When tiger-shifter Devon Manchester went looking for his missing teammate, he found Tianna Barrett instead. A citizen journalist, she’s been quietly digging into the secrets of Project: Shift and helps Devon find his next lead. Now that the black ops knows about her existence, she has to come along with him as they pursue clues about a missing teammate’s whereabouts into the Canadian wilderness. Having her along is certainly no hardship, since he’s soon convinced Tianna is meant to be his mate. He’s determined to claim her—if they live long enough…
Devon approached the small house warily, though that was a generous descriptor. “Shack” would have been a better adjective to describe the small dwelling where Benjamin’s cousin had directed him. It was a fair hike up the mountains, and the place looked uninhabited. It would be a perfect hideout if Benjamin had taken up residence there.
He stayed low and utilized cover as much as possible while approaching the shack. As he drew nearer, he inhaled deeply, relying on his tiger’s senses to give him an idea of what he’d find inside.
His heart skipped a beat when he detected Benjamin’s pheromone signature. It had been months since he’d smelled his friend’s unique scent, but it seemed fresh. He was optimistic about finding his friend still alive. Maybe Benjamin had managed to evade the government so far as well, but hadn’t had a way to intercept the radio messages Malcolm was sending daily on rotating frequencies.
If he’d had to flee somewhere and left behind his military-issued radio, modified with some security measures by their encryptions expert, Joanna, he wouldn’t have been able to maintain contact. Or perhaps he simply hadn’t been in a position to reach Sanctuary or one of the other safe houses. Or perhaps, being on the hermit side anyway, Benjamin had chosen to stay holed up in the shack in the Black Hills on the border of the Standing Rock Reservation.
Though reassured by the presence of Benjamin’s pheromones, he still moved cautiously, because there was someone else around as well. The presence smelled strictly human, judging by the pheromones, and they stank with the bitter stench of fear. That kept him on his guard, though he hadn’t been inclined to drop it even with tentative confirmation that Benjamin was alive.
He reached the back door of the shack, frowning when he saw the wood shattered inward, as though hit with a heavy object or a forceful kick. He clutched the gun he’d taken from his holster long before approaching the cabin as he hovered at the ruined doorway, ears straining to hear sounds a normal human couldn’t detect. The shack was small, but he still searched all the nooks and crannies as he focused on the environment around him.
There was harsh, raspy breathing, along with an occasional hitch that sounded feminine, as though a human woman was struggling not to cry. Devon grimaced when his nose twitched as he breathed deeply, detecting the fading pheromone signature of one of the super soldiers. If there was one, there had to be more, because he doubted they had come to the cabin alone.
Still on guard, he moved cautiously into the shack, following the sound of breathing. He doubted a human would have been able to perceive faint noises, but his tiger had no trouble detecting them.
The shack was as small on the inside as it appeared to be on the outside, and it didn’t take much to find Benjamin’s body. His friend looked like he’d put up a hell of a fight, but he was clearly dead, and recently. Devon quickly realized that the sound of the breathing was coming from beneath Benjamin. There must be a trapdoor under him.
With a mental apology to his friend, he rolled Benjamin’s corpse out of the way so he could open the trapdoor. It was pitch-black inside the room, but his tiger’s vision had no trouble detecting the human form crouched there in the small root cellar. “Come out of there.” He kept his voice stern, allowing no option for dissent. It was the same voice he’d used on insurgents when stationed in Afghanistan. The authority carried through naturally.
She jerked, and a whimper escaped her, but she stood up slowly. “Please don’t hurt me.”
Acting instinctively, he reached down a hand to help her out of the root cellar, since there appeared to be no steps. She took it, though she seemed reluctant, and as soon as he had her on the main level of the shack, she flinched away from him. “I don’t know anything. Just let me go.”
He frowned at her. “I’m not going to hurt you. What’s going on here?”
Her eyes widened suddenly, and her pheromone signature altered just enough to reveal a hint of excitement. “You’re Bone.”
He blinked, not having heard the call sign since he’d left the military almost two years ago. As a mutual, unspoken agreement, he and his former teammates, now comrades-in-arms in a different way, had dropped their use as they left the military behind. He scowled at her. “How do you know that name?”
Her gaze strayed toward Benjamin for a moment, and her expression revealed her sadness. “I’ve been putting together the pieces, and I know some of what the government has done to your team. Of course you’re in the files.”
