MORE THAN A COWBOY​

​​​the cowboy series​

Karleigh’s Cowboys

Two ranch hands are better than one.

Karleigh Blake hasn’t take a vacation in years, so when her friend talks her into coming out to her Colorado ranch for some fun and relaxation, she jumps at the chance. Once there, she meets up with two hot and hunky ranch hands named Holden Donnelly and Mav Ryan who definitely know how to show a girl a good time.

It starts as two separate rolls in the hay, and she’s concerned she isn’t going to be able to hide that she’s sleeping with both of them. She's surprised when the two cowboys compare notes and decide they don’t mind sharing her, as long as they can do it at the same time!

And the Ranch Hand Makes Three

Sequel to the bestselling Karleigh’s Cowboys!

In this sequel to Karleigh’s Cowboys, Heather Collins and her husband Clint hire hunky new ranch hand Blaine Saunders. While he clearly has the qualifications to work on a ranch, Heather and Clint are more interested in how good he is in bed.

Clint gets turned on by watching his wife have sex with other men, and since Heather is more than happy to oblige, she doesn’t waste any time seducing Blaine. She and the new ranch hand go from knocking boots in the barn to putting on a show for her husband before finally engaging in a kinky threesome that involves bondage, spanking and some scorching hot sex for all three of them.

Gotta Love a Guy Who Comes with His Own Handcuffs!

Harley Miller has always fantasized about having sex with a cop. So, when hunky Royce
Barlowe comes to her rescue after her car breaks down, she can’t resist flirting with him. One
thing leads to another and soon she’s kissing him.

Going further than that right there on the side of the road is crazy and impulsive, not to mention reckless, but neither one can help themselves and soon he’s cuffing her hands behind her back and fulfilling her wildest fantasy—which turns out to be hotter than anything she’s ever imagined.

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

Karleigh’s Cowboys


Beauty must have sensed Karleigh the moment she walked into the barn because the mare whinnied in greeting at her. Lips curving into a smile, Karleigh took a sugar cube from the basket and held it out to the horse. The mare gently took the treat from Karleigh’s outstretched palm, then nuzzled her hand affectionately. Karleigh ran her hand over the mare’s silky chestnut coat with sigh. On the other side of the barn, Loverboy and Highwayman stuck their heads out of their stalls to look longingly at the female horse. Compared to Beauty’s love life, hers didn’t seem nearly as complicated, Karleigh thought. If she was careful and did some strategic planning, she could keep seeing both Holden and Mav without either of them finding out. How hard could it be?


The sound of the door opening interrupted her before she could answer that question. Startled, she turned to see Holden and Mav walking into the barn. Her stomach did a crazy little backflip at the sight of them. It should be illegal to be in a room with two guys this gorgeous.


Mav gave her a grin. “Where were you hiding all day?”


Had it been that obvious? Karleigh ran her hands down the front of her short, silk robe. She wished she’d worn something a little less revealing, but she hadn’t expected anyone to be on the ranch. Not that it would have mattered. Both men were undressing her with their eyes anyway. Heat pooled between her thighs, and she stifled a moan.


“I went shopping with Heather in Colorado Springs,” she said.


Holden hooked his thumbs in his belt, his fingers resting lightly on the big buckle. Karleigh heard somewhere that when a man did that, it meant he was thinking about sex.


“Mav said you two went for a ride and a picnic yesterday.”


Oh crap. She reached up to nervously tuck her long, blonde hair behind her ear. “Um, yeah.”


“You know,” Holden continued. “You should have told me you liked anal sex. We could have tried it out the other night.”


Double crap.


Karleigh stared at Mav in shock, unable to believe he’d told Holden they’d slept together. But why wouldn’t he? Mav had no idea she’d wanted to keep it a secret.


She tensed, bracing herself for the anger she was sure was headed her way, but to her surprise—and relief—neither man looked angry. In fact, they were grinning.


She looked from one to the other. “You’re not mad?


“Why would we be mad?” Holden asked.


She thought it would have been obvious. “Because I slept with both of you.”


“Oh. That.” Mav chuckled. “You’re a whole lot of filly. We don’t mind sharing you.”


She blinked. “You don’t?”


His dark eyes took on that smolder she was coming to recognize. “As long as we do it at the same time. Or more precisely, do you at the same time.” He slanted Holden a glance. “Isn’t that right?”


Holden’s grin broadened. “That’s right.”


Her eyes went wide. “You mean, like a threesome?”


