I saw you flying away with something in your hands, was that—” “Yes. It was unguindene. I had to take it to the bomb disposal facility outside the city limits so they could test it.” He saw her nod slowly as she softly muttered, “So that’s where” “You said one of those components were to be manufactured here?” he asked. “Umm, yes. Bicamphorate sulfide. Please don’t ask me what it is, what it does, or how it’s made. I had a hard enough time learning how to pronounce all of it.” She tried to smile, but failed. It was clear she was worried. “Would you happen to know what forms those components are in?” “It’s easy. They’re the three states of matter. Liquid, solid, or in this case, a powder, and a gel.” The unguindene has the consistency of a gel. Take liquid and a powder, and they become a paste. Add a gel, and you have something that’ll stick to whatever you slather it on. No container needed. Now all we have to figure out is how the other two substances got here. Find out that out, Lorne, and we’ll have several more pieces of our puzzle in place. “Miss McKay, where are the other two labs located where these other two substances are manufactured?” “Bisentrope, North Dakota, and Flemming Town, Utah.” “And the components to make these substances, how are they delivered to the labs?” “Usually by truck. Special haulers specializing in hazardous materials, hired by the company. Of course, the components alone aren’t hazardous, but Dobbling doesn’t take chances.” 121

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity “Of course not,” Lorne replied sans sarcasm. “Do these special haulers also transport the finished products, like the bicamphorate sulfide, to the bunker in New Mexico?” “Yes.” Brenda nodded. “In tankers. All three compounds. Each truck is also specifically rigged with a satellite GPS location tracker, so that at all times we know where each shipment is en route.” In tankers? “Let’s say there are no tankers available. Let’s say I personally have to take the sulfide to New Mexico. Let’s say I have to fly it there. What sort of containment unit would I be needing?” Her eyes narrowed as she thought. “You mean, to carry a small amount? Like a couple of pounds or so?” “Exactly.” Brenda shrugged as she slowly shook her head. “I have no idea.” She’s being one hundred percent truthful, Lo. I already knew that. He started to ask her another question when he caught sight of Agent Dees and his men, plus the other Fed officials, exiting their vehicles and making their way over to the tent. Seeing where his gaze was directed, Brenda turned around to await their arrival. “Miss McKay, is it?” Dees asked, bypassing the tent and striding up to them, along with the others. “Yes.” Dees produced his credentials even though he wore his shield. “I’m with the Fullerton Police Department. Miss McKay, we just got a phone call from Dobbling Enterprises, letting us know that several ounces of two highly dangerous substances have been discovered missing from their containment center in Ocean City. Would you happen to know anything about that?” Lorne immediately felt her go on the defensive. 122

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity “No, I don’t,” Brenda told them in a strong voice. Truth, Luke whispered in his head. Agent Queens pointed back toward the parking lot. “Miss McKay, I’m Agent Queens with the ATF. Is that your little blue car parked over there?” “Yes, it is.” “Mind if we take a look inside it?” “Whoa.” Lorne stepped forward to intervene. “For what purpose?” It was Dees who said, “We were told the last person to check out of the containment area right before the substances were discovered missing was Brenda McKay. The OCPD has put out an APB listing her as a person of interest.” Giving Brenda a small smile, he repeated, “May we take a look inside your car?” “Okay,” she relented. She dug inside her small purse she’d slung diagonally across her neck and shoulder, and pulled out her keys to unlock the doors. “The trunk and hood, too, please,” the Agent named Trail requested. Lorne watched as all four men snapped on latex gloves. Brenda moved closer to him, and for the first time he sensed her nervousness. “I don’t like this,” she whispered to him. “If you’re innocent, you have nothing to worry about.” It was an old cliché, but it was true. “Well, I’m innocent, but that doesn’t stop me from worrying.” I’m with her, Luke admitted. She’s been honest with you, but my sixth sense is telling me something’s not adding up here. I agree with you, bro, Lorne agreed. But what can we do, other than watch and see what happens? 123

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity He didn’t get an answer. He hadn’t expected one. As the government agents and Dees brought out their cases to examine the car, all he and Brenda could do was stand by and watch what developed.


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Chapter 19 Evidence With four of them searching, it didn’t take long to do a relatively thorough search of the interior of her car. At Trail’s request, Brenda popped the trunk, and Agent Queen opened the hood to finish the bumper-to-bumper investigation. Almost immediately, Betts pulled a small silver case from the trunk. Handling it gingerly, he took it over to the curb and set it on the grass. “Can you tell us what this is?” Dees asked her. “It’s my makeup kit.” “Your makeup kit?” Lorne repeated. “Why is it still in the car?” “Because I’d forgotten I had packed a small makeup bag and left it in my suitcase,” she explained. “I wasn’t thinking straight when I left my apartment to come back here, and I threw the case in the back.” He could understand. He wasn’t sure he would be thinking straight, either, when he’d just learned his parent had died suddenly, and he had to hurry out of town to make funeral arrangements. Betts carefully unlatched the two fasteners and lifted the top. It opened on a hinge, bringing an upper tray along with it. The inside of the case was lined in black velveteen. He reached inside and slowly extracted a cylinder approximately eight inches long 125

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity and a couple of inches in diameter. The cylinder was semiopaque, but there was no mistaking the blueish fluid inside it. “Miss McKay, can you tell us what this is?” Brenda stood staring at the cylinder in open-mouthed astonishment. “I…I…I think that’s biphuromethanene. But that’s impossible!” Methinks the lady is correct, Luke corroborated. Dees pulled out his handcuffs as he approached her. “Miss McKay, I’m afraid I’m going to have to take you into custody.” He gestured for her to turn around. Brenda glanced up at Lorne, who stood watching with equal surprise. “I don’t know how the gel got there. I swear, Defender!” And the lady is correct again. Lorne frowned. “Let me look further into this. There could be a very good reason why the substance is in her possession.” “Whatever,” Agent Queens replied. “We’re impounding the case and her car, and having them sent over to the lab for further analysis.” “Listen, Defender.” Agent Trail walked up as he removed his gloves. “We’re thankful for all your help. Have you had a chance to go back over the blast area?” “No, not yet. I was about to question Miss McKay when you showed up.” It was a white lie, but Lorne was hesitant to tell the agent he had already been grilling her for answers. “I’ll go now and see what I can find.” He lifted from the ground as the agent yelled back, “Thanks again! If you find something, bring it right over to the station!” Racing over to the site, Lorne continued to watch as Dees left the parking lot with Brenda in the backseat. Betts left with the makeup case and cylinder, and the other two agents waited around the car for the tow truck to show up. 126

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity Luke, she was set up to take the fall. Damn right she was. It’s the who and the why that has me stumped. And this blast is tied to it, Lorne added as he stared down at the rubble that used to be a building. Luke gave him a mental raspberry. You think? Lorne landed in an area he hadn’t gone over yet. Hunkering down, he ran a gloved hand through some of the bits and pieces. Nothing about it was discernable or identifiable. There’s not a lot of charring. The explosions pulverized it all. It’s more dust and slivers than anything else. Keep your eye open for anything that may look like a piece of another cylinder, Luke said. That gel came in a cylinder, but what about the other stuff? The liquid? The acetal-diphilate prorestilyme? Lorne grinned. Show off. Yeah. That stuff. Would it be transported in a cylinder, too? It might. But then again, common sense would preclude it would be shipped in a different sort of container, so that people wouldn’t mistake the contents at first glance. In other words, no. That’s what I said. Lorne chuckled. Luke had a dry sense of humor, but sometimes his astounding thought processes prevented him from showing it. Standing, he surveyed the resulting damage. It was obvious from the few walls that remained standing that both blasts had a discernable radius of equal distance from the center, meaning the force was only restricted by the floor, and the explosive went directly upward and outward. There was no point in trying to find 127

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity anything at ground zero. However, something might have survived further away. Pulling off a glove, Lorne spread his fingers and held out his hand, palm down. He began to systematically sweep the area in front of him, slowly moving about the room in a grid pattern, finetuning his sixth sense. But as time dragged on, the hope of finding some small shred of evidence diminished. I’m getting nothing, he admitted to his brother. Tough break, bro, Luke replied. It would have been nice to have something concrete in Brenda’s defense. Now what? Now we break Brenda out of jail. Lorne paused, startled. We’re what? Actually, I’ve just made arrangements to pay her bail. They actually booked her? Yeah, and get this. She called Dobbling Enterprises for legal representation, and she was turned down cold. They said it would be a conflict of interest to represent both her and the company, since Dobbling just filed charges against her. Are you shitting me? Lorne asked incredulously. On what grounds? Sabotage? Luke’s mental sigh was all the answer he needed. Okay. So the Palmers paid her bail. Does Lorne need to go get her and bring her home? Actually, I have a better idea, Luke suggested. We all agree that Brenda is being set up for this, right? Right. And whoever is behind this is going to be watching to make sure she takes the fall. Which means she’s going to need our protection until we can find out the truth behind this whole mess. But since we can’t reveal our superpowered personas, here’s what I suggest. 128

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity Go ahead, bro. I’m listening, Lorne solemnly said. All right. Here’s what you need to do.


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Chapter 20 Beach House Brenda sat on the narrow bed, her head resting against the dirty green wall. She was at the very bottom rung of her emotional ladder, and hanging on by sheer strength of will alone. Her company refused her legal representation, which she had every right to have, being an employee of Dobbling Enterprises. Yet, she could understand why they had suddenly turned their backs on her. To them she was the person responsible for the explosions at the factory. To them, she was on someone else’s payroll and out to sabotage Dobbling’s efforts. The huge question was, who was really responsible for this mess? Who was the conductor orchestrating this rather elaborate symphony of events? More importantly, why had she been tapped to be the scapegoat? What had she done to piss off someone so badly that they had to target her? She’d tried to figure out who might be at the helm, but no one’s name rose to the top. Her rise in the ranks had been swift and somewhat miraculous. There had been no time to create many enemies, if any. Someone swore. She heard someone vomiting on the floor. Further down in the large holding cell, a few drunk men were waiting for their twenty-four hours to be up, or for someone to 130

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity come get them. Because she was the only female, she had been placed in a small cell for her protection. Brenda wiped her eyes with the cuff of her sweater. What would happen to her now? She had no idea how the justice system worked, and she hadn’t had the chance to call anyone yet. The officer who had brought her here told her that the city would provide her with a defense attorney, but that was all. Inside her soul the flame of righteous indignation burned hot and bright. Whoever was doing this to her was in the wrong. It didn’t take two cents’ worth of common sense to realize that someone didn’t want her to ever get out of jail. And why not? Because she would be able to discover who the real culprit was? I’m no detective. I don’t know the first thing about tracking someone down. How could I be dangerous? The more she thought about it, the more confused she became. And the more confused she became, the lower her spirits sunk. A loud scraping sound at the end of the hallway signaled someone was entering the cell block area. Brenda closed her eyes, believing the police were hauling in another vagrant or drunk. She didn’t expect the footsteps to stop in front of her cell. The keys in the lock made her turn in surprise to see a different officer opening the door. “Miss McKay, your bail’s been posted. Let’s go.” Her jaw dropped. “Who?” Rather than answer her, the officer gestured for her to leave. She quickly got up and followed him into another area of the police station where another police officer handed over a brown envelope containing her purse, and made her sign an affidavit saying none of her personal possessions were missing. Numbly, Brenda signed the paper without checking. When she was finished there, a female 131

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity officer escorted her down another hallway and through another door that opened up into the general waiting area. She was stunned to see Luke Palmer waiting for her near the glass front doors. “Luke? You’re the person who posted my bail? Where’s Lorne?” “He’s at work. I called him to let him know what was happening. Come on.” He opened the door for her to exit first. “We’ll talk all about it in the car while I take you home.” She went ahead of him, stepping out into the cool night air. The stars overhead were obliterated by the building’s lights, but the moon was still visible. A half-moon. “How did you know I was here?” He gave her a teasing smile. “Gee, you couldn’t figure that out on your own?” Of course she could, now that she thought about it. She was a hometown girl, and that meant many of the people employed at the police station already knew her and her family. That probably explained why she hadn’t yet been given the chance to make her one phone call. “Luke, I’m going to repay you for every bit you had to shell out. I promise. I don’t care how much it cost.” She glanced over at him striding beside her as they aimed for the visitors’ parking lot. “How much did it cost?” “Lucky for you, just a few hundred thousand.” He grinned at her shocked expression. “Hey, Dobbling wanted the bail rescinded, but when the judge refused, their lawyer tried to make it at least a cool million. Like I said, you’re lucky you’re a hometown girl. Judge Nichols can be just as pigheaded as those corporate suits.” Brenda felt a smile come over her face. “Gee. Nichols is still on the bench? I remember when Deanna Nichols and I had a falling out in junior high over Larry Evers. Of course, she and Larry 132

