​​ABLAZE

​​dallas fire & rescue series, book 2

​The heat is on...

Paramedic Lexi Fletcher is thrilled to transfer to Station 58. For one thing, her commute time is half of what it used to be. For another, Station 58 has a much better facility and far more exciting calls. It doesn’t hurt that Dane Chandler, the firefighter she’s been crushing on since joining Dallas and Rescue, works there. Okay, to tell the truth, maybe Dane is the biggest reason she requested the move!

But just when things with Dane start to heat up, Lexi’s dream job takes a turn in the freaky direction. Patients she’s been bringing to the hospital are turning up dead, even though they were in stable condition when she dropped them off. Her instincts are screaming there’s something fishy going on, but she can’t figure out what it is, and she can’t get anyone to believe her—except Dane.

Can he help her find the killer and stop him from striking again, or will Lexi become the target of a madman?

The heat is on...

Paramedic Lexi Fletcher is thrilled to transfer to Station 58. For one thing, her commute time is half of what it used to be. For another, Station 58 has a much better facility and far more exciting calls. It doesn’t hurt that Dane Chandler, the firefighter she’s been crushing on since joining Dallas and Rescue, works there. Okay, to tell the truth, maybe Dane is the biggest reason she requested the move!

But just when things with Dane start to heat up, Lexi’s dream job takes a turn in the freaky direction. Patients she’s been bringing to the hospital are turning up dead, even though they were in stable condition when she dropped them off. Her instincts are screaming there’s something fishy going on, but she can’t figure out what it is, and she can’t get anyone to believe her—except Dane.

Can he help her find the killer and stop him from striking again, or will Lexi become the target of a madman?

Things are about to get hot in here...
When firefighter Jax Malloy gets called out to battle a blaze at a hotel in the middle of the night, he doesn’t expect to find the sister of his best friend and fellow firefighter in need of rescuing. He didn’t even know she was back in Dallas.

Skye Chandler has always had a crush on Jax and is ready to be more than friends. All they have to do is survive an overprotective brother who just doesn’t get it, and a psychotic ex-boyfriend who’d rather see her dead than with another man.

He saved her once. Can he save her again?

Investigative journalist Hayley Garner is no damsel in distress. Fiery, feisty and tough, she can handle herself in the field. But when she’s kidnapped by terrorists, she knows she’s in real trouble. Then in sweeps sexy, rugged Navy SEAL Chasen Ward to rescue her from certain death. After getting her to safety, he disappears into the night before she can even thank him.

Weeks later, Hayley encounters Chasen again and finds herself falling into a passionate romance with the hunky hero out of her dreams. But ever since she's returned home, Hayley feels as if someone's watching her. Is it post-traumatic stress or does she have reason to be afraid?

TRUST HAS TO BE EARNED…

TREVOR MAXWELL
• Coyote shifter with an attitude
• Covert operator
• Trusts no one, especially his devastatingly beautiful new partner

ALINA BOSCH
• Former CIA, newest operative on the
covert team
• Hired to spy on her partner
• Motto: “Never be deceived again.”

As Trevor and Alina risk their lives together to hunt down a murderer bent on destroying all shifters, their survival depends on each other’s deepest strengths and vulnerabilities…

Can she trust the way he makes her feel when she's not even sure she can trust herself?
Minka Pajari isn't sure she should trust the sexy Special Forces soldier who found her. Subjected to horrors, on the run from scientists set on locking her in a cage, Minka is terrified of the monster she's becoming...and somehow, Angelo Rios is the only one who can calm the beast inside her and make her feel safe.

But can she trust the way he makes her feel when she's not even sure she can trust herself?

HE'LL DO ANYTHING FOR HER
Former Special Forces Lieutenant Jayson Harmon can't believe that his war scars don't matter to beautiful feline shifter Layla Halliwell. Why would she saddle herself with a broken man?
But Layla knows that Jayson is a hero to the core, and that only she can heal his wounded soul. So when Jayson is deployed on another deadly mission, no way is Layla staying behind...

Can she trust the way he makes her feel when she's not even sure she can trust herself?
Minka Pajari isn't sure she should trust the sexy Special Forces soldier who found her. Subjected to horrors, on the run from scientists set on locking her in a cage, Minka is terrified of the monster she's becoming...and somehow, Angelo Rios is the only one who can calm the beast inside her and make her feel safe.

But can she trust the way he makes her feel when she's not even sure she can trust herself?

More from this series

​READ AN EXCERPT

​​​​​​​He quickly figured out Lexi was one hell of a good dancer. Before long, they were scooting, spinning, and shuffling around the floor like they’d been dancing together for years. The music was too loud to even consider talking, so Dane made do with gazing into her beautiful blue eyes.


The band played one great song after another, so he and Lexi stayed on the floor along with everyone else. Dane had no idea how long they danced, but at some point he looked up and realized the place was a lot more crowded, making it harder to get around the doughnut-shaped floor. Then the band switched gears, playing a much slower tune and calling all the couples out for a little slow dancing.


Lexi slipped into his arms as if she belonged there, which he was beginning to think she most certainly did. He slid his right hand behind her back, pulling her close, then casually rested his palm on the upper curve of her ass, letting his fingers trace little circles on the sensitive spot right at the base of her spine. She shivered the slightest bit before resting her cheek against his chest.


He groaned at how good Lexi felt nestled up against him, but he doubted she could hear over the music. There was no way she could miss the hard-on he sported in his jeans, though. Hell, the thing was pressing right up against her belly begging for attention. Lexi snuggled even closer, one of her hands digging into the muscles of his shoulder like she wasn’t ever going to let him move away. She didn’t have to worry about that. He wasn’t going anywhere.


When the song came to an end—way too fast, in his opinion—Lexi tipped her head back to look up at him. Seeing the hunger in her eyes, and knowing it almost certainly matched the look in his own, Dane did the only thing he could. He dipped his head and kissed her.


He swore he felt a spark jump between them when their lips touched. He was also pretty sure he heard Lexi moan against his mouth. Then again, that might have been him groaning. It was hard to tell.


He buried his free hand in her hair, cradling her head as he traced his tongue around her lips. She parted them, inviting him in, and he slipped his tongue into her mouth to two-step with hers. Damn, she tasted good! It was all he could do to control himself.


From the way Lexi was clutching the front of his shirt and kissing him back, he wasn’t the only one having problems keeping things PG-rated.


Dane didn’t realize the band had started playing again, or that the other people on the dance floor were moving around him and Lexi like a tide until someone bumped into him. Grabbing Lexi’s hand, he led her through the crowd and off the floor. After a kiss like that, dancing was the last thing he wanted to do.


He headed for one of the bars so they could grab a couple of drinks. Besides the fact that they had been dancing for a while and she was probably as thirsty as he was, he needed something else to focus on. If he didn’t calm down before they left, he was probably going to rush into something, and he didn’t want to do that. Not with someone this amazing.


When he ordered two bottles of water, the bartender looked at him like he had horns growing out of his head. He guessed water wasn’t a big seller around here.


Dane handed one to Lexi to see her regarding him with an expression half amused, half hungry…and altogether sexy. This woman was dangerous all right.


He drained half the bottle of water in one gulp. When he looked at Lexi again, she’d turned her attention to the mechanical bull pit set up along one of the walls near the pool tables.


“Have you ridden the bull here before?” he asked.


Now she was looking at him like he had horns growing out of his head. “Are you crazy? I’m a paramedic. I’ve seen people screw themselves up royally falling off a curb. There’s no way in hell you’ll get me on that thing.”


He chuckled. “Oh, come on, it’s not that bad. They’re not nearly as hard to ride as the real thing. The operator will put the thing on slow if you tell him you’re a newbie.”


Lexi’s eyes widened. “You’ve ridden real bulls?”


He nodded. “I’ve ridden in quite a few rodeos, including some charity DF&R events. Trust me when I say mechanical bulls are easier.”


She eyed the mechanical contraption doubtfully, but Dane could see curiosity warring with her better judgement.


“I’d never be able to stay on that thing, no matter how slowly it was moving,” she said.


He swigged some water. “If you want to give it a go, you could always ride with me.”


Lexi blinked. “We can do that? I mean, they’d let us?”


“Sure. They don’t care.”


She still seemed doubtful, but finally nodded. “I’ll be mad at myself tomorrow if I don’t, so let’s do this.” She gave him a stern look. “But if we fall off and get hurt, you’re going to be the one to explain to Captain Stewart how it happened.”


Dane chuckled. “Deal. But don’t worry. If we fall off, I’ll make sure you come down on top of me so you don’t get hurt.”


There were three women waiting in line to ride ahead of them, but they all chickened out. For a second, Dane thought Lexi was going to bail, too, but she took a deep breath, kicked off her shoes, and stomped across the squishy mats.


Dane handed the operator a twenty. “There’s another twenty in it if you don’t kill us.”


The man nodded his head and tipped his beat-up cowboy hat. Dane figured that was about as good as he was going to get.


The thing didn’t look much like a bull but more like something you’d see on a carousel—if it was a demented carousel for really disturbed kids. The body was a basic barrel shape with no legs and a barely recognizable head with floppy ears instead of horns. But there was a simple saddle to sit on, with a wide strap at the top to hold onto.


“How the heck do I even get on this thing?” she asked, staring at the high back in alarm.


Dane could have suggested several different ways, but finally decided to reach out and pick her up by the waist, sitting her on the forward part of the saddle.


She smiled at him. “Thanks.”


Lexi adjusted her dress, pulling it up a bit here and there to get comfortable, flashing a lot of thigh in the process. Damn, she had nice legs.


Dane hopped up behind her before he could think too much about her legs—and what it would feel like if they were wrapped around him instead of a stupid fake bull. Riding a mechanical bull with a hard-on might or might not be legal in Texas—it was a weird state like that—but it wouldn’t be very comfortable.


He reached past her hip and grabbed the strap positioned between her legs. He really had to think hard about what he was doing so the fact that his hand was inches from her pussy didn’t distract him too much.


Wrapping his free hand around her, he pulled her even more tightly against him, which made the junction of her thighs press enticingly against the hand he was using to hold onto the strap and his hard-on nestle temptingly against her ass. The hard-on he wasn’t supposed to have at the moment—yeah, that one.


