"...truly ground-breaking paranormal romance."
A tiny noise yanked Jaz back to consciousness.
She woke alert, shivering in her human form. Unusual since the temperature had only dropped to the fifties, standard for late September in the Southeast. Water drizzled through the thick canopy of leaves, slapping her soaked clothes and the saturated ground beneath her.
She remained prone next to a fallen tree where she’d paused to rest after long hours on the run. Even a wolf shifter had limits and she’d edged dangerously close to hers.
Wolf shifters required more fuel than humans. She hadn’t eaten in over a day. There’d been no time to hunt, but she had to this morning. She’d scavenged lightweight pants and a shirt from a Roanoke dumpster yesterday.
She smelled of humans. That could be helpful.
After escaping Virginia, the price on her head from shifter law enforcement hunting her for a killing had probably doubled. Jaz had to find the woman who could help prove it had been self-defense.
She laid her face on wet leaves, needing to mentally prepare to push on. Just another few minutes to rest. She rarely recalled dreams, but couldn’t forget the one she’d had the last time she closed her eyes. That damaged wolf shifter, Adrian, showed up yelling at something that terrified him. She had a hard time imagining that powerful male afraid of anything.
He’d survived something awful that clearly haunted him.
In the dream, she’d wrapped her arms around him and whispered, “You are safe. You are no longer there. I will protect you.”
Then he disappeared. Her arms missed him, which was crazy. It had only been a dream. Even so, she couldn’t explain the connection she still felt, or shake the desire to see him again.
Why? Had she been drawn to a kindred damaged soul? Getting captured together would do that. They escaped, but for the short time they were together, she hadn’t felt so lonely.
Her heart ached with the reminder of his anguish.
She’d like to see those dark brown eyes at peace and happy. After so many miles alone, she’d been content to travel as a lone wolf, but ... damn Adrian, because now she wanted to see him again. She missed him.
Did he think about her? Probably not once she’d snuck away from the tiger compound after they survived a crazy battle.
Time to accept reality and get busy finding intel critical to her survival.
Maintaining a calm breath, she listened and inhaled for any hint of being tracked. Hard for most beings to notice any scents in this steady rain, but wolves had a keen sense of smell.
She could travel faster and conserve her energy better if she shifted into her wolf, but not with hunting season in progress. Her animal would be a trophy kill, even with bans on hunting wolves in this area.
She had a simple survival theory.
Hunters wouldn’t shoot an unarmed woman in ragged clothes with a disfiguring scar down the right side of her face. She couldn’t say the same about a wolf with a golden pelt.
Her wolf half, Tarski, began growling internally and sent her a telepathic message. Wolves coming. We need me.
Shit. She silently asked, Wolves like us?
None like us.
She reworded her question for her literal animal. Shifters or natural wolves?
Shifters! Let me out.
Jaz considered that for a moment, then said, Not yet. Our scent might be hard to pick up with these stinky clothes and the rain. They may not know we’re here and pass on by.
Her wolf argued, Shift now and no more stink.
Jaz didn’t need Tarski’s logic at the moment. She had to do her best to be invisible and hope to stay undetected. She’d healed from most of the wounds sustained in Roanoke, but she and Tarski needed a full day of rest plus plenty of food to be back to full strength. Her wolf fought as powerfully as the Kodiak bear shifters that had trained both of them, but that didn’t make Tarski a giant grizzly.
She inhaled and caught the scent of wolves. The next inhale told her they were moving closer.
Had they scented her?
Behind rain-bloated clouds, sunrise tried to lighten the gloomy darkness. She moved her head in tiny increments and squinted in the direction of the sound. She benefitted from her wolf’s night vision.
Glowing yellow eyes stared back from fifteen feet away. The wolf snarled and took a step.
Well, hell. She’d have to not just shift but fight.
A bright light flashed across the wolf, then a shot fired.
She flinched at the loud sound with her sensitive hearing.
The yellow-eyed wolf yelped and wobbled sideways, then landed on its side, whimpering. Must have hit something major internally.
A second wolf appeared several feet away. That one forgot about her and rushed to the left.
The same direction from which that shot had been fired.
Another shot blasted.
She shoved up and pushed through the brush to see the enraged wolf racing for the hunter.