Mav nodded. “Unless you’re not comfortable with that.”


Karleigh chewed on her lower lip thoughtfully. She’d never had a threesome, but the chance to have sex with two incredibly hot guys was too good to pass up.


She looked at them from beneath lowered lashes, her heart beating a little faster. “I didn’t say that.”


“So, what are you saying?” Holden asked.


“Just that I’ve never actually had sex with two men before,” she said. “But I’m all about trying new things. Especially when they sound like they’re going to be so much fun.”


Mav’s dark eyes flared. “Is that a yes?”


She gave them a sultry smile. “It’s most definitely a yes.”


And the Ranch Hand Makes Three


She got to see Blaine’s skill as a ranch hand again the next day when Clint asked him to help break in Ginger, a new horse they’d recently picked up. Ginger was already comfortable being around her husband, and she was glad to see the mare took to Blaine just as quickly. If Ginger hadn’t, the ranch hand would never have been able to break her in.


Just because Ginger was okay with Blaine, that didn’t mean getting the bridle on her the first time was any easier. But Blaine was patient with the mare, gently coaxing the bit between her teeth, then slipping the bridle over her head. He and Clint let Ginger get used to wearing it before introducing her to a saddle. Clint held the reins while Blaine put on the saddle. Or tried to, anyway. Ginger clearly wasn’t too sure about having something on her back, no matter how comfortable she was with the men. Once again, Blaine didn’t rush her. Instead he sweet-talked her into letting him put it on her using soft words and a gentle hand.


As Heather perched on the fence watching, she couldn’t help but be impressed. Not to mention ridiculously turned on by what probably shouldn’t have been arousing at all. But Clint and Blaine had taken off their shirts. Seeing two buff bare-chested cowboys, their muscles glistening with sweat, did that to a girl. Luckily for her, they still had a lot of work to do.


After giving Ginger a chance to get used to the saddle, Clint held the mare steady while Blaine attempted to mount her. She got a little skittish at first, but after thirty minutes or so, the ranch hand was finally able to sit astride her. Blaine reached down and patted the mare’s neck reassuringly. When it came to breaking in a horse, though, getting her used to a rider sitting on her back was just half of it, and Blaine had to mount and dismount several times until Ginger was completely accepting of him. Then the real work began—riding her.


Heather held her breath as Blaine urged the mare to walk forward. A lot of horses instinctively bucked, and Ginger was no different. She took a few steps, then kicked her back legs up.


Heather gasped, her nails digging into the wood fence as Blaine gained control of the horse. She had to admit she didn’t mind watching his gorgeous muscles flex while he did it, but she was terrified he was going to fall off. Somehow, though, he managed to rein Ginger in and calm her down before she could toss him, and soon the mare was walking around the corral again.


Blaine grinned at Heather as Ginger trotted by. Heather smiled back, amazed at how relaxed the mare seemed now. Their new ranch hand definitely had a way with the female persuasion, that was for sure.


Blaine rode Ginger around the corral half a dozen or so more times before he and Clint agreed that was enough for the mare’s first day. Heather jumped down from the fence and hurried over to them.


“Ginger looked great out there.” She resisted the urge to run her hand down Blaine’s sweat-soaked chest and settled for glancing at him as she patted the mare’s neck. “You’re very good with horses.”


His mouth quirked. “I’m good with anything I can ride.”


Heather heard Clint chuckle. She gave Blaine a smile as they walked toward the barn. “How about a further demonstration then? Tonight at the house, around say—” She looked questioningly at Clint. “Eight?”


“Fine by me,” her husband agreed.


She lifted a brow in Blaine’s direction.


He grinned. “I’ll be there.”


“I look forward to it,” she said. “And while I’d much rather stay and watch you two studs flex your muscles for the rest of the afternoon, I need to start dinner.”


She gave Clint a quick kiss, then flashed both men a smile and a wink before reluctantly turning and heading for the house.


Heather was just putting the casserole in the oven when Blaine came out of the barn. His bare chest still had a light sheen of sweat, thanks to the hour he’d spent cooling Ginger down before putting the mare in her stall, no doubt.


Eager for a better view of their new employee, Heather shut the oven door and moved to stand in front of the window above the sink. Outside, Blaine walked over to the spigot and turned it on. She watched as he washed his hands and forearms, enjoying the show he was unwittingly putting on for her when he doused his head and let the water run down his chest. The image made her think of the sex they’d had in the shower the other night, and her promise to him afterward that next time they did it, things would be even hotter.