“I think I understand why you wanted to ride this thing,” she murmured over her shoulder. “It definitely has the potential to be interesting.”


That was an understatement if he’d ever heard one.


“Ready?” the operator called.


Dane nodded at the man, and the bull began to move.
Riding a bull, whether a real one or a mechanical beast, wasn’t about guessing what the creature would do. It wasn’t even about holding on tight. It was about relaxing and feeling the flow of the movement.


At first, Lexi was stiff as a board, trying to clench her legs tight to the bull’s sides like she thought that would keep her on the thing. It wouldn’t, but she didn’t know that. Dane kept his body loose and balanced, holding on for the both of them and hoping she relaxed enough to enjoy this.


She did, shocking him at how quickly she got into the bull’s rhythm and began moving as one with him.


The bull operator earned his money, setting up a routine of mostly simple turns and rolling waves with enough change of direction to keep it interesting. It was the slow, ocean-like wave motion that got to Dane first, as Lexi’s ass began to move against his hard-on in the most erotic motion. There was no way Lexi wasn’t feeling the hard shaft of his cock moving against her ass, because he sure as hell was.


Beneath the arm he had wrapped around her, Dane felt her muscles tense and relax as she began to gyrate, riding him as much as she was riding the bull. But it was when she started grinding against the hand holding the bull’s harness strap that he really lost it.


Fortunately, the operator chose that moment for a sudden change of direction, combined with a sharp flip of the bull’s back end. The move tossed Dane right off, and he took Lexi with him.


He twisted in the air as he fell, making sure he came down on his back with her on top of him. It wasn’t exactly the most comfortable landing in the world, especially when Lexi’s hip slammed into his stomach. But considering he ended up flat on his back with a beautiful woman sprawled across his chest, he could put up with the minor pain.


“That was more fun that I thought it’d be,” she said in a deep, husky voice.


He ran his hand down her back, making her arch against him like a kitty. “I don’t think I was expecting that either.”


She leaned closer, her mouth about to come down on his when Dane noticed a pair of booted feet on the mat next to his head.


“Y’all okay?” the mechanical bull operator asked, his voice full of concern. “Y’all need a paramedic or something?”


Lexi smiled, her perfect, full lips only inches from his own.


Dane chuckled. “That’s okay. I already found the only paramedic I need.”

He quickly figured out Lexi was one hell of a good dancer. Before long, they were scooting, spinning, and shuffling around the floor like they’d been dancing together for years. The music was too loud to even consider talking, so Dane made do with gazing into her beautiful blue eyes.
The band played one great song after another, so he and Lexi stayed on the floor along with everyone else. Dane had no idea how long they danced, but at some point he looked up and realized the place was a lot more crowded, making it harder to get around the doughnut-shaped floor. Then the band switched gears, playing a much slower tune and calling all the couples out for a little slow dancing.
Lexi slipped into his arms as if she belonged there, which he was beginning to think she most certainly did. He slid his right hand behind her back, pulling her close, then casually rested his palm on the upper curve of her ass, letting his fingers trace little circles on the sensitive spot right at the base of her spine. She shivered the slightest bit before resting her cheek against his chest.
He groaned at how good Lexi felt nestled up against him, but he doubted she could hear over the music. There was no way she could miss the hard-on he sported in his jeans, though. Hell, the thing was pressing right up against her belly begging for attention. Lexi snuggled even closer, one of her hands digging into the muscles of his shoulder like she wasn’t ever going to let him move away. She didn’t have to worry about that. He wasn’t going anywhere.
When the song came to an end—way too fast, in his opinion—Lexi tipped her head back to look up at him. Seeing the hunger in her eyes, and knowing it almost certainly matched the look in his own, Dane did the only thing he could. He dipped his head and kissed her.
He swore he felt a spark jump between them when their lips touched. He was also pretty sure he heard Lexi moan against his mouth. Then again, that might have been him groaning. It was hard to tell.
He buried his free hand in her hair, cradling her head as he traced his tongue around her lips. She parted them, inviting him in, and he slipped his tongue into her mouth to two-step with hers. Damn, she tasted good! It was all he could do to control himself.
From the way Lexi was clutching the front of his shirt and kissing him back, he wasn’t the only one having problems keeping things PG-rated.
Dane didn’t realize the band had started playing again, or that the other people on the dance floor were moving around him and Lexi like a tide until someone bumped into him. Grabbing Lexi’s hand, he led her through the crowd and off the floor. After a kiss like that, dancing was the last thing he wanted to do.
He headed for one of the bars so they could grab a couple of drinks. Besides the fact that they had been dancing for a while and she was probably as thirsty as he was, he needed something else to focus on. If he didn’t calm down before they left, he was probably going to rush into something, and he didn’t want to do that. Not with someone this amazing.
When he ordered two bottles of water, the bartender looked at him like he had horns growing out of his head. He guessed water wasn’t a big seller around here.
Dane handed one to Lexi to see her regarding him with an expression half amused, half hungry…and altogether sexy. This woman was dangerous all right.
He drained half the bottle of water in one gulp. When he looked at Lexi again, she’d turned her attention to the mechanical bull pit set up along one of the walls near the pool tables.
“Have you ridden the bull here before?” he asked.
Now she was looking at him like he had horns growing out of his head. “Are you crazy? I’m a paramedic. I’ve seen people screw themselves up royally falling off a curb. There’s no way in hell you’ll get me on that thing.”
He chuckled. “Oh, come on, it’s not that bad. They’re not nearly as hard to ride as the real thing. The operator will put the thing on slow if you tell him you’re a newbie.”
Lexi’s eyes widened. “You’ve ridden real bulls?”
He nodded. “I’ve ridden in quite a few rodeos, including some charity DF&R events. Trust me when I say mechanical bulls are easier.”
She eyed the mechanical contraption doubtfully, but Dane could see curiosity warring with her better judgement.
“I’d never be able to stay on that thing, no matter how slowly it was moving,” she said.
He swigged some water. “If you want to give it a go, you could always ride with me.”
Lexi blinked. “We can do that? I mean, they’d let us?”
“Sure. They don’t care.”
She still seemed doubtful, but finally nodded. “I’ll be mad at myself tomorrow if I don’t, so let’s do this.” She gave him a stern look. “But if we fall off and get hurt, you’re going to be the one to explain to Captain Stewart how it happened.”
Dane chuckled. “Deal. But don’t worry. If we fall off, I’ll make sure you come down on top of me so you don’t get hurt.”
There were three women waiting in line to ride ahead of them, but they all chickened out. For a second, Dane thought Lexi was going to bail, too, but she took a deep breath, kicked off her shoes, and stomped across the squishy mats.
Dane handed the operator a twenty. “There’s another twenty in it if you don’t kill us.”
The man nodded his head and tipped his beat-up cowboy hat. Dane figured that was about as good as he was going to get.
The thing didn’t look much like a bull but more like something you’d see on a carousel—if it was a demented carousel for really disturbed kids. The body was a basic barrel shape with no legs and a barely recognizable head with floppy ears instead of horns. But there was a simple saddle to sit on, with a wide strap at the top to hold onto.
“How the heck do I even get on this thing?” she asked, staring at the high back in alarm.
Dane could have suggested several different ways, but finally decided to reach out and pick her up by the waist, sitting her on the forward part of the saddle.
She smiled at him. “Thanks.”
Lexi adjusted her dress, pulling it up a bit here and there to get comfortable, flashing a lot of thigh in the process. Damn, she had nice legs.
Dane hopped up behind her before he could think too much about her legs—and what it would feel like if they were wrapped around him instead of a stupid fake bull. Riding a mechanical bull with a hard-on might or might not be legal in Texas—it was a weird state like that—but it wouldn’t be very comfortable.
He reached past her hip and grabbed the strap positioned between her legs. He really had to think hard about what he was doing so the fact that his hand was inches from her pussy didn’t distract him too much.
Wrapping his free hand around her, he pulled her even more tightly against him, which made the junction of her thighs press enticingly against the hand he was using to hold onto the strap and his hard-on nestle temptingly against her ass. The hard-on he wasn’t supposed to have at the moment—yeah, that one.
“I think I understand why you wanted to ride this thing,” she murmured over her shoulder. “It definitely has the potential to be interesting.”
That was an understatement if he’d ever heard one.
“Ready?” the operator called.
Dane nodded at the man, and the bull began to move.
Riding a bull, whether a real one or a mechanical beast, wasn’t about guessing what the creature would do. It wasn’t even about holding on tight. It was about relaxing and feeling the flow of the movement.
At first, Lexi was stiff as a board, trying to clench her legs tight to the bull’s sides like she thought that would keep her on the thing. It wouldn’t, but she didn’t know that. Dane kept his body loose and balanced, holding on for the both of them and hoping she relaxed enough to enjoy this.
She did, shocking him at how quickly she got into the bull’s rhythm and began moving as one with him.
The bull operator earned his money, setting up a routine of mostly simple turns and rolling waves with enough change of direction to keep it interesting. It was the slow, ocean-like wave motion that got to Dane first, as Lexi’s ass began to move against his hard-on in the most erotic motion. There was no way Lexi wasn’t feeling the hard shaft of his cock moving against her ass, because he sure as hell was.
Beneath the arm he had wrapped around her, Dane felt her muscles tense and relax as she began to gyrate, riding him as much as she was riding the bull. But it was when she started grinding against the hand holding the bull’s harness strap that he really lost it.
Fortunately, the operator chose that moment for a sudden change of direction, combined with a sharp flip of the bull’s back end. The move tossed Dane right off, and he took Lexi with him.
He twisted in the air as he fell, making sure he came down on his back with her on top of him. It wasn’t exactly the most comfortable landing in the world, especially when Lexi’s hip slammed into his stomach. But considering he ended up flat on his back with a beautiful woman sprawled across his chest, he could put up with the minor pain.
“That was more fun that I thought it’d be,” she said in a deep, husky voice.
He ran his hand down her back, making her arch against him like a kitty. “I don’t think I was expecting that either.”
She leaned closer, her mouth about to come down on his when Dane noticed a pair of booted feet on the mat next to his head.
“Y’all okay?” the mechanical bull operator asked, his voice full of concern. “Y’all need a paramedic or something?”
Lexi smiled, her perfect, full lips only inches from his own.
Dane chuckled. “That’s okay. I already found the only paramedic I need.”