The human stood over six feet and weighed a good two-fifty, but he was no match for a preternatural animal. The dark wolf stood even taller on his hind legs when he’d leaped to attack, knocking the light and rifle away.
Before she could reach those two, another male human ran up with a pistol aimed at the wolf and hunter. He yelled, “I don’t have a clear shot, George!”
“Shoot the fucker!” the bloodied hunter screamed.
His friend took the shot just as George and the wolf jerked around.
The bullet struck the wolf, knocking the animal aside. Blood ran from a hole under the wolf’s neck.
George lay on the ground, grabbing his shoulder and crying out in pain. He had claw and bite rips on his face and arms, but that shoulder might be where the bullet went after passing through the wolf.
Both humans were still in danger.
Jaz dropped down and grabbed a fistful of mud she wiped over the scar running down the right side her face and took a step forward.
Growling, the wolf rolled up on three legs, turning first to her then back toward the humans again.
George’s friend rattled off three more shots.
Jaz clamped her hands over her ears this time.
The wolf took another hit in the side as it leaped away snarling. That shot must have missed his heart. He still stood. But the other wolf shifter hadn’t come to help him. The shot that took the first wolf down probably ravaged his heart or other internal parts, which took time to heal.
Growling deep guttural sounds, the wolf slashed a last look at Jaz, then trotted off.
The hunter emptied his magazine with rapid shots. He missed the wolf, but the human had no light on his target and lacked the wolf’s night vision.
Her heart bounced all over her chest from adrenaline overload. She should get out of here while she had a chance, but a healer did not leave an injured person. That’s what had gotten her almost killed when she stayed to help that red wolf shifter yesterday.
She’d do it again.
As she walked closer, the shooter’s head whipped in her direction. His gun followed and his eyes were wild with terror.
Rain did little to diminish the smell of fresh blood.
She held her hands up and paused. “I’m a ... doctor. Let me help your friend.”
That shook the guy out of his moment of shock. He knelt by his friend, who made unintelligible noises and clutched his shoulder.
Jaz took that opening to close the distance and drop down on the other side.
The ravaged victim ceased making any sound and his arm fell limp.
His friend begged, “No, George, don’t die!”
She grabbed George’s wrist. A very weak pulse, but she said, “He’s not dead, just passed out. Let me see where he’s bleeding.” She tore his shirt open at the bullet entry point. Too much blood rushed out.
He wouldn’t make it to a hospital.
“I’m sorry, George,” his friend cried.
She didn’t waste time debating. Grabbing the upset hunter’s arm, she shook him. “What’s your name?”
“Huh?” He looked up. “Uh, Sam.”
“Okay, Sam. George has a pulse, but it’s weak. Help me lift him so I can see if there is an exit wound.”
Clearly more terrified of his friend dying than worrying about where a strange woman came from, Sam followed her instructions. No exit wound, which meant the bullet was still inside George, but at least they wouldn’t have to stop another hole from bleeding. They lowered him back down.
She put her hand over the wound, but the guy bled from multiple gashes, too. Reaching for his wrist with her free hand, she gently felt for any sign of life.
Sam pulled his phone out in a trembling hand. “No signal. Dammit!”
No pulse either, but she didn’t share that.
Wait, wait, wait ... she felt a tiny flicker of movement. “Listen up, Sam. We need to stabilize him so we can get him to a hospital.”
Sam’s eyes sharpened with focus. “You can save him?”
Instead of answering, she said, “Every second counts.”
His voice got stronger. “Tell me what to do. Please save him.”
She wanted to try, but she needed a moment with no witness. Without looking up, she ordered, “Get a shirt, anything I can wad up and use for compression on the wound to staunch the blood loss.”
“I’m on it.” He jumped up and turned to leave.
Shit, those two wolf shifters were still around and wounded. “Don’t go far, Sam,” she added. “I need you to protect us.”
He spoke over his shoulder as he hurried off. “I’m going for my backpack. Dropped it close.”
Jaz focused on her hand covering the hole in George’s shoulder. She called on the energy in her body.
Tarski warned, This one is bad. Too much and we die.
She couldn’t answer her wolf when she needed every second to connect with this man’s life energy.
He’d stopped breathing.
A buzz started in her chest and traveled down her arm to her index finger then pushed into his body. She flinched at the quick pain that stabbed her heart at how much he needed. With her other hand on his wrist, she waited for any sign of life.
