Exposed – Paige Tyler – New York Times and USA Today Bestselling Author

Exposed

x-ops series, book 8 

​​​HE LEFT TO KEEP HER SAFE...

Believing he's too dangerous to be among people, feline hybrid Tanner Howland retreats deep into the forests of Washington State—with no choice but to leave behind the woman who's captured his heart. What he doesn't know if that she followed him...

SHE WOULDN'T STAY BEHIND

Heartbroken and determined, Dr. Zarina Sokolov tracks Tanner into the wild. Her presence unleashes Tanner's protective instinct—big time. Locals have been disappearing and he is desperate for Zarina to leave. As the kidnappings escalate, Tanner must embrace the dangerous instincts he fears so much. But with Zarina at his side, he'll have to learn to control his animal impulses, or lose himself—and the woman he loves—to the beast within.

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

Knowing she wasn’t going to get away, Zarina slid to a stop and spun around, ready to shout at the beast that wanted to kill her. She’d seen Tanner let out a roar that could paralyze almost anything crazy enough to attack him, so perhaps she could do the same thing.


But her cry of defiance died in her throat as she came face-to-face
with a gigantic grizzly bear. The beast reared up on its hind legs, towering over her for one heart-stopping moment before dropping to all fours and roaring at her so loud, her bones felt turned to jelly.


She vaguely remembered the store clerk in town trying to sell her a can of bear repellent. If she wasn’t so terrified, she’d laugh at the idea. What the heck would a can of pepper spray do to something this big?


The bear took a step in her direction with another roar, showing off fangs large enough to bite right through her.


For a split second, Zarina considered running again, but it would be pointless. She’d never outrun a bear.


Rabbits get eaten.


So instead, she screamed as long and loud as she could.


The grizzly looked shocked for a moment, but instead of scaring the animal off like she’d hoped, all it did was seem to make him mad. Head low, the bear started toward her.


She was going to die.


But suddenly, the bear stopped, a look of what could only be confusion on its face as it focused on something behind her. A second later, a roar ripped through the night that shook the ground. She jerked her head around, almost collapsing in relief when she saw Tanner standing there in the dark, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, his eyes glowing vivid red, fangs bared as he let out a roar that sounded exactly like that of a lion. Which made sense, because those were the DNA strands blended
with his own.


Zarina stood transfixed. Tanner’s fangs were longer and looked more terrifying than the bear’s.


The rage and anger on his face must have been enough to scare the grizzly, because the huge animal gave one more half-hearted chuff in Tanner’s direction, then turned and scurried back into the pitch-dark
forest.


To her right, she caught movement. Crap! Tanner was going after the bear. Not because he wanted to hurt the animal, but because by running, the grizzly had become the prey, and Tanner’s lion half simply couldn’t stop itself from hunting the animal down now that the rage had taken over.


“Tanner,” she said softly. “Let the bear go.”


He stopped like he’d hit a brick wall, then stood there, unmoving, for what felt like forever, facing away from her and staring off into the darkness in the direction the bear had run. Not that it was probably all that dark for Tanner. With his animal-enhanced eyesight, he could
probably see the grizzly’s big, fuzzy rump bouncing off into the woods. And if his eyes lost the creature, then his keen sense of smell would fill in the details. Which was a good thing, since she’d have probably been a bear treat if it hadn’t been for that nose of his.


After what seemed like an eternity, Tanner turned and looked at her. His fangs and glowing red eyes were gone now, replaced by a mesmerizing blue gaze and a ruggedly handsome face that had made her heart almost stop beating the first time she’d seen it. He had a bit more dark-blond scruff along his jaw and chin now.


Actually, a lot more. Maybe it was because she’d grown up in cold-weather environment where the opposite sex went all caveman in an attempt to stay warm, but she wasn’t usually a fan of facial hair. On Tanner, though, it looked incredibly scrumptious.


His T-shirt clung tightly to his chest and shoulders, showing off all the muscles he had upstairs, while his jeans fought to contain thighs that looked poised to tear their way out at any moment. Had he actually gotten more muscular since he’d been out there?


Zarina almost ran to him right then so she could throw her arms around him and hold him tight for the rest of the night. But she didn’t, because she knew he wouldn’t be ready for that. Not after she’d showed up in the forest out of the blue and almost gotten eaten by a bear.


But damn, it was hard.


Tanner looked better now than when he’d been living in the dorms at the DCO complex. He had been put up there since the agency’s covert agents had found him out here all that time ago. Even the stress lines that had been etched into his features had completely faded. It almost
made her sorry she’d come out here to disturb the serenity he seemed to have found. But she couldn’t stay away, not with the way she felt about him. And especially not when she could finally help him.


“What are you doing here, Zarina?” he asked bluntly.


So much for him sweeping her into his arms and saying he was happy to see her. Clearly, he wasn’t. She tried not to let that hurt too much.


“I’m here to help you,” she said, equally blunt.


She’d learned a long time ago that dancing around a subject wasn’t the way Tanner did things. It wasn’t the way she did, either, so that was okay. She didn’t bother mentioning that his disappearance had caused
her more sleepless nights than she could count and had nearly driven her insane with worry. That would have been emotional blackmail, and she wasn’t going to do that to him.