“Lieutenant, this is Malloy,” Jax shouted into his radio. “Tory and I are going up the east side stairwell. We have a report of people trapped on the upper floors.”
“Roger that. Watch yourselves up there.”
Running up steps while wearing a self-contained breathing apparatus, helmet, and fire-resistant turn-out suit that weighed an extra sixty pounds wasn’t exactly fun, but as a firefighter, Jax was used to it. He automatically controlled his breathing so he could conserve as much air in his self-contained breathing apparatus as possible, and kept humping up the smoke-filled stairwell. The SCBA gave him a full thirty minutes in ideal conditions, but conditions in a burning building were about as far from ideal as you could get. The fire was already eating through the walls above him, and the ceiling didn’t look like it was far behind. The hotel had ten minutes tops before it was completely devoured by flames.
He and Tory almost tripped over an older man down on his knees on the third-floor landing. His equally older wife was at his side, urging him to get to his feet. The woman’s shoulders sagged with relief at the sight of them.
Jax was all set to help her while Tory assisted her husband, but she waved away his hand.
“There’s a young woman up on the fifth floor. She helped us down, then went back up looking for other people,” she said, her voice hoarse from the smoke. “I can walk down. You go find her.”
Jax glanced at Tory to see him pressing the mask of his air pack against the old man’s face. Splitting up once you went inside a burning building wasn’t smart, but sometimes it had to be done.
“You good?” he asked.
His fellow firefighter nodded. “Go. I’ll get these two down by relay if I have to.”
Giving Tory a nod, Jax sprinted up the stairs. A moment later, he heard Tory’s voice on the radio, announcing he was coming down with two, while Jax was heading up for another.
By the time Jax reached the fifth floor, he knew the chances of finding anyone alive up there were slim. All public places like this were supposed to have sprinklers and water deluge systems, but if the hotel had them, they weren’t working. He could feel the heat from the flames even with all his gear on, and knew the air was getting hot enough to sear lung tissue. He kept going, though. He’d seen miracles too many times to give up on anyone.
Ten steps later, he almost stumbled over a woman lying on the floor. She had a wet bath towel over her shoulders, and another draped over her head. Smart girl, he thought as he crouched down beside her. He was half afraid he was too late, but then the woman coughed. Wrapping one arm around her, Jax gently pulled her up into a sitting position, then took off his mask to place it over her nose and mouth, pushing the button on the regulator to dump extra air into it.
He would have preferred to wait to see if the woman was able to breathe, but he couldn’t risk it. The building could give way any minute. So instead, he got the mask on the girl’s head as well as he could with her long hair, then scooped her into his arms and headed for the stairwell.
The smoke burned his throat like acid as he carried her down the five flights of stairs, but he ignored it. Another crew of firefighters were heading up as he came down, and he gave them a nod as he maneuvered around them, then through what was left of the lobby and out the front door. Damn, fresh air never tasted so good.
“Malloy. Out of the building with one rescue,” he called over his radio as he hurried over to the collection of Dallas Rescue vehicles and regular ambulances set up on the far side of Jacobs street. There were at least a dozen other patients already there, sitting on gurneys or on the ground. Most had oxygen masks on, getting good air into their lungs. Jax saw the older couple he’d left with Tory in the stairwell, but there was no sign of the other firefighter. He’d probably already gone back inside.
Alec McIntyre, one of the paramedics from Jax’s station immediately ran over, a green oxygen tank with a mask kit already attached in his hand. Jax gently placed the woman on the ground, then turned off the valve on the top of his tank and took the big firefighter’s face mask away. Alec quickly replaced it with the smaller medical mask. The woman was aware enough to get her hands around it and press it firmly to her face, breathing deep.
“I’ve got her,” Alec said, already checking the woman for burns and other injuries.
Jax was about to turn around and head back to the burning hotel when the woman flipped her long, brunette hair aside to fit the oxygen mask more closely to her face. Jax stared, stunned.
“Skye, is that you?” he asked.
He was sure he was wrong even as he said the words. No way could the slim, curvy girl sitting on the curb be the little sister of his best friend and fellow firefighter, Dane Chandler. Three years younger than them, Skye had spent most of their childhood running around behind them wanting to be included in everything they did. He hadn’t seen her in years, not since he’d graduated high school and moved away. Skye had only been a freshman in high school then, all skinny arms, long legs, knobby knees, and sharp elbows.
The woman blinked up at him, her big, blue eyes going wide as they filled with recognition. Damn, it was her. Little Skye had grown up, and even through all the dirt and grime he couldn’t miss the fact that she’d become one hell of a beautiful woman.

She’d been so caught up in the memory of the captivating blue of his eyes she’d completely forgotten how sexy his voice was. The deep, rich tones caressed her, making her feel warm all over. Just like they had that night in Africa. Wow, this guy was pure sexy, wrapped in blue camo. She had a crazy urge to ask him to say something else—anything else—so she could hear that voice again.
“Call me Hayley, please,” she finally managed.
She offered him her hand, pulse skipping when he took it. Wow, he had really big hands. A little part of her mind whispered something about the significance of that, but she ignored it. Instead, she focused on the overall sense of strength seeming to pour off him in waves. Being this close to him and getting a chance to take in how tall and muscular he was reminded her of the way he’d picked her up and carried her so effortlessly that night—all while using a weapon.
Hayley had never thought of herself as the kind of woman who wanted to be swept off her feet by a guy, but right now she was thinking this man could carry her anywhere he wanted to.
Damn, this guy was seriously messing with her calm, cool journalist exterior.
“Chasen Ward,” he said.
Chasen. Unusual, but it fit him. Gorgeous name for a gorgeous guy. She wondered if the guy realized the kind of effect he likely had on every woman on the planet, especially the one standing right in front of him. Probably not, she guessed. Guys were usually clueless about that kind of stuff.
“How did things go over there?” she asked. “After you got me out, I mean.”
She cringed as soon as the words were out. Guess he hadn’t messed with her journalist mojo as much as she’d thought. Crap, now he’d think she was looking for a scoop. Nothing turned people off more than a nosy reporter.
But he merely nodded. The shade from the brim on his hat accentuated his chiseled features as he moved, making them seem even more angular.
“They went well,” he said. “My Team and I got back a few days ago as a matter of fact.”
Her inner Barbara Walters wanted to ask what else they’d done over there, but before she could decide if that was a good idea or not, two other Navy guys in blue camouflage sauntered over. Both petty officers second class, they were tall, well-built, and good looking.
“Hey, I know you,” the younger of the two men said with a trace of a Southern accent. Blond with brown eyes, he had that casual Channing Tatum-thing going on. “Though I hope you don’t mind me saying, you look a lot better now than you did the last time we saw you.”
Hayley frowned in confusion at the two men, sure she would have remembered if she’d met them before.
Chasen chuckled. “This is Dalton Jennings and Nash Cantrell. They were with me when we rescued you that night. You’ll have to forgive Dalton for being clueless. He’s taken several classes on how to be charming, but unfortunately, he keeps failing them.”
She laughed and shook hands with both men. Dalton looked so chagrined, she couldn’t help but take pity on him. “Don’t worry about it, Dalton. I’m well aware of how much of a mess I looked that night. Thanks for being there with Chasen and the rest of your Team.”
The SEAL visibly relaxed, giving her another grin. “No problem. Just doing our job, ma’am.”
Dalton might have failed out of charm school—according to Chasen at least—but there wasn’t a woman alive who wouldn’t swoon over that Southern drawl.
“I know it was hard to tell with all the gear we had on,” Dalton continued. “But I was the one doing this.”
Dark eyes suddenly intense, he struck an action hero pose, arms lifted as if he were holding an imaginary machine gun. On either side of him, Chasen and Nash snorted in unison.
“You mean you were the one nearly running into every wall around you because the batteries in your NVGs were dying.” Nash pointed out drily, his dark eyes filled with amusement.
Dalton considered that a moment, then dropped the pose and shrugged. “That might have been me.”
Hayley laughed, unable to help herself. They were both funny—and seriously cute—but she had to admit she was glad when they took off a little while later, leaving her alone with Chasen.
“How is your ankle feeling?” he asked as his buddies walked off toward the pavilion.
“Much better, thanks,” she said.
He looked down pointedly at her foot where it peeked out from under her long skirt. She’d tried not to make it obvious, but she’d been standing with all her weight on her good foot so she could give the injured one a rest. Chasen lifted a brow as if he saw through the little white lie.
Hayley gave him a sheepish look. “Okay, you caught me. It still hurts a little. But it really is much better. Thanks to you.”
“How’s that?”
“If you hadn’t gotten there in time, a messed-up ankle would have been the least of my worries. I don’t know how I can ever repay you for saving my life.”
That playful grin returned. “I’m more than ready to call it even if you’d consider going out to dinner with me.”
If Chasen were any other guy, Hayley might consider making him work a little harder for a date. But she’d been more than ready to go out with him since he’d loaded her on that helicopter over in Africa. Heck, there’d been a time or two when she’d woken up from an especially nice dream involving the Navy SEAL when she was ready to do a lot more than date the guy. Rip off his uniform and roll around on the floor with him being one thing that came to mind.
“Dinner sounds great,” she said, quite proud of her ability to maintain her composure.
“Friday night work for you?”
“Perfect.”
Hayley entered her number in his phone while he did the same with hers, then she gave him her address.
“I’ll see you at 1830 hours,” he said, then chuckled. “I mean six-thirty.”
“I can’t wait,” she said, and meant it.
Touching his fingers to the brim of his hat in a causal salute, Chasen gave her another smile then strode off. Hayley let out a sigh as she watched him go. Damn, he made that blue camouflage uniform look good.

Alina fidgeted in the passenger seat of the big Suburban SUV as Trevor waited for an opening in traffic, then changed lanes. It was well after rush hour, but I-95 was still packed.

“Does the dress fit okay?” he asked, glancing at her.