She straightened her shoulders. “Your military records. I hacked them—yours and everyone else’s—when I went looking for answers about what happened to Joanna.”
He stiffened slightly at the name, pushing back the swell of grief. Joanna was one of the three team members who had died at the hands of the government black ops group trying to stifle evidence of Project Shift. “You knew Joanna?”
“She was my mom’s friend, and she used to babysit me when I was a kid.”
He examined her for a moment at the words. She had creamy brown skin, large dark eyes, and a head full of tiny braids. He couldn’t think what they were called offhand, but he recognized the style. She was on the short side, with generous curves, and a fresh face that suggested she hadn’t known much tragedy in her life. To his way of thinking, she was practically still a kid. “How old are you?”
She was older than she looked. “Do you know what happened to Benjamin?”
She nodded. “I was meeting with him tonight. I’ve been chatting with Twitch online after I tracked him down. He was surprised I was able to find his online presence. He’d done a really good job of scrubbing it, but I’d picked up the threads, and I made contact. We were supposed to go over what he knew and what I knew, but they came before we got a chance.”
She closed her eyes for a moment. “I assume they found him the same way I did, which was via the small electronic clues he left in his wake. He hid me in the root cellar, though he warned me they might still detect my presence. Either they didn’t, or they didn’t bother with me because I’m human. I’m guessing they were too focused on him to realize I was there, because otherwise they would’ve eliminated me as a loose end.”
“They probably didn’t identify you as a target. They were likely programed simply to eliminate Benjamin and anyone who posed a challenge to that mission.”
Her eyes were huge, and she stifled a sob with her hand before speaking. “He sacrificed himself to save me.”
Devon swiped a hand down his face, wincing at the bristle on his cheeks. His stubble had become a full-on beard since he slipped away from Sanctuary two weeks ago in search of Benjamin. Coupled with the long hair that now reached past his shoulder blades, he didn’t look much like the soldier he’d been.
That was a deliberate choice, just like Benjamin had made a deliberate choice to protect the female before him. Likely, his friend had realized his odds of surviving against the super soldiers weren’t great either way, but he’d made his death mean something by protecting this girl. Benjamin had been more like a brother than a friend. If Benjamin had decided to protect the woman in front of him, Devon could do no less.
He stiffened, senses screaming at him, even as she spoke. “It all happened just a little while ago. They might still be here.”
He growled low in his throat. “They’re definitely here. I can hear their chopper approaching, but there is a group heading this way slowly, so probably on foot. I can smell the bastards.” Everything about them smelled wrong. They didn’t smell like a human or a shifter. They were a sickly combination of the two, with something extra thrown in. He now knew, thanks to Colonel Wallace, that the extra something was cutting-edge artificial intelligence that removed the last scrap of humanity.
He looked down at Benjamin, seeing his handgun still wrapped in his fingers. He bent down to lift it, checking the clip before slamming the magazine back into the handgun and turning to the woman. “Do you know how to shoot this?”
She eyed it gingerly and shook her head. “I’ve never touched a gun in my life.”
“It’s time to learn.” Ignoring her hint of resistance, he pulled open her hand and placed the pistol in it, curling her fingers around it for her. He disengaged the safety before pulling her arm up and straight out. “Point and shoot. Use both hands when you fire, and aim slightly below where you want to hit. This will have a recoil, so brace yourself for the kick.”
Her eyes were watering, and she was clearly terrified, but she grasped the gun as he had instructed, and though her arms were trembling, her hands were steady.
As he tried to decide whether it was safer to stay in the shack or try to find cover among the foliage outside, she said, “Twitch had weapons down there.”
He stiffened, looking over his shoulder at her. “Down in the root cellar?”
She nodded. “I think they were. I mean, they looked like it. I don’t know what they were, but it seemed like some serious firepower.”
Devon slipped back, dropping into the root cellar and taking a flashlight from the inner pocket of his long leather coat. His eyesight was good enough to allow him to see rough details, but the extra light illuminated exactly what his buddy had been storing. He whistled lightly through his teeth as he selected two AK-47s, slinging them over his shoulder with the intention of giving one to the human above.
There were other smaller weapons, but he bypassed them in favor of the FIM–92 Stinger that caught his attention. He picked up the rocket launcher, which was a familiar weight in his hand. The unit itself weighed about thirty-five pounds, and the missile would add another twenty or so when he loaded it. First, he had to ensure it had been properly maintained, and the batteries were charged, because he didn’t want to rely on the weapon only to find it useless.