Two seconds. No pulse.
Five seconds. No pulse. Dammit.
Sam’s heavy steps thudded toward them.
George’s pulse thumped slowly like a tiny drum beat. His chest moved slightly with an inhale. Not much, but he took another painful sounding breath.
She let out a pent-up breath and gave thanks to the powers bestowed on her for some reason she couldn’t explain. She’d never been good with losing anyone she tried to heal, but saving this man had been a balm to her ravaged soul. She could have used the distraction to run from the wolves and the humans, but that would have made her just as at fault for his death.
Her heart wiggled with a little moment of joy.
George was not healed by a long shot, but he now had a chance to survive if they could get him to professional human medical care.
True to his word, Sam dropped his backpack next to George’s prone body in less than a minute. He had a light on his camo hat illuminating George and kept it angled down or he’d have blinded her.
She listened for any noise or sign of the wolves coming back. None.
Maybe those two had headed out to find a place to heal.
She gave Sam directions. “Fold the cloth in a square no larger than your palm. I want it thick.” When he had that done, she said, “Press it over the wound when I remove my hand.”
Sam did as instructed, but he couldn’t hold the padding in place and carry George.
She pulled off her wet shirt, leaving her upper body covered only by an oversized tank top. She ripped the material to make a long bandage to wrap around George’s chest and shoulder. That would hold the padding in place and prevent losing more blood when they moved him.
Once she had the square of cloth wrapped tightly in place, she stood. “How close is your truck?”
“’Bout a quarter mile. We were on our way back when I stopped to piss. He wandered off. That’s when I heard his shot.” Sam swallowed. “Hope I didn’t kill my best friend.”
“He’s breathing. Let’s get moving.” She reached down to grasp George’s feet even though she could have easily carried a human male by herself.
Sam carefully, lifted George under his shoulders.
George moaned and Sam smiled. “Best sound I could hear right now.”
She smiled back at the poor guy.
Sam wobbled his way over downed trees and through brush, but he seemed to know exactly where they were going. Good thing, because she paid attention only to any sound or smell of an approaching threat.
If even one wolf came back for retaliation, she’d have to shift to protect the men. That would ruin her chance at entering a small town without drawing attention so she could find a missing woman. People tended to remember what a stranger looked like before she turned into a wolf and would put out the drum beat about her.
At a large four-door pickup truck, Sam opened the rear door and climbed in, pulling George behind him. When he stepped out the other side, he looked across to her. “Do you have a car here?” He frowned and asked, “What were you doing out there?”
“No car. I’ll explain on the way. We can’t waste a second.”
“Oh, hell. I’m losin’ my mind. You’re not afraid to ride with me are you?”
Finally. A break. “No, sir. I’m glad to help your friend and get out of this weather.”
“Well, you get in.”
“Thank you.” She got in the back seat that smelled of old boots, mud and coffee. She lifted George’s head carefully and placed it on her lap, then checked his pulse. It was getting harder to feel anything through his cold skin.
Sam cranked the engine and asked, “You been out in the woods long?”
“Half the night.”
He handed her an insulated lunch bag and a thermos of coffee. “It’s not much, but you can have it all. We were headed to breakfast. I can’t stomach anything until I know George will live.” His grim voice broke at the end.
She unzipped the food bag and one whiff of a ham sandwich set her stomach growling. Ravenous with hunger, her hand shook as she unwrapped the small feast.
After swallowing the first bite, she said, “This is wonderful. I appreciate any food. Where’s the closest hospital?”
She had no map of North Carolina and had only hoped she’d been headed in the right direction. “Is that anywhere near Clarenceville?”
“’Bout ten miles past.”
Her heart dropped, but with this food, she could keep going a little longer and double back.
He slowed to ease over a bumpy area, muttering, “We’ll get to the road soon, George. You just hang on.”
She stayed quiet as he fought his way out of the woods and continued to feed George a trickle of energy through her finger. With her free hand, she ate everything in the lunch bag and drank the bitter coffee.
The food might not have seemed like much to Sam, but to her it had been an unexpected blessing.
Sam had a laser focus on maneuvering their way through what appeared to be barely a path. The minute he reached a highway, he checked his phone and slammed it down.
Must not have a tower yet.