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity ended up getting married right out of high school. I wonder how they’re doing today?” “They’re divorced. Deanna still lives here in town with their son. She works over at the Family Dollar Discount. Larry moved to some place in Texas where he’s an oilfield worker.” Luke grinned. “I think you came out ahead on that deal.” “Maybe so. Too bad I can’t say the same thing about this deal,” she remarked. They had almost reached the sedan when Luke stopped, grabbing Brenda around the waist as if to protect her. Looking at him, she saw his gaze aimed upward. Following it, she caught sight of the figure in black slowly descending to land in front of them. “I’m not here to hurt her,” The Defender announced. “I’m here to help.” He held out a hand toward Luke. “I’m called The Defender.” “Luke Palmer,” Luke answered, and the two men shook. “What do you mean, you’re here to help?” Rather than answer the man directly, The Defender turned to her. “Miss McKay, I have every reason to believe you are being set up to take the full blame for the destruction of the Dobbling Chemicals factory.” “I wish you’d call me Brenda. And I’ve pretty much come to the same conclusion.” “My brothers and I are certain Brenda’s innocent of all charges,” Luke added. The Defender nodded. “That’s why I’m here. I’d gotten word that you’d posted her bail. And if I’m aware of it, those who are trying to pin this on her are also aware of it.” “So you think she’s in danger?” Luke asked. 133

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity “I think that as long as she had remained in jail, she would have been safe, but your actions have negated that. With her free, these people will think she’s going to do everything she can to find out who the real culprit is—” “You can bet I will!” Brenda interjected heatedly “And they’re going to try and stop her,” The Defender added in a voice that suggested a sinister conclusion might be at hand. “What do you think we should do?” Luke said. “I think it would be in your best interest if I put her in a safe house where I can keep watch over her until I know who is behind all this.” The Defender looked at her with an intense stare. Brenda could feel a sexual tingle start to go through her, but it was tempered by the seriousness of her situation. “I think the safe house is an excellent idea,” Luke said. “But I don’t like having Brenda where my brothers and I can’t communicate with her. We’re practically family, and Brenda’s father just died, so we’re all she has left.” He looked at her for approval, when a smile came over him. “Wait! I have an idea!” Releasing her waist, he dug into his jeans pocket and pulled out his set of keys. He quickly removed one key from the ring and handed it over to The Defender. “We have a small beach house on Longone Point. It’s pretty much isolated, and it sits out in the open, which means you can see anyone coming from miles away. There’s no land line to it, so you don’t have to worry about anyone tracing a call.” He produced his cell phone from his shirt pocket and gave it to her. “This is my personal cell. Only myself, Lorne, and Lee have the number. Call us if you need us, okay?” “Okay.” She took the phone, noticing how warm it felt in her cold hands. 134

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity “This place sounds like an excellent idea,” The Defender said. “How do we get there?” “I normally go up and take 17 over to MaGrath Road, right before you get to Ocean City. That’ll take you to Seaside. From Seaside, there’s a turn right past Morgan’s Bait Shop. It’s a sandy dirt road that’ll meander for about seven miles before you see the cottage.” The Defender nodded. “I should be able to find it without any difficulty.” Luke sighed. “The only problem is, we haven’t been there in a couple of years. There’s no provisions.” “I can deal with that later. Right now my main concern is for Miss McK— Brenda’s safety. Thanks for your help.” “No. Thank you, Defender,” Luke replied, and the two men shook hands again. He turned to her and wrapped his hands around hers still clutching the phone. “Are you sure you’re okay with this plan?” he asked her softly. “You have no qualms about having this man take care of you? Because if you do—” “Luke.” She wrapped her arms around his neck and gave him a grateful kiss on the cheek. “Yes, I trust him. I’ll be fine. I can’t thank you enough for everything you’re doing. I wish there was a way I could help.” “Hey.” Although lighting was poor, she would swear he was blushing. “You keep safe. That’ll be our payment. And keep thinking over things that have happened in the past, even the smallest, insignificant details. Let us know if anything strikes you odd. Anything, you understand? In the meantime, I’m going to call in 135

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity some favors and see if I can’t find out something that might give us some answers.” “Are you ready? We need to get away from this place as soon as possible,” The Defender asked, interrupting. Nodding, Brenda gave Luke another peck on the cheek before turning back to the man in black. She gasped as she was quickly swept up into the man’s arms. A split second later, they were above the trees and heading toward the stars.


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Chapter 21 Decision The Defender kept her gathered close to his chest as they flew through the dark skies. Still, at this height, the night air was brutally cold. It penetrated her clothing, all the way to the bone, and she couldn’t stop shivering. The Defender held her tighter, lowering his face so she could hear him. “Want me to fly more slowly so the wind’s not as fierce?” “N-no.” She shook her head, unable to speak clearly because her teeth were chattering so hard. She buried her face in the curve of his neck. The tip of her nose found his pulse below his ear. She was surprised to find it beating furiously. In spite of the weather, it was a beautiful night. She caught glimpses of the world passing below them, looking like bright jewels against a black velvet tapestry. Overhead, the stars were incredibly brilliant, like crystalline drops of ice suspended in space. The Defender flew high enough to prevent them from being seen, but low enough so as not to interfere with any air traffic. It was quiet up here in the skies. She never realized how noisy life was at ground level until now. Even at night the insects and bullfrogs kept a soft chorus going in the background. But up here, above the trees, sound and time stilled. Only the rushing of the wind going by them could be heard. She had no idea how long they flew. She remembered overhearing Mrs. Palmer once comment that it took her a little less 137

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity than an hour to drive from their home to the beach house. It would probably take The Defender a fraction of the time to get there. The Defender shifted his body. Instead of being parallel to the ground, he was now in a vertical, standing position. Gravity tugged at her, and Brenda realized they were landing. The sound of the ocean penetrated the silence, and she caught a glimpse of moonwashed waves sparkling in the distance. She also spotted the beach cottage sitting on its tall beams like an insect with stilt legs moments before they set foot in the sand behind a ridge of tall dunes. He lowered her to her feet and backed away. “Stay here. I want to check out the place first. Make sure it’s safe.” “Okay.” He jetted up and over, heading straight for the beach house. Brenda watched from the top of one dune, peering between the sea grass for safety’s sake. Her eyes were adjusted enough to the dim moonlight to see The Defender land in front of the door. In a few seconds, he’d unlocked it and walked inside. He reappeared almost immediately and flew back to her. Silently, he picked her back up in his arms to transport her over to the cottage, setting her on the small deck. “It’s dark inside. Be careful.” “That’s okay. There’s no electricity, but I think I remember where the candles are.” She tossed her purse onto the small settee sitting nearby and quickly found the drawer where she recalled the votive candles and matches were kept. Fumbling in the dark, she tried to strike a light, but her hands were still trembling from the cold. A pair of warm, gloved hands relieved her of the task. After another moment or two of searching, The Defender also found a lantern. He gave it a shake. 138

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity “There’s enough fuel inside. Hold on.” Brenda warmed her hands over the small candle flame as she watched The Defender expertly trim the wick and get the lantern going. Its soft golden glow quickly filled the room. “Looks like you’ve done that sort of thing a time or two,” she whispered with a smile. He glanced up at her in surprise, then smiled. “A time or two. Now, let’s see what we have.” Setting the lantern on the only table, he started going through the short row of upper and lower cabinets. Brenda glanced around as memories flooded back to her of summers spent here. She walked over to the windows that were boarded up and debated whether to open one, but the breeze coming off the waters was too cold. “God, it’s been so long since I’ve been here. I used to come up every summer with the Palmers when I was growing up. We’d spend at least a week, sometimes two.” “Good memories?” The Defender asked. He strode over to the narrow hallway and peered into it. “There’s a bathroom down that way, and the bedroom. Mister and Mrs. Palmer would sleep in there, and the boys and I would sleep on cots and pallets on the floor in here.” The Defender turned and gave her a smile. “It feels like the place hasn’t seen a human being in quite some time. You should be safe here.” He strode over to the single sink in the corner that served as the kitchen. Turning on the faucet got no results. “I think there’s a cistern or something on the side of the house where rainwater collects.” She gave a weak laugh. “I’m sorry I’m not too knowledgeable about how everything’s supposed to work.” 139

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity The Defender checked the small two-burner stove. “I need to check the propane tank.” “It’s outside, too. There’s a small storage bin on the other side of the deck where it’s kept. Here, I’ll show you.” She started to get up and head for the door when The Defender stopped her. In the lantern light his face was stern. His dark eyes seemed to see all the way through her, and she felt another shiver rattle her bones. “No. Stay here. I’ll find it. I don’t want you outside where someone could see you.” “It’s pitch-dark outside,” she protested. Other than the moon and the stars, there was no light to give her away. “Uh-huh.” The Defender nodded. “But have you ever heard of night vision goggles and infrared scopes?” Oh, shit. Yeah. Technology. Brenda bit her lower lip. It would be better to leave the protecting to the experts. “Sorry.” “Don’t be.” He smiled. “I’m just doing my job.” Brenda watched him leave and heard his footsteps on the plank deck that surrounded the cabin. A yawn suddenly caught her unaware, and she realized how exhausted she was, plus the fact that it had been ages since she’d eaten anything. But she didn’t feel hungry. Not at the moment. The danger wasn’t over yet, and although she felt a lot more secure in this remote place than she did in a jail cell, tension remained knotted in her stomach, leaving little room for food. Another look around the room convinced her she didn’t want to sleep on a cot tonight. Taking the candle into the back bedroom, she discovered a holder on the tiny bureau near the double bed. A thin layer of dust and sand covered the surface, leading her to suspect there was a similar layer on the bare mattress. A hearty swat to the bed proved her correct. 140

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity “Well, since I can’t take the thing outside to beat it, there’s only one other option,” she murmured. Grabbing the handles on the mattress side, she gave it hard tug. The heavy bedding grudgingly budged an inch. “Here. Let me.” Slightly startled by his silent reappearance, Brenda let go of the mattress and watched as The Defender deftly lifted it off of the box springs. “Flip it or turn it?” he asked her. “Uhh, flip it.” It was like watching the man toss pizza dough. The sight reminded her of the first time she’d seen him, waving the two reinforced steel doors in the wake of the explosion in order to extinguish the resulting fire. The mattress hit the frame with a cloud of dust. “There. Like that?” She coughed, smiling as she waved a hand in front of her face. “Yes. Thanks.” He stood staring at her, waiting for her to make the next move. The silence grew louder as the distance between them became smaller. Two of his long strides would put them face-toface, and Brenda felt her own breath quicken as she realized they were alone together. Isolated. In the middle of the night. She would never get another chance like this. There was the sound of hard swallowing, and The Defender broke the quiet. “The propane tank is half-full. You should be able to fire up the stove now. The cistern is also full, but the water’s brackish. Don’t drink it until you boil it first, but it should be safe enough to bathe with.” “Thanks,” she repeated “Will you be needing me for anything else?” 141

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity Will you be needing me? I need you! The words she’d blundered over at their first encounter came back to her with renewed embarrassment. Did she need him for anything? Yes, I need you! I need to find out if you’re worth all the hot, sticky wet dreams I’ve had about you, she almost told him. I need you to kiss me. I need you to hold me in your arms as if I’m the most important thing in the world to you, and not just another job. She was unaware he had moved closer until he placed a hand on her upper arm. Brenda let go of the breath she didn’t know she’d been holding, and stared up at him. “W-will you be staying the night?” Hearing what she’d said, she felt a hot sheen settle around her. On the good side, she no longer felt the cold. But the request was definitely double-edged, and curse her for not feeling ashamed about it. Will you be staying here with me? There’s a double bed in here. We can both sleep in it, unless there’s something you’d rather do than sleep. The Defender smiled slightly. “I’ll be outside, keeping an eye on things. If you need me, just call for me.” His fingers flexed slightly, as if they were reluctant to release their grip. He started to pull away, and Brenda automatically reacted by grabbing his hand. He paused, looking at her and waiting. She opened her mouth to say something, but her mind was blank. Her whole body was blank. Empty. Expectant. Anticipating what he would say. What he would do. “How…how can I thank you for all you’re doing?” she whispered. She had no idea where the words came from, but she’d say anything at this point, no matter how stupid she sounded, as long as it delayed the inevitable. If he left now, this moment would never come again. She would bet her life on it. 142

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity She felt her muscles singing beneath her skin as the tension between them grew thicker. She had to know. She had to find out if what she felt was the beginning of the real thing, or if it was nothing more than unadulterated lust. She opened her mouth again to say something else, but she never had the chance. The Defender turned back toward her, bowed his head, and covered her lips with his. She clutched his hand and his jacket, lost in the movement of his mouth on hers. On the feel of his warm, firm lips caressing hers. There was no sound between them excerpt for the soft, guttural noises coming from her throat. The world had slowed to a gentle stop to allow them time to have this night. He lifted his mouth and tilted his face to take her lips from the opposite direction. One arm eased around her waist, pulling her tightly against his body where hard, unmistakable evidence proved he was turned on. Just as turned on as…as… …as I am. Right? No. Brenda opened her eyes, surprised by her body’s response. Or rather, the lack of it. The Defender continued to kiss her in a most ardent way, treating her mouth with a combination of skill and tenderness that impressed her. The dream. Maybe the last dream she’d had about him had changed all that. Maybe her dream had dampened any desire she’d had about The Defender, because the flames she thought she’d feel with him were more smoke than heat. Nothing he could do to her would match the burning she had felt when Lorne had kissed her. Gasping, she suddenly broke away from The Defender’s embrace to stare at him in dismay. He gave her a shocked look in return. 143

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity “What? Did I hurt you?” “No, no!” she quickly reassured him. “Then why did you push me away?” His voice trailed off, as if he already suspected the truth. “I’m sorry.” She pressed her hand to the front of his black leather jacket in case he tried to kiss her again. “I’m sorry, Defender, but I can’t.” “You can’t?” He didn’t sound angry. It was more like he was confused. “Are you not feeling well?” She shook her head. “No. It’s not that. I’m fine, but I… You see…” She hated to stammer, but she couldn’t help it. “Is there someone else?” His tone of voice eased her guilt of having to turn him down. It was almost as though he had suspected it all along. “Yes.” “May I ask who this new superhero is who’s managed to capture your heart?” At that moment, Brenda knew who her future was meant to be shared with. And always had been. “I don’t know if you’ve met him, but you met his brother Luke earlier,” she admitted with a smile. “His name is Lorne Palmer. And, yes, he’s totally captured my heart.”