A quick check confirmed Benjamin had kept the Stinger in perfect working condition, and he would have expected no less. It had been a few years since he’d had cause to use a Stinger, but the process of arming was familiar, and he soon had the rocket launcher ready to go.
He sprang out of the cellar, jumping up and landing on two feet. Even under the circumstances, he couldn’t help a slightly cocky grin when she uttered a sound of appreciation at his feline grace. She hadn’t even seen anything yet, if she thought that was graceful. If he had reason to turn into the tiger around her, she’d probably be so impressed she’d be throwing herself at him.
Not that it was the time to think about such a tempting prospect. At least she wasn’t as young as he’d thought, and at only six years his junior, she wasn’t jailbait.
And he absolutely couldn’t afford to think about such things right now.
With that stern inner reminder, he turned to her once again, sliding one of the AK-47s off his shoulder and handing it to her. “This is a better bet than the handgun. Save it for up close engagement.” When she shook her head, trying to back away, he adopted his stern voice again. “This could be the difference between life and death, so don’t argue with me.”
Her lips firmed, and she clearly disliked his domineering voice, but she took a step forward instead of back and lifted the rifle from him. “I don’t know how to shoot this thing.”
He checked it quickly, flipping a switch. “It’s on semi-automatic fire, so you’ll have to pull the trigger each time you want to release a bullet.”
He showed her the switch to change to fully automatic. “If you find you need more firepower, you can switch to this mode, but you’ll go through ammunition a lot faster. If you go to fully automatic, you want short, controlled bursts. Don’t hold down the trigger and fire indiscriminately unless you have to. It requires some force to move to fully automatic, so you don’t have to worry about doing it accidentally while firing. You have thirty rounds in the magazine, and let’s hope we don’t need more than that, because I doubt you’ll have time to reload or switch out the magazine.”
She nodded, seeming to understand everything he’d said. “I’m not sure I can do this, Bone.”
“Devon,” he said harshly. “I haven’t been Bone for a long damn time.”
Her eyes widened, but she just nodded again. “I’m sorry.”
He shrugged. “Stick close to me.”
Her eyes widened, and she started trembling again. “We’re going out there? Wouldn’t it be safer in here?”
“It might be safer, but I can’t get a good shot at the helicopter inside the shack.” He hefted the Stinger on his shoulder, patting it with a hand in an affectionate gesture. “If I get the helicopter in my sights, this thing will take it out, and that’s one less problem we’ll have to worry about. Do you have any idea how many super soldiers there were?”
She shook her head. “I didn’t see them, and Twitch put me down in the root cellar before they came in. I’m pretty sure I heard at least three sets of footsteps besides his, but I’m not sure that’s all there were.”
Three hostiles, and possibly more, with strength roughly equal to a shifter, combined with blind obedience to their handlers assured by the chips in their brains. And don’t forget the helicopter. Versus him, with a civilian as his only backup, and one who’d never even shot a gun. Fan–fucking–tastic.
Before leading her out, he paused long enough to strip off his jacket and leave it hanging by the door. He might need to shift quickly, and since it was his favorite coat in the world, he didn’t want to risk ripping it in the transition.
He went out the back door low and fast, noticing in his peripheral vision that the woman tried to match his movements. She was clumsier and not as quick, but she handled herself better than he would have expected from a civilian without training. They cleared the shack and moved into the trees before he stopped to evaluate their surroundings.
His senses immediately alerted him to the presence of one of the super soldiers less than a yard away, and he turned in that direction, firing his weapon as he did so. He grimaced as it got closer, the damn thing taking bullet after bullet with only an occasional stumble, but never falling. He angled his gun higher, lining up a headshot, which finally made it stopped moving.
It had dropped a few feet from him, and he moved forward to kick it with his foot to ensure it was dead. And he spent a moment he really couldn’t afford staring at the conglomeration, which was something between human and what looked like crocodile. The woman beside him let out a quickly stifled sob at the sight, and she seemed unaware of doing so when she pressed closer to him. He would have put her an arm around her to offer comfort, but he needed both hands—one for the AK-47, and one to support the Stinger.
