STRONG SILENT SEAL​

​​seals of coronado series, book 2

He's a hellbent Navy SEAL, ready to save the girl and take down the enemy.

Desperate and terrified, Felicia Bradford will do anything to get her sister out of a hostage situation. Stealing top secret information from the Navy's Special Operations Headquarters is her only option. Otherwise, they're both dead.

Navy SEAL Logan Dunn knows desperation when he sees it. When a beautiful woman shoves a gun in his back and starts making demands, he knows he must act fast. Getting Felicia to understand that he's one of the good guys just might be harder than he thought. Now it's up to Logan to get her to trust him before it's too late. Can this determined Navy SEAL save her sister, take down the enemy, and steal Felicia’s heart all at the same time?

He's a hellbent Navy SEAL, ready to save the girl and take down the enemy.

Desperate and terrified, Felicia Bradford will do anything to get her sister out of a hostage situation. Stealing top secret information from the Navy's Special Operations Headquarters is her only option. Otherwise, they're both dead.

Navy SEAL Logan Dunn knows desperation when he sees it. When a beautiful woman shoves a gun in his back and starts making demands, he knows he must act fast. Getting Felicia to understand that he's one of the good guys just might be harder than he thought. Now it's up to Logan to get her to trust him before it's too late. Can this determined Navy SEAL save her sister, take down the enemy, and steal Felicia’s heart all at the same time?

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

​​​​​​“Figure out way to get onto the base or your sister dies.”


The threatening words kept replaying over and over in Felicia Bradford’s head, freaking her out so badly her hands shook as she steered her SUV into a shopping center a mile from the gate of the Coronado Naval Amphibious Base and pulled into a space. Putting her Nissan Juke in park, she leaned forward and rested her forehead on the steering wheel. She wanted to cry, but she couldn’t take the chance the people holding her sister would hear and think it meant she’d given up. They’d kill Stefanie for sure.


She took a deep breath and felt the tape holding the wire to her stomach pull a little, reminding her exactly where those horrible men had touched her as they’d attached the listening device to her skin. She shuddered at the thought that her baby sister, a sophomore in college at the San Diego campus of the University of California, remained in their hands.


Felicia lifted her head and glanced at the clock on the dash. Two hours ago, she and Stef had been in their yoga class, something they did every Saturday morning at the same time. They’d been laughing and planning their next girls’ night out when three men with accents had come out of nowhere and surrounded them in a quiet corner of the studio parking lot, taken Felicia’s keys then hustled them into a white van at gunpoint.


The next ten minutes had been the most terrifying of her life as she and Stef sat huddled on the floor of the van while one of the men had kept his weapon trained on them the whole time. She’d feared the worst, thinking the men meant to rape and kill them, but when the van pulled into a warehouse and the doors opened, they dragged her and Stef into an office where they’d found two more men waiting. One tall and muscular with a buzz cut, the other not quite as tall or as muscled with long, shaggy hair. When Buzz Cut regarded Felicia and her sister like interesting bugs he’d seen crawling across the floor, a voice in the back of her head said this situation was more complicated than she’d thought.


“What do you want with us?” she demanded, pushing her sister behind her.


Buzz Cut nodded at the men who’d brought her and Stef into the room. A moment later, one of them jerked her sister away and forced her down into a chair then duct taped her wrists to the metal arms. Felicia tried to stop them, but the second man grabbed her before she could do much good.


“You are brave,” Buzz Cut said in an Eastern European accent. At least she thought it was Eastern European. She wasn’t very good with accents. “Good.”


“What are you going to do with my sister?” Felicia demanded.


Buzz Cut crossed the room to stand in front of her. “I intend to kill your sister in the most painful way I can imagine unless you do exactly what I tell you.


Could someone so devoid of emotion be human? But the cold look in his eyes left Felicia with no doubt he told the truth.


“I’ll do anything you want,” she told him. “Just don’t hurt her.”


“Fortunately for you, what I need isn’t very difficult. I want you to take something onto the Coronado Naval Amphibious Base for me and wait at a specific location for a short period of time then come back here. If you do, you and your sister may leave alive and unharmed.”


Felicia almost started to hyperventilate. He made it sound so simple. “Coronado isn’t open to the public. There’s no way I can get on it.”


His eyes narrowed. “The gate pass on the dash of your car says otherwise.”


Crap. She’d forgotten she’d left it there. “It’s from last weekend, but it’s expired. I’m a wedding planner. I do a lot of weddings and receptions on the base.”