Her lips curved at all the ways she could accomplish that, but she kept coming back to one in particular. It was hot, it was kinky and it was guaranteed to knock off his cowboy boots.

They were in the same dressing room trying on clothes when Capri caught sight of the barely discernible red marks crisscrossing Aly’s ass cheeks at the edges of her tiny bikini panties. Capri caught her friend’s arm and turned her back to the lights above the full-length mirror so
she could get a closer look. She almost reached out to run her fingers over them, but stopped herself just in time.

“I can’t believe you still have marks from last night,” she said.

Aly looked over her shoulder at her reflection. “The strap always leaves marks. It’s one of the reasons I love Sam to spank me with it.”

Capri studied them again. “They look really sexy. Can you feel them?”

“When I sit down. A good strapping can do that even though Sam never smacks my ass harder than I can take. That's the best part of getting strapped. Feeling it the next day and remembering how hot the sex was. It keeps me excited for a few days afterward.”

Capri was still marveling at that as they tried on shoes a little while later. She and Aly both fell in love with the same pair. High heels with sexy straps, they were absolutely beautiful. But they are also crazy expensive.

“You should get them,” Capri said impulsively.

Aly looked up from the shoes she'd been admiring in the mirror. “Are you nuts? I can't afford these. I could pay for a top of the line sink for what they're charging for these things. Sam would flip out.”

“I didn’t say you should keep them. You can always bring them right back and get a full refund. After they've served their purpose, of course.”

Aly glared at her. “And what purpose is that? Getting me in trouble?”

Capri didn’t answer. Probably because she couldn’t believe the direction her thoughts were taking. It seemed Aly wasn’t the only one who liked being a bad girl.

Aly’s eyes went wide. “Oh, my God. You're trying to get me spanked again so you can watch!”

Capri cringed. “Why don’t you say it a little louder, Aly? I don't think they heard you down at the food court.”

Her friend pulled off the shoes and tossed them back in the box. “But that is what you're doing, isn't it? Trying to give Sam a reason to whack my ass again so you can watch and play with yourself?”

Hearing Aly put it so bluntly made Capri’s face heat. Her friend wasn't wrong. That was exactly the thought that had crept into her naughty head. “Yes. But it sounds pretty bad when you say it like that. Forget I said anything.”

Aly stood there regarding her for so long Capri blushed all over again. “So you really want to watch me get spanked again?”

Capri nodded.

“Okay. Then I'm up for it.” Aly pointed a finger at her. “But you have to promise to stay for the whole thing. I want to know you're watching me the entire time, and that includes the sex afterward.”

Capri felt like Aly had just given her an extra special Christmas present. She jumped up and hugged her friend. “Deal. But only if you're sure Sam won't freak out too much about the shoes. I don't want to get you into any serious trouble.”

“He won't. Besides, if he gets too upset, I can always tell him it was all your idea.”

Capri laughed. “Very funny.”

She and Aly giggled about their plan all the way home. Underneath the laughter, however, the sexual tension was palpable. Capri’s clit tingled so much, she had to rub her thighs together to keep from going insane.

The moment they got home, Aly put the shopping bag in the living room, positioning it perfectly to make sure Sam couldn't miss it. The store they’d purchased the shoes from used fancy bags with their name on them, so he’d know right away that his wife had spent some serious change. To be on the safe side, Aly placed the sales receipt right on top.

“I’m getting spanked, guaranteed.” Aly grinned. “God, I'm so excited.”

“Me, too,” Capri admitted. “I can't believe we're really doing this.”

“We?” Aly laughed as she took vegetables and beef tips out of the fridge. “You plan on getting spanked with me?”

“Of course not!”

“Didn’t think so.” Aly turned on the oven. “You know, this will be the third night in a row that I've gotten spanked. I'm going to have one hell of a sore bottom tomorrow.”

Capri would have felt bad if her friend wasn’t practically pinging off the wall in anticipation. Aly couldn't wait for her hunk-of-a-cop husband to punish her while Capri watched. She wrapped her arms around her friend and gave her a hug.

“Poor Aly. Don't worry. I'll rub lotion on your bottom afterward.”

Aly’s lips curved. “Don't think I won't remind you of that promise.”

While she couldn’t resist teasing her friend, Capri was just as eager for Sam to get home. She could barely concentrate on helping Aly make dinner.

“Do you think Sam will want to spank you the moment he gets home?” she asked as Aly put the casserole dish in the oven.