His jaw flexed. “I don’t need any help. I’m doing a good job of controlling my hybrid impulses all on my own.”


She looked pointedly in the direction the grizzly had run. “It doesn’t seem like it to me.”


Tanner flinched, and she immediately regretted her choice of words. Dammit, she was out here to help him, not push him further away.


“I haven’t lost control in the two months I’ve been out here,” he said through clenched teeth. “Not until you decided to do something stupid like wander through the middle of a grizzly’s territory by yourself.”


Zarina wanted to point out that she hadn’t planned to be out here this late and that there was no way she could have known she was in a bear’s territory. But she bit her tongue and focused on trying to defuse the situation.


“I’m sorry I made you lose control again,” she said.


“But I’m here to make sure it doesn’t happen again…ever.”


She waited, expecting Tanner to ask her what she meant by that, but he didn’t. Instead, he stood there regarding her and looking way better than any man should considering he’d been camping in the woods for two months. She had met plenty of guys who couldn’t pull off his level of masculine perfection after primping in front of a mirror for an hour. That was one of the other things she’d learned about Tanner. He didn’t have to work hard at being so amazing. It came naturally to him.


After another minute of silence, Zarina accepted that if they were going to talk, she was the one who would have to get the conversation started. “I finished the hybrid drug antiserum that will return your DNA back to what it was before Stutmeir’s doctors experimented on you. You can be a normal human again.”


She waited for some reaction—relief, doubt, elation. Something. But Tanner looked as interested as if she’d told him it might rain tomorrow.


“I’ll never be normal again,” he finally said quietly.


“Yes, you will.” She stepped closer, anguish coursing through her when he immediately took a step back. “I worked on the antidote every minute since you left. It will work. It will keep the beast from ever slipping out again.”


“I don’t want it, dammit!” he shouted, making her jump. He cursed and ran his hand through his hair. “I’m sorry,” he said, his voice softer. “For yelling at you. And for making you come all the way out here and hiking
halfway across the Wenatchee Forest to find me. But I don’t want the antidote. Just go home, okay? Leave me out here where I can’t hurt anyone.”


Zarina’s heart tore in two at the pain in his eyes. She had no idea why he was turning down her offer, but she wasn’t leaving without him.


“I’m not going home,” she said, standing her ground and leveling her gaze at him.


Having this conversation would have been a lot easier without holding a flashlight. Then she could have folded her arms to emphasize her point.


“Then you’d better have a lot of books on that e-reader of yours, because you’re going to get bored damn fast waiting for me at whatever hotel you’re staying in.”


“I’m not going to a hotel,” she told him. “I’m staying out here.”


Red flared in his eyes but faded just as quickly. “Like hell you are.”


“I’m not leaving,” she said firmly. “You can run off into the woods—we
both know I can’t keep up with you—but I still won’t leave. I’ll keep walking all over the forest looking for you.”


His eyes flickered red again, and he muttered something under his breath she couldn’t catch. “You irritate me like no one else on the planet, do you know that?”


“Yes,” she replied, even though it was probably a rhetorical question. “So, which way to your camp?”

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.”


The eighth book in Tyler’s X-Ops series is everything that fans of Tanner and Zarina have been patiently waiting for and more! A fast-paced story with plenty of action and romance, with, of course, a dangerous and gorgeous lion hybrid hero!"

RT REVIEWS, 4 Stars

"X-Ops Exposed is outstanding! The thrills and emotional depth to the story really captivate and draw readers in and keeping them hostage until the very end... Once again, Paige Tyler impresses me with her very vivid world that is full of energy and vibrant characters that make it impossible not to become a part of all the excitement as it happens. The story is fast paced and full of action infused events that just keep coming keeping readers on the edge of their seats."


 

STORMY VIXEN BOOK REVIEWS

If you’re a fan of longing, friendship, and love then X-Ops Exposed might end up being your favorite in the series!" 

I SMELL SHEEP

If you want sweet, steamy, a number of serious twists and turns, mad scientist who are dealing with genetic experimentation, energetic characters who have everyday life problems mixed in with very big paranormal difficulties and you have X-OPS EXPOSED!"

FRESH FICTION, FRESH REVIEW

X-OPS EXPOSED is not just a romantic thriller; it is also a story about family, of forgiveness and acceptance. Intense, thrilling, exciting: a real adrenaline rush!"

BOOKS, FASHION, MOVIES

​​​If you’re partial to hot military alphas and feisty shifter heroines that quickly learn to stand on their own two feet, Her Fierce Warrior is sure to please. Paranormal Romantic Suspense at its best!"

​XTREME DELUSIONS

​​​​Combines thrilling, action-riddled, extremely dangerous sequences with a passionate romance!"

​READING BETWEEN THE WINES

​​​​​Paige Tyler writes a wonderful and intense story about finding your way back from hell. Of fighting the monster within (in this case literally) and finding love. Choosing love. And then she complicates it with twists and turns that snag your attention and keep you falling... I thoroughly enjoyed this book, this author and this series!"

​TEA AND BOOK

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