“Then get it renewed,” the man with the shaggy hair said.


Felicia looked at him. “It doesn’t work like that. I have to arrange a separate gate pass for each wedding and someone with a military ID has to agree to be my sponsor.”


Buzz Cut considered her statement. “How many times have you gone onto the station in the past six months?”


“I don’t know. Maybe twenty-five or thirty times.”


“With all those trips on base, are you trying to tell me a woman as attractive as you are couldn’t make an impression on the guards? I’m sure you could talk your way through the gate this one time. Say it’s for an emergency meeting with a client or something.”


She opened her mouth to tell him she was nothing special—at least not special enough to get an MP or security guard to look the other way while she drove through the gate without a pass—but then she hesitated, knowing this asshole would kill her and Stef in a second if he decided she wasn’t useful to him anymore. So, she’d nodded, telling him she could get on base.


The guy with the shaggy hair had then felt her up while taping the microphone wire to her stomach. When he finished, he and Buzz Cut took her out to where her Nissan Juke waited beside the van. Then Buzz Cut handed her a black plastic box about the size of a box of Kleenex along with a map of the NAB with a building circled in red.


“You need to be at this location no later than ten-thirty,” Buzz Cut told her. “On the south side of the building is a picnic table under some palm trees. Sit at the table, turn on the machine, then wait there for exactly thirty minutes.”


She tensed, terrified even to be in the same room with the box much less holding it. “Is it a bomb?”


“No. It’s a listening device,” he said. “It will record a conversation taking place nearby. No one will be hurt.”


Felicia didn’t believe him. “If that’s all, why don’t you have one of your men take it on base? I’m sure there are lots of people who could do a much better job than me.”


Mouth tight, Buzz Cut jerked the box and the map away from her and handed it to Shaggy Hair. Felicia’s heart fell into her stomach as he grabbed her arm and hauled her across the warehouse to another office, then shoved her inside. She tripped over something on the floor, falling half on top of it. She pushed herself up and almost screamed when she realized it was a man in a Navy uniform, the front of his blue camouflage top soaked with blood. He stared unseeingly up at the ceiling.


She scrambled off the man as Buzz Cut jerked her to her feet.


“This is the man I got to do the job, but he had a change of heart at the last minute, and I had to kill him.” Cold, dark eyes bore into hers. “Don’t make me have to find someone else to do this job. The time window I have to get it done is small and, if you make me miss it, I’ll take it out on your precious sister.”


She didn’t say anything as he led her back out to her SUV, which one of the men must have driven there from the shopping center, and shoved her behind the wheel. She thought she’d been as freaked out as she could be when Shaggy Hair leaned in and put a handgun in the center console.


“Why are you giving that to me?” she asked.


Buzz Cut shrugged. “If things don’t go the way you plan, you’ll need to improvise if you want your sister to live. If it means you have to shoot someone, do it.”


Felicia couldn’t kill someone in cold blood. But, to save her sister, maybe she could.


They took her cell out of her purse and wrote down her phone number.


“In case I want to contact you,” Buzz Cut said as he handed it back to her. “Don’t get any brilliant ideas about calling the police. With the wire you’re wearing, we’ll be able to hear everything you say, and if you say something you shouldn’t, I’ll kill your sister. If you don’t get to the location on the map in time, I’ll kill your sister. If you don’t get us what we want and come straight back here, I’ll kill your sister. And if we suddenly lose the audio from the wire. I’ll kill your sister.”


Felicia had been so shaken by images of her sister being tortured and killed, she could barely drive across the Coronado Bridge to the base. She’d raised Stef ever since their parents died six years ago. The idea of something bad happening to her made it hard to even breathe. She had no doubt Buzz Cut would kill Stef if she didn’t show up with the information they wanted. He might kill both of them anyway once he had what he wanted, of course, but she could deal with only one problem at a time.


Unfortunately, as she’d expected, the guards at the gate refused to let her through, no matter how much she tried to sweet talk them. She batted her eyes and tried to convince one particular MP on duty who’d flirted with her on several occasions she had to get on base for a few minutes to scout out the location for an upcoming wedding, but the guy hadn’t budged.


She’d turned around and been driving away from the base when her phone rang.


“Figure out a way to get on base,” Buzz Cut ordered. “Or your sister dies.”


Felicia continued to stare at the clock on the dash as it slowly counted down the minutes. She had twenty-nine minutes left. She needed to figure out something or Stef would be dead.