The chopper was closer than ever, so surely she must be able to hear it by now too. He turned to her, moving his mouth to just a few inches from her ear so he could speak quietly. The super soldiers would have enhanced hearing too. “When the chopper comes into sight, I’m going to focus on taking it down. That means I need you to watch my six and keep the tangos off me.” Seeing her glazed expression, he shifted out of military jargon, surprised he had slipped back in so easily. “Watch my back and keep those things from interfering with me taking down the helicopter if you can.”
Her lips trembled, but she looked resolved when she squared her shoulders and nodded. “I’ll do my best, Devon.”
He gestured for her to stand behind him, her back pressed against his as he moved his AK-47 to the side and shouldered the Stinger completely, adjusting it for firing. The helicopter came into sight about the same time he heard a sharp snap behind his left side. “On your right.”
He felt her arms move as she shifted positions in that direction, but he didn’t glance away from the helicopter as he lined up the shot. The crosshairs zoomed in on the helicopter, but he waited until it got closer. He needed the shot to count, because there had only been one rocket in the arsenal.
The woman moved away from him with a startled cry, but he couldn’t spare a moment to look to see what was going on with her. His world distilled down to milliseconds as he waited for the helicopter to get close enough to be confident of the shot. At the right moment, he pressed the button to fire, and with a rumbling sound and a vibration against his shoulder, the rocket launched and soared across the night sky.
There was a loud explosion, coupled with a burst of light, when the missile collided with the chopper seconds later, disintegrating the aircraft to nothing more than small pieces of debris falling from the sky. He dropped the Stinger and turned to face the woman, knowing she needed help.
She was struggling against one of the soldiers, and this one looked to be a cross between a human and a hyena. It was snapping and ripping at her, and if she hadn’t been wearing a puffy coat, she wouldn’t have had any protection at all. The tiger surged to the forefront, and he let it. Unlike his teammate Wyatt, he’d never lost touch with the tiger. Refusing to shift would have been like letting the military have control over yet another aspect of his life.
His tiger acted on instinct, and he jumped on the soldier, pinning the woman to the ground. He knocked it off, and they rolled around together, trading vicious blows of their claws until he had an opening. He darted forward, his mouth closing around the neck of the hyena/human hybrid, and biting down forcefully. The tang of copper filled his mouth, but he didn’t let go until it stopped moving beneath him.
As it was in the death throes, she started firing the AK-47. He looked up as quickly as he could, once he was assured the soldier beneath him was dead, and just in time to see her fire a last round that took out the head of the honey badger/human hybrid. He got up, shifting as he did so, and spat several times to clear the blood from his mouth.
He moved toward her, carefully taking the gun from her when he realized her hands were still locked around it, and her finger was on the trigger rather than the trigger guard. “Easy. I don’t detect any more of them, and the chopper’s down too. It bought us some time, but we need to get out of here.”
She turned to him, suddenly collapsing in his arms in a surprising motion. He supported her easily, allowing her a moment to gather her emotions and restore her calm. He was impressed when she didn’t burst into sobs. She simply leaned against him as she breathed deeply multiple times, at first seeming to verge on the edge of hyperventilating, before her breathing grew deeper and more even. When she finally pulled away, a sense of loss accompanied the separation, and he frowned at the reaction. He stifled that expression when he looked down at her. “Okay now?”
Her eyes shimmered with unshed tears, but she nodded. She looked fairly composed considering the circumstances. “I think I’m okay. Or I will be.”
He gave her a small smile. “That was good shot.”
She snorted softly. “It was total luck. I had no idea what I was doing.”
He just nodded, not sharing with her the information that she might need to learn what she was doing and quickly. If she was on their radar at all, she would be a target too, even if she was at the bottom of the list.
“Now what, Devon?”
He hesitated. “I’m not sure, Miss…?”
“Tianna Barrett.” Her tone turned no-nonsense. “I have a cheap hotel room nearby. I think you should come with me, and I can show you what I have.”
His mind immediately jumped somewhere that he was certain she hadn’t intended. It had been a while since he’d taken a woman to bed, and certainly not in the last nine months or so, since he’d become aware that he was a target slowly being hunted by the black ops group in charge of Project Shift.
He cleared his throat and tried to control the physical response attempting to manifest itself. Since he was standing stark naked in front of her, she wouldn’t fail to see if he suddenly developed a raging hard-on. By sheer strength of will, he managed to keep his erection at bay as he headed back toward the shack. “Let me see if I can scavenge some clothes, and we’ll head to your hotel.”