She fought the urge to squirm again. “Yeah. It fits fine. It’s just that this is the first time I’ve worn a dress like this on a mission. I’m so used to working in pant suits that wearing a dress feels…odd.”

Not that she was complaining about the dress. A shimmery black evening gown with a sexy neckline and a little slit up the side that showed off just enough leg to be interesting without being over the top, it was probably the most gorgeous dress she’d ever worn. Normally, she would never have worn anything like it on a mission, but Trevor said she needed to look the part for the undercover role they were playing that night, so she’d agreed, even though she didn’t have a clue what the hell they were up to this evening.

All she knew for sure was that they were heading to Baltimore, and that almost no one else in the DCO—most especially their boss—knew what they were doing. Why the hell she trusted Trevor so much was a shock to her, but the shoot house training they’d done yesterday had demonstrated they could be good together—when they trusted each other.  

Trevor looked over at her, eyeing her up and down before turning his attention back to the freeway with a shrug. “If it helps, I think you look frigging awesome.”

She appreciated the compliment probably more than she should have, but that didn’t keep her from pointing out the obvious. “Mind telling why you get to wear to a suit and tie while I have to wear something that shows off more than it covers?”

He glanced at her again. She didn’t miss the way his gaze lingered on the nice amount of cleavage she was displaying before he met her eyes.

“Well, for starters, my suit would be way too big for you,” he said. “For another, I think I’d look absolutely ridiculous in that dress. Finally, there’s good chance that a distraction will be called for during this mission.” He gave her another once over that had her skin warming alarmingly. “And trust me—you are definitely one serious distraction.”  

She felt her face heat, and was glad it was nighttime. Until she remembered Trevor could see in the dark.

“Speaking of where we’re going,” she said. “Don’t you think you might want to let me in on the big secret? Since I was nice enough to wear this dress for you and all. I’m trying to trust you here, but that’s hard if you’re going to keep me completely in the dark.”

Trevor was silent for so long Alina thought he wasn’t going to say answer. She wouldn’t have been surprised. He’d been completely mum on the subject the whole time a behavioral scientist who worked for the DCO named Skye Durant had picked out Alina’s disguise for the mission. She’d been too busy being amazed that the DCO had a clothing and prop department that included expensive cocktail dresses to press him on the subject then, but she couldn’t contain her curiosity any longer.

“We’re going to an out-of-the-way restaurant near the Inner Harbor called The End of the Road,” he finally said. “The place pulls in enough business to make the establishment look legit, but the restaurant is a front for a high stakes gambling operation that they run out of the back of the place.”

She thought about that for a moment, replaying everything she’d learned on their trip down to Bowling Green on Wednesday, then combining it with what Trevor had told her yesterday over pizza.

“Something tells me we won’t be looking for the fugitive shifters and their teammates playing poker in this backroom joint,” she said.

Trevor didn’t look at her. “No. We’re looking for the man I think built the bomb that killed John. My sources say he likes to gamble there.”

Clearly, Trevor had no intention of going after his fellow shifters. Apparently, he didn’t believe they had anything to do with John’s death.

“Any chance Skye and that nerdy guy I saw her talking with might be your sources?” Alina asked.

Trevor didn’t answer her.

No shock there. Trevor was obviously going behind Dick’s back on this manhunt for the bomber who’d killed John, which was almost certainly going to get him into trouble if the director ever found out. If Thomas Thorn really was behind the bombing, that trouble might just be of the fatal variety for everyone involved. If Skye and that guy—who was definitely an analyst type if Alina had ever seen one—were the ones passing Trevor his intel, her partner struck her as the
kind of man who would do anything to protect them.

The fact that Trevor didn’t want to talk to her about any of this meant he was worried she’d run off and tell Dick. After yesterday’s training, he might trust her more than he had, but apparently not enough to put anyone other than himself at risk.

Even though she understood why he’d do that, it still hurt a little. She couldn’t help wondering if he was simply being careful out of habit, or because he knew Dick had cornered her in the main building this morning.

The director had waylaid her the moment she’d walked in the door, pulling her into his office and grilling her for over thirty minutes about what exactly she and Trevor had done down in Fredericksburg on Wednesday, and why she hadn’t reported to him already.

Since she hadn’t been able to come up with any convenient lie—and knowing he’d check up on anything she’d said anyway—Alina told him they’d gone to Bowling Green and talked to Seth Larsen. She’d done a good job of downplaying the whole thing, making it seem like Trevor had simply been looking for proof that one of the shifters had been around John’s office at some point prior to the explosion. Dick had been curious about Larson, but Alina kept her answers vague. She didn’t want to make trouble for Larson. He already had it hard enough.

“I want to know when Trevor takes a piss.” Dick said, fixing her with a stern look. “Don’t forget why I hired you, Agent Bosch.”

The mere thought of spying on her partner had Alina twisting anxiously in her seat again.

“You sure that dress isn’t bothering you?” Trevor asked. “Is it chafing somewhere it shouldn’t or something?”

She couldn’t help but laugh. “No, it’s fine. Trust me, dresses this expensive don’t chafe.”

He threw her an amused glance as he turned off I-95 onto 395, getting closer to the Inner Harbor. “I just figured maybe there was something under the dress that was too tight, or…I don’t know…pinching somewhere.”

That went to show how little men knew about what women had to go through to look this good. “Sorry to burst your bubble, but with a dress this form fitting, wearing panties isn’t an option.”

Trevor glanced her way, his eyes automatically going to the juncture of her thighs. He looked away quickly, like he didn’t want her to realize where his mind might have been, but it was a little late for that. The heat she’d seen there—and the little flash of yellow glow if she wasn’t mistaken—gave him away.
Beside her, Trevor suddenly seemed very interested in something in his side view mirror. Knowing he was attracted to her—at least while she was wearing this dress— should have pissed her off. What kind of work relationship could they build if he saw her as a woman instead of a partner? But for some reason, she couldn’t quite muster up as much outrage as she probably should have. In fact, she found his attraction to her…interesting. Definitely something she was going to have to talk to Kathy about.

As Trevor turned off the interstate and hit the side streets a little while later, she realized he was still checking his side mirror, as well as the rearview every few seconds. Then she recognized the same gas station they’d already passed. Trevor was driving in circles, and checking his mirrors, to see if they had a tail. She checked her side mirror, but didn’t see anything suspicious.

She was about to ask if he did when he suddenly turned into the parking lot of the Horseshoe Casino and began driving up and down the rows of parking spaces. She glanced over her shoulder to look behind them, but still didn’t see anyone.

“Are you lost and refusing to ask for directions, or are you worried we picked up a tail?” she asked, turning back around.

She wasn’t sure who the hell might be following them, but if she had to guess, she’d say it must be someone Dick sent to keep an eye on them. That wasn’t good.

“I don’t think anyone’s following us, but I wanted to make sure,” Trevor said, pulling out of the parking lot. “As far as getting lost, you don’t have to worry about that. As a shifter, it’s genetically impossible for me to get lost.”

Alina was still wondering if Trevor was serious or not when he turned onto a street called Worchester and headed toward an area near the train tracks that looked a little run down. Which was surprising, considering they weren’t all that far off the main thoroughfare. They kept going until the road ended in a big parking lot in front of an equally large industrial building. Looking at it, you’d never know the place was a restaurant if it wasn’t for the glitzy lights along the front and a big neon sign proclaiming it to be The End of the Road. Looked like a dive to her.

There were more fancy cars in the parking lot than she expected to see. Even a few limos that looked seriously out of place. As did the two big guards standing by the front door wearing suits that were working overtime in their attempt to cover up all the muscles and the handguns both men were carrying in underarm holsters.

“You’re telling me the police never realized what’s going on around here?” she asked Trevor.

He pulled into a parking space and turned off the engine. “I’m sure they know. But as long as no one causes problems, they apparently look the other way.”

Alina nodded. On some level, that made sense.

Beside her, Trevor flipped down the visor and adjusted his tie in the mirror. Damn, he looked good in the expensive silk suit Skye had picked out for him. And the light stubble along his jawline made him look even better. Then again, she’d always had a thing for guys with scruff.

“Who’s this guy we’re looking for, and why do you think he’s connected to John Loughlin’s death?” she asked.

“These days he goes by the name of Doug Smith.” Trevor reached into the back seat, coming up with a thin manila folder. He flipped though the file until he came out with a photo of a man in his early forties with dark hair sprinkled with a little bit of gray.

“His real name is Dokka Shishani,” Trevor continued. “He’s from Chechnya, where he fought for years in the Chechen-Russian conflict. It’s also where he learned his trade as a bomb-maker. He moved to the States in 2008, becoming a naturalized citizen in 2014. Since then he’s been implicated in a few assassination style bombings in South America and Asia, but nothing that’s ever stuck. He does a good job of blending in with the local Russian community, which must be hard as hell considering how much Chechens and Russians dislike each other.”

Alina had spent some time over in Chechnya during the early part of her career in the CIA. The war there had devastated the country for nearly twenty years, and it was just now starting to crawl out from under the massive destruction. It was a tough place to live, but an even tougher place to get out of.

She picked up the picture and studied it, committing the man’s face to memory. “With a background like his, I’m surprised he was allowed through immigration. The State Department normally would have flagged somebody like him long before he ever got a green card.”

“You’d think so, wouldn’t you?” Trevor agreed.

Stepping out of the SUV, Trevor came around to her side to open her door. She took the hand he offered her, telling herself that she did it simply because the guards might be watching. But as she slipped her right leg out of the SUV, flashing a good amount of thigh, she admitted to herself that maybe she did because it gave her a chance to get a rise out of him.

And yeah…he looked. All the way from thigh to ankle, and back up again.

“You really do look amazing in that dress,” he murmured, pushing the door closed.

“You look pretty damn good yourself,” she said as she rested one hand on his arm and let him escort her across the parking lot. She actually appreciated the assist. It had been a while since she’d worn heels this high. She was out of practice.

“You were saying something about how our guy got through immigration?” she prompted softly.

Trevor’s mouth twitched. “I do remember vaguely saying something about that. Before you derailed my train of thought.”

She laughed. Damn, he could be seriously smooth when he wanted.

