"How many pounds of pressure does it take to break a knee?" he asked.

"Only twelve."

"And what do you do if a human male threatens you?"

"Clean his clock, and teach him the time of day."

"That's my girl." He gently chucked her on the chin, and she flushed with pleasure.

"Why do you keep preparing me?"

"Because we're not finished yet. You've still got people trying to kill you, and we've still got at least one more checkpoint. It could be as dangerous as the last."

Cadeon was out on the hunt for uncracked steamed shellfish, leaving Holly back at the hotel to work, "because codes don't write themselves."

But she was blocked, unable to get anything done. She decided to call Mei to make sure everything was going all right with her class. The boys could be...boisterous.

"Everything's fine," Mei said, but didn't elaborate. "How are things with your family?"

"Getting better. A lot better. I think everything's going to be fine."

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"That's good."

Holly's ear twitched, and she frowned. "Mei, do you want to tell me something?"

"Look, I wasn't going to call you because I know you've got a lot on your plate, but there might be a time element involved with your work, and I'm sick of women being passed over for these jobs anyway."

Holly's stomach began to churn. "What are you talking about?"

"You know Scott was at the California conference, right?"

"Yes, he went at the last minute." Scott was Mei's boyfriend, a well-respected mathematician and all around nice guy.

"This morning he called me with some disturbing news...."

"Just tell me, Mei."

She took a deep breath, then said, "Tim's been stealing your work - and passing it off as his own."

35

As Cade waited for food, he checked in with Rök. "Any word on Néomi?"

"Again, we were closing in and she just seemed to...vanish," Rök said, sounding like he was scratching his head.

"A mortal is evading you? Come on, Rök - we're running out of time! I need you to be on this with everything you've got."

"I have a really good lead. I'll get her this time."

Rök sounded confident enough, but once they hung up, Cade was uneasy about their prospects.

And Cade had begun mulling another idea - a way for everyone to win. It'd be extremely dangerous. Riskier than anything he'd ever attempted.

If his plan failed, everyone would lose.

In life, Cade's season record wasn't all wins. And when he f**ked up, he tended to go big.

He should stick with Rydstrom's wishes, carrying out this operation the way the king intended. Cade would put his idea out of his head.

But what if...?

"What?" Holly cried.

"Tim's been taking sole credit for the papers he's presented," Mei explained. "So Scott figured that he'd just spaced and forgot to mention you. But then later, Scott heard him talking to the recruiters from Lockheed Martin. Tim was downplaying your involvement in all of your past co-projects. And I knew that with your background you had to have carried a lot of them."

"I carried all of them," Holly absently said.

"I shouldn't have told you till you got back."

"No, you did the right thing. I appreciate your letting me know."

"What are you going to do?" Mei asked.

"I don't know." Surely Tim wouldn't screw her over like this.

How well do you really know him...?

"Holly, if you confront Tim, you can tell him where you heard it from. Scott's livid."

Stealing research was about the worst thing one could do in their small community. Everyone toiled too hard not to be fiercely protective of their projects. Not to mention the fact that in their field, research could be worth millions - or even billions.

Scott was well-respected among all his colleagues. If he said Tim had done this, then Tim was going to get crucified....

Once she and Mei hung up, Holly sat on the bed, dumbfounded. She'd always felt confident that her boyfriend wouldn't betray her sexually. Had he betrayed her academically? Had that been why he'd been pushing her for her new code?

No, no, she was sure there was a reasonable explanation for this. This was merely hearsay, at best. Maybe Scott had overheard incorrectly.

Tim was a good guy. He was normal.

She called his cell phone. He answered before the end of the first ring.

"Tim, I'm glad I caught you. Do you have a minute to talk?"

"Absolutely. My next presentation's not for an hour."

"So Mei just called me..."

"Oh? What did she have to say?"

Holly's ears twitched again. There was something different about him, a treble in his voice that was altered. He's nervous. She could perceive it so clearly now. Valkyrie senses.

The benefit of the doubt went out the window. "When you presented our work, did you take sole credit for it?"

"What are you talking about?"

"Did you downplay my role in our projects with the Lockheed recruiters?"

"I wouldn't do that! Of course not. I know better than anyone how hard you've worked on our project - "

"Just cut the bullshit. I know you're lying. I can hear it in your voice."

Quiet. Finally, he said, "I might have played up my role in the work, but I did it for us. You know the big firms usually hire men in our field. I had the better shot at getting that job. And then, just think, I could buy us a house. You wouldn't even need a job."

She sucked in a breath. "Who are you? Need a job? I already don't need one - I love what I do. Was this your play all along?"

"There was no play. We work better as a team, with me as the front man."

"What the hell does that mean?"

"We need to stick together, to keep the work together. We could be unstoppable."

Chapter 21

Here was a man who actually wanted her for her brain. Or, at least, he wanted to use what it could do.

"Be realistic, Holly. You can barely get to classes without me. How well were you going to do in the corporate world?"

"Oh, my God." Red covered her vision. What had Cadeon called Tim? Oh, yes... "You know what, you f**kwit tosser - you can have that goddamned work." Lightning struck outside, and it felt right. "I'm on to something so much bigger. Something that's going to rock our industry."

"Holly, just wait - "

"Don't ever contact me again. Or I will nail your balls to the wall over this." Click.