Aly shook her head. “Not with you here. He’ll do it when we go to bed.”

Capri didn’t know if she could wait that long.

Her friend refilled their glasses with iced tea. “We don't want to look too obvious when Sam comes in. That could blow the whole deal. Remember to look natural.”

“Will he use the strap on you again?” Capri asked.

“Probably not. At least not the strap you saw.” Aly put the pitcher back in the fridge. “Sam never likes to use any particular spanking implement too often. He doesn't want me to get bored with it, you know? He'll pick something different.”

Capri’s eyes widened. “Exactly how many spanking implements do you guys have?”

“Oh! I forgot you haven't seen our collection.” She grabbed Capri's hand and pulled her toward the stairs. “Come on. I’ll show it to you. If you like one, maybe I can steer Sam in that direction.”

Upstairs, Aly led her into the big walk-in closet. She pushed aside the clothes that hung from an upper rack, revealing an entire wall of spanking implements. The array was bewildering.

“There are so many. How do you ever choose which one to use?”

“Sam always picks for me, and he's never wrong.” Aly took a wooden paddle off its hook. It was so highly polished, it looked like glass. “This one is my favorite. It doesn't look it, but it’s heavy. It doesn't leave a smack as much as it does a solid thud when it hits my ass. I feel it all the way to my toes when he gets me good with it.”

Capri took the paddle from her friend and tested its weight. “You’re right. It is heavier than it looks.”

Before she even realized what she was doing, she reached around and experimentally smacked herself on the ass with the paddle. She didn't do it very hard, but she still felt it through her jeans. Yikes, that thing was dangerous. Aly must have a tough bottom.

She handed it back to her friend. “That’s way too much for me.”

“I agree.” Aly hung it back up. “It’s definitely not something a novice should start with.”

Capri laughed. “Hey! You're the one getting the spanking, remember? I'm the one hiding behind the door playing with herself.”

“I know.” Aly reached for another paddle. This one was wider, but much thinner, kind of like a ping pong paddle. “I was just telling you in case you decide to buy yourself some paddles. When you find the right guy, I mean.”

“Right. Like a good spanker comes along every day.”

They spent the next fifteen minutes trying out the different paddles, crops, straps and whips in Aly’s collection. Capri almost asked Aly to give her a few smacks with each of them, but just the thought made her blush. Then she imagined Sam spanking her, and her face colored even more.

She couldn’t stop oohing and aahing over how different they all felt. Her bottom was tingling nicely by the time she handed the last paddle back to Aly, and she was tempted to push down her jeans and sneak a peek at her ass in the full length mirror on the wall to see if it was
red.

Aly regarded her thoughtfully. “I wouldn’t have thought it, but I’d say you're a strap girl.”

“You think so?” Capri eyed the long, brown leather strap Sam had used on Aly the night before. “Maybe so. It does leave a nice heat as it wraps around during the swing.” She swung her gaze around to Aly. “But that was with me using it on myself.  I'm sure it’d sting much more if someone used it on me.” Like Sam. “Not that I intend to find out, of course.”

“Of course,” Aly agreed.

As her friend pushed the clothes back over the wall that held her toys, a flash of something silver caught Capri’s attention. She reached out and pushed aside one of Aly's sun dresses to reveal a pair of chrome-plated handcuffs dangling from a hook.

“Why are Sam’s handcuffs in here with your spanking stuff?” Capri couldn't take her eyes off them. They were like jewelry.

Aly laughed. “They’re not his work handcuffs. They’re for me. Even though I loved getting spanked, I sometimes have a habit of reaching back to cover my ass. I do it without thinking. Sam doesn't like it. He's afraid he'll whack my hand or arm and hurt me. He’ll cuff me so I can’t
reach back.”

Capri remembered hearing Sam ask Aly if she needed to be restrained during the strapping he’d given her last night.

“Sometimes I put my hands back on purpose just so he'll cuff me,” Aly admitted. “Being held captive like that is a mind-bender.”

Capri stared at the cuffs, entranced. Just the thought of having them on her wrists was making her so wet she had to fight the urge to shove her hands down her jeans and touch herself.

“We’d better get back downstairs,” Aly said. “Sam'll be home soon.”

Her friend’s timing was impeccable. They weren't in the kitchen for more than five minutes before Capri heard the sounds of Sam's cruiser pulling up.

Aly grinned. “Show time.”

How could she be so calm? Capri felt as if she was about to explode.