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Chapter 22 Exchange Luke! His cry for joy was like a mental trumpet sounding the call. If big brother was asleep, his thunderous yell would definitely wake him up. Yeah, yeah, I hear you, Lo! And I’m thrilled as all get-out for you! But the celebration’s going to have to wait until we can find out who is behind this mess, Luke responded without the least bit of sleepiness in his tone. She loves me, Luke. She loves me. Lorne! Not The Defender! He was doing backflips in the air, something he’d never tried before, but—what the hell—there was no better time than the present to try. Besides, he was high enough in the darkness of the night not to catch anyone’s attention. If he collided with anything this far off the ground, it would be an errant seagull. I’m really, really happy for you, bro, but it’s time to come back down to Earth. Lee will be there in about twenty-five minutes. Lorne paused, realized he was upside-down, and quickly righted himself. Already? Hey, did he get— Yes, we got everything you asked for. If Lorne didn’t know any better, he’d swear his older brother was laughing at him. And jealous. Time for step three, Luke commented. Gotcha. Only, do me a favor? 145

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity What’s that? If you sense I’ve hit the ball out of the park, would you shut our connection down? No. Scratch that. I order you to close this link between us. I want my time with Brenda alone, got that? This time there was no mistaking Luke’s laughter. Lorne landed on the deck, aware of the fact that the light from inside the cabin could be seen in the cracks around the door and windowframe. Frowning, he knocked on the weathered wood. “It’s me,” he said. The door opened an inch, and Brenda peered around at him. Her face and hair was wet, and Lorne smelled floral-scented soap. “Sorry to interrupt your bath. There’s a car heading this way. I’m going to check it out.” Seeing her eyes widen with fear, he added, “There’s no need to panic. If there’s any danger, I’ll be right back to get you.” She nodded. “I’ll hurry and get dressed,” she said, closing the door. “I’ll hurry and get dressed.” Those few words sent a streak of heat pulsing into his groin as his overactive imagination tried to imagine what her body looked like wet and covered in soap suds. Settle down, Lo. One step at a time. One base at a time. Smiling, Lorne left the cabin and flew over the dunes to the cutoff a quarter of a mile away to wait for his brother. It wasn’t long before he spotted the vehicle zooming down the road. Getting to his feet, he waved to let Lee know he was there. The car pulled off onto the trail leading to the cabin and stopped. “You made good time,” Lorne said, holding out his mask and jacket. “Thanks. But if it wasn’t for Luke, I would have gotten lost at least four or five times. I’ve never driven up here on my own before.” Taking the jacket, Lee slipped it on and zipped it up, 146

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity giving his shoulders a good shake. “Geesh, Lo. Why do you wear something so restrictive?” “What do you expect me to wear? Tights and a cape? Hey, I got some great news to share,” Lorne continued as he ditched his black leather pants and pulled on the jeans Lee had brought him. “Oh, yeah? I could use some good news about now. What is it?” “The Defender put some moves on Brenda tonight, and she stopped him cold.” Lee paused, a look of astonishment on his face. “No, shit. For real?” “Yep. She apologized, but explained to him that her heart belonged to one Lorne Palmer.” Lorne couldn’t stop grinning as he told his story. Lee gave a little whoop of joy. “Hot damn! That’s fantastic! So that’s why I had to go get those candles and shit, right? Oh, wow, Lo! I’m psyched for you!” The brothers hugged briefly and pounded each other on the back. “Oh, wow,” Lee repeated a bit more softly, shaking his head. “Okay, so I guess tonight’s the night, eh?” “It might be,” Lorne admitted. “That’s why I need you to watch our backs.” “Hey, I’m adding it to your tab,” Lee promised, and playfully punched his brother on the biceps with a fist. Holding his hands out away from his body, he took a couple of steps back from the car and posed. “Well? Think I’ll pass?” The men were nearly identical in height and build, although Lee had a sleeker physique. The only big difference was that Lee liked to wear his hair in a buzz cut, while Lorne liked his to be on the long side. But in the dark, with Lee wearing The Defender 147

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity outfit, and by remaining at a discreet distance from the cabin where he could still be seen but without revealing any details, the switch would be impossible for Brenda to detect. “Oh, yeah. You’ll pass.” Giving his younger sibling a pat on the shoulder, Lorne got into the car. “Thanks again, Lee.” Lee waved it off. “Hey, we all knew that sooner or later one of us would have to take the plunge to keep the Palmer dynasty going, right? I’m as grateful as hell we can finally bring Brenda into the family for keeps. Uhh, think you’re gonna tell her the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth tonight?” “I dunno,” Lorne said, mulling over it. “Maybe I’ll wait until after the wedding.” Both men laughed, and after exchanging thumbs-up signs, Lorne drove off toward the cabin with a renewed sense of hope.


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Chapter 23 Candles Brenda sat in the chair with her knees drawn up to her chest, her arms wrapped around her legs as she waited for The Defender to return and either take her away to some other safe house, or to tell her things were okay. She hoped it would be the latter. She didn’t like the way recent events were playing out. She hated the fact that she was now considered a criminal, blamed for something she had nothing to do with, and had no control over. “Whoever is behind this chose me to be the whipping boy,” she mumbled. “Why? What did I have or offer that made them target me?” She knew she could cry about her current lot in life, but she had enough common sense to realize the tears would be a wasted effort. Somewhere in her past lay the answer as to why she was being set up to take the fall. The key component had to be the person who had switched out the contents of her makeup kit for the stolen chemical. Closing her eyes, she tried to clear her mind. Maybe after she had a chance to catch her breath, she might think of that one clue that could be the key to the answer she was seeking. A clue that would seem inconsequential now, but end up being what she needed to unlock this mystery. At least there was one good thing to come out of this ordeal. It was realizing that the love she felt for Lorne was the real thing, 149

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity and not some pseudo brotherly-sisterly love. Accepting it had been an eye-opening revelation. Somehow she needed to tell Lorne. She needed to hear his voice, now more than ever. He would help her cope with this mess. He would be able to make her laugh, and then feel as if redemption lay just around the corner. But The Defender had the cell phone Luke had given them. “Damn. I wonder how far he is from the cabin?” She unfurled her legs and started to get to her feet when there was a sharp rap on the door. Brenda froze, waiting to see if The Defender would announce himself again. Or not, because it isn’t him. Icy dread began to creep up her spine. It could be them. The people who were out to ruin her life. They may be out there now, ready to attack. Ready to haul her back to jail. Or maybe to take her to some remote place where they could take their time destroying her. What remote spot? This place isn’t remote enough for you? She started to back away from the door as her brain tried to wrench itself out the paralyzing fear that was overtaking her. Where was The Defender? Had they managed somehow to overcome him? Where could she hide? Where could she escape? Wasn’t there a stairway or some kind of ladder she could go down to reach the beach, or would she have to jump? She couldn’t remember for certain. Surely the Palmers had given some thought to what might happen if there was a fire. “Brenda?” Although the voice was muffled, it was unmistakable. “Brenda, open up!” Almost light-headed with relief, she threw the door open to see the one man she had been praying to see. “Lorne!” 150

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity He stood there with one of his goofy grins on his face, looking exactly as he had that morning, right down to the black Fender tshirt. But instead of holding empty cardboard boxes, he had an ice chest. “Hurry up and open the door! This thing is heavy!” He laughed. She held the door open and stood aside to let him in. Glancing back outside, she could see the car below, parked next to the beams holding the cabin above ground level. Looking out into the distance, she finally spotted a lone black figure standing sentinel with his arms crossed over his chest on a remote sand dune. She gave a wave, and The Defender waved back. After dropping the ice chest under the table, he brushed past her and hurried down the stairs, back to the car. “Need help?” she called out. “Nope. Got it,” he answered, kicking the car door shut with his foot. He brought the rest of the supplies upstairs and into the cabin, dumping the bags on top of the table. “Close the door.” Quickly, she obeyed, standing with her back to the door to stare at him. It was still difficult to believe he was here with her. “How—” “Heads up.” Lorne tossed her a can of corn, which she deftly caught. “Right behind you is the pantry, in case you’ve forgotten.” Obediently, Brenda opened the doors and began to stack the food he threw her way. “How did you know I was here?” she asked, and immediately corrected herself. “I mean, how did you know I was in trouble? Did Luke tell you?” “Hell, with all the police scanners and such that he owns, Luke knows about stuff going down before the police even know.” 151

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity He juggled three oranges momentarily before setting them on the counter next to him. “Actually, he got a phone call from the station. As soon as he heard you’d been taken into custody, he contacted me. Said he was going to post your bail. A short while later he called and asked if I thought taking you to the beach house would be a good idea.” Giving her a quick smile, Lorne added, “Our original plan was for Luke to pick you up at the police station, and then come pick me up at the grocery store, and the three of us would come up here together. We never figured The Defender would step in to help.” He threw a bag of navy beans at her underhanded. Brenda caught them and added them to the nearly full pantry. “The Defender flew me here. He said he would protect me. Of course, I have no idea how long we’re planning on staying. Did you bring any milk?” “In the ice chest,” Lorne replied, stuffing the empty grocery sacks in a bin under the sink. Crouching down, Brenda lifted the lid to begin unpacking it, when she caught sight of a clear plastic container resting on top. Gasping in surprise, she looked up to see Lorne standing with his arms crossed against his chest, one eyebrow raised as he waited for her reaction. “What’s this? Are these chocolate-covered strawberries?” “If I remember correctly…” He glanced at his wristwatch with exaggerated movements. “We had a date for nine o’clock.” Tapping the watch with a forefinger, he added, “It’s that time.” “But—” He pointed to the ice chest. “Keep digging. There’s supposed to be a bottle of champagne at the bottom somewhere.” Sure enough, after shoving aside some of the crushed ice, she found it. Pulling it out, she brushed off the loose ice chips. When 152

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity she glanced back up at him, he was holding two plastic champagne glasses. The thought of all he had gone through warmed her, and Brenda laughed lightly. “All right, Don Juan. Now all that’s missing are the candles.” “Ah! Got those covered, too.” Lorne reached over the table to grab a small brown box she hadn’t noticed him unpacking. He lifted the lid to show her a dozen small white votives. “Anything else, madam?” To answer him, she got to her feet and walked over to where he was leaning against the counter. Getting up on her tiptoes, she slid her arms around his neck and lifted her face to kiss him. “Not at the moment,” she murmured as he bent his head to meet her. “But I’m sure I’ll think of something. And when I do, I’ll be sure to let you know.” “Promise?” “Cross my heart and hope to die.”