He pushed the accelerator and the diesel engine roared, but the speed increased smoothly. Sam’s stress filled the interior. She could understand his emotions. She’d drown in guilt if she’d shot her best friend. She had two friends outside of Kodiak, Alaska, and would take a bullet for either one of them.
The fact that Sam had pulled the trigger to save George’s life failed to soothe his torment.
It only took a moment for him to focus on her again. With a glance at the rearview mirror, his eyes narrowed in suspicion.
Had the mud washed off her face and revealed the long scar? She kept her hands from her face. No point in bringing attention to it if he hadn’t seen the identifying mark.
Sam said, “I live in Clarenceville. You live there?”
Glad he hadn’t noticed her face, she jumped on this chance to find out anything about her destination. “No, sir. I was headed there, but I’m not exactly sure where it is,” she lied. She hadn’t needed any extra energy to cover that fib since he was human. Still, considering where he found her, that hadn’t been far from the truth.
“You got family there?”
“How come you’re out in the woods alone?”
She’d had time to work on a story during the long hours of reaching this point and hoped he’d believe her. “I’ve been begging rides and walking to get away from a man in Raleigh. He was ... bad. I left with the clothes on my back. I looked at a map in a truck stop and asked about some towns. Clarenceville wasn’t on the map. When I walked outside, I heard a trucker talking about hunting near Clarenceville years back. I asked him about it and he told me he’d forgotten the exact location, but to head for Blowing Rock and watch for a sign to the town. I figured it would be hard to find me if even I didn’t know where I was going.”
Sam’s expression changed from suspicious to murderous. His deep voice demanded, “What kind of sorry man hurts a woman?”
Her words had worked, but she didn’t answer him.
He asked, “What about the cops?”
“Even a restraining order made no difference. I barely got out with my life. If I can find a place to make some money and save up, I’m going further. I’m going to keep moving until I’m sure he can’t find me again.”
Sam nodded. “Let me see what happens with George. Once I leave, I’ll give you a ride to Clarenceville.”
The tears that burned her eyes were for real, but she wouldn’t let them fall. Choking on her emotion, she breathed out, “Thank you.”
Sam drove with a single-minded purpose, safely moving around the few vehicles on this backroad early in the morning. The clouds had stopped dumping rain, but still blocked sunshine. “Hell, least I can do with you saving my friend’s life. What’s your name?”
Rule one of phony names was always stick close to the truth to avoid being confused. “Janet.”
He snapped his fingers. “You’ve got skills. Bet we can find you a job with a doctor or a medical center.”
Hurrying to shut that down, she said, “That’s nice of you, but I want to go somewhere they don’t need a lot of information. I’ll work cheap for cash.”
But she needed to find out what happened to the female bartender who went missing a week ago from the only bar in Clarenceville.
His stress ramped back up. To distract him, she asked, “Any chance someone has a restaurant or bar who needs help? I have experience.”
He jerked at her question, clearly deep in his own personal Hellsville. “Let me think on it. I’m sure someone needs a worker. Just depends on what you’re lookin’ for.”
She answered honestly. “I’m looking to make a living to feed myself and put a roof over my head right now. I’m not picky or proud when it comes to getting my hands dirty.”
He gave her an understanding glance. “Sally Mae might need someone at the diner. Not sure what it pays.”
“I’d appreciate anything. It would be more than I’m making now,” she joked.
Sam didn’t smile, but he no longer pulsed out waves of anxiety.
A job would make it much easier to hang around for a few days, plus she really could use the rest. Any more than two days, three tops, and she’d have to leave.
That’s how she’d stayed alive for weeks while on the run since killing Kaiser. It had been self-defense, but the only eyewitness, his sister, showed up as Jaz’s wolf killed Kaiser’s. His sister screamed at Jaz, accusing her of murder.
Just like Sam taking that difficult shot, Jaz had a valid reason for killing Kaiser, but even taking a life in self-defense darkened her soul.
Sam kept trying his mobile phone and finally got a tower minutes before they arrived at the hospital with a half-full parking lot. She didn’t move from her seat as Sam pulled up to the emergency entrance and jumped out, shouting directions at the medical personnel. She moved out of the way as they unloaded George. In seconds, they had him on a gurney and raced inside.
A police cruiser came up with lights flashing and parked behind Sam’s truck, then the officer rushed inside.
