◀ First chapter ▶

12 April 2067
Today is a bright, sunny day in Las Vegas. Just like every Thursday, I’m heading to the gym to train. I live in a quiet, upper-class neighborhood – one of the most expensive areas in the city – thanks to my parents’ line of work. Both successful lawyers, they bought our house here in The Lakes when I was born. They wanted to raise their only daughter in a safe, residential neighborhood.
The gym is just a few blocks away. I’ve been going there for four years already, ever since my parents forbade me from enlisting in the army.
“This war going on between Russia and the US is getting too dangerous,” they informed me, “Do you really think we’d run the risk of never seeing you again? Our only daughter?”
They convinced me to drop the idea by promising to find me the city’s best martial arts instructor. They could see I needed to quell my urge to seek physical combat, so that’s exactly what they did. They found David, a veteran who received an honorable discharge after having lost one of his hands in the war. Luckily, today’s cutting-edge technology has made him as good as new. He has a highly advanced, robotic, prosthetic hand and works at the gym as an instructor in close combat, but his experience and knowledge go far beyond that. I feel like I’m his most dedicated student. Combat is a necessity for me, not just a hobby. It allows me to release all the stress built up during the week, while also satisfying my intense desire to learn how to take care of myself.
As I walk along, I think about what I want to do with my life over the next few years. I’ve never been like most other girls my age, concerned with guys and going out. Right now, I only have a small circle of friends and all they care about is finding an attractive husband and having a family. I want something different, but I’m not exactly sure what. Men have never been a priority, so for now, I’ve decided to concentrate on building a carrier and developing my own interests.
Some of our equally well-to-do neighbors are outside in the yard playing with their son. The little boy laughs insanely as his father tickles him. I watch as he runs away and climbs like a little monkey up a ladder into his treehouse. They seem so happy. Forgetting my thoughts for a few seconds, I smile and say hello before continuing my pleasant walk to the gym.
I get there fifteen minutes later and head into the women’s locker room to change up for my session with David. Inside, the ambiance is minimalistic, modern, and clean. I love the simple, relaxing vibe. There are several black lockers near the entrance and then a changing room, complete with benches and chairs, leading into the shower area. The spacious stalls are luxurious feeling, with dark, opaque glass to ensure privacy. It’s obviously an expensive gym and my parents have been paying for my membership for the last four years just to keep me from leaving Las Vegas and joining the army.
After changing, I linger in front of the mirror for a bit to look myself over. I’m happy with my twenty-five-year-old body. I’m thin, but with an hourglass figure typical of Mediterranean women, and nicely toned muscles. Despite all the physical activity I do, my body is still feminine and seductive. I love my curves. My black hair falls provocatively over my sports bra, and I pull it up into a high ponytail. My face is perfectly relaxed, my eyebrows expertly shaped into seagull-like arches framing in my green cat eyes, and my full lips are well-defined and dark pink. I’m aware that I have a mysterious and seductive look and I take pride in that. Guys trail me as if I were scattering gold coins in my wake. It amuses me to see what lengths they go to for a chance to get me in bed. Yet none of them have been able to truly capture my interest, and I’m beginning to think that it may never happen. I can’t help but wonder if there’s something wrong with me.
Before leaving the locker room, I tie my sneakers and grab my energy drink. I’m ready to work. When the war started heightening, I asked David to teach me how to use weapons – in case the situation got worse. For the last six months, he’s been teaching me to shoot at a gun range outside of the city. We go every week and so far, I’ve learned how to handle semi-automatic handguns, pump-action shotguns, and assault rifles. David is giving me some serious combat training without my parents even knowing, fortunately. They wouldn’t approve of me using guns. Even though I wasn’t allowed to join the military, I’m still getting the experience I wanted – to learn how to fight and protect myself for real.
During the last few weeks, we’ve started lessons on how to use knives in hand-to-hand combat. Obviously, we use practice knives with special blades for training so there is no risk of either of us getting cut. Today will be the fifth lesson and I’m excited to learn some new moves.
