And humans were cast from the Garden of Eden
To work the lands far from their blessed origins
To survive outside the comfort and glory of God’s original design.
Mankind came to know both good and evil
To suffer under the consequences of free will.
For their salvation, God enacted a covenant with other beings of His creation.
Beings whose convention and purpose would be the release and healing of souls
Beings empowered with select skills to guide humanity from the perils of their own making.
Beings birthed in the far edges of Eden’s Sanctuary.
Though not God’s chosen people, these wardens would be gifted for their service.
Bonded in time with those who would match them in commitment
Gifted with one mate and rewarded with the sharing of one soul for eternity.
Feel the air. Isolate your surroundings. Air in. Air out.
The staff swung and flipped from one hand to the other, around Briet’s back to her front. A quick click connected at every hit.
Clarity of mind. Fluidity of motion. Focus for…Damn it.
She let the staff in her hand dissipate and bent forward to suck in air. One hand rubbed the rib she had left exposed to Tsu’s attack as she glared at him from under her bangs. Someday she would surprise that calm, tolerant look right off his face. Okay, probably when she could blow snowflakes out her ass. It wasn’t the most respectful way to treat her teacher. But Tsu encouraged all of his Guardian pupils to use whatever mental images they could muster to inspire precision. If she had no hope then what was the point?
“I’m leaving my left side open.”
“And?” He waited. Head tilted, his own staff rested in his hands like a walking stick, planted on the stone floor between their bodies.
She rolled her eyes and sighed. “And I’m not focusing.”
He glanced over her shoulder, but remained quiet.
“And?” At the sound of her brother’s deep voice, she let out an audible snort.
“And between the two of you I’m never going to make it in time for the Clinical Trial launch.” She stood up, fists on her hips, and looked Ansgar square in the eyes.
He didn’t give an inch. “If you don’t get better at deflecting an opponent you aren’t going to survive long enough to finish the Trials with the humans.”
Tsu backed gracefully away and left Briet to take on her brother alone.
“I can’t treat everything like a threat.”
“You can’t afford not to.” Ansgar wrapped his arms across his chest and stared down at her.
She wasn’t about to be intimidated. He may have raised her, but that was all the leeway she’d give. Just because she only came to his chin and had the misfortune to have been born second, did not make her a coward.
“I looked out for myself for the last two centuries. I didn’t have any problem before and I won’t now.”
Ansgar’s brows pulled together until they formed one long, reddish blond line. “You are in Salvatore’s playground now, Briet, not safely hidden any more. I won’t be there to watch out for your ass all the time. You insist on interacting in the human world and he will have every advantage over you. You need to be prepared.”
She closed her eyes, took a breath, and then opened them again. Yep, he was still there, in her face with worry etched in lines around his mouth and the edges of his eyes. She wished she couldn’t see his fear, but he was her brother, her blood.
“I’m working on this. Ask Tsu. Even so, I’ll never evolve into you and some things just take time.” She reached a hand to touch his arm. “Training isn’t the only thing in life. If I let Salvatore suck all the purpose from my life, then he wins. His intent was to keep us from aiding humanity, remember?”
The tension between his eyebrows eased, but not the worry lines.
“Besides, it’s not like you aren’t five steps away from me all the time. Or are you going to let me have a life now?” She tried a smile on for size, it seemed to only deepen his frown.
“She has improved.” Tsu’s comment floated over her shoulder, but it had no impact on Ansgar. “If she continues to practice daily…” Briet winced at his pause. “…and spars a few times a week, repelling singular assaults will become instinctual.”
Ansgar shook his head. “He won’t come after you alone. You could only be so lucky to have him launch a predictable attack.”
She gripped his arms and stepped closer. “I know you’re worried about me, but I’m not reckless. I take precautions.” She tried another tactic, a more honest one. “The trial is all children, terminally sick kids, Ansgar. I will make the difference for some of them. A difference their human doctors can’t. That is worth the risk to me. This is what I need to do. Please.” Her voice was soft.
When he closed his eyes and pulled her against him, she knew she’d won. Then again, he had always supported her choices.
As a victory, it was a bit hollow. He was right. Salvatore had spent the last several decades weaving a fabric of deceit, murder and fear around their people—a path no leader should have ever taken. He had succeeded. He’d killed Maitea and her child and driven Maitea’s mate, Xavier insane. He’d killed Isa and her mate and drugged the rest of the warrior’s to quell the natural call of their matings. Their race was small and damaged. Each individual killed accounted for another unique skill lost forever and ensured hundreds of human souls would never be healed. All for Salvatore’s goal of domination and greed.
He hadn’t gone quietly, and Briet had been one of the most outspoken against him before he’d been forced to flee for his life. She understood the risks and credited Ansgar’s fears as fact. It still wasn’t going to stop her.
His cheek rested on top of her head with a sigh. “I’ll go with you to the hospital campus, Pip.”
She smiled. “Give me just twenty minutes.”