Sam had left his truck running. No one said anything about moving it.
In fact, no one stood outside.
Jaz’s pulse jumped. Now would be the time to sneak away, but that would ruin her chance of reaching Clarenceville. She believed Daisy, the female wolf shifter she’d helped escape, had ended up captured by the same group who snatched a mountain-lion-shifter bartender from Clarenceville.
According to Jaz’s resource on female shifter kidnappings, no missing report had been filed with the police, because the owner of the bar had received a message explaining the woman’s disappearance. The shifter had been working among humans who had no idea she wasn’t one of them. Her disappearance had been included in a group of other suspicious disappearances in this region.
The kidnapped women were all in their early twenties and living on their own.
They were suspected of being rogue shifters hiding among humans, a common denominator. Perfect targets for predators like the Black River wolf pack.
She had to find out what she could about the last female shifter to disappear. Kaiser had been abusing Daisy when Jaz showed up that day and heard him order the woman to be quiet or she’d regret it. When Jaz jumped in to stop Kaiser from hurting the woman, Daisy begged, “He’s trying to kidnap me.”
Jaz told her to run to the road, hide, and wait for her.
Kaiser shifted. Jaz shifted.
When she went to find Daisy, the woman was gone. Then Jaz scented another wolf shifter where the dirt and weeds had been damaged from a struggle.
Daisy had no family.
If Jaz had minded her own business, she wouldn’t be hunted, but Daisy would probably be dead. If she’d minded her own business, she wouldn’t have left Kodiak on a mission to do the right thing.
Time to leave? her wolf asked mind to mind.
Not yet, Jaz sent back. This man can take us to the town we need to find and maybe even help get me a job. That would save us time to rest and allow us to leave sooner.
Tarski had stayed alert, but quiet during the drive. Her wolf put everything in logical perspective. Whenever Jaz required physical help, Tarski would come forward. If she could better handle something in human form, her wolf remained vigilant, but silent.
Sam returned to the truck an hour later. He stuck his head inside. “They’ve got him in surgery to extract the bullet, but they say he’s stable. The doctor said we did a hell of a job getting him here with that weak pulse.”
She tensed. “You didn’t mention me, did you?”
“Nah. I wanted to just to give you credit, but you’re trying to avoid problems. I get that. All you have to do is give a statement to the police and we can leave.”
Not law enforcement.
Bad idea. She asked, “Do you really need me to talk to them if George is going to be okay? He’ll tell everyone the truth. I didn’t actually see anything. I heard a couple shots and came running, then saw a wolf run off.” Jaz scrubbed a hand over her face, which failed to wash away the exhaustion so she could think clearly.
“Damn, I hate to ask you to do anything after you saved my best friend’s life, Janet, but the sheriff is big on following the law, even for locals.”
She racked her brain for an idea, anything that would get her out of this position. Short of running, she had none. Taking off right now would destroy her only chance to reach Clarenceville.
This was not the time to panic. She said, “Okay, but I don’t have any identification to prove who I am.”
“That won’t be a problem.”
She wanted to believe him, but her gut screamed that nothing good could come of even meeting the cop.
Sam added, “Don’t worry. I’m sure he can confirm your identification.”
Hadn’t she said she didn’t want anyone to know she was here?
Law enforcement had a thing for photographs and fingerprints, both of which would hang her.
Adrian ran in human form through the foggy jungle of Burkina Faso in West Africa. His wolf, Red, remained surprising quiet, not demanding to be freed so they could run faster through the difficult terrain.
Maybe he should shift.
He never struggled to decide. That never happened. Why now?
Everything blurred, then snapped back into focus, over and over. He blinked to clear his vision. What was wrong with him?
How could he save the female hostage if he couldn’t stay on track mentally?
He and his wolf had executed over a hundred solo missions. They were the best for inserting and extractions. He could have brought one of his team members this time, but he’d lost Leonard three weeks ago.
Adrian should have been the one killed. Not his teammate and best friend.
A scream pierced the early morning quiet and boomed in his head. He slapped his hands over his ears to stop the noise. Leaves and brush smacked him in the face. The putrid stench of decay from the jungle floor clouded his nose.
He yanked his hands away from his ears and shoved them forward to find an opening in the thick undergrowth. His boots slugged through mud and made too much noise.
