Clinging to the hope Dr. Daphne Wells can help his teammate and former lover, Malcolm kidnaps the doctor and brings her to Sanctuary. Once she realizes how the black ops group subverted her research, she is eager to help reverse the effects, if she can. While she studies the artificial intelligence systems, Malcolm and the rest of the team set about systematically destroying all traces of Project Shift and Project Enhanced. When they learn of a group of private investors starting their own version of Project Enhanced, they have a new enemy to destroy. It’s definitely the wrong time to have his jaguar insist the scientist is their mate. He can’t claim her while their lives are at risk—but is life worth living without her?
This is the fourth and final in the Wounded Warriors series. While I made every effort to have it read as a standalone, I highly recommend you read all the books in order to enhance the overall story arc.
Malcolm Reese’s heart skipped a beat, and he frowned at Lex. “Could you say that part again?” He was certain he had heard what she had said, but he just needed to hear it again.
“I said Caswell told me Loris hadn’t completed all of the reprogramming they subject super soldiers to before we rescued her. He switched her on to acquire me, but maybe—”
“There’s still Loris somewhere in there,” said Malcolm. A surge of hope tried to rise, and he quickly stifled it. It wasn’t in his nature to be too optimistic, especially against such grim odds. Still, if there was a chance to recover their lost teammate’s personality, they had to try.
He looked at Tianna and then moved his gaze to Aidan, the newest member of their team. He didn’t know the man well yet, but Lex had silently vouched for him simply by being his mate, and he’d heard enough from the other man during the debriefing to know he knew his way around computers.
“Tianna and Aiden, I want you to see if you can find out who the lead scientist is on their Frankenstein project. We’re particularly interested in knowing who designed their A.I. system, and who oversees that program.”
With their assent, that concluded the debriefing, and he nodded toward the door. Wyatt and Gillian were the last ones to leave, since it took Gillian an extra moment to get up out of her seat. Wyatt put a protective arm around her, one of his hands cupping her burgeoning stomach as they left the conference room.
It sent a wave of longing through Malcolm that he quickly stifled. As much as his jaguar longed to find their mate, the human side of him knew it was completely the wrong time. He wouldn’t risk dragging a woman he loved into the situation in which they were mired. There would be no mate for him until he had destroyed all components of Project Shift and Project Enhanced and removed the threat to himself and his teammates.
When his burner phone rang hours later, Malcolm groaned and reached for it. Rest hadn’t come easy, and he’d been asleep only a couple of hours. By the time he’d picked up the phone and answered it, his head was clear though. Only one person called him on this number, and generally it wasn’t just to chat. Now that all of his teammates were accounted for, with most of them dead, it was impossible that El Jefe was calling him to get clearance for another arrival at Sanctuary. “Hello?”
“There’s a man and those things in the area. My men heard the chopper hours ago, and they alerted me. I went out to meet with them and make it clear they shouldn’t be here without my permission, but this Caswell had no respect for the way things should be done.”
Malcolm cursed softly before asking, “Are they near Sanctuary?”
“They’re still in the mid-mountain range at the moment, but if we don’t deal with them now, they will find you.”
“At least eighteen. You’ll need guns and men at your back.”
Malcolm hesitated, not wanting to introduce inexperienced people into the equation. “I have my teammates.”
“Eighteen, remember? Let me do this for you.”
Malcolm found it almost impossible to refuse the offer when phrased that way. It wasn’t like the men El Jefe offered were actually innocent. They protected their drug trade zealously, and they had likely killed to do so. He wasn’t leading lambs to slaughter. “Very well. We’ll rendezvous with you in an hour. Come on foot to avoid using a vehicle that might get their attention.”
“We’ll be waiting.”
He hung up a moment later and slid from bed. He’d worn boxers and an olive-green tank top to bed, so all he had to do was find a pair of camouflage pants and slip on his boots. He decided to don a long sleeve camo shirt as well to offer some protection from fighting. As always, he chose clothes he didn’t care to destroy if the need to shift quickly arose.
After that, he alerted the rest of the team, and they were underway in a matter of minutes, minus Gillian, who couldn’t fight at six months pregnant, and Tianna, who had no combat experience besides what she had picked up during the time she and Devon had found Loris.
Aidan was an unknown, but Malcolm didn’t register an objection to a man prepared to come with them. They would need every hand available to face off against such a large number of super soldiers, and if Lex trusted him—which she must have if she had chosen him for her mate—that was good enough for Malcolm.