In frustration, she reached into the center console and pulled out the weapon stashed there. She didn’t even have a clue how to fire a gun, but maybe she could use it to threaten her way through the gate. Then what? The military police would chase her once she got on base.


Felicia caught sight of a group of men and women in Navy uniforms coming out of the grocery store. An idea hit her. Insane and probably not workable, but the only thing she could think of was shoving her gun in the nearest sailor’s back and demanding he or she help her get on base. She only prayed she’d find a sailor who didn’t have a hero complex. She really didn’t want to have to shoot anyone—even if she could figure out how to do it. But, when it came to her sister, she’d do what she had to do.


Felicia turned off the engine and waited. It would probably be smarter to scope out the possible targets and pick someone smaller and preferably female, but as the clock on the dash continued to get closer to the ten-thirty deadline, she realized she didn’t have time.


She shoved the gun and the black box into her purse then got out and walked over to the store. The first few sailors came out in groups of two and three. Dammit, she didn’t have time for this!


Then she spotted a hunky guy with dark blond hair wearing blue camouflage coming her way, a couple of grocery bags in his hands—alone. He was also at least a foot taller than her and probably outweighed her by a hundred pounds. Her gut told her this guy wasn’t the best choice, but she couldn’t wait any longer.


Heart pounding in her chest and a hand on the gun in her purse, she turned and followed, hurrying to catch up with him. When they got close to his blue SUV, she pulled the gun out of her purse, closed the distance between them, and shoved the weapon in his back. He immediately stopped in his tracks.


“I don’t want to shoot you, but I will if you don’t help me get on base,” she said as firmly as she could. The words didn’t sound as intimidating as she’d hoped, but at least her voice hadn’t squeaked.


She didn’t know what to expect, but when the big man didn’t move at all, she got a little nervous.


“Don’t do anything foolish or you’ll be putting the lives of innocent people in danger,” she warned. “I’ve never fired a gun before, and if you make me do it now, I have no idea where the bullets are going to go.”


The guy still didn’t move. But at least he didn’t spin around and try to disarm her. Unfortunately, the seconds continued to fly past, bringing Stefanie’s death ever closer. Felicia might have to do something else—although she didn’t know what—to prove her seriousness. Could she whack him in the back of the head? Probably not without making the gun go off. Then what? Unconscious, he wouldn’t be able to get her on base.


“Did you hear what I said?” she prompted, shoving the gun more firmly into his back.


“I heard you,” he said. “Relax, okay? There’s no need to pull the trigger. I’ll get you on base. But I want your word you won’t hurt anyone if I do.”


She couldn’t believe he tried to bargain with her when she had a gun pointed at him. “It’s the last thing I want.”


He lifted his right hand, and Felicia tensed, until she realized he was only lifting the key fob for his SUV. He unlocked the doors with a beep-beep then opened the driver’s side. Felicia wondered if she should let him drive or if she should do it. After a moment, she decided the guards on the gate would never let them through with her behind the wheel, so it had to be him. But she couldn’t tell him to wait while she ran around to the passenger side, either.


Finally, she climbed into the SUV first and crawled over the center console to get into the passenger seat, keeping the weapon pointed at him the whole time.


“Get in,” she ordered. “And don’t try anything.”


As he climbed in, she saw the name ‘Dunn’ embroidered on a tag on his uniform. Nice name. It fit him.


She was wondering about his first name when she finally got a good look at his face. She couldn’t see his eyes because he wore aviators, but with a chiseled jaw and wide, sensual mouth, he was way more handsome than any man had a right to be. She hoped he did what she told him. She’d feel horrible shooting someone so attractive.


Okay, that was absolutely the dumbest thought she’d ever had. Would she feel better shooting him if he were ugly?


Dunn reached around to put his grocery bags on the floorboard in the back then fastened his seatbelt. When he finished, he lifted a brow. “You going to put on your seatbelt?”


Felicia’s jaw may have dropped. Seriously? Obviously, he must be since he wouldn’t start the vehicle until she buckled up. Unfortunately, she couldn’t get her belt on while holding a pistol. She glanced around for a place to put it, figuring wedging it between her legs wasn’t the best idea. She finally ended up putting it on the floor. The moment she had her seatbelt on, she reached down and snatched it up with trembling hands, turning to point it in Dunn’s direction.


He regarded her with a look plainly suggesting he knew this was her first foray into taking a hostage, but he thankfully didn’t say it out loud. Instead, he cranked the SUV and headed out of the parking lot.