Adrian needed Red’s aid even in human form. He could feel his wolf, but not a powerful presence up close to the surface. Why was Red quiet when he’d normally be giving advice to help them survive this mission?
His wolf would move through this undetected.
Why hadn’t Red pushed to get out?
His wolf felt withdrawn and buried deep inside Adrian. To be honest, he couldn’t even feel his wolf. He didn’t understand. Red and he were brothers in spirit, always there for each other.
Light barely filtered through a tangle of foliage with daylight breaking soon.
The hellish scream kept on, curdling his blood. He’d never heard such a sickening sound.
Was the enemy torturing the hostage?
Shit fire. Adrian pushed harder.
Dark fog surrounded him again. He lost track of time and his surroundings. Dangerous mistakes.
He had to get a grip and keep his head in the mission to insert into the enemy camp and extract the female journalist, who had been taken two days ago from Iran.
Was she French? American?
Adrian fought panic. He should know who she was. He telepathically asked his wolf, Who’re we saving?
His wolf didn’t respond.
Why not? Red, where are you?
Something was bad wrong. They had a reputation as the best wolf shifter unit in their special military division.
More screaming. Adrian’s gut lurched, but had that been female? Nothing ripped him up like a woman being hurt.
The jungle came into sharp focus again.
At the first sign of the trees and underbrush thinning, he slowed before rushing in and ending up shot to pieces. Sweat poured down his face.
Deep voices spoke in Arabic. Not the local dialect of Mossi, or French, the official language deemed by government.
He caught enough of the words to know they were having fun with an American soldier. Who?
He had to save two hostages?
It didn’t matter. He and his wolf could do it.
Once Adrian determined the location of both prisoners, he would dump his weapons along with his clothes, then release Red. His wolf would take down the enemy silently where weapons would bring in unwanted support for the wrong side.
Smoke from a campfire rose in a single swirl and the smell of burning wood permeated the air. He eased around until he could see three average-sized men with thick black hair and beards squatting around the fire. They all wore dirty khaki uniforms.
Red growled. Finally a sign of life from his wolf!
With Adrian’s next move to the left, a thirty-inch square titanium cage came into view, stuffed full of a naked man. Claws poked from his bony hands and red fur sprouted in patches across the bruised and bleeding skin of his shoulders and back. His head had lost its natural human shape, but he clearly couldn’t shift in that small an area.
Adrian’s heart pounded loud in his head. Had someone in his special unit been captured?
Red snarled demonic sounds inside Adrian’s mind, getting louder and more furious each time.
The prisoner angled his head a tiny bit and looked at Adrian.
Brown eyes faced him.
The same eyes Adrian saw in his broken mirror every day. His hair stood on end. Terror ripped through him. He howled and screamed.
The three enemies turned and grinned with not a full mouth of teeth among them. One had a jagged scar through one eye. He knew them. Had seen their faces for weeks.
Red clawed his insides and accused, You trap us. You hate us.
The world spun and gyrated.
Adrian yanked at his hair. Claws shot from his fingertips. His body twisted and warped, changing into a hideous half version of Red. Saliva dripped from his jaws.
His wolf howled in misery. Hate you!
Adrian fought a faceless enemy, striking out and ripping heads off. In the next instant, he was in wolf form, racing through the blurry jungle, attacking any animal that stepped in his path.
The Guardian would find him and put his wolf down. No Gallize shifter could lose control and remain free. Adrian flipped around in a spiral of noise and misery. He welcomed the end to this misery.
Anything to free him from this torture.
Gentle, but strong, arms circled him. A husky female voice whispered in his ear, “You are safe. You are no longer there. I will protect you.”
Jazlyn? He closed his eyes and soaked up the feel of her against his body. He’d met her in North Carolina. What was she doing in this country?
He didn’t care. His wolf quieted in that moment, observant.
“I miss you, Jaz. Are you safe?”
“I will be.”
“Stay with me.”
He reached a stream in the next moment and stopped. The world came back into focus. Every breath hurt to suck in and push out.
Jaz vanished, dammit. His chest hurt at losing her.
Where had she gone?
Stepping up to the edge of the water, he looked down at the still water’s smooth reflection.
Red’s wolf stared back through a raging yellow gaze. Blood dripped from his mouth and ruby tears ran from his eyes. In a gravelly voice, Red said, You made us this. I am me, not part of you anymore.