I join David in the ring. He’s thirty-eight and is tall with tanned skin and an extremely muscular body. His hair is very short, perhaps even the same cut he had when he joined the service many years ago. Prominent, somewhat harsh features perfectly match his strong personality. When you look into his brown eyes you can tell he has been through a lot. There was a whole other life before he settled into this leisurely position at the gym. In spite of any haunting memories, however, he’s a fun and friendly type. Today he has his shirt off and his torso is riddled with scars, some more noticeable than others. David’s prosthetic hand is tangible proof of how terrible war can be. I often wonder how many friends he had to watch suffer or die. Every time I look at the scars on his otherwise perfect body, I understand why my parents were against my joining the army. Maybe they were right, but it still bothers me that they would forbid me from doing something. It should have been my decision, not theirs.
“Hey, Amara! Finally. What took you so long?”
I look at the time on my smartwatch and realize that all this thinking has made me late. Today won’t be a walk in the park as far as training goes. David can’t stand tardiness. “Uhh... hi David! Sorry I’m late. I didn’t realize how...”
He interrupts me, “I don’t want to hear any excuses, young lady. Just get ready to fight!” He throws me a look of challenge and my warrior instinct stirs. It’s time to kick some ass… or at least try. Yes, of course David is much bigger than me. I only weigh 110 pounds and he’s probably more than double that, judging by his tall, extremely muscular build. He could pass for a body builder. Fortunately, he’s not as agile as me. My petite frame has its advantages after all. I respond with a wide smile and a gleam of challenge in my eye, as I join him in the ring.
After about half an hour of being thrown to the mat repeatedly, I realize that he’s punishing me for being late by pushing me harder than usual. I somehow manage to trip him, using a move that he himself taught me. Finally, after an extreme burst of effort, I get him on the ground for the first time. I pull out my training knife and hold it to his throat just to show him that if I had a real weapon in hand, I could have finished him off. My triumphant expression makes him smile.
“Amara, you’re finally getting the hang of this! But always remember that if your enemy is well-trained, you’ll have very little time. If he gains control, you’ll find yourself stunned or dead pretty fast.” He shows me a few different ways he could have blocked my move, to prepare me for all possible scenarios, and then we decide to switch over to knife throwing instead – this time with real weapons. I‘ve discovered that I love throwing knives. David says that I’m a natural. I think so too, because I almost always hit the hardest targets, although not with the highest level of precision yet.
After two hours of training, I return to the locker room exhausted. I look in the mirror again. My fair skin is speckled with tiny drops of sweat, almost like the plants in my mother’s garden covered in morning dew. I quickly hop into the shower and relish the cool water flowing down the length my body, washing away the sweat and heat and reviving me immediately. The sweet scent of coconut bodywash fills the shower as I massage and cleanse every part, relaxing my tense muscles. A pop of mixed berry shampoo now fills the air and then fades into a pleasant mingling of fragrances.  When I step out of the shower, a brief wave of sadness washes over me. If I could, I would stand under that tropical waterfall all day. I slip on some shorts and a crop top – which exposes my midriff and highlights my cleavage – then fasten my flat sandals and head toward the exit. I see David in the lobby on my way out, “Bye David! See you at the range on Saturday!”
He quickly replies with a content smile, “Bye, Amara. Try to be on time!”
I won’t dare show up late next week; I’m so exhausted after today’s torture session. I playfully stick out my tongue, as I leave the gym, holding back from chuckling at his look of surprise.
Every last muscle feels sore after today’s workout, but I walk along with the biggest smile stamped on my face at the thought of all the new things I’ve learned. I’m truly satisfied. My spirits are lifted, just as they are every Thursday. Before going home, I stop at the café to order my usual smoothie: coconut milk and berries with a layer of dark chocolate flakes on top. It’s a sinful pleasure after an intense workout. Jeff, the barista notices me right away. I bet he’ll try to get a date. Where will he invite me this time? I’m always curious to hear. It’s become a sort of game between us. I order a smoothie, and he asks me out to lunch, or dinner, or to the park, or the movies. One time he even tried to offer me a day at the spa. I promptly but politely decline every time and wonder when he’ll give up. I must admit that his tenacity surprises me.