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Chapter 24 Fun She never knew there could be fun in lovemaking. Or laughter when making love. Or anything other than the grunting, the momentary relief, and the sweaty, sticky results left over once all was said and done. The moment she kissed Lorne, every preconceived notion and every past experience vanished like water down a drain. When his hands drew her tightly against him, the only anticipation she felt was waiting for this man to claim her in the most primal, physical way two people could bond. Provocatively, she rubbed her mound over the hardening bulge in his jeans, and felt the hard edge of the zipper rising between her thighs. Lorne pulled back slightly from their kiss to breathe across her lips, “I thought you might be hungry.” Ah, the double entendre! She smiled, but instead of answering him, she slid her hand between them and grasped his hard erection, drawing his already tight jeans in a more constricting grip around it. She heard him gasp, and she could feel his heart speed up. “Are you trying to be the death of me?” he softly asked. Brenda stared up into his gray eyes. She could see her reflection in them. She could also see the desire clouding their depths, like a thundercloud gathering on the horizon. “Come on. Show me what you got.” She winked, adding, “Show me yours and I’ll show you mine.” 154

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity Lorne was instantly all play. “Show me yours first,” he demanded and reached for the front of her pants. Brenda giggled and jumped backwards, out of range. They both paused, trying to anticipate each other’s next move, when Lorne lunged forward to grab her. Shrieking with mock fear, Brenda sprinted around the table and ran straight for the bedroom with Lorne right on her heels. She managed to stave him off from the other side of the bed. Like two opponents raring to have go at each other, they swayed from one side to the other with the bed, their no man’s land, separating them. She never saw his next move. In less than a heartbeat, she was tossed on top of the blanket, and Lorne was looming over her. “Like I said, you first!” He grabbed the bottom of her sweater and pulled it upward. It was nearly over her head, releasing her arms, when he stopped. Brenda laughed, imagining what she must look like. “I can’t see!” “That’s okay,” he replied. She couldn’t see him with the sweater engulfing her from the neck up. Neither could she extricate her arms from it. She was literally trapped. “Now I know how groceries feel inside the bag.” She giggled. “Umm, but a nice-looking bag of groceries,” Lorne commented. The tone of his voice warned her that he was planning something. “For instance,” he continued, “I really like these apples. Are they fresh?” His hands cupped her breasts, filling her with pleasure. His warm palms massaged and manipulated them, teasing the tips with playful pinches through the lacy material. 155

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity “Hmm, what have we here? Maybe they’re not apples. Maybe they’re grapes.” Brenda let the laughter bubble out of her. All thought of danger and the reason why she was here evaporated under Lorne’s loving hands. There was a tug on her body, and she felt him pulling the cups down under her breasts, exposing her skin to the cool night air. She was about to tell him it was cold when a hot, wet mouth closed over one nipple. His tongue twirled around the stiff nub, and he gently chewed on it. The need for him escalated, and she writhed beneath him. “Lorne! I want to watch you do that!” The mouth went away. “You want to watch?” She barely had time to nod when he sat her up on the bed. The sweater lifted away, and her hair tumbled around her shoulders. Lorne’s expression softened as he dipped a hand into the mass, carefully brushing it behind her shoulders. “You have the sexiest hair.” “Thank you.” She smiled. Of all her features, her hair was the only thing she didn’t find fault with. “You mentioned you wanted to watch?” he asked. Without waiting for her answer, he bent her back onto the bed and proceeded to lavish his attention on her bared breasts. She watched with half-closed lids at the way his hands manipulated her, massaged her, and cupped her in his palms to where her taut nipples stood up at stiff attention. But it was his lips and his tongue that kept her desire peaked. His knee between her legs pressed into the juncture of her jeans, until she could feel a second heartbeat pounding in her lower abdomen. Pounding relentlessly and insistently as her body readied itself for him. She squirmed slightly, and the knee wedged itself harder. The jeans’ inner seam rubbed along her clit, and fresh fire 156

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity plumed through her blood. Brenda moaned softly and gasped for air. “Lorne! My turn! Let me have my turn, damn it!” She could tell he released her with reluctance and sat back on his heels. Vaguely, she wondered how he managed to take his shoes off, then dismissed it until she realized her shoes were off, too. She started to ask him when he reached behind his back and dragged his t-shirt over his head. This is what she had been waiting to see. What she had been wanting to see. Lorne was not extremely hairy across the chest, but what he had was soft, dark, and irresistible to the touch. She wove her fingers up and across his well-developed pecs, letting her palms brush over his male nipples with their rosy areolas and tiny, hard stubs. “Wow. Have you been working out?” He chuckled. “Oh, yeah. I bench press a bus every day.” Brenda made a raspberry. “Yeah, right.” Leaning closer, she buried her face in his throat and breathed deeply. Her smile came back. “You even smell like love, all warm and soft.” A pause. “And I can hear your heart racing like mad.” “I’m petrified wood for you, Bren.” “Mmm.” Laughing softly, she tweaked his nipple, then bent down and ran her tongue over it. Lorne groaned, one hand reaching up to stop her, but she batted it away. “No, no. Fair play. I get to torment back.” “Who says?” His voice rumbled in his chest. “I says,” she replied, and proceeded to suck on the teat energetically. Lorne nearly fell off the bed. “Enough! I can’t take it, Bren! I’m too damn close to exploding as it is!” He jerked away and slapped a hand over the wet nipple. 157

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity Laughing, Brenda fell back onto the blanket and began undoing his jeans. However, pulling them down over his hips proved to be a problem. After staring at the large, arching erection trying to be free of the restricting denim, she looked up at him. “Hey, a little help here would be appreciated.” Lorne shoved his thumbs into the waistband of his jeans and briefs, and shoved them down to his knees. Backing off the bed just long enough to shed the rest of his clothing, he reached for her pants. “You’d better hurry and undo them, or I’m ripping them off of you,” he warned with a grin. She quickly unzipped them a split-second before Lorne peeled them off of her, leaving her with only her cotton thong. Lorne climbed back up between her open thighs and dove face-first into the bit of material. Somehow, his hands found hers, and their fingers intertwined as he nosed aside the thong that was soaked with her cream. His mouth found her slit, and he plunged his tongue inside her channel. Brenda cried out as pleasure swept through her. She tried to reach between her legs, but his hands were keeping hers trapped as surely as if he had tied her up. His tongue found her clit, and she orgasmed almost immediately. She continued to burn as his mouth sucked her, his tongue lapping furiously to keep her riding the crest. Her release continued to tear her apart to where she called out Lorne’s name. Suddenly his hands let hers go, and his mouth removed itself from her flesh. Brenda found herself forced to grasp handfuls of the blanket and sheets. She needed to anchor herself against the pure joy that still sizzled across her muscles and tickled her nerve endings. When her brain finally began functioning again, she realized Lorne had removed her thong and backed away. Curious, 158

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity she opened her eyes to see him bending over and guiding the head of his erection between the folds of her slit. The dark, flushed head glistened. A single drop, like a small pearl, hung from the eye. He must have sensed her watching him. He looked up at her and smiled. “I have dreamed of this moment,” Lorne whispered, and slowly began to ease into her. She had never felt anything so wonderful in all her life. Earlier she had told him that the few other sexual escapades she’d had in her lifetime no longer mattered. She’d since changed her mind. They most certainly mattered now, because she could see how inadequate and how different they had been compared to Lorne’s complete possession of her heart and soul, and his total dominance over her body. Brenda glanced down again to see his erection disappearing from view as it sank deep within her. At the same time, she could feel him drilling his way to her womb. She could tell he was holding back, trying not to hurt her. Reaching up, she ran her nails over his chest. Curling her fingers through the short curls, she gave them a gentle tug. “I’m cold. Come here.” She pinched his nipples to watch his reaction. Happily, Lorne growled playfully and pounced on top of her, but his movements inside her never ceased, never slowed. In fact, the shift in position raised the heat level to near combustion. It was made all the worse—or for the better—when he reached back and lifted her knees higher. The simple shift allowed him to delve deeper inside her. A shiver of pleasure raced under her skin. He lowered himself until he covered her. His lips alternated between kissing and nibbling her shoulder and neck, making his way up into the hairline behind her ear. The hard, steady, in-andout slide of his thick erection kept her on the edge, tickling and enticing, not quite bringing her a second time, but not letting her 159

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity lose that sweet, delicious excitement that continued to burn steadily. Closing her eyes, she let herself lie there and let him take her. It felt so right, so perfect. His mouth played with her ear and temple, making her smile. “I love you, Brenda.” The confession was breathy and almost too low to hear. Incredibly, her heart did a little backflip, and the familiar warmth of tears seeped into her eyes. She never realized she had been wanting, had been needing to hear him make that confession. She started to reply when he continued. “I have loved you since we were young. I have loved you even though you never reciprocated the feeling. I have loved you all through our junior high and high school years, although there were times I thought I’d never have you for myself.” Lorne paused in his lovemaking, and Brenda opened her eyes to find him staring down at her. The look of absolute love shone in his gray eyes. “I have loved you,” she told him with a depth she never believed possible. “I have always loved you, although I never realized it for what it really was until I came back to Fullerton. Forgive me, Lo.” One of his goofy grins unexpectedly slid across his face, and to her shock he slid out of her and sat back on his heels. She was still staring at him, wondering what he was up to, when he grabbed her by the hips, jerked her closer to him, then somehow flipped her onto her stomach as if she weighed nothing. For a second there she thought she heard him murmur something about turned or flipped, but a moment later she completely forgot about it when he lifted her buttocks, parted the cheeks, and rammed himself into her. 160

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity Brenda cried out as Lorne began to pound furiously into her, holding her hips in a death-lock grip that prevented her from moving. Her fingers gripped the bedclothes so hard she thought she heard something tear. What had been loving sex had reenergized into a mind-blowing fuck. She shrieked and raised her ass higher to give him a better angle. Lorne shifted her thighs farther apart and kept them parted with his knees. She heard him grunting softly with every hard and fast stroke. The heat from the friction was burning her alive. His erection was like having a grooved rod shoved into her. The grooves scraped over the sensitive tissue inside her channel, rapidly building the crackling intensity. She could feel a wetness running down the inside of her thighs as her body poured out her cream in response. Her body stiffened. The strength of her orgasm overwhelmed her, and her skin felt like it was melting against her bones. Every muscle locked up. Every nerve ending flared. Her mind went completely blank, until nothing existed except for the junction of their bodies. Falling face-forward, she screamed into the blanket, but Lorne continued to pound into her. His fingers held her so tightly, she knew she would bear the bruises before morning, but she didn’t care. Nothing mattered anymore. Nothing mattered except for the soul-breaking feel of Lorne’s erection fusing himself inside her. Her body shuddered. Her lungs gasped for air. Brenda opened her mouth to breathe when Lorne erupted deep within her. He groaned as his movements slowed. Finally releasing her hips, he partially collapsed over her, covering her back. Her arms wobbled. They no longer had the strength to hold her up. Dropping to the bed, she felt him follow but angle sideways to fall onto his side. A muscular arm swept her against 161

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity him and held her there. Another aftershock rattled through her. Brenda felt her womb clench, and goose bumps crawled over her exposed skin. Lorne pressed his sweaty chest to her back to share his heat. His hand gently cupped one breast. The room grew quiet as the world resumed turning. The last thought to enter her mind as she drifted to sleep was the realization that his semi-flaccid erection was still inside her. She managed to smile, knowing there would be more lovemaking. More confessions. More kisses. The night was far from over.


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Chapter 25 Evals Lorne shoved a pillow under his head and collapsed next to her. They were both coated in perspiration and breathing heavily from their exertions, but what he was feeling at the moment was the best damn feeling in the world. Brenda remained cuddled against him with her back to his chest, her eyes closed, and to his enjoyment, with a very sated expression on her flushed face. He could feel himself still buried partway inside her, and he would remain there if he had any say-so in the matter. It would take two tanks with chains to separate them. Nuzzling her ear, he nibbled on the tender lobe. “So, madam, what’s your opinion? Do I get an ‘A’? Did I at least pass?” Several moments passed before she answered. From the sound of her voice he could tell she had started to doze off. Brenda laughed softly. “If you were in my employment, I’d definitely give you high marks in every area.” A sudden look of consternation crossed her beautiful face. It lasted less than a second, but it was enough to make Lorne question it. “What? What were you thinking of, instead of the great sex we just had?” he teased with a hint of seriousness. “Oh, nothing.”


Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity “Bullshit. Nothing almost pulled you out of this great afterglow.” Propping himself up on one elbow, Lorne leaned down to kiss her temple. “Give. No more secrets between us.” She grimaced. “It’s nothing, really. It just reminded me of my own yearly performance reviews.” “You mean your personal report card with the company? What about it?” “Well, it’s probably just me, but I always thought it strange that I would make such great strides up the corporate ladder, when my evals were less than stellar.” “What do you mean?” She opened her eyes and rolled over far enough to face him without breaking their intimate contact. One hand reached up to caress his scruffy cheek and chin. Her hair was tousled, and her face was puffy, but she continued to look incredibly beautiful, sexy, and desirable, all the same. “I mean, don’t companies usually promote their most competent people? The ones who score high marks on their evals?” Lorne shrugged slightly. “Maybe there’s some kind of female to male ratio quota they needed to fill, and you were their best candidate,” he suggested. Giving her a big grin, he added, “Or maybe sleeping with the bosses gave you that added boost.” “Lorne!” She lightly bopped him on the nose in mock anger. “I did no such thing, and you know it.” “I do know I’m not your first,” he teased. “Oh. That. Well.” Brenda made a face. “Those men don’t count. Never did, never will.” She gave him a hard stare, and he knew what she was going to say before she said it. “I wasn’t your first, either, Mister Double Standard!” “Ah, yeah, wellll…” 164

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity Her soft hand brushed his hair away from where it dangled next to the edge of his mouth. Her gaze suddenly softened into a look he hoped he’d see every day of his life from now on. “Would it matter if I said you weren’t my first, but you’ll be my last?” she whispered. “No, because I’m echoing that comment,” he murmured and leaned down to kiss her upraised lips. Second to making love to her, Lorne enjoyed kissing her. She had the kind of mouth that was responsive and eager to please. A little nudge with his tongue, and she happily opened her mouth so he could delve into her sweetness. Her tongue came up to tangle with his, and Lorne felt a new surge of hot desire go straight to his dick. His rapidly hardening erection began pressing back into her hot, wet channel. At the sound of her soft moan, he slid his mouth over her cheek and started nibbling on the sensitive skin beneath her ear. It wouldn’t be long before they would be starting round two. Definitely no sleep tonight for you, Lo. “Show me some more of your ‘A plus’ loving,” he begged. Lorne Palmer. Superpowered Defender. Begging for sex. With Brenda? You’re damn right. He suckled gently on the velvety lobe again. When she didn’t respond, either physically or verbally, Lorne opened his eyes to see her staring at nothing in particular. Her gaze was turned inward. She was thinking. Hard. “I definitely have to work on my technique,” he commented. Brenda blinked and focused on him. “Lo, you remember those yearly evals I mentioned?” “The ones you bombed? What about them?” He propped his arm on the mattress and held his head with his hand to show her she had his full attention. But to remind her that he was ready for another lusty round, he moved his hips, shoving his thickness a 165

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity little further inside her. He got a little wriggle of anticipation in response. “I remember when Mr. Gorrani told me that if my performance reviews didn’t improve, I could be let go,” she managed to say. “Go on. I’m listening.” He moved again, sliding another inch inside her. He could grow to like this game very quickly. “Lorne, I can’t think when you’re doing that. I meant to say that two weeks later, I got bumped up to acquisitions. In fact, my new boss, Mr. Wagner, told me that the reason I’d been promoted was because of my excellent job record.” Lorne paused as the implication of what she was telling him finally seeped into his sex-sodden brain. “And you didn’t find that odd at the time?” She sighed. “I was afraid he’d made a mistake, and if I said something, I could lose the position. I needed that job, Lo. I figured I could work my tail off, and then if it ever came to light, I’d have my current work record to back me.” It made sense. Plus, he could understand her reluctance. The business world was very cutthroat. Brenda knew it would be a struggle, and Lorne couldn’t fault her for her actions. “I don’t think you’ve done anything wrong,” he told her. “I think anyone in your shoes would have done the same thing you did. Stay silent and do your damnedest to make good on the job. Have you had another evaluation since that promotion?” “No, and that’s another thing that puzzles me, now that I think of it.” “Which is?” “Promotions don’t come until after the yearly evals are finished, which is usually around August or September, at the 166

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity latest. But I received another promotion a couple of months ago, just prior to the opening of the new factory in Fullerton.” “I wouldn’t worry about it. At least, not right now.” He smiled as she wriggled her beautiful ass against his groin. She curled forward, giving him better access to her from the rear. When he had initially heard about her sudden climb up the corporate ladder, at first he hadn’t thought much about it. Brenda often emailed them to let them know how she was doing. Newsy little bits and pieces about her life and what she was up to in the big city. But now that he was hearing more details about it, Lorne wondered if her success may have pissed off a rival worker enough to arrange for her to take the fall for the explosion. For that matter, could this unknown person be responsible for the explosion in the first place? He was on the verge of breaking his self-imposed communications ban with Luke when Lorne felt her hand reaching between her legs to grab his balls and massage them playfully. All thought of contacting his big brother to let him know what he had discovered went out the window. Growling softly, he threw a leg over hers to pin her down. Yes, there would be no sleep for either of them tonight because there were countless empty nights they first had to make up for.


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Chapter 26 Phone He was caught deep in sleep’s clutches when he heard a familiar jingling sound. After hours of muffled silence, where even the rolling hush of the waves hitting the beach could barely be heard, the sound was able to break through his unconsciousness. Lorne forced himself to open his eyes. His body refused to move. His muscles remained adhered to the sheets where he had melted after their sexual marathon. Three. Four. Five. Six. Silence. Sighing, he closed his eyes and started to sink back into sleep when the ringing began again. It had the classic sound of an oldfashioned telephone. He had no idea what time it was, but very little light was seeping through the cracks around the edges of the boarded windows. It was either dawn, or about to be. “Bren.” He gave her a little shake where she lay sprawled next to him, legs entangled. His hand found a breast, automatically gave it a squeeze, then moved up to her shoulder to give her another shake. “Bren, your phone’s ringing.” She mumbled, moving slightly in her sleep. Lorne debated whether he should answer it for her before dismissing the thought. But it had to be answered. After cycling twice to voice mail, the phone was ringing again. Whoever was 168

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity calling was either persistent, or there was an urgent reason behind the call. “Brenda.” He gave her another shake, harder this time. She moaned and tried to brush away his hand. “What?” “Your phone’s ringing. This is the third time.” She blearily opened her eyes, listening. “No. That’s not my phone,” she announced and rolled over to cuddle next to him. Lorne chuckled, pulling her away. He could already feel a steady pounding in his groin, signaling to his dick that sleep time was over. It was time for some more sex. “Brenda, I left my cell in the car. Are you sure it’s not yours?” She slowly sat up, her hair cascading over her shoulders in a tousled but very erotic way. “All right. Let me go check. But I swear it’s not my default ring,” she told him and crawled off the bed. “Maybe it’s a ring you set for a particular number.” She shook her head. “Nope. I don’t remember even having that ring in my selection.” Lorne ran a hand over his face as he watched her amble toward the front room. Luke? You there, bro? Ah! The self-imposed cone of silence has been lifted, his brother’s sardonic sense of humor answered. Your jealousy is showing, Lorne responded, swinging his legs over the side of the bed. Listen, Brenda’s phone is ringing. Can you— Way ahead of you, Lo. He followed Brenda into the front room and propped open one of the boarded windows to give them light. She dug through her purse until she found the phone, and held it up with a look of surprise. “What?” 169

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity “This isn’t…” She glanced over at him. “This isn’t my phone.” Lo. I just checked Brenda’s phone. It’s not in service at the moment, Luke informed him. “Then whose is it?” It began to ring again for the fourth time. Brenda flipped open the lid. Lorne caught a glimpse of the number on the display when the smell hit him with its stomach-churning memory. Unguindene. Don’t answer it! Luke’s mental yell came at the same moment he screamed and leaped toward her. His powers blazed forth, locking his body into Defender mode. Brenda pressed the answer button with her thumb a microsecond before he knocked the cell out of her hand. The phone sailed upward as he jerked her against him and threw his protective shield between them and the cell. The explosion hit them with the force of a F5 tornado. Lorne remained hunched over Brenda, keeping his back to the blast as the cabin erupted into a million deadly slivers of wood. Shards zipped past them, some striking the shield and ricocheting off harmlessly. The world around them turned fiery red as the old timber caught fire, and the little beach cabin went up in a ball of flame. The sound nearly burst his eardrums. Lorne felt the floor crumble and disappear beneath them. Still clutching her tightly, he kept them suspended in midair as the cabin around them vanished in smoke and heat. He didn’t dare lower his shield until the last of the nearly invisible splinters stopped raining down on them. Only then did he gently and carefully float to a landing amid the debris-littered sand. “Brenda?” He gave her a little shake, but her head lolled against his shoulder. She was unconscious. A quick examination didn’t reveal any signs of injury, which gave him some relief. The 170

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity percussive effect of the blast must have knocked her out. Still, he’d feel a lot better if he had a hospital check her out to be sure there were no internal injuries. Across the bay the sun had just cleared the horizon, giving the water and the waves a beautiful golden glow. But the beach house was a complete loss. The car also appeared to have suffered major damage. One of the pier beams lay diagonally across its roof. In the distance, Lorne could see the leg of a chair sticking up from the top of a sand dune nearly a hundred yards away. “Lo!” The sound was muffled, as if his ears were stuffed with cotton. Hopefully his hearing would soon clear up. Lorne cradled Brenda in his arms and turned to see Lee still wearing his Defender costume running toward him. Neither Lee nor Luke had inherited their father’s ability to fly, but neither could they explain how they managed to have the powers they did. Lorne seemed to be the only son who got the majority of Infinity’s super abilities. Lee paused a few feet away and stared at his brother. “Are you okay? What the hell happened?” Lorne glanced down again at the woman draped across his arms, and realized they were both naked, but there was no time to worry about that. He had to get her to the hospital and checked out as soon as possible. With her safely out of the way, he could search for the person who had put the booby trap in Brenda’s purse. “Strip! Hurry! I need my uniform,” Lorne ordered his brother, brushing the sand at his feet clear of any dangerous shards, and laying her there for the moment. “At some point while Brenda was in jail, someone swapped her cell phone for one containing unguindene.” 171

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity “Any idea who?” Lee asked, handing over the jacket and pants. “Not yet.” He started to slip on his gloves, when he noticed a familiar looking piece of black material lying in a heap a few feet away. Three long strides found him picking up his black t-shirt with the Fender guitar on the front. The shirt had been his father’s, and it was one of Lorne’s most prized possessions. Lorne gave a little sigh of happiness to know it had managed to survive the explosion, albeit with a couple of minor puncture holes caused by needlelike wooden shrapnel. He gave it a shake to rid it of grit and sand, and carried the shirt back over to where he’d left Brenda, slipping it over her to give her a modicum of protection against the cold. Lifting her into his arms, he turned back to where his brother stood looking over the remains of their family vacation site. “I’m taking her directly to Ocean General Hospital.” “Don’t worry about me,” Lee said with evident sadness. “I’ll see if I can get the jalopy running. It doesn’t look like the engine’s suffered any damage, but the cabin…” Lorne nodded, understanding what his younger brother was feeling, and flew up into the new morning sky, angling back toward the city and the nearest hospital.


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Chapter 27 Guilty It was quiet. She was lying flat on her back, and she was comfortable. Someone came in. Brenda smiled. Lorne must have gotten up to use the toilet. She waited for him to return to the bed, when she heard water rushing into a sink. At the same time, a machine clicked on, and intense pressure began to circle her upper arm. Brenda opened her eyes in confusion. The nurse who had washed her hands noticed she was awake, and smiled. “Hello! How do you feel?” “Where am I? Is this a hospital?” “Yep. Ocean City General.” The woman walked around the foot of the bed to check the monitor on the other side. Brenda turned her head to follow, and saw an IV pump with a line going into her arm. A nearly empty bag of saline solution hung from overhead. “What happened? How did I get here?” In the next instant, she became panicked. “Lorne! What happened to Lorne? Is he here?” The nurse smiled and placed a soothing hand on her shoulder. “Let me get Dr. Wyche. She’ll be able to answer your questions better than I can.” She reached down along the edge of the bed and pressed a button on the side of the railing. “Yes?” “Please inform Dr. Wyche that the patient in 303 is awake.” 173

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity “Will do,” the voice replied. “How long have I been here?” Brenda insisted. “Can you at least tell me that much?” The nurse smiled again. “Not long. You were brought in early this morning.” “What time is it now?” The woman checked her watch. “Ten past two. They finally brought you up from the emergency room about an hour ago.” Emergency room? Brenda started to ask more, but the woman disappeared out the door, leaving her alone again. The last thing she could recall was lying in Lorne’s arms back at the beach house. She could remember how exhausted they were, and how he had kissed her after murmuring, “Sweet dreams.” At the memory of their lovemaking, she blushed. She now understood what an incredible feeling it was to have sex with someone she truly loved, as opposed to infatuation, or to scratch an itch. There was all the difference in the world. The door swung open, and a woman in a long white lab coat entered the room. She had a small laptop computer under her arm, which she placed on tray table next to the bed. After glancing at Brenda’s patient wristband, she gave her a smile. “I’m Dr. Wyche. How are you feeling?” “Tired, but I don’t hurt anywhere. What happened? Oh! Can you tell me if Lorne Palmer is here?” The doctor frowned as she opened up the laptop and accessed Brenda’s records. “I don’t recall the name but I can check. Was he with you when the explosion occurred?” Explosion? Like a tidal wave, the rest of it suddenly came back to her in a rush. The phone call. Lorne yelling. The white-hot sound. Oh, please, God, let Lorne still be alive! 174