Ansgar watched her walk out of the training chamber with more vigor in her stride than he’d seen in the moves during her session and frowned.
“She has improved.” Tsu’s quiet voice didn’t penetrate the cloud of concern. “But she shouldn’t be alone. We can cover her activities and provide her additional safety.”
“She’ll understand. It is a valid point she raises.”
“It always is.” He looked back to Tsu with a sad smile.
Tsu looked at the floor as he moved the tip of his staff across the stone in patterns. “She won’t find her mate sequestered here, either.”
Ansgar let out a growl at that thought. “Have you seen what passes for human men these days?”
“I’ve seen Turen with his mate, Mia. Compared to many women, human or otherwise, she seems exceptionally worthy. I trust Briet’s mate will embody similar qualities.”
“He damn well better.”
Tsu had turned his head, but Ansgar could see his brethren bite back a smile at his expense.
Briet tilted her head in acknowledgement to her team leader at the presenter’s table. “Dr. Sanyu.”
She took a seat in the front row of the amphitheater near the other clinical trial doctors and ignored the scowl on the team leader’s face. She wasn’t even late and her participation was key. Her team would be responsible for interfacing between the patient subject groups and the Welson Labs analysis team.
The lecture hall used for the briefings held two hundred seats. Enough room to accommodate all the university medical and lab personnel, as well as the representatives of Welson Laboratories. The amphitheater was already three quarters full.
Dr. Sanyu continued his presentation again, only to pause and wait with obvious irritation for the two new additions to settle. “Drs. Thurmont and Morgan.”
The man seated to the far end of the platform frowned at the clipped rise in Dr. Sanyu’s tone. His gaze met Briet’s and his expression cleared, but he focused on her with an intensity she found uncomfortable.
A Welson Labs representative no doubt. He stood out in the mix of people in labs coats and penniless student wardrobes. The immaculate suit, powder blue tie, and crisp white pinpoint shirt gave him away. His clothes accentuated broad shoulders, his wavy brown hair, and dark blue eyes. All lent him a subtle, but unmistakably strong presence.
Briet finished her quick assessment and turned her attention back to Dr. Sanyu’s screen presentation of the timeline for the trials. She couldn’t shake the impression that Welson had chosen well for their lead, a quiet manipulator to influence a positive result for their latest drug. She hoped for the children’s sakes the drug produced all the results Welson touted.
“The patients have undergone the first phase of testing and review. The ones divided into the current protocol groups have completed screening. The high-level data will only reflect the time elapsed since disease’s inception and assign a rating based on the aggressiveness. Doctors have briefed all the parents and the necessary consent and waiver forms complete our initial legal disclosure requirements. Our goal is to assimilate results for the next three months, compile the data simultaneously with the treatment, and make a final determination of which groups will progress to the final phase by week eight.”
Briet narrowed her eyes at Dr. Sanyu’s delivery and focused on her hands folded in her lap. His comments were no surprise. It was still an unwelcome thought that her patients may not progress to final treatment for eradication of their cancers based on lack of clinically documented response in the short term.
To some degree, it was always a luck-of-the-draw in these trials. That was why she was there, to even the odds. She glanced back up to find the Welson representative’s gaze back on her. He held eye contact for several long seconds, as if trying to bore into her brain. Almost locked in place, she felt a reticence to break the connection. Then he averted his gaze to Dr. Sanyu.
She tried to shrug off the residual sensations from his look, but the man’s attention hadn’t been casual and lingered with her.
Sanyu finished his presentation and turned to the man in the suit. “From Welson Labs we have Mr. Jason Ballard. He will interact with the teams to facilitate any administrative, financial or public relations issues. He will interface with the department heads relating to these areas as well. All results and personal extrapolations of data for Welson should be funneled through your project team leads or myself.”
Orders all wrapped up with a glossy bow, the assembled group was released. Briet let out a breath of relief as a hand touched her arm. “Are you heading over to the hospital?”
She glanced over her shoulder and smiled with a nod. Her associate, Dr. Sheri Arnault, was a pediatric oncologist with staff privileges at several of the hospitals in the area. Briet had become acquainted with the woman at a conference sponsored by Welson Labs last year. Given that she spent most of her time covering her tracks and eluding the limelight, it was amazing she’d struck up a friendship with anyone. However, Sheri had been persistent in her pursuit of their camaraderie. She’d shared her experiences and knowledge in a manner both open and forthright. It was a professional relationship Briet found easy to fall in step with.
“I have two groups of parents coming in for a final overview.”
Sheri pursed her lips and gave a slow nod. “A difficult step for them. Forgoing conventional methods for, perhaps, gambler’s odds.”
Briet suppressed a smile at her friend’s undisguised French accent and no-nonsense expression. “Have you had opportunity to review the drug in the lab?”
Sheri glanced toward Dr. Sanyu standing with Jason Ballard and shook her head. “I’ve only read the preliminary detail.” She shrugged. “What strikes me is the small size of the test groups and the disproportionate influx of capital and attention for this drug. It makes me wonder.”