They moved quietly through the jungle, and it was a trek that would have been impossible for the two humans they’d left behind. Only their keen shifter eyesight allowed them to navigate the tangled foliage and pick their way through as safely as possible. They arrived at the designated meeting spot a little under an hour later, and El Jefe was already there with at least a dozen of his own men, all armed with AK-47s. Malcolm didn’t doubt they had been converted to be fully automatic, which might make the men surrounding El Jefe overly confident.
Clearing his throat, he spoke softly, but loud enough for all to hear. “You’ve never faced anything like these things before. A spray of bullets might knock them down, but they’ll probably get up again. As soon as they’re on the ground, you need to take a headshot. It’s the only vulnerable place.”
Each of the men nodded solemnly, and Malcolm realized he’d slipped into Spanish without thinking about it. It had been a language he’d learned in the Army, but had reached a conversational level living in Mexico for almost two years.
“They’re about two kilometers to the southwest, mi hijo,” said El Jefe. “You lead us.”
Malcolm nodded and moved forward, his shifter senses guiding him in the right direction. At least a half-kilometer before they saw the things, the smell of them hit him. The super soldiers smelled wrong on every level. They were a combination of human and shifter, but with the bitter stench of artificial intelligence woven through both. He had smelled them many times by now, but he still wasn’t adjusted enough to consider the aroma something he could take in stride and acclimate to easily.
Knowing the super soldiers could likely smell them as well, he moved quickly but more cautiously than ever. Those around him did the same, but the humans weren’t as seamless with their movements. They were also hampered by their duller senses and the need to follow behind his group in two lines, requiring the shifters to clear the path for them.
The jungle was dense, so there was no clearing for them to emerge into. They simply encountered Caswell and his group, and the chaotic state of the jungle was both a blessing and a curse. It provided slightly more cover, but it also made it more difficult to find the super soldiers, at least for the humans. They couldn’t rely on their noses to tell them which direction to face.
Proximity necessitated fighting up close, and he wasn’t the only shifter to take his animal form almost immediately. All the super soldiers had already transformed as far as they were capable of doing so, and their bitter stench mingled in his nose with the fear underlying the pheromones of the humans behind them.
To their credit, none of them bolted though. Either they were determined to remove the threat from their territory, or they were more frightened of El Jefe than the super soldiers. They fought straight through, moving inexorably forward in dealing with each threat as it came.
He faced off against a human-honey badger hybrid, and though the thing was vicious, Malcolm countered every blow with one of his own, forcing the super soldier backward as he marched forward. When an opening came, he transformed one of his paws into a hand and used it to snatch the super soldier’s gun from its holster. It took three shots from the smaller caliber handgun, delivered directly between the eyes, before the thing fell permanently.
He paused briefly to look around him, evaluating how others were faring. Everyone was in the thick of it, and the humans hadn’t stopped firing except for long enough to change out their magazines. He saw several super soldiers’ bodies on the ground, and then he was engaging with yet another one as it ran and jumped at him.
The battle was intense, but brief. In less than ten minutes, they had vanquished the super soldiers, and he had finished off the cheetah-hybrid he had been fighting before looking around to evaluate the situation again.
All of the others had fallen, and some of the humans as well, but his team members still appeared to be in one piece. Only one continued to fight, and he realized it was Lex. Fight was not quite the right word though. She had clearly subdued her opponent, but she continued to punch and kick him. From what he had learned from his teammate during her debriefing, she definitely had a right to be the one to end Caswell, but he needed to interrogate him first. “Stop, Lex. Don’t kill him yet.”
It was a testament to her training and self-control that she immediately froze, though her muscles continued to tremble. It was obvious the effort it cost her to rein it in and not finish off the man who had held her captive and tried to force her to be his mate.
As he moved forward, El Jefe put a hand on his shoulder, and he looked at the older man’s questioning gaze.
“There’s a small house near here. It’s abandoned, but the cement blocks are strong, and it still stands. It should suit your needs.”
Malcolm nodded. “Lead the way.” He went forward, going to Caswell to lift him to his feet. Aidan grabbed his other arm, and they dragged the half-conscious lieutenant colonel between them. After leaving behind several of his men to burn the bodies, El Jefe led them in the direction of the house he had mentioned.
They reached it less than ten minutes later, and it was pretty much as the other man had described. It had a metal roof, and cement blocks made up the walls, but it appeared to be structurally sound, and the interior was still partially furnished with remnants of possessions left behind by the family who had once dwelt there. They had likely either fled as the cartel had invaded their area, or they had taken compensation from El Jefe to move. Either way, they hadn’t taken everything with them, including a rickety kitchen chair.