Capri’s breath hitched as the door opened. If Sam walked right past the shoes, the set-up was a bust. That was a serious possibility. How many men would notice a shopping bag?

But Sam stopped in the living room. A moment later, Capri heard the bag rustle.

Aly winked. “Score!”

“Alyssa, what the hell are these?” Sam demanded.

“Here we go.” Aly wiped the grin off her face and walked into the living room, motioning Capri to follow.

Capri obeyed, but slowed the moment she saw Sam's face. He looked absolutely intimidating standing there in his uniform with his arms crossed over his chest. He also looked extremely perturbed. Maybe this hadn't been such a bright idea. What if he and Aly ended up having a fight over the shoes instead? That wouldn’t be very sexy.

Sam held up the sales receipt. “Alyssa, what the hell is this?”

“The receipt for the new shoes I bought today.” Aly took the box out of the shopping bag and lifted the lid. “Aren't they gorgeous?”

Sam scowled. “No, they're not gorgeous. They're two weeks’ worth of savings down the drain. Alyssa, we talked about this.”

Aly put on a crestfallen face. “I guess I screwed up again, huh?”

“Yeah, Aly. You did.”

She caught her lower lip between her teeth and looked up at him from underneath her lashes. Damn, Aly was good at this.

“Are you going to spank me?” she asked softly.

Sam did a double take. He looked pointedly at Capri, then arched a brow at his wife. Aly waved a hand in Capri’s direction.

“Don't mind Capri. I told you, we share everything. She knows all about my spankings.”

Sam went from surprised to looking downright shocked. “Does she? Well then, I guess she won't mind if I take you upstairs right now to give you the spanking you so richly deserve?”
Aly’s eyes went wide. “Right now?”

“Right now. The spanking I have in mind for you won't wait.” He turned his gaze on Capri. “I hope you won't mind if dinner is a little late?”

“Of course not,” Capri murmured.

She could hardly wait until Sam led Aly upstairs so she could follow. The fact that he knew she knew Aly was going to get spanked was so damn sexy she could barely stand it.

Aly hung back when Sam took her hand. “I don't think I should be the only one getting spanked, Sam. Capri is way more to blame for this than I am. I wasn't going to buy the shoes, but she said it was none of your business what I do with my money. I tried to tell her we were saving up to remodel the kitchen, but she was in full I-am-woman-hear-me-roar mode and wouldn't let up. The whole store was looking at us, including the security guard. I ended up buying the shoes just to keep us from being tossed out. If I’m getting spanked, so should she.”

Capri gaped. What the hell was Aly saying, this was all her fault? That hadn't been the plan.

“I have a confession to make, Officer,” she said softly.

He drew her bottom lip into his mouth and sucked on it.

“Is it something I’m going to have to arrest you for?”

An image of him pushing her up against the wall and frisking her popped into her head, and she stifled a moan as her pussy spasmed.

“I don’t know.” She trailed her fingers down his abs to caress his belt. “Is fantasizing about having sex with a hot cop a crime? Because I’ve fantasized about it for a long time.”

Officer Barlowe’s eyes took on a deliciously dangerous glint. But instead of kissing her again like she’d thought he would—or even unbuckling his belt and pushing down his pants so he could slip that magnificent cock of his in her pussy—he lifted her down from the car’s hood and spun her around.

Harley threw him a confused look over her shoulder. “What are you doing?”

His sensuous mouth quirked. “Playing into your fantasy.”

She opened her mouth to ask how he intended to do that, but all that came out was a soft, “Mmm,” as he slowly ran his hands down her body and back up again.

“If I were going to arrest you, I’d first have to frisk you,” he whispered in her ear. “Just to make sure you weren’t concealing any weapons.”

His breath stirred her hair, making her shiver.

“Nope, no weapons here.” He cupped her breasts, giving her nipples a squeeze through the fabric before slipping his hand between her legs. “What about here?”

She moaned as he thrust a finger in her pussy and wiggled it back and forth.

“No weapons here, either.”

He slid his finger out to fumble with something on his belt. Harley was about to look over her shoulder to see what he was doing when something cool and metallic snapped around her wrist. Handcuffs. A quiver of excitement raced through her as he gently pinned that arm
behind her back and cuffed it to the other one.

She caught her bottom lip between her teeth. This was even better than her fantasies.

He put his mouth to her ear again. “Spread ‘em.”

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.”


​Wonderfully delightful.”

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​Two really great stories.”

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