“I hope this doesn’t take too long,” he remarked as he drove toward the Naval Amphibious Base. “I bought ice cream and would hate to have to throw it away if it melts.”


Felicia didn’t know what to say. How the hell could the man be so calm when he had a gun pointed at him?


As they neared the gate, Logan reached into his back pocket for his wallet and pulled out his ID card. She slipped the gun in her purse.


“Don’t make me hurt anyone,” she said to him.


“I told you I’d get you on base and I will,” Dunn said as he weaved through the barricades put there to slow people down. “Keep the gun in your purse and everything will be fine.”


Dunn had a very trustworthy-looking face and Felicia wanted to believe him, but she still tensed when they rolled to a stop beside the guard at the gate. At least it wasn’t the cute MP she’d tried to sweet-talk earlier. In fact, she didn’t recognize the older guy at all.


“Dunn, my man,” the guard said. “I haven’t seen you in weeks. How the hell are you?”


“I’m good,” Dunn said conversationally. “How about you?


“Can’t complain.” The guard leaned down and regarded Felicia. “Who’s this? New girlfriend?”


Crap. She hadn’t thought about having a cover story. Passing her off as a girlfriend might work, though.


Dunn chuckled. “Nah. This is my sister, Claire. She’s staying with me for a while, and I’m showing her around. I’m going to get her base access on Monday.”


The older man smiled and nodded. “No problem.”


While they’d made it this far, Felicia refused to let herself exhale until the guard waved them through the gate. She glanced at the clock on the dash, comparing it with her watch. Ten minutes.


“Drive faster,” she said, pulling out the gun so she could point it at him and the map so she could figure out where she needed to go.


“If I drive over the speed limit, there’s a good chance we’ll get pulled over.”


“If you drive under the speed limit, there’s a good chance someone very important to me will die,” she told him. “So, drive faster.”


Dunn looked at her sharply. She expected him to say something, but instead he drove faster.


“Where are we going?” he asked softly.


Her knowledge of NAB Coronado was limited to the location of the church and the various clubs that held receptions, so she held the map up for him to see and pointed at the part circled in red.


“Right there,” she said. “And I have to be there in five minutes.”


He studied the circled area on the map for a moment then gave her another intense look. “You sure you want to go there?”


The spot on the map probably had some significance to him, but to her, it was simply the place Buzz Cut told her to be—in five minutes.


“Yes.”


As Dunn turned down a side road and picked up speed, Felicia held out hope this might work. She wasn’t naive. She knew the men holding Stef couldn’t be trusted. But she had to believe if she did as Buzz Cut told her, maybe everything would work out okay. It was the only thing she had to hang onto until something better came along.


“We didn’t have a chance for a proper introduction, but my name’s Logan,” he said. “What’s yours?”


Felicia ignored him, or tried to, anyway, but he kept talking in a frustratingly calm, casual voice.


“Maybe I can help you out of your situation,” he continued. “You don’t really seem to be the kind of person to do something like this.”


She wasn’t. But she was doing it now—for Stefanie.


“Keep driving,” she told him.


Felicia hadn’t realized they’d reached their destination until Logan pulled the SUV into a parking space and turned off the engine. Off to one side of the large official-looking building was a sign that read Naval Special Warfare Command.


She looked around, trying to remember exactly where Buzz Cut had told her to take the box.


“Where’s the south side of the building?” she asked.


Logan pointed to the right.


She pulled the box out of her purse then motioned at Logan with the weapon. “Get out and walk in front of me to the picnic table over there. The gun will be in my purse, but I’ll have my finger on the trigger the whole time, so don’t try anything.”


His gaze locked on the box in her hand. “What’s that?”


The dash clock read ten twenty-nine.


“I can’t tell you anything, so stop asking me questions and get out,” she snapped.


He regarded her silently for a moment then shut off the engine and got out of the SUV. She climbed over the console and followed him to the south side of the building.


The table stood right where Buzz Cut said it would be, under some palm trees. The moment she and Logan sat down, she put the box on the table and turned the lone switch on the top until she heard a clicking sound. She kept turning it until it stopped moving. Then she sat there staring at the box—and Logan.


He took off his sunglasses, revealing gorgeous blue eyes, then reached into his pocket for his cellphone.


“What are you doing?” she asked nervously, fumbling for the gun in her purse and pointing it at him.


“Playing a game on my phone.” He shrugged. “I figure we’re going to be sitting here a while, aren’t we?”