“It turns out Mr. Shishani had a sponsor with enough power to pull the right strings,” Trevor explained. “That sponsor got our guy in the country with limited State Department review, accelerating his naturalization paperwork and got him through in record time.”

Alina noticed the two guards watching them as they approached the front doors. The muscle-bound suits didn’t look at Trevor for a second, but they were eyeballing her so hard the building could have fallen down behind them and they probably wouldn’t have noticed.

“And what’s the connection between this guy and John?” she asked.

Trevor stopped, turning to look at her. “None between Shishani and John, but the guy who sponsored Shishani and got him into the country? Yeah, there’s definitely a connection.”

She blinked in surprise. “You’re saying Thomas Thorn brought a Chechen-born bomber into the US and paid him to kill John Loughlin?”

Trevor didn’t answer, but merely started for the entrance again. The guards opened the doors for them without a word. Once they were inside the little hallway that led to another set of double doors and the restaurant beyond, he stopped.

“There’s no indication Shishani ever came onto the training complex, but he definitely had the know-how to make the bomb and the attack matched his style of hit to a T. Throw in his connection to Thorn and the fact that he’s been spending money like it’s going out of style the past few weeks makes him somebody worth checking out.”   

Alina let that sink in for a moment. “I would have preferred to hear some of this stuff before we’d gotten here, but for now, let’s assume everything you think you know is right. What do you hope to get out of this guy? I’m pretty sure we’re not going to get a spontaneous confession from him.”

Trevor shrugged as he motioned her forward and opened the door for her. “I can be very persuasive when I want to. You’d be amazed what you can get out of people when you say please.”

Alina would have called him on that, but the smell of cigar and cigarette smoke hit her so hard she couldn’t breathe, much less talk. So much for a smoke-free Maryland.

She scanned the bar along the right side of the room, then the booths on the left, and the tables and chairs filling the space in between. Beyond the bar, she could see a nondescript door, which could just as well lead to a storage room or an office if it wasn’t for the big, muscle-bound bouncers standing on either side of it.

“What’s the plan here?” she asked Trevor quietly as the restaurant’s patrons eyed them curiously. “Because I don’t see anyone warming up to us enough to invite us into the back room.”

“We’re Trevor and Alina Hoffman, a filthy rich, newly married couple from Silicon Valley,” Trevor said, glancing around as if taking in the ambience. “We’ve been on an extended honeymoon for the past few months and are currently heading for a trans-Atlantic cruise out of New York City. We decided to do some gambling and got tired of dealing with all the crap at the local casino.”

“You think they’ll buy that?” she asked as he led her across the room toward the door with the guards.

“You sell the fact that we’re a newly married couple, and I’ll make them believe I’m a rich guy with a gambling addiction.”

She could do that. Then she realized one big flaw in their cover story. “If we’re a newly married couple, shouldn’t I be wearing a ring?”

Trevor gave her a sidelong glance. “What makes you think you aren’t?”

She looked down at her hand in confusion and almost fell off her stacked heels as she saw the monstrously large diamond he’d somehow slipped onto her ring finger when she wasn’t looking. Oh crud, it was huge! And as beautiful as any she’d ever seen.

“When did you put this on? More importantly, is this thing real?” she whispered.

Thank goodness she had his arm to keep her steady. She was feeling faint at the idea of wearing a diamond that was probably worth more than her entire apartment.

“I put it on you when we were married on the first of June in Monaco,” he whispered back. “And of course it’s real. I would never put something fake on the love of my life.”

“Trevor, I’m serious,” she said.

He made a face. “Okay. I slipped it on your finger when I was helping you out of the SUV. And yes it’s real, so don’t lose it. I had to sign my life away to get it out of the DCO safes.”

She gulped. “How much is it worth?”

“Nothing, compared to you, sweetheart,” he said in a romantic tone as they stopped in front of the two guards.

The bouncers working this door were a little bit more professional than the ones outside. At least they looked at Trevor once or twice instead of locking their sights immediately on her.

“Can I help you?” one of the men asked in a deep, rough voice that made Alina wonder if he chewed on gravel for fun.

“Someone told me a man might be able to find a friendly game of poker somewhere near here,” Trevor said casually. “I don’t suppose you two might be able to point my wife and me in the right direction for a game like that?”

The two men regarded him suspiciously.

“I think you’re talking about the Horseshoe Casino,” Gravel said. “It’s nearby, very clean and friendly.”

Trevor chuckled. “The Horseshoe is very friendly. But the place doesn’t have the quite the atmosphere we’re looking for. It’s a little too…what’s the word?…sanitized for our liking.”

Gravel studied Trevor for a moment, then glanced at the bar, giving someone there a nod. Ten seconds later, a slim man in an expensive suit appeared at their side.

“My name is Teddy,” he said in a cautious, yet friendly tone. “What can I do for you?”

“I’m Trevor Hoffman. This is my wife, Alina. We’re getting ready to head out on a cruise in a few days, and decided to do some gambling while we’re in town. Someone told us this place runs a clean game, so I thought I’d spend some money here.”

Teddy surveyed them with a practiced eye, taking in the cut of Trevor’s suit and her expensive gown, not to mention the big honking ring she wore. He must have liked what he saw because he nodded.

“If I could get some identification and a credit card from you, Mr. Hoffman, I can quickly check your credentials and set you up with a line of credit.”

Alina tensed as Trevor handed over the requested ID and credit card. They could be in trouble. The fake ID and credit card by themselves would have taken quite a bit of time and money to pull off. Coming up with an internet background to support that would take even longer.

“What are they going to find when they run our name and that credit card number?” she whispered as he slipped his arm around her and casually urged her away from the two men guarding the door.

“Relax.” He flashed her a grin. “They’ll find us, with all the relevant financial and societal tidbits one would expect to see when looking at the rich and bored.”

She glanced at Teddy. He typed something into a computer just out of sight behind the bar. A moment later, he lifted his head and frowned in their direction.
“Something’s wrong,” she whispered.

Even the two guards were eyeing them funny now. She was starting to wish there’d been a place in this little dress to hide a weapon. If things went bad, they were in trouble.

“Alina,” Trevor said softly as he tightened his arm around her waist and tugged her closer. “Now’s the time for you to sell the newlywed thing.”

She opened her mouth to ask him exactly how he suggested she do that when he pulled her even closer.

She wished she could have said it was years of CIA training that took over and made her kiss him. But that wouldn’t have been true. Instead, it was a totally different kind of instinct. The kind that made a woman want to kiss a hot guy.

She weaved her fingers possessively into his dark hair, parting her lips and inviting his tongue in to play. Trevor slid one hand down her back, molding her so tightly against him she could feel the outline of every muscle in his amazing body.

“Mr. and Mrs. Hoffman.”

It took a minute for Teddy’s voice to register, and when it finally did, Alina reluctantly stepped away from Trevor. She swayed a little on her feet, suddenly breathless. If Trevor’s arm hadn’t been around her, she might have melted into a puddle on the floor. She’d never been affected by a kiss like that before.
Teddy smiled at them. “I’ve started you with a hundred thousand dollar line of credit. If you step this way, security can clear you, then I can take you in so you can start enjoying your evening.”

I was already enjoying my evening, Alina thought.

Trevor looked at her, his mouth curving into a sexy grin, as if he’d been thinking the same thing.

It was early morning, the sun barely peeking over the mountains. Darkness still clung to the deserted, dilapidated buildings around Minka Pajari as she slunk through the village. She was only one rugged mountain pass away from home. Four or five hours of walking, and she would be back with her family and this terrible nightmare would be over.

But when she heard the men who had been following her for the last ten minutes break into a run, part of her realized that the nightmare wasn’t over yet. Another part insisted the nightmare would never be over. Not for her. Not after what she had become.

Minka wanted to run, but the beast inside her demanded that she turn and fight. She was so tired, and really didn’t want to do either of those things. She’d been going for so long without food and barely any water. All she wanted was to be left alone. Instinct told her they wouldn’t leave her alone.

Minka had escaped her captors weeks ago, or at least it felt like it had been weeks. Getting home to her village had been much harder than she’d thought it would be, though. It had taken her many days to even figure out where she was, then many, many more days to slowly traverse the mountainous terrain between where she’d been held and the small farming village near Khorugh where she lived with her parents. This part of the country—the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region—was very rugged and rural. Strangers, especially women traveling without male companions or money, weren’t treated with kindness, and she’d been forced to dig for food scraps in piles of garbage and sleep in caves or abandoned buildings. What she’d endured during her captivity taught her that she no longer had to fear these minor, momentary forms of discomfort, though.

No, the only thing she truly feared now was the beast the doctors had unleashed inside her. During her slow journey home, she had learned that the creature’s appearance was hard to predict. At the slightest provocation, her claws and teeth would extend and her sight
would change, making nighttime seem like daytime and daytime painfully bright.

If she was frightened, startled, or threatened, the changes went even further. Her muscles would throb with power, and her face would change. She’d seen her reflection once in a stream and been startled to see that she looked almost catlike.

Sometimes the changes came on for no other reason than because she was sad or lonely or afraid. Those times truly terrified her, for with a curse like this, she couldn’t imagine a time when she wouldn’t feel those things.

Worse than the physical changes was what she felt happening to her soul. Where once she’d been a calm, compassionate person, now all she ever felt was anger and rage.

She had taken to traveling only at night, seeking cover in wooded areas, and avoiding villages and people whenever she could. While she feared being attacked or mistreated by people, she feared what the beast inside her would do to those people more.

Now, Minka wasn’t sure if she’d be able to keep from hurting someone. She’d wanted to go around the village, but it was squarely in the middle of the path that headed toward the mountain pass. Two of the men following her had swept around, to get ahead of her, and she had to turn into the village to avoid them. Minka said a silent prayer, hoping she could pass through without incident, but she feared her prayers weren’t even being heard anymore.

She was so busy second-guessing herself that she didn’t see the men who’d arrayed themselves in a line along her path until she was almost on top of them. Her heart beat faster at the ugly expressions on their faces.

She stopped and slowly backed away from them, but it didn’t matter. Two more men closed in from behind.

Minka didn’t scream as they converged on her, afraid it would only spur the men to do something even more violent than what they already had planned—and afraid it would bring out the monster inside her. So she just stood there.