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity A wave of dizziness washed over her. Fortunately the physician was checking the stats on the IV monitor and didn’t notice. “How did I get here?” Brenda finally managed to ask. She fought back tears as she silently continued to pray. “The Defender brought you,” Dr. Wyche said. “Did he bring anyone else?” “Not as far as I know. Would that be the gentleman you’re asking about?” The doctor leaned over the bed and inspected Brenda’s eyes, shining a small penlight into them. “When you came in, The Defender mentioned you had been caught on the periphery of an explosion. We ran some tests on you, but as far as we can tell, you didn’t suffer any internal injuries.” The physician straightened up. “Still, I’d like for you to stay overnight, just for observation.” “But you said you didn’t find anything wrong with me.” The doctor shook her head. “We didn’t find anything internally wrong,” she repeated, “but you were knocked unconscious by the blast, and you were out for several hours. There could be some bruising up here that hasn’t shown up yet.” She tapped the side of her own head for emphasis. Sighing, Brenda laid back on her pillow and silently watched the physician check her legs and arms. The woman made a few more notations on the computer, then closed the lid. “Hungry?” Brenda realized with a start that she was famished. In fact, she was having a hard time remembering when she last ate. “Yeah.” “It’s long past lunchtime, but I’ll have a nurse see if the kitchen can’t send up something to tide you over until dinner. It 175

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity may only be soup and a sandwich.” Dr. Wyche slid the laptop under her arm. “That would be great.” Brenda managed to smile in thanks. “What about my friend?” “What was the name again?” “Lorne Palmer. L-O-R-N-E.” “I’ll have a nurse check on it when I leave here,” the doctor promised. “Meanwhile, I want you to rest, and let the nurse know if you start to feel any pain, especially a headache or dizziness.” Brenda kept her mouth shut to prevent herself from blurting out about her momentary bout a minute ago. Once she reassured the physician she would let them know, she waited for the doctor to leave. As soon as the door closed, Brenda sat up and reached for the phone. If she couldn’t find out anything here, she knew Luke would tell her where Lorne was, and how he was doing. She dialed for an outside line, but met a brick wall when she learned she couldn’t make a long-distance call. Irritated, she hung up. Maybe it was for the better. She didn’t know Lorne’s cell phone number, or Lee’s or Luke’s for that matter. The cell Luke had given her was with The Defender. And chances were their home phone number she’d called countless times when she was growing up had been disconnected. Phone number. Brenda paused. She knew she wouldn’t have answered that strange phone she’d found in her purse, except for the fact that she’d recognized the number showing on the display screen. Wilson Wagner. The rigged phone had deliberately been put in her purse. She was supposed to press the answer button so that it would blow up. She was supposed to have died in that explosion. It had been planned that way. Just like it had been planned for her to take the 176

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity fall for the factory explosion, and God knew how many other things she didn’t know about. That’s why she’d made such a meteoric rise up the corporate ladder, despite her poor job ratings. The company had singled her out for some godforsaken reason to be their scapegoat, and Wilson was in the thick of it. That, or someone used his phone to make the call. She shook her head. It was all too confusing. And making suppositions when she didn’t have any real, tangible proof wasn’t doing her any good. One thing was certain, though. The Defender had saved her from being blown up, which she hoped meant he’d saved Lorne, too. “But the people who tried to kill me don’t know I’m still alive.” She glanced down at the phone on the bedside table. “What’s your next move, Bren? Stay here and be a sitting duck once they find out the truth? Or should I confront them head-on?” Either way, the outlook didn’t appear promising. Sure, there was always the option she could run for cover again. Hide someplace where they couldn’t find her. Maybe take on a new name and identity, like what the Witness Protection Program offered. But what kind of life would that be? Would Lorne be a part of that life? Could he? Tears rose in her eyes as she tried to imagine life without him. Now that they had finally breached that last obstacle keeping them apart, when they had confessed their love to each other, and spent the night loving each other, how could she face a future devoid of him? Footsteps paused outside the door. Brenda waited to see if anyone would enter, but the person left without coming in. It was then she knew what she had to do. 177

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity The doctor had said The Defender had brought her here. That meant that at some point he would come back to check on her. She would swear to it. But if she waited for him to appear, she knew there was no way he would let her go back to Dobbling Enterprises, with or without him. Getting carefully to her feet, she walked over to the tiny closet and peered in. The solitary hangar was empty. There were no clothes for her to change into, and she couldn’t leave the hospital in this skimpy gown. On top of that, Dobbling Enterprises was on the other side of town. She had neither transportation, nor any money to pay for some. But I do have an alternative. Brenda smiled. “Better yet, she’s right here in town. A local call.” Without hesitation, she picked up the phone again and dialed out. After two rings, a no-nonsense voice answered, “Dobbling Enterprises. How may I direct your call?” “Extension twenty-two-fifteen, please.” “Please hold.” A Brahms concerto filtered through the earpiece for all of nine seconds before a familiar voice answered, “Media. Samra Fox.” “Hey, Sammie! It’s Brenda.” “Hey, Bren! What’s up, girlfriend?” “I have a huge favor I need to ask of you.” “Shoot. I’m bored out of my mind at the moment.” “Well, first of all, do you still have that key to my apartment?” “Yes. Do you need it back?” “No. I need you to go over to my place and get me a change of clothes, and bring them over to Ocean City General Hospital.” There was a second’s pause. “Oh, shit, Bren! Ocean General? What happened?” 178

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity “I’ll tell you when you get here. Promise,” Brenda told her. “Just grab me a pair of jeans and a shirt, and come get me as soon as you can. I’m in room 303.” “I’ll be there as soon as I can,” her friend said, and hung up. Brenda put the receiver back on the cradle, feeling a bit sick to her stomach. She had no idea what she would say to Wilson Wagner when she confronted him, but these near accidents had to stop. And they had to stop now. Furthermore, she had to find out why she was being framed. She only wished she could speak to Lorne and know he was all right, and tell him what she planned to do, even though he would try to talk her out of it. She could see no other alternative than to have a face-to-face with Wagner. It was the only option that gave her any hope for a future.


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Chapter 28 Call Lorne entered the basement through the vertical backyard tunnel that Luke had opened for him. Once he flew in and landed, both brothers hugged in silence for several long seconds. “God, that was too fucking close,” Luke confessed, backing away. He gave Lorne a good once-over. “You’re still shaken.” “You damn right I am. If I hadn’t smelled that unguindene when I did, Brenda and I would have died in that explosion.” “Is that what tipped you off? The smell?” “Yeah.” Lorne frowned. “Why? Isn’t that why you yelled?” Luke went back to his chair in front of his control panel and monitors. “I yelled because through you I heard the telltale sizzle of a doctored connection. Whoever had put the unguinedene in the phone and rigged it to blow once she answered the incoming call was good, but he was also sloppy, or not an expert in electronics.” He gave his brother a cautious look. “You really need to learn to listen for that sort of thing yourself.” Lorne chuckled. “Yes, Dad. I’ll make it part of my next training regime.” “How’s Lee?” “He’s fine. Luckily he was far enough away from the cabin when the phone blew.” He grimaced. “Wish I could say the same for the car. I had to drop it and Lee off at the auto body shop. He 180

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity should be here shortly with the rental. What’s the latest on Brenda?” Luke pressed a few keys, and a monitor lit up with her hospital records. Lorne watched as his older brother hacked effortlessly into the system. Of all of Luke’s abilities, this one amazed him the most. No computer was safe around Luke. Not even the governments’. “As far as they can tell, she suffered no internal injuries.” “Thank God,” Lorne breathed aloud. “She’s under the care of a Dr. Wyche, who has authorized an overnight stay for observation.” “Were you able to trace the source of the phone call?” “No.” Luke swiveled around to look up at him. “But I know there was a moment when you caught a glimpse of the number on the display screen. It’s still freshly buried in your mind, Lo. Can you recall it? Because of the natural block we siblings have, I can’t go in and get it myself, but I can help you bookmark it once you bring it to the front.” Closing his eyes, Lorne let his mind go blank as his thoughts went back to that fraction of a second at the beach house. Taking slow, deep breaths, he sensed Luke watching from the sidelines as the memories flowed back. “This isn’t my phone.” She flipped open the lid to where a greenish number glowed on the black display. He concentrated as he tried to focus in on the tiny hyphenated numbers. Slowly, he started to make them out as Luke fine-tuned them. “Area code eight seven three…” “That’s Ocean City,” Luke noted. 181

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity They were interrupted by the sound of Lee coming down the stairs rather noisily. “Boy, if you think Lo’s driving is scary, try being in a car when he’s flying you a few thousand feet above the ground!” “Lee, for a covert operator, you make more noise than a soldout rock concert,” Luke growled. Lorne started to add his two cents when a familiar jangle caught their attention. All three men froze at the distant sound. It was Lee who finally commented, “Someone’s calling on the house phone upstairs.” Reaching over his console, Luke flipped a switch. “Hello?” “Lee?” It sounded like Brenda’s voice. “This is Luke. Brenda? How are you feeling?” Luke asked, giving his brothers a curious glance and a mental message. I sense something’s up. “How’s Lorne? Is he there with you?” Lorne started to answer when he felt Luke place a damper on him. He glared at his brother, even though he knew Luke wouldn’t do that to him unless he had a damn good reason. “Yeah. He’s home, but he’s upstairs sleeping.” “Oh, thank God!” Her relief was evident over the crappy connection. “Yeah, he told us all about the fake phone and the explosion, and about how The Defender flew in to take you two out of the cabin before the blast.” There was a pause. “I’m so sorry about that, Luke. Did it do much damage?” Don’t tell her, Lorne ordered his brother. Luke nodded. “Brenda, we’ve got a shitty connection. Can I call you back? What’s your room number?” 182

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity “I’m not at the hospital,” she told him. “What? They released you already?” “No. I’m AWOL. A friend of mine came and brought me some clothes. We’re heading over to Dobbling Enterprises now.” Lorne scribbled the rest of the numbers onto Luke’s doodling pad and shoved them at his brother. Luke grabbed the pad and did an immediate search. “Why would you go against medical advice? Isn’t it too soon to go back to work?” Luke asked, trying to keep her on the line as long as possible. “I’m not going back to work there. Never ever again. No, I’m calling to let you know what I plan to do in case something happens to me.” The hairs on the back of Lorne’s neck stood up. At the same instant, their answer appeared upon the monitor. Dobbling Enterprises. Wagner, W. The phone call to trigger the explosion had come from Wagner’s office at Dobbling! Lorne told his brother. He called her directly from his office? Why not? Luke countered. She was not expected to survive. There would have been no way to trace the call after the phone disintegrated. “Luke, right before the blast, right before I tried to answer the phone, I saw the number on the display. I recognized it. It was the direct line to my boss, Wilson Wagner,” Brenda told them, coincidentally. “Oh, God, Bren! Don’t tell me you’re going to try and confront this guy on your own!” Lorne was already stepping away from the console and preparing to race back to Ocean City. “I have to, Luke! I have to find out what’s going on. That’s why I’m calling you!” 183

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity “Brenda, no!” “Please tell Lorne when he wakes up that I love him with all my heart.” “Brenda, stop! This is insane! There’s no telling what that man will do!” “I have to,” she insisted. “If I don’t try to get this all out into the open, he’s either going to keep trying to have me killed, or it’s going to force me into going into hiding for the rest of my life, and I’m damned if he’s going to succeed!” “But why do you have to face him alone? That’s nuts! Wait a bit, and we’ll come join you. That way you’ll have us to back you up, just in case.” “There’s no time. I have to confront him while he still thinks I’m dead.” “Not by yourself!” “I’m not by myself!” she assured him. “I’ll have friends with me.” Luke started to say more when she added, “We’re here. I gotta go. ’Bye Luke. Love to you and Lee, too!” And the connection was broken, but not before Lorne had flown up and away through the exit tunnel.