She frowned. He clicked way too many keys for any game. Was he calling the cops? She didn’t want to have to shoot him, but he might not give her a choice.


But then he turned the phone around to show her what he’d typed.


I know you can’t talk, but I can help you if you’ll let me. Tell me what’s going on.


Felicia blinked. How had he figured out she couldn’t talk?


He nodded at her, then pointed at the words he’d written on his phone, specifically the part where he’d said he could help her.


A thousand thoughts raced through her head. Could she trust him? Could he really help her? She couldn’t imagine how, but she needed help from someone, and her instincts told her Dunn was that person.

“Figure out way to get onto the base or your sister dies.”
The threatening words kept replaying over and over in Felicia Bradford’s head, freaking her out so badly her hands shook as she steered her SUV into a shopping center a mile from the gate of the Coronado Naval Amphibious Base and pulled into a space. Putting her Nissan Juke in park, she leaned forward and rested her forehead on the steering wheel. She wanted to cry, but she couldn’t take the chance the people holding her sister would hear and think it meant she’d given up. They’d kill Stefanie for sure.
She took a deep breath and felt the tape holding the wire to her stomach pull a little, reminding her exactly where those horrible men had touched her as they’d attached the listening device to her skin. She shuddered at the thought that her baby sister, a sophomore in college at the San Diego campus of the University of California, remained in their hands.
Felicia lifted her head and glanced at the clock on the dash. Two hours ago, she and Stef had been in their yoga class, something they did every Saturday morning at the same time. They’d been laughing and planning their next girls’ night out when three men with accents had come out of nowhere and surrounded them in a quiet corner of the studio parking lot, taken Felicia’s keys then hustled them into a white van at gunpoint.
The next ten minutes had been the most terrifying of her life as she and Stef sat huddled on the floor of the van while one of the men had kept his weapon trained on them the whole time. She’d feared the worst, thinking the men meant to rape and kill them, but when the van pulled into a warehouse and the doors opened, they dragged her and Stef into an office where they’d found two more men waiting. One tall and muscular with a buzz cut, the other not quite as tall or as muscled with long, shaggy hair. When Buzz Cut regarded Felicia and her sister like interesting bugs he’d seen crawling across the floor, a voice in the back of her head said this situation was more complicated than she’d thought.
“What do you want with us?” she demanded, pushing her sister behind her.
Buzz Cut nodded at the men who’d brought her and Stef into the room. A moment later, one of them jerked her sister away and forced her down into a chair then duct taped her wrists to the metal arms. Felicia tried to stop them, but the second man grabbed her before she could do much good.
“You are brave,” Buzz Cut said in an Eastern European accent. At least she thought it was Eastern European. She wasn’t very good with accents. “Good.”
“What are you going to do with my sister?” Felicia demanded.
Buzz Cut crossed the room to stand in front of her. “I intend to kill your sister in the most painful way I can imagine unless you do exactly what I tell you.
Could someone so devoid of emotion be human? But the cold look in his eyes left Felicia with no doubt he told the truth.
“I’ll do anything you want,” she told him. “Just don’t hurt her.”
“Fortunately for you, what I need isn’t very difficult. I want you to take something onto the Coronado Naval Amphibious Base for me and wait at a specific location for a short period of time then come back here. If you do, you and your sister may leave alive and unharmed.”
Felicia almost started to hyperventilate. He made it sound so simple. “Coronado isn’t open to the public. There’s no way I can get on it.”
His eyes narrowed. “The gate pass on the dash of your car says otherwise.”
Crap. She’d forgotten she’d left it there. “It’s from last weekend, but it’s expired. I’m a wedding planner. I do a lot of weddings and receptions on the base.”
“Then get it renewed,” the man with the shaggy hair said.
Felicia looked at him. “It doesn’t work like that. I have to arrange a separate gate pass for each wedding and someone with a military ID has to agree to be my sponsor.”
Buzz Cut considered her statement. “How many times have you gone onto the station in the past six months?”
“I don’t know. Maybe twenty-five or thirty times.”
“With all those trips on base, are you trying to tell me a woman as attractive as you are couldn’t make an impression on the guards? I’m sure you could talk your way through the gate this one time. Say it’s for an emergency meeting with a client or something.”
She opened her mouth to tell him she was nothing special—at least not special enough to get an MP or security guard to look the other way while she drove through the gate without a pass—but then she hesitated, knowing this asshole would kill her and Stef in a second if he decided she wasn’t useful to him anymore. So, she’d nodded, telling him she could get on base.