The two women moved out of the amphitheater and along the glass enclosed bridge that spanned between the university halls and the teaching hospital. Cabs, buses and traffic passed beneath, the noise muted by the structural girth and design.
“However, our patients have every opportunity for success,” Sheri added, almost as if it were an afterthought.
“I’m counting on it.”
“No doubt. For someone who doesn’t sustain an ongoing practice you have quite the track record for success, my friend.”
Briet glanced out the glass at the overcast skies to avoid Sheri’s underlying question. “I just pick the optimum candidates and the ideal situation.”
“Let’s hope all these participants encounter your good luck, but one of us is invariably the control group.”
Yes, thought Briet, there was that. One unlucky set would only receive the placebo after waiving the option for traditional treatment. “Tell me again why Welson discounted using the data from previous standard protocol as a control basis instead of using this option of a control group with no treatment?”
Dr. Arnault shrugged. Her face held the same measure of discomfort Briet was feeling. “They are reluctant to waste time with assessment of the statistics. It lends an uncomfortable feeling to this first phase, yes? Last I heard there was still some debate over who makes the ultimate decision for the final groups.”
“Let’s hope we have some ability to influence the outcome.” They were on the same page here. “This is too heavy a burden for these families to take on without hope.”
They arrived at the bank of elevators, two headed down to the patient levels of the working hospital, one headed up to the administration offices.
“I am glad we will be together on this protocol.” Sheri looked around to ensure no one was within range of their conversation. “I look forward to the opportunity to exchange insights with you, or perhaps just lunch?”
Briet gave a smile and bit the inside of her cheek. Physician exchanges of their results during the treatments were discouraged. She and Sheri knew each other well enough to follow their best instincts, even if it didn’t correlate with Welson Labs preferred rules of engagement. She stepped into the open elevator and turned back. “I am always up to breaking bread with you. Call me.”
Jason watched from the back of the elevator as the number illuminated for each floor. When the doors slid open for the oncology ward, the pixie-sized blonde doctor moved onto the floor with brisk determination. He pushed to stay next to her and matched her stride as she moved through the crowded hall. “Dr. Hyden.”
She flashed a look his way, but didn’t bother maintaining contact or slowing down. “Mr. Ballard.”
“I wonder if I could speak with you.”
She stopped short. He had to pivot not to lose her in the traffic of visitors, nurses, and support staff. “And why would we have to discuss Mr. Ballard?”
Feisty. The trials hadn’t started yet and Dr. Briet Hyden had assigned him the role of villain. “Please, call me Jason. We’re going to be working together over the next few months.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Jason. I don’t really see you and I having much contact based on Dr. Sanyu’s outline. Unless you plan to take blood, administer the protocol, or perhaps deal with parents regarding symptoms and reactions? Of course we may see each other more if the protocol does not produce results.”
He did smile then. This woman barely reached his shoulder and she was ready to take on the whole establishment for her patients. Including him. He didn’t want her for an enemy. “Dr. Hyden, it’s my job to ensure the protocol is the most successful it can be. I’d rather have an open avenue of communication than battle lines.”
She crossed her arms, gave him a full minute of scrutiny, then finally let out a breath. “What can I do for you, Mr. Ballard?”
“I was hoping I could…” He lifted a hand. “Perhaps buy you a cup of coffee and share some of your expectations for the trials. Establish a rapport.”
There went her eyebrow again. What had he done to set her off now? “I don’t drink coffee and I’m going to be very busy.”
“Tea then? Or spring water. I’m not asking for a lifetime, just a moment here or there in your day over the next several months.” He held open his hands. “You never know. I might actually be able to help with something you need at some point. I’m only asking for a fair chance.”
She looked dubious. He’d appealed to her instincts for honesty and fairness. Those instincts radiated from her like sweetness and sunshine from the top of her blond, spiked hair to the smallest shit kicker boots he’d ever seen. Then she gave him a hint of a smile that almost bowled him over.
“I can be fair. A tea now and then could hardly take much time.” She fixed big brown eyes on his face and raised her finger in warning. “But I don’t want Welson people following me around all day.”
He waved a hand aside to dispel her concern. “You got it. Just me, just tea. I won’t eat up your day or step on your toes. I promise.”
She nodded and looked pointedly over his shoulder toward her original direction. He stepped back and waved her through with a smile. Her response was a wary look, followed by a tiny hint of humor and a nod of thanks.
He watched her until she turned from sight at the end of the hallway. That little spitfire was either going to make or break the test trials. He’d seen it in the determination on her face during the meeting. She wasn’t pleased with the decision to sacrifice a group for the purity of the results. Frankly, he wasn’t either, and while he hadn’t given up on producing another option, he was here to do a job. He was going to keep a close eye on her. A woman determined to keep her kids alive would be on top of every nuance in the testing.
She would be the ticket to the project’s success.
Whether she intended it, or not.