“Hey, Amara! How was the gym?”
“Hi Jeff, it was great, thank you. Could you make me my usual?”
“Sure, angel.” I sit at the bar and watch him make my smoothie. He brings it over with a coy smile on his face, “Here you go, angel. So… would you like to come to the zoo with me Saturday night?” I can’t hold back an amused smile. I shake my head, and he frowns. Luckily, my constant rejection doesn’t get him too down. “I’ll get you to say yes one of these days, angel, you can bet on that.”
“We’ll see, Jeff. You keep trying and maybe someday I’ll give you a chance.” He smiles at me and then turns to the next customer in line.
My smartwatch vibrates as I make my way out of the crowded bar. I glance down for a second and accidentally bump into someone. Without my realizing it, my hand instinctively shoots up and rests against the person in front of me. I feel a jolt of electricity pulse through my veins, and heat radiating off sculpted pec muscles just inches away from my face. His tall, athletic body looks like it’s chiseled from stone, but instead has the sexy, primal feel of flesh. My nostrils fill with pure, masculine musk. I can just barely make out a tattoo on his shoulder – what appears to be a skull. Then I lift my head up to look him in the eye and my breath catches in my throat for a few seconds. The only words that come to mind are: Oh. My. God.
During my time here in Las Vegas, I haven’t felt much of an attraction to anyone, but all it takes is one look at this stranger and my body is suddenly on fire. Come to think of it, I have never experienced anything like it in my entire life. I feel so unsteady, I could pass out. He is gorgeous. Take-your-breath-away gorgeous. And probably bad news too. He seems to have a dangerous side and that turns me on. His eyes are ice blue and they fixate on me, studying me curiously. They’re the most captivating eyes I’ve ever seen, with an iris outlined in deep, intense blue fading into a lighter shade finally set off by the contrasting black center. They vaguely remind me of the striking blue eyes you’d see on a Husky. His complexion is smooth and fair, like mine, and his hair is black, like mine. The well-groomed stubble on his face makes me wonder what it would feel like if he were to brush it against my skin. His lips look so soft. I have an insane urge to kiss them. Amara, what is going on?! Pull yourself together!
Oh uhhh... I’m sorry. I wasn’t paying attention and I...” my voice trails off when I lock on his intense stare and notice his pupils dilating, deepening, pulling me in. Perfect, now I can’t even put two words together, let alone start a logical conversation... that’s great, Amara. He smiles a smile that sends shivers up my spine and makes me want him even more. I’m hopelessly attracted to everything about him. He seems really, truly dangerous. Somehow, I can tell. I can feel it in his presence.
“Sorry, I....I have to get going.” I don’t even give him time to speak before I hurry away. I feel embarrassed and out of my comfort zone. On the way home, I mentally replay the scene that just unfolded. I think about this man and the effect he has on my body and on my mind. I’m shaken up, but at the same time full of desire – probably not a good mix. These new emotions, this new need has been unleashed within me and it shakes me to the core. I can’t get the image of that gorgeous face out of my mind, those hypnotic eyes, and my God what an incredible body.
A hot wave of humiliation washes over me. Why did I react like that?! I’m angry with myself. Maybe my first impression was off base. Maybe he isn’t as dangerous as he seems. But even if he were, so what? You’ve been waiting for this your whole life. The one man who has ever had that kind of effect on me and I let him get away. Fantastic. I’ll probably never see him again and it’s all because of my total lack of experience. I might have the face of a femme fatale, but apparently, I have the disposition of a timid little bunny rabbit. The thought bothers me a great deal. What if I went back? Do you really have the guts to go back and look for him? I keep walking home, disappointed in my choice and with that bitter taste of missed opportunity in my mouth. I promise myself that if I see him again, I won’t dash away and hide. After all, it would be a sign of fate to run into each other again. I mean, what are the chances of meeting the same stranger twice in such a big city? Needle in a haystack.
For the first time in a long time, I feel unsure of who I am. That man knocked me completely off course. I should just forget about him and get back to reality. I’m sure I’ll never see him again anyway.