The guy with the shaggy hair had then felt her up while taping the microphone wire to her stomach. When he finished, he and Buzz Cut took her out to where her Nissan Juke waited beside the van. Then Buzz Cut handed her a black plastic box about the size of a box of Kleenex along with a map of the NAB with a building circled in red.
“You need to be at this location no later than ten-thirty,” Buzz Cut told her. “On the south side of the building is a picnic table under some palm trees. Sit at the table, turn on the machine, then wait there for exactly thirty minutes.”
She tensed, terrified even to be in the same room with the box much less holding it. “Is it a bomb?”
“No. It’s a listening device,” he said. “It will record a conversation taking place nearby. No one will be hurt.”
Felicia didn’t believe him. “If that’s all, why don’t you have one of your men take it on base? I’m sure there are lots of people who could do a much better job than me.”
Mouth tight, Buzz Cut jerked the box and the map away from her and handed it to Shaggy Hair. Felicia’s heart fell into her stomach as he grabbed her arm and hauled her across the warehouse to another office, then shoved her inside. She tripped over something on the floor, falling half on top of it. She pushed herself up and almost screamed when she realized it was a man in a Navy uniform, the front of his blue camouflage top soaked with blood. He stared unseeingly up at the ceiling.
She scrambled off the man as Buzz Cut jerked her to her feet.
“This is the man I got to do the job, but he had a change of heart at the last minute, and I had to kill him.” Cold, dark eyes bore into hers. “Don’t make me have to find someone else to do this job. The time window I have to get it done is small and, if you make me miss it, I’ll take it out on your precious sister.”
She didn’t say anything as he led her back out to her SUV, which one of the men must have driven there from the shopping center, and shoved her behind the wheel. She thought she’d been as freaked out as she could be when Shaggy Hair leaned in and put a handgun in the center console.
“Why are you giving that to me?” she asked.
Buzz Cut shrugged. “If things don’t go the way you plan, you’ll need to improvise if you want your sister to live. If it means you have to shoot someone, do it.”
Felicia couldn’t kill someone in cold blood. But, to save her sister, maybe she could.
They took her cell out of her purse and wrote down her phone number.
“In case I want to contact you,” Buzz Cut said as he handed it back to her. “Don’t get any brilliant ideas about calling the police. With the wire you’re wearing, we’ll be able to hear everything you say, and if you say something you shouldn’t, I’ll kill your sister. If you don’t get to the location on the map in time, I’ll kill your sister. If you don’t get us what we want and come straight back here, I’ll kill your sister. And if we suddenly lose the audio from the wire. I’ll kill your sister.”
Felicia had been so shaken by images of her sister being tortured and killed, she could barely drive across the Coronado Bridge to the base. She’d raised Stef ever since their parents died six years ago. The idea of something bad happening to her made it hard to even breathe. She had no doubt Buzz Cut would kill Stef if she didn’t show up with the information they wanted. He might kill both of them anyway once he had what he wanted, of course, but she could deal with only one problem at a time.
Unfortunately, as she’d expected, the guards at the gate refused to let her through, no matter how much she tried to sweet talk them. She batted her eyes and tried to convince one particular MP on duty who’d flirted with her on several occasions she had to get on base for a few minutes to scout out the location for an upcoming wedding, but the guy hadn’t budged.
She’d turned around and been driving away from the base when her phone rang.
“Figure out a way to get on base,” Buzz Cut ordered. “Or your sister dies.”
Felicia continued to stare at the clock on the dash as it slowly counted down the minutes. She had twenty-nine minutes left. She needed to figure out something or Stef would be dead.
In frustration, she reached into the center console and pulled out the weapon stashed there. She didn’t even have a clue how to fire a gun, but maybe she could use it to threaten her way through the gate. Then what? The military police would chase her once she got on base.
Felicia caught sight of a group of men and women in Navy uniforms coming out of the grocery store. An idea hit her. Insane and probably not workable, but the only thing she could think of was shoving her gun in the nearest sailor’s back and demanding he or she help her get on base. She only prayed she’d find a sailor who didn’t have a hero complex. She really didn’t want to have to shoot anyone—even if she could figure out how to do it. But, when it came to her sister, she’d do what she had to do.
Felicia turned off the engine and waited. It would probably be smarter to scope out the possible targets and pick someone smaller and preferably female, but as the clock on the dash continued to get closer to the ten-thirty deadline, she realized she didn’t have time