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Chapter 29 Plan Brenda closed the cell as Samra pulled into the underground parking garage at Dobbling Enterprises. The sense of relief she felt, knowing Lorne was safe and well, made her more determined to face Wilson Wagner and demand to know why someone had painted a target on her body. But she had another reason why she had risked seeing if the Palmer’s home phone number still worked. She wanted as many people as possible to know where she was headed, in case Wagner tried to pull something. The more people who knew her intentions and why, the safer she felt approaching Wagner, especially if she let him know about her precautions. She only wished Lorne could be here with her when she approached the man. Thinking of Lorne gave her a warm feeling in the pit of her stomach. Why hadn’t they come to realize they were meant for each other before now? Why had she wasted all those years trying to find that “someone special”, instead of acknowledging that the only person who made her happy, who made her laugh amid her tears, had been living less than thirty feet away? Samra parked the car. “We’re here. Want me to go with you?” “No. No thanks.” Brenda gave her a grateful smile. 185

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity “Are you sure? I don’t mind offering a little moral support. Besides, didn’t you tell your friend you’d have me along with you?” “I know, Sam, and I appreciate it, but this is something I need to do on my own. He isn’t going to be happy when I hand in my resignation. Oh, but I may need you to run me back to the apartment when it’s over. Would you mind?” “Not a problem.” The pert redhead smiled. Brenda handed back the borrowed phone, then wiped her sweaty palms on her pants. “I hope this goes better than I expect.” “Pish. What’s the worse he can do?” They walked to the elevators together. Samra punched the up button. “You know, I wish I had the balls to up and quit the company just like that. I’d do it in a heartbeat if I could get another job offer that could bring in enough to pay the bills. Where did you say you were going?” “I didn’t,” Brenda admitted as they stepped into the elevator car. Samra gave her a wide-eyed look of disbelief. “Are you shitting me? You’re handing in your resignation without having another job waiting in the wings? Why?” Biting her lower lip, Brenda wondered how much to tell her, then figured there was no reason to hold anything back. Eventually the truth would come out…hopefully. Better her friend heard it straight from her. “Sam, I think Wagner’s put out a contract on me. I think he’s trying to have me killed.” She waited for her friend’s response, fully expecting the woman to either blow it off like some bad joke, or to come to the company’s defense. Instead, Samra gave her another are-youshitting-me look. “Have you gone to the police about this?” 186

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity The woman believed her. Without question, without doubt, the woman believed her. “No.” “Why the hell not?” “Because I don’t have any proof! All I have are suppositions and too many damn coincidences!” The elevator doors dinged as the car came to a gradual halt. They opened up to an almost deserted foyer. Samra quickly pulled Brenda over to a small waiting area which contained a few stuffed chairs and a coffee table piled with magazines. “So you’re going in and handing over your letter of resignation? You’re just giving up? You’re letting that bastard win?” she hissed, grabbing Brenda by the shoulders and giving her a little shake. “Bren, if you do that, you’re giving that son of a bitch carte blanche to go through with it! And once he has you killed, he’ll go after someone else! Hell, no telling how much blood he already has on his hands!” “Which is why I’ve told people I trust what I’m going to do,” Brenda said. “If anything happens to me, others will know ahead of time.” She gave her friend what she hoped looked like a confident smile and took back the cell phone. “Now show me how to record on this model.” Samra showed her, then pressed her lips together in what Brenda knew was her obstinate face. “I’m not letting you face this alone, Bren. I’m going with you.” “No, you’re not.” “Yes, I am.” “No.” Brushing the woman’s hands away, Brenda firmly whispered, “No. You’re not. What I want you to do is go to my office and start clearing it out for me, all right? After I’m done, I’m 187

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity going to get my things and leave this building, and I’m not coming back. So if you’ll do that for me, I can get out of this place that much sooner.” The two women stood facing each other for several long moments. Finally, Samra murmured, “I hope to hell you know what you’re doing.” Then she gave Brenda a hard hug before heading down the hallway toward Brenda’s office.


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Chapter 30 Confrontation Taking a deep breath, Brenda crossed her fingers and walked up to the receptionist sitting in her little horseshoe-shaped cubicle. After all this planning, it would be just her luck the man would be out. “Hi, Miss McKay. How can I help you?” “I need to speak with Mister Wagner, please. It’s about the factory explosion in Fullerton.” “Go right ahead, Miss McKay. I know Mister Wagner isn’t expecting you, but I know he’s been keeping an eye on the project since the accident.” She started to reach for the button on her console to notify him, but Brenda held out a hand to stop her. “That’s okay. I think he’s going to want to hear what I have to say,” she said, and hurried through the double doors without waiting for an answer. Wilson Wagner was seated behind his massive, hand-carved wooden desk. His face was partially obscured by the enormous flat screen computer monitor. Brenda watched him work for a few moments, then moved further into the office to attract his attention. The man’s eyes lifted to her, dropped back to the screen, then jerked back to her. She had the satisfaction of watching his face go several shades paler. She also saw a flash of 189

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity doubt in his expression when he wondered if she was real or a figment of his imagination. “What’s the matter, Wilson? Think you’re seeing a ghost?” She no longer cared about her tone of voice. All respect for the man was gone. He deserved nothing from her other than her disdain. He backed a few inches away from the monitor, but he remained sitting in his enormous stuffed chair. “May I ask how you escaped?” “I’ll tell you everything I know, but first I need to know why. Why did you blow up the factory and labs in Fullerton? Why was I framed? Why, Wilson, why?” Her fists were clenched so hard, her fingernails dug into her palms. The pain helped to keep her focused, but it couldn’t stop the tears from rolling down her cheeks. “What have I done to you that made you target me? Huh? Answer me, you sorry fuck!” Wagner casually laced his fingers behind his head and leaned back. He no longer appeared to be shocked to see her standing there, but it was obvious he wasn’t happy, either. “Who’s with you?” he finally spoke. “No one.” The moment she said it, she wished she hadn’t. Then again, maybe it was the only answer he would accept before he opened up. The man nodded, satisfied. Satisfied she was alone, or satisfied he could tell her the truth without witnesses, she couldn’t tell. Brenda resisted the urge to pat the cell phone in her jeans pocket. “Unguindene is a bust, no pun intended,” he stated without a trace of humor. “All the money Dobbling spent on its development, wasted.” 190

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity She frowned. “What are you talking about? Unguindene is the most powerful explosive ever created.” “True.” He gave a slight nod. “It’s also the most unstable substance ever created. We’ve tried to freeze it, liquefy itwe’ve done everything we can think of, but the stuff can explode without warning and without provocation. We can’t regulate it. We can’t package it. We can’t ship it. We can’t control it, no matter what we do.” “So?” “So…” Bringing his laced fingers forward, he placed them on top of his desk. The action reminded her of a principal patiently berating an errant student. “It’s too dangerous. The military, who was to pay us billions upon delivery, pulled their contracts. After sinking millions into its creation, the loss of those contracts is more than a major blow to Dobbling.” Brenda felt her mouth hanging open. “The company’s bankrupt.” “Worse. Not only is it financially ruined, it’s sitting on a cache of explosives that makes nitroglycerine look like popcorn, and we can’t sell it.” “But that doesn’t explain why—” “Dobbling insured all of its factories producing the chemicals to make unguindene to the max, including higher indemnities for acts of terrorism or sabotage.” He twiddled his thumbs. “The little bit we’d gain from blowing up the factories wouldn’t make up for what we’d lost, but it would at least keep the wolves from the door for a while.” Wagner added a smile that was completely devoid of warmth or humor. “There was an additional bonus that presented itself that 191

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity we never saw coming. Once we were able to prove the explosion at the Fullerton factory was caused by an act of terrorism, the government got back into the picture. There’s a remote, granted it’s a very slight chance, but it’s possible the military may reissue a new contract for the unguindene. Of course, it won’t be but a fraction of the original contract, but at this point…” He opened up his hands to show Dobbling was willing to accept any crumbs the military could offer. “And you needed someone to take the blame. You needed me to be your saboteur,” Brenda bitterly spat out. “You’re a small-town girl. Miss Fresh Face, prom queen, homecoming queen. You’re naive, eager to please. You have a huge welcome mat practically tattooed across your forehead.” He ran a thumb and forefinger over his own forehead to demonstrate. “Setting you up to take the fall was child’s play. But don’t pat yourself on the back, Miss McKay. You weren’t the only one. We’d made arrangements for several people to take part in this play, one person for each factory and lab. All we had to come up with was a valid reason why all of you were working together to take them down.” “Your plan is flawed. I’m not as innocent or as stupid as you take me for.” “I can see that,” Wagner acquiesced. “You managed to escape the cell phone I had arranged to have planted in your purse. Regardless, I could map out every move you’d make. You are as predictable as A to B to C, which is why you were perfect.” He stood, and Brenda felt her body go rigid with fear at the sight of the pistol in his hand. She’d never seen him reach for it. She didn’t even know he had one here at the office. Taking a halfstep back, she wondered if she could make it out the door before he fired. 192

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity “Relax, Miss McKay. It’s not for you.” To her shock, Wagner placed the end of the muzzle under his chin. “Do you think I’d tell you everything without any consequences?” Brenda slowly shook her head. “I…uhh…” He sounded resigned, as if he had known it would come to this. As if he had planned for this. She was lost as to why he chose to make her his confessor. “If I know you as well as I think I do, you’ve probably told a lot of people you were coming here, right? They know you’re upset, which is why they might believe my last email I’ve just finished sending out to my associates.” “What do you mean, believe your last email?” “The one where I said the terrorists or saboteurs would probably try to target people here at the main offices.” A loud crash drew their attention to the bank of windows along the outer wall of the office. The Defender stepped through the hole he’d created, and froze at the sight of Wagner holding the pistol to his throat. Brenda stood almost directly between the windows and Wagner’s desk. Wagner glanced from the black-clad man to Brenda, and back. “You were ridiculously easy to predict,” he repeated, and suddenly stretched out his arm to aim the gun in Brenda’s direction. The Defender made a gesture in her direction. “But he was an element I never considered,” Wagner stated, and fired. The gunshot sounded like a loud firecracker going off. Brenda screamed, ready to feel the bullet plowing into her body. Instead, 193

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity there was a grunt, and to her horror The Defender fell backwards from the impact.


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Chapter 31 Fear Her scream tore through from her throat as The Defender took the bullet directly in the chest. She started to go to him, no longer caring if Wagner fired at her or not, when a black shadow seemed to detach itself from The Defender’s unconscious body. It oozed across the carpet like a puddle of thick oil, then suddenly it formed into the figure of a man, also dressed in black. It rose from the carpet so suddenly, she didn’t have time to notice any details about it. Wagner turned the pistol in its direction, but the man hit Wagner’s arm with a well-aimed hand chop. The gun started to fall from numb fingers as the strange man pivoted backwards on one leg, bringing the other foot up and around, until his heel connected with the side of Wagner’s face. She heard something crack, and both Wagner and the weapon dropped like rocks. It was over in less than a handful of seconds. Whoever this formless man was didn’t matter as Brenda launched herself toward The Defender. Blood was already seeping through his jacket and pooling on the carpet. “Oh, God, oh, God, oh, God.” She had to staunch the flow of blood somehow. Time was crucial. The formless man could take care of Wagner, but somebody had to call for help. 195

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity “Can you call 911?” she yelled, pulling her blouse over her head to use as a pressure bandage. She could see The Defender was completely out, his face a pasty white shade, his breathing labored. Scrabbling for the zipper, she quickly opened the jacket to reach the wound and pulled away the edges. The faded Fender guitar on the front of the black t-shirt was soaked in blood. Brenda stared at the print in shock and disbelief. “No. No no no no no no!” Pulling the t-shirt out of the waistband of his pants, she shoved it upward until she could see where the bullet had entered his upper chest. With every shallow breath, more blood bubbled to the surface. She wadded her blouse and pressed it down over the wound, holding it there to help stem the blood loss. The strange man crouched down on the other side of The Defender’s body. Removing one of his gloves, he laid his hand on The Defender’s forehead. “It’s going to be all right, bro. Hang on. Just hang on. Help’s coming.” The voice was undeniable. Brenda stared at the masked man with disbelief. “Lee?” The man looked up at her with glittering black eyes. Not gray. Not the Palmer gray. “Long story, Brenda.” A nervous giggle rattled in her throat. “Long story?” EMS is on its way. The voice was so distinct in her head, it was as if it had whispered in her ear. She gave herself a shake, unable to understand, unable to cope with all of these revelations. “Who is that?” 196

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity “That was Luke,” Lee murmured. He jerked the mask off of Lorne’s face, then began working at removing the black jacket. “In my head?” “Telepathy is one of his powers. Here. Keep the pressure steady. I’m going to have to move him a little to get this off of him.” “Why?” “Because no one else can find out The Defender’s been shot. If anyone asks, Lorne accompanied you here to accost Wagner.” The plan had too many holes, but it was the best idea under the circumstance. The Defender moved slightly underneath her hands. Brenda gasped but kept the pressure bearing down on the hole in his chest. She didn’t know she was crying until tears fell onto her bare arms. “He shot Lorne,” she weakly whispered. “How? I thought The Defender was invulnerable.” “Dad was invulnerable,” Lee told her. “None of us are, but Lorne can throw out a protective shield that’s a lot like a force field.” “D-Dad?” “Yeah. Dad was Infinity.” It took her a second to digest that bit of news. Mr. Palmer was Infinity? “Then why didn’t h-he try to protect himself?” she hiccupped. “Because he threw the shield around you first.” She stared at him, slowly comprehending what he was telling her. The Defender—Lorne—had tried to protect her, which had left him critically vulnerable. Neither one of them was prepared for the gunshot that rang out behind them. 197