Two of the men grabbed her and lifted her off the ground while a third grabbed her ankles. As they carried her toward an abandoned building, she begged them in Tajik and in Russian to leave her alone, but they only laughed and called her horrible names. The man on her left shouted at her for being out alone without a male chaperone.

Inside the building, she tried to shove them away and get her back to a wall, but they continued to taunt her. When one man tore at her tattered shirt until it completely ripped away, they grew silent, their eyes latching on to her nearly naked body. She moved back against the mud wall behind her, trying to cover her bra with her arms.

But Minka knew her hands wouldn’t stop these men from getting what they were after. After all the pain and suffering she had already endured, she was going to die just a short distance from her home in total disgrace and humiliation. She was never going to see her family again. That might be for the best, though. She didn’t want her parents to see what she had become, what she was turning into even now.

The men didn’t notice the change. Not at first, anyway. They were too interested in other things. But they noticed when the first man tried to kiss her and she sent him reeling back, his chest ripped open to the bone.

Minka thought for sure the rest of the men would run then. But they only cursed and came at her all at once. They threw her to the ground, one of them kicking her while the other two pulled out knives.

She hadn’t wanted to hurt them, and if they had killed her quickly, she would’ve almost been grateful. But it was clear they wouldn’t get around to killing her for a while. They would toy with her the way the doctors’ guards had toyed with her, making her scream in pain.

But the beast inside her would never let her be tortured again.

Minka was off the floor in a flash, slashing and biting, pushing the men back to give her space to move. For a moment, she saw the door, clear of attackers and open to her escape, but she ignored it. The beast wasn’t interested in running now. It was interested only in tearing and ripping and killing.

The men’s shouts of pain and terror got louder as they ran for the door and scrambled toward the windows. But their cries only made her anger flame hotter, driving her into a fury she’d never felt before.

Minka desperately tried to rein in the beast, but it was like she was on the outside of the abandoned house looking in. She knew she was the one tearing the men apart, but she was no longer in control. She wasn’t sure she ever would be again.

* * * * *

Sergeant First Class Angelo Rios glanced at his watch. They needed to get moving, or it’d take all day to get back to camp. He and his Special Forces A-team had been doing a recon sweep back and forth through the rugged terrain of southern Tajikistan when they’d heard about a small town near the mountain pass that had been hit hard by a recent storm. Repairing buildings damaged by high winds and torrential rain wasn’t the kind of work Special Forces usually did, but Angelo and the team’s new lieutenant figured it’d be an easy way to gain a little goodwill with the locals, which definitely was an SF mission.

Angelo squeezed the last of the cheese onto a cracker from his MRE—meal ready to eat—and shoved it in his mouth. With breakfast done, he stuffed the empty wrapper into his rucksack and swung the pack over his shoulder. The rest of the team got the message and did the same.

“So, do you think Kendra will ask you to be the godfather?” Staff Sergeant Carlos Diaz, the team’s communications expert, asked Derek, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.

Angelo let out a snort. Diaz had been ribbing the team’s medic, Staff Sergeant Derek Mickens, for a month straight about his most recent crush, Kendra Carlsen. The Department of Covert Operation’s admin assistant turned kickass field operative had married Declan MacBride, the DCO’s freaking huge bear shifter, after spending a week alone with him in the jungles of Costa Rica a few months ago. And to top it all off, the couple was now expecting twins.

Derek gave Diaz a less-than-amused look. “Give it a rest already.”

Diaz grinned, his teeth a flash of white against his tanned skin. “No way. After all the time you spent trying to convince us that you and Kendra had a connection after dancing with her at the captain’s wedding, I’m going to be reminding you about this when we’re all old and gray.”

Derek muttered under his breath as he tightened the straps on his own rucksack. “Yeah, well tell me this: What does that big bear shifter have that I don’t?”

Angelo chuckled along with everyone else. The only member of the team who didn’t laugh was Second Lieutenant Ben Watson, and that was only because he was the new guy and didn’t know why the whole thing was so damn funny. Angelo felt bad about Watson being out of the loop, but it wasn’t like he could just come out and tell the lieutenant about the secret government organization called the Department of Covert Operations; or about humans known as shifters who possessed naturally occurring genetic mutations that gave them certain animal traits, like claws, fangs, enhanced speed and reflexes, and improved senses; or about man-made versions of shifters nicknamed hybrids; or any of the other crazy crap the team had been involved with in the past year or so. How did you explain to someone that there really were monsters in the world, complete with sharp teeth and even sharper claws? Worse, how did you explain that some of those monsters were actually the good guys?

Angelo was about to point out to Derek that the DCO’s resident bear shifter had seventy-five pounds of muscle and six inches on him, not to mention a face that didn’t scare small children, when screams of terror from the far end of the village silenced the words in his mouth.

Angelo had his M4 in his hands and was running toward the sound as the rest of the guys spread out behind him, checking for incoming threats. He rounded the corner of a dilapidated building and was heading down a dirt road lined with more crumbling buildings when a man covered in blood ran toward him. Two more men followed, fear clear in their eyes and blood staining their clothes.

At first, Angelo thought it was an IED—an improvised explosive device—but that didn’t make sense. He hadn’t heard an explosion. He slowed down anyway, worried he was leading the team into an ambush.

One of the men pointed behind him, shouting something in Tajik. Angelo’s grasp of the language was pretty good, but the man was speaking way too fast for him to make out what he was saying. Then he figured it out.

Monster.

He opened his mouth to ask where the “monster” was, but the man was already halfway down the road. Angelo picked up the pace only to skid to a stop in front of a mud-covered shack a few moments later. He knew he was in the right place because there was a guy who looked like he’d been sliced up by Freddy Krueger on the ground in front of it.

Angelo got a sinking feeling in his gut. He’d seen damage like this before.

He jumped over the dead guy and was through the door before he even thought about what he was doing—thinking only slowed you down in situations like this.

Angelo raised his M4, ready to pop the first threatening thing he saw. If he was right about what had attacked those men, it would take multiple shots to kill the thing.

But what he found stopped him in his tracks. Derek and Lieutenant Watson skidded to a stop right behind him.

There wasn’t a square foot of wall space in the one-room shack that wasn’t splattered with blood, and in the middle of it stood a pretty, dark-haired woman, gazing down at two dead men at her feet. Her shirt was on the floor beside them, one of her bra straps was torn, and her skirt was ripped. Her feet were bare and covered in dirt, and her long hair hung down around her face, almost to her waist.

Angelo felt a rage build inside him like nothing he’d ever felt before, and he was torn between staying where he was and going after the rest of the men who’d tried to rape her and killing them, too.

He glanced at her hands, hoping to find a knife there and praying he was wrong about what she was. But she didn’t have any weapons—unless you counted the wickedly sharp claws on each slender finger. And given the amount of blood in the room, those hands certainly qualified as weapons.

As if just realizing he was there, the woman lifted her head and looked at him with glowing red eyes. She growled, baring her teeth and exposing some seriously long canines.

How the hell had a hybrid turned up in Tajikistan? More importantly, what the hell was he going to do with her?

“What the fuck is that thing?” the lieutenant asked hoarsely even as he raised his carbine and sighted in on the woman’s chest.

The woman growled again, louder this time, and crouched down on all fours, like she was getting ready to pounce on them.

Shit. Things were about to get ugly.

But instead of leaping at them, her eyes darted around, like she was looking for a way past them. Unfortunately, they were blocking her access to the door and windows, and she knew it. For some reason he couldn’t explain, Angelo suddenly didn’t see a hybrid monster like those he’d fought in Washington State and down in Costa Rica. He saw a woman who was scared as hell.

“Derek, get everyone outside and away from the building,” Angelo ordered softly, never taking his eyes off the woman. “We’re freaking her out.”

“Freaking her out.” Watson snorted. “Are you kidding me? She’s the one freaking me out.”

“Outside, LT,” Angelo ordered again, more firmly this time. “Trust me on this one.”

He knew the lieutenant wanted answers, but he didn’t have time to give him any. Behind him, Derek was herding the officer toward the door.

“LT, remember when we told you that you’d be seeing some weird shit in the field that they never mentioned in training?” Derek asked. “Well, that weird shit just started. But trust Angelo. He knows what he’s doing. He’s dealt with these things before.”

Their voices faded as they moved outside.

The woman’s eyes followed Derek and Watson until they disappeared from sight; then they slid to Angelo. He slowly lowered his weapon, carefully set it on the floor, and raised his hands, speaking softly in Tajik.

“It’s okay. You’re safe now. No one is going to hurt you.”

The red glow in her eyes flickered, then began to fade. Angelo released the breath he’d been holding. Maybe he’d be able to get out of this situation without killing her. He couldn’t explain why that mattered to him all of a sudden. She was a hybrid and clearly dangerous. Some might consider killing her to be a mercy—and the only sure way to keep her from hurting anyone ever again.

From what he’d seen, the woman had had a pretty good reason to attack those men. But more importantly, Angelo knew for a fact that not every hybrid was beyond reach. Tanner Howland from the DCO was one of those. The former Army Ranger had learned how to control the rage that defined his kind, and if he could do it, maybe she could, too. At the moment, she certainly seemed to be trying.

Angelo kept up his calm chatter, reassuring the woman that she was safe, and soon enough, her eyes turned to a normal, beautiful brown. There was still anger there, but there was also confusion, maybe even hope.

Raised voices echoed outside, drowning out Angelo’s soft words. The villagers had worked up their courage and come looking for blood. The woman’s head snapped in that direction, and like a switch being flipped, the veil of calmness that had descended over the female hybrid disappeared.

She tensed, anger warring with what looked like frustration mixed with honest-to-goodness fear on her face. As those emotions ricocheted, her eyes changed from red to green to brown over and over, in a dizzying display like nothing he’d ever seen before.

But then, just as it seemed like she might have a chance, the internal struggle was over, and the hybrid leaped at him.

Every instinct in Angelo’s body screamed at him to lunge for his weapon, or at the very least to pull out his knife. But he ignored his instincts and instead set his feet for impact, blocking her slashing claws with his forearm, then ducking down and tackling her. It wasn’t the nicest way to treat a woman, but considering the fact that she was trying to kill him, he decided she’d just have to forgive him.