She shoved the gun and the black box into her purse then got out and walked over to the store. The first few sailors came out in groups of two and three. Dammit, she didn’t have time for this!
Then she spotted a hunky guy with dark blond hair wearing blue camouflage coming her way, a couple of grocery bags in his hands—alone. He was also at least a foot taller than her and probably outweighed her by a hundred pounds. Her gut told her this guy wasn’t the best choice, but she couldn’t wait any longer.
Heart pounding in her chest and a hand on the gun in her purse, she turned and followed, hurrying to catch up with him. When they got close to his blue SUV, she pulled the gun out of her purse, closed the distance between them, and shoved the weapon in his back. He immediately stopped in his tracks.
“I don’t want to shoot you, but I will if you don’t help me get on base,” she said as firmly as she could. The words didn’t sound as intimidating as she’d hoped, but at least her voice hadn’t squeaked.
She didn’t know what to expect, but when the big man didn’t move at all, she got a little nervous.
“Don’t do anything foolish or you’ll be putting the lives of innocent people in danger,” she warned. “I’ve never fired a gun before, and if you make me do it now, I have no idea where the bullets are going to go.”
The guy still didn’t move. But at least he didn’t spin around and try to disarm her. Unfortunately, the seconds continued to fly past, bringing Stefanie’s death ever closer. Felicia might have to do something else—although she didn’t know what—to prove her seriousness. Could she whack him in the back of the head? Probably not without making the gun go off. Then what? Unconscious, he wouldn’t be able to get her on base.
“Did you hear what I said?” she prompted, shoving the gun more firmly into his back.
“I heard you,” he said. “Relax, okay? There’s no need to pull the trigger. I’ll get you on base. But I want your word you won’t hurt anyone if I do.”
She couldn’t believe he tried to bargain with her when she had a gun pointed at him. “It’s the last thing I want.”
He lifted his right hand, and Felicia tensed, until she realized he was only lifting the key fob for his SUV. He unlocked the doors with a beep-beep then opened the driver’s side. Felicia wondered if she should let him drive or if she should do it. After a moment, she decided the guards on the gate would never let them through with her behind the wheel, so it had to be him. But she couldn’t tell him to wait while she ran around to the passenger side, either.
Finally, she climbed into the SUV first and crawled over the center console to get into the passenger seat, keeping the weapon pointed at him the whole time.
“Get in,” she ordered. “And don’t try anything.”
As he climbed in, she saw the name ‘Dunn’ embroidered on a tag on his uniform. Nice name. It fit him.
She was wondering about his first name when she finally got a good look at his face. She couldn’t see his eyes because he wore aviators, but with a chiseled jaw and wide, sensual mouth, he was way more handsome than any man had a right to be. She hoped he did what she told him. She’d feel horrible shooting someone so attractive.
Okay, that was absolutely the dumbest thought she’d ever had. Would she feel better shooting him if he were ugly?
Dunn reached around to put his grocery bags on the floorboard in the back then fastened his seatbelt. When he finished, he lifted a brow. “You going to put on your seatbelt?”
Felicia’s jaw may have dropped. Seriously? Obviously, he must be since he wouldn’t start the vehicle until she buckled up. Unfortunately, she couldn’t get her belt on while holding a pistol. She glanced around for a place to put it, figuring wedging it between her legs wasn’t the best idea. She finally ended up putting it on the floor. The moment she had her seatbelt on, she reached down and snatched it up with trembling hands, turning to point it in Dunn’s direction.
He regarded her with a look plainly suggesting he knew this was her first foray into taking a hostage, but he thankfully didn’t say it out loud. Instead, he cranked the SUV and headed out of the parking lot.
“I hope this doesn’t take too long,” he remarked as he drove toward the Naval Amphibious Base. “I bought ice cream and would hate to have to throw it away if it melts.”
Felicia didn’t know what to say. How the hell could the man be so calm when he had a gun pointed at him?
As they neared the gate, Logan reached into his back pocket for his wallet and pulled out his ID card. She slipped the gun in her purse.
“Don’t make me hurt anyone,” she said to him.
“I told you I’d get you on base and I will,” Dunn said as he weaved through the barricades put there to slow people down. “Keep the gun in your purse and everything will be fine.”
Dunn had a very trustworthy-looking face and Felicia wanted to believe him, but she still tensed when they rolled to a stop beside the guard at the gate. At least it wasn’t the cute MP she’d tried to sweet-talk earlier. In fact, she didn’t recognize the older guy at all.