No, Red. We are one.
Adrian’s heart squeezed at losing a part of him he’d loved from day one.
He deserved to be alone. He had failed everyone. Even his wolf.
He tried to move. His legs were caught. Furious, he clawed his way out, fighting a blurry enemy until ... his eyes opened in darkness.
No jungle. No stream.
The sound of his ragged breathing filled the room. His body stunk of sweat and fear. He felt his chest.
Human, not wolf.
Where was he?
Not on a bed. He ran his hands over carpet. Struggling to his feet, he swallowed down disgust as he realized what had happened. He made it to the bathroom before he threw up. An angry giant pounded the inside of his skull.
When he could stand, he stared at the pale nightlight, trying to get his head straight.
Turning around, he took in the dark hotel room with his wolf vision.
He cursed to the empty room. Why couldn’t this be a boring Thursday and not start off with a decorating apocalypse? Everything had been ripped or bashed.
That hadn’t all happened in human form either.
He respected a hotel just as he would someone’s home.
Even at twelve, he’d kept his cardboard shelter clean. Living on the streets hadn’t meant he wanted to live in squalor.
Mad Red had given his word not to harm an innocent, but no deal had been struck on general destruction.
Negotiating a peace treaty between countries had to be easier than gaining any agreement with his wolf half since getting caught.
The bed coverings, pillows, and mattress had been shredded. Lamps were scattered around, large sections of carpet destroyed.
Once again, Mad Red had come out to punish him.
Anytime Adrian had a nightmare, especially that nightmare, Mad Red let him know just how much he loathed the human side of this body.
But this nightmare had been different.
Jaz had been there to comfort him. She’d watched over him when they fought together to help Scarlett and Gan just yesterday. She’d stuck by him when he’d lost consciousness in the middle of a battle with shifters. She’d been captured with him by a tiger shifter hunting Scarlett, Jaz’s friend and now mated to one of his Gallize brothers.
They escaped their cages at the tiger compound.
All that had been before he’d discovered she killed Leonard’s brother, the only son left who the alpha had expected to rule their pack. Adrian’s heart clenched hard every time he thought about losing his best friend.
Leonard’s sister had asked Adrian for help in finding Kaiser’s killer, a woman she called Jane.
The same woman Adrian knew as Jaz. Why had she taken a fake name? Now he had to hunt Jaz down and bring her to justice. His stomach dropped.
Someone knocked on the door.
Ah, hell, this would not go well.
He snatched a towel and wrapped it around his waist. At the door, he checked the peephole. Not security, but food service. Had Mad Red kept the noise down to prevent security from racing in?
Probably not. His wolf would revel in Adrian’s humiliation.
Planning ahead, Adrian had requested food to be delivered at the first moment available, hoping to be awakened by that and not a nightmare.
Major fail on that idea.
“Just a minute.” He spoke loud enough to be heard by a human on the other side. Where was his wallet?
He found it across the room, dug out a fifty, and returned to the door.
Leaving the room dark, he opened the door a few inches and held the money out. Hotels had to be informed of shifters staying. The fastest way to lower someone’s anxiety at facing a shifter was money.
Adrian said, “Thanks for being on time. I’ll take it from here.”
“Yes, sir.” No argument on the waiter’s part. Probably thrilled not to enter the room.
“I’ll sign the check so you won’t have to wait.” Adrian snatched up the dark invoice sleeve sitting on the side of the cart, scribbled his name, and handed it back to the young man in a hotel uniform.
As soon as the waiter turned the corner heading for the elevator, Adrian dragged the cart inside and locked the door.
He could see in the dark, but he’d had enough darkness for one night. He flipped the light switch, but nothing came on until he straightened a lamp and plugged it in.
Man, what a disaster.
If the Guardian found out about this, he wouldn’t leave Adrian free long enough to make good on helping Leonard’s sister, Tanza.
His stomach growled a nicer sound than Red.
Wheeling the cart over to the bed, he sat and ate. Food solved one issue. Hungry normal shifters were bad enough. Him and Mad Red hungry? Yeah, that couldn’t happen. Finished eating, he cleaned up the room as best he could, showered, dressed, and called for the manager to come up.
When Adrian opened the door, he explained, “I have PTSD.”