By unspoken agreement, he and Aidan dragged the Lt. Col. there and dropped him into the seat. By the time they had his hands and feet bound to the wood, Caswell was starting to come around. He could still shift his way out of confinement, but he seemed to be too physically weakened to do so. They would still remain vigilant though.
At first, he seemed confused, but as the seconds passed, the confusion faded from his gaze, replaced by weary resignation. His shoulders slumped, and his chin rested on his chest.
Malcolm grabbed a handful of his hair, forcing his head back to look down at the other man’s eyes, which were cold and faintly reptilian. If he hadn’t already known Caswell’s hybridization was with a bear, he would have been certain it was some sort of reptile species. “Do you know why you’re here?”
Caswell nodded, and then groaned. Apparently, the motion had caused him pain. “I can imagine,” he said in a raspy tone.
“I want specifics from you. Give it to me easily, and I’ll have Lex end you quickly. Otherwise, we’ll draw this out.”
Caswell opened a swollen eye a little wider, seeming to try to glare at him as he tried renegotiating. “I’ll tell you what I know, but you have to promise to let me go.”
Malcolm was aware of the way Lex stiffened, but she didn’t verbally reply. He shook his head at her subtly before staring down at Caswell, his expression grim. “There’s no scenario where you leave this place alive. You’re a threat to Lex, and the rest of us, and you’re going to be neutralized tonight. The only question is how it’s done. Do you suffer more first, or do you get a humane and quick ending?”
Lex’s fury radiated off of her in waves, the smell blending with her pheromones. He couldn’t blame her for her outraged anger. She’d clearly anticipated more than a quick ending for Caswell. Unfortunately for her, Caswell had a small bargaining chip in the form of knowledge they needed. Malcolm had to at least make the offer to end it quickly in exchange for the information they sought.
Proving he was more cowardly than brave, Jasper Caswell started spilling everything he knew, including the location of the Army bases where they were converting humans to super soldiers. When Malcolm was satisfied he had all the information he was going to get, he nodded to Lex. She surprised him by not stepping forward immediately to dispose of Caswell.
Instead, she moved closer to Malcolm, standing beside him as she glared down at Caswell. “Tell us about your private business. You told me something about investors outside the program. We want those details.”
Caswell shook his head, glaring at the woman he would have claimed as his mate with or without her consent. “I’m not giving you all my secrets.”
Lex had a way of persuading him, and less than five minutes after she’d started with the knife in her hand, they had two names for Tianna and Aidan to investigate: Anthony and Collin Rochester.
“I have one more question,” said Malcolm. “How did you find us here?”
Caswell looked rough, and he was bleeding from nearly every visible section of skin on his body. “Him.” He focused his gaze on Aidan temporarily before looking at Malcolm again. “There’s a chip in him. He put it in himself when he stole the shifter modification serum to save his miserable life.” He started laughing, but it quickly deteriorated into a cough. “The damn mountain scrambled the signal, but we would have found him.”
Caswell glared directly at Aidan. “I would have ripped you apart piece by piece in front of her for daring to mark my mate.” Then he glared at Lex. “I would have fucked you until you were bloody and begging for me to stop. Then I would have done it all again multiple times until his stench was off you.”
Lex was clearly angry, and her cheeks were bright red, but she maintained control as she stepped forward and hit Caswell as hard as she could against the bridge of his nose.
Malcolm flinched at the sound of breaking bone followed by a wet, squishing sound as she reached brain matter. It was over in seconds and was a much faster ending than Caswell deserved.
El Jefe had remained in the background, but he stepped forward now and nodded toward Caswell’s body in the chair. “We’ll see to cleaning this up. You must have a strategy to work on.”
Malcolm nodded, briefly squeezing the older man’s shoulder as El Jefe slipped past him, apparently intent on leaving the shack to find his men to deal with Caswell’s body in the same manner as they had disposed of the other super soldiers and fallen humans. “Gracias, Papi,” he said softly, the sudden drop of adrenaline leaving him tired and almost swaying on his feet.
After that, they moved back toward Sanctuary, and when he saw the way Aidan put his arms around Lex, offering her support as they walked together, another swell of envy filled him. He tried to ruthlessly squash it with the reminder that he couldn’t have a mate right now, but it didn’t make his longing for his mate any less intense.