“Dunn, my man,” the guard said. “I haven’t seen you in weeks. How the hell are you?”
“I’m good,” Dunn said conversationally. “How about you?
“Can’t complain.” The guard leaned down and regarded Felicia. “Who’s this? New girlfriend?”
Crap. She hadn’t thought about having a cover story. Passing her off as a girlfriend might work, though.
Dunn chuckled. “Nah. This is my sister, Claire. She’s staying with me for a while, and I’m showing her around. I’m going to get her base access on Monday.”
The older man smiled and nodded. “No problem.”
While they’d made it this far, Felicia refused to let herself exhale until the guard waved them through the gate. She glanced at the clock on the dash, comparing it with her watch. Ten minutes.
“Drive faster,” she said, pulling out the gun so she could point it at him and the map so she could figure out where she needed to go.
“If I drive over the speed limit, there’s a good chance we’ll get pulled over.”
“If you drive under the speed limit, there’s a good chance someone very important to me will die,” she told him. “So, drive faster.”
Dunn looked at her sharply. She expected him to say something, but instead he drove faster.
“Where are we going?” he asked softly.
Her knowledge of NAB Coronado was limited to the location of the church and the various clubs that held receptions, so she held the map up for him to see and pointed at the part circled in red.
“Right there,” she said. “And I have to be there in five minutes.”
He studied the circled area on the map for a moment then gave her another intense look. “You sure you want to go there?”
The spot on the map probably had some significance to him, but to her, it was simply the place Buzz Cut told her to be—in five minutes.
“Yes.”
As Dunn turned down a side road and picked up speed, Felicia held out hope this might work. She wasn’t naive. She knew the men holding Stef couldn’t be trusted. But she had to believe if she did as Buzz Cut told her, maybe everything would work out okay. It was the only thing she had to hang onto until something better came along.
“We didn’t have a chance for a proper introduction, but my name’s Logan,” he said. “What’s yours?”
Felicia ignored him, or tried to, anyway, but he kept talking in a frustratingly calm, casual voice.
“Maybe I can help you out of your situation,” he continued. “You don’t really seem to be the kind of person to do something like this.”
She wasn’t. But she was doing it now—for Stefanie.
“Keep driving,” she told him.
Felicia hadn’t realized they’d reached their destination until Logan pulled the SUV into a parking space and turned off the engine. Off to one side of the large official-looking building was a sign that read Naval Special Warfare Command.
She looked around, trying to remember exactly where Buzz Cut had told her to take the box.
“Where’s the south side of the building?” she asked.
Logan pointed to the right.
She pulled the box out of her purse then motioned at Logan with the weapon. “Get out and walk in front of me to the picnic table over there. The gun will be in my purse, but I’ll have my finger on the trigger the whole time, so don’t try anything.”
His gaze locked on the box in her hand. “What’s that?”
The dash clock read ten twenty-nine.
“I can’t tell you anything, so stop asking me questions and get out,” she snapped.
He regarded her silently for a moment then shut off the engine and got out of the SUV. She climbed over the console and followed him to the south side of the building.
The table stood right where Buzz Cut said it would be, under some palm trees. The moment she and Logan sat down, she put the box on the table and turned the lone switch on the top until she heard a clicking sound. She kept turning it until it stopped moving. Then she sat there staring at the box—and Logan.
He took off his sunglasses, revealing gorgeous blue eyes, then reached into his pocket for his cellphone.
“What are you doing?” she asked nervously, fumbling for the gun in her purse and pointing it at him.
“Playing a game on my phone.” He shrugged. “I figure we’re going to be sitting here a while, aren’t we?”
She frowned. He clicked way too many keys for any game. Was he calling the cops? She didn’t want to have to shoot him, but he might not give her a choice.
But then he turned the phone around to show her what he’d typed.
I know you can’t talk, but I can help you if you’ll let me. Tell me what’s going on.
Felicia blinked. How had he figured out she couldn’t talk?
He nodded at her, then pointed at the words he’d written on his phone, specifically the part where he’d said he could help her.
A thousand thoughts raced through her head. Could she trust him? Could he really help her? She couldn’t imagine how, but she needed help from someone, and her instincts told her Dunn was that person.

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.”


​A whirlwind from start to finish!"

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​​​A book that will grab you, hold tight and not let you go. If you need an action packed storyline filled with sexy SEALs, strong determined women, sweet steamy romance and a bunch of bad guys need to be stopped then get your hands on STRONG SILENT SEAL!"

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