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity Lee automatically dove for her, shoving her down on top of Lorne’s body and using himself to protect her and his brother. Brenda laid with her face pressed into the bloodied blouse, too frightened to move until he slowly lifted off of her. “Wha—” “Shhh.” He got to his feet and hurried over to the desk. Walking around it, he paused to stare down at what was behind it. “Wagner?” He nodded. “Yeah. He finally made good his initial threat to shoot himself.” A muffled noise outside the closed doors caught their attention. In the next instant, they swung open, and three men wearing medic shirts rushed inside with their kits. They hurried over to where Lorne lay by the shattered window. Brenda was helped to her feet by one EMS technician as he moved her away so they could work. She glanced around, looking for Lee, but he had disappeared. There was more noise and confusion coming through the doors. Two firemen made their way through with a gurney. Someone called out her name, and she noticed Samra standing amid the crowd gathered there. Brenda? The voice was back inside her head. Luke? He’s going to be all right, the voice tried to reassure her. How do you know? How can you be so sure? The tears were back again. Stress-relieving tears, as well as fearful tears. God, please don’t let Lorne die because of me! He won’t die, Brenda, because he has something very special and very precious to live for now. What’s that? You. 198

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Chapter 32 ICU “He’s waking up,” Luke murmured. Brenda threw her magazine onto the small table in the waiting area and got to her feet. Once again, she began walking back and forth across the tiled floor, oblivious of the irritated stares of the other people who were also waiting for their turn to visit loved ones at the hospital. “They should open up any moment now,” Lee stated, glancing at his watch. As if on cue, a hospital volunteer entered the waiting area to announce that visitation was open. “But one person at a time,” the elderly lady informed them in a no-nonsense voice. “If you cause any undue stress to the patient, you will be escorted from the unit, and further visitation rights will be denied. Any questions? Good. Come with me.” At Luke’s nod, Brenda accompanied the small crowd down the hallway leading into the intensive care area. One-by-one they were instructed to wash their hands before approaching the patient. Brenda started to reach for one of the gowns and masks when an attendant stopped her. “You won’t need that,” the young man informed her with a smile. “He’s no longer in isolation.” She followed him into another section of the unit where the beds were located in individual cubicles. A sliding glass door sealed 199

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity each small room away from the noise and activity constantly going on at the monitoring station in the center. The attendant led her to cubicle number two and left. Brenda ushered herself inside. Lorne opened his eyes at the sound of the sliding door. “Hi,” he weakly greeted her. She hurried to the side of the bed and leaned over the railing to kiss him. She could not remember a kiss that had been any sweeter. “So now you know,” he whispered. “Not everything,” she told him. “When were you going to tell me? Or were you?” “I was. On our wedding night. Or maybe sooner.” Brenda smiled. “Sooner won.” A shadow from behind the bed coalesced into a now familiar shape. Lee reached out to clasp his brother’s shoulder. “How do you feel?” “Like somebody swung a sledgehammer into my chest. Trust me, Lee. Don’t ever get shot. It hurts like hell. And as for you.” Lorne turned his glare back at her. “If you ever try another stunt like that again, I swear I’m going to take you over my knee for a good spanking.” Laughing lightly, she shook her head. “Promise! No more accosting malicious executives, ever! Oh, that reminds me.” She glanced from him, up to his brother, and back. “What’s with the eye color change? Why do your eyes turn black? Is it because of your powers?” Dad’s turned black, too, Luke replied to all of them. Although the oldest brother was physically in the waiting room, he was able to join them telepathically. 200

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity “Yeah, and our facial features alter slightly,” Lee added. “Not a whole lot, but enough so that when we wear a mask, it makes for a good enough disguise.” He gave a slight shrug. “We don’t know why our features change. But, yeah, we think it might be because of our powers.” “Speaking of disguise, was that you at the beach house? Standing on the sand dune?” Brenda questioned the younger brother. Lee nodded, and Brenda playfully threw a punch at him. They laughed at the gesture, as it reminded them of similar pretend fights they had shared many times while growing up. You know, guys, we’re going to have to bring the doctor into our confidences, Luke noted. Lorne’s healing too fast not to be noticed. Lorne frowned. “You mean they don’t know I’m The Defender?” “Nope,” Lee replied. “The moment you got shot, I pulled off your mask and jacket so that it was Lorne Palmer lying on the floor.” At Lorne’s raised eyebrow, he added, “Hey, what can I say? I hitched a ride on your backside when you left the basement. Good thing I did, too.” “We told the police you had followed me to the office,” Brenda further explained. “But didn’t Wagner tell them he’d shot The Defender?” Lorne inquired. “Wagner’s dead,” Brenda answered. “When he shot you, Lee did some kind of Kung Fu moves on him and knocked him out. We were taking care of you when he came to and shot himself.” Luke added, The FBI has since closed Dobbling’s doors and confiscated all of their files and computers. Apparently, this whole scheme was cooked up by Wagner and six other high-ranking executives, including 201

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity the CEO. They were desperately trying to save their financial asses, and thought they had figured out a way to stave off ruin. “Wagner had sneaked the gun into his office, fully expecting to have to kill himself, but hoping it would pass as a homicide,” Lee concluded. He suddenly glanced up, then literally melted into the wall behind him. Brenda turned around to see a nurse reaching for the glass door. “Visitation is limited to fifteen minutes,” the woman reminded her. “Time’s almost up.” Brenda thanked her and turned back to find Lorne staring at her longingly. “I can’t wait until I get released,” he whispered. She started to answer, but stopped to glance about the room. “Is Lee still here?” “No. He’s gone.” “How can you be sure?” “I can usually sense him.” Laughing softly, she leaned over the railing again for another kiss. “Okay. So what will you do once you’re released?” she asked with a hopeful smile. “Well, for one thing, we never got a chance to try out those chocolate-covered strawberries with champagne.” “Oh, that’s right. We sort of got sidetracked, didn’t we? What else?” “Then we’ll get you a new phone and have Luke install some neat gadgets to help you keep in touch with all of us.” She nodded. “Sounds good. What else?” He rolled his eyes, pretending to think. “Mmm, then maybe…I dunno. What do you suggest? Marriage, maybe?” 202

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity “Marriage would be good. Would you have any objections about living next door to your old home? I’m thinking about moving back in. For good.” “No objections at all,” Lorne said. “In fact, I think Luke’s already started on constructing a new underground tunnel between the two houses.” I heard that. They burst out laughing, until Lorne clutched his chest in pain, gasping for breath. It took a moment for them to calm down enough to where it was safe to continue. By then, Luke warned them time was up. “I’ll be back tomorrow,” Brenda promised. “I’ll probably be in a private room by then,” Lorne said. “Luke will let you know.” He raised her hand to his lips, kissed it, and seductively told her, “I’m looking forward to the time when we can have another night together.” She felt the warmth crawl up her face. “It’ll happen soon enough, Lorne. That is, if you don’t get called out to save some old woman’s cat in a tree.” He grinned, fighting the chuckles that pulled against his wound. “I take it you’re going to be ribbing me throughout our married life with those kinds of jokes.” “Yep. Just like I did when we were growing up,” she promised. “But no jokes in the bedroom, right?” He gazed up at her with a twinkle in those Palmer gray eyes she adored. For a second she wondered if their children would also inherit gray eyes. And maybe a power or two. “No. No jokes in the bedroom,” she promised, using her best sultry voice. 203

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity They kissed again, and this time it took great effort to pull away. She could tell it wouldn’t be long before he would be well enough for another all-night session of hearty sex. She wouldn’t be surprised if the promise of it would make him heal that much faster. “Hey, grant me a favor before you leave?” he begged as she turned to leave. “What?” “Adjust my pillow for me?” Grinning mischievously, Brenda returned to the bed to do as he requested. “Of course. Anything for my personal superhero. Just one more question, though.” Lorne grasped the sides of the bed and slowly pulled himself forward to give her easier access to the support that had slid down behind his back. He paused and gave her a quizzical look, recognizing her playful tone of voice. “What’s that?” She leaned forward to breathe into his ear, “How do you want it? Turned? Or flipped?”


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Epilogue Her name was Samra Fox, and she worked as a media analyst for Dobbling Enterprises. Or did, until today. From an indistinct shadow in the corner of the office, Lee watched as the woman packed her personal items in a cardboard box. She didn’t appear to be upset or angry. Just resigned. And maybe a bit grateful. Lee got the impression she hadn’t been happy working here. A man walked into her office. Lee watched with almost jealous curiosity. “Hey, Sammie. I came to say goodbye.” “Aww, Oren. Thanks.” The two hugged. Not a lovers’ hug. A friendship hug. A hug shared between two co-workers who had known each other for a long time. Lee felt his hackles lower. The instant he had set eyes on Samra as she stood in the doorway of Wagner’s office with horror reflected in those amazing blue eyes, his heart had skipped away into oblivion, never to return. In spite of Luke’s reluctance, they had run a profile on her. He knew almost everything about her—her upbringing, her likes and dislikes, and her skills. Almost everything he wanted to learn, except the kind of men she preferred. Unfortunately, Samra Fox had never resorted to searching any of the online services for a date. Neither had she posted anything too revealing on her 205

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity personal social website. For all the information he’d gleaned about the woman, he still knew practically nothing about her. Those secrets she kept closely guarded. What kind of woman are you, Samra Fox? If there was a bright spot to watching her leave, it was knowing he still had a tenuous connection to her. She was a good friend of Brenda’s. A good enough friend who Brenda trusted with a key to her apartment. Another man entered the office to say farewell. He left as two women came in. Lee gathered Samra was a popular employee. “Where to now, Sam?” one of the women inquired. Samra shrugged her shoulders, and streaks of fire cast by the overhead lights glimmered in her hair. At the same time, his dick stirred, letting him know its interest had been piqued. Lee stifled a groan. “This place has changed since I started working here,” she told her friends. “I’d been thinking about looking for another job for the past year, but I kept putting it off.” “That mess with Wagner was your turning point, wasn’t it?” the second friend asked. “Yeah. After what’s come out about how he tried to have Brenda killed…” She grimly shook her head. “No way can I stay any longer.” Samra walked over to the bookcase next to where Lee was hiding, and took down a small statuette. She was so close, he could adhere to her skirt with no trouble. Clenching his hands, Lee resisted the urge. There were other ways he could tail her. There were other, safer ways he could follow her home. And by safer, that meant at a discreet distance. This woman was doing things to his libido that he hadn’t felt since high school when he’d stolen Luke’s girlie magazines, and read them in the attic of the house. 206

Identity Series Book 1: Secret Identity “Girl, you’ve got more balls than most men I know,” girlfriend number two stated, and gave Samra another hug. “Keep in touch, okay? Let us know where you finally end up, and we’ll go celebrate with a glass of wine somewhere.” Samra laughed lightly. The sound added a fresh inch to Lee’s already burgeoning erection. “It’s a deal,” she told them. The women left, and Samra glanced around her now-barren office one last time, double-checking to see if there was anything she’d missed, or anything else she wanted to take with her. When nothing caught her eye, she hoisted the box onto her hip, and shut off the light with her free hand. In that split second before she closed the door, Lee battled with the choice of either tagging along, or going ahead to her apartment to wait for her there. Lee. He frowned at the interruption. Luke had a knack for doing that. What? Interpol is calling. Tell them I’m booked. Luke’s calm sigh echoed over their mental connection. Come on, Lee. Give it a rest for a moment and go see what they need. Or, third choice, get back to doing his job. All right, he grudgingly acknowledged, watching the door close and lock behind her. Somehow, some way, soon, he would find a way to meet this woman again, hopefully face-to-face, and try to get to know her better. The only thing he hadn’t figured out yet was whether to meet her as Lee Palmer, or as his superhero persona, Espionage.


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR Linda loves to write romance with a fantasy or science fiction flair. Her technique is often described as being as visual as a motion picture or graphic novel. By day she is a kindergarten teacher, wife, and mother of two who lives in a small south Texas town near the Gulf Coast. But at night she delves into alternate worlds filled with daring exploits and sensuous, erotic romance. Included in her accomplishments with Whiskey Creek Press Torrid are ten consecutive Number One Bestsellers. In March, 2010, Linda was named the Whiskey Creek Press Torrid Author of The Year. And in 2011 she won the EPIC eBook Award for Best Erotic Science Fiction Romance.

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