Mad Red snorted, but not comically as he would have in the past. His wolf had a nasty disposition these days.
Sarcastic wolf. Ignoring the jerk, Adrian continued. “I haven’t had an episode like this in ... a long time.”
Lie. Mad Red made that little commentary without derision.
Adrian would be glad for any conversation with his wolf, but not right now.
Wearing the brisk black suit befitting a man in charge, the manager stood with arms crossed and his fortyish face contorted to not happy.
He also oozed fear.
Trying to smooth this over and put the man at ease, Adrian offered, “I’ll cover all the costs, plus loss of income while the room is being repaired, and a hundred dollars for the maid assigned to this room.”
The manager said nothing for a moment then gave a short nod. “That will be fine, Mr. Brooks. I’ll put a hold for ten thousand on your credit card. Additionally, I’d prefer if you did not return. We do accommodate shifters, but I don’t want to go through ... this again.”
Good thing Adrian had saved the majority of his military earnings. “Understood. Neither do I. You have my word that I won’t return unless you need something additionally from me. If so, you have my phone number. I’ll be out of here in about ten minutes.”
He waited for the manager to leave before he pulled out his mobile phone he’d found under the bed.
His boss had been more than fair to let Adrian go off on his own, but he’d never lied to the Guardian. If Mad Red had not agreed to do the honorable thing and help Leonard’s family, Adrian would not be here. His wolf also suffered from what happened to them in that jungle cage, but he still had a core of honor. If his wolf gave his word, it was bankable.
They shared a tight relationship from their first few weeks together. No more.
Adrian dropped his head. He missed the Red he’d once known so damn much, but this was his fault. He couldn’t blame his wolf.
His eagle shifter Guardian believed Adrian could come back from what he’d suffered in Africa.
That level of belief humbled him in spite of being unrealistic.
Adrian would not be here alone if he had any doubt he could manage his wolf during his lucid hours. He believed Mad Red knew exactly what went on whenever Adrian got trapped in a nightmare, but his wolf had his own issues. After tonight, Adrian would have to avoid sleeping in hotels or any other place he’d wreck while unconscious.
“Actually, Red destroyed the room,” Adrian muttered to himself.
Your fault, Mad Red argued.
See? His wolf knew what went on at all times.
Frustrated and tired of constantly fighting this battle alone, Adrian didn’t have it in him to ignore Mad Red this time. He countered telepathically, I know. It’s all my fault. I’m the one who took us to Burkino Faso. I’m the one who wanted to save that woman. I guess the helo blowing up was my fault too. Then I got caught on purpose, and intentionally, while unconscious so they could put us in a titanium cage. You’re right, I must have wanted to be folded into a human cube as they stabbed me with a sharp blade on the outside and you slashed my insides.
Bitterness choked him. He’d never been in conflict with his wolf and didn’t know how to handle this.
Early on after being rescued, they’d both been hurting and angry, yelling insults at each other.
Once that early stage had wound down, they ignored each other for days after the Guardian put him in a Wyoming reserve with a magical enclosure.
That’s when Adrian finally tried to patch things up by letting his wolf run as much as he wanted. He’d tried talking to his animal half, but it always ended up in a vicious argument.
They solved nothing.
After weeks there, the two of them reached the point of silence broken up only by nasty jabs. He hated himself even more now than he had in that cage. He’d failed his wolf half and his wolf had never failed him.
Adrian waited for a new round of insults after getting that blast off his chest.
Surly Mad Red shut down and withdrew.
Back to silence. Adrian welcomed it this time. He could stand one day of incommunicado between them.
Still holding the phone, he pulled up Tanza’s number. Leonard’s sister had been left as the sole heir to a wolf pack with an alpha grieving over the death of two sons. She feared her powerful alpha would be vulnerable to a dominance battle. He’d been in a downward spiral since Leonard’s death and now obsessed over finding Kaiser’s killer.
Leonard had said little about his father other than he’d been a tough son of a gun on Leonard. Adrian should have gone to see them after Leonard’s death, but he’d ended up caught before he could ship home.
He’d never had a home before the Gallize. Even then, he’d spent most of the time gone overseas hunting terrorists and supporting the human military covertly.
He didn’t want to hunt Jaz.
Tanza claimed she witnessed Jaz kill Kaiser.
He had no argument against that kind of evidence.