He twisted at the last second, letting his shoulder take the impact. He’d planned to immediately roll his weight onto her, hoping to keep her from getting away by pinning her to the floor like a wrestler, but the hybrid didn’t give him a chance. She spun in his grasp, trying to break his hold on her. He wrapped his arms around her, doing his best to trap her clawed hands safely against her breasts as he pulled her back down. She twisted in his arms again, trying to sink her teeth into his shoulder. He hugged her tightly to his chest, whispering over and over that it would be okay, that she was safe, that no one would hurt her.

When she buried her face in his neck, he just about freaked, sure she was going to tear out his throat. He resisted the urge to shove her away and go for his gun, instead continuing to talk to her. Unbelievably, she didn’t bite him. She kept struggling to free herself, though. But after a few moments, she went still, all her fight gone.

Angelo glanced down at her. Her cheek was resting against his chest, her eyes closed, and her fingers curled into the front of his uniform. He wasn’t sure if she was asleep or had simply passed out from exhaustion. Either way, her breathing was rhythmic and even. The sight of her made his heart ache. This close, he was finally able to see past all the dirt and blood. While he’d thought she was pretty when he’d first seen her, now he realized she was absolutely beautiful—and that she looked vulnerable as hell.

“Damn, Tex-Mex,” Derek said from the doorway. “You’re good with the ladies when you want to be.”

Angelo didn’t laugh. “Get on the satellite phone and call Landon. If you can’t get him, try Ivy or Clayne. Tell them where we are and that we’ve stumbled on a hybrid. We need a priority airlift to get her out of here. And whatever you do, don’t let LT get on the line to the battalion.”

“And since we’re on the topic of me telling you things that I should have said a long time ago,” he continued, “I also need to tell you I know how incredibly lucky I am to have you in my life, even if I haven’t always shown it. I’m sorry about that. But I want you to know that you’re the most important thing in the world to me.”

“You don’t have anything to apologize for, Jayson,” she said softly. “Not after everything you’ve had to go through.”

Jayson smiled wryly. “That’s where you’re wrong, Layla. Last year may have been total shit, and there were times when the pain became so unbearable and the future so hopeless that I thought about giving up and just ending it, but I still had no right to treat you the way I did. I was hurting and couldn’t see my world ever getting better, so I lashed out at the only person who cared enough about me to put up with it. I need you to know how incredibly sorry I am for putting you through all that.”

Tears filled Layla’s eyes. Suddenly, she had a hard time breathing. Part of her had always known that suicide was something Jayson had considered. Still, it was hard for her to hear him say it out loud. But having him apologize for things he had said and done when he’d been in that deep, dark place was tough too. Worse, it was scaring her. It was like he was trying to get stuff off his chest before they went on this rescue mission, like he thought he might not have a
chance to say it later.

“Why are you telling me this all of a sudden?” she asked. “You’re not going to do anything stupid are you?”

He frowned in confusion, but apparently figured it out because he shook his head again. “No, I’m not going to do anything stupid. If I scared you, I’m sorry about that too. All I’m trying to say is that I was in a bad place for a long time, and I did some things then that I’m not very proud of. But I’m not in that bad place now, and it’s all because of you.”

Her heart squeezed. “I didn’t do anything.”

“Yes, you did,” he said firmly. “You had no way of knowing this, but when I first met you at Landon and Ivy’s wedding, I was at my lowest point. The Army Medical Review Board had just told me that my request to be allowed back on active duty had been denied. I’d known it was a long shot, but I’d still invested a lot of hope in that chance, and I was seriously down. I almost didn’t go to the wedding, but I figured Landon would harass the hell out of me if I didn’t. I planned to show up and say congrats, then bail. But I met you and everything changed.”

Layla smiled, remembering the first time she’d seen Jayson. He’d looked so handsome in his suit, though she could tell he’d been in pain even back then. She barely remembered any of the reception because she’d spent the whole evening with him.

“From the moment we met, there was something about you— a spark,” he said. “While we were hanging out together at the reception, I forgot I was a wounded warrior. I was just a guy attracted to a beautiful woman.”

“The attraction was mutual,” she assured him, leaning in for a kiss. “I can assure you of that.”

It was just a short, playful tangling of the tongues, but it was enough to make her body start to heat up again. When Jayson pulled back, the serious expression was still there.

“But that evening was just the beginning,” he continued. “When you started coming to see me at Walter Reed, I found myself getting out of bed a little earlier in the morning on the chance you might show up. And when I was transitioned to outpatient status, you were the one who helped me find a place to live.”

Now she was getting seriously embarrassed from all the praise and adoration. “Anyone could have done that.”

“Anyone could have, but you were the one who did it. You were the one who put up with the grouchy, medically chaptered army guy.”

“You weren’t grouchy,” she protested.

He lifted a brow.

Layla laughed. “Okay, maybe you were a little bit grouchy.”

“I was way more than that,” he corrected. “I was a total ass on more than one occasion, but you hung in there and never walked away, no matter how much I pushed.”

She caressed his stubble-covered jaw. “There was nothing you could ever do that would make me walk away. My only fear was that you would be the one to leave without ever giving me a say in the matter.”

He caught her hand and pressed his lips to her palm, his breath warm on her skin. “Thank God I was never stupid enough to do that. If I had been, I wouldn’t be where I am right now.”

She laughed and kissed him. “You mean in a bombed-out library in Donetsk?”

“No,” he whispered. “I mean lying in the arms of the most beautiful woman in the world, telling her how important she is to me and how much I love her.”

It was early morning, the sun barely peeking over the mountains. Darkness still clung to the deserted, dilapidated buildings around Minka Pajari as she slunk through the village. She was only one rugged mountain pass away from home. Four or five hours of walking, and she would be back with her family and this terrible nightmare would be over.

But when she heard the men who had been following her for the last ten minutes break into a run, part of her realized that the nightmare wasn’t over yet. Another part insisted the nightmare would never be over. Not for her. Not after what she had become.

Minka wanted to run, but the beast inside her demanded that she turn and fight. She was so tired, and really didn’t want to do either of those things. She’d been going for so long without food and barely any water. All she wanted was to be left alone. Instinct told her they wouldn’t leave her alone.

Minka had escaped her captors weeks ago, or at least it felt like it had been weeks. Getting home to her village had been much harder than she’d thought it would be, though. It had taken her many days to even figure out where she was, then many, many more days to slowly traverse the mountainous terrain between where she’d been held and the small farming village near Khorugh where she lived with her parents. This part of the country—the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region—was very rugged and rural. Strangers, especially women traveling without male companions or money, weren’t treated with kindness, and she’d been forced to dig for food scraps in piles of garbage and sleep in caves or abandoned buildings. What she’d endured during her captivity taught her that she no longer had to fear these minor, momentary forms of discomfort, though.

No, the only thing she truly feared now was the beast the doctors had unleashed inside her. During her slow journey home, she had learned that the creature’s appearance was hard to predict. At the slightest provocation, her claws and teeth would extend and her sight
would change, making nighttime seem like daytime and daytime painfully bright.

If she was frightened, startled, or threatened, the changes went even further. Her muscles would throb with power, and her face would change. She’d seen her reflection once in a stream and been startled to see that she looked almost catlike.

Sometimes the changes came on for no other reason than because she was sad or lonely or afraid. Those times truly terrified her, for with a curse like this, she couldn’t imagine a time when she wouldn’t feel those things.

Worse than the physical changes was what she felt happening to her soul. Where once she’d been a calm, compassionate person, now all she ever felt was anger and rage.

She had taken to traveling only at night, seeking cover in wooded areas, and avoiding villages and people whenever she could. While she feared being attacked or mistreated by people, she feared what the beast inside her would do to those people more.

Now, Minka wasn’t sure if she’d be able to keep from hurting someone. She’d wanted to go around the village, but it was squarely in the middle of the path that headed toward the mountain pass. Two of the men following her had swept around, to get ahead of her, and she had to turn into the village to avoid them. Minka said a silent prayer, hoping she could pass through without incident, but she feared her prayers weren’t even being heard anymore.

She was so busy second-guessing herself that she didn’t see the men who’d arrayed themselves in a line along her path until she was almost on top of them. Her heart beat faster at the ugly expressions on their faces.

She stopped and slowly backed away from them, but it didn’t matter. Two more men closed in from behind.

Minka didn’t scream as they converged on her, afraid it would only spur the men to do something even more violent than what they already had planned—and afraid it would bring out the monster inside her. So she just stood there.

Two of the men grabbed her and lifted her off the ground while a third grabbed her ankles. As they carried her toward an abandoned building, she begged them in Tajik and in Russian to leave her alone, but they only laughed and called her horrible names. The man on her left shouted at her for being out alone without a male chaperone.

Inside the building, she tried to shove them away and get her back to a wall, but they continued to taunt her. When one man tore at her tattered shirt until it completely ripped away, they grew silent, their eyes latching on to her nearly naked body. She moved back against the mud wall behind her, trying to cover her bra with her arms.

But Minka knew her hands wouldn’t stop these men from getting what they were after. After all the pain and suffering she had already endured, she was going to die just a short distance from her home in total disgrace and humiliation. She was never going to see her family again. That might be for the best, though. She didn’t want her parents to see what she had become, what she was turning into even now.

The men didn’t notice the change. Not at first, anyway. They were too interested in other things. But they noticed when the first man tried to kiss her and she sent him reeling back, his chest ripped open to the bone.

Minka thought for sure the rest of the men would run then. But they only cursed and came at her all at once. They threw her to the ground, one of them kicking her while the other two pulled out knives.

She hadn’t wanted to hurt them, and if they had killed her quickly, she would’ve almost been grateful. But it was clear they wouldn’t get around to killing her for a while. They would toy with her the way the doctors’ guards had toyed with her, making her scream in pain.

But the beast inside her would never let her be tortured again.

Minka was off the floor in a flash, slashing and biting, pushing the men back to give her space to move. For a moment, she saw the door, clear of attackers and open to her escape, but she ignored it. The beast wasn’t interested in running now. It was interested only in tearing and ripping and killing.