It was only a temporary measure, and they’d have to go underground soon, or she’d have to decide if she was going to risk being on her own. Since the team had left her in the root cellar, they had clearly not marked her as a threat, or as nothing more than a low-grade one. Maybe she could use some of her hacking skills to determine if she was on their elimination list. Either way, he was eager to see what she had dug up about Project Shift and the assassination attempts on their lives.
Benjamin was a bit shorter than he was, but they were about the same when it came to muscle mass, so other than the jogging pants he slipped on being a bit short, and the shirt fitting more like a crop top and exposing a tiny sliver of his belly, he was modestly covered. When he shrugged on the leather coat and buttoned it, it completely hid the discrepancy in size and his bared midriff, though a few inches of his ankles remained visible.
She cleared her throat before entering the shack, holding out his shoes. “I found these. One looks a little split on the side, but it might work for you until you can get a new pair.”
He was touched by her thoughtfulness as he took the shoes from her and slipped them on. “Have you seen a shift before? You’re handling this all pretty well.”
She nodded. “One summer, I was on a cruise in Alaska with my parents, and we took a land tour as well. We were in the Denali National Forest, and I came across a man in mid-shift, turning into a bear. At the time, I didn’t realize what he was, and of course no one believed me, but it set me on the path.”
She didn’t expound on what path that might be. “Eventually, I figured out what he was with some research. I actually told Joanna about it once, and she was the only adult in my life who didn’t humor me or mock me about what I had seen. Now I know why, of course. At the time, I didn’t realize she was a shifter too, but I just appreciated her not making me feel like I was crazy.”
He smiled. “Joanna was the best.” He was dressed and ready, but there was one more thing to do. He couldn’t leave his friend’s body here, not like this. There would be questions if he fell into a coroner’s hands, and he couldn’t bear the idea of the military further stripping his friend’s body, or just disposing casually of Benjamin when they sent a cleanup crew.
He went outside, finding an even smaller shed behind the shack, which actually seemed to be in better shape than the home itself. It yielded a can of gasoline along with a small lawnmower, though he saw no signs that his friend had ever used the lawnmower in the thick grass around them. He took the can and walked back toward the shed, putting up a hand when she would have followed him in. “Stand here, and stay alert. I don’t think there are any more of those things in the vicinity, but don’t get careless. I’ll be out quickly.”
She nodded and fell back, taking on the soldier role as though she’d been born to it, though her anxiety was still visible in the way she trembled and in her pheromone signature.
He entered the shack quickly, splashing the gasoline around everywhere, but particularly focusing on Benjamin’s body. Cursing, he realized he hadn’t retrieved his dog tags, and he set down the gas can to do that. Benjamin’s eyes had opened as rigor mortis set in, and after he pulled off the dog tags, he tried closing them, but they flicked open again. With the sharp features of his Native American ancestry, and his long black hair, he looked like the fierce warrior he had been.
Devon bent his head for just a moment, pressing his fingertips to his friend’s forehead. “I’m sorry I couldn’t do more for you, Benjamin.” With those words of parting, he stood up and backed away from his friend, moving to the exit of the shack.
Once he was across the threshold, he reached into the inner pocket of his jacket, where he kept an emergency fire starter kit. It included several matches, and he lit one before flicking it inside the cabin. The whoosh of flame meeting gasoline greeted him a moment later, along with a wave of heat. He moved quickly away, approaching Tianna and taking her hand. It felt natural to pull her along beside him, his body curving around hers in a protective fashion as he moved toward where he’d left his vehicle. She started to go in the opposite direction, and he stopped, not letting go of her. “What are you doing?”
She nodded her head to the left. “I left my car about a quarter-mile down the road.”
He tugged her in the direction he wanted to go instead. “I’ll drive you to it, but we aren’t splitting up.”
She seemed to see the wisdom of that, and she didn’t offer a protest as she jogged lightly to keep up with him. He was probably moving too quickly, but he wanted to get out of the area before Fort Glacier sent reinforcements. If they had viewed the footage transmitted by the chips in their super soldiers’ brains, they were aware what was happening, and they’d be eager to get another team with boots on the ground to clean up the mess and try to reacquire Devon. He wanted to be out of the area before they had a chance to get that operation underway.