The men’s shouts of pain and terror got louder as they ran for the door and scrambled toward the windows. But their cries only made her anger flame hotter, driving her into a fury she’d never felt before.

Minka desperately tried to rein in the beast, but it was like she was on the outside of the abandoned house looking in. She knew she was the one tearing the men apart, but she was no longer in control. She wasn’t sure she ever would be again.

* * * * *

Sergeant First Class Angelo Rios glanced at his watch. They needed to get moving, or it’d take all day to get back to camp. He and his Special Forces A-team had been doing a recon sweep back and forth through the rugged terrain of southern Tajikistan when they’d heard about a small town near the mountain pass that had been hit hard by a recent storm. Repairing buildings damaged by high winds and torrential rain wasn’t the kind of work Special Forces usually did, but Angelo and the team’s new lieutenant figured it’d be an easy way to gain a little goodwill with the locals, which definitely was an SF mission.

Angelo squeezed the last of the cheese onto a cracker from his MRE—meal ready to eat—and shoved it in his mouth. With breakfast done, he stuffed the empty wrapper into his rucksack and swung the pack over his shoulder. The rest of the team got the message and did the same.

“So, do you think Kendra will ask you to be the godfather?” Staff Sergeant Carlos Diaz, the team’s communications expert, asked Derek, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.

Angelo let out a snort. Diaz had been ribbing the team’s medic, Staff Sergeant Derek Mickens, for a month straight about his most recent crush, Kendra Carlsen. The Department of Covert Operation’s admin assistant turned kickass field operative had married Declan MacBride, the DCO’s freaking huge bear shifter, after spending a week alone with him in the jungles of Costa Rica a few months ago. And to top it all off, the couple was now expecting twins.

Derek gave Diaz a less-than-amused look. “Give it a rest already.”

Diaz grinned, his teeth a flash of white against his tanned skin. “No way. After all the time you spent trying to convince us that you and Kendra had a connection after dancing with her at the captain’s wedding, I’m going to be reminding you about this when we’re all old and gray.”

Derek muttered under his breath as he tightened the straps on his own rucksack. “Yeah, well tell me this: What does that big bear shifter have that I don’t?”

Angelo chuckled along with everyone else. The only member of the team who didn’t laugh was Second Lieutenant Ben Watson, and that was only because he was the new guy and didn’t know why the whole thing was so damn funny. Angelo felt bad about Watson being out of the loop, but it wasn’t like he could just come out and tell the lieutenant about the secret government organization called the Department of Covert Operations; or about humans known as shifters who possessed naturally occurring genetic mutations that gave them certain animal traits, like claws, fangs, enhanced speed and reflexes, and improved senses; or about man-made versions of shifters nicknamed hybrids; or any of the other crazy crap the team had been involved with in the past year or so. How did you explain to someone that there really were monsters in the world, complete with sharp teeth and even sharper claws? Worse, how did you explain that some of those monsters were actually the good guys?

Angelo was about to point out to Derek that the DCO’s resident bear shifter had seventy-five pounds of muscle and six inches on him, not to mention a face that didn’t scare small children, when screams of terror from the far end of the village silenced the words in his mouth.

Angelo had his M4 in his hands and was running toward the sound as the rest of the guys spread out behind him, checking for incoming threats. He rounded the corner of a dilapidated building and was heading down a dirt road lined with more crumbling buildings when a man covered in blood ran toward him. Two more men followed, fear clear in their eyes and blood staining their clothes.

At first, Angelo thought it was an IED—an improvised explosive device—but that didn’t make sense. He hadn’t heard an explosion. He slowed down anyway, worried he was leading the team into an ambush.

One of the men pointed behind him, shouting something in Tajik. Angelo’s grasp of the language was pretty good, but the man was speaking way too fast for him to make out what he was saying. Then he figured it out.

Monster.

He opened his mouth to ask where the “monster” was, but the man was already halfway down the road. Angelo picked up the pace only to skid to a stop in front of a mud-covered shack a few moments later. He knew he was in the right place because there was a guy who looked like he’d been sliced up by Freddy Krueger on the ground in front of it.

Angelo got a sinking feeling in his gut. He’d seen damage like this before.

He jumped over the dead guy and was through the door before he even thought about what he was doing—thinking only slowed you down in situations like this.

Angelo raised his M4, ready to pop the first threatening thing he saw. If he was right about what had attacked those men, it would take multiple shots to kill the thing.

But what he found stopped him in his tracks. Derek and Lieutenant Watson skidded to a stop right behind him.

There wasn’t a square foot of wall space in the one-room shack that wasn’t splattered with blood, and in the middle of it stood a pretty, dark-haired woman, gazing down at two dead men at her feet. Her shirt was on the floor beside them, one of her bra straps was torn, and her skirt was ripped. Her feet were bare and covered in dirt, and her long hair hung down around her face, almost to her waist.

Angelo felt a rage build inside him like nothing he’d ever felt before, and he was torn between staying where he was and going after the rest of the men who’d tried to rape her and killing them, too.

He glanced at her hands, hoping to find a knife there and praying he was wrong about what she was. But she didn’t have any weapons—unless you counted the wickedly sharp claws on each slender finger. And given the amount of blood in the room, those hands certainly qualified as weapons.

As if just realizing he was there, the woman lifted her head and looked at him with glowing red eyes. She growled, baring her teeth and exposing some seriously long canines.

How the hell had a hybrid turned up in Tajikistan? More importantly, what the hell was he going to do with her?

“What the fuck is that thing?” the lieutenant asked hoarsely even as he raised his carbine and sighted in on the woman’s chest.

The woman growled again, louder this time, and crouched down on all fours, like she was getting ready to pounce on them.

Shit. Things were about to get ugly.

But instead of leaping at them, her eyes darted around, like she was looking for a way past them. Unfortunately, they were blocking her access to the door and windows, and she knew it. For some reason he couldn’t explain, Angelo suddenly didn’t see a hybrid monster like those he’d fought in Washington State and down in Costa Rica. He saw a woman who was scared as hell.

“Derek, get everyone outside and away from the building,” Angelo ordered softly, never taking his eyes off the woman. “We’re freaking her out.”

“Freaking her out.” Watson snorted. “Are you kidding me? She’s the one freaking me out.”

“Outside, LT,” Angelo ordered again, more firmly this time. “Trust me on this one.”

He knew the lieutenant wanted answers, but he didn’t have time to give him any. Behind him, Derek was herding the officer toward the door.

“LT, remember when we told you that you’d be seeing some weird shit in the field that they never mentioned in training?” Derek asked. “Well, that weird shit just started. But trust Angelo. He knows what he’s doing. He’s dealt with these things before.”

Their voices faded as they moved outside.

The woman’s eyes followed Derek and Watson until they disappeared from sight; then they slid to Angelo. He slowly lowered his weapon, carefully set it on the floor, and raised his hands, speaking softly in Tajik.

“It’s okay. You’re safe now. No one is going to hurt you.”

The red glow in her eyes flickered, then began to fade. Angelo released the breath he’d been holding. Maybe he’d be able to get out of this situation without killing her. He couldn’t explain why that mattered to him all of a sudden. She was a hybrid and clearly dangerous. Some might consider killing her to be a mercy—and the only sure way to keep her from hurting anyone ever again.

From what he’d seen, the woman had had a pretty good reason to attack those men. But more importantly, Angelo knew for a fact that not every hybrid was beyond reach. Tanner Howland from the DCO was one of those. The former Army Ranger had learned how to control the rage that defined his kind, and if he could do it, maybe she could, too. At the moment, she certainly seemed to be trying.

Angelo kept up his calm chatter, reassuring the woman that she was safe, and soon enough, her eyes turned to a normal, beautiful brown. There was still anger there, but there was also confusion, maybe even hope.

Raised voices echoed outside, drowning out Angelo’s soft words. The villagers had worked up their courage and come looking for blood. The woman’s head snapped in that direction, and like a switch being flipped, the veil of calmness that had descended over the female hybrid disappeared.

She tensed, anger warring with what looked like frustration mixed with honest-to-goodness fear on her face. As those emotions ricocheted, her eyes changed from red to green to brown over and over, in a dizzying display like nothing he’d ever seen before.

But then, just as it seemed like she might have a chance, the internal struggle was over, and the hybrid leaped at him.

Every instinct in Angelo’s body screamed at him to lunge for his weapon, or at the very least to pull out his knife. But he ignored his instincts and instead set his feet for impact, blocking her slashing claws with his forearm, then ducking down and tackling her. It wasn’t the nicest way to treat a woman, but considering the fact that she was trying to kill him, he decided she’d just have to forgive him.

He twisted at the last second, letting his shoulder take the impact. He’d planned to immediately roll his weight onto her, hoping to keep her from getting away by pinning her to the floor like a wrestler, but the hybrid didn’t give him a chance. She spun in his grasp, trying to break his hold on her. He wrapped his arms around her, doing his best to trap her clawed hands safely against her breasts as he pulled her back down. She twisted in his arms again, trying to sink her teeth into his shoulder. He hugged her tightly to his chest, whispering over and over that it would be okay, that she was safe, that no one would hurt her.

When she buried her face in his neck, he just about freaked, sure she was going to tear out his throat. He resisted the urge to shove her away and go for his gun, instead continuing to talk to her. Unbelievably, she didn’t bite him. She kept struggling to free herself, though. But after a few moments, she went still, all her fight gone.

Angelo glanced down at her. Her cheek was resting against his chest, her eyes closed, and her fingers curled into the front of his uniform. He wasn’t sure if she was asleep or had simply passed out from exhaustion. Either way, her breathing was rhythmic and even. The sight of her made his heart ache. This close, he was finally able to see past all the dirt and blood. While he’d thought she was pretty when he’d first seen her, now he realized she was absolutely beautiful—and that she looked vulnerable as hell.

“Damn, Tex-Mex,” Derek said from the doorway. “You’re good with the ladies when you want to be.”

Angelo didn’t laugh. “Get on the satellite phone and call Landon. If you can’t get him, try Ivy or Clayne. Tell them where we are and that we’ve stumbled on a hybrid. We need a priority airlift to get her out of here. And whatever you do, don’t let LT get on the